Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

A World of Food

October 16, 2021

I spent all morning celebrating World Food Day. It’s difficult to imagine a more important topic, right up there with World Health Day and World Peace Day—unfortunately, what connects the three is war.

As dinnertime approaches, it’s time to feel pain for those whose life is a daily struggle for food, leading to poor health, disease, and ultimately famine and war.

At present, about ten percent of the world goes hungry—that’s over eight hundred million people, roughly the whole US, EU, and Canada combined. The charity Action Against Hunger defines hunger as follows:

According to the UN’s Hunger Report, hunger is the term used to define periods when populations are experiencing severe food insecurity—meaning that they go for entire days without eating due to lack of money, lack of access to food, or other resources

As usual in my world, the discussion was about fish. One of the panelists, a chef who prepares food for European astronauts, remarked that ‘people don’t care what they put in their mouth.’ He told us they know far more about the shoes they buy.

It’s well known that people age faster in microgravity, exhibiting changes to bone density, loss of muscle mass, cardiovascular problems, and immunological dysfunction. Our chef went on to explain that healthy foods are one of the few tools available to help mitigate these changes.

His thing is vertical cuisine, linking nutritional value to taste, but after he told us about his astronaut food exploits, I theorized that maybe his cuisine is vertical because his dishes go straight into orbit.

At 10 pm Eastern Time this evening, Niagara Falls will light up with the blue colors of hope—eight hundred million go hungry tonight.

Amazing things are going on in the world of food, but many are the province of wealthier nations. Recirculating Aquaculture Systems, or RAS, are designed to grow fish under controlled conditions with as much recycling as possible—this provides some insulation, if you excuse the pun, against climate change—of course if you need cool water and the outside environment is warming, your energy costs will increase.

In Germany, a startup sells the Seawater Cube, which can produce up to seven metric tons of fish per year using artificial seawater—if you like local produce but live far from the sea, one of these days some smart entrepreneur might be producing seabass a couple of miles down the road—high quality, low carbon footprint.

Another company, Vaxa, is growing microalgae at scale using geothermal energy in Iceland. The pictures of their production line could have been taken at a gigantic cannabis farm, but these guys are not into THC, they’re into Omega-3.

Some of these narratives are not that close to reality—you won’t be eating a microalgal phytoburger any time soon—but those algae could find their way into commercial fish feeds, supplementing additives such as soy.

The infographic above shows our environmental footprint—the future looks shocking and even the present is disturbing. To me, the most scary estimate is that ninety-four percent of mammal biomass on the planet—presumably not including ourselves—is for human food. Now that is one unsustainable number.

On the other hand, in Italy, 86% of consumers now buy some kind of organic product, compared to 53% in 2012. However, organic products are less that four percent of the total market for food. Still, to give you some idea of scale, those four percent represent 1.5 billion dollars of annual sales.

Some final numbers at the world scale: Australia has the most land used for organic foods—about eighty million acres, but the largest producer is India. The US market is worth over fifty billion dollars, forty-five percent of the world market—and the numbers are growing all the time.

I did my homework this morning, but I’ve also given you a sip from the fire hose—lots to digest…

Food for thought on world food day.

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

The Chain Gang

September 25, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic—I hope to have readers many years from now, perhaps during Cocks-56, the terrible Coxsackie virus pandemic of 2156, so I thought I’d better qualify it—has turned humanity on to a host (excuse the pun) of wonderful things, including masks and jail time without crime, previously known only in certain parts of Asia.

Supply chain is one of those novelty phrases—before pan arrived, this was a buzzword bandied on biz channels and overheard at Starbucks when twenty-one year old spreadsheet superspreaders crunched marketing numbers and saved the economy.

Taking a leaf from the playbook of ecology, it becomes obvious that supply chains, like food chains, are really supply webs. And just like in ecology, the supply chain ecosystem (a newish and tedious biz malaprop) benefits from diversity—ecologists recognize that diversity provides both stability and resilience.

If the supply web forks right instead of left, that may of course leave some disgruntled players—viz the French tantrum after being spurned some days ago by Australia, who bedded not one but two new mistresses. In what seems to be not just an underwater but also an underhand business, the threesome pitched itself to the public as AUKUS.

The role of the UK is not clear, and the French themselves recognize that Britain is an irrelevance in the threesome, but of course the Elysee sees the wider picture of Brexit trade deals and perfidious Albion, and twirls its mustache in Gallic contempt.

In actual fact, the whole issue is linked to the Middle Kingdom, and the competition between the two great powers in the Asian theater. Dropping the UK into the mix serves the twin purposes of a Boris boost (internally) and pretending this is a ‘allies and friends’ rather than an ‘us (US) and them’ deal externally.

If the name reflected the relative importance of partners it should be AUSUK, but someone with an extra brain cell realized this might be a marketing blow (job).

The late great Sam Cooke, who added an ‘e’ to his surname so folks wouldn’t think he was just lean cuisine. The chain gang sound effects at the start of the tune are a true classic.

No developed nation is more aware of supply chain issues than Boris Brexit Britain. Having kicked out all the East European truckers (known in the UK as heavy goods vehicles, or HGV, drivers), Britain is stunned to find it has a serious supply chain breakdown. Who knew?

Pictures of empty supermarket shelves, reports of uncollected garbage—the Guardian newspaper reported “He came home from work to find his front porch covered in what he initially thought was rice, but subsequently realised was hundreds of maggots swarming out of a food waste caddy that hadn’t been collected in a month”—and long lines at gas stations are just some of the delights enjoyed by Britons in these post-Brexit times.

The government narrative is that a lot of the problem, if not all, is due to the pandemic—this presumably is also the Brexiteer hardline. The truckers became anxious to see their families over the past year and returned home. No mention made about the way the pandemic was handled in tousled-Trump fashion in the early stages.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why no countries in the EU are struggling with food shortages, including nations like Spain and Italy, both of which were devastated by Covid. Germany and Italy certainly rely on mobility of EU citizens to deal with some of their labor shortages, including truck drivers.

I did a lot of hitch-hiking when I lived in the UK—it was an easy and cheap way to travel—and I got rides on trucks all the time. All the truckers were English back then, mostly in the thirty to fifty age group. I got some insane guys—it’s not an easy job, spending so much time alone, I recall one guy had amazingly mad theories about extraterrestrials and other bizarre things—since I’d just smoked a joint while waiting for a ride, I found all this most enjoyable.

One driver told me that when he drove in Texas, the motorbike cops liked to get up right behind the truck and sit in the blind spot—when the trucker went over the speed limit, the cop would pull out and bust him. Then a couple of fellows fitted a mirror below the cab and slammed the brakes on the next cop who did that. Apparently, the police were quickly discouraged—so I learned a lot, probably more than in the classes I skipped.

The average age of British truckers is now fifty-eight. As with a host of other low-paying and hard-wearing jobs—none of which are on the Brexit skilled worker visa list—the dearth of truck drivers is causing mayhem.

Along with the Brexit narrative came the promise of higher paying jobs for UK nationals—and the appetite to pay more is certainly there, but not the employees. Britain can’t pick its fruit and vegetables, collect its garbage or stock its shelves, and is now in the middle of an energy crisis—natural gas prices are soaring and there isn’t enough carbon dioxide to stun animals at slaughterhouses—you’d have thought all that extra CO2 from climate change could lend a hand.

Along with all this insular joy, UK inflation is pushing to a rampant 4%, totally predictable since shortages drive prices up. As the all-important Christmas holiday approaches, the news is full of reports that there may be a shortage of turkey in supermarkets.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Last year no family, this year no turkey.

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

Fishion

September 18, 2021

Once again I greet you with a crazy contraction—it’s not fission or fiction, it’s a fish mission—I could probably have gotten away with fishmish. Words set their own rules—I recently discovered that the Hindi word for ‘titillation’ is gudagudaana—beat that!

I spent the week on some farms off the Mediterranean coast of Spain—they like to organize their cages in double rows, with about two hundred thousand bass or bream in each, although that varies—lower numbers for bigger fish.

Ringo’s unmistakable vocals on one of the Beatles silliest tunes.

Since 2013, farmed fish have outpaced wild capture, when you consider the data for direct human consumption—fishing still brings in many species that humans don’t eat, or eat sparingly, and those animals are converted to meal and oil, used to feed land animals and also cultivated fish.

There’s a lot of discussion about that issue, and concern that by converting small fish into food for other species we’re harming the marine environment by upsetting the balance of predators and prey.

In many parts of the world, the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus into the coastal waters is a serious problem—this excess of nutrients leads to abnormal plant growth, and of course plants in the sea tend to be microscopic since they have to float near the surface where they can use energy from the sun.

Excessive phytoplankton growth turns the water green, sucks the oxygen out of the deeper layers, and can cause widespread mortality of fish and shellfish—going green isn’t always a good thing.

But the Mediterranean is an exception in this respect—the surface water layer is very poor in nutrients, so there isn’t much plankton available to grow fish—which is why the water is so transparent. This happens for various reasons—the main one is that the deeper water is colder and more salty and doesn’t mix with the water above it, so the nutrients in the lower layer don’t get to the surface.

Since there’s little plant biomass available to drive the food chain, there are less fish. Large parts of the ocean are like that—the equivalent of marine deserts. And if you’re a dolphin or a shark preparing to make a long journey you must weigh the consequences of your decision, since you may well find yourself in a desert region where the options of going forward or returning home are equally dangerous—for some reason, humans don’t think of fish starving to death but it happens all the time.

So you’re living in a place where food is scarce and every day is a challenge. And then suddenly there’s a twin row of twenty cages, let’s say four million fish—at an average weight of six or seven ounces, or two hundred grams, that’s eight hundred thousand kilos, a little less than two million pounds.

On a good farm, ten to twenty percent of the feed is uneaten, and in the Med, where natural food is not plentiful, that’s a heck of a subsidy. So it’s no surprise that below the cages, the water is teeming with fish—grey mullet, bass, bream, you name it—a recent study in Turkey found about forty different species in residence.

WordPress levies a premium charge to upload video, but you can watch the movie here.

When you’re on the water at a Mediterranean fish farm, it’s almost certain you’ll see dolphins at some point. They’re curious about the boat, the people, the activity, and they generally enjoy a bit of an exhibition, jumping around the cages. What you don’t see are the big boys—even when you dive, the tuna, and swordfish, and rays tend to move away.

But on this occasion, a small robotic submarine was at hand, and the fish thoroughly investigated it. One ray even tried to take a bite out of the little guy.

The sea below the cages, down to about one hundred and fifty feet, is a feast for the big predators. In the movie you see a large bluefin tuna swimming idly past the nets, and you’ll also notice that the most aggressive ray has a gaping wound on its ventral side, perhaps inflicted by a shark—the sea is a dangerous place.

But the most interesting part of all this is that fishing is forbidden within farm limits, which turns these Mediterranean fish farms into marine protected areas—with a twist, because the uneaten feed draws wild fish, and these provide ample food for top predators—MPAs on steroids.

This is particularly important for endangered species like bluefin tuna, which find a safe habitat and plentiful nourishment under the cages.

Quite a lot of research has been published on the relevance of fish farms to wild species, but almost all of it appears in aquaculture journals, desperate to make the case for positive effects on the environment.

All over the Med, farms like these play a key role in wildlife conservation and provide a core ecosystem service.

The sad part is the farmers don’t get a cent for the valuable service they provide.

They don’t even get recognition.

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

Have You Ever Seen The Rain

September 5, 2021

It’s been over two years since I was in New Orleans—along with Memphis, I rate it as one of the world’s top music cities.

But New Orleans is also the real Mississippi delta—geographically, a delta is a sedimentation area where a river meets the sea—the water body between the two is the estuary, but as a river widens into the ocean the currents slow and the solids carried by the river deposit to form the delta.

But the mighty Mississippi has another delta—not a river delta, but the home of the delta blues, stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg, all the way down highway 61 to Clarksdale, Robert Johnson’s famous crossroads, and then on to Vicksburg, right on the Louisiana border.

The whole Mississippi delta area is cotton country—seven thousand miles of alluvial floodplain, but before the civil war, this was hardwood forest—the whole thing was cut down to make way for plantations, run by whites, worked by black slaves, and the birthplace of the blues.

The real Mississippi delta, where the river drains into the Gulf, forming the MARP—Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Plume.

New Orleans is regularly hit by hurricanes that take their toll in human life and destroy property. The latest arrival was Ida—when I was down south, I was told hurricanes are named after women because when they arrive, they’re wet and wild, and when they leave they take your house and your car.

There is a consensus that climate change is causing an increase both in frequency and intensity of hurricanes—the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a multi-agency task force that researches climate change, states:

The recent increases in activity are linked, in part, to higher sea surface temperatures in the region that Atlantic hurricanes form in and move through. Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors is an active focus of research. Some studies suggest that natural variability, which includes the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, is the dominant cause of the warming trend in the Atlantic since the 1970s, while others argue that human-caused heat-trapping gases and particulate pollution are more important.

The key in this paragraph is the ‘relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors’, because this is where the political and social disagreements sit when it comes to policy choices such as the Paris Agreement.

Wherever you sit, there’s no doubt the effects of climate change are increasingly severe, dangerous, and costly. And when biblical deluges hit urban areas, the combined effect of calamitous precipitation and large-scale impermeabilization translates into the kind of flooding that recently occurred in New York and New Jersey.

The problem is that folks can only react to short-term issues, both in time and space. Stuff that happens near you right now is far more important than the plight of refugees on the Afghan-Turkmenistan border, even though there are children dying as you read this article.

No politician or policy-maker will dare tell you that if you’re forced to drive only two-thirds of what you drive now, or watch one hour less of TV or internet per day, or switch off your cellphone at night, in three years there will be a ten percent reduction in serious floods or wildfires. Or even that in ten years there will be a three percent reduction.

Of course, if you lost your house in Greece this summer, or live up in the Santa Cruz mountains in California, you may see things differently—but for the majority of the voting public, radical measures that affect them have no vote appeal except indirectly, for instance through taxation.

Climate change is a hugely complex problem, with effects widely varying in time and space—exactly the kind of issue politicians hate to tackle. And yet, despite the pandemic proving unequivocally that we are not the masters of the universe, we stubbornly cling to the idea that we are.

Even death is something we refuse to consider, until the man in the dark hood comes and leads us by the hand.

We can solve everything, we can shape our world. Good luck with that, but…

Have you ever seen the rain?

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

Two Weeks in August

August 21, 2021

That’s all it took.

I tuned out for a couple of weeks and when I got back the whole world had turned upside down.

I read the wonderful biography of General Joseph Stilwell by the no less wonderful Barbara Tuchman, and all the while read a few other books to leaven the dough—the Stilwell book is on the heavy side.

One of the most interesting messages from the American relationship with China during the Second World War is that it appears Roosevelt and other members of the administration were pretty much hoodwinked by the joint maneuvers of Chiang Kai Shek and his wife—the pair was universally known as Peanut and Madame, for obvious reasons.

Peanut was born in the town of Xikou, about an hour west of Ningbo, in Zhejiang province. I’ve been to Ningo numerous times, and about ten years ago I visited the g-mo—the Stilwell abbreviation for Generalissimo Chiang—family compound, where the great man was born.

Madame and her sister were famous beauties—vamps, as you might say back then—and I was struck by the lady’s six-legged bed, obviously designed to withstand considerable abuse.

Stilwell was universally known as ‘Vinegar Joe’, which as it happens was the first foreign band that ever played in Portugal, when the country was slowly opening up after Salazar died.

Vinegar Joe arriving at Lisbon airport on June 15th 1973, less than a year before the Portuguese revolution. Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer are in the foreground.

That too was a revolution, since miniskirts and long hair were a police matter in a country where christian-conservative with a dash of secret police was the dish du jour.

But it made me wonder whether the raunchy British R&B band was named after the cantankerous US general. Peanut served thirty years as president of China, at a time when the Japanese occupied large parts of the country and massacred his people mercilessly—the siege of Nanjing being the worst example.

One of the surprising messages from the book was that the Chinese army as a rule wouldn’t fight—something the Japanese took full advantage of. When a US general asked why the Chinese Fifth Army removed its field guns from the front the night before a battle in Burma, the Chinese general Tu replied he had withdrawn them for safety.

“What use are they?” asked the American.

“General, the Fifth Army is our best army because it is the only one that has any field guns, and I cannot afford to risk those guns. If I lose them, the Fifth Army will no longer be our best.”

What struck me about this oft-repeated message is that the PRC has never been tested in war, although Chinese soldiers have fought proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam—three million in Korea (a statistic, as Mao famously described them when comparing to American casualties), and a tenth of that in Vietnam.

This will not have escaped Russian and Western military strategists, and the current debacle in Afghanistan looks like more of the same—political cock-ups with huge consequences. “War is too important to be left to generals,” Churchill said, but what happened over these two weeks in August belies that—it’s the politicians who fucked it all up.

Obama increased the troop surge but put a due-by date on it—war is not a yogurt. The orange man made a one-sided peace deal which the Taliban never intended to honor and released a bunch of prisoners as part of the treaty—ah, the art of the deal…

Biden, who Fox News refers to as ‘sippy cup’, iced the cake by setting the twentieth anniversary of nine-eleven as the withdrawal date—a stupid decision, as I wrote back in May, which celebrated the loss of a war by leaving on the anniversary of the loss that caused it.

In the meantime, the Afghan ministries of the interior and defense stopped payment to the Afghan forces a few months ago—one presumption may be that they read the tea leaves and concluded what has now happened was inevitable. Better in that case to salt away some of that cash and put it to good use when the system collapses.

I have no idea what consultations occurred between the US and its allies before Biden’s announcement to leave on April 14, but chaos would inevitably ensue—if those consultations were not fruitful, I’m surprised other nations didn’t choose to leave quietly some time ago.

On May 2nd I wrote, ‘in Afghan eyes at least, the West retreats with its tail planted firmly between the legs.’ The US politicians, and the UK pols to a lesser but still unpardonable degree, built a paper palace for their people to view. It’s gilded walls were of no substance and held nothing inside.

Sorry I’ll qualify that. They held the gossamer web with which politicians fooled ordinary people and fooled themselves to the tune of one trillion dollars. They used military men and women—decent people with an elevated sense of duty—to attempt to change a society that no one understood.

In all cases where history records a significant societal change that endures, that change is imposed by conquerors who are in it for the long haul, like the Normans in England, the Puritans in the USA, and the Portuguese in Brazil, Mozambique, or Goa—the ‘West’ was in Afghanistan for less than one generation.

Of course there is another way—it’s called genocide.

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

The Hacker

July 25, 2021

The history of computers can be divided into two parts: calculation and communication.

The concept behind any computational activity was, and is, to speed up and automate human actions. Primitive—and yet sophisticated—devices like the abacus were followed by mechanical adding machines and slide rules that took advantage of basic properties of numbers.

Stuff like the nature of logarithms, if you excuse the pun, which allowed a conversion between the simple operations of addition and subtraction and their more troublesome cousins, multiplication and division.

As computers became able to perform tasks that no one predicted one hundred years ago—such as allowing me to write this article, all the while spell-checking my work and letting me include pictures or video—the issue of communication became all-important.

Back in the days of MS-DOS, the operating system that drove the first IBM PC, a command line was the gold standard—a typed instruction, hit return on the keyboard, and the magic would begin. These days, whenever you see a black screen full of arcane commands being furiously typed by a geeky guy with a hoodie, you realize computer hacking is afoot.

Nerds relish in taking screengrabs of what is actually written as ‘code’—mostly it’s crap for downloading MP3s or some other trivial bullshit—grandmaster-level hacking it is not.

Hacks only became a thing as the comms side of computing expanded, first as monitors, printers, and other devices were hooked up, and then in the communications supernova of the mid-1990s, when computers got hooked up to the net.

Back then, you needed a modem to process the signal and comms were not for the fainthearted. Geeks mumbled about protocols and baud rates and your computer spoke to its siblings through the phone line.

Over twenty years before the mid-90s, the SWIFT system was created—the year was 1973, and log tables were the gold standard for mathematical calculation.

Log tables were look-up catalogs for logarithms and anti-logs, used to speed up manual computations. Electronic calculators were nail in the coffin for this laborious method of mathematical manipulation.

The SWIFT system was designed to replace TELEX and speed up international financial transactions—it took four years to go live. At around the same time, in 1975, something called Signalling System No. 7 was born. SS7 (which in German has the delightful name Zentraler Zeichengabekanal Nummer 7, or ZZK-7) is a protocol for routing international phone communications—made for simpler times, in recent years it has been cruelly hacked.

The first personal computer appeared in 1975, but it took some years for the fad to catch on—by 1983 there were two million, mainly playing games and performing three business operations: database management, spreadsheet operations, and text processing.

For twenty-first century hackers, the old SWIFT and SS7 protocols were the stuff of dreams. In an unconnected world, security was naive—within a bank, some staff members had appropriate credentials and dealt with the international routing of money—big money.

The great blackout—North Korea by night.

A couple of years ago, good old SWIFT was used in a classic hack, courtesy of a black hat operation originating, according to reliable sources, from North Korea—given the nature of the regime, the inference is that the hack was government-sanctioned.

The central bank of Bangladesh has its headquarters in the country’s capital, Dhaka. If you say it fast, ‘The Hacker’ sounds suspiciously like the city in question. I doubt the DPRK geeks will have made the link—rather, the choice of Bangladesh Bank (BDB) was driven by perceived poor security—banks in other developing nations were subsequently targeted.

D hack (sorry) was a multipart operation with many interesting features.

The first step was a standard phishing operation, similar to mails I get every day. A young, polite, and motivated banker sends in his resume—some obliging soul from the bank opens the attachment or perhaps clicks on a web link.

A virus is installed on a BDB computer and begins to prowl the internal bank network. It is searching for access to the SWIFT system and a strategy to get past the authentication protocol—it can do this in two ways: either by hacking the credentials or bypassing the request.

Forensic investigators established that the latter method was used—only eight bytes (eight characters, like the word COMPUTER) were replaced—that’s a pretty Zen hack.

The next step was to plan the financial heist. The hackers decided to steal one billion dollars from BDB by ordering transfers from its account at the New York Fed. Since the bank account held one billion, the plan was to steal the lot.

The choice of timing was exquisite. The transfer orders began on the evening of Thursday, local time, when the BDB staff had gone home for the weekend—in a Muslim country like Bangladesh, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

New York began receiving requests in the early morning of Thursday due to the ten hour time difference. When the Bengalis returned to work Sunday, the NY Fed was shut for the weekend. A number of transfers were routed to the Philippines, where Monday was a holiday—the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Overall, the hackers had five days of confusion to play around with.

The BDB security system included a printer on the tenth floor that automatically supplied copies of all transactions—the hackers jammed the printer so that nothing at all was printed. When the bank staff solved the problem, the machine leapt into action, printing numerous queries from the New York bank to verify the transactions.

In the end, the hack ‘only’ succeeded in separating a hundred million bucks from its rightful owners—the people of Bangladesh. Mostly, that cash was laundered through casinos in Manila, which at the time had no regulation on the provenance of funds.

The washing of the hacked moneys is a tale for another day, but I cannot imagine it could take place without a substantial amount of corruption—the accounts in the Manila banks had five hundred bucks in them for over a year and suddenly received tens of millions. Go figure.

The hack was stopped for the most hilarious reasons when only ten percent of the transfer volume had been executed.

The Manila banks are located on Jupiter Street—the name coincided with an Iranian vessel on the US sanctions list, so the Fed queried it—not receiving a reply, it halted the transactions.

The second reason was even more amusing: the hackers tried to transfer several million dollars to the Shalika Foundation in Sri Lanka, a social services non-profit. As an aside, the organization was founded by Shalika Perera—the name undoubtedly derives from the Portuguese family name Pereira and the sexual meanderings of The India Road.

When the hackers wrote out the beneficiary, instead of foundation they spelt the word fundation.

Along with Dhaka and hacker, this has got to be one of the more subtle ironies of the dark web.

And surely the most costly pun of all time.

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

The Boxed Sea

July 4, 2021

The aquarium was first invented in 1832 by Jeanne Villepreux, a French marine biologist.

The fact that the inventor was a woman is a perfect start to this week’s article—Ms. Villepreux used her aquarium to study cephalopods—animals who are literally head over heels.

But it fell to the British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse to kick off the Victorian aquarium craze in 1853. Mr. Gosse invented the name for this special kind of vivarium, and the public was delighted to view the wonders of the deep sea—remember that most people had never been to the seaside and would be unlikely to ever go.

And even if they did, the equipment to see into the water was cumbersome, expensive, and scarce—a practical diving solution only appeared towards the end of the second world war.

To celebrate the aquarium, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology prepared an exhibition called ‘AQUARIA — Or the illusion of a Boxed Sea‘. The museum website states that after one year of confinement—during which we ourselves were boxed—humans can relate to spending a lot of time in an enclosure.

As part of the exhibition, workshops and visits were organized, making the whole initiative a living being.

Raising awareness about environmental matters is always a good thing, and in this case the whole concept of enclosure led to an extended discussion on the role and importance of marine protected areas—the concept is underpinned by the ‘thirty by thirty’ principle, or 30 X 30.

Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are driving the bus, snagging the pols along the way—the G7 recently committed to a ‘Nature Compact‘ that aims to protect thirty percent of the planet’s land and sea area by 2030.

This is similar to E.O. Wilson’s ‘half-earth‘ proposal, which I wrote about three years ago.

Bounty from the sea—mussels filter algae and clean the water, and at the same time provide us with a high quality supply of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs—Omega 3, the ultimate brain food.

The exhibition’s organizers prepared a visit to a mussel farm in southern Portugal—the farm sits offshore in ten fathoms of water and uses a standard layout of lines and buoys—at regular intervals, a dropper rope goes down into the sea. The mussels fasten to the droppers, filter the water, and hey presto!

In this beautiful, clean water, mussels take only eighteen months to grow—the same process in Ireland would take almost three years.

I was asked to think out of the box, if you excuse the pun, about various aspects of enclosures, but as a warm-up I had to think back to an experience by the seaside and provide three words to sum it up.

What came to mind, as we navigate these troubled times, was a balmy evening at a place north of Dubrovnik, where oysters and samphire were accompanied by a singular Croatian tinto, and the transparent water of the Mediterranean lapped playfully a few feet from the table. Lights from the restaurant subtly illuminated the sea and fish swam in to investigate what the humans were up to.

FRIENDS

SHELLFISH

TRANQUILITY

I was asked to think about marine protected areas. What shape should they be? What can you do inside one? Are they enclosures? Then I was asked to draw my thoughts—my picture could have been drawn better by a five-year-old, but it’s been a while since I could pick my colors from a pile of crayons.

Memories of school came flooding back, testaments of a simpler time.

I drew a box in a nice light blue color. But water moves, so I drew a vane—first I tried two half-moon rudders, but the ensemble looked like a pair of bollocks supporting a spindly penis. I decorated my box with purple waves, a further sign that water would never stay in a box—you can’t make rules for the ocean as if it was Yellowstone Park.

Finally, I drew my fish—all green, all outside the box or going in or out, except for one fellow. That’s the other thing—fish move around. And at the bottom, in stripy brown? Another frontier, this one at the seafloor. So much goes on there that we don’t ever think about—an alchemy of chemical reactions.

An aquarium inspires you to learn about animals and plants—and that’s wonderful. But the true magic of the ocean lies in its ever-changing rhythms.

You can box and you can see. But you can’t box the sea.

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

Buda Beat

June 27, 2021

After the third wave came the Mexican wave.

Europe is in the grip of a new variant called EURO 2020—diehard soccer fans are going crazy all over the continent, celebrating, commiserating, or generally creating—northern English slang for causing problems.

That’s how I found myself wandering around the streets of Pest, surrounded by vociferous fans—Hungarians, French, Portuguese, and a smattering of Germans.

I hadn’t been to a football game in a few years, and the logistics blew me away. These days, you can’t even fart without an app, and UEFA has transcended itself on the digital side—put another way, no cellphone, no gain.

The same goes for transport—Buda is hilly, clawing its way up the western bank of the Danube, but Pest is flat as a pancake—which might be a good way to distinguish the two. Budapest traffic is one giant snarl—mainly older cars, with the obligatory smattering of Porsche, Mercedes, and Tesla crawling along like the plebs—a reminder that this is an uneven and troubled society.

Riding a bike when it’s one hundred degrees in the shade is a mug’s game, so scooters are the way to go—Bird hunting or Lime fishing, but not without a cellphone.

Scooting to the stadium I sped past a hundred-strong squad of France’s finest—young kids in blue strip, formed twenty-five by four, marching to the Puskás Aréna, singing the Marseillaise at the top of their voices—for a minute they became Napoleon’s army, marching across the plains of central Europe.

The history of Budapest is soaked in blood—the Mongols came in 1241, defeated the locals and proceeded to massacre half a million Hungarians. In 1541, the Ottomans took Buda, marking the conquest of Hungary—for the next one hundred fifty-eight years the country was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The battle of Vienna, in 1699, during the Great Turkish War, marked the end of Ottoman occupation of Hungary.

In the late seventeenth century, the Turks were defeated by a Christian alliance—the Holy Roman Empire was a part of it and shows the long reach of history—loosely connected to the papacy, but really at the mercy of the grands seigneurs of Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was a thing for over one thousand years after the end of the unholy Roman Empire.

Hungary then became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire—a fiefdom of the Habsburgs called Archiregnum Hungaricum. That took the nation to the end of the First World War, at which point seventy percent of the territory was handed to the Czechs, Romanians, and assorted Balkan states.

Then came the Nazis.

Then the Soviets.

The three stooges cast a watchful eye over the polling station. To the voter’s left, comrade Lenin. To the right, friendly ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. Center stage, Hungarian president Mátyás Rákzi, known to the Soviets as the USSR’s star pupil, if you excuse the pun.

The Nazi and Soviet past is brutally documented in the Terror Háza, the scariest museum I know. I discovered it in early 2017 and scooted back there on Wednesday morning. There’s been no effort to update exhibits, and except for a couple of French football fans, the place was largely deserted, making it all the more ominous.

I am alone in the elevator that slowly goes down to the basement, the final stage of the tour. On a black and white screen behind me, a middle-aged man describes the operation of the gallows in excruciating detail.

In the cells, only a tiny window lets in the light from Andrássy Street. I sit in one of the cellák and imagine being locked up, waiting for the torture, waiting for the gallows box to be kicked out from under me by the executioner.

On the Soviet floor, I spent time examining two large photograph collections—all in black and white, one of the victims and the other of their tormentors.

I was looking for something. A look, a grimace, a stare, anything to help me separate the two groups. The earnest look of the good folks who died, the cold eyes of the secret police.

For a moment I thought I’d seen it, then it disappeared.

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

Italian Dogs

June 19, 2021

Over the last weeks, CNN has been plugging a show about Italy, but which is really predicated on Italian food.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a big fan of both, but the ad drives me nuts, using trite crap such as “if you don’t believe in god you believe in tortellini.”

I’m usually subjected to this when I’m assembling breakfast for my canine companions. Just as no two people are identical, these hounds have very differing views about food—the younger one is voracious to the point of mandatory dieting, whereas her older sister has a contemplative and fastidious nature—god rather than tortellini, if you will.

Although I provide a staple diet, ancillary morsels from last night’s dinner are not uncommon. These serve the dual purpose of enriching the breakfast experience and as a pre-meal teaser for the older hound. Dogs and humans have much in common—which is perhaps what endears them to us—and if my more fastidious friend gets enthusiastic, then she will wolf, if you excuse the pun, through her bowl of victuals.

These morsels often include fish, and I’ve established that the dogs prefer cultivated to wild-caught fish. This is undoubtedly diet-related: pet foods, just like human foods, tease us with protein hydrolysates.

To go down this particular rabbit hole, we need to roll back to a little high-school organic chemistry. Aminoacids are the building blocks of proteins, and they’re linked together by means of a peptide bond, shown in blue below.

The two aminoacids at the top are identical—this is the simplest one of all—glycine. The red atoms (water) are removed in a dehydration reaction, leaving the dipeptide shown at the bottom.

Hydrolysis, or hydro + lysis, means breaking with water. When you hydrolyse a protein, that’s just what you’re doing—using water to break it up. Organic chemists discovered many moons ago that some of these protein hydrolysates, in particular glutamic acid, add flavor to food—MSG, or monosodium glutamate, comes from glutamic acid.

Flavor as a whole is a weird bunny—you smell when you inhale but you taste when you exhale, so these are two different sensory experiences. I suppose that folks with halitosis bring yet another dimension to this—though not a pleasant one.

Kissing someone who has bad breath (we’re not talking a peck on the cheek here, people) is tricky, since you won’t be able to smell the breath when you’re kissing—and presumably are not exhaling through the mouth while osculating if you’re going full snorkel. I had some fun checking this out on the web, and the most hilarious detection tip (ranked only number five on the list) is:

If people are visibly stepping away then it may be time to do something about it.

My canine curiosity arose when considering the morsels Italian dogs get to eat, when compared for instance with Dutch or British dogs—the assumption here is that dinner in the latter jurisdictions is in general neither plentiful nor tasty.

The Italian canine can expect a touch of ossobuco, veal marsala, or a spot of spaghetti al vongole, whereas north of the Roman Empire, a lucky pooch may perhaps filch a stray chicken nugget. An Indian hound, on the other hand, might wrap his chops around a Rogan Josh or test his vegetarian skills on a side of Matar Paneer.

If you’re a Frenchie, life is far more ritualized—salad comes only after the entree, cheese invariably before dessert, and if you violate the wine pairings, the doggy guillotine awaits. Quel stress, Monsieur Bow Wow!

For a cat, the whole narrative is different—devoid of home loyalties, felines forage as they please—and are far more difficult to please.

Felines await feeding at an animal shelter (courtesy of Forbes)

DNA studies show that cats have taste receptors—flavor sensors—in various parts of their body: the mouth and nose are obvious ones, but felines have sensors in the stomach and other parts of their body.

As a consequence, cats can pass judgement on the palatability of food after they swallow it—quite a remarkable attribute, and one that poses a real challenge to pet food manufacturers—this is obvious when you swap cat and dog rations.

The dogs fall upon the cat food like rabid alligators, the cat sniffs its fare once and after a minute’s contemplation, makes up its mind.

Well, I’m going out.

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

The Vax and the Vaxnots

June 13, 2021

It’s been six months since jabbing began, so now’s a good time for stocktaking. I was vaxed Monday, and have spent a good part of the week recovering from the experience—but then again, I got hit with the J&J—a bit of a sledgehammer.

After my jaunt to Scandinavia, a vaccine passport is definitely what I need—the only way to avoid constant nasal invasion any time I travel. As if on cue, the European Union is rolling out a ‘digital green certificate’ to all Member-States on the first of July.

A number of countries, including Denmark, Germany, Greece, and Spain already issue vaccine passports—henceforth vaxports. Most other countries are technically ready to issue, and there are a couple of laggards. How the process works internally is unknown.

The vaxport is an app (duh), which will undoubtedly add to the conspiracy theories—but we’ve already established that big brother is watching you, largely because you want him to. The app isn’t made by Microsoft—so this time Bill Gates gets a free pass—it’s made by Deutsche Telekom. C’mon, people, Europe could never have a US-made passport.

Actually, the software is a product of T-Systems , a subsidiary of DT, and SAP. The guy in charge of the vaxport at T-Systems is Daniel Eder—a chap who looks rather youthful for a senior manager.

As befits the brave new world, the app code is on github. As you wander through the files, a couple of east European names jump out at you, including one Oleksandr Sarapulovgl. The name sounds Ukranian—I tried to find him online with little success—the only link in my search was a Eurovision-themed video which can only be described as… bizarre.

So after a left turn at the lights, we’re back to vaxland. The app will do what any self-respecting app does—tap into massive cloud databases where all the EU big brother vax records live. Since I got jabbed with one-night-stand Janssen (the EU name for the J&J), my vaxing days are over and I’m on a national database that speaks to the vaxport app—most likely via a couple of intermediaries.

The main requirements for designing the vaxport app are three: security, communication, and information—there’s a lot of fraud in COVID testing—the PCR I took in Denmark had such a pretty certificate I plan to frame it. The Danes wouldn’t give me the results by email or SMS, even when I told them I’d sign a release document exempting them for any responsibility for misuse. Instead, they gave me a paper with a hologram and embossed notary seal—you’d need a qualified forger to fake that.

In the meantime, a huge proportion of the world lingers in vax limbo. How bad is the situation?

Er… pretty fucked. Two things jump out at me from this chart. The first is about the developing world—vax rates are woefully behind. In South America, Chile and Uruguay are islands of success, and in Asia? …Mongolia. Who knew? Africa, as usual, is a living tragedy.

The second is the vax ceiling. When we look at North America, the EU, and the UK, the percentage gets up to the sixties and sits there. As of June 12th, Israel has 63% vaxed—that’s the max vax. The ambition is to pass seventy, the holy grail of herd immunity.

And that’s going to be a struggle, along with some kind of synch across the world. Just like the rise and fall of communism worldwide, some vaxing will be waxing and some will be waning.

The consensus, which I can now confirm, is that vaccines give you a headache.

Expect more headaches in the months to come.

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


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