Saturday, January 20, 2024

The History of Cartography, the “Most ambitious overview of map making ever,” is free online

Or what Edward Rothstein, of The New York Times, called “the most ambitious overview of map making ever undertaken.”
He continues:
People come to know the world the way they come to map it—through their perceptions of how its elements are connected and of how they should move among them.
This is precisely what the series is attempting by situating the map at the heart of cultural life and revealing its relationship to society, science, and religion….
It is trying to define a new set of relationships between maps and the physical world that involve more than geometric correspondence.
It is in essence a new map of human attempts to chart the world.

If you head over to this page, you will see links (in the left margin) to five volumes available in a free PDF format.
The image above, appearing in Vol. 2, dates back to 1534.
Created by Oronce Fine, the first chair of mathematics in the Collège Royal (aka the Collège de France), the map features the world drawn in the shape of a heart.
A pretty beautiful design.

If you buy any of the printed versions on Amazon, each edition will cost you $400-$500.

Friday, January 19, 2024

America fights back

image: Ricardo Rey

From The Economist

The war against the Houthis is part of an escalating struggle for the seas

Around the world a storm is building on the oceans after decades of calm.
In the Red Sea Houthi militias have launched dozens of attacks on ships with drones and missiles, cutting container activity in the Suez canal by 90%.
On January 12th America and Britain responded with more than 60 sea and air attacks on Houthi targets in Yemen in an attempt to restore open passage, expanding the scope of the Middle East conflict.
President Joe Biden threatened further military action and said America would not allow “hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes”.

The escalation in the Red Sea is mirrored by maritime mayhem elsewhere.
The Black Sea is filling up with mines and crippled warships; this year Ukraine hopes to eject the Russian navy from Crimea, its base since Catherine the Great.
The Baltic and North seas face a shadow-war of pipeline and cable sabotage.
And Asia is seeing the largest build-up of naval power since the second world war, as China tries to coerce Taiwan into unifying and America seeks to deter a Chinese invasion.
After Taiwan’s election on January 13th, tensions there could soar.

The U.S. Navy is already operating the Triton drone boat near Iran, and more Tritons could soon be used to counter China and other adversaries in the world’s waters.
The autonomous sailboat-turned-submarine can carry various payloads, and since it’s powered by solar panels, it can sail autonomously for months at a time.
Military experts say drones like the Triton could be used for various offensive and defensive purposes, from defending ports and monitoring underwater pipelines to laying sea mines and attacking Navy ships.

These events are not a coincidence, but a sign of a profound shift taking place on the planet’s oceans.
The world economy is still globalised.
Some 80% of trade by volume and 50% by value travels on a fleet of 105,000 container ships, tankers and freight vessels that ply the oceans day and night, taken for granted by the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
Yet superpower rivalry and the decay of global rules and norms mean that geopolitical tensions are deepening.
The inevitable and underappreciated consequence is that oceans are a contested zone for the first time since the cold war.

The quest for opportunity and order at sea has a long history.
In the 17th century Grotius, a Dutch jurist, laid out the principle of freedom of navigation and in the 19th Britain enforced it by means of the Royal Navy and a network of ports and forts.
Open oceans were enshrined in the post-1945 order and, from the 1990s, the maritime world reflected the rise of globalisation and American power.
That emphasised hyper-efficiency and extreme concentration.
Today 62% of containers are carried by five Asian and European firms, 93% of ships are built by China, Japan and South Korea, and 86% are scrapped in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan.
The us Navy’s specialist role has been as the near-monopoly provider of security, using over 280 warships and 340,000 sailors.

This vast and intricate system faces two challenges.
One is fraught geopolitics.
China’s naval build-up means the us Navy’s primacy in the Pacific is being contested for the first time since 1945.
There are more rogue actors.
The Houthis, backed by their sponsor Iran, have proven resistant to attacks from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, suggesting that they will not be quickly subdued by the American and British strikes.
As well as the Houthis, landlocked Ethiopia’s dictator is leasing a Red Sea naval base in neighbouring Somaliland.
The law of the sea is in decline.
China ignores tribunal rulings that it objects to.
And the West’s use of sanctions has triggered a smuggling boom: 10% of all tankers are part of an anarchic “dark fleet” operating outside mainstream laws and finance—twice the share of 18 months ago.

The geopolitical winds are being strengthened by technological and climate disruption.
China has invested in anti-ship missiles, pushing us Navy vessels farther offshore.
Arms proliferation means militias like the Houthis now have cruise missiles, a capability that, until recently, only states possessed.
The knowledge economy—and the dominance of Wall Street and Silicon Valley—depend on 600-odd subsea data cables vulnerable to sabotage.
Climate shifts are changing geography and incentives.
The Panama canal is short of water (see Americas section); trade routes are expanding in the Arctic as it melts; and the green-energy boom is catalysing a scramble to mine the seabeds.
Disorder therefore looms on the high seas.
One cost will be transient disruptions to commerce.
Seaborne trade is worth about 16% of global gdp.
The shipping system is adaptable but only up to a point.
Single shocks can often be absorbed.
The Houthi attacks have so far caused a spike in insurance and shipping rates, but have not yet led to broader price rises, because the container and energy markets have spare capacity.
But that could easily change.
Oil prices rose on news of the American and British attacks and if the disruption spreads to the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows, or if Iran becomes directly involved, they could rise much further.

And when markets are tight or there are synchronous shocks, the penalty can be high.
The post-lockdown shipping crunch in 2021 and the Black Sea grain disruptions in 2022 caused worldwide inflation.
Although shipping is a low share of most products’ final price, unpredictability at sea would lead firms to shrink their supply chains, adding to costs.

Large-scale conflicts at sea could be devastating.
Maritime confrontations have their own distinct qualities, because the difficulty of rapidly reinforcing fleets means that escalation is less likely than on land.
Still, it is easy to identify where conflict could break out.
Attacks by, say, Iran or Russia on pipelines, liquefied-natural-gas routes or data cables could be crippling.
Spats over strategic islands could trigger confrontation in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean (see Asia section).
And embargoes of economies more sophisticated than Russia’s or Iran’s could do enormous damage.
A simulation by Bloomberg shows a blockade of Taiwan and Western countermeasures cutting global gdp by 5%.

All this shows the need to deter rogue actors and hostile states.
Yet there is no easy passage back to the calm waters of the 1990s.
Appeals to uphold universal laws are unlikely to succeed.
Trade-dependent China has much to lose, but wants to subvert Western sanctions and pursue illegal claims in the South China Sea.
It does not help that America has not ratified the main global treaty on maritime law.
Nor can the West quickly re-establish its naval dominance after chronic underinvestment.
With a puny 5% of global shipyard capacity, it will need decades to rebuild its fleets.

The Red Sea is one of the most important shipping waterways in the world, but the Israel-Hamas War has helped it also become one of the most dangerous.
The Bab-el Mandeb Strait, or the Gate of Tears, is a vital passageway for ships traveling through the Suez Canal, but recent attacks from Houthis are creating a major maritime choke point.
WSJ explains how the cargo industry is responding to try and guard against attacks from the Houthis in Yemen.
0:00 The Gate of Tears
0:54 Houthi attacks in Yemen
2:33 Defending against attacks
3:11 What’s next?
Dead calm

A different response is needed.
Western countries must double-down on maintaining their technological edge, in submarines and autonomous vessels, for example.
Government and private-sector co-operation in monitoring vulnerable maritime infrastructure such as pipelines is critical, as are sea-based and satellite backups for data cables.

And alliances need to be broadened in order to make more resources available for policing the seas.
America is rebuilding its Asian naval pacts and the emerging response to the Houthis in the Red Sea could ultimately provide a model.
While America and Britain launched the latest strikes on the Houthis, four other countries provided military support, and a much larger cast of navies, including those of Asian states, are now active in the Red Sea.
Because of the stakes, sustaining a maritime order is the lowest common denominator of international co-operation.
It is something that even isolationists should subscribe to.
Without it, the world economy would be sunk.
Links :

Thursday, January 18, 2024

An unprecedented flu strain is attacking hundreds of animal species. Humans could be next.

An avian flu panzootic — a pandemic among animals — has struck some 320 bird and mammal species, including elephant seals.
The possibility of the evolving influenza virus eventually transmitting to humans has scientists concerned about the pathogen turning into another pandemic.
(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty; iStock)

From The WashingtonPost by Dino Grandoni

It felt like watching one of those blockbusters about the end of the world. Like witnessing an apocalypse, but in real life. Which, in a way, it was.

The beaches of Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, normally so packed with elephant seals that time of year it is impossible to stroll along the shore, were desolate except for hundreds of dark, rotting carcasses — nearly a whole season of seal pups dead, with gulls pecking at the remains.

Instead of the usual cacophony of guttural honks that drowns out the waves during breeding season, the eerie silence was only broken by the sound of a few remaining elephant seals shaking their heads, snot running down their protruding, namesake noses.

“You felt like a bomb had exploded,” said Martín Méndez, recalling the scene he witnessed in October during an annual survey of southern elephant seals in that stretch of coastal Patagonia.
“It is catastrophic,” added the marine biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based nonprofit group. 
“This is the largest die-off for the species, period.”

Altogether, an estimated 17,000 elephant seal pups seals died there last year from avian influenza, victims of an unprecedented panzootic — a pandemic among animals — that has struck around 320 types of birds and mammals.

Over the past few years, a potent strain of H5N1 avian influenza has jumped between species and raged through domestic and wild animal populations on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, crisscrossing the world along birds’ migratory routes.

So far, cases of humans getting seriously sick from this strain of flu are rare. 
Dead seal pups are spread out on a beach in Valdes Peninsula, Argentina, after adults abandoned the breeding area. (Photo by Maxi Jonas)
But the possibility of the quickly evolving influenza virus gaining the ability to be transmitted between from one mammal to another — and eventually, to humans — has scientists concerned about the pathogen turning into another pandemic. 
“Every year that this doesn’t happen,” Méndez said, “we’re being lucky.”

For poultry farmers, the outbreak has already come at a significant economic cost, striking tens of millions of birds in the United States. 
For wildlife, it threatens to disrupt ecosystems and push endangered animals closer to the brink of extinction.

“We’ve never seen such a massive spread of virus in wild birds, and we’ve never seen such massive infections of wild mammals,” said Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

The trajectory of the virus, unprecedented both in its global spread and in the number of species infected, shows how dependent and connected humanity is to the natural world — and how farming practices that facilitate the flu can disrupt it.
‘I was not prepared’

Scientists first spotted the precursor to this flu strain in commercial geese in southern China in 1996. Over the next several years, it spread to poultry farms in the region, popping up occasionally in wild birds within flight range of infected farms.

Then, in 2005, some 1,500 wild geese and gulls dropped dead in a protected nature reserve in northwestern China, far from any poultry coops. 
The virus had found its way into the wild bird population.

From there, the virus rapidly spread across Asia, Africa and Europe, popping up in seasonal outbreaks. But it was only after a genetic change that allowed the pathogen to spread in migrating birds around 2021 that the numbers of outbreaks exploded and the virus went global, establishing itself in North America that year and in South America the following.

Since then, the death toll has been staggering.

About 5,200 common cranes in Israel. 
More than 2,200 Dalmatian pelicans in Greece, about 40 percent of the species in southeastern Europe, and roughly 20,000 Sandwich terns in Europe, 17 percent of the northwest European breeding population.
More than 18,000 dead barnacle geese in Scotland. And tens of thousands of gannets in Canada.

Last year, ornithologists found about 12,000 dead black-legged kittiwakes in Norway. 
By July, more than 500,000 birds died in South America, including about 41 percent of all Peruvian pelicans.

Dead birds are collected along the coast in the Vadso municipality of Finnmark in Norway following a major outbreak of bird flu on July 20, 2023.
(Oyvind Zahl Arntzen/AFP/Getty Images)

Flu symptoms depend on the bird, according to Jonas Waldenström, a disease ecology professor at Linnaeus University in Sweden. 
Telltale signs include tilting heads, struggling to stand and tumbling when trying to take flight — all signs the virus has hit the nervous system.
“In some species, it’s pretty ugly,” he said.

The virus is literally reaching the ends of the Earth, killing brown skuason islands near Antarctica and, for the first time just this winter, a polar bear in Alaska
Scientists worry it is only a matter of time before it reaches penguins and other vulnerable populations on Antarctica itself.

“The Antarctic situation is at a precipice,” said Michelle Wille, a virus ecologist at the University of Melbourne. 
“Many of the animal species that live there are found no where else in the world, and many are already facing substantial pressures due to things like fisheries and climate change.”

Scientists say the disease can jump between species when a wild animal eats a dead or dying bird, or when bird poop plops into a farm animal’s feed.
So far, bird flu has infected coyotes, lions, tigers, grizzlies, raccoons, red foxes and other terrestrial mammals, but only sporadically.
And it has also struck farms for mink and fox fur in Spainand Finland.

But a series of mass die-offs of marine mammals that congregate on beaches has biologists worried about the possibility of the virus evolving to spread directly from one mammal to another.

Last year, more than 5,000 sea lions were found dead in Peru. 
And more than 17,000 elephant seal pups succumbed to the virus in Argentina, representing at least 96 percent of the juvenile population. 
Nursing seal pups likely would not have caught the flu by eating birds. 
They instead may have gotten it from contaminated milk, water, aerosol or feces, Fouchier said.

Valeria Falabella, a Wildlife Conservation Society marine biologist who has studied Argentina’s elephant seals for decades, had only ever seen a dead adult once before this flu outbreak. Seeing beaches of dozens dead was “absolutely devastating.”
“I was not prepared to see that,” Falabella said. 
An employee of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service attempts to capture a sick sea lion on a beach in La Serena, Chile, on May 31, 2023.
(Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)
The risk to people

If a bird flu virus evolves to spread between seals, it is more likely to spread within other mammal populations, such as humans.
“It’s quite a distance from a gannet to human,” Waldenström said. 
“But from a seal to a human, we’re pretty much alike.”

Tracing how viruses hop between species is hard. In the past, humans have caught disease from animals after working on farms (the 1918 flu pandemic likely started in Kansas farm country) or after encroaching into wilderness (HIV likely jumped from chimpanzees when a hunter killed one for meat).

In the case of the latest flu strain, it is “very difficult to prove mammal-to-mammal transmission,” Fouchier said, adding that a genetic analysis of the virus found in the dead seals could provide clues about transmission.

So far, what we know about this strain of avian flu suggests an outbreak among humans is not imminent. 
The adaptation that the virus made to replicate in migratory birds — and thus spread across the globe — seems to have inhibited its ability to infect humans, Fouchier said.

“It is slightly less concerning to human health at present,” he said, compared to past flu viruses.
But given the unprecedented nature of the ongoing outbreak it’s hard to predict how it will evolve. 
“A typical bird flu virus never makes it into mammals at this scale,” he added.

The longer the virus persists in the environment, the more opportunities it has to fuel a new pandemic. Influenza viruses evolve much faster than the coronavirus behind the covid pandemic and other pathogens.

Right now, there is little to do to stop the spread of this flu virus among wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, is working with zoos to vaccinate critically endangered California condors.

“It’s hard to contain a virus that’s now on more or less all the continents,” Waldenström said. 
“There’s no putting the lid on that. It will run its course.”

But there are steps the poultry industry can take — monitoring for viruses at farms, disinfecting equipment, having workers wear protective gear — to reduce the risk of future outbreaks, according to Jonathan Sleeman, a science adviser for wildlife health at the U.S. Geological Survey. 
“One recognizes that this is a lot of effort,” he said.

For the surviving elephant seal population in Argentina, it may take years to come back. 
“They may never recover to the same level of population as they were before,” Sleeman said. 
Biologists are working to understand how many adult seals died.

Méndez, the biologist who likened the seal die-off to a disaster movie, worries how the recent outbreak may undo decades of conservation work.

Now, the virus has transformed their work.
It’s about more than just aiding faraway animals — it’s about protecting people, too.

“We’re really trying to protect the very functioning of our planet,” Méndez said. “We’re looking at this disruption through the lens of wildlife, but this is obviously very serious for humans as well.

Links :

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The price of a whale : where capitalism and conservation meet

image: Kate Copeland

From The Economist by Kingston-Upon-Hull, Tokyo And Shiretoko

Can you put a price on the wonders of nature?

Spurn point would be a desolate place to die.
Stretching five precarious kilometres into the North Sea, the constantly shifting finger of East Yorkshire coast is little more than a narrow sand bank held together by sea grass, the only obvious signs of human habitation a long-abandoned lifeboat station and lighthouse, both now given over to the winds and the rain.
It is a permanent home solely to wading birds and the bugs they feast on, perhaps to the odd vole.
But it is also, on occasion, the death bed of the world’s largest creatures.
Beached on its sand, they suffocate from the weight of their own bodies under its open skies.

In England whales, sturgeon and porpoises are “royal fish”.
Those caught off the coast are property of the Crown; so, in general, are those beached on the shore.
Those which expire on Spurn Point, though, are an exception.
The wonderfully named Lords Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness, a line of local nobles, have first dibs on them.
This has sometimes been lucrative.
When, in 1749, a sperm whale expired on its sands the then lord sold it to David Bridges of Kingston-upon-Hull, the closest city, for £90 (£16,000, or $20,000 in today’s money).
But sometimes it was not.
The estate’s records show that when it chose to dispose of a whale on its own the following year it cost £7 more to cut the beast up than the sale of the meat made at market, valuing the whale’s remains as a liability worth £1,276 today.

In the 18th century, then, the value of a whale was a matter, albeit an uncertain one, of material trade: what would the parts bring at market.
Today things are more complicated.
In 2019, Ralph Chami of the International Monetary Fund, calculated that a great whale was worth about $2m to the global economy; from that he went on to value the world stock of great whales at around $1trn, or roughly the market capitalisation of Amazon, an online retailer.

Mr Chami’s approach sits within the “natural capital” paradigm of environmental economics, in which components of the biosphere are treated as assets to be valued.
The fair value of a stock or bond is based on its monetary returns—the dividends a shareholder receives or the coupon payments a bondholder gets—appropriately discounted for the time it takes those returns to materialise.
The value of a piece of natural capital follows the same logic.
The “ecosystem services” provided by the relevant bit of the environment just by dint of its continued, unharmed, existence are treated as the returns which it generates; an estimate of the monetary worth of those services gives it its value.
In 2011 Robert Costanza, an economist, put an annual value of $125trn on all of these ecosystem services, compared with a yearly global gross domestic product of $75trn.
By this logic the natural world is humankind’s greatest asset.

For some the idea of putting a price on the wonders of the natural world sits somewhere on the borders of the cynical and the sacrilegious.
On top of its apparent impiety, it is held to be a form of academic imperialism, yet another example of economists’ endless desire to bring more of the world into their territory.
When Adrienne Buller, a dissident economist, published a critique of the way “green capitalism” seeks to financialise every aspect of the world, she could find no better emblem of such excess than Mr Chami’s research, and so she chose to title her book “The Value of a Whale”.
Her point is that whatever that value is, it is not one reducible to dollars and cents.

To some extent, Mr Chami agrees; but he has a compelling defence.
Now having set up his own consultancy, he says that he wanted to help preserve whales not by telling a story about their intrinsic beauty but about the service they render to the world by moving carbon which was recently in the atmosphere into the ocean depths.
And there is only one way to communicate such value.
“If I had said that without putting a dollar amount no one would listen,” he says.
Public understanding of, and outcry over, the dire state of the climate and environment is greater than ever before.
Parties across the political spectrum claim to be climate leaders, and overt denial is on the way out. Yet when it comes to slowing the course of the climate and nature crises, despite a growing number of pledges, policies and summits, little ever seems to change. Nature is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate.
We remain on course for a catastrophic 3°C of warming.
What's holding us back?
In this searing and insightful critique, Adrienne Buller examines the fatal biases that have shaped the response of our governing institutions to climate and environmental breakdown, and asks: are the ‘solutions’ being proposed really solutions? 
Tracing the intricate connections between financial power, economic injustice and ecological crisis, she exposes the myopic economism and market-centric thinking presently undermining a future where all life can flourish.
The book examines what is wrong with mainstream climate and environmental governance, from carbon pricing and offset markets to 'green growth', the commodification of nature and the growing influence of the finance industry on environmental policy.
In doing so, it exposes the self-defeating logic of a response to these challenges based on creating new opportunities for profit, and a refusal to grapple with the inequalities and injustices that have created them.
Both honest and optimistic, The Value of a Whale asks us – in the face of crisis – what we really value.
Through most of modern history the idea that the value of a whale was not discoverable through its market price would have seemed silly, at least to anyone operating in that commercial market.
But for three centuries whales have occupied a peculiar point where economics and the environment meet, their fortunes tracing the changing relationship between the two.
In the 19th century a drop in the demand for whale-based products worked to the whales’ benefit.
In the 20th century, though, the supply of whale-based products became much cheaper and demand returned redoubled.
Whales became increasingly endangered until societies newly focused on the environmental costs of affluence imposed a worldwide whaling ban.
That made them literally priceless.

In the 21st century they are once again being talked of as things with value by economists versed in the lexicon of natural capital, public goods, ecosystem services and the like.
These new valuations lack the precision offered by a Hull trader’s willingness to buy, or the market price for a barrel of whale oil printed in a newspaper.
But their vagaries have a good excuse.
They seek to value not just the whale’s body, but its living presence.
This means the price of a whale has become, like the creature itself, a slippery, barely seen thing, showing its flukes to those straining to see it before disappearing once again.
More imprecise than economists would wish; but better than the certainties of the flensing deck and the butcher’s slab.

In 1861 vanity fair, a magazine, published a cartoon showing sperm whales in black tie and ball gowns raising their champagne glasses in celebration and relief.
It was, the caption informed readers, “The Grand Ball given by the Whales in honour of the discovery of the Oil Wells in Pennsylvania”.
The oil rush which started in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859 had produced a new commodity that would reilluminate America.
Light would no longer come from burning whale oil but from kerosene gushing out of the ground.
Thanks to this substitution of fossil-fuel energy for biomass, the whale would be left at peace.

Those employed in the American whaling fleet, sailing predominantly out of New Bedford in Massachusetts, were less moved to celebration.
Oil had been their main product; baleen for corsets, ambergris for parfumiers and other ancillaries could not support the industry.
From a peak of 137 whaling voyages in 1851, the year in which Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was published, the number dwindled to around a dozen a year by the turn of the 20th century.
Whale oil prices halved from £32 a barrel in 1874, when the data series starts, to £16 in 1887.
In a piece which draws a parallel between the economic and strategic importance of the historical whaling industry and the oil industry, Charlotte Epstein, a political philosopher, notes that “Whale oil constitutes the only form of energy that our societies both centrally depended upon and turned away from completely.”

That final turn, though, was still a few twists away.
Whales of the 20th century would have cause to look back on their forebears in Vanity Fair swilling champagne under a banner saying “Oil’s well that ends well” with bitter irony.
Yes, fossil fuels initially made whale oil less valuable.
But before long they would also make whale hunting much cheaper.
Fossil fuels allowed Norwegian and British steamships to chase them into the waters around Antarctica, which Melville had called the whales’ “polar citadel”.
Explosive harpoons, made possible by the fossil-fuel-driven growth in explosives, made whale hunting easier and also, worst of ironies, more important for nations going to war, as whales were an excellent source of the glycerine used in nitroglycerine.
Baleen for corsets and ambergris for parfumiers could no longer support the industry

These new hunting technologies made the great whales a source of fat cheap enough to be used as pet food, a treatment for trench foot and, overwhelmingly, spread on bread.
By 1935 roughly 84% of the world’s whale oil was being turned into margarine, at a price per barrel of £15 or so.
With up to 120 barrels of oil in a typical blue whale’s blubber, the largest animal to have ever lived had a market value of about £1,800 ($130,000 or so in 2023).

Whales are, in principle, a renewable resource.
But the rate at which they renew themselves is fairly slow.
Blue whales have calves every two or three years.
It takes those calves a couple of decades to get to their full size.
This meant that as sales increased, stocks diminished, a change which first became a matter of official concern in their breached citadel: the Antarctic waters administered from Britain’s South Atlantic colonies.

In 1911, Sir William Allardyce, governor of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, began to worry that the rapid expansion of this Southern Ocean whaling risked becoming unsustainable.
The whales were, to all extents and purposes, free to whoever could catch them; the government required only that the whalers pay for a whaling license—£25—and a royalty on each whale caught—£10 for a right whale (so called because they were the right whales to go after), ten shillings for a sperm whale and five shillings for any other whale.
Such fees were less than 1% of the whalers’ profits.

Had Allardyce been a modern economist he would have raised the prices.
Instead he limited the number of licenses he was willing to issue.
He also communicated his concerns to London.
As a result the British Colonial Office developed an interest in cetology.
The levies on whale hunting were used to fund Antarctic research voyages on board the refitted rrs Discovery, once the ship of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott.
Her complement of scientists took note of the abundance of nutrients in the waters around the islands, their currents and temperatures, the types of phytoplankton (which photosynthesise, like plants) and zooplankton (which eat the phytoplankton) which they were home to, the volume of krill (crustaceans that eat plankton of all sorts) and the populations of whales (most of which eat the krill).
To track the whales’ movements they fired on them with harpoons which left stainless steel darts buried under their blubber; whalers were paid £1 for every dart they recovered.

The Discovery expeditions showed an appreciation that measuring the true wealth of nations requires ecologists as well as economists: a well-run country needs to know about the natural assets on which its prosperity ultimately depends.
They did not call it “natural-capital accounting”, but armed with the expeditions’ data the Colonial Office saw the need to protect the future of the country’s assets.
It pressed for restrictions on catches, including limits on the hunting season, and prohibitions on the hunting of juveniles.

Attempts at spreading such regulations internationally, however, were thwarted by politics, economics and technology.
When, in 1927, the recently formed League of Nations proposed an international conference on whaling, various countries objected that such issues should properly be bilateral, not global.
There were economic objections, too: when it decided not to hold the conference, the league said it was because the market had no need of such regulation: “If hunting becomes unprofitable it will stop by itself, long before whales are exterminated.”

Technology, meanwhile, was helping the industry escape almost all regulation.
In Allardyce’s day whales killed at sea still had to be processed on land, or at least at a near-shore “floating factory”, allowing some oversight.
The advent of the factory ship allowed whalers to do all that they needed to do on the high seas, and thereby pay nothing for their catches.
Overexploitation continued: whale numbers fell further.
Writing in 1933, Harold Salvesen, scion of a whaling family but also, in the 1920s, an economist at the University of Oxford, explained why the simple nostrums that had apparently satisfied the League of Nations did not work.
“The reason is quite simple”, he wrote.
“Whaling companies never have property in the whales they hunt; if one company spares them not the whales but another company will profit from it.”

It was the needs of the whalers, not the whales, which drove change.
The Great Depression saw the world with more whale oil than consumers wanted.
Unilever, a British consumer-goods company and the world’s largest buyer of the stuff, said that it would buy up the excess stock—but only if the Norwegian fleet sat out the 1931-1932 hunting season.
The following year the British and Norwegian industries decided to self-regulate, setting quotas for catches so that prices would rise.
The companies’ quotas were measured in “blue-whale units”, each equivalent to a single blue whale, two fin whales, five humpback whales or 12 sei whales.
Salvesen, the whaler-economist, bought his rivals’ quotas, paying them to keep their ships at home while maximising the capital efficiency of his own.

Prices went up.
So did profits.
But there was an unforeseen consequence.
Giving all blue whales the same value encouraged whalers to seek out the largest of them, which meant the cows, especially pregnant ones storing up blubber for later conversion to milk.
In 1932-33 the whalers working under the quota system took 422 cows for every 100 bulls.
They were profiting today at the expense of the future in a peculiarly literal way.

The end of the second world war saw a new internationalism take hold.
The International Whaling Commission (iwc) was founded “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”.
Its early decades were an abject failure.
Alongside the long-standing whaling giants of Norway and Britain, other nations were joining the hunt.
General Douglas MacArthur, who administered the American occupation of Japan, encouraged the defeated and semi-starving country to use its decommissioned navy ships to hunt whales in the Southern Ocean.Big-eyed, warm-blooded and viciously slaughtered, they served well as stand-ins for peace and the environment

The Soviet Union, too, became a major whaling nation, with the help of American whaling ships provided through the wartime lend-lease programme and a German factory ship seized as reparations.
Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, encouraged iwc delegates to conserve whales from “predatory and irrational exploitation”.
The logic of scientific socialism would, the ussr thought, do better than free markets at preserving natural resources.
It didn’t.

The iwc was not completely supine.
From 1955 on it imposed limits on the catch of the largest whales, the blues.
But overall it continued to grow.
In 1964, roughly the industry’s peak, an estimated 82,000 whales were slaughtered.
Blues and rights being protected and scarce, sperm whales bore the brunt of the hunt.

In that decade, though, whales, and in particular endangered ones, started to take on a new symbolic and cultural value.
Big-eyed, warm-blooded and viciously slaughtered, they served well as stand-ins for peace and the environment in general at a time when young people were increasingly exercised about both.
The growth of Soviet whaling added some cold war needle to the mix.

The cold war bolstered the whales’ standing in another way, too.
After the second world war, the whaling industry adapted sonar systems and helicopters from their military uses to whale spotting.
In the 1960s new ways of underwater listening developed by American engineers listening out for Soviet submarines made the first recordings of humpback-whale song.
Scientists took note; so, soon, did the public.
“The Songs of the Humpback Whale”, an lp released in 1970 at a retail price of $9.95, breached the Billboard top 200 the following year, reaching number 176 in May 1971 and staying in contention for eight weeks.
The whales received no royalties, but their plaintive calls provided great pr.

America’s Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 included protection for the eight largest whales.
In 1971 the country proposed an outright moratorium on whaling at the iwc.
At the un’s 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment, forebear of today’s cop climate summits, the American delegation proposed and won a vote calling for a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling.
When the ussr and Japan rejected the whaling quotas the iwc assigned them for being too limited, President Gerald Ford threatened a trade embargo.

Countries without any prior history or economic interest in whaling began to join the iwc, keen for the diplomatic boost from being on the side of nature.
Steadily, it turned from a whaling organisation into an anti-whaling one.
The eventual moratorium on commercial whaling was passed at the iwc in 1982.

Overall, the 20th century saw an estimated 2.9m great whales killed; Phillip Clapham, an American biologist, called it “the largest hunt in human history”.
Many species were on the verge of extinction.

To a large extent, the iwc ban worked.
Whale populations are recovering, albeit slowly.
The iwc estimated that there were roughly 450 blue whales left in the Southern Ocean at the time of the moratorium; its latest estimate, made at the turn of the millennium, was that there were now 2,300.
That is a rate of growth of about 8.5% a year.
Humpback whales have done even better: numbers in the south Antarctic have increased from 10,230 to 42,000.
The environmental movement had scored what might be seen as its first global success.
But there were still a few places where whales had a price.

The flesh of a great whale tastes something like beef or venison.
It is iron-rich and coloured almost purple thanks to the amount of haemoglobin needed to store a body’s worth of oxygen while diving into the abyss.
In a basement restaurant in Tokyo, it is served as steak, battered like fried chicken, wrapped into shumai, a kind of Chinese dumpling, and finally fried as a set of well-spiced rice balls.
It all tastes fine, but not quite good enough for your correspondent to overcome his discomfort.
Most of the dishes are left abandoned after a token effort.
Eating whale comes more naturally to Japanese people, suggests Konomo Kubo, the secretary of the Japanese Whaling Association and your correspondent’s dining partner.

After the iwc’s 1982 moratorium Japan continued to hunt under the auspices of research.
Kyodo Senpaku, the national whaling company set up in 1987, auctioned off the meat.
Initially prices increased as supply dwindled: the cost of a kilogram of whale meat rose from $9 straight after the moratorium to around $30 per kilo in the early 1990s, according to official auction statistics.
Today it is a minority habit.
In 2023 a Tokyo fishmonger sells a 130g steak for ¥702, roughly $35 per kilo.
Overall consumption has collapsed from 233,000 tonnes a year in 1963, the peak, to 1,000 tonnes in 2021, roughly 16 grams per person.

That was two years after Japan had left the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the treaty under which the iwc operates, and resumed commercial whaling.
Commercial, here, does not mean economically sustainable.
The government was spending around ¥5bn ($35m) a year to keep the industry running in 2019.
Spread over the 335 whales the Japanese fleet caught in 2019 that amounts to slightly less than ¥15m per whale.
Since the exit Kyodo Senpaku, the whaling company, has had the hard job of demonstrating that commercial whaling is still a viable industry.
In 2022 it managed to eke out a small operating profit of ¥132m, which management attributed to cost-cutting.
But in 2024 it will have to start making payments on ¥3bn it borrowed from the government after subsidies ended.

One way to see this propping up of the whaling industry is through the lens of ecosystem services.
An accounting system used by the un divides these services into four kinds: provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural.
For provisioning services think of cutting timber and mining coal; hunting and gathering the bounty of the natural world.
Regulating means keeping natural processes ticking over; bees pollinating flowers or freshwater plants purifying water.
Supporting services are more fundamental and include the operation of carbon cycles, creation of atmospheric oxygen or the maintenance of the soil that ultimately keeps all plants and animals alive.
And then there are cultural services.
Nature provides people with the symbols and language to understand the world as well as food, fibre and fuel to survive it.

Whales provide cultural services in abundance.
Ancient and indigenous literature often treats them as the guardians or descendants of the gods; in modern works of literature, such as “Whale Fall” by Rebecca Giggs, whales die elegiacally and thereby remind humanity of its cruelty.
A first edition copy of “Moby Dick” has an auction price of over £53,000, more than the roughly ¥8.4m ($60,000) worth of meat that Mr Kubo reckons is typically on a whale.

In Japan, part of the cultural service whales provide is as a means of self-assertion.
“It is a way of raising a fist to foreigners,” says Kurasawa Nanami of Iruka and Kujira Action Network, a whale and dolphin conservation charity.
You do not have to be fond of whale meat, or partake in it at all, to hate the idea of Western influence telling the Japanese what they should do, she points out.
Resentment at Western sentimentality and hypocrisy over whales—did not MacArthur rebuild the industry? Were not Commodore Perry’s “black ships” in search of a refuelling station for America’s whalers?—is said to have deep roots.
Conservationist critics read the story differently, highlighting the degree to which Japanese industrial whaling is an invention of the 1950s and a product of foreign influence rather than indigenous culture to boot.
Cultural value can be complicated.

It can also be a wasting asset.
The government spends ¥340m a year helping with whale marketing, largely to persuade younger consumers that whale is worth eating.
The clients at a whale-meat vending machine in Keikyu, a Tokyo suburb, are largely older.
The shop manager thinks they are nostalgic for the days when whale was served as part of school lunches.
Marketing materials reassure younger customers: the walls of the shop are covered with placards suggesting recipes, including whale spaghetti, lauding the health benefits of whale meat and suggesting that hunting whale is good for the environment: whales are eating too many salmon and squid, the posters argue.
In ecosystem-services speak, the whales represent a loss; eating them has a value.

It is an argument few ecologists find convincing.
But some species do have a disproportionate effect on the shape and texture of the ecosystems they inhabit.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in America has been championed as having helped reduce the impact of elk on trees and improve the overall health of the habitat.
Such supporting services, though, cannot be easily priced on a piecemeal basis.

Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist (like Harold Salvesen) and the author of a book on natural capital, argues that such services cannot be apportioned out to individual creatures; the presence of wolves may matter a lot, but that cannot be used to put a value on the marginal wolf.
For him it makes more sense to think about habitats and ecosystems as the basic unit of natural capital than particular creatures, or even particular species.
“It is absurd to ask ‘What is a whale worth?’” he argues.

In this view the value of “charismatic megafauna”—a term first used of giant pandas—is as figureheads.
The ecosystem may be the thing that matters, but it is not the thing that inspires wonder, and most of its participants are barely even visible.
There is no great American novel written about phytoplankton.
They do not appear in cave paintings, no recording of their plaintive calls has breached the charts; they play their crucial role in the carbon cycle and the ocean food web, unsinging and unsung.

And yet the whales are not just ambassadors.
Mr Chami’s assessment of their ecosystem-services value rests on the idea that they play a distinctive regulatory role in carbon sequestration.
They increase the size of the ecosystem they inhabit, and thus its ability to absorb carbon.
Their vertical movement through the water column returns nutrients from the lower tiers to the surface waters in “buoyant faecal plumes”, thus allowing more phytoplankton to grow.
The study of this “whale pump” dates back to the Discovery expeditions.
Next is the “whale conveyor belt”.
Migratory whales move nutrients horizontally, as well as vertically, getting them to places which continental run-off and ocean currents neglect.
Finally there is whale fall: the descent of carcasses, with their carbon, into the abyss.

Based on the stimulus whales provide to the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon, Mr Chami estimates that returning whale populations to their pre-whaling levels would allow the fertilised oceans to store away 1.7bn more tonnes of carbon dioxide a year than today’s depleted ones do.
At a carbon price of $60 per tonne—a fairly conservative estimate of what economists call the “social cost of carbon”—that represents a benefit to the world at large of around $13 per person per year through improved regulation of ecosystem services.
Whales, then, are global public goods: undervalued by the market and therefore undersupplied.

In constable hall, the East Yorkshire residence of the Lords Paramount of Holderness, some erstwhile natural capital has been turned into the physical sort: an asset which brings monetary returns.
Part of what visitors buy for the £13.75 it costs to visit the stately home is access to a barn containing the centuries-old skeleton of a sperm whale.
Not particularly large by sperm-whale standards, it is still an imposing beast.
Its spinal column is the width of your correspondent’s waist; its skull could contain half a dozen of him lying down.

In 1825 this whale was beached slightly farther north along the Yorkshire coast than Spurn Point, near the village of Turnstall.
On this occasion Clifford Constable, the 18-year-old lord, decided not to sell it for parts but to keep it for himself.
After a dissection by a local doctor with an interest in natural history, it became an exhibition.
Its skeleton was placed in the parkland for visitors to marvel at, the bones held up on iron poles so that the whole thing floated in the air, at least for a while.“‘How now!’ they shouted; ‘Dar’st thou measure this our God!’”

Over time it fell into disrepair.
Bits went missing.
At one point a scout troop tried to use some of its bones as firewood.
In 2019 the current lord decided the situation needed sorting out and put the whale on permanent display in one of the seigniory’s barns.
The stately home declared an amnesty so as to get as many pilfered pieces as possible back.
Some bones returned; some did not.
Philippa Wood, the curator, says she has been told that one of the missing vertebrae was made into a coffee table.
But it attracts a fair bit of attention, not least from fans of Herman Melville keen to see the only whale mentioned in “Moby Dick” which actually existed then and is still around today.

In the novel the Turnstall whale is complete.
Indeed Ishmael, the narrator, claims the skeleton has been turned into a mechanical marvel: “Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities—spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan—and swing all day upon his lower jaw.” Ishmael suggests to the reader that a visit can be used as a way of verifying the dimensions of a sperm whale that he has had tattooed on his forearm, but warns it will eventually carry a price: “Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.”

Melville contrasts the profane commercialism of this natural cathedral with the treatment of another whale skeleton, one which Ishmael claims to have been the primary source for the whale measurements tattooed on his arm.
He tells the reader that he was invited to holiday with a king in the Solomon Islands who, like the lords of Holderness, enjoyed sovereignty over whales that beached in his domain.
His priests had turned a beached sperm whale’s bones into a temple: “In the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapoury spout.” When Ishmael tries to measure it he is confronted not with a bill but claims of heresy: “‘How now!’ they shouted; ‘Dar’st thou measure this our god! That’s for us.’”

The priests then set about measuring the volume of the skull.
They soon come to blows over the matter.

The economic priesthood at the un, rather than arguing about the best way to profane the sacred with the tools of measurement, instead provides alternative methodologies among which adepts can make their own choice.
The system of environmental-economic accounting, akin to the guidelines it offers for estimating gdp, which the un set up in 2012 now offers five different ways of generating monetary valuations for ecosystem services.
They go from the relatively simple—the rent paid for agricultural land—to the fiendishly complex.
One suggestion involves looking at very small variations in the amount of ecosystem services provided to a production process in order to calculate the “marginal productivity” of those services.
The example the un gives is of pollination across different areas where detailed data of agricultural productivity is well known.
Incorporating data on the areal density of pollinators into their models could, perhaps, allow statisticians to estimate the marginal productivity of a bee.

These are at best educated guesses.
Classifying, enumerating and quantifying ecosystem services reaches the limits of both economists’ and ecologists’ skills.
Mr Chami’s estimate of the value of a whale required multiplying an uncertain price (the social cost of carbon) by an uncertain quantity (the volume of carbon removed from the atmosphere by the interaction between whales and the rest of their ecosystem).
Since his original paper the role of whales in any large-scale sequestration of carbon has come under attack.
Some of the critics worry that a belief in whales as carbon-removing saviours will delay the action on climate change needed to protect the ecosystems of which those whales form a part.

Could such estimates be replaced by a market price? Also in 2012 a group of ecologists suggested doing exactly that.
Under their proposal the iwc would issue permits allowing for commercial whaling.
Given that the amount spent on whale conservation was, at that point, an order of magnitude bigger than the commercial whaling market, conservationists would be able to buy the whole set.
When what is at risk is an entire species of whale, not just the marginal whale, the perceived value rises, even though the ecosystem services offered by a dangerously small population will tend to be minimal.
There are fewer than 500 North Pacific right whales left; the North Atlantic rights are in a similar state.
A survey done in 2009 suggested that Americans would be willing to pay an average of $73 a household for the species to be removed from the endangered species list.

The suggestion is not to everyone’s taste.
Markets in nature feel to some like privatising a public resource for private profit.
They can feel less like the protection of a common heritage, more like the enclosures of common land in 18th-century England, a dispossession that drove rural poverty and a flight to the then deeply unhealthy cities.
Rather than making investment environmentally friendly, markets in nature make the environment investor friendly.
“The desire to be able to reflect the value of ecosystems or individual species in a capitalist economy is very legitimate,” says Adrienne Buller, author of “The Value of a Whale”.
But when that desire sees things which can be traded given undue priority, environmental policy gets distorted.

Nevertheless some are eager for the billions they think such markets can mobilise for the environment.
Negotiators at the 2022 meeting of the unConvention on Biological Diversity, held in Montreal, called for a programme of biodiversity credits to help finance the goal to protect and restore 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030.
These credits would be tradable, allowing markets to identify the cheapest and most effective ways to keep nature safe.
Demand would, supposedly, come from marketing and corporate social-responsibility efforts.
Discrete units of nature could be sold off to companies in exchange for a landowner pledging to rewild their plot and thereby offsetting the impact.

There have been some such schemes around for a while.
America has had a programme of offsets for damage to wetlands since the 1970s.
Costa Rica was also a pioneer, with a programme of government payment for ecosystem services launched in 1997.
Landowners are rewarded for carbon sequestration, improving water, protecting biodiversity and promoting natural beauty.
Britain proposed something similar for its post-Brexit programme of farm subsidies; property developers were to prove that their building projects lead to a 10% “Biodiversity Net Gain”.
Buying up biodiversity credits from farmers would have been one way to do so.

Perhaps, then, your correspondent should buy a biodiversity credit to expunge the lingering guilt he feels over his Tokyo dinner with Mr Konumo.
A whale dies off the coast of Japan but, perhaps, a piece of wetland in Florida is restored.
An equal amount of natural capital replaces another and the world is no worse off; the common inheritance of mankind changes its shape but not its size.

The practical, as well as ethical, problems are numerous.
Start with fungibility.
Carbon offsets have the advantage that one tonne of carbon dioxide is the same as every other tonne, and there are established rules for valuing other greenhouse gases in terms of equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide.
There is no similar common unit for nature, no way, beyond willingness to pay, of establishing how much wetland is equivalent to a whale.
Existing schemes typically use a sort of hierarchy: first avoid damage, and if that is unavoidable then compensation should be as similar to what is removed as possible.

But for all the practical problems and seeming absurdities, advocates of pricing nature still have one very good argument on their side.
Not pricing it is often worse.
If nature has no economic value it will either be freely exploited to the point of destruction or set aside as inviolable, a recipe for economic stasis.

“The mistake is to have some pat answer about states, market and prices,” says Partha Dasgupta, an economist at Cambridge University and the editor of a review of the economics of biodiversity for the British government.
He points out that all societies use a combination of prices, direct control and social norms to regulate the relationship between the economy and the biosphere.
In Britain, for instance, custom dictates that oysters only be eaten when there is an “r” in the month; May to August is the spawning season for the native species of the shellfish.
Prices are one tool to express nature’s value, not the only one.
“If society is determined to ignore natural capital they will do it whether or not there is a pricing system,” says Sir Partha.

The shiretoko peninsula, in eastern Hokkaido, the northernmost major island in the Japanese archipelago, is one of the few places one can see sperm whales from the shore.
About 25 kilometres away is Kunashir Island, disputed territory between Japan and Russia.
In winter the straits that separate the islands are filled with drift ice and the surface becomes a breeding ground for white-tailed sea eagles, attracting birdwatchers.
When the ice melts, phytoplankton bloom in the warming water.
Then come zooplankton, then salmon and squid, then, finally, the world’s largest predator: sperm whales spend their summers here.

That explains why Abashiri, a city that sits a short distance to the west of the peninsula, was once a busy whaling port.
Today the boats which leave it in search of fins and flukes are full of tourists; whale-watching now adds more to the Japanese economy than whale-eating does.
Unfortunately for your correspondent, a fervent “Moby Dick” fan, this spring he seems to have arrived too early for the sperm whales.
But the spout of a fin whale, the second-largest species, is enough to send a jolt of electricity through the boat of whale-watchers he has joined.
They rush to the side, clutching cameras.
The boat idles closer.
The whale disappears beneath the waves.
The boat settles into a watchful silence.
The spout reappears for a few puffs of vapour before the fin whale’s gargantuan form, once again, slips into the cold depths of the Okhotsk Sea.
This time, the reverential hush on the boat is met with seeming indifference from the whale.
It does not resurface.
A moment of communion is over.
The ticket cost ¥8,800.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The Syracusia, the largest ship in ancient history

Syracusia the colossus of the sea. Syracusia was probably one of the greatest mean of transport of the ancient world.
It was built in 240 BC and it was a truly eighthwonder of the antiquity, an amazing project.
Here we are, close to the port of Kroton, the great and powerful city of Magna Graecia which gave support to Hannibal during the II Punic war.
The project of the creation of Syracusia was made by a man who was both witness and victim of the II Punic war.
His name is Archimedes of Syracuse, a very talented mathematician and inventor who made it very hard for Rome to conquer the great Greek power Syracuse, the Sicilian city.
Archimedes built this ancient ship over 100 meters long, equipped with gyms, garden cabins and temples like the one that can be seen in this 3D reconstruction.
Syracusia was indeed a floating giant and of course such a large and luxurious ship had to travel safely. In fact, Archimedes left nothing to chance.
The ship was equipped with two catapults and a large ballista always set ready to defend the passengers in case of pirate or enemy attack.
Archimedes designed the ship and the building was entrusted to Archia di Corinto by order of Gerone of Syracuse. 
 The ship could accommodate up to 500 people including soldiers and civilians and it was equipped with cabins of all sizes, just like today's cruise ships.
To strengthen the defences of the ship it was also equipped with eight turrets and the temple was dedicated to Aphrodite.
The three imposing main masts guaranteed the mighty ship a certain manoeuvrability despite its size and it was endowed with a full-bodied number of attached units employed to row in the lower part of the nava through a classic trireme system.
On both sides the ship was lined with lead to prevent ramming with other ships.
Inside there was a library too. Subsequently, Syracusia was given to King Ptolemy III of Egypt so it was renamed Alexandria
From History Defined by Shayla Cherry

Syracusia was an ancient ship that sailed out of Syracuse.

At that time, it was an independent colony located on the island of Sicily. Hiero II of Syracuse commissioned it in the third century BC and sent it to Ptolemy III Euergetes in Alexandria.

This ancient Greek ship was so massive that no Sicilian port could accommodate it.
It sailed once, from Syracuse to Egypt, and then disappeared from the historical record. 
A depiction of the Syracusia by Robert von Spalart, 1810

The Size of Syracusia
Syracusia was at least 180 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 40 feet tall.
Other sources indicate that the ship might have been as much as 360 feet long.

This was gargantuan at the time, more than ten times larger than most ships of the era.
At the time of its construction, it was the largest ship ever built.

It took three hundred workers a full year to build Syracusia.
The timber used in its construction could have built 60 standard trireme ships, the galleys used by ancient Greeks and Romans.

Historians estimate that Syracusia could carry nearly two thousand passengers.
Very nearly as many as the ill-fated Titanic.

In addition to these passengers, the ship could have carried over 1800 tons of cargo – ten times the amount of the average cargo ship at that time.
There were also twenty stalls for horses.

On its single voyage, Syracusia carried two hundred soldiers and a catapult.
The cargo included ten thousand jars of pickled fish, huge quantities of grain, and piles of wool.

There was also a massive container full of fresh water.
The cistern was able to hold an estimated 76 tons of water.
There was also a cistern full of seawater and fish to ensure easy access for the ship’s cook.

Ancient texts describe a huge top deck supported by intricately carved wooden columns in the shape of the Greek Titan Atlas, who held up the sky.
There were 142 first-class cabins aboard the Syracusia and additional space for 400 soldiers below.

It boasted eight towers, each of which was designed to hold two archers and four armed men. In addition to masts and sails, the ship had twenty rows of oars.
The upper deck was protected from attack by a palisade.

This opulent luxury vessel held recreational spaces such as a gymnasium, a library, extensive kitchens, a grand dining room, and an indoor bathroom equipped with hot water.
It was decorated with luxury materials like marble and ivory floors that depicted scenes from the Iliad.

Special casks of soil held living plants, including vines and flowers.
Pathways through this elaborate garden led to a temple dedicated to Aphrodite.

In the end, Syracusia was so enormous that no port in Sicily could accommodate her.
The only known port that could host the enormous ship was in Alexandria, and so Hiero II decided to send the ship to the pharaoh of Egypt as an extravagant gift. 

Hiero II and Archimedes

Hiero II ruled Syracuse from 275 to 215 BC.
In his youth, he served as a general under the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus.

He became king of Syracuse after marrying the daughter of its leading citizen and successfully defending the island against a group of Campagnian mercenaries. His wife, Queen Philistis of Syracuse, featured on the island’s coins.

Following the First Punic War, Hiero II entered into a treaty with Rome that allowed him to continue to rule over southeastern Sicily.
This alliance continued until his death in 215 BC.

Syracusia was commissioned by Hiero II and designed by the Greek mathematician Archimedes around 240 BC.
He also devised a way to move the ship using a complex system of pulleys.

Archimedes was born in Syracuse in 286 BC.
Ten years prior to the construction of Syracusia, Archimedes wrote On Floating Bodieswhich described several principles of hydrostatics. 
Archimedes Thoughtful (also known as Portrait of a Scholar) by Domenico Fetti, 1620.

He wrote letters to Hiero II and in one letter pronounced, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth!” Archimedes’ mastery of complex pulley systems was unmatched, and this attracted the attention of the king.

Many theories and achievements have been attributed to this great mathematician, including the Archimedes Principle of buoyancy, the concept of the center of gravity, and an approximation of pi.
He was a mechanical engineer whose inventions include compound pulleys and the Archimedean screw.

He also invented stone-throwing war machines intended to protect Syracuse from the Romans.
But in the end, the Romans killed him anyway.

During the Second Punic War, after the death of Hiero II, Syracuse switched its alliance from Rome to Carthage and was attacked by Rome. Leaders urged the soldiers not to kill Archimedes, but he was murdered during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC.

The island of Sicily was claimed by Rome.

Ptolemy III Euergetes

Ptolemaios Euergetes (translation: Ptolemy the Benefactor) was the third pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ended two centuries later with Cleopatra.
This dynasty, which would become the longest-reigning dynasty in Egyptian history, was at its height during his lifetime.

Due to political infighting and his mother’s exile, Ptolemy Euergetes was raised on the Greek island of Thera.
He was tutored by Apollonius of Rhodes, who eventually became the head of the Library of Alexandria. Ptolemy III succeeded his father in 246 BC.

Ptolemy III married the queen of Cyrenaica (the eastern half of modern-day Libya) when he became pharaoh, thereby bringing her lands into the Ptolemaic Empire.

The Third Syrian War spanned the first five years of his reign, but he was forced to abandon this victorious campaign abroad due to uprisings back home.
What became of Syracusia after its arrival in Egypt is unknown.

Ptolemy IV Philopator was a small child when the ship was given to his father.
He tried to outdo it years later by commissioning a monstrous ship of his own.

Tessarakonteres was so enormous that it was almost immobile and completely useless.
It was said to have carried nearly seven thousand men.
If this is true, it was the largest ship to have existed in antiquity and the largest human-powered vessel ever constructed.
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Monday, January 15, 2024

Big tech and geopolitics are reshaping the internet’s plumbing

Lurking under the sea is a global web of fibre optic telecommunication cables – the plumbing of the internet.
It's how we talk, text and stream, connecting billions of people.
These cables are also the frontline of a tech war. 
courtesy of ABC News

From The Economist
4,000 terabits under the sea
Data cables are turning into economic and strategic assets

When the navies of Britain, Estonia and Finland held a joint exercise in the Baltic Sea earlier this month, their goal was not to hone warfighting skills.
Instead, the forces were training to protect undersea gas and data pipelines from sabotage.
The drills followed events in October when submarine cables in the region were damaged.
Sauli Niinisto, the Finnish president, wondered whether the Chinese ship blamed for the mischief dragged its anchor on the ocean bed “intentionally or as a result of extremely poor seamanship”.

Submarine cables used to be seen as the internet’s dull plumbing.
Now giants of the data economy, such as Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft, are asserting more control over the flow of data, even as tensions between China and America risk splintering the world’s digital infrastructure.
The result is to turn undersea cables into prized economic and strategic assets.

Subsea data pipes carry almost 99% of intercontinental internet traffic.
TeleGeography, a research firm, reckons there are 550 active or planned submarine cables that currently span over 1.4m kilometres.
Each cable, which is typically a bundle of between 12 and 16 fibre-optic threads and as wide as a garden hose, lines the seabed at an average depth of 3,600 metres.
Close to half have been added in the past decade.
Newer ones are capable of transferring 250 terabits of data every second, the equivalent of 1.3m cat videos.
Data may be stored in the cloud, but it flows under the ocean.

Since 2019 demand for international internet bandwidth has tripled to more than 3,800 terabits per second, estimates TeleGeography.
The boom in data-hungry artificial intelligence may strengthen this trend.
Synergy Research Group, a data firm, predicts an almost three-fold increase in big cloud providers’ data-centre capacity over the next six years.
To connect these data centres to the internet, between 2020 and 2025 the data-cable industry will install 440,000km of new subsea lines.

One big shift has come from big tech.
Until the early 2000s subsea cables were mainly used for transporting voice traffic across the world.
Telecom operators like bt and Orange (formerly France Telecom) controlled most of the capacity.
By 2010 the rise in data traffic led internet and cloud-computing giants—Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft—to start leasing capacity on these lines.

As their data needs surged, the tech firms began investing in their own pipes.
In 2012 the four companies used around a tenth of international bandwidth; nowadays they claim almost three-quarters.
Big tech’s deep pockets ensure that projects are completed.
According to Submarine Telecoms Forum, an industry body, only about half of all announced cable systems actually get built—unless they are backed by tech firms, in which case they almost always do.

Big-tech-backed cables account for almost a fifth of the $12bn in planned investments in new systems over the next four years.
Amazon and Microsoft part-own one and four networks, respectively.
Meta owns one cable system outright and is an investor in another 14.
Google is the most aggressive—the search giant directly owns 12 of its 26 cables.
This year it completed Firmina, a $360m project that stretches more than 14,000km from the east coast of North America via Brazil to Argentina.

Dedicated cables allow the tech giants to avoid competing with others for third-party bandwidth, and to react quickly to changes in user demand and to any problems (if a cable on a route is damaged, data can be redirected to another one of the firms’ lines).
Alan Mauldin from TeleGeography points out that being owner-operators also gives the tech giants the luxury of designing routes that meet their specific needs.
Most telecom carriers rely on public “landing stations”—which connect the cables in the sea to customers’ data centres on land.
By owning their cables, the companies can plug these more directly into their own data centres, speeding up traffic.

Their bandwidth and speed is further enhanced thanks to clever technology, which ownership makes easier to deploy.
In 2019 Google introduced an innovation (“space division multiplexing”) that increased the number of fibre threads in a cable from 16 to 24.
This year it went further, doubling the number of “cores”—clusters of fibre threads—in its new tpu cable system that links Taiwan, the Philippines and America, increasing capacity while lowering the operating cost per bit.

All this is transforming the business of data cables.
Having begun as large buyers of bandwidth from telecom companies, big tech is now leasing capacity on some of its cables to telecom operators.
Legacy telecom firms are happy with this arrangement, since they face constant pressure from consumers for more capacity but, unlike big tech, they are desperately short of capital.
As for the specialist companies which supply the equipment and lay the cables, these are go-go years.

Like many other global industries, the data-cable business is also being entangled in the tech contest between America and China—a second big shift.
Take the Pacific Light Cable Network (plcn).
The 13,000km data pipeline was announced in 2016, with the backing of Google and Meta.
It aimed to link the west coast of America with Hong Kong.
By 2020 it had reached the Philippines and Taiwan.
But last year America’s government denied approval for the final leg to Hong Kong, worried that this would give Chinese authorities easy access to Americans’ data.
Hundreds of kilometres of cable that would link Hong Kong to the network are languishing unused on the ocean floor.

America is stymieing China in another way.
Laying cables at depth is a complicated job.
Only a handful of contractors have the required chops.
Three—Alcatel Submarine Networks from France, nec from Japan and SubCom from America—receive more than 80% of the spending on cable construction.
hmn Tech, a Chinese challenger spun out of Huawei, China’s telecoms-gear champion, claims 9% of new annual construction spending.
But amid Sino-Western tensions, new cables that have links to America, which is to say most of them, avoid hmn Tech as a supplier.
Telecoms executives say they are discouraged from using hmn.
In 2022 a lucrative contract for sea-me-we 6, a 19,000km line owned by a group of telecoms operators including India’s Bharti Airtel and Singapore’s SingTel, and linking South-East Asia to Europe, was awarded to SubCom, even though hmn’s bid was reportedly lower.

China is responding by charting its own course.
peace, a 21,500km undersea cable linking Kenya to France via Pakistan, was built entirely by Chinese firms as part of China’s “digital silk road”, a scheme to increase its global influence.
Reuters reported that this year three Chinese carriers—China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile Limited—are investing $500m in a cable network that connects China and France via Singapore, Pakistan and Egypt.
The project, to be built by hmn Tech, will compete directly with sea-me-we 6.

Despite the growing Sino-American rivalry, from 2019 to 2023 bandwidth between the two has grown by 20% a year.
American and Chinese mobile operators, which also rely on cables, continue to increase network connectivity in each other’s territory.
The necessary licences are, however, getting harder to secure.

In March America’s Federal Communications Commission issued a proposal that would require licensees to provide more information about who owns them.
It also acknowledged concerns that the presence in America of physical infrastructure of China Telecom is “highly relevant to the national-security and law-enforcement risks”.
All this is making the route taken by bits and bytes more circuitous than before, and thus costlier.
If transpacific tensions continue to mount, those routes may one day vanish altogether.

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