The Marsh Arabs

May 20, 2017

Here we go, from the swamp to the marsh—but this is no ordinary marsh—we’re talking about the first civilization on earth.

Like all other ancient civilizations, and today’s demographic hotspots, it is intimately associated with water.

The dark region of the Fertile Crescent extends northwest from the head of the Persian Gulf.

This dark patch represents the area between the Tigris, to the north, and Euphrates, to the south, or more properly the catchment area of the two great rivers. The area they encompass is ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, for all you Greek scholars out there.

The sources of the two rivers are in Anatolia, only fifty miles from each other, and these waters then flow through some of the most troubled lands on earth: northern Syria, Kurdistan, and finally Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait.

From their almost identical starting point in Turkey, the two rivers diverge, until, like two brothers finally reconciled, they join forces to form the Shatt-al-Arab and flow into the Persian Gulf.

Although Shatt means river in Arabic, I always thought the English version was highly appropriate, since the Tigris and Euphrates undoubtedly bear the brunt of organic material contributed by the populations of Mosul, Tikrit, Baghdad, Babylon, An-Nasiriya, and other cities we hear about only in the context of the US invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Kurdish conflict.

When I wrote The India Road, I was chastised for the lack of maps in the published edition—by way of atonement, I’m adding a second map of the region, which provides all the detail you might require, if for instance you were a head of state on his first foreign trip abroad.

This is the kind of map I remember from my schooldays, an accurate but artistic work where location names were judiciously placed by a careful human hand. It displays an intelligent use of color and detail, and provides an easily absorbed snapshot of the region (Encyclopedia Britannica).

In the lower reaches of the Tigris, the marshes form a no man’s land between Iran and Iraq, and the Euphrates also contains substantial marshland—for thousands of years, these areas were inhabited by the Marsh Arabs, a collection of different tribes that had an intimate connection with the water—their houses were made from reeds, they kept herds of water buffalo for milk and meat, fished for binni and qatan (two species of barbel), and planted rice and cereal crops.

The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger lived among the Maʻdān for seven years, and in 1967 published the definitive account of their way of life. Thesiger clearly had an eccentric streak, thoroughly in character with many a Brit Arabist: although he had no medical training, he spent a good deal of his time circumcising young Arabs; for much of the rest he was shooting pig (presumably boar), the natural enemy of the Maʻdān, and canoeing around the marshes in a Tarada.

This fiercely independent society, known for its blood feuds, faced extreme challenges: the water level in the marshes could vary greatly, and a dry year meant hunger and desolation. A very wet year could ruin crops, drown animals, and destroy the reed huts—Thesiger describes nights when the rain poured into the houses, and sleepers huddled in pairs under a blanket in the bitter cold.

If life was hard then, it became supremely difficult during the Iran-Iraq war. The Marsh Arabs are Shiites, like most of Southern Iraq and all of Iran, and Saddam Hussein decided that this region must be subjugated.

He did this by building dams that drained the very lifeblood of the population.  The Maʻdān went to Basra and other nearby towns, and the communities and tribes were all but destroyed.

Saddam’s dislike for the Maʻdān preceded the 1990’s, since the tribes were a law unto themselves, and occasionally harbored fugitives and political dissenters.

But after the failed Shia uprising that followed the first Gulf war, the dam construction program was pursued with renewed energy.

A Marsh Arab couple punting a Tarada through Hammar marsh, after the post-Saddam recovery (photo from National Geographic).

Dams such as Dukan, which impounds the Little Zab river, shut off water to the marsh region, and the inhabitants left.

One of the few success stories of the post-Saddam Iraq was improved water management, so that by 2008 the marshes were at 75% of their previous capacity—the tribesmen returned.

But since then, a combination of profligate irrigation practices in Iraq and increased dam construction in Turkey have brought the marsh waters back down to 50% of the 1980’s level.

More importantly, the decrease in freshwater flow has increased the salinity of the marshes. Waters that were drinkable in Thesiger’s day—though not from a public health perspective—are now half-strength seawater.

Natgeo’s excellent 2015 article on the marshes ends with a somber quote.

“When the water returned, we came back immediately,” said Missan, the fisherman with boat troubles. “You see, our lives are related to the water.”

Water like nitrogen and phosphorus, is a finite resource. You can’t print it, bitcoin it, or otherwise end up with more than you started with—anyone who tells you different is just fake news.

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

Drain The Swamp

May 13, 2017

A pearl from the Trump collection is today’s leitmotif. This one was a firm favorite, along with ‘Build That Wall’, and perhaps trumpsters viewed Comey as part of the fauna—there are certainly many who have come forward to praise the decision.

Personally, I’m quite fond of swamps, which form unique ecosystems. The species they contain are superbly adapted to low oxygen conditions, typical of slow waters, and the United States has some fantastic swamp and marsh areas, including the Louisiana Bayou and the Florida Everglades.

The thing about swamps, is that mostly when they’re drained what you see next is property development—and real estate cowboys are far more unsavory fauna than alligators and crocs.

The hapless US president isn’t draining the swamp—instead, the swamp seems to be draining him—swamps, by their very stillness and endurance, have a way of assimilating nearby objects.

Trump displays increasing signs of mental derangement, including, at the very least, paranoid delusion, megalomania, and pathological lying—if I had a family member exhibiting these behavioral traits, I would definitely be considering him for medical treatment.

History is full of mad monarchs, emperors, and princes. Some of these cases were caused by inbreeding, and some rulers were just plain nuts—since this is a mental health issue, there’s absolutely no reason why it cannot occur in this day and age, but it might be instructive to look at some emblematic examples of loonies.

We’ll start with the Romans: Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero are perhaps the best known, and suffered from such joys as paranoia and histrionic disorder. The latter is very interesting, and is defined by Psychology Today as (abridged):

Individuals with histrionic personality disorder exhibit excessive emotionality and are attention seekers. People with this disorder are uncomfortable or feel unappreciated when they are not the center of attention. Behaviors may include constant seeking of approval or attention, self-dramatization, theatricality, and striking self-centeredness or sexual seductiveness in inappropriate situations, including social, occupational, and professional relationships, beyond what is appropriate for the social context.

People with histrionic personality disorder commandeer the role of “life of the party.” Interests and conversation will be self-focused. Emotional expression may be shallow and rapidly shifting. Their style of speech is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail. They will probably have difficulty with tasks that demand logical or analytical thinking.

Nero is said to have played the lyre after having set Rome on fire—to watch it burn.

Justin II took matters to a new level—as he descended into total madness, he was transported around his palace in a wheeled throne, ‘biting attendants as he passed.’

Insanity knows no religious boundaries, and there are several examples of Islamic rulers in our portfolio of nutcases. Having said that, a quick review of the antics of the ‘mad caliph’, and a couple of Ottoman prospects, reveal the usual obsessions with murder and sex—not really enough to sink my teeth into, as old Justin might say.

Compare that to the glorious dementia of Charles VI of France, known as Charles Le Fou. He reigned between 1380 and 1422, just before The India Road, and at points believed he was made of glass. Chaos following attempts to depose him led to a war between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians—now that’s what I call a satisfying war, presumably consisting of spirited battles. I suppose a US equivalent would be a war between the crafts and the bourbons.

If I had a hammer… Luther nails his colors to the mast at Wittenberg

Others do not satisfy my exacting criteria on the subject. Spain’s Joana La Loca seems eccentric at best—she apparently supported Martin Luther, but anyone forcibly confined to a nunnery would be keen to encourage a feisty man hammering on the church door; and Eric XIV of Sweden exhibits only marginal tendencies—a penchant for Icelandic women, and his efforts to marry Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots—though not simultaneously.

The Middle Kingdom had Emperor Hui, who ruled over the last decade of the third century AD—as a youth, when near a pond (or perhaps a swamp), he said in all seriousness: “do the frogs croak because they want to, or because the government ordered them to?”

And lest you think modern-day leaders are exempt (and why would you?), I think a good case could be argued for Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Ghadafi—in some form or other, and sometimes in all forms, they were all as mad as a basket of fish.

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

Guano

May 6, 2017

Belgium is a small and fractious country, which bears evident scars of the joys of nationalism and religious strife. The nation has brought the world some unlikely gifts, including the European Commission, the best beers in the world, and ‘Bande Dessinée.’

BD, as it has become known, also extends to France, but my childhood memories of it are from Belgian artists, particularly Hergé, Uderzo, Morris, and Edgar P. Jacobs—although I must include Frenchman René Goscinny, who wrote the texts for both Asterix and Lucky Luke.

The Anglo-Saxon world never really had an equivalent of the Franco-Belgian ‘strip’, although Superman, Spiderman, and other superhero comics were in a similar vein.

Strip is far closer to Manga than to the US model, and the most emblematic series, Tintin and Asterix, were simultaneously delightful and instructive.

Both Tintin and Asterix traveled widely, and both taught me a lot of history and geography—although I think Tintin provided more of the latter, whereas Asterix ran the gamut from the Greeks to the Romans, Egyptians, Ancient Britons, Visigoths, Vandals, and of course Gauls.

Both heroes had idiosyncratic  companions—Asterix had the gigantic Obelix, possessed of supernatural strength because of a childhood fall into a vat of magic potion, and the village bard, whose musical talents were severely underappreciated.

Tintin’s most loved companions only appear as the books evolve—they are Professor Calculus, an archetypal absent-minded genius, and the fantastically named Captain Haddock.

And it was Haddock who introduced me to guano, in a superb book called the Temple of the Sun.

The book also introduced me to llamas, Incas, and Peru. Guano, or bird shit, was widely used as a raw material for fertilizer, but it was only a decade after I saw a bird poop on Captain Haddock that I realized oceanography was the reason so much guano existed.

The good captain being shadowed by an Inca in the Temple of the Sun.

In a classic ecological cascade, coastal upwelling caused by the southeasterly trade winds brings nutrients to the surface, which in turn generates high primary production. The microscopic phytoplankton supplies the base of the food chain, and drives the biggest fishery in the world—the Peruvian anchoveta, which in recent years ‘only’ yields between five and ten million metric tons annually, due to overfishing.

Seabirds prey on the fish, and out comes guano, a heady cocktail of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the word wanu is Quechua, the ancestral Inca language, still spoken today by 13% of Peruvians.

Cormorants, boobies, and pelicans are the king-shitters, and the production of fine guano also requires an extremely dry climate, which promotes volatilization of ammonia; although the main production was centered in Peru, Namibia and Baja California were both important guano-producing regions—they all share a common oceanographic feature: eastern boundary currents, that push away from the shore due to a combination of prevailing winds and the earth’s rotation, leading to rich surface waters for birds.

Peru is famous for its many hundreds of varieties of papa, or potato, for ceviche, pisco, and of course the coca leaf. But guano was one of the precursors of industrial agriculture in the XIXth century, and although its importance declined after the development of the Haber-Bosch process in 1909, it has now found a new niche in organic agriculture.

Any commodity attracts human greed, and with greed comes conflict. Guano was the reason behind two wars, the first in 1864 between Spain and a Peru-Chile alliance, followed by the War of the Pacific, in 1879. This was a bloody, four year war for territory, with Peru and Bolivia allied against Chile, and like many wars, began over a squabble—in this case, a tax imposed by Bolivia on a Chilean saltpeter mining company.

Chile made substantial territorial gains upon its victory, and genuine hatred between Peru and Chile endures to this day. In fact, Chile seems to be the most disliked nation in Latin America, although Argentina is perhaps considered the most arrogant—this is not just an exercise in random bigotry, it illustrates how historical perspective can help in formulating policy.

One final historical nugget on this excursion through ornithoexcrement is that the saltpeter extracted from the mines of Latin America’s Pacific coastline played an important role in the manufacture of explosives—and a substantial part of the mining was performed by one hundred thousand indentured workers from China.

Of course, the Haber process was also used by Germany for manufacturing explosives, after the allies imposed an embargo on saltpeter imports during World War I. But although the process doesn’t just produce ammonia for industrial agriculture, it nevertheless accounts for the food supply to one third of the world’s population—clearly, organic agriculture is a rich man’s indulgence.

Thus you see how an article entirely devoted to bird shit can be far more fulfilling than the bullshit produced by Marine Le Pen in last Wednesday’s debate.

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

You’re Fired!

April 29, 2017

The ‘Hundred Days’ metric was not something that began with Harry Truman—this is an urban legend courtesy of U.S. TV.

At the very least, it harks back to the Hundred Days of Napoleon—Les Cent Jours, if you want to get fancy. What possessed the Brits to exile the little big man on an island five nautical miles off the coast of Tuscany is quite beyond me—they can’t even claim it was inspired by the Chateau d’If, because the Count of Monte Cristo was only published twenty-nine years after Waterloo.

Technically, we’re talking 111 days between Napoleon’s triumphant return to Paris and the restoration of the French monarch Louis XVIII. If nothing else, today’s French voters should dwell on European hardship during that period, and reflect on the joys of nationalism.

For those that do, a word of caution—Marine, there’s nothing big about you, apart from bigotry.

Is the hundred day mark important? If anyone touted it as a landmark, Trump did—not once, but ad nauseam during his campaign, so it’s only fair to honor his pledges by assessing his performance.

Observers are divided on whether Trump thrives through con tradition or contradiction—there’s plenty of evidence that he built his wealth on the former, and his own testimony, loud, repeated, and emphatic, attests to the latter. I find it particularly interesting that he doesn’t just contradict his campaign promises—in fact, the general reversal of his positions as candidate seems to me a splendid course of action.

Donald has found out that he suddenly has the toughest job in the world, that he knew nothing about all the things he was talking about, and that he’s unlikely to get anything significant done—at least none of what he promised.

If this wasn’t so serious, you could almost feel sorry for him, because here is the opposite of Napoleon—Donald is a big little man, who is so clearly out of his depth that despite his Chinese-chocolate-cake-sized ego, I bet he wishes he could escape this nightmare and go back to being a regular twit.

A little child playing make-believe is now the president of the United States of America.

The media are dissecting all of the presidential achievements to date, so it seems gratuitous to dwell on the list.

However, it’s worth praising the presidential incompetence, and therefore wishing Donnie a bright future—if he’s digging himself into a large hole, then why take away his spade?

Everything Trump tries ends up in a mess, and if one of the mainstream Republicans, such as Bush, Rubio, or Cruz, had won the presidency, they would have been far more competent at repealing the Affordable Care Act, or implementing tax reform that would punish key discretionary spending programs. This reasoning suggests that, in some respects, Trump acts as anti-Republican buffer, and therefore perpetuates some policies from the previous administration.

The question that then remains, discounting the childish ‘Mexican wall’ nonsense, is whether a different Republican in the White House would have taken the same stance on issues such as climate change, the EPA, or pipelines.

At least on some issues, it appears they would have. In the Miami debate, Marco Rubio was both candid and glib.

But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there’s no such thing.

He further illustrated his stupidity by agreeing that the mayor of Miami was wrong in believing that human activity played a part in climate change.

With respect to the infamous hundred days, the consensus is that the president’s pencil was used largely on the wrong end, erasing previous work rather than writing anything new.

Trump’s first hundred days have, however, generated bumper comedy material—there’s even been a Trump impersonator contest.

A couple of my favorites jokes sourced from various late night shows:

Around? He saw this information ‘around’? What, like it was tacked to a bulletin board next to guitar lessons and a picture of a lost cat?

Last week, it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as you know 6 million people — were at my inauguration, I mean there were just so many people at my inauguration and the media refuses to cover it, it’s so unfair, and one day I’m going to write a memoir about this struggle and call it, ‘My Struggle.’ What would that be in German, Angela?

Today is the 11th birthday of Twitter. That’s right, folks — 11 years ago, Donald Trump was just writing crazy things on Post-it notes.

At this point, it appears the Republican health-care plan is going to die on the floor of the House. Coincidentally, dying on the floor of the house happens to be the Republican health-care plan.

I think there’s strong evidence that the president is always high. Because just look at it: He forgets people’s names, he mixes up Iraq and Syria, and what do high people always do? They forget where they put things. And last week, Donald Trump didn’t just lose his keys, he lost the Navy.

But seriously, folks: Two rejected immigration bans, the repeal of Obamacare repealed before it got floor-time, aimless meandering on NAFTA, China, Russia, and the Mid-East, and losing the navy, all in one hundred days…

Donald, you’re fired!

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

Games Without Frontiers

April 22, 2017

Peter Gabriel wrote the song almost forty years ago, during the height of the cold war. It was a very different Europe then, a continent where memories of World War II were still strong—A Frenchman born in 1945 would have been thirty-five in 1980, and his childhood would have been marked by war stories, bomb-scarred buildings, and food shortages.

The game itself, called Jeux Sans Frontières in the original French, was both very popular and very silly. It was syndicated on TV throughout Europe—In Britain, the name of the program was changed to ‘It’s a Knockout.’ A totally stupid name, but back then, just as now, the English were not keen on a Europe without borders.

Fast forward to 2017, one day before the French presidential elections, and you see a remarkably different European mindset. Gone are the memories of war, the Soviet invasions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the German jackboots in Paris and Amsterdam, and the mass murder of six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps.

Europeans now feel besieged by migrants, and in particular there is a perception that Muslims are a clear and present danger, to quote the US military term.

In France, Muslims are 5-10% of the total population, a range which is a good fit for the United Kingdom (4.4%), Belgium(6%), the Netherlands (4%), and Spain (4%), but less good for Italy (3.4%), Germany (1.9%), and Portugal (0.4%).

Since we’re analyzing demography from a religious perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Christians make up 15% of the Egyptian population, and 11% in Syria.

The European perception that drives populism is based on xenophobia. The first component of this ‘hatred for strangers’ is related to job losses due to delocalization of production.

Let’s put that one to bed first. This is an obvious issue—one which translates into terms such as rust belt, and helped propel Agent Orange to power. But good manufacturing jobs will only return to the States, or to France’s industrial heartland, or Britain or Spain, if their citizens are prepared to pay higher prices for consumer goods.

On the jobs front, the problem isn’t immigration, because the immigrants will always do the jobs that nationals refuse. That’s why you see hotel chambermaids from the Philippines in Birmingham, Senegalese construction workers in Paris, and cab drivers from Zimbabwe in Cape Town.

Hard right, Alt-Right, or any other sharp turn can only fix the manufacturing conundrum if society accepts the price hike—which it won’t, resulting in lower sales and reduced profits. Well… there is another way, which is to provide more cheap credit to those who already can’t afford it.

The third way is to restore those manufacturing jobs, but make them bad manufacturing jobs, rather than the ‘good jobs’ of Trump fairy tales—if you do that, you’ll get competitive pricing when you manufacture in France or England—but of course, the locals won’t do those jobs, migrants will.

Speaking of fairy tales, I’ve been busy writing a children’s book—seven short stories that will be available on digital shortly, in a volume entitled Folk Tales For Future Dreamers—but I now return with gusto to The Hourglass, a tale of joblessness, huge profits, and political deception on a planetary level.

Europe replies to the US with stunning originality.

So let us now examine the other elephant in the populist parlor—Islam. There’s no doubt that strong cultural differences exist between Muslim communities and mainstream European societies, bearing in mind over 90% of Europe conforms to Judaico-Christian values, even if their religious expression is rather thin on the ground.

The first issue is that the distribution of immigrants is patchy, and more associated with large cities—directly proportional to the number of shitty jobs. Twenty-five percent of the population of Brussels is Muslim, and that will definitely influence the vote of some of the Christian burghers—a similar analysis can be made for large French urban centers.

The second is the demographic trend—in ecology (and after all, we’re discussing human ecology), a favorable environment encourages successful breeding—by that I don’t mean a good hump, though it certainly helps, but rather population growth.

The birth rate of the historical populations in Europe tends to be low, even in Catholic countries, and the birth rate and survivorship of children born to Muslim families in Western countries are both high.  As a consequence, the demography is shifting, and for some people this means an increasing dilution of cultural and national values.

Similar trends are seen in the United States with respect to both Black and Latino communities, and there are some interesting projections about when the US will cease to be ‘WASP‘-land—better git humpin’, white boy!

The third issue is terrorism. This is a much-abused word, since there are plenty of attacks by military forces throughout the world that draw civilian casualties, often described as collateral damage.

Probably the most accurate practical definition for the Western media and population is: ‘any attack on military or civilian targets in Western nations, claimed as a political act.’ Or even: ‘any politically-motivated attack on Western interests that dominates the news media for twelve hours or more.’

History shows that there are severe double standards in these terms, and that the ‘terror’ epithet shifts both in space and time, as seen for instance in Israel and Ireland.

But recently we have seen the proliferation of the ‘lone wolf’ attacks, the ones that no one can prevent. Whether using vehicles, weapons, or some other combination of tools, there is one striking common aspect about the attacks on Westminster Bridge and the Champs Élysées.

In both cases, the perpetrators wore shoes and had ears.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. They really did. And they were both Muslims, and they both had criminal records, jail time, and a history of violence.

In the case of Karim Cheurfi, the man had served eleven years for trying to kill a policeman in 2005—actually, he was sentenced to fifteen, served seven, but he was hardly a model prisoner, since he assaulted prison staff and beat up a cellmate.

He was nevertheless paroled, and promptly returned to jail for a parole violation. Even so, he was released in 2015. Simple math tells me that 2005 + 15 = 2020. Clearly, everyone is better off with Cheurfi dead, but it’s a tragedy that a police officer had to die before it happened.

The point is that Khalid Massood, the, fifty-two year old Brit who drove and stabbed his way to two minutes of glory, and thirty-nine year old Karim Cheufry, have little to do with Isis—both had committed violent crimes way before there even was an Isis.

If these guys were Buddhists, or Mormons, their crimes would be reported as the acts of deranged psychopaths—but because they were Muslims, and because they held propaganda from Isis, these events put the lone wolf into the political spotlight, rather than judging him for what he is—a confused and violent fuckhead, who happens to wear shoes, is the proud owner of a pair of ears, and is a Muslim.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Tunnel Vision

April 15, 2017

Moab was begotten by Lot’s daughter, through her incestuous relationship with her father. The acronym is also used for the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast deployed a couple of days ago in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan.

Because the thirty-foot behemoth produces shrapnel that can penetrate reinforced concrete, the US military deemed it appropriate to strike the network of tunnels and caves in the Tora Bora area. Now there’s a blast from the past, if you excuse the pun— wasn’t that the ‘Where’s Wally?’ hunting ground for Bin Laden over a decade ago?

This is the second strike within a week that involves bombs rather than soldiers, targeted at enemies who can’t fight back—the so-called Sunday punch.

The principal reason for these actions is to extract Trump from the mess he’s currently in, and provide him with ammunition (sorry) to make his first hundred days a success.

In the process, China is no longer a currency manipulator, NATO is no longer obsolete, and Assad in no longer just Allah’s problem—as suggested by Sarah Palin, another vacuous, populist fool, who when asked about Syria replied “Let Allah take care of it.”

The poppy fields around Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, with the mountains rising on the horizon (photo from CNN, 2014). The Tora Bora tunnels live on.

North Korea is next on this shortlist of presidential successes, but it’s a rather more complex beast. Trump is relentlessly pushing Kim Jong Un, who’s mad as a basket of fish, and Kim has no choice but to respond, whereas the previous two targets were incapable of doing so.

North Korea is a tragedy, recently documented in The Accusation—although this short book is more an account of disasters than an accusation per se—and the elite can only survive by escalation. ‘Trigger’ Trump is now entering the last two weeks of his hundred days, and he’s pushing for a big one, something to silence his tormentors.

The DPRK has again begun transmitting bizarre numeric codes on  shortwave radio, describing them in Le Carré fashion.

review assignments in physics (under the curriculum of) the remote educational university for the geological expedition members across the country, or practice assignments in mathematic lessons (under the curriculum) of the remote educational university for expedition members of team No 27

These number sequences are supposed to activate deep-cover agents inside South Korea through the use of coded instructions. Thing is, different tricks are used these days, such as messages embedded in digital images, as I describe in Atmos Fear—we’ve come a long way since microdots and invisible ink.

Churchill once said that ‘war is too serious to be left to generals’, and that appears to be the thrust of Trump’s ‘policy’. When it comes to the Korean peninsula, three things we can be sure of.

1. If North Korea suffers a Tomahawk, MOAB, or other flavor du jour US strike, Kim’s boys will press a button. Possibly two.

2. If South Korea is hit and matters escalate, China will certainly not come in on the US side. Mao sacrificed 180,000 men in Korea between 1950 and 1953, in a proxy war where North Korea was armed by the Soviet Union and China—those are the official Chinese numbers, but they may be twice as high—Mao is on record as saying that North Korea would win, because for the US one death was a tragedy, whereas for China a million deaths were a statistic.

3. This is a very different set of circumstances to Syria or the tribal badlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The consequences for South Korea will be immense, and although as usual Trump won’t take responsibility, the US will be forced to act—destabilizing an area that China sees as its equivalent of Cuba. And I suspect China rather enjoys the proxy needling of Japan by the mad Kims—after all, the rape of Nanjing still burns with the rage of Sarin.

Meanwhile, in the European theater, things are hotting up, but in this case it’ll be the songs that bomb—mind you, they have for decades—it’s difficult to come up with as comprehensive a set of tacky tunes as the Eurovision song contest has feasted on us since what seems like the beginning of time.

Kids in Portugal used to watch because they couldn’t have long hair or wear miniskirts (yes, even the girls). But the country has long ago moved on—not so Eastern Europe, for whom this is an assertion of nationalism.

Georgia famously withdrew from a Russia-held contest when the organizers told them to change the title and lyrics of their song: We Don’t Wanna Put In. Now there is musical discord (sorry) between Russia and Ukraine, last year’s winner.

The Russians have produced a female vocalist called Samoilova, and the Ukes refuse to grant her a travel visa—they also reject the option of a satellite link.

I was delighted to learn that there is a twentieth-century history professor in the UK whose research specialty is… the Eurovision song contest. Here are some of her conclusions.

Every year Eurovision is telling stories about what it means to be European and that’s a form of political communication. One of the criticisms that Eurovision always gets is that it’s just kitsch and doesn’t mean anything. If you restrict that space further and take a harder line on what counts as political, you chip away more and more at the things that popular music can actually be about. It would end up damaging the contest and play into the criticism that it is just meaningless entertainment.

The mind boggles, and although I would certainly choose the word ‘meaningless’ over ‘entertainment’, at least the political scrambling is more along the traditions of Kim Il Song than Kim Il Sung.

When it comes to the descendants of North Korea’s original strongman, the world is at risk. Bigly!

Trump has changed his opinion (mind is too strong a word) on practically everything multiple times. In Portuguese, he would be called a troca tintas (paint or ink switcher)—someone who muddles everything up. In the end, it boils down to a well-known aphorism, which applies to the president of the United States in exactly the same way it applies to Russia, China, and Japan.

Where you sit is where you stand.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Unraveling

April 8, 2017

Friday brought a slew of news, including the delivery of 82.6 million bucks’ worth of Tomahawks to a Syrian airbase. Mid-afternoon in Europe saw the fifth lone wolf terror attack using a vehicle, after France, Israel, Germany, and Britain—all this within nine months, the human gestation period.

The US missile strike raises an immediate question, because it reverses policy trumpeted (pun intended) only a week ago. It remains to be seen whether the new administration suddenly grew up, or whether this was merely a ballistic tweet.

I hope you come here because you like ideas, but also because you enjoy words—I want to thank you by sharing a curious text on Trumpspeak.

And yet, what moved me most this week was a story from sub-Saharan Africa about Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda. These tales never make it into the mainstream news, but they illustrate how far apart we are from the tragedy that passes for life in many parts of the world.

Gulu is about the size of Stamford, Connecticut, and is in the poorer (!) part of Uganda. It has a soccer stadium, built by the British in 1959—it used to boast power and water, but both have long disappeared. Transportation went the same way—the only railway line was out of use for twenty years, until 2013, when trains began operating again.

The town appears to boast several hotels, and their websites use standard westspeak such as ’boutique’ and ‘wifi’, but occasionally odd things crop up—my favorite is the word ‘leopard’ underneath the list of rental cars of the Golden Peace hotel—not hotlinked, sadly, but when you hover over it the tantalizing hint ‘leopards in Botswana’ appears.

One guy supplied the following comment on his experience in another hotel.

When I arrived, I was put on ground floor room, next to a Ugandan government official so there were security men outside his room 24/7. They were very friendly and offered to “protect” me too, whatever that means, but I could hear them talking in the halls 24/7, flirting with the housekeeper…

What got me to Gulu was a story about the municipal abattoir, which has a capacity to slaughter thirty animals daily. It was set up in 1959, apparently by Indians and Nubians—you don’t hear much about Nubians these days. If, like me, your memories of them are all from Ancient Egypt, which they ruled in the VIIIth century BC, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Kenya is now home to about a hundred thousand Nubians.

In 1960, a German vet made improvements to the building, and, much like the football stadium, there the story ends. The consequences of this are first explained in a description about a local entrepreneur (euse?)…

Filth from the Gulu main abattoir continues to flood into Harriet Achen’s restaurant as she collects her grimy cooking utensils – some filled with maggots – from her workplace, shortly after a heavy downpour. Clad in a floral dress, with a bandana wrapped around her head, Achen uses an empty can and a plastic bag as gloves to scoop out the animal waste.

“If it continues to rain like this, I don’t know how I will survive. I won’t work for days because I have to clean my [work] place. More so, I need to pay up my bank loan and also fend for my children,” says the 34-year-old single mother of four.

I couldn’t find Harriet’s restaurant among the various offerings in Gulu, including one called ‘The Iron Donkey’, perhaps a local name for the train, much like Native Americans used ‘Iron Horse’.

The effluent from the abattoir blocks the sewage system, because the lipid fractions aren’t adequately separated and disposed of, and the general (un)sanitary conditions of the facility, whose incinerator broke down two years ago, contribute with an added stench of burning hooves and horns. The reporter informs us that these issues “have become daily inconveniences that repel potential customers.”

Trucking animals for slaughter, Ugandan-style. But that’s okay, at least they have Coke.

The use of the term ‘inconvenience’ speaks volumes about sub-Saharan Africa, as does the offhand reference to the ‘single mother of four’, a quintessential African problem.

But this is far more than an inconvenience, it’s a major health hazard for zoonotic diseases—and it’s not just sewage contamination within the abattoir—the hapless goats are already sitting in waste.

As a consequence, one hundred thirteen cases of brucellosis were registered since November of last year, forty-four in February alone—the sanitary authorities advise the population not to eat meat from the Gulu slaughterhouse, when the real option is obviously to close down the establishment.

The key point here is that the abattoir is only a symptom, and the whole infrastructure of Gulu unravels as we inspect services such as education and healthcare.

The Lacor Hospital was founded in 1959—what is it about that year?—by Comboni missionaries, which once again is the story of all Africa. A husband and wife team, made up of Italian pediatrician Piero Corti and his Canadian wife Lucille, started the hospital, which now treats a quarter of a million patients every year.

But this is no ordinary hospital, it replaces all kinds of social safety nets. As an example, it also trains masons, carpenters, and electricians, pointing out that disease and poverty are an intimate couple—not only does poverty breed disease, but the opposite is also true. AIDS, which is rarely talked about in the West these days, is still a major concern—surgeon Lucille Teasdale Corti died from it in 1996—the hospital says it was ‘professionally acquired’.

Lacor also served as a refugee camp—during the war that ravaged the region between 1996 and 2006, between 3,000 and 10,000 women and children sought nightly refuge in the hospital grounds to escape rebel attacks.

To place that in context, UNICEF estimates that thirty thousand children between the ages of seven and fourteen were abducted over that decade and forced to become guerillas (child soldiers), or sold into slavery.

Like a cable-knit sweater that starts unraveling, you only need to pull one thread to watch the whole fabric of society fall apart—the story I’ve told you, of fatherless kids, deadly pathogens, environmental hazards, and the collapse of basic infrastructure in not a Gulu exclusive.

Africa is one thousand, or one hundred thousand Gulus, dealing with challenges that Europe and North America eliminated long ago, problems for which simple solutions exist.

Uganda suffers this fate despite being unusually well endowed in natural resources—apart from valuable minerals, including the ever-sinister coltan, its soils are so rich that it could potentially feed all of Africa.

The Lacor hospital is going bankrupt—not from the war, but because of peace. Since the war ended in 2006, international aid has moved on to other war zones, so the poverty resulting from the conflict can no longer find solace.

When you witness tragedy on this scale, three little words come to mind.

Cruelty. Waste. Sadness.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

No Bother

April 1, 2017

Over the last fifteen years, Galway turned into a big small town. It wasn’t like that in the early nineties, when Ireland boasted only two highways, inexplicably called the M1 and M50—for decades, the nation puzzled over the other forty-eight.

Back then, the road was an endless succession of tractors and villages, but now Galway chokes well before the city limit because the town expanded but the road system didn’t.

But despite the US tech companies, the industrial parks, and the massive influx of tourists, the town remains easy to love, and it’s not hard to find refuge from the Twitter and Trip Advisor brigade—twice I drove out to Moran’s on the weir to eat the native oyster, a rarity in my part of the world.

Although Brexit made some headlines in Ireland, since the Irish are the last man standing between the EU and Britain, the main news was characteristic of the Emerald Isle. As I drove up from Dublin, I was delighted to learn that the Gardai, or Irish constabulary, had become the butt of protests, political mayhem, and of course good craic.

On my outbound flight, I’d continued to read Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation, a lengthy and horrific tale of the suffering humans impose upon each other. In particular, I am navigating the section on Algeria and the GIA, where horrendous crimes were perpetrated by both the Islamists and the police.

It’s imposible to remain immune to the testimony of a young woman who is receiving psychiatric treatment because she only enjoys going to horror movies—she needs to see blood. Her apprenticeship began in an Algiers police station, watching hundreds of prisoners being systematically tortured and killed, and now she can’t think of anything else—Dalilah is thirty years old.

Just as you can’t play ostrich, as the UN report chaired by ex-president of Portugal Soares did in 1999, when it claimed that Algerian massacres in the last decade of the twentieth century were a product of  terrorism—whitewashing the crimes committed by the military.

In all fairness, Fisk cautions the reader before the start that he’s in for a rough ride. So it lightens the spirit to hear of the woes of the Irish police commissioner, as she makes a pathetic effort to explain how her officers managed to fake just under one million breathalyzer reports over a period of five years.

Her assistant tells a press conference in Dublin: “The numbers don’t add up—that’s a fact.” A masterly understatement, since the ‘Pulse’ system used by the Gardai recorded 1,996,365 alcohol tests between October 2011 and December 2016, but the Medical Bureau of Road Safety claims only 1,058,157 were performed.

I’m with the medics on this one, based on the number of disposable mouthpieces ordered—almost a million fake tests were logged into ‘Pulse’. Assistant Commissioner Finn goes on to state: “As time went on the importance of recording that data was lost to us, or we didn’t appreciate it…” He’s referring to the log of who ‘carried out’ the test, and how many tests the breath analyzer actually registered.

The Irish spirit warms your heart, from the 119.5 seconds required to pour the perfect pint of Guinness to the offhand dismissal by a latecomer that he was referring to ‘Irish Time.’

Decades ago, I bought a small Spanish guitar in an equally small music shop in Galway—Spanish in style only, because it was made in Hong-Kong. That instrument holds wonderful memories for me, and I wandered into the main drag in search of a couple of tuners, and a nut—that’s the bit at the top the strings go through.

The town center is ‘organized’ around a couple of streets with the excellent names of Shop Street and High Street, rich in pubs, buskers, and young Irish girls carousing in sleeveless tops and short skirts—oblivious to the Connemara weather, which lives up to the tourist description of the Wild Atlantic Way.

At the lower end of the High Street is the Spanish Arch, built in 1584, four years after the Spanish paid a courtesy call to Lisbon which lasted sixty years. There are only two remaining arches in the front wall of Galway, both partially destroyed over two hundred and sixty years ago—and what caused the damage? None other than the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which generated a ten foot tsunami wave on the west coast of Ireland.

Lisbon wakes up to the horror of All Saints Day in 1755.

Under a smaller arch on the High Street, a sign directed me to a music store, along with a tattoo parlor.

Hmm…

As I walked up the narrow stairs, there was still no separation between church and state. I wondered whether I would enter a dark den where musicians vied with epidermal etchers for my custom—I rolled down my sleeves in anticipation.

Thankfully, at the last minute the waters parted—clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. The luthier patiently examined my pathetic display of guitar archeology, and dived into the bowels of his tuner treasure trove to retrieve the needed bits and bobs.

For half an hour, life became a timeless journey through my past and his, and a discussion of the merits of the instruments displayed in his small, first floor store—you could have been in medieval Galway, as he showed me the tools I would need to rebuild the small guitar, the music wafting up from outside, a Gaelic mixture of tin whistles, guitars, and fiddles.

Along the rack on the southeast wall, a whole row of guitars made in Braga, a Galway-sized city in the northwest of Portugal. Beautiful instruments, starting at under two hundred bucks, that filled my heart with joy—if Portugal is exporting guitars to Ireland, all is well with the world.

Still no clarity on what lies behind that door…

It’s getting late, my ears are popping, and my flask is almost finished. The airline prohibits alcoholic beverages, unless they’re purchased from them directly—moral protest is therefore required, which I implement by means of a bottle of Ribena.

Ribena, for those who didn’t endure a British upbringing, is a blackcurrant drink of a vile nature which is used in combination with Marmite to turn small children into Brexiteers. But the bottle has a singular advantage—it’s completely opaque, bearing splendid designs of blue skies with mildly wafting clouds, punctuated by a bizarre necklace of blackcurrants.

Within, half a bottle of red wine, purchased at the airport deli and subsequently decanted, can be splendidly camouflaged. As I reach for the last sip, noting the tight cap has compressed the bottle, another sure sign the air pressure is increasing, my heart is full of concern—not for the stewardesses who walk past calling for empties, no doubt thinking I’ve reached my second youth as I swig my jungle juice—but for the two dozen native oysters I’m smuggling in my suitcase, nestled in a bed of kelp.

The good people at Moran’s parted with them, and the (not so) little beauties spent the night in the hotel fridge. As I handed them to the night manager, I warned him that I expected to find the full complement when I asked for them next morning.

He grinned and explained he didn’t like oysters at all. “Now,” he says, “my girlfriend loves them.”

“Well then,” I said. “There’s some things you just can’t tell your girlfriend.”

“No bother,” he said.

Good craic.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Art of the Pill

March 26, 2017

Friday March 24th 2017 marks the end of the beginning for Donald Trump.

It also shows that politics is a far cry from corporate management—this was completely ignored by the voters who elected Trump, possibly because they never even considered the distinction, let alone understood it.

In late February 2016, when I predicted the current president would win, I wrote that companies are like friends, government is like family—Trump’s America is finding that out now.

Let’s have a look at the key differences between the two  in a democratic society.

Item Corporations Government
Policy-making Oligarchic: set by the board, and followed by the staff. Occasionally challenged in court Democratic: conditioned by electorate, approved by parliament as legislation, subject to judicial challenge
Decision-making CEO, alone or supported by a small team President or prime minister, following cabinet approval
 Employment Staff reductions increase profits, productivity and shareholder value Reduced workforce means higher social costs, unemployment, and social unrest
 Medical care Depends on contract terms, like other perks Part of a social package that includes rights such as education

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of running a country is compromise—and understanding that the ships of government don’t necessarily sail in the same direction.

In the corporate world, if the armada isn’t moving heads swiftly roll, right up to the very top—if your friends become your enemies, by definition they’re friends no longer.

Vertical structures can all be managed using similar principles—a successful CEO in insurance will often transition to a bank, or to a car-maker or pharmaceutical business, and do well. In the same vein, senior military personnel can fill key positions in logistics or transportation companies.

Democratic administration, on the other hand, is a balancing act that often demands the negotiating skills of a lawyer or a diplomat—this extends to world affairs in general, the balancing act of war and peace, involving multiple stakeholders.

This whole game of international relations is termed soft power, which is the part of the proposed US budget that Trump wants to cut.

The ‘repeal of the repeal’, or more accurately the withdrawal of the vote (known medically as votus interruptus) is a signal of the mental mayhem these first two months have been.

“It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated,” said Trump on Feb 27th, a month before pulling the vote. This is a comment designed to make normal people scream.

More worrying than that, many, many things are complicated—and bigly. And they’re all lining up in front of the man with the little hands. As Bill Maher said a few days ago, ‘the advantage of having small hands is it makes it easier to pull things out of your ass.’ And Donald will continue to do the pulling—in North Korea, China, Europe, Mexico, and Russia. And at home.

The degree of Russian intervention in the US election is open to question, the evidence of interference is not. Putin clearly saw that a US administration with strong business interests abroad would be far less supportive of sanctions—after all, the business of business is business. He also knows, just as Xi Jinping and the rest of the club know, that an idiot in the White House is a very useful asset—particularly if that idiot is also a self-obsessed buffoon with the emotional age of an eight year-old.

Warren Buffett put it this way: ‘if you don’t know who the fool in the market is, it’s probably you.’

A president who believes his country, and the world, can be managed like a hotel chain, is fundamentally out of his depth. Broad issues such as health care, education, environmental stewardship, financial stability, and geostrategic balance have occupied the minds of some of the planet’s greatest thinkers for centuries.

In this process, humanity learned terrible lessons, including devastating world wars, famines, epidemics, and environmental tragedies. A united Europe is the product of those wars, industrial agriculture and aquaculture have eliminated the word famine in parts of the world,  diseases like AIDS and Ebola are fought with science and passion, and people no longer die in scores in Europe and North America from cholera and other waterborne diseases.

If this is the end of the beginning, then we should reflect on what will lead to the beginning of the end. It seems clear that this president should not serve, but what’s the way forward?

The Republicans have helped shape that by inflicting a defeat without having to fight. The budget discussion promises to be a much messier affair, and it will come to a vote. Much of Trump’s braggadocio will either evaporate on that day, or come to a head.

Before the election I wondered whether this is a metaphor for the relative size of US challenges and the brain addressing them? Now I’m certain it is.

The GOP is looking at this and wondering how to salvage a four-year term from the ruins of the first hundred days.

Let’s review the stark choices. The president stays or the president leaves. The GOP very much want him to leave, providing Mike Pence with a clear path to the presidency—this is a rare occasion in US politics, where the vice-president is clearly far more presidential than the incumbent.

I wrote about the possibility of Pence taking the ticket in the pre-November run-up. It never happened, though I’m sure it was discussed behind closed doors, in wood-paneled rooms with overstuffed leather armchairs.

How can it happen now?

Trump can resign, either willingly (very much out of character) or if pushed. He may simply state he feels too much was stacked against him, and he wasn’t able to keep his promises to his base—they’ll believe him, and he’ll throw his tantrum and be done with it—his electorate will never know the man’s promises were bogus from the beginning.

Pushing Trump out may not be too difficult—he is already suffering the death of a thousand cuts, and he’s a man with plenty to hide, including his tax records. In his excellent book Supermob, Gus Russo tells the story of Sidney Korshak, one of America’s hidden power brokers. There are plenty of famous names in the tale, including Ronald Reagan and, of course, Donald Trump.

The other two exit routes are much less graceful: impeachment, or assassination. Arrogance and stupidity could never justify murder—in fact nothing can, in my view.

Whatever happens, from this inauspicious, but not unexpected, beginning, it’s inconceivable that Trump will serve a full four-year term. And the irony for the man with the Mexican wall may well be that all he can be remembered for are a boom in US satire and  a Canadian pipeline.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Hot Hyena

March 18, 2017

Since this article is about the clitoris, I’ll dive straight in.

The attribution of a clitoris or a penis is part of sexual dimorphism at embryogenesis. This occurs in all mammals, and the choice is triggered when the embryo starts to secrete sex hormones, depending on whether the chromosome structure has coded it to be female or male.

The number of chromosomes and their structure is called the karyotype, and it varies widely—humans sport twenty-three pairs, but the kangaroo only has eight. On the other hand, the dog family comes in at a count of thirty-nine pairs—wolves, dogs, and coyotes.

Across all mammals the Y chromosome is the sex-determinant, and in the womb the fetus responds accordingly—the male develops a penis, with complete plumbing facilities (hot and cold mixer tap, if you like), whereas the female develops a clitoris—highly vascularized and super-sensitive, as women find out to their delight, but devoid of plumbing.

If you’re looking for a historical context here, we could begin with the history of sex. Current statistics suggest about 70% of women don’t have orgasms during intercourse—Cosmopolitan provides some dismal tales of ladies who have never had an orgasm.

Intercourse is a bizarre euphemism, vaguely reminiscent of sorbet, but when discussing traditional practices,  cultural differences are very important. For instance, the U.S. often uses a baseball metaphor, but in Southern Europe oral sex is by no means third base—more like fifth! Likewise, in some Arab countries, anal sex can be an option to preserve virginity—which can lead to pretty warped extremes, embodied in the Afghan saying ‘women are for babies, men are for pleasure.’

Freud memorably distinguished between the clitoral orgasm, an infantile indulgence, and the ‘proper’ adult or vaginal orgasm—all a bit Teutonic, and blissfully ignorant of empirical evidence.

Clitoral stimulation plainly leads to orgasm—it’s not a discussion point. But if the subject is complex for humans, what about the other five thousand species of mammals?

The jury is definitely out on that one—apparently, chimps and cows have both been stimulated under laboratory conditions, and shown to experience vaginal and uterine contractions—but that’s no indication that female orgasms play any role in intercourse for those species, or for any other mammals, for that matter.

Maybe in humans the clitoris turned into something important, just as the appendix turned into something useless.

But if the clitoris is a pseudopenis, perhaps it has a role after all in some other mammals—but for that it would have to be big…

Enter a troupe of otherwise undistinguished ladies, mainly species of monkeys, but also the queen of dong, the African spotted hyena.

Squirrel monkeys from the tropical regions of the Americas, and some species of Madagascan lemur, have a large pseudopenis, as does the European mole—there’s a theory that these sizable appendages are used for dominance displays—the equivalent of a ‘big swinging dick’ on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs.

Nevertheless, the science case is weak when it comes to the mole, since it not only lives in underground tunnels but has very poor vision—the eye is only one millimeter in diameter. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that these small, furry creatures are given to intense clitoral posturing of the Donald Trump variety.

Maybe moles keep a dark secret, if you excuse the pun, and have a more fulfilled sex life than Cosmo readers.

Illustration of a pregnant African spotted hyena.

But if the role of the clitoris remains a mystery in most mammals, the African spotted hyena is definitely the odd one out.

The mustachioed European explorers of the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries must have been stunned when they witnessed their caged male hyenas giving birth—for a long time, hyenas were thought to be hermaphrodite, and since both males and females possess a penile appendage, no one knew where the females were.

The female vulva is fused, so the large, external clitoris is used for peeing—making the female look even more like a male, although the urinary canal is not a urethra. But the clitoris has two other obvious functions, the first of which is sex.

However, for the male to mate with the female, the clitoris must contract and widen to allow penetration, and the positioning of the male is critical. Males practice this for periods of a month or more, and finally get it right—and you thought we had it tough!

Details were published in the journal Nature some years ago, so we can safely assume this is not fake news.

The female hyena has extremely high levels of testosterone, and when the babies come out, parturition takes place through a birth canal that is only an inch in diameter. The pseudopenis is seven inches long, envy of many of a stud, but through it must exit a two-pound cub—now that’s got the guys squirming, and the women saying “see, I told you it was hard!”

And if the cubs get stuck, biting your way out is a definite possibility—after all, with that much testosterone humming around, the cub’s like a baby Rambo.

I think on balance we should count ourselves lucky.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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