Monday, April 29, 2013

Unpleasant Historical Date #1

On this day in 1091 AD the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos won a crushing victory over the Pechenegs.  This was very good news for Alexios as up until this point in his reign the crushing victories had tended to be won by his opponents.  The previous twenty odd years had been bad ones for Byzantium.  Political idiocy, rampant treachery and military inefficiency had led to a catastrophic defeat at the battle of Manzikert at the hands of the Seljuk Turks.  The Byzantines had followed this up with even more political ineptitude and a series of uprisings and civil wars which allowed the Turks to follow up their victory by conquering most of Asia Minor (most of what today is in fact called Turkey).

Alexios came to the throne in the traditional manner; he was a general who thought he could do a better job of running the empire than the incumbent.  Since it had been Alexios' generalship which had defeated the last three uprisings he was probably right.  Very soon after gaining the throne Alexios realised he might have done better to stay at home.  The empire was bankrupt, had lost most of its Asian territory to the Turks and the Normans were busy invading the European provinces.  In addition corruption, treachery and political opportunism were rife and most of the army had been killed, enslaved, captured or deserted due to lack of pay.  Part of what was left was in revolt.

After being beaten about the Balkans by the Normans and with the Turks still encroaching to the east Alexios desperately needed a win.  He got it when the Pechenegs decided to invade as well.  The Pechenegs were a nomad nation who seem to have existed largely so that inhabitants of more settled regions could be terrified by them.  Eighty odd thousand of them including wives and children poured across the Byzantine border and started cheerfully looting their way to Constantinople.

Scraping together what remained of his army once the Normans were finished with it Alexios set off to do battle.  Most of his force was actually about forty thousand Cuman tribesmen whom he had hired on the ancient Byzantine principle of "why use your own army when you can buy somebody elses".  Near the small town of Levounion Alexios caught up with the Pechenegs and launched an attack.  It would be pleasant to record heroic tales of derring do as a revitalised empire reclaimed its own but in actual fact it would appear that most of the Pechenegs were asleep.  What followed although dignified with the title of "Battle of Levounion" could probably be better described as a massacre.  The Pechenegs were eliminated as an independent nation for all time (so far) and Alexios was able to claim a much needed victory.

It was hardly the most edifying way to start a restoration but Alexios was able to build on this victory to reorganise what was left of the empire, see off the Normans and start to chip away at the Turkish conquests in the east.  Perhaps more importantly for him it gave him some breathing space at a time when a lot of his political opponents were contemplating removing that privilege from him completely.  As for what remained of the Pechenegs.  Well Alexios still needed mercenaries so the survivors wound up serving in the Byzantine army.  This was another Byzantine tradition.  Never beat your enemies so badly that you can't hire what's left to fight somebody else.

Travel Broadens the Scope for Disaster

I dislike making plans.  Part of the reason is making plans is work which is an immediate disincentive to someone as lazy as myself.  However the main reason I dislike making plans is because my plans rarely work.  Frequently the only purpose my plans serve is to provide a retrospective benchmark to enable me to determine how widely reality diverged from intention.  The result of this is when I do make plans they tend to be very simple and overengineered to the point of insanity.

If I need to be at a certain place at a certain time I will arrange to get there two hours earlier.  What this means is I actually arrive two hours earlier.  On the occasions when I give myself a ten minute buffer I tend to arrive two hours late.  The apollo programme put men on the moon with less of a safety margin than I build into a simple trip overseas.  In my defence I would like to point out that the apollo astronauts took their food, transport and accomodation with them and as far as I'm aware they didn't even need passports.  "Welcome back from the moon Mr Armstrong.  Do you have anything to declare?"

Still planning does make things easier.  In my case it makes it easier to tell when things are going wrong.  Sometimes I wonder why I bother making plans at all and suspect that a large proportion of it is so that I can look around at reality and assure myself that this isn't what I intended.

The motivation for this rumination on plans and planning is my upcoming and apparently inevitable trip to Europe.  I'm planning on visiting four cities in five weeks.  I tell my friends and family that this is so I have enough time to "do" each city thoroughly.  In actual fact it is to provide sufficient time so that I can hardly fail to see something.  All that I do know for certain is that I will see London because that is where my plane lands.  It would be helpful if I can get to Vienna because that is where my plane home departs from.  Somewhere in between these two fixed temporal and spatial points are supposed to be visits to Berlin and Prague, we shall see.

It's been a while since I went travelling and I rather suspect I'm out of practice.  The last time I organised a holiday on my own they didn't have electronic ticketing and I'm viewing the email with what purports to be my ticket with a great deal of suspicion.  I starting to suspect there might at least be an outside chance that I won't get out of the country at all.  Maybe that could be my plan.

The Advice is Free, the Consequences Aren't

If I could give one piece of advice to everybody coming to me for answers that piece would be "Ask somebody else".  Frankly the things I'm qualified to give advice on are few and don't often come up in day to day life.  Not that anybody does come to me for advice of course but I thought I'd get in early.  To be frank I'm not crazy about the entire advice giving thing anyway.  For starters there is always the danger that somebody might take it.  Taking advice is a rare occurrence but it does happen and people usually contrive to do it on those occasions when they really shouldn't.

Except in highly specific cases taking advice is generally a bad idea.  Of course advice like "don't wander into traffic" and "unload the gun before you start cleaning it" is always useful but by and large advice is a terrible thing.  This is particularly the case when the advice is something like "you should lead your life in such and such a way".  The reason is simple; if you're the sort of person whose decision making is so bad that you require advice on how to live your life then you are unlikely to make any better decision when choosing who to take advice from.

The previous sentence does more than anything else to explain the success of self help books.  It would be an interesting exercise to see how many authors of self help books actually read one before getting themselves into a position where they felt they could dish out advice to others.  I've often considered writing one myself.  It's simple enough really; take a bunch of largely self evident platitudes, mix in with some parables (the type and style will depend on your audience; Emily Post for stay at home mums, Sun Tzu for corporate wannabes) add a couple of examples (they don't need to be real but they should be marginally plausible) and continually tell your readership how wonderful they could be if they apply the lessons of your book.  The unspoken subtext being, how dreadful they are right now.

Ultimately though I decided against writing How to Improve Every Facet of Your Life Beyond Belief in Just Three Easy Lessons partly from moral reasons (if I'm that desperate for the cash I'll go into something a little more respectable like prostitution or drug dealing) but mainly because I doubt if I could write more than a paragraph without descending into mocking sarcasm.  There is also the danger that someone will take your advice.  Then they will blame you when something appalling happens to them (and if they take my advice it probably will).

Of course the absolutely worst result of all would be if they took my advice and were wildly successful.  That would just be a little too much to bear.  Although I suppose I could possibly borrow money from them.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Location, Location, Splash

They're currently digging up the driveway to my apartment block, apparently to improve the drainage.  I don't know why, at present all the water drains neatly down to the carpark at the bottom.  I'm planning on buying a punt.  The workmen had got as far as digging a ditch when the heavens opened as if to prove why the work was needed in the first place.  The result is that we currently have what looks like a badly designed medieval moat running down part of the driveway.  It's safe to say that drainage is still pretty much a work in progress.

Let us now, dear reader, take a short break from this fascinating tale of urban renewal to meditate on the nature of time.  Most people tend to think of time rather like a one way street.  You get on at a certain point, travel in the same direction as everybody else until you get off it again at which point time ceases to be of any great interest to you.  This one way street theory of time is totally inaccurate.  Time can travel faster or slower, can bend back on itself and run in reverse.  It is probably safe to say that time can be bent, folded, stapled and mutilated.  Nevertheless the one way street theory of time has its appeal because it is simple enough to understand and lets face it very few people are going to encounter time under any other circumstances.  The only people for whom the one way street theory is inadequate are the guys at the large hadron collider and people trying to pick holes in the scripts of The Big Bang Theory.  To the first group I say, :"Put that boson down, you don't know when its been" and to the second I say, "Get a life you losers".  Still the fact that time is infinitely flexible is important if only because it provides an explanation of why the next sentence in this blog entry is dated a couple of weeks after the first and the driveway renovations are complete.

So the driveway renovations are complete thanks to the malleable nature of time (and not at all to do with the fact that I'm so lazy it took me three weeks to write a single blog entry).  There is now a bold macadam scar running partway down the driveway giving it a slightly piratical look.  Hard on the news that the repairs were complete came information from the building managers that they were turning our water off.  I guess that's one way to deal with a drainage problem.  Apparently plumbers were coming to (I presume) plumb.  This happens every few weeks and I'm starting to suspect that maintaining the plumbing in our block consists largely of emptying a series of buckets.  This is something that I can handle with a great deal of aplomb as I live on the top floor.  I'm not sure where the water goes but it certainly doesn't stay at my place.

It does seem that a great deal of human effort goes into procuring water in the first place and then getting rid of it again.  One can't help thinking that if the city's water supply network was built in a huge circle it wouldn't really matter whether it ever rained again or not.  Of course, if you take the holistic view this is exactly what happens.  After all water isn't created, it just travels a lot.  Along the way it picks up various additives which we then spend a lot of effort trying to remove (or alternatively using them as marketing points for why we're selling an essentially free resource for seven dollars a bottle).  Despite this there is a great deal of resistance to drinking recycled sewage.  Which is odd because at the moment we are essentially drinking unrecycled sewage.  Try to give people a bottle of water from a sewage plant and they will turn up their noses.  Give them the opportunity to buy the same water at an exorbitant price from a health centre down the road and they will leap at it.  Which just goes to prove that it isn't only real estate that depends on location.

An abattoir next to a petting zoo would raise eyebrows, one next to a hospital would probably lead to another damn movie by Michael Moore.  Location is even a factor in ones attitude to drainage.  Did I mention I live on the top floor?  The drainage in my place is fine.  The neighbours on the ground floor whom I once had to help bail out their apartment after a heavy storm may have a different opinion.

For Sale to Good Home; One Shop Soiled Ferret

The latest news out of South America (apart from Hugo Chavez's overdue death, honestly the man took longer over his farewell than Frank Sinatra) is that some enterprising pet sellers have been bulking up ferrets on steroids and giving them grooming makeovers and then passing the results off as toy poodles and chihuahuas.  Apparently the owner of one such "toy poodle" grew suspicious when his pet exhibited a desire to become a nightclub bouncer.  One can't help wondering though what sort of pet seller can get their hands on steroids and not chihuahuas?  And why don't they just sell the steroids?

The above scam was long thought to be a urban myth and based on my source for the information quite possibly still is.  I have to admit to being a little conflicted by this story.  On the one hand the idea of ferrets being force fed steroids is appalling.  On the other hand the story itself is hilarious.  It also gives me an idea for a new business; retrofitting pets.  Not happy with the way your furry (or feathered or scaly) friend looks at the moment?  Bring it down to my workshop and I'll give it a make over.  I'm going to call it Pimp My Puppy.

Not happy with your goanna?  Some rice bubbles and a little superglue and suddenly its a gila monster.  Is your parrot looking a little dowdy?  Some blue ink and a feather duster and you've got yourself a peacock.  Is your schnauzer a bit passe?  A shag rug and a comb over and its a miniature english sheepdog.  For added verisimilitude leave a couple of paint cans lying about the place.  A fat chihuahua can become a pug with the assistance of a croquet mallet and of course if you want an axolotl just take a crap in a fish tank.

As can be seen from the above I don't have a great deal of sympathy with the concept of designer pets.  Apparently if it can crawl, fly or slither somebody will have one as a pet.  I was going to get an octopus.  There were several advantages to the idea not least the fact that it comes with a built in leash but I eventually decided against it on the grounds that it is unwise to have a pet smarter than you are.  That thing was a bugger to flush down the toilet I can tell you.

Still if you're famous, wealthy or living in close proximity to a rainforest only the most exotic will do.  One US hedge fund manager famously keeps a pig in his Manhattan apartment (or did until the pig started complaining about the neighbours), big cats have always been popular with high net worth wankers and I'm sure there are a scattering of monkeys, tapirs, warthogs and pythons across our suburbs.  In fact whenever we hear that an animal has become extinct we should probably conduct a house to house search just to make sure.

Still, living where I do the likelihood is that most of my business will come from taking toy poodles and chihuahuas, slimming them down, shaving off their fur and trying to pass them off as ferrets.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Enemy Are Coming, Quick Get Into the Holden

In industrial news today (well it was today when I first wrote this, its about a week ago now) Holden is planning to get rid of four hundred employees.  This means they will probably be ditching up to a dozen actual workers.  This news has generated the usual howls from the usual people.  Actually there have been howls or at least comments from pretty much everyone.  This is hardly surprising when one considers the level of government support the Australian car industry receives.  In fact one wonders whether the Australian car industry could best be described as a rather expensive work for the dole program.

For some reason a car industry is like farming.  It is one of those things that everybody seems to agree we have to have whether it is profitable or not.  It is apparently part of our national identity or some such.What this essentially means is that tax money is provided to the Australian subsidiaries of foreign owned car companies to persuade them to inefficiently build a small number of cars that nobody particularly wants.  Try applying for a business loan on those criteria and see how far you get.

Another reason put forward for keeping our car lack of industry is strategic.  Without a car industry we will apparently be helpless before the serried ranks of invaders waiting just offshore for us to shut down the last Ford and Holden plants.  It would appear that if Australia is invaded our counter attack will be spearheaded by commcars and taxis.  All right I do know that such people are referring to possessing a heavy industrial base generally rather than hurling commodores into the teeth of the enemy but this doesn't make their argument any less silly.  Here are a few other things we don't manufacture that might have some strategic importance; tanks, artillery, high performance jets, low performance jets, no performance jets, ammunition for any of the preceding.  In point of fact the last time Australia supplied all of its military requirements from its own resources was before white settlement.  We should check to see how that worked out.

So what to do about our car industry?  There are two different options really.  The first is the simplest and the best.  Cut off all subsidies and wish it bon voyage.  If it survives it will have deserved to and we will have a car industry we can be genuinely proud of, if not then I guess we're going to have to rely on our friends and allies to supply us cars should we be invaded, always assuming its not them doing the invading.  The other option is to nationalise the industry.  Because let's face it if the tax payer really is going to have to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars so that an inefficient, badly run, over unionised basket case of an industry can survive then it seems only fair that they actually own the damn thing.