Archive for the ‘Historical novels’ Category

Where Are You Now?

October 30, 2022

The bunker is dank, the cement walls harsh and forbidding. The entrance is down a flight of steps that doesn’t seem deep enough to protect us from the MK82 and M117 bombs dropped by the B-52, aka BUFF—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.

“Forty people can take shelter here,” the lady says—I’ve wangled a private tour of the bunker where Joan Baez hid on Christmas Eve, 1972, as the bombers flew overhead. In a small room, my guide turns on a tape—sirens moan and children cry, a piano tinkles in the background. A Vietnamese voice tells everyone to put on their helmets.

“…that the most sacred of Christmas prayers was shattered by the bombs,” Baez recites, before breaking into song. Where Are You Now My Son? she asks, singing of a Vietnamese woman whose boy lies buried beneath the rubble.

The setting is the famous Hotel Metropole in Hà Nội—Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Cantonese and Thai, but like Bahasa it uses the Roman alphabet. That means the tonal vowels are represented by diacritical marks—a single vowel can have two different accents, one related to the vowel itself, which counts as a different letter, and one for the tone.

The hotel hosted the likes of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—I reread The Quiet American, a much more powerful experience in Vietnam—more recently, the Metropole hosted the 2019 summit between micronuke and the orangutan.

I remember the Vietnam War surprisingly well—partly because I listened to shortwave broadcasts from Radio Hanoi—but the Vietnam War Remnants Museum quickly showed me how little I knew.

A massive Chinook graces the courtyard of the museum. My first thought was how well kept the chopper is, despite the tropical weather—a tribute to Boeing manufacturing.

The courtyard is full of American hardware—a Huey, an F-4 Phantom, a Skyraider, and the enormous Chinook. There’s a conspicuous absence of Vietcong materiel, although they had Russian MiGs and SAMs aplenty. I didn’t realize the US was dragged into the war by the French, first as arms suppliers and advisers, and then as actual troops.

Air force general Curtis Lemay, who I’d read about in the biography of Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, had some choice words to say about the enemy.

They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.

The war museum omits any mention of Vietcong atrocities—truth is the first casualty of war. But it shows some impressive images, and equally impressive numbers—the US dropped five million tonnes of bombs during World War II, but almost triple that in Vietnam—over fourteen million, living up to Lemay’s dictum. The cost of the war was six hundred and eighty billion dollars, double the second world war, and had about one third of the casualties, but only an eight of the deaths—this attests to the fact that it was an air war.

One of the key weapons of the North Vietnamese was art. Many posters, some of which rich in both humor and irony, told the story of American invasion.

Air wars are convenient but unwinnable, as was found by the Luftwaffe in England, the Americans in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and now the Russians in the Ukraine. Inevitably, there are boots laid on the ground, and that’s when the body bags pile up.

One of the most interesting aspects of the war were the correspondents—many died, the most famous perhaps being Robert Capa, but the one that impressed me most was the Englishman Larry Burrows, who photographed for Life Magazine.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a tribute to The Killer, one of the fathers of Rock n’ Roll—I bet Great Balls of Fire was heard often in ‘Nam. That said, I found no evidence, but I did spot this.

Burrows left behind the most courageous quote of the war.

“I will do what is required to show what is happening. I have a sense of the ultimate-death. And sometimes I must say, ‘To hell with that.'”

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

Arabs and Harrods

October 25, 2022

I’m sitting at a departure gate in Qatar at two in the morning. Around me are a multitude of Vietnamese, yakking excitedly.

Whenever I go through Doha, it’s always the middle of the night, but the airport is a gigantic, pulsing, sleepless place.

Like most of the Gulf states, the engine that moves Qatar is immigration—this is where the poor of Asia come to work, whether it’s building football stadiums or checking boarding passes.

The lines above were written just before I got on a plane—one week ago—and I’m picking up again in Saigon.

Every fishing village has a temple to protect the men who go out to sea—across the water it’s called the Nan Hai, or South China Sea, but you’d get into a lot of trouble calling it that here.

It’s the rainy season, and last night the skies opened, as if Buddha himself drew the curtains to let the bolts of lightning strike. I sat in a restaurant on the Mekong, watching the water hyacinth drift by in clumps and mounds as thunder crashed all around. The ceiling above was corrugated zinc and I wondered just how good a lightning conductor separated me from a charcoal grill.

Vietnam is very different from its neighbors—people here are very focused and it took me just a day to understand why so many products are Made in Vietnam—yesterday I went into an office at midday and found it completely empty, only to discover the place was almost full but the workers were snatching a post-lunch snooze under their desks.

Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, everyone sees it as Saì Gòn. As soon as you get into town, you know you’re somewhere special.

Scooters have a dedicated lane where they ride six abreast, but occasionally the cement walls part and a swarm of Vespa clones descends on you from a cross-street.

A few tunes from Vietnam’s Bob Dylan, Trinh Cong Son. Unlike his erstwhile namesake, this Bob Son does not have ‘a voice like sand and glue.’

Saigon has a well-deserved fun-town reputation going right back to the French days and it certainly catered to US servicemen during the Vietnam War—when the GIs weren’t migrating to Bangkok R&R in Soi Cowboy.

I was told by a friend that the Vietnamese were unassuming, friendly people, small in stature and big in heart. But it is worth remembering they defeated both the Chinese and the Americans.

“And don’t forget the French,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, even the English managed that!”

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

Snake Eyes

October 9, 2022

In 1977, a Polish immigrant called Zbigniew Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Adviser.

Zbig, as he was known in the US, was a diplomat’s son—Thadeusz Brzeziński was posted to Germany in 1931, and three year old Zbig spent the next four years in a country that was undergoing intense nazification.

But the actions of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe were the formative drivers of Brzezinski’s ideology—the boy grew into a man possessed of a deep hatred of communism.

When Brzezinski joined the US government, he set out on a mission to dismember the USSR. His first move was to set up the Nationalities Working Group, dedicated to inflaming ethnic tensions, particularly in Islamic nations—the Soviet Union had six such ‘stans’: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Along the way, he added one more ‘stan’—a nation that is synonymous with violence, oppression, and terror.

In the late seventies, Afghanistan was doing well—it was self-sufficient in food and showed promise politically—the troubled nation was heading for democracy. Enter Brzezinski. The Polish russophobe convinced the peanut farmer turned president to pile weapons into Afghanistan, destabilizing the USSR’s southern border.

Zbig was busy laying a trap—if he could get the Russians to fight in Afghanistan, his aim was to mire them in an endless war. As the Soviet Union saw increasing evidence of threats to their territorial stability, Brezhnev ordered the Red Army to invade.

Let me know if anything sounds familiar.

Not a weapon from the Afghan war, but a vintage vibrator from 1908 used to cure depression in ladies—the tool, if you excuse the pun, is on display at a Venetian restaurant east of the Piazza San Marco—this picture honors a promise made in an earlier article, Diletto‘.

On Christmas Day 1979, the USSR invaded its southern neighbor—the Russians stayed for a decade, during which the US and Saudi Arabia systematically increased their aid to the mujahiddin.

Perhaps the major game changer was the shoulder-fired Stinger missile—the toll it took on the Soviet MI-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships is one of the legends of the war.

The effect of the Afghan war on the Soviet economy was earth-shattering.

The war ended in February 1989, and by early November the Berlin Wall had fallen.

Two years later the Soviet Union imploded.

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s trap was complete, although the man in charge back home was now Ronald Reagan.

Fast forward to early 2022—once again, Russia feels compelled to attack one of its neighbors, but this time it cannot conquer the country. Instead, the war becomes an orgy of sophisticated weaponry, and the Ukrainians bite the bear’s ankles and calves—now they’re dangerously close to the thighs.

Although I tend to take conspiracy theories—and especially conspiracy theorists—with an extremely large pinch of salt, I can’t help wondering if we’re watching a re-run of the same movie, and if we are…

Who wrote the script?

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

Venezia la Serenissima

October 2, 2022

I arrived in Venice and the rain poured down. The night was black, the canal was choppy, and there were dark mutterings of acqua alta as I clambered aboard the vaporetto.

I’d spent four hours behind the wheel, including a pit stop in Bologna where I got soaked buying wine—in northern Italy, there is some contempt for the offerings of the south—after all, these are the lands of Sangiovese, Chianti, Amarone, and of course Barolo.

The new prime minister may be a neo-fascist cantaloupe with a name that rhymes with minestrone, but honestly? No one here gives a shit. Unsurprising, since this is the seventieth government since WWII, or World War Eye Eye, as a friend of mine is fond of saying.

I’m sitting in an airline lounge and the Venetians are mobbing the drinks counter—as I write, I hear a litany of requests for espresso, Aperol, Prosecco, and an endless refrain of prego. This lust for libations is contagious—all around, Germans, Brits, and Iberians join the fun.

I haven’t been here in five years, during which the city shut down, gagged by the mascherina—only Italians could turn a pandemic into a fashion statement.

Even in good weather, getting into Venice is a royal pain in the ass—but the most serene republic has a way of taking you in her arms—in five minutes you’re in awe of… everything.

How can you resist the combo of anti-Mafia banner and lagoon police as you stroll over the Rialto bridge?

Today’s Venice is once again full of tourists—thirty million was the annual intake before COVID. Germans, Americans, and a smattering of other folks from Western Europe.

Conspicuous by their absence are the Chinese, still smitten by the Xi Jinping pandemic policy, and the Russians, enslaved to a latter-day psychopath—so at least there’s only the Italian Mafia to worry about, though the Prada and Gucci stores are aching for the oligarch gold.

The stop-start queue between Rialto and San Marco is governed by Google Maps, but at least no one gets poked in the eye by Chinese selfie-sticks.

The food is as good as ever, and the locals are cheery and friendly—tourism is the life-blood of the city, although the Venetians mainly commute on the vaporetto from Mestre and the surrounding suburbs—there’s no way they can afford the cost of living in this town!

As I trudge through the rainy alleys, duly equipped with an Indian-sold umbrella, in search of a bit of pesce and a glass or two of Ripasso, I chance upon a jazz bar—inside, I hear an indifferent version of Johnny B. Goode—someone thought it sounded good with a swing beat.

A classic Chuck Berry line comes into my head.

I got no kick against modern jazz, unless they try to play it too darn fast. I lose the beauty of the melody, until it sounds just like a symphony…

So here’s a masterclass from the best guitarist you never heard of.

She only did three tours with the late Michael Jackson.

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

Knight Moves

September 25, 2022

Chess got sexy during the pandemic when Queen’s Gambit was released by Netflix.

Gambit comes from the Italian word gambetto, meaning to trip someone up. Leg in Italian is gamba—in Spanish and Portuguese it means prawn, which means that the popular Spanish dish gambas al ajillo literally means garlic legs—but I digress.

The term gambit was defined in 1561 by Ruy López, a Spanish catholic priest—it represents a sacrifice made by one player in order to gain a strategic advantage—but it is documented as a chess opening at least since 1490, around the time Bartolomeu Dias returned from his voyage to the Cape of Good Hope.

Ruy López ater beating Leonardo di Bona. Sitting opposite the priest is King Philip II of Spain, later to become Philip I of Portugal.

Through the centuries, chess remained a game where two opponents pit their wits against each other—may the best man win. I chose my phrasing carefully—I can feel my female readers narrowing their eyes at this outrageous sexism.

In all my life, I’ve only ever met a handful of women who played chess, which has always perplexed and saddened me—chess is a Machiavellian game, and ladies are at least as scheming and unscrupulous as men—the fair sex should be extremely good at chess.

The gender statistics are awful: there are at present one thousand seven hundred and twenty-one chess grandmasters, of which only thirty-nine are women—about two percent.

So, yes… for millennia—since the VIth century, in fact—chess has been a man’s game.

But in 1996, all that changed—that was the year Russian world champion Gary Kasparov was beaten by a computer. The machine was called Deep Blue, and it was manufactured by IBM—it now seems that the reason Kasparov was beaten was because of a software bug—the computer got confused and made a sacrifice—a gambit.

Nowadays, a fifty buck app can beat a grandmaster—I have a free app on my cellphone that regularly trounces me—it’s downright insulting.

If you don’t play chess, you probably can’t associate the game to emotion—but you’re wrong, there is a palpable tension between the players and body language counts—and tension leads to error.

Despite the fact that humans are now whipped by machines, we still organize tournaments that pit two players against each other—but now machines are getting in on the act.

Top players all use chess simulators to practice and improve—a bit like pilots use flight simulators or tennis players use ball machines.

But machines have as usual been appropriated by humans to dirty work—again, I choose my words carefully, for the latest tale involves the use of vibrating anal beads.

If you google those three words you’re led to sites touting ‘bondage for beginners’ and other astounding pursuits—and since any kind of colonic insertion is anathema to me, I have so far focused only on beads used for external adornment.

To avoid being plagued by anal advertising after spending a few minutes researching this stuff, I turned to DuckDuckGo, a faithful friend for private browsing—recommended.

My findings are multiple, much like the orgasms that are apparently enhanced if you like to wear your beads on the inside. Amazon sells them—I’m always amazed they don’t sell wine, there’s a Mormon vibe there—and they caution you to ensure you check your outlets for voltage, like the good stewards they are.

Magnus Carlsen is the current world chess champion. Recently, the defeat of the Norwegian grandmaster by 19-year old U.S. player Hans Niemann sparked a vibrant (sorry) debate on whether the young American was using anal beads to receive instructions on his moves.

Strenuous denials have ensued, but whatever the outcome, social media embraced the story—and suddenly added an erotic dimension to dull image of top-level chess matches.

Whether or not the vibrating beads were the weapon of choice, the key is that humans are using AI to cheat at chess in much the same way they use steroids to enhance performance in athletics.

Will chess players need to be placed in a Faraday cage to electronically insulate them, or subjected to a compulsory body cavity search?

AI has opened up a new can of worms that cross-cuts many competitive areas previously the province of the human mind, and can now be ‘computer-assisted’—card games, board games, memory and knowledge quiz shows, the best angle or place on the court to place a tennis ball—the limit is human ingenuity and our unsurpassed capacity to do evil.

From a software bug to an anal plug, the road to cyborg is here.

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

Dumbing Down

September 11, 2022

Some books I read slowly and some I devour.

Humans are natural classifiers—we love pigeon-holing. He’s an idiot, she’s beautiful, a naturally happy baby, that dog was born angry… it’s how we roll.

Some people never read books—take the orangutan—in fact when you look at that pile of classified papers strewn over the carpet, you wonder how many light years it would take for those materials to be read. They’re pretty much his equivalent of a presidential library.

Others read books occasionally, some feel they should read regularly, so there’s always a book—what book are you reading at the moment?

Into the last pigeonhole go people like me who read various books concurrently—some apace. Ray Kurzweil’s book ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’ is one of my slow books. Anne Applebaum’s ‘Red Famine’ is another, and Alvy Ray Smith’s ‘A Biography of the Pixel’ is yet another.

For different reasons.

Applebaum because the horrors comrades Lenin and Stalin committed to the Ukraine in the first half of the XXth century are worse than what the current dictator ending in ‘in’ is doing in the first half of the XXIst—I just can’t read it at one sitting—it’s too brutal.

Alvy Ray Smith because the parable of the pixel has a lot of math in it, and although I read a lot professionally, this kind of reading (and writing) should be both hobby and relaxation. The Pixel is a brilliant book, and the history of images, video, movies, and Pixar is compelling, but it is a journey.

Kurzweil is a futurist, inventor, and deep thinker. One of his big ideas is the singularity—a point when machines surpass humans in intelligence, which opens up the wriggly, elusive, and stinky can of worms called Artificial Intelligence.

AI is a recurring topic of mine and an integral part of my new book, The Hourglass—yes, I’ve finished it, after six years work—well, there’s an epilogue left to write, and that will happen later today.

I have very mixed feelings about AI—it’s the classic case of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re pushing on. It’s kind of weird—when humans emerged from prehistory, other animals must have thought, ‘These dudes don’t stand a chance.’

Elephants, lions, gorillas, wolves, and eagles did a two-minute threat assessment and concluded, ‘Look at these little rodents scurrying around. They can’t run, jump, trample, fight, or fly. I wonder if they even taste good.

Ever since that trivial underestimation by the entire animal kingdom, courtesy of a bizarrely brilliant brain, the opposable thumb, and tool development, we have engaged in controlling every other life form on the planet through domestication, mastication, and extermination.

In the case of AI, we seem inordinately keen to develop our new masters, and are well on the way to do so. This is Kurzweil’s singularity—he predicts it will occur by 2048—a mere quarter-century from now, or the generation time for humans.

In practice this means that any child born today will be subjugated by machines by the time they become an adult.

We see AI at work every minute of the day, for both good and bad—it helps simplify tedious tasks, improves medicine, grants access to knowledge… and replaces jobs that can be well performed by humans with impersonal and remote interaction.

I have speculated that humans will never be dominated because we are just too evil—we’ll never manage to make machines that nasty.

But there’s another side to AI that doesn’t work at all—it relates to ambiguity and interpretation, and of course that dovetails with humor.

Fallacious argument—not to be confused with fellatious argument—is one example.

The duchess has a beautiful ship but she has barnacles on her bottom.

This classic fallacy only works because in English ships are female, and it is quoted in guides for better writing, but humans can of course tell the difference—AI could analyze the statement and conclude that a barnacle is a marine crustacean—it would attribute a low probability to the assumption that the duchess regularly parked her ass in seawater, allowing the free-floating barnacle larvae to settle, review anti-fouling literature in the context of navigation, and draw the correct conclusion. A human would smile at the ludicrous statement and move on in a millisecond.

About ten years ago, researchers pointed out that simple questions whose answers are evident to humans give AI a run for their money.

Do alligators sew?

How long does it take a wolf to bake a cake?

Do newts play piano?

Can a ridgeback strum chords?

The above are my versions—Google made a pig’s ear of all the replies and the images it returned when answering that last question are dumb.

The most interesting features of this Google search are (i) that the global search showed no relevant hits and only produced a half-page of images; and (ii) there is no connection between dog and guitar. I called the file ridgeback rock to throw AI off the scent. Proper AI would suggest I’m taking the piss.

And yet, my last question is a refinement of ‘can dogs play guitar?’, a question any playful four-year old might pose. And if you said yes—I would, explaining dogs do that by squatting, extending their (fretboard) tail across their body and strumming with their right paw (unless they’re left-handed)— the child would giggle and tell you you’re teasing. Duh.

Oh, and FYI dogs never use thumbpicks.

But AI could explore the fact that ridgebacks are dogs and a chord is played on a stringed instrument such as a ukelele, mandolin, or guitar. The lack of association between dogs and musical instruments might give the computer a hint that I was taking the piss.

Incidentally, if you ask Google: Can cats take the piss?

It comes back with piffle such as ‘is my cat urinating inappropriately?

My deepest sympathy to folks who wander through life asking those sorts of questions.

Researchers into the dumb side of AI formulated ambiguous questions such as:

Joan made sure to thank Susan for all the help she had received. Who had received the help?

a) Joan
b) Susan

or

Sam tried to paint a picture of shepherds with sheep, but they ended up looking more like golfers. What looked like golfers?

a) The shepherds
b) The sheep

It tickles me particularly to imagine sheep looking like golfers—maybe they stole the crook.

Such questions, which are classified linguistically as anaphora, are AI kryptonite.

One of the foremost proponents of AI is IBM—forever embarrassed when its poster child Watson told Jeopardy that Toronto was a US city.

Perhaps they should have called it Sherlock.

Watson, I mean, not Toronto.

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

Diletto

September 3, 2022

In the United States, the market for vibrators is worth seven hundred and fifty million dollars per year. One California company sells four million vibrators annually—worth one tenth of the total market.

That means Americans purchase forty million dildos every year—I’m not sure of the gender and demographic split, but we can do a bit of math.

According to the U.S. census bureau, out of a population of 331 million, 258 million are eighteen and over—let’s leave teenagers out of this and go with that number.

Gallup estimates 5.6% of Americans are LGBT, so there must be more—let’s go with eight per cent, or about twenty million people. That leaves about one hundred and eighteen million straight women—I’m assuming heterosexual guys don’t buy vibrators, but I’m probably very wrong.

With these numbers, the potential market size is one hundred forty million citizens—that’s a new dildo purchased every three and a half years.

I wanted to know the price of these toys for my calculations and I soon found out Amazon has a whole section dedicated to er… sexual wellness, sporting no less than five categories of dildos—at times like this I realize what a sheltered life I’ve led.

I did a little digging and was stunned at the variety and creativity on display—it must be an extraordinary occupation to be a dildo designer, and the mind boggles at the testing and quality-control programs.

The prize for the most imaginative tool, if you excuse the pun (they had to come sooner or later, if you excuse the pun), goes to a product called Clone-A-Willy. I won’t paste an image, in the interest of good taste, but you can click the link (I bet you do)—among some of the other marketing blurb, we are told that this makes:

AN EXACT COPY OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMBER: Our medically tested molds capture incredibly life-like detail, making it the most personalized DIY dick casting kit on the planet!

Who knew?

Before I read the story of Chaloner, I thought vibrators were a product of the last century—well, the XIXth century, really, because of a decorative piece I saw in Venice in 2016.

On a dining room wall, there hung (sorry) an object closely resembling a hand-drill, but adapted for a thrusting motion—the proud owner of the restaurant (and the dildo) explained it was used as a medical device to treat women for hysteria.

This XIXth century vibrator is similar to the one I saw in Venice, but lacks the dashing Italian design. I return to Venice at the end of September and promise you a picture of the Gucci version.

I now stand corrected—and realize the vibrator has a long and noble history, dating back to at least the year 29,000 BC, during the Neanderthal period.

Predictably, the oldest example of this fine art was found in Germany—always a world leader in technology—but we’re talking about rock carvings, so it may be they were just dickpics.

The dildo, whose name originates in the Italian word diletto, or pleasure, is amply illustrated in the paintings of ancient Egypt—Cleopatra is said to have used a hollow gourd filled with bees as a vibrator—that must have been quite the orgasm!

Much like the history of empire, navigation, and wine, the Greeks are next on the scene. The Greek warriors would leave olisbos with their wives while on campaign in faraway places—the men believed lack of sperm led their women to hysteria—a recurring theme until the twentieth century.

Although dildos have been found throughout the centuries—including tools made of gold and ivory, for the landed classes—they were banned in England and the United States a few centuries ago, seen as a threat to male sexuality.

But of course a vibrator is simply another means for a normal woman to have an orgasm, which is as natural as the sunrise and the ocean.

Of the many articles I researched to bring you this chronicle, I’ve chosen one for further reading—sexual history isn’t taught at school, but it’s important.

I particularly enjoyed the humor in that text—the notion that the Ancient Greeks baked penis-shaped bread (I’ve seen variations elsewhere) is great, and of course that led to olive oil as a favorite—and at the time, the only—lube.

And the dietary notion that inserting a penile bread roll into your pussy rather than in the usual orifice is a great way of cutting on carbs just has to make you laugh.

Unsaturated fats too, if you’re into extra virgin olive oil—might end up as the dildo diet.

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

Cereal Killers

August 27, 2022

Where there’s muck there’s brass.

This little ditty is best said with a broad Yorkshire accent—and for those less familiar with obscure English slang, the skinny is: where there’s shit there’s money. Or we could have a go in Yiddish: where there’s drek there’s gelt—not at all sure that exists, but it could.

Okay, enough with the cunning linguistics already, although I must say drek is such a nice word for shit.

Drek before you trek, drekday, dipdrek… the mind wanders.

One thing is certain—troubled places and troubled times always share two qualities: danger and money.

And there are always hustlers, gamblers, conmen, and pavement artists ready to cash in.

For a minute, I wandered down the rabbit hole of conmen and discovered one unsavory fellow by the name of William Chaloner—in a nanodigression, I’ll share with you that this chap lived in the XVIIth century and was executed by hanging in 1699, after none other than Isaac Newton proved him guilty of high treason—to wit, forging the coin of the realm.

Chaloner merits a line in today’s article because during his career as a forger and conman he also sold dildos—I admire his devotion to his nature as a forger by… forging penises.

There’s an anonymous biography of yer man, called Guzman Redivivus—please do enjoy a short trip into obscurantism, courtesy of the Newton Project.

The Ukrainian war presents much muck and not a little brass. Energy companies are raking in profits, but today let’s talk about cornflakes.

And bread.

And biscuits.

And meat—in fact, and practically everything that contains starch, sweeteners, gums, or gluten.

Central to the supply of raw materials that drive the world food system—the emphasis here is on grain—are four gigantic multinationals called ABCD. These are ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus—the first three are American, the last is French—Dreyfus is a well-known name in France for all the wrong reasons.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge are both publicly traded, so how are these guys doing?

ADM five year-to date stock prices on the NYSE.

Very well, thank-you.

For example, ADM’s net income is up 74% in Q2, its net profit margin is up 46%, and in the second quarter it handily beat its earnings per share forecast by 25%, with a 10% increase in revenue. Bunge’s stock is not quite so sanguine, but it’s still pretty healthy—the dips in its price reflect charges previously incurred.

The ADM chart shows the Covid dip in early 2020 followed by a steady increase until early 2022. As soon as the Winter Olympics ended—there are multiple reports that China told Putin not to invade until the end of the Olympics—the ADM stock began its steep climb.

Cargill is the largest private company in the world, with a revenue (2018) of 115 billion USD, and is notoriously tight-lipped about its business—Dreyfus is French-owned but based in Switzerland, and not much is known about it either.

Because of this uncertainty, it’s difficult to pin down what proportion of the world grain market ABCD control—estimates range from seventy to ninety percent. These are remarkably high numbers—even with uncertainty—and do not really fit the free-market concept.

Food prices are up by twenty per cent, and Cargill’s revenue is now 165 billion USD, up one third since 2018—Dreyfus revenues are about 1% of Cargill’s, but it reported a significant increase in profit.

With so many people in the US and Western Europe now suffering the kind of food insecurity they’re only used to seeing on TV in shows about developing nations, the pressure is rapidly mounting on ABCD.

There’s an argument that the profit margins on the grain giants have not increased, so what’s the fuss?

The fuss is that if you have a 5% profit margin on fifty billion sales that’s 2.5 billion, but on 100 billion it doubles. That extra 2.5 billion is made on the same volume—the sales haven’t doubled, just the unit price.

I’ve now been writing these pieces for almost fifteen years—during the early 2010s I forecast that austerity in Southern Europe might well lead to serious blood-letting—fortunately it didn’t happen then. With the benefit of hindsight, I very much believe it can happen now.

It is axiomatic that what happens in the US and Europe will always have a worse outcome in Africa, Asia, and South America—many countries there are already at a tipping point.

Desperate people do desperate things, wherever in the world they live, and…

violence is contagious.

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

Once Upon a Time

August 20, 2022

A rapper called Timati has taken over Starbucks in Russia. Like many US companies, the coffee giant responded to the Ukraine ‘military operation’—like calling open heart surgery a capillary puncture—by pulling out of the Russian Federation.

The takeover itself is irrelevant—the fact that Timati released a song called ‘My Best Friend is Vladimir Putin’ is far more worrying. Timati belongs to an ubiquitous category called sycophants, which these days also includes the vast majority of the US republican party.

Among Timati’s records—I won’t link any because they’re dreadful, but like many atrocious things they’re easily found—is one called ‘Moscow’, which has the dubious honor of getting pulled from YouTube after collecting 1.8 million dislikes.

The lyrics are pro-president, pro-mayor, anti-protest, and anti-gay. It refers to Moscow as ‘the city where they don’t hold gay parades’—non-gay pride, if you like.

When I was doing my PhD, there was a palace coup at the university and my supervisor got thrown out of my department. I watched in amazement as fellow graduate students, folks who regularly bought this guy presents—one woman even asked him for permission to get pregnant—turned on a dime and told me the most vicious stories about their professor.

All of them requested a change of supervisor—I did not, despite the fact that I remained in the department from which he was ejected—but then I’d never bought apples for the teacher.

This story illustrates two principles: the first is that moral courage is in very short supply, and the second is that if you’re surrounded by sycophants, they’ll be the first to hang you from a tree when your luck turns.

So before we go on, let’s have a song that celebrates summer and is sufficiently silly to make us all smile.

Some people are naturally disposed to be sycophants, but mainly it’s a matter of interest. That interest may be driven by fear—think Saddam Hussein’s cabinet—but money and professional hierarchy also works.

I’ve hired people and watched their fawning attitude to me, in sharp contrast to how they treat their colleagues, particularly those lower down the ladder—I find it despicable. Dictatorships, such as the multiple decades of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain, create wonderful opportunities for a sycophant culture—which never fails to develop.

It’s a horrible, artificial context—full of back stabbing and falsehood—and it’s led to a whole industry of synonyms, including fawning, sucking up, groveling, and at the darker end, ass licking and brown nosing.

But of all the motivations for brown nosing, fear is undoubtedly the strongest driver.

I’d never thought I’d feel sorry for Liz Cheney, but I do see her as a beacon in a party blindsided by fear. The orangutan is on the record with “real power is… fear.” How is it that the land of the free—or in this case half of it, as represented in congress—is one giant marshmallow of fear?

In a democracy, fear cannot prevail.

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

Mount Kenya

August 14, 2022

The Western news this summer oscillates between the suffocating heat in Europe and the political heat in America, with occasional forays into the military heat of the Ukraine.

Elsewhere, though, things are happening.

Last Tuesday, August 9th, Kenya voted—a general election in Africa is always a momentous occasion, since it invariably reflects tribal rivalries—far more than it portrays policy or promotes peace.

In some nations, such as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the incumbent party is so rooted to the power structure that change is as unlikely as uprooting a baobab with your bare hands.

The mighty baobab, called imbondeiro in Mozambique. The photo from early 2020, just before the pandemic paralyzed the planet, makes me dream of the vastness and peace of African big skies.

But Kenya is not a dictatorship and the tribal balance is different—it’s now the weekend, and they’re still counting votes.

In an article published earlier this year, I described my journey to Kisumu—the town is flagged as a spelling error in WordPress—home to the people of the lake.

The Luo, to which Obama belongs, are the ‘almost there’ tribe. Raila Odinga—the man who almost won the 2007 election—is of course a Luo, given away by the first letter of his surname. I couldn’t find the meaning of the name, but that didn’t stop me having a merry old time with Obonyo (born during locust infestation), Odek (born when the mother had picked up traditional vegetables from farm), and Okongo (born during celebration especially where alcohol brew is plenty).

In 2007, Odinga’s defeat by the Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki led to a de facto civil war—Odinga had been declared the winner until a Trumpian dream occurred—elections were held on December 27th, Odinga called victory on the 29th, and the next day two hundred and thirty thousand votes magically appeared, tipping the scales back to the Kikuyu candidate.

Like the Indian rain dance—it works because it only stops when the rain starts—it’s possible that in Kenya the vote count only stops when the Kikuyu candidate wins.

However, this time round, there is no Kikuyu running.

The man opposing the veteran Luo is called William Ruto, and he’s a Kalenjin.

The funny thing about Ruto is that he backed Odinga in 2007, while Uhuru Kenyatta backed Kibaki.

The two backers had at the time been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with crimes against humanity after the 2007 election. In a marriage made in political heaven, Kenyatta and Ruto ran for office in 2013 and won the presidency—but now Kenyatta has served his two terms.

By the time the 2022 race came up, the Uhuru and William bromance was long gone, and now Kenyatta is backing the Luo candidate—who knew…

Right now, it looks like Ruto might make it—the Kalenjin are long distance runners—Daniel arap Moi was president for twenty-four years. But we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to know for certain.

If Odinga wins, he’ll exorcise the old saw that a Luo cannot become president in Kenya—only in the United States. It will be his fifth attempt, at the ripe age of seventy-seven.

From Reuters to the BBC, any mention of tribes is studiously avoided—in Kenya itself, it’s almost taboo, like a dark family secret. Nevertheless, the tribal narrative is key to determine political outcomes.

Kenya is beautiful, dangerous, and troubled.

May its future be as tall as the African skies.

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


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