Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Crown

January 25, 2020

Every few years, a new pox comes around to remind us we are mere mortals.

Two groups of disease agents concern humans most—bacteria, which have been known for far longer and are better understood, and viruses.

This is not to say that humans are not susceptible to other attackers—fungi are a case in point, and when it comes to other parasites, we have plenty—including single-celled organisms such as protozoa, as well as sizable creatures like flatworms.

Current estimates are that less than half of our body is made up of human cells, such as heart, skin, or liver. The other fifty-seven percent is foreign, and largely constitutes what health and wellness sites, supermarkets, and dietary gurus love to call the microbiome.

In terms of scale, if we average out world population, including children, to a weight of fifty-five pounds, or twenty-five kilograms each, eight billion people carry a weight of two hundred million metric tons, of which over half—one hundred fourteen million—is not us.

In the last decade, scientists have uncovered some fascinating stuff about our microbiome. The reduction of bacterial infections over the last seventy-five years due to the discovery of antibiotics has been remarkable—but in destroying the bacteria that do us harm, we also attack those that help us live—as a result, allergies have increased hugely.

Obesity has also been linked to the bacteria in your gut—a diet of burgers and fries promotes the presence of microbes that increase obesity, whereas a ‘lean’ microbiome can have the opposite effect.

Bacteria are like love—can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Viruses, on the other hand, are the dark side.

Although Pasteur discovered a vaccine for rabies, he didn’t understand what caused it. One of his assistants, Edouard Chamberland, patented a filter that retained bacteria and several scientists subsequently showed that diseases could still be transmitted after all bacteria were removed—whatever was responsible, passed through the filter.

Sea cucumbers, one of many exotic dishes I’ve eaten in China through the years.

Viruses are obligate parasites, meaning they only thrive inside the host. Some of the most interesting and nasty virus infections in recent memory, such as AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, have been associated with transmission from other animals to Man—the current spread of coronavirus is more of the same.

I’ll be in southeast Asia within a week, at which point the disease will have spread considerably—right now, it’s showing up in Thailand, South Korea and Singapore—so I have a personal interest in monitoring this particular epidemic.

AIDS originated in chimps, as a similar virus to HIV called SIV (for Simian). Not in the 1960s or 1970s, but one hundred years ago, in the 1920s. The crossover to humans is linked to consumption of these animals by Congolese tribes.

Likewise, Ebola, SARS, and now the new coronovirus are diet-related. Let’s face it, we are what we eat.

Ebola was linked to apes (and possibly bats), and SARS to bats. Bird flu, which was around a few years ago, was linked to ducks, geese, and chickens—all mainstays of Guangdong cuisine.

The new virus was first detected a few weeks ago in a food market in the city of Wuhan, once the capital of the Kuomintang—based on previous experience, that means it’s been around considerably longer.

When the phrase ‘food market’ is used in the West, it conjures up images of clean buildings, hygienic produce, and a wholesome family experience.

In the East, it is something very different. Every Chinese town has live food markets where an assortment of animals are kept in cages until sold to restaurants and households. Every Chinese restaurant of any standing will have fish and shellfish in aquariums—whereas in Southern Europe there may be one large tank containing lobsters, crabs, and the occasional bag of oysters, in China, individual species are kept in their own tanks—it’s not unusual to see twenty or thirty separate aquariums.

The live food market where the coronavirus epidemic is believed to have started stocked the usual range of crazy stuff, including porcupines, turtles, and crocodiles, as well as bugs, frogs, scorpions, and many kinds of seafood—snails, crabs, shrimp, fish, sea cucumbers, abalone, and geoduck will have been featured.

Apart from all the transport restrictions in mainland China, and now also in xiāng găng—the fragrant port of Hong-Kong—the sixty million dollar question is: which animal did this virus jump from?

And if you don’t know what a geoduck is, what better way to usher in the Chinese New Year?

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


January 11, 2020

It sounds like a medical condition—so much so that I’m going to try it on some friends next week in Amsterdam and see how it flies.

“Sorry, I’m off the red wine at the moment—diagnosed with a stubborn case of glossolalia, I’m afraid.” Perplexed looks, perhaps the odd sympathetic murmur.

“No, no, it’s a mild liver infection, not too serious.”

But in fact, this is a word concocted by some particularly cunning linguists (as opposed to master debaters, to quote the legendary Austin Powers).

I’d forgotten how good the original clip is—it meets my exacting standards for sophomoric humor.

So… glossolalia it is, my friends—known to mere mortals as speaking in tongues—an amazing gift first revealed in the gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 16, Verse 17.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

Jesus performed the miracle of glossolalia on his disciples, who then held forth to their audiences in tongues—contrary to Babel, where a cacophony of different languages was understood by none, in the Jerusalem square where the apostles preached the gospel, everyone heard it in their own ‘tongue.’

In this context, the word ‘tongue’ is itself interesting. In several European er… languages, it’s synonymous with ‘language’, as in the French ‘langue’, Italian or Portuguese ‘lingua’, or the Spanish ‘lengua’. In English, phrases like ‘mother tongue’ do not refer to a protuberant piece of maternal anatomy but presumably to an older word for language—today, ‘What is your favorite tongue?’ might well be taken the wrong way.

The gift is clear—you hold forth in Hebrew and are understood in Somali. One assumes that those who possess such a gift can also reverse the process—when addressed in one of the sixty-six indigenous languages of Burkina Faso, the plain English equivalent is readily understood.

There is a caveat to this narrative—the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 14, suggests that glossolalia may be a different beast altogether.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit

If the apostle epistle is to be believed, then it is almost as if there is some kind of telepathy at play, rather than simultaneous translation.

Whatever the mechanism, the concept and consequence are the holy grail of communication. In 1887, a Polish doctor attempted to resolve the problem of universal comms with a second, or auxiliary, language—Esperanto; but the number of speakers today is only estimated to be between sixty-three thousand and two million—after one hundred thirty years? I don’t think so.

Enter AI, which is rapidly slicing through all sorts of hitherto intractable problems. The combination of computational speed and artificial intelligence makes translation on the fly a reality today.

In 2003, a Swede and a Dane invented Skype. Unlike Esperanto, Skype needs no introduction—usage numbers in 2010 were around six hundred and sixty million, about ten percent of the world population, but after Microsoft bought it in May 2011 for 8.5 billion dollars, things went downhill.

Partly, that speaks to Microsoft’s penchant to screw things up—I’ve used their products for decades, but no one would ever call them sexy. Cool stuff like Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, and Hangouts stuck the knife in deep over the last decade, but Microsoft’s gift for complicating stuff hasn’t helped matters.

They have, however, made giant strides when it comes to tongues. Microsoft has used its AI capacity to add simultaneous translation to Skype.

But the process hasn’t all been a bed of roses. To validate the quality of the translation—a point well made by Austin Powers when discussing his rod—mickeysoft involved humans in its translation analysis, with little consideration for the private nature of conversations.

An article in Motherboard recently discussed the software giant’s use of private contractors to verify translation accuracy, with what appeared to be minimal security when it came to data protection—contractors were privy to intimate conversations, and this will undoubtedly anger many users.

It may be cold comfort, but the Snowden leaks revealed in 2013 that Microsoft already shares data from its Skype supernodes with the NSA and other intelligence agencies—no translation required.

These little hiccups aside, once the door opens, ideas will come flooding in. Enter Snapdragon 865, the new 5G chip from Qualcomm, which was recently showcased in Maui. the AI product boss, Ziad Asghar, spoke into a cellphone in English, and his words were simultaneously broadcast in Chinese.

The new decade will produce phones that allow you to speak in tongues, opening up a whole new world of communication. There are downsides—the main one being that this will reduce the incentive to learn new languages.

When you speak another language or two, it helps you learn more about your own. It also opens your mind to new peoples and cultures—breaking down barriers destroys silos and promotes peace and harmony.

But change is inexorably coming, and as Churchill said, ‘We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.’

Or, as my Chinese friends would say, we’re all grossorarians now.

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


December 14, 2019

Pistons, cylinders, and wheels are at the heart of civilization.

The movement of piston and cylinder is pretty obvious from our own sexual behavior—and humans think of sex all the time—but when Man invented the wheel, it was definitely a game-changer.

It can’t have taken long to realize that you could couple a wheel to a shaft, that the wheel could drive the shaft, and that the shaft could drive the wheel.

From then on, the possibilities were endless—vehicles, pumps, and tools of all kinds became available to society.

The next challenge was to harness the energy for operating these creations. Humans enslaved other humans to do that work, and in addition they enslaved other animals.

In much of the world, slavery is a thing of the past, but in most countries mammals such as donkeys, mules, oxen, and yaks still discharge those duties. They perform their services in exchange for food and lodging, whipped into submission, indentured to servitude from womb to tomb, bound by a contract in which they had no part.

In my children’s book, Folk Tales For Future Dreamers, a yak explains the issue in plain language to his incredulous daughter.

Yingwen munched a little sedge and thought hard about what to do. If I go too far down the hill, I’ll meet the tulegs, and they’ll take me prisoner. Her father had pointed them out from a distance on more than one occasion.

“There’s one, my girl, on the ridge! See, behind the bahrals.”

Yingwen could see the bahrals, with their long curved horns and soft faces. The blue sheep weren’t blue at all, and they had white streaks on their faces, running from their eyes to the corners of their mouth.

“Daddy, I see the blue sheep, but—“

“There!” Daddy nuzzled her head to make her look the right way.

“Oh!” She saw a strange creature standing on its hind legs behind the flock of sheep. It was small, covered in fur, and holding a stick in its foreleg.

“That’s a tuleg. Be very careful. If they can, they’ll grab us.”

“That? Even I could bump it.”

“No, Yingwen. They’re very sneaky, and they’ll take you prisoner, using their sneaky ways.”

“And eat me? Like the bears and wolves?”

“Not straightaway. The tulegs make you work, pulling their machines all day. They use lots of animals, bahrals and yaks, and they never let them go. They steal our milk, our hair, even our poop!”

“Our poop? Yuk!”

No, yak!” Daddy howled with laughter, very pleased with his joke. “They burn our poo in their fires, to keep warm at night. That sheepskin coat you see, Ingwen, it’s not really theirs. Actually, they have no fur at all, they’re all yellow and skinny.”

“Eewww,” said Yingwen.

“No, sheep!” Her father howled with laughter again, until she pinched him.

Natural sources were the next step in harnessing energy. Water, wind, and tide powered mills—in Al Andalus, the Moors were experts in using nature to drive these devices, a good many of which survive to this day.

But eight centuries before the Arabs invaded the Iberian Peninsula, a Greek named Hero of Alexandria described a steam-driven device that was capable of rotating a wheel. Nevertheless, it took one thousand eight hundred years before the Frenchman Savary built a working steam engine.

Savary’s engine was not efficient, and it was significantly improved upon by a little known Portuguese scientist—Portugal has never been kind to its own, and although Bento de Moura Portugal was a member of the Royal Society, and even bore the nation’s name, he died in prison in Lisbon due to his political ideas, courtesy of the inquisition and the Marquis of Pombal.

The collected writings of Bento de Moura Portugal, a great scientist who was scorned by his country.

Thomas Newcomen further improved the steam engine, and towards the close of the XVIIIth century, the Scotsman James Watt finally developed a machine that could be used efficiently.

Factories no longer needed to be located next to rivers—a huge push for industry—and mobility on road and rail had arrived. The success of steam was relatively short-lived, as the external combustion engine was overtaken by the internal combustion engine, ushering in the age of oil.

The whole of the last century has been predicated on black gold—the viscous mess has been responsible for the rise of the Middle East, and the reason for countless wars.

This week, Saudi Aramco (formerly the Arabian American Oil Company) was floated on the Tadawul stock exchange, but you’ll have a job buying shares if you’re in the West. Aramco touched a valuation of two trillion dollars on the second day of trading, so oil is still a thing—but the writing is on the wall.

Renewables are becoming increasingly popular and competitive, and we are returning to natural sources—the wind, the sun, and the tides.

All over Europe, the push is for electric cars, with Germany, the leading European manufacturer of diesel and petrol automobiles, leading the pack. With that comes a shift away from fossil fuels, which has now become a generational cry championed by XR, the Extinction Rebellion. Right now, the United States is on a different tack on this issue, but that too shall pass.

Perhaps the era of oil will last a total of two hundred years, maybe less—just as with steam, much depends on the next big thing, but by the year 2050 electric vehicles will be strong competitors, helped by major improvements in battery technology, cheap renewable energy, taxation on carbon emissions, and the votes of Generation Z.

The consequences for the Mid-East are not hard to envisage—I made a stab at those in my book Atmos Fear.

The next steps will come with marine engines, and of course, air travel.

A few days ago, a Canadian company called Harbour Air became the first to offer commercial flights on electric planes. The engine is made by Seattle-based Magnix, and promises to save around half of the fuel costs of conventional aircraft.

Plane tickets will be cheaper, and you’ll say goodbye to Doha and Dubai.

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


September 8, 2019

Sir Ernest Rutherford once said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

That was a century ago, at a time when chemistry and biology were largely ‘catalog’ sciences—in many parts of the world they still are, whereas in the Western World, a systems approach is now the standard.

But Rutherford also said, “When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life.”

Those last two words destroy his previous aphorism—physics tells us how things work, chemistry tells us their composition, and biology separates life from death.

A further blow to Rutherford’s views was delivered by the Swedish Academy in 1908, when they awarded him the Nobel Prize for… chemistry.

The fact is that physics has less building blocks than both chemistry and biology, which probably explains why so much inventory was required to bring these two subjects to their present state.

The Linnaean classification system, despite its faults, was a watershed moment in biology—the fact that it was developed almost three hundred years ago is astonishing—it ushered in ecology, evolutionary theory, and genetics.

This means you can now get a full sequence of your genome for one thousand dollars, down from over one hundred million in 2001.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a Russian chemistry professor called Dmitri Mendeleev decided the way chemistry was taught was incorrect, and he formulated a better way—in so doing, he came up with the periodic table of elements.

When you look the man up on Wikipedia, the first line states, ‘Not to be confused with Dmitry Medvedev’. I should certainly hope not! Medvedev, or bear in Russian, was of course the man who did Putin the favor of allowing him multiple terms as president of the Russian Federation.

Mendeleev did his Ph.D. ‘On the Combinations of Water with Alcohol’, a subject which is very dear to my heart. He found that a 46% mass fraction of alcohol causes the maximum decrease of volume—this is typically the strength of highest quality vodka, but of course the beverage preceded the great chemist by at least five centuries.

One of the consequences of the periodic table, much like the Linnaean classification, was the transformation of chaos into order, a situation that is thermodynamically unstable—desks never tidy themselves.

The readiness of sodium to react with chlorine, or potassium with iodine, became obvious when you realized you were adding columns 1 and 7 of the table to obtain the full complement of 8. And the fact that carbon, silicon, and germanium live in column 4 reveals much about in vivo and in silico.

Yes, right there in the highly reactive center of the table, its genitals, if you will, sit all the elements that give us life—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

A graphic from Bloomberg Businessweek, from this week’s issue exclusively dedicated to the periodic table.

One of the astonishing developments of the last fifty years is the use of obscure elements from the periodic table for a multitude of uses. The last century belonged to the internal combustion engine, we are now in the age of the battery. Ubiquitous in cars, laptops, and cellphones, hidden in appliances throughout my house, the battery requires, or will require in the near future, hydrogen, lithium, nickel, cobalt, zinc, and lead.

A raft of other metals, including ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium, drive the commodities markets crazy. Ruthenium, for example, was used in hard disk storage in the early years of this century, and spiked to 800 dollars per ounce in 2003-2004. After a crash, it now sits at $200 or so.

Rhodium was used in automobile catalytic converters, tumbled during the financial crash, and is now showing timid signs of recovery.

Rhodium, number 45 in the table, is a price rock ‘n roller.

One thing strikes you about any of these graphs—it’s much harder to climb the mountain than fall off the cliff.

Humans have found uses—often in highly sophisticated applications—for many of the elements that Mendeleev organized. Some of these elements are increasingly scarce, including helium, the second lightest element.

Helium is used in many applications, including MRI machines, and in a few decades, it will be in short supply. This is one of the paradoxes of the table as we move through the century: new scientific discoveries find more uses for obscure substances, but material scarcity moves them further from markets.

We’ve come a long way since Rutherford. The great man once said “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”

Atomic structure? I can think of far more interesting conversations to have with an attractive young lady dispensing my favorite libation, but the man had a point.

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


September 1, 2019

I’m working my way through a Thomas Friedman book.

The book is called ‘Thanks For Being Late’. Weird title, and unconnected to the subject matter, except in one aspect—pausing lets you think.

This is a book my readers should read—I can tell you that right now, even though I’m only twenty percent through the story.

I’ll throw in a couple of stories from the text in this piece, but one of the key messages is that we need time to reflect, to concoct, and to combine—when we pause, we accelerate. Sleeping on problems is extremely useful because our brain atomizes issues, decomposing them into soluble globs that are, well… soluble.

Our racing society takes away our thinking time, accelerating us into continuous communication—as in music, sometimes less is more, our brain needs the space to expand its thoughts.

Sometimes, all of us is better than some of us, or one of us, but sometimes it’s not. Uwe Ross, the founder of Ross-Tech, which manufactures the VCDS VW diagnostic software, states “Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

As a veteran of many meetings, I tend to agree.

Pause is key, and frenetic comms are a disservice—it becomes habit-forming to fire out questions you really know the answer to, if only you bother to pause and think.

I found this out many years ago—making myself less available made those (not) around me more self-reliant, and empowered them to think their way out of problems. Our discussions became centered on higher level issues, or on particularly thorny ones.

Friedman provides a rather lengthy intro, which is eminently skippable—the fun doesn’t start until page eighteen, when the focus on the year 2007 begins.

2007 did ring in many changes, including social media platforms, networking software that catapulted Big Data onto the world stage, and cellphone broadband data improvements.

However, rather than focusing on a particular year, the decade should probably be the highlight—I was using Skype to call China in 2005, but it didn’t work very well. Arguably, it still doesn’t—as soon as there are more than two people on, things can snarl up.

Let’s recall that the software was written by Estonians, Swedes, and Danes—not the most talkative of souls. When you aim Skype at a bunch of South Americans, Italians, or Turks, all hell-bent on talking at the same time, the app withers and dies.

Face it, Microsoft has done it no favors either—every time I use Skype, something new, and usually perplexing, crops up. Possibly, this is featuritis caused by a bunch of kids with spreadsheets who are devoted to brainstorming the hell out of monetizing the app.



Think. Alone.

Pause some more.

Stability. Features. Schedule. Those are the vertices of the iron triangle of software as I know it—nowadays, stability has been replaced by cost, and quality (stability) sits at the center of the triangle, but it’s not clear how it depends on the others. Quality is definitely a vertex, not a consequence—if anything, resources should be in the middle.

The iron triangle of software, drawn correctly. Why complicate matters?

The book’s theme is acceleration, drawing on three major forces: markets (globalization), technology, and environment. I’m keen to read the environmental component, and particularly to see it contextualized with the other engines of change.

I don’t believe technology will resolve the environmental issues we face on the planet, and I think the mantra of economic growth is incorrect, because it doesn’t follow the simple laws of thermodynamics.

Higher productivity ties into higher unemployment, as globalization and AI kick in, and anyhow job creation as a numeric metric is not the correct approach. As an analogy, many universities push for professors to teach a set quota of weekly hours—but if you’re a bad teacher, either because you don’t know your subject matter or can’t communicate it, then teaching less hours will cause less harm.

The subject of growth in human societies is far more complex than the magic numbers distilled by politicians, and change is the biggest challenge we face as a society.

Friedman points out that the social mechanisms we possess to cope with this upheaval are inadequate—he’s right, much of the world is wrapped up in Napoleonic law, and systems designed to accommodate change on a scale of multiple decades.

In medieval times, society didn’t change much from century to century, but now we see paradigm shifts every few years. This makes political systems inadequate and generates acute social imbalances because these changes are disruptive—a paradigm shift is by definition non-linear.

I think you should hear it from him, but read the book. It’ll give you pause.

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

Baked Alaska

August 5, 2019

If you’re familiar with UK cuisine—now there’s an oxymoron—you might know this as a type of ‘pudding.’ Bear in mind that puddings can be savory, as in steak and kidney pud, but in British vernacular, “Will you have pudding?” means will you eat dessert.

Brits have some bizarre names for their dishes—my favorite epithets include toad in the hole and spotted dick.

Baked Alaska is yet another one. However, given my penchant for puns, today’s title was driven by the picture below, which scared the crap out of me.

The European satellite Sentinel 3 shows the continent burning up, in some cases quite literally, on July 25th 2019.

The extreme west (Portugal) and Eastern Europe have dodged the bullet, but eastern Spain, the northern part of France, the Benelux countries, and the southern UK were a veritable frying pan on that day.

Little did I know that the English newspaper, The Guardian, had headed an article on July 3rd with exactly the same title—the topic is more confined, but the emphasis is the same—after years of political dodgems, the planet has finally hit us on the head with a giant frying pan.

At the present time, raging wildfires are lighting up the north—in latitudes where the Northern Lights are a wintertime event.

From Siberia to Alaska, the Arctic is ablaze. Most people don’t realize that different parts of the planet are warming at different rates—changes in the boreal regions are swift. The article in the Washington Post is from the Climate Weather Gang—at first I thought this had to be Trump & Acolytes, but no, these guys are worth listening to.

For the past week, a high pressure system has blocked the roaring forties, the high latitude westerlies that bring Atlantic storm systems to Europe—Bergen, Norway, a city known for its wet and generally chilly weather, sported ninety-one degrees.

Scientists were publishing research papers on the slowing or even reversal of the Gulf Stream well over a decade ago—the inference was that it would trigger more extreme temperatures. Citizens of Western Europe take the North Atlantic Drift for granted—twenty-three years ago I was on a beach in Qingdao, northeast China, watching the snow fall in December, marveling at some insane locals stripping down to their underwear and diving in.

Qingdao is at 36o N, the same latitude as Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, but has far more extreme weather—now we’re getting it here. As the land surface temperature rises, the flashpoint for forest fires is triggered, and the planet is hit with a double whammy—more fires mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and an increase in the greenhouse effect, but they also mean less trees, and less capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

A rise in temperature massively increases evaporation of ocean water, which means more cloud, higher humidity, more heat-trapping, and ultimately more warming—positive feedbacks we could very much do without.

Baked Alaska, Fried Siberia, Poached Scandinavia… But that ain’t all. Marine plants are having a bit of fun as well—the star of the summer is a brown seaweed called Sargassum. The weed gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, and, for a seaweed, it has one very unusual characteristic—it floats.

The Chinese green tides are caused by the green seaweed Ulva, which loosely attaches to the bottom, but can also survive as it floats in the ocean—giant blooms are documented annually since the 2008 Olympics.

But Sargassum only floats, and now it’s escaped the confines that becalmed Columbus and gave their name to the Horse Latitudes. Scientists estimate there are twenty million metric tons of this species in the ocean, and have termed the event Great Sargasssum Atlantic Belt. I would have called it GASP, replacing Belt with Phenomenon, Proliferation, Problem, Peak…

I’ve worked with brown seaweeds like Sargassum, and it wouldn’t be unusual to have ten pounds in a square meter. Doing the math, the weed plague might occupy 4,000 km2, which is downright scary.

Mind you, if you like stats, Siberian wildfires this summer occupy an area the size of Belgium.

Why has this seaweed suddenly been able to spread all the way from the Cape Verde islands to the beaches of the Caribbean? And more to the point, is this a one-off or a trend?

Tourist destinations in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands are pretty concerned—humans have a very flaky relationship with nature—it’s okay to lard fertilizer onto crops, or to produce five hundred million chickens in the Chesapeake Bay, and thereby generate 500,000 metric tons of chicken shit.

All this adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the ocean—too much of that, mixed in with shifting patterns of global circulation, and we have a perfect storm.

Like the Chinese blooms, but on a grand scale, scientists have detected the Sargassum flare-ups since 2011. Every year except 2013.

We live too preoccupied with the latest Instagram post, and with extended navel-gazing, to see what hides in plain sight.

Citizens of the West, the chickens have come home to roost.

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


July 21, 2019

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, and the subsequent moon walk—and we’re not talking Michael Jackson here, folks!

It may therefore come as no surprise to you that the subject is bombarding us like cosmic rays. The moon landing was, if you’ll excuse the pun, a landmark achievement for mankind—and I saw it all on TV.

My particular take on the subject matter is somewhat different—I’m not interested in the noun, I’m here for the verb. To moon, according to Merriam-Webster, means ‘to expose one’s naked buttocks to.

Furthermore, I’m not here strictly for the verb, but as a way to land on today’s theme: assholes, which are at the very core of performing the moon. This is fertile, if pungent, territory—I can smell the mercaptans from here.

To celebrate the anniversary, I could begin with the extended roster of assholes who believe the moon landing never happened. The Guardian discussed the whys and wherefores a few days ago.

We could then progress to a pair of consummate assholes who currently outperform their peers in one of the most asshole-dense professions—politics.

One of them made a particular ass of himself on Thursday by thrusting kippers at a sympathetic audience of UK Tories.

The other, if you excuse the pun, is simply assiduous—some form of colonic tephra is at play, turning him into a truly pyroclastic asshole.

But I’ll be frank, what got me into this was a New York Times article on old dogs. It was past one in the morning when I got back from a jam session, and I spent a little time communing with my ageing hound. She will turn fourteen in a few months, and I had a brief chat with her.

I told her how much she would have enjoyed the music we were playing—I know that for a fact because she’s stone deaf. At present, the quality of the musical experience is directly proportional to the distance from the band, but things are improving.

In my teens, playing in a band inevitably led to a doobie or two, and unavoidably the odd beer was consumed. These days, it’s just the music—kitsch though it sounds, that’s a high in itself.

There’s a complicity in a band, as there is in an orchestra, a football team, or a chef’s kitchen—until that exists, the whole can never be more than the sum of the parts. It takes time, hard work, and patience—you can’t make a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.

This morning I woke up early wondering whether the world had set itself alight already over a couple of oil tankers—in other words, I went asshole-hunting, and chanced upon a New York Times article on old dogs.

I read through the symptoms of ageing: aimless walking, anxiety, attempts to eat stuff that isn’t particularly edible. I found it interesting that cannabidiol (CBD) is apparently used on hounds.

This beautiful hound is probably a straight shooter, but one does suspect he may have been at the deadly yellow snow.

Seek and ye shall find. The American Kennel Club provides an overview of what is known about CBD and dogs—right now I’d say the evidence of benefits is at best anectodal.

The ‘Times’ article is nice, and it made me curious about the author—a young lady called Tessa Miller. Turns out she has a seriously difficult life—and that really got me thinking about assholes.

Her story about Crohn’s disease is simultaneously terrifying, poignant, and funny. Above all, no one can fail to admire her courage.

Writing is hard. Writing about chronic illness is impossible. How do you explain the inner workings of a broken body that society expects (demands) to heal? How do you illustrate pain so extreme it makes you leave your body and crawl on the ceiling — the secret pain that healthy people don’t know exists? How do you resolve your two selves — the one that passes for “normal” and the one that survives, hidden at home and in hospitals? How much of the second self do you reveal to family, friends, strangers? How do you share the loneliness?

Ms. Miller writes well, and above all she writes with brutal honesty. Both are hard, but being this forthright about yourself takes a rare kind of guts. And it’s guts we’re talking about here, because Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD, in its more severe form, is a raging battle between the immune system and the gut.

I never believed this was a Freud quote. It is in fact by William Gibson, a celebrated steampunk writer.

In a way, Tessa Miller and the man on the moon share a tale. Each in their own way, they both demonstrate how humans can be so much better than the assholes that surround us.

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

Fake Views

July 14, 2019

Picture a summer idyll in tropical waters. Now here’s something that fires the imagination, azure, transparent… I feel a song coming on.

Maybe it’s the colors, so impossibly turquoise as the water shimmers in the sunlight. Or the way you can see into the deep, stare into the soul of the ocean.

This is the stuff of dreams. Where exactly are we going?

Aaah, Siberia.

Wait a minute! Where?


Er… Siberia, comrades. Welcome to Novosibirsk.

I’m not sure why Millennials are obsessed with unicorns, but I’m sure they’re on fleek. The struggle to get instagrammed at Lake Whatsitsname, preferably avec unicorn, is most definitely real.

The plastic unicorn may not bask for long, given the toxicity of this earthly paradise…

In case you’re not familiar with Novosibirsk, here’s a quick primer. The first port of call is Wikipedia, which ‘informs’ us:

Travellers coming from countries with mild climates may find Novosibirsk’s winter tough, but it may not be extraordinary for those from northern countries. At times, bitter cold may hold for some days, but temperatures of −40 °C (−40 °F) and lower do not occur every year.

Apart from the bizarre Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion, which I suspect is fake news, the city’s mean January temperature is 2.3 °F (-16.7 °C)—tropical it ain’t.

Far more emblematic than tropical lakes were the Gulags that dotted Siberia—the area around Novosibirsk sported its fair share.

Novosibirsk, in SW Siberia, was the administrative home of three Gulags: Kamenlag, Novosibirsklag, and Siblag.

But we’re on a trip to the Saldives, right? So let’s not have a bad trip, man. We’ve done our research, so here we go. Get your DTP and Hep A shots, and you’re all set.

Now is a great time to travel. But should you prefer winter, my favorite travel site tells all.

Climate Siberian Maldives january

On average, it is maximum -11° in january in Siberian Maldives and at least around -22° degrees. In january there are 1 day of rainfall with a total of 14 mm. The it will be dry 13 days this month in Siberian Maldives and on average, it snows 17 days in january.

Suitable month for: winter sports

I love the ‘at least’, and I’m not entirely sure what ‘the it’ actually is, but given the snowfall predictions, I suspect you may struggle to kitesurf.

When we arrive, we’ll be treated, if you excuse the pun, to a Saldivian landscape of azurity—please note this is from the Wibaux travel blog, rather than any legitimate source.

In the Maldives, as in other areas of tropical ocean, a warm water layer overlies the cooler (but still extremely pleasant) deeper layer. Energy supplied by the sun creates permanent thermal stratification, so the two water masses never mix.

For the aquatic ecosystem, this means that the nutrients required for plankton to grow are unavailable—solar energy by itself will not suffice, so the upper layers of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Australian Great Barrier Reef are not productive—devoid of suspended particles, the water is completely transparent, and enough light reaches the bottom to allow corals to thrive. The lower-energy red wavelengths are quickly absorbed by the ocean, leaving the greens and blues to penetrate and scatter, and turning the water that beautiful turquoise color.

Saldivian Azurity (the term has grown on me), however, is derived from chemical reactions. The man-made lake is a dump for coal ash and coal waste from a large power station, which supplies most of the energy to the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants.

The pollutants in the Saldivian lake include heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic—just a short list of the nastier ones.

The multiple internet reports of this new Millennial paradise have two things in common: first, all the ‘articles’ are simply plagiarized from the original—stolen without acknowledgement; second, nowhere (except here) is there any attempt to go beyond the original—my source was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Andrew Roth.

How bad is the metal pollution? An average home uses 3.3 MWh every year—if this particular power station supplies seventy-five percent of the households in Novosibirsk, we’re at 300,000 homes, so the coal plant would be rated at about 200 MWh.

I’m assuming this coal-fired extravaganza is not the zenith of environmental stewardship, in which case we can consider a load of 0.6 g of mercury per kWh, and 44.9 g of lead per kWh—A little math gives us an annual load of one hundred twenty kilograms of mercury discharged into the Saldives. For lead, those numbers jump to 9000 kilograms—nine metric tons!

Your dream destination. If you plan to frolic with plastic unicorns, do make sure you select durable plastics, of the kind found all over the ocean, otherwise they may not survive the dip.

I won’t roll this out to the other metals, but these two are enough—they both cause severe disorders of the nervous system—Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was poisoned by mercurous nitrate used in the felt.

Instagrammers of the world, beware!

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

Bear Shirt

June 9, 2019

The Viking god Odin was the greatest of all magicians. He is a fascinating character—his name means ‘Master of Ecstasy’, and the deity is represented as a tall, old man, sporting a long grey beard.

Odin the Wanderer, as he was depicted in a late 17th century oil, has only one eye—the other, he exchanged for wisdom. Such trade-offs are not uncommon in mythology, where something of personal value—even the soul, in Robert Johnson’s case—is exchanged for a supernatural skill. For divine concessions, there is no free lunch.

Odin’s counterpart in the Norse polytheism is Freya—like him, she has a broad remit. Not for Odin or Freya a single purview—storms, crops, or hunting—between the two, they cover wisdom, sex, sorcery, fertility, runes, war, and death.

Odin was known to encourage war at a pretext, along the lines of Nietzsche’s famous quote:

You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.

The Norse god was interested only in warriors of the truest mettle, and one particular group has endured through the ages.

The Viking god Odin followed by a berserker, represented in a Torslunda helmet, one of four bronze plates found on the Swedish island of Öland.

These were the berserkers, from which the word ‘berserk’ derives. In ancient Norse, this is a compound word: ‘ber’ means bear and ‘serk’ means shirt—both terms led to the equivalent English words.

Berserkers did not fight in armor—they dispensed with it, choosing only sword and shield, fighting in a trance-like state. A curious description of their behavior comes from the Ynglinga saga, by Sturluson.

His men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.

Where did Odin’s berserkers get their supernatural fighting qualities? Shamanism is often referred, but that explains little—it’s another way of describing a trance.

Drugs have been put forward as a possibility. Colossal amounts of alcohol would certainly induce indiscriminate rage, but also probably have a serious effect on coordination and motor skills. The English slight ‘Dutch courage’ is used to evoke alcohol-induced bravado—a staple of soccer fans worldwide, but there’s no evidence of enhanced fighting skills, just heightened aggression.

Magic mushrooms have their own place in mythology—in this case, the highly poisonous Amanita muscaria has been put forward as the trance drug. The fly agaric is certainly a potent beast—strong enough to kill you—and it has been reported as a hallucinogenic element in shamanic rituals in Lithuania, northern Sweden, and Siberia.

The known effects don’t suggest it would be immensely successful for massive episodes of sustained violence where the perpetrator is incapable of discriminating between friend and foe—all in all, the drug theory is tenuous.

Which doesn’t leave us with much—except the certainty that the berserkers existed, that the onset of a trance-like state was signalled by chewing and gnawing of shields and skin, and that when the berserkergang began, friends knew to get out of the way.

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


April 30, 2019

It’s been said there are three kinds of truth.

Your truth, my truth, and the truth.

Throughout history, this is a fair classification, one that’s been shown time and time again to be, er… true. In good measure, that’s because there are absolute, unquestionable truths, and then there are others.

The acceleration of gravity, the boiling point of water, or the latitude of London are not points of debate—they may be points of argument, but they can be settled quickly and definitively.

On the other hand, the classification of terrorism, the standards for political correctness, the efficacy of acupuncture, or the importance of the Roman Empire, are points of relative truth—even if there is a consensus, there will be some disagreement, as we sink into the quagmire of opinion.

Opinion-makers, influencers, and pundits in general have historically spread their views in the vertical—supporters, disciples, or followers could be relied on to propagate the good word.

In religion, these are priests or mullahs; in politics, spin-doctors, party members, and reporters; in administrations, zealous bureaucrats. The truths spread in this manner fall into the latter category—they’re points of interpretation.

That in itself is bad enough, particularly because the proponents don’t hesitate to stir in a few factoids to support their points. This leads for instance to the concepts of heaven and hell, for which there is absolutely no evidence, but which have been drummed into our heads since birth.

We could pick up on other ‘truths’ that are simply a matter of perspective—Brexit is one example, but unfortunately there are many others, which have led to poverty, calamity, and world wars—for some reason, sensible ideas are not as attractive as bombastic change.

This is quite odd, because all human education is conservative—not from the political angle, but in the sense that we emphasize what works. Children are naturally conservative, I would imagine due to natural selection—the genes of kids whose penchant would be to dive off cliffs or under trucks would not feature prominently in subsequent generations.

The vertical, and therefore somewhat limited, propagation of ideas (‘truths’) has been upended in the digital world. Yes, it’s true that social media still uses the old labels: friends, followers… but we live in a flat world—one which allows fake news to spread instantly from peer to peer.

Common folk have more in common with each other, by the very nature of the term, than they do with Trump or Putin, and ‘truth’ spread in this fashion is often highly appealing.

It can also be highly dangerous.

One example is vaccination, particularly in children—which leads us into the realm of medical history.

The one thing that is absolutely clear is that the consequences of vaccination are part of the first group of truths, the one that is absolutely unquestionable.

In 1978, two English scientists, Roy Anderson and Robert May, published a seminal paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology. This and subsequent publications led to a mathematical model based on probability, which became known as SIR—Susceptible-Infected-Recovered.

The initial approach has become more nuanced through the years, and the ‘R’ doesn’t always mean Recovered—it can mean Removed, and that’s the whole point—you can die from disease.

Model results show what can happen in a disease such as measles when immunity is low.

The SIR model allows you to forecast the distribution of the host population into classes—for a serious disease such as measles, the red band has been kept low through vaccination.

A pathogen needs a host to survive, so if the number of susceptible humans is very low, the disease is in practice eradicated. However, the most important thing to remember is that these relationships are non-linear. One pathogen makes two, and they in turn make four—it’s the story of the chessboard and the grain of rice.

Stories that link autism and other conditions to vaccination are rife on the net, and this has led to a dangerous reduction in the use of vaccines, particularly in urban areas—perhaps city folk are just dumber, and to make matters worse there are more of them in close proximity.

The problem is summarized in a report from the University of Warwick, in the UK.

Measles is a highly contagious disease – before the introduction of vaccination more than 90% of individuals were infected before they were 10 years old – which has serious associated complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis, hepatitis, acute diarrhoea and death. Measles is no longer endemic in countries such as the USA, Finland and the UK due to successful vaccination campaigns. However, the disease does remain endemic elsewhere, and so regions which are measles-free remain at risk of outbreaks from imports of the disease.

In 2014, the vaccination rate for one-year olds was 93% in the US and 91% in the UK. But in London, according to this study, the overall vaccination rate is 88%, compared to 95% in the whole country.

The consequences of lowered immunity in a population are tragic—they start slow, but geometric growth has no mercy—if by the eight square of the chessboard we are only up to 128, by the time we finish the third row we’re at 8.4 million.

Cases reported this year in the US by state (courtesy of the Washington Post)

In the US, opposition to vaccines such as MMR has gone viral, if you excuse the pun—Brooklyn’s orthodox Jewish community is one example. The consequences have been very serious—many doctors in the States don’t even know what measles symptoms look like, since the disease was considered eradicated in 2000.

Non-linearity brought it back in twenty years. This has resulted in extreme public health measures: in Los Angeles, California, large numbers of students were quarantined after an outbreak last week. In Rockland County, New York, any infected person found in a public space faces a two thousand dollar fine.

In truth (my truth, in this case), you can’t blame folks for being naive or uninformed, or ready to believe nonsense—after all, look at who they elected for president.

But you can blame the ones who spread false messages—like Columbus, they trade in opinions uncontaminated by facts.

This is another example of how social media and fake news can combine to be a force for evil—in this case for death—a couple of children in every thousand who contract measles will die.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s the devil to shove it back in.

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

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