The Day the Earth Slowed Down: The Three Gorges Dam is damn big, and that’s not all

It is of mythical proportions, impossible to truly grasp. It makes mountains look like molehills and molehills look like very small piles of dust. That’s right, I’m talking about China’s 3 Gorges Dam, astride the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. More than just a mouthful.

Whence came the 3 Gorges Dam?

It is the year 1919 (not really, but in the story). FOMC Sun Yat-sen (that’s FOMC as in father of modern China, not fear of mad cows, or f*ck off mister chicken) sits atop his yak-wool cushion, admiring the earthenware tidbits that adorn his little non-imperial alcove. An idea strikes him, like a bullet to the ear. Holy moly, he thinks: I’ll build a dam. 

He puts pen to paper, humming with ambition. Words are written: big, small, medium, all humming. Soon enough he has written a full article, the like of which has never been seen in all of contemporary China. In English, it is called ‘A Plan to Development Industry’, which is a bit clunky but gets to the point. He publishes it in The International Development of China which, again, clunky, but clear. 

The gist is, he wants to build a great big dam to control the flooding of the Yangtze River and embody the ‘new might’ of China. Brilliant idea, they all said. Well, no they didn’t. Did they get to work on it straight away? Did they fuck. 

Outsiders with bigger dicks

It was actually the Japanese who moved the thing along when, in 1939, they occupied Yichang and surveyed the area. They were so excited about the prospect of owning all of China that they commissioned and completed the Omani plan in anticipation of the big day. 

Then, obviously, the United States weighed in with a my-dick’s-bigger-than-yours in the shape of John L. Savage, who did his own surveys and came up with his own proposals. This, he called the Yangtze River Project. 54 Chinese engineers went to the States for training. Unfortunately, however, the Chinese Civil War had other plans, shittier plans, and the project was put on hold in 1947. 

Mao liked the dam, but wanted to do a different dam first. Then, in 1956, he (Mao Zedong, “Little red cook book, little red cook book!”) wrote a poem about dams and called it ‘Swimming‘…

The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

A not so gorge-ous episode

When, soon after, some engineers spoke out against the project (and in so doing pooh-poohed his poem), Mao had them sent to labour camps. The government did not look favourably on those who dissented the dam. Jump forward to the Tiananmen protest of 1989, and journalist Dai Qing publishes ‘Yangtze, Yangtze’, a book of essays opposing the project.

Criticism of the project had as its backdrop a string of disasters that took place in Henan Province during a typhoon in 1975. A series of catastrophic structural failures caused the release of 600 million cubic metres of water – a wall of water 6 metres high and 12km wide. It was the third-largest flood in history, affecting a total population of over 10 million people. 3 million acres were inundated, 6.8 million houses collapsed, and as many as 240,000 people drowned or died in the wreckage. 

Survivors became sick from contaminated water, and were trapped without food for many days. It was a sore point for quite some time. 

But not too long! The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, and was finally approved in 1992. 

It is not visible from space

We have a propensity to mythologise Chinese construction projects. Even the most gargantuan cannot be seen from space. 

But it is motherflippin’ big

When the quantity of concrete is written down, it merits the use of standard form. It is more fun to use objects than measurements. Example: it took 63 Eiffel Towers worth of steel. Fun! 

Clone the longest known animal ever to have lived on the earth (average female blue whale = 25m) and place 93 of them end to end, and you have the length of the dam. Fun! 

The concrete used to construct the dam wall itself weighs approximately 6.5 million tons, which is about one and a half times the weight of the world’s heaviest civilian building.

But it is still less than half the reservoir flooded by the Itaipu Dam. Props, South America. 

How well does it work?

The Three Gorges Dam is not the perfect dam. It is one of those things that arguably serves the greater good, but means a lot of little people get ignored and really pissed off. A third of its budget was spent on relocating 1.2 million people out of its flood zone. 

But it also provides energy to lots of people. The Three Gorges Dam has an estimated power output equivalent to a regular power station burning 25 million tons of crude oil a year. It generates 11 times more power than the Hoover Dam, Nevada. It could power the entirety of New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Costa Rica, The Bahamas and Rwanda, combined (which is 1.5% of China’s total energy consumption). 

Well done on that count, but it could also be doing a lot of harm, causing a different kind of pollution. The region surrounding the Three Gorges Dam is home to thousands of plant, insect, fish and terrestrial vertebrate species. Landslides and water pollution threaten (read: throw into disarray) the interrelatedness of a bunch of unique ecosystems. The eco-stability of the region is, in a word, shat on by a heck ton of dirty water, which is good for business, but not so good for maintaining that which is cool. 

So what’s all this about the earth slowing down?

Here’s the rub: when the Dam closes its doors to fill its reservoir, it accumulates a total of 38 trillion kg of water. While this is only a teeny proportion of the total weight of the earth, it is enough to have an effect… on the earth’s rotation. The maths has to do with moments of inertia and angular velocity. If you’re spinning on ice and you tuck your arms in, you’ll spin faster, and vice versa. Collecting such a weight of water in one location on the earth’s surface literally makes the earth spin slower. The crux is, it’s really damn big.

It increases the length of each day by 0.06 microseconds. Can you feel it? If you add up all those microseconds over a human lifetime, you’ll have approximately one and a half seconds to contemplate dams!

Damn.

*

This article also appears on Medium, along with several other pieces, which you can find by visiting my writer profile.

Alternatively, read more on the subject (or indeed on other subjects) elsewhere on this blog:
Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline

Sources:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/yangtze/yangtze.htm

https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/poems/poems23.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Gorges_Dam#History

https://interestingengineering.com/13-facts-about-the-controversial-massive-chinese-dam-that-slowed-the-earths-rotation

https://www.businessinsider.com/chinas-three-gorges-dam-really-will-slow-the-earths-rotation-2010-6?r=US&IR=T

https://www.kinetica.co.uk/2014/03/27/chinese-dam-slows-down-earths-rotation/

http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/aug1975.htm

A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline

More than just a man, Sir Robert Chesebrough was the inventor of Vaseline. And most slippery he certainly was. 

Though not in the negative sense of the word. On the contrary, much can be said of Chesebrough’s ingenuity, as well as his faith. Indeed, such was his faith in petroleum jelly, he used to eat a spoonful of it every day. Chesebrough lived to be 96 years old and credited his longevity to the simple wizardry of Vaseline.

The beginning of the Vaseline story

Starting out as a cherubic young chemist in the 1850s, Chesebrough showed promise. Born and raised on opposite sides of the Atlantic, his work involved producing kerosene from sperm whale oil. Icky stuff for many reading in 2020, this was surely interesting work. 

When Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, few had the faintest notion of the change it would effect. Least among the, Chesebrough. However, not to be disheartened, he put his mind to work.

Sperm out, oil in

While America’s oil boom (not boom as in BOOM, but as in period of great prosperity or rapid economic growth, though there were doubtless a few of the other, along the way) just about choked the sperm whale oil business, Chesebrough saw a silver lining. Why kill whales when you can extract kerosene from petroleum oil? So he started to experiment. 

Visiting a drill site in Pennsylvania, he witnessed something most unusual. Oil wells were producing a black, paraffin-like gel the workers called “rod wax”. Rod wax made the rigs malfunction, and was generally a pisser. However, those working the rigs noticed that rubbing it into their cuts and wounds made them heal faster. Chesebrough, in turn, noticed the same.

What is this ‘rod wax’?

Most intrigued, he took barrels of rod wax back to his lab for testing. Once his research was complete, he refined the thick black wax into a thinner, lighter-coloured gel. Impressed by its evident medicinal benefits, and feeling its refinements made it significantly less gross, Chesebrough introduced his ‘Wonder Jelly’ to the public.

Commercial production began in a Brooklyn factory in 1870. By 1872, Chesebrough had patented the process of making petroleum jelly. Fast forward another two years, and 1400 jars of Vaseline were flying off the shelves every day

As J. Mark Powell writes so eruditely on the subject, Chesebrough ‘peddled his product with the zeal of an evangelist’. He used to demonstrate the effectiveness of Vaseline as epidermic cure-all by holding his hand over an open flame. Then, extolling its virtues and trying not to faint, he would apply Vaseline. Presumably, the wounds would heal by the next roadshow. 

When Vaseline evangelism pays off

But Chesebrough was more than a shrewd salesperson. His belief ran strong. During a bout of pleurisy (a condition often caused by the flu virus, in which the tissue ‘twixt lung and chest wall becomes inflamed, causing difficulty breathing), Chesebrough had his nurse cover and rub him, head to foot, in Vaseline. He soon recovered. Obviously, any number of factors could be responsible for his healing. Most people just take pain killers and wait for it to go away. But it’s a nice story, given the context. 

Perhaps his most startling claim was that he would consume a spoonful of Vaseline daily, in order to prevent the onset of ailments. Is there anything he wouldn’t do, for Vaseline? Forget the sugar, Poppins, it’s time to try the kids on petroleum jelly.

Guten Appetit / καλή όρεξη

Underwater Love Pt. 1

This must be underwater love, the way I feel.

I’ve watched every Salad Fingers documentary and now whenever I think about dark green leafy vegetables I feel nauseous. Kev says it’s started to affect my pigmentation. Kev’s full of whack. Don’t listen to him.

Last night, at the crack of dusk, Kev and I erected a totem pole, crafted by Kev’s deft hand from Polish walnut wood, as a tribute to all who lost their lives in the Battle of Loob, 800 years ago. Statistically speaking, more people haven’t heard of it than have. We scented it with musk.

For weeks now I’ve been building a pyre – alone – for a very special purpose. I source the wood from my grandma’s old copse. The bluebells are deliciously delicate. Their floppy little bells hang this way and that, turgid with dreamy expectation. I try not to tread on them but collateral damage is inevitable. Besides, they’re only a bunch of dangly stupid fucks anyway.

Salad Fingers wowed me today. Unsurprisingly, my legs have no skin left on them. No one told me during my single-digit years about the dangers of chafing. At school chafing was like electric. It was wilder than Digimon or skanking. Reminiscence colours all reflection.

À 8 heures this morning I bit the k-cuffing bullet and burnt all my tight underwear. Suzie has been waxing lyrical about the physiological advantages of Loosey Gooseys for getting on for two weeks now. I’d quite had enough, so I did the aforementioned, and great Caesar’s ghost I’m not looking back. Not now, not in a million years.

At my late grandfather’s behest, I polished off the stroganoff. What a sentence, but he only served seven years.

“Let’s talk about sexuality”, Kev urged me yesterday evening, as we nursed each other’s banana-date milkshakes. We had just stood up after tumbling down the gorsey field, and were both prickled like nobody’s business. I replied gruffly; not because I didn’t want to talk about it at all, just because I didn’t feel like talking about it right then and there, with prickles dotting my back like so many dots of luscious black vanilla in a home-made ice cream brew, but in a negative way. He took my reticence the wrong way, and heaved a giant sigh, as if to say, “I know you are, but what am I?” I don’t respond well to amateur dramatics. As if to prove that point, I picked up the first igneous rock I could lay my eyes on and hurled it at him with all that shot-put coaching I’d vicariously undergone by watching videos on the internet in the wee watershed hours, after my midnight masturbations. Private evenings are the best. The boulder struck him bluntly on the side of the head, and knocked him squarely for six. Not the last time he’ll be sorry for saying some shit like that to me, I’ll bet. What’s sexuality, anyway, besides believing that something should usually go one way, and finding that four or five times out of some, it does?

The Uniformity of Haricot Beans

He undid his waistcoat. He took off his shoes and knee-length socks. He was a peculiar fellow. Full to the brim with idiosyncrasies, refreshing to all those who knew him. He unbuttoned his floral shirt and allowed the cooling breeze to breathe coolly over his supple chest. His abdominal hairs thanked him for it. Chiming in, his homeostatic glands heaved a sigh of immense relief. Right on, he thought. Time to get going.

The lawnmower thrummed along in the way a metaphor might if it had been whimsically thrown together by some poet-turned-prose-writer in order to cheaply embellish a benign sequence of events. Thrum thrum thrum. Imagine me reading this to you, in a husky, emotionless voice, devoid of regional accent but plodding along with heavy diction and unwaveringly dull intonation. Just like that. Plod plod plod. Trisyllabic sentences thrill me. Just like lawnmowing / mowing the lawn.
Atop his thistle-guzzling, blandly alliterative throne, the man felt like a god. He listened to its various churns and kthumps with blind glee. The noises gave him an enormous sense of wellbeing, which welled up inside him, thence effusing from his throat in spits, gargles and other gross onomatopoeias.

Across the way, the man’s neighbour, Kevin McCloud, was mowing his lawn. How serendipitous, thought the man. What a charming coincidence that Kevin and I – two men, two gung-ho, strapping men, riding on a wave of exuberant gusto – should be mowing our adjacent lawns simultaneously. I’ll wave, and he’ll wave back, and we’ll each of us erupt into a momentary ecstasy. We’ll break the mould and whack a big two fingers up to the conservative establishment for instilling within us a sense of guardedness and perpetual reservation. We’ll shake off the doleful glare of infinite negation cast onto us by the paranoid and paranoia-inducing shells of former humans, once shimmering with individual phosphorescence, now damned to monochromatic insularity and choking restricti– oh blast I’ve mown right into the hedge.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

The group leader was an officious turd whose name, Ronald, was actually his first middle name. Ronald was two minutes into a tiresome speech about Man and Man’s habits, Man’s desires in conflict with Man’s religion, Man’s Manness in conflict with Man’s Misunderstood Masculinity, and so on. After eight indulgently meandering sentences and 43 iterations of the word ‘Man’, even Richard, whose own gender-specific vernacular was exclusionary and unacceptable, was thinking something along the lines of shut up you arse, we’ve better things to talk about.

Before he could muster the words, Jenny stood up with enough force to knock her blue plastic chair over its hind legs and exclaimed:

‘Listen, Ronald, we’re here because we’re tired of wanking and punishing ourselves for it.’ Richard had never heard this said out loud. ‘At least I am.’ She glanced about the room.

‘Enjoying it and hating it at the same time, myself and it, hating and enjoying and spiralling into depression.’ It was true, all true. ‘I can’t remember what came before, because… Well, Because. But I know that it was in tatters long before I came here and I assume some of my colleagues feel the same way.’

I do! I do!

‘We would like to fix ourselves, women included. Your pontifications about Man and Man’s infernal Manness estrange half your assembly.’

She paused and cleared her throat. Richard danced a little, inside.

‘I am sat between two humans whose status is equal to mine.’ Richard and Jenny’s other neighbour, a weedy gentleman, turned and looked at her. ‘We would like to get started.’

Bravo! Should he applaud? Sitting down, Jenny looked round and winked surreptitiously at Richard, who just sweated.

Ronald grumbled something into his hand before gesturing to Jenny.

‘Well, Jennifer, please start us off.’ Specks of perspiration shone on his temples. He drew a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed at his forehead.

Richard watched him and shrunk satisfactorily into his seat, then focused on Jenny. She seemed wise beyond her years (mid-thirties at most, but she had a wizened elegance Richard found enchanting). Her hair hung gingerly over slim shoulders. A few wisps clung beneath her large Roman nose and pointed towards a triumvirate of moles on her left cheek, the largest of which boasted a modest fuzz. Hanging about her cat’s frame was a purple cardigan, thick-knit, tied like a dressing gown round her waist. Sandals protruded from beneath a maroon skirt and revealed crudely painted toenails, the smallest of which was barely a dot. Richard suspected the nail to be missing, the paint a diversion to the fact.

Folding his arms, his eyes met hers. He imagined their souls meeting in an ethereal playground, surrounded by swirling winds and eddying astral forces, shaking hands and sealing their mutual fates. He knew her little secret, her little toe secret, and nodded his recognition, with it forgiveness, understanding, admiration, all wrapped in ribbons of something like infatuation.

By now Jenny was midway into an anecdote and Richard had missed the whole first half.‘Without, I think, this element of structure, thoughts of it permeate my everyday. I can’t think straight, I can’t work.’

Gosh, he knew how that felt.‘Like I sit at my desk and, you know the classic, there’s a vibration somewhere nearby – a truck reversing outside, someone’s using the photocopier…’

Was she reading his mind?

‘So, without structure, thoughts of masturbation escape my control. The act itself becomes frantic. I rush it in order to somehow reduce the damage done to my conscience. It’s indulgent but in all the wrong ways.

‘And so this week I’m advocating Structure.’ She enunciated this word with a finality that brought Richard to a standing ovation. On his other side, Lara giggled. Ronald rolled his eyes at the newcomer. Tim, name yet unknown to Richard, weedy Tim, chin resting via hand, lower arm and elbow on bony knee, rent from his own oblivion by an uncontrollable guffaw, lost control of his limbs and slid polygonically into a prostrate mess of angles, jeans and Crocs.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

Richard’s affliction first presented itself on his sixth birthday.

After a wonderful day at the playground with both of his friends, his parents took him home for apple pie. Apple pie was his favourite. Then, it was time for his bath.

Splashing about in the tub with his ducks and battleships, he was completely carefree. He liked to smother his lower face in bubbles and pretend he was Father Christmas, then wipe his chin clean and pretend he was Nietzsche. He had very mature reading habits.

During this bath, as it was his sixth birthday, his mother made it extra special.

“Would you like one last present?” She touched his nose with her finger.

“Oh, yes!” Richard was overjoyed. He loved surprises.

Karen left, leaving the door open behind her. She returned a minute later, and when she did a strange aroma filled the room. She held a round object, covered by a tea towel. Richard marvelled at the strange object.

“Can you guess what it is?”

“Umm…” He couldn’t.

“I thought, because you like apples so much, you might like to try a new fruit.”

“OK!” That did nothing to explain the peculiar whiff which drifted up Richard’s nose.

“This is called a durian. It’s from south-east Asia. Would you like to try it?”

“Mm-hm,” said Richard. He was cautious because of the smell, but nothing could ruin his sixth birthday.

Karen unveiled the fruit. It was a greenish-yellow, and covered in spikes. It had a split down the centre, and emitted an odour incomparable to anything Richard had ever smelled. The smell intensified as the cover was lifted, and grew stronger and stronger. It wafted about the room and tingled in his nostrils. When Karen wrenched the fruit open, the smell became unbearable.

At once he felt his innards contract—he thought he needed to sneeze, then to be sick, then… His bowels reacted in the most formidable way. A rush of gas built up in his colon and burst through his anal canal, carrying with it all the diluted, unprocessed brown fluid which was being held in his intestine.

In an instant, the bathwater turned a murky ochre. Richard squealed as soft pulps of shit floated up to the surface. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Karen ushered him out of the bath. Then, when he started to drip the soiled water on the tiled floor, she panicked and pushed him back in.

“Oh, Richard!”

“Sorry, mummy,” Richard said. He didn’t know what else he could say. It was all his fault!

“Oh darling it’s not your fault.” He felt sure that it was. “Stand up and let me hose you down,” Karen stifled a giggle. “That’s it. Now, one foot up.” Masterfully, Karen ensured that no more poo drops made it onto the floor. She wrapped him in a towel and gave him a big hug. He began to cry. Karen drained the tub and rinsed it down while Richard went to the kitchen and stared at the fridge, shaking occasionally with a sob.

A cup of hot chocolate cheered him up, and his sniffles subsided. Karen sat with him and watched him drink it, wondering what had occurred within him to prompt such a violent outburst of faecal matter. Could it have been an allergic reaction? She’d never known that to happen, and so suddenly too. Something to do with bad smells? It was a mystery. She resolved to ask her friend Elisa the next day; he knew lots about these kinds of things! Then, Richard surprised her with a question.

“Mum, why am I called Richard?” 

“What? Oh, your name? That’s a good question. How long have you been thinking about that?”

“Um, a few days. Everyone at school’s been talking about it. Frank was named after a boxer, and Isabelle was named after an explorer.”

“And what do you think you were named after?”

“Well, everyone says I was named after one of the instruments used when I was made,” Richard looked up, and Karen saw that he was puzzled. “But I told them you and dad don’t play any musical instruments.”

“Mmmm.”

“And then they laughed so I went away.”

“Oh, darling!” Karen’s parental urge kicked in, and she squeezed her son’s little cheek.

“But can you tell me who I’m named after, so I can tell them?”

“I’d be glad to. You were named after a man called Richard Sterling. He’s a travel writer! He writes about all kinds of things. He’s how your dad and I found out about durian fruits.” Richard’s stomach lurched at the thought. Seeing his skin turn a shade paler, Karen decided to veer away from the subject.

“His writings will shake the earth, they really will. He leant us some of his notes and they are, well, extraordinary.” Richard swilled the end of the hot chocolate in his mug. Tea, chocolate, Mum and Dad’s coffee. Some of humanity’s favourite beverages are brown, he thought. Why did it have to be so?

“What do you think?”

“Um, so I was named after a writer?”

“Yes. So now you can turn around to your friends and say I wasn’t named after a boxer, or an explorer, I was named after—well, I suppose he is something of an explorer. So, you can say, I was named after an explorer too. That’s much more interesting than someone who fights for a living. Don’t you think? Richard?”

But he was lost, once more, in the dregs of his mug. He put it back on the table and saw the image printed on the side: Winnie the Pooh sitting merrily in a field of orange flowers. Richard didn’t feel so merry, but he did like knowing why he was called Richard.

“Much cooler,” he said. And then he went to bed. Thankfully, he didn’t dream of the durian. It never even crossed his mind, until one October morning, six years later.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

Eight minutes later, Richard returned. Jenny was etching something pornographic into the tabletop, scratching at the surface with a house key. She looked up, her gaze holding something devilish, almost diabolic. Richard grinned.

“Two Antediluvians, shaken and stirred.”

“Champion. Tell me, what goes into an Antediluvian? Does it require a sprinkling of arched nose and too-thick reading glasses? An artificial grey patch and stupid wizened curl?” She was referring to Ronald.

“Cherimoya, or custard apple. It’s one of the only tropical fruits I can handle,” he said, gleaming, missing the boat.

“What do you mean? You don’t like mangoes, papayas, pineapples?”

“Yes yes, of course they’re fine. But anyway they’ve been normalised. They’re no more tropical than palm trees, which are scattered round Torquay harbour like breadcrumbs, leading nowhere. But there are others, real fruits of the tropics which haven’t been integrated into the British palette.”

“For example?”

“For example,” he leaned back. “Well. I’ll tell you, but first, to your health.”

“To ours.” They clinked, drank, winced. There was an uncomfortable silence during which their eyes met.

“Richard?” Jenny’s face had coiled into a mutated spring, darkening in three areas.

“Oh, dear,” he said, letting the brownish yellow liquid flow back into his glass. “This cherimoya’s rotten. That’s rotten luck.”

“It’s awful, Richard. Awful. Don’t take me back there, I won’t allow it.” Her face was still distorted. He passed her a serviette to mop her chin, then went back to the bar. His thick wrists slid along the top, feeling the rough matte wood for signs of wear.

They were given lime daiquiris, a platter of carbohydrate-based snacks and half a dozen cans of Diet Coke as compensation. Reimbursement was impossible.

“The system doesn’t allow it,” he told her.

“Bloody typical. What do you call these?”

“Mini Cheddars, only they’re not. They’re posher.” He threw two into his mouth, only one making its target. The other collided with his unshapely chin and made him blink.

“They’re pretty good. Crunchy. And these?”

“Thins. Cheese thins, I suppose.”

“Anything that’s called a Thin is bound to be disappointing.”

“You’re right.”

“I know,” she said. “You were going to tell me about tropical fruits.”

“I was. There’s one I can’t handle, though I can’t recall—” He stopped short. Was he about to recall? His mind had been washed clean of childhood remembrances and adult guilt, was untarnished by all the shame of a human life. He thought of tropical fruits.

“Richard?”

“Durian. Oh, my.” His eyes began to trickle. “I remember. I can’t stand it. But how did I know I couldn’t?” Some shred of long-term memory wedged deep in his cranium, jogged by the fact of a dodgy cherimoya? Was it so fundamental, so formative as to survive hibernation, to be roused by the sudden sensory reference?

“Durian?” she said. “I’ve heard of it. I heard a story about a kid.” Richard groaned. “My father used to work at a secondary school, before he died. He’s dead now.”

“Secondary school.” His mouth opened and a spindle of saliva fell, hung an inch long from the corner of his mouth.

“Not far from here. They used to celebrate Ivory Day.” The words made Richard’s stomach twist. “It was really archaic. They all dressed up in robes and hung chandeliers and draped insignias on sheets in the Great Hall, the Ivory Hall. Talk about bloody antediluvian.”

“Elizabeth,” he said.

“That’s it. That was her first name. Christ, to think, all those wars. That’s what constituted a hero. Can you believe it?”

“Unbelievable.”

“Yeah, well, what happened went down in the annals. They split the fruit in some creepy, pseudo-masonic ritual. Elder and a Minor, textbook weird. Poor soul chosen at random, gallumphs onto stage with his tail between his legs, two thousand eyes trained on him begging for a false move. Fucking kids. Kids love failure. So do adults, mind. We’re barbaric. Richard?”

“Barbaric. You’re right.”

“I know. So the kid gets up there and he’s got this problem with his bowels. Nobody knows about it but him, maybe his parents. Actually I bet they do know but they’ve not let on that they know, leave him in the dark, neglect the sucker. Barbaric.” Jenny slurps the last of her daiquiri and instinctively cracks a can of Coke, cruising into the present tense. Her palette dries easily so she likes to have a drink to hand. She sips the fizzy drink, immediately regrets ridding her mouth of lime tang. Picks up the coupe and drains the dregs, craving citrus. Wonders if a daiquiri should even be served in a coupe. She’s sure it isn’t. What an establishment, mouldy fruit and misaligned glass/cocktail combinations. Muses on its origin – glass, not cocktail – remembers a classmate years ago telling her of Marie Antoinette’s breast, sliding into glass in conical perfection. Perfection? She imagines her own breasts being cast into silicone, handled by masters of ergonomics wearing white gloves and marvelling at her body. Artful hands playing her like an instrument. Future generations drinking from her shapely bosom. Indirectly but still. The prissiness of it all. Buxom, delightful.

“Richard? Are you with me?”

“Yes.”

“Good, because it’s just getting to the good bit.”

“The good bit? What happens next?” Richard reclined sideways to nearly horizontal, world spinning about him, his weight propped under one elbow. Drool formed an eel-like bridge between the left corner of his mouth and his forearm, slid like a snail-trail onto the table. Jenny barely noticed, she was thunder and lightning.

“Kid goes up there, knees trembling. He’s heard of the durian, knows how bloody dangerous it is. How fucking stinky it is. And he’s got this problem with his bowel whereby all is let loose if too pongy a pong strikes his nasal cavity. This really is a recipe for disaster, you appreciate.” Jenny slurped at her Coke.

“So the leader, elder, whatever masonic bogus he goes by, slices the fruit in fitting with tradition. Tradition, that’s who’s to blame here.” A car horn carried into the room via the open door. “He cuts it right in half, its scent wafts kidward. Kid balks, freaks, doesn’t know what to do. What can he do? He’s at rock bottom, there’s nowhere he can go.”

“What happens?” Richard almost shouted, somehow counting on Jenny to rewrite this memory for him, as it flashed past his eyes in a foray of fleeting images. Dreadful, haunted images.

“He shits his pants, Richard. The whole room hears it. There’s a deathly silence, you understand. The sound of knife through durian husk is practically amplified by the reverence in the room. It’s a palpable silence broken only or at least first by the sound of knife through husk, then second and louder and more dreadfully by the sound of this kid passing gas, sludge, brown matter filling the space between his behind and the cloth of his pants. It’s pathetic and tremendous and unbelievably tragic. I almost couldn’t believe it.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“It’s true.”

“I don’t believe you. You are telling me this.” His faced drained of all colour and he lost consciousness. He slumped further in the booth, his chin inching closer to the table until it rested grubbily on the off-black lacquer. He was out for a minute, like a light, like a candle.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Reveries, by Bruno Cooke, is available on Amazon. Read about it on Goodreads, or buy it straight off the bat. Also, read a review here.

At 05:01 on that fateful October morning, Josie awoke in a wet bed. Her bed was wet with urine, her own. The sun still slept.

Her brother, it seemed, observed an etiquette vastly transliterated from her own, regarding prank rules. To her, unconscious meant unarmed; to Drew, it meant easy pickings. He had been told the previous day about the trick of soaking your victim’s fingers in warmed vinegar-water during NREM3 (approximately 20% of a sleep cycle, his learned compatriot informed him). Roused by his alarm at 04:45 ante meridiem, he prepared silently while the blood throbbed in his ears. He crept into his sister’s bedroom, taking with him a tub of water estimated by his elbow to be damn near close enough to body temperature.

Needless to say (but hell, let it be said): the prank paid off. He watched on, petrified, feet fastened, shivering with gratified anticipation as the puddle grew. Josie released a soft groan, and stretched out her back. It clicked. The sound jolted Drew back to the immediacy of reality and he scarpered. In his rush he trod with full force on a stray Lego cube – Josie had not forgotten the value of tangible play, regularly creating for herself miniature worlds in which anything at all was possible, as long as it was constructed exclusively from quadrangles and could be connected, top and bottom, in the prescribed way.

Drew yelped to high heaven, quite unable to inhibit his reflexes against such a burst of visceral pain. The bolt shot up his leg and reached his brain before he could suppress it, and his cry rang forth. Josie’s torso snapped up like a spring, frightened into consciousness by her brother’s gasp. She retorted with a breathy AGH! which alerted Drew. Blenching at the thought of her impending revenge, he swung round and flung up his foot, wishing to soothe it for immediate escape. He lost his balance again, semi-somersaulted with a flying scissor-kick into the air, and landed on his bottom, unprotected but for a thin layer of pyjama cotton.

A blunt twinge seared from his left cheek and reverberated like a ripple through his rump. Josie tossed her duvet from her bed in order to reprimand her brother for waking her without permission, only to discover her compromised position. She sat in a pool of her own doing, warm and wet to the hilt. Her blood proceeded to poach. She knew her brother’s dastardly ways and knew in a second that he was the culprit. A ragged, fuming electricity began to pop and bubble in the pit of her stomach. It seethed and blew gales within her, raising her up onto her hind legs. Towering above Drew, she gained vantage, therefore advantage.

Standing now, a lioness in her prime, she roared with hearty rumble, her mane full aflame and plumage lit. She bounced once, twice, and then flew like a falcon onto her brother’s back. Her faithful talons sank in, prompting the blood to flow where it may. Drew’s sharp shriek could be heard from three doors down: Norwegian Ms Jerry in the yellow cottage at number 135 awoke with a start, shot up and knocked her head KATHUMP on the bedside lamp, wherefrom a searing bulge could be seen until a week later; sickly old Reverend Harklestamp, the Dane in the blue house opposite, yelped and defecated where he lay, staring up at the majestic compass which adorned the mantelpiece; down the hall, the fractious pair’s biological mother (their house was red; they didn’t have any fish) opened her weary eyes and, disorientated for a moment, flailed out beside her, thwacking her partner square on the nose.

Josie was in her element. All four limbs wreaked their most vengeful wrath upon her brother, inflicting so great a shock that he lost all consciousness. Drew crumpled under his sister’s bulk and, landing directly cube to cube, suffered comprised potency and generous scarring. Let that be a lesson to brothers all.

Unfazed by the hyperbole of the situation, and dehydrated after the fracas, Josie went downstairs for a cool glass of coconut milk. Coco was unassailable.

The morning’s set-to had, however, taken its toll on Josie’s foot-to-eye coordination. Steps were too much. Her humanness raised its gnarly head – or, more precisely, the minor discrepancy in length between her right and left legs went uncompensated for – she fell, oh how she fell!, with uproarious calamity. On her third step, her foot only narrowly shaved the stairlip, and clumped onto the level below. This knocked her so off course that she came tumbling down, step by step, with a series of percussive thumps which roused the whole household. Her mothers both, biological and nominal, came bounding out of their room, skipped down the staircase to find their daughter (biological, titular) star-fished on the tartan-rugged floor, florid and moaning. Knocked unconscious like her brother, Josie soon awoke to find herself one tooth down, a certified resident of sore-town.

*

If you enjoyed this, read more excerpts at the following links:
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard goes to his first Masturbators’ Anonymous Meeting
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard shits in the bath, is upset
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Richard, Jenny, and a pair of antediluvians
EXCERPT [Reveries]: Josie Haybottom is late

Buy the book here.

Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?

Coronavirus has struck at an interesting time. These are turbulent days. Commentators speak in seismic proportions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ replacing such indulgencies as past and future. We are living in the midst of an Event, or a The Event, like the event which occurred on the 11th of September, 2001. It is an event that shapes modern history, after which one does not look back in quite the same way. Maybe such an event is inevitable. Maybe coronavirus is necessary for us to change direction.

We’ve got the whole world in our hands – or is it the other way round?

It is bad

Chilling stories are emerging which recommend the most drastic measures for 12–18 months. If not, 2.2 million will die. If we are clever and disciplined and follow orders, only 1.1 million will die. If we alter our lifestyles dramatically, only 20,000 will die.

The only reliable metric we have is death count. Different countries test and report differently. Widespread testing has not yet been rolled out, and the 14-day incubation period means that even if draconian measures are put in place now, we could still see sharp rises in case numbers during the two weeks that follow.

But it has always been bad

It is interesting that, following such cataclysmic climate catastrophes as the Australian bushfires, it is only now that such measures look likely. In 2018, as many as 29 million people were adversely affected by climate disasters. Wildfires ravaged California, hurricanes battered other parts of the US, and 5 million were displaced by flooding in India.

If you look at the numbers, they are staggering in ways the coronavirus isn’t — yet. We live in a time of unprecedented times. We read about giant events resetting the lives of other people all the time. But these are localised, generally speaking, or at least easy to think of as such.

Climate activists the world over called for policy overhauls, and small victories were won. But nothing fundamentally changed. Someone dies by committing suicide every 40 seconds. There were over 6,500 suicides in the UK in 2018 alone. The Yemeni Civil War has led to as many as 100,000 deaths since 2015. But for some reason, these all get swept under the rug. There are ongoing global tragedies that fail to galvanise us as a human population.

We are, or at least should be, better together

Is coronavirus the silver bullet we need?

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been a smattering of quietly beautiful news reports. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan are among several Chinese cities to be enjoying uncharacteristically blue skies. Air pollution levels are lower than they have been, in some cases, for decades.

Likewise, in Italy, pollution levels are plummeting. The ban on all but essential travel in swathes of Europe is allowing the continent’s airwaves to breathe, and its waterways to refresh. The canals of Venice are seeing dolphins for the first time in 60 years.

An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever.
The fish are visible, the swans returned

Europe’s most hated airline, along with several other budget carriers, are grounding the vast majority of their flights. While this is an estimable bummer for pilots and crews, the benefits are clear.

The yet-to-be-realised cherry

Social commentators in the UK, US and elsewhere are noticing the resurgence in favour of socialist policies. Educational institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online, are making pay-to-access materials free for a limited time (read: 12 to 18 months) to help those in quarantine. Visited the NYTThe Journal, and QNS for more detail on those. In the UK, the Co-op has joined legions of others in supporting children forced to stay home during these first months of the pandemic.

Healthcare professionals, among other keyworkers keeping our society relatively intact, are self-deploying on the frontline. Volunteers are jumping out of the woodwork. Community groups abound. Town councils are considering buying and cultivating local land. Teachers are offering their services remotely and for free.

We are seeing glimmers of a socialist utopia through the cracks forming in our crumbling, ultra-consumerist paradigm. Universal Basic Income is being floated with renewed buoyancy — people all over country are recognising that the government’s business-first approach has set us up to fail during a time of global health crisis. Our gutted NHS is understaffed, under-resourced and criminally undervalued.

And lead us not into temptation

It has been said that we will see the best and worst of humanity in the coming weeks and months. It is tempting in such situations to simplify the virus. We might see it as a divine clarion call, or method of holy retribution — punishment for sins uncountable — designed to sweep us out of ideology and into something purer. But do not become unstuck.

From FP:

Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors.

Aside from being a killer reference to Sisyphus and delightfully alliterative, this is perceptive. Human populations are weak when shocked. Ideas proliferate, but so do prejudices, misinformation and wanton references to the divine.

Conspirators sit at their computers, or in front of shiny logos, and pontificate about the ever-changing ‘they’ and what ‘they’ stand to gain. Trump calls it a Chinese virus — we are told to ‘wake up and smell the silicon’ — Asian-looking Brits are being beaten in the streets. Heaven only knows what Piers Morgan has to say.

Seek method in madness, and measures of moderation

If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.

True, and fair enough. The virus is not some pendulous revenge tack swung back at us by Mother Nature herself. We are not living an allegory, lungs besieged by the viral wing of a suffocating Gaia.

Yes, there are somewhat pleasingly poetic connections to be found between our hyper-industrial, anthropocentric activity on this earth, a strangling of the world’s resources, or pummelling of its vital organs, and the ease with which the coronavirus swipes at our respiratory systems — individual and collective.

But the blanket coverage of coronavirus is not a test from a divine power. Nor, probably, was it fabricated with evil intent, or released by Jeff Bezos to increase dependence on Amazon. Disparate micro-patterns emerge but do not necessarily form a larger whole. Those profiting from the virus are simply well placed. Obviously Bezos stands to gain because he is well placed to gain in just about any situation.

If we are going to ride this wave towards a socialist utopia (and please let’s do that), let us do so carefully, with measure, and without crashing.

Remember, always remember:

Ginger:
Ladies, please. Let’s not lose our heads.

Bunty:
Lose our heads? Aaaahh.

*

This article also appears on Medium, as part of the Data Driven Investor publication, along with another piece titled:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Read more on the subject elsewhere on this blog:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Coronavirus has devastated swathes of China and infected tens of thousands in Italy, Iran, South Korea and northern Europe. Experts predict it could infect half the world’s population in its lifetime–some say it is here to stay, much as is flu or the common cold. But coronavirus may have a dark, secret history, deep in the bowels of Wuhan’s National Biosafety Laboratory, part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

[This article also appears on Medium. Read more pieces about China here, here and here.]

Where did coronavirus come from? “The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market,” you say

Spoken, heard, read and written across the world, the story goes that the virus spontaneously hopped from animal to animal, living and/or dead, in a Wuhan wet market. Images circulated of the cheek-by-jowl bustle of such places. 

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for the market in question lists among its wares some very peculiar items, at least, by ‘western standards’. Long before the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market made a name for itself as the so-called birthplace of this particular strain of coronavirus, it was a marketplace for rabbit organs, spotted deer, koalas and/or beavers, camel, wolf puppies and, for good measure, Emmental cheese. 

It is the perfect story. We in the West love to read about what the Chinese are prepared to eat. We fetishise the Chinese propensity for eating every part of the animal, and blindly condemn the consumption of animals such as dogs (despite tucking into an equally intelligent and emotionally attuned animal, the humble pig, as a national pastime). It was one of the first questions I was asked upon returning from a stint in Chengdu in 2017 – “Did you eat dog?” I was almost sorry to disappoint.

But the story stands on shaky legs. The first documented cases of Covid-19 were among people who may never have set foot in the much mythologised seafood market. 

Sometimes the truth is an even better story

The truth may be more insidious, less banally cartoonish. Biological warfare, aka the development and deployment of bio-weapons, has been part of reality’s fabric for longer than you would care to think–much longer. Our shared history includes stories of Roman soldiers dipping their swords, and Scythian archers their arrows, into cadavers and faeces, causing their victims to be infected with tetanus. There are those who argue that the Black Death resulted from deliberate germ warfare.

Bio-weapons are defined as living organisms or replicating entities (this latter includes viruses, which are not universally considered ‘alive’). Bio-weaponry has always been difficult to control, and merciless when unleashed. In the last century, we have developed increasingly sophisticated bio-weapons for use during WWI, WWII and beyond. War strategists now have the ability to specifically target personnel, crops, livestock or fisheries. 

In Britain, the 1950s saw the weaponisation of a variety of diseases such as plague, tularaemia, brucellosis and vaccinia viruses. At the same time, the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories were doing the same. National-level policies to ban the use of biological weapons date back to 1969, when the UK and the Warsaw Pact introduced proposals to the UN.

Coronavirus: “Hopefully it won’t last long since it was made in China”

In February, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive to those in its employ, titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.”

In China, as in many other countries, there are microbiology labs which conduct in-depth research into bacterial, viral and fungal diseases. Laboratories are given a Biosafety Level (or Containment Level in Canada). Levels of precaution ascend according to the Biosafety Level. For example, at Level 1, laboratory personnel must wash their hands upon entry. 

Biosafety Level 4 microbiology labs are used for diagnostic work and research on easily transmitted pathogens which can cause fatal disease. Examples include a number of viruses known to cause viral haemorrhage fever, such as the Ebola and Lassa viruses. Level 4 laboratories also work with Variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox. These are the realm of protective suits and disinfectant tanks, autoclaves and chemical showers. They must have seamless edges to allow for easy cleaning. 

There is precisely one microbiology lab in all of China that handles “advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus”, and it is located in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic – in the city of Wuhan. To be clear: this is the only laboratory on Chinese soil that handles viruses such as the novel coronavirus, and it is the city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Exhibit B: Bio warfare expert Chen Wei is in charge of containing the outbreak

This is the intriguing fact that the top biological warfare expert of the People’s Liberation Army of China, Major General Chen Wei, is the woman drafted in to Wuhan at the end of January with the task of containing the outbreak. 

Aside from it being evidently uncontainable, this is striking for how it looks, diplomatically. Chen has been researching coronaviruses since 2003’s SARS outbreak. She has also been through the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s doors more than once before. Such a dispatch rings alarm bells, especially when compounded with the notion that this is exactly the type of place where a coronavirus would be artificially developed.

The scariest part

To me, the most frightening thing about all of this is not the notion that China has the capacity, or even the political will, to develop new strains of a deadly virus. As a cynical citizen of the West, I rest on the presumption that most of the world’s most powerful countries are either doing something similar, or at the very least have the political will to. 

Despite near universal ratification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, stories abound about offensive biological weapons programs, in Russia and beyond. ProCon lists Algeria, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia and Syria as Maybe/Likely in possession of biological weapons. I would not be surprised to learn of clandestine bio-weaponry programs in Europe or North America.

So no, that China is capable and/or willing is not the most frightening thing. The most disquieting part, if this is true, is that China lacks the capacity to contain the virus. If it got out of the lab, the most concerning thing is that it got out of the lab. The NY Post writes that China has unleashed a plague on its own people. Again, if the rumours are true, it has unleashed a plague on the whole world

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https://www.ibtimes.sg/wuhan-virus-china-may-have-just-accepted-that-man-made-coronavirus-escaped-its-biowarfare-lab-39911?fbclid=IwAR23WbADEIarAcfdSumtwVYfrYJO0B_CxNtmOTxo48X0AMTNHaNK21FgY1I

https://nypost.com/2020/02/22/dont-buy-chinas-story-the-coronavirus-may-have-leaked-from-a-lab/?fbclid=IwAR225Dxxg3gqJHNh71ve1amKklUxOQmnMMrPHpPuc0_hI09j_mcGwv0GK1o

https://usiraq.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000678

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51839944

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/asia/china-coronavirus-contain.html