Sunday, 31 July 2016


Incredibly with little notice but overwhelmingly positive results, the government of Portugal decriminalised (not legalised but offenses are addressed as a matter of public-health resulting in a referral to counselling services but not incarceration) all drugs—fifteen years ago.
Usage has not skyrocketed (as some opponents to the change feared and use vociferously as an argument against reform in other countries presently) and moreover, deaths from over-dose or infections spread by using dirty needles have plummeted to essentially zero as has gang activity, and probably just as significantly, there’s far less of a problem in Portuguese cities with novel synthetic experimental substances or ones that skirt the pharmacological standards as legalish highs. There are of course probably other systemic problems, like political corruption and inequalities in sentencing that has been reduced as well. I should think that if Portugal’s long-running experiment was the success that it appears to be, other countries would have been emulating it for a long time. The places, however, with the biggest drug and crime problems also reinforce the most wrong-headed understanding of abuse and addiction, I think, treating dependency as a sin or some kind of moral-failing and treating it almost exclusively with the corrective measures, penance, that held that other ailments where a curse that the sufferer brought upon himself. What do you think? No other disease diagnosis questions moral fiber or attributes a relapse to a lack of willpower.  Do we expect the addict to take the retribution that he had coming like we did lepers and other outcasts not so long ago?

Friday, 26 February 2016

have some madeira, m’ dear

Expected to be a direct conduit between South America and Europe ready late next year, the underseas cable that Brazil is preparing to anchor over revelations that that country’s government was one of the many targets of American electronic surveillance is not only courting the interests of those who feel directly affronted and betrayed but also of some giants—not of the same spying-industry per se but at least of the enabling kind—of the internet.
The cable, side- stepping the American monopoly on trans-Atlantic submarine lines of communication, links the former colony with her metropolitan, Portugal, with a landing at Cabo Verde, another former Portuguese holding.  Called EulaLink, other nations too are interested in joining this network. I wonder, in response, what sort of slant-drilling operations might be enjoined to siphon-off some of this traffic. The terminus of the cable will be in the coastal city of Madeira—which made me think of the old tune that tells the story of a lecherous old man who tries to persuade an innocent young girl to dally a bit longer by plying her with drink: the result is that she does stay but her character is transformed to something akin to his own, which probably wasn’t exactly what he wanted. Maybe that is a cautionary tale for this enterprise.

Thursday, 18 June 2015


During the Golden Age of Exploration, French ambassador to the kingdom of Portugal, Jean Nicot de Villemain, undertook a voyage to the Portuguese new world colony of Brazil in 1560, bringing back with him a specimen of a tobacco plant, which he presented to the French king. The plant was studied and classified in Paris and incorporated the ambassador’s name into the scientific nomenclature—hence the chemical compound called nicotine.  Tobacco-use was promoted a defence against the plague and grew popular very quickly.  This tobacco substance was moreover as widely used as a pesticide as it was smoked, up until the 1980s when alternatives deemed less harmful to humans could be produced cheaply.

Monday, 23 March 2015

cowboys and indians: sacerdotal or the fifth crusade

I spoke ridiculously too soon when I claimed that the horrors of the misrouted Fourth Crusade which sacked Constantinople, ravaging the beautiful city, depleting its treasures and resulting in the very brief reign of a resented Latin emperor called Romania but failed to reunite the lands or the Church, had put Europe—or at least the guilty Church—off of crusading permanently. Far from it—in fact before the same Pope Innocent III rallied the European noble houses to again descend on the Holy Land—in keeping with his original vision of the campaign with a thrust through Egypt, there was a coordinated massacre of the Cathar gnostics at home, inspired in part by the papacy’s equivocal attitude when the Crusaders were attacking fellow Christians in Byzantium. Mainstream Christians had regarded this dualistic sect that believed in the transmigration of the soul and equality of the sexes with suspicion for some time and called them devil-worshippers and pagans for the tenet that God had a good and an evil aspect and were glad to have the excuse to be rid of them and take their lands in southern France.  The Reconquista heated up to drive the Moors from Spain and Portugal.
Separately, two charismatic shepherd boys in Seine-Saint-Denis and Kรถln gathered thousands of children, the poor and disposed to march on the Holy Land and convert the Muslims—both promising that the Mediterranean at Marseilles or over the Alps and in Brindisi would part before them, like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Once the horde made its way to the shore, the Mediterranean did not comply and those who did not try to start their young lives anew at these endpoints or try their fortune at going home were caught by Saracen pirates and sold into slavery. It’s hard to say if the adult population of Europe felt obliged to complete the mission their children were willing to undertake unquestioningly or not (some question the accounts or if such travesties even happened at all), but in any case, Pope Innocent was able to marshal the support of armies that might be able to fulfill the task of recapturing the Holy Land without too much variance. This time, however, the leaders of the Crusader States would rather that Europe didn’t try to help out again. The past few years had ushered in a time of relative peace and great prosperity and Christian and Muslims coexisted due to a constellation of conditions, including the death of Saladin and crises of succession among his heirs, lack of Crusader aggression and very lucrative and mutually beneficial trading arrangements.
The last thing that the County of Acre, then the dominant Crusader State, wanted was to have a bunch of uncouth holy warriors despoiling the calm but they were not in a situation to disinvite the coming armada of ships. A sizable Crusader fighting force landed at Acre and King John of the realm tried his best to occupy the restless men, who were additionally an onerous task to quarter, and as more forces from Hungary, Germany, France and Flanders arrived, King John was helpless to prevent the march on Egypt. The Crusaders sought control of the city of Damietta (Dumyฤt) at the mouth of the Nile, which protected the waterway to the capital of Cairo, some two hundred kilometers downstream. Maneuvers were indecisive and guarded, the force strong enough to besiege the fortification but not strong enough to take the city outright and the months before the Crusaders decamped, they found that they had starved the population into submission. Once Damietta had fallen, the way-forward remained unclear as they were awaiting the arrival of relief-forces from the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II that would give them an unstoppable numerical advantage and could thus safely proceed. The armies of Sultan al-Adil, Saladin’s brother, were watching events unfold in a similarly vacillating manner, as internal strife prevented them from a certain counter-attack.
While at this impasse, the sultan ordered the destruction of the defensive fortifications that protected the city of Jerusalem, preemptively entertaining the idea that the Holy City might become an important bargaining token in the near future and if it was to fall to the Crusaders, the Muslims wanted them to have a city not easily defended, just as Saladin had directed for the town of Ascalon to be demolished to stop the earlier Crusaders’ advance from Jaffa to the Holy City, then resolved to negotiate with the Crusaders in order to end this stalemate and attend to its own affairs. The offer that the sultan’s ambassadors brought to the table was unbelievably favourable—concession of Jerusalem and return of the True Cross in exchange for leaving Egypt in peace, but what was even more unbelievable was how the Crusaders rejected the terms. Maybe they were sly to the dismantling of Jerusalem and did not want to take it just to see it lost again, but I think the only plausible logic behind their stance—which was not universal among the ranks, was that they were sure that they were going to triumph, with the wealthy and powerful Egypt and not just out of the way Jerusalem as the prize.
The papal legate, nominally in charge of military operations, was flattered with a prophesy that he fancied to be a sure sign that he’d personally led the Crusaders to victory—and besides, Egypt was apparently being attacked on its eastern border by the long awaited cavalry from the land of Prester John and so there was no way that absolute triumph could be denied them. Except that the papal legate had misinterpreted the augurs and having waited so long in Damietta, the Nile had again flooded and was no longer navigable and the fighting-force was bogged down once again. Frustrated, the separate divisions splintered and sailed back to Acre and then back home to Europe. One last exception was that Egypt was not under siege from a magnanimous Oriental Christian Magi, but rather these skirmishes with an unknown and fierce tribe marked the first encounter that the Western world had with Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hoard, but all that is for another story-line.

Monday, 29 December 2014

boilerplate or ultramar

Abrecht Dรผrer’s famous and celebrated woodcut of an India rhinoceros—which the artist never saw in person, has much more than รฆsthetic value, approaching the crossroads of modernity from all possible angles. The trading magnates of Europe were cut off from Asia via the overland route, the Silk Road severed by the Ottoman Empire, and so they sought other ways to reach China and India. Spain opted to reach the East by sailing West and Portuguese explorers scaled the African coast on a southerly trip to round the Cape of Good Hope and onward across the Indian ocean. Seamanship and navigation had reached a level of sophistication that made such long voyages possible and profitable. There was, however, the problem of competing colonial claims to lands and exclusive trading outposts. The kings of Spain and Portugal eventually turned to Pope Leo X to settle matters and both sides tried to woo a blessing from the Pontiff. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesilhas settled the dispute to a degree by dividing the world outside of Europe, Africa and Asia, between the two maritime empires. Keeping up patronage, however, was important and Portuguese King Manuel I had merchants in Goa fetch a rhinoceros and bring it to Lisbon, via Saint Helena.
People were absolutely astonished to see such a beast, which was unknown in Europe since Roman times—the animal described by the classic naturalist Pliny but generally regarded the rhino as some legendary creature. Vilified and curious, Europeans at this time were also rediscovering elements of their heritage that had gone missing during the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages weren’t all that grim and backwards but it is interesting to think how we know more of the Romans than people half a millennium nearer to them, and ruins were being excavated and art uncovered that no one suspected. Manuel was keen on getting this exotic specimen, however, to present to the Pope—thinking it would complement his pet white elephant Hanno, which the Pope rode around the streets of Rome on. Sadly, after being admired in Lisbon and communicated to draughtsman Dรผrer, the rhinoceros went down in a shipwreck off the coast of La Spezia and never made it to Rome—doubly sad because the rhinoceros is an able swimmer and probably would have survived had he not been chained to the deck. Of course, this print became as famous as it did and still remains in circulation because of emerging printing-technology in Dรผrer’s home-haunt of Nรผrnberg, another aspect of the modern age.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

iberia-hispania or elegant variation

Although we can identify a classic period of the language and Rome had institutions to preserve and promote a standard, there was probably never a universal Latin spoken across the Empire.
Romance languages descended from Latin but as conquests of Gaul, Iberia and the Balkans came centuries apart, the spoken language that supplanted their native tongues had changed as well. Early on during the Punic Wars as the Empire was expanding across the Mediterranean, Rome secured the lands of Spain from Carthage, and through the discontinuity of the French speakers, Spain remains one of the vulgar languages most true to that original language. Euskara, the language of the Basque people, seems to have developed prior to the arrival of Indo-Europeans and has endured to modern times. The subjugation of the Gallic tribes came later, after Rome had absorbed Greece and Macedonia and incorporated many Greek words, reflected in modern French. Of course, other powers came to dominate these provinces as Rome’s influence waned and these Germanic speakers helped shape the vernacular dialects to a greater or lesser extent. Owing to the Franks, French has inherited a smattering of Germanic loan-words. 
The Visigoths, however, who came to rule the Iberian peninsula, due to extended contact with the Roman civilization, were bilingual in Latin and Gothic, and Latin and its derivative local languages remained in common-parlance for day-to-day activities and native Gothic remained mostly in the background. Exceptions were found in the Church, Gothic having been the first Germanic language to be written down in order to produce that Gothic Bible commissioned by the Arian bishop Ulfilas, until the Roman Catholic Church consolidated authority, and interestingly in family names to this day. Many of the most common surnames of Spain, Portugal and Latin America reflect remnants of Visigoth rule: Hernรกndez from Ferdinand (protector of the peace and probably a title rather than a name originally), Gutiรฉrrez from Walter—wielder of hosts, Rodrรญguez, son of Roderik, the name of one of the last kings of the Goths before the Muslim incursions into the area and meaning rich in glory.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

jai alai

The European Union and Brazil will sink a submarine fibre-optic cable beneath the waters of the Atlantic to link Portugal and Latin America directly and provide a relief artery for more of the world's population to avoid using American infrastructure for communications.

There are manifold benefits behind this project, which is an upgrade on an existing connection now only able to rely calls from land-lines (though one ought to wonder about the growing strain on band-width and the dozens of tenant advertisers and background services that pounce on with every move, putting exponential demands for speed with malingers plus an array of possibilities of what to do next and how an image is gainsays far more than a thousand words) with cost-savings and added security. Fibre-optics, though far from impervious, are much harder to tap at the source, some hundreds of metres under the sea and to focus in on due to the lack of an electromagnet signature, and I suppose it creates a secondary industry of intermediaries and mercenaries to protect and attack the newly expected integrity of the internet. That's a strange thing to ponder too: when the internet was just simply considered a lawless and enter-at-ones-own-risk place, I think people were more willing to accept trespasses as sublimating things, evaporating and only with mostly fleeting and contained repercussions, though party to any petty-thief and highway-man, rather than a sly and voracious monitoring in telescoping hopes of tilling something incriminating. I hope these efforts at creating an alternative are not immediately contaminated, either by espionage or the peddling of some false sense of security that can never exist in an open and free internet.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

ex ante or porto portugal you are permanently punished

This week’s vote in Ireland whether to accept or reject the conditions of the European Union Fiscal Compact, a treaty meant to promote financial stability and responsibility through punitive measures and supranational controls, was a stirring of an issue that goes dormant as member states shuttle in queue and declare what they expect their prerogatives to be.

All countries, with the exception of the UK and the Czech Republic, have now assented and one can expect the process to lurch quietly towards enforcement next year. Ireland, uniquely contrary and potentially ruinous, had a pivotal decision, not so much for deigning to participate, but for letting the voters of Ireland make that mandate—being the only EU member to put the Fiscal Compact up to a plebiscite. Public engagement results in education and a better understanding of the expectations and consequences. The Irish constitution has to now be amended in order to conform to the terms of the compact, which demands that signatories stay just under budget or face fines and surrender trade and tariff matters to the EU government. States still retain control over tax regimes and public projects but it is a legitimate question how meaningful that exercise of prerogative and priorities are still when tethered within the latitude of treaty rules and whether the conditions of this pact are going beyond the reserved rights of individual sovereignty as put out in the language of the Lisbon Treaty (Vertrag von Lissabon). Rejection would mean that Ireland or any other dissenter would be ineligible to receive emergency aid and rescue funds. The EU has the bully pulpit, along with the deportment of its top performers, but also has a sloshing budget of billions with only nominal and ethereal accountability and negatively reinforced, and it seems to me that this poses more of a danger than a deterrent, like keeping a standing army in times of peace.

Friday, 7 October 2011

korkenzieher or exonymy

I remember when I was little, I had a light and fluffy block of cork wood that I thought was a very rare and exotic thing as part of a larger collection of stones, fossils and pieces of petrified wood. It was eaten with wormholes, and I think I only tried once floating it in the bathtub. Such an unusual grove must have its origins with the Irish second-city of the same name, I was convinced.

Of course, since then I learned that the cork oak is mostly cultivated in Portugal and the city is derived from the Irish Corcaigh for marshland and that wine corks are mostly plastic or rubber anymore--which is nice to a certain extent since one need not be as practiced at uncorking a bottle because the rubber stopper is not brittle and won't break apart into the bottle, but we did notice this unsung and ingenious hybrid that has a bit of plastic as a catchment for a tradition, fragile cork. It's strange how exonyms and making aboriginal place names sensible to foreign ears--or those of settlers to natives--can result in some creative folk etymology. The German (and of course Germany for Deutschland is one of the more prevalent exonyms and an invention of Julius Caesar) town of Pforzheim, for instance, is called so as a reduction, simplification of the Roman designation of Porta Hercynia, gateway to the ancient pan-European forest that remains as the Black Forest (der Schwarzwald) into modern times. Even a place named something seemingly straightforward, like Schweinfurt, having evolved from Suinurde (maybe meaning "man's land" or "divided land", connotes nothing about a place where pigs can cross the Main river. Such backformations have surprising and triangulated origins.