Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Vlad

October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Education

October 14, 2017

In Southern Europe, universities provide higher learning, not higher education. This propagates from primary school, or grade school, and the description is fair.

I am intimately familiar with the university system in Northern and Southern Europe, as well as the United States and elsewhere, and I would argue that education teaches you to think.

The innovation that thought brings is a fundamental asset for a person, a family, and a country. It’s not comfort, because it separates positions and triggers discussion—and that makes it vital for society to thrive.

My personal perspective is that I know increasingly less. As the years add up, other people say the same—some don’t, but they quietly think it. While it’s true that you should know more about the things that interest you, two key factors work against you.

The first is inertia—the force that fights to stop me writing this, and the force that makes me keep going once I’ve started. After a certain point, you feel you know everything and new ideas are shut out, particularly if they attack old ones.

The second point is similar to the expanding universe—knowledge is expanding all the time. Not only knowledge, but knowledge mechanisms. Digital weapons, in this case of mass construction, lead the way.

When I was researching some of materials for my new book, I came across a Washington Post article about the use of anti-virus software for espionage. The issue isn’t new, and the target is Kaspersky. Its founder, one Eugene K, graduated from a KGB-supported cryptography school.

But the education context here was a reference to a book by Soldatov and Borogan, known to their friends as Andrei and Irina. The book’s called The Red Web, and it’s a serious read. Because the internet lets me do it, I bought it there and then, after a two-second skim of reviews, and was reading it minutes later.

I’m not getting to the cool stuff yet, but the first part of the book gives an excellent review of the making of the digital USSR, including the first hacked Soviet UNIX operating system. The USSR was completely aware that the first rule of security is control—communications are key to this, and Russian radios had bespoke crystals so certain frequencies could not be tuned.

It’s obvious that the concepts of networks, distributed computing, and international comms were not the Kremlin’s favorite dessert back in the days of Arpanet.

The internet in 1974. The only connections outside the States were to University College London (UCL) and to Norway. Perhaps this explains the cryptic legend in hurdy gurdy.

But the Russians learned. Soldatov and Borogan are very brave—wielding a pen in Putin’s Russia is a dangerous business.

Soldatov cautioned the Big Three, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, not to comply with Putin’s request to place servers in Russia—the M9 building on Moscow’s Butlerova street, where the FSB does its digital stuff, now houses an entire floor of Google.

I can bring all this to you in a brief chronicle thanks to distributed education, of which books are a privileged vehicle.

There are many other examples where the only requirement for your continuous education is interest and commitment. When I was in my teens I wanted to play blues—I fell profoundly in love with blues music and I’ll love it until I die—perhaps it’s the overlap with Fado music, most probably because of the simple complexity they share. And the saudade. Look it up.

You need two things if you want to play blues: an electric guitar and the pentatonic scale. Of course, it helps if a few shitty things happen to you—don’t worry, they will. And a couple of joints here and there can work wonders for your imagination.

These days, if you want to play blues, the internet is a gigantic resource right at your fingertips, if you excuse the pun. Not only that, but you can tap into a host of backing tracks to improve your style, timing, and licks.

You see where I’m going with this—there’s a whole world out there avid to educate us, if we only open our eyes.

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

Red House

October 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, it’s god’s fault,” I said.

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

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

“Have you ever heard of the Red House?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Three Buses

September 30, 2017

There’s a well-known British gripe about the bus service—you wait forever, then three come at once.

I’m using that to go a little further down the automation road. The UK Labour Party conference took place last week, and Jeremy Corbyn, who since the June 2017 election fancies his chances, spoke to his audience about plans for a robot tax.

The reaction from the manufacturing sector and the Tory press was swift—the word Luddite was very much in evidence.  The left, of course, was quick to support the idea. When we compare the two articles (using the Private Eye sobriquets), the Torygraph one is just demagoguery, the Grauniad piece is better thought through.

Corbyn diluted the message for political reasons, but it’s an important discussion.

First out of the post was South Korea, which is currently ruled by the liberal Min Ju party. In early August, the Koreans announced that tax incentives would be limited on automation investments.

This is not a ‘robot tax’ as such, but it does recognize that if the state provides a safety net for its citizens, that service must be funded by society.

Traditionally, this has been paid for by corporations and job-holding citizens, and a strong shift toward automation means that more citizens will lose their jobs—if we assume for this analysis that demography remains unchanged, then governments will find it increasingly difficult to support their citizens.

The choices are stark, but partial options could be combined.

  • The Luddite option—freeze automation
  • The Robot Tax—increase revenue from companies which reduce their workforce
  • Increase debt—business as usual, pretend the problem doesn’t exist
  • Reduce benefits—when a threshold is broken, there will be blood on the streets

The alternative view to all this is that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will create more jobs than it destroys. That’s one area where the debate is particularly hot.

The three buses problem. Transport researchers have built mathematical models to study this problem (hint: it never happens on the underground).

PwC put out a press release on AI and jobs in March 2017, which is disturbing on two counts—the numbers are compelling, but the interpretation is weak.

The study states that up to 30% of UK jobs will be gone by 2030, but ‘this should be offset by job gains elsewhere in the economy.’

The only suggestions for that last part are that a higher level of education will be needed for those new jobs, and they will be more social in nature.

PwC also tells us that in the US, the job loss number is 38%, and in Germany, 35%.

So there’s one key question—which side is right: AI job gain or AI job loss?

To find out, I asked a machine.

“Google, what new jobs will be created by artificial intelligence?”

A study by Accenture helped me out. Apparently, there are three fascinating entirely new job categories. These are:

  • Trainers
  • Explainers
  • Sustainers

I’ve abridged some of the explanatory text below, because in humans, tedium can easily set in.

Humans in these roles will complement the tasks performed by cognitive technology, ensuring that the work of machines is both effective and responsible.

Trainers

This first category of new jobs will need human workers to teach AI systems how they should perform…
…they teach AI algorithms how to mimic human behaviors.

Customer service chatbots, for example, need to be trained to detect the complexities and subtleties of human communication…
…Yahoo engineers have developed an algorithm that can detect sarcasm on social media and websites with an accuracy of at least 80%.

Consider, then, the job of “empathy trainer” — individuals who will teach AI systems to show compassion…
…Humans are now training the Koko algorithm to respond more empathetically to people who, for example, are frustrated that their luggage has been lost, that a product they’ve bought is defective, or that their cable service keeps going on the blink even after repeated attempts to fix it.

Without an empathy trainer, Alexa might respond to a user’s anxieties with canned, repetitive responses such as “I’m sorry to hear that” or “Sometimes talking to a friend can help.”

The second category of new jobs — explainers — will bridge the gap between technologists and business leaders. Explainers will help provide clarity, which is becoming all the more important as AI systems’ opaqueness increases. Many executives are uneasy with the “black box” nature of sophisticated machine-learning algorithms, especially when the systems they power recommend actions that go against the grain of conventional wisdom.

I can think of a couple more categories ending in ‘ainer’ for the guys who wrote the study. I would also say that all these amazing jobs are centered on humans helping machines, not machines helping humans—maybe the report was written by a robot.

Enter Eric Schmidt, your man from Google. Speaking at the Viva Tech conference in Paris in June this year, Schmidt quoted a McKinsey study that states 90% of jobs are not fully automatable.

Two points come to mind: the first is that if 90% are not, 10% are—add that to the present jobless rate. The second is the definition of fully. If we think very conservatively, and speculate that fully means only 20% (i.e. you still do the other 80% of your job, presumably for 80% of the pay), then the added employment loss is a further 18%.

Of course, you might do 100% of what you did before in 80% of the time, because AI is helping you out.

For instance, let’s say you have a job processing expense claims. When you get to work, you say good morning to your three colleagues and sit down at your desk. There’s a stack of paper invoices in front of you.

AI now provides a machine where you dump the lot, sort of like a juicer.

The machine sorts through everything, regardless of size, scans and reads issuers, dates, and amounts, and produces a spreadsheet with the results. It compares that with a sheet you’ve received from the claimant, and attempts a match. It flags any inconsistencies.

Your job is to run through the line items, query any expense that seems unjustified, or any amount entered that doesn’t match. A job that took one hour is done in fifteen minutes, so you can now process four such claims per hour—congratulations, your productivity just quadrupled.

But wait… for this to work, you need four claims on your desk every hour, and the limiting factors are: (i) how many claims you actually get; (ii) whether the speed with which your department processes them (pre-AI) introduces delays.

If your team is working well, then with the introduction of AI it now has four times the productivity, but unfortunately, not four times the work, because expense claims are not going to quadruple.

Your company is pleased as punch. You’re their star operator. It fires your three colleagues, and the departmental productivity quadruples. Actually, now it even goes up a little more—because you have no one to chat with, you can now manage a claim every twelve minutes, so you’re doing five times better.

Your new robotic colleague always says: Hi! I’m done with this batch, please feed in the next documents. It doesn’t know about your lunch hour, so it repeats this mantra at regular intervals when you’re munching your sandwich. Since it gets no input, the pitch of the automated voice shifts from cocktail lounge seductive to low-cost airline lounge wife.

Over the last few months, the damn thing has been driving you nuts. This afternoon, you weren’t quite yourself, and smarty-pants AI (you call it SPAI) said it once too often.

You hurled it out the window, two floors down—it landed on top of a parking robot and shattered its triangulation vision unit. SPAI’s last croak was “Hi! I’m done…”

Your section head wanted to keep you on—anyone can make a mistake, it’s known as human error. Unfortunately, Health & Safety had the last word. After all, if the claims robot had killed a human, can you imagine the publicity?

ROBOT CLAIMS ITS LAST VICTIM! WHAT’S THE COST FOR THE HUMAN RACE?

So there we are—all four jobs gone, but the good news is the new machine is far more advanced, and benefits from a cutting edge AI training algorithm, so it doesn’t need a human at all. And when it’s done with this batch, it turns itself off until the next one arrives.

That’s excellent for carbon emissions, and the new spy never says a word.

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

 

No Pension

September 23, 2017

Paradigm shifts don’t often happen at great speed—usually, change gathers momentum, circumstances around you begin to diverge from the old norm, and then quite suddenly you realize you’re in a different world.

It happened with electricity, the motor car, and the internet, and it’s in full force with robots.

In The Hourglass, which I’m presently writing in earnest, governments find a new social contract that builds in the workforce paradigm shift (telling you more would spoil things).

Let’s see how many people I put out of work when writing this article.

During the week, a couple of interesting topics for my weekend chronicles invariably pop up. If I’m traveling, it’s easier, sometimes fate intervenes, more often I read or hear something which merits a text and do a screengrab.

This week, out of three or four possibilities, robots back came on the radar with a vengeance, partly because of a newspaper article. I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper—analog that is, because I’ve never bought a digital one.

So there’s the vendor out of business, although in the US and elsewhere, the profession died decades ago with the appearance of newspaper vending machines.

I guess the fact I don’t buy papers is not unusual, so there’s another bunch of people out of work—reporters, editors, distribution jobs. News organizations have been slimming for years, in any case. Pieces written on a computer (bye-bye typists), auto-correction for typos and grammar (so long copy editors), digital image libraries (see you illustrators and photographers), automated layouts and printing (ciao typesetters)… the list goes on.

All my research is done online. After this brief intro, I’ll re-read the Elon Musk article, hunt around for other sources, and type up my thoughts. No library, no coffee on the way, no photocopies, no writer’s notebook, no pens, no pencils or erasers, zilch. Add ’em up.

Finally, publication, review, and distribution—Wordpress and I take care of all that. And how about you? We (WordPress and I) only ask for your time. Once in a while WordPress fields you an ad, but that’s fine. So do the papers I read online.

The time I take to research, write, re-read, and publish is my contribution. Since each article takes about four hours all told, and I’ve been publishing weekly for ten years, we’re at about one hundred days and counting—believe me, that’s nothing compared to the number of full-time jobs lost along the way.

Whenever a paradigm shifts, the naysayers come out of the woodwork—when trains appeared, cows would stop giving milk (false); with the advent of calculators, kids would be much worse at arithmetic (true); aquaculture would be the end of fishing (false); computers would replace humans (well…). It’s a long list.

Innovation has always changed the way we do things, and often changed the pace. And society is usually slow to deal with change, as manifest this week by politicians talking about legislation on algorithms. Most people have no idea what an algorithm is—and that includes lawyers and lawmakers. My definition? It’s a quantitative approach to a problem—so good luck with that.

Elon Musk, most famous for the Tesla electric car, considers artificial intelligence (AI) the biggest threat to mankind—he baldly states that ‘robots will be able to do everything better than us.’ Actually, haircuts might be an exception for a while—I can see kids getting teased at school for getting a real robot haircut.

Musk says transport jobs will be the first to go—the US Department of Transportation tells us that’s one in every seven. Unemployment in the US is at 4.3%. Employment is therefore at 95.7%. One seventh of that is 13.5%, so unemployment fairly quickly shifts to 17.8%, which is a three hundred percent increase—and AIV (vehicles) will not spend their time bumping into each other, so panel-beating will become an art form, not a day job.

The mental process I used in the last paragraph is a generic description of an algorithm—I did it in my head, since I pre-date calculators, but you can check it on Excel, or write a two line computer program to do it.

Musk  uses the game of Go as an example of how fast this will all change. If you want to see how much fun lawmakers will have legislating algorithms, read this summary from the scientific journal Nature—it’s a bit long, but humor me.

The game of Go has long been viewed as the most challenging of classic games for artificial intelligence owing to its enormous search space and the difficulty of evaluating board positions and moves. Here we introduce a new approach to computer Go that uses ‘value networks’ to evaluate board positions and ‘policy networks’ to select moves. These deep neural networks are trained by a novel combination of supervised learning from human expert games, and reinforcement learning from games of self-play. Without any lookahead search, the neural networks play Go at the level of state-of-the-art Monte Carlo tree search programs that simulate thousands of random games of self-play. We also introduce a new search algorithm that combines Monte Carlo simulation with value and policy networks. Using this search algorithm, our program AlphaGo achieved a 99.8% winning rate against other Go programs, and defeated the human European Go champion by 5 games to 0. This is the first time that a computer program has defeated a human professional player in the full-sized game of Go, a feat previously thought to be at least a decade away.

A recent study commissioned by the UK Royal Society of Arts suggests four million jobs in the British private sector could shift to AI in the next decade. That’s 15% of the workforce. The current unemployment number is almost identical to the US: 4.5%, and would bump up to 19.5% as machines take over.

A survey of employers shows that three sectors would be hardest hit: finance and accounting, transportation and distribution, and manufacturing. Over twenty percent of employers see more than thirty percent of jobs in those sectors disappearing.

These trends toward automation are much more prevalent in developed countries than in other parts of the world, and are pushing a major change in the way society works.

Job satisfaction, unemployment, trade unions, overtime, workers rights, coffee breaks, vacation, sick leave… all these words fall on a robot’s deaf ears. These days, when you call US airline customer services, you have to say the word agent three times before you get to speak to a human.

Society is globally unconcerned, or else humans blame other humans for their woes. Think Trump trampoline for expelling immigrants, Brexit, and the US job export to humans in third-world countries.

Citizens rally to the call against their fellow man, but no one blames the machines, or those who conceive or build them. I love technology, but I also believe in human employment—just as boundaries are imposed on people, so they must be imposed on machines. After all, we want our kids to grow up to be useful citizens, whose values include a work ethic and an education—if you grow up destined to do nothing, it’s hard to see why you should work hard at school, or even why you should go at all.

Crazy things happen when a paradigm shifts. If in fifty years there’s a scarcity of protein, there will be no more pets, since they compete with humans for food—salmon and trout patê, yum!

And in a world where robots do our jobs, there will be no pension plan.

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

Arty Farty

September 16, 2017

Fake news has always been a part of history. Various well-known cliches, such as ‘history is written by the winners’, attest to this—except historical narrative tells of events in the past, whereas news, as we understand it now, deals mostly with the present (or quasi-present).

Historians distinguish between primary and secondary sources, but primary sources often distorted the truth to suit their masters—in past centuries there was usually no more than one written account of events.

Let me qualify that by saying it applies mostly to the pre-Gutenberg era. In the field of public information, of which history is a subset, it is reasonable to define an era on the basis of the existing means of communication.

The key forms that come to mind are: verbal, illustration, and writing. The latter go beyond ideograms, using words (made up of letters in the West, and represented by characters in the East)  to convey concepts and ideas.

The three forms above can then be paired with the medium, where the most important watersheds are: manuscript, typeset (printed), radio, television, and the internet.

There are three particularly interesting aspects when it comes to the medium: the first is the rate of change. In 2016, Mathias Meyer and colleagues published a letter in the journal Nature dating the oldest Neanderthal man to 430,000 years BP—if you’re a creationist, this would be a good time to go do something else—just don’t forget to rest on the seventh day.

There is no consensus as to when human speech developed, but evidence exists that Neanderthals had verbal communication capacity. So let’s say speech has been with us 400,000 years.

The oldest presently known cave art is a drawing of a pig in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi—good job the Taliban and Isis haven’t spotted the porker, or it would have gone the way of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The pig pic is 34,500 years old—say 40,000 and we’re on an order of magnitude trip.

How about the written language? Ah, more controversy. The Phoenician proto-canaanite alphabet gives us a bunch of nouns—hardly joined-up writing, but it’s a start.

Characters (functionally equivalent to words) in the proto-canaanite alphabet.

That was somewhere between 1,500-2,000 BC. The appearance of Shang dynasty Chinese characters is on the same scale, so we’re back to the gang of four. Say 4,000 years ago.

For millennia, Man scribbled away until German engineering provided a paradigm shift—since we’re on a roll, say four hundred years ago (it’s actually about six hundred). On that scale, we then have radio and television compressing the signal, if you excuse the pun, and finally the Internet of Things (IoT).

I suppose telling my learned readers that these would be 40 and 4 years would be a bit of a stretch, but for fun it would give you 400,000 (speech), 40,000 (art), 4,000 (manuscript), 400 (printing), 40 (telly), and 4 years (IoT)—an era ain’t what it used to be.

From this analysis, we’re either at the end of the line, or can expect something new and totally disruptive soon.

The second story line is that most media (radio excluded) can deal with the three key forms, i.e. verbal, illustration, and writing. Video and other technology developments are really derivatives of the core communication elements.

The third element is the reach of each technology. As we move toward the present, the reach increases, both in terms of the number and diversity of people connected, and the speed at which news (fake or otherwise) propagates.

The diversity element is very important. Since the advent of radio, governments and organizations are able to contact a far broader range of people—in 1820, only twelve percent of the world could read and write.

World illiteracy rates over the last two hundred years.

These changes in reach and speed of information were a key driver for the growth of disinformation—every self-respecting government, religion, and multinational business hopped on the bandwagon post-haste.

When I was a child, there was Radio Free Europe, and pushing back from behind the iron curtain, a bunch of ‘people’s democracies’ extolling the virtues of Marx and Lenin.

The Russians have long been virtuosos of this art—they call it маскировка. Maskirovka is self-explanatory, and in this sixth age of communication, where TV and IoT are as closely entwined as passionate lovers, Putin’s Russia has turned it into an art form.

Russia Television, or RT for short, is now on every major cable news network. It competes with CNN, Fox, Sky, the BBC, and the other huge news outlets to bring you its flavor of news—in English.

To do this, it enlisted the likes of Larry King, of CNN fame, and ex-MSNBC’s Ed Schultze, and now plays a splendid game of maskirovka. It tells you to question more, implying that other stations are spoon-feeding you a bill of goods—which is often true to an extent, but RT is hardly where you look for a solution.

In tandem with RT is Sputnik, a Buzzfeed type of outfit, which helps to disseminate stories that are pro-Kremlin, or can sow confusion in the West. An excellent example was the recent alleged rape of a white German-Russian girl in Berlin. The story was a hoax, and grew to huge proportions in Germany—in fact, it morphed into a substantial diplomatic incident.

With the upcoming elections in Germany, authorities were anticipating that the Russians might use the emails hacked from sixteen Bundestag politicians, including Angela Merkel, to influence the upcoming vote.  All told, the hackers scooped 16 gigabytes of data from the parliament. The Germans are waiting for this ammunition to be used, but so far, not a whisper—and only one week to go.

This may be explained in a recent statement from Annegret Bendliek, analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, to the Washington Post.

It’s been my job for 10 years to read these kinds of documents. You can’t imagine. They are so boring.

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

 

 

Under the Weather

September 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Blonde Bombshell

September 2, 2017

Last summer I published a short story called The Swing, inspired by the Lahore bombing, which killed twenty-nine children on Easter Sunday, 2016.

The explosive used was triacetone triperoxide, or TATP. I became aware of TATP after the Brussels airport bombing, and decided it would be a good fit for my story. Within the bomb-making community, TATP is both loved and hated.

It’s loved for its destructive power, and since it isn’t a nitrogen-based explosive like ammonium nitrate, TATP is much harder to detect with present-day bomb sensors.

Acetone and peroxide, two quintessentially feminine products.

I never loved organic chemistry, but I realized you couldn’t understand natural sciences without it—that would be like loving boats and hating water. The picture tells you to mix some acetone (aka nail polish remover) with hydrogen peroxide (the secret to turning a dull brunette into a dumb blonde), and end up with that big ring on the right.

You lose six hydrogens and three oxygens, i.e. a bit of water, and you end up with the Mother of Satan, a stunningly powerful explosive. The ring has the three acetones poking out the side, and the peroxide splices in three extra oxygens—the whole deal contains only  carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, just like your breakfast bagel—come to think of it, the bagel has all sorts of other shit in it.

So, no nitrogen, no phosphorus, no easy detection, and a great big bang.

The fact is you could carry enough TATP through airport security today to blow up your plane without fear of detection—the explosive looks like sugar crystals, partly because carbs contain exactly those three elements: C, O, H.

The downside to all this is that TATP is really dangerous to make. In fact, I’m surprised the blonde bombshell coming out of the salon, adjusting her hairdo with perfectly polished fingernails, doesn’t blow her head off.

La femme fatale—and you thought it was just a weird French thing.

Suddenly, every hair studio is a terror lab.

When I wrote my story in 2016, I had very little trouble sourcing all sorts of instructions on the manufacture of the Mother of Satan, which is prepared by Al Muhandis, the sinister Egyptian ‘engineer’—and although I was very careful not to provide enough details to enable criminal use, the Egyptian bomb-maker shows his respect for TATP in the following excerpt.

He decided on one last Shahadah before he prepared the explosive. Bomb-makers hated this white powder—making it was as easy as baking a cake, but TATP was so unstable it often blew the terrorist to pieces as he cooked—the chemists called it the Mother of Satan.

Al Muhandis was fascinated by TATP, by its combination of danger and simplicity. His scientific mind delighted in the way it reacted—he didn’t subscribe to the cake analogy, because preparing this incredible substance required no heat.

Waali had a grudging admiration for the Israeli scientists at the Technion who’d figured out how the explosive worked. The sugar-like crystals easily turned into a gas—a little heat or a shock would do it—and released molecules at two hundred times the pressure of the surrounding air—a ton and a half per square inch.

And still today, following the recent tragedy in Barcelona, it’s easy to find the recipe on the net. I suppose Peter Wibaux must be on a number of intelligence lists, since I don’t believe for a minute this stuff doesn’t get tracked, but you don’t have to delve into the dark web, or even the penumbra—the Caucasian one has all you need.

The TATP greatest hits, if you excuse the pun, include London 7/7, Paris, Manchester Arena, Brussels, and Barcelona. But its pedigree goes back to the shoe bomber in 2001, and Satan’s momma is at least partly responsible for the 100 ml rule on airliners.

The latest bomb-makers to enjoy an early trip to paradise lived in a squat in the province of Tarragona. There, in the small town of Alcanar—itself an Arab name—they concocted the secret sauce. Unfortunately, the house they occupied either had no suitable cooling facilities, or the terrorists had skipped the class about ice.

Either way, the temperature slowly crept up to the critical level, which in the hot Spanish summer wouldn’t be difficult at all.

The really worrying thing about TATP is there are many chemical manufacturing plants that deal with dangerous substances, and take the risk out of the processes through blast-proof facilities and automation.

In this dangerous world, it is becoming far easier to safely make a lethal explosive than to detect it.

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

Big Sur

August 19, 2017

Back when Felipe Gonzalez, a Sevillano, was the Spanish prime minister, a joke did the rounds about Morocco’s claim to Ceuta and Melilla. The North African nation could have them back, the prime minister said, if they took Andalucia as well.

Andalucia, the former caliphate of Al Andalus, and the bottom layer of the cake.

The Spanish autonomous regions are arranged like a wedding cake—Andalucia and little Murcia at the base. In the map, Portugal has disappeared, and the Spanish province of Extremadura has suddenly grown a coastline.

Andalucia is almost as large as Castile, and when you overlay the watershed of the Guadalquivir on the map, you realize the river defines the region. The Wadi al Kebir, as the Moors called it, is literally the great river, flowing west from the region of Granada until it turns south somewhere above Seville and flows into the Atlantic at Sanlucar de Barrameda.

It’s about sixty miles from the Guadalquivir estuary to Seville, and on the right bank of the river is the huge national park of Doñana, one of the largest bird overwintering areas in Europe.

Along the coast, to the west of the river, is the city of Huelva, but to travel there from Cadiz, the ancient Phoenician city of Gades, you need to go via Seville, at the apex of the triangle, because between the estuary and Seville there isn’t one single bridge.

Down in Sanlucar, the locals understand the need for a connection, and plans for a bridge at the southern tip of the river go back to 1947. Changing political agendas, government priorities, and economic issues mean that seventy years on there’s still no bridge, and no plan.

It also means that Sanlucar is isolated and remains little-known, except to the Spanish themselves. I was astonished to drive and walk the streets, eat and drink in the restaurants and bars, and never see a foreigner—remember this is mid-August, and tourism in Iberia is booming because of the terrorism concerns in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and elsewhere.

So I hesitated before sharing with you a jewel of this quality—a place where you don’t see an English newspaper on sale, no one gives a shit about trip advisor, and you hear nothing but the machine-gun staccato of Andalucia.

But my trust in your good taste is boundless, so here we are. After you see Chef Jose Andres describe it, all will be clear—except I had another couple of hot leads, from a Sevillian friend who makes the most beautiful lamps in the region.

Casa Balbino is great, but there are other secret places where the little tortillita de camaron is even better.

I expected Sanlucar to be more dangerous—I’ve written before in these pages about its links to the Moroccan hash trade. But there was no threatening vibe, and I calmly walked the alleys late at night—and I didn’t once smell dope or see anyone having a toke.

On the evening of the Assumption Day fiesta, mounds of earth were heaped in the streets, about thirty yards apart. Next to these brown hills, parents and children—every kid carried a beach bucket and spade,  and most of them banged on the buckets—a back beat for the scene that followed.

Near the castle, the mounds were white, and the kiddies had been let loose—they filled their buckets and poured the contents on the ground, while grown-ups with rakes spread the mixture evenly, until the whole road was white.

Salt adornments for the Virgin Mary, Sanlucar-style.

But early next morning, it had all turned into a magic display of color—and the heaps of the previous night weren’t earth at all, but salt—good sea salt from the mouth of the Guadalquivir, dyed blue, yellow, and red.

The blue of the ocean, and the yellow and red of Spain—always representing the blood of conquest, and eldorado, the gold that it brought.

And although Sanlucar now mainly boasts shrimp boats and hashish gomas, this remarkably understated spot bears the gravitas of history—in May 1498, Columbus departed from here on his third trip to the Americas, from which he returned in shackles.

As the ‘admiral of the ocean sea’ sailed west on another vain quest for Cipango, Vasco da Gama crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the summer monsoon, and reached the real indies.

But Sanlucar was also the departure of another Portuguese sailor, called Fernão de Magalhães. Magellan, as he’s known to the world, left Sanlucar in 1419, sailing for the Spanish crown, and his expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

None of these events are celebrated locally, and there is no museum or historical residence which boasts of the town’s pride in these voyages and explorers.

But there is one famous palace, which now boasts one of the best private archives in Europe—the Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, the first Spanish dukedom, appointed in 1445, and a legend of Spanish nobility, have their ancestral home a few hundred yards south of the castle.

And in one of the rooms hangs a portrait of the seventh duke—a small picture, which shows a man punished by the sands of time. The man is Don Alonso de Gusmán El Bueno, who commanded the Invincible Armada.

It sailed from La Coruña in 1588, led by a man who hated the ocean and suffered terribly from seasickness—its ships were scattered and sunk by a combination of traditional British weather and the good offices of Francis Drake.

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

 

 

 

The World is your Oyster

August 12, 2017

Now there’s a strange expression, but it has a fine pedigree. As all you good literati know, it originates in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Falstaff: Not a penny.

I first met Pistol when I was in my early teens, and my English teacher decided to torture the class with Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Act II, Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow.

Then as now, I was easily amused, and that’s one of the few lines of the immortal bard I can still quote. Some years later, when I lived in the English Midlands, I went on numerous occasions to the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

Before the performance, although we were all underage, we had a few libations at the Dirty Duck—one of my friends regularly tried to sell American tourists Shakespeare’s toothbrush.

During the performance, we waited until the theater-goers had deposited their half-finished drinks on the long shelf adjoining the bar, eager to return to their seats before the curtain rose, confident of being reunited with their glasses at the next interval.

Over that next magical half-minute, we drilled through the shelf like the army of Genghis Khan, then sat in the darkness as the thespians appeared, while our stomachs centrifuged a concoction of taste, color, and buzz.

The RSC has always boasted amazing actors—I watched them perform ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, and the rambunctious Pistol telling Falstaff that he would use his blade to prise open the oyster and take his due.

Oysters and men are inextricably bound, so that the history of both cannot be separated—I wonder, in fact, if the phrase shouldn’t be ‘the oyster is your world’. What binds them both is the sea, and the human propensity to settle next to estuaries.

Europe is reeling from an eggy uproar, a kind of yolk Guam—fire and fury soufflé. Of the many things that make a European proud, food quality is certainly in the top five, along with cathedrals and soccer.

This triggers strong views on hormones in US beef, chlorinated chicken, and shellfish microbiological standards—the latter resulted in a mutual trade ban, which deprives the old continent of such delicacies as geoduck (pronounced gooey duck), grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Incidentally, my article about geoduck in these pages remains by far the most viewed ever—size clearly does matter!

In the past, Europe was not so concerned about who ate what, but BSE (mad cows), scrapie (crazy sheep), and other scares have changed our attitude to food. If you go back to the nineteenth century, you find that Scottish trout were fed on oysters and horse meat—a blow indeed for your average pescatarian.

This is described in the history of ‘Howietoun’, one of the oldest fish farms in Scotland, now owned by the University of Stirling. The oyster side of the story is particularly interesting, because in the XIXth century, the critter in question would have been the European flat oyster, known in France (and tony restaurants elsewhere) as bellon—it’s worth considerably more than its counterpart, the rock oyster, which is classed in Europe as an invasive species.

The internet has become an immense resource for scholarship—in a variety of languages, as I joyfully discovered when I researched Clear Eyes. Armed with the information that the oysters used to feed trout most likely came from Edinburgh, I embarked on a voyage that took me back the last quarter of the 1800’s.

Northern Europe and North America have a long-standing tradition of fisheries research boards, and it turns out that the annual reports of the Fishery Board for Scotland, published in the 1880’s and 1890’s, are available for histoysterical scholars.

In those days, oysters were consumed in copious quantities. Lewis Carroll makes the point in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

The poem doesn’t tell us how many bivalves were scarfed by the walrus and the carpenter—it’s unclear whether carpentry as a profession is particularly conducive to an oyster diet, but the walrus chiefly feeds on molluscs—Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician, and thus a stickler for accuracy.

From the multiplication by four, it sounds as if we’re quickly into the bushels—and the walrus will have taken the (sea)lion’s share, because he cracked them open, whereas the carpenter needed to shuck. Nevertheless, the human opposable thumb is a limiting factor for both the pepper and vinegar, but I digress.

In the Firth of the Forth, next to the city of Edinburgh, the oyster grounds covered an area of one hundred and twenty square miles—impossible to imagine today. At the start of the XIXth century, a boat working the Forth could dredge six thousand oysters in one day.

In the 1830’s, not long after the Napoleonic wars, Edinburgh exported about seven million oysters every year, and the locals consumed about a tenth of that.

The Scots were so profligate with their oyster beds that by 1895, the total stock in the Forth was estimated to be only 250,000 animals. Much of the decline was due to relaying, still a very common practice today—young oysters had been sold for decades to restock the depleted oyster beds of Holland and England.

A local fisherman commented:

It used to be a case of picking out clams (queen scallop) when dredging for oysters; now it is picking out an occasional oyster when dredging for clams.

It’s no wonder, with such an impetuous drive to destroy such an important natural resource, that oysters even found their way into trout ponds.

One of the most striking parts of these historical reports is the concern about overfishing. Even then, sensible and prudent recommendations appeal to the powers that be, underscoring the need for controlling fisheries for particular species, and on the importance of protecting salmon waters from pollution in rivers.

In those days, there was a general view that emptying waste into rivers was a reasonable thing to do, since rivers naturally function as conduits for human waste—the Scottish scientists emphasized that water unfit for humans is water unfit for salmon.

And six generations on from such profound wisdom, we still collect data, scratch our heads and wonder what can be done.

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


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