Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Get Up Stand Up

April 30, 2016

A couple of years back, I sent the manuscript for Atmos Fear to a literary agent who wrote back saying a number of characters were misogynistic—which is true, but when you have a US special forces baddie, a Saudi terrorist, and a Wall Street broker in the mix, that kind of behavior is entirely in character.

You would in fact be astounded if a Saudi did not consider women as a lower form, given that in the Kingdom ladies aren’t even allowed to drive. A young woman I know twice tried to visit her baby nephew, who she’s never seen, only to be turned away at immigration in Riyadh, and told she had no business coming to Saudi Arabia at all.

The role of a woman in the caliphate, the first experience of the Arab world by mainland Europeans, was literally as receptacle of semen—technically it meant there was no such thing as a bastard, since the woman’s role as a parent was inconsequential—this led to blond and blue-eyed emirs, born from Scandinavian mothers enslaved in the hareems.

I suspect that at the time, Christian women did not necessarily fare much better, but we are talking about the eight century. In the West, much has changed, in the Mid-East, you be the judge.

Nevertheless, Western women in business usually adopt a different language when making statements. A few months ago, Alexandra Petri discussed this in the Washington Post, and gave examples of classic statements as delivered by a man and a woman.

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”

And my favorite.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?”

Of course, Reagan’s counterpart in the UK was Margaret Thatcher, who would easily have been more abrasive in her words—after all, she was known as the only man in the cabinet.

The British satirical puppet show represented Maggie in all her glory. After you see this clip you may well be tempted to watch the next one, where Hitler is Margaret’s ageing neighbor at Nº 9, Downing Street—I loved it.

Ms. Petri’s point is well made, and she has a number of other examples in her article. I would argue that many men also use a soft-sell approach, but there is certainly much work to do with respect to equality of the sexes.

One of the key indicators is compensation. It’s shocking how the West is mired in hypocrisy on this subject—the pay prejudice cross-cuts the most diverse professions in America and Europe.

The exception that proves the rule. I'm afraid there's a terrible pun in that first category.

Dollars earned in the sex industry. The exception that proves the rule. I’m afraid there’s a terrible pun in that first category.

Of course, the sex trade is different. I am a little puzzled at how similar the pay is for erotic dancers—I suppose that’s PC for strippers. But porn aside, the movie industry is anything but egalitarian.

The Forbes list of best paid actors in 2013 shows Robert Downey Jr. at the top with seventy-five million bucks. That’s more than the combined sum paid to the five top actresses.

In sport, the CEO of the Indian Wells tennis tournament recently said on the record  ‘If I were a lady tennis player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.’

The comment is inexcusable, but the discussion in sports is tough, because pay is nowadays a function of the way performance translates into TV rights, corporate sponsorship, and merchandise.

In everyday activities, white collar work carries a pay premium over blue collar, so comparisons of pay based on jobs that require strength or imply danger don’t make much sense.

On the white collar front, whether we’re talking about sales, marketing, teaching, or the stock exchange, salary discrimination makes no sense.

The bottom line is that compensation should always be linked to objectives: don’t tell me how hard you’ve worked, tell me what you’ve done.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Advertisements

Sixty

April 23, 2016

Time passes.

Or at least that’s how we think. The hours crawled by. Time flies. It is we who are the center of this universe.

In reality, time is nothing. We pass. In the US, the verb is synonymous with death. But in England you pass away.

Perhaps because we measure our lifespan that way, we’re besotted with time.

In the fullness of our mathematical incompetence, it’s the one piece of arithmetic we can operate. People who can’t multiply 12 by 5, or make change from a twenty dollar bill, can deal with years, days, and even hours and minutes.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Is it possible that time is the father of math? Eminently so, because tracking time requires a counting system.

And once we learned to count, many other things became possible—we began to calculate—and if you compute, you can predict.

The first counting unit must have been the day, because the sequence of light and dark is so obvious. Dividing the day into two periods is also immediate.

After the sun came the moon. The bright full moon, the dark sky of the new moon, it gave Man another natural rhythm—the lunations of The India Road.

Next, the seasons came into play—in temperate areas, the sequence of snowy winters and warm summers, modulated by spring and fall.

And this combination of day, month, and season led to the year. Once that was established, primitive peoples had their framework for time.

Humans learned to count to four in order to understand the seasons, to twelve to translate them into months, and to thirty to know how many days were in the month.

So true! If math was taught more sensibly, numbers would be more fun.

So true! If math was taught more sensibly, numbers would be more fun.

Those will have been the first needs, and because we were unable to compute time precisely, the astronomical time system must have been based around the magic number 360. Into which 90, the length of a season, goes 4 times. And 30, the number of days in the month, goes 12 times.

The Sumerians noted the circular orbit of the sun, a notion that persisted until the days of Copernicus and Galileo (Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake for it), and divided that circle into 360 intervals—days became degrees.

So, because of a few basic requirements we developed a numbering system with units, sub-units, and multiples.

The history of the hour is a bit of a god’s breakfast, or perhaps multiple deities, since the Egyptians and Greeks are to blame for it. The common man saw the daily cycle as two distinct parts, and the Egyptians used a duodecimal counting system—ancient civilizations counted in twelves, using the three segments of each of the four fingers of one hand.

The Egyptian sundial had twelve divisions, and at the equinox, when the day is as long as the night, the two twelve-hour periods were identical. Twenty-four hours. The number stuck, but for centuries each period always had twelve hours, so in winter, daylight hours were shorter, not less.

‘Sexagesimal’ sounds like a perverted copulation practice of math teachers, but actually it was a counting system created by the Sumerians four thousand years ago, and subsequently passed on to the Babylonians.

It’s a system organized around the number sixty. Now this is not a number that screams for attention, except when the fateful birthday hits, but it is a fascinating number.

For reasons I’m unable to explain, it’s always been my favorite number in the twelve times table, which I was forced to learn as a child.

There’s an apocryphal tale that the twelve segments, multiplied by the five digits of the other hand, led to the use of sixty.

However sixty became popular, here we have our unit. Multiply it by six and you get the days in our primitive year, 360. And as for sub-units, well… How about 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for starters?

If an hour has sixty minutes, it can be divided without fractions into 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30 minutes. How cool is that? You rock, Sumerians!

And since we are besotted, our ancestors felt the need to break that minute down into sixty seconds.

Which is bizarre, because even by the time of Columbus, three thousand five hundred years later, we weren’t capable of measuring hours that accurately. So what use did the Sumerians, Babylonians, or even the Egyptians have for minutes? Not a lot.

The sixties logic found its way into space, as astronomers began to carve up degrees into minutes and seconds.

But when it comes to time, that precious commodity? The sixties system doesn’t quite work. Dog screwed it up and gave us 365.25 days in the year, and a lunar period of 29.5 days.

But that’s the fun of it. Life is a perfect imperfection.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Sleeve

April 17, 2016

The Germans call it the Ärmelkanal. Elsewhere in Europe it’s known variously as La Manche, or La Mancha.

But in England The Sleeve becomes the English Channel—and when the fog comes down, it separates the Continent from Britain, rather than the opposite.

And there, as they say, is the rub, as we approach June 23rd 2016.

The Brexit referendum was one of Cameron’s truly bad ideas, considering he is opposed to Britain leaving the European Union.

The current prime minister did it to hold on to his perch as leader of the Conservative Party, a position threatened by right-wing Tory MPs. The (then) UKIP leader Nigel Farage had systematically tormented Cameron as a weak leader on Europe, and the Tories bled votes to the far-right.

The British electoral system is firmly stacked toward returning parliamentary majorities in general elections, but when it comes to electing the European Parliament, fringe parties win seats—there’s a certain irony that the only voice granted to UKIP was in Europe, because of a fairer electoral system.

The think tank at Chatham House profiles the Brexit voters.

Our analysis of around 30,000 Britons reveals that, broadly, those who would vote to leave the EU tend to have left school before their 17th birthday, to have few or no advanced academic qualifications, to be over 55 years old, and to work in less secure, lower-income jobs. In contrast, those who want Britain to remain a member of the EU tend to be younger, to be more highly educated, and to have more financially secure and professional jobs.

The next two questions would therefore be:

How many people voted in the previous referendum on this issue, held in 1975? The answer to that one is 25,848,654 in total, of which just over 67% voted to stay in.

and

How many Brits over 55 years of age left school before  they turned 17? This question is trickier—there are probably around twenty million people over 55, and a report to parliament from 2012 tells us that in the 1970s, less than 30% of kids that age continued their education.

So there’s a potential universe of fourteen million ‘outers’, to which must be added a supplementary number that includes educated, hard-line, Tories.

In 1975, 64% of the electorate voted. If we project that to 2016, then about nine million ‘outers’ are in the game. Throw in a couple of million from the upper crust, and we’re at eleven or so. For this scenario, in a universe of twenty-six million, Britain stays in—just.

This kind of proximity is dangerous in a referendum, particularly because the militancy lies with the ‘outers’. So to the why question.

Why are the British so anti-Europe? In reality, the question is really why are the English anti-Europe, because the Scots and Welsh don’t march to the same drum.

The fact is the English are anti-everyone: the US, France, Europe, and of course each other. In the UK, everyone knows the meaning of living north of the Watford Gap—it’s a kind of Mason-Dixon line for citizens.

It is also quintessentially English to blame foreigners. Bloody Scots, Welsh gits, Paki immigrants… well, all immigrants really. And of course Brussels.

The perception in England, writ large, is that European Directives have replaced English law—which is true to a degree, as it is in all EU Member-States. Which makes perfect sense, because the UK participates in the drafting and approval of those laws, every step of the way.

Often, the implementation of such legislation is more stringent in the UK than in other EU countries, and in areas such as health and safety, the national perception that things in Britain would be far easier is just plain wrong.

The same applies to immigration. After Brexit, the influx of immigrants into the UK will continue—because menial jobs rely on people prepared to work for low wages: the Filipinos, Pakistanis, or Nigerians (bloody foreigners!)

Terrorism is another red herring. In Britain, as in the rest of Europe, terrorism is associated with Islam. Not all animals are cats, and not all Muslims are terrorists, obviously. However, all cats are animals.

European immigrants to the UK, the Poles and Czechs, the Italians and Portuguese, integrate well, because they have a much closer cultural connection. The only challenge to that integration comes from the English themselves.

The British pound, sinking like a ship in the warm-up to Brexit.

The British pound, sinking like a ship in the warm-up to Brexit.

The first immediate consequence of the lead-up to Brexit has been the crash of the British pound—it tumbled fifteen percent against the euro in the last five months.

I suspect sterling will fall further next month, as the very real possibility of a British exit becomes clearer.

If Britain stays, the pound will surge. If Britain leaves, things get more complicated. There’s Scotland. There’s the consequences for UK trade. There’s the potential weakness in the EU, perhaps a crisis, when Germany finds it is the only locomotive pulling this train.

In this year of El Nino, it won’t just be the weather that’s upredictable in June.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

Amerigo

April 10, 2016

Clear Eyes provides a realistic image of the discovery of the Americas. Like all of us, Columbus had his faults, but he was a brave man with a deep sense of purpose.

And although he got to the wrong place, and insisted from 1492 until his death on May 20, 1506, that he had discovered the Indies, another man ended up lending his name to the newly-found land masses.

As often happens, this fellow—an Italian merchant by the name of Vespucci—made use of both his marketing skills and political connections to elbow his way into history.

But before we come to that, let’s spend a little time looking at continental history. The original model proposed by the Greek philosophers considered Europe to the north and west, Asia to the east, and Libya to the south. At the center of it all, was—duh—Greece.

Unfortunately Columbus messed up the jigsaw when he reached America, but since the admiral of the ocean sea pitched his find as part of Asia, the European geographers insisted on the three-block model, although Libya became Africa—it’s frequent to find the toponym Libya marked on XVth century charts.

The Portuguese discoveries didn’t generate any controversy in the classification of land masses, since the Lusitanians had clearly rounded Africa and arrived in Asia—first Calicut, on the Indian west coast, and then rapidly Malacca, Timor, and the Middle Kingdom—the Chinese and Portuguese words for tea are identical: and chá.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the two little words is that the upward tone used in Mandarin is reflected in the acute accent of the Portuguese spelling.

In the mid-sixteenth century a well-known French world geography book, La Division du Monde, made no mention of the Americas, and the Spanish Empire insisted on the Orbis Terrarum, a contiguous land mass model centered on the Eastern Mediterranean, well into the seventeenth century.

Eastern seaboard of South America from the Cantino planisphere, drawn by Portuguese cartographers at the start of the XVIth century

Eastern seaboard of South America from the Cantino planisphere, drawn by Portuguese cartographers at the start of the XVIth century

This victory of policy over reality completely ignored the fact that a separate continent appeared in charts made by the Portuguese Duarte Pacheco by the early fifteen hundreds, building on maps from the turn of the century—the Cantino map plainly shows both an Oceanus Occidentalis (the Atlantic), and a (Pacific) Oceanus Orientalis to the east of a rather distorted China.

Somehow, in the middle of the muddle, America was named. Vespucci had settled in Spain, business success was indifferent, and he decided to go walkabout. If the historical record of the fifteenth and sixteenth century naval explorations is challenging, then the role of Amerigo the Italian borders on the incredible.

Vespucci communicated his ‘explorations’ in a series of letters to the famous, notably Lorenzo Piero Francesco di Medici. Clements Markham, of the Hakluyt Society, translated the letters in the 1890s, using as his source the 1505-1506 original from Florence.

I have great regard for Uncle Clemens, having compared his translation of the diaries of Columbus with the Spanish original. My command of Castilian is certainly good enough to read the diaries, although my spoken Spanish improves after two cups of tinto.

The president of the Hakluyt Society had a very British sense of humor, which finds its way into the Introduction. Morigo Vespuche, as he was known in Spain, discovered his penchant for discovery at the ripe age of fifty.

His own reasons for this complete change in his old age were that he had already seen and known various changes of fortune in business; that a man might at one time be at the top of the well and at another be fallen and subject to losses; and that it had become evident to him that a merchant’s life was one of continual labour, with the chance of failure and ruin. It was rather late in life to make these discoveries, and it may fairly be suspected that there was some more concrete reason for his change of life which he concealed under these generalities.

Markham felt the need to present Vespucci’s letters to a wider Anglo-Saxon audience, because he knew the Italian was a fake. His opinion is well supported historically, right from the times of Pilot Juan de la Cosa. I too struggle to believe that Amerigo was anything more than a supplier of beef to the caravels of Columbus.

A cartographic image of South America, as fanciful as some of Vespucci's descriptions.

A cartographic depiction of South America, as fanciful as some of Vespucci’s descriptions.

Apart from accusations related to the timing of his travels, the letters of Vespucci are vacuous in the extreme. Here is an example from the third letter.

Having taken on board what we required, we weighed our anchors and made sail, taking our way across the vast ocean towards the Antarctic Pole, with some westing. From the day when we left the before-mentioned promontory, we sailed for the space of two months and three days. Hitherto no land had appeared to us in that vast sea. In truth, how much we had suffered, what dangers of shipwreck, I leave to the judgment of those to whom the experience of such things is very well known.

The letter provides no information on provisions, details of the voyage are as rare as a virgin in Vegas, and the expression ‘some westing’, from a man who purported to be a most competent pilot, is risible.

Now let’s see what he found, after sixty-seven (?) days at sea—which minus the three days above gives us two months of thirty-two days each.

We knew that land to be a continent, and not an island, from its long beaches extending without trending round, the infinite number of inhabitants, the numerous tribes and peoples, the numerous kinds of wild animals unknown in our country, and many others never seen before by us, touching which it would take long to make reference.

So there we have it. A continent defined by long beaches, with a perplexing variety of things Vespucci is unable to describe. Markham believes, as I do, that the letters are a crock of shit.

In each ear they had three perforations bored, whence they had other stones and rings suspended. This custom is only for the men, as the women do not perforate their faces, but only their ears. Another custom among them is sufficiently shameful, and beyond all human credibility. Their women, being very libidinous, make the penis of their husbands swell to such a size as to appear deformed; and this is accomplished by a certain artifice, being the bite of some poisonous animal, and by reason of this many lose their virile organ and remain eunuchs.

The good Italian’s descriptions of the locals are amusing to say the least—nothing like a spot of sex to spice up a tale, as your devoted servant well knows. But these spices are dropped into an empty pot, and sizzle into nothing like the policy proposals of Mr. Trump.

By contrast to Vespuche’s drivel, The log of Columbus, or the diary of Álvaro Velho, who accompanied Vasco da Gama, provide a wealth of detail, including the distances sailed, capes and rivers explored, shipboard life, fauna and flora, and astronomic observations.

Vespucci’s fanciful tales exonerate him from any connection with the discovery of the Americas. There’s no doubt he sailed with the Spanish, but there the truth ends.

It’s extraordinary that his name was used to christen not one but two continents.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Lahore

April 2, 2016

If you think it’s difficult being a Christian in Liége, try being one in Lahore. I deliberately chose two places that may be relatively obscure. You’ve heard of them, but little more.

I’ve been to Liége, a charming Belgian city, population 200,000. Good food, good beer. It was founded by the Romans, and Christianization was completed in the eight century.

Lahore is the capital of Punjab, right now the air outside is close to body temperature, and it teems with over five million people—oops, that was the Google number from 1998. Wikipedia tells us 6.3 million in ’98, 7.5 million in 2014, and puts greater Lahore at over ten million in 2015—equivalent to the population of Portugal, or of North Carolina.

The last number is double the first, which tells us we don’t know much about Lahore. Why should we care? Because it’s difficult to be concerned with people or places we know nothing about.

The capital of Punjab in the late nineteenth century, in the days of the British Raj.

The capital of Punjab in the late nineteenth century, in the days of the British Raj.

So this is how it looked in the 1890’s. I tried to wander round it today, virtually of course, but Google Streetwalker, as I like to call it, had no truck with Lahore, if you excuse the pun.

The little orange man swung there like a Christian on a gallows before zipping back to the safety of its little Northern California home at the bottom right of the screen.

If you think it’s difficult to know the population of Lahore, try finding out how many Christians there are.

The city is predominantly Muslim—about 94% of the total population, according to one source. The same source (data are sparse) claims Christians make up 5.80%. The accuracy of that number—two decimal places—is delusional.

Nevertheless, if we consider 5%, then you’re looking at a minimum of 250,000 people—that’s 25% more than the entire population of Liége, capital of Walonia.

Whatever that number was before Easter Sunday, it’s now seventy-two less. When compared to the Brussels attack, almost as many kids (29) died in Lahore last week as the total fatality count in the European capital.

But whereas the Bourse became the Western Mecca of facey, selfie, and twitty—three of Donald Trump’s favorite nephews—there was hardly a peep about Lahore, gateway to the Silk Road, and capital of the Mughal Empire.

Hey, student, leave those kids alone! A taliban suicide bomber blew himself up next to swings in a children's playground on Easter Sunday.

Hey, student, leave those kids alone! A taliban suicide bomber blew himself up next to swings in a Lahore children’s playground on Easter Sunday.

I can think of no sadder image than a child’s blood on the seat of a swing.

The little girl woke up very early. She knelt beside the window and said her prayers on this special day. She asked God to take care of her family, to help her father with his new business that made him so tired, she asked that he might smile more. And she prayed for chocolate.

Then she crept into the big bed, eyes shining with joy and mischief. She watched for a minute as her parents slept, then her impatience got the better of her. She put her mouth close to her mother’s ear.

Maa, I want an Easter egg,” she whispered.

Her mother stirred, her hand reached up and she stroked the girl’s long brown hair.

“Kuldeep, it is so early,” she whispered back. “Look, look how Pita sleeps, he must rest.”

Her father let out a loud snore, as if on cue. The hairs on his thick mustache quivered, making the child giggle. 

“Mommy, it’s a beautiful day. It’s Easter, and I want to go play in the park.” She pouted.

Maa turned and looked at her baby, her beautiful baby with the dark eyes. She kissed Kuldeep. “Your name has a meaning, little one.”

“You told me, mommy. It means the ‘lamp of the family.’ Am I a lamp?” She giggled again, and snuggled into her mother.

“Yes. Yes, my love, you are our shining light, brighter than the sun. Go and put on your best clothes.” Kuldeep had only just learned to dress herself, and often her buttons needed fixing.

“Go my sweet, my jasmine blossom. When daddy awakes, we will go to the park. We’ll hunt for eggs, and we’ll play on the swings.”

Now that I know more about Lahore, and have inked a few lines of a story that brings one of those children to life, I feel I understand this tragedy a little better.

I hope you do too. Perhaps you’ll finish my story for me. You know how it ends.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Black Glove

March 26, 2016

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s obvious when you look at the picture that each of the two men is wearing a black glove on the left hand.

Yes, it looks odd, but airports are full of oddity. The first time I went to Brussels I was convinced there were two airports, one called Zaventem and another Bruxelles National. That was over twenty-five years ago, and already in those days the Belgian capital was a full of North African immigrants.

The hotel receptionist, himself an Arab, explained that in fact both airports were one—it was my introduction to the uneasy cohabitation of the Flemish and Walloon peoples, an issue which fractures Belgium.

It is manifested by separate governments, police forces, and streets with names in both French and Dutch—the ‘European’ street in Brussels, Rue de la Loi, is also named Wetstraat.

And I can assure you plenty of Walloons will be pissed that the site of the March 22nd attacks is not getting called Bruxelles National on CNN.

The locals have solved the airport problem in true Belgian style—by ignoring both names and calling the place Brussels Airport. And that’s the essence of Belgium, it’s a nation of compromise, so right now no one there can understand what the hell’s going on.

As in most of Europe, the population is ageing—Belgium has a replacement rate of 1.8, below the magic number for developed nations, 2.1. A similar rate exists in the UK, and for the same reason—immigration.

The Arab workers settled in places like Maalbeck and produced large families, in contrast to the native Belgians, who were down to a kid or two. Long gone the days when the king became godfather to the seventh consecutive son, and the queen to the seventh daughter—although the rule still exists.

And it is from these disaffected youngsters, mostly second-generation nationals born in the eighties and nineties, that men of the black glove emerge. Their stories are depressingly similar.

They haven’t succeeded in life, and their late teenage is a millstone of petty crime: drugs, burglary, robbery, jail.

Jail unites them into a family, glued by radical Islam. Their new-found faith lays the blame for all their woes squarely on Western society.

They return to society imbued with an alternative image of themselves. They’ve become young warriors of Allah, defenders of the faith, determined to destroy the crusaders.

To do that effectively, faith is necessary but not sufficient. These men need money, they need logistical support, they need an information network. As in any underground organization, and we have many examples of those in the West. There’s the French Resistance, in World War II, the Irgun and Stern gangs in Palestine, the Red Army Faction, the IRA, and the Basque ETA.

Some of these have become the rule of law. General de Gaulle became president of France, the Haganah morphed into the Israeli Defense Force, and members of the IRA are part of the Northern Irish Executive.

But others have been destroyed.

20-20 hindsight. Two men, each wearing a black glove potentially housing a detonator. Both dressed in ISIS black, face exposed, intending to die. Next to them a man hiding his face and dressed in white.

20-20 hindsight. Two men, each wearing a black glove potentially housing a detonator. Both dressed in ISIS black, face exposed, intending to die. Next to them a man hiding his face and dressed in light colors, planning to live.

Throughout their history, all these organizations share the following: ideals, armament, safe houses, communication and logistics, visionaries, victims, militants, traitors, backers and fund-raisers.

I’ve probably forgotten something, but the point is there are at least ten common items. And the militants in the picture are only the ideals bit. So maybe the best way to fight terrorism is not to kill terrorists—because for every one you kill, two more emerge.

Killing the visionaries won’t solve it either—but a visionary only becomes a messiah when he can work miracles, otherwise he’s just a nutcase ranting on a street corner.

And without money, there ain’t no miracle.

I’m sure Western intelligence agencies are working along these lines, looking for the safe houses, the bank accounts, the weapons caches, the backroom bomb labs, the peroxide and acetone purchases.

Because only by destroying the picks and shovels can we deny them the gold.

The Belgians might start by showing a little internal unity. And revoking the law that forbids raids between 9 pm and 5 am, unless there’s a crime in progress, or a fire.

As you tuck into your Easter egg, spare a thought for the chocolate capital of the world.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Threshold

March 19, 2016

When the groom carries the bride over the threshold, the lucky lady is transported to a new condition—there’s a suggestion that the reason she’s carried, rather than walking across, is she appears less willing to lose her virginity.

That may be historically sound (though I doubt it), but the argument is hardly germane these days—only 3% of men and women have not had sex before marriage, according to the aptly named site waitingtillmarriage, but religion pushes the abstinence dogma.

Yet despite religion’s best efforts, our species is not monogamous—in fact, very few are. Scientific American offers a slide show with species that are (mostly) monogamous, but that’s cheating, if you excuse the pun. Monogamy is a threshold, like communism—you can’t be mostly monogamous, and you can’t be a little bit communist.

The creatures in the slide show include humans—that’s downright optimistic. The other species are mostly birds and rodents. Ethologists think that parental investment in birds, and particularly nest-building, plays a big part in being faithful.

One of the lucky(?) few is a species of African antelope called Kirk’s dik-dik. You couldn’t make it up.

So I wondered whether atheists were more promiscuous than other humans. I didn’t find much to support the hypothesis, but Yahoo did rate the bizarre comment below as its best answer.

Years ago I worked for a moving company. We would go into people’s houses, pack up all of their belongings and move them to their new place. Typically, those who had the most religious (usually Christian in this country, the U.S.) items (Bibles, pictures, etc.) in the main part of the house, had some of the most perverted sex toys, equipment, magazines and movies in the bedroom. It became a running joke among us that if you count the Bibles on the bookshelf in the main part of the house and multiply by three, that is how many sex toys (dildos, gags, binders, hand cuffs, etc.) you’ll find in the bedroom. It’s funny how much of a show they will put on of being “wholesome” while being some of the most perverted people in the bedroom. Magazines and movies that depict homosexual sex acts were extremely common to find in those houses.

I’m not sure what to conclude from this, since the topic was Are Christians usually more promiscuous than Atheists?  I offer three possibilities: (i) Atheists hide their sex toys better; (ii) Removals men don’t know the meaning of the word promiscuous; (iii) This is a testament to the demise of Yahoo.

I’m getting seriously sidetracked, because the thresholds I had in mind were economic, not sexual. I suppose the only common ground is that the world economy is pretty fucked, and I’ll proceed on that assumption.

Climate change in Europe. While temperatures increase, economics become chillier.

Climate change in Europe. While temperatures increase, economics catches a chill as interest rates become negative—coming soon to an economy near you.

Economics interests me because everyone swears by it but it doesn’t really work. And the more complex it becomes the less well it does. I’ve often tried to draw parallels between economics and ecology, for instance when addressing the challenge of feeding the world in 2050, with another three billion souls on the planet.

In the successive recessions (or is that recessive successions) after the Lehman collapse in 2008, the major world powers began printing money—actually the Japanese first did it in 2001. The idea is simple, and substantively insane. The central banks inject digital money into the banking system, the magicash  gets lent to businesses, that generates economic growth, which in turn benefits employment and consumption, which in turn generates economic growth.

The insane bit is that, much like monogamy, this has no support base except faith. As long as you believe a green (or blue, or red) piece of paper is worth something, it works.

You can’t do that with food, and everyone gets it. The concept, not the food.

You hit thresholds. If there’s no more feed, you can’t grow more animals. Beef. Chicken. Fish. So the answers are only three.

1. Produce more food.

Ask Google how much. If you type ‘How much food can’, Google suggests: a desert locust eat; a stomach hold; a person eat; you eat. That’s where our concerns are centered, although the desert locust bit…

But Harvard University’s E.O. Wilson worked out the production issue fifteen years ago. The 3.5 billion acres (1.4 billion hectares) of arable land on the planet produce two billion tonnes of grain, and Wilson suggests that if we all become vegetarians, the world can support ten billion people.

I recalculated his number and come to a figure of between three and ten billion for the world carrying capacity—all vegans. If we all ate meat then we’d already be past carrying capacity.

The fishy bit is missing, but it’s irrelevant in a vegan world—one hundred-fifty million tonnes of fish are produced each year, which would only feed two hundred million people—if nothing was used to feed farm animals and pets. Bye-bye Fido.

The carrying capacity of the earth depends a lot on what number you choose for the  grain yield—it varies by a factor of five hundred percent across different countries. And ultimately the yield depends on the nutrients—how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements are available to make food.

2. Eat less food.

Less food for each of us, or less people. How about these palatable buzzwords? Wars, epidemics, eugenics, culling.

3. Eat differently.

A vegetarian diet—a world without farm animals, because we can’t feed both them and ourselves. No more Mr. McBurger.

Meantime we amuse ourselves with the illusion that if the world economy recovers, all will be well. The European Central Bank, much like Vasco da Gama, has sailed into uncharted waters. The twin tools of economists, adjustments to interest rates and to the money supply, have gone nowhere. Interest rates have gone to zero, and now Draghi has taken them lower, so that it costs you to keep your money in the bank.

The zero threshold has been breached, in the hope that consumers will go out and spend money rather than watch it dwindle in the bank—this is the worst possible reason to be profligate, and in the end it reduces reserves and makes banks more unlikely to lend. No problem! Print more money and lend it to the retail banks at negative rates.

And every time the Europeans, the Asians, or the Americans adjust interest rates, the others respond. The whole system is globalized, propagation is too fast, and there’s no capacity for changes to have an effect.

Our main economic weapons, which worked fine in the mid-range, are unusable at the edges. And we’re living at zero edge economics.

But does this really matter? Here’s my two cents.

The world is besotted by the economic question, but we’re asking the wrong question. It doesn’t really matter what economists think or what the economy does, because you can’t print food.

The way things are going, you may be swimming in digital money, but you’ll be lucky if you can find a locust for dessert.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Mobile

March 12, 2016

Digital days. So much going on, and computers whirring in the background storing it all. In my next book, The Hourglass, I will again move away from past and focus on the future. I’ll take a month’s break before I begin, to recharge the batteries—not more, because time is never on our side, despite appearances, and because I feel guilty that Clear Eyes so rudely interrupted my progress.

One of the trends of the new society I’ve conceived—or more properly that we already see the beginnings of—is that ordinary people perceive it as mobile, as we wander round gazing at smartphones, running into lamp posts or colliding with bicycles. Meanwhile, all the data collected from the ants, in fact a portrait of the whole anthill, is being stored in monolithic machines that live in gigantic data centers—the apocryphal ‘cloud’.

You use social media on a daily basis, you correspond using Gmail (whether or not you hold an account), you use Whatsapp. You do this as you drive, even though you’re not supposed to. You watch YouTube.

You use Waze for navigation. The cloud dilligently stores your progress.

YouTube was created by three guys from PayPal. Google paid $1.65 billion for it sixteen months later.

Waze was originally an Israeli company. Google bought it in 2013 for $1.3 billion. The average payout to each of the one hundred original employees? $1.2 million—that’s a lot of shekels.

Let’s write down a few Ws about you. Next to them, the tools you use, and in brackets, who owns them.

What. Google, Facebook, YouTube (Google), Whatsapp (Facebook), Skype (Microsoft), Gmail (Google), Hotmail (Microsoft).

Where. Google maps, Waze (Google), Skype. Any app that logs an IP or cellphone location.

Who. Gmail, Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype.

Wow. How is the rogue keyword that doesn’t start with a W. But all the above combined give you the How—if we know what you did, where you did it, and who you did it with, we might as well call it Wow.

Why. This is the hardest of all, the motive. But wait… is it really that hard to get inside your head? We’re witnessing diligent storage of your data in the cloud,  along with your network of contacts (Who), frequency and form of communication, to which you could add your credit card records (more of the Where and What), and why not Mobile Pay?

The mobile pay market is worth hundreds of billions at present.

The mobile pay market is worth hundreds of billions at present.

Mobile Pay is rampant in the US, and in Africa—where a significant part of the population doesn’t have a bank account—the system is moving poor people away from cash and into a digital economy, and big business is up in arms. There’s a war on to capture this market, and the opposing sides are the big tech companies, who currently control the system, and the big banks.

One of the big players is a system called Android Pay. Who created it? Our friends at Google.

There you have it, our brave new world. Some of this stuff came through in Atmos Fear, where network software is used to map an email account—Inbox, Sent, Trash—the lot. To what end? To match subject to content, content to recipient, frequency of contact… To build a pattern, to look for the Why.

That’s something I can assure you permeates all my books. If you read something weird and Google it, the odds are it’s based on fact. That’s down to research,  which is one of the reasons I write this weekly chronicle.

But there are other reasons.

Because I like to share my thoughts. Because it improves my writing. Because it calms the beast in me that’s straining to get out. Because I want folks to read my books. And as my readership increases, I want to stay in touch with my readers—my way of giving back.

And in writing this piece, I’ve had an epiphany. Peter Wibaux will never die. His personality might change when he’s bequeathed, but he is immortal.

Completely by accident, I’ve discovered the secret of eternal life. All you need is a pen.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Burundi

March 6, 2016

There’s an old saying that the first 90% of the job takes 90% of the time, the last 10% of the work takes the other 90% of the time. Due to my travel commitments, there was a delay in the publication of Clear Eyes—partly also because of my map exploits in Modena and Venice.

In the end, it all worked out for the best—the book was published on March 4th, the day Columbus arrived in Lisbon from the New World. If you are a regular reader of this chronicle, you already know a lot about the background to my new book—but here’s the official blurb.

On Saturday 8th September 1492, Columbus weighs anchor from La Gomera in the Canary Islands. His destination is Japan, which he hopes to reach in about three weeks. Instead, he arrives at another continent, which he firmly believes to be the Indies. American Indians, Indiana, Indian Wells, and many other names are a consequence of his miscalculation.

Peter Wibaux is the author of award-winning novel The India Road, and in his new book Clear Eyes he portrays the first voyage of Columbus in a new light. The outbound journey, and the torrid relationship between the admiral and Beatriz, countess of La Gomera, are just the start of a great adventure. In the Indies, the Spaniards inflict the most terrible punishments on the Taino people, as the Spanish captains search for the riches of Cipango and Cathay.

By the time the fleet departs for Castile, the flagship is lost and the Spanish captain Martin Pinzon is filled with hatred for Christopher Columbus. The journey home is fraught with danger, as the two vessels fight the winter storms of the North Atlantic. But that’s nothing compared to the political strife in Iberia, which will determine the fate of the New World.

A corrupt pope, a seductive courtesan, and the cruelty of the conquistadors add spice to a story anchored in facts and researched in the libraries of Italy, Spain, and the United States. Spices are what Columbus hopes to find, but will the expedition return with more than it bargained for?

I very much hope you enjoy Clear Eyes. You can buy it here for $4.99, although Amazon sets its own prices hither and thither in mysterious ways.

Now I’ve shared this good news, I want to focus on the title of this article, lest you think I’m leading you astray.

After two weeks of travel, and particularly after being in the US bang in the middle of the primaries and witnessing the whole Trump dog ‘n pony show, I’m not short of subjects.

Refugees are one of them, and if you land in London starved for news after a week in the States you’re hit with the double R: Refugees, Referendum.

Think Syrians, Greece, closed borders, recession, perfect storm, right?

Wrong, think Burundi, which hasn’t even made the news. You, reader, are well-informed, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But if I were to say ‘Burundi’ to many of the people walking the strip in Las Vegas, zombied out on cocktails and slot machines, I believe I would be told it was a dance, or perhaps a new libation.

The headline from the Ugandan newspaper screams: Burundi refugees hit 250,000 mark.

Two thousand a week at last count, mainly fleeing to Tanzania, but also to Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC—and nary a whisper in Europe.

Two hundred-fifty thousand is roughly the total refugee traffic into Europe in 2014, and definitely a number of concern. And some of the countries to which these people go are hardly models of democracy and stability—in fact the notion of seeking asylum in the Congo is nothing short of bizarre—these must be desperate people indeed.

One man's meat is another man's poison. Congolese refugees in Uganda while Burundi refugees head for the DRC.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Congolese refugees in Uganda while Burundi refugees head for the DRC.

So what’s up with Burundi?

Well, this a small nation by African standards—about the size of Maryland, a little smaller than Belgium. Ten million people, the population of Portugal. The median age is seventeen. Compared to thirty-eight in the US, forty-two in the EU.

The usual vast range of natural resources, including rare earths, and the incomprehensibly associated poverty.

And an all too familiar tribal problem: 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi. As in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or Assad’s Syria, the minority has often dominated the political system—but the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is a Hutu. The country engaged in a twelve-year civil war, between 1993 and 2005, and since then the ethnic violence simmers just below the surface.

In April last year the country once again exploded, as the Tutsi-held military reacted to President Nkurunziza’s bid to secure a third term in office.

And so it goes. The West walks by as if nothing’s going on, and Burundi is only a concern for the UN High Commission on Refugees.

Genocide, NIMTO. Not In My Term In Office.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Big Cheese

March 2, 2016

Few things are stranger than leaving Venice and arriving at the Venetian. To be displaced from one of the world’s cultural jewels to the Las Vegas strip was an of out-of-body experience.

Don’t get me wrong, the Venetian is a superb hotel, built on the site of the old Sands, of ratpack fame. Sheldon Adelson built it after a trip to Venice, hoping to capture the magic of the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia. The resort cost one and a half billion dollars, but money isn’t everything—the casino hotel overglitzes and underwhelms when compared to the real thing.

Mind you, this is Vegas, where everything is fake—from the croupier’s smile to the showgirl’s tits. Walk the strip and you see the very worst of humanity: obese, loud, stoned,  hell-bent on having a good time. From the airport to the car rental center, the whole city is festooned with slot machines, and the casinos wallow in the greed of the punters—if there was ever a Gomorrah, this is it.

On a corner a woman hands out illustrated escort cards, which passersby promptly discard. The sidewalk is festooned with boobs while a megaphone blares, calling for the sinners to choose Jesus. Right next to the preacher, a guy touts a different experience—a trip into the desert to fire machine guns.

I was in possession of cheese, which needed to be kept cool. When I asked the reception if they could keep it for me in the kitchen, I was told that no public items could be stored. But this is America, and a solution was at hand—if Mohamed couldn’t come to the mountain… they’d send a fridge up to my room.

The Big Cheese. A fridge is brought to my room for express storage.

The Big Cheese. A fridge is brought to my suite for express storage.

If you can imagine a completely artificial environment, the Vegas strip is it. When you walk into the Paris hotel, a bizarrely French-themed casino, the ceiling is a dome of blue sky with cotton-wool clouds parked here and there amid spotlights.

Not too bright, just enough for the slot machines, blackjack and roulette tables. It’s eight in the morning, and already the die-hards are glued to the spinning screens. The signs are vaguely French, enough for the masses to warm to the theme—just in case they don’t get the point, there’s a massive Eiffel tower.

The strip really messed with my head, and I spent my evenings downtown, a far more entertaining area. If you walk up Fremont Street, zip-liners swish above you and live bands hold forth on multiple stages.

Celebrity clones take a bow after performing on Fremont Street. Neil Diamond and Elvis rub shoulders with Sinatra and Lady Gaga, introduced by Robin Williams.

Celebrity clones take a bow after performing on Fremont Street. Neil Diamond and Elvis rub shoulders with Sinatra and Lady Gaga, introduced by Robin Williams.

This is where the Mafia built the original casinos, using the profits from criminal activities in Chicago. Las Vegas is remarkable for that also—Supermob, a great book by Gus Russo, tells the story.

Not only did Vegas thrive and expand, but the money skimmed from the casinos went on to build Hollywood, in what is undoubtedly the greatest money laundering operation in history—a double whammy that remains unbeaten to this day.

Vegas is the glitz of new money, and the bad taste that often accompanies it. I was asked a couple of times whether I was at the IBM convention—a mere twenty thousand people.

The city has an amazing carrying capacity for tourism, and conventions featuring one hundred thousand or more delegates occur annually. The local fauna seemed a ripe recruiting ground for the Trumpster, and I took the opportunity to hold my own straw poll—waitresses and cab drivers were my focus group.

“America’s broken, and Trump can fix it. We can have Clinton after.” The phrase was repeated over and over, although I never figured out what exactly was broken.

Super Tuesday has moved Trump closer to the Republican nomination—a part of the US is clearly disconnected from the Beltway and believes he will solve their problems. I’m sure he won’t—Trump is the best example of corporate egotism I’ve ever seen.

I pointed out that there’s a chasm between corporations and government—when a company fires fifteen thousand people, its stock goes up. Society is left to pick up the pieces: unemployment benefits, retraining, medical support…

I gave them my two cents: companies are like friends, government is like family. If you dislike a friend, you part ways. With family, you share the happiness and the grief.

Time to leave Las Vegas, I’ll need a very strong reason to return. I head north up Route 95—I want to visit Indian Springs, home of Creech Air Force Base, featured in Atmos Fear. It’s from here that the drone pilots fly missions over Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

I sneak a few pics and move on, doesn’t seem sensible to linger.

And I have a wonderful reason for moving on. After being besieged by throngs all week, I’m alone in the desert, not a soul around.

Wild flowers color the desert on the border of Nevada and California.

Wild flowers color the desert on the border of Nevada and California.

Outside there are rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. Spring flowers bloom, courtesy of El Nino. I breathe the good, clean air, unable to understand the attraction of the city I left behind—this is the real America that I love, not the plastic illusion of Trump and Vegas.

Welcome to Death Valley.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

 


%d bloggers like this: