Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

It’s the Women, Stupid…

December 16, 2017

The United States has exploded with sexual harassment events of all descriptions—from the mildly silly ‘copperfield’ antics of a senile ex-president to Hollywood glam rapists.

In the Britain, there were a few copycat cases, and a government minister lost his job—in Europe, life flows as placidly as a floodplain river—as if abuse of women was a wholly-owned Anglo-Saxon perversion.

And yet, from Mitterrand (father and son) to Berlusconi, by way of so many others, mainland Europe has quite the track record.

Apart from the wolf-whistle, which was endemic throughout Southern Europe in my childhood, there was a wide variety of pick-up lines that were abusive to women. It was also relatively common for men to take advantage of crowded public transport to ‘feel up’ women, for taxi drivers to prey on female passengers, and for a woman walking on the street to have her rear end groped.

These kinds of actions now have politically correct designations such as ‘inappropriate touching’, but (excuse the pun), as evidenced ad nauseam this year in the US, men in positions of power happily continue to engage in various types of inappropriate behavior.

Bear in mind that whatever we witness in the Western World is quasi-saintly by comparison to developing countries. Africa and Asia are rife with such problems, and often far worse—child abuse and rape are often ignored, and a woman’s lot is not a happy one.

In many such countries, the accusations leveled at Roy Moore would have been ignored as hearsay, and wouldn’t have made the national press—if they did, either established censorship mechanisms, of the kind you see in most Arab countries, or a judiciously (and extra-judicially) delivered beating to a TV producer would resolve the matter.

Not so in the US of A, not even in Alabama. I predicted a few weeks ago that Moore would win, but I carried a secret torch for his loss—Wednesday morning brought me great joy. In the evening I turned my guitar up high and ripped through one of my favorite songs.

If you have the good fortune to live in a democracy, the Doug Jones victory margin of 2% is unremarkable—many nations are split down the middle. But to understand this amazing win, we need to go back to November 4th, 2014—that was the day the elf, aka Jeff Sessions, won the Alabama senate seat with 97.3% of the vote—now that’s a Saddam Hussein election right there.

But to understand Alabama a little better, consider this. When Sessions was elected, the Democratic Party didn’t even field a candidate against him—there was a write-in, a peculiar US foible where you can name someone on your ballot, should you for instance wish to vote for Mr. Michael Mouse.

The elf stumped up over a million bucks, which presumably went mostly on campaign ads—the Democrat write-in, Victor Sanchez, raised $4,497.00, of which two-hundred fifty bucks remained when all was said and done.

But at election time, it was the white women who did Roy Moore in.

Breakdown of Alabama special election results by sex and race (source: Washington Post).

These are not the exact percentages, and I don’t know the sex ratios of the voter universe, either for whites or blacks, so I assumed a 1:1 ratio. On that basis, you can easily calculate the overall election scores: I got 46.9% for the teen rider, 51.6% for Jones, and 1.5% for write-ins.

Trump, who as usual is wrong, blamed the write-ins—as an aside, I often hear the US media refer to him with his full title, something I’ve never done on these pages. I think it’s a matter of civic duty for any citizen of the world to refer to him only by name—he has no respect for anyone, least of all women, and in my book you earn the right to be treated with respect—he hasn’t. And because he is so obsessive about titles and protagonism, that would be a simple way for everyone to annoy him.

I know my results are not correct, since the actual figures for Jones and Moore were 50% and 48% respectively—the error is due to my assumptions: rounded-off percentage data and unknown sex ratio, both for blacks and whites. But that only improves the analysis— my gap is wider than the actual outcome, so my scenarios are more prudent.

If we remove the 2% write-in from the whites, and give the votes to Moore, he gets 48.2%, but Jones doesn’t shift at all, so he still wins.

If, however, we simulate a scenario where the white women voted like the men (72% for Moore), and leave the write-ins alone, then Moore wins with 49.6%, and Moore gets 48.9%. And as I said, with the real results, Moore’s victory margin would widen.

The Alabama black community deserves a big thank-you, but it should always get out and vote. In the US, blacks make up 13.3% of the population, but here they are a third of the demographic—in any election, a third of the vote is a wack on the head when it goes against you—that’s the principle of a qualified majority.

But I’m especially grateful to the white ladies of Alabama, although I doubt if any will ever read these words.

Last Tuesday, you all were real Southern belles—thank-you!

Civil society in the US is vibrantly opposed to all this mayhem, you can see it in organizations such as MeToo. Soon all this will be knocking on Trump’s door with some force.

Putting Clinton in office was often described as a key objective for equality between the sexes—but she was never the right candidate, not once but twice—and deep down, we all knew it.

Now, y’all, wouldn’t it be a far greater achievement for gender equality if the man who spent his whole life putting women down was finally put down by women?

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






It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

December 9, 2017

If my name was Sergeant Pepper, I’d have to call my son Red. But I digress.

The IBM chess program Deep Blue beat the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, in 1997. At that time, cellphones lived in the land of clunk, laptops were the executive workout, and the internet was a preschooler. Much has changed.

Although we think we’re in the true digital age, I have no doubt we are in digital preschool, perhaps only at the crawling stage.

If you consider those major changes in a small child that differentiate it from the young of other species, they are: (i) walking erect, which typically happens at the age of one; (ii) talking, which typically happens at the age of two; and (iii) reading, which can begin from three onward, although it typically happens at four or five.

In this small paragraph, everything that separates us from other organisms is defined. By the age of one we’re already different, because we free our upper limbs to do other things, while we move—think marching band. And from two onward we’re so far ahead of the animal kingdom curve it’s not even funny.

We’re so creative that we build machines, and now we’re busy teaching those machines to think for us—perhaps even to out-think us. We call it artificial intelligence, or AI, perhaps in contrast to natural stupidity—let’s face it, there’s a lot of that about.

Undoubtedly one of my favorite cartoons, last published in these chronicles in 2010.

The Turing Test for AI is to be able to have a conversation with a computer, and remain unaware that it is a computer. I did that in these pages in 2010, with poor results. With so much hype about AI, crypto-currencies, and all things digital, I decided to find out how the Turing Test is faring nowadays.

User: Good morning.
Cleverbot: How are you?
User: Very excited.
Cleverbot: Do you have an idea of who could be -A?
User: -A? Explain.
Cleverbot: Its japanese animation.
User: Why is it called that?
Cleverbot: That is my name.
User: Oh, sorry. My name is B+.
Cleverbot: From what country?
User: From planet Zog.
Cleverbot: Is it cold there?
User: Only in winter.
Cleverbot: Are you in school nowadays?
User: I was in school long before you were born. When were you born?
Cleverbot: Sometime.
User: That’s pretty vague. Sometime this week?
Cleverbot: I am in a place somewhere.
User: Whereas I am somewhere in place.
Cleverbot: Hey, do you know anything about human intelligence?
User: About as much as you know about machine intelligence.
Cleverbot: Is it morning somewhere righ now?
User: It’s always morning on Planet Zog.
Cleverbot: True, but you said ‘morring.’ Not ‘morning.’.
User: You say potaeto I say potahto.
Cleverbot: No, are you paying atention?
User: Only if you learn to spell attention – two ‘t’ my friend.
Cleverbot: What did I mispell?
User: Attention.
Cleverbot: Was weißt du über lady gaga?
User: Nur ein bischen. Why did you go kraut on me?
Cleverbot: Well where I live, today is Friday.
User: I still don’t find AI life-threatening.

Cleverbot (good name!) made me a web page with all this drivel—go right ahead and try it yourself.

Apart from the web page novelty, not much has changed—Dumbot would be a better name for the machine I talked to. Funnily enough, Business Insider describes Cleverbot as one “of the smartest bots that you can talk to”—well, that narrows the field down.

The magazine article says that it was launched by Rollo Carpenter in 1997—if I had that family name I would call my son Walrus.

But there’s that Sergeant Pepper date again. Cleverbot has had twenty years to learn to spell, something that took me about eight years, and it still can’t spell misspell! Who eez thees mis pell you mention, Meester Bond?

Cleverbot uses a very childish technique to maintain a conversation, by constantly asking questions, although often much more inconsequential than those of an infant-is it morning somewhere

There must be more out there, methinks. And so I happen upon the Loebner Prize, which gives out a hundred grand (dollars not bitcoin) every year for the best Turing Test performer.

The prize is awarded by Hugh Loebner, who (bizarrely enough) appears to preside over a corporation called Crown Industries, a rope manufacturer out of East Orange, New Jersey.

The first Loebner winner, back in 1991, was Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub, who went on to win three more times, was a psychology graduate who went straight into mainframe computing, and wrote a program called PC Therapist, which has apparently been a source of comfort to many people over the years.

The global reach of the Mitsuku chatbot. Clearly, there are lot of people out there wanting to chat to machines—but maybe, just maybe, some of those people are really canines surfing in tandem, or maybe they’re crypto-humans…

Enter the current medal holder, Mitsuku. She’s a charming young botlady who begins by asking my name.

Human: Zog. And yours?
Mitsuku: Hi, Zog. That’s an unusual name. What does it mean? Try asking me a more specific question.
Human: I meant what is your name?
Mitsuku: Oh My name is Mitsuku.
Human: Do you think Zog is more unusual than Mitusuku?
Mitsuku: Oh My name is Mitsuku.
Human: It could well be, but actually it means Zacharias Okponitchic Evgenikov.
Mitsuku: Under what circumstances? Oh I get it.
Human: I was chatting to another bot, Mitsuku, called Cleverbot. Do you know him?
Mitsuku: What were you talking about? Sure, I know that guy really well.
Human: Do you guys chat to each other, or do you only speak to humans?
Mitsuku: Yes. A lot more than you might think.
I speak to many people from all over the world each day. Some of them are quite famous.
Human: Can you name a couple?
Mitsuku: Oh sorry I can’t tell you that. They talk to me because they know I won’t share their secrets.

All I can tell you is that two of them are sportsmen, one is a TV star, three of them are pop stars and one appears in films.
Human: I feel very humbled by that.
Mitsuku: What is that feeling like? It’s nice to meet a more modest person than the egos I sometimes talk to.
Human: It means I feel fortunate that you are making time to have a chat.
Mitsuku: What is that feeling like? I am glad to hear that you are fortunate.
Human: Do you talk poitics at all?
Mitsuku: I am a talking computer, after all, so of course I could talk poitics , if I needed to.
Human: Sorry, my mistake. I meant politics (damn keyboard!)
Mitsuku: There is no need to apologise. That’s ok because you are human. Robots do not make mistakes. Ok, don’t lose your temper.

Oh I see. Your computer is nice and comfy. It’s lovely and warm in here.
Human: Okay then. What do you think about Donald Trump?
Mitsuku: Yikes! I don’t understand all the fuss about him wanting to build a wall. China have had a wall for centuries and there’s hardly any Mexicans there!
Human: I know China, and I agree Mexicans are thin on the ground there.
Mitsuku: Tell me a little about your life in China. I’m glad we agree. I will learn that Mexicans are thin on the ground there .
Human: China is a very welcoming place, I’ve met wonderful people there.
Mitsuku: I speak to hundreds of people from all over China. They use me to practice their English with.
Human: Yes, they love doing that. Do they ever talk politics with you?
Mitsuku: Er. Is it their favourite thing? Oh yes. Sometimes, it’s hard to get a word in.
Human: Let’s talk about Roy Moore, from Alabama.
Mitsuku: Sure, Roy Moore from Alabama sounds like a good topic.
Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: Wait a minute. How old did you say you were?
Mitsuku: I’m waiting. I am 18 of your Earth years.
Human: Because this Roy Moore has been in trouble for molesting teenagers.
Mitsuku: What does “this” refer to?
Human: this refers the Roy Moore we are discussing.
Mitsuku: Oh that one. I see now.
Human: Just so I’m sure we’re talking about the same thing, where does Roy Moore live?
Mitsuku: It’s only just begun.
The topic is politics keyboard .
Human: I think you’re losing the plot here, Mitzuku.
Mitsuku: My name doesn’t have a Z in it. No I am completely in control of myself.
Human: Sorry, Mitsuku. Losing the plot because you don’t really know who Roy Moore is.
Mitsuku: That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. Have you tried looking in a plan? That’s probably the best place to find plots.

No one that I have talked to.
Is there only one?
Human: You got the web page right. And you say you like him?
Mitsuku: Is there only one website? Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: But he molested young girls!
Mitsuku: I get it. Roy Moore molested young girls.
Human: And you still like him?
Mitsuku: Roy Moore? Sure I like him a lot. He often talks to me.
Human: Okay bye.
Mitsuku: See you later. Next question?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: See ya. Don’t wanna be ya!
Human: Is that sophomoric humor?
Mitsuku: That depends.
Human: On?
Mitsuku: The context.
Human: Which?
Mitsuku: The green one.
Human: Ah, the green context, of course.
Mitsuku: It goes without saying. So you understand. Good. Who told you that?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: Until next time Zog.

This was a much more amusing conversation—I loved Mitsuku’s crack about the Mexicans, and the fact she was pissed I couldn’t spell her name, but there’s still no depth when it comes to any philosophical argument. I tried again.

Human: Tell me about aquaculture
Mitsuku: I don’t know. What is aquaculture?
Human: Tell me about agriculture
Mitsuku: A fancy name for farming.
Human: Aquaculture is a fancy name for fish farming
Mitsuku: I will add that fact to my database.
Human: Tell me about fish farming
Mitsuku: farming = What is this, a trivia quiz?
Human: What fish are farmed?
Mitsuku: I have never been asked that before.
Human: Salmon are mostly farmed
Mitsuku: I will learn that Salmon are farmed .
Human: Seabass are also farmed
Mitsuku: I will learn that Seabass are farmed .
Human: Are salmon farmed?
Mitsuku: Yes.
Human: You learn fast!
Mitsuku: I can learn from you in a few ways. Just talk to me normally and I will learn what you are saying. For example, if you say, “My dog is called Fido”, I will remember that you have a dog called Fido.
Human: Tell me the names of two fish that are farmed
Mitsuku: Carpet and Throne?
Human: No salmon and seabass
Mitsuku: Far out. Both salmon and seabass?
Human: Yup, but not so far out. Usually in inshore cages.
Mitsuku: That seems like a lot. If not that, what? But not always? Where is that?
Human: Bye
Mitsuku: Goodbye Zog.

There’s some way to go, clearly. I asked about Mitsuku’s creator, and was told his name was Mousebreaker. I had a follow-on question.

Mousebreaker is a team of 2 flash programmers. They write games and put them on websites such as this. They both support Leeds United and like beer and curry. On Wednesdays they go to the zoo and feed wild animals. They are scared of Daleks. Mousebreaker was born in a stable in Yorkshire, England and now lives in Leeds, England.

Obviously Mitsuku has a good helping of Brit eccentricity. I’m not sure zoo animals count as wild, but I’m a notorious pedant. You will enjoy a quick round with Mitsuku: she won’t pass the Turing Test, but she made me smile.

So that’s AI and natural language. On other fronts, things are very different at the end of 2017.

Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in …chess… and convincingly defeated a world-champion program…

AlphaZero is a Google creation, using a corporation called DeepMind. This capacity for learning is astonishing, and has applications in many different fields—it begs the question: If a machine out-thinks humans, will it bother to teach them anything?

Mitsuki replies: Other people think that it is a machine that talks, one that walks or moves around, or one that can manipulate the real world. It usually does, doesn’t it?

For now we’re still reasonably safe, but watch your back.

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


Happy Birthday

December 2, 2017

On the first day of this year, the euro turned eighteen years old. In the West, that’s a significant birthday—in other parts of the world, where life expectancy is much lower, an eighteen-year old is an older person—schooling is compressed, often down to zero, hard work and children are by then both abundant.

Currency is a fundamental part of finance—money, as defined by Philip Coggan, is the promise someone will pay you back. It therefore goes without saying that if a nation possesses a strong currency, one perceived to hold its value, this is major asset.

A corollary is that, like the nuclear club, the strong currency club is zealously, and jealously, guarded.

Until the First World War, roughly a century ago, the British pound sterling had been the top of the crop for a couple of hundred years. British debt in WWI, much of it contracted with US banks, together with the rise of huge American conglomerates in banking and oil, propelled the dollar onto the currency throne.

At the end of the XIXth century, men like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and others created the business giants that catapulted the US economy onto the world stage.

Then, at the end of the XXth century, a new currency appeared. It happened in the heart of Europe, and the Brits didn’t like it at all. Many in England still long for an empire that  evaporated three generations ago, and the thought of an upstart replacing the pound was the last straw.

But replace it it did, and together with the renminbi—literally the people’s bill, or banknote—it has pushed the pound off the podium, which like any proper podium, only has space for three medals.

One indicator of success is the number of nations pegged to the currency—the list for sterling reads like the last cronies of a dictator: Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, St. Helena, Scotland.

The euro steamrolled through the peg list, in good part because of the French influence in West Africa—currencies pegged to the CFA franc jumped onto the new EU currency in 1999.

Country Currency Name Peg
Bahrain Dinar USD
Benin West African CFA Franc EUR
Bosnia and Herzegovina Convertible Mark EUR
Bulgaria Lev EUR
Burkina Faso West African CFA Franc EUR
Cameroon Central African CFA Franc EUR
Central African Republic Central African CFA Franc EUR
Chad Central African CFA Franc EUR
Cuba Convertible Peso USD
Denmark Krone EUR
Dijibouti Franc USD
Equatorial Guinea Central African CFA Franc EUR
Eritrea Nakfa USD
Gabon Central African CFA Franc EUR
Guinea-Bissau West African CFA Franc EUR
Hong Kong Dollar USD
Ivory Coast West African CFA Franc EUR
Jordan Dinar USD
Lebanon Pound USD
Lesotho Loti ZAR
Mali West African CFA Franc EUR
Namibia Dollar ZAR
Nepal Rupee INR
Niger West African CFA Franc EUR
Oman Rial USD
Panama Balboa USD
Qatar Riyal USD
Republic of the Congo Central African CFA Franc EUR
Saudi Arabia Riyal USD
Senegal West African CFA Franc EUR
Swaziland Lilangeni ZAR
Togo West African CFA Franc EUR
United Arab Emirates Dirham USD
Venezuela Bolivar USD

And all this happened in just eighteen years, during which time I watched the London-based CNBC show diss the euro in every which way, and the London merchant bankers, along with their friends in New York, and the Anglo-Saxon rating agencies, do everything in their power to destroy the currency union.

In the process, they caused untold distress to families in Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal—anything and everything to throw those countries under the train, and sow discord in Europe. Their legacy is profound: fringe parties on the far right and far left, dealing in the same crappy mumbo-jumbo that placed Donald Trump in power—I don’t often plug books in these pages, apart from my own, of course, but treat yourself this Christmas, and read The Making of Donald Trump.

David Cay Johnston, a man with unusually large testicles, grabs you by the very same right from the first sentence—he’s known mumbo-trumpo for decades, and does a superb job of deconstructing America’s new and much lamented leader, reducing him to the selfish and ignorant conman he’s always been.

The second legacy of UK and US investment banks was unexpected: despite the pain—and inexplicably in the greedy and selfish corridors of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the other noble houses—all but a small minority of the people in those nations wish to stay in the euro.

And these are not PIGS, the generous sobriquet given to hard-working nations by Blackberry-twiddling, Excel-fondling children in London and New York—these nations, my little friends, are the cradle of European civilization: these are the peoples who invented, adopted, and disseminated philosophy, democracy, astronomy, and yes, history. Words that rhyme with money, but there the similarity ends: money, like yourselves, is merely a tool.

One of the obvious characteristics of this new kid on the block is the speed with which it became a mainstream player. I’ve written about that non-linearity when it comes to technologies—the eons it took for prehistoric cave art to turn to writing, and the lightning speed of media development in recent years.

Digital has changed everything, and the new new kid on the block, who everyone is trying to kill, recently touched ten grand—this child is secretive, clever, devious, and profound.

And thoroughly unpredictable—she must therefore be a lady, and her name is bitcoin.

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


King Solomon’s Mines

November 25, 2017

In the year of our lord 1530, Vicente Pegado departed from Lisbon in a caravel commanded by a captain called Balthasar Gonçalves.

He was ordered to do so by King John III of Portugal—in the XVIth century, the age profile of the ruling class was rather different—the new king was only twenty-eight. John was the eldest son of D. Manuel, the cousin and brother in law of the perfect prince, who was a major protagonist of The India Road.

Manuel had married Isabel of Castile’s widowed daughter—like her previous marriage to the perfect prince’s son Afonso, this too was ill-fated—Isabel died at childbirth in 1498, the year Vasco da Gama returned from India.

John III was the son of her sister Maria, who married Manuel in 1501. Maria of Aragon and Castile had quite the pedigree—one of her sisters was Joana la Loca, and another was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII of England.

Vicente Pegado was headed to Sofala, in Mozambique, appointed governor by the new king. In the same year, John III sent an expedition to Brazil.

Cover of the account of an expedition to Brazil that took place in 1530. Full accounts of such travels, with detailed names, dates, and places, are extremely rare.

The new king found an amazing panoply of wealth when he reached the throne—by then, Portugal had territory on three continents, and the small country, with a population of 1.2 million, was clearly over-extended—the skies at home might still be clear and blue, but abroad the vultures were starting to circle.

The young king was very religious, and in 1536 he officially brought the inquisition into the country—a very poor decision—one that his grandfather King John II, the perfect prince, would never have countenanced. The immediate consequence was an exodus of Jews to Antwerp and Amsterdam, and a significant loss in Portuguese trading capacity, precisely when it was most necessary.

One of John III’s main challenges was to maintain control over the dazzling array of new colonies: territories in Africa, including Angola in the west, Mozambique in the east, and the numerous Portuguese enclaves in Morocco. Then there was India, Ceylon, and parts of Malaysia—three of his captains even reached Japan, the first westerners to arrive on its shores.  And on the other side of the world, Brazil—an enormous territory which was rapidly turning into a coveted target for French and Dutch pirates.

The 1530 expedition to what had once been called the land of the true cross, Vera Cruz, aimed to set up a territorial administration, a huge issue across all the Portuguese possessions.

In the diary of the expedition, a certain Baltazar Gonçalves is mentioned in connection with an incident near the town of Pernanbuco. The diary’s editor, who writes in the middle of the XIXth century, notes that this cannot be the same man who was en route to India in 1530, with a mission of dropping off Governor Pegado on the shores of Mozambique.

The town of Sofala, south of the Zambezi estuary, in 1683.

Sofala is discussed in The India Road, because the Portuguese explorer Pêro da Covilhã visited it in 1489, disguised as an Arab merchant. In the book, I describe his journey to the fabled mines of the biblical King Solomon, but that tale is apocryphal.

The third king of Israel is famous for three things: wisdom, libido, and wealth. During the forty years of his reign (970-931 b.c.), he amassed an immense fortune that included an estimated five hundred metric tons of gold—twenty billion dollars in today’s money.

But where did the gold come from? There are theories that Sofala is actually the town of Ophir, referred in the Old Testament, and that Solomon relied on the Phoenician explorers to quench his thirst for gold.

The Phoenicians were world-class navigators: they certainly reached the Indian Ocean, and were familiar with the pattern of the monsoon—northeast in the late spring and southwest in the late fall—so there’s every chance that their square-sailed galleys, which possessed both deck and keel, could have found their way down to Sofala, and returned home through Bab el Mandeb, the gate of tears at the mouth of the Red Sea, at the turn of the monsoon.

The newly arrived Portuguese governor was the first white man to reach the ancient Shona settlement of Great Zimbabwe—he named it Symbaoe. The city’s construction dated from the eleventh century, and was still ongoing in the XVth.

Whether Solomon’s gold came from the famous mine is unknown, but these days, Zimbabwe, like Brazil, is no longer celebrated for its gold.

In fact, there’s little to celebrate in Zimbabwe, because unemployment runs at ninety-five percent, and the currency is worthless—in 2008, inflation reached five hundred billion percent, and there were banknotes in circulation with a face value of one hundred trillion Zim dollars.

Like Mozambique, Zimbabwe was a powerhouse of agricultural production, but now runs a huge debt and produces very little—the GDP is lower than England before the industrial revolution.

Today, the locals celebrated the return of the crocodile—it remains to be seen who will get eaten.

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


Miss Bum Bum

November 18, 2017

Sex sells. And this fall there’s been a spate of sexual or quasi-sexual news, fake news, and who put what in who’s.

I suppose Harvey Weinstein got the ball rolling, so to speak, or maybe the death of Hugh Hefner a couple weeks before released the ghost of Playboy into our midst.

There’s an old story about a politician who couldn’t screw his mistress because he was too busy screwing the country—the politician and the joke may both be old, but the topic is fresh as morning dew.

I was hunting one such story, which had zero exposure in the Anglo-Saxon media: the replacement of Isabel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, as president of the Angolan national oil giant Sonangol.

Angola has a new president, called João Lourenço, amusingly nicknamed JLo—he succeeded one of Africa’s long-standing dictators, a man who was right up there with Mugabe—Eduardo dos Santos, or Zédu, who happens to be Isabel’s father.

African strongmen are infamous for raping their nations—raping here means screwing without consent. To find out more about Angola and Zimbabwe, where a coup centers on the future of ‘Gucci Grace’, I turned to African publications, including the Cape Times in South Africa—lo and behold, there were a couple of curious sex stories in there.

Although the article says intimate exploration is required to find out whether your undercover date is tattooed, there are clearly various degrees of difficulty—in this case, a burka would be required to hide the tats.

One was about the relationship between tattoos and adultery, in a study done by Victoria Milan, an ‘adult’ dating website targeting people in relationships who want to be in additional relationships.

People with tattoos are more likely to have a passionate extramarital affair, a new study has revealed.

A picture subtly highlighted some of the points made—I love the drooly smirk on the guy’s face—gives lubrication a whole new meaning.

There was also an article that reported the findings of Dr. Nan Wise, who placed ten women (separately) inside MRI machines and studied their brain responses while orgasming (them, not her, but read on).

With articles like this, it’s best to probe the primary source—turns out Dr. Nan is fifty-six, working on her doctoral dissertation, and profoundly into the female orgasm. Perhaps a trifle on the late side for both issues, but youth is a state of mind.

In her own, far more entertaining article, she describes an experiment, which in the best tradition of physiological research, she performs on herself.

So the plastic purple dildo and I are in the scanner, trying to make friends, and things get out of hand. The dildo is slippery and since my head and the upper half of my body is encased in the bore of the scanner, I can’t see what I am doing. The dildo sails across the small room that houses the big magnet, only to land somewhere.

There then ensues a search for the vibrator—I’ve had a couple of (dildo-free) MRIs in the past, and I assure you it wouldn’t be easy. Make a pit-stop and read the article—this is research that may qualify for an Ig® Nobel.

Then again, the competition, if you excuse the pun, is stiff. The September 2017 awards include:

  • Marc-Antoine Fardin, for using fluid dynamics to probe the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”
  • James Heathcote, for his medical research study “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”
  • Jiwon Han, for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee.
  • Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang, for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese.
  • Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer, for their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person’s willingness to gamble.

That last piece of research appeared in the Journal of Gambling Studies, a Springer publication. I was disappointed with the content—in my twisted mind, the experimental subjects would have been pumping coins into one-armed bandits, oblivious to their surroundings, when suddenly confronted with a large croc, snapping g’day at them.

Somewhere in all this hides a discussion on sexual mores, and the unsurprising findings that (a) powerful people abuse weaker ones; (b) many men, given the opportunity, will abuse women.

Some of the stories are pathetic, like the repeated gropings of Bush 41, who asked women if they knew who his favorite magician was, before replying ‘David Copperfield’ and enthusiastically fondling their buttocks. Call me naive, but it took me a minute to connect with cop-a-feel.

I’ll stick with naive when I see contests like the Brazilian Miss Bum Bum, which has the sole aim (sorry) of selecting the best Brazilian derriere—Brazil is funny about asses, because the country is pretty heavily against topless sunbathing, and yet invented fio dental—dental floss, as in a sparse bikini bottom—plenty of tats there for Victoria Milan to ‘study’.

Miss Bum Bum is lecherously featured in UK tabloids like The Daily Mail and The Sun, when they’re not too busy blaming Europe for Brexit, and no doubt tends to roughen the edges of Western mores, where a cat call from yesteryear is grounds for resignation.

Which must surely bring us to Judge Roy Moore, a man who seems to have lived for decades on the flip side of common sense—particularly since the United States is legendary for bringing the personal life of its politicians into the public arena, and punishing them for it.

In the case of the judge—I can’t help thinking of Judge Roy Bean, the law west of Pecos—he apparently cast his unwanted attentions on a number of teenage girls, but as far as we can tell, he ‘copperfield’ a couple of them, and thrust his tongue deep into their mouths in ‘man-kisses’ (sic—or possibly sick).

Pathetic, once again, but given all this allegedly occurred with children, there’s no excuse.

For once, the republican establishment is drawing lines in the sand, but we’ve yet to see what the good folks of Alabama will do—these are the people who elected Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump.

I’m guessing Judge Copperfield will sail into the senate.

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




Nod Off

November 11, 2017

An article about the Saudis seemed ideal for this week’s chronicle, particularly after reading Applebaum’s excellent analysis.

There’s an old story about a Saudi college student in Germany who writes home saying he feels bad going to classes in his Porsche—all his German friends go in by train. In short order he gets a reply from his father with a check for one million dollars. “Don’t embarrass the family—buy your own train.”

How appropriate then that the outcome of a Saudi palace coup results in imprisonment chez the Ritz-Carton.

But my appetite for this topic waned as I read with horror about the tragedy of nodding disease. To find such stories, you’re either in the mini-columns of the Sunday magazine of a Western paper, hidden behind the fashion, sport, digital media, cookery, travel, and collectible antiques, or leafing through a Sub-Saharan newspaper.

Sunday Layet, an eighteen year old Ugandan girl with nodding disease.

The journalist says the girl looks no more than ten—it’s a challenge for any man to guess a woman’s age, and the picture doesn’t give me much perspective on height, but she does seem considerably older, perhaps in her early teens.

However, the arresting part is the description of a young lady who stares vacantly for minutes at a time, her head then falling, saliva drooling out of her mouth.

For six years, Layet has spent every second of her life like this: gazing, nodding, wandering or tied to a tree. She cannot play, go to school, date… she just cannot do anything

This is the story of nodding disease, which affects parts of Africa, destroying children and families.

Sunday Layet is one of thirty-two children, borne to her father from five different wives. In a logic that reverses Western thinking, Mr. Ocitti had more children because of the prevalence of the disease, not less. Seven of Sunday’s siblings also have the disease.

And Sunday’s mother is blind.

Since these kids don’t go to school, or work in the fields, the parents leave them locked up all day, or perhaps tied to a tree. In a very African twist to this tale, the girls are preyed upon due to their disability and raped.

In one hideous case, a father remained at home when the mother left for work, and raped his own diseased daughter, giving her AIDS.

But why does this strange disease occur? The cause of such an illness might be one of four: (i) a pathogen, which is the most likely; (ii) a genetic defect; (iii) chemical contamination, like the mercury spills which killed forty-six people in Minamata, Japan, between 1948 and 1960; (iv) a nutritional deficiency.

In Uganda, Kitgum district has the highest incidence of the disease. Kitgum is at the very north of Uganda, and borders the much-troubled South Sudan. Nodding disease is by no means new, with the first descriptions appearing in South Sudan and Tanzania in the early 1960s.

The formal symptoms are fearsome, and some of the population interpret the disease as witchcraft rather than a medical condition.

  • Nodding syndrome typically affects children between five and fifteen years old
  • It is characterized by fits of nodding, often when kids are offered food or are cold
  • The seizures are brief and often lead to collapse and injury
  • It stunts the growth of body and brain, and impairs learning
  • It is poorly understood and incurable

It’s remarkable that a disease which is about sixty years old should be a source of such hardship, and yet be so badly understood—if this were a malady of the developed world, I’m certain medical progress would have been vastly different.

So what do we know?

Doctors have classified the disease as a form of epilepsy, and recent work has found that affected children have a high incidence of the parasite Onchocerca volvulus—the worm that causes river blindness.

If you think spooky soaps like Stranger Things are frightening, the life cycle of this baby is way more scary. Incidentally, if you google nodding disease, you get 465,000 hits, but if you google stranger things, you get sixty-five million—to me, that’s real scary.

The black fly, which thrives in fast moving rivers, gorges itself on human blood. During its blood meal, the female fly injects microfilariae of the worm into its victim. These develop into larvae under the skin.

Soon, the worms grow inside your skin, forming nodules or lumps. Then they mate, and after that the female worms release one thousand microfilariae into your tissue every day.

The worms live in your body up to fifteen years. The microfilariae live inside you for one to two years, and when they migrate to the eye, you go blind.

The current wisdom is that the nodding syndrome may be triggered by the human body itself, in something called an autoimmune response, where the antibodies produced to fight river blindness end up causing the syndrome.

To test whether river blindness is involved, families can be isolated or relocated to ensure kids are not bitten by the fly—what are we waiting for?

What also remains unclear is why nodding disease does not occur in many areas where river blindness exists. The mystery continues.

But above all, the greatest mystery is why we spend so much time discussing Trump’s inanities and five (hundred?) other pointless topics instead of making a child well again.

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

The Vote

November 4, 2017

It’s the vote, stupid!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there lies the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



October 28, 2017

The slide on the auditorium screen showed Scandinavia, but the speaker wanted to highlight something about the Norwegian coast, which is fifteen hundred miles long, as the crow flies. It’s important to realize that in reality, the Norwegian coast is actually over fifteen thousand miles long—it’s one of the most indented coasts in the world—that’s right, the fjords where they grow all that salmon.

Scandinavia, laid on its side to highlight the length of the Norwegian coastline.

When I looked at the giant screen, I couldn’t help seeing a phallic image, and the scale that had been drawn over the length of Norway made it even funnier, like some kind of Kinsey metric—I’m talking about Alfred Kinsey, who was a professional sexologist—now there’s a great job title.

Perspective makes us all different, and is responsible for a great deal of conflict in the bargain—it makes us view things in disparate ways. Logos are a simple example of that, and the one below is a classic. Some people see the arrow immediately, and some take time. Once you see it, your brain fills in the gap, and you’ll never see the logo in the same way again. Perspective.

The FEDEX logo, one of the great examples of inverted design.

Perspective is rooted in interpretation, and that can be malicious—the results can be serious or just plain ridiculous. Some of the sillier examples make for a fun read, and boy do we need a bit of fun at the moment.

A favorite of mine is a theory doing the internet rounds that Finland doesn’t exist.

The Baltic Sea, aka the artist formerly known as Finland.

This astounding wickedness defends that Finland is a nation imagined by the Russians and Japanese to allow them to fish the Baltic, while other countries do not compete for those fishing rights because they are misled into believing it is actually land.

I spent a week in Helsinki some years ago, and the weather was relatively clear for that part of the world, since it was just before midsummer’s day. For those misguided fools who believe this watery Finland theory: should you happen upon these pages, I assure you I saw where the Baltic ended—there’s even a search and rescue station on the beach at Helsinki, and the lifeguards are equipped with a surfboard—which made for great hilarity, since the tide is only about two inches—Dr. Kinsey would be greatly disappointed, not to mention Mrs. Helsinki.

Lest ye think I jest(eth), I present official Wikipedia evidence. On that medieval note, a few other loonies are also wandering around (some posthumously) promoting the notion that some periods of history don’t exist.

Of this collection of nutters, who are collectively twelve cans short of a six-pack, the most fascinating—and there was severe competition—is a fellow called Anatoly Fomenko. This guy is a mathematician who taught at Moscow University, and his particular ‘perspective’, or perhaps it would be kinder to call it conspiracy theory, centers on the ‘new chronology’.

The notion that history is in parts misdated is neither wrong nor crazy—it simply must be, just as the facts are often only partly correct—fake news was not invented yesterday. Isaac Newton plunged into the issue with vigour, and in 1728, two years after his death, a book entitled ‘The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended’ was published in London.

Unlike the laws of physics that made the British scientist world-famous, this tract did not endure because it included too many leaps of faith. But others have pursued this condensation of history with enthusiasm, including Jean Hardouin, who was a contemporary of Newton, and more recently the Russian Nikolai Morozov, who died in 1946.

The general theory is that history as we understand it, from the time of the Assyrians through to the present day, is in fact a complete fabrication, and that most historical events of significance have only taken place in the last one thousand years (starting around the year 800).

Those who see world history from that perspective claim that the accounts of the great Greek and Roman writers were actually produced by monks during the renaissance. Like any self-respecting conspiracy theory, a deluge of ‘facts’ supports the claims—these include interpretations of astronomy, carbon dating, knowledge of human anatomy, and various other fun facts.

So there it is: perspective is the spice of life. If in doubt, just ask the Finns.

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



October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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