Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pass Me the Elephant Gun I Need to Meditate

There was an advertisement the other day for Buddhist meditation techniques.  Apparently these are an ideal way of solving all your problems.  That's great news, somebody should inform the Dalai Lama he doesn't seem to have been having much luck getting his country back from the Chinese by other methods.  Perhaps some Buddhist meditation techniques are what he needs.

It's always struck me as amazing that ineffable wisdom relating to peace, health and happiness tend to originate from those parts of the world most notable for their absence.  Apparently these regions have two major exports, the aforementioned ineffable wisdom and a crowd of desperate refugees prepared to do anything to get away from the homeland of such enlightenment.

On second thoughts I suppose it isn't really that surprising.  If your life was an unremitting hellscape with no possible hope of relief I would suggest that developing a philosophy that helped you cope with it wouldn't be so much an indulgence as an essential survival tool.  After all we in the west had something similar for quite a long time too.  We called it Christianity.  At the time it probably helped a lot of desperate people get through their day.

Nowadays people claim that the church has lost its relevance.  Well of course it has!  The church was created to help people feel better about short, wretched lives full of misery and toil naturally its at a bit of a loss trying to explain Kim Kardashian's divorce (or indeed her entire existence).  Come to think of it I wouldn't bet that Buddhist meditation techniques could help much with that one either.

So, can Buddhist meditation techniques (or any other form of esoteric philosophy or religion) solve your problems.  I would say "yes" for a certain type of person and a certain type of problem.  But if you are that type of person and you have that type of problem then you might as well just go to church.  You'll probably find that they can help you out as well.  Just don't expect either of them to be of much use if you encounter a Kardashian on a rampage.  For that I recommend an elephant gun.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Birthday Greetings# 26

Happy birthday to Manuel Komnenos, Byzantine emperor.  Manuel was the third emperor of the Komnenian dynasty and benefited from the activities of his two predecessors.  His grandfather Alexios had held the disintegrating empire together largely through force of will and his son John built on this foundation to reestablish the empire as a great power.  Unfortunately John died while in the prime of life.  He scratched his hand with a poisoned arrow and despite (or perhaps because of) the best efforts of his doctors he died a few days later.  Before dying John gathered such of his advisers who were to hand and asked them which of his sons should succeed to the imperial purple.  The advisers hemmed and hawed for a bit and pointed out that each of the young men was, of course, a paragon; never seen such a high quality collection of imperial heirs; proud to serve under either one of them; honestly, its a shame there has to be a winner but if I have to, gun to my head, I'd say Manuel seems a little, well, nicer.

With that endorsement ringing in his ears Manuel sent his most trusted servant to Constantinople.  John had been inconsiderate enough to die in the wilds of Cilicia and Manuel was stuck there conducting the funeral rites.  However emperors were crowned in Constantinople and Manuel was well aware that until the diadem was actually on his head he still ran the risk of winding up in a dungeon with his eyes gouged out.  Fortunately the servant did his work well, locking Manuel's brother up in a monastery and by his arguments persuading the government and ecclesiastical hierarchy that Manuel was the best choice.  His strongest argument was the two hundred weight of silver which Manuel had authorised him to hand over to the church authorities to smooth the path.

The result was that when Manuel returned from Cilicia he was acclaimed emperor and nobody had to have anything gouged out at all.  Manuel then settled down to rule his empire.  Manuel is best known for his foreign policy which at first glance seems to have consisted of conquering the same regions over and over again.  Byzantium was kind of stuck in between some of the most intractable problems of the day.  The Seljuk sultan of Rum (a territory that had once been part of the empire) was always looking to extend his authority across the rest of Asia Minor, the Crusader nations were irritating the local Muslims by their sheer presence (and a good deal of remarkably stupid policies) and in the Balkans the Serbs, Hungarians and Croatians were alternately planning to throw off the imperial yoke, conquer imperial territories or just make a thorough nuisance of themselves depending on their circumstances and the opportunities that presented themselves.  To cap this off some idiot declared a Second Crusade and King Roger of Sicily thought this was an excellent opportunity to launch pirate raids on the empire.

Manuel handled all this lot with a fair amount of skill and some success although in doing so he built up troubles for later, less talented emperors to deal with.  He took the war to the Seljuk Turks and recaptured some territory from them (although not as much as he hoped).  He ferried the crusading armies across the Bosporus and gave helpful advice about marching along the coast which was under Byzantine control.  The Germans ignored him, were ambushed by the Turks and wiped out but the French contingent more or less survived.  A series of campaigns recalled the Croatians to their allegiance, persuaded the Serbs to pull their head in and even made the Hungarians at least pretend to be friendly.  The issue with Sicily was a bit more difficult.  Manuel cut a deal with the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad (who was about the only survivor of the German portion of the crusade) and both empires decided to deal with Sicily together.  Things didn't go too well since Conrad had problems at home and Roger persuaded the Hungarians to have another go at Byzantium.  When Roger died Manuel sent an army and a huge amount of gold to capture Apulia but despite early successes the whole scheme collapsed.

Possibly the worst problem that Manuel had, however, was family.  Specifically his cousin Andronicus who was a combination of talent, ruthlessness, treachery, lechery and sheer instability.  As a governor in the Balkans he plotted with the Hungarians to murder Manuel.  Imprisoned, he escaped was recaptured and imprisoned again.  Six years later he escaped again and lived the life of a freebooter.  Somehow he wangled his way back into imperial favour distinguishing himself in wars against the Hungarians.  Made governor of Cilicia he deserted his post to seduce the emperors sister in law.  Not content with this he went on and made the widow of the King of Jerusalem his mistress.  With an infuriated emperor hot on their tails the happy couple fled from court to court finding sanctuary anywhere somebody really wanted to piss off Manuel.  Eventually Manuel captured his mistress and their children and Andronicus appeared at the capital in tears with a chain round his neck to beg forgiveness.  Manuel was not quite that stupid and had him exiled.  Andronicus went but he would be back.

In between sorting out the political problems caused by his relatives and expanding imperial power in the Balkans Manuel naturally got caught up in religious controversy.  This was pretty much demanded of all Byzantine emperors, you couldn't really claim to be ruler unless you had managed to make a bad religious situation worse.  Manuel wanted to reconcile the orthodox faith with the catholic church and the pope.  So far so good, at least in theory everybody wanted that.  However what Manuel really wanted was the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium was the true Roman empire and to have two in the world was a little ridiculous.  To square that particular circle Manuel planned to unite both crowns in himself but to do that he had to kiss up to the pope.  That meant doctrinal concessions and his populace (to say nothing of his church) were having none of it.  Things weren't helped by a schism in the catholic church which made it difficult to know which pope to kiss up to.

Towards the end of his life Manuel fought the greatest battle of his reign.  It was the greatest because of its consequences.  Throughout his life Manuel had been on the offensive against the Seljuk Turks with a reasonable degree of success and now he decided to cut out the problem once and for all by marching on the Seljuk capital of Iconium with the largest force he could raise.  Unfortunately he blundered into an ambush and his army was smashed up.  The battle of Myriocephalon was the biggest defeat the empire had suffered for almost a century and it ended Manuel's dreams of reconquering Asia Minor.  There would be more battles with the Turks, victories as well as defeats but never again could Manuel hope to defeat the Seljuks completely.

As his days became obviously numbered Manuel got a little silly, dabbled in astrology and got involved in a couple more religious controversies just for fun.  Eventually he died leaving an eleven year old son as the new emperor.  This emperor, Alexios, was naturally guided by his mother and her favourites which turned out to be rather unpopular.  Fortunately dear old uncle Andronicus was waiting in the wings.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How About My Cynicism? Does Anybody Want to Buy That?

The latest non news to impress itself upon my unwilling brain is the fact that a couple of Australian girls are selling their virginity online.  Family groups are, quite understandably, outraged; it cheapens such traditional methods of virginity loss such as in the backyard of a friend's parents house after one too many bacardi breezers.  Some people still hold out for the wedding night of course because nothing is more likely to produce a memorable night than two inexperienced neophytes fumbling around trying to figure out what goes where.

I suppose I can understand selling virginity.  After all, there appears to be a market which is the prerequisite for selling anything.  I find it less easy to understand why somebody might buy it.  After all you can hardly mount it on a wall with a discreet plaque detailing the circumstances of your acquisition.  I also fail to understand why, when it comes to sex, less experience is considered to be a benefit.  You wouldn't choose a plumber or a heart surgeon on that criterion why a bed partner?
"Good news, we've got the perfect guy to perform Harry's bypass.  Apparently he's never done it before."

One of the girls has apparently received a multi million dollar offer from an American buyer but she has refused.  She says she feels safer conducting the transaction in Australia.  I think that's perfectly understandable, I mean who knows; its entirely possible that the guy trawling the internet looking to pay for the opportunity to deflower teenagers is some sort of weirdo creep.

All this talk about selling highly personal intangibles has started me thinking.  Surely to god there is something I could sell to raise money, not my virginity of course that's long gone (honestly officer it is).  My integrity, intellectual honesty and simple commonsense pretty much went down the drain along with the last two hundred and sixty one blog entries.  I did try selling my soul but the only purchaser was the guy I bought it from in the first place and he was only offering ten cents on the dollar.  I'm not sure even I would want to buy my pride or sense of self worth.  Hmm, this got depressing pretty quickly.  What about more tangible assets?  Lungs; tarry, eyes; crap, kidneys; perhaps before I started drinking five cups of coffee a day, liver; you've got to be kidding.  Suddenly simply purchasing food to keep the catalogue of disasters that is my body going seems like a poor return on investment.  I could sell my paranoia and self pity but I notice most people already seem to have their own.

No, I have nothing worth selling and like all other people in this position I think I will have to accept that my only chance of riches is to become a middleman.  That is I will buy stuff and onsell it to others at a higher price to make a profit.  Fortunately I know where I can pick up a couple of virginities at reasonable prices.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quick, Peaceful, Memorable. Choose One.

At three o'clock this morning my smoke alarm went off.  Despite being deep in the arms of Morpheus I was proud of my reaction.  Snapping from sleep to wakeful alertness in no more than fifteen minutes I rolled out of bed, seized the smoke alarm, tore it apart, ripped out the battery and went back to sleep.  I thought that was a pretty good reaction time.  When I mentioned it to the guys from the fire brigade they seemed rather impressed as well.

Living, as I do, in an apartment made largely of brick and poor quality concrete I have never thought of my home as being particularly flammable.  Especially as my one concession to a sensible lifestyle is to never smoke in bed.  Then I looked around at the thousands of books which cram my little home and I realise that there are petroleum storage facilities less combustible than my domicile.

I didn't realise that I lived on such a knife edge of danger.  To compensate I have taken urgent steps to upgrade my apathy level.  The measure of my success can be found in my realisation that if I did indeed wake in the middle of the night to find my apartment full of smoke I would probably just go back to bed.  After all if flames engulfed your home how would you prefer to be found?  Lying peacefully in bed or sprawled, hideously charred on the lounge room floor having made an obviously futile attempt to crawl to safety as the flames surrounded you.  Think of your relatives; I'm sure they would prefer to think of you going peacefully in your sleep as opposed to writhing, screaming in pain while bits of you caught fire.

It is terribly important, for the sake of your loved ones, that you arrange the right sort of death.  Giving the impression that your passing was painless is important in this regard.  When your family look down at you you want them to say things like "At least he didn't suffer" rather than "Who's that?"  Apparently it makes the subject a little less dead if they didn't suffer or something.  If you can't arrange painless the next best option is quick.  "At least it was quick," say the bereaved as the paramedics tell them the story of how they had to hose the deceased off five kilometres of motorway.  Perhaps it was; quick and still dead.  Of course quick and painless is the best option of all so if you're going to die try and contrive a high speed collision with a morphine storage facility.

If you do manage a quick and painless death you will encounter the third popular comment for relatives of the departed, "We didn't have a chance to say goodbye".  At this point the corpse can be forgiven for bursting out of the coffin and screaming "What the hell do you people want?  I'm dead already."  I wonder how the relatives would react to that?

Of course if you really want to be remembered then at the first indication of impending death use your remaining moments to squeeze into that leather fetish gear you keep for emergencies (just me?  Really?) even if your only usual contact with leather is a sensible pair of shoes.  This will ensure that your remembrance ceremony is filled with people trying very hard not to remember; and failing.

On balance though perhaps the peaceful death option is best.  All of which is a rather long winded explanation for why I've decided not to replace the battery in my smoke detector.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Abominable Post Industrial Wasteland Man

Apparently the Russians have found yetis!  This is exciting news for yeti afficionados everywhere although possibly less good news for the yetis themselves.  There is just one minor catch; the phrase "the Russians have found yetis" is slightly inaccurate.  A more literally correct phrase would be, "the Russians have not found yetis".  They have, however, found where yetis live.  Or to be more accurate, where they think yetis live.  A team of scientists (a term I rather suspect should be in inverted commas) have found trees twisted into a shelter in a remote region east of Moscow.  There are a couple of problems with this, for starters most of Russia is a "remote region east of Moscow" and while this does allow the yetis enough room to stretch out without feeling crowded it does make pinning the hairy beggars down a little more difficult.  Secondly there are all sorts of reasons why trees might be twisted into a shelter before we leap for the yeti option.  I rather suspect that this particular example might be indicative of the presence of draft dodgers rather than yetis.

If it is a yeti nest, however a whole new bunch of questions arise.  The first is; what the hell are yetis doing in Russia?  To the best of my ignorance yetis inhabit the snowy peaks of the Himalayas not heavily industrialised chunks of Russia.  I've read Tintin in Tibet, I know where yetis are supposed to be.  It is just possible I suppose that the Chinese occupation of Tibet has produced more refugees than just the Dalai Lama and his cronies.  It doesn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage tall, hairy mountain things fleeing communist oppression as well, but fleeing to Russia?  Since when did Russia become the place you go to to avoid oppression?

Still, the prospect of a yeti nest in Russia is exciting news for the locals.  There is the possibility of fame, tourist dollars and the increased likelihood of fresh meat on the table.  Properly preserved an adult yeti should be able to sustain an entire Russian family through the Winter.  That's before we get into the profits from tshirt sales.  The population of the more yeti intensive parts of Russia must be rubbing their hands (and licking their lips) at the prospect of good times to come.

Sadly I think they're going to be disappointed.  Despite all the circumstantial evidence in favour of a yeti presence in Russia there is one indisputable fact which convinces me it isn't true.  So far no footage has emerged of Vladimir Putin shooting a yeti.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Here Be Allegories

If you have an adequate map and the name of your destination written down you should be able to make your way there even if you can neither speak nor read the local language.  This has always been my belief and it has never let me down, except once.  On one occasion I was in Moscow, my destination was written down and I had in my hand the finest street map that the combined resources of Intourist (yes, this was in the days of the Soviet Union) could provide.  Unfortunately in an effort to be helpful the map had been printed in English while all the important signs were written in Cyrillic (which I know is an alphabet rather than a language but that didn't help much either) which made correlating the one to the other virtually impossible.  As a result I wound up in a not particularly nice part of Moscow (which in those days was most of it) and almost missed my tour of the Kremlin.

I've always been a bit of a sucker for maps even if some of my favourites have large blank bits marked "here be dragons" on them.  Map making must have been easier back in those days; a collection of houses, one main street, a church and maybe a castle and then just plaster the rest of the page with dragon warnings.  Let's face it nobody is going to sue a mapmaker because they didn't get eaten by a dragon and if a seventy five foot long, flying, fire breathing reptile does tear them limb from limb at least they can't say they weren't warned.  In fact I can't help wondering if the entire "here be dragons" business doesn't stem from laziness or ignorance after all but from a simple desire to avoid lawsuits from bereaved relatives of their customers.  "Here be dragons" probably served as a sort of generic warning.  If you trotted into dragon territory and were beaten to death by a pack of crazed bandits at least the mapmaker could point out that he said the area was dangerous.

Of course its entirely possible that the dragons were merely a euphemism from the start.  It was cheaper and quicker to write "here be dragons" rather than "here be bandits, thieves, wolves, tax collectors, plague carriers, disbanded mercenaries, inhospitable villagers, press gangs, evil cultists and the very real possibility that you will wander helplessly through a hostile landscape until you die of hunger or exposure because you have trusted your life to a rather inferior map".  Compared with that collection the dragons sound positively hospitable.

The only real problem I can see is if somebody actually wanted to find a dragon.  One can imagine St George, armour agleam, sword by side riding hopefully off into the wilderness clutching a brand new map in one mailed fist only to return a couple of months later dejected after a fruitless (and dragonless) search through the wilderness.  One can almost hear the weary cartographer explain;
"Look, its just an allegory all right.  Something, incidentally, you might like to explore yourself.  Slaying a dragon was only meant to be an allegory for your personal struggles against sin.  That's something you can do in your own lounge room.  I can sell you a map of that if you like."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Motivation Is In the Eye of the Beholder

There is a video clip on the internet at the moment telling about a special needs student at a school in America who has wound up as manager of the school's basketball team.  At least two of my friends have posted a link to this video on facebook with appropriate comments about how incredibly inspiring it all is.  Well, if you're a special needs kid with a penchant for basketball I suppose it might be.  Personally I don't find it particularly inspiring but then I'm not crazy about basketball.

If you want to inspire me tell me a story about how an intelligent but fundamentally lazy person unexpectedly wound up incredibly rich through no effort of their own.  On second thoughts, don't unless you think that jealousy is the handmaiden of inspiration.

I actually do believe that jealousy is the handmaiden of inspiration.  For every person who strives to achieve something for the personal satisfaction it gives them or from a genuine desire to benefit the human race countless more do it merely to big note themselves or so they can spit in the eye of their neighbours, relatives or whoever it was who gave them a hard time.  Florence under the Medici was the centre of the renaissance; art, philosophy, education all flourished and this was largely because being a patron of the arts was one of the ways the wealthy of that city measured status.  Going further back the Roman republic was largely built by wealthy, powerful men who measured their prestige by service to the state. 

Further down the pecking order cities throughout the empire (sorry, republic) gained their civic amenities and beautification courtesy of the local wealthy who might not have been able to compete with the senators in Rome but who still wanted to point out that they were large fish in their particular small pond.  One of the reasons why Rome was able to rule such a large area was because with the exception of the army the government didn't actually have to pay for too much.  The lower levels of the administration were staffed by slaves and the higher levels by aristocrats who were not only not paid but were expected to contribute to the cost of their position from their own resources.

So, if you want to motivate your underachieving offspring you can either play them heartwarming videos of special needs basketball managers or you can tell them that somebody they really hate has been boasting about their achievements.  The choice is entirely yours.

Get Your Exoskeleton Today!

Why don't humans have an exoskeleton?  I think I'd look pretty cool with a bone white plating over all of my soft bits.  Exoskeletons are pretty popular with crustaceans but they never really took off with mammals and I'm not entirely sure why.  After all mammals have just as many squishy bits to protect as the average lobster.  As it stands all the vulnerable parts of the human body seem to be on the outside.  By the time anything stuck into us hits bone the damage has already been done.  OK we would lose a certain amount of flexibility but I'm not a particularly good dancer anyway and besides, what else is segmenting for?

I'm sure you can see the advantages.  In sport for example a "bone crunching tackle" would be more than just a commentators verbal flatulence.  Bruises, minor cuts and injuries would become things of the past.  Naturally this wouldn't be good news for the band aid industry but somebody has to make a sacrifice and if that somebody isn't me so much the better.  I rather suspect that it is vested corporate and political interests that have artificially held back evolution to prevent the development of a functioning exoskeleton.

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it (unless you think about it a lot in which case it makes no sense at all).  I've already mentioned the band aid issue but what would the cosmetics industry industry do if the only thing they could market was bone bleach?  Clothing manufacturers would be out of a job as well, after all who would want to conceal their gleaming white carapace?  As for governments, well I think the threat to them is pretty obvious.  No matter how liberal a government is, how honest or how bound by the rule of law or how much genuine support they receive from the governed every government ultimately stands or falls by its ability to get people in uniform to beat up the recalcitrant.  This would be a lot harder if the recalcitrants were effectively wearing body armour.

Still I doubt if these evolutionary reactionaries will be able to hold us back for ever.  The benefits are just too obvious; protection, simplicity and a built in Halloween costume just to name the only ones I can think of.  Naturally there are drawbacks as well.  For starters we would have to bathe in what is likely to be the all body equivalent of toothpaste.  It's not going to be a good time for anybody who doesn't like the smell of mint.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Defending Scoundrels Beats Brain Surgery With a Club

"The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of ones time defending scoundrels"  That's a favourite quote of mine from HL Mencken.  Another slightly less pithy quote comes from the movie The People Versus Larry Flint.  Whether Flint ever actually said the words the movie put into his mouth I don't know but they are worth repeating, "I'm a smut peddler.  I'm the lowest of the low.  If the law protects me, it will protect you."

Of course defending scoundrels can be fun if only to see the horrified looks on the faces of your friends and relatives.  Unfortunately it also tends to get disapproval manifested in every form from polite muttering to death threats from those people who think that scoundrels should be forced to shut up.  I firmly believe that scoundrels should shut up.  I equally firmly believe they shouldn't be forced to shut up.  For starters, in the opinion of some I would be a scoundrel and so would everyone else.

It would be easier, perhaps, if we had rights but we don't despite the bleating of various people to the contrary.  You may think you have freedom of speech but I invite you to test that by shouting the word "gun" when President Obama comes to visit.  What most people describe as rights could be better defined as "concepts" or "hopes" sometimes enshrined in law or tradition, sometimes not.  Whatever they are they are not immutable, they can be taken away with the stroke of a legislators pen or a simple change of mind.  There is nothing solid about our "rights".  In a way this is good.  If something is solid it is definable and if it is definable it has borders and if it has borders those borders can be moved.  Just ask Poland.

One of the major problems with our rights is that they rarely have disinterested defenders.  Most people claiming to fight for the rights of others are actually fighting for a highly specific set of rights for a highly specific set of others.  This is not to say the fight is unjustified but don't try exercising any rights of your own that might get in their way.  And those who are genuinely disinterested defenders of peoples rights tend to wind up defending scoundrels as I mentioned at the top of this entry.  This is unlikely to help their credibility when they go up against people advocating the interests of the less obviously obnoxious.

Most people look to the law to protect their rights but laws are actually a rather poor tool to use.  Since they usually have to apply to everyone in all circumstances using the law to protect an individuals rights is rather like performing brain surgery with a club.  If you go at it long enough you will get the affected area and you may even do some good but the collateral damage is likely to be severe.  Probably the wisest thing we can do is keep the law out of it as much as possible and rely on the basic good will and commonsense of the people.  After all, we're the ones who came up with the concept of rights in the first place.

This would work brilliantly if it wasn't for all the scoundrels out there.  I wish there was some way we could force them to shut up.

Outside for Sports, Living Room for Lazy

I was talking with a friend about a party she went to recently.  At some point, late in the evening after much alcohol had been consumed the nintendo wii was broken out and exercise and sport attempted.  My friend was pleased that she was sober enough to recognise this as a bad idea and doubly pleased that the party wasn't at her house and thus she was not responsible for cleaning up the inevitable messy consequences.

On a broader scale I have to wonder about things like wii sports.  Here's an idea!  If you want to play sport then go outside and play some fucking sport.  We seem to spend half our time thinking of ways to reduce the amount of physical exercise we do and the other half coming up with ever more sophisticated ways of replacing that exercise.  We could have saved ourselves a lot of time by not doing either and we would be at least as fit and healthy as we are now.

Not that I am in any way an advocate of physical exercise.  I'm doing a bit myself now and I've got to say it absolutely sucks.  However I do find it amusing that in the poorer parts of the world where eating is frugal and physical exertion is a way of life the inhabitants have no higher goal than to one day live a life which involves being fat and lazy while in the parts of the world where this has been achieved two of the biggest money making endeavours are the diet and exercise industries.  As a species we seem to be rather difficult to please.  Actually that's not strictly true; we're very easy to please its just that its difficult to please us for very long.

Rather than being a flaw in our collective personality this dissatisfaction with the status quo is a good thing.  The principal driving force behind achievement is not so much to get to a destination as it is to get away from here.  Would fire have been invented if everybody had decided that raw meat and chilly caves were good enough for them?  I doubt it.  Thousands of years of human achievement can be traced back to somebody looking around at the way things are and saying; "I'm sick to death of this".  Hopefully one day soon we'll be sick to death of wii.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Strangers, Dogs, Relatives In That Order

I was sitting outside the cafe the other day, basking in the morning sun when a small dog trotted by.  Naturally I said hello, passed the time of day and otherwise exercised my somewhat rusty social skills.  It didn't occur to me until afterwards that I hadn't so much as exchanged a glance with the two humans accompanying the dog.  I've often wondered why "companion animals" are so popular with the elderly, now I suspect its because it allows them to have conversations where they won't be interrupted and all they have to provide in return is food.

I do sometimes wonder how the conversation goes when somebody is presented with a companion animal for the first time.
"Hello irritating old person.  I think we both agree that no human will want to talk to you but here's a dog with a pretty high tolerance level."
The other question, of course, is how is the job sold to the dog.  I suspect its something like this.
"Look, I know its a pain but lets face it he's only going to last a few years and then we'll find you a family with a couple of kids and a big backyard, promise."

A home with a companion animal must be dreadful; the howling, the shedding, the smell, the urinating on the furniture; honestly I don't understand how the animals can take it.  And that's before you get onto the topic of daytime television.  Which brings me to my brilliant suggestion; let's replace companion animals with companion people.

I don't mean nurses or carers or any of the other people who have rather foolishly decided to make a career out of putting up with others I mean dedicated companion people.  We could import them from dreadfully poor parts of the world and provide them to the elderly as companions.  I realise there is already an industry which caters to this need but lets face it not everybody fleeing poverty in Moldova wants to marry their sponsor.  My solution is much more civilised.  They come on a working visa, hang around somebody near to death for a few years and go home with a nice nest egg at the end of it.  Consider it au pair for the elderly.

Some people might be horrified at the thought of outsourcing caring for the elderly (or, more accurately, pretending to care for the elderly) to complete strangers from another country but is that any worse than getting dogs to do it?  There is a benefit for old people as well.  No matter how much they annoy you it is very difficult to get your relatives deported.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

If You Can't Grow Opium Tattoo Elephants Instead

My previous blog entry got me thinking.  This does happen occasionally and usually at inconvenient times.  Either that or the subject of my ruminations bears absolutely no connection to the subject currently under discussion.  This can be embarrassing, particularly at work.
"What's your opinion Neil?" my supervisor will ask leaving me in the awkward position of either making something up or having to admit that I was using work time to try and come up with a method for fitting elephants with false tusks so that poachers don't have to kill them to get the ivory.

Of course the previous example is ridiculous and fanciful.  My supervisor never asks for my opinion.  Nevertheless it serves to emphasize my point which is that with a little creativity we can often exploit our natural resources without having to deplete them too much.  Not all the time of course, no amount of creativity is going to result in us coming up with a way of extracting seafood from the ocean that doesn't result in a bunch of dead fish, but sometimes.  I think the common term is sustainability although I prefer pachyderm othordonty.  I can't think of a better form of employment for most environmentalists than running around darkest Africa trying to stick false teeth on elephants.

Once the false tusks are in place we can move on to elephant body piercing and elephant tattooing.  Pretty soon we're going to have some of the wildest looking elephants imaginable.  People come to Africa to see the animals now, wait until they see the new improved versions.  Once the elephants are sorted we can extend this to other animals and pretty soon the poachers are going to be driven out of business as all the locals get better jobs in the animal body art industry.

This is the way to beat poachers of course, ultimately the local population don't get jobs as poachers out of some visceral hatred for the elephant community.  They do it to put food on the table.  Employment opportunities in the African savannah aren't so plentiful that the inhabitants can afford to pass up a lucrative career whacking elephants in the hope that something better comes along.  Normally the impoverished citizens of desperately poor parts of the globe can at least rely on growing some illicit narcotic to keep the wolf (or lion or crocodile) from the door but with sub saharan Africa its elephants or its nothing.  At least until one of our major banks outsources its data security services to the Central African Republic.  Which to be fair will probably happen any day now.

Without Any Trains the Rail Network Will be Much Easier to Run

It is a hot, humid and generally disgusting day.  Simply walking outside results in damp clothes clinging to your body which is a lot less fun when you actually have to be somewhere.  People familiar with Sydney's public transport network will know what that means; it's trackwork day!  On a day like today the rail authority (or whatever they call themselves now) shuts down part of the railway network to do maintenance.  Usually they manage to shut down whatever part of it I need to use.  None of which would bother me (well, not too much) if I could see any improvement in the rail service after they had finished but apparently this is the amount of work necessary to simply maintain the rail network in its current state of inadequacy.

It is rather unfair of me to complain about our rail network.  It was designed and built rather well.  Unfortunately most of it was designed and built rather well about eighty years ago.  It is a tribute to the skill and far sight of its creators that it functions as well as it does.  And it does function well.  Despite all of the disparaging comments (many of them by me) large metal cylinders trundle down the tracks periodically stopping to pick up and drop off their human cargo generally at least within shouting distance of the timetable.

Where the rail network falls down is in capacity and extent.  Or to put it another way the city has grown to the point where we are starting to exceed the capacity for prophecy shown by the engineers and builders eighty years ago.  So what to do?  Of course the ideal solution would be to build extensions and upgrades to the network so that its good for another eighty years or so.  However in the unlikely event that our states political leaders turn out to be a bunch of feckless, irresponsible, short termist, pathetically incompetent halfwits it is probably a good idea to have a contingency plan standing by.

And here it is!  Let's get rid of public transport entirely.  Think about it; what do people use public transport for?  Three things mainly; to get to work, to visit friends and relatives and to go shopping.  All of these things can now be done over the internet so there seems no real reason to have public transport at all.  In fact there seems to be very little reason to have private transport either.  When the roads are clear of all except emergency vehicles and we're all living a troglodyte existence within our homes the world will be cleaner, safer and much more peaceful.  Best of all we will have the perfect excuse not to visit those irritating relatives we can't stand.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Important Birds and Trivial Otters

Thirty two miles outside of Newcastle is a city (this is the term it uses for itself) called Cessnock.  Cessnock is the gateway to the Hunter Valley wine district and it probably can't help the fact that the gateway is covered in coal dust.  There are many reasons to travel to Cessnock, for starters if you begin your journey in Newcastle there is the knowledge that at the end of your trip you're thirty two miles away from Newcastle.  Which is a start.  Other than that Cessnock is famous for being the home town (oh all right, city) of an Australian professional darts player.  Oh yes, and Cessnock is slap bang in the middle of the Hunter Valley Important Bird Area.

How does a bird go about getting the "important" label beside its name?  Do they have to take a test?  Is there counselling available for those birds who don't make the cut and have to go through life with the stigma of being officially unimportant?  How do the important birds keep their lesser cousins out of their area?  Are there gates?  Security teams checking IDs perhaps?
"Excuse me sir, but are you an Important Bird?  You're not?  I'm very sorry sir but you can't come in here.  Try the Hunter Valley Utterly Trivial Bird Area just down the road.  Not at all sir, a lot of people make that mistake.  Have a nice day."
And so another socially ambitious bird is crushed and slinks off to join its insignificant fellows.

Of course I'm being silly (What? Never, I don't hear you cry) the importance refers not to the birds but to the area.  Apparently the area is important to birds or its important that birds be there or something.  Since mankind has spent the last century alternately digging huge holes in the Hunter Valley and planting stuff in it the importance might derive from the fact that there are still birds there at all.  Or any other native life bigger than a mosquito.  Yet apparently birds are there, sheltering under vineyards, picking over slag heaps and nesting in the few remaining trees.  Talk about not taking a hint.  Among them is the near threatened Diamond Firetail.  Near threatened is a status that seems a little problematic to me.  Threatened; yes fine, no problem there.  Common as muck; also fine, but near threatened?  To me it brings to mind an ordinary bird standing beside a rarer relative in the hopes of getting some grant money.  Come to think of it since Cessnock is in the important bird area and thus near the Diamond Firetail does that make Cessnock near near threatened?  Possibly a better description would be "almost threatened" or perhaps "not actually threatened at this moment but I wouldn't advise selling it life insurance".

Something else that qualifies as near threatened is the European Otter despite the fact that it pops up everywhere from Ireland to Korea.  It is extinct in Liechtenstein, however since the otter population of Liechtenstein was probably only about two to begin with its entirely possible they're just on a long holiday.  They're quite common in Britain (less so in Korea, possibly dietary differences have something to do with it) or at least they are now.  A couple of decades ago you would have been hard pressed finding any otters in Britain but since that time people have been persuaded to stop dumping pesticides into the water supply and now otters are so numerous that they have to hose them off the runways at Heathrow so planes can land.  As yet, however, I have not heard of any part of Britain (much less Korea) being designated an Important Otter Area.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Look, Down On the Ground! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Russian Airliner

Interesting news on the aviation front.  Russia's skies are officially the deadliest in the world.  Honest citizens can't leave their homes without being subjected to a steady rain of aeroplane parts as representatives of Russia's ageing airlines give up the struggle with gravity.  Russia's air safety record is apparently worse than that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Excuse me?  The DRC isn't even a country, its a bloodbath with borders, yet somehow it does a better job of persuading aeroplanes to stay in the sky than Russia does.  Perhaps the Russians should cancel their space program and concentrate on an atmosphere program.  They will know they're successful when they can safely put a man on the ground near the arrival gates of another airport.  That's one small step for man, one giant leap for travel insurance.

Various reasons are suggested for this.  Certain officials point to incompetent, vodka sodden pilots.  Pilots, perhaps understandably, point out that the aircraft they are using are from the tail end of the Soviet Union and thus combine Soviet manufacturing standards with a thoroughly capitalist mindset when it comes to spending money on repairs and replacements.  As to which of the above opinions is correct I couldn't say but President Medvedev has promised to replace all the old Russian airliners within a year.  He hasn't made the same committment about the pilots.  One suspects that this might indicate where at least a majority of the problems lie.

But back to the Congo.  Let me give you an example of how dreadful a place the Democratic Republic of the Congo is to live in.  Since independence Congo's principle way of changing presidents has been for the incumbent to be murdered by his successor.  The current president has won two of the most thoroughly rigged elections in voting history and unleashed his private army on his only serious rival.  The economy is a shambles, the average life expectancy is shorter than the amount of holidays I have saved and the country was once invaded by Angola.  Now what makes the Democratic Republic of the Congo so bad is that the preceding isn't a description of it.  It's a description of the neighbouring Republic of Congo which is where people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo flee to in the hopes of leading a better life.  There are parts of the moon less hostile to human life than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yet now at least the population can raise their heads and gaze with pity upon Russian air travellers.  A country famous largely for exporting blood diamonds and changing its name more frequently than its government finally has something to be proud of.  Across the vast, blood spattered landscape the surviving population stands tall (briefly then ducks again to avoid being caught in a crossfire) throws out what would be their chests if they got enough to eat and strides proudly to the airport safe in the knowledge that there are worse places in the world to be an airline passenger than there.  Once they get to the airport of course they just turn around and go home because, let's face it, if they could afford an airline ticket they wouldn't still be in the country

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Horse Whipping, Gambling Facilitating Fashion Parade that Stops the Nation

Today was Melbourne Cup day.  You know; "the race that stops a nation", "the jewel in the crown of Australia's racing calendar" and all the other hyperbole that goes to elevate a horse race to an experience akin to the second coming of Christ with the chance to win a little money on the side.  The cup was duly run and, as usual, was won by a horse so no surprises there.

Horse racing has always seemed a little creepy to me.  Essentially it consists of getting a group of wizened midgets in clown outfits to gallop horses around a track while periodically hitting them with whips.  If I were to attempt to describe it the best I could come up with is to liken it to a reenactment of the campaigns of Genghis Khan performed by Oompa Loompas.  I'm also not sure what the horse gets out of it.  Well actually I know exactly what the horse gets out of it.  At the end of each race the irritating munchkin stops hitting it and gets off its back.  There is also the possibility that if the horse wins enough races its retirement package will include the words "stud farm" rather than "glue factory" although whether this is explained to the horses at the beginning is something I couldn't tell you.

But as everybody knows it isn't all about the racing.  Of course not!  In fact almost none it is about the racing.  Millions of dollars are spent, horses bred, trainers hired, jockeys let out of school early and vet bills paid essentially for a sideshow.  Horse racing isn't about racing horses, its about gambling.  As long as the gambling takes place whether the horses turn up or not is largely immaterial.  You can bet on almost anything nowadays; football, boxing, elections, cock fighting, Italian government bonds so why is horse racing so special?  The answer is tradition, what else?

Horse racing is one of the most venerable and widely spread methods by which a small group of people remove money from a larger and stupider group of people.  Its been going on for so long it would be almost heresy to stop now.  The queen for instance loves horse racing.  Why doesn't she love poker machines?  Its essentially the same thing.  Well when poker machines have been around for another seven centuries she probably will love them.  It would be only appropriate.

As the racing industry has matured (or at least aged) over the centuries other industries have taken an interest as well and I'm not just talking about organised crime here.  It truly isn't just about the racing any more.  There is also the fashion.  After all when large amounts of money are being spent to no good purpose can the fashion industry be far away?  Essentially I think what happened was that women noticed that men were blowing about half their life savings on horse races and thought "bugger this, I'm going to use what's left to buy a dress".

Nowadays everybody seems to dress up for the races.  Melbourne has the perfect weather for this.  While warm and calm often enough to invite the purchase of flimsy, decorative pieces of fabric it has this tendency to produce cold, rainy and viciously windy days at inappropriate moments.  One of the most enjoyable things about the Melbourne Cup is the likelihood of seeing fashionably dressed women clutching desperately at a ridiculous looking hat with one hand while their dress, which cost thousands and has less material than the average tissue, is blown sidewards by an Antarctic gale.  At the same time they are drinking champagne and attempting to smile for the cameras while dying of hypothermia.  I find this almost as amusing as the animal beating.  One thing I refuse to understand is fascinators.  Many women wear them instead of proper hats.  The only thing I find fascinating about them is that women pay a fortune to wear something that makes it look like someone has sneezed on their heads.

Despite all of my diatribes I watched the race at work.  Its fun seeing the reluctant horses (ie the smart ones) being shoved into the gates.  And then they're off and some idiot is gabbling away at a hundred miles an hour while about a score of horses (with jockeys in tow) charge for the winning post with a determination that only the desire for a rub down, bag of oats and the opportunity to get rid of this idiot with the whip can explain.  As they round the final bend though the sound of the horses coming is one of the most stirring I've ever heard.  This year was awesome; a photo finish with the two leaders straining every muscle and every ounce of determination to get across the line.  There was literally nothing in it, just one head raised and extended a trifle more than the other.  It was amazing and even the fact that my money was on the horse that came second didn't still the excitement.  OK, there is a reason why people in this day and age are still prepared to tolerate horse racing.  At least its over now until next November.