Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

South by Southwest

November 27, 2019

Siegburg is a small town next to another small town—Bonn. After the Second World War, Bonn became the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, since the allies would not accept Berlin as an option—even though the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, kept Berlin.

In the 1960s, John Le Carré wrote a book called ‘A Small Town in Germany’ about Brit spooks entwined with the government of the FRG, and the resurgence of Nazism.

There’s nothing remarkable about Siegburg, except the fact that it no longer has a Jewish community—the synagogue was burned down on Kristallnacht in 1938. A picture in a local magazine shows a Jewish school, and the fate of the rabbi in 1942—deportation to the camps.

A few stepping stones mark the deportation to labour camps of the last Jews in Siegburg.

It doesn’t take long to reach Belgium, via the highway system that Adolf Hitler built during his reconstruction of Germany. The road toward Liège, and then Brussels, would be the one taken by the Nazis in the early stages of their invasion of Western Europe.

Before you know it, you’re past Charleroi—Belgium whips by in an Augenblick, and then you’re in France. As you roll southwest into the Loire valley, your mind travels back from decades to centuries—now we’re talking about the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War—long periods of strife, featuring names like Charles VI, Henry V, and Joan of Arc.

It is the time of the Plantagenets and the House of Valois, of complete and utter savagery, as England and France fought for territorial dominance.

The monumental cities of Orleans and Tours tell their tales in stone. The street leading to the cathedral celebrates Joan of Arc’s reception in Tours by the French king in 1429, after liberating Orleans from the English.

Tours cathedral, with the sun rising to the east.

The cathedral is deserted on an early Sunday morning, but it’s open, and no one is asking for money. The tombs inside attest to the violence that marks European history, which makes it all the more remarkable that these days anyone can travel the length and breadth of the continent without even a passport—and that all of it happened in my lifetime—that’s an ideal worth fighting for.

As you pass the Pyrenees and wind southwest into Iberia, history jumps a few centuries forward—now it’s the old Spanish capital of Valladolid, with the river Duero slowly rolling by. Just down the road is the eagle’s nest of Tordesillas, and the tales of The India Road.

It is within touching distance of Tordesillas that Javier Guacil, one of the characters in The Hourglass, has an accident which changes his whole life and joins him with a group destined to change the world—the pressure is on to get this book done before the US presidential elections go into madhouse mode.

A little further down the E-80, the town of Simancas, known to the Romans as Setimanca—where the American researcher Alicia Gould died on the steps of the archive, in her unending quest to unravel the mysteries of Colón—brings back my book Clear Eyes, and for half an hour I dream of the Indies, as I whip by the endless stream of trucks.

The archive’s entrance bears a plaque with the inscription below, and the building closes every year on July 25th in her memory.

A MISS ALICIA B. GOULD
ILUSTRE INVESTIGADORA
NORTEAMERICANA
Y GRAN AMIGA DE ESPAÑA
TRABAJO EN ESTE ARCHIVO
DURANTE CUARENTA AÑOS
Y MURIO A SU ENTRADA
EL DIA 25 DE JULI0 DE 1953.

The endless plains of Castilla y León finally give way, as the Duero becomes the Douro and the border of yet another nation is crossed. The temperature is no longer around freezing point, as the great ocean draws closer. It’s raining hard, as the winter storms roll in from the Atlantic, but the biting edge of the wind has disappeared.

As you head southwest, the food gets better and better.

And as for the wine, well that’s a spiritual journey of alliterative ascension as you go from Teutonic to Touraine, and finally from Tempranillo to Tinta Roriz.

Tempranillo gets its name from the Spanish word temprano, because the grape ripens a few weeks before the others. And Roriz is exactly the same grape, it just lives in a different country.

Wine, like Europe, has no borders.

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

Private Nyet

November 17, 2019

Netflix recently carried a docudrama called ‘The Laundromat.’ It was billed as an expose of the Panama Papers, so I’ll give it a spin, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Even though the movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, I was disappointed—as so often happens with TV, the book is much better, but no one reads anymore—I was on four airplanes last week, and I checked—no one reads.

The book is called ‘Secrecy World’, and the guy who wrote it has won a couple of Pulitzer prizes—it shows. The story of Jürgen Mossack and Rámon Fonseca is fairly well-known, not least because between them they set up over two hundred thousand shell companies, servicing clients from all over the world.

Their clients had one thing in common—a keen interest in hiding their money—some due to ill-gotten gains, but many simply to avoid taxation.

Rodents not only access your food storage, but many possess their own larder.

Hiding money to avoid parting with any or all of it is part of human nature—it’s a reflection of our biology; many animals hide their food from others—that’s why dogs bury bones, but the canine banking system isn’t particularly sophisticated when compared to ants or rodents, who use underground galleries, scatter hoarding, and other tricks.

Behavioral traits in primates inevitably led to human socioeconomic systems, and to societal development of rules and regulations—many of these, of course, are a way of taming our animal instincts.

Animals kill each other, and will readily steal food or sex—humans, but many other vertebrates also, found ways to develop societies that allowed peaceful cohabitation—this meant controlling our basic instincts.

But deep down, many of us revert to our unpleasant origins—if we can hurt, we hurt, if we can take, we take—and those in positions of power, who are better placed to take advantage of the system with impunity, abuse the system. It’s worth remembering that impunity means without punishment.

Yes, John Acton had it right: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The full quote is wonderfully prescient:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

A few months ago, Reuters provided an illustration of this abuse, courtesy of Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil giant.

Rosnest private jet flights to holiday paradises, analyzed by Reuters. As usual, social media is the big giveaway.

By comparing the movements of Rosneft corporate jets with posts on Instagram, Facebook, and other havens of self-indulgence, the news agency was able to piece together a remarkable collection of excursions by the oil major’s top brass.

The company would not comment when confronted with the fifteen Maldives trips, and double that to a range of European destinations, so the operative word is ‘allegedly’. Nevertheless, Reuters strongly suggest that CEO Igor Sechin, or relatives and friends, happened to be at the same vacation spots that the jets visited.

In all, the news agency tracked two hundred ninety corporate flights between 2015 and 2019—ninety-six of them occurred on long weekends or Russian public holidays.

Sechin is close to Putin, who himself features prominently in the Panama Papers.

The most interesting fact I got from the book was the name of one of the most secretive fiscal paradises in the world. Whereas most offshore centers are small islands that have little else to offer apart from tourism, this place stands head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s called the United States of America.

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

Build

November 10, 2019

In November 1987, a schmaltzy English band with the very eighties name ‘The Housemartins’ came up with a tune called ‘Build’. Two years later—to the month—the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

You can get bits of the wall on eBay, where you can also buy a French commemorative Berlin Wall 2 € coin for double that price—the sort of inflation that would fire the juices of European Central Bankers.

Just as the First World War was ‘the war to end all wars’, so the Berlin Wall was the wall to end all walls. Or so we thought…

It only took five years for another symbolic wall to be built—this one separating Israelis and Palestinians, and since then the wall business has been, if you’ll allow me, going great guns.

The tragicomedy of the Mexican wall continues—yet another dumb idea in the litany of stupidities that characterize American leadership since January 2017—and across the free world, wall-building continues with enthusiasm.

The orange man is fond of grass roots analogies—concrete, coal, barbed wire, and Muslims who die like dogs—but the real walls out there are a metaphor.

A couple of years ago I visited someone in North Carolina—my host had a dog, and I summoned the hound, who was about thirty feet away. The animal was tempted and wagged his tail enthusiastically. It ran eagerly to about ten feet of me, then stopped short.

I understood that the dog sported some kind of electronic collar, and crossing an invisible divide in the garden would deliver an electric shock—the dog clearly understood it too.

No, the real walls are electronic, digital, observational—the ones you can’t tunnel under, climb over, or walk around.

If you’re in doubt, try to use WhatsApp in the Middle Kingdom, or access Google from Shanghai—they call it the Great Firewall of China for a reason.

With perfect timing for the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall—November 9th 2019—I received a copy of the report ‘The Business of Building Walls’ prepared by the Transnational Institute (TNI), which is the international arm of the Washington, D.C., based Institute for Policy Studies.

I suppose it stems from a lifetime of academic work, but whenever I read a document, my first jump is to the acknowledgments and references. The first tell me where the money came from, and who supported the work, and the second provide me with confidence, or lack of it, on the content I’m about to read.

In TNI’s case, I took the trouble to learn about the organization’s history—there are things I like and others I don’t. But overall, I didn’t get the feeling I was dealing with a product from an organization funded by Russia, MBS, or a friend of Rush Limbaugh—there, I’ve offended everyone.

As you suspected, the business of building walls is big business indeed. The global market is estimated at about eighteen billion dollars per year, with a growth forecast of at least 8% APR.

In Europe, we’re talking about one billion dollars spent in the last thirty years—since the other wall fell. That doesn’t seem huge, but the point is the direction of travel—the European External Borders Fund for the period 2007-2013 was about two billion dollars, and the current budget (Internal Security Fund – Borders Fund) is closer to three billion—Fortress Europe is worried.

The report highlights three European companies that have done themselves proud in this burgeoning market.

A Frenchman, an Italian, and a German walk into a bar… it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we’re talking about Thales, Leonardo, and Airbus—big business is no joke.

Unless you’re in the millieu, you probably haven’t heard of the first two. Thales pops up occasionally when you’re buying something on the net—they do security certificates, and IT arcana in general. They also recently bought Gemalto, a Dutch computer security firm. But make no mistake, Thales is big, as in twenty billion dollars, and Leonardo is about one third of that size.

Leonardo brings to the table—or to the border, in this case—drones, satellite technology, and a number of other building materials essential for today’s modern wall. You can see a snippet here.

Finally, Airbus is billed in the TNI report as an arms company—I’m flying on one of their planes first thing tomorrow, and naive old moi, I never thought of them as any such thing, but Mr. Google tells a different tale.

These companies are a part of the wall-building military-industrial complex, but they are certainly not the only ones. TNI lists a host corporations that sell razor wire, visa verification, and surveillance of people—inevitably, as in the post-911 US, this will include citizens.

Fascinating reading, with the caveats I mentioned earlier—for instance, at the forefront of OCEANS 2020 is Leonardo, not Airbus. Lobbying plays a big part in all this—since 2014, the three companies I focused on have held 226 registered lobbying meetings with the European Commission.

In that sense, nothing changes—but for the technology, everything changes, and it changes fast.

Wall-building nowadays has morphed like the life of Housemartins’ former bassist Norman Quentin Cook—having already changed his name from the equally boring Quentin Leo Cook—in 1996, he took a quantum leap and reinvented himself as Fatboy Slim.

Right here. Right Now.

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

Touted

October 26, 2019

Last Saturday night, I got touted.

I’m using the verb in an unusual way—by convention, when something is touted, it is promoted or claimed.

But when I say I got touted, I wasn’t in any way the object of promotion. On the contrary, I got screwed.

Back in the day (and they’re still around) a tout might approach you at the subway exit, or in a park next to a sports stadium or a concert venue. The show may vary, but the game is unvarying.

I grew up with analog touts—always guys, always shady, slightly more presentable than a heroin dealer, slightly less pushy than a mugger.

The typical tout would operate on behalf of someone else, the toutmeister—the guy with the capital to purchase a stock of tickets in the first place, and to take the financial risk—just as with drugs, and so many other businesses: risk it, buy it, flog it.

But where a human tout might nag and cajole you, there were only three ways he could scam you—falsely persuade you that box office tickets were sold out, hike the price, or sell you a fake ticket.

That last one is a little tricky—to the extent I will only find out in December if the tickets I was touted with are genuine—there may be a Touted Part II.

Many years ago, an English guy I knew was driving along in southern Portugal. A traffic policeman flagged him down and he pulled to a stop by the side of the road, by a row of olive trees. The day was hot, and the cop waited until the dust settled on the verge; then he walked up to the Ford and saluted.

Documentos,” he said.

The Englishman only knew two words in Portuguese. Cerveja—beer, and obrigado—thank-you. In those days, Portuguese people got by in French better than in English, but the two words, together with a little mime, usually did the trick.

Documentos,” the cop repeated.

The man handed him the car registration. The policeman wanted ID.

The Englishman reached into his wallet and produced a single quarter-sheet of paper. It was official-looking, contained his name in an underline at the top, and a list of items below that, together with some numbers and a signature.

The traffic cop scrutinized the British driving license—he had never seen one before. He examined the document again, unable to fathom what any of the words or numbers meant.

Boa tarde.” Satisfied, he handed back the documents, saluted, and headed to his vehicle.

The Englishman put the paper back in his wallet and drove off, grinning. This would make quite a story in the pub. The quarter-sheet was a laundry bill from a Hertford dry cleaner, made out to Mr. Jack Ramsey. Itemized were one pair of trousers and three shirts.

Fake tickets are not easy to spot.

Last week they finally got me—I was touted online. I paid eight times more for a rock concert ticket than the face value printed on it. No redress, no way back.

From time to time, we all find ourselves in situations where we spend more than we planned—I have two cures for that: don’t make the same mistake twice, and work a little harder the following week.

So, I can’t get my money back. But I have a weapon. The pen is mightier than the scam, so let’s get into the weeds.

I was touted by Viagogo, one of a number of sites that specialize in the secondary market for tickets. The company is legally based in Geneva, and therefore neatly dodges EU regulation on consumer protection.

When I looked into Viagogo, I found out that it has been publicly condemned by the UK’s digital minister, Margot James—I didn’t realize Britain had such a thing, and she’s also notched up points in my book by resigning from government on July 18th, 2019, to vote against the prorogation of parliament.

I really didn’t want to go down the hellhole of Brexit today—compared to that, a tout is but a fart: smells foul but disappears quickly—but Margot further warmed my heart by having the whip removed on September 3rd, in what will become known as the Boris Brexitovsky purges.

So, Ms. James told BBC Radio 5 Live that she warned consumers away from ticket reselling platform Viagogo, branding it “the worst”. Apparently, the company had already fallen foul (there’s that smell again) of the British Advertising Standards Authority for imposing “hidden” fees on customers.

Ed Sheeran has also condemned the Viagogo touts—didn’t cheer me up much, but at least I’m in good company.

Digital touts, or more accurately, internet touts, have provide a major disservice to music—and that, friends, is a capital crime in my book.

You may be familiar with the concept of bots. Just as you can read me on your tablet or cellphone, so a bot can access this page, traverse all other links, and collect a history of my mentions of the words ‘sex’, or ‘China’, or ‘orang-u-tan’.

Bots are what allows Google to index pages and process them to help you find stuff. They’re also responsible for the annoying Captcha stuff, and the occasional requirement to click on images with buses—Boris could do that for a living rather than managing a dog’s breakfast.

The secondary market sites got into the bot business—they sent out bots to buy online tickets to concerts, sports events, you name it. Digital touts therefore sucked out the primary market—by the time you heard about a concert, the primary market was empty.

Musicians want fans, and fans want affordable music. This sets door prices, until robotouts screw the whole system—at that point, ticket prices skyrocket, and the audience shifts towards the wealthy—as Lennon famously said in the Albert Hall, ‘the rest of you, just rattle your jewellery.’

Viagogo traps you using four tricks. First, they have a bar at the top of the page where you select the number of tickets you want. My magic number was 2, and I was shown a price. In very small print, and a discreet color, the column header says:

(each)

No matter what number you select—customers in good faith will choose the one they need—the price never changes. Even when they break down net costs and tax, they only ever use the single ticket price, with e.g. 4X slyly inserted off to the side.

Second, as soon as you make a choice, a timer window appears, counting down the seconds to pressure you to complete your purchase.

Third: never, throughout the process, are you ever told the face value of the ticket you are buying.

Finally, the total amount you’re spending is not shown at checkout, only in a post-purchase confirmation screen, aka a gotcha screen.

Touts in the UK, Scalpers in the US. Scum of the earth anywhere.

After I fell for this scam, I wondered if I was the only fool in the market… sadly, no. An excellent article published this August in Wired tells us:

Favourite band coming to town? Good luck getting tickets. The touts have already snapped them up – and they’re now listed for ten-times the face value on Viagogo and StubHub. But digital touts may be facing extinction. New technology is making mass buying more difficult, governments are closing in on rogue resellers and even Ticketmaster is shutting down its own resale sites. The only problem? Getting hold of on-demand tickets is unlikely to get any cheaper or easier.

I found out Viagogo has company. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, there’s Viagogo, Stubhub, Seatwave, and Get Me In. Four unpolishable turds.

Notice how often I’ve written Viagogo’s name—ordinarily I wouldn’t do this, but I want Viagogo imprinted in your mind, and I want to increase the visibility of this article when some poor sucker searches for Viagogo on the net—I just refuse to link them.

Companies like Viagogo are a collective danger—they disenfranchise the less well-off, make culture less accessible and more elitist, and help widen the gap between the appointed and the disappointed.

These are the recipes for the politics of extremes that has invaded Western society, only three generations after World War II.

As for Viagogo? To use a popular, if unfulfilled, promise, may they die in a ditch.

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

Zdrowie

October 20, 2019

The word means ‘health’, a commodity that you trade off as you go through life, along with love and money.

But when you prefix it with Twoje, it becomes ‘your health’ or ‘cheers’.

In Poland, that usually means vodka—which is very good, perhaps the best you can get, including the famed bison grass variety—it was pleasure to do homework for this topic (the Poles don’t believe in trivia like indefinite articles or personal pronouns).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain irony in wishing people ‘good health’ by plying them with cripplingly strong alcohol—a bit like telling them ‘here’s to a stand-up guy’ prior to shooting them in the head.

I took the autobahn from Berlin to Szczecin—it should have been an easy ride, but the German side is a snarl of roadworks—I spent a couple of hours farting about on the freeway, rather than having a gute fahrt.

In Germany, even the cars have angst.

The change in living standards is obvious when you cross the border—in the housing, the cars, the dress… I stopped off for gas, paid in zloty since we’re out of the euro area, and my first Polish contact in country was very encouraging—the language is incomprehensible, and sports a particularly insane range of accents, including an ‘L’ which has been stabbed in the gut and is pronounced ‘E’—I imagined that a sharp blow to the Polish abdomen may have originated that particular phoneme.

The gas attendant smiled, spoke to me in English, and had none of the arrogance you encounter in Germany. I was also struck by the difference between Poles and the Hungarians during my trip in 2016—both nations have a history of suffering, but the Poles are optimistic and funny, where Hungary is dour and grim.

I checked into the hotel, considered dinner options and turned on the TV.

My research was waylaid by a cartoon of Scooby Doo in Polish, which cracked me up, and set the tone for the evening.

No one replied when I called to book a table for dinner, so I strolled over to the place on the off chance.

Every woman in Poland is convinced that dyed blond hair is a decisive advantage in life—the two young ladies at the restaurant were clearly happy about practicing their English. I explained about the reservation, and one of them said they were too busy to answer the phone—almost as funny as Scooby—and they found me a table right away.

Szczecin—I’m getting RSI with all these zees—is a major Baltic port, which partly accounts for the historical ‘interest’ shown by its neighbors, including Germany and Sweden, and for centuries, and also had a thriving trade with Scotland for herring.

The latter may have been responsible for a delicious herring tartar, but by the time the main course arrived there was no escaping the meat—the entire menu focused on pork and goose, with a smattering of beef here and there.

Polish pig farming is infamous in the Baltic for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus it dumps in the sea, which results in abnormal growth of algae—blooms of blue-greens are a particular issue.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, fix nitrogen from the air and get phosphorus from polluted water, and cause oxygen problems in the deeper waters of the Baltic.

Over the weekend, I got a better feel for the region—this is West Pomerania, and we drove around some pretty poor areas. They grow a fair bit of carp in Poland, as they do in other regions of Eastern Europe—but the diet is meat, the carp are a Christmas tradition, and I can bet you a pound to a penny the kids hate it.

I’ve never been on a farm that doesn’t have old machines lying around, but how many bear the label: MADE IN USSR?

It’s duck hunting season right now, and there was much enthusiasm among the groups of men preparing to go out shooting. I think the adjective ‘solid’ may be the best way to describe Poles, and I mean that in a good way.

I delved deeper into the history—Szczecin has been invaded by pretty much everyone, but then that’s the history of Poland as a whole—the unfortunate filling of a sandwich breaded by Russia and Prussia.

Catherine the Great was born here, and I was enthralled with her sexual adventures. In particular I found that her close friend Praskovya Bruce was l’éprouveuse for Catherine’s new lovers—how much less sordid it sounds in French.

Praskovya’s job was to test the prospective lovers, after their proposal by Prince Potemkin, selection by Catherine, and inspection by a doctor. Countess Bruce’s role was more of a horizontal analysis of carrying capacity, presumably focusing on both quality and quantity.

Praskovya’s dilligence led to her being caught on the job, as it were, with Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov. This led to the downfall of both—Rimsky-Korsakov was then exiled in Brattsevo, where he lived in a relationship with the married Countess Stroganova, who bore him four children, (presumably) to her husband’s unending delight.

I shall resist the temptation to make any quips involving either rims or beef.

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

Formosa

September 21, 2019

The origins of the name Taiwan are uncertain, and may derive in part from a medley of the original Portuguese and Dutch terms for the island. Wan means bay in Putonghua—common speech, or Mandarin—so we could look for the composite phrase tai wan, which might mean platform bay, but we’d be chasing a red herring.

Chinese, like German, is built on composite words, but in this case each word matches a character. As an example, dian hua means electric speech, or telephone, and dian nao means electric brain, or computer. My favorite is da huo ji, or beat fire machine, which is of course a cigarette lighter.

Wan usually means bay. An example is Hau Hoi Wan, or Deep Bay, near Shenzhen (not to be confused with Schengen.) In the foreground, the mandatory marine cultivation—oysters, in this case.

Portuguese mariners apparently sighted the island of Taiwan in 1542, and christened it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island—the Western world used the term for almost four centuries.

The first European to reach China by sea was a nephew of the Vice-Roy of India Afonso de Albuquerque, named Jorge Álvares. The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, only thirteen years after Vasco da Gama first arrived in Calicut; given that a return voyage from Lisbon took about one year and a half, it’s astonishing how quickly the exploration moved east—two thousand nautical miles separate Calicut (Kozhikode today) from Malacca.

Álvares got to Lintin, an island in the Pearl River delta, in 1514, a further sixteen hundred miles from Malacca.

When I wrote Clear Eyes, I calculated the distances sailed by Columbus in his bizarre western quest to find Cipango. The numbers shown are the real distances, rather than the fake ones he logged to deceive his crew.

If we consider a (convenient) average of thirty-three leagues per day, or one hundred nautical miles, Álvares would have sailed for about two weeks, assuming he knew where he was headed.

Daily distance traveled by Columbus on his way across the Atlantic from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, to Guanahani. Note the central part of the image, when the fleet was becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, also known as the horse latitudes.

Taiwan is opposite Xiamen, in Fujian province, only three days sailing eastward from the Zhu Jiang, or Pearl River. I suspect the Portuguese got to Taiwan well before 1542—a twenty-eight year gap is a long time, and there were good reasons to keep discoveries secret.

Since the days when the island was named Formosa, it suffered many other occupations. First came the Dutch in the XVIIth century, profiting from the decline of the Portuguese empire following the Spanish occupation of 1580—they set up the typically unimaginative Fort Zeelandia.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Chinese in 1895, and regained in 1945 by the Chinese Nationalists. After they lost the civil war to Mao’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek moved his capital to Taipei—ever since then, the separation of the two Chinas has been a thorn in the side of the PRC.

In the late XXth century, Hong-Kong and Macau were handed back to China, but with a proviso—Deng Xiaoping’s one country, two systems. As an etymological parenthesis, xiao ping means little bottle.

The full text of the proviso is fascinating in its inclusion of Taiwan.

In recent weeks, the world has witnessed the mayhem in Hong Kong—if the chaos lasts long enough, China is sure to intervene. But far more interesting than that? Maybe the Trump trade talks will have a couple of secret clauses, such as reduced support for Taiwan from the US.

It’s well known that the orange man is totally hands-off when it comes to ‘internal business’ of other nations, from human rights to the annexation of Crimea, as long as it suits his self-serving goals.

It’s also well known that Xi Jin Ping (is that a bottle of gin?) wants to leave as his legacy the reunification of China.

Wouldn’t it be a thing if successful trade talks were followed a few years later by the annexation of Taiwan by the PRC, while America looks on, just as it is presently doing with Iran?

There is an apocryphal tale that comes to mind.

Deng was once asked, “What are the main consequences of the French revolution?”

He replied, “Too early to tell.”

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

Baked Alaska

August 5, 2019

If you’re familiar with UK cuisine—now there’s an oxymoron—you might know this as a type of ‘pudding.’ Bear in mind that puddings can be savory, as in steak and kidney pud, but in British vernacular, “Will you have pudding?” means will you eat dessert.

Brits have some bizarre names for their dishes—my favorite epithets include toad in the hole and spotted dick.

Baked Alaska is yet another one. However, given my penchant for puns, today’s title was driven by the picture below, which scared the crap out of me.

The European satellite Sentinel 3 shows the continent burning up, in some cases quite literally, on July 25th 2019.

The extreme west (Portugal) and Eastern Europe have dodged the bullet, but eastern Spain, the northern part of France, the Benelux countries, and the southern UK were a veritable frying pan on that day.

Little did I know that the English newspaper, The Guardian, had headed an article on July 3rd with exactly the same title—the topic is more confined, but the emphasis is the same—after years of political dodgems, the planet has finally hit us on the head with a giant frying pan.

At the present time, raging wildfires are lighting up the north—in latitudes where the Northern Lights are a wintertime event.

From Siberia to Alaska, the Arctic is ablaze. Most people don’t realize that different parts of the planet are warming at different rates—changes in the boreal regions are swift. The article in the Washington Post is from the Climate Weather Gang—at first I thought this had to be Trump & Acolytes, but no, these guys are worth listening to.

For the past week, a high pressure system has blocked the roaring forties, the high latitude westerlies that bring Atlantic storm systems to Europe—Bergen, Norway, a city known for its wet and generally chilly weather, sported ninety-one degrees.

Scientists were publishing research papers on the slowing or even reversal of the Gulf Stream well over a decade ago—the inference was that it would trigger more extreme temperatures. Citizens of Western Europe take the North Atlantic Drift for granted—twenty-three years ago I was on a beach in Qingdao, northeast China, watching the snow fall in December, marveling at some insane locals stripping down to their underwear and diving in.

Qingdao is at 36o N, the same latitude as Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, but has far more extreme weather—now we’re getting it here. As the land surface temperature rises, the flashpoint for forest fires is triggered, and the planet is hit with a double whammy—more fires mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and an increase in the greenhouse effect, but they also mean less trees, and less capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

A rise in temperature massively increases evaporation of ocean water, which means more cloud, higher humidity, more heat-trapping, and ultimately more warming—positive feedbacks we could very much do without.

Baked Alaska, Fried Siberia, Poached Scandinavia… But that ain’t all. Marine plants are having a bit of fun as well—the star of the summer is a brown seaweed called Sargassum. The weed gives its name to the Sargasso Sea, and, for a seaweed, it has one very unusual characteristic—it floats.

The Chinese green tides are caused by the green seaweed Ulva, which loosely attaches to the bottom, but can also survive as it floats in the ocean—giant blooms are documented annually since the 2008 Olympics.

But Sargassum only floats, and now it’s escaped the confines that becalmed Columbus and gave their name to the Horse Latitudes. Scientists estimate there are twenty million metric tons of this species in the ocean, and have termed the event Great Sargasssum Atlantic Belt. I would have called it GASP, replacing Belt with Phenomenon, Proliferation, Problem, Peak…

I’ve worked with brown seaweeds like Sargassum, and it wouldn’t be unusual to have ten pounds in a square meter. Doing the math, the weed plague might occupy 4,000 km2, which is downright scary.

Mind you, if you like stats, Siberian wildfires this summer occupy an area the size of Belgium.

Why has this seaweed suddenly been able to spread all the way from the Cape Verde islands to the beaches of the Caribbean? And more to the point, is this a one-off or a trend?

Tourist destinations in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands are pretty concerned—humans have a very flaky relationship with nature—it’s okay to lard fertilizer onto crops, or to produce five hundred million chickens in the Chesapeake Bay, and thereby generate 500,000 metric tons of chicken shit.

All this adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the ocean—too much of that, mixed in with shifting patterns of global circulation, and we have a perfect storm.

Like the Chinese blooms, but on a grand scale, scientists have detected the Sargassum flare-ups since 2011. Every year except 2013.

We live too preoccupied with the latest Instagram post, and with extended navel-gazing, to see what hides in plain sight.

Citizens of the West, the chickens have come home to roost.

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

Fake Views

July 14, 2019

Picture a summer idyll in tropical waters. Now here’s something that fires the imagination, azure, transparent… I feel a song coming on.

Maybe it’s the colors, so impossibly turquoise as the water shimmers in the sunlight. Or the way you can see into the deep, stare into the soul of the ocean.

This is the stuff of dreams. Where exactly are we going?

Aaah, Siberia.

Wait a minute! Where?

WHERE?

Er… Siberia, comrades. Welcome to Novosibirsk.

I’m not sure why Millennials are obsessed with unicorns, but I’m sure they’re on fleek. The struggle to get instagrammed at Lake Whatsitsname, preferably avec unicorn, is most definitely real.

The plastic unicorn may not bask for long, given the toxicity of this earthly paradise…

In case you’re not familiar with Novosibirsk, here’s a quick primer. The first port of call is Wikipedia, which ‘informs’ us:

Travellers coming from countries with mild climates may find Novosibirsk’s winter tough, but it may not be extraordinary for those from northern countries. At times, bitter cold may hold for some days, but temperatures of −40 °C (−40 °F) and lower do not occur every year.

Apart from the bizarre Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion, which I suspect is fake news, the city’s mean January temperature is 2.3 °F (-16.7 °C)—tropical it ain’t.

Far more emblematic than tropical lakes were the Gulags that dotted Siberia—the area around Novosibirsk sported its fair share.

Novosibirsk, in SW Siberia, was the administrative home of three Gulags: Kamenlag, Novosibirsklag, and Siblag.

But we’re on a trip to the Saldives, right? So let’s not have a bad trip, man. We’ve done our research, so here we go. Get your DTP and Hep A shots, and you’re all set.

Now is a great time to travel. But should you prefer winter, my favorite travel site tells all.

Climate Siberian Maldives january

On average, it is maximum -11° in january in Siberian Maldives and at least around -22° degrees. In january there are 1 day of rainfall with a total of 14 mm. The it will be dry 13 days this month in Siberian Maldives and on average, it snows 17 days in january.

Suitable month for: winter sports

I love the ‘at least’, and I’m not entirely sure what ‘the it’ actually is, but given the snowfall predictions, I suspect you may struggle to kitesurf.

When we arrive, we’ll be treated, if you excuse the pun, to a Saldivian landscape of azurity—please note this is from the Wibaux travel blog, rather than any legitimate source.

In the Maldives, as in other areas of tropical ocean, a warm water layer overlies the cooler (but still extremely pleasant) deeper layer. Energy supplied by the sun creates permanent thermal stratification, so the two water masses never mix.

For the aquatic ecosystem, this means that the nutrients required for plankton to grow are unavailable—solar energy by itself will not suffice, so the upper layers of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Australian Great Barrier Reef are not productive—devoid of suspended particles, the water is completely transparent, and enough light reaches the bottom to allow corals to thrive. The lower-energy red wavelengths are quickly absorbed by the ocean, leaving the greens and blues to penetrate and scatter, and turning the water that beautiful turquoise color.

Saldivian Azurity (the term has grown on me), however, is derived from chemical reactions. The man-made lake is a dump for coal ash and coal waste from a large power station, which supplies most of the energy to the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants.

The pollutants in the Saldivian lake include heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic—just a short list of the nastier ones.

The multiple internet reports of this new Millennial paradise have two things in common: first, all the ‘articles’ are simply plagiarized from the original—stolen without acknowledgement; second, nowhere (except here) is there any attempt to go beyond the original—my source was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Andrew Roth.

How bad is the metal pollution? An average home uses 3.3 MWh every year—if this particular power station supplies seventy-five percent of the households in Novosibirsk, we’re at 300,000 homes, so the coal plant would be rated at about 200 MWh.

I’m assuming this coal-fired extravaganza is not the zenith of environmental stewardship, in which case we can consider a load of 0.6 g of mercury per kWh, and 44.9 g of lead per kWh—A little math gives us an annual load of one hundred twenty kilograms of mercury discharged into the Saldives. For lead, those numbers jump to 9000 kilograms—nine metric tons!

Your dream destination. If you plan to frolic with plastic unicorns, do make sure you select durable plastics, of the kind found all over the ocean, otherwise they may not survive the dip.

I won’t roll this out to the other metals, but these two are enough—they both cause severe disorders of the nervous system—Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was poisoned by mercurous nitrate used in the felt.

Instagrammers of the world, beware!

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

Inequity

June 22, 2019

Central Africa is the forgotten world. In the Congo, as I write these words, war and pestilence rage on.

The very terms war and pestilence would strike fear into the heart of any medieval European—nowadays they are occasionally newsworthy, although pestilence is a word you seldom hear.

A tour-de-force of improvisation—a wooden bike hewed to assist a refugee with his meager possessions.

The province of Kivu has been at war in one form or another for years—the main reason is mineral wealth. A website that seems as fossilized as the Belgian Congo describes Kivu’s geology.

– Bengo-Biri: wolfram deposit enclosing crystals of ferberite and pseudomorphoses in anthoinite.

– Kobokobo: beryl and columbite pegmatite of which a zone is mineralized in uranium. The latter presents a particular association of uranium and aluminium phosphates rich in new species. They are quoted under the heading dedicated to type species preserved in the Royal Museum of Central Africa, in Tervuren.

– Lueshe: carbonatite characterized by an abundance of pyrochlores, and type locality of lueshite in octahedral crystals.

– Maya-Moto: this deposit contains a rich association of bismuth minerals: native bismuth, bismutite, bismuthinite and bismite.

– Mwenga: auriferous district of the river Mobale which has yielded voluminous nuggets.

– Messaraba-Munkuku: deposit of crystallized cassiterite, which is one of the localities of varlamoffite, yellow and powdery hydrated oxide of tin.

– Volcanos: the volcanic region straddling on the border with Rwanda contains lavas from which several new species have been described: andremeyerite, combeite, götzenite, delhayelite and trikalsilite.

The remaining provinces of Congo do not contain such spectacular associations, with the exception of the rich diamantiferous deposits exploited in the kimberlites, the eluviums and alluviums of the region of Mbuji-Maji (mainly industrial diamonds) and the gold mines of the Upper Congo (Kilo-Moto).

The text above mentions King Leopold’s museum in Tervuren—not a place the Belgians boast of—a tribute to the barbaric occupation of the Congo. I’ve written on the museum before, and mentioned that at one point it boasted a sinister collection of photographs of tribesmen with their hands and feet cut off for not collecting rubber.

Clearly the Congo didn’t get the best of starts—and not much has improved since independence.

Butembo, in North Kivu, is the current epicenter of Ebola. The city has a population of 670,000 and is a stone’s throw from the Ugandan border. It takes nine hours to travel the 300 miles from Kampala, and five to fly in from Kinshasa.

The WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the local medical community are experimenting with  a new Ebola vaccine—the relationship between the medics and the local tribe is complex, since many people believe the disease was introduced by the aid workers.

The coincidence in the arrival of virus and doctors is not easily explained to the Nande tribesmen, and aid workers have been killed as a consequence.

The first ever registered Ebola outbreak hails back to 1976—in forty years, the Congo has had ten outbreaks of the deadly hemorrhagic virus.

This twenty-seven year old soldier was photographed by the Guardian in 2018, and is now presumed dead. He had a major intestinal wound and weighed four pounds shy of five stone. If the virus spares you, the war may not.

As the West moves placidly into summer, people you never heard of, in a country that merits one minute of news once in a blue moon, are dying from a disease which is as obscure as it is terrifying.

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

The Rogues

June 20, 2019

After spending a whole week in Ireland and England, during which both the weather and politics were disgraceful, I concluded that the U.K. is having a miserable June.

I flew out of a cold and wet Belfast, and by the time I got to Paddington the rain was coming down in sheets. Even the Ubers were begging off—it took three attempts before a Romanian in a silver Mercedes made it to the pick-up point.

The other two drivers who pulled out were also foreign, as was the waiter who brought me dinner, all the receptionists at the hotel, and most of the staff in the office block where my meetings took place.

Later in the day, when Bojo, as Private Eye calls him, took a significant lead in the hustings to become leader of the Tory Party, and therefore prime minister of the U.K., I heard Boris senior on the BBC. Stanley is an avid attention-seeker, and he was more than happy to comment on Bojo to Auntie Beeb.

‘Have you spoken with your son yet, Mr. Johnson?’

‘No, but he sent a message using something called WhatsApp. It’s a new thing, have you heard of it?’ he asked the interviewer (who replied ‘No’).

The Boris team is keeping the Beano-like character under wraps because the man has two things in common with Trump—crazy hair and a natural bent for shooting himself in the foot.

In Private Eye, Boris and his acolytes are often displayed as a set of Beano characters.

With such a significant lead (114 votes, to 43 for his closest contender, Jeremy Hunt), the best thing for Bojo is to keep his mouth shut to avoid clangers.

After the Conservative Party received the trouncing of a lifetime at the hands of Farage’s Brexit Party—the irony that it happened in the vote for the European elections, which the UK should by then not have been a part of, was missed by no one—many feel that stonewalling Brexit will be the end of the Tories.

As I dealt with both business and pleasure in London, it again and again became apparent that the transport and hospitality industry will collapse without foreigners. I recurrently heard Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, as well as the languages of Eastern Europe—you’ll hear them in many key sectors of British society, of which the NHS is the most important.

Nevertheless, the people have spoken, so leave England must, dragging with it the whole of the UK—of the other three, only Wales (pop. 3 million) voted to leave.

The EU set a limit date for Halloween (who says Brussels doesn’t have a sense of humor), and all the Tories running (of which there are really only three or four in the running) strenuously emphasize that Britain will leave—the degree of stridency about leaving without a deal is what sets them apart.

How easy is it to leave without a deal?

To analyze the question, let’s first look at the opposite—leaving with a deal. Theresa May failed miserably in her attempts to do so, Brussels has repeatedly stated there will be no further negotiation, and Boris is intensely disliked by the European Union.

Some of the other contenders for the Tory leadership have been involved in the Brexit negotiations—they all know exactly what’s achievable, i.e. nothing. In their hearts, the British also know this.

The House of Commons will not support the current deal. But will also not support a no-deal exit. One of the ironies of this process is that many Labour constituencies who voted leave have a ‘remain’ member of parliament. Those MPs, who sit in Westminster, are stuck between a rock and a hard place—they are fully aware that their constituents will crucify them.

If those MPs back a no-deal, the consequences for livelihoods of their voting base will be considerable—the voters will blame them and throw them out. If the MPs do the opposite, their voters will react with fury—betrayed by their representative, who will be thrown out.

Unfortunately, for the conservatives, much the same is coming. If parliament finally approves the same deal (since no other deal is likely), hard-line Brexiteers will be incensed. If it doesn’t, and Johnson forces a hard Brexit, a general election is almost inevitable.

To force a hard brexit against the will of the politicians, the only option is to prorogue parliament—effectively suspending it over the limit date so MPs cannot block the withdrawal. The main (pro)rogue, Dominic Raab, is out of the race, but there are still a few rogues left.

The debates have been appalling, without a glimmer of an idea. Today, only four candidates are left, and by tomorrow we’ll be down to Bojo and Hunt. Of course, it may be that the usual Tory skulduggery steps in and chucks the current second, replacing him with Gove or even Sajid Javid—Rory Stewart was apparently only carried through so Tories could hear him debate.

Historically, as both Thatcher and Major discovered when they beat the front runner, the top dog doesn’t win—maybe when the vote goes out to the Conservative Associations the  curse will rise again.

Whoever wins, the exchange rate of the pound will flutter on the wings of the forthcoming discussions, reflecting ebb and flood. The coming months are short—July means vacation time in northern Europe, August is the same in the south—before we know it, there’ll be trick-or-treat.

One or the other, but not both. Five days after Halloween is Guy Fawkes night—maybe this time the houses of parliament really will blow up.

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


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