Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let's Call it the Disaster Games

The Commonwealth Games starts in a few days. Excitement is mounting and the Australian public is getting more and more impatient to see what they have been expecting for months. Principally what they want to see is a major games venue collapse on top of a collection of dengue fever riddled athletes who can't escape because they're too busy fighting snakes and anyway corrupt police and terrorists have blocked all the exits. This has been the most fascinating games build up in living memory. For the first time ever I actually have some vague interest in the Commonwealth Games.

I think India should be commended for creating such a buzz about these games. Sure you could hold it in a healthy climate, with fewer snakes and terrorists and construction codes that aren't written on the back of an envelope. We did that in Melbourne a few years ago; boring. The most exciting thing in the whole event was waiting for one of the synchronised swimmers to drown (how is that even a sport?). But just give the games to India and look what happens; excitement, interest, government travel warnings. It makes the whole ridiculous business almost worthwhile. The Indian organisers have stepped up to the plate (despite the fact that baseball is about the only sport not being played) and carefully drip fed a catalogue of disasters to the salivating media thus creating a rising tide of expectation and enthusiasm that the games themselves couldn't hope to generate. The only danger now is that everything will go smoothly once the opening ceremony starts and people will lose interest.

Honestly though, here is a message to all the athletes out there whining about conditions in Delhi; harden the fuck up! You're going to India not Monte Carlo. So India has snakes, fever, dodgy construction and groups of people who like to kill other groups of people. You can't really have been that surprised. I knew all that about India despite the fact that my only knowledge of the country comes from reading The Boy Biggles when I was about twelve. One of the South African team members was whining about a snake in his room. As if South Africa doesn't have snakes. They've got mambas there buddy, they'll really wreck your day.

Once upon a time, as a friend of mine keeps informing me with perhaps a little too much attention to detail, athletes competed nude in the open air. The ancient Greek Olympics didn't need magnificent venues or snake wranglers. All they needed was an open field and some spare time. For people who are supposed to represent the physical elite of their nations I can't help thinking these athletes are being a little bit precious. "Oh I can't go to India, my room is dirty. Oh I might catch fever." I've been on holidays with more risk attached and nobody offered to pay for my accommodation (no matter how grubby) and I took the fever medication with me.

Terrorism is a genuine concern of course, nobody goes to the Commonwealth Games expecting to die, or even achieve much really, but what's the alternative. Terrorists are pretty much everywhere these days. We either close down the planet for the duration or take what precautions we can and hope for the best. At least the Indian authorities are used to dealing with terrorist threats. If we'd held the games somewhere safe like (to pick a former colonial outpost at random) Ascension Island then we would have the most boring games imaginable. Although since Ascension doesn't have any inhabitants at least it wouldn't be too irritating for the locals.

India may not be the safest place on the planet but somehow over a billion people manage to get by there every single day. The place can't be a total deathtrap. Actually I rather suspect that most of the fear mongering is coming from those people who will not be going anywhere near India for the duration. "The Games Are Going to be a Disaster" is a great motif for the more irresponsible type of current affairs program (ie: all of them) and scaring the bejesus out of their audience is pretty much their stock in trade. Personally while I think there will be a vast amount of nervousness and worry those involved will nevertheless swallow hard and manfully sit down in front of the television and watch the games. Or in my case sit down in front of the television and not watch the games. I'm sorry but it will take the declaration of all out nuclear war between India and Pakistan to make me tune in.

I am hoping Mozambique can pick up a medal though.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Show Your Love of the Environment: Shoot Something Today

In my opinion there is no greater achievement for an author than to write so well that he can captivate me on a topic I have no interest in. Sadly there seems to be no end of authors who can bore me to tears while writing on topics that fascinate me. One of the most enjoyable books I have ever read was a book on bird watching by Bill Oddie. I think I read it in a single sitting and I loved it all the way through. I have never gone bird watching in my life nor do I intend to but the book was great.

Bird watching is one of those curious pass times that seem to exist solely to make it difficult to categorise a person. No sooner do you think you have a handle on someone's personality than some bizarre quirk turns up to make you wonder if you know them at all. Theodore Roosevelt was a keen bird watcher. An entire chapter of his autobiography is devoted to the birds you could see in close proximity to his home and the delight he felt in adding new species to his collection on a trip to England. This is Teddy Roosevelt we're talking about here, who never met an animal he didn't shoot.

Another bird watching freak was Field Marshal, Viscount Alanbrooke Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the Second World War. Apparently when Alanbrooke wasn't running Britain's war effort and keeping the brandy decanter out of Churchill's clutches he could be found crouching in bushes looking at robins. One wonders, hadn't he ever heard of a zoo?

The closest I have come to bird watching is staring avidly while my father carves a chicken. This is better than bird watching for a number of reasons. You can do it indoors, you don't have to get up early and there is a strong implication that very soon your plate will be laden with chicken. I don't really understand bird watching but then I don't understand most outdoor exploits. My father in law once showed me a farm where the owner raised pheasants for shooting. I suggested that if you liked shooting birds surely it made more sense simply to take a shotgun to an aviary. He generously assumed I was joking and I was, more or less.

Humans have a strangely schizophrenic relationship with animals. On the one hand we kill them all over the place but on the other we will frequently move heaven and earth to keep them alive. Quite often the same people are involved. I've already mentioned Roosevelt who killed more animals than an abbattoir but was almost single handledly responsible for creating the US Forest Service. There is an even more unlikely example; Hermann Goering, the bloated, morphine addled art thief who mismanaged the German Air Force in the Second World War also had a keen interest in conservation. As with Roosevelt it seemed to derive from his habit of killing animals every chance he got. Goering gloried in his title (he collected them like stamps) of Reich Jagermeister. Essentially this was a position which gave him responsibility for doing body shots off twenty year old girls. However Goering also used the position to reorganise Germany's national parks, reintroduce endangered species and implement a series of anti vivisection laws which are the model for those Germany has today. Yet whenever he could take time off from building concentration camps, bombing cities and working slave labourers to death Goering could be found in the forests shooting deer.

It does make a certain amount of logical sense that hunters should be conservationists. After all if there are no more forests and no more animals there will be nothing left to shoot. This fact leads me to a rather uneasy conclusion; it is probably a good thing that Greenpeace and sporting shooters don't realise how much they have in common. If they ever get together we will have the makings of a very well armed insurgency on our hands.

Drink What the Bear Drinks Not What He Sells

There is a town in Queensland called Bundaberg. The town is set in the middle of a sugar cane growing region and as you might expect much of the industry in town centres on sugar and sugar by products. The most famous by product in Australia is Bundaberg rum known as "Bundy" because good luck trying to pronounce Bundaberg after you've had a few.

The advertising for Bundaberg rum usually includes a large polar bear which is the brand's mascot. Pardon me while I just try to get my head around that; a spirit produced in a tropical region of a southern hemisphere continent is marketed using a polar bear. It would be like trying to market Russian vodka by using a giraffe. " Szyitzfass vodka, enjoy it all the way down ". I would get a job in advertising but I've already sold my soul for a packet of cornflakes. Why a bear though? Bears, to the best of my knowledge, are not prevalent in any of the rum producing areas of the world and why can a seven foot polar bear walk into a pub without producing a rush for the exits?

There is a series of television commercials featuring the bear and a group of (human) friends. I don't know whether its coincidence or a subtle warning but the bear who promotes the alcohol is far more intelligent and sophisticated than the boofheads who drink it. I suspect the bear has a secret room at home filled with fine wines and high end whisky. I'll also bet he never invites his bundy drinking friends around whenever he opens a bottle.

I love the bundy rum commercials, they're usually funny and frequently clever and the bear is a definite winner. I would cheerfully go out for a drink with the bear. We won't be drinking bundy though. That stuff is dreadful.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dialogues with the Dead

A lot of people don't think particularly clearly. Take as an example the well worn question "If you had all of history at your disposal, what famous people would you invite to a dinner party?" You get answers that will range from Cleopatra, Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci all the way through to Ivan the Terrible; Elvis and Einstein always draw a big crowd as well. That's going to be some dinner party; you and a bunch of dead people. Of course there are advantages to hosting a party for a group of corpses. You won't have to spend much on food and there'll be no crowding at the condiments tray. However the conversation isn't going to be very lively and with the possible exception of Einstein I don't think any of the above speak English.

This is what I mean by not thinking clearly. People are actually much better at thinking unclearly. There are certain benefits to this, brevity for example. In the question above it is assumed that if you can invite historical figures to dinner you can probably also revivify them and give them a crash course in English while the appetizers are going around. This is all taken as read by the unclear thinker. Unclear thinking also allows people in fundamental disagreement to believe that they aren't. This leads to a reduction in conflict at least up until the point when one of the parties realises they've been screwed. But the world was ever thus.

The greatest benefit unclear thinking grants is social. Since most people do not think clearly they tend to regard anyone who does as a pedantic wanker. John Howard, our previous prime minister but one, gained a rare moment of sympathy from me when, in 1999, he pointed out to a television interviewer that the twenty first century would not actually begin until the year 2001. The interviewer didn't follow it up but the expression on his face indicated that he thought our prime minister was a moron. Clear thinkers need to get used to this. What do you think is more likely, that a stupid person will say "I'm stupid so this carefully considered statement by somebody more intelligent is probably correct" or "Hey, this guy dumb"?

Clear thinkers lead a lonely ostracized life, driven out from society like a sick sheep. For such people only a career in law can bring some slight joy to their friendless existence. Unless they combine clear thinking with a penchant for creating imaginary and largely irrelevant concepts in which case they become economists. Saddest of all is the stupid clear thinker. They may not know much but the little they do know they can state with clarity and conviction. They are thus loathed as intellectuals by stupid non clear thinkers, sneered at by intelligent non clear thinkers and employed by economists to give a veneer of respectability to some of their more outrageously irresponsible antics like credit default swaps and the World Bank.

I can think clearly sometimes. Those occasions tend to turn up in inverse proportion to my need for clear thinking. For the rest of the time my thought patterns tend to resemble a Rorschach test. Always assuming Rorschach was drunk and coming down off acid when he took the test. Sometimes having a brain that wanders like an epileptic cow in a minefield is useful (for example when trying to spin a rather simple thought like "how about inviting a bunch of dead people to dinner" into an entire blog entry) on other occasions such as when signing mortgage documents its not so much fun.

Unclear thinking is definitely the dominant thought paradigm in our society. I don't even know what that last sentence means but it sounds pretty impressive so I'm going to leave it in. Since virtually nobody thinks clearly there is little point in attempting to change matters. If you give people what they need they will be ungrateful. If you give people what they want they will be ungrateful and quite possibly dead. But if you give people what they think they need they will consider you a genius.

And if you can work out what that is, quite possibly you are.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Birthday Greetings #15

My its a big month for birthdays. On this occasion the shout out goes to Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick was the Habsburg Duke of Inner Austria and the second Habsburg in succession to hold the imperial crown (although they had held the title once or twice previously). Frederick wasn't elected emperor due to any personal qualities he may have possessed but largely on the strength of his name. In the early fifteenth century the states of Germany were sadly aware that the empire no longer commanded the universal respect it had a century or two ago. They yearned for the days of the empire under Frederick I and thought that the next best thing was to elect another guy named Frederick. This didn't turn out as well as they had hoped. Frederick I had been given the epithet "Barbarossa" a reference to his red hair but also indicative of a wild and ferocious spirit. The next Frederick was given the epithet "Stupor Mundi" which apparently means "The Astonishment of the World" (or possibly "I'm comatose on Mondays"). What did our Frederick get as an epithet? "The Fat".

At first glance Frederick's reign (and indeed his entire life) looks like an unmitigated disaster. Actually a second and third glance will probably tell the same story. He was distant, slow of movement and, apparently, thought and spent most of his life wandering from place to place as the armies of his various enemies kicked him out of wherever he happened to be residing. However there was something about Frederick. He had a stubborn, remorseless refusal to let reality interfere with his outlook on life. And eventually reality came around. Attacked on all sides, frequently by members of his own family, Frederick lost every battle he ever fought but proved more adept at politics of the Richard III kind. Somehow he was always beaten but never quite defeated. He stubbornly asserted his rights, even when everybody was laughing at him, and was prepared to wait forever until they were recognised. By refusing to relinquish the letter of his power even when military action deprived him of its actuality he laid a basis for future, more vigorous emperors to regain what he had lost. His patience served him in another area as well, while he sat and waited his enemies died. His brother (who had waged war against him) died and Frederick inherited his lands. His nephew (whom Frederick had locked up in a tower) died and Frederick inherited those lands as well.

He married his son Maximilian to the daughter of Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Charles, known as the Rash (probably because Charles the Psychopathic Maniac didn't look good on letterhead) predictably died in a pointless battle soon afterwards and the fabulously wealthy Burgundian lands became part of the Habsburg heritage. Towards the end of his reign he associated Maximilian with his rule. This encouraged the electors to elect Maximilian as emperor after Frederick's death and the joining of Maximilian's quicksilver vitality with Frederick's stolid experience and determination proved a workable combination.

Despite the unremitting gloom of his reign Frederick laid the basis for Habsburg power, cementing the crown of the empire within his family and initiating the first of a series of spectacularly successful marriage contracts which would result in the Habsburgs dominating half of Europe. Whether Frederick himself was visionary enough to realise the path he had set his dynasty on is open to doubt. There is one interesting fact though; Frederick (like many Habsburgs) loved cyphers and symbology. He took as his personal cypher AEIOU. What this stood for he never quite explained but the most common interpretation is Alles Erdreich Ist Osterreich Untertan. The Whole World is Subject to Austria.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Memo to Lions: We'll Eat the Bacon & Eggs, You Take Care of the Gazelles

Is there any way in which bacon and eggs cannot taste good? Fried, scrambled, omeletted or in a quiche eggs and bacon are the perfect food. I venture to suggest that if you force fed a pig nothing but eggs and then licked its sweat you would still get something delicious. My apologies to anyone who was eating while reading that last sentence.

It should be accepted, however, that eating is essentially a gross and disgusting business. Animals are killed, plants are ripped from the life giving soil then the pair are hacked into bits, burnt and put on plate. Behind every meal is a trail of carnage that would make Attila the Hun go pale. I think this is why good cooking is considered so important. The better the meal the easier it is to quiet that little voice in the back of your head reminding you where the deliciousness comes from. Vegetarians needn't feel smug or superior at this point. They are single handedly responsible for the worst plant devastation since agent orange. I don't remember soy beans and organically grown vegeburgers actually volunteering to hop onto a dinner plate. If you do remember such a thing stop picking your own mushrooms.

From the outside the natural world is such a beautiful, serene place. Close up it resembles a game of Grand Theft Auto set in a zoo. Across the wide beautiful magical world is a hideous deathscape of bloodshed and ferocity. Even the plants those seemingly innocent tokens of nature's beauty eagerly plunge their roots into soil made fertile by the carcasses of the fallen and the remnants of their own kind. Plants are cannibals in the most fundamental way reaching delicate tendrils towards the sky while standing on the bones of their own kin.

Not that the animals are any better; who hasn't watched a nature documentary and hoped against hope that the graceful little gazelle will outpace the marauding lion? Except me of course, I watch nature documentaries with a tawny coloured scarf and a little "Go Lions" flag that I wave every time there's a kill. Still I can understand why people have sympathy for the gazelle; such a delicate, graceful creature fated to be crushed beneath a couple of hundred kilograms of killing machine. But think for a moment. What if the lion missed that kill? What if it missed every kill? Soon our fearless marauder of the plains would be a skinny, mangy wreck stumbling along without hope or direction until the inevitable day when rising takes too much effort. The golden eyes would close for the last time and the vultures and hyenas would gather to feast on a meal not quite dead. Anything left would enter the soil and the savannah grass and bushes would grow fat on the bounty. These grasses and bushes incidentally are what the gazelle eats, something to think about next time you shed a tear at a gazelle's imminent demise.

Eating is messy and brutal but ultimately much more fun than not eating. Besides if everything wasn't killing stuff all over the place imagine how crowded the world would be. After the fifth time you tripped over a gazelle on the way to the bathroom you might be wanting a few lions around yourself.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Birthday Greetings #14

Happy birthday to Leo VI, emperor of Byzantium. Leo was supposedly the second emperor of the Macedonian dynasty being the "son" of Basil the first Macedonian (actually Armenian). It breaks down like this. Basil was an illiterate horse breaker who served one of the nobles in Constantinople. One day the emperor, Michael, was given a magnificent but untameable horse and said noble offered Basil's services. Basil calmed the horse down and a delighted Michael gave him a place in his own household. According to the histories (which were mostly written after Michael's death) the emperor was a worthless drunk who left most of the governing to one of his favourites. Now however he had a new favourite and it wasn't long before Basil had supplanted him (according to one story Basil hacked the man to bits in the emperors own tent). Now Basil was running the empire and it swiftly occurred to him that he could do it a lot better if he didn't have to humour an irritating drunk. Michael duly met a messy demise and Basil settled down to run the whole show. Some time prior to this Michael had forced Basil to divorce his wife and marry the emperors mistress. This was a handy way of introducing her into the palace. Leo was technically the son of Basil and this woman. Father and son seem to have loathed each other and when Basil died in a "hunting accident" Leo ascended to the throne.

Many things happened during Leo's reign, wars (which he mostly lost) a recodification of laws (which earned him the epithet "the Wise") and the opening of trade relations with the Russians (after a war or two first). The thing Leo is most remembered for is his wives. He had four of them which to the orthodox church was about three more than really appropriate. Perhaps as a reaction to the hint of illegitimacy which surrounded him Leo was desperate to have a recognised male heir. Unfortunately his first wife was a religious freak and eventually retired to a nunnery where she obligingly died. Leo cheerfully married his mistress (her own husband having equally conveniently died) and looked forward to a nursery full of kids. Unfortunately two years later (and without having produced the hoped for son) she also died. By this time Leo was getting a little desperate and the church was getting a little less easygoing. One marriage was fine, indeed appropriate. Two could be forgiven but three was just starting to turn the whole affair into a farce. But Leo was the emperor, arms were twisted, promises made and the marriage took place. Nine months later the empress gave birth to a boy but died on the delivery table. A few days later the infant son followed his mother to the grave. At this point Leo must have started to believe he was cursed. A clearer thinker would believe his wives were cursed. What to do? The church may have reluctantly agreed to a third marriage but they drew the line at four. Leo took a mistress and the church nodded approvingly (apparently this was better than yet another wife). The church was going to be disappointed. The mistress, Zoe, gave birth to a son and after a few nervous moments both looked like they were going to hang around. Now that he had a son Leo needed to make him legitimate and that meant marrying the boys mother. In deep secrecy before a simple parish priest Leo and Zoe were married. When the announcement was made the church exploded.

At this time the orthodox church was divided between two camps. The Photians who were intellectuals, worldly and generally sympathetic towards to emperor's position and the Ignatians who were narrow, generally uneducated and rabidly religious. The emperor had eased the path of his previous marriages by favouring the Photians but they had now nailed their colours to the mast by previously stating that the third marriage must be the last. Nothing loathe the emperor approached the Ignatians. Theoretically they should have been opposed to it but it is amazing how flexible a man can be when the patriarchy of Constantinople is dangled before his eyes. A pretext was found, the appointment was made and Leo's son was retrospectively legitimised. Leo had to miss out on going to church for a couple of years but to his mind the price was well worth it.

With the succession assured and his church tearing itself to bits Leo laid down life's weary burden thus ensuring that his widow and young son had a thoroughly miserable existence.

They Rule the World

There are three things that a Sydneysider can take for granted no matter what their race, colour, wealth, class or creed. These things are; pigeons, rats and cockroaches. They are silent partners in our civilisation. Wherever the human race flourishes so these eternal companions flourish right along with us. Of course there are more of them in cities; there has to be, in cities there are more humans for them to look after. Incidentally has anybody noticed that cities, while moderately acceptable to humans, are ideal for rats, pigeons and cockroaches? Coincidence? I think not.

With few exceptions people loathe them, avoid them and from time to time make a concerted effort to exterminate them but to no avail. The simple truth is that even at its most hostile our fat, luxury sodden civilisation is infinitely more appealing to them than living in the wild. I firmly believe that this scabby triumvirate have been secretly manipulating us for millennia. As our civilisation has risen towards the stars they have risen with us, the grotty standard bearers of our ascension.

Much is made of vanishing species these days. Amphibians are apparently dying out all over the place and bees are making themselves scare as well. Various doomsayers have seized on this as evidence of our planets environmental collapse and perhaps they're right but I personally won't start to worry until the rats, pigeons and cockroaches start disappearing. When you can toss away a half eaten sandwich without pigeons descending Hitchcock like from the skies; when you can turn on the light in the middle of the night and not see a group of cockroaches heading for the skirting boards; when you can sift through piles of rubbish without having to be concerned about rat bites, then you will know that we are doomed.

We have a symbiotic relationship with these creatures, they urge us on to greater things, a better, more civilised world and they grow fat on its offcuts. I think it is past time for a serious reappraisal of our secret manipulators. I don't say we should like them or even care for them very much but I do feel that a level of healthy respect is in order. We should also keep a close eye on them; it might be the difference between life and death. On a purely intellectual level it would be fascinating to find out where the human race is going to go next. What plans do our shadow masters have for our future? Perhaps a little discreet study will reveal them.

Although god knows what we're going to do if we don't like them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dark Matter Probably Won't Lower Funeral Costs

I've often wondered why people get so excited about organic food. It's still basically food. Is it really worth spending extra money to guarantee that instead of chemicals your food is going to be grown in a mixture of corpses and shit? After all corpses and shit have chemicals in them too. Pretty much everything does except possibly for dark matter. Nobody quite knows what comprises dark matter. Personally I suspect it was invented by physicists so they didn't have to admit they got their sums wrong. Still they are putting quite a bit of energy (of the non dark variety) into finding it. The latest effort consists of a monitoring station at the bottom of a disused coal mine. I have to admit if you're looking for dark matter a coal mine is probably a good place to start. The damn stuff is all over the place down there.

Apparently being able to definitely identify dark matter would contribute materially to our understanding of the universe. Personally, I doubt it. As with every other major scientific discovery of the last fifty years or so it will probably contribute to our lack of understanding of the universe. A century ago the universe consisted of stars, planets, moons, the occasional asteroid and comet and gravity. Even I could understand that. A hundred years of unremitting research has brought us to the point where nobody knows what the hell is going on. Dark matter is unlikely to help much. The most understanding dark matter will do is to free up resources so that we can look at all of the questions that the existence of dark matter doesn't answer. I don't know what these questions are but I'm confident they exist. You can consider them my own personal dark matter if you like.

It is unlikely that a detailed explanation of dark matter will help us resolve the "why do people buy organic food?" question or the "why is food grown in a mixture of rotting cadavers and bodily waste so much better than that grown in chemicals specifically designed to promote growth?".

On a related topic I see from the newspaper that there is a clash between two interest groups over a patch of open land in Sydney. Part of this land is occupied by Chinese market gardeners who grow culturally appropriate Chinese vegetables. The other part is occupied by a cemetery. Guess which bit is trying to expand at the expense of the other? The opinion columnist in the paper was thoroughly on the side of the gardeners and made all of the predictable jokes about fertilizer and the foolishness of planting something that won't actually grow. Although to be fair I think if we buried granny and next year there was a granny tree in the same location there would be a fair few kiddies freaking out.

Funerals (and the burials that frequently go with them) are big business so I think we can all guess who is going to win this particular argument. What I don't understand is why death is such a big business. Normally an oversupply of something leads to a reduction in price but we have death all over the place and funeral costs just keep going up. The other thing I don't get is why is there such a big deal about death anyway. It isn't exclusive in any respect; it frequently gets handed out in job lots at car accidents and other social gatherings.

Nevertheless the death industry is making a mint. I think people place too great an emphasis on death. The coffin, the service, the eulogy its all lovely but none of it is going to make the main character feel any better. Robbing the dead is considered particularly heinous as well. Why? They don't have any use for the stuff. In my opinion it is far better to rob the dead than rob the living. At least you can be pretty certain that the dead are finished with it. Incidentally exactly what is the statute of limitations before grave robbing becomes archaeology? And if I am found filing the gold teeth out of a freshly buried corpse could I legitimately explain that I am a potential archaeologist?

Of course the answer to the question of why death is a big business is simple. The death industry is about exploiting the living. Some emotionally shattered person turns up on a funeral parlour doorstep and sobs through the terrible story of how beloved Larry got caught in his own ride on mower and the funeral director thinks "I can make a few bucks out of this person". The customer themselves isn't blameless. They know in their soul that it doesn't really matter whether Larry gets interred in a pyramid with a collection of artifacts and ritually disemboweled ride on mowers or tossed onto a landfill but they eagerly grasp at the mink lined, mahogany coffin to "show respect" despite the fact that Larry's most significant achievement was remembering to wear pants before getting on the mower. The bereaved also knows that a bunch of relatives and in laws who mostly hate them will be turning up looking for an excuse to bitch about the funeral.

Like most things in life funerals are all about the living. The dead person may as well not be there and, if you believe some of the stories about funeral homes, quite possibly isn't. Funerals are about living human beings coming together ostensibly for the purpose of mutual comfort and grieving. The corpse is entirely optional. Which brings me to my plan. We keep the funeral homes, after all it is useful to have somebody to blame when the funeral goes pear-shaped but we get rid of the body. Speeches can be given, tears shed, ride on mowers burnt in effigy and everybody can move on to the real business of the day which is getting drunk at the wake and hitting on someone while they're emotionally vulnerable.

The funeral home can "take care" of the body. I don't think I need to go into details but they have a lot of land and organic vegetables are really hot right now.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Birthday Greetings #13

Happy birthday to John II Komnenos, Byzantine emperor (1118-1143). The date range presented represents his reign not his life which was somewhat longer. Apparently I do have to explain such things.

John II was the second emperor of the Komnenos dynasty and spent his reign rebuilding the empire. For those who came in late a quick recap is in order. In 1071 due to a combination of over confidence, mismanagement, treachery and suicidal idiocy at the highest levels of government the Byzantine empire suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Normally a serious military threat would prompt a rallying round the flag. Instead the Byzantine aristocracy chose this moment to engage in a series of crazy civil wars, throne seizing, plotting and anarchy. As a result after the battle (which needn't have been such a major setback) the Seljuk Turks, much to their own surprise, were able to pretty much wander into and conquer by default about half the empire.

Finally in 1081 one military thug managed to beat the crap out of all the others and bring the tattered and bankrupt empire some much needed stability. His name was Alexios Komnenos father to our birthday boy. Somehow Alexios dragged the empire back from the brink and managed to see off multiple threats from the Seljuks, Normans, Pechenegs and Paulicians. He was further aided when a group of heavily armed psychopaths turned up at Constantinople asking for directions to Jerusalem. Alexios lent them a map and as they slaughtered their way across Asia Minor he followed and stuck Byzantine flags on everything still standing. The capture of Jerusalem by this force (which history has dignified with the term The First Crusade) gave the Moslem population something else to worry about and Alexios gained a much needed breathing space. Finally after nearly thirty years of rule Alexios died (much to the joy of the populace who kind of hated him) and his son John took the throne.

Not without difficulty however; John's elder sister Anna had imperial ambitions for her husband and she had hated John from the day he was born. Anna and her mother (who like most people seems to have disliked Alexios despite being married to him) formed a plot to put Anna's husband on the throne. John moved swiftly and Anna spent the rest of her life in a nunnery where she occupied her time writing a biography that praised her father to the skies and insulted John as much as she dared.

Alexios had shored up his power base by promoting relatives to key commands but John who had learned not to trust his relatives looked to outsiders for support. Principal among them was a Turkish former slave named John Axouch who would act as John's commander in chief and closest confidant.

With the empire at least stable (if badly battered) John could start the process of restoration. It was probably beyond the depleted resources of the empire to regain everything that had been lost after Manzikert but what could be done John did. He shored up the European provinces (very important now that most of Asia was gone) and defeated both the Hungarians and the Serbs when they tried to raid imperial territory. Many of the defeated Serbs were transplanted to Anatolia in a typical piece of internal immigration. The imperial government would take rebellious subjects (or captured enemies) and dump them in the middle of a war zone with a strong hint that if they didn't want to end up slaves or dead they might like to defend the place.

John maintained good relations with the Holy Roman Empire in the west which was handy since his relations with Norman Sicily varied between hostile and outright war. With his European rear secured John then campaigned in Anatolia pushing back the Seljuks and recapturing a good deal of territory. Most of this territory was along the coast, the most valuable and easy to capture land. The rugged Anatolian hinterland remained beyond his grasp but with the Seljuks pushed back and the most financially useful territories back in the imperial fold money again started to flow into imperial coffers. Using his new gains as a springboard John moved down into the Levant where the Crusader states were nominally his vassals. Unfortunately while they liked the idea of imperial protection the rulers of Edessa and Antioch were less crazy about having the emperor backed by a victory hardened army in their midst. They sabotaged his campaign against the Muslim rulers of Damascus and eventually John had to pull back.

After a reign of twenty five years John suddenly died after scratching himself with a poison arrow while on a hunting trip. He was succeeded by his younger son Manuel.

Throughout his reign John was noted for his piety, frugality and mercy. It is said that no one was executed or mutilated by his order during his entire reign. Unlike his father (who admittedly had a harder row to hoe) John was loved by his people which may explain why one of the ugliest of the Byzantine emperors was given the apparently non ironic nickname "John the Beautiful".

Parental Discretion Advised but Not Expected

Keen readers of this blog (I fondly imagine there are some) will know that I celebrated my hundredth blog entry by doing a knife job on Stephanie Meyer. That entry required a little research. Actually since all I did was look her up on wikipedia it occurs to me I should probably remove the preposition from that last sentence. Anyway, one of the things the wikipedia entry mentioned was that a feminist newsletter claimed that Meyer was writing "abstinence porn". This is grossly unfair since most pornography I have encountered has been better written than Twilight.

More importantly though; what the hell is abstinence porn? And do people who get off on that really have to wade through the Twilight series in order to get sexually aroused by the lack of sex. Ok, so maybe Bella doesn't engage in sex before marriage. Perhaps Ms Meyer is sending a subtle message to her readership about not engaging in premarital intercourse. If so she is showing a level of skill evident nowhere else in her writing and does anyone else notice that as long as you marry a corpse apparently its ok to have sex with it?

When did making a point or sending a message become pornography? And if it is pornography why are children allowed to have mobile phones? If Twilight constitutes abstinence porn then I think we can make a case for the bible and the koran being classified as religious porn. The argument is a lot stronger at least on the basis of explicit intent. You could carry this argument to ridiculous lengths or rather, to be more accurate, even more ridiculous lengths. Could our court system be considered an example of "justice porn" which, after all, "must manifestly be seen to be done". Somebody was looking to attract voyeurs from day one. Possibly court transcripts should come in plain paper wrapping with a warning label, "Caution, the following pages contain explicit depictions of hard core justice. Reader discretion is advised". Of course there would be the little disclaimer down the bottom, "all participants were over the age of eighteen, we do not tolerate child justice".

Since there is virtually nothing that some person will not find sexually arousing possibly we should just classify the entire human race as suitable for adults only and send our children to Mars until they turn eighteen. Or possibly we should stop using emotive and wildly inaccurate words to describe something we disapprove of. I'm thinking the children on Mars scenario is the more likely.

Does anybody else remember a simpler, more decent time when pornography merely consisted of naked people having sex? Apparently our innocence is long gone.

What Will We Do When the Robots Get Rusty?

It is amazing how permanent our civilisation looks to the untrained eye. A swift glance around shows me towering buildings, harbour spanning bridges and roads, fat, wide and black like the arteries of a smoker. It all looks so solid, you can punch it as hard as you like without any result except broken fingers. Yet without constant maintenance the buildings would crumble, the bridges fall and the roads would resemble, well something close to what they are right now.

As we build more and more there is a commensurate rise in the amount of maintenance required to keep it all humming. Of course there is some rationalisation, old buildings and infrastructure are torn down and replaced with fresh and the maintenance assets can be reallocated accordingly. Indeed one of the main reasons for replacing old infrastructure is not because it has ceased to function but simply because the upkeep is getting too expensive. Since we continually build more, build bigger and build more sophisticated there must surely come a day when all of our resources are dedicated to patching up what we already have and there will be simply no capacity for new construction of any kind. We will become a race of squatters inhabiting the decaying monuments of our ancestors expending all of our efforts in a desperate attempt to stop the roof from falling in. Of course one day the decay will outrun our efforts to prevent it and then civilisation will crumble around us.

Once those structures are gone we won't be able to build new ones. Knowledge is like every other skill. If you don't use it, you lose it. Over the past few thousand years we have lost an incredible amount of knowledge as the applications for it became less and less relevant. In Britain some years ago a group of rail enthusiasts built themselves a steam engine. They were able to do this because one of their number, by sheer coincidence, found a copy of the original blueprints. If they hadn't made that discovery they wouldn't have been able to do it because nobody in Britain knows how to build a steam train engine from scratch anymore. It has been less than a hundred years since steam trains were the very symbol of modern civilisation and yet now we would be more successful in reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton. There is nothing really wrong with losing such knowledge because, of course, the steam trains have been replaced with more efficient substitutes. As long as we continue to do that we'll be all right.

But we won't continue to do that. The problem will arise when, after a few generations of doing nothing but maintain and repair existing infrastructure, we are called upon to build replacements. We won't be able to do it. Nobody will know how. We will become like the Mayans, hiding in the jungle hunting with spears a few miles away from a crumbling supercity that their ancestors built. The Mayans didn't suddenly become stupid, they just stopped building cities for a while and suddenly they were running through the jungle trying to avoid Mel Gibson. Rust and cobwebs gather about our civilisation and it is obvious that the human race is doomed.

Wait a minute! Of course; its so simple. Robots! We don't need to spend all that effort maintaining our civilisation. We'll just design robots to do all that for us. Then we can concentrate all our efforts on raising our civilisation to greater and greater heights. Hear me ye Gods, for the human race is rising and we shall challenge for your unapproachable throne. Our time of glory is coming and none shall equal our might and power. We shall gaze down from the pinnacles of our triumph and laugh at the scurrying ants beneath our feet.

Until of course we have to spend all our time maintaining the robots. Then we really will be doomed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What Would be Written on the Pope's T-Shirt?

As I sit in my favourite cafe (Satellite Expresso, still hoping for a free coffee) I look around and realise that virtually everyone, myself included, is wearing a black t-shirt. With a single exception all the t-shirts have witty or humorous or socially relevant comments on them (the exception has a dalek on it).

Once upon a time people needed to develop opinions and be able to expound on them at length either verbally or in print. Now they just buy the appropriate t-shirt. All of the philosophical and political beliefs of humanity have been boiled down to the cloth equivalent of twitter. I'm not the first to notice this; one of my favourite Americans, PJ O'Rourke, once wrote that if Martin Luther were alive today he would have had to nail ninety five t-shirts to the door of Wittemburg church to have the same effect.

Nevertheless wearing a t-shirt with a supposedly pithy saying is still better than the current habit of "designer" clothing having huge labels announcing their provenance plastered all over them. I've never quite understood why people would pay a large amount of money to act as a walking billboard for a clothing designer. In days gone buy people used to be hired to wear sandwich boards advertising clothing shop's wares. Now apparently people will pay good money for the privilege. Imagine if you went to a tattoo parlour and as well as giving you your tattoo the owner insisted on branding the name of the shop across your forehead.

People seem to be prepared to put up with a lot from clothing designers. Clothing long ago lost its primary purpose of keeping us warm in the cave during ice ages and has now become a method of self promotion. Every hierarchically inclined organisation seems to insist on a form of clothing and self presentation that will announce their presence and status. One automatically thinks of the army or the church but masons or indeed an office with a dress code are doing the same thing. I wear a suit to work, something I wouldn't do if my employers allowed me to turn up in my pyjamas.

But people expect it; I very much doubt if the pope would command quite as much respect when speaking from the balcony over St Peter's square if he did it while wearing jeans and a t-shirt. At least not until we get some younger, hotter popes. Clothing is one of the ways we identify ourselves to others. We indicate to some that we might be agreeable to their approach while discreetly warning others to stay away. If we didn't have clothing we would have to write down various facets of our personality on cards and hand them out to strangers. This would be very irritating, especially as we would have no pockets to keep the cards in.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Birthday Greetings #12

Happy birthday to Honorius, Roman Emperor of the West (395-423). Honorius was the son of Theodosius who was the last emperor to reign over a unified Roman empire. Theodosius gave the Eastern empire to his other son Arcadius who was a non entity and the western to Honorius who would struggle to reach non entity status. Admittedly since he took the throne at the age of nine he couldn't really set his stamp on the empire immediately and later in his life there were far too many other people stamping on the empire for him to be noticed.

Honorius had the misfortune to reign at a time when various disasters, idiotic decisions and geopolitical events of past years came to a head in a perfect storm of barbarian invasions. One problem was the army. The western empire needed a bigger army than it could afford. The eastern empire had managed to get most of its army destroyed some twenty years earlier at the Battle of Adrianople and since then had been scraping by through the simple expedient of hiring the Goths who destroyed it. Over in the west a combination of revolts, civil wars, high costs and general disillusion with the army as a career had led to a significant recruitment of barbarians as well. The barbarians could fight but they had little intrinsic loyalty to the empire itself although by this time neither did anyone else.

Honorius muddled through the first years of his reign under the guidance (or more accurately, thumb) of Stilicho his half barbarian commander in chief. Stilicho was a capable soldier and under his leadership the western army (now a collection of grumbling conscripts, underpaid auxiliaries, unreliable barbarians and sharp characters looking for an opportunity to proclaim themselves emperor) could and did win battles. Which was handy because due to a series of events elsewhere virtually the entire barbarian population of Europe upped stakes and headed for greener pastures within the empire. Stilicho drove off the first attacks but then fell victim to court intrigue and was executed. Honorius had lost the only capable man in his administration just when he needed him.

Various tribes of barbarians poured across the Rhine and Danube frontiers overrunning Roman Gaul and pushing down towards Spain. The British legions helpfully revolted and invaded Gaul themselves under a man named Constantine who proclaimed himself emperor. Taking swift action Honorius moved his capital to Ravenna, then the most easily defended city in Italy and thereafter did nothing. While Gaul descended into bloodshed as various Roman garrisons, barbarian tribes and the British legions disputed control Italy was visited by Alaric the Visigoth. He was very nice and agreed not to sack Rome if he was paid a huge ransom. Next year he came back and sacked Rome anyway. It is not entirely clear if Honorius even noticed. Fortunately Alaric soon died and his followers (most of them anyway) left.

Over in Gaul Constantine, now in control of about a third of the region decided to invade Italy. At this point Honorius got another capable general who managed to defeat Constantine and even retake a little Gaul from the barbarians. The barbarians responded by moving into Spain and capturing most of that instead. Honorius spent his time hitting on his sister and eventually, probably to the astonishment of everyone, died of natural causes at the age of thirty eight. He was succeeded by his nephew Valentinian who would turn out to be even more of a worthless tool.

Stephanie the Vampire Castrator

This is my hundredth blog entry. There should be a party, a celebration or at least some weary reader wondering "Don't you have anything better to do?". The answer is "No, I don't" so you'll have to put up with this blog for the foreseeable future.

It was my intention to write a serious piece on blogs and blogging and the minor milestone I have reached despite a combination of laziness and lack of imagination. However something else has grabbed my attention in the last few months. What is with all the vampire books that are infesting bookshops all over Sydney (and possibly the world)? This really came to a head tonight when I was browsing in a shop and came across a book entitled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. At that point my mind stopped boggling and simply refused to work at all. Don't even get me started on the Twilight series (or saga as I believe it is inaccurately known). Then there is True Blood, somewhat less wretched than most, and a series of books called the Vampire Academy series. I haven't read this last but from the cover it appears to be across between Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers series and a party set in a morgue. I also noticed that relics from previous vampire fads have been popping up. Anne Rice novels were everywhere showcasing her particular talent of taking a bunch of whiny self absorbed pissants and turning them into whiny, self absorbed pissants who drink blood and stay out of the sun.

The latest incarnation of vampire books seems to be basically Sweet Valley High stories with a high body count. Not that I think that last is a bad thing. Then there are the werewolves, oh god enough with the werewolves already. Apparently nobody can write a single book about vampires nowadays without tossing in werewolves and making much of the apparently legendary rivalry between two non existent groups of monsters who would have been much better served simply dividing the human race between them as cattle to feed on.

Vampires: What happened to you? Once upon a time you were terrifying stalkers of the dark. Now apparently you just hang around looking moody and competing for the attentions of not particularly interesting teenagers. I remember vampires; sure they were sexy in a sort of tie me down and hurt me kind of way but essentially what they were was killers. They murdered people. They did it with aplomb and they did it with pleasure. Oh that Christopher Lee is alive to see this day (he is still alive right? He must be about six hundred years old by now). Let's get something straight right now. Vampires were dead. Cold, animated corpses that ripped the throats out of the living in order to sustain their dreadful existence. Sure they might have been sexy (ok they really were), sure they might seduce the occasional human who was drawn to their aura of dark power but essentially what they were about was the bodycount.

The appeal of vampires; their allure and sexiness was not based on anything as healthy as adolescent love however badly presented. The attraction of the vampire was corruption. The thought that if you were prepared to debase yourself in the most fundamental way you could cheat death. The vampire calls to the sickest and most selfish parts of the human psyche and uses a superficial glamour to help its victims justify their betrayal. "Let everything else die," shrieks the vampire to be, "let me feast on the flesh of my peers only let me live beyond my years." This is the vampire; the immortal cannibal stealing the years of the young to prolong its own old age. It is not within a million miles of what Stephanie fucking Meyer would recognise. Anne Rice got it more right and Poppy Z Brite even more so. At least their vampires killed people all over the place even if they had the collective personality of a cheese platter.

Vampires have been castrated, broken and tamed. The deathless creature that terrified us at night is now a pale skinned little puppy gambolling at our feet. Oh wait, maybe that's the werewolves. I can't really speak about werewolves, they don't interest me so much. Vampires are icy, sexy and murderous. Werewolves put me in mind of a fleaguard commercial that has escaped from its handlers.

The real danger is that with vampires so domesticated in print if anyone meets one in real life they will probably walk up and say hello rather than screaming in appropriate Hammer House of Horror style and running for their lives. Personally I suspect its all a vampire plot. Once nobody is afraid of vampires anymore the thirsty little buggers will be popping out of coffins all over the place and feasting to their hearts content. Hopefully the first under the fangs will be Stephanie Meyer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Beware the Daffodils for they are Angry

Spring is well and truly upon us. As I walked home tonight I heard the twittering of nesting birds and the buzzing of insects. All around me nature was preparing for the oncoming Summer and as I walked I thought "can't you guys just shut up?". Spring must be the noisiest season in the year. It's as if every living thing has decided to celebrate the death of Winter by screaming at the top of their voices. Ok, I get it. It's Spring and you're happy to have survived another season but for god's sake give it a rest.

No doubt soon the nighttime air will be alive with the droning of mosquitoes, I sometimes wonder how I get to sleep at all in the Summer months. Honestly what is all the big fuss with Spring? It really is a nothing of a season, not hot enough to be Summer and too warm for Winter. The only thing Spring really signifies is that I'm going to be dragging the doona on and off my bed as the nights fluctuate between freezing cold and boiling hot.

It isn't just animals either, plants too have suddenly taken more of an interest in proceedings although they are mercifully more quiet about it. The tree outside my window is now trying to pick up all of the leaves it carelessly tossed away last Autumn. Daffodil day, another harbinger of Spring has come and gone. For those who don't know, daffodil day is when we take advantage of the flowering of daffodils to rip them all out of the ground to adorn our dwellings and places of employment. Apparently this is done to aid cancer although as far as I am aware cancer is getting on pretty well without our help. Daffodils must hate Spring; all year they sit quietly in the ground sucking up nutrients and minding their own business. Spring comes by and they risk flowering in a desperate attempt to propagate the species only to have some bunch of disease crazed freaks come along and commit mass floracide.

I am organising a petition to ban Spring, I have the signatures of a million daffodils already and I know the carnations are down. If our demands aren't met we will have a million plant march on parliament house. If the politicians still prove resistant it will be time for direct action. I can't say much here but our numbers are growing and we have started setting up camps to indoctrinate new recruits. What are we doing there? Let me put it this way Day of the Triffids is a training video. My mossy friends and I will not be denied, before we are finished Spring will be a bitter but distant memory.

Once Spring has been banned and people who celebrate May Day are languishing in reeducation camps we will redefine the seasons along the Goldilocks principal. Summer will become Too Hot, Winter will become Too Cold and Autumn will be Just Right. Spring will be "The Season that dare not speak its name". During this period there will be a ninety day period of mourning to commemorate all the plants that fell for the cause. There will be a ritual destroying of lawn mowers and anyone who even mentions cancer will be burnt at the steak. No, that's not a misspelling, rather than sacrifice a tree victims will be strapped to a cow and set on fire. Admission to the executions will be free but you'll have to bring your own barbecue sauce. Cows are going to really hate this time of year. No doubt they will be the centre of an underground Spring revivalist campaign but my shock troops are ready. I have battalions of suicide pollinators on standby. We will show no mercy to revisionists.

I would like to apologise for the preceding blog entry. On closer examination I have discovered that my brain is channelling old Captain Kremmen episodes. Please enjoy Spring and tell the cows I said sorry.