Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Education

October 14, 2017

In Southern Europe, universities provide higher learning, not higher education. This propagates from primary school, or grade school, and the description is fair.

I am intimately familiar with the university system in Northern and Southern Europe, as well as the United States and elsewhere, and I would argue that education teaches you to think.

The innovation that thought brings is a fundamental asset for a person, a family, and a country. It’s not comfort, because it separates positions and triggers discussion—and that makes it vital for society to thrive.

My personal perspective is that I know increasingly less. As the years add up, other people say the same—some don’t, but they quietly think it. While it’s true that you should know more about the things that interest you, two key factors work against you.

The first is inertia—the force that fights to stop me writing this, and the force that makes me keep going once I’ve started. After a certain point, you feel you know everything and new ideas are shut out, particularly if they attack old ones.

The second point is similar to the expanding universe—knowledge is expanding all the time. Not only knowledge, but knowledge mechanisms. Digital weapons, in this case of mass construction, lead the way.

When I was researching some of materials for my new book, I came across a Washington Post article about the use of anti-virus software for espionage. The issue isn’t new, and the target is Kaspersky. Its founder, one Eugene K, graduated from a KGB-supported cryptography school.

But the education context here was a reference to a book by Soldatov and Borogan, known to their friends as Andrei and Irina. The book’s called The Red Web, and it’s a serious read. Because the internet lets me do it, I bought it there and then, after a two-second skim of reviews, and was reading it minutes later.

I’m not getting to the cool stuff yet, but the first part of the book gives an excellent review of the making of the digital USSR, including the first hacked Soviet UNIX operating system. The USSR was completely aware that the first rule of security is control—communications are key to this, and Russian radios had bespoke crystals so certain frequencies could not be tuned.

It’s obvious that the concepts of networks, distributed computing, and international comms were not the Kremlin’s favorite dessert back in the days of Arpanet.

The internet in 1974. The only connections outside the States were to University College London (UCL) and to Norway. Perhaps this explains the cryptic legend in hurdy gurdy.

But the Russians learned. Soldatov and Borogan are very brave—wielding a pen in Putin’s Russia is a dangerous business.

Soldatov cautioned the Big Three, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, not to comply with Putin’s request to place servers in Russia—the M9 building on Moscow’s Butlerova street, where the FSB does its digital stuff, now houses an entire floor of Google.

I can bring all this to you in a brief chronicle thanks to distributed education, of which books are a privileged vehicle.

There are many other examples where the only requirement for your continuous education is interest and commitment. When I was in my teens I wanted to play blues—I fell profoundly in love with blues music and I’ll love it until I die—perhaps it’s the overlap with Fado music, most probably because of the simple complexity they share. And the saudade. Look it up.

You need two things if you want to play blues: an electric guitar and the pentatonic scale. Of course, it helps if a few shitty things happen to you—don’t worry, they will. And a couple of joints here and there can work wonders for your imagination.

These days, if you want to play blues, the internet is a gigantic resource right at your fingertips, if you excuse the pun. Not only that, but you can tap into a host of backing tracks to improve your style, timing, and licks.

You see where I’m going with this—there’s a whole world out there avid to educate us, if we only open our eyes.

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

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Three Buses

September 30, 2017

There’s a well-known British gripe about the bus service—you wait forever, then three come at once.

I’m using that to go a little further down the automation road. The UK Labour Party conference took place last week, and Jeremy Corbyn, who since the June 2017 election fancies his chances, spoke to his audience about plans for a robot tax.

The reaction from the manufacturing sector and the Tory press was swift—the word Luddite was very much in evidence.  The left, of course, was quick to support the idea. When we compare the two articles (using the Private Eye sobriquets), the Torygraph one is just demagoguery, the Grauniad piece is better thought through.

Corbyn diluted the message for political reasons, but it’s an important discussion.

First out of the post was South Korea, which is currently ruled by the liberal Min Ju party. In early August, the Koreans announced that tax incentives would be limited on automation investments.

This is not a ‘robot tax’ as such, but it does recognize that if the state provides a safety net for its citizens, that service must be funded by society.

Traditionally, this has been paid for by corporations and job-holding citizens, and a strong shift toward automation means that more citizens will lose their jobs—if we assume for this analysis that demography remains unchanged, then governments will find it increasingly difficult to support their citizens.

The choices are stark, but partial options could be combined.

  • The Luddite option—freeze automation
  • The Robot Tax—increase revenue from companies which reduce their workforce
  • Increase debt—business as usual, pretend the problem doesn’t exist
  • Reduce benefits—when a threshold is broken, there will be blood on the streets

The alternative view to all this is that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will create more jobs than it destroys. That’s one area where the debate is particularly hot.

The three buses problem. Transport researchers have built mathematical models to study this problem (hint: it never happens on the underground).

PwC put out a press release on AI and jobs in March 2017, which is disturbing on two counts—the numbers are compelling, but the interpretation is weak.

The study states that up to 30% of UK jobs will be gone by 2030, but ‘this should be offset by job gains elsewhere in the economy.’

The only suggestions for that last part are that a higher level of education will be needed for those new jobs, and they will be more social in nature.

PwC also tells us that in the US, the job loss number is 38%, and in Germany, 35%.

So there’s one key question—which side is right: AI job gain or AI job loss?

To find out, I asked a machine.

“Google, what new jobs will be created by artificial intelligence?”

A study by Accenture helped me out. Apparently, there are three fascinating entirely new job categories. These are:

  • Trainers
  • Explainers
  • Sustainers

I’ve abridged some of the explanatory text below, because in humans, tedium can easily set in.

Humans in these roles will complement the tasks performed by cognitive technology, ensuring that the work of machines is both effective and responsible.

Trainers

This first category of new jobs will need human workers to teach AI systems how they should perform…
…they teach AI algorithms how to mimic human behaviors.

Customer service chatbots, for example, need to be trained to detect the complexities and subtleties of human communication…
…Yahoo engineers have developed an algorithm that can detect sarcasm on social media and websites with an accuracy of at least 80%.

Consider, then, the job of “empathy trainer” — individuals who will teach AI systems to show compassion…
…Humans are now training the Koko algorithm to respond more empathetically to people who, for example, are frustrated that their luggage has been lost, that a product they’ve bought is defective, or that their cable service keeps going on the blink even after repeated attempts to fix it.

Without an empathy trainer, Alexa might respond to a user’s anxieties with canned, repetitive responses such as “I’m sorry to hear that” or “Sometimes talking to a friend can help.”

The second category of new jobs — explainers — will bridge the gap between technologists and business leaders. Explainers will help provide clarity, which is becoming all the more important as AI systems’ opaqueness increases. Many executives are uneasy with the “black box” nature of sophisticated machine-learning algorithms, especially when the systems they power recommend actions that go against the grain of conventional wisdom.

I can think of a couple more categories ending in ‘ainer’ for the guys who wrote the study. I would also say that all these amazing jobs are centered on humans helping machines, not machines helping humans—maybe the report was written by a robot.

Enter Eric Schmidt, your man from Google. Speaking at the Viva Tech conference in Paris in June this year, Schmidt quoted a McKinsey study that states 90% of jobs are not fully automatable.

Two points come to mind: the first is that if 90% are not, 10% are—add that to the present jobless rate. The second is the definition of fully. If we think very conservatively, and speculate that fully means only 20% (i.e. you still do the other 80% of your job, presumably for 80% of the pay), then the added employment loss is a further 18%.

Of course, you might do 100% of what you did before in 80% of the time, because AI is helping you out.

For instance, let’s say you have a job processing expense claims. When you get to work, you say good morning to your three colleagues and sit down at your desk. There’s a stack of paper invoices in front of you.

AI now provides a machine where you dump the lot, sort of like a juicer.

The machine sorts through everything, regardless of size, scans and reads issuers, dates, and amounts, and produces a spreadsheet with the results. It compares that with a sheet you’ve received from the claimant, and attempts a match. It flags any inconsistencies.

Your job is to run through the line items, query any expense that seems unjustified, or any amount entered that doesn’t match. A job that took one hour is done in fifteen minutes, so you can now process four such claims per hour—congratulations, your productivity just quadrupled.

But wait… for this to work, you need four claims on your desk every hour, and the limiting factors are: (i) how many claims you actually get; (ii) whether the speed with which your department processes them (pre-AI) introduces delays.

If your team is working well, then with the introduction of AI it now has four times the productivity, but unfortunately, not four times the work, because expense claims are not going to quadruple.

Your company is pleased as punch. You’re their star operator. It fires your three colleagues, and the departmental productivity quadruples. Actually, now it even goes up a little more—because you have no one to chat with, you can now manage a claim every twelve minutes, so you’re doing five times better.

Your new robotic colleague always says: Hi! I’m done with this batch, please feed in the next documents. It doesn’t know about your lunch hour, so it repeats this mantra at regular intervals when you’re munching your sandwich. Since it gets no input, the pitch of the automated voice shifts from cocktail lounge seductive to low-cost airline lounge wife.

Over the last few months, the damn thing has been driving you nuts. This afternoon, you weren’t quite yourself, and smarty-pants AI (you call it SPAI) said it once too often.

You hurled it out the window, two floors down—it landed on top of a parking robot and shattered its triangulation vision unit. SPAI’s last croak was “Hi! I’m done…”

Your section head wanted to keep you on—anyone can make a mistake, it’s known as human error. Unfortunately, Health & Safety had the last word. After all, if the claims robot had killed a human, can you imagine the publicity?

ROBOT CLAIMS ITS LAST VICTIM! WHAT’S THE COST FOR THE HUMAN RACE?

So there we are—all four jobs gone, but the good news is the new machine is far more advanced, and benefits from a cutting edge AI training algorithm, so it doesn’t need a human at all. And when it’s done with this batch, it turns itself off until the next one arrives.

That’s excellent for carbon emissions, and the new spy never says a word.

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

 

No Pension

September 23, 2017

Paradigm shifts don’t often happen at great speed—usually, change gathers momentum, circumstances around you begin to diverge from the old norm, and then quite suddenly you realize you’re in a different world.

It happened with electricity, the motor car, and the internet, and it’s in full force with robots.

In The Hourglass, which I’m presently writing in earnest, governments find a new social contract that builds in the workforce paradigm shift (telling you more would spoil things).

Let’s see how many people I put out of work when writing this article.

During the week, a couple of interesting topics for my weekend chronicles invariably pop up. If I’m traveling, it’s easier, sometimes fate intervenes, more often I read or hear something which merits a text and do a screengrab.

This week, out of three or four possibilities, robots back came on the radar with a vengeance, partly because of a newspaper article. I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper—analog that is, because I’ve never bought a digital one.

So there’s the vendor out of business, although in the US and elsewhere, the profession died decades ago with the appearance of newspaper vending machines.

I guess the fact I don’t buy papers is not unusual, so there’s another bunch of people out of work—reporters, editors, distribution jobs. News organizations have been slimming for years, in any case. Pieces written on a computer (bye-bye typists), auto-correction for typos and grammar (so long copy editors), digital image libraries (see you illustrators and photographers), automated layouts and printing (ciao typesetters)… the list goes on.

All my research is done online. After this brief intro, I’ll re-read the Elon Musk article, hunt around for other sources, and type up my thoughts. No library, no coffee on the way, no photocopies, no writer’s notebook, no pens, no pencils or erasers, zilch. Add ’em up.

Finally, publication, review, and distribution—Wordpress and I take care of all that. And how about you? We (WordPress and I) only ask for your time. Once in a while WordPress fields you an ad, but that’s fine. So do the papers I read online.

The time I take to research, write, re-read, and publish is my contribution. Since each article takes about four hours all told, and I’ve been publishing weekly for ten years, we’re at about one hundred days and counting—believe me, that’s nothing compared to the number of full-time jobs lost along the way.

Whenever a paradigm shifts, the naysayers come out of the woodwork—when trains appeared, cows would stop giving milk (false); with the advent of calculators, kids would be much worse at arithmetic (true); aquaculture would be the end of fishing (false); computers would replace humans (well…). It’s a long list.

Innovation has always changed the way we do things, and often changed the pace. And society is usually slow to deal with change, as manifest this week by politicians talking about legislation on algorithms. Most people have no idea what an algorithm is—and that includes lawyers and lawmakers. My definition? It’s a quantitative approach to a problem—so good luck with that.

Elon Musk, most famous for the Tesla electric car, considers artificial intelligence (AI) the biggest threat to mankind—he baldly states that ‘robots will be able to do everything better than us.’ Actually, haircuts might be an exception for a while—I can see kids getting teased at school for getting a real robot haircut.

Musk says transport jobs will be the first to go—the US Department of Transportation tells us that’s one in every seven. Unemployment in the US is at 4.3%. Employment is therefore at 95.7%. One seventh of that is 13.5%, so unemployment fairly quickly shifts to 17.8%, which is a three hundred percent increase—and AIV (vehicles) will not spend their time bumping into each other, so panel-beating will become an art form, not a day job.

The mental process I used in the last paragraph is a generic description of an algorithm—I did it in my head, since I pre-date calculators, but you can check it on Excel, or write a two line computer program to do it.

Musk  uses the game of Go as an example of how fast this will all change. If you want to see how much fun lawmakers will have legislating algorithms, read this summary from the scientific journal Nature—it’s a bit long, but humor me.

The game of Go has long been viewed as the most challenging of classic games for artificial intelligence owing to its enormous search space and the difficulty of evaluating board positions and moves. Here we introduce a new approach to computer Go that uses ‘value networks’ to evaluate board positions and ‘policy networks’ to select moves. These deep neural networks are trained by a novel combination of supervised learning from human expert games, and reinforcement learning from games of self-play. Without any lookahead search, the neural networks play Go at the level of state-of-the-art Monte Carlo tree search programs that simulate thousands of random games of self-play. We also introduce a new search algorithm that combines Monte Carlo simulation with value and policy networks. Using this search algorithm, our program AlphaGo achieved a 99.8% winning rate against other Go programs, and defeated the human European Go champion by 5 games to 0. This is the first time that a computer program has defeated a human professional player in the full-sized game of Go, a feat previously thought to be at least a decade away.

A recent study commissioned by the UK Royal Society of Arts suggests four million jobs in the British private sector could shift to AI in the next decade. That’s 15% of the workforce. The current unemployment number is almost identical to the US: 4.5%, and would bump up to 19.5% as machines take over.

A survey of employers shows that three sectors would be hardest hit: finance and accounting, transportation and distribution, and manufacturing. Over twenty percent of employers see more than thirty percent of jobs in those sectors disappearing.

These trends toward automation are much more prevalent in developed countries than in other parts of the world, and are pushing a major change in the way society works.

Job satisfaction, unemployment, trade unions, overtime, workers rights, coffee breaks, vacation, sick leave… all these words fall on a robot’s deaf ears. These days, when you call US airline customer services, you have to say the word agent three times before you get to speak to a human.

Society is globally unconcerned, or else humans blame other humans for their woes. Think Trump trampoline for expelling immigrants, Brexit, and the US job export to humans in third-world countries.

Citizens rally to the call against their fellow man, but no one blames the machines, or those who conceive or build them. I love technology, but I also believe in human employment—just as boundaries are imposed on people, so they must be imposed on machines. After all, we want our kids to grow up to be useful citizens, whose values include a work ethic and an education—if you grow up destined to do nothing, it’s hard to see why you should work hard at school, or even why you should go at all.

Crazy things happen when a paradigm shifts. If in fifty years there’s a scarcity of protein, there will be no more pets, since they compete with humans for food—salmon and trout patê, yum!

And in a world where robots do our jobs, there will be no pension plan.

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

Arty Farty

September 16, 2017

Fake news has always been a part of history. Various well-known cliches, such as ‘history is written by the winners’, attest to this—except historical narrative tells of events in the past, whereas news, as we understand it now, deals mostly with the present (or quasi-present).

Historians distinguish between primary and secondary sources, but primary sources often distorted the truth to suit their masters—in past centuries there was usually no more than one written account of events.

Let me qualify that by saying it applies mostly to the pre-Gutenberg era. In the field of public information, of which history is a subset, it is reasonable to define an era on the basis of the existing means of communication.

The key forms that come to mind are: verbal, illustration, and writing. The latter go beyond ideograms, using words (made up of letters in the West, and represented by characters in the East)  to convey concepts and ideas.

The three forms above can then be paired with the medium, where the most important watersheds are: manuscript, typeset (printed), radio, television, and the internet.

There are three particularly interesting aspects when it comes to the medium: the first is the rate of change. In 2016, Mathias Meyer and colleagues published a letter in the journal Nature dating the oldest Neanderthal man to 430,000 years BP—if you’re a creationist, this would be a good time to go do something else—just don’t forget to rest on the seventh day.

There is no consensus as to when human speech developed, but evidence exists that Neanderthals had verbal communication capacity. So let’s say speech has been with us 400,000 years.

The oldest presently known cave art is a drawing of a pig in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi—good job the Taliban and Isis haven’t spotted the porker, or it would have gone the way of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The pig pic is 34,500 years old—say 40,000 and we’re on an order of magnitude trip.

How about the written language? Ah, more controversy. The Phoenician proto-canaanite alphabet gives us a bunch of nouns—hardly joined-up writing, but it’s a start.

Characters (functionally equivalent to words) in the proto-canaanite alphabet.

That was somewhere between 1,500-2,000 BC. The appearance of Shang dynasty Chinese characters is on the same scale, so we’re back to the gang of four. Say 4,000 years ago.

For millennia, Man scribbled away until German engineering provided a paradigm shift—since we’re on a roll, say four hundred years ago (it’s actually about six hundred). On that scale, we then have radio and television compressing the signal, if you excuse the pun, and finally the Internet of Things (IoT).

I suppose telling my learned readers that these would be 40 and 4 years would be a bit of a stretch, but for fun it would give you 400,000 (speech), 40,000 (art), 4,000 (manuscript), 400 (printing), 40 (telly), and 4 years (IoT)—an era ain’t what it used to be.

From this analysis, we’re either at the end of the line, or can expect something new and totally disruptive soon.

The second story line is that most media (radio excluded) can deal with the three key forms, i.e. verbal, illustration, and writing. Video and other technology developments are really derivatives of the core communication elements.

The third element is the reach of each technology. As we move toward the present, the reach increases, both in terms of the number and diversity of people connected, and the speed at which news (fake or otherwise) propagates.

The diversity element is very important. Since the advent of radio, governments and organizations are able to contact a far broader range of people—in 1820, only twelve percent of the world could read and write.

World illiteracy rates over the last two hundred years.

These changes in reach and speed of information were a key driver for the growth of disinformation—every self-respecting government, religion, and multinational business hopped on the bandwagon post-haste.

When I was a child, there was Radio Free Europe, and pushing back from behind the iron curtain, a bunch of ‘people’s democracies’ extolling the virtues of Marx and Lenin.

The Russians have long been virtuosos of this art—they call it маскировка. Maskirovka is self-explanatory, and in this sixth age of communication, where TV and IoT are as closely entwined as passionate lovers, Putin’s Russia has turned it into an art form.

Russia Television, or RT for short, is now on every major cable news network. It competes with CNN, Fox, Sky, the BBC, and the other huge news outlets to bring you its flavor of news—in English.

To do this, it enlisted the likes of Larry King, of CNN fame, and ex-MSNBC’s Ed Schultze, and now plays a splendid game of maskirovka. It tells you to question more, implying that other stations are spoon-feeding you a bill of goods—which is often true to an extent, but RT is hardly where you look for a solution.

In tandem with RT is Sputnik, a Buzzfeed type of outfit, which helps to disseminate stories that are pro-Kremlin, or can sow confusion in the West. An excellent example was the recent alleged rape of a white German-Russian girl in Berlin. The story was a hoax, and grew to huge proportions in Germany—in fact, it morphed into a substantial diplomatic incident.

With the upcoming elections in Germany, authorities were anticipating that the Russians might use the emails hacked from sixteen Bundestag politicians, including Angela Merkel, to influence the upcoming vote.  All told, the hackers scooped 16 gigabytes of data from the parliament. The Germans are waiting for this ammunition to be used, but so far, not a whisper—and only one week to go.

This may be explained in a recent statement from Annegret Bendliek, analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, to the Washington Post.

It’s been my job for 10 years to read these kinds of documents. You can’t imagine. They are so boring.

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

 

 

The Blonde Bombshell

September 2, 2017

Last summer I published a short story called The Swing, inspired by the Lahore bombing, which killed twenty-nine children on Easter Sunday, 2016.

The explosive used was triacetone triperoxide, or TATP. I became aware of TATP after the Brussels airport bombing, and decided it would be a good fit for my story. Within the bomb-making community, TATP is both loved and hated.

It’s loved for its destructive power, and since it isn’t a nitrogen-based explosive like ammonium nitrate, TATP is much harder to detect with present-day bomb sensors.

Acetone and peroxide, two quintessentially feminine products.

I never loved organic chemistry, but I realized you couldn’t understand natural sciences without it—that would be like loving boats and hating water. The picture tells you to mix some acetone (aka nail polish remover) with hydrogen peroxide (the secret to turning a dull brunette into a dumb blonde), and end up with that big ring on the right.

You lose six hydrogens and three oxygens, i.e. a bit of water, and you end up with the Mother of Satan, a stunningly powerful explosive. The ring has the three acetones poking out the side, and the peroxide splices in three extra oxygens—the whole deal contains only  carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, just like your breakfast bagel—come to think of it, the bagel has all sorts of other shit in it.

So, no nitrogen, no phosphorus, no easy detection, and a great big bang.

The fact is you could carry enough TATP through airport security today to blow up your plane without fear of detection—the explosive looks like sugar crystals, partly because carbs contain exactly those three elements: C, O, H.

The downside to all this is that TATP is really dangerous to make. In fact, I’m surprised the blonde bombshell coming out of the salon, adjusting her hairdo with perfectly polished fingernails, doesn’t blow her head off.

La femme fatale—and you thought it was just a weird French thing.

Suddenly, every hair studio is a terror lab.

When I wrote my story in 2016, I had very little trouble sourcing all sorts of instructions on the manufacture of the Mother of Satan, which is prepared by Al Muhandis, the sinister Egyptian ‘engineer’—and although I was very careful not to provide enough details to enable criminal use, the Egyptian bomb-maker shows his respect for TATP in the following excerpt.

He decided on one last Shahadah before he prepared the explosive. Bomb-makers hated this white powder—making it was as easy as baking a cake, but TATP was so unstable it often blew the terrorist to pieces as he cooked—the chemists called it the Mother of Satan.

Al Muhandis was fascinated by TATP, by its combination of danger and simplicity. His scientific mind delighted in the way it reacted—he didn’t subscribe to the cake analogy, because preparing this incredible substance required no heat.

Waali had a grudging admiration for the Israeli scientists at the Technion who’d figured out how the explosive worked. The sugar-like crystals easily turned into a gas—a little heat or a shock would do it—and released molecules at two hundred times the pressure of the surrounding air—a ton and a half per square inch.

And still today, following the recent tragedy in Barcelona, it’s easy to find the recipe on the net. I suppose Peter Wibaux must be on a number of intelligence lists, since I don’t believe for a minute this stuff doesn’t get tracked, but you don’t have to delve into the dark web, or even the penumbra—the Caucasian one has all you need.

The TATP greatest hits, if you excuse the pun, include London 7/7, Paris, Manchester Arena, Brussels, and Barcelona. But its pedigree goes back to the shoe bomber in 2001, and Satan’s momma is at least partly responsible for the 100 ml rule on airliners.

The latest bomb-makers to enjoy an early trip to paradise lived in a squat in the province of Tarragona. There, in the small town of Alcanar—itself an Arab name—they concocted the secret sauce. Unfortunately, the house they occupied either had no suitable cooling facilities, or the terrorists had skipped the class about ice.

Either way, the temperature slowly crept up to the critical level, which in the hot Spanish summer wouldn’t be difficult at all.

The really worrying thing about TATP is there are many chemical manufacturing plants that deal with dangerous substances, and take the risk out of the processes through blast-proof facilities and automation.

In this dangerous world, it is becoming far easier to safely make a lethal explosive than to detect it.

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

The World is your Oyster

August 12, 2017

Now there’s a strange expression, but it has a fine pedigree. As all you good literati know, it originates in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Falstaff: Not a penny.

I first met Pistol when I was in my early teens, and my English teacher decided to torture the class with Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Act II, Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow.

Then as now, I was easily amused, and that’s one of the few lines of the immortal bard I can still quote. Some years later, when I lived in the English Midlands, I went on numerous occasions to the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

Before the performance, although we were all underage, we had a few libations at the Dirty Duck—one of my friends regularly tried to sell American tourists Shakespeare’s toothbrush.

During the performance, we waited until the theater-goers had deposited their half-finished drinks on the long shelf adjoining the bar, eager to return to their seats before the curtain rose, confident of being reunited with their glasses at the next interval.

Over that next magical half-minute, we drilled through the shelf like the army of Genghis Khan, then sat in the darkness as the thespians appeared, while our stomachs centrifuged a concoction of taste, color, and buzz.

The RSC has always boasted amazing actors—I watched them perform ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, and the rambunctious Pistol telling Falstaff that he would use his blade to prise open the oyster and take his due.

Oysters and men are inextricably bound, so that the history of both cannot be separated—I wonder, in fact, if the phrase shouldn’t be ‘the oyster is your world’. What binds them both is the sea, and the human propensity to settle next to estuaries.

Europe is reeling from an eggy uproar, a kind of yolk Guam—fire and fury soufflé. Of the many things that make a European proud, food quality is certainly in the top five, along with cathedrals and soccer.

This triggers strong views on hormones in US beef, chlorinated chicken, and shellfish microbiological standards—the latter resulted in a mutual trade ban, which deprives the old continent of such delicacies as geoduck (pronounced gooey duck), grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Incidentally, my article about geoduck in these pages remains by far the most viewed ever—size clearly does matter!

In the past, Europe was not so concerned about who ate what, but BSE (mad cows), scrapie (crazy sheep), and other scares have changed our attitude to food. If you go back to the nineteenth century, you find that Scottish trout were fed on oysters and horse meat—a blow indeed for your average pescatarian.

This is described in the history of ‘Howietoun’, one of the oldest fish farms in Scotland, now owned by the University of Stirling. The oyster side of the story is particularly interesting, because in the XIXth century, the critter in question would have been the European flat oyster, known in France (and tony restaurants elsewhere) as bellon—it’s worth considerably more than its counterpart, the rock oyster, which is classed in Europe as an invasive species.

The internet has become an immense resource for scholarship—in a variety of languages, as I joyfully discovered when I researched Clear Eyes. Armed with the information that the oysters used to feed trout most likely came from Edinburgh, I embarked on a voyage that took me back the last quarter of the 1800’s.

Northern Europe and North America have a long-standing tradition of fisheries research boards, and it turns out that the annual reports of the Fishery Board for Scotland, published in the 1880’s and 1890’s, are available for histoysterical scholars.

In those days, oysters were consumed in copious quantities. Lewis Carroll makes the point in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

The poem doesn’t tell us how many bivalves were scarfed by the walrus and the carpenter—it’s unclear whether carpentry as a profession is particularly conducive to an oyster diet, but the walrus chiefly feeds on molluscs—Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician, and thus a stickler for accuracy.

From the multiplication by four, it sounds as if we’re quickly into the bushels—and the walrus will have taken the (sea)lion’s share, because he cracked them open, whereas the carpenter needed to shuck. Nevertheless, the human opposable thumb is a limiting factor for both the pepper and vinegar, but I digress.

In the Firth of the Forth, next to the city of Edinburgh, the oyster grounds covered an area of one hundred and twenty square miles—impossible to imagine today. At the start of the XIXth century, a boat working the Forth could dredge six thousand oysters in one day.

In the 1830’s, not long after the Napoleonic wars, Edinburgh exported about seven million oysters every year, and the locals consumed about a tenth of that.

The Scots were so profligate with their oyster beds that by 1895, the total stock in the Forth was estimated to be only 250,000 animals. Much of the decline was due to relaying, still a very common practice today—young oysters had been sold for decades to restock the depleted oyster beds of Holland and England.

A local fisherman commented:

It used to be a case of picking out clams (queen scallop) when dredging for oysters; now it is picking out an occasional oyster when dredging for clams.

It’s no wonder, with such an impetuous drive to destroy such an important natural resource, that oysters even found their way into trout ponds.

One of the most striking parts of these historical reports is the concern about overfishing. Even then, sensible and prudent recommendations appeal to the powers that be, underscoring the need for controlling fisheries for particular species, and on the importance of protecting salmon waters from pollution in rivers.

In those days, there was a general view that emptying waste into rivers was a reasonable thing to do, since rivers naturally function as conduits for human waste—the Scottish scientists emphasized that water unfit for humans is water unfit for salmon.

And six generations on from such profound wisdom, we still collect data, scratch our heads and wonder what can be done.

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

Rudolf

August 5, 2017

History is most interesting when paradigms shift. And paradigms shift in two ways.

The first is when something totally unexpected occurs. The discovery of penicillin, which changed the relationship between humans and disease, is a good example. The second comes about through non-linearity, my favorite process. Water slowly builds up behind the wall, the level gradually rising, unseen and unheard, and then one day the wall cracks.

This build-up translates an accumulation of potential energy into a release of kinetic energy—the myth of Sisyphus, perennially rolling a rock up a hill until exhaustion releases it to roll down again. The king of Corinth provides the kinetic energy, the rock acquires potential energy, and then releases it as it rolls downhill.

A similar shift occurs when anger, stress, or frustration builds up inside you until there is a release, and there is a societal parallel as a trend or wish develops in enough minds to cause a shift. Arguably, the US presidential election is an example of the latter.

Unquestionably, so is the recent decision in parts of Europe (not Germany) to do away with the internal combustion engine. France and Britain plan to do so by 2040, by banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars.

Germany, where diesel is king, timidly wants a million electric cars on the road by 2020—in 2016, there were forty-five million registered.

Which bring us to Uncle Rudolf.

Rudolf Diesel: an amazing man, of whom hardly an English biography exists.

The inventor of the most successful engine in the world is a little-known man. The Franco-German engineer became very wealthy from his invention, but he was a prodigy in engineering, with a string of innovations to his name.

You may not like engines, so forgive me torturing you with the information that the man invented the compression-ignition engine, a very different beast from the internal combustion engine that drives petrol-fueled cars. These engines fire on their own, using basic principles of thermodynamics to inject fuel into a compressed air mixture—above a certain temperature the mixture self-ignites, so the engine doesn’t need the complex low voltage-high voltage rig that fires spark plugs.

Diesel is the only guy with an engine named after him. Well… there is Wankel, but I don’t want to lower the tone on a weekend—we already have trump tweets for that.

The remarkable thing about diesel engines is they run on just about anything, as long as it burns. Which means used cooking oil, even from McDonald’s, and everything from cane sugar alcohol to beet to peanut oil—the oils fall under the category of biodiesel, and you can run the most recent diesel engines on it. You can even use homemade oil, as long as you wash it.

Rudy was born in 1858, and disappeared mysteriously from a postal steamer called the Dresden in 1913. Somewhere between dinner and breakfast he vanished from the ship, in the middle of the English Channel, while en route to London. What is known is that the fifty-five year old millionaire had dinner on his own and retired to his cabin at ten o’clock, leaving word that he was to be woken at 06:15 the next morning.

His bed was found perfectly made, with his unused nightshirt laid out, and his hat and overcoat were neatly folded on the afterdeck. A terribly disfigured corpse was found in the North Sea ten days later, and his identity confirmed by his son Eugen, based on personal effects.

The corpse was found near Norway, but the ship had sailed from Antwerp to London, not exactly close—there was a report on October 11th 2013 that Diesel’s body had first been found by a small Dutch fishing boat at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary in Zeeland, but cast overboard due to rough seas.

In the early XXth century, the world was still the province of colonial powers, and at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, the Otto company exhibited a diesel engine running on peanut oil.

The French wanted it for their African colonies, where petroleum fuels were not abundant. Diesel himself had a noble vision for his engine—he saw it powering the agri-industry in remote parts of the world, and imagined a world where farming became self-sufficient—farmers would go their own fuel, refine it using simple methods, and use it to power the engines that operated tractors and harvesters.

Rudolph Diesel became a strong advocate for biodiesel, which is understandable for three reasons. First, his engine was fuel-agnostic, and he saw no particular advantage in advocating petroleum products. Second, it was a huge untapped market, which could greatly increase his company revenue.

Finally, it made perfect sense to locally produce the fuels that would be used in farm areas—although no one spoke of carbon footprint back then, or terrorism in the Mid-East, hindsight can be revealing on the consequences for both.

Enter John D. Rockefeller and Big Oil. A biodiesel success would scupper Standard Oil of New Jersey, and the huge US business bet on petroleum hydrocarbons.

Or… enter the German secret service, worried that Diesel would help Churchill with his plans for the development of a British submarine.

Or…

The suicide theory is very unlikely, and in those days a problem could be created or resolved by one man with a briefcase.

And although they found the hat and coat, the briefcase is missing to this day.

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

 

 

 

 

The Smell Test

July 22, 2017

Like the rule of thumb, the smell test is one of those magical tricks that help you make a good decision quickly.

Why is this important? Because many people who make a quick decision regret it. Does it pass the smell test? If your heart screams ‘no’, believe it and don’t get sweet-talked—walk away.

In the West, our guilty conscience, environmental concern, and disposable income, have given a massive boost to the word ‘organic’. Organic once meant a molecule that contains carbon—not simple compounds like carbon dioxide, but complex proteins and polysaccharides—nowadays, in common English, it means free ‘of industrial fertilizers and pesticides.’

There is the small matter that without these we would all be starving, and the population of today’s world would be far smaller. But animal welfare, traceability, and local produce are all compelling values for Generation Y, which can afford them, so ‘organic’ is cash.

In the US state of Michigan, one company sells USDA Organic-labelled eggs—ten percent of the American market—from an agri-complex that packs hens at three per square foot. If you like  SI units, then it’s almost thirty of the poor things in every square meter.

Even worse, USDA Organic standards require that animals get fresh air, sunlight, and exercise. When I write these articles from home, my window is usually wide open—and through it come the noises of the chickens next door.

Unlike those sold by Eggland (sounds more like Eggjail to me), where the animals are confined in nine rectangular barns, the hens in the next yard come out of their coop in the early morning, advertising their freedom, and the cocks often color the day with their raucous sounds. Stray cats occasionally prowl the perimeter, causing avian mayhem—these are organic chickens.

In central Africa, the silliest, most benign, and defenseless creature is being barbarously hunted. It’s name may sound like a musical instrument, but the pangolin is a  nocturnal mammal that feeds off insects.

The animal harks back to an ancient time, since it is the only mammal whose body is covered in scales. And it has no teeth—to compensate for that, it swallows small stones that remain in the stomach and help it digest the ants and termites it eats.

Some pangolins are tree-dwellers, and some live on the forest floor. All have one defense mechanism in common—they roll up into a ball, leaving their hard scales on the outside as body armor—just like a woodlouse.

In India, a pair of lions are baffled by the pangolin’s scaly resistance.

For millions of years, this strategy has been a winner—enter humans, who just pick up the scaly ball and make off with it.

Pangolin meat is popular in central Africa, but above all, the poor creature is desirable in Asia. When China and Southeast Asia take an interest in an animal, conservationists shudder.

In this case, Orientals consider the meat a delicacy, and decided the scales have medicinal value. The Chinese grind the scales into a powder and prescribe them to nursing women and as a cure for psoriasis. In Pakistan, the scales are thought to have spiritual powers and ward off evil. The composition of the scales is well-established—keratin, which makes up fingernails and hair. How about saving your clippings instead, people?

As a consequence of these ludicrous myths, there is now a large export trade from Africa, since Asian stocks are dwindling rapidly.

Unsurprisingly, since ‘hunting’ pangolin is like shooting fish in a barrel, and since numbers in Asia are very low, the shy and inoffensive animal is protected.

Once again, like the greedy chicken farmer, illegal traffickers profit—the pangolin is the most widely traded species, with up to 2.7 million animals being killed every year. And as everywhere, there’s a human food chain, starting with the ‘hunter’ and ending with the politician—in fourteen central African nations where killing pangolins is illegal, the animals are mercilessly hunted. Techniques include digging out burrows, use of fire and chemicals to force animals to surface, and trapping with wire snares.

But we don’t just torture and kill animals, we murder entire ecosystems. The Yamuna river in Uttarakhand was described by a Moghal emperor in the XVIth century as better than nectar.

The Yamuna is a sacred river, just like the Ganges, and on its banks sits the Taj Mahal. There are two hundred and fifty miles of Yamuna before it reaches Delhi, and in that upstream reach, the river is as beautiful as it was five centuries ago.

But as it wends through the Indian capital, its pristine waters are replaced by urban and industrial effluents, killing a river that is declared a living entity by the high court of Uttarakhand.

Hundreds of years ago, the Portuguese sailors, and those who followed them, were responsible for the extinction of the pássaro doido—the dodo. My nose tells me we haven’t learned anything since then.

Oooh, that smell.

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

Yum

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.

“Digital?”

“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.


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