Current Sea

I’ve just realized Timothy Geithner has no eyebrows. Par contre, David Beers, from S&P, sports not only bushy brows but a putative Prussian moustache. Now what message does that send to the markets?

But if you thought the title of this text was somehow going to lead to a discussion about currency, given my penchant for double entendres, I’m sorry but I’m about to disappoint you.

Speaking of which, I  just trawled through a website that provides some examples of amphibolies, as double meanings are apparently called, and a couple are worth looking at. ‘Prostitutes appeal to Pope‘ seemed particularly pithy.

As I watch Standard & Poor’s downgrade the US, I’ve decided all the insanity of world economics is quite beyond me, a modern day version of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey’s excuse was that he took far too much LSD, back in the days of the Merry Pranksters, made famous by Tom Wolfe in his book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The link above is a Wikipedia stub, but it does mention a literary genre called hysterical realism, which I guess encapsulates the world’s economists, currently all at sea.

So I’ve been steering away from all that, and instead doing a little research on the Gulf of Guinea, which features prominently in The India Road, because the fortress of São Jorge da Mina, the gold mine of St. George, was established in present-day Ghana by King John II of Portugal, the Perfect Prince.

My friend, Cmte. Malhão Pereira, a leading expert on the Portuguese discoveries of the XVth century and a retired naval officer, advised me of the winds in the area of the Guinea coast. They are known in Portuguese as o terral and a viraçãoterra means land (or earth), and virar means to turn, or invert―winds that blow alternately on- and offshore over the course of the day. It was those winds that almost drove the soldier Álvaro crazy during Bartolomeu Dias’s voyage to the Cape of Storms. Sometime in 1487.

The Gulf of Guinea has captured the attention of the United States because it’s rich in oil. By 2015, twenty-five percent of the U.S. oil supply is expected to come from the region. A substantial proportion of America’s natural gas already does. There is a real war going on, in the best tradition of resource exploitation. Two titans, both of whom crave only one thing: cheap energy. For the Chinese it means growth, for the Americans, metabolism.

I was embarrassed to find out that the Guinea coast has an important upwelling system; ashamed at my ignorance of ocean circulation. Two major currents are responsible for this, at different times of the year. The Canary Current flows south down the coast of Morocco and Mauritania, and then turns west to become the North Equatorial Current, which crosses the Atlantic. Yachtsmen know it well, as the popular sailing route from northern Europe to the Caribbean.

“Sail south until the butter melts, then point your prow west. a downwind run all the way.”

 When the Canary Current weakens, the North Equatorial Countercurrent, which flows east, intensifies, which also brings up cold water to the surface of the Gulf of Guinea. Cold in this sense is 24º C (72.5 ºF), not exactly chilly.

The world according to Eratosthenes, 250 BC

Our knowledge of ocean circulation is still lacking, but physical forces are easier to describe than human vagaries. And that knowledge had humble beginnings. The Greek philosophers felt obliged to provide an explanation for all phenomena, which must have been a daunting task. However, this obligation to dissect, analyze, and understand led to a tidal wave of scientific knowledge.

The motion of the rivers and seas preoccupied the Ancient Greeks, and they used models to rationalize what they saw. The only river of any size was the Nile. You can see it in the world map of Eratosthenes, 250 B.C., crossing the entire extent of Libya (Africa). The theory was that it was fed by the ocean. Which it is, of course, just not directly.

In a world where, according to Ptolemy, the ocean was just a seventh part of the earth, the land was a big disk surrounded by a strip of water. In Phaedo, one of the dialogues of Socrates, the great man provides an explanation:

In the earth itself, all over its surface, there are many hollow regions, some deeper and more widely spread than that in which we live, others deeper than our region but with smaller expanse, some both shallower than ours and broader. All these are joined together underground by many connecting channels, some narrower, some wider, through which, from one basin to another, there flows a great volume of water-monstrous unceasing subterranean rivers of waters both hot and cold – and of fire too, . . . . One of the cavities in the earth is not only larger than the rest, but pierces right through from one side to the other.

Aristotle was skeptical about the subterranean channels, and provided his own account for the circulation of the Mediterranean Sea.

The whole of the Mediterranean does actually flow, according to the depths of the basins and the number of rivers. Maeotis (Sea of Azov) flows into Pontus (Black Sea) and Pontus into the Aegean. After that the flow of the remaining seas is not so easy to observe. The current of Maeotis and Pontus is because of the number of rivers (more rivers flow into the Euxine (also Black Sea) and Maeotis than into areas many times their size), and to their own shallowness. For we find the sea getting deeper and deeper. Pontus is deeper than Maeotis, the Aegean than Pontus, the Sicilian Sea than the Aegean; the Sardinian and Tyrrhenic being the deepest of all. (Outside the pillars of Herakles the sea is shallow owing to the mud, but calm for it lies in a hollow.)

The Atlantic was supposedly named after the god Atlas. Like all seas, it has its fair share of mud. And like all seas it undeniably lies in a hollow. But it’s about as shallow as it is calm.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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