Sunday, January 26, 2014

SmoothieQuest 2014

I'm making myself a smoothie.  Not, I will confess, the most exciting of subjects for a blog entry.  However when one considers some of the other topics that have crawled into this blog to die it can at least be stated that I'm maintaining a consistent level of relevance.

The entire smoothie situation started a little over six months ago when I had a couple of friends over to dinner.  I was thus presented with the task of preparing a vegan meal for three (it would have been a little mean to tuck into delicious meat while they were struggling through their vegetable mess) with little experience and an oven that didn't work.  The main course went down very well but I have to confess that desert was a bit of a disaster.  I had to make cream; vegan cream is made by taking coconut cream and blending it with chopped cashew nuts for bulk (plus a little vanilla and one or two other things).  Unfortunately I did not possess a blender.  I did my best with a mixmaster but the results resembled a rather thin porridge.  This is before one gets into the issue of mopping a cashew/coconut cream mixture off my kitchen walls.

Fast forward a couple of months and I was relating this story to my parents with an emphasis on the funny bits as part of an effort to entertain and an attempt to ward off questions like "what are you doing with your life?"  For me it was a moderately amusing anecdote.  For my parents it was a heaven sent opportunity.  Lo and behold on Christmas Day there amongst the other presents was a small but genuine blender.  Now all I had to do was think of something I could use it for.

Enter a pair of work colleagues who are apparently obsessed with smoothies.  One of them has a cooking blog called cookchewconquer (free publicity Monique) and smoothies have been a topic of conversation for the past few months.  Into this smoothie charged atmosphere and for no better reason than to contribute to the discussion I made mention of my newly acquired blender.  Within seconds I was bombarded with smoothie recipes that threatened to overwhelm my email server.  In self defence and because I felt vaguely that since I had the blender I should make use of it I resolved to make a smoothie this weekend.

To reach smoothie nirvana I would have to unpack my gift, figure out how to use it and purchase smoothie ingredients most of which were not on my usual shopping list.  A quick trip to the shops produced various fruits, yoghurt, honey and all that was left was to see if I could arrange these things into a delicious drink you can eat with a knife and fork.  I extracted my little blender from its packaging, it came out reluctantly cursing at the light but once convinced I was serious seemed delighted that it would be able to fulfill its purpose in life.  The instructions seemed to consist largely of advice like not attempting to clean the blades while the blender was in operation.

Having been officially warned against being a complete fucking idiot I felt ready to proceed.  Lumps of fruit, slops of yoghurt and honey and sloshes of milk were tossed into the blender more or less at random then with everything sealed and the blades as far away from my fingers as possible I pressed the go button.  Then I plugged the blender in and pressed the button again.  With an enthusiastic roar my blender lurched into activity and soon any resemblance its contents had to its component ingredients was lost forever.  In no time at all I had a functioning smoothie.  It tasted delicious and I was so delighted that I took a photo of my newly created glass of pink (raspberries) sludge.  I sat back with my smoothie and toasted my domestic ability. 

It was at that point that I noticed my washing machine had stopped working.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Birthday Greetings #32

Happy birthday to Gordian III, Roman emperor.  When one hears a name like "such and such the third" one does tend to assume that he is proof of stable government and smooth succession from one generation to the next.  Unfortunately (at least for Gordian) this was in no way the case.  For much of the third century AD the Roman empire was going through a command crisis.  It seemed that nobody could seize the throne and hold it for any length of time.  It is fair to say that the job "Roman emperor" had one of the shortest life expectancies anywhere in the world at the time.  Frankly it amazes me that anybody wanted the job, it was by this stage little more than a passport to a grisly death.

Actually Gordian didn't want the job.  It was dumped in his lap by a senate who were almost indecently glad to get rid of it.  Since he was only thirteen years old at the time any objections he might have raised were cheerfully ignored.  What happened was this.  The emperor Alexander Severus died of natural causes (murder) and one of his army officers, Maximinus Thrax, appointed himself emperor.  But Max was with the army on the German frontier and he hadn't bothered to prepare the ground in Rome first.  In the province of Africa the locals killed the procurator (a Maximinus man) and proclaimed a couple of eminent locals (Gordians I&II) as emperor.  The senate ratified the choice and a lot of the provinces rallied round.  Unfortunately one of those that didn't was the neighbouring province of Numidia whose governor put an abrupt end to these proceedings by killing the younger Gordian in battle at which point his father took the hint and committed suicide.

Now the senate was stuck.  Maximinus was marching on Rome with blood in his eye and they had already come out against him.  They quickly appointed two non entities from amongst their number to be replacement emperors and (hoping to cash in on the loyalty aroused by the previous Gordians) made Gordian I's grandson Caesar.  The two senatorial appointees demonstrated the undying loyalty of their troops by getting themselves murdered by the Praetorian Guard within a few weeks and suddenly Gordian III was sole emperor at the age of thirteen with Maximinus getting ever closer.

Luck was with our boy though.  The Gordian name was popular and the Maximinus name definitely wasn't.  Most of Maximinus' troops deserted him and some of them paused long enough to murder him on their way out.  Now Gordian really was the guy in charge.  Only he wasn't of course.  He was only thirteen which even in Rome was considered a little young to be starting a political career.  The senate pretty much ran the empire with some input from Gordian's mother.  This actually worked better than might be imagined and when Gordian married his new father in law became praetorian prefect and took over operations with a fair amount of efficiency.  Naturally a rebellion had to be crushed but once that was done the future looked bright.

First item on the agenda (after defeating a barbarian incursion or two) was taking on the Sassanid empire in the east.  The Sassanids had taken advantage of the fact that the Roman army was busy fighting the Roman army to conquer some imperial territory.  Gordian's father in law (with Gordian in tow) marched against them and won a crushing victory.  Then he died, poison was suspected.  After this things get a little vague.  The man who most likely murdered the father in law got his job as praetorian prefect.  Somewhere out in the desert Gordian also died, the death certificate said natural causes.  The man who had recently become his praetorian prefect now became emperor.  He had the grace to at least pretend to be surprised.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

All Extinct Species Are on Special

There is some potentially good news on the shark front.  As most people are aware these innocent ornaments of the deep have taken a bit of a battering in the reputation stakes of late.  Granted there has been the occasional individual shark who has registered their objection to human presence in their environment with perhaps an excess of enthusiasm and a little less than perfect judgement.  This of course has led to the usual lurid media coverage which manages to convey that the water is so stuffed with psychotic sharks that it isn't safe to turn on a tap.

However there may be a little good news for our cousins of the ocean.  Apparently a shark long considered to be extinct has turned up again.  Unfortunately it turned up on a slab at a fishmarket in Kuwait but its presence is undeniable.  This is heartening news for sharks in general if not that shark in particular.  Seized with what passes for excitement amongst people who pick through fishmarkets for long dead animals scientists of a briny persuasion swooped on all the other fishmarkets in the area and turned up nearly fifty other examples.  In one swift movement we've gone from extinct to overabundant. although one can't help suspecting that if the shark wasn't extinct before this it might be now.

The fishmarket experience does give us a suggestion about what to do if we want to search for extinct species.  At present we search their habitats looking for droppings, nests or even a glimpse of the animal itself.  Apparently we would do better to drop by the local supermarket.  It seems that one of the most effective ways of discovering rare animals is to kill and eat them.  If we look carefully we might find dinosaurs. 

Wouldn't that be amazing?  A species thought to be extinct for hundreds of millions of years turning up in the freezer section of the local shop n go.  Think of the excitement in scientific circles and of course children who would finally get to see a dinosaur (or at least bits of a dinosaur) in the flesh.  All sorts of misconceptions could be cleared up in the course of an afternoon shopping trip and a huge number of questions could be answered.  The most important being, what does dinosaur taste like?  I think it would taste something like chicken.

Monday, January 13, 2014

For Services To Truck Driving Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Medals, decorations and orders of chivalry have existed for as long as rulers have needed a relatively cheap way to show they appreciated those who laboured in their service.  An honour, a knighthood or just a plain old medal are the time honoured way to reward loyalty, courage, devotion to duty or just resisting the temptation to brain ones monarch in the bath or picking the right side in a civil war.  Possibly to counter this last impulse the highest bravery decoration in Colombia explicitly cannot be awarded for actions undertaken in a civil war or during internal unrest.

Britain, of course, with its long imperial history and its even longer royal one has so many honours, orders, medals and commemorations that it seems unlikely that anyone in the country doesn't have at least one.  However pretty much every nation has a few.  It seems as though the day after independence is dedicated to designing a bunch of medals and orders for the new management to hand out, possibly in lieu of pay.  Napoleon wasn't wrong when he said "by such trinkets men are led".  Even San Marino which is little more than a mountain top tax haven in Italy has the Order of San Marino "for outstanding civil or military services to the republic".  Since the principal armed force of San Marino still use crossbows one can only assume that the military category isn't awarded too often.

Naturally whenever there is an award system based (at least supposedly) upon merit there will be corruption.  It wasn't too long ago that Britain had an "honours for donations" scandal where the previous government was handing out peerages in return for large amounts of cash.  This was apparently terribly bad despite the fact most honours are a deliberate payment for services rendered.  Possibly we could get around the stigma associated with buying honours by introducing a whole new class.  The Order of Political Expediency.  This could be arranged in the traditional five classes from Member all the way up to Knight Grand Cross.  The queen would be grand master of course and we can toss in some heraldic animal or other and knock up a coat of arms to go with it.  Permit me to be the first to suggest the civet cat as an appropriate animal.  They are tough, ferocious little beasts and on close examination are wont to spray their persecutors with a vile smelling stench.  No more appropriate animal could be found.  Awards would be made solely on the basis of political donation and each prospective member would need to be vouched for by five existing members who would have to sign a statutory declaration confirming that the hopeful newcomer had paid them to do so.

Here and there however one encounters an honour or a medal that just makes you blink for a moment.  The Danes for example have the Order of the Elephant as one of their highest chivalric orders which can only mean that by the time the Danes got around to handing out orders all the good heraldic animals had been taken.  Even the Order of the Elephant seems pretty impressive in a ponderous sort of way when compared with a bravery medal given by Trinidad and Tobago.  One can be awarded the Hummingbird Medal in gold, silver or bronze depending on exactly how brave or useful your service was deemed to be (and possibly depending on the precious metal stocks in the Trinidad Central Bank).  Oddly the Aztecs also used to refer to particularly brave warriors as hummingbirds, possibly there's a connection there although very few people in Trinidad today see the need to cut anyone's heart out with an obsidian knife.

My favourite medal, however, has to be one awarded by the republic of Senegal in west Africa.  This is the Medal for Good Truck Drivers.  One wonders how often that has to be awarded and is it something so rare that obeying the road rules deserves special distinction?  I also can't help wondering what the exact criteria for such an award are.  Is it open to bus drivers for example?  How about operators of heavy machinery?  If a medal winner runs a red light is his medal ceremonially revoked along with his licence?  Exactly who recommends him and does there have to be testimony from his superior truck drivers confirming the acts of truck driving derring do that justify the award?  I can't help thinking that Senegal might not be a good place to learn to drive, at least not unless your instructor has a strip of medal ribbons.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Birthday Greetings #31

Happy birthday to Theodosius I, Roman emperor.  Theodosius was known as "the Great".  There are various reasons for bestowing such an epithet but the most common is conquering a lot of shit.  Theo I did indeed conquer quite a lot.  Mostly what he conquered was bits of the Roman empire.  It has to be stated that the empire was in a bit of a mess when he took the throne.  The empire was divided for administrative regions into two halves each with its own emperor.  The two rulers were supposed to cooperate but spent most of their time arguing with each other.  In addition the eastern empire (the bit Theodosius took over) had come down with a bad case of Goths.

The Goths had requested asylum in the empire due to the activities of the Huns on their borders but once there the imperial administrators ripped them off so thoroughly that they rose in revolt.  The emperor of the east, one Valens by name mustered a large army and marched against them.  The army was slaughtered and Valens himself was killed.  The western emperor, Gratian, invited Theodosius to take over what was left of the eastern army and as such he became de facto emperor.  The next couple of years were awkward ones with Theodosius attempting to fight the Goths without having much of an army (Gratian gave up and went home).  Finally he managed to come to an arrangement whereby the Goths would serve in his army (considering the casualties the Roman army had taken by this point a better term would be; to serve as his army) in return for which the Goths could do pretty much what they liked.

With peace theoretically established Theodosius settled down to rule those bits of his empire not overrun by Goths.  Over in the west Gratian had been killed and Theodosius backed his replacement against a series of usurpers.  Now the Goths came into their own and in a bunch of civil wars Theodosius was victorious while simultaneously reducing his Gothic problem by making sure they were always in the front line of his battles.  After the death of the emperor in the west (officially he committed suicide according to his highly ambitious military commander) Theodosius crushed a couple more usurpers and settled down to rule the whole empire.  He was the last emperor to rule the entire empire singlehandedly.

Possibly that last fact is why he was called "the Great".  Certainly he was an improvement on his predecessor.  Another reason is because of his strong backing of the Christian religion (and Christians were writing most of the histories by this stage).  Unlike previous Christian emperors who had espoused their religion while quietly letting followers of other gods get on with their lives Theodosius was an intolerant suppressor of both paganism and heresy.  The church loved him, popular opinion was divided.

Theodosius might have had cause to regret this after an unfortunate massacre in Thessalonica.  His garrison there was mainly Goths and they treated the population rather badly.  The people protested and in the course of the protest the Gothic commander was killed.  On hearing this Theodosius lost his temper and demanded vengeance.  The Goths (who were just waiting for the word) slaughtered several thousand people (messages from the emperor countermanding his original instructions were conveniently delayed).  It was a public relations disaster.  Shortly thereafter Theodosius toddled off to church in Milan which is where he was staying at the time.  The bishop of Milan was a chap named Ambrose and he wasn't a guy to mess with.  As the emperor approached Ambrose barred him from the church until he did appropriate penance for the deaths ordered in his name.  Theodosius was effectively excommunicated and not until he appeared on his knees in sackcloth in front of the church begging God's forgiveness did Ambrose let him inside.  It was the first time a churchman had invoked the authority of God as superior to that of the emperor and the first time an emperor acknowledged that he had a boss.

Another possible reason for Theodosius being called "the Great" is a comparison with his successors.  He appointed his sons Arcadius and Honorius as emperors in the east and the west respectively to rule after he was gone.  Both of them turned out to be worthless idiots.  With those two as his successors and Valens as his predecessor all Theodosius really had to do to gain the epithet "the Great" was breath through his nose and tie his own sandals.

Monday, January 6, 2014

It's Probably Karma or Not

Many people believe in karma.  There's nothing wrong with this, at some stage in their life many people have believed in the tooth fairy as well.  Karma is actually one of the most brilliant of human creations.  It is one of our most versatile psychological tools.  It can make us feel better about our wretched and misery ridden lives.  When everything has gone to hell it can be some comfort to think that better times are just around the corner even if you have to die first.  This has the added advantage of giving people a reason to look forward to death which, let's face it, has got to be at least as helpful as the traditional whining and moaning with which it is usually greeted.  Since death is going to happen anyway a somewhat relaxed attitude towards it is probably beneficial.

But the benefits of karma don't stop there.  Possibly the most important thing karma does is give us a method of coming to terms with the success and good fortune of people we detest.  This is vital because without it much of the population would explode with suppressed rage.  For every shining moment such hated people have the remainder can console themselves with the knowledge that something truly horrible must be coming.  Conversely those people themselves can look at their success and by extrapolating karma in the other direction convince themselves that they actually deserve it.  Everybody's happy, or at least not killing each other in the streets, or at least not killing each other in the streets in greater than the usual quantities. 

As theories go karma is great, everybody feels a bit better about themselves and assures themselves that judgement upon the unworthy will one day be dispensed by an even handed and all seeing universe (or God if you like).  Of course there is the small matter of the fact that it is total bullshit but strangely that doesn't really matter very much.  What karma or (insert similar religious/philosophic belief to your taste here) does for us doesn't actually depend on whether its true.  It just depends on us believing it.  In fact it doesn't even depend on that, it just depends on us pretending to believe it.  We're not really deceiving ourselves, we're entering into a conspiracy with ourselves to promote a falsehood because we like it.

There is one of those desk calendar quotes which goes something along the lines of "If its stupid but it works then it isn't stupid".  I would add a corollary to that, "If its wrong but it works then it isn't wrong".  I realise that this will dissatisfy some, largely scientists (who want answers) and philosophers (who want questions) but for the bulk of humanity wrong but effective is more than good enough.  Philosophers and scientists can make themselves happy by discovering the truth and everybody else will remain happy by ignoring them.  This has worked well for us for millennia and continues to do so today.  It can be claimed that the efforts of scientists and philosophers have added immeasurably to the well being of the human race and I would completely agree.  However most of the human race would be equally happy with these achievements if you told them they were produced by sacrificing animals and dancing around an altar.  I don't know how a television works and I don't care but if you told me that the programming quality could be improved by smearing fresh rabbit blood over the screen I'd be down at the pet store tomorrow.

Scientists claim it is important to know why things work and I would agree.  However it is vastly more important that things work whether we know why or not.  Knowing why something doesn't work is utterly useless unless in knowing that we are guiding to what will.  If the option is between somebody saying "It is a scientific fact that we are all going to die" which is true and somebody else saying "believe in God and you can live forever" which is rubbish what one do you think is the more helpful?  Neither will stop us dying but only one can make us feel a little happier while we do so.

Of course I'm one of those people who doesn't understand science and doesn't believe in karma.  So what is left for me?  Fortunately I've never really expected the universe to be fair.

Its the Apocalypse! Quick, Save the Paperwork

There is a company in the United States that got its start by tossing important documents down a disused iron mine.  As data protection services go that seems a little rudimentary but at the time the threat of atomic war was hanging over their heads and a lot of companies were prepared to pay for essentially storing their vital data in a really big hole in the ground.  If they'd waited until after the war they could probably have got their very own hole for nothing.

Apparently it was considered important to emerge blinking into the radiation soaked post apocalyptic wasteland with your billing records intact.  One presumes they found another disused mine to toss their collections team down.  It is a peculiar facet of human personality that we will take great precautions to ensure the continuance of something that is unlikely to be of any use to us whatsoever should the thing we are preparing for actually take place.

Although its entirely possible that I might be wrong about that.  In the grim days that followed a cold war style holocaust things would be horrific for those who unaccountably failed to die.  One can imagine the scene; some ragged, half starved survivor living in a wretched shanty scraped together from the still glowing wreckage of a city, licking slime off the walls to survive and watching his family dying slowly of cancer of the everything when suddenly there is a bang on the door and a group of thugs in NBC gear barge in and demand payment for an overdue phone bill.  What would the reaction to such a visitation be?  Fear? Rage? Despair?  I like to think it would be hope.  Surely the presence of such organised, corporate efficiency would inspire a belief that better days were coming.  It would be a reassurance that however battered the world was it was slowly and painfully getting back onto its feet.

I think that the visits of the bill collecting team (remember those guys who got tossed down a disused mine?) would be a beacon of hope to the traumatised, horror shattered survivors.  People have got by on less hope than that in the past.  Every terrifying home invasion would be proof that somewhere structure and organisation still existed.  Surely better times with the promise of health treatment, clean water and bigger rats to eat would be just around the corner.  People would dare to dream, to start building their lives anew.  Or at least they would until they discover that corporate headquarters is a disused iron mine.  At that point they will pretty much have to acknowledge that we're all screwed.

Of course that atomic war didn't happen (yet) and that old iron mine must be getting pretty full by now.  Which is probably why the company in question is now in the document shredding business as well.  Should the worst happen and desperate corporate survivors make their way to the mine I'm prepared to bet that all they're going to find is a deep pit filled with shredded documents.  Fortunately the next disused mine along will be full of sticky tape.