Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Bows and Arrows

October 27, 2018

The Anglo-Saxon world is consumed by the upcoming US mid-terms. The rhetoric has escalated to psychobabble, America seems more divided than ever, and for many, two years of Trump seem like two centuries.

I’m betting that on November 6th, US common sense will resurface and trounce Trump. But I’ll tell that story on November 10th.

There is, however, a far more important election for America in the upcoming days—tomorrow, to be precise—and that is the second round of the Brazilian presidential election.

To the gringos, as people of South American descent lovingly refer to US anglos, this election merits a brief shrug of the shoulders. Brazil? Weird language, weird music, weird ball game.

To South and Central America, and to the European originators of those societies, this is a critical juncture. In my book Clear Eyes, I describe how Columbus first reached the Indies, and just as important, what happened when he got back. In The India Road, the great circle route taken by Vasco da Gama is the same one Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed to discover the true cross—Vera Cruz was the first name given to Brazil. There is ample evidence that Vicente Yañez Pinzon, who had sailed with Columbus, made landfall in Brazil three months before Cabral, and then headed north to Venezuela—his voyage took him through the Amazon estuary, which he aptly named Mar Dulce, or Freshwater Sea.

However, there is also evidence as far back as the mid-1490s that the Portuguese were well aware that Brazil existed, but a country with 1.2 million people, overcommitted in Africa and focused on exploring the East, simply could not spare the manpower to colonize the Americas. The strongest circumstantial evidence for this was the Treaty of Tordesillas—the Portuguese negotiators forced a shift in longitude to the west, which placed Brazil into the Portuguese half of the newly divided globe.

The relationship between Brazil and Portugal is much stronger than the ties between the US and UK, perhaps because a war of independence was never fought—the tide of migration has oscillated between the two nations: in the nineteenth century, many Portuguese went west in search of fortune, in the late XXth it was the Brazilians who fled east from a failing economy, then it was Portugal’s turn again during the 2007-2012 austerity period.

In 2018, the tables are again turned and Brazilians are fleeing the violence in their society, a reflection of the corruption and lawlessness of life in their home towns. They flock to one of the safest countries in the world—the fourth safest, to be precise. As an aside, the others are, in ascending order, Austria, New Zealand, and Iceland—out of the top five, eighty percent are European, and out of the top thirty, two-thirds are European.

Only two American nations make the top thirty-one: Canada and Chile. Those escaping from Brazil are doing so for the same reason that a caravan of Hondurans and Nicaraguans are headed for the US—they cannot deal with the (often state-sponsored) violence in their societies.

I asked a Brazilian waiter recently for his predictions—”estou torcendo por Bolsonaro,” he said, with a wry smile. Like many Brazilians abroad, he is backing the former army captain who publicly praised the imprisonment and torture of impeached former president Dilma Rousseff, and lamented in parliament that her torturers hadn’t finished the job.

Bolsonaro (best pronounced in English as ‘bows and arrows’) is running against a candidate from PT, the workers’ party. Lula, the historical leader of the PT is presently in jail on corruption charges, and his party is about to get hammered.

Bows and Arrows will be a president in the vein of the recent populist wave: Duterte, El-Sisi, Trump, you get the picture. For Brazil, which lives with the ghosts of military dictatorship, this is not good news—but it’s what you get when decades of lawless corruption translate into endemic violence and a fractured society.

The campaign for the second ballot has taken fake news to the ultimate level—Brazilians are big on chat, and they took to social media like a lush to bourbon. The internet holds many surprises, and one has been the astronomical growth of WhatsApp.

WhatsApp usage as a percentage of the population (graph courtesy of Statista).

China does its own thing, and (speculatively) Germany is on there because they have the tightest pockets on the planet, but over half of the 209 million Brazilians are on the app. Some of this is driven by cellphone charges, but a lot reflects the simplicity of combining video, audio recordings, text, and just plain chit-chat. Penetration in the US is only six percent—whereas Facebook penetration is sixty-two percent, which is why the Russians had so much fun with it in 2015.

The WhatsApp stats show how much developing countries use it: India, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey… and Brazil—now that’s volume!

In Brazil, WhatsApp has been abused more often than a reporter at a Trump rally, and, rather like those rallies, much of the material that it circulates is fake. Each WhatsApp group can have a maximum of 256 members, but nothing stops those members also joining another group. If twenty members do that, the message will reach about five thousand people. And if those twenty were members of different groups, one hundred thousand people get the message.

Brazil has one hundred and twenty eight million registered WhatsApp users. A recent study by two Brazilian universities analyzed 347 public WhatsApp groups prior to the first round of the election. The groups were monitored over a one month period—overall they had eighteen thousand participants.

The study found that one hundred thousand images were circulated, along with seventy-one thousand videos, thirteen thousand audio clips, over half a million text messages, and ninety thousand links.

A Brazilian fact-checking agency called Lupa, which collaborated in the study, reviewed the fifty most popular images circulated among these groups.

Only four images were true.

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

I Saw You Coming

October 20, 2018

Much of our world revolves around data—a lot of data. I’m talking about petabytes, yottabytes and the like. Put simply, you could fit all the academic research libraries in the US into two petabytes.

What kind of data are we talking about? Everything, including consumer products, news, crime, and weather.

That begs two questions. Where does the data come from, and who pays for it?

The data origin—not its provision—varies: records stored by humans provide a good deal of it. You are for instance able to tap into two hundred million records of crime data for the US. The data you access costs you money, and is the result of millions of security-related filings, including arrests, sentences, and paroles.

A second major source of data are sensors. These can be weather station sensors for wind speed or air temperature, buoys at sea measuring wave height, or satellites sitting high above you as you read these words. You are yourself part of the sensor network—as you read, your cellphone informs the cloud about your latitude and longitude. From that sensed data, we know whether you are sitting (and we know exactly where), and what time it is—if you sit there long enough, we will know where you live, or where you work—in a matter of days we’ll know both.

It’s a simple matter to find out who you live with, based on your coincidence in time and space, and build a relationship tree. If you’re moving slowly as you read these words, we’ll know you’re walking or strolling. If you’re moving fast, we know you’re in a vehicle—discovering whether it’s a car, bus, or train is a trivial matter. We can cross your trajectory with a highway map—if your vehicle makes frequent stops, you’re on a bus—or maybe you’re a UPS driver (but do me a favor, don’t read while you drive). Sensors provide huge amounts of data because they’re measuring stuff all the time.

The final source of data are models—these models don’t sashay on the catwalk, they run on computers, often using those very same sensor outputs to make forecasts—here’s that weather thing again.

The second question is even easier to answer. Who pays for it?

You do. You really should have seen that coming.

As a taxpayer, you fund the justice system, the weather office, the health system, the education system… delete as applicable, depending on where you live—I dearly hope no deletion is required.

When I was in the US, I picked up the latest book by Michael Lewis, called The Fifth Risk. I picked it up in the usual fashion, by seeing it an an airport store and promptly buying it on Kindle.

Now, Michael Lewis has been a favorite for years, so (unusually) I’ll plug an(other) author in these pages. Lewis has had a go at US investment bankers, the sub-prime mortgage scandal, the whole austerity deal in Europe, and HFT—High Frequency Trading is another scandalously well-kept secret—and yes, Big Data is at the heart of it. Oh, and he’s had a few goes at the orang-u-bang.

In summary, it’s a good job Lewis is not a Saudi national, otherwise he’d be part of an erector set by now. As an aside, the only simple question I want answered: if Khashoggi died in a fist fight, as claimed today, where’s the body? I suppose I’m also curious about why he got into a fist fight with fifteen guys.

The Fifth Risk took me two days to read, and I was fascinated by a chapter called ‘All the President’s Data.’ I want you to read the book, particularly in the lead-up to the mid-terms, so I won’t be a spoiler.

I will, however, tell you that US federal agencies such as the department of agriculture, NOAA, USGS, and NASA, have to provide data to the public as part of their mission statement. They are obviously not in the business of making the most sophisticated viewing interfaces for the consumer market—these are often done by third parties, but the key point is that those parties would be unable to source data were it not for the fact that you have paid for it to be made public, and more importantly, accessible in a simple way.

As an example, if you’re a US taxpayer, you support Wind Guru. The business model for this wind and wave forecasting website is fascinating—not least because the site is based in the Czech Republic, a land-locked nation. Every surfer knows Wind Guru—what most don’t know is that it isn’t a guru at all, the gurus are the US National Weather Service (NWS), the US Geological Survey, and others. Wind Guru accesses models run by NWS (a part of NOAA) using a special toolset known as web services.

Many government agencies worldwide provide such services, and this has allowed the private sector to develop some really nice tools for public use. The problem is when the private sector lobbies the government to try and stop the agencies that run the models being able to do anything but supply data.

One of the current discussions revolves around AccuWeather, which charges for its services, and its alleged efforts to limit how NOAA presents its own data, acquired through sensor networks paid for by (you saw it coming) the US taxpayer.

At the forefront of all this excitement is an American lawyer called Barry Myers, who is at present the CEO of AccuWeather. The exciting bit is that in October 2017, Myers was picked by Trump to lead NOAA.

The confirmation hearing is holding this one up. If Myers is confirmed, it means that an operator in the private sector of the multi-million weather forecast business will be in charge of a government agency that collects twenty terabytes of data every day, much of it weather-related.

The line between public and private becomes thinner and grayer than an old man’s hair.

If the orangutan buffoonery get away with this one, the fox will be firmly placed in charge of the henhouse.

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

Unchain my Heart

October 13, 2018

Mental illness, from depression to schizophrenia, is a curse on those who suffer from it, as well as on their family and friends. And the provision of adequate care to the unfortunate people who live with this suffering is the responsibility of society—period.

The world map of disability is striking, particularly if you look at those red areas, and by that I mean the right column on the scale—from yellow to hemoglobin.

Mental illness worldwide—this graphic was published in PLOS Medicine by Ferrari and co-workers in 2013, and represents the YLD (Years Living with Disability) rate per 100,000 people.

Huge parts of South America, much of Africa and the Mid-East, and all of the ex-USSR. The exceptions are India and China, although in these broad assessments data quality can vary substantially from country to country.

Some mental disabilities, of which depression is a prime example, show well-established links to suicide rates—although most depressive people don’t kill themselves, two-thirds of suicides are committed by folks suffering from depression.

A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control found that, for the period 1999-2016, the suicide rate has increased in all US states except Nevada—in some cases, particularly midwestern states, the rate has increased by fifty percent on average.

Anyone who travels widely quickly understands that the world is a very heterogeneous mix—for instance, what qualifies as underage sex in Europe and North America is very different from what you see in SE Asia.

Westerners, particularly those riding a high horse, are mostly unaware that one hundred-fifty years ago, the age of consent in the United States was… ten. In fact, the history of consent laws is an article in and of itself—we’ll leave it for another day.

What was acceptable in the West a century ago is reasonable in the East today—we see it in human rights, and in animal welfare. And unfortunately, we see it in mental health.

Ghana, which is colored blue in the YLD map, has one psychiatrist for every 1.2 million people—this statistic sounds so incredible, I dug in further. For a country of twenty-eight million, there should be twenty-three (and a third) shrinks—apparently there are eighteen.

The World Health Organization—undoubtedly another agency that Trump believes does the devil’s work—has calculated that developing countries spend only 0.5% of their health budget on mental health.

A mentally ill man shackled to a table in Java, Indonesia. The year is 2018, the picture was taken this month (courtesy Human Rights Watch.)

Ghana, like many other countries, had a practice of shackling mental patients, as a means of restraining them from normal activity, but has now banned the use of chains.

The lack of government facilities led to the development of ‘prayer camps’, where mentally ill folks are regularly chained, despite the ban. One such camp was recently visited by the BBC—staff proudly displayed the new facilities—when the reporter entered the housing units, a row of cages were the principal item of furniture.

And in each cage, a patient.

The BBC correspondent decided to try a cage for himself—he was unable to stand upright.

The video of the BBC report is horrifying, the suffering of the mentally ill in Ghana and many other countries is disgraceful.

Humans everywhere share a common trait—we have an old mind from an old world. We react to what happens on our street, our town, our region, pretty much in that order. We react to what happened yesterday, last month, last year, or the last decade in a similar way.

We think local, and we think now. This is why we elect xenophobes and re-elect politicians who only last year did us harm.

That’s why a mentally ill person kept in chains in some African nation is irrelevant when compared to Kayne West and Princess Eugenie.

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

Presidential Alert

October 6, 2018

At exactly seventeen minutes past eleven my cell put out a loud honk. I was in a store and my phone was set to silence, which made the noise even more surprising. All around, a similar braying was heard from customers in various aisles.

The US reaches out to all its citizens. How long will it be before this channel begins its tenure as government spam?

A message popped up to calm the good folks of the homeland—we were not yet at war with the bad hombres du jour. I wasn’t particularly calm about being so trivially easy to locate, but I suppose that growing up in a dictatorship left me with a big brother bias.

The few days I spent in the States left me with the same impression as always—nice people, eager to help. And yet the chasm between haves and have-nots is inescapable. On a broad level, it’s what you see in Asia or in Europe—not to mention Africa—so the US is certainly not exceptional.

But it’s odd to witness such affluence and then repeatedly come across folks who are not only homeless, but clearly mentally ill—a society without a safety net.

“Motherfucker!” the woman screamed at some poor fellow trying to cross the street. She repeatedly hurled abuse at the man until he managed to get over the crosswalk. Then she took her two battered suitcases, walked twenty yards with them, and parked them outside a bank. Still cursing at the top of her voice, living out the film inside her head, she went into a convenience store, stole a cart and made off back down the sidewalk. A prowler drove slowly down the street, the cops hardly glancing at her.

As I walked, more down and outs appeared, each with their particular foible. It was four in the afternoon.

This was LA, and I’m not talking about South Central. The homeless people I saw were either black or Latino, but there are plenty of whites going down that road. When Trump was asked to define ‘white trash’, he allegedly replied:

They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.

And although trash is an unacceptable epithet, the orange tariffs are sure to generate more poverty in the US. The recent taxes applied to aluminum are a case in point. The US imports eighty-five percent of the raw aluminum it uses, preferring to focus on value-added products.

The Trump administration (an oxymoron at best) was at loggerheads about the tariffs, with Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and adviser Peter Navarro defending the tax on raw material, and Cohn and Mnuchin violently opposed—policy disagreements on trade issues eventually led to Cohn’s resignation, as Bob Woodward explains in Fear.

In a meeting in DC in June 2017, key players in the aluminum industry eagerly gathered to listen to the administration’s plans—Trump was about to make good on his promise to hurt China. Their joy was short-lived—instead of focusing on aluminum products, the Trump tariffs were aimed at raw materials.

The main beneficiary was a mid-size company based in Chicago called Century Aluminum, but the emblematic smelter held up to the scrutiny of the Trumpian base is located in Hawesville, Kentucky. Oh, and there’s one other thing—the company is owned by Glencore, a mining giant ‘based‘ in Switzerland.

Half a million tons of aluminum stashed at Braithwaite, SE of New Orleans by Castleton Commodities International LLC—hedge funds jump on the Trump tariff train.

Trump used a little-known law to impose tariffs and avoid congressional approval: the law emphasizes national security. Secretary of defense Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mathis informed Trump that military requirements amounted to only three percent of US production—exactly the kind of statistic Trump was keen to ignore.

As usual, the traders were feathering their own nest. In particular, the London Metal Exchange and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which warehoused vast quantities of aluminum, sitting on it to push up prices, moved their stash to private stockpiles—when Commerce personnel looked at data from the exchanges, only 120,000 tonnes were in the books, but in reality US reserves were far higher—about two million tonnes.

The players who stashed aluminum in the States have patiently waited it out. As soon as tariffs were imposed, their stocks, already in the US, suddenly jumped in value. Even more juicy, China retaliated to the move by setting tariffs on aluminum scrap. The perverse outcome is that the US began to import or keep more scrap, undercutting domestic raw production.

The winners of this game are hedge funds, together with companies such as Glencore—the losers are always the same—poor people with great expectations.

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

South of the Border

September 30, 2018

At eight in the morning, U.S. eastern time, I handed my passport to the CBP officer. He was a large black man, and he’d been on duty all night. This time, my port of entry into North America wasn’t the United States, but Canada—so I needed to fill in the paperwork.

I expected the border to be a challenge in these Trumpian times, but the only real downer were the pictures of the first family hanging on the wall of the immigration office. My experience with Canadian immigration has always been good, but I can’t say the same for the States—airport queues are endless, and the officials can charitably be described as impolite—I have never been told I was welcome to America.

At Montreal’s Trudeau Airport I was presented with a robot interface which took two minutes to process me, and was then asked a couple of trivial questions by a human before going on my way.

I optimistically booked a seafood restaurant downtown, but by the time I got to the hotel my head was spinning with exhaustion—I’d been awake for the best part of twenty-two hours. The next morning, I took a stroll through beautiful downtown Montreal—a walk through Leonard Cohen land.

Last month, yet another person dear to my heart decided to take his leave—making it a hat-trick within a year—I headed to Our Lady of the Harbour, where there was a candle waiting to be lit. The statue is mentioned in ‘Suzanne’, one of the many songs Cohen wrote about his women—I’ve always thought he displayed exemplary timing by dying the day before Trump was elected.

I approached the church from the Rue du Bonsecours—Montreal is a bit froggy—but the statue is at the back of the church, appropriately facing the St. Lawrence river. The front of the church had the obligatory archway and two red doors.

Only in Montreal would you see a bottle of wine sitting patiently outside a church door on a Sunday morning before mass, waiting for Louis to show up.

The devout filed into the church. The not-so-devout slipped in behind them, made his way into a side pew, put his head in his hands, and thought for a while about the slipstream of life. He was admonished by an usher, but only after he had secured the photograph he wanted.

It was a sunny Sunday morning but my soul was dark. I walked down to the river, where the sun aptly poured down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbour, marveled at the stillness, the lovers walking hand in hand, children screaming and playing, watched by indulgent grandparents.

I looked east to the cantilever bridge and imagined the ships of Wolfe making their way up the river, and the tales of my childhood about the battle against Montcalm (both generals died) and the conquest of the city.

For me, eastern Canada is Fenimore Cooper, and the stories of wars fought by French, English, and Indians. I paid more attention this time to the number of Indian names that exist in Canada—and in the northeast US—it struck me as ironic that the western conquerors decimated the first nations and perversely celebrated by naming towns, rivers, and lakes after the peoples they destroyed.

Downtown Montreal is full of little shops—some are tourist traps, but some are just off the wall, reflecting the eclectic nature of the city itself. I found a couple of things to stuff in my suitcase—in particular, there’s a store near Notre Dame which sells only Christmas goods, and walking through it, I grew wistful thinking of the coming December—one less seat at the table. This is the best Christmas store I’ve ever seen, and I indulged my pain, buying happy trinkets to cheer up the tree.

I didn’t linger in Montreal, but flew east to Nova Scotia. Eastern Canada is just starting to cool down, but the hardcore weather is still perhaps a month away. As I drove south towards Maine the red fall colors slowly vanished from the leaves, the trees a bellwether for latitudinal shifts.

As I write, night has fallen in Western Europe—in a couple of hours I’ll be in LA. In my first day in the United States, I looked for signs of change—the anger and bitterness reflected in the Kavanaugh confirmation, the hate and loathing Trump projects to his base, the tectonic chasm between Democrats and Republicans—I see none of it.

At the Maine border, I joked around with the CBP guy, and it was the first time I was admitted into the US without having to declare that I’m not a member of the communist party (whichever one is at hand), and that I do not intend to perform acts of terrorism. I crossed the border in a hippy van, but no one was in the least interested in inspecting it—if there were dogs, they must have been napping. The whole thing cost me six bucks, and even so the CBP guy was sheepish about charging me.

I landed in Chicago and expected a change of scene—like New York, the windy city has a reputation for abrasive, short-tempered citizens, and airports usually draw the cream of the crop. But no, all I got was polite, open-armed courtesy—if the conflict and hatred lives here, it’s well concealed.

I see the Kavanaugh thing is getting worse, and that Trump was forced into ordering an FBI investigation—having just finished Bob Woodward’s book ‘Fear’, I can imagine how much the boat rocked at the White House.

Maybe LA will reveal itself as a den of fracture, and I will witness Americans hurlin’ abuse at each other—but judging by how calm my flight is, and how congenial the passengers are, striking up conversations at the drop of a baseball cap, I don’t think so.

Instead, the safety check on the plane made me think of the classic SNL sketch roasting Aer Lingus—and, as I head west to the land of silicone valley, I can’t help smiling at the antics of Stormy Daniels, and particularly at a column in this week’s Private Eye magazine.

In it, a troubled Donald Trump is tweeting at 3 am about Hurricane Florence. The orange man labors under the mistaken belief that she is a colleague of Stormy, and reassures his base that he never slept with Hurricane Florence. Two minutes later he admits he did sleep with her, but no money changed hands. Subsequent tweets admit to payment but deny Russian involvement, until the president finally comes clean, if you excuse the pun.

I’m enjoying my first day here—it’s still the America I know, a country with a big heart and a hearty embrace. Trump? This too shall pass.

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

Boiled Chicken

September 15, 2018

In February 2017 the Northern Ireland Executive fell. Since then, the tiny tip of Ireland has been without a government.

Northern Ireland joins several European nations, including Belgium and Spain, in the club of chaos—but where Belgium is plagued by the wars of Charles V and the Dutch protestants, Northern Ireland is plagued, er… by chickens.

The story developed over the last five years or so. It began with an initiative designed to reduce use of fossil fuels in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was championed by DETI, the Department of Energy, Trade, and Investment.

To add a little spice, the then minister in charge of DETI was one Arlene Foster—she is currently the head of the DUP, or Democratic Unionist Party, which bailed out prime minister Theresa May after her ruinous attempt to consolidate power in the lead-up to Brexit.

The RHI was designed to stimulate small businesses and individual citizens to use renewables—wood shavings, pellets, and other non-fossil fuels would be promoted as heat sources.

The program was well supported in England, with an effective management and verification structure—in Northern Ireland, the management team was a little less effective—human resources to the tune of three.

The subsidy arrangement approved by the government effectively allowed participants to make a twenty percent profit on the scheme—in plain English, for every pound you put in, you made a profit of twenty pence.

Twenty-five million pounds ($33,000,000) were initially allocated—by 2015, only ten million had been spent. Then, that glint in the Irish eye came forth—in the fall of 2015 almost one thousand concerned citizens filed applications—the green fields of Ireland were about to become significantly greener.

There was only one hiccup—because you could make twenty points on your investment, the sale of boilers rocketed, and a good proportion of the beneficiaries began heating empty barns and chicken sheds that had previously never been heated at all.


The runaway boiler scheme as viewed by the Belfast Telegraph.

Arlene did such a good job she was promoted to minister of finance. The lack of financial controls meant the scheme ballooned from the original twenty-five million quid to four-hundred and ninety, a cool six hundred and forty million dollars.

Her successor, Jonathan Bell, closed the scheme in early 2016, after her majesty’s treasury had made serious noises about paying the bill. By then, Ms. Foster had become first minister—she was now in charge of the DUP and head of the uneasy arrangement with Sinn Féin responsible for ruling Northern Ireland.

Subsequent theatrics developed—the late Martin McGuinness was deputy first minister under the power sharing agreement. Since Arlene Foster neither resigned nor was ousted from her position, during a period when accusations flew and dirt was enthusiastically dished, the IRA’s former commander resigned. By doing so, he brought down the executive—the nation has been without a government since.

Of course that didn’t stop Arlene entering into another power sharing arrangement, this time with Theresa May—Foster traded ten DUP members of parliament for one billion pounds in cash—that offsets a few chicken boilers. The deal, called a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, values DUP MPs at a hundred grand a crack.

Speaking of which… Ireland, be it north or south, is a treasure trove of craic—over a drink, a local helped me understand the consequences of age. “When you’re young, your dreams are wet and your farts are dry…”

In any other country, these would be sobering thoughts.

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


The Train

September 8, 2018

The little boy knew war. It’s not that he was experienced in it, but he’d never known anything else.

It was a mechanical war, a technological war—the first of its kind. The bayonet wars were over,  gone were the ditches, trenches, and sappers—the new tools of war were planes, boats, automobiles—and trains.

There were even rockets that took the parabolic arc of the catapults of Troy to a new, terrible dimension. No more the clash of swords, the galloped charge, and the severed limbs. The new era laid to waste whole buildings, destroyed communities, and, in time, would obliterate an entire city with a nuclear flash.

These things the little boy did not know. But his reality was no less bleak—the pangs of hunger, the cold hand of fear, and the smell of death, as he counted out days in a country led by a madman who started a war he couldn’t win. The proud capital city, once the aspirant to an empire, was now facing destruction, with daily bombings shaking it to the core. A day’s march to the east of its gates, Stalin’s army lay waiting—the Russian bear patiently stalking the black eagle of the Prussians.

The apartment had little food—some black bread, ersatz coffee from acorns, some suspect-looking wurst. Some days, the little boy’s father salvaged a cabbage or two from the allotments off the bombed-out streets, and mother would make watery soup, with just a couple of rounds of sausage.

The little boy kept quiet, mostly living inside his head. In the back room, he dreamed of a different universe, one where peace and order reigned. He carefully placed his model train on the track, and reversed it slowly to hook the tender. Behind the tender, the freight cars stood at ready.

There was something about that train which calmed his soul—maybe it was the way everything coupled together, the rails and junctions on the complex oval track he’d built—or maybe it was the little station, and the houses with the model figures, smiling and waving at the engineer.

For the little boy, the Märklin train set was a life in itself. Even when the aroma of the sausage and cabbage soup wafted in, and his stomach clenched with hunger, he turned the transformer to speed his engine a little more. Tonight, the route was via the eastern junction—there were goods to be delivered at the shipyard.

A host of bits and bobs were arranged on the flatbed cars. Although to you they might look like a lady’s thimble and cotton bobbins, or a few bolts and nails taken from father’s toolbox, they were nothing of the sort—the signal changed, and the black steam engine hauled the train into the yard, slowing as it approached the platform, until all the cars were perfectly lined up.

All around, men scurried to unload the goods: coils of steel cable, sheet metal to be used for the battleship, and yes, an entire diesel powerplant for a tugboat recently commissioned by the harbor.

“Max, zum Tisch!” his mother called again.

The little boy’s stomach cramped some more, as his synapses fired messages where the delicious scent of the Kohlwurst soup mingled with… could it be? YES, dumplings!

He felt his mouth watering, took one last look at his beloved railway and sprinted down the corridor. Max’s father was already at his seat in the kitchen, and as the little boy pulled back his chair, Father coughed  pointedly.

“Sorry!” the boy said. He perched up to the sink and washed his hands.

“Good.” The father smiled. The family held hands around the kitchen table for a moment, and then Max’s mother served the soup; a slice of Schwarzbrot lay beside each plate.

His father raised a glass of water for a toast. “Zum Wohl!”

The family had barely tasted the first spoonful when the air raid sirens started.

At first they shrugged it off. There had been hundreds of air raids over the past years, and well over a million people had been evacuated. There were huge shelters at the Zoo, Kleitspark, Anhalt, and other locations, enough to protect sixty-five thousand Berliners.

In the first years of the war, the Allies struck the U-boat ports, and the industrial valley of the Ruhr—but as Germany itself came under threat, the heavy Lancaster bombers increasingly hit Berlin.

The little boy’s family ignored the sirens for a minute or so, gulping the soup down hungrily. Just then, a massive explosion shook the building.

“Go! Go down NOW! That was way too close.” Father jumped up and ran to the window. “The enemy is right above us.”

Max was petrified. For a moment, he didn’t know which way to turn, then he made up his mind. He scooped up the bread, dashed to his little room, and grabbed the black locomotive.

As he clutched his mother’s hand tight, the bombers’ roar to the east as they banked for yet another pass, he watched women and children hurrying down into the basement. Most of the little girls clutched a favorite doll, and the boys, too, had a keepsake or a toy to keep them company.

“It’s the guidance system plant, that’s what they’re after,” said his father, as he pushed his way forward and through the shelter door. Max watched as his dad waved goodbye. The boy made his way down the cellar steps—this was a local shelter, organized by the building’s residents.

The cellar was dank and dark, lit only with paraffin lamps. All around him, kids sat in silence as the ground above shook. Some mothers said a silent prayer for their husbands, left at the mercy of the ordnance raining from the skies.

Time ticked by as the earth shook with each new pounding—Max stole into his pocket and extracted his last bite of bread. From the Tiergarten Flakturm, the Bund Deutscher Mädel girls aimed the 128 mm guns at the sky—there was no one else left to defend the city.

An eerie quiet took hold of the basement after the Lancasters had spewed their venom into the street above. The basement door was made of heavy steel, and the concrete walls held firm.  The bombers had returned home. “They’re gone,” one woman said. She cursed the invaders, turned the lock, and pushed the door.


“Maybe it’s locked,” someone else offered. Various ladies juggled with the key. They locked and unlocked the door, turned the handle, pushed and shoved. The door remained as still as a sarcophagus.

Children looked at each other in fright. One little girl hugged her dolly tight and began to cry. Soon, more kids were in tears. They might spend hours trapped in this dark hole.

One of the paraffin lamps flickered once, then twice, then abruptly died.

Hours? Perhaps days. Hardly any water. Or food. The women in the shelter had all realized their predicament. A slow death from hunger and thirst, the air gradually getting heavier as the oxygen was replaced by carbon dioxide. They were isolated, completely alone. The infants were crying in earnest. The older kids looked pale and haunted, as fear clutched their hearts, numbed their brains and made it impossible to think.

But not Max. His heart felt steady. He wasn’t a large child, but there was something special about him—a self-reliance that helped him to solve challenges—the first step was analytical, decomposing a problem into its component parts. He knew very well the door was not locked. He held his metal locomotive in his small hands and thought. Around him, panic was setting in.

“We’ll shout,” an older lady said. “We’ll organize a chorus, someone will hear us from above.”

“What about the air?”

“We have to take the risk. Shout, wait. Shout, wait.”

Max’s father paced around the mountain of rubble that was once his home. The apartment block had collapsed, completely smothering the cellar entrance, the ground piled high with concrete blocks, the armature sculpted into bizarre shapes; girders were strewn across the terrain, as if tossed from a playful giant’s hand.  Around him, a couple of dozen other men stood. They were covered in dust and they all looked dazed. The Lancasters had made multiple passes, dropping their bombs along the flight axis to the factory, and then extending beyond it.

The British raid was a resounding success—the industrial plant was razed to the ground. And as usual, there was collateral damage—most of the housing for half a mile either side of the factory had been hit, a good part of it leveled as the planes dropped their incendiary one-thousand pounders along the target line.

The men staring at the rubble shared one common thought—my family is gone. For hours they labored, moving rocks and steel. It was slow work, without machines. Men used pickaxes and crowbars, wheelbarrows and their bare hands, trying desperately to defeat time. Somewhere below the huge piles of debris were sixty women and children, their own flesh and blood.

Had the building collapsed entirely, destroying the basement? Were their loved ones interred under piles of rock? As the time passed, their efforts became increasingly frantic. Every so often the whole group would stop and listen, hoping for one single solitary sound.

Nothing. More digging. Nothing. Fatigue set in, then despair.

A grey dawn was already breaking when the little boy’s father heard a faint metallic sound from below.

Inside the basement, where most everyone had already resigned to their fate, the little boy stood stubbornly at the steel door. In his hand he clutched his black Märklin locomotive. Holding it by the wheels, he struck the door. The metal clanged once more. Although he alternated between left and right, his arms grew very tired, but he never gave up. The strike of the two objects made a metallic sound which conducted right through the door. He bashed the door with fury, crying as his beloved engine slowly came apart.

If I hit hard enough, and often, my father will hear my cry.

He was still striking the steel door when it finally swung open.

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



August 18, 2018

A year ago I wrote in these pages about a little-known place in the southwest coast of Spain—it’s still a well-kept secret, relaxed and foreigner-free—go there, my friends, but never ever trip-advise it!

Doing things twice is important—whether it’s the second time you make love to someone, or re-reading a book. In fact, when it comes to books, how many you read twice may be more important than the overall count.

Travel is similar for me—if I love a spot, I’ll go there twice, three times, and then it’s time for a change—I could never have a holiday home.

It’s been an odd summer in Europe, and just as strange in places like Japan. California, and its progenitor, Iberia, have been torched while the Trump administration relaxes car pollution rules.

This past week, Andalucia was cool—I was going to write ‘surprisingly’, but it’s time to hold off adverbs when describing the weather—nothing about the climate is surprising, except the fact that people aren’t worried enough to say “We have to do something about this weather,” just as they might address a persistent cough or an engine malfunction.

Climate change is going to cost a fortune, but just about everyone thinks the bill will be laid at someone else’s door, so an average gas guzzle of twenty-five miles to the gallon is currently the gold standard for the US.

The coastal strip of Andalucia is a land of fish and fishermen. I was in restaurants where a two-page menu contained no more than ten meat dishes, of which most were tapas. One snack-bar promised albondigas como pelotas de tenis—meatballs the size of tennis balls, but fish is the real deal.

And the Spanish will pay for their fish, make no mistake. Small boiled shrimp, the famous gamba blanca, are for sale in the market at around five bucks a pound—the mark-up in restaurants is one thousand percent.

It’s been a good week—baby shrimp tortillitas washed down with Manzanilla, a most special sherry that comes exclusively from Sanlúcar, anchovies in vinegar, and mantis shrimp, a rare treat.

The mantis shrimp is an amazing animal—it belongs to an ancient order of crustaceans called Stomatopoda, so called because they have gills on their feet. The fossil record of the mantis goes back four hundred million years—the species I saw (and ate) has a fake pair of eyes on its telson (tail) which will fool predators into biting the wrong bit.

The eyes themselves are also astounding. As are other physiological traits.

In April 1998, an aggressive creature named Tyson smashed through the quarter-inch-thick glass wall of his cell. He was soon subdued by nervous attendants and moved to a more secure facility in Great Yarmouth. Unlike his heavyweight namesake, Tyson was only four inches long. But scientists have recently found that Tyson, like all his kin, can throw one of the fastest and most powerful punches in nature. He is a mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimps are aggressive relatives of crabs and lobsters and prey upon other animals by crippling them with devastating jabs. Their secret weapons are a pair of hinged arms folded away under their head, which they can unfurl at incredible speeds.

The ‘spearer’ species have arms ending in a fiendish barbed spike that they use to impale soft-bodied prey like fish. But the larger ‘smasher’ species have arms ending in heavy clubs, and use them to deliver blows with the same force as a rifle bullet.

The cool weather made it possible to drink red wine—in southern Spain they like to serve it chilled, which is tantamount to lèse-majesté. I firmly sent back the ice buckets—the perfect way to assassinate a tempranillo—the tinto fino enjoyed by the wily priest of The India Road.

And what better food to see off a good bottle of Pesquera than ventresca, thinly sliced tuna belly, grilled medium-rare?

The tuna was aleta amarilla, or yellowfin—I was hoping for bluefin, and had planned a trip east of Cadiz to a town called Conil. The offshore area is home to the most ancient tuna traps in the world, the almadrabas, which date back to the times of the Iberian caliphate, and before that, to the Phoenicians.

The traps are laid to capture tuna migrating from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to spawn—in Spain, the fishery is between April and June. The water turns red with blood as the tuna are brought in—if you’re faint-hearted, do skip the next movie.

The clip above shows the modern-day capture of tuna in Barbate, a town near Conil. A few centuries ago the fishery was so profitable that the Duke of Medina-Sidonia claimed the profits for himself after the conquest of Tarifa from the Moors. Tuna were and are still fished all over the Mediterranean—they even have a country named after them: it’s called Tunisia.

Since we’re doing movie-time, I felt it was essential to share the clip below with you—it was filmed in the early nineteen-sixties in the Algarve, southern Portugal. From the barefoot fishermen to the old women crocheting, it’s more than a fishing documentary—it’s a way of life.

The independence wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea had just erupted, young men were being conscripted to fight overseas, and Salazar’s dictatorship was in full swing.

I scuppered my trip east—I was targeting a tuna restaurant, but when I called them up, I found it was booked for weeks.

Of course you cannot go to a place like Sanlúcar without ending up in the fish market—so I did. It’s an unusual place, a medley of vegetable stalls, butchers, shops selling the local embutidos, and fishmongers.

The tuna stalls were opposite each other—one was empty, the other was mobbed. I waited patiently in line behind some restaurant buyers, and watched tuna, swordfish, and hake vanish rapidly.

Finally, it was my turn to get at the precious loot. Further on, I hit the gamba blanca stall, and stocked up on mantis along the way.

I kept meeting the same Andalucian woman at various stalls, sometimes behind me in the queue, others in front—inevitably, great mirth ensued, and she bombarded me with a barrage of Gaditano aspirated vowels.

In one stall, baby sole were for sale. Many years ago I saw the same thing in markets near Lisbon, described as ‘folhas de oliveira’, or olive leaves.

Lisbon and Sanlúcar have one thing in common—they sit next to the two greatest estuaries in Iberia, the Tagus and the Guadalquivir. And whenever you fish an estuary, there will be little fish for sale; estuaries are the most wonderful waterways in the world—a mix of salt and fresh waters, a place where mud meets sand, and a haven of shallow, murky water where baby fish come to grow.

Baby sole for sale at the fish market in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the mantis shrimp in the background.

But the most wonderful thing about these baby soles is their name—which of course I discussed with my new Andalucian friend, a mutual glint in our eyes, while the stallholder enviously looked on.

For these babies have a name which echoes all that we loathe about the politics and politicians that surround us. They’re called tapa culos—ass covers.

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



Kids Stuff

August 11, 2018

I spent the last weeks finalizing the work on my most recent book—this one is called Folk Tales for Future Dreamers, and it’s a children’s book. I wrote it last year, stealing precious time from The Hourglass, which seems appropriate given the ephemeral nature of those grains of sand.

After completion in late April 2017, the book became available on Kindle. Then I decided to have it illustrated—it’s difficult to imagine a kiddies book without illustrations. Finding a good illustrator isn’t easy. First, you may draw well, but not in the appropriate style. Then, I wanted an illustrator who could relate to all seven stories in the book—one for each weekday.

By late November, we had illustrations, and a new cover, which looked like this.

The front cover of Folk Tales for Future Dreamers.

The illustrated edition replaced the previous book on Kindle. It was a vast improvement, but digital books have not solved the problem with illustrations—for that you need analog.

Well.. that’s not strictly true—I have a copy of Tintin in America on my tablet, and it’s very good, but I think that’s because it’s all picture frames—the problem is more evident when figures or photos appear inside or around text.

I read a couple of musical biographies this summer, and just finished Springsteen’s autobiography yesterday—the photos are always a hassle—too small, out of context with the page, and unable to cope with font changes. Given the range of screen sizes, individual tuning of display fonts, and other variables, at present you have to go analog.

Little children prefer books, and acquire important object manipulation skills along the way. And when they start to bash a book violently against the counter top to signal the end of their meal, it’s better than nuking your iPad.

Book design for print is not easy. We brought yet another party to the table, and after the negotiations, export file updates, and proofing, we have what we need. The final step is to view the book in all its analog glory, before it goes to market—kind of like a private screening prior to box-office release.

There’s something magical about a child’s happiness, the bliss of knowing nothing will ever go wrong—it’s the responsibility of an adult to maintain that illusion, but also to help build a bridge between childhood utopia and the unforgiving reality of life.

All seven stories create tension, as any good story should, and present characters who are less agreeable than others—a couple might qualify as mean, like the snow leopard that wants to eat the baby yak Yingwen—she fends him off with a surprising ruse.

And then you turn to reality, to a world where so many children have nothing but suffering—kids who lost their parents at the US border, kids dying of Ebola in the Congo, kids murdered in an air strike in Yemen…

The kids who survive all the torture that grown-ups—and grown up Western nations that set immigration policy, have vast medical research capacity, and sell arms—inflict on them, will bear the scars.

And those scars will never heal.

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


August 4, 2018

I thought the word looked more modern with that sexy millennial middle capital, but the truth is vaporware has been with us since the eighties.

Many software (and hardware) companies used it to push an inexistent product, with various objectives, ranging from supporting or boosting share prices to sidelining competitors.

A big company might, for instance, announce the imminent release of a product a smaller competitor is working on in order to shut them out of the market. Nowadays, in the age of software behemoths, the movie plays out a little differently—big brother simply buys you out—Money talks, very loudly.

In recent years, the best piece of vaporware was produced by a company called Theranos. What they promised was the holy grail, and for a decade or so, they managed to con much of America.

Their demise came at the hands of a reporter from the Wall Street Journal by the name of John Carreyrou, in a process steeped in legal threats, lawsuits, and skulduggery (what an excellent word).

The rise of Theranos possessed a cocktail of ingredients so intoxicating that it fooled the likes of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Rupert Murdoch, and James Mattis.

The last name on that list is particularly interesting—General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis is none other than Trump’s current secretary of defense, a man who earned his call sign CHAOS (Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution) during his early days in Afghanistan, following nine-eleven. I can’t help thinking how perfectly call sign CHAOS represents the current US administration.

The CEO of Theranos, Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, convinced Mattis that the company’s technology was of great value to the US military, busy in several Mid-East theaters.

The holy grail was a blood-testing machine, which went through various iterations—none of which worked—capable of processing very small samples, obtained through a finger-prick, and accurately producing a battery of test results.

The machine had to be sexy—Holmes was a great admirer of Steve Jobs—so the design criteria for compactness, speed, a glitzy software interface, and a general wow factor were always paramount—accuracy and precision for blood testing played a very soft second fiddle.

Blood testing, like any analytical procedure, is complex. I know this well from marine waters, where practically every known element is present in the matrix—from sodium to yttrium, they’re in the house.

Small samples or very low concentrations make for analytical inaccuracies. Theranos sacrificed sample size because one of Holmes’ key emotional selling points was people’s fear of needles—the company was often pitched as the end of phlebotomy, at least for typical blood work.

Sample dilution was seen as a way to increase finger-prick sample volume. The problems are twofold: first, if the starting volume is variable, the error in the final reading increases. Second, by diluting the sample you lower the overall concentration of the analyte and require a better detection limit on your equipment.

Another issue common to finger-stick approaches is cell lysis—our cells are delicate structures and can easily burst, even by pushing blood out of a fingertip. A couple of years ago, my blood sugar was running higher than it should. Since diabetes is a very dangerous game, and one in which your body loses control of itself, I took the reading seriously—I wanted to get back into the normal range without having to take medication, and the obvious steps are to lose weight and cut carbohydrate intake—I was delighted to find that wine and cheese have hardly any carbs, so getting back to normal was easy.

But I bought a finger-stick glucose analyzer. One morning, the middle finger in my left hand gave a higher reading than usual. I went on a finger-pricking orgy, like a glucose junkie searching for that last main vein. I tried other fingers in my left hand. Then a couple in my right. Then various toes. The test strip vendors would have been overjoyed. Results varied widely—yours will too.

One of the statistics I calculated was Theramed’s undoing—the coefficient of variation measures the spread of values around the average—high values mean that measurements are not precise. In my case, I got values of twenty percent and fourteen percent, and my toes had far less sugar than my hands—every time I’ve asked a doctor for an explanation, they are singularly uninterested.

Results from a 2007 study in Malawi on HIV diagnosis, comparing finger-prick to venopuncture as as sampling procedure for analysis.

This graph shows a comparison from a study on AIDS done in Malawi. The authors have shown this in a rather bizarre format, but the way to read it is to divide the difference (on the vertical axis) by the average (on the horizontal). For instance, a value of -50 at 250 mean CD4 cells tells us that that’s a (50/250) twenty percent difference—not so trivial.

All this reminds me of an old joke featuring three statisticians at an archery range. The first misses the target by ten feet to the left, the second shoots ten feet to the right, and the third happily puts down his bow and shouts “Bullseye!”

Theranos had huge ambitions—it claimed to deal with the four major classes of blood tests: immunoassays, where antibodies are used; general chemistry, where chemical reactions of some type are used; hematology, which involves e.g. cell counts; and gene amplification, a nuclear technique that can help cancer diagnosis.

Vaporware is a hoax, but when it involves people’s health, and potentially people’s lives, it plays in a whole new league. And Elizabeth Holmes, who charmed Safeway, Walgreen, the US military, and the Obama administration, was also in a league of her own.

The investigative work done by John Carreyrou was a classic piece of journalism—an anthem to why the fake news narrative is so pernicious. Theranos was a prime example of the emperor’s new clothes, and the fact that taking the company down required a couple of federal agencies, extended lawsuits, ten years, and hundreds of millions of dollars attests to the power of vested interest, litigation, and deep pockets.

It is also a testament to the fact that for every complex problem there’s an easy solution, and it’s usually wrong.

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

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