Shaddam IV

José Ferrer was an old actor when he played the Emperor Shaddam IV in Dune. I have often wondered what a pleasure it would have been to speak the following lines, knowing they might be the last he ever spoke in a professional role:

“I want 50 legions of our Sardaukar terror troops on Arrakis at once!”

“Sire, that is our entire strategic reserve!”

“At once I tell you. I am talking about genocide. The deliberate destruction of all human life on Arrakis.”

Would any actor be able to resist the charm of a part that held such lines as these, and made them credible?

strait of Hormuz


Think about the oil extraction business for a moment. Huge investments, monster engineering, and the world’s total dependence on petroleum to fuel our lifestyles. Think of tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz, and navies sent to  protect shipping lanes. Think of 4 billion cars and trucks moving goods. Think of 18 million barrels of oil a day passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s biggest choke point.

oil traffic hormuz

Then think of the world’s vehicles coming to a halt for want of oil. Thus when you search google images for “Strait of Hormuz”, what mostly appear are of maps and warships.


Now imagine all the world’s oil had to pass through the easily blocked Strait of Hormuz, and alien powers controlled both sides of the Strait.Trying to block that strait would be asking for it, would it not?

Thus the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV pulled out all the strategic reserves to descend on Arrakis/Dune for a clean-up campaign of singular extremsim.


The particular genius of Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, was to postulate an esoteric substance akin to a psychedelic, made in only one place in the universe, Arrakis, that was the only conceivable fuel for interstellar transport at practical speeds. That was “spice”, the incidentally anti-aging compound that enabled Guild Navigators to “fold space”.

Thus, Dune is the most important planet in the universe, because there and there only is found the one substance that holds the known universe together in a network of trade and empire. And it bears more resemblance to LSD or DMT than petroleum.

Now imagine some little desert punk with a nom de guerre of Mu’ad Dib is threatening the supply lines with his guerilla.

Why could spice not be replicated elsewhere? As the story turns out, spice is the detritus of sand plankton which has come into contact with water, poisonous to the sand plankton ecology of Dune/Arrakis. The ecology of Dune is based on a life form for which water is a poison, and at the acme of the Dune food chain is the sand worm, Shai Hulud. The giant sandworms were the end stage of creatures that started out as sand-plankton, like krill that grew into whales.

shai hulud

At their greatest size, they were a mile long, and relentlessly patrolled their territories to destroy the sources of noise, whatever they were, animal or machines. Thus spice mining was an expensive affair, as extractor-refineries had to be lifted off the surface before the sand worms destroyed them. Only the vast profits of spice-mining could justify the accompanying losses of life and investment.



In the inimitable words of Baron Vladimir Harkkonen, the ultimate villain,

He who controls the spice controls the universe!.

And this is only part of the background to Dune, and not the plot line.

What is the spice of modern life?

So I ask you, what is the spice of modern life? What is the monopolizable commodity of inestimable value which can be cut off and when cut off, is disastrous for the economy?

Petroleum? comes close, but check out those pictures of battle fleets patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, and think about fracking. Supply is fungible. Prices can go down as well as up. We can destroy any overt seizer of oil supplies. Just ask Saddam Hussein. Navies serve as price regulators, in a way.

Coffee? Buy it for pennies and sell it for pounds to addicts, which is most of us. Comes close but is not grown in one place only. Cannot be monopolized.

Heroin? Does not drive the economy or human efficiency. Too debilitating. A limited taste.

Khat? Not addictive enough.

Tobacco? Addictive, but not monopolizable.

Alcohol? Ubiquitously available, even where it is banned.

Internet protocol addresses? there are 4.8 billion in IPv4 and galactic clusters worth in IPv6. Even if you used them up, they would just invent another numbering system for computer addresses. Very limited opportunities.

Wait a minute!

What about bandwidth into your home?

  • vast investments preclude much competition;
  • huge lobby power to influence governments and popular opinion;
  • being pro-regulation makes you look like a commie;
  • academics are on call to defend your power;
  • vertical integration into services allows you to make money off the high-end services (TV, sports etc);
  • endless litigation can be readily afforded.

I think bandwidth (signal capacity) is the spice of modern life. Unlike the case of Paul Atreides/Mu’ad Dib in Dune, it is by no means settled whether the Emperor will crush the rebellion or join it.

It us up to you, Prime Minister Harper. It is up to you, Commissioners of the CRTC. CRTC hearings begin on Monday on an apparently boring subject: on what terms should smaller Internet service providers be able to lease bandwidth from the carriers?

Will you play the role of Baron Harkkonen? That would be politically suicidal. Or the liberator of the spice, Paul Atreides? Dangerous but possibly worth it. Or the Emperor Shaddam IV?  Hard to say, but he intervened on the wrong side of that dispute. Do not emulate his example.