Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

A World of Food

October 16, 2021

I spent all morning celebrating World Food Day. It’s difficult to imagine a more important topic, right up there with World Health Day and World Peace Day—unfortunately, what connects the three is war.

As dinnertime approaches, it’s time to feel pain for those whose life is a daily struggle for food, leading to poor health, disease, and ultimately famine and war.

At present, about ten percent of the world goes hungry—that’s over eight hundred million people, roughly the whole US, EU, and Canada combined. The charity Action Against Hunger defines hunger as follows:

According to the UN’s Hunger Report, hunger is the term used to define periods when populations are experiencing severe food insecurity—meaning that they go for entire days without eating due to lack of money, lack of access to food, or other resources

As usual in my world, the discussion was about fish. One of the panelists, a chef who prepares food for European astronauts, remarked that ‘people don’t care what they put in their mouth.’ He told us they know far more about the shoes they buy.

It’s well known that people age faster in microgravity, exhibiting changes to bone density, loss of muscle mass, cardiovascular problems, and immunological dysfunction. Our chef went on to explain that healthy foods are one of the few tools available to help mitigate these changes.

His thing is vertical cuisine, linking nutritional value to taste, but after he told us about his astronaut food exploits, I theorized that maybe his cuisine is vertical because his dishes go straight into orbit.

At 10 pm Eastern Time this evening, Niagara Falls will light up with the blue colors of hope—eight hundred million go hungry tonight.

Amazing things are going on in the world of food, but many are the province of wealthier nations. Recirculating Aquaculture Systems, or RAS, are designed to grow fish under controlled conditions with as much recycling as possible—this provides some insulation, if you excuse the pun, against climate change—of course if you need cool water and the outside environment is warming, your energy costs will increase.

In Germany, a startup sells the Seawater Cube, which can produce up to seven metric tons of fish per year using artificial seawater—if you like local produce but live far from the sea, one of these days some smart entrepreneur might be producing seabass a couple of miles down the road—high quality, low carbon footprint.

Another company, Vaxa, is growing microalgae at scale using geothermal energy in Iceland. The pictures of their production line could have been taken at a gigantic cannabis farm, but these guys are not into THC, they’re into Omega-3.

Some of these narratives are not that close to reality—you won’t be eating a microalgal phytoburger any time soon—but those algae could find their way into commercial fish feeds, supplementing additives such as soy.

The infographic above shows our environmental footprint—the future looks shocking and even the present is disturbing. To me, the most scary estimate is that ninety-four percent of mammal biomass on the planet—presumably not including ourselves—is for human food. Now that is one unsustainable number.

On the other hand, in Italy, 86% of consumers now buy some kind of organic product, compared to 53% in 2012. However, organic products are less that four percent of the total market for food. Still, to give you some idea of scale, those four percent represent 1.5 billion dollars of annual sales.

Some final numbers at the world scale: Australia has the most land used for organic foods—about eighty million acres, but the largest producer is India. The US market is worth over fifty billion dollars, forty-five percent of the world market—and the numbers are growing all the time.

I did my homework this morning, but I’ve also given you a sip from the fire hose—lots to digest…

Food for thought on world food day.

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

The Chain Gang

September 25, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic—I hope to have readers many years from now, perhaps during Cocks-56, the terrible Coxsackie virus pandemic of 2156, so I thought I’d better qualify it—has turned humanity on to a host (excuse the pun) of wonderful things, including masks and jail time without crime, previously known only in certain parts of Asia.

Supply chain is one of those novelty phrases—before pan arrived, this was a buzzword bandied on biz channels and overheard at Starbucks when twenty-one year old spreadsheet superspreaders crunched marketing numbers and saved the economy.

Taking a leaf from the playbook of ecology, it becomes obvious that supply chains, like food chains, are really supply webs. And just like in ecology, the supply chain ecosystem (a newish and tedious biz malaprop) benefits from diversity—ecologists recognize that diversity provides both stability and resilience.

If the supply web forks right instead of left, that may of course leave some disgruntled players—viz the French tantrum after being spurned some days ago by Australia, who bedded not one but two new mistresses. In what seems to be not just an underwater but also an underhand business, the threesome pitched itself to the public as AUKUS.

The role of the UK is not clear, and the French themselves recognize that Britain is an irrelevance in the threesome, but of course the Elysee sees the wider picture of Brexit trade deals and perfidious Albion, and twirls its mustache in Gallic contempt.

In actual fact, the whole issue is linked to the Middle Kingdom, and the competition between the two great powers in the Asian theater. Dropping the UK into the mix serves the twin purposes of a Boris boost (internally) and pretending this is a ‘allies and friends’ rather than an ‘us (US) and them’ deal externally.

If the name reflected the relative importance of partners it should be AUSUK, but someone with an extra brain cell realized this might be a marketing blow (job).

The late great Sam Cooke, who added an ‘e’ to his surname so folks wouldn’t think he was just lean cuisine. The chain gang sound effects at the start of the tune are a true classic.

No developed nation is more aware of supply chain issues than Boris Brexit Britain. Having kicked out all the East European truckers (known in the UK as heavy goods vehicles, or HGV, drivers), Britain is stunned to find it has a serious supply chain breakdown. Who knew?

Pictures of empty supermarket shelves, reports of uncollected garbage—the Guardian newspaper reported “He came home from work to find his front porch covered in what he initially thought was rice, but subsequently realised was hundreds of maggots swarming out of a food waste caddy that hadn’t been collected in a month”—and long lines at gas stations are just some of the delights enjoyed by Britons in these post-Brexit times.

The government narrative is that a lot of the problem, if not all, is due to the pandemic—this presumably is also the Brexiteer hardline. The truckers became anxious to see their families over the past year and returned home. No mention made about the way the pandemic was handled in tousled-Trump fashion in the early stages.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why no countries in the EU are struggling with food shortages, including nations like Spain and Italy, both of which were devastated by Covid. Germany and Italy certainly rely on mobility of EU citizens to deal with some of their labor shortages, including truck drivers.

I did a lot of hitch-hiking when I lived in the UK—it was an easy and cheap way to travel—and I got rides on trucks all the time. All the truckers were English back then, mostly in the thirty to fifty age group. I got some insane guys—it’s not an easy job, spending so much time alone, I recall one guy had amazingly mad theories about extraterrestrials and other bizarre things—since I’d just smoked a joint while waiting for a ride, I found all this most enjoyable.

One driver told me that when he drove in Texas, the motorbike cops liked to get up right behind the truck and sit in the blind spot—when the trucker went over the speed limit, the cop would pull out and bust him. Then a couple of fellows fitted a mirror below the cab and slammed the brakes on the next cop who did that. Apparently, the police were quickly discouraged—so I learned a lot, probably more than in the classes I skipped.

The average age of British truckers is now fifty-eight. As with a host of other low-paying and hard-wearing jobs—none of which are on the Brexit skilled worker visa list—the dearth of truck drivers is causing mayhem.

Along with the Brexit narrative came the promise of higher paying jobs for UK nationals—and the appetite to pay more is certainly there, but not the employees. Britain can’t pick its fruit and vegetables, collect its garbage or stock its shelves, and is now in the middle of an energy crisis—natural gas prices are soaring and there isn’t enough carbon dioxide to stun animals at slaughterhouses—you’d have thought all that extra CO2 from climate change could lend a hand.

Along with all this insular joy, UK inflation is pushing to a rampant 4%, totally predictable since shortages drive prices up. As the all-important Christmas holiday approaches, the news is full of reports that there may be a shortage of turkey in supermarkets.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Last year no family, this year no turkey.

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

Fishion

September 18, 2021

Once again I greet you with a crazy contraction—it’s not fission or fiction, it’s a fish mission—I could probably have gotten away with fishmish. Words set their own rules—I recently discovered that the Hindi word for ‘titillation’ is gudagudaana—beat that!

I spent the week on some farms off the Mediterranean coast of Spain—they like to organize their cages in double rows, with about two hundred thousand bass or bream in each, although that varies—lower numbers for bigger fish.

Ringo’s unmistakable vocals on one of the Beatles silliest tunes.

Since 2013, farmed fish have outpaced wild capture, when you consider the data for direct human consumption—fishing still brings in many species that humans don’t eat, or eat sparingly, and those animals are converted to meal and oil, used to feed land animals and also cultivated fish.

There’s a lot of discussion about that issue, and concern that by converting small fish into food for other species we’re harming the marine environment by upsetting the balance of predators and prey.

In many parts of the world, the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus into the coastal waters is a serious problem—this excess of nutrients leads to abnormal plant growth, and of course plants in the sea tend to be microscopic since they have to float near the surface where they can use energy from the sun.

Excessive phytoplankton growth turns the water green, sucks the oxygen out of the deeper layers, and can cause widespread mortality of fish and shellfish—going green isn’t always a good thing.

But the Mediterranean is an exception in this respect—the surface water layer is very poor in nutrients, so there isn’t much plankton available to grow fish—which is why the water is so transparent. This happens for various reasons—the main one is that the deeper water is colder and more salty and doesn’t mix with the water above it, so the nutrients in the lower layer don’t get to the surface.

Since there’s little plant biomass available to drive the food chain, there are less fish. Large parts of the ocean are like that—the equivalent of marine deserts. And if you’re a dolphin or a shark preparing to make a long journey you must weigh the consequences of your decision, since you may well find yourself in a desert region where the options of going forward or returning home are equally dangerous—for some reason, humans don’t think of fish starving to death but it happens all the time.

So you’re living in a place where food is scarce and every day is a challenge. And then suddenly there’s a twin row of twenty cages, let’s say four million fish—at an average weight of six or seven ounces, or two hundred grams, that’s eight hundred thousand kilos, a little less than two million pounds.

On a good farm, ten to twenty percent of the feed is uneaten, and in the Med, where natural food is not plentiful, that’s a heck of a subsidy. So it’s no surprise that below the cages, the water is teeming with fish—grey mullet, bass, bream, you name it—a recent study in Turkey found about forty different species in residence.

WordPress levies a premium charge to upload video, but you can watch the movie here.

When you’re on the water at a Mediterranean fish farm, it’s almost certain you’ll see dolphins at some point. They’re curious about the boat, the people, the activity, and they generally enjoy a bit of an exhibition, jumping around the cages. What you don’t see are the big boys—even when you dive, the tuna, and swordfish, and rays tend to move away.

But on this occasion, a small robotic submarine was at hand, and the fish thoroughly investigated it. One ray even tried to take a bite out of the little guy.

The sea below the cages, down to about one hundred and fifty feet, is a feast for the big predators. In the movie you see a large bluefin tuna swimming idly past the nets, and you’ll also notice that the most aggressive ray has a gaping wound on its ventral side, perhaps inflicted by a shark—the sea is a dangerous place.

But the most interesting part of all this is that fishing is forbidden within farm limits, which turns these Mediterranean fish farms into marine protected areas—with a twist, because the uneaten feed draws wild fish, and these provide ample food for top predators—MPAs on steroids.

This is particularly important for endangered species like bluefin tuna, which find a safe habitat and plentiful nourishment under the cages.

Quite a lot of research has been published on the relevance of fish farms to wild species, but almost all of it appears in aquaculture journals, desperate to make the case for positive effects on the environment.

All over the Med, farms like these play a key role in wildlife conservation and provide a core ecosystem service.

The sad part is the farmers don’t get a cent for the valuable service they provide.

They don’t even get recognition.

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

The Salt

August 28, 2021

The peoples of the Iberian peninsula are going through a tough time—a recent article in a Spanish newspaper tells us that the gradual improvement in living conditions since the great recession of 2008 was blindsided by the pandemic.

Over three million Spaniards are suffering “severe material hardships”—this kind of language is common in Latin nations and doesn’t provide much transparency… what does severe mean? What kind of hardships?

Well, one third of the population of fifty million people cannot afford to take a one-week vacation per year. Eleven percent can’t adequately heat their home. Over five percent can’t eat meat or fish once every two days. Is that severe enough?

Southern Spain has a number of towns where drug smuggling is big business—a reflection of the proximity of Africa and Europe. Places like La Linea or Sanlucar, where you can dine in upmarket restaurants and see a table full of young men wearing the trappings of wealth—expensive clothes, costly jewelry, and beautiful women.

But for every opulent table where the gamba blanca, lobsters, and Cristal champagne flow, there’s an army of poverty and desgracia—the mules who carry the dope for a pittance, the boys who unload the gomas as they put into dark coves or wend their way into the saltmarshes of the Guadalquivir.

Five hundred bucks a night to unload bales of Moroccan hashish from the rubber boats, or to take gas and food out to the boats sitting offshore. These days, after the 2018 law banning RIBs, the rigid inflatables sit just outside the twelve mile limit, waiting to come in.

The boys charge around on scooters, the men are unemployed, jailed, or dead, the mothers and grandmothers live hand to mouth.

This is the coast that saw Columbus and Magellan sail, a part of the world notorious for adventurers, destitutes, opportunists, and scrabblers—part Spanish, part Moorish, part Gypsy, part Jewish—itinerant folk who seem part of a previous century.

A hundred miles west lies the Ria Formosa, a set of barrier islands on the Portuguese side of the border. Small communities exist on the islands themselves—villages perched in the sand, whose people depend on what the ocean provides.

There’s a joyful lawlessness to these communities—shacks along the beach sell fish and shellfish that will never see a health certificate or pay a penny to the taxman. The houses are makeshift, and people scramble for a living as best they can—tourists in summer, many of whom are themselves poor, the kind of folks who can just about manage that one-week vacation.

In winter, anything goes.

As August ushers in the fall, these places return to their limits of subsistence, just as tourists return to their quarantines and colds. The locals count their pennies and take stock of the season that just was—a pandemic puzzle of permissions, PCRs, and perplexities.

The people I’m talking about live on the wire, always hoping for an opportunity that will change it all—but the change stubbornly refuses to come.

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

Two Weeks in August

August 21, 2021

That’s all it took.

I tuned out for a couple of weeks and when I got back the whole world had turned upside down.

I read the wonderful biography of General Joseph Stilwell by the no less wonderful Barbara Tuchman, and all the while read a few other books to leaven the dough—the Stilwell book is on the heavy side.

One of the most interesting messages from the American relationship with China during the Second World War is that it appears Roosevelt and other members of the administration were pretty much hoodwinked by the joint maneuvers of Chiang Kai Shek and his wife—the pair was universally known as Peanut and Madame, for obvious reasons.

Peanut was born in the town of Xikou, about an hour west of Ningbo, in Zhejiang province. I’ve been to Ningo numerous times, and about ten years ago I visited the g-mo—the Stilwell abbreviation for Generalissimo Chiang—family compound, where the great man was born.

Madame and her sister were famous beauties—vamps, as you might say back then—and I was struck by the lady’s six-legged bed, obviously designed to withstand considerable abuse.

Stilwell was universally known as ‘Vinegar Joe’, which as it happens was the first foreign band that ever played in Portugal, when the country was slowly opening up after Salazar died.

Vinegar Joe arriving at Lisbon airport on June 15th 1973, less than a year before the Portuguese revolution. Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer are in the foreground.

That too was a revolution, since miniskirts and long hair were a police matter in a country where christian-conservative with a dash of secret police was the dish du jour.

But it made me wonder whether the raunchy British R&B band was named after the cantankerous US general. Peanut served thirty years as president of China, at a time when the Japanese occupied large parts of the country and massacred his people mercilessly—the siege of Nanjing being the worst example.

One of the surprising messages from the book was that the Chinese army as a rule wouldn’t fight—something the Japanese took full advantage of. When a US general asked why the Chinese Fifth Army removed its field guns from the front the night before a battle in Burma, the Chinese general Tu replied he had withdrawn them for safety.

“What use are they?” asked the American.

“General, the Fifth Army is our best army because it is the only one that has any field guns, and I cannot afford to risk those guns. If I lose them, the Fifth Army will no longer be our best.”

What struck me about this oft-repeated message is that the PRC has never been tested in war, although Chinese soldiers have fought proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam—three million in Korea (a statistic, as Mao famously described them when comparing to American casualties), and a tenth of that in Vietnam.

This will not have escaped Russian and Western military strategists, and the current debacle in Afghanistan looks like more of the same—political cock-ups with huge consequences. “War is too important to be left to generals,” Churchill said, but what happened over these two weeks in August belies that—it’s the politicians who fucked it all up.

Obama increased the troop surge but put a due-by date on it—war is not a yogurt. The orange man made a one-sided peace deal which the Taliban never intended to honor and released a bunch of prisoners as part of the treaty—ah, the art of the deal…

Biden, who Fox News refers to as ‘sippy cup’, iced the cake by setting the twentieth anniversary of nine-eleven as the withdrawal date—a stupid decision, as I wrote back in May, which celebrated the loss of a war by leaving on the anniversary of the loss that caused it.

In the meantime, the Afghan ministries of the interior and defense stopped payment to the Afghan forces a few months ago—one presumption may be that they read the tea leaves and concluded what has now happened was inevitable. Better in that case to salt away some of that cash and put it to good use when the system collapses.

I have no idea what consultations occurred between the US and its allies before Biden’s announcement to leave on April 14, but chaos would inevitably ensue—if those consultations were not fruitful, I’m surprised other nations didn’t choose to leave quietly some time ago.

On May 2nd I wrote, ‘in Afghan eyes at least, the West retreats with its tail planted firmly between the legs.’ The US politicians, and the UK pols to a lesser but still unpardonable degree, built a paper palace for their people to view. It’s gilded walls were of no substance and held nothing inside.

Sorry I’ll qualify that. They held the gossamer web with which politicians fooled ordinary people and fooled themselves to the tune of one trillion dollars. They used military men and women—decent people with an elevated sense of duty—to attempt to change a society that no one understood.

In all cases where history records a significant societal change that endures, that change is imposed by conquerors who are in it for the long haul, like the Normans in England, the Puritans in the USA, and the Portuguese in Brazil, Mozambique, or Goa—the ‘West’ was in Afghanistan for less than one generation.

Of course there is another way—it’s called genocide.

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

The Hacker

July 25, 2021

The history of computers can be divided into two parts: calculation and communication.

The concept behind any computational activity was, and is, to speed up and automate human actions. Primitive—and yet sophisticated—devices like the abacus were followed by mechanical adding machines and slide rules that took advantage of basic properties of numbers.

Stuff like the nature of logarithms, if you excuse the pun, which allowed a conversion between the simple operations of addition and subtraction and their more troublesome cousins, multiplication and division.

As computers became able to perform tasks that no one predicted one hundred years ago—such as allowing me to write this article, all the while spell-checking my work and letting me include pictures or video—the issue of communication became all-important.

Back in the days of MS-DOS, the operating system that drove the first IBM PC, a command line was the gold standard—a typed instruction, hit return on the keyboard, and the magic would begin. These days, whenever you see a black screen full of arcane commands being furiously typed by a geeky guy with a hoodie, you realize computer hacking is afoot.

Nerds relish in taking screengrabs of what is actually written as ‘code’—mostly it’s crap for downloading MP3s or some other trivial bullshit—grandmaster-level hacking it is not.

Hacks only became a thing as the comms side of computing expanded, first as monitors, printers, and other devices were hooked up, and then in the communications supernova of the mid-1990s, when computers got hooked up to the net.

Back then, you needed a modem to process the signal and comms were not for the fainthearted. Geeks mumbled about protocols and baud rates and your computer spoke to its siblings through the phone line.

Over twenty years before the mid-90s, the SWIFT system was created—the year was 1973, and log tables were the gold standard for mathematical calculation.

Log tables were look-up catalogs for logarithms and anti-logs, used to speed up manual computations. Electronic calculators were nail in the coffin for this laborious method of mathematical manipulation.

The SWIFT system was designed to replace TELEX and speed up international financial transactions—it took four years to go live. At around the same time, in 1975, something called Signalling System No. 7 was born. SS7 (which in German has the delightful name Zentraler Zeichengabekanal Nummer 7, or ZZK-7) is a protocol for routing international phone communications—made for simpler times, in recent years it has been cruelly hacked.

The first personal computer appeared in 1975, but it took some years for the fad to catch on—by 1983 there were two million, mainly playing games and performing three business operations: database management, spreadsheet operations, and text processing.

For twenty-first century hackers, the old SWIFT and SS7 protocols were the stuff of dreams. In an unconnected world, security was naive—within a bank, some staff members had appropriate credentials and dealt with the international routing of money—big money.

The great blackout—North Korea by night.

A couple of years ago, good old SWIFT was used in a classic hack, courtesy of a black hat operation originating, according to reliable sources, from North Korea—given the nature of the regime, the inference is that the hack was government-sanctioned.

The central bank of Bangladesh has its headquarters in the country’s capital, Dhaka. If you say it fast, ‘The Hacker’ sounds suspiciously like the city in question. I doubt the DPRK geeks will have made the link—rather, the choice of Bangladesh Bank (BDB) was driven by perceived poor security—banks in other developing nations were subsequently targeted.

D hack (sorry) was a multipart operation with many interesting features.

The first step was a standard phishing operation, similar to mails I get every day. A young, polite, and motivated banker sends in his resume—some obliging soul from the bank opens the attachment or perhaps clicks on a web link.

A virus is installed on a BDB computer and begins to prowl the internal bank network. It is searching for access to the SWIFT system and a strategy to get past the authentication protocol—it can do this in two ways: either by hacking the credentials or bypassing the request.

Forensic investigators established that the latter method was used—only eight bytes (eight characters, like the word COMPUTER) were replaced—that’s a pretty Zen hack.

The next step was to plan the financial heist. The hackers decided to steal one billion dollars from BDB by ordering transfers from its account at the New York Fed. Since the bank account held one billion, the plan was to steal the lot.

The choice of timing was exquisite. The transfer orders began on the evening of Thursday, local time, when the BDB staff had gone home for the weekend—in a Muslim country like Bangladesh, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

New York began receiving requests in the early morning of Thursday due to the ten hour time difference. When the Bengalis returned to work Sunday, the NY Fed was shut for the weekend. A number of transfers were routed to the Philippines, where Monday was a holiday—the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Overall, the hackers had five days of confusion to play around with.

The BDB security system included a printer on the tenth floor that automatically supplied copies of all transactions—the hackers jammed the printer so that nothing at all was printed. When the bank staff solved the problem, the machine leapt into action, printing numerous queries from the New York bank to verify the transactions.

In the end, the hack ‘only’ succeeded in separating a hundred million bucks from its rightful owners—the people of Bangladesh. Mostly, that cash was laundered through casinos in Manila, which at the time had no regulation on the provenance of funds.

The washing of the hacked moneys is a tale for another day, but I cannot imagine it could take place without a substantial amount of corruption—the accounts in the Manila banks had five hundred bucks in them for over a year and suddenly received tens of millions. Go figure.

The hack was stopped for the most hilarious reasons when only ten percent of the transfer volume had been executed.

The Manila banks are located on Jupiter Street—the name coincided with an Iranian vessel on the US sanctions list, so the Fed queried it—not receiving a reply, it halted the transactions.

The second reason was even more amusing: the hackers tried to transfer several million dollars to the Shalika Foundation in Sri Lanka, a social services non-profit. As an aside, the organization was founded by Shalika Perera—the name undoubtedly derives from the Portuguese family name Pereira and the sexual meanderings of The India Road.

When the hackers wrote out the beneficiary, instead of foundation they spelt the word fundation.

Along with Dhaka and hacker, this has got to be one of the more subtle ironies of the dark web.

And surely the most costly pun of all time.

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

Wú Wéi

July 18, 2021

The Chinese character 无 means ‘to lack’ or ‘not to have’. This is a wonderful example of Chinese synthesis—the ideogram replaces two or three English words. The character 为 or wéi means ‘to behave’, ‘to be’…

Together, 无 为 take on a deeper meaning—inaction. wú wéi can be translated as do nothing, take no action, and is an instantly recognizable phrase in the Middle Kingdom—short for 无为而无不为 or wú wéi ér wú bù wéi, it literally means through not doing, all things are done.

wú wéi is a classic formulation of Taoism (or Daoism), a combination of religion and philosophy that originated in China about two thousand five hundred years ago.

The ‘do nothing’ hands off approach is antithetical to the West, where we are constantly running around trying to do something, even when the outcome of that something may be useless—reverse Taoism could thus be do something, and little will be accomplished, or at the edge, do everything, and nothing will get done.

Try discussing the concept with a Westerner and you are immediately faced with scoff—absolutely, so if I don’t drive to work I will magically arrive there—or maybe the joke will turn to meals that cook themselves.

But those who look beyond the sarcasm understand the concept is a way to unify us with the universe, to flow with the forces that surround us.

Water is used as a frequent example of wú wéi—it can happily be guided, transported and piped—yet is does as it will, evaporating from the earth’s surface, drifting anywhere and everywhere in great clouds, and then falling where it must.

Donovan’s ‘Colours’ is the epitome of the relationship between the Hippie Movement and Taoism, the concept of letting nature take its course.

Over the past days, water fell in areas of northern Europe where the landscape has been completely altered, and the same soft, playful water wreaked havoc and death on town and country.

The Chinese used the wú wéi way throughout history, watching invaders come and go and yet remaining resolutely Chinese.

From Gengis Khan’s Mongol hordes to the Japan of Yamamoto and Tojo, the Middle Kingdom suffered and waited it out, just as they recently did with Donald Trump.

In the midst of all this a pandemic erupted, and its most significant political outcome was ejecting the orange man. Unless you believe that COVID was deliberately released by China as a biological weapon to destroy the Western World, then the orang-u-tan was whipped by wú wéi.

All the multiple ‘strategies’ for beating the pandemic—the idea that we as humans are in charge—is laughable. Mask on, mask off. Home at eight, now you’re late. Summer vacation, sovereign nation. France is closed, vax exposed. PCR, stay where you are. Out at night, twenty-buck flight.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu—father of Taoism—in the Chinese painting ‘The Three Vinegar Tasters’. Confucius, a defender of order, has a sour look, Buddha, who saw the world as a place of suffering, looks bitter. Only Lao Tzu is smiling, at one with nature.

Taoism gives us much more to explore, helping us realize that by managing less we may be managing more. It emphasizes virtues that are much in demand as we drift through these completely incomprehensible times—naturalness, compassion, simplicity, and above all humility.

In the space of eighteen months, a virus maestro and a quartet of mutations have shown us we are not in charge—yet every hour the kings of the world make their plans and the worker bees dutifully follow.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

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

The Long March

July 11, 2021

To understand anything, you have to know its past.

This is as true of ordinary people as it is of nations and continents, but when it comes to changing history, it is paramount, as the Americans have discovered in Afghanistan. In fairness, the Brits could have told them, since they only left four generations ago, the first time they tried to rule the country—after eighty years of strife and the infamous 1842 Khyber Pass massacre, where only one man survived out of sixteen thousand.

The US troops have left after twenty years—billed as America’s longest war, and certainly one of America’s longest bills—the Costs of War project estimates the bill at well over two trillion dollars, compared to four trillion spent on World War II.

America likes instant solutions—during the Great War, General John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing was told by a French commander that it would take thirty years to organize a general staff. “It never took America thirty years to do anything,” he replied.

Maybe so, but some things take time—you can’t make a baby in a month by getting nine women pregnant.

And as the students are fond of saying, “We have the time.” They are now making that time count and rapidly undoing the societal changes brought to the country by the allies. Just as when the Soviets left, there will be long knives.

It was the Taliban who tortured Mohammad Najibullah to death in 1996, reportedly castrating him before he died. Former president Hamid Karzai has survived four Taliban assassination attempts—their first attempt was with a gun, the next three used rockets!

The systematic mistake of the West, and in particular the US, is the ‘hearts and minds’ narrative. The idealistic notion that every country hungers for democracy and that if it could, the whole world would be like the United States, is just plain wrong.

The reasons, as always, are anchored in history. The construction of a democratic society is a bottom-up affair, and the fairy-tale notion that an external military intervention will make the populace rejoice and quickly lead to strong democratic institutions is puerile.

America has discovered this everywhere it has tried to effect change, except of course in Europe where the nations liberated after the end of the Second World War were already democratic.

When democracy starts it is experimental, and trial and error lead to its improvement. The separation of church and state was one of these, something that the US is still ambiguous about, since god appears to be permanently blessing America.

Likewise, appointing a head of state to be head of the church is similarly unwise—Henry VIII had five good reasons for doing so, and the English have never abandoned the notion since then. Scotland would never have accepted the Church of England, and therefore created its very own Church of Scotland—however, this is a presbyterian denomination, headed only by Jesus Christ—a kind of absentee landlord.

The separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government is also a great concept—one that came about through the realization that excessive power is a really bad notion. As a rule of thumb, consider the following: if a concept is forbidden by a dictator, by and large its a pretty good idea—the reverse also applies, as seen for example in free speech and personality cults.

The application of your own rules, your own past, to other people’s realities, rarely works. That’s why when I visit a new land, or meet a new person, I don’t look for logic.

I look for internal consistency.

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

Buda Beat

June 27, 2021

After the third wave came the Mexican wave.

Europe is in the grip of a new variant called EURO 2020—diehard soccer fans are going crazy all over the continent, celebrating, commiserating, or generally creating—northern English slang for causing problems.

That’s how I found myself wandering around the streets of Pest, surrounded by vociferous fans—Hungarians, French, Portuguese, and a smattering of Germans.

I hadn’t been to a football game in a few years, and the logistics blew me away. These days, you can’t even fart without an app, and UEFA has transcended itself on the digital side—put another way, no cellphone, no gain.

The same goes for transport—Buda is hilly, clawing its way up the western bank of the Danube, but Pest is flat as a pancake—which might be a good way to distinguish the two. Budapest traffic is one giant snarl—mainly older cars, with the obligatory smattering of Porsche, Mercedes, and Tesla crawling along like the plebs—a reminder that this is an uneven and troubled society.

Riding a bike when it’s one hundred degrees in the shade is a mug’s game, so scooters are the way to go—Bird hunting or Lime fishing, but not without a cellphone.

Scooting to the stadium I sped past a hundred-strong squad of France’s finest—young kids in blue strip, formed twenty-five by four, marching to the Puskás Aréna, singing the Marseillaise at the top of their voices—for a minute they became Napoleon’s army, marching across the plains of central Europe.

The history of Budapest is soaked in blood—the Mongols came in 1241, defeated the locals and proceeded to massacre half a million Hungarians. In 1541, the Ottomans took Buda, marking the conquest of Hungary—for the next one hundred fifty-eight years the country was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The battle of Vienna, in 1699, during the Great Turkish War, marked the end of Ottoman occupation of Hungary.

In the late seventeenth century, the Turks were defeated by a Christian alliance—the Holy Roman Empire was a part of it and shows the long reach of history—loosely connected to the papacy, but really at the mercy of the grands seigneurs of Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was a thing for over one thousand years after the end of the unholy Roman Empire.

Hungary then became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire—a fiefdom of the Habsburgs called Archiregnum Hungaricum. That took the nation to the end of the First World War, at which point seventy percent of the territory was handed to the Czechs, Romanians, and assorted Balkan states.

Then came the Nazis.

Then the Soviets.

The three stooges cast a watchful eye over the polling station. To the voter’s left, comrade Lenin. To the right, friendly ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. Center stage, Hungarian president Mátyás Rákzi, known to the Soviets as the USSR’s star pupil, if you excuse the pun.

The Nazi and Soviet past is brutally documented in the Terror Háza, the scariest museum I know. I discovered it in early 2017 and scooted back there on Wednesday morning. There’s been no effort to update exhibits, and except for a couple of French football fans, the place was largely deserted, making it all the more ominous.

I am alone in the elevator that slowly goes down to the basement, the final stage of the tour. On a black and white screen behind me, a middle-aged man describes the operation of the gallows in excruciating detail.

In the cells, only a tiny window lets in the light from Andrássy Street. I sit in one of the cellák and imagine being locked up, waiting for the torture, waiting for the gallows box to be kicked out from under me by the executioner.

On the Soviet floor, I spent time examining two large photograph collections—all in black and white, one of the victims and the other of their tormentors.

I was looking for something. A look, a grimace, a stare, anything to help me separate the two groups. The earnest look of the good folks who died, the cold eyes of the secret police.

For a moment I thought I’d seen it, then it disappeared.

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

Italian Dogs

June 19, 2021

Over the last weeks, CNN has been plugging a show about Italy, but which is really predicated on Italian food.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a big fan of both, but the ad drives me nuts, using trite crap such as “if you don’t believe in god you believe in tortellini.”

I’m usually subjected to this when I’m assembling breakfast for my canine companions. Just as no two people are identical, these hounds have very differing views about food—the younger one is voracious to the point of mandatory dieting, whereas her older sister has a contemplative and fastidious nature—god rather than tortellini, if you will.

Although I provide a staple diet, ancillary morsels from last night’s dinner are not uncommon. These serve the dual purpose of enriching the breakfast experience and as a pre-meal teaser for the older hound. Dogs and humans have much in common—which is perhaps what endears them to us—and if my more fastidious friend gets enthusiastic, then she will wolf, if you excuse the pun, through her bowl of victuals.

These morsels often include fish, and I’ve established that the dogs prefer cultivated to wild-caught fish. This is undoubtedly diet-related: pet foods, just like human foods, tease us with protein hydrolysates.

To go down this particular rabbit hole, we need to roll back to a little high-school organic chemistry. Aminoacids are the building blocks of proteins, and they’re linked together by means of a peptide bond, shown in blue below.

The two aminoacids at the top are identical—this is the simplest one of all—glycine. The red atoms (water) are removed in a dehydration reaction, leaving the dipeptide shown at the bottom.

Hydrolysis, or hydro + lysis, means breaking with water. When you hydrolyse a protein, that’s just what you’re doing—using water to break it up. Organic chemists discovered many moons ago that some of these protein hydrolysates, in particular glutamic acid, add flavor to food—MSG, or monosodium glutamate, comes from glutamic acid.

Flavor as a whole is a weird bunny—you smell when you inhale but you taste when you exhale, so these are two different sensory experiences. I suppose that folks with halitosis bring yet another dimension to this—though not a pleasant one.

Kissing someone who has bad breath (we’re not talking a peck on the cheek here, people) is tricky, since you won’t be able to smell the breath when you’re kissing—and presumably are not exhaling through the mouth while osculating if you’re going full snorkel. I had some fun checking this out on the web, and the most hilarious detection tip (ranked only number five on the list) is:

If people are visibly stepping away then it may be time to do something about it.

My canine curiosity arose when considering the morsels Italian dogs get to eat, when compared for instance with Dutch or British dogs—the assumption here is that dinner in the latter jurisdictions is in general neither plentiful nor tasty.

The Italian canine can expect a touch of ossobuco, veal marsala, or a spot of spaghetti al vongole, whereas north of the Roman Empire, a lucky pooch may perhaps filch a stray chicken nugget. An Indian hound, on the other hand, might wrap his chops around a Rogan Josh or test his vegetarian skills on a side of Matar Paneer.

If you’re a Frenchie, life is far more ritualized—salad comes only after the entree, cheese invariably before dessert, and if you violate the wine pairings, the doggy guillotine awaits. Quel stress, Monsieur Bow Wow!

For a cat, the whole narrative is different—devoid of home loyalties, felines forage as they please—and are far more difficult to please.

Felines await feeding at an animal shelter (courtesy of Forbes)

DNA studies show that cats have taste receptors—flavor sensors—in various parts of their body: the mouth and nose are obvious ones, but felines have sensors in the stomach and other parts of their body.

As a consequence, cats can pass judgement on the palatability of food after they swallow it—quite a remarkable attribute, and one that poses a real challenge to pet food manufacturers—this is obvious when you swap cat and dog rations.

The dogs fall upon the cat food like rabid alligators, the cat sniffs its fare once and after a minute’s contemplation, makes up its mind.

Well, I’m going out.

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


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