Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Blonde Bombshell

September 2, 2017

Last summer I published a short story called The Swing, inspired by the Lahore bombing, which killed twenty-nine children on Easter Sunday, 2016.

The explosive used was triacetone triperoxide, or TATP. I became aware of TATP after the Brussels airport bombing, and decided it would be a good fit for my story. Within the bomb-making community, TATP is both loved and hated.

It’s loved for its destructive power, and since it isn’t a nitrogen-based explosive like ammonium nitrate, TATP is much harder to detect with present-day bomb sensors.

Acetone and peroxide, two quintessentially feminine products.

I never loved organic chemistry, but I realized you couldn’t understand natural sciences without it—that would be like loving boats and hating water. The picture tells you to mix some acetone (aka nail polish remover) with hydrogen peroxide (the secret to turning a dull brunette into a dumb blonde), and end up with that big ring on the right.

You lose six hydrogens and three oxygens, i.e. a bit of water, and you end up with the Mother of Satan, a stunningly powerful explosive. The ring has the three acetones poking out the side, and the peroxide splices in three extra oxygens—the whole deal contains only  carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, just like your breakfast bagel—come to think of it, the bagel has all sorts of other shit in it.

So, no nitrogen, no phosphorus, no easy detection, and a great big bang.

The fact is you could carry enough TATP through airport security today to blow up your plane without fear of detection—the explosive looks like sugar crystals, partly because carbs contain exactly those three elements: C, O, H.

The downside to all this is that TATP is really dangerous to make. In fact, I’m surprised the blonde bombshell coming out of the salon, adjusting her hairdo with perfectly polished fingernails, doesn’t blow her head off.

La femme fatale—and you thought it was just a weird French thing.

Suddenly, every hair studio is a terror lab.

When I wrote my story in 2016, I had very little trouble sourcing all sorts of instructions on the manufacture of the Mother of Satan, which is prepared by Al Muhandis, the sinister Egyptian ‘engineer’—and although I was very careful not to provide enough details to enable criminal use, the Egyptian bomb-maker shows his respect for TATP in the following excerpt.

He decided on one last Shahadah before he prepared the explosive. Bomb-makers hated this white powder—making it was as easy as baking a cake, but TATP was so unstable it often blew the terrorist to pieces as he cooked—the chemists called it the Mother of Satan.

Al Muhandis was fascinated by TATP, by its combination of danger and simplicity. His scientific mind delighted in the way it reacted—he didn’t subscribe to the cake analogy, because preparing this incredible substance required no heat.

Waali had a grudging admiration for the Israeli scientists at the Technion who’d figured out how the explosive worked. The sugar-like crystals easily turned into a gas—a little heat or a shock would do it—and released molecules at two hundred times the pressure of the surrounding air—a ton and a half per square inch.

And still today, following the recent tragedy in Barcelona, it’s easy to find the recipe on the net. I suppose Peter Wibaux must be on a number of intelligence lists, since I don’t believe for a minute this stuff doesn’t get tracked, but you don’t have to delve into the dark web, or even the penumbra—the Caucasian one has all you need.

The TATP greatest hits, if you excuse the pun, include London 7/7, Paris, Manchester Arena, Brussels, and Barcelona. But its pedigree goes back to the shoe bomber in 2001, and Satan’s momma is at least partly responsible for the 100 ml rule on airliners.

The latest bomb-makers to enjoy an early trip to paradise lived in a squat in the province of Tarragona. There, in the small town of Alcanar—itself an Arab name—they concocted the secret sauce. Unfortunately, the house they occupied either had no suitable cooling facilities, or the terrorists had skipped the class about ice.

Either way, the temperature slowly crept up to the critical level, which in the hot Spanish summer wouldn’t be difficult at all.

The really worrying thing about TATP is there are many chemical manufacturing plants that deal with dangerous substances, and take the risk out of the processes through blast-proof facilities and automation.

In this dangerous world, it is becoming far easier to safely make a lethal explosive than to detect it.

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

A Hearty Breakfast

August 28, 2017

Let me qualify that. A hearty Scottish breakfast.

Like many other countries in the developed world, the United Kingdom has a weight problem.

I’m riding on the first plane out of Edinburgh, at an ungodly hour of the morning—about half the passengers, and all the stewardesses, are grossly overweight.

The same or worse was in evidence every morning in my hotel, where the breakfast menu emphasized the word hearty—there’s a little irony here, since Scotland is the UK champion of heart disease.

Glasgow, in fact, has the worst life expectancy in Britain: only seventy-five percent of boys born in the city will make it to sixty-five—girls fare a little better. The rate of premature death from cardio-vascular disease is 144 out of every one hundred thousand people, whereas in the aptly-named town of Hart, in the southern English county of Hampshire, only forty people succumb.

A well-chosen name for clothing supplies in Scotland.

The country sets the tone. I had a chat with a young Thai girl who grew up in Scotland from a very early age. At the time, I was busy doctoring an almost inedible burger with tabasco, and I asked her if she liked spicy food. She shook her head emphatically.

We were in an unbelievably named spot called the kilted kangaroo, which advertised on the door ‘the best food in town!’ Clearly fake news, and the imagery of Aussie-Scots fusion is very possibly the height of poor taste.

What about fish? Cod and haddock. Oh, salmon also. Great. What about shrimp? Prawns? How about little fish? She shook her head emphatically again. I told her she was the very first Thai I’d ever met who didn’t like seafood or spices.

How about pizza? Her eyes lit up.

So there you have it in a nutshell, the old Darwinian debate on nature and nurture—when it boils down to food, if you’ll excuse the eminently justifiable Scottish pun, nurture wins hands down.

The Scots seem to take perverse pleasure in poor eating, diluting the grease with copious volumes of lager—it puts an entirely new spin on the word hearty, and compresses their chests on a regular basis.

Flying at first light is always hardship duty, and I start the day (or technically the night) feeling sorry for myself, but I soon get over it when I think of all the people who need to be up earlier than me so I can fly.

It’s the menial jobs in particular that must be soul-destroying—the guys loading bags on planes, the shuttle drivers and cleaners, and… woe is me, the ground staff who process the cattle onto low cost flights.

And yet, as I watched the harassed helpers herding the hordes (sorry, it’s a bit hearly), I had a vision of this same sea of humankind being loaded onto cattle trains to Auschwitz. The same blank looks and shuffling feet, but a very different destination.

It took me a while to get into low costs, and some experiences are unrepeatable—Frontier Airlines was my worst plane trip ever, barring a crash—in which case you’ll have to speculate, because I won’t be writing about it. But overall, I find some low cost features attractive, mainly because flag carriers have become so hideously unattractive.

Private Eye gives us the real story on British Airways.

After the British Airways meltdown on the final Saturday of May 2017, I had to fight tooth and nail to get my fares reimbursed. BA now advertises its unique relationship with Marks & Spencer, but frankly, who gives a shit about M&S? The few foreigners who know the chain think it sells trousers.

The idea that flogging the customers indifferent M&S snacks is better than giving them indifferent BA snacks could only be pushed by a Brit. Easyjet may be sleazyjet, but what you see is what you get—or to really scrape the bottom of the barrel, what you sleaze is what you jet.

Speedy boarding is speedy—first class access without first class prices, and although you buy your food on board, you can have something hot, and even a couple of choices of wine—and the flights run on time.

These early flights from Scotland to the Costa del Vino draw a certain type of traveler—you recognize them because they’re drinking multiple pints of lager at the Wetherspoon pub in departures, and it’s barely five a.m.

When you’re pouring beer down your throat, and scarfing a hearty Scottish breakfast while examining your partner’s tattoos, you definitely qualify as an escapee from an Austin Powers movie.

In the more extreme situations, passengers need to check their duty-free and retrieve it on arrival—this follows a memorable piss-up on Ryan Air which forced a plane diversion from Ibiza to Bordeaux. The lads had consumed their airport-purchased beverages—they were so drunk when they landed they were unaware of the diversion, and promptly got into fights with the French police.

My fellow passengers are no doubt looking forward to a week in the sun—they don’t realize they’ve really come for a seven-day detox.

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

Big Sur

August 19, 2017

Back when Felipe Gonzalez, a Sevillano, was the Spanish prime minister, a joke did the rounds about Morocco’s claim to Ceuta and Melilla. The North African nation could have them back, the prime minister said, if they took Andalucia as well.

Andalucia, the former caliphate of Al Andalus, and the bottom layer of the cake.

The Spanish autonomous regions are arranged like a wedding cake—Andalucia and little Murcia at the base. In the map, Portugal has disappeared, and the Spanish province of Extremadura has suddenly grown a coastline.

Andalucia is almost as large as Castile, and when you overlay the watershed of the Guadalquivir on the map, you realize the river defines the region. The Wadi al Kebir, as the Moors called it, is literally the great river, flowing west from the region of Granada until it turns south somewhere above Seville and flows into the Atlantic at Sanlucar de Barrameda.

It’s about sixty miles from the Guadalquivir estuary to Seville, and on the right bank of the river is the huge national park of Doñana, one of the largest bird overwintering areas in Europe.

Along the coast, to the west of the river, is the city of Huelva, but to travel there from Cadiz, the ancient Phoenician city of Gades, you need to go via Seville, at the apex of the triangle, because between the estuary and Seville there isn’t one single bridge.

Down in Sanlucar, the locals understand the need for a connection, and plans for a bridge at the southern tip of the river go back to 1947. Changing political agendas, government priorities, and economic issues mean that seventy years on there’s still no bridge, and no plan.

It also means that Sanlucar is isolated and remains little-known, except to the Spanish themselves. I was astonished to drive and walk the streets, eat and drink in the restaurants and bars, and never see a foreigner—remember this is mid-August, and tourism in Iberia is booming because of the terrorism concerns in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and elsewhere.

So I hesitated before sharing with you a jewel of this quality—a place where you don’t see an English newspaper on sale, no one gives a shit about trip advisor, and you hear nothing but the machine-gun staccato of Andalucia.

But my trust in your good taste is boundless, so here we are. After you see Chef Jose Andres describe it, all will be clear—except I had another couple of hot leads, from a Sevillian friend who makes the most beautiful lamps in the region.

Casa Balbino is great, but there are other secret places where the little tortillita de camaron is even better.

I expected Sanlucar to be more dangerous—I’ve written before in these pages about its links to the Moroccan hash trade. But there was no threatening vibe, and I calmly walked the alleys late at night—and I didn’t once smell dope or see anyone having a toke.

On the evening of the Assumption Day fiesta, mounds of earth were heaped in the streets, about thirty yards apart. Next to these brown hills, parents and children—every kid carried a beach bucket and spade,  and most of them banged on the buckets—a back beat for the scene that followed.

Near the castle, the mounds were white, and the kiddies had been let loose—they filled their buckets and poured the contents on the ground, while grown-ups with rakes spread the mixture evenly, until the whole road was white.

Salt adornments for the Virgin Mary, Sanlucar-style.

But early next morning, it had all turned into a magic display of color—and the heaps of the previous night weren’t earth at all, but salt—good sea salt from the mouth of the Guadalquivir, dyed blue, yellow, and red.

The blue of the ocean, and the yellow and red of Spain—always representing the blood of conquest, and eldorado, the gold that it brought.

And although Sanlucar now mainly boasts shrimp boats and hashish gomas, this remarkably understated spot bears the gravitas of history—in May 1498, Columbus departed from here on his third trip to the Americas, from which he returned in shackles.

As the ‘admiral of the ocean sea’ sailed west on another vain quest for Cipango, Vasco da Gama crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the summer monsoon, and reached the real indies.

But Sanlucar was also the departure of another Portuguese sailor, called Fernão de Magalhães. Magellan, as he’s known to the world, left Sanlucar in 1419, sailing for the Spanish crown, and his expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

None of these events are celebrated locally, and there is no museum or historical residence which boasts of the town’s pride in these voyages and explorers.

But there is one famous palace, which now boasts one of the best private archives in Europe—the Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, the first Spanish dukedom, appointed in 1445, and a legend of Spanish nobility, have their ancestral home a few hundred yards south of the castle.

And in one of the rooms hangs a portrait of the seventh duke—a small picture, which shows a man punished by the sands of time. The man is Don Alonso de Gusmán El Bueno, who commanded the Invincible Armada.

It sailed from La Coruña in 1588, led by a man who hated the ocean and suffered terribly from seasickness—its ships were scattered and sunk by a combination of traditional British weather and the good offices of Francis Drake.

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




The World is your Oyster

August 12, 2017

Now there’s a strange expression, but it has a fine pedigree. As all you good literati know, it originates in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Falstaff: Not a penny.

I first met Pistol when I was in my early teens, and my English teacher decided to torture the class with Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Act II, Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow.

Then as now, I was easily amused, and that’s one of the few lines of the immortal bard I can still quote. Some years later, when I lived in the English Midlands, I went on numerous occasions to the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

Before the performance, although we were all underage, we had a few libations at the Dirty Duck—one of my friends regularly tried to sell American tourists Shakespeare’s toothbrush.

During the performance, we waited until the theater-goers had deposited their half-finished drinks on the long shelf adjoining the bar, eager to return to their seats before the curtain rose, confident of being reunited with their glasses at the next interval.

Over that next magical half-minute, we drilled through the shelf like the army of Genghis Khan, then sat in the darkness as the thespians appeared, while our stomachs centrifuged a concoction of taste, color, and buzz.

The RSC has always boasted amazing actors—I watched them perform ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, and the rambunctious Pistol telling Falstaff that he would use his blade to prise open the oyster and take his due.

Oysters and men are inextricably bound, so that the history of both cannot be separated—I wonder, in fact, if the phrase shouldn’t be ‘the oyster is your world’. What binds them both is the sea, and the human propensity to settle next to estuaries.

Europe is reeling from an eggy uproar, a kind of yolk Guam—fire and fury soufflé. Of the many things that make a European proud, food quality is certainly in the top five, along with cathedrals and soccer.

This triggers strong views on hormones in US beef, chlorinated chicken, and shellfish microbiological standards—the latter resulted in a mutual trade ban, which deprives the old continent of such delicacies as geoduck (pronounced gooey duck), grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Incidentally, my article about geoduck in these pages remains by far the most viewed ever—size clearly does matter!

In the past, Europe was not so concerned about who ate what, but BSE (mad cows), scrapie (crazy sheep), and other scares have changed our attitude to food. If you go back to the nineteenth century, you find that Scottish trout were fed on oysters and horse meat—a blow indeed for your average pescatarian.

This is described in the history of ‘Howietoun’, one of the oldest fish farms in Scotland, now owned by the University of Stirling. The oyster side of the story is particularly interesting, because in the XIXth century, the critter in question would have been the European flat oyster, known in France (and tony restaurants elsewhere) as bellon—it’s worth considerably more than its counterpart, the rock oyster, which is classed in Europe as an invasive species.

The internet has become an immense resource for scholarship—in a variety of languages, as I joyfully discovered when I researched Clear Eyes. Armed with the information that the oysters used to feed trout most likely came from Edinburgh, I embarked on a voyage that took me back the last quarter of the 1800’s.

Northern Europe and North America have a long-standing tradition of fisheries research boards, and it turns out that the annual reports of the Fishery Board for Scotland, published in the 1880’s and 1890’s, are available for histoysterical scholars.

In those days, oysters were consumed in copious quantities. Lewis Carroll makes the point in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

The poem doesn’t tell us how many bivalves were scarfed by the walrus and the carpenter—it’s unclear whether carpentry as a profession is particularly conducive to an oyster diet, but the walrus chiefly feeds on molluscs—Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician, and thus a stickler for accuracy.

From the multiplication by four, it sounds as if we’re quickly into the bushels—and the walrus will have taken the (sea)lion’s share, because he cracked them open, whereas the carpenter needed to shuck. Nevertheless, the human opposable thumb is a limiting factor for both the pepper and vinegar, but I digress.

In the Firth of the Forth, next to the city of Edinburgh, the oyster grounds covered an area of one hundred and twenty square miles—impossible to imagine today. At the start of the XIXth century, a boat working the Forth could dredge six thousand oysters in one day.

In the 1830’s, not long after the Napoleonic wars, Edinburgh exported about seven million oysters every year, and the locals consumed about a tenth of that.

The Scots were so profligate with their oyster beds that by 1895, the total stock in the Forth was estimated to be only 250,000 animals. Much of the decline was due to relaying, still a very common practice today—young oysters had been sold for decades to restock the depleted oyster beds of Holland and England.

A local fisherman commented:

It used to be a case of picking out clams (queen scallop) when dredging for oysters; now it is picking out an occasional oyster when dredging for clams.

It’s no wonder, with such an impetuous drive to destroy such an important natural resource, that oysters even found their way into trout ponds.

One of the most striking parts of these historical reports is the concern about overfishing. Even then, sensible and prudent recommendations appeal to the powers that be, underscoring the need for controlling fisheries for particular species, and on the importance of protecting salmon waters from pollution in rivers.

In those days, there was a general view that emptying waste into rivers was a reasonable thing to do, since rivers naturally function as conduits for human waste—the Scottish scientists emphasized that water unfit for humans is water unfit for salmon.

And six generations on from such profound wisdom, we still collect data, scratch our heads and wonder what can be done.

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


August 5, 2017

History is most interesting when paradigms shift. And paradigms shift in two ways.

The first is when something totally unexpected occurs. The discovery of penicillin, which changed the relationship between humans and disease, is a good example. The second comes about through non-linearity, my favorite process. Water slowly builds up behind the wall, the level gradually rising, unseen and unheard, and then one day the wall cracks.

This build-up translates an accumulation of potential energy into a release of kinetic energy—the myth of Sisyphus, perennially rolling a rock up a hill until exhaustion releases it to roll down again. The king of Corinth provides the kinetic energy, the rock acquires potential energy, and then releases it as it rolls downhill.

A similar shift occurs when anger, stress, or frustration builds up inside you until there is a release, and there is a societal parallel as a trend or wish develops in enough minds to cause a shift. Arguably, the US presidential election is an example of the latter.

Unquestionably, so is the recent decision in parts of Europe (not Germany) to do away with the internal combustion engine. France and Britain plan to do so by 2040, by banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars.

Germany, where diesel is king, timidly wants a million electric cars on the road by 2020—in 2016, there were forty-five million registered.

Which bring us to Uncle Rudolf.

Rudolf Diesel: an amazing man, of whom hardly an English biography exists.

The inventor of the most successful engine in the world is a little-known man. The Franco-German engineer became very wealthy from his invention, but he was a prodigy in engineering, with a string of innovations to his name.

You may not like engines, so forgive me torturing you with the information that the man invented the compression-ignition engine, a very different beast from the internal combustion engine that drives petrol-fueled cars. These engines fire on their own, using basic principles of thermodynamics to inject fuel into a compressed air mixture—above a certain temperature the mixture self-ignites, so the engine doesn’t need the complex low voltage-high voltage rig that fires spark plugs.

Diesel is the only guy with an engine named after him. Well… there is Wankel, but I don’t want to lower the tone on a weekend—we already have trump tweets for that.

The remarkable thing about diesel engines is they run on just about anything, as long as it burns. Which means used cooking oil, even from McDonald’s, and everything from cane sugar alcohol to beet to peanut oil—the oils fall under the category of biodiesel, and you can run the most recent diesel engines on it. You can even use homemade oil, as long as you wash it.

Rudy was born in 1858, and disappeared mysteriously from a postal steamer called the Dresden in 1913. Somewhere between dinner and breakfast he vanished from the ship, in the middle of the English Channel, while en route to London. What is known is that the fifty-five year old millionaire had dinner on his own and retired to his cabin at ten o’clock, leaving word that he was to be woken at 06:15 the next morning.

His bed was found perfectly made, with his unused nightshirt laid out, and his hat and overcoat were neatly folded on the afterdeck. A terribly disfigured corpse was found in the North Sea ten days later, and his identity confirmed by his son Eugen, based on personal effects.

The corpse was found near Norway, but the ship had sailed from Antwerp to London, not exactly close—there was a report on October 11th 2013 that Diesel’s body had first been found by a small Dutch fishing boat at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary in Zeeland, but cast overboard due to rough seas.

In the early XXth century, the world was still the province of colonial powers, and at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, the Otto company exhibited a diesel engine running on peanut oil.

The French wanted it for their African colonies, where petroleum fuels were not abundant. Diesel himself had a noble vision for his engine—he saw it powering the agri-industry in remote parts of the world, and imagined a world where farming became self-sufficient—farmers would go their own fuel, refine it using simple methods, and use it to power the engines that operated tractors and harvesters.

Rudolph Diesel became a strong advocate for biodiesel, which is understandable for three reasons. First, his engine was fuel-agnostic, and he saw no particular advantage in advocating petroleum products. Second, it was a huge untapped market, which could greatly increase his company revenue.

Finally, it made perfect sense to locally produce the fuels that would be used in farm areas—although no one spoke of carbon footprint back then, or terrorism in the Mid-East, hindsight can be revealing on the consequences for both.

Enter John D. Rockefeller and Big Oil. A biodiesel success would scupper Standard Oil of New Jersey, and the huge US business bet on petroleum hydrocarbons.

Or… enter the German secret service, worried that Diesel would help Churchill with his plans for the development of a British submarine.


The suicide theory is very unlikely, and in those days a problem could be created or resolved by one man with a briefcase.

And although they found the hat and coat, the briefcase is missing to this day.

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





Cats and Dogs

July 29, 2017

A recent article on chlorinated chicken featured Britain’s environment secretary, who resembles a plucked bird himself—that’s bad enough, but when delivered as a live feed by Andrew Sparrow, it becomes a punfest of the worst order.

In the US, a chlorine rinse is used to kill bacteria that thrive on the carcasses, whereas the EU impose rules that guarantee sterility in the slaughter process, dispensing with chlorine.

The British press, politicians, pundits, and other twerps, are up in arms about it all—there was an outcry a few days ago for the UK trade minister to eat a chlorinated chicken to prove it’s safe.

All this gets even sillier because the minister is called Fox, which leads us straight into another chicken punfest. Brexit, predictably, seems to be an exercise in complete confusion, and has turned into hours of harmless fun.

This is only true in the UK, however, where reporters fill pages with astoundingly amazing alliterations about bungling Brussels bureaucrats, whereas you will find it tough to see a byline on Brexit in Le Monde, Il Tempo, or Frankfurter Allgemeine.

But who cares, right? Most Brits couldn’t name a single foreign newspaper—the stupid things aren’t even written in English!

So it falls to the Maltese to assuage the masses and report on progress, since Malta currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU—and oh, how America envies a rotating presidency at this point, when what they have is a cabinet carrousel.

The Maltese prime minister went on the record with some interesting statements on the status of the EU-UK talks. He showed his political naivety by stating “I’m starting to believe Brexit will not happen.”

He compounded that by saying “the will of the people can have disastrous consequences, history teaches us; I could name some examples, but they’re so horrendous they’d raise the wrath of my British friends.”

Given the obvious reference to Nazi Germany, I’m surprised this wasn’t met with typical Etonian puerility, instructing the Maltese to go whistle, or worse than that, sing.

Spot the Bot. Another confused Brexiteer.

In any case neither statement does the process any favors—if there’s any chance of a rollback, it will be achieved by dilution. Britain justly earned its spurs as the perfidious Albion, and the only way to resolve this is through gentle amnesia.

The public memory is short, otherwise no politician would ever be re-elected, and the trick is to leave without leaving. A popular politician, and heaven knows they’re as scarce as the Yeti, can make that happen.

Since popular is a very different word to populist, let’s do a history check of some of the world’s great populists: Hitler and Mussolini, Amin, Saddam, Chavez, Pinochet, Mao. Unlike the US senate, I’ve tried to be bipartisan in my list.

Populism isn’t the path—the Trump, Farage, and Le Pen model is evidence enough, but a popular leader in the UK, which after all is the nation that gave us the phrase common sense, can persuade the country they will win by losing, rather than lose by winning.

Already, Philip Hammond, the UK Chancellor, has confirmed the cabinet is united on a three-year transition period, which would leave matters pretty much as they are until 2022. By then, who knows what Europe will look like, and what further dementia will have struck in the United States, the Mid-East, and the Korean peninsula.

Our man from Malta goes on to question reports that Britain is unprepared for negotiation. He states “A non-prepared British government official simply doesn’t exist”. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Muscat, but in my time I’ve known more than a few.

He does however make another amazing statement.

The problem isn’t that London is prepared badly, but that the EU is prepared extremely well. That much became clear when Michael Barnier asked me, ‘Do you know how many cats and dogs travel from Dover to Calais every year? Do you know what’s to be done with the animal passport?’ Such detail! That’s when I knew: the EU is excellently prepared.

Apart from the fact the guy’s name is Michel, I believe everything Malta man says—the Brit love of animals, with or without chlorine, is not open to question.

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


The Smell Test

July 22, 2017

Like the rule of thumb, the smell test is one of those magical tricks that help you make a good decision quickly.

Why is this important? Because many people who make a quick decision regret it. Does it pass the smell test? If your heart screams ‘no’, believe it and don’t get sweet-talked—walk away.

In the West, our guilty conscience, environmental concern, and disposable income, have given a massive boost to the word ‘organic’. Organic once meant a molecule that contains carbon—not simple compounds like carbon dioxide, but complex proteins and polysaccharides—nowadays, in common English, it means free ‘of industrial fertilizers and pesticides.’

There is the small matter that without these we would all be starving, and the population of today’s world would be far smaller. But animal welfare, traceability, and local produce are all compelling values for Generation Y, which can afford them, so ‘organic’ is cash.

In the US state of Michigan, one company sells USDA Organic-labelled eggs—ten percent of the American market—from an agri-complex that packs hens at three per square foot. If you like  SI units, then it’s almost thirty of the poor things in every square meter.

Even worse, USDA Organic standards require that animals get fresh air, sunlight, and exercise. When I write these articles from home, my window is usually wide open—and through it come the noises of the chickens next door.

Unlike those sold by Eggland (sounds more like Eggjail to me), where the animals are confined in nine rectangular barns, the hens in the next yard come out of their coop in the early morning, advertising their freedom, and the cocks often color the day with their raucous sounds. Stray cats occasionally prowl the perimeter, causing avian mayhem—these are organic chickens.

In central Africa, the silliest, most benign, and defenseless creature is being barbarously hunted. It’s name may sound like a musical instrument, but the pangolin is a  nocturnal mammal that feeds off insects.

The animal harks back to an ancient time, since it is the only mammal whose body is covered in scales. And it has no teeth—to compensate for that, it swallows small stones that remain in the stomach and help it digest the ants and termites it eats.

Some pangolins are tree-dwellers, and some live on the forest floor. All have one defense mechanism in common—they roll up into a ball, leaving their hard scales on the outside as body armor—just like a woodlouse.

In India, a pair of lions are baffled by the pangolin’s scaly resistance.

For millions of years, this strategy has been a winner—enter humans, who just pick up the scaly ball and make off with it.

Pangolin meat is popular in central Africa, but above all, the poor creature is desirable in Asia. When China and Southeast Asia take an interest in an animal, conservationists shudder.

In this case, Orientals consider the meat a delicacy, and decided the scales have medicinal value. The Chinese grind the scales into a powder and prescribe them to nursing women and as a cure for psoriasis. In Pakistan, the scales are thought to have spiritual powers and ward off evil. The composition of the scales is well-established—keratin, which makes up fingernails and hair. How about saving your clippings instead, people?

As a consequence of these ludicrous myths, there is now a large export trade from Africa, since Asian stocks are dwindling rapidly.

Unsurprisingly, since ‘hunting’ pangolin is like shooting fish in a barrel, and since numbers in Asia are very low, the shy and inoffensive animal is protected.

Once again, like the greedy chicken farmer, illegal traffickers profit—the pangolin is the most widely traded species, with up to 2.7 million animals being killed every year. And as everywhere, there’s a human food chain, starting with the ‘hunter’ and ending with the politician—in fourteen central African nations where killing pangolins is illegal, the animals are mercilessly hunted. Techniques include digging out burrows, use of fire and chemicals to force animals to surface, and trapping with wire snares.

But we don’t just torture and kill animals, we murder entire ecosystems. The Yamuna river in Uttarakhand was described by a Moghal emperor in the XVIth century as better than nectar.

The Yamuna is a sacred river, just like the Ganges, and on its banks sits the Taj Mahal. There are two hundred and fifty miles of Yamuna before it reaches Delhi, and in that upstream reach, the river is as beautiful as it was five centuries ago.

But as it wends through the Indian capital, its pristine waters are replaced by urban and industrial effluents, killing a river that is declared a living entity by the high court of Uttarakhand.

Hundreds of years ago, the Portuguese sailors, and those who followed them, were responsible for the extinction of the pássaro doido—the dodo. My nose tells me we haven’t learned anything since then.

Oooh, that smell.

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


July 15, 2017

By the time I posted the article last week, one of my best friends had died.

It was too late to claw back on the text, and emotions were running much too high. You need emotion to write, what the Latinos call corazón caliente, but it must be tempered with perspective.

My friend died alone, in the middle of the night. She suffered a massive heart attack, and when the family came to pick her up for lunch on Saturday, they broke down the door and found her dead.

A decade ago, she helped me review the translation of The India Road, and I remember sitting in her front room laughing at the way a couple of the sex scenes had been phrased—we both felt the Portuguese translator had a lot to learn in that department.

We had a lot of fun correcting that text—hopefully when the Portuguese edition was published, the new versions did their job and stirred the hormones of female and male readers alike—or at least some of them.

We had lunch two weeks ago, just after her birthday. I bought her a gift, shipped from France, but it only arrived that afternoon. The following week I went to Brussels, and was going to drop it off on the way to the airport, but as usual I ran late so her book remained undelivered.

I had spoken with her on Friday morning, telling her I would deliver her present Monday—she died that very Friday.

There was a viewing last Saturday night, at an old church in Lisbon, only five hundred yards from her house, and the funeral departed from there the very next day—like Muslims, the Catholics of Southern Europe bury their dead quickly.

Lisbon is full of tourists, and I half-expected some lost soul hunting an airbnb to wander in during the eulogy. The priest told us he communed with both the faithful and the unbeliever—he explained he did not fear for those who did not love god, because he was certain god loved them.

In the cloister, the casket now lay closed. Outside in the searing heat, the yellow trams clattered up the narrow, cobblestoned street. The priest’s murmurs continued, and I watched my friend’s mother, her walking stick trembling, her eyes glazed.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I retrieved a terrible moment, a similar bullet of grief.

You can get used to the death of your parents, but you can never get used to the death of your child.

The man who told me that twenty years ago was someone I hardly knew; he blurted it out uninvited—perhaps he felt he could only share that terrible truth with a stranger, and I can still see his face as he spoke.

Now the prayers have been said and the relatives comforted, now the body has been burnt and other matters settled, it’s time to celebrate life.

Although I don’t see a pathway to the kingdom of heaven, any more than I see the seventy-two virgins of Islam or the fires of hell, I completely agree with a statement the priest repeated  to the assembly: death celebrates life.

Peter Wibaux is not a religious man, and must therefore seek a different catharsis—perhaps in tear-laced prose.

In my sadness, I was happy in church—I like the quiet and the reverence, the smell of the cool, musty air. I blocked out everything, the people and the prayers, and thought of my parents, of wandering around with my father in dark Spanish cathedrals, or sitting in a small Azorean church where sailors once prayed.

Last Friday, I lost one assiduous reader—she now sails a different ocean.

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



July 8, 2017

In the Led Zeppelin song ‘Stairway to Heaven’, there’s a lady who knows sometimes words have two meanings. BFF means Best Friends Forever, which was my original intent, but it can also mean Big Fat Fuck, which fits nicely.

During the Korean war, Mao famously quipped that for the USA, one dead soldier is a tragedy, but for China, one million dead are a statistic—and at that time, the Middle Kingdom had only six hundred million people, forty percent of the current population.

It strikes me that one of the many reasons why business tycoons shouldn’t be trusted with the destiny of nations is that corporate deal-making is essentially bilateral.

CEO’s are ill-equipped to solve multilateral issues, whereas politicians can be pretty good at bringing parties together, generating consensus, and walking away with substantive agreements—Thatcher once said that consensus is the opposite of unanimity, and I would add that in world affairs, consensus is the art of the deal.

The US position on Korea reflects this blatant lack of understanding. In the first place, the position should be on Korea, rather than North Korea, because the problem can only be solved holistically. And secondly, it involves six nations at the very least.

Of these, the US is a superpower, and Russia and China are world powers. Japan is an economic powerhouse and a military eunuch. South Korea is relatively similar to Japan, and North Korea is the opposite.

If you check the historical Hate-O-Meter, then Japan and China hate each other, Japan and Korea likewise, the Koreas dislike each other, and US moods have shifted. And deep down, most all the Asian nations resent or dislike America.

In this six nations tournament, the teams are not all going for the same trophy. South Korea wants to stay wealthy and safe from the armed robbers next door; China wants to be the regional superpower, and will not accept nuclear weapons on its back porch—just as the US wouldn’t tolerate them in Cuba.

Japan wants to be rearmed or reassured, the US wants to be the lead and to be loved, and the Russians want to screw the Chinese, Americans, and Japanese, though not necessarily in that order.

Does this sound complicated enough? From a military viewpoint, this isn’t a theater, it’s a multiplex. As an example, increased commitment in the Korean peninsula weakens resources in the Mid-East, so there’s a trade-off in Syria, Iraq, and yes, the evil twins, which puts a smile on the face of the Russian bear.

Cartoon of a train wreck. Award-winning entry in a recent competition in Tehran.

And at the center of all this geopolitical mayhem is a little country with less that fifty thousand square miles, twenty-five million people, a per capita GDP under 600 bucks, and an insane, multi-generational dictatorship.

So the idea that there’s a deal to be made between the USA and China to solve this bilaterally is a monument to stupidity—and Xi Jinping sure ain’t stupid.

Somewhere between the golf course and the chocolate cake, the Chinese president must have realized he was talking to one of the resort’s signature idiots—a man, possibly even a BFF, who didn’t understand that insulting the celestials repeatedly, calling them currency manipulators and worse, would never result in them becoming BFF—to the Chinese, loss of face is like terminal cancer.

Examples of the Middle Kingdom buffering its borders are numerous—the China-India border is the mother of all disputes: Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and India itself.

Vietnam is another example of a key buffer—a country the Chinese supported militarily until the USA finally lost that war.

China will not abdicate its perceived right to a Korean buffer, unless the trade-off is a sympathetic Korean peninsula and no American troops. In other words, ‘solving’ North Korea by turning it into part of a US-supported Korea is  a non-starter.

Japan certainly wouldn’t welcome an American pullout—it remembers its gigantic neighbor too well. Nor would Russia, who is quite happy tying Uncle Sam down in East Asia while making hay in Syria, and keeping an eye on Iran and Saudi Arabia, the evil twins.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

What part of this problem does the BFF not understand?

All of it.

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


Old Europe

July 1, 2017

Old Europe is heating up again.

The disparaging term was coined by Donald Rumsfeld to vilify traditional European views that clashed with the Bush 43 administration’s vision of a new world order.

History is a wonderful leveler—this so-called order, fifteen years later, is a world in utter chaos. With one exception: Old Europe.

In mid-2016, the prophets of doom began predicting the end of Europe—Anglo-Saxon pundits repeated ad nauseam that the UK was the first nation to leave the European Union.

In the fall, a confused and fractured America elected Donald Trump, and the voices of isolation grew—a kind of nationalist autism (natautism) frenzy, where crazies with no historical grounding advocated a return to bastions of prejudice and hatred.

After Holland gave Europe its first sign of hope this spring, those same pundits said “with all due respect” that The Netherlands was small potatoes, France would be the game-changer.

And it was. The country whose motto is ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ scored a home-run for Europe. Twice, in the presidential and parliamentary elections—and shut the pundits up for good.

In the meantime, Trump steadily confirmed what better-educated Americans knew all too well: his boorish incompetence, singular lack of judgement, and moral turpitude—the latter manifested through multiple cheap accusations and childish threats, offending anyone and everyone who disagreed with him or dared question his ‘wisdom’.

And then came the Maybot debacle. It’s difficult to exaggerate the degree of confusion that currently plagues the British Isles, but it’s left an isolated England even more alone, and turned Old Europe into a haven of common sense when compared to the Anglo-Saxon alternative.

Finally, young Britons saw the light, and came out en masse to change the status quo. I’ve been railing in these pages for some time that apathy and amnesia are democracy’s greatest enemies—British youth suddenly awoke and put the fear of god into the Tory government.

The same seems to have happened in France, where Macron mobilized young people in ways that completely shifted the political spectrum.

In both countries, the change was for the good of all, and underscored a simple fact—what unites us is far more important than any divisions.

The U.K. is more isolated than ever, and has absolutely no idea on how to extricate itself from its present mess. Europe is left wondering who it is negotiating with, and what will actually be discussed—on both sides of the Channel, cool heads believe that the most straightforward solution would be to confess that the whole Brexit affair was simply a huge mistake—many affairs are.

Europe is running hot. The financial channels, which delighted in dissecting the break-up of the euro, are now busy discussing the vagaries of the pound and UK inflation.

The dollar, which was moving toward parity with the euro even as Trump was elected, and afterward flirted with values below 1.05, is presently nudging 1.15.

The greenback vacillates as Old Europe thrives.

The next test for Old Europe is the German election on the 24th of September. It seems unlikely that the Germans will undo the good things this year has brought.

Frau Merkel, whether you like her or not, is a steady hand at the helm, and has learned several important lessons about Europe—some of which, like austerity, made Southern European nations pay a spectacular price, but there is a far clearer vision now about what works and what doesn’t.

We have scary people like Le Pen, Trump, and Farage to thank for showing us all how not to do it, and above all for frightening the politicians and the young people of Europe alike into a return to common sense.

Beyond the borders of Europe lies chaos: the Mid-East inheritance of the Bush and Blair years, and the radical testosteronocracy of Russia.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but this good feeling that permeates the continent is a superb opportunity for Europe to consolidate further.

After all, many of the citizens of the Union will be happy to tell you they live in the best place on earth. And England can so easily remain a part of that, if it exercises one of its most prized virtues—common sense.

Good Old Europe.

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



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