The Crown

January 25, 2020

Every few years, a new pox comes around to remind us we are mere mortals.

Two groups of disease agents concern humans most—bacteria, which have been known for far longer and are better understood, and viruses.

This is not to say that humans are not susceptible to other attackers—fungi are a case in point, and when it comes to other parasites, we have plenty—including single-celled organisms such as protozoa, as well as sizable creatures like flatworms.

Current estimates are that less than half of our body is made up of human cells, such as heart, skin, or liver. The other fifty-seven percent is foreign, and largely constitutes what health and wellness sites, supermarkets, and dietary gurus love to call the microbiome.

In terms of scale, if we average out world population, including children, to a weight of fifty-five pounds, or twenty-five kilograms each, eight billion people carry a weight of two hundred million metric tons, of which over half—one hundred fourteen million—is not us.

In the last decade, scientists have uncovered some fascinating stuff about our microbiome. The reduction of bacterial infections over the last seventy-five years due to the discovery of antibiotics has been remarkable—but in destroying the bacteria that do us harm, we also attack those that help us live—as a result, allergies have increased hugely.

Obesity has also been linked to the bacteria in your gut—a diet of burgers and fries promotes the presence of microbes that increase obesity, whereas a ‘lean’ microbiome can have the opposite effect.

Bacteria are like love—can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Viruses, on the other hand, are the dark side.

Although Pasteur discovered a vaccine for rabies, he didn’t understand what caused it. One of his assistants, Edouard Chamberland, patented a filter that retained bacteria and several scientists subsequently showed that diseases could still be transmitted after all bacteria were removed—whatever was responsible, passed through the filter.

Sea cucumbers, one of many exotic dishes I’ve eaten in China through the years.

Viruses are obligate parasites, meaning they only thrive inside the host. Some of the most interesting and nasty virus infections in recent memory, such as AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, have been associated with transmission from other animals to Man—the current spread of coronavirus is more of the same.

I’ll be in southeast Asia within a week, at which point the disease will have spread considerably—right now, it’s showing up in Thailand, South Korea and Singapore—so I have a personal interest in monitoring this particular epidemic.

AIDS originated in chimps, as a similar virus to HIV called SIV (for Simian). Not in the 1960s or 1970s, but one hundred years ago, in the 1920s. The crossover to humans is linked to consumption of these animals by Congolese tribes.

Likewise, Ebola, SARS, and now the new coronovirus are diet-related. Let’s face it, we are what we eat.

Ebola was linked to apes (and possibly bats), and SARS to bats. Bird flu, which was around a few years ago, was linked to ducks, geese, and chickens—all mainstays of Guangdong cuisine.

The new virus was first detected a few weeks ago in a food market in the city of Wuhan, once the capital of the Kuomintang—based on previous experience, that means it’s been around considerably longer.

When the phrase ‘food market’ is used in the West, it conjures up images of clean buildings, hygienic produce, and a wholesome family experience.

In the East, it is something very different. Every Chinese town has live food markets where an assortment of animals are kept in cages until sold to restaurants and households. Every Chinese restaurant of any standing will have fish and shellfish in aquariums—whereas in Southern Europe there may be one large tank containing lobsters, crabs, and the occasional bag of oysters, in China, individual species are kept in their own tanks—it’s not unusual to see twenty or thirty separate aquariums.

The live food market where the coronavirus epidemic is believed to have started stocked the usual range of crazy stuff, including porcupines, turtles, and crocodiles, as well as bugs, frogs, scorpions, and many kinds of seafood—snails, crabs, shrimp, fish, sea cucumbers, abalone, and geoduck will have been featured.

Apart from all the transport restrictions in mainland China, and now also in xiāng găng—the fragrant port of Hong-Kong—the sixty million dollar question is: which animal did this virus jump from?

And if you don’t know what a geoduck is, what better way to usher in the Chinese New Year?

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


January 19, 2020

I was going to call this article the Year of the Rat, since Monday marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year. If you were born in 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, or points south, this is your year.

However, I found a previous article by that name, and the rule is no repeats. It’s worth recalling why that name was given, back in 2013.

…apparently rats, and a host of other vermin, masquerading as mutton, have been consistently sold to consumers in China…

The Middle Kingdom doesn’t do things by halves—nine hundred arrests, twenty thousand tons of fake meat products. In these days of austerity, ten million Portuguese would eat for a week!

Twenty thousand metric tons of rat? A fair-sized rodent weighs in at about half a pound, or 250 grams, so we’re talking eighty thousand rats—you’d need a pretty large sewer.

Oops, I hope you’re not reading this over lunch!

The Chinese New Year is celebrated as the Spring Festival—a little early in 2020, because it is set by the lunar calendar, and this year the date falls on January twenty-fifth, almost two months short of the astronomical spring.

But don’t you believe for a minute this dampens their enthusiasm.

China is a country that moves together—it’s a collective system, a highly cooperative society. It needs to be, otherwise 1.4 billion people could not coexist—individualism is frowned upon, as reflected in the aphorism ‘man who shine too brightly cast a long shadow.’

I’m not being jocular about the grammar, I’m making the point that Mandarin doesn’t have any. No articles, definite or otherwise, no prepositions, no verb tenses, no capitals, no punctuation—if you want to ask a question you tag ma on the end of a sentence.

nǐ dē míng zì shì shěn mé or 你的名字是什么

your name is what (question)

The capacity and motivation of the Chinese to act collectively is potentially very dangerous—when the country moves, it really shifts. On the other hand, individual opinions and ideas are frowned upon, so Western education, innovation, and technology have an edge there.

The Middle Kingdom shuts down during the festival. Contrary to the West, red is a lucky color, so that’s what you wear—and of course, no Chinese celebration would be complete without fireworks—after all, they invented them.

The Chinese perform a ritual cleaning of their homes and their bodies for the Spring Festival, a true ‘spring-clean‘, and go forth to visit family—today and much of next week will be extremely busy at all Chinese airports, on the road, and on the huŏchē (火车), or train.

Chinese and German are similar in that both languages are based on compound words—in Mandarin there is little choice, since a ‘word’ is just a sequence of characters: car is a vapor vehicle, train is a fire vehicle, and bus is public common vapor vehicle (4 characters, 公共汽车 spoken gōnggòngqìchē).

The traditional greeting at this time of year is guò nián hăo, literally ‘celebrate year good.’ Of course, with so few sounds available, a slight variation of guo means something entirely different.

guo means dog in Mandarin. When I reviewed the usage examples in my Chinese app, everything was going so well until that last one…

nian (年), pronounced nien, as in Vienna, is a monster whose favorite pastime is eating people and animals all year round. The annual monster can be driven off with the color red, and the Chinese exchange the greeting in the hope of a monster-free year.

This is a time to buy new clothes, matching the clean house and body, and of course to give presents. In Xi Jinping’s China, gifts and banquets have become a sign of corruption, but this time of year is special—the Chinese manufacture and sell all the West’s Christmas products, from cellphones to sellotape, then they have another shopping boom before their own new year, then they clear inventory—now’s a good time to grab a good price on consumer electronics from the Middle Kingdom.

Everything in China comes with rules, and guò nián is no exception. There are rules for food, as in the West, but there are other interesting restrictions—it is forbidden to speak of death or illness, and the character 四 (, pronounced shèh) cannot be spoken, for it is the number four, and the word for death is also sǐ (but a different tone, indicated by the diacritical mark).

The ‘4’ superstition actually merits a Wikipedia entry for tetraphobia! I don’t suffer from it, but I made sure my phone number has no fours in it—no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay.

Out of all the foibles related in the Wikipedia article, this is the most fascinating one.

The British Medical Journal reported in a study that looked at mortality statistics in the United States over a 25-year period. They found that on the fourth day of the month, Asian people were thirteen percent more likely to die of heart failure. In California, Asians were twenty-seven percent more likely to die of a heart attack on that day.

Twenty percent of the world’s population will go nuts next week, forgetting all about Trump, trade deals, and Taiwan-China conflicts.

Shanghai is the ‘fun’ city, by contrast with Beijing. In 1946, this is how they ushered in the Year of the Dog.

At the very end of the last day of 2019, to mark the start of 2020, they laid on an amazing drone display for the Western new year, broadcast on TV all over the world—except it never happened.

Let’s see what they come up with next weekend. I could be something like this.

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


January 11, 2020

It sounds like a medical condition—so much so that I’m going to try it on some friends next week in Amsterdam and see how it flies.

“Sorry, I’m off the red wine at the moment—diagnosed with a stubborn case of glossolalia, I’m afraid.” Perplexed looks, perhaps the odd sympathetic murmur.

“No, no, it’s a mild liver infection, not too serious.”

But in fact, this is a word concocted by some particularly cunning linguists (as opposed to master debaters, to quote the legendary Austin Powers).

I’d forgotten how good the original clip is—it meets my exacting standards for sophomoric humor.

So… glossolalia it is, my friends—known to mere mortals as speaking in tongues—an amazing gift first revealed in the gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 16, Verse 17.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

Jesus performed the miracle of glossolalia on his disciples, who then held forth to their audiences in tongues—contrary to Babel, where a cacophony of different languages was understood by none, in the Jerusalem square where the apostles preached the gospel, everyone heard it in their own ‘tongue.’

In this context, the word ‘tongue’ is itself interesting. In several European er… languages, it’s synonymous with ‘language’, as in the French ‘langue’, Italian or Portuguese ‘lingua’, or the Spanish ‘lengua’. In English, phrases like ‘mother tongue’ do not refer to a protuberant piece of maternal anatomy but presumably to an older word for language—today, ‘What is your favorite tongue?’ might well be taken the wrong way.

The gift is clear—you hold forth in Hebrew and are understood in Somali. One assumes that those who possess such a gift can also reverse the process—when addressed in one of the sixty-six indigenous languages of Burkina Faso, the plain English equivalent is readily understood.

There is a caveat to this narrative—the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 14, suggests that glossolalia may be a different beast altogether.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit

If the apostle epistle is to be believed, then it is almost as if there is some kind of telepathy at play, rather than simultaneous translation.

Whatever the mechanism, the concept and consequence are the holy grail of communication. In 1887, a Polish doctor attempted to resolve the problem of universal comms with a second, or auxiliary, language—Esperanto; but the number of speakers today is only estimated to be between sixty-three thousand and two million—after one hundred thirty years? I don’t think so.

Enter AI, which is rapidly slicing through all sorts of hitherto intractable problems. The combination of computational speed and artificial intelligence makes translation on the fly a reality today.

In 2003, a Swede and a Dane invented Skype. Unlike Esperanto, Skype needs no introduction—usage numbers in 2010 were around six hundred and sixty million, about ten percent of the world population, but after Microsoft bought it in May 2011 for 8.5 billion dollars, things went downhill.

Partly, that speaks to Microsoft’s penchant to screw things up—I’ve used their products for decades, but no one would ever call them sexy. Cool stuff like Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, and Hangouts stuck the knife in deep over the last decade, but Microsoft’s gift for complicating stuff hasn’t helped matters.

They have, however, made giant strides when it comes to tongues. Microsoft has used its AI capacity to add simultaneous translation to Skype.

But the process hasn’t all been a bed of roses. To validate the quality of the translation—a point well made by Austin Powers when discussing his rod—mickeysoft involved humans in its translation analysis, with little consideration for the private nature of conversations.

An article in Motherboard recently discussed the software giant’s use of private contractors to verify translation accuracy, with what appeared to be minimal security when it came to data protection—contractors were privy to intimate conversations, and this will undoubtedly anger many users.

It may be cold comfort, but the Snowden leaks revealed in 2013 that Microsoft already shares data from its Skype supernodes with the NSA and other intelligence agencies—no translation required.

These little hiccups aside, once the door opens, ideas will come flooding in. Enter Snapdragon 865, the new 5G chip from Qualcomm, which was recently showcased in Maui. the AI product boss, Ziad Asghar, spoke into a cellphone in English, and his words were simultaneously broadcast in Chinese.

The new decade will produce phones that allow you to speak in tongues, opening up a whole new world of communication. There are downsides—the main one being that this will reduce the incentive to learn new languages.

When you speak another language or two, it helps you learn more about your own. It also opens your mind to new peoples and cultures—breaking down barriers destroys silos and promotes peace and harmony.

But change is inexorably coming, and as Churchill said, ‘We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.’

Or, as my Chinese friends would say, we’re all grossorarians now.

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


January 5, 2020

Since the new decade is branded the ‘roaring twenties’, let’s jump right in and talk money.

In 1641, a Belgian merchant called Nicolas Bourey presented a proposal to the senate of the Lisbon câmara, or council. His document was entitled Proposta de criação de uma ‘tontina’, sistema de apostas sobre a vida—proposal for the creation of a ‘tontine’, a system of bets on life.

On life? For a betting man such as Mr. Wibaux, this sounds like the ultimate pari mutuel—but before we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s take a brief tour of stocks, bonds, perpetuities, and annuities.

When you buy stock, you secure a share in a company, and therefore your financial fate becomes inextricably tied to theirs. A bond, on the other hand, is a loan on your part—all going well, after a fixed period of time you will recover your capital, to which interest has been added on a regular basis.

A perpetuity, on the other hand, guarantees perpetual income, but the capital investment is irredeemable. Although by definition the payments never end, this is an example of the time value of money—despite appearances, the investment is finite, because payments into the far future have a negligible value.

In 1900, you could buy a gentleman’s dress shirt for one dollar; or a toddler’s tricycle; or my favorite: nine bottles of cocaine toothache drops.

Sold over the counter until 1914, these drops were a great way to clear your nasal passages. Fun fact? They still are! And if you worked out that 9 X 15 is more than a buck, your financial future is assured.

Today, that dollar would be worth about three cents—so much for your perpetuity.

And finally, there’s the annuity, where you also forfeit your capital investment in return for a fixed annual income until your death.

As people live longer, that becomes an attractive financial instrument. Say you pay an insurance company eighty thousand dollars when you retire, in exchange of an annuity of four or five grand? The insurer bets on an average life expectancy, but guarantees your payment—that means you don’t run the (very real) risk of outliving your savings.

Appealing as it might sound, society has very little uptake for this product. Perhaps because the fixed nature of the annual income is disappointing, and perhaps because people feel that if they die early, the insurance company essentially ‘steals’ money that would otherwise be bequeathed.

Enter the tontine.

The proposal is dated January 1st, 1641, only one month after Portugal regained its independence from Spain, following sixty years of occupation. The document presented before the Lisbon senate by Monsieur Bourey was short and sweet—twelve articles in all, and this was the first.

…the means through which to obtain one million cruzados, which my petition proposes, consists of having this Senate establish a company with 10,000 members who will contribute each 100 cruzados, which makes one million, and having the interest set at 5%,which amounts to 50,000 cruzados and will be distributed equally, beginning the first year and continuing for each following year of each person’s life, because as soon as they die they will not gain any more dividends and will lose the 100 cruzados they originally invested, so that the surviving investors each year enjoy increasingly higher earnings because the dividends of 50,000 cruzados will always be divided among the surviving investors until 50 years of age and therefore those who live will divide the 50,000 cruzados among themselves and this Senate will be released from the original one million investment as well as the payment of dividends.

And here is the bet on life. Literally, those that live longest will see the most.

The fact that this scheme was proposed a month after Portugal regained independence from Spain is highly relevant—King Joao IV of Braganza was desperately in need of cash—the Portuguese Restoration War lasted almost thirty years, until the treaty of Lisbon was signed in 1668. And Portugal’s timing was pretty good, since Spain was involved in the other thirty years war over the same period.

There are lessons here for America as we enter the new decade—all empires decline, and proliferation of pointless wars on multiple fronts is a key sign of decadence. Now the United States has its own equivalent of Commodus, Nero, and Caligula, history is moving inexorably into a new cycle.

Bourey is long forgotten, much like the decision on his proposal—the tontine, however, lives on.

In 1653, an exiled Neapolitan businessman proposed the same idea to the French king. The Neapolitan was called Lorenzo de Tonti, and the financial scheme bears his name—like Amerigo Vespucci, Tonti named something he never discovered, and the name stuck.

Tonti ended up in the Bastille for his troubles, but shortly thereafter Louis XIV used the tontine to finance the Nine Years War.

A very different Europe in the year 1700, only thirteen generations ago.

In Europe, tontines became a resounding success and were used by many governments to fund war. Why were they attractive to ordinary citizens? Perhaps because we are eternal optimists about our lives, and the appeal that we will benefit more as others disappear is powerful.

Where an annuity is boring, the notion that every time one of the members of the ‘company’ passes my income increases, made the tontina a winner. It also resonates with the concept of not outliving your savings—on the contrary, if you outlive your peers, your income goes up, instead of down, since you may eventually become the grim reaper—of everything.

As the United States shifted to an industrial economy in the late XIXth century, the tontine became a key insurance instrument—first started by the Equitable Life Assurance Society, later to become AXA.

The agricultural society of the US provided a family safety net for the elderly based on a common abode and on the distribution of tasks across generations. As more people migrated to factory work in the cities, that support system disappeared, generating a necessity for other ways to provide for old age.

The tontine was a solution to that problem, releasing children from the encumbrance of their ageing parents. By 1905, six billion dollars were held in tontines, 7.5% of US wealth.

As with every good idea humans ever had, perversion and evil soon appeared on the scene—by the early XXth century, tontines were illegal in many American states.

The concept of betting on life was also widely seen as betting on death—of others. As a consequence, a number of murder mysteries, novels, and movies were spawned by the tontine—all shared a common plot, where members of the company were disposed of to enrich the survivors.

If all this sounds tricky, just remember the tontine is a special sauce—a culinary supremo of greed and fear.

And if you live long enough, you’re guaranteed to win the lottery.

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

Red Tape

December 29, 2019

The idiom originated in Spain, during the reign of Emperor Charles V—ruler of an empire on which the sun never set.

Red tape was used to bind important official documents—it emphasized priority; the concept and color were taken up by governments across the world, and the expression is still used to describe any bureaucratic excess.

In Europe, the southern countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal are regarded as an administrative nightmare when compared to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or Britain.

This reputation is well deserved. Decades ago, whenever I had to deal with any matter related to documents for jobs, houses, cars, or anything else, I used to pack a royal flush of materials before setting out.

It was a joy to pull out the most unexpected items from my briefcase—as in any proper game of poker, there would be some bluffing involved, and cards would be requested by the civil servant sitting opposite you—if you had enough aces, you might carry the day.

This is a high stakes game, where you can jeopardize a three-hour wait in a queue in a space of three minutes because you don’t hold a strong hand.

In China, India, the Mid-East, and South America, the situation is far worse. And then there’s Africa. Because policy guidelines are in many cases unclear, the process of acquiring something is often discretionary—money is an integral part of getting anything done.

Many years ago, I was told about a man who presented himself at the border station of Ressano Garcia, the gateway from Mozambique into Gauteng—formerly Transvaal—and was confronted by a border official, who fixed him with a steady gaze and demanded, “Documentos!

The man replied, “Está tudo aqui menos a certidão de óbito“—it’s all here except my death certificate— and handed over a sheaf of papers. After a protracted examination and much rubber-stamping, the official pushed the papers back over, glared at the man, and said, “Para a próxima não se esqueça“—next time don’t forget.

The Komatipoort border post, made famous through the escape of Winston Churchill from the Boers in the late XIXth century.

Although Komatipoort is a pain—I braved the crossing in 2003 and the memory lingers—there is far worse.

One major difference between the Anglo-Saxon nations, such as the US, Canada, and Britain, and their Latin counterparts, is the concept of an ID card. Those nations have always seen the card, and its associated fingerprinting, as symptomatic of a police state—why should a citizen need to be identified by the authorities unless he or she is convicted of a crime?

Of course, since nine-eleven, with the enormous progress in computational image processing, this has become a moot point—in fact, some fascinating work is underway on an e-nose, which combines AI, chemistry, and biology—soon a robot will sniff you out as readily as your dog does.

In the US, the lack of ID to track the general population has led to the use of driving licenses as a proxy police database—what the  cops really want are  photos of drivers, because automated image recognition of suspects at a crime scene will readily provide them with names and addresses.

Presently, according to a piece in the Washington Post, there are one hundred twenty million pictures in searchable photo databases—these are widely used by the police and can be accessed from a laptop inside a prowler.

This is tantamount to a national ID system, practically indistinguishable from the Spanish DNI or the Italian Carta di Identitá. The UK and Ireland don’t issue ID, but undoubtedly the authorities in those countries will follow the lead of their American cousins—by and large, faces are almost as good as fingerprints as an identification technique, and they’re a lot easier to capture on CCTV.

All this sounds very ‘Big Brother’, but in Southern European countries, the ID cards are now serving another purpose—in this case, a force for good.

It’s practically impossible to change civil service mentalities, which perpetuates the petty and punitive dictatorship that encumbers citizens at every turn, but the internet has arrived to save the day.

An ordinary credit card (or ID) reader costs about fifteen bucks and throws open the door to endless possibilities. With a simple PIN verification system, any citizen can deal with an increasing number of bureaucratic nightmares, turning them into a swift and gratifying experience—matters that took days to solve are done in minutes.

Presential verification of identity can now be replaced by a card reading, a PIN code, a digital signature… the drive to simplify administrative procedures means that documents that previously needed to be generated in parallel agencies, then handed in and filed, can now be directly retrieved through connected databases that work within government.

I first discovered this when I renewed my driving license a few months back. I was sitting in a public waiting room, watching numbers on a screen move at glacial speed, when I decided to fire up my laptop and look for alternatives. In minutes I’d dealt with the whole process online—I happily trashed my ticket and went on my way.

Since then, I’ve found more and more options—updating your address and other personal details, obtaining birth, death, or land registry certificates, getting court filings, buying and selling cars, booking an appointment at a health center, and of course all things related to tax. In Portugal, and no doubt elsewhere, the financial authorities were the first to launch an internet platform where such matters can be dealt with.

A few years ago, the platform was clunky and mercurial. Now, it’s slick and consistent. Whenever the language is convoluted and arcane, you know some red tape trapeze artist was behind the formulations—but at least there’s only one version, and once you learn the recipe, success is assured.

Gone are the Russian roulette days when each bureaucrat behind the counter  turned their own opinion into the law of the land—citizens often took multiple ticket numbers, and when they were unsuccessful with one civil servant, would try again when called to the adjoining booth, hoping for better luck.

In Portugal, the full list of services is available at the ePortugal website, and in Britain, the GOV.UK site appears to be the equivalent. However, whereas the Portuguese site is completely focused on doing, the UK one is much more oriented towards information. Nevertheless, I played around with their online passport app.

After a brave attempt to upload my passport photo, the image analysis software provided some disturbing feedback.

I got as far as the photo upload part, with a little help from my friendly (and unsuspecting) canine co-conspirator. I find the last comment perplexing—if I have a medical reason for not opening my eyes, then surely I can’t read the feedback.

And for the record, it was a perfectly good photo, although the hound looks mega-guilty after trashing her bed.

I tried to apply online for a Spanish DNI. The only page I found promises four steps, but unfortunately the first one is… go to an Oficina de Expedición. In all fairness, there’s a further site for obtaining a cita, or appointment, but it doesn’t look like an online renewal form to me.

I don’t honestly think it matters.

What does matter, as I write my last article before the new decade, is that technology is vanquishing bureaucracy. Governments are born copycats, and as soon as one gets it right, others will follow, sooner or later.

This will be driven by three factors.

The first is centralization of digital data—online administration will provide a wealth of consolidated information, and the hook for many people will be avoiding long queues and soul-destroying pettiness—all the forms will get filled.

The second is finance—many jobs will go, but in this case, I for one will rejoice. Of course, as soon as the right software model is in place, the IT companies can sell it far and wide—that’s where lobbying and ex-politicians come in.

The last one is votes. In any country where bureaucracy rules, a paradigm shift toward a simplified set of consistent procedures, in an environment that is calm and friendly—I hope that’s the definition of your home—will be popular with citizens and employers.

When a problem is solved, no one talks about it. Why talk about something that isn’t there? One hundred years ago, people talked about refrigerators. Where you put what, who manufactured it… Today, no one cares. Veggies in the bottom, ice on top, a bunch of other stuff in between.

I cherish the day when no one in Southern Europe talks about bureaucratic nightmares, because they don’t exist. And that day is coming.

Now there’s a resolution for the New Decade.

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

Do They Know It’s Christmas

December 22, 2019

Shhh… Let’s enjoy a little peace and quiet, away from the chaos our world has become.

The weather outside is mild, and although I’m a half hour away from a major city, all I can hear through my open window is the occasional distant bark of a dog, followed by a few canine aftershocks.

My window faces the south, like the old country tune says, and in December the sun is low enough to come streaming through—but today there’s a cloudy haze, and all I can see is the albedo behind the pine trees.

I saw and heard some terrible things this past week—I don’t mean the antics in the USA and UK, or the Australian bush fires, I’m talking about the deep-rooted wickednesses humans perpetrate against each other, as we pursue our endless exploitation and graft.

The two things that shocked me most were a Washington Post story on India and a BBC report about an app widely used in the Mid-East to traffic domestic helpers.

Both stories underscore a common point—the plight of the disenfranchised, the poverty-stricken, and the weak. In the first case, it’s the tragicomic story of Narendra Modi’s improvements to sanitation—like Palin’s bridge to nowhere, the Indian premier’s millions of toilets miss the connection to trunk sewerage systems, which are in many areas inexistent.

As a consequence,  the septic tanks that receive domestic waste are cleaned manually by Dalit men, the community formerly known as untouchables. I lived for years in a house which had a similar sanitary arrangement—the tank was regularly pumped empty, but there were occasional overflows, and I kept some tools handy to deal with blockages.

Unpleasant to do, but the descriptions of men lowering themselves quasi-naked into pits to empty them with buckets, and the photos that accompany the Post article, are stomach-turning.

The second piece, a tribute to how humans convert any good idea into Machiavellian suffering, turns the stomach in a different way. The brave new world designed by the Silicon Valley latte and Lime set has been put to work transacting maids—many underage—in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Mid-East nations.

Screengrabs from the 4Sale app on Apple’s App Store.

I was not the least surprised to find out the main character who kicks off the report is a Kuwaiti cop, but the extent to which the trade depends on the 4Sale app, Google, Instagram (i.e. Facebook), and Apple, is mind-boggling.

I think the saddest part of the documentary is when the BBC team, accompanied by a local cop, is taken to a village in Guinea Conakry to search for the family of a missing girl.

It is patently obvious that everyone knows who the girl is, but a succession of villagers studiously avert their gaze or shake their heads as cellphone pictures are shown to them.

The off-duty cop, who is certainly aware that villagers sell their daughters into domestic service or worse, just as in Southeast Asia, disingenuously tells the reporting team that ‘unfortunately they were not successful this time in finding the girl’s family, but of course they must keep looking.’

Yet here we are, on the first day of Hannukah 2019, a stone’s throw from Christmas, and a week away from what the business world is already touting as the Roaring Twenties.

This season, above all others, should cherish and protect those less fortunate.

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


December 14, 2019

Pistons, cylinders, and wheels are at the heart of civilization.

The movement of piston and cylinder is pretty obvious from our own sexual behavior—and humans think of sex all the time—but when Man invented the wheel, it was definitely a game-changer.

It can’t have taken long to realize that you could couple a wheel to a shaft, that the wheel could drive the shaft, and that the shaft could drive the wheel.

From then on, the possibilities were endless—vehicles, pumps, and tools of all kinds became available to society.

The next challenge was to harness the energy for operating these creations. Humans enslaved other humans to do that work, and in addition they enslaved other animals.

In much of the world, slavery is a thing of the past, but in most countries mammals such as donkeys, mules, oxen, and yaks still discharge those duties. They perform their services in exchange for food and lodging, whipped into submission, indentured to servitude from womb to tomb, bound by a contract in which they had no part.

In my children’s book, Folk Tales For Future Dreamers, a yak explains the issue in plain language to his incredulous daughter.

Yingwen munched a little sedge and thought hard about what to do. If I go too far down the hill, I’ll meet the tulegs, and they’ll take me prisoner. Her father had pointed them out from a distance on more than one occasion.

“There’s one, my girl, on the ridge! See, behind the bahrals.”

Yingwen could see the bahrals, with their long curved horns and soft faces. The blue sheep weren’t blue at all, and they had white streaks on their faces, running from their eyes to the corners of their mouth.

“Daddy, I see the blue sheep, but—“

“There!” Daddy nuzzled her head to make her look the right way.

“Oh!” She saw a strange creature standing on its hind legs behind the flock of sheep. It was small, covered in fur, and holding a stick in its foreleg.

“That’s a tuleg. Be very careful. If they can, they’ll grab us.”

“That? Even I could bump it.”

“No, Yingwen. They’re very sneaky, and they’ll take you prisoner, using their sneaky ways.”

“And eat me? Like the bears and wolves?”

“Not straightaway. The tulegs make you work, pulling their machines all day. They use lots of animals, bahrals and yaks, and they never let them go. They steal our milk, our hair, even our poop!”

“Our poop? Yuk!”

No, yak!” Daddy howled with laughter, very pleased with his joke. “They burn our poo in their fires, to keep warm at night. That sheepskin coat you see, Ingwen, it’s not really theirs. Actually, they have no fur at all, they’re all yellow and skinny.”

“Eewww,” said Yingwen.

“No, sheep!” Her father howled with laughter again, until she pinched him.

Natural sources were the next step in harnessing energy. Water, wind, and tide powered mills—in Al Andalus, the Moors were experts in using nature to drive these devices, a good many of which survive to this day.

But eight centuries before the Arabs invaded the Iberian Peninsula, a Greek named Hero of Alexandria described a steam-driven device that was capable of rotating a wheel. Nevertheless, it took one thousand eight hundred years before the Frenchman Savary built a working steam engine.

Savary’s engine was not efficient, and it was significantly improved upon by a little known Portuguese scientist—Portugal has never been kind to its own, and although Bento de Moura Portugal was a member of the Royal Society, and even bore the nation’s name, he died in prison in Lisbon due to his political ideas, courtesy of the inquisition and the Marquis of Pombal.

The collected writings of Bento de Moura Portugal, a great scientist who was scorned by his country.

Thomas Newcomen further improved the steam engine, and towards the close of the XVIIIth century, the Scotsman James Watt finally developed a machine that could be used efficiently.

Factories no longer needed to be located next to rivers—a huge push for industry—and mobility on road and rail had arrived. The success of steam was relatively short-lived, as the external combustion engine was overtaken by the internal combustion engine, ushering in the age of oil.

The whole of the last century has been predicated on black gold—the viscous mess has been responsible for the rise of the Middle East, and the reason for countless wars.

This week, Saudi Aramco (formerly the Arabian American Oil Company) was floated on the Tadawul stock exchange, but you’ll have a job buying shares if you’re in the West. Aramco touched a valuation of two trillion dollars on the second day of trading, so oil is still a thing—but the writing is on the wall.

Renewables are becoming increasingly popular and competitive, and we are returning to natural sources—the wind, the sun, and the tides.

All over Europe, the push is for electric cars, with Germany, the leading European manufacturer of diesel and petrol automobiles, leading the pack. With that comes a shift away from fossil fuels, which has now become a generational cry championed by XR, the Extinction Rebellion. Right now, the United States is on a different tack on this issue, but that too shall pass.

Perhaps the era of oil will last a total of two hundred years, maybe less—just as with steam, much depends on the next big thing, but by the year 2050 electric vehicles will be strong competitors, helped by major improvements in battery technology, cheap renewable energy, taxation on carbon emissions, and the votes of Generation Z.

The consequences for the Mid-East are not hard to envisage—I made a stab at those in my book Atmos Fear.

The next steps will come with marine engines, and of course, air travel.

A few days ago, a Canadian company called Harbour Air became the first to offer commercial flights on electric planes. The engine is made by Seattle-based Magnix, and promises to save around half of the fuel costs of conventional aircraft.

Plane tickets will be cheaper, and you’ll say goodbye to Doha and Dubai.

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

Old World

December 8, 2019

We live in an old world. In 1800, the average life expectancy at birth was twenty-nine years.

The global average now is 72.2 years, well over double that number. But the power of averages is limited—no one ever got rich on an average wage, and the disenfranchised take little comfort from it.

Statistics have in some ways displaced thought, which is why they should be taken with a large pinch of salt. I’m not speaking about errors in calculation—though they occur, both through accident and deliberation—my concern is about what statistics hide.

Europe has the oldest people in the world—that’s a statistic—we’re not talking about the oldest person, but the median age.

An infographic from (catchy name), shows human age distribution worldwide.

Monaco, full of elderly tax dodgers, has the highest median value, but overall, Europe is double Africa.

The European situation attests to low birth rates, excellent health care, and low immigration—despite what populist movements would have us believe. The US is a younger nation, but much of that is because of the increasing Hispanic population, currently fifty-two million people, or 16.7% of the country.

Statistics obscure (or synthesize, for all you optimists) data in both time and space—a spatial breakdown indicates that the four states which border Mexico all have 30% or more Latinos, double the national average.

Ageing populations have consequences, the first of which is that humans enjoy a longer life (duh)—society is better able to take care of its own.

That change in longevity came about pretty quickly—nothing happened for four hundred years, and suddenly… badaboom!

The way we were… Changes in life expectancy are a product of three generations: the greatest, the silent, and the baby boomers (graph adapted from

The most remarkable change was for the baby boomers, because there was a rapid increase in both population and life expectancy. In the West, baby boomers are privileged when compared to the generations that followed them—their per capita GDP increased significantly, many people were able to buy homes, and the increase in life expectancy was not rewarded by an increase in retirement age.

The downsides were also interesting. A batch of new diseases became the worry of the late century, including breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, and chronic vascular conditions. These became health challenges as the life-threatening problems of the past were conquered through antibiotics, vaccination, early diagnosis, and cutting-edge surgery, if you excuse the pun.

Care for the elderly became a worry, then a business—today it’s spawned a world of euphemisms, from assisted living, to retirement, senior, and (God forbid) old people’s homes.

I visited one last week, a little wary of what I might find. I was told that old people, like children, need tenderness and love—we all do, of course, but I can relate—at the more delicate stages of life, such things are all-important. If you live alone after a certain age, surrounded by memories of those you love—many of whom you’ve parted with—you may well be better off in company.

European cities are full of elderly people whose life is four walls and endless days—folks with stories to tell, and most importantly, lessons to teach. Western business discards its elderly with glee, and governments are hard-pressed to address the social consequences.

Many countries now place the retirement age in a bracket between ages 65 and 67, but the systems are collapsing anyhow. Projected increases to the age of seventy-five won’t solve the funding deficit—but that’s a prospect forty year olds face now.

As I browsed for data, a targeted ad came up for Ukranian women. The German site advertises im osten geht die lieber auf, which Google translates as ‘in the east, they prefer to go.’

Well, that certainly put the cat among the pigeons! I have now further understood that…

If you are looking for a fulfilling relationship with a woman from Eastern Europe, you are in the right place. In addition to Russian women, Ukrainian women account for a large proportion of the ladies registered with us. Like other Eastern European women, women from Ukraine differ in many ways from Western European women and exert an incredible fascination for men through their special charm.

I am still bemused by where, how, when, or even why ‘they prefer to go’, and am now further intrigued by ‘their special charm.’ Gruβ Gott, the stuff you come across when you’re writing a God-fearin’ blog on a Sunday morning!

The issue of retirement age is predicated on the support base of the pension system—it was calculated on a static basis for a moveable reference frame, which would never work. Such models must include predictions of changes in employment, wage structure, economic growth, globalization, immigration, birth rate, mortality, and lifespan.

Is your job at risk? If so, chances are you’ll ‘retire’ much earlier than planned.

At least half of the variables in the model above (all the economic ones) are unpredictable at the timescales of interest—generational. The risk profile of many job categories (so many others are already gone) makes the analysis all the more uncertain—the notion that policy-makers and politicians can accurately balance budgets predicated on changes to retirement age, fine-tuned to two decimal points, beggars belief.

From the point of view of societal sustainability, retirement and unemployment are the same thing. This discussion is at the core of my new book, ‘The Hourglass’, due out in 2020.

But the lesson I learned on my visit was simple—to take care of the elderly and the infirm, all you need is love.

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

Asian Onions

December 1, 2019

One hundred Indian rupees is worth $1.39 this morning. That’ll buy you one kilogram—just over two pounds—of onions in Mumbai.

In the US, inflation hovers around two percent, and in the EU, the numbers are about the same. In the developed world, inflation is a quiet ogre, but as soon as it stirs, trouble brews.

High values can throw an economy into a tailspin—money becomes worthless, and society reverts to barter.

When you need a log scale to count your money, the giant’s on the rampage.

But Zimbabwe is an extreme example—in Venezuela, the inflation over the past three years was only fifty-three million percent. Other countries have roared into the hundreds and stayed there for decades—Argentina averaged 196% per year since the Second World War.

High inflation over long periods creates a systemic parallel economy where nations live in a nebulous region of black market currency trades. The increase in money supply to meet spending requirements drives up prices, at which point governments print more money, and a stable economic cycle plunges into chaos.

Chaos theory would merit a lifetime of articles, but the key principle is that small changes can cause huge effects—the non-linearity fascinates me, since it can be the cause of incredible disasters.

The effect of hyperinflation is amazing in terms of numbers theory, but in the real world the shifts in state, as the system moves from a stable limit cycle to chaos, can only be qualitatively predicted—by that I mean that you can envisage the types of changes, but you don’t know when, where, or how they’ll happen.

In economic terms, a worthless currency leads to a collapse in imports, since foreign goods can no longer be paid for. In the transportation sector, that means less vehicles—no new ones, no spare parts. Distribution of essential goods stops—food, water, medicine…

People lose their jobs, or are paid a fraction of what they need to survive—think Venezuela right now. And I do mean think. Please read the next paragraph, then just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it would be like if you were in that position today.

President Maduro (the name means nutcase in Portuguese) increased the minimum wage by 275% in October 2019. Last month, Venezuelans began earning a base of one hundred fifty thousand bolivars, or eight bucks. That buys them nine pounds of meat, or five ounces a day—one hundred forty grams, if you prefer. To make it easy, a gram of meat daily per thousand bolivars per month.

Job losses lead to hunger, hunger leads to strife, both lead to exodus, and ultimately to war for those that remain. War leads to death. Welcome to chaos.

It’s hard to say exactly when the butterfly beat its wings, and just how fast or slow it really was, but the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was established only twenty years ago by Hugo Chávez—in a country with the largest oil reserves in the world, a mere three hundred billion barrels, or half the volume of Lake Geneva.

Onions in the market in Mumbai in October 2019 (courtesy of Bloomberg). India is importing from Egypt, and even from the Netherlands.

Which brings me to onions. India, and Southeast Asia in general, use the onion as a universal staple. The gastronomic delights of English food made me fall in love with curry at an early age, and a sure way to learn about a country is to explore its cuisine—yup, eat its food.

To understand a country’s regional dishes is to dive into its diversity—some nations have it, be they large or small—China, India, Italy, Portugal—and some, like the UK, do not.

The Indian onion is a fascinating, and highly divisive, economic indicator. At present, with inflation running at 4.6% year-on-year, vegetable prices are up twenty-six percent.

National politicians are plagued by onions—in the west and north of India, high onion prices are good news, because the staple vegetable is grown mainly in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. However, in other parts of the huge nation, an increase in onion prices, especially on the present scale, is  extremely unwelcome—hapless Indian politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

India is a rare beast among huge nations—the largest democracy in the world. In 2019, there were nine hundred million eligible voters, and sixty-seven percent of those turned out to vote. Narendra Modi won, but the economy is hounding him—with the exception of brahmins and pure vegetarians, those voters are onion enthusiasts.

A combination of drought and monsoon rains hit the onion harvest hard, tripling prices, and halving consumption. All Indian onion exports to neighboring countries are currently banned, causing general onion angst in the region, and the government has cracked down on onion smugglers.

I don’t suppose truckloads of smuggled onions will be impossible to detect—I can picture the highly trained Indian frontier K-9 brigade pawing their way through a load, weeping on the job and barking in protest, as their incredibly sensitive noses are violated by the pungent prevaricators.

The Indian government’s export ban caused a seven hundred percent price jump in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Nepalese consumers considering alternatives apparently view Chinese onions as ‘big and flashy’, which doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, so (and after suffering through articles talking ad nauseam about ‘the onion crunch’ etc etc) I can only conclude that it’ll all end in tears.

India is also busy importing onions—the universal base for a curry, whether you’re talking about a South Indian Avial—their website motto is ‘eating plants till we photosynthesize‘ so perhaps a spot of biology revision is in order—or a Mughal Rogan Josh, which is a case of invasive gastronomy from Iran. In passing, another humble contribution to Indian cuisine was the chili, supplied by the bearded invaders of The India Road, having first been brought to Europe by Columbus.

In this wonderful modern world of onion commerce, why not the UK? is there yet another great trade deal in the making?

Hold on to your onions, Boris, there’s hope for you yet.

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

South by Southwest

November 27, 2019

Siegburg is a small town next to another small town—Bonn. After the Second World War, Bonn became the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, since the allies would not accept Berlin as an option—even though the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, kept Berlin.

In the 1960s, John Le Carré wrote a book called ‘A Small Town in Germany’ about Brit spooks entwined with the government of the FRG, and the resurgence of Nazism.

There’s nothing remarkable about Siegburg, except the fact that it no longer has a Jewish community—the synagogue was burned down on Kristallnacht in 1938. A picture in a local magazine shows a Jewish school, and the fate of the rabbi in 1942—deportation to the camps.

A few stepping stones mark the deportation to labour camps of the last Jews in Siegburg.

It doesn’t take long to reach Belgium, via the highway system that Adolf Hitler built during his reconstruction of Germany. The road toward Liège, and then Brussels, would be the one taken by the Nazis in the early stages of their invasion of Western Europe.

Before you know it, you’re past Charleroi—Belgium whips by in an Augenblick, and then you’re in France. As you roll southwest into the Loire valley, your mind travels back from decades to centuries—now we’re talking about the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War—long periods of strife, featuring names like Charles VI, Henry V, and Joan of Arc.

It is the time of the Plantagenets and the House of Valois, of complete and utter savagery, as England and France fought for territorial dominance.

The monumental cities of Orleans and Tours tell their tales in stone. The street leading to the cathedral celebrates Joan of Arc’s reception in Tours by the French king in 1429, after liberating Orleans from the English.

Tours cathedral, with the sun rising to the east.

The cathedral is deserted on an early Sunday morning, but it’s open, and no one is asking for money. The tombs inside attest to the violence that marks European history, which makes it all the more remarkable that these days anyone can travel the length and breadth of the continent without even a passport—and that all of it happened in my lifetime—that’s an ideal worth fighting for.

As you pass the Pyrenees and wind southwest into Iberia, history jumps a few centuries forward—now it’s the old Spanish capital of Valladolid, with the river Duero slowly rolling by. Just down the road is the eagle’s nest of Tordesillas, and the tales of The India Road.

It is within touching distance of Tordesillas that Javier Guacil, one of the characters in The Hourglass, has an accident which changes his whole life and joins him with a group destined to change the world—the pressure is on to get this book done before the US presidential elections go into madhouse mode.

A little further down the E-80, the town of Simancas, known to the Romans as Setimanca—where the American researcher Alicia Gould died on the steps of the archive, in her unending quest to unravel the mysteries of Colón—brings back my book Clear Eyes, and for half an hour I dream of the Indies, as I whip by the endless stream of trucks.

The archive’s entrance bears a plaque with the inscription below, and the building closes every year on July 25th in her memory.

EL DIA 25 DE JULI0 DE 1953.

The endless plains of Castilla y León finally give way, as the Duero becomes the Douro and the border of yet another nation is crossed. The temperature is no longer around freezing point, as the great ocean draws closer. It’s raining hard, as the winter storms roll in from the Atlantic, but the biting edge of the wind has disappeared.

As you head southwest, the food gets better and better.

And as for the wine, well that’s a spiritual journey of alliterative ascension as you go from Teutonic to Touraine, and finally from Tempranillo to Tinta Roriz.

Tempranillo gets its name from the Spanish word temprano, because the grape ripens a few weeks before the others. And Roriz is exactly the same grape, it just lives in a different country.

Wine, like Europe, has no borders.

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

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