Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Green Blood

January 8, 2022

I’ve flown over the Congo many times, but I’ve never been tempted to land.

Ever since Belgium’s King Leopold and his acolytes raped and pillaged the country, the Congo has a tragic history of misdeeds.

Sixteen years ago, the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond painted a dark picture of the international gem trade, using Sierra Leone—Lion Mountain—to cast light on a heady mix of diamonds, weapons, and war.

The story of valuable commodities, the weapons they buy, and the wars that result from them are an African paradigm—the richer the country, the poorer its people. The Democratic Republic of Congo—I’m always suspicious when the D word is part of the country’s name—has a per capita GDP of 560 US dollars; Greece, the lamest duck in the EU, has almost eighteen grand—double Turkey and half of Italy.

Like any country where governance is just a long word, the DRC has a huge swathe of folks—eighty percent of the poor—working informal jobs.

Out of the population of ninety million, eighty percent are poor, which means that around sixty-five percent work outside the tax circuit—well over half the Congolese are off the grid.

The wealth of the Congo lies in minerals, be they diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, or coltan. The last two ‘C’s are the icing on the cake—coltan for extracting tantalum, used to build capacitors for cellphones, laptops, and car electronics, and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, the darlings of the green revolution.

The worst possible scenario for electric vehicles, where the battery is made in China (i.e. a large carbon footprint) and the car is driven in Poland, where electricity is produced in outdated coal-fired plants. If the best case is considered, where both battery manufacture and driving takes place across the Baltic in Sweden, electric cars emit 80% less carbon dioxide than their hydrocarbon brethren.

Historically, mining has been the province of Western companies—sixty percent of miners are quoted on the Canadian stock exchanges, either Vancouver or Toronto—but over the last two decades, the Chinese have come to town.

China is well ahead of the US when it comes to sourcing cobalt—both Obama and the Orange Man missed the boat on this one. Companies such as China Molybdenum own vast assets in the DRC, such as the Tenke Fungurume mine. A mine worker makes under four dollars a day and the cobalt is used for batteries that power Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes cars.

Ironically, cobalt is used to stop batteries igniting but its stock price is on fire—in the five years before 2016, one metric ton cost less that $35,000, right now it sets you back almost ninety grand.

Since you can find cobalt anywhere in parts of the DRC, one of the key sources is artisanal mining, performed by ordinary people who have no training in mineral extraction—they are ‘creuseurs‘, who hard-scrabble the chocolate-brown powder out of the ground.

One guy in Kolwezi, a southern Congolese city near Angola, was digging a latrine inside his home in 2014 when eight feet down he struck… chocolate. What he found was a rock called heterogenite—I suppose the name means a mixed bag—that can be refined into cobalt.

He proceeded to create a mini-mine inside his house—rented house, that is, and you thought putting up pictures was evil—and started a profitable business selling cobalt. When his vertical seam ran out, he expanded his subterranean gilt goose sideways and tunneled below the neighbors—by the time the landlord caught up with him, his tenant had flown the coop, or in this case the mine, and was by Congolese standards a very wealthy man.

The president of the DRC, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, meeting with the CEO of CMOC, Sun Ruiwen, plus brainy-hotty interpreter, two days before Christmas 2021—and a Merry Xmas to all.

Although not always this creative (home is where the shaft is), artisanal miners, like bitcoin enthusiasts, are beavering away as we speak, to bring us the chocolate we so badly need.

Right now, climate change is taking us into yet another (un)virtuous cycle of “exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship“, much like the discoveries of the XVth century.

The building blocks of the oil economy are the hydrocarbons in the Mid-East, where vast Western conglomerates still have much to say.

For our new toys, we need nickel, lithium, copper, and cobalt. In the case of cobalt, over sixty percent comes from the DRC and (go figure) an equivalent proportion is processed in the Middle Kingdom.

The Western World is building a new green economy around resources it no longer controls.

China won’t make the same mistake.

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


December 18, 2021

The number of stray animals wandering the streets is a solid indicator of development. A few years ago, on a dark evening in Muscat, I saw over a dozen stray cats raiding a bin. Opposite was a garish neon-lit ladies fashion store that displayed a row of mannequin-modeled burqas—just like Henry Ford’s Model T—any color as long as it’s black.

In Asia, the cities are rife with stray dogs—ribcage-thin, mangy and rabid, perennially hungry—and worst of all, devoid of human love. Dogs have been domesticated over millennia—it is estimated that the dog diverged from the wolf as a species between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago.

As a side note, a species is defined by not producing viable offspring with another species—for instance, although a horse and a donkey are sufficiently close genetically to interbreed, the resulting mule is sterile—the parents are therefore not conspecifics. One of the many marvels of biology is the ability of sperm and eggs from different species to make that exact distinction.

Taking the lower value as a conservative estimate, dogs have been a separate species for thirty thousand years—not centuries. Since the average lifespan of a hound is about a decade, there have been three thousand generations of dogs—and through this time, humans have tailored their genetics to produce a huge diversity of breeds.

These breeds vary widely in size, hair, features, and temperament, but they all have one common feature—a remarkable loyalty to humans. No other species has such a bond—dogs clearly prefer humans to other dogs. They are also very much the same species—witness the rise of boutique friends such as the labradoodle.

As we roll in earnest into the twenty-first century, pets have become a real success story, and often a status symbol—there are now eight hundred million dogs and cats in petland—canines edge out felines by about two hundred million, but Millennials and Gen-Z are big fans of Felis catus, so don’t be surprised if the miao miao draw alongside Canis lupus familiaris one of these decades.

The new generations are deeply into pet humanization—this means that pet owners treat their friends like family members—a new generation of owners has huge concerns about sustainability, protein content of food, and other factors. Pet foods are big on the internet—if you search Google with ‘buy pet food online’, there are 4.9 billion hits—that’s 2 billion more than the equivalent search for vegetables, fish, beer, or wine.

Four different types of pet food markets. In the developed world, the market is growing slowly but the consumption of pet foods is high, with the USA at the head of the table.

In the US, the pet food market is worth about ninety billion dollars per year—higher than the GDP of Bulgaria, Bolivia, or Bahrain. In Europe, where 85 million households have pets, the market value is 20 billion euros. In the West, pet foods are strictly regulated—pretty much equivalent to human food. Legislation is strong with respect to raw material sources, food additives, medicines, and a range of other criteria—if you purchase a tin of wet food or a bag of dry food at your local supermarket, you can trust the product will be safe.

All this fits into a paradigm known as the circular economy—by-products from some activities find a use, waste is minimized, and there are clear benefits for people, planet, and profit.

European farmed sea bass—in 2019, two hundred and twenty-two thousand tons were produced around the Mediterranean basin.

Sea bass, called lubina in Spain, spigola or branzino in Italy, and loup or bar in France, is now a major farmed product in Europe. Turkey alone has moved from a production of forty-seven thousand tonnes in 2011 to 149,000 tonnes in 2020—an extraordinary growth rate.

Gilthead seabream, so-called because of the gold mark on the forehead, is a close second—around 195 thousand tonnes of farmed dorade royale every year.

Combined, over four hundred thousand tonnes are farmed and eaten annually—enough to provide one 200 g (7 ounce) meal a day for 3.4 million people—they might get fed up with the diet, though.

If you check my math, you’ll realize I left out 150 thousand tonnes of product—these are offcuts that don’t get eaten: head, bones, trimmings, skin, gut… and I’m probably underestimating the waste volume.

Where does this lead us? If we tap into this vast market, we can develop a whole new industry, increase sustainability, and reduce the footprint of fish farming.

And the best news is that fish farming in the West (in this case the EU) is already held to some of the most stringent standards in the world, so we know exactly where the product originates, how the animals were fed and treated, and all about their welfare.

The high-value market is already there, just waiting for a brand new ocean treat.

What a Christmas bonus for your frrriends…

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

The China Syndrome

December 11, 2021

To Westerners, most things that happen in Asia are eminently forgettable—the continent is just too far away, the culture too difficult to relate to—the recent exception is China, because of the COVID pandemic.

Sri Lanka is the most beautiful place you never heard of—an Indian Ocean pearl with a troubled history. South Asia contains six countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Of these, Sri Lanka scores highest on the Human Development Index and second highest in per capita income—at an average of $2,500-$5,000, we could go for a mid-point of $3,600 to make the math easy, and settle at three hundred bucks a month.

There’s a warning about touting at Bandaranaike airport that trades six months imprisonment against 25,000 rupees—that’s 124 dollars, so a month in jail is worth twenty bucks, not three hundred—clearly a low-wage economy.

Different cultures open your mind—when I came out of the airport immigration area, I was confronted with a duty-free store where a large motorbike was on sale. A number of small shops to the right sold washing machines, tightly wrapped in plastic—I’m still perplexed about how you can buy duty-free when entering a country. When I left Sri Lanka, I half-expected to see washing machines finding their way onto departing flights—when you’re poor, anything is fair game.

Like my ancestors, I came in search of spices—black pepper and cinnamon. In my quest, I ended up in a market in central Colombo. There was little to be found, and I knew how Columbus must have felt in his search for the treasures of the Indies.

I (anti)gravitated upstairs past a sign that admonished “SPITTIN IS PROHIBITED” and arrived at the fish counters—who says wet markets are out of fashion?

The stall guys soon realized I wasn’t a buyer. “Looking, looking!” they shouted down the hall, wagging their heads. The boss man was a tall, burly fellow—mid-fities, massive head shaved close.

We got talking. Portugal came up, and the inevitable reference to Cristiano Ronaldo. I showed him some pictures of Atlantic fish just like the ones in the right-hand bin and explained that in Madeira they have a black variety—peixe espada preto.

He reminded me that the Portuguese had been in town five hundred years ago—I placed my hands together in the eastern greeting and apologized. “No, no!” he said, half-miming half-shouting.

He wagged his head violently. “We were better off then.”

My new friend stuffed his left hand repeatedly into his pocket, illustrating the universal trick of disappearing cash. Politician Magician.

A tuk-tuk took (sorry) me across town—precision driving at its best, with the jalopy sometimes perpendicular to road traffic and missing oncoming vehicles by inches—the driver would be a champion video gamer.

The landscape changed from wide palm-lined avenues lining the bay to narrow, crowded streets—boys hauling handcarts battled tuk-tuks, art deco buses bullied everyone out of the way, pedestrians and cars dodged each other on street and pavement… I sat back and smiled, watching my driver navigate by the app, an Uber-tuk in 2021. Ah, Asia…

And suddenly, there they were—the spices we’d come so far to seek. Ginger at thirty cents a pound—I felt the thrill of the old explorers, as the bearded navigators stuffed the carrack hold with spice. At Walmart, the price is four bucks a pound, so the magic markup is still there.

Black pepper, turmeric, fat rolls of cinnamon bound in elastic, chili peppers—not native to the island but introduced by the Portuguese from West Africa—and delicious miniature garlic cloves the size of a nutmeg. All this in Pettah, the historic outdoor market—the monsoon rain pouring down in sheets, the air warmer than body temperature, not another white face in sight. Take a deep breath of the pungent air—”Unchanged, all through the ages, the legions of disenfranchised people of Asia.

As in Africa, South America, and other parts of Asia, China has taken over from the US when it comes to foreign aid. In Sri Lanka, one of the recurrent themes is the port of Hambatota, which is currently leased to China for ninety-nine years.

The naysayers accuse the government of handing over the port to China—the current expression, popularized by Mike Pence, is debt-trap diplomacy. The orangutan’s former veep maintained that the Chinese modus operandi is to finance development projects in poor economies through loans—when the country defaults on the loan, the Chinese lender (i.e. the government) recovers the asset.

Hambatota is a case in point. The Sri Lankan opposition argues that a 99-year lease is tantamount to ownership—the government strongly contests that view.

The fact is that the Hambatota process is hardly cut and dried. The Canadians funded a feasibility study in 2003—the new port was financially viable. Sri Lankan politics slow-walked the process, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed the work forward. In 2006, a Danish consultant, Ramboll, agreed with the Canadians. Ramboll sugested a first-stage bulk cargo port to drive income—this would be used to fund the second-stage expansion into a container port.

Sri Lanka approached India and the US for funding but were rejected. Enter China Eximbank, who agreed to put up the capital—China Harbor (which I bet you never heard of) would build the port.

Which they did, on time and on budget. The twenty-five-year war with the Tamil tigers finally ended in 2009, and the president rushed into phase 2 without building up revenue. By 2012, the Sri Lankan government borrowed another 757 million bucks from Eximbank, bringing the loan up to over a billion dollars. Modestly, the president named the port after himself.

In 2015, Rajapaska lost a snap election and the Sri Lankan economy began to unravel. With outstanding loan repayments to Japan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and China, the big squeeze was on. In 2017, Sri Lanka paid 1.4 billion dollars in debt service—Hambatota was only five percent of that.

Colombo secured an IMF loan to avoid default, and closed a deal with China Merchants for the ninety-nine year lease. Did Sri Lanka use the lease payment of $1.12 billion to pay back China Eximbank?

Nope, they used it to boost their foreign exchange reserves. Whether ninety-nine years is a lease or a repossession is a moot point—given the back and forth, this doesn’t seem to be a China debt-trap—just a lot of mismanagement.

An old Sri Lankan aphorism states that ‘a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.’

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a Sri Lankan exclusive.

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

Under Siege

December 5, 2021

It is the Year of Our Lord 1506, only eight years after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the maritime route to India. Following the landing at Calicut—now called Kozhikode—the Portuguese fleets began working their way south.

The bearded explorers from a small corner of Western Europe were searching for a tree—Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon—an obscure species, whose inner bark has an unique fragrance. And they were looking for pimenta das Índias—black peppercorns to spice up the drudgery of XVIth century victuals.

When the twenty-five year old captain Dom Lourenço de Almeida sailed east after rounding the southern tip of India, the Portuguese found what they were looking for—the mythical island of Ταπροβανᾶ, named by the Ancient Greeks.

Taprobana, renamed Ceilão by the Lusitanian explorers, was an island paradise—but the Portuguese soon found that the locals were in no mood to be colonized. In line with tradition, the sea captains found a suitable bay to shelter the caravels, made landfall, and built a fort. This construction, named Santa Cruz da Galé—Holy Cross of the Galley (the ship, not the kitchen)—stands today as one of the emblematic locations in Sri Lanka.

After its foundation, the Portuguese went on to found Colombo, still the capital today with its original name. As usual, the explorers established feitorias—coastal trading posts—from which they traded with the locals. In West Africa, slaves were the main ‘commodity’, but out east, it was all about spices.

By 1640, the Galle Fort (now pronounced Gaul) ruled over 282 villages—collectively, these covered the most fertile area for the precious tree bark. During the preceding century, the priests and missionaries had converted many to Catholicism, resulting in an abundance of Fernando, Silva, Perera, and Fonseca. You never see anyone called de Vries or Smith.

A local Sri Lankan song that explains that the Portuguese are very clever—they come over and steal all your stuff. Aptly, if you know any Lusitanian curses, the tune is called pruthugeesi karaya.

As usual, family units were quickly formed, and the language spread widely. The Portuguese left behind hundred of loanwords—my Sinhalese improved rapidly after I discovered that. Shoe is sappatuva, anger is raivaya, and wheel is rodaya. Plum is amesi, baila is dance, and my favorite—rude—is asnu. If you are a cunning linguist, you can knock yourself out here.

Just don’t hold your breath if you’re searching for Dutch or English loanwords. After centuries in country, the Dutch left seven words and the English five. Among the celebrated Dutch contribution is kakkus (kakhuis)—hooray for toilets.

During the XVIth century, the Portuguese became embroiled in a war with the kingdom of Kandy, in the central part of the island. In 1580, as the century drew to a close, Lusitania was conquered by Castille, which had a major impact on Portuguese possessions abroad—the navy was destroyed during the disastrous foray of the Spanish Invincible Armada, led by the violently seasick, ocean-hating Duke of Medina-Sidonia.

The Dutch took advantage of the situation to attack Lusitanian colonies in far-flung outposts, from northern Brazil (Surinam), to the treasures of the East. In particular, they lusted after the lands of Ceylon and the Ilhas Malucas, or crazy islands—navigation in the Moluccas is challenged by a compass anomaly—and the delights of cinnamon and nutmeg.

In 1640, the same year as the Portuguese defenestrated the Spanish regent in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square (shown in the video) and kicked out the Castillians, the Dutch laid siege to Galle. They were supported by a large army from the Kingdom of Kandy, whose ruler had ambitions to conquer the southern part of the island.

The Dutch bombarded the fort for four days and then stormed it. When the fort was finally taken, there were one hundred and seventy Portuguese casualties—estimates of total European dead range from 450 to 1350, so the Dutch left many corpses on the ground.

The memory lingers—it resulted in a Dutch aphorism that reflects the cost of the siege.

Gold in Malacca, lead in Galle.

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

Comin’ In From The Cold

November 14, 2021

John Le Carré made the words famous in his third book—the start of a set of tales about cold war Europe—a continent torn apart by an age-old recipe: the fight for dominance.

France, Germany, Britain, and Russia were the protagonists of this struggle, and three generations later, still are. Somewhere in the mix are the Americans, whose relationship with the UK gives the ‘sick man of Europe’—Margaret Thatcher’s words, not mine—proxy gravitas.

Europe’s borders, and more particularly the boundaries of the European Union, are one of the bleeding edges of current conflict—one which is quite similar to the cold war, except the curtain has moved east. In addition, some nations who were satellite cold warriors are now within the EU—Poland and Hungary.

Migrants were one of the main causes of Brexit and are a favorite excuse for the rise of the European right wing, rooted in white supremacy and imbued by the trappings of Nazism—any ideology needs to find its enemy. Jews for Hitler, Arabs for the French right, Turks in Germany, Poles and Romanians in Britain.

Up till recently, immigration was a problem for southern Europe—refugees from the American and British Middle East wars into the southeast, and displaced and desperate souls from the rain forest to the Maghreb into the southwest.

As a consequence, it’s become a common threat for countries like Turkey to threaten to open the floodgates and swamp Greece or Italy with endless migration.

For poor-post-Brexit-Britain, plagued by problems and ruled by crap cakeism conservatives, immigration continues to be a nightmare, with migrants crossing the channel in anything that appears to float. The folks that attempt the crossing are not Romanians, Bulgarians, or Poles—they are desperate people who penetrated the borders of Fortress Europe.

Contrary to the EU immigrants who picked the fruit, drove the trucks, and served at restaurants, the people England now receives have far weaker skill sets and no European work ethic. Migration within Europe is long-standing—Ireland to England during the potato famine, post-war Italy to France and England, Portugal to France during the colonial war…

What does workers had in common was the wish to at some point return home with enough financial security to prosper in their own land. They had little interest in the politics of their host country, and certainly no inclination to perform acts of terror—they were more focused on acts of terroir.

Migrants have found increasingly innovative ways to try to get across the ever-more-impressive barriers that EU countries put in their way. Last Friday, a bunch of Moroccans flying from Casablanca to Istanbul forced an Air Arabia jet to land in Majorca by having one of their number fake a diabetic coma.

As the ‘patient’ was taken to hospital, the others demanded to go onto the tarmac to smoke—in itself an amazing request given the inflammable nature of everything that is flight-related—forced open a door on the Airbus A320, and ran for the hills.

This type of tactic is far cheaper than using people smugglers—a couple of hundred euros for the flight—but doesn’t have a lot of repeat potential.

Far more worrying, and thought out with the precision of a Russian grandmaster opening with the Giuoco Piano, is what a chess player might term the Belarusian Gambit.

The transportation of Mid-East refugees to Byelorussia was a perverse masterstroke both in terms of tactic and timing. With ‘General Winter’ rapidly approaching, amassing potential immigrants one country away from the German border is a source of huge contention—true, it’s seven hundred miles across Poland, but the pressure on the EU is huge. This is compounded by the fact that Poland’s right-wing government is already at odds with the EU, who now expects it to secure the union’s eastern border.

In addition, Russia indirectly pressures Lithuania, who the bear does not forgive for its secession from Russia and membership of the European club. Germany is suddenly at the center of this mess, just when it is discussing the potential Jamaica coalition and sits between governments. And the cold, always the awful cold—it saw off Hitler and Napoleon, so it will make short work of ill-clad Mideastern peasants.

Poland knows it has a good poker hand to play.

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

Business Intelligence

November 1, 2021

Food and trade are two universal axes of civilization.

After the invention of money, which I’ll define as a portable proxy for trust, the concept of a physical place where food was bought and sold quickly gained traction—a store or a shop, in other words.

In the digital age, many physical stores have gone the way of the home phone—no longer does Mohammed go to the mountain, it is the mountain that comes his way in byte-sized pieces.

But if we go back to Ancient Rome, Athens, or Babylon, the concept that endures is the market. To this day, a collection of stallholders peddling different wares—but always with food as a centerpiece—is an extremely popular venue. In North America and Europe, these markets are sanitized, but I’ve spent many wonderful hours wandering through markets from Cape Town to Kunming, Bali to Bangkok, where the opium of mysterious scents and the presence of live animals is de rigeur.

Live turtles for sale in a Guangzhou supermarket. Other live animals are also on display.

Even today, in small towns in southern Europe, it’s possible to find a market seller with live chickens or rabbits, knife at the ready for swift execution upon request. But in China, as was highlighted during the COVID pandemic, the selection of creatures available to the consumer was and presumably is quite remarkable.

If you went to market regularly, as most families would, you might perhaps favor certain stalls—in turn, the sellers would cater to your preferences and the sum of that mutual knowledge constituted what is nowadays termed business intelligence.

Over time, specialization of both goods and services in the food sector was replaced by the business model that dominates since World War II—supermarkets.

The first ever self-service grocery store was created in the improbable location of Memphis, Tennessee—a city better known for it’s fantastic music scene.

The amazing Charles Anderson Edward Berry doing his thing. When Keith Richards inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he said, “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played.”

The store was called Piggly Wiggly, and a supermarket chain with that name exists to this day. The owner of the first store, which opened in 1916 at 79, Jefferson Avenue, was a visionary—Clarence Saunders, a man with only two years of formal education, developed three key concepts:

  • Self-service
  • Price-marking for all items
  • The shopping cart

Before Saunders changed the paradigm, shoppers would have their order filled by a clerk—Saunders found that the money made with the new business model amply compensated for the cost of shoplifting.

One of the downsides of the new model was the distance between client and store. The butcher, baker, grocer, and fishmonger no longer knew what the customer preference was, except through an averaged approach based on what parked and what flew off the shelves.

Long before big data, supermarkets dreamed up ways to get round that problem. First among them, the loyalty card. Everyone likes a bargain, and although most of us feel that a loyalty card is a generous gesture that supermarkets (and now gas stations, utility stores etc) extend to their best customers, actually it ain’t so.

The first-ever supermarket started over a century ago in the USA. Note the wicker baskets, male clients, and complete absence of African Americans.

Loyalty cards (I’ve never owned one) are a method of associating purchases with a specific client. If you don’t have a loyalty card but you pay with a bank card, as most people do, it’s the same thing—the number is linked to you and makes the connection to what you buy.

With the advent of big data, everything becomes that little bit more sinister. By linking card numbers (whether loyalty or otherwise) to purchasing data, a supermarket can very easily infer a lot about you: what, when, and where are a good start. It can certainly group customers by frequency, wealth, and preferences.

It knows whether you’re a wine and cheese person, or prefer sugar and spice and all things nice. Do you have pets? It knows. Cat or dog? Parrot? It knows. Do you have a medical condition? Allergies? Gluten-free? Are you a health nut? On the Atkins diet? It knows, or rather with artificial intelligence it can make a damn good guess.

Small children? Divorced with two-weekly visiting rights? It knows that too.

Since big brother knows, coupons and vouchers can be tailored to you, and big data companies help supermarkets understand a shopper’s habits on a broader scale.

Are you a superbigamist? Are you cheating on your favorite store? Indulging in supermarket promiscuity? It knows, in fact they all know where you’ve bought what.

Enter the digital world, where you can imagine not one supermarket, but many. I don’t mean physically, I mean that the same physical store five people know, with its well-planned arrangement of shelves, might have five digital twins, in the same way as Amazon shows me ‘other things I might like‘ based on my browsing history. So, although we all shop at Piggly Wiggly, we see five different porkers preloaded for perusal.

Waiter, waiter, there’s a spy in my soup.

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

The Energy Climax

October 24, 2021

Climate fever has taken over for the next few weeks.

This occurs as the COVID numbers spike back up. After Brexit, the UK has been struck from European maps, as Brussels emulates Stalin in airbrushing fallen rivals from official photographs. Speaking of which, Russia, Ukraine, and other European nations are also missing—if these were all included, the color black would feature prominently on this map.

The European Center for Disease Control map on the state of play for COVID in late October 2021.

As things stand, I’d be tempted to try a temperature correlation—perhaps due to climate change, I am still swimming outdoors, and the poplar and plane trees along the roadside remain decidedly undeciduous.

So far, it’s clear the pandemic is over—in our minds—but I see no strong evidence of the kind I like, i.e. the scientific kind. I do see cases go down, and I’m very happy about that—there’s enough death around us. But I also see a two-monthly cycle persisting for the virus, and no one understands why. At least as worrying, I see folks on a laissez-faire trip, and their governments on a laissez-passer.

If I’m right about the temperature, then as winter comes, you’ll see a lot more brown in southern Europe—particularly as the snowbirds fly south. It’s possible that we’ll end up with the same cycle as the Spanish flu—three to four years of this, hitting a range of demographics, as we repeat all the same mistakes of a century ago.

There are other theories around, particularly for the UK, that the early vaccination is now wearing off—and it does, just as I found out post-COVID when I did my citizen-science monthly antibody test. After five months, immunity was tailing off, and then I got the shot. I’ll do an antibody test shortly and let you know.

But right now, it’s climate month.

Fossil fuels are the great Satan, and we shall be saved by the four N’s: New energy sources (wind, solar), Natural gas, and Nuclear energy—and finally, No coal.

It’s encouraging to see the increase in natural gas, but not the accompanying rise of oil and coal. The units are teraWatt hour, a weird way to express energy—one TWh is 3.6 quadrillion Joules—a few billion times more than your daily energy intake.

The greenhouse gas panorama is pretty depressing—that bit where all oil and coal curves go up sharply? That’s the year 2000 right there! Perhaps the start of a great XXIst century lemming celebration, powered by the total disconnect between citizens and those who rule them. Coal leveled about a decade ago—but oil, like a true triple-word tautological Brexit Boris Buzzfest, can’t stop levelling up.

Greece was on Bloomberg this morning explaining how it is moving to natural gas to replace other fossil fuels. Admirable, but hang on… where will we they get it from? Er… indirectly from Russia.

And there’s the rub. Italy gets half its gas from Russia, the rest from other sources. The Iberian nations don’t do Russia—they pipe gas in from Algeria and through LNG carriers from Nigeria. Phew.

The idea of a Europe dependent on Russian natural gas to save the planet is an intuitive no-no. You don’t need a brain—muscle memory will suffice.

But oh, how quickly the fog of memory draws the iron curtain…

And while we’re at it, where do these greenhouse gas emissions come from, anyway?

About a month ago, the UK was deep in an energy crisis—among the various reasons? Lack of wind. In other parts of the world, if there is a prolonged period of cloud cover, solar generation may be hit. And hang on… climate change affects the weather? The Jet Stream? Who knew!

My point? Ordinary people are far more concerned about their electricity bills than about climate change.

And when it comes to electricity supply?

They’ll vote with their feet.

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

A World of Food

October 16, 2021

I spent all morning celebrating World Food Day. It’s difficult to imagine a more important topic, right up there with World Health Day and World Peace Day—unfortunately, what connects the three is war.

As dinnertime approaches, it’s time to feel pain for those whose life is a daily struggle for food, leading to poor health, disease, and ultimately famine and war.

At present, about ten percent of the world goes hungry—that’s over eight hundred million people, roughly the whole US, EU, and Canada combined. The charity Action Against Hunger defines hunger as follows:

According to the UN’s Hunger Report, hunger is the term used to define periods when populations are experiencing severe food insecurity—meaning that they go for entire days without eating due to lack of money, lack of access to food, or other resources

As usual in my world, the discussion was about fish. One of the panelists, a chef who prepares food for European astronauts, remarked that ‘people don’t care what they put in their mouth.’ He told us they know far more about the shoes they buy.

It’s well known that people age faster in microgravity, exhibiting changes to bone density, loss of muscle mass, cardiovascular problems, and immunological dysfunction. Our chef went on to explain that healthy foods are one of the few tools available to help mitigate these changes.

His thing is vertical cuisine, linking nutritional value to taste, but after he told us about his astronaut food exploits, I theorized that maybe his cuisine is vertical because his dishes go straight into orbit.

At 10 pm Eastern Time this evening, Niagara Falls will light up with the blue colors of hope—eight hundred million go hungry tonight.

Amazing things are going on in the world of food, but many are the province of wealthier nations. Recirculating Aquaculture Systems, or RAS, are designed to grow fish under controlled conditions with as much recycling as possible—this provides some insulation, if you excuse the pun, against climate change—of course if you need cool water and the outside environment is warming, your energy costs will increase.

In Germany, a startup sells the Seawater Cube, which can produce up to seven metric tons of fish per year using artificial seawater—if you like local produce but live far from the sea, one of these days some smart entrepreneur might be producing seabass a couple of miles down the road—high quality, low carbon footprint.

Another company, Vaxa, is growing microalgae at scale using geothermal energy in Iceland. The pictures of their production line could have been taken at a gigantic cannabis farm, but these guys are not into THC, they’re into Omega-3.

Some of these narratives are not that close to reality—you won’t be eating a microalgal phytoburger any time soon—but those algae could find their way into commercial fish feeds, supplementing additives such as soy.

The infographic above shows our environmental footprint—the future looks shocking and even the present is disturbing. To me, the most scary estimate is that ninety-four percent of mammal biomass on the planet—presumably not including ourselves—is for human food. Now that is one unsustainable number.

On the other hand, in Italy, 86% of consumers now buy some kind of organic product, compared to 53% in 2012. However, organic products are less that four percent of the total market for food. Still, to give you some idea of scale, those four percent represent 1.5 billion dollars of annual sales.

Some final numbers at the world scale: Australia has the most land used for organic foods—about eighty million acres, but the largest producer is India. The US market is worth over fifty billion dollars, forty-five percent of the world market—and the numbers are growing all the time.

I did my homework this morning, but I’ve also given you a sip from the fire hose—lots to digest…

Food for thought on world food day.

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

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