Archive for the ‘Historical novels’ Category

A World of Food

October 16, 2021

I spent all morning celebrating World Food Day. It’s difficult to imagine a more important topic, right up there with World Health Day and World Peace Day—unfortunately, what connects the three is war.

As dinnertime approaches, it’s time to feel pain for those whose life is a daily struggle for food, leading to poor health, disease, and ultimately famine and war.

At present, about ten percent of the world goes hungry—that’s over eight hundred million people, roughly the whole US, EU, and Canada combined. The charity Action Against Hunger defines hunger as follows:

According to the UN’s Hunger Report, hunger is the term used to define periods when populations are experiencing severe food insecurity—meaning that they go for entire days without eating due to lack of money, lack of access to food, or other resources

As usual in my world, the discussion was about fish. One of the panelists, a chef who prepares food for European astronauts, remarked that ‘people don’t care what they put in their mouth.’ He told us they know far more about the shoes they buy.

It’s well known that people age faster in microgravity, exhibiting changes to bone density, loss of muscle mass, cardiovascular problems, and immunological dysfunction. Our chef went on to explain that healthy foods are one of the few tools available to help mitigate these changes.

His thing is vertical cuisine, linking nutritional value to taste, but after he told us about his astronaut food exploits, I theorized that maybe his cuisine is vertical because his dishes go straight into orbit.

At 10 pm Eastern Time this evening, Niagara Falls will light up with the blue colors of hope—eight hundred million go hungry tonight.

Amazing things are going on in the world of food, but many are the province of wealthier nations. Recirculating Aquaculture Systems, or RAS, are designed to grow fish under controlled conditions with as much recycling as possible—this provides some insulation, if you excuse the pun, against climate change—of course if you need cool water and the outside environment is warming, your energy costs will increase.

In Germany, a startup sells the Seawater Cube, which can produce up to seven metric tons of fish per year using artificial seawater—if you like local produce but live far from the sea, one of these days some smart entrepreneur might be producing seabass a couple of miles down the road—high quality, low carbon footprint.

Another company, Vaxa, is growing microalgae at scale using geothermal energy in Iceland. The pictures of their production line could have been taken at a gigantic cannabis farm, but these guys are not into THC, they’re into Omega-3.

Some of these narratives are not that close to reality—you won’t be eating a microalgal phytoburger any time soon—but those algae could find their way into commercial fish feeds, supplementing additives such as soy.

The infographic above shows our environmental footprint—the future looks shocking and even the present is disturbing. To me, the most scary estimate is that ninety-four percent of mammal biomass on the planet—presumably not including ourselves—is for human food. Now that is one unsustainable number.

On the other hand, in Italy, 86% of consumers now buy some kind of organic product, compared to 53% in 2012. However, organic products are less that four percent of the total market for food. Still, to give you some idea of scale, those four percent represent 1.5 billion dollars of annual sales.

Some final numbers at the world scale: Australia has the most land used for organic foods—about eighty million acres, but the largest producer is India. The US market is worth over fifty billion dollars, forty-five percent of the world market—and the numbers are growing all the time.

I did my homework this morning, but I’ve also given you a sip from the fire hose—lots to digest…

Food for thought on world food day.

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

Knock On Wood

October 10, 2021

Madeira is a small island, or rather a mini-archipelago, since it has three neighbors—Porto Santo, with over five miles of golden beaches, the Desertas, and the Selvagens—no one lives on the last two, both of which are nature reserves—the Desertas are home to the monk seal, which the Portuguese sailors christened lobo marinho.

The island’s name means ‘wood’, because of the extensive woodland cleared for agriculture when it was colonized.

A cliff face going up fifteen hundred feet from the ocean—folks scratch a living from sharecropping at the base of the mountain, growing sweet potatoes and maize. The boat from which the picture was taken is in fifty fathoms of water—one nautical mile further south you’d be at five hundred fathoms—this is the home of the deep ocean predators: bluefin tuna, dolphins, sharks, and whales.

I’ve been to Madeira a number of times, but this was a special trip—the first chance since the global lockdown to catch up with old friends.

The islands are at the core of my first book, The India Road, since their discovery marked the start of an amazing century of Portuguese endeavor—in 1419, the captains Joao Gonçalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira were blown out to sea in a storm, at a time when astronomic navigation was taking its first steps, and thanked god in the usual way by naming their safe harbor Porto Santo, or Holy Port.

As always, there are apocryphal tales about the islands, starting with an account by Plutarch of the life of Quintus Sertorius.

quas duas insulas propinquas inter se decem stadium a Gadibus sitas … constabat suopte ingenio alimenta mortabilus gignere.

It was said that these two neighbouring islands, situated ten thousand stades from Cadiz, produced food for humans entirely of their own accord.

There are references to the Islas Afortunadas, or Fortunate Islands—the ancient name for the Canaries, so it’s not clear whether this passage references Madeira or not—but the mention of two neighboring islands ten thousand stades (one thousand nautical miles) from Cadiz is suggestive. In actual fact, both Madeira and the Canaries are substantially closer (about six hundred nautical miles), but right up to the XVIIIth century, mariners were not able to accurately determine longitude. Since there’s nothing further west, it’s safe to assume that the sailors who spoke to Sertorius landed on the ‘Isles of the Blest’ around the year 80 BC.

The food narrative is also interesting—although volcanic islands are associated with destruction, the emission of ash from an eruption often results in fertile soils, rich in iron, magnesium, and potassium. The islanders grow corn, a new world crop, sugarcane and bananas, old world crops, and sweet potato—although traditionally considered to be from the Americas, recent evidence suggests it may also have been present in Southeast Asia.

The Roman general never made it to Madeira (or the Canaries), so the story is apocryphal, but there is also evidence (of mice and men) that Vikings may have stopped off in the XIth century, probably on their way to a spot of rape and pillage in the Andalusian caliphate. That evidence is provided by DNA from mice—I’m tempted to say this explains Rattus norvegicus, but of course this is about its more endearing cousin, Mus musculus.

In 1420, the island of Madeira was formally claimed by the Portuguese crown—’discovered’ by the two captains, together with Bartolomeu Perestrello—an Italian, whose original name was Pallastrelli. Perestrello married four times—his daughter Filipa, from his last marriage, was the first wife of Christopher Columbus—you can read all about that in my third book, Clear Eyes.

I didn’t get to Porto Santo this time around, but next time I’ll visit the house where Columbus lived.

So, celebrate life and look forward to the next time… knock on wood.

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

The Chain Gang

September 25, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic—I hope to have readers many years from now, perhaps during Cocks-56, the terrible Coxsackie virus pandemic of 2156, so I thought I’d better qualify it—has turned humanity on to a host (excuse the pun) of wonderful things, including masks and jail time without crime, previously known only in certain parts of Asia.

Supply chain is one of those novelty phrases—before pan arrived, this was a buzzword bandied on biz channels and overheard at Starbucks when twenty-one year old spreadsheet superspreaders crunched marketing numbers and saved the economy.

Taking a leaf from the playbook of ecology, it becomes obvious that supply chains, like food chains, are really supply webs. And just like in ecology, the supply chain ecosystem (a newish and tedious biz malaprop) benefits from diversity—ecologists recognize that diversity provides both stability and resilience.

If the supply web forks right instead of left, that may of course leave some disgruntled players—viz the French tantrum after being spurned some days ago by Australia, who bedded not one but two new mistresses. In what seems to be not just an underwater but also an underhand business, the threesome pitched itself to the public as AUKUS.

The role of the UK is not clear, and the French themselves recognize that Britain is an irrelevance in the threesome, but of course the Elysee sees the wider picture of Brexit trade deals and perfidious Albion, and twirls its mustache in Gallic contempt.

In actual fact, the whole issue is linked to the Middle Kingdom, and the competition between the two great powers in the Asian theater. Dropping the UK into the mix serves the twin purposes of a Boris boost (internally) and pretending this is a ‘allies and friends’ rather than an ‘us (US) and them’ deal externally.

If the name reflected the relative importance of partners it should be AUSUK, but someone with an extra brain cell realized this might be a marketing blow (job).

The late great Sam Cooke, who added an ‘e’ to his surname so folks wouldn’t think he was just lean cuisine. The chain gang sound effects at the start of the tune are a true classic.

No developed nation is more aware of supply chain issues than Boris Brexit Britain. Having kicked out all the East European truckers (known in the UK as heavy goods vehicles, or HGV, drivers), Britain is stunned to find it has a serious supply chain breakdown. Who knew?

Pictures of empty supermarket shelves, reports of uncollected garbage—the Guardian newspaper reported “He came home from work to find his front porch covered in what he initially thought was rice, but subsequently realised was hundreds of maggots swarming out of a food waste caddy that hadn’t been collected in a month”—and long lines at gas stations are just some of the delights enjoyed by Britons in these post-Brexit times.

The government narrative is that a lot of the problem, if not all, is due to the pandemic—this presumably is also the Brexiteer hardline. The truckers became anxious to see their families over the past year and returned home. No mention made about the way the pandemic was handled in tousled-Trump fashion in the early stages.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why no countries in the EU are struggling with food shortages, including nations like Spain and Italy, both of which were devastated by Covid. Germany and Italy certainly rely on mobility of EU citizens to deal with some of their labor shortages, including truck drivers.

I did a lot of hitch-hiking when I lived in the UK—it was an easy and cheap way to travel—and I got rides on trucks all the time. All the truckers were English back then, mostly in the thirty to fifty age group. I got some insane guys—it’s not an easy job, spending so much time alone, I recall one guy had amazingly mad theories about extraterrestrials and other bizarre things—since I’d just smoked a joint while waiting for a ride, I found all this most enjoyable.

One driver told me that when he drove in Texas, the motorbike cops liked to get up right behind the truck and sit in the blind spot—when the trucker went over the speed limit, the cop would pull out and bust him. Then a couple of fellows fitted a mirror below the cab and slammed the brakes on the next cop who did that. Apparently, the police were quickly discouraged—so I learned a lot, probably more than in the classes I skipped.

The average age of British truckers is now fifty-eight. As with a host of other low-paying and hard-wearing jobs—none of which are on the Brexit skilled worker visa list—the dearth of truck drivers is causing mayhem.

Along with the Brexit narrative came the promise of higher paying jobs for UK nationals—and the appetite to pay more is certainly there, but not the employees. Britain can’t pick its fruit and vegetables, collect its garbage or stock its shelves, and is now in the middle of an energy crisis—natural gas prices are soaring and there isn’t enough carbon dioxide to stun animals at slaughterhouses—you’d have thought all that extra CO2 from climate change could lend a hand.

Along with all this insular joy, UK inflation is pushing to a rampant 4%, totally predictable since shortages drive prices up. As the all-important Christmas holiday approaches, the news is full of reports that there may be a shortage of turkey in supermarkets.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Last year no family, this year no turkey.

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


September 18, 2021

Once again I greet you with a crazy contraction—it’s not fission or fiction, it’s a fish mission—I could probably have gotten away with fishmish. Words set their own rules—I recently discovered that the Hindi word for ‘titillation’ is gudagudaana—beat that!

I spent the week on some farms off the Mediterranean coast of Spain—they like to organize their cages in double rows, with about two hundred thousand bass or bream in each, although that varies—lower numbers for bigger fish.

Ringo’s unmistakable vocals on one of the Beatles silliest tunes.

Since 2013, farmed fish have outpaced wild capture, when you consider the data for direct human consumption—fishing still brings in many species that humans don’t eat, or eat sparingly, and those animals are converted to meal and oil, used to feed land animals and also cultivated fish.

There’s a lot of discussion about that issue, and concern that by converting small fish into food for other species we’re harming the marine environment by upsetting the balance of predators and prey.

In many parts of the world, the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus into the coastal waters is a serious problem—this excess of nutrients leads to abnormal plant growth, and of course plants in the sea tend to be microscopic since they have to float near the surface where they can use energy from the sun.

Excessive phytoplankton growth turns the water green, sucks the oxygen out of the deeper layers, and can cause widespread mortality of fish and shellfish—going green isn’t always a good thing.

But the Mediterranean is an exception in this respect—the surface water layer is very poor in nutrients, so there isn’t much plankton available to grow fish—which is why the water is so transparent. This happens for various reasons—the main one is that the deeper water is colder and more salty and doesn’t mix with the water above it, so the nutrients in the lower layer don’t get to the surface.

Since there’s little plant biomass available to drive the food chain, there are less fish. Large parts of the ocean are like that—the equivalent of marine deserts. And if you’re a dolphin or a shark preparing to make a long journey you must weigh the consequences of your decision, since you may well find yourself in a desert region where the options of going forward or returning home are equally dangerous—for some reason, humans don’t think of fish starving to death but it happens all the time.

So you’re living in a place where food is scarce and every day is a challenge. And then suddenly there’s a twin row of twenty cages, let’s say four million fish—at an average weight of six or seven ounces, or two hundred grams, that’s eight hundred thousand kilos, a little less than two million pounds.

On a good farm, ten to twenty percent of the feed is uneaten, and in the Med, where natural food is not plentiful, that’s a heck of a subsidy. So it’s no surprise that below the cages, the water is teeming with fish—grey mullet, bass, bream, you name it—a recent study in Turkey found about forty different species in residence.

WordPress levies a premium charge to upload video, but you can watch the movie here.

When you’re on the water at a Mediterranean fish farm, it’s almost certain you’ll see dolphins at some point. They’re curious about the boat, the people, the activity, and they generally enjoy a bit of an exhibition, jumping around the cages. What you don’t see are the big boys—even when you dive, the tuna, and swordfish, and rays tend to move away.

But on this occasion, a small robotic submarine was at hand, and the fish thoroughly investigated it. One ray even tried to take a bite out of the little guy.

The sea below the cages, down to about one hundred and fifty feet, is a feast for the big predators. In the movie you see a large bluefin tuna swimming idly past the nets, and you’ll also notice that the most aggressive ray has a gaping wound on its ventral side, perhaps inflicted by a shark—the sea is a dangerous place.

But the most interesting part of all this is that fishing is forbidden within farm limits, which turns these Mediterranean fish farms into marine protected areas—with a twist, because the uneaten feed draws wild fish, and these provide ample food for top predators—MPAs on steroids.

This is particularly important for endangered species like bluefin tuna, which find a safe habitat and plentiful nourishment under the cages.

Quite a lot of research has been published on the relevance of fish farms to wild species, but almost all of it appears in aquaculture journals, desperate to make the case for positive effects on the environment.

All over the Med, farms like these play a key role in wildlife conservation and provide a core ecosystem service.

The sad part is the farmers don’t get a cent for the valuable service they provide.

They don’t even get recognition.

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

Jerry Hat Trick

September 12, 2021

Maybe the years I lived in England infected me with a soft spot for puns, or maybe it’s just that I enjoy playing around with words—as we humans make ourselves extinct, i.e. become extinguished rather than distinguished, I dreamed that insects would regain their ruling spot, setting up their planetary capital in a huge Hawaiian metropolis called Antsville, Hulabama.

Since originality wins in my world, I’m delighted there are no hits from Google on this new megacity—I am considerably more worried that it immediately detected my spoonerism and suggested what should have been my correct search terms.

That’s amazing. I find as years go by that my computer has become dyslexic—because it surely ain’t me—and I regularly msitype wodrs by swapping adjacent letters, but that does not extend to misrepresenting cunning stunts as stunning cunts.

And because today is a freewheeling text—like American foreign policy—no direction home, here are three thoughts on dis thislexia (the WordPress shellpecker is having a field day with me).

The first is that I only fuck up the words when I type—when I write it’s fine, and that’s how I know it’s my computer’s fault.

The second is that the kind of typos I make, typically insertions, deletions, and substitutions, are exactly what happens with genetic mutations, so if you suffer from this ailment, first of all test yourself in longhand—I bet you’re good, so the fault is clearly in your digital friend—and second, understand that you are in fact demonstrating evolutionary biology to the world at large.

The third is that I realized in recent years that I do a lot of typing without looking at the keys, and in general it works out fine. That qualifies me as a touch typist, albeit of the two finger variety—but you can do an awful lot with two fingers—if you don’t believe, me ask Django Reinhardt.

Django breaking the internet—you can see that both the pinky and ring fingers of his left hand are out of play, severely injured in a caravan fire.

Once in a while, I run a blind test for myself, just losing my eyes and ttpomf—that was meant to be just closing my eyes and typing, but I’m chilling, writing this on a laptop, and I do better at a proper click-click-keyboard.

And although ttpomf is vaguely reminiscent of the orang-u-tan covefefe, it’s a far more onomatopeic invention. The double t is there for emphasis of course, but you can see that the number of letters is correct and the wrong letters are shifted by one on the keyboard.

Which in this stream-of-consciousness article begs the question: is typing faster than writing? Science comes to the rescue, as always, unless you live in orangeland. At an annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (who knew?) in 1988, a paper was presented by C. Marlin “Lin” Brown—you can tell it’s proper science because the nick is shown in inverted commas, as in Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor, but why does Mr. or Ms. C. insist on qualifying the given name? Is it so (s)he’s not mistaken for a fish?

Since we’re playing word association football today, you should know that the legendary bluesman Hound Dog—if you excuse the paradox—was not only named after a U.S. president who was a great explorer, builder of the Panama Canal, and enthusiastic big game hunter, but also suffered from a condition called polydactylism—he had six fingers in each hand, so he could have spared Django a couple.

More bizarrely, he apparently sliced off one of said extra digits with a straight razor while he was drunk—but don’t worry, them extra digits were just nubs. And when you search for hound dog polydactyly, the first hit tells you: ‘Polydactyly is a rare occurrence where your dog is born with an extra toe or toes. It’s not considered a problem unless it catches on things.’

Catches on things? WTF?

So Marlin found that typing was five words per minute faster than writing—no details provided about errors. But it’s obvious that you’re much more prone to those when you type—that’s why they’re called typos, not writos. If you can’t spell—and many can’t these days, the principle reason being that in principal they’re not taught properly or don’t give a shit—they’re called spelling mistakes.

That paper should have qualified for an Ig Nobel prize—these coveted trophies have just been awarded for last year. One of the lucky winners published a paper on transporting rhinos upside down, and my favorite provides empirical evidence that orgasms are an effective nasal decongestant. I’m afraid I haven’t yet read the article, but since blowing your nose is also an effective decongestant, and presumably during enthusiastic sexual activity neither party is munitioned with a handkerchief, does this mean that the decongestion assistant is pulverized with nasal mucus at the critical juncture? Curious minds want to know.

My articles are generally like tennis—the game ends when the work is done, but today’s is a soccer game and time’s up—I need to pack a bag and get on an ATR to Spain, where a couple of days on the water will no doubt do wonders for my nasal passages.

But first I need to get a couple of lithium batteries through airport security.

As the jerry hat tricks who were on TV yesterday noted, since 911 air travel has never been the same.

But as luck would have it, I have an ace in the hole. In 2009, Dr. Elena Bodnar came up with a brilliant invention, which won her an Ig Nobel and demonstrated she was a decade ahead of her time.

Her invention? A black brassiere that uncouples to form two perfectly fashioned face masks.

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

Have You Ever Seen The Rain

September 5, 2021

It’s been over two years since I was in New Orleans—along with Memphis, I rate it as one of the world’s top music cities.

But New Orleans is also the real Mississippi delta—geographically, a delta is a sedimentation area where a river meets the sea—the water body between the two is the estuary, but as a river widens into the ocean the currents slow and the solids carried by the river deposit to form the delta.

But the mighty Mississippi has another delta—not a river delta, but the home of the delta blues, stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg, all the way down highway 61 to Clarksdale, Robert Johnson’s famous crossroads, and then on to Vicksburg, right on the Louisiana border.

The whole Mississippi delta area is cotton country—seven thousand miles of alluvial floodplain, but before the civil war, this was hardwood forest—the whole thing was cut down to make way for plantations, run by whites, worked by black slaves, and the birthplace of the blues.

The real Mississippi delta, where the river drains into the Gulf, forming the MARP—Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Plume.

New Orleans is regularly hit by hurricanes that take their toll in human life and destroy property. The latest arrival was Ida—when I was down south, I was told hurricanes are named after women because when they arrive, they’re wet and wild, and when they leave they take your house and your car.

There is a consensus that climate change is causing an increase both in frequency and intensity of hurricanes—the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a multi-agency task force that researches climate change, states:

The recent increases in activity are linked, in part, to higher sea surface temperatures in the region that Atlantic hurricanes form in and move through. Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors is an active focus of research. Some studies suggest that natural variability, which includes the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, is the dominant cause of the warming trend in the Atlantic since the 1970s, while others argue that human-caused heat-trapping gases and particulate pollution are more important.

The key in this paragraph is the ‘relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors’, because this is where the political and social disagreements sit when it comes to policy choices such as the Paris Agreement.

Wherever you sit, there’s no doubt the effects of climate change are increasingly severe, dangerous, and costly. And when biblical deluges hit urban areas, the combined effect of calamitous precipitation and large-scale impermeabilization translates into the kind of flooding that recently occurred in New York and New Jersey.

The problem is that folks can only react to short-term issues, both in time and space. Stuff that happens near you right now is far more important than the plight of refugees on the Afghan-Turkmenistan border, even though there are children dying as you read this article.

No politician or policy-maker will dare tell you that if you’re forced to drive only two-thirds of what you drive now, or watch one hour less of TV or internet per day, or switch off your cellphone at night, in three years there will be a ten percent reduction in serious floods or wildfires. Or even that in ten years there will be a three percent reduction.

Of course, if you lost your house in Greece this summer, or live up in the Santa Cruz mountains in California, you may see things differently—but for the majority of the voting public, radical measures that affect them have no vote appeal except indirectly, for instance through taxation.

Climate change is a hugely complex problem, with effects widely varying in time and space—exactly the kind of issue politicians hate to tackle. And yet, despite the pandemic proving unequivocally that we are not the masters of the universe, we stubbornly cling to the idea that we are.

Even death is something we refuse to consider, until the man in the dark hood comes and leads us by the hand.

We can solve everything, we can shape our world. Good luck with that, but…

Have you ever seen the rain?

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

The Salt

August 28, 2021

The peoples of the Iberian peninsula are going through a tough time—a recent article in a Spanish newspaper tells us that the gradual improvement in living conditions since the great recession of 2008 was blindsided by the pandemic.

Over three million Spaniards are suffering “severe material hardships”—this kind of language is common in Latin nations and doesn’t provide much transparency… what does severe mean? What kind of hardships?

Well, one third of the population of fifty million people cannot afford to take a one-week vacation per year. Eleven percent can’t adequately heat their home. Over five percent can’t eat meat or fish once every two days. Is that severe enough?

Southern Spain has a number of towns where drug smuggling is big business—a reflection of the proximity of Africa and Europe. Places like La Linea or Sanlucar, where you can dine in upmarket restaurants and see a table full of young men wearing the trappings of wealth—expensive clothes, costly jewelry, and beautiful women.

But for every opulent table where the gamba blanca, lobsters, and Cristal champagne flow, there’s an army of poverty and desgracia—the mules who carry the dope for a pittance, the boys who unload the gomas as they put into dark coves or wend their way into the saltmarshes of the Guadalquivir.

Five hundred bucks a night to unload bales of Moroccan hashish from the rubber boats, or to take gas and food out to the boats sitting offshore. These days, after the 2018 law banning RIBs, the rigid inflatables sit just outside the twelve mile limit, waiting to come in.

The boys charge around on scooters, the men are unemployed, jailed, or dead, the mothers and grandmothers live hand to mouth.

This is the coast that saw Columbus and Magellan sail, a part of the world notorious for adventurers, destitutes, opportunists, and scrabblers—part Spanish, part Moorish, part Gypsy, part Jewish—itinerant folk who seem part of a previous century.

A hundred miles west lies the Ria Formosa, a set of barrier islands on the Portuguese side of the border. Small communities exist on the islands themselves—villages perched in the sand, whose people depend on what the ocean provides.

There’s a joyful lawlessness to these communities—shacks along the beach sell fish and shellfish that will never see a health certificate or pay a penny to the taxman. The houses are makeshift, and people scramble for a living as best they can—tourists in summer, many of whom are themselves poor, the kind of folks who can just about manage that one-week vacation.

In winter, anything goes.

As August ushers in the fall, these places return to their limits of subsistence, just as tourists return to their quarantines and colds. The locals count their pennies and take stock of the season that just was—a pandemic puzzle of permissions, PCRs, and perplexities.

The people I’m talking about live on the wire, always hoping for an opportunity that will change it all—but the change stubbornly refuses to come.

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

Two Weeks in August

August 21, 2021

That’s all it took.

I tuned out for a couple of weeks and when I got back the whole world had turned upside down.

I read the wonderful biography of General Joseph Stilwell by the no less wonderful Barbara Tuchman, and all the while read a few other books to leaven the dough—the Stilwell book is on the heavy side.

One of the most interesting messages from the American relationship with China during the Second World War is that it appears Roosevelt and other members of the administration were pretty much hoodwinked by the joint maneuvers of Chiang Kai Shek and his wife—the pair was universally known as Peanut and Madame, for obvious reasons.

Peanut was born in the town of Xikou, about an hour west of Ningbo, in Zhejiang province. I’ve been to Ningo numerous times, and about ten years ago I visited the g-mo—the Stilwell abbreviation for Generalissimo Chiang—family compound, where the great man was born.

Madame and her sister were famous beauties—vamps, as you might say back then—and I was struck by the lady’s six-legged bed, obviously designed to withstand considerable abuse.

Stilwell was universally known as ‘Vinegar Joe’, which as it happens was the first foreign band that ever played in Portugal, when the country was slowly opening up after Salazar died.

Vinegar Joe arriving at Lisbon airport on June 15th 1973, less than a year before the Portuguese revolution. Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer are in the foreground.

That too was a revolution, since miniskirts and long hair were a police matter in a country where christian-conservative with a dash of secret police was the dish du jour.

But it made me wonder whether the raunchy British R&B band was named after the cantankerous US general. Peanut served thirty years as president of China, at a time when the Japanese occupied large parts of the country and massacred his people mercilessly—the siege of Nanjing being the worst example.

One of the surprising messages from the book was that the Chinese army as a rule wouldn’t fight—something the Japanese took full advantage of. When a US general asked why the Chinese Fifth Army removed its field guns from the front the night before a battle in Burma, the Chinese general Tu replied he had withdrawn them for safety.

“What use are they?” asked the American.

“General, the Fifth Army is our best army because it is the only one that has any field guns, and I cannot afford to risk those guns. If I lose them, the Fifth Army will no longer be our best.”

What struck me about this oft-repeated message is that the PRC has never been tested in war, although Chinese soldiers have fought proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam—three million in Korea (a statistic, as Mao famously described them when comparing to American casualties), and a tenth of that in Vietnam.

This will not have escaped Russian and Western military strategists, and the current debacle in Afghanistan looks like more of the same—political cock-ups with huge consequences. “War is too important to be left to generals,” Churchill said, but what happened over these two weeks in August belies that—it’s the politicians who fucked it all up.

Obama increased the troop surge but put a due-by date on it—war is not a yogurt. The orange man made a one-sided peace deal which the Taliban never intended to honor and released a bunch of prisoners as part of the treaty—ah, the art of the deal…

Biden, who Fox News refers to as ‘sippy cup’, iced the cake by setting the twentieth anniversary of nine-eleven as the withdrawal date—a stupid decision, as I wrote back in May, which celebrated the loss of a war by leaving on the anniversary of the loss that caused it.

In the meantime, the Afghan ministries of the interior and defense stopped payment to the Afghan forces a few months ago—one presumption may be that they read the tea leaves and concluded what has now happened was inevitable. Better in that case to salt away some of that cash and put it to good use when the system collapses.

I have no idea what consultations occurred between the US and its allies before Biden’s announcement to leave on April 14, but chaos would inevitably ensue—if those consultations were not fruitful, I’m surprised other nations didn’t choose to leave quietly some time ago.

On May 2nd I wrote, ‘in Afghan eyes at least, the West retreats with its tail planted firmly between the legs.’ The US politicians, and the UK pols to a lesser but still unpardonable degree, built a paper palace for their people to view. It’s gilded walls were of no substance and held nothing inside.

Sorry I’ll qualify that. They held the gossamer web with which politicians fooled ordinary people and fooled themselves to the tune of one trillion dollars. They used military men and women—decent people with an elevated sense of duty—to attempt to change a society that no one understood.

In all cases where history records a significant societal change that endures, that change is imposed by conquerors who are in it for the long haul, like the Normans in England, the Puritans in the USA, and the Portuguese in Brazil, Mozambique, or Goa—the ‘West’ was in Afghanistan for less than one generation.

Of course there is another way—it’s called genocide.

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

The Hacker

July 25, 2021

The history of computers can be divided into two parts: calculation and communication.

The concept behind any computational activity was, and is, to speed up and automate human actions. Primitive—and yet sophisticated—devices like the abacus were followed by mechanical adding machines and slide rules that took advantage of basic properties of numbers.

Stuff like the nature of logarithms, if you excuse the pun, which allowed a conversion between the simple operations of addition and subtraction and their more troublesome cousins, multiplication and division.

As computers became able to perform tasks that no one predicted one hundred years ago—such as allowing me to write this article, all the while spell-checking my work and letting me include pictures or video—the issue of communication became all-important.

Back in the days of MS-DOS, the operating system that drove the first IBM PC, a command line was the gold standard—a typed instruction, hit return on the keyboard, and the magic would begin. These days, whenever you see a black screen full of arcane commands being furiously typed by a geeky guy with a hoodie, you realize computer hacking is afoot.

Nerds relish in taking screengrabs of what is actually written as ‘code’—mostly it’s crap for downloading MP3s or some other trivial bullshit—grandmaster-level hacking it is not.

Hacks only became a thing as the comms side of computing expanded, first as monitors, printers, and other devices were hooked up, and then in the communications supernova of the mid-1990s, when computers got hooked up to the net.

Back then, you needed a modem to process the signal and comms were not for the fainthearted. Geeks mumbled about protocols and baud rates and your computer spoke to its siblings through the phone line.

Over twenty years before the mid-90s, the SWIFT system was created—the year was 1973, and log tables were the gold standard for mathematical calculation.

Log tables were look-up catalogs for logarithms and anti-logs, used to speed up manual computations. Electronic calculators were nail in the coffin for this laborious method of mathematical manipulation.

The SWIFT system was designed to replace TELEX and speed up international financial transactions—it took four years to go live. At around the same time, in 1975, something called Signalling System No. 7 was born. SS7 (which in German has the delightful name Zentraler Zeichengabekanal Nummer 7, or ZZK-7) is a protocol for routing international phone communications—made for simpler times, in recent years it has been cruelly hacked.

The first personal computer appeared in 1975, but it took some years for the fad to catch on—by 1983 there were two million, mainly playing games and performing three business operations: database management, spreadsheet operations, and text processing.

For twenty-first century hackers, the old SWIFT and SS7 protocols were the stuff of dreams. In an unconnected world, security was naive—within a bank, some staff members had appropriate credentials and dealt with the international routing of money—big money.

The great blackout—North Korea by night.

A couple of years ago, good old SWIFT was used in a classic hack, courtesy of a black hat operation originating, according to reliable sources, from North Korea—given the nature of the regime, the inference is that the hack was government-sanctioned.

The central bank of Bangladesh has its headquarters in the country’s capital, Dhaka. If you say it fast, ‘The Hacker’ sounds suspiciously like the city in question. I doubt the DPRK geeks will have made the link—rather, the choice of Bangladesh Bank (BDB) was driven by perceived poor security—banks in other developing nations were subsequently targeted.

D hack (sorry) was a multipart operation with many interesting features.

The first step was a standard phishing operation, similar to mails I get every day. A young, polite, and motivated banker sends in his resume—some obliging soul from the bank opens the attachment or perhaps clicks on a web link.

A virus is installed on a BDB computer and begins to prowl the internal bank network. It is searching for access to the SWIFT system and a strategy to get past the authentication protocol—it can do this in two ways: either by hacking the credentials or bypassing the request.

Forensic investigators established that the latter method was used—only eight bytes (eight characters, like the word COMPUTER) were replaced—that’s a pretty Zen hack.

The next step was to plan the financial heist. The hackers decided to steal one billion dollars from BDB by ordering transfers from its account at the New York Fed. Since the bank account held one billion, the plan was to steal the lot.

The choice of timing was exquisite. The transfer orders began on the evening of Thursday, local time, when the BDB staff had gone home for the weekend—in a Muslim country like Bangladesh, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

New York began receiving requests in the early morning of Thursday due to the ten hour time difference. When the Bengalis returned to work Sunday, the NY Fed was shut for the weekend. A number of transfers were routed to the Philippines, where Monday was a holiday—the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Overall, the hackers had five days of confusion to play around with.

The BDB security system included a printer on the tenth floor that automatically supplied copies of all transactions—the hackers jammed the printer so that nothing at all was printed. When the bank staff solved the problem, the machine leapt into action, printing numerous queries from the New York bank to verify the transactions.

In the end, the hack ‘only’ succeeded in separating a hundred million bucks from its rightful owners—the people of Bangladesh. Mostly, that cash was laundered through casinos in Manila, which at the time had no regulation on the provenance of funds.

The washing of the hacked moneys is a tale for another day, but I cannot imagine it could take place without a substantial amount of corruption—the accounts in the Manila banks had five hundred bucks in them for over a year and suddenly received tens of millions. Go figure.

The hack was stopped for the most hilarious reasons when only ten percent of the transfer volume had been executed.

The Manila banks are located on Jupiter Street—the name coincided with an Iranian vessel on the US sanctions list, so the Fed queried it—not receiving a reply, it halted the transactions.

The second reason was even more amusing: the hackers tried to transfer several million dollars to the Shalika Foundation in Sri Lanka, a social services non-profit. As an aside, the organization was founded by Shalika Perera—the name undoubtedly derives from the Portuguese family name Pereira and the sexual meanderings of The India Road.

When the hackers wrote out the beneficiary, instead of foundation they spelt the word fundation.

Along with Dhaka and hacker, this has got to be one of the more subtle ironies of the dark web.

And surely the most costly pun of all time.

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

Wú Wéi

July 18, 2021

The Chinese character 无 means ‘to lack’ or ‘not to have’. This is a wonderful example of Chinese synthesis—the ideogram replaces two or three English words. The character 为 or wéi means ‘to behave’, ‘to be’…

Together, 无 为 take on a deeper meaning—inaction. wú wéi can be translated as do nothing, take no action, and is an instantly recognizable phrase in the Middle Kingdom—short for 无为而无不为 or wú wéi ér wú bù wéi, it literally means through not doing, all things are done.

wú wéi is a classic formulation of Taoism (or Daoism), a combination of religion and philosophy that originated in China about two thousand five hundred years ago.

The ‘do nothing’ hands off approach is antithetical to the West, where we are constantly running around trying to do something, even when the outcome of that something may be useless—reverse Taoism could thus be do something, and little will be accomplished, or at the edge, do everything, and nothing will get done.

Try discussing the concept with a Westerner and you are immediately faced with scoff—absolutely, so if I don’t drive to work I will magically arrive there—or maybe the joke will turn to meals that cook themselves.

But those who look beyond the sarcasm understand the concept is a way to unify us with the universe, to flow with the forces that surround us.

Water is used as a frequent example of wú wéi—it can happily be guided, transported and piped—yet is does as it will, evaporating from the earth’s surface, drifting anywhere and everywhere in great clouds, and then falling where it must.

Donovan’s ‘Colours’ is the epitome of the relationship between the Hippie Movement and Taoism, the concept of letting nature take its course.

Over the past days, water fell in areas of northern Europe where the landscape has been completely altered, and the same soft, playful water wreaked havoc and death on town and country.

The Chinese used the wú wéi way throughout history, watching invaders come and go and yet remaining resolutely Chinese.

From Gengis Khan’s Mongol hordes to the Japan of Yamamoto and Tojo, the Middle Kingdom suffered and waited it out, just as they recently did with Donald Trump.

In the midst of all this a pandemic erupted, and its most significant political outcome was ejecting the orange man. Unless you believe that COVID was deliberately released by China as a biological weapon to destroy the Western World, then the orang-u-tan was whipped by wú wéi.

All the multiple ‘strategies’ for beating the pandemic—the idea that we as humans are in charge—is laughable. Mask on, mask off. Home at eight, now you’re late. Summer vacation, sovereign nation. France is closed, vax exposed. PCR, stay where you are. Out at night, twenty-buck flight.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu—father of Taoism—in the Chinese painting ‘The Three Vinegar Tasters’. Confucius, a defender of order, has a sour look, Buddha, who saw the world as a place of suffering, looks bitter. Only Lao Tzu is smiling, at one with nature.

Taoism gives us much more to explore, helping us realize that by managing less we may be managing more. It emphasizes virtues that are much in demand as we drift through these completely incomprehensible times—naturalness, compassion, simplicity, and above all humility.

In the space of eighteen months, a virus maestro and a quartet of mutations have shown us we are not in charge—yet every hour the kings of the world make their plans and the worker bees dutifully follow.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

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

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