Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

We Know This

January 2, 2021

Christmas was hardly merry and New Year’s Eve was no humdinger.

Much was said about bidding adieu to a crap year, and location cameras regularly interviewed people fed up with 2020—as if what happened for most of it was the year’s fault—folks explained how 2021 will make everything better, they just forgot to say how.

Everybody knows nothing so we all know everything: the vaccines are here, but the delivery systems are so far pathetic, and no one can say how long you’ll be immune—just as no one knows how long a veteran of COVID-19 remains immune.

Societies are still divided on whether masks are useful or not, how to manage households and businesses to reduce or prevent transmission, and what limits to impose on travel.

And because there’s so much we don’t know, together with a moving reference frame—the virus is mutating all the time—2021 doesn’t look so hot from where I’m sitting.

Temporary immunity, whether vaccine-induced or from contracting the disease, is not much comfort either to those who get the shot or those who mingle with them. And governments seem unable to deal with the logistics—as things stand, the UK, whose cabinet waxed lyrical about being the first in the world to deliver the shot, is now well behind in its delivery plan, to the extent that ministers tried to cheat the system by delaying the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, administering instead a first shot to more people—the pharma company states that there are no data to support the plan, but since when did that stop a populist government?

The six million dollar question is simple:

When can I get back to a normal life?

Put another way, When will the virus go away?

Only populist pols like the (do-close-the-door-on-your-way-out) orang-u-tan, Britain’s Brexit Bojo, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro (what a lot of Bs) can give you a simple answer to such a complex question—and it will be wrong.

I’ll try to help by steering clear of BS.

When will the virus go away? Never. Even if it did, another form would pop up—that’s what viruses do, they mutate fast, fine-tuning what works best.

But it will not be a significant danger after a certain point, and that’s when normality returns. We are the host, the virus is the guest—mostly uninvited, but if you’re doing the Brittany rave, you’re saying “be my guest.”

Some viruses spread through water, through plumbing or rivers, but ‘rona does not. You can swim, just as you can touch or kiss someone who has cancer or AIDS.

The guest needs a host—and it then needs proximity to other susceptible hosts. The ‘certain point’ above will be when there are insufficient hosts to take in the guest. There are three ways that will happen.

The first is separation. You’re in an empty room. You have COVID. No one else will get it. If you die, bye-bye virus. If you get better, bye-bye virus. The second is immunity. There are ten people in the room, but seven are immune. You pass the ‘rona on to two people, one dies, two recover, bye-bye virus. The last is death. Ten die. If there are no hosts, there’s no oxygen to fan the flames. Bye-bye virus.

We’re not sure how long immunity lasts. But if it lasts long enough for the virus load to decrease in the general population, your probability of catching it will be lower that seeing a smiling truck driver at Dover—game over.

Folks help that happen by not attending raves and throwing bottles at the police, by mass vaccination, and unfortunately, by dying.

The more anti-vax fools out there—and they walk among us—the more time it will take before we return to normal (they never will).

One guideline we have is history—it tries to teach us, but we’re fucking awful students.

Haskell County, Kansas. How bleak can you get?

The ‘Spanish’ flu was first detected in Haskell County, SW Kansas, in January 1918, exactly one hundred and three years ago.

By March, cases were observed in barracks in Kansas, and over the next few months the flu spread in the US and was taken overseas by American soldiers fighting in the First World War.

In September-November, the second wave went crazy—now, that’s got to sound familiar!

The Spanish flu killed a younger demographic than COVID-19, but remember that statistics are like a bikini—what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital—in 1915-1920, Americans had a life expectancy of 50-55 years (men versus women).

In winter and spring 1919, the third wave arrived with a vengeance, and lasted until the summer. President Woodrow Wilson, who like Trump insisted the pandemic was of no concern, collapsed in Paris on April 3rd, 1919—in October he suffered a massive stroke, possibly related to side effects of the virus.

The Spanish flu lasted well into the summer of 1919.

What lessons have we learned? Precious few. We’re all masters of the world now, immortal instagram deities.

When will this end?

My two cents? We’ll be lucky if by next fall we can safely go about our business—by that time, no one will remember what normal means anymore.

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

Keep Your Comrades Warm

December 26, 2020

To most Westerners, Russia means vodka, snow, communism, and a vast wilderness, not necessarily in that order. The political system has changed, but although the country calls itself a democracy, its actions are clearly totalitarian—from the assassination of political enemies and uncooperative journalists, the message is clear: be with us or beware.

The vast nation has vast wealth, but the frozen wastelands under which natural resources lie make exploration a challenge—in particular, the huge potential for crop production is blocked by a layer of permafrost. Putin recognizes that the climate is warming, and views this as a good thing—a few years ago, he quipped that it meant more bread and less fur coats.

Russia and Canada are two of the nations that will reap major benefits from climate change—both have access to the Arctic Ocean, and a whole new polar navigation route has already opened up due to ice melt.

For Russia, this means a strategic position in the maritime routes between China and Europe—transit times will be reduced by up to forty percent, significantly lowering freight costs. In addition, very few major cities are on the coast, so large population centers are far less vulnerable to sea level rise that those in Western Europe or the United States. Think London, Amsterdam, Rome, Lisbon, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Dublin, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Marseille…  and New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle…

Other global competitors appear singularly unprepared—while Russia has twenty-four icebreakers, China has four and the US has… two.

Russia is warming up two and a half times faster than the global average, and huge areas in the east are opening up to farming. To exploit this opportunity, a climate migration is taking place, not just Russians going east to try their luck, but Chinese, heading north to grow wheat and other cereals.

Climate migrants will be the new refugees in the mid to late XXth century, as countries with a Goldilocks temperature range warm up. Most of these nations, the US among them, are singularly unprepared. The orang-u-tan nonsense on climate change asphyxiated any effective preparations for four years—to prepare would be to acknowledge, and that would be as shocking as admitting an electoral defeat.

But perhaps the most critical factor is the unwillingness of Western nations in the north to accept migrants, even in situations where the current population is both ageing and dwindling—to seize new opportunities in farming you need people, but the sons and daughters of those countries don’t want to till, they want to tweet.

Not that Putin accepts the human influence on climate change, or is a fan of renewables—he has expressed concerns that vibration from wind turbines causes worms to flee from the soil—in a country where the annual budget is indexed to oil prices, one can understand the deep anxiety about annelids.

But he does understand that food security is critical, and is on record that Russia now exports more agricultural products than arms—I suspect this is not due to a reduction in weapons sales.

One of the areas where the permafrost has given way to a thriving agricultural area is the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, or region, in the Russian far east. This particular Oblast is to the north of the River Amur, and was created by Stalin in 1928—I was unaware of such a place—I thought Israel was the only autonomous Jewish region.

On the other side of the Amur is the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, and the enterprising celestials have been crossing over to the JAO to make hay while the frost melts.

The US presently trades one third of the world’s soy and forty percent of the corn, but climate models suggest that by mid-century yields from Texas to Nebraska may fall by ninety percent—meanwhile the winter wheat crop in southern Siberia doubled when compared to the previous year.

Sooner or later ‘rona will go away.

Climate change won’t.

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

My Precious

December 12, 2020

 In our society, it’s easy to keep a close eye on the movements, actions, and intentions of individuals.

Three factors are major contributors to this: electronic means of payment, cellphones, and social media. The tool of choice for analysis is Artificial Intelligence (AI), and taken together, data from the three musketeers of individual espionage correspond to what is currently called Big Data—millions to billions of individual items, growing constantly.

You can develop the argument along the lines of who, what, where, when, how, and why—out of the six, why seems to be the hardest word.

As an example, if a group of four people is selected on the basis of nationality or race, any transactions that occur online, or on the high street, can be traced without difficulty. Even if you only have access to metadata, such as which store (e- or otherwise) was used, when the event occurred, and how much was spent, there are many useful things that can be gleaned about our gang of four.

  • Patterns: who goes to the same place daily, is there a particular time, does it occur on weekends, how much is spent? Based on the type of establishment, can AI interpret the data to make an educated guess about what people are doing? Eating, dancing, dating, planning home improvements, getting a massage, traveling? No brainer…
  • Trends: is an activity becoming more or less frequent, has the expenditure changed, is it for different things or more of the same? Is there a medical component? Does a restaurant check for one become a check for two? Does that occur doing the week but not at weekends, in which case perhaps a tryst is in the making? Do we now have purchases from a jewellery store?

This is just by looking at purchasing history based on a credit card, a cellphone payment system, or any other transactional mechanism. We now know roughly where the subjects live, what they have for breakfast, whether they drink alcohol, what their income level is, and whether they know each other.

When you add cellphone data to the mix, this becomes a far richer ecosystem: now you know exactly where those folks are, where they live—possibly not their registered address—and how long and when they sleep. More importantly, who they associate (and sleep) with, and you can then start to map a society.

The cherry on the cake is social media—as a societal phenomenon, it absolutely fascinates me, particularly when group activities are involved. It’s hard to think of any human experience that has been so widely accepted so fast.

From the very early days of Usenet, developed in 1979 by two graduate students at Duke, to Instagram and TikTok, online social interaction is a winner. Facebook, also created by students, started in 2004. Twitter, 2006. WhatsApp, 2009. Instagram, 2010. Two things catapulted all of these into the hearts of ordinary people: the internet of things, or IoT, and multimedia, i.e. sound, images, and video.

From that moment on, when it comes to Big Brother watching you, it was Christmas come early.

In the European Union, where concerns about immigration and terrorism make tracking very appealing, a whole lot of research money has gone into AI systems that address such questions—the Horizon 2020 framework program, which funded EU research over the past seven years, manages these funds.

As an example, five million euros funded the Real-time Early Detection (RED) alert project, which used “natural language processing (NLP), semantic media analysis (SMA), social network analysis (SNA), Complex Event Processing (CEP) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies” to monitor terrorist groups.

The iBorderCtrl partnership received 4.5 million to develop lie detector technology based on facial features.

Overall, 1.7 billion euros of public funds were channeled by Horizon 2020 into this research area—in total, the EU has spent 2.7 billion since 2007, and some of the biggest players in security are heavily involved, including BAE (UK), Siemens (Germany), Thales (France), and Leonardo (Italy).

Selfies and GPS track your location, courtesy of BMB (Big Medical Brother).

COVID has added some extra spice to the mix. The new EU research framework, called Horizon Europe, puts 1.3 billion € into security research. In addition, a further 8 billion goes into military technologies billed as ‘dual-use’. As an example, Poland released an app earlier this year that requires you to take selfies while in quarantine, and then uses GPS and facial recognition to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be—if you don’t get in touch, the cops will.

This kind of app has obvious uses in other surveillance areas, including house arrest and tracking of immigrants. The main concern about tools like this is the intrusive nature of the approach—in a totalitarian state, the potential for violation of civil liberties is obvious, but even in an open democratic society it’s still there, just less evident.

Apps that analyze you remotely, for instance at an airport security station, are ethically questionable—you have no idea you’re being vetted. iBorderCtrl, for instance, whose website iborderctrl.eu has been hidden and now bounces to the European Commission’s CORDIS platform, is billed as follows:

travellers will use an online application to upload pictures of their passport, visa and proof of funds, then use a webcam to answer questions from a computer-animated border guard, personalised to the traveller’s gender, ethnicity and language. The unique approach to ‘deception detection’ analyses the micro-gestures of travellers to figure out if the interviewee is lying...

After the traveller’s documents have been reassessed, and fingerprinting, palm vein scanning and face matching have been carried out, the potential risk posed by the traveller will be recalculated. Only then does a border guard take over from the automated system.

Palm vein scanning was a new one on me—apparently it’s a highly accurate biometric identification—I suppose palmistry had it all figured out centuries ago.

Concerns about public spending on opaque, ethically questionable research areas that will be used to protect the average citizen, but can be easily misused, have led to a blitz of requests for information. In large part, these are not met, alleging confidentiality and protection of intellectual property—recently, a German MEP from the Pirate party sued the EC to release information on iBorderCtrl—the case is now in the European Court of Justice.

Of course, all these things battle against human ingenuity—sooner or later, some of this sophisticated toolset ends up as castles made of sand.

In Mozambique, and I suspect many other countries, it is currently possible to pay labs for a positive or negative COVID test, complete with signature and stamp—you pay, they oblige. If you want to travel, get a negative one, if you want time off work or don’t feel like getting on a plane, go for positive.

And it’s not just Africa—I found this guy’s story particularly bizarre, and since he was wearing a burqa, I guess they grabbed him by the palm veins.

Hustlers are quick to get on the bandwagon. Some enterprising folks registered the fakecovidtest.com site, which allows you to get yourself a fake test certificate. The site makes sure you click on a couple of disclaimers, including one where you categorically state that you will not use the test for any wicked purpose.

Again, I agree to not use this website, any information contained within this website, or any fake test generated by this website, to knowingly lie to another person about COVID-19 status, trick employers/law enforcement, or ANY OTHER malicious intent.

The site emphasizes that its purpose is for you to obtain a certificate as a joke. I love jokes, particularly tasteful ones like this, so I ran through the form.

The best jokes in the world are the ones where you die laughing.

When I clicked next, I too (even though I am a duck) could choose positive, negative, or inconclusive. The bottom line was pretty conclusive: twenty-five bucks to get my certificate—now that’s what I call a fucking joke.

If your finely honed sense of humor stretches to two and a half sawbucks, then this is the 2020 joke for you. And if you’re a US citizen, what could be more amusing that three hundred thousand deaths? Just think, if you faked a negative test, you might even die laughing.

But AI and facial recognition extends to many other noble purposes—in China, the world’s largest pork producer, pig snouts, ears, and eyes are scanned by sensors. Fitbits track pulse and sweat. A hungry or sick pig can be flagged due to the distress on their faces.

I’m sure it’s all part of a brave new world, but I can’t help feeling sorry for those poor pigs as I wrap up this text. Our cruelty to animals is unspeakable.

You can’t carry the world on your shoulders, but I’d rather eat a bit of fish.

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

 

Fishism

December 5, 2020

As I write, the eleventh hour neareth.

This is the last article I’ll write about Brexit before the year is done—shortly we’ll know whether there’s a deal or not.

A CNN anchor said yesterday that there’s plenty of fish in the sea, prior to a segment suggesting the exact opposite given the French position on access to British waters.

It’s popular at the moment to do live feeds from trawlers, if you excuse the pun, and hear grouchy skippers—brexiteers to a man—explain how the UK will take back its waters in January.

The cherry—or possibly the scampi—on the crab cake was listening to Michael Gove, the only gerbil in the cabinet, explain that Britain wanted the same as ‘our friends in Norway and Iceland.’

During the 1970s, Britain and its Icelandic ‘friends’ engaged in the tenth cod war since medieval times, the third war over the decade—it was prompted by the imposition by Iceland of a two hundred nautical mile EEZ, or Exclusive Economic Zone, effectively closing its waters to the UK.

The context was the approval in the United Nations of UNCLOS, the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. The two-hundred-mile limit ended the Portuguese cod fishery in the Grand Banks and Greenland and upended many other traditional fisheries—in some cases, owners and operators relied on lack of oversight to continue fishing—it was more profitable to risk vessel impoundment and pay the fine.

Britain’s Norwegian ‘friends’ also had a tiff with the UK after World War II, aprehending vessels fishing in their waters—when the Brits took the matter to the International Court of Justice, the court ruled for Norway.

But there’s a major difference between the position taken by Iceland back in the day and the UK situation now.

In Iceland, the sector is responsible for 25-30% of GDP. In the UK, it’s 0.1%, smaller than pet food, the turnover of Harrods, and the lawnmower business.

We live in a world of euphemism where vaccine hesitancy is a thing, old people are seniors, and enemies are friends—right now the EU and UK are busy with their friendship, trying to resolve a couple of sticking points on a possible Brexit deal.

European citizens don’t care—or even know—about a deal, although governments and some businesses do. The fishing lobbies are fairly vociferous, not just in France but also in Holland and Denmark, so the issue is tricky, particularly with French elections coming up. EU TV channels largely ignore Brexit, but British media are consumed with the issue.

The UK EEZ—a good part of it is below one hundred nautical miles.

The UK is surrounded by continental neighbors, and the EEZ is split in a convoluted manner—the shortest distance between Britain and Norway is two hundred fifty nautical miles, so at this point each nation gets one hundred twenty-five miles.

Countries with few neighbors have much larger zones—in Europe, Portugal has the largest of all, two and half times more than the UK, due in part to the islands of Madeira and the Azores. Of course, France and Britain have larger areas overall, due to overseas possessions—these remnants of empire mean that France has the largest EEZ in the world, besting the United States.

The sea is the tragedy of the commons, a plaice (sorry) where in the end, no one is responsible for the collapse of stocks. The more there is, the more you fish. British industry, which is worth one thousandth of the financial sector, underperforms significantly—sixty percent of the quota has been sold by British skippers to other countries, meaning that more than sixty percent of the landings are due to foreign vessels—contractually.

With the exception of salmon, eighty percent of the British catch, of which sixty percent is not caught by Brits, goes to the EU.

To make matters worse, the EU is the UK’s biggest export market. Out of the big five, only salmon is an outlier. And to make that more interesting, salmon is cultivated, not fished, so it shouldn’t be in the chart at all. Shellfish include crabs and other crustaceans, but also mussels, oysters, and scallops.

To add a touch of regional angst to the mix, salmon is grown in Scotland, and mussels and oysters are grown (not fished) in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. And for a bit more fun, Scottish salmon farms are largely owned by Norwegians.

So our chart collapses to four bars, of which the shellfish are partly cultivated,  but not in England. And out of the eighty percent exported, forty-eight are already caught by non-UK fishermen—no wonder the UK wants to separate the issues of fishing rights and fish export.

The English call it cakeism, a new word derived from the notion the UK can have its cake and eat it—the neologism appeared during the long march of Brexit, and the concept was touted by Boris.

Times are tough, despite the British PM trumpeting in the pre-election frenzy that the EU Brexit deal was oven-ready.

Part of the problem is that cakeism is not fishism. Britain doesn’t much like fish—about twenty percent of folks never eat any. This quote on Quora from a retired Church of England vicar says it all.

I believe that seafood is highly popular in the UK – isn’t fish and chips our national dish? Personally I can’t stand any seafood so I don’t really understand your correlation – it is not as if we all live near the shore and rely on the sea as a larder. I think it more plausible that shore dwelling people eat a lot of fish because it is fresh and convenient; I was brought up in an agricultural area and enjoy meat and veg which is equally fresh and abundant.

I presume the good vicar feels the same way about bananas and mass wine—the concept of international—not to mention national—trade clearly eludes him.

The UK doesn’t want to have its fish and eat it too—which would make a lot of sense from a public health perspective.

The deal is anything but oven-ready, and I don’t augur well for the outcome—but then there’s a lot of money to be made with a hard Brexit.

I’m not sure what the Brits have ready to put in the oven on New Year’s Day, but I’m pretty sure it’s not fish.

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

Diaper Don

November 28, 2020

Next Thursday, it will be a month since the US election. I’ve avoided anything but a passing mention of it until now, waiting patiently for the process to meander and weave its way to conclusion.

The sequence of events has been bizarrely predictable—I correctly forecast the ousting of the orange man, and won myself a bottle of tinto in doing so, but I didn’t predict the enthusiastic support for the incumbent displayed by almost seventy four million Americans.

In my forecast, I paid no attention to polls, but to clear evidence of incompetence, inhumanity, and influence trafficking. And since America really is a democracy, as it has convincingly demonstrated this past month, I can only confess to an emptiness inside—the vote was not the repressive adulation of Saddam Hussein or Mao Zedong, predicated on fear of arrest or worse at the hands of the military or the secret service.

In a nation with thirteen million plus coronavirus infections and two hundred sixty-five thousand deaths—so many of them avoidable—the support for the man who set the tone of defiance, taking a leaf from the actions of the King of Wuyue, was astonishing.

Yes, I know about the evangelicals, the tea party and libertarian lobbies, and those who think America’s cities will turn into battlefields of race.

But even so…

The America I know, or thought I knew, includes dozens, if not hundreds, of Trump voters who I’ve spoken with since 2015, and in those conversations I didn’t flag an undercurrent of sectarianism or xenophobia. I’m talking about North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, and yes, California and DC, those heartlands of Marxism-Leninism.

No citizen on this planet can remain indifferent to the election results—regardless of the reasons why Trump lost—now that everyone except the man himself accepts the outcome of the 2020 election, the general feeling in Europe and elsewhere is a sigh of relief.

Four more years of hallucinatory behavior would have been intolerable, and the positions of Trump, Bannon, and others about the European Union were instrumental in promoting Brexit and causing convulsions in several EU countries. From the far right in Germany to the Italian nationalists, not forgetting the mini-strong-men in Hungary and Poland, the US promotion of unilateralism was grist to their (un)collective mill.

European history over millennia is a tale of fragmentation and chaos. Territorial dispute followed by war followed by peace followed by war. To the European great powers (Germany, France, and the U.K.), this divided Europe made sense—pit countries against each other and their weakness makes you strong—until the Second World War.

In 1941, Carl Bosch, the co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen, was on his deathbed. Although he wasn’t Jewish (Fritz Haber was), he had a strong dislike, contempt even, for the Nazis in general and for Hitler in particular.

Before he died, he called in his son and told him:

To begin with, it will go well. France and perhaps even England will be occupied. But then he will bring the greatest calamity by attacking Russia. Even that will go well for a while. But then I see something horrific. Everything will be totally black. The sky is full of airplanes. They will destroy the whole of Germany, its cities, its factories, and also the IG.

IG was of course IG Farben, the chemical giant Bosch helped to build—it is infamously responsible for the manufacture of Zyklon B, the gas used in the Jewish holocaust.

Zyklon B manufactured at the IG Farben Auschwitz plant.

As the warring parties moved rapidly toward nuclear war in 1944 and 1945, there was every reason to fear the worst—after the war, it was clear to both generals and politicians that the scale and lethality of weapons far exceeded the restraint of humans in employing them.

And Bosch‘s predictions were right on the money—England only escaped invasion because America joined the war after Pearl Harbor.

For many reasons, not least peace and stability in Europe, we rejoice in bidding adieu to Trump. I am writing the last pages of The Hourglass, a novel in which a US president is forcibly evicted from the White House—although by all accounts this will not happen, since Trump himself revealed on Thanksgiving that he will leave if the electoral college returns Biden as the winner.

The actions of the White House, i.e. the orang-u-tan, because houses don’t have actions, have been pretty dreadful. And the consequences, such as the threats to the Georgia secretary of state and his family, are unacceptable.

This is the result of dialed-up ranting from Diaper Don.

The Thanksgiving press conference was the culmination of a set of initiatives that descended from perplexing to downright weird—it’s a really serious matter, but the props and actors have been hilarious.

From the accusations hurled from a garden center next to a porn shop to the hair dye streaming down Giuliani’s face, from court cases claiming fraud and then denying fraud in court to the Dominion machine fracas, it’s been comedy central.

The final act (so far, as Homer Simpson would say), was the insane presidential press conference on Thanksgiving.

Tiny desk, Tiny mind, Tiny caption.

I woke up to it on Friday morning—stream of consciousness stuff, including the trademark shouting at journalists and the usual folio of fallacies.

Everyone knows… anyone who believes that is… if you… you’re either…

A constellation of non sequitur arguments, repetition and emphasis as a rhetorical device—all the fun of the fair.

This circus has taken on an aura of slapstick, particularly since everyone knows how the movie ends. The memes flowed thick and fast. My favorites? Here are the Wibaux Awards.

Bronze medal

I like to think that during Trump’s presidency, some hero in the White House has slowly swapped Trump’s desk for a slightly smaller one, day by day, so he wouldn’t notice, till four years later we get to this majestic picture

 Silver medal

I want to salute the dark, subtle genius, quietly at work in the White House staff, who managed to move Rudy Giuliani’s press conference to a run down garden centre, and to seat Donald Trump himself at that tiny, tiny desk. Be safe. The world needs your art.

Gold medal

Mini desk. Tiny hands. Small soul.

I don’t tweet (so far), but here’s my two cents, as I stand on the shoulders of giants.

John Gotti was the Dapper Don, this dude’s the Diaper Don.

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

Breadth

November 21, 2020

The Germans missed it. So did the Italians and Belgians.

The Italians made a half-baked attempt by invading Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) and establishing a mini-empire, while the Belgians couldn’t agree at all on a colonial policy, so Leopold II took it upon himself to establish a personal empire in the Congo—a truly bloodthirsty and vile affair that resulted in fifteen million deaths.

The Germans also missed the boat. Kaiser Wilhelm made a last-ditch effort to obtain an empire, at a time when the colonial world was already carved up between the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese—together, these nations controlled all of Asia, Africa, and South America.

More mature readers of these pages will remember seeing this kind of map (dated 1910) on the wall of the classroom.

One hundred ten years ago, the world was a vastly different place. At the start of the XXth century, the combined population of Britain (40 million), France (39 million), Spain (19 million), Holland (5 million), and Portugal (5 million) was 108 million people—together, they ruled over empires with five times that number of people.

Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a couple of aces short of a full deck, desperately wanted empire—the Germans ended up with Tanganyika and Namibia, and they also secured the city of Qingdao, in NE China. The present-day consequence for the Middle Kingdom is TsingTao (which is just an alternate spelling for Qingdao, or Green Island) beer—China’s best beer, made in the classic pilsner tradition.

There’s quite a lot of evidence that Wilhelm was as gay as a Mexican handbag; in addition, he was obsessed with uniforms, dressing up as a British admiral whenever he ate plum pudding. The Kaiser loved pranks—a favorite was smacking men on the butt, often with the flat of his sword, an indignity suffered by the tsar of Bulgaria.

His sycophants dreamed up all kinds of stuff to entertain him, including my favorite—his military cabinet chief dressed up in a pink tutu, performed a dance for the emperor, and promptly died of a heart attack in front of him.

The most obvious reason why Germans and Italians missed the boat when it came to empire-building was their own internal (dis)organization—both territories were a fragmented arrangement of city-states and regional fiefdoms. Collectively, the German states were known since the time of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Empire, but by the late XVIIIth century, Voltaire noted it was neither holy, Roman, or an empire.

From 1862 onward, Bismarck used three wars to unify the country, ending with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870—the conflict with the French was a precursor of World War I. The fragmentation of Germany made it miss the empire-building stage other European nations embarked on, starting with the Portuguese in the XVth century.

As a result, Germany invested in other things—apart from coal, Prussia didn’t have a wealth of natural resources, so it turned to infrastructure, education, engineering, and science. These became national priorities, and led to key initiatives such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. These institutes were independent from the state, and led by names such as Einstein, Haber, and Hahn—all of them Nobel Prize winners.

During the First World War, Haber, who was Jewish, became infamous for his work on poison gases—he was the first to use chlorine against Allied troops in the trenches.

But Fritz Haber’s real achievement was the development of a process to make ammonia from the air that we breathe—in particular from the eighty percent of that air that is composed of the inert gas nitrogen.

All these guys have two things in common—crazy mustaches and absolute genius. Marie Curie is the one without the facial hair. Other names include Nernst, Solvay, Lorentz, Poincaré, Planck, de Broglie, Rutherford, and Einstein. The meeting took place at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels, my personal favorite.

Prior to Haber’s success, which led to the huge expansion of the German company BASF, and the building of huge factories to apply the Haber-Bosch process, soil could only be fertilized with nitrogen from organic sources such as manure, and extracted from deposits of saltpeter, guano, and other materials.

As intensive agriculture developed to accompany the growth of world population through the second half of the XIXth century, so the land became progressively more barren as the nutrients within became depleted—the use of cover crops, rotation, and other traditional approaches just wasn’t sufficient to produce the volume of food required.

Wars were fought in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile over the nitrate mines, and places like the Atacama desert were the stuff of boom and bust economies, drawing engineers, prospectors, miners, carpetbaggers, saloons, and whorehouses in the best tradition of the Klondike.

German science, spurred on by the creation and national support of large research institutes, and their close connection to the industrial heartland of the new nation, is responsible for giving us the key for turning breath into bread.

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

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

November 14, 2020

Last Saturday, when I was literally smitten with election fever, my blog was viewed one hundred and fifty-six times. A hundred and six of those views targeted one thing only—the Trump ‘You’re Fired!’ cartoon.

Since then, everything has returned to normal and everyone knows there is no more titty (Two-Term Trump).

Last night, in the one-minute window I gave him as he meandered through the usual bollocks, even his orangeness had left him.

For me, Mr. Covid has come and gone, but when I see the stats and predictions for North America and Europe, my heart is heavy.

I was very lucky—a news report yesterday of a young woman in Utah that lost her mother and grandfather to covid is one of the most poignant stories I’ve read in a while.

We called my grandpa and I put him on speaker phone so he could talk to my mom. He said, ‘kiddo, I’m not doing good,’ and she said, ‘dad, I’m not either.’ And he said ‘(Tracy), I’m dying. And she said, ‘dad, I am too.’
Her grandfather’s last words to her mom were, “I’ll look for you in heaven.”

It is on behalf and in memory of such people that we must rejoice in the trouncing of this twat. As Obama quipped in a pre-election speech, the president is responsible for protecting America from all enemies, foreign, domestic, and microscopic.

My father learned to swim on a beach in Nazaré, or Nazareth—very biblical. We’re going back to the mid-1930s for this tale, and the vast majority of families in Portugal didn’t ever go to the beach, let alone know how to swim.

Before Baywatch made lifeguards trendy, beach safety in southern Europe was an extra earner for fishermen, often older and paunchy, who also made a few bucks teaching children to swim.

Until recently—more specifically until Garett McNamara put it on the map—no one had ever heard of Nazaré. It isn’t the safest place to teach a kid to swim.

The fisherman told my father, ‘O mar quer lá os medrosos, porque os valentes tem-os lá de certeza.’ The sea wants the cowards—the brave ones it already owns.

This is a good metaphor for covid, my friends. I speak with folks who tell me this is just another flu, and that the societal reaction is completely overblown—they’re the brave (or foolhardy) ones in my metaphor; let me tell you, although technically a coronavirus is a form of flu, this one is a bastard.

It comes at you like a blizzard, and uses all the sneaky tricks in the book to make you cough and splutter, and to help generate lesions it can use to fuck you over. Your body is so consumed fighting it that any trivial activity exhausts you in a minute or two.

It was very easy for me to understand how things can get out of control, which is why respect is the operative word.

Above all, when I see the models for the forthcoming months, even considering the progress with vaccination, it’s obvious we have a very dark winter ahead. When you add to that the financial hardship so many are already going through, the immediate future of humanity is bleak indeed.

The conclusion is clear and urgent—it is science that changed the face of the earth in the last hundred years—all the cellphones in the world would be worthless against a single antibiotic, the mapping of a viral genome, an arsenal of cancer therapies, or key advances in food production and safety.

It’s time to wise up, if we want society to flourish for a further hundred years—we’ve had our fun, now it’s time to put the orange man back into whatever box he came from, understand that conspiracies are the product of mean-spirited folks with very little between their ears, and that those who seek the truth represent the future of mankind.

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

Rat-a-tat-tat

November 1, 2020

Magellan suffered the death of a thousand cuts. Indigenous Filipinos still celebrate his death at the hands of Chief Lapu Lapu’s native fighters—some describe the captain-general cynically today as the Philippines’ first tourist. When I say a thousand cuts, I mean it—the Portuguese explorer was literally filleted. The Venetian Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled the voyage and worshiped Magellan, wrote:

Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.

Magellan believed that a few dozen men armed with medieval weapons could defeat a vastly greater number of natives armed with iron-tipped bamboo spears—he put this theory to the test on the beach at Mactan, as fifty Spaniards faced off three divisions totaling one thousand five hundred men—bad odds. The reason for the battle was simple—Lapu Lapu understandably refused to recognize Charles I of Spain (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) as his seigneur.

The killing of Fernão de Magalhães by the Mactan people.

After the great mariner fell, the natives proceeded to hack him to bits, displaying and hanging Magellan’s body parts for days after the battle.

The perfectly stupid death of the captain-general, who refused help from two potential native allies—Rajah Humabon from the island of Limasawa, and Chief Datu Zula, from Mactan itself—ended his great adventure.

To quote from the T-Shirt on a Russian girl in Bali last February, ‘bad choices make good stories.’

The merit of the circumnavigation voyage lies in the parts of the world that were hitherto undiscovered—the navigation around the tip of South America, and the Pacific crossing. The rest had all been done by the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama crossed the Atlantic in 1497 on his way to India and subsequent navigators pushed further east through the Indian Ocean, reaching Thailand and then Singapore in the early XVIth century—Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca in 1511.

In essence, three Portuguese captains closed the planetary circle, if you can accept that the stretch between the Philippines and Malacca is not a big ask. In any case, the Strait of Malacca is called that for a reason—it’s narrow (duh)—and any vessel sailing east in those waters has Sumatra visibly to starboard.

The width of the strait is about thirty nautical miles, or ten leagues, so the Portuguese sailors who discovered Malacca by definition also discovered the largest island in Indonesia.

Once Sumatra is at hand, simple line of sight navigation takes you to Java and Bali, and onward to the eastern end of the Indonesian chain. In Bahasa, the word for east is timur, so the former Portuguese colony of East Timor is actually called east-east.

In 1514, a man named Rui de Brito Patalim, captain of Malacca, wrote to Afonso de Albuquerque, governor-general of the Indies, to describe the discovery of East Timor—the letter was passed on to King Manuel I of Portugal.

Digital copy of the 1514 letter written by Rui Patalim announcing the discovery of East Timor.

Given that (a) Magellan reached the Philippines in 1521; (b) the Portuguese had sailed west across Asia to the eastern tip of Indonesia by 1514; and (c) Mactan is at longitude 123.96 E but East Timor is at 125.73 E, i.e. further east; the case is unequivocally made for the Portuguese circumnavigation of the globe—quod erat demonstrandum. QED.

I had a math teacher when I was seventeen who translated QED as ‘quite easily done’. She used to announce this regularly in a broad Yorkshire accent, which caused much mirth. Aye.

What is not QED is the Pacific crossing in three naus, or carracks, even though Magellan profited from the southeast trades, just as his Portuguese brethren did when sailing back from the Cape of Good Hope and riding the Benguela current up to the equator.

Pacific it might have been, after the thirty-eight day crossing of the Strait of Magellan, which the man himself had named Estreito (or Estrecho in Spanish, if I must) de Todos (l)os Santos.

As we all know, Magalhães christened the Pacific Ocean, but due to minor geographic misconceptions dating back to Ptolemy, Pierre d’Ailly, and more recently Columbus, the Portuguese explorer thought the crossing would take a couple weeks, perhaps less—it took ninety-nine days, as celebrated in the Hendrix tune.

As per the standard playbook, the expedition ran out of food pretty early on, even though they had stocked up on penguin meat in South America. Following tradition, the crew ate anything they could get their hands on, including the leather off shoes and tools.

Rats were prized. Caught, sold, and eaten. Not only were rats nutritious, but by this time scurvy was widespread among the sailors—like dogs, rats can synthesize vitamin C, which is why you don’t give your pooch a fruit smoothie and those meeces always have a glint in their eye.

Rat vitamin C is just as yummy as the one in lemonade, and it went a little way to reduce the scourge of scurvy—by then, rats were a bit thin on the ground.

Magellan and his officers didn’t get scurvy—they thought they were made of sterner stuff than the common sailors, and therefore remained in good health, presumably without nibbling Jerry.

The reason is much simpler, but no one ever made the link.

Every morning, the officers were given a ration of quince—a little something the Portuguese call marmelada.

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

Magaland

October 25, 2020

You’ve been led astray by my title—a poor attempt at humor, as we watch the USA pitch and roll towards election day like the Trinidad, flagship of Fernão de Magalhães.

I’ve predicted over the last weeks that America will bid adieu to the orangutan on Nov 3rd, and nothing’s happened to change my mind. If anything, I’m more convinced now, with all debates done and a whopping fifty-six million votes already cast, compared to one hundred thirty-eight million in total in 2016 (58% of voters).

Of the fifty-six mil, 50% are registered democrats, 30% republicans, and 20% unaffiliated. Worst case, it’s fifty-fifty; best case? eighty-twenty. I’ll keep you posted, if you excuse the pun.

The US voter registration system differs from others. Some nations don’t need one—if you hold a national ID, as you would in Germany or Italy, then you’re automatically eligible to vote when you turn eighteen. But in the US, that isn’t the case, so you fill out a form. That form allows you to register as a democrat or republican, which gives you the right to vote in the primaries. Of course, just because you registered as a democrat doesn’t mean you’ll vote that way, but it is a general indicator.

Just in time to add a touch of mayhem to the race, comedian Baron Cohen released a movie pranking various aspects of US daily life, and showing Rudy Giuliani with ants in his pants.

That’s enough maga talk until after the election—let’s talk about the other maga—the one who sailed round the world. The Portuguese captain was called Magalhães—a man who provoked the wrath of King Manuel I of Portugal by sailing under the Spanish flag, but in fairness Manuel himself had treated the captain very poorly indeed, which created the conditions for Magellan to offer his services to Charles I of Spain.

Magellan was killed in the Philippines on April 27th, 1521, which has led to an argument about whether he circumnavigated the world—technically, since he died along the way, he did not.

His slave Henrique spoke the local Filipino language, which suggests he was a native of that region, although Portuguese documents describe him as a Malay from Malacca, originally from Sumatra.

Since Magellan purchased him in 1511 during the siege of Malacca—when Henrique was fourteen and the explorer was still fighting for his native country—that area of the world was already well known to the Portuguese.

Henrique sailed west back to Portugal after the siege, so National Geographic states that he qualifies as the first person to sail around the earth, albeit with a ten year gap—but of course, that logic also applies to Magellan, who sailed the western route with his slave from Malacca to Portugal between 1511-1512, so the only thing Magellan didn’t do was travel from the Philippines to Malacca—ten days’ plain sailing.

Magellan therefore deserves full credit, since the great feat of the expedition was to round the tip of South America and sail west across the Pacific, which was the missing link in circumnavigation.

The rest of the voyage home was difficult but not uncharted—line of sight navigation around Indonesia, including a stop at the Moluccas, which was the object of the expedition, and then the long trip southwest to the Cape of Good Hope, followed by the ‘torna-viagem’ discovered by Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.

The armada sailed a more southerly route between Indonesia and Australia, then took advantage of the south equatorial current, a feature of all three major oceanic gyres in the southern hemisphere. By doing so, it avoided the pitfalls of the Indian Ocean monsoon, which killed half of Vasco da Gama’s crew.

The completion of the trip by Juan Sebastian Elcano will have pleased the Portuguese captain’s Spanish enemies, who were both numerous and powerful.

Most distinguished among these was Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, bishop of Burgos—he had been the chaplain of Isabel la Católica and managed the expeditions of Columbus. By the time Magellan arrived in Spain, Fonseca was the head of the Casa de Contratación in Seville, where I spent some happy days researching Clear Eyes.

Fonseca’s son—sorry, ‘nephew’—was forced onto Magellan as a crew member, along with many other Spaniards whose single purpose was to sabotage the voyage. When the whole business came to a head in Argentina, after the five ships has crossed the Atlantic using the great circle route discovered by Gama, the small but fearless Magellan was confronted with a mutiny of vast proportions, involving the captains of three other vessels.

The Victoria, Concepción, and San Antonio formed the base of the revolt, which took place at Puerto San Julian, located 49o south of the equator—the equivalent of Vancouver in the northern hemisphere.

Their captains underestimated the iron will of the Portuguese navigator—one was killed and two captured, as Magellan displayed a combination of courage and subterfuge matched only by his ruthlessness when the time came to punish the mutineers.

A XVIth century engraving provides an allegorical image of Magellan’s journey. The image appears in a NatGeo piece that questions whether the explorer can be credited with circumnavigating the globe.

This benign and somewhat psychedelic picture of the voyage—all the humanoids have their private parts concealed, an eagle pounces on an elephant in the background, a cherub ringed by St. Elmo’s fire hovers above the captain, and Magellan himself seems to be using a pair of dividers as a microphone to deliver a Karaoke tune—belies the barbary inflicted on the Spanish captains.

Mendoza, master of the Victoria, was fortunate because he was already dead, but that didn’t stop Magellan meting out the same torment as he inflicted on Gaspar Quesada, captain of the Concepción, who was very much alive.

Both were hung, drawn, and quartered. The common practice in the XVIth century was to lower the victim from the gibbet while moribund, stretch him to partly detach the limbs, and then quarter the body. Prior to drawing the half-dead Quesada, his abdomen was opened, and his entrails were removed and burned in front of him—this was before the days of post-traumatic stress.

Both corpses then had head and limbs removed—these were boiled with herbs for preservation so they might be displayed to the crew.

…In the immortal words of the French revolution during the guillotine period, ‘pour encourager les autres…’

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

The Lost Summer

October 10, 2020

Before I start these articles, I always do two things: read the previous blog—and often make small corrections—and look at the site stats, which are broken down into daily views, but can be scaled to a period of two and a half years.

I haven’t figured out how to view a larger period, but one glaring difference between this year and the previous two is the summer viewing—normally it decreases quite significantly, and for good reasons—vacations, travel, beaches, picnics, family, rock festivals, bars and restaurants…

Ah yes, he says wistfully, the usual suspects.

This summer, the readership was up like never before, but I don’t see that as progress in my writing quality—my texts have become monotonic—much like our lives. Fact is, we have more time to dispense on these pursuits, for the lack of all the good reasons above.

We’re currently going through one of the greatest tests human society has ever encountered, in part because of its global nature—and we’re wholly unprepared for the fractures a mere six months have caused.

If you read newspaper articles from a century ago, much of what happened in different parts of the world was slow to propagate—there was no TV, no efficient communications, and no rapid form of transport in everyday use, so newspapers were it—the BBC World Service was only founded in 1932.

Whenever politicians discuss the current crisis, the word war is bandied about. We are ‘at war against the virus’, there’s an ‘invisible enemy’, this is a ‘battle we can win’.

War is something we’re very familiar with—many people through personal experience: Yemenis, Georgians, Rwandans, Vietnamese, Afghans—from the stats, these are not the folks who read these pieces—in digital, there’s a chasm between haves and have-nots.

My familiarity with war comes from my youth and the Portuguese wars in Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s—I narrowly missed first-hand experience, but I know many who fought in Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere—any trip to those countries shows the evidence to this day, from unexploded mines to unattached limbs.

In the US and UK, France and Germany, everyone had a family member who was involved in World War II in some capacity. For Jews, there’s the indelible trauma of the holocaust.

But above all, there is a historical memory since time immemorial (sorry), that human existence and war are indissociable—only the League of Nations and the League for Spiritual Discovery believe otherwise.

War has a couple of common features—the first is unity, the whole us-against-them thing. No matter what happens, god is on our side.

The second feature is the comprehension—if we don’t know what the fight is about, the body count quickly takes precedence over the moral high ground, as Country Joe McDonald (no relation to Ronald) explained to the good folks at Woodstock, a good number of whom were enthusiastic supporters of the League for Spiritual Discovery.

The third aspect is that we know war will end, our side will win, and we will rest our moral superiority on the bones of our dead enemies—this is a Cartesian fairy tale that has won the day time and time again in the web weaved by rulers to ensnare the ruled.

The consequences of this minute little fucker, responsible for COVID-19 going on for 21, are unpredictable. We can confidently state it has really screwed up our lives, but we can’t make any confident statements about the degree to which we are collectively fucked, and how long this will last.

We can also lay blame—and China is clearly to blame for the initial spread of the virus. But invading China will not solve the problem, and in any case lack of transparency is one of the defining traits of a dictatorship, along with political prisoners and self-perpetuation of power. So why the surprise?

When Western countries first reacted to the news of the new pandemic—some well before its classification as such by the WHO on March 19th, 2020—there were way too many economic interests at stake to take drastic action, and, as is always the case with humans, we underestimated the danger—think climate change.

The ultimate victory—coronavirus takes the White House.

The usual human remedy in crisis, i.e. killing each other until the problem goes away, isn’t a direct choice in this case—but indirectly, this is where we are moving towards. There are vocal advocates of taking a similar approach to what happened during the medieval plagues.

To the extent that economic returns are not compromised, protect the vulnerable. Those who don’t die will thrive, the plague will fade away, and hey presto, we’re back to business as usual.

This is a narrative many people subscribe to, even if means saying goodbye to granny a few years early.

In the West, politicians—or at least some of them—are attempting to do the right thing. Control the spread, save lives, and sustain the economy.

The UK prime minister explained the policy in a nutshell to the British people during the Brexit campaign.

We want to have our cake and eat it too.

It’s not going to happen with Brexit, and it won’t happen with the virus either.

In the United Kingdom, that synergy is a perfect storm—it may well result in a country with no cake and an empty stomach.

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


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