Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Knock On Wood

October 10, 2021

Madeira is a small island, or rather a mini-archipelago, since it has three neighbors—Porto Santo, with over five miles of golden beaches, the Desertas, and the Selvagens—no one lives on the last two, both of which are nature reserves—the Desertas are home to the monk seal, which the Portuguese sailors christened lobo marinho.

The island’s name means ‘wood’, because of the extensive woodland cleared for agriculture when it was colonized.

A cliff face going up fifteen hundred feet from the ocean—folks scratch a living from sharecropping at the base of the mountain, growing sweet potatoes and maize. The boat from which the picture was taken is in fifty fathoms of water—one nautical mile further south you’d be at five hundred fathoms—this is the home of the deep ocean predators: bluefin tuna, dolphins, sharks, and whales.

I’ve been to Madeira a number of times, but this was a special trip—the first chance since the global lockdown to catch up with old friends.

The islands are at the core of my first book, The India Road, since their discovery marked the start of an amazing century of Portuguese endeavor—in 1419, the captains Joao Gonçalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira were blown out to sea in a storm, at a time when astronomic navigation was taking its first steps, and thanked god in the usual way by naming their safe harbor Porto Santo, or Holy Port.

As always, there are apocryphal tales about the islands, starting with an account by Plutarch of the life of Quintus Sertorius.

quas duas insulas propinquas inter se decem stadium a Gadibus sitas … constabat suopte ingenio alimenta mortabilus gignere.

It was said that these two neighbouring islands, situated ten thousand stades from Cadiz, produced food for humans entirely of their own accord.

There are references to the Islas Afortunadas, or Fortunate Islands—the ancient name for the Canaries, so it’s not clear whether this passage references Madeira or not—but the mention of two neighboring islands ten thousand stades (one thousand nautical miles) from Cadiz is suggestive. In actual fact, both Madeira and the Canaries are substantially closer (about six hundred nautical miles), but right up to the XVIIIth century, mariners were not able to accurately determine longitude. Since there’s nothing further west, it’s safe to assume that the sailors who spoke to Sertorius landed on the ‘Isles of the Blest’ around the year 80 BC.

The food narrative is also interesting—although volcanic islands are associated with destruction, the emission of ash from an eruption often results in fertile soils, rich in iron, magnesium, and potassium. The islanders grow corn, a new world crop, sugarcane and bananas, old world crops, and sweet potato—although traditionally considered to be from the Americas, recent evidence suggests it may also have been present in Southeast Asia.

The Roman general never made it to Madeira (or the Canaries), so the story is apocryphal, but there is also evidence (of mice and men) that Vikings may have stopped off in the XIth century, probably on their way to a spot of rape and pillage in the Andalusian caliphate. That evidence is provided by DNA from mice—I’m tempted to say this explains Rattus norvegicus, but of course this is about its more endearing cousin, Mus musculus.

In 1420, the island of Madeira was formally claimed by the Portuguese crown—’discovered’ by the two captains, together with Bartolomeu Perestrello—an Italian, whose original name was Pallastrelli. Perestrello married four times—his daughter Filipa, from his last marriage, was the first wife of Christopher Columbus—you can read all about that in my third book, Clear Eyes.

I didn’t get to Porto Santo this time around, but next time I’ll visit the house where Columbus lived.

So, celebrate life and look forward to the next time… knock on wood.

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


September 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t even get recognition.

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

Jerry Hat Trick

September 12, 2021

Maybe the years I lived in England infected me with a soft spot for puns, or maybe it’s just that I enjoy playing around with words—as we humans make ourselves extinct, i.e. become extinguished rather than distinguished, I dreamed that insects would regain their ruling spot, setting up their planetary capital in a huge Hawaiian metropolis called Antsville, Hulabama.

Since originality wins in my world, I’m delighted there are no hits from Google on this new megacity—I am considerably more worried that it immediately detected my spoonerism and suggested what should have been my correct search terms.

That’s amazing. I find as years go by that my computer has become dyslexic—because it surely ain’t me—and I regularly msitype wodrs by swapping adjacent letters, but that does not extend to misrepresenting cunning stunts as stunning cunts.

And because today is a freewheeling text—like American foreign policy—no direction home, here are three thoughts on dis thislexia (the WordPress shellpecker is having a field day with me).

The first is that I only fuck up the words when I type—when I write it’s fine, and that’s how I know it’s my computer’s fault.

The second is that the kind of typos I make, typically insertions, deletions, and substitutions, are exactly what happens with genetic mutations, so if you suffer from this ailment, first of all test yourself in longhand—I bet you’re good, so the fault is clearly in your digital friend—and second, understand that you are in fact demonstrating evolutionary biology to the world at large.

The third is that I realized in recent years that I do a lot of typing without looking at the keys, and in general it works out fine. That qualifies me as a touch typist, albeit of the two finger variety—but you can do an awful lot with two fingers—if you don’t believe, me ask Django Reinhardt.

Django breaking the internet—you can see that both the pinky and ring fingers of his left hand are out of play, severely injured in a caravan fire.

Once in a while, I run a blind test for myself, just losing my eyes and ttpomf—that was meant to be just closing my eyes and typing, but I’m chilling, writing this on a laptop, and I do better at a proper click-click-keyboard.

And although ttpomf is vaguely reminiscent of the orang-u-tan covefefe, it’s a far more onomatopeic invention. The double t is there for emphasis of course, but you can see that the number of letters is correct and the wrong letters are shifted by one on the keyboard.

Which in this stream-of-consciousness article begs the question: is typing faster than writing? Science comes to the rescue, as always, unless you live in orangeland. At an annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (who knew?) in 1988, a paper was presented by C. Marlin “Lin” Brown—you can tell it’s proper science because the nick is shown in inverted commas, as in Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor, but why does Mr. or Ms. C. insist on qualifying the given name? Is it so (s)he’s not mistaken for a fish?

Since we’re playing word association football today, you should know that the legendary bluesman Hound Dog—if you excuse the paradox—was not only named after a U.S. president who was a great explorer, builder of the Panama Canal, and enthusiastic big game hunter, but also suffered from a condition called polydactylism—he had six fingers in each hand, so he could have spared Django a couple.

More bizarrely, he apparently sliced off one of said extra digits with a straight razor while he was drunk—but don’t worry, them extra digits were just nubs. And when you search for hound dog polydactyly, the first hit tells you: ‘Polydactyly is a rare occurrence where your dog is born with an extra toe or toes. It’s not considered a problem unless it catches on things.’

Catches on things? WTF?

So Marlin found that typing was five words per minute faster than writing—no details provided about errors. But it’s obvious that you’re much more prone to those when you type—that’s why they’re called typos, not writos. If you can’t spell—and many can’t these days, the principle reason being that in principal they’re not taught properly or don’t give a shit—they’re called spelling mistakes.

That paper should have qualified for an Ig Nobel prize—these coveted trophies have just been awarded for last year. One of the lucky winners published a paper on transporting rhinos upside down, and my favorite provides empirical evidence that orgasms are an effective nasal decongestant. I’m afraid I haven’t yet read the article, but since blowing your nose is also an effective decongestant, and presumably during enthusiastic sexual activity neither party is munitioned with a handkerchief, does this mean that the decongestion assistant is pulverized with nasal mucus at the critical juncture? Curious minds want to know.

My articles are generally like tennis—the game ends when the work is done, but today’s is a soccer game and time’s up—I need to pack a bag and get on an ATR to Spain, where a couple of days on the water will no doubt do wonders for my nasal passages.

But first I need to get a couple of lithium batteries through airport security.

As the jerry hat tricks who were on TV yesterday noted, since 911 air travel has never been the same.

But as luck would have it, I have an ace in the hole. In 2009, Dr. Elena Bodnar came up with a brilliant invention, which won her an Ig Nobel and demonstrated she was a decade ahead of her time.

Her invention? A black brassiere that uncouples to form two perfectly fashioned face masks.

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

The Salt

August 28, 2021

The peoples of the Iberian peninsula are going through a tough time—a recent article in a Spanish newspaper tells us that the gradual improvement in living conditions since the great recession of 2008 was blindsided by the pandemic.

Over three million Spaniards are suffering “severe material hardships”—this kind of language is common in Latin nations and doesn’t provide much transparency… what does severe mean? What kind of hardships?

Well, one third of the population of fifty million people cannot afford to take a one-week vacation per year. Eleven percent can’t adequately heat their home. Over five percent can’t eat meat or fish once every two days. Is that severe enough?

Southern Spain has a number of towns where drug smuggling is big business—a reflection of the proximity of Africa and Europe. Places like La Linea or Sanlucar, where you can dine in upmarket restaurants and see a table full of young men wearing the trappings of wealth—expensive clothes, costly jewelry, and beautiful women.

But for every opulent table where the gamba blanca, lobsters, and Cristal champagne flow, there’s an army of poverty and desgracia—the mules who carry the dope for a pittance, the boys who unload the gomas as they put into dark coves or wend their way into the saltmarshes of the Guadalquivir.

Five hundred bucks a night to unload bales of Moroccan hashish from the rubber boats, or to take gas and food out to the boats sitting offshore. These days, after the 2018 law banning RIBs, the rigid inflatables sit just outside the twelve mile limit, waiting to come in.

The boys charge around on scooters, the men are unemployed, jailed, or dead, the mothers and grandmothers live hand to mouth.

This is the coast that saw Columbus and Magellan sail, a part of the world notorious for adventurers, destitutes, opportunists, and scrabblers—part Spanish, part Moorish, part Gypsy, part Jewish—itinerant folk who seem part of a previous century.

A hundred miles west lies the Ria Formosa, a set of barrier islands on the Portuguese side of the border. Small communities exist on the islands themselves—villages perched in the sand, whose people depend on what the ocean provides.

There’s a joyful lawlessness to these communities—shacks along the beach sell fish and shellfish that will never see a health certificate or pay a penny to the taxman. The houses are makeshift, and people scramble for a living as best they can—tourists in summer, many of whom are themselves poor, the kind of folks who can just about manage that one-week vacation.

In winter, anything goes.

As August ushers in the fall, these places return to their limits of subsistence, just as tourists return to their quarantines and colds. The locals count their pennies and take stock of the season that just was—a pandemic puzzle of permissions, PCRs, and perplexities.

The people I’m talking about live on the wire, always hoping for an opportunity that will change it all—but the change stubbornly refuses to come.

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

Two Weeks in August

August 21, 2021

That’s all it took.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What use are they?” asked the American.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wú Wéi

July 18, 2021

The Chinese character 无 means ‘to lack’ or ‘not to have’. This is a wonderful example of Chinese synthesis—the ideogram replaces two or three English words. The character 为 or wéi means ‘to behave’, ‘to be’…

Together, 无 为 take on a deeper meaning—inaction. wú wéi can be translated as do nothing, take no action, and is an instantly recognizable phrase in the Middle Kingdom—short for 无为而无不为 or wú wéi ér wú bù wéi, it literally means through not doing, all things are done.

wú wéi is a classic formulation of Taoism (or Daoism), a combination of religion and philosophy that originated in China about two thousand five hundred years ago.

The ‘do nothing’ hands off approach is antithetical to the West, where we are constantly running around trying to do something, even when the outcome of that something may be useless—reverse Taoism could thus be do something, and little will be accomplished, or at the edge, do everything, and nothing will get done.

Try discussing the concept with a Westerner and you are immediately faced with scoff—absolutely, so if I don’t drive to work I will magically arrive there—or maybe the joke will turn to meals that cook themselves.

But those who look beyond the sarcasm understand the concept is a way to unify us with the universe, to flow with the forces that surround us.

Water is used as a frequent example of wú wéi—it can happily be guided, transported and piped—yet is does as it will, evaporating from the earth’s surface, drifting anywhere and everywhere in great clouds, and then falling where it must.

Donovan’s ‘Colours’ is the epitome of the relationship between the Hippie Movement and Taoism, the concept of letting nature take its course.

Over the past days, water fell in areas of northern Europe where the landscape has been completely altered, and the same soft, playful water wreaked havoc and death on town and country.

The Chinese used the wú wéi way throughout history, watching invaders come and go and yet remaining resolutely Chinese.

From Gengis Khan’s Mongol hordes to the Japan of Yamamoto and Tojo, the Middle Kingdom suffered and waited it out, just as they recently did with Donald Trump.

In the midst of all this a pandemic erupted, and its most significant political outcome was ejecting the orange man. Unless you believe that COVID was deliberately released by China as a biological weapon to destroy the Western World, then the orang-u-tan was whipped by wú wéi.

All the multiple ‘strategies’ for beating the pandemic—the idea that we as humans are in charge—is laughable. Mask on, mask off. Home at eight, now you’re late. Summer vacation, sovereign nation. France is closed, vax exposed. PCR, stay where you are. Out at night, twenty-buck flight.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu—father of Taoism—in the Chinese painting ‘The Three Vinegar Tasters’. Confucius, a defender of order, has a sour look, Buddha, who saw the world as a place of suffering, looks bitter. Only Lao Tzu is smiling, at one with nature.

Taoism gives us much more to explore, helping us realize that by managing less we may be managing more. It emphasizes virtues that are much in demand as we drift through these completely incomprehensible times—naturalness, compassion, simplicity, and above all humility.

In the space of eighteen months, a virus maestro and a quartet of mutations have shown us we are not in charge—yet every hour the kings of the world make their plans and the worker bees dutifully follow.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

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

The Long March

July 11, 2021

To understand anything, you have to know its past.

This is as true of ordinary people as it is of nations and continents, but when it comes to changing history, it is paramount, as the Americans have discovered in Afghanistan. In fairness, the Brits could have told them, since they only left four generations ago, the first time they tried to rule the country—after eighty years of strife and the infamous 1842 Khyber Pass massacre, where only one man survived out of sixteen thousand.

The US troops have left after twenty years—billed as America’s longest war, and certainly one of America’s longest bills—the Costs of War project estimates the bill at well over two trillion dollars, compared to four trillion spent on World War II.

America likes instant solutions—during the Great War, General John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing was told by a French commander that it would take thirty years to organize a general staff. “It never took America thirty years to do anything,” he replied.

Maybe so, but some things take time—you can’t make a baby in a month by getting nine women pregnant.

And as the students are fond of saying, “We have the time.” They are now making that time count and rapidly undoing the societal changes brought to the country by the allies. Just as when the Soviets left, there will be long knives.

It was the Taliban who tortured Mohammad Najibullah to death in 1996, reportedly castrating him before he died. Former president Hamid Karzai has survived four Taliban assassination attempts—their first attempt was with a gun, the next three used rockets!

The systematic mistake of the West, and in particular the US, is the ‘hearts and minds’ narrative. The idealistic notion that every country hungers for democracy and that if it could, the whole world would be like the United States, is just plain wrong.

The reasons, as always, are anchored in history. The construction of a democratic society is a bottom-up affair, and the fairy-tale notion that an external military intervention will make the populace rejoice and quickly lead to strong democratic institutions is puerile.

America has discovered this everywhere it has tried to effect change, except of course in Europe where the nations liberated after the end of the Second World War were already democratic.

When democracy starts it is experimental, and trial and error lead to its improvement. The separation of church and state was one of these, something that the US is still ambiguous about, since god appears to be permanently blessing America.

Likewise, appointing a head of state to be head of the church is similarly unwise—Henry VIII had five good reasons for doing so, and the English have never abandoned the notion since then. Scotland would never have accepted the Church of England, and therefore created its very own Church of Scotland—however, this is a presbyterian denomination, headed only by Jesus Christ—a kind of absentee landlord.

The separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government is also a great concept—one that came about through the realization that excessive power is a really bad notion. As a rule of thumb, consider the following: if a concept is forbidden by a dictator, by and large its a pretty good idea—the reverse also applies, as seen for example in free speech and personality cults.

The application of your own rules, your own past, to other people’s realities, rarely works. That’s why when I visit a new land, or meet a new person, I don’t look for logic.

I look for internal consistency.

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

The Boxed Sea

July 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buda Beat

June 27, 2021

After the third wave came the Mexican wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then came the Nazis.

Then the Soviets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Dogs

June 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I’m going out.

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

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