Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

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.

The Chain Gang

September 25, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic—I hope to have readers many years from now, perhaps during Cocks-56, the terrible Coxsackie virus pandemic of 2156, so I thought I’d better qualify it—has turned humanity on to a host (excuse the pun) of wonderful things, including masks and jail time without crime, previously known only in certain parts of Asia.

Supply chain is one of those novelty phrases—before pan arrived, this was a buzzword bandied on biz channels and overheard at Starbucks when twenty-one year old spreadsheet superspreaders crunched marketing numbers and saved the economy.

Taking a leaf from the playbook of ecology, it becomes obvious that supply chains, like food chains, are really supply webs. And just like in ecology, the supply chain ecosystem (a newish and tedious biz malaprop) benefits from diversity—ecologists recognize that diversity provides both stability and resilience.

If the supply web forks right instead of left, that may of course leave some disgruntled players—viz the French tantrum after being spurned some days ago by Australia, who bedded not one but two new mistresses. In what seems to be not just an underwater but also an underhand business, the threesome pitched itself to the public as AUKUS.

The role of the UK is not clear, and the French themselves recognize that Britain is an irrelevance in the threesome, but of course the Elysee sees the wider picture of Brexit trade deals and perfidious Albion, and twirls its mustache in Gallic contempt.

In actual fact, the whole issue is linked to the Middle Kingdom, and the competition between the two great powers in the Asian theater. Dropping the UK into the mix serves the twin purposes of a Boris boost (internally) and pretending this is a ‘allies and friends’ rather than an ‘us (US) and them’ deal externally.

If the name reflected the relative importance of partners it should be AUSUK, but someone with an extra brain cell realized this might be a marketing blow (job).

The late great Sam Cooke, who added an ‘e’ to his surname so folks wouldn’t think he was just lean cuisine. The chain gang sound effects at the start of the tune are a true classic.

No developed nation is more aware of supply chain issues than Boris Brexit Britain. Having kicked out all the East European truckers (known in the UK as heavy goods vehicles, or HGV, drivers), Britain is stunned to find it has a serious supply chain breakdown. Who knew?

Pictures of empty supermarket shelves, reports of uncollected garbage—the Guardian newspaper reported “He came home from work to find his front porch covered in what he initially thought was rice, but subsequently realised was hundreds of maggots swarming out of a food waste caddy that hadn’t been collected in a month”—and long lines at gas stations are just some of the delights enjoyed by Britons in these post-Brexit times.

The government narrative is that a lot of the problem, if not all, is due to the pandemic—this presumably is also the Brexiteer hardline. The truckers became anxious to see their families over the past year and returned home. No mention made about the way the pandemic was handled in tousled-Trump fashion in the early stages.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why no countries in the EU are struggling with food shortages, including nations like Spain and Italy, both of which were devastated by Covid. Germany and Italy certainly rely on mobility of EU citizens to deal with some of their labor shortages, including truck drivers.

I did a lot of hitch-hiking when I lived in the UK—it was an easy and cheap way to travel—and I got rides on trucks all the time. All the truckers were English back then, mostly in the thirty to fifty age group. I got some insane guys—it’s not an easy job, spending so much time alone, I recall one guy had amazingly mad theories about extraterrestrials and other bizarre things—since I’d just smoked a joint while waiting for a ride, I found all this most enjoyable.

One driver told me that when he drove in Texas, the motorbike cops liked to get up right behind the truck and sit in the blind spot—when the trucker went over the speed limit, the cop would pull out and bust him. Then a couple of fellows fitted a mirror below the cab and slammed the brakes on the next cop who did that. Apparently, the police were quickly discouraged—so I learned a lot, probably more than in the classes I skipped.

The average age of British truckers is now fifty-eight. As with a host of other low-paying and hard-wearing jobs—none of which are on the Brexit skilled worker visa list—the dearth of truck drivers is causing mayhem.

Along with the Brexit narrative came the promise of higher paying jobs for UK nationals—and the appetite to pay more is certainly there, but not the employees. Britain can’t pick its fruit and vegetables, collect its garbage or stock its shelves, and is now in the middle of an energy crisis—natural gas prices are soaring and there isn’t enough carbon dioxide to stun animals at slaughterhouses—you’d have thought all that extra CO2 from climate change could lend a hand.

Along with all this insular joy, UK inflation is pushing to a rampant 4%, totally predictable since shortages drive prices up. As the all-important Christmas holiday approaches, the news is full of reports that there may be a shortage of turkey in supermarkets.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Last year no family, this year no turkey.

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

Jerry Hat Trick

September 12, 2021

Maybe the years I lived in England infected me with a soft spot for puns, or maybe it’s just that I enjoy playing around with words—as we humans make ourselves extinct, i.e. become extinguished rather than distinguished, I dreamed that insects would regain their ruling spot, setting up their planetary capital in a huge Hawaiian metropolis called Antsville, Hulabama.

Since originality wins in my world, I’m delighted there are no hits from Google on this new megacity—I am considerably more worried that it immediately detected my spoonerism and suggested what should have been my correct search terms.

That’s amazing. I find as years go by that my computer has become dyslexic—because it surely ain’t me—and I regularly msitype wodrs by swapping adjacent letters, but that does not extend to misrepresenting cunning stunts as stunning cunts.

And because today is a freewheeling text—like American foreign policy—no direction home, here are three thoughts on dis thislexia (the WordPress shellpecker is having a field day with me).

The first is that I only fuck up the words when I type—when I write it’s fine, and that’s how I know it’s my computer’s fault.

The second is that the kind of typos I make, typically insertions, deletions, and substitutions, are exactly what happens with genetic mutations, so if you suffer from this ailment, first of all test yourself in longhand—I bet you’re good, so the fault is clearly in your digital friend—and second, understand that you are in fact demonstrating evolutionary biology to the world at large.

The third is that I realized in recent years that I do a lot of typing without looking at the keys, and in general it works out fine. That qualifies me as a touch typist, albeit of the two finger variety—but you can do an awful lot with two fingers—if you don’t believe, me ask Django Reinhardt.

Django breaking the internet—you can see that both the pinky and ring fingers of his left hand are out of play, severely injured in a caravan fire.

Once in a while, I run a blind test for myself, just losing my eyes and ttpomf—that was meant to be just closing my eyes and typing, but I’m chilling, writing this on a laptop, and I do better at a proper click-click-keyboard.

And although ttpomf is vaguely reminiscent of the orang-u-tan covefefe, it’s a far more onomatopeic invention. The double t is there for emphasis of course, but you can see that the number of letters is correct and the wrong letters are shifted by one on the keyboard.

Which in this stream-of-consciousness article begs the question: is typing faster than writing? Science comes to the rescue, as always, unless you live in orangeland. At an annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (who knew?) in 1988, a paper was presented by C. Marlin “Lin” Brown—you can tell it’s proper science because the nick is shown in inverted commas, as in Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor, but why does Mr. or Ms. C. insist on qualifying the given name? Is it so (s)he’s not mistaken for a fish?

Since we’re playing word association football today, you should know that the legendary bluesman Hound Dog—if you excuse the paradox—was not only named after a U.S. president who was a great explorer, builder of the Panama Canal, and enthusiastic big game hunter, but also suffered from a condition called polydactylism—he had six fingers in each hand, so he could have spared Django a couple.

More bizarrely, he apparently sliced off one of said extra digits with a straight razor while he was drunk—but don’t worry, them extra digits were just nubs. And when you search for hound dog polydactyly, the first hit tells you: ‘Polydactyly is a rare occurrence where your dog is born with an extra toe or toes. It’s not considered a problem unless it catches on things.’

Catches on things? WTF?

So Marlin found that typing was five words per minute faster than writing—no details provided about errors. But it’s obvious that you’re much more prone to those when you type—that’s why they’re called typos, not writos. If you can’t spell—and many can’t these days, the principle reason being that in principal they’re not taught properly or don’t give a shit—they’re called spelling mistakes.

That paper should have qualified for an Ig Nobel prize—these coveted trophies have just been awarded for last year. One of the lucky winners published a paper on transporting rhinos upside down, and my favorite provides empirical evidence that orgasms are an effective nasal decongestant. I’m afraid I haven’t yet read the article, but since blowing your nose is also an effective decongestant, and presumably during enthusiastic sexual activity neither party is munitioned with a handkerchief, does this mean that the decongestion assistant is pulverized with nasal mucus at the critical juncture? Curious minds want to know.

My articles are generally like tennis—the game ends when the work is done, but today’s is a soccer game and time’s up—I need to pack a bag and get on an ATR to Spain, where a couple of days on the water will no doubt do wonders for my nasal passages.

But first I need to get a couple of lithium batteries through airport security.

As the jerry hat tricks who were on TV yesterday noted, since 911 air travel has never been the same.

But as luck would have it, I have an ace in the hole. In 2009, Dr. Elena Bodnar came up with a brilliant invention, which won her an Ig Nobel and demonstrated she was a decade ahead of her time.

Her invention? A black brassiere that uncouples to form two perfectly fashioned face masks.

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

Have You Ever Seen The Rain

September 5, 2021

It’s been over two years since I was in New Orleans—along with Memphis, I rate it as one of the world’s top music cities.

But New Orleans is also the real Mississippi delta—geographically, a delta is a sedimentation area where a river meets the sea—the water body between the two is the estuary, but as a river widens into the ocean the currents slow and the solids carried by the river deposit to form the delta.

But the mighty Mississippi has another delta—not a river delta, but the home of the delta blues, stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg, all the way down highway 61 to Clarksdale, Robert Johnson’s famous crossroads, and then on to Vicksburg, right on the Louisiana border.

The whole Mississippi delta area is cotton country—seven thousand miles of alluvial floodplain, but before the civil war, this was hardwood forest—the whole thing was cut down to make way for plantations, run by whites, worked by black slaves, and the birthplace of the blues.

The real Mississippi delta, where the river drains into the Gulf, forming the MARP—Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Plume.

New Orleans is regularly hit by hurricanes that take their toll in human life and destroy property. The latest arrival was Ida—when I was down south, I was told hurricanes are named after women because when they arrive, they’re wet and wild, and when they leave they take your house and your car.

There is a consensus that climate change is causing an increase both in frequency and intensity of hurricanes—the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a multi-agency task force that researches climate change, states:

The recent increases in activity are linked, in part, to higher sea surface temperatures in the region that Atlantic hurricanes form in and move through. Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors is an active focus of research. Some studies suggest that natural variability, which includes the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, is the dominant cause of the warming trend in the Atlantic since the 1970s, while others argue that human-caused heat-trapping gases and particulate pollution are more important.

The key in this paragraph is the ‘relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors’, because this is where the political and social disagreements sit when it comes to policy choices such as the Paris Agreement.

Wherever you sit, there’s no doubt the effects of climate change are increasingly severe, dangerous, and costly. And when biblical deluges hit urban areas, the combined effect of calamitous precipitation and large-scale impermeabilization translates into the kind of flooding that recently occurred in New York and New Jersey.

The problem is that folks can only react to short-term issues, both in time and space. Stuff that happens near you right now is far more important than the plight of refugees on the Afghan-Turkmenistan border, even though there are children dying as you read this article.

No politician or policy-maker will dare tell you that if you’re forced to drive only two-thirds of what you drive now, or watch one hour less of TV or internet per day, or switch off your cellphone at night, in three years there will be a ten percent reduction in serious floods or wildfires. Or even that in ten years there will be a three percent reduction.

Of course, if you lost your house in Greece this summer, or live up in the Santa Cruz mountains in California, you may see things differently—but for the majority of the voting public, radical measures that affect them have no vote appeal except indirectly, for instance through taxation.

Climate change is a hugely complex problem, with effects widely varying in time and space—exactly the kind of issue politicians hate to tackle. And yet, despite the pandemic proving unequivocally that we are not the masters of the universe, we stubbornly cling to the idea that we are.

Even death is something we refuse to consider, until the man in the dark hood comes and leads us by the hand.

We can solve everything, we can shape our world. Good luck with that, but…

Have you ever seen the rain?

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

The Hacker

July 25, 2021

The history of computers can be divided into two parts: calculation and communication.

The concept behind any computational activity was, and is, to speed up and automate human actions. Primitive—and yet sophisticated—devices like the abacus were followed by mechanical adding machines and slide rules that took advantage of basic properties of numbers.

Stuff like the nature of logarithms, if you excuse the pun, which allowed a conversion between the simple operations of addition and subtraction and their more troublesome cousins, multiplication and division.

As computers became able to perform tasks that no one predicted one hundred years ago—such as allowing me to write this article, all the while spell-checking my work and letting me include pictures or video—the issue of communication became all-important.

Back in the days of MS-DOS, the operating system that drove the first IBM PC, a command line was the gold standard—a typed instruction, hit return on the keyboard, and the magic would begin. These days, whenever you see a black screen full of arcane commands being furiously typed by a geeky guy with a hoodie, you realize computer hacking is afoot.

Nerds relish in taking screengrabs of what is actually written as ‘code’—mostly it’s crap for downloading MP3s or some other trivial bullshit—grandmaster-level hacking it is not.

Hacks only became a thing as the comms side of computing expanded, first as monitors, printers, and other devices were hooked up, and then in the communications supernova of the mid-1990s, when computers got hooked up to the net.

Back then, you needed a modem to process the signal and comms were not for the fainthearted. Geeks mumbled about protocols and baud rates and your computer spoke to its siblings through the phone line.

Over twenty years before the mid-90s, the SWIFT system was created—the year was 1973, and log tables were the gold standard for mathematical calculation.

Log tables were look-up catalogs for logarithms and anti-logs, used to speed up manual computations. Electronic calculators were nail in the coffin for this laborious method of mathematical manipulation.

The SWIFT system was designed to replace TELEX and speed up international financial transactions—it took four years to go live. At around the same time, in 1975, something called Signalling System No. 7 was born. SS7 (which in German has the delightful name Zentraler Zeichengabekanal Nummer 7, or ZZK-7) is a protocol for routing international phone communications—made for simpler times, in recent years it has been cruelly hacked.

The first personal computer appeared in 1975, but it took some years for the fad to catch on—by 1983 there were two million, mainly playing games and performing three business operations: database management, spreadsheet operations, and text processing.

For twenty-first century hackers, the old SWIFT and SS7 protocols were the stuff of dreams. In an unconnected world, security was naive—within a bank, some staff members had appropriate credentials and dealt with the international routing of money—big money.

The great blackout—North Korea by night.

A couple of years ago, good old SWIFT was used in a classic hack, courtesy of a black hat operation originating, according to reliable sources, from North Korea—given the nature of the regime, the inference is that the hack was government-sanctioned.

The central bank of Bangladesh has its headquarters in the country’s capital, Dhaka. If you say it fast, ‘The Hacker’ sounds suspiciously like the city in question. I doubt the DPRK geeks will have made the link—rather, the choice of Bangladesh Bank (BDB) was driven by perceived poor security—banks in other developing nations were subsequently targeted.

D hack (sorry) was a multipart operation with many interesting features.

The first step was a standard phishing operation, similar to mails I get every day. A young, polite, and motivated banker sends in his resume—some obliging soul from the bank opens the attachment or perhaps clicks on a web link.

A virus is installed on a BDB computer and begins to prowl the internal bank network. It is searching for access to the SWIFT system and a strategy to get past the authentication protocol—it can do this in two ways: either by hacking the credentials or bypassing the request.

Forensic investigators established that the latter method was used—only eight bytes (eight characters, like the word COMPUTER) were replaced—that’s a pretty Zen hack.

The next step was to plan the financial heist. The hackers decided to steal one billion dollars from BDB by ordering transfers from its account at the New York Fed. Since the bank account held one billion, the plan was to steal the lot.

The choice of timing was exquisite. The transfer orders began on the evening of Thursday, local time, when the BDB staff had gone home for the weekend—in a Muslim country like Bangladesh, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

New York began receiving requests in the early morning of Thursday due to the ten hour time difference. When the Bengalis returned to work Sunday, the NY Fed was shut for the weekend. A number of transfers were routed to the Philippines, where Monday was a holiday—the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Overall, the hackers had five days of confusion to play around with.

The BDB security system included a printer on the tenth floor that automatically supplied copies of all transactions—the hackers jammed the printer so that nothing at all was printed. When the bank staff solved the problem, the machine leapt into action, printing numerous queries from the New York bank to verify the transactions.

In the end, the hack ‘only’ succeeded in separating a hundred million bucks from its rightful owners—the people of Bangladesh. Mostly, that cash was laundered through casinos in Manila, which at the time had no regulation on the provenance of funds.

The washing of the hacked moneys is a tale for another day, but I cannot imagine it could take place without a substantial amount of corruption—the accounts in the Manila banks had five hundred bucks in them for over a year and suddenly received tens of millions. Go figure.

The hack was stopped for the most hilarious reasons when only ten percent of the transfer volume had been executed.

The Manila banks are located on Jupiter Street—the name coincided with an Iranian vessel on the US sanctions list, so the Fed queried it—not receiving a reply, it halted the transactions.

The second reason was even more amusing: the hackers tried to transfer several million dollars to the Shalika Foundation in Sri Lanka, a social services non-profit. As an aside, the organization was founded by Shalika Perera—the name undoubtedly derives from the Portuguese family name Pereira and the sexual meanderings of The India Road.

When the hackers wrote out the beneficiary, instead of foundation they spelt the word fundation.

Along with Dhaka and hacker, this has got to be one of the more subtle ironies of the dark web.

And surely the most costly pun of all time.

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

Wú Wéi

July 18, 2021

The Chinese character 无 means ‘to lack’ or ‘not to have’. This is a wonderful example of Chinese synthesis—the ideogram replaces two or three English words. The character 为 or wéi means ‘to behave’, ‘to be’…

Together, 无 为 take on a deeper meaning—inaction. wú wéi can be translated as do nothing, take no action, and is an instantly recognizable phrase in the Middle Kingdom—short for 无为而无不为 or wú wéi ér wú bù wéi, it literally means through not doing, all things are done.

wú wéi is a classic formulation of Taoism (or Daoism), a combination of religion and philosophy that originated in China about two thousand five hundred years ago.

The ‘do nothing’ hands off approach is antithetical to the West, where we are constantly running around trying to do something, even when the outcome of that something may be useless—reverse Taoism could thus be do something, and little will be accomplished, or at the edge, do everything, and nothing will get done.

Try discussing the concept with a Westerner and you are immediately faced with scoff—absolutely, so if I don’t drive to work I will magically arrive there—or maybe the joke will turn to meals that cook themselves.

But those who look beyond the sarcasm understand the concept is a way to unify us with the universe, to flow with the forces that surround us.

Water is used as a frequent example of wú wéi—it can happily be guided, transported and piped—yet is does as it will, evaporating from the earth’s surface, drifting anywhere and everywhere in great clouds, and then falling where it must.

Donovan’s ‘Colours’ is the epitome of the relationship between the Hippie Movement and Taoism, the concept of letting nature take its course.

Over the past days, water fell in areas of northern Europe where the landscape has been completely altered, and the same soft, playful water wreaked havoc and death on town and country.

The Chinese used the wú wéi way throughout history, watching invaders come and go and yet remaining resolutely Chinese.

From Gengis Khan’s Mongol hordes to the Japan of Yamamoto and Tojo, the Middle Kingdom suffered and waited it out, just as they recently did with Donald Trump.

In the midst of all this a pandemic erupted, and its most significant political outcome was ejecting the orange man. Unless you believe that COVID was deliberately released by China as a biological weapon to destroy the Western World, then the orang-u-tan was whipped by wú wéi.

All the multiple ‘strategies’ for beating the pandemic—the idea that we as humans are in charge—is laughable. Mask on, mask off. Home at eight, now you’re late. Summer vacation, sovereign nation. France is closed, vax exposed. PCR, stay where you are. Out at night, twenty-buck flight.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu—father of Taoism—in the Chinese painting ‘The Three Vinegar Tasters’. Confucius, a defender of order, has a sour look, Buddha, who saw the world as a place of suffering, looks bitter. Only Lao Tzu is smiling, at one with nature.

Taoism gives us much more to explore, helping us realize that by managing less we may be managing more. It emphasizes virtues that are much in demand as we drift through these completely incomprehensible times—naturalness, compassion, simplicity, and above all humility.

In the space of eighteen months, a virus maestro and a quartet of mutations have shown us we are not in charge—yet every hour the kings of the world make their plans and the worker bees dutifully follow.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

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

The Long March

July 11, 2021

To understand anything, you have to know its past.

This is as true of ordinary people as it is of nations and continents, but when it comes to changing history, it is paramount, as the Americans have discovered in Afghanistan. In fairness, the Brits could have told them, since they only left four generations ago, the first time they tried to rule the country—after eighty years of strife and the infamous 1842 Khyber Pass massacre, where only one man survived out of sixteen thousand.

The US troops have left after twenty years—billed as America’s longest war, and certainly one of America’s longest bills—the Costs of War project estimates the bill at well over two trillion dollars, compared to four trillion spent on World War II.

America likes instant solutions—during the Great War, General John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing was told by a French commander that it would take thirty years to organize a general staff. “It never took America thirty years to do anything,” he replied.

Maybe so, but some things take time—you can’t make a baby in a month by getting nine women pregnant.

And as the students are fond of saying, “We have the time.” They are now making that time count and rapidly undoing the societal changes brought to the country by the allies. Just as when the Soviets left, there will be long knives.

It was the Taliban who tortured Mohammad Najibullah to death in 1996, reportedly castrating him before he died. Former president Hamid Karzai has survived four Taliban assassination attempts—their first attempt was with a gun, the next three used rockets!

The systematic mistake of the West, and in particular the US, is the ‘hearts and minds’ narrative. The idealistic notion that every country hungers for democracy and that if it could, the whole world would be like the United States, is just plain wrong.

The reasons, as always, are anchored in history. The construction of a democratic society is a bottom-up affair, and the fairy-tale notion that an external military intervention will make the populace rejoice and quickly lead to strong democratic institutions is puerile.

America has discovered this everywhere it has tried to effect change, except of course in Europe where the nations liberated after the end of the Second World War were already democratic.

When democracy starts it is experimental, and trial and error lead to its improvement. The separation of church and state was one of these, something that the US is still ambiguous about, since god appears to be permanently blessing America.

Likewise, appointing a head of state to be head of the church is similarly unwise—Henry VIII had five good reasons for doing so, and the English have never abandoned the notion since then. Scotland would never have accepted the Church of England, and therefore created its very own Church of Scotland—however, this is a presbyterian denomination, headed only by Jesus Christ—a kind of absentee landlord.

The separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government is also a great concept—one that came about through the realization that excessive power is a really bad notion. As a rule of thumb, consider the following: if a concept is forbidden by a dictator, by and large its a pretty good idea—the reverse also applies, as seen for example in free speech and personality cults.

The application of your own rules, your own past, to other people’s realities, rarely works. That’s why when I visit a new land, or meet a new person, I don’t look for logic.

I look for internal consistency.

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

Viking Talk

May 30, 2021

The history of Denmark is one of my black holes—in fairness, that’s true for all of Scandinavia, but occasional conversations with Norwegians and Swedes have shed some light on Norse historical antics.

What you’re told very much depends on who’s shining the light—the three stronger powers took turns setting the scene, although Norway was nowhere near as successful as Denmark or Sweden. Finland was not in the running—first it was ruled by the Swedes and then by the Russians—the big neighbor syndrome, which exists to this day, made it impossible for Finland to join NATO and led to compulsory military service.

The Vikings—a generic name for Norsemen—went everywhere. As far as Newfoundland to the west, and all around the European seaboard. The light green areas show the main communities and the blue lines the sailing routes—200 years from England and Ireland all the way to America.

During the Viking period, the explorers went up the Guadalquivir to Seville in 844, deep in the times of the Caliphate, on a series of missions of rape and pillage, but also selling blond slave girls to the harems of the Moors. A century later, the Vikings were in Istanbul—their inland routes are a map of the major European rivers, from the Dnieper to the Vistula.

I was given a Danish history lesson over a few glasses of excellent Ripasso—a fairly indifferent band played in the background, but it’s been so long since I heard (or played) live music that it warmed my heart.

It had been a very long day, including a stint at the Danish parliament and a number of press interviews—Denmark has a complex environmental problem and I had been asked for my thoughts on the matter. When it comes to press, the key is often what you leave out—I was repeatedly asked whether the Danish government had got things wrong, and had to explain that as a guest in their beautiful country it certainly wasn’t my place to provide a comment.

One of several Danish constitutions on display in the main hall of parliament—the oldest dates back to 1849. In other nations, access to parliamentary grounds in restricted and limousines are the norm, but in Denmark you just stroll into the outer courtyard, where you are greeted (as everywhere) by a sea of bikes.

Christian II is an unavoidable reference in Danish history. He was famous for attempting to give more power to commoners—this in the XVIth century—and for conquering Sweden, and infamous for the Stockholm bloodbath.

Danish and North German history are intertwined. Parliament has a paternoster elevator—I’d last been on one in Kiel over twenty years ago—and Copenhagen has three. One member of parliament famously went up and disappeared, only to do a handstand and come down the other side.

The flat and pungent north German province of Schleswig-Holstein was one of the points of dispute between Prussian and Dane—Denmark was so upset at the loss of prime agricultural land in the 1800s that it went on a reclamation spree, land-filling lakes and coastal areas to compensate.

At present, sixty-one percent of Denmark’s area is devoted to agriculture, one of the highest proportions in the world. This results for instance in forty percent of EU seed production—the Danes are the world’s largest producers of grass seeds.

Denmark, like the Netherlands and Portugal, is a small but fiercely independent European country. In these times of regression to a historical past of isolation and ‘me first’, it’s a privilege to make this my first post-pandemic visit.

A nation that highlights both individual achievement and societal tolerance—proudly Dane and calmly European.

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

Goldfinger

May 15, 2021

Over the past months, digital currency has been on a tear. I’m specifically talking about some of the seventy or so flavors of bitcoin that pullulate the internet.

The name is not a differentiating factor, because all currencies are tendentially digital, with the exception of a few analogs—notes and coins—that sit in wallets and purses.

Money is fascinating because it is in essence a belief system—in a world of facts, factoids, and fake news, pretty much everyone believes in money, in particular the power of money.

The use of notes and coins has been going down steadily for a couple of decades, and during the pandemic it tipped straight down as online sales boomed. In the UK, a decade ago sixty percent of transactions were made in cash, but by 2019, only twenty-three percent survived—the rest, i.e. the vast majority, were digital, using debit and credit cards or other digital forms of payment.

Post-pandemic, I expect that number to have increased. I observe my peers at gas stations, stores, or restaurants, and seldom see a cash payment. About ninety percent of my total transaction volume is digital, and I’m pretty fond of analog—I suspect your digital footprint may be higher.

Humans are in fad mode—the pandemic appears to have increased our appetite for crazy shit, as evidenced by extreme positions on practically everything, from the US election to climate change and Miley Cyrus, by way of Democrat pedophile ships in the Suez.

The GameStop fad was part of it (still is, if you follow the markets), as is crypto. The smart money knows there’s an issue when something goes mainstream, and speculation on various bitcoin flavors, Ethereum being one of the most popular, is rife.

The quantum leap of Ethereum in 2021—a game for all the family.

One bitcoin is today (right now) worth 39,589.33 €, about forty-eight thousand dollars, Ethereum is around ten percent of that. Folks are plunging into the wild ride with the same enthusiasm that got them into the subprime mortgage bubble and tulipmania.

The madness of money and popular delusion is well-described by Charles Mackay, but here’s a cool add-on from John Maynard Keynes, after he was recalled to the government in 1943.

Here I am back in the Treasury like a recurring decimal… …most people’s only idea was to get back to pre-1914. No one today feels like that about 1939. That will make an enormous difference when we get down to it.

Bitcoin has drawn comments from caustic comedy kings such as Bill Maher, who recently claimed it was pointless and no one understood it, even if they said they did—again, a good indication of the direction of travel.

We’re peaking on a bubble—you can’t make everyone rich unless what they own is worthless; but for Bill and his audience, a brief clarification, since I understand it. There are three reasons why bitcoin has thrived: the first is greed, the natural tendency of humans to jump onto bandwagons—this is just another Klondike; the second is more structural, because the commodity is in short supply and all transactions are traceable—not so much to a particular person, but to ensure we cannot spend more coin than actually exists.

The world’s nations have provoked this by systematically devaluing their currencies against any underlying physical support—traditionally, this was gold, again a commodity in short supply, but it could be silver, diamonds, or even cod—the only prerequisite is that the support level matches the weight above it, and over the decades, the roof crashed into the basement.

Aristotle wrote that money must be “durable, divisible, consistent, and convenient and possess value in itself.” Here the intrinsic value of bitcoin fails, but then so does a five hundred euro note, if its base of support—such as gold, for which it is a surrogate—fails.

The final reason for the success of bitcoin is the anonymous—or more accurately pseudonymous—nature of transactions. In a world where tax is universal and any relatively minor financial transaction requires explanation, the ability to buy and sell undercover—even if no underhand activity is involved—is popular.

Cryptocurrencies are now undergoing serious scrutiny under the ESG—Environmental, Social, and Governance—microscope, particularly since it transpired that much of the bitcoin mining is being done in China.

Pseudonymity—the new big word—is of course a good way of hiding your dosh from the taxman. However, this can only work if the currency is transactional and there is some assurance of stability—seeing your bitcoin life savings wiped out due to their collapse in value against the dollar or the euro is not a pretty sight.

A fascinating complement to the increased use of digital is the paradox of banknotes: digital transactions take an increasingly higher share of the market, but the value of NIC, or notes in circulation, has increased. In dollars, euros, and pounds. Notes in circulation? Under mattresses and in safe deposit boxes, more like.

Crypto and the banknotes sounds like a good name for a band, but they may actually be, if you excuse the pun, two sides of the same coin.

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

Out of Time

May 2, 2021

The new president of the US—apparently 70% of the GOP still believe he stole the election—recently announced America would pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th 2021.

The Taliban rubbed their hands together joyfully—after twenty years, the sons of dogs were leaving.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s ungovernable hellholes—a mix of internecine warfare, drug trafficking on a grand scale, and religious fundamentalism—a place where no one wants to go, where factions change like the wind, and loyalty can only be rented, never bought.

The United States made a good decision in 2001 and followed it with a series of bad ones, the consequences of which persist to this day. Back on nine-eleven, as I sat in a Gothenburg bar and watched the twin towers crumble, re-crumble, and tri-crumble on TV, listening to bemused pilots recount their day, it was obvious the US would retaliate.

They did it one month later, using the classic wave of air attacks—the West’s weapon of choice in the Mid-East since Churchill’s day. So far so good, but democracies can’t stick to the brief—in this case kill Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and destroy the Taliban.

As I write, only the first objective was belatedly achieved—by the time Bin Laden was found and killed he was out of the running, holed up in a family villa in the ironically-named town of Abbottabad.

Mullah Omar died of natural causes and is therefore presumably thumbing his nose at the Americans, surrounded by seventy-two virgins. As an aside, when I fact-checked that magic number, I discovered it’s also the title of a novel by the current British prime minister. The plot summary is:

The President of the United States plans to visit the Palace of Westminster. A Lebanese-born terrorist aims to assassinate him; Roger Barlow, a hapless, bicycle-riding, tousled-haired MP aims to foil the attack in order to distract from a scandal involving his financial entanglement in a lingerie shop named Eulalie.

Sounds like a self-portrait of the man himself—hapless Roger the Boris, or Boris the Roger.

As for the Taliban, they’re doing fine, and a couple of days ago marked their strength by killing thirty people in a guesthouse bombing in Pul-e-Alam.

Biden’s choice of date for the withdrawal limit is unfortunate—for a country that only recognizes strength, pulling out on the anniversary of nine-eleven is a way of confessing defeat.

In the end, history repeats itself a century and a half later—not with a massacre at the Khyber Pass but the end result is the same—in Afghan eyes at least, the West retreats with its tail planted firmly between the legs.

America’s mistake—the same they made in Iraq—was to try and give the country their brand of civilization, complete with democracy, a constitution, and law and order. Christianity had a six-century head start over Islam, and history has repeatedly shown that the Western recipe of participative government is not a good fit in places like Afghanistan or Iran—the local attitude to gender equality should make this immediately obvious.

Afghan barbary and lawlessness returns, just as it did when they finally kicked the Brits out a hundred years ago. As always, the country, or rather the combination of lawless tribes it contains, waits it out—the Taliban know that time is on their side, and they state it in a simple way.

The US has the expensive watch, but we have the time.

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


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