Archive for the ‘Historical novels’ Category

The Old Man and the Sea

May 20, 2018

A few days before Christmas 2014, I wrote an article about cod—the dried product known as stockfisch, and particularly klippfisch, which is dried and salted. It is this fish, a staple of poor people’s diet in the Middle Ages, that the Portuguese call bacalhau.

You find bacalhau dishes throughout Southern Europe, readily identified in Spain as bacalao, and in Italy as baccalá—one of my favourite recipes for cod is the Venetian mantecato.

These days, despite the fact that global warming is fake news, the access to the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean has provoked a huge run on cod—the Barents is now severely overfished, and the ice melt is very bad news for Arctic cod, and with it for seals and polar bears.

Cod from Iceland on display in downtown Lisbon. Bacalhau hasn’t been fished by the Portuguese for decades.

But after the Second World War, the mother lode was the North Atlantic, the waters of Greenland and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Ships from all over Europe came to fish cod—from Soviet to Spanish vessels, but only one nation caught the cod with hook and line.

Portugal was deep in the grip of Salazar’s fascist regime—a country where life was good for the wealthy. If you had money and didn’t worry about politics, you were onto a good thing.

“Cerejeira blessed the ships,” the old man told me. “You couldn’t talk about it, but they said he got a ‘quintal’ from the catch on every ship.”

The quintal is a medieval unit of weight—in the US and UK, its equivalent is the hundredweight (cwt), but that leads us into short tons and imperial units. The quintal used on the cod vessels was the metric variety—one hundred kilograms, or two-hundred twenty pounds.

I wanted to tell the old man a joke about Cerejeira, the cardinal of Lisbon—dictatorships always produce jokes. During the Stalinist period, political prisoners joked that the Lubyanka prison was the tallest building in Moscow, since you could see Siberia from the basement cells.

In my father’s joke, Salazar ends up in hell, and the devil has made it particularly noxious by immersing all the tenants in shit—only their noses appear above the ordure. Salazar, however, is only waist-high. When asked for his secret, he raises a  finger to his lips and whispers: “ssshhh—the cardinal is giving me a piggy-back.”

We’re eating chocos in a little restaurant south of the Tagus—it reminds me of the cuttlefish on the grill in The India Road. There is a quick dalliance with wine colors, and we immediately conclude that tinto is required. A bottle from Palmela, called Dona Ermelinda arrives—you wouldn’t easily find it outside the country.

The fisherman is short and broad. His eyes are bloodshot below the pupils, but that doesn’t take away the easy twinkle. Much of what he says is directed at his twenty-two-year-old grandson, although it’s also meant for me—the old man spent the morning collecting his thoughts, wondering who was this strange fellow who wanted to meet him, to hear tales of sixty years ago.

“My ship was the Elizabeth,” he said. “I started in 1957, to get out of military service, after two years in the Escola de Pesca.”

Unloading cod from the dories to the mother ship in Newfoundland.

The fisherman sipped his red wine. “Lots of guys did that. We had men from all over Portugal. Fishermen from the Algarve, guys from the North, Ílhavo, Caxinas…” He went through the names of the main fishing villages.

Sometimes, we drifted away from his narrative. I told him about the cod wars between Britain and Iceland, and why I thought all the statistics about how much fish is eaten in Portugal are just plain wrong.

But very soon, his eyes would re-focus. “As I was telling you,” he said, “we stopped for bait in St. John’s. Mackerel. Herring. And capelin, they loved capelin.”

It was all as I’d read, but this time I got the inside story. The crew, seventy or eighty men, would be up at daybreak to get into the one-man dories. “My wife made the sail. Waxed it, so it wouldn’t rot.” At his side, the old lady nodded. She didn’t say much, just ate her  cuttlefish strips and picked at the french fries—the restaurant was old school, and a half-portion would have done three Dutchmen for lunch.

The Grand Banks are famous for fog, the kiss between the cold Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream to its south. The dories are put in the water just after dawn, and the men collect their bait to take aboard—frozen blocks of capelin or mackerel.

The hooks are baited, long lines go down thirty fathoms or more. The lines will be down for an hour, and the fishermen are jigging, catching cod while they wait. Up comes the line—it’s a good haul.

The fog comes down. The Elizabeth sounds its horn almost constantly so the dorymen won’t get lost. Slowly they come in, armed only with a small compass and a whistle.

The men fish until sunset. The fish are offloaded, and it’s time for a petisco—a snack, aka supper. The staple food is dried meat from Argentina. The old man wrinkles his face ever so slightly—clearly the cuttlefish are a good deal better. Out on the estuary the tide is pushing in—the banks lightly dusted with seaweed are no longer visible.

“Then, it’s back to work, processing the fish.” Another sip of wine. Gutting, removing and storing tongues and faces, which are considered delicacies, even to this day. The livers go into a boiler at the prow, for cod liver oil.

Some sailors take it, my new friend does not. One quintal of fish reduces to sixty kilos as the fish loses water. As soon as a barrel is emptied, it’s used to store fish. Water is scarce, as on any ship—this isn’t so different from life on the caravels, and in some ways it’s worse.

Every night, the men get a mug of water to wash with. They use the precious liquid first to wash the face, then they salvage it for their hands. Most everything else is washed in seawater.

Work stops at midnight, if you’re lucky. Four hours sleep, and you’re back on the water. March through August. If you’re on watch, you don’t sleep at all.

Many men chose different paths to escape the draft—some jumped the border to work construction in France, some fished for cod. The video above hammers the message ‘Angola é nossa’—Angola is ours, a mantra from Salazar’s day extolling the African wars.

The risk of death is always present—rowing or sailing a small boat laden with cod back to mother is no mean feat. The cod are stored anywhere and everywhere, and the water laps at the gunwales.

One freak wave and you’re gone. Sometimes the line hooks a halibut—the alabote weighs a hundred and fifty pounds or more. At home, it’s unknown, but in Northern Europe it’s a delicacy. The captain keeps them, they’re not part of the men’s catch—the old man is uncertain where they end up, but he knows one thing: to land an alabote, the doryman must use his weight to tilt the boat, first toward the fish, and then right over to tip it into the boat—it’s a dangerous game.

In 1957, the season lasts from March to August—some years before, it lasted well past September. Each man gets fifty liters of wine, his quota for the period. That’s about three gallons a month—I anxiously reach for my glass of tinto.

It’s getting late, and the bottle’s gone. “Two thousand quintais, that would be a regular haul,” he says. I agree—two hundred metric tons of cod sounds respectable to me, especially since the crew will have caught about three hundred to make that number.

My new friend fights me for the check, and we solve it the old fashioned way. “You can pay next time.”

I watch the old man walk away, upright, barrel-chested, a living hero. As we part, I ask about the others. “It was a tough life,” he says softly. “There’s no one left.” He shrugs. “They’re all dead.”

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

 

 

 

 

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We Three Kims

May 12, 2018

It’s not uncommon for a nation or region to be dominated by a brace or two of names. In Bali, for instance, there are in general four classes of given names—the first-born will be Wayan, or perhaps Gede, the second-born might be Kadek, and so on until the fourth, who is named Ketut, which means ‘little banana’.

Since Bali is Hindu, by contrast with the rest of Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), castes are also prevalent—as an example, Gusti is common in the Ksatria, or military caste.

In Ireland, Brendans abound; in Spain, Antonio is the most common—over a quarter of a million exist. Korea, on the other hand, is a surname oligarchy—almost half the population has one of three family names: Kim, Lee, or Park.

Of these, Kim tops the table with twenty percent of the population of South Korea. If we assume this works pro rata across all the peninsula, out of seventy-seven million people, there are fifteen million Kims.

This contrasts with the diversity of family names in China (about one hundred in common use) or in the US. In the States, Garcia currently ranks 18th, Martinez is 19th, and Rodriguez is number twenty-two—expect to see those in the top ten fairly soon.

Korea had no surnames, except in royalty and ranking nobility,  until the end of the Joseon dynasty in 1910. As the lower classes crowded to adopted surnames, they naturally chose those which increased their status—the half dozen associated with the feudal families.

As a consequence, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish whether marriages were consanguineous—until 1997 there were restrictions on same-surname marriage unless it could be established that the love-struck Kims belonged to separate bongwan, in which case bonk wan was permitted.

In a scenario vaguely reminiscent of Donald Trump’s capillary highlights, the DPRK extolls its great leader.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the three Kims who this week made landfall in the US were released by a further Kim. Asians in general place their family name first, so only the Americanized Tony Kim got a Western spin of his name—all in all, the weird 3am seance was a fit harbinger of what lies ahead.

Exactly one month from today, the bizarre Kim will meet his equally bizarre counterpart from the US in Singapore.

The world looks on in perplexity, or perhaps doesn’t give a shit, since the main worry is what Meghan Markle will be wearing next Saturday, and whether Harry will shave. I wish them well, as one must with every young(ish) couple in love (the bride is 36), but I wonder if the Windsors won’t be competing for ratings once again in the not too distant future.

Now, when it comes to the Kimster, I do live in perplexity. When you consider last year’s model of North Korean despot, the whirlwind romance is just too Hollywood for words. If the population of the North could speak freely, I’m sure many would say “Where’s my Kim and what have you done with him?”

Let’s review.

  • There once was a Kim who wanted the DPRK (for it is she) to become a nuclear power on the world stage. Now this is achieved, will its arsenal disappear?
  • Strong words about taking over the South were exchanged freely for years—unfinished business after the Korean War. Now the two fittest surnames in the land, Park and Kim, walk hand-in-hand in an Asian version of the Macron transatlantic affaire (no honeymoon in Persia there!)
  • China and America waltz together among the cherry blossoms as the Koreas consummate their love—no bongwan issues here—but instead of an orgasmic explosion of nuclear bonking, they take a Pencian perspective and just say no, chastely denuking together.

This amazing tale is reminiscent of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, with Kim cast as the Asian Scrooge. It does seem as if the CIA has discovered some astonishing chemical formula to invert personality.

While the FSB is busy intoxicating ex-Russian spooks on Salisbury plain, the US secret services have stumbled onto the game-changer of all time.

Slowly, the wonderdrug infiltrated through Kim’s hair. Here, he is already looking like a benign college professor.

The remarkable new drug, administered in small, easily absorbable doses, has the power to change evil-doers into Mother Teresa. So it came to pass that, much like the white arsenic provided to the Perfect Prince, Kim’s all-time breakfast favorite, diced poodle, was subtly laced with the Trumpian potion. But in these days of two-factor authentication, the CIA needed more.

Taking a leaf, or possibly a follicle, from their own lord and master, the US secret services replaced Kim’s hair gel with an absolutely identical product—but using cutting-edge (sorry) ion exchange technology, the masterspies had the notion to embed the potion in the lotion. And every morning, as the great dictator’s scalp was massaged by his favorite minionette, the drug infiltrated his cerebellum.

In 2017, on the day of Victory of the Great Fatherland Liberation War, Kim was hurling invective at his capitalist neighbor and at the dotard across the sea.

By Generalissimo Day, he was spouting peace and harmony, his mop unusually lustrous, all memories of evil erased.

Oh joy! And all it took was a mad guy with orange hair!

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

 

 

Elmina

May 5, 2018

One of the first strongholds of the Portuguese fifteenth century explorations was São Jorge da Mina, on Africa’s west coast. From 1468 onward, the Lusitanian push down the African coast intensified, driven by the concession of a monopoly for trade in the Gulf of Guinea to the merchant Fernão Gomes.

King Afonso V of Portugal (Afonso the African) granted Gomes his business on the following terms: an annual rent of 200,000 Portuguese reais, and the exploration of one hundred leagues of new African coast per year.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina (Elmina), built in 1482. It later became an infamous emblem of the slave trade.

How much would 200k reais have been worth then? One of my first stops was the historical currency converter, but it only goes back to the Portuguese escudo in 1800.

A scientific paper explains the Lusitanian monetary system, but it also provides additional gems: between 1480 and 1520, Portugal received about 700 kg, or over 1500 pounds, of gold from Africa every year, worth thirty million dollars at today’s prices—much of that will have come through Elmina.

In my quest, I browsed some interesting sites, and marveled at how rich the digital world is now; how I can do all this research on a sunny Saturday morning without leaving my home, while the birds celebrate what looks like the first day of spring—but to find what I wanted I had to delve into other languages—the linguistic dark web, if you will.

One escudo, the pre-euro coin, was worth a thousand reais, which means that the king’s rent was… one euro. Inflation-adjusted, in 1470 ten reais were worth one euro, so Afonso granted the monopoly for an annual income of twenty thousand euros.

As the Portuguese sailed east in the Gulf of Guinea they reached Accra, and twenty-five nautical miles further, the estuary of the Volta river. It had never stuck me that the river was named by the Portuguese, but volta means ‘return’, or ‘turnaround’, and it was there that the caravels tacked and headed for home.

To the north, the great river leads into Burkina Faso, which was called Alto Volta, or ‘high Volta’, when I studied geography—I suspect that too was named by the Portuguese, who no doubt sailed upriver in their explorations.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina was superbly sited, with a navigable inlet to its north where numerous fishing boats are visible on the satellite image. The fort was thus almost impregnable, with sea defenses to the south and east. One of the Portuguese caravels that explored the area in the late XVth century brought along a foreigner who in the next decade would sail for Castile—a young man by all accounts rather inept at ‘weighing the sun‘, who went by the name of Christopher Columbus.

The link between Ghana and gold had been known for centuries—the country’s name may be a corruption of the Arabic word  Ghinaa, meaning golden, although there are alternative theories—particularly that the name originates from ‘warrior king’ in a local dialect. It’s a tricky one, because by the tenth century the whole region was known as bilad-as-sudan, or ‘lands of the blacks’, and the Arabs were undoubtedly aware of the goldmines—despite nationalist objections, I side with the Arab origin.

Ghana suffered colonial abuse in a systematic manner. First by the Portuguese, who stayed for one hundred and fifty years, then the Dutch, then an avalanche of others: Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, and finally the British. Nowadays, Ghana has everything to thrive and develop—it is Africa’s second-largest gold producer, and has the fifth largest oil reserves. It has diamonds in abundance, as well as many other resources—predictably, this has aroused the interest of the Middle Kingdom, to the extent that the Chinese yuan is now hard currency.

A couple of examples of a proper Ghanaian sendoff.

And it has one other fascinating singularity—funerals. Every country, region, or tribe has its own way of dealing with death, expressing grief, and bidding farewell, but Ghana has an astonishing penchant for elaborate coffins.  We’re talking of first-rate African art, as part of a ritual that has an average cost of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars, ten times Ghanaian per capita GDP, and includes giant street billboards.

The tradition is that the deceased is buried in an allegory—a receptacle that reflects his profession or predilection. A shoemaker may be interred in a gigantic sneaker, and someone with a hankering for sodas may go to ground inside a coke bottle.

As for me, lay me down inside a good bottle of Douro red.

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

The Center

April 28, 2018

Once upon a time, the Middle East was the center of all things. From Assyrian cuneiform script to the fertile crescent, from a hub of culture to the birthplace of three religions.

It was the center of Eurasia, but as Western civilization developed, the cultural, scientific, and technological diaspora gradually moved toward Europe. Marco Polo described another great center of knowledge and culture—the aptly named zhong guo, or middle kingdom, which viewed itself as the center of all things—today, China once again sees itself in that light.

Somewhere along the road North America blossomed, and the planet now has three great centers of knowledge: China and SE Asia, Europe, and North America.

The Mid-East remains a center, but nowadays for violence and unrest. Sunni against Shia, Muslim against Jew, and all of these stuffed into a pressure cooker with Russians and Americans turning up the heat—it’s a cauldron for chaos.

Like the waggle dance of the honeybee, different countries are visited by the curse. Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iran, Kuwait—all part of a trail of destruction and death, of proxy wars run by the big cahunas, originating incredible suffering, and leading to all the migrant crises that inexplicably surprise the West—even though the narrative is a simple, seven point plan.

1. I live in a country that’s rich and safe.
2. You live in a country that’s poor and unsafe.
3. You live there because you have little choice.
4. My country bombs your country.
5. You leave there because you have no choice.
6. You come to my country.
7. I’m surprised.

In the New York Times bestseller ‘Rise and Kill First’, Ronen Bergman focuses on only one theme: targeted assassination, performed in this case by Israel.

The Mossad (foreign intelligence service), Shin Bet (domestic intelligence service), Aman (military intelligence), and the coterie of Israeli politicians that surround and govern them are the main sources for the text—it quickly becomes clear that Israel is very good at institutionalized murder, and uses it as a major weapon against its Arab opponents, particularly the Palestinians.

The actions of Palestinian groups such as the PLO, Black September, and later Hamas were an obvious driver for the development of murder as a weapon, but the main message I take from this book, after my nightly dose of depression, is the level of hatred that exists between the warring factions.

When I put that into context with the current war in Syria, and I wonder what nation follows in this deadly ring-a-roses, it’s hard not to see the Middle East as the center of tragedy, and impossible to glimpse a solution.

Terror heat map for 2017. The year saw 1,347 attacks worlwide, which resulted in 8,554 deaths.

In that context, Atmos Fear is more relevant now than when it was published five years ago. Tensions among Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and the Ayatollahs are substantially worse, with Turkey more and more bogged down in the quagmire.

It’s fascinating to see how little terror occurs in the two big local players, Iran and Saudi Arabia, when compared to the surrounding nations—or the US and Europe, for that matter.

The foreseeable future holds little hope, particularly if Saudi goes  nuclear. At that stage, Iran will invoke its treaty sunset clause and match its enemy. The US will back Sunni and Russia will back Shia, and soon the oil fields will be burning again.

An edifice built on mutual murder has no prospect for peace.

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

 

Invisible

April 21, 2018

It’s a hot night in Sukhumvit. Muggy, too. Ninety degrees with seventy percent humidity is an oppressive atmosphere—after a few minutes, a light rain begins to fall.

Bangkok is gearing up for the evening as I climb the walkway stairs onto the pedestrian bridge. The road is twelve feet below me, and I look down at the traffic— bumper to bumper chaos across all six lanes.

It’s strangely light on the footpath, because of the flashing neon and the glaring headlights below. At the north end of the walkway, I spot a small figure moving around, a moth caught in a flame.

The dark end of the street. A child plays alone over a busy Bangkok thoroughfare.

The little girl is perhaps three years old—she may be older, because malnutrition is rife in this part of the world. She jumps over the other three kids, holds the railings, and starts to rummage inside a plastic bag.

Everyone else is exhausted, and her mother is the very image of hopelessness. I imagine the child perched on the handrail, slipping and falling onto the traffic while the whole family sleeps.

I should do a hundred things, but all I do is take this picture. I feel shitty, helpless, and desperate. I think of the family now, as I write these words. It’s early evening in southeast Asia, and this infant will be settling down for the night on the footbridge.

Is she still alive today? Who knows! What brings a mother to such utter exhaustion that she can sleep, comatose against the hard steel railing, while her child dabbles with death? Where’s the father?

Every year, every day, mountains of people die in developing nations, and no one knows why. Children, adolescents, they just vanish. The families mourn, life moves on.

I’m not talking of kidnapping, or kids who run away—they vanish in the sense that one moment they’re alive, and the next they’re dead. In the West, we have a far better grip on health care, despite our constant gripes—if a child is ill, shows symptoms of illness, there is a safety net.

In much of SE Asia, in most of Africa, there’s no net. Take me back five centuries to medieval Europe, and that’s where they are today.

Maybe you think mountain is a poor choice of words. The WHO estimates 5.6 million children die every year before their fifth birthday—the cause of death is known only for three percent. Where does this happen? You guessed it—mainly Africa and south Asia.

How would it sit with Western nations if ninety-seven percent of deaths for the under-fives in France, California, or Ontario went unexplained?

More desperately, a lot of kids who die in faraway countries were never born in the first place—legally, that is. So there’s no traceability—no one knows you were born, no one notices you vanished.

Shame, shame, shame, as the West discusses Trump’s salacious stormy snafus, or the innards of When Harry Met Meghan.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s CHAMPS project includes research on MITS—Minimally Invasive Tissue Sampling, a way to quickly determine cause of death with high accuracy.

Humans are like ecosystems—you can know their health based on what goes in, what’s inside, or what comes out. Pee is one of the best indicators—doctors have used it for four thousand years. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, urine’s praises are sung by the bard.

FALSTAFF

Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my water?

Page

He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy
water; but, for the party that owed it, he might
have more diseases than he knew for.

Nowadays, a medic is no longer forced to sip your piss to diagnose diabetes, but run-of-the-mill blood and urine tests are not so many decades old. In CHAMPS, doctors extract tissue samples from brain, lungs, and liver. Add a little blood and spinal fluid, and throw the power of biomedical analysis at the ensemble.

The extraction itself takes under half an hour, and a non-specialist can easily be trained to do it. In some of the poorest countries in the world, home to many of these ‘Invisibles’, cutting-edge techniques are helping to bring a little closure to grieving families.

In Mozambique, the seventh poorest country in the world, public health is a dire problem—the nation is mired in environmental quality issues, poor medical services, and the twin evils of superstition and witch doctors.

In many communities, relatives will not allow a corpse to be autopsied—the reasons may be cultural or religious, but in a number of African countries, organ theft is a reality, so opening a body is simply taboo.

A biopsy needle leaves no traces, but perhaps the world can begin to have a little more traceability. By knowing why so many small children die, maybe we can start to care more about things that really matter.

And every time a kid plays on the railings above a crowded street, every person should at least have the courage to ask why.

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

 

Index

April 14, 2018

Humans love to rank each other. We do it from birth through to our dying breath—we’re primates, and it shows.

We compare ourselves on looks, skills, strength, health, intelligence… And we extend the concept to suprahuman entities—movies,supermarkets, football teams, and countries.

In order to rank we need indicators, which are often grouped into categories. Suppose you wanted to rank people, to develop some kind of ‘human index’; you might start with physical indicators such as height and weight, which you could combine to extract further information such as your BMI. But you could also add looks, sense of humor, patience, and many other indicators.

The next step is to decide how these indicators can be grouped to provide an overall score—often colors are assigned to scores for greater clarity.

As a rule, indicators are assigned to categories, categorical scores are evaluated, and these are then combined into a final value.

One such index attempts to classify the nations of the world according to their democratic status. It’s a tall order, and to determine the rankings this approach uses no less than sixty indicators.

Spain narrowly makes it into the list of nineteen countries considered full democracies, as one analyst was at pains to point out in El País this week. His article plays on two Spanish phrases, presos políticos and políticos presos—the former are ‘political prisoners’, while the latter are ‘imprisoned politicians’.

The context for that article is the continuing debate about Catalan independence, and the potential extradition of Puigemont, who has now moved from Belgium to Germany.

Keeping score—the democracy index developed by the intelligence unit of The Economist.

The index piqued my curiosity. It uses five categories: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; democratic political culture; and civil liberties.

The number of questions varies with category, which makes perfect sense—you ask the questions that are relevant, and no more than that. Of course, this makes for some mathematical jiggery-pokery, to ensure all categories are weighted equally for the final score.

There’s a reason why I’m going into details on the methodology—you have to make sure the approach is correct before attempting to analyze the results.

Let’s do that. The democracy index uses traditional color-coding, but it’s not keen on green. Deeper blues, and a score between 8-10, are a Full democracy. The next group is paler blue, and is Flawed democracy. The yellowish 4-6 is Hybrid Democracy, and the last broad group (0-4) is Authoritarian Regime, rich in oranges and reds.

The problem with this kind of nomenclature is at the boundary of these classes. As an example, in the 2017 evaluation, Spain sits proudly in the full democracy category with 8.08, whereas South Korea, with 8.00 points, is a flawed democracy. In a similar way, Equador sits at the bottom of the flawed democracies (6.02) but Albania scores 5.98, making it a hybrid regime—hybrids are usually a good thing, but not in this case.

The difference between Spain and South Korea is 0.08, but in percentage terms that’s only one percent. It’s better to look at the scores and colors than at these class names, which are misleading.

Overall, however, it’s an attractive approach, though I wonder if things would be different if a panel of experts were asked for a top-down grade—I suspect in many cases the score would be similar.

Which bits of the map seem odd to me? I think South America as a whole looks a little optimistic score-wise, and I find it difficult to place France and India (or Portugal and India, for that matter) in the same class. South Africa also falls into that class—the sevens—which given the state of South African democracy, is questionable.

The index includes a couple of questions on the scale of corruption, and on government accountability. But it is missing something on the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial system—can citizens expect swift and fair due process? That’s a key to democracy.

The corruption and government questions are two out of fourteen in the functioning of government section—so their overall weight is diluted.

Despite some shortcomings, and  perhaps too many questions—which may skew comparisons—this is a useful map. The high and low ends of the score are expected, with the US, Europe, and Canada performing pretty well, and the usual suspects bleeding red ink—China, Russia, and most of Africa.

What is missing is a translation of these results into proportions of the world population that map these democracy scores.

If we add that special sauce, the world turns into a sea of red.

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

Sepatu

April 7, 2018

Bhāṣā means ‘spoken language’ in a number of Southeast Asian countries. The word comes from Sanskrit, and different spellings are used to denote language in Myanmar, Malaysia, parts of India, Thailand, and Indonesia—to name a few of Asia’s mystical places.

Language is a kind of verbal gene pool—you see it in Latin idioms, and it helps you understand the linkages across communities and countries. Along with space-based connections, language also shows you how countries diverged over time, as words took on different meanings and spellings and accents changed.

Dutch and Afrikaner, French and Québécois, Portuguese and Brazilian, and of course English and American—all examples of the plasticity of language.

Bahasa (Indonesia) is no exception—sepatu means ‘shoe’, and the equivalent Portuguese word is sapato. The pronunciation is practically identical, and given the tendency of the locals to wear little or nothing on their feet, it makes perfect sense that both the word and the object itself were imported on Portuguese ships. When it comes to timing, my best guess is the first half of the XVIth century.

Indonesian has many loanwords from the Dutch, who were there for 2-3 centuries; but given how short a period the Portuguese explorers spent in those waters, perhaps no more than three generations, I was amazed at their linguistic legacy—as usual, it is simply explained: blood is thicker than water.

Terigo (trigo) is wheat, garpu (garfo) is fork, bendera (bandeira) means flag, and mentega (manteiga) is butter.

And of course, there are a few false friends—the word ‘bunda’ means mother, whereas in Brazilian the meaning is entirely different.

In both Indonesia and Thailand, many people connect to the history of five hundred years ago, when the Portuguese sailed the Strait of Malacca, and navigated east to the Moluccas—the crazy islands, so-called because of the way the magnetic fields drove the Genovese needle wild.

From Europe, it’s very difficult to gain perspective on Indonesia.

We could start by stating that it produces over fifteen million metric tons of aquaculture products every year, making it the second largest producer in the world, with over five times European production.

Or that its population of 238 million is expected to reach 305 million by 2035.

Or that, based on 2005 numbers, the income of the middle class starts at three hundred dollars a month.

What this gives you is a country where there is great poverty, but which overflows with kindness—a nation of gentle souls, where courtesy reigns—people struggling to get by, and doing their very best to share what little they have.

One of many variations on jokes about Scandinavian weather.

In my quest for word matches in Bahasa, I came across opinions on a number of other countries. One of them highlighted five reasons not to live in Denmark: language, climate, social norms, food, and xenophobia—you could use those same reasons for several other nations in northern Europe.

There’s no doubt in my mind that countries like Indonesia and Thailand have a totally different perspective, which is one of the reasons that endeared them to the Portugis explorers in the heady days of discovery.

These are warm climates, with warm people. There’s bound to be some pushback on the farang, particularly if you are overbearing—as many foreigners are—but xenophobia is really not displayed.

As for the language, it doesn’t take more than a couple of words in Bahasa or Thai to elicit the ever-ready smile.

And in desperation, you could always try sepatu.

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

Big Data

March 26, 2018

I’ve written many a blog on airplanes, but this is the first time I’m doing one online.

The turbulence is causing a stir as we hit the south coast of Turkey. In a few minutes we’ll be flying over northern Syria, and I’m keeping a close eye on the map.

Wifi in the sky is just another example of global comms—it’s a satellite feed, of course, and large email attachments go the way of Malaysian Flight 370, but for a wee blog it works just fine.

Night has fallen over the eastern Med, and I spare a thought for the poor people below, caught up in a proxy world war, while Trump fends off claims by porn actresses and Playboy centerfolds.

But today’s article is on Big Data, capitals and all. First off, full disclosure—I’m a social media dinosaur. I speak out against Facebook many a time, and Peter Wibaux would never hold an account—in any case, the platform lost its mojo when it became a shadow site for parents to track their kids.

I find it all pathetic, as kids swiftly shifted to Instagram, and parents share lonely, pathetic photos of their latest dinner party banalities, and pretend they lead an interesting life. So I welcomed a few suggestions on alternatives to F-Book.

Apart from the trivia aspect, my fundamental gripe is lack of privacy—I suppose growing up under the iron fist of the Portuguese dictator Salazar left me with a fundamental and permanent dislike for data theft, particularly on a grand scale—I’m pretty sure people who suffered the Stasi or the Savak feel the same way.

Somewheres East of Suez once more. Afrin, where the Turks recently pounded the Kurds, is just south of here.

Of course, the fact that I’m not on FaceBook doesn’t mean I’m not on FaceBook—and the same stilted logic applies to GMail, which I also take a pass on. Truth is, as long as you correspond with anyone on these platforms, or have your picture taken in their company, you’re trapped.

Practically the entire US electorate found out about this last week, when Cambridge Analytica turned turtle after a whistle blower decided to tell the world what they did for the Trump campaign.

The key to it all was the colossal FaceBook database, and the way in was through a personality evaluation app aimed at the insecure FB neurotics, which assessed their OCEAN score.

What’s OCEAN? Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Who makes this shit up? Maybe it should be: Only Cretins Ever Auto-evaluate Neurosis. Because Neuroticism isn’t even a word!

The story of Cambridge Analytica beats any conspiracy theory. Robert Mercer, a US right-wing hedge fund billionaire, provided the seed capital to spawn the UK company—Mercer is a major contributor to Breitbart News, and created the ‘Make America Nº1’ PAC to elect Trump.

His daughter Rebekah (gotta love that ‘h’) sat on the company’s board, and Analytica’s vice-president was none other that Saturday Night Live’s grim reaper, Steve Bannon.

The company has now re-invented itself as Emerdata, with Mercer money again doing the rounds, and all the usual suspects back on the bus—given Analytica’s track record, lots of UK citizens are reaching beyond the Trump election and wondering what went on with Brexit.

The thing about Big Data? You can drop FaceBook right now but you can never shake your shadow.

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

 

Alpha Males

March 18, 2018

I’ve often compared California to Portugal, based on relative geography. Both are on the western edge of large continents, and are subject to wind systems that drive oceanic gyres, cause coastal upwelling, and result in large, cold-water fisheries for schooling species such as sardine and anchovy.

Both areas have been occupied by the Spanish in past centuries, but whereas in Portugal the ingress is now seasonal and driven by economics—a large invasion is currently forecast over the Spanish ‘Semana Santa’, or Easter week—in California there is a more permanent character to the Hispanic settlers.

It’s unquestionable that Spain was a major driver for Portuguese maritime exploration, simply because Castile shut off all land alternatives to trading. A similar case can be made for the Vikings, the Dutch, and the English—driven either by hostile neighbors or hostile geography.

If the global ocean discoveries had begun in San Francisco instead of Lisbon, here’s what would have happened: the Californians would have built their caravels out of oak and redwood—a quick foray into the naval-architecture arcana of sequoia suggests it would have done planking very nicely.

The sailors would have understood the dynamics of the south-flowing California Current, much as the Phoenicians once conquered the Canaries current and headed south. These American Argonauts would have sailed past Baja down to Mexico and Guatemala.

Once there, two things would have occurred. Much like the Portuguese did in the Congo, the Americans would have explored the land mass—they would quickly discover, just as the Spanish did when headed in the opposite direction, that Central America is as slim as the neck of a beautiful señorita, and spotted another ocean to explore.

Natives would have been indentured, ships built, and the Atlantic Ocean would have opened for business. The Californians would, within ten years, have sailed all the way north to New Brunswick, and within twenty, traveled the Gulf Stream to Europe—their trip would use the route of Columbus—sailing east to the Azores, and then on to Lisbon.

The routes of the Californian argonauts, circa 1500 a.d.

The second branch of this great adventure would take the Franciscans and Angelenos down the coast of Peru and Chile. Like the Portuguese, they would have lost ships and men battling the north-flowing winds and currents—the Peru Current, responsible for the greatest fishery in the world, an annual take of fifteen million tonnes of anchovies, and the southeast trades.

In their attempt to round Cape Horn, the equivalent of the Cape of Good Hope, they would have tried the tricks described in The India Road, the clever ruses of Abraham the Astronomer. Somewhere down Mexico way, the Calgonauts would have changed the course, on a 270 degree bearing, sailing the parallel on the North Equatorial Current.

They would know the route well, because it was the Californian equivalent of the Portuguese ‘torna-viagem’, the road home from West Africa—westward until the trades softened, then north to the Azores, and a downwind run to Lisbon on the roaring forties.

The Calgonauts would sail a course for Hawaii, and somewhere along the parallel, change heading to NW, or even NNW, as the winds and currents allowed, until they hit the North Pacific Current—this is the Pacific Ocean cousin of the Gulf Stream, a lazy, warm, easterly current that would drop them back in Frisco.

Our California stalwarts would have needed this knowledge, together with the astronomical knowledge the Portuguese acquired, to enable them to sail at night, far from coastal line-of-sight, and return home from their southern adventure.

In so doing, the Calgonauts would have taken a leaf from the books of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral, and sailed a little further west along the North Equatorial. At some point, two things would have happened. The first would be the discovery of the great circle route, which would include some navigation on a 180 degree bearing to cross the equator and catch the East Australia Current, the Pacific equivalent of the Brazil Current.

This would take our intrepid argonauts into Antarctic waters, where the east-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar Current would carry them into the Atlantic Ocean, south of the evil dangers of Cape Horn. I hesitate a little on this particular theory, because although the Portuguese had little choice when they explored the maritime route to the Indies, the Californians would easily have established a naval base in Central America—the isthmus is so narrow that it begot the Panama Canal—which incidentally also begot my favorite palindrome: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Furthermore, if they were keen on exploring the east coast of South America, it would have been far easier to sail south from the eastern side of the isthmus.

The second, ‘Brazil’ option, is far more plausible. The Californian caravels would have progressed a little further west along the Pacific and hit the NE coast of Australia, along with Java and Sumatra, and a little further north, none other than the ‘Indies’ of Columbus—zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom, and of course Cipango.

How cool would it be if they’d come across the Portuguese heading the other way?

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

Pooh

March 10, 2018

Yea, verily, the circle is unbroken.

The twentieth century saw the rise of democracy in many parts of the world. In South America, Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, fascist and communist dictators were toppled.

The dictatorship of the proletariat—that most quintessential of hoaxes—was replaced by the will of the people. In the 21st century, we witnessed the Arab Spring, which so far hasn’t worked too well—I would suggest it cannot until Muslim women are emancipated, and the population accepts that the government must be secular.

After the Italian elections, Anne Applebaum’s article on the direction of modern politics took on new meaning. The gist is that political parties prefer not to be in power.

Applebaum provides an interesting quote from an unnamed British politician.

All political careers end in failure. Sooner or later everybody gets voted out, overthrown or forgotten.

Much as I admire Applebaum, I must chide her on two counts. First, the actual quote is different.

All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.

My second criticism is that she didn’t have the courage to name the source. The inconvenient author was Enoch Powell, leader of the U.K. National Front, an anti-immigration, extreme right-wing party, precursor of many in Europe today.

Powell’s obituary is worth reading, but his quote is based on a supposition—that the politician in question operates in democracy.

Should that not be the case, then the sentence is simplified to the ‘happy juncture’ part, i.e. dictators are only parted from office either through death or violent action.

This, then, is the fate that awaits the new emperor of China.

A Ping pastiche, to break you in gently.

China is now almost 1.4 billion strong, and given its trajectory since the cultural revolution, this is a heck of a time to return to the days of Mao Zedong. The Chinese have been protesting in their traditional way—subtly.

Someone discovered that Winnie the Pooh, or to use the Chinese name, wéi ní xióng, bore an uncanny likeness to the Chinese president. From there, it was only a heartbeat before the memes mounted up on the web.

The Chinese regime fought back with a brazen bear attack. Pooh was banned from the internet, and for a while so was the letter ‘N’, because the more mathematically-minded citizens expressed their discord through the N>2 inequality, which symbolized multiple terms in office.

Along with these actions, terms such as ’emperor’ were also proscribed, in preparation for a smooth transition from two terms to life.

Perhaps my personal favorite from the menu.

The internet in China thrives on allegory, using images, music, and deception to circumvent censorship—growing up under Portugal’s dictator Salazar was a similar experience, with newspapers and TV using smoke and mirrors to dodge the censor’s bludgeon.

Trump weighed in, if you excuse the pun, because he is also a man who believes in uncontested rule. When his comments, made with typical thoughtlessness at a private function in Mar-a-Lago, were leaked, the U.S. press made a vague attempt to pass them off as a joke—the fact is there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump actually owns a sense of humor.

For China, a nation so dear to my heart, this is the start of a long and arduous journey—the Middle Kingdom is about to revisit the Long March.

For the United States, there is little concern that there will ever be an emperor called Trump. Thankfully, the institutions are too strong and too diverse, and the people themselves are too accustomed to living free.

But if the most powerful country in the world went in that direction, it would mean that the first amendment had been severely curtailed—and the defense of the first amendment is today perhaps the single reason that would justify the second.

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


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