Meet the Larpers

March 20, 2022

This was originally a pre-war blog, but it was overtaken by events. I’ve been too busy over the last few days to follow the news, but it appears the Russians continue to pound since they can’t gain ground.

There’s lots going on that we don’t know about, including the supply of advanced weapons to the Ukraine by the West, and the consequences to Russian heavy armor.

Within Russia itself, the situation is increasingly complex—social media is like coronavirus, it thrives in the background even as Vlad’s coterie try to suppress it—the true story gets through, and multiple sanctions are beginning to bite.

It is vitally important we continue to talk about the war—I did so last week in a public address in Holland: “However complex the problem we are discussing here, remember it pales into insignificance compared to what is presently happening in Europe.”

In that context, I encourage you to listen to (or read) an excellent piece by Stephen Kotkin.

Now, let’s git larpin’.

I got into this through an excellent podcast from the BBC called The Coming Storm, narrated by Gabriel Gatehouse. The general theme of the show is the 2020 assault on the capitol during the US senate vote, but it provides a backdrop starting with the Clintons as Bill made his way from governor of Arkansas to president of the United States.

A movie entitled The Clinton Chronicles, shot by a religious right fanatic called Patrick Matrisciana, tracks a—quite literally—incredible story of cocaine, prostitutes, money laundering, murder, and general mayhem attributed in full to the Clinton couple. I would classify it as WAGWET (watchable garbage with elements of truth)—most disinformation material has those characteristics—and I won’t link it, but it is reasonably easy to find based on the information above.

The film was released in 1994—the net was taking its first baby steps, with the appearance of NCSA Mosaic and the meteoric growth of the world wide web, and those who wanted to step into that mysterious world needed to delve into the wonders of modems and BAUD rates—there was a whole lotta (hand)shakin going on.

At the time, it made some headway, but its day in the sun came much later on, driven by web sites such as 4chan and 8chan, now 8kun, and by QAnon. Once more, I provide no links because these sites are infamous for neo-Nazism, white supremacy, mass shootings, and child porn—Frederick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, is interviewed in the BBC podcast—not pretty.

LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, derives from computer gaming, but the application of LARP to politics, and now to war, is the goldmine—QAnon recently managed to transition a spoof on US biological weapons in Ukraine straight into Fox News.

The Ukrainian Nazi fairytale, or the massacres of ethnic Russians, are neat LARPs, as is the satan-worshipping, child-molesting Clinton LARP—gullible citizens then literally move to live action, from the sad-sack Comet Pizzagate episode to the horrifying January 6th attack on the US capitol.

In a 1990s book called The Sovereign Individual, William Rees-Mogg argued that the digital revolution will be a much faster paradigm shift than its industrial and agricultural predecessors. Mogg, who was the father of the recently appointed Brexit opportunities minister Jacob, speculated that the empowerment provided by the internet would shift power towards individuals and business, drawing it away from government—Brexit, which his son enthusiastically supports, is an actionable example of this trend.

In the case of QAnon, a man named Jim Watkins who ran servers out of the Philippines was allegedly behind the LARPing lark, and the results are both profound and persistent.

Watkins and others understood that in today’s social media befuddlement of factoids, good LARPs control the narrative.

And he who controls the narrative controls the world.

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

War In Our Time

March 12, 2022

A century ago we had a war followed by a pandemic. This time it’s very different—a pandemic followed by a war—that’s ’cause we’re civilized now.

And there’s a few other differences, too—where a fuckhead like Hitler relied on a conventional army through most of WWII, only dabbling with missiles and nuclear weapons at the very end, and too late to move the scoreboard—Putin has the world’s biggest collection of nukes.

The irony is that the Ukraine was itself flush with nuclear weapons prior to 1994—Wikipedia tells us that:

Ukraine held about one third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world at the time, as well as significant means of its design and production. 130 UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with six warheads each, 46 RT-23 Molodets ICBMs with ten warheads apiece, as well as 33 heavy bombers, totaling approximately 1,700 warheads remained on Ukrainian territory…

I bet they miss ’em now.

Kim Jong-un sits there and grins. “See, I told you so,” he says, as he munches his Matdongsan.

For a weaker country invaded by a powerful neighbor, it’s the only game in town. Then again, if the Ukes had the Nukes, World War Three would have already begun—nukes are only valuable as a deterrent because MAD is a zero sum game.

Distribution of the planet’s 17,000 nukes (courtesy Business Insider)

If we go by numbers alone, Russia inherited the USSR’s arsenal and according to Business Insider boasts almost 8500 warheads. However, Kristensen & Korda put the number at 4477. There are also questions about the quality of these weapons. Nevertheless, when compared to the rest of Europe, ninety percent of the atomic armor is in Russia.

The thing about nukes is that it only takes one to ruin your day. A few well-aimed missiles could wreak havoc from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, by way of Moscow and Minsk. Of course, since Russia owns thousands, it could turn Europe into another Hiroshima—if we cast Putin as a Bond villain, laughing manically as Europe collapses, then it all makes sense.

The Russian president is clearly delusional, and he wields a lot of power—but he understands how much damage a couple of hits on Russia would cause. Putin would have preferred to start this war with the orang-u-tan in the White House, despite the fact that Biden is no wartime president—then again, the USA isn’t in the war.

Trump has come out indirectly in support of Putin, calling him a genius for taking direct action and suggesting a parallel with Mexico—one of his more bizarre twists, along with his subsequent one hundred and eighty about ‘holocaust‘ and his most recent rant about windmills.

I have no doubt Putin would have invaded Ukraine if the orange man was in power, and I shudder at the idea of Trump as the leader of the free world on the eve of a global conflagration. The former US president never supported NATO, considered Europe a bunch of cheats and scroungers, and would have done a covid on the old continent—flip-flopped his way to tragedy.

Lord knows the tragedy is here already—for China, this is a real-world test of American resolve. The temptation to do a uke in Taiwan—particularly as the war develops in Eastern Europe—must have the Chinese hawks swooping on the doves. I can hear them in the war rooms, in the closed meetings of the Zhongnanhai—there’s never been a better time, Mr.Chairman. Carpe diem.

“Close the skies,” the Ukrainian president begs, as the missiles pound his cities. “That would be the start of World War III,” chorus Biden and NATO, while the EU makes docile noises about adhesion.

After Ukraine falls, Russia will once more have a border with Poland, and an appetite for annexing the ‘little friends’, the Baltic states who showed how easy it is to thrive when you come out from under the paw of the bear.

At that stage, Putin will test NATO’s resolve—Germany has already put one hundred billion euros into its defense spending, up from forty-seven billion in 2021. The country has no nukes, but they could quickly get some—after all, they invented the damn things.

The stage is being set, with Poland once again being the larger prize—memories of the Nazi invasion of Sudetenland, followed by the start of World War II on September 1st, 1939.

Churchill told Europe, when Romania chose to appease Hitler, “Every nation feeds the crocodile, in the hope the crocodile will eat them last.”

As soon as the Ukraine’s done, Russia will have de facto borders with NATO. It will also have tens of millions of Ukrainians whose lives have been destroyed, families murdered, and hopes shattered.

All the trappings of the crime of the century.

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

Victor

February 26, 2022

I have a Dutch friend called Victor. His parents gave him that name because he was born on VE day, when Holland regained its independence from the Nazis.

If you’ve been with me on this journey over the years, you know I recurrently address war, because human history is in its most elemental form, the History of War.

Refugees don’t leave until it’s too late, hoping against hope the inevitable is evitable—life is non-linear, we are not.

As the crowds press against the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, the able-bodied men are turned back—anyone between the ages of eighteen and sixty is expected to defend the homeland.

The refugees echo that empty look you see in dog-eared photographs of World War II. Their eyes are hollow—how could this happen to me? Their heads are in turmoil, people at bus stations, train platforms, and border posts—there’s always a backpack or a small suitcase.

Behind them all their lives, all their memories. Dogs and cats will have been left behind in their thousands, poor pets wandering around Kiev today, unable to understand why they won’t be walked, fed, and given love—soon they will turn feral, as the grim reality sets in and hunger gnaws at their gut.

The Russian pincer movement—people are dying as I write these words.

I have done business with the Ukraine for a couple of decades now, and last week I sent a friend a message of hope and solidarity—although my hope was long gone. Ukrainians are not great talkers, and his reply was simple.

“Hope everything will resolve peacefully but we are ready to defend.”

Many Ukrainians share that feeling—these are stoic, brave people. Like any nation with a powerful neighbor, they know what happens when you let a bully push you around. So they will fight, and they will die.

Ukraine has a violent history. The vast plains of wheat are a battleground since the days of Genghis Khan—in 1240, Kiev was destroyed by the Mongol invaders. From Genovese colonies on the Black Sea to the recent occupation of Crimea, the history of the country is one of strife. In the last few hundred years, Ukraine has been occupied by Poles and Lithuanians, repeatedly invaded by Tatars, and caught up in territorial battles between Poland and Russia, with Cossacks thrown in for good measure.

The diversity of the inhabitants mirrors this—Turks, Germans, Poles, Russians, Greeks have over the centuries become part of this melting pot.

In the two world wars, Ukraine was split in its loyalties, with some fighting for Austria and Germany and others fighting for Russia—but fight they did.

Many years ago I read the stories of Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where Nazi forces committed large-scale atrocities on Russians and Jews. In my early teens, I never forgot the narrative of survivors buried under the mass of people shot by the Germans.

There was also a story about a soccer match—Ukrainian prisoners had played a match against their Nazi camp guards. By half-time, the Ukrainians were winning—unsurprising, since a number of the players were members of a crack football team, Dynamo Kiev.

The original poster for the death match.

In the days of the Iron Curtain, all the football teams from the communist East Bloc were either Locomotiv or Dynamo—there was a clear Soviet fixation with electrical equipment.

The way I heard the story, the SS guards instructed the Ukrainians to lose the game, but the Dynamo team ignored the recommendation, won the match, and was subsequently murdered by a Nazi firing squad. As I relive these tales on the internet, I find them more nuanced—like King Canute, the sensitive Viking, it now appears that the whole killing thing was somewhat different—but there seems to be no question about the murder of a number of Ukrainian soccer stars.

During the days of the Warsaw Pact—the USSR’s response to NATO—the joke was that it was the only defense alliance that attacked itself. Just ask the Czechs and Hungarians.

But this is a different world from 1968, and the geopolitical panorama now includes sanctions and targeting of individuals. Putin is an old man of seventy years, and this is his last shout—this makes him a desperate man, but like his KGB predecessor Andropov, he has misjudged his opponent, the world around him, and his own people.

Perhaps he’s fallen prey to the curse of every dictator—the sycophants he surrounds himself with and his own delusion of immortality. Russian soldiers are coming back in body bags, and social media will show ordinary Russian citizens the forbidden images banned from RT.

Contrary to the orangutan’s ridiculous comments earlier in the week, Putin made the wrong move on the chessboard. In any competition, from soccer to tennis to chess, you must have an end game.

I’ve long been a student of the noble board and there are numerous books on the matter. Bush senior had an Iraq end game, Bush junior did not. Afghanistan was a gung ho mess that ended in humanitarian disaster and a failed state.

Russia has the firepower to occupy the key Ukrainian cities, and can certainly remove President Zelenskyy from power. And then? A Russian puppet in Kiev? Russia’s borders will extend to the south and the whole notion of a buffer state between Russia and NATO disappears—Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Slovakia are all members—suddenly, instead of a tentative discussion on one NATO neighbor, Putin finds himself in the unenviable position of having four de facto members—all enamored of Article 5.

So what’s the next move, Vladimir? Starting the third world war is an option, and the man is mad enough to consider it. There’s no doubt Russia has an impressive assemblage of nukes, and nuclear war in Europe is a terrible prospect, but again, it’s a war no one can win—back in the cold war days, it was called Mutually Assured Destruction—the acronym MAD was not set by chance.

In other republics, the rumblings have started. Ukraine’s neighbor Georgia—itself severely punished by the Russians in 2008—is one to watch, and then there’s Chechnya, where Putin made his bones.

Catherine Belton’s wonderful book, Putin’s People, takes us on a sinister journey through the dictator’s life, from the old DDR to St. Petersburg, the power grab from Yeltsin, and the following decades. If Belton were Russian, she’d be dead by now.

And so we come to the final chapter, as yet unwritten.

Zelenskyy is an ex-comedian.

Alive or dead, he’ll have the last laugh.

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

Kwasa Kwasa

February 19, 2022

Michela Wrong’s book ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’ provides a great narrative of the ups and downs of Kenyan politics and the toxic relationship that the country had, and probably retains, with ‘donors’.

Above all, it helps us understand the very complex history of sub-Saharan Africa—because although the specificities differ, there are a number of broad strokes painted across the entire landscape.

XVIth century Portuguese soldier in the Congo—figurine in the Quai Branly Museum, Paris

When the Portuguese of The India Road first arrived in West Africa—and these bearded white men who docked at São Jorge da Mina, with their breastplates and crossbows, were the first foreigners the local tribesmen had ever seen—the European love affair with Africa began.

Unrequited love, that is, because the new arrivals spelled nothing but trouble. After the Portuguese came the Dutch, English, French—even the Belgians, who managed to kill more people in under a century than any of the other white tribes.

The Arabs too had made East Africa their own—the derogatory South African word kaffir comes from the Arabic for unbeliever, and the Portuguese used an adaptation of the word—cafre. But the Arab exploration of southern Africa was hamstrung by the dhow, a boat with no deck—suitable for the Red Sea and the Gulf, perhaps, but once the Indian Ocean widened and the storms of the Agulhas struck, the glorified rowing boats shipped water and sank. As a result, Islam never made it south of King Solomon’s mines.

After the world wars, independence wars, and all the other wars, African nations emerged scarred, confused, and divided. Different administrative structures had been left by the colonists, including a plethora of religions, education systems, and common and Roman law.

The locals were poorly educated and ill-equipped to deal with institutional models that were not their own, were highly complex, and organized their society along Western guidelines.

In addition, the European conquerors fractured communities, imposing arbitrary boundaries with complete disrespect for tribal heartlands, and defined national borders with set square and ruler. As an example, the Luo people, from whom President Obama hails, are distributed all around Lake Victoria, including Uganda, western Kenya, and northern Tanzania.

Distribution of ethnic groups (a polite way of saying ‘tribes’) in Kenya (map courtesy of the BBC).

As the newly independent African nations split along tribal lines, western businesses expanded in a formulaic manner by bribing officials, taking advantage of abundant natural resources and cheap labor, and repatriating vast profits to Europe, North America, or offshore jurisdictions.

In parallel, the World Bank, IMF, and many well-intentioned charities—collectively termed ‘donors’—poured money into teetering African economies. In her book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wrong tells the astonishing tale of the Congo under Mobutu.

Until cancer got him, Mobutu was the quintessential African dictator—charismatic, ruthless, kleptocratic, and eternal. His capacity to out-ruse the West, as well as his political enemies, was remarkable.

The Congolese are experts in the art of se débrouiller—take matters into your own hands, or more colloquially, get by on a wing and a prayer. The concept is consigned in a (fake) constitutional article—the message was “Vous êtes chez vous, débrouillez vous.”

They are also legendary for music and dance, and have spread this very Congolese art form to neighboring countries, Europe, and North America. Quoi ça quoi ça has been bastardized into Kwasa Kwasa, and is one of many musical genres invented in Zaire, DRC, or whatever flavor du jour the Congo is called tomorrow.

Congolese rumba, soukous, and ndombola are related genres made famous by artists like the late Papa Wemba.

In the DRC and elsewhere, the donor money continues to enrich the well-heeled, and the aim of self-sufficiency remains elusive. When things go wrong, debts are forgotten and the slate is wiped clean—foreign policy is a long game and memories only last until today’s World Bank official is replaced.

As the XXIst century goes into its own roaring twenties, complete with pandemic and now with an imminent European war, Africa continues to be a playground for power grabs and predators, and poverty and suffering are the fare of ordinary folk.

The latest arrivals come from the east rather than the west and their presence is ubiquitous and inescapable.

They bring moneys too. To lend, not give. And they bring people—not to make the locals work, as the previous colonials did, but to take their jobs instead.

When the Perfect Prince came to Africa, Portugal had 1.2 million people.

The continent’s new friends have 1.4 billion.

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

Too Long In Exile

February 12, 2022

It’s early morning in Copenhagen, and the government has abolished Covid. I walked right through the airport a few days ago without a hint of vax pass or PCR blah. Mind you, it was pushing midnight, and all well-behaved Danes are in slumberland.

It’s been so weird to suddenly be unmasked, to see women smile at me again, to not even worry about peepee (sorry, I meant PPE). And yet, in about one day, it became normality and I re-adjusted. Totally. Humans are such social animals, I half-expect to see them all grooming at breakfast.

The fact that the Danes and Swedes declared the pandemic over kind of freaks me out—they didn’t do it UK-style, to divert attention from the worzel‘s lockdown parties, attended by mediocre people fueled on mediocre booze—they did all the sciency bit and made a law.

I was going to compare this declaration to the arrogance of the (Danish) King Canute, sitting at the water’s edge in southern England and commanding the tide to recede, but apparently I had it ass-over-tit—Canute enjoyed being drenched to make the point that kings are not omnipotent—who knew that Viking kings were caring, sensitive, and politically correct?

Anyhow, pretty soon Putin will also declare the pandemic extinct, along with the Ukraine, and we’ll all be fine. I’m just worried that, in the words of Samuel Clemens, Miss Covid (for it is she) may waltz onto the world stage again, singing “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” to the tune of I get around.

Covid is now endemic in Scandinavia, so that’s okay—the issue becomes what Africans call a first-world problem—it doesn’t come with a death sentence.

I made the mistake of telling a Danish friend that the hippo was the animal that killed most people in Africa—she immediately fired back, “Number two. First one is the mosquito.”

Near Kisumu, malaria capital of Kenya and home of the Luo people, the mozzies await their bounty.

She’s dead right, if you excuse the pun. Hippos take about five hundred lives every year, malaria kills five hundred thousand. And folks everywhere adjust. A stone’s throw from Lake Victoria, I sit outside on a balmy evening, at an esplanade restaurant packed with locals. As I eat my Nile perch and munch on a very Kenyan new-found delight—turbo nan, stuffed with chili peppers—I watch the mosquitoes doing their deadly dance next to a cooler full of Tusker beer, and marvel at human resilience.

Heading west on C27 out of Kisumu, folks keep jumping out on to the road and bowing low, arms held high in the air. Every time we go through a village, the cattle and chickens grazing by the roadside, sometimes watched by a placid baboon, the same thing happens.

There must be something about our black SUV and the tinted windows that triggers this adoration—is it homage to Japanese engineering? Early morning calisthenics? Suicidal jaywalking? Oh no, much simpler than that—it’s politics.

In Kenya, a general election is coming—in August, but people are getting oh so ready. Western Kenya is Luo country—the people of the lake. Here, male surnames start with an ‘O’, as in Obonyo, Odoyo, and… Obama—his father was born in a village one hour’s drive from Kisumu.

The names have meanings, as they should—these three examples mean ‘born during a locust plague’, ‘born during weeding’, and ‘twisting’—I’m sure the Breitbart brigade would have a field day with that one.

The Luo are the liberal arts tribe: the doctors, academics, lawyers. They’re cerebral, and the joke in-country is that it’s easier for a Luo to be elected president of the United States than to do so in Kenya—this harks back (at least) to the terrible violence in 2007 that followed the Kibaki versus Odinga election.

On the shores of Lake Victoria, Sindo fishers bring in omena, a small freshwater sardine that is dried as staple protein in the great lake regions.

The other major tribes, out of a total of forty-two (+), are the Kikuyu, Luhya, and Kalenjin. The Kikuyu number about eight million, slightly less that twenty percent of the population, and are renowned for their business skills—they’re the folks who do the commerce, the negotiations—smart as a whip.

I had my ear out for a distinctive vocal trait—like the Chinese, many Kikuyu trade ‘R’ for ‘L’ when they speak English. “This load is so busy in the lush hour,” I was told, as we left JKIA in the early morning. I smiled happily and felt right at home.

The cab driver was a mzee—an old man. Kenyans will tell you that Swahili, which has a lot of Arab words, is a very easy language because you speak exactly as you write. For the most part, that’s true, but mzee is pronounced mzé, an in ‘elephant’.

Africa lives and dies young, so I was curious.

“When do you become a mzee?”

“At forty-five.” Joseph was peremptory.

“We slaughter a goat to celebrate,” he added.

Kikuyu are born negotiators, so I was sure I could trade that up to fifty, but in any case my non-mzee days were done. Oh well, youth is wasted on the young—and I’m owed a goat.

Three things struck me about the Kenyan people—genuinely nice, easy to talk to, and a great sense of humor. Highly educated—even in the beach communities where the samaki is artisanally farmed, the knowledge was stunning—the potential is everywhere for a great future. And vibrant—Kenya moves!

Already in the airport precinct, I poked my nose into a bar landside to score a couple of Tuskers for an old friend. He grew up in Kenya, and the prospect of nipe Tusker baridi might well warm his heart.

“Bottles, not cans.”

The two youngsters behind the bar insisted I could not take bottles with me. They pushed cans at the stubborn mzee.

“Only cans, there’s a deposit on the bottles. Only to drink here.”

“I need the bottles. It’s special,” I said. “Eight hundred for the beer, right?”

The boys nodded.

“Okay, here’s a thousand. The change is yours.”

The boys looked at each other and half-smiled.

I smiled back.

There I was, in a holding pattern with two young kikuyu negotiators.

“Tell you what.” I peeled another two hundred bill from my pocket.

Asante sana, I have a plane to catch.”

The soon-to-be-mzees (only twenty-five years to go, kids) grinned at each other, shrugged, and pushed the bottles across the bar. There goes another crazy mzungu.

A prominent sign lays down the law as you enter the airport perimeter. Good to know.

My heart was heavy as I took off, peering out the little window at the feverish activity below, the airport road vendors pushing peanuts and PPE at the jammed-up vehicles, even the Marabou storks choking on diesel.

Zebras on one side, airplanes on the other, Tuskers in the hold… my kind of chaos.

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

Novax

January 15, 2022

As the world enters its third year of pandemic, it’s plain to see human nature remains unchanged, when compared to a century ago.

It is also clear that COVID-19 will be with us this year, and that the trajectory it follows is very similar, if not identical, to the Spanish Flu. Sources differ in their estimate of the duration of the 1918 pandemic, but the consensus is two to three years.

Based on the science, it is reasonable to expect Covid to last about three years—variants are less virulent, infection is becoming more widespread, and vaccination is in general protecting people from hospitalization and death.

In the US, the death rate for vaccinated people is almost zero per hundred thousand, whereas unvaxed folks are at 3 to 4 per 100,000.

The Cleveland Clinic review lists the measures used a century ago to prevent spread.

Isolation, or staying away from crowds of people. This included closing places like schools and gyms.

Washing your hands completely and often.

Wearing protection like masks and gloves.

Not touching outside items like library books.

Not spitting in public.

The first three actions are part of our day-to-day, and gloves aren’t such a bad idea. Library books are not a good example in these digital days, but cellphones are Covid heaven—contaminated hand to mouth and very possibly foot.

Thankfully, hawking is no longer commonplace in the West, but by god you see the stuff flying around in Asia.

The key differences between then and now are all driven by science and technology—exactly the things that anti-vaxers claim to be fake. Covid has killed as many people in the United States as the Spanish Flu did, although percentually today’s numbers are significantly less because the US population is much higher.

So the vaccine is key to strongly reduce hospitalization and mortality, which in turn converts the pandemic into an endemic disease. It’s worth taking a minute to define terms—in particular to distinguish among pandemic, epidemic, endemic, and outbreak. An epidemic e.g. of measles affects a country or region, whereas a pandemic is a world event. An endemic disease such as malaria, cholera, or yellow fever is present in a region—in some cases there’s no vaccine, in others there is.

An outbreak is a one-off event in a country where the disease is not normally present—for instance a series of cases of malaria in the US or Western Europe would qualify as an outbreak.

Epidemics are often the curse of developing countries—think Ebola—and as such merit little airtime on Western media. The blunt truth is that if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t care.

But Covid is responsible not just for deaths, but for a host of other casualties. The Australian debacle features the Australian government, eager to win the upcoming election, the state of Victoria, Tennis Australia, and Djokovic, eager to win the upcoming tournament—and a man whose stance on vaccination has done him no favors and sets the worst possible example.

The orangutan too was a virus vanquished victim—largely through his own actions, and lack of them—to quote an old saw, denial is a river in Africa. Just goes to show there is a god, even if she’s Chinese.

The next one to tumble may well be Eton’s answer to Worzel Gummidge, the ineffable Boris Johnson.

The disregard shown by Downing Street towards the rules the government made and enforced is a blatant example of the entitlement and snobbery of the British ruling class. Wine-Time Friday is the latest episode in a soap that is a national embarrassment, but is totally predictable from a man who epitomizes buffoonery.

As we learn to live with Covid—and the conversation will remain with us at least during 2022, and probably 2023—we have discovered the concept of variants. Of course, anyone who takes the flu vaccine knows there is a new one every year. This is not a booster, but a tailored potion designed to target a variant.

I believe that the booster approach will become scientifically questionable, since the same vaccine is being delivered, from the moment the virus mutation begins to differ significantly from the original target—that may well already be the case. The flu-vax paradigm seems a much better way to go.

When the variants started being named sequentially like hurricanes, folks lost touch with the evolution of the virus—the only exception might be the Greeks, since their alphabet is used—if you want to sound sciency, thrown in a Greek letter or five.

Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet, equivalent to our letter ‘D’. Omicron is way down the line, equivalent to the letter ‘O’.

There are ten Greek letters between the two.

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

Green Blood

January 8, 2022

I’ve flown over the Congo many times, but I’ve never been tempted to land.

Ever since Belgium’s King Leopold and his acolytes raped and pillaged the country, the Congo has a tragic history of misdeeds.

Sixteen years ago, the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond painted a dark picture of the international gem trade, using Sierra Leone—Lion Mountain—to cast light on a heady mix of diamonds, weapons, and war.

The story of valuable commodities, the weapons they buy, and the wars that result from them are an African paradigm—the richer the country, the poorer its people. The Democratic Republic of Congo—I’m always suspicious when the D word is part of the country’s name—has a per capita GDP of 560 US dollars; Greece, the lamest duck in the EU, has almost eighteen grand—double Turkey and half of Italy.

Like any country where governance is just a long word, the DRC has a huge swathe of folks—eighty percent of the poor—working informal jobs.

Out of the population of ninety million, eighty percent are poor, which means that around fifty-seven percent work outside the tax circuit—well over half the Congolese are off the grid.

The wealth of the Congo lies in minerals, be they diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, or coltan. The last two ‘C’s are the icing on the cake—coltan for extracting tantalum, used to build capacitors for cellphones, laptops, and car electronics, and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, the darlings of the green revolution.

The worst possible scenario for electric vehicles, where the battery is made in China (i.e. a large carbon footprint) and the car is driven in Poland, where electricity is produced in outdated coal-fired plants. If the best case is considered, where both battery manufacture and driving takes place across the Baltic in Sweden, electric cars emit 80% less carbon dioxide than their hydrocarbon brethren.

Historically, mining has been the province of Western companies—sixty percent of miners are quoted on the Canadian stock exchanges, either Vancouver or Toronto—but over the last two decades, the Chinese have come to town.

China is well ahead of the US when it comes to sourcing cobalt—both Obama and the Orange Man missed the boat on this one. Companies such as China Molybdenum own vast assets in the DRC, such as the Tenke Fungurume mine. A mine worker makes under four dollars a day and the cobalt is used for batteries that power Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes cars.

Ironically, cobalt is used to stop batteries igniting but its stock price is on fire—in the five years before 2016, one metric ton cost less that $35,000, right now it sets you back almost ninety grand.

Since you can find cobalt anywhere in parts of the DRC, one of the key sources is artisanal mining, performed by ordinary people who have no training in mineral extraction—they are ‘creuseurs‘, who hard-scrabble the chocolate-brown powder out of the ground.

One guy in Kolwezi, a southern Congolese city near Angola, was digging a latrine inside his home in 2014 when eight feet down he struck… chocolate. What he found was a rock called heterogenite—I suppose the name means a mixed bag—that can be refined into cobalt.

He proceeded to create a mini-mine inside his house—rented house, that is, and you thought putting up pictures was evil—and started a profitable business selling cobalt. When his vertical seam ran out, he expanded his subterranean gilt goose sideways and tunneled below the neighbors—by the time the landlord caught up with him, his tenant had flown the coop, or in this case the mine, and was by Congolese standards a very wealthy man.

The president of the DRC, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, meeting with the CEO of CMOC, Sun Ruiwen, plus brainy-hotty interpreter, two days before Christmas 2021—and a Merry Xmas to all.

Although not always this creative (home is where the shaft is), artisanal miners, like bitcoin enthusiasts, are beavering away as we speak, to bring us the chocolate we so badly need.

Right now, climate change is taking us into yet another (un)virtuous cycle of “exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship“, much like the discoveries of the XVth century.

The building blocks of the oil economy are the hydrocarbons in the Mid-East, where vast Western conglomerates still have much to say.

For our new toys, we need nickel, lithium, copper, and cobalt. In the case of cobalt, over sixty percent comes from the DRC and (go figure) an equivalent proportion is processed in the Middle Kingdom.

The Western World is building a new green economy around resources it no longer controls.

China won’t make the same mistake.

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

Murka

January 5, 2022

Often spelt Murica.

dictionary.com defines it as “a slang way of referring to America, implying extreme patriotism and stereotyping how white southerners might say the word”, and pronounces it [ mur-ih-kuh].

But Miami doesn’t feel much like murka—English is thin on the ground, frequently absent altogether—the city and adjoining beaches are a Hispanic stronghold, and it seems as if the previous owners departed with no forwarding address.

I was last in town a couple of decades ago, and much like the marsh grass creeping in as the sea level rises, so immigration has systematically changed the nature of this city.

Race is a constant issue in the US, finding its way into the most unusual spots. I was on a couple of websites over the weekend planning for a COVID test—Florida is fast and loose with the virus—masks are thin on the ground and no one is unduly concerned. The consequence is that the most recent flavor, the big O, is running wild—the seven-day moving average is the highest on record, with 43,168 cases.

Both websites asked me to identify my race, out of a panoply that includes Caucasian (one site said ‘White’), Black, Hispanic, Chinese, and a bunch of races I didn’t know existed. Why this should be needed is completely beyond me—I think the more you underscore race, the more it begets racism.

Miami Beach reflects this troubled history, in much the same way as the US itself. The beach was once a set of barrier islands inhabited by the Seminole Indians. As the whites arrived, mangroves were cut and coconut palms planted. Over the years, canals were dug to help move produce to market—no longer coconuts, but avocados, brought in by John Collins—the man who gave the aorta of Miami Beach its name.

The dredged spoils were used to reclaim land and the island grew—literally. It didn’t take long before the tycoons from the Northeast imagined a whole new concept—a beach resort that ran all year round. These men, most notably Indiana millionaire Carl Fisher, were property developers. A landmark ad was placed in Times Square—’Miami Beach, Where Summer Spends the Winter.’

But all was not well in paradise. Until the 1930s, Jews could only live south of 5th Street, reinventing the confinement of the Venetian Ghetto, because no developers would sell them property north of that line.

During the mid-XXth century, local hotels wouldn’t accept Jewish guests, and as late as 1960, neither Blacks nor Jews could have lunch at the Woolworth’s counter on Flagler Street.

As soon as Jewish folks were allowed into the property market, the panorama changed—Jewish-owned hotels flourished. Mount Sinai hospital was built, providing health care for the community, once again to fill a gap created by anti-Semitic policies—Jewish doctors could not get staff privileges at any hospital.

The mob banker, Meyer Lansky—Hyman Roth in the Godfather movie—led the charge onto the beach, bringing in Mafia investment from New York, Chicago, and Vegas. Casinos, nightclubs, and horse and ‘dawg’ tracks flourished. Prostitution and drugs went along for the ride. The playground reputation of Miami Beach reached a new high, accompanied by the requisite amount of sleaze.

Enter the Cubans—the Castrist slogan ‘Patria o Muerte‘ is now being fought with ‘Patria y Vida‘, but almost three generations have passed since Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. Little Havana is still a fixture of the city—a heady mixture of music, gastronomy, and crime—but now there’s also little Haiti.

Through the decades, the Jewish diaspora came and went—in the 1970s, around twenty thousand Jewish retirees came to the beach—I don’t see so many here now. There were cocaine wars, Mexicans, Colombians, Panamanian money launderers… never a dull moment, and the Jews moved north to Broward and Palm Beach.

The supply chain ain’t what is used to be—perhaps the coins are made in China.

As I cycle up Collins, dip into strip malls here and there, stop off at the beach for an early morning swim, or wade into an outlet mall off I-95, I feel the pulse of the nation. Immigrants buying building materials at Home Depot, joggers, skaters, and cyclists, lycra-legged dog-walkers—people walking around muttering to themselves, as if gripped by a new verbal dementia virus, until you realize every last one is on the phone, starting and ending conversations that just can’t wait. Hola, amor, porfa, claro, dá-le!

Back in the day, you couldn’t visit the US without bargain-hunting, but things are very different now. Sure, you can still go to an outlet store and see the bill magically split in half, or buy a pair of Levis for fifty bucks, but the never-ending stock is gone.

Empty shelves? Sure. And plenty of them. Covid queues everywhere. In a guitar store, I was advised it would be best to search online.

First, the big stores did it to the mom ‘n pop shops. Then the malls did it to the big stores. Now Amazon has done it to them all. Off the airport freeway, a gigantic Prime depot. Off the runway, Amazon jets. Prime Air.

And all it took was a spot of the ole pandemic, y’all.

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

Thank-You

December 27, 2021

I’m writing this article on a flight bound for Miami. The airport code is KMIA—my fertile imagination jumps to Killed: Missing in Action—the standard US armed forces acronym for some very bad shit. Still, WTF believes in acronyms…

I haven’t been to the land of the free for a couple of years now—in the Florida of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, the killing fields of COVID play out as a conspiracy of Democrats. Unvaxed conservatives grab the hospital beds and medical emergency resources—including doctors—that are needed for other patients.

During the pandemic panic panoply, other killer diseases have been left on the shelf—and I’m not just talking about the ‘Western’ diseases—heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These three monsters have two things in common: they are lifestyle problems linked to obesity, tobacco, and alcohol, and they’re (almost) never caused by microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria—”we have met the enemy, and he is us“.

In the West, we neglect the killers that exist in many parts of the world—cholera, dysentery, and the worst of all, cerebral malaria—because they’re someone else’s problem. These three, and many more, share the opposite qualities to the afflictions that worry westerners—they are endemic, rather than lifestyle, and they’re all caused by bugs.

Malaria has been eradicated in both Europe and the US, but this is a recent development. From the rice paddies in southern Iberia to the court of the kings of France, malaria was rife all over Europe; this was also the case in the swamps of Florida and in many other parts of North America.

Stagnant waters were drained, and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was merrily sprayed into the environment until scientists found out that one day the birds would stop singing.

In early 1496, the Portuguese fleet captained by Vasco da Gama was smitten with mal aria—bad air—on the African east coast. That and the scurvy on the way back from India killed two thirds of the crew, including the captain-general’s brother Paulo.

The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese were greatly affected by malaria—one of the costs of empire-building. The upper class Brits have a tradition of sending their kids to boarding school—a guy I know saw a young school friend die from malaria—the English medics had no idea what it was.

In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, Ho Chi Minh asked Premier Zhou Enlai for help with the endemic drug-resistant malaria in his country—more Vietcong were dying of the fevers than from American bullets. It was the summer of love—in January, the Doors released their first album; in February, Jefferson Airplane came out with Surrealistic Pillow; in March, the Grateful Dead launched their eponymous first album; in May, Jimi Hendrix asked ‘Are You Experienced’; and in June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper.

How appropriate then, that at the height of flower power, a Chinese pharmacist called Tú Yōuyōu was placed in charge of project 523, which led to the discovery of a magic herbal substance called qīnghāosù.

It took a few years—the power of the sweet wormwood Artemisia annua was only established at the beginning of the 1970’s, when Yōuyōu isolated the compound artemisin.

Nowadays, young researchers often end up ‘re-discovering’ concepts and methods because they are unfamiliar with papers published decades before the creation of ‘Google University’—that’s just poor scholarship.

Tú Yōuyōu—who reminds me of my mother, the rabbit physicist—did exactly what a researcher should do. She reviewed a vast collection of texts on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and finally sweet wormwood popped up in a sixteen hundred year old book on herbal remedies.

But wait! boil Artemisia, and the healing properties vanish—so the Chinese Nobel Prize winner tapped into another book, written by Hong Ge, which explains a cold infusion is needed—and then she hit the jackpot—or in this case, the yak pot. Nowadays, we know that extraction with a solvent such as alcohol or acetic acid also works.

Tú Yōuyōu (屠呦呦), a great scientist who helped millions in developing countries through her discovery of a non-patentable malaria cure.

Big pharma is often uninterested in simple potions, particularly when there is no patent to be registered and money to be made. The drugs commonly used to prevent and combat cerebral malaria—Lariam (Mefloquin in the EU) and Malarone—are much profitable.

Never mind the side-effects: Canadian special forces were given Lariam weekly during the Somalian war in the nineties—that weekday was known to soldiers as psycho Tuesday.

The Chinese scientist was the first woman from the Middle Kingdom to bag the Nobel—all the more wondrous because she is a three-without-scientist. Descriptions of this kind are common in China: the three things she is without are: a postgrad degree (no such thing in China when she was at uni), a postdoc abroad (duh, if she didn’t get a doctorate), and membership of one of the prestigious Chinese academies.

I love a good bit of serendipity—Artemisia is called qinghao in Putonghua, hao for short. The eminent Chinese scientist’s given name is youyou—that’s a deer call in an ancient Chinese poem.

Youyou is the sound the deer make when they’re eating the hao.

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

Frrriends…

December 18, 2021

The number of stray animals wandering the streets is a solid indicator of development. A few years ago, on a dark evening in Muscat, I saw over a dozen stray cats raiding a bin. Opposite was a garish neon-lit ladies fashion store that displayed a row of mannequin-modeled burqas—just like Henry Ford’s Model T—any color as long as it’s black.

In Asia, the cities are rife with stray dogs—ribcage-thin, mangy and rabid, perennially hungry—and worst of all, devoid of human love. Dogs have been domesticated over millennia—it is estimated that the dog diverged from the wolf as a species between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago.

As a side note, a species is defined by not producing viable offspring with another species—for instance, although a horse and a donkey are sufficiently close genetically to interbreed, the resulting mule is sterile—the parents are therefore not conspecifics. One of the many marvels of biology is the ability of sperm and eggs from different species to make that exact distinction.

Taking the lower value as a conservative estimate, dogs have been a separate species for thirty thousand years—not centuries. Since the average lifespan of a hound is about a decade, there have been three thousand generations of dogs—and through this time, humans have tailored their genetics to produce a huge diversity of breeds.

These breeds vary widely in size, hair, features, and temperament, but they all have one common feature—a remarkable loyalty to humans. No other species has such a bond—dogs clearly prefer humans to other dogs. They are also very much the same species—witness the rise of boutique friends such as the labradoodle.

As we roll in earnest into the twenty-first century, pets have become a real success story, and often a status symbol—there are now eight hundred million dogs and cats in petland—canines edge out felines by about two hundred million, but Millennials and Gen-Z are big fans of Felis catus, so don’t be surprised if the miao miao draw alongside Canis lupus familiaris one of these decades.

The new generations are deeply into pet humanization—this means that pet owners treat their friends like family members—a new generation of owners has huge concerns about sustainability, protein content of food, and other factors. Pet foods are big on the internet—if you search Google with ‘buy pet food online’, there are 4.9 billion hits—that’s 2 billion more than the equivalent search for vegetables, fish, beer, or wine.

Four different types of pet food markets. In the developed world, the market is growing slowly but the consumption of pet foods is high, with the USA at the head of the table.

In the US, the pet food market is worth about ninety billion dollars per year—higher than the GDP of Bulgaria, Bolivia, or Bahrain. In Europe, where 85 million households have pets, the market value is 20 billion euros. In the West, pet foods are strictly regulated—pretty much equivalent to human food. Legislation is strong with respect to raw material sources, food additives, medicines, and a range of other criteria—if you purchase a tin of wet food or a bag of dry food at your local supermarket, you can trust the product will be safe.

All this fits into a paradigm known as the circular economy—by-products from some activities find a use, waste is minimized, and there are clear benefits for people, planet, and profit.

European farmed sea bass—in 2019, two hundred and twenty-two thousand tons were produced around the Mediterranean basin.

Sea bass, called lubina in Spain, spigola or branzino in Italy, and loup or bar in France, is now a major farmed product in Europe. Turkey alone has moved from a production of forty-seven thousand tonnes in 2011 to 149,000 tonnes in 2020—an extraordinary growth rate.

Gilthead seabream, so-called because of the gold mark on the forehead, is a close second—around 195 thousand tonnes of farmed dorade royale every year.

Combined, over four hundred thousand tonnes are farmed and eaten annually—enough to provide one 200 g (7 ounce) meal a day for 3.4 million people—they might get fed up with the diet, though.

If you check my math, you’ll realize I left out 150 thousand tonnes of product—these are offcuts that don’t get eaten: head, bones, trimmings, skin, gut… and I’m probably underestimating the waste volume.

Where does this lead us? If we tap into this vast market, we can develop a whole new industry, increase sustainability, and reduce the footprint of fish farming.

And the best news is that fish farming in the West (in this case the EU) is already held to some of the most stringent standards in the world, so we know exactly where the product originates, how the animals were fed and treated, and all about their welfare.

The high-value market is already there, just waiting for a brand new ocean treat.

What a Christmas bonus for your frrriends…

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


%d bloggers like this: