Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


April 13, 2019

After strenuous denials about one week ago, which of course meant the diametrical opposite, Equador opened its er… door on Thursday and pushed Julian Assange out.

The founder of Wikileaks didn’t go willingly, but the Brits arrested him nonetheless and presented him to Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

The whole affair took on a farcical dimension when it emerged that Assange had violated embassy orders ‘to pay for his own health care and to clean up after his cat.’

In addition, Assange had been repeatedly warned to stop Wikileaks intercepting the president’s private messages, and had apparently failed to comply.

Refuge from extradition requests from Sweden and the US was granted in 2012 by Equador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, who granted the whistle-blower asylum in the country’s London embassy—an immediate thorn in the side of Equador’s relationship with the UK and US.

The fall in oil prices led to Moreno’s replacement by a more right-wing president—ironically called Lénin Moreno, literally the dusky Lenin.

Assange’s star rose briefly during the orang-u-tan campaign, when Trump publicly asked Wikileaks to reveal a set of Clinton emails. I confess that until this moment I was a Wikileaks virgin, but having spent the last fifteen minutes trawling the site, I can’t understand what the email fuss was about—all in all, pretty sophomoric stuff.

That was when the bizarre Australian should have negotiated a presidential pardon—it’s way too late now.

Equador needed the IMF, and the US pulls the strings on that front, so it was only a matter of time before the ‘stone in the president’s shoe’ was cast away.

The feline angle brought in the comedic element, and prompted my theory that the arch-leaker was shopped by his cat.

Details about one of the Amazon cloud data centers, sourced through Wikileaks.

Despite Assange’s predicament—extradition to the US followed by a show trial and a substantial period in prison—Wikileaks is going strong. Recent leaks include a list of Amazon cloud data centers.

Why is that interesting? Because allegedly Amazon works closely with the CIA and the US Department of Defense, partly because it’s one of the few organizations with appropriate security clearance. Contracts to develop cloud infrastructure are very substantial, and few beyond the IT community and the secret world know anything about Amazon’s alleged role in such matters.

One leaked document claims Amazon not only refuses to reveal the physical locations of its data centers, but obfuscates these further by using different names, such as Vandalay Industries, an obscure Seinfeld reference.

The partners page on Assange’s creation lists some of the most prestigious news organizations in the world, including Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the New York Times.

Wikileaks appears to be itself under attack—a number of links to supposed CIA computer viruses are broken, simply reporting a ‘content encoding error.’ One such link describes AngelFire, an attack designed to infiltrate the Microsoft Windows operating system, using a sophisticated five-part package.

Just as the Guardian publishes the long read, this the long view. If you enjoy a good hack…

The message from the world’s great powers is clear: cyberwar is the new battleground—it’s a big boys’ game, played by Americans, Russians, and Chinese, with some help from the UK, North Korea, and Israel.

For the planet’s rulers, the cloud is the ultimate repository, containing top secret materials, details on the earth’s citizens—I’m not a quickfire conspiracy theorist, but I firmly believe we’re all there.

In a nutshell, ‘We know where you live.’

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


March 4, 2019

The history of the New World is littered with Spanish shipwrecks.

The very first on record happened at the first hours of Christmas Day, 1492—the Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepción, flagship of Columbus, ran aground on the island of Hispaniola. In my latest book Clear Eyes, I describe it in detail.

The ship was steady, the cabin boy proud of his mission. Punta Santa was one league west-north-west of the flagship’s present position. The grumete held the tiller firm, remembering the instructions of the helmsman. Around him the sea was like glass. The current gently turned the ship and imperceptibly took it toward the shore and the sandbank drew nearer—the boy should have heard the surf and understood what it meant because you could hear the waves roar from one league away and the ship was much closer now but he was still dreaming of glory when the helm suddenly tilted as the hundred tonner slowly made itself fast on the ground. Then all around him were shouts as the sailor slapped him and knocked him flying, and Columbus emerged from his cabin bleary-eyed, his smock flapping and his white hair in disarray.

The Santa Maria was run aground by human error, and Columbus then used the timber to build a fort—he called it La Navidad, or Christmas. After he left for Castile, the Taino people killed the garrison and burned the fort, eliminating any trace of the ship.

The Spanish went on to lose six hundred eighty more vessels over the next centuries. For those who dream of colonialists decorated with mustache and goatee strutting the deck before bravely fighting  Bluebeard, the stats disappoint.

Of all the ships lost, only a handful succumbed to pirates—most were caught in hurricanes, storms, or other weather events, which explains why little is known about their disappearance.

The Spanish ministry of culture recently sponsored a study of the lost galleons, including ships that sailed under Cortez, Pizarro, and Nuñez de Balboa—the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The study focuses on the Caribbean, drawing on the copious records that exist in the archives of Seville, and reports sinkings in Panama, Cuba, Bahamas, and the US Atlantic seaboard.

The aim of the work is not to identify the wrecks, which would encourage bounty hunters, but to safeguard the galleons, and protect them from accidental damage—this is a noble intent, but I suspect information on locations will leak quicker than the sinking galleons.

The research group is headed by marine archeologist Carlos Leon, who explains that over ninety percent of the wrecks foundered due to bad weather. In Cuban waters alone, 249 ships sank, and off the coast of Texas, Florida, and Mississippi, another one hundred fifty-three.

The Portuguese ‘naus’ that did the ‘Carreira da India’, or India Road, headed in the opposite direction, but suffered a similar fate. The maritime route to the real Indies did not include hurricanes—these typically form off West Africa and move across the Atlantic, blossoming as they feed on the warm waters of the North Equatorial Current.

Instead, the fleets of Lusitania were smitten by the waters of the Cape of Good Hope, more often than not living up to its original name—’Cabo das Tormentas’, or Cape of Storms. The long return journey up the West African coast, following the Benguela current, and then the ‘torna viagem’, the route out to sea up to the Azores, were also deathtraps for the heavily laden vessels.

As the Portuguese explorers ventured further east in the XVIth century, they too came across tai fung—Chinese for ‘great wind’. Just as the hurricanes laid low the Spanish galleons, so the typhoons of China and the Philippines wreaked havoc on the Portuguese ships.

In 1735-1736, a Portuguese author, Bernardo Brito, also published a study of the maritime losses of his nation—he called it ‘História Trágico-Marítima’, or a history of maritime tragedies. Only two volumes were published, although there is evidence the author prepared five—perhaps it was just too much tragedy, and I suspect the massive earthquake that destroyed downtown Lisbon in 1755 obliterated the missing manuscripts for ever.

The Spanish galleons were often laden with gold and silver, where the Portuguese ships would bring home cargoes of spices, exotic woods, and other Eastern wonders.

Through the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, the galleons increased greatly in size. Where the the entire crew of the first expedition of Columbus consisted of eighty-six men, distributed over the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, two hundred years later, the huge ships that sailed the Spanish Main had between five hundred and one thousand people aboard—when one sank, it was a huge human tragedy.

The same scaling applied to the Portuguese vessels—in 1495, Vasco da Gama took four ships to India, with a crew of 180, two vessels limped back—the death toll was appalling. As the potential of the East increased with the measure of the Portuguese Empire, so the ships became increasingly larger.

The Spanish research holds the promise of a digital version of the study, with interactive links to databases—it’s the sort of project that cries out for a cellphone app aimed at kids and adults.

The more we teach our children about the past, the less we’ll have to worry about the tinpot dictator wannabees that stain the present.

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

The Golden Triangle

February 17, 2019

Life is a triangle made of wealth, love, and health. The dynamics vary as you get older—the first two are thin on the ground until you reach your twenties, the last becomes increasingly scarce as you age.

One thing you can be sure of is you rarely have all three at the same time—if that’s where you are, my friend, you’re in a wonderful place—and one that doesn’t last.

About fifteen years ago I started thinking seriously about ageing—we live longer now, unless we’re felled by the reaper, so definitions are in order—particularly in the age of euphemism, where old people are pensioners, seniors, mature, seasoned, or in late adulthood

My first criterion was whether you had any pills on you—excluding MDMA and birth control (ladies only, otherwise see the section on dementia below). The second was if you had more than one thing wrong with you, and the third whether your ailments took more than three weeks to disappear.

I started classifying typical diseases by decade—I could be more proactive if I knew what to expect. Of course, hospitals and insurers the world over have those records, but they’re surprisingly hard to come by.

Business Insider reviews the panorama for Australia—probably a good proxy for the Western world. Below forty years of age you lead a blessed life—although cash is probably scarce. As for love, I’m sure you’re familiar with roulette.

So here’s the skinny: during your forties, look forward to back pain, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. In your fifties, expect eye problems, and a higher prevalence of cancers—mainly colon and breast, but also prostate. The sixties is a golden age for operations, including cataracts and joints. Oh, and then there’s coronary heart disease, chronic respiratory problems, and lung cancer. When you reach your seventies, the danger of falls is greater—think fractures, injuries, and disability. The list extends into the eighties (it won’t in Africa), and introduces dementia as a major player.

Aussies in their eighties typically have five chronic diseases—presumably the accompanying dementia doesn’t help them recall what they are.

Some years ago, an American in his seventies told me over a glass of red wine that ‘old age is not for sissies.’ I quipped, “It is in San Francisco”—but his point was well taken.

Percentage of different causes of death in the UK—changes over seventy years compiled by the Nuffield Trust (data from the Office of National Statistics).

The chart looks a  bit like Joseph’s technicolor hospital quilt, and you must always be suspicious of percentages—like a bikini, what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital.

The main finding from the data is that although the population has increased by fifty percent in the last seventy years, the total number of deaths has only increased by ten percent. The chart reveals three striking things.

First, the increase in lung disease—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which makes it increasingly hard to breathe—has increased by about 40%. Please note that percentages of percentages are an even more dangerous game. To even the score for my bikini comment, I would say these are like men—properly manipulated, you can get them to do anything you want.

As an example, you often see ads stating Drug X reduces your risk of a heart attack by 20%. If your risk level is 1 in 10, or 10%, then it goes down to 80% of (times) 10%. In other words, you’ve moved from 1 in 10 to 1 in 12.5, which is an improvement, but hardly an earth-shaking event.

What strikes me here is that COPD is the artist formerly known as smoker’s lung, emphysema, chronic bronchitis etc etc. For it to have increased when smoking has decreased so significantly is food for thought.

Dementia has quadrupled percentually—if the number of deaths has only increased by ten percent, then that’s a big change—we’re four times madder than we were.

These things have gone up at the expense of two ogres—heart disease and strokes.

The final sinner is the number one offender, up from 17% to 28%, over a quarter of the death toll. The Big C is also the weirdest of all. I remember in almost graphic detail the lectures on cancer when I was at university—more than I can say for much of the other stuff.

Cancer cells are the wild ones, the equivalent of societal misfits. They don’t follow rules, they don’t make concessions. They don’t listen to others, they don’t stick with the pack. In many ways, they’re a throwback to single-celled organisms—they fend for themselves.

Because of these traits, cancer cells inside an organism clump to form tumors, blocking, bashing, and bursting whatever gets in the way. They drift off, and the body’s transport system obligingly conveys them to wherever they’re headed.

Once arrived at their new destination, they barge in through the door and set about destroying their new house.

After everything’s been ruined, there’s no home left—it’s the cancer’s turn to die. There’s no better description of Mr. C, and no better display of understated British humor, than the poem written by the eminent physiologist J.B.S. Haldane in 1964. He died that very same year.

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

The Shift

February 3, 2019

In the historical sense of the word, the United States is not an empire, if you exclude peccadilloes like Puerto Rico and Guam. There are only five of these ‘little sins’ that are permanently inhabited, and the US has designated them unincorporated territories—by and large, they probably fall into the Trumpian ‘shithole country’ definition, as evidenced by the current administration’s treatment of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria—even the name is Hispanic, for chrissakes!

But the definition of ’empire’ that held true for Rome, Baghdad, Spain, and Britain is no longer valid. In the good old days, the historical context was simple—a nation with possessions beyond its conterminous boundaries technically qualified as an empire, all the more so if  those possessions were seized forcefully from their current but not necessarily rightful owner.

This definition held true as long as the ruling power had administrative rights over the subjugated territory. By that definition, a small country located at the edge of western Europe holds the record for the longest-lived empire in the history of the world.

The Portuguese king John I, whose wife was Philippa of Lancaster, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt—Jean de Gand, so-named because of his birthplace, Ghent—conquered the city of Ceuta in 1415. King John’s son, Prince Henry the Navigator, was the great promoter of the golden age of maritime discoveries, and Henry’s nephew, the Perfect Prince, took that work and exploded it into an empire that reached from India to Brazil.

The fruits were gathered mainly by his two successors, Manuel I and John III, by which time the empire reached parts of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, and the Portuguese had colonized the small island of Macao in the South China Sea.

Macao was the last European colony to be returned to China, in 1999. Towards the end of this video of the ceremony, you will spot the current president of the United Nations, then prime minister of Portugal.

The Portuguese empire lasted five hundred eighty-four years. It is most unlikely that any empire on this earth will ever beat that record, not least because massive empires of subjugation will not reappear.

We could explore the possibility of empires in space—these are the domain of science fiction, popularized by movies such as Star Wars. In his brilliant exercise in clairvoyance, Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clarke sets forth his predictions. Unlike the video below, his book doesn’t stray into the concept of enslaving chimps—I would rate that as morally untenable for society—let’s just keep on slaughtering our companions from other species in the usual way.

In the book, which is an obligatory read, Clarke discusses intergalactic empires. There’s a chapter entitled Space, The Unconquerable, where the visionary who gave us the communications satellite and all of its consequences pours ice-cold water on Star Wars.

The first sentence reads ‘Man will never conquer Space.’ The obstacle is distance, and therefore time. A conversation with someone on Mars is possible, but your words will take three minutes to reach that planet, so when you say “Hi”, the reply will arrive six minutes later. The difference between solar space and stellar space is enormous. Clarke’s analogy?

Imagine a world in which the closest object to you is only five feet away – and then there is nothing else until you’ve traveled 1,000 miles.

In practice, the ruler of some intergalactic empire could rule nothing—his orders would take decades to arrive, and resistance would take an identical time to be reported. This model became obvious within the great empires on our planet—in the days of sail, news of battles won and lost in Asia could take years to reach Europe, and colonial rule mutated into colonial autonomy.

Empires today are about economic control, albeit with a latent threat of violence—as evidenced by nuclear weapons proliferation. And in that context, the shift is clear. More than one Briton has told me, sotto voce, that a key reason for voting Brexit was that they could not abide a Europe economically owned by Germany.

The US and China have clearly grasped that the battle for empire is an economic one, not a nuclear confrontation. Putin, who understands Russia plays in the economic little league, ranking number twelve in the world, right next to Spain, opts for arms. The Moscow Times, in an article published on July 13th 2018, claims Russia is the sixth world economy, leapfrogging half a dozen places from official numbers—I don’t link fake news, just like they didn’t link any true news.

Economic empires, just like their historical predecessors, cross borders. Britain may own Gibraltar (they hate hearing it said like that), but Spain owns Heathrow Airport. France may have lost Trafalgar and Waterloo, but the French energy giant EDF owns four British suppliers, including London Electricity. China’s Three Gorges Corporation is using Portugal’s EDP to develop renewable energy in Brazil—in a way, they want their own Macao, but this time as a gateway to the West.

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


January 5, 2019

It’s a thing at the start of every new year.

The italics highlight millennial-speak. Last weekend I was writing some dialog for ‘The Hourglass’ and since there are three teenagers involved I decided to improve my knowledge of the relevant vocabulary—do note that present-day teens are post-millennials—though I’m not sure if that’s, like, even a thing, said no one ever!

Take a pew—the boundaries among generations, as defined by the Pew Foundation.

In fact I even went to a party years ago where you were supposed to write out your New Year’s resolution on a yellow post-it for all to peruse after midnight. My resolution was to stop going to parties like that one.

Sorry not sorry!

So now I have to take a crash-course in millennial, because my teen dialog needs a makeover.

Moving right along… for many folks, the annual resolution is both obvious and recurrent—diet. Let’s face it, for all but the most monastic among us, there comes a time when it behoves one to lose a little weight—and January is often that time.

Alcohol, a mainstay of Western Christmas cheer, can take some of the blame, but not all. And yet, it’s a societal paradox that practicing Muslims from a comparable income bracket are no thinner than those of us who enjoy a nice glass of tinto—I guess it’s all those sodas—fat without the buzz.

I am fortunate not to have a battle with weight—but there is the occasional struggle. My approach is thermodynamic, but with a carb twist.

Let’s begin with the basics: food. Any creature on this planet should consider food on two levels—the first is what it needs (or wants) to consume, and the second is that it is itself in fact food. Humans don’t consider the latter, since we no longer have natural predators.

As an aside, the odd lion(ess) who does capture a human for the pot must despair at the preparation required, just as we do with a particularly bony fish. I can picture the young of the pride being instructed on the perils of accidentally eating the cellphone or the fly zipper.

Food can be represented by many indicators, including, mass, taste, smell, composition, and energy content. On that basis, the concept of losing weight along thermodynamic lines appears straightforward—since energy, like mass, can neither be created nor destroyed, you reduce energy intake. The zingy acronym is CICO—Calories In, Calories Out.

Food can be further split into fat, carbs, and proteins—the general objective of weight loss is to reduce the first two rather than muscle mass. As often happens in these articles, I start writing about something, and after a couple of sentences where I’m dazzled by my originality, my next thought is ‘I wonder who’s done this before.’

Oh, only about a million people. First off, one huge red herring is the gym. This is music to the ear of the majority of people in the world, who simply hate exercise. An article in the MIT Technology Review emphasizes the futility of working out.

Want to lose a pound of fat? You can work it off by hiking to the top of a 2,500-story building. Or by running 60 miles. Or by spending 7 hours cleaning animal stalls… Exercise very hard for one hour (swimming, running, or racquetball) and you’ll lose about one ounce of fat. Light exercise for an hour (gardening, baseball, or golf) will lose you a third of an ounce. That number is small because fat is a very energy-dense substance: it packs about 4,000 food calories per pound, the same as gasoline, and 15 times as much as in TNT.

I thoroughly enjoy sports, but I too did those calculations years ago, during one of my periodic weight tiffs. If you use a machine such as an elliptical cross trainer, you get through a few hundreds of calories in an hour—that’s a couple of ounces of fat, but there’s no guarantee you’re losing fat. A half hour on a cross trainer equates to a half bottle of tinto.

The Physics Diet provides support to CICO, and explains how the author lost thirty pounds in less than six months by cutting out lunch and snacks.

But the whole mass balance thing is questioned by the self-appointed ‘diet doctor’, who argues that the first law of thermodynamics has nothing to do with weight loss. The site exists to sell a book, but who am I to criticize that? However, phrasing such as “What the CICO people think it means is that if you reduce calories in, you will lose weight. Of course, it means nothing of the sort” never fails to irritate me, just as “Anyone in their right mind” + any verb, and similar fallacies.

The doc’s thesis is that insulin is the key—without low insulin fats are not mobilized. But the diet doctor diagrams are disingenuous—an all-or-nothing choice which dictates that without low insulin, reducing calorie intake reduces metabolism. If your diet is high in carbohydrates, that may be the case, although a 2018 article in the prestigious journal Cell suggests the hormone Leptin is also involved in weight loss.

I don’t like to be excessively prescriptive, so my first dietary step was doing a simple mass balance and finding out what could be cut without severely impairing my quality of life. Wine is a design criterion, but the golden rule was to cut my food intake by one third. Another way to balance the food and wine dynamic works if you only drink while you eat—by eating less, you drink less, or vice-versa.

Diets come in fads, just as skirt heights do, and the current whim is protein. Marketing takes this to a new high (low), frightening people about whether they are eating enough of it. The P word is running riot—you can buy protein-enriched cheese, protein coffee, and even protein water.

If you worry whether you’re eating enough protein, you’re eating too much of it. In an article published this week by the Guardian, the numbers are plain to see.

…the puzzle is not that we should crave protein, but that our protein anxiety has become so acute at a time when the average person in developed countries has a surfeit of protein in their diet – at least according to official guidelines, which recommend a minimum of 0.8g of protein a day per kilogram of body weight. According to 2015 data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the average person in the US and Canada gets a full 90g a day, nearly twice the recommended amount (based on a supposedly normal adult weight of 62kg). The average European is not far behind with 85g of protein a day, and the average Chinese person consumes 75g.

Protein is the last of the three major food groups to be caught in the headlights. Fats are evil, carbs are nasty, hi-fat-lo-carb fans fight lo-fat-hi-carb champs, and we’ve lost sight of food and replaced it with molecules.

The Grauniad calls its piece the Long Read, and the article does justice to that name.

But it’s on fleek.

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


December 29, 2018

Manny is a French bulldog. Like thousands of other pets, he has an Instagram account—but unlike most of his fellow social media mavens, Manny can make up to fifteen thousand bucks for a sponsored post.

As we greet 2019, animals have social media accounts, cars dispense with drivers, and robots fight wars.

Human evolution is a slow process—it took two and a half million years for the genus Homo to appear—but we can expect stunning technological revolutions to continue at breakneck speed in the coming year.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ This became known as his third law—the other two are interesting also, as you would expect in a book entitled Profiles of the Future.

As an aside, I haven’t read this book (yet). Immediately after writing the sentence above, I searched for the title on my tablet app, but Kindle didn’t have it. I went onto Amazon—the UK site lists the book. I tried the US site. Hmm… that has it too. I bought it without realizing I was logged in with a different Amazon account. Weird. Since that account is not associated with my Kindle, the new purchase wouldn’t appear on the tablet. I canceled and got a refund. I logged on with my regular account. The book wasn’t available on US Amazon. The digiplot thickens…

Now, don’t ever change the email of your Kindle account without some deep thought—you lose all your library. So that’s out. Turns out my address for the account linked to the tablet was in the United States (the other wasn’t). Why? No clue. In fact, there was no address there, only a country (the US), but for copyright reasons that’s all it took to screw up my purchase—until I found this. I enjoy a little hackery, and everything worked great—the tab is now called Preferences, not Setttings. I love the guy’s made up address—I’ve often done that for other needs, but I always use the White House zip code.

The best thing about this trick is hopping digitally from country to country—I’m writing a chapter in ‘The Hourglass’ called Cheat the Robot, so this couldn’t be more timely. The point is that once a Kindle book is in, it’s in. If you change your country to effect a purchase, the Kindle library doesn’t delete past purchases that violate copyright due to your new location—I’ve just become a digital jet-setter.

Okay, back to Uncle Arthur. If you search for android on Google, it’s tough to retrieve the classic definition—a robot with human appearance—because Google just wants to sell you their operating system.

But in the field of communications, we are reaching an android stage—I speak, of course, about deepfake. Let’s start with a real peach.

The incredibly fast development of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, allows superb face mapping. What used to take months and millions now goes for virtually nothing—the implications for fake news are remarkable, since video is the last bastion of trust.

ACC3, Clarke’s third law, applies—a huge proportion of the lost souls out there, the Trump and Brexit bases, the Bolsonaro and Duterte disciples, will be perfectly fooled by this technology—to them, this will be real.

Libraries for neural networks are freely available—for instance Tensorflow, developed by the Google Brain team. The detail on the website is not for the faint of heart; if you skim it, you’ll see I’m right—the pace of human evolution is not keeping up.

The Tensorflow library was used to create a program called FakeApp, which in turn was used to map faces. Google gave us free libraries to apply neural networks to real world problems—humans rejoiced and applied it to pornography.

Homo sapiens has used every applicable form of art and science to further porn, whether as a simple static representation of sexual organs, objects, and acts, or as animations. Film allowed porn to penetrate, if you excuse the pun, into a new era, computers (to use another appalling pun) gave it a leg up, and the web became the democratization of pornography. The current rage is to replace the faces of porn stars with those of celebrities, which fulfills many a male fantasy—I underscore male, although women’s fantasies are also fair game.

If—and I boldly caution you with the word if—you wish to see the scale of the issue, just type deepfake porn into Google and then click the ‘images’ link. Do avoid trying this at the dinner table, or when explaining the internet to Auntie Ethel.

Several companies are (deeply) involved in deepfake porn—one of them, surprisingly enough, is Pornhub (I won’t link it). Among other things, it advertises the real sex video of Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels.

A word of advice: unless you’re that way inclined, don’t click on the site itself—instead, just google it with an (in)appropriate search term and peruse the results. Those kinds of sites may well plant malware on the machine you’re using, and we wouldn’t want Auntie Ethel’s new Christmas tablet to explode with a digital STD right before the year-end fireworks.

As we close out 2018, don’t forget it’s a dark and sinuous web out there—happy hunting and Happy New Year!

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

Taking the Piss

December 15, 2018

Science always looks for patterns—it’s actually a human obsession. Games that line up cards, fill rows or columns, or match numbers are ubiquitous.

The deviation from patterns is also behind some of our fundamental discoveries, including electromagnetism—combining the two produces movement, and moving a magnet through a coil generates electricity.

Nature is rife with patterns—one of my favorites is the number of heartbeats over a mammal’s lifetime. From mouse to mongoose to moose, that number is similar—the heart muscle governs your lifespan, unless the gremlins get you first.

Another striking pattern is related to er… piss.

Your average peeing time is about twenty seconds. There is no evidence that this varies with gender, so my first question is ‘why are there always queues outside women’s toilets?’ A related question is whether the advent of unisex restrooms is discriminatory for men—there will be lots more guys hopping around waiting to relieve themselves.

The fascinating thing is that cats also take twenty seconds to have a pee, as apparently do elephants. Researchers at Georgia Tech, in the US, discovered a kind of ULU—the Universal Law of Urine. In experiments undertaken with thirty-two species, they found that 6.6 pounds is the weight cutoff threshold, if you excuse the pun.

Mammals above that threshold obey the twenty-second rule. Now, before I expound further on the golden delights, a caveat. I have a long experience in observing hound ablutions, and I assure you dogs are an exception to the ULU rule.

That’s not to say an uncommitted canine won’t micturate by the rules, but when it takes to the street, a hound is on a territorial mission—if dogs took twenty seconds to mark territory, given they are prone to doing so perhaps ten times, depending on the turnover of recently passed (sorry) competitors, their bladders would be capacious indeed.

So here’s the pattern and the paradox: a cat’s bladder is 3600 times smaller than an elephant’s—the pachyderm bladder holds thirty-eight (US) pints. So how in the world can Ellie have a five-gallon whiz in twenty seconds?

The answer lies in the length of the urethra. Fluid flow rates depend on the pressure gradient between the ends of the tube and on the resistance of the tube. This was analyzed in the early XIXth century by Poiseuille, who studied blood flow in humans. The French scientist considered horizontal flow, and a longer tube actually offers more resistance, but the key to the tale of the cat and the elephant is vertical discharge.

The larger bladder volume creates a greater head of pressure, and the length of the urethra creates a higher pressure gradient due to gravity.

The evolutionary consequences of this are far-reaching. In nature, a predator is always around the corner—it doesn’t pay to take too long to have a piss.

To stimulate your scientific quest, I am reproducing the first figure from the published article below. This, my friends, is serious piss!

Illustration of various aspects of the study, taken from the paper published by PNAS.

But fear not, much like the orange man (who may well graduate into an orange suit), my forays into the golden shower didn’t stop here—from mammal pee, I went way down the line to insects. How low can you get?

You guessed it, we’re back to Georgia Tech—with their penchant for piss, they should give Donald an honorary doctorate.

An expert in extreme biophysics discovered a bug that pees faster than a cheetah can sprint.

The insect is appropriately called a sharpshooter, and when a tree is suitably stocked, the resulting emission is known as ‘leafhopper rain.’ The little buggers (or is that piss artists) shoot at twenty times the acceleration of gravity. At two hundred meters per second squared, their jet also outsprints the cheetah by a factor of twenty.

There may be cutting-edge engineering lessons to be learned here, and then again there may be Ig Nobels waiting in the wings, if you excuse the pun.

Either way, that’s quite enough pissing about for one day.

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

Fish Don’t Fart

December 8, 2018

A glib statement.

When I first made it, I had no idea whether it was actually true. In the words of Abraham the Astronomer, when he addressed the bizarre theories of Christopher Columbus in The India Road, ‘A set of opinions uncontaminated by facts.’

The motivation for the statement, and for this piece, was flatulence—specifically bovine farts, which make a substantial contribution to greenhouse gases.

When we look to 2050, at which point there will be ten billion souls on this planet, beef cattle presents a dual challenge—food supply and climate change.

Bovines are our most inefficient use of food resources—one pound of beef requires about seven pounds of feed—double the requirement for pigs, four times what’s needed for chickens, and six times less efficient than raising salmon.

A blueprint for feeding the planet in 2050.

The World Resources Institute, a DC-based think tank, recently estimated that we need 56% more food by 2050, and that greenhouse gas emissions must fall by two-thirds—meat and dairy are responsible for sixty percent of the emissions from agriculture. WRI states that in the US beef provides 3% of the calories and accounts for half the emissions.

In Brazil, 21% of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to methane, aka farts. A further 20% result from transportation of cattle. Of course, with Bolsonaro wanting to pull Brazil out of the Paris agreement, as he plays his childish game of ‘Tropical Trump’, this will all become fake news.

When compared to carbon dioxide, methane has a huge effect on climate—twenty-three times more, pound for pound. A cow releases about two hundred pounds of methane per year—high school chemistry tells us that equals a gallon of daily farting.

Raising a cow for one year is the same as driving close to eight thousand miles, so the case for reducing cattle farming is strong. As an aside, for climate deniers like the orange man, the only reason so many cows are farmed is because people eat beef and dairy products—if we accept the premise that methane is a powerful (and pongy) greenhouse gas, then cattle ranching equals man-made.

Eating less beef means a more energy-efficient food production system, and a simultaneous and substantial reduction in greenhouse gases—but I’ll bet there will be a grass roots revolution, if you excuse the pun, if anyone tries to take away your cheeseburger.

WRI mentions plant burgers, but there’s no reference to aquaculture. However, fish may be one of the solutions for climate-smart food. But what about fishy flatulence? Do our fin-furnished friends produce rectal turbulence, deliver anal salutes, answer the call of the wild burrito, or any of the other 147 synonyms of fart?

I’m always amazed by how many people are drawn to questions of this nature. The present consensus is that fish by and large don’t exhume the dinner corpse, but there is a notable exception.

The herring is a farter extraordinaire—apparently schools of herring excel at turd tremors, and scientists believe that these fish farts are used for orientation at night.

Herring farts have in the past been mistaken for enemy submarines, and nearly caused a war between Sweden and Russia.

The whole thing was first published by researchers from the Scottish Association of Marine Science in 2003. The paper is clearly tongue in (butt) cheek, since it defines the acronym FRT (Fast Repetitive Tick) to refer to the bubbly bonanza.

The authors were awarded an Ig Nobel in 2004. In their article they speculate that fish leading the school may use farts to guide the other fish at night—apparently no farting takes place during daytime, when visual cues are abundant.

Herring belong to a group of fish called small pelagics, which include sardines, mackerel, and anchovy. These fish form huge schools, cover great distances, and move up and down the water column in search of food and to avoid predators. None of these characteristics make them suitable for cultivation, but that still leaves a range of other species to grace your dinner plate.

Fart-free fish farms thus appear to hold great promise in our simultaneous quest to feed the world and stay cool.

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

Dog Bless

December 2, 2018

“Can an animal be a true Christian?” The question was posed by ‘True Disciple’, an associate professor at the Landover Baptist University, and cites Mark 16:15-16, where the new testament urges us to ‘preach the gospel to every creature.’

The website is a spoof of a fundamentalist Baptist university—a thinly disguised version of Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell.

This is an example of the ‘seriously but not literally’ conundrum. The hilariously anxious professor, who is neither fond of ‘cathlyck heresy’ nor orthography, ponders his dilemma. “Can a grasshopper even understand who Jesus is? Do jellyfish burn in Hell when they reject Jesus?”

I stumbled upon this general theme a couple of weeks ago, when I posed the hypothetical question ‘I wonder if there are Americans who baptize their dogs’. Yes, yes, I know I should get out more.

But the answer flew into my head. “I bet they do.” The devil found work for idle hands as they frenzied on the cellphone. Yes, dogs do get baptized. And christened.

I found the site worrying at first, then downright side-splitting.   Joining the discussion is a televangelist who pitches his stuff as: “Turn or Burn: Accept Christ or Go to Hell with Rev. Jim Osborne.” Unfortunately, he appears to have attended the same grammar classes as ‘True Disciple’, so his support, for lack of punctuation, guarantees your condemnation.

Well what if your parrot suddenly squawks ”I believe, I believe” should you -Take him to Church for Baptism
-Smite it as a familiar to Satan trying to deceive you
-Move his cage away from the TV when Rev. Jim is Preaching

But of course truth is stranger than fiction, and dogs do get baptized—have a look at the baptism of this chihuahua.

And that’s not the only canine getting a dunk. Pet baptism is on the increase, but bringing religion to animals is not new. St. Francis of Assisi started the trend back in the XIIth century, but the sermon below is from his contemporary, St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231).

My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment. God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm.

At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise.

There is a heated discussion on this topic in some Christian communities, and animal welfare is at its core. Traditionally, the Catholic church taught that animals have no soul—as a consequence, they cannot go to heaven.

Islam has a similar position—here, the justification is accountability—because the admission to heaven or hell is a reckoning and animals are not responsible for their actions, they have access to neither.

Pope Pius IX, who was pontiff in the mid-XIXth century, strongly opposed the creation of the Italian ENPA, and although Pope John Paul II contradicted him in 1990 when he stated that animals are ‘as near to God as men are‘, his successor Benedict was swift to invert that position.

If animals have no soul and are seen only as ‘things’, religious men feel justified in their abuse of our four-legged friends. If they do have a soul, then they must be cleansed of their sins—they must be baptized.

Two philosophical questions arise. First, if animals are baptized so they can be saved, then there must exist (at least) two houses in the afterlife—animal heaven and hell. Second, does this apply only to mammals, or does it run through the animal kingdom?

I admit I hadn’t considered the possibility of marine fauna burning in hell—I envisaged a watery inferno that would torture the fishy sinners with pollution, nuclear waste, and climate change—oh, hang on! They already have that.

I’m guilty of barbecuing our fishy friends on a regular basis, since I am an inveterate piscivore, a chap of the ichthyophagous persuasion. To make matters worse, I am also an  invertebrate piscivore—but I digress.

The skinny, if you excuse the pun, is that I consign teleosts, elasmobranchs, cephalopods, and other pescatarian pearls—and the oysters that contain them—to the fires of hell with unsettling regularity.

From a theological perspective, marine animals are undoubtedly wanton and assiduous sinners. They certainly violate the first commandment, since they appear to have no god and no visible places of worship—neither do they possess a hierarchy that might lead them in prayer. The fourth is out, since the sabbath appears to be just another day—fish have schools on Sunday, but not Sunday School.

As for numbers V to VIII: ‘honor thy father and thy mother’, ‘thou shalt not kill’, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’, and ‘thou shalt not steal’, what can I say? In many species cannibalism is endemic, which zaps V and VI.

When it comes to the Big Seven, we are, if you will, in even deeper water.

A number of fish species are hermaphroditic—if you hurl a grievous insult such as “Fuck You!” at a clownfish, it will reply “Gladly!” Fish can and do change sex to maintain ecological balance, and have no qualms about shagging everything in sight. If you discharge your sperm into water where millions of eggs await fertilization, it takes adultery to a whole new level—every fish is a son of a bitch.

Finally, in the animal kingdom, theft is widely practiced and punishable with death—it’s a kind of salmon sharia law. I come to the sad conclusion that fish are very unlikely to enter the kingdom of heaven. And if they do, given the historical precedent, St. Peter may very well have brought along his fishing rod.

Perhaps I am unconsciously doing god’s work, and I am in fact lucifertarian.

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

The Monster Mash

November 17, 2018

Biotech is one of the very bright spots in our future.

Unlike robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), biotech is an area that doesn’t threaten human employment or automate warfare—instead, it holds vast promise for improving our quality of life.

Miniaturization, which has resulted in the manipulation of molecules and even atoms, bred the field of nanotech—together, biotech and nanotech are the conduit to a brave new world.

For biomedical applications, these technologies have been used to grow new limbs, which is a remarkable achievement.

A 2015 review article from the US National Institutes of Health shows how far biomedical research has developed.

The difference between the natural process of regeneration and the human-engineered one is the fact that nature has no scaffold—many animals are able to regenerate whole limbs, starfish are able to regenerate whole animals. In New York Harbor, 19th century oystermen used to chop up starfish, a hated oyster predator, and chuck the parcels back into the ocean—each fragment would then grow into a new starfish and raid the oyster beds.

The image above may well be the grossest I’ve ever posted, but if you are that way inclined, the excellent NIH review article provides quite a collection.

Biotech has also been used for many decades to make food additives. I was amazed to find out in the late 1970s that sodas contained very little or none of the fruit that name them—lemonade, for instance, sources all its citric acid from fungus—and the biotechnology behind making it was published in 1917!

In recent years, we’ve turned to making food in the lab. It will be some time before biotech synthesizes a juicy Angus steak, but there’s been a lot of work done on hamburgers—the basis behind it is cell culture, and the trick is to get cells to replicate to form tissue.

Maybe it’s worth taking an elevator tour of BIO 101: Plants have no organs, only tissues. Animals are organized (excuse the pun) differently—vertebrates have organs such as a heart, liver, or kidneys. When (if) you eat steak, or Thanksgiving turkey, you are eating muscle tissue, skin (epidermal and dermal tissue), and surrounding fatty tissue. Thanks for taking this course.

If we want to manufacture steak in the lab, it’s a complex proposition—even burgers are a challenge, particularly if we want to have the kind of taste humans look for. Don’t forget that in the lab, we’re building them bottom-up (cells to tissues), not top-down (grinding steak).

One of the strong arguments for making meat from biotech is less cruelty to animals. For the species we eat, life is cruel indeed—cows, pigs, chickens, particularly those raised in industrial agriculture, do not have a pleasant lot.

Pigs in horribly crowded conditions at Fir Tree pig farm, UK (Guardian newspaper, September 2018).

A recent article in the Guardian highlighted the dreadful conditions, including torture, to which farm animals in supposedly developed countries are held.

More lab meat, less industrial agriculture, less torture of farmed animals. The flip-side is that in evolutionary terms it is possible, perhaps even likely, that these species would today be extinct.

Pigs and chickens were domesticated over millennia with a single purpose—the pot. There’s no certainty, had this not been the case, that Sus scrofa domesticus would exist at all—the population would be confined to some wild specimens; I leave it to you, dear reader, to weigh the relative merits of the issue.

Now it has come to fish—in particular, bluefin stem cells are being used to culture tuna—the challenges are multiple, including texture and taste—wild tuna are top predators that eat squid, mackerel, and sardines.

A company called Finless Foods is busy trying to make tuna in the lab. They compete with wild capture, which makes sense, but also with fish farms. Tuna farms are only a couple of decades old, and the cycle of tuna has recently been closed, meaning that it is possible to go from broodstock to hatchery, and then from nursery to growout.

This kind of full cycle approach isn’t used right now—instead, juvenile tuna are captured and caged, then grown on a diet of live fish, usually sardines. This has an effect on  sardine stocks, but it is no different than the effect restored populations of wild bluefin would have.

One consequence of farming bluefin is the shortening of the life cycle—animals are raised until they reach market size and then harvested. A shorter life cycle, and a knowledge of the environmental conditions at the growout site, ensure that farmed tuna have significantly lower levels of mercury than wild blue fin.

In a Washington Post article, the company explains that one of its products, carp paste, would presently cost nineteen thousand dollars per pound. In tuna and salmon, the omega-three fatty acids come from microscopic algae that live in the ocean, and to-date, nothing can replace them. The nutrients that bioengineered tuna cells require to grow must also be sourced from nature—the origin can be tweaked, but a pound of nitrogen is a pound of nitrogen.

With fish farming becoming increasingly more sustainable, more effort needs to be placed on raising tuna rather than catching it, and on improving animal welfare—in the end, it’s unlikely that cell culture of bluefin will lead to a reduction of wild catch.

What it may do is expedite research on early life-stages, providing a better way to culture and source juveniles—that will make a major contribution to sustainability.

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

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