Monday, November 30, 2009

On light (with few words)

Image of lit Chinese lanterns in the old town, Macau.Dear Gentle Reader,

Your humble scribe is in a wee bit of discomfort.

So, no typing this morning.

In fact, I am about to, carefully, trundle off to see someone.

So, instead of the written word, I offer you two visual riffs revolving around light.

The first is a lovely, dark, stop-motion (dystopian? or realistic?) view of the world from 1996 by Bill Tomlinson.

This second piece is an effervescent bit of light relief called Scintillation. Scintillation is a beautiful short film by Xavier Chassaing.

SCINTILLATION from Xavier Chassaing on Vimeo.

And with that I really have to go.


Friday, November 27, 2009

On opium

Image of opium smokers in the East End of London, 1874. From the Illustrated London News, 1 August 1874. This image is in the public domain and is sourced from the Wikimedia Commons.
Dear Gentle Reader,

Yesterday was about what might be on the menu for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving, should Hong Kong have a Thanksgiving.

The conclusion which we came to was opium; opium would be the menu, not just on it.


(Besides the sweetly scented silver derived from the trade, of course.)

Well, lots of great things, like opiate alkaloids, are found in the resin of a few of the plants in the Papaveraceae family.

Today's post continues revolving around Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Opium resin is what you start with.

You get opium resin by lightly slicing the pod of an opium poppy, while it is still on its stalk and attached to the plant, and collecting the white, latex resin that oozes from the cuts.

This resin, collected and dried to a paste, is not a pure, distilled chemical but, rather, a dark smörgåsbord of active ingredients.

The three principal ingredients, from the perspective of a drug taker or a drug seller, are three opiate alkaloids: morphine, narcotin, and codeine.

Morphine, narcotin, and codeine comprise a trinity of soporific delight; a draught of the waters of Lethe without having to get by Charon. Or Cerberus. At least, that is what the seller will tell you...

First though, the naming, as names are so important to poets.

A structural image of morphine's molecular shape.The principal alkaloid, by quantity and effect, in the sticky opium cocktail, is morphine, C17H19NO3.

A structural diagram of morphine is over on the right.

I won't trouble you with diagrams for the next two important opiate alkaloids, Narcotin (C22H23NO7) and Codeine (C18H21NO3).

But, for the fancy bio-linguists out there, the black tie IUPAC names for these three compounds are:

Morphine: (5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-

Naroctin: 6,7-dimethoxy-3-(4-methoxy-6-methyl-7,8-dihydro-5H-[1,3]dioxolo[4,5-g]isoquinolin-5-yl)-3H-2-benzofuran-1-one


Codeine: (5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-4,5-epoxy-3-methoxy-17-methylmorphinan-6-ol

If you are going for any kind of poetry creation, however, I'd recommend staying informal.

It's hard to do a haiku, for example, with any of these fancy IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) names.

At least, not while sober.

And sober is not what one stays if you smoke opium.

Technically, of course, opium is not smoked; it is not burned, or it shouldn't be burned. That would be a bit of a waste.

Opium, in an opium pipe, is vapourized.

The smoky fumes, cooling in the long, inclined chamber of the pipe before they reach your mouth, are then inhaled.

I've never done it, but the chemistry and physics of the act are obvious from the engravings of opium dens, and from opium pipes which I have seen in both public and private collections.

Yesterday, we went over the numbers as per the quantity of opium that was being shipped to China even before the British had secured Hong Kong as a port.

A port, you see, was handy.

With a port, like Hong Kong, you could load up on opium in Calcutta and come to Hong Kong to revictual. Further, you could make appropriate arrangements to meet your Chinese distributor somewhere in China.

Who wanted to arrive with tens of thousands of pounds of contraband opium and hang out with the pirates while you try to contact your contact... and then receive cash?

That would be a poor risk management plan...

Further, long range meteorological forecasts were not so reliable. Who wanted to arrive and find out that a tropical storm, or, worse, a typhoon was blowing through the region?

No, a port was a good thing.

A port permitted opium sales to skyrocket, which permitted opium production in India to skyrocket, which in turn allowed British Imperial revenues to skyrocket, too.

Don't just take my word for it. Look at this lovely graph.

(y) tons of opium versus (x) date

Graph and data showing global production of opium, measured in Imperial tons, plotted on a time scale from 1800 to 2000. This graph and data are in the public domain and are sourced from Wikipedia.
As usual, the information on all images is found by rolling your mouse pointer over it. But, for speed, the vertical axis measures global opium production measured in tons. The horizontal axis measures years.

So. What did this mean for for China?

By 1906, 27% of the adult, male population of China was addicted to the lovely cocktail of morphine, narcotin, and codeine found in opium.

Of course, by 1906, the British were, mostly, out of this game.

Most of the opium required to supply 27% of the adult, male population of China, in 1906, was home-grown.

(34,000 imperial tons were produced in China, by Chinese, by 1906, versus Chinese consumption of 39,000 imperial tons.)

But the problems of this many addicts, in China, led to massive social and economic unrest.

By 1911, the unrest would be political, too, as the Qing Dynasty would be overthrown and, in 1912, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek would become the President of the Republic of China.

Folks across Asia have bad, and recent, memories of rampant drug addictions.

So, generally speaking, there are significant penalties for being caught with drugs. Especially at entry and exit points...airports or seaports.

(The pessimist would say this is to help safeguard local monopolies in distribution, export, and import. I, of course, would never think such thoughts.)

And here is where the story of the day comes in.

Back when your humble scribe used to live in Taiwan, a very long time ago, an English chap came to Taiwan on business.

He knew about the concept of giving gifts, to help generate better relationships with people.

So he brought a dried flower arrangement.

(I know. I don't think he knew much about giving gifts, or relationships. But, I guess, he tried. Or maybe his secretary hated him.)

So what?

That arrangement contained a dried poppy.

Not, I hasten to add, an opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.

Just a regular, run of the mill poppy.


It took weeks for him to be sprung from prison on Green Island.

Green Island has a prison and not much else.

This is a prison where, then at least, your family and friends had to send you food if you wanted to maintain a vaguely appropriate caloric intake.

Or, if you wanted to try to bribe the giant rats so that they wouldn't nibble on you nose or gnaw on your shins when exhaustion overcame you.

Now there was a man who, I am sure, would have wanted a long, deep draught from the waters of Lethe, or from our unholy trinity of opiate alkaloids, when he was finally released.


Don't mess around with things you shouldn't.

And be thankful for everything that you do enjoy.

But, try to not need opium.

Things could always be worse.


P.S. I am thankful that you are reading. Go figure. That surprises me every day.

P.P.S. Why does your humble scribe know anything about opium?

I have taken on the alter-ego of an Akkadian scribe...

And Sumerian pottery was being decorated with opium poppies before cuneiform was fully developed as a script for language, not just for accounting for profit and loss.

It's in my collective memory, if not my blood (thank goodness). Take care.

For music, today, Karl Marx thought this stuff was the opiate of the masses; I am quite happy to imbibe an opiate like this.

This is the first movement in an Armenian liturgical concert.

Click to hear 'Where are you, oh Mother' by Isabel Bayrakdarian iTunes


Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Thanksgiving in Hong Kong

Image of Cantonese BBQ pork being sold from a small store in an alley, in Hong Kong.
Dear Gentle Reader,

Yesterday, I was asked what we have for Thanksgiving in Hong Kong.

This is a more difficult question to answer, for numerous reasons, than you might have expected.

You need to remember that the Hero of this blog, Pommes the Wonder Cat, eats fish.

So, from Pommes' perspective, Fish and Chips is mandatory before anyone starts to even talk about thanks. And the only giving he wants is a one way transaction. Fish to Chips.

(Pommes, the name, is German for chips, what my American friends would call french fries, and what my French friends would call pommes frites.)

And, when it is time to start thinking of thanks, Pommes' idea of giving of thanks is an insouciant feline sniff of 'whatever' whenever that fish has *finally* come his way.

I should note, of course, that Pommes does remove his claws from your leg when you actually hand him the fish; for that, your humble scribe always gives thanks.

The Heroine of this e-house is German. They don't celebrate Thanksgiving.

Finally, your humble scribe, like the Hero, is Canadian. So, technically, my Thanksgiving was a month or so ago.

So the easy answer would be, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving in this house, at least not in November.

But, that would be a cop-out for the question of what do people eat in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving.

The challenge in answering, however, is that that question must be phrased in the conditional future subjective.

Hong Kong, being, previously, a British colony, never had Thanksgiving as a holiday.

And I seriously doubt that the Chinese will be bringing Thanksgiving, as a holiday, to Hong Kong, or to the mainland, anytime soon.

So, the question has to be framed as "What would people in Hong Kong have for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving, if and when they were to celebrate such a thing?".

The Mayflower never stopped in port here.

Hong Kong never had Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, only to, upon arrival, rob the locals of their cached food and desecrate local burial grounds.

True, Hong Kong had economic migrants, sojourners mostly, that came to Hong Kong for quick cash.

And, sure. Hong Kong's sojourners were willing to rob the locals, and each other, likely, and, presumably, had few concerns for local funerary, or other, customs.

But, there was no Mayflower compact to help us figure out when to start considering setting a date for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving.

And, before we set a menu, we do need to set a date for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving--to know what would be in season.

But, there was a compact that we can go by. One that, in some ways, mirrors the cross-cultural talks between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans...

The earliest agreement that Hong Kong would become British was reached on Jan 20, 1841, during the Convention of Chuenpi.

The Convention of Chuenpi called for the British to remove their men and boats from Chusan and, in return, to receive Hong Kong.

The British negotiator, Captain Charles Eliot, thought the Agreement in Principle would be binding and final so he proceeded to remove his men from the isle of Chusan, southeast of Shanghai, to Hong Kong Island--much farther from both Shanghai and Beijing.

The British landed on Hong Kong Island on Jan 25, 1841 and drank congratulatory toasts. They were thankful for a possession, even if it was a barren rock.

That landing and those toasts were repeated the next day, to be official, at Possession Point on Hong Kong Island.

(Strangely, Possession Point is not signposted anywhere in Hong Kong--I am still searching for clues as to where it was.)

So, maybe one of those two landing dates could be seen as Hong Kong Thanksgiving dates; dates for being thankful for having a harbour, a place to get out of the boats.

Of course the Convention of Chuenpi was renounced by the Chinese and, on Feb 24, 1841, hostilities were resumed by the British, but the British kept Hong Kong, at least until midnight of June 30, 1997.

If I had to choose a date I would go with the unofficial landing, and subsequent libation, of Jan 25.

(Hong Kong has always been a bit unofficial around the edges.)

Having set a date we can now set a menu.

Here, no one celebrates anything with turkey (although the hairy crab festival has just ended).

(Maybe I'll write about hairy crabs next week. Or brothels. They're both related. Take your pick.)

But, returning to the moment, I was asked what we would eat in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving.

MichaelO asked if we would have duck, rather than turkey.

I think not, MichaelO.

I think Hong Kong would go with something more traditional, more historical, and with much more of a kick.

Until Hong Kong finally went cold turkey, the raison d'etre of Hong Kong was opium.

I think a Hong Kong Thanksgiving, to be historically accurate, would have to involve opium.

Possibly shaped like a duck, but then smoked.

Hong Kong, you must remember, was created for one thing only.

The offloading, storage, and transshipment of opium from India into China.

(Sometimes that is shortened, the way things in English can be, to read: Hong Kong, you must remember, was created for one thing only--money.)

Opium helped stem the phenomenal outflow of silver from the British treasury to China.

The Chinese State had refused to purchase any goods from foreigners. The Chinese were happy to export only their own goods, and to receive silver, only, in payment.

The Chinese State controlled all importation and exportation so, for industrial goods, at least, what the State said, went.

The British, like the rest of Europe, liked many things produced in China, but the imperial coffers started to empty themselves, at an accelerating rate, to pay for imports from China.

British merchants then discovered that they could sell Indian opium (especially Bengali opium) to China.

The opium was smuggled into China by British merchants and sold to Chinese partners, illicitly, who completed the logistics of distribution to the masses.

And what did the smugglers receive for their opium? And what did the British Empire receive for its opium, when it sold it in India to private firms?

They received silver.

The British government made money on the sale of opium from its holdings in India and these sales alone reversed the net outflow of silver from the Imperial coffers. Further, that reversed flow of silver became a deluge of silver swamping the British Empire's Imperial treasury.

These revenue inflows afforded the luxuries and development of India, by the British, and of England, and much of the Imperial holdings.

The traders, both British and Chinese, also made fantastic sums.

How much opium are we talking about?

In 1830, the trade of opium into China was around 19,000 chests per year. By 1838, that trade had grown to around 40,000 chests of opium.

A chest held a picul of opium. This translates to between 60-65 kilograms, or 132-143 pounds, ish, of opium, per chest.

At 40,000 chests we are talking about up to 2,600 metric tonnes of opium, or 5.72 million pounds of the stuff.

In Hong Kong, today, and then, what matters is money.

And 5.72 million pounds of opium, per year, brings in a lot of money.

That is what drove the trade, and the founding of Hong Kong, and what people, Chinese and Western both, were thankful for, even when they found the opium trade distasteful.

Opium made the wheels of Empire spin round.

In North America, at Thanksgiving, after consuming the tryptophan glut that is turkey dinner, people pass out.

In Hong Kong, after filling your lungs and gut with opium, you pass out too.

And there is no need to eat.

That is why Opium den habituées are so thin and why Yves Saint Laurent never had to round up plus-sized models for his Opium fragrance collection.


Short question with a long answer.

What would a Hong Kong Thanksgiving look like if there were to be one?

It would look just like an American turkey glut, but with less food, skinnier bellies, and only opium on the menu.

I hope that helps.

Chris iTunes

Click to hear 'Nuevo Mexico' from the album 'Opium' by Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Image of a woman and child, peering out of their window, in India.Dear Gentle Reader,

It's 3WW time, again.

This week (CLXV) the words are give, obvious, and thanks.

Apparently I am feeling contrarian today. And grumpy.

Or I'm a good observer.

Let's hope it's the first. I fear, though, that it's the second.

Anyway, as usual, each haiku gets its own American sentence title.

"I don't give handouts--try work." he snarled to the girl on his way to Church...

"Give thanks, not money"
he whispered, low, in the pew,
obviously right.

Maybe Eliot Spitzer thought that he was the one giving favours...

Obviously she
thanked me for my gifts. Time, me,
money. Dressed. And left.

Forget Rochefoucauld's Maxim 216; I want adulation, now.

Give obviously.
Fuck Rochefoucauld. It only
counts if you get seen.


Oh, and the music, for today, is a poppy little rap number about homeless folk, unlike the lucky two in today's picture.

Click to hear Mr. Wendal, from 1992, by Arrested Development iTunes


Friday, November 20, 2009

Finance, Manipulation, Politics, and Bombast, or, The Mower Against Gardens, Andrew Marvell

Image of Chinese ghost money printed against the reserves of the Bank of Hell. The title for this image is 'Money... the root of all evil?'.
Dear Gentle Reader,

I assume that you know about the tulip craze of the early seventeenth century in the Netherlands.

And of the speculative tulip bubble that came to a crash in the start of 1637.

Tulips, fresh from the Ottoman Empire, were relative novelties in the Netherlands which, itself, had become a booming commercial empire on the back of its East India Company.

The Dutch were now the high rollers of Europe with money to spend.

Just as the Dutch are notorious, today, for their red light districts and the hothouse flowers contained in those red lit boxes, in the 1630s the Dutch were also known to love to get down and dirty for a pretty flower...

Image of a Semper Augustus bulb. Image taken from The Great Tulip Book is the name of a tulip pamphlet, published c. 1640. It is in the possession of the Norton Simon Art Foundation. They have it indexed in their system as M.1974.08.030.D. This image is from the public domain, sourced via the Wikimedia Commons, and its Norton listing is: Anonymous Dutch Artist, Opaque watercolor on paper, 12-1/8 x 7-7/8 in. (30.8 x 20.0 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation M.1974.08.030.D
At the peak of tulip mania, the tulip bulb asset bubble, a Semper Augustus tulip bulb holder (there were two bulbs in existence) was offered 12 acres of land (49,000 square meters), in land poor The Netherlands, for a single tulip bulb--albeit 50 percent of the global supply.

That offer was deemed unworthy.

Tulips were new, novel, and there were many nouveau riche Dutch in the seventeenth century.

The Netherlands had only started cultivating tulips after 1593 when the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire shipped some bulbs over to a botanist in the Netherlands.

As an aside, the Flemish botanist who developed the art of cultivating tulips in the Netherlands did so at the University of Leiden.

The University of Leiden was very well-funded in its day, and has continued to produce many notable scholars. The University of Leiden is also the official seat, or base, of the notorious Bilderberg Group... Aside over.

Tulips were intensely coloured and, and this is the kicker, they were not only new, but they had built in scarcity--remember, there were only two Semper Augustus bulbs in existence in 1637.

The tulip propagation cycle could take seven to twelve years... so the novel hybrids being produced, or being found, took a very long time to be reproduced.

Further, some flowers, like the Semper Augustus, shown above, had jagged flashes of wild colour... ...And no one knew how to breed that into the tulip.

The catch was that you couldn't breed that variant into the tulip; it wasn't possible. But, nobody knew that, and, rarely, they would still get these phenomenally valuable variants.

Those jagged stripes of flaming colour, however, were not due to breeding.

Those jags were the symptoms of a viral infection, a botanical mosaic virus infection, that was specific to tulips.

But, as viruses were not discovered until 1898, and the 1630s preceded this by a bit, replication was hit and miss; mostly miss.

(I don't mean to suggest that the lack of knowledge of viruses impeded the effects of viruses. Flat earthers are still pulled upon by gravity, and don't fall off the world when they walk beyond the horizon.)

(But, a lack of understanding, or even knowledge, of the viral transmission mechanism responsible for the special tulips' 'jaggy' colouration made it difficult to work out how to replicate the effect.)

(Further, as the tulips were not native to the Netherlands, and the virus was not endemic in the Netherlands, there was much less chance for random infections--and the tulips were so precious that they were closely guarded and kept quite safe, and separate from viruses like the one below.)

Image of the first virus discovered, a relative of the tulip mosaic virus, the tobacco mosaic virus. This image is from the public domain and is sourced from the Wikimedia Commons. It is of Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) particles negative stained with heavy metal to make them visible in the TEM. Magnified 160,000X. It was taken by an unknown researcher worker for the US government and, as such, is in the public domain.
As another aside, viruses were, later, to be discovered by another Dutchman, Martinus Beijerinck (1851-1931) who was a botanical agronomist. Beijerinck was to become the father of virology, although, as he worked solely on plants, he was overshadowed in the popular imagination, and in popular historical memory, by both Koch and Pasteur. Aside over.

With great sums at stake over these tulip bulbs, great efforts, and sums, were then extended to make greater and greater sums by breeding the tulips... genetic manipulation.

It wasn't called genetic manipulation, of course.

That would have to wait for that Augustinian monk, and data fudger, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884).

But, everyone knew that people were messing around with life to produce new results...

And then, as now, in the genetically modified organism debate, some people worried about the consequences of 'messing with nature'.

Today, I give you a second glimpse of Andrew Marvell and his bombastic screeds.

Please note that I love Marvell, but most folks grow up knowing him solely as a very gifted pick-up artist, like John Donne in his younger years.

These posts hope to point out that Andrew Marvell was so much more, although political bombast can also be seen as so much less...

Here is a metaphysical poke at Gardens, by the mower, and a bit of a rant about those who mess with nature... ...and at excess, financial and otherwise. Finally, historically, everyone who read this knew this was also a political and nationalistic 'go' or 'dig' at the Dutch, just like that poem by Marvell which I gave you one week ago.

The Mower Against Gardens
by Andrew Marvell

The Mower Against Gardens

Luxurious Man, to bring his Vice in use,
Did after him the World seduce:
And from the Fields the Flow'rs and Plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclos'd within the Gardens square
A dead and standing pool of Air:
And a more luscious Earth for them did knead,
Which stupifi'd them while it fed.
The Pink grew then as double as his Mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the Roses taint.
And Flow'rs themselves were taught to paint.
The Tulip, white, did for complexion seek;
And learn'd to interline its cheek:
Its Onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a Meadow sold.
Another World was search'd, though Oceans new,
To find the Marvel Of Peru.
And yet these Rarities might be allow'd,
To Man, that Sov'raign thing and proud;
Had he not dealt between the Bark and Tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No Plant now knew the Stock from which it came;
He grafts upon the Wild the Tame:
That the uncertain and adult'rate fruit
Might put the Palate in dispute.
His green Seraglio has its Eunuchs too;
Lest any Tyrant him out-doe.
And in the Cherry he does Nature vex,
To procreate without a Sex.
'Tis all enforc'd; the Fountain and the Grot;
While the sweet Fields do lye forgot:
Where willing Nature does to all dispence
A wild and fragrant Innocence:
And Fauns and Faryes do the Meadows till,
More by their presence then their skill.
Their Statues polish'd by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the Gardens stand:
But howso'ere the Figures do excel,
The Gods themselves with us do dwell.

With great affection from your humble scribe...


So music, to go with today.

Two songs...

The first pokes fun at ideological rants, here focusing on the American political far right (and of course bombast is present on the left, as well) in modern USA.

I think the song is great fun.

The second song is a sop to possibly injured Dutch feelings, although also American in origin. It leaves me smiling every time I hear it. OK. 5 am in Amsterdam, from the same album, might have been more closely linked, and more direct, but "Steppin Out" was inspired by the time that Michelle Shocked spent in pirate, sorry, non-commercial, radio in Amsterdam...

I will hold back with the incomparable Louis Davids, De Grote Kleine Man, for another day...

Click to hear 'Condoleezza, Check My Posse' by The Majestic Twelve iTunes