The Household

October 22, 2016

The two words that govern our lives, ecology and economics, have very similar roots.

Many of our new words come from the dominant influence of America—which is so prevalent that in many countries, the prefix ‘United States’ is often dropped.

Verbs like tweet have found their way into various languages, as have nouns like pack or spread, and adjectives like prime.

But back in the day, if you wanted to come up with a new word, and give it that pizazz, there was only one thing for it—you went Greek.

If you wonder why ecology and economics rule you, it’s a no-brainer: ecology determines what you eat, and economy how you pay for food. Then there are a couple of other reasons why the two are important.

But back to the Greek. Oikos can mean three things: family, family property, or house. That’s similar to Chinese, where wo de jia means both my house, and my family.

So both these words are about the house, which you can interpret as the planet, your neighborhood park, or the country you live in.

So now for the terminations: logos means reason, and nomos means custom or law.

In general terms, one word means household function, and the other household management.

In ecology there’s a concept known as adaptive radiation, where a common structure adapts to changing environments through evolution—or if you happen to be a creationist, a fairy wand has been waved over the pentadactyl limb, magically transforming it into a bat’s wing, a human hand, a porpoise fin…

So ecology and economics packed their bags and headed off in different directions. But ecology stayed the course, and after hundreds of years there is not a single lie in it.

As a result, ecology has become increasingly valuable as our understanding grows, and we’re able to describe our life-support systems, and to manipulate them for food production. We can model these systems inside a computer and predict what may happen to them.

And whenever we (or nature) tip the system far enough from balance, the results are obvious, and often dramatic.

Economics has done its best to follow this course, in the complicated matter of household management. But because we don’t deal in the supply and demand of mass and energy, but instead slip in an intermediary that we can adjust and falsify, the whole system is flawed.

Schoolchildren learn in chemistry class that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Nevertheless, when they learn about money, and how to use it, that concept breaks down.

This is relatively recent—when I was at grade school, we had a ‘shop’ where the kids could buy things, spend ‘money’, and learn about making change. Among other things, in those pre-digital times, it helped with simple math.

If you played monopoly, it demonstrated the basic concepts of ownership, profit and loss, and financial management—it included a debt model, and if a combination of bad, i.e. luck and judgement, put you in trouble with the bank, it was curtains.

Maybe there’s a version now where you can take out sub-prime loans, leverage your position with credit default swaps, perhaps the central bank can print money.

By the time I was at college, in the heady days of Reagan and Thatcher, wise men explained debt was a good thing, and that all countries did it. Fast-forward to 2016, where the world economy is now valued by the IMF at $75 trillion.

That would be the world GDP, so if you divide by the world population (7.4 billion, but I’ll add a decimal because no one really knows) you get a per capita GDP of 10,000 dollars.

That’s an equivalent monthly salary of 840 bucks, and since most of the world is way below that, it means that wealth distribution is obscenely uneven.

About twenty percent of the world population lives well, the rest is drowning in poverty.

About twenty percent of the world population lives well, the rest is drowning in poverty.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson points out that the world debt now stands at $152 trillion—that’s double the size of the world economy.

And yet we’re looking for economic growth, much of which is predicated on debt.

Any ecological system where the energy consumption rate is substantially greater than the existing energy is condemned.

Samuelson points out that an overall growth rate of one percent means a spend of $750 billion. Not only is that unlikely in today’s economy, but it would be based on borrowing.

If we roll back to 2002, world debt was $67 trillion, roughly on a par with the world economy, so what we see is debt growing much faster than population—in 2002, there were 6.3 billion people on this planet, and now we’re at 7.4 billion.

It’s beyond question that the economic system will melt down, and also that we are unable to deal with the concept as a society. Many years ago, the Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki said that humans suffer from an ‘old mind’ syndrome—he meant that we’re predisposed by evolution to deal with local crises, but utterly unable to deal with planetary ones.

So the two interesting questions are: when will the system collapse, and what will the collapse look like?

If you’re an optimist, you might consider that, as masters of the universe, we will prevail. The human brain, so fertile in inventing the weaponry with which to wage war, will overcome this challenge also.

But if like me, you’re an optimist with experience, then you can be certain of two things. The first is that ecology will dictate the timing—you can print money, but you can’t print protein. The second is that any collapse is by definition non-linear.

Whenever this happens, and it will be triggered by the shortage of food or water, possibly both, humans will have no idea how to react. Goods and services we now prize will become worthless—I’m talking about automobiles, cellphones, vacations, and fancy houses—the very essence of our lives in developed countries, as we now perceive it.

Property in London or Los Angeles, which is built on mountains of debt, will collapse—not physically, but in value. And people will die, on a scale we find impossible to imagine. In the end, it boils down to the issue of carrying capacity.

To paraphrase another Clinton, in an election far far away: it’s the ecology, stoopid.

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

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

Tomorrow Is a Long Time

October 15, 2016

In early September, Private Eye magazine ran one of their cartoons about forgotten scenes in the music business. In it, a bunch of grade school kids sit in front of the teacher. At the front, a boy with a prominent hooked nose.

The teacher is saying “Zimmerman, how do dandelions disperse their seed?”

For many years I’ve hoped the Nobel committee would award the prize for literature to one Robert Zimmerman. As Dylan aged (he’s now seventy-five), it became a race against time.

It’s a terrible confession, but I don’t have much time for poetry. I do own a couple of books, and occasionally a poem pops out at me, but that’s about it.

Except when you put it to music, and it becomes a song. Then you don’t call it poetry any more—if you want to be posh about it, they’re called lyrics, otherwise it’s just words.

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
Money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

I may not have that perfect, but it’s close enough. And here’s the real deal. For me, that’s up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Road to Mandalay, which Sinatra memorably recorded in Las Vegas.

Kipling won the Nobel in 1907, and now Uncle Bob’s got one too.

Opinions on Dylan run across fault lines like Clinton / Trump or Apple / Microsoft. But no one is indifferent to him, and that’s the best news of all. Nothing hurts more than indifference.

When Dylan started writing songs, he emerged onto a stage that featured the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles. Rock and pop were new, catchy, and loathed by the older generation—all the ingredients for a teenage runaway success.

Dylan added the gravitas, moving popular music from a linguistic desert of she me love yeah do want mine play hand we too to a richer terroir, where words blossomed into sentences full of romance, darkness, and allegory.

They’re selling portraits of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Words like that, spat out by Dylan’s harsh and guttural delivery, and punctuated by strident harmonica breaks, sent shivers up my spine the very first time I heard them.

But Dylan’s music isn’t necessarily love at first sight—I put it on a par with whisky. I was twelve years old when I first tried Scottish wine, and it would have been a wee stolen dram of VAT69 or Red Label. It was horrible, but deep down I knew that would change—and it did.

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

I can never hear those lines without thinking of life in England in my late teens, where the rent was ten bucks a week and the outhouse was… er, outside. When the plumbing stopped working, a Sikh who looked older that George Harrison’s maharishi would cycle down the road to the rescue.

He sat bolt upright on the bicycle, as if he was levitating, and he had two bricks strapped to the rear rack with a rubber bungee. His eyes, ensconced between the turban and the white beard, seemed oblivious to the road. I often wondered about the bricks—maybe they were ballast, in case his levitation took the bike up.

Britain was full of immigrants then too, doing the jobs the locals rejected.

In those days life seemed infinite, though I did a number of things to counteract that—if they’d succeeded, I’d certainly save you a bit of reading.

On either side of Dylan were Clapton and Cohen, and the joy they’ve all brought to my life is impossible to describe—but with Dylan’s prize comes sad news on other fronts.

Leonard Cohen, another great poet, releases a record (does that word still mean anything?) on October 21st. It’s a dark piece, reflecting his words in a recent interview to the New Yorker: ‘I am ready to die.’

Cohen has four styles of guitar playing, and that did it for all his music, but his lyrics are rich and subtle—and like Dylan, permeated with humor. In his interview, Cohen talks about getting his house in order as he prepares for death.

So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better … At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.

Cohen is eighty-two, and Clapton is a much younger man. At seventy-one, he’s the baby of the trio. But he’s suffering from a disease that has a totally meaningless name—peripheral neuropathy. That’s just a tony way of saying there’s something wrong with your nerve endings.

Eric Clapton is not the only musician afflicted by the condition—the late Dave Ball, axe-man for Procol Harum, summed it up with wry British humor:

I’m a guitarist by trade and as you probably know, we use our fingers to make a noise.

But Clapton went on the record a couple of months back, stating that playing guitar is becoming increasingly painful, and there may be a time when he can no longer play.

When it comes to music history, these three men are up there in the pantheon—composers and musicians who radically shifted everything they touched.

Back in 1964, Dylan explained it all better than anyone today. The clip below has only part of the song—I guess the BBC didn’t like the rest of the message.

Or maybe it was just the length. In a classic Playboy interview in 1966, Uncle Bob reveals his secrets.

DYLAN: …I do know what my songs are about.

PLAYBOY: And what’s that?

DYLAN: Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.

PLAYBOY: Can’t you be a bit more informative?

DYLAN: Nope.

But I do like the rest of that song, because I see Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Russia in there—so here it is.

I’ve learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we’re forced to
Then fire, them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side
Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

Oh, and about those dandelions? If your botany isn’t what it used to be, the answer is blowing in the wind.

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

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

Conspiracy 101

October 9, 2016

This weekend the United States was battered by two very different creatures.

One was a hurricane that hit the Caribbean Sea in October—that in itself is worth an article, particularly targeting those who dismiss climate change as a scientific foible or a… Chinese conspiracy.

Speaking of which, the second battering was the release of a set of compromising Trump tapes. These were in such poor taste, even by Dirty Donald’s exalted standards, that the Republican party reeled as if caught in Matthew’s rage.

Or did it? This fall we’ve watched Wikileaks come back to haunt the establishment, and as the November date looms, there’s a good chance more ‘news’ will emerge.

Bleeding a politician (or in this case a non-pol) can either be the death of a thousand cuts or a swift hemorrhage. Whether both Hillary and Donald can expect further digital kindness from Anonymous and their ilk is uncertain, but I’m sure both campaigns are bracing for more.

But the taped shots that aired over the weekend are something else entirely. This was not a hack but a mainstream news release—the content of the materials is predictably asinine, but what interests me is the delivery, not the payload.

Let’s suppose.

Trump seems to be sinking into a predictable quagmire, but he mustn’t be allowed to sink too deep. I bet that’s how the Democratic Party strategists see it. Clinton needs him beaten but not crushed, at least until after the vote.

If too much ballast comes out now, and Trump sinks like the Bismarck, the Republican ticket is in the hands of the RNC.  In that situation, a number of things could happen, including a rollback to Cruz or Rubio.

But I’m guessing the nomination will go to Mike Pence. Given the potential scenarios, it’s primarily in the Republican interest to destroy Trump now and pass the baton to Pence.

Cruz or Rubio would be a slap in the face of the white male electorate who applauded the Trump/Pence ticket, and the Republican candidate would be crucified in November.

So I wonder if, in tonight’s debate, Clinton won’t help the Donald to hold on, only to sink him further as November approaches—a thousand cuts.

Since the Republicans are practically guaranteed to lose, and the GOP establishment hates the man anyhow, wouldn’t it be a neat trick to have his own ‘side’ torpedo him, and hope that Pence has a shot?

Let’s look at Pence for a minute. Not my kind of guy, but far more presidential than Trump. Pretty extreme views, but substantial political experience, and most importantly, he’s seen as a rank outsider who appeals to the working class white male voter.

What would the GOP gain? A credible candidate, who can easily tack on a VP, perhaps Paul Ryan, or someone like Carly Fiorina, to wink at the ladies. Where will it leave Hillary? In a very bad spot.

Hillary Clinton carries too much baggage, and the only reason she might win against Trump is because… she’s running against Trump. Yes, I know it’s an oxymoron, but after eight years of Obama, any half-decent, half-sane opponent would beat someone as unloved as Clinton.

Mike Pence could.

Sure, you would need big balls to force the play at this stage in the game. Trump won’t quit, besotted as he is that the US voter adores him, and is prepared to forgive his childhood pecadillos—never mind that this weekend’s stories hark back to a decade ago, when the man was pushing sixty—hardly a pimply adolescent.

We’re a month away from the vote. Anywhere past the three-week mark will be too late for a palatian coup, and both parties know it.

Could this be the new president of the United States?

Could this be the new president of the United States?

In the alternative scenarios of a Trump victory or defeat, inevitably the Republicans have the most to lose. If Trump doesn’t win the presidency, it’s another four years of Democrats, but if he does, it’s a White House term that taints the party for years to come.

How much more weaponry can the GOP fire at the man before the Republican party feels it has enough of the vote on its side to dethrone the upstart? I’m guessing that many in the GOP hope tonight’s debate will break the camel’s back.

If I’m right, this week we’ll hear the famous words “Trump, you’re fired.”

And then the fun starts.

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

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


October 1, 2016

As I sit comfortably on the first Saturday of October and prepare to pen these words, I look out the window at the blue skies, a ragged cloud here and there. Nearby, a couple of cypresses swing in the light breeze.

Whatever troubles ail me, they mean nothing, because we’re all calmly going about our business as a quarter million people get bombed into oblivion.  What is this world we’ve made, where a city two hours flight time from Rome becomes a passing statistic?

This is the world of Aleppo, a city filled with citizens, activists, or terrorists, depending on who you ask. This is a city where Syrian and Russian planes are raining fire and brimstone, using a ceasefire as a springboard.

Putin has brought in some choice gifts, including the arsenal used to raze Grozny. Авиационная вакуумная бомба повышенной мощности (АВБПМ) is the Russian name for a thermobaric bomb, but its friends call it the ‘father of all bombs’.

There’s no shortage of websites describing these devices (thankfully no Google ads), conventional weapons that generate high pressure shock waves, high temperature, and strip the surrounding air of oxygen. Human beings like you and me are slammed, fried, and asphyxiated. Little children too, of which there are one hundred thousand—we remain unsure how many are activists and terrorists—I guess it depends who you ask.

Lacoste isn't the only blessing from great powers bestowed on these poor children.

Lacoste isn’t the only blessing from great powers bestowed on these poor kids (photo from the NY Times).

Bunker busters are another favorite—as the name suggests, these babies are designed to penetrate military fortifications—instead, Assad is using them on apartment buildings. The particular feature of this weapon is that it first penetrates the wall of a building and then explodes.

In the midst of this nightly mayhem, where any source of light is a potential target, a volunteer group called the White Helmets sifts through the ruins dragging out survivors—some are found dead the next day in another pile of rubble.

The history of the ancient city of Aleppo makes wonderful reading—it identifies a community which harbors the genotype of civilization. The city has been ruled by many, and presumably razed by some—what is happening there now is not new, probably not even different.

Maybe that tradition of invasion, resistance, and conquest is why this fight is taking so long, despite the uneven odds. Russia has taken twenty casualties, hardly a reenactment of Afghanistan, but Assad can only muster twenty-five thousand men, half the current forces at his disposal.

I’m not sure two brigades are enough to take the city, which explains why the Russians are busy starving it to death and bombing it to oblivion.

Records of occupation begin twenty-three centuries before Christ, or twenty-nine before Mohamed. Eight hundred years later, the Egyptians arrived, and stayed for a hundred years. By the 9th century BC, the Assyrians were there. Six hundred years on, Alexander the Great stopped by—the Macedonians didn’t linger, they only stayed twenty years.

Then the Romans came, and kept the city for five centuries. As Islam began to spread, the Caliphate came a-calling (lately they’ve had a re-run). In 1260, the Mongols arrived—Hulagu Khan’s army, which could be smelled from miles away.

Khan was allied with Armenians and Franks. They laid siege to the city for six days, using the equivalent of thermobarics and bunker-busters—a variety of catapult called mangonels.

The citadel resisted for over a month. When it finally capitulated, the invaders destroyed it and massacred all Muslims and Jews. Women and children were spared, destined to be sold as slaves. Thorough as usual, the Mongols burnt the Great Mosque of Aleppo. In 2013, clashes in the current conflict destroyed the minaret.

After the Mongols, the sultans returned. Then the Ottoman empire took over, and stayed for four hundred years.

This is only a subset of the visitations of Aleppo. Romans, Turks, or Franks were not exactly shrinking violets, so the citizens of this ancient city are no strangers to violence.

I have no doubt Aleppo will survive, and I’m sure the people who live there are mostly good people—it’s a city, and they’re just citizens, like in your town.

Of course it’s also a refuge for bad people, and you can call them terrorists if you wish.

But it’s been forty-three centuries since the first occupation of Aleppo took place, and we think of ourselves as civilized and compassionate.

Isn’t it time we treated the children a little better?

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

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



A Wee Dram

September 28, 2016

The B&B was a replica of Fawlty Towers—at breakfast, a man with a missing tooth kept telling his three-year-old to say thank-you after every spoonful.

The landlady told me several times she served a Scottish continental breakfast. “We don’t do bacon and eggs,” she repeated, as if previous guests had hounded her on the matter.

She was a harassed and nerve-racked woman, totally devoid of humor. Her husband burnt the toast, and ten minutes later she materialized with odd-shaped materials, describing them as ‘Peter’s homemade bread’. When she mentioned kippers, visions of Basil, a dead fish poking from his waistcoat as he explains things to the doctor, flooded into my mind.

The west coast of Scotland is a very different proposition from Edinburgh, where I spent last week, but you get the same messages about the foolishness of brexit and the public school arrogance of Boris. The Scots aren’t famous for their subtlety, and the word ‘twat’ was much in evidence.

After the twee civility of the capital, I hankered for a different world, where Aberdeen Angus and black-faced sheep ruled the glen. I wound down the road, peering through the rain at the looming hills and the dark lochs, slowly closing the distance to my destination. If I were hunting pokemons, I’d be shit out of luck—the cellphone network had vanished.

But I wasn’t looking for pokemons, I was looking for whisky.

Islay is one of the inner Hebrides, the islands that separate Scotland from Northern Ireland, and at one time it was the seat of government for all the islands and parts of Ireland. At Finlaggan, the Viking longhouse is still visible, as are the ruins of fortifications at the edge of the loch. But five hundred years ago, the English king James IV put paid to the political aspirations of the island.

Maybe that’s what drove them to drink.

Whatever the reason, this one island, with a population of three thousand five hundred, is host to an inordinate amount of distilleries—the Mecca of Scottish wine.

Islay could do a lot more for visitors by broadening its appeal to the ladies. Several traditional crafts, including world-famous weaving, could diversify tourism and draw in families. The Finlaggan interpretation center was closed on Sunday morning—dutiful tourists drove quarter of an hour off the main road and peered, bemused and unwarned, at the closed doors.

An abundance of riches. Two bottles of red wine are clearly visible on the bar, escapees from the tinto lockdown.

An abundance of riches. Two bottles of red wine are clearly visible on the bar, escapees from the tinto lockdown.

The gastronomy needs a critical overhaul.  To escape from the pouring rain, I went for lunch at the Bowmore Hotel, recommended as one of the better places to eat. The waitress was unsure about the red wine.

“Sorry, I’m just filling in here. There’s a wedding.”

“Please tell me what you have. A glass of red wine would be very welcome.”

She stared at me in panic. “I’m just filling in.” She rushed off and presently reported. “I’m sorry, the red wine’s all locked up. There’s a wedding.”

Two bottles of tinto sat on the bar behind me. Beyond that, I spied the greatest panoply of whiskies I’d ever seen. The allure of the grape was rapidly fading.

“Do you have white wine?”

“Yes.” The relief on her face was obvious. “I’m new—”


Perhaps she’s been taking lessons from the B&B on the mainland.

“No bother.”

It’s twenty-five miles to Ireland as the crow flies, and the same expressions prevail. Youse. No bother. Good craic.

It was time to hit the mother lode. Whisky pilgrims are like most others, small groups that share a kind of rapture as they make their way through the chapels of their passion. Like the monks of old, they stop and commune, then proceed on their way imbued with the spirit.

At Laphroaig, you’re given the chance to become a friend of the distillery, complete with a certificate and a rent payment of fifty milliliters of Scotland’s finest. Armed with your national flag and a pair of wellies, you trudge through the sodden peat bog and claim your very own square foot of land.

From Laphroaig to Lagavulin, and then on to Ardbeg, you cover the ground on the southern flank, before striking for pastures greener. Most of the barley is malted at a large complex owned by Diageo—only Kilchoman distillery does it all, from planting the barley to bottling the booze.

It was there that I purchased the jewel in the crown—whisky aged in a Sauternes cask. Customers are only allowed one bottle apiece, and I’m a firm believer in scarcity value.

The approach to Bundahabbain, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The approach to Bunnahabhain, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Globalization has come to Islay, and the Bunnahabhain distillery has recently become part of a South African conglomerate. The distillery is a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal at Askaig, and the new owners are expected to sink seventeen million pounds, or twenty-two million bucks, into the much needed renovations.

Some of the distilleries are betting on innovation—Bruichladdich now produces a world-famous gin. The Botanist features no less than twenty-two herbs, and took the trendy gin market by storm. All distillers share a problem—the need to age their whisky, usually for a good number of years.

Moreover, different casks give different results, even if they’re from the same source, so the tasters are unsure of the outcome—a risky investment. Top barrels are hard to come by, and can cost seven hundred bucks, so some whisky distillers are buying out sherry producers just to get the casks.

Islay produces about three million gallons every year, and production is limited by the casks and space available for storage, so diversifying into gin, which needs no ageing at all, is a smart move.

From Tallinn to Tarbert, there’s something special about ferries. After a Scottish and thoroughly uncontinental ferry fry-up, I watch the dawn light up Jura, the island where Orwell wrote 1984.

I wonder how he would view this mad world thirty-two years later, as Russia bombs Aleppo into oblivion while the Americans look on.

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

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

Fancy That!

September 18, 2016

Digital warfare is here to stay. Ignore it, pretend the ever-growing range of affected themes is merely a product of malice, but the fact is we’ve entered an era of digital history.

Over the last years, digital attacks have targeted industry (Iranian nuclear facilities), politics (Democratic National Convention hacks), and sport (medical records of Olympic athletes).

Many of these attacks take the form of zero-day vulnerabilities, a matter I’ve discussed in these pages. All software contains bugs, and zero-days exploit undetected issues such as buffer overflows to penetrate target systems.

Zero-days are worth a fortune, typically tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a burgeoning market exists to discover and sell them—mainly to governments.

The view from the top: an image from 2006 of the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.

The view from the top: the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.

Stuxnet, the virus designed to attack the centrifuges at Natanz, was a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The story of the worm’s discovery, its development, and  a broader analysis of the consequences of this digital war was published in Wired, and then released as a book.

The history of Stuxnet is the tale of digital warfare, made possible by the internet. Hacking starts with sophisticated social engineering, enticing you to click on the wrong thing.

That initiates the process of delivery of malware to your laptop, iPhone, or tablet. The typical delivery mechanism is a zero-day that takes advantage of some coding flaw. Just like any other missile, the objective is to deliver a payload, or warhead, which then dedicates itself to ensuring you have a really bad hair day.

The original Stuxnet virus contained five zero-days, worth about half a million bucks.

Because all the major software components you use are American-made, the Bush (dubya) administration found itself in the awkward position of targeting US companies, although its major entry-point was via client machines.

As an example, Microsoft Windows Update was hacked so it could deliver a virus—a brilliant choice, because Update goes right to the core of the operating system. It has to, because its job is to patch (update or replace) system files.

But you can imagine how business confidence in Microsoft is eroded if you can’t trust their software to behave itself in your own home.

As soon as hacking became the province of governments, which it now is, everything got much more complicated. The previous US republican administration obtained four hundred million dollars to develop digital warfare, and in particular to attack the Iranian nuclear program—I assure you Obama will be doing the same right now to North Korea.

In order to program something as complex as the Stuxnet ‘family’ (because various flavors have been discovered), you need top brains and top dollar. But to make sure Stuxnet delivered, the Americans set up their own uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and proceeded to test and explode a bunch of centrifuge tubes.

Letting potential enemies build your critical infrastructure is always a risk, which is probably why the Chinese shouldn’t be building Hinckley Point, Britain’s new atomic power plant.

The Russians are deep into the whole digital hackfest, with alleged government fringe firms with names like Cosy Bear and Fancy Bear. Medvedev is the Russian word for bear, and these ‘Meds’ jumped right in after the Rio Olympics to highlight the injustice done to Russian athletes.

Ultimately, digital warfare has potentially huge consequences for democracy itself—just follow the hacking sharks that circle the November election.

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

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

The Fall

September 10, 2016

As the summer ebbs away, history returns with a vengeance—the balmy days of August quickly replaced by the barmy days of fall.

History, in this case, is prefixed by the adjectives ‘political’ and ‘economic’. I resampled London this week, which gave me a chance to probe the post-brexit mood. The thing is, as Private Eye pointed out, the UK is not in post-brexit, but in post-vote.

There is a certain naive hilarity to all this, because there’s a buoyant mood in the Great British press that ‘we got away with it.’ Problem is, the invocation of Article 50 is as distant as winter sunshine.

Let’s get down and dirty. You’ve heard Article 50 mentioned umpteen times, but most likely never read it.

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

There’s a whole website dedicated to the Lisbon Treaty, should you be affected by insomnia, but I give you only the offending article. Thankfully, it isn’t written in legalese, like so many EU directives—it may appear that the salient points are (a) the notification in 50(2), which the UK shows no signs of providing; and (b) the two-year period following it, as per 50(3).

However, 50(4) tells a more interesting tale—since the European Council concludes the negotiation, and the withdrawing Member-State does not participate, it means that in the end the UK doesn’t have a say in the final decision.

And there’s the rub. It’s for this reason that Theresa May and her twin bêtes noires (Davis and Johnson) want to strike a backdoor deal before notification, whereas the EU repeats that negotiation begins after notification.

I did a little homework on Articles 218 and 238 to help me understand the process and the majority definitions. Turns out that a qualified majority, normally equivalent to two-thirds of the vote, is a little different here. For the purpose of closing this deal the EU needs 55% of the nations, holding 65% of the population of the Union.

My interpretation is that the UK is excluded on both counts. As Stalin famously observed, it doesn’t matter who votes, but who counts the votes. So let’s engage for a minute in what the Portuguese call contar espingardas—let’s count our guns.

Rather than make a spreadsheet to work all this out, why not use the European Council’s voting calculator? The qualified majority voting system clearly favors big countries, so you can get your 65% with a five to six nation agreement.

Our calculator is flawed for this purpose, because it includes the UK, but we can make a quick correction in Excel. The UK has 12.73% of the EU population, so deduct and recalculate the percentage.

Turns out that if Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland negotiate an agreement, we’re at 66% of the population. You’d then need a further ten countries, just to gild the lily—I’d say you’re spoiled for choice (you could start with the ones that hate Farage).

Currently, the annual EU income from Member-States stands at about 133 billion euro. If you remove the net contribution from the UK, that value goes down to 126 billion euro. To top that up, each country needs an increased contribution of about five percent, but since eighteen countries are net beneficiaries, the shortfall can be partly compensated by a cut in structural funds. This penalizes convergence, but so would an increased contribution.

The point is that from the budgetary aspect, brexit is of little consequence to the remainder of the EU. From the trade perspective, it may be different. Nevertheless, people in the UK don’t choose German cars on the basis of price—they buy on quality, brand, and prestige.

Everywhere in the UK, the mantra is repeated that the EU is broken. I maintain we’re seeing the beginning of a great experiment, exactly as we saw in the creation of the United States, and it saddens me greatly that Britain won’t be along for the ride.

In between all this and the potential ‘Trexit‘ in November, perhaps things won’t be cooling down in the fall.

As the Chinese curse goes, may you live in interesting times.

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

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


September 3, 2016

Tourists are scarce in the wild and beautiful lands of Donegal. My spell-checker doesn’t even know the word. The Americans who land at Shannon or Dublin, searching for their roots, Guinness, or a spot of Irish craic (pronounced crack), gravitate around Kerry and Cork—some make it up to Galway for a more Gaelic experience.

Dún na nGall is at the very top of Ireland, a rain-drenched county where the black-faced sheep is king. Perhaps due to the weather, or lack of good roads, it remains unspoiled by hordes of visitors. On the eastern side of the Inishowen peninsula lies Derry (no one calls it Londonderry on this side of the border), one of the bastions of Irish nationalism.

Keep heading east and you get to Belfast, which in many ways I prefer to Dublin. The city has undergone an amazing transformation since I first went twelve years ago—the waterfront has been given the ‘Barcelona’ treatment, and now shines with parks, a conference center, and the Titanic Odyssey.

Belfast Harbor seen from the upper deck of a converted trawler. The Titanic Odyssey building is directly in front, and the famous Harland and Wolff gantry is on the right. Two gantries, Samson and Goliath are now used for shipbuilding.

Belfast Harbor seen from the upper deck of a converted trawler. The Titanic Odyssey building is directly in front, and the famous Harland and Wolff gantry is middle right. Two gantries, Samson and Goliath, are now used by H&W for shipbuilding.

The Odyssey is the jewel in the crown of this modern, bustling city—one hundred million dollars were spent on this interactive museum, where you’re introduced to XIXth century Belfast. First come the flax works and textile mills, then the heavy industry.

The story of the city at that time is the tale of Chinese or Indian cities nowadays—desperately poor people, scrawny, barefoot children, but all of them are white.

Then the winding course takes you to the shipyards, the engineering and design shops, the molding rooms, the fitters and joiners at Harland & Wolff, until you become part of the great endeavor of building the Titanic—you grieve for the dead and dying, tick off the names of shipyard workers who perished after being given the reward of traveling to New York on the maiden voyage of the great ship.

Your journey ends with a Disneyland-style ride up the gantry, where all around you is the crashing of plate riveters and other shipyard workers. The rivets were hammered by two men, fixing them in place before they cooled—left- and right-handed pairs were chosen for more efficient work.

The writing on the wall at Madden's, a traditional pub in central Belfast where a Basque band was celebrating the virtues of ETA.

The writing on the wall at Madden’s, a traditional pub in central Belfast where a Basque band was celebrating the virtues of ETA.

But the troubles, or at least their legacy, are seen in the deep split that continues to exist between Catholics and Protestants. On a bright sunny morning, as I drove through East Belfast on my way to Donegal, the street art made the Unionist position clear.

Murals at Freedom corner, East Belfast. The everpresent H&W gantry dominates the skyline.

Murals at Freedom corner, East Belfast. The ever-present H&W gantry dominates the skyline.

On the radio, the usual Irish craic. The word is almost as mystical as grok, the term invented by Robert Heinlein in 1961 in the book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Donegal, I frequently heard cellphone conversations start with ‘What’s the craic?”

The craic on the car radio was a spirited debate about hair growing faster on holiday. Fingernails and other body parts got thrown into the mix. One guy said he needed to shave twice a day on vacation.  Heat and dry weather were blamed. Someone promptly phoned in and said “I was in Donegal for a week and I went bald!”

Yes, Donegal can get damp and chilly, but the warmth of the people, the traditional music in the bars, and the stunning scenery, more than make up for it. I was out on the boats in Mulroy Bay, where some of the best rope mussels I’ve ever tasted are grown.

Seafood everwhere: salmon, crab, razor clams, oysters, and few young people eat it. The two Irish rowers who claimed a silver medal in Rio are a good example—first rate craic, if you can understand it. In another clip they explain that on their return they want steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let’s keep Donegal nicely hidden away, like any true gem. Sláinte!

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

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

The Pillars

August 28, 2016

The relationship between Morocco and Portugal is tinctured in blood.

On August 25, 1471, a young man looked out from the window at the North African dawn. He saw the souhks of Asilah, quiet now after the battle, faint plumes of smoke rising here and there from the pillaged wasteland…with his father at his side, he had scythed and thrust a red trail from the walls of the opulent city to the final moments at the keep. The Berbers who survived had been left to the bloodlust of the soldiers. Then as now, the ravages of rape and torture spoke louder than emotions of mercy, the primeval flames of human nature erupting in the oxygen of religious fire.

These words, taken from the first page of The India Road, do justice to a relationship written in blood since the days of the caliphate. And yet today, when Portugal is mentioned as you travel in Morocco, the old battles are forgotten—we are merely friends reminiscing ancient times.

By the mid-thirteenth century, the last Saracen bastion in Lusitanian territory had fallen to the Christian army of Afonso III. Muslim occupation in Spain was to last a further two hundred forty-three years. , ending with the siege of Granada.

Supporters of the caliphate today argue Iberia was theirs for longer than it has been Christian—at best this tenuous claim to sovereignty applies only to Aragon and Castile.

By the early fifteenth century, the Portuguese noblemen were straining at the leash. The nation had decisively defeated Castile two decades before, repealing yet another attempt by their principal foe to add Lusitania to the growing list of ‘Spanish’ provinces.

The battle of Aljubarrota, which forced the Spanish to relinquish their ambition to conquer Portugal. The painter, Jean de Wavrin, was only born fifteen years later. The expressions on the faces of the soldiers are amazingly bucolic.

The battle of Aljubarrota, which forced the Spanish to relinquish their ambition to conquer Portugal. The painter, Jean de Wavrin, was only born fifteen years later. The expressions on the faces of the soldiers are amazingly bucolic, it’s often impossible to distinguish the warring parties, and the tactical nuances that won the battle for Portugal are ignored.

Aljubarrota, itself a word of Arab origin, pitched Portugal against Spain. On hand were the usual suspects—English troops on the Lusitanian side, French fighting for Castile.  The battle was won through tactical skill, with the Portuguese troops divided into three wings, or divisions.

This split made the Spaniards believe their opponents were few in number—the Castilian cavalry charged, then fell into staked pits known as boca do lobo—the mouth of the wolf.

The left flank had the romantic name of Ala dos Namorados, the wing of boyfriends, so-called because the troops were young Portuguese nobles of marriageable age.

Two years after the battle, John of Portugal, grandfather of the Perfect Prince, married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. The Treaty of Windsor celebrated the alliance.

The sons of those namorados sought to cover themselves with glory in the bloody deserts of North Africa. On August 21st,  1415, the Portuguese army conquered Ceuta, beginning an occupation that lasted two centuries, with enclaves taken, lost, and re-taken.

The Moroccan seaside resort of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, was the old Portuguese town of Mogador. The Arab name means ‘ramparts’, and the town boasts one of the best natural ports in the region. The Portuguese were by no means the first to understand its strategic value—the Phoenicians built a settlement on the island of Mogador in the 6th century BC.

Mazagão (Mazayan in Berber), was another of the various fortresses established by Portugal on Moroccan lands—all these were considered strategic, and described an arc from Gibraltar to the west, progressing down the African coast. Mazagão was eventually re-taken by the Moors, and became Al Jadida. The name means ‘The New’ (jadid).

Agadir, which the Portuguese called Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), was perhaps the most important of these, and was only reconquered by the Arabs in 1541.

This long and bellicose relationship means that the Portuguese are well-known in Morocco. Unlike the subsequent colonization by the French, this was a fight based on religious differences rather than territorial ambitions, at least as far as North Africa was concerned.

What the Portuguese wanted was an expansion of their operational base for the Gulf of Guinea, and ultimately India, security for their shipping from the pirates of the Barbary (Berber) coast, and strategic protection of their own territory from the Moors.

Five centuries later, the memories of bloody battles have sunk into the desert sands—all that remains is the twin tale of proud peoples with a shared past.

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

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


The Souk

August 20, 2016

I tried for the tanneries of the red city the day before, wandering around the souk in one hundred and four degree heat. The alleys thinned out until no more Westerners could be seen.

I kept seeing the face of the guy who pointed me to my destination. He seemed to be walking around me, sometimes fifteen paces ahead, then twenty behind. He wasn’t alone—coordination is so much easier due to cellphone magic. Suddenly I felt like the only chicken in the shop.

My little finger told me I was walking into a trap—the web is thick with tales of tannery scams—so I re-thought my strategy.

The bunch of mint in my right hand did little to disguise the evil smell. I was just inside the walls of old Marrakech, looking at a honeycomb of tanning wells. This time, I’d used a cab—we came into the medina from the northwest through the Bab Aylan. The guy who gave (well, loaned) me the mint was a middle-aged Moroccan whose dental work would probably require divine intervention—his gums were pale blue, as if the strong dyes had etched themselves forever into his smile.

The image doesn't do justice to the abominable smell of ammonia, used to peel hair from the animal hides.

The image doesn’t do justice to the abominable smell of ammonia, used to peel hair from the animal hides.

The circular vats receive dromedary, cow, goat, and sheep hides, together with a heady mixture of pigeon poop—the ammonia the supply. Pigeons are a popular part of the local diet, and the pigeon farms that are scattered in the countryside produce copious quantities of bird shit, which finds a ready market in the tanning industry.

Later on in the leather assembly line, mimosa is used as a cleansing agent. I didn’t inquire about the effluents from this industry but they are undoubtedly a sewage engineer’s dream—as the old joke goes: it may be shit to you, but it’s my bread and butter.

After the attack in Nice, prices plummeted for Arab tourism. Somewhere with low prices and no tourists? Ideal! I had no particular concerns about Morocco—it’s the quintessential police state, and anyhow, the terrorists are all in Europe. Don’t get confused with the tannery tale—in North Africa, robbing foreigners is a pastime, killing them is a capital crime.

I watched a fair bit of the Al Jazeera news channel—in Arabic, of course. Not that I could understand much, but the imagery and body language suffice. The videos aren’t prudish about blood, or the cadavers of babies being pried out of bomb sites.

After a couple of hours watching world news, Gulf-style, Arab hatred for the West is obvious.  As is Sunni-Shia, Kurd-Turk, and a bunch of other permutations. The point is this isn’t news of Beyonce’s latest leap, Trump’s hair, and California wild fires, interspersed with fifteen seconds of terror attacks in France.

This is back to back explosions, bombings, maimings, and killings, complete with women’s wailing worthy of the Lion of the Desert. There is no break in the action, no light-hearted clip of the Mid-Eastern date seller who rescued that cute baby goat stuck in the Argan tree. OMG!

After a good dose of this channel, it’s clear why the grass roots in the Middle East applaud the attacks in France or Germany—to them, it’s just retribution. The desperately poor, illiterate, and jobless people live as they did hundreds of years ago—they know their rulers will do nothing to alleviate their lot, just as it always has been.

And on a regular basis, for reasons they don’t understand, the heavens open, not with the welcome sweetness of rain, but with fire and brimstone, delivered by Mig, Mirage, or F-15. Tormentors, as the FBI would say, both foreign and domestic.

Lunch by the river? Er... in the river.

Lunch by the river? Er… in the river.

In all the clips of war, for as long as I can recall, there are always Mercedes sedans, indestructibly transporting the populace as it attempts to escape the blind wrath of ordnance.

In the Atlas, taxis remain untouched by the finger of civilization. Decrepit diesel Mercs march on—the legendary 240D seven-seater, three in the front, four in the back. I saw the evil vehicles in their dozens, body parts scattered about their sub-frame, welded into compliance—but the engine, a veteran of millions of miles in the Moroccan sands, ticks on.

Safe transportation is key in the more unconventional spots—you always choose the older taxi drivers—they’ve survived. Out of maybe thirty rides, I only saw two meters fitted in vehicles, whether petit taxi or grand taxi—a bizarre distinction in itself. Both meters proudly displayed six zeros, but one of them only showed the bottom halves—presumably screen-burn.

Mr. Abdelah was my driver for the longer forays, and the man who unlocked the golden route to the tanneries. We drove to the Atlas, about halfway up the mountain. He invariably reacted to the insane antics of fellow drivers with a phlegmatic il est fou.

He was justly proud of his Korean vehicle, and heaped praise on the king for instituting a policy of eliminating the killer Mercs—the government will pay eighty-thousand dirhams (over eight thousand bucks) to remove your thirty- or forty-year old panzer from the road, and replace it with a nice new Renault, or an Asian car. And yet… there are many 240D and 300D owners who resist.

As you hit the narrow road that twists along the snowmelt stream, and begin to cross the Berber villages, a whole new country appears before you—tribal people, a different language. The mountains rise up, and at the last town on the road, forty-three families make their living taking people up the Atlas.

Not even the Mercs can handle the route—by now we’re down to the cat-cat Berber, from the French word quatre—the only 4X4 that can make those grades is the ubiquitous and long-suffering donkey.

My guide, thin and wiry as a mountain goat, bad teeth and a soccer shirt celebrating the Spanish world cup victory in South Africa, points to the mountain face. Thin rubber pipes meander like lianas toward town. “The villagers did this,” he proudly explains. Two different water sources, for agriculture and domestic use. To me, it’s just another indictment of a government that won’t help its people.

Basic sanitation is nonexistent, waste goes straight into the mountain stream. Every village downstream, and there are plenty, adds to the load. Down the escarpment, terraces have been built where sofas and armchairs have been placed—there are rows and rows of these informal restaurants along the riverbank.

The ‘esplanade’ consists of plastic chairs and tables placed in the river, where patrons sit, eating the inevitable tajines, their tired feet cooling in the water. The equivalent of a kids playground has been built with large round boulders to create a small weir, behind which the children splash and shout.

Back in old Marrakech, the Jemaa el Fnaa, where everything has a price, lights up at nightfall. This is the biggest square in Africa, the last trading post before you start on the long trail south to Mauritania, the Guineas, and the Congo.

Oh, and I was just kidding about the terror. In 2011, someone who watched too much Al Jazeera left a bomb in  a tourist restaurant in Jemaa el Fnaa and killed seventeen people.

If the locals got him, they’ll have made it eighteen. Without tourism, there is no economy here, only despair.

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

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

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