Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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But the definition of ’empire’ that held true for Rome, Baghdad, Spain, and Britain is no longer valid.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.

I Saw You Coming

October 20, 2018

Much of our world revolves around data—a lot of data. I’m talking about petabytes, yottabytes and the like. Put simply, you could fit all the academic research libraries in the US into two petabytes.

What kind of data are we talking about? Everything, including consumer products, news, crime, and weather.

That begs two questions. Where does the data come from, and who pays for it?

The data origin—not its provision—varies: records stored by humans provide a good deal of it. You are for instance able to tap into two hundred million records of crime data for the US. The data you access costs you money, and is the result of millions of security-related filings, including arrests, sentences, and paroles.

A second major source of data are sensors. These can be weather station sensors for wind speed or air temperature, buoys at sea measuring wave height, or satellites sitting high above you as you read these words. You are yourself part of the sensor network—as you read, your cellphone informs the cloud about your latitude and longitude. From that sensed data, we know whether you are sitting (and we know exactly where), and what time it is—if you sit there long enough, we will know where you live, or where you work—in a matter of days we’ll know both.

It’s a simple matter to find out who you live with, based on your coincidence in time and space, and build a relationship tree. If you’re moving slowly as you read these words, we’ll know you’re walking or strolling. If you’re moving fast, we know you’re in a vehicle—discovering whether it’s a car, bus, or train is a trivial matter. We can cross your trajectory with a highway map—if your vehicle makes frequent stops, you’re on a bus—or maybe you’re a UPS driver (but do me a favor, don’t read while you drive). Sensors provide huge amounts of data because they’re measuring stuff all the time.

The final source of data are models—these models don’t sashay on the catwalk, they run on computers, often using those very same sensor outputs to make forecasts—here’s that weather thing again.

The second question is even easier to answer. Who pays for it?

You do. You really should have seen that coming.

As a taxpayer, you fund the justice system, the weather office, the health system, the education system… delete as applicable, depending on where you live—I dearly hope no deletion is required.

When I was in the US, I picked up the latest book by Michael Lewis, called The Fifth Risk. I picked it up in the usual fashion, by seeing it an an airport store and promptly buying it on Kindle.

Now, Michael Lewis has been a favorite for years, so (unusually) I’ll plug an(other) author in these pages. Lewis has had a go at US investment bankers, the sub-prime mortgage scandal, the whole austerity deal in Europe, and HFT—High Frequency Trading is another scandalously well-kept secret—and yes, Big Data is at the heart of it. Oh, and he’s had a few goes at the orang-u-bang.

In summary, it’s a good job Lewis is not a Saudi national, otherwise he’d be part of an erector set by now. As an aside, the only simple question I want answered: if Khashoggi died in a fist fight, as claimed today, where’s the body? I suppose I’m also curious about why he got into a fist fight with fifteen guys.

The Fifth Risk took me two days to read, and I was fascinated by a chapter called ‘All the President’s Data.’ I want you to read the book, particularly in the lead-up to the mid-terms, so I won’t be a spoiler.

I will, however, tell you that US federal agencies such as the department of agriculture, NOAA, USGS, and NASA, have to provide data to the public as part of their mission statement. They are obviously not in the business of making the most sophisticated viewing interfaces for the consumer market—these are often done by third parties, but the key point is that those parties would be unable to source data were it not for the fact that you have paid for it to be made public, and more importantly, accessible in a simple way.

As an example, if you’re a US taxpayer, you support Wind Guru. The business model for this wind and wave forecasting website is fascinating—not least because the site is based in the Czech Republic, a land-locked nation. Every surfer knows Wind Guru—what most don’t know is that it isn’t a guru at all, the gurus are the US National Weather Service (NWS), the US Geological Survey, and others. Wind Guru accesses models run by NWS (a part of NOAA) using a special toolset known as web services.

Many government agencies worldwide provide such services, and this has allowed the private sector to develop some really nice tools for public use. The problem is when the private sector lobbies the government to try and stop the agencies that run the models being able to do anything but supply data.

One of the current discussions revolves around AccuWeather, which charges for its services, and its alleged efforts to limit how NOAA presents its own data, acquired through sensor networks paid for by (you saw it coming) the US taxpayer.

At the forefront of all this excitement is an American lawyer called Barry Myers, who is at present the CEO of AccuWeather. The exciting bit is that in October 2017, Myers was picked by Trump to lead NOAA.

The confirmation hearing is holding this one up. If Myers is confirmed, it means that an operator in the private sector of the multi-million weather forecast business will be in charge of a government agency that collects twenty terabytes of data every day, much of it weather-related.

The line between public and private becomes thinner and grayer than an old man’s hair.

If the orangutan buffoonery get away with this one, the fox will be firmly placed in charge of the henhouse.

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

Unchain my Heart

October 13, 2018

Mental illness, from depression to schizophrenia, is a curse on those who suffer from it, as well as on their family and friends. And the provision of adequate care to the unfortunate people who live with this suffering is the responsibility of society—period.

The world map of disability is striking, particularly if you look at those red areas, and by that I mean the right column on the scale—from yellow to hemoglobin.

Mental illness worldwide—this graphic was published in PLOS Medicine by Ferrari and co-workers in 2013, and represents the YLD (Years Living with Disability) rate per 100,000 people.

Huge parts of South America, much of Africa and the Mid-East, and all of the ex-USSR. The exceptions are India and China, although in these broad assessments data quality can vary substantially from country to country.

Some mental disabilities, of which depression is a prime example, show well-established links to suicide rates—although most depressive people don’t kill themselves, two-thirds of suicides are committed by folks suffering from depression.

A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control found that, for the period 1999-2016, the suicide rate has increased in all US states except Nevada—in some cases, particularly midwestern states, the rate has increased by fifty percent on average.

Anyone who travels widely quickly understands that the world is a very heterogeneous mix—for instance, what qualifies as underage sex in Europe and North America is very different from what you see in SE Asia.

Westerners, particularly those riding a high horse, are mostly unaware that one hundred-fifty years ago, the age of consent in the United States was… ten. In fact, the history of consent laws is an article in and of itself—we’ll leave it for another day.

What was acceptable in the West a century ago is reasonable in the East today—we see it in human rights, and in animal welfare. And unfortunately, we see it in mental health.

Ghana, which is colored blue in the YLD map, has one psychiatrist for every 1.2 million people—this statistic sounds so incredible, I dug in further. For a country of twenty-eight million, there should be twenty-three (and a third) shrinks—apparently there are eighteen.

The World Health Organization—undoubtedly another agency that Trump believes does the devil’s work—has calculated that developing countries spend only 0.5% of their health budget on mental health.

A mentally ill man shackled to a table in Java, Indonesia. The year is 2018, the picture was taken this month (courtesy Human Rights Watch.)

Ghana, like many other countries, had a practice of shackling mental patients, as a means of restraining them from normal activity, but has now banned the use of chains.

The lack of government facilities led to the development of ‘prayer camps’, where mentally ill folks are regularly chained, despite the ban. One such camp was recently visited by the BBC—staff proudly displayed the new facilities—when the reporter entered the housing units, a row of cages were the principal item of furniture.

And in each cage, a patient.

The BBC correspondent decided to try a cage for himself—he was unable to stand upright.

The video of the BBC report is horrifying, the suffering of the mentally ill in Ghana and many other countries is disgraceful.

Humans everywhere share a common trait—we have an old mind from an old world. We react to what happens on our street, our town, our region, pretty much in that order. We react to what happened yesterday, last month, last year, or the last decade in a similar way.

We think local, and we think now. This is why we elect xenophobes and re-elect politicians who only last year did us harm.

That’s why a mentally ill person kept in chains in some African nation is irrelevant when compared to Kayne West and Princess Eugenie.

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


August 18, 2018

A year ago I wrote in these pages about a little-known place in the southwest coast of Spain—it’s still a well-kept secret, relaxed and foreigner-free—go there, my friends, but never ever trip-advise it!

Doing things twice is important—whether it’s the second time you make love to someone, or re-reading a book. In fact, when it comes to books, how many you read twice may be more important than the overall count.

Travel is similar for me—if I love a spot, I’ll go there twice, three times, and then it’s time for a change—I could never have a holiday home.

It’s been an odd summer in Europe, and just as strange in places like Japan. California, and its progenitor, Iberia, have been torched while the Trump administration relaxes car pollution rules.

This past week, Andalucia was cool—I was going to write ‘surprisingly’, but it’s time to hold off adverbs when describing the weather—nothing about the climate is surprising, except the fact that people aren’t worried enough to say “We have to do something about this weather,” just as they might address a persistent cough or an engine malfunction.

Climate change is going to cost a fortune, but just about everyone thinks the bill will be laid at someone else’s door, so an average gas guzzle of twenty-five miles to the gallon is currently the gold standard for the US.

The coastal strip of Andalucia is a land of fish and fishermen. I was in restaurants where a two-page menu contained no more than ten meat dishes, of which most were tapas. One snack-bar promised albondigas como pelotas de tenis—meatballs the size of tennis balls, but fish is the real deal.

And the Spanish will pay for their fish, make no mistake. Small boiled shrimp, the famous gamba blanca, are for sale in the market at around five bucks a pound—the mark-up in restaurants is one thousand percent.

It’s been a good week—baby shrimp tortillitas washed down with Manzanilla, a most special sherry that comes exclusively from Sanlúcar, anchovies in vinegar, and mantis shrimp, a rare treat.

The mantis shrimp is an amazing animal—it belongs to an ancient order of crustaceans called Stomatopoda, so called because they have gills on their feet. The fossil record of the mantis goes back four hundred million years—the species I saw (and ate) has a fake pair of eyes on its telson (tail) which will fool predators into biting the wrong bit.

The eyes themselves are also astounding. As are other physiological traits.

In April 1998, an aggressive creature named Tyson smashed through the quarter-inch-thick glass wall of his cell. He was soon subdued by nervous attendants and moved to a more secure facility in Great Yarmouth. Unlike his heavyweight namesake, Tyson was only four inches long. But scientists have recently found that Tyson, like all his kin, can throw one of the fastest and most powerful punches in nature. He is a mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimps are aggressive relatives of crabs and lobsters and prey upon other animals by crippling them with devastating jabs. Their secret weapons are a pair of hinged arms folded away under their head, which they can unfurl at incredible speeds.

The ‘spearer’ species have arms ending in a fiendish barbed spike that they use to impale soft-bodied prey like fish. But the larger ‘smasher’ species have arms ending in heavy clubs, and use them to deliver blows with the same force as a rifle bullet.

The cool weather made it possible to drink red wine—in southern Spain they like to serve it chilled, which is tantamount to lèse-majesté. I firmly sent back the ice buckets—the perfect way to assassinate a tempranillo—the tinto fino enjoyed by the wily priest of The India Road.

And what better food to see off a good bottle of Pesquera than ventresca, thinly sliced tuna belly, grilled medium-rare?

The tuna was aleta amarilla, or yellowfin—I was hoping for bluefin, and had planned a trip east of Cadiz to a town called Conil. The offshore area is home to the most ancient tuna traps in the world, the almadrabas, which date back to the times of the Iberian caliphate, and before that, to the Phoenicians.

The traps are laid to capture tuna migrating from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to spawn—in Spain, the fishery is between April and June. The water turns red with blood as the tuna are brought in—if you’re faint-hearted, do skip the next movie.

The clip above shows the modern-day capture of tuna in Barbate, a town near Conil. A few centuries ago the fishery was so profitable that the Duke of Medina-Sidonia claimed the profits for himself after the conquest of Tarifa from the Moors. Tuna were and are still fished all over the Mediterranean—they even have a country named after them: it’s called Tunisia.

Since we’re doing movie-time, I felt it was essential to share the clip below with you—it was filmed in the early nineteen-sixties in the Algarve, southern Portugal. From the barefoot fishermen to the old women crocheting, it’s more than a fishing documentary—it’s a way of life.

The independence wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea had just erupted, young men were being conscripted to fight overseas, and Salazar’s dictatorship was in full swing.

I scuppered my trip east—I was targeting a tuna restaurant, but when I called them up, I found it was booked for weeks.

Of course you cannot go to a place like Sanlúcar without ending up in the fish market—so I did. It’s an unusual place, a medley of vegetable stalls, butchers, shops selling the local embutidos, and fishmongers.

The tuna stalls were opposite each other—one was empty, the other was mobbed. I waited patiently in line behind some restaurant buyers, and watched tuna, swordfish, and hake vanish rapidly.

Finally, it was my turn to get at the precious loot. Further on, I hit the gamba blanca stall, and stocked up on mantis along the way.

I kept meeting the same Andalucian woman at various stalls, sometimes behind me in the queue, others in front—inevitably, great mirth ensued, and she bombarded me with a barrage of Gaditano aspirated vowels.

In one stall, baby sole were for sale. Many years ago I saw the same thing in markets near Lisbon, described as ‘folhas de oliveira’, or olive leaves.

Lisbon and Sanlúcar have one thing in common—they sit next to the two greatest estuaries in Iberia, the Tagus and the Guadalquivir. And whenever you fish an estuary, there will be little fish for sale; estuaries are the most wonderful waterways in the world—a mix of salt and fresh waters, a place where mud meets sand, and a haven of shallow, murky water where baby fish come to grow.

Baby sole for sale at the fish market in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the mantis shrimp in the background.

But the most wonderful thing about these baby soles is their name—which of course I discussed with my new Andalucian friend, a mutual glint in our eyes, while the stallholder enviously looked on.

For these babies have a name which echoes all that we loathe about the politics and politicians that surround us. They’re called tapa culos—ass covers.

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



%d bloggers like this: