Proliferation

This story could be about semi-automatic weapons in the United States, or the current planetary fad of printing money. Instead it begins with a very different kind of proliferation—caused by man, furthered by nature.

The cityof Qingdao, (Green Island), a medium-sized metropolis with a population of eight million, was selected to host the sailing competition for the 2008 olympics, and proudly invested in a whole new waterfront.

I went to Qingdao in the nineties, stood on the beach in December and watched the snow fall; a dedicated bather of the he-man persuasion, clad in Sumo wrestler underwear, emerged from the water, shouting and beating his chest against the cold. There were multi-colored wooden beach huts that looked as if they’d escaped from a 1960’s LSD trip, and there was a karting track. On the beach.

Qingdao cleaned up its act, and built a whole new downtown. I used to stay in a hotel that towered above the surrounding neighborhood, the underpass to the beach had recesses with bunk beds, doubling as a dormitory for migrant workers. By 2008, my hotel was dwarfed by skyscrapers, like a fox terrier stuck between its owners.

Then, just as the city proudly proclaimed its readiness, disaster struck. Qingdao morphed into its name, as one million tons of seaweed washed ashore from the Yellow Sea and turrned it into a green island.

A day at the seaside in Qingdao

A day at the seaside in Qingdao. With this much iodine, kids get their thyroid therapy for free.

In a rare display of unity, the city, Shandong province, and Beijing came together for the cleanup—Chinese economists put the cost at one hundred million dollars. You know what they say: ‘a million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.’

The savior of the olympic sailing was of course the People’s Liberation Army; in this case the proletariat was liberated from an invasion of rampant macroalgae, rather than imperialist running dogs.

So why did it happen? Had the twelve gods of Olympus decided to defeat the twelve zodiac animals of the Middle Kingdom, bringing the curse of Poseidon down on the Yellow Sea?

Back in ancient Greece, that might have been a plausible explanation, but nowadays we know the culprit—and she has a name. Ulva prolifera is a seaweed with a difference: it grows very rapidly in the right conditions, and it can float on the water and survive for a period of time.

Plants that live in the ocean share a problem with humans that swim in the sea—they need to remain afloat. For the bather, it’s a matter of asphyxiation, for the plant, a question of sunlight. A quick spell check suddenly reveals the topic of erotic asphyxiation, and that would take us on a whole new journey.

Serendipity, because I was hoping to dwell a little on ‘mommy porn’, or more accurately on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. As the first half of the genre name suggests, this is a woman’s book, potentially more appealing to mature ladies, and in this case the ‘porn’ bit is S&M. The two things that I find interesting (sorry to disappoint you) are the fact that the book started life on the internet, and that it has sold sixty million copies on Amazon—now that’s what I call prolific.

Book reviewers were highly critical of content and style, but no one much cares. When a digital offering that started life as Twilight fan fiction, entitled Master of the Universe, outsells J.K. Rowling on Amazon, you know you’re seeing a paradigm shift. Suddenly, there’s just so much out there, because the internet empowers you for free.

If you browse Twilight, it’s not so good. That’s not the point, if you pick ten people off the street, nine will sing out of tune—except in Ireland.

Publishers are lost, as books become the dinosaurs of the Jurassic. Just as yesteryear’s vinyl records became compact disks, and yesterday’s CDs became flash memory cards, the book is doomed. Not the content, but the package. There will be a fight. There’s just too much affection for books, and the printed word goes back half a millenium, not a hundred years. But the writing’s on the wall (sorry): literary entertainment is rapidly following music and film—it will no longer come in boxes, it’ll be in a box.

From a commercial perspective, the business model comes from software, and that’s been around for three decades. After you ammortize the development cost, every single copy you sell is pure profit. Instead of barriers to entry, it’s open sesame. Anyone can write, anyone can publish, and people who never thought of putting pen to paper are dipping their toe in the water.

Of course that water may contain a little greeen seaweed. So how have the good folks of Qingdao fared since 2008? Well, every year since, the sea has brought them another green tide. Scientists have grappled with the problem. There’s a theory that when the rafts are cleaned after the Nori harvest, the green algae are washed out to sea, where nutrient rich waters fatten them up, and the currents take them north.

A vast area north of Shanghai, in Jiangsu province, is used for Nori—after all, the sushi market is huge. But the scientists are divided in their explanations, despite the use of satellite images and mathematical models. The huge tidal flats where the red sushi seaweed is grown are also used for fish culture. Turns out that fermented chicken manure is a key part of their diet. Over fifty thousand tons a year, as it happens.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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