Archive for the ‘Historical novels’ Category

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.

 

Twice

August 18, 2018

A year ago I wrote in these pages about a little-known place in the southwest coast of Spain—it’s still a well-kept secret, relaxed and foreigner-free—go there, my friends, but never ever trip-advise it!

Doing things twice is important—whether it’s the second time you make love to someone, or re-reading a book. In fact, when it comes to books, how many you read twice may be more important than the overall count.

Travel is similar for me—if I love a spot, I’ll go there twice, three times, and then it’s time for a change—I could never have a holiday home.

It’s been an odd summer in Europe, and just as strange in places like Japan. California, and its progenitor, Iberia, have been torched while the Trump administration relaxes car pollution rules.

This past week, Andalucia was cool—I was going to write ‘surprisingly’, but it’s time to hold off adverbs when describing the weather—nothing about the climate is surprising, except the fact that people aren’t worried enough to say “We have to do something about this weather,” just as they might address a persistent cough or an engine malfunction.

Climate change is going to cost a fortune, but just about everyone thinks the bill will be laid at someone else’s door, so an average gas guzzle of twenty-five miles to the gallon is currently the gold standard for the US.

The coastal strip of Andalucia is a land of fish and fishermen. I was in restaurants where a two-page menu contained no more than ten meat dishes, of which most were tapas. One snack-bar promised albondigas como pelotas de tenis—meatballs the size of tennis balls, but fish is the real deal.

And the Spanish will pay for their fish, make no mistake. Small boiled shrimp, the famous gamba blanca, are for sale in the market at around five bucks a pound—the mark-up in restaurants is one thousand percent.

It’s been a good week—baby shrimp tortillitas washed down with Manzanilla, a most special sherry that comes exclusively from Sanlúcar, anchovies in vinegar, and mantis shrimp, a rare treat.

The mantis shrimp is an amazing animal—it belongs to an ancient order of crustaceans called Stomatopoda, so called because they have gills on their feet. The fossil record of the mantis goes back four hundred million years—the species I saw (and ate) has a fake pair of eyes on its telson (tail) which will fool predators into biting the wrong bit.

The eyes themselves are also astounding. As are other physiological traits.

In April 1998, an aggressive creature named Tyson smashed through the quarter-inch-thick glass wall of his cell. He was soon subdued by nervous attendants and moved to a more secure facility in Great Yarmouth. Unlike his heavyweight namesake, Tyson was only four inches long. But scientists have recently found that Tyson, like all his kin, can throw one of the fastest and most powerful punches in nature. He is a mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimps are aggressive relatives of crabs and lobsters and prey upon other animals by crippling them with devastating jabs. Their secret weapons are a pair of hinged arms folded away under their head, which they can unfurl at incredible speeds.

The ‘spearer’ species have arms ending in a fiendish barbed spike that they use to impale soft-bodied prey like fish. But the larger ‘smasher’ species have arms ending in heavy clubs, and use them to deliver blows with the same force as a rifle bullet.

The cool weather made it possible to drink red wine—in southern Spain they like to serve it chilled, which is tantamount to lèse-majesté. I firmly sent back the ice buckets—the perfect way to assassinate a tempranillo—the tinto fino enjoyed by the wily priest of The India Road.

And what better food to see off a good bottle of Pesquera than ventresca, thinly sliced tuna belly, grilled medium-rare?

The tuna was aleta amarilla, or yellowfin—I was hoping for bluefin, and had planned a trip east of Cadiz to a town called Conil. The offshore area is home to the most ancient tuna traps in the world, the almadrabas, which date back to the times of the Iberian caliphate, and before that, to the Phoenicians.

The traps are laid to capture tuna migrating from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to spawn—in Spain, the fishery is between April and June. The water turns red with blood as the tuna are brought in—if you’re faint-hearted, do skip the next movie.

The clip above shows the modern-day capture of tuna in Barbate, a town near Conil. A few centuries ago the fishery was so profitable that the Duke of Medina-Sidonia claimed the profits for himself after the conquest of Tarifa from the Moors. Tuna were and are still fished all over the Mediterranean—they even have a country named after them: it’s called Tunisia.

Since we’re doing movie-time, I felt it was essential to share the clip below with you—it was filmed in the early nineteen-sixties in the Algarve, southern Portugal. From the barefoot fishermen to the old women crocheting, it’s more than a fishing documentary—it’s a way of life.

The independence wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea had just erupted, young men were being conscripted to fight overseas, and Salazar’s dictatorship was in full swing.

I scuppered my trip east—I was targeting a tuna restaurant, but when I called them up, I found it was booked for weeks.

Of course you cannot go to a place like Sanlúcar without ending up in the fish market—so I did. It’s an unusual place, a medley of vegetable stalls, butchers, shops selling the local embutidos, and fishmongers.

The tuna stalls were opposite each other—one was empty, the other was mobbed. I waited patiently in line behind some restaurant buyers, and watched tuna, swordfish, and hake vanish rapidly.

Finally, it was my turn to get at the precious loot. Further on, I hit the gamba blanca stall, and stocked up on mantis along the way.

I kept meeting the same Andalucian woman at various stalls, sometimes behind me in the queue, others in front—inevitably, great mirth ensued, and she bombarded me with a barrage of Gaditano aspirated vowels.

In one stall, baby sole were for sale. Many years ago I saw the same thing in markets near Lisbon, described as ‘folhas de oliveira’, or olive leaves.

Lisbon and Sanlúcar have one thing in common—they sit next to the two greatest estuaries in Iberia, the Tagus and the Guadalquivir. And whenever you fish an estuary, there will be little fish for sale; estuaries are the most wonderful waterways in the world—a mix of salt and fresh waters, a place where mud meets sand, and a haven of shallow, murky water where baby fish come to grow.

Baby sole for sale at the fish market in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the mantis shrimp in the background.

But the most wonderful thing about these baby soles is their name—which of course I discussed with my new Andalucian friend, a mutual glint in our eyes, while the stallholder enviously looked on.

For these babies have a name which echoes all that we loathe about the politics and politicians that surround us. They’re called tapa culos—ass covers.

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

 

 

Kids Stuff

August 11, 2018

I spent the last weeks finalizing the work on my most recent book—this one is called Folk Tales for Future Dreamers, and it’s a children’s book. I wrote it last year, stealing precious time from The Hourglass, which seems appropriate given the ephemeral nature of those grains of sand.

After completion in late April 2017, the book became available on Kindle. Then I decided to have it illustrated—it’s difficult to imagine a kiddies book without illustrations. Finding a good illustrator isn’t easy. First, you may draw well, but not in the appropriate style. Then, I wanted an illustrator who could relate to all seven stories in the book—one for each weekday.

By late November, we had illustrations, and a new cover, which looked like this.

The front cover of Folk Tales for Future Dreamers.

The illustrated edition replaced the previous book on Kindle. It was a vast improvement, but digital books have not solved the problem with illustrations—for that you need analog.

Well.. that’s not strictly true—I have a copy of Tintin in America on my tablet, and it’s very good, but I think that’s because it’s all picture frames—the problem is more evident when figures or photos appear inside or around text.

I read a couple of musical biographies this summer, and just finished Springsteen’s autobiography yesterday—the photos are always a hassle—too small, out of context with the page, and unable to cope with font changes. Given the range of screen sizes, individual tuning of display fonts, and other variables, at present you have to go analog.

Little children prefer books, and acquire important object manipulation skills along the way. And when they start to bash a book violently against the counter top to signal the end of their meal, it’s better than nuking your iPad.

Book design for print is not easy. We brought yet another party to the table, and after the negotiations, export file updates, and proofing, we have what we need. The final step is to view the book in all its analog glory, before it goes to market—kind of like a private screening prior to box-office release.

There’s something magical about a child’s happiness, the bliss of knowing nothing will ever go wrong—it’s the responsibility of an adult to maintain that illusion, but also to help build a bridge between childhood utopia and the unforgiving reality of life.

All seven stories create tension, as any good story should, and present characters who are less agreeable than others—a couple might qualify as mean, like the snow leopard that wants to eat the baby yak Yingwen—she fends him off with a surprising ruse.

And then you turn to reality, to a world where so many children have nothing but suffering—kids who lost their parents at the US border, kids dying of Ebola in the Congo, kids murdered in an air strike in Yemen…

The kids who survive all the torture that grown-ups—and grown up Western nations that set immigration policy, have vast medical research capacity, and sell arms—inflict on them, will bear the scars.

And those scars will never heal.

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

VaporWare

August 4, 2018

I thought the word looked more modern with that sexy millennial middle capital, but the truth is vaporware has been with us since the eighties.

Many software (and hardware) companies used it to push an inexistent product, with various objectives, ranging from supporting or boosting share prices to sidelining competitors.

A big company might, for instance, announce the imminent release of a product a smaller competitor is working on in order to shut them out of the market. Nowadays, in the age of software behemoths, the movie plays out a little differently—big brother simply buys you out—Money talks, very loudly.

In recent years, the best piece of vaporware was produced by a company called Theranos. What they promised was the holy grail, and for a decade or so, they managed to con much of America.

Their demise came at the hands of a reporter from the Wall Street Journal by the name of John Carreyrou, in a process steeped in legal threats, lawsuits, and skulduggery (what an excellent word).

The rise of Theranos possessed a cocktail of ingredients so intoxicating that it fooled the likes of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Rupert Murdoch, and James Mattis.

The last name on that list is particularly interesting—General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis is none other than Trump’s current secretary of defense, a man who earned his call sign CHAOS (Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution) during his early days in Afghanistan, following nine-eleven. I can’t help thinking how perfectly call sign CHAOS represents the current US administration.

The CEO of Theranos, Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, convinced Mattis that the company’s technology was of great value to the US military, busy in several Mid-East theaters.

The holy grail was a blood-testing machine, which went through various iterations—none of which worked—capable of processing very small samples, obtained through a finger-prick, and accurately producing a battery of test results.

The machine had to be sexy—Holmes was a great admirer of Steve Jobs—so the design criteria for compactness, speed, a glitzy software interface, and a general wow factor were always paramount—accuracy and precision for blood testing played a very soft second fiddle.

Blood testing, like any analytical procedure, is complex. I know this well from marine waters, where practically every known element is present in the matrix—from sodium to yttrium, they’re in the house.

Small samples or very low concentrations make for analytical inaccuracies. Theranos sacrificed sample size because one of Holmes’ key emotional selling points was people’s fear of needles—the company was often pitched as the end of phlebotomy, at least for typical blood work.

Sample dilution was seen as a way to increase finger-prick sample volume. The problems are twofold: first, if the starting volume is variable, the error in the final reading increases. Second, by diluting the sample you lower the overall concentration of the analyte and require a better detection limit on your equipment.

Another issue common to finger-stick approaches is cell lysis—our cells are delicate structures and can easily burst, even by pushing blood out of a fingertip. A couple of years ago, my blood sugar was running higher than it should. Since diabetes is a very dangerous game, and one in which your body loses control of itself, I took the reading seriously—I wanted to get back into the normal range without having to take medication, and the obvious steps are to lose weight and cut carbohydrate intake—I was delighted to find that wine and cheese have hardly any carbs, so getting back to normal was easy.

But I bought a finger-stick glucose analyzer. One morning, the middle finger in my left hand gave a higher reading than usual. I went on a finger-pricking orgy, like a glucose junkie searching for that last main vein. I tried other fingers in my left hand. Then a couple in my right. Then various toes. The test strip vendors would have been overjoyed. Results varied widely—yours will too.

One of the statistics I calculated was Theramed’s undoing—the coefficient of variation measures the spread of values around the average—high values mean that measurements are not precise. In my case, I got values of twenty percent and fourteen percent, and my toes had far less sugar than my hands—every time I’ve asked a doctor for an explanation, they are singularly uninterested.

Results from a 2007 study in Malawi on HIV diagnosis, comparing finger-prick to venopuncture as as sampling procedure for analysis.

This graph shows a comparison from a study on AIDS done in Malawi. The authors have shown this in a rather bizarre format, but the way to read it is to divide the difference (on the vertical axis) by the average (on the horizontal). For instance, a value of -50 at 250 mean CD4 cells tells us that that’s a (50/250) twenty percent difference—not so trivial.

All this reminds me of an old joke featuring three statisticians at an archery range. The first misses the target by ten feet to the left, the second shoots ten feet to the right, and the third happily puts down his bow and shouts “Bullseye!”

Theranos had huge ambitions—it claimed to deal with the four major classes of blood tests: immunoassays, where antibodies are used; general chemistry, where chemical reactions of some type are used; hematology, which involves e.g. cell counts; and gene amplification, a nuclear technique that can help cancer diagnosis.

Vaporware is a hoax, but when it involves people’s health, and potentially people’s lives, it plays in a whole new league. And Elizabeth Holmes, who charmed Safeway, Walgreen, the US military, and the Obama administration, was also in a league of her own.

The investigative work done by John Carreyrou was a classic piece of journalism—an anthem to why the fake news narrative is so pernicious. Theranos was a prime example of the emperor’s new clothes, and the fact that taking the company down required a couple of federal agencies, extended lawsuits, ten years, and hundreds of millions of dollars attests to the power of vested interest, litigation, and deep pockets.

It is also a testament to the fact that for every complex problem there’s an easy solution, and it’s usually wrong.

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

The Fourth Root

July 28, 2018

Eighty people died in Greece over the last week. The Carr wildfire is consuming northern California—it ain’t just the girls that are warm there now!

Last year, Portugal burned up—sixty-six dead. 0n October 15th, 2017, four hundred and forty fires raged in western Iberia, thirty-three of which were sizable—another fifty victims.

Southern Europe. Australia. Western US. Gaia is speaking to us, and we’re not listening.

A graphic from the Washington Post showing our planet boiling up this summer.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph informs us about the rainfall figures in the southeast UK—in some cases, six percent of the normal June precipitation. But, it hastens to add:

The Met Office said there was no strong evidence linking the warmer and drier Junes of the last two years to the planet’s warming climate.

The Washington Post, however, tells us that scientists disagree—the climate is supercharging the weather. By climate, we’re talking about climate change, and out of the many interesting points made by the authors, this is the most important.

Gone are the days when scientists drew a bright line dividing weather and climate. Now researchers can examine a weather event and estimate how much climate change had to do with causing or exacerbating it.

In other words, climate scientists can tell you how much worse a particular weather event is because of the change in climate.

For wildfires, that’s not surprising—the closer you are to a flashpoint, the more likely the flash. Kevin Trenberth, who works at NCAR, uses the following analogy in his discussion of the consequences of even a modest heat build-up from global warming.

The accumulated energy over one month is equivalent to a small microwave oven at full power for six minutes over every square foot of the planet. No wonder things catch on fire.

The article in the Post discusses the proximal reason for Western Europe’s summer woes—the split jet pattern. Put simply, the jet stream is behaving badly.

Computer model forecast of the jetstream, produced by Netweather (netweather.tv)

The split jet pattern creates a barrier, rather than promoting airflow, and leads to prolonged weather system stagnation. The jet stream wind system, which is a balance between the trades and the roaring forties, was the mainstay of Atlantic navigation in the days of sail—it’s because of the jet stream that flying from North America to Europe takes less time than flying back.

The remarkable thing about all this is that citizens and societies are unable or unwilling to apportion blame. Just as in the loss of middle class jobs—the main theme for my forthcoming book, The Hourglass—here too we see corporations reaping the benefits, and governments and people paying the price.

In economics, these are known as negative externalities—someone picks up your shit. I did some math for my new book, and there’s no way that Universal Basic Income will compensate for substantial job losses due to artificial intelligence without a huge increase in government debt, while corporate profits soar. In a similar way, manufacturers who are profligate with greenhouse gas emissions make money while society pays the toll—not just in cash, but in blood.

But climate change needs to be considered as part of a larger problem—one that requires a holistic solution. From E.O. Wilson’s book, Half-Earth, I learned the acronym HIPPO: Habitat, Invasive Species, Pollution, Population, and Overexploitation (overhunting, overfishing…).

The book may prove a difficult vacation read, because Wilson cannot resist an excess of detail on Latin names and other biological esoterica—a shame because it will reduce the readership of this fascinating and terrible story.

Wilson discusses the present age—many call it the Anthropocene, a brave new world where Man manages a garden of species. The controversy rages. Ellis, who works at the University of Maryland, responded to an article in Wired with these words:

Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.

Emma Marris, a US journalist, writes:

Our true role as rulers of the planet is to turn its biodiversity into a global, half-wild rambunctious garden tended by us.

To which I say, “Bollocks!”

Ed Wilson prefers to call the coming age the Eremocene—the Age of Loneliness, where we have destroyed so much of the wondrous biodiversity that exists on the planet that we have very few friends to keep us company.

Ecologists have a rule of thumb for species extinction, based on observations in various ecosystems in different parts of the world. It is a simple rule: if you decrease available habitat, for instance by clear-cutting a tropical forest, you can calculate the corresponding loss in species. It’s done by taking the fourth root of what you have left.

If you destroy ninety percent of a forest, you’re left with about half the species, whereas if you destroy only ten percent, you get to keep ninety-seven percent of the species.

Wilson’s proposes that we leave half the earth unoccupied. If we choose to do so, and calculate the fourth root (sounds complex, but just type =SQRT(SQRT(0.5)) into Excel), the answer is eighty-four percent.

We get to leave the vast majority of other species alone, the ultimate gift for our children and their children, and a way to escape the age of loneliness.

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

The English Patient

July 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem-solving requires three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Tune

July 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Kid in Town

July 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sweet Music

June 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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