Archive for the ‘Historical novels’ Category

Sexual Healing

April 20, 2021

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—PTSD—comes in many forms.

Mental punishment for killing others has been with us for millennia, but has only been recognized in recent decades. If death is the ultimate retribution, there must be a price to pay by those who inflict it.

Movies usually make light of death—Netflix or Amazon are rife with glib murder, emotionless killing that we watch between burger bites without batting an eyelid—no nightmares, just another show. Our emotional distance from televised murder is so great that shows that wallow in death are rated safe for over thirteens, with death on a par with ‘foul language’. Telling someone to fuck off is equivalent to ending a life.

Many among us have thought of killing someone, or at the very least wishing someone dead—someone who has caused pain or destroyed a business, a family, or a lifestyle—but hardly anybody takes that to the next step, and if they do, they are usually destroyed by their action—vengeance exacts its own revenge.

In the US, practically every day in the last weeks registered some kind of mass shooting—forty-five in one month. Under cover of the second amendment, which was never written to provide cover to loony loners, assassins utterly devoid of sense regularly blast their way through schools, supermarkets, and shopping malls, and equally regularly get shot, shoot themselves, or end up in jail.

The American response to this carnage is thoughts and prayers, rather than arms control—the developed world watches in amazement, unable to comprehend the madness. China and other totalitarian states see clear evidence of the dangers of libertarian society.

Gun violence in the States splits mainly into white nutcases and black criminals. The guys (and they are always white guys) responsible for school shootings and all the other dreadful mass murders are invariably disgruntled employees, emotionally scarred men, or disturbed folks—the dystopian rants of morons in high places has made things much worse.

The spate of killings in the first months of the Biden presidency provides a handy narrative of Democrat-mediated lawlessness—hardly fair considering where the opposition to gun control comes from.

The criminal component is not of course color-coded—it’s linked (as everywhere) to the poorer segment of society—the disenfranchised are far readier to take up the law of the gun, be they white, Asian, Latino, or black.

It just so happens that in the US, that segment is predominantly black, but you only need to consider Mexico or Russia to understand crime-related gun violence is a technicolor nightmare coat.

The emotional pain of inflicting severe harm is huge—PTSD awaits those who make it out of the rabbit hole. If you don’t end up in prison, where the whole thing is made far worse, the mental scars show up in relationships, employment, family and friendships—anything that characterizes normal life.

Sex disorders are part of PTSD, leading to the appearance of therapies to teach men and women—though I suspect it is more prevalent for guys—to learn how to have sex again, trading anxiety for normality.

In Israel, where military service is compulsory, sex surrogates are a goverment-funded treatment choice. In a country that is permanently at war with a host of neighbors who would like it to disappear into the sea, PTSD is a heavy burden on young people and spills over into society.

Soldiers who have been seriously injured can choose sex therapy that includes er… sex. This had been criticized as government-sponsored prostitution, which technically it is, since women—and men, but much less so—are hired to provide a sexual service in exchange for cash.

The Israeli model has even been rabbi-approved, as long as the sex partners are unmarried. Among its successes? Sexually recuperating severely disabled men, for instance those confined to wheelchairs.

If you’re young, disabled, and horny, hope is out there—it’s not just COVID shots, Israel has also come up with sexual vaccination.

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

The Thin End

April 10, 2021

I learned my geography during the Portuguese colonial war—a triple war, to be exact: Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea. The notion that a small European nation could fight three wars on opposite sides of Africa for over a decade with no external help is astonishing.

In 1974, the Portuguese revolution marked the swansong of colonialism, but the triple war was certainly not lost—all the more astonishing since the liberation movements were backed by China and the USSR—even the US backed a couple of the rival ‘liberation’ factions, but no one backed the Portuguese, seen in Europe as a pariah fascist state.

The irony is that the liberation of those nations resulted in an enduring set of new dictatorships—hard left for Angola and Mozambique, and a failed narco-state in the case of Guinea. Thus ended the saga of The India Road—a fascist state becomes a democracy and enables autocratic communist regimes in Angola and Mozambique for the next half-century—the Perfect Prince would have been blood-flecked choleric.

The capital of the most northerly province of Mozambique was called Porto Amélia, named after the last Portuguese queen, Amelie of Orleans—after the country gained independence, the city was renamed Pemba.

Amélie d’Orleans tries to save her husband King Charles I during the regicide in 1910.

The province of Cabo Delgado is named after a narrow cape that protrudes six miles into the Indian Ocean above the Bay of Tungue, and since the VIIth century the provincial history is one of commerce and conflict—Cabo Delgado was part of the trade routes of the Arab dhows, and modern-day Tanzania begins on the north side of the River Rovuma, about thirty miles northwest of the cape itself.

Like an ocean front where opposing waters meet, Cabo Delgado is at the interface of religions—a sure recipe for war. It belongs to a sinister club that includes the Balkans, the Hindu Kush, Kashmir, the Sunni-Shia fault lines in the Mid-East, Belgium, and the island of Ireland.

But TIA—This Is Africa—so the Cabo Delgado conflict is spiced by tribal strife among the Maconde, Mwani, and Swahili.

TIA requires an understanding uncommon in Europeans—Mwani means beach in the Kimwani language, and the people have a very specific culture.

…about 1,100 years ago Arab traders came down the east coast of Africa to take slaves. Entire groups became Muslim because the Arabs, being Muslim, were not allowed to take other Muslims as slaves… The Mwani value peace and harmony… relationships and family bonds and respect the elderly. Polygamy is common in this matrilineal society… Divorce is common and many women have been married several times, so family units are difficult to discern. Children go to Madrassa schools, and although they memorize and can recite the Koran, they don’t understand its meaning. Most Mwani are illiterate in the Kimwani language and speak only a bit of Portuguese… They have an awareness of God (Mwenyezimungu) and are very aware of the supernatural world, believing in spirits and magic, and fearing demons. Though fiercely Islamic in name, their worldview is strongly influenced by the animistic world of ancestors and the use of mediums such as witchdoctors. Women are more connected to the spirit world, holding “punge” (séances) which can last all night…

The development of offshore natural gas reserves in the Rovuma basin by French oil major Total in 2019 led to a significant ramp-up of terrorist activity in Cabo Delgado—the Mozambican army did little to control the situation, and in a page taken out of The Dogs of War, the government hired a mercenary group to fight the Islamic terrorists.

Soldiers of fortune are an African tradition, celebrated in books and movies, and personified in real life by colorful characters such as Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, of Katanga fame. In the case of Cabo Delgado, the protagonist was Lionel Dyck, an ex-Rhodesia and Zimbabwe paratroop commander.

Dyck has certainly led an interesting life, bringing together ex-members of the Rhodesian African Rifles, Selous Scouts, and Chinese-trained ZANLA and Soviet-trained ZIPRA guerillas to form Zimbabwe’s paratroop battalion. Now in his seventies, Colonel Dyck took a contract from the Mozambican government and directed his Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) to perform counter-terrorism actions against the Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah group, an Isis offshoot.

DAG’s ‘airforce’ consisted of two Gazelle helicopter gunships—’helicanhões’ were invented by the Portuguese in Mozambique during the colonial war—an old Alouette chopper with a 20 mm gun, two light planes and a couple of Bat Hawk microlights with gun mounts.

During its stint in Cabo Delgado, DAG was accused of killing terrorists and civilians indiscriminately and of firing on a hospital where Islamic forces were hiding. The Ansar al Sunnah (supporters of the tradition)—known also as Al Shabaab—have done far worse, including beheading children as young as eleven.

The controversy around DAG lost them the contract renewal, but Dyck claims his men acted appropriately and had full oversight from the government.

The story of Cabo Delgado is the story of every African nation—the more resources exist, the more suffering is brought upon its people.

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

East of Suez

April 4, 2021

In the days of The India Road, navigation was a way to avoid carrying out massive engineering works on land, with humans and animals as the beasts of burden.

Before the steam engine was invented by Savery in 1698, land transport also relied on animals—human or otherwise. Building roads was a huge endeavor, mountains and gorges were impassable—routes were dictated by terrain; it’s no surprise that as soon as man learned to float a boat—really just a practical application of Archimedes’ principle—the path of least resistance led to the development of shipping.

The age of sail lasted almost three millennia—winds and currents eased the burden of mankind, enabling connections between continents and promoting trade, leading to the development of major cities along waterways and on the coast. In the process, navigation also led to colonial empires, the slave trade, and maritime warfare on a grand scale.

It was only when explosives and machinery helped to dig, tunnel, and blow up the obstacles to development on land, and when engines for rail and road became commercially viable, that humans considered the possibility of shortening maritime trade routes—a quick look at the world map reveals two obvious choices—Suez and Panama.

Widening of the Suez Canal—shoring works.

In the second half of the XIXth century, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps set about building the two canals, both of which would make intercontinental trade substantially quicker and cheaper.

Lesseps was not able to fulfill his dream of building the Panama Canal—US president Teddy Roosevelt completed the job some decades later—and left the world an enduring palindrome: A Man, A Plan, A Canal—Panama.

The connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was an old dream of the pharaohs—or rather, the ancient canal would connect the Red Sea port of as-suways to the River Nile.

Napoleon ordered the old excavations investigated and considered building a canal himself, but his engineers miscalculated the difference in water height between the Red and the Med by a whopping twenty-eight feet, and the project was scuppered.

The canal took ten years to dig and was finally completed in 1869. Even before it opened, it was a source of controversy and geopolitical strife—the Brits saw it as a threat to the India trade—presumably it didn’t help that it was built by a Frenchman.

Since then, the one hundred and twenty mile canal has been the cause of international disputes and a small war— The ditch, as sailors refer to it, has been run by Egypt since the late 1950s, but the area continues to be fraught with tension.

Landsat image of the Nile delta, which stretches from Alexandria to Port Said.

Suez is a major source of income: the Egyptian government mandates that the ‘Suez crew’ are taken on board for the passage—ships have a dedicated Suez crew room to house these ‘specialists’. The Suez crew apparently have ‘special rope skills’, and include both a dedicated pilot and an electrician who tends to a searchlight mounted on the fo’c’sle —none of them do an awful lot apart from eating, drinking, and sleeping during the eighteen hours spent aboard.

A century ago, the role of shipping in trade was of general interest—as recently as the 1970s, radio sets had a shortwave channel called Marine Band. Today, nobody cares about shipping, or even knows it exists—the irony is that it accounts for ninety percent of world trade.

Much of that takes place through oil tankers, bulk carriers, and huge container ships—the spotlight shone briefly on the latter, and on shipping in general, when the Ever Given, a mere one thousand three hundred feet in length, wedged itself across the Suez Canal last month.

The story broke on Bloomberg because the channel knew this was a major disruption to business—there was an immediate reaction in the oil markets. Mainstream broadcasters picked up one or two days later, with both CNN and the BBC running pieces about the Ever Given and its charterer, Evergreen.

Suddenly, the role of maritime transportation became clear—you never miss your water ’till your canal runs dry. It also became obvious that the Suez crew were about as useful as a steer on a heifer.

Then, silly season set in. First, QAnon claimed the Ever Given was a child trafficking ship linked to Hillary Clinton, and then some wag discovered that the vessel had drawn the shape of a gigantic phallus in the water east of Suez before entering the canal.

Giant penis track drawn by the Ever Given prior to getting stuck in the sand.

A good deal of sophomoric humor followed about the penis entering the canal—boys will be boys.

I think the most important message was missed: two well-planned attacks—blowing up a couple of ships in Suez and simultaneously in Panama, thereby blocking both waterways—would have dramatic consequences for world trade.

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

Bed and Brexit

March 28, 2021

Towards the end of 2020, I bought a new bed.

The acquisition of a bed, as the manufacturers and salespeople love to tell you, is a transformative life decision—between bed and mattress, you’re entrusting a large part of your mental health to an inanimate object.

Bedtime makes up a third of your life, unless you’re Japanese—the land of the rising sun has a special word, Karoshi, for death from overwork.

Since this is the first bed I’ve bought in decades, and the first new bed I’ve ever owned, I did some hunting around—in a pandemic, that means surfing. I looked close to home, gravitated to a couple of the big London stores, saw a couple of things I liked, and then decided to go straight to the motherlode.

The guys I ended up doing business with have a factory in the British countryside—on land that belongs to the crown (no, not Netflix, silly). And very nice they were too—we talked prices and discounts, overseas shipping, the usual deal, and finally settled the matter just after the beginning of winter.

I was keen to wrap up the deal prior to Brexit, since with a 2020 invoice, the export of said bed to the European Union would attract no duty—how wrong I was.

Turns out that any goods shipped from the UK after December 31st 2020 are thoroughly in the dog house. The norm is to get hit with a triple whammy of VAT, customs handling charges, and ancillary costs—as the saying goes, you make your bed and lie in it.

The obvious consequences of these trade barriers were stated repeatedly and with vigor by remainers—now, the chickens are coming home to roost. Said chickens, should they be of UK provenance, are stuck in bonded warehouses prior to import payment and release.

Businesses that sell or import British food products (I know, a bit of an oxymoron there) are well and truly stuck. Not only have costs gone up significantly, but shelves are empty because of transport delays—in maritime jargon, British exports to Europe are going through a bit of a pen pal—that’s my very own Cockney rhyming slang—Suez Canal.

The UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) released what can only be classed as dismal numbers comparing the top British food and drink exports to the EU in January 2020 and one year later. I worked them up into a chart, which shows how hard the food industry was hit.

Whisky and salmon are both from Scotland—the Scottish people, who voted to stay in the Union, must be appalled at this sorry mess. Beef also got hammered—the Scots produce Angus cattle, so a triple whammy there.

And when it comes to fish, which salmon apparently is not, this includes all the shellfish industry—the export of live oysters, mussels, and scallops, along with langostines and crabs, is very much a Scottish business, although Wales also has an important mussel production.

The pandemic also accounts for some of this reduction, given how hard the hospitality industry in Europe was hit—and still is, with multiple lockdowns in practically every EU nation.

But a lot of it is Brexit—the double punch of the end of frictionless trade with Europe and Covid has meant the swansong for many small businesses—family-run outfits, often in small places, that help anchor communities.

In total, Bojo’s social experiment has shrunk the trading landscape of foodstuffs from almost six hundred billion dollars to one hundred forty-one—a decrease of seventy-five percent.

And that big brass bed? I’ll let you know when it gets here.

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


March 20, 2021

I had a six-hour road trip yesterday—confined to my car, but it was a beautiful spring day. It was long past dark by the time I got home, and to keep myself busy while the white lines flew by, I binged out on Wind of Change, the podcast I told you about last week.

In the end, it reminded me of Churchill’s definition of the Soviet Union—’a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’

Although the whole Wind of Change trip sounds like a red herring, if you excuse the double Soviet pun, some bits of it have the true mark of zagovor—conspiracy.

The most fun part of the story, and  certainly the most verifiable and the most bizarre, is the tale of drug smuggling from South America to the United States in the second half of the 1980s.

Recall that this is the heyday of the War on Drugs—in the fall of 1986, Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and in 1989, George H.W Bush, aka Bush 41, appoints William Bennett ‘drug czar’—love the Russian terminology.

The manager of a bunch of heavy metal bands, including Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, and The Scorpions, is a larger than life character called Doc McGhee. Indulge me in two quick linguistic excursions: first, the unorthodox use of umlauts means the band’s name is pronounced Moh-tlee Cree-e, and second, the good doc’s surname is spelled in the same way as the clarified butter (ghee) widely used in Indian cooking—but I digress.

McGhee, who was neither christened ‘doc’ nor possessed a doctorate, apparently changed his name by deed poll. Doc was allegedly involved in drug smuggling when he got into the music business, managing a moderately successful band called NiteFlyte.

Their greatest hit, called If You Want It, is a classic example of what my friends and I used to call disco shit—the sort of stuff that made Dr. Hook write If You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman and Sexy Eyes—except they were clearly taking the piss. This was 1980’s Miami—coke, women, and disco.

By the mid’80’s, Doc is a very successful band manager, but he’s also notorious for massive splurging on Crystal champagne, limos, hotel suites—all the usual suspects.

He’s very generous with the bands, but no one asks where the money comes from. Enter Steven Michael Kalish, a Texas drug smuggler—known for his aversion to guns and violence. Kalish’s bag (sorry) is smuggling weed, and Doc’s deal (sorry) is fronting the money.

But the Colombian connections are not Kalish’s, they’re Doc’s. And in a further, conspiratorial twist, Manuel Noriega, Panama’s dictator who ended his days in an American federal penitentiary, comes into the mix—Kalish talks about a direct connection with Noriega for money laundering through the Bank of Commerce Credit International, of bringing the dictator a personal gift of three hundred thousand dollars, and doing lines of coke on the guy’s desk.

The Luxembourg-registered BCCI served as a conduit through the years for the cash earned from smuggling pot and coke into the US, and was liquidated in 1991.

Kalish, McGhee, and a host of others smuggled hundreds of thousands of pounds of weed into the States—the way Kalish, who now lives in Hawaii, tells it, they would sail a fishing boat from Colombia to one of the southern states and then offload to tractor-trailers. Louisiana and North Carolina were typical destinations.

Kalish recently wrote a book called The Last Gentleman Smuggler, ghosted with Nikki Palomino, but I can’t find it for sale it anywhere.

An operation with that many folks involved stateside, plus the South American angle, was bound to end in tears—his last joint—oops, jaunt—involved a hundred people offloading bales into six semi-trucks. Kalish’s 1989 trial is reported by the Associated Press, and provides firm evidence that McGhee got off with a $15,000 fine and a five-year probation, mandating him to spend a further 250k and 3000 hours on his Make a Difference Foundation.

At a separate case in Louisiana, McGhee faced ‘150 years in jail and a $400,000 fine’. Once again, he walked. Kalish was sentenced to fourteen years and served eight and a half. Noriega’s name appears repeatedly.

So the real Zagovor is how McGhee beat the rap—and there’s the rub—the only agency that could get him off the hook was the CIA.

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

Wind of Change

March 13, 2021

Corona confinement took us all into uncharted territory.

Like the Portuguese sailors of The India Road, we found ourselves in a place we knew nothing about—the trick now for us, just as it was for them, is to get back to where we were.

This is a return to Neverland—the famous Peter Pan dream world of eternal childhood. The things we had when we left have changed, and even if they haven’t, we’ve changed, so it won’t be the same—it’s turned into a string of cliches: the new normal, home is the new office, bla bla, yakety yak.

The wind of change is blowing this year as we learn what non-linear means—it’ll take us by surprise, just as last year did—humans don’t do steep, but nevertheless I’m optimistic.

Confinement changed the way I live, in much the same way as austerity did ten years ago. At that time, I stopped buying newspapers, along with a bunch of other changes: going out to eat became a special event—I watched restaurants close by the bucketload—and I altered my work habits to save gas.

This time around, music became far more important than ever before in my life, and I got into other weird stuff like podcasts. The Bugle has become one of my favorites—it’s not always good, but when it is, it’s great! And lots of internet radio.

Soon I will be traveling again—I was due to go to Mexico this week, which would have provided some nice material for these pages—but now is not quite the right time.

And yet, I can feel the wind of change in the air—there’s so much pent-up energy just waiting to be released, so many places to go—but it will be weird. Two years ago, if you wore a mask in a bank the cops would think you were a bank robber, now you’re just another customer.

One of these podcasts develops an unusual theory—or at least it would have been bizarre before QAnon(sense), which is now peddling crap such as ‘Doctors and Nurses Giving the coronavirus vaccine Will Be Tried as War Criminals‘.

The concept is not new—intelligence agencies using insidious methods to influence folks in another country—in this case by means of music. As a wide-eyed child, well before the iron curtain was drawn, I listened in the dead of night to the Voice of America, to Radio Free Europe, but also to the English service of what was then the DDR—which apparently now stands for ‘Dance Dance Revolution’, not quite what the Stasi had in mind—and to the most Marxist-Leninist station of all, Radio Tirana.

Cold War radio was a big deal—yesteryear’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all wrapped into one—and I always thought Tirana was a perfect name for the capital city of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship.

The musical plot—I have a hard time believing it, but it has all the trappings of an urban legend—is a simple, credible story: the year is 1990, the Berlin Wall is falling, and the Soviet Union is crumbling with it, as Mikhail Gorbachev promotes his dual policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.

To help the liberation effort, what could be juicier than a little rock ‘n roll?

Enter The Scorpions, a German metal band little-known in Anglo-Saxon circles but very popular in Europe and South America. The lead singer is Klaus Meine, a native of Hannover, already in his early forties when the wall came down.

The band—known for its heavy rock and power ballads—deals with the usual subjects popular with the head-banging fraternity, to wit (if you excuse the pun) bikes, girls, muscle cars, and guns.

But wait! Suddenly a totally out-of-character political song—and a good one—emerges from the pen of Herr Meine. Klaus has often written lyrics for the Scorpions, rarely the music.

Voila the conspiracy theory: Wind of Change, which the band released in 1990, was written by that famous tunesmith, the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.

The signature whistling at the start of the song is timeless, the power ballad feel is great, and the way the drums come in on the chorus with a triple gunshot is perfect. The lyrics set the scene:

Follow the Moskva
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the Wind of Change

August summer night
Soldiers passing by
Listening to the Wind of Change

The video is suggestive, with plenty of Soviet imagery and Gorby meeting the Polish pope, champion of the Solidarity movement in his native country, though the lyrics get a little cheesy as the song develops—I learned to play it today, so I studied them at length.

Klaus Meine denies any CIA involvement in the genesis of the song, although he underscores the power of rock ‘n roll—it packs more punch than the Bolshoi.

But there seems to be a twinkle in his eye when he ends the interview…

…it adds another chapter now with the CIA. At the end of the day, the song became bigger than life. It’s one of those songs [that] make their own way, and there’s nothing I can do.

One thing’s for sure, we’re in the wind of change and we must embrace it. Churchill understood change, and his words help us set the course.

‘We must take change by the hand, or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.’

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

Houndin’ Around

March 6, 2021

I’ve spent the past two weeks in profound observation. The subject of my research is a pair of hounds. The object of my investigation is an age-old question, ‘How do animals find their way home?’ When we’re dealing with canines, home is a human dwelling—with felines, it’s not exactly the same thing.

There’s a tale of a cat that would regularly disappear—as they do—to the great distress of the little girl who owned it. The mother decided to tie a note to the collar. ‘Please do not feed the cat, it belongs to my daughter.’ Shortly after, the cat vanished for a few days. When it returned, a different message was on the collar. ‘We’re terribly sorry, we thought she was our cat.’ Cats have a very different take on domestic relationships—as a friend of mine says, “Dogs have owners, cats have staff.”

For practically all animals, home is nothing to do with humans—although any human home harbors a number of unwelcome guests: insects, spiders, and the odd rodent. What most animals have in common is the ability to navigate—we call it a homing instinct, because any behavior we can’t explain is put down to ‘instinct’.

And homing is key to survival—migratory birds have taken it to the limit, and homing pigeons were the historical equivalent of the world wide web. There are wonderful experiments where birds have been observed in the planetarium, virtually navigating by the stars. In The India Road, a pigeon uses the heavens and the earth to orientate.

Just then, a bird fluttered at the gothic arch. The warm summer breeze was wafting through the Santarém palace, the banks of the Tagus cooling the fierce heat. The carrier pigeon had flown over the plains of Salamanca, keeping a sharp eye for the peregrine falcons and golden eagles that circled overhead. The atmosphere, like the ocean, is sparse. The great predators keep a sharp lookout for the lonely traveler, for the flocks of birds or the schools of fish. In the ocean, they strike from the deep. In the air, they swoop from the sky. The racing dove had turned at the frontier, flown south across the Beiras, over the old Jewish synagogue at Belmonte, and then rotated west once more, following the course of the Tejo. He flew the thermals, saving his energy on the air currents caused by the interplay between the suffocating plains and the cooler Tagus waters. Now far below him was the castle at Almourol, once home to Vandals, Visigoths, and Berbers. Like a bull’s-eye in the middle of the majestic river, it had been extended by the Knights Templar and was now in the hands of the Order of Christ. As the weary bird turned and coasted toward the palace, the king heard the fluttering wings, and his heart lifted in hope.

When it comes to hounds, there is much folklore about how they find their way home. Books and TV shows like Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin delighted a generation of children. My canine experiments were observational—I wanted to confirm whether dogs orient themselves using the earth’s magnetic field. My particular interest came from a study published a few years ago in the scientific journal Frontiers of Zoology. Arguably, the paper belongs instead in the Annals of Improbable Research.

The authors studied seventy hounds of thirty-seven different breeds. Their thesis was both simple and fascinating: Do dogs poo in alignment with the earth’s magnetic axis? Echoes of The India Road came to my mind—the XVth century Portuguese navigators going to the ends of the earth with compass and astrolabe. Could hounds have helped direct their course? If only we knew… The authors of the study spared no effort in their investigation—much like the dogs themselves, they bent to their task with great gusto. Altogether, results are presented for 1,893 defecations and 5,582 urinations.

Figure 2 from the Frontiers paper: ‘Alignment during defecation in dogs (females and males) in different day periods. ‘

It’s official: ‘under calm magnetic conditions’, dog doo-doo aligns to the north-south axis. It is a standard requirement for publication of any scientific paper that the methods be explained in sufficient detail to allow any other researcher to reproduce the results. I am pleased to report that for a further two experimental subjects, one has observed magnetic pooping around 75% of the time over a period of two weeks—a total of around fifty productions. As in any scientific analysis, details should be supplied—in my case, the focus was on ‘Number 2’, a high impact and readily detectable activity—no sneak pees.

In addition, since the experiment was performed on two females, all research was gender-friendly. Lastly, I add the usual disclaimer for any work of this nature: no animals were harmed during the experiments—all defecation was voluntary, and dare I say enthusiastic. In these days of crowdfunding, I urge you, kind readers, to spare no effort in contributing to this fascinating, yet pungent, line of research. Next time you’re in the park, faithfully record if your hound is proudly aligned with the north-south axis as it crouches for its curly contribution.

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

Let It Rain

February 20, 2021

I’m writing these words while the rain falls in buckets outside. For me, rain and music go hand in hand. Songs like Have You Ever Seen the Rain, or Dylan’s Buckets of Rain—one of the most poignant love songs ever written, come to mind… or even the more esoteric Box of Rain, by the Dead—someone told me many years ago the song is about heroin.

It’s been a rainy season and a half, so far—from Texas to Jakarta, climate change has been showing its colors. Last Thursday I was supposed to be on a call to West Texas, but they’d had no power since Monday—I was tempted to tell them last time I saw that was in Mozambique. You don’t think of the US as a vulnerable country, where a large part of a state as rich as Texas can be without electricity or water for days, but the evidence is there.

In this particular case, was it policy, climate change, or infrastructure? Apparently, you can blame all three—different actors have taken their pick. Undoubtedly, snowstorms in Texas are well outside the definition of normal weather patterns—they fall into the ‘extreme event’ category—such events are typical of climate change. Texas is so confident in its energy self-sufficiency that it doesn’t link to the US national electricity grid—this is an obvious policy failure—when the Texas system collapsed, there was no external supply.

The collapse was linked to a single and obvious fact—below 32oF, water freezes. This affected the cooling systems of energy plants, including nuclear—Texas has two of those. Although the bulk of the Texas outages were due to freezing of natural gas pipelines, the conservative media had a field day blaming renewable sources like wind and solar. If the double-peach orang-u-tan still had a license to tweet, there would have been a host of fake news typos on the topic. As it is, there’s enough crap going around, like this quote from a Colorado Republican congresswoman.

We have Joe Biden who is nice and warm in his fossil-fueled White House singing kumbaya with his environmental extremists while Americans are freezing to death.

A recent article in the New York Times analyzes the renewables question—turns out wind power only meets seven percent of the Texas energy requirement—hardly a critical factor, but the debate has grown to a new level of hysteria as climate change skeptics rage about wind turbine blades freezing—oblivious to the irony that they’re only freezing because of climate change.

Meanwhile, Jakarta holds the dubious record of being the world’s fastest sinking city, around four inches per year. In north Jakarta, the ground is estimated to have sunk about eight feet in the last ten years, making any building one story shorter.

The monsoon rains have visited upon Jakarta a flood of epic proportions.

The times seem a little biblical at present, featuring a succession of plagues—and there’s no indication these are one-off events. Climate change is here for the foreseeable future and may well bring with it a bunch of new surprises, known as indirect effects. One example is an increase in disease because particular temperatures favor certain pathogens.

As for the COVID plague, in most European countries, and in the States, there is a clear downward trend, and there’s hope that vaccination will shut the virus down for good. So at least there’s a few things to smile about.

And as usual, fact can be stranger than fiction. A thirty-year old man in the UK was this week offered a priority vaccine when his BMI was flagged at twenty-eight thousand. Turns out his height had been registered not as six feet two inches but as 6.2 cm.

A back-calculation puts his real weight at 238 lb, give or take, so he’s on the lower end of the ‘obese’ category, but you’d have thought the guys who write the algorithms might idiot-proof them.

The NIH BMI calculator is certainly deficient in this respect—it allowed me to determine the BMI for a human who is 6 cm tall, and one of average height weighing only one kilogram.

I propose that the code geeks add what I will now call the Wibaux Humpty Dumpty test. When you input a person’s height, the app calculates what that person would weigh if he or she were a perfect sphere.

Humans are roughly the same density as water, i.e. 1 g/cm3, although some are considerably denser in the brain area. In order to apply the WHD law, we need to determine the volume of our spherical human, and that will be the weight in grams—for an average balloon person, that is around 2.5 metric tons, rather more than an automobile.

The BMI for the rotund one will be slightly under one thousand, a pretty exceptional upper limit. It would certainly have saved the embarrassment of the doctor’s explanatory phone call.

Before the doctor’s call, the thirty-year-old man called his mom to tell her he was being vaxed due to obesity. Her reply is pure poetry.

‘Well, perhaps this is the wake-up call you need…’

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

The Perfect Square

February 13, 2021

John Le Carré died on the 12th of December last year, at the age of 89. I was twelve when I read his third book, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold—since then, I read everything he wrote.

Unlike other spy novelists, and in sharp contrast to the current fad, there was no gripping first chapter that hooked you to the book. He built the house from the ground up, and slowly reeled you in. His books had no explicit sex (unlike mine) and although people got hurt, wounded, and killed, he never indulged in it—all in all, very British.

If I had to pick his best book, it would be The Honourable Schoolboy—Le Carré’s heroes orbited around public schools (which in the UK means private schools), Oxford and Cambridge, and the British army—hardly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

Most of the authors I read, much like the music I prefer, are considerably older than I am—many are dead. Dylan is only ten years younger than Le Carré.

After Le Carré died, I bought The Spy Who Came In from the Cold—but this time in digital, and I have been slowly savoring it, mixed in with other reads, as the fancy takes me.

The spymaster’s pen name means ‘The Square’, and when I was choosing a pseudonym, it struck me as a fine idea to have two names, one simple and one complicated—Peter Wibaux seemed the perfect choice—and even though, like Le Carré, the name sounds French, that’s not where I got it from.

New revelations about the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a physicist prominent in the Iranian effort to develop a nuclear weapon, drew immediate comparisons to both Le Carré and James Bond—always a bizarre pairing.

Bond movies (I’m one of the few people that read Ian Fleming’s early books) are the polar opposite of a Le Carré plot. After I read the article published recently, I can assure you this story is much more John than James—although on balance it’s closer to Frederick Forsyth than to Le Carré, simply because of the nature of the action.

Jacob Nagel, who was an acting national security advisor for Netanayahu, and a former IDF official, states:

It is certain that if Iran developed the bomb, it would be a problem for the whole world… Israel especially cannot live with a nuclear Iran. So we will defend ourselves by ourselves, and in the process we are defending you, too.

The Mossad had documents proving that Fakhrizadeh had worked on several nuclear warheads, each one able to cause five Hiroshimas.

He was serious. He still meant to do what he planned. So someone decided that he had had enough time on earth.

The assassination was meticulously planned, starting with the murder weapon—very little can be found about it, except that it was a ‘one-ton automated gun. The question then arises of how such a weapon was brought into Iran from hostile territory. We’re told it was smuggled in piece by piece, which would mean it was then reassembled locally.

The black Opel in which Fakhrizadeh was assassinated. The accuracy of the hit is obvious from the state of the vehicle.

Although the one-ton gun is all over the net—not least because plagiarism is the web’s dirty secret—and there are passing mentions of the use of satellites and AI, the one-ton bit remains bizarre.

Why one-ton? From the images of the car, the projectiles went through the glass, which given the profile of the victim, must have been bullet-proof. That means 50 calibre or larger, i.e. a round 13 mm in diameter, or about half an inch.

John Browning first created the M2 .50 machine gun back in 1918—it weighs around one hundred thirty pounds, if you include both the tripod and the traverse. That leaves 942 kg (over 2000 lb) to spare, if we’re talking metric tons.

Where did that go? Presumably the weapon was mounted on a frame, and there will have been a number of support systems, as well as a bomb to destroy the weapon after the kill.

One-ton-gun has a rap ring to it, but I still can’t see what might make it that heavy or how you could possibly drive it around in a police state undetected.

Nevertheless, an automated gun appears to have been used—twenty Mossad operatives were involved in the plot, over a period of eight months. Some of the people involved were Israelis, but not all.

The remarkable thing about the killing is that Fakhrizadeh’s wife, sitting less than a foot away from her husband, was unharmed, while thirteen bullets hit the physicist. Twelve bodyguards who accompanied the couple in convoy were all unharmed. Then the bomb went off and blew up the gun, which was fitted inside a Nissan pickup.

The Mossad people all made it out, according to the account in the Jewish Chronicle—that may well be disinformation, if some of the spies are deep cover assets based in Iran.

The Iranian was killed on Friday, November 27th, which raises the question of whether this was a last effort by Trump to power-blitz Israel before Biden took office. Israel says no, the Americans had nothing to do with it.

Apparently, there was a courtesy call made to Washington, but a source states Israel never asked for permission.

“It was more like checking the water temperature.”


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

The Triple V

February 6, 2021

Social distancing, vaccine hesitancy, economic recovery, conspiracy, plandemic, scamdemic—just some of the words and phrases that permeate our day.

The coronavirus vaccines have made excellent progress—never has a set of vaccines been produced so quickly. Partly, this is because the new vaccines work by using a different approach—they’re based on ribonucleic acid, or RNA.

The coronavirus genome—how can something so nasty look this pretty?

RNA is the lesser known sibling of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, and like its big brother, it provides cells with a blueprint for manufacturing the compounds they require. Our DNA makes messenger RNA, known as mRNA, which is then translated to make proteins.

In this case, mRNA strands that contain code to make virus-specific antigens are injected into the cells—this can only be done if we know the genome of the virus, i.e. if it has been sequenced.

Once inside a cell, the mRNA instructs the cell’s production apparatus to make the appropriate antigen, and the antigens fight off the viral infection.

In both the US and UK, the vaccination tide is turning, but in mainland Europe things are not as good—the supply line isn’t working well, but as soon as that improves there will be a marked fall in hospitalizations and death rates.

As I write, the UK has vaccinated more of its population than any other nation in Europe—Brexit supporters are gloating that this would not have been possible within the EU. However, Member-States do their own purchasing and make their own decisions on approval and safety, as evidenced by Hungary—the militant Magyars are busy shooting up both the VladVac and its Beijing sibling, so this is another example of Brexit bollocks.

What the Brits did right (and it’s great to see them do something right considering the dog’s breakfast they made of the pandemic) was the procurement—the Israelis did the exact same thing, but far better, which is why they’ve now vaccinated one-third of their nine million population, while Portugal is at less than 400,000 out of ten million souls.

Vaccination nation—everyone pales when compared to Israel. The chart shows doses administered as a percent of population.

When it comes to delivery, the UK National Health Service has worked wonders—that’s the second thing the Brits got right—using a trained, competent, national infrastructure instead of sub-contracting the work to Tory chums whose healthcare business experience consists in making rubber ducks and paper clips.

Of course, you cannot examine the triumvirate Virus-Vaccine-Variants without discussing the two large elephants in the room.

The first is the duration of immunity and the vaccination rate: in the US, about five percent of the population has been vaccinated over a period of about one month, considering a double dose is required, or about eleven percent, if you assume everyone so far has had only a single dose.

Even if we roll with a single dose, it would take seven months to reach the magical seventy percent number where the virus cries uncle and goes away. By then, the first groups vaccinated may well have lost their immunity, since it is thought to last five months or so.

Seventy is only magic if that percentage of the population is immune at the same time.

As for the variants, the jury is still out. Faster spread means more deaths, even if the virus isn’t nastier—it’s just a numbers game. Vax resistance is another matter altogether, and a number of people have pointed out that immunizing the first world is going to bite us in the butt, because wealthy nations leave large swathes of Africa, Asia, and South America open to development of vax-resistant strains—instead of fine-tuning with bats or pangolins, the virus will fine-tune in humans.

As Europe and America make plans to see the end of this plague, a true hundred-year event, and reboot their economies, I leave you with a couple of pre-vac thoughts.

The first is that informal economies, prevalent in southern Europe but also significant in northern nations—think gig economy—naturally encourage virus spread. Folks who don’t have a declared formal occupation cannot confine because they won’t get paid, and neither are they eligible for compensation—for builders and other contractors, sharing vans, tools (yes, that sounds bad), and meals are all virus brushfire. Often, they won’t get tested to avoid being quarantined—if the spouse also has an informal job, both wage earners spend fourteen days without income.

The debate around education and the hot topic of teacher vaccination has also, if you excuse the pun, gone viral. Apart from the flu shot (and in recent years also pneumonia), vaccines are a childhood experience. Children’s immunity becomes adult immunity, and all is well.

Vaccinating teachers is a good thing, since it’s a high risk profession—they get Covid from the kids—but it certainly won’t stop the spread of coronavirus to the wider population because the parents get it from the children.

Vaccinating children isn’t an option either, because the vaccine doesn’t stop you from infecting others—it only protects you, or put another way, turns you into an asymptomatic carrier–which is what kids are anyway.

As Uncle Winston famously said, “This is not the end, it is not the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

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

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