The Smell Test

July 22, 2017

Like the rule of thumb, the smell test is one of those magical tricks that help you make a good decision quickly.

Why is this important? Because many people who make a quick decision regret it. Does it pass the smell test? If your heart screams ‘no’, believe it and don’t get sweet-talked—walk away.

In the West, our guilty conscience, environmental concern, and disposable income, have given a massive boost to the word ‘organic’. Organic once meant a molecule that contains carbon—not simple compounds like carbon dioxide, but complex proteins and polysaccharides—nowadays, in common English, it means free ‘of industrial fertilizers and pesticides.’

There is the small matter that without these we would all be starving, and the population of today’s world would be far smaller. But animal welfare, traceability, and local produce are all compelling values for Generation Y, which can afford them, so ‘organic’ is cash.

In the US state of Michigan, one company sells USDA Organic-labelled eggs—ten percent of the American market—from an agri-complex that packs hens at three per square foot. If you like  SI units, then it’s almost thirty of the poor things in every square meter.

Even worse, USDA Organic standards require that animals get fresh air, sunlight, and exercise. When I write these articles from home, my window is usually wide open—and through it come the noises of the chickens next door.

Unlike those sold by Eggland (sounds more like Eggjail to me), where the animals are confined in nine rectangular barns, the hens in the next yard come out of their coop in the early morning, advertising their freedom, and the cocks often color the day with their raucous sounds. Stray cats occasionally prowl the perimeter, causing avian mayhem—these are organic chickens.

In central Africa, the silliest, most benign, and defenseless creature is being barbarously hunted. It’s name may sound like a musical instrument, but the pangolin is a  nocturnal mammal that feeds off insects.

The animal harks back to an ancient time, since it is the only mammal whose body is covered in scales. And it has no teeth—to compensate for that, it swallows small stones that remain in the stomach and help it digest the ants and termites it eats.

Some pangolins are tree-dwellers, and some live on the forest floor. All have one defense mechanism in common—they roll up into a ball, leaving their hard scales on the outside as body armor—just like a woodlouse.

In India, a pair of lions are baffled by the pangolin’s scaly resistance.

For millions of years, this strategy has been a winner—enter humans, who just pick up the scaly ball and make off with it.

Pangolin meat is popular in central Africa, but above all, the poor creature is desirable in Asia. When China and Southeast Asia take an interest in an animal, conservationists shudder.

In this case, Orientals consider the meat a delicacy, and decided the scales have medicinal value. The Chinese grind the scales into a powder and prescribe them to nursing women and as a cure for psoriasis. In Pakistan, the scales are thought to have spiritual powers and ward off evil. The composition of the scales is well-established—keratin, which makes up fingernails and hair. How about saving your clippings instead, people?

As a consequence of these ludicrous myths, there is now a large export trade from Africa, since Asian stocks are dwindling rapidly.

Unsurprisingly, since ‘hunting’ pangolin is like shooting fish in a barrel, and since numbers in Asia are very low, the shy and inoffensive animal is protected.

Once again, like the greedy chicken farmer, illegal traffickers profit—the pangolin is the most widely traded species, with up to 2.7 million animals being killed every year. And as everywhere, there’s a human food chain, starting with the ‘hunter’ and ending with the politician—in fourteen central African nations where killing pangolins is illegal, the animals are mercilessly hunted. Techniques include digging out burrows, use of fire and chemicals to force animals to surface, and trapping with wire snares.

But we don’t just torture and kill animals, we murder entire ecosystems. The Yamuna river in Uttarakhand was described by a Moghal emperor in the XVIth century as better than nectar.

The Yamuna is a sacred river, just like the Ganges, and on its banks sits the Taj Mahal. There are two hundred and fifty miles of Yamuna before it reaches Delhi, and in that upstream reach, the river is as beautiful as it was five centuries ago.

But as it wends through the Indian capital, its pristine waters are replaced by urban and industrial effluents, killing a river that is declared a living entity by the high court of Uttarakhand.

Hundreds of years ago, the Portuguese sailors, and those who followed them, were responsible for the extinction of the pássaro doido—the dodo. My nose tells me we haven’t learned anything since then.

Oooh, that smell.

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


July 15, 2017

By the time I posted the article last week, one of my best friends had died.

It was too late to claw back on the text, and emotions were running much too high. You need emotion to write, what the Latinos call corazón caliente, but it must be tempered with perspective.

My friend died alone, in the middle of the night. She suffered a massive heart attack, and when the family came to pick her up for lunch on Saturday, they broke down the door and found her dead.

A decade ago, she helped me review the translation of The India Road, and I remember sitting in her front room laughing at the way a couple of the sex scenes had been phrased—we both felt the Portuguese translator had a lot to learn in that department.

We had a lot of fun correcting that text—hopefully when the Portuguese edition was published, the new versions did their job and stirred the hormones of female and male readers alike—or at least some of them.

We had lunch two weeks ago, just after her birthday. I bought her a gift, shipped from France, but it only arrived that afternoon. The following week I went to Brussels, and was going to drop it off on the way to the airport, but as usual I ran late so her book remained undelivered.

I had spoken with her on Friday morning, telling her I would deliver her present Monday—she died that very Friday.

There was a viewing last Saturday night, at an old church in Lisbon, only five hundred yards from her house, and the funeral departed from there the very next day—like Muslims, the Catholics of Southern Europe bury their dead quickly.

Lisbon is full of tourists, and I half-expected some lost soul hunting an airbnb to wander in during the eulogy. The priest told us he communed with both the faithful and the unbeliever—he explained he did not fear for those who did not love god, because he was certain god loved them.

In the cloister, the casket now lay closed. Outside in the searing heat, the yellow trams clattered up the narrow, cobblestoned street. The priest’s murmurs continued, and I watched my friend’s mother, her walking stick trembling, her eyes glazed.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I retrieved a terrible moment, a similar bullet of grief.

You can get used to the death of your parents, but you can never get used to the death of your child.

The man who told me that twenty years ago was someone I hardly knew; he blurted it out uninvited—perhaps he felt he could only share that terrible truth with a stranger, and I can still see his face as he spoke.

Now the prayers have been said and the relatives comforted, now the body has been burnt and other matters settled, it’s time to celebrate life.

Although I don’t see a pathway to the kingdom of heaven, any more than I see the seventy-two virgins of Islam or the fires of hell, I completely agree with a statement the priest repeated  to the assembly: death celebrates life.

Peter Wibaux is not a religious man, and must therefore seek a different catharsis—perhaps in tear-laced prose.

In my sadness, I was happy in church—I like the quiet and the reverence, the smell of the cool, musty air. I blocked out everything, the people and the prayers, and thought of my parents, of wandering around with my father in dark Spanish cathedrals, or sitting in a small Azorean church where sailors once prayed.

Last Friday, I lost one assiduous reader—she now sails a different ocean.

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



July 8, 2017

In the Led Zeppelin song ‘Stairway to Heaven’, there’s a lady who knows sometimes words have two meanings. BFF means Best Friends Forever, which was my original intent, but it can also mean Big Fat Fuck, which fits nicely.

During the Korean war, Mao famously quipped that for the USA, one dead soldier is a tragedy, but for China, one million dead are a statistic—and at that time, the Middle Kingdom had only six hundred million people, forty percent of the current population.

It strikes me that one of the many reasons why business tycoons shouldn’t be trusted with the destiny of nations is that corporate deal-making is essentially bilateral.

CEO’s are ill-equipped to solve multilateral issues, whereas politicians can be pretty good at bringing parties together, generating consensus, and walking away with substantive agreements—Thatcher once said that consensus is the opposite of unanimity, and I would add that in world affairs, consensus is the art of the deal.

The US position on Korea reflects this blatant lack of understanding. In the first place, the position should be on Korea, rather than North Korea, because the problem can only be solved holistically. And secondly, it involves six nations at the very least.

Of these, the US is a superpower, and Russia and China are world powers. Japan is an economic powerhouse and a military eunuch. South Korea is relatively similar to Japan, and North Korea is the opposite.

If you check the historical Hate-O-Meter, then Japan and China hate each other, Japan and Korea likewise, the Koreas dislike each other, and US moods have shifted. And deep down, most all the Asian nations resent or dislike America.

In this six nations tournament, the teams are not all going for the same trophy. South Korea wants to stay wealthy and safe from the armed robbers next door; China wants to be the regional superpower, and will not accept nuclear weapons on its back porch—just as the US wouldn’t tolerate them in Cuba.

Japan wants to be rearmed or reassured, the US wants to be the lead and to be loved, and the Russians want to screw the Chinese, Americans, and Japanese, though not necessarily in that order.

Does this sound complicated enough? From a military viewpoint, this isn’t a theater, it’s a multiplex. As an example, increased commitment in the Korean peninsula weakens resources in the Mid-East, so there’s a trade-off in Syria, Iraq, and yes, the evil twins, which puts a smile on the face of the Russian bear.

Cartoon of a train wreck. Award-winning entry in a recent competition in Tehran.

And at the center of all this geopolitical mayhem is a little country with less that fifty thousand square miles, twenty-five million people, a per capita GDP under 600 bucks, and an insane, multi-generational dictatorship.

So the idea that there’s a deal to be made between the USA and China to solve this bilaterally is a monument to stupidity—and Xi Jinping sure ain’t stupid.

Somewhere between the golf course and the chocolate cake, the Chinese president must have realized he was talking to one of the resort’s signature idiots—a man, possibly even a BFF, who didn’t understand that insulting the celestials repeatedly, calling them currency manipulators and worse, would never result in them becoming BFF—to the Chinese, loss of face is like terminal cancer.

Examples of the Middle Kingdom buffering its borders are numerous—the China-India border is the mother of all disputes: Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and India itself.

Vietnam is another example of a key buffer—a country the Chinese supported militarily until the USA finally lost that war.

China will not abdicate its perceived right to a Korean buffer, unless the trade-off is a sympathetic Korean peninsula and no American troops. In other words, ‘solving’ North Korea by turning it into part of a US-supported Korea is  a non-starter.

Japan certainly wouldn’t welcome an American pullout—it remembers its gigantic neighbor too well. Nor would Russia, who is quite happy tying Uncle Sam down in East Asia while making hay in Syria, and keeping an eye on Iran and Saudi Arabia, the evil twins.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

What part of this problem does the BFF not understand?

All of it.

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


Old Europe

July 1, 2017

Old Europe is heating up again.

The disparaging term was coined by Donald Rumsfeld to vilify traditional European views that clashed with the Bush 43 administration’s vision of a new world order.

History is a wonderful leveler—this so-called order, fifteen years later, is a world in utter chaos. With one exception: Old Europe.

In mid-2016, the prophets of doom began predicting the end of Europe—Anglo-Saxon pundits repeated ad nauseam that the UK was the first nation to leave the European Union.

In the fall, a confused and fractured America elected Donald Trump, and the voices of isolation grew—a kind of nationalist autism (natautism) frenzy, where crazies with no historical grounding advocated a return to bastions of prejudice and hatred.

After Holland gave Europe its first sign of hope this spring, those same pundits said “with all due respect” that The Netherlands was small potatoes, France would be the game-changer.

And it was. The country whose motto is ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ scored a home-run for Europe. Twice, in the presidential and parliamentary elections—and shut the pundits up for good.

In the meantime, Trump steadily confirmed what better-educated Americans knew all too well: his boorish incompetence, singular lack of judgement, and moral turpitude—the latter manifested through multiple cheap accusations and childish threats, offending anyone and everyone who disagreed with him or dared question his ‘wisdom’.

And then came the Maybot debacle. It’s difficult to exaggerate the degree of confusion that currently plagues the British Isles, but it’s left an isolated England even more alone, and turned Old Europe into a haven of common sense when compared to the Anglo-Saxon alternative.

Finally, young Britons saw the light, and came out en masse to change the status quo. I’ve been railing in these pages for some time that apathy and amnesia are democracy’s greatest enemies—British youth suddenly awoke and put the fear of god into the Tory government.

The same seems to have happened in France, where Macron mobilized young people in ways that completely shifted the political spectrum.

In both countries, the change was for the good of all, and underscored a simple fact—what unites us is far more important than any divisions.

The U.K. is more isolated than ever, and has absolutely no idea on how to extricate itself from its present mess. Europe is left wondering who it is negotiating with, and what will actually be discussed—on both sides of the Channel, cool heads believe that the most straightforward solution would be to confess that the whole Brexit affair was simply a huge mistake—many affairs are.

Europe is running hot. The financial channels, which delighted in dissecting the break-up of the euro, are now busy discussing the vagaries of the pound and UK inflation.

The dollar, which was moving toward parity with the euro even as Trump was elected, and afterward flirted with values below 1.05, is presently nudging 1.15.

The greenback vacillates as Old Europe thrives.

The next test for Old Europe is the German election on the 24th of September. It seems unlikely that the Germans will undo the good things this year has brought.

Frau Merkel, whether you like her or not, is a steady hand at the helm, and has learned several important lessons about Europe—some of which, like austerity, made Southern European nations pay a spectacular price, but there is a far clearer vision now about what works and what doesn’t.

We have scary people like Le Pen, Trump, and Farage to thank for showing us all how not to do it, and above all for frightening the politicians and the young people of Europe alike into a return to common sense.

Beyond the borders of Europe lies chaos: the Mid-East inheritance of the Bush and Blair years, and the radical testosteronocracy of Russia.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but this good feeling that permeates the continent is a superb opportunity for Europe to consolidate further.

After all, many of the citizens of the Union will be happy to tell you they live in the best place on earth. And England can so easily remain a part of that, if it exercises one of its most prized virtues—common sense.

Good Old Europe.

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




June 25, 2017

The helicopter blades whirred, there was one jolt, and the little machine was underway—a mechanical insect under a perfect blue sky.

My destination was a small island in northern Biscay, ten nautical miles from the French mainland. There’s a ferry, but it runs infrequently. Squeezed into the chopper were a few other disciples—we were all searching for the holy grail: Food.

Islands, no matter what the size, always reflect a different mindset—this is true for Islay, Ireland, or tiny little Sark, a microdot in the English Channel.

This particular island has two defining characteristics: bikes and jalopies. As soon as the little helicopter settled on the big H and we extricated ourselves from the cabin, I understood that my jacket and tie would be nothing but dead weight on this trip.

There’s an endless supply of rented bicycles, and like escapees from the age of Henry Ford’s Model T, they’re all black. We used them to go to the beach, to the place where we assembled to discuss good food, and for dinner expeditions.

Last weekend there was a gibbous moon, and as the nights got progressively darker, the return rides between pitch-black hedgerows became increasingly perilous—only some bikes had lights, and our party was amply fueled by the local wine.

The woman who guided us on our returns had the navigation and night vision skills of Seal Team Six—I told her so in my dedication note after I left her house.

Every derelict vehicle seems to have hopped over from the mainland—the port boasted a collection of clapped-out Clios, clangy ‘quattrelles’, and other escapees from the golden age of French motoring.

Lest you disparage French engineering, consider this side-mounted barbecue.

Along with the rickety Renaults, innovation was at hand, by way of a vertically mounted barbecue for roasting an entire sheep. Never in my travels have I come across such a device, which allows wood and coal to be fired, flames licking skyward, while  the animal calmly rotates next to, rather than above, the heat.

Good food was the theme that brought us together, and what a motley crew we were: Chefs, company CEOs, scientists, venture capitalists, even a previous member of the Obama administration.

Legend has it George W. Bush once stated that ‘the trouble with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ Not so this group, young people fired with ideas on using insect meal to feed farm animals, radically changing the manufacture of spirits, or growing your own produce in the back room of your salad bar.

The common denominator was originality, and the understanding that millennials are revolutionizing food. The focus is no longer on big ag, but instead on the things that matter to Generation Y.

By 2020, the discretionary purchasing power of millennials will replace baby boomers, and Gen Y priorities are vastly different: sustainability, animal welfare, traceability, well being, and local urban agriculture.

These are areas where big ag is clueless, since their entire business model is based on the exact opposite of these concepts.

A hand at stage left underscores this critical new look at our planet.

We talked about regenerative agriculture, and about the powers of wild flowers and mushrooms to feed and heal. We consumed the products of this vast and exciting revolution, strange green concoctions of herbs that regenerate your liver cells after a night’s drinking, and other potions which reminded me of the brews prepared by the druids of old.

I spent a good deal of my time open-mouthed, even when I wasn’t eating. There was just so much going on, so many new ideas, and everyone had plenty to say.

Riding alongside me on his bike, my new friend George explained how he used wild plants to cure the horses of the Aga Khan. “I can repair a fatigue fracture in record time.” He told me that well before the appointed time, one horse was straining at the paddock, desperate to race again—the vet could find nothing wrong with his bones, and the stallion came in second.

George gave me one of his books to read, and wrote a page-long dedication to l’Homme Poisson. I’m half-way through it, struggling with French words I haven’t seen for years.

There’s a world of wonder and brilliance out there.

And you know what? Maybe god really is a mushroom.

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

Smart Kids

June 18, 2017

Sixteen months ago, in Las Vegas, it was easy to find Trump supporters. This time around, they’re harder to spot.

I did my usual straw poll, but any mention of the current president usually brought a heartfelt sigh, as if a rogue uncle had just wet himself in public.

‘This too shall pass’ seems to be the prevalent mood, but of course I missed out Middle America, where much of the support lies. I did canvas Uber drivers, oyster farmers, waitresses, Iraq and Afghan veterans—and heard not one kind word.

Basic services in Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere, are still in the hands of migrants, and Los Angeles FM radio is at least forty percent Spanish.

On the West Coast, I drove up 405, listening to Frank Zappa’s ‘I’m The Slime’, truer today than when it was first written.

Partly, this is because TV has morphed into an internet hydra, with multiple ‘channels’ that numb the brain—a collective digital lobotomy. As usual, I’ve been on planes—lots of them. That too, is mind-numbing, and right now, as I hide in a corner of Logan airport after a red-eye from LAX, and try to stay awake to type a few words,  I’m besieged by endless musak and relentless aircon—it’s the American way.

If you walk down any airplane aisle, just about everyone is watching soaps or playing games—hardly anyone reads, and when they do, it’s the in-flight magazine. And yet, I was privileged to meet two sets of kids, both preteen, and they impressed the hell out of me.

To be honest, I prefer to chat with kids, especially smart ones, than with grown-ups. And these children were super-smart—the great societal anesthetic has not yet struck.

One of them was fond of computers—most kids are, but the thrill stops at games and social media—but this one liked to build them. I’m sure you know that you don’t build laptops or tablets, that’s throwaway consumer junk.

This boy liked to scavenge parts and build machines from scratch, populating a motherboard with all sorts of weird and wonderful things. In The Hourglass, one of the heroes is a youngster by the name of Tommy (it may yet change), and he does exactly that, as he sidesteps the ‘New Society’ of President David A. Klomp—no prizes for guessing what the ‘A’ stands for.

“Do you program?”

“Yes.” A shy voice.

“What languages?”

“Java. Python.”

Wow! I asked a couple of questions. This kid really did know his stuff. As he devoured pizza like any other eleven-year-old, he began discussing the details of a cloud-hosted database with his father.

The parent procrastinated, as one does.

“Dad, you’re always saying that, but we need to do it.”

I hid a grin.

On the other side of the continent, up in the Santa Barbara mountains, I found another one. A twelve-year-old girl who wrote fiction.

Once again, all she needed was a little encouragement. I asked whether her characters sometimes grew all by themselves, in ways she never imagined. “Yes, definitely!” She reeled off her favorite authors, told me she read several books at once.


“No, I like to turn the pages. And I like the smell of a book.” More enthusiasm.

Once you dig a little deeper, all the imagination and creativity that makes the US a great country comes to the fore. The girl’s father toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters a couple of decades ago—he mainly produces music now, and designs and manufactures his own brand of electric guitar.

We sat around the fire pit as the night air cooled, and I watched him put a block of Douglas fir on the embers.

“Unusual firewood…”

“Leftover from the house.”

He explained how he’d designed and rebuilt parts of his home, and then showed me some pictures. Before committing to the final design, he’d built a scale model out of styrofoam, and then placed his iPhone inside it and taken photos so the family could see the views, and how the shadows fell at sunset.

I met lots of smart people in the States. And they outweigh the dummies on the news.

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

C’est Chaud, Y’all

June 12, 2017

It’s been described as the land of the pines, but North Carolina is much more than that—although I’ve seen enough pine trees to last me a while.

This is agricultural countryside, and hog country at that, so there’s a good amount of pollution hitting the rivers and making its way to the coast. North Carolina used to boast more pigs than people, and it’s still close—8.7 million hogs, 10 million humans—these days, the pigs are raised in closed facilities, to minimize effluents, smell, and general upset.

It’s vacation time, and the small coastal town where I stayed practically triples in population—in the state, tourism is a twenty billion dollar business.

I brought the rain with me, and found myself stuck on the tarmac in Charlotte for over an hour on arrival. The airport was a zoo, with the board displaying delays from top to bottom, and I drove a rental east toward the coast—it was the smallest vehicle I’ve ever rented in North America, and it had the acceleration of a pregnant armadillo.

It rained all night, rained in the morning, rained all week. Mid-week I was out on an oyster farm, and everyone got soaked. The industry here is pretty small—overall it’s worth about five million dollars a year—and farmers grow their animals in small leases, around two to three acres.

I don’t know if it’s hogs or condos, but the coastal areas of the state have a real problem with water quality—now, water quality is a broad church, and the particular denomination (and there’s nothing like the States for cult denominations) at issue here is microbiology—pollution by bacteria and viruses.

Oysters are particularly good at filtering, and they accumulate these little beasties quite handily. I found myself discussing this with a local man, who started off by telling me about people from the north who come to Carolina.

“There’s Yankees, and there’s Damn Yankees,” he drawled. “The Yankees are the ones who visit, the Damn Yankees are the ones who stay”. And despite the political correctness issues, you certainly see confederate flags, particularly on redneck pick-ups.

The Venus Flytrap is native to North Carolina, and this little beauty is poised to eat the mosquitoes that were attacking me at sunset.

We ordered Philly cheese steak, an American classic. When the food came, my friend said, “I’ll just say a little grace, and we’ll get right to it.” Took me straight back to my schooldays—I bowed my head for the amen. I drank a lot of water in North Carolina, and occasionally some atrocious wine, but I managed to stay clear of the iced tea.

Some years back, when oyster leases became available on the shoreline, they were quickly snapped up by developers. These good ole boys built condos on the landward side of the leases, and then discharged waste into the water. They got a free sewage plant and a sea view, and they did the bare minimum on the leases to avoid losing them.

There’s no requirement here for impact assessment when you develop a large condominium, and as a result of this and other sins, many of the coastal waterways are unfit for raising oysters—well, that’s not strictly true—you can grow them to a certain size, but then the animals have to relayed elsewhere, to a clean environment where they can get rid of bacteria.

Funnily enough, in a nation that now imports ninety-one percent of its seafood products, it’s more difficult to get a license to grow shellfish than to build a string of condos. I guess those billions of tourist dollars can swing a lot of senators.

I wasn’t long on the boat before I struck up a conversation with one of the oyster growers. Turned out that once upon a time, he played guitar with the Allman Brothers—not just a quick jam, two hundred gigs all over the world.

We sat on the bow, opening oysters in the pouring rain. My shucking partner had a special knife, designed by a champion oyster shucker from Louisiana. It had a long curved blade, with a special angle at the end to cut the adductor muscle.

The rain kept falling, the oysters were sweet and salty. “Okay, now, can you taste the butter? Then you’ll taste the iron.” My rock star oyster farming friend was also a marketing wizard.

“Best oysters in the world. Ain’t they? Ain’t they?” I smiled as the boat steered the narrow channels. He grinned at my Santana t-shirt. “Played with him too, down in New Orleans.”

I told him how impressed I was with his knife.

“Keep it.”

So I did.

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

Bless Me Father

June 3, 2017

Catholics learn about the confessional early on in life. A small, dark booth, where a wooden trellis stands between you and absolution, no matter how badly you’ve sinned.

Since the priest has taken a vow of secrecy, sinners normally tell the truth—it’s liberating to share a dark secret, knowing you will be forgiven by someone who remains in the shadows forever—and who, technically, cannot recognize you.

No other religion boasts this formula—in both Islam and Judaism, you confess only to god. A Muslim must ‘keep his sins to himself, because from the tawhidi, or monotheistic, standpoint, the sole cause and reason behind everything in this world is Allah.’

Luther, Calvin, and others also did away with confession in Christian practice—like effigies of saints, it was considered a human perversion rather than a divine virtue.

So we lie. To colleagues and family, to strangers and spouses—when it comes to the crunch, whether it’s a little white lie, or a great big whopper, we fib.

And we’ve built up a euphemistic arsenal in the process—we’re economical with the truth, out of sight out of mind, and what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

But another confessional has sprouted up in digiland. The digital disconnect is remarkable, and people say things to machines which they would never confess to each other—more importantly, they tell the truth, and the machine files it away for future reference.

Your questions are a microcosm of your anxieties and desires, and an analysis of common requests speaks volumes about general views and trends. I’m currently in Canada, and if you Google ‘Why does Trump’, the terminations are:

…want to build a wall
…hate Canada
…like Russia

But if you write ‘My husband wants me to’ Google says:

…lose weight
…sleep with another man

and Bing (But It’s Not Google) says:

…wait to get baptized
…praise him for chores

However, the same question in Google India elicits:

…breastfeed him

A recent book called ‘Everybody lies’ reports that men often search on how to get their partner to give them oral sex, but equally often (and ten times more bizarre) on how to give themselves oral sex—not sure how to address that one—maybe Pilates?

But the most fascinating part of this digital prelate is that people use it to describe moods and situations: I’m sad, I’m drunk… in the hope of finding like-minded brethren.

‘I’m divorced’ brings up ‘now what’, ‘and want to remarry’, ‘and depressed’ on Google. Microsoft’s Bing, always with a more corporate bent, brings up ‘am I entitled to any benefits’

Of course you can reach broad conclusions about particular countries and nationalities by looking for specific trends, but Big Data lets you do something far more worrying: drill down to the proclivities of a particular person, by mining their search list.

Now that my children’s book, Folk Tales for Future Dreamers, is published, and I’ve returned to the Hourglass, it’s worth quoting a few lines from the current draft.

Tommy’s ninth grade teacher, Mr. Medway, had taught the boy to program computer code. For that, the first challenge was to actually get a computer. In the New Society, as President Klomp often tweeted, Digital Means Democracy.

In practice, that meant everyone had a smartphone, a smart TV, and a tablet. Unlike the old machines Tommy saw on the history channel, people at their desks staring at terminals, the new devices were made by only three companies—one in the US, one in Asia, and one in Europe. Sure, there were lots of brands, but in the end it was just like pizza—one base, different toppings.

Society was totally connected to the cloud, as the internet was now called. Social networks were many and varied, people freely shared personal info, often including intimate pictures with friends and family, and because everything was geolocated and timestamped, the cloud knew who did what, where, and when.

It was even possible, Mr. Medway said, to know why, since the major search engine linked a person’s choices with those of others around him—the end of a relationship, a faraway vacation, or a sudden interest in fertilizer manufacture could be dissected using this new tool.

Although The Hourglass is set a couple of years from today, all this profiling is occurring right now, on a cloud near you. President Klomp got his name when Trump was still  running for office, and although the usual disclaimer applies (similarity with any person, living or dead, is pure coincidence), Klomp can be pretty trumpy, and is set to play a major part in the book—bigly.

I’ll be heading south soon to the United States, and I’m keen to revisit some of the search terms above and play spot the difference.

As I leave this peaceful and hospitable land, my thoughts are with the good people of Canada, incensed with the rejection of the Paris Agreement by the self-titled President of Pittsburgh, or would that be the Czar of Cleveland?

Canadian heavy industry has already been placed at a strong disadvantage because of emissions control—may the north winds blow.

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


May 29, 2017

The announcement on the tannoy left everyone in shock. British Airways 501 was delayed indefinitely, due to a total system failure. Pretty soon the message was repeated, and no one had a clue what was going on.

Total system failure? Did the plane fall out the sky? What does that even mean? The BA website looked promising, but as soon as a single link was clicked, the promise ended—like Sarah Palin, the site was a bridge to nowhere. This is what’s known as a DDOS, or distributed denial of service—it’s normally malicious, but this time it was caused by many thousands of frustrated passengers.

Technology began to split its trouser seams and display its nether regions. BA support was down. The BA press line, based on VOIP, was down, and stayed down all day. Passengers with e-boarding cards on their phones were stuck—the system didn’t recognize them and the gates wouldn’t open.

I began thinking in earnest, while my fellow non-travelers wrung their digital hands and peered at their pointless BA apps.

Had the outbound from London arrived? BA was blocked, but FlightAware said it was on the tarmac in Lisbon, landed 09:57. I couldn’t see it from the window, but it was probably hidden away on the apron somewhere, so an irate mob wouldn’t torch it.

Alternatives. Wait. Evaluate. Half-term week in the UK, all the Hooray Henry kiddies released from their boarding schools and booked with the stockbroker and Daily Mail brigade on sun-drenched seaside forays. No way. I made a couple of calls.

Sitting on the floor next to me was a scrawny American woman, desperate to get to the US. Which was also where I was headed, or as I could clearly see, not headed.

Short-haul delayed two hours. Long-haul three hours. The pilot of the plane that couldn’t leave came out and got on the loudspeaker. Catastrophic systems failure in London. The problem affects taxiing and parking on stand. Planes can’t leave so there are no slots.

Going to London, even if I could, seemed to be the worst idea in the world. Like running to Syria to escape from terrorism. I booked for the next morning, different company, different route. Three hours to pay the fare or lose the flight. I discretely approached the gate staff, by now fully harassed, and told them I needed my bag—I didn’t explain the main reason—the four bottles of Late Bottled Vintage inside it.

The loading officer was dragged into the mess—baggage was already sealed on the plane. I felt the joy of action when, after further protracted negotiations, I managed to extricate my cargo from the airport—I did things I could never have done in London. Only two other passengers had taken my option—one was the American woman.

She told me she worked for Fox, and I couldn’t get the phrase fake news out of my head—she never made it, ensnared in the non-EU passport queue. I would have pushed to the front, explained the problem, and made the re-booked flight. Oh well, I’m sure Trump will take care of it.

British Airways didn’t fly Saturday. Not from Heathrow. Not from Gatwick. Nothing landed. I ate some clams by the seaside, drank some wine, and prepared to return to the airport the following day. BA explained they’d had a power outage.

CNN didn’t rush the airports. The BBC only showed the BA news on the ribbon. Sky showed cricket. Something, somewhere, had gone horribly wrong. The media adores the human side of these episodes, and screens are filled with miserable kiddies, missed weddings, lost business, and emergency surgery denied. But not this time. Total shutdown.

Ah, a power outage. There was a story in South Africa some years ago, probably urban legend, that every morning a couple of patients died in the emergency ward at about the same time. Turned out it was the cleaner who unplugged life support to vacuum the floor.

That must be it, then. Some immigrant with a vacuum cleaner brought the UK flag carrier to its knees. I’m sure Brexit will fix it.

On Sunday morning, British Airways casts a very large question mark as it recommends you enjoy your flight.

Which reminds me that the tragic events in Manchester, yet again, were not caused by a Polish or Romanian worker, a Spaniard or a Greek, the ones who will get the push from May. They were probably too busy watching the pope explain to the roving fool why climate change was more important than building walls.

As I stroll by the BA gate on Sunday morning, the sign tells me to enjoy my flight. I will, because it’s not on BA. Normally by that time the gate would already be crowded, but today it’s deserted—no staff, no passengers.

When I get to Boston, I check the news feed: no short hauls in or out of London all day. Good call, Mr. Wibaux. The IT debacle remains completely unexplained.

It’s early morning on America’s eastern seaboard, the land Columbus knew to be Cipango, and Auntie Beeb is still no more informative—power outage.

Whatever brought an entire airline to a standstill for a whole weekend is clearly classified material. Do I suspect wickedness? Most certainly. Ransomware, terrorism, I don’t know. But the story will come out in dribs and drabs, much like the Stuxnet worm, the Russian DNC hack, and whatever the Americans are currently doing to mess with the missiles of Kim the Younger.

One of these days, as we place our faith increasingly in automation, self-driving cars and trucks and planes, a few of them are going to fall out the sky, probably in formation.

Perhaps people will wake up then. But the passengers won’t.

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


The Marsh Arabs

May 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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