Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Old Man and the Sea

May 20, 2018

A few days before Christmas 2014, I wrote an article about cod—the dried product known as stockfisch, and particularly klippfisch, which is dried and salted. It is this fish, a staple of poor people’s diet in the Middle Ages, that the Portuguese call bacalhau.

You find bacalhau dishes throughout Southern Europe, readily identified in Spain as bacalao, and in Italy as baccalá—one of my favourite recipes for cod is the Venetian mantecato.

These days, despite the fact that global warming is fake news, the access to the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean has provoked a huge run on cod—the Barents is now severely overfished, and the ice melt is very bad news for Arctic cod, and with it for seals and polar bears.

Cod from Iceland on display in downtown Lisbon. Bacalhau hasn’t been fished by the Portuguese for decades.

But after the Second World War, the mother lode was the North Atlantic, the waters of Greenland and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Ships from all over Europe came to fish cod—from Soviet to Spanish vessels, but only one nation caught the cod with hook and line.

Portugal was deep in the grip of Salazar’s fascist regime—a country where life was good for the wealthy. If you had money and didn’t worry about politics, you were onto a good thing.

“Cerejeira blessed the ships,” the old man told me. “You couldn’t talk about it, but they said he got a ‘quintal’ from the catch on every ship.”

The quintal is a medieval unit of weight—in the US and UK, its equivalent is the hundredweight (cwt), but that leads us into short tons and imperial units. The quintal used on the cod vessels was the metric variety—one hundred kilograms, or two-hundred twenty pounds.

I wanted to tell the old man a joke about Cerejeira, the cardinal of Lisbon—dictatorships always produce jokes. During the Stalinist period, political prisoners joked that the Lubyanka prison was the tallest building in Moscow, since you could see Siberia from the basement cells.

In my father’s joke, Salazar ends up in hell, and the devil has made it particularly noxious by immersing all the tenants in shit—only their noses appear above the ordure. Salazar, however, is only waist-high. When asked for his secret, he raises a  finger to his lips and whispers: “ssshhh—the cardinal is giving me a piggy-back.”

We’re eating chocos in a little restaurant south of the Tagus—it reminds me of the cuttlefish on the grill in The India Road. There is a quick dalliance with wine colors, and we immediately conclude that tinto is required. A bottle from Palmela, called Dona Ermelinda arrives—you wouldn’t easily find it outside the country.

The fisherman is short and broad. His eyes are bloodshot below the pupils, but that doesn’t take away the easy twinkle. Much of what he says is directed at his twenty-two-year-old grandson, although it’s also meant for me—the old man spent the morning collecting his thoughts, wondering who was this strange fellow who wanted to meet him, to hear tales of sixty years ago.

“My ship was the Elizabeth,” he said. “I started in 1957, to get out of military service, after two years in the Escola de Pesca.”

Unloading cod from the dories to the mother ship in Newfoundland.

The fisherman sipped his red wine. “Lots of guys did that. We had men from all over Portugal. Fishermen from the Algarve, guys from the North, Ílhavo, Caxinas…” He went through the names of the main fishing villages.

Sometimes, we drifted away from his narrative. I told him about the cod wars between Britain and Iceland, and why I thought all the statistics about how much fish is eaten in Portugal are just plain wrong.

But very soon, his eyes would re-focus. “As I was telling you,” he said, “we stopped for bait in St. John’s. Mackerel. Herring. And capelin, they loved capelin.”

It was all as I’d read, but this time I got the inside story. The crew, seventy or eighty men, would be up at daybreak to get into the one-man dories. “My wife made the sail. Waxed it, so it wouldn’t rot.” At his side, the old lady nodded. She didn’t say much, just ate her  cuttlefish strips and picked at the french fries—the restaurant was old school, and a half-portion would have done three Dutchmen for lunch.

The Grand Banks are famous for fog, the kiss between the cold Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream to its south. The dories are put in the water just after dawn, and the men collect their bait to take aboard—frozen blocks of capelin or mackerel.

The hooks are baited, long lines go down thirty fathoms or more. The lines will be down for an hour, and the fishermen are jigging, catching cod while they wait. Up comes the line—it’s a good haul.

The fog comes down. The Elizabeth sounds its horn almost constantly so the dorymen won’t get lost. Slowly they come in, armed only with a small compass and a whistle.

The men fish until sunset. The fish are offloaded, and it’s time for a petisco—a snack, aka supper. The staple food is dried meat from Argentina. The old man wrinkles his face ever so slightly—clearly the cuttlefish are a good deal better. Out on the estuary the tide is pushing in—the banks lightly dusted with seaweed are no longer visible.

“Then, it’s back to work, processing the fish.” Another sip of wine. Gutting, removing and storing tongues and faces, which are considered delicacies, even to this day. The livers go into a boiler at the prow, for cod liver oil.

Some sailors take it, my new friend does not. One quintal of fish reduces to sixty kilos as the fish loses water. As soon as a barrel is emptied, it’s used to store fish. Water is scarce, as on any ship—this isn’t so different from life on the caravels, and in some ways it’s worse.

Every night, the men get a mug of water to wash with. They use the precious liquid first to wash the face, then they salvage it for their hands. Most everything else is washed in seawater.

Work stops at midnight, if you’re lucky. Four hours sleep, and you’re back on the water. March through August. If you’re on watch, you don’t sleep at all.

Many men chose different paths to escape the draft—some jumped the border to work construction in France, some fished for cod. The video above hammers the message ‘Angola é nossa’—Angola is ours, a mantra from Salazar’s day extolling the African wars.

The risk of death is always present—rowing or sailing a small boat laden with cod back to mother is no mean feat. The cod are stored anywhere and everywhere, and the water laps at the gunwales.

One freak wave and you’re gone. Sometimes the line hooks a halibut—the alabote weighs a hundred and fifty pounds or more. At home, it’s unknown, but in Northern Europe it’s a delicacy. The captain keeps them, they’re not part of the men’s catch—the old man is uncertain where they end up, but he knows one thing: to land an alabote, the doryman must use his weight to tilt the boat, first toward the fish, and then right over to tip it into the boat—it’s a dangerous game.

In 1957, the season lasts from March to August—some years before, it lasted well past September. Each man gets fifty liters of wine, his quota for the period. That’s about three gallons a month—I anxiously reach for my glass of tinto.

It’s getting late, and the bottle’s gone. “Two thousand quintais, that would be a regular haul,” he says. I agree—two hundred metric tons of cod sounds respectable to me, especially since the crew will have caught about three hundred to make that number.

My new friend fights me for the check, and we solve it the old fashioned way. “You can pay next time.”

I watch the old man walk away, upright, barrel-chested, a living hero. As we part, I ask about the others. “It was a tough life,” he says softly. “There’s no one left.” He shrugs. “They’re all dead.”

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







May 5, 2018

One of the first strongholds of the Portuguese fifteenth century explorations was São Jorge da Mina, on Africa’s west coast. From 1468 onward, the Lusitanian push down the African coast intensified, driven by the concession of a monopoly for trade in the Gulf of Guinea to the merchant Fernão Gomes.

King Afonso V of Portugal (Afonso the African) granted Gomes his business on the following terms: an annual rent of 200,000 Portuguese reais, and the exploration of one hundred leagues of new African coast per year.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina (Elmina), built in 1482. It later became an infamous emblem of the slave trade.

How much would 200k reais have been worth then? One of my first stops was the historical currency converter, but it only goes back to the Portuguese escudo in 1800.

A scientific paper explains the Lusitanian monetary system, but it also provides additional gems: between 1480 and 1520, Portugal received about 700 kg, or over 1500 pounds, of gold from Africa every year, worth thirty million dollars at today’s prices—much of that will have come through Elmina.

In my quest, I browsed some interesting sites, and marveled at how rich the digital world is now; how I can do all this research on a sunny Saturday morning without leaving my home, while the birds celebrate what looks like the first day of spring—but to find what I wanted I had to delve into other languages—the linguistic dark web, if you will.

One escudo, the pre-euro coin, was worth a thousand reais, which means that the king’s rent was… one euro. Inflation-adjusted, in 1470 ten reais were worth one euro, so Afonso granted the monopoly for an annual income of twenty thousand euros.

As the Portuguese sailed east in the Gulf of Guinea they reached Accra, and twenty-five nautical miles further, the estuary of the Volta river. It had never stuck me that the river was named by the Portuguese, but volta means ‘return’, or ‘turnaround’, and it was there that the caravels tacked and headed for home.

To the north, the great river leads into Burkina Faso, which was called Alto Volta, or ‘high Volta’, when I studied geography—I suspect that too was named by the Portuguese, who no doubt sailed upriver in their explorations.

The castle at São Jorge da Mina was superbly sited, with a navigable inlet to its north where numerous fishing boats are visible on the satellite image. The fort was thus almost impregnable, with sea defenses to the south and east. One of the Portuguese caravels that explored the area in the late XVth century brought along a foreigner who in the next decade would sail for Castile—a young man by all accounts rather inept at ‘weighing the sun‘, who went by the name of Christopher Columbus.

The link between Ghana and gold had been known for centuries—the country’s name may be a corruption of the Arabic word  Ghinaa, meaning golden, although there are alternative theories—particularly that the name originates from ‘warrior king’ in a local dialect. It’s a tricky one, because by the tenth century the whole region was known as bilad-as-sudan, or ‘lands of the blacks’, and the Arabs were undoubtedly aware of the goldmines—despite nationalist objections, I side with the Arab origin.

Ghana suffered colonial abuse in a systematic manner. First by the Portuguese, who stayed for one hundred and fifty years, then the Dutch, then an avalanche of others: Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, and finally the British. Nowadays, Ghana has everything to thrive and develop—it is Africa’s second-largest gold producer, and has the fifth largest oil reserves. It has diamonds in abundance, as well as many other resources—predictably, this has aroused the interest of the Middle Kingdom, to the extent that the Chinese yuan is now hard currency.

A couple of examples of a proper Ghanaian sendoff.

And it has one other fascinating singularity—funerals. Every country, region, or tribe has its own way of dealing with death, expressing grief, and bidding farewell, but Ghana has an astonishing penchant for elaborate coffins.  We’re talking of first-rate African art, as part of a ritual that has an average cost of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars, ten times Ghanaian per capita GDP, and includes giant street billboards.

The tradition is that the deceased is buried in an allegory—a receptacle that reflects his profession or predilection. A shoemaker may be interred in a gigantic sneaker, and someone with a hankering for sodas may go to ground inside a coke bottle.

As for me, lay me down inside a good bottle of Douro red.

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


April 7, 2018

Bhāṣā means ‘spoken language’ in a number of Southeast Asian countries. The word comes from Sanskrit, and different spellings are used to denote language in Myanmar, Malaysia, parts of India, Thailand, and Indonesia—to name a few of Asia’s mystical places.

Language is a kind of verbal gene pool—you see it in Latin idioms, and it helps you understand the linkages across communities and countries. Along with space-based connections, language also shows you how countries diverged over time, as words took on different meanings and spellings and accents changed.

Dutch and Afrikaner, French and Québécois, Portuguese and Brazilian, and of course English and American—all examples of the plasticity of language.

Bahasa (Indonesia) is no exception—sepatu means ‘shoe’, and the equivalent Portuguese word is sapato. The pronunciation is practically identical, and given the tendency of the locals to wear little or nothing on their feet, it makes perfect sense that both the word and the object itself were imported on Portuguese ships. When it comes to timing, my best guess is the first half of the XVIth century.

Indonesian has many loanwords from the Dutch, who were there for 2-3 centuries; but given how short a period the Portuguese explorers spent in those waters, perhaps no more than three generations, I was amazed at their linguistic legacy—as usual, it is simply explained: blood is thicker than water.

Terigo (trigo) is wheat, garpu (garfo) is fork, bendera (bandeira) means flag, and mentega (manteiga) is butter.

And of course, there are a few false friends—the word ‘bunda’ means mother, whereas in Brazilian the meaning is entirely different.

In both Indonesia and Thailand, many people connect to the history of five hundred years ago, when the Portuguese sailed the Strait of Malacca, and navigated east to the Moluccas—the crazy islands, so-called because of the way the magnetic fields drove the Genovese needle wild.

From Europe, it’s very difficult to gain perspective on Indonesia.

We could start by stating that it produces over fifteen million metric tons of aquaculture products every year, making it the second largest producer in the world, with over five times European production.

Or that its population of 238 million is expected to reach 305 million by 2035.

Or that, based on 2005 numbers, the income of the middle class starts at three hundred dollars a month.

What this gives you is a country where there is great poverty, but which overflows with kindness—a nation of gentle souls, where courtesy reigns—people struggling to get by, and doing their very best to share what little they have.

One of many variations on jokes about Scandinavian weather.

In my quest for word matches in Bahasa, I came across opinions on a number of other countries. One of them highlighted five reasons not to live in Denmark: language, climate, social norms, food, and xenophobia—you could use those same reasons for several other nations in northern Europe.

There’s no doubt in my mind that countries like Indonesia and Thailand have a totally different perspective, which is one of the reasons that endeared them to the Portugis explorers in the heady days of discovery.

These are warm climates, with warm people. There’s bound to be some pushback on the farang, particularly if you are overbearing—as many foreigners are—but xenophobia is really not displayed.

As for the language, it doesn’t take more than a couple of words in Bahasa or Thai to elicit the ever-ready smile.

And in desperation, you could always try sepatu.

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

Big Data

March 26, 2018

I’ve written many a blog on airplanes, but this is the first time I’m doing one online.

The turbulence is causing a stir as we hit the south coast of Turkey. In a few minutes we’ll be flying over northern Syria, and I’m keeping a close eye on the map.

Wifi in the sky is just another example of global comms—it’s a satellite feed, of course, and large email attachments go the way of Malaysian Flight 370, but for a wee blog it works just fine.

Night has fallen over the eastern Med, and I spare a thought for the poor people below, caught up in a proxy world war, while Trump fends off claims by porn actresses and Playboy centerfolds.

But today’s article is on Big Data, capitals and all. First off, full disclosure—I’m a social media dinosaur. I speak out against Facebook many a time, and Peter Wibaux would never hold an account—in any case, the platform lost its mojo when it became a shadow site for parents to track their kids.

I find it all pathetic, as kids swiftly shifted to Instagram, and parents share lonely, pathetic photos of their latest dinner party banalities, and pretend they lead an interesting life. So I welcomed a few suggestions on alternatives to F-Book.

Apart from the trivia aspect, my fundamental gripe is lack of privacy—I suppose growing up under the iron fist of the Portuguese dictator Salazar left me with a fundamental and permanent dislike for data theft, particularly on a grand scale—I’m pretty sure people who suffered the Stasi or the Savak feel the same way.

Somewheres East of Suez once more. Afrin, where the Turks recently pounded the Kurds, is just south of here.

Of course, the fact that I’m not on FaceBook doesn’t mean I’m not on FaceBook—and the same stilted logic applies to GMail, which I also take a pass on. Truth is, as long as you correspond with anyone on these platforms, or have your picture taken in their company, you’re trapped.

Practically the entire US electorate found out about this last week, when Cambridge Analytica turned turtle after a whistle blower decided to tell the world what they did for the Trump campaign.

The key to it all was the colossal FaceBook database, and the way in was through a personality evaluation app aimed at the insecure FB neurotics, which assessed their OCEAN score.

What’s OCEAN? Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Who makes this shit up? Maybe it should be: Only Cretins Ever Auto-evaluate Neurosis. Because Neuroticism isn’t even a word!

The story of Cambridge Analytica beats any conspiracy theory. Robert Mercer, a US right-wing hedge fund billionaire, provided the seed capital to spawn the UK company—Mercer is a major contributor to Breitbart News, and created the ‘Make America Nº1’ PAC to elect Trump.

His daughter Rebekah (gotta love that ‘h’) sat on the company’s board, and Analytica’s vice-president was none other that Saturday Night Live’s grim reaper, Steve Bannon.

The company has now re-invented itself as Emerdata, with Mercer money again doing the rounds, and all the usual suspects back on the bus—given Analytica’s track record, lots of UK citizens are reaching beyond the Trump election and wondering what went on with Brexit.

The thing about Big Data? You can drop FaceBook right now but you can never shake your shadow.

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


Alpha Males

March 18, 2018

I’ve often compared California to Portugal, based on relative geography. Both are on the western edge of large continents, and are subject to wind systems that drive oceanic gyres, cause coastal upwelling, and result in large, cold-water fisheries for schooling species such as sardine and anchovy.

Both areas have been occupied by the Spanish in past centuries, but whereas in Portugal the ingress is now seasonal and driven by economics—a large invasion is currently forecast over the Spanish ‘Semana Santa’, or Easter week—in California there is a more permanent character to the Hispanic settlers.

It’s unquestionable that Spain was a major driver for Portuguese maritime exploration, simply because Castile shut off all land alternatives to trading. A similar case can be made for the Vikings, the Dutch, and the English—driven either by hostile neighbors or hostile geography.

If the global ocean discoveries had begun in San Francisco instead of Lisbon, here’s what would have happened: the Californians would have built their caravels out of oak and redwood—a quick foray into the naval-architecture arcana of sequoia suggests it would have done planking very nicely.

The sailors would have understood the dynamics of the south-flowing California Current, much as the Phoenicians once conquered the Canaries current and headed south. These American Argonauts would have sailed past Baja down to Mexico and Guatemala.

Once there, two things would have occurred. Much like the Portuguese did in the Congo, the Americans would have explored the land mass—they would quickly discover, just as the Spanish did when headed in the opposite direction, that Central America is as slim as the neck of a beautiful señorita, and spotted another ocean to explore.

Natives would have been indentured, ships built, and the Atlantic Ocean would have opened for business. The Californians would, within ten years, have sailed all the way north to New Brunswick, and within twenty, traveled the Gulf Stream to Europe—their trip would use the route of Columbus—sailing east to the Azores, and then on to Lisbon.

The routes of the Californian argonauts, circa 1500 a.d.

The second branch of this great adventure would take the Franciscans and Angelenos down the coast of Peru and Chile. Like the Portuguese, they would have lost ships and men battling the north-flowing winds and currents—the Peru Current, responsible for the greatest fishery in the world, an annual take of fifteen million tonnes of anchovies, and the southeast trades.

In their attempt to round Cape Horn, the equivalent of the Cape of Good Hope, they would have tried the tricks described in The India Road, the clever ruses of Abraham the Astronomer. Somewhere down Mexico way, the Calgonauts would have changed the course, on a 270 degree bearing, sailing the parallel on the North Equatorial Current.

They would know the route well, because it was the Californian equivalent of the Portuguese ‘torna-viagem’, the road home from West Africa—westward until the trades softened, then north to the Azores, and a downwind run to Lisbon on the roaring forties.

The Calgonauts would sail a course for Hawaii, and somewhere along the parallel, change heading to NW, or even NNW, as the winds and currents allowed, until they hit the North Pacific Current—this is the Pacific Ocean cousin of the Gulf Stream, a lazy, warm, easterly current that would drop them back in Frisco.

Our California stalwarts would have needed this knowledge, together with the astronomical knowledge the Portuguese acquired, to enable them to sail at night, far from coastal line-of-sight, and return home from their southern adventure.

In so doing, the Calgonauts would have taken a leaf from the books of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral, and sailed a little further west along the North Equatorial. At some point, two things would have happened. The first would be the discovery of the great circle route, which would include some navigation on a 180 degree bearing to cross the equator and catch the East Australia Current, the Pacific equivalent of the Brazil Current.

This would take our intrepid argonauts into Antarctic waters, where the east-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar Current would carry them into the Atlantic Ocean, south of the evil dangers of Cape Horn. I hesitate a little on this particular theory, because although the Portuguese had little choice when they explored the maritime route to the Indies, the Californians would easily have established a naval base in Central America—the isthmus is so narrow that it begot the Panama Canal—which incidentally also begot my favorite palindrome: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

Furthermore, if they were keen on exploring the east coast of South America, it would have been far easier to sail south from the eastern side of the isthmus.

The second, ‘Brazil’ option, is far more plausible. The Californian caravels would have progressed a little further west along the Pacific and hit the NE coast of Australia, along with Java and Sumatra, and a little further north, none other than the ‘Indies’ of Columbus—zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom, and of course Cipango.

How cool would it be if they’d come across the Portuguese heading the other way?

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

Uisce Beatha

February 3, 2018

I had last been to Helsinki on midsummer’s day—this time it was pretty close to the winter solstice. It was dark when I landed, it was dark when I left, and dark pretty much all the time I was there. The app said the UV index was low.

It was minus fourteen centigrade (about 7oF) when I got into town, but with the wind chill you could knock a few more degrees off that. Finland is very efficient, even slightly robotic—people go about their business with no fuss, and no one talks much.

In fact, nobody showed any measure of excitement about anything—until I mentioned the word sauna. At that point, previously phlegmatic Finns began jabbering about the merits of this and that spot, from the Kultuuri sauna to my final choice, Löyly.

Thar she blows! Not Moby Dick, but the Kultuuri sauna in Helsinki.

Finnish is as impenetrable as North Korea, but the locals clearly have a fetish for serial vowels. If they hooked up with the Welsh, who are devoted to consecutive consonants, their offspring might produce some fairly reasonable words. It would be great to drive into the local countryside and see a sign saying:

Welcome to


twinned with



Oh joy. Like driving into the small French town of Condom, or to use it’s full name, Condom-en-Armagnac. Speaking of which, although I am in possession of a box of whisky-flavored condoms, foolishly purchased in a Scottish pub, a condom in Armagnac is surely aimed (sorry) at a more refined partner? Ooh la la! But do resist the flambé option.

Believe it or not, the tourism blurb lists ‘fluvial activity’ as one of the attractions of Condom. Oh, and there’s a road called Bell End in the British Midlands. And…

I digress.

I headed for the sauna. The cab driver helpfully informed me that the building was right on the coast—on the website it’s billed as an urban oasis. One explained that bathing in sub-zero temperatures was entirely out of the question.

If you want to see a smiling Finn, go to the sauna. The place was a hive of activity—a pastiche of pale bodies steaming, talking, and of course drinking. Young and old couples, a girls’ night here and there, the lads out for a good time… It’s good clean fun, gender-friendly, and no birthday suits, thank heaven.

I investigated the perilous path to the bay—the blurb calls it a ‘stretch of beautiful Helsinki waterfront’, and tells you how nice it is ‘on a beautiful summer’s day’. No mention of what it’s like when it’s pitch black and fucking freezing, and you’re standing there with your bare feet in the snow, clad only in the latest Finnish swimwear fashion accessory—around you, ageing Helsinkians, clearly suffering from sub-zero Alzheimer’s, are queuing up for one-stop hypothermia.

It’s all about water here, in solid, liquid, or vapor form. The few times I walked longer stretches, I was struck by two thoughts. The first was how people survived in this country back in the days of the Vikings, under such bitter conditions—and how animals survive it today. The second was Russia. It may seem like a random thought, but if you consider similar weather in the Russian heartland, where the heating and amenities are probably closer to the Viking era, the West definitely has cause to worry.

I can definitely see how the Russian winter, with its biting cold and endless nights, destroyed the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. This isn’t a country you can conquer—it’s not even a country you’d want to conquer. Whether ice or snow, or flooded gorges, the water will get you.

All the while, across the other side of the world, Cape Town is drying up. Nothing now comes out of your faucet, and citizens have to ‘go to the well’, as it were, and queue at collection points for a quota of just under seven US gallons per day. Those twenty-five liters were announced on CNN this morning—it could be fake news, since the City of Cape Town website refers twice that volume.

Water of life—the flip-side

Whatever the story, it’s getting worse. Forget FBI memos, political posturing, and all the other trivial nonsense that storms our heads on a daily basis.

Celebrate the water of life, every minute of every day.

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


The Vote

November 4, 2017

It’s the vote, stupid!

This paraphrase of the 1992 Clinton quote will become the classic of present-day politics. The original was invented by James Carville, a scrappy democratic strategist from Louisiana, and used to great effect in the debate against Bush forty-one.

My version also speaks to the masses. Ever since the vote became a weapon, politicians have fought over arms limitation, because the vote is potentially the most effective weapon of mass destruction.

Voting is a way for everyone to make a choice, but is often also a vehicle for protest, prejudice, or procrastination.

Because the collective vote has such far-reaching consequences on politics, politicians, business, businessmen, wars and the military, freedom, and society, it’s a weapon that begs control.

Some systems try to do this by perverting the concept of one-man-one-vote. I’m using the generic expression, but of course I mean one-person-one-vote. Nevertheless, a time-honored means of control was to prevent women from voting.

Taking a leaf from the Islamic playbook, which seems hell-bent, if you excuse the pun, on preventing women from doing things, many countries resisted giving women the vote—’liberal’ and open-minded Switzerland is the wahabi sect of this group—women were only given the vote in 1971, and in one particularly progressive jurisdiction, women were finally allowed to vote on local issues in 1991. This canton is Appenzell Innerrhoden, and I suspect it’s twinned with Riyadh.

But the main one-man-one-vote perversion, which is juiced with Anglo-Saxon perfidy, is to allow everyone to vote and then count votes differently. This is a subtle modification of the Stalin approach, which highlighted that ‘what matters is not who votes, but who counts the votes.’

Subtle because the cheating has been built into the system upfront, rather than rear-ended. You hear international observers, be it in Kenya or elsewhere, proclaiming an election was ‘free and fair’; however when it comes to US or UK polling, elections are free but the system has been front-loaded, and it is intrinsically unfair—the arguments are heated, but proportional representation it ain’t.

The results can work in various ways: in the US, Trump won despite a majority defeat, whereas in the UK, Brexit triumphed only because any referendum truly does reflect the voice of the people—those that vote, that is.

And there lies the rub.

Twenty-two countries in the world have a compulsory voting system. They include Egypt, Mexico, Australia, and Greece. After the Portuguese revolution of 1974, a number of political parties pushed for a mandatory vote. The only party that opposed it was the communist party—their cadres knew that every communist would vote.

The lack of audience participation, so to speak, has given us (chronologically) the joys of Brexit, Trump, and Catalonia. Predictably, after the catastrophe comes the whingeing. This is the societal equivalent of ‘you never miss your water till your well runs dry.’

The Washington Post heads with the slogan ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness.’ Fair enough, when it comes to communication, but the terrible truth is ‘Democracy Dies in Indifference.’

The forthcoming Catalan elections on December 21 will be an interesting example of civic duty.

Catalan autonomy since 1980. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

I worked up the graph from a Spanish site which hurls a slew of data at you in the vague hope you might convert it into information. The three curves are percentages at various time points when elections were held for the autonomous government.

I shouldn’t have joined the points, but there you go—you get some idea of trends. The blue line is the one that gets airtime—results for eleven elections, of which the first ten were won by a coalition called CIU, Convergència i Unió (the Catalans have even more bizarre accents than other Mediterranean languages). The last election was won by a broader coalition, Junts pel Sí, which excludes a bunch of vowels but includes a bunch of fringe parties—twenty-three parties offer themselves to the electorate, which means Catalunya is either a vibrant democracy or a bit of a zoo, depending on your perspective.

If you look beyond the results, you see the red line, Catalan abstention. Whether it was a good day at the beach, or perhaps FC Barcelona played a big match, I don’t know—what I do know is that average abstention for the thirty-five year period is thirty-eight percent.

From the voting universe, the green line is calculated: it shows the actual proportion of the population that is represented by the government, and at no time does it reach one-third of the registered voters.

I imagine that, much like the supporters of the Portuguese communists, the Catalan independence groups are more assiduous at the ballot box—the graph is inconclusive, but certainly the 2003 and 2006 elections show a drop in the independence vote when abstention is higher.

December 21st is going to be fun. It’s day before El Gordo, the obscenely obese Spanish Christmas lottery—that lottery will make a few Spaniards very rich. The previous day’s lottery will determine whether the population of Catalunya has learned a healthy lesson in democracy.

To paraphrase Churchill, take your vote by the hand, or it will surely seize you by the throat.

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



October 22, 2017

Car-hire companies have a clear worldview on the limits of the civilized world. Buried in the small print is a list of eligible nations—Serbia and Montenegro aren’t on it, and neither is Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So it was with minor trepidation that I offered my passport at the Bosnian border, hoping no one was going to fuss about small matters such as rental agreements—I’d neglected to share my final destination with the car-hire people.

I had come at it the long way—an eight-hour drive down the Adriatic coast that took me from Italy to Slovenia, then on to Croatia, and after a brief Bosnian interlude, back into Croatia—Dubrovnik is an enclave.

One of my best friends, recently deceased, had been here in 1982, and spoke of a beautiful city and a magic phrase—nema problema. Surprisingly, the Croatian word for ‘no problem’ isn’t steeped in consonants—from Slovenia onward the whole place felt like a remake of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, complete with Dalmatian costumes.

Dubrovnik has fallen prey to the Game of Thrones, and the old city is a mishmash of King’s Landing walking tours, mysterious GPS coordinates, and the Walk of Shame—although the naked actress who performed the walk was photoshopped due to pregnancy.

But the real Dubrovnik is much more than the site of another irrelevant quasi-medieval-scifi nonsense epic—it’s a beautiful, sunny, truffle-rich peninsula, with excellent victuals and very drinkable wine—the Malvasija grape for dry whites, and a number of local varietals such as Plavac for reds.

Dubrovnik is also deep in the Austro-Hungarian empire—Sarajevo, where the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered the First World War, is just up the road. Back in Tito’s time, all this was Yugoslavia, and Serbo-Croat was the lingua franca—before WWI, Croatia and Hungary were a single country, but where I found the Hungarians to be unspeakably dour, Croatians were friendly, communicative, and fun.

A simple hvala earned a ready smile, and vrlo dobro triggered a beaming volley of consonants.

Signs for Belgrade, Split, and Ljubljana compete for your attention as you drive south, and UN KFOR convoys still linger after the Bosnian war, like olive scars on this troubled area.

Head east for Bosnia, deep in the heart of the Balkan troubles.

In the Balkans, evidence of the struggle of centuries between Christians and Turks is never far away, and there is no better example of the insanity of the warring parties than the story of Vlad III.

This is associated with Transylvania, to the east, and it’s a wonderfully gory tale—a medieval primer for the barbary that took place in Croatia in the 1990s, and the subsequent Bosnian war. But in all fairness, Vlad wreaked havoc in Hungary and Bosnia as well.

Vlad Dracul, to give him his full name, inspired the movie hero played by Bela Lugosi, but the XVth century prince of Vallachia was far more frightening—a hint is provided by his sobriquet—Vlad the Impaler.

Impalement is a curious technique, consisting in the insertion of a circular stake through the human rectum or vagina, and subsequent careful manoeuvering of the long pole to avoid destruction of internal organs. When properly performed, this operation results in the exit of the stake through the esophagus and buccal cavity—the impaled victim is fully able to breathe, and is thus displayed upright and vertically skewered.

It appears the deranged Balkan ruler learned the technique from the Turks, when he was imprisoned as a youth—certainly, Vlad Dracul performed his magic on both humans and animals—after he had impaled two monks, he proceeded to impale their donkey for braying.

Vlad experimented with a range of tortures, including boiling humans alive in large copper cauldrons—these had wooden lids with holes through which the victims’ heads protruded, so screams and tears could be witnessed by their tormentors.

In 1459, he performed yet another astonishing act—three Turkish diplomats arrived at his court to pay their respects. They refused to remove their turbans before him, following their custom—after commending them on their faith, Dracul ordered their turbans to be nailed to their heads with three spikes, to ensure the diplomats’ hats would be forever secure.

In his many wars with the Ottoman empire, he became a legendary barrier to the spread of Islam into Europe. In 1462, he wrote a darkly humorous letter to the sultan.

I have killed peasants, men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea … We killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers …Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace

Sultan Mehmed II was swift to respond—he sent an army of one hundred fifty thousand men to invade Vallachia and replace its ruler. Vlad was severely outnumbered, and after a failed attempt to murder the sultan in a nocturnal raid, he retreated to the town of Târgoviște. By the time Mehmed’s forces arrived, the town was deserted.

The Turks were greeted by a ‘forest of the impaled’. Twenty thousand people, including women and babies, had been impaled on stakes, and the Ottoman army was dumbfounded—the Sultan decided prudence was the better option, and withdrew his forces.

Vlad Dracul was killed in battle at the end of 1476—the Turks cut his corpse into pieces and sent his head to the sultan, in the best medieval tradition, but the violence lives on. War in Croatia raged from 1991 to 1995, over five hundred years after Dracul’s death, and recently exploded again in Bosnia—massacres didn’t extend to Vlad’s exalted heights, but they showed that the boundary between human civilization and savage cruelty is a very fine line indeed.

When you see the happy, smiling folks of Dubrovnik, hear the music and the laughter, it’s hard to imagine how much suffering this nation endured.

Small-minded, sadistic wars for nation-statehood were the daily fare of the Balkans since human history exists—maybe we can be smart enough to write the next chapter in a different way.

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

Red House

October 7, 2017

I drove up the east coast of Ireland, sheets of rain driving in from the west. I learned after it was the tail end of Maria, making its way across Europe.

Now there’s a trip! All the way across the Atlantic from the Cape Verde islands, celebrated in The India Road, mayhem in the Caribbean, north to Boston and then across with the roaring forties toward the Emerald Isle.

Columbus did a tighter loop, west at the Canaries, back east via the Azores, but it was the same idea. Maria did considerable damage in the Caribbean, but the cast of Clear Eyes did much more.

As the rain poured down over Carlingford Lough, the old saw about why hurricanes are named after women came to me. When they arrive they’re wet n’wild, when they leave they take your house and your car.

Hurricanes have guys’ names too now, but hey, it’s a rainbow world, so why not LGBT weather?

On the way back, I got to talking to this Dublin guy about the drive, and what would happen if brexit brought the border back. By then the weather was nice, but not in Belfast.

“They’re all protestants up there, that’s why.” He sounded perfectly serious.

“Oh, it’s god’s fault,” I said.

“I suppose you’re going to ask me if I like the EU. Well I’ll tell you, I don’t!”

I wasn’t, but when you see a guy with a spade digging himself into a hole, you don’t offer a ladder.

“Have you ever heard of the Red House?”

I had, and still reeling from Tom Petty’s untimely death at sixty-six, I went through a few breaks of the classic Hendrix blues in my head.

“No”. Somehow I didn’t believe he was thinking of Jimi.

I was right, yer man told me to google red house, strasburg, 1944. Turns out today’s European Union is nothing more than a massive German conspiracy to continue the Third Reich after losing World War II.

My first hit about the Maison Rouge was the UK Daily Mail. The paper is a strong supporter of brexit, and in Thatcher’s day we used to joke it’s ‘read by the wives of the people who rule the country.’  I was on a British Airways flight to London some years ago, and the elderly American lady in the middle seat asked the hostess for a newspaper for her husband.

She was given the Daily Mail (BA loves it), passed it across, and after a couple of minutes handed it back to the hostess.

“My husband doesn’t want it—he says it’s a scandal rag.”

“Madam, we have far worse than that,” the stewardess said in a supercilious tone.

Strasbourg is the Alsatian capital, a meld of German and French, which adds nicely to the conspiracy theory, and the Daily Mail goes at it hammer and tongs. I won’t link the article, because it’s a typical blend of fact and fiction, particularly when it comes to interpretation—and the guy who wrote it is the author of a novel on the subject.

But I will link the transcript of the core document, sourced from US military intelligence.

The concept is typical of conspiracy theories. There is a potential basis in fact, always subject to distortion, and then imagination takes flight and builds a huge construct—the moon landing and twin towers are similar exercises.

These plots are all anchored on simple but disruptive ideas (the EU is a Nazi plot, the US blew up the World Trade Center…), the implementation of which is not at all simple—and must always be part of a cabal by the ruling elite to fool the masses.

The recent Russian maskirovka of the islamization of Texas is a great example, and a nice follow-up to their Berlin rape antics.

The true points of the Rotes Haus meeting, based on available evidence, are as follows.

There is no independent evidence it took place. All we have is a translation of a report filed by an agent of the French Deuxieme Bureau. We don’t know his name, and trawling through French-language resources does not bring up the original—it merely brings up one or two French conspiracy websites.

The gist is that SS officers and directors of the huge German military-industrial complex, including Messerschmidt, Volkswagen, and others, met to prepare a sinister post-war plot. An abridged list of attendants is provided by the French spy.

Dr. Scheid, who presided, holding the rank of S.S.Obergruppenfuhrer and Director of the Heche (Hermandorff & Schonburg) Company
Dr. Kaspar, representing Krupp
Dr. Tolle, representing Rochling
Dr. Sinderen, representing Messerschmitt
Drs. Kopp, Vier and Beerwanger, representing Rheinmetall
Captain Haberkorn and Dr. Ruhe, representing Bussing
Drs. Ellenmayer and Kardos, representing Volkswagenwerk
Engineers Drose, Yanchew and Koppshem, representing various factories in Posen, Poland (Drose, Yanchew and Co., Brown-Boveri, Herkuleswerke, Buschwerke, and Stadtwerke)
Captain Dornbuach, head of the Industrial Inspection Section at Posen
Dr. Meyer, an official of the German Naval Ministry in Paris
Dr. Strossner, of the Ministry of Armament, Paris.

If they were all there, it was certainly a motley crew. Never mind that Brown-Boveri is actually Swiss rather than German, those are mere details.

The grand plan is simply to inform the industrialists that Germany is about to lose the war, and propose a series of steps which might be considered eminently sensible at that stage.

These included the relocation of capital in other countries, the protection of German industrial interests through alliances and other mechanisms, and the promotion of trade to allow the fatherland to be rebuilt. As a little extra spice, the business conglomerates will set up discreet smaller facilities for weapons research.

BMW was allegedly involved in all the slave labor abuses during WWII, so maybe that’s the secret plot for the Mini factory in Oxford—their website is silent on this topic—if they’re now using a bot that can detect irony fifty percent of the time, I may get sued.

Nothing in the supposed red House ‘closely-typed’ report goes beyond the obvious. This is well stated in one of the conclusions from another website that discusses the Red House.

I would recommend reading simplistic comments for the populist market by the ill informed that claim The EU is a ‘Nazi’ plot delve a little deeper into the facts rather than the theories of such conspiracies!

The ‘simplistic comments’ in this case are statements and statistics about how the big German industrial companies used prisoners, how the CEOs of these companies served short jail sentences, and how allied military authorities issued pardons in a suspicious manner.

The post-war recovery of Germany is offered as evidence of the conspiracy, with not a mention of the Marshall Plan.

And the notion that the top German industrialists had failed to observe they were losing the war as they gazed out from their executive boardrooms onto their bombed-out factories is er… a little bizarre.

The voluntary (not conspiratorial) adhesion of so many other nations to this project leads to only one conclusion. If the Germans had a change of heart and conspired to make Europe a better place, regardless of the preceding tragedies, the ideas certainly held, and hold, appeal on a EU-wide basis.

Small countries such as Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, or Croatia, whose history is one of constant strife, were quick to see the benefits—they still do.

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


Under the Weather

September 9, 2017

One of the heroines of my new book, Clear Eyes, is a fourteen-year-old Taino girl called Anda. She only appears at the start of Book 2—the novel is divided into three books: the outbound voyage, Columbus in the ‘Indies’, and the fractious return home.

It’s not unusual in the voyages of discovery that the journey home is particularly hideous. It happened to Vasco da Gama, who lost one third of his men in the homeward bound crossing of the Indian Ocean, to Columbus on his first voyage, and to Magellan, albeit somewhat earlier—but equally in a more radical fashion, since he lost his life in the Philippines.

Anda’s grandfather is a shaman, and rather fond of the hallucinogenic powder made from the beans of Piptadenia peregrina, the yopo tree. In the Caribbean, the tree can reach a height of sixty feet or more, and I imagine a few have been flattened over the past week.

When the shaman is tripping on DMT, he speaks with his ancestors from the mouth of the Orinoco—the Taino people came up to the Bahamas from Venezuela, fighting the Carib tribes along the way—the Caribs are responsible for the region’s name, but after five hundred years of colonial enthusiasm, they’re about as rare as the yeti.

As he smoked, the shaman told stories of the cemis, the Taino gods. There were several that looked after the cassava crop, including Baibrama, who cured people of the plant’s poisonous juice, and Guabancex, the goddess of juracan —the hurricane goddess had two assistants, Guatauba who created the winds, and Coatrisquie who made the floods.

The old man is smoking tabaco, which became a planetary hit after it was introduced to Europe. It is the last week of September, 1492, almost exactly five hundred and twenty-five years ago, at the very end of the pre-Columbian era in the New World.

The tender mercies of the Spanish conquistadors. Illustration from Theodor de Bry (1528–1598) inspired by the book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias by Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas.

Guabancex has been on a roll this year—rather than the Islamic Haj, there’s been a spot of hij—Harvey, Irma, and Jose (nice to see that Latino touch in there). Her two assistants, Guatauba and Coatrisquie, obviously ran out of ritalin and have run amok with winds and floods.

The fact that the juracan had not one but three gods, suggests the locals were well-acquainted with the mayhem and destruction of these weather systems. The great debate now is whether climate change has increased the frequency of extreme events, of which hurricanes are an example.

Just as with earthquakes, science has no predictive capacity for hurricanes until they form. The key difference is in the speed of propagation—an earthquake happens very fast and we can forewarn only at the scale of a minute or so.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, can be tracked—since the ones that hit the Caribbean form off West Africa, there’s plenty of time for the US TV stations to wet their panties before the rain actually dampens anything.

CNN seemed completely impervious, if you excuse the pun, to the terrible destruction happening elsewhere, running Harvey like a Netflix serial-binger; testimony of tragedy was rife, with anchors waxing lyrical about mothers being separated from their babies, almost claiming this was a unique experience for mankind.

No one makes light of what happened in the southern US, but far worse violence to families is done regularly in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—on a daily basis. The destruction by Irma of ninety-five percent of Barbuda also puts things in perspective—downtown Houston is still standing, and so will downtown Miami after Irma does her bit.

And speaking of impervious, much of the natural ‘soft’ engineering that nature provides, including buffer zones of mangrove, permeable land, and forest cover has been destroyed by man. A good deal of the Houston flooding occurred in low-lying areas (duh) where good planning wouldn’t have allowed urban development. The destruction of Phuket by a tsunami in 2004 is another example of nature’s capacity to correct planning errors.

After typhoon Hato hit South China in late August, thousands of people were displaced—high winds, floods, and deaths, just like Harvey. Very little of this made the Western media, although the UK gave it some airtime because of Hong-Kong.

Macao was battered, although some of the gambling addicts probably only looked up once. A friend of mine in Guangzhou was six days without email because of destroyed infrastructure.

Since the Tainos and Caribs kept no written records, and there is certainly no oral tradition because the Spanish killed them all, not much is known about Atlantic hurricanes pre-1492. Even after that, there are only records when towns were badly hit, or occasionally if a vessel survived—in the big ones, I suspect no ships did.

On his second trip in 1494, Columbus witnessed his first hurricane on Hispaniola in late September. The following year in late October, Hispaniola was hit by another one—it whirled three galleons about their anchors, snapped the cables, and sank the lot, complete with crews.

Some evidence of earlier hurricanes is based on paleotempestology—I looked it up online, and even Google can’t think of an ad to associate with this mouthful—Oh Joy!

Sediment cores provide altered geological records during hurricane events, which can be dated. Cores from different Caribbean areas should provide a reasonable approach to reconstituting juracan tracks, and there must be other science tricks that would help. I doubt this is accurate to less than one year, and it may well be that the record ‘compresses’ multiple events.

Bottom-line, we go back to 1330 BC, and there are hurricanes identified as Cat 4-5, which will have caused major damage in their day.

One advantage the US has over Caribbean nations is strong federal support through FEMA and other agencies. Fareed Zacaria—every time I see his name I think of the Portuguese name Zacarias, and wonder if there’s a context pursuant to The India Road—wrote a nice op-ed this week in the Post, which highlights the nine words Reagan was most afraid off.

Zacaria tells us that these days, the words anyone from Texas or Florida will most want to hear are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.

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


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