Sail On

April 21, 2019

In the year 1505, a young sea captain called Lourenço de Almeida sailed south along the west coast of India, attempting to round the huge sub-continent, much as Bartolomeu Dias had rounded Southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Given the huge distance that separates Western Europe from Southeast Asia, it’s remarkable that after only seventeen years, the Portuguese fleets were ready to enter the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, on their way to the ever-more mysterious East—Malaysia, Indonesia, and finally the Middle Kingdom.

Further still, lay the shores of Zipangu, Marco Polo’s Land of Rising Sun, that so teased Columbus—the man who went the wrong way and found Haiti instead.

Lourenço, or Lawrence, discovered the tiny Maldives, but he also made port at a large island off southeastern India, which the Portuguese named Taprobana.

The name was immortalized by the great poet Camões, whose primary work, the Lusíadas, written in the style of Virgil and Homer, tells the epic story of Vasco da Gama and his men.

Taprobana, an island twice the size of the US state of Maryland, became known as Ceilão to the Portuguese, and later morphed into Ceylon—today it’s called Sri Lanka.

Lawrence died in 1508 at Chaul, a stone’s throw from Mumbai, doing battle with the Muslims—an endless story that brings us to the tragedy of Easter Sunday, 2019.

The five shields and seven castles of Portugal, still visible today in the ruins of Chaul, India. Catholic saints on either side offer protection, and the Cross of Christ stands guard above the ensemble.

Throughout the morning, most radio and TV stations went about their usual programming—CNN consumed by the Mueller report, the BBC following its regular schedule—it took over a dozen hours for the major news stations to cover the Sri Lanka massacres in earnest.

Shortly after the tragedy began, a listener calling into the the UK’s LBC pointed out that had this happened in Germany, Britain, or France, the news would be rolling non-stop for a week.

When Notre Dame burned down, I wondered if there hadn’t been a helping hand from Islam—the whole thing happened suspiciously close to Easter. I’m very happy there wasn’t, but the Christian places of worship are a favorite target of terrorists.

After the 2016 attack in Lahore, Pakistan, I was moved to write The Swing. If you haven’t read it, today would be a good time. Easter week, and Easter Sunday in particular, seems to be a popular time for terror, and the notion of attacking places of worship, havens of peace, is unconscionable.

Shame, shame, SHAME! Every religion has a hell, and those who committed this crime will burn in theirs. May there be peace to the two hundred or so dead, and their inconsolable families—for them, Easter will never be the same.

The only way to celebrate their memory is to extol diversity, promote the things that make us good. In the words of Churchill, “Do your worst, and we will do our best.”

Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, and later by the Dutch. The Dutch didn’t leave much in the way of culture, or in the way of genes. The Lusitanians built families, left music, food, and language.

The catholics who died today will largely be part of the seven percent of the population descended from converts. Their details will be released at some point, and will undoubtedly include family names such as Pereira, Dias, Silva, and Fonseca.

Should there be any doubt, I invite you to consult the Sri Lanka white pages. Type in Almeida, for the explorer that reached the island in 1505, and there are nineteen pages of listings. Fonseka, the local spelling of the Portuguese name, has two hundred. But try ‘Dias’, and surf through a mere one thousand and twenty-five pages–that’s a whole lotta love.

Two of the people on TV on Easter Sunday, one of them the telecommunications, digital infrastructure, and (bizarrely) foreign employment minister, were called Fernando—there are two thousand four-hundred sixteen pages of those!

For comparison, (de) Vries, the most common name in the Netherlands, has one entry—I tried Jaap, in case I was being unkind, and got Fernando J A A P. Now, that´s funny!

A Creole language remains on the island, full of Portuguese words. Just like Bahasa Indonesia, which has an astonishing three or four hundred Portuguese words, including keju for cheese—the Dutch couldn’t even get that one.

The Portuguese community in Sri Lanka are described as burghers, from the Dutch word, and kaffirs, the Islamic term for infidel or unbeliever.

This year, I leave you with this Easter song—the best way to fight the dark beings who lurk in the sewers of society is to confront them with their impotence. Monsters like you will never win, because no problem is ever solved by inflicting pain.

Bailar means to dance, and the songs to which the local people are dancing contain numerous Portuguese words. Over five centuries since a young Portuguese captain set foot in Taprobana, the happy faces of these Sri Lankan Catholics show the victory of love over hatred.

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


April 13, 2019

After strenuous denials about one week ago, which of course meant the diametrical opposite, Equador opened its er… door on Thursday and pushed Julian Assange out.

The founder of Wikileaks didn’t go willingly, but the Brits arrested him nonetheless and presented him to Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

The whole affair took on a farcical dimension when it emerged that Assange had violated embassy orders ‘to pay for his own health care and to clean up after his cat.’

In addition, Assange had been repeatedly warned to stop Wikileaks intercepting the president’s private messages, and had apparently failed to comply.

Refuge from extradition requests from Sweden and the US was granted in 2012 by Equador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, who granted the whistle-blower asylum in the country’s London embassy—an immediate thorn in the side of Equador’s relationship with the UK and US.

The fall in oil prices led to Moreno’s replacement by a more right-wing president—ironically called Lénin Moreno, literally the dusky Lenin.

Assange’s star rose briefly during the orang-u-tan campaign, when Trump publicly asked Wikileaks to reveal a set of Clinton emails. I confess that until this moment I was a Wikileaks virgin, but having spent the last fifteen minutes trawling the site, I can’t understand what the email fuss was about—all in all, pretty sophomoric stuff.

That was when the bizarre Australian should have negotiated a presidential pardon—it’s way too late now.

Equador needed the IMF, and the US pulls the strings on that front, so it was only a matter of time before the ‘stone in the president’s shoe’ was cast away.

The feline angle brought in the comedic element, and prompted my theory that the arch-leaker was shopped by his cat.

Details about one of the Amazon cloud data centers, sourced through Wikileaks.

Despite Assange’s predicament—extradition to the US followed by a show trial and a substantial period in prison—Wikileaks is going strong. Recent leaks include a list of Amazon cloud data centers.

Why is that interesting? Because allegedly Amazon works closely with the CIA and the US Department of Defense, partly because it’s one of the few organizations with appropriate security clearance. Contracts to develop cloud infrastructure are very substantial, and few beyond the IT community and the secret world know anything about Amazon’s alleged role in such matters.

One leaked document claims Amazon not only refuses to reveal the physical locations of its data centers, but obfuscates these further by using different names, such as Vandalay Industries, an obscure Seinfeld reference.

The partners page on Assange’s creation lists some of the most prestigious news organizations in the world, including Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the New York Times.

Wikileaks appears to be itself under attack—a number of links to supposed CIA computer viruses are broken, simply reporting a ‘content encoding error.’ One such link describes AngelFire, an attack designed to infiltrate the Microsoft Windows operating system, using a sophisticated five-part package.

Just as the Guardian publishes the long read, this the long view. If you enjoy a good hack…

The message from the world’s great powers is clear: cyberwar is the new battleground—it’s a big boys’ game, played by Americans, Russians, and Chinese, with some help from the UK, North Korea, and Israel.

For the planet’s rulers, the cloud is the ultimate repository, containing top secret materials, details on the earth’s citizens—I’m not a quickfire conspiracy theorist, but I firmly believe we’re all there.

In a nutshell, ‘We know where you live.’

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


April 6, 2019

While Bitcoin came and went—oh, and just came again—the foundation for the cryptocurrency has steadily gained ground.

I’m talking about DLT, or Distributed Ledger Technology. If you want to take this seriously, and I believe you should, your starting point is the abstract of the original bitcoin paper by Satoshi Nakamoto—who has never been established to be an actual person.

You could read the full paper, or just skim the abstract below. It all depends how deep you want to dive.

A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. Digital signatures provide part of the solution, but the main benefits are lost if a trusted third party is still required to prevent double-spending. We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer network. The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work. The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of CPU power. As long as a majority of CPU power is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they’ll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers. The network itself requires minimal structure. Messages are broadcast on a best effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will, accepting the longest proof-of-work chain as proof of what happened while they were gone.

I like concepts, and this one is neat. The wording is indigestible, and as far as I can ascertain, the paper was not peer-reviewed, and was not published in a reputable journal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.

The financial side of it proposes a mechanism for avoiding double-spending and trusted third parties. At present, all the world powers are printing money digitally, well beyond what the economy can support in terms of tangible underlying value, and the only reason they get away with it is belief—the belief system is predicated on the ‘trusted third parties’, aka central banks.

Since all the central banks overprint money, whether they call it quantitative easing, LTRO, or Nellie the Elephant, the water level rises for all. The water is however infested with ever-expanding bubbles, and when these burst, the level suddenly falls—that’s when the ship runs aground and the rats go scurrying off.

So much for the trusted third parties—the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.

If you channel your transactions through the banks, one incentive is that there is a trust-based system you can depend on. When you buy or sell on eBay, you know that you can get your money back if the product is defective, or even if you change your mind—every major internet seller uses that business model—they have to, since the internet is inherently untrustworthy.

My favorite cartoon has gone through many morphs, but it’s still the best. In this version, the hound looks like he just got busted…

The financial part of the transaction is dealt with by Visa, Paypal, and others—the trusted third parties.

A peer-to-peer financial trust system would essentially dispense with central banks, but more importantly, the underlying ledger technology means that every currency unit could be traced back to when and where it was first mined. In other words, no money could be printed on an unsupported commodity—no gold, no coin.

The orange man is now pushing the Federal Reserve to go back to quantitative easing, knowing this will push the water level up—very handy for 2020, but the orange tide rises on trapped methane bubbles.

The chances for bitcoin to emerge as a potentate are slim—every major central bank hates it, and China imposed a blanket ban on cryptos in 2017.

Blockchain, however, is a different story.

Blockchain is serious business.

Some very large financial institutions are taking the whole thing seriously, and huge players like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and IBM are selling the picks and shovels. Although the focus of blockchain began with money. it’s now recognized that DLTs can play an important role in monitoring the supply chain.

If we use a coin-based example, that dollar bill, pound note, or euro coin in your pocket provides some information on provenance, but not much. Euros in coin form have country-specific markings—these markers can be used to understand mobility of Europeans.

But that bill in your purse has little traceability, apart from DNA markers. You may recall whether you got it from a friend, a store, or an ATM, but you can go no further—when it comes to digital, the same thing applies. The Starbucks barista who accepts a five dollar payment from your contactless card knows it came from you, but were those five bucks part of a paycheck or a split Uber fare? Who knows.

Blockchain changes that—your digital cash becomes granular, and you can search through any transaction to look at the origin of the money, right back to the time it was coined (or mined). As a consequence, you cannot ‘make’ money out of thin air.

What this really means is traceability. Let’s say you’re enjoying a dozen oysters in a seaside restaurant in the small French town of Arcachon. You naturally assume you’re eating local produce, but that oyster you are about to eat may well have started life in a hatchery in the Netherlands. From there, it might have been bagged for growout in Dungarvan, a small town in SE Ireland.

Why would that happen? Because oysters now suffer from the Herpes virus, and colder waters provide more resistance. At some point, a batch of mid-sized oysters may have been relayed to France, grown to market size, and served at your table.

Blockchain means that you have a trail telling you know exactly how the animal fared on its journey to you—where it grew up, and when. If you’re concerned about animal welfare (but not so concerned that you wouldn’t gobble the little guy up), you might also find out about how it lived. Were the waters clean, did it survive a red tide, was the oxygen suitable for an oyster to live comfortably…

Supermarkets, chocolate manufacturers, and many other businesses now see blockchain as a critical part of their strategy for managing the supply chain. Farmers who sell lettuce to Walmart now enter key data about each batch into a blockchain system. The distributor that warehouses the product logs environmental conditions of shipping: inside and outside truck temperature, transport time, stoppages, damaged packaging…

If the customer who takes the product off the shelf files a quality complaint, the seller can trace a particular lettuce back to the time it was first planted.

Of course when it comes to goods, you can’t cheat the mass balance. The quantity of steel is limited by that of its constituent ores, and the amount of lettuce is limited by the carbon, nitrogen, and other elements that are available to ‘manufacture’ it.

Money, on the other hand, violates the core principles of ecology—that’s partly why I loathe the use of the term ecosystem in a corporate or business context. ‘Corporate ecosystem’ is as great an oxymoron as ‘affordable legal costs’ or ‘plastic silverware’.

Blockchain provides the traceability to change that.

In a nutshell, it’s thermodynamics for economists.

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

Netflix and Chill

March 30, 2019

One of the magnificent millennial memes.

Every generation has a favorite word for sex, and many couples do also—on a personal level, it becomes a private term that promotes intimacy, but for different generations, it widens the gap.

One of the popular euphemisms for sex in the millennial world is Netflix and Chill. A little complex, but fairly self-evident. So far so good, seems like a neat way of making chill-dren, but something is rotten in the state of Denmark. There you were thinking my writing was nekulturny and out pops a drop of Hamlet.

The rot is revealed in a recent survey on the sexual habits of Americans. In a muttshell (a millennial nutshell), ‘the struggle is real‘, but in this case, not ironic.

According to the General Social Survey—a site I was unfamiliar with, but which is a shining example of US transparency—the sex drought going on in America is significantly influenced by the habits of millennials.

Percentage of Americans who have had no sex for one year (graphic workup by the Washington Post).

You’ll notice the over 60’s don’t figure: that in itself is disgraceful—the excuse is that the percentage of that group who haven’t had sex for one year stands, if you’ll excuse the pun, at a constant fifty percent. I’m shocked—first because at the very least we should break the category down by decades, and also… what the hell happened to Viagra?

But the 18-29 age group shows the most interesting data. Not only do I find it remarkable (and rather sad) that twenty-three percent of young people are not getting their end away, to use an old-school British expression, but I’m amazed at the uniform growth since 2008.

The annualized growth rate of youthful abstinence over the last ten years works out to 1.4% APR, which is worrying. I will try the patience of the Post by adding one more chart, this one showing the gender breakdown.

Breakdown of chastity by gender. WTF?

When we look at the gender split in the 18-30 year bracket, it’s not worrying—it’s downright SCARY!

The fact that almost a third of guys aren’t getting laid for one year is a borderline national emergency, as opposed to a national emergency at the borderline! Since men come (sic) in at 28% and women at 18%, and the cumulative number is 23%, the census considered an equal number of men and women.

So, if there are ten extra women who are having sex, who are they having it with? There are a few possibilities. They could be dipping down into minors, but in that case, why would those lucky male teens not get a taste for the good stuff and carry it through into their twenties?

The gals could be dipping up to more mature men, profiting from both experience and wealth (all the older guys are smiling and nodding as they read this part). They could also be having sex with the fewer millennial males in a mating mood.

The GSS provides interesting data on the number of sexual partners, but not broken down by age.

In very general terms, for every hundred people who haven’t had a sex partner all year (sigh), two hundred people had one partner. But a further twenty people had two partners, and ten had three. Then we get into the big leagues—a further five people had four partners, and another five had a year of serial bonking with five to ten others.

There’s even the odd person who claims to have had sex with over one hundred people. Maybe very odd, since by then we’re up there in the Stormy Daniels register—professional, rather than recreational.

Or maybe, those extra ten gals were having sex with each other.

That’s the beauty of statistics. Like a bikini, what it shows is suggestive, what it hides is vital.

But there’s another side to all this—less lighthearted, more disruptive. Is it possible that social media is distancing boys from sex? I think boys, especially teenage boys, react differently to Instagram and Twitter than girls do. Maybe I’m pigeon-holing, but boys tend to be painfully shy, more so than girls. To release them from this prison, they need more human relationships and less surrogates.

No matter how digital we might have become, even a cyber-relationship can only be considered semi-digital. When I was a boy, it was all analog. It began with a whisper, a hand-written note, or a fugitive kiss, and with luck tastier analog experiences followed.

As I grew up, digital developed, so a part of the perfunctory work was left to email, text messages, and other digital devices. Sure, your heart beat faster when you read the words, saw the pictures, but not like the adrenaline rush when you hold someone in your arms for the first time.

The worry is that those formative teenage years, replete with acne and angst, are now a waterless desert mirage—digital surrogates don’t match real emotions, which is why dogs never bark at cats they see on TV.

The outcome, which is more tragic for boys than girls, based on these statistics, is a generation that’s more likely to chat to someone across the world than across the table.

Making love is something we need to do, something we must do. The more cybervirginal we become, the closer we get to the robots that threaten to displace us.

Take it from me, boys and girls, even if smartphones vibrate, it ain’t the same thing.

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


Catfish Blues

March 23, 2019

If you’re a blues fanatic, Sun Studios is easily the best thing in Memphis.

Apart from the music, the Peabody is unmissable—stroll through Lansky’s, where Elvis bought his clothes, and marvel at the price tags.

And for dinner, the Majestic Grille is a wonderful venue—old movie theaters get torn down, but this one kept its screen, shows old black & white films, and serves great food.

If you want a quiet drink (a Memphis rarity), grab a sundowner at the terrace bar in the River Inn, just north of where the I-40 cantilever bridge goes across to Arkansas, and watch Ol’ Man River slowly sashay down to Louisiana.

Enough chit-chat—let’s get to it.

The ‘Killer’, Jerry Lee Lewis, came through Sun Studios like a tornado. There’s a classic photo of Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley (Presley’s girlfriend was cut out of the picture) taken in 1956 by Sam Phillips, during a jam session that became legendary.

That’s alright mama, but I was there for the blues. The guy who showed me round the studio was a musician himself—you rarely find someone in Memphis who’s not a musician—it’s a very hard life, and mostly folks have a second job.

The guide talked about The Killer—Lewis had a stroke recently, and we wished him well. He’d been in the studio a few months back. Someone walked in behind Jerry Lee—a bodyguard, no doubt—turns out it was Mick Jagger.

It was only at tipping time that I got down to it—you don’t get far in the States without a spot of tipping. Where, I asked, would I go for the real thing?

DKDC was his first suggestion. “Don’t Know Don’t Care? What do they play?”

“All kinds of stuff. Some nights it’s soul or blues, others it’s punk rock.”

“Blues. I’m looking for the blues.”

The guy looked at me. “Man, you don’t want Memphis. You want Clarksdale, Mississippi. Hour’s drive down 61.”

Highway 61? As in ‘God said to Abraham, kill me a son?'”

The man nodded.

Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway, rollin’ southbound as the sun sets. It doesn’t get much better than this.

It took me three milliseconds to make up my mind. The more I looked into it, the better it got. Clarksdale is home to the Devil’s Crossroads, the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49. Any blues fan knows that’s where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.

The place to go is the Shack Up Inn, on the site of an old cotton gin. From the outside, it’s deliberately rundown. There was no music at the inn that evening, but I was given two tips (there’s that word again).

The Shack Up Inn, which describes itself as the world’s best B&B (Bed and Beer).

The first was a club owned by Morgan Freeman, called Ground Zero. The second was a place called Red’s Lounge.

“Red sits by the TV, watching with the sound off. But if someone starts actin’ up, you’ll notice him right away.”

That’s all I needed to know. If you want to eat in Clarksdale, go to Levon’s. A couple of tables away was the largest black guy I ever saw, and the grits and boudin balls were the best I’ve ever had—even the tinto was good.

Red limps, so he carries a large walking stick. Writ large in the restroom, the message is don’t mess with Red.

Red’s only had a couple of people in when I got there, and one guy wearing a tea cosy and playing a Fender Squier, backed by a drummer. There were bits of Hendrix in there, when he got the wah-wah going, and also pure pure blues. He went through all my favorites: Sweet Home Chicago, Catfish Blues, Mannish Boy, Evil (Is Going On), Stormy Monday…

And then, out of nowhere, the man got me up there to sing a tune. We did three verses of Before You Accuse Me, an old Bo Diddley number made famous by Eric Clapton.

I wasn’t drinking, so I know it was true—I’ll remember that night on the blues highway until the day I die.

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

Dong Xi

March 17, 2019

In Mandarin, the phrase means ‘stuff’, but the two words mean East West. It always makes me think of a Chinese lady shopping to the hilt, waving her index finger at the cardinal points as she spots the latest Gucci fakes.

Those two points accurately describe my wanderings over the last two weeks—west to Memphis and New Orleans and then half-way across the world to Turkey.

I hate skipping a post, but last weekend I was blitzed by jet lag as I crisscrossed the planet—I’ll try to make it up to you as I fly west from Istanbul.

It’s hard to find a greater contrast, wrapped in similarity, than N’Olens, as the locals call it, and old Constantinople.

After charbroiled oysters at Drago’s (the old one, at Fat City, Metairie), an aptly named Nissan Cube took me to Frenchmen Street, where Zydeco music rules. It’s hard to make money in the Big Easy if you’re a musician—every corner of the French Quarter oozes talent.

After the gig, and a couple of bourbons to the good, I ended up in an Uber piloted by a young black lady of substantial proportions—a sharp contrast to Turkish girth. Sandy was very surprised I was a New Orleans virgin—she gave me the lowdown in no uncertain terms.

“Honey, we gon’ do three thaings fo’ you.”

In the purest virgin tradition, my heart beat a little faster.

“We gon’ feed you up, we gon’ love you up, and we gon’ intoxicate y’all!”

After the delights of the French Quarter, I felt no pain as the big bird flew east. In truth, I was protected by a range of products from the Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo on St. Peter Street—what could possibly go wrong?

A New Orleans glitterati struts his stuff on Frenchmen Street.

In a suspect restaurant in the port city of Bodrum, I was about to find out.

Turkey is locked up tighter than a vestal’s treasures—Erdogan is everywhere, smiling in vast outdoor posters, hand over heart, berating the Americans on TV. Nevertheless, the taksi guy was at pains to point out that ‘Turkey is a democracy, we can say what we like!’

Bodrum is a stone’s throw from the Greek island of Kos, where the Zodiacs arrived stuffed to the gills with Suriya refugees searching for Merkel’s European paradise.

The restaurant had a two-piece band—a large baritone who picked bass notes on an acoustic guitar, and the Turkish equivalent of Andy Capp, plucking a Bouzouki. I sat disturbingly close to the star act, sipping one of the most disgraceful ‘tintos’ to have (dis)graced my cup in recent years.

All around, my Turkish hosts initiated hostilities—traditional dancing, fueled by large tumblers of Raki, invaded the tiny space next to my seat. I beat a hasty retreat to the furthest end of the table, but by then I’d switched to white wine—a marginally better choice.

During one of the more lamenting Turkish dirges, I had an epiphany—the well-tested lyric yabadabadoo scanned perfectly to the phrasing of the baritone singer. As the evening wore on, my spirits surged as I gained command of the language, and I shared my passion with the locals—by then, many of them felt very little pain.

Elvis on Bouzouki took on a different twist—Colonel Parker could never have imagined the duo’s rendition of ‘Hound Dog’, complete with an entirely new set of Turkish lyrics, but so it was.

It’s impossible to do justice to Istanbul in one day—or in one week—but I tried. The Galata bridge to Sultanahmet sets the tone—on either side, fishermen smoke cigarettes, munch simit, and wait patiently for fish to bite. Below, the train rumbles and, when passengers emerge, they’re offered buckets of grey mullet—a fish that thrives in low oxygen and eats all kinds of organic waste.

Grey mullet and goby on offer by fishermen on the Galata bridge. In the distance, multiple Erdogans keep a watchful eye.

The poor of Istanbul are like those everywhere—anything to turn a buck. On a street in Karakoy, a shoeshine casually drops his brush for tourists to pick up. As the mark obligingly returns the offending object, the con is on—nineteen Turkish lira will do the trick.

But nothing spells business like the bazaar. The heady smell of spices takes me to The India Road, as a Moroccan offers saffron from Afghanistan and Iran. A short distance away, I become engaged in the virtues of cashmere scarves.

“What is your best price for your best friend, my friend?”

“Very good price.” The salesman smiles. Not your average tourist, this one. The fun is on.

We navigate, jostle, and laugh. The expensive product is compared with a lowly offering.

“Maybe for second wife,” I say.

“No, for mother-in-law,” the seller says. “Special price for you. First customer of the day.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

A couple of scarves later, together with an evil eye to ward off the voodoo curse, it’s goodbye to the market, and one last crossing of the Galata bridge—the ferries are at full tilt now, the dinghy at the stern offering little reassurance for passengers that all will be well.

One last mad dash across the road and it’s goodbye to Istanbul.

I will be back.

As they say in Turkey, Yabadabadoo!

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


March 4, 2019

The history of the New World is littered with Spanish shipwrecks.

The very first on record happened at the first hours of Christmas Day, 1492—the Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepción, flagship of Columbus, ran aground on the island of Hispaniola. In my latest book Clear Eyes, I describe it in detail.

The ship was steady, the cabin boy proud of his mission. Punta Santa was one league west-north-west of the flagship’s present position. The grumete held the tiller firm, remembering the instructions of the helmsman. Around him the sea was like glass. The current gently turned the ship and imperceptibly took it toward the shore and the sandbank drew nearer—the boy should have heard the surf and understood what it meant because you could hear the waves roar from one league away and the ship was much closer now but he was still dreaming of glory when the helm suddenly tilted as the hundred tonner slowly made itself fast on the ground. Then all around him were shouts as the sailor slapped him and knocked him flying, and Columbus emerged from his cabin bleary-eyed, his smock flapping and his white hair in disarray.

The Santa Maria was run aground by human error, and Columbus then used the timber to build a fort—he called it La Navidad, or Christmas. After he left for Castile, the Taino people killed the garrison and burned the fort, eliminating any trace of the ship.

The Spanish went on to lose six hundred eighty more vessels over the next centuries. For those who dream of colonialists decorated with mustache and goatee strutting the deck before bravely fighting  Bluebeard, the stats disappoint.

Of all the ships lost, only a handful succumbed to pirates—most were caught in hurricanes, storms, or other weather events, which explains why little is known about their disappearance.

The Spanish ministry of culture recently sponsored a study of the lost galleons, including ships that sailed under Cortez, Pizarro, and Nuñez de Balboa—the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The study focuses on the Caribbean, drawing on the copious records that exist in the archives of Seville, and reports sinkings in Panama, Cuba, Bahamas, and the US Atlantic seaboard.

The aim of the work is not to identify the wrecks, which would encourage bounty hunters, but to safeguard the galleons, and protect them from accidental damage—this is a noble intent, but I suspect information on locations will leak quicker than the sinking galleons.

The research group is headed by marine archeologist Carlos Leon, who explains that over ninety percent of the wrecks foundered due to bad weather. In Cuban waters alone, 249 ships sank, and off the coast of Texas, Florida, and Mississippi, another one hundred fifty-three.

The Portuguese ‘naus’ that did the ‘Carreira da India’, or India Road, headed in the opposite direction, but suffered a similar fate. The maritime route to the real Indies did not include hurricanes—these typically form off West Africa and move across the Atlantic, blossoming as they feed on the warm waters of the North Equatorial Current.

Instead, the fleets of Lusitania were smitten by the waters of the Cape of Good Hope, more often than not living up to its original name—’Cabo das Tormentas’, or Cape of Storms. The long return journey up the West African coast, following the Benguela current, and then the ‘torna viagem’, the route out to sea up to the Azores, were also deathtraps for the heavily laden vessels.

As the Portuguese explorers ventured further east in the XVIth century, they too came across tai fung—Chinese for ‘great wind’. Just as the hurricanes laid low the Spanish galleons, so the typhoons of China and the Philippines wreaked havoc on the Portuguese ships.

In 1735-1736, a Portuguese author, Bernardo Brito, also published a study of the maritime losses of his nation—he called it ‘História Trágico-Marítima’, or a history of maritime tragedies. Only two volumes were published, although there is evidence the author prepared five—perhaps it was just too much tragedy, and I suspect the massive earthquake that destroyed downtown Lisbon in 1755 obliterated the missing manuscripts for ever.

The Spanish galleons were often laden with gold and silver, where the Portuguese ships would bring home cargoes of spices, exotic woods, and other Eastern wonders.

Through the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, the galleons increased greatly in size. Where the the entire crew of the first expedition of Columbus consisted of eighty-six men, distributed over the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, two hundred years later, the huge ships that sailed the Spanish Main had between five hundred and one thousand people aboard—when one sank, it was a huge human tragedy.

The same scaling applied to the Portuguese vessels—in 1495, Vasco da Gama took four ships to India, with a crew of 180, two vessels limped back—the death toll was appalling. As the potential of the East increased with the measure of the Portuguese Empire, so the ships became increasingly larger.

The Spanish research holds the promise of a digital version of the study, with interactive links to databases—it’s the sort of project that cries out for a cellphone app aimed at kids and adults.

The more we teach our children about the past, the less we’ll have to worry about the tinpot dictator wannabees that stain the present.

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

The Luck of the Irish

February 24, 2019

Ireland is a small country with a big neighbor—this has been its undoing for the last thousand years.

Unlike Portugal, which has held its own against Spain since 1143, apart from a sixty year period in the seventeenth century, Ireland has been at the mercy of its eastern foe for nine centuries, starting with a visit from the Normans in 1169.

By then, Norman rule was well established in England, over one hundred years since the Battle of Hastings was won by William the Conqueror—it was the last time England was taken over by a foreign power, having previously suffered that indignity at the hand of Romans and Vikings.

Instead, in the best spirit of getting their own back, the English turned to Ireland. After the Normans came the Tudors, until in 1601 the Emerald Isle became part of the British Empire. In the mid-seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland—the campaign is still remembered today for its extreme cruelty.

The Irish left. Many to work in England—the immigrant jobs now held by Romanians and Poles—and many more seeking freedom across the Atlantic.

It was only in the XXth century that Ireland became independent—save for six counties in the north, where Scots and English protestants had settled over the centuries. The empire had applied this model many times, using settlers to populate conquered territory and then claiming that the will of the people was to remain with the motherland—recent examples are Gibraltar and the Malvinas, known to the UK as the Falkland Islands.

The existence of a British enclave on the island of Ireland led to what the Irish euphemistically termed ‘the troubles’—decades of guerilla warfare, a muscled British troop presence, and over three thousand five hundred deaths.

In December 1999, the Good Friday agreement came into force—much of the heavy lifting was done by Clinton’s envoy George Mitchell, who served as chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, for the next decade.

I’ve made many trips to Belfast since the Good Friday agreement—despite the much lower level of violence, cars were commonly burned at protests in the city and bombs still went off.

This brief journey through the tragedy of Irish history brings us to the discussions surrounding Brexit. This time, the Irish have the rest of Europe on their side, and the Brits have no place to go—this is a huge paradigm shift compared to the historical record, and the Irish are loving it.

Ireland is well liked in Brussels—unlike their eastern neighbor, the Irish are fond of the EU institutions and participate actively in them. To eurocrats, the Irish connection to the US is also a key factor—there’s no doubt that Irish and Americans understand each other well—they share a language, and in many cases also a heritage.

It therefore came as no surprise, despite the braying of the British right wing, that the EU stood firm at Ireland’s side when it came to defending open borders between North and South, a key part of Good Friday. I’ve crossed those borders many times, most frequently on the freeway between Dublin and Belfast—the only real clue that you’re in another country are the road signs, which suddenly tell you distances in miles.

Enter the backstop, one of the major bones of contention between the EU and the UK. The only reason the backstop is even there is because there’s no trade deal resolving free movement of goods and services.

The EU package encompasses four freedoms: goods, services, people (labor), and capital.

The Brexit voters are fine with the first and last, ambivalent about the second, and resolute about the third—it means immigrants, which of course the Brits and all other wealthy people need to do the jobs they don’t want—instead of Romanians and Poles, Britain’s new Irish, some other country will supply the labor force, and the Brits will hate them also.

But deep inside, and often without much in the way of disguise, Irish eyes are smiling. You can’t blame them, after nine centuries of misery.

From an Irish perspective, as the countdown to ecstasy draws near, it must be nice to see the Brits with their balls in a sling.

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

The Golden Triangle

February 17, 2019

Life is a triangle made of wealth, love, and health. The dynamics vary as you get older—the first two are thin on the ground until you reach your twenties, the last becomes increasingly scarce as you age.

One thing you can be sure of is you rarely have all three at the same time—if that’s where you are, my friend, you’re in a wonderful place—and one that doesn’t last.

About fifteen years ago I started thinking seriously about ageing—we live longer now, unless we’re felled by the reaper, so definitions are in order—particularly in the age of euphemism, where old people are pensioners, seniors, mature, seasoned, or in late adulthood

My first criterion was whether you had any pills on you—excluding MDMA and birth control (ladies only, otherwise see the section on dementia below). The second was if you had more than one thing wrong with you, and the third whether your ailments took more than three weeks to disappear.

I started classifying typical diseases by decade—I could be more proactive if I knew what to expect. Of course, hospitals and insurers the world over have those records, but they’re surprisingly hard to come by.

Business Insider reviews the panorama for Australia—probably a good proxy for the Western world. Below forty years of age you lead a blessed life—although cash is probably scarce. As for love, I’m sure you’re familiar with roulette.

So here’s the skinny: during your forties, look forward to back pain, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. In your fifties, expect eye problems, and a higher prevalence of cancers—mainly colon and breast, but also prostate. The sixties is a golden age for operations, including cataracts and joints. Oh, and then there’s coronary heart disease, chronic respiratory problems, and lung cancer. When you reach your seventies, the danger of falls is greater—think fractures, injuries, and disability. The list extends into the eighties (it won’t in Africa), and introduces dementia as a major player.

Aussies in their eighties typically have five chronic diseases—presumably the accompanying dementia doesn’t help them recall what they are.

Some years ago, an American in his seventies told me over a glass of red wine that ‘old age is not for sissies.’ I quipped, “It is in San Francisco”—but his point was well taken.

Percentage of different causes of death in the UK—changes over seventy years compiled by the Nuffield Trust (data from the Office of National Statistics).

The chart looks a  bit like Joseph’s technicolor hospital quilt, and you must always be suspicious of percentages—like a bikini, what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital.

The main finding from the data is that although the population has increased by fifty percent in the last seventy years, the total number of deaths has only increased by ten percent. The chart reveals three striking things.

First, the increase in lung disease—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which makes it increasingly hard to breathe—has increased by about 40%. Please note that percentages of percentages are an even more dangerous game. To even the score for my bikini comment, I would say these are like men—properly manipulated, you can get them to do anything you want.

As an example, you often see ads stating Drug X reduces your risk of a heart attack by 20%. If your risk level is 1 in 10, or 10%, then it goes down to 80% of (times) 10%. In other words, you’ve moved from 1 in 10 to 1 in 12.5, which is an improvement, but hardly an earth-shaking event.

What strikes me here is that COPD is the artist formerly known as smoker’s lung, emphysema, chronic bronchitis etc etc. For it to have increased when smoking has decreased so significantly is food for thought.

Dementia has quadrupled percentually—if the number of deaths has only increased by ten percent, then that’s a big change—we’re four times madder than we were.

These things have gone up at the expense of two ogres—heart disease and strokes.

The final sinner is the number one offender, up from 17% to 28%, over a quarter of the death toll. The Big C is also the weirdest of all. I remember in almost graphic detail the lectures on cancer when I was at university—more than I can say for much of the other stuff.

Cancer cells are the wild ones, the equivalent of societal misfits. They don’t follow rules, they don’t make concessions. They don’t listen to others, they don’t stick with the pack. In many ways, they’re a throwback to single-celled organisms—they fend for themselves.

Because of these traits, cancer cells inside an organism clump to form tumors, blocking, bashing, and bursting whatever gets in the way. They drift off, and the body’s transport system obligingly conveys them to wherever they’re headed.

Once arrived at their new destination, they barge in through the door and set about destroying their new house.

After everything’s been ruined, there’s no home left—it’s the cancer’s turn to die. There’s no better description of Mr. C, and no better display of understated British humor, than the poem written by the eminent physiologist J.B.S. Haldane in 1964. He died that very same year.

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

The Last Vegetarians

February 10, 2019

Back in 2013, the UK’s Financial Times published an op-ed on the German election campaign. Frau Merkel handily won that election, before all the Syrian immigration debacle—at that time, neither Germans nor their politicians wanted anything to do with the Mid-East. Arguably, they still don’t.

What they were concerned with was ‘Veggie Day’, a weekly occurrence when no meat would be served in canteens—bye-bye bratwurst. When the chancellor was asked for impressions of her nation, she talked about ‘”well-sealed windows. No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows.”

That’s what affluence and seventy years of pacifism does for you, and in that sense Germany is unusual as a nation—it appears to be well and truly emasculated by the wars of the past century. England certainly hasn’t changed in the same way—below the veneer of understatement and cucumber sandwiches, the bellicose vibe is always there—you see it in the Brexit bitterness and in any pub or soccer match.

Münkler, a German political scientist, states that ‘if you only take normative positions, if your focus is solely on values, you won’t find success in a world where others are relentlessly pursuing their interests.’

At least in part, this is the story of the European Union. The EU has focused on common values with outstanding success—the four freedoms (goods, services, people, and capital), food and environmental quality, safety and welfare, are all examples of this.

The value set of the EU has proved robust enough to threaten the growth of extreme movements, in a way that Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal were unable to combat one hundred years ago.

But when it comes to policy, it’s a different matter. First, the directions diverge: Germany promotes pacifism, Britain aligns with the US, the French exercise regional power, particularly in Africa, Portugal favors its ‘language’ belt, and the Greeks push back against Turkey.

Second, European tools to pursue any interests they do agree on are frail. Most of all, there is no military might. The EU has two nuclear powers (soon to be reduced to one), but it also has Russia on its borders. It would be foolish to underestimate the temptation this poses to the bear.

Next to a large, relatively poor, ravenous, and aggressive beast, there lives the fatted calf. The calf keeps gaining weight, veggie days not withstanding, and looks ever-more tempting to its ragged eastern neighbor.

Since the Second World War, the West put the tools in place to ensure detente. For Russia, or China for that matter, verbal alternatives to physical violence rely on strength. NATO provided that guarantee, but US nationalism is now severely testing detente.

The jury is still out on whether Trump is Putin’s bitch, but from a political perspective it certainly seems that way—whether through deliberation or as a полезный идиот, a useful idiot, the orang-u-tan has contributed significantly to destroying detente and promoting the resurgence of Russian nationalism.

One term of Trump will be bad enough—he has reduced friendship to rubble, identifying Europe as his biggest enemy, ahead of Russia and China. Sigmar Gabriel, the former German foreign minister, says “He has done damage that the Soviets would have dreamed of.”

Trump has shattered European trust in America—in several hundred days, the US president destroyed a relationship of several hundred years, claiming free-loading on defense and trade difficulties. I’m sure if those arguments were unsuitable, others would have been found.

Does weakening the EU’s defense, fragmenting EU nations, encouraging the ‘rise of the nutters’—the Farage, Le Pen, and Pym Fortuijn brigade—help Russia? Most certainly. Does turning a blind eye to fake news and classifying reputable sources as fake help Russia? Most certainly. Does turning the US into a fracture help Russia? Most certainly.

Cartoons abound but this is no laughing matter.

Although I hate all people who generalize, populations can be split into three categories—this applies to families, schools, communities, and countries. A significant proportion is content to drift through life, the next largest group is happiest when it breaks things, and the smallest segment builds.

The middle group has a gradient, from quasi-harmless folks who destroy a little to toxic people who nuke everything they touch. And unfortunately, the first segment is more susceptible to the views of destructors than constructors.

MAGA is a typical example of the destructor approach—to make America great you need destruction—swamps must be drained, nations rejected, people humiliated.

The orange man is the epitome of the worst kind of destructor—the irony is that he is a builder by trade. His whole life has been devoted to tearing stuff down. People, relationships, buildings, and now countries, including his own.

For decades the US played the role of policing the world—stepping back a little under the Democrats, pushing forward under the Republicans. Suddenly (and bizarrely in a red US) the world has been confronted with a haphazard and timid US foreign policy, predicated on lies.

Twitter is fine to fool a base that is both uninformed and uninterested, but it sure ain’t foolin’ the Taliban, Assad, or Xi Jinping. The Afghan diaspora discusses… in Moscow. The  Syrian chaos is orchestrated from… Moscow. Iran, Turkey, Brexit… with a little help from Moscow. Everywhere, if you count US acts, Putin profits.

Forget the words coming out of the White House—look at the deeds.

So now Europe has to face the music. A continent of immense wealth, where the preoccupation over double-glazing, chlorinated chicken, and soccer trumps any broader discussions. Like nature, world power abhors a vacuum. As America retreats, others are eager to fill its shoes. As Rome retreated, so the Vandals and the Moors advanced.

Two-thirds of the European defense budget is paid by the US. Two terms of Trump may well see that off, consigning it to the dank basement where the tatters of the Paris agreement lie. Gabriel put it best.

We are the last vegetarians in a world full of carnivores, and if Britain leaves, we will be vegans.

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

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