Wednesday, March 23, 2016


This important scientific report deserves a wider audience

Image result for bees and other pollinators

"The growing threat to pollinators, which play an important role in food security, provides another compelling example of how connected people are to our environment, and how deeply entwined our fate is with that of the natural world. As we work towards food security, it is important to approach the challenge with a consideration of the environmental impacts that drive the issue. Sustainable development, including improving food security for the world's population, necessitates an approach that embraces the environment."
Achim Steiner, Executive Director,
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)


20,000 – Number of species of wild bees. There are also some species of butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and other vertebrates that contribute to pollination.

75% – Percentage of the world's food crops that depend at least in part on pollination.

US$235 billion–US$577 billion – Annual value of global crops directly affected by pollinators.

300% -- Increase in volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination in the past 50 years.

Almost 90% -- Percentage of wild flowering plants that depend to some extent on animal pollination.

1.6 million tonnes – Annual honey production from the western honeybee.

16.5% -- Percentage of vertebrate pollinators threatened with extinction globally.

+40% – Percentage of invertebrate pollinator species – particularly bees and butterflies – facing extinction.

More than three-quarters of the world's food crops rely at least in part on pollination by insects and other animals. 

 Pollinated crops include those that provide fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils. Many of these are important dietary sources of vitamins and minerals, without which the risks of malnutrition might be expected to increase. Several crops also represent an important source of income in developing countries from, for example, the production of coffee and cocoa. 

"Without pollinators, many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives,"

- Simon Potts, Ph.D./ Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, United Kingdom

"Pollinators are important contributors to world food production and nutritional security, Their health is directly linked to our own well-being.

- Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, Ph.D/ Senior Professor at the University of São Paulo. "

A two-year study released in February 2016 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the first of its kind and is based on the latest scientific knowledge as well as 'indigenous and local knowledge systems'. 

The assessment was compiled by a team of 77 experts from all over the world.  The assessment cites approximately 3,000 scientific papers and includes information about practices based on indigenous and local knowledge from more than 60 locations around the world. The assessment underwent two rounds of peer review involving experts and governments.

It concludes that:

 'A growing number of pollinator species worldwide are being driven toward extinction by diverse pressures, many of them human-made, threatening millions of livelihoods and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of food supplies, according to the first global assessment of pollinators.'

But the report also highlights that there are a number of ways to effectively safeguard pollinator populations. 

Between US$235 billion and US$577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators.  

Chocolate, for example, is derived from cacao tree seed (annual world cocoa bean crop value, US$5.7 billion).  Cecidomyiid and ceratopogonid midges are essential for its pollination.

The volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination has increased by 300 per cent during the past 50 years, but pollinator-dependent crops show lower growth and stability in yield than crops that do not depend on pollinators.

In addition to food crops, pollinators contribute to crops that provide biofuels (e.g. canola and palm oils), fibers (e.g cotton), medicines, forage for livestock, and construction materials. Some species also provide materials such as beeswax for candles and musical instruments, and arts and crafts.

Pollinators, especially bees, have also played a role throughout human history as inspirations for art, music, religion and technology.  Additionally, they improve quality of life, globally significant heritage sites and practices, symbols of identify, aesthetically significant landscapes. Sacred passages about bees occur in all major world religions.

Various factors affecting pollinators

The assessment found that an estimated 16 per cent of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction -  increasing to 30 per cent for island species - with a trend towards more extinctions.

Although most insect pollinators have not been assessed at a global level, regional and national assessments indicate high levels of threat, particularly for bees and butterflies - with often more than 40 per cent of invertebrate species threatened locally.

"Wild pollinators in certain regions, especially bees and butterflies, are being threatened by a variety of factors," said IPBES Vice-Chair, Sir Robert Watson.  "Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change."

Declines in regional wild pollinators have been confirmed for North Western Europe and in North America.  Although local cases of decline have been documented in other parts of the world, data are too sparse to draw broad conclusions.

The assessment found that pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides, threaten pollinators worldwide, although the long-term effects are still unknown. A pioneering study conducted in farm fields showed that one neonicotinoid insecticide had a negative effect on wild bees, but the effect on managed honeybees was less clear.

"While gaps remain in our knowledge of pollinators, we have more than enough evidence to act," Prof. Imperatriz-Fonseca said.

Pests and diseases pose a special threat to managed bees, but the risk can be reduced through better disease detection and management, and regulations relating to trade and movement of bees.

Genetically modified crops are usually either tolerant to herbicides or resistant to pest insects. The former reduces the availability of weeds, which supply food for pollinators. The latter often results in lower use of insecticides and may reduce pressure on beneficial insects including pollinators. However, the sub-lethal and indirect effects of GM crops on pollinators are poorly understood and not usually accounted for in risk assessments.

Pollinators are also threatened by the decline of practices based on indigenous and local knowledge. These practices include traditional farming systems; maintenance of diverse landscapes and gardens; kinship relationships that protect specific pollinato
rs; and cultures and languages that are connected to pollinators.

Numerous options exist to safeguard pollinators

"The good news is that a number of steps can be taken to reduce the risks to pollinators, including practices based on indigenous and local knowledge," 
-  Zakri Abdul Hamid, elected Founding Chair of IPBES at its first plenary meeting in 2012.  

The safeguards include the promotion of sustainable agriculture, which helps to diversify the agricultural landscape and makes use of ecological processes as part of food production.

Specific options include:

Maintaining or creating greater diversity of pollinator habitats in agricultural and urban landscapes

Supporting traditional practices that manage habitat patchiness, crop rotation, and             co-production between science and indigenous local knowledge

Education and exchange of knowledge among farmers, scientists, industry, communities, and the general public

Decreasing exposure of pollinators to pesticides by reducing their usage, seeking alternative forms of pest control, and adopting a range of specific application practices, including technologies to reduce pesticide drift

Improving managed bee husbandry for pathogen control, coupled with better regulation of trade and use of commercial pollinators.

Additional findings:

A high diversity of wild pollinators contributes to increased stability in pollination, even when managed bees are present in high numbers.

Crop yields depend on both wild and managed species.

The western honey bee is the most widespread managed pollinator in the world, producing an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of honey annually.  

The number of beehives has increased globally over the past 50 years, but a decrease in hives has occurred in many European and North American countries.

Climate change has led to changes in the distribution of many pollinating bumblebees and butterflies and the plants that depend upon them.


Life coincides and all you have to do sometimes is follow the connections. So a week and half ago I took to my bed for three days whilst fighting some bug or other - lots of sneezing fits - but fortunately I had a radio and two books to take my mind off things. 

At night the radio was following the Republican and Democratic election trails across America and so, in-between reading I'd switch on and listen to the latest news - most memorably on the night of March 11th when Donald Trump's roadshow hit Chicago and Chicago hit back with protests and demonstrations - the first big protests against his vile rhetoric. Of course it reminded me of Chicago 1968 when Mayor Daley let loose his brutal attack police with their tear gas, guns and clubs. And Steinbeck was on the road, searching for the America he loved but finding much that had been swept away.

Dogging Steinbeck: How I Went in Search of John Steinbeck's America, Found My Own America, and Exposed the Truth about 'Travels with Char: Steigerwald, BillJohn Steinbeck's 'Travels With Charley' is a very warm book, which is exactly what you need when you're feeling a bit low. Charley is his big poodle of French extraction with a weak bladder. Steinbeck drove a three-quarter ton pick-up truck (which he named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse), that was customised to his requirements so he could sleep, drink and cook outback and welcome chatty guests who he might meet along the road. 

As an armchair traveller, following his observations, thoughts and conversations as he covers thousands of miles and hundreds of contrasting landscapes, its an absorbing and thought-provoking tale. It was 1960, Steinbeck was 56 and not in the best of health. His wife Elaine was worried about him setting out on his own. He suffers homesickness on his trip and as the book progresses beyond a certain point, one definitely gets the feeling that all is not well.

Steinbeck admits he can't take in any more. He has driven from Sag Harbour at the tip of Long Island, up to Maine, into Canada, across the top of America to Oregon, then down the California coast to Salinas - his home town and territory - where he meets a few old friends (many are dead) and feels himself to be a ghost a place he once knew so well.

From here, he drives at speed over the Mojave Desert to Texas where he meets up with Elaine (his wife was a Texan gal). Separated again, he heads for New Orleans and the South before arriving back in New York. A hero's journey.

Fifty years later, three people (maybe more) decide to retrace his journey. Geert Mak, a Dutch historian and journalist of note, who'd made many trips to the US before, sets out to follows his tracks, in a Jeep with his wife in the cab for companionship. 

Steinbeck mainly slept in his truck but the Maks eschew that and bunk down in a range of dilapidated truckstops, lodging houses and hotels. In his 500pp+ book, Mak meticulously accounts for the meals they ate, the sights they saw. They walk round dusty towns, once throbbing with life, now abandoned. There's a dramatic chapter on the post-apocalyptic landscape of Detroit which sticks in the mind.  

The details of the journey and the constant references backwards and forwards to Steinbeck's original trip make great reading but this is two books in one. With his historian's hat on, Mak tells us the history of America. I am embarrassed by how little I knew of it. It's a great education. Mak is also carrying with him a library of other journalists and writers, most importantly John Gunther, whose meticulous accounts provide yet another level of thought and observation about the vast American landscape and culture.

Flipping from this book to listening to Trump and Clinton, the echoes from America's past flicker in one's mind. Take this powerful quote from Molly Ivins (now deceased) who Mak interviews in Texas. He describes her as 'a witty and astute columnist' for the Texas Observer and the Dallas Times Herald. They'd met before on a previous trip. He writes:
'I once interviewed her about the Bush family. I can see us now, sitting on a bench outdoors in Austin, laughing away. But I also remember she suddenly became serious: 
"Never, never underestimate the Republican machine, never underestimate their political skills, their immense network, the campaigning techniques, their capacity to pull off the most improbable tricks. You laugh at their show, not believing for a moment that people like that could ever run the world. Well, forget that. Don't underestimate them." 
It's clear to Mak that Steinbeck's original account is, to a certain extent, fictionalised. From the original book one gets the impression that Steinbeck was trying to stick to driving on back roads ( avoiding stretches of the new freeways, still being built at that time) and always stopping off at little towns (avoiding the cities). In fact, for much of his journey, Steinbeck was driving at least a couple of hundred miles a day, as he realises the sheer distances he has taken on and as his homesickness asserts itself.


But shadowing Mak's efforts is a much more hard-core traveller journalist Bill Steigerwald, who is travelling in a truck on his own, sleeping in the truck for the whole of his journey, and tracking down in forensic detail every move that Steinbeck made. The clue to his book is in the title: 'Dogging Steinbeck: How I Went in Search of John Steinbeck's America, Found My Own America, and Exposed the Truth about 'Travels with Charley'. 

In an article entitled 'Sorry, Charley: Was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley a fraud?' , first published on the website in April 2011, he pulled no punches.
After nine months of fact checking and 11,276 miles of drive-by journalism, I can tell you for sure that:
• Steinbeck was almost never alone on his trip. Out of 75 days away from New York, he travelled with, stayed with, and slept with his beloved wife, Elaine, on 45 days. On 17 other days he stayed at motels and busy truck stops and trailer courts, or parked his camper on the property of friends.
• Steinbeck didn’t rough it. With Elaine he stayed at some of the country’s top hotels, motels, and resorts, not to mention two weeks at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, California, and a week at a Texas cattle ranch for millionaires. By himself, as he admits in Charley, he often stayed in luxurious motels.
'From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of non-fiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate. He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes...At crunch time, as he struggled to write Charley, his journalistic failures forced him to be a novelist again. Then his publisher, The Viking Press, marketed the book as nonfiction, and the gullible reviewers of the day—from The New York Times to The Atlantic—bought every word.'

Steigerwald concedes that the book is, in many ways, 'still a wonderful, quirky, and entertaining book...That’s why it’s an American classic and still popular around the world.' But - and its a big but - he says 'there’s no denying Steinbeck got away with writing a dishonest book.'
'Not only did he fudge the details of his road trip, but he pulled his punches about what he really thought about the America he found. In Charley he fretted about the things he didn’t like about American society: pollution, early signs of sprawl, the rise of national chains, the increasing prevalence of plastic. But in private he complained directly about the failings of his 180 million fellow Americans: They were materialistic, morally flabby, and headed down the road to national decline.
'If Steinbeck sounds like a liberal who’d been living like a prince in New York City too long, it’s because that’s what he was. Fifty-eight and in poor health when he set out on his ambitious voyage of discovery, he quickly ran aground on his own loneliness and the realization that our “monster land” was too big and too complex for one man to understand.'

You can read Steigerwald's series of article about his trip here:

Finally, we come to the third traveller in Steinbeck's tyre tracks: Rachel Dry who drove from Vermont to Fargo, the geographical centre of America, with her mother as companion, and wrote a long piece for The Washington Post [November 12, 2010] called 'Following Steinbeck to Fargo'.

In a later Opinion piece in The Washington Post entitled: 'Steinbeck’s true enough ‘Travels With Charley’ [April 15, 2011] she writes:

'Journalist Bill Steigerwald has caught John Steinbeck in a lie. The Nobel laureate, according to Steigerwald, probably invented characters and embellished the hardships of the cross-country journey he made with his dog, Charley, in the fall of 1960, chronicled in his bestseller “Travels With Charley.”
I am a Steinbeck fan, and I happen also to have once been caught in a lie by Steigerwald — a lie linked to Steinbeck and his journey. This is a small part of the reason that...I think it doesn’t matter.'
'Steinbeck showed us postwar America as it looked from the window of his green GMC truck, custom-fitted with a camper. He may not have slept in the camper much (one of Steigerwald’s main contentions) or been alone with only a poodle for companionship (Steigerwald found that his wife was with him for a lot of the trip), but he gave us something we wouldn’t have otherwise. He showed us the country in a rich, kaleidoscopic view: one nation that included Swiss-cheese candy in Wisconsin, a New Yorker-reading aspiring hairdresser near the continental divide and the ugly invective that came with integration in New Orleans.'

In case you miss the much appreciated Comment below, received shortly after posting, from Bill Steigerwald :

Thanks to John May for the links and the nice things he said about me and my book, Dogging Steinbeck. But for the record, as we journalists like to say, it was I and not Geert Mak who first blew the whistle on Steinbeck's heavy fictionalizing and his dishonest account of his travels. Mak is a wonderful Dutchman, a great journalist/author and a historian who puts all us native history majors to shame. But he will be the first to acknowledge, as he so kindly and honestly did in his book, that he was tipped off by me about the many small and large fictions and fact-fudges in "Charley." As he and the Missus were traveling, he read the road blog that I was writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the fall of 2010 as I followed Steinbeck's 1960 route. I was days and then weeks ahead of the Maks, who had a more leisurely but more expensive road trip. less . (Also for the record: Steinbeck was 58 when he made his trip and I drove, alone, a Toyota RAV4, which I slept in about 20 nights.)


If you enjoyed this you might like my two posts on Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood', widely claimed as the first non-fiction novel.As time has gone by, its clear that the book has more fiction in it than fact.

Also have written extensively on Jack Kerouac's journey 'On The Road'

Finally, recommending another cult book which I really love 'Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Lee Harris is one of the nicest fellas you'll ever meet and a personal friend. He is currently running in the London Mayoral race as the candidate for the Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol party (Cista). He's 79 now and The Generalist has known him since the early 1970's when he first established the still-running 'Alchemy' drug paraphernalia shop in Portobello Road in 1972. 
[Photo: Buzzfeed]

Later in that decade he also published  'Home Grown' magazine which I edited for two issues. The Guardian claims it was the UK's first ever drug culture mag.

Shocked to discover from the paper's same profile that Lee was the trigger that lead to the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act:

Originally from South Africa, Harris fled to the UK in 1956, aged 19, after his left-wing politics and anti-racist views made him a target of the apartheid regime. He trained for the theatre and acted with Orson Welles. But his early adventures in the UK club scene left him horrified.
“I discovered all these kids in the West End who were on purple hearts [amphetamine pills], 80 or 90 a weekend, and I became a moral crusader and I helped change the law,” he said.
Harris wrote to the Labour backbencher Ben Parkin, who asked questions in parliament and passed his number to Anne Sharpley, a reporter on the Evening Standard. He took her around the West End clubs and she began the press hysteria that was to lead to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1964.
“It was quickly hurried in, amphetamines were banned, and personal possession was made a crime,” Harris said. “Personal possession has been a crime since then. It’s one thing I bitterly regret."
He himself was busted under that law for a tiny bit of dope in February 1967

This news was followed by the announcement that the Liberal Party had adopted a policy to support the legalisation of cannabis in the UK. Their party leader Tim Farron told the Independent on Sunday: "This is about being really grown up about a massive issue and looking at the evidence. It contributes hugely to a criminal network that thrives off the illegality of the substance."  They calculate this would raise £1bn in tax revenue. 

You can read and/or download the report:
A Framework for a Regulated Market for Cannabis in the UK

It pains me to say this but the now tiny Lib Dem party have a flea's chance in hell of progressing the ideas in this document. It will perhaps be seen as trying to win back the youth vote the Party lost through backing student tuition fees. It's good to see policemen, drug scientists and other prominent voices joining together to lay out a plan but this is a worthy but unexciting document, presented in a boring text-heavy way that will not communicate to the general public. 

More importantly and strategically, they have started off on the wrong foot. If cannabis is ever going to be legalised in our lifetimes it will be through the issue of medical marijuana. The evidence for this is obvious through what is happening very rapidly in America.

See Previous Post: Inside Dope: The Green Rush/ Marijuana in the US, UK & Europe

The section of the report on 'medical cannabis' reads: 
We have not made a detailed case for reform or offered substantiverecommendations regarding the regulation of cannabis or cannabis based products for medical uses. This was beyond the remit of the panel and its terms of reference.
We do, however, acknowledge the urgent importance of addressing this issue and encourage government to actively engage with, and move forward with, the relevant questions.
It is clear that there is considerable cross over between the issues of medical and non-medical cannabis regulation, both in terms of practicalities of different regulation models and how they would interact, and the intersection of the political debates, specifically how the politics around non-medical cannabis use has created barriers to research and access to medicines.
As a starting point, however, the panel would like to express support for theimmediate rescheduling of cannabis in the UK (and at international/UN level) to a schedule 2 substance (to facilitate the cannabis research agenda), and also endorse the campaign to “change the law to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis where they consider it would help their patients; and for patients to have their prescription honoured at the pharmacy.” 

Back in July 2015, a petition calling for the total legalisation of cannabis in the UK was  signed by more than 125,000 people in just four days. Shortly after there was an excellent piece in The Guardian: 'The burning conservative case for legalising cannabis' by Avinash Tharoor. This sparky pitch reads in part:

'There is a solid conservative case for legalising cannabis. If there is one non-pejorative word that can define the past five years of Tory rule, it’s cuts. The legalisation and regulation of the cannabis trade could justify considerable spending cuts, as the current black market trade is a huge drain on our resources.
The government spends upwards of £2bn a year fighting the war on drugs in England and Wales, and the cannabis trade is undoubtedly a huge reason for that, as cannabis is – by far – the preferred illegal drug in the country (approximately 29% of Brits have consumed it). 
The money and resources being allocated to police – for stopping, searching and arresting stoners – could essentially be scrapped overnight. Simultaneously the courtroom hours and prison cells assigned to cannabis farmers and sellers could be used far more appropriately and efficiently.
Before May’s election, Cameron promised that he would create 2m jobs by 2020 and legalisation could contribute significantly to this. The government could create a new regulated industry with a pre-existing customer base of over three million. Five percent of the nation are regularly consuming cannabis and the revenue is being diverted to criminal gangs rather than legitimate companies or state coffers.'

There are great opportunities at this time to move away from the stupid and moribund approach to drugs in Britain. It remains to be seen whether the mood swing towards legalisation can overcome the ill-informed media machine and the stultifying political inertia that insists on viewing drug taking as a moral sin.

This article on the Open Democracy website is worth reading: 'Decriminalising drugs is not just talk – meet the countries actually experimenting with it' by Miamh Eastwood and Edward Fox.

Just put INSIDE DOPE in the search box at top left to find 26 Previous Posts on drug news.

One of those is about the myth of extra-strong cannabis. The Guardian's major G2 story on the subject by Blake Morrison was rubbished. He had got the simple maths completely wrong. See:

Sunday, March 13, 2016


One week ago, on March 5th, Ray Tomlinson died at the age of 75 of a suspected heart attack. Ray was the father of the modern e-mail system and the man who chose the @ symbol to connect senders and addresses.

Photo of Raymond Tomlinson
According to William F. Allman in the Smithsonian Magazine: 
 'At that time [Late 60s/early 70s], each programmer was typically connected to a particular mainframe machine via a phone connection and a teletype machine—basically a keyboard with a built-in printer. But these computers weren’t connected to one another, a shortcoming the U.S. government sought to overcome when it hired BBN Technologies, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company Tomlinson worked for, to help develop a network called Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet.'
'Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, he reasoned, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.

Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.”
Tomlinson chose @—“probably saving it from going the way of the ‘cent’ sign on computer keyboards,” he says. Using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail, which travelled from one teletype in his room, through Arpanet, and back to a different teletype in his room.'
According to his official profile on the Internet Hall of Fame:
'Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York in 1941. He attended college at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he participated in an internship program with IBM and received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1963. He then went on to study at the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning an S.M. in electrical engineering in 1965.' He is ranked number four on the MIT list of top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT. 
Tomlinson's email program brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate, including the way businesses, from huge corporations to tiny mom-and-pop shops, operate and the way millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans. Today, tens of millions of email-enabled devices are in use every day. Email remains the most popular application, with over a billion and a half users spanning the globe and communicating across the traditional barriers of time and space.

According to The Independent  obituary by Sarah Skidmore Sell, he said the first text messages  were "entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them."

"I'm often asked did I know what I was doing? The answer is Yeah. I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever about what the ultimate impact would be."

BBN was later acquired by Raytheon and Tomlinson was still working for them as a principal scientist at the time of his death. Sell reports: 'He lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where he raised miniature sheep with his partner.'



There this post might have ended if I hadn't asked myself 'Where did the @ symbol orighinally come from and when did it appear on typewriters ?'.  According to  'The Acccidental History of the @ Symbol' by William F. Allman [Smithsonian Magazine/September 2012]: 
The At Symbol'The origin of the symbol itself, one of the most graceful characters on the keyboard, is something of a mystery. 'One theory is that medieval monks, looking for shortcuts while copying manuscripts, converted the Latin word for “toward”—ad—to “a” with the back part of the “d” as a tail. 'Or it came from the French word for “at”—à—and scribes, striving for efficiency, swept the nib of the pen around the top and side. 'Or the symbol evolved from an abbreviation of “each at”—the “a” being encased by an “e.”  

According to Philip Willan in an article entitled 'merchant@florence wrote it first 500 years ago' (The Guardian/31st July 2000), the first hard evidence of the use of the @ sign came in July 2000 when Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Rome 'stumbled on the earliest known example of the symbol's use, as an indication of a measure of weight or volume.'

"Until now no one knew that the @ sign derived from this symbol, which was developed by Italian traders in a mercantile script they created between the middle ages and the renaissance," Prof Stabile said. "The loop around the 'a' is typical of that merchant script."

It was in a letter sent from Seville to Rome on 4th May 1536, written by a Florentine trader named Francesco Lapi, describing the arrival in Spain of three ships carrying treasure from the Americas. It read in part: "There, an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats," The amphora is represented by an @ sign. Amphoras were terracotta jars of standard size used to transport grain and liquid in the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Spanish word for the @ sign, arroba , also indicates a weight or measure, which was equivalent, at the end of the 16th century, to 11.3kg (25 lb) or 22.7 litres (six gallons).

As it made its way along trade routes to northern Europe, the @ sign also took on its contemporary accountancy meaning: "at the price of". 

Professor Stabile believes that earlier documents bearing this symbol may be lying forgotten in the archives of Italian banks. "Venice is the maritime city that continued to use the amphora weight unit the longest, but Florence is the foremost city of banking. The race is on to see who has the oldest document."

"No symbol is born of chance. This one has represented the entire history of navigation on the oceans and has now come to typify travel in cyberspace," Prof Stabile said.

 THE GENERALIST has spent some considerable time trying to ascertain when and why the @ symbol became added to the typewriter keyboard but with no success. The first commercially successful machine was the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, known as the Remington No 1, which was launched in 1874, introduced the QWERTY keyboard. Its successor Remington 2  (1878) introduced the shift key.

The Webopedia entry on the @ sign says it became a standard key on typewriter keyboards in the 1880s (contradicted by more authoratative sources) and a standard on QWERTY keyboards in the 1940s (no explanation of why).

According to the same source, although the @ symbol is used worldwide in e-mails, countries have different names for it than the English which just refers to it as the 'at sign'. Here is their wonderful list:
  • Afrikaans -  aapstert, meaning "monkey's tail"
  • Arabic -   fi,  which means 'at'
  • Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian - "Crazy I"
  • Catalan -  arrova, a unit of weight
  • Czech -  zavinac, meaning "rollmop," or "pickled herring"
  • Danish -  alfa-tegn, meaning "alpha-sign" or snabel-a, meaning "elephant's trunk" or grisehale, meaning "pig's tail"
  • Dutch -  apestaart, meaning monkey's tail," apestaartje, meaning "little monkey's tail" or slingeraap, meaning "swinging monkey"
  • French - arobase is the name of the symbol. It is also referred to as un a commercial, meaning "business a", a enroule, meaning "coiled a", and sometimes escargot, meaning "snail" or petit escargot, meaning "little snail"
  • German - Affenschwanz, meaning "monkey's tail" or Klammeraffe, meaning "hanging monkey"
  • Greek -  papaki, meaning "little duck"
  • Hebrew - shablul or shablool, meaning "snail" or a shtrudl, meaning "strudel"
  • Hungarian -  kukac, meaning "worm" or "maggot"
  • Italian -  chiocciola, meaning "snail" or a commerciale, meaning "business a"
  • Japanese -  atto maaku, meaning "at mark"
  • Mandarin Chinese - In Taiwan it is called xiao lao-shu, meaning "little mouse," lao shu-hao, meaning "mouse sign," at-hao, meaning "at sign" or lao shu-hao, meaning "mouse sign"
  • Norwegian - grisehale, meaning "pig's tail" or kro/llalfa, meaning "curly alpha." 
  • Polish -  malpa, meaning "monkey" or kotek, meaning "little cat" and ucho s'wini, meaning "pig's ear"
  • Portuguese - arroba, a unit of weight
  • Romanian -  la, meaning "at"
  • Russian -  kommercheskoe, meaning "commercial a", or sobachka, meaning "little dog.
  • Swedish - snabel-a, meaning "trunk-a," or "a with an elephant's trunk"
  • Thai - There is no official word for it in Thai, but it is often called ai tua yiukyiu, meaning "the wiggling worm-like character"
  • Turkish - kulak, meaning "ear"

Saturday, March 12, 2016


 The National Geographic  has long been one of my favourite magazines. It's been bought by Rupert Murdoch so we have our fingers crossed that he leaves it be.

One of the magazine's recent and most distinguished initiatives has been a special eight-month series exploring how we can feed two billion extra people by 2050. The first one (pictured left) was May 2014. You can read the whole series starting here.

Particularly interesting was 'How To Farm a Better Fish' , the second piece in the series, which reveals that the world already produces more farmed fish than beef.

The latest issue (March 2016) features as its cover story 'Eat Me: How Ugly Food can help feed the planet'. We are immediately hit with this bald fact:

 About a third of the planet's food goes to waste. 

That's enough to feed two billion people.

The article is by  Elizabeth Royle and reads in part:

'Across cultures, food waste goes against the moral grain. After all, nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we squander enough food—globally, 2.9 trillion pounds a year—to feed every one of them more than twice over.' 

'In developing nations much is lost postharvest for lack of adequate storage facilities, good roads, and refrigeration. In comparison, developed nations waste more food farther down the supply chain, when retailers order, serve, or display too much and when consumers ignore leftovers in the back of the fridge or toss perishables before they’ve expired.

'Wasting food takes an environmental toll as well. Producing food that no one eats...also squanders the water, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fuel, and land needed to grow it. 

'Globally a year’s production of uneaten food guzzles as much water as the entire annual flow of the Volga, Europe’s most voluminous river. 

'Growing the 133 billion pounds of food that retailers and consumers discard in the United States annually slurps the equivalent of more than 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to 'American Wasteland' author Jonathan Bloom. 

'These staggering numbers don’t even include the losses from farms, fishing vessels, and slaughterhouses. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S. 

'On a planet of finite resources, with the expectation of at least two billion more residents by 2050, this profligacy, Tristram Stuart argues in his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, is obscene.'

Read complete article here 

See campaigning group Feedback here