Saturday, May 31, 2014

To Get Ahead You Need A Hat. I May Have that the Wrong Way Round.

You don't see many people wearing hats nowadays.  That isn't a judgement necessarily, just an observation.  In some ways our largely hatless society is quite understandable.  A hat really is just one more thing to lose, particularly when convention dictates that it has to be removed when you go indoors, greet another or stop moving for any reason whatsoever.

Normally these days if someone is wearing a hat it is as a symbol of authority.  They're a police officer or a soldier or catholic archbishop or a circus ringmaster.  A hat is a way of separating the elect from the rest.  I have no idea why this should be so but like a good little blogger I will compensate for my ignorance with a combination of guesswork, dubious extrapolation and simply making shit up.

"Look at me!"  This is what a hat says.  "Look at me!  I am important!  Gaze upon my hatty magnificence and quail ye hatless lesser mortals!"  No matter what culture you look at the more prominent members of it seem to have been unable to resist the temptation to put weird shit on their heads.  There are some practical reasons of course.  In battle an ornate helmet made the army commander easy to identify.  This was certainly of great practical benefit to the enemy who knew exactly who to kill.  Despite this the habit persisted.  Additionally the higher your rank, the better the head wear and the more likely that your hairdo would survive if it rained.  But possibly the greatest benefit hat wearing bestowed was simple identification.  Upon meeting a new culture for the first time no ambassador/explorer/slave trader could go far wrong if they picked the most ornate head apparel and spoke to the person beneath it.  One tends to look at a person's head to identify them, if that head is decorated with something impressive then it can set the leader apart from the other smelly, dirty, flea ridden, sword wearing thugs hanging around the same location.

Possibly out of sheer perversity the Byzantines bucked this trend.  They identified their emperors by the purple boots which only the ruler was allowed to wear.  This meant that at a sit down dinner a foreign envoy would have to crawl under the table to find out which gorgeously robed arse he was supposed to be kissing.  At this point it is probably useful to mention that making foreigners feel awkward and uncomfortable was an integral part of Byzantine diplomacy.

Most rulers, however, were kinder (or possibly, less secure) and made it as easy as possible to identify them by slathering their heads with ornate decoration.  There was a practical use for this as well, in those uncertain times it made a lot of sense for the rulers to have their personal wealth accessible with no more effort than it takes to get dressed.  Naturally with the social success of the hat in all its variations the bandwagon was soon jumped on by those below the social level of king but who still wanted to emphasise the vast gulf between themselves and the labouring masses.  The labouring masses wore caps which were absolutely not the same thing as hats because caps are practical.  Practical clothing has never been a sign of social success.

As the human race limped arthritically towards modern times the respective political signals sent out by both hats and caps became simultaneously advanced and degraded.  As a general rule once somebody actually has to specifically state the political implications of something it is a sign that that something is on its way out.  This trend reached its apotheosis when various communist leaders presented themselves in public wearing what they fondly imagined were "workers" caps to emphasise their role as leaders of the proletariat.  These caps thus became a sort of hat because the message was unequivocal; "I am a leader, you can tell by my hat."  Wearing these caps (sorry, hats) was a public announcement that the wearer was such an absolute ruler that he didn't need to worry about the fact that he had lousy dress sense.  A pretty accurate statement really.

Nowadays very few people in our society wear hats.  It is normally reserved for places like the racecourse where the social obligation is to get incredibly drunk and throw up on the most expensive clothing you can provide yourself with.  Outside of such settings the usual reaction to someone wearing a hat is "hey, that person's wearing a hat".  There is however very little inclination to gather ones vassals and follow that person into battle.

Friday, May 30, 2014

I Made Him A Dinner He Couldn't Survive

It is considered rather bad form to murder someone at the dining table.  To be fair murdering someone is generally accounted a bit of a faux pas no matter what your location but if you actually do it during dinner then you can certainly expect a drop off in invitations (and RSVPs to your own affairs).

Possibly because eating has such a fundamental role in the prolongation of life it has always been a time when one is supposed to be able to relax and let your guard down a little.  Again, if you are the host it is truly bad manners to first feed and then kill someone.  It's also a terrible waste of food, which it occurs to me might be another reason in more straightened times why wacking a dinner guest was considered not quite the done thing.  As such feasting became an integral part of alliance building and enemy defusing in ancient times.  Traditionally inviting rivals or enemies to share your food implied at least a temporary truce.

Perhaps not surprisingly it also turned out to be one of the most popular times to kill people.  Social niceties be damned, if your enemy is under your roof and his bodyguard are happily drunk on your wine you'd be mad not to take advantage of the situation by running a blade between the bastard's ribs.  And you'd better watch out for him because what better opportunity is he going to get.  If your mortal enemy turns up at your door with a greasy smile and a battleaxe you're unlikely to invite him in unless he's flourishing a dinner invitation.

All of the above must have made meal times in the medieval period a somewhat tense affair.  I wonder how many wars and blood feuds can be attributed to indigestion?  I also can't help wondering if the castle servants ran a book on who was likely to last until dessert.  After all watching their social superiors savage each other to death was one of the few entertainments of the serving class and on the battlefield the pleasure was tempered by the fact that they were usually expected to take part.

Still one can't help feeling sorry for the cleaning staff.  It's bad enough sweeping up bones and semi digested food and mopping up spilled wine worth more than they earned in a year without having to drag half the guest list out and dump them on a midden heap.  Mind you in those days an "ability to deal with impromptu corpses" was probably a desirable addition to a servants skill set.  Even today if you're in a position to hire a servant well, you wouldn't actually "expect" them to be able to discreetly dispose of an unwanted body but if it was on their resume that's the one you'd be hiring.

Of course in today's modern and civilised world we tend to eat out more and rarely invite our rivals over for the purposes of murdering them.  Tradition takes a long time to fade however which could explain why so many people get killed in fast food restaurants.  That and the food of course.  A dinner invitation these days is exactly what it implies; an opportunity for friends and family to gather in a congenial setting and enjoy each others company.  All the same its probably worth taking that extra five seconds to reassure yourself that the crystalline substance glittering on the roast pork is actually maldon sea salt and not ground glass.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Figs Aren't Vegan

Figs are not vegan.  This stunning and, on the face of it, implausible news was delivered to me by my nutritionist co-worker courtesy of a comment on her blog.  Apparently when you eat a fig you are chowing down on wasp bits.  And fig bits of course.  Considerably more fig than wasp but nevertheless if figs were packaged the packages would have to say "may contain traces of wasp".

Figs contain traces of wasp due to one of those weird arse pieces of craziness that nature gets up to if it isn't properly supervised.  Figs and a particular species of wasp share a symbiotic relationship.  The wasp flys into a specifically provided opening in the fig, pollinating it en route, and lays its eggs.  On hatching the male wasp larvae chew their way to the surface to provide an exit route for the female wasps who buzz off and find another fig pollinating it in its turn.  Nature can be wonderful but what it mostly is is bizarre.

Thus, due to the prevalence of wasp bits, figs cannot be vegan.  Since wasps of various types also lay their eggs in spiders, larvae, beetles, caterpillars and other wasps these things cannot be considered vegan either.  So vegans; put down that fig and caterpillar sandwich for you are feasting on the corpses of wasps.  As if that was the principal thing wrong with that sentence.

Whether the presence of incidental wasp components should be of overriding concern to the vegan community is debateable.  Like most things that are debateable it is vigorously debated.  Vegans of both pro and con fig camps discuss the implications of accidental wasp consumption.  On the one hand some see it as the thin end of the wedge.  A wasp is an animal, therefore if you eat it you can't be a vegan.  Today its a delicious fig, tomorrow you're savaging sheep to death in the fields.  The other side respectfully points out that this is insane, that the wasp was not in any way killed for the benefit of humans (although apparently its ok to rip a fig from its mother plant and devour it), there is no cruelty involved (except perhaps to the fig) and by the way did we mention this is insane?

My personal view, if I may raise my head dripping with gore from a freshly slaughtered carcass to comment, is that figs cannot be vegan.  Not when they are liberally strewn with wasp offcuts.  Symbiotic relationship or not the wasps are there and fig eaters eat them.  What is needed is a new term for otherwise vegan fig eaters.  May I be the first to suggest "Insectivorous Vegan".  That covers all bases nicely and lets face it once you've told people you're a vegan they're not going to be particularly surprised at any other dietary idiosyncrasy you might present.  Best of all this designation would allow the insectivorous vegan to enjoy the fig and caterpillar sandwich I mentioned earlier without a hint of guilt.  Your welcome.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Apparently No Hard Work Kills You Too

According to a slightly more upmarket newspaper than the one I usually rely on for blog entries our children are the least active in the world.  I think this is awesome news.  We're a world leader at something.  Eat that United States!  On second thought don't or we may lose our crown.  Apparently our lazy little tykes spend most of their time gathering dust or nurturing their type 2 diabetes to full blown self expression.  According to people who make a living by being shocked and appalled by such news they are "shocked" and "appalled" by such news.

What they shouldn't be is surprised.  There was a time when children were incredibly active.  This was when their mothers birthed them in the fields and they were expected to get a days ploughing done before they could receive any breastfeeding.  It's been pretty much downhill from there.  Fast forward several generations and children got a reasonable amount of exercise by playing outside.  Let's not get too sentimental about these good old days though.  The reason why children played outside back in the day was they had very little choice.  I'm sure some of them liked it but, as a quick reading of a sexual fetish list will indicate, there are some people who will like anything.  If the kids wanted to avoid being bored and didn't necessarily want their parents screaming at them every thirty seconds then playing outside was pretty much the only option.

Now options abound and most of them don't require much more physical effort than that required to register a pulse and possibly use a few fingers.  Not surprisingly a large number of children have opted for the choice that minimises the risks of getting lost, getting hurt, getting sweaty and you know, doing stuff.  Humans have spent centuries trying to minimise the amount of physical labour they do because physical labour is hard.  With options abounding children have voted with their backsides which are planted firmly on couches or chairs in front of computer screens.

Nevertheless a generation of bloated, diseased children is concerning or at the very least a source of employment for those who find it concerning.  Something must, apparently, be done.  Strangely a lot of people think that this something must be done by the government.  I find this odd because the government already does quite a lot and many of us aren't really happy with the results.  Despite this we keep trying to give it more work.  This doesn't strike me as the way to improve efficiency.  The government already does everything it can reasonably expected to do in this field.  It mandates physical education in schools which is the part of children's life it controls.  Apart from that our political and bureaucratic leaders would probably prefer not to get involved and when the government doesn't want to get involved in something I feel we should enthusiastically support it.

As for our children being reduced to a deliquescent, diabetic mass?  Possibly the best solution would be for the parents to chase the lazy little bastards out of the house with sticks.  That's what they did in the past and it seemed to work.

Monday, May 19, 2014

It's the Budget, Flee for Your Life!

Last week the government handed down its inaugural budget.  I understand if it works they might make it a yearly event.  The budget process goes something like this; the government collects together information on how much money it expects to get in revenue and how much what it is currently doing is expected to cost.  They then attempt to bring these two figures to something approximating equivalency while at the same time adding in those things they want to do and making up for it by removing stuff that they really don't want.  With any luck the end result won't actually drive the country into bankruptcy by the end of next week.  Once prepared the budget is then sent to the Senate where it is beaten to death with clubs.  To add an element of suspense to the entire process the information that the government relies on when making its decisions is a) out of date, b) inaccurate and c) liable to change without warning due to circumstances largely beyond the governments control.  It is on this process that governments build their reputation as sound financial managers, or whatever.

Traditionally the first budget of a newly minted government is a tough one.  Governments are in power for three year stretches.  The second budget is used to correct the mistakes of the first one and the third is used for insane spending in a desperate and transparent attempt to get reelected.  Therefore the first budget is really the only one that a government can use to place the country on a sound fiscal basis.

So has the government gone into a frenzy of slashing?  Hacking at programs, cutting services and introducing new taxes as it presides over a grim financial wasteland of Dickensian deprivation and poverty?  Well, not really.  It has done some slashing, there is a little bit of the obligatory reduction of welfare and "making the lazy bastards get a job" sort of thing.  There are also a couple of new taxes cunningly disguised as levies so that we don't realise they're taxes.  This fooled three people who don't actually live in the country.  Business leaders and economists were cautiously pleased while pointing out that the government could have gone much further and they weren't impressed with the levy on high income earners.  People on the other end of the political spectrum are fully in agreement that this is a "vicious" budget that will drive the population to desperation, cannibalism and having to get a job.  These people are expecting a knock on the door any day now as representatives of the government come to harvest their first born.

As a sidebar I have no problem with trying to force the unemployed to get a job but it would be nice to see a little more effort put into making sure there's jobs for them to get.  If every dole bludger, welfare cheat and disability rorter turned up at the job centre tomorrow eager for work all the government could do is give an embarrassed smile and write them a cheque.

I tried to pay attention during the budget speech I really did but I have to admit I zoned out shortly after the bit where the speaker says, "I call the treasurer".  As near as I can tell the carbon and mining taxes are going to be abolished (good).  There will be a couple of new taxes which won't affect me (very good) and a number of government bodies are going to be abolished (we have over nine hundred of these so we can surely spare a few).  The retirement age will be raised to seventy, there will be tougher requirements for young people to get the dole and the discontinuation of funding for various education and health measures beyond that already provided for.  Plus the extra taxes (sorry, levies) will go to pay for a medical research fund and roads.  There's also going to be a heap of spending on infrastructure if we can find the money.  There's probably a bit more to it than that but that's all I could learn by osmosis while dozing in front of the television.

According to the opposition this budget is the worst since Herod introduced a baby tax of 100%.  The poorest parts of society are going to be hardest hit and will be worst off.  Well yes, this is probably true.  For starters "poorest" pretty much already guarantees you're the worst off so even the slightest government cut isn't going to improve matters.  That's what "poorest" means.  However it is claimed that the various cuts are going to fall disproportionately on the poor.  This is also probably true.  For a start its where governments spend most of the money.  It is also a sad fact that there is very little point in taxing the rich.  The rich are much better at keeping their money than the government is at taking it, that's one of the reasons why they're rich.

Another thing exercising the minds of the populace is the eighty billion dollars that is apparently going to be ripped out of health and education funding.  This is basically a lie.  If we ripped eighty billion out of health and education funding we wouldn't have much of either.  What the government has said is that it will not fund the eighty billion dollars of increases the previous government promised for the future in the unlikely event that we would have the money by that stage.  This has provoked howls of outrage from anybody silly enough to believe that the money would ever be forthcoming.

Essentially this budget has done what most "tough" budgets are intended to do in difficult times.  It has shaved a bit off government expenditure to show willing while waiting for things to get better on their own.  If they do the government will take the credit.  This is only fair as they will certainly get the blame if things get worse.  Speaking personally the budget is a bit of a godsend for me as it removes any pressure I might have felt to plan for my retirement.  My retirement package is going to be about six feet long and made out of pine.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The World's Most Eco Friendly Hole in the Ground

I was browsing a coal mining company's website the other day, in the interests of discretion I shan't tell you which one.  Actually I was browsing it for work and my employers would probably take a dim view of its name being broadcast on this blog where whole dozens of people might see it.  It was the usual, upbeat public relations exercise but one comment caught my eye particularly.  It was their boast that they ran an eco friendly coal mine and processing plant.

I can't help wondering exactly how much coal you might be able to extract from an eco friendly coal mine.  Let's face it when one thinks of mining the term "eco friendly" doesn't exactly leap to mind.  "Blasted deathscape" seems to be a better fit.  Allow me to assure people that I'm not anti mining, I'm far too fond of a twenty first century lifestyle for that, but neither am I under many illusions as to the environmental impact of mining.  This is basically how mining works.  Having identified a resource you blast an access road through whatever the hell is in your way until you get to the target region.  Once there you obliterate the landscape to the point whereby the surface of the moon would be more capable of supporting life, you dig a wacking big hole and then extract large lumps of the planet for transport elsewhere.  As environmentally friendly activities go mining rates just behind farming and city building.

Of course there are things the concerned mining company can do to minimise their impact.  They can build no more access roads than they absolutely need, they can exterminate all life from as small a part of the surface of the earth as is commensurate with their ability to dig up whatever it is they want and in the interests of community relations they can give a quick heads up to anyone living downstream when their tailings dam bursts and makes the water supply somewhat less capable of sustaining life than one normally expects.  All these tips and hundreds more incidentally are included in my new book "Raping the Ecology For Fun and Profit" available in airport newsagents everywhere.

Of course I'm being silly but there is no reason why mining should be a permanent blight on the landscape (unlike, for example farming or city building). While the mining itself is necessarily intrusive eventually whatever it is was mined will run out and then mining will stop.  The mining company then has the opportunity to fix thing up a bit.  They can plant some trees (if trees were an original part of the landscape and they have some lying around), they can leave their unwanted machinery in place providing a useful habitat for spiders, lizards and the smaller mammals until something a little less artificial grows back.  They can redesignate their tailings dam as a lake which makes it positively churlish for the local inhabitants to complain about the contents entering the water table.  I believe this is what they did at my father's previous place of employment.  Alternatively they can simply do their mining in the third world where nobody really gives a shit.

If they have any respect for the average intelligence of the human race a mining company probably shouldn't boast about their eco credentials on their website.  For starters there's no point in telescoping your strategy before the lawsuits start rolling in.  For second while it would be nice to think they're trying who on earth expects mining to be ecologically friendly?  From an overall point of view its probably better if the company gets in, rips out what it wants as quickly as possible and gets out again.  It might take a few centuries (or millennia) but eventually some sort of recovery will be made and it will be made all the quicker in the absence of the mining company.  I suspect the mining company in question realises this on some fundamental level because their website also made great play of their sponsorship of the local soccer team.

This is a much better tactic.  It shows the company as part of the community, cheering on the local side as they engage in healthy physical exertion (assuming they can get the time off work).  How can anybody complain about unexpected sinkholes under their houses or water that spontaneously combusts when those responsible are also the guys that helped your team to the regional championships?  Build a school and employ a couple of the locals as security guards and suddenly you're in danger of becoming a public benefactor.  If you have any sense at all it should all be tax deductible and if you emphasise your school building and community activities you might be able to get your multinational mining corporation registered as a charity or at least an NGO.  "Miners Without Borders" has a nice ring to it and isn't actually too far from the truth in any event.

If any mining companies out there are looking for a new PR consultant please feel free to give me a call.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Guess What Month It Is

My favourite newspaper keeps coming up with the hard hitting news stories that the mainstream media in Australia unaccountably fail to cover.  For example; how many of you knew that May is National Masturbation Month in the United States.  It certainly doesn't figure on my desk calendar.

Think of it, dedicating a month to masturbation.  Am I the only one surprised by the restraint and self control of our American cousins during the other eleven months?  Seriously, only one month?  Did everyone suddenly quit smoking or something?  I suspect Americans would be rather short tempered and irritable around April 28th.  I don't know if any special gatherings or celebrations have been planned for the occasion.  Possibly in view of the subject material it was decided the month was best observed at home with a period of quiet, er, reflection.

I know National Masturbation Month sounds a little silly.  No, that's not true, it sounds a lot silly but it's no more stupid than some of the more mainstream and respectable commemorations rolling around the place.  For example, according to the United Nations 2014 is the International Year of Crystallography.  Their brochure "Crystallography matters" has been helpfully translated into Macedonian for your convenience.

Crystallography (wikipedia informs me) is "the science that examines the arrangement of atoms in solids".  I'm sure it is a fruitful and important field of scientific endeavour and I hope those engaged in it get a much deserved morale boost from the official UN recognition that has been bestowed upon it.  Still the United Nations seems to have had some doubts as to whether crystallography on its own had the heft to carry a whole year by itself.  Thus this is also the International Year of Small Island Developing States, of the Family Farm and of Solidarity With the Palestinian People.

I think we can get most of this out of the way pretty quickly.  There can't be too many states that are developing small islands (is it like bonsai?), the number of family farms is diminishing daily and in Australia at least solidarity with the Palestinian people is considered adequately shown if you occasionally boycott a Max Brenner and are rude to visiting Israeli academics.  That leaves the rest of the year free for us to focus on crystallography (less a month for masturbating, obviously).  Collectively it all makes more sense that 2013 which was the International Year of Quinoa.  Fucking quinoa.  I don't think I had heard of this stuff until a month or two ago but apparently it got an entire year, and it only had to share it with water cooperation.  The poor Palestinians have to rub shoulders with farms, islands and crystallography.  Possibly one of the silliest was 1993 the International Year for the World's Indigenous People.  With the possible exception of the people who run the UN we are all indigenous to the World.  I for one am pretty sure there is no Martian in my family tree.

Also in the paper today was the heartwarming story of a man who first attempted to sue Apple for getting him addicted to internet porn and who now wants to marry his laptop.  I can't help thinking he's chosen the right month for it.