Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The English Patient

July 21, 2018

Western Europe has settled into holiday mode. The weather decided to do a flip, bringing stunning sunshine to Ireland, the UK, and various other countries in Northern Europe—there are wildfires in Sweden and in the British northeast.

England’s green and pleasant land was certainly not on offer as my plane made the final approach into Luton last week—more like ochre, the kind of landscape I’m used to seeing when landing in Rome or Barcelona.

Predictably, the consequence of this good weather to the north has been a wintry summer in Southwest Europe. Lisbon has hit unheard-of heights in popularity—currently the joke is that Portugal has become so popular that the winter decided to go there for its summer vacation.

The reasons for these inverted weather patterns are not clear, but it’s logical that you can’t have bad weather or good weather in all of Western Europe—it’s the hydrological cycle, you can’t print rain.

So London is hotter than Los Angeles, and barbecue sales are booming in Belgravia. Across the road in Westminster, things are also hotting up, although on the street you don’t hear much talk about brexit—Brits are in ‘keep calm and light the barbecue’ mode, and brexit has become a battleground for newspapers and politicians.

The European Union as a whole never dwelt much on the topic after the initial surprise. It’s more like schadenfreude now, as the French and Germans watch internecine strife in both the major UK political parties.

May, who must surely be the most teetering prime minister in recent British history, has finally become rid of her nemesis, Boris Johnson, but she has too many powerful enemies to stand on her own two feet.

Her conscience goes where the wind blows, and the only reason she hasn’t fallen yet is because no one wants her job. This is a woman who voted to remain in Europe—Brits call them remainers, and brexit Brits call them remoaners—and after Cameron disgracefully resigned, having previously declared publicly he would accept the responsibility of leading a post-referendum Britain, May took on a job opposite to her views.

It’s common sense that after the referendum debacle, the winners should have been left to pick up the pieces—would Mr. Johnson please stand up. Instead, the former mayor of London, along with Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and a coterie of others have engaged in antics worthy of the Eton quad, snipping and sniping at government policy, and undermining and undercutting their PM from both within and without.

Private Eye’s ironic take on the UK hostage held in Iran, featuring the usual suspects.

Of course Johnson refused to step up after the referendum, and he shows no signs of stepping up now. It’s just so much easier to throw muck from the sidelines than to solve problems.

Problem-solving requires three things.

First, an understanding of the problem. If this sounds banal, it isn’t, because every complex issue has ramifications, and all potential solutions have consequences that extend in space and time. Failure to realize this leads to the chaos exemplified by Tinybrain Trump’s ‘easy to win’ trade war—and the powder hasn’t even been packed into the muskets yet.

Second, a capacity to compromise. Solving complex multilateral issues is the art of the possible—consensus rather than unanimity, compromise rather than confrontation. The trade war and immigration (lock up the kids) war (note how they’re always ‘wars’) examples are illustrative.

Finally, recognition of discord. The very same ‘base’ that will support you as you vociferously criticize—and the more vociferous you are the happier they’ll be—will hang you out to dry if they find that your ‘simple’ solution is actually a hoax. By that I don’t mean it won’t work at all—just that like any solution, it will make some people less happy than others.

This third consequence is inevitable, which is why truly populist candidates won’t solve problems—instead they prefer to ascribe blame.

The guys who shout from the pedestal don’t whole the key to our future, in fact they can hardly find the lock—these men aren’t demi-gods, they’re demagogues.

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

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American Tune

July 18, 2018

London had an American week. The blimp came and went, as did Trump’s crass comments to The Sun—the man’s a fart—he smells bad but fades quickly.

I entertained the notion that the British PM might simply cancel her meeting with him—it took a steely lady in her late eighties to set me straight. “Of course May should see Trump, because he’s the president of the United States. We Brits don’t have to like him, but we must be polite. Trump,” she said firmly, “is not our problem. He’s the American people’s problem—they voted him in, they’re the ones who have to get him out.”

The guilt of that election is pervasive in practically every American I meet. Unlike most guys, I didn’t spend this Sunday watching sports—I was pretty sure the afternoon would go to the boys in Belgrade, and so it did—Djokovic cleaned up in Wimbeldon, and the Serbs will have been delighted to watch the Croats go home in second place.

Somewhere around that time, sixty-eight year old Bonnie Raitt was certainly not acting her age on the Great Oak stage in Hyde Park—the world is far more accommodating to sinners than saints—I haven’t found a Jekyll Park yet.

Raitt was stomping the stage with her trademark red hair, white patch on top, slide guitar wailing the blues—it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beating down on the tens of thousands gathered for the feast—and what a feast it turned out to be.

An hour after she was done, the next act came on. It certainly wasn’t a case of age before beauty as seventy-year-old James Taylor appeared, armed with a sky-blue Telecaster. Steamroller was blasting as I did the obligatory rock concert thing and began pushing my way forward—it was going to be a long evening.

Toward the end of the set, Sweet Baby James and Fire and Rain safely under his belt, Taylor took a deep breath and said, “There is a different America than the one represented by that guy.” The crowd roared, it’s anger directed at the baby with the blimp, as the a capella strains of Shed a Little Light mesmerized the audience. As Taylor sang ‘Let us turn our thoughts tonight to Martin Luther King’, the American woman next to me cried freely.

Then came the long wait as I pushed forward once more for the last act, until I was just two rows from the front. By then tempers were fraught—I guess the Brits aren’t used to the sun. I remained relatively unscathed, but around me people were exchanging threats and insults—one woman was about to fall on a girl who sat defiantly cross-legged in front of her. “I’m being pushed from behind, I’m going to fall on you.” The girl shrugged. “If you fall, you fall. They’ll get you a stretcher.”

As it happened, much later on in the show, the poor woman felt unwell, and was carried off by the ambulance people—I hope the unspeakably rude girl who made the remark feels now like the shit she is—you can’t polish a turd.

At times, the people around me seemed more like a Trump rally crowd than a celebration of song—I couldn’t help thinking of a recent comment from a friend. “Not sure if this is a cause or effect of Brexit.”

The reason I flew into town made his way onto the stage at eight o’clock in the evening. The crowd erupted as a small man with black chinos and a red t-shirt walked on from the north side of the stage. He was wearing sunglasses, fighting off the sun setting to the west.

Paul Simon was born in nineteen forty-one, and at the ripe age of seventy-six was the last of the baby boomers to pick up his axe last Sunday. Not only that, but the man who gave us Homeward Bound is retiring—it’s his last tour, and I guess his very last night playing London was an emotional time—Simon lived there during a seminal period of his career. ‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast’ as another of my favorite singers wrote, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Simon and Garfunkel began in 1956.

An ordinary player in the key of C, and sixty-thousand (maybe more) in the naked light.

Around me, the aggression settled down. The sun set over the trees, and Paul Simon finally took off his shades and hooked them on the red t-shirt. When Bridge Over Troubled Water began, the old guy next to me, who looked as if his face was carved from wood, suddenly began crying. Perhaps some long-forgotten memory started it, maybe a final farewell. I never liked the song much, and Paul Simon’s rambling intro to it suggests he’s pretty ambivalent also.

When the final chord struck and the guy finally stopped crying, I turned to him. “That’s what good rock n’roll does to you—it makes you laugh and it makes you cry.”

On Sunday night, the set didn’t last ninety minutes—by the time all was said and done, it was truly late in the evening, past eleven o’clock. Mostly Paul played Martin guitars, often his trademark black dreadnought.

It was with that guitar, and no one else from the fifteen-piece band on stage, that he finished the evening—I think it must have been extraordinarily difficult for him to stop playing—he must have kept thinking this is it, this is my last time.

He too, had a strong message for his audiences. Before one song, he spoke briefly about E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist that few in his audience will have heard of, and recommended a recent book by the great man called Half-Earth.

Simon told us that the book provides a recipe for a wonderful planet in the twenty-second century—he fluffed his lines to start with, and called it the twenty-first. Perhaps like me, a little voice was telling him that most of us in that park would be organic material by 2100, making those London parks just a little greener.

But the political message came as he idly picked a chord at capo three—this is a man who was described himself ‘as an ordinary singer in the key of C.’ Paul Simon looked out into the night—all he could see by then was an ocean of phones fading into the black horizon.

He simply said, “These times won’t last forever, you know.” The audience exploded in applause—an applause fired by the rage of seeing a pathological liar, a man who sees Western Europe as a foe, comparable in evil to Russia and China, at the helm of the greatest country on earth.

The guitar licks restarted, teasing, probing, like a wanton lover. I already knew what the song was—I’ve played them all for decades.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

It’s a song of sadness that turns into hope, as Simon writes of what truly makes America great. It speaks of resistance in adversity, and of the inner strength possessed by the good people of America. That’s why it’s called American Tune.

This is the song that makes me cry—both when Paul Simon starts singing, and as I finish writing.

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

New Kid in Town

July 7, 2018

I start once more with a musical reference, and that gives me an excuse to recommend a book for your summer vacation. As you know, my initial motivation for writing a blog was to promote The India Road, but as happens both in books and reality, things took on a life of their own—it’s been a decade.

And, yes, my chronicles view history in the broadest possible way, both in terms of scope and scale—like ecology, history can focus on specifics (musical or culinary history, or the history of smart phones) and it can deal with a minute or a millennium.

It’s very unusual for you to find book recommendations here—other than my own—but I am suggesting you read Dream Boogie. Not only for the music, but because it is in many ways a history of the US civil rights struggle—Sam Cooke, like Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and many others, made his mark in gospel music, which meant frequent tours of the American South.

I linked the analog version, since I don’t want you to think I’m dragging you to the dark side, but my Kindle version is abundantly hot-linked, and I’ve spent many a moment jumping to artists and songs I’d never heard ; this is truly what multimedia—a term more reminiscent of the Apple Mac hypercard stacks than of our brave new world—means.

The most amusing feature of this clip is the performance (aka antics) of Joe Walsh. A no-nonsense, kick-ass guitarist, you rarely see him on keys.

Now we’ve got a few things out of the way, let’s talk about the new kid on the block. Or if you prefer it in Russian, Novichok. It is apparently more common than menhirs in parts of southeast England.

The ‘newbie’, to directly transplant the Russian name, was developed in the last century, with the stated aim of circumventing the Chemical Weapons Treaty—signatory nations agreed to ban a specific set of weapons, as defined by their chemical formulas, and the immediate response (I certainly don’t think it was a Soviet exclusive) was to make meaner chemicals.

These required different formulas, exempting them from the CWT, but the Soviet ones also needed to penetrate NATO protective gear, and be apparently innocuous—no color, no smell, no taste—the perfect маскировка.

One subtle twist is that the development of Novichok agents was actually funded by the West, through a defense conversion fund offered to the USSR.

These nerve agents have re-surfaced over the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, UK, and more recently of a local couple—the last footage before their collapse shows a man drinking a can of beer in the street while the woman buys (lots) more alcohol at a convenience store.

The Russians have strongly denied any involvement in the poisonings, although the manufacture of Novichoks (they’re a family of compounds, not one) by the USSR is well-established. To complicate matters, the British top-secret center for chemical and biological weapons at Porton Down is only five miles northeast of Salisbury, and the most recent poisoning happened in Amesbury, only a couple of miles from the secretive military facility.

The early XXth century nerve agents, such as mustard gas, relied on the toxic and highly reactive chlorine gas, but by 1936, Gerhard Schrader, a top-flight German chemist, had produced a phosphorus-based nerve gas called Tabon—by 1937, he had synthesized Sarin.

All these compounds work to inhibit transmission of nerve impulses at the synapse, by competing with a molecule called acetylcholine.

The connection between nerve fibers, or neurons, is where chemical weapons act.

The Nazis didn’t use chemical weapons—although they manufactured them—but their knowledge was not lost in the post-war arms race. Just as the US rocket science program cynically procured the man behind the V-2 bomb, Wernher von Braun, so too did Americans, Russians, and Brits enthusiastically endorse chemical weapons research—the nerve agent VX was discovered by Britain in the 1950s, and recently used to good effect on Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother at Kuala Lumpur airport.

All good clean fun, featuring the usual boys and their usual toys. And although it doesn’t bear thinking about, isn’t it just a touch weird that all this maychem (a surprisingly successful fusion of mayhem, featuring the UK prime minister and chemical weapons) occurred a stone’s throw from Porton Down?

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

 

Sweet Music

June 30, 2018

‘The days are bright, and filled with pain…’ wrote Jim Morrison back in the nineteen sixties, in a song called Crystal Ship, which like so many others at the time was considered a metaphor for drugs.

I feel as lost now as folks did back then, when Morrison wrote ‘they’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers.’ In the States, a number was a synonym for a joint, a spliff, or a doobie, so once again there was a play on words—but the real concept in ‘Five to One’ was that we have a fight on our hands, and it is a fight to the death.

2018… One hundred years after the end of the First World War, and the Western World is busy embarking on the same disastrous ship of nationalism and bigotry that marked the greatest disaster of the twentieth century, perhaps the greatest catastrophe in human history.

This time led by the US, by the UK, and endorsed by countries in Eastern Europe. Bizarre marriages of convenience, such as the Italian government, and always the fallacy that immigration is controllable by hoisting the drawbridge.

If you clearcut the forest, there will come a day when the torrential rains turn into a hundred-year flood. So you build a dam downstream to avoid the mudslides and the raging waters, to keep the towns and villages safe. But the water slowly rises, until it tops the parapet…

If you daisycut the countryside, that torrential flood will come, but it will be a flood of people banging on your door. If your policy is to ignore a world of corrupt rulers—breeding grounds for parallel authority, murder, and chaos—it’s just a matter of time before it comes to you.

The job of civilized nations is to change things for the better—in a connected world, that means change at a broad scale, and Western nations have the money and power to do it. So what can we do? Understand.

  • First, understand that building walls to keep people out is not the answer. Why? Because there will always be ways around the wall, over it, under it, or through it;
  • Second, understand that proxy wars in other nations generate refugees who will come to safe havens—to all intents and purposes, they come to the West;
  • Third, understand that economic deprivation will displace people, and they will try to enter your door;
  • Fourth, if gang violence and murder are rife, citizens will flee—they fear for their families—and the poorer, underprivileged communities, who are most at risk, will be the bulk of immigration;
  • Fifth, recognize that developed nations need immigrants. Some, like the US and Canada, were built by them, others need them now to do the jobs the locals will not accept.

Having recognized these five conditions, which like the Doors’ song result in only one outcome—immigration, what should Western policy be? Perhaps more importantly, what shouldn’t it be?

The first step is to break down immigration into its three key components: (i) people running from war (pre, during, and post); (ii) people running from dysfunctional government, gang violence, etc; (iii) people running from economic hardship.

There is considerable overlap in these components—gangs and parallel economies derive from war and dysfunctional government, which themselves generate poverty for all, and great wealth for a few.

In decades of travel to the world’s remotest corners, I’ve only ever met a handful of folks who were keen to leave their home, provided the basics were in place—by that I mean safety, jobs, health care, and education.

Mass migration, like a high fever, is a sign that things are desperately wrong. But thankfully, they’re not desperately wrong everywhere.

Europe does not receive many immigrants from Kenya, South Africa, or Jordan, when compared for instance with Syria and Senegal. The same analysis can be made for the US, where the main intake from the south is from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—not Costa Rica or Brazil. And just about every would-be immigrant I see on the US news seems to mention MS-13.

To regulate immigration—since by definition it cannot be stopped, and it’s not even desirable to stop it altogether—both the originating countries and the underlying motives need to be understood, and the problems attacked at the source.

Music, sweet music, that’s the only thing that shuts the madness out.
Music, like nations, is founded on diversity.

Here’s an example: last week I was talking to a guy from Moldavia—you may not even know where that is. He’s an immigrant, and like most, left behind parents and extended family. His mother has cancer—like the good son he is, he traveled to visit her in hospital before her operation.

“I had to pay everyone,” he said. “I stuffed fifty euros in the pocket of the cardiologist. Then more doctors came. Even the cleaning lady, I had to pay her to keep my mother’s bed clean.” His son studies computer science. Between bouts of studying, he’s an immigrant too. When he takes an exam, the only way to get it graded is to pay the professor—not bribing him to get a good mark, nothing as despicable as that. Just bribing him to get any mark.

If this kind of thing is happening in your country, then you’re probably reading my article in transit to the US southern border, or bobbing toward the gateways of fortress-Europe.

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

The Monkey

June 23, 2018

Twin planetary forces have marked the week.

In the United States, the ugly battle featuring child soldiers—and you thought it was just Charles Taylor’s Liberia.

In the rest of the planet, the battleground is the World Cup. All sorts of surprising things have happened there, including Germany’s loss to Mexico in the opening game, Brazil’s teetering performance, and Argentina’s imminent exclusion from the final round of sixteen.

Yesterday saw a battle between the whitest and blackest teams of the tournament, and Nigeria won—but you’re pitching a nation of one hundred eighty-six million against Iceland’s three hundred fifty thousand.

The top-twenty FIFA rankings for national football teams worldwide, plotted as a function of population.

There is no relationship whatsoever between the population of a country and the quality of its football, with small nations such as Belgium or Portugal placing above Mexico or France—in fact, the disparity in country size is so large I had to plot it in log scale. This is not reflected in the FIFA scale: countries with ten times less people can be twice as good (or the opposite) as big countries, but the range is relatively narrow—as an example, Chile, Spain, and Peru are within ten points of each other on a scale of the order of one thousand.

One striking thing is the way attitudes toward Portugal have shifted. No one should imagine football is a level playing field: why should it be, if nothing else in life is?

Twenty-five years ago, Eusebio was the only player known internationally, largely because of his performance at the 1966 world cup, but now a host of Portuguese players and managers are world famous in the soccer world, and Portugal is the current European champion.

I’m amused when CNN’s Amanda Davies waxes lyrical about Ronaldo while the anchorwoman swoons, even though the Portuguese team has hardly done the bare minimum to stay in the tournament—in practice it means that when Portugal plays, it generates a huge groundswell, and some cynical soul might suggest it influences the refereeing.

Like music, sport is the career track of the poor. There are exceptions, such as the Danish national goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel—I once kicked a ball around with him when he was about ten years old—but his father was capped 129 times for Denmark and voted one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The son followed him into a successful career as a goalie, which is as unusual in sport as it is in music.

Poor kids play soccer anywhere—on the beach, on waste ground, or in the middle of the street. It’s a poor person’s game—often the ball is a rolled up pile of rags, and the goalposts are two stones or upturned paint cans.

It’s the one thing that makes them all equal, a game without class divisions. When I was little, one team was always ‘skins’ – all you had to do was take off your shirt and you were in full kit.

For kids who loved playing, and I was one, there was never an excuse not to play. And you can bet that somewhere in Trump’s ‘summer camps’ there are South American kids playing right now, a small consolation for the tragic situation in which they find themselves.

I get the illegal immigration issues—Europe has exactly the same challenges—but I don’t understand why families cannot be held together until a case is resolved. I’ve heard foolish arguments about this, comparing attempted illegal entry to tax fraud when it comes to family separation.

The tax analogy is just stupid, as it would be for other crimes—when for instance a burglar decides to take a three-year old along on a jaunt, if the burglar is apprehended the toddler will be returned to family, not interned alone.

There’s been some very extreme talk this past week, and I think it’s proper to remember Germany in 1933, and the consequences of personality cult and minority persecution—intolerance spreads like Ebola.

A few verses from Dave Bartholomew’s ‘The Monkey’ (written in 1957) are in order here.  It’s a declamation, so I guess today it would be called a rap, and it tells of a philosophical discussion held by three monkeys sitting in a coconut tree.

There’s a certain rumour that just can’t be true
That man descended from our noble race
Why, the very idea is a big disgrace
No monkey ever deserted his wife
Starved her baby and ruined her life

And another thing you will never see
A monkey build a fence around a coconut tree
And let all the coconuts go to waste
Forbidding other monkeys to come and taste
Why, if I put a fence around this tree
Starvation would force you to steal from me

Here’s another thing a monkey won’t do
Go out on a night and get all in a stew
Or use a gun or a club or a knife
And take another monkey’s life
Yes, man descended, the worthless bum
But, brothers, from us he did not come

It’s the choice of every man whether to descend or not.

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

 

Pot Luck

June 16, 2018

The plane’s tires squealed onto the runway at London’s Heathrow airport, leaving a trail of vaporized rubber, and I made a dash for the rental desk.

On paper, I only had a two hour drive ahead, but traffic on the M25 can easily double that—in the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, ‘in theory, theory is like practice, in practice, it isn’t.’ Or perhaps another Berra quote would be more appropriate: ‘When you get to a fork in the road, take it!’

After getting the hang of the brand-new BMW, I switched the radio onto LBC. I used to think the ‘L’ stood for London, and I speculated about the B & C, but the station self-promotes as ‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’—talk radio at a suitably silly level, with guest hosts like Salmond and Farage stirring the random bigotry of callers—just the sort of thing to while away a traditional Monday afternoon Brit traffic jam.

On my walk through the concourse I picked up the obligatory copy of Private Eye and lingered long enough to see that all the tabloid newspapers sported an identical cover, exhorting British members of parliament to be true to the people—a key brexit vote was underway.

LBC was split between the parliamentary story and a human interest piece on cannabis oil—the mother of an epileptic child was bringing back medical marijuana from Canada in the form of THC oil. The move was designed as a publicity stunt to promote the legal use of medical cannabis in the UK.

Her twelve-year-old was caught up in the middle of this, which seems a little unfair—epileptic fits are bad enough without extra publicity and invasion of privacy.

But the UK attitude to drugs has historically been extremely negative, even though drug use is widespread, so her majesty’s customs officers dutifully apprehended the hash oil, and a press conference followed, in which the mother dutifully explained she would simply return to Canada to buy more.

The British Home Office, in an effort to reduce the noise, dutifully released the offending dope to the offended parental later that day—by which time the traffic was flowing along quite nicely up the M40. By surrendering the oil, the story shifted to a non-story, and devolved to a background hum on legalization—political savvy, by contrast to the mayhem in the House of Commons.

It seems pretty clear that cannabis oil has medical benefits for some central nervous system disorders, of which epilepsy is the foremost candidate. In the UK, weed is a class B drug, which means a potential five-year imprisonment period and an unlimited fine—and as in every other country where such draconian measures exist, the punishment is in no way a deterrent.

Gone to pot? Trends in cannabis consumption in the UK.

The decreasing trend in dope-smoking appeared to halt in 2010, when the labour government bumped weed back into class B, i.e. making possession a crime punishable with imprisonment. The then-home secretary ignored the advice of her own senior scientific adviser, a professor with the delightful name of David Nutt.

The politician in question later resigned when it emerged she had filed an expense claim to pay for her husband’s adult films, and subsequently lost her parliamentary seat.

Medical marijuana is all the rage, partly because the word medical is increasingly optional, as various US states finally make it legal to smoke dope. The debate around oils, which are really just a chemical technique to concentrate the active substance, revolves around THC.

The alternative is CBD, the molecular sister of THC that doesn’t get you high. Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is legal in many countries, and you can buy it online from UK suppliers—of course, in the Netherlands, you can also easily buy the THC variety.

Although the UK makes it very difficult for medicines containing THC oil to be sold, it is the largest producer and exporter of hash oil in the world. One of the LBC callers phoned in with this fun fact, and was quickly checked correct.

Various callers were quick to point out the irony and fumed at the double standard. I was a little perplexed, since Britain manufactures and exports all kinds of weapons, from armed personnel carriers to surface-to-air missiles—including the Bond-like Thunderbird—but you can’t buy them in Boots.

For many countries, it’s a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do’, a landmark parental strategy. But GW Pharmaceuticals produces ninety-five tonnes of ‘legal cannabis’ per year, according to the Daily Telegraph, almost half of the world supply. The word ‘legal’ just confuses things—GW, which lists on the NASDAQ as GWPH, markets Sativex, which contains THC, is prohibitively expensive, and not recognized by the UK National Health Service as cost-effective. In the Telegraph article, the aptly named Steve Rolles calls the paradox ‘profoundly unethical’—he’s right, but the double standard runs very deep, through weapons, alcohol, child labor, and other examples—and is by no means a British exclusive.

While the hash oil debate fizzled out, the Westminster vote also became a storm in a teacup. Theresa May survived yet another mutiny, and by the next afternoon, on my drive south, the nation’s preoccupation was all about exam stress—mothers complained bitterly that their kids were traumatized by the severity of Britain’s high school exams.

UK exams were always tough, but back in the day, a couple of medicinal tokes certainly eased the head—no exam question ever seemed threatening after being read out by Mr. C.

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

 

Robocrop

June 9, 2018

Beautiful Eyes

Sandra Peck pushed the cart toward the deli counter.

Last stop before checkout.

She picked out some redskin potato salad, a packet of Italian sausage, and a tub of organic kale salad mix, patted Tyler on the head—she always marveled at the toddler’s beautiful blond curls—and aimed the cart toward the till.

Tyler was on his best behavior today, but unless the child was in meltdown mode, Sandy welcomed a little wailing—it was a welcome distraction as she rang up the groceries.

The supermarket was busy—not so much that she was crowded at the self-service till, but busy enough to distract the attendants.

Sandy had been through a bunch of jobs since dropping out of school, most of them service stuff. The second last was at a packing plant—the new machinery threw four workers into unemployment within three weeks—she got sixty-three dollars severance and a thank-you note.

Sandy’s last job, in one of the biggest supermarket chains, paid so poorly she’d been on food stamps. There, too, management was busy replacing the checkout operators with shiny aluminum contraptions equipped with screens, buttons, and balances.

When the store started doing away with the till operators, mostly young women like herself, replaced by the self-service option, her boss kept a few of the girls on to help customers—young people took to the machines immediately, thumbing away at the cellphone with one hand, ringing up groceries with the other.

Older people struggled. The sequence of instructions flashed on the screen seemed harder for them to understand—they peered at the scales and trays and gingerly tapped the touchscreen, waiting anxiously for things to happen. Some muttered to themselves.

One elderly gentleman was so bemused by the whole operation that Sandy had to step in with her master code and undo the last five things he’d done. Maybe she was a little impatient with him—Tyler was teething and yelled all night, and the queue behind Mr. Confused was backing up.

“Young lady, no need to snap at me!” the man said. He sneered. “Guess y’all love this machine that’s gonna put you out of work!”

Sure enough, she was fired at the end of the week.

Maybe the guy complained to the manager, Sandy thought as she began ringing up her items. Tyler reached out and tried to touch the screen. She played the stressed mother as she held back the toddler and worked through the produce.

She turned her back just so as she tapped the screen—she’d worked enough self-checkouts to know exactly what to do. She weighed the avocados. Then the mangoes, and finally the papayas. For each one, she tapped the same icon on the screen. Tyler cried and squirmed in her arms, straining for the buttons.

“Shush, honey. It’ll make your eyes pretty.” She smiled at the man behind her. “We’ll save the planet”—she read the words for the little boy as she picked up her eco-bag.

Perfect. Sandy smiled as she walked through the parking lot. She opened the trunk and let Tyler get in and climb over the back seat—the toddler shouted ‘Maamaaa’ as he rolled down the other side and clambered into the child seat, whooping with delight.

She closed the trunk, groceries safely stowed, fixed Tyler’s straps, started the clapped-out old Hyundai, the muffler sounding like a dragster on MDMA, and took the on-ramp to the 405.

“Hey Tyler, let’s go see Uncle Toby!” She turned up the radio, singing along with Taylor Swift—Shake It Up, with all the moves. The toddler was dancing in his chair. Momma smiled and hit the gas.

Sandra’s checking account didn’t stretch to luxury fruit items—avocado toast was fine for the Malibu set, but it was way above her pay grade. She’d unload all that—Toby would add it to his supply and sell it at the farmer’s market after a little organic relabeling.

What she got from the fruit vendor would be enough to pay her whole grocery bill. As for the produce, good job she’d only paid for carrots.

The shiny robot self-checkout that sells more carrots than were ever stocked by the store.

Epilogue

By 2019 there will be an estimated three hundred and twenty-five thousand self-checkouts on the planet—at the rate such things grow, we can expect half a million by the third decade of the new millennium. I’m not sure what this century will be famous for, and most of us won’t live it out, but right now it’s the century of consumer automation.

In five years or so, supermarkets will have put half a million people out of work. At minimum wage of 5-10 bucks an hour, we’re talking savings of one hundred and fifty million bucks per week—five to ten billion dollars per year.

One Australian supermarket recently discovered that its customers had become extremely health-conscious—one shopper alone had purchased forty pounds of carrots—makes for beautiful eyes.

Sadly, when the supermarket looked more closely at the issue, it found out it had sold more carrots than its entire supply. As robots take over human jobs, humans have less money. But they also have more time on their hands to machinate and plot their revenge. After all, when man discovered fire, he promptly burned his neighbor.

There’s a new game in town, and it’s called ‘cheat the robot.’

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

 

Privates

June 2, 2018

The digital humster has been frantically riding its wheel since May 25th 2018, humming to the tune of GDPR.

If you happen to be in Europe, you probably realized the European Union has a long reach when the General Data Protection Regulation triggered a blitz of unsolicited messages—a kind of saintly spam—from pretty much everyone who holds information on you.

And like most of us, you impatiently clicked, swiped, and thumbed those messages into oblivion, agreeing to each and every new condition without a second look—after all, who wants data protection getting in the way of the world’s favorite pastime?

Once in a while, I come up with a new word, and today’s word is ‘dak’. Language is alive, and therefore new words enrich it. Digital yak, or dak, makes the world go round.

Dakking is the business—in fact, it is the business. For huge corporations, it’s the sweet spot, perhaps even the G-spot.

It impinges politics, personal choices, and relationships. It provides artificial connections but stimulates genuine separation.

My sheltered life had never exposed me to the marvel of a G-spot vibrator—what a wonderfully inventive world we live in—but the measuring tape marked at twenty-five feet may be a tad hopeful. A note about Mr. G: Gräfenberg means count mountain, which should at the very least give you pause.

I got my share of GDPR love letters—many of the more touching ones from US corporations, pledging undying love if I only agreed to allow them to do something to me that I’d never allowed in the first place.

All this dakking generates a lot of money and corporations have spread a vast tarp under the world’s dakkers, catching the words, sounds, images, and movies as they fall—that tarp is called Big Data—the digital equivalent of King Solomon’s Mines.

Perhaps the first thing that struck me is how many companies got in touch about GDPR—I couldn’t remember half of them. All have been busy selling my data.

I’m not a natural dakker, perhaps because I’m not a born yakker—should you be gmailing, instagramming, facebooking, and tweeting ad libitum, your personal info has sailed further than Vasco da Gama.

Things you say, see, and do have always been used against you, but whereas folks once exercised a certain discretion before telling all, social media bring out the exhibitionist in us. We glorify in advertising every bit of what we do—effectively providing a free service to advertisers, and I mean that in the broadest possible way—hotels, restaurants, stores, airlines, and… politicians.

And it’s getting much worse. This week, a friend pointed out two key aspects of this new society: not only is free speech threatened, but also private speech, through a well-trodden trail where one or more parties to a private conversation decide to make it public—verbatim, so the blame will lie squarely on the originator, the snitch is merely a vehicle.

Snitching is not a novelty, but regular anonymous leaks of private matters that tap into the reach and speed of the internet and result in swift public crucifixion, is new.

The second aspect is Twitter, perhaps the most insidious of all the platforms, because it has grown around negativity—it works best when it’s stirring up dissent, or even hate.

Trump now has fifty million Twitter followers, and the number will keep growing. Just as he did yesterday with the US jobs report leak, his M.O. is very simple: anything he disagrees with, even if it originates in his own government, is fake news, and the stuff he likes is beamed up.

Bottom line, like Uncle Joe (Stalin), or the Great Helmsman (Mao), Trump is wed to the personality cult—he wants everyone to look to him for the most important decision of all—the split between wrong and right.

In this increasingly uncomfortable world, I’m trying to fly below the radar. I hate the dogma that everyone’s personal data will be the property of a few.

I’m not alone. Out there are apps that erase your trail, or place you somewhere completely different. There’s software that will make all your internet connections ad-proof, a particularly appealing concept.

In the end, all this boils down to human relationships, and what their boundaries should be.

Dakking is everywhere—couples no longer caress each other, they caress their smartphones, searching for the G-spot.

Search no more.

We’ve found the G-spot, and it’s called Google.

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

 

 

Ciao Bella

May 26, 2018

The government arrived the day I left. I bought a newspaper, but most of it was used to keep the fish frozen.

I felt a twinge of guilt about this barefaced insult to the Italian press, so I kept eight pages to read on the vaporetto—I found nothing of interest, so they also got stuffed into the fish bag—insulation.

The cabbie in Piazzale Roma was speedier than his Fiat—you couldn’t shut him up. He went through the various taxi favorites: job loss, which inevitably led to Ubers, which are forbidden in Italy; the euro and the economic damage in Southern Europe; and immigration, always immigration: Gaddafi, negroes, France—the usual quota of random bigotry.

All the while, he eyed me through the rear-view mirror—since he wasn’t cross-eyed, that definitely impaired his forward vision. Except on sharp turns, he crossed his arms and used the steering wheel as a ledge for emphasis—it was a fun ride.

From gondolas to ambulances, life in Venice is always on the water. Lurking in the background are a bunch of gondolier boaters.

The new prime minister is a lawyer, whose claim to fame is that he is a ‘defender of the Italian people’. Given his background, I’m guessing he’ll make a balls-up of the whole thing pretty soon—never mind, one thing the cabbie and I agreed on is that Italy does fine without a government.

The Veneto region’s GDP is on a par with Greece, so Southern European comparisons are only relative—Venice is today a very affluent city, as it always has been. Nowadays the big play is no longer trade with the Orient, gone since the days of the Portuguese navigators—it’s tourism.

I was lucky to stay in Dorsoduro, far from the insanity of St. Mark’s Square—the city has a population of sixty thousand, and currently receives thirty million tourists every year—fifty-seven a minute.

The place is crazy—Americans, Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and the usual dusting of Europeans—crowding the narrow alleys, spilling out of cafés and bars, and cluttering the vaporettos.

Dorsoduro is calmer, stores are cheaper, and you do occasionally spot a Venetian or two. If the average tourist is in town for four days, then the ‘resident’ tourist population of Venice works out to over three hundred thousand—that’s five tourists to every local. The faces change, the numbers don’t.

It comes as no surprise that on occasion the odd visitor is taken to the cleaners—earlier this year, four Japanese were charged a thousand three hundred bucks for a meal of steak, grilled fish, and—wait for it—mineral water.

Amazingly enough, they paid up, and they only filed a complaint when they returned to Bologna!

I was hanging out with Scandinavians, and one night we were out a trifle late—by the time we were done, the boats had finished. That meant a twenty minute walk to the hotel, an ideal post-prandial digression—Venetian food is both rich and copious. We hadn’t been walking for three minutes when one of my partners in crime sped off towards the water and loudly hailed a passing speedboat, its starboard light dimly visible in the pitch-black night.

The boat did a U-turn and coasted into the jetty. “Come here, come here, speak to him! Tell him where we want to go!” My Norwegian friend was beckoning me with great enthusiasm, matched only by his linguistic shortcomings. After a brief investigation, it transpired that the good mariner would take us in his water taxi for the trivial sum of eighty-five bucks—a five minute ride.

The Norwegian took three seconds to accept the offer. No amount of argument could change his mind. By now the boat guy was smiling from ear to ear. I thought of this princely sum in vinic terms: what a splendid bottle of Amarone, or a brace of delicious Taurasi, this fare might purchase.

But off we went. And at some point in the journey, when we entered a narrow canal, the Norwegian raised his arms in joy and loudly proclaimed “I am the king of Venecia! For tonight. Only for tonight!”

When we docked, his friend thanked him warmly. “When you lose your job for presenting that receipt, you can come and work for me.” I bid the Scandies good night, and wished them well in their hunt for a nightcap—one thing I’ve learned at my cost: never try to outdrink Norwegians.

You see, I had an early start next morning—I was on a fish mission. The storage of this particular consignment had been a challenge—one hotel didn’t have a suitable freezer, the other was concerned with HACCP. So we negotiated with a restaurant and stashed it in their congelatore.

Sometime after nine in the morning, I found myself attempting to communicate with a large, white-coated Italian lady.

“I’m here,” I explained, “for the fish.”

She looked at me sternly. “No,” she said to the insane foreigner who had invaded her empty dining room. I repeated what I wanted. She put down her mop and wagged her finger at me. Despite her age, I felt this fishy business might come to a sticky end. I tried lesser known varieties of the Italian language—her eye sharpened. Finally, we woke up the owner.

I watched as the fish—a couple of beautiful Norwegian steelhead, some halibut, and a few other goodies, trundled safely into the airplane hold. Outbound, I had delivered a few bottles of late bottled vintage, in a remake of the medieval Hanseatic League. Replacing them, in my other case, a superb bottle of twelve-year-old Taurasi.

It won’t make it to teenage.

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

 

 

The Old Man and the Sea

May 20, 2018

A few days before Christmas 2014, I wrote an article about cod—the dried product known as stockfisch, and particularly klippfisch, which is dried and salted. It is this fish, a staple of poor people’s diet in the Middle Ages, that the Portuguese call bacalhau.

You find bacalhau dishes throughout Southern Europe, readily identified in Spain as bacalao, and in Italy as baccalá—one of my favourite recipes for cod is the Venetian mantecato.

These days, despite the fact that global warming is fake news, the access to the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean has provoked a huge run on cod—the Barents is now severely overfished, and the ice melt is very bad news for Arctic cod, and with it for seals and polar bears.

Cod from Iceland on display in downtown Lisbon. Bacalhau hasn’t been fished by the Portuguese for decades.

But after the Second World War, the mother lode was the North Atlantic, the waters of Greenland and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Ships from all over Europe came to fish cod—from Soviet to Spanish vessels, but only one nation caught the cod with hook and line.

Portugal was deep in the grip of Salazar’s fascist regime—a country where life was good for the wealthy. If you had money and didn’t worry about politics, you were onto a good thing.

“Cerejeira blessed the ships,” the old man told me. “You couldn’t talk about it, but they said he got a ‘quintal’ from the catch on every ship.”

The quintal is a medieval unit of weight—in the US and UK, its equivalent is the hundredweight (cwt), but that leads us into short tons and imperial units. The quintal used on the cod vessels was the metric variety—one hundred kilograms, or two-hundred twenty pounds.

I wanted to tell the old man a joke about Cerejeira, the cardinal of Lisbon—dictatorships always produce jokes. During the Stalinist period, political prisoners joked that the Lubyanka prison was the tallest building in Moscow, since you could see Siberia from the basement cells.

In my father’s joke, Salazar ends up in hell, and the devil has made it particularly noxious by immersing all the tenants in shit—only their noses appear above the ordure. Salazar, however, is only waist-high. When asked for his secret, he raises a  finger to his lips and whispers: “ssshhh—the cardinal is giving me a piggy-back.”

We’re eating chocos in a little restaurant south of the Tagus—it reminds me of the cuttlefish on the grill in The India Road. There is a quick dalliance with wine colors, and we immediately conclude that tinto is required. A bottle from Palmela, called Dona Ermelinda arrives—you wouldn’t easily find it outside the country.

The fisherman is short and broad. His eyes are bloodshot below the pupils, but that doesn’t take away the easy twinkle. Much of what he says is directed at his twenty-two-year-old grandson, although it’s also meant for me—the old man spent the morning collecting his thoughts, wondering who was this strange fellow who wanted to meet him, to hear tales of sixty years ago.

“My ship was the Elizabeth,” he said. “I started in 1957, to get out of military service, after two years in the Escola de Pesca.”

Unloading cod from the dories to the mother ship in Newfoundland.

The fisherman sipped his red wine. “Lots of guys did that. We had men from all over Portugal. Fishermen from the Algarve, guys from the North, Ílhavo, Caxinas…” He went through the names of the main fishing villages.

Sometimes, we drifted away from his narrative. I told him about the cod wars between Britain and Iceland, and why I thought all the statistics about how much fish is eaten in Portugal are just plain wrong.

But very soon, his eyes would re-focus. “As I was telling you,” he said, “we stopped for bait in St. John’s. Mackerel. Herring. And capelin, they loved capelin.”

It was all as I’d read, but this time I got the inside story. The crew, seventy or eighty men, would be up at daybreak to get into the one-man dories. “My wife made the sail. Waxed it, so it wouldn’t rot.” At his side, the old lady nodded. She didn’t say much, just ate her  cuttlefish strips and picked at the french fries—the restaurant was old school, and a half-portion would have done three Dutchmen for lunch.

The Grand Banks are famous for fog, the kiss between the cold Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream to its south. The dories are put in the water just after dawn, and the men collect their bait to take aboard—frozen blocks of capelin or mackerel.

The hooks are baited, long lines go down thirty fathoms or more. The lines will be down for an hour, and the fishermen are jigging, catching cod while they wait. Up comes the line—it’s a good haul.

The fog comes down. The Elizabeth sounds its horn almost constantly so the dorymen won’t get lost. Slowly they come in, armed only with a small compass and a whistle.

The men fish until sunset. The fish are offloaded, and it’s time for a petisco—a snack, aka supper. The staple food is dried meat from Argentina. The old man wrinkles his face ever so slightly—clearly the cuttlefish are a good deal better. Out on the estuary the tide is pushing in—the banks lightly dusted with seaweed are no longer visible.

“Then, it’s back to work, processing the fish.” Another sip of wine. Gutting, removing and storing tongues and faces, which are considered delicacies, even to this day. The livers go into a boiler at the prow, for cod liver oil.

Some sailors take it, my new friend does not. One quintal of fish reduces to sixty kilos as the fish loses water. As soon as a barrel is emptied, it’s used to store fish. Water is scarce, as on any ship—this isn’t so different from life on the caravels, and in some ways it’s worse.

Every night, the men get a mug of water to wash with. They use the precious liquid first to wash the face, then they salvage it for their hands. Most everything else is washed in seawater.

Work stops at midnight, if you’re lucky. Four hours sleep, and you’re back on the water. March through August. If you’re on watch, you don’t sleep at all.

Many men chose different paths to escape the draft—some jumped the border to work construction in France, some fished for cod. The video above hammers the message ‘Angola é nossa’—Angola is ours, a mantra from Salazar’s day extolling the African wars.

The risk of death is always present—rowing or sailing a small boat laden with cod back to mother is no mean feat. The cod are stored anywhere and everywhere, and the water laps at the gunwales.

One freak wave and you’re gone. Sometimes the line hooks a halibut—the alabote weighs a hundred and fifty pounds or more. At home, it’s unknown, but in Northern Europe it’s a delicacy. The captain keeps them, they’re not part of the men’s catch—the old man is uncertain where they end up, but he knows one thing: to land an alabote, the doryman must use his weight to tilt the boat, first toward the fish, and then right over to tip it into the boat—it’s a dangerous game.

In 1957, the season lasts from March to August—some years before, it lasted well past September. Each man gets fifty liters of wine, his quota for the period. That’s about three gallons a month—I anxiously reach for my glass of tinto.

It’s getting late, and the bottle’s gone. “Two thousand quintais, that would be a regular haul,” he says. I agree—two hundred metric tons of cod sounds respectable to me, especially since the crew will have caught about three hundred to make that number.

My new friend fights me for the check, and we solve it the old fashioned way. “You can pay next time.”

I watch the old man walk away, upright, barrel-chested, a living hero. As we part, I ask about the others. “It was a tough life,” he says softly. “There’s no one left.” He shrugs. “They’re all dead.”

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

 

 

 

 


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