Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category


June 25, 2017

The helicopter blades whirred, there was one jolt, and the little machine was underway—a mechanical insect under a perfect blue sky.

My destination was a small island in northern Biscay, ten nautical miles from the French mainland. There’s a ferry, but it runs infrequently. Squeezed into the chopper were a few other disciples—we were all searching for the holy grail: Food.

Islands, no matter what the size, always reflect a different mindset—this is true for Islay, Ireland, or tiny little Sark, a microdot in the English Channel.

This particular island has two defining characteristics: bikes and jalopies. As soon as the little helicopter settled on the big H and we extricated ourselves from the cabin, I understood that my jacket and tie would be nothing but dead weight on this trip.

There’s an endless supply of rented bicycles, and like escapees from the age of Henry Ford’s Model T, they’re all black. We used them to go to the beach, to the place where we assembled to discuss good food, and for dinner expeditions.

Last weekend there was a gibbous moon, and as the nights got progressively darker, the return rides between pitch-black hedgerows became increasingly perilous—only some bikes had lights, and our party was amply fueled by the local wine.

The woman who guided us on our returns had the navigation and night vision skills of Seal Team Six—I told her so in my dedication note after I left her house.

Every derelict vehicle seems to have hopped over from the mainland—the port boasted a collection of clapped-out Clios, clangy ‘quattrelles’, and other escapees from the golden age of French motoring.

Lest you disparage French engineering, consider this side-mounted barbecue.

Along with the rickety Renaults, innovation was at hand, by way of a vertically mounted barbecue for roasting an entire sheep. Never in my travels have I come across such a device, which allows wood and coal to be fired, flames licking skyward, while  the animal calmly rotates next to, rather than above, the heat.

Good food was the theme that brought us together, and what a motley crew we were: Chefs, company CEOs, scientists, venture capitalists, even a previous member of the Obama administration.

Legend has it George W. Bush once stated that ‘the trouble with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ Not so this group, young people fired with ideas on using insect meal to feed farm animals, radically changing the manufacture of spirits, or growing your own produce in the back room of your salad bar.

The common denominator was originality, and the understanding that millennials are revolutionizing food. The focus is no longer on big ag, but instead on the things that matter to Generation Y.

By 2020, the discretionary purchasing power of millennials will replace baby boomers, and Gen Y priorities are vastly different: sustainability, animal welfare, traceability, well being, and local urban agriculture.

These are areas where big ag is clueless, since their entire business model is based on the exact opposite of these concepts.

A hand at stage left underscores this critical new look at our planet.

We talked about regenerative agriculture, and about the powers of wild flowers and mushrooms to feed and heal. We consumed the products of this vast and exciting revolution, strange green concoctions of herbs that regenerate your liver cells after a night’s drinking, and other potions which reminded me of the brews prepared by the druids of old.

I spent a good deal of my time open-mouthed, even when I wasn’t eating. There was just so much going on, so many new ideas, and everyone had plenty to say.

Riding alongside me on his bike, my new friend George explained how he used wild plants to cure the horses of the Aga Khan. “I can repair a fatigue fracture in record time.” He told me that well before the appointed time, one horse was straining at the paddock, desperate to race again—the vet could find nothing wrong with his bones, and the stallion came in second.

George gave me one of his books to read, and wrote a page-long dedication to l’Homme Poisson. I’m half-way through it, struggling with French words I haven’t seen for years.

There’s a world of wonder and brilliance out there.

And you know what? Maybe god really is a mushroom.

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

Smart Kids

June 18, 2017

Sixteen months ago, in Las Vegas, it was easy to find Trump supporters. This time around, they’re harder to spot.

I did my usual straw poll, but any mention of the current president usually brought a heartfelt sigh, as if a rogue uncle had just wet himself in public.

‘This too shall pass’ seems to be the prevalent mood, but of course I missed out Middle America, where much of the support lies. I did canvas Uber drivers, oyster farmers, waitresses, Iraq and Afghan veterans—and heard not one kind word.

Basic services in Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere, are still in the hands of migrants, and Los Angeles FM radio is at least forty percent Spanish.

On the West Coast, I drove up 405, listening to Frank Zappa’s ‘I’m The Slime’, truer today than when it was first written.

Partly, this is because TV has morphed into an internet hydra, with multiple ‘channels’ that numb the brain—a collective digital lobotomy. As usual, I’ve been on planes—lots of them. That too, is mind-numbing, and right now, as I hide in a corner of Logan airport after a red-eye from LAX, and try to stay awake to type a few words,  I’m besieged by endless musak and relentless aircon—it’s the American way.

If you walk down any airplane aisle, just about everyone is watching soaps or playing games—hardly anyone reads, and when they do, it’s the in-flight magazine. And yet, I was privileged to meet two sets of kids, both preteen, and they impressed the hell out of me.

To be honest, I prefer to chat with kids, especially smart ones, than with grown-ups. And these children were super-smart—the great societal anesthetic has not yet struck.

One of them was fond of computers—most kids are, but the thrill stops at games and social media—but this one liked to build them. I’m sure you know that you don’t build laptops or tablets, that’s throwaway consumer junk.

This boy liked to scavenge parts and build machines from scratch, populating a motherboard with all sorts of weird and wonderful things. In The Hourglass, one of the heroes is a youngster by the name of Tommy (it may yet change), and he does exactly that, as he sidesteps the ‘New Society’ of President David A. Klomp—no prizes for guessing what the ‘A’ stands for.

“Do you program?”

“Yes.” A shy voice.

“What languages?”

“Java. Python.”

Wow! I asked a couple of questions. This kid really did know his stuff. As he devoured pizza like any other eleven-year-old, he began discussing the details of a cloud-hosted database with his father.

The parent procrastinated, as one does.

“Dad, you’re always saying that, but we need to do it.”

I hid a grin.

On the other side of the continent, up in the Santa Barbara mountains, I found another one. A twelve-year-old girl who wrote fiction.

Once again, all she needed was a little encouragement. I asked whether her characters sometimes grew all by themselves, in ways she never imagined. “Yes, definitely!” She reeled off her favorite authors, told me she read several books at once.


“No, I like to turn the pages. And I like the smell of a book.” More enthusiasm.

Once you dig a little deeper, all the imagination and creativity that makes the US a great country comes to the fore. The girl’s father toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters a couple of decades ago—he mainly produces music now, and designs and manufactures his own brand of electric guitar.

We sat around the fire pit as the night air cooled, and I watched him put a block of Douglas fir on the embers.

“Unusual firewood…”

“Leftover from the house.”

He explained how he’d designed and rebuilt parts of his home, and then showed me some pictures. Before committing to the final design, he’d built a scale model out of styrofoam, and then placed his iPhone inside it and taken photos so the family could see the views, and how the shadows fell at sunset.

I met lots of smart people in the States. And they outweigh the dummies on the news.

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

C’est Chaud, Y’all

June 12, 2017

It’s been described as the land of the pines, but North Carolina is much more than that—although I’ve seen enough pine trees to last me a while.

This is agricultural countryside, and hog country at that, so there’s a good amount of pollution hitting the rivers and making its way to the coast. North Carolina used to boast more pigs than people, and it’s still close—8.7 million hogs, 10 million humans—these days, the pigs are raised in closed facilities, to minimize effluents, smell, and general upset.

It’s vacation time, and the small coastal town where I stayed practically triples in population—in the state, tourism is a twenty billion dollar business.

I brought the rain with me, and found myself stuck on the tarmac in Charlotte for over an hour on arrival. The airport was a zoo, with the board displaying delays from top to bottom, and I drove a rental east toward the coast—it was the smallest vehicle I’ve ever rented in North America, and it had the acceleration of a pregnant armadillo.

It rained all night, rained in the morning, rained all week. Mid-week I was out on an oyster farm, and everyone got soaked. The industry here is pretty small—overall it’s worth about five million dollars a year—and farmers grow their animals in small leases, around two to three acres.

I don’t know if it’s hogs or condos, but the coastal areas of the state have a real problem with water quality—now, water quality is a broad church, and the particular denomination (and there’s nothing like the States for cult denominations) at issue here is microbiology—pollution by bacteria and viruses.

Oysters are particularly good at filtering, and they accumulate these little beasties quite handily. I found myself discussing this with a local man, who started off by telling me about people from the north who come to Carolina.

“There’s Yankees, and there’s Damn Yankees,” he drawled. “The Yankees are the ones who visit, the Damn Yankees are the ones who stay”. And despite the political correctness issues, you certainly see confederate flags, particularly on redneck pick-ups.

The Venus Flytrap is native to North Carolina, and this little beauty is poised to eat the mosquitoes that were attacking me at sunset.

We ordered Philly cheese steak, an American classic. When the food came, my friend said, “I’ll just say a little grace, and we’ll get right to it.” Took me straight back to my schooldays—I bowed my head for the amen. I drank a lot of water in North Carolina, and occasionally some atrocious wine, but I managed to stay clear of the iced tea.

Some years back, when oyster leases became available on the shoreline, they were quickly snapped up by developers. These good ole boys built condos on the landward side of the leases, and then discharged waste into the water. They got a free sewage plant and a sea view, and they did the bare minimum on the leases to avoid losing them.

There’s no requirement here for impact assessment when you develop a large condominium, and as a result of this and other sins, many of the coastal waterways are unfit for raising oysters—well, that’s not strictly true—you can grow them to a certain size, but then the animals have to relayed elsewhere, to a clean environment where they can get rid of bacteria.

Funnily enough, in a nation that now imports ninety-one percent of its seafood products, it’s more difficult to get a license to grow shellfish than to build a string of condos. I guess those billions of tourist dollars can swing a lot of senators.

I wasn’t long on the boat before I struck up a conversation with one of the oyster growers. Turned out that once upon a time, he played guitar with the Allman Brothers—not just a quick jam, two hundred gigs all over the world.

We sat on the bow, opening oysters in the pouring rain. My shucking partner had a special knife, designed by a champion oyster shucker from Louisiana. It had a long curved blade, with a special angle at the end to cut the adductor muscle.

The rain kept falling, the oysters were sweet and salty. “Okay, now, can you taste the butter? Then you’ll taste the iron.” My rock star oyster farming friend was also a marketing wizard.

“Best oysters in the world. Ain’t they? Ain’t they?” I smiled as the boat steered the narrow channels. He grinned at my Santana t-shirt. “Played with him too, down in New Orleans.”

I told him how impressed I was with his knife.

“Keep it.”

So I did.

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

Bless Me Father

June 3, 2017

Catholics learn about the confessional early on in life. A small, dark booth, where a wooden trellis stands between you and absolution, no matter how badly you’ve sinned.

Since the priest has taken a vow of secrecy, sinners normally tell the truth—it’s liberating to share a dark secret, knowing you will be forgiven by someone who remains in the shadows forever—and who, technically, cannot recognize you.

No other religion boasts this formula—in both Islam and Judaism, you confess only to god. A Muslim must ‘keep his sins to himself, because from the tawhidi, or monotheistic, standpoint, the sole cause and reason behind everything in this world is Allah.’

Luther, Calvin, and others also did away with confession in Christian practice—like effigies of saints, it was considered a human perversion rather than a divine virtue.

So we lie. To colleagues and family, to strangers and spouses—when it comes to the crunch, whether it’s a little white lie, or a great big whopper, we fib.

And we’ve built up a euphemistic arsenal in the process—we’re economical with the truth, out of sight out of mind, and what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

But another confessional has sprouted up in digiland. The digital disconnect is remarkable, and people say things to machines which they would never confess to each other—more importantly, they tell the truth, and the machine files it away for future reference.

Your questions are a microcosm of your anxieties and desires, and an analysis of common requests speaks volumes about general views and trends. I’m currently in Canada, and if you Google ‘Why does Trump’, the terminations are:

…want to build a wall
…hate Canada
…like Russia

But if you write ‘My husband wants me to’ Google says:

…lose weight
…sleep with another man

and Bing (But It’s Not Google) says:

…wait to get baptized
…praise him for chores

However, the same question in Google India elicits:

…breastfeed him

A recent book called ‘Everybody lies’ reports that men often search on how to get their partner to give them oral sex, but equally often (and ten times more bizarre) on how to give themselves oral sex—not sure how to address that one—maybe Pilates?

But the most fascinating part of this digital prelate is that people use it to describe moods and situations: I’m sad, I’m drunk… in the hope of finding like-minded brethren.

‘I’m divorced’ brings up ‘now what’, ‘and want to remarry’, ‘and depressed’ on Google. Microsoft’s Bing, always with a more corporate bent, brings up ‘am I entitled to any benefits’

Of course you can reach broad conclusions about particular countries and nationalities by looking for specific trends, but Big Data lets you do something far more worrying: drill down to the proclivities of a particular person, by mining their search list.

Now that my children’s book, Folk Tales for Future Dreamers, is published, and I’ve returned to the Hourglass, it’s worth quoting a few lines from the current draft.

Tommy’s ninth grade teacher, Mr. Medway, had taught the boy to program computer code. For that, the first challenge was to actually get a computer. In the New Society, as President Klomp often tweeted, Digital Means Democracy.

In practice, that meant everyone had a smartphone, a smart TV, and a tablet. Unlike the old machines Tommy saw on the history channel, people at their desks staring at terminals, the new devices were made by only three companies—one in the US, one in Asia, and one in Europe. Sure, there were lots of brands, but in the end it was just like pizza—one base, different toppings.

Society was totally connected to the cloud, as the internet was now called. Social networks were many and varied, people freely shared personal info, often including intimate pictures with friends and family, and because everything was geolocated and timestamped, the cloud knew who did what, where, and when.

It was even possible, Mr. Medway said, to know why, since the major search engine linked a person’s choices with those of others around him—the end of a relationship, a faraway vacation, or a sudden interest in fertilizer manufacture could be dissected using this new tool.

Although The Hourglass is set a couple of years from today, all this profiling is occurring right now, on a cloud near you. President Klomp got his name when Trump was still  running for office, and although the usual disclaimer applies (similarity with any person, living or dead, is pure coincidence), Klomp can be pretty trumpy, and is set to play a major part in the book—bigly.

I’ll be heading south soon to the United States, and I’m keen to revisit some of the search terms above and play spot the difference.

As I leave this peaceful and hospitable land, my thoughts are with the good people of Canada, incensed with the rejection of the Paris Agreement by the self-titled President of Pittsburgh, or would that be the Czar of Cleveland?

Canadian heavy industry has already been placed at a strong disadvantage because of emissions control—may the north winds blow.

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


May 29, 2017

The announcement on the tannoy left everyone in shock. British Airways 501 was delayed indefinitely, due to a total system failure. Pretty soon the message was repeated, and no one had a clue what was going on.

Total system failure? Did the plane fall out the sky? What does that even mean? The BA website looked promising, but as soon as a single link was clicked, the promise ended—like Sarah Palin, the site was a bridge to nowhere. This is what’s known as a DDOS, or distributed denial of service—it’s normally malicious, but this time it was caused by many thousands of frustrated passengers.

Technology began to split its trouser seams and display its nether regions. BA support was down. The BA press line, based on VOIP, was down, and stayed down all day. Passengers with e-boarding cards on their phones were stuck—the system didn’t recognize them and the gates wouldn’t open.

I began thinking in earnest, while my fellow non-travelers wrung their digital hands and peered at their pointless BA apps.

Had the outbound from London arrived? BA was blocked, but FlightAware said it was on the tarmac in Lisbon, landed 09:57. I couldn’t see it from the window, but it was probably hidden away on the apron somewhere, so an irate mob wouldn’t torch it.

Alternatives. Wait. Evaluate. Half-term week in the UK, all the Hooray Henry kiddies released from their boarding schools and booked with the stockbroker and Daily Mail brigade on sun-drenched seaside forays. No way. I made a couple of calls.

Sitting on the floor next to me was a scrawny American woman, desperate to get to the US. Which was also where I was headed, or as I could clearly see, not headed.

Short-haul delayed two hours. Long-haul three hours. The pilot of the plane that couldn’t leave came out and got on the loudspeaker. Catastrophic systems failure in London. The problem affects taxiing and parking on stand. Planes can’t leave so there are no slots.

Going to London, even if I could, seemed to be the worst idea in the world. Like running to Syria to escape from terrorism. I booked for the next morning, different company, different route. Three hours to pay the fare or lose the flight. I discretely approached the gate staff, by now fully harassed, and told them I needed my bag—I didn’t explain the main reason—the four bottles of Late Bottled Vintage inside it.

The loading officer was dragged into the mess—baggage was already sealed on the plane. I felt the joy of action when, after further protracted negotiations, I managed to extricate my cargo from the airport—I did things I could never have done in London. Only two other passengers had taken my option—one was the American woman.

She told me she worked for Fox, and I couldn’t get the phrase fake news out of my head—she never made it, ensnared in the non-EU passport queue. I would have pushed to the front, explained the problem, and made the re-booked flight. Oh well, I’m sure Trump will take care of it.

British Airways didn’t fly Saturday. Not from Heathrow. Not from Gatwick. Nothing landed. I ate some clams by the seaside, drank some wine, and prepared to return to the airport the following day. BA explained they’d had a power outage.

CNN didn’t rush the airports. The BBC only showed the BA news on the ribbon. Sky showed cricket. Something, somewhere, had gone horribly wrong. The media adores the human side of these episodes, and screens are filled with miserable kiddies, missed weddings, lost business, and emergency surgery denied. But not this time. Total shutdown.

Ah, a power outage. There was a story in South Africa some years ago, probably urban legend, that every morning a couple of patients died in the emergency ward at about the same time. Turned out it was the cleaner who unplugged life support to vacuum the floor.

That must be it, then. Some immigrant with a vacuum cleaner brought the UK flag carrier to its knees. I’m sure Brexit will fix it.

On Sunday morning, British Airways casts a very large question mark as it recommends you enjoy your flight.

Which reminds me that the tragic events in Manchester, yet again, were not caused by a Polish or Romanian worker, a Spaniard or a Greek, the ones who will get the push from May. They were probably too busy watching the pope explain to the roving fool why climate change was more important than building walls.

As I stroll by the BA gate on Sunday morning, the sign tells me to enjoy my flight. I will, because it’s not on BA. Normally by that time the gate would already be crowded, but today it’s deserted—no staff, no passengers.

When I get to Boston, I check the news feed: no short hauls in or out of London all day. Good call, Mr. Wibaux. The IT debacle remains completely unexplained.

It’s early morning on America’s eastern seaboard, the land Columbus knew to be Cipango, and Auntie Beeb is still no more informative—power outage.

Whatever brought an entire airline to a standstill for a whole weekend is clearly classified material. Do I suspect wickedness? Most certainly. Ransomware, terrorism, I don’t know. But the story will come out in dribs and drabs, much like the Stuxnet worm, the Russian DNC hack, and whatever the Americans are currently doing to mess with the missiles of Kim the Younger.

One of these days, as we place our faith increasingly in automation, self-driving cars and trucks and planes, a few of them are going to fall out the sky, probably in formation.

Perhaps people will wake up then. But the passengers won’t.

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


The Marsh Arabs

May 20, 2017

Here we go, from the swamp to the marsh—but this is no ordinary marsh—we’re talking about the first civilization on earth.

Like all other ancient civilizations, and today’s demographic hotspots, it is intimately associated with water.

The dark region of the Fertile Crescent extends northwest from the head of the Persian Gulf.

This dark patch represents the area between the Tigris, to the north, and Euphrates, to the south, or more properly the catchment area of the two great rivers. The area they encompass is ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, for all you Greek scholars out there.

The sources of the two rivers are in Anatolia, only fifty miles from each other, and these waters then flow through some of the most troubled lands on earth: northern Syria, Kurdistan, and finally Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait.

From their almost identical starting point in Turkey, the two rivers diverge, until, like two brothers finally reconciled, they join forces to form the Shatt-al-Arab and flow into the Persian Gulf.

Although Shatt means river in Arabic, I always thought the English version was highly appropriate, since the Tigris and Euphrates undoubtedly bear the brunt of organic material contributed by the populations of Mosul, Tikrit, Baghdad, Babylon, An-Nasiriya, and other cities we hear about only in the context of the US invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Kurdish conflict.

When I wrote The India Road, I was chastised for the lack of maps in the published edition—by way of atonement, I’m adding a second map of the region, which provides all the detail you might require, if for instance you were a head of state on his first foreign trip abroad.

This is the kind of map I remember from my schooldays, an accurate but artistic work where location names were judiciously placed by a careful human hand. It displays an intelligent use of color and detail, and provides an easily absorbed snapshot of the region (Encyclopedia Britannica).

In the lower reaches of the Tigris, the marshes form a no man’s land between Iran and Iraq, and the Euphrates also contains substantial marshland—for thousands of years, these areas were inhabited by the Marsh Arabs, a collection of different tribes that had an intimate connection with the water—their houses were made from reeds, they kept herds of water buffalo for milk and meat, fished for binni and qatan (two species of barbel), and planted rice and cereal crops.

The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger lived among the Maʻdān for seven years, and in 1967 published the definitive account of their way of life. Thesiger clearly had an eccentric streak, thoroughly in character with many a Brit Arabist: although he had no medical training, he spent a good deal of his time circumcising young Arabs; for much of the rest he was shooting pig (presumably boar), the natural enemy of the Maʻdān, and canoeing around the marshes in a Tarada.

This fiercely independent society, known for its blood feuds, faced extreme challenges: the water level in the marshes could vary greatly, and a dry year meant hunger and desolation. A very wet year could ruin crops, drown animals, and destroy the reed huts—Thesiger describes nights when the rain poured into the houses, and sleepers huddled in pairs under a blanket in the bitter cold.

If life was hard then, it became supremely difficult during the Iran-Iraq war. The Marsh Arabs are Shiites, like most of Southern Iraq and all of Iran, and Saddam Hussein decided that this region must be subjugated.

He did this by building dams that drained the very lifeblood of the population.  The Maʻdān went to Basra and other nearby towns, and the communities and tribes were all but destroyed.

Saddam’s dislike for the Maʻdān preceded the 1990’s, since the tribes were a law unto themselves, and occasionally harbored fugitives and political dissenters.

But after the failed Shia uprising that followed the first Gulf war, the dam construction program was pursued with renewed energy.

A Marsh Arab couple punting a Tarada through Hammar marsh, after the post-Saddam recovery (photo from National Geographic).

Dams such as Dukan, which impounds the Little Zab river, shut off water to the marsh region, and the inhabitants left.

One of the few success stories of the post-Saddam Iraq was improved water management, so that by 2008 the marshes were at 75% of their previous capacity—the tribesmen returned.

But since then, a combination of profligate irrigation practices in Iraq and increased dam construction in Turkey have brought the marsh waters back down to 50% of the 1980’s level.

More importantly, the decrease in freshwater flow has increased the salinity of the marshes. Waters that were drinkable in Thesiger’s day—though not from a public health perspective—are now half-strength seawater.

Natgeo’s excellent 2015 article on the marshes ends with a somber quote.

“When the water returned, we came back immediately,” said Missan, the fisherman with boat troubles. “You see, our lives are related to the water.”

Water like nitrogen and phosphorus, is a finite resource. You can’t print it, bitcoin it, or otherwise end up with more than you started with—anyone who tells you different is just fake news.

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

Drain The Swamp

May 13, 2017

A pearl from the Trump collection is today’s leitmotif. This one was a firm favorite, along with ‘Build That Wall’, and perhaps trumpsters viewed Comey as part of the fauna—there are certainly many who have come forward to praise the decision.

Personally, I’m quite fond of swamps, which form unique ecosystems. The species they contain are superbly adapted to low oxygen conditions, typical of slow waters, and the United States has some fantastic swamp and marsh areas, including the Louisiana Bayou and the Florida Everglades.

The thing about swamps, is that mostly when they’re drained what you see next is property development—and real estate cowboys are far more unsavory fauna than alligators and crocs.

The hapless US president isn’t draining the swamp—instead, the swamp seems to be draining him—swamps, by their very stillness and endurance, have a way of assimilating nearby objects.

Trump displays increasing signs of mental derangement, including, at the very least, paranoid delusion, megalomania, and pathological lying—if I had a family member exhibiting these behavioral traits, I would definitely be considering him for medical treatment.

History is full of mad monarchs, emperors, and princes. Some of these cases were caused by inbreeding, and some rulers were just plain nuts—since this is a mental health issue, there’s absolutely no reason why it cannot occur in this day and age, but it might be instructive to look at some emblematic examples of loonies.

We’ll start with the Romans: Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero are perhaps the best known, and suffered from such joys as paranoia and histrionic disorder. The latter is very interesting, and is defined by Psychology Today as (abridged):

Individuals with histrionic personality disorder exhibit excessive emotionality and are attention seekers. People with this disorder are uncomfortable or feel unappreciated when they are not the center of attention. Behaviors may include constant seeking of approval or attention, self-dramatization, theatricality, and striking self-centeredness or sexual seductiveness in inappropriate situations, including social, occupational, and professional relationships, beyond what is appropriate for the social context.

People with histrionic personality disorder commandeer the role of “life of the party.” Interests and conversation will be self-focused. Emotional expression may be shallow and rapidly shifting. Their style of speech is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail. They will probably have difficulty with tasks that demand logical or analytical thinking.

Nero is said to have played the lyre after having set Rome on fire—to watch it burn.

Justin II took matters to a new level—as he descended into total madness, he was transported around his palace in a wheeled throne, ‘biting attendants as he passed.’

Insanity knows no religious boundaries, and there are several examples of Islamic rulers in our portfolio of nutcases. Having said that, a quick review of the antics of the ‘mad caliph’, and a couple of Ottoman prospects, reveal the usual obsessions with murder and sex—not really enough to sink my teeth into, as old Justin might say.

Compare that to the glorious dementia of Charles VI of France, known as Charles Le Fou. He reigned between 1380 and 1422, just before The India Road, and at points believed he was made of glass. Chaos following attempts to depose him led to a war between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians—now that’s what I call a satisfying war, presumably consisting of spirited battles. I suppose a US equivalent would be a war between the crafts and the bourbons.

If I had a hammer… Luther nails his colors to the mast at Wittenberg

Others do not satisfy my exacting criteria on the subject. Spain’s Joana La Loca seems eccentric at best—she apparently supported Martin Luther, but anyone forcibly confined to a nunnery would be keen to encourage a feisty man hammering on the church door; and Eric XIV of Sweden exhibits only marginal tendencies—a penchant for Icelandic women, and his efforts to marry Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots—though not simultaneously.

The Middle Kingdom had Emperor Hui, who ruled over the last decade of the third century AD—as a youth, when near a pond (or perhaps a swamp), he said in all seriousness: “do the frogs croak because they want to, or because the government ordered them to?”

And lest you think modern-day leaders are exempt (and why would you?), I think a good case could be argued for Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Ghadafi—in some form or other, and sometimes in all forms, they were all as mad as a basket of fish.

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


May 6, 2017

Belgium is a small and fractious country, which bears evident scars of the joys of nationalism and religious strife. The nation has brought the world some unlikely gifts, including the European Commission, the best beers in the world, and ‘Bande Dessinée.’

BD, as it has become known, also extends to France, but my childhood memories of it are from Belgian artists, particularly Hergé, Uderzo, Morris, and Edgar P. Jacobs—although I must include Frenchman René Goscinny, who wrote the texts for both Asterix and Lucky Luke.

The Anglo-Saxon world never really had an equivalent of the Franco-Belgian ‘strip’, although Superman, Spiderman, and other superhero comics were in a similar vein.

Strip is far closer to Manga than to the US model, and the most emblematic series, Tintin and Asterix, were simultaneously delightful and instructive.

Both Tintin and Asterix traveled widely, and both taught me a lot of history and geography—although I think Tintin provided more of the latter, whereas Asterix ran the gamut from the Greeks to the Romans, Egyptians, Ancient Britons, Visigoths, Vandals, and of course Gauls.

Both heroes had idiosyncratic  companions—Asterix had the gigantic Obelix, possessed of supernatural strength because of a childhood fall into a vat of magic potion, and the village bard, whose musical talents were severely underappreciated.

Tintin’s most loved companions only appear as the books evolve—they are Professor Calculus, an archetypal absent-minded genius, and the fantastically named Captain Haddock.

And it was Haddock who introduced me to guano, in a superb book called the Temple of the Sun.

The book also introduced me to llamas, Incas, and Peru. Guano, or bird shit, was widely used as a raw material for fertilizer, but it was only a decade after I saw a bird poop on Captain Haddock that I realized oceanography was the reason so much guano existed.

The good captain being shadowed by an Inca in the Temple of the Sun.

In a classic ecological cascade, coastal upwelling caused by the southeasterly trade winds brings nutrients to the surface, which in turn generates high primary production. The microscopic phytoplankton supplies the base of the food chain, and drives the biggest fishery in the world—the Peruvian anchoveta, which in recent years ‘only’ yields between five and ten million metric tons annually, due to overfishing.

Seabirds prey on the fish, and out comes guano, a heady cocktail of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the word wanu is Quechua, the ancestral Inca language, still spoken today by 13% of Peruvians.

Cormorants, boobies, and pelicans are the king-shitters, and the production of fine guano also requires an extremely dry climate, which promotes volatilization of ammonia; although the main production was centered in Peru, Namibia and Baja California were both important guano-producing regions—they all share a common oceanographic feature: eastern boundary currents, that push away from the shore due to a combination of prevailing winds and the earth’s rotation, leading to rich surface waters for birds.

Peru is famous for its many hundreds of varieties of papa, or potato, for ceviche, pisco, and of course the coca leaf. But guano was one of the precursors of industrial agriculture in the XIXth century, and although its importance declined after the development of the Haber-Bosch process in 1909, it has now found a new niche in organic agriculture.

Any commodity attracts human greed, and with greed comes conflict. Guano was the reason behind two wars, the first in 1864 between Spain and a Peru-Chile alliance, followed by the War of the Pacific, in 1879. This was a bloody, four year war for territory, with Peru and Bolivia allied against Chile, and like many wars, began over a squabble—in this case, a tax imposed by Bolivia on a Chilean saltpeter mining company.

Chile made substantial territorial gains upon its victory, and genuine hatred between Peru and Chile endures to this day. In fact, Chile seems to be the most disliked nation in Latin America, although Argentina is perhaps considered the most arrogant—this is not just an exercise in random bigotry, it illustrates how historical perspective can help in formulating policy.

One final historical nugget on this excursion through ornithoexcrement is that the saltpeter extracted from the mines of Latin America’s Pacific coastline played an important role in the manufacture of explosives—and a substantial part of the mining was performed by one hundred thousand indentured workers from China.

Of course, the Haber process was also used by Germany for manufacturing explosives, after the allies imposed an embargo on saltpeter imports during World War I. But although the process doesn’t just produce ammonia for industrial agriculture, it nevertheless accounts for the food supply to one third of the world’s population—clearly, organic agriculture is a rich man’s indulgence.

Thus you see how an article entirely devoted to bird shit can be far more fulfilling than the bullshit produced by Marine Le Pen in last Wednesday’s debate.

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

You’re Fired!

April 29, 2017

The ‘Hundred Days’ metric was not something that began with Harry Truman—this is an urban legend courtesy of U.S. TV.

At the very least, it harks back to the Hundred Days of Napoleon—Les Cent Jours, if you want to get fancy. What possessed the Brits to exile the little big man on an island five nautical miles off the coast of Tuscany is quite beyond me—they can’t even claim it was inspired by the Chateau d’If, because the Count of Monte Cristo was only published twenty-nine years after Waterloo.

Technically, we’re talking 111 days between Napoleon’s triumphant return to Paris and the restoration of the French monarch Louis XVIII. If nothing else, today’s French voters should dwell on European hardship during that period, and reflect on the joys of nationalism.

For those that do, a word of caution—Marine, there’s nothing big about you, apart from bigotry.

Is the hundred day mark important? If anyone touted it as a landmark, Trump did—not once, but ad nauseam during his campaign, so it’s only fair to honor his pledges by assessing his performance.

Observers are divided on whether Trump thrives through con tradition or contradiction—there’s plenty of evidence that he built his wealth on the former, and his own testimony, loud, repeated, and emphatic, attests to the latter. I find it particularly interesting that he doesn’t just contradict his campaign promises—in fact, the general reversal of his positions as candidate seems to me a splendid course of action.

Donald has found out that he suddenly has the toughest job in the world, that he knew nothing about all the things he was talking about, and that he’s unlikely to get anything significant done—at least none of what he promised.

If this wasn’t so serious, you could almost feel sorry for him, because here is the opposite of Napoleon—Donald is a big little man, who is so clearly out of his depth that despite his Chinese-chocolate-cake-sized ego, I bet he wishes he could escape this nightmare and go back to being a regular twit.

A little child playing make-believe is now the president of the United States of America.

The media are dissecting all of the presidential achievements to date, so it seems gratuitous to dwell on the list.

However, it’s worth praising the presidential incompetence, and therefore wishing Donnie a bright future—if he’s digging himself into a large hole, then why take away his spade?

Everything Trump tries ends up in a mess, and if one of the mainstream Republicans, such as Bush, Rubio, or Cruz, had won the presidency, they would have been far more competent at repealing the Affordable Care Act, or implementing tax reform that would punish key discretionary spending programs. This reasoning suggests that, in some respects, Trump acts as anti-Republican buffer, and therefore perpetuates some policies from the previous administration.

The question that then remains, discounting the childish ‘Mexican wall’ nonsense, is whether a different Republican in the White House would have taken the same stance on issues such as climate change, the EPA, or pipelines.

At least on some issues, it appears they would have. In the Miami debate, Marco Rubio was both candid and glib.

But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there’s no such thing.

He further illustrated his stupidity by agreeing that the mayor of Miami was wrong in believing that human activity played a part in climate change.

With respect to the infamous hundred days, the consensus is that the president’s pencil was used largely on the wrong end, erasing previous work rather than writing anything new.

Trump’s first hundred days have, however, generated bumper comedy material—there’s even been a Trump impersonator contest.

A couple of my favorites jokes sourced from various late night shows:

Around? He saw this information ‘around’? What, like it was tacked to a bulletin board next to guitar lessons and a picture of a lost cat?

Last week, it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as you know 6 million people — were at my inauguration, I mean there were just so many people at my inauguration and the media refuses to cover it, it’s so unfair, and one day I’m going to write a memoir about this struggle and call it, ‘My Struggle.’ What would that be in German, Angela?

Today is the 11th birthday of Twitter. That’s right, folks — 11 years ago, Donald Trump was just writing crazy things on Post-it notes.

At this point, it appears the Republican health-care plan is going to die on the floor of the House. Coincidentally, dying on the floor of the house happens to be the Republican health-care plan.

I think there’s strong evidence that the president is always high. Because just look at it: He forgets people’s names, he mixes up Iraq and Syria, and what do high people always do? They forget where they put things. And last week, Donald Trump didn’t just lose his keys, he lost the Navy.

But seriously, folks: Two rejected immigration bans, the repeal of Obamacare repealed before it got floor-time, aimless meandering on NAFTA, China, Russia, and the Mid-East, and losing the navy, all in one hundred days…

Donald, you’re fired!

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

Games Without Frontiers

April 22, 2017

Peter Gabriel wrote the song almost forty years ago, during the height of the cold war. It was a very different Europe then, a continent where memories of World War II were still strong—A Frenchman born in 1945 would have been thirty-five in 1980, and his childhood would have been marked by war stories, bomb-scarred buildings, and food shortages.

The game itself, called Jeux Sans Frontières in the original French, was both very popular and very silly. It was syndicated on TV throughout Europe—In Britain, the name of the program was changed to ‘It’s a Knockout.’ A totally stupid name, but back then, just as now, the English were not keen on a Europe without borders.

Fast forward to 2017, one day before the French presidential elections, and you see a remarkably different European mindset. Gone are the memories of war, the Soviet invasions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the German jackboots in Paris and Amsterdam, and the mass murder of six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps.

Europeans now feel besieged by migrants, and in particular there is a perception that Muslims are a clear and present danger, to quote the US military term.

In France, Muslims are 5-10% of the total population, a range which is a good fit for the United Kingdom (4.4%), Belgium(6%), the Netherlands (4%), and Spain (4%), but less good for Italy (3.4%), Germany (1.9%), and Portugal (0.4%).

Since we’re analyzing demography from a religious perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Christians make up 15% of the Egyptian population, and 11% in Syria.

The European perception that drives populism is based on xenophobia. The first component of this ‘hatred for strangers’ is related to job losses due to delocalization of production.

Let’s put that one to bed first. This is an obvious issue—one which translates into terms such as rust belt, and helped propel Agent Orange to power. But good manufacturing jobs will only return to the States, or to France’s industrial heartland, or Britain or Spain, if their citizens are prepared to pay higher prices for consumer goods.

On the jobs front, the problem isn’t immigration, because the immigrants will always do the jobs that nationals refuse. That’s why you see hotel chambermaids from the Philippines in Birmingham, Senegalese construction workers in Paris, and cab drivers from Zimbabwe in Cape Town.

Hard right, Alt-Right, or any other sharp turn can only fix the manufacturing conundrum if society accepts the price hike—which it won’t, resulting in lower sales and reduced profits. Well… there is another way, which is to provide more cheap credit to those who already can’t afford it.

The third way is to restore those manufacturing jobs, but make them bad manufacturing jobs, rather than the ‘good jobs’ of Trump fairy tales—if you do that, you’ll get competitive pricing when you manufacture in France or England—but of course, the locals won’t do those jobs, migrants will.

Speaking of fairy tales, I’ve been busy writing a children’s book—seven short stories that will be available on digital shortly, in a volume entitled Folk Tales For Future Dreamers—but I now return with gusto to The Hourglass, a tale of joblessness, huge profits, and political deception on a planetary level.

Europe replies to the US with stunning originality.

So let us now examine the other elephant in the populist parlor—Islam. There’s no doubt that strong cultural differences exist between Muslim communities and mainstream European societies, bearing in mind over 90% of Europe conforms to Judaico-Christian values, even if their religious expression is rather thin on the ground.

The first issue is that the distribution of immigrants is patchy, and more associated with large cities—directly proportional to the number of shitty jobs. Twenty-five percent of the population of Brussels is Muslim, and that will definitely influence the vote of some of the Christian burghers—a similar analysis can be made for large French urban centers.

The second is the demographic trend—in ecology (and after all, we’re discussing human ecology), a favorable environment encourages successful breeding—by that I don’t mean a good hump, though it certainly helps, but rather population growth.

The birth rate of the historical populations in Europe tends to be low, even in Catholic countries, and the birth rate and survivorship of children born to Muslim families in Western countries are both high.  As a consequence, the demography is shifting, and for some people this means an increasing dilution of cultural and national values.

Similar trends are seen in the United States with respect to both Black and Latino communities, and there are some interesting projections about when the US will cease to be ‘WASP‘-land—better git humpin’, white boy!

The third issue is terrorism. This is a much-abused word, since there are plenty of attacks by military forces throughout the world that draw civilian casualties, often described as collateral damage.

Probably the most accurate practical definition for the Western media and population is: ‘any attack on military or civilian targets in Western nations, claimed as a political act.’ Or even: ‘any politically-motivated attack on Western interests that dominates the news media for twelve hours or more.’

History shows that there are severe double standards in these terms, and that the ‘terror’ epithet shifts both in space and time, as seen for instance in Israel and Ireland.

But recently we have seen the proliferation of the ‘lone wolf’ attacks, the ones that no one can prevent. Whether using vehicles, weapons, or some other combination of tools, there is one striking common aspect about the attacks on Westminster Bridge and the Champs Élysées.

In both cases, the perpetrators wore shoes and had ears.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. They really did. And they were both Muslims, and they both had criminal records, jail time, and a history of violence.

In the case of Karim Cheurfi, the man had served eleven years for trying to kill a policeman in 2005—actually, he was sentenced to fifteen, served seven, but he was hardly a model prisoner, since he assaulted prison staff and beat up a cellmate.

He was nevertheless paroled, and promptly returned to jail for a parole violation. Even so, he was released in 2015. Simple math tells me that 2005 + 15 = 2020. Clearly, everyone is better off with Cheurfi dead, but it’s a tragedy that a police officer had to die before it happened.

The point is that Khalid Massood, the, fifty-two year old Brit who drove and stabbed his way to two minutes of glory, and thirty-nine year old Karim Cheufry, have little to do with Isis—both had committed violent crimes way before there even was an Isis.

If these guys were Buddhists, or Mormons, their crimes would be reported as the acts of deranged psychopaths—but because they were Muslims, and because they held propaganda from Isis, these events put the lone wolf into the political spotlight, rather than judging him for what he is—a confused and violent fuckhead, who happens to wear shoes, is the proud owner of a pair of ears, and is a Muslim.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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