Author: KM

Instead of being driven by 1 human cars will soon be driven by 300 corporations over the internet what could go wrong?

The driverless car. We’re gonna be at the driverless car faster than you imagine… So, what do you have in a driverless car? You have a black box that tells you where you are. You have a GPS system that has to connect to satellites. The car itself is checking in to its manufacturer to let it know it exists. The driver is probably going to have one or more social devices which are also going to be GPS enabled and connected to a wifi device or to a wireless network. You’re going to have your music being delived by iTunes or some form of digital audio broadcast. The car is going to be checking in two or three hundred different components from tire pressure to engine temperature to oil level and communicating all of this information back. I’ve listed three or four hundred different applications in a driverless car, none of which are owned by one person, and all of them are connected by different means. Satellite to GPS, wifi, broadband, who knows, maybe radio links when you’re in a city. All of this data and all of these applications are owned by hundreds of different players and they all have to come together to make the driverless car work.

– Excerpt / quote from the video ‘The People’s Cloud Episode 5: Convergence’.


The tattletale car

The following is an excerpt from Your Car Knows When You Gain Weight by Bill Hanvey, in the New York Times.

Cars produced today are essentially smartphones with wheels. For drivers, this has meant many new features: automatic braking, turn-by-turn directions… carmakers are getting much, much more: They’re constantly collecting data from our vehicles.

Today’s cars are equipped with… an always-on wireless transmitter that constantly sends vehicle performance and maintenance data to the manufacturer.

Cars not only know how much we weigh but also track how much weight we gain. They know how fast we drive, where we live, how many children we have — even financial information. Connect a phone to a car, and it knows who we call and who we text.

But who owns and, ultimately, controls that data?


Saddle Quern / Metate

Photo of a slab of grey rock which is vaguely arrow-shaped, narrowing to a point at one end. Sitting on top of it is a cylindrical roller of the same type of rock. Both slab and roller are stained black, presumably as a result of grinding black pepper or some other black substance.
Traditional quern stone and roller in Maharashtra, India, possibly used to grind black pepper. The photo was taken by Flickr user Ganesh Dhamodkar who licensed it Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

‘Quern’ means grinding stone. A saddle quern gets its name because it (sort of) has the shape of a saddle. It’s an ancient technology found all over the world, used for rubbing or grinding grain or other substances, and still in use today.

Also called: grinding stone, metate y mano, batu giling, and probably many other names as well.


Mortar and pestle

Photo: a small mortar and pestle of white ceramic. Next to it is a handful of colorful black, brown and red peppercorns.
Mortar and pestle, with peppercorns. Photo by Gisella Francisco, via Wikimedia, licence Creative Commons Attribution.

“Mortars and pestles have different names in many cultures – molcajete and tejolate in Mexican, krot and saak in Thai, batu lesung in Malaysian, idi kallu in Tamil, kootani in Hindi, wurk kacha in Amharic, and almirez in Tagalog. They are made from volcanic or lava rock, stone, baked clay, wood, granite, marble, or ceramic. They come in varying sizes and are essential tools in Southeast Asian, Indian, and Mexican kitchens. In the United States, a spice mill or coffee grinder serves the same purpose.”

– From Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings, Second Edition by Susheela Raghavan, published by CRC Press, 2006.


Ancient mills at Shushtar, Iran

A photo: inside a small room of rough pale stone, bricks and concrete. It's obvious some parts of the building are much newer than others. There is an entrance and window-gaps in the wall letting sunshine in. Along the left is a concrete bench with sacks of grain on it. The far wall seems to have the remains of a propellor-shaped water wheel mortared into it. On the floor there is a millstone (a round flat stone with a hole at the center, perhaps an arm's length in diameter) as well as some rebar and a few other indistict objects.

This incredible photo was taken in 2008 in Shushtar, Iran, by Flickr user youngrobv, and is licensed Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives. It shows an old water mill, part of a massive and ancient water flow management system in Iran known as the Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System.

It’s obvious things have been moved around since this mill was last used to grind wheat grain to make flour. There’s a millstone on the floor at the right. The propellor-like object that seems to be cemented into the wall (just right and up from the sacks of grain) looks to me like the remains of a horizontal water wheel, of the ‘Norse mill’ or ‘Greek mill’ type.

Shushtar Hydraulic System is a vast complex, and there would have been many mills like this, powered by the flow of water. Like Roman Barbegal, it would have been a site of large-scale, industrial flour production, although the Shushtar site had many other purposes as well.

The photo page on Flickr:

Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System at Wikipedia

Weird screws

Do your electrical appliances have weird screws? Does your phone, laptop, or toaster oven have screws that don’t match up to any of the screwdriver heads in your toolbox?

Diagrams of four unusual screw heads. The tri-wing is a circle with a three-pointed star inside it. The pentalobe is a circle with a five-pointed star inside it. The tri-point is a circle with a shape like three rectangles stuck together at the ends to make a three-pointed shape. And the Security Torx is a circle with a six-pointed star in it, where the six-pointed star has a circular hole cut out of the center of it.

Some of these do have actual advantages from an engineering standpoint (not the Security Torx though, that thing’s just silly). But a lot of the time, manufacturers use them simply to make the product harder to repair. They’re betting that once you see the bizarre screw shape that doesn’t match up to any tool in your toolbox (or, you suspect, the known universe) you’ll throw up your hands in despair, throw out the gadget, and buy a new one.

Further reading: The Most Common Ways Manufacturers Prevent You From Repairing Your Devices at Ifixit.

‘How to lie with statistics’, World Bank edition

The World Bank repeatedly changed the methodology of one of its flagship economic reports over several years in ways it now says were unfair and misleading.

The World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, told The Wall Street Journal on Friday he would correct and recalculate national rankings of business competitiveness in the report called “Doing Business” going back at least four years.

The revisions could be particularly relevant to Chile, whose standings have been volatile in recent years—and potentially tainted by political motivations of World Bank staff, Mr. Romer said.

The report is one of the most visible World Bank initiatives, ranking countries around the world by the competitiveness of their business environment. Countries compete against each other to improve their standings, and the report draws extensive international media coverage.


Pre-industrial machines: Norse mill

We tend to think that, before there was electricity and diesel engines, there were no machines at all. This is untrue: the pre-industrial world was full of machines. Some were relatively simple to build and maintain, some were master works of engineering. They were powered by running water, wind, tides, animals or people. They performed such tasks as: grinding grain, sawing wood, cutting rock, and lifting water.

The simplest flour mill: the Norse mill

For 21st century people it can be hard to ‘see’ pre-industrial machines because they don’t look like machines to us; they look like buildings. Machines were large and were not meant to be carried around; the machine was part of the building it was housed in.

A watercolor painting of a Norse mill, a building of stacked flat stones. A wooden trench leads a stream of water to the building. Part of the building is ‘cut away’ to show inside: the water flows against a small horizontal ‘wheel’ with 9 small, angled wooden ‘blades’. A vertical wooden shaft connects the wheel to two flat stone disks, one upon the other, there is a hole in the center of the top disk, above which is a ‘hopper’, a funnel-shaped wooden box; nearby sacks of flour are stacked on the stone floor. Image source: The British Land Company.

Norse mills are so called because they were brought to Britain by Norse invaders and settlers. They are also called Greek mill or click mill. It’s likely that machines of this type have been used in many parts of the world at many different times, because it’s pretty much the simplest kind of water-powered grain mill to build.


The “Highway of Death” Massacre, Iraq, 1991

The indiscriminate bombing of tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians retreating from Kuwait…

On February 26, 1991 Iraq had announced it was complying with the Soviet proposal, and its troops would withdraw from Kuwait. According to Kuwaiti eyewitnesses… the withdrawal began on the two highways, and was in full swing by evening. Near midnight, the first US bombing started.

U.S. planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” said one U.S. pilot.

Hundreds of Iraqis jumped from their cars and their trucks, looking for shelter. US pilots took whatever bombs happened to be close to the flight deck, from cluster bombs to 500 pound bombs…

The victims were not offering resistance. They weren’t being driven back in fierce battle, or trying to regroup to join another battle. They were just sitting ducks.

– Exerpted / adapted from Twenty-five Years Ago: The 1991 Iraq Gulf War, America Bombs the “Highway of Death” by Joyce Chediac.

Internet monopolies

The following is exerpted from How Google and Amazon got away with not being regulated by Tim Wu.

Having already gained 30 million users in just 18 months of existence, Instagram was poised to become a leading challenger to Facebook based on its strength on mobile platforms, where Facebook was weak.

But instead of surrendering to the inevitable, Facebook realized it could just buy out the new. For just $1 billion, Facebook eliminated its existential problem and reassured its investors. As Time would put it, “Buying Instagram conveyed to investors that the company was serious about dominating the mobile ecosystem while also neutralizing a nascent competitor.”

When a dominant firm buys a nascent challenger, alarm bells are supposed to ring. Yet both American and European regulators found themselves unable to find anything wrong with the takeover.

Facebook was able to buy its next greatest challenger, WhatsApp, which offered a more privacy-protective and messaging-centered competitive threat. At the time, many were shocked at the $19 billion price. But when one is actually agreeing to split a monopoly as lucrative as generalized social media, with over $50 billion in annual revenue, the price suddenly makes sense.

In total, Facebook managed to string together 67 unchallenged acquisitions, which seems impressive, unless you consider that Amazon undertook 91 and Google got away with 214 (a few of which were conditioned). In this way, the tech industry became essentially composed of just a few giant trusts: Google for search and related industries, Facebook for social media, Amazon for online commerce.

Usurpation of public lands in Brazil

This blog post is mostly based on Harvard Land Ownership in Brazil Scrutinized in Title Dispute by Michael McDonald and Tatiana Freitas, published in Bloomberg, 24 April 2018.

Caracol, a company working on behalf of Harvard University, purchased a sprawling 140,000-hectare (540 square miles) area of land in Brazil and created a large-scale industrial farm, with the hope that the farm would generate profits for the university for years to come.

When Caracol built its mega-farm, subsistence farmers who had depended on the land were forced out.

But these farmers protested that Caracol had no legal right to drive them off the land because it was in fact public land – land which, since the Portuguese invasion centuries earlier, had never been legally titled to anyone, and which had been managed by local people for generations.

The state of Bahia, Brazil formed a commission that found irregularities with 24 titles that Caracol holds for lands it acquired. The commission recommended in a 2014 report to revoke titles after finding a “festival of irregular and illegal procedures which resulted in usurpation of public lands” that predated Caracol’s involvement. The prosecutor’s office in Bahia says it’s determining whether to sue to reclaim the titles.

Such fights have become more common in Brazil as industrial agriculture spreads to poorer regions of the country.

On the ownership of land

That land is free by nature cannot be disputed.

It is here when we arrive, and we cannot take it when we leave. By natural law, all must have equal rights to its use. But we have devised a system of absolute ownership with the right to charge a rent to a user. This is completely entrenched in the law of the land.

The consequences of not recognising natural law are growing. The heavy burden of land prices and the increasing gap between rich and poor are problems that will have to be dealt with.

– From the website Land is Free, accessed 20 October 2018.

Kicking away the ladder

… rich countries did not develop on the basis of the policies and institutions they now recommend to developing countries. Virtually all of them used tariff protection and subsidies to develop their industries. In the earlier stages of their development, they did not even have basic institutions such as democracy, a central bank and a professional civil service.

There were exceptions, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, which always maintained free trade. But even these do not conform to today’s development orthodoxy. Above all, they did not protect patents and so freely took technologies from abroad.

Once they became rich, these countries started demanding that the poorer countries practise free trade and introduce “advanced” institutions – if necessary through colonialism and unequal treaties. Friedrich List, the leading German economist of the mid-19th century, argued that in this way the more developed countries wanted to “kick away the ladder” with which they climbed to the top and so deny poorer countries the chance to develop.

.. in the last two decades, when developed countries have exerted enormous pressures on developing countries to adopt free trade, deregulate their economies, open their capital markets, and adopt “best-practice” institutions such as strong patent laws.

During this period, a marked slowdown has occurred in the growth of the developing countries. The average annual per capita income growth rate in the developing countries has basically been halved, from 3% to 1.5% …

– From History debunks the free trade myth by Ha-Joon Chang, 24 Jun 2002.

Historical notes on Free Trade and the US

Early 1800s

The Industrial Revolution is in its early stages. The most economically important industries in the US are:

– cotton, produced in the south by slaves working in plantations, and

– manufactured goods, mainly textiles (fabric, clothing, curtains and bed sheets etc) produced in factories in the north.

Trade is a divisive political issue. Politicians from the southern states want low (or no) tariffs, since this would help them sell more cotton for export. Politicians from the north want high tariff barriers to protect their manufactured products from competition with similar products made in Europe.

Over time there is a trend towards higher tariffs / more protectionism.

[SIDE NOTE: There is no general, numerical definition of ‘trade protectionism’ or ‘trade liberalization’. A 2% tariff on pickled beets could be considered ‘protectionist’ in one context and ‘liberal’ in another. AFAICT a protectionist tariff is simply one that the speaker thinks is too high.]

[SIDE NOTE PART 2: No-one who says they believe in free trade, past or present, actually wants completely free trade. What they want is for certain tariffs, selected by them, to be reduced by a particular amount. No serious political leader, expert, or pundit has ever called for all tariffs to be removed – if they did they would be laughed at and dismissed as a crank whose ridiculous ideas could not possibly be taken seriously.]

1930: Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act

A US law that set tariffs at a high level. This to some extent causes or exacerbates the Great Depression.

1934: Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act

Allows the president to make tariff-lowering trade agreements between the US and other countries.

1950s to 1980s: The Cold War

Following World War 2, US manufacturing booms. With European countries still recovering from the war and much of the rest of the world recovering from colonization, the US emerges as the world’s strongest economy.

Political elites are divided; some call for Free Trade (but see SIDE NOTES 1 and 2) and others call for protectionism. As big businesses become more international, they also become more pro-Free Trade.

[EXCEPTION: Agriculture is protected with huge subsidies and tariffs. This exception is so hugely complicated and important it needs its own blog post.]

International trade becomes a key part of the US’s strategy for winning the Cold War against Russia, China, and other communist countries. Trade agreements bind together the major free market democratic countries, making them allies.


Notes on Laszlo Montgomery’s The China History Podcast

Episodes run about 25-40 minutes, with each episode looking in depth at a particular topic in Chinese history. The topics vary widely; historical events or periods, famous and/or interesting people, religion and philosophy; and are not necessarily presented in any particular order. There is a three part series on Daoism, a nine part series on the History of Chinese Philosophy, and ten episodes on The History of Tea in China! It’s an excellent way into Chinese history for history buffs who want to go considerably deeper than, say, a History Channel documentary.

Montgomery is a US American whose native language is English, who studied Chinese language and culture in college and spent much of his life working in China. He’s aware that he’s coming at Chinese culture as an outsider, and seems fascinated and appreciative. There’s none of the condescending attitude that too often goes with westerners discussing non-western cultures.

He pronounces Chinese names the (Mandarin) Chinese way, complete with the different tones. To an English speaker the Chinese names can be hard to make out and hard to keep track of, especially since the pronunciation is often different from the (latin) spelling: Zhou sounds to my ears like ‘cho’ or ‘jo’, Tang sounds like ‘tongue’, Qin sounds like ‘sheen’ and Xia sounds like ‘sha’. That being said, I found that I gradually got better at hearing and remembering Chinese names.

Topics in Chinese history are often introduced by comparison to what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time, which helps with fitting new ideas from the podcast in with existing history knowledge.

The back catalogue is over 200 episodes and growing. If you don’t know where to start, I’d suggest just pick a topic that interests you. If you’re looking for a structured and detailed overview of Chinese History, you could start at Episode 14: The Xia Dynasty, and work your way through to Episode 41: The Qing Dynasty Part 7 and Episode 42: Review of the Overviews.

The official website is Teacup Media, which has a short blog-style entry for each episode, with an image and some additional info, and the episode as an embedded audio file which you can either stream or (sometimes, depending on the episode) download in mp3 format.

Episodes are also available free on The China History Podcast at iTunes and there is a China History Podcast Channel at Youtube and Teacup Media at Soundcloud.

Unfortunately these sites – iTunes, Youtube, Soundcloud – often seem to provide a ‘play’ button but not a download link. If you want to save/download episodes and you’re comfortable using the command line I recommend using youtube-dl.

It was surprisingly tricky to find an at-a-glance list of all the episodes; the official site only lists a few episodes per page, and the iTunes website truncates the episode titles, with the result that many are listed as The History of Chin… or something equally unhelpful. There is a useful list at, but the episodes hosted on this site have ads for another podcast inserted into them, which gets annoying. Use this site to pick out the episode you want, then search for an ad-free version of it elsewhere.

Episodes occasionally get removed when Montgomery decides to redo a particular topic, leaving some gaps in the back catalogue.

This post was updated 19/09/2018 to be more clear about how to download (as opposed to stream) episodes.

Of languages and dialects

Speech worked this way from village to village across Western Europe until recently, when unwritten, rural dialects started steadily disappearing. People now know this area as home to a few “languages” like Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian, but on the ground there once was basically a smudge of countless Romance “dialects” shading gradually into one another from Portugal to Italy. In each nation, the serendipities of history chose one “dialect” as a standard and enshrined it on the page…

– – – From What’s a Language, Anyway? by John McWhorter in The Atlantic, Jan 19 2016.

On the causes of terrorism, and the nature of Islam

The following is a severely cut-down version of ‘Sour Times’ by Riz Ahmed. full lyrics at Wikia | video at Youtube

See it ain’t religious faith that’s causing these crimes
it’s losing faith in democratic free market designs.

So. All the mans that want to say
that my religion has to change
that we’re stuck in a bygone age
it’s time to set the vinyl straight.

Don’t you think it’s kind of strange
that all this terror outrage
turned up in the last decade,
when Islam has been the way for millions since back in the day?
Instead of thinking that we’re crazed investigate just what is says:
fast, help the poor and pray.
Go Mecca, be steadfast in faith.
That’s the basics, that’s the base,
so how did we get here today?

Well interpretations always change.
Today they’re read with rage.

So listen.
Terrorism isn’t caused by religion or an old-school vision of Islam
it’s against the Quran
and it’s a new innovation caused by mash-up situations
that’s what makes them turn to arms.
The problem is modern and it’s all local factors.
Dictatorships, injustices and wars cause fatwas.

So in these sour times
please allow me to vouch for mine
bitter taste in my mouth spit it out with a rhyme.
Ay oh I’m losing my religion to tomorrow’s headline.
But it’s fine.

a very natural position to take

Colonisation was motivated by the European hunger for African resources. The subsequent exploitation of the African people and the uprooting of their spiritual values by Christian missionaries would leave a permanent European stamp on the continent.

The mindset is the barbarians are backward and inferior and for their own benefit we have to uplift them and civilize them and educate them and so on.

The psychology behind it is kind of transparent. When you’ve got your boot on someone’s neck and you’re crushing them you can’t say to yourself: I’m a son of a bitch, and I’m doing it for my own benefit. So what you have to do is figure out some way of saying: I’m doing it for their benefit. And that’s a very natural position to take, when you’re beating someone with a club.

– From ‘Colonialism in 10 Minutes – The Scramble for Africa’, which is an extract from the film ‘Uganda Rising’.

Hunger was never a problem for the peasants of the seven villages

The following is exerpted from the report Land conflict in Côte d’Ivoire: local communities defend their rights against SIAT and the state, published by GRAIN.

It was in August 2011 that the communities of Famienkro, Koffessou-Groumania, and Timbo, located about 300 km from Abidjan, learned through the grapevine that a corporation was about to move on to their land.

A month later, on September 15, the representatives of the three villages were informed that the government had granted a concession covering a total of 11,000 ha to the Ivorian subsidiary of the Belgian corporation SIAT (Société d’investissement pour l’agriculture tropicale), for the purpose of establishing an industrial rubber plantation.

SIAT is a Belgian multinational claiming to “specialize” in tropical agriculture. In June 2013, it had some 175 000 ha under cultivation in Africa, Asia, and Europe. This powerful multinational, with capital of €31 million and a business volume of nearly €200 million, has holdings in palm oil, rubber, and grazing. SIAT’s head office is in Brussels and it is active in Belgium, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Cambodia, and Côte d’Ivoire.

The communities were stunned… the government had just granted 11,000 ha to SIAT.

Furthermore, free prior informed consent by the local population is always required in such cases, especially when arable land is being granted to companies, regardless of whether they are domestic or foreign… Today, the villagers are wondering why the rule was ignored.

The King of the Andoh, His Majesty Nanan Akou Moro II, speaking through his representative Sinan Ouattara, confirmed that:

We did not give our consent to this project, whose impact on our ancestral lands, territories, and natural resources is devastating. We refuse to let our land be stolen.

For 39 years the chief of this territory, the King of the Andoh reigns over the Coblossi tribe, who live in seven villages in the vicinity of Famienkro: Koffessou-Groumania, Sérébou, Kamélésso, Assouadiè, Morokro, Lendoukro, and Kouakoukro.


“It was a cheque he didn’t want black or Asian people to cash”: A short biography of Winston Churchill

The following is excerpted from the article Not his finest hour: The dark side of Winston Churchill by Johann Hari.

At Harrow School and then Sandhurst, he was told a simple story: the superior white man was conquering the primitive, dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilisation. As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”. In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, a crack of doubt. He realised that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill”.

He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, destroying houses and burning crops. He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages”.

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When concentration camps were built in South Africa, for white Boers, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering”. The death toll was almost 28,000, and when at least 115,000 black Africans were likewise swept into British camps, where 14,000 died, he wrote only of his “irritation that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men”. Later, he boasted of his experiences there: “That was before war degenerated. It was great fun galloping about.”


The Web is not Google, and should not be just Google.

The following is exerpted from A letter about Google AMP.

We are a community of individuals who have a significant interest in the development and health of the World Wide Web (‘the Web’), and we are deeply concerned about Accelerated Mobile Pages (‘AMP’), a Google project that purportedly seeks to improve the user experience of the Web.

In fact, AMP keeps users within Google’s domain and diverts traffic away from other websites for the benefit of Google. At a scale of billions of users, this has the effect of further reinforcing Google’s dominance of the Web.

We acknowledge the problem of Web pages being slow to load…

Search engines are in a powerful position to wield influence to solve this problem. However, Google has chosen to create a premium position at the top of their search results (for articles) and a ‘lightning’ icon (for all types of content), which are only accessible to publishers that use a Google-controlled technology, served by Google from their infrastructure, on a Google URL, and placed within a Google controlled user experience.

The AMP format is not in itself, a problem, but two aspects of its implementation reinforce the position of Google as a de facto standard platform for content, as Google seeks to drive uptake of AMP with content creators:

1. Content that “opts in” to AMP and the associated hosting within Google’s domain is granted preferential search promotion, including (for news articles) a position above all other results.

2. When a user navigates from Google to a piece of content Google has recommended, they are, unwittingly, remaining within Google’s ecosystem.

We don’t want to stop Google’s development of AMP… We also applaud search engines that give ranking preference to fast-loading pages. AMP can remain one of a range of technologies that give publishers high quality options for delivering Web pages quickly and making users happy.

However, publishers should not be compelled by Google’s search dominance to put their content under a Google umbrella. The Web is not Google, and should not be just Google.

Images of black folks in England, 1600s and 1700s

This goes along with chapter 2 of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams (but is probably also interesting on its own).

Liverpool Town Hall

Before the Beatles, Liverpool was famous as an important port in Britain’s slave trade; it was the slave trade that built Liverpool up from an unimportant town to a thriving metropolis. A bust of a ‘blackamoor’, (a black person) symbolises the slave trade that brought Liverpool wealth and prominence.

A carving on the grey stone exterior of a buildingof a black man wearing an elaborate head dress, necklace and earrings

A business card of a gun maker in Bristol, England

It incorporates an image of a British gentleman (left), an enslaved black man (right) and the coat of arms of the British Empire (top center).

A (photo of a) rectangular card, clearly very old and drawn by hand, with the following text (in very fancy lettering): WM Heard Gunmaker No. 41 Redclift Street Briftol, makes Hunting, Coach and Double Barrel Guns, Blunderbufes, Pistols, etc. etc. on the most approv'd Construction. Merchants supply'd with Guns, & Stores, for the African, West India, & Newfoundland Trade as Cheap as any Warehouse in England.

Reward offered for the return of a runaway boy

A newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway ‘Negro Boy’. The text reads: A Negro Boy, his name Africa, by his growth feeming to be about 12 years old, he had a gray cloth Livery, the Lace mixed with black, white, and orange colors, fomewhat torn, a black large Cap, a Silver Ring in one of his ears, his hair newly clipped very clofe, fpeaks fome Englifh, Dutch, and Blacks. Run away from his Mafter the firft inftant Whofoever fhall fecure him, and give notice to Mr. Arnold (…illegible…) Barner in James Ftreet, Covent Garden, fhall have 20 s. Reward. The ad doesn’t make clear whether the boy is a slave or a free servant, but the fact that there is a reward for his return suggests he is viewed as property.


How does a respected charitable foundation end up running illegal human experiments and shilling dodgy drugs to foreign governments?

A tragedy in three acts.

Cast of characters:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: A charitable foundation created by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, which is interested in global health. Also called Gates Foundation or BMGF.

PATH: An organisation controlled by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Merck: A pharmaceutical corporation.

GSK: A pharmaceutical corporation. Also called GlaxoSmithKline.

Pfizer: A pharmaceutical corporation.

India: A country.

The US: A country.

The Third World: A collection of countries, which includes India but not The US.

USAID: A part of the government of The US that gives money or other gifts to the governments of countries in The Third World.

HPV: A disease; also called human papilloma virus.

Various Dodgy Drugs: Gardasil, Cervarix, Norplant, Implanon, Jadelle, Depo-Provera.

The following is excerpted from Big Pharma and the Gates Foundation: ‘Guinea Pigs for the Drugmakers’ by Jacob Levich.

Act One

… vulnerable village girls were virtually press-ganged into the trials, their parents bullied into signing consent forms they could not read by… representatives who made false claims about the safety and efficacy of the drugs. In many cases signatures were simply forged.

An Indian Parliamentary Committee determined that the Gates-funded vaccine campaign was in fact a large-scale clinical trial conducted on behalf of the pharmaceutical firms and disguised as an ‘observational study’ in order to outflank statutory requirements.


Disarray in World Agriculture, 1955-2007

The following is an excerpt from the chapter Five Decades of Distortions to Agricultural Incentives by Kym Anderson, of the book Distortions to Agricultural Incentives A Global Perspective 1955-2007, Edited by Kym Anderson, published by Palgrave MacMillan and the World Bank, 2009.

For advanced economies, the most common reason for farm trade restrictions in the past two centuries has been to protect domestic producers from import competition as they come under competitive pressure to shed labor in the course of economic development. But in the process, those protective measures hurt not only domestic consumers and exporters of other products but also foreign producers and traders of farm products, and they reduce national and global economic welfare. For decades, agricultural protection and subsidies in high-income (and some middle-income) countries have been depressing international prices of farm products, which lowers the earnings of farmers and associated rural businesses in developing countries. The Haberler (1958) report to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) contracting parties forewarned that such distortions might worsen, and indeed they did between the 1950s and the early 1980s (Anderson and Hayami 1986), thereby adding to global inequality and poverty because three-quarters of the world’s poorest people depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their main income (World Bank 2007).

At the same time, many developing countries have chosen also to pursue an import-substituting industrialization strategy, predominantly by restricting imports of manufactures, and to overvalue their currency. Together, those measures indirectly taxed producers of other tradable products in developing economies, predominantly farmers (Krueger, Schiff, and Valdés 1988, 1991). Thus, the price incentives facing farmers in many developing countries have been depressed by agricultural price and international trade policies in both their own and other countries.

This disarray in world agriculture, as Johnson (1991) described it in the title of his seminal book, means there has been overproduction of farm products in high- income countries and underproduction in more-needy developing countries. It also means there has been less international trade in farm products than would be the case under free trade, thereby thinning markets for these weather-dependent products and thus making them more volatile.

Notes on the early evolution of life

Moroz now counts nine to 12 independent evolutionary origins of the nervous system… ‘There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain,’ says Moroz. In each of these evolutionary branches, a different subset of genes, proteins and molecules was blindly chosen, through random gene duplication and mutation, to take part in building a nervous system.

Early cells probably inhabited aquatic environments, such as hot springs or brine pools, that contained a mixture of dissolved minerals including some, like calcium, that threatened life. (Important biological molecules such as DNA, RNA and ATP are known to coalesce into refractory goo when exposed to calcium – similar to the scum that forms in bathtubs.) So biologists surmise that early life must have evolved ways to keep all but the lowest levels of calcium outside its cells. This protective machinery might include proteins that pump calcium atoms out of a cell, and an alarm system that goes off when calcium levels rise. Evolution later harnessed this exquisite responsiveness to calcium to signal within and between cells – to control the beating of cilia and flagella that microbes use to move, or to control the contraction of muscle cells or trigger the electric firing of neurons in organisms such as ours. By the time nervous systems began to emerge, roughly half a billion years ago, many of the critical building blocks were already set.

– From Aliens in our midst by Douglas Fox.

Notes on the human brain

Mostly based on the video lecture Mapping Memory in the Brain.

Even in the distant past, before modern medicine, doctors knew that learning, understanding and memory take place in the brain, because people with head injuries have problems with them, but people with injuries to other parts of the body do not.

We know what the brain looks like from dissection; a doctor will cut off the top of the skull of a dead body, remove the brain, and draw pictures of it or take photographs of it.

A human brain: slimy, white-ish, wrinkled, and pretty gross-looking.
A human brain photographed from above. Image by Wikimedia Commons user Jensflorian, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.
A photo of a human brain. It's white-ish, slimy, and wrinkled.
A human brain seen from the side, held by a person wearing blue gloves. Image by Wikimedia Commons user Jensflorian, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Particular parts of the brain are for particular mental tasks

Starting in the 1860s, doctors looked at the brains of people with particular mental difficulties, after those people had died. They found that certain mental problems go along with damage to particular parts of the brain.

A group of patients could understand spoken language just fine but could not express themselves, even though there was nothing wrong with their mouth, throat or vocal cords. It turned out that all of these patients had a lesion (a dent or a hole) at a particular location on the brain surface.


It was Haitians who actually helped each other

The following is exerpted from Dady Chery and Eric Draitser Discuss Imperialism and Colonialism in Haiti.

Note: MINUSTA is the UN military mission in Haiti. Its purpose is either peace-keeping or neocolonial occupation, depending on your political views and/or level of cynicism.

During the earthquake, MINUSTAH and the Haitian police were looking [out] for each other, and they were protecting property, but not helping Haitians. They don’t like this to be said, because they like to present themselves as being these humanitarians who have been helping Haitians, but in fact that is what they did. It really showed what their priorities were. It was Haitians who actually helped each other. In fact, it is always Haitians who help each other. It was Haitians who dug each other out of the rubble. There was one kid who actually just tore a wall so that he could get his classmates out of a building that was collapsing. That was news in Haiti. In the US, you were seeing people who were covered with dust, who looked wholly catatonic and miserable. You had people like Clinton and Paul Farmer speaking for everybody and saying how much aid was needed, etc., and basically laying the ground for receiving billions of dollars, in fact in the end about $13 billion in aid that they went into Haiti to administer. In Haiti, you have a population of 10 million and $13 billion in aid that no one has actually seen, really… [Bill] Clinton and his rich friends moved in, and in a very short period, they took control of the country.

The earthquake happened in January [2010]. By March 8th, they had the Lower House in Haiti (this would be the House of Representatives) voting on a state of emergency that would allow an organization called the IHRC (Interim Haiti Recovery Commission) to run the country for 18 months, and that organization was headed by Clinton. It had 14 foreigners, headed by Clinton, all rich. The rules were that they were supposed to put down $100 million, or erase $200 million in debt, and in addition provide military. Against that, you had 7 Haitians, all of whom were supposed to be picked by the 14 foreigners. So this is how Haiti was supposed to be run during this emergency period when you would have Clinton managing all of the aid money. The Haitian parliament was supposed to dissolve itself. It fought very hard. In the senate, the vote initially didn’t go through because of the lack of quorum. They had another vote, and there was finally a quorum. At the end of that, there were rumors that at least 3 senators had probably been bribed to show up so that there would be a quorum for a vote. Now that you had Clinton and his friends administering the country, what happened next – and this is something that you never saw in the American news – is that people from the Haitian parliament went on the streets protesting with everybody else. I don’t know of any situation [in the US] where you’ve had senators and members of the House out on the street leading protests, but this is what happened, and it went on for months, through the summer of that year. These votes were in April. People were protesting that the president had forced this on them, and that the country had been sold to the international community, and they wanted it to be stopped.


The way the cholera was brought in Haiti

The way the cholera was brought in Haiti is that the UN took 1,280 Nepalese soldiers to train in summer 2010 in Kathmandu in the middle of a cholera epidemic. They gave them very cursory exams and a 10-day leave all over the country and then brought them back to Haiti and set them up in three bases around an area where there was rice growing and tributaries to a river. One of the bases had a septic tank that was basically dripping down into, ultimately, the Artibonite River. The first thing that happened is that a bunch of rice farmers got wiped out. They got killed. It was very clear from the start that the cholera had been brought in from a foreign source. There had been no cholera in Haiti for over a hundred years. It had been brought in from a foreign source, probably the UN, and I wrote this the day after the first case of cholera became known. It turned out that there was a mayor, in Mirebalais, in the area, who had been writing to the UN demanding that they clean up their septic tank, that the smell was becoming intolerable, that this was unhygienic, and the UN wasn’t responding to him. He finally got the attention of the press. It was very clear, because the cases of cholera were down river from the UN bases, and there were no cases up river from these bases. They immediately started saying, it’s the unhygienic internally displaced people camping in Port-au-Prince who were the source of the cholera…

Cholera is supposed to be a disease of the poor and… I think the idea is that Haitians were supposed to become pariahs in the world. They were supposed to be dirty and to have disease. It was Haitians who found it. Haitian epidemiologists collected the information about the cholera, and they put together forces with a French epidemiologist, Dr. Renaud Piarroux, who made it known to the world that the cholera happened in a very pristine area of Haiti, not in the displaced-person camps at all.

— Dady Chery, Dady Chery and Eric Draitser Discuss Imperialism and Colonialism in Haiti

Today in things that should be obvious but aren’t: the best way to feed hungry people is not, as previously supposed, to turn all agricultural land over to investors for ‘development’. It’s to let them keep their farms.

The real concern behind the development of large‐scale investments in farmland is rather that giving land away to investors having better access to capital to ‘develop’ it implies huge opportunity costs, as it will result in a type of farming that will have much less powerful poverty‐reducing impacts than if access to land and water were improved for the local farming communities: there is a clear tension between ceding land to investors for the creation of large plantations, and the objective of redistributing land and ensuring more equitable access to land, something governments have repeatedly committed to.

Hunger is not the result of there being too little food produced; it is the result of massive rural and urban poverty, the latter often the result of former as slums around large cities have grown, following rural migration, because small‐scale farming was not a viable option for many. Accelerating the shift towards large‐scale, highly mechanized forms of agriculture will not solve the problem: it will make it worse.

What we need now is… a vision that goes beyond… providing policymakers with a check list of how to destroy global peasantry…

— Heavily exerpted, from How not to think about land grabbing by Olivier De Shutter

GDP growth in Haiti – it’s magnificent!

And right now, for example, there is about 85 percent unemployment in Haiti, and yet the GDP has been growing by 4 percent every year. The reason the GDP is growing is because they’re destroying the informal sector, and more and more people are exchanging money for services, whereas in the past they used to trade services with each other. And, of course, everything gets added to GDP; nothing really gets subtracted. So loans are added to GDP. You get money from USAID, you borrow from the World Bank, you borrow from the IMF, and it looks like the GDP is growing. It’s magnificent! GDP is not net worth; it’s just how much money flows through a country. So Haiti is growing its GDP, and people are getting hungrier.

Dady Chery, 2015.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India

… We had for example Sir Richard Otterwy suggesting, challenging the very idea that it could be argued that the economic situation of the colonies was actually worsened by British colonialism. Well I stand to offer you the Indian example, Sir Richard. India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to below 4%. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depradations in India. In fact, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India. The hand loom weavers for example, famed across the world, whose products were exported round the world, Britain came right in, there were actually these weavers making fine muslin, light as woven air it was said, and Britain came right in, broke their thumbs, smashed their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products, and started of course, taking the raw materials from India, and shipping back manufactured cloth, flooding the world’s markets with what became the products of the dark and satanic mills of Victorian England. That meant that the weavers in India became beggars, and India went from being a world-famous exporter of finished cloth, into an importer.

– Dr Shashi Tharoor, speaking at a debate at Oxford.

Letter from the Just Net Coalition, representing internet users in the Global South, to Tim Berners-Lee, director of internet standards body W3C

Global South: What used to be called ‘developing countries’ or ‘the Third World’. Includes all of Africa and much of Asia, South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

W3C: World Wide Web Consortium. From Wikipedia: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web (abbreviated WWW or W3). Founded and currently led by Tim Berners-Lee, the consortium is made up of member organizations which maintain full-time staff for the purpose of working together in the development of standards for the World Wide Web.

All of the main web browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari) work according to W3C standards, while apps generally do not.

DRM: Digital Rights Management. Refers to software and hardware which makes sure you can only use media (like music or videos) in certain ways, and also to laws which make it illegal to circumvent the DRM software or hardware in order to use media in ways the manufacturer doesn’t want.

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies attempt to control what you can and can’t do with the media and hardware you’ve purchased.
— Bought an ebook from Amazon but can’t read it on your ebook reader of choice? That’s DRM.
— Bought a video game but can’t play it today because the manufacturer’s “authentication servers” are offline? That’s DRM.
— Bought a smartphone but can’t use the applications or the service provider you want on it? That’s DRM.
— Bought a DVD or Blu-Ray but can’t copy the video onto your portable media player? That’s DRM.

EME: Encrypted Media Extensions. It’s a potential new standard specification the W3C has been considering. If approved it would make DRM part of the W3C’s internet standards. Since all the major web browsers implement the W3C’s standards, this would mean that DRM would quickly be included in new versions of web browsers, and therefore DRM would quickly part of natural of the web itself; every website could have DRM, allowing website owners to control when and how users can or can’t watch, play, stream, or save their content. It is feared that this would fundamentally change the internet’s open and democratic character.


One thing not included in that price is the right to repair it

A new tractor often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but one thing not included in that price is the right to repair it…

… you also need a software key — to fix the programs that make a tractor run properly. And farmers don’t get that key.

“You’re paying for the metal, but the electronic parts, technically you don’t own it. They do,” says Kyle Schwarting, who plants and harvests fields in southeast Nebraska.

Even a used combine like his Deere S670 can cost $200,000 or $300,000. As he lifts the side panel on this giant green harvester, he explains that the engine is basically off limits.

“Maybe a gasket or something you can fix, but everything else is computer controlled and so if it breaks down I’m really in a bad spot,” Schwarting says. He has to call the dealer.

Only dealerships have the software to make those parts work, and it costs hundreds of dollars just to get a service call. Schwarting worries about being broken down in a field, waiting for a dealer to show up with a software key. If he had that key, he could likely fix the machine himself.

– From Farmers look for ways to circumbent tractor software locks by Grant Gerlock at NPR, April 9, 2017.


The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.

… in an extreme case the troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neo-colonial State and control the government of it. More often, however, neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere. Control over government policy in the neo-colonial State may be secured by payments towards the cost of running the State, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy, and by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power.

The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world.

– From the introduction to the book ‘Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism’ by Kwame Nkrumah, 1965.

Results of 20 year ‘Roundup-Ready’ experiment are in

The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.

Twenty years ago, Europe largely rejected genetic modification at the same time the United States and Canada were embracing it. Comparing results on the two continents, using independent data as well as academic and industry research, shows how the technology has fallen short of the promise.

… the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields — food per acre — when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany…

Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.

By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 percent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.

– From GMO Promise falls short by Danny Hakim, The New York Times, Oct 29 2016.