Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Monster Mash

November 17, 2018

Biotech is one of the very bright spots in our future.

Unlike robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), biotech is an area that doesn’t threaten human employment or automate warfare—instead, it holds vast promise for improving our quality of life.

Miniaturization, which has resulted in the manipulation of molecules and even atoms, bred the field of nanotech—together, biotech and nanotech are the conduit to a brave new world.

For biomedical applications, these technologies have been used to grow new limbs, which is a remarkable achievement.

A 2015 review article from the US National Institutes of Health shows how far biomedical research has developed.

The difference between the natural process of regeneration and the human-engineered one is the fact that nature has no scaffold—many animals are able to regenerate whole limbs, starfish are able to regenerate whole animals. In New York Harbor, 19th century oystermen used to chop up starfish, a hated oyster predator, and chuck the parcels back into the ocean—each fragment would then grow into a new starfish and raid the oyster beds.

The image above may well be the grossest I’ve ever posted, but if you are that way inclined, the excellent NIH review article provides quite a collection.

Biotech has also been used for many decades to make food additives. I was amazed to find out in the late 1970s that sodas contained very little or none of the fruit that name them—lemonade, for instance, sources all its citric acid from fungus—and the biotechnology behind making it was published in 1917!

In recent years, we’ve turned to making food in the lab. It will be some time before biotech synthesizes a juicy Angus steak, but there’s been a lot of work done on hamburgers—the basis behind it is cell culture, and the trick is to get cells to replicate to form tissue.

Maybe it’s worth taking an elevator tour of BIO 101: Plants have no organs, only tissues. Animals are organized (excuse the pun) differently—vertebrates have organs such as a heart, liver, or kidneys. When (if) you eat steak, or Thanksgiving turkey, you are eating muscle tissue, skin (epidermal and dermal tissue), and surrounding fatty tissue. Thanks for taking this course.

If we want to manufacture steak in the lab, it’s a complex proposition—even burgers are a challenge, particularly if we want to have the kind of taste humans look for. Don’t forget that in the lab, we’re building them bottom-up (cells to tissues), not top-down (grinding steak).

One of the strong arguments for making meat from biotech is less cruelty to animals. For the species we eat, life is cruel indeed—cows, pigs, chickens, particularly those raised in industrial agriculture, do not have a pleasant lot.

Pigs in horribly crowded conditions at Fir Tree pig farm, UK (Guardian newspaper, September 2018).

A recent article in the Guardian highlighted the dreadful conditions, including torture, to which farm animals in supposedly developed countries are held.

More lab meat, less industrial agriculture, less torture of farmed animals. The flip-side is that in evolutionary terms it is possible, perhaps even likely, that these species would today be extinct.

Pigs and chickens were domesticated over millennia with a single purpose—the pot. There’s no certainty, had this not been the case, that Sus scrofa domesticus would exist at all—the population would be confined to some wild specimens; I leave it to you, dear reader, to weigh the relative merits of the issue.

Now it has come to fish—in particular, bluefin stem cells are being used to culture tuna—the challenges are multiple, including texture and taste—wild tuna are top predators that eat squid, mackerel, and sardines.

A company called Finless Foods is busy trying to make tuna in the lab. They compete with wild capture, which makes sense, but also with fish farms. Tuna farms are only a couple of decades old, and the cycle of tuna has recently been closed, meaning that it is possible to go from broodstock to hatchery, and then from nursery to growout.

This kind of full cycle approach isn’t used right now—instead, juvenile tuna are captured and caged, then grown on a diet of live fish, usually sardines. This has an effect on  sardine stocks, but it is no different than the effect restored populations of wild bluefin would have.

One consequence of farming bluefin is the shortening of the life cycle—animals are raised until they reach market size and then harvested. A shorter life cycle, and a knowledge of the environmental conditions at the growout site, ensure that farmed tuna have significantly lower levels of mercury than wild blue fin.

In a Washington Post article, the company explains that one of its products, carp paste, would presently cost nineteen thousand dollars per pound. In tuna and salmon, the omega-three fatty acids come from microscopic algae that live in the ocean, and to-date, nothing can replace them. The nutrients that bioengineered tuna cells require to grow must also be sourced from nature—the origin can be tweaked, but a pound of nitrogen is a pound of nitrogen.

With fish farming becoming increasingly more sustainable, more effort needs to be placed on raising tuna rather than catching it, and on improving animal welfare—in the end, it’s unlikely that cell culture of bluefin will lead to a reduction of wild catch.

What it may do is expedite research on early life-stages, providing a better way to culture and source juveniles—that will make a major contribution to sustainability.

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

The Hundred Years War

November 11, 2018

Today marks one hundred years since the armistice was signed at Versailles. Eleven o’clock of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—sounds like a blues tune.

The 1914-1918 war is possibly the greatest exercise in overreaction (the term overkill comes to mind) the planet has ever known. One guy got shot in an obscure Bosnian city and the world fell apart.

Many thought the war would be done by Christmas, but instead it lasted four interminable years. The First World War brought with it many innovations—the joys of chemical warfare were introduced, aerial warfare became a reality, and tanks entered the fray for the first time in the Battle of the Somme.

WWI was also a war where global finance gained prominence—the business of war was predicated on large loans to governments, and nowhere was that clearer than in Great Britain. Woodrow Wilson refused for years to bring the United States into the war—in fact he was re-elected in 1916 with a margin of four thousand votes running on precisely that ticket, with the slogan “He has kept us out of war.”

A century later, one over-arching message is that the US has a tradition of resisting involvement in European conflicts—ironically, Britain, France, and Spain historically illustrate the exact opposite.

But Wilson also actively promoted trade with Europe, particularly for armament. In this respect, US neutrality is questionable, since far more weaponry was sold to the Allies than to Germany. By 1915, the only way to sell arms to Britain was by loaning it money.

Enter the huge banking houses of New York and Philadelphia. Bankers with names like Warburg, Schiff, Brandeis, Rothschild, Baruch, Meyer, and of course J.P. Morgan, were at the ready—a war is a great business opportunity, but only if your side wins.

Bank of England posters for the purchase of war bonds during World War I.

If the Germans won, it was pretty clear that the Allied bonds would return pennies on the dollar, if that—they would be what became known in the 1970’s as junk bonds—potentially huge, but potentially ruinous.

After the US entered the war things rapidly changed, and the bankers were all smiles. They did, however, require Germany to lose, and in order for this to happen, an accommodation was undesirable. If an early cease-fire was negotiated whereby Germany would not have to make substantial reparations, the bonds were junk.

By 1917, the bankers had lent the Allies 2.25 billion dollars. In fairness, they also lent money to Germany—twenty-seven million, hardly a balanced book—it was pretty clear who the financiers wanted to win.

Early German overtures to end the war were refused and, by the time the armistice was signed, the so-called Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) were forced to surrender on ruinous terms.

Many, including the economist John Maynard Keynes, attribute the Second World War to those terms. Undoubtedly, they contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany and to Hitler’s popularity. Some of the popular hatred against Jews will also have stemmed from the financial support given to the Allies—several of those US banking magnates were Jewish.

All those WWI ‘achievements’ have only made the world more dangerous: chemical and biological weapons, followed by nuclear warheads; open cockpit prop planes, followed by jets, missiles, rockets, and drones. Tanks are now in the world of robotics and can shoot down a commercial airliner full of innocent souls.

However, there is one achievement we can all be proud of in the West. The absence of civilian men during World War I forced women to take over male jobs—shortly thereafter, this led to women’s emancipation and the right to vote. That’s led directly to the landslide female representation in the US congress of 2018—absolutely unthinkable back then.

But on the world stage, where are we now?

When it comes to world leaders, I’ll let you be the judge. Instead of Lenin, we have Putin. Instead of Wilson, we got Trump. Instead of Asquith and Lloyd George, we have May. Clemenceau? Makron. Instead of Enver Pasha, we have Erdoğan.

At least three of the above are enthusiastic warmongers. Four generations after the war to end all wars, I wonder how well positioned we are for the start of World War III.

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

Trounced!

November 4, 2018

Last week I said that on November 10th I would do a piece on the mid-terms.

I lied.

In these pages you read about Brexit before it happened, and you read about the rise of the orange man before that happened.

I believe in my ability to predict, so instead of writing a post-election analysis predicated on 20/20 hindsight, I’ll give you a pre-election prognosis—Trump will get trounced.

My (correct) prediction last week that Bolsonaro would win the Brazilian presidency doesn’t count—Paul the Octopus could do that! It was also predictable that one of the Brazilian army captain’s first tributes would be to the religious base that elected him—in Brazil, the IURD is as powerful as the Jesuits were in the century following The India Road, and the new president’s middle name, rather worryingly, is ‘Messias.’

Bolsonaro, known as the ‘Tropical Trump’, is yet another addition to the coterie of mini-dictators that democracies around the world are spawning. Brazilian scientists are already deeply concerned about the same three things that upset their northern counterparts: science, environment, and democracy.

Which brings us back to the house and senate elections on the 6th of November.

In the 2016 election, Trump was sure he’d lose—but he won.

In 2018, he’s convinced he’ll win—but he’ll lose. Much like the method used by the soccer cephalopod seer, I base my prediction on a simple fact—the orange man is a very poor decision-maker, so it’s a sound strategy to bet against his predictions.

The US mid-terms are usually a protest vote against the president, and less than half of America votes. More importantly, state governors are elected, and senators and congressmen are chosen based on their service to the home communities—this includes what Americans call pork barrel politics.

But in these elections rides the future of Trump—not only in terms of possible impeachment, but more broadly with respect to policy decisions.

In November 2015, America didn’t really know Trump. To many, he was a buffoon, taken ‘literally but not seriously.’ Many people saw the Democrat win as a fait accompli and didn’t vote.

In 2018, America knows Trump. A people who have shown me nothing but kindness and encouragement, who  have shared with me their friendship, their time, and their home, have seen the image of a whole nation tarnished by one man.

America has seen filth on a hitherto unimaginable scale. It has witnessed the sniggering pseudo-apology of the privileged white male, the undertones (and overtones) of racism and xenophobia, the loud and brash claims—and although it has taken a while for the word to be used, it has heard lies. Lies. LIES!

Systematic and deliberate lies. Not factual inaccuracies, not misconceptions, not lack of information. Lies.

Americans know that in these elections they have a unique opportunity to show the world that a mistake was made, and that it has been redressed. This is very unfortunate for some republican senators and congressmen who have been doing a great job—because unless the republican voter is a diehard Trump voter, he or she will know that they’re not really voting for their candidate, they’re endorsing Trump.

Some good advice for next Tuesday, courtesy of the Boston Globe.

Democrats, on the other hand, have learned a huge lesson in complacency. Yes, Hillary Clinton was a terrible option, but this fellow makes Bush forty-three look smart.

Come senators and congressmen please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’
It will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times, they are-a-changin’

Democrats will win the house. It’s a longer shot, but I’m betting they also take the senate.

Let’s see what happens.

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

Bows and Arrows

October 27, 2018

The Anglo-Saxon world is consumed by the upcoming US mid-terms. The rhetoric has escalated to psychobabble, America seems more divided than ever, and for many, two years of Trump seem like two centuries.

I’m betting that on November 6th, US common sense will resurface and trounce Trump. But I’ll tell that story on November 10th.

There is, however, a far more important election for America in the upcoming days—tomorrow, to be precise—and that is the second round of the Brazilian presidential election.

To the gringos, as people of South American descent lovingly refer to US anglos, this election merits a brief shrug of the shoulders. Brazil? Weird language, weird music, weird ball game.

To South and Central America, and to the European originators of those societies, this is a critical juncture. In my book Clear Eyes, I describe how Columbus first reached the Indies, and just as important, what happened when he got back. In The India Road, the great circle route taken by Vasco da Gama is the same one Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed to discover the true cross—Vera Cruz was the first name given to Brazil. There is ample evidence that Vicente Yañez Pinzon, who had sailed with Columbus, made landfall in Brazil three months before Cabral, and then headed north to Venezuela—his voyage took him through the Amazon estuary, which he aptly named Mar Dulce, or Freshwater Sea.

However, there is also evidence as far back as the mid-1490s that the Portuguese were well aware that Brazil existed, but a country with 1.2 million people, overcommitted in Africa and focused on exploring the East, simply could not spare the manpower to colonize the Americas. The strongest circumstantial evidence for this was the Treaty of Tordesillas—the Portuguese negotiators forced a shift in longitude to the west, which placed Brazil into the Portuguese half of the newly divided globe.

The relationship between Brazil and Portugal is much stronger than the ties between the US and UK, perhaps because a war of independence was never fought—the tide of migration has oscillated between the two nations: in the nineteenth century, many Portuguese went west in search of fortune, in the late XXth it was the Brazilians who fled east from a failing economy, then it was Portugal’s turn again during the 2007-2012 austerity period.

In 2018, the tables are again turned and Brazilians are fleeing the violence in their society, a reflection of the corruption and lawlessness of life in their home towns. They flock to one of the safest countries in the world—the fourth safest, to be precise. As an aside, the others are, in ascending order, Austria, New Zealand, and Iceland—out of the top five, eighty percent are European, and out of the top thirty, two-thirds are European.

Only two American nations make the top thirty-one: Canada and Chile. Those escaping from Brazil are doing so for the same reason that a caravan of Hondurans and Nicaraguans are headed for the US—they cannot deal with the (often state-sponsored) violence in their societies.

I asked a Brazilian waiter recently for his predictions—”estou torcendo por Bolsonaro,” he said, with a wry smile. Like many Brazilians abroad, he is backing the former army captain who publicly praised the imprisonment and torture of impeached former president Dilma Rousseff, and lamented in parliament that her torturers hadn’t finished the job.

Bolsonaro (best pronounced in English as ‘bows and arrows’) is running against a candidate from PT, the workers’ party. Lula, the historical leader of the PT is presently in jail on corruption charges, and his party is about to get hammered.

Bows and Arrows will be a president in the vein of the recent populist wave: Duterte, El-Sisi, Trump, you get the picture. For Brazil, which lives with the ghosts of military dictatorship, this is not good news—but it’s what you get when decades of lawless corruption translate into endemic violence and a fractured society.

The campaign for the second ballot has taken fake news to the ultimate level—Brazilians are big on chat, and they took to social media like a lush to bourbon. The internet holds many surprises, and one has been the astronomical growth of WhatsApp.

WhatsApp usage as a percentage of the population (graph courtesy of Statista).

China does its own thing, and (speculatively) Germany is on there because they have the tightest pockets on the planet, but over half of the 209 million Brazilians are on the app. Some of this is driven by cellphone charges, but a lot reflects the simplicity of combining video, audio recordings, text, and just plain chit-chat. Penetration in the US is only six percent—whereas Facebook penetration is sixty-two percent, which is why the Russians had so much fun with it in 2015.

The WhatsApp stats show how much developing countries use it: India, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey… and Brazil—now that’s volume!

In Brazil, WhatsApp has been abused more often than a reporter at a Trump rally, and, rather like those rallies, much of the material that it circulates is fake. Each WhatsApp group can have a maximum of 256 members, but nothing stops those members also joining another group. If twenty members do that, the message will reach about five thousand people. And if those twenty were members of different groups, one hundred thousand people get the message.

Brazil has one hundred and twenty eight million registered WhatsApp users. A recent study by two Brazilian universities analyzed 347 public WhatsApp groups prior to the first round of the election. The groups were monitored over a one month period—overall they had eighteen thousand participants.

The study found that one hundred thousand images were circulated, along with seventy-one thousand videos, thirteen thousand audio clips, over half a million text messages, and ninety thousand links.

A Brazilian fact-checking agency called Lupa, which collaborated in the study, reviewed the fifty most popular images circulated among these groups.

Only four images were true.

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

I Saw You Coming

October 20, 2018

Much of our world revolves around data—a lot of data. I’m talking about petabytes, yottabytes and the like. Put simply, you could fit all the academic research libraries in the US into two petabytes.

What kind of data are we talking about? Everything, including consumer products, news, crime, and weather.

That begs two questions. Where does the data come from, and who pays for it?

The data origin—not its provision—varies: records stored by humans provide a good deal of it. You are for instance able to tap into two hundred million records of crime data for the US. The data you access costs you money, and is the result of millions of security-related filings, including arrests, sentences, and paroles.

A second major source of data are sensors. These can be weather station sensors for wind speed or air temperature, buoys at sea measuring wave height, or satellites sitting high above you as you read these words. You are yourself part of the sensor network—as you read, your cellphone informs the cloud about your latitude and longitude. From that sensed data, we know whether you are sitting (and we know exactly where), and what time it is—if you sit there long enough, we will know where you live, or where you work—in a matter of days we’ll know both.

It’s a simple matter to find out who you live with, based on your coincidence in time and space, and build a relationship tree. If you’re moving slowly as you read these words, we’ll know you’re walking or strolling. If you’re moving fast, we know you’re in a vehicle—discovering whether it’s a car, bus, or train is a trivial matter. We can cross your trajectory with a highway map—if your vehicle makes frequent stops, you’re on a bus—or maybe you’re a UPS driver (but do me a favor, don’t read while you drive). Sensors provide huge amounts of data because they’re measuring stuff all the time.

The final source of data are models—these models don’t sashay on the catwalk, they run on computers, often using those very same sensor outputs to make forecasts—here’s that weather thing again.

The second question is even easier to answer. Who pays for it?

You do. You really should have seen that coming.

As a taxpayer, you fund the justice system, the weather office, the health system, the education system… delete as applicable, depending on where you live—I dearly hope no deletion is required.

When I was in the US, I picked up the latest book by Michael Lewis, called The Fifth Risk. I picked it up in the usual fashion, by seeing it an an airport store and promptly buying it on Kindle.

Now, Michael Lewis has been a favorite for years, so (unusually) I’ll plug an(other) author in these pages. Lewis has had a go at US investment bankers, the sub-prime mortgage scandal, the whole austerity deal in Europe, and HFT—High Frequency Trading is another scandalously well-kept secret—and yes, Big Data is at the heart of it. Oh, and he’s had a few goes at the orang-u-bang.

In summary, it’s a good job Lewis is not a Saudi national, otherwise he’d be part of an erector set by now. As an aside, the only simple question I want answered: if Khashoggi died in a fist fight, as claimed today, where’s the body? I suppose I’m also curious about why he got into a fist fight with fifteen guys.

The Fifth Risk took me two days to read, and I was fascinated by a chapter called ‘All the President’s Data.’ I want you to read the book, particularly in the lead-up to the mid-terms, so I won’t be a spoiler.

I will, however, tell you that US federal agencies such as the department of agriculture, NOAA, USGS, and NASA, have to provide data to the public as part of their mission statement. They are obviously not in the business of making the most sophisticated viewing interfaces for the consumer market—these are often done by third parties, but the key point is that those parties would be unable to source data were it not for the fact that you have paid for it to be made public, and more importantly, accessible in a simple way.

As an example, if you’re a US taxpayer, you support Wind Guru. The business model for this wind and wave forecasting website is fascinating—not least because the site is based in the Czech Republic, a land-locked nation. Every surfer knows Wind Guru—what most don’t know is that it isn’t a guru at all, the gurus are the US National Weather Service (NWS), the US Geological Survey, and others. Wind Guru accesses models run by NWS (a part of NOAA) using a special toolset known as web services.

Many government agencies worldwide provide such services, and this has allowed the private sector to develop some really nice tools for public use. The problem is when the private sector lobbies the government to try and stop the agencies that run the models being able to do anything but supply data.

One of the current discussions revolves around AccuWeather, which charges for its services, and its alleged efforts to limit how NOAA presents its own data, acquired through sensor networks paid for by (you saw it coming) the US taxpayer.

At the forefront of all this excitement is an American lawyer called Barry Myers, who is at present the CEO of AccuWeather. The exciting bit is that in October 2017, Myers was picked by Trump to lead NOAA.

The confirmation hearing is holding this one up. If Myers is confirmed, it means that an operator in the private sector of the multi-million weather forecast business will be in charge of a government agency that collects twenty terabytes of data every day, much of it weather-related.

The line between public and private becomes thinner and grayer than an old man’s hair.

If the orangutan buffoonery get away with this one, the fox will be firmly placed in charge of the henhouse.

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

Unchain my Heart

October 13, 2018

Mental illness, from depression to schizophrenia, is a curse on those who suffer from it, as well as on their family and friends. And the provision of adequate care to the unfortunate people who live with this suffering is the responsibility of society—period.

The world map of disability is striking, particularly if you look at those red areas, and by that I mean the right column on the scale—from yellow to hemoglobin.

Mental illness worldwide—this graphic was published in PLOS Medicine by Ferrari and co-workers in 2013, and represents the YLD (Years Living with Disability) rate per 100,000 people.

Huge parts of South America, much of Africa and the Mid-East, and all of the ex-USSR. The exceptions are India and China, although in these broad assessments data quality can vary substantially from country to country.

Some mental disabilities, of which depression is a prime example, show well-established links to suicide rates—although most depressive people don’t kill themselves, two-thirds of suicides are committed by folks suffering from depression.

A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control found that, for the period 1999-2016, the suicide rate has increased in all US states except Nevada—in some cases, particularly midwestern states, the rate has increased by fifty percent on average.

Anyone who travels widely quickly understands that the world is a very heterogeneous mix—for instance, what qualifies as underage sex in Europe and North America is very different from what you see in SE Asia.

Westerners, particularly those riding a high horse, are mostly unaware that one hundred-fifty years ago, the age of consent in the United States was… ten. In fact, the history of consent laws is an article in and of itself—we’ll leave it for another day.

What was acceptable in the West a century ago is reasonable in the East today—we see it in human rights, and in animal welfare. And unfortunately, we see it in mental health.

Ghana, which is colored blue in the YLD map, has one psychiatrist for every 1.2 million people—this statistic sounds so incredible, I dug in further. For a country of twenty-eight million, there should be twenty-three (and a third) shrinks—apparently there are eighteen.

The World Health Organization—undoubtedly another agency that Trump believes does the devil’s work—has calculated that developing countries spend only 0.5% of their health budget on mental health.

A mentally ill man shackled to a table in Java, Indonesia. The year is 2018, the picture was taken this month (courtesy Human Rights Watch.)

Ghana, like many other countries, had a practice of shackling mental patients, as a means of restraining them from normal activity, but has now banned the use of chains.

The lack of government facilities led to the development of ‘prayer camps’, where mentally ill folks are regularly chained, despite the ban. One such camp was recently visited by the BBC—staff proudly displayed the new facilities—when the reporter entered the housing units, a row of cages were the principal item of furniture.

And in each cage, a patient.

The BBC correspondent decided to try a cage for himself—he was unable to stand upright.

The video of the BBC report is horrifying, the suffering of the mentally ill in Ghana and many other countries is disgraceful.

Humans everywhere share a common trait—we have an old mind from an old world. We react to what happens on our street, our town, our region, pretty much in that order. We react to what happened yesterday, last month, last year, or the last decade in a similar way.

We think local, and we think now. This is why we elect xenophobes and re-elect politicians who only last year did us harm.

That’s why a mentally ill person kept in chains in some African nation is irrelevant when compared to Kayne West and Princess Eugenie.

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

Presidential Alert

October 6, 2018

At exactly seventeen minutes past eleven my cell put out a loud honk. I was in a store and my phone was set to silence, which made the noise even more surprising. All around, a similar braying was heard from customers in various aisles.

The US reaches out to all its citizens. How long will it be before this channel begins its tenure as government spam?

A message popped up to calm the good folks of the homeland—we were not yet at war with the bad hombres du jour. I wasn’t particularly calm about being so trivially easy to locate, but I suppose that growing up in a dictatorship left me with a big brother bias.

The few days I spent in the States left me with the same impression as always—nice people, eager to help. And yet the chasm between haves and have-nots is inescapable. On a broad level, it’s what you see in Asia or in Europe—not to mention Africa—so the US is certainly not exceptional.

But it’s odd to witness such affluence and then repeatedly come across folks who are not only homeless, but clearly mentally ill—a society without a safety net.

“Motherfucker!” the woman screamed at some poor fellow trying to cross the street. She repeatedly hurled abuse at the man until he managed to get over the crosswalk. Then she took her two battered suitcases, walked twenty yards with them, and parked them outside a bank. Still cursing at the top of her voice, living out the film inside her head, she went into a convenience store, stole a cart and made off back down the sidewalk. A prowler drove slowly down the street, the cops hardly glancing at her.

As I walked, more down and outs appeared, each with their particular foible. It was four in the afternoon.

This was LA, and I’m not talking about South Central. The homeless people I saw were either black or Latino, but there are plenty of whites going down that road. When Trump was asked to define ‘white trash’, he allegedly replied:

They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.

And although trash is an unacceptable epithet, the orange tariffs are sure to generate more poverty in the US. The recent taxes applied to aluminum are a case in point. The US imports eighty-five percent of the raw aluminum it uses, preferring to focus on value-added products.

The Trump administration (an oxymoron at best) was at loggerheads about the tariffs, with Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and adviser Peter Navarro defending the tax on raw material, and Cohn and Mnuchin violently opposed—policy disagreements on trade issues eventually led to Cohn’s resignation, as Bob Woodward explains in Fear.

In a meeting in DC in June 2017, key players in the aluminum industry eagerly gathered to listen to the administration’s plans—Trump was about to make good on his promise to hurt China. Their joy was short-lived—instead of focusing on aluminum products, the Trump tariffs were aimed at raw materials.

The main beneficiary was a mid-size company based in Chicago called Century Aluminum, but the emblematic smelter held up to the scrutiny of the Trumpian base is located in Hawesville, Kentucky. Oh, and there’s one other thing—the company is owned by Glencore, a mining giant ‘based‘ in Switzerland.

Half a million tons of aluminum stashed at Braithwaite, SE of New Orleans by Castleton Commodities International LLC—hedge funds jump on the Trump tariff train.

Trump used a little-known law to impose tariffs and avoid congressional approval: the law emphasizes national security. Secretary of defense Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mathis informed Trump that military requirements amounted to only three percent of US production—exactly the kind of statistic Trump was keen to ignore.

As usual, the traders were feathering their own nest. In particular, the London Metal Exchange and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which warehoused vast quantities of aluminum, sitting on it to push up prices, moved their stash to private stockpiles—when Commerce personnel looked at data from the exchanges, only 120,000 tonnes were in the books, but in reality US reserves were far higher—about two million tonnes.

The players who stashed aluminum in the States have patiently waited it out. As soon as tariffs were imposed, their stocks, already in the US, suddenly jumped in value. Even more juicy, China retaliated to the move by setting tariffs on aluminum scrap. The perverse outcome is that the US began to import or keep more scrap, undercutting domestic raw production.

The winners of this game are hedge funds, together with companies such as Glencore—the losers are always the same—poor people with great expectations.

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

South of the Border

September 30, 2018

At eight in the morning, U.S. eastern time, I handed my passport to the CBP officer. He was a large black man, and he’d been on duty all night. This time, my port of entry into North America wasn’t the United States, but Canada—so I needed to fill in the paperwork.

I expected the border to be a challenge in these Trumpian times, but the only real downer were the pictures of the first family hanging on the wall of the immigration office. My experience with Canadian immigration has always been good, but I can’t say the same for the States—airport queues are endless, and the officials can charitably be described as impolite—I have never been told I was welcome to America.

At Montreal’s Trudeau Airport I was presented with a robot interface which took two minutes to process me, and was then asked a couple of trivial questions by a human before going on my way.

I optimistically booked a seafood restaurant downtown, but by the time I got to the hotel my head was spinning with exhaustion—I’d been awake for the best part of twenty-two hours. The next morning, I took a stroll through beautiful downtown Montreal—a walk through Leonard Cohen land.

Last month, yet another person dear to my heart decided to take his leave—making it a hat-trick within a year—I headed to Our Lady of the Harbour, where there was a candle waiting to be lit. The statue is mentioned in ‘Suzanne’, one of the many songs Cohen wrote about his women—I’ve always thought he displayed exemplary timing by dying the day before Trump was elected.

I approached the church from the Rue du Bonsecours—Montreal is a bit froggy—but the statue is at the back of the church, appropriately facing the St. Lawrence river. The front of the church had the obligatory archway and two red doors.

Only in Montreal would you see a bottle of wine sitting patiently outside a church door on a Sunday morning before mass, waiting for Louis to show up.

The devout filed into the church. The not-so-devout slipped in behind them, made his way into a side pew, put his head in his hands, and thought for a while about the slipstream of life. He was admonished by an usher, but only after he had secured the photograph he wanted.

It was a sunny Sunday morning but my soul was dark. I walked down to the river, where the sun aptly poured down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbour, marveled at the stillness, the lovers walking hand in hand, children screaming and playing, watched by indulgent grandparents.

I looked east to the cantilever bridge and imagined the ships of Wolfe making their way up the river, and the tales of my childhood about the battle against Montcalm (both generals died) and the conquest of the city.

For me, eastern Canada is Fenimore Cooper, and the stories of wars fought by French, English, and Indians. I paid more attention this time to the number of Indian names that exist in Canada—and in the northeast US—it struck me as ironic that the western conquerors decimated the first nations and perversely celebrated by naming towns, rivers, and lakes after the peoples they destroyed.

Downtown Montreal is full of little shops—some are tourist traps, but some are just off the wall, reflecting the eclectic nature of the city itself. I found a couple of things to stuff in my suitcase—in particular, there’s a store near Notre Dame which sells only Christmas goods, and walking through it, I grew wistful thinking of the coming December—one less seat at the table. This is the best Christmas store I’ve ever seen, and I indulged my pain, buying happy trinkets to cheer up the tree.

I didn’t linger in Montreal, but flew east to Nova Scotia. Eastern Canada is just starting to cool down, but the hardcore weather is still perhaps a month away. As I drove south towards Maine the red fall colors slowly vanished from the leaves, the trees a bellwether for latitudinal shifts.

As I write, night has fallen in Western Europe—in a couple of hours I’ll be in LA. In my first day in the United States, I looked for signs of change—the anger and bitterness reflected in the Kavanaugh confirmation, the hate and loathing Trump projects to his base, the tectonic chasm between Democrats and Republicans—I see none of it.

At the Maine border, I joked around with the CBP guy, and it was the first time I was admitted into the US without having to declare that I’m not a member of the communist party (whichever one is at hand), and that I do not intend to perform acts of terrorism. I crossed the border in a hippy van, but no one was in the least interested in inspecting it—if there were dogs, they must have been napping. The whole thing cost me six bucks, and even so the CBP guy was sheepish about charging me.

I landed in Chicago and expected a change of scene—like New York, the windy city has a reputation for abrasive, short-tempered citizens, and airports usually draw the cream of the crop. But no, all I got was polite, open-armed courtesy—if the conflict and hatred lives here, it’s well concealed.

I see the Kavanaugh thing is getting worse, and that Trump was forced into ordering an FBI investigation—having just finished Bob Woodward’s book ‘Fear’, I can imagine how much the boat rocked at the White House.

Maybe LA will reveal itself as a den of fracture, and I will witness Americans hurlin’ abuse at each other—but judging by how calm my flight is, and how congenial the passengers are, striking up conversations at the drop of a baseball cap, I don’t think so.

Instead, the safety check on the plane made me think of the classic SNL sketch roasting Aer Lingus—and, as I head west to the land of silicone valley, I can’t help smiling at the antics of Stormy Daniels, and particularly at a column in this week’s Private Eye magazine.

In it, a troubled Donald Trump is tweeting at 3 am about Hurricane Florence. The orange man labors under the mistaken belief that she is a colleague of Stormy, and reassures his base that he never slept with Hurricane Florence. Two minutes later he admits he did sleep with her, but no money changed hands. Subsequent tweets admit to payment but deny Russian involvement, until the president finally comes clean, if you excuse the pun.

I’m enjoying my first day here—it’s still the America I know, a country with a big heart and a hearty embrace. Trump? This too shall pass.

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

Boiled Chicken

September 15, 2018

In February 2017 the Northern Ireland Executive fell. Since then, the tiny tip of Ireland has been without a government.

Northern Ireland joins several European nations, including Belgium and Spain, in the club of chaos—but where Belgium is plagued by the wars of Charles V and the Dutch protestants, Northern Ireland is plagued, er… by chickens.

The story developed over the last five years or so. It began with an initiative designed to reduce use of fossil fuels in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was championed by DETI, the Department of Energy, Trade, and Investment.

To add a little spice, the then minister in charge of DETI was one Arlene Foster—she is currently the head of the DUP, or Democratic Unionist Party, which bailed out prime minister Theresa May after her ruinous attempt to consolidate power in the lead-up to Brexit.

The RHI was designed to stimulate small businesses and individual citizens to use renewables—wood shavings, pellets, and other non-fossil fuels would be promoted as heat sources.

The program was well supported in England, with an effective management and verification structure—in Northern Ireland, the management team was a little less effective—human resources to the tune of three.

The subsidy arrangement approved by the government effectively allowed participants to make a twenty percent profit on the scheme—in plain English, for every pound you put in, you made a profit of twenty pence.

Twenty-five million pounds ($33,000,000) were initially allocated—by 2015, only ten million had been spent. Then, that glint in the Irish eye came forth—in the fall of 2015 almost one thousand concerned citizens filed applications—the green fields of Ireland were about to become significantly greener.

There was only one hiccup—because you could make twenty points on your investment, the sale of boilers rocketed, and a good proportion of the beneficiaries began heating empty barns and chicken sheds that had previously never been heated at all.

Stormont

The runaway boiler scheme as viewed by the Belfast Telegraph.

Arlene did such a good job she was promoted to minister of finance. The lack of financial controls meant the scheme ballooned from the original twenty-five million quid to four-hundred and ninety, a cool six hundred and forty million dollars.

Her successor, Jonathan Bell, closed the scheme in early 2016, after her majesty’s treasury had made serious noises about paying the bill. By then, Ms. Foster had become first minister—she was now in charge of the DUP and head of the uneasy arrangement with Sinn Féin responsible for ruling Northern Ireland.

Subsequent theatrics developed—the late Martin McGuinness was deputy first minister under the power sharing agreement. Since Arlene Foster neither resigned nor was ousted from her position, during a period when accusations flew and dirt was enthusiastically dished, the IRA’s former commander resigned. By doing so, he brought down the executive—the nation has been without a government since.

Of course that didn’t stop Arlene entering into another power sharing arrangement, this time with Theresa May—Foster traded ten DUP members of parliament for one billion pounds in cash—that offsets a few chicken boilers. The deal, called a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, values DUP MPs at a hundred grand a crack.

Speaking of which… Ireland, be it north or south, is a treasure trove of craic—over a drink, a local helped me understand the consequences of age. “When you’re young, your dreams are wet and your farts are dry…”

In any other country, these would be sobering thoughts.

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

 

The Train

September 8, 2018

The little boy knew war. It’s not that he was experienced in it, but he’d never known anything else.

It was a mechanical war, a technological war—the first of its kind. The bayonet wars were over,  gone were the ditches, trenches, and sappers—the new tools of war were planes, boats, automobiles—and trains.

There were even rockets that took the parabolic arc of the catapults of Troy to a new, terrible dimension. No more the clash of swords, the galloped charge, and the severed limbs. The new era laid to waste whole buildings, destroyed communities, and, in time, would obliterate an entire city with a nuclear flash.

These things the little boy did not know. But his reality was no less bleak—the pangs of hunger, the cold hand of fear, and the smell of death, as he counted out days in a country led by a madman who started a war he couldn’t win. The proud capital city, once the aspirant to an empire, was now facing destruction, with daily bombings shaking it to the core. A day’s march to the east of its gates, Stalin’s army lay waiting—the Russian bear patiently stalking the black eagle of the Prussians.

The apartment had little food—some black bread, ersatz coffee from acorns, some suspect-looking wurst. Some days, the little boy’s father salvaged a cabbage or two from the allotments off the bombed-out streets, and mother would make watery soup, with just a couple of rounds of sausage.

The little boy kept quiet, mostly living inside his head. In the back room, he dreamed of a different universe, one where peace and order reigned. He carefully placed his model train on the track, and reversed it slowly to hook the tender. Behind the tender, the freight cars stood at ready.

There was something about that train which calmed his soul—maybe it was the way everything coupled together, the rails and junctions on the complex oval track he’d built—or maybe it was the little station, and the houses with the model figures, smiling and waving at the engineer.

For the little boy, the Märklin train set was a life in itself. Even when the aroma of the sausage and cabbage soup wafted in, and his stomach clenched with hunger, he turned the transformer to speed his engine a little more. Tonight, the route was via the eastern junction—there were goods to be delivered at the shipyard.

A host of bits and bobs were arranged on the flatbed cars. Although to you they might look like a lady’s thimble and cotton bobbins, or a few bolts and nails taken from father’s toolbox, they were nothing of the sort—the signal changed, and the black steam engine hauled the train into the yard, slowing as it approached the platform, until all the cars were perfectly lined up.

All around, men scurried to unload the goods: coils of steel cable, sheet metal to be used for the battleship, and yes, an entire diesel powerplant for a tugboat recently commissioned by the harbor.

“Max, zum Tisch!” his mother called again.

The little boy’s stomach cramped some more, as his synapses fired messages where the delicious scent of the Kohlwurst soup mingled with… could it be? YES, dumplings!

He felt his mouth watering, took one last look at his beloved railway and sprinted down the corridor. Max’s father was already at his seat in the kitchen, and as the little boy pulled back his chair, Father coughed  pointedly.

“Sorry!” the boy said. He perched up to the sink and washed his hands.

“Good.” The father smiled. The family held hands around the kitchen table for a moment, and then Max’s mother served the soup; a slice of Schwarzbrot lay beside each plate.

His father raised a glass of water for a toast. “Zum Wohl!”

The family had barely tasted the first spoonful when the air raid sirens started.

At first they shrugged it off. There had been hundreds of air raids over the past years, and well over a million people had been evacuated. There were huge shelters at the Zoo, Kleitspark, Anhalt, and other locations, enough to protect sixty-five thousand Berliners.

In the first years of the war, the Allies struck the U-boat ports, and the industrial valley of the Ruhr—but as Germany itself came under threat, the heavy Lancaster bombers increasingly hit Berlin.

The little boy’s family ignored the sirens for a minute or so, gulping the soup down hungrily. Just then, a massive explosion shook the building.

“Go! Go down NOW! That was way too close.” Father jumped up and ran to the window. “The enemy is right above us.”

Max was petrified. For a moment, he didn’t know which way to turn, then he made up his mind. He scooped up the bread, dashed to his little room, and grabbed the black locomotive.

As he clutched his mother’s hand tight, the bombers’ roar to the east as they banked for yet another pass, he watched women and children hurrying down into the basement. Most of the little girls clutched a favorite doll, and the boys, too, had a keepsake or a toy to keep them company.

“It’s the guidance system plant, that’s what they’re after,” said his father, as he pushed his way forward and through the shelter door. Max watched as his dad waved goodbye. The boy made his way down the cellar steps—this was a local shelter, organized by the building’s residents.

The cellar was dank and dark, lit only with paraffin lamps. All around him, kids sat in silence as the ground above shook. Some mothers said a silent prayer for their husbands, left at the mercy of the ordnance raining from the skies.

Time ticked by as the earth shook with each new pounding—Max stole into his pocket and extracted his last bite of bread. From the Tiergarten Flakturm, the Bund Deutscher Mädel girls aimed the 128 mm guns at the sky—there was no one else left to defend the city.

An eerie quiet took hold of the basement after the Lancasters had spewed their venom into the street above. The basement door was made of heavy steel, and the concrete walls held firm.  The bombers had returned home. “They’re gone,” one woman said. She cursed the invaders, turned the lock, and pushed the door.

Nothing.

“Maybe it’s locked,” someone else offered. Various ladies juggled with the key. They locked and unlocked the door, turned the handle, pushed and shoved. The door remained as still as a sarcophagus.

Children looked at each other in fright. One little girl hugged her dolly tight and began to cry. Soon, more kids were in tears. They might spend hours trapped in this dark hole.

One of the paraffin lamps flickered once, then twice, then abruptly died.

Hours? Perhaps days. Hardly any water. Or food. The women in the shelter had all realized their predicament. A slow death from hunger and thirst, the air gradually getting heavier as the oxygen was replaced by carbon dioxide. They were isolated, completely alone. The infants were crying in earnest. The older kids looked pale and haunted, as fear clutched their hearts, numbed their brains and made it impossible to think.

But not Max. His heart felt steady. He wasn’t a large child, but there was something special about him—a self-reliance that helped him to solve challenges—the first step was analytical, decomposing a problem into its component parts. He knew very well the door was not locked. He held his metal locomotive in his small hands and thought. Around him, panic was setting in.

“We’ll shout,” an older lady said. “We’ll organize a chorus, someone will hear us from above.”

“What about the air?”

“We have to take the risk. Shout, wait. Shout, wait.”

Max’s father paced around the mountain of rubble that was once his home. The apartment block had collapsed, completely smothering the cellar entrance, the ground piled high with concrete blocks, the armature sculpted into bizarre shapes; girders were strewn across the terrain, as if tossed from a playful giant’s hand.  Around him, a couple of dozen other men stood. They were covered in dust and they all looked dazed. The Lancasters had made multiple passes, dropping their bombs along the flight axis to the factory, and then extending beyond it.

The British raid was a resounding success—the industrial plant was razed to the ground. And as usual, there was collateral damage—most of the housing for half a mile either side of the factory had been hit, a good part of it leveled as the planes dropped their incendiary one-thousand pounders along the target line.

The men staring at the rubble shared one common thought—my family is gone. For hours they labored, moving rocks and steel. It was slow work, without machines. Men used pickaxes and crowbars, wheelbarrows and their bare hands, trying desperately to defeat time. Somewhere below the huge piles of debris were sixty women and children, their own flesh and blood.

Had the building collapsed entirely, destroying the basement? Were their loved ones interred under piles of rock? As the time passed, their efforts became increasingly frantic. Every so often the whole group would stop and listen, hoping for one single solitary sound.

Nothing. More digging. Nothing. Fatigue set in, then despair.

A grey dawn was already breaking when the little boy’s father heard a faint metallic sound from below.

Inside the basement, where most everyone had already resigned to their fate, the little boy stood stubbornly at the steel door. In his hand he clutched his black Märklin locomotive. Holding it by the wheels, he struck the door. The metal clanged once more. Although he alternated between left and right, his arms grew very tired, but he never gave up. The strike of the two objects made a metallic sound which conducted right through the door. He bashed the door with fury, crying as his beloved engine slowly came apart.

If I hit hard enough, and often, my father will hear my cry.

He was still striking the steel door when it finally swung open.

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

 


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