Friday, April 30, 2010

Cry "Havoc!" and Let Slip the Puppies of Mild Disagreement

Can you believe that Luxembourg has an army? It's true, apparently if the hordes of Genghiz Khan appear on the border 300 or 400 hundred stalwart defenders of Luxembourgish liberty will spring to arms and drive off the invader. Apparently even the Luxembourgers realise this is a little unrealistic which is why they are members of NATO. Furthermore when they deploy they are usually integrated with Belgian troops. Can you imagine being so hard up militarily that you look for assistance from Belgium?

There are certain countries that appear to have no compelling reason for possessing an army. Luxembourg is one of them, another is Italy. Honestly do you really need to have an army when defeat in war is pretty much preordained? Denmark's need for its ten thousand odd troops seems a little specious although you have to love a special forces unit called Slædepatruljen Sirius (they're unarmed sled dog units that patrol Greenland; they must be desperate for global warming). Don't get me started on Haiti. I think that the Haitian police and army should be merged. I realise that's a lot of corruption and brutality to be handled by one organisation but with modern management techniques I think it could be done. Let's face it, the only country Haiti's army has ever invaded has been their own.

The smallest army in the world is, of course, the Swiss Guard, whose revoltingly coloured uniform is surely a tactic to induce nausea in any opposition. There are 110 of these metal jacketed fashion disasters protecting the pope. If there are any more abuse revelations they may have to call in reinforcements. The second smallest army in the world at 245 soldiers makes Antigua and Barbuda a veritable superpower by comparison. Mauritius doesn't have an army but it does have a unit in its police called the "Special Mobile Force". Their motto is "We'll Do It. What Is It?" What "it" is is usually clearing palm trees off the roads after hurricane season.

Possibly the strangest army is that of The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta (yes, they're still around). The "army" consists of military medical personnel and are integrated with the Italian army (thus guaranteeing that they will see no fighting).

Since there are all these small and essentially pointless armies knocking about the place I suggest a competition. We could have small wars (in some cases very small) between these nations on neutral ground with a prize for the overall winner. The bottom placed army fights Italy for the wooden spoon. We could hold the wars in Los Angeles, for example, if we can persuade the local drug gangs to take the weekend off to allow for some less harmful activity. I'm sure many of these armies would leap at the chance of practical experience, medals and rapid promotion. After all there can't be very much for them to do most of the time. Although speaking of rapid promotion one strapping young corporal of the Luxembourg army got a very rapid promotion when she married one of the Grand Duke's sons.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Precious Ramotswe and the Glasgow Bloodfest

I've been watching the new TV channel provided by my rather wretched cable TV service. I'm used to new channels popping up from time to time. Normally they tend to be of the "lifestyle" variety with programmes like Trinny and Susannah Perform Open Heart Surgery. I generally avoid them like the plague. I can't help thinking lifestyle programmes are largely for people who don't have one. Until they come up with a programme that tells you how to pin down a paranoid cat with one hand and apply flea medication with the other while avoiding claws aimed at the eyes I don't think they have anything for me.

This new channel is good though. Its been going for some months now and is called 13th Street. Essentially its a murder mystery channel which means that I get to see all the mystery shows from a few years back that I missed on free to air TV. At the moment I'm revelling in an overdose of Poirot and Taggart. In my family the latter show has been referred to as "the Glasgow Bloodfest" for as long as I can recall. I mean I know Glasgow has a pretty gritty reputation but honestly if the murder rate in Taggart was maintained for any length of time Glasgow would be depopulated by now. Surely even the inhabitants of Glasgow would flee to Edinburgh rather than take their chances on the gore drenched streets. Or possibly they wouldn't, I've been to Edinburgh.

Currently we are seeing what are euphemistically referred to as "the middle years". The middle years being the period between the death of Mark McManus (who actually played Taggart) and the departure of James MacPherson (no relation, I think) who played Jardine. It would appear that not even the actors are immune to the relentless body count. I liked Mark McManus and I particularly liked a couple of the things he did with the show. If you look at the old episodes that he appears in you will notice that absolutely nobody smokes. They kill each other all over the place but they don't smoke. This is because McManus once appeared in a movie (where he played a smoker) and was appalled to be accosted by a couple of teenagers later who enthused over his performance and told him how cool he looked smoking. He decided that if he ever got any creative control over a programme no one would be allowed to smoke onscreen. When offered Taggart the other thing he insisted on was that everybody spoke with a genuine Glaswegian accent. While this means that the early episodes require subtitles it did add a certain verisimilitude.

Precious Ramotswe has been appearing in The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency on another channel. It would appear that in the interests of balance the number of murders committed in Glasgow is counterbalanced by the lack of them in Botswana. To be fair if the murder rate of Taggart was maintained in Botswana the country would be depopulated in a week. Still its a nice change of pace. Sadly the Agatha Christie mysteries (Poirot and Marple) appear while I'm at work so I have to hope for sudden attacks of illness if I want to see them.

The best thing about cable tv is that no programme however crappy is allowed to die. Somewhere in the tattered fringes of society there will be sufficient interest to allow the programme to appear on some channel most people have never heard of. I've been watching Get Smart and occasionally even Hogan's Heroes. I loathe Hogan's Heroes but as I watch it I can't help wondering why nobody picked Bob Crane as a sado masochistic homosexual earlier. What everybody else's excuse for appearing in the programme is I don't know. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Xena appear on the sci fi channel which means that somebody in the programming department really doesn't understand the definition of science fiction.

I meant to say something intelligent about cable television and its effects but I have to admit I love it. I've seen more aircrashes than I ever though possible and there is so much footage of world war 2 that if you played it from beginning to end it would take longer than the actual war. All in all relentless reality programmes, Gordon Ramsay and Trinny and Susannah are a small price to pay for so much enjoyment. Cable tv proves that if you just get as many people making television programmes as you possibly can some of them are going to be interesting simply by the law of averages. Of course then you have to find them. Which is why I tend to stick to reruns of Taggart.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


On the ANZAC Day long weekend up to a dozen strange figures slithered out of their holes and gathered at Ashburton Public Library for ANZACon 2010. A good time was had by all and I didn't weep too much at my defeats. Herewith the record of my miserable attempts at ASL relevance.

Ultimate Treachery

The first scenario was Ultimate Treachery pitting Japanese against French colonial troops who had so far ridden out the war without doing much in the way of fighting. The scene was Hanoi, 1945. The Japanese had first and second line squads, machine guns, mortars and an awesome 10-1 leader to direct their assault. The French came equipped to fight 1939s war in 1945. They had a mixture of first line and green squads plus some machine guns including a heavy. But wait, is that...? Could it be? Yes a mighty FT-17 clatters forward. The French are saved!

I couldn't resist the opportunity to command possibly the most hopeless tank of World War 2 so I took the French leaving Murray with the Japanese. The Japanese had to capture 45 out of 74 building locations and only had five turns to do it in. I planned my defence with care. Actually I planned my defence with my usual incoherence and wishful thinking. I divided my defence in two. South of the road BB9-BB1 I arranged my speed bumps, all the green squads, a lmg and the French 7-0. Their purpose was simply to die. To force the Japanese to spend too much time grinding through them. North of the road I set up my first line troops with the hmg and 8-1 in DD3. A squad with mmg anchored the defence at CC8 the ferocious FT-17 occupied BB1.

Murray set up kill stacks in V9 and W10 opposite the row house where just two of my squads (plus the lmg) lurked. A diversionary force of Japanese set up to the south to split my defence. Unnecessary since my defence hadn't really been planned with anything specific in mind. The Japanese spat fire and the mortar WP (which I had forgotten the Japanese had) and he launched his first assaults. My green troops held up nobly for one turn then fled but sufficient of them returned to the fray to slow Murray down. Adding to my chances it started to rain and smoke went out of the equation. Turns two and three were a grim battle for the buildings north of the town with my green troops charging into close combat when possible. Green troops and Italians are made for close combat although possibly nothing else. He took casualties but I took more and by turn four he had closed up to the road and my real defence zone. The rain became torrential as Murray prepared his final assault. A little sting went out when my mmg stack killed the 10-1 and even the FT-17 got into the act as it was parked near a stairwell hex Murray desperately needed to gain the second floor of building Y2. Finally though the Japanese swarmed over my defence and strolled through endless FPF shots to snaffle 46 building locations by game end. I was left weeping with nothing to console me but a dead 10-1 and a live FT-17.

Road to Buin

The next scenario was Road to Buin. After all the overlays were added I have no idea what board we were using or even what direction I was attacking in. Nevertheless I decided to take the attacking Australians, largely because I couldn't remember what panji stakes were meant to do. As it turned out that wasn't the only thing I forgot. According to others a charge up the left hand side of the board might have been successful but my opponent, Cameron, had set up his defence with that in mind so I went up the middle.

I sent a small group sneaking up the skinny jungle on the left hand side of the board while the bulk of my force attacked on the right on both sides of the stream. My target was the patch of jungle my side of the stream near one of the victory locations. The first enemy I discovered was the 37mm gun set at the top of the left hand jungle I was sneaking along. I sent a squad to deal with it but they staggered back in bloody rout from a thoroughly predictable minefield. Henceforth the left flank would simply be a pinning force. On the right I made good progress and was challenging for the clump of jungle that was my target. I ran into his pillbox (fortunately pointing in the wrong direction and another squad defending my approach route. Here I made my first (but sadly not my last) mistake. Eager to clear out his onboard defence before his reinforcements arrived I charged two squads into close combat with one of his. Shortly afterwards I had two dead squads for a mere Japanese half squad in return. My right hand position was now shattered and was reduced to making scary noises while praying desperately for reinforcements.

My carrier trundled on and dropped off an officer who started fiddling with the knobs on his radio. He eventually got the artillery into action but the only result for the entire game was to wound the 37mm gun crew. Another squad discovered the 120mm gun set up to cover the victory hex in a very painful way. Where the hell are my reinforcements? Actually I had forgotten them. Halfway through the Japanese turn 3 I realised I should have brought my armour support on in my previous turn. Cameron was very kind and allowed me to bring it on on turn 4 by which time I had to send them to shore up my disintegrating right flank. Cameron's reinforcements were flowing on filling the small holes I had made in his position and things went from looking bad to looking hopeless. When my infantry reinforcements came on I decided to take desperate measures. Sending the newly arrived troops to cover the right flank I crashed the matildas across the stream and charged for the ford while what was left of my starting OB challenged Cameron's position in the jungle.

In an interesting demonstration of how things can be different "on the other side of the hill" Cameron felt sufficiently threatened by this attack to take a desperate risk of his own. Gathering three squads of reinforcements he stacked them with an officer and charged them straight into the stream. They laughed off my defensive fire, broke a squad in advancing fire and then advanced into the jungle. My infantry attack, such as it was, was over.

Slow but unstoppable my matildas lumbered forward shrugging off 37mm hits (the 120 lost AP on its first attempt). Eventually I had three tanks around the victory location with one turn to go. I allowed myself a faint glimmer of hope. Then it all went to hell. Swarms of tank hunter heroes charged in from all directions and I had no infantry left to stop them. All three tanks went down under a sea of Japanese bodies. Two games, two losses and Saturday was over.

Race for Freedom

Sunday came and with it an opportunity to shoot horses. I was playing Neil Andrews (henceforth to be known as the bad Neil). I had defended once and attacked once on Saturday so I decided it was time to defend again. I took the Germans and started setting up my scanty forces. A quick glance at the board convinced me that bad Neil would make his attempt at either the left or right edge of the board rather than struggle through the forest in the middle. I therefore divided my forces.

To the left went the 8-0 leader with a squad and lmg in DD4, a half squad and mortar in EE7 and another squad just for laughs in DD6. Over on the right where I expected the main attack to come I placed the 9-2 a half squad and the MMG in J5 with squads in H5, F3 and B6. The three armoured cars I placed on the road in the middle of the board to step in wherever needed. At first things seemed to go well. Bad Neil did indeed focus his attack on the right side of the board but unfortunately stopped, dismounted and unloaded his gun one hex short of the one I had bore sighted. He eased a force forward on the left as well to keep me honest and tried to sneak a squad or two down the extreme right board edge. I moved two of the armoured cars over to back up my defence and bad Neil's cursing as his atrs hit but failed to penetrate their armour was music to my ears.

Sadly in the only effective sniper attack of the game he recalled the other armoured car which left my defence on the left skimpy. I really needed to bring some troops over to the main attack but didn't feel I could while he still had some forces on the left pinning them down. By the time I had bitten the bullet it was too late. Despite the failure of his atrs bad Neil ground me down with firepower and eventually took out an armoured car in close combat. With my defence in shreds he easily slid past the required exit VPs now reduced by a mangled armoured car. Sigh! More defeat but at least someone named Neil won.

Loonies and Leicesters

This was my favourite scenario and not just because I actually won this one. As readers of the above might guess I achieved that happy result more by good luck than good judgement. No it was the lunatics wandering around that gave this a little spice. The scene; a mixed batch of Germans defending a collection of buildings with the assistance of a StuH 42 SP gun. One of the buildings was a lunatic asylum and the battle was made more awkward by the inmates wandering around the battlefield. Points would be deducted for loonies killed. Owen took the defending Germans and I was happy to be the attacking British.

Owen set up with most of his force in building E8 with a 447 in K9 as a tripwire. He had the 9-1, squad and mmg in H7 and another squad in D5. The StuH 42 lurked modestly behind E8. I decided to charge most of my force along the southern board edge hoping to brush aside the lone 447 in K9 and set myself up for an assault on the main building with plenty of time to spare. To keep him honest I sent a small force (including my PIAT toting hero) backed by a sherman to enter on B0. This diversionary force struck its first problem when it turned out that the German squad in D5 had the panzerschreck. Cheerfully eating the backblast (as I would have done myself) Owen fired once and half my tank strength was a greasy pyre of smoke. The supporting infantry survived by moving very slowly and cautiously (sherman driver take note). The other tank trundled down the road in support of my main attack and dumped smoke into G8. While a squad and lmg infiltrated through the timberyard and hopped into the gully.

Unfortunately for my big attack the lone 447 proved to have delusions of heroism. Sternly taking 20FP attacks without blinking it held me up for an entire turn and when I eased a squad past it I didn't check LOS efficiently enough and that squad (plus the 8-1 and and lmg) were wiped from existence by his mmg stack. I was advancing along the gully and inching ever closer to the StuH but my main attack was stalled and at that point my remaining sherman ran out of smoke. In desperation I charged it forwards freezing the mmg stack in VBM thus allowing my other units to move. This was the beginning of the end as my main force swept forward and my gully squad hopped out and started mangling the mmg stack. Once it was down the tank lurched forward and did the same thing to a squad in the main building allowing my troops to fight their way in. Victory for Neil and I only killed a squad of loonies in doing it. In parentheses it should be noted that while Owen's dice were fine for most of the game they let him down badly in one respect. Four times he rolled for panzerfausts while I was doing my idiotic VBM manoeuvres and four times he was denied. My tank antics were an act of desperation and I fully expected to be crushed. However fortune favours the loony (except the ones I killed of course).

So there we are; four scenarios and two days of great fun. Much thanks to Joe for organising it and all the guys at AGS for the usual great welcome.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Scary Mechanical Noises

There are certain times one doesn't want to hear scary mechanical noises. For example when a supervillain has you strapped to some fiendish death machine. Of course that's only happened to me once, but the story of my time in the Slovenian Secret Service and my encounter with the diabolical Professor Karlyle van Overpass must wait for another time. Suffice it to say that the world was saved although by a more narrow margin than most realise.

Another time you don't want to hear scary mechanical noises is when you're sitting in an aeroplane owned by a company you chose solely on the grounds of cheapness. Suddenly the mutated killer stick insects of Professor van Overpass didn't look quite so fearsome. For reasons best known to the shadowy puppet masters who broadcast instructions into my head I had decided to fly Tiger Airways to Melbourne. Of course I would have preferred to fly Qantas (and how rare that statement is becoming) but they have banned me since the day I (and my loyal Slovenian sidekick Svej) were forced, in the name of simple humanity, to shoot down a fully loaded Qantas 747 over the Pacific. Apparently the fact that the passengers on board were no longer entirely human cut no ice with Qantas management and I have been banned ever since.

Tiger Airways is essentially where aircraft from Singapore Airlines crawl away to die. They are one of a number of low cost airlines trundling back and forth between Australia's major population centres (both of them). In the interest of fairness I should say the plane did eventually stagger into the air and got me to Melbourne safely. They didn't even lose my luggage.

One of the major issues with air travel, in my opinion, is that it requires you to go to an airport. At least for the takeoff. When you're as experienced in HALO jumping as I am landing is purely optional. Airports must be one of the most wretched pieces of the urban landscape imaginable. This is why it is a good idea to have them out in the country where wretched pieces of landscape are more likely to go unnoticed. For me the airport experience is made worse by familiarity with what goes on behind the scenes. I look around and see a sordid collection of secret policemen, drug smugglers, depraved hookers, diabolical cultists, secret cabals aiming at world domination and aliens from other planets slumming. And that's just the security staff. The passengers are something else again. In certain venues it is expected that people will make an effort to dress up, airports are the diametric opposite of these. People drag out the crappiest most wretched clothes they possess and rather than throw them away put them aside in case they need to go to the airport.

I arrived safely in Melbourne slightly to my surprise and after a three hour taxi ride (I made the driver take a roundabout route in case I was followed) I arrived at my hotel. The Intercontinental in Melbourne has doors that open outwards as you approach which made me feel like I was in an episode of Get Smart. I hummed the theme tune all the way to the lift. Later that night while eating my chargrilled kangaroo I hummed the theme tune from Skippy (true).

I got a fright in the lobby however; there were two women in air stewardess uniforms. Had they followed me from the airport? Was my cover blown? I couldn't be sure so I imitated a pot plant for half an hour until the coast was clear. Fortunately my time with the Iracibili tribe on the Orinoco delta has taught me to flawlessly imitate plant material. Finally though I got to my room, crawled under the bed and settled down for the night.

PS. For those interested I hear my old mate Svej has produced a fifteen part documentary of our time together. It will be screening on Slovenian television beginning in late July. For security reasons it will be titled Diary of a Psychiatric Nurse. Should be good.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Domestic Tip #48

When watching tv do not reach behind you for a hot iron.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A First Class Ticket to Iceland for Mr Branson Please

Well my flippant comments about Iceland's volcano seem a little out of place now that most of Europe is cowering under a blanket of ash. Airports all over the continent have been shut down and passenger planes lurk nervously in their hangars afraid of getting glass in their gears or something.

Trains, ferries and second hand pogo sticks are in high demand as the ever resourceful Europeans find creative ways of getting back to their local welfare offices. We appear to be one kraken attack away from a complete transportation breakdown. Poland in particular must think air travel is cursed. Having lost half their government in a plane crash the shut down of airports meant that a good number of the guests couldn't make it to the funeral. Australia's own Governor General was stuck in Bahrain, long may she remain so. The Poles must be wishing the volcano had erupted a couple of weeks earlier.

Various commentators have been grimly prophesying the financial collapse of the airline industry and the concomitant devastation of the crappy novel and airport hotel hooker industries. Other commentators have been no less grimly (but probably more accurately) predicting that there will be massive government bailouts to avoid the above. Another likely casualty is cheap airfares to Europe. Prices go up when a commodity is scare and at the moment air travel to Europe is non existent. This will lead to the amusing situation where the same industries howling for financial support will be charging like maniacs when flights resume. "Financial Support" in this case is a euphemism for dumping a swimming pool full of taxpayers money onto an industry that apparently doesn't take changes to the atmosphere into account despite the fact that they fly through it every day.

To be fair to the airline industry they have been pestering the authorities to let them fly and to hell with the ash or glass or whatever it is. They claim the threat is nowhere near as great as has been reported. I have some sympathy with this view when you consider that the airports of Europe were shut down on the basis of computer modelling conducted by an organisation that can't accurately predict the weather two days running even when there isn't a volcanic eruption.

There has been one other kind of commentator out there as well; the environmental commentator. It's been an interesting week for global warming proponents. On the one hand the volcano has just dumped more carbon and other nasties into the atmosphere than an average sized country. On the other hand grounding all air traffic into Europe has lead to a remarkable reduction in emissions. On the third hand the increased use of cars, trucks, boats and trains in compensation has led to a serious increase in emissions. Thus we can see that the environmental impact of the volcano was either terrible, fantastic or business as usual. A slight diversion from the standard environmental theme came from George Monbiot (who else) who pointed out the dangers of relying so utterly on a system that can fail so easily. George says that our reliance on air travel means that a sudden prolonged loss of it would lead to deprivation and misery. Warming to his theme he highlighted that a single major solar storm would fry every electrical connection on the planet leading to even more deprivation and misery. As is normal with George he invalidates a perfectly good point by suggesting something incredibly stupid. His idea is that we should do without these things. That is we should insure ourselves against possible future deprivation and misery by ushering in certain deprivation and misery right now.

Still we should try and do something. If modern techniques fail us we should look to the past. Perhaps more traditional methods of weather forecasting should be implemented. We could drag the planes out of the hangar and as long as all the moss on the fuselage is on the north side they're good to go. Reaching even further back maybe we should try and propitiate the volcano. Traditionally volcanoes are appeased by tossing them a virgin but in today's inflationary society allow me to be the first to suggest we up the ante by tossing the volcano Richard Branson. To be fair I bet I'm not the first person to suggest throwing Branson into a volcano (to be very fair I'm probably not even the first person this week) but if the volcano gods are pleased with our sacrifice perhaps we can get flying again. There is some circumstantial evidence in favour of this idea. About the only airport still functioning in northern Europe is Keflavik in Iceland. I think the volcano gods are trying to make it easy on us. If not it might be time for all of us to take up fishing for cod.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Must See TV

Two topics normally dominate discussion at work; reality tv shows and fantasy football. Masterchef, Australia's Got Talent and of course the ubiquitous Idol share space with the imaginary triumphs of non existent football teams with much gloating and groaning as results are compared. Today a new topic of conversation was added; Carl Williams was beaten to death in gaol.

For those of you fortunate enough not to know Carl Williams ran a major drug network in Melbourne and through a series of brutal murders managed to do more than the police ever have to reduce the number of violent criminals in that city. Furthermore he managed to do this while maintaining a seamless facade as a bloated half wit. Eventually the police caught him at least partly because he had murdered most of the other likely suspects. He was given thirty three years in gaol which seemed to surprise him and in a piece of brutal irony was bludgeoned to death with a part from an exercise bike which probably surprised nobody.

Today the talk was all things Carl and whether or not yet another "underworld war" would break out. The television networks are terribly excited at this prospect providing, as it does, gainful employment for their news and current affairs teams and holding out the promise of a fourth season of Underbelly. For the moment reality tv has faded into the background as reality, or some facsimile of it, takes its place.

Reality tv will be back though. There just seems to be no end of shows that I am never going to watch. The latest I have heard is that someone is trying to put together a reality tv show based around one of Tiger Woods' mistresses and one of Jesse James. They plan to call it...oh who cares what its called as long as there's an adults only version. My suggested titles are Worst Celebrity Screw Ups or possibly Don't Blame Us We Just Had Sex With the Guy. I don't know what the two "stars" will bring to the programme as I suspect we already know pretty much everything they're good at.

When one sees something like reality tv there are only two options. One can either hide or take up arms against it. No wait, there's a third option. So here is my idea for a reality tv programme. We grab some of Tiger's and Jesse's left over mistresses (or wait six months and grab their wives) give them various pieces of exercise equipment and televise them bludgeoning violent criminals to death. At the end of each program a viewer poll will be taken to see which mistress the audience wants to leave (or in the case of male viewers, sleep with them). We can do betting and create league tables and run a fantasy sports game on the results. If you know anyone in television (or with a video camera) please pass this along. I plan to call it Pseudo Celebrity Fantasy Beatdown Deathmatch Idol. Catchy, no?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Birthday Greetings #4

Happy birthday to Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria. He was born in 1793 and died eighty two years later thus proving that whatever else it may do inbreeding does not hamper longevity. The son of the deeply uninspiring Franz I, whose main claim to fame is being kicked over half of Europe by Napoleon, Ferdinand had only four great grandparents instead of the usual eight. The Habsburg penchant for marrying their cousins came to a head with Ferdinand who was widely regarded as being feeble minded. There is some doubt as to this diagnosis now, Ferdinand although very stupid nevertheless showed some indication that he at least knew what day it was. He kept a coherent diary and even showed the occasional flash of wit. Nevertheless a speech impediment, abnormally large head and severe epileptic seizures all combined with a natural slowness to make him unfit to rule. It was his misfortune that his barely more qualified (although somewhat healthier) father didn't make any sensible arrangements for the succession. It would have been wiser to pass over Ferdinand and select a less visibly decayed member of the Habsburg family to take the throne. Instead Franz picked the least able subordinates he could get his hands on to act as a regency council and enjoined Ferdinand to take their advice in all things. Ferdinand, dutiful if nothing else, obeyed and everything went to hell. To be fair Metternich probably seemed like a good choice as foreign minister, he had been doing the job for years but by the time Ferdinand ascended to the throne he was in decline. The other advisers had even less to recommend them.

Ferdinand stumbled along for about thirteen years or so but in 1848 revolution swept Europe and came within an ace of knocking him off his throne. On being told that the Viennese were revolting he is supposed to have said "Are they allowed to do that?" With the empire disintegrating around him he was persuaded by other members of the dynasty to abdicate in favour of his nephew Franz Josef and he went into retirement in Prague. He and his wife (apparently they were devoted to each other) lived there for the rest of their lives and Ferdinand was extremely popular in the Czech capital where the people looked on him as "their" emperor.

To be fair most of the revolutionaries didn't have anything against Ferdinand himself but everybody was agreed that a sharper set of wits was needed on the throne. The Habsburg family has always had an ambivalent attitude towards talent. They seem to have had a genius for excluding able members of the family from the throne and promoting mediocrities to the highest position. It might be worth noting however that Franz Josef's brother Maximilian, easily the smartest Habsburg of his generation, was suckered by Napoleon III into becoming Emperor of Mexico and finished his days facing a Mexican firing squad. Simple old Ferdinand on the other hand had written him a letter urging him not to take the title as it was the stupidest idea he had ever heard.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Slutty Tuna Flakes

It being payday I have just bought classy catfood again. One of the tins claims to contain "virgin tuna flakes". I am now racked with guilt. All this time I have been feeding Muffy slutty tuna flakes. Apparently the tins of tuna I have bought up until now have been stocked with fish that have been banging all over the Pacific. What on earth are virgin tuna flakes and can a cat really tell the difference? Does Muffy sample her tuna flakes and think "hmm, this tuna has been round the block a few times"? Why is virgin tuna a selling point anyway? I would have thought vigorous activity might produce a leaner, healthier tuna. I'm assuming fish sex is vigorous, they'd have to do something to stop drifting away. One can imagine the embarrassment if one tuna is just about ready to mate and turns around to see his companion floating off on the gulfstream. I don't even want to know how the catfood company checks to confirm the virgin status of the tuna.

Another tin contains tuna, kelp and seafood strips. This is disturbing for a couple of reasons. For starters kelp is seaweed. I'm pretty sure it isn't part of a normal cats diet. Secondly what are seafood strips? Tuna and (somewhat more problematically) kelp are seafood. Why does the tin find it necessary to mention seafood as well? Pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean and can fit down your throat can be defined as seafood; sponges, jellyfish, small pebbles. Here am I buying (moderately) expensive catfood and Muffy is getting a diet of jellyfish and pebbles.

I don't know why I bother as Muffy's favourite food is whatever I happen to be eating. Toast and vegemite? She goes nuts for it. Muffins with honey? yes please, and god help me if I happen to be cooking meat. I have learnt to cut bits off it and put it in her food bowl before sitting down myself to avoid being beaten up by my own cat. Nevertheless I persist in buying catfood with pretentious sounding labels.

It is probably an indictment of my cooking but a lot of what I put into Muffy's bowl looks a fair bit more appetising that what I'm eating myself. Which is unfair as I put at least five minutes more preparation time into my food than I do into hers. I have even been know to arrange the food on the plate so that the burnt bits are less visible. Exactly who am I trying to impress? Muffy will eat it anyway and so will I. I think the labels on catfood tins are making me feel inferior. Tuna chunks in a light glaze with whole baby whitebait sounds so much better than anything I make myself.

Well no more! The next time I have visitors over (I'm planning a little soiree around about the turn of the century) I will buy some tuna, slice it thinly and proudly tell my guests they are eating slutty tuna flakes. Should be a good evening, I might even provide some kelp.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Volcano Led Economic Recovery

Two people who were on their way to see an erupting volcano have frozen to death. In the coroners report the cause of death was listed as "irony". In similar news another volcano crazed sightseer had a narrow escape when his snowmobile caught fire after being hit with lava. Amusing fatalities notwithstanding the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland has been a godsend for that nations tourist industry. A brand new volcano is rearing its head above the snow and is proving fascinating for a certain kind of tourist. As a result the Icelandic economy is receiving a welcome influx of cash.

For those of you who were laughing too hard to notice the Global Financial Crisis hit Iceland rather badly. In recent times Iceland's economy has been pretty much reduced to raiding vending machines looking for spare change. Once upon a time Iceland's economy relied on cod. It was right there on their currency "In Cod We Trust" (sorry). People caught cod, smoked cod, built boats to help others catch cod, there were even unsubstantiated rumours that some of them were eating cod. Then in about 2003 someone (who must have been smoking cod) decided that it would be a great idea for Iceland to become an offshore financial centre. They had the principal requirement, they were offshore. Unfortunately the Icelanders proved no better at managing sophisticated financial instruments than the clowns at Citi and AIG and the country's economy sank so deep it was looking up at the cod. The Icelandic Finance Ministry now attempts to raise money by sitting outside office buildings holding a sign written on cardboard.

Iceland was colonised in approximately the ninth century AD by immigrants who had decided that the northern coast of Norway just wasn't cold, bleak and remote enough for them. They turned up over a period of thirty or forty years bringing their Celtic slaves with them which seems a bit harsh. A few centuries later incessant feuding and warfare between the settlers (for god's sake guys its just Iceland) led them to the rather clever idea of making running the place someone elses problem and they subordinated themselves to the Norwegian crown. A century or so later they wound up being run by Denmark. What with the Faeroes, Greenland and Iceland Denmark seemed to make a habit of collecting largely worthless colonies. History ended in Iceland for a while and woke up again in 1814 to notice Napoleonic Europe and jump (a little late) onto the independence bandwagon. The Danes gave them self government or something close to it and Iceland closed again until the Second World War. The Danes proclaimed themselves neutral in this war and the Icelanders followed suit. Germany then took over Denmark and Iceland responded by proclaiming themselves even more neutral. Then the British invaded them (Iceland which had never been convenient for anything was now a handy staging post for convoys heading to the USSR). The Americans took over from the British in 1941 and left in 2006. Iceland joined NATO, fished for cod and paid little attention to the world until it got into a minor bingle with Britain in the 1970s over cod fishing. This brings us up to very nearly the present day.

The present day consists of economic gloom. However it would appear that geological instability is coming to Iceland's rescue. There used to be a time when the appearance of an erupting volcano in ones backyard would force the inhabitants to leave. Now they just clean up the house and let out the spare room. It would appear that there are no end of people who will travel a long way and risk freezing or burning in order to see a natural disaster unfold before them. There are however some grim warnings. Right next to the new volcano is a rather large old volcano and some are worried that the current instability might spread. I didn't know vulcanism was contagious but there you go. If this happens then the result could apparently be an eruption on the scale of Krakatoa. The bad news is tickets have been sold out for months.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I Bet This Doesn't Work Either

To arms Thumper! Flopsy and Cottontail break out the ninja gear. Bunnies are under attack. The authorities in Sydney have declared war. Actually Australia has been in a state of low grade war with rabbits since the damn animals were introduced back in 1859. Some idiot grew nostalgic for rabbit hunting back in the old country and got a relative to send him a bunch which he then released into the wild. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Pretty soon their were more rabbits than farmers had bullets for their guns.

Shamefully Australia resorted to biological warfare releasing first myxamatosis and later the more modern calicivirus but although the rabbit population has taken some severe knocks they don't look like becoming extinct any time soon. When you look at all the animals the human race has made extinct and then look at the profusion of rabbits, possibly the most gormlessly cute animal on earth, it makes you realise that the other animals just weren't really trying. If an animal the size and texture of a novelty slipper can survive everything that human ingenuity can throw at it I think there should be some embarrassed looks in the extinct species club.

But back to the current intifada being waged by the City of Sydney. Sydney has a "wild" rabbit population. The inverted commas are used because I find it difficult to describe cute little bunny rabbits as wild. Rabbits look as though they evolved specifically to be pets for the soppier sort of human and it probably surprises them greatly when certain humans do the biological equivalent of pouring acid into their lungs. Nevertheless wild these rabbits are, they hang around under the southern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge where there are a couple of modest parks for them to frolic in. I know, I've seen them. At first I thought some kid had lost a pet but then I saw another and another.

Now it seems their welcome is up. Apparently in the rather conducive climate of Sydney the rabbits have been breeding like... what's the word I'm looking for here? The end result is apparently an overpopulation of rabbits. Fortunately for the locals (some of whom have been sneaking out and feeding the fast breeding little beggars) the local council doesn't actually plan to kill them. Well not all of them, apparently it plans to trap them, euthanise those that are diseased and distribute the others to citizens who have always wanted a rabbit for a pet. A perfectly humane solution which I am sure will be a hundred percent unsuccessful. The reason why we have a wild rabbit colony in Sydney in the first place is because of escapes from the homes of careless pet owners. I give it a year before the bunnies are back on their old stamping ground and more power to them.

I am well aware (because I just read the newspaper article) that rabbits cause lots of damage to various structures. Apparently they undermine foundations but frankly unless the bridge itself is about to collapse into the harbour under relentless bunny assault I'm sure we can deal with the problems. Animals frolicing in the city make people happy. Well some animals frolicing in the city make people happy. I doubt if much fuss would be raised if the council decided to wipe out Sydney's rat or pigeon population but some animals make us feel a little better about living in the city. I think their presence reassures us that animals can survive our presence after all and we needn't feel so bad about bulldozing that wetland to make way for a nuclear waste dump. A former girlfriend of mine and I spent an entire Sunday afternoon dashing from one vet to another in a desperate attempt to find one that was open and could save the life of the baby possum we found underneath our clothesline. Neither of us is what you might call environmentally active.

Still the bunnies have survived guns, traps, foxes (introduced by some other idiot who wanted something hunt. What the hell was wrong with kangaroos?) and specially engineered diseases. Somehow I don't think a council eviction order is going to have them quaking in their fur.

At some point we probably are going to have to wipe out all the bunnies on earth. It's just getting too embarrassing. We are the species that bestrides this earth like a colossus. Species without number have fallen before our withering gaze. Proud carnivores, stately trees, idiotic looking birds all have been crushed by our bloody hand and yet what is this frolicing about our legs as we wallow in the gore of our fellow beings? Yes, it is the humble rabbit scurrying this way and that while all other life quails at our tread. If we don't do something soon other species will start to think we aren't serious, and then they'll get all cocky. Today its rabbits but tomorrow it might be bears. Think about it. Frankly I'm surprised nobody introduced them into Australia for the hunting.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Glebe Markets

I wander down to Glebe Markets most Saturdays. There is the usual collection of stalls selling handicrafts, the sort of clothes you could only wear on a trip to Glebe Markets, scented candles and jewellery and whatnots that were apparently made in poor countries under non exploitative conditions. There is also a coffee stand which sells non colonial coffee from Guatemala. This is where I hang out less because I particularly care about helping impoverished Guatemalans towards a better life and more because it is the only coffee stall at the markets. They have benches where I can sip excellent coffee grown by the only poverty stricken Central Americans not currently engaged in swimming the Rio Grande. The delightful young lady who makes the coffee (confusingly she is from Colombia) provides friendly service, particularly to regulars.

I sit there with a friend, under the shade of a large tree and we talk long and knowledgeably about things we know nothing about. I might be being unfair to him, its entirely possible he knows a great deal about physics, philosophy and psychology but since I know nothing about any of these things its difficult to tell. We also talk about politics which is easier since ignorance is no barrier. In fact it is a positive advantage. I gently point out that he's a communist and he politely enquires where I left my brown shirt and jackboots. Which is a vile slander as I have never worn a brown shirt in my life.

Meanwhile, all around us are people who obviously bought their clothes from Glebe Markets shopping for more clothes. There are also a couple of second hand bookstalls where you can pick up the occasional gem as well as about a million copies of the Celestine Prophesies. People wander around selling copies of a newspaper called The Green Left. I read it once and I think they could lose half the words from their title without having to change the contents much. Sometimes we get live performances by politically acceptable entertainers which I don't watch because they're at the other end of the market from the coffee stall. A few weeks ago we met a woman whose husband taught something called "peace studies" and had brought a group of Sri Lankan peace dancers out to perform. I could have pointed out that war studies are more fun and that the Sri Lankan army had recently brought "peace" to that nation by bloodily crushing the Tamil insurrection but I didn't in deference to the fact that his wife was hot.

Across the road from the markets are a series of bookshops and cafés which provide shelter should it rain. There are probably other shops there as well but I haven't noticed. One of the cafés is The Fair Trade Café which, like my little stall in the market, claims to emancipate the miserable workers of the third world by selling their product. Sadly they conform to every stereotype of a business that was set up to make a difference rather than a profit. The food is bad, the coffee worse, the prices are high and the service sucks. They do, however, have comfy armchairs.

Sappho Books just up the road has acquired a food and liquor licence and now does coffee, tapas and wine as well as second hand books. When they start providing beds I'll never have to leave. Their coffee is good but really the appeal is the whole package. For the strange and perverted who prefer a vegetarian option there is Badde Manors Café. I have no idea what its like because it is vegetarian. Since the only thing I normally buy at cafés is coffee and a muffin you might not think that's a problem but its the principle of the thing. I don't trust a food establishment that doesn't serve meat.

After a morning of talking and drinking coffee I wander off home feeling nicely jittery where I sit in my armchair and contemplate how pleasant it would be to take a nap if it wasn't for the fact that my eyes appear to be nailed open. Got to love that Guatemalan coffee.