Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Agent T

September 12, 2015

I was convinced Germany was the odd one out, with Senf (Germans are fond of capitalizing common nouns), and I expected the Scandinavians to follow suit—which is the case, but to my surprise one Southern European nation is much closer to the northern school of mustard: the Italian word is senape, suspiciously close to the Swedish senap.

A little more delving reveals the origin is the Latin sinapi, itself from the Ancient Greek σίναπι. Greece is a land of ambiguity, so the current term is μουστάρδα—I trust you all remember your Greek alphabet (αβ)—I learned mine in math class.

μουστάρδα is aligned with Dutch, French, and Portuguese—even Irish. Mustard in the US is a bland proposition, as it is in Portugal, but in the UK the powder wears its true colors—the Portuguese aphorism for rising anger, ‘subir-lhe a mostarda ao nariz’ (up his mustard to the nose in Googledygook Translate), came true for me when I was fifteen, with a tablespoon of Colman’s.

Paradoxically, mustard powder only becomes hot if mixed with cold water: the enzyme myrosinase acts on a substance called sinigrin to produce a sulfur compound called allyl isothiocyanate.

Allyl isocyanide in full regalia: few carbons and hydrogens, one blue nitrogen, and the wicked yellow sulphur. Five drops and your head explodes.

Allyl isocyanate: a few carbons and hydrogens, one blue nitrogen, and the wicked yellow sulphur. Five drops and your head explodes.

This is a colorless, ferocious oil—the Chinese bottle it, and a few drops will set your mouth on fire—a sensation I’m particularly fond of. Allyl isothiocyanate is also responsible for the pungency in radish and horseradish—this of course includes wasabi.

Is this potency somehow connected to the production of mustard gas? The gas made infamous in the trenches of the Great War, and now re-appearing at a theater near you,  contains all the carbons and hydrogens—this is organic chemistry after all—but it brings to the table one of the bad boys: brother chlorine.

Mustard gas initially had a much more appropriate name: LOST, which combined the names of Germans who first produced it on a large scale—Lommel and Steinkopf.

The Dark Side: shift a few atoms, and add the sinister green chlorine.

The Dark Side: shift a few atoms, and add the sinister green chlorine.

The molecule is part of a group known as mustards, characterized by a Lewis base (in this case the sulfur), a pair of carbon-hydrogens,  and a leaving group, which in mustard gas is chlorine.

Mustard gas is really an oil at low temperatures, but when a shell bursts the heat produced quickly disperses the gas—warmer climates are definitely more toxic, which plays to it’s use by ISIS against the Kurds.

Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against Iranians and Kurds in the 1980’s war, but prior to that the history is long and tragic: the UK used it on the Red Army, the French on the Moroccans, the Soviets against the Chinese, and then the Japanese used it again on China during the invasion.

There are various flavors, if you excuse the pun, of mustards (mustard gas): H, HD, and HT. Common to all is the letter H, which as far as I can determine, stands for Hun. Impurities add the mustard odor, the pure stuff has no color or smell.

H has 20-30% impurities, HD is distilled, and therefore much purer, and HT combines the HD with Agent T, an ether-based vesicant.

ISIS probably obtained the gas from Assad’s decommissioned stock or from Libya—Gaddafi undoubtedly had his own stash. Less likely is some secret cache from Iraq, or manufacture by ISIS itself.

But the reason I think this is coming to a theater near you (and me) is because the possibility of a canister of mustard gas being released in a crowded area is all too real.

In Atmos Fear a gas attack on the New York subway triggers mayhem on a busy morning, but it relies on a compound stolen upstate. LOST, on the other hand, can be synthesized with high school lab skills, and uses compounds available for everyday use.

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, and spare a thought for the tragedies of the Mid-East—while in the West we ask for Senf with our steak.

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

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



Milch und Honig

September 5, 2015

I learnt some German when I was at school in the U.K., but I don’t remember the word for honey. Since I skipped Latin, it was my first close encounter with cases—a bewildering proposition.

I had an exam to pass, and in one of the sections I was required to translate hin-und-her-schwanken. It involved a caravan, but in the mind of a fifteen-year old the notion of a wanking vehicle was too much to bear.

Many digital years later, I am happy to tell you (courtesy of Google Translate) that the caravan was actually swaying back and forth. On the other hand (excuse the pun), the evil act itself apparently translates into German as sich einen runterholen, which sounds positively disgusting—what a runt hole might have to do with masturbation fully escapes me.

If you look for that word, the Germans call it selbstbefriedigung, which in turn translates to self-gratification or self-satisfaction. Linguistic perils abound.

I still retain a modicum of German, perhaps because it’s a lot easier to memorize words when you’re fifteen, but it’s not the sort of language you can fall in love with—too regimented, a kind of military English.

But Germany attracts like no other European country, a magnet for the destitute. Southern Europe flocked to its borders in direct proportion to German-imposed austerity. Whenever I’m there, I see a striking resemblance to the United States. Cabbies, chambermaids—all the bottom half of the hourglass—are immigrants.

Migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, North Africa, Central Asia… I always ask three questions: where are you from, how long have you been here, how often to you go back. Without being too intrusive, that’s enough to understand which particular diaspora they are a part of, and whether for them this is home.

The folks who knock on Europe’s door have typically been economic migrants, and those who come from the poorest countries almost always come to work. There is a fierce debate around migration in the developed world, mostly pushed by self-satisfied politicians, which as we now know is German for wankers.

The average citizen falls into the honey trap of blaming immigrants for economic crisis, unemployment, collapse of social facilities, lowering of moral standards and religious traditions, possibly even for rain on Sundays.

Out of all these, the religious issue is the only matter of concern, not per se but because of home-grown terrorism.

World distribution of the most popular Syrian surname.

World distribution of the most popular Syrian surname.

One of the ways to look at diaspora more globally is by tracking family names. Presently the most common Syrian name (Haddad) has found its way in Europe to France, Germany, Sweden and the U.K. In America, the U.S. and (somewhat surprisingly) Brazil stand out.

If you search for Kurdi, the family name of the poor kids who died this week on the shores of Turkey, then Hungary and Germany are the European countries of choice. Nevertheless, while the name has a frequency of about one per thousand in Syria and Iraq (little Aylan was from Kobane), in Germany it is one per hundred thousand.

The distinction between the economic and war migrant is obvious. Economic migrants come alone, then they send for their families. This is the classic pattern with people who come to Portugal from Cape Verde and Guinea to work construction.

But when you run from war, everyone goes: it would be a craven act to flee a war zone and leave your family behind. So even if you oppose economic migration, how can you deny desperate families fleeing from guns and bombs a new life?

In the year when a teenage boy sat at his desk pondering the meaning of schwanken, Portugal took in ten percent of its population from Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere.

Europe can learn a lot from the generosity of a poor nation.  Those people were running from war, and one million came. And after forty years, the sun still shines.

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

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


Paperback Writer

August 31, 2015

The second ‘book’ is almost done. Clear Eyes is written as a set of three ‘books’, or parts, and the middle one has been a huge learning experience.

Through the second half of August I’ve been able to write daily, usually three to four hours in the morning. On a good day, that means over one thousand words, written, reviewed, and hopefully near-ready for printing.

What that tells me about earning a living as a writer is downright scary. For an average ninety thousand word book, or three hundred printed pages, and a five day week, a book takes four or five months to write—of course that varies—Enid Blyton wrote the 60,000 word book The River of Adventure in five days.

But for regular mortals, budgeting time for research and for recharging the mental batteries, I would say two books a year is a good rate—oh, and that’s with the internet, computers to write on, spreadsheets to work with, mapping software, and no writer’s block.

If you write two books a year and sell fifteen thousand copies of each, which is very respectable, those thirty thousand books might gross three hundred thousand dollars, less if digital.

You might expect twenty percent of that as your end, or a gross revenue of sixty thousand dollars. A putative author will sell nothing like fifteen thousand copies in one year, so a more realistic time period might be two to three years—your annual revenue is  then thirty thousand bucks or less.

Occasionally you write a flop. That brings it down. On the positive side, as you build up your bibliography, you may find your readers tapping into your earlier books.

Kindle has made it a habit of releasing the very early books by authors such as Ken Follett, and if you dig deep you find all the early stuff by James Ellroy—these are clearly the 20/80 side of the Pareto distribution, the long tail you never find in a bookshop—the net lets you dig deep.

Incidentally, a friend extended that distribution for me by explaining that twenty percent of the people you meet in life give you eighty percent of the grief—a deep truth.

Books and booksellers have taken a distinctly weird turn—many months ago I wrote about a teen mystery series called The Hardy Boys, which had been entirely ghost-written. Franklin W. Dixon, a plausibly WASP (White Ankle Socks Protestant) pseudonym, never existed.

Now the late Tom Clancy lives on, in a morbid sequence of novels that bear his name, and then small-printed at the bottom, the guy who really wrote the story. When the first guy, who was already writing jointly with Clancy (Mark Greaney), continued the Jack Ryan, Jr (why do they always use the comma?) series, I kind of understood—at least the last book written jointly had to be finished.

But now there’s a new one out, and the fine-print guy is a newbie. Obviously the Clancy name is a cash cow, nothing like branding. Still, it redefines the notion of ghost-writing—it becomes a literal concept, and maybe we should call it fan-clone fiction. I am amazed that Clancy’s family allowed his name to be used as a call sign for books he didn’t write.

So what have I learned? Well, the second book of Clear Eyes is called The Indies, and tells the story of Columbus in the New World. The bulk of the historical record comes from the diary of Las Casas, commented by Navarrete, but much has been written since about the Lucayan people, as the nations of the Caribbean Sea became increasingly aware of their tragic past.

Columbus left San Salvador, the island known to the locals as Guanahani, very shortly after making landfall. The weary and fractious crews sighted land on Thursday evening, 11th October 1492, stood to overnight, and made landfall on Friday morning.

By Monday, the Spanish had left. As the admiral moved south, he named the islands he encountered either after the Spanish royal family or after the coterie of saints that populated the Catholic mind—the Portuguese did exactly the same as they went down the African west coast.

The English and Dutch, however, being of a far more secular disposition, used names such as Rum Cay and Ragged Islands—many of these persist to this day.

The Spanish were of course in search of oro, and from the log I’m not convinced that anyone apart from Columbus thought they had reached Cipango.

As the fleet sailed south, christening Santa Maria de la Concepcion (Rum Cay), Long Island (Fernandina), and Crooked Island (Isabella), gold was rather thin on the ground—in actual fact it was thin around the necks of the Tainos, and totally inexistent in the ground.

It’s pretty obvious that the Lucayans were in a big hurry to get rid of Columbus, so the intertwined tales of the Spaniards being received as gods, and the attrition which the log reveals, are a bizarre combination. Natives aboard the Santa Maria systematically made their escape at the earliest opportunity.

The Tainos pushed Columbus south, promising lands where gold was plucked from the beach by candlelight and then hammered into bars, and spoke of a place called Cubao.

When Columbus got there, he told the crew they had finally reached Cipango. Nevertheless, he renamed the island Juana, replacing the native name of Cuba. He chose the name in honor of Prince Juan, only son of the Catholic Kings.

Depiction of a syphilitic man by Albrecht Durer. If the Spanish brought the disease back in 1493, why does the globe say 1484?

Depiction of a syphilitic man by Albrecht Durer. If the Spanish brought the disease back in 1493, why does the globe say 1484?

The renaissance equivalent of urban legends abound about the origins of Columbus. One of the more far-fetched has him as a Portuguese Jew, farmed out to the ignorant Spanish by a cunning King John of Portugal: the intent was to distract their majesties from Portugal’s India expeditions.

The ‘evidence’ is tenuous, and a couple of books make him a native of Cuba, a village in the Alentejo, and use the name as proof of the admiral’s origin. It seems shameful that those authors neglected to read the log, and investigate the primary sources that state Cuba was the Taino name, not the one given by the invaders.

If they did read the log, the matter is worse, because the claim is in direct contradiction with the account of Las Casas.

Finally, there is a body of work that suggests Martin Pinzon died of syphilis, which he contracted in the Caribbean. In Clear Eyes, I support that notion, fueled by literary license, and I make him out to be the index case.

Syphilis is a wasting disease with three distinct stages. After each, the organism seems to recover—the snake oil merchants in the wild west sold potions that promoted an apparent cure for the first two stages. By the time the third arrived the patient was doomed.

Nevertheless, the description of symptoms in French soldiers after the siege of Naples in 1495 indicates that the body became rapidly covered in sores and death occurred within a few months. In host-parasite relationships, and in disease transmission, evolution favors that the probability of spread is maximized. As a consequence, the disease vector may well have adapted over time to allow the host to live longer, and increase contagion.

But in the late XVth century the degenerative process was very rapid, and it is eminently possible that Pinzon contracted the disease in October 1492 and was dead by the end of March 1493.

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

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


Fool’s Gold

August 22, 2015

As we get to the dog days of summer, the West seems trapped between tragedy and banality. In Calais, immigrants from Afghanistan, Libya, and Sudan attempt to pile into trucks bound for the U.K., and in Greece, the island of Kos overflows with twelve hundred Syrian refugees.

Kos is ten clicks from the Turkish town of Bodrum, but only a third of that distance from the Turkish mainland—a good swimmer would have no trouble making it across.

They come in rubber boats, plastic dinghies designed to carry four people loaded up with twelve souls, each of whom pays almost one thousand dollars to get across—the export value of the contingent is over a million bucks.

The U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper, rabidly anti-immigration, carries a report showing British tourists vacationing next to desperate Syrian families. The somber headlines are punctuated with splashy callouts: Stephanie Davis exhibits her bronzed legs… Vintage vixen! Kristen Stewart shows off… Pout and about! Stunning Alex Gerrard…

At the Macedonian border tear gas is used to stop migrants from the Mid-East making their way north to Hungary, and from there to Germany.

The run to Lampedusa, a 100 km run east from Tunisia, or double that from the Libyan coast, will also cost you eight hundred euros—but in this case the boat isn’t a consumable, it’s a capital cost, often amortized in one trip only. There might be one or two hundred migrants on a boat, a lucrative business.

Further west, Ceuta—an ancient Portuguese enclave in North Africa, now a Spanish possession. Here, a wall is supposed to protect the city from immigration. People still get across, the hungry are persistent.

Checked luggage? A powerful image of desperation.

Checked luggage? A powerful image of desperation.

The burden of migration on these small communities is colossal, which further increases their quest for a solution. The easiest one of course is to get rid of these people as soon as possible by sending them north.

And north they will go, headed for the promised land. When they get there, they will do all the jobs the locals reject. Contrary to what trash newspapers claim, immigration boosts the local economy at the base, rather than burdening its social services.

England for the English, Germany for the Germans, but who drives the cabs? When austerity digs in its claws, the immigrants leave. Four years ago the city of Seville, in Southern Spain, was awash with faces from Senegal, from the Ivory Coast. Red traffic signals in the center of town triggered an avalanche of would-be salesmen, touting everything from sunglasses to cellphones.

Now? Not a black face in sight. All the construction workers are Andalucian, the same goes for bar staff, waiters, cleaners—every menial job has returned home.

The root of the problem is simple to identify and hard to solve: the twin devils of war and poverty. One of the Afghans in Calais put it like this: ‘in the days of the Taliban everything was alright. Then the war came, and the English left us with nothing, so here we are.’

The core solution is completely beyond reach. From Yemen to Kurdistan, from Tikrit to Mazar-i-Sharif, war rages. Much of this strife has been our own creation, and therefore many of the consequences also.

In that respect, Al Qaeda won a resounding victory—not because it destroyed the West or drove Israel into the sea, but because by drawing the armies of the United States and Britain into the East it triggered a decade of chaos which led to an invasion of Europe.

There are few solutions that can stem the tide. Obviously the closer a point of contact is with the European Union the bigger the pressure. Perhaps it’s possible to establish a special status for those points, an outer perimeter which is not part of the Union, or is somehow restricted.

Then again, much of the blame lies with the pyramid of corruption that allows the migrant chain to function. If Turkey is heavily sanctioned for allowing people-trafficking from its shores, then the tide is stopped not at Bodrum, but at the Syrian frontier.

The fact is nobody much cares. Rita Ora flashes her underwear… Bikini-clad Danielle… In fact the hot topic is the release of thirty gigabytes of data hacked from Ashley Madison, a relationships site for people in a relationship.

The traffic following the release of a long list of emails (it’s trivial to find sites where you can trawl the list to check on your other half) has been nothing short of hilarious. The hackers apparently told Wired Magazine that one-third of the images in their possession are ‘dick pictures’, and there are almost forty million emails on the hacked list.

Apparently the Canadian company had around four million customers, so there’s a ten percent core that didn’t just think about it.

The irony is that the company was planning to raise two hundred million dollars for an IPO this fall—if I was in the hacking trade I’d have waited a couple of months for the ideal short.

One news article in particular provides some tongue-in-cheek suggestions for partner appeasement. My favorite has to be:

Give your spouse a compliment

“Your sexual technique is so massively satisfying that I consider going outside of our marriage and sharing everything you’ve taught me to be a public service.”

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

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


August 17, 2015

The presidential race in the United States is the most protracted in the world. With elections scheduled for November 2016, the last six months have been a circus of candidates jockeying for position to represent their respective parties.

To those outside the States, the attention paid to buffoons such as Donald Trump is nothing short of bizarre—I imagine the same is true for many inside the US.

Trump suffers from a syndrome I attributed to Columbus in The India Road. Opinion uncontaminated by fact. In the interviews I’ve seen, he’s incapable of hearing a question to the end, or indeed of taking any criticism at all.

America is much too smart to vote him into office, the GOP establishment would nominate him as a candidate on an extremely cold day in hell, and if he does a Perot, he may well put another Clinton in the White House.

But even a Perot is unlikely, unless Trump really wants to piss off the Republicans.

The rest of the world looks on as the man fires in all directions. Like any demagogue, foreigners are his first port of call. Mexico, an exporter of rapists and murderers. They shall build a wall, and pay for it themselves.

His assertions are rated as half-truths at best, and the Mexican immigration issue seems doubtful to say the least.

Mexican emigration to the United States (in thousands) - data from the Pew Research Center.

Mexican immigration to the United States (in thousands per year) – data from the Pew Research Center.

Not only is the inflow of Mexican immigrants at its lowest, but the inflow and outflow are now balanced, meaning a zero migration rate. Immigration of many nationalities continues into the US, but Mexico is no longer the key concern.

China is another popular Trump target, the argument being that the Chinese flood the US market with cheap products. Undeniable. To use the common aphorism, China is the factory, America is the mall.

But is it predominantly Chinese companies selling in the US? To be sure, you have Lenovo and some others (don’t forget Lenovo was once the IBM PC division). But what you mainly have, be it in Walmart, Home Depot, or Apple Computer, is products manufactured in China to US specs and then imported by US corporations to sell to American consumers.

The dirty little secret is US corporations make a packet out of this arrangement, and knowingly sacrifice jobs at home—consequently job recovery is far removed from GDP recovery, and the types of jobs available are mainly in the lower half of the hourglass.

The central part, what used to be known as good jobs, the ones that made the baby boom and a wealthy middle class, simply are not there. we’re talking about the shop floor, engineering jobs, mid-level administration.

The social contract that both America and Europe need is a recognition by the people of a few simple facts. Not by the banks, not by the corporations—by the regular folks.

First, if it takes credit to make something affordable, it’s probably unaffordable.

Second, the reason for manufacturing abroad and importing is price-competitiveness. If your own society isn’t rebalancing that with equivalent lower cost goods and services for export, the price is unemployment in the middle sector. America isn’t. Europe isn’t.

Third, whenever you buy a Chinese-made tool in Home Depot, or an iPhone, you compound the problem and worsen the national debt.

No one can stop people doing numbers one and three, and you’d get voted out of office if you tried. Even if you passed some law to that effect, it would be unenforceable, and most probably unconstitutional.

Solution? Restrict production abroad for domestic sale by US companies, and tax imports from foreign companies to make the US economy competitive—the only other way to make it competitive is by lowering the wage of the American worker.

Oh, there is a third way: further automation, lowering national production costs. Do please explain to me how that stimulates the creation of good jobs.

The attacks on China have provided Trump with publicity in the Middle Kingdom. Mainly the good folk of zhong guo are perplexed. When one Chinese guy read that Trump promised to change his hair if he became president, he commented “can he also change his head?”

Apart from the general demagoguery, there are the bimbo blasts. In the nation that invented political correctness, a country where you can’t show a tit (of the breast variety, that is) on network television, even if it’s a mother breastfeeding, it’s extraordinary to witness the bimbo circus, complete with jibes at menstruation—how low can you get? I’d say fox terrier.

And yet there are very serious problems to discuss. US paid maternity leave does not exist—one of only three countries in the world, the others being Surinam and Papua New Guinea.

You can argue that the American tradition placed the woman in the role of housewife, or to be non-bimboish and politically correct, homemaker. By definition, maternity leave was unnecessary, but that was many moons ago.

Paid parental leave in most EU countries is channeled through social security, and employers are of course free to secure temporary workers for the period when the new mom is on leave.

The gap between the rich and poor is now incredibly wide. The skyscrapers of New York were once the emblem of corporate success. Now they’re a trophy of individual wealth, as evidenced by a penthouse apartment sold recently to a hedge fund for one hundred million dollars.

As the gap widens, we go back in history, to a time when the consequences of this inequity reverberated across Europe. I have four words for you.

Let them eat cake.

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

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


August 8, 2015

Her name was Ana Goméz de Silva y Mendoza, but she was known by her first name, according to the Spanish custom.

Doña Ana was only four when she was betrothed to the seventh duke of Medina Sidonia—Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno y Zúñiga was fifteen. He was obviously impatient, and in 1572 he obtained a dispensation from Pope Gregory XIII to consummate the marriage.

His wife was ten years old.

The duke was a favorite of Philip II of Spain, son of the great Emperor Carlos V, for reasons that are entangled in Philip’s amorous pursuits. These were many and varied, and strayed into the realm of the bizarre.

Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, one of Philip's many paramours.

Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, one of Philip’s many paramours.

La Cerda means the sow, and the name is still relatively common in Iberia—in Brazil and Portugal it is fused as Lacerda. The lady in question was a mistress of both the king and his secretary, Antonio Pérez, and with the latter was instrumental in various plots against the crown—under normal circumstances these would have led to her execution.

Instead she was imprisoned in 1579, and her daughter, deflowered seven years before, lived with her over the next eleven years of imprisonment, and afterwards until her death.

Philip II of Spain became Philip I of Portugal in 1580, due to a succession void, but the Leyenda Negra, the dark legend of this king is never taught at school—perhaps it should be, since it speaks volumes about the man’s character.

Social media at that time worked through chronicles and pamphlets, and the two enduring documents are the Apologia, written by William the Silent, and the Relaciones, written by Pérez.

In these documents, it is reported that Philip was already married to Isabel de Osorio, a lady-in-waiting to his mother, when he married Manuela of Portugal. In a story reminiscent of Charles and Camilla, the relationship endured until Philip’s third marriage to Isabelle de Valois in 1560.

In between there had been a four-year marriage to Mary I, known in protestant circles as ‘Bloody Mary’, which made Philip king of England and Ireland. After Mary died, Philip courted Elizabeth I, but she procrastinated and the suit was eventually terminated.

Philip’s friend Alonzo had made no serious attempt to help his mother-in-law during her imprisonment, and in 1588 the king showed his respect for the duke of Medina Sidonia by naming him Captain-General of the Ocean Sea.

By this time, William of Orange, otherwise known as William the Silent, was four years dead, possibly the first head of state to be gunned down. His assassin was captured and killed—European standards of the day put ISIS to shame.

The magistrates decreed that the right hand of Gérard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disemboweled alive, that his heart should be torn from his chest and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be cut off.

When Medina Sidonia received notice of his appointment, he protested strongly to the king. The duke was no sailor—among other liabilities he suffered from violent seasickness.

It was therefore unfortunate that he was the man destined to lead the Grande y Felicísima Armada, which ended up smaller by two-thirds, and extremely infelicísima.

Since Portugal was then in its eighth year of occupation by Spain, the lead battle group of the Invincible Armada—and arguably the only one of significance—was the Squadron of Portugal. It included the flagship São Martinho and the São João de Portugal. The first carried forty-eight guns (and the duke), the second was the vice-admiral of the fleet, with fifty guns. The twelve ships in the squadron were captained by Spaniards and carried 3,330 soldiers.

History is written by the winners, but the whole story of the naval battle in the channel goes far beyond Plymouth Hoe and the unflappable game of bowls. The date of the final battle was August 8th, 1588, four hundred twenty-seven years today, but the fighting took place over the best part of two weeks, and the key episodes played out in France and the Netherlands. The final decision by the Spanish commander to route the fleet home via the North Sea was the nail on the coffin.

'Indians' of the Caribbean at the tender mercy of the Spanish.

American ‘Indians’ at the tender mercy of the Spanish.

Philip’s reign was an evil time, his early years marked by the exploits of Pizarro and Cortez, setting a gold standard, if you excuse the pun, for the barbarism that defined the colonial history of Latin America.

As for poor Doña Ana, a little girl raped at the age of ten with the papal blessing, her legacy is a more peaceful one—she left her name to one of the most beautiful national parks in Europe.

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

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

As the Years Go Passing By

August 1, 2015

Clapton lifted the classic Layla riff from Albert King and added a few notes—King was the most parsimonious of bluesmen, but he did play all the right notes—Uncle Eric then played his own tune a little bit faster.

Albert King died in 1992, and Clapton completed his final world tour earlier this year—time flies. In 1964 the Rolling Stones released a song called Time Is On My Side—it’s doubtful whether they still see it that way. Three years later the Beatles came out with the landmark Sergeant Pepper’s album, in the Magic Summer of 1967.

Why magic? Well, San Francisco’s summer of love was in full swing, with Owsley acid lacing some pretty uninspired soda to prepare electric Kool-Aid, and free concerts by Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. For youngsters growing up under a dictatorship in Southern Europe, that would be magic enough, but apart from that Beatles album a couple of other tunes hit the stores that summer:

Small Faces (“Itchycoo Park”); Eric Burdon & The Animals (Winds of Change); The Doors (The Doors and Strange Days); Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s); Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn); Love (Forever Changes), Cream (Disraeli Gears); The Byrds (Younger Than Yesterday); The Rolling Stones (Their Satanic Majesties Request); The Who (The Who Sell Out); The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico); Procol Harum (Procol Harum); and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love).

Paul McCartney is 73 years old, so When I’m 64 is a thing of the past.

Getting a handle on time is a challenge, and of course everything is relative—five minutes vary greatly depending what side of the bathroom door you’re on.

But one thing is clear: time goes faster when you’re older. This truism is an example of Murphy’s law—incidentally I always prefer the Brit term sod’s law—crude but wonderfully descriptive.

There are various reasons, well-rooted in science, why time accelerates with age. In 1890 psychologist William James observed that as time passes we have ‘fewer firsts.’ The expression in mine, but the concept is simple—first day of school, first date, first kiss, first orga…nic vegetarian meal, etc.

The list goes on but tails off. Unless you lose your virginity in your forties, or become a cougar, chances are you’re running short of firsts. As a consequence, James argued that years meld, and time speeds up.

Other studies have come up with various complementary hypotheses—in this case I don’t think there’s one right answer, not for one person and certainly not for society.

For instance time goes a lot faster when you do something you enjoy, because you don’t think about time, or about how long something is taking. That’s why the expression ‘do you know how long this took me to do?’ is always used in the context of a chore, a duty, or something that’s not well received. No child ever asks mother reprovingly “Do you know how long I’ve been watching TV?”

One interesting theory, first published by Paul Janet in 1877, focuses on time elapsed—it looks at the time ratio. At age ten, one year is ten percent of your life, at age fifty it’s two percent—the idea is that the relative passage of time is faster.

I researched a couple of articles on this, one of which states that time increases gradually and evenly. No. Mathematically, you can express this time ratio (L) as a power law, L = P/A (duh), where P is the period of interest, say one year, and A is your age.

The interesting thing about this function (zzz… is this explanation going to take forever?) is that it’s a typical long tail, as used by the major internet sellers.

That means the ratio falls real quick in the early years of your life, but at twenty five it’s still 0.2. By the time you’re fifty it’s 0.1, but after that it decreases pretty slowly.

I was in my mid-forties when I decided to drop www from all my web prefixes, I simply didn’t have time to write those three letters any more. Wittmann and Lehnoff, in a 2005 study in Germany, found that

perception of the speed of time (in the last decade, anyway)… …peaked at age 50, however, and remained steady until the mid-90s.

How cool is that? There are biological theories for this ‘time-trap’, including the fact that your biological clock runs slower as you age, but time does not—I like that one too.

There’s a huge sensory experience component at play, and I’m convinced that if you become seriously disabled time slows down terribly. If you’re ill, sitting in a hospital room, time crawls.

The stillness of time in children explains how easily kids get bored,  sitting at table pole-axed by parental conversation.

When it comes to short-term events, we still behave similarly as kids and adults, albeit with slightly less whooping (at least some of us).

There are things I look forward to immensely, and I go into kiddie mode—the waiting is unbearable. So the trick therefore must be to populate your life richly with these opportunities, so that you look forward to the next event as if it was your first fu…ndamental encounter with life itself.

It’s all a question of dealing with what’s behind and what’s in front. But a quarter of the world doesn’t see it that way. The Chinese concept of time is not on the horizontal plane, like the West—it’s vertical.

Now that’s a first. For almost two billion people, the past is above you, the future below. The Chinese aren’t chased by their memories, their past presses down on them instead. And their future is something they have to dig to find.

Like a fortune cookie.

So dig deep. And don’t look up.

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

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


July 25, 2015

With a title like that, you know it could go anywhere—but today we’ll start in Texas. There’s a Portuguese saying that sums up the Sandra Bland video.

Se queres ver um vilão, põe-lhe um cajado na mão.

In this case the villain is in plain sight, and the stick in his hand is the taser, but metaphorically it is the authority vested in him by the Lone Star State.

The lack of common sense displayed by the state trooper is astounding, and the young black woman’s death is a completely avoidable tragedy.

The nonsense begins with the offense itself. Ms. Bland is pulled over for not signalling a lane change—arguably she only changed lanes to let a speeding vehicle by, and that vehicle was er… the police car that pulled her over.

Not signaling is a traffic violation, but one of the hallmarks of driving in the US  is that almost nobody signals when changing lanes. When I drive stateside, blink, blink, blink, everyone else on the highway is wondering where the hell I’m from.

Don’t take my word on this, have a look at the live feeds from CHART and count the turn signals. The irony in the Bland video is that after the tow truck completes all its preparations it… pulls out without signalling—far more dangerous that changing lanes without blinking on an empty road (apart from the cop behind you). Oh, and even richer, when the tow truck arrives mid-way though the video it does a full U-turn across the highway without a hint of turn signal.

But the core issue is abuse of power. I’ll rephrase the Portuguese aphorism.

Want to see an evil man? Put a taser in his hand.

Brian Encinia represents the worst of petty power, and in the days before dashcams and the internet he would have got away with it.

The best of America? How it exposes itself to the world, from Abu Ghraib to Prairie View. And the swift and universal condemnation of a man who smiles and chats to a driver who has no insurance documents minutes before turning into a raging monster.

Prairie View, Texas, population 4,110.

Sounds like the quintessential trap for out-of-state plates. Stories and songs in America lampoon the bigoted and mean ‘dreaded southern sheriff,’ and he clearly still walks among us.

The little town is (was) only known because of Prairie View A&M University, which is described as a ‘preferentially black school.’ The history of this particular campus explains why: it started life in 1876 as an ‘Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Benefit of Colored Youth.’

In the fullness of time (which is britspeak for just shy of a century), Prairie View Normal and Industrial College, a segregated establishment for black men and women, became part of the Texas A&M system.

A&M stands for Agricultural and Mechanical, which speaks to the motivation of the state legislators when they set the framework for development, and resulted in graduates of TAMU being called Aggies or Farmers.

I’m sure those black students of PVAMU are intimately familiar with the dreaded southern sheriff.

The internet can lead to great ills, including a whole new paradigm in warfare, and the fact that cars can now be hacked. Wired magazine explains how two guys hacked a late model Chrysler Jeep by interfering with instructions it received through a cellphone network.

I've heard of cat fails, but this is ridiculous. A car fail when a laptop makes its brakes fail from ten miles away.

I’ve heard of cat fails, but this is ridiculous. A car fail when a laptop makes its brakes fail from ten miles away.

The aptly named Sprint network was used to make the Jeep’s brakes fail, using a wireless laptop connection from a house some distance away. I have a long-standing love affair with cars, and am increasingly worried about how distributed computing is impinging on my personal space.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles believes this vulnerability may affect  late model MY Dodge Viper specialty vehicles, Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 pickups, Ram 3500, 4500, 5500 Chassis Cabs, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Cherokee SUVs, Dodge Durango SUVs, MY Chrysler 200, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans, and Dodge Challenger sports coupes.

Wow. Sounds like the perfect crime. The cure? 1.4 million USB sticks to insert into your dashboard port. I’m immensely pleased my car has neither a net connection nor a pen port.

But the good things about internet connectivity? They let me speak with you, they let me show you a webcam on I5 or Route 1, and they let the world see non-linearity in action.

That’s when a little bigot turns a drive through a one-horse town into the suicide of a twenty-eight year old woman. For shame.

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

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

Good Ole Boys

July 19, 2015

In 1629 Charles Stuart, or Carolus in Latin, gave the colony of Cape Fear to his attorney-general Sir Robert Heath, who named it Carolina in honor of the monarch.

Whatever legal skills Sir Bob possessed, they were not enough to stop the king from being executed—Charles I was beheaded on January 30 1649, the first and only English monarch ever to be put to death. The king requested two shirts.

The season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.

The Province of Carolina was then presented by Bonnie Prince Charlie to a set of English nobles known as the Lords Proprietors in 1663, as a reward for bringing him to power three years before.

Today North Carolina continues to represent the essence of the South, a place of genteel manners and unimpeachable hospitality. I still didn’t really see black people in prominent roles, nor are immigrants as much in evidence as when you come up the eastern seaboard.

We got pulled over by a state trooper, who told us we were “runnin’ a little hot.” But the driver may well get the ticket pulled, he seemed to have relatives in all the right places—a few decades ago burning the cops off in hot rods was standard Friday night fare.

Richmond is the major city to the north as you travel toward Washington DC—but despite the downtown skyscrapers, the one-time capital of the confederate states has a sleepy atmosphere you can’t seem to shake, as the James River drawls and serpentines its way southwest—I love it.

By the time you hit the beltway, a different kind of engine turns the axle of America. Outside Home Depot in DC the parking lot is busy on a Saturday morning—trucks, trolleys, and tools, but wait—who are all these guys squatting on the verges?

Not your regular do-it-yourself customers surely—clumps of squat, short men, ill-dressed, ill-fed, moustaches and cigarettes. Skin the color of bronze, men accustomed to hard graft in a foreign land.

This is an informal market of drywall workers, carpenters, plumbers, a tribute to American ingenuity—the would-be DIY shoppers, realizing they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, hire these Latino jobbers to do the work for them.

Somewhere down that line US contractors are losing business to an environment that brings together informal laborers and informal home improvers—I presume the tax element is missing, a sharp reminder of Southern Europe and grexit.

In my foray to a Home Depot store in Rhode Island three months ago, there were not enough day-jobbers in evidence to make me sit up and take notice—I had observed the incredibly rapid spread of Spanish signage, driven by the marketing men.

But apparently this outdoor employment agency is a fixture in major cities throughout the United States: similar in some ways to hiring grape-pickers, except that in this kind of work often both parties are ‘day-jobbers.’

As usual I’ve done a fair bit of driving—Washington does have a decent subway system, but if you need to be anywhere in the suburbs a car is the obvious solution. And everything about cars is cheap, starting with the vehicle and ending with the gas.

The world according to Capt. Tony, one of many amusing pictures that decorate the Tune Inn.

The world according to Capt. Tony, one of many amusing pictures that decorate the Tune Inn.

I stopped at the Tune Inn for lunch—one of my favorite diners, up on Capitol Hill. I had ambitions of eating at the Old Ebbitt, a legendary Washington restaurant just off the Mall, but the queue reached to revolving doors—like a cartoon character I swung in and straight back out.

I discovered the Tune Inn when I was researching The India Road in 2007—it’s a small place close enough to the Jefferson Library, friendly and unassuming, with the added attraction that they serve a reasonable glass of tinto.

It draws a mixed fauna, from congressional staffers to off-duty marines, and if you want a plate you need to ask for one. This is not a place for wimpy fish-eaters—if you are of the fin persuasion you can get a catfish sandwich, somewhere between the sloppy joes, the meatloaf, and the jalopenos.

The US is the usual land of contradictions, with Donald Trump running for president and Wall Street backing both Clinton and Bush. On TV, a religious channel runs a feature about a christian who actually believes in climate change. On CNN, a raging debate about whether a gay teacher was unfairly dismissed.

American television has always been ad heaven, but this time round I found it unwatchable. Serious-looking older men trying to sell you mortgages at 6 am is more than I can stomach, and publicity even found its way into my GPS—it decided to become increasingly chummy with me and began to recommend stores. I’ve no doubt that it’s linked to my programming choices, and every time I turned it back on my new pal asked me to rate my previous location—data is king, so I had to say no.

As I sign off to cross the Atlantic, I leave you with the immortal words of Capt. Tony: All you need in this life is a tremendous sex drive and a great ego—brains don’t mean a shit!

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

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

Zero Days

July 12, 2015

I had lunch at London airport yesterday, and watched a father and son at the next table. The teenage boy wore earbuds and spent the whole meal playing a game on his phone, occasionally pausing to eat. The father alternated between looking at his Kindle and looking perplexed.

Stanford psychologist Zimbardo recently postulated that young people, mostly young men, who grow up in a culture of computer gaming and online pornography, may suffer consequences that are both  unpleasant and far-reaching.

Most worrying, of course, is that universal human preoccupation: sex. Teenagers are being introduced to sex through pornography―that in itself is history―most of my generation first learned about sex through books, but in a straight-laced society such as Spain or Portugal in the 1960s the scenes were tame, and there was more left to suggestion than to explicit prose.

I still like to read and write about sex, but with a purpose: it may be passion, love or hate, or some sort of political expediency. For instance, in the second chapter of Clear Eyes, I offer the following text.

Her eyes were bright. “Mi almirante, I have a passion for great men.”

Her hand traced the lines of his face. First the white hair, then the dark eyebrows, thick and raised, followed by the mouth, thin and wide. Finally, she ran her index finger slowly up the aquiline nose, and then three fingers slowly stroked down, opening like petals, as if measuring the admiral’s girth.

Beatrice turned his face toward her. “Your nose, Cristóbal, it is of a large proportion.” She let her left hand drop. “I’ve heard it said…”

Her hand rode up his thigh as she sat next to him and raised her glass. The admiral’s face became ruddy; his mouth opened, but no sound came out. Beatrice sipped and leaned forward, her hand continuing its exploration.

“Oh! Dios mio!” Beatrice opened her eyes wide and parted her lips. “Es verdad.”

Whether you enjoyed that or not, the seduction takes place as a means to an end, and the consequences are important for plot development—and if you know your history, you figured out exactly which Beatrice is laying the honey trap.

Sex can be funny, as well as a lot of fun, so I hope the clip above makes you smile a little—and that when you read the rest of the scene it may stir up a teensy-weensy extra emotion.

But the notion of little kids getting their ‘start’ in sex by watching hard core porn appalls me. (which is not a porn site) claims that most parents have no idea there are free porn sites such as and pornhub.

Even if they do, I suspect oversight of teen digital surfing is often left to mom, and if dad knows the websites, he’s not going to ‘fess up.

The problem is that young boys don’t learn the natural give and take of relationships, the bliss of your first kiss, the trembling and rampant adrenalin of sex, and the dynamics of love. Instead they learn of a bizarre and artificial world where submissive women achieve ultimate joy when some guy ejaculates on their face—this doesn’t seem to me the foundation of a solid pair-bond.

But free porn sites bring with them a good deal more than just sex—they’re a natural vector for delivering malware.

This week malware was on the menu by way of a company called Hacking Team. Normally hacking is not associated with Italy, but these guys made a name for themselves in a very specific field—offensive response.

Their flagship product is something called Galileo, or Remote Control System (RCS).

Zero Day hacks are a digital (black) art form, and are often used to penetrate targets,

Zero Day hacks are a digital (black) art form, and are often used to penetrate targets,

The clients are (or were) law enforcement, intelligence, and other national agencies—the company didn’t sell to private entities, or so it says.

Human rights groups repeatedly accused Hacking Team of doing business with oppressive or totalitarian regimes, who used the software to spy on political opponents and dissidents.

The reason all this made the news was that the company was itself hacked—according to Wikileaks, over 400 gigabytes of data were lifted from their servers. Most folks will understand that any number with ‘giga’ after it is big, but let’s analyze how big.

The current manuscript for Clear Eyes is a little over 45,000 words—the file size is 268 kilobytes. In these days of stored images and music, which are much larger files, we forget that one page of text is a small file.

My new book is about half-written, and those one hundred-fifty pages work out at three hundred words a page, or 2 kb. Even assuming each customer’s file was the size of Clear Eyes, the hacked file would contain over one million records.

Reported customers include government agencies in Ethiopia, Russia, Morocco, and Mexico, not the brightest stars in the democratic firmament. Moreover, emails obtained by the Guardian newspaper expand that list to include the US military, the FBI, the DEA, and add a number of other well-known democracies, including Sudan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

The firm’s aggressive approach to surveillance involved a hack of the host machines and installation of RCS. Once in place, the client could eavesdrop on Skype conversations, spy on you through that innocuous little eye in your laptop, and much much more—a tale with similarities to the hacks carried out by ‘Drill’ Deeman and the mysterious chain-smoking Cairo engineer in Atmos Fear.

One of the key vehicles used by Hacking Team were zero days, hack-speak for software vulnerabilities. When a program such as Microsoft Silverlight is installed on your computer it needs to have a conversation with the very intestines of your operating system—in Windows it’ll modify the register, a Papillon-style leper colony on your computer disk which only the brave will visit.

Small changes to the register made by enthusiastic amateurs will block the machine, but the zero-day hackers are no amateurs.

The requirements for a good zero day are threefold: it hacks into a computer or other digital device by exploiting a loophole, usually by piggybacking on a ubiquitous ‘helper’ program—that’s the message you always say yes to when you’re asked if you want to install an add-in to do whatever you’re doing; second, it’s wrapped in a suitable delivery system—not much point in an injectable drug if you don’t have a syringe; finally, it remains hidden—while the zero day is unknown, it has commercial value, but once exposed, the manufacturer releases a patch and that’s that.

Top class zero days can fetch half a million dollars or more, depending on how they can be inserted into a machine and what access they provide.

The penetration mechanisms exploit so-called vulnerabilities, programming bugs or lack of appropriate bullet-proofing that allow the intruder into the machine. Once inside, Bob’s your uncle. The US reportedly hacked into Saddam Hussein’s scud missile control systems in the first Gulf War by going in as a printer—laser printers need good access to computers, since they do a lot of chat with their boss.

You may have noticed of late that Adobe Flash seems to want to update itself every week—I did, because I don’t like automatic updates, I like to see what I’m getting. When a company is updating that frequently there’s a problem—as Shakespeare wrote, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’

The Hacking Team guys bought a zero day that targeted Flash from a Moscow hacker called Vitaliy Toporov—your man wasn’t just selling Flash, he had zero days for Silverlight, the Java language, and the Mac’s Safari browser—bombarding Adobe, Microsoft, Oracle, and Apple in one fell swoop. If he can’t hack you, you must be living on Mars.

The Russian charged the firm forty-five grand for a non-exclusive licence, and delivered in return a piece of computer code that could penetrate Flash all the way from version 9 to 11, on both Windows and Mac.

By all accounts Hacking Team was itself pathetically easy to hack, and they are by no means the only players in this game. On the offensive hacking side, aka the empire strikes back, companies like Blue Coat Systems (US), Gamma Group (UK), Germany’s Trovicor, and Amesys, in France, also operate in this area.

The Italian job: exploiting man's sexual vulnerabilities.

The Italian job: exploiting man’s sexual vulnerabilities.

Zero days are here to stay: French zero-day company Vulpen was allegedly hacked in 2012 and had one hundred-thirty zero days stolen—Vulpen denies the hack, but there’s a delightful poetic justice in the fact that by revealing the theft they would expose their zero days and lose any further potential revenue.

The zero-day game is the way in, and the next step is to go on the attack. The Galileo system, like others on the market, allows you not only to eavesdrop but to alter communications—you could for instance provide a fake phone number or arrange a meeting, even change a bank account number.

When you hear the stories of the Chinese and American hackfest, together with far more discreet players such as the Israelis or the FSB, you now know a little bit more about the murky depths of this particular dark pool.

When Toporov was asked by reporters whether Hacking Team sold to the FSB, he candidly replied “I’ve never heard that FSB openly buys zero-days. I thought either they have their internal talents or they outsource it somewhere.”

Galileo Galilei is turning in his grave.

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

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

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