Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.

Hourglass Politics

August 23, 2019

Six in the morning, in the middle of the Scottish lowlands.

A timid dawn casts a faint light over layers of cloud, and seagulls cry overhead—weird, because I’m equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh, about as land-bound as you can get in this country of highlands and islands.

But there you go—the seagulls, like the humans they poop on, live in interesting times.

The hourglass is an apt metaphor for the countdown to Brexit—the sand trickles steadily downward with sixty-nine days to go. A political segment of the UK is scheming and plotting to give the hourglass a sharp tap, just as the last grains of sand pass the isthmus, while another is hell-bent on running down the clock.

Here in Scotland, any Brexit conversation quickly shifts to the independence debate—the Scots don’t feel represented by the English, which is certainly justified when you study their history.

A pro-Brexit punter on the radio yesterday explained that Britain had two options—no hope and bob hope—a reference to Bojo, the current UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is an incarnation of characters from the British comic Beano.

Johnson’s former employer at the Telegraph, puts Beano Boris into perspective.

He’s a sly fox, disguised as a teddy bear.

Bojo got himself photographed yesterday with a shoe plunked on Macron’s coffee table—a pose sure to find favor with the more xenophobic Englishmen—while Macron pointed out, as Merkel had done the previous day, that Europe is more than happy to accept a deal as long as the UK provides a solution to the Irish border question.

What Macron and Merkel don’t want to do is to give Boris an excuse to blame France or Germany before the British people for a no deal. Both were at pains to throw the door wide open, in the knowledge that there is no solution currently acceptable to the Irish.

The smaller nations in the EU smile upon this whole shenanigan, which binds them closer to Europe—after all, this is the first time in history the Irish are successfully thumbing their noses at Westminster without any loss of blood.

The Dutch, Belgians, and Danes dwell on Germany, the Croatians on Italy, the Portuguese on Spain. All the little guys know what it means to get fucked by large neighbors.

The most likely outcome of all this teletubby frolic is that the UK parliament will block no deal, forcing a general election. It’s difficult to see how this can take place before Halloween, but it’s easy to see that the Bojo game will not force a no deal at this time, but aims to win a strong Tory majority at the ballot box that legitimizes his actions.

A Beano-style depiction of Bojo, alongside another paragon of British esoterica, often spoofed as discussing the economics of Carthage.

The opposition are, to use a technical term, screwed, because the alternative to a parliamentary block is effectively a no-deal exit.

General elections it is, which promises a spot of Christmas chaos.

A pro-Europe win, somehow binding Labour and Libdems, brings the threat of a Corbyn government—many Labour voters don’t want that, and no one believes in Corbyn’s pro-Europe credentials—Britain would live the irony of having a remainer, Theresa May, trying to get them out, and a leaver, Corbyn, trying to keep them in.

A pro-Europe win, for many, will also mean a betrayal of the will of the people, as expressed in the Brexit referendum—a second referendum has the same effect, should Brexit be defeated.

A pro-exit win will create the conditions for government policy to be supported in parliament. The question is whether that will force the Tories into an unholy alliance with Farage’s Brexit party, whose success in the European elections earlier this year was largely due to a combination of Brexit-dithering by parliament and to proportional representation.

But the hourglass metaphor extends well beyond Brexit. The consequence of an ever-widening income gap between rich and poor, together with the steady erosion of the middle class, is political extremism.

The rotund, Humpty-Dumpty-like politics of the center, a bell-shaped curve with a narrow band of nutters at either end, has been replaced by a Dolly Parton distribution—twin peaks, if you will—with two separate mounds of fruitcakes.

This is the politics of Italy, Spain, Greece, Holland, Britain, and… oh yes, the United States. The opposite tends to happen in nations where that middle class is growing—even if the political systems do not allow democracy to thrive, Asian countries where the economic extremes are becoming less polarized will tend to a more rotund political landscape.

It’s unsurprising that the shape of wealth distribution will determine that of political preference, having itself at one time been molded by political choices. This is clearly a cyclical system, where those radical preferences will once again shift the form of the wealth curve—the problem lies in the fact that we are all sorcerers’ apprentices—like Dias and Columbus, we sail uncharted waters.

A further complication is that apparently well-behaved, linear systems can easily turn chaotic. In nature, than spells floods and typhoons—in humans, it translates to war and bloodshed.

History teaches us not to underestimate the consequences of our actions.

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

Jamon Everybody

August 18, 2019

I spent the last couple of weeks in southern Spain.

In the evenings, I tracked Napoleon’s progress through Iberia—it quickly became clear that his decision to invade Spain and Portugal was the start of his downfall. Everything looked rosy at the start—the invading armies were offered no resistance, the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil.

Then, the great general discovered what Caesar had already found—in both countries, guerillas made life for the French impossible. Shortly after, Napoleon decided to invade Russia. The British marshal Montgomery told the House of Lords in 1962, “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow’.”

Like Napoleon, I was in Spain for professional reasons—except in the final couple of days, when I joined the hordes of North European, American, and Chinese tourists.

About a nautical mile from shore, the twin-hull made fast to a cage holding three hundred thousand bass, and I gazed north at the small town of Altea. All along the strip are holiday apartments, including a large Norwegian area. Other ‘colonies’ are also typed by nationality.

Altea’s meant to be the cultural capital of the area—over to the west, there’s Benidorm, population one million, a city of high rises, built for low-end package tours, that holds no claim to culture whatsoever.

Like a number of other villages in southern Spain, this was traditionally an area of  almadrabas, tuna traps that date back to the Phoenicians, then to the Moors in the caliphate, until in 1925 it became popular as a tourist destination for Madrileños.

But in 1950, a humble man who had been a railway porter and a miner became mayor. The new alcalde set about promoting his town to the sun-seekers of northern Europe, and soon he was drawing in the crowds.

With the English came the bikini—the revolutionary two-piece was banned by the fascist dictators of both Spain and Portugal, and there were epic scenes of local Guardia Civil agents wrestling with scantily-clad young women.

Mayor Zaragoza turned a blind eye to the fashion statement but the higher authority, the governor of the autonomous community of Valencia, put his foot down and enforced the law.

In 1953, Zaragoza decided to take the matter to the caudillo, Spain’s supreme leader, the Generalissimo, Francisco Franco.

The former miner mounted his Vespa and rode eight hours straight to Madrid. Once there, he dusted himself off and appeared before the fascist dictator, his trousers spattered with oil from the two-stroke’s exhaust.

He simply said, “Necesitamos divisas y el turismo nos las trae.” Franco told him to bypass the higher authority, and keep bringing in the foreign currency. “Anything you need, speak to me.”

Pedro Zaragoza died in 2008, aged eighty-six. During his lifetime, Benidorm developed a skyline reminiscent of Miami, since the mayor knew it was cheaper to build upwards, and became the home of stag & hen. ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Benidorm.’

The most prized species in the culinary pantheon of fish—aleta azul, or bluefin tuna, known to the locals as atún rojo.

The Spain I visited was the exact opposite of the North European fleshpots, a country of conservative, hard-working people, making the ocean work for them. Spain grows and sells fish all over the world, taking advantage of the warm Mediterranean waters.

In parts of the south such as Conil and Zahara de los Atunes, the almadrabas are still set, in a complex maze that draws the bluefin to the câmara de la muerte—the death chamber.

It is there that the nets are slowly hauled aboard, and their precious haul of tuna, worth over fifty dollars a pound, taken on board. A three hundred pound fish means fifteen thousand bucks, and bluefin can weigh five hundred pounds—the largest specimen ever documented weighed almost fifteen hundred pounds.

Bluefin are top predators, and play a key role in regulating the food chain, so capture is also carefully regulated—ICCAT, the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, keeps a watchful eye on fishing; the European Union sets quotas, and in some areas bans fishing altogether.

This has created a pressing need  for farmed bluefin—a Japanese company has now begun selling rojo reared completely in captivity.

But in the Spanish lonjas, you still see the big boys for sale, and I suspect they’re captured in the traditional way.

Otherwise, why would the signs say atún de almadraba?

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

Europe@War

August 11, 2019

Napoleon invented the concept of world war.

On reflection, I’m positive that sentence is true. If it is, then the Napoleonic wars of the early eighteen hundreds were a revolution—even in a Europe thoroughly accustomed to war.

Caesar was the first to secure European hegemony, following conquest with administration and widespread edification—including monumental temples, public offices, and highways. Furthermore, he enforced Roman law, the trappings of which still mark the legal systems of Southern Europe, South America, and much of Africa.

But the Romans fought their campaigns piecemeal, taking on the French, English, Huns, and many others in separate engagements. Caesar does have the distinction, together with the Vikings and the Normans, of invading Britain, something that has never been achieved since.

Napoleon, on the other hand, mainly through lack of choice, engaged all kinds of alliances, mixing Prussians, English, Italians, Russians, Czechs, Hungarians, and of course Austrians.

Austria was a particularly strong opponent, but the nation back then was huge, extending into Bavaria and eastward to Hungary—the Habsburg Monarchy had begun in the early XVIth century and its head was often also the Holy Roman Emperor.

It’s obvious that Napoleon was not given much choice in selecting his opponents, but it’s also clear that he was unique as military tactician and strategist. The core of his story is war—an unending series of battles during which he systematically routed his enemies, often with deceit and ruse, always with courage, and in many examples with luck.

His skill at positioning troops, reading the mind of his enemies while disguising his true intentions, and the incredible speed with which he reacted to circumstances, are at the heart of his success.

The story of Napoleon is that of a man revered by his soldiers, a general who became an emperor, a man cuckolded by his wife but who only divorced her thirteen years later, leaving a trail of twenty mistresses in his wake.

Napoleon at the battle of Austerlitz, 1805. The great general was then thirty-six years old.

The maxims of war that Napoleon wrote are as relevant today as when they were first penned. Advice on war has in the past decades been seen as a proxy for business, as evidenced by the popularity of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ among the Wall Street fraternity, and although Napoleon’s military maxims are far less known, there are a few that are useful in a business context.

A well-established maxim of war is not to do anything which your enemy wishes and for the single reason that he does so wish.

Others are rather different, but no less of a lesson.

The first quality of a soldier is constancy in enduring fatigue and hardship. Courage is only the second. Poverty, privation and want are the school of the good soldier.

Napoleon’s practical lessons in battlefield tactics, and in military strategy, are widely taught at academies throughout the world.

Despite the fact that war has changed dramatically in the past two centuries, particularly when it comes to the concepts of line and front, as well as in asymmetric warfare, the great man could almost certainly outfight any modern-day general.

I fully expect that a commander who could do so much with so little, back in the days of flintlocks and ball muskets, would consider many of the modern-day engagement rules in a radically different light, and shift the paradigm dramatically.

Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederic. Make them your models. This is the only way to become a great general and to master the secrets of the art of war. With your own genius enlightened by this study, you will reject all maxims opposed to those of these great commanders.

Frederick the Great was one of Napoleon’s heroes—after the capture of Berlin, Napoleon visited the tomb of the Prussian military genius. Turning to his entourage, he said.

Hats off, gentlemen, if he were still alive, we should not be here.

The story of Napoleon is the story of European war, of nations hurling themselves at each other, of many thousands of casualties, of untold pain and suffering. It shows how much France punished Prussia, Austria, and Italy, and how in turn it was punished back.

It highlights why such strife subsequently led to more European wars, of a scale that turned them into world wars. As we watch Brexit, Salvini, and so many other disasters happening in Europe, (mis)guided by the morons who ignore history, the silver-tongued Bannons of this world, let us not be fooled. Again.

I’ll leave the battle of Waterloo for another source, partly because of its speculation of what might have happened had the battle not been fought.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that at the age of sixty, a man was only at two-thirds of his life.

He died on the island of Saint Helena, aged fifty-one, on May 5th 1821.

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

Baked Alaska

August 5, 2019

If you’re familiar with UK cuisine—now there’s an oxymoron—you might know this as a type of ‘pudding.’ Bear in mind that puddings can be savory, as in steak and kidney pud, but in British vernacular, “Will you have pudding?” means will you eat dessert.

Brits have some bizarre names for their dishes—my favorite epithets include toad in the hole and spotted dick.

Baked Alaska is yet another one. However, given my penchant for puns, today’s title was driven by the picture below, which scared the crap out of me.

The European satellite Sentinel 3 shows the continent burning up, in some cases quite literally, on July 25th 2019.

The extreme west (Portugal) and Eastern Europe have dodged the bullet, but eastern Spain, the northern part of France, the Benelux countries, and the southern UK were a veritable frying pan on that day.

Little did I know that the English newspaper, The Guardian, had headed an article on July 3rd with exactly the same title—the topic is more confined, but the emphasis is the same—after years of political dodgems, the planet has finally hit us on the head with a giant frying pan.

At the present time, raging wildfires are lighting up the north—in latitudes where the Northern Lights are a wintertime event.

From Siberia to Alaska, the Arctic is ablaze. Most people don’t realize that different parts of the planet are warming at different rates—changes in the boreal regions are swift. The article in the Washington Post is from the Climate Weather Gang—at first I thought this had to be Trump & Acolytes, but no, these guys are worth listening to.

For the past week, a high pressure system has blocked the roaring forties, the high latitude westerlies that bring Atlantic storm systems to Europe—Bergen, Norway, a city known for its wet and generally chilly weather, sported ninety-one degrees.

Scientists were publishing research papers on the slowing or even reversal of the Gulf Stream well over a decade ago—the inference was that it would trigger more extreme temperatures. Citizens of Western Europe take the North Atlantic Drift for granted—twenty-three years ago I was on a beach in Qingdao, northeast China, watching the snow fall in December, marveling at some insane locals stripping down to their underwear and diving in.

Qingdao is at 36o N, the same latitude as Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, but has far more extreme weather—now we’re getting it here. As the land surface temperature rises, the flashpoint for forest fires is triggered, and the planet is hit with a double whammy—more fires mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and an increase in the greenhouse effect, but they also mean less trees, and less capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

A rise in temperature massively increases evaporation of ocean water, which means more cloud, higher humidity, more heat-trapping, and ultimately more warming—positive feedbacks we could very much do without.

Baked Alaska, Fried Siberia, Poached Scandinavia… But that ain’t all. Marine plants are having a bit of fun as well—the star of the summer is a brown seaweed called Sargassum. The weed gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, and, for a seaweed, it has one very unusual characteristic—it floats.

The Chinese green tides are caused by the green seaweed Ulva, which loosely attaches to the bottom, but can also survive as it floats in the ocean—giant blooms are documented annually since the 2008 Olympics.

But Sargassum only floats, and now it’s escaped the confines that becalmed Columbus and gave their name to the Horse Latitudes. Scientists estimate there are twenty million metric tons of this species in the ocean, and have termed the event Great Sargasssum Atlantic Belt. I would have called it GASP, replacing Belt with Phenomenon, Proliferation, Problem, Peak…

I’ve worked with brown seaweeds like Sargassum, and it wouldn’t be unusual to have ten pounds in a square meter. Doing the math, the weed plague might occupy 4,000 km2, which is downright scary.

Mind you, if you like stats, Siberian wildfires this summer occupy an area the size of Belgium.

Why has this seaweed suddenly been able to spread all the way from the Cape Verde islands to the beaches of the Caribbean? And more to the point, is this a one-off or a trend?

Tourist destinations in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands are pretty concerned—humans have a very flaky relationship with nature—it’s okay to lard fertilizer onto crops, or to produce five hundred million chickens in the Chesapeake Bay, and thereby generate 500,000 metric tons of chicken shit.

All this adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the ocean—too much of that, mixed in with shifting patterns of global circulation, and we have a perfect storm.

Like the Chinese blooms, but on a grand scale, scientists have detected the Sargassum flare-ups since 2011. Every year except 2013.

We live too preoccupied with the latest Instagram post, and with extended navel-gazing, to see what hides in plain sight.

Citizens of the West, the chickens have come home to roost.

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

Classic

July 28, 2019

I recently rebuilt a classical guitar—with a touch of irony, the guitar was made by Suzuki, a Japanese corporation.

This is the Suzuki Violin Company, not the automobile manufacturer, and like good wines, the guitar is numbered—Number 34, to be precise—the company itself was formed in 1887.

The classical guitar is traditionally a concert instrument, but it’s also the workhorse of popular music in Southern Europe. The cheesy duo that drifts into your beachside restaurant and starts yodeling interesting covers of Paul Anka songs—in the sense of the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’—will most likely be armed with a Spanish guitar.

It’s a winning strategy, because you must pay them urgently to shut them up—if the local fare doesn’t paralyze your digestion, their version of Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ most certainly will.

Most boys learn to play guitar for a simple reason—to pick up girls. By and large, if the strategy works, their musical pursuits are quickly abandoned as other interests raise their head, so to speak.

Classical, or Spanish, guitar is a pretty basic instrument. In its original form, the strings are tied to the bridge using a fisherman’s knot, and there is no cutaway. My Suzie has eighteen frets, but above the twelfth you hit the treble end (or upper bout) of the body—whatever you can play above that line depends on the length of your fingers, but forget bar chords.

The neck is thick, particularly when compared to the slim fretboard of an electric guitar, and the nylon strings are also thick—and difficult to keep in tune—when compared to steel strings. Truss rods are almost unheard of and the action is too high, which affects the playing speed.

All this makes Suzie difficult to play, which is a mixed blessing—frustrating when compared to more modern guitars, but if you get it right on a Spanish guitar, playing it on an electric is real easy.

Guitars are a good investment—this one is now set up as a lefty, and probably worth about three hundred bucks. If you get into the pre-war Gibsons or other lofty heights, start adding zeroes.

Although a classical guitar is more of a challenge, it has a lovely, warm sound—you can get a lot out of it by finger picking, rather than using a flat pick. A good number of rock guitarists started life learning classical guitar, and the Spanish guitar influence is obvious when they solo—one example is Robby Krieger, from The Doors.

The young Argentinian boy who plays this classical guitar version of Titanic—a tune I don’t much care for—demonstrates what you can do on a Spanish guitar. Apart from the cutaway, which gets him to a couple more frets—but he’s eleven, and has small fingers to match—the guitar you see is a pretty basic job, just like my Suzie.

Compare that to the Music Man played by Albert Lee in this amazing version of ‘Country Boy’. The Music Man electric guitar company was bought by Ernie Ball, a well known string manufacturer—and a great example of a name that matches a profession. I keep a list of those—one day they’ll make it into an article.

Albert Lee’s guitar—he’s so good this is the Albert Lee signature model—has twenty-two frets, which is normal for an electric, and it’s pretty obvious from the shape he can get at all of ’em!

Along with that, there’s all sorts of electronic wizardry, including Seymour Duncan pickups, as well as a tremolo arm. You’re looking at about two grand, and no exotic woods—ash for the body, maple for the neck.

The history of the guitar goes back four thousand years, but Suzie is only forty-seven years old. When you compare her to an offering from the early XIXth century, she looks pretty much the same—the only major difference is in the strings, which are nylon rather than sheep gut.

When you consider how far electric guitars have developed in the last fifty years—not to mention all the wonderful gadgets that project, modify, and record sound—you get a feeling for the warp-speed of technology change.

The most wonderful thing about this evolution is the symbiosis with humans—we have developed and mastered a vast range of techniques that only shine when you pump up the amp. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato, all manner of arpeggios…

And now there’s a very deep YouTube—a tribute to learning, and to the joy humans have in sharing knowledge. How much better to do this than fight all the time.

I use the YouTube knowledge daily, and every time I do, I wish it was around the first time I ever learned the chord of G, when Suzie and I first got acquainted.

Any twelve-year-old boy who wants to impress the girls by picking a tune now has YouTube at his fingertips. And the girls can do it too!

When it comes to guitar picking, the world is definitely flat.

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

Moon

July 21, 2019

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, and the subsequent moon walk—and we’re not talking Michael Jackson here, folks!

It may therefore come as no surprise to you that the subject is bombarding us like cosmic rays. The moon landing was, if you’ll excuse the pun, a landmark achievement for mankind—and I saw it all on TV.

My particular take on the subject matter is somewhat different—I’m not interested in the noun, I’m here for the verb. To moon, according to Merriam-Webster, means ‘to expose one’s naked buttocks to.

Furthermore, I’m not here strictly for the verb, but as a way to land on today’s theme: assholes, which are at the very core of performing the moon. This is fertile, if pungent, territory—I can smell the mercaptans from here.

To celebrate the anniversary, I could begin with the extended roster of assholes who believe the moon landing never happened. The Guardian discussed the whys and wherefores a few days ago.

We could then progress to a pair of consummate assholes who currently outperform their peers in one of the most asshole-dense professions—politics.

One of them made a particular ass of himself on Thursday by thrusting kippers at a sympathetic audience of UK Tories.

The other, if you excuse the pun, is simply assiduous—some form of colonic tephra is at play, turning him into a truly pyroclastic asshole.

But I’ll be frank, what got me into this was a New York Times article on old dogs. It was past one in the morning when I got back from a jam session, and I spent a little time communing with my ageing hound. She will turn fourteen in a few months, and I had a brief chat with her.

I told her how much she would have enjoyed the music we were playing—I know that for a fact because she’s stone deaf. At present, the quality of the musical experience is directly proportional to the distance from the band, but things are improving.

In my teens, playing in a band inevitably led to a doobie or two, and unavoidably the odd beer was consumed. These days, it’s just the music—kitsch though it sounds, that’s a high in itself.

There’s a complicity in a band, as there is in an orchestra, a football team, or a chef’s kitchen—until that exists, the whole can never be more than the sum of the parts. It takes time, hard work, and patience—you can’t make a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.

This morning I woke up early wondering whether the world had set itself alight already over a couple of oil tankers—in other words, I went asshole-hunting, and chanced upon a New York Times article on old dogs.

I read through the symptoms of ageing: aimless walking, anxiety, attempts to eat stuff that isn’t particularly edible. I found it interesting that cannabidiol (CBD) is apparently used on hounds.

This beautiful hound is probably a straight shooter, but one does suspect he may have been at the deadly yellow snow.

Seek and ye shall find. The American Kennel Club provides an overview of what is known about CBD and dogs—right now I’d say the evidence of benefits is at best anectodal.

The ‘Times’ article is nice, and it made me curious about the author—a young lady called Tessa Miller. Turns out she has a seriously difficult life—and that really got me thinking about assholes.

Her story about Crohn’s disease is simultaneously terrifying, poignant, and funny. Above all, no one can fail to admire her courage.

Writing is hard. Writing about chronic illness is impossible. How do you explain the inner workings of a broken body that society expects (demands) to heal? How do you illustrate pain so extreme it makes you leave your body and crawl on the ceiling — the secret pain that healthy people don’t know exists? How do you resolve your two selves — the one that passes for “normal” and the one that survives, hidden at home and in hospitals? How much of the second self do you reveal to family, friends, strangers? How do you share the loneliness?

Ms. Miller writes well, and above all she writes with brutal honesty. Both are hard, but being this forthright about yourself takes a rare kind of guts. And it’s guts we’re talking about here, because Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD, in its more severe form, is a raging battle between the immune system and the gut.

I never believed this was a Freud quote. It is in fact by William Gibson, a celebrated steampunk writer.

In a way, Tessa Miller and the man on the moon share a tale. Each in their own way, they both demonstrate how humans can be so much better than the assholes that surround us.

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

Fake Views

July 14, 2019

Picture a summer idyll in tropical waters. Now here’s something that fires the imagination, azure, transparent… I feel a song coming on.

Maybe it’s the colors, so impossibly turquoise as the water shimmers in the sunlight. Or the way you can see into the deep, stare into the soul of the ocean.

This is the stuff of dreams. Where exactly are we going?

Aaah, Siberia.

Wait a minute! Where?

WHERE?

Er… Siberia, comrades. Welcome to Novosibirsk.

I’m not sure why Millennials are obsessed with unicorns, but I’m sure they’re on fleek. The struggle to get instagrammed at Lake Whatsitsname, preferably avec unicorn, is most definitely real.

The plastic unicorn may not bask for long, given the toxicity of this earthly paradise…

In case you’re not familiar with Novosibirsk, here’s a quick primer. The first port of call is Wikipedia, which ‘informs’ us:

Travellers coming from countries with mild climates may find Novosibirsk’s winter tough, but it may not be extraordinary for those from northern countries. At times, bitter cold may hold for some days, but temperatures of −40 °C (−40 °F) and lower do not occur every year.

Apart from the bizarre Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion, which I suspect is fake news, the city’s mean January temperature is 2.3 °F (-16.7 °C)—tropical it ain’t.

Far more emblematic than tropical lakes were the Gulags that dotted Siberia—the area around Novosibirsk sported its fair share.

Novosibirsk, in SW Siberia, was the administrative home of three Gulags: Kamenlag, Novosibirsklag, and Siblag.

But we’re on a trip to the Saldives, right? So let’s not have a bad trip, man. We’ve done our research, so here we go. Get your DTP and Hep A shots, and you’re all set.

Now is a great time to travel. But should you prefer winter, my favorite travel site tells all.

Climate Siberian Maldives january

On average, it is maximum -11° in january in Siberian Maldives and at least around -22° degrees. In january there are 1 day of rainfall with a total of 14 mm. The it will be dry 13 days this month in Siberian Maldives and on average, it snows 17 days in january.

Suitable month for: winter sports

I love the ‘at least’, and I’m not entirely sure what ‘the it’ actually is, but given the snowfall predictions, I suspect you may struggle to kitesurf.

When we arrive, we’ll be treated, if you excuse the pun, to a Saldivian landscape of azurity—please note this is from the Wibaux travel blog, rather than any legitimate source.

In the Maldives, as in other areas of tropical ocean, a warm water layer overlies the cooler (but still extremely pleasant) deeper layer. Energy supplied by the sun creates permanent thermal stratification, so the two water masses never mix.

For the aquatic ecosystem, this means that the nutrients required for plankton to grow are unavailable—solar energy by itself will not suffice, so the upper layers of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Australian Great Barrier Reef are not productive—devoid of suspended particles, the water is completely transparent, and enough light reaches the bottom to allow corals to thrive. The lower-energy red wavelengths are quickly absorbed by the ocean, leaving the greens and blues to penetrate and scatter, and turning the water that beautiful turquoise color.

Saldivian Azurity (the term has grown on me), however, is derived from chemical reactions. The man-made lake is a dump for coal ash and coal waste from a large power station, which supplies most of the energy to the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants.

The pollutants in the Saldivian lake include heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic—just a short list of the nastier ones.

The multiple internet reports of this new Millennial paradise have two things in common: first, all the ‘articles’ are simply plagiarized from the original—stolen without acknowledgement; second, nowhere (except here) is there any attempt to go beyond the original—my source was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Andrew Roth.

How bad is the metal pollution? An average home uses 3.3 MWh every year—if this particular power station supplies seventy-five percent of the households in Novosibirsk, we’re at 300,000 homes, so the coal plant would be rated at about 200 MWh.

I’m assuming this coal-fired extravaganza is not the zenith of environmental stewardship, in which case we can consider a load of 0.6 g of mercury per kWh, and 44.9 g of lead per kWh—A little math gives us an annual load of one hundred twenty kilograms of mercury discharged into the Saldives. For lead, those numbers jump to 9000 kilograms—nine metric tons!

Your dream destination. If you plan to frolic with plastic unicorns, do make sure you select durable plastics, of the kind found all over the ocean, otherwise they may not survive the dip.

I won’t roll this out to the other metals, but these two are enough—they both cause severe disorders of the nervous system—Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was poisoned by mercurous nitrate used in the felt.

Instagrammers of the world, beware!

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

Turn The Page

July 6, 2019

In the last couple of months, my free time has been filled with books and music. Not that I find the words ‘free’ and ‘time’ popping up in the same phrase that often, but you play the hand you’re dealt.

On the music front, this meant finding a rock n’ roll band to play with. Easier said than done, my friends, but now we jam twice a week—I find it immensely curative. When times are tough, everyone needs to hook on to whatever works.

Some people find love—or find it again, others take up meditation, gardening, or yoga. Therapists make a bunch of money out of folks who seek professional help. Boris Johnson, or Bojo, as he’s known in Private Eye, builds model buses out of wine boxes.

Bottom line, everyone needs something. When things go wrong, the bad spaces need to be lined with good things, so that the silver lining slowly edges the clouds away.

Writing is a silver lining for me, playing music does the same.

In my case, the key trigger for this therapy has been death. Over the past two years, friends and loved ones have been dying or falling gravely ill at an unsettling rate—you quickly discover all these events have a profound effect on you, and somehow the disappearance of someone you love means you carry a little—or a lot—of their burden.

Compounded, the weight adds up.

Often, the small things unsettle you—perhaps because you focus on fighting the big ones, and suddenly the memory of a particular city, situation, or synergy digs a hole where you thought there lay solid ground.

I find myself more attracted to history, to books that guide you through a life, than to novels that focus on a sequence of banalities—however well-written such fiction may be, and how imaginative the plot!

After reading about Churchill, I’m now immersed in a similarly excellent biography of Napoleon. Churchill exhorted us to ‘Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.

I’m not personally interested in statecraft—I believe any indulgence in politics would destroy what little common sense I have left, but I’m fascinated by the twists and turns of those who make history.

Napoleon and Hitler have often been compared, but they were quite different beasts. In the first place, the XXth century was without a doubt the age of ideology—Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Fascism, Imperialism, Liberalism… The isms go on.

On either side of this ideological sandwich the world is quite different. We now struggle with Trump, Putin, Xi, Duterte, Salvini, or Farage—in many ways we regressed to the XIXth century and earlier, when nation-building and politics were projected into one person. The world we live in now has echoes of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Charles V, Elizabeth I, and the Perfect Prince.

None of those historical figures had much truck with ideology—the leitmotif, if you excuse the redundancy, was themselves. Sure, in some cases there was a beating of the religious drum, but it’s difficult to see that as central to the ruler’s theme, the main objective of which was self-aggrandizement.

Napoleon was a complex and brilliant man, who held various posts during the troubled years that followed the French Revolution. He is on record as saying that if the kings of France had not been executed, the revolution would have gained a foothold in Britain and a number of other European countries—If he was correct, think how different Europe might look now.

Instead, the National Convention condemned the king and queen to death, and the royal courts of Europe reacted by declaring war on France—arguably, this is the root cause of the Napoleonic Wars.

Another book on my summer list was described by John Le Carré as ‘the best true spy story I have ever read.’ This is fulsome praise indeed from my favorite spymaster—of course he’s a cold war aficionado, but ‘The Spy and the Traitor’ is well worth a click.

Like a man with two lovers, I drift from one book to another as the fancy takes me—both are captivating, demanding, and seductive.

Summer progresses in a bizarre way, with Scandinavia and Southwest Europe chilly and damp, and a red-hot filling that has shattered temperature records in France and elsewhere.

A few good books and hot tunes is what we need in the meantime, tempered with a wee dram.

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


%d bloggers like this: