Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Garden Gnome Gets my Vote

Election update: Last night the deputy leader of the opposition went on national television to conduct a staring competition with a garden gnome. This is what passes for serious political debate in my country. A series of intimate leaks from the heart of the government have so infuriated our prime minister that for a short while during a press conference she actually looked alive. Hopefully she can ride this newly discovered pulse registration into an election victory. Tony Abbott the leader, for want of a better word, of the opposition (again, for want of a better word) has been making great play with the fact he has a wife and several daughters to try and dispel the belief that women don't like him.

It has been accepted as a fact that women don't like Abbott. That is to say the media have repeated it so often that even they believe it. Tony's support does seem to be down among women but its always possible that his support is simply higher among men. Possibly men don't like Julia Gillard, nobody seems to have thought of that. I used to like Julia Gillard until she launched her election campaign, now I'm largely indifferent but I suspect that the media witchdoctors surrounding her would prefer us to be indifferent to having a strong opinion either way. The fewer opinions we have the less likely it is that we will notice that neither of our political parties seem to have any either.

In lighter news a man in Austria has been eaten by maggots. Seriously, he went to bed one night and got seriously chewed up by the chitinous little beggars and died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. His partner is being questioned by police. What exactly are they going to ask her?
"Did you see which way they went?" Apparently the man had had a stroke some years ago and had got out of the habit of washing.

Still on things carnivorous, Austrian style, a fisherman in the south of the country caught a piranha the other day. It was the second piranha to be caught in the last couple of weeks. Obviously the Austrian strain of piranha is somewhat stupider than its South American cousin. The only other explanation is that the waters of Austria are swarming with devil fish. If so then the maggots have serious competition. The next headline out of Vienna will be "Man eaten by piranha while he sleeps".

They do things a little differently in Austria; they are German but not really, they had an empire but a very silly one and the cleverest police officer in the country is a dog. Although perhaps this doesn't matter too much if the most important cases he has to investigate are the Mystery of the Hungry Maggots and the Case of the Seriously Lost Piranha. We do things a little differently in Australia too but the truly surreal stuff we leave for election campaigns. Like staring competitions with garden gnomes. How can you not vote for someone like that.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Maybe Wikileaks Can Find an Election Policy

Wikileaks has got their hands on ninety thousand documents proving that the war in Afghanistan is kinda screwed. Who knew? Apart from everybody that is. Seriously while these leaks may provide depth and intimate detail of the exact way in which the war is screwed the essential screwedness of the war should surprise nobody. The Americans made their big mistake when they decided to hold it in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not a place anyone should hold a war.

If one looks at the history of Afghanistan over the centuries it becomes increasingly obvious that the place is the military equivalent of an elephants graveyard. It's where the armies of various empires crawl away to die. The British invaded Afghanistan (three times, so much for them being fast learners) and on each occasion left faster than they went in. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with horrifying results. Take Rambo III for example. The Iranians have invaded Afghanistan at various times with no good result and even Alexander the Great didn't hang around very long after proclaiming his dominance of the area. Invading Afghanistan is something you should only do if exercises in futility are a hobby of yours.

I read a book on one of the British invasions of Afghanistan (I forget which one) which had an interesting quote from an Afghan tribal leader of the nineteenth century. His British interlocutor had been expounding on the benefits to be gained from living under Britannia's benevolent sceptre and in response the Afghan said, "it is true that we can gain much from British rule but we will never tolerate a ruler who can tell us what to do". That last bit should be written in gold in letters ten feet high. Afghanistan is a lawless chaotic mess principally because a goodly number of Afghans prefer it to the alternative. People with degrees in sociology and civilisation building need not apply.

Eventually the Americans and their various hangers on (I mean us) will leave and Afghanistan will carry on as before until next time. Oddly, there probably will be a next time as people just can't seem to keep away from the place. Why? There are nicer places to invade. There are countries where a state of war would be safer than peace in Afghanistan, most of them actually. But people keep coming back to Afghanistan.

In a way its flattering. The current invasion has really put Afghanistan on the map. People are flying in, earning huge salaries (paid for by aid euphemistically described as going to Afghanistan) and leaving again. While there they can dabble in drug smuggling, resource plundering, office buying and various other traditional pass times. Once this invasion is done of course Afghanistan will drop off the map again and the Afghans will have to smuggle their own damn drugs.

The other thing that wikileaks discovered is that the Pakistani ISI has been bankrolling the Taliban. Again, who knew? I did. Anybody else with half a brain did as well. For ninety thousand documents this latest release is surprisingly short on interest. I may not have been across all the particulars but so far nothing that has been revealed has surprised me in the least. I wonder what people expected? Do they hope that buried in the documents is an admission that the United States intended to invade Tajikistan but took a wrong turn at Albuquerque?

The war in Afghanistan surfaced briefly in the leaders debate we had last week for our increasingly wretched election campaign. It took both leaders about thirty seconds to state that we are there, would continue to be there until the job was done and they supported our troops. It must be nice for our troops to know that their presence in Afghanistan has the support of the people who sent them there, at least in general terms. After that the war sank beneath the radar again. The rest of the debate seemed to be a competition to see which leader could say the least in the most boring way possible. The debate was televised and was actually rescheduled and cut short so that it didn't clash with the final of Masterchef which was on immediately after it. This gave the debate more respect than it deserved. The networks should have refused to broadcast it at all out of respect for their audience. I watched the whole damn thing and I can't remember a single thing about it except that nothing much happened.

The media generally agreed that our current prime minister won the debate more or less but that the opposition leader gained a boost because he didn't swing from the overhead lighting while hooting like a gibbon. Honours pretty much even I'd say. Now that the debate is over, thank god, the politicians have returned to saying even less than they did at the debate. This would be all right except that they refuse to shut up while not saying anything. Normally a government can run on its record, unfortunately the currently leader of the government knifed her predecessor a few weeks ago because of the governments record. Normally an opposition can point to chaos and instability in the government as a bad sign however we are currently on our third opposition leader since the last election and the current incumbent is working very hard trying not to say what he thinks. This is made more amusing by the fact that he released a political autobiography only a few months ago in which he made it very clear what he thinks. He is now desperately hoping nobody has read it.

Having made huge commitments and screwed them all up the government is now avoiding committing to anything at all while at the same time trying to come up with a reason why we should vote for them. At the moment their slogan seems to be "At least we're not the opposition". The oppositions slogan is "Vote for us we're not the government". Both of these messages are resonating with those sections of the public who would have voted for them anyway, except when they're not.

A plague on both their houses, I hope that whoever wins will show more courage, personality and even interest in governing the country than either of them are displaying at the moment. You could get a more vibrant display of competition and interchange of ideas in a chook raffle. Immigration seems to be some sort of issue although its difficult to tell as both sides are trying to say they want to reduce it without actually having to reduce it or something along those lines perhaps. Global warming gets a lot of airtime thus contributing to the problem without bringing us any closer to a solution. The prime minister has announced that she will summon a citizens assembly of a hundred and fifty or so people to advise the government on what it should do. We already have one of those; its called the government. A more wretched abdication of responsibility would be harder to find. The opposition seems to think that asking polluters nicely will make them stop, or reduce or something but they don't really care because they don't believe its a problem anyway but they haven't got the guts to say so. The opposition leader did say so but several months ago before the election was called and I suspect that his media advisers have kidnapped his wife and family in an attempt to keep him on message.

As Australia limps towards its democratic expression like a mortally wounded deer I find myself with a strange paradox. How can something so bland be so nauseating.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Of Course the Chameleon Speaks French

I was watching television a short while ago. This is something I do periodically when I don't feel like thinking too much. Mostly its ok but I do sometimes get irritated with all those programs they feel they have to slip between the ad breaks. There is a commercial at the moment which is doing the rounds for an iced tea called Nestea. It features a chameleon with a French accent. Let's just think about that for a moment. A Swiss company is selling iced tea in Australia by using an animal from Madagascar with a French accent. It's either a triumph of multiculturalism or a subtle protest at exploitative French colonial practices in south east Africa. Pick whichever one seems the least ridiculous to you.

That nestea gets everywhere, they even sell it in Mongolia (in peach or green tea with lemon flavours). Tea is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of refreshing Mongolian beverages. Horse milk and gallon jugs of vodka seem more appropriate but things are changing in Mongolia. Apparently the capital now has buildings that don't fold up and get slung on the back of a horse when grazing gets poor. There is a new up and coming Mongolian elite and they drink peach flavoured iced tea.

I suppose things could be worse, the last time there was an up and coming Mongolian elite they upped and came as far as the Danube river leaving a trail of devastation behind them. Now the only trail of devastation comes from poorly maintained aircraft. While we're waiting for the hordes of Ghenghiz Khan to come galloping across the plain leaving a scattering iced tea bottles and condemned aeroplane parts in their wake we can sit back and enjoy the antics of chameleons with improbable French accents on tv. Sometimes I wonder if anybody in this country would actually recognise a genuine French accent if they heard one. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't.

All across the world people are watching tv commercials and sniggering at accents that have been pretty much invented on the spot. Eventually there will be an entirely new language; Commercialese which will unite the world in mutual incomprehension. We will sit there with our iced tea and try to work out whether the chameleon is speaking English with a bad French accent or possibly Finnish with a bad Iranian accent. One thing I'm sure of; it won't have a Malagasy accent. Not even in Madagascar.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scotch of the Antarctic

I seem to be scrutinising the Antarctic a fair bit lately. Perhaps its because the Antarctic is ground zero for quite a bit of the human stupidity that I like to make fun of when I'm not indulging in it myself. The latest news from points frosty? A museum in New Zealand is planning on thawing out some bottles of scotch which were left behind by Shackleton's unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole in 1909. When they left the Antarctic they abandoned the whisky.

Imagine taking a crate of scotch to the Antarctic with you? Since I am of a kind nature I will spare you the inevitable "Scotch of the Antarctic" jokes. You can just imagine Shackleton passing glasses around in his wretched, snowbound hut and apologising because there wasn't any ice. This is the difference between adventurers in days gone by and those we have today. Nowadays anybody going to the Antarctic for so much as a sight seeing trip would have enough survival gear to start a colony. In Shackleton's day preparations seemed to consist of "wear your heavier shirt and remember they don't have a bottle shop down there."

Shackleton was actually a member of one of Scott's Antarctic missions (not the one where everybody died) but was sent home due to illness. Refusing to take the hint he spent a good deal of the rest of his life finding excuses to go back. I find it difficult to understand the fascination that a frozen wilderness seems to have for certain people. Here is a description of the Antarctic; cold, windy, icy, penguins. The penguins (and of course the Weddell Seal) might be a reason for a quick look if your country is poorly provided with zoos but for the rest there seems to be no real point. The great explanation for these things is, of course, "because its there". Fine, when you can deliver it to "here" I might take a quick look.

Explorers have always captured the human imagination. We read the stories of these daring travellers wandering through the more desolate parts of the world and are impressed with human endurance, curiosity, courage and desire for knowledge. Or at least most of us do. I read these stories and wonder how they managed to go to the toilet when the weather was cold enough to freeze their piss before it hit the ground. A centrally heated port a loo would be part of my Antarctic equipment should I be silly enough to go there. It's not just the Antarctic either, Australia has its own fine tradition of explorers staggering through the desert dying of hunger and thirst while the local Aboriginal population who have lived there for millenia politely try to hide their smiles. It almost seems as though a place isn't worth finding unless something ghastly happened to the people who found it.

Imagine if you could catch a train to the unknown wilderness. Shackleton would just get out at Antarctic Junction walk a couple of miles and shout "hey I'm an explorer". Nobody would be very impressed. Similarly if you travelled through the untracked parts of the world and on your return commented "actually it was very easy, the weather was lovely, the natives friendly, food fell into your lap without asking for it and we managed to catch taxis most of the time so we didn't have to walk too far." I don't think anybody would be very interested even if you did discover an entirely new continent. No, you have to stumble back to civilisation wild eyed (and bearded) thin from hunger, carrying a couple of new diseases and with an arrow head or spear tip in a portion of your anatomy otherwise people just aren't interested. If you think your expedition might lack for this grisly form of glamour you can take steps to ensure that it does, like Shackleton.

The most amusing thing about Shackleton's scotch heavy Antarctic sojourn is the reason for its failure. They ran out of supplies. At some point while trekking through the icy wilderness Shackleton stopped guzzling scotch for long enough to realise that no one had packed the cheese and biscuits. There was nothing for it except to go home and be knighted by King Edward VIII who always managed to have a reasonable supply of whisky despite never getting closer to the Antarctic than the Isle of Wight.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Choosing a Pizza is More Important Than Choosing a Government

"A day off". Is there any more pleasant phrase in the English language? Well possibly, "its on the house" and "I'll let myself out" run it close but still I think "a day off" is pretty good. Its night on the second and last of my days off, rain is pouring down and has just deposited their back catalogue of books on my doorstep. My neighbour believes I'm opening a library. In actual fact I'm opening parcels.

It's slightly pathetic but I get quite excited at opening parcels even when I bought them and I know what's in them. Actually I get more excited in that case because I know I'm going to like the contents and I know how much the purchaser spent to get them. There was a time in my youth when a letterbox was a persons connection to the wider world. Now all that comes are bills and flyers for local pizza delivery stores despite the presence of not one but two "no junk mail" stickers. The little cards from the post office telling me I have something too big to fit in the letter box are always a pleasant addition to my opportunity to get an anchovy and echidna gizzard pizza at half price if I buy two.

Gourmet pizzas give me the shits. Why must people take something as intrinsically boring as a pizza and try to make it interesting. If I was interested in gourmet food then the chances are pretty high that I wouldn't be buying a pizza anyway. This is what goes on a pizza; tomato paste, mozzarella, ham, onion and capsicum. If you want to be a little fancy you can add pepperoni and pineapple. Anything else on a pizza is simply trying to put lipstick on a pig, and that makes the pig taste funny.

I'm not sure why I started raving about pizza, I intended this to be an insightful, nay visionary, entry about Australia's upcoming election with shrewd analysis and witty banter to lighten my undeniable political points. Hmm, screw this, let's have a pizza.

For most people in this country making a decision on the type of pizza they're going to eat is likely to have more impact on their future lives than their voting decision. I live in a safe Labor seat which means I can cheerfully vote for anyone I like confident in the knowledge that it won't actually matter. How people who live in marginal electorates deal with the responsibility I don't know. This relative handful of people will decide which coterie of politicians will mismanage the public weal for the next three years (give or take). In the meantime the airwaves are flooded with advertising and the media attempt to give some brightness to what is essentially a long winded festival of the bland by chasing politicians all over the country on the off chance that they might actually say something.

Fortunately it will all be over in a few weeks. Unlike America where they essentially conduct a months long autopsy of their political leaders while they're still alive our election campaign will be over before Winter becomes Spring. When the green shoots sprout we will have a new government to lead us confidently forward into a future that will probably look very much like the present. This is the wonder of democracy, millions of people get up, vote, select their government and nothing changes very much. Which is good because when politics gets interesting it is generally a sign that things have gone horribly wrong.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What's That Beyond the Cathedral End?

I am currently inhabiting a strange netherworld, a gap if you will between times. Specifically it is the gap between when the tv guide says the cricket is going to start and the time when they actually start playing cricket. This shadowy void is a terrifying place, twisted shadows lurch, hunch forward and provide commentary on a game that hasn't begun yet. The previous days play is brutally, even sadistically, dissected and its entrails flung about for the amusement of the fell beings looming over microphones. In mocking contrast to the ghastliness the camera pans around the empty ground, a stretch of healthy living green that will soon grow white splotches as of some disease when the cricketers are finally unshackled and herded into the light. One crazed, fecular being after another babbles words of seeming reason into the microphone, the whole gathering into a mindless cacophony of sound that boggles the mind and causes the ears to bleed.

You might think from the above that I'm not really a fan of cricket commentary but actually I love it. There is a craftsmanship to cricket commentary that really isn't possible in other sports. Sure tennis and football commentators are semi articulate imbeciles spurting inanities and banalities in about equal number but these games are fast and the commentators have to think quickly to keep up. This is not easy when thinking at all is likely to cause the dust in their heads to catch fire. Cricket on the other hand is a languid, elegant game. It takes a long time for anything to happen and when it does it can be fruitfully discussed for hours. It is worth remembering when cricket commentators say something stupid, outrageous, self evident or just plain crazy that unlike their colleagues in most sports they have actually had time to think. The sort of gargling lunacies that football commentators come up with on the spur of the moment are from cricket commentators the result of leisured and reflective thought. I love cricket commentary. There is something about hearing a solemn and articulate man saying something outrageously stupid in a polite and reasonably well educated voice that amuses me.

The gold standard of course is to come up with something that can beat this effort from an occasion when English batsman Peter Willey was facing the bowling of West Indian Michael Holding. The quote from the commentator... "The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey" You couldn't script that stuff. If you tried nobody would believe it. Australian efforts aren't quite so good but I still remember watching a game where the commentator said, "And beyond the cathedral end you can see the..." and he stopped there for a second as he realised exactly how stupid what he was about say would sound but had no choice but to continue "err the cathedral".

I'm not a crazy sports fan but I quite like watching it when I have a moment and I frequently wonder why such fantastic displays of physical virtuosity have to be narrated by people who can't string a sentence together. I wouldn't change it though, not for the world. Cricket is interesting but the commentary makes it hysterical. If it weren't for football commentary all you would hear are the players screaming obscenities at each other. Seriously the football is on at 7.30 on a Friday night and you will hear the word "fuck" broadcast more often than in a French art film (or woeful American sex comedy) that airs at midnight. No wonder footballers are role models for our kids.

I would like to write more but I think the preview is over and actual cricket is about to start. Australia is playing Pakistan and due to minor death issues they are playing at Lords. Technically this is a home game for Pakistan, possibly they should have played it in Bradford.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's True: Global Domination Does Go Better With Coke!

What is the most wretched day of the month? Answer: the day before payday. Fiscal comfort is so close I can smell it but when I go to the cash machine there is nothing but a tumbleweed blowing through the post apocalyptic wasteland of my bank account. Faced with such a grim reality I did the only thing I could, I went out for dinner. I dined on beef, cheese and an assortment of vegetables and grains. Or to put it another way I went to McDonalds.

Cultural imperialism rocks! I frequently see posters and various other poor mans internet sites decrying the pervasive nature of American cultural dominance. I, myself, have a t-shirt which says "Global domination goes better with Coke". Indeed it does, I choose to wear the t-shirt non ironically.

When people complain about somebody else's cultural dominance all they're really doing is having a sulk because the other people are better and more successful than they are. Let's face it, if your culture was so great the Americans would be copying it. Instead these sad and savage cultural warriors are reduced to snivelling about their own impotence and demanding that their government provide funds to sustain them. There can be no greater proof of a culture's essential irrelevance than the need for taxpayer dollars to keep it alive. If people wanted it they would pay for it themselves.

Some might argue that without government funding a good deal of cultural variety would vanish from the world and perhaps they're right but I wonder how many people would notice. I was aware of the existence of the Sydney Opera House for thirty years before I really knew what they did inside it. It took me another ten years before I actually went there. Even so I didn't see an opera (Bell Shakespeare's production of King Lear, excellent). Do we need funding for things most people wouldn't miss and why are things like opera and ballet considered more important culturally than the Wiggles or Walker Texas Ranger?

Much of our cultural heritage wasn't considered so when it was genuinely popular. It was just the latest show to go and see. If it's still popular people will still pay to see it. Ballet flourished in Britain because members of the aristocracy were banging the dancers. Shakespeare wrote unashamedly for the money and to hell with class, historical accuracy and believable scripts. While we're at it why don't we have funding for such lost cultural exploits as bear baiting and public executions? Artists up until quite recently acquired themselves a patron and created to order. If they didn't they tended to starve. Nobody sets out to create a culture. At some point in time a group of people look back at the various methods we've created to amuse ourselves and start writing arts theses about them,that's all.

In Australia we subsidise our film industry as part of an attempt to keep our culture alive. I don't think I'm the only one who suspects it might be kinder to let it die. In Spain culture is inextricably bound up with sticking sharp things into cattle without turning them in McHappy Meals. Both cruel and pointless. When you hear a country praised for its rich cultural traditions you can generally be pretty sure that a large proportion of its population would swap the lot for a cleaning job in America or Australia. Australians and Americans don't need to think too much about their culture or their glorious past because we have a future. At least Australia does, I'm getting a little unsure about America.

Of course it could be pointed out that I have selected a few isolated and dubious "facts", patched them together with a bit of invective and presented them as an argument. To which I would simply reply; this is a blog. It was designed solely to make the half baked theories, stupid ideas and degenerate rantings of obsessed and none too clever people available to a wide audience. In short it is a perfect expression of our culture. And it cost you absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Destroying Your Own Army Isn't a Sign of Military Genius

I've just finished reading a book about the war in the Carpathian Mountains in 1915. Essentially what happened was that the Austro-Hungarian high command having lost about seventy percent of their army fighting the Russians in the first six months of the war decided to freeze the rest of it to death.

History isn't particularly kind to the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army in the First World War. If they're mentioned at all there is a throwaway line about them bungling the invasion of Serbia (which started the whole mess) and then having to be supported by the Germans as their army disintegrated under Russian attack.

I would like to set the record straight unfortunately it pretty much is straight. They did bungle the invasion of Serbia (the commander was the same guy who made the security arrangements for Archduke Franz Ferdinand's visit to Sarajevo) and the Russians stomped all over them in Galicia. Of course there were reasons for this and the principal one seems to be mind buggering stupidity in the high command. If you get into a war with Serbia and Russia where do you think you should put your main effort? Anybody who answers Russia, go to the top of the class. Anybody who answers Serbia, congratulations the Austro-Hungarian army has a job for you.

The truly bizarre thing is that the commander of the Austro-Hungarian army knew perfectly well that he should have ignored Serbia and thrown all his forces against the Russians, he just didn't. This man, Field Marshal Count Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, screwed up his initial deployments so badly that he wound up attacking the Russians with an inferiority of numbers while still not putting enough men on the Serbian front to guarantee victory. The result? Austro-Hungarian forces thoroughly hammered and driven out of Galicia (then a Habsburg province, now not) and back onto the Carpathian Mountains.

The Carpathian Mountains were rugged, freezing, poorly supplied with roads and railways and were thoroughly dreadful terrain to fight in. Conrad took one look at them and decided they were the perfect place to launch his counteroffensive. To raise stupidity to an artform he decided to do it in Winter. The Austro-Hungarians shambled through snow drifts higher than a man with disintegrating supply lines and disintegrating boots (it turns out that making combat boots with soles of cardboard might save money but doesn't do much for foot warmth in the snow) and virtually no artillery support (you try carrying a howitzer up a snowy mountainside in mid Winter). The rations were usually cold and sometimes frozen but that didn't matter so much because they frequently didn't arrive at all. It is estimated that half of Conrad's force died of exposure and the Russians took care of the rest. That artillery support was a real bugger, the empire did have specialist mountain artillery that would have been useful but guess where they were? That's right, Serbia.

What was left of the pre war Austro-Hungarian army either froze or was ground to bits launching ill conceived attacks against well prepared Russian positions, frequently in blizzards. Once it was obvious that they could attack no more the Russians attacked back and nearly drove them out of the Carpathians completely for which they were probably grateful. Many men surrendered (it was their best chance of a hot meal) and the High Command muttered darkly about the unreliability of various nationalities in the army. True the Czechs, Romanians, Bosnians, Slovaks and Croatians didn't want to be there but frankly the army command can consider themselves lucky that all these guys did was desert. If it had been me I would have been voting for launching an offensive against my own headquarters.

Ultimately despite the ghastly casualties and even ghastlier leadership the war didn't end for the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915. By appearing beatable they encouraged the Russians to try and beat them. This meant that the Russians took their eye off the Germans, always a bad idea. With the Austro-Hungarians backpedalling the Russians followed up and exposed their flank to the Germans who proved how silly that was in the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnow which drove the Russians not just out of the Carpathians but also out of most of Galicia.

The real problem with the Austro-Hungarian army was that it was out of date. I don't mean simply that its equipment, training, doctrine and leadership were old fashioned (although they were) the army itself belonged to an idea that had had its day. As Europe came out of the Middle Ages and into was is laughingly referred to as the modern day the monarchies of the continent survived by reinventing themselves. Previously it had been them that defined the territories they ruled. Now the territories defined them. A German Kaiser, a Russian Tsar, an English king. Not so in Austria-Hungary which I usually refer to as the Habsburg empire because that is really the most accurate term. The empire of the Habsburgs was a disjointed collection of territories that the family had acquired by one means or another (usually marriage) over the course of a couple of centuries. There was nothing to bind them together and indeed the population of most parts cordially disliked the population of all the rest. The only unifying force was the person of the emperor himself and such personal loyalties were rapidly becoming a thing of the past as people more and more identified themselves with a particular nation. The Habsburg emperor couldn't define himself by a nationality as doing so would simply piss off all the other people in the empire (secretly though they were German).

To effectively (or even ineffectively) run such an empire you needed a cadre of non nationalistic people who would serve the emperor for the benefit of all. This was indeed the theory behind both the Habsburg civil service and most particularly the army. The army saw itself as above nationality, bound only by its personal oath to the sovereign. It tried to impress that fact on its officers and keep aloof from the increasingly fractious civil society. It was at least partially successful but at the price of relevance. Nationalism was the go to idea of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but the army was having none of it. Unfortunately it was this nationalism which provided the almost unbelievable level of patriotism which allowed the armies of Germany, France, Britain and (for quite a while anyway) Russia to sustain enormous losses and continue as a functioning military unit. The Austro-Hungarian army with an aloof and disengaged officer corps and a largely disinterested peasant base could not hope to be as effective as their rivals.

This is not to say the army was useless; the soldiers, like their officers, swore personal allegiance to the emperor and in his name they marched long, fought hard and frequently died well. However they lacked that final bit of edge that would persuade them to go beyond human endurance and just possibly snatch the victory that eluded them. As the horrific casualties wiped out the pre war army the less well trained and motivated troops that replaced them naturally were even less keen. Perhaps more than any other army the Austro-Hungarian relied heavily on its junior and middle grade field commanders. Good, bad or indifferent these were the men that the soldiers knew and they needed these officers to stand up and say "follow me". Personal example had to take the place of patriotism. This resulted in about 90% casualties for Habsburg officers up to the rank of major by 1915. Their replacements were nowhere near as good. For one thing there were about fourteen nationalities and five different religions in the Habsburg army and they all spoke their own languages. The pre war Habsburg army had the most multi lingual officer corps in the world as officers were expected to speak the language of their men. Conrad von Hotzendorf spoke nine languages fluently. When these men died in 1914 they were replaced by men the soldiers didn't know at all and who frequently needed their orders translated.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of the Habsburg army was in its high command. The determination of the generals to keep apart from civilian society and maintain the integrity of their service led to a severe mental ossification. Conrad, who I criticised earlier, was widely (and possibly accurately) regarded as a genius but even he found that when necessary he simply couldn't "think outside the box" and the box was very small. With its high command fossilized and its junior leadership largely dead the Habsburg army degraded as the war went on and every set of casualty figures made the situation worse. At the end however it was the empire that disintegrated rather than the army. As out of date as the army itself the empire couldn't take the strain of total war and in 1918 simply melted away as various nationality groups essentially stopped listening to the orders coming from Vienna. The army was still on the front line when its officers told them the empire no longer existed and they might as well go home.

The Imperial and Royal army had one last bright spot before the end however. In 1915 Italy declared war. It seemed like a good moment, the Habsburg army had been humiliated by Serbia and damn near annihilated by Russia. It seemed like an opportunity for the Italians (who had territorial claims) to peg out some land. Unfortunately for them the Italians were the one people that all the various races and creeds of the empire were united in despising. Furthermore despite their patchy record elsewhere Habsburg troops had a history of victories over the Italians. In his Order of the Day announcing the Italian declaration of war the old emperor reminded his soldiers of "the victories of Novara, Custozza and Lissa which formed the pride of my youth". The emperor was so old he could probably have added "Cannae" and been believed but his soldiers got the message and for the next two and a half years they gave the Italians a thoroughgoing lesson in humility. This is despite the fact that Conrad turned up there as well and proved he had learnt nothing from his Carpathian episode by launching another Winter offensive this time across the Alps. Not surprisingly it didn't get far either.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Paul the Octopus Says Bring Back the Duchy of Cleves

I didn't want to do this, I swear I didn't. The World Cup was silly enough, I thought, without joining everybody else in the universe and making a blog entry about Paul the Sodding Octopus. But it is no use, like a car accident it draws me to it and I just have to do it. So, with deep reluctance and a certain amount of self loathing, here we go.

How about that octopus huh? Right every single time. I know a hedge fund or two that would probably make it the highest paid invertebrate in the world if it cared to wander along for a job interview. And it isn't just the octopus, the whole animal kingdom seems to be getting in on the act. Over in Australia we have Hugo the Tortoise. Hugo is a Galapagos tortoise which apparently selected Spain to win the World Cup as well. For sixty odd years Hugo slumbered in well deserved anonymity and then, for reasons I can't really explain, the Today Show dragged him out of obscurity and asked him to pick the winner of the World Cup. It goes deeper than that however. Just last Friday a team of paleontologists working in a remote area of Belize unearthed a fossilized tyrannosaurus rex skull with a placard reading "Spain 2010" clamped between its teeth.

I may have been lying about one of the above but you get the idea. Everything that crawls, flies, wriggles or humps your leg at inappropriate moments was backing Spain to win the World Cup. Sounds like a pretty fair description of their support base to me. Apologies to Edgardo if he reads the above.

Meanwhile in Barcelona delight at winning the World Cup has been made a little embarrassing by the fact that they are currently agitating not to be part of the country that won it. Catalan independence, or autonomy or whatever is something that crops up from time to time to remind us that no matter how small the countries in Europe get there are always people who want to make them smaller. Belgium is always on the verge of splitting in two despite the fact that if somebody extended their bathroom they'd create a border incident. Even Britain is not immune. I read one commentator after the recent election who suggested that the Tories should just cut Scotland and Northern Ireland loose and rule England where they actually won a majority. His point seemed to be that both those places essentially live on welfare and that England would be financially better off without them. Possibly true but if the English got rid of the Scots and the Irish who would win their wars for them?

As for creating smaller and smaller countries, we can't keep doing that forever. What are they going to do? They can't all become tax havens. If you think the EU is a mess now just wait until Germany splits into its component parts. At its height (or depths depending on your point of view) the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had over a hundred independent self governing bodies. Some of them didn't have a hundred bodies of any description living in them.

This rush to separatism does have one useful advantage. It can provide gainful employment for Paul, Hugo and the anonymous t-rex until the next World Cup. They can be presented with the flags of all the hopeful would be nations and the ones they select get a seat at the UN. The rest just have to go back to being part of Spain or Belgium or Great Britain or Germany. Paul, who lives in Oberhausen may well decide to give independence to the Duchy of Cleves which I think encompassed the area he now lives in. It's difficult to tell as Germany had states the way a dog has fleas and Oberhausen didn't exist at the time but I think my geography is accurate (or to put it another way, I don't really care).

Now that Catalonia, Cleves and the Bits of Belgium That Don't Speak French are independent countries just imagine how much more exciting the World Cup is going to be. Or on the other hand don't. I have been waiting for the end of the World Cup for one simple reason. I want to see a FIFA official shove one of those damn vuvuzelas up a supporters arse. On a somewhat sadder note it is almost certain that Paul won't be around for the next World Cup as his type of octopus only lives for a couple of years. Pity we can't say the same for people who blow vuvuzelas. Although since they live in South Africa perhaps we can.

My prediction for the next World Cup; the Duchy of Cleves to win on penalties against whatever is left of Serbia once the Serbians decide they want independence too.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Birthday Greetings # 9

Happy birthday to Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor. Ferdinand was born in Graz in 1578 and grew up in a troubling time for Europe. Some time previously Martin Luther had been indicted for vandalising a cathedral and since then religion in Europe has never been the same. The advent of Protestantism had resulted in political unrest, violent disputation, over night switches of faith and an increasing amount of physical violence. Or to put it another way religion was exactly the same.

When religion and politics mix it is generally best to watch the result from a different continent as so it proved in this case. A number of princes of the Holy Roman Empire converted to Protestantism (a couple of the truly hard core went Calvinist but everybody agreed that they were nutcases) partially from genuine religious feeling and partially as a way of reducing the Catholic emperors influence in the empire. Naturally the emperors took a dim view of this.

Despite all the ruckus Ferdinand was confirmed as King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and, in 1619, as Holy Roman Emperor. Ferdinand had a solution for the troubles in the land; Catholicism. Huge lumps of Catholicism administered with a side dish of more Catholicism. Bohemia was the first to receive the medicine, with a large Protestant minority (including some of the nobility) they were an easy target. During the reign of a previous emperor the Bohemian nobles had extracted a series of concessions which Ferdinand cheerfully ignored. The nobility rose in revolt and invited the Protestant Elector Palatine Frederick V to be their king instead. To emphasise their point they tossed a couple of representatives of the emperor out a window. Both men survived, the Catholics claimed the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Protestants pointed out that the pair had landed in a huge pile of shit which had cushioned their fall. It was nothing compared to the huge pile of shit the Bohemian nobility were about to land in.

Spitting blood and Catholic aphorisms Ferdinand marched against his rebellious subjects and at the Battle of White Mountain crushed them so completely that Czech independence was put on the back burner for three and a half centuries. This wake up call stunned the princes of the Empire who suddenly realised that if they wanted Protestantism they would have to fight for it. Ferdinand's position wasn't great as was usual for the Holy Roman Emperors he was flat broke and couldn't afford to pay an army. The Catholic princes of the empire although technically on his side weren't that crazy about an over powerful emperor either fortunately a combination of family money and ruthless opportunism came to his assistance. Spain was at that time the wealthiest kingdom in Europe and it was a wholly owned subsidiary of Habsburg World Domination Incorporated. Spanish money raised an army and provided a commander, Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly. Possibly the only time a Belgian has become a world famous military commander. Tilly was a hard but capable leader and he swiftly won victories over the forces of the Palatinate (that place that Frederick came from before stupidly accepting the crown of Bohemia).

Still broke Ferdinand turned now to opportunism in the form of a ruthless member of the (Catholic) Bohemian nobility by the name of Albrecht von Wallenstein. Wallenstein undertook to raise (and most importantly pay) an army to serve in the emperors name. He proved to be an even greater military genius than Tilly and Ferdinand's troops rampaged through the empire. With victory seemingly within his grasp Ferdinand drew up ordinances which had a lot to do with retribution and very little to do with christian charity. The terrified surviving Protestants banded together and begged the King of Sweden (who conveniently had a large army on the border) to come and save them. This king Gustav Adolfus proved to be an even greater commander than Tilly or Wallenstein and began restoring the balance of power. All this time the French were sitting on the sidelines, funding the Protestants and trying not to laugh their heads off.

Wallenstein, you may be surprised to learn, had not raised an army and rained death down on Germany out of love for his monarch and had been using his position to gather titles and territories the way some people collect stamps. In response to a rising tide of discontent Ferdinand sacked him. Then Tilly sacked Magdeburg and the Swedes defeated him in battle. Swiftly Ferdinand unsacked Wallenstein and gave him command of what were after all Wallenstein's armies. The greatest clash of the war took place at the Battle of Lutzen where Wallenstein was defeated but Gustav Adolfus was killed. This seemed to give Ferdinand the whip hand but unfortunately Wallenstein who had always been a little weird now seemed to be going completely gaga. When he demanded that his officers take an oath of loyalty to him personally Ferdinand had had enough. His actual responsibility for what happened next is unsure but he probably made some variant on the "Who shall rid me of this turbulent priest" speech. He certainly didn't seem particularly put out when a group of imperial officers murdered Wallenstein in his bed.

With the departure of all three talented military leaders (Tilly had died in battle somewhat earlier) the war ground on with the French finally stepping in to support the Protestants and the Spanish to support Ferdinand. The war was still going when Ferdinand died leaving his son and namesake to sort out the mess.

For the record the peace that ended the Thirty Years War appeared to be a disaster for the Habsburgs as it confirmed the right of every prince to sponsor whatever religion he wanted (as long as it was Catholic or Protestant) and reduced the powers of the emperor to pretty much nothing. On the other hand Ferdinand's ruthless suppression of Protestantism within his own personal lands made them a solid Catholic bulwark and more loyal to the Habsburgs as a result. One other thing came out of the war. After their experience with Wallenstein the Habsburgs decided to raise a standing army so that they need never fear such an over mighty subject again. It is also probably the origin of the Habsburgs highly ambiguous attitude towards genius in general and military genius in particular. Mediocrities might not win battles but they don't overthrow emperors either.

Domestic Tip #8

To make dinner tastier and easier to prepare; eat out.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Banking Secrecy Laws and Weddell Seals are a Winning Combination

My shoes leak. My shoes always leak. I keep telling myself that I need to buy shoes that don't leak but I don't tell myself this at the right time. I tell myself I should buy new shoes when its raining but by then my feet are already wet and there doesn't seem much point. Of course I don't buy new shoes when it isn't raining because my shoes don't leak then. I may be the first person in my apartment block to get trench foot. Even my slippers have holes in them (although skilfully stuffed with newspaper).

As might be seen from the above its raining again. Australia is supposed to be the driest continent inhabited continent in the world but you wouldn't believe it if you had visited me over the last few months. Besides the term "inhabited" is a cop out. Penguins are people too and that puts Antarctica back in the game. Actually penguins aren't people, if they were people they'd move somewhere warmer. What is the point of trying to live in Antarctica anyway? People worry about penguins and whales and seals but I personally think any species that chooses to live its life in a frozen hellscape is just begging for extinction. Take the Weddell seal for example. The Weddell seal lives its entire life in Antarctic waters rather than swimming north in Winter like the marginally more sensible whales. In order to breath it scrapes a hole in the sea ice with its teeth. The Weddell seal has the shortest life span of any seal because all that scraping wears its teeth out and then it starves to death. Can you imagine deliberately encouraging your doom simply so you can continue to live in the most god forsaken place on earth?

There can only be one thing more truly stupid than living your life in a wretched place like the Antarctic and then dying because you can't scrape a hole in the ice any more. This is when an animal that lives in a much nicer climate travels to such a place for no particularly good reason. Human race, step forward. Yes, its true. The Weddell seal may be stupid but it was born in the Antarctic and knows no better. Humans are born, for the most part, in much nicer places but insist on travelling to Antarctica anyway. I can almost see the Weddell seals gathering around Scott of the Antarctic's frozen corpse and wondering what the hell he thought he was playing at.

Humans have always done this. No matter how bleak or miserable a place is some portion of the population always seems to want to go somewhere worse. As I mentioned before Iceland was colonised by people from Norway for crying out loud. Of course there may be reasons; population pressures, persecution of some kind, the possibility of resources to exploit, sheer mind buggering stupidity the list goes on.

The Human race started off in Africa, that's an ok continent. All right there are some deserts and heaps of lions and crocodiles but by and large it seems reasonably liveable. But that wasn't good enough for Humans oh no. The first place we went to was apparently the Middle East. Does anybody think that was an improvement? After that emigration becomes a bit more understandable as people tried to get the hell away from the place but that initial surge is hard to explain.

I suspect that a good part of our urge to explore comes from the fact that certain people are encouraged to go somewhere else and see what's there. If you take a look at many of the ground breaking pioneers and explorers we see a group of dangerously unstable malcontents that any self respecting nation might have been glad to get rid of. Russia colonised Siberia by the simple expedient of sending prisoners there until some of them didn't die. Francisco Pizarro who conquered half of South America was a ruthless mercenary who ran out of wars in Europe. Britain colonised a third of the world as a means of employing otherwise useless offspring of the ruling classes. Oh, and money. People will go to hell if they think they can make a buck. They will stay if the money flow seems permanent. Antarctica is one set of banking secrecy laws away from being the new Liechtenstein.

Think about it for the moment. They both have lots of snow, a low population and there really isn't a good reason for going to or living in either place. Of course the weather is better in Liechtenstein but on the other hand you don't get Weddell seals in Liechtenstein. And Weddell seals are rather cute.

Monday, July 5, 2010

She's Finger Licking Good

There is an article on the Sydney Morning Herald website entitled "Jam Made From Princess Diana's Hair Sells Well". Sometimes I wonder why I bother with this blog. Real life just seems to be more bizarre than anything I can make up. Before everybody rushes out to buy a jar of Diana Spencer Conserve I should warn you that it was made specifically for an art exhibition in London. The maker claims he did it to "provoke people into thinking about food marketing and what they eat". Personally I think he is trying to introduce cannibalism by stealth. Cannibalism has gained a bad reputation over the past fifty thousand years or so and Hannibal Lecter didn't really do much for it either.

With the imprimatur of the Princess of Wales however I think that cannibalism could be making an overdue comeback. Like many other habits it started out on the fringes of society and has been going mainstream. Think of it like tattooing. Thirty years ago the only people with tattoos were prisoners, bikies and prostitutes. Oh, and Maoris. Great people the Maoris, won't hear a word said against them. Please don't hit me. But for non Maoris tattooing used to be an indication of definite lower class status. Now everybody has tattoos, well not me but I'm sensible. There's no way I'm allowing somebody near me with a needle unless they have a medical degree or ask nicely. Now cannibalism is getting on the bandwagon. Formerly the domain of a handful of crazed perverts who communicated via the internet (or gaol) cannibalism has developed to the stage where it can be spread on your toast.

This is great news for the Princess of Wales who would no doubt have faded into obscurity if she wasn't now a meal fit for a king (or at least a prince). I anticipate that jars of jam with her picture on the label could be in supermarkets all over Britain by Christmas, as long as the hair holds out. After that's gone we're going to have to see what other bits of her we can scrape up. This will only be the start of course. Now that she has shown the way no doubt other, lesser celebrities will jump on the bandwagon. We can expect to see jelly from Jordan, sweetmeats from Graham Norton and herpes from Paris Hilton. I realise the last isn't a food but I can't think of anything else one might get from Paris Hilton. Pretty soon it will be the last word in social elegance at dinner parties to serve up a small portion of the host for the delectation of the guests. This is an excellent idea as it will open up a whole new field for gossip columnists and other unemployables who will be able to pass rumours and scuttlebutt about who exactly tasted of what and who wasn't as delicious as you might think. Just think of the gossip mag headlines "Fettucine Jolie Falls Flat" and other such gems.

Naturally there will be a certain limit to the number of dinner parties you can actually throw. When each party means the loss of a portion of yourself you will limit parties to special occasions and only invite those you genuinely want to see. "Shall we invite the Harrises?" "God no, I'm not having them chewing my ear the entire night". And just think of the cachet of being invited to the last party the host can possibly hold. Think of it as a wake where the guest of honour is also the dish of the day. Cannibalism of this sort will limit the number of dinner parties thrown and will thus lead to a reduction in the number of arguments with the neighbours, embarrassment in front of colleagues and probably divorces. How many failed marriages got their fatal blow because of behaviour at a dinner party of some kind? With the host hovering anxiously to see if you like his kidney I'm sure there will be less inclination for unacceptable behaviour.

Of course cannibalism will be extremely popular with certain types of environmentalists and other people who persist in believing that a large population is an indication of failure rather than success. We will have to be careful to make sure that these people don't hijack the agenda or cannibalism will lose its social standing in a heartbeat, to say nothing of what People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans might get up to. But these are just minor concerns that will not outweigh the benefits of increased good manners, reduced divorce statistics and a rediscovery of social etiquette. Of course barbecues and bring a plate nights will need to be handled carefully, you don't want to go to all the trouble of slicing off a piece of your thigh to find that six other people have had the same idea, nevertheless I think we can look forward to a slightly more civilised future.

Cannibalism: Helping to Preserve Society's Values. Feel free to use that slogan if you think it will help.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Clap Your Hands if You Believe in Monegasques

What are Monegasques? Apparently they are the citizens of Monaco. However they are not just any citizens of Monaco; they are people who were born there of native stock. They comprise about twenty percent of the population apparently. All the other inhabitants of Monaco consist of those people who moved to Monaco just before the financial police in their country of origin felt their collars. With the possible exception of the Grimaldi family itself I don't think I know of any Monegasques and I'm starting to seriously wonder whether any actually exist.

For starters Monaco is so built up that there probably isn't room for a woman to give birth without the baby hitting a couple of tax evaders on its way out. Secondly, and much more importantly, how could these people possibly afford to live in Monaco? I rather suspect that any child not of millionaire birth is discreetly escorted to the border when they're old enough to walk. Think about this for a moment, Monaco revolves around wealth (and a fair bit of wealth revolves around Monaco) but what about those people who don't have any and are only in Monaco because of an accident of birth. I find it difficult to believe that clerks, postmen, pool cleaners and the like could possibly afford the rents in Monaco even if they were born there. This theory is given credence by the fact that a good proportion of the people who work in Monaco actually commute from France.

Monaco is somewhat on the small side, I've been in carparks that are larger, and even cramming its thirty thousand odd citizens (of both sorts) in must be quite a chore. Despite this Monaco has room for an oceanographic centre and a royal palace. They even have a football team which competes in the French league. Actually their football team does quite well due to the fact that large numbers of skilled footballers tend to move to Monaco and then drop in to play a few games for the local team to keep in practice. Football aside teams from Monaco don't exactly set the sporting world on fire although if money laundering ever becomes an Olympic sport (and there are representations from the Turks & Caicos and the BVI) then it will be gold, gold, gold to Monaco all the way. I can't help wondering what the presence of so many international stars does to the ambitions of rising young Monegasque footballers. Another reason I think for refusing to believe in Monegasques.

There is some evidence that there might be a few Monegasques about. For instance the prince is guarded by about a hundred of them. The Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince are raised in Monaco (although the officers are, apparently, French) and hang around the palace looking impressive. That's about it for a military presence in Monaco although their fire brigade is officially a military force and has its own arsenal. Seriously, who arms their fire brigade? Social workers in Monaco probably have their own armoured vehicles. Even as I typed that last sentence I could visualise social workers in Australia nodding in agreement and going green with envy.

Despite the wealth of job opportunities available in the palace guarding and combat fire fighting fields I really don't think its enough to soak up all the available Monegasque manpower indicated by a twenty percent share of the population. I think there are at most a couple of hundred Monegasques who move around a lot at census time. They are probably over represented in such things because most of the inhabitants of Monaco have already proved they're not crazy about providing too much in the way of information to people from the government asking questions.