The Hacker

July 25, 2021

The history of computers can be divided into two parts: calculation and communication.

The concept behind any computational activity was, and is, to speed up and automate human actions. Primitive—and yet sophisticated—devices like the abacus were followed by mechanical adding machines and slide rules that took advantage of basic properties of numbers.

Stuff like the nature of logarithms, if you excuse the pun, which allowed a conversion between the simple operations of addition and subtraction and their more troublesome cousins, multiplication and division.

As computers became able to perform tasks that no one predicted one hundred years ago—such as allowing me to write this article, all the while spell-checking my work and letting me include pictures or video—the issue of communication became all-important.

Back in the days of MS-DOS, the operating system that drove the first IBM PC, a command line was the gold standard—a typed instruction, hit return on the keyboard, and the magic would begin. These days, whenever you see a black screen full of arcane commands being furiously typed by a geeky guy with a hoodie, you realize computer hacking is afoot.

Nerds relish in taking screengrabs of what is actually written as ‘code’—mostly it’s crap for downloading MP3s or some other trivial bullshit—grandmaster-level hacking it is not.

Hacks only became a thing as the comms side of computing expanded, first as monitors, printers, and other devices were hooked up, and then in the communications supernova of the mid-1990s, when computers got hooked up to the net.

Back then, you needed a modem to process the signal and comms were not for the fainthearted. Geeks mumbled about protocols and baud rates and your computer spoke to its siblings through the phone line.

Over twenty years before the mid-90s, the SWIFT system was created—the year was 1973, and log tables were the gold standard for mathematical calculation.

Log tables were look-up catalogs for logarithms and anti-logs, used to speed up manual computations. Electronic calculators were nail in the coffin for this laborious method of mathematical manipulation.

The SWIFT system was designed to replace TELEX and speed up international financial transactions—it took four years to go live. At around the same time, in 1975, something called Signalling System No. 7 was born. SS7 (which in German has the delightful name Zentraler Zeichengabekanal Nummer 7, or ZZK-7) is a protocol for routing international phone communications—made for simpler times, in recent years it has been cruelly hacked.

The first personal computer appeared in 1975, but it took some years for the fad to catch on—by 1983 there were two million, mainly playing games and performing three business operations: database management, spreadsheet operations, and text processing.

For twenty-first century hackers, the old SWIFT and SS7 protocols were the stuff of dreams. In an unconnected world, security was naive—within a bank, some staff members had appropriate credentials and dealt with the international routing of money—big money.

The great blackout—North Korea by night.

A couple of years ago, good old SWIFT was used in a classic hack, courtesy of a black hat operation originating, according to reliable sources, from North Korea—given the nature of the regime, the inference is that the hack was government-sanctioned.

The central bank of Bangladesh has its headquarters in the country’s capital, Dhaka. If you say it fast, ‘The Hacker’ sounds suspiciously like the city in question. I doubt the DPRK geeks will have made the link—rather, the choice of Bangladesh Bank (BDB) was driven by perceived poor security—banks in other developing nations were subsequently targeted.

D hack (sorry) was a multipart operation with many interesting features.

The first step was a standard phishing operation, similar to mails I get every day. A young, polite, and motivated banker sends in his resume—some obliging soul from the bank opens the attachment or perhaps clicks on a web link.

A virus is installed on a BDB computer and begins to prowl the internal bank network. It is searching for access to the SWIFT system and a strategy to get past the authentication protocol—it can do this in two ways: either by hacking the credentials or bypassing the request.

Forensic investigators established that the latter method was used—only eight bytes (eight characters, like the word COMPUTER) were replaced—that’s a pretty Zen hack.

The next step was to plan the financial heist. The hackers decided to steal one billion dollars from BDB by ordering transfers from its account at the New York Fed. Since the bank account held one billion, the plan was to steal the lot.

The choice of timing was exquisite. The transfer orders began on the evening of Thursday, local time, when the BDB staff had gone home for the weekend—in a Muslim country like Bangladesh, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

New York began receiving requests in the early morning of Thursday due to the ten hour time difference. When the Bengalis returned to work Sunday, the NY Fed was shut for the weekend. A number of transfers were routed to the Philippines, where Monday was a holiday—the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Overall, the hackers had five days of confusion to play around with.

The BDB security system included a printer on the tenth floor that automatically supplied copies of all transactions—the hackers jammed the printer so that nothing at all was printed. When the bank staff solved the problem, the machine leapt into action, printing numerous queries from the New York bank to verify the transactions.

In the end, the hack ‘only’ succeeded in separating a hundred million bucks from its rightful owners—the people of Bangladesh. Mostly, that cash was laundered through casinos in Manila, which at the time had no regulation on the provenance of funds.

The washing of the hacked moneys is a tale for another day, but I cannot imagine it could take place without a substantial amount of corruption—the accounts in the Manila banks had five hundred bucks in them for over a year and suddenly received tens of millions. Go figure.

The hack was stopped for the most hilarious reasons when only ten percent of the transfer volume had been executed.

The Manila banks are located on Jupiter Street—the name coincided with an Iranian vessel on the US sanctions list, so the Fed queried it—not receiving a reply, it halted the transactions.

The second reason was even more amusing: the hackers tried to transfer several million dollars to the Shalika Foundation in Sri Lanka, a social services non-profit. As an aside, the organization was founded by Shalika Perera—the name undoubtedly derives from the Portuguese family name Pereira and the sexual meanderings of The India Road.

When the hackers wrote out the beneficiary, instead of foundation they spelt the word fundation.

Along with Dhaka and hacker, this has got to be one of the more subtle ironies of the dark web.

And surely the most costly pun of all time.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Wú Wéi

July 18, 2021

The Chinese character 无 means ‘to lack’ or ‘not to have’. This is a wonderful example of Chinese synthesis—the ideogram replaces two or three English words. The character 为 or wéi means ‘to behave’, ‘to be’…

Together, 无 为 take on a deeper meaning—inaction. wú wéi can be translated as do nothing, take no action, and is an instantly recognizable phrase in the Middle Kingdom—short for 无为而无不为 or wú wéi ér wú bù wéi, it literally means through not doing, all things are done.

wú wéi is a classic formulation of Taoism (or Daoism), a combination of religion and philosophy that originated in China about two thousand five hundred years ago.

The ‘do nothing’ hands off approach is antithetical to the West, where we are constantly running around trying to do something, even when the outcome of that something may be useless—reverse Taoism could thus be do something, and little will be accomplished, or at the edge, do everything, and nothing will get done.

Try discussing the concept with a Westerner and you are immediately faced with scoff—absolutely, so if I don’t drive to work I will magically arrive there—or maybe the joke will turn to meals that cook themselves.

But those who look beyond the sarcasm understand the concept is a way to unify us with the universe, to flow with the forces that surround us.

Water is used as a frequent example of wú wéi—it can happily be guided, transported and piped—yet is does as it will, evaporating from the earth’s surface, drifting anywhere and everywhere in great clouds, and then falling where it must.

Donovan’s ‘Colours’ is the epitome of the relationship between the Hippie Movement and Taoism, the concept of letting nature take its course.

Over the past days, water fell in areas of northern Europe where the landscape has been completely altered, and the same soft, playful water wreaked havoc and death on town and country.

The Chinese used the wú wéi way throughout history, watching invaders come and go and yet remaining resolutely Chinese.

From Gengis Khan’s Mongol hordes to the Japan of Yamamoto and Tojo, the Middle Kingdom suffered and waited it out, just as they recently did with Donald Trump.

In the midst of all this a pandemic erupted, and its most significant political outcome was ejecting the orange man. Unless you believe that COVID was deliberately released by China as a biological weapon to destroy the Western World, then the orang-u-tan was whipped by wú wéi.

All the multiple ‘strategies’ for beating the pandemic—the idea that we as humans are in charge—is laughable. Mask on, mask off. Home at eight, now you’re late. Summer vacation, sovereign nation. France is closed, vax exposed. PCR, stay where you are. Out at night, twenty-buck flight.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu—father of Taoism—in the Chinese painting ‘The Three Vinegar Tasters’. Confucius, a defender of order, has a sour look, Buddha, who saw the world as a place of suffering, looks bitter. Only Lao Tzu is smiling, at one with nature.

Taoism gives us much more to explore, helping us realize that by managing less we may be managing more. It emphasizes virtues that are much in demand as we drift through these completely incomprehensible times—naturalness, compassion, simplicity, and above all humility.

In the space of eighteen months, a virus maestro and a quartet of mutations have shown us we are not in charge—yet every hour the kings of the world make their plans and the worker bees dutifully follow.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Long March

July 11, 2021

To understand anything, you have to know its past.

This is as true of ordinary people as it is of nations and continents, but when it comes to changing history, it is paramount, as the Americans have discovered in Afghanistan. In fairness, the Brits could have told them, since they only left four generations ago, the first time they tried to rule the country—after eighty years of strife and the infamous 1842 Khyber Pass massacre, where only one man survived out of sixteen thousand.

The US troops have left after twenty years—billed as America’s longest war, and certainly one of America’s longest bills—the Costs of War project estimates the bill at well over two trillion dollars, compared to four trillion spent on World War II.

America likes instant solutions—during the Great War, General John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing was told by a French commander that it would take thirty years to organize a general staff. “It never took America thirty years to do anything,” he replied.

Maybe so, but some things take time—you can’t make a baby in a month by getting nine women pregnant.

And as the students are fond of saying, “We have the time.” They are now making that time count and rapidly undoing the societal changes brought to the country by the allies. Just as when the Soviets left, there will be long knives.

It was the Taliban who tortured Mohammad Najibullah to death in 1996, reportedly castrating him before he died. Former president Hamid Karzai has survived four Taliban assassination attempts—their first attempt was with a gun, the next three used rockets!

The systematic mistake of the West, and in particular the US, is the ‘hearts and minds’ narrative. The idealistic notion that every country hungers for democracy and that if it could, the whole world would be like the United States, is just plain wrong.

The reasons, as always, are anchored in history. The construction of a democratic society is a bottom-up affair, and the fairy-tale notion that an external military intervention will make the populace rejoice and quickly lead to strong democratic institutions is puerile.

America has discovered this everywhere it has tried to effect change, except of course in Europe where the nations liberated after the end of the Second World War were already democratic.

When democracy starts it is experimental, and trial and error lead to its improvement. The separation of church and state was one of these, something that the US is still ambiguous about, since god appears to be permanently blessing America.

Likewise, appointing a head of state to be head of the church is similarly unwise—Henry VIII had five good reasons for doing so, and the English have never abandoned the notion since then. Scotland would never have accepted the Church of England, and therefore created its very own Church of Scotland—however, this is a presbyterian denomination, headed only by Jesus Christ—a kind of absentee landlord.

The separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government is also a great concept—one that came about through the realization that excessive power is a really bad notion. As a rule of thumb, consider the following: if a concept is forbidden by a dictator, by and large its a pretty good idea—the reverse also applies, as seen for example in free speech and personality cults.

The application of your own rules, your own past, to other people’s realities, rarely works. That’s why when I visit a new land, or meet a new person, I don’t look for logic.

I look for internal consistency.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Boxed Sea

July 4, 2021

The aquarium was first invented in 1832 by Jeanne Villepreux, a French marine biologist.

The fact that the inventor was a woman is a perfect start to this week’s article—Ms. Villepreux used her aquarium to study cephalopods—animals who are literally head over heels.

But it fell to the British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse to kick off the Victorian aquarium craze in 1853. Mr. Gosse invented the name for this special kind of vivarium, and the public was delighted to view the wonders of the deep sea—remember that most people had never been to the seaside and would be unlikely to ever go.

And even if they did, the equipment to see into the water was cumbersome, expensive, and scarce—a practical diving solution only appeared towards the end of the second world war.

To celebrate the aquarium, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology prepared an exhibition called ‘AQUARIA — Or the illusion of a Boxed Sea‘. The museum website states that after one year of confinement—during which we ourselves were boxed—humans can relate to spending a lot of time in an enclosure.

As part of the exhibition, workshops and visits were organized, making the whole initiative a living being.

Raising awareness about environmental matters is always a good thing, and in this case the whole concept of enclosure led to an extended discussion on the role and importance of marine protected areas—the concept is underpinned by the ‘thirty by thirty’ principle, or 30 X 30.

Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are driving the bus, snagging the pols along the way—the G7 recently committed to a ‘Nature Compact‘ that aims to protect thirty percent of the planet’s land and sea area by 2030.

This is similar to E.O. Wilson’s ‘half-earth‘ proposal, which I wrote about three years ago.

Bounty from the sea—mussels filter algae and clean the water, and at the same time provide us with a high quality supply of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs—Omega 3, the ultimate brain food.

The exhibition’s organizers prepared a visit to a mussel farm in southern Portugal—the farm sits offshore in ten fathoms of water and uses a standard layout of lines and buoys—at regular intervals, a dropper rope goes down into the sea. The mussels fasten to the droppers, filter the water, and hey presto!

In this beautiful, clean water, mussels take only eighteen months to grow—the same process in Ireland would take almost three years.

I was asked to think out of the box, if you excuse the pun, about various aspects of enclosures, but as a warm-up I had to think back to an experience by the seaside and provide three words to sum it up.

What came to mind, as we navigate these troubled times, was a balmy evening at a place north of Dubrovnik, where oysters and samphire were accompanied by a singular Croatian tinto, and the transparent water of the Mediterranean lapped playfully a few feet from the table. Lights from the restaurant subtly illuminated the sea and fish swam in to investigate what the humans were up to.

FRIENDS

SHELLFISH

TRANQUILITY

I was asked to think about marine protected areas. What shape should they be? What can you do inside one? Are they enclosures? Then I was asked to draw my thoughts—my picture could have been drawn better by a five-year-old, but it’s been a while since I could pick my colors from a pile of crayons.

Memories of school came flooding back, testaments of a simpler time.

I drew a box in a nice light blue color. But water moves, so I drew a vane—first I tried two half-moon rudders, but the ensemble looked like a pair of bollocks supporting a spindly penis. I decorated my box with purple waves, a further sign that water would never stay in a box—you can’t make rules for the ocean as if it was Yellowstone Park.

Finally, I drew my fish—all green, all outside the box or going in or out, except for one fellow. That’s the other thing—fish move around. And at the bottom, in stripy brown? Another frontier, this one at the seafloor. So much goes on there that we don’t ever think about—an alchemy of chemical reactions.

An aquarium inspires you to learn about animals and plants—and that’s wonderful. But the true magic of the ocean lies in its ever-changing rhythms.

You can box and you can see. But you can’t box the sea.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Buda Beat

June 27, 2021

After the third wave came the Mexican wave.

Europe is in the grip of a new variant called EURO 2020—diehard soccer fans are going crazy all over the continent, celebrating, commiserating, or generally creating—northern English slang for causing problems.

That’s how I found myself wandering around the streets of Pest, surrounded by vociferous fans—Hungarians, French, Portuguese, and a smattering of Germans.

I hadn’t been to a football game in a few years, and the logistics blew me away. These days, you can’t even fart without an app, and UEFA has transcended itself on the digital side—put another way, no cellphone, no gain.

The same goes for transport—Buda is hilly, clawing its way up the western bank of the Danube, but Pest is flat as a pancake—which might be a good way to distinguish the two. Budapest traffic is one giant snarl—mainly older cars, with the obligatory smattering of Porsche, Mercedes, and Tesla crawling along like the plebs—a reminder that this is an uneven and troubled society.

Riding a bike when it’s one hundred degrees in the shade is a mug’s game, so scooters are the way to go—Bird hunting or Lime fishing, but not without a cellphone.

Scooting to the stadium I sped past a hundred-strong squad of France’s finest—young kids in blue strip, formed twenty-five by four, marching to the Puskás Aréna, singing the Marseillaise at the top of their voices—for a minute they became Napoleon’s army, marching across the plains of central Europe.

The history of Budapest is soaked in blood—the Mongols came in 1241, defeated the locals and proceeded to massacre half a million Hungarians. In 1541, the Ottomans took Buda, marking the conquest of Hungary—for the next one hundred fifty-eight years the country was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The battle of Vienna, in 1699, during the Great Turkish War, marked the end of Ottoman occupation of Hungary.

In the late seventeenth century, the Turks were defeated by a Christian alliance—the Holy Roman Empire was a part of it and shows the long reach of history—loosely connected to the papacy, but really at the mercy of the grands seigneurs of Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was a thing for over one thousand years after the end of the unholy Roman Empire.

Hungary then became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire—a fiefdom of the Habsburgs called Archiregnum Hungaricum. That took the nation to the end of the First World War, at which point seventy percent of the territory was handed to the Czechs, Romanians, and assorted Balkan states.

Then came the Nazis.

Then the Soviets.

The three stooges cast a watchful eye over the polling station. To the voter’s left, comrade Lenin. To the right, friendly ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. Center stage, Hungarian president Mátyás Rákzi, known to the Soviets as the USSR’s star pupil, if you excuse the pun.

The Nazi and Soviet past is brutally documented in the Terror Háza, the scariest museum I know. I discovered it in early 2017 and scooted back there on Wednesday morning. There’s been no effort to update exhibits, and except for a couple of French football fans, the place was largely deserted, making it all the more ominous.

I am alone in the elevator that slowly goes down to the basement, the final stage of the tour. On a black and white screen behind me, a middle-aged man describes the operation of the gallows in excruciating detail.

In the cells, only a tiny window lets in the light from Andrássy Street. I sit in one of the cellák and imagine being locked up, waiting for the torture, waiting for the gallows box to be kicked out from under me by the executioner.

On the Soviet floor, I spent time examining two large photograph collections—all in black and white, one of the victims and the other of their tormentors.

I was looking for something. A look, a grimace, a stare, anything to help me separate the two groups. The earnest look of the good folks who died, the cold eyes of the secret police.

For a moment I thought I’d seen it, then it disappeared.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Italian Dogs

June 19, 2021

Over the last weeks, CNN has been plugging a show about Italy, but which is really predicated on Italian food.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a big fan of both, but the ad drives me nuts, using trite crap such as “if you don’t believe in god you believe in tortellini.”

I’m usually subjected to this when I’m assembling breakfast for my canine companions. Just as no two people are identical, these hounds have very differing views about food—the younger one is voracious to the point of mandatory dieting, whereas her older sister has a contemplative and fastidious nature—god rather than tortellini, if you will.

Although I provide a staple diet, ancillary morsels from last night’s dinner are not uncommon. These serve the dual purpose of enriching the breakfast experience and as a pre-meal teaser for the older hound. Dogs and humans have much in common—which is perhaps what endears them to us—and if my more fastidious friend gets enthusiastic, then she will wolf, if you excuse the pun, through her bowl of victuals.

These morsels often include fish, and I’ve established that the dogs prefer cultivated to wild-caught fish. This is undoubtedly diet-related: pet foods, just like human foods, tease us with protein hydrolysates.

To go down this particular rabbit hole, we need to roll back to a little high-school organic chemistry. Aminoacids are the building blocks of proteins, and they’re linked together by means of a peptide bond, shown in blue below.

The two aminoacids at the top are identical—this is the simplest one of all—glycine. The red atoms (water) are removed in a dehydration reaction, leaving the dipeptide shown at the bottom.

Hydrolysis, or hydro + lysis, means breaking with water. When you hydrolyse a protein, that’s just what you’re doing—using water to break it up. Organic chemists discovered many moons ago that some of these protein hydrolysates, in particular glutamic acid, add flavor to food—MSG, or monosodium glutamate, comes from glutamic acid.

Flavor as a whole is a weird bunny—you smell when you inhale but you taste when you exhale, so these are two different sensory experiences. I suppose that folks with halitosis bring yet another dimension to this—though not a pleasant one.

Kissing someone who has bad breath (we’re not talking a peck on the cheek here, people) is tricky, since you won’t be able to smell the breath when you’re kissing—and presumably are not exhaling through the mouth while osculating if you’re going full snorkel. I had some fun checking this out on the web, and the most hilarious detection tip (ranked only number five on the list) is:

If people are visibly stepping away then it may be time to do something about it.

My canine curiosity arose when considering the morsels Italian dogs get to eat, when compared for instance with Dutch or British dogs—the assumption here is that dinner in the latter jurisdictions is in general neither plentiful nor tasty.

The Italian canine can expect a touch of ossobuco, veal marsala, or a spot of spaghetti al vongole, whereas north of the Roman Empire, a lucky pooch may perhaps filch a stray chicken nugget. An Indian hound, on the other hand, might wrap his chops around a Rogan Josh or test his vegetarian skills on a side of Matar Paneer.

If you’re a Frenchie, life is far more ritualized—salad comes only after the entree, cheese invariably before dessert, and if you violate the wine pairings, the doggy guillotine awaits. Quel stress, Monsieur Bow Wow!

For a cat, the whole narrative is different—devoid of home loyalties, felines forage as they please—and are far more difficult to please.

Felines await feeding at an animal shelter (courtesy of Forbes)

DNA studies show that cats have taste receptors—flavor sensors—in various parts of their body: the mouth and nose are obvious ones, but felines have sensors in the stomach and other parts of their body.

As a consequence, cats can pass judgement on the palatability of food after they swallow it—quite a remarkable attribute, and one that poses a real challenge to pet food manufacturers—this is obvious when you swap cat and dog rations.

The dogs fall upon the cat food like rabid alligators, the cat sniffs its fare once and after a minute’s contemplation, makes up its mind.

Well, I’m going out.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Vax and the Vaxnots

June 13, 2021

It’s been six months since jabbing began, so now’s a good time for stocktaking. I was vaxed Monday, and have spent a good part of the week recovering from the experience—but then again, I got hit with the J&J—a bit of a sledgehammer.

After my jaunt to Scandinavia, a vaccine passport is definitely what I need—the only way to avoid constant nasal invasion any time I travel. As if on cue, the European Union is rolling out a ‘digital green certificate’ to all Member-States on the first of July.

A number of countries, including Denmark, Germany, Greece, and Spain already issue vaccine passports—henceforth vaxports. Most other countries are technically ready to issue, and there are a couple of laggards. How the process works internally is unknown.

The vaxport is an app (duh), which will undoubtedly add to the conspiracy theories—but we’ve already established that big brother is watching you, largely because you want him to. The app isn’t made by Microsoft—so this time Bill Gates gets a free pass—it’s made by Deutsche Telekom. C’mon, people, Europe could never have a US-made passport.

Actually, the software is a product of T-Systems , a subsidiary of DT, and SAP. The guy in charge of the vaxport at T-Systems is Daniel Eder—a chap who looks rather youthful for a senior manager.

As befits the brave new world, the app code is on github. As you wander through the files, a couple of east European names jump out at you, including one Oleksandr Sarapulovgl. The name sounds Ukranian—I tried to find him online with little success—the only link in my search was a Eurovision-themed video which can only be described as… bizarre.

So after a left turn at the lights, we’re back to vaxland. The app will do what any self-respecting app does—tap into massive cloud databases where all the EU big brother vax records live. Since I got jabbed with one-night-stand Janssen (the EU name for the J&J), my vaxing days are over and I’m on a national database that speaks to the vaxport app—most likely via a couple of intermediaries.

The main requirements for designing the vaxport app are three: security, communication, and information—there’s a lot of fraud in COVID testing—the PCR I took in Denmark had such a pretty certificate I plan to frame it. The Danes wouldn’t give me the results by email or SMS, even when I told them I’d sign a release document exempting them for any responsibility for misuse. Instead, they gave me a paper with a hologram and embossed notary seal—you’d need a qualified forger to fake that.

In the meantime, a huge proportion of the world lingers in vax limbo. How bad is the situation?

Er… pretty fucked. Two things jump out at me from this chart. The first is about the developing world—vax rates are woefully behind. In South America, Chile and Uruguay are islands of success, and in Asia? …Mongolia. Who knew? Africa, as usual, is a living tragedy.

The second is the vax ceiling. When we look at North America, the EU, and the UK, the percentage gets up to the sixties and sits there. As of June 12th, Israel has 63% vaxed—that’s the max vax. The ambition is to pass seventy, the holy grail of herd immunity.

And that’s going to be a struggle, along with some kind of synch across the world. Just like the rise and fall of communism worldwide, some vaxing will be waxing and some will be waning.

The consensus, which I can now confirm, is that vaccines give you a headache.

Expect more headaches in the months to come.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Head in the Cloud

June 6, 2021

What song could be more appropriate for this article than ‘Get Off My Cloud’? I duly searched for the best version I could find, and then the law of unintended consequences made me find this. So we’ll start off with a bit of craic.

The original version of the song always reminds me of one of the most unusual assignations of my life. I spent time in a British boarding school (a bit like saying I did time in prison) and the boarding house contained only boys. For reasons I am now unsure of, and was probably uncertain then, the housemaster organized a ‘disco’ with a girls boarding school one Saturday evening.

I think the girls were as sex-starved as the boys and I had a memorable evening with a particular young lady—I remember her well but I never saw her again—and it all started with that song.

This version is equally memorable in rather a different way, and the funniest comment about it was “This is fantastic! And you could have left the lyric, “… just killed a man.”, although the guy who wrote “I showed this to my wife just before she broke a frying pan over my head…” gets an honorable mention.

I was also unfamiliar with Aunt Flo, so we live and learn.

So… back to the cloud, then.

The events of the past few years have blown social media out of all proportion—anyone can broadcast an opinion, so everyone does. Weird theories abound, and precious time that should be used to live is being wasted bandying and debunking a bunch of loony-tunes.

But the most subtle aspect of social media is data—and where it lives.

When computers first appeared, there was a concept called ‘the mainframe’. While at Lakeside high school, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft, used to rent time on a PDP-10, which meant hooking up to a dumb terminal—even when I was in college, computer science classes used terminals, so all your data was stored on a mainframe.

Then the world opened up to distributed computing—your desktop or laptop had a disk inside it and you owned your data. Same with cell phones, when it all started, but for a decade or so things have really started to shift. Where? To the cloud, of course, that collection of fluffy white feelgood little lambs—my data is resting safely in heaven, zzzz…

What? WHAT? IT’S NOT? WHAT’S GOING ON?

A couple of things. The first is the distinction between voluntary and involuntary—when you do OneDrive, GoogleDrive, or Dropbox, you’re being voluntary. When all your social media comments, emails, pictures, locations, and times are stored in the cloud, it’s involuntary; I don’t mean you could sue, because somewhere along the line you clicked or checked a couple of boxes so now you’re stuck—I mean you are unaware, or at best half-aware that there is a permanent record of your life.

On the voluntary side, the problems start when you store data that a cloud company may object to. The terms of service may allow for companies to delete materials, block access to your own data, or even block your account while retaining your data and possibly sharing it with the authorities.

The major cloud operators are Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and they in turn are tapped into by the US intelligence community, so your privacy goes down the drain. Of course this applies to email as well, as illustrated by the Petraeus affair.

Cloud storage capacity is so vast that in essence it can store the human race. Everything. And that capacity is growing every day—as an individual, you have no idea, but if you think for a moment about the photos and videos you take, and then consider how many of those you share—after all, that’s why you took them in the first place—well, you get the idea.

Consider what happens when you forward a WhatsApp image you receive—Quora provides the obvious answer.

Because once you send it to a particular conversation, it has also been indexed in WhatsApp’s servers. Next time you want to forward it to someone, all WhatsApp has to do it is to send the already indexed media file to the receiver who now downloads it from WhatsApp’s servers.

The same is true for voicemail, text, email attachments, bla bla bla.

The key questions, if you value your privacy, are: ‘what can I do to prevent this?’ and ‘what can they do with my stuff?’

The only answer to the first question would be a collective rejection of cloud data storage—one person can’t fight this except by becoming digitally autistic—paying cash, never using a GPS, throwing out the cellphone, and turning off the internet.

The answer to the second is ‘pretty much everything’. Targeted ads are the obvious evidence, but it goes much deeper and much further back. If you’ve been on WhatsApp since 2011, ten years of your life are archived—your loves and hates, the ways in which your health and professional life have changed, the doctors you visit, and the people you sleep with.

My opinions are on WordPress since 2008, when I first put pen to paper. Why? First because I wanted to help promote my books, second because writing makes you a better writer, and third because I enjoy the freedom to say whatever I want and have people read it if they choose to.

The price I pay is what these lines reveal about me. Where I go, who I meet, what I think, how I roll. And one of these days, when it all stops… when I die.

Just like the child born in 2020 who thinks our species always wears a mask, so they will grow up in a society that really knows everything about them.

If you care nothing about this and your privacy is worth sharing the wonders of your day, at least read the small print in the terms and conditions.

Big Brother really is watching you.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Viking Talk

May 30, 2021

The history of Denmark is one of my black holes—in fairness, that’s true for all of Scandinavia, but occasional conversations with Norwegians and Swedes have shed some light on Norse historical antics.

What you’re told very much depends on who’s shining the light—the three stronger powers took turns setting the scene, although Norway was nowhere near as successful as Denmark or Sweden. Finland was not in the running—first it was ruled by the Swedes and then by the Russians—the big neighbor syndrome, which exists to this day, made it impossible for Finland to join NATO and led to compulsory military service.

The Vikings—a generic name for Norsemen—went everywhere. As far as Newfoundland to the west, and all around the European seaboard. The light green areas show the main communities and the blue lines the sailing routes—200 years from England and Ireland all the way to America.

During the Viking period, the explorers went up the Guadalquivir to Seville in 844, deep in the times of the Caliphate, on a series of missions of rape and pillage, but also selling blond slave girls to the harems of the Moors. A century later, the Vikings were in Istanbul—their inland routes are a map of the major European rivers, from the Dnieper to the Vistula.

I was given a Danish history lesson over a few glasses of excellent Ripasso—a fairly indifferent band played in the background, but it’s been so long since I heard (or played) live music that it warmed my heart.

It had been a very long day, including a stint at the Danish parliament and a number of press interviews—Denmark has a complex environmental problem and I had been asked for my thoughts on the matter. When it comes to press, the key is often what you leave out—I was repeatedly asked whether the Danish government had got things wrong, and had to explain that as a guest in their beautiful country it certainly wasn’t my place to provide a comment.

One of several Danish constitutions on display in the main hall of parliament—the oldest dates back to 1849. In other nations, access to parliamentary grounds in restricted and limousines are the norm, but in Denmark you just stroll into the outer courtyard, where you are greeted (as everywhere) by a sea of bikes.

Christian II is an unavoidable reference in Danish history. He was famous for attempting to give more power to commoners—this in the XVIth century—and for conquering Sweden, and infamous for the Stockholm bloodbath.

Danish and North German history are intertwined. Parliament has a paternoster elevator—I’d last been on one in Kiel over twenty years ago—and Copenhagen has three. One member of parliament famously went up and disappeared, only to do a handstand and come down the other side.

The flat and pungent north German province of Schleswig-Holstein was one of the points of dispute between Prussian and Dane—Denmark was so upset at the loss of prime agricultural land in the 1800s that it went on a reclamation spree, land-filling lakes and coastal areas to compensate.

At present, sixty-one percent of Denmark’s area is devoted to agriculture, one of the highest proportions in the world. This results for instance in forty percent of EU seed production—the Danes are the world’s largest producers of grass seeds.

Denmark, like the Netherlands and Portugal, is a small but fiercely independent European country. In these times of regression to a historical past of isolation and ‘me first’, it’s a privilege to make this my first post-pandemic visit.

A nation that highlights both individual achievement and societal tolerance—proudly Dane and calmly European.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Eighty Is a Long Time

May 24, 2021

I was going to write about animal welfare—driven by a terrible story out of China about something called ‘Mystery Boxes’. Like other things Chinese, this has turned into a craze, where you pay a small amount to receive a package of unknown content—usually a small toy, but occasionally you get something worth much more than you paid for.

The insane part is that some Chinese companies have taken to sending live pets through the post, and the story doesn’t end well—apart from video of kittens and puppies kept in appalling conditions, a number of the poor pets have arrived at their destination dead—pretty horrific stuff, so much so that I won’t even link it.

That out of the way, and I hope it gets permanently scuppered, I prefer to talk with you about music, with some travel anecdotes thrown in.

After all, it’s Robert Zimmerman’s birthday, the man with a voice like sand and glue.

Uncle Bob turned eighty today. Congratulations, may you stay forever young.

I chose one of my (very many) favorite songs to celebrate the day. It’s a great version, but for some reason it peters out—maybe Dylan got fed up half-way through—it happens. The beauty of this live performance is The Band—they originally recorded the album Planet Waves, one of Dylan’s least known, and one of his best.

Close your eyes when Robbie Robertson belts out the first solo and fly away.

I spent all day traveling, my first time on a plane since February 2020—on the flight from Africa to Europe the stewardess asked me why I was wearing a mask, looking suspiciously at me as if I was contaminated. I smiled and told her a hard rain’s gonna fall.

Today, en route to Denmark, masks were everywhere—there was even a dude with mask and visor three rows down from me. The Danes deplaned us from the back, which must have really pleased the guys in business, but at least we weren’t redirected to Minsk.

Because I was a pandemic flight virgin, I was bemused most of the time, and amused a little of the time.

When I landed in Copenhagen, they asked me to pull down my mask so they could see my face—”Just like Saudi Arabia, huh?” I remarked to the immigration lady—she looked amused in a Danish kind of way.

I made sure to get a COVID PCR forty-eight hours before flying—getting cotton buds stuck up my schnozzle first thing on a Sunday morning is not my idea of brunch, but needs must.

I chose to ignore the signs at Copenhagen airport requiring me to have a COVID test on arrival—after all, Sunday was yesterday—but a cop soon set me straight. While I waited in a queue as long as a Dylan song, I remonstrated with a staff member; she explained yesterday’s test was so I could fly, today’s was to get into the country.

I countered with a double barrage: first, I was only flying in order to get into the bloody country, which is why I had the test in the first place, and second a test is a test is a fucking test.

The current procedure in Denmark is to put a shitload of hapless travelers into a large hall and have some prepubescent twit come in with a sheaf of certificates and shout out names. After he’d called ‘Peter’ for the second time, I began to wish my parents had called me Engelbert or Xenophon. Every time he shouted Peter I shouted surname, to the amusement of my fellow travelers.

I eventually got my passport—that’s the local term—and escaped into the city.

Denmark is besotted with bicycles—you don’t get Ubers here, and you don’t get Limes—I was looking forward to a good scoot. But you do get Lime electric bikes, which I duly secured in order to find myself a nice bit of fisk.

When I discussed breakfast arrangements at my hotel, the receptionist asked for a time window and then he said, “just bring your test”.

“Excuse me, did you say ‘test’?”

“Yes, it must be shown.”

Well! Good job I didn’t chuck it into the nearest trash can in my fury at all the palaver at the airport. The fisk restaurant welcomed the weary cyclist. “Do you have your passport?” I knew just what he meant—out popped the COVID certificate.

So, the sun has set—late at this latitude and this time of year—my day is done, and I want to ride on, if you’ll excuse the pun. I hereby forgive all the hurdy gurdy misdemeanors, and bid you adieu with a few choice words from the Minnesota bard.

Bob’s poetry is wonderful—I’ve always loved poetry, as long as it’s set to music.

May you build a ladder to the stars

And step on every rung

And may you stay

Forever young

Eighty years is a long time, and I’m privileged to have shared some of that with you.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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