The Shift

February 3, 2019

In the historical sense of the word, the United States is not an empire, if you exclude peccadilloes like Puerto Rico and Guam. There are only five of these ‘little sins’ that are permanently inhabited, and the US has designated them unincorporated territories—by and large, they probably fall into the Trumpian ‘shithole country’ definition, as evidenced by the current administration’s treatment of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria—even the name is Hispanic, for chrissakes!

But the definition of ’empire’ that held true for Rome, Baghdad, Spain, and Britain is no longer valid. In the good old days, the historical context was simple—a nation with possessions beyond its conterminous boundaries technically qualified as an empire, all the more so if  those possessions were seized forcefully from their current but not necessarily rightful owner.

This definition held true as long as the ruling power had administrative rights over the subjugated territory. By that definition, a small country located at the edge of western Europe holds the record for the longest-lived empire in the history of the world.

The Portuguese king John I, whose wife was Philippa of Lancaster, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt—Jean de Gand, so-named because of his birthplace, Ghent—conquered the city of Ceuta in 1415. King John’s son, Prince Henry the Navigator, was the great promoter of the golden age of maritime discoveries, and Henry’s nephew, the Perfect Prince, took that work and exploded it into an empire that reached from India to Brazil.

The fruits were gathered mainly by his two successors, Manuel I and John III, by which time the empire reached parts of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, and the Portuguese had colonized the small island of Macao in the South China Sea.

Macao was the last European colony to be returned to China, in 1999. Towards the end of this video of the ceremony, you will spot the current president of the United Nations, then prime minister of Portugal.

The Portuguese empire lasted five hundred eighty-four years. It is most unlikely that any empire on this earth will ever beat that record, not least because massive empires of subjugation will not reappear.

We could explore the possibility of empires in space—these are the domain of science fiction, popularized by movies such as Star Wars. In his brilliant exercise in clairvoyance, Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clarke sets forth his predictions. Unlike the video below, his book doesn’t stray into the concept of enslaving chimps—I would rate that as morally untenable for society—let’s just keep on slaughtering our companions from other species in the usual way.

In the book, which is an obligatory read, Clarke discusses intergalactic empires. There’s a chapter entitled Space, The Unconquerable, where the visionary who gave us the communications satellite and all of its consequences pours ice-cold water on Star Wars.

The first sentence reads ‘Man will never conquer Space.’ The obstacle is distance, and therefore time. A conversation with someone on Mars is possible, but your words will take three minutes to reach that planet, so when you say “Hi”, the reply will arrive six minutes later. The difference between solar space and stellar space is enormous. Clarke’s analogy?

Imagine a world in which the closest object to you is only five feet away – and then there is nothing else until you’ve traveled 1,000 miles.

In practice, the ruler of some intergalactic empire could rule nothing—his orders would take decades to arrive, and resistance would take an identical time to be reported. This model became obvious within the great empires on our planet—in the days of sail, news of battles won and lost in Asia could take years to reach Europe, and colonial rule mutated into colonial autonomy.

Empires today are about economic control, albeit with a latent threat of violence—as evidenced by nuclear weapons proliferation. And in that context, the shift is clear. More than one Briton has told me, sotto voce, that a key reason for voting Brexit was that they could not abide a Europe economically owned by Germany.

The US and China have clearly grasped that the battle for empire is an economic one, not a nuclear confrontation. Putin, who understands Russia plays in the economic little league, ranking number twelve in the world, right next to Spain, opts for arms. The Moscow Times, in an article published on July 13th 2018, claims Russia is the sixth world economy, leapfrogging half a dozen places from official numbers—I don’t link fake news, just like they didn’t link any true news.

Economic empires, just like their historical predecessors, cross borders. Britain may own Gibraltar (they hate hearing it said like that), but Spain owns Heathrow Airport. France may have lost Trafalgar and Waterloo, but the French energy giant EDF owns four British suppliers, including London Electricity. China’s Three Gorges Corporation is using Portugal’s EDP to develop renewable energy in Brazil—in a way, they want their own Macao, but this time as a gateway to the West.

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

Go Jack

January 26, 2019

The big bird is flying over Romanian airspace, headed for the land of Brexit. I’ll only stay a few hours, enough to read the papers and discover the flavor du jour. When I was on the other side of the world, someone whispered that the Northern Irish unionist party had been won over by May—apparently the pound was up a couple of points, but unless the hard-line brexiteers give way, I can’t see the present deal going anywhere.

The two or three Brits I talked with in Indonesia shared my confusion at the United Kingdom’s lost compass—my body clock tells me it’s already dusk, even though dawn is barely peeking through the 787’s porthole, and in the half-light my fingers perversely type the anagram ‘Untied.’

The East is a great leveler, and in gigantic cities like Jakarta the poverty tears your heart apart. Beggars are not in evidence here—but the millions scrabbling to live, the little kids pushing their noses against the car window at the endless traffic lights, who can remain inured to that?

Uber was pushed out of Southeast Asia by the likes of Grab and Go-Jak. The former started life in a dingy room in Kuala Lumpur before being snapped up and turned into a megabiz by the Singaporeans.

Everything about Grab is better adapted to the teeming Asian way than Uber or Lyft. The app is streets better, if you excuse the pun, tempting you with a polite ‘Good afternoon’ before getting to the good stuff.

Sukarno and Suharto, the two strongmen of Indonesia.

Yesterday morning, my driver smiled constantly until he suddenly began muttering, voice rising exponentially as he failed to convey a critical message to his passengers—Jakarta has an alternate number plate rule to reduce traffic jams, and he would not be able to get us to our destination.

Cash solves many problems in this part of the world, so bills were profered. Tidak, and a vehement shake of the head. The rainy season is in full swing, and the skies parted. As we crawled along surrounded by motorbikes, like tuna through a school of sardines, hapless cops stood drenched in the pouring rain, frantic with their batons and whistles. Other spurious traffic directors were clad only in a plastic cape or T-Shirt, water running down them in sheets.

We stopped.

We spoke.

We pulled into traffic, scattering Go-Jak bikes.

We stopped again. Discussed. Started. Stopped, extraordinarily, on the forecourt of an Aston Martin dealer, the poverty of the city reflected in the streaming plate glass windows, the shiny cars winking at us from inside.

Cellphones were produced, examined, thumbed… Google Maps squawked mindlessly in Bahasa.

Bluebird! The only cab company in town—licensed taxis can circulate in the forbidden city!

My driver leapt out and spent five frantic minutes hailing Bluebirds. No dice. A tuk-tuk was offered and rejected. Tukman shrugged and drove off—Asia at its best—no harsh words, just resignation, and the prayer for another chance, Inchallah!

At some point, the Aston Martin doorman was summoned by the driver, by now soaked to the bone. At length another Grab was grabbed—it had the same problem, but a different solution.

We took a longer road, circumventing the center of town, hypnotized by bizarre nodding toys stuck to the dash. A soft-rock station played indifferent American music.

Rock romantis!

The driver laughed—the Indonesians are a truly gentle people, far readier with a smile than their Thai neighbors. The romantic rock became a thing. Rock romantis! The four-lane road shrank into a narrow lane, the rain pouring down, pipes streaming into a fetid black canal to the incongruous twang of the pedal steel guitar.

The rainy season floods Jakarta in a merciless and persistent downpour.

As I write, the plane follows the Syrian refugee trail—names like Sopron, Eisenstadt and Klosterneuburg appear on my map. As we fly northwest along the course of the Danube, Amsterdam and Paris tease us on the horizon—Fortress Europe, an impossible dream for the Jakarta Grab driver who charges eight thousand rupees for a fifteen-minute ride.

Fifty cents—a scream of inequity and a sincere smile of gratitude.

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

The Law of Averages

January 20, 2019

I stopped off in London a couple of days ago and felt as if I’d landed on a lost planet. I only muttered the ‘B’ word briefly, but the echoes were clear—people are fed up, confused, and mostly numbed to the political mayhem.

As I traveled east, the picture changed from a Europe troubled by the rise of populism to nations where freedom of expression—and therefore of choice—varies from limited to radically curtailed. As the plane flew over the Mid-East, and then on to Southeast Asia, the dawn brought me a little clarity.

The rise of populism in the EU is inevitable, as it is (and was) in the US and UK. The reason became obvious as I wandered around London and observed ordinary working people—it crystallized when an English lady opened a restroom door for me in an airport lounge two days ago. She was one of two englishwomen who stood in the access corridor providing these services—the lady was charming and worthy of all my respect, and as I exited she once again pulled the door open for me, to my great embarrassment.

In the lounge itself the opulence of the extremely wealthy hid in plain sight, and therein lies the rub. Over the last fifty years, income inequality in the West has mushroomed—and that got me thinking about GDP.

If you want to make absolute comparisons, you use absolutes (duh). China is the most populous nation in the world. France is larger than the Netherlands. Brazil has more head of cattle than Belgium.

But to make relative comparisons, you need to normalize—express your data per unit area, or perhaps as a percentage, or an average—which is exactly what happens with GDP. If you want to rank nations by living standards, per capita GDP is the weapon of choice.

Norway? 71,800 US dollars per annum. Portugal, less than half of that.

That’s all well and good, but are these fair comparisons? The short answer is no. Averages are only appropriate if we’re looking at a bell-shaped curve, but the distribution of income in the West is now much better aligned with what you see in the East, or in South America—fifty years ago, as a rule of thumb income inequality increased as you traveled east and south.

The analysis of income inequality is not new. The work by M.O. Lorenz led to a paper, Methods of measuring the concentration of wealth, published in 1905, and the Lorenz curve is widely used to represent distribution of wealth. The Gini coefficient was published in 1912, and provides a numerical representation of income inequality.

The Gini index on a world map. East and south are still the unfairest places on earth.

Let me pick five numbers out of a hat. The first numbers are similar: one, four, two, three. But the last number is whoppingly different: nine hundred-ninety. By sheer coincidence, these numbers add up to one thousand.

Bell-shaped they most certainly aren’t—four low numbers jumping to a huge one. If we average them, the result is two hundred. Is that a fair representation of 1, 2, 3, 4, 990? Nope. What might be fair is the median, i.e. the middle number: three.

If this were a human population, eighty percent of the people fall into the one to four income bracket, and the remaining twenty percent are of the species Felis crassus—that’s Latin for fat cat.

The Triple Eye Income Inequality Index, as a simple ratio of median/average, for several European countries and the US. Values close to one hundred indicate a well-balanced nation.

My own Triple Eye calculation suggests the developed world falls far short of equality—low values mean that a few wealthy people hold much of the income, which skews the per capita GDP. Values higher than one hundred exist only in Utopia—a nation with a smattering of poverty and an abundance of wealthy folk.

Of course, the Triple Eye in many gated communities, airline lounges, and luxury resorts is at least one hundred—that is, if you exclude the help.

How does all this relate to populism? If a hundred percent of families can vote, and eighty percent of them are poor, it’s only a matter of time before they vote to disenfranchise the twenty percent that tower above them financially.

Which leaves only two paths.

The first is China, whose Triple Eye score is 14.2%, lower than any of the results graphed above. In an unequal system where votes don’t count, there’s little threat to the status quo.

If the China model is not your bag, then there’s only way democracy can beat populism—fair play.

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

Lost Nations

January 12, 2019

At the start of 2019, the world continues to be an absolute disgrace.

The refugee population from the six biggest crisis-countries totals over eighteen million people, more than the entire population of the Netherlands. The nations in question are the usual suspects: Syria, Congo, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia. An order of magnitude separates Syria (6.3 million) from Somalia, which has ‘only’ nine hundred and ninety thousand refugees.

‘Informal’ housing in the Congo, a nation where 4.5 million are internally displaced and seven hundred thousand are refugees in other countries.

Worldwide, UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, estimates the number to be almost sixty-eight million—the population of the United Kingdom. The worse thing about those refugee numbers is the way they’ve grown in the last ten years. What we are witnessing in 2019 is a doubling of the displaced human population.

If numbers are your thing, that’s an APR of 8.7%, so right now the refugee crisis is growing faster than the Chinese economy.

The Congo is an extraordinary example of the African curse. The country was massacred by King Leopold II’s occupation in the late XIXth century—the Belgians, a most unlikely nation of conquerors, stayed until 1960. Since then, independence has brought nothing but suffering to the folks of this fabulously rich nation, on which the world depends to keep its cellphones running. Oh, and then there’s the diamonds and gold—none of this wealth filters down to the poor souls who live in the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo.

Right now, the country is in post-electoral trauma, with hotly disputed results. After Mobutu and a couple of Kabilas, elections were finally held—a major stakeholder is the Congolese ‘Église de Christ’, the protestant Church of Christ. If you want to practice your French a little more, or just enjoy the retro animated gifs, praise the lord!

Change in refugees worldwide between 2008 and 2016.

The Congo provinces of North-Kivu and Ituri are Ebola hotspots—a report released one month ago counted five hundred cases, of which 452 were confirmed and 48 probable. 289 of these have died—241 are confirmed Ebola cases.  The health issue made voting in the provinces a challenge, and the election results reflect this omission.

Hemorrhagic fever, or Ebola, in full swing in the Congo. How long will it take to care enough?

But perhaps the most famous crisis you never heard of is Venezuela. I’m kidding, in a terrible sort of way—of course you’ve heard of it, but we don’t hear much. Occasionally there are shots of Nicolas Maduro, a man who cares more for his mustache than for his people, and the odd Trump rant, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, the IMF predicts a ten million percent inflation rate in 2019. When an economy collapses at that scale, we’re into chaos theory. It’s an extraordinary example of non-linearity, showcasing just how quickly a wealthy nation—Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world—descends from riches to rags, plunging a whole generation into despair. It’s an indictment of the command economy, and a dire warning of the consequences of saloon-door politics, where wild swings from left to right only ever benefit the opportunists.

In perspective, Europe, and even the United States, seem only mildly insane.

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

Resolution

January 5, 2019

It’s a thing at the start of every new year.

The italics highlight millennial-speak. Last weekend I was writing some dialog for ‘The Hourglass’ and since there are three teenagers involved I decided to improve my knowledge of the relevant vocabulary—do note that present-day teens are post-millennials—though I’m not sure if that’s, like, even a thing, said no one ever!

Take a pew—the boundaries among generations, as defined by the Pew Foundation.

In fact I even went to a party years ago where you were supposed to write out your New Year’s resolution on a yellow post-it for all to peruse after midnight. My resolution was to stop going to parties like that one.

Sorry not sorry!

So now I have to take a crash-course in millennial, because my teen dialog needs a makeover.

Moving right along… for many folks, the annual resolution is both obvious and recurrent—diet. Let’s face it, for all but the most monastic among us, there comes a time when it behoves one to lose a little weight—and January is often that time.

Alcohol, a mainstay of Western Christmas cheer, can take some of the blame, but not all. And yet, it’s a societal paradox that practicing Muslims from a comparable income bracket are no thinner than those of us who enjoy a nice glass of tinto—I guess it’s all those sodas—fat without the buzz.

I am fortunate not to have a battle with weight—but there is the occasional struggle. My approach is thermodynamic, but with a carb twist.

Let’s begin with the basics: food. Any creature on this planet should consider food on two levels—the first is what it needs (or wants) to consume, and the second is that it is itself in fact food. Humans don’t consider the latter, since we no longer have natural predators.

As an aside, the odd lion(ess) who does capture a human for the pot must despair at the preparation required, just as we do with a particularly bony fish. I can picture the young of the pride being instructed on the perils of accidentally eating the cellphone or the fly zipper.

Food can be represented by many indicators, including, mass, taste, smell, composition, and energy content. On that basis, the concept of losing weight along thermodynamic lines appears straightforward—since energy, like mass, can neither be created nor destroyed, you reduce energy intake. The zingy acronym is CICO—Calories In, Calories Out.

Food can be further split into fat, carbs, and proteins—the general objective of weight loss is to reduce the first two rather than muscle mass. As often happens in these articles, I start writing about something, and after a couple of sentences where I’m dazzled by my originality, my next thought is ‘I wonder who’s done this before.’

Oh, only about a million people. First off, one huge red herring is the gym. This is music to the ear of the majority of people in the world, who simply hate exercise. An article in the MIT Technology Review emphasizes the futility of working out.

Want to lose a pound of fat? You can work it off by hiking to the top of a 2,500-story building. Or by running 60 miles. Or by spending 7 hours cleaning animal stalls… Exercise very hard for one hour (swimming, running, or racquetball) and you’ll lose about one ounce of fat. Light exercise for an hour (gardening, baseball, or golf) will lose you a third of an ounce. That number is small because fat is a very energy-dense substance: it packs about 4,000 food calories per pound, the same as gasoline, and 15 times as much as in TNT.

I thoroughly enjoy sports, but I too did those calculations years ago, during one of my periodic weight tiffs. If you use a machine such as an elliptical cross trainer, you get through a few hundreds of calories in an hour—that’s a couple of ounces of fat, but there’s no guarantee you’re losing fat. A half hour on a cross trainer equates to a half bottle of tinto.

The Physics Diet provides support to CICO, and explains how the author lost thirty pounds in less than six months by cutting out lunch and snacks.

But the whole mass balance thing is questioned by the self-appointed ‘diet doctor’, who argues that the first law of thermodynamics has nothing to do with weight loss. The site exists to sell a book, but who am I to criticize that? However, phrasing such as “What the CICO people think it means is that if you reduce calories in, you will lose weight. Of course, it means nothing of the sort” never fails to irritate me, just as “Anyone in their right mind” + any verb, and similar fallacies.

The doc’s thesis is that insulin is the key—without low insulin fats are not mobilized. But the diet doctor diagrams are disingenuous—an all-or-nothing choice which dictates that without low insulin, reducing calorie intake reduces metabolism. If your diet is high in carbohydrates, that may be the case, although a 2018 article in the prestigious journal Cell suggests the hormone Leptin is also involved in weight loss.

I don’t like to be excessively prescriptive, so my first dietary step was doing a simple mass balance and finding out what could be cut without severely impairing my quality of life. Wine is a design criterion, but the golden rule was to cut my food intake by one third. Another way to balance the food and wine dynamic works if you only drink while you eat—by eating less, you drink less, or vice-versa.

Diets come in fads, just as skirt heights do, and the current whim is protein. Marketing takes this to a new high (low), frightening people about whether they are eating enough of it. The P word is running riot—you can buy protein-enriched cheese, protein coffee, and even protein water.

If you worry whether you’re eating enough protein, you’re eating too much of it. In an article published this week by the Guardian, the numbers are plain to see.

…the puzzle is not that we should crave protein, but that our protein anxiety has become so acute at a time when the average person in developed countries has a surfeit of protein in their diet – at least according to official guidelines, which recommend a minimum of 0.8g of protein a day per kilogram of body weight. According to 2015 data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the average person in the US and Canada gets a full 90g a day, nearly twice the recommended amount (based on a supposedly normal adult weight of 62kg). The average European is not far behind with 85g of protein a day, and the average Chinese person consumes 75g.

Protein is the last of the three major food groups to be caught in the headlights. Fats are evil, carbs are nasty, hi-fat-lo-carb fans fight lo-fat-hi-carb champs, and we’ve lost sight of food and replaced it with molecules.

The Grauniad calls its piece the Long Read, and the article does justice to that name.

But it’s on fleek.

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

Deepfake

December 29, 2018

Manny is a French bulldog. Like thousands of other pets, he has an Instagram account—but unlike most of his fellow social media mavens, Manny can make up to fifteen thousand bucks for a sponsored post.

As we greet 2019, animals have social media accounts, cars dispense with drivers, and robots fight wars.

Human evolution is a slow process—it took two and a half million years for the genus Homo to appear—but we can expect stunning technological revolutions to continue at breakneck speed in the coming year.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ This became known as his third law—the other two are interesting also, as you would expect in a book entitled Profiles of the Future.

As an aside, I haven’t read this book (yet). Immediately after writing the sentence above, I searched for the title on my tablet app, but Kindle didn’t have it. I went onto Amazon—the UK site lists the book. I tried the US site. Hmm… that has it too. I bought it without realizing I was logged in with a different Amazon account. Weird. Since that account is not associated with my Kindle, the new purchase wouldn’t appear on the tablet. I canceled and got a refund. I logged on with my regular account. The book wasn’t available on US Amazon. The digiplot thickens…

Now, don’t ever change the email of your Kindle account without some deep thought—you lose all your library. So that’s out. Turns out my address for the account linked to the tablet was in the United States (the other wasn’t). Why? No clue. In fact, there was no address there, only a country (the US), but for copyright reasons that’s all it took to screw up my purchase—until I found this. I enjoy a little hackery, and everything worked great—the tab is now called Preferences, not Setttings. I love the guy’s made up address—I’ve often done that for other needs, but I always use the White House zip code.

The best thing about this trick is hopping digitally from country to country—I’m writing a chapter in ‘The Hourglass’ called Cheat the Robot, so this couldn’t be more timely. The point is that once a Kindle book is in, it’s in. If you change your country to effect a purchase, the Kindle library doesn’t delete past purchases that violate copyright due to your new location—I’ve just become a digital jet-setter.

Okay, back to Uncle Arthur. If you search for android on Google, it’s tough to retrieve the classic definition—a robot with human appearance—because Google just wants to sell you their operating system.

But in the field of communications, we are reaching an android stage—I speak, of course, about deepfake. Let’s start with a real peach.

The incredibly fast development of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, allows superb face mapping. What used to take months and millions now goes for virtually nothing—the implications for fake news are remarkable, since video is the last bastion of trust.

ACC3, Clarke’s third law, applies—a huge proportion of the lost souls out there, the Trump and Brexit bases, the Bolsonaro and Duterte disciples, will be perfectly fooled by this technology—to them, this will be real.

Libraries for neural networks are freely available—for instance Tensorflow, developed by the Google Brain team. The detail on the website is not for the faint of heart; if you skim it, you’ll see I’m right—the pace of human evolution is not keeping up.

The Tensorflow library was used to create a program called FakeApp, which in turn was used to map faces. Google gave us free libraries to apply neural networks to real world problems—humans rejoiced and applied it to pornography.

Homo sapiens has used every applicable form of art and science to further porn, whether as a simple static representation of sexual organs, objects, and acts, or as animations. Film allowed porn to penetrate, if you excuse the pun, into a new era, computers (to use another appalling pun) gave it a leg up, and the web became the democratization of pornography. The current rage is to replace the faces of porn stars with those of celebrities, which fulfills many a male fantasy—I underscore male, although women’s fantasies are also fair game.

If—and I boldly caution you with the word if—you wish to see the scale of the issue, just type deepfake porn into Google and then click the ‘images’ link. Do avoid trying this at the dinner table, or when explaining the internet to Auntie Ethel.

Several companies are (deeply) involved in deepfake porn—one of them, surprisingly enough, is Pornhub (I won’t link it). Among other things, it advertises the real sex video of Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels.

A word of advice: unless you’re that way inclined, don’t click on the site itself—instead, just google it with an (in)appropriate search term and peruse the results. Those kinds of sites may well plant malware on the machine you’re using, and we wouldn’t want Auntie Ethel’s new Christmas tablet to explode with a digital STD right before the year-end fireworks.

As we close out 2018, don’t forget it’s a dark and sinuous web out there—happy hunting and Happy New Year!

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

Christmas is for Children

December 22, 2018

It has become a tradition for me to write a gentler article here at this time of year.

I can use the word tradition because the first post was a decade ago, on October 27th, 2008. I had just finished The India Road and inadvertently started a parallel career as a writer. Three further books since then, with another at the fifty percent mark, and I wonder what took me so long. As for the blog, ten years means well over five hundred posts—at six hundred words each, that’s three hundred thousand words, the equivalent of a further three books.

One of these days I’m going to try for a ‘best of’, which I’ve tentatively called ‘Air and Thought’, due to my penchant for puns. The problem is the selection process—will this new book be cross-thematic, time-based, or focused on one subject such as travel or politics?

The magical appearance of a granddaughter last year changed my writing plans—six months before the birth I put The Hourglass on hold and began working on a children’s book.

I’ve always been very fond of kids—that’s dangerous language in politically correct times, when Santa Claus himself is in the cross-hairs, billed as an older man who breaks into houses at the dead of night to give presents to small children who he doesn’t know. And a serial intruder at that.

But nevertheless my statement holds true—kids’ imagination is uncontaminated by adult ‘education’, and in a small child’s eyes there is the belief that anything is possible.

I think the best children’s stories are those that fire the imagination, so that’s what I tried to do. And kids the world over love animals, as they should. Animals become, well… animated, and they take on human roles—they chat, they are opinionated, they drive vehicles—they become anthropomorphic.

I wrote a book with seven stories—short ones, because kids like to stick to the point—and called it Folk Tales for Future Dreamers.

There’s one story for each day of the week. The first tale is about a greedy rabbit, and provides a cautionary message about overeating. The rabbit is numerate, familiar with the use of currency, wise to the wily ways of supermarket sellers, and yet he is still a rabbit.

I first created the Rabbit Story when my own daughter was small, and she never once worried about the paradox of a rabbit with banking skills—that’s the wonder small children hold.

The book then rollicks through six more stories, all of which were conceived and developed last year.

A lemon tree talks to a small dog who has ambitions as a circus performer. There’s a little girl who wonders what happens to her milk teeth and goes on a journey of exploration. Jack and the Beanstalk become Yak and the Beansprout, a wholly unrelated narrative designed to impress values of racial tolerance and respect.

Hector the donkey, an apple-loving, hard-working character in The Old Music Box.

There’s a message for children about how life once was, many years ago—the message is delivered by a couple who live inside an old music box that hangs on the side of a baby cot—all children will find this eminently believable.

The next story is a life-lesson in making the best of what you’ve got, and the final tale is called The Shining Star. I’m going to leave you with an excerpt from that one, but before I do, I want to speak about illustrations.

The young lady who drew the cover art and all the other illustrations is called Sarah, and she is brimming with talent. I can’t conceive of a children’s book without images, because they too fire the imagination. It was my first foray into words and pictures, and it was a wonderful experience.

My first children’s book is best enjoyed in analog—no one has figured out a good way to combine text and pics in digital, largely because of the different page formats—the concept of page only makes sense in analog.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and I want to bring back the child within you, as you imagine yourself in an alien spaceship, about to travel through time at an impossibly (for a grown up) high speed.

“My real name is…” Maria heard a strange, high-pitched whistle. It fluttered like a flute, then ended with a small growl.

“Oh my, that’s very complicated.” Maria thought that sounded good—it was what her granny said whenever she worked the internet.

A bright blue eye flashed in the middle of the creature’s forehead.

“In that case, call me Zodir.”

Maria couldn’t believe her eyes. Eight green fingers, each like an asparagus, with a white tip on the end, and no nails. And now a blue flash whenever Zodir smiled.

She looked at the rest of his body. He had narrow shoulders, and around his neck was a small red bell. Well, it wasn’t really round his neck, because nothing seemed to be holding it there, but it was definitely a bell.

Zodir’s blue light flashed and the bell gave a little tinkle.

“Now then, shall we go? We haven’t much time.” He held out three fingers to her, while he used the other five to make a strange humming sound.

Suddenly a big blue disk was on the lawn beside them.

Maria got up and found she was hovering just above the grass. That’s when she noticed Zodir’s feet—well, foot, really, because her new friend had no legs at all. Below his waist, his body just went on, and then spread out into a large foot, like a mermaid’s fin.

The bright green foot was also suspended in mid-air; now it bent upward like an airplane flap, and Zodir leaned forward, his fingers still lightly touching her little hand.

The two of them darted into the disk, as if pushed by an invisible hand, and settled into long seats, lying flat on their backs and looking up at the stars.

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

Taking the Piss

December 15, 2018

Science always looks for patterns—it’s actually a human obsession. Games that line up cards, fill rows or columns, or match numbers are ubiquitous.

The deviation from patterns is also behind some of our fundamental discoveries, including electromagnetism—combining the two produces movement, and moving a magnet through a coil generates electricity.

Nature is rife with patterns—one of my favorites is the number of heartbeats over a mammal’s lifetime. From mouse to mongoose to moose, that number is similar—the heart muscle governs your lifespan, unless the gremlins get you first.

Another striking pattern is related to er… piss.

Your average peeing time is about twenty seconds. There is no evidence that this varies with gender, so my first question is ‘why are there always queues outside women’s toilets?’ A related question is whether the advent of unisex restrooms is discriminatory for men—there will be lots more guys hopping around waiting to relieve themselves.

The fascinating thing is that cats also take twenty seconds to have a pee, as apparently do elephants. Researchers at Georgia Tech, in the US, discovered a kind of ULU—the Universal Law of Urine. In experiments undertaken with thirty-two species, they found that 6.6 pounds is the weight cutoff threshold, if you excuse the pun.

Mammals above that threshold obey the twenty-second rule. Now, before I expound further on the golden delights, a caveat. I have a long experience in observing hound ablutions, and I assure you dogs are an exception to the ULU rule.

That’s not to say an uncommitted canine won’t micturate by the rules, but when it takes to the street, a hound is on a territorial mission—if dogs took twenty seconds to mark territory, given they are prone to doing so perhaps ten times, depending on the turnover of recently passed (sorry) competitors, their bladders would be capacious indeed.

So here’s the pattern and the paradox: a cat’s bladder is 3600 times smaller than an elephant’s—the pachyderm bladder holds thirty-eight (US) pints. So how in the world can Ellie have a five-gallon whiz in twenty seconds?

The answer lies in the length of the urethra. Fluid flow rates depend on the pressure gradient between the ends of the tube and on the resistance of the tube. This was analyzed in the early XIXth century by Poiseuille, who studied blood flow in humans. The French scientist considered horizontal flow, and a longer tube actually offers more resistance, but the key to the tale of the cat and the elephant is vertical discharge.

The larger bladder volume creates a greater head of pressure, and the length of the urethra creates a higher pressure gradient due to gravity.

The evolutionary consequences of this are far-reaching. In nature, a predator is always around the corner—it doesn’t pay to take too long to have a piss.

To stimulate your scientific quest, I am reproducing the first figure from the published article below. This, my friends, is serious piss!

Illustration of various aspects of the study, taken from the paper published by PNAS.

But fear not, much like the orange man (who may well graduate into an orange suit), my forays into the golden shower didn’t stop here—from mammal pee, I went way down the line to insects. How low can you get?

You guessed it, we’re back to Georgia Tech—with their penchant for piss, they should give Donald an honorary doctorate.

An expert in extreme biophysics discovered a bug that pees faster than a cheetah can sprint.

The insect is appropriately called a sharpshooter, and when a tree is suitably stocked, the resulting emission is known as ‘leafhopper rain.’ The little buggers (or is that piss artists) shoot at twenty times the acceleration of gravity. At two hundred meters per second squared, their jet also outsprints the cheetah by a factor of twenty.

There may be cutting-edge engineering lessons to be learned here, and then again there may be Ig Nobels waiting in the wings, if you excuse the pun.

Either way, that’s quite enough pissing about for one day.

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

Fish Don’t Fart

December 8, 2018

A glib statement.

When I first made it, I had no idea whether it was actually true. In the words of Abraham the Astronomer, when he addressed the bizarre theories of Christopher Columbus in The India Road, ‘A set of opinions uncontaminated by facts.’

The motivation for the statement, and for this piece, was flatulence—specifically bovine farts, which make a substantial contribution to greenhouse gases.

When we look to 2050, at which point there will be ten billion souls on this planet, beef cattle presents a dual challenge—food supply and climate change.

Bovines are our most inefficient use of food resources—one pound of beef requires about seven pounds of feed—double the requirement for pigs, four times what’s needed for chickens, and six times less efficient than raising salmon.

A blueprint for feeding the planet in 2050.

The World Resources Institute, a DC-based think tank, recently estimated that we need 56% more food by 2050, and that greenhouse gas emissions must fall by two-thirds—meat and dairy are responsible for sixty percent of the emissions from agriculture. WRI states that in the US beef provides 3% of the calories and accounts for half the emissions.

In Brazil, 21% of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to methane, aka farts. A further 20% result from transportation of cattle. Of course, with Bolsonaro wanting to pull Brazil out of the Paris agreement, as he plays his childish game of ‘Tropical Trump’, this will all become fake news.

When compared to carbon dioxide, methane has a huge effect on climate—twenty-three times more, pound for pound. A cow releases about two hundred pounds of methane per year—high school chemistry tells us that equals a gallon of daily farting.

Raising a cow for one year is the same as driving close to eight thousand miles, so the case for reducing cattle farming is strong. As an aside, for climate deniers like the orange man, the only reason so many cows are farmed is because people eat beef and dairy products—if we accept the premise that methane is a powerful (and pongy) greenhouse gas, then cattle ranching equals man-made.

Eating less beef means a more energy-efficient food production system, and a simultaneous and substantial reduction in greenhouse gases—but I’ll bet there will be a grass roots revolution, if you excuse the pun, if anyone tries to take away your cheeseburger.

WRI mentions plant burgers, but there’s no reference to aquaculture. However, fish may be one of the solutions for climate-smart food. But what about fishy flatulence? Do our fin-furnished friends produce rectal turbulence, deliver anal salutes, answer the call of the wild burrito, or any of the other 147 synonyms of fart?

I’m always amazed by how many people are drawn to questions of this nature. The present consensus is that fish by and large don’t exhume the dinner corpse, but there is a notable exception.

The herring is a farter extraordinaire—apparently schools of herring excel at turd tremors, and scientists believe that these fish farts are used for orientation at night.

Herring farts have in the past been mistaken for enemy submarines, and nearly caused a war between Sweden and Russia.

The whole thing was first published by researchers from the Scottish Association of Marine Science in 2003. The paper is clearly tongue in (butt) cheek, since it defines the acronym FRT (Fast Repetitive Tick) to refer to the bubbly bonanza.

The authors were awarded an Ig Nobel in 2004. In their article they speculate that fish leading the school may use farts to guide the other fish at night—apparently no farting takes place during daytime, when visual cues are abundant.

Herring belong to a group of fish called small pelagics, which include sardines, mackerel, and anchovy. These fish form huge schools, cover great distances, and move up and down the water column in search of food and to avoid predators. None of these characteristics make them suitable for cultivation, but that still leaves a range of other species to grace your dinner plate.

Fart-free fish farms thus appear to hold great promise in our simultaneous quest to feed the world and stay cool.

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

Dog Bless

December 2, 2018

“Can an animal be a true Christian?” The question was posed by ‘True Disciple’, an associate professor at the Landover Baptist University, and cites Mark 16:15-16, where the new testament urges us to ‘preach the gospel to every creature.’

The website is a spoof of a fundamentalist Baptist university—a thinly disguised version of Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell.

This is an example of the ‘seriously but not literally’ conundrum. The hilariously anxious professor, who is neither fond of ‘cathlyck heresy’ nor orthography, ponders his dilemma. “Can a grasshopper even understand who Jesus is? Do jellyfish burn in Hell when they reject Jesus?”

I stumbled upon this general theme a couple of weeks ago, when I posed the hypothetical question ‘I wonder if there are Americans who baptize their dogs’. Yes, yes, I know I should get out more.

But the answer flew into my head. “I bet they do.” The devil found work for idle hands as they frenzied on the cellphone. Yes, dogs do get baptized. And christened.

I found the landover.net site worrying at first, then downright side-splitting.   Joining the discussion is a televangelist who pitches his stuff as: “Turn or Burn: Accept Christ or Go to Hell with Rev. Jim Osborne.” Unfortunately, he appears to have attended the same grammar classes as ‘True Disciple’, so his support, for lack of punctuation, guarantees your condemnation.

Well what if your parrot suddenly squawks ”I believe, I believe” should you -Take him to Church for Baptism
-Smite it as a familiar to Satan trying to deceive you
-Move his cage away from the TV when Rev. Jim is Preaching

But of course truth is stranger than fiction, and dogs do get baptized—have a look at the baptism of this chihuahua.

And that’s not the only canine getting a dunk. Pet baptism is on the increase, but bringing religion to animals is not new. St. Francis of Assisi started the trend back in the XIIth century, but the sermon below is from his contemporary, St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231).

My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment. God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm.

At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise.

There is a heated discussion on this topic in some Christian communities, and animal welfare is at its core. Traditionally, the Catholic church taught that animals have no soul—as a consequence, they cannot go to heaven.

Islam has a similar position—here, the justification is accountability—because the admission to heaven or hell is a reckoning and animals are not responsible for their actions, they have access to neither.

Pope Pius IX, who was pontiff in the mid-XIXth century, strongly opposed the creation of the Italian ENPA, and although Pope John Paul II contradicted him in 1990 when he stated that animals are ‘as near to God as men are‘, his successor Benedict was swift to invert that position.

If animals have no soul and are seen only as ‘things’, religious men feel justified in their abuse of our four-legged friends. If they do have a soul, then they must be cleansed of their sins—they must be baptized.

Two philosophical questions arise. First, if animals are baptized so they can be saved, then there must exist (at least) two houses in the afterlife—animal heaven and hell. Second, does this apply only to mammals, or does it run through the animal kingdom?

I admit I hadn’t considered the possibility of marine fauna burning in hell—I envisaged a watery inferno that would torture the fishy sinners with pollution, nuclear waste, and climate change—oh, hang on! They already have that.

I’m guilty of barbecuing our fishy friends on a regular basis, since I am an inveterate piscivore, a chap of the ichthyophagous persuasion. To make matters worse, I am also an  invertebrate piscivore—but I digress.

The skinny, if you excuse the pun, is that I consign teleosts, elasmobranchs, cephalopods, and other pescatarian pearls—and the oysters that contain them—to the fires of hell with unsettling regularity.

From a theological perspective, marine animals are undoubtedly wanton and assiduous sinners. They certainly violate the first commandment, since they appear to have no god and no visible places of worship—neither do they possess a hierarchy that might lead them in prayer. The fourth is out, since the sabbath appears to be just another day—fish have schools on Sunday, but not Sunday School.

As for numbers V to VIII: ‘honor thy father and thy mother’, ‘thou shalt not kill’, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’, and ‘thou shalt not steal’, what can I say? In many species cannibalism is endemic, which zaps V and VI.

When it comes to the Big Seven, we are, if you will, in even deeper water.

A number of fish species are hermaphroditic—if you hurl a grievous insult such as “Fuck You!” at a clownfish, it will reply “Gladly!” Fish can and do change sex to maintain ecological balance, and have no qualms about shagging everything in sight. If you discharge your sperm into water where millions of eggs await fertilization, it takes adultery to a whole new level—every fish is a son of a bitch.

Finally, in the animal kingdom, theft is widely practiced and punishable with death—it’s a kind of salmon sharia law. I come to the sad conclusion that fish are very unlikely to enter the kingdom of heaven. And if they do, given the historical precedent, St. Peter may very well have brought along his fishing rod.

Perhaps I am unconsciously doing god’s work, and I am in fact lucifertarian.

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


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