Monday, November 29, 2010

Behold the God of Snails

There is a snail on my balcony. It is sitting happily on a cactus munching away at an adjacent (and slightly less rubbery) plant. I live on the second floor which means this particular snail has shimmied up the outside of the building to enjoy his lunch. Of course I doubt if a snail shimmys exactly. Oozes is a more appropriate word perhaps. Still shimmying or oozing its very impressive. The snail seems to appreciate its achievement as well. There is a definite air of pride as it slowly reduces my foliage to stalks. "See," it seems to be saying, "we snails are slow but we get there in the end". The effort certainly deserves to be applauded but since in this case "there" happens to be a small concrete balcony high in the air with limited available vegetation I can't help thinking it might not have been worth it. I didn't mention that to the snail of course, it was so obviously pleased with itself; the Edmund Hillary of the snail world.

When it finally reaches the ground again what stories it will have to tell. Of course there will be the media interview, the autographs, groupies and eventually a reality tv show. This snail has really made it. On second thoughts I wonder if it ever will go down. That might be even better, the snail that ascended to the sky and never came down. It will become a legend in the snail community (do snails have communities?). Old snails will tell the young (do snails have young?) the legend of the climbing snail. "He's still up there" they'll say, "Living in the clouds and scaring magpies". Every snail will learn the story it will be paused from mouth to mouth. Tales will be told of the old days when snails were great adventurers and his name will be known as long as there is one snail left to carry on the tale, very slowly.

Oh to be such a god, idolised by the people, to become the very stuff of legend and fantasy. The tales will get greater with the telling until his entire personality is swallowed up in the legend. In times to come there will be idols to this snail. They will be small, mucus covered idols but they will be idols nonetheless. Who could ask for more? I feel privileged to be a witness to the apotheosis of this snail god. I am a mute spectator staring in awe at the small, squishy hero before me. I can't help thinking its probably a good thing I don't still have a cat.

Water Water Everywhere But Does it Come in a Cool Blue Bottle

I have been informed that I should drink more water. This would have many health benefits the first of which would be not dying of thirst. Not dying of thirst would apparently extend my life expectancy considerably. Doctors all over the world have commented favourably on the beneficial effects of not dying of thirst.

So I'm sitting here with a glass and a bottle of suspiciously clear liquid in front of me. This is actually not unusual but this particular bottle doesn't have faux Russian lettering on it. After five minutes of waiting I realise it isn't going to get any more interesting so I drink it. It's ok, nothing special but it goes down without complaint. As the essential fuel of life its a little disappointing really.

Water should glitter, it should sparkle, it should throb with the presence of life both potential and actual. Although if your water does throb with life may I suggest you boil it first. Water possesses what I call the blandness of the essential. Something as absolutely vital as water doesn't actually need to be interesting. Beauty, decoration, cool accessories; these are the hallmarks of the worthless and irrelevant. Such decoration is important to them because there really is no point in having them otherwise. Would anybody be interested in keeping up with the Kardashians for instance if they were a dull middle class family from Wyoming? Of course not but translate them into an excruciating (but well decorated) family from Los Angeles and suddenly people watch their show. I don't watch their show, I would sooner watch maggots eat my own intestines but other people watch it.

And yet the human race craves beauty and decoration. Our eyes slide right past the worthy and plain and settles with delight on sparkly rubbish. Even things that do have value are decorated to ensure that we will like them. Water itself isn't immune. There is an entire industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year dedicated to jazzing up and making appealing a substance we couldn't live without anyway. It would be amusing to see exactly how many people would die of thirst if they couldn't get their water in a translucent blue bottle with added electrolytes. What are electrolytes and what do they add to water? Specifically I think they add something to its price.

Triviality costs; people pay serious money for triviality and those people who work to create it take it very seriously indeed. In return for their efforts we get a bunch of stuff we didn't really need in the first place and their employers get seriously rich. But would we do without it? A world without decoration would be dull indeed, a bleak functional workspace devoid of character or warmth. Of course it would also be devoid of tackiness and Paris Hilton (forgive the tautology) so things wouldn't be all bad. Nevertheless I don't think people would like living here as much.

I've now drunk three glasses of water. It's not bad, I don't mind it at all but I can't help thinking it could be a little more interesting. What it needs is a translucent blue bottle and some wicked cool electrolytes.

Friday, November 26, 2010

For Sale; My Integrity, Going Cheap

I have just discovered that I could make money from my blog. I've had this thing for eleven months now and I've just worked this out. Apparently ads could be included in my blog making me fabulously wealthy and a fully paid up member of the consumer society. This could be exciting. With visions of myself rolling naked in piles of banknotes (and now you're going to have that vision, sorry) I eagerly clicked on the link to see what I had to do to make myself a rich man.

Of course it was advertising. If I give Google permission they will include advertisements beside or below each of my blog entries. The thing that gave me pause was their next comment. Advertising material will be determined by the content of your blog. Dear god, what on earth are they going to advertise based on the content of my blog? The only thing I can think of is possibly a course in Central European history, studies in Serena Williams or perhaps links to mental health professionals. Just possibly positions vacant at the Hadron Supercollider as well. I was almost tempted to do it just to see what Google would think was appropriate to put beside my entries.

However on balance I have decided to maintain my integrity and keep my blog promotion free. Except of course for the promotions I do myself for Satellite Expresso which I mention from time to time in the hopes of getting free coffee there. My sudden brush with advertising glory got me thinking (always a bad sign); there is an immense amount of wasted space in our society that could be gainfully covered in advertising. IVF clinics could take out advertising space on coffins for example "As one life ends; start another". Colleges could advertise law courses on the walls of prisons "If you had studied with us you mightn't be here". Although in the interests of strict accuracy that last one might have to be something like "If you studied with us you might be here on completely different charges".

The defence budget is always stretched, why not put designer labels on our troops uniforms. Discreet little plaques with captions like "This missile frigate proudly brought to you by Pepsi" could rejuvenate the navy. Nike symbols on combat boots (although we might have to improve the quality before Nike is interested) would be a step in the right direction and it can go on from there. If there is any space left over we could have witty sayings. The airforce could have things like "At least we're not Qantas" painted next to the roundels. I know that last was a cheap shot but I couldn't resist.

Cigarette packets are another place for advertising. Tobacco companies can't advertise themselves anymore but is there anything to stop them from renting out the space on their packets to companies that can. It would be a nice little bit of extra income. Speaking of tobacco companies there is one place they could advertise; on drug packaging. Drug dealers rarely just dump a handful of whatever they're selling into their customers hands. It comes in little bags or some other useful container. Why not have cigarette advertising on the bags? Of course that's illegal but drug dealers have already shown a refreshing disregard for the law and tobacco is actually likely to be less harmful than whatever it is they're selling.

We could be sitting on an advertising goldmine, the possibilities are limitless. I think I might go for that blog advertising after all. Although god knows what they're going advertise next to this entry.

Drinking Among the Entrails

A couple of colleagues of mine and I went for a drink after work this evening. I realise this is becoming a prevailing theme but bear with me. We didn't go to our usual bar because it has recently changed hands and in a fit of misguided solidarity with the previous owner we decided to go elsewhere. The increased time span between leaving working and getting a drink took its toll on our camaraderie. If the journey had been more than five minutes murder would have been committed.

As it was we arrived at what I fervently hope will not become our regular bar just in the nick of time. I'm not going to mention its name because I'm about to dump on it. The place was clean and well lit with mirrors, brushed steel and what looked suspiciously like genuine marble on the floor. The seats were comfortable, the staff friendly and the wine only moderately overpriced. After five minutes there I wanted to gouge my eyeballs out. I don't object to a bar being clean but I do have a problem with one that appears to have been sterilized.

Let me assure you I have no problem with gleaming metal surfaces and an over enthusiasm for disinfectant; I wouldn't go into a dental surgery that didn't have them. However I have no desire to drink in a dental surgery (well I do but that's for completely different reasons). In a bar I desire something different. Specifically I desire wood. If a bar has soft lighting, lots of wood and perhaps carpet (or more wood) on the floor then I can forgive almost any amount of substandard amenities and crumbling infrastructure. Wood even crumbles better.

Wood has a warmth and an implication of comfort and well being utterly lacking in metal or stone. For all their uses metal and stone are dead things, so dead that they were never alive. Wood does have life and I think that is the difference. Even chopped down, carved up and twisted into fantastic shapes, wood has life. You can feel that when you touch it.

Of course if you think about it for too long you realise that sitting in a room full of wood relishing that warmth and life is actually an act of hideous floral vampirism. What you're really doing is squatting in a cave festooned with the entrails of eviscerated plants. Drink up and I'll get us both another.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Buy Pirate Default Swaps Now

Humanity stands at the door of a glorious new era. There are social, medical and technological advances of a nature that not just our parents but even our older siblings could scarcely have dreamed of them. It is even possible that some of these benefits might improve the lot of the billions of wretched and poor throughout the globe if only by accident. Wealth distribution, always popular with those who have none, is taking place if even only in the most rudimentary fashion. Take Somalia's burgeoning pirate industry for example. Did a lack of resources, government or basic civilisation stop these eager go getters from creating a successful business model?

There is a story (which I liked too much to fact check) that a Somali woman was given an RPG launcher as her divorce settlement. Of course she could have buried it secure in the knowledge that when she died she would have one tangible asset to leave but that wasn't enough for this eager entrepreneur. Instead she invested in a couple of likely lads with a speedboat and a dream and pretty soon had a return on investment that would make Wall Street salivate. I understand that Goldman Sachs is already creating pirate derivatives for sale to eager speculators. The Mafia's IPO is only a matter of time.

As I said before we stand on the threshold of a glittering new age but there are still some people whose only comment is "Make sure to wipe your feet". These are the sort of people who look at younger people and moan about how lazy, selfish and cossetted they are. Youth today just doesn't understand what it means to struggle or the difficulties and hardships of earlier times and blithely take hard won benefits for granted. Well of course they do. If you're going to sweat and struggle all your days so your children can have a better life then it would be rather churlish of them to ask for a bowl of gruel and take a job working twelve hours a day up at mill. If your children do have a good idea of the hardships and tribulations of days gone by then you didn't do a very good job of sheltering them from it did you?

I wonder how often people look at their children and say "that's my fault" rather than "you're ungrateful". Let's face it, if you were better at parenting no doubt your children would be hard working, diligent, respectful and self reliant. Although in that case why bother striving to give them a better life anyway, they'll take whatever you give them and be damn grateful. Incidentally your parents said the same thing about your generation. They were probably right and so were their parents. A refusal to squat in a pool of mud and say "this is good enough for me" is one of the principal drivers of civilisation. Another, sad to say, is greed which is why certain parts of our civilisation seem to have driven off a cliff. Ireland is refusing to answer the door when the creditors come knocking and now it looks like Spain is going to hell (again) as well. If banks can be too big to fail how big does a country have to be before it gains the same status.

The worlds current financial crisis can be summed up thus; every financial institution in the world has suddenly discovered that every other financial institution is as incompetent and morally bankrupt as they are. Naturally they are refusing to lend to people so like themselves. For good measure they are refusing to lend to pretty much anyone else either. They would also like all the money they had previously lent back. Trouble is, there isn't any so the financial institutions have gone to various governments and pointed out that the economy will collapse if they don't get help. Governments have obligingly mugged their taxpayers and handed the proceeds over to the financial institutions. The resultant level of government debt has led to savage cost cutting, reduction in services, employment and assistance for those individuals in need. This has led to economic collapse which financial institutions don't seem to have a problem with as long as it doesn't involve them. Don't you yearn for the days when bums would just sit in a pool of their own urine on the street and quietly ask for a few coins towards their next bottle of mouthwash?

In America banks have compounded idiotic mortgage decisions with truly insane foreclosure procedures and the only thing the government can do is to print more money that nobody is spending anyway because they're afraid they are about to lose their job. In fairness there is little the governments can do although I really think they should take some steps towards seizing the assets of the people who caused this mess. Doing so wouldn't actually solve the problem but it would provide a little vicious satisfaction for the taxpayers funding this disaster and reduce the chances of the government being wiped out at the next election or, in the case of the less democratically inclined parts of the world, just wiped out.

This really is a dreadful time to be alive. Let's face it, we're all doomed. Financial ruin stares us in the face, the economy is going to have to be rebuilt from the ground up and it looks as though there are hard times coming for pretty much everybody. So parents sit back and smile quietly to yourselves. Those lazy, cossetted, self indulgent children of yours are about to discover that you didn't actually do a particularly good job of protecting them from the real world after all.

Speaking personally, I have put my superannuation into a hedge fund specialising in Somalia based start ups. I recommend that you do the same.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Me, Louis Kossuth and the Hot Polish Girl

I'm currently reading a biography of Louis Kossuth. Despite having a name that sounds like a creature from a Lovecraft novel Kossuth was a Hungarian nobleman, lawyer, journalist and politician who for a brief period in the nineteenth century was the most important man in the country. The author of the book is a chap named Istvan Deak, that name rang a bell in my Habsburg crazed mind and the dedication confirmed it. The book is dedicated to "my father who served Emperor Franz Josef in the Great War and to the memory of my great-grandfather who served Louis Kossuth in 1848."

Briefly; Kossuth was a member of the Hungarian lower nobility who, bereft of lands or money, trained as a lawyer. He wasn't alone, Hungary was neck deep in minor nobility without money and most of them seemed to become lawyers. Kossuth was a staunch Magyar patriot who wanted to improve the condition of his then still backward and feudal nation. Hungary was then a component of the Habsburg empire but jealously guarded its separate traditions and customs frequently revolting when Habsburg attempts to centralise (or horror of horrors) raise taxes seemed to threaten them.

Things had been quiet in Hungary for a while as the police state of Metternich kept discontent below the surface but the times seemed to suit the man when in 1848 revolution swept across Europe and the old social order seemed on the edge of collapse. The Habsburg empire in particular seemed to be flying apart in all directions; revolt in Italy, uprisings in Galicia, street protests in Prague and discontent even in Vienna. Hungary's own revolt started with Kossuth and his colleagues seizing the opportunity to extract a vast series of concessions from the half wit emperor and his terrified court. Although broad these weren't a declaration of independence but rather some much needed social reform coupled with a reassertion of Hungary's ancient rights which Emperor Ferdinand, in his role as King Ferdinand V of Hungary, was sworn to uphold. To a frightened and not particularly intelligent emperor besieged on all sides by problems he couldn't understand much less solve the situation appeared much darker. Ferdinand who, whatever his other failings, was a decent and honourable man might have let the situation stand but in 1849 he was persuaded to abdicate to put a more capable member of the dynasty on the throne. The first order of business for new emperor Franz Josef was to restore order in his territories, the second was to give the Hungarians who had taken advantage of imperial weakness a good slapping down.

The Hungarians, meanwhile, had their own issues. Although the Hungarian declaration had contained much social reform including emancipation of serfs and an extension of the electoral franchise (from almost nobody to very few) there were a number of points that were conspicuous by their absence. Apart from freeing the serfs there wasn't much in there for the average peasant to cheer about and some groups were excluded completely. The Kingdom of Hungary occupied a good deal of territory that wasn't actually populated by Hungarians. Various regions held large numbers of Slovaks, Romanians, Poles, Jews, Serbs and Croatians (the latter were particularly numerous in Croatia). These people gained little from Kossuth's achievements nor were they intended to. The Habsburg rule that had so chafed the Hungarians indirectly benefited these people as the Magyars were too busy holding their own against their imperial master to have much time free for oppressing their own minorities. The reforms gained by Kossuth changed the ballgame and when a vengeful dynasty raised its standard many of these people rallied to them. This was one of the advantages to ruling a multinational empire. The Habsburgs could almost always find one group of subjects who were prepared to help oppress the others. It could also help to explain why the inhabitants of central and southern Europe seem to have trouble getting on.

Long story short, civil war in Hungary was followed by a Habsburg invasion backed by Russian troops and after an heroic but doomed resistance the Hungarians were crushed and Kossuth was forced to flee the country. He never returned dying in exile in 1894.

All of the above is a long winded introduction to the explanation of how I managed to embarrass myself one night at the bar across the road from work. My colleagues and I frequently go to this bar, partly because it is a friendly welcoming place with comfy booths to sit in and partly because it sells alcohol and is two minutes walk away from the office. Anyway one night we were sitting at table discussing the various issues of the day when the conversation turned to the Russian language (as it does). Specifically we were wondering what the Russian word for "thank you" was. None of us knew but I thought I could find out. A few nights earlier one of my colleagues and I were at the bar and my colleague happened to point out that the young waitress patiently tolerating our behaviour was Russian. The same young lady was working this night and, anticipating returning to my comrades covered in glory, I approached her and spake thusly;
"Excuse me, you're Russian aren't you? Could you tell me the Russian for thank you please."
Under the circumstances her reply was a model of restraint.
"I'm Czech."

It probably takes very little imagination to realise why it might not be diplomatic to assume a Czech person is Russian and my anticipated glory turned to mortification as I apologised profusely and slunk back to my seat in shame. I was not so lost to embarrassment that I forgot to abuse the colleague who had misled me in the first place. In fact this was so much fun that I did it again that Friday when he and I were joined by the Hot Polish Girl. The Hot Polish Girl is a friend who occasionally joins us to add a little elegance to our proceedings on Fridays. I replayed the story of my embarrassment to her, placing much weight on my colleague's villainous misrepresentation and she agreed that being mistaken for Russian was unlikely to win many popularity contests in eastern Europe. She herself is apparently frequently mistaken for Swedish which is unsurprising as she is tall, blonde and good looking (which I think Swedes are meant to be).

The conversation would then have followed a path of discussion of ethnic stereotyping, human settlement patterns in agrarian Europe and the racial policies of the Habsburg and Romanov dynasties but the Hot Polish Girl left to go dancing so my colleague and I discussed the cricket and an idiotic game where we try to guess which of a bank of six lifts will answer our call first when we press the button.

Incidentally "The Hot Polish Girl" is a cunning pseudonym for an attractive young lady of eastern European provenance who for reasons which are probably obvious didn't want to be mentioned by name in this blog.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Domestic Tip #63

When engaged in housework clean the filthiest things last. Otherwise the cleaning tools that made them look lovely will make everything else look dreadful.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Flee; It's the String Monster!!

The Hadron Supercollider is at it again, happily at work banging bits of things into other bits of things. Apparently by running lead atom nuclei into each other scientists have managed to create a series of miniature big bangs. At least they say its scientists, personally I suspect that the nightwatchman and the cleaning staff were a little bored one night and decided to see what would happen if they pressed the big button. Besides "miniature big bangs?". Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't a miniature big bang just a bang? I can produce the same result by blowing up a paper bag and hitting it smartly. I can see why the scientists (or cleaning staff) went with the miniature big bang title though. Can you imagine persuading various governments and research bodies to part with billions of dollars to dig almost thirty kilometres of tunnels and build a whacking great machine simply to create bangs? I think the marketing guys have been at work with the title.

So instead of bangs we have miniature big bangs which dovetail nicely with the miniature black holes that were supposed to be created but apparently weren't. I must say so far the Hadron Supercollider has been a bit of a disappointment, no mini black holes and only modest sized bangs. On balance the entire proceedings appear to have been a waste of lead. I hope they recycled the electrons. Even the name is a bit of a puff piece. The Hadron Supercollider? They could have just called it the Collider. Its entirely possible the people who put up the money though they were funding an amusement park ride. Roll up, roll up take a ride on the fabulous Hadron Supercollider. With over twenty kilometres of tunnels to employ I think an amusement park ride is still a viable option when the scientists get tired of making bangs.

Ah, mini big bangs, tiny black holes, breaking sub atomic particles into even subber atomic particles; there seems to be no end of really small things the scientists in charge of the supercollider can have fun with. One of the big (and by "big" I mean really, really small) things they are angling for is a complete understanding of string theory. Does anybody remember a time when a complete understanding of something was a prerequisite before turning on a machine that cost billions of dollars and just might blow the Earth out the back of the universe? Still the latest results are getting us a little closer to proving string theory. This is fantastic news for the dozen or so people on the planet for whom string theory doesn't involve a cat and a ball of yarn. For the rest of us it is sufficient to know that string theory is one of those things which if proven will mean that everything we thought we knew about the universe is completely wrong. After string theory is proved you'll never look at a plate of spaghetti in the same way again. String itself will be kept in a secure underground vault in order to protect the public. While its there scientists will, no doubt, shoot lead atom nuclei into it to see what happens.

I envisage a ninety foot tall, ravening string monster crushing our cities and laying waste to our civilisation. While stringmageddon takes place those humans who survived the initial carnage will have to cower in tunnels underground until the Great Fraying occurs. Fortunately there are some ready made tunnels just waiting for us in Europe. However we may have to put up with being hit by the occasional lead atom nucleus.

Birthday Greetings #18

Happy birthday to Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf who was Chief of Staff of the Imperial and Royal Army of the Austro Hungarian empire for most of the First World War. I used to think that the Habsburgs recruited their soldiers without much discrimination but a glance over the past few weeks leads me to believe that they actually appointed soldiers to high command on the basis of when they were born.

Conrad was born in Vienna to minor Bohemian nobility and entered the army pretty soon after he was weaned. Once there he never left. He has been accounted a military genius by some commentators. I can't help thinking these people should read a history of World War I to see which side won. It wasn't Conrad's. Nevertheless it is entirely possible that if Conrad had never commanded in a major war he could have gone to the grave with his military reputation intact (World War I might have been avoided too). Certainly he was intelligent (he wrote a book on tactics that wasn't exposed as idiocy until after it had been implemented), he was also a good lower and medium level commander. During the course of his career whatever unit he commanded was always the best trained and most efficient in the army. He was a firm believer in realistic training at a time when the Habsburg army considered its soldiers battleready if they could parade before the emperor without dropping their rifles. He also had a keen interest in the welfare of his troops and the advantages technology could bring to the army (he tried to get trucks introduced to transport supplies but the idea was scotched when the emperor pointed out they might scare the horses). His tactical and strategic planning was also of a high level but when he exercised it in war he revealed a spectacular flaw. He seemed to possess no grasp of reality.

Conrad's battleplans were brilliant but they took no account of weather, terrain, enemy resistance or the condition of his own troops. Nobody knew better than Conrad the weaknesses of the Habsburg army, he had spent much of peacetime trying to correct them, but when war came he insisted on behaving as though he commanded an entire army of Prussian Guards. When his troops failed him he merely drove the survivors on more ruthlessly thus throwing good lives after bad. The Habsburg army he commanded was not as strong as the German or Russian but it was capable of much in careful hands. Conrad's hands proved to be incredibly reckless. He never learned from experience either, his plans for attacking in Italy in 1918 were as divorced from reality as his plans for attacking Russia in 1914.

Conrad was made Chief of the General Staff (official command of the army was vested in the Habsburg archduke who looked best in uniform) in 1905 at the behest of Archduke Franz Ferdinand the emperor's heir who was building his own powerbase in anticipation of his uncle's death. Foolishly as it turned out, waiting for Franz Josef to die was not a good career move. Pretty much from the moment he got the top job Conrad started agitating for a war. The target of his aggression was charmingly catholic, he advocated a war with pretty much everyone except Germany at some point or other. Italy and Serbia were his top two choices, however. He kept coming back to these and eventually got his way.

My personal opinion is that Conrad, a committed social darwinist, and certain other members of the imperial hierarchy deliberately (consciously or unconsciously) egged the empire on to commit suicide. It was obvious that the empire was decaying, the old loyalties were fading and in their place were nationalistic sympathies that had no home in the polyglot realm of the Habsburgs. A proud man, commanding a proud army Conrad simply refused to go quietly into the night. If the empire must die then it would go down fighting. Not that Conrad meant to lose, he played to win even when he didn't have the cards but his private writings indicate a far more realistic appraisal of the empires chances even at the beginning of the war. Conrad probably thought that a swift, victorious war would revitalise the empire. He may even have been right, temporarily, but his own assessment of the war that he helped to start and its likely outcome is probably his best claim to military genius. From the first day he predicted that his side would lose and the empire would be destroyed.

After the war ended he settled in the rump of Austria and wrote his memoirs where he pointed out that his genius had been betrayed by the inefficiency of his soldiers. Over a million dead Habsburg soldiers could, with more justification, claim that their loyalty had been betrayed by the inefficiency of their leaders.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Don't Bother the Dead, They're Busy Decomposing

I've been thinking of holding a seance. I wasn't planning on contacting anyone in particular, just a general shout out to any of the departed who might have nothing better to do than talk to me. Think of it as the spiritualist equivalent of a facebook entry. Honestly where did anyone get the idea that talking to the dead is a good use of time? Ok, I'll admit it, I talk to the dead occasionally. I'm sure that most people do at one point or another. The strangeness comes when you start expecting the dead to talk back. Strangeness becomes total stupidity when your departed relatives cannot apparently chat to you without the intervention of some person neither of you has ever met before. Apparently the afterlife is on a party line and you have to go through the switchboard. And I thought Australia had a lousy telecommunications network.

It's also interesting to note that nobody in this life thinks that the dead have anything better to do with their (non) lives than hang around waiting for a call. Frankly if the dead wanted a conversation they would call you. Respect their privacy, you don't know what you might be interrupting. Personally once I'm dead I'm going to have the psychic equivalent of call waiting. Should anybody try to contact me all the medium is going to get is "Your call is important to us..." followed by elevator music. Or possibly I could get the hopeful seance holders redirected to a call centre in Tajikistan. One of the advantages to being dead in my opinion is surely a reduction in the amount of junk mail (or at least junk mail that you yourself have to open and deal with). Holding seances and summoning up the dead seems to be a pretty good way to piss them off to my way of thinking. Although if you are going to annoy somebody then a dead person is probably a good place to start. After all, what are they going to do about it? They're dead.

Possibly I'm being a little harsh. On immature reflection it occurs to me that there could be a lot of fun to be had in a seance. Not so much for the participants but for the dead. Think about it, this could be your opportunity to tell your relatives what you really think of them. This is the chance to settle all the old scores that built up during the course of your life. Did you always think your cousins children were poisonous little brats who were heading straight for gaol? Reach out from beyond the grave and tell her so. At the very least it might reduce the number of times your family bothers you when you should be enjoying your well earned rest.

Alternatively you could just screw with their minds. Tell them of a long lost family fortune and then let your voice fade out while giving directions. Or make up some dark family secret; sorrowfully inform your loved ones that an evil nobleman cursed your ancestors and now every member of the family is promised to Satan from birth. Then start screaming and shouting "It burns, it burns". My favourite would be to flatter all the attendees fulsomely and tell them that they were bound for heaven until they broke God's law by conducting a seance. Now they're headed straight for Hell unless they immediately go to Borneo and wash the feet of lepers. There's no end to the amount of fun the dead could have with a seance. What the living get out of it is less easy to determine. Some sort of guarantee that life goes on I suppose. Possibly these people don't understand what the definition of "dead" actually is. There is another possibility as well; talking to the dead is likely to be more entertaining and more useful than talking to many of the living. Particularly if the living people you know spend their time holding seances.

I know that many traditional (read "primitive") cultures have a habit of communicating with the dead or other denizens of the spirit realm. For starters if you weren't good at hunting being a witch doctor would ensure that there was always meat in your pot. They usually had access to any good drugs going around as well. All of the above cultures had a couple of things in common. They had very little leisure time and very little to do with it if they got any. In this day and age we don't need mediums, shamen or witchdoctors; we have playstations.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ho Ho Bloody Ho

Christmas is almost upon us! Saying it like that conjures up an image of Christmas descending from the skies like a vulture, talons outstretched and beak agape. So mission accomplished with that first sentence I guess. Just to establish my credentials as a card carrying member of the consumer society I would like to point out that I love Christmas. I love buying gifts and receiving gifts. I love gathering with my family and have even been known to sing a carol or two. To make things perfectly clear; I love Christmas.

I hate Christmas (ok, who couldn't see that coming). Christmas is the most deeply annoying of holidays. For the next two months virtually everything will be seen through the prism of Christmas. Worthless clowns will expect to be forgiven their monumental failings because "its Christmas". Tinsel will encircle innocent trees like gaudy tentacles. In every home the centrepiece will be a pine tree apparently being attacked by an octopus in drag. Every single retailer of pointless crap in the country will redouble its efforts to sell you things that not only you don't want but that no one on earth would want. If I don't need a silver plated, left handed butt plug with wifi connectivity on the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year why on earth would I need one at Christmas?

From every department store, supermarket and quite small shop carols will blare out to be lost in the cacophony of price checks, bargain offers and shrieking children (and not a few adults). Incidentally, just for the benefit of anyone who might be in doubt, Frosty the fucking Snowman is not a Christmas carol. I am an unashamed atheist but even I feel that Christmas carols should carry some passing reference to God. You know, just a little something to say "cheers for the holiday big fella".

Something else that annoys me about Christmas is that it seems to start earlier each year. I know this isn't a profound comment but honestly we'll be putting up the decorations in August if things go on in this fashion. Even I'm not immune, I'm writing my Christmas blog on the 3rd of November for God's sake. I shouldn't even be thinking about it for another month. One thing I should be thinking about is presents. Buying presents for my family is always a struggle particularly since I tend to do it on December 24th. My father is particularly hard to buy for so over the last decade or two I have settled for buying him silly and pointless curiosities. That way at least one of us has a smile on their face when he opens his present. I wonder how he would react to a left handed butt plug with internet access? Hmmm, I must find that brochure.

This is the great thing about Christmas; you can always find something quirky and interesting and retailers are so keen to sell. And the place looks great with all the tinsel and decorations, even irritating idiots seem to get less so over Christmas. All in all I think Christmas is my favourite holiday celebrating the birth of somebody who nowadays would probably be on a terrorism watch list. Genghiz Khan's birthday was dull by comparison. And as for Buddha, did you know those guys don't drink? How can you get through a religious holiday completely sober?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Birthday Greetings #17

It's been a busy few weeks for Habsburg military heroes. This time its happy birthday to Field Marshal Johan Josef Wenzel Anton Franz Karl Radetzky von Radetz. More commonly known as Josef Radetzky. Unlike Prince Eugene Radetzky was a home grown military hero born in the then Habsburg province of Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). A member of the minor nobility (the village that provided his predicate was apparently destroyed in the Hussite Wars) Radetzky was raised by his grandfather after the early death of his parents.

He was sent to the Theresianum an academy set up by Maria Theresa but it was dissolved after his first year and Radetzky went as a cadet to the army. As a junior officer he fought in the Turkish War and then served on the Rhine at the beginning of the series of wars which followed the French revolution. This ushered in a period of time when Radetzky chafed under the direction of officers considerably less talented than himself but despite this and the generally dreadful way the wars went for the Habsburg empire Radetzky managed to distinguish himself and gained constant promotions and imperial recognition.

Between 1809 and 1812 he was chief of the general staff of the army but he resigned the position in protest at treasury obstruction to his attempts at reform. Apparently the treasury insisted that there should actually be money to pay for these. Radetzky became chief of staff to Prince Karl Schwarzenburg who commanded the Austrian forces during the campaigns against Napoleon in Germany in 1813 and in Germany and France in 1814. Schwarzenburg received much criticism for his apparent timidity and reluctance to face Napoleon but he was being guided by Habsburg political imperatives orchestrated by the imperial Chancellor, Metternich. Since Metternich feared and distrusted his allies at least as much as he disliked Napoleon Schwarzenburg had a delicate balancing act to perform. Nevertheless again Radetzky came out of the campaign with his reputation enhanced and a promotion to Lieutenant Field Marshal.

The sudden outbreak of peace at the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to stagnation for Radetzky, he was made chief of the general staff again but the treasury was no more inclined to fund in peace what it had refused to fund in war and it looked like Radetzky was headed for the shelf. Instead he was promoted field marshal and sent to command the army of Italy (much of northern Italy then being under Habsburg rule). In this position Radetzky made up for the lack of modern equipment and organisation with relentless training and strict discipline. By this time he was seventy years old but his greatest years were ahead of him.

In 1848 the King of Piedmont sensed that the time was right to unite at least northern Italy under his sceptre and launched an attack on Habsburg held territory. Back in the imperial heartland discontent, disorder and outright revolution had reduced the situation to chaos but as the empire seemed on the point of falling to bits one part of it still functioned and functioned well. The army of Italy under the command of the now octogenarian Radetzky rose to the occasion and defeated the Piedmontese at the battle of Novara crushing Italian hopes of independence and giving new heart to a desperate imperial family. With the Italians well and truly thumped Radetzky turned his army towards the empire itself, a potent threat to any revolutionary who might try to overthrow the monarchy.

With new laurels crowning his aged head Radetzky was made Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia and attempted to rule with a reasonable amount of commonsense. Rebels in arms and deserters were hung but peaceful opponents were given travel passes and advised to leave the territory. He died at the age of ninety one, still serving but perhaps now past his prime. We have a piece of music by Johan Strauss the Elder to remember him by. The Radetzky March was written in honour of his Italian victories and is still played each year at the Vienna New Year concert.

Radetzky served his emperor (and he saw five of them) for more than seventy years and during the revolutions of 1848-49 was one of the few solid supports the monarch could count on. Something Franz Grillparzer, no great lover of Habsburg absolutism, wrote during that time encapsulated his importance "in your camp is Austria". When everything else failed there was still Radetzky and that was enough.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hollow Out a Pumpkin or Hit a Horse; It's All Good

Today was (and at the time of writing, still is) Monday the 1st of November. That means today was neatly sandwiched between Halloween and Melbourne Cup Day. As such this seemed like a good moment to run a brief eye over both events.

First; Halloween! This is a holiday slowly gaining ground in Australia as more and more children wonder why they don't get an authorised pass to annoy their elders like their American cousins. For adults its a time to crack out the tacky make up and dress like an extra in an Ed Wood movie (I was wearing a rather fetching shade of gooseberry nail polish myself). Halloween is another of those Christian religious occasions which time and marketing have perverted into a travesty of its former self. Since the Christians simply hijacked a Pagan festival in the first place I don't really have a problem with this. Of course the trick or treating is annoying. There wasn't much of it in my area (or possibly the parents have warned their children to stay away from my flat) but I understand it is growing each year. Trick or treating is an ancient tradition which dates from the time when children were thought to need assistance in learning the finer points of extortion and eating until you puke. This is one cultural import which I think could quite happily have stayed in America but I suppose if we're going to have McDonalds and Buffy the Vampire Slayer then we have to put up with trick or treating and Kim Kardashian as well. One thing I really don't understand is the pumpkins. If I were planning to hollow something out and stick a candle in it to scare the kiddies I would probably choose a sheeps head or a recently deceased relative. Of course back in the day one couldn't rely on one's relatives to die at a convenient moment but we have walk in freezers nowadays, not to mention the possibility of euthanasia laws getting through parliament. Personally I suspect that the pumpkin growers lobby may have a great deal to do with the way we celebrate Halloween.

And so on to the Melbourne Cup. Unlike Halloween the Melbourne Cup stays true to its religious origins. Across Australia millions of people put money in the collection plate and bow their heads in possibly the most sincere prayer they will ever utter. At the track itself of course there are corporate marquees (you know you've made it when you're too fancy to use the word tent) and various high society trash but for a few minutes even they raise their eyes to heaven (or the big screen tv in their tent) and become as one with the rest of us. I have never quite understood horse racing. As far as I can tell it consists of dressing a group of undernourished midgets in carnival clothes and then putting them on the back of a rather large animal which they hit with a whip in order to make it run in circles. I'm not saying it doesn't sound like fun but I'm really surprised it caught on on such a large scale. Still horse racing is the sport of kings apparently although a better description would probably be the sport of sheiks, mafiosi, corporations, the occasional gun runner and the queen of England. The race goes for about three minutes, the television coverage lasts for about seven hours. Still it is "the race that stops the nation". It certainly stops me, partly because I can't get anyone to answer my phone calls but mainly because my employers open up one of their conference rooms, show the race on a big screen and hand out free champagne. I'd probably celebrate my own execution if I got a ten minute break from work and a free glass of champagne in order to do so.

Incidentally, apparently today is All Saints Day whatever that is. A Phillipino colleague of mine tells me that they have a picnic in a cemetery. Beats work.