Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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.

C’est Chaud, Y’all

June 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told him how impressed I was with his knife.

“Keep it.”

So I did.

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

Bless Me Father

June 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…cheat
…lose weight
…sleep with another man

and Bing (But It’s Not Google) says:

…wait to get baptized
…praise him for chores

However, the same question in Google India elicits:

…breastfeed him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WannaWeep

May 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Marsh Arabs

May 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Hyena

March 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration of a pregnant African spotted hyena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think on balance we should count ourselves lucky.

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


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