Monday, May 31, 2010

50 Blog Entries: A Pitstop on the Slide Towards Senility

This is my fiftieth blog entry which gives me an undeserved feeling of achievement. Sometimes it is good to be so easy to amuse. I have been doing this blog since January which means I have averaged ten entries a month which doesn't seem so impressive when I think about it. Those who know me will probably wonder how I managed to shut up for so long. I'm having immense amounts of fun writing meaningless dribble and occasional birthday shout outs to people who have been dead for centuries.

Some people use their blogs to advance their political views or to keep their internet readership (who are undoubtedly waiting in breathless anticipation) abreast of the latest details of their hernia operation or the turmoil of their lives. You have to wonder what these people did before blogging. Personally I find it difficult to muster up much interest in my life and the thought of boring the entire internet with it smacks of narcissism in the extreme. Of course by deliberately eschewing such topics I am indulging in a form of reverse narcissism which is even more monstrous but I feel relaxed and comfortable with my hypocrisy.

My specious attempts at nonchalance regarding my blog are swept away by the pathetic eagerness with which I receive every indication that somebody might actually read it. To those who do read it, I thank you both. There are many topics on which I have an opinion and a few on which I have an informed opinion. There may even be one on which I have an accurate opinion. I will do my best to ensure that nobody manages to work out which from reading my blog. Writing is much more fun when released from the obligation to be accurate or even fair. I take comfort from the fact that anybody who uses my blog as an information source is so far down the road to dementia that even rigorous accuracy on my part would be of no use to them.

I'm really not comfortable with technology, even the modest amount that goes into producing a blog. It is an indication of how far behind the times I am that I thought that learning to touch type would be a good idea. The time will come soon when even keyboards will be things on a level with the dinosaurs.

I suppose books will go next. That will make me sad because I love books and yet I can look clear eyed at things like kindle (is it really a coincidence that a book replacement brings to mind burning?) and realise that literacy is moving on. On every level except the sentimental I applaud this. For those who recoil back in horror it is as well to learn that there is nothing sacred about printing or even literacy. It was simply the best method of storing thoughts that we have created up until now. Few people can write cuneiform script or paint buffaloes on cave walls to tell a story anymore but civilisation hasn't collapsed, indeed it has managed to modestly thrive.

So it is with books, in a generation from now I will be the crazy old man with all the dead trees in his house. I will hobble from behind one of the stacks when the Salvation Army comes calling and scare the youthful collectors by telling them that bibles were once written on paper. They will refuse to take the donation from this pathetic, wild eyed figure and will hurry down the steps again using whatever has replaced text messaging to assure each other that they're not really scared but that old man was so strange.

I will have stopped writing my blog by then of course. I can barely operate my computer now, by the time I enter my dotage I will be completely incapable of persuading the computer to turn itself on. I will beg and weep before the five millimetre sliver of technology promising many sacrifices if it will let me hear my voicemail but it will deem me unworthy and sever my line of credit. Eventually I will be reduced to using a burnt stick to carve pictures on the walls of my flat. That is if I can remember how to access the iBuffalo application on my toilet. And if I can find a burnt stick.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nine Out of Ten Tigers Agree; More Civil Wars, Fewer Tsunamis

There's a guy in Aceh who claims he can speak to tigers. He is actually on the payroll of Aceh's Natural Resources Conservation Agency and his job is to go to areas that have had tiger incursions and persuade them to return to the forest. Apparently he has quite a success rate. Despite the desperate rarity of the Sumatran tiger contacts between them and humans have been growing, largely because the forests they live in are getting rarer even faster than the tigers. Tigers have been prowling through villages causing angst to the locals and the locals have responded by calling in this guy. Oh, and poaching.

Wouldn't it be cool to have something like "Tiger Liaison Officer" on your resume? "Oh yes," you could say at dinner parties, "I was based in Aceh for a few years but then head office called me and asked me to take over the Rajastan bureau but the schools there weren't great so I quit." Apparently things have been made worse in Aceh tigerwise by the unexpected outbreak of peace. There has been a civil war going there for ages and as usual people had fled outlying farms and villages for the more communal dangers of the city. However the war ended a few years ago and people are moving back to the countryside. Unfortunately so are the tigers.

Sadly the tigers are just one more victim of the massive tsunami which swept largely poor regions with lots of coastline back in 2004. The Indonesian army and the Acehnese guerrillas looked at the devastation and realised that what they had been doing was simply mickey mouse by comparison. The army moved out, the guerrillas disbanded, elections were held, guerrilla supported parties won but affirmed loyalty to Jakarta. A happy ending for everyone except the long suffering Sumatran tiger who must have been hoping the war would go on forever. It just goes to show that there is a loser at every peace conference. Rumours that hot heads demanding continued fighting were tigers in disguise have so far not been proved.

The more I look at the world the more I realise that the cause of most of what happens can be put down to irony. The tigers benefited from a man made disaster and their existence is now threatened due to a natural one. Tell that to the next environmentalist who demands that military budgets be cut back in order to fund saving the planet.

Time to Examine Mining Opportunities in Zimbabwe

Dear God, its an emergency. Its all hands on deck, every man to the barricades, all hands to the pumps and every finger in a dyke. Australia faces a disaster the likes of which it has never before seen. I'm doing my part, I'm pumping barricades like crazy which isn't easy with both my hands on the deck and as for the dyke, lets just say I'm lucky the police weren't called. Fortunately our federal government is on the case. They have leapt into action and launched an advertising campaign. The emergency I refer to is the insistence of the mining companies in saying bad things about the governments proposed new tax. To ward off the collapse of civilisation as we know it the government has used emergency powers to permit them to use government (ie, our) money to fund an advertising, sorry "public awareness", campaign to point out what should be the self evident benefits of the new tax.

Since the new tax will fall on the mining industry they have, unsurprisingly, been a little miffed and have alerted the public to this state of miffedness through statements by various CEOs and an advertising campaign of their own. Responding with a level of hysteria that seems a little over the top the government has accused them of lying through their teeth, of paying a criminally low amount of tax and demanded 38 million advertising dollars to set the record straight.

So where does the truth lie? Where do the lies lie? What the hell is going on? The answer is simple; the tax is another quite clever idea which the government has attempted to implement with its characteristic clumsiness and incompetence. I find it difficult to remember a government with so many good ideas that it has managed to bugger up so badly. Of course the mining companies don't like it, do you like paying tax? However they would probably have been prepared to accept it if the bloody stupid bits had been removed. Having cocked up or backpedalled on pretty much every idea they've had so far the government has dug in its heels over this one and has effectively declared war on the most productive part of our economy.

Speaking from a position of pure ignorance the situation seems to be as follows; the new tax is touted as being a tax on super profits. That is, its an extra tax on those profits over and above what the government considers to be a reasonable profit for an industry to earn. So far so good, there's a mining boom going on and minerals companies are raking it in. The problems appear in the details, firstly the government seems to consider about 5.9% to be a reasonable profit. This is based on the return on government bonds which, at least in this country, are some of the safest investments in the world. The mining companies, understandably, have pointed out that if they wanted that sort of return they wouldn't spend billions looking for minerals, they would simply buy government bonds. Mining demands a vast capital investment with no guaranteed return and when a return comes the investors want the profits to reflect their risk. Secondly, apparently the tax is to be levied on existing operations rather than just on new ventures meaning that a lot of the figures the companies relied on when working out the profits from what they're doing right now are meaningless.

Of course the mining companies haven't helped their position by claiming that if the tax is imposed then everyone in Australia will die in poverty tomorrow. The CEO of Rio Tinto claimed that this tax has raised the sovereign risk of investing in Australia's mining industry to the highest in the world. This is patent rubbish although since the guy who made that statement was the one who damn near managed to bankrupt Rio Tinto in the middle of a commodities boom its entirely possible he believes it.

For those who don't know, sovereign risk is basically the finance industries measure of exactly how barking mad the government of any country is. The crazier the government, the more interest they will charge on finance for investments in that country due to the increased risk of the government doing something that will completely screw up the original basis of the investment. Such as introduce a retrospective tax for example.

The mining industry overstated their case but they had genuine concerns which a little consultation would probably have been able to relieve. The government screamed to the heavens and claimed that the minerals industry was paying a ridiculously small amount of tax and backed this up with an academic paper prepared by a couple of guys in North Carolina. Said guys pointed out that their paper was an academic study that didn't include all the data and wasn't meant to be used as an actual guide for tax reform. Oddly the government didn't think about asking the Tax Office how much tax the companies had paid.

My personal opinion, impose the tax on new projects only and have it cut in at about twelve to fifteen percent. Unfortunately the government has already spent the money and if they backflip on one more thing they're going to look like a circus sideshow. So now we have an emergency, I have bought a hard hat and a whistle. When society collapses I will be ready, I'll use the hard hat as a begging bowl and the whistle to attract dogs which I can then kill for food.

In unrelated news Serena Williams has just won her latest round in the French Open despite appearing to be unwell. I don't think I have yet seen a tournament when she was in perfect health.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is Serena Williams Fat, Lazy and Skanky Enough to Win the French Open?

I have a cold at the moment. It's kind of fun, I'm sitting here rocking gently from side to side so that I can hear the fluid in my lungs slosh about. My work colleagues have been overwhelmingly sympathetic with comments like, "Don't breathe on me", "You sound dreadful" and "Why did you come in?" Back at home the cat has been ignoring the hacking, retching and self pitying moans and point blank refuses to bring me hot soup in bed. Honestly I don't know why I keep her around.

Strangely with the exception of the actual symptoms I feel pretty good. I have never felt more alert which is a surprise because I have dozed off three times today already. Fortunately I woke up before the train passed my stop. That probably means I will have difficulty getting to sleep tonight but don't worry, I have a secret weapon. The French Open tennis tournament started this week. I'm not crazy about the French Open but as a cure for insomnia it beats every sleeping pill in the world.

I watched the first set of Serena Williams' match against (insert competitors name here) last night. Actually "watched" is a generous term. I saw the first couple of games and woke up just after Williams had taken the tie breaker. Then I went to bed. The trouble with the French Open is they play it on clay. This means that rather than wait for a commercial break you can actually go to the bathroom after the ball is served and be back in your armchair before its been returned. Lendl and Wilander played a final one year where I managed to read a newspaper while the ball was travelling from one baseline to the other. Watching the French Open is like watching people play tennis knee deep in mud.

I did see enough of the tennis yesterday to hear the commentators providing their usual Williams Sister Commentary. Williams Sister Commentary runs like this; you have to comment on their clothes, their motivation, their injuries and how fat they are. If you're Roger Rasheed you can toss in a couple of comments about their tits and arse as well. You may occasionally touch on the tennis if you need to mention something so vulgar in order to emphasise your point about their clothing, weight, tits etcetera but don't make a habit of it. There is a great deal of opportunity for Williams Sister Commentary because they win so often that you get a lot of chances to say things about them. If you didn't watch any of the matches but simply listened to the commentary you would get the impression that all these titles were being won by fat, lazy, semi crippled tarts with poor taste in clothing. In actual fact only the last of these is true. And now I've ruined the point I was trying to make because I have commented on the Williams sisters clothing.

I like watching the Williams sisters play (either of them). Their combination of power, touch and speed has to be seen to be believed. Even when they lose they never fail to be a commanding presence on any court they walk onto. Tennis needs more people like Venus and Serena Williams and fewer tennis commentators. Even the French Open can't be completely tedious when one of the Williams sisters is struggling through the mud, I mean clay. I also like the fact that the umpire makes the calls in French. It is after all the French Open and a few gestures like that can help the French to pretend their country still has relevance. Its also fun watching the players staring at the scoreboard to help them figure out what the umpire just said.

I know I have disparaged the French Open in the above but put it down to either fever or possibly too much ibuprofen. I actually love the French Open because when I see it telecast it reminds me that Wimbledon is just around the corner.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Everything I Needed to Know I Learnt From Stoutly the Packhorse

The Ballad of the Drover is a poem by Henry Lawson. Lawson was an Australian poet and he was everything a poet should be, that is to say he was an unreliable drunk who died in the gutter. This is absolutely essential if you want to be taken seriously as a poet. Painters are neurotic, chefs are psychotic and poets are unemployable deadbeats. In his most recent volume of memoirs (titled, I think That's Right I'm Still Not Dead) Clive James blames his career in television for the fact he has a hard time being taken seriously as a poet. Not so, Clive James has a hard time being taken seriously as a poet because he hasn't beaten his wife, alienated his daughters and rolled around in the gutter covered in his own vomit.

But I digress, The Ballad of the Drover tells the story of a young (you guessed it) drover who has been away for months herding cattle and is now hurrying home to see his fiancee.

And well his stockhorse bears him,
And light of heart is he,
And stoutly his old packhorse
Is trotting by his knee.

It is an indication of the level of humour in my family that the packhorse was immediately and unanimously christened "Stoutly". Stoutly is rather a favourite of mine for reasons which will soon become clear. The rains have come to the Queensland plains and a river which the drover must cross has changed from a dry gully to a raging torrent but the drover is determined;

We've breasted bigger rivers
When floods were at their height
Nor shall this gutter stop us
From getting home tonight!

But oh, the hubris and alack, the tragedy because;

When flashes next the lightning,
The flood's grey breast is blank,
And a cattle dog and packhorse
Are struggling up the bank.

The dog, of course, does something stupid;

The faithful dog a moment
Sits panting on the bank,
And then swims through the current
To where his master sank.
And round and round in circles
He fights with failing strength,
Till, borne down by the waters,
The old dog sinks at length.

Not surprising Stoutly has other ideas;

Across the flooded lowlands
And slopes of sodden loam
The packhorse struggles onward,
To take dumb tidings home.

From all of which we can determine that Stoutly was the only lifeform in the poem with a grain of commonsense.

I don't think that Stoutly has been given the recognition that he deserves. Day in and day out he goes about his job with dull, uncomprehending application. The others are smarter or more loyal than he. They shine more brightly, gain honour and praise but, like Icarus, they stray to close to the Sun. While the drover and his dog meet a watery death Stoutly takes one look at the unfolding tragedy and goes home. There will be another drover and that drover will need a packhorse.

So to those of you out there like Stoutly, who don't shine but rather struggle through their lives and whose greatest qualification for the job is that they turned up, take heart from Stoutly's tale. Highflyers fall to earth, packhorses rarely do and even if it happens the drop isn't so bad. If the highflyer you're following rides into a raging river, leave the silly bastard there to drown. There will be another along in a minute, and he'll need a packhorse.

PS. For those interested here is a link to the complete poem.

Does Monty Die in Gaol?

I can't open the paper nowadays without reading a column by somebody raving about the cruelty and oppressiveness of our society. How we have pandered to mindless conservatism and the "politics of fear". Apparently modern society is frightened, reactionary, unimaginative and well on the road towards becoming the Fourth Reich. Our culture is crushed beneath the stultifying hand of narrow conservatism and right wing extremism. I have a question for these people, "If our society is so reactionary, extremist and unpleasant why hasn't it taken the necessary steps to make you shut up?" As for the politics of fear jibe, all politics are the politics of fear.

Of course there are problems with this society, people still get raped, robbed, beaten up and ripped off by dubious businessmen. Sadly this is part of the baggage of freedom. My favourite American, PJ O'Rourke, pointed out that freedom means freedom to be a butthead. Freedom means that you are free to be David Irving if you think Jew baiting Nazi revisionism will look good on your CV (and when you think of the kind of people who read David Irving's CV it probably does). Our society hasn't fully or completely successfully integrated its immigrants and various social outcasts but let's get some perspective. At the moment we're wondering whether its safe to let in Muslim immigrants, only a few decades ago we were wondering whether Greeks and Italians could really be defined as white. The major question on homosexuality is whether we allow them to marry, a couple of generations ago it was whether we gaoled them or castrated them.

There seem to be no end of commentators lining up to say how horrible and intolerant our society is blissfully unaware of the fact that our society is the only one that would put up with them for a heartbeat. And this is where it gets really strange. A certain number of them (by no means all) have nothing but praise for societies and civilisations that couldn't approach the levels of tolerance present in our own if they tried for a thousand years.

A number of the more thoughtful have, instead, pointed to the glaring flaws in our society and that's perfectly fine. Despite, and sometimes because of, our best efforts things go horribly wrong. East Timor is a perfect example of that. In 1975 Indonesia invaded the then Portuguese colony of East Timor and brought it under their rule. The Labor government in Canberra was delighted at this example of proactive decolonisation. The East Timorese who had just swapped an indolent and incompetent government several thousand miles away for an aggressive and brutal one right on their doorstep were less impressed.

It is not inconceivable that other cultures and societies have things to teach us but I find it very difficult to believe that any place whose main import is aid and whose main export is refugees has very much to teach us. As for those who feel we should respect cultures different to our own simply because they are cultures I might point out that until recent centuries our own culture included, segregation, slavery, wife beating and witch burning. Should we have "respect" for that as well. I don't see why not, its traditional and what's more they're our traditions. Surely we should have study groups and government grants to ensure these things don't die out in this callous, secular modern age.

In judging society I have a very simple rule of thumb. I call it the Viscount Montgomery rule. Bernard Law Montgomery was, as I might have mentioned before, a deeply disturbed individual. His father was largely absent (due to his job) and he and his siblings were raised by what by all accounts seems to have been a very cruel and tyrannical mother. Certainly she warped Montgomery's entire attitude towards women and his loveless upbringing definitely contributed to some of his more unpleasant personality traits. In today's society Montgomery would probably have been taken into care, shunted around foster homes, become a juvenile delinquent and died in gaol before he was thirty. And Hitler might have won World War 2. So my rule for society is; any society where Montgomery dies in gaol after being fostered out isn't good enough for me.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Does Mrs Montgomery Live or Die?

I can't open the paper nowadays without reading a column by somebody raving about the weakness and decadence of our society. How we have lost our "traditional values" and are spiralling towards societal collapse. Apparently modern society is weak, lazy, decadent and full of a sense of undeserved entitlement. Our culture is too permissive, morally bankrupt, saturated with sex and so on. If our society is saturated with sex is it too much to ask that a little trickle down to me? We have apparently lost the fine virtues of a previous generation who were much more noble, self sacrificing, hard working and blah blah blah. "The fabric of our society is crumbling," they yelp as stories of single mothers, juvenile drug dealers, illegal immigrants, political correctness and racial tension assault the very bastions of decency itself. Well it must be admitted that society has a problem, for starters we can't get these obsessive whingers to shut up.

Certainly there are many problems with our society; people have problems, people make up society, can anybody do the math here? Possibly the only way to have a flawless society is to remove people from it. For those desiring a perfect society permit me to commend them to an anthill. Apparently the way to solve all of our problems is to look back to a more appropriate time. This despite the fact that today's society was created because people realised that yesterdays society wasn't satisfactory. Throughout history people have looked at society and thought "surely we can do better". History has shown that they were right, every time. We could do better and have. No doubt we will do better than our current society in the future, we usually do the occasional backsliding notwithstanding.

Nevertheless the past seems to hold a great deal of attraction for some people and its easy to see why. Society in the past wasn't fairer, or better, or nobler but it was easier. A place for everything and everything in its place. Things were simpler back then; black was black, white was white and as a rule the two didn't intermarry. Any attempt to find this society, however, runs into an unpleasant stumbling block; where the hell is it? How far back do we have to go to find it? Twenty years? Not even I want to relive the eighties. Sixty years? World War 2, that was a lot of fun for all concerned. A hundred years? I quite agree, penicillin and pain free dentistry are vastly overrated. Further still? Might be okay as long as you're white, male, don't have to work for a living and have a relaxed attitude to personal hygiene but at some point a priest is going to come around to ask why you haven't been on crusade recently.

Of course it can be argued that what such people really want is a return to the moral attitudes and outlooks of earlier times when people were polite, respectful, honest, hardworking and patriotic. There certainly was some of this back in the day but at the exact same time as people were displaying those qualities they were also displaying racism, homophobia, hypocrisy and intolerance. In any event the people who had these qualities were not a product of their time they were a product of their upbringing. There are people today who show all the good qualities mentioned above (and not a few who show the bad) what is missing today is the pretence that everybody behaves like that. This is largely because people are more informed today (note I said more not better). Nowadays you have to be living under a rock not to realise that many of the virtues touted by our leaders are conspicuous by their absence in those self same leaders. This was also true in earlier days but fewer people realised it. The true difference between society today and that of say forty years ago is a tearing of the veil. The emperor has no clothes and people are shocked at the display, but the emperor never had any clothes. Attitudes have changed over time naturally and many people who were brought up with the qualities I've mentioned previously nevertheless have managed to adapt them to our new society by keeping true to themselves and improving our overall society by doing so. It's entirely possible that their earlier counterparts would still consider them to be hopelessly depraved and decadent. So be it, I know which era I would prefer to live in and its the one with decent toilet paper.

In judging society I have a very simple rule of thumb. I call it the Mrs Montgomery rule. Elizabeth Montgomery nee Hobart (and Carver) was the wife of the man who would eventually become Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. At the time he was a major in the British army and she was a widow with two young children. Montgomery was a ruthless, rude, arrogant pathological liar and (according to one of his biographers) a closet homosexual and borderline psychopath. Elizabeth was artistically inclined, something of a pacifist (despite the fact that her brother was in the army) and quite a good amateur painter. Despite their personality differences the marriage was a very happy one on both sides until 1937. In that year Elizabeth was stung by an insect while on holiday, contracted blood poisoning and died. She wasn't in any exotic locale, she was bitten by a very ordinary run of the mill British insect but due to a lack of penicillin and antibiotics (which hadn't been discovered yet) she wound up in a box. Montgomery was devastated as he had lost about the only person who could put up with him. So my rule for society is this; any society in which Mrs Montgomery dies rather than being up and about twenty four hours after the insect sting simply isn't good enough for me.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Just Say No To Slugs

Sometimes these blog entries just write themselves. There was a small piece in the paper today about a man who has been hospitalised with rat lungworm disease. As the name implies this is an illness that normally affects rats (or possibly lungworms). Symptoms include swelling of the brain and spinal cord and it is potentially fatal. Our hero contracted this normally rodent centric malady by eating a slug on a dare. It sounds to me like he could benefit from having his brain swollen. For the biologically inclined the slug dimension is as follows; a diseased rat craps, a slug eats the diseased rat crap, a halfwit eats the newly diseased slug and I have a five minute fit of hysterical laughter when I read about it in the paper. How can one successfully argue for the sterilization of the terminally stupid when they provide so much joy.

Still, in the absence of any policies to increase the average depth of the gene pool may I suggest a nationwide advertising campaign to warn people of the dangers of slug abuse. My suggested slogan; "Slugs, just say 'Are you out of your fucking mind? You want me to eat what?'" or possibly "Slugs, even other slugs think they're gross". For those tempted to experiment with a gastropod based diet allow me to offer one little piece of advice. Cook them! There is almost nothing you can't eat if you burn it badly enough first. If you're very lucky you will burn your fingers picking up the hot toasty slug and drop it into the fire. At this point you can use your remaining fingers to do what you should have done in the first place and dial in a pizza.

While we're on the subject of poisonous slugs I see the NSW government is at it again. It used the cover provided by the federal budget release to quietly introduce a new transfer tax on the sale of properties worth more than half a million dollars. Since you can't get a treehouse in Sydney for less than that it should be a good money spinner. They claim the funds raised will be directed towards reducing fraud in the property market. The amount of money this tax will raise in its first year is estimated at ninety million dollars. The amount of money spent on investigation and enforcement in the area of property fraud is currently running at twenty million a year. By my reckoning that leaves seventy million dollars to fund our slug awareness campaign but I doubt if they will spend it on anything so sensible.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

You Can't Vacuum Snow

Today we had a cold snap that reminded us that Winter is just around the corner. I'm rather fond of Winter. All in all I think its my fourth favourite season. Although it's only May the signs of Winter have been gathering over the last few weeks. The days have been getting shorter, various aches and pains have been getting more pronounced and Muffy is shedding her Summer coat. In fact it doesn't seem to matter what season we're heading into, that cat changes its coat more frequently than Imelda Marcos at a garden party. At the moment she's sporting a bulky, fluffy number that makes her look like an overstuffed cushion with eyes.

In deference to the changing season I have slain a doona and laid its hide over my bed. For added insulation I have been stuffing my slippers with surplus to requirements cat fur. It may only be a Summer coat but my feet are toasty warm.

Getting out of bed is always fun as one gets to see which appendages shrivel and drop off on the mad dash to the shower. Also a suit and tie goes from being an intolerable imposition to the bare minimum necessary to ward off frostbite. I've even started cooking, largely so I can spend more time in the kitchen with the stove. Sleeping in, wearing a dressing gown in the middle of the day and designing ways to turn the cat into a fur lined footwarmer are some of the other little delights of Winter. Actually I do all those things in Summer too but they gain a little more credibility in Winter.

There is nothing better than standing outside on a cold Winter's night in the Blue Mountains and staring up at the sky. The stars seem to shine a little brighter and the air is like crystal. At least that's what I was told while I was sitting in the lounge room beside the fire. Winter in Sydney is a bit of a disappointment really. Yes, its cold and yes its dark but its nothing like a northern European Winter when its cold and dark at midday plus you get snow and ice on the ponds. If we had snow storms I would have a legitimate excuse for not going to work. As it is I just have to ring up and say, "I can't make it in, its a little nippy out." As excuses go this doesn't really impress anyone. It must be admitted that CityRail does try, generating rail chaos due to the "cold weather" that would have folk in England reaching for their bikinis.

Having experienced a single Winter in the northern hemisphere I must admit I don't know why they are bent out of shape about global warming. Personally I think the drowning or forced evacuation of two thirds of the worlds population would be a small price to pay for a temperate Christmas. As we flee inland to avoid the encroaching waters we can at least take comfort in the knowledge that the stuff won't be freezing over any time soon.

Still I have a fondness for snow. Admittedly it is a fondness created largely by my lack of experience with it. I can't help thinking how nice it would be to stand in my flat and look out on swirling whiteness as it blankets everything in a picturesque layer. Actually I am standing in my flat looking on to swirling whiteness blanketing everything but my delight is tempered by the fact that I have to vacuum the damn stuff up.

Monday, May 10, 2010

If You Skip to the End You Can Get On With Your Life

I wasn't going to write a blog entry this evening. I didn't really have anything to talk about but on reviewing the contents of this blog I notice that this hasn't stopped me in the past. Still I'm scraping for a topic, if I write any more about my cat or television people are going to suspect that there is nothing else in my life. Besides there's nothing good on television and the cat has just been sick on the carpet. Of course I could look at world events. There have been some of those. In Britain a recent election has just proved that nobody in the country really knows what to do but all are agreed that Gordon Brown shouldn't be the man doing it. Is it too late to suggest direct monarchical rule? On an unrelated note; England, South Africa called and wants its cricket team back.

In Australia mining companies are getting hot under the collar over a proposed new tax. Don't these guys have accountants? Our previously bullet proof Prime Minister has lost all his popularity with an election to come within twelve months. Frankly I'm surprised it took that long. I voted for him and have been feeling slightly silly ever since. Our army has hotly denied claims that defence procurement is a mess and released a photo of well equipped Australian soldiers in Afghanistan to prove their case. Unfortunately a number of people have pointed out that while these soldiers were indeed well equipped their equipment was non standard. That is they had bought it at their own expense. Possibly rather than have a defence procurement system we should just give each soldier an allowance and tell them to equip themselves.

In Europe the same currency mechanism that means Greece's money is grossly overvalued also means that Germany's is greatly undervalued thus helping their economy. Germany, I expect to hear no more complaints about bailing out the Greeks, their economic fecklessness is actually benefiting you. At least up until the point when your banks want some of the money they foolishly lent the Greeks back. Meanwhile the European central bank, or whatever the hell they have, responds to the increasing disaster by adding extra noughts to the bailout package. The current price, more money than anyone could ever possibly gather if they tried for the rest of their lives.

Off the coast of Africa Somali pirates hijacked a Russian oil tanker and a Russian destroyer hijacked it right back. The name of the destroyer is the Marshal Shaposhnikov. There have been two of these in Russian history. The current one is advisor to the Russian president on aviation and space exploration. The previous one was an officer in Stalin's army but surprisingly wasn't murdered. Incidentally one of the ways you can tell that a country doesn't have a particularly prominent navy is when they name ships after soldiers rather than sailors.

Still on the topic of things Russian their gas conglomerate (amusingly called Gazprom) is planning a merger with the Ukrainian gas distribution company Naftohaz. The Ukrainian government is quietly having kittens as Naftohaz is about the only thing in their country that makes money and handing it over to Gazprom would basically make Ukraine a Russian colony. When this was mentioned Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin said "Really, I hadn't realised," and smiled a little creepily.

In Venezuela the government of Hugo Chavez has arrested a number of butchers for causing 30% inflation. Oddly the Greek government has offered to take them off his hands if they can achieve the same result in Greece. Everything is still a relentless shit storm of misery in Haiti but Angelina Jolie has left now so at least the Haitians have one blessing to count.

Corruption allegations continue to dog the Indian Premier League 20-20 cricket competition. Who would have thought that a sporting competition set up in India by a multi billionaire could have been susceptible to bribery? My faith in human nature is dented. Also from India a yogi is claiming to have lived for 70 years without food or water. Science is apparently baffled. Representatives of the world grocery industry have put a contract out on his life and are surreptitiously mailing him McHappy Meal vouchers in the hopes he takes the hint.

Mothers day came and went in Australia with a flurry of facebook entries. Exactly how did we find out things we never wanted to know about our friends before facebook? I think we were reduced to talking to them. Fortunately we have gone beyond that now.

I have now missed the first half hour of Taggart writing this blog entry but that's ok. There will be at least three more murders and I should be able to catch up with the plot in between the blood spatters. This has got to be the most pointless blog entry I have ever written. I hope when you get to the end of it you will feel as embarrassed about wasting your time reading it as I am at having written it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Beware of Greeks Bearing CDOs

Question: What is the difference between Greece and Australia?

Answer: The Greek community in Australia has made a valuable contribution to society.

Not just in Australia either, everywhere around the world that Greeks have settled they have rapidly become industrious and valued members of the community. Everywhere except Greece. In Greece people are rioting in the streets and tossing firebombs at each other because it looks like they will have to accept being paid what they are worth and paying tax on even this.

Admittedly things would be pretty lean in my household if I was paid what I was worth but at least I pay tax; mostly. At the moment the principal issue in Greece seems to be whether they default on their debt now or later. Either possibility doesn't look good for the population of Greece but making the choice might determine whether the people of France and Germany crucify their politicians. Perhaps a new currency is the answer. For those nations (you know who you are) who have really screwed the pooch financially we could introduce a Euro Lite. This would be good for all transactions within the countries concerned and absolutely nowhere else. The Greeks will have to pull their socks up once the only people they can trade with are Portugal and Italy.

Meanwhile Moody's and Fitch still have Spain at a AAA credit rating thus proving that they have the judgment of a gerbil on crack. Spain hasn't deserved a triple A credit rating since the days of Charles V (and they only had it then because nobody understood the inflationary impact of American silver). The really worrying thing about Spain is that by comparison with Greece they do still look like a viable economy. I hope the Icelanders are hanging onto their cod. Its looking better and better as a legitimate means of exchange.

Across Europe as the economic storm clouds gather one question rises above all the others; "Is there any way we can blame Goldman Sachs for this?" Goldman Sachs has its own problems. Across the Atlantic the SEC, America's near comatose "regulatory" body, has taken the merchant bank to task for apparently doing something wrong. It would appear (or is alleged or whatever other phraseology won't get me sued) that a hedge fund with slightly more intelligence than most sniffed the wind on subprime mortgages and got Goldman Sachs to create a Collateralised Debt Obligation made up of dreadful loans so they could short sell it. Goldman Sachs then sold this turd basket to simple minded, unsophisticated investors like the Royal Bank of Scotland who bought it with money that was almost certainly not theirs to begin with. As the GFC unfolds it is getting increasingly difficult to separate the evil from the simply relentlessly stupid. The hedge fund made a fortune, Goldman Sachs did all right and RBS is now owned by the British government which is another way of say they're screwed. I understand their last company announcement was simply "Oh shit!" The beautiful thing about all this is so far Goldman Sachs has done nothing wrong (in a very narrow legal sense), the SEC is on their back because they (allegedly, putatively etc etc) didn't disclose the hedge funds role in creating the CDO.

Warren Buffet is on record as saying that he believes the Goldman Sachs management team haven't done anything wrong (or at least nothing illegal, or at the very least nothing that can be proved to be illegal, or at the absolute very least nothing that Warren Buffet thinks should be illegal). I must admit that I find it difficult to ignore the opinion of possibly the only billionaire in America who hasn't been hitting the taxpayer for a hand out.

But back to Greece. What on earth are the Greeks going to do? Here's my suggestion; emigrate. Its worked for them in the past and I see no reason why it shouldn't work again now. When the debt collectors kick in the door they will find nothing in Greece except some abandoned furniture and a couple of mothballs. Of course various other countries will find themselves in deep trouble because of this but they will have an influx of eager hard working migrants to help pull them out of it. And if there really are any Greeks out there too lazy, stupid or useless to find a job in another country, I understand the position of Premier of New South Wales will be vacant in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Birthday Greetings #6

Happy birthday to Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor between 1790 and 1792. Leopold was the third son of Maria Theresa of Austria and her largely irrelevant husband Francis of Lorraine (less well known as Holy Roman Emperor Franz I). Leopold's status went up a notch when his elder brother died and he became second in line to the throne. He was made Grand Duke of Tuscany which at the time was one of those chunks of Italy that the Habsburgs parcelled out to various relatives to keep them out of trouble.

On the death of his father his elder brother Joseph took over the empire (and made a dreadful hash of it) and Leopold settled down to rule Tuscany. During his time there he disbanded the military, stamped out corruption, introduced enlightened laws for the care of the mentally ill, banned torture and capital punishment, initiated a public works program and gave the people a constitution. Naturally he was cordially disliked by his subjects.

In 1790 his brother Joseph II, who had been running his own reform project with disastrous consequences, died and Leopold traded up to become Holy Roman Emperor. Voltaire's quip about the Holy Roman Empire being neither holy nor Roman nor even an empire is too irresistible not to steal. I have mentioned before the somewhat ambivalent attitude the Habsburgs had towards genius. Joseph was a perfect example of why. If not a genius he was at least an intelligent and gifted man who was determined to reform his creaking old empire from the ground up. A firm believer in enlightened despotism, from the moment he took the throne he drowned his subjects in such a blizzard of reforms that by the time he died almost the entire empire was on the point of revolt. The exception was the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) which was actually revolting (some would argue it still is).

Leopold arrived in Vienna fresh from his reforming successes in Tuscany and very swiftly realised that the only way to save the situation was to backpedal very rapidly on the entire reform issue. This eased tensions which was necessary as Prussia was hostile, Russia ambitious and France was sliding into revolution. While deploring the collapse of royal power in France Leopold wasn't exactly disappointed to see the nation that was the Habsburgs oldest rival descending into chaos. He had some sympathy for his younger sister Marie Antoinette but one gets the impression that possibly not very much. He was still a reform minded man and if circumstances had forced him to become a pillar of the establishment he was still determined that the establishment should earn its support. He kept French noble refugees (who were demanding he invade France) at arms length, made peace with the Turks (in one of his sillier moments big brother Joseph had got involved in a war with them) and kept the Russians and Prussians on their toes. Unfortunately the next thing he did was die. The throne went to his eldest son Franz II (later Franz I of Austria) who was an exemplar of the fine Habsburg tradition of mediocrity.

Many observers have commented that it was a pity for the empire that Leopold died after only two years on the throne and before drowning his eldest son. The Habsburg empire would last for another hundred and twenty six years and have four more emperors but none of them would approach Leopold (or even Joseph) in ability.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Let's Roll Kate Moss in Crushed Sea Snails

One of the luxury goods produced by the Byzantine empire was silk robes of breathtaking colour and magnificent quality. For centuries these beautiful garments were a tool of Byzantine foreign policy. Barbarian warlords would visit Constantinople dressed in animal skins whose principal decoration was fleas. They would stare with envy at the magnificent clothing of their Byzantine interlocutors. Each of them imagined how classy they would look parading around at home in such items. Byzantine negotiators would delicately hint that if their talks came to a satisfactory conclusion then the emperor would surely present them with a few items as farewell presents. Furthermore it was possible that more could be forthcoming if the barbarians did a good job of guarding the imperial borders.

The fact that this sort of diplomacy worked for so long is a sad commentary on the propensity of human beings to be fashion victims. Of course the most gorgeously dressed of the lot was the emperor himself whose purple garments weren't for sale at any price. Purple silk was the highest standard of both luxury and status. It was reserved for the emperor and his immediate family. Somewhere along the line everybody managed to overlook the fact that silk came from a caterpillars arse and that the purple dye had been made by crushing up millions of sea snails. Naturally it was difficult (and very smelly) to create this dye thus adding to the rarity factor.

It is the same attitude that leads the robes of royalty (and members of Britain's House of Lords) to be lined with ermine. The ermine is a stoatlike thing whose pure white winter coat was highly prized for its purity and rarity. As time went by it got more rare and you can probably now see more ermine fur in the House of Lords than you can on actual living ermine.

Tastes change though over the years and what was in one century was definitely out a couple of hundred years later. In the early thirteenth century the Byzantine emperor and his courtiers decked themselves out in their finest in an attempt to impress some German guests. The Germans bluntly pointed out that their kings wore iron not silk and the moisture on their brow was not perfume but the sweat of the battlefield. Not coincidentally Constantinople was sacked a few years later as was the emperor.

In these modern and civilised times, of course, things have changed. Rather than crushing up inoffensive sea snails we just inject poison straight into our foreheads (I use the word "we" in a very loose sense) and insert silicon into various other parts of our anatomy. We send half starved drug freaks down a catwalk with various shreds of fabric hanging off them that a Byzantine emperor wouldn't wear in a fit and think that somehow we have come further than those barbarians staring in awe at the wonderful clothing of the imperial officials. The Maoris must be pleased to see that tattooing is making a comeback though.

On the subject of body shape too we have gone through a kaleidoscope of changes. It is highly likely that many of the beauties of yesteryear wouldn't be looked at today. There was even a short period in the early nineties when I was two thirds of the way towards being sexy. There was a brief fashion for skinny, effeminate pretty boys. I nailed the first two but fell down on the pretty, sigh. Things have now tilted back the other way so my faint hope of having to fight women off with a stick seems to have vanished. Mind you there are so many artificial enhancements that it's sometimes difficult to know what a persons bodyshape actually is. I'm pleased when I see a fat or ugly person on television (it happens about once a decade) as I know I'm probably looking at their genuine physique.

The real difference modern civilisation has made is in scale. The Byzantine emperor and his officials dressed largely to impress each other and the occasional foreign guest. Most citizens of the empire never saw them. Nowadays virtually everyone can see how the socially prominent are looking and what they are wearing and can attempt to imitate it. Possibly this is why so many people are so badly dressed. I feel quite smug, I'm badly dressed simply because I'm a bad dresser. Perhaps its time to reinvent some old fashions, Byzantium died in 1453 and is well due for a comeback. That is why its time to roll Kate Moss in squashed sea snails. It will make a nice change from cocaine.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Don't Eat the Silver Balls

I am, rather slowly, eating a packet of mentos. On the side of the pack it states that mentos are "chewy dragees". A quick check of the internet informs me that dragees are either sugar coated medications or those little silver balls you get on the top of cupcakes. Well mentos are definitely not silver balls but unless they're a cure for not suffering diabetes I don't really get the medication part of the first definition.

It is entirely possible that something has been lost in translation. Lost or deliberately omitted. One of the most efficient ways to lie is to tell nothing but the truth. We have it on the authority of Wittgenstein himself that it is impossible for two people to communicate with each other, even in the same language, with no possibility of misunderstanding. Wittgenstein's position on this would have slightly more credibility if he hadn't previously written a book stating that you could. That's the great thing about philosophy. In any other discipline being completely wrong would make you look like an idiot, in philosophy it merely opens up fruitful avenues of enquiry.

I should mention that my knowledge of Wittgenstein is derived solely from what a friend of mine has told me about him on those rare occasions when I was bothering to listen. If anything I said is wrong you can put it down to a failure of communication. When we start trying to translate into other languages things get even worse. It amazes me that the human race manages to communicate at all. Things aren't helped in Australia where the teaching establishment seems determined to drag all students down to the educational level of their teachers.

Despite all of the obstacles sufficient information seems to get past our self created filters to, if not actually inform, then at least give a context for our ignorance. Of course there are certain areas when the withholding of information is the object of communication as with most government announcements. I went to a communications course at work recently where the whole topic was how to efficiently make oneself understood. Since I work for a solicitors firm such a course is desperately needed.

About halfway through the course I realised that what we were actually being taught was how to write a childrens book. That is, a book along the lines of "See Spot Run" rather than Harry Potter. I work for a large law firm that services huge corporate clients and the best method of communication is still "See Spot Run". Despite this the communications course is pretty much a work in progress. I plan to take my newly acquired knowledge and write a childrens book. If Chopper Reid can do it surely I can.

While I'm labouring over "See Spot Run; the Adventure Continues" I will sit and eat my chewy dragees while the "medicine" in them makes my teeth fall out. Incidentally, those silver balls on the top of cupcakes, the US FDA has deemed them unfit for human consumption. In another breakdown of communication I continue to do so without any ill effects so far.

Birthday Greetings #5

Happy birthday to Constantine III who was Byzantine emperor for about half an hour in 641AD. Actually Constantine reigned gloriously for all of four months before dying of tuberculosis. Really the only interesting thing about him is that he married his cousin. While this wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Habsburg circles the Eastern Christian church had a slightly less forgiving (not to say more sensible) attitude towards such things. Fortunately for Constantine his father went one further by marrying his own niece. After that criticism of Constantine's marriage rather faded into the background.

Although associated with his father's reign as co-emperor virtually from birth it wasn't until the old man died (crazy and twisted with illness to the delight of the church) that he stepped into the role of senior emperor. Then he died. His half brother, Heraklonas, took over for a brief period but suspicion that Constantine had been poisoned led to a furious reaction against him and his mother (the old emperor's niece remember) and they were both deposed and mutilated. My the Byzantine court was a cheery place at times.