Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


June 25, 2017

The helicopter blades whirred, there was one jolt, and the little machine was underway—a mechanical insect under a perfect blue sky.

My destination was a small island in northern Biscay, ten nautical miles from the French mainland. There’s a ferry, but it runs infrequently. Squeezed into the chopper were a few other disciples—we were all searching for the holy grail: Food.

Islands, no matter what the size, always reflect a different mindset—this is true for Islay, Ireland, or tiny little Sark, a microdot in the English Channel.

This particular island has two defining characteristics: bikes and jalopies. As soon as the little helicopter settled on the big H and we extricated ourselves from the cabin, I understood that my jacket and tie would be nothing but dead weight on this trip.

There’s an endless supply of rented bicycles, and like escapees from the age of Henry Ford’s Model T, they’re all black. We used them to go to the beach, to the place where we assembled to discuss good food, and for dinner expeditions.

Last weekend there was a gibbous moon, and as the nights got progressively darker, the return rides between pitch-black hedgerows became increasingly perilous—only some bikes had lights, and our party was amply fueled by the local wine.

The woman who guided us on our returns had the navigation and night vision skills of Seal Team Six—I told her so in my dedication note after I left her house.

Every derelict vehicle seems to have hopped over from the mainland—the port boasted a collection of clapped-out Clios, clangy ‘quattrelles’, and other escapees from the golden age of French motoring.

Lest you disparage French engineering, consider this side-mounted barbecue.

Along with the rickety Renaults, innovation was at hand, by way of a vertically mounted barbecue for roasting an entire sheep. Never in my travels have I come across such a device, which allows wood and coal to be fired, flames licking skyward, while  the animal calmly rotates next to, rather than above, the heat.

Good food was the theme that brought us together, and what a motley crew we were: Chefs, company CEOs, scientists, venture capitalists, even a previous member of the Obama administration.

Legend has it George W. Bush once stated that ‘the trouble with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ Not so this group, young people fired with ideas on using insect meal to feed farm animals, radically changing the manufacture of spirits, or growing your own produce in the back room of your salad bar.

The common denominator was originality, and the understanding that millennials are revolutionizing food. The focus is no longer on big ag, but instead on the things that matter to Generation Y.

By 2020, the discretionary purchasing power of millennials will replace baby boomers, and Gen Y priorities are vastly different: sustainability, animal welfare, traceability, well being, and local urban agriculture.

These are areas where big ag is clueless, since their entire business model is based on the exact opposite of these concepts.

A hand at stage left underscores this critical new look at our planet.

We talked about regenerative agriculture, and about the powers of wild flowers and mushrooms to feed and heal. We consumed the products of this vast and exciting revolution, strange green concoctions of herbs that regenerate your liver cells after a night’s drinking, and other potions which reminded me of the brews prepared by the druids of old.

I spent a good deal of my time open-mouthed, even when I wasn’t eating. There was just so much going on, so many new ideas, and everyone had plenty to say.

Riding alongside me on his bike, my new friend George explained how he used wild plants to cure the horses of the Aga Khan. “I can repair a fatigue fracture in record time.” He told me that well before the appointed time, one horse was straining at the paddock, desperate to race again—the vet could find nothing wrong with his bones, and the stallion came in second.

George gave me one of his books to read, and wrote a page-long dedication to l’Homme Poisson. I’m half-way through it, struggling with French words I haven’t seen for years.

There’s a world of wonder and brilliance out there.

And you know what? Maybe god really is a mushroom.

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

Smart Kids

June 18, 2017

Sixteen months ago, in Las Vegas, it was easy to find Trump supporters. This time around, they’re harder to spot.

I did my usual straw poll, but any mention of the current president usually brought a heartfelt sigh, as if a rogue uncle had just wet himself in public.

‘This too shall pass’ seems to be the prevalent mood, but of course I missed out Middle America, where much of the support lies. I did canvas Uber drivers, oyster farmers, waitresses, Iraq and Afghan veterans—and heard not one kind word.

Basic services in Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere, are still in the hands of migrants, and Los Angeles FM radio is at least forty percent Spanish.

On the West Coast, I drove up 405, listening to Frank Zappa’s ‘I’m The Slime’, truer today than when it was first written.

Partly, this is because TV has morphed into an internet hydra, with multiple ‘channels’ that numb the brain—a collective digital lobotomy. As usual, I’ve been on planes—lots of them. That too, is mind-numbing, and right now, as I hide in a corner of Logan airport after a red-eye from LAX, and try to stay awake to type a few words,  I’m besieged by endless musak and relentless aircon—it’s the American way.

If you walk down any airplane aisle, just about everyone is watching soaps or playing games—hardly anyone reads, and when they do, it’s the in-flight magazine. And yet, I was privileged to meet two sets of kids, both preteen, and they impressed the hell out of me.

To be honest, I prefer to chat with kids, especially smart ones, than with grown-ups. And these children were super-smart—the great societal anesthetic has not yet struck.

One of them was fond of computers—most kids are, but the thrill stops at games and social media—but this one liked to build them. I’m sure you know that you don’t build laptops or tablets, that’s throwaway consumer junk.

This boy liked to scavenge parts and build machines from scratch, populating a motherboard with all sorts of weird and wonderful things. In The Hourglass, one of the heroes is a youngster by the name of Tommy (it may yet change), and he does exactly that, as he sidesteps the ‘New Society’ of President David A. Klomp—no prizes for guessing what the ‘A’ stands for.

“Do you program?”

“Yes.” A shy voice.

“What languages?”

“Java. Python.”

Wow! I asked a couple of questions. This kid really did know his stuff. As he devoured pizza like any other eleven-year-old, he began discussing the details of a cloud-hosted database with his father.

The parent procrastinated, as one does.

“Dad, you’re always saying that, but we need to do it.”

I hid a grin.

On the other side of the continent, up in the Santa Barbara mountains, I found another one. A twelve-year-old girl who wrote fiction.

Once again, all she needed was a little encouragement. I asked whether her characters sometimes grew all by themselves, in ways she never imagined. “Yes, definitely!” She reeled off her favorite authors, told me she read several books at once.


“No, I like to turn the pages. And I like the smell of a book.” More enthusiasm.

Once you dig a little deeper, all the imagination and creativity that makes the US a great country comes to the fore. The girl’s father toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters a couple of decades ago—he mainly produces music now, and designs and manufactures his own brand of electric guitar.

We sat around the fire pit as the night air cooled, and I watched him put a block of Douglas fir on the embers.

“Unusual firewood…”

“Leftover from the house.”

He explained how he’d designed and rebuilt parts of his home, and then showed me some pictures. Before committing to the final design, he’d built a scale model out of styrofoam, and then placed his iPhone inside it and taken photos so the family could see the views, and how the shadows fell at sunset.

I met lots of smart people in the States. And they outweigh the dummies on the news.

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

C’est Chaud, Y’all

June 12, 2017

It’s been described as the land of the pines, but North Carolina is much more than that—although I’ve seen enough pine trees to last me a while.

This is agricultural countryside, and hog country at that, so there’s a good amount of pollution hitting the rivers and making its way to the coast. North Carolina used to boast more pigs than people, and it’s still close—8.7 million hogs, 10 million humans—these days, the pigs are raised in closed facilities, to minimize effluents, smell, and general upset.

It’s vacation time, and the small coastal town where I stayed practically triples in population—in the state, tourism is a twenty billion dollar business.

I brought the rain with me, and found myself stuck on the tarmac in Charlotte for over an hour on arrival. The airport was a zoo, with the board displaying delays from top to bottom, and I drove a rental east toward the coast—it was the smallest vehicle I’ve ever rented in North America, and it had the acceleration of a pregnant armadillo.

It rained all night, rained in the morning, rained all week. Mid-week I was out on an oyster farm, and everyone got soaked. The industry here is pretty small—overall it’s worth about five million dollars a year—and farmers grow their animals in small leases, around two to three acres.

I don’t know if it’s hogs or condos, but the coastal areas of the state have a real problem with water quality—now, water quality is a broad church, and the particular denomination (and there’s nothing like the States for cult denominations) at issue here is microbiology—pollution by bacteria and viruses.

Oysters are particularly good at filtering, and they accumulate these little beasties quite handily. I found myself discussing this with a local man, who started off by telling me about people from the north who come to Carolina.

“There’s Yankees, and there’s Damn Yankees,” he drawled. “The Yankees are the ones who visit, the Damn Yankees are the ones who stay”. And despite the political correctness issues, you certainly see confederate flags, particularly on redneck pick-ups.

The Venus Flytrap is native to North Carolina, and this little beauty is poised to eat the mosquitoes that were attacking me at sunset.

We ordered Philly cheese steak, an American classic. When the food came, my friend said, “I’ll just say a little grace, and we’ll get right to it.” Took me straight back to my schooldays—I bowed my head for the amen. I drank a lot of water in North Carolina, and occasionally some atrocious wine, but I managed to stay clear of the iced tea.

Some years back, when oyster leases became available on the shoreline, they were quickly snapped up by developers. These good ole boys built condos on the landward side of the leases, and then discharged waste into the water. They got a free sewage plant and a sea view, and they did the bare minimum on the leases to avoid losing them.

There’s no requirement here for impact assessment when you develop a large condominium, and as a result of this and other sins, many of the coastal waterways are unfit for raising oysters—well, that’s not strictly true—you can grow them to a certain size, but then the animals have to relayed elsewhere, to a clean environment where they can get rid of bacteria.

Funnily enough, in a nation that now imports ninety-one percent of its seafood products, it’s more difficult to get a license to grow shellfish than to build a string of condos. I guess those billions of tourist dollars can swing a lot of senators.

I wasn’t long on the boat before I struck up a conversation with one of the oyster growers. Turned out that once upon a time, he played guitar with the Allman Brothers—not just a quick jam, two hundred gigs all over the world.

We sat on the bow, opening oysters in the pouring rain. My shucking partner had a special knife, designed by a champion oyster shucker from Louisiana. It had a long curved blade, with a special angle at the end to cut the adductor muscle.

The rain kept falling, the oysters were sweet and salty. “Okay, now, can you taste the butter? Then you’ll taste the iron.” My rock star oyster farming friend was also a marketing wizard.

“Best oysters in the world. Ain’t they? Ain’t they?” I smiled as the boat steered the narrow channels. He grinned at my Santana t-shirt. “Played with him too, down in New Orleans.”

I told him how impressed I was with his knife.

“Keep it.”

So I did.

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

Bless Me Father

June 3, 2017

Catholics learn about the confessional early on in life. A small, dark booth, where a wooden trellis stands between you and absolution, no matter how badly you’ve sinned.

Since the priest has taken a vow of secrecy, sinners normally tell the truth—it’s liberating to share a dark secret, knowing you will be forgiven by someone who remains in the shadows forever—and who, technically, cannot recognize you.

No other religion boasts this formula—in both Islam and Judaism, you confess only to god. A Muslim must ‘keep his sins to himself, because from the tawhidi, or monotheistic, standpoint, the sole cause and reason behind everything in this world is Allah.’

Luther, Calvin, and others also did away with confession in Christian practice—like effigies of saints, it was considered a human perversion rather than a divine virtue.

So we lie. To colleagues and family, to strangers and spouses—when it comes to the crunch, whether it’s a little white lie, or a great big whopper, we fib.

And we’ve built up a euphemistic arsenal in the process—we’re economical with the truth, out of sight out of mind, and what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

But another confessional has sprouted up in digiland. The digital disconnect is remarkable, and people say things to machines which they would never confess to each other—more importantly, they tell the truth, and the machine files it away for future reference.

Your questions are a microcosm of your anxieties and desires, and an analysis of common requests speaks volumes about general views and trends. I’m currently in Canada, and if you Google ‘Why does Trump’, the terminations are:

…want to build a wall
…hate Canada
…like Russia

But if you write ‘My husband wants me to’ Google says:

…lose weight
…sleep with another man

and Bing (But It’s Not Google) says:

…wait to get baptized
…praise him for chores

However, the same question in Google India elicits:

…breastfeed him

A recent book called ‘Everybody lies’ reports that men often search on how to get their partner to give them oral sex, but equally often (and ten times more bizarre) on how to give themselves oral sex—not sure how to address that one—maybe Pilates?

But the most fascinating part of this digital prelate is that people use it to describe moods and situations: I’m sad, I’m drunk… in the hope of finding like-minded brethren.

‘I’m divorced’ brings up ‘now what’, ‘and want to remarry’, ‘and depressed’ on Google. Microsoft’s Bing, always with a more corporate bent, brings up ‘am I entitled to any benefits’

Of course you can reach broad conclusions about particular countries and nationalities by looking for specific trends, but Big Data lets you do something far more worrying: drill down to the proclivities of a particular person, by mining their search list.

Now that my children’s book, Folk Tales for Future Dreamers, is published, and I’ve returned to the Hourglass, it’s worth quoting a few lines from the current draft.

Tommy’s ninth grade teacher, Mr. Medway, had taught the boy to program computer code. For that, the first challenge was to actually get a computer. In the New Society, as President Klomp often tweeted, Digital Means Democracy.

In practice, that meant everyone had a smartphone, a smart TV, and a tablet. Unlike the old machines Tommy saw on the history channel, people at their desks staring at terminals, the new devices were made by only three companies—one in the US, one in Asia, and one in Europe. Sure, there were lots of brands, but in the end it was just like pizza—one base, different toppings.

Society was totally connected to the cloud, as the internet was now called. Social networks were many and varied, people freely shared personal info, often including intimate pictures with friends and family, and because everything was geolocated and timestamped, the cloud knew who did what, where, and when.

It was even possible, Mr. Medway said, to know why, since the major search engine linked a person’s choices with those of others around him—the end of a relationship, a faraway vacation, or a sudden interest in fertilizer manufacture could be dissected using this new tool.

Although The Hourglass is set a couple of years from today, all this profiling is occurring right now, on a cloud near you. President Klomp got his name when Trump was still  running for office, and although the usual disclaimer applies (similarity with any person, living or dead, is pure coincidence), Klomp can be pretty trumpy, and is set to play a major part in the book—bigly.

I’ll be heading south soon to the United States, and I’m keen to revisit some of the search terms above and play spot the difference.

As I leave this peaceful and hospitable land, my thoughts are with the good people of Canada, incensed with the rejection of the Paris Agreement by the self-titled President of Pittsburgh, or would that be the Czar of Cleveland?

Canadian heavy industry has already been placed at a strong disadvantage because of emissions control—may the north winds blow.

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


May 29, 2017

The announcement on the tannoy left everyone in shock. British Airways 501 was delayed indefinitely, due to a total system failure. Pretty soon the message was repeated, and no one had a clue what was going on.

Total system failure? Did the plane fall out the sky? What does that even mean? The BA website looked promising, but as soon as a single link was clicked, the promise ended—like Sarah Palin, the site was a bridge to nowhere. This is what’s known as a DDOS, or distributed denial of service—it’s normally malicious, but this time it was caused by many thousands of frustrated passengers.

Technology began to split its trouser seams and display its nether regions. BA support was down. The BA press line, based on VOIP, was down, and stayed down all day. Passengers with e-boarding cards on their phones were stuck—the system didn’t recognize them and the gates wouldn’t open.

I began thinking in earnest, while my fellow non-travelers wrung their digital hands and peered at their pointless BA apps.

Had the outbound from London arrived? BA was blocked, but FlightAware said it was on the tarmac in Lisbon, landed 09:57. I couldn’t see it from the window, but it was probably hidden away on the apron somewhere, so an irate mob wouldn’t torch it.

Alternatives. Wait. Evaluate. Half-term week in the UK, all the Hooray Henry kiddies released from their boarding schools and booked with the stockbroker and Daily Mail brigade on sun-drenched seaside forays. No way. I made a couple of calls.

Sitting on the floor next to me was a scrawny American woman, desperate to get to the US. Which was also where I was headed, or as I could clearly see, not headed.

Short-haul delayed two hours. Long-haul three hours. The pilot of the plane that couldn’t leave came out and got on the loudspeaker. Catastrophic systems failure in London. The problem affects taxiing and parking on stand. Planes can’t leave so there are no slots.

Going to London, even if I could, seemed to be the worst idea in the world. Like running to Syria to escape from terrorism. I booked for the next morning, different company, different route. Three hours to pay the fare or lose the flight. I discretely approached the gate staff, by now fully harassed, and told them I needed my bag—I didn’t explain the main reason—the four bottles of Late Bottled Vintage inside it.

The loading officer was dragged into the mess—baggage was already sealed on the plane. I felt the joy of action when, after further protracted negotiations, I managed to extricate my cargo from the airport—I did things I could never have done in London. Only two other passengers had taken my option—one was the American woman.

She told me she worked for Fox, and I couldn’t get the phrase fake news out of my head—she never made it, ensnared in the non-EU passport queue. I would have pushed to the front, explained the problem, and made the re-booked flight. Oh well, I’m sure Trump will take care of it.

British Airways didn’t fly Saturday. Not from Heathrow. Not from Gatwick. Nothing landed. I ate some clams by the seaside, drank some wine, and prepared to return to the airport the following day. BA explained they’d had a power outage.

CNN didn’t rush the airports. The BBC only showed the BA news on the ribbon. Sky showed cricket. Something, somewhere, had gone horribly wrong. The media adores the human side of these episodes, and screens are filled with miserable kiddies, missed weddings, lost business, and emergency surgery denied. But not this time. Total shutdown.

Ah, a power outage. There was a story in South Africa some years ago, probably urban legend, that every morning a couple of patients died in the emergency ward at about the same time. Turned out it was the cleaner who unplugged life support to vacuum the floor.

That must be it, then. Some immigrant with a vacuum cleaner brought the UK flag carrier to its knees. I’m sure Brexit will fix it.

On Sunday morning, British Airways casts a very large question mark as it recommends you enjoy your flight.

Which reminds me that the tragic events in Manchester, yet again, were not caused by a Polish or Romanian worker, a Spaniard or a Greek, the ones who will get the push from May. They were probably too busy watching the pope explain to the roving fool why climate change was more important than building walls.

As I stroll by the BA gate on Sunday morning, the sign tells me to enjoy my flight. I will, because it’s not on BA. Normally by that time the gate would already be crowded, but today it’s deserted—no staff, no passengers.

When I get to Boston, I check the news feed: no short hauls in or out of London all day. Good call, Mr. Wibaux. The IT debacle remains completely unexplained.

It’s early morning on America’s eastern seaboard, the land Columbus knew to be Cipango, and Auntie Beeb is still no more informative—power outage.

Whatever brought an entire airline to a standstill for a whole weekend is clearly classified material. Do I suspect wickedness? Most certainly. Ransomware, terrorism, I don’t know. But the story will come out in dribs and drabs, much like the Stuxnet worm, the Russian DNC hack, and whatever the Americans are currently doing to mess with the missiles of Kim the Younger.

One of these days, as we place our faith increasingly in automation, self-driving cars and trucks and planes, a few of them are going to fall out the sky, probably in formation.

Perhaps people will wake up then. But the passengers won’t.

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


The Marsh Arabs

May 20, 2017

Here we go, from the swamp to the marsh—but this is no ordinary marsh—we’re talking about the first civilization on earth.

Like all other ancient civilizations, and today’s demographic hotspots, it is intimately associated with water.

The dark region of the Fertile Crescent extends northwest from the head of the Persian Gulf.

This dark patch represents the area between the Tigris, to the north, and Euphrates, to the south, or more properly the catchment area of the two great rivers. The area they encompass is ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, for all you Greek scholars out there.

The sources of the two rivers are in Anatolia, only fifty miles from each other, and these waters then flow through some of the most troubled lands on earth: northern Syria, Kurdistan, and finally Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait.

From their almost identical starting point in Turkey, the two rivers diverge, until, like two brothers finally reconciled, they join forces to form the Shatt-al-Arab and flow into the Persian Gulf.

Although Shatt means river in Arabic, I always thought the English version was highly appropriate, since the Tigris and Euphrates undoubtedly bear the brunt of organic material contributed by the populations of Mosul, Tikrit, Baghdad, Babylon, An-Nasiriya, and other cities we hear about only in the context of the US invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Kurdish conflict.

When I wrote The India Road, I was chastised for the lack of maps in the published edition—by way of atonement, I’m adding a second map of the region, which provides all the detail you might require, if for instance you were a head of state on his first foreign trip abroad.

This is the kind of map I remember from my schooldays, an accurate but artistic work where location names were judiciously placed by a careful human hand. It displays an intelligent use of color and detail, and provides an easily absorbed snapshot of the region (Encyclopedia Britannica).

In the lower reaches of the Tigris, the marshes form a no man’s land between Iran and Iraq, and the Euphrates also contains substantial marshland—for thousands of years, these areas were inhabited by the Marsh Arabs, a collection of different tribes that had an intimate connection with the water—their houses were made from reeds, they kept herds of water buffalo for milk and meat, fished for binni and qatan (two species of barbel), and planted rice and cereal crops.

The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger lived among the Maʻdān for seven years, and in 1967 published the definitive account of their way of life. Thesiger clearly had an eccentric streak, thoroughly in character with many a Brit Arabist: although he had no medical training, he spent a good deal of his time circumcising young Arabs; for much of the rest he was shooting pig (presumably boar), the natural enemy of the Maʻdān, and canoeing around the marshes in a Tarada.

This fiercely independent society, known for its blood feuds, faced extreme challenges: the water level in the marshes could vary greatly, and a dry year meant hunger and desolation. A very wet year could ruin crops, drown animals, and destroy the reed huts—Thesiger describes nights when the rain poured into the houses, and sleepers huddled in pairs under a blanket in the bitter cold.

If life was hard then, it became supremely difficult during the Iran-Iraq war. The Marsh Arabs are Shiites, like most of Southern Iraq and all of Iran, and Saddam Hussein decided that this region must be subjugated.

He did this by building dams that drained the very lifeblood of the population.  The Maʻdān went to Basra and other nearby towns, and the communities and tribes were all but destroyed.

Saddam’s dislike for the Maʻdān preceded the 1990’s, since the tribes were a law unto themselves, and occasionally harbored fugitives and political dissenters.

But after the failed Shia uprising that followed the first Gulf war, the dam construction program was pursued with renewed energy.

A Marsh Arab couple punting a Tarada through Hammar marsh, after the post-Saddam recovery (photo from National Geographic).

Dams such as Dukan, which impounds the Little Zab river, shut off water to the marsh region, and the inhabitants left.

One of the few success stories of the post-Saddam Iraq was improved water management, so that by 2008 the marshes were at 75% of their previous capacity—the tribesmen returned.

But since then, a combination of profligate irrigation practices in Iraq and increased dam construction in Turkey have brought the marsh waters back down to 50% of the 1980’s level.

More importantly, the decrease in freshwater flow has increased the salinity of the marshes. Waters that were drinkable in Thesiger’s day—though not from a public health perspective—are now half-strength seawater.

Natgeo’s excellent 2015 article on the marshes ends with a somber quote.

“When the water returned, we came back immediately,” said Missan, the fisherman with boat troubles. “You see, our lives are related to the water.”

Water like nitrogen and phosphorus, is a finite resource. You can’t print it, bitcoin it, or otherwise end up with more than you started with—anyone who tells you different is just fake news.

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

Hot Hyena

March 18, 2017

Since this article is about the clitoris, I’ll dive straight in.

The attribution of a clitoris or a penis is part of sexual dimorphism at embryogenesis. This occurs in all mammals, and the choice is triggered when the embryo starts to secrete sex hormones, depending on whether the chromosome structure has coded it to be female or male.

The number of chromosomes and their structure is called the karyotype, and it varies widely—humans sport twenty-three pairs, but the kangaroo only has eight. On the other hand, the dog family comes in at a count of thirty-nine pairs—wolves, dogs, and coyotes.

Across all mammals the Y chromosome is the sex-determinant, and in the womb the fetus responds accordingly—the male develops a penis, with complete plumbing facilities (hot and cold mixer tap, if you like), whereas the female develops a clitoris—highly vascularized and super-sensitive, as women find out to their delight, but devoid of plumbing.

If you’re looking for a historical context here, we could begin with the history of sex. Current statistics suggest about 70% of women don’t have orgasms during intercourse—Cosmopolitan provides some dismal tales of ladies who have never had an orgasm.

Intercourse is a bizarre euphemism, vaguely reminiscent of sorbet, but when discussing traditional practices,  cultural differences are very important. For instance, the U.S. often uses a baseball metaphor, but in Southern Europe oral sex is by no means third base—more like fifth! Likewise, in some Arab countries, anal sex can be an option to preserve virginity—which can lead to pretty warped extremes, embodied in the Afghan saying ‘women are for babies, men are for pleasure.’

Freud memorably distinguished between the clitoral orgasm, an infantile indulgence, and the ‘proper’ adult or vaginal orgasm—all a bit Teutonic, and blissfully ignorant of empirical evidence.

Clitoral stimulation plainly leads to orgasm—it’s not a discussion point. But if the subject is complex for humans, what about the other five thousand species of mammals?

The jury is definitely out on that one—apparently, chimps and cows have both been stimulated under laboratory conditions, and shown to experience vaginal and uterine contractions—but that’s no indication that female orgasms play any role in intercourse for those species, or for any other mammals, for that matter.

Maybe in humans the clitoris turned into something important, just as the appendix turned into something useless.

But if the clitoris is a pseudopenis, perhaps it has a role after all in some other mammals—but for that it would have to be big…

Enter a troupe of otherwise undistinguished ladies, mainly species of monkeys, but also the queen of dong, the African spotted hyena.

Squirrel monkeys from the tropical regions of the Americas, and some species of Madagascan lemur, have a large pseudopenis, as does the European mole—there’s a theory that these sizable appendages are used for dominance displays—the equivalent of a ‘big swinging dick’ on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs.

Nevertheless, the science case is weak when it comes to the mole, since it not only lives in underground tunnels but has very poor vision—the eye is only one millimeter in diameter. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that these small, furry creatures are given to intense clitoral posturing of the Donald Trump variety.

Maybe moles keep a dark secret, if you excuse the pun, and have a more fulfilled sex life than Cosmo readers.

Illustration of a pregnant African spotted hyena.

But if the role of the clitoris remains a mystery in most mammals, the African spotted hyena is definitely the odd one out.

The mustachioed European explorers of the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries must have been stunned when they witnessed their caged male hyenas giving birth—for a long time, hyenas were thought to be hermaphrodite, and since both males and females possess a penile appendage, no one knew where the females were.

The female vulva is fused, so the large, external clitoris is used for peeing—making the female look even more like a male, although the urinary canal is not a urethra. But the clitoris has two other obvious functions, the first of which is sex.

However, for the male to mate with the female, the clitoris must contract and widen to allow penetration, and the positioning of the male is critical. Males practice this for periods of a month or more, and finally get it right—and you thought we had it tough!

Details were published in the journal Nature some years ago, so we can safely assume this is not fake news.

The female hyena has extremely high levels of testosterone, and when the babies come out, parturition takes place through a birth canal that is only an inch in diameter. The pseudopenis is seven inches long, envy of many of a stud, but through it must exit a two-pound cub—now that’s got the guys squirming, and the women saying “see, I told you it was hard!”

And if the cubs get stuck, biting your way out is a definite possibility—after all, with that much testosterone humming around, the cub’s like a baby Rambo.

I think on balance we should count ourselves lucky.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


January 14, 2017

It’s been a year since I pored over the maps of Andrea Bianco. At that time, I’d almost finished writing Clear Eyes, and during my research for the book I’d found copies of a map from 1436 that mentioned the Mar da Baga, which means ‘The Sea of Berries.’

Bagas are part of the Sargassum seaweed—they are pneumatocysts, to give them their scientific name, gas bladders rich in oxygen. Practically all plants are photoautotrophic—they depend on light for energy—and therefore they face a major challenge in the ocean, since things get dark pretty quickly.

Because the sea is deep, there can be no plant life below a couple of hundred feet—but there’s nothing as wonderful on this planet as life itself, and plants have adapted to the marine environment by floating.

Usually this means they have to be very small—if you’re tiny enough, you live in a weightless wonderland, the anti-gravity world of Atmos Fear. But there are advantages in growing larger—you get eaten less (though you may get nibbled), you live for longer, and you get to have sex.

Sargassum stays in the limelight because it floats—the Sargasso Sea occupies two million square miles in the western Atlantic Ocean, between the Azores and North America, and although it’s not chock-full of seaweed, there’s lots of it floating on the water.

In the fall of 1492, Columbus was stuck in it for a good while, his sails dead, his men getting increasingly restless.

Bastos awoke at dawn and looked aft—the mainsail was slack. He made his way to the gunwale and urinated, then spat into the sea. From his pocket he pulled a wad of salt pork and chewed pensively as he gazed into the green waters below.

He could see the captain talking to Pilot Nino on the poop deck, pointing at the Pinta and the Nina—both vessels were practically becalmed. Bastos lowered a baler and pulled up a tangled mass of weed.

Around him, other sailors did their ablutions and muttered uncertainly about the vegetation in the water.

Es un mar de yerba,” one of the men said, a sea of grass.

“And no land anywhere,” said another.

Mala yerba!” The two sailors crossed themselves.

The muttering grew louder, as the men again doubted whether they would ever find land to the west, and most importantly, whether they would ever return home—in one week, it would be two months since they had left Palos de la Frontera. The sea was like a pancake and the sails hardly moved.

Columbus’s fleet was becalmed in an area of high pressure, stuck between the northeast trades and the Westerlies. This pressure band, at around thirty degrees north, was later christened the horse latitudes, due to the practice of throwing the animals overboard to conserve drinking water.

The two sailors looked aft at the mizzen mast, and noted the flaccid lateen. Despair set in.

Estamos plantados num mar de coles”—we’re planted in a sea of cabbages. The men’s despair slowly turned into a seething anger at the foreigner who had put them in this predicament.

Bastos looked at the seaweed in his hand. It was a patchwork of dark and light brown, and the fronds were knotty and ribbed. The Portuguese had seen similar weeds in Lisbon—the Tagus was full of oysters, and a brown wrack was often fixed to the oyster shell—but the brown plant was smoother than this one, with bladders all along the frond.

He knew that when those brown weeds detached they might survive a short while, then die. But these ones were clearly thriving, just floating at the water surface, and there was a mighty forest of brown, as far as the eye could see.

Bastos understood how they floated—each plant had dozens of grape-like berries on it, each fixed on its own little stalk.

Berries! Bagas!

Something was bothering him. Where had he heard that word before?

“Bastos!” The captain looked down from the poop deck. “Bring me that yerba. And get to work.”

“Sir.” Bastos walked up the companionway and handed over the tangled mess.

Columbus fingered the weed, stopping at the round vesicles as if counting a rosary. “Odd. Like grapes.”

“In Portugal we call them bagas.” Bastos turned and walked down, afraid the captain would see the hatred in his eyes.

The diary of the first voyage of Columbus, compiled by Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, contains the first account of the Sargasso Sea; of the brown weed, and the home it provides to shrimp, worms, and small fish—an ecosystem more typically found inshore, close to the sea bottom.

Las Casas is the primary source, as historians are fond of saying—how then do we find a reference to the Sargasso Sea, using its Portuguese name, in an obscure Venetian map that precedes Columbus by fifty-six years?

"Higher floor, per favore!" You might be excused for such a request at your hotel, as the Venetian aqua alta occupies the lower stories of the beautiful buildings that line the Grand Canal.

“Higher floor, per favore!” You might be excused for such a request at your hotel, as the Venetian aqua alta invades the lower stories of the beautiful buildings that line the Grand Canal.

On the plane leaving Venice last year, I wrote of my disappointment in not finding the magic words on the original map, and then my joy when I discovered I must have missed the correct folio.

Among other things, it gave me a reason to return to Venice.

A freezing wind blows across the city, and storm surges have flooded the Piazza de San Marco and other low-lying areas. The water laps at the doors of the good people of the Serenissima Repubblica, while the oblivious Chinese wave at the vaporetto from their gondolas.

Venice is still one of my favorite cities, but lots has changed for the worse. The monumental area (well, the whole city is monumental) of San Marco is a babel of selfie-stick-toting fools, and the locals are moving out in droves.

The main culprits are short-term rental platforms like airbnb, which have destroyed the residential fabric of city centers. From Dublin to New York, from Venice to Lisbon, residents have simply given up, saturated with groups tramping up and down the narrow stairs of old buildings, marching suitcases in and out, and raucously celebrating their two days in town. Premium rental price points did the rest.

Venetians have moved out of the city, going northwest to small dormitory towns like Mestre.

The flooding in San Marco meant I had to share the emergency walkways with the selfie-stick brigade, but as soon as I ducked into the library entrance, I stopped at the sign and smiled.

Italy is big on the phrase solo persone autorizzate, and the Chinese tourists hell-bent on exploring were stopped in their tracks.

They watched jealously as I pulled out my library card and crossed the hallowed archway.

I approached the guard, scanned the card, and that was it! Of course there are always a few small hitches, revalidation and registration, but I did all that with the smiling lady in the reading room.

She examined my correspondence, typed some mystery strokes into il computer, gave me a clean bill of health until 2018, and vanished in search of Andrea Bianco.

I sat at one of the long wooden tables and gazed at the beautiful bookcases, filled with the history that the new US president refuses to read, and waited.

The maps arrived. I pored. I found the Mar de Spagna, which had so disappointed me before. I looked at the spread of islands marked there. The Canaries, and particularly La Gomera, home to the insatiable Beatriz de Bobadilla, mistress of both Columbus and the Spanish king Ferdinand of Aragon, are poorly drawn.

But they are marked. Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, and Hierro, the most westerly one. If Columbus knew this map (in my book he does), it would easily support his mistaken belief that Asia was very close to Europe.

Bianco draws the Antilles, or rather a large rectangle called Ante Illa, just to the west of Hierro—he misses the detail that the two are on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

You turn the page to Folio 8. Not 6, as the library description itself tells you.

Northwest Europe. England. Scotland. Ireland. I can recognize a few place names, the Thames Estuary, astonishingly magnified, and what looks like the Mersey. Bristol is marked, as is the Severn, and southern England is fairly well drawn—I suspect we must thank the Romans.

Ireland is a mess, cartographically speaking.

The Sargasso Sea, represented on a map from 1436, over half a century before Columbus sailed.

The Sargasso Sea, represented on a map from 1436, over half a century before Columbus sailed.

To the west of Ireland (which on this chart is to the right) is a big brown circle, labeled to its right as ‘y. barzil’. The ‘y’ is for isla, or island, and the name is misspelt—on the previous page, another island near the Azores has the correct spelling.

Almost directly south (upward) another island is drawn—it looks like a crescent moon and appears to be called Ysla d’Ventura. To its right, further west, we hit gold.

Questo xe mar de baga.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


Dong Fang Hong

December 5, 2016

I’m about six hours away from take-off, sipping lù chá in Capital Airport’s Terminal 3. Possibly the longest layover I’ve ever had.

I flew down from Wei Hai early this morning, after spending the week in a small town called Rongsheng. Last time I was there, eleven years ago, it had two hundred thousand people, and the nearby bay was wall-to-wall aquaculture—one hundred forty thousand metric tons of it, growing everything from sea cucumber to abalone.

Nowadays, the Wei Hai area is still small, with a population of two and a half million—not big by Chinese standards. In the five years since I last visited, the country has flourished. All my lao peng you—old friends—own cars, and all the young Chinese have driver’s licenses—it’s rare to see a bicycle, even out in the sticks.

And the aquaculture is still there, about thirty percent less than in the old days, but a beautiful sight, with long lines of colored buoys arranged into squares, black for one company, yellow for another, white for the next.

Gone are the days of smallholdings and farmers’ cooperatives, and when you go into a meeting room no one smokes. These are modern, Western-style firms, concerned about the environment, traceability, and product certification, with production levels of twenty thousand tonnes or more—big business.

I did all my favorite things: catching the cold wind from the Yellow Sea on the flat rooftop of a diesel workboat, looking out at the traffic passing by—wooden boats laden with seaweeds, scallops, and oysters, the red flag of the People’s Republic fluttering on makeshift lanyards.

Modern rural China manifests itself in a thousand different ways: good roads, twice as wide and four times emptier than anything in the West, clean toilets, cappucino—and tourism.

Chinese tourists are everywhere, a sure sign of disposable income. It always amazes me how communism and capitalism co-exist in harmony here—a political yin and yang you cannot find elsewhere.

I flew in the day Fidel Castro died, or at least the day it was communicated—communist regimes are notoriously tight-lipped about the death of the dear leader. When I got to Beijing, the China Daily oozed praise for their man in Havana, exalting his friendship with the Chinese proletariat.  Around me, stores displayed Gucci, Armani, gold, and jade.

The tourists have created a whole new sector, and introduced a fresh set of conflicts to the coastal zone. Western issues concerning use of space, recreational beachfronts, litter, and water pollution, mean that the ‘eco’ word is everywhere—and when China goes eco, it hurtles like a runaway train. They’ve pushed the oyster ropes off the coastline, banned smoking in public places, and the drinking culture’s gone.

Feeding the people, Chinese style.

Feeding the people, Chinese style.

Of course, you can still hear hawking in stereo in the male (never men’s) restroom, and the English signs remain delightful. One eco warning in Beijing instructs us to ‘do not disturb, tiny grass is dreaming!’—I speak enough Chinese to get by now, and for the first time I felt less than totally helpless in the Middle Kingdom—I’d never tested my training in China, and it’s wonderful to see the faces light up!

Speaking Chinese is like any other learning process, it goes in steps, rather than a ramp. I can easily see now why the translations are flowery pieces of poetry—a sign at Capital Airport proclaims: Be careful! No leaving residue! The characters that make up this wonderful recommendation are likely to have seven or eight meanings each—not synonyms.

The character fang, for instance, in the flat tone, means square, upright, power, direction, party, and prescription—among other things. If you broaden that out to other tones, it could be protect, house, mill, inquire, release, and animal fat.

In the title of today’s article, the flat tone fang would mean ‘is’. Dong Fang Hong translates literally as The East Is Red, a song from Shaan’xi province that became an emblem of Maoism.

You can find it on Youku, the Chinese YouTube. If you search on Baidu, the Chinese Google. Everything is digital now, but some things are still a no-no. Google has caused offense to the Chinese government, and it’s blocked on the mainland. As is Google Maps, gMail, and presumably anything else that hits the G spot.

As long as the dispute remains unresolved, Google has no access to a market of 1.6 billion avid consumers, one quarter of the earth’s population—in this zero-sum game, Bing is the big winner.

Never mind the old joke that the initials stand for ‘but it’s not Google’, Microsoft has landed a coup in China—I haven’t crunched the numbers, but it probably makes up for the lower market share in the West.

Along with Baidu and all the rest, WeChat is another Chinese digital success—billed as Chinese Facebook, it can be used to pay bills—even in a massage parlor.

The Chinese dichotomy between social left and economic right is something Europe is presently contending with. A senior Western diplomat gave me some interesting insights into the present European quandary: electorates that vote right on immigration but left on economics, and vice-versa. Socialists with left-wing social policies and public-private partnerships. Right-wing nationalists who support blue-collar economics. Brexit coalminers. Maybe that’s what screwed up the polls—the model of the working-class labor voter no longer works.

And in a blast of ping pang diplomacy, Kissinger’s back in town. He’s only ninety-three, and old guys rule. I’ve been completely shut off from Western news, but I gather the Donald saw fit to request a trip to China from Nixon’s elder statesman, no doubt hoping his grass-roots electorate will pardon the president-elect for reneging on yet another of his campaign promises.

Some weeks ago, Salena Zito produced one of the most quoted (sometimes sans source) aphorisms of the campaign. She said that the media took Trump literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

That certainly seems true when trumpists defend the great man’s options of not building walls, not repealing the Affordable Heathcare Act, and not sending ‘Crooked Hillary’ to chookie. It seems fairly obvious that Trump’s main game is not doing what he said he would do—unsurprising, since after all, he’s a real estate salesman. What remains to be seen is whether he will do what he said he would not do, and square the circle of populism.

This different new China makes me happy for the people, who now live in much better conditions, although you still see dire poverty. You can talk politics, albeit in a subdued fashion—the locals told me they struggle to understand how decisions get made in the West—too much talking, and things take years to decide.

In China, someone proudly informed me, the arguments are put on the table, and the decision is made in five minutes.

But I miss the old China, like a part of my life that’s gone forever. I miss the hedonism, the hotels where the phone rings with a soft ni hao as the night begins, the banquets and the karaoke.

Since the drive against corruption began, the very Chinese ‘tigers and flies’ purge, banquets are a no-no, and many restaurants have gone bust. “We get great deals in Beijing these days,” my diplomat friend said. As I snapped a picture, a young lady turned around to me, a concerned look on her face. “Don’t put on internet. Very dangerous.”

I smiled. “Don’t worry. What happens in Rongsheng, stays in Rongsheng.”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Ancient History

November 19, 2016

In the end, it all boils down to thermodynamics. That sentence should make you hit the quit button right now.

If it hasn’t, look on the bright side—you only have to read this, but I have to write it.

From a historical viewpoint, the second law is the one that matters. It states that our world tends toward disorganization. It manifests itself on a day to day basis as untidiness.

Or to put it another way, kitchens get messy all by themselves, but they never get tidy that way. The same applies to gardens, villages, and societies.

So although the physics was designed to deal with complex principles such as entropy, the very same rules that control the energy balance of large systems apply in general terms to world history.

More entropy means more mess, greater chaos.

The definition and application of a set of societal rules requires an investment, as does the building of communities. Man soon realized that the connectivity of such communities was a critical factor—it avoided warfare, which is the strongest force for disorganization, and promoted trade.

My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the world, as the Arab saying goes. World history is really about the dynamics of this network of alliances, the construction of community connections to avoid rampant entropy, and then their collapse.

And just like the physics of non-linear systems, or the ecology of a garden pond, developments occur rapidly, particularly when the23w system collapses—the reason 23w appears here is not because it’s the key to universal harmony, but because a puppy leaped on me in mid-sentence, and spiraled my keyboard into entropy deep-space.

So change is quick, particularly when it heads toward chaos. Malcolm Gladwell makes the case admirably, but with a focus on the warm fuzzy examples—the tipping point for the Beatles was Hamburg—after three sets a day for months in the mind-numbing setting of the Reeperbahn, the band was tight.

Every story of empire has this characteristic: gradual build-up of structure, swift disintegration. In the case of the British empire, which took three centuries to build, destruction was brought about by two short world wars (particularly the second).

I say short, with no disrespect to those who suffered and died, because in world history, nine years is trivial. The added irony for Britain is that it won the wars but lost the empire.

With the recent UK withdrawal from the European Union, the people who voted to leave made a significant contribution to entropy—this explains why there’s no exit strategy. In effect, it’s the same game as we’ll see in Washington come January 2017.

Just leave! 127,310 souls who love entropy.

Just leave! 127,310 souls who just love entropy.

Cameron famously suggested that if the leave campaign won, he would invoke Article 50 immediately. Instead, he resigned.

As I write, almost one hundred thirty thousand people want Article 50 invoked right now. These are the bravehearts who want to launch the country into the unknown—and perhaps they should, much like the voters who elected the new accidental president in the U.S.

The problem is that 4.1 million signed an opposing plea, demanding a second referendum. In other words, societies have built-in mechanisms to fight entropy.

When these mechanisms break down, we can ascribe that to extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple, and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity.

The words above come from the book of the same name. You should buy it, as a hardback volume, and impress it upon your fellow man. If you can’t persuade people of the wisdom of its words, and the relevance of its examples, beat them about the head with it—you can’t do that with a pdf!

Perhaps the most important point is that since that book was published we’ve had the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Sino-Japanese War, two world wars, and what can only be seen as the Mid-East War, given it now spans territory from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Libya.

Yes, my friends, Charles Mackay wrote those words in 1841, almost two centuries ago.

Quick, what was the name of your great great great great grandfather?

You don’t know? And on the distaff side? No?

You mean it’s not on Google? Facebook? Twitville? Pintassa? Oh shit!

To put it bluntly, in seven generations we’ve learned nothing. As societies, for all our sexy digital toys, the basic human reaction is to destroy everything on a whim, or as Mackay puts it, impressed with one delusion.

Just as adolescents repeat the errors of their parents, and increase the entropy in their lives, individuals force society to do likewise.

This ‘season of excitement and recklessness, when we care not what we do’, has just begun. It started with brexit and trexit, and will continue through 2017, with the populist movements in Italy, Holland, France, and Germany.

All this nicely condimented by the likes of Putin, who is working actively to help Europe split wide open, and to bring back the old hatreds that were the mainstay of Russian strength.

Vladimir is secure in the knowledge that Russia is not going down that road, and I believe he is looking forward to saying hi to his old neighbors again. It may not be too long before the bear drops in for tea at Tallinn.

In one of the classic Frank Zappa musical diatribes, he says: “questions, questions, questions, flooding into the mind of the concerned young person of today.”

Ever the great cynic, he was joking about problems such as “where can I get my poodle clipped in Burbank?”

But I have three questions, all looking ahead at 2030.

1. Who will succeed Putin (78 by then), and what will he (for it will be a he) do?

2. Will Europe once again be a viper’s nest of individual nations, busy plotting the next war?

3. Will the sacrosanct United States (three elections after Trump) be on the brink of breaking into two, possibly three nations, splitting along the lines we saw on election day?

By then the world population will be 8.5 billion, up 1.1 billion from today. Given the appalling state of inequality and debt, this will add a little of that hunger spice to our basic dish of bigotry, selfishness, and greed. Yum!

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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