Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Almost Grown

May 14, 2022

When a big small business grows into a small big business, many things need to change. Management needs to stop doing most of the work that gives the company its edge and other folks need to take care of that.

Think of Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who in 1975 founded a two-person software shop called Microsoft—by the mid-nineteen-eighties, Gates was no longer coding at Microsoft—for someone as obsessed with computer software as he was, that must have hurt.

Another major shift when a company grows is that you need a lot more process—and by that I mean administrative procedures. If you grow big, you’re soon in the realm of HR departments, procurement, and various other support structures—what worked for a handful of people doesn’t work for a planeload.

In other words, bureaucracy.

The main thing about bureaucracy is that it must be constantly challenged—when it is not, the following happens.

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

Jerry Pournelle, who I have previously quoted in these pages, formulated his iron law (is there any other kind) of bureaucracy some decades ago.

And this week it finally struck me that the iron law has taken over the internet. Or it is well on its way. Put another way, the net is almost grown.

When a manuscript is submitted for publication, the author must provide a cover letter explaining the relevance of the work. If you want to publish a novel, you send your pitch to an agent—actually multiple agents, if you’re a new author, and an agent in turn will pitch numerous publishers—J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers.

Scientific manuscripts go through a somewhat similar process—and they too require a cover letter.

However, nowadays this has turned into a boilerplate form to be submitted online—this is wholly unnecessary and yet it is now mandatory for ass-covering reasons—and that got me thinking about how much form-filling I now do online, particularly as I once again travel to weird and wonderful places.

And how much of my internet time is tied to bureaucracy, be it on a ‘traditional’ platform such as a laptop, or on a cellphone.

The short answer is: way too much!

Looking at this through the prism of Jerry’s law, I conclude that admin is taking over the web—I fill in more forms than I did in the days of pen and paper. And here we need to split things into good form / bad form.

For instance, in trips to both The Netherlands and Portugal, not to mention numerous UK journeys, I filled in countless passenger locator forms, most of which were unnecessary—no one ever wanted to see them. The same applies to repeat data requested by airlines, government sites, and a range of other form-hungry entities, including petty rules such as the maximum size in bytes that a passport photo can be— this would perplex most ordinary internet users, who would consider themselves to be Bill Gates if they could store a photo of themselves of any size on a hard disk.

The other characteristic of bureaucracy, which is what makes it so horrible, is that it’s mandatory—there’s no choice.

In Heathrow, I was not allowed to check in for a flight because my vax certificate was out of date—a new EU regulation that citizens were not advised about. I hurried off to the appointed office for an antigen test.

“No walk-ins, you need to register on our website and book an appointment.”

“But I’m standing here in front of you, why can’t you book me in for now?”

“It needs to be done through the app.”

That was it, no sorry, no fuck-all!

As I sped through the app in order to book my appointment for five minutes hence, an endless form needed completion, along with an authentication email, details on the color of my underwear, and other salient (excuse the pun) facts.

Every time I was close to completing the form, a pop-up window appeared telling me that I was now too close to my appointment and couldn’t complete the form in time. After I closed it, the form returned to the previous page.

Well, if you fucking let me I can, I cursed.

I finally beat the system. A QR code was supposed to emerge. I used to be agnostic about QR codes. Then I saw their value during the pandemic—you could order food. Now we live in QR code bureaucracy and I’m beginning to loathe the ugly little fuckers.

No QR code emerged.

“Look,” I told the girl. “I got no code, but there is a registration number.”

“That’s fine. Just go down to level zero to the test center.”

We were on five.

“Zero? Why the hell are you even here?”

My suitcase and I adjourned to the car park floor, where carbon monoxide and COVID appeared to live in perfect harmony. Then thirty-five minutes pining for an email to tell me the result.

You get a lateral flow test kit result in two or three minutes—I know, I’ve shoved more stuff up my nostrils in the last two years than Maradona and Whitney Houston combined.

So why can’t I wait five minutes and get something printed? Yes, I know, it’s so last Tuesday!

As I rode the elevator back up for a thirty-minute pre-check-in meditation session, I considered the options for someone who might not be net-literate—not steeped in the art of Grand Prix form-filling, for instance.

How about the poor immigrant without a smartphone? Or someone who did not have a UK dataplan? Who doesn’t use email on their phone… who has a disability…

The internet, and that includes the Internet of Things, is a machine. More and more, the minions that mind the machines are impotent to change or reverse processes—and much like the bureaucrats I grew up with, in banks, hospitals, or government agencies, they seem to take a perverse pleasure in serving the software—their new master.

Improving quality of life is not some kind of elitist game—be it an age, knowledge, or wealth elite. A better society supports the disenfranchised, rather than excluding them. That means older people. Folks (and I know many) who although well-educated, are unable to distinguish between the consequences of a single or double click. People who have never bought anything on line. Who are stumped if the video camera is frozen or won’t start, if the wifi stops working, or if Windows curses them with the blue screen of death.

The infamous blue screen of death at Milan’s Malpensa airport.

One of my airport hobbies is spotting a Windows terminal displaying a cryptic message—I’ve seen them all over the world.

I use the net all the time—without it I couldn’t reach you with these words. As with so much else, I love the good things about it. I’ve never warmed to the social media side—it’s much like the rumor mill in a large company, yet more evidence of the way the internet has ‘matured’.

The cruel and sadistic side of humans turned social media into hate platforms, fake news sources that unquestioning minds happily assimilate, ways to denigrate science—tools that surely would have empowered society, were they not placed in the hands of humans.

So much of the internet can significantly change society for the better, but so much of the internet needs to change in order to build a better society.

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

Ureno

April 16, 2022

Vasco da Gama and his fleet arrived at Mombasa, on the coast of (what is now) Kenya, on April 8th, 1498.

It is an ode to serendipity that on the very same day, five hundred and twenty four years later, I was walking the ramparts of Fort Jesus—the bastion that guards the approach to Mombasa.

The sailors of The India Road were made welcome by the sultan but did not disembark. Gradually, Gama realized a trap was being set—the journey up the east African coast was fraught with political difficulties—just as the way down west Africa had been a massive navigational challenge.

Arab progress south from the horn of Africa stopped short of Mozambique—the Arabian Sea widens into the Indian Ocean along a parallel between Somalia and Ceylon, and south of that the Arab dhows were anything but seaworthy.

The spy Pero da Covilhã described the ‘indifferent construction’ of the Arab dhow, which did not allow it to negotiate rough seas.

The limitations of the dhow were twofold: the planking was bound with hemp rather than nailed, giving the hull less structural rigidity—by the time you get to Mombasa, the tidal range is identical to Lisbon—I measured it myself last Friday.

With a ten foot tide, strong winds, and the fast flowing Agulhas current, the hull takes a hammering, if you excuse the pun.

And then there’s the deck—dhows don’t have one, so as the Arabian Sea broadens into an ocean the waves that break over the ship fill it with water rather than sloughing off.

My companion postulated that perhaps the construction was not improved because no one ever survived to tell the tale.

The great plateaus that make up central and western Kenya mean that pleasant temperatures are the norm, even on the equator. Nairobi is five thousand nine hundred feet (1,795 m) above sea level, and Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is at an altitude of three thousand seven hundred feet (1,131 m).

Not so Mombasa and Malindi—both ports are on the ocean and on the equator, so they are hot. When I arrived there was not a breath of wind and the temperature was a cool one-oh-five (forty Celsius).

Ramadan was in full swing, and like Gama five and a quarter centuries earlier, I was struck by the prevalence of Islam. Forty-one percent of the population of Mombasa is Muslim, and signs, schools, and mosques make this plain across the city.

Kenya is a watershed nation in Africa—just as the Balkans are in Europe—where ancient wars between Christian and Muslim linger. The country is eighty percent Christian—a legacy from centuries of Portuguese and British rule.

At the institutional level, the Christian dominance is clear, which causes unrest between the two religious groups—Kenya is the only Christian nation I’ve ever visited where government meetings begin and end with a prayer.

A rockin’ band I was lucky enough to see in Nairobi, all part of the Kenya vibe. The guitarist on the right is a southpaw, and like Albert King, plays his axe upside down. Hendrix occasionally did that also.

The history of Mombasa and Malindi is one of religious conflict. Above the outer gate of Fort Jesus there is a Portuguese inscription.

In 1635, Fransisco de Seixas de Cabriene, aged twenty-seven years, was made for four years Captain of this Fort, which he had reconstructed and to which he added his guardroom. He subjected to His Majesty the people of the coast who, under their tyrant king, had been in a state of rebellion. He made the Kings of Otondo, Manda, Luziwa and Jaca tributary to His Majesty. He inflicted, in person, punishment on Pate and Siyu, which was unexpected in India, extending to the destruction of their town walls. He punished the Musungulos and chastised Pemba, where in his own responsibility he had the rebel governors and all the leading citizens executed.

You get the picture…

In 1635, the King of Portugal was Philip III of Spain—there were five years left of Spanish occupation prior to the defenestration of the Spanish regent from a second floor window in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square and the subsequent expulsion of the Spanish from Portugal—today, they’re all back for the Easter weekend, but instead of muskets they bring euros.

Fort Jesus, and the city it defends (several government offices still cluster around the fort) were conflict zones for centuries. Portugal built the fort one hundred years after Gama’s first voyage to provide the Lusitanian naus, or carracks, with a support base on their return from India and prevent attacks by the Moors.

  • 1593: Fort Jesus is built by the Portuguese—Portugal has been under Spanish occupation since 1580
  • 1661: Mombasa leaders travel to Oman to seek military assistance to oust the invaders
  • 1696: The Omani Imam Said lays siege to the fort
  • 1698: The Omanis capture the fort after a siege of two years and nine months
  • 1824: Suliman bin Ali Al-Mazrui, Wali of Mombasa, asks the British Royal Navy for protection
The Portuguese crown and the letter ‘P’ clearly stamped on one of the cannons defending the harbor entrance. The date is 18th February 1627.

All history makes its mark. In the Kiswahili language, there is a word called Ureno.

It is an adaptation of the Portuguese word O Reino—The Kingdom.

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

Endless War

April 2, 2022

It is impossible to contextualize the war in the Ukraine without understanding the country’s history.

Or, for that matter, to see these seismic events solely through Western eyes. I asked some African friends for their analysis and found them unsympathetic to the Ukrainian plight. Why? Because images of black students being pulled to one side and refused travel while Ukrainian refugees were welcomed in other European nations rammed home the quintessential horrors of racism.

In African eyes, the whole issue turned into a ‘first world problem’—the immediate reaction was why the West didn’t express similar concerns about malaria—although in fairness, a lot of effort has gone into development of a malarial vaccine, distribution of mosquito nets to remote villages, and social awareness and education.

A further issue was the enormous sympathy Ukrainian refugees were generating in Western Europe when compared to the intake of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean by way of Libya and Ceuta—here too, there is a counterargument because the Ukrainians vehemently declare their wish to return home when the war ends, and cannot therefore be classified as economic migrants.

One of many derelict properties along the Alexandria corniche—what was once an emblematic coastal promenade is now a cacophony of chaos.

These discussions took place in Cairo and Alexandria—Egypt is a proud ambassador of Arab culture and tradition, but I was stunned by how little it cares for its people. Perhaps due to its remarkable history—my heart longed to spot Pero da Covilhã, the handsome spy from The India Road—I expected Alexandria to reflect past glory, or at least to curate it, but I found nothing of the sort.

Instead, Alexandria manages to resemble Beirut, despite never having been bombed. The corniche, wending its way along the waterfront, is a melee of carts, trucks, and bikes engaged in a contest to out-honk and out-pong each other.

The taxi ‘fleet’ largely consists of yellow and black Ladas that pre-date the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I saw cars limping their way through the streets that transported me to another era—Peugeot 504, Fiat 127, the boxy Mirafiori clones, Simca, and dozens of VW pop-tops, tail flap open to help cool the little four-cylinder engine.

Arabs are as a rule extremely prejudiced against kuffar, particularly against the black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, and Egypt is a supremely macho society—it was egregious to hear street vendors addressing female black tourists with a rude “Hey, brown sugar,” followed by a lewd grin.

All in all, I found many reasons not to be in Egypt, and none at all to return—the country seems hell-bent on making itself unattractive. When you see the lack of basic living conditions in Cairo or Alexandria, the whole Arab Spring revolution becomes immediately obvious, and the trappings of a police state ruled with an iron fist are everywhere.

An armored car machine gun post at the highway toll station between Cairo and Alexandria.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat—thirteen million metric tonnes—and has therefore been crucified by the war in Ukraine. The whole food issue related to the Ukrainian conflict is remarkable, and it affects both direct human consumption and animal feeds—in the aquaculture sector, which now produces around eighty million tonnes of fish per year, feed prices are soaring—wheat is used as a binding agent for pelleted feed.

The history of war in the Ukraine is also the history of food. In Anne Applebaum’s superb book, Red Famine, she takes the reader through the history of Little Russia—as the Russians patronizingly called Ukraine—with a particular focus on the heady days of the Russian revolution, when Lenin, Molotov, and the other champions of Bolshevism raped the Ukraine of grain, and on the follow-on war led by Stalin.

As in the present day, the Ukrainians didn’t give anything up without a fight—in 1919 Kyiv changed hands twelve times. The Kremlin understood that without food the proletariat would not be on its side.

In 1921, when an American relief mission was negotiating to enter the Soviet Union, one of its representatives told the Soviet negotiator Maksim Litvinov that ‘we do not come to fight Russia, we come to feed.’ Litvinov responded very succintly, in English: ‘Yes, but food is a veppon…’

There is an old military adage that an army marches on its stomach—Lenin took this to heart, understanding that the only path to a successful revolution in Russia was to obtain food from the world’s breadbasket through the use of extreme violence. After Lenin, Stalin, and after him Putin.

Egyptians are huge consumers of wheat products—bread is sold everywhere, from street hawkers to swank hotels.

The difference this time is that Russia is paying too high a cost. Its oligarchs have watched their assets—their whole way of life—disappear overnight. And the military-intelligence complex, known as the siloviki—names like Bortnikov and Patrushev—is supremely unhappy.

As the days go by, it is increasingly likely that Putin will have an ‘accident.’ In 1921, Lenin set up a research lab called the ‘Special Office’—the USSR had created a laboratory to develop and manufacture poisons, a favorite means of dealing with enemies from the days of the ancient Greeks to the Borgias of the Italian renaissance.

In recent years, Russian poisons have been used on the Skripals in the UK, Navalny in Russia, and most recently in an alleged incident involving Abramovich and Ukrainian negotiators in Kyiv. Some time before, ex-FSB agent Litvinenko was turned into agent orange in a London hotel when polonium was added to his tea, along with the cream and sugar.

The oligarchs are straining at the leash—they don’t see a way out of this without removing the Russian president. They may not have the means, but the siloviki certainly do.

And Novichok means recently arrived.

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

Meet the Larpers

March 20, 2022

This was originally a pre-war blog, but it was overtaken by events. I’ve been too busy over the last few days to follow the news, but it appears the Russians continue to pound since they can’t gain ground.

There’s lots going on that we don’t know about, including the supply of advanced weapons to the Ukraine by the West, and the consequences to Russian heavy armor.

Within Russia itself, the situation is increasingly complex—social media is like coronavirus, it thrives in the background even as Vlad’s coterie try to suppress it—the true story gets through, and multiple sanctions are beginning to bite.

It is vitally important we continue to talk about the war—I did so last week in a public address in Holland: “However complex the problem we are discussing here, remember it pales into insignificance compared to what is presently happening in Europe.”

In that context, I encourage you to listen to (or read) an excellent piece by Stephen Kotkin.

Now, let’s git larpin’.

I got into this through an excellent podcast from the BBC called The Coming Storm, narrated by Gabriel Gatehouse. The general theme of the show is the 2020 assault on the capitol during the US senate vote, but it provides a backdrop starting with the Clintons as Bill made his way from governor of Arkansas to president of the United States.

A movie entitled The Clinton Chronicles, shot by a religious right fanatic called Patrick Matrisciana, tracks a—quite literally—incredible story of cocaine, prostitutes, money laundering, murder, and general mayhem attributed in full to the Clinton couple. I would classify it as WAGWET (watchable garbage with elements of truth)—most disinformation material has those characteristics—and I won’t link it, but it is reasonably easy to find based on the information above.

The film was released in 1994—the net was taking its first baby steps, with the appearance of NCSA Mosaic and the meteoric growth of the world wide web, and those who wanted to step into that mysterious world needed to delve into the wonders of modems and BAUD rates—there was a whole lotta (hand)shakin going on.

At the time, it made some headway, but its day in the sun came much later on, driven by web sites such as 4chan and 8chan, now 8kun, and by QAnon. Once more, I provide no links because these sites are infamous for neo-Nazism, white supremacy, mass shootings, and child porn—Frederick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, is interviewed in the BBC podcast—not pretty.

LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, derives from computer gaming, but the application of LARP to politics, and now to war, is the goldmine—QAnon recently managed to transition a spoof on US biological weapons in Ukraine straight into Fox News.

The Ukrainian Nazi fairytale, or the massacres of ethnic Russians, are neat LARPs, as is the satan-worshipping, child-molesting Clinton LARP—gullible citizens then literally move to live action, from the sad-sack Comet Pizzagate episode to the horrifying January 6th attack on the US capitol.

In a 1990s book called The Sovereign Individual, William Rees-Mogg argued that the digital revolution will be a much faster paradigm shift than its industrial and agricultural predecessors. Mogg, who was the father of the recently appointed Brexit opportunities minister Jacob, speculated that the empowerment provided by the internet would shift power towards individuals and business, drawing it away from government—Brexit, which his son enthusiastically supports, is an actionable example of this trend.

In the case of QAnon, a man named Jim Watkins who ran servers out of the Philippines was allegedly behind the LARPing lark, and the results are both profound and persistent.

Watkins and others understood that in today’s social media befuddlement of factoids, good LARPs control the narrative.

And he who controls the narrative controls the world.

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

War In Our Time

March 12, 2022

A century ago we had a war followed by a pandemic. This time it’s very different—a pandemic followed by a war—that’s ’cause we’re civilized now.

And there’s a few other differences, too—where a fuckhead like Hitler relied on a conventional army through most of WWII, only dabbling with missiles and nuclear weapons at the very end, and too late to move the scoreboard—Putin has the world’s biggest collection of nukes.

The irony is that the Ukraine was itself flush with nuclear weapons prior to 1994—Wikipedia tells us that:

Ukraine held about one third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world at the time, as well as significant means of its design and production. 130 UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with six warheads each, 46 RT-23 Molodets ICBMs with ten warheads apiece, as well as 33 heavy bombers, totaling approximately 1,700 warheads remained on Ukrainian territory…

I bet they miss ’em now.

Kim Jong-un sits there and grins. “See, I told you so,” he says, as he munches his Matdongsan.

For a weaker country invaded by a powerful neighbor, it’s the only game in town. Then again, if the Ukes had the Nukes, World War Three would have already begun—nukes are only valuable as a deterrent because MAD is a zero sum game.

Distribution of the planet’s 17,000 nukes (courtesy Business Insider)

If we go by numbers alone, Russia inherited the USSR’s arsenal and according to Business Insider boasts almost 8500 warheads. However, Kristensen & Korda put the number at 4477. There are also questions about the quality of these weapons. Nevertheless, when compared to the rest of Europe, ninety percent of the atomic armor is in Russia.

The thing about nukes is that it only takes one to ruin your day. A few well-aimed missiles could wreak havoc from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, by way of Moscow and Minsk. Of course, since Russia owns thousands, it could turn Europe into another Hiroshima—if we cast Putin as a Bond villain, laughing manically as Europe collapses, then it all makes sense.

The Russian president is clearly delusional, and he wields a lot of power—but he understands how much damage a couple of hits on Russia would cause. Putin would have preferred to start this war with the orang-u-tan in the White House, despite the fact that Biden is no wartime president—then again, the USA isn’t in the war.

Trump has come out indirectly in support of Putin, calling him a genius for taking direct action and suggesting a parallel with Mexico—one of his more bizarre twists, along with his subsequent one hundred and eighty about ‘holocaust‘ and his most recent rant about windmills.

I have no doubt Putin would have invaded Ukraine if the orange man was in power, and I shudder at the idea of Trump as the leader of the free world on the eve of a global conflagration. The former US president never supported NATO, considered Europe a bunch of cheats and scroungers, and would have done a covid on the old continent—flip-flopped his way to tragedy.

Lord knows the tragedy is here already—for China, this is a real-world test of American resolve. The temptation to do a uke in Taiwan—particularly as the war develops in Eastern Europe—must have the Chinese hawks swooping on the doves. I can hear them in the war rooms, in the closed meetings of the Zhongnanhai—there’s never been a better time, Mr.Chairman. Carpe diem.

“Close the skies,” the Ukrainian president begs, as the missiles pound his cities. “That would be the start of World War III,” chorus Biden and NATO, while the EU makes docile noises about adhesion.

After Ukraine falls, Russia will once more have a border with Poland, and an appetite for annexing the ‘little friends’, the Baltic states who showed how easy it is to thrive when you come out from under the paw of the bear.

At that stage, Putin will test NATO’s resolve—Germany has already put one hundred billion euros into its defense spending, up from forty-seven billion in 2021. The country has no nukes, but they could quickly get some—after all, they invented the damn things.

The stage is being set, with Poland once again being the larger prize—memories of the Nazi invasion of Sudetenland, followed by the start of World War II on September 1st, 1939.

Churchill told Europe, when Romania chose to appease Hitler, “Every nation feeds the crocodile, in the hope the crocodile will eat them last.”

As soon as the Ukraine’s done, Russia will have de facto borders with NATO. It will also have tens of millions of Ukrainians whose lives have been destroyed, families murdered, and hopes shattered.

All the trappings of the crime of the century.

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

Novax

January 15, 2022

As the world enters its third year of pandemic, it’s plain to see human nature remains unchanged, when compared to a century ago.

It is also clear that COVID-19 will be with us this year, and that the trajectory it follows is very similar, if not identical, to the Spanish Flu. Sources differ in their estimate of the duration of the 1918 pandemic, but the consensus is two to three years.

Based on the science, it is reasonable to expect Covid to last about three years—variants are less virulent, infection is becoming more widespread, and vaccination is in general protecting people from hospitalization and death.

In the US, the death rate for vaccinated people is almost zero per hundred thousand, whereas unvaxed folks are at 3 to 4 per 100,000.

The Cleveland Clinic review lists the measures used a century ago to prevent spread.

Isolation, or staying away from crowds of people. This included closing places like schools and gyms.

Washing your hands completely and often.

Wearing protection like masks and gloves.

Not touching outside items like library books.

Not spitting in public.

The first three actions are part of our day-to-day, and gloves aren’t such a bad idea. Library books are not a good example in these digital days, but cellphones are Covid heaven—contaminated hand to mouth and very possibly foot.

Thankfully, hawking is no longer commonplace in the West, but by god you see the stuff flying around in Asia.

The key differences between then and now are all driven by science and technology—exactly the things that anti-vaxers claim to be fake. Covid has killed as many people in the United States as the Spanish Flu did, although percentually today’s numbers are significantly less because the US population is much higher.

So the vaccine is key to strongly reduce hospitalization and mortality, which in turn converts the pandemic into an endemic disease. It’s worth taking a minute to define terms—in particular to distinguish among pandemic, epidemic, endemic, and outbreak. An epidemic e.g. of measles affects a country or region, whereas a pandemic is a world event. An endemic disease such as malaria, cholera, or yellow fever is present in a region—in some cases there’s no vaccine, in others there is.

An outbreak is a one-off event in a country where the disease is not normally present—for instance a series of cases of malaria in the US or Western Europe would qualify as an outbreak.

Epidemics are often the curse of developing countries—think Ebola—and as such merit little airtime on Western media. The blunt truth is that if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t care.

But Covid is responsible not just for deaths, but for a host of other casualties. The Australian debacle features the Australian government, eager to win the upcoming election, the state of Victoria, Tennis Australia, and Djokovic, eager to win the upcoming tournament—and a man whose stance on vaccination has done him no favors and sets the worst possible example.

The orangutan too was a virus vanquished victim—largely through his own actions, and lack of them—to quote an old saw, denial is a river in Africa. Just goes to show there is a god, even if she’s Chinese.

The next one to tumble may well be Eton’s answer to Worzel Gummidge, the ineffable Boris Johnson.

The disregard shown by Downing Street towards the rules the government made and enforced is a blatant example of the entitlement and snobbery of the British ruling class. Wine-Time Friday is the latest episode in a soap that is a national embarrassment, but is totally predictable from a man who epitomizes buffoonery.

As we learn to live with Covid—and the conversation will remain with us at least during 2022, and probably 2023—we have discovered the concept of variants. Of course, anyone who takes the flu vaccine knows there is a new one every year. This is not a booster, but a tailored potion designed to target a variant.

I believe that the booster approach will become scientifically questionable, since the same vaccine is being delivered, from the moment the virus mutation begins to differ significantly from the original target—that may well already be the case. The flu-vax paradigm seems a much better way to go.

When the variants started being named sequentially like hurricanes, folks lost touch with the evolution of the virus—the only exception might be the Greeks, since their alphabet is used—if you want to sound sciency, thrown in a Greek letter or five.

Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet, equivalent to our letter ‘D’. Omicron is way down the line, equivalent to the letter ‘O’.

There are ten Greek letters between the two.

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

Murka

January 5, 2022

Often spelt Murica.

dictionary.com defines it as “a slang way of referring to America, implying extreme patriotism and stereotyping how white southerners might say the word”, and pronounces it [ mur-ih-kuh].

But Miami doesn’t feel much like murka—English is thin on the ground, frequently absent altogether—the city and adjoining beaches are a Hispanic stronghold, and it seems as if the previous owners departed with no forwarding address.

I was last in town a couple of decades ago, and much like the marsh grass creeping in as the sea level rises, so immigration has systematically changed the nature of this city.

Race is a constant issue in the US, finding its way into the most unusual spots. I was on a couple of websites over the weekend planning for a COVID test—Florida is fast and loose with the virus—masks are thin on the ground and no one is unduly concerned. The consequence is that the most recent flavor, the big O, is running wild—the seven-day moving average is the highest on record, with 43,168 cases.

Both websites asked me to identify my race, out of a panoply that includes Caucasian (one site said ‘White’), Black, Hispanic, Chinese, and a bunch of races I didn’t know existed. Why this should be needed is completely beyond me—I think the more you underscore race, the more it begets racism.

Miami Beach reflects this troubled history, in much the same way as the US itself. The beach was once a set of barrier islands inhabited by the Seminole Indians. As the whites arrived, mangroves were cut and coconut palms planted. Over the years, canals were dug to help move produce to market—no longer coconuts, but avocados, brought in by John Collins—the man who gave the aorta of Miami Beach its name.

The dredged spoils were used to reclaim land and the island grew—literally. It didn’t take long before the tycoons from the Northeast imagined a whole new concept—a beach resort that ran all year round. These men, most notably Indiana millionaire Carl Fisher, were property developers. A landmark ad was placed in Times Square—’Miami Beach, Where Summer Spends the Winter.’

But all was not well in paradise. Until the 1930s, Jews could only live south of 5th Street, reinventing the confinement of the Venetian Ghetto, because no developers would sell them property north of that line.

During the mid-XXth century, local hotels wouldn’t accept Jewish guests, and as late as 1960, neither Blacks nor Jews could have lunch at the Woolworth’s counter on Flagler Street.

As soon as Jewish folks were allowed into the property market, the panorama changed—Jewish-owned hotels flourished. Mount Sinai hospital was built, providing health care for the community, once again to fill a gap created by anti-Semitic policies—Jewish doctors could not get staff privileges at any hospital.

The mob banker, Meyer Lansky—Hyman Roth in the Godfather movie—led the charge onto the beach, bringing in Mafia investment from New York, Chicago, and Vegas. Casinos, nightclubs, and horse and ‘dawg’ tracks flourished. Prostitution and drugs went along for the ride. The playground reputation of Miami Beach reached a new high, accompanied by the requisite amount of sleaze.

Enter the Cubans—the Castrist slogan ‘Patria o Muerte‘ is now being fought with ‘Patria y Vida‘, but almost three generations have passed since Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. Little Havana is still a fixture of the city—a heady mixture of music, gastronomy, and crime—but now there’s also little Haiti.

Through the decades, the Jewish diaspora came and went—in the 1970s, around twenty thousand Jewish retirees came to the beach—I don’t see so many here now. There were cocaine wars, Mexicans, Colombians, Panamanian money launderers… never a dull moment, and the Jews moved north to Broward and Palm Beach.

The supply chain ain’t what is used to be—perhaps the coins are made in China.

As I cycle up Collins, dip into strip malls here and there, stop off at the beach for an early morning swim, or wade into an outlet mall off I-95, I feel the pulse of the nation. Immigrants buying building materials at Home Depot, joggers, skaters, and cyclists, lycra-legged dog-walkers—people walking around muttering to themselves, as if gripped by a new verbal dementia virus, until you realize every last one is on the phone, starting and ending conversations that just can’t wait. Hola, amor, porfa, claro, dá-le!

Back in the day, you couldn’t visit the US without bargain-hunting, but things are very different now. Sure, you can still go to an outlet store and see the bill magically split in half, or buy a pair of Levis for fifty bucks, but the never-ending stock is gone.

Empty shelves? Sure. And plenty of them. Covid queues everywhere. In a guitar store, I was advised it would be best to search online.

First, the big stores did it to the mom ‘n pop shops. Then the malls did it to the big stores. Now Amazon has done it to them all. Off the airport freeway, a gigantic Prime depot. Off the runway, Amazon jets. Prime Air.

And all it took was a spot of the ole pandemic, y’all.

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

Thank-You

December 27, 2021

I’m writing this article on a flight bound for Miami. The airport code is KMIA—my fertile imagination jumps to Killed: Missing in Action—the standard US armed forces acronym for some very bad shit. Still, WTF believes in acronyms…

I haven’t been to the land of the free for a couple of years now—in the Florida of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, the killing fields of COVID play out as a conspiracy of Democrats. Unvaxed conservatives grab the hospital beds and medical emergency resources—including doctors—that are needed for other patients.

During the pandemic panic panoply, other killer diseases have been left on the shelf—and I’m not just talking about the ‘Western’ diseases—heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These three monsters have two things in common: they are lifestyle problems linked to obesity, tobacco, and alcohol, and they’re (almost) never caused by microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria—”we have met the enemy, and he is us“.

In the West, we neglect the killers that exist in many parts of the world—cholera, dysentery, and the worst of all, cerebral malaria—because they’re someone else’s problem. These three, and many more, share the opposite qualities to the afflictions that worry westerners—they are endemic, rather than lifestyle, and they’re all caused by bugs.

Malaria has been eradicated in both Europe and the US, but this is a recent development. From the rice paddies in southern Iberia to the court of the kings of France, malaria was rife all over Europe; this was also the case in the swamps of Florida and in many other parts of North America.

Stagnant waters were drained, and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was merrily sprayed into the environment until scientists found out that one day the birds would stop singing.

In early 1496, the Portuguese fleet captained by Vasco da Gama was smitten with mal aria—bad air—on the African east coast. That and the scurvy on the way back from India killed two thirds of the crew, including the captain-general’s brother Paulo.

The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese were greatly affected by malaria—one of the costs of empire-building. The upper class Brits have a tradition of sending their kids to boarding school—a guy I know saw a young school friend die from malaria—the English medics had no idea what it was.

In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, Ho Chi Minh asked Premier Zhou Enlai for help with the endemic drug-resistant malaria in his country—more Vietcong were dying of the fevers than from American bullets. It was the summer of love—in January, the Doors released their first album; in February, Jefferson Airplane came out with Surrealistic Pillow; in March, the Grateful Dead launched their eponymous first album; in May, Jimi Hendrix asked ‘Are You Experienced’; and in June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper.

How appropriate then, that at the height of flower power, a Chinese pharmacist called Tú Yōuyōu was placed in charge of project 523, which led to the discovery of a magic herbal substance called qīnghāosù.

It took a few years—the power of the sweet wormwood Artemisia annua was only established at the beginning of the 1970’s, when Yōuyōu isolated the compound artemisin.

Nowadays, young researchers often end up ‘re-discovering’ concepts and methods because they are unfamiliar with papers published decades before the creation of ‘Google University’—that’s just poor scholarship.

Tú Yōuyōu—who reminds me of my mother, the rabbit physicist—did exactly what a researcher should do. She reviewed a vast collection of texts on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and finally sweet wormwood popped up in a sixteen hundred year old book on herbal remedies.

But wait! boil Artemisia, and the healing properties vanish—so the Chinese Nobel Prize winner tapped into another book, written by Hong Ge, which explains a cold infusion is needed—and then she hit the jackpot—or in this case, the yak pot. Nowadays, we know that extraction with a solvent such as alcohol or acetic acid also works.

Tú Yōuyōu (屠呦呦), a great scientist who helped millions in developing countries through her discovery of a non-patentable malaria cure.

Big pharma is often uninterested in simple potions, particularly when there is no patent to be registered and money to be made. The drugs commonly used to prevent and combat cerebral malaria—Lariam (Mefloquin in the EU) and Malarone—are much profitable.

Never mind the side-effects: Canadian special forces were given Lariam weekly during the Somalian war in the nineties—that weekday was known to soldiers as psycho Tuesday.

The Chinese scientist was the first woman from the Middle Kingdom to bag the Nobel—all the more wondrous because she is a three-without-scientist. Descriptions of this kind are common in China: the three things she is without are: a postgrad degree (no such thing in China when she was at uni), a postdoc abroad (duh, if she didn’t get a doctorate), and membership of one of the prestigious Chinese academies.

I love a good bit of serendipity—Artemisia is called qinghao in Putonghua, hao for short. The eminent Chinese scientist’s given name is youyou—that’s a deer call in an ancient Chinese poem.

Youyou is the sound the deer make when they’re eating the hao.

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

Frrriends…

December 18, 2021

The number of stray animals wandering the streets is a solid indicator of development. A few years ago, on a dark evening in Muscat, I saw over a dozen stray cats raiding a bin. Opposite was a garish neon-lit ladies fashion store that displayed a row of mannequin-modeled burqas—just like Henry Ford’s Model T—any color as long as it’s black.

In Asia, the cities are rife with stray dogs—ribcage-thin, mangy and rabid, perennially hungry—and worst of all, devoid of human love. Dogs have been domesticated over millennia—it is estimated that the dog diverged from the wolf as a species between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago.

As a side note, a species is defined by not producing viable offspring with another species—for instance, although a horse and a donkey are sufficiently close genetically to interbreed, the resulting mule is sterile—the parents are therefore not conspecifics. One of the many marvels of biology is the ability of sperm and eggs from different species to make that exact distinction.

Taking the lower value as a conservative estimate, dogs have been a separate species for thirty thousand years—not centuries. Since the average lifespan of a hound is about a decade, there have been three thousand generations of dogs—and through this time, humans have tailored their genetics to produce a huge diversity of breeds.

These breeds vary widely in size, hair, features, and temperament, but they all have one common feature—a remarkable loyalty to humans. No other species has such a bond—dogs clearly prefer humans to other dogs. They are also very much the same species—witness the rise of boutique friends such as the labradoodle.

As we roll in earnest into the twenty-first century, pets have become a real success story, and often a status symbol—there are now eight hundred million dogs and cats in petland—canines edge out felines by about two hundred million, but Millennials and Gen-Z are big fans of Felis catus, so don’t be surprised if the miao miao draw alongside Canis lupus familiaris one of these decades.

The new generations are deeply into pet humanization—this means that pet owners treat their friends like family members—a new generation of owners has huge concerns about sustainability, protein content of food, and other factors. Pet foods are big on the internet—if you search Google with ‘buy pet food online’, there are 4.9 billion hits—that’s 2 billion more than the equivalent search for vegetables, fish, beer, or wine.

Four different types of pet food markets. In the developed world, the market is growing slowly but the consumption of pet foods is high, with the USA at the head of the table.

In the US, the pet food market is worth about ninety billion dollars per year—higher than the GDP of Bulgaria, Bolivia, or Bahrain. In Europe, where 85 million households have pets, the market value is 20 billion euros. In the West, pet foods are strictly regulated—pretty much equivalent to human food. Legislation is strong with respect to raw material sources, food additives, medicines, and a range of other criteria—if you purchase a tin of wet food or a bag of dry food at your local supermarket, you can trust the product will be safe.

All this fits into a paradigm known as the circular economy—by-products from some activities find a use, waste is minimized, and there are clear benefits for people, planet, and profit.

European farmed sea bass—in 2019, two hundred and twenty-two thousand tons were produced around the Mediterranean basin.

Sea bass, called lubina in Spain, spigola or branzino in Italy, and loup or bar in France, is now a major farmed product in Europe. Turkey alone has moved from a production of forty-seven thousand tonnes in 2011 to 149,000 tonnes in 2020—an extraordinary growth rate.

Gilthead seabream, so-called because of the gold mark on the forehead, is a close second—around 195 thousand tonnes of farmed dorade royale every year.

Combined, over four hundred thousand tonnes are farmed and eaten annually—enough to provide one 200 g (7 ounce) meal a day for 3.4 million people—they might get fed up with the diet, though.

If you check my math, you’ll realize I left out 150 thousand tonnes of product—these are offcuts that don’t get eaten: head, bones, trimmings, skin, gut… and I’m probably underestimating the waste volume.

Where does this lead us? If we tap into this vast market, we can develop a whole new industry, increase sustainability, and reduce the footprint of fish farming.

And the best news is that fish farming in the West (in this case the EU) is already held to some of the most stringent standards in the world, so we know exactly where the product originates, how the animals were fed and treated, and all about their welfare.

The high-value market is already there, just waiting for a brand new ocean treat.

What a Christmas bonus for your frrriends…

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

The China Syndrome

December 11, 2021

To Westerners, most things that happen in Asia are eminently forgettable—the continent is just too far away, the culture too difficult to relate to—the recent exception is China, because of the COVID pandemic.

Sri Lanka is the most beautiful place you never heard of—an Indian Ocean pearl with a troubled history. South Asia contains six countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Of these, Sri Lanka scores highest on the Human Development Index and second highest in per capita income—at an average of $2,500-$5,000, we could go for a mid-point of $3,600 to make the math easy, and settle at three hundred bucks a month.

There’s a warning about touting at Bandaranaike airport that trades six months imprisonment against 25,000 rupees—that’s 124 dollars, so a month in jail is worth twenty bucks, not three hundred—clearly a low-wage economy.

Different cultures open your mind—when I came out of the airport immigration area, I was confronted with a duty-free store where a large motorbike was on sale. A number of small shops to the right sold washing machines, tightly wrapped in plastic—I’m still perplexed about how you can buy duty-free when entering a country. When I left Sri Lanka, I half-expected to see washing machines finding their way onto departing flights—when you’re poor, anything is fair game.

Like my ancestors, I came in search of spices—black pepper and cinnamon. In my quest, I ended up in a market in central Colombo. There was little to be found, and I knew how Columbus must have felt in his search for the treasures of the Indies.

I (anti)gravitated upstairs past a sign that admonished “SPITTIN IS PROHIBITED” and arrived at the fish counters—who says wet markets are out of fashion?

The stall guys soon realized I wasn’t a buyer. “Looking, looking!” they shouted down the hall, wagging their heads. The boss man was a tall, burly fellow—mid-fities, massive head shaved close.

We got talking. Portugal came up, and the inevitable reference to Cristiano Ronaldo. I showed him some pictures of Atlantic fish just like the ones in the right-hand bin and explained that in Madeira they have a black variety—peixe espada preto.

He reminded me that the Portuguese had been in town five hundred years ago—I placed my hands together in the eastern greeting and apologized. “No, no!” he said, half-miming half-shouting.

He wagged his head violently. “We were better off then.”

My new friend stuffed his left hand repeatedly into his pocket, illustrating the universal trick of disappearing cash. Politician Magician.

A tuk-tuk took (sorry) me across town—precision driving at its best, with the jalopy sometimes perpendicular to road traffic and missing oncoming vehicles by inches—the driver would be a champion video gamer.

The landscape changed from wide palm-lined avenues lining the bay to narrow, crowded streets—boys hauling handcarts battled tuk-tuks, art deco buses bullied everyone out of the way, pedestrians and cars dodged each other on street and pavement… I sat back and smiled, watching my driver navigate by the app, an Uber-tuk in 2021. Ah, Asia…

And suddenly, there they were—the spices we’d come so far to seek. Ginger at thirty cents a pound—I felt the thrill of the old explorers, as the bearded navigators stuffed the carrack hold with spice. At Walmart, the price is four bucks a pound, so the magic markup is still there.

Black pepper, turmeric, fat rolls of cinnamon bound in elastic, chili peppers—not native to the island but introduced by the Portuguese from West Africa—and delicious miniature garlic cloves the size of a nutmeg. All this in Pettah, the historic outdoor market—the monsoon rain pouring down in sheets, the air warmer than body temperature, not another white face in sight. Take a deep breath of the pungent air—”Unchanged, all through the ages, the legions of disenfranchised people of Asia.

As in Africa, South America, and other parts of Asia, China has taken over from the US when it comes to foreign aid. In Sri Lanka, one of the recurrent themes is the port of Hambatota, which is currently leased to China for ninety-nine years.

The naysayers accuse the government of handing over the port to China—the current expression, popularized by Mike Pence, is debt-trap diplomacy. The orangutan’s former veep maintained that the Chinese modus operandi is to finance development projects in poor economies through loans—when the country defaults on the loan, the Chinese lender (i.e. the government) recovers the asset.

Hambatota is a case in point. The Sri Lankan opposition argues that a 99-year lease is tantamount to ownership—the government strongly contests that view.

The fact is that the Hambatota process is hardly cut and dried. The Canadians funded a feasibility study in 2003—the new port was financially viable. Sri Lankan politics slow-walked the process, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed the work forward. In 2006, a Danish consultant, Ramboll, agreed with the Canadians. Ramboll sugested a first-stage bulk cargo port to drive income—this would be used to fund the second-stage expansion into a container port.

Sri Lanka approached India and the US for funding but were rejected. Enter China Eximbank, who agreed to put up the capital—China Harbor (which I bet you never heard of) would build the port.

Which they did, on time and on budget. The twenty-five-year war with the Tamil tigers finally ended in 2009, and the president rushed into phase 2 without building up revenue. By 2012, the Sri Lankan government borrowed another 757 million bucks from Eximbank, bringing the loan up to over a billion dollars. Modestly, the president named the port after himself.

In 2015, Rajapaska lost a snap election and the Sri Lankan economy began to unravel. With outstanding loan repayments to Japan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and China, the big squeeze was on. In 2017, Sri Lanka paid 1.4 billion dollars in debt service—Hambatota was only five percent of that.

Colombo secured an IMF loan to avoid default, and closed a deal with China Merchants for the ninety-nine year lease. Did Sri Lanka use the lease payment of $1.12 billion to pay back China Eximbank?

Nope, they used it to boost their foreign exchange reserves. Whether ninety-nine years is a lease or a repossession is a moot point—given the back and forth, this doesn’t seem to be a China debt-trap—just a lot of mismanagement.

An old Sri Lankan aphorism states that ‘a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.’

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a Sri Lankan exclusive.

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


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