Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Thin End

April 10, 2021

I learned my geography during the Portuguese colonial war—a triple war, to be exact: Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea. The notion that a small European nation could fight three wars on opposite sides of Africa for over a decade with no external help is astonishing.

In 1974, the Portuguese revolution marked the swansong of colonialism, but the triple war was certainly not lost—all the more astonishing since the liberation movements were backed by China and the USSR—even the US backed a couple of the rival ‘liberation’ factions, but no one backed the Portuguese, seen in Europe as a pariah fascist state.

The irony is that the liberation of those nations resulted in an enduring set of new dictatorships—hard left for Angola and Mozambique, and a failed narco-state in the case of Guinea. Thus ended the saga of The India Road—a fascist state becomes a democracy and enables autocratic communist regimes in Angola and Mozambique for the next half-century—the Perfect Prince would have been blood-flecked choleric.

The capital of the most northerly province of Mozambique was called Porto Amélia, named after the last Portuguese queen, Amelie of Orleans—after the country gained independence, the city was renamed Pemba.

Amélie d’Orleans tries to save her husband King Charles I during the regicide in 1910.

The province of Cabo Delgado is named after a narrow cape that protrudes six miles into the Indian Ocean above the Bay of Tungue, and since the VIIth century the provincial history is one of commerce and conflict—Cabo Delgado was part of the trade routes of the Arab dhows, and modern-day Tanzania begins on the north side of the River Rovuma, about thirty miles northwest of the cape itself.

Like an ocean front where opposing waters meet, Cabo Delgado is at the interface of religions—a sure recipe for war. It belongs to a sinister club that includes the Balkans, the Hindu Kush, Kashmir, the Sunni-Shia fault lines in the Mid-East, Belgium, and the island of Ireland.

But TIA—This Is Africa—so the Cabo Delgado conflict is spiced by tribal strife among the Maconde, Mwani, and Swahili.

TIA requires an understanding uncommon in Europeans—Mwani means beach in the Kimwani language, and the people have a very specific culture.

…about 1,100 years ago Arab traders came down the east coast of Africa to take slaves. Entire groups became Muslim because the Arabs, being Muslim, were not allowed to take other Muslims as slaves… The Mwani value peace and harmony… relationships and family bonds and respect the elderly. Polygamy is common in this matrilineal society… Divorce is common and many women have been married several times, so family units are difficult to discern. Children go to Madrassa schools, and although they memorize and can recite the Koran, they don’t understand its meaning. Most Mwani are illiterate in the Kimwani language and speak only a bit of Portuguese… They have an awareness of God (Mwenyezimungu) and are very aware of the supernatural world, believing in spirits and magic, and fearing demons. Though fiercely Islamic in name, their worldview is strongly influenced by the animistic world of ancestors and the use of mediums such as witchdoctors. Women are more connected to the spirit world, holding “punge” (séances) which can last all night…

The development of offshore natural gas reserves in the Rovuma basin by French oil major Total in 2019 led to a significant ramp-up of terrorist activity in Cabo Delgado—the Mozambican army did little to control the situation, and in a page taken out of The Dogs of War, the government hired a mercenary group to fight the Islamic terrorists.

Soldiers of fortune are an African tradition, celebrated in books and movies, and personified in real life by colorful characters such as Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, of Katanga fame. In the case of Cabo Delgado, the protagonist was Lionel Dyck, an ex-Rhodesia and Zimbabwe paratroop commander.

Dyck has certainly led an interesting life, bringing together ex-members of the Rhodesian African Rifles, Selous Scouts, and Chinese-trained ZANLA and Soviet-trained ZIPRA guerillas to form Zimbabwe’s paratroop battalion. Now in his seventies, Colonel Dyck took a contract from the Mozambican government and directed his Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) to perform counter-terrorism actions against the Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah group, an Isis offshoot.

DAG’s ‘airforce’ consisted of two Gazelle helicopter gunships—’helicanhões’ were invented by the Portuguese in Mozambique during the colonial war—an old Alouette chopper with a 20 mm gun, two light planes and a couple of Bat Hawk microlights with gun mounts.

During its stint in Cabo Delgado, DAG was accused of killing terrorists and civilians indiscriminately and of firing on a hospital where Islamic forces were hiding. The Ansar al Sunnah (supporters of the tradition)—known also as Al Shabaab—have done far worse, including beheading children as young as eleven.

The controversy around DAG lost them the contract renewal, but Dyck claims his men acted appropriately and had full oversight from the government.

The story of Cabo Delgado is the story of every African nation—the more resources exist, the more suffering is brought upon its people.

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

East of Suez

April 4, 2021

In the days of The India Road, navigation was a way to avoid carrying out massive engineering works on land, with humans and animals as the beasts of burden.

Before the steam engine was invented by Savery in 1698, land transport also relied on animals—human or otherwise. Building roads was a huge endeavor, mountains and gorges were impassable—routes were dictated by terrain; it’s no surprise that as soon as man learned to float a boat—really just a practical application of Archimedes’ principle—the path of least resistance led to the development of shipping.

The age of sail lasted almost three millennia—winds and currents eased the burden of mankind, enabling connections between continents and promoting trade, leading to the development of major cities along waterways and on the coast. In the process, navigation also led to colonial empires, the slave trade, and maritime warfare on a grand scale.

It was only when explosives and machinery helped to dig, tunnel, and blow up the obstacles to development on land, and when engines for rail and road became commercially viable, that humans considered the possibility of shortening maritime trade routes—a quick look at the world map reveals two obvious choices—Suez and Panama.

Widening of the Suez Canal—shoring works.

In the second half of the XIXth century, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps set about building the two canals, both of which would make intercontinental trade substantially quicker and cheaper.

Lesseps was not able to fulfill his dream of building the Panama Canal—US president Teddy Roosevelt completed the job some decades later—and left the world an enduring palindrome: A Man, A Plan, A Canal—Panama.

The connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was an old dream of the pharaohs—or rather, the ancient canal would connect the Red Sea port of as-suways to the River Nile.

Napoleon ordered the old excavations investigated and considered building a canal himself, but his engineers miscalculated the difference in water height between the Red and the Med by a whopping twenty-eight feet, and the project was scuppered.

The canal took ten years to dig and was finally completed in 1869. Even before it opened, it was a source of controversy and geopolitical strife—the Brits saw it as a threat to the India trade—presumably it didn’t help that it was built by a Frenchman.

Since then, the one hundred and twenty mile canal has been the cause of international disputes and a small war— The ditch, as sailors refer to it, has been run by Egypt since the late 1950s, but the area continues to be fraught with tension.

Landsat image of the Nile delta, which stretches from Alexandria to Port Said.

Suez is a major source of income: the Egyptian government mandates that the ‘Suez crew’ are taken on board for the passage—ships have a dedicated Suez crew room to house these ‘specialists’. The Suez crew apparently have ‘special rope skills’, and include both a dedicated pilot and an electrician who tends to a searchlight mounted on the fo’c’sle —none of them do an awful lot apart from eating, drinking, and sleeping during the eighteen hours spent aboard.

A century ago, the role of shipping in trade was of general interest—as recently as the 1970s, radio sets had a shortwave channel called Marine Band. Today, nobody cares about shipping, or even knows it exists—the irony is that it accounts for ninety percent of world trade.

Much of that takes place through oil tankers, bulk carriers, and huge container ships—the spotlight shone briefly on the latter, and on shipping in general, when the Ever Given, a mere one thousand three hundred feet in length, wedged itself across the Suez Canal last month.

The story broke on Bloomberg because the channel knew this was a major disruption to business—there was an immediate reaction in the oil markets. Mainstream broadcasters picked up one or two days later, with both CNN and the BBC running pieces about the Ever Given and its charterer, Evergreen.

Suddenly, the role of maritime transportation became clear—you never miss your water ’till your canal runs dry. It also became obvious that the Suez crew were about as useful as a steer on a heifer.

Then, silly season set in. First, QAnon claimed the Ever Given was a child trafficking ship linked to Hillary Clinton, and then some wag discovered that the vessel had drawn the shape of a gigantic phallus in the water east of Suez before entering the canal.

Giant penis track drawn by the Ever Given prior to getting stuck in the sand.

A good deal of sophomoric humor followed about the penis entering the canal—boys will be boys.

I think the most important message was missed: two well-planned attacks—blowing up a couple of ships in Suez and simultaneously in Panama, thereby blocking both waterways—would have dramatic consequences for world trade.

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

Let It Rain

February 20, 2021

I’m writing these words while the rain falls in buckets outside. For me, rain and music go hand in hand. Songs like Have You Ever Seen the Rain, or Dylan’s Buckets of Rain—one of the most poignant love songs ever written, come to mind… or even the more esoteric Box of Rain, by the Dead—someone told me many years ago the song is about heroin.

It’s been a rainy season and a half, so far—from Texas to Jakarta, climate change has been showing its colors. Last Thursday I was supposed to be on a call to West Texas, but they’d had no power since Monday—I was tempted to tell them last time I saw that was in Mozambique. You don’t think of the US as a vulnerable country, where a large part of a state as rich as Texas can be without electricity or water for days, but the evidence is there.

In this particular case, was it policy, climate change, or infrastructure? Apparently, you can blame all three—different actors have taken their pick. Undoubtedly, snowstorms in Texas are well outside the definition of normal weather patterns—they fall into the ‘extreme event’ category—such events are typical of climate change. Texas is so confident in its energy self-sufficiency that it doesn’t link to the US national electricity grid—this is an obvious policy failure—when the Texas system collapsed, there was no external supply.

The collapse was linked to a single and obvious fact—below 32oF, water freezes. This affected the cooling systems of energy plants, including nuclear—Texas has two of those. Although the bulk of the Texas outages were due to freezing of natural gas pipelines, the conservative media had a field day blaming renewable sources like wind and solar. If the double-peach orang-u-tan still had a license to tweet, there would have been a host of fake news typos on the topic. As it is, there’s enough crap going around, like this quote from a Colorado Republican congresswoman.

We have Joe Biden who is nice and warm in his fossil-fueled White House singing kumbaya with his environmental extremists while Americans are freezing to death.

A recent article in the New York Times analyzes the renewables question—turns out wind power only meets seven percent of the Texas energy requirement—hardly a critical factor, but the debate has grown to a new level of hysteria as climate change skeptics rage about wind turbine blades freezing—oblivious to the irony that they’re only freezing because of climate change.

Meanwhile, Jakarta holds the dubious record of being the world’s fastest sinking city, around four inches per year. In north Jakarta, the ground is estimated to have sunk about eight feet in the last ten years, making any building one story shorter.

The monsoon rains have visited upon Jakarta a flood of epic proportions.

The times seem a little biblical at present, featuring a succession of plagues—and there’s no indication these are one-off events. Climate change is here for the foreseeable future and may well bring with it a bunch of new surprises, known as indirect effects. One example is an increase in disease because particular temperatures favor certain pathogens.

As for the COVID plague, in most European countries, and in the States, there is a clear downward trend, and there’s hope that vaccination will shut the virus down for good. So at least there’s a few things to smile about.

And as usual, fact can be stranger than fiction. A thirty-year old man in the UK was this week offered a priority vaccine when his BMI was flagged at twenty-eight thousand. Turns out his height had been registered not as six feet two inches but as 6.2 cm.

A back-calculation puts his real weight at 238 lb, give or take, so he’s on the lower end of the ‘obese’ category, but you’d have thought the guys who write the algorithms might idiot-proof them.

The NIH BMI calculator is certainly deficient in this respect—it allowed me to determine the BMI for a human who is 6 cm tall, and one of average height weighing only one kilogram.

I propose that the code geeks add what I will now call the Wibaux Humpty Dumpty test. When you input a person’s height, the app calculates what that person would weigh if he or she were a perfect sphere.

Humans are roughly the same density as water, i.e. 1 g/cm3, although some are considerably denser in the brain area. In order to apply the WHD law, we need to determine the volume of our spherical human, and that will be the weight in grams—for an average balloon person, that is around 2.5 metric tons, rather more than an automobile.

The BMI for the rotund one will be slightly under one thousand, a pretty exceptional upper limit. It would certainly have saved the embarrassment of the doctor’s explanatory phone call.

Before the doctor’s call, the thirty-year-old man called his mom to tell her he was being vaxed due to obesity. Her reply is pure poetry.

‘Well, perhaps this is the wake-up call you need…’

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

The Perfect Square

February 13, 2021

John Le Carré died on the 12th of December last year, at the age of 89. I was twelve when I read his third book, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold—since then, I read everything he wrote.

Unlike other spy novelists, and in sharp contrast to the current fad, there was no gripping first chapter that hooked you to the book. He built the house from the ground up, and slowly reeled you in. His books had no explicit sex (unlike mine) and although people got hurt, wounded, and killed, he never indulged in it—all in all, very British.

If I had to pick his best book, it would be The Honourable Schoolboy—Le Carré’s heroes orbited around public schools (which in the UK means private schools), Oxford and Cambridge, and the British army—hardly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

Most of the authors I read, much like the music I prefer, are considerably older than I am—many are dead. Dylan is only ten years younger than Le Carré.

After Le Carré died, I bought The Spy Who Came In from the Cold—but this time in digital, and I have been slowly savoring it, mixed in with other reads, as the fancy takes me.

The spymaster’s pen name means ‘The Square’, and when I was choosing a pseudonym, it struck me as a fine idea to have two names, one simple and one complicated—Peter Wibaux seemed the perfect choice—and even though, like Le Carré, the name sounds French, that’s not where I got it from.

New revelations about the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a physicist prominent in the Iranian effort to develop a nuclear weapon, drew immediate comparisons to both Le Carré and James Bond—always a bizarre pairing.

Bond movies (I’m one of the few people that read Ian Fleming’s early books) are the polar opposite of a Le Carré plot. After I read the article published recently, I can assure you this story is much more John than James—although on balance it’s closer to Frederick Forsyth than to Le Carré, simply because of the nature of the action.

Jacob Nagel, who was an acting national security advisor for Netanayahu, and a former IDF official, states:

It is certain that if Iran developed the bomb, it would be a problem for the whole world… Israel especially cannot live with a nuclear Iran. So we will defend ourselves by ourselves, and in the process we are defending you, too.

The Mossad had documents proving that Fakhrizadeh had worked on several nuclear warheads, each one able to cause five Hiroshimas.

He was serious. He still meant to do what he planned. So someone decided that he had had enough time on earth.

The assassination was meticulously planned, starting with the murder weapon—very little can be found about it, except that it was a ‘one-ton automated gun. The question then arises of how such a weapon was brought into Iran from hostile territory. We’re told it was smuggled in piece by piece, which would mean it was then reassembled locally.

The black Opel in which Fakhrizadeh was assassinated. The accuracy of the hit is obvious from the state of the vehicle.

Although the one-ton gun is all over the net—not least because plagiarism is the web’s dirty secret—and there are passing mentions of the use of satellites and AI, the one-ton bit remains bizarre.

Why one-ton? From the images of the car, the projectiles went through the glass, which given the profile of the victim, must have been bullet-proof. That means 50 calibre or larger, i.e. a round 13 mm in diameter, or about half an inch.

John Browning first created the M2 .50 machine gun back in 1918—it weighs around one hundred thirty pounds, if you include both the tripod and the traverse. That leaves 942 kg (over 2000 lb) to spare, if we’re talking metric tons.

Where did that go? Presumably the weapon was mounted on a frame, and there will have been a number of support systems, as well as a bomb to destroy the weapon after the kill.

One-ton-gun has a rap ring to it, but I still can’t see what might make it that heavy or how you could possibly drive it around in a police state undetected.

Nevertheless, an automated gun appears to have been used—twenty Mossad operatives were involved in the plot, over a period of eight months. Some of the people involved were Israelis, but not all.

The remarkable thing about the killing is that Fakhrizadeh’s wife, sitting less than a foot away from her husband, was unharmed, while thirteen bullets hit the physicist. Twelve bodyguards who accompanied the couple in convoy were all unharmed. Then the bomb went off and blew up the gun, which was fitted inside a Nissan pickup.

The Mossad people all made it out, according to the account in the Jewish Chronicle—that may well be disinformation, if some of the spies are deep cover assets based in Iran.

The Iranian was killed on Friday, November 27th, which raises the question of whether this was a last effort by Trump to power-blitz Israel before Biden took office. Israel says no, the Americans had nothing to do with it.

Apparently, there was a courtesy call made to Washington, but a source states Israel never asked for permission.

“It was more like checking the water temperature.”

 

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

Game Stop

January 30, 2021

GameStop is a retailer for video games and accessories based in Dallas, Texas.

Their website is down when accessed from UK and mainland Europe—sometimes US companies do that because of GDPR, the EU data protection law, but usually there is an explanatory message. This one reads more like a denial of service:

Access Denied

You don’t have permission to access “http://www.gamestop.com/” on this server.

Reference #18.16231102.1612006228.93d5a50

I guess the company’s founders thought the name represented a place to stop (and shop) for gamers, rather than a plea to stop games—a year ago, it boasted five thousand five hundred retail stores in the United States.

Not only was GameStop hit by the pandemic, but for years, online operators have been carving up the main street, bricks and mortar businesses.

Individual investment is a big thing in the States—according to the Motley Fool, about one-third of American adults have a brokerage account—you can’t even find a number for the EU or UK.

It was individual investors that drove the NASDAQ to frenzied heights in the nineties during the dotcom bubble, and it was the same folks who got skinned when the bottom fell out of the market.

The professional investment community, aka Wall Street, has a name for individual investors, the folks on Main Street—dumb money.

Stock market games have been a around a long time—the best book on the subject was written in 1923 by Edwin Lefèvre, about a legendary operator called Jesse Lauriston Livermore.

Livermore’s whole life was boom and bust, culminating with his suicide at the age of sixty-three. It’s hard to see how suicide would run in the family on a genetic basis, but his son and grandson went the same way.

One of the classic stock operator moves was to corner the market, i.e. to own enough stock to manipulate the price—after World War I, Livermore cornered the cotton market. It took a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson to get him to sell back the cotton for the purchase price—when the president asked why he’d cornered the market, Livermore replied, “To see if I could, Mr. President.”

One of Livermore’s many aphorisms. He would certainly have had something to say about GameStop.

Stock market operators, i.e. investment bankers, hedge funds, and others, use the gamut of tools available to make money.

In my book Atmos Fear, Wall Street trader named Mark Wendale is speaking with a Brit ‘merchant’ banker.

Wendale was now trading CDOs squared, and even cubed, where the product was supported on an identical product, making it increasingly difficult to grasp what the exposure was.

“Those cubed-things you have, they rather remind me of a flat earth story.”

“Huh?” Wendale drew a blank.

“Well, it’s the support, really. In the Middle Ages one thought the earth was a fleht dish. Do you know what supported it?”

“Before my time.”

Wendale couldn’t give a shit about flat dishes. Crazy limey stories. He held up his glass for some more burgundy, and stuffed his mouth with salmon.

“Elephants.” The Brit answered his own question.

“Elephants, huh? Pink ones?”

The British executive didn’t react.

“Four of them, one at each corner. Jolly big ones, one imagines.” He finished off his G & T and daintily picked at a cherry tomato, after anointing it with balsamic vinegar.

Wendale was totally confused. “What the hell do four elephants have to do with cubed CDOs?”

Goddamn limeys were so tortuous.

“Well you see, what troubles me is the support base. When they asked the chap what held up the elephants,  he said ‘it’s elephants all the way down!’.”

Short sports, as Lefèvre calls them, borrow stock from a broker and sell it, on the assumption that its price will decrease. Two conditions have to be met for that to happen: the first is that the stock actually decreases in price, so that when the short sport has had enough, he or she buys the stock back at the lower price and returns the ‘borrowed shares’ to the broker—of course they won’t be the same shares, but they will be identical.

The second is that there are enough shares to buy. If there aren’t, the price of each share increases due to demand, and by the time the operator closes his position, the sport has become rather dangerous, and there is plenty of money to be lost.

Of course, there’s a third possibility, which is that share-buying raises the price—when that happens, the short sport must hold his/her nerve, because the higher the shares go, the bigger the loss when the trade is finally closed.

This is the quintessential battle between bulls and bears, as a rule played institutionally—when the ‘dumb money’ dares to go against Wall Street wisdom, the pros gang up on the individual investors and give them a good trouncing to punish them for their arrogance.

In these days of alternate truth (the artist formerly known as lies), it’s great fun to watch what’s been happening to GameStop shares.

GameStop never intended that the company name could mean this, but when will the game stop?

Wall Street hedge funds analyzed the future of GameStop, and decided it was not headed for a happy ending—the obvious move therefore was to short them to the hilt.

At present, Bloomberg tells us that 139% of GameStop shares have been sold short. You may wonder how you can sell short more shares than actually exist? Let me give you an example:

A has an account with Broker 1, and owns 100 shares of GameStop.

B, who has an account with Broker 1, borrows them and sells 100 shares short.

C, who has an account with Broker 2, buys them.

D, who has an account with Broker 2, shorts them.

If the trade is called because e.g. the stock price goes up, and A and C wish to sell their shares and make a profit, there are 200 shares to return, 100 from B and 100 from D, but only 100 shares physically (or digitally) exist.

How much fun is that?

Social media has upended all our lives, even for those not involved in the fever of posting, pik-ing, and tiktok-ing.

In this case, Reddit drove the crazies, and because of a perfect storm, the dumb money upended the Wall Street operators—citizens watch from the sidelines and cheer.

What are the three ingredients of the perfect storm?

  1. The generalized use of brokerage accounts in the States;
  2. Lockdown, or some other form of pandemic confinement, which results in far higher internet activity;
  3. The US federal government stimulus checks, clearly put to good use.

Now, when you consider that the checks were sent (and signed) by the orang-u-tan himself, and that his favorite indicator for the US economy was the stock market, the whole thing gets far more jolly.

Add to that, one of the little people’s favorite broker has the extraordinary name of Robin Hood. Allegedly, under pressure from the hedge fund operators, at one point last week it suspended the purchase of GameStop shares, in an effort to staunch the bleeding as the hedge funds, squeezed to the testicles by the dumb money, desperately attempted to close their positions and cut their losses.

The net was immediately awash with comments predicated on the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sherwood Forest.

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez came out as Maid Marian defending the ordinary folks, and Ted Cruz—Wibaux central casting’s choice for the evil Sir Guy of Gisborne—have taken up the cause, stunning even Biden with this display of bipartisan unity.

The hedge funds are preparing to do battle, as Fortune Magazine puts it, “Much like in trench warfare, after the first wave gets decimated, the second wave takes up the banner and marches onward.”

What a wonderful popular movement—and in these days of confinement, what else is there to do?

People of the world! All ye dumb investors! Arm thyselves, seize thy swords and maces, go forth and splurge, for the battle is joined—soon the day will be done and the war will be won.

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

We Know This

January 2, 2021

Christmas was hardly merry and New Year’s Eve was no humdinger.

Much was said about bidding adieu to a crap year, and location cameras regularly interviewed people fed up with 2020—as if what happened for most of it was the year’s fault—folks explained how 2021 will make everything better, they just forgot to say how.

Everybody knows nothing so we all know everything: the vaccines are here, but the delivery systems are so far pathetic, and no one can say how long you’ll be immune—just as no one knows how long a veteran of COVID-19 remains immune.

Societies are still divided on whether masks are useful or not, how to manage households and businesses to reduce or prevent transmission, and what limits to impose on travel.

And because there’s so much we don’t know, together with a moving reference frame—the virus is mutating all the time—2021 doesn’t look so hot from where I’m sitting.

Temporary immunity, whether vaccine-induced or from contracting the disease, is not much comfort either to those who get the shot or those who mingle with them. And governments seem unable to deal with the logistics—as things stand, the UK, whose cabinet waxed lyrical about being the first in the world to deliver the shot, is now well behind in its delivery plan, to the extent that ministers tried to cheat the system by delaying the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, administering instead a first shot to more people—the pharma company states that there are no data to support the plan, but since when did that stop a populist government?

The six million dollar question is simple:

When can I get back to a normal life?

Put another way, When will the virus go away?

Only populist pols like the (do-close-the-door-on-your-way-out) orang-u-tan, Britain’s Brexit Bojo, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro (what a lot of Bs) can give you a simple answer to such a complex question—and it will be wrong.

I’ll try to help by steering clear of BS.

When will the virus go away? Never. Even if it did, another form would pop up—that’s what viruses do, they mutate fast, fine-tuning what works best.

But it will not be a significant danger after a certain point, and that’s when normality returns. We are the host, the virus is the guest—mostly uninvited, but if you’re doing the Brittany rave, you’re saying “be my guest.”

Some viruses spread through water, through plumbing or rivers, but ‘rona does not. You can swim, just as you can touch or kiss someone who has cancer or AIDS.

The guest needs a host—and it then needs proximity to other susceptible hosts. The ‘certain point’ above will be when there are insufficient hosts to take in the guest. There are three ways that will happen.

The first is separation. You’re in an empty room. You have COVID. No one else will get it. If you die, bye-bye virus. If you get better, bye-bye virus. The second is immunity. There are ten people in the room, but seven are immune. You pass the ‘rona on to two people, one dies, two recover, bye-bye virus. The last is death. Ten die. If there are no hosts, there’s no oxygen to fan the flames. Bye-bye virus.

We’re not sure how long immunity lasts. But if it lasts long enough for the virus load to decrease in the general population, your probability of catching it will be lower that seeing a smiling truck driver at Dover—game over.

Folks help that happen by not attending raves and throwing bottles at the police, by mass vaccination, and unfortunately, by dying.

The more anti-vax fools out there—and they walk among us—the more time it will take before we return to normal (they never will).

One guideline we have is history—it tries to teach us, but we’re fucking awful students.

Haskell County, Kansas. How bleak can you get?

The ‘Spanish’ flu was first detected in Haskell County, SW Kansas, in January 1918, exactly one hundred and three years ago.

By March, cases were observed in barracks in Kansas, and over the next few months the flu spread in the US and was taken overseas by American soldiers fighting in the First World War.

In September-November, the second wave went crazy—now, that’s got to sound familiar!

The Spanish flu killed a younger demographic than COVID-19, but remember that statistics are like a bikini—what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital—in 1915-1920, Americans had a life expectancy of 50-55 years (men versus women).

In winter and spring 1919, the third wave arrived with a vengeance, and lasted until the summer. President Woodrow Wilson, who like Trump insisted the pandemic was of no concern, collapsed in Paris on April 3rd, 1919—in October he suffered a massive stroke, possibly related to side effects of the virus.

The Spanish flu lasted well into the summer of 1919.

What lessons have we learned? Precious few. We’re all masters of the world now, immortal instagram deities.

When will this end?

My two cents? We’ll be lucky if by next fall we can safely go about our business—by that time, no one will remember what normal means anymore.

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

Keep Your Comrades Warm

December 26, 2020

To most Westerners, Russia means vodka, snow, communism, and a vast wilderness, not necessarily in that order. The political system has changed, but although the country calls itself a democracy, its actions are clearly totalitarian—from the assassination of political enemies and uncooperative journalists, the message is clear: be with us or beware.

The vast nation has vast wealth, but the frozen wastelands under which natural resources lie make exploration a challenge—in particular, the huge potential for crop production is blocked by a layer of permafrost. Putin recognizes that the climate is warming, and views this as a good thing—a few years ago, he quipped that it meant more bread and less fur coats.

Russia and Canada are two of the nations that will reap major benefits from climate change—both have access to the Arctic Ocean, and a whole new polar navigation route has already opened up due to ice melt.

For Russia, this means a strategic position in the maritime routes between China and Europe—transit times will be reduced by up to forty percent, significantly lowering freight costs. In addition, very few major cities are on the coast, so large population centers are far less vulnerable to sea level rise that those in Western Europe or the United States. Think London, Amsterdam, Rome, Lisbon, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Dublin, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Marseille…  and New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle…

Other global competitors appear singularly unprepared—while Russia has twenty-four icebreakers, China has four and the US has… two.

Russia is warming up two and a half times faster than the global average, and huge areas in the east are opening up to farming. To exploit this opportunity, a climate migration is taking place, not just Russians going east to try their luck, but Chinese, heading north to grow wheat and other cereals.

Climate migrants will be the new refugees in the mid to late XXth century, as countries with a Goldilocks temperature range warm up. Most of these nations, the US among them, are singularly unprepared. The orang-u-tan nonsense on climate change asphyxiated any effective preparations for four years—to prepare would be to acknowledge, and that would be as shocking as admitting an electoral defeat.

But perhaps the most critical factor is the unwillingness of Western nations in the north to accept migrants, even in situations where the current population is both ageing and dwindling—to seize new opportunities in farming you need people, but the sons and daughters of those countries don’t want to till, they want to tweet.

Not that Putin accepts the human influence on climate change, or is a fan of renewables—he has expressed concerns that vibration from wind turbines causes worms to flee from the soil—in a country where the annual budget is indexed to oil prices, one can understand the deep anxiety about annelids.

But he does understand that food security is critical, and is on record that Russia now exports more agricultural products than arms—I suspect this is not due to a reduction in weapons sales.

One of the areas where the permafrost has given way to a thriving agricultural area is the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, or region, in the Russian far east. This particular Oblast is to the north of the River Amur, and was created by Stalin in 1928—I was unaware of such a place—I thought Israel was the only autonomous Jewish region.

On the other side of the Amur is the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, and the enterprising celestials have been crossing over to the JAO to make hay while the frost melts.

The US presently trades one third of the world’s soy and forty percent of the corn, but climate models suggest that by mid-century yields from Texas to Nebraska may fall by ninety percent—meanwhile the winter wheat crop in southern Siberia doubled when compared to the previous year.

Sooner or later ‘rona will go away.

Climate change won’t.

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

My Precious

December 12, 2020

 In our society, it’s easy to keep a close eye on the movements, actions, and intentions of individuals.

Three factors are major contributors to this: electronic means of payment, cellphones, and social media. The tool of choice for analysis is Artificial Intelligence (AI), and taken together, data from the three musketeers of individual espionage correspond to what is currently called Big Data—millions to billions of individual items, growing constantly.

You can develop the argument along the lines of who, what, where, when, how, and why—out of the six, why seems to be the hardest word.

As an example, if a group of four people is selected on the basis of nationality or race, any transactions that occur online, or on the high street, can be traced without difficulty. Even if you only have access to metadata, such as which store (e- or otherwise) was used, when the event occurred, and how much was spent, there are many useful things that can be gleaned about our gang of four.

  • Patterns: who goes to the same place daily, is there a particular time, does it occur on weekends, how much is spent? Based on the type of establishment, can AI interpret the data to make an educated guess about what people are doing? Eating, dancing, dating, planning home improvements, getting a massage, traveling? No brainer…
  • Trends: is an activity becoming more or less frequent, has the expenditure changed, is it for different things or more of the same? Is there a medical component? Does a restaurant check for one become a check for two? Does that occur doing the week but not at weekends, in which case perhaps a tryst is in the making? Do we now have purchases from a jewellery store?

This is just by looking at purchasing history based on a credit card, a cellphone payment system, or any other transactional mechanism. We now know roughly where the subjects live, what they have for breakfast, whether they drink alcohol, what their income level is, and whether they know each other.

When you add cellphone data to the mix, this becomes a far richer ecosystem: now you know exactly where those folks are, where they live—possibly not their registered address—and how long and when they sleep. More importantly, who they associate (and sleep) with, and you can then start to map a society.

The cherry on the cake is social media—as a societal phenomenon, it absolutely fascinates me, particularly when group activities are involved. It’s hard to think of any human experience that has been so widely accepted so fast.

From the very early days of Usenet, developed in 1979 by two graduate students at Duke, to Instagram and TikTok, online social interaction is a winner. Facebook, also created by students, started in 2004. Twitter, 2006. WhatsApp, 2009. Instagram, 2010. Two things catapulted all of these into the hearts of ordinary people: the internet of things, or IoT, and multimedia, i.e. sound, images, and video.

From that moment on, when it comes to Big Brother watching you, it was Christmas come early.

In the European Union, where concerns about immigration and terrorism make tracking very appealing, a whole lot of research money has gone into AI systems that address such questions—the Horizon 2020 framework program, which funded EU research over the past seven years, manages these funds.

As an example, five million euros funded the Real-time Early Detection (RED) alert project, which used “natural language processing (NLP), semantic media analysis (SMA), social network analysis (SNA), Complex Event Processing (CEP) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies” to monitor terrorist groups.

The iBorderCtrl partnership received 4.5 million to develop lie detector technology based on facial features.

Overall, 1.7 billion euros of public funds were channeled by Horizon 2020 into this research area—in total, the EU has spent 2.7 billion since 2007, and some of the biggest players in security are heavily involved, including BAE (UK), Siemens (Germany), Thales (France), and Leonardo (Italy).

Selfies and GPS track your location, courtesy of BMB (Big Medical Brother).

COVID has added some extra spice to the mix. The new EU research framework, called Horizon Europe, puts 1.3 billion € into security research. In addition, a further 8 billion goes into military technologies billed as ‘dual-use’. As an example, Poland released an app earlier this year that requires you to take selfies while in quarantine, and then uses GPS and facial recognition to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be—if you don’t get in touch, the cops will.

This kind of app has obvious uses in other surveillance areas, including house arrest and tracking of immigrants. The main concern about tools like this is the intrusive nature of the approach—in a totalitarian state, the potential for violation of civil liberties is obvious, but even in an open democratic society it’s still there, just less evident.

Apps that analyze you remotely, for instance at an airport security station, are ethically questionable—you have no idea you’re being vetted. iBorderCtrl, for instance, whose website iborderctrl.eu has been hidden and now bounces to the European Commission’s CORDIS platform, is billed as follows:

travellers will use an online application to upload pictures of their passport, visa and proof of funds, then use a webcam to answer questions from a computer-animated border guard, personalised to the traveller’s gender, ethnicity and language. The unique approach to ‘deception detection’ analyses the micro-gestures of travellers to figure out if the interviewee is lying...

After the traveller’s documents have been reassessed, and fingerprinting, palm vein scanning and face matching have been carried out, the potential risk posed by the traveller will be recalculated. Only then does a border guard take over from the automated system.

Palm vein scanning was a new one on me—apparently it’s a highly accurate biometric identification—I suppose palmistry had it all figured out centuries ago.

Concerns about public spending on opaque, ethically questionable research areas that will be used to protect the average citizen, but can be easily misused, have led to a blitz of requests for information. In large part, these are not met, alleging confidentiality and protection of intellectual property—recently, a German MEP from the Pirate party sued the EC to release information on iBorderCtrl—the case is now in the European Court of Justice.

Of course, all these things battle against human ingenuity—sooner or later, some of this sophisticated toolset ends up as castles made of sand.

In Mozambique, and I suspect many other countries, it is currently possible to pay labs for a positive or negative COVID test, complete with signature and stamp—you pay, they oblige. If you want to travel, get a negative one, if you want time off work or don’t feel like getting on a plane, go for positive.

And it’s not just Africa—I found this guy’s story particularly bizarre, and since he was wearing a burqa, I guess they grabbed him by the palm veins.

Hustlers are quick to get on the bandwagon. Some enterprising folks registered the fakecovidtest.com site, which allows you to get yourself a fake test certificate. The site makes sure you click on a couple of disclaimers, including one where you categorically state that you will not use the test for any wicked purpose.

Again, I agree to not use this website, any information contained within this website, or any fake test generated by this website, to knowingly lie to another person about COVID-19 status, trick employers/law enforcement, or ANY OTHER malicious intent.

The site emphasizes that its purpose is for you to obtain a certificate as a joke. I love jokes, particularly tasteful ones like this, so I ran through the form.

The best jokes in the world are the ones where you die laughing.

When I clicked next, I too (even though I am a duck) could choose positive, negative, or inconclusive. The bottom line was pretty conclusive: twenty-five bucks to get my certificate—now that’s what I call a fucking joke.

If your finely honed sense of humor stretches to two and a half sawbucks, then this is the 2020 joke for you. And if you’re a US citizen, what could be more amusing that three hundred thousand deaths? Just think, if you faked a negative test, you might even die laughing.

But AI and facial recognition extends to many other noble purposes—in China, the world’s largest pork producer, pig snouts, ears, and eyes are scanned by sensors. Fitbits track pulse and sweat. A hungry or sick pig can be flagged due to the distress on their faces.

I’m sure it’s all part of a brave new world, but I can’t help feeling sorry for those poor pigs as I wrap up this text. Our cruelty to animals is unspeakable.

You can’t carry the world on your shoulders, but I’d rather eat a bit of fish.

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

 

Diaper Don

November 28, 2020

Next Thursday, it will be a month since the US election. I’ve avoided anything but a passing mention of it until now, waiting patiently for the process to meander and weave its way to conclusion.

The sequence of events has been bizarrely predictable—I correctly forecast the ousting of the orange man, and won myself a bottle of tinto in doing so, but I didn’t predict the enthusiastic support for the incumbent displayed by almost seventy four million Americans.

In my forecast, I paid no attention to polls, but to clear evidence of incompetence, inhumanity, and influence trafficking. And since America really is a democracy, as it has convincingly demonstrated this past month, I can only confess to an emptiness inside—the vote was not the repressive adulation of Saddam Hussein or Mao Zedong, predicated on fear of arrest or worse at the hands of the military or the secret service.

In a nation with thirteen million plus coronavirus infections and two hundred sixty-five thousand deaths—so many of them avoidable—the support for the man who set the tone of defiance, taking a leaf from the actions of the King of Wuyue, was astonishing.

Yes, I know about the evangelicals, the tea party and libertarian lobbies, and those who think America’s cities will turn into battlefields of race.

But even so…

The America I know, or thought I knew, includes dozens, if not hundreds, of Trump voters who I’ve spoken with since 2015, and in those conversations I didn’t flag an undercurrent of sectarianism or xenophobia. I’m talking about North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, and yes, California and DC, those heartlands of Marxism-Leninism.

No citizen on this planet can remain indifferent to the election results—regardless of the reasons why Trump lost—now that everyone except the man himself accepts the outcome of the 2020 election, the general feeling in Europe and elsewhere is a sigh of relief.

Four more years of hallucinatory behavior would have been intolerable, and the positions of Trump, Bannon, and others about the European Union were instrumental in promoting Brexit and causing convulsions in several EU countries. From the far right in Germany to the Italian nationalists, not forgetting the mini-strong-men in Hungary and Poland, the US promotion of unilateralism was grist to their (un)collective mill.

European history over millennia is a tale of fragmentation and chaos. Territorial dispute followed by war followed by peace followed by war. To the European great powers (Germany, France, and the U.K.), this divided Europe made sense—pit countries against each other and their weakness makes you strong—until the Second World War.

In 1941, Carl Bosch, the co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen, was on his deathbed. Although he wasn’t Jewish (Fritz Haber was), he had a strong dislike, contempt even, for the Nazis in general and for Hitler in particular.

Before he died, he called in his son and told him:

To begin with, it will go well. France and perhaps even England will be occupied. But then he will bring the greatest calamity by attacking Russia. Even that will go well for a while. But then I see something horrific. Everything will be totally black. The sky is full of airplanes. They will destroy the whole of Germany, its cities, its factories, and also the IG.

IG was of course IG Farben, the chemical giant Bosch helped to build—it is infamously responsible for the manufacture of Zyklon B, the gas used in the Jewish holocaust.

Zyklon B manufactured at the IG Farben Auschwitz plant.

As the warring parties moved rapidly toward nuclear war in 1944 and 1945, there was every reason to fear the worst—after the war, it was clear to both generals and politicians that the scale and lethality of weapons far exceeded the restraint of humans in employing them.

And Bosch‘s predictions were right on the money—England only escaped invasion because America joined the war after Pearl Harbor.

For many reasons, not least peace and stability in Europe, we rejoice in bidding adieu to Trump. I am writing the last pages of The Hourglass, a novel in which a US president is forcibly evicted from the White House—although by all accounts this will not happen, since Trump himself revealed on Thanksgiving that he will leave if the electoral college returns Biden as the winner.

The actions of the White House, i.e. the orang-u-tan, because houses don’t have actions, have been pretty dreadful. And the consequences, such as the threats to the Georgia secretary of state and his family, are unacceptable.

This is the result of dialed-up ranting from Diaper Don.

The Thanksgiving press conference was the culmination of a set of initiatives that descended from perplexing to downright weird—it’s a really serious matter, but the props and actors have been hilarious.

From the accusations hurled from a garden center next to a porn shop to the hair dye streaming down Giuliani’s face, from court cases claiming fraud and then denying fraud in court to the Dominion machine fracas, it’s been comedy central.

The final act (so far, as Homer Simpson would say), was the insane presidential press conference on Thanksgiving.

Tiny desk, Tiny mind, Tiny caption.

I woke up to it on Friday morning—stream of consciousness stuff, including the trademark shouting at journalists and the usual folio of fallacies.

Everyone knows… anyone who believes that is… if you… you’re either…

A constellation of non sequitur arguments, repetition and emphasis as a rhetorical device—all the fun of the fair.

This circus has taken on an aura of slapstick, particularly since everyone knows how the movie ends. The memes flowed thick and fast. My favorites? Here are the Wibaux Awards.

Bronze medal

I like to think that during Trump’s presidency, some hero in the White House has slowly swapped Trump’s desk for a slightly smaller one, day by day, so he wouldn’t notice, till four years later we get to this majestic picture

 Silver medal

I want to salute the dark, subtle genius, quietly at work in the White House staff, who managed to move Rudy Giuliani’s press conference to a run down garden centre, and to seat Donald Trump himself at that tiny, tiny desk. Be safe. The world needs your art.

Gold medal

Mini desk. Tiny hands. Small soul.

I don’t tweet (so far), but here’s my two cents, as I stand on the shoulders of giants.

John Gotti was the Dapper Don, this dude’s the Diaper Don.

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

Breadth

November 21, 2020

The Germans missed it. So did the Italians and Belgians.

The Italians made a half-baked attempt by invading Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) and establishing a mini-empire, while the Belgians couldn’t agree at all on a colonial policy, so Leopold II took it upon himself to establish a personal empire in the Congo—a truly bloodthirsty and vile affair that resulted in fifteen million deaths.

The Germans also missed the boat. Kaiser Wilhelm made a last-ditch effort to obtain an empire, at a time when the colonial world was already carved up between the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese—together, these nations controlled all of Asia, Africa, and South America.

More mature readers of these pages will remember seeing this kind of map (dated 1910) on the wall of the classroom.

One hundred ten years ago, the world was a vastly different place. At the start of the XXth century, the combined population of Britain (40 million), France (39 million), Spain (19 million), Holland (5 million), and Portugal (5 million) was 108 million people—together, they ruled over empires with five times that number of people.

Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a couple of aces short of a full deck, desperately wanted empire—the Germans ended up with Tanganyika and Namibia, and they also secured the city of Qingdao, in NE China. The present-day consequence for the Middle Kingdom is TsingTao (which is just an alternate spelling for Qingdao, or Green Island) beer—China’s best beer, made in the classic pilsner tradition.

There’s quite a lot of evidence that Wilhelm was as gay as a Mexican handbag; in addition, he was obsessed with uniforms, dressing up as a British admiral whenever he ate plum pudding. The Kaiser loved pranks—a favorite was smacking men on the butt, often with the flat of his sword, an indignity suffered by the tsar of Bulgaria.

His sycophants dreamed up all kinds of stuff to entertain him, including my favorite—his military cabinet chief dressed up in a pink tutu, performed a dance for the emperor, and promptly died of a heart attack in front of him.

The most obvious reason why Germans and Italians missed the boat when it came to empire-building was their own internal (dis)organization—both territories were a fragmented arrangement of city-states and regional fiefdoms. Collectively, the German states were known since the time of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Empire, but by the late XVIIIth century, Voltaire noted it was neither holy, Roman, or an empire.

From 1862 onward, Bismarck used three wars to unify the country, ending with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870—the conflict with the French was a precursor of World War I. The fragmentation of Germany made it miss the empire-building stage other European nations embarked on, starting with the Portuguese in the XVth century.

As a result, Germany invested in other things—apart from coal, Prussia didn’t have a wealth of natural resources, so it turned to infrastructure, education, engineering, and science. These became national priorities, and led to key initiatives such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. These institutes were independent from the state, and led by names such as Einstein, Haber, and Hahn—all of them Nobel Prize winners.

During the First World War, Haber, who was Jewish, became infamous for his work on poison gases—he was the first to use chlorine against Allied troops in the trenches.

But Fritz Haber’s real achievement was the development of a process to make ammonia from the air that we breathe—in particular from the eighty percent of that air that is composed of the inert gas nitrogen.

All these guys have two things in common—crazy mustaches and absolute genius. Marie Curie is the one without the facial hair. Other names include Nernst, Solvay, Lorentz, Poincaré, Planck, de Broglie, Rutherford, and Einstein. The meeting took place at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels, my personal favorite.

Prior to Haber’s success, which led to the huge expansion of the German company BASF, and the building of huge factories to apply the Haber-Bosch process, soil could only be fertilized with nitrogen from organic sources such as manure, and extracted from deposits of saltpeter, guano, and other materials.

As intensive agriculture developed to accompany the growth of world population through the second half of the XIXth century, so the land became progressively more barren as the nutrients within became depleted—the use of cover crops, rotation, and other traditional approaches just wasn’t sufficient to produce the volume of food required.

Wars were fought in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile over the nitrate mines, and places like the Atacama desert were the stuff of boom and bust economies, drawing engineers, prospectors, miners, carpetbaggers, saloons, and whorehouses in the best tradition of the Klondike.

German science, spurred on by the creation and national support of large research institutes, and their close connection to the industrial heartland of the new nation, is responsible for giving us the key for turning breath into bread.

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


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