Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Build

November 10, 2019

In November 1987, a schmaltzy English band with the very eighties name ‘The Housemartins’ came up with a tune called ‘Build’. Two years later—to the month—the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

You can get bits of the wall on eBay, where you can also buy a French commemorative Berlin Wall 2 € coin for double that price—the sort of inflation that would fire the juices of European Central Bankers.

Just as the First World War was ‘the war to end all wars’, so the Berlin wall was the wall to end all walls. Or so we thought…

It only took five years for another symbolic wall to be built—this one separating Israelis and Palestinians, and since then the wall business has been, if you excuse the pun, going great guns.

The tragicomedy of the Mexican wall continues—yet another dumb idea in the litany of stupidities that characterize American leadership since January 2017—and across the free world, wall-building continues with enthusiasm.

The orange man is fond of grass roots analogies—concrete, coal, barbed wire, and Muslims who die like dogs—but the real walls out there are a metaphor.

A couple of years ago I visited someone in North Carolina—my host had a dog, and I summoned the hound, who was about thirty feet away. The animal was tempted and wagged his tail enthusiastically. It ran eagerly to about ten feet of me, then stopped short.

I understood that the dog sported some kind of electronic collar, and crossing an invisible divide in the garden would deliver an electric shock—the dog clearly understood it too.

No, the real walls are electronic, digital, observational—the ones you can’t tunnel under, climb over, or walk around.

If you’re in doubt, try to use WhatsApp in the Middle Kingdom, or access Google from Shanghai—they call it the Great Firewall of China for a reason.

With perfect timing for the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall—November 9th 2019—I received a copy of the report ‘The Business of Building Walls’ prepared by the Transnational Institute (TNI), which is the international arm of the Washington, D.C., based Institute for Policy Studies.

I suppose it stems from a lifetime of academic work, but whenever I read a document, my first jump is to the acknowledgments and references. The first tell me where the money came from, and who supported the work, and the second provide me with confidence, or lack of it, on the content I’m about to read.

In TNI’s case, I took the trouble to learn about the organization’s history—there are things I like and others I don’t. But overall, I didn’t get the feeling I was dealing with a product from an organization funded by Russia, MBS, or a friend of Rush Limbaugh—there, I’ve offended everyone.

As you suspected, the business of building walls is big business indeed. The global market is estimated at about eighteen billion dollars per year, with a growth forecast of at least 8% APR.

In Europe, we’re talking about one billion dollars spent in the last thirty years—since the other wall fell. That doesn’t seem huge, but the point is the direction of travel—the European External Borders Fund for the period 2007-2013 was about two billion dollars, and the current budget (Internal Security Fund – Borders Fund) is closer to three billion—Fortress Europe is worried.

The report highlights three European companies that have done themselves proud in this burgeoning market.

A Frenchman, an Italian, and a German walk into a bar… it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we’re talking about Thales, Leonardo, and Airbus—big business is no joke.

Unless you’re in the millieu, you probably haven’t heard of the first two. Thales pops up occasionally when you’re buying something on the net—they do security certificates, and IT arcana in general. They also recently bought Gemalto, a Dutch computer security firm. But make no mistake, Thales is big, as in twenty billion dollars, and Leonardo is about one third of that size.

Leonardo brings to the table—or to the border, in this case—drones, satellite technology, and a number of other building materials essential for today’s modern wall. You can see a snippet here.

Finally, Airbus is billed in the TNI report as an arms company—I’m flying on one of their planes first thing tomorrow, and naive old moi, I never thought of them as any such thing, but Mr. Google tells a different tale.

These companies are a part of the wall-building military-industrial complex, but they are certainly not the only ones. TNI lists a host corporations that sell razor wire, visa verification, and surveillance of people—inevitably, as in the post-911 US, this will include citizens.

Fascinating reading, with the caveats I mentioned earlier—for instance, at the forefront of OCEANS 2020 is Leonardo, not Airbus. Lobbying plays a big part in all this—since 2014, the three companies I focused on have held 226 registered lobbying meetings with the European Commission.

In that sense, nothing changes—but for the technology, everything changes, and it changes fast.

Wall-building nowadays has morphed like the life of Housemartins’ former bassist Norman Quentin Cook—having already changed his name from the equally boring Quentin Leo Cook—in 1996, he took a quantum leap and reinvented himself as Fatboy Slim.

Right here. Right Now.

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

Dead And Brexit

November 3, 2019

I got a late start this weekend because of the rugby world cup—I have a soft spot for the Boks, partly due to the tales of good friends who returned to Europe from South Africa, (what was then) Rhodesia, and the ex-Portuguese colonies.

When excitable young teens—and we were all pretty crazy—tell stories to each other, it’s as if you’re there yourself—I knew Jo’burg, braai, and rugby intimately from pictures in my mind.

In 2001, I was down in the Cape with another group—one night, a bunch of us were this close to getting killed by a freight train on the road to Saldanha Bay.

Afterward, I drank a bottle of Pinotage from head to toe, marveling at the fact I was still alive. I fell asleep with the TV on and woke at 4 a.m., bleary-eyed. I kept looking at the news channel—all I could think was, I should be on there!

Seeing the informal housing—a term I first heard from a white South African friend—of the Cape Flats, Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, and the big five running wild, brings home the pain and beauty of the rainbow nation.

To watch the Springboks win the world cup this morning brought tears to my eyes. It’s now on a twelve-year cycle: 1995, 2007, and 2019—how very Chinese of them. South Africa clearly lives its best life in the Year of the Pig—and although 2019 is an earth pig, for the South Africans, it’s clearly a golden pig.

I’ve been observing the antics of the UK general election this week, and in the midst of the mayhem, once in a while the arrogant judgement of the inevitable English rugby win would drop in—unlike Brexit, this was an outcome that was never in doubt—a one hundred pound bet on Friday would have made you three grand.

And since I’m linking (sorry) Murdoch’s organ, to paraphrase Private Eye magazine, I must draw your attention to Farage’s campaign statement Friday—very little was covered by the networks, which fuels Trumpian deep state conspiracy theories—but The Sun, in its infinite Merdochian wisdom, put it on YouTube.

Farage is dangerous—he’s a combination of Trump’s populism and Bannon’s intellect—but he talks better than Trump and dresses better than Bannon. To be fair, neither is a big ask.

Nature’s revenge, according to Private Eye.

Now that England’s disillusionment with their national side is complete, we’re left only with the fray. And what a fray it will be.

The whole Farage thesis (and I suffered through it all) is predicated on one idea: a Leave Alliance, where the Brexit Party grabs votes in the north of England—deep Brexit country—and doesn’t split the conservative vote in the home counties—the kicker? Ditch the deal and go for no deal.

Boris is squirming harder than the English forwards, while the Fleet Street press goes nuts about Corbyn, the EU, and the NHS.

Interviewed on Farage’s LBC talk show, the orange man claimed he had no interest in the NHS—just trade. Ordinary Brits scratch their heads at this gem, wondering if the man doesn’t understand the link between the two.

As we approach the 12th of December, all sorts of interesting possibilities arise—mostly in the sense of the Chinese proverb.

The Tories are unlikely to get a majority, despite the polls. This is particularly because the Labour Brexit voters in the north of England will not hold their nose for Boris. They’ll happily vote Nigel, in the same way the US base voted Trump—ordinary folk placing their trust in silver-spoon tycoons with whom they share nothing but delusions.

A post-ballot deal between Boris and Nigel will mean a no-deal Brexit and a compound fracture for the Tories—interesting times ahead there.

Voters from the middle class (Tony Tories?) who might swing left for a Blair clone will not hold their noses and vote Corbyn. With promises such as a lower cap for death duties (I know, inheritance tax is so much more millennial…) and a ban on public (i.e. private) schools, this is a man who has shot himself in both feet. Brexit ambiguity and the promise of a second referendum on yet another deal—which Labour will putatively negotiate but won’t say it supports—makes for a narrative that confuses the party, never mind the people.

Enter the Lib-Dems, who have a clear statement on Brexit. If they win, they’ll ditch it. This is admirable in its clarity, but there are two problems—the first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t work in their favor, and folks will be skeptical of a one-idea party: you can’t mandate a government for four years under the concept of staying in.

There’s also another detail—the Lib-Dem leader is a Scot, and the English electorate won’t be thrilled with that, although, goodness gracious, no one would ever say so, m’ dear!

So the final permutation is a post-electoral Labour & Lib-Dem deal—which is possible, with the Lib-Dems holding their noses as they dilute their remain pledge and go all out for a second referendum that includes the option of a renegotiated deal.

But that assumes the same Labour MPs who have sat on the fence on Brexit for three years will suddenly become fans of games with frontiers—it’s a knockout!

And just to spice it up, the orang-u-tan arrives in Britain for a NATO summit on December 3rd, a week before the hustings—I hope Boris has a pair of brown underpants at hand.

On that note, I leave you with a prediction and a solution.

The prediction is obvious: we have all the conditions for a hung parliament, and the great Brexit soap continues ad nauseam.

My solution is a shift to Honk-Kong Sevens.

Labour and Tories: guys, sit this one out and enjoy Christmas. Let the Lib-Dems and the Brexit Party come to blows, with the SNP and DUP thrown in the mix.

That lot can settle Brexit in a heartbeat, since their positions are both crystal clear and poles apart.

Before you can say bye-bye Barnier the business will be done—then you can all get back to the full fifteen-a-side game.

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

 

Touted

October 26, 2019

Last Saturday night, I got touted.

I’m using the verb in an unusual way—by convention, when something is touted, it is promoted or claimed.

But when I say I got touted, I wasn’t in any way the object of promotion. On the contrary, I got screwed.

Back in the day (and they’re still around) a tout might approach you at the subway exit, or in a park next to a sports stadium or a concert venue. The show may vary, but the game is unvarying.

I grew up with analog touts—always guys, always shady, slightly more presentable than a heroin dealer, slightly less pushy than a mugger.

The typical tout would operate on behalf of someone else, the toutmeister—the guy with the capital to purchase a stock of tickets in the first place, and to take the financial risk—just as with drugs, and so many other businesses: risk it, buy it, flog it.

But where a human tout might nag and cajole you, there were only three ways he could scam you—falsely persuade you that box office tickets were sold out, hike the price, or sell you a fake ticket.

That last one is a little tricky—to the extent I will only find out in December if the tickets I was touted with are genuine—there may be a Touted Part II.

Many years ago, an English guy I knew was driving along in southern Portugal. A traffic policeman flagged him down and he pulled to a stop by the side of the road, by a row of olive trees. The day was hot, and the cop waited until the dust settled on the verge; then he walked up to the Ford and saluted.

Documentos,” he said.

The Englishman only knew two words in Portuguese. Cerveja—beer, and obrigado—thank-you. In those days, Portuguese people got by in French better than in English, but the two words, together with a little mime, usually did the trick.

Documentos,” the cop repeated.

The man handed him the car registration. The policeman wanted ID.

The Englishman reached into his wallet and produced a single quarter-sheet of paper. It was official-looking, contained his name in an underline at the top, and a list of items below that, together with some numbers and a signature.

The traffic cop scrutinized the British driving license—he had never seen one before. He examined the document again, unable to fathom what any of the words or numbers meant.

Boa tarde.” Satisfied, he handed back the documents, saluted, and headed to his vehicle.

The Englishman put the paper back in his wallet and drove off, grinning. This would make quite a story in the pub. The quarter-sheet was a laundry bill from a Hertford dry cleaner, made out to Mr. Jack Ramsey. Itemized were one pair of trousers and three shirts.

Fake tickets are not easy to spot.

Last week they finally got me—I was touted online. I paid eight times more for a rock concert ticket than the face value printed on it. No redress, no way back.

From time to time, we all find ourselves in situations where we spend more than we planned—I have two cures for that: don’t make the same mistake twice, and work a little harder the following week.

So, I can’t get my money back. But I have a weapon. The pen is mightier than the scam, so let’s get into the weeds.

I was touted by Viagogo, one of a number of sites that specialize in the secondary market for tickets. The company is legally based in Geneva, and therefore neatly dodges EU regulation on consumer protection.

When I looked into Viagogo, I found out that it has been publicly condemned by the UK’s digital minister, Margot James—I didn’t realize Britain had such a thing, and she’s also notched up points in my book by resigning from government on July 18th, 2019, to vote against the prorogation of parliament.

I really didn’t want to go down the hellhole of Brexit today—compared to that, a tout is but a fart: smells foul but disappears quickly—but Margot further warmed my heart by having the whip removed on September 3rd, in what will become known as the Boris Brexitovsky purges.

So, Ms. James told BBC Radio 5 Live that she warned consumers away from ticket reselling platform Viagogo, branding it “the worst”. Apparently, the company had already fallen foul (there’s that smell again) of the British Advertising Standards Authority for imposing “hidden” fees on customers.

Ed Sheeran has also condemned the Viagogo touts—didn’t cheer me up much, but at least I’m in good company.

Digital touts, or more accurately, internet touts, have provide a major disservice to music—and that, friends, is a capital crime in my book.

You may be familiar with the concept of bots. Just as you can read me on your tablet or cellphone, so a bot can access this page, traverse all other links, and collect a history of my mentions of the words ‘sex’, or ‘China’, or ‘orang-u-tan’.

Bots are what allows Google to index pages and process them to help you find stuff. They’re also responsible for the annoying Captcha stuff, and the occasional requirement to click on images with buses—Boris could do that for a living rather than managing a dog’s breakfast.

The secondary market sites got into the bot business—they sent out bots to buy online tickets to concerts, sports events, you name it. Digital touts therefore sucked out the primary market—by the time you heard about a concert, the primary market was empty.

Musicians want fans, and fans want affordable music. This sets door prices, until robotouts screw the whole system—at that point, ticket prices skyrocket, and the audience shifts towards the wealthy—as Lennon famously said in the Albert Hall, ‘the rest of you, just rattle your jewellery.’

Viagogo traps you using four tricks. First, they have a bar at the top of the page where you select the number of tickets you want. My magic number was 2, and I was shown a price. In very small print, and a discreet color, the column header says:

(each)

No matter what number you select—customers in good faith will choose the one they need—the price never changes. Even when they break down net costs and tax, they only ever use the single ticket price, with e.g. 4X slyly inserted off to the side.

Second, as soon as you make a choice, a timer window appears, counting down the seconds to pressure you to complete your purchase.

Third: never, throughout the process, are you ever told the face value of the ticket you are buying.

Finally, the total amount you’re spending is not shown at checkout, only in a post-purchase confirmation screen, aka a gotcha screen.

Touts in the UK, Scalpers in the US. Scum of the earth anywhere.

After I fell for this scam, I wondered if I was the only fool in the market… sadly, no. An excellent article published this August in Wired tells us:

Favourite band coming to town? Good luck getting tickets. The touts have already snapped them up – and they’re now listed for ten-times the face value on Viagogo and StubHub. But digital touts may be facing extinction. New technology is making mass buying more difficult, governments are closing in on rogue resellers and even Ticketmaster is shutting down its own resale sites. The only problem? Getting hold of on-demand tickets is unlikely to get any cheaper or easier.

I found out Viagogo has company. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, there’s Viagogo, Stubhub, Seatwave, and Get Me In. Four unpolishable turds.

Notice how often I’ve written Viagogo’s name—ordinarily I wouldn’t do this, but I want Viagogo imprinted in your mind, and I want to increase the visibility of this article when some poor sucker searches for Viagogo on the net—I just refuse to link them.

Companies like Viagogo are a collective danger—they disenfranchise the less well-off, make culture less accessible and more elitist, and help widen the gap between the appointed and the disappointed.

These are the recipes for the politics of extremes that has invaded Western society, only three generations after World War II.

As for Viagogo? To use a popular, if unfulfilled, promise, may they die in a ditch.

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

Zdrowie

October 20, 2019

The word means ‘health’, a commodity that you trade off as you go through life, along with love and money.

But when you prefix it with Twoje, it becomes ‘your health’ or ‘cheers’.

In Poland, that usually means vodka—which is very good, perhaps the best you can get, including the famed bison grass variety—it was pleasure to do homework for this topic (the Poles don’t believe in trivia like indefinite articles or personal pronouns).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain irony in wishing people ‘good health’ by plying them with cripplingly strong alcohol—a bit like telling them ‘here’s to a stand-up guy’ prior to shooting them in the head.

I took the autobahn from Berlin to Szczecin—it should have been an easy ride, but the German side is a snarl of roadworks—I spent a couple of hours farting about on the freeway, rather than having a gute fahrt.

In Germany, even the cars have angst.

The change in living standards is obvious when you cross the border—in the housing, the cars, the dress… I stopped off for gas, paid in zloty since we’re out of the euro area, and my first Polish contact in country was very encouraging—the language is incomprehensible, and sports a particularly insane range of accents, including an ‘L’ which has been stabbed in the gut and is pronounced ‘E’—I imagined that a sharp blow to the Polish abdomen may have originated that particular phoneme.

The gas attendant smiled, spoke to me in English, and had none of the arrogance you encounter in Germany. I was also struck by the difference between Poles and the Hungarians during my trip in 2016—both nations have a history of suffering, but the Poles are optimistic and funny, where Hungary is dour and grim.

I checked into the hotel, considered dinner options and turned on the TV.

My research was waylaid by a cartoon of Scooby Doo in Polish, which cracked me up, and set the tone for the evening.

No one replied when I called to book a table for dinner, so I strolled over to the place on the off chance.

Every woman in Poland is convinced that dyed blond hair is a decisive advantage in life—the two young ladies at the restaurant were clearly happy about practicing their English. I explained about the reservation, and one of them said they were too busy to answer the phone—almost as funny as Scooby—and they found me a table right away.

Szczecin—I’m getting RSI with all these zees—is a major Baltic port, which partly accounts for the historical ‘interest’ shown by its neighbors, including Germany and Sweden, and for centuries, and also had a thriving trade with Scotland for herring.

The latter may have been responsible for a delicious herring tartar, but by the time the main course arrived there was no escaping the meat—the entire menu focused on pork and goose, with a smattering of beef here and there.

Polish pig farming is infamous in the Baltic for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus it dumps in the sea, which results in abnormal growth of algae—blooms of blue-greens are a particular issue.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, fix nitrogen from the air and get phosphorus from polluted water, and cause oxygen problems in the deeper waters of the Baltic.

Over the weekend, I got a better feel for the region—this is West Pomerania, and we drove around some pretty poor areas. They grow a fair bit of carp in Poland, as they do in other regions of Eastern Europe—but the diet is meat, the carp are a Christmas tradition, and I can bet you a pound to a penny the kids hate it.

I’ve never been on a farm that doesn’t have old machines lying around, but how many bear the label: MADE IN USSR?

It’s duck hunting season right now, and there was much enthusiasm among the groups of men preparing to go out shooting. I think the adjective ‘solid’ may be the best way to describe Poles, and I mean that in a good way.

I delved deeper into the history—Szczecin has been invaded by pretty much everyone, but then that’s the history of Poland as a whole—the unfortunate filling of a sandwich breaded by Russia and Prussia.

Catherine the Great was born here, and I was enthralled with her sexual adventures. In particular I found that her close friend Praskovya Bruce was l’éprouveuse for Catherine’s new lovers—how much less sordid it sounds in French.

Praskovya’s job was to test the prospective lovers, after their proposal by Prince Potemkin, selection by Catherine, and inspection by a doctor. Countess Bruce’s role was more of a horizontal analysis of carrying capacity, presumably focusing on both quality and quantity.

Praskovya’s dilligence led to her being caught on the job, as it were, with Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov. This led to the downfall of both—Rimsky-Korsakov was then exiled in Brattsevo, where he lived in a relationship with the married Countess Stroganova, who bore him four children, (presumably) to her husband’s unending delight.

I shall resist the temptation to make any quips involving either rims or beef.

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

Atomkraft

October 13, 2019

The Germans love a good compound word. Actually, back in the day they were also pretty fond of a good compound.

The young folks (and the not so young) are also partial to a good demonstration—being German, even youthful protesters go for it with supreme organizational skills.

I’m writing this in Tegel, which for a German airport is surprisingly poorly organized, but then this is Berlin—the city is probably the most un-German of them all, which also makes it the nicest.

I was here for a week, and then last Friday I marched east to Poland—it’s a local tradition. I’ll tell you about that next week, but meanwhile I’ll share two tidbits with you.

The first is that the Polish airwaves were full of martial speech over the weekend in preparation for today’s election, though I got the feeling many Poles were far more interested in tonight’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Macedonia.

The second is that I visited the birthplace of Catherine the Great—you are probably aware that she was a man-eater, and even at the ripe age of sixty (perhaps equivalent to eighty-five now) was still cavorting with sixteen-year-old boys (mind you, back then they were twenty-five, so don’t you me too me).

More on both of those (topics, not boys) next weekend.

Berlin was utter chaos, and my chosen means of transport was Lime—I’d tried them briefly in Spain, but by any standard I was a Lime virgin. In this flat city, I was occasionally the leader, or führer, as the locals say, of a posse of like-minded Limeys, linked together in a group ride—sharing is caring.

A little free publicity on account of all the fun I had with these babies.

But the chaos had merit—the city center was paralyzed by climate change activists. The meetings were called by an organization called Fridays For Future. Along the way, fellow travelers from the self-styled Extinction Rebellion also settled in for the duration.

By the time I left Berlin, at which point, for reasons I won’t go into, I had four guitars in the back of the car—Lime has its limits—the tents were everywhere.

The cops did their job, roads were blocked, traffic was infernal, and Liming your way through town was just the thing. And the demonstrations were pithy, colorful, and necessary.

I re-read one of my articles from 2009 and my conclusion is that ten years after, we are nowhere near where we need to be—in fact, the orange man and his gang of gut-feeling buffoons have made it worse.

Those kids out on the Berlin sidewalks, blocking Potsdamer Platz with the aid of couches and flowerpots, were only eight or nine back then—now they’re laden with righteous anger, bless ’em.

The last time I was here was during my pre-blog days, and evidence of the Berlin Wall was abundant, as were derelict five-year plan communist apartments, as vacuous and grey as Walter Ulbricht‘s ideology.

Now, the memories are spotty. But I was taking the autobahn daily to the Grenzallee exit—that means border alley, so you do the math.

Berlin is undergoing a frenzy of construction, roadworks, and general improvement—you’d think the Germans had a bit of cash to spare. The center was pretty glitzy, but the Grenzallee bit was rather different.

Gastarbeiter (there’s another of those compounds), or guest workers, are the norm, along with an abundance of kebab spots of dubious lineage. My gut survived those, although I did have a couple of gut feelings.

Not your regular campsite, five minutes away from the Bundestag, but maybe someone, sometime, will change something…

And because of my guitar escapades, I saw some truly dubious areas. The music guys I dealt with are serious gearheads—their clients include the Rolling Stones—but their compound (hmm…) features some pretty suspect establishments, including one stocked with old American limos, Caddy convertibles, and other unusually well-appointed vehicles.

All in all, Berlin remains a great place—head and shoulders above the rest of Germany.

In the immortal words of President Kennedy, I am a donut.

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

Giving Back

October 6, 2019

Whenever I start an article, I always do two things: I re-read my previous one (and often find a rogue typo to fix), and I look at the stats.

Statistics are  like a bikini—what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital.

My blog stats usually spike the day I write and the day after, then they settle down. Roughly what statisticians might call a Poisson distribution—well-matched to my fishy nature—or even perhaps a Pareto curve.

Pareto is a darling of marketeers, and underpins the mantra that twenty percent of the products generate eighty percent of the sales. I’ve written on this previously, because of the way the internet flipped the distribution and produced the Long Tail.

Wired magazine published this image in 2004—it’s a wonderful illustration of the Long Tail, and explains why you can buy anything on ebay.

Vilfredo Pareto was born in the mid-XIXth century, and is described as a civil engineer, economist, and sociologist—quite a guy. But my blog is testimony to his distribution, because I see random articles from the past showing up from time to time—this week, perhaps because of the events in Hong Kong, this amusing one popped up.

But today I went further and had a look at the people who follow my writings regularly, rather than the ones who drop by.

What I found is heart-warming, and I want to thank you all for making time to come here and read. There are two groups, the first of which uses WordPress to make a connection. The others are folks who signed up and ask for a notification whenever I hit Publish.

In that second group, there are a number of people I don’t know, and who have never commented on here. The first group is entirely filled with folks I don’t know, but who write.

I spent some time this morning trawling their blogs, looking at what makes them tick. There’s a guy in the Philippines who is studying journalism, another gal who blogs on food—one of her posts extolled the virtues of a meat restaurant, and that got me thinking.

The whole food thing is changing quite rapidly, and in particular beef cattle is coming under fire from climate change activists. The feed conversion ratio (FCR) for beef is 6.8, which means it takes almost seven pounds of feed to produce one pound of steak. This doesn’t compare well with the FCR for salmon, which is around 1.2 in Norway, Scotland, and Canada.

However, when it comes to the carbon footprint, things get worse: cows come in at thirty pounds of CO2 per pound of edible meat, whereas salmon registers 2.9, one tenth of that number.

The high CO2 emissions for cattle are in good part due to the methane released by ruminants—their diet is not particularly digestible.

The attack on meat, particularly red meat, has recently led to a review that contradicts the advice given by doctors and nutritionists over the past decades, i.e. an excessive consumption carries significant cardio-vascular risks.

The dynamics of the food system are fascinating—in several European and North American countries, 5-10% of the population is vegetarian, and out of the remainder, there is a proportion that never buys or eats fish.

One interesting consequence is that the data on per capita consumption of fish may underestimate rates by 10-20%, which means that a proportion of the population should be healthier than the numbers show.

Conversely, the rest of that meat must be supplementing meat-eaters’ diets—if you’re skeptical about the Johnston article, then that’s bad news.

Whatever you eat, wherever you live, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to share a few thoughts with you every week.

But writing can be a lonely business—if you ever feel like writing back, come on in.

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

Blonde on Blonde

September 29, 2019

Blonde on Blonde is one of Bob Dylan’s greatest records—with artists like Dylan, The Beatles, Clapton, or The Stones, it’s wonderful to be able to say that—there are enough great albums that you can’t choose the best.

The two blondes in this article are the exact opposite—they’ve done so much crap it’s hard to choose the worst in their record. And to cap it all, one of them isn’t even blond—he is in fact a dubious shade of orange—bring on the spectrometer.

I have strong ties to both America and Britain, and good friends in both countries—the image projected by those great nations at present reflects the worse that nationalism and populism can offer.

In the nineteen twenties and thirties, Europe was destroyed by National Socialism—almost one century later, the Western World is being destroyed by National Populism.

As usual, I thought I’d come up with a new phrase, only to find that an entire book, called National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, was published last year on this very subject. The authors are Roger Eatwell (really) and Matthew Goodwin, and the LSE blog gives it a positive, though somewhat mixed, review.

Eatwell and Goodwin (sorry, I love that) blame the ‘four Ds’. I appreciate appropriate alliteration, so here come the ‘D’s:

Distrust, destruction, deprivation, and de-alignment.

This is quite good, if self-evident: distrust in the political class; destruction of communal identity due to globalization; deprivation linked to class inequality (The Hourglass); and de-alignment of personal identity with political parties or brands.

So here we have the raw material for the likes of Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, or the late Pym Fortuyn.

The demagogue wallows in this fertile swill—it breeds an easy narrative of corrupt pols, job losses to China and Bangladesh, Goldman versus Burger King, and identity crisis—you know who you are because of Facebook and Instagram, and you drift in a current of posts, memes, and viral clips.

Suddenly you’re important—you have friends. You’re pulled along with the tide, but you’re in out of your depth, and only one thing can happen at that stage as you drift back and forth.

Go figure!

You start to sink, not at all sure how far the bottom lies—and at some point, along comes a nice blond (or potentially orange) man with a great idea, one that solves all your problems.

When that kind and generous hand is extended from above, you—who are maybe on benefits in Sunderland, England, or Ohio, USA—grab on to it with vigor, knowing that finally, there’s someone up there who gets it, someone who’s on your side.

And in this case, their background is so uncannily similar to yours! Why, one was born into a family of millionaires, skipped the Vietnam war, and has systematically abused immigrant labor and contracted manufacturing abroad to further his own ends; and the other, like most folks in Sunderland, is Eton and Oxford-educated.

What you perhaps didn’t know, and may garner a wry smile, is that Boris Johnson was also educated at the European School in Brussels. I suspect that on October 17th he will be continuing his education.

Both men have ridden the same wave of National Populism, which I have just christened the NAPPI movement.

And in both cases, events have shown that chaos is the inevitable consequence of scheduling appointments for foxes inside hen houses.

In Trump’s case it took three years, Boris only took three months—but the consequences of this kind of ‘government’ are abundantly clear—it’s an experiment with one hell of a cost.

In the US, the office of president has been utterly debased, abused for personal advantage, and sunk, in the eyes of many Americans and of outside observers, to unimaginable lows. The kinds of conversations that have recently come to light may signal the end of this nightmare, and yet the current administration has ridden scandal after scandal using well-tested fallacies.

A letter signed by more than three hundred US national security professionals emerged this week, denouncing the exchange between Trump and the new president of the Ukraine. Out of all the signatories, all but two were either ‘former’, or ‘retd’—either those in active service think these are appropriate actions, or there is a serious lack of courage with respect to opposing the administration.

I suspect the latter—there’s a good deal of fear inside the federal government, because a witch hunt is undoubtedly going on—not of the president, as he constantly and falsely repeats, but of any who oppose him.

To an outsider, it’s incomprehensible how the Republican Party let itself get hijacked, and why at this stage, a majority of senate republicans, who clearly cannot abide Trump, should not simply support impeachment and get rid of him once and for all—hold their noses, vote with the democrats, and ‘Bye Felicia!

When it comes to Boris and Brexit, Churchill’s quote on Russia comes to mind: “a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma.”

All we can really forecast at present is that things will end badly, but no one knows how or when. After his trouncing by the British supreme court, Bojo was forced back from New York. The current state of play is as follows: (i) a Brexit deal by the next meeting of the European Council seems highly unlikely; (ii) the British PM will either ask for a delay, refuse to ask and accept the legal consequences, or resign; (iii) there will be a general election within the next three months.

A Bojo resignation is highly unlikely, so he would have to be forced out—also unlikely. A Labour victory in the election is unlikely, particularly with the LibDems splitting the vote, making a Tory plus Brexit party win a real possibility—an alliance conditioned by a policy decision on a no-deal Brexit will be the outcome.

The alternative scenario would be a Labour plus LibDem government, a second referendum, and further mayhem.

That’s what we know.

We also now know that remembering history is a good thing, and that experiments with combustible materials can burn the house down.

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

Formosa

September 21, 2019

The origins of the name Taiwan are uncertain, and may derive in part from a medley of the original Portuguese and Dutch terms for the island. Wan means bay in Putonghua—common speech, or Mandarin—so we could look for the composite phrase tai wan, which might mean platform bay, but we’d be chasing a red herring.

Chinese, like German, is built on composite words, but in this case each word matches a character. As an example, dian hua means electric speech, or telephone, and dian nao means electric brain, or computer. My favorite is da huo ji, or beat fire machine, which is of course a cigarette lighter.

Wan usually means bay. An example is Hau Hoi Wan, or Deep Bay, near Shenzhen (not to be confused with Schengen.) In the foreground, the mandatory marine cultivation—oysters, in this case.

Portuguese mariners apparently sighted the island of Taiwan in 1542, and christened it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island—the Western world used the term for almost four centuries.

The first European to reach China by sea was a nephew of the Vice-Roy of India Afonso de Albuquerque, named Jorge Álvares. The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, only thirteen years after Vasco da Gama first arrived in Calicut; given that a return voyage from Lisbon took about one year and a half, it’s astonishing how quickly the exploration moved east—two thousand nautical miles separate Calicut (Kozhikode today) from Malacca.

Álvares got to Lintin, an island in the Pearl River delta, in 1514, a further sixteen hundred miles from Malacca.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I calculated the distances sailed by Columbus in his bizarre western quest to find Cipango. The numbers shown are the real distances, rather than the fake ones he logged to deceive his crew.

If we consider a (convenient) average of thirty-three leagues per day, or one hundred nautical miles, Álvares would have sailed for about two weeks, assuming he knew where he was headed.

Daily distance traveled by Columbus on his way across the Atlantic from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, to Guanahani. Note the central part of the image, when the fleet was becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, also known as the horse latitudes.

Taiwan is opposite Xiamen, in Fujian province, only three days sailing eastward from the Zhu Jiang, or Pearl River. I suspect the Portuguese got to Taiwan well before 1542—a twenty-eight year gap is a long time, and there were good reasons to keep discoveries secret.

Since the days when the island was named Formosa, it suffered many other occupations. First came the Dutch in the XVIIth century, profiting from the decline of the Portuguese empire following the Spanish occupation of 1580—they set up the typically unimaginative Fort Zeelandia.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Chinese in 1895, and regained in 1945 by the Chinese Nationalists. After they lost the civil war to Mao’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek moved his capital to Taipei—ever since then, the separation of the two Chinas has been a thorn in the side of the PRC.

In the late XXth century, Hong-Kong and Macau were handed back to China, but with a proviso—Deng Xiaoping’s one country, two systems. As an etymological parenthesis, xiao ping means little bottle.

The full text of the proviso is fascinating in its inclusion of Taiwan.

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed the mayhem in Hong Kong—if the chaos lasts long enough, China is sure to intervene. But far more interesting than that? Maybe the Trump trade talks will have a couple of secret clauses, such as reduced support for Taiwan from the US.

It’s well known that the orange man is totally hands-off when it comes to ‘internal business’ of other nations, from human rights to the annexation of Crimea, as long as it suits his self-serving goals.

It’s also well known that Xi Jin Ping (is that a bottle of gin?) wants to leave as his legacy the reunification of China.

Wouldn’t it be a thing if successful trade talks were followed a few years later by the annexation of Taiwan by the PRC, while America looks on, just as it is presently doing with Iran?

There is an apocryphal tale that comes to mind.

Deng was once asked, “What are the main consequences of the French revolution?”

He replied, “Too early to tell.”

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

Chemistry

September 8, 2019

Sir Ernest Rutherford once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

That was a century ago, at a time when chemistry and biology were largely ‘catalog’ sciences—in many parts of the world they still are, whereas in the Western World, a systems approach is now the standard.

But Rutherford also said, “When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life.”

Those last two words destroy his previous aphorism—physics tells us how things work, chemistry tells us their composition, and biology separates life from death.

A further blow to Rutherford’s views was delivered by the Swedish Academy in 1908, when they awarded him the Nobel Prize for… chemistry.

The fact is that physics has less building blocks than both chemistry and biology, which probably explains why so much inventory was required to bring these two subjects to their present state.

The Linnaean classification system, despite its faults, was a watershed moment in biology—the fact that it was developed almost three hundred years ago is astonishing—it ushered in ecology, evolutionary theory, and genetics.

This means you can now get a full sequence of your genome for one thousand dollars, down from over one hundred million in 2001.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a Russian chemistry professor called Dmitri Mendeleev decided the way chemistry was taught was incorrect, and he formulated a better way—in so doing, he came up with the periodic table of elements.

When you look the man up on Wikipedia, the first line states, ‘Not to be confused with Dmitry Medvedev’. I should certainly hope not! Medvedev, or bear in Russian, was of course the man who did Putin the favor of allowing him multiple terms as president of the Russian Federation.

Mendeleev did his Ph.D. ‘On the Combinations of Water with Alcohol’, a subject which is very dear to my heart. He found that a 46% mass fraction of alcohol causes the maximum decrease of volume—this is typically the strength of highest quality vodka, but of course the beverage preceded the great chemist by at least five centuries.

One of the consequences of the periodic table, much like the Linnaean classification, was the transformation of chaos into order, a situation that is thermodynamically unstable—desks never tidy themselves.

The readiness of sodium to react with chlorine, or potassium with iodine, became obvious when you realized you were adding columns 1 and 7 of the table to obtain the full complement of 8. And the fact that carbon, silicon, and germanium live in column 4 reveals much about in vivo and in silico.

Yes, right there in the highly reactive center of the table, its genitals, if you will, sit all the elements that give us life—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

A graphic from Bloomberg Businessweek, from this week’s issue exclusively dedicated to the periodic table.

One of the astonishing developments of the last fifty years is the use of obscure elements from the periodic table for a multitude of uses. The last century belonged to the internal combustion engine, we are now in the age of the battery. Ubiquitous in cars, laptops, and cellphones, hidden in appliances throughout my house, the battery requires, or will require in the near future, hydrogen, lithium, nickel, cobalt, zinc, and lead.

A raft of other metals, including ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium, drive the commodities markets crazy. Ruthenium, for example, was used in hard disk storage in the early years of this century, and spiked to 800 dollars per ounce in 2003-2004. After a crash, it now sits at $200 or so.

Rhodium was used in automobile catalytic converters, tumbled during the financial crash, and is now showing timid signs of recovery.

Rhodium, number 45 in the table, is a price rock ‘n roller.

One thing strikes you about any of these graphs—it’s much harder to climb the mountain than fall off the cliff.

Humans have found uses—often in highly sophisticated applications—for many of the elements that Mendeleev organized. Some of these elements are increasingly scarce, including helium, the second lightest element.

Helium is used in many applications, including MRI machines, and in a few decades, it will be in short supply. This is one of the paradoxes of the table as we move through the century: new scientific discoveries find more uses for obscure substances, but material scarcity moves them further from markets.

We’ve come a long way since Rutherford. The great man once said “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”

Atomic structure? I can think of far more interesting conversations to have with an attractive young lady dispensing my favorite libation, but the man had a point.

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

Double-Oh-Seven

September 1, 2019

I’m working my way through a Thomas Friedman book.

The book is called ‘Thanks For Being Late’. Weird title, and unconnected to the subject matter, except in one aspect—pausing lets you think.

This is a book my readers should read—I can tell you that right now, even though I’m only twenty percent through the story.

I’ll throw in a couple of stories from the text in this piece, but one of the key messages is that we need time to reflect, to concoct, and to combine—when we pause, we accelerate. Sleeping on problems is extremely useful because our brain atomizes issues, decomposing them into soluble globs that are, well… soluble.

Our racing society takes away our thinking time, accelerating us into continuous communication—as in music, sometimes less is more, our brain needs the space to expand its thoughts.

Sometimes, all of us is better than some of us, or one of us, but sometimes it’s not. Uwe Ross, the founder of Ross-Tech, which manufactures the VCDS VW diagnostic software, states “Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

As a veteran of many meetings, I tend to agree.

Pause is key, and frenetic comms are a disservice—it becomes habit-forming to fire out questions you really know the answer to, if only you bother to pause and think.

I found this out many years ago—making myself less available made those (not) around me more self-reliant, and empowered them to think their way out of problems. Our discussions became centered on higher level issues, or on particularly thorny ones.

Friedman provides a rather lengthy intro, which is eminently skippable—the fun doesn’t start until page eighteen, when the focus on the year 2007 begins.

2007 did ring in many changes, including social media platforms, networking software that catapulted Big Data onto the world stage, and cellphone broadband data improvements.

However, rather than focusing on a particular year, the decade should probably be the highlight—I was using Skype to call China in 2005, but it didn’t work very well. Arguably, it still doesn’t—as soon as there are more than two people on, things can snarl up.

Let’s recall that the software was written by Estonians, Swedes, and Danes—not the most talkative of souls. When you aim Skype at a bunch of South Americans, Italians, or Turks, all hell-bent on talking at the same time, the app withers and dies.

Face it, Microsoft has done it no favors either—every time I use Skype, something new, and usually perplexing, crops up. Possibly, this is featuritis caused by a bunch of kids with spreadsheets who are devoted to brainstorming the hell out of monetizing the app.

Pause.

Pause.

Think. Alone.

Pause some more.

Stability. Features. Schedule. Those are the vertices of the iron triangle of software as I know it—nowadays, stability has been replaced by cost, and quality (stability) sits at the center of the triangle, but it’s not clear how it depends on the others. Quality is definitely a vertex, not a consequence—if anything, resources should be in the middle.

The iron triangle of software, drawn correctly. Why complicate matters?

The book’s theme is acceleration, drawing on three major forces: markets (globalization), technology, and environment. I’m keen to read the environmental component, and particularly to see it contextualized with the other engines of change.

I don’t believe technology will resolve the environmental issues we face on the planet, and I think the mantra of economic growth is incorrect, because it doesn’t follow the simple laws of thermodynamics.

Higher productivity ties into higher unemployment, as globalization and AI kick in, and anyhow job creation as a numeric metric is not the correct approach. As an analogy, many universities push for professors to teach a set quota of weekly hours—but if you’re a bad teacher, either because you don’t know your subject matter or can’t communicate it, then teaching less hours will cause less harm.

The subject of growth in human societies is far more complex than the magic numbers distilled by politicians, and change is the biggest challenge we face as a society.

Friedman points out that the social mechanisms we possess to cope with this upheaval are inadequate—he’s right, much of the world is wrapped up in Napoleonic law, and systems designed to accommodate change on a scale of multiple decades.

In medieval times, society didn’t change much from century to century, but now we see paradigm shifts every few years. This makes political systems inadequate and generates acute social imbalances because these changes are disruptive—a paradigm shift is by definition non-linear.

I think you should hear it from him, but read the book. It’ll give you pause.

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


%d bloggers like this: