Sunday, July 31, 2011

Birthday Greetings #25

Happy birthday to Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. Max2, as he was never known, was the father of Rudolf who got the previous birthday shoutout. Compared with Rudolf he was a raging success. Maximilian was the son of Ferdinand I but was educated largely in Spain at the court of his uncle emperor, Charles V. When Charles abdicated the imperial title his brother Ferdinand took over thus cementing the imperial crown within the Austrian branch of the Habsburg family. Charles' son Phillip would inherit the kingdom of Spanish thus forming the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs. For a while there things looked iffy because Charles wanted Phillip to get the lot despite the fact that he had promised the imperial title to Ferdinand. Family warfare was something the Habsburgs had a lot of practice in (Maximilian's sons would gain even more experience) but eventually wiser counsels prevailed. Possibly Phillip's reluctance to leave the pleasant climate (and vast income) of Spain to go to a damp, chilly, Ottoman imperilled city on the edge of western Europe may have had something to do with it. Ferdinand got the empire and in due course Maximilian got it from him.

Whether he was pleased or not is another matter. It was not a good time to be Holy Roman Emperor. The Turks occupied most of Hungary and due to the activities of a meddling priest (I think his name was Luther) the religious uniformity of the empire had been shattered. A number of states had adopted Protestantism (a couple of the really weird ones had gone straight on to Calvinism which is like Protestantism but less fun) apparently for no better reason than because the existing Catholic church was corrupt, indolent, depraved and incompetent. Talk about picky. Where Maximilian stood in all this is somewhat ambivalent. The pope suspected he was a protestant but it seems more likely that he just wanted to clean up the church. He presented a list of ideas on church reform to the pope who said "thank you very much" and locked them in a drawer. Maximilian's father had presided over the Diet of Augsburg where Catholics and Protestants agreed to stop killing each other for a while and he did his best to maintain this position. Since the Diet of Augsburg had worked by fudging some issues and not satisfying either side completely in the long term it was doomed but at least for a few decades the emperors managed to keep a delicate balancing act in play.

Apart from preventing his subjects from ripping each others throats out Maximilian really doesn't have too many achievements to his credit. Like all Holy Roman Emperors his power was significantly limited and he had difficulty getting his "subordinate" princes and nobles to agree on so much as a breakfast menu. Apparently desiring to add to his collection of recalcitrant territories he persuaded some of the nobility of Poland to elect him as their king. Since Poland wasn't so much a kingdom as an argument he could have looked forward to whole new vistas of high ranking impotence if he hadn't died while raising an army to assert his claim. He was buried in Prague and apparently refused the last sacraments as he lay dying. Perhaps he was a closet Protestant after all.

I Am at the Top of the Crumpet Chain

It was a dark and stormy night. Hmm, that's a good intro, I must remember it in case I want to write a crappy novel. To be quite honest the night wasn't really stormy. It was certainly cold and rainy, my god it was pissing down but stormy? Not really in my opinion. To me stormy demands thunder, lightning and crazed nineteenth century scientists patching something together from corpse offcuts. So definitely not stormy then but it was certainly dark. Wait, let me start this entry again.

It was a dark and rainy night. There, that's much better and has a certain symmetry as it followed a dark and rainy day. I should have been at home clad in fluffy slippers and a fluffier dressing gown. I should have been enjoying the weather reflecting on the fact that it was outside whereas I was inside. Instead I was out cheek by jowl with the weather and neither of us seemed to be enjoying too much. Why was I out in that dreadful weather when I should have been home wrapped in fluffy things? In a word, crumpets. Crumpets and crumpets alone had driven me out into the teeth of the elements.

The explanation, for anybody who is unaccountably still reading and previous experience notwithstanding is anticipating that a point will be arrived at eventually, is as follows. I like crumpets. I like them but I rarely buy them as it doesn't often occur to me to do so. Just occasionally however and for not apparent reason the word "crumpets" forces itself to the forefront of what I am pleased to call my consciousness and then there is nothing for it but to dash out and buy crumpets immediately not matter what the weather. This is my explanation for my presence on the streets of Newtown on a night when I probably wouldn't have left the home if I had needed a heart transplant.

I have noticed this about myself in the past. Often I will forgo necessities in order to buy myself another five minutes in an armchair whereas a sudden whim will drive me out into weather that would make Scott of the Antarctic plump for a tropical cruise instead. This leads me to two inescapable conclusions. Firstly, I'm an idiot and secondly the term "necessity" is a surprisingly nebulous concept.

Of course there are things that one needs but there are very few things that one needs right now. As a blanket statement I can confidently state that I need to eat but if my cupboard is bare and the weather is terrible I will frequently choose to go to bed hungry rather than get cold and wet. The absolute confidence I have in the fundamental reliability of my food supply means that the missing of an individual meal is not that important. Thus the comfiness of my armchair and the state of the weather can be significant factors in whether or not I eat on any given occasion. Somebody with a less secure food supply would brave the elements to get food even if they weren't particularly hungry. This also explains why dieting is far more prevalent in Australia than it is in Somalia. You have to have a great deal of faith in your ability to get food before you refuse a meal.

It has been said that the world is only a few missed meals away from total chaos. To be more accurate it isn't the missing of a meal or two that would cause chaos, it would be the loss of faith in our ability to get meals in the future. One of the great fallacies of the world is that people starve because there isn't enough food. This is not true and never has been. The world has always provided enough food for the people living on it and population increases notwithstanding will continue to do so for a good while yet. What fails is the ability of certain people to access that food. In short the supply network breaks down. Sometimes this is due to local shortages but more often it is due to insane government policies or the lack of anything resembling a government at all (for an example of each refer to the Irish potato famine and the everything famine in Somalia). When the distribution network breaks down people starve and when they do civilisation disintegrates (or at least it does now that emigrating to America isn't a viable option any more).

I have only the vaguest idea of the myriad of interlocking actions that result in crumpets being only one cold and soggy walk away from my armchair. If pushed I would probably suggest that farms and truck drivers on amphetamines are involved somewhere. This, again, is an indication of how secure I feel my food supply to be. If I ever demonstrate that I know exactly where my food comes from, how it gets to me and have specific plans for acquiring I would earnestly suggest that you start panicking.

In the meantime, have a crumpet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

And You Thought This Blog Was Silly

Every so often I check the stats on this blog to see if anybody actually bothers to look at it. When I say "every so often" I mean every single day. I would like to assure my readership (hi Mum) that I do this out of a deep interest in statistical analysis and not at all because I'm a pathetic narcissist with too much time on his hands.

One of the pieces of information provided to me on the stats (its way to cool to use the word "statistics" in full) page is the referral source for hits on my blog. This means I get to see the web page that the hapless reader blundered from in order to get (certainly inadvertently) onto my blog. For some reason I cannot begin to explain one of the most common sources in recent times has been a blog about tooth whitening. Why this should be is utterly beyond me as is the reason for the existence of a blog about tooth whitening in the first place. However I am feeling guilty about the amount of time wasted by tooth whitening aficionados perusing my blog for matters dental. Herewith, therefore, is an entire blog entry dedicated to teeth and the whitening thereof.

At some undisclosed point in human history it was decided that white teeth were appealing. As in many other areas the Romans took the lead. They kept their teeth nice and white by scraping all the gunk off them with emery boards. Unfortunately some of that gunk was the enamel so it was a temporary fix at best. There is no record of whether they smeared toothpaste on their fingernails to make them look better. In less civilised parts of the world (we know they were less civilised because they didn't conquer as much) people chewed sticks as part of a sensible dental care package or simply used their teeth until they fell out and then did without.

Despite these early initiatives for many centuries dental hygiene consisted not so much of whitening teeth as of simply yanking out those ones that were oozing pus. Then at some point it was decided that white was the ideal colour for teeth and a whole new industry was born. I rather suspect that the industry was born first and then conducted a vigorous marketing campaign extolling the virtues of white teeth. Overnight dentists went from tooth yanking psychos to tooth yanking psychos who would also make your remaining teeth look pretty.

Nowadays there are rinses, toothpastes and of course dentists who collectively conspire to give us teeth that can be seen from space. It is a little known fact that sunglasses were not invented to protect our eyes from the sun but rather to prevent flash blindness when somebody smiled at us. It has even been claimed that wild animals about to spring have been dazzled into immobility when the intended victim revealed his teeth (who claims this? I do. Where? Here).

As you can see white teeth are a positive benefit to society promoting, as they do, employment in the dental, and sunglasses industries. From animal taming to navigation beacons for interstellar travellers the benefits of gleaming white teeth cannot be denied. Small wonder that there is a blog about them, I bet there is a facebook page as well. Our shiny, white teeth are evidence of a civilisation on its way up. Which makes it all the more embarrassing that my own teeth are a sickly shade of yellow and tend to crumble when touched. I would like to blame smoking but actually the nicotine stains are one of the most attractive features my teeth have to offer. Perhaps its time I took a closer look at that tooth whitening blog.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Goats Are Currency Making Change Will Be Messy

Want to make some easy money? Go to the United States, hire a car and drive to Mexico. That's pretty much it although you may have to turn a blind eye to someone hiding half a million dollars in your spare tire. Try not to look suspicious as you go past the border guards.

I find it rather amusing that with a sophisticated international banking system at our disposal one of the best ways of getting money out of the United States is still to stuff it in the glove compartment of your car. Or, rather, someone elses car. That "someone elses car" bit is quite important because believe me you don't want anything connecting you to it if US law enforcement catches on. In that case, whoever is in the car is going to gaol.

Fortunately for overworked law enforcement officials on both sides of the border the imminent collapse of the global financial system (yes, that's still going on) will soon make their job a lot easier. Once we're reduced to the barter system its going to be much harder to smuggle money across the border. You can stuff a fistful of cash down your trousers, try doing that with a herd of goats. Things won't be completely easy for the police of course. There will still be counterfeiting to deal with. Imagine the distress of an honest citizen who trades his produce for what he thinks is a goat only to get it home and discover its a sheep on stilts. I can also imagine that withdrawing funds from an ATM machine would be a lot messier than it is now. However stealing ATM machines will be much less popular when an ATM is basically just a huge bin of goat parts.

Once we have fallen back on goats as a universal currency the world will change in ways we probably wont expect. Goat herders of course will suddenly be very rich. People who kept goats as pets will turn out not to be complete idiots and Satanists will be reduced to sacrificing gerbils. This may well be the biggest problem with our new goat focused world order. I can't imagine that the Prince of Darkness is going to be very impressed with a sacrifice of gerbils. So in addition to having our currency eating our lawn and crapping on our floors we're going to be facing the wrath of Satan. I'm sure the wrath of God is pretty bad but I'm prepared to bet that the wrath of Satan will be even worse.

A grim and terrible time approaches us. There will be madness, bloodshed and violence as Lucifer tightens his grip on a desperate, goat obsessed world. All in all it will be like Friday night football only with more goats. Dark angels will descend upon us sowing terror in their wake. People will try to flee only to trip over a damned goat. For humanity it will be as though the population of the entire planet had been cast as extras in a Harry Potter movie. There will be fire, there will be blood and most of all there will be goats.

We need to find a way out of this. The human race must rise up and deliver itself from this goatpocalypse and stride towards a finer and happier future. I would start working on that myself but I have a truckload of goats to drive across the Mexican border.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Birthday Greetings #24

Happy birthday to Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (1576-1612) also King of Hungary & Croatia (1572-1608), King of Bohemia (1572-1611) and Archduke of Austria (1576-1608). Keen readers will note that while the imperial title lasted until his death in 1612 he seems to have lost all of the subsidiary ranks (which were the ones with the real power) sometime earlier. There is a good reason for this, his brother Mattias. For more (possibly accurate) details, read on.

Rudolf was born in Vienna in 1552 but in keeping with the Habsburg custom of getting their kids the hell out of the way was sent at the age of eleven to the court of his uncle King Phillip of Spain. The rigid ceremonial of that court (Vienna was a relaxed fun place by comparison) seems to have formed a lasting impression and to the end of his days Rudolf was reserved, secretive and slow to trust. Possibly in reaction to his rigidly Catholic upbringing in Madrid Rudolf became a patron of the arts, dabbled in the occult, was a promoter of alchemists, astronomers, astrologers, protestants and various other weirdos. He turned his capital Prague into a centre of culture and learning as knowledgeable men of all kinds sought out a congenial atmosphere for their activities.

In fact Rudolf was close to being the ideal ruler except for one minor detail. He totally sucked at ruling. Disinterested in detail or indeed broad policy he let matters drift and quite naturally they drifted onto the rocks. Although disinterested in Catholicism he didn't embrace Protestantism either and tried to steer a strictly neutral path between both sides. Naturally this wound up with him being hated by everybody. His only major policy decision was war with the Ottoman Turks. This dragged on for years without much success (or even direction) until everybody was thoroughly sick of it. The war was held mainly in Hungary and by 1604 the Hungarians had had enough. They revolted against Rudolf and a Habsburg family conclave forced Rudolf to cede power in Hungary to his younger brother Mattias.

Mattias made peace with the rebels by offering generous concessions which infuriated Rudolf but with Hungary behind him Mattias effectively rebelled against his brother and stripped him of his titles of Hungary, Croatia and Austria leaving him only the kingship of Bohemia and the largely meaningless imperial title. Protestant nobles in Bohemia, sensing their chance, then revolted against Rudolf and extorted an array of concessions from him as the price of their obedience. Rudolf conceded these but the Bohemians decided they wanted more and dialled in Mattias who imprisoned Rudolf and cheerfully pinched his Bohemian title as well. About nine months later Rudolf died which was probably somewhat of a relief to him by this stage and Mattias succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor.

Although his reign was a bit of a disaster (particularly if you lived in Hungary) Rudolf did make Prague a centre of learning and enlightenment. His patronage extended to artists, scientists (including Kepler and Brahe), alchemists and his somewhat disinterested tolerance made Prague a safe haven for Protestants and Jews at a time when both were coming under increasing pressure. As an alchemy nut of course he spent a lot of his time funding searches for the Philosophers Stone which was supposed to be a way of transmuting base metals into gold. In fact you required a lot of gold to start with in order to get no useful result. The search for the Philosophers Stone is therefore actually quite a neat analogy for Rudolf's entire reign.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From Soy Milk to Facebook Isn't Such A Great Leap

Why soy milk? Specifically why call it soy milk? It isn't milk of any kind, tastes nothing like milk and indeed not being milk is part of its selling point. I agree that soy milk is a rather snappier name than "muddy brown, disgusting tasting nut derivation that tastes absolutely nothing like milk but what the hell why don't you put it in your coffee because you're probably drinking decaf anyway so it isn't like you could make it any worse". I suspect that the appellation "milk" is purely cultural. There are things we are used to putting milk into; coffee, tea, cereal, babies. When we add something else instead we attempt to ease the transition by giving it a traditional sounding name.

One of the strongest holds that tradition has on us is that we feel more comfortable with things we already know. Good or bad we have wrapped our minds around them and developed coping mechanisms. This holds true even if that "knowledge" is merely a vague cultural awareness rather than specific knowledge. When I meet somebody for the first time I tend to offer to shake hands. This strikes me as polite despite the fact that neither of us are likely to be wearing a sword. On an occasion when on offering my hand the other man bowed to me I was quite nonplussed. If he had been Asian I would have been prepared but he was Caucasian (and, as I rapidly found out, a total wanker) and so I felt rather at a loss.

I tend to regard tradition as a brake on progress, my favourite definition of it is "something stupid our ancestors did". I do realise this is somewhat unfair, tradition is a way of connecting with a past older than your own personal experiences. It is a reminder, if you will, of a shared cultural background. Or to put it another way it hampers your ability to deal with the world as it is by forcing you to view it through a prism created by a dead and semi mythical past. It is also very useful for excluding others if you don't want to come right out and admit that you're racist.

There is one area where tradition is actually useful. Tradition can help ease the path of innovation by providing reassuringly old fashioned words for something new and otherwise disturbing. Hence "soy milk". Another example is facebook. Do you think it would be quite so popular if it had been called "Stalker Facilitator" or "Permanent Record of How Stupid You Were When You Were Younger"? Instead the creators merged the friendly social word "face" with the reassuringly old fashioned and traditional word "book" and a new social medium was born. To the great delight of stalkers and future employers everywhere.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Forget Pigeon Toes, the Whole Foot is the Problem

Somewhere in this city is a huge mound of disconnected pigeon feet. I don't know this for sure but I am extrapolating from the extraordinary number of one footed pigeons I see about the place. No gathering of pigeons is complete without at least one of them stumping around like an avian Long John Silver.

One wonders if the other pigeons gather in awe of their maimed comrades and retell the stories of their injuries in hushed whispers. Or possibly the one footed pigeons themselves gather in special clubs like the RSL to swap war stories and mutter disapprovingly about the lack of respect in young pigeons today.

It has to be admitted that I don't feel particularly sorry for these battered crumb predators. If I could fly by flapping my arms (and when I was a child I tried very hard) I would probably be a little more careful of my feet. After all there is no point in swooping majestically out of the sky only for the landing to be a complete shambles because I'm missing one of my feet.

Naturally there are reasons for the high incidence of foot injuries among pigeons. Rats, I hear, are a leading contributor. I can only imagine that the rats are going for the only bit they can get; surely even a rat, given the choice, would select a tastier part of the pigeon than its feet. Other reasons for foot loss include landing on grates, sharp things, getting stuck in stuff and occasionally absentmindedness.

One could look at the previous paragraph and conclude that pigeons have a pretty tough life but I'm not so sure. Having taken an impromptu survey of the feathered vermin that infest our city I have failed to discover a similar incidence of foot loss amongst either the ibis or seagulls. Even after all extenuating circumstances are taken into account one can't help coming to the conclusion that pigeons are just bloody idiots. And they don't watch where they put their feet.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Same Continent But Further South and to the Left A Bit

It's obviously Africa's moment in the Sun. A rather facile statement you will agree when one considers the average temperature. What I'm referring to is the sudden rash of stories emanating from that continent. Of course North Africa has been ablaze for a while what with the recently granted constitution in Morocco, revolts in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing whatever the hell in Libya. Now Southern Africa or, at least, somewhat more southern than hitherto has stepped forward to snatch a little of the limelight. In the past week or so not one but two stories have emanated from Equatorial Guinea.

Has anybody ever heard of Equatorial Guinea? Put your hand down if you're the son of a former British prime minister. For those who simply cannot live another moment without knowing a little more about this neglected jewel of Africa's west coast here is a brief precis.

Equatorial Guinea is an unspoiled natural paradise where carbon emissions are kept low by the unreliability of the electricity supply. After centuries of inefficient colonial rule by the Spanish (who governed the place from Buenos Aires for some reason) the people of EG finally threw off the shackles of colonial oppression in 1968 and replaced them with all new locally created shackles of oppression. The president, one Francisco Macias Nguema, turned out to be a demented psychopath and the (surviving) population heaved a huge sigh of relief when his nephew ousted him in a coup d'etat in 1979. By contrast with his ghastly predecessor the new president turned out to be merely brutal, ruthless and venal.

Accompanying this dramatic improvement in the quality of governance was the discovery of oil, the exploitation of which greatly raised the standard of living of everyone in the country who happened to be related to the president. For those without such fortunate genetics life is less than stellar but the church is no longer banned (as it was under Macias) and most of the roads are paved allowing the sewage to flow more freely down them. Obviously EG is a nation on the way up. There is, of course, that awkward border dispute with Gabon to sort out. This could be difficult as a measure of the efficiency of EG's armed forces can be found in the fact that the presidential guard is recruited from Moroccans. Still a bright future beckons, possibly involving an animal shaped capital city.

Now EG gets its fifteen minutes of fame as the leaders of the African Union (in a move which shows that they have absolutely no sense of irony) chose the capital Malabo as the place to condemn the International Criminal Court's issuing of an arrest warrant for Moamar Qaddafi. I was pleased to see that Botswana (one of Africa's few functioning democracies) publicly dissented from this announcement.

Far more important than this brief cameo on the international stage is the fact that EG's women's football team got beaten 3-2 by Australia in their world cup match in Germany. Assuming that the Australians knew the nationality of the team they were playing this means that, briefly at least, more Australians had heard of Equatorial Guinea than ever before. Fame at last. I wonder if any of them have heard of Australia?

More Sudans Than You Can Shake A Stick At

Well; it's official. North and South Sudan have come to a civilised agreement to see less of each other in future. In a stroke the number of civil wars in the world has been reduced by one. It would be an act of purest cynicism to suggest that the number of international wars will soon increase by the same number. Don't worry about the North Sudanese though, they still have about three other civil wars running at the moment despite the fact that no lesser a personage than George Clooney told them to stop. It remains to be seen whether the South Sudanese will keep the family name. In my opinion they shouldn't, calling themselves South Sudan makes them sound like a state of America. Burkina Faso discovered that which is why it is now called Burkina Faso rather than Upper Volta which was more geographically useful but made the country sound like a part of ones digestive tract.

Still things are running smoothly at the moment in the Sudans, the furniture has been divided up and negotiations are continuing to see who gets custody of the oil reserves. Hopefully they won't have to get lawyers involved. Somewhere that might benefit from the involvement of lawyers is Libya where the worlds messiest divorce proceedings rage on. At the moment it seems to be a competition to see whether NATO will run out of smart bombs before Libya runs out of Qaddafi. In Syria and Yemen they are, unaccountably, fighting over Syria and Yemen. Somebody is eventually going to have to move out but it hasn't yet been decided who.

If anybody ever looks at the wretched bucket of suck which is our government and think "surely we can do better" there are plenty of examples in the world to prove we could also do worse. Although it has to be admitted that "At least we're better than Yemen" is hardly a ringing endorsement of our style of government. There are colonies of fungi that have a better system of government than Yemen. Its like winning a rugby league match against France. Of course you want to win but largely to avoid the utter humiliation of losing rather than because you will feel any pride in victory.

I'm not really sure what will happen in South Sudan. The last I heard they were planning to redesign their capital city so it looked like a rhinoceros, or at least, more like a rhinoceros than it does at present. This is not, I can't help thinking, the best use of their resources. I could be wrong of course. Suppose they pull it off? They would be a glittering, rhino shaped beacon of success; an inspiration to others all across the dark continent. Oppressed Africans everywhere will take heart from the South Sudanese example and institute a new era of peace, freedom and capital cities resembling animal crackers. This could be the inspiration Africa needs to really shake off the agonies of the past and step forward into a new tomorrow.

And if it all goes pearshaped at least there will be somewhere new for us to deploy peacekeepers.