Sunday, February 28, 2010

Of Dead Bats and Drug Dealers

I have noticed a remarkable number of dead bats hanging from electricity lines lately. Seriously, on Saturday during the course of a single bus trip I saw no fewer than three dead bats hanging artistically from the overhead wires. One of them was right outside my home. It inspired me to do a little song and dance while waiting for the bus. Let me tell you you look a little silly when a group of sixteen year old girls walk by and catch you doing the dead bat dance. Bats are under fire a little in my city at the moment and I can't help wondering if they have started throwing themselves at powerlines in a form of suicide protest. Buddhist self immolation, bat style. There was an article in the paper recently that Sydney's Royal Botanical Garden wants to rid itself of its burgeoning bat population by means of noise dispersal.

Apparently the flying rodents are causing immense amounts of damage to the varied plant life that hangs out in the gardens and the administrators are running out of ideas on what to do about it. Unfortunately for them the bats are rare, or endangered or cute or one of the other reasons which make the human race periodically decide to not kill a particular animal. This means that the garden needs approval from the federal Environment Minister before it can undertake gruesome retribution. Amusingly this means the Minister will have to approve an assault on a rare (or endangered or cute) indigenous species so that a bunch of exotics imported from other lands can survive in their place. Meanwhile the bats are apparently trying to highlight their plight by hurling themselves into power lines.

Something else I frequently see hanging from power lines is pairs of sneakers. Friends of mine a little closer to the pulse of the city inform me that this is an indication that a drug dealer lives on the street. Firstly, if we had that many drug dealers I very much doubt that they could all remain in business. Secondly, how exactly is that supposed to help anybody? Do junkies wander the suburbs looking for dangling sneakers then doorknock every house in the street until they find a dealer? How does that conversation go?

"Excuse me, are you a drug dealer?"
"Sorry to bother you."

What happens if they get to the end of the street without finding one. Is there somebody they can complain to?

"Dear sir, I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms about the deceptive placing of sneakers on powerlines..."

Personally I suspect that sneakers dangling from a power line indicate that somebody pinched their neighbour's sneakers. If La Familia really have resorted to this form of viral marketing possibly the war on drugs is closer to being won than we thought. Or possibly not, the sheer volume of sneakers would indicate that business is booming. In some places there are so many sneakers there isn't any room for bats. Once again our little cruiser of the night, without whom a thousand vampire films would have had to make do with pigeons painted black, is being driven out by promoters of foreign vegetation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What About Stupid Design?

I am so pissed off right now. I had intended to devote a blog entry to the panda bear. The outlines were already in my head and I even had a title worked out, "Die Panda Scum!". Pretty catchy huh? Then for some reason I googled this creative and original phrase and discovered that someone else had used it for the title of an entry in their blog. Furthermore his topic; the fundamental stupidity and worthlessness of the panda was precisely what I was going to write about. Most galling of all, his entry was funnier and cleverer than mine was going to be. So obviously I can't write that entry now but all the thought I put into pandas has been rewarded. I believe that pandas are living proof of the non existence of god. No god could design something as intrinsically silly as the panda, only evolution could be that stupid.

For the record the panda started off several million years ago as an ordinary bear. There was, however, an evolutionary niche waiting to be filled. In the regions the proto-panda hung out in there was an abundance of bamboo. Competition for other food sources was, no doubt, tight and at some point a bear, possibly in desperation, grabbed some bamboo and ate it. From that moment this particular bear species began a downward slide that would result in pandadom.

It must have seemed like such a good idea; almost nothing else was eating bamboo, the bear that could adjust its diet would have the field to itself. Unfortunately there are reasons why nothing else was eating bamboo. Bamboo is inedible; it is difficult to digest, tastes dreadful and has the nutritional value of toenail clippings. Making up in tenacity what they lacked in intelligence the bears compensated by eating an immense amount of bamboo and evolution stepped in to help out. High intelligence requires more fuel than bamboo provides so pandas became stupid, bamboo requires a lot of breaking down so the bears got serious stomaches, vigorous activity drains the tank faster than bamboo can fill it so the bears got slow and disinterested in sex. I don't know where they got the colour scheme from but it is entirely possible that by this stage evolution was just screwing with them. The result of all this was the panda we see and laugh at today.

The panda is a perfect example of why evolution is a much better explanation for life on earth than god. I find it impossible to believe that an omnipotent, omniscient being could think the panda was a good idea for a microsecond. Evolution on the other hand, not having to do any thinking, simply filled a niche in the best way it could find.

The difference between evolution and god is the difference between evolution and intelligent design. You need different standards. Evolution is, if you will, like a mentally retarded child. God is a mathematics professor at MIT. If a mentally retarded child somewhere down the bottom of the special needs class by dint of great effort achieves a mark of 60% in a third grade maths test this is cause for celebration. The child should be deservedly congratulated and its parents will definitely be putting that result on the fridge. If a professor of mathematics from MIT achieves 60% in a third grade maths test he will probably kill people to stop them finding out. This is why the panda is such an achievement for evolution and such a failure for god.

Make no mistake, evolution has done a pretty good job with the panda. It has taken a huge carnivore and adapted it to live on a diet that couldn't support a sparrow. That deserves to go on the fridge. If god had created the panda he would have been greeted with gales of laughter next time he got together for a beer with his mates. They would have pointed out that the panda is fat, slow, stupid and vulnerable to the tiniest amount of interference from one of god's other bright ideas, the human race. In short, god would have done much better to never have created the panda at all.

Speaking of humans the same argument can be used. I think the human race is pretty impressive and not just because I am a member of it. However any close examination starts to reveal the flaws. A miracle of creation we are not; we are a miracle of evolution to be judged by the appropriately low standards.

Working from the top down, examine the head. Yes there is plenty of protection for the brain, full marks for evolution there and only slightly fewer for god. God gets marked down because of the soft, thin part of our skull around the temples. Anatomists may point out the very good reasons for this (I think its so the forceps have something to grip) but if god had created man he would have done better. Teeth are another area where the deity falls down. Two sets for an entire lifetime? He got it more right with sharks. Evolution, which was designing parts for an animal which at the time had a thirty year lifespan, can be forgiven for thinking two sets might be enough.

After the head, examine the body; the heart and lungs are fine, nicely protected by a sturdy but flexible bone structure but after that its a disaster. Stomache, kidneys, liver, spleen and intestines, all critical to the function of the human body just sitting there with no protection whatsover. Of course these areas needed flexibility, room to expand and couldn't be constrained by bone. Evolution made a trade off, that's what evolution does. God should have got it right in the first place. Being a man I can't help being aware that my penis, the most sensitive part of my anatomy hangs there rather like a bell pull just waiting for a sadistic practical joker. Evolution did its best by placing it between the legs thus giving some protection. What the hell was god thinking?

The greatest argument against intelligent design and god in general is sex. Has anybody apart from me noticed that we use the same equipment to make love that we use to void waste materials from the body? Intelligent design isn't something I'm cut out for, I lack both requirements but if I were to design a honeymoon suite I sure as hell wouldn't run an open sewer through the middle of it.

All of the problems, all of the compromises make a lot of sense when you realise that the driving force creating our bodies is making it up as it goes along. In short, evolution. We should probably be grateful our sex organs aren't on the tops of our heads. If our bodies were designed however, they were designed badly. They were designed last thing on Friday afternoon when the designer was late for the pub. Most draughtsmen and probably a few fashion designers could come up with a better blueprint for the human body.

I don't really hate pandas, we're both fine in our own way doing our best to play the cards evolution has dealt us but neither of us is an advertisement for intelligent design. I might be able to accept an argument for stupid design. Which raises a bunch of new and disturbing questions about god. For instance, if he exists does he really know what he's doing?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Confessions of a Supermarket Hyena

It's always easy to tell when I have just been paid. The first shopping day after payday I go to the supermarket and buy the luxury catfood rather than the cheap stuff. It costs a whole twenty cents a can more and has words like "infused" on the label rather than "contains". I like to think the cat appreciates the occasional step up into a higher income bracket. In all likelihood what she is actually thinking is what a cheapskate I am three weeks out of the month.

Shopping during the week is annoying, I was in the supermarket at 5.30pm and the whole place looked as though it was about to close. The meat section smelled of chlorine, which didn't stop me buying some chops. If I turn green I know what happened. The vegetables looked very sad and the two carrots I picked up looked thoroughly miserable, although if I was facing the same fate I would look pretty miserable as well.

On the weekend the supermarket is a different place, there are people everywhere and the shelves bulge with goods. Shopping during the week I feel like a hyena that got called late to the kill. Other members of the pack have eaten all the good bits and I and one or two other outcasts of the hyena world are trying to salvage the few remaining edible bits.

Of course I could go shopping on the weekend like a normal person but I much prefer to do it during the week. I do all my housework during the week since I consider those five days as lost time anyway. This enables me to spend the bulk of my weekend in pleasant relaxation. The minor sacrifices I have to make in the way of healthy diet and the like I consider well worth the price.

The one thing I can always guarantee buying is catfood. It doesn't matter if my fellow hyenas are savaging each other to death for the last half dozen cracked, pseudo free range eggs, the cat food aisles are always generously stocked. They are one tiny little patch of plenty amidst the bleak wasteland of empty shelves, derelict cardboard boxes and time expired vegetables. My trolley lurches from one side of the empty aisle to another as I prowl, hopeless but desperate, in search of a skeleton not picked quite clean. From time to time I see another hyena similarly engaged but there is no cameraderie here. We are rivals for the same carcass from which all the marrow has already been sucked. We exchange glares of barely contained hostility and hurry on our way. Each of us knows we are but one trolley accident away from being prey ourselves and that none will mourn our loss.

That's how it goes when you're a hyena; nobody cares about the service we provide, cleaning up the unwanted bits and pieces so the shelves can hold gleaming fresh goods when they come shopping on Saturday. We slink from the empty dairy section to the barren pasta shelves trying to blend in with the tumbleweeds blowing through the store. Each of us is looking out for that one sparkling prize, that diamond among the dross. Something which unaccountably wasn't bought on Saturday or Sunday but is still good on Tuesday evening. It doesn't exist but still we keep looking like the followers of a religion who no longer believe but who dare not abandon their faith. Speaking for myself some of that catfood is starting to look pretty damn good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Tell if Your Country Sucks

The current disaster in Haiti is what prompted this singularly ill informed rant so I thought I might start with a brief history of that nation courtesy of the timeline below;

1492 - Christopher Columbus finds the island of Hispaniola (he ran aground on part of it).

1517 - Due to the unfortunate habit of dying the locals have picked up the first slaves are imported.

1600 (or thereabouts) - French buccaneers settle western part of the island of Hispaniola.

1697 - Treaty of Ryswick allocates the left hand third of the island to France. Corrupt, brutal, slave exploiting Spaniards are replaced by corrupt, brutal, slave exploiting French. This will become the nation of Haiti.

1792 - Taking the French Revolution far too seriously slaves and "free people of colour" rise in revolt under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture.

1802 - Displaying the sort of moral integrity for which they have become famous the French invite l'Ouverture to negotiate. At the negotiations they kidnap him and smuggle him out to France where he dies.

1803 - Haitians under l'Ouverture's successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeat French troops and declare independence.

1 minute later - Haiti descends into crazed anarchy as one murderous despot follows another in a demented round of political roulette.

2010 - Earthquake hits.

Oh yes, along the way the Haitians also invented voodoo. This is possibly the only product the nation has managed to export. Honestly what else can happen to Haiti? If a meteorite hit most of the population probably wouldn't look up from what they were doing. What else can happen to Haiti? Here's one thing. Angelina Jolie has turned up in her capacity as UN ambassador for really hot chicks with too much time on their hands. That rumbling noise you heard from Haiti wasn't an aftershock. It was the sound of several million Haitian parents hiding their children. Is it really fair to send Angelina to Haiti right now. They already feel pretty bad about themselves and now here is this incredibly attractive person posing in front of crumbled buildings they have to live in and nodding with a serious expression while the minister for nepotism explains why he put his mongoloid cousin in charge of the relief effort.

Meanwhile in Europe things are far more serious but much less important. Greece has gone bankrupt and it looks like Portugal and Spain will follow. Was anybody surprised at this news? Greece has given some fine things to the world; democracy, philosophy, sodomy but as economic managers they haven't exactly set the world on fire. As for Spain who would have thought an economy based on selling drugs to British teenagers and houses to British mobsters could have proved so fragile. Portugal has been an economic basket case since at least 1522. Apparently we're gearing up for GFC II - The Markets Strike Back. There are many places where GFC one hasn't finished running yet and now we have a sequel.

Over in America the latest method of reducing the number of unemployed seems to be hoping they get caught in heavy snowfalls. Unemployment is at ten percent although I think President Obama is insisting that they have actually achieved ninety percent employment which sounds much better. If things get worse the next country the US military invades will have to be their own.

I look around at the world and realise that the best way a person can ensure a reasonable lifestyle is to arrange to be born in the right country. For this reason I have drawn up a simple marking table below. The higher your nation's score the better.

  • If Angelina Jolie or Madonna have recently visited your country. deduct 20 points
  • If they left with an extra child. deduct 30 points
  • If you hate McDonalds and Starbucks. add 10 points
  • If you can't afford McDonalds or Starbucks. deduct 10 points
  • If any organisation with the words "without borders" in its title visits frequently. deduct 20 points
  • If politcal activists are demanding that US troops enter rather than leave. deduct 30 points
  • If economic collapse means starvation rather than a hissy fit about the bonuses paid on Wall Street. deduct 20 points.
  • If meeting an endangered species is a moment of joy rather than a meal opportunity. add 20 points
  • If you are more concerned with migrants trying to enter your country than trying to leave it yourself. add 30 points.
  • If home ownership means taking out a mortgage rather than squatting in rubble. add 20 points
  • If you can say "fuck the police" without having them beat you to death right there in the street. add 10 points.
  • If global warming and environmental degradation are your principal concerns. add 20 points
  • If keeping your child alive on the offchance that one day you might be able to afford the medicine that can cure it is your principal concern. deduct 30 points.
  • If your country's name has five letters beginning with "H" and ending in "i". deduct 500 points
I score 60 (and would have done better if I cared more about the environment), how did you do?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Birthday Greetings #2

Happy birthday to Constantine XI Palaeologus, last emperor of Byzantium. Constantine was born in 1404 in the Byzantium Despotate of the Morea and grew up as the last remnants of Byzantine power collapsed; conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The Morea itself survived largely one assumes because the Ottomans were busy elsewhere. By the time Constantine was an adult the "empire" consisted of the Morea (in the Greek Pelopponese), a few Aegean islands and the city of Constantinople, the empire's ancient capital. Constantinople was now cut off from the few remaining Byzantine territories and spent much of the first half of the fifteenth century under intermittent Ottoman siege.

Constantine's brother, emperor John VIII, died in 1449 and Constantine left Mistra, capital of the Morea, to take his place as emperor in Constantinople. Two years later the Ottoman sultan Murad II died and his nineteen year old son Mehmet II took the throne. His first act was to unroll maps of Constantinople. The Byzantine empire was a wreck and the city of Constantinople gutted and depopulated but Mehmet still considered it a danger. Despite the conquest of all its territory the city had held out, seeing more than one Ottoman army raise its siege in failure. This was an embarrassment for the all conquering Ottomans. Further, Constantinople's strategic position was superb. It stood between the European and Asian territories of the Ottoman empire. The Byzantines were weak but if they patched up their quarrels with the western Christian nations it was not impossible to imagine a fleet of Venetian galleys in the Golden Horn or detachments of Crusaders in the city. The time had come for Constantinople to fall under the banner of Islam.

There was one problem; the walls. The city itself was a mirror of the empire; ruined, bankrupt and with a shadow population of forty or fifty thousand living in an area that could accomodate half a million but the walls were superb. Built almost a thousand years ago during the reign of the emperor Theodosius II they had been the last word in defensive military engineering for over nine centuries. Even in the last stages of their decline the Byzantine emperors had spent what few pennies they could find maintaining the walls. Mehmet, however, had the answer. Some time earlier a German engineer named Urban had presented himself to Constantine and offered to build him the biggest cannons in the world, at a price. Bankrupt, Constantine had been forced to send him away empty handed and he promptly approached Mehmet with the same offer. Mehmet was only too happy to take him onto the payroll. On a personal note; if I had been Byzantine emperor I would have made damn sure Urban didn't leave my throne room alive.

In 1453 Mehmet was ready and marched on Constantinople at the head of a huge army and, for the first time in Ottoman history, navy. With the city surrounded Mehmet, as Islamic law demanded, sent a formal request for surrender coupled with a promise of good treatment. Constantine refused and Mehmet prepared his siege.

Inside the city Constantine knew he was doomed. The walls he was attempting to defend were fourteen miles long and his forces amounted to barely seven thousand men, a combination of half trained locals and Venetian & Genoese mercenaries. After taking a careful count of his fighting strength Constantine ordered the records destroyed for fear the truth would bring about a collapse in morale.

From the beginning of April until the end of May 1453 Mehmet's cannon hammered the walls, finally smashing what Mehmet considered to be a practical breach. Everybody knew what was coming. Inside the city everyone who could be spared from the walls was in church praying for the intercession of the Almighty. Constantine went about his household thanking them personally for their service and begging forgiveness for any offences he might have committed. Cardinal Isidore who had forsaken the Orthodox church for Rome nevertheless swapped back for the night and held one last service according to the old liturgies. At three in the morning on the 28th of May 1453 before the first streak of dawn came the alarm. Mehmet had launched his assault.

The first wave consisted of bashi bazouks of whom the best description is "scum of the earth; generic". Undisciplined hordes of bandits, thieves, mercenaries and anybody else who could grab a weapon and loot a farmhouse. They were invaluable to the Ottoman army; they caught arrows meant for real soldiers. The bashi bazouks charged the gaps in the walls but in ferocious fighting the defenders threw them back. Then Mehmet sent in his regular soldiers. The fighting was even harder but eventually they too were thrown back but by now the defenders were exhausted and with the first signs of dawn appearing Mehmet ordered forward his janissaries. The elite of the Ottoman army, the janissaries were Christian boys taken from their parents as infants, raised as fanatical muslims and trained in nothing but war. At this time they were possibly the best soldiers in the world. They swept over the wreckage of the first two waves and charged into the breach. For a while the defenders held them but then Giovanni Giustiniani , a Genoese mercenary who had been the heart of the defence was injured and carried, dying, back to his ship. His countrymen thinking a breakthrough had been made fled for the harbour and the janissaries carried the walls.

Constantine, seeing that the city was doomed threw aside the imperial regalia, drew his sword and charged into the fighting. Constantine was born on the 8th February 1404, both he and his empire died on May 28th 1453.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Domestic Tip #19

If you feel a sudden urge for a boiled egg but have no egg cups in the house a shot glass makes a very good substitute. If you don't have a shot glass either then what the hell sort of household are you running?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Minor Catastrophes

The weather report yesterday said there had been minor flash flooding in parts of Sydney. Minor flash flooding? That sounds like catching a little bit of plague. Flash floods bring to mind images of huge sheets of water pouring over the landscape with the obligatory flooded cars and occasional cow standing on a hilltop. In fact I'll bet if flash floods hit the centre of Sydney the news media would still find a cow standing on a hilltop to film.

So what is a minor flash flood? I think it could best be described as a flood which pours through the house of the neighbour you dislike but nowhere else. You can sit snug in your own home and watch with that combination of excitement and glee that comes from being very close to a disaster but not being affected by it. Make yourself a cup of coffee as that guy who always plays his stereo at three in the morning watches his home float down the road. Keep an eye on the tv journalists in case they try to smuggle a cow onto the scene.

Fortunately none of my neighbours homes have been washed away in the recent downpour. I say fortunately because I live in a flat and my neighbours actually inhabit the same building as me. Nevertheless I can't help feeling a little smugness at the generally watertight nature of my little home despite the fact that I have the windows open thus admitting a gentle spray into each room. I find good airflow is more important than one hundred percent dryness.

A hideous gouge in my bedroom ceiling stops me from being too thrilled at the misfortune of others. My flat is indeed waterproof but that gouge which actually reveals some of the iron reinforcement shows that this was not always the case. The building I live in is solid in an unimaginative sort of way but a little skimping was done on the eaves causing serious water damage to the top floor flats (like mine) before it was repaired. The bedroom ceiling carries the scars of a soggier time.

Meanwhile out in the countryside we have the amusing situation of a drought stricken landscape under a sheet of water. I've often wondered how we ever managed to farm anything in this country when our agricultural community seems to go from needing drought relief to flood relief without any time in between to actually do agriculture. In fairness a number of farmers have been on the news recently saying how delighted they are with the rain despite being up to their neck in it while actually being interviewed. Naturally on small hillocks around their properties cows stand eyeing each other in some embarrassment and wondering if its too late to turn carnivore.

In the Blue Mountains a landslide blocked the railway tracks and derailed a train although not seriously; another minor catastrophe. Trains were, of course, interrupted with a better excuse than is normally provided but City Rail promises to have services running late and out of timetable order as soon as possible. My parents live in the Blue Mountains and apparently the rain caused their house to move. It moves in dry weather too. I feel a little nervous about the scar on my bedroom ceiling, meanwhile my parents house is doing the twist. Fortunately its made out of wood. If it had been made out of brick it might be doing the crumble by now.

Minor catastrophes are great because they allow people to step up and help their fellow person safe in the knowledge that they will make a real difference. Major catastrophes don't allow that. Take the relief effort in Haiti as an example. If everything goes well and all the efforts of the aid and relief people are crowned with success, the population are still going to be wretchedly poor and living in filth without any hope of a better life unless they can float across to America on an inner tube. That's the good option; if the relief efforts fail things will be worse, somehow.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Not another New World Order

I have just finished reading Age of Consent by George Monbiot. I had never heard of him before but apparently he is a contributor to the Guardian and a left wing intellectual (although you probably figured that out when I mentioned the Guardian). He has written a book decrying the state of the world and suggesting recipes for improvement.

To mock such an effort is easy, very very easy actually. Certainly I agree with his comments about the United Nations, WTO, World Bank and IMF. These things are fundamentally evil with the exception of the UN which is just fundamentally useless. Nevertheless Monbiot's remedy is to replace these tired, discredited old institutions with all new fresh discredited institutions. It is kind of amusing to see him describe major corporations, governments and international bodies as though they were some kind of alien imposition on the hapless human race. The sad fact is that these things were all created by us doing what we do. They are not extra human, they are an expression of humans. Nevertheless Monbiot seems to think that if we tried again we'd get it right this time; as long as we listen to him. I suspect that his ideas might work were the world inhabited by six billion George Monbiots. As it is in order to make them work the new democratic institutions of the planet would need guidance from selfless, natural leaders such as, oh I don't know, George Monbiot for example. He shows a touching faith in the ability of the world to elect people to a parliament who would do something other than point out how much they hated each other.

His ideas on world trade might work if you ignored the fact that most people go into trade in the hope of making some money. He sees trade as a way of knitting the world together and he's right. Unfortunately he sees this as the point behind trade and he's wrong. Most benefits to humanity have come about as a result of people doing something else entirely. Manipulating trade to benefit some countries at the expense of others can only be done if you have a bucket load of power and a refreshing absence of morals. Most of the people who have that talent set already work for the World Bank or the IMF. Furthermore at some point or other while Monbiot is trying to use trade to raise people out of poverty the people doing the trading will expect to see a profit.

He did have a very good idea about clearing third world debt. He suggests that they simply stop paying it. This is an excellent solution but would only be successful if every heavily indebted country did it at once. If we could get that sort of consensus then the UN would be a model of good governance. Still it is probably one of the less unrealistic ideas in the book. The best idea is the removal of agriculture subsidies in places like America and Europe. This genuinely would be of help to the struggling economies of the third world and play directly to their most readily available resources; dirt and people. Unfortunately any American or European leader who attempted it would be crucified. Monbiot makes a lot of comments about the capture of western governments by vested interests but it probably is asking a little too much to expect a politician to commit public suicide on behalf of people who probably can't vote in their own country much less his.

Still it is nice to see people thinking about how the world could be better. Hopefully one day someone will come up with a solution which doesn't require that we put them in charge of everything.