Monday, December 16, 2013

My Thesis is Based on a Floating Log

From time to time I get interested in the origins of food.  Not my food specifically you understand but food in general.  I know there are those out there who do wonder about the origins of their food specifically.  Is it ethically sourced?  Is it free range?  Does it come from a country with a history of using ground glass as a thickening agent?  Does it in fact bear even the slightest resemblance to what appears on the ingredients list?
I don't worry about any of that stuff.  I've pretty much subcontracted those concerns out to the relevant government and industry regulatory bodies partly because I'm lazy but mainly because it seems silly to have this government and not make use of it.  It isn't a perfect system by any means as those folk in Britain who wound up eating Romanian horsemeat will tell you but on the plus side I've so far gone forty four years without fatal food poisoning.

No when I say "origin of food" I mean in the more general "how the hell did we wind up eating this stuff in the first place" context.  What caveman walking along the beach spotted a lump of rotting fish hurled up by the tide and thought "you know, if that were wetter and slimier I'll bet it would be delicious".  Did the caveman make the connection between the dead fish on the beach and the possibility of fresher versions in the nearby water immediately?  Or was there a long hungry period of hunting for fish herds in the nearby forest before the penny finally dropped?

As our enlightened (and by now, no doubt, starving) caveman shoved a convenient log into the water and paddled eagerly to where the fish herds grazed did he realise the momentous step he was taking?  Could he, in some way, grasp that he was commencing a journey that would culminate in ocean liners and endless reruns of Deadliest Catch?  Well of course he didn't.  He was focusing his attention on hitting fish with a club and trying to avoid being the person to discover drowning.

The concept of human development as a seamless, ongoing process is largely rubbish.  Mostly it has been a cobbling together of bits of accidentally acquired insights with some adhoc guessing and the occasional bright idea.  Human development only gains coherence in hindsight when we're trying to explain it to our kids in some way that doesn't make our ancestors look completely like highly fortunate idiots.  Its only in the last century or so that we've reached the point where extrapolating where scientific discoveries are likely to take us has become the province of people other than science fiction writers (who haven't been around much longer themselves).  Up until that point we were just making things up as we went along.  This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, most of human effort even today falls into the same category.  The fact that a small group of highly intelligent people can now start to make some (moderately) educated guesses as to what the future may hold is entirely due to the messy patchwork of achievements we've attained so far without their help.  In order to see the future you need something a little more reliable than a floating log to stand on.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Another Silly After Action Report

On the 10th of July 1943 the Allied armies launched their invasion of Sicily.  This came as quite a surprise to the Germans who were expecting them to attack Sardinia instead.  Fortunately for the Axis the Italians were somewhat less gullible than their German counterparts.  Italian high command had tagged Sicily as the next target from the moment the fighting in North Africa was over and had laid their plans well.  The moment word of the invasion came in General Alfredo Guzzoni commander of the Italian 6th army in Sicily hit the button and the Italian military leapt into action.  In relentless streams they poured forward utterly, almost fanatically, determined to surrender en masse.

The invaders were almost overwhelmed by the surging tide of Italian soldiers desperately trying to give themselves up to anyone who looked as though they might accept them.  If you think advancing against an army trying to kill you is difficult try advancing when most of your logistical tail is tied up attempting to feed and house that same army.  Here and there however isolated Italian units didn't get the memo.  The village of Modica was headquarters of the 206th Coastal Defence division, a wretched collection of overage, overweight, undertrained easybeats led by men that even the Italian high command wouldn't risk sending to either Russia or North Africa.

As the 1st Canadian division approached Modica however the men of the 206th laid mines, strung wire, dug foxholes and fortified buildings.  Seeing that their men were apparently going to resist their officers dialled in some armoured and anti tank support from a couple of nearby units that hadn't got around to surrendering yet.

This is Scenario FrF29; Sting of the Italian Hornet.  My opponent Jeremy Dibben took command of a force of high quality Canadian infantry with armoured and artillery support.  For my part I gathered under my wing some of the most dubious troops in the Italian army.  To win Jeremy's Canadians had to take at least nine stone buildings within the village including two small factories.  To achieve this goal he had a dozen elite infantry squads, a pair of 51mm mortars, four officers (including a 9-1) and armoured support in the form of three Sherman tanks and a pair of Stuart recce tanks with high speed but only machine gun armament.  A radio gave the promise of artillery support in the form of an 80mm battery capable of firing HE and smoke.

My stalwart defenders were a mixed bunch; I had four elite squads (which would rate as average in any other army) and seven first line squads.  Two officers (including another 9-1) commanded and numbers were bolstered by that rarest of birds the Italian hero.  This force was equipped with a small mortar, an anti tank rifle, a demolition charge and a few machine guns.  The real teeth of the Italian defences were to be found in the fortifications (12 factors of land mines, a pair of fortified building locations, a couple of wire counters and a trio of foxholes) and their guns.  Two 75 mm artillery pieces, a pair of self propelled guns mounting a 47mm piece already proved to be inadequate in North Africa and, gleaming like a jewel amongst the rusting hulks, one of the more impressive products of Italy's highly dubious military industrial complex; the Semovente M41M 90/53 which mounted Italy's superb 90mm anti aircraft gun on a tank chassis and pressed it into service as self propelled artillery and adhoc tank killer.  Three more squads and an old ex French Hotchkiss tank would make their appearance in turn four as reinforcements.

My plan revolved around two solidly defended zones with a fair amount of delaying material in between.  The first of the factories Jeremy had to take was practically on the front line and couldn't be expected to hold on for long.  I placed a squad and a half of expendables in there with an lmg just so Jeremy did have to actually attack it.  The rear factory I fortified and put one of the 75s in there covering the road.  The forest to the south of the factory was guarded by a dummy stack a minefield and one of the SMV 47s.  I stretched wire across the road leading to the factory.  A squad with the atr held an outlying building just before the factory and a squad, a leader and a lmg went into the factory to support the gun.

The other 75mm went into the brush just north west of the forward factory hoping to back a tank or two on a flanking mission.  The gun was covered by a squad in a stone building just behind it.  Behind that was the second of my two defence zones; a cluster of three buildings with a decent amount of open or nearly open ground around them.  Three elite squads, the 9-1 and mmg went into these while the SMV 90 (with the other 47 designated as ammo carrier) lurked among orchard hexes nearby.  The only wooded approach to the buildings I strung with wire and placed another six factors of minefields in an adjacent open hex.  The reinforcements would move up and secure the rear buildings.

Jeremy lined his troops up across the width of the board and struck strongly in two directions.  An all infantry force headed north, obviously eyeing the first factory while the remainder of the infantry with the bulk of his armour moved south.  As I saw that force approach I nervously realised that the only thing in a place to stop it was my single SMV 47 and I trembled for my flank.  Fortunately things turned out differently.  Jeremy's artillery could not be called on until the Italians had opened fire but as he moved troops into the open I couldn't maintain fire discipline and took what should have been a couple of good shots.  Sadly they only resulted in pins and Jeremy's artillery was in the game.

With part of my forward factory force (forgive the alliteration) revealed Jeremy swung his northern troops towards it and eased a tank in that direction as well.  My throwaway troops fought like heroes and it was three whole turns (in a six and a half turn game) before Jeremy could call the factory his own.  Along the way my sniper put a bullet in the head of his best officer and two and a half squads were broken assaulting the factory.  A good start but better was coming, aggressively pushing his tanks forward Jeremy ran one of his Stuarts into the line of site of the 75 in the second factory.  The opportunity was there and my gunners didn't miss.  Then a Sherman working its way around the forward factory presented itself two hexes away from the other 75.  The odds were low, Sherman frontal armour can pretty much laugh at an Italian 75 but a HEAT round and a ridiculously low to kill roll and suddenly a Sherman was destroyed as well.  Immediately afterwards the same gun broke while attempting an intensive fire shot on the infantry accompanying the tank.

The two tank kills took some of the steam out of Jeremy's attack and dreadful luck with his artillery didn't help either.  A red chit was followed by a loss of battery access and it wasn't until turn four that he managed to get a functioning fire mission.  I had broken my antitank rifle in an ill advised attempt to shoot infantry and his southern force moved slowly towards the other factory.  Most attention was in the north and with the factory in his hands I revealed my SMV 90 to take a shot at a gathering of troops.  If it wasn't for the ammo vehicle I would have broken the thing and suffered low ammo.  As it was it attracted just enough attention for Jeremy to place his first artillery concentration around it.  He was actually aiming for the ammo vehicle but fortunately the concentration drifted just far enough to avoid it.  The artillery had no effect but I wasn't crazy about hanging around in that neighbourhood.

To the south my SMV 47 had been trading mutually ineffective shots with one of his mortars, something that suited both of them as it kept them out of the game.  He moved a squad through the woods and into my landmines for a satisfying bang but little in the way of casualties.  My slow moving renault lumbered forward and took up a position next to the northern building structure as either extra support or an expendable target (depending on your viewpoint).

Now past the factory and with time starting to get short Jeremy advanced into CC with a couple of my stay behind squads losing a squad and a half to my half squad which seemed a good trade off to me.  After their early casualties his tanks were being very discreet indeed.

This was the scene at the beginning of turn five when we decided to call it a day (the cleaners were threatening to throw us out with the rest of the rubbish).  With both my main positions intact and time running out I decided that I had won, something Jeremy took with patience, humour and barely a raised eyebrow.  In actual fact it was too early to tell but I was feeling reasonably confident despite the fact that Jeremy's artillery had finally put in an appearance.  We might have got further through the game if I hadn't insisted on a scenario which seemed to demand that we spend about twenty minutes looking up esoteric rules for every move we made.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Missing socks are one of the perennial stereotypes of our civilisation.  Much ink has been spilled and countless hours wasted agonising over the propensity of pairs of socks to swiftly and mysteriously transform themselves into three totally separate socks at least one of which the owner has never seen before.  So much time and labour have been spent on this subject that for me to write a blog entry about it would be little more than a tacit admission that I have completely exhausted such shallow reserves of imagination and creativity as I once possessed.

I remember a time when all socks matched.  I had a vision in a dream of a golden city, beautiful and graceful where elegant spires challenged the clouds for mastery of the skies and socks presented themselves in serried ranks of perfectly matching pairs.  The city can't be found in this world, to find it I must journey beyond the gate of dreams.  Once in that strange world where everything is possible I can begin my search.

My path will be long and arduous.  I will have to struggle through the wastes of Eftar where the stones themselves cry out for water and are never slaked.  To speak with the seer who can guide my journey I will scale the black, battlemented walls of the city of Skylane which has never fallen to storm or siege and gain passage from the slave trading Lords of Night who rule that fell place.

Through the teeming citizens of Skylane, vicious and corrupted purveyors of decadence, I must hurry.  Never stopping, never turning.  Seek not to gaze on the deformities only half hidden by voluminous robes and take neither food nor drink in this place for what sustains these beings is death to more wholesome folk.  The great temple is a place no sane person would enter but here is found the prophet of chaos.  A tangle of grey hair and staring eyes that have long since ceased to behold the light.

Guided by the cryptic ravings of the mad, blind visionary who sees all I will cross the Perilous Ocean in a boat made of crabs until I reach the shores of fabled Argentar.  Here among the relics of hopes long dead and the howls of unfulfilled dreams I must face the Grim.  Their horrid droning voices shall bring me to the edge of madness and their hunger for life would be satisfied with my own were it not for the heroic lemmings hurling themselves from the cliffs above.  As my squeaking allies batter the Grim with their bodies I can struggle through the caves, slipping on the jagged rocks covered with the slime of ancient regret until finally I can beg audience with the email server of the Outer Gods.  Here amidst the oceans of spam and with thick snaky tendrils of chain letters wrapping themselves around me I can hope to find the answers I seek.

But that sounds like a heck of a lot of trouble to go to just to get a pair of matching socks and frankly the whole thing is starting to sound far too derivative.  So screw it.  If you want matching socks go yourself and if you succeed come back and tell me.  You'll be able to recognise me; I'll be the guy with the mismatched socks having a drink with the Pickman Ghoul.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Try Burning A Cyborg at the Stake

Exactly how much of your body needs to be replaced or enhanced before you officially qualify as a cyborg?  Would anybody admit to being one?  Cyborgs have received pretty bad press thanks largely to innumerable crappy science fiction movies (Doctor Who and Star Trek haven't helped either).  When one thinks of cyborgs one's mind does tend to turn more towards The Terminator than a pacemaker.  It is time cyborgs got a public relations team, surely the benefits of artificial enhancement outweigh the risks posed by the occasional time travelling, semi robot assassin.

Am I a cyborg because I wear contact lenses?  I seem to fit the definition in so far as my natural eyesight (terrible) is significantly improved by the application of an artificial enhancement.  Several centuries ago possessing contact lenses might have led to me being burnt as a witch.

Actually several centuries ago I would just have been half blind.  Which doesn't, of course, mean that I wouldn't have been burnt as a witch.  Witch burning was quite the done thing once upon a time and lets face it I'm pretty sure that an odd, socially awkward character with a propensity for talking to himself would probably have been pretty high up the list of combustible citizens in any event.  That's even before you get to my trafficking with demons and worshipping Satan.  Well, I say "worshipping" actually we just meet for coffee from time to time.  As for trafficking with demons, don't bother; they'll try and cheat you out of your cut and will rat you out to the border authorities to evade a parking ticket.

Still I think it is pretty obvious that if I lived in the middle ages the phrase "auto de fe" would feature on my death certificate.  Which in my opinion is pretty firm evidence that I wasn't a witch.  I'm sure any genuine witch wouldn't be inclined to take crap from a bunch of ill armed peasants.  Certainly if I had the power (one day, Neil, one day) it wouldn't be me roasting in the morning.  Although my means of escape would pretty much confirm the verdict.

Purification by fire seems to have been quite a popular way of dealing with social undesirables for obvious reasons.  It's simple enough to arrange and its permanent.  Also hiding the bodies afterwards requires a dustpan and brush rather than a shovel.  It seems that no sooner did the human race discover fire than we started applying it to other people.  Although if somebody does have to be burnt at the stake then "other people" are the very best candidates.  I wonder how long it took us before we realised that fire could be used to cook our food.  I also can't help wondering if this was perhaps discovered by cannibals.

I started this blog entry intending to write something on cyborgs and possibly delving into the rationale and ethics of transhumanism along the way.  Instead I took a detour through the middle ages and witch burning with the almost obligatory nod to cannibalism.  All I can think of as a final word is to point out that if I were burnt as a witch my contact lenses would melt.  I hope they stick in somebody's throat.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Mushroom Situation

The strange thing about mushrooms is that I don't like them.  Most of my friends, obsessed with my mythical fussiness over food, won't be surprised by this fact but I am a little.  You see I like mushroom gravy, mushroom sauce and mushroom soup.  Its just mushrooms I don't like.  One of my friends explained this by pointing out that I'm strange.

Without wishing to deny the self evident truth of that statement I do have better reasons for disliking mushrooms.  It's all about the texture, I find mushrooms creepy and unsettling to eat.  I don't like the feel of them in my mouth and chewing them is distinctly disturbing.  Mushrooms manage to be both squashy and rubbery.  Eating them is like chewing foam rubber, something else I don't like to eat.  So as you can see I have thoroughly rational reasons for disliking mushrooms.

Its nice to have a rational reason for something, normally I have to fall back on overused excuses like whimsy or mental instability.  There are other problems with mushrooms as well.  According to wikipedia (which has become the worlds premier reference material now that our knowledge is based on consensus rather than facts) mushrooms are "the fleshy spore bearing, fruiting body of a fungus".  Possibly I've seen one too many dreadful science fiction movies but I'm not crazy about ingesting anything described as spore bearing.  I have vague but horrifying images of some spore riddled fungus monster lurching down the streets while women and children flee screaming in terror.  Think of it as a vegetarian version of the zombie apocalypse.

Speaking of which, how useless would vegetarian zombies be?  "Braaaains, I need ethically sourced, organically produced meat free soy brain substitutes".  Its hardly a battle cry to strike terror into the hearts of the world.  I actually wonder if we would even bother doing anything about a vegetarian zombie apocalypse.  We'd probably just let them get on with lurching around marauding for plants.  Although, of course, no lettuce would sleep safe in its bed.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Time Schapelle Took One for the Team

Relations between Australia and Indonesia have hit a bit of a rough patch just recently due to revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that one of our intelligence agencies has been bugging the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife and various top aides and ministers.  This has come as a huge relief to the internal auditors of the Australian Signals Directorate who now at least know where their budget went.  The Indonesians have proved to be a little less sanguine.  It is fair to say they are somewhat ticked.

In amongst all of the coverage of bugging, Indonesian outrage, politcal fallout and how dreadful our new prime minister is (the bugging took place while Kevin Rudd was prime minister but, whatever) there was one article which wondered what sort of effect this might have on Schapelle Corby.  To which I can only say, who cares?

For non Australians and aliens from another planet this is the story with Schapelle Corby.  She was a young Australian woman who went on holiday to Bali.  It didn't go very well because as she was going through customs one of the officials noticed she was carrying about two hundred tonnes of marijuana in her luggage.  Arrest followed, Indonesian customs officials are reasonably easy going but they probably thought Schapelle was taking the piss.  This led to three rather interesting questions.  Firstly; who smuggles dope into Bali.  Secondly; who gets arrested by Indonesian customs? And thirdly who stays arrested by Indonesian customs?  My personal opinion is that the Indonesian customs officials simply couldn't believe what was going on and assumed it was a sting operation to test their integrity.

After the arrest there was the trial, the sentencing, the teary pleas of innocence and finally incarceration.  Throughout all this Schapelle, for reasons which escape me, seemed to become a bit of a cause celebre for parts of the Australian media.  Every night there was something new on Schapelle and how she was doing and how she was bravely holding up and on and on.  Subsequently there has been a renewed flurry of interest every time it looks like she might appeal or gain clemency or a prisoner swap or start a lifestyle website.

That was years ago though and for the intervening period Schapelle has been happily banged up in either Kerobokan prison or the penthouse suite of the Djakarta Hyatt (the Indonesian justice system is a little difficult to work out sometimes).  Now, however just as she is hoping for parole this entire phone bugging scandal has come to light and things look grim for her.  So what?

The phone bugging scandal is one of those outrages which is no less real for being confected.  Everybody spies on everybody else and everybody knows they're doing so even if the details are sometimes sketchy.  Nevertheless with a nation full of voters furious at the intrusion (Indonesians go to the polls this year) no sane Indonesian politician can be seen to be taking a relaxed attitude to this.  So there is outrage, diplomatic tension, downgrading of ties and the possibility that young drug smugglers might want to take their holidays in Malaysia for the next few years.  Oh yes and the distinct likelihood that Indonesian authorities will stop doing whatever little it is they have been currently doing to prevent people smugglers travelling to Australia.

The most irritating bit about all of this is that it isn't our fault.  I mean, ok we did the spying part but the Indonesians didn't find out because of anything we did but rather due to the American predilection for hiring socially challenged, mentally unstable people to work in their intelligence services.  This might seem rather silly but actually it is quite understandable.  Espionage is essentially violating other peoples privacy, building up trust for the sole purpose of betraying and engaging in ongoing and enthusiastic deceit.  Ok we can say its all in a good cause but seriously does it sound like a job that would be taken by a well adjusted human being?  I personally think that should be part of the psychological examination on entrance.

"Do you want to work in the intelligence services?"
"Sorry, you fail."

Still the Indonesian revelations are spilled milk now and we have to do what we can to mop it up.  We are helped by the fact that the Indonesians want this to go away as much as we do, they just need something they can show their people so it looks like they're standing up to the imperialist lackey (that's us).  Here is where Schapelle Corby can do something useful to help her country.  All she has to do is publicly state that she was the one bugging the Indonesian president's phone in the hopes of learning about her parole.  The Indonesians can tsk tsk vigorously, remove her hair dressing privileges and our prime minister can offer a harmless apology for the actions of one of our private citizens.  That should be quite sufficient, at least until Edward Snowden tells everybody what else we've been up to.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Turning Tungsten Into Gold

I wrote this blog entry by candlelight.  Which is atmospheric and, under the right circumstances, romantic.  The "right circumstances" involving the presence of at least one other person and me doing something far more interesting than writing a damn blog entry.  The principal thing candlelight is though is annoying.  A feeble, swaying light which usually manages to illuminate little more than the candle itself which is pointless because once you've lit it you probably don't need to see it again.  I think the only reason we didn't invent the electric light a lot sooner in our development is because its difficult to discover things in the dark.  Frankly I'm amazed early scientists could actually discover the door to their lab half the time.

Of course there is daylight which leads me to the conclusion that for a considerable period of time inventions and discoveries were limited to office hours.  You don't need to invent light when you're working during the day.  I'm also surprised that we invented writing before braille which works equally well in both the light and the dark.  I have no explanation at all for why sonar took so long.

To think of all the time alchemists wasted trying to turn lead into gold.  The first one of them to invent a light bulb would have found a way to turn tungsten filament into gold.  Although of course if he really wanted to profit the very next thing he would have had to invent was something to stick the light bulb into.  Since most of them were half out of their mind on mercury vapours its probably better that they stuck to what they knew.  Or rather what they didn't know.  I tremble to think at what they might have tried to stick a light bulb into.

Scientists don't like to be reminded of alchemy nowadays.  Its sort of like the scientific community's embarrassing uncle.  Half crazy, irritating at parties and just when you've convinced everybody that he's a total loss he occasionally comes up with something brilliant.  That must be the most annoying bit of all actually.  Of course most non scientists would be hard pressed to tell the difference; perhaps a little more string theory and a little less Hermes Trismegistus.  Possibly the greatest distinction would be that a scientist's ignorance is much better catalogued.

This was the trouble with alchemists.  A lot of them were really smart but they didn't really know what they were doing.  And since they were starting from wrong principles in the first place even the discoveries they did make couldn't be fitted into any sort of coherent whole.  Not that this worried the alchemists, they were perfectly fine with an incoherent whole.  And let's face it, it was an indoor job with little heavy lifting at a time when such occupations were reserved for kings and monks.

In one sense alchemy is a very human thing to study.  It is a lunatic collection of genuine knowledge and bat crazy superstition welded together by minds that were simultaneously highly intelligent (John Dee and his colleagues were no dummies) and barely capable of a coherent thought.  Nothing more human could be imagined.  As a matter of fact forget about light bulbs.  When you gather such people as that and put them in room with a mass of herbs, minerals and distillation equipment its amazing that we didn't invent the meth lab before the light bulb.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Birthday Greetings #30

Happy birthday to Tiberius, Roman emperor.  Tiberius was the second Roman emperor and was hand picked for the job by his predecessor Augustus after all the more promising candidates had inconveniently died.  This may go someway towards explaining the less cheery aspects of his reign.  "Oh well, I suppose it's got to be Tiberius" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

Tiberius was a gloomy, depressive character utterly incapable of effectively voxing the populi or making close friends.  There is a famous story of one occasion when he attempted to do the usual royal crowd pleaser of visiting the sick in a hospital.  Unfortunately somebody got their wires crossed and when Tiberius turned up he found that all the sick had been dragged out of their hospital beds and lined up for his inspection.  All that Tiberius could do was wander amongst the ill making desperate apologies.  His disposition wasn't improved when Augustus finally realising that he was going to have to name Tiberius as heir brought him into the family.  His method of doing so was to force Tiberius to divorce his much loved wife and marry Augustus's daughter Julia.  The feelings between Tiberius and Julia were mutual; they hated each other.

None of the above means Tiberius was actually unqualified to rule.  Augustus had had his eye on him for a long time.  He had served with distinction in some of the most demanding military and civil posts in the empire and in a number of ways he proved to be perfectly capable.  As his depression (or whatever it was) settled more fully on him he withdrew more and more from the senate and communicated with his government by writing.  Eventually he handed day to day control over to a subordinate and settled himself with keeping an eye on things from a distance.

So what sort of subordinate does a morbidly suspicious, friendless and deeply depressed person choose to be their number one guy?  Probably a ruthless, cynical, morally bankrupt son of bitch.  Step forward Sejanus.  Sejanus was praetorian prefect and became the emperor's go to guy.  He also kept the emperor busy by discovering plots which needed to be punished with of course the appropriate number of executions and sequestrations.  Eventually Sejanus pushed his luck too far and Tiberius had him executed before replacing him with somebody worse.

Contemporary (or near contemporary) historians are pretty down on Tiberius.  They note the execution of senators, the general reign of terror form of government, the reliance on dubious freedmen and they hinted at sexually depraved behaviour at Tiberius's villa at Capri.  By hinted I mean "stated explicitly".  There is a story about young boys being forced to bathe in the sea while the emperor swam amongst them nipping at their ankles which indicates pretty impressive lung capacity in what was by now a rather old man.  Since almost nobody was ever invited to Capri the number of reliable eyewitnesses for stories such as this can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

The truth of the matter seems to be that Tiberius really was a bit of a terror to the ruling class.  A miserable, paranoid emperor tends find ways of making the political elite miserable and paranoid as well.  There were certainly a fair few treason executions for reasons ranging from the silly to the downright ridiculous and certainly a lot of senators lived in fear of the knock on the door.  However lets put this into context.  The political elite probably accounted for less than one percent of the population.  The rest Tiberius left pretty much alone and since he never lost his talents for organisation and administration it seems that if anything the bulk of the population benefited from his rule rather than the reverse.

For the senatorial class though Tiberius probably was a worry.  Eventually he died and the senators with relief and gratitude welcomed their new emperor; Caligula.

How to Succeed in Business Without Giving a Crap

What is the principal thing a business must do if it wants to stay in business?  Provide good service?  Not really, people's tolerance for crappy treatment is surprisingly high.  Good after sales service?  Actually most people would be very happy never to see the sales staff again as long as the product works.  Create a product that works?  Not if you've got good after sales service.  Produce a valuable product of service to mankind?  Oh dear me no.  If there is one thing history has taught us it is that humans will buy any old crap.

No, what a company must do is meet its customers expectations.  Be they high or low those expectations must be met.  If you want to be all overachieverish about it you can exceed those expectations but if you do you'll find the expectations rise to meet your level of service.  To give you an example of what I mean (which may or may not be taken from real life) consider McDonalds.  When I go to McDonalds I do not expect great service.  I do not expect a friendly ambiance.  I do not expect the person next to me on the communal bench to have bathed in less than a month.  I certainly don't expect the food to bear even the faintest resemblance to the animals and vegetables it was supposedly sourced from.  BUT I DO EXPECT THE FUCKING SOFT DRINK MACHINE TO BE WORKING!!!

The semi trained, semi pubescent person behind the counter wasn't even apologetic.  She just blandly offered me the choice between a thickshake and a bottle of water as though an absence of soft drinks was the most natural thing in the world.  I'm used to drinking water at McDonalds but I'm used to it coming with ice and a small but vital admixture of soft drink flavouring.  I'm opposed to bottled water on principle and it was with a mixture of embarrassment and shame that I washed my burger down with what tasted like plastic flavoured tap water.  It was the first time I've ever walked away from McDonalds feeling disgusted with them rather than myself.

I left disappointed and angry vowing never to return.  Two days later I returned.  I told myself I was just going to see if they had repaired the soft drink machine (they had) and by the time I left McDonalds had regained the position of reluctant tolerance that it normally has in my heart.

Which brings me to my second point.  Any business which consistently fails to meet its customers expectations must be trying very hard not to.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Your Flight is Leaving From Tunnel Three

A second airport for Sydney has been in the news a bit lately.  For Sydney this is rather like saying fish have been in water a bit lately.  When the Wright brothers finished inventing the aeroplane the very next thing they turned to was whether or not Sydney should have a second airport.  For literally my entire adult life this topic has been the subject of vigorous debate.  Vigorous debate being so much easier than actually making a decision one way or the other.  Naturally over the course of twenty five years if we didn't need a second airport at the start of the debate we probably do now or will by the time we finish building the damn thing.

As things stand at the moment there are two basic positions; the first states that there is no need whatsoever (prominent among this group are the people who own and run our current airport strangely enough), the second more or less feel that we do need a second airport but are terrified of a political backlash from people who don't several square kilometres of concrete and avgas in their backyard if they actually go ahead and build it.  Its difficult to tell which side needs the other more.  As long as the debate continues nothing as scary as a decision needs to be made.  Nobody in the political spectrum actually wants to state we don't need a second airport for fear of being proved wrong in six months time.

Since the only long term solution to increasing air traffic that doesn't involve a second airport means lifting the curfew on the one we currently have I am firmly in favour of a second airport (have I mentioned I live near a flight path?).  Nevertheless I am keenly aware of the political difficulties attendant on building it and deeply sick on the policy of perpetual debate which we seem to have at the moment.  Therefore I've bent my brain to the task of solving this knotty problem once and for all.

Lets build the airport underground!  Think of the benefits; nobody's property values would have to drop, planes could fly (or at least taxi) day and night and a lot of tourists would probably come just to visit the worlds first subterranean air transport hub.  Of course there will be difficulties to overcome.  We will have to dig shafts so that new arrivals can get out (this is not mandatory in my view but others might think it is).  We will have to ensure these access points are within walking distance of a bus stop (this will require more thought than is usually put into transport infrastructure in this state). We will need some way of getting rid of the exhaust fumes (vents situated in the poorer suburbs should work perfectly well) and somewhere for travellers to park their cars.  That last one can be fixed by putting the airport under a shopping mall.

With all the major problems sorted out all we have to do is work out how to put a toll on it to fund the PPP which will inevitably be called upon to build it and equally inevitably will need to be bailed out when they go bankrupt.  I suggest we fund the airport by selling the drugs seized by customs and robbing everybody as they go through passport control.

Alternatively if you don't like the idea of an underground airport we can simply concrete over Sydney Harbour and land planes on that.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Another Silly After Action Report

Victory was so close I could taste it.  No, screw that; victory was so close I had swallowed it but then Ivan stuck a tube down my throat and pumped my stomache.  Leaving aside the disgusting imagery for a moment I shall begin at the beginning which, as somebody once said, is an excellent place to begin.

In 1937 China and Japan were fighting what would have been a war if the Japanese army had bothered to get the permission of their government before starting it.  The Japanese had overrun large chunks of northern China and had crushed the Chinese army whenever it looked like objecting.

The Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-Shek had a number of problems.  China was struggling to emerge from a period of chaotic anarchy (or, if you prefer, anarchic chaos).  The government was corrupt and incompetent, the army was corrupt and incompetent and every layer of the command structure was riddled with corruption and incompetence.  The result was that although vast the Chines army was badly armed, badly trained, badly led and badly equipped.  To add to this embarrassment of poverties there was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a communist uprising underway.

Faced with these difficulties Chiang pulled his armies back, trading space for time while the German advisers he had hired attempted to chip some of the rust of China's war machine.  It was probably the only practical option but it created a new bunch of problems.  Chiang depended on foreign assistance to equip his armies but foreign powers are not famous for backing losers and China looked perilously like a loser.  Additionally the Chinese people, and particularly some of the more influential, were getting sick of defeats and Chiang's apparent acquiesence in the Japanese occupation of a broad swathe of their country.  In short Chiang desperately needed a win and he needed it somewhere the foreign powers would sit up and take notice.  That somewhere was Shanghai and Chiang committed his best, German trained, troops to the task.

This is Scenario A145; Shanghai in Flames which I sat down to play with Ivan Kent at the last Bears meeting.  Chiang's gamble failed and now only the remnants of one of his best divisions holding the Four Banks Warehouse keeps the Chinese flag flying over Shanghai.  I commanded the Japanese attacking through a burning city trying to capture this last symbol of Chinese defiance.  Burning buildings essentially split the board in two leaving me with the choice of attacking along the direct route on my right or taking a long loop around to the left.  I chose both.

There are no tanks, no guns, no bombs.  Just infantry of varying degrees of enthusiasm and some machine guns.  Each of us got a hmg and I got a pair of mediums as well.

Ivan set his troops up well back and thus virtually invisible to the bulk of my attackers but also conceding a fair amount of covered ground for my approach.  Rather bravely he garrisoned the burning building in the centre and left a scattering of forces on my left.  Most of his force was set up in front of the warehouse on the right.  As the handsome picture (assuming I can figure out how to attach it) shows I set up most of my force on my right with a smaller flanking force to take the left.  All three of my supporting machine guns were set up on the second floor of building X2 peering over woods and buildings to (hopefully) place fire in vital hexes near the factory.  They started the attack by taking a shot at the defenders of the central building and of course failed to do any harm.  With that as an overture the remainder of my troops rushed forward.

On my left the flankers led my an expendable half squad rushed for the first defended building, the half squad was broken but the remaining four squads got in, two to hit his guys in close combat and two to continue moving.  In the centre another half squad died horribly attempting to clear a path for two follow up squads who made it to the road outside the building but both pinned before they could enter right next to a pair of elite Chinese squads.  On the right my force veritably sprinted most of the length of the board to arrive panting and largely unscathed a couple of hexes away from the warehouse.  They would stay there for several turns.

It took a couple of turns but my flankers destroyed a pair of Chinese squads (at a cost of one of their own) and pushed forward helped by the fact that Ivan was pulling his outlying troops back to defend the warehouse.  In the centre my two squads finally got into the building and killed another squad only to have to break and flee with their hair on fire as the building burnt down around them.  Down at the sharp end near the warehouse things weren't going too well as fire and casualties were exchanged but I couldn't inflict appreciable damage on Ivan's men now happily ensconsed in fortified locations in the warehouse.  I did manage to capture his hmg abandoned by a broken squad but in return one of my guys went beserk and charged into 20-2 fire in the street.  He was reduced to a greasy red stain in short order and I started to get anxious.  My casualties were mounting, my flankers were tardy and time was starting to run out.

Things looked up a bit as my flankers surged to the stone wall that was the last barrier before the warehouse itself and the surviving units in the centre finally made it through the smoke without more than superficial burns.  Leaping over the fence into a house defended by a single squad my flankers prepared to rout the defenders and press on to victory.  Of course it didn't happen like that.  That single Chinese squad tied my attackers up for three CC phases and suddenly I was desperately short of time.

Finally I decided on a desperate expedient.  Ivan had been defending the warehouse by shooting during my turn and skulking back out of sight in his own.  Scraping together my, now somewhat tattered, right wing force I advanced them all out into the street in a row of hexes adjacent to the factory.  Now Ivan had a choice, he could skulk in his turn and allow me into the warehouse or stand his ground and try and wipe out my force.  He chose option two without success.  His point blank shots battered me a little but most of my sturdy troopers hung tough and shattered him with their return fire.  To make matters better I finally wiped out the Chinese squad in the building and pushed a pair of squads into the rear of the warehouse.

Ivan was essentially surrounded, most of his troops were broken or dead and I had a turn and ample troops to destroy the rest.  I honestly thought I had it won but Ivan didn't quail.  Scraping together the remnants of his firepower he destroyed my troops in the fortified hex I had captured and advanced back in himself.  Now things were a little less certain but I still had the firepower to finish the job. I poured a mass of fire into one of his few defended hexes and rolled boxcars.  The failure of the subsequent, less impressive attacks was almost irrelevant.  One more turn would have won it for me but alas I had fallen with my nose an inch from the finish line.

This was a great scenario.  On two separate occasions both Ivan and I thought we were definitely going to win or were certain to lose but it still came down to the last turn and almost the last roll of the dice with Ivan maintaining his personal morale to pull off a win.  I on the other hand collapsed weeping under a table, and that was before we started.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Like Coffee for Guppys

Well the final wave of my holiday has tossed me spent and broken upon the rocky shores of my employment.  Gasping and spitting salt water I dragged my carcass up to level 60 and collapsed panting at my desk.

My pleasure at seeing my colleagues was only slightly marred by the fact that they had obviously managed to get along perfectly well without me while I was away.  I do like to think that the team benefited from my return and I'm trying to ignore the vulture perched on my desk divider.  I'm proud to say that I buckled straight down to the tasks at hand without even bothering to remove the seaweed from my hair or the condoms from my stomache.  My colleagues were divided into roughly three equal groups; those who didn't realise I was gone, those who thought I'd been fired and those who thought I'd died.  All were surprised to see me especially the third group.

The team guppy was pleased to see me.  At least that's the interpretation I'm going to put on his swimming in circles at my presence.  Apparently while I was away certain nameless team members attempted to kill him with neglect.  Our guppy, however, is made of stern stuff.  Shortly after we acquired him he was involved in a tragic bowl cleaning incident which resulted in him spending fifteen minutes on the floor under a colleagues desk.  I'm also pretty sure he was heavily involved in the untimely demise of the other team guppy who used to share his bowl.  Officially it was an accident but none of us have been game to buy a replacement.  The survivor (his name is Bullard by the way) swims happily in splendid isolation and defies us to purchase another fish.

So as you can see a little thing like not being fed for a week isn't likely to bother our boy.  The only visible change was that the water in the bowl was uncharacteristically clear and that was probably due to the fact that I hadn't been rinsing my coffee cup in it for six weeks.  No wonder the guppy was so pleased to see me.  He was probably desperate for a caffeine hit.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

I'm scared of heights.  I don't know why.  I wasn't as a child and in my youth I went bungee jumping without more than the appropriate level of terror associated with jumping off a three hundred foot high bridge with an elastic band attached to my ankles.  Sometime between then and now it has developed into something approaching a phobia.  For this reason I decided to eschew visiting the Belvedere Palace and instead went to the amusement park at the Prater.  I thought I would face my fears by taking a ride on the massive ferris wheel they have there from which one can see beautiful panoramas of Vienna if indeed you can take your hands away from your eyes.

So off to the Prater I went and, taking my courage in both hands (so it didn't run away), I bought a ticket for the big wheel.  If nothing else the locals could be amused by the sight of a middle aged man weeping hysterically in a corner.  My frame of mind wasn't improved by the sight of a workman wandering around carrying what looked suspiciously like ferris wheel components over his shoulder.

After all the build up it turned out to be a bit of a bust from a "facing the fear" perspective.  The compartments are fully enclosed and big enough to walk around in, I think I've been in smaller railway carriages.  So my fears didn't get properly faced but I did get great views of Vienna.  Or at least I would have if I hadn't chosen an overcast and rainy day to visit the Prater.  As it was I got great views of mist.  I took photos.

Of  course there were many other far more dramatic ways I could have faced my fears, rollercoasters, spinning towers and the like but on reflection I decided "screw it" and went on the miniature railway instead which was pulled by a baby steam engine.  I took photos of that as well.

Still on the subject of outdoor activities, the Augarten was conveniently close to my accommodation so I went down there for a look.  The Augarten is a public park which is rather like saying the Titanic was a boat.  Tipping the scales at over fifty one hectares there is plenty of space in the Augarten for one to stretch out and relax, walk ones dog and admire the porcelain factory which for some reason is situated there.

Looming above the ornamental flower beds and dwarfing the rows of handsome trees are the flaktowers.  The flaktowers date from World War 2 when the Germans turned most of the Augarten into a military base with bunkers, armoured vehicles and flaktowers.  These two monstrous constructions mounted batteries of anti aircraft guns to protect the city from allied bombing raids.

When the war was over and the Austrians decided to stop being German and start being Austrian again the Viennese reconverted the Augarten to a park and attempted to eradicate all evidence of the German presence there.  However the flaktowers were so solidly constructed that they quite literally defied demolition.  There they are and there, for the foreseeable future, they stay.  I must admit I didn't mind them.  Yes they spoil the look of the park and they are quite monstrously ugly but it does no harm at all in my opinion to have a few reminders of darker times around us, particularly in the middle of beauty.

That's pretty much it for my visit to Vienna.  I saw quite a bit, I didn't see an immense amount more but now I have to make my way home and bring this somewhat tedious collection of self indulgent travel ramblings to an end.  Somehow I don't think Mark Twain will be shivering in his bed.  Many thanks to Stefan and Zuzanna who lent me part of their home and were gracious and welcoming hosts.  A special thanks to Stefan (and his father) for their fine gift which I greatly appreciated.  All that remains now is to see if Emirates can be as efficient at dumping me back in Sydney as they were in depositing me in London.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Strolling along the Ringstrasse is a very Viennese thing to do.  Or at least most foreigners think its a very Viennese thing to do.  Therefore the Ringstrasse is permanently clogged with tourists kidding themselves that they are behaving like the Viennese.  The other day I was one of them.  I picked a good day, it wasn't raining even a little bit, the sky was clear and the sun was shining.  Of course it was cold, very cold actually.  My Christ it was cold!

Still stereotypical imperative demanded that I stroll along the Ringstrasse and stroll or rather shiver I did.  The Ringstrasse came into existence at the command of the emperor Franz Josef.  We seem to be hearing a lot about him but his presence is ubiquitous in Vienna.  Until 1857 the inner city of Vienna was still circled by a huge belt of fortifications designed to keep out the Turks.  By 1857 the only thing they were resisting was efficient commuter flow.  Franz Josef's orders saw the walls torn down, the moat filled in and the whole replaced by a broad boulevard circling the inner city on three sides (the Danube Canal occupies the fourth).  This new ring was liberally endowed with parks, squares, statutes and not infrequently all three.  Very soon lavish buildings began to rise there as the wealthy and the high born seized the opportunity to compete with each other to see who could build the most overblown building in the desirable new location.

The prize must be awarded to the imperial government who threw up (I use the term advisedly) a colossal building to house itself.  It was here that the two houses of the imperial parliament gathered to scream at each other.  It fulfills the same purpose today for the federal government of Austria although as far as I'm aware without the emergency clause in the constitution which allowed Franz Josef to ram legislation through while his parliament was gainfully employed hurling inkwells at each other.

A close runner up in the "Architecture that doesn't know when to stop" awards in the town hall of the city of Vienna itself.  This was another building I mistook for a church.  It is really unfair though to single out these two buildings, the entire ring is adorned with buildings, some beautiful, some elegant but all imposing. Together with the parks and squares they truly are an ornament to the city.  The Ringstrasse must count as one of Franz Josef's most enduring and valuable contributions to his people and it is a little churlish to point out that an ulterior motive behind the Ringstrasse was the fact that it is very difficult for the urban mob to build barricades across an eight lane motorway.

I walked the entire ring (not as impressive an achievement as it sounds) and strolled along the Danube canal to my starting point.  By this time the afternoon sun had warmed the air to the point where hypothermia was a mere possibility rather than a definite fate.  I loved it in Autumn, it must be amazing in Summer.

Travelling Hopefully

Getting to Schonbrunn Palace required venturing onto Vienna's excellent public transport system.  The Ubahn metro system deposited me so close to the palace not even I could get lost.  There was a little pictorial sign next to my seat on the train telling me who had priority seating.  As near as I can tell I had to give up my seat to fat women with pointy breasts, men kidnapping babies, women with scythes and scary looking pensioners strung out on heroin.  The pictures may have gained something in translation.

So to Schonbrunn.  Hop off the U4 at Schonbrunn station.  Do you see the imposing grey building before you?  That's the erotic cinema.  Turn right, stroll down the road a short way and you are at Schonbrunn.  Another ten or fifteen minutes strolling will bring you to the entrance.  At the entrance is a sign saying "Attention Pickpockets!"  Having got their attention however the sign fails to tell the pickpockets what it wants them to do.

By this time you are probably thinking "Please shut up about the goddam signs and tell us about Schonbrunn" or possibly "I wonder what's on television?".  You may even be wondering if I bothered to go inside.  The answer is "Yes, yes I did".  If I had to find one word to describe Schonbrunn that word would be "big".  If I was feeling expansive I might go with "really really big".  Also yellow.  Schonbrunn is big and yellow.  It is quite the largest yellow thing I have come into physical contact with.  It isn't a bright glaring yellow but rather a soft easy on the eye yellow.  At any sort of a distance the colouration helps the building blur into the background a bit helping to disguise how really big it is.  This is an impressive trick because as I may have mentioned Schonbrunn is very big indeed.

Schonbrunn also has grounds.  Of course it does, what sort of country house doesn't have a garden.  The grounds can best be described as "big".  They are so big you could fit a few more Schonbrunns into them and still have room for a tennis court and possibly a football stadium.  There's a water feature of course, what self respecting garden doesn't have a water feature?  To get a bigger water feature they would have had to build Schonbrunn at the bottom of Niagara Falls.  The grounds have a maze that I wandered around in happily for half an hour or so and a zoo that I didn't visit.

For the record Schonbrunn was built, or rather commissioned, by emperor Leopold I as the Habsburg answer to Versailles which had recently demonstrated exactly what can be done if you want to loot half a continent to build a summer house.  The building was then completely remodelled at the command of Maria Theresia and was used as the Habsburgs summer palace ever since (until 1918).  Schonbrunn is famous for, well, for being Schonbrunn basically.  Emperor Franz Josef I died there in 1916.  He was also born there much earlier, there are some primitive cave paintings which celebrate the event.

Out of Schonbrunn and back along the road to the Ubahn station pausing only to take in the latest offering at the Maria Theresia Memorial Porno Palace and we're heading back towards Vienna.  Actually we never left Vienna.  Schonbrunn may have been in the countryside when it was built but now it is slap bang in the middle of suburban Vienna.  The neighbours must have a hell of a time keeping up with the Joneses.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Vienna doesn't just have palaces and churches, my word no.  Vienna is a fully rounded city, it also has museums.  Actually it has museums and flaktowers but more on that later.

I dropped in on the Museum of Fantastic Art (at least I think that's what Phantasten Museum means) largely because it was situated between Stephansdom and the Hofburg and I was on my way from one to the other. The museum charts the course of the Viennese school of fantastic realism from its inception in 1946 (where if you believe the museum they were instrumental in returning civilisation to the war torn European lands) up to the present day.  In so far as I can tell (which isn't very far) fantastic realism developed from surrealism with an emphasis on "old masters" style clarity of depiction with a surrealistic approach to subject materials and interpretations.

I'm not sure if I understood a single word of the previous paragraph after the first sentence.  In my defence I cribbed most of it from wikipedia and a handout provided by the museum.  Anybody with more knowledge on the subject (ie anyone at all) feel free to correct me.  All that I can really say is I rather enjoyed it.  From now on if anyone asks me what my favourite style of art is I'm going to say fantastic realism.  I hope it's a real thing.

After the Fantastic Art museum I visited the Austrian Army museum.  In actual fact I visited this museum a few days later but I'm trying to build a narrative flow.  The Austrian army museum is situated, appropriately enough, on Arsenal Strasse in a huge domed building I thought was a church.  The ceilings decorated with paintings depicting famous Austrian victories (there were some), famous Austrian defeats are less in evidence.

The Austrian army really started towards the end of the Thirty Years War.  Albrecht von Wallenstein had raised an army at his own expense for emperor Ferdinand II.  At the end of the war (and after Wallenstein had been conveniently murdered) the emperor (by this stage one of Ferdinand's successors) decided to retain some of the regiments Wallenstein raised on a permanent basis and pay for them himself.

There are weapons, armour and uniforms from all stages of the army's history.  They also have regimental standards captured from Frederick the Great's Prussia and Napoleon's France (as well as a quiet acknowledgement that not all these wars necessarily turned out the way Austria might have preferred). There is quite a bit on the wars with Turkey although not as much as I expected.

The three great military heroes of the empire; Prince Eugene of Savoy (who joined the imperial service in a fit of pique after being rejected by Louis XIV), Archduke Charles (a local boy and a Habsburg to boot.  He is famous for defeating Napoleon; once) and Field Marshal Radetzky (who got a march named after him) are all well represented of course with paintings, busts, medals and other whatnots.  A blizzard of lesser military luminaries in Habsburg service are also there.  The army as a unifying force in the state is also a theme given heavy attention in the last decades of the old empire.

For an English speaker the museum is a little confusing as there aren't many English captions on the displays and the audioguide is a little substandard but it was interesting nonetheless.  I particularly liked their motto; "Because wars belong in museums".

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Continuing my sojourn through the Hofburg I wandered through the silver room.  This is a collection of cutlery and crockery.  Don't get the wrong idea.  It is called the silver room but not all the pieces are made out of silver.  Quite a few of them are made out of gold.  Porcelain and crystal are quite well represented as well.  Also linen, apparently no dinner at the Hofburg was complete without intricately folded table napkins.  My audioguide bemoaned the fact that napkin folding is becoming a dying art.  I'm sure its tragic but there are a few other dying arts I might try and save first before leaping to rescue napkin folding.

Most of the silverware isn't actually that old, dating from about the 1830s despite the fact that the Habsburgs had been eating for a least a century or two before that.  The reasons are simple, firstly as the silverware got old and battered from use it was melted down and refashioned into something else but the main reason is the Napoleonic wars.  During the wars the empire was (as usual) desperately short of money and all the silver in the empire was called in to be melted down to pay the soldiers (badly).  The emperor Franz set a personal example by having his entire dinner service melted down.

Moving past various imperial eating utensils (one set of which is still used by the Austrians for state dinners, I wonder what the Czech and Hungarian ambassadors think of that?) we come to the Sisi experience.  It is safe to say that Vienna has a Sisi fetish or at least that the people who visit Vienna and spend money have a Sisi fetish.  I breezed swiftly through that taking in portraits, jewellery, accessories and quotes from her not particularly good poetry.

For the record Sisi was the empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef.  They were possibly the most spectacularly mismatched pair imaginable.  Sisi was beautiful, emotional, neurotic, impatient of court etiquette and possibly the worst choice of partner for a staid, workaholic emperor of limited imagination.  Apparently he adored her.  Whether she returned those feelings is open to doubt but it is probably fair to say she was fond of him and wished him well.

Unable to bear the routines of court life and the behaviour expected of an emperors wife Sisi got away as much as she could travelling almost compulsively more for the journey than because of any particular destination.  She rarely settled in one place for long and was usually longing to depart pretty much as soon as she arrived.  This eventually led to her death as she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist on the shores of Lake Geneva while she waited for a ferry.  After her death the Viennese, who had never liked her much when she was alive, idolised her probably because she was beautiful and tragic two things which are always guaranteed to draw a crowd.

Lest the record seem entirely negative Sisi did render her husband two valuable services.  She helped reconcile him with his Hungarian subjects (Hungary had risen in revolt at the beginning of his reign.  The revolt had been brutally crushed and Hungary had existed in a state of sullen resentment ever since).  Sisi fell in love with all things Hungarian, learnt the language and generally helped make Hungary and Hungarian people more acceptable at court and also made the monarchy more acceptable to the Hungarians.  The second thing she did was introduce Franz Josef to an actress named Katarina Schratt who eventually became the emperors "special" friend although there was no physical aspect to their relationship.  Katarina Schratt could provide the sort of domestic homelife Sisi was utterly incapable of and give the emperor some companionship while his wife was roaming the globe.

Franz Josef's apartments were the real reason I took the tour.  It actually didn't take too long to go through them because in a huge palace complex Franz Josef lived in about half a dozen rather simple rooms one of which was an audience chamber (anyone could get an appointment and drop in on the emperor).  The most important room was the study, Franz Josef spent most of his life there working at his desk.  He logged a twelve to sixteen hour day, seven days a week for sixty eight years.  He even took work on holiday with him. His last words were apparently "wake me tomorrow at four".

Next to the emperor's apartments were the apartments Sisi used on those rare occasions when she was in Vienna.  On her insistence the Hofburgs first bathtub was installed for her use.  Franz Josef, of course, disdained such newfangled things and to the end of his days washed by being sponged down with cold water.

The Spanish Riding School is also in the Hofburg.  This is where the famous dancing horses are trained.  I know they're there because I saw a sign telling me so.  That's as close as I got though because my interest in horses begins and ends with the likelihood of them winding up in my soup.

As if one Habsburg palace wasn't enough the next day I was off to Schonbrunn a little place in the suburbs where the Habsburgs could get away from it all.

Travelling Hopefully

I must admit I think I am suffering from cathedral overload.  How often can one stare at soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, and magnificent artwork before one says "enough"?  Still I had to go to Stephansdom, the cathedral church of Vienna.  It has soaring ceilings, stained glass windows and magnificent artwork.  It also has the sarcophagus of emperor Frederick III.  Frederick was an early Habsburg emperor who spent much of his time being chased from one of his territories to another by various enemies.  He eventually beat them all by the simple process of outliving them and taking their lands after their deaths.  Frederick didn't have much success on the battlefield but he had a certain amount of political rat cunning.  He was frequently accused of indecision or procrastination but when it is crowned with eventual success I think we can give it the term, patience.

Having visited one dead Habsburg I decided to drop in on a hundred or so more.  The imperial crypt situated below a very modest Capuchin church contains the bones of a hundred and sixty or so dead Habsburgs including a number of emperors.  The most magnificent, of course, is the joint sarcophagus of Maria Theresia and her husband the emperor Franz (who was only a Habsburg by marriage).  By contrast that of their son, emperor Josef II, was very simple indeed as befitted a monarch who tried to make all his subjects get buried in tin boxes as a public health measure.  The reaction of the public for whose health he showed such concern was a universal "like Hell" and Joseph was forced to back down.  An emperor can annoy the aristocracy as much as he likes but it is very unwise to piss off the peasants.

Old Franz Josef is there of course, flanked by his wife and son both of whom predeceased him (being associated with Franz Josef didn't appear to be good for the life expectancy).  The sarcophagi of his wife Sisi and his son Rudolf are surrounded by fresh flowers and little gifts.  Nothing but a single modest bouquet (dating to 2011) adorns Franz Josef's austere sarcophagus but that dull, dedicated man would not expect to be rewarded simply for doing his duty.  If he were capable of irony he might be amused by the fact that all the bouquets have been given to two people who avoided theirs.

Having wandered around a room full of dead Habsburgs I decided that I might as well go through their stuff as well so I visited the Hofburg.  The Hofburg is the palace complex where the Habsburgs hung out when they were in Vienna.  There are arches, large buildings, wildly overblown statues and open spaces where the preceding can be comfortably surveyed.  My first stop was the treasure room.

Anyone who has read something of the history of the Habsburg empire knows that it spent a good deal of its existence teetering on the edge of bankruptcy so it came as a slight surprise that the treasure room is rather well stocked.  There are gorgeous robes, brocaded cloth and jewellery including an emerald quite literally as large as my fist (its the largest single emerald in the world).  There is the crown, orb and sceptre of the empire of Austria of course but there is also the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire including the crown, a cross set with pieces of the true cross on which Christ was crucified and the spearhead from the lance that pierced his side.  You can take the last two with as many grains of salt as is necessary to choke them down but they have been objects of veneration for over a thousand years.  There are gods from legitimate religions that aren't that old, they're practically sacred by osmosis.

Oh yes, they also have the holy grail and a unicorns horn (pass the salt again please).  The "grail" is a huge bowl carved from a single piece of agate.  As near as anyone can tell it was probably made in Constantinople in the third or fourth century AD.  That would make it early Byzantine or late Roman depending on your point of view.  How the Habsburgs got their hands on it is anybody's guess but they were nothing if not acquisitive.

I think my favourite piece was a Hungarian holy relic which was supposed to be given back to the Hungarians as part of the divorce settlement between the two nations at the end of the first world war.  The Austrians duly handed it over and it turned out to be a forgery.  It had been given to a jeweller sometime previously for restoration and rather than restore it he had made a copy, returned that to the Austrians and sold the original on the black market.  Subsequently the treasury museum managed to buy it back, what the Hungarians think of this was not recorded.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

If there are two visuals I will take away from both Prague and Berlin they will be crutches and dogs.  Every second person seems to be hobbling around with the aid of at least one and sometimes two crutches.  One can't help wondering if central Europe has a terrible outbreak of foot disease.  In between the cripples dogs wander in and out.  Lots of people have dogs and they take them everywhere; trains, restaurants, supermarkets, you name it.  The only place I saw dogshit on the streets however was Luxembourg where the canine presence was much less ubiquitous.

Prague has no end of cafes, restaurants and nightspots.  Sheer curiosity almost tempted me to enter one place which offered something called "Techno House Jungle Rap".  However they severely damaged their techno house jungle rap credentials in my eyes by naming the place "Disco Duck".  I went elsewhere.

At the entrance to Prague railway station I was accosted by three Slovakians all of whom tried to sell me aftershave and one of whom also tried to sell me women (in his defence I'm pretty sure he was only offering to rent the women).  I can only assume the women he had access to liked a man who smelled nice.  Deeply offended by the implication that these women (who were nowhere in evidence) would reject me on the basis of my odour I refused their kind offer twenty or thirty times and fought my way inside.

Leaving Prague I shared my compartment with a young honeymoon couple from Mexico and an elderly couple from Argentina who proceeded to barricade us into the compartment with their luggage.  Fortunately we didn't have to evacuate the train in a hurry.  The other two couples chatted happily away in Spanish, occasionally breaking into English for my benefit.  Once again I felt like an ill educated slob for being monolingual.  Even the panhandling perfume pimps at the station had spoken English.

Prague is behind me now and Vienna beckons.  Much thanks to Nigel who was my host and a damned good one.  Rolling through the beautiful Czech countryside we slid into Brno which appeared shabby, gritty and industrial although I will confess that the window of a train carriage probably isn't the best vantage point for a fair description.  All I really know about Brno is that it is the birthplace of the eponymous bren gun.  The Czech role in the Second World War seems to have involved designing a lot of high quality military equipment which was used by other people after Czechoslovakia itself was occupied.

Late Sunday afternoon is not the best time to arrive in Vienna.  Much of it appeared closed.  On the plus side I only got a little bit lost on my way to my accomodation and only had to make one panic stricken phone call to my hosts asking where on earth they were.  Eventually I arrived and climbed the 105 steps to my cosy little room.  In fairness my hosts did warn me about the steps in their airbnb guide so I have no reason to complain.  I do wonder what my host Stefan was thinking as he attempted to explain about the room while I lay on the floor gasping like a landed fish with black dots dancing before my eyes.  Eventually I decided not to have a heart attack and prepared to take on Vienna the next day.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

In keeping with my impromptu "monuments in the rain" series I picked the greyest, wettest day of my stay in Prague to visit Prague Castle.  The castle is actually a massive palace complex perched on top of a hill overlooking the city.  Since time immemorial (about 870AD actually) there has been a fortification of some sort on the site.  Successive rulers (over the years dukes, kings, emperors, presidents and, briefly, a reichsprotekor) have lived and worked there.  It is still the official residence of the Czech president.

Anybody visiting the castle hoping to see examples of late ninth century architecture are going to be disappointed.  Like most building complexes that have been lived and worked in for over a thousand years there has been a fair few changes.  Various rulers have torn down, built up, renovated, subtracted from and added to the castle.  That's before we get into the fact that different parts of the castle have burnt down, been blown up and on at least one occasion hit by lightning (there is a five story tower which used to be a seven story tower before the lightning strike).

The weather did fine up long enough for me to watch the changing of the guard at midday it was very impressive although it didn't quite have the machine like precision of the guards at Buckingham Palace.  I wandered around the breathtaking cathedral of St Vitus with an equally breathtaking interior, carefully placed ropes made getting good pictures of the inside difficult.  I visited the old royal palace and checked out the window made famous by the defenestration of Prague (technically the second defenestration of Prague.  Apparently tossing people out of windows is the standard Czech method of registering a protest against government policy).  All three victims on this occasion survived the seventy foot drop with only minor injuries.

There are some nice paintings in the picture gallery with a couple of works by Titian and Tintoretto to name just the artists I've heard of but sadly most of the magnificent collection built up by Emperor Rudolf II is scattered to the winds as a result of looting by Swedish soldiers at the end of the Thirty Years War (which was precipitated by the previously mentioned defenestration, what goes around, apparently, comes around).

The view of the city from the castle walls is amazing which is the reason the castle is where it is although the original builders were probably thinking in terms of "fields of fire" rather than "photo opportunities".

With the wet gloomy day turning into a wet gloomy night naturally I decided to hit the town.  I went to the Black Light Theatre to see "Aspects of Alice" a piece that takes Lewis Carroll's character as an adult and puts her into a series of scenes showing her the most important emotional moments of her life against a backdrop of Old Prague.  It was very well done although I didn't realise Alice was a lesbian until that point.  Strangely the theatre announcements were made in English and Italian but not Czech, still I guess they know their audience.

No restaurant that even pretends to serve Czech food will be without goulash with potato dumplings.  I've eaten it about three times so far.  If you see a restaurant offering "Czech and Mediterranean" food that means goulash and pizzas which I'm less certain about.  The waitress at my first restaurant kindly offered me the choice of sparkling or stale water.  I went with the stale water, it wasn't very tough.  On my way back to my accommodation I saw a man walking his tortoise.  Berlin, your sparrows have just been trumped.  It was moving at a pretty decent clip for a tortoise too.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

I'm walking everywhere in Prague.  Well when I say everywhere I mean somewhere.  Sometimes I walk to the same place twice, occasionally deliberately.  Walking is definitely the best way to see Prague especially if you can't figure out the public transport and a helpful German has made you petrified of taxis.

Today I walked to Josefov near or possibly in the Old Town, the signage isn't explicit.  Josefov is the old Jewish quarter or it was before a city development at the beginning of the twentieth century demolished most of it.  Bizarrely what was left was preserved by the Nazis who intended it to be the centrepiece of a "museum of an exotic and extinct race" and shipped Jewish memorabilia in from all over.

I visited the Pinkas Synagogue which now serves as a memorial to Czech holocaust victims.  The building is virtually empty inside but the walls are covered in writing.  The lettering is black, red and gold and has quite a visually pleasing effect from a distance.  Up close you can see it is just a list of names.  All the nearly eighty thousand Bohemian and Moravian Jews who perished in the holocaust are given by name.  As I said the walls are covered in writing.

On the way out I passed through the old Jewish cemetery.  It was cool and dark and absolutely crammed with gravestones and memorials.  Some people think cemeteries are creepy but compared with the synagogue where death had essentially been reduced to a telephone directory I found it a peaceful and even happy place.  Death, the ultimate act of life, had been given the respect it deserved.  You had to leave the synagogue via the cemetery and I rather think that was deliberate and very appropriate.

I'll try and be funny next time OK?

Travelling Hopefully

I left Berlin on what must have been the shabbiest looking train in the Deutsche Bahn fleet.  I was very glad of a first class ticket, I suspect second class were helping push.  Still it was functional enough, we rolled smoothly through eastern Germany on route for the Czech border.  On the way we passed through Dresden which didn't impress from the window of a train carriage.  For the record eastern Germany looks like a slightly less well maintained version of western Germany.  Also at Dresden we picked up a river which would be our constant companion for the rest of the trip.

I haven't really got used to crossing borders with no ceremony whatsoever.  I looked up and we were in the Czech Republic.  I did notice differences though, for starters there was forest.  There was forest in Germany too but it looked as though the Germans had dusted off the trees in preparation for visitors.  The Czech forests were just there.  The border region has mountains or, at least, overachieving hills which is probably the reason it was the border in the first place.  Also in the Czech Republic I saw factories belching smoke into the sky.  It was the first time in my trip I had seen anything that looked like industry.

Conversations with Thomas having convinced me that all Czech taxi drivers were going to beat me to death and sell my organs on the black market I decided to walk from the train station to my accommodation.  It wasn't a long walk and I barely got lost.  Taxi drivers notwithstanding Prague has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  You don't need to visit any of the main attractions, just wander around the streets in the city centre and you will encounter a breathtaking array of magnificent old buildings interspersed with the occasional palace or church which stand out even against all the other buildings.

I want to take a moment out from the glories of Prague to address a very important social issue.  Who the fuck decided that segways were a good method for touring a city?  In both Berlin and Prague I encountered clutches of giggling tourists rolling around on these ridiculous things.  No wonder drivers in Berlin are pretty relaxed about bicycles, trying to sight see while at the same time zipping down the streets on a segway strikes me as possibly one of the most stupidly dangerous things you could do.  Let's get something straight, the segway has only one legitimate use; that is to provide mobility for a certain type of American to fill the gap between when they're too big to fit in the pram but not yet obese enough to qualify for a mobility chair.

I strolled through the Old Town and parts of the New Town of Prague.  For the record the New Town is old and the Old Town is really, really old.  In the Old Town you have the opportunity to marvel and the breathtaking diversity of tourists Prague has to offer.  There are also more cafes and bars than can be reasonably expected.  My favourite cafe was called Cafe Rybyka a small, comfortable place inhabited by the most honest people in Prague.  I know they're honest because the guy next to me left his dope on the bar while he went out to buy tobacco and rolling papers and it was still there when he got back.  I decided not to try the same trick with my iPhone however.

Tuesday was museum day.  I visited the Museum of Communism.  I was going to say something funny and smartarsed about that but they've thought of all the good lines themselves.  My favourite; a post card announcing "The Museum of Communism:  Above McDonalds and across the road from Bennetton.  Viva Imperialism."  The Museum itself would benefit from better lighting and a more efficient display of their exhibits so I guess they're really capturing the feel.  Down at the Charles bridge (about which more later if I can be bothered) I took time out to wander through the Museum of Torture which took me back to a better, simpler time before psychotropic drugs and "enhanced interrogation techniques" when all a torturer had were some simple tools and his imagination.  Various implements of judicial persuasion were laid out each with a little card explaining exactly how they could ruin your day.  Amusingly the English language version of these cards had syntax that was, shall we say, a little tortured?

Dinner at the Crazy Cow Steakhouse which had a Texas theme to it.  Not exactly Czech I know but how can you go past a steakhouse called The Crazy Cow?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

You know the old saying, "One mans trash is another's museum exhibit".  The Museum of Things on Oranienstrasse takes that to its logical conclusion.  Since it was only fifteen minutes walk from where I was staying I trotted along to take a look at Kei's suggestion.  The museum exhibits standard household objects from the late 19th century until yesterday.  Genuine is contrasted with fake, tasteful with kitsch and functional with overblown.  The walls are lined with cabinets containing homely domestic objects from the last hundred 
years or so. I'm pretty sure I recognised a pair of shears that were still doing sterling service in my parents house up until recently. Think of the place as a midden heap in the making. Future archaeologists are going to have a field day with this place when they dig it up.

In the centre is the core of the exhibition which was sourced from the Deutsche Werkbund an unholy alliance of artists, designers and industrialists who "endeavored to forge a new understanding between product designers, manufacturers, suppliers, and consumers by establishing “ethically pure” design principles such as quality, material honesty, functionality and sustainability." They were, according to the museum "pushing for a cultural utopia achieved through design and way of life reforms at the beginning of the twentieth century". All of which I must confess I find rather disturbing.  

The Werkbund fought a relentless war against kitsch as an example of form over substance (and a pretty hideous form at that), that they were completely opposed to. Personally I think they're wrong, when some illiterate slob nails some plaster ducks to his wall he is plugging into the same motivation that inspires someone else to spends thousands on tasteful interior design. Function by itself isn't enough, we need embellishment as well.

But that's enough of Berlin for the moment.  I took a train out to Hamburg to meet Thomas and Prue for lunch.  After various petty difficulties relating to missing trains by a minute at every single opportunity I slid out of Berlin and hurtled towards Hamburg.  On the way I thought I saw deer in a field.  They looked like deer or at least they looked like what I imagine deer to look like.  It's possible they were miniature, emaciated cows.

Hamburg presents a distinct difference to Berlin.  In Berlin I worried if I was about to get mugged. In Hamburg I was afraid I'd be refused entry to the city for failing to meet the dress code.  Prue and Thomas met me and we went to lunch.  I bought socks (not for lunch) and we took a tour of the town hall which is huge and manages to make Sydney's look small and quietly understated.  During the second world war when the allies literally bombed Hamburg flat and killed some forty thousand of the inhabitants the town hall escaped unscathed with only one bomb dropping nearby which didn't explode.  They have the detonator on display.  I find it slightly embarrassing that we trashed the entire of Hamburg and still didn't take out the politicians.

After the town hall we went to the planetarium where we saw a documentary on stars narrated by somebody who Germans think is Whoopi Goldberg.  It was  very interesting if slightly interrupted by the man behind me snoring.  In his defence it was dark and the seats reclined.

That was pretty much the end of my stay in Berlin.  Next day I headed to Prague.  So it only remains to thank my beautiful and talented host Jah and her delightful sister Yip who made my stay so enjoyable, showed me things and translated for me in shops when it became obvious that my German wasn't even up to the task of ordering donuts.  When the time came to leave I didn't want to.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

What happens when a city is remarkably short on pigeons?  Well in Berlin the niche is filled by sparrows.  These little lumps of brown are everywhere.  Should one even think about food one is swamped by a horde of sparrows.  It looks like a remake of The Birds for midgets.  By sad comparison it has to be reported that Berlin has the most wretched, scraggy looking magpies I have ever seen in my life.  I suspect that the sparrows are beating them up.  Every magpie I have seen so far looks like it has been dragged through a drainpipe backwards.

But enough of things corvid.  Its time to get on to things Prussian.  I wandered past the victory column in Berlin which celebrates (with hindsight, prematurely) Prussia's victory in various wars.  The string of victories ended abruptly towards the end of the nineteenth century.  Midway through the twentieth century Prussia ended abruptly as well.  I trotted down to Potsdam to see Sans Souci the summer palace of Frederick the Great.  For those who don't know Frederick was the guy who really put Prussia on the map (Stalin was the guy who took it off again).  When Frederick came to the throne Prussia was a modestly sized German kingdom of no great account.  With a combination of military skill, organisational talent, breathtaking moral bankruptcy and sheer blind luck Frederick transformed his nation into the leading kingdom in Germany and a serious player in the global power politics of the day.  In his down time he played the flute, hobnobbed with literary arse kissers like Voltaire and built Sans Souci.

It took me half an hour to go through the palace but over three hours to find it.  Getting the train to Potsdam was the easy part.  Once there I stepped off the platform and strode confidently in the wrong direction.  After a while the distinct lack of palaces clued me in to my mistake and I retraced my steps and tried again.  Eventually I reached the park which contained the palace.  A sign at the entrance said "Beware of the caterpillars" (I am not joking) but I laugh in the face of danger so I went in anyway.

The gardens are absolutely huge and have the usual trees, grass and bits of pseudo classical statuary that monarchy seem to insist on decorating their lawns with.  After much wandering I spied a large and impressive building in the distance.  Exhausted and desperate I stumbled towards it.  On arrival the man at the information desk informed me, rather condescendingly in my view, that I had arrived at the New Palace which Frederick had built for his guests and that Sans Souci was at the other end of the path about two kilometres away.  Have I mentioned it was pissing down rain all this time?

Two soggy kilometres later I arrived at Sans Souci at 1pm (having left the flat before 10) to be informed that the next tour was at 2.15.  I almost went home but decided to have lunch instead.  Through sheer coincidence I had approached Sans Souci the right way.  There is a road which will take you right up to the palace but the best way to approach is through the gardens so that you come across the vine laden tiers that form a series of terraces leading up to the palace at the top.  It's also probably better if the wind isn't blowing the rain into your eyes.

Sans Souci is actually quite small as palaces go.  There are only about eighteen rooms (excluding servants quarters and other trifles of that nature) and none of them are terribly large.  This was Frederick's palace away from palace in the Summer months and despite somewhat overheated comments by the guides probably was never meant to be Prussia's answer to Versailles or Schonbrunn.  Sans Souci doesn't look like it was built by a narcissistic megalomaniac and it doesn't even have the sheer mass of Buckingham Palace (which, if the queen didn't live there would probably be demolished for crimes against architecture).  It is light, elegant and beautiful if slightly over rococoed.  The palace is supposed to be one of the greatest examples of the rococo style in Germany.  I'm not sure what rococo is (I suspect it might be an icecream flavour) but apparently it involves a lot of tendrils of gold crawling everywhere on a light background.  It makes the building look like its veins are exposed.  Sans Souci was a lovely little palace but if I were him I would have built it a little further away from the carpark.

On my overcrowded train on the way back the woman behind me announced in three languages that she was about to vomit which added a pleasing layer of suspense to the journey.  Fortunately I changed trains before she made good on her threat.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Subtitle: Let Me Tell You About the Boars and the Bees

There have been claims in recent years that bees are vanishing.  Apparently our stripy, buzzing friends have been making themselves scarce.  This is a total lie.  The bees aren't vanishing, they've all moved to Berlin.  Fortunately I'm quite partial to bees.  It's odd, if a fly were to crawl all over my glass while I'm drinking from it I would be disgusted but I have no such problem with bees.  In fact one of them actually fell into my drink without prompting anything more than concern that the little fellow might drown.

For the non apiarist Berlin still has plenty to offer.  I have totally fallen on my feet in regards to accommodation with my hosts turning out to be delightful and welcoming people.  Living in a flat where the owner has made all of the furniture out of recycled bits and pieces is quite interesting too.  I'm hanging out in Kreuzberg which is quite an interesting part of the city (fewer hipsters than around the centre and fewer murders than Neuk├Âlln).  Plenty of Turkish places to eat and at least one restaurant of every other nationality that has ever so much as dropped in on Berlin for a visit.  There's even a Sudanese restaurant.  The last time I looked Sudan didn't even have food.

I visited the holocaust memorial which is very modern, which is to say there is nothing to indicate that it actually relates to Jews or death at all.  It comprises a large area of different sized pillars forming paths you can walk through.  From a distance it looks like a maze, once inside it is actually rather creepy and foreboding which indicates that the artist did know a little about what he was doing although the effect was rather spoiled by the children playing hide and seek there.  Once through I succumbed to total tourist stereotypes and sat amongst the bees and had a currywurst.  Berliners seem quite taken with what is basically a sausage with curry powder on it.  They even have a museum dedicated to the currywurst which I made a point of not seeing.

After dining sumptuously on the local delicacy I strolled down the Wilhelmstrasse (with a silent nod to the memory of Erich von Stalhein) and then the Unter den Linden which was quite a disappointment as it is currently a construction zone.  I went past the Bugatti dealership to see what they had to offer.  The salesman liked me so much he offered to knock a million off the price of their latest model.  I told him I'd think about it.  While I was thinking about it I fled back to Kreuzberg where the presence of a Bugatti would prompt a police raid.

My hosts in Kreuzberg are an artist whose name is Jah and her flatmate Chris, Jah's sister's name is Yip.  I mention this so that when I say "Yip took me to the flea market at Mauer Park" you won't think I've lost my mind.  Helpful family members need not chime in at this point.

I have never seen a flea market that sells furniture before.  There was stuff a purchaser would need to bring a flatbed truck to haul away.  The best thing about the flea market was the karaoke.  An outdoor amphitheatre (on a modest scale) provides the setting for people determined to embarrass themselves in public.  The very first song I heard as we arrived was "Jessie's Girl".  I swear to god that damned song is following me around.  The most fun about the karaoke is seeing the performers really putting on a show.  Callum for example wasn't just a drunken yob from Glasgow who butchered "Proud Mary" he was a drunken yob from Glasgow who butchered "Proud Mary" while also performing, dancing, interacting with the audience and generally putting on a great show.  We applauded him like crazy.  Particularly when he accidentally danced on and broke the bottle of beer he was drinking from.

The next day dawned grey and wet so I took a bus tour of the city.  We rolled past the home of the German president and embassies from definitely more upmarket nations than the ones I had seen in London (I even saw the embassy from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg).  The Tiergarten is a patch of sort of forest in the middle of Berlin.  Apparently it has been maintained since ancient times as the Prussian kings liked to go boar hunting without travelling too far from home.  The guide on the bus assured us there were no boars there now although apparently there are quite a few in the forests around Berlin.  If, while strolling innocently in a forest around Berlin, one should encounter a boar apparently the best thing you can do is talk to it.  After first freezing to the spot of course.  Apparently the local boars have learnt to identify the sound of human speech and if you talk they will realise that you're probably something whose death would have severe consequences.  I got this information from a tour guide in the middle of the city, on the top of a bus, next to a park where there are definitively no boars, so you know it must be good advice.

Checkpoint Charlie is really just a checkpoint.  Basically a sign indicating that here would be a good place to stop if you didn't want to be shot by someone.  However there is a museum next to it dedicated to the Berlin Wall, the events surrounding it and people who succeeded (and failed) to get past it.  They were selling little bits of what was supposed to be the wall but since it came down two decades ago and millions of tourists visit every year I'm a little suspicious about that one.  Its rather like believing that every Victoria Cross is still made of bronze from cannons captured in the Crimean War.  I saw a part of the wall still standing and was a little let down.  In my mind I had imagined some huge medieval fortress type thing but its just a wall.  Sufficiently high so that people can't comfortably get over it before the border guards have had an opportunity to swing their machine guns round and that's about it.  The real barrier was in the bare "dead zone" behind the wall and the guard towers and dog patrols behind that.  If you actually managed to get as far as the wall you had actually got further than most.

For those of you who have read this post in an agony of suspense allow me to assure you that the bee that fell in my drink at the start survived and managed to struggle out of its own accord.