Novax

January 15, 2022

As the world enters its third year of pandemic, it’s plain to see human nature remains unchanged, when compared to a century ago.

It is also clear that COVID-19 will be with us this year, and that the trajectory it follows is very similar, if not identical, to the Spanish Flu. Sources differ in their estimate of the duration of the 1918 pandemic, but the consensus is two to three years.

Based on the science, it is reasonable to expect Covid to last about three years—variants are less virulent, infection is becoming more widespread, and vaccination is in general protecting people from hospitalization and death.

In the US, the death rate for vaccinated people is almost zero per hundred thousand, whereas unvaxed folks are at 3 to 4 per 100,000.

The Cleveland Clinic review lists the measures used a century ago to prevent spread.

Isolation, or staying away from crowds of people. This included closing places like schools and gyms.

Washing your hands completely and often.

Wearing protection like masks and gloves.

Not touching outside items like library books.

Not spitting in public.

The first three actions are part of our day-to-day, and gloves aren’t such a bad idea. Library books are not a good example in these digital days, but cellphones are Covid heaven—contaminated hand to mouth and very possibly foot.

Thankfully, hawking is no longer commonplace in the West, but by god you see the stuff flying around in Asia.

The key differences between then and now are all driven by science and technology—exactly the things that anti-vaxers claim to be fake. Covid has killed as many people in the United States as the Spanish Flu did, although percentually today’s numbers are significantly less because the US population is much higher.

So the vaccine is key to strongly reduce hospitalization and mortality, which in turn converts the pandemic into an endemic disease. It’s worth taking a minute to define terms—in particular to distinguish among pandemic, epidemic, endemic, and outbreak. An epidemic e.g. of measles affects a country or region, whereas a pandemic is a world event. An endemic disease such as malaria, cholera, or yellow fever is present in a region—in some cases there’s no vaccine, in others there is.

An outbreak is a one-off event in a country where the disease is not normally present—for instance a series of cases of malaria in the US or Western Europe would qualify as an outbreak.

Epidemics are often the curse of developing countries—think Ebola—and as such merit little airtime on Western media. The blunt truth is that if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t care.

But Covid is responsible not just for deaths, but for a host of other casualties. The Australian debacle features the Australian government, eager to win the upcoming election, the state of Victoria, Tennis Australia, and Djokovic, eager to win the upcoming tournament—and a man whose stance on vaccination has done him no favors and sets the worst possible example.

The orangutan too was a virus vanquished victim—largely through his own actions, and lack of them—to quote an old saw, denial is a river in Africa. Just goes to show there is a god, even if she’s Chinese.

The next one to tumble may well be Eton’s answer to Worzel Gummidge, the ineffable Boris Johnson.

The disregard shown by Downing Street towards the rules the government made and enforced is a blatant example of the entitlement and snobbery of the British ruling class. Wine-Time Friday is the latest episode in a soap that is a national embarrassment, but is totally predictable from a man who epitomizes buffoonery.

As we learn to live with Covid—and the conversation will remain with us at least during 2022, and probably 2023—we have discovered the concept of variants. Of course, anyone who takes the flu vaccine knows there is a new one every year. This is not a booster, but a tailored potion designed to target a variant.

I believe that the booster approach will become scientifically questionable, since the same vaccine is being delivered, from the moment the virus mutation begins to differ significantly from the original target—that may well already be the case. The flu-vax paradigm seems a much better way to go.

When the variants started being named sequentially like hurricanes, folks lost touch with the evolution of the virus—the only exception might be the Greeks, since their alphabet is used—if you want to sound sciency, thrown in a Greek letter or five.

Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet, equivalent to our letter ‘D’. Omicron is way down the line, equivalent to the letter ‘O’.

There are ten Greek letters between the two.

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

Green Blood

January 8, 2022

I’ve flown over the Congo many times, but I’ve never been tempted to land.

Ever since Belgium’s King Leopold and his acolytes raped and pillaged the country, the Congo has a tragic history of misdeeds.

Sixteen years ago, the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond painted a dark picture of the international gem trade, using Sierra Leone—Lion Mountain—to cast light on a heady mix of diamonds, weapons, and war.

The story of valuable commodities, the weapons they buy, and the wars that result from them are an African paradigm—the richer the country, the poorer its people. The Democratic Republic of Congo—I’m always suspicious when the D word is part of the country’s name—has a per capita GDP of 560 US dollars; Greece, the lamest duck in the EU, has almost eighteen grand—double Turkey and half of Italy.

Like any country where governance is just a long word, the DRC has a huge swathe of folks—eighty percent of the poor—working informal jobs.

Out of the population of ninety million, eighty percent are poor, which means that around sixty-five percent work outside the tax circuit—well over half the Congolese are off the grid.

The wealth of the Congo lies in minerals, be they diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, or coltan. The last two ‘C’s are the icing on the cake—coltan for extracting tantalum, used to build capacitors for cellphones, laptops, and car electronics, and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, the darlings of the green revolution.

The worst possible scenario for electric vehicles, where the battery is made in China (i.e. a large carbon footprint) and the car is driven in Poland, where electricity is produced in outdated coal-fired plants. If the best case is considered, where both battery manufacture and driving takes place across the Baltic in Sweden, electric cars emit 80% less carbon dioxide than their hydrocarbon brethren.

Historically, mining has been the province of Western companies—sixty percent of miners are quoted on the Canadian stock exchanges, either Vancouver or Toronto—but over the last two decades, the Chinese have come to town.

China is well ahead of the US when it comes to sourcing cobalt—both Obama and the Orange Man missed the boat on this one. Companies such as China Molybdenum own vast assets in the DRC, such as the Tenke Fungurume mine. A mine worker makes under four dollars a day and the cobalt is used for batteries that power Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes cars.

Ironically, cobalt is used to stop batteries igniting but its stock price is on fire—in the five years before 2016, one metric ton cost less that $35,000, right now it sets you back almost ninety grand.

Since you can find cobalt anywhere in parts of the DRC, one of the key sources is artisanal mining, performed by ordinary people who have no training in mineral extraction—they are ‘creuseurs‘, who hard-scrabble the chocolate-brown powder out of the ground.

One guy in Kolwezi, a southern Congolese city near Angola, was digging a latrine inside his home in 2014 when eight feet down he struck… chocolate. What he found was a rock called heterogenite—I suppose the name means a mixed bag—that can be refined into cobalt.

He proceeded to create a mini-mine inside his house—rented house, that is, and you thought putting up pictures was evil—and started a profitable business selling cobalt. When his vertical seam ran out, he expanded his subterranean gilt goose sideways and tunneled below the neighbors—by the time the landlord caught up with him, his tenant had flown the coop, or in this case the mine, and was by Congolese standards a very wealthy man.

The president of the DRC, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, meeting with the CEO of CMOC, Sun Ruiwen, plus brainy-hotty interpreter, two days before Christmas 2021—and a Merry Xmas to all.

Although not always this creative (home is where the shaft is), artisanal miners, like bitcoin enthusiasts, are beavering away as we speak, to bring us the chocolate we so badly need.

Right now, climate change is taking us into yet another (un)virtuous cycle of “exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship“, much like the discoveries of the XVth century.

The building blocks of the oil economy are the hydrocarbons in the Mid-East, where vast Western conglomerates still have much to say.

For our new toys, we need nickel, lithium, copper, and cobalt. In the case of cobalt, over sixty percent comes from the DRC and (go figure) an equivalent proportion is processed in the Middle Kingdom.

The Western World is building a new green economy around resources it no longer controls.

China won’t make the same mistake.

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

Murka

January 5, 2022

Often spelt Murica.

dictionary.com defines it as “a slang way of referring to America, implying extreme patriotism and stereotyping how white southerners might say the word” and pronounces it [ mur-ih-kuh].

But Miami doesn’t feel much like murka—English is thin on the ground, frequently absent altogether—the city and adjoining beaches are a Hispanic stronghold, and it seems as if the previous owners departed with no forwarding address.

I was last in town a couple of decades ago, and much like the marsh grass creeping in as the sea level rises, so immigration has systematically changed the nature of this city.

Race is a constant issue in the US, finding its way into the most unusual spots. I was on a couple of websites over the weekend planning for a COVID test—Florida is fast and loose with the virus—masks are thin on the ground and no one is unduly concerned. The consequence is that the most recent flavor, the big O, is running wild—the seven-day moving average is the highest on record, with 43,168 cases.

Both websites asked me to identify my race, out of a panoply that includes Caucasian (one site said ‘White’), Black, Hispanic, Chinese, and a bunch of races I didn’t know existed. Why this should be needed is completely beyond me—I think the more you underscore race, the more it begets racism.

Miami Beach reflects this troubled history, in much the same way as the US itself. The beach was once a set of barrier islands inhabited by the Seminole Indians. As the whites arrived, mangroves were cut and coconut palms planted. Over the years, canals were dug to help move produce to market—no longer coconuts, but avocados, brought in by John Collins—the man who gave the aorta of Miami Beach its name.

The dredged spoils were used to reclaim land and the island grew—literally. It didn’t take long before the tycoons from the Northeast imagined a whole new concept—a beach resort that ran all year round. These men, most notably Indiana millionaire Carl Fisher, were property developers. A landmark ad was placed in Times Square—’Miami Beach, Where Summer Spends the Winter.’

But all was not well in paradise. Until the 1930s, Jews could only live south of 5th Street, reinventing the confinement of the Venetian Ghetto, because no developers would sell them property north of that line.

During the mid-XXth century, local hotels wouldn’t accept Jewish guests, and as late as 1960, neither Blacks nor Jews could have lunch at the Woolworth’s counter on Flagler Street.

As soon as Jewish folks were allowed into the property market, the panorama changed—Jewish-owned hotels flourished. Mount Sinai hospital was built, providing health care for the community, once again to fill a gap created by anti-Semitic policies—Jewish doctors could not get staff privileges at any hospital.

The mob banker, Meyer Lansky—Hyman Roth in the Godfather movie—led the charge onto the beach, bringing in Mafia investment from New York, Chicago, and Vegas. Casinos, nightclubs, and horse and ‘dawg’ tracks flourished. Prostitution and drugs went along for the ride. The playground reputation of Miami Beach reached a new high, accompanied by the requisite amount of sleaze.

Enter the Cubans—the Castrist slogan ‘Patria o Muerte‘ is now being fought with ‘Patria y Vida‘, but almost three generations have passed since Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. Little Havana is still a fixture of the city—a heady mixture of music, gastronomy, and crime—but now there’s also little Haiti.

Through the decades, the Jewish diaspora came and went—in the 1970s, around twenty thousand Jewish retirees came to the beach—I don’t see so many here now. There were cocaine wars, Mexicans, Colombians, Panamanian money launderers… never a dull moment, and the Jews moved north to Broward and Palm Beach.

The supply chain ain’t what is used to be—perhaps the coins are made in China.

As I cycle up Collins, dip into strip malls here and there, stop off at the beach for an early morning swim, or wade into an outlet mall off I-95, I feel the pulse of the nation. Immigrants buying building materials at Home Depot, joggers, skaters, and cyclists, lycra-legged dog-walkers—people walking around muttering to themselves, as if gripped by a new verbal dementia virus, until you realize every last one is on the phone, starting and ending conversations that just can’t wait. Hola, amor, porfa, claro, dá-le!

Back in the day, you couldn’t visit the US without bargain-hunting, but things are very different now. Sure, you can still go to an outlet store and see the bill magically split in half, or buy a pair of Levis for fifty bucks, but the never-ending stock is gone.

Empty shelves? Sure. And plenty of them. Covid queues everywhere. In a guitar store, I was advised it would be best to search online.

First, the big stores did it to the mom ‘n pop shops. Then the malls did it to the big stores. Now Amazon has done it to them all. Off the airport freeway, a gigantic Prime depot. Off the runway, Amazon jets. Prime Air.

And all it took was a spot of the ole pandemic, y’all.

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

Thank-You

December 27, 2021

I’m writing this article on a flight bound for Miami. The airport code is KMIA—my fertile imagination jumps to Killed: Missing in Action—the standard US armed forces acronym for some very bad shit. Still, WTF believes in acronyms…

I haven’t been to the land of the free for a couple of years now—in the Florida of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, the killing fields of COVID play out as a conspiracy of Democrats. Unvaxed conservatives grab the hospital beds and medical emergency resources—including doctors—that are needed for other patients.

During the pandemic panic panoply, other killer diseases have been left on the shelf—and I’m not just talking about the ‘Western’ diseases—heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These three monsters have two things in common: they are lifestyle problems linked to obesity, tobacco, and alcohol, and they’re (almost) never caused by microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria—”we have met the enemy, and he is us“.

In the West, we neglect the killers that exist in many parts of the world—cholera, dysentery, and the worst of all, cerebral malaria—because they’re someone else’s problem. These three, and many more, share the opposite qualities to the afflictions that worry westerners—they are endemic, rather than lifestyle, and they’re all caused by bugs.

Malaria has been eradicated in both Europe and the US, but this is a recent development. From the rice paddies in southern Iberia to the court of the kings of France, malaria was rife all over Europe; this was also the case in the swamps of Florida and in many other parts of North America.

Stagnant waters were drained, and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was merrily sprayed into the environment until scientists found out that one day the birds would stop singing.

In early 1496, the Portuguese fleet captained by Vasco da Gama was smitten with mal aria—bad air—on the African east coast. That and the scurvy on the way back from India killed two thirds of the crew, including the captain-general’s brother Paulo.

The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese were greatly affected by malaria—one of the costs of empire-building. The upper class Brits have a tradition of sending their kids to boarding school—a guy I know saw a young school friend die from malaria—the English medics had no idea what it was.

In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, Ho Chi Minh asked Premier Zhou Enlai for help with the endemic drug-resistant malaria in his country—more Vietcong were dying of the fevers than from American bullets. It was the summer of love—in January, the Doors released their first album; in February, Jefferson Airplane came out with Surrealistic Pillow; in March, the Grateful Dead launched their eponymous first album; in May, Jimi Hendrix asked ‘Are You Experienced’; and in June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper.

How appropriate then, that at the height of flower power, a Chinese pharmacist called Tú Yōuyōu was placed in charge of project 523, which led to the discovery of a magic herbal substance called qīnghāosù.

It took a few years—the power of the sweet wormwood Artemisia annua was only established at the beginning of the 1970’s, when Yōuyōu isolated the compound artemisin.

Nowadays, young researchers often end up ‘re-discovering’ concepts and methods because they are unfamiliar with papers published decades before the creation of ‘Google University’—that’s just poor scholarship.

Tú Yōuyōu—who reminds me of my mother, the rabbit physicist—did exactly what a researcher should do. She reviewed a vast collection of texts on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and finally sweet wormwood popped up in a sixteen hundred year old book on herbal remedies.

But wait! boil Artemisia, and the healing properties vanish—so the Chinese Nobel Prize winner tapped into another book, written by Hong Ge, which explains a cold infusion is needed—and then she hit the jackpot—or in this case, the yak pot. Nowadays, we know that extraction with a solvent such as alcohol or acetic acid also works.

Tú Yōuyōu (屠呦呦), a great scientist who helped millions in developing countries through her discovery of a non-patentable malaria cure.

Big pharma is often uninterested in simple potions, particularly when there is no patent to be registered and money to be made. The drugs commonly used to prevent and combat cerebral malaria—Lariam (Mefloquin in the EU) and Malarone—are much profitable.

Never mind the side-effects: Canadian special forces were given Lariam weekly during the Somalian war in the nineties—that weekday was known to soldiers as psycho Tuesday.

The Chinese scientist was the first woman from the Middle Kingdom to bag the Nobel—all the more wondrous because she is a three-without-scientist. Descriptions of this kind are common in China: the three things she is without are: a postgrad degree (no such thing in China when she was at uni), a postdoc abroad (duh, if she didn’t get a doctorate), and membership of one of the prestigious Chinese academies.

I love a good bit of serendipity—Artemisia is called qinghao in Putonghua, hao for short. The eminent Chinese scientist’s given name is youyou—that’s a deer call in an ancient Chinese poem.

Youyou is the sound the deer make when they’re eating the hao.

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

Frrriends…

December 18, 2021

The number of stray animals wandering the streets is a solid indicator of development. A few years ago, on a dark evening in Muscat, I saw over a dozen stray cats raiding a bin. Opposite was a garish neon-lit ladies fashion store that displayed a row of mannequin-modeled burqas—just like Henry Ford’s Model T—any color as long as it’s black.

In Asia, the cities are rife with stray dogs—ribcage-thin, mangy and rabid, perennially hungry—and worst of all, devoid of human love. Dogs have been domesticated over millennia—it is estimated that the dog diverged from the wolf as a species between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago.

As a side note, a species is defined by not producing viable offspring with another species—for instance, although a horse and a donkey are sufficiently close genetically to interbreed, the resulting mule is sterile—the parents are therefore not conspecifics. One of the many marvels of biology is the ability of sperm and eggs from different species to make that exact distinction.

Taking the lower value as a conservative estimate, dogs have been a separate species for thirty thousand years—not centuries. Since the average lifespan of a hound is about a decade, there have been three thousand generations of dogs—and through this time, humans have tailored their genetics to produce a huge diversity of breeds.

These breeds vary widely in size, hair, features, and temperament, but they all have one common feature—a remarkable loyalty to humans. No other species has such a bond—dogs clearly prefer humans to other dogs. They are also very much the same species—witness the rise of boutique friends such as the labradoodle.

As we roll in earnest into the twenty-first century, pets have become a real success story, and often a status symbol—there are now eight hundred million dogs and cats in petland—canines edge out felines by about two hundred million, but Millennials and Gen-Z are big fans of Felis catus, so don’t be surprised if the miao miao draw alongside Canis lupus familiaris one of these decades.

The new generations are deeply into pet humanization—this means that pet owners treat their friends like family members—a new generation of owners has huge concerns about sustainability, protein content of food, and other factors. Pet foods are big on the internet—if you search Google with ‘buy pet food online’, there are 4.9 billion hits—that’s 2 billion more than the equivalent search for vegetables, fish, beer, or wine.

Four different types of pet food markets. In the developed world, the market is growing slowly but the consumption of pet foods is high, with the USA at the head of the table.

In the US, the pet food market is worth about ninety billion dollars per year—higher than the GDP of Bulgaria, Bolivia, or Bahrain. In Europe, where 85 million households have pets, the market value is 20 billion euros. In the West, pet foods are strictly regulated—pretty much equivalent to human food. Legislation is strong with respect to raw material sources, food additives, medicines, and a range of other criteria—if you purchase a tin of wet food or a bag of dry food at your local supermarket, you can trust the product will be safe.

All this fits into a paradigm known as the circular economy—by-products from some activities find a use, waste is minimized, and there are clear benefits for people, planet, and profit.

European farmed sea bass—in 2019, two hundred and twenty-two thousand tons were produced around the Mediterranean basin.

Sea bass, called lubina in Spain, spigola or branzino in Italy, and loup or bar in France, is now a major farmed product in Europe. Turkey alone has moved from a production of forty-seven thousand tonnes in 2011 to 149,000 tonnes in 2020—an extraordinary growth rate.

Gilthead seabream, so-called because of the gold mark on the forehead, is a close second—around 195 thousand tonnes of farmed dorade royale every year.

Combined, over four hundred thousand tonnes are farmed and eaten annually—enough to provide one 200 g (7 ounce) meal a day for 3.4 million people—they might get fed up with the diet, though.

If you check my math, you’ll realize I left out 150 thousand tonnes of product—these are offcuts that don’t get eaten: head, bones, trimmings, skin, gut… and I’m probably underestimating the waste volume.

Where does this lead us? If we tap into this vast market, we can develop a whole new industry, increase sustainability, and reduce the footprint of fish farming.

And the best news is that fish farming in the West (in this case the EU) is already held to some of the most stringent standards in the world, so we know exactly where the product originates, how the animals were fed and treated, and all about their welfare.

The high-value market is already there, just waiting for a brand new ocean treat.

What a Christmas bonus for your frrriends…

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

The China Syndrome

December 11, 2021

To Westerners, most things that happen in Asia are eminently forgettable—the continent is just too far away, the culture too difficult to relate to—the recent exception is China, because of the COVID pandemic.

Sri Lanka is the most beautiful place you never heard of—an Indian Ocean pearl with a troubled history. South Asia contains six countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Of these, Sri Lanka scores highest on the Human Development Index and second highest in per capita income—at an average of $2,500-$5,000, we could go for a mid-point of $3,600 to make the math easy, and settle at three hundred bucks a month.

There’s a warning about touting at Bandaranaike airport that trades six months imprisonment against 25,000 rupees—that’s 124 dollars, so a month in jail is worth twenty bucks, not three hundred—clearly a low-wage economy.

Different cultures open your mind—when I came out of the airport immigration area, I was confronted with a duty-free store where a large motorbike was on sale. A number of small shops to the right sold washing machines, tightly wrapped in plastic—I’m still perplexed about how you can buy duty-free when entering a country. When I left Sri Lanka, I half-expected to see washing machines finding their way onto departing flights—when you’re poor, anything is fair game.

Like my ancestors, I came in search of spices—black pepper and cinnamon. In my quest, I ended up in a market in central Colombo. There was little to be found, and I knew how Columbus must have felt in his search for the treasures of the Indies.

I (anti)gravitated upstairs past a sign that admonished “SPITTIN IS PROHIBITED” and arrived at the fish counters—who says wet markets are out of fashion?

The stall guys soon realized I wasn’t a buyer. “Looking, looking!” they shouted down the hall, wagging their heads. The boss man was a tall, burly fellow—mid-fities, massive head shaved close.

We got talking. Portugal came up, and the inevitable reference to Cristiano Ronaldo. I showed him some pictures of Atlantic fish just like the ones in the right-hand bin and explained that in Madeira they have a black variety—peixe espada preto.

He reminded me that the Portuguese had been in town five hundred years ago—I placed my hands together in the eastern greeting and apologized. “No, no!” he said, half-miming half-shouting.

He wagged his head violently. “We were better off then.”

My new friend stuffed his left hand repeatedly into his pocket, illustrating the universal trick of disappearing cash. Politician Magician.

A tuk-tuk took (sorry) me across town—precision driving at its best, with the jalopy sometimes perpendicular to road traffic and missing oncoming vehicles by inches—the driver would be a champion video gamer.

The landscape changed from wide palm-lined avenues lining the bay to narrow, crowded streets—boys hauling handcarts battled tuk-tuks, art deco buses bullied everyone out of the way, pedestrians and cars dodged each other on street and pavement… I sat back and smiled, watching my driver navigate by the app, an Uber-tuk in 2021. Ah, Asia…

And suddenly, there they were—the spices we’d come so far to seek. Ginger at thirty cents a pound—I felt the thrill of the old explorers, as the bearded navigators stuffed the carrack hold with spice. At Walmart, the price is four bucks a pound, so the magic markup is still there.

Black pepper, turmeric, fat rolls of cinnamon bound in elastic, chili peppers—not native to the island but introduced by the Portuguese from West Africa—and delicious miniature garlic cloves the size of a nutmeg. All this in Pettah, the historic outdoor market—the monsoon rain pouring down in sheets, the air warmer than body temperature, not another white face in sight. Take a deep breath of the pungent air—”Unchanged, all through the ages, the legions of disenfranchised people of Asia.

As in Africa, South America, and other parts of Asia, China has taken over from the US when it comes to foreign aid. In Sri Lanka, one of the recurrent themes is the port of Hambatota, which is currently leased to China for ninety-nine years.

The naysayers accuse the government of handing over the port to China—the current expression, popularized by Mike Pence, is debt-trap diplomacy. The orangutan’s former veep maintained that the Chinese modus operandi is to finance development projects in poor economies through loans—when the country defaults on the loan, the Chinese lender (i.e. the government) recovers the asset.

Hambatota is a case in point. The Sri Lankan opposition argues that a 99-year lease is tantamount to ownership—the government strongly contests that view.

The fact is that the Hambatota process is hardly cut and dried. The Canadians funded a feasibility study in 2003—the new port was financially viable. Sri Lankan politics slow-walked the process, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed the work forward. In 2006, a Danish consultant, Ramboll, agreed with the Canadians. Ramboll sugested a first-stage bulk cargo port to drive income—this would be used to fund the second-stage expansion into a container port.

Sri Lanka approached India and the US for funding but were rejected. Enter China Eximbank, who agreed to put up the capital—China Harbor (which I bet you never heard of) would build the port.

Which they did, on time and on budget. The twenty-five-year war with the Tamil tigers finally ended in 2009, and the president rushed into phase 2 without building up revenue. By 2012, the Sri Lankan government borrowed another 757 million bucks from Eximbank, bringing the loan up to over a billion dollars. Modestly, the president named the port after himself.

In 2015, Rajapaska lost a snap election and the Sri Lankan economy began to unravel. With outstanding loan repayments to Japan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and China, the big squeeze was on. In 2017, Sri Lanka paid 1.4 billion dollars in debt service—Hambatota was only five percent of that.

Colombo secured an IMF loan to avoid default, and closed a deal with China Merchants for the ninety-nine year lease. Did Sri Lanka use the lease payment of $1.12 billion to pay back China Eximbank?

Nope, they used it to boost their foreign exchange reserves. Whether ninety-nine years is a lease or a repossession is a moot point—given the back and forth, this doesn’t seem to be a China debt-trap—just a lot of mismanagement.

An old Sri Lankan aphorism states that ‘a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.’

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a Sri Lankan exclusive.

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

Under Siege

December 5, 2021

It is the Year of Our Lord 1506, only eight years after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the maritime route to India. Following the landing at Calicut—now called Kozhikode—the Portuguese fleets began working their way south.

The bearded explorers from a small corner of Western Europe were searching for a tree—Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon—an obscure species, whose inner bark has an unique fragrance. And they were looking for pimenta das Índias—black peppercorns to spice up the drudgery of XVIth century victuals.

When the twenty-five year old captain Dom Lourenço de Almeida sailed east after rounding the southern tip of India, the Portuguese found what they were looking for—the mythical island of Ταπροβανᾶ, named by the Ancient Greeks.

Taprobana, renamed Ceilão by the Lusitanian explorers, was an island paradise—but the Portuguese soon found that the locals were in no mood to be colonized. In line with tradition, the sea captains found a suitable bay to shelter the caravels, made landfall, and built a fort. This construction, named Santa Cruz da Galé—Holy Cross of the Galley (the ship, not the kitchen)—stands today as one of the emblematic locations in Sri Lanka.

After its foundation, the Portuguese went on to found Colombo, still the capital today with its original name. As usual, the explorers established feitorias—coastal trading posts—from which they traded with the locals. In West Africa, slaves were the main ‘commodity’, but out east, it was all about spices.

By 1640, the Galle Fort (now pronounced Gaul) ruled over 282 villages—collectively, these covered the most fertile area for the precious tree bark. During the preceding century, the priests and missionaries had converted many to Catholicism, resulting in an abundance of Fernando, Silva, Perera, and Fonseca. You never see anyone called de Vries or Smith.

A local Sri Lankan song that explains that the Portuguese are very clever—they come over and steal all your stuff. Aptly, if you know any Lusitanian curses, the tune is called pruthugeesi karaya.

As usual, family units were quickly formed, and the language spread widely. The Portuguese left behind hundred of loanwords—my Sinhalese improved rapidly after I discovered that. Shoe is sappatuva, anger is raivaya, and wheel is rodaya. Plum is amesi, baila is dance, and my favorite—rude—is asnu. If you are a cunning linguist, you can knock yourself out here.

Just don’t hold your breath if you’re searching for Dutch or English loanwords. After centuries in country, the Dutch left seven words and the English five. Among the celebrated Dutch contribution is kakkus (kakhuis)—hooray for toilets.

During the XVIth century, the Portuguese became embroiled in a war with the kingdom of Kandy, in the central part of the island. In 1580, as the century drew to a close, Lusitania was conquered by Castille, which had a major impact on Portuguese possessions abroad—the navy was destroyed during the disastrous foray of the Spanish Invincible Armada, led by the violently seasick, ocean-hating Duke of Medina-Sidonia.

The Dutch took advantage of the situation to attack Lusitanian colonies in far-flung outposts, from northern Brazil (Surinam), to the treasures of the East. In particular, they lusted after the lands of Ceylon and the Ilhas Malucas, or crazy islands—navigation in the Moluccas is challenged by a compass anomaly—and the delights of cinnamon and nutmeg.

In 1640, the same year as the Portuguese defenestrated the Spanish regent in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square (shown in the video) and kicked out the Castillians, the Dutch laid siege to Galle. They were supported by a large army from the Kingdom of Kandy, whose ruler had ambitions to conquer the southern part of the island.

The Dutch bombarded the fort for four days and then stormed it. When the fort was finally taken, there were one hundred and seventy Portuguese casualties—estimates of total European dead range from 450 to 1350, so the Dutch left many corpses on the ground.

The memory lingers—it resulted in a Dutch aphorism that reflects the cost of the siege.

Gold in Malacca, lead in Galle.

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

Welcome to the XIXth Century

November 21, 2021

I never met my aunt Gertrude.

She was born on the 8th December, 1915, and died on the 8th of February 1940, two months after her twenty-fourth birthday—or, she was born the year after the start of World War One and died the year after the start of World War Two.

Most important of all, she died of tuberculosis, a disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, also known as Koch’s bacillus, after the German microbiologist who first discovered it in 1882.

At the time of her death, antibiotics were already known, but no one was convinced of their efficacy, and no method was developed to mass produce them until 1945.

In 1941, the British Medical Journal reported that “[Penicillin] does not appear to have been considered as possibly useful from any other point of view.

The research work of Robert Koch and Alexander Fleming would be worth at least a handful of my articles—the contribution of the two men to human well-being is a reminder of how grateful we should be to those who do the same for us now, instead of engaging in the mental masturbation of conspiracy theories.

An advert for a truly unique selling point—four hours and you’re back on the job…

Koch didn’t just discover TB—he also worked on anthrax, plague, cholera, malaria, and sleeping sickness.

Fleming discovered lysozyme well before he discovered penicillin, but the importance of this bacteria-killing enzyme was totally ignored by the British Royal Society and everyone else.

Fleming didn’t run a particularly clean lab, and lysozyme was found to be present in nasal mucus—okay, snot—as well as in tears, sperm, vaginal fluids, blood, and spit. We now understand that this enzyme is part of a group of naturally occurring antimicrobial proteins present in our immune system.

Enter 2021.

Humanity has been enthusiastically using antibiotics for three-quarters of a century. We use them on ourselves, on animals farmed on land and in water, we dump them into rivers—in short, we consume the little magic pills with reckless abandon.

In 2006, I was in western China’s Yunnan province, part of the old opium route to Southeast Asia—all you need is a map, and there it is: Myanmar to the west, Vietnam and Laos to the south, both nudging the Mekong river—cross the mighty Mekong and you’re in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. Welcome to the land of the poppy.

We went up to Lijiang and I learned about the Nashi people—our tour guide pronounced it nazi people, which tickled my puerile humor. I was ill, running a fever, sore throat, no respite. I advised my Chinese companions of my plight (which was kind of obvious). One produced some blue antibiotics, another had some yellow ones, someone had red—it was like an oriental Woodstock. Well, I’ve done my share of pills and I didn’t have a lot of choice—but they didn’t do a damn thing.

The Nashi are quite a remarkable society, which took my mind off things.

The practice of sexual life is free between non-consanguineous adults: at night, the man goes to the woman with whom he would like to have sex, the woman being free to accept or not. Both men and women are free to have multiple partners. As a result, children do not always know their biological father. The children are raised by the inhabitants of the household, the maternal uncles assuming the role of “father” as we envision it in the West. This conception stems in part from one of their beliefs presenting the man as the rain on the grass: it serves to foster what is already there. The reproductive role of the man is thus to “water” the fetus already present in the woman. For Nashi, hereditary characters are contained in bones, and are transmitted by women.

The excerpt above needs some correcting—as I recall, it’s the women who choose the men, a true matriarchy.

After Lijiang, we went into the Chinese Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, high into the Himalayas—at Shangri-La (really) airport, oxygen cylinders were for sale. We were put on ponies for a ride as soon as we arrived. My illness worsened, and more pills appeared. Maybe these were green and white.

All the Chinese—especially the women—seemed to be in possession of assorted antibiotics. No one knew what the drugs were called, who made them, what they were for, or the expiry date. There were no boxes or foil packs. It became clear that whenever one of my companions felt under the weather in popped a pill—there was no notion of a course of antibiotics—if you felt bad you took the pills, when you felt better you stopped.

I began to follow an alternative Scottish therapy of single malt.

Wastewater from an effluent serving ninety antibiotic production plants near Hyderabad, India. The ‘water’ appears to be quite pungent—probably because in contains 31 milligrams per liter of ciprofloxacin, over thousand times the lethal dose for bacteria.

Worst-case, bacteria reproduce once every twenty minutes. They don’t really ‘reproduce’ in the sense of sexual reproduction, they split in two. So if we start with only one now, in 20 minutes there are two, and at the end of an hour there are eight. By the end of the next hour, sixty-four. The next, five hundred and twelve. The next 4096. Then 32k (in computer speak). Then 256k. So in six hours, one of the little fuckers makes a quarter million more.

Don’t even try to work what happens in six days, never mind sixty years. And that’s a whole lot of mutations. About as fast as this dude is playing.

Gonorrhea is known as the clap, which is also the name of this amazing tune played by Steve Howe, of the long-forgotten band Yes.

With these mutations came antibiotic resistance because the successful bacteria are the ones that survive—like a Sicilian vendetta, if we don’t exterminate the whole family because we take the full set of pills, one of these days the Lupara will knock on the door.

It may now be too late to reverse course—we already live in a world of superbacteria. A child who falls and scrapes its leg may die through infection considered trivial during my childhood—we already have minibeast resistance for pneumonia, tuberculosis, and yes, gonorrhea. Chemotherapy, widely used in oncology, lowers our immune defense, so antibiotic-resistant microbes become allies of the cancer itself.

And then, of course, there’s the food supply. Antibiotics are widely used in animal husbandry and contribute to healthy livestock.

Forty-two percent of beef calves in feedlots are fed tylosin—a veterinary macrolide drug—to prevent liver abscesses that negatively impact growth, and approximately 88% of growing swine in the U.S. receive antibiotics in their feed for disease prevention and growth promotion purposes, commonly tetracyclines or tylosin

Another good reason to eat fish. Made in Europe, or North America, where the European Commission, Food and Drug Administration, European Medicines Agency, and Norwegian agencies lay down the law with vigor. China, India, or Bangladesh, on the other hand…

November 18th marked the start of antibiotic awareness week—bacteria now kill seven hundred thousand people a year, but anything to do with microbes has a tendency to be geometric—by 2050, ten million a year will die from bacterial diseases.

The sort of crap coming out of the orifices of the orang-u-tan and his tropical twin on alternative COVID cures led to ‘experiments’ with azithromycin and other antibiotics during the pandemic. In Latin America, ninety percent of COVID-related hospital admissions were prescribed antibiotics—an estimated 7% actually needed them. Self-administration was rife. As a consequence, antibiotic resistance soared across the continent, from Argentina to Guatemala. In Chile, resistance is at levels expected only in the 2030s.

Between bacteria and viruses, with a substantial seasoning of society’s stupidity, the recipe is nicely in place. I can already hear the minibeasts gloating—a mass of amorphous living material relentlessly attacking the most sophisticated organisms the planet was able to evolve—and winning the war.

We don’t feel attacked, partly because we have no notion of the finite nature of our lives except when it’s too late.

Death always comes as a surprise.

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

Comin’ In From The Cold

November 14, 2021

John Le Carré made the words famous in his third book—the start of a set of tales about cold war Europe—a continent torn apart by an age-old recipe: the fight for dominance.

France, Germany, Britain, and Russia were the protagonists of this struggle, and three generations later, still are. Somewhere in the mix are the Americans, whose relationship with the UK gives the ‘sick man of Europe’—Margaret Thatcher’s words, not mine—proxy gravitas.

Europe’s borders, and more particularly the boundaries of the European Union, are one of the bleeding edges of current conflict—one which is quite similar to the cold war, except the curtain has moved east. In addition, some nations who were satellite cold warriors are now within the EU—Poland and Hungary.

Migrants were one of the main causes of Brexit and are a favorite excuse for the rise of the European right wing, rooted in white supremacy and imbued by the trappings of Nazism—any ideology needs to find its enemy. Jews for Hitler, Arabs for the French right, Turks in Germany, Poles and Romanians in Britain.

Up till recently, immigration was a problem for southern Europe—refugees from the American and British Middle East wars into the southeast, and displaced and desperate souls from the rain forest to the Maghreb into the southwest.

As a consequence, it’s become a common threat for countries like Turkey to threaten to open the floodgates and swamp Greece or Italy with endless migration.

For poor-post-Brexit-Britain, plagued by problems and ruled by crap cakeism conservatives, immigration continues to be a nightmare, with migrants crossing the channel in anything that appears to float. The folks that attempt the crossing are not Romanians, Bulgarians, or Poles—they are desperate people who penetrated the borders of Fortress Europe.

Contrary to the EU immigrants who picked the fruit, drove the trucks, and served at restaurants, the people England now receives have far weaker skill sets and no European work ethic. Migration within Europe is long-standing—Ireland to England during the potato famine, post-war Italy to France and England, Portugal to France during the colonial war…

What does workers had in common was the wish to at some point return home with enough financial security to prosper in their own land. They had little interest in the politics of their host country, and certainly no inclination to perform acts of terror—they were more focused on acts of terroir.

Migrants have found increasingly innovative ways to try to get across the ever-more-impressive barriers that EU countries put in their way. Last Friday, a bunch of Moroccans flying from Casablanca to Istanbul forced an Air Arabia jet to land in Majorca by having one of their number fake a diabetic coma.

As the ‘patient’ was taken to hospital, the others demanded to go onto the tarmac to smoke—in itself an amazing request given the inflammable nature of everything that is flight-related—forced open a door on the Airbus A320, and ran for the hills.

This type of tactic is far cheaper than using people smugglers—a couple of hundred euros for the flight—but doesn’t have a lot of repeat potential.

Far more worrying, and thought out with the precision of a Russian grandmaster opening with the Giuoco Piano, is what a chess player might term the Belarusian Gambit.

The transportation of Mid-East refugees to Byelorussia was a perverse masterstroke both in terms of tactic and timing. With ‘General Winter’ rapidly approaching, amassing potential immigrants one country away from the German border is a source of huge contention—true, it’s seven hundred miles across Poland, but the pressure on the EU is huge. This is compounded by the fact that Poland’s right-wing government is already at odds with the EU, who now expects it to secure the union’s eastern border.

In addition, Russia indirectly pressures Lithuania, who the bear does not forgive for its secession from Russia and membership of the European club. Germany is suddenly at the center of this mess, just when it is discussing the potential Jamaica coalition and sits between governments. And the cold, always the awful cold—it saw off Hitler and Napoleon, so it will make short work of ill-clad Mideastern peasants.

Poland knows it has a good poker hand to play.

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

Long Live Rock ‘n Roll

November 7, 2021

It’s not easy to lose a friend.

The best way to deal with loss is to celebrate life, as the Irish do.

Southern Europe, on the other hand—like so many other parts of the planet—celebrates grief. In Italy, Greece, or Iberia, it would be very unusual to tell a joke about someone who has departed this world, or play a song, unless it has a religious context.

In the UK, the most popular song at funerals was written by Eric Idle and performed by Monty Python in the Jesus-pisstake movie The Life of Brian. The song is so popular it was performed at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics—to the utter perplexity of the rest of the world, I suspect.

In Britain, the supermarket chain Co-op has diversified into the funeral business and, bizarrely, maintains a top 10 list of funeral songs. They take their work seriously, providing you with Top of the Pops lists from contemporary, film, classical, and sport. For dads, Match of the Day is particularly popular.

When my rabbit died, over twelve years ago now, I stuffed one of her favorite books down her bra before the casket was sealed, to make sure it went with her—she would have smiled at that sneaky move.

We took a guitar along and played her a song before she was cremated—it was a happy song, but it made us cry—and that catharsis was curative. The rabbit was into Reiki, as much as she was into physics—a paradox that would also have made her smile.

Laying of palms to tap into ‘universal energy’ doesn’t pass the smell test for me, but the rabbit had a more spiritual nature—in the end, we live our lives inside a belief system, and that system makes us what we are. My perspective doesn’t match yours, although we might converge here and there—nevertheless it is distinct enough for you to read what I write.

If you read my books, you’ll get yet another perspective—this time through the eyes of my characters. Abraham Zacuto, the astronomer in The India Road, reflects a lot of what I learned from a family of scientists. Totio, the young ‘Guanche’ spy from La Gomera, who sails with Columbus and turns into a man along the way, also has much to teach.

And if you have small children or know anyone who has, Folk Tales for Future Dreamers gives them a few zany ideas—a must-have for kids who plan to thrive in this crazy world.

Music was my friend’s passion, so this article celebrates life through that amazing human manifestation. As usual, we think we have the exclusive, but of course sound is a key form of communication for many species.

Birds, in particular, use song and so do insects, humpback whales, and mice.

But humans should get credit for the sophistication we’ve introduced to song, turning it into music and adding a wonderful human invention—musical instruments.

The oldest instruments still extant use wind to produce sound—the National Museum of Slovenia has a sixty-thousand year old flute on display; the flute has four holes, two of them intact—it dates back to Neanderthal Man, a mere 50,000 years before the date when creationists believe God made the world and all creatures great and small.

The flute is made from a bone from a young bear—horns, conchs, and other wind instruments are part of human history and musical tradition. But it seems likely that percussion preceded wind—stretching animal skins and drumming on them—although no drums have been preserved from ancient times, probably because the materials decomposed.

Mind you, some hounds can belt out a pretty good tune.

At some point, the sinews of animals were stretched and plucked, using a wooden frame as a scaffolding, and lo and behold, the first string instrument was born. From there, came harp and dulcimer—a short hop to a resonator box of some kind, and you have the lute, mandolin, and guitar.

Meanwhile, someone discovered another way to hit a string, and the dulcimer begot the clavichord.

At that stage, les jeux son faits—all the precursors of modern instruments were in place, apart from the more esoteric electronic devices such as the Theremin.

Strings were sourced from animal intestines (gut), so it could be argued that our carnivorous habits led us to the guitar—there aren’t a lot of stringed instruments based on fish. Of course, nylon and steel replaced gut in the developed world decades ago, but if you want to capture the classic sound of a Hurdy Gurdy, you can still go for gut.

But for all you Vegan and Pescatarian folks out there, let me introduce the Vahila, a string instrument from Madagascar made entirely from bamboo—how ecological is that?

The instrument belongs to a class called tube zithers, where the tube is simultaneously a neck and soundbox—super-zen, eh?

Not the sexiest band you ever saw, but if you close your eyes you’ll enjoy the music.

Then, after decades when the most interesting novelty in music was the microphone, the planet went electric. I was lucky enough to grow up in that crazy world, and ever since childhood I’ve been mesmerized by electric guitars.

And with all that came rock ‘n roll, garage bands, and music for the masses—the world never looked back.

Rest in peace, Mister Bassman.

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


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