Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lower, Slower, Weaker!

I can't believe its been four years since the last time I mocked the Commonwealth Games.  Yet, its true.  As we speak proud athletes from all around the world are competing in Glasgow in what must be the world's greatest celebration of sporting mediocrity.  Athletes you've never heard of from countries that barely exist vie to set records that mean nothing.  Usain Bolt has copped a lot of flak for being quoted as saying the Commonwealth Games are "a bit shit". This is an outrageous slur. Come on Usain, "a bit?"

Over seventy countries are competing this year.  Well, I say countries.  What I mean is countries, colonies, tax havens, geographic expressions and occasional offcuts of empire that still haven't taken the hint and declared independence.  Gibraltar is there despite the fact that the British have been trying to give them back to Spain for a couple of decades now.  Jersey, Guernsey, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands have all sent teams which makes me wonder exactly who is laundering drug money and facilitating tax evasion in their absence.  Tuvalu has sent five athletes which is pretty much their entire population and the Falkland Islands have sent a team of twenty five to ensure the British don't forget that Argentina is still right next door to them.

For those who don't know what the Commonwealth Games is and would like to know (there are probably about six of  you) I shall provide the following helpful explanation.  The Commonwealth Games started off their existence as the British Empire Games.  It was thought that having representatives from various parts of the empire meet and compete in a spirit of friendly competition would foster good relations.  A measure of its success can be found in the size of the empire today.  Despite this the Commonwealth Games is still going weak.  Essentially attendance is open to everyone who was ever invaded, occupied colonised or conquered by Great Britain.  The presence of Mozambique indicates that this might have been extended to anybody who lives next door to such a nation.  It occurs to me that the United States is probably eligible to attend but so far they haven't followed that up.

The big tragedy is that Gambia (or The Gambia as it is sometimes known) has pulled out of both the games and the Commonwealth meaning its athletes will have to find some other way of smuggling themselves into Britain.  One of the most enjoyable competitions is taking bets on how many of the athletes that have arrived for the games actually return to their home countries.

Proudly hosting the games is the city of Glasgow (that's in Scotland, it's where Taggart is set).  Glasgow won the games in hot competition from Abuja in Nigeria.  Apparently the deciding factor was that walking through the streets of Glasgow was considered marginally less dangerous than simply living in Nigeria.  There was a time when this was definitely not the case so I guess Glasgow has cleaned itself up.  Also they hosted the 1997 World Badminton Championships so they obviously know how to handle second rate international competitions. 

The mascot of the games is a thistle called Clyde.  I don't know why it has been decided that games need mascots, nor do I know why such mascots seem to have as little to do with athletics as possible.  When was the last time a thistle won a medal at the Commonwealth Games?

The games are afoot (to butcher a phrase).  Hundreds of athletes from dozens of countries are doing their not particularly impressive best to make their nations (or colonies or whatever) proud under the benign gaze of Clyde the Thistle.  The only question remaining to be answered is if the Scots do declare independence in September will they retrospectively cancel the games?  I'm prepared to bet they still turn up to the next ones.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Birthday Greetings #41

It would appear that God didn't like the Habsburgs to be too intelligent.  The mediocre ones lived, almost forever, whereas those that demonstrated any discernible talent tended to die young.  This was certainly the case with our current birthday boy who seemed to have the makings of a reasonably competent emperor until he contracted smallpox and died at the age of 33.  Having syphilis probably didn't help and we can't really blame God for that.  The church was pretty explicit about not getting involved in too many casual sexual entanglements and doing so before the invention of penicillin was just asking for trouble, and syphilis.

With that as an introduction, happy birthday to Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor.  Like the subject of our previous entry Joseph inherited a sack full of wars from his father which were still going on when he died.  He was simultaneously fighting the War of the Spanish Succession against the French king Louis XIV and dealing with a major revolt in Hungary fostered, not coincidentally by that same Louis.  Fortunately something else he inherited from his father was Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the foremost military commanders of the day.  The wars thus went rather well (although his idiot brother would bungle them after his death) and his attempts at a conciliatory peace with Hungary were quite well received in Hungary at least by comparison with his father's habit of executing people and sentencing them to be galley slaves (not the same people obviously, it was death or become a galley slave, the man wasn't a monster).

Joseph was a reform minded prince who wanted to improve the machinery of government in his personal territories at least sufficiently so that bits of it stopped dropping off and he even tried to improve the governance of the Holy Roman Empire which was a little difficult as there was very little of that to start with.  As had been the case for a number of generations now the imperial title was little more than hot air and an almost ludicrously large collection of squabbling petty states who spent most of their time ignoring their imperial master.

Still nothing succeeds like success or, to be more specific, nothing succeeds like having a large army commanded by a military genius.  While good governance and obedience within the empire couldn't be assured (or even really attempted) he did manage to make them pull their heads in and be a little less overt about ignoring him.  He also cemented the Habsburg position in Italy (which would end in tears a couple of centuries later but you can hardly blame him for not knowing that). 

When he wasn't reorganising the government, placating Hungarians or cheering Eugene on from the sidelines he seemed to spend quite a lot of time having sex with quite a lot of people without actually managing to produce an heir.  This was a serious problem as the male line of the Habsburgs had dwindled to precisely two, himself and his younger brother.  Infecting his wife with the syphilis he had contracted and rendering her sterile didn't really help that much either.  Then he contracted smallpox as well.  On his deathbed he promised his wife to give up philandering if he recovered which he probably thought was a pretty safe promise to make given the circumstances.  He was right.

With Joseph's death the number of surviving male Habsburgs was reduced to one, his brother and heir Charles.  Still, Charles was a young man, with a healthy wife (and no syphilis) surely he would be able engender a son or two to keep the dynasty staggering along.

Heres a clue:  He didn't.

Moving the Teahouse

Ah, the weekend.  That time when I sleep late and relax from the unremitting strain and torment of my job.  After five days of nobly sacrificing my time, health and intellect without thought of reward (except for pay, free dinners and, hopefully, a bonus) the weekend is when I recharge my drained batteries and pause for breath.

Normally that is, today found me rolling out of bed at 6.45am.  Well, ok the alarm went off at 6.45am.  Several snooze buttons later I rolled out of bed at 7.30 but that's still pretty early for a Saturday.  This particular Saturday I had a mission.  For reasons which temporarily elude me I had agreed to help a friend move her business or, more accurately, paraphernalia connected with her business from its old and soon to be defunct location in Darlington to roomy new premises in Marrickville.

The sun was shining and the birds were singing as I brushed my teeth.  The birds were difficult to hear because rainwater kept getting in their mouths and the shining sun was having problems penetrating the 10/10ths cloud cover decorating the sky but I'm sure both were doing their best.  It had been suggested by someone who should have known better that I wear a muscle t-shirt so that I looked completely ridiculous while hauling boxes around.  I opted for sensible clothes instead (a cheap suit and the smaller of my feathered headresses).

Moving was due to start at ten o'clock sharp so I dashed straight from my home to Darlington pausing only for a leisurely breakfast and chat at my favourite cafe.  Arriving with fifteen minutes to spare I checked my facebook updates to learn that my friend had had similar getting out bed issues and had put the whole thing off until eleven.  I flicked the icy rainwater off my collar, wiggled my toes in an attempt to regain circulation and mentally agreed that that seemed like a sensible thing to do.  I may also have cursed quite a bit.

Huddling against the rain and cold I clutched an impromptu coffee and waited for either my friend or hypothermia.  Incidentally continuing say "my friend" seems a little too formal.  To protect her identity I shall henceforth refer to her merely as "Kate Jones of Ultimo who is dating Morganne Blackburn and runs the Vegan Teahouse".  It is the last part of that cunning code name that we were engaged in moving.  As its name suggests the Vegan Teahouse provides cafe style snacks that specialise in being without things.  Things like meat, meat products, things that were tested on animals, things that passed animals in the street, things that were produced by people who own animals and, quite frequently, gluten.  Sometimes flour is missing too although I understand that was actually a mistake.

With the (recently revised) time soon to be upon me I left the rather chilly embrace of the open air cafe I was hunched in and splashed through the mean streets of inner suburbia (very, very inner) where charmingly restored terrace houses rubbed shoulders with terrace houses that hadn't been restored at all and the occasional small and rather discreet block of flats.  I took a photo of the street for no other reason than to have something to post on instagram to link back to this blog.

Shortly after my arrival Kate Jones of Ultimo who is dating Morganne Blackburn and runs the Vegan Teahouse turned up with two utes and a bunch of people.  Specifically her daughter Grace, her other daughter Alex, Morganne, Yi, Edmund (who is the only other person I've met who was also born in Darwin) and a friend of Alex's whose name I was told on two separate occasions and yet which I, shamefully, cannot recall.  Incidentally continuing to say "Kate Jones of Ultimo who is dating Morganne Blackburn and runs the Vegan Teahouse" isn't really working for me so from now on I shall refer to her as Kate etc etc.

With two utes, a bunch of willing hands and a guy who knew what he was doing (Edmund not me, idiots) we hauled, shifted, carried and heaved until the two utes were full and the kitchen considerably emptier.  Flushed with success we leapt into our vehicles and headed for Marrickville taking the opportunity to pass through every narrow backstreet between our start point and our destination.  If Kate etc etc had thought to charge it could have been quite a pleasant tourist experience if the windows hadn't been fogged up.

Kate etc etc's new premises looked as thought they had been bought when the Sweeney sold its locations in a garage sale.  You could almost imagine Denis Waterman walking around being all cockney.  It was lot more easy to imagine someone being murdered and possibly a gang shootout taking place.  If it was a movie it would star Jason Statham, or possibly Denis Waterman.  Once upon a time we used warehouses to store commodities now we use them for crime and movies about crime.  And vegan snacks.  I personally blame the decline of British industry on the Sweeney and programs like it.  With all the horrible things happening in factories and warehouses British workers were probably too terrified to turn up to work.  No wonder the economy collapsed.

We strained, and sweated (although a conveniently placed hoist did most of the heavy lifting) and with Kate etc etc's quarters rapidly filling up with all things vegan we took a break for lunch at a conveniently placed  cafe.  I had toast and jam which for some reason took longer to arrive than soup, pancakes, a vegan breakfast and scrambled tofu.  We ate, we chatted and Kate etc etc threw herself with cheerful abandon at every dog that went past.  By the end of the meal spike collared rottweilers were crossing the street to avoid us.  Then it was back to Darlington to vacuum a couch and load up with the remainder of the equipment (except the couch which rendered the entire vacuuming a little superfluous).

After unloading again Kate etc etc bustled about getting things organised while most of the rest of us amused ourselves by making pigeon noises at a very fat pigeon.  The pigeon's only response was to turn around, lift its tail and crap at us which I thought was a pretty fair commentary on the quality of our pigeon noises.  It didn't deign to humour us by making a pigeon noise itself.  Finally the amusement value to be gained from making pigeon noises at a pigeon was exhausted, at least for the pigeon which walked away, so Morganne very kindly drove me home.

Incidentally after raining all over me while I was walking to Darlington the weather quite naturally turned hot and sunny when I had to help unload the cars at the warehouse.  Presumably the weather is just another one of those seemingly random things which is secretly plotting against me.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Travels Among the Stick Farmers

Wine Tasting in the Hunter Valley Part 2

A brief roll call would seem to be in order before continuing just to give appropriate recognition to those who used Tony's birthday as a convenient excuse to go wine tasting in the Hunter.  To avoid confusion with some gender non specific names identification has been helpfully provided.

Tony (M)
Natali (F)
Jason (M)
Idette (F)
Justin (M)
Jo (F)
Paul (M)
Lou (F)
Stuart (M)
Kate (F)
LeRon (M)
Gemma (F)
Neil (on balance of probabilities most likely M)

The next day was crisp and clear and we rolled out of bed early in the morning, clutched our collective heads and swore.  Fortunately along with enough wine to make the trip to the Hunter superfluous Tony and Natali had brought enough berocca to equip a pharmacist.

Some of the girls (and Justin) changed into exercise gear and proceeded to do exercise.  Justin boxes (not professionally, he just gets hit on an amateur basis) but I don't know why the rest of them were exercising.  I wandered out into the middle of this vigorous activity resplendent in fluffy dressing gown and dragon slippers to have an early morning cigarette while the others simultaneously sweated and froze which is an interesting trick if you can pull it off.

After a hearty breakfast and a brief interlude where I was engaged in rubbing cream into a middle aged Frenchman's back (not nearly as much fun as I've made it sound) a minibus arrived to take us to the wineries.  The country we passed through was dotted with lovingly tended stumps except for those parts that appeared to be natural bush and were fenced off with warning signs informing us that it was an army live fire area.  Apparently grape picking in this area might be subject to some unusual hazards.  Soon we were trundling along to the first winery.

Alpacas!  As we headed up to the first winery I saw alpacas, to be fair everybody else saw them too but this is my blog so I'm claiming them.  They were a rich chocolate brown colour and were generally alpacaish.  There wasn't time to stop and chat as the first winery was upon us.  It was a small place that raised beef cattle on the side.  The convivial gentleman who greeted us told us a little about their wines and gave us some insight into the risks and tribulations attached to grape growing.  Apparently if you sneeze near a vine in Summer time you can change a batch of chardonnay into semillon or something.  If you pluck them left handed you may accidentally wind up with cider.  In short wine producing is fraught with risk.  I won't say he told us this to enhance the likelihood of us buying some and thus saving his wife and daughters from a life of degradation on the streets but it probably didn't hurt.  We did buy some wine, or at least others did.  I didn't, I was looking for shiraz but I wasn't crazy about the one they had on offer (as if I could tell) so I let it pass.  I did however raise a question that went right to the point.
"Do you own the alpacas?"
Unfortunately he didn't, that was a neighbour.

With the possibilities at this winery exhausted we headed on to the next.  Here they presented us with a sparkling verdelho (say what?) which I bought out of sheer curiosity and what seemed like an acceptable shiraz.  I hope Amanda agrees.  Besides how can you not buy wine from a winery called Stomp!  More wine tasted, more bottles purchased.  The minibus was taking on a decided glassy clatter as it went over bumps.  Next stop was lunch and a brief shopping sojourn in what looked like somebodies attempt to produce a knock off of a medieval European village in the middle of some of widest open spaces you can find this side of the Simpson Desert.  Lou took the opportunity to have an impromptu massage while I ransacked the British sweet shop and drank a cup of really quite dreadful coffee.  To Natali's and my chagrin the alpaca store wasn't open.

My sweet buying turned out to be utterly superfluous as our next stop was not a wine tasting but a chocolate tasting.  Having glued my mouth shut with marshmallows dipped in warm chocolate I indicated my desire for choc mint fudge and chocolate covered honeycomb through a series of rather sticky grunts.  I might be the only person to come back from the Hunter Valley with diabetes rather than cirrhosis.  After that it was the third and last winery of the day.  They had a good selection of wines but I had what I wanted so I spent my time assisting the others in abusing Tony and chatting to a cat.  Finally, loaded up with enough wine to ensure the continued economic development of the Hunter region for the next few years we trundled back to the house where we had enough time to take a brisk constitutional or read an improving book before dinner.  Most of us had a nap.  I read a history of the campaign in Bulgaria (yes there was one) in World War 1 but whether that can be considered improving or not is open to doubt.  I certainly don't feel particularly improved.

Dinner was amazing, it was home catered so nobody had to cook, clean or drive home afterwards (except the caterers but I presume they were paid).  Thirteen may not seem like an ideal number for a dinner party (and my suggestions of a black mass afterwards weren't taken seriously) but it was just enough for two or three conversations to be comfortably maintained without people breaking up into obvious groups.  Tony opened his presents; he got whisky, whiskey, whisky accessories and whisky.  Oh yes and a bottle of wine.  The prize was a book prepared by Natali to which all his friends (including me) had contributed.  Things were going so well that I was prepared to forgive Tony when, in an attempt to be hospitable, he refilled my half empty glass with chardonnay apparently unaware that I was drinking the sparkling verdelho.  After dinner there were cigars, scotch (funny that) and more conversation hampered only by the fact that we had to smoke outside and we could actually see the frost forming on the cigars.

The next day was a final breakfast, rubbing more cream into LeRon's back (I can't believe I didn't get his number) and a quick chat with him about the battle of Waterloo.  Since he's French I did my best to keep the triumphalism out of my voice.  I told him about the mistakes I felt Napoleon had made and we agreed that it was silly for anyone to attack the British where the only thing they had to do in order to win was simply stay put.  Then there were farewells, a brief but rather classy speech from Tony and the journey home.  I can't remember when I've enjoyed a weekend so much and I didn't have to sleep in a tent once.  Much thanks to Natali who arranged much of it and happy birthday to Tony and Natali (who celebrated her birthday just a few days previously).  Finally an honourable mention goes to Stuart, Tony's brother, who introduced me to Wild Turkey American Honey liqueur.  I'm not a fan of bourbon or bourbon based drinks as a rule but that was quite remarkable.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Going For Broke

Wine Tasting in the Hunter Valley Part 1

Once again I have ventured beyond the nurturing confines of Sydney and, bizarrely, once again Tony, Natali, Jason and Idette have agreed to welcome me.  On a day when it was so cold polar bears were hunting Eskimos for their skins a dozen or so like minded people abandoned their children (not me officer) and converged on the Hunter Valley.

The Hunter Valley is famous for horse studs, coal mines and wineries, I think it is fair to say that nobody present gave a damn about coal mines or horse studs.  Despite their previous experiences Tony and Natali invited me (and about ten other people) to celebrate Tony's fortieth birthday in a welter of wine, cheese and frost.  The Hunter is rather chilly this time of year.

In any well organised society the major wine producing areas would be located an easy five minute walk from the central business district, possibly in place of the botanical gardens which do nothing except sit there gulping carbon dioxide.  Sadly in our less well regulated world the Hunter Valley is a two and a half hour drive from Sydney.  This meant that our sojourn to the Hunter started in the traffic clogged streets of the CBD.

As we headed north through some of the more tree infested suburbs of Sydney I got slightly obsessed by palm trees.  There is apparently no suburb so well provided with trees that the local government doesn't think things would be improved by planting a few palms.  Let me be quite clear; a suburb of Cairo might be improved by the addition of palm trees (or running water or representative government) but a suburb in Sydney really can't.  It becomes even more ridiculous when there are obviously still quite a few more or less native trees hanging around waiting to be noticed.  Still the corruption of local government by the pervasive influence of big palm is a topic for another day.

Soon enough the palmy suburbs of northern Sydney were a distant memory as the scenery gradually changed from urban to rural or, to be more accurate, from suburban street to motorway.  I didn't really notice the change as I was reading a magazine but I looked up in time to see one of the tell tale signs that the city was far behind us; a backyard full of cows and a front yard full of car wrecks.

My knowledge of viticulture is limited to say the least but I do know wine is usually produced from grapes.  Thus I was expecting grape heavy vines amid the rolling countryside.  The countryside did indeed roll except where it was going straight up and down but grapes were in rather short supply.  It was Winter and as we approached our destination it looked rather like we were travelling through a region of highly successful stick farmers.  Our destination incidentally was the small town of Broke where Tony and Natali had hired a house for the weekend.  Thus we had spent the preceding two and a half hours going for Broke.

I apologise for the previous joke, I just couldn't help myself.

On arrival we milled around making helpful comments to each other about how freaking cold it was and then allocated ourselves sleeping quarters, there are advantages to being the first to arrive.  After which it was time to unpack the car, look around and totally fail to get a roaring fire going.  Fortunately the place had heating independent of a bunch of city dweller's ability to set wood on fire. As I helped Tony and Natali unload the wine I couldn't help wondering if they were in the Hunter Valley to purchase wine or make a delivery.

Guests and pizza trickled in throughout the course of the evening and enough of a dent was made in the wine supply to make me wonder whether Tony and Natali had brought enough.  The spa was investigated and discussed at length particularly as regards its use by the more female members of our group but eventually nobody did.  The problem was that the house was warm and the spa was warm but the fifteen second journey between the two would have had a casualty rate equivalent to Scott of the Antarctic's last journey and we didn't even have any huskies to eat.

So after much, increasingly incoherent, banter we all retired to bed.

Apparently I snored.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Birthday Greetings #40

Happy birthday to Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor.  Ferdinand became emperor in 1637 on the death of his father, Ferdinand II.  From his father Ferdinand inherited Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Austria and the Thirty Years War.  The war had been going for nineteen years when Ferdinand gained responsibility for it and it is safe to say that by this time absolutely everybody was sick of it.  Despite this it took another eleven years before they finally managed to wind it up.

The war had started as an attempt by his ultracatholic father to slap down some dissident protestant nobility but had got way out of hand.  The entire empire had picked sides (although not consistently, one of the reasons why it dragged on so long) Spain being Catholic and Habsburg had backed their relatives in Vienna, Sweden had backed the protestant princes of the empire and France had bankrolled them because although the French were Catholic an opportunity to trash the Habsburgs was considered a little more important than any minor considerations of religion. 

With the death (by murder) of the top Habsburg general our boy (as heir to the throne) took over command of the imperial armies and actually won a victory or two.  Unfortunately it was downhill from there and the first eleven years of Ferdinand's reign were consumed by attempts to get out of the war.  Ultimately concessions had to be made.  The Habsburgs hadn't really lost the war but they hadn't won it either and if they wanted peace they would have to bend a little.  The bending consisted of freedom of confession for princes (their subjects had to follow their lead) and granting all the constituent states of the Holy Roman Empire the right to conduct their own foreign policy.

This replaced a united nation under the lead of a universally acknowledged emperor with a kaleidoscope of essentially independent nations some of which you could throw a handkerchief across.  Or it would have replaced such a united nation if it had existed in the first place.  The Thirty Years War pretty much proved that it didn't.  By signing off on the deal Ferdinand reduced the empire to a largely honorary irrelevance.  Actually the empire had been a largely honorary irrelevance for over a century but Ferdinand's signature made it official.  This actually affected Ferdinand and the succeeding Habsburg emperors less than you might think.  Being Holy Roman emperor brought the Habsburgs a lot of prestige and the highest secular title in Europe but their actual power was based in the lands they directly controlled and here there had been no diminution whatsoever.  As for the empire it was enough that a Habsburg had the title (or more accurately, that no one else had the title).

With the war finally disposed of Ferdinand proved the irrelevance of the empire in a somewhat more subtle way.  He spent the rest of his reign reorganising and improving the government machinery in his hereditary lands, his powerbase.  He formed the empire's (really the Habsburg family's) first standing army by keeping several mercenary regiments raised for the war on the books and paying them himself.  With his house more or less in order he started to reassert the somewhat battered prestige of the Habsburg family using his own army and the residual splendour of the imperial title to achieve his aims.

He also composed music.  A lot of the Habsburgs were musical although they tended to confine themselves to the appropriate role in music for monarchs ie, paying other talented people to do it for them.  Ferdinand certainly did this but he also wrote music himself, largely religious although there are a few secular pieces also attributed to his pen.  The general opinion of his work is that it was nowhere near as bad as one might expect of an emperor who thought he was musical.

Ferdinand should have been succeeded by his son Ferdinand IV and he spent a lot of money "persuading" the imperial electors to elect his son as King of the Romans which was a courtesy title given to the person who would be the next emperor.  Unfortunately Ferdinand IV inconsiderately died of smallpox before his father leaving Ferdinand III distraught.  So distraught in fact that it was almost disastrous.  Ferdinand had another son, Leopold and with the death of his eldest it should have been a simple matter for the coach to tap the substitute on the shoulder and send him out onto the field.  But Ferdinand was so upset by his eldest son's death that he didn't do any of the necessary political groundwork (bribery) to persuade the electors to pick Leopold instead.  The result was that when Ferdinand died the entire imperial succession was thrown open and with other candidates showing an interest Leopold had to pay quite staggering bribes to get the electors to vote for him.

Cities Are Awesome

I like looking out of my window at work.  Naturally this is partly because getting paid for staring out a window is preferable to doing any actual work.  But its also because I have a pretty good view.  Granted, when you work on the sixtieth floor its difficult not to have a good view.  The city stretches out before me in a sprawling jumbled mess of concrete, glass and steel.  I will confess that Sydney is not the most aesthetically pleasing city in the world.  A goodly proportion of it seems to have been designed by a six year old with a monochromatic set of building blocks.  Still on a good day with the sun shining the whole layout is quite impressive as it decays gently in the afternoon pollution.

Sixty floors up is the best way to view any city as it allows you a certain amount of distance from one of the most irritating features of any city; people.  It's difficult to have a city without people if only because there are very few cities built by wallabies.  Until Wallabyville gets off the ground we're going to have to put up with the human version.  Which is probably all for the best because a city inhabited by four million wallabies is unlikely to be an improvement.  For starters we'd be neck deep in wallaby shit.

Ants build cities of course.  At least ants build large and complex habitations complete with dwelling areas and places to work, breed, live and die which seems to be as good a definition of a city as anything else I've heard recently.  I'm not sure if ants are the example we want to follow though.  If seventy odd years of communist rule in various parts of the globe has taught us one thing it is that humans are not as good at being ants as ants are.

I personally find cities a hopeful sign for humanity.  Its all very well to associate with various members of the human race if you like them but cities are proof that, if given the right incentive, we are prepared to associate with people we don't know at all and probably wouldn't like if we did.  Cities show that humans can tolerate, however reluctantly, the presence of other humans.  It isn't easy of course, humans tend to find other humans irritating and speaking as a human I don't really blame them.  The history of every city is replete with arguments, clashes, riots, crime and people who play their stereos really loud after ten o'clock at night.  From time to time whole groups are ostracised, driven out or just treated really really badly.  But for all that the city itself survives.  Cities are sometimes abandoned when the reason for its existence vanishes like Petra of antiquity or Detroit of right now and there are countless examples of conquering armies destroying cities but there are very few instances of cities ceasing to exist simply because the inhabitants couldn't put up with each other any longer.

People from small rural locales frequently comment on the unfriendliness of cities when compared to their own tightknit communities.  They highlight the harshness, greed, permissiveness and general not niceness of cities when compared with their own rural paradise where everybody knows your name and they say goodday in the street.  But this is my point, its easy to be friendly and accepting when you've known everyone in the community since birth (and let's face it, you're probably related to most of them), it also helps that anyone who genuinely doesn't fit in tends to take the hint and leave.  These people tend to go to the city. That's what a city is, a collection of people without any sense of community, who have come there for disparate reasons and who would probably choose not to live next door to most of their neighbours if they felt they had the option.  And yet in Sydney four million people wake up each day and most of them, after mature reflection, decide not to cut their neighbours throats.

That's why I think cities are pretty awesome.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Royal Commissions Into Everything

We're hip deep in royal commissions at the moment.  A royal commission is a sort of broad ranging enquiry with widespread powers to investigate some issue or other.  It is generally an indication that an institution of some kind has screwed up royally, hence the name.  As well as a commission into a government programme to insulate homes which would up with people burning to death we have a commission into union corruption and another into systematic child abuse perpetrated by various institutions tasked with their care, principally although not exclusively, the church.  As a result all sorts of shocking revelations have come to light.  Shocking revelations are pretty much what royal commissions produce.  This sells newspapers, entertains the public and, on occasion, rectifies or at least highlights long term abuses.  It's more than a little sad that a royal commission is required to achieve the last of these.

While the revelations can be horrifying what they shouldn't be is surprising.  The sad fact of the matter is that institutions of the sort that tend to be investigated by a royal commission; police, unions, churches, charities, government departments and so forth are particularly susceptible to corruption and abuse.  There are a number of reasons for this, the first is simply opportunity.  There are always a few horrible people in any organisation and organisations with the size, power and breadth of those mentioned above are very difficult to police.  Nobody, however well intentioned can keep an eye on what everybody connected with the organisation is doing at any given moment.  Pockets of corruption whether expressed in simple venality or the more vile examples coming to light in the child abuse investigation will always occur.  But what transforms isolated transgressions into a systemic problem?

Here we encounter a problem peculiar to the organisations I mentioned earlier.  All of them exist to benefit others and to be most effective they require the trust of the people they serve.  All of them have within their ranks many honest, upright people who have dedicated their lives to the organisation and its ideals.  Theoretically this should make them remarkably resistant to corruption, in fact the opposite is true.

An organisation which relies on the trust of others will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain that trust.  Including deception, concealment and outright lying.  Those who serve it see the damage bad publicity could do and the harm to the genuinely noble cause the organisation espouses and they try very hard to make sure nobody finds out about any such transgressions.  The greatest allies the corrupt possess are the legion of decent dedicated people who feel they are somehow serving the greater good by sweeping any "unpleasantness" under the carpet.  These people, terrified of the shame that will be brought on their organisation should the truth be known collaborate in lies.  Without these people isolated pockets of corruption would remain just that, isolated and relatively easy to deal with.  Instead, with protection assured the corrupt grow bolder, waverers are tempted and idealism is lost.  In time the corrupt make their way further up the rungs of the organisation and ensure that those moving into places below them are people they can work with, or on.  Ultimately the organisation itself will exist solely to further the greed or ambitions of the people who now control it.

Don't the enablers of corruption realise what they're doing?  On some occasions and on an intellectual level, quite possibly but the decision they have made is not an intellectual one, it is an emotional one.  When a person joins an organisation, imbued with the ideals it was designed to promote they tend to develop an intense loyalty to the organisation itself quite apart from its stated goals.  The minister or priest in your church on Sunday isn't a man of God, he's a man of the church and it is the church, not God, who has his first loyalty.  Similarly the union representative is not a representative of the workers, he's a representative of the union.  As such these decent, honest people are prepared to indulge in almost any sort of skullduggery to protect and serve their organisation, often to the detriment of the people they intended to help.

The silliest thing about the whole affair is that there is a very simple way for an organisation to deal with corruption.  Publicity!  Rather than an outside investigation laying the whole rotten edifice bare most organisations would retain a great deal more public trust if they were seen to be systematically cleaning their own house.  People are generally aware that corruption exists and that it exists within institutions.  An institution would gain a great deal more trust if it showed that it could openly acknowledge the fact and deal with it in an effective manner.  Instead the people within these organisations show a deep level of distrust, not to say contempt, for the reasoning abilities of the people they are supposed to be helping.  They think they can maintain trust by deceit and trickery.  And they never learn.  Royal commission follows royal commission and after each one the situation gradually reverts back to the circumstances that inspired the commission in the first place.  It might be useful to have a permanent royal commission into pretty much everything but if we did that it would get corrupted as well.  The real strength of a royal commission is in its adhoc nature.  If it became an institution it wouldn't be too long before we needed a royal commission into it as well.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Another Silly After Action Report

Special forces operations have always had a great deal of appeal for political leaders and military commander alike for pretty much the same reasons.  They offer the prospect of great results for a rather small initial outlay.  When they succeed there is glory, triumph, medals, promotions, almost certainly a facebook page plus book deals, documentaries, movies, documentaries about the movies and movies about the documentaries and, of course, war game scenarios.

Of course when it doesn't work things are a little more grim, particularly for the participants.  Which is the scenario which faced German oberleutnant Werner Hedderich one breezy day in May 1940.  He and a bunch of like minded colleagues had been crammed into light aircraft and tasked with seizing a bridge ahead of the main German advance to enable the panzers a swift path over the river Moselle.

Which explains why Hedderich and a small group of men are sitting in hastily prepared foxholes around a bridge in France gazing uneasily at a gathering French counterattack force and wondering where the hell the rest of the German army has got to.  Not too far away over a thousand German tanks are gunning their engines and preparing to introduce the French to the concept of Blitzkrieg.  However the tanks of most interest to Hedderich are the three French tanks which are right here, right now.  This is ASL scenario A104 "In Front of the Storm".  Here I shall command the cream of the French army (ie they're not actually French, they're North African spahis) and three hotchkiss tanks attempting to recapture the bridge from an increasingly nervous German defender. 

To mount this counter attack I have three H35 tanks (small, slow but hard to kill) plus six squads of elite French infantry and another six squads of first line troops all prepared to die for the motherland.  Or to be totally accurate, prepared to die for their colonial overlord's motherland.  Three officers, a pair of medium machine guns and three light machine guns round out my forces.  My opponent, Jeremy Dibben has four elite German squads, four first line squads, a medium machine gun, a couple of light machine guns, an antitank rifle and a 37mm antitank gun.  To bolster his defences he has mines (both anti personnel and anti tank), a road block which will effectively stop the tanks from charging wherever they like and some foxholes to hide in.

To win the French have to capture the bridge, that is, both bridge hexes and the approach hexes on each bank of the river (four in all).  Jeremy set up the bulk of his forces behind the river with the roadblock in the last of the four hexes to be seized.  His best officer commanded the medium machine gun squad positioned to fire directly down the bridge (nasty), a squad and light machine gun nestled in a foxhole with the roadblock, another squad and light machine gun set up in a foxhole adjacent and the antitank gun set up a level higher and directly behind the medium machine gun crew so it could similarly fire straight down the bridge.  It was supported by a squad with the antitank rifle.  On my side of the river Jeremy had garrisoned some village buildings with the remainder of his force to delay me and inflict some casualties before I arrived at my objective.

I divided my attackers into two major forces.  I felt Jeremy was light on defences in the north (left) flank so I detailed my tanks and a group of elite infantry (with the medium machine guns) to come in from that direction while the remainder of my force ploughed through the woods and orchards in the west, slow going but difficult to hit.  The picture below shows the set up.

First into action on my side was a modest half squad (or bullet soak as I refer to them) who charged boldly forward to persuade Jeremy to drop concealment on his unit in the north.  Jeremy obligingly did so and with that out of the way I armoured assaulted forward heading for his next defended position in building F3.  Admittedly I got a little eager and drove right next door to it.  Jeremy fired at my troops hiding behind the tank and killed an officer outright and broke an accompanying half squad.  A full squad survived and plunged into close combat while a squad and a half did the same with the half squad I had bypassed.  Meanwhile Jeremy's sniper (who had an awesome game) broke one of the other squads following the tanks.  By comparison the force from the west had a slow but bullet free progress protected by woods and orchards.

In the next turn I had a decision to make.  My squad and a half had killed his half squad in CC but in building F3 the melee raged.  I had another squad and a medium machine gun right outside.  Saying a quick prayer to the dice gods I fired into the melee with a 16 firepower shot.  My elite troops shrugged off the firepower, his broke.  I then butchered them as they attempted to flee the melee.  With the north flank taken my tanks trundled forward to the cluster of houses where the remainder of his delaying force was to be found providing much needed cover for my surviving infantry to close the gap as well.

While my tanks were engaged in this vigorous slothkrieg my western forces had closed up (losing only one squad to an idiotic attempt to cross a road in full view of the enemy) and had built up a powerful infantry force.  Which was good because the tanks were proving that 37mm guns were not terribly effective at winkling infantry out of stone buildings.  I hopped another squad under a tank and advanced into close combat with one of his squads but the real break came when a 16+3 shot from my infantry in the west sent a neighbouring squad berserk.  With rage in their eyes they attempted to charge into the melee only to be carved to bits by one of my tanks which found infantry running in the open a much easier target to hit.

As you can see above my tanks are trying to give support to the melee raging in the nearby building.  His berserk squad is about to die horribly while some of my other infantry has sidled down to snatch the forest locations near the bridge.  You can also see the menacing collection of firepower Jeremy has waiting for me should I attempt such a thing.

This is pretty much how things stood for a couple of turns.  I gradually winkled his remaining west bank defenders out of their positions and readied myself for the thrust to the bridge.  Unfortunately my attempts to seize the aforementioned forest hexes had resulted in hideous casualties as Jeremy's force (hiding in foxholes) managed to shoot up pretty much anything that went in.  At one point I had two unmanned medium machine guns in the location with their owners whimpering in the rear.  In addition to this his sniper was shooting anything that moved in backplay.  Fortunately it was a little removed from the main action.

Still with his delaying troops out of the way it was time to hit the bridge.  This is where the tanks come into their own.  The bridge, covered by a medium machine gun, an antitank gun and whatever infantry firepower Jeremy can muster, is an absolute deathtrap for infantry.  There's only one way of getting across;  roll the tanks up onto the bridge and provide a little metal cover for the following troops.  Yes, there's an antitank gun waiting for you to do just that but you really have no choice.  The roadblock at the end means the tanks can't take all four locations themselves, for that last one the infantry will have to take its chances.

With a creak and a lurch my tanks lumbered forward into the full view of his antitank gun sighted to fire down the road.  It fired, it hit but the shell bounced off the tough armour (the French really did know how to armour tanks).  Nose to tail my tanks occupied the bridge controlling three of the four hexes I needed.  From the woods to the north a half squad (sole survivor of another failed attempt to build up a firebase in the woods) advanced onto the bridge.

Two turns remained and I was the recipient of two pieces of luck.  With more targets Jeremy had to divide his fire and I finally managed to get a pair of squads with the mmgs in the woods hex next to the bridge.  Next turn a 16+2 shot smashed his forces in the foxhole next to the roadblock.  My half squad on the bridge inched forward a little more until the final victory location was just two hexes away.

In the meantime his antitank gun had destroyed one of my tanks and his antitank rifle had immobilised another (although the crew remained to gallantly, if ineffectively, man their weapons).  The last turn came and I gained my second piece of luck.  My surviving intact tank gained a lucky hit which shattered his forces at the roadblock.  If I could just advance a unit in there the game would be mine.  Of course there was still a medium machine gun and an antitank gun (which could also kill infantry) looking straight down the road.  Nevertheless the door was slightly ajar.  I had a halfsquad on the bridge two hexes from the roadblock.  An assault move would bring it next door ready to advance in, if it survived.  Firstly I conducted a little fire drawing exercise.  Two squads boldly moved onto the bridge to support their fellows.  The medium machine gun spoke and they were "tumbled back in bloody ruin" to coin a phrase.  Jeremy took the opportunity to lay a firelane down the bridge but what that meant was that my halfsquad would now advance against residual firepower of 2 with a modifier for the tank rather than firepower of four with a negative bonus for his leader.

Taking their courage in their hands the men of the halfsquad inched forward.  The firelane didn't hurt them.  Jeremy then threw all the firepower he had left at them.  The antitank rifle did nothing.  The antitank gun gained a pin task check which my guys passed with the maximum possible roll.  His last squad fired and gained another pin check.  With a sweaty hand I rolled, and passed.  In the last phase of the last turn I had done just sufficient to achieve victory.  Below, simply for the heck of it is a picture of the final scene with my triumphant halfsquad doing a a victory dance on the roadblock.  Much thanks to Jeremy for the game who was looking like a winner pretty much up to the end and multiple curses to his sniper who added liberally to my grey hairs.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Birthday Greetings #39

Well from east to west.  The last birthday greeting was to an ruler in the dying days of the Byzantine  empire.  Now we hop west several hundred miles and back a thousand years to give a single digit salute to a ruler in the dying days of the Roman empire (or Western Roman Empire if you want to get all accurate about it).  Unlike Manuel who was a conscientious, hard working and capable man today our greetings go out to a talentless, uninspiring nobody who shepherded the western empire towards its final collapse.

With that as an introduction Happy birthday to Valentinian III, Roman emperor and worthless waste of space.  Valentinian was the nephew of the equally deadbeat emperor Honorius.  He spent the first few years of his life in Constantinople whence his mother had fled to avoid the attentions of Honorius, her half-brother.  When Honorius died a jumped up civil servant seized the throne.  This galvanised Theodosius II, the eastern emperor into declaring Valentinian (then six years old) emperor and sent him with his mother and an army to the west.  A couple of years later with the usurper safely dead Valentinian settled down in Ravenna.  His mother ran the empire while he grew up.

There were problems with Huns, there were problems with Visigoths, there were problems with Vandals but the major problem was that the three top military commanders in the west would have much preferred killing each other to fighting any of them.  The Vandals left Spain and conquered Rome's North African provinces which was an utter disaster as they were the richest lands left to the western empire and provided the bulk of the tax revenue to say nothing of the grain that kept Rome fed.  From this point on Rome never had enough money to fund the army it needed to regain the provinces that would provide the money to fund the army.

By the time Valentinian had come of age (one hesitates to use the term "grown up") the problem of three military commanders vying for power had been resolved when one of them managed to kill the other two.  The survivor was Flavius Aetius who (perhaps not surprisingly) got on rather better with Huns and Visigoths than he did with other Romans.  Despite a chronic lack of troops and funds Aetius somehow managed to hold the line in Gaul defeating (in no particular order) Franks, Visigoths, Suebi and Burgundians.  Meanwhile Valentinian occupied himself having parties, practicing archery and seducing the wives of his senators.

Then Attila the Hun turned up.  That was a bit of a reality check.  Valentinian reacted to the danger by waving a hand at Aetius and murmuring "deal with that would you, there's a good chap."  Aetius did his best.  Scraping together what was left of the Roman military machine he cut deals with the Visigoths (now cheerfully ensconsed in Gaul since the Romans hadn't been able to chuck them out) and the Burgundians using the very obvious truth that Attila planned to murder everybody and thus wasn't just a Roman problem.  Commanding this somewhat heterogeneous army he met Attila at the Battle of Chalons.  Aetius didn't win the battle but he didn't exactly lose it either.  Both sides took heavy casualties but eventually the Huns muttered "sod this for a game of soldiers" and left so Aetius claimed it as a win. 

Valentinian was terribly pleased but somewhat less so when Attila attacked Italy the next year.  Fortunately Attila came down with an acute case of death and the empire was saved (for about another fourteen years or so).  After about twenty nine years on the throne without having injected himself once into the management of his disintegrating empire Valentinian suddenly decided to make a policy decision himself.  He murdered Aetius.  Granted Aetius was ambitious, ruthless and none too trustworthy but he was also the only halfway competent commander the western empire had.  Under him an outnumbered, underpaid pack of grumbling conscripts and unreliable barbarians had somehow managed to managed to keep the Roman eagle over much of Gaul, a little of Spain and had even gone toe to toe with Attila.

Valentinian didn't get much of a chance to decide whether his newfound decisiveness was going to be a habit or not.  A few months after his terminal demotion of Aetius a senator whose wife he raped persuaded a couple of Huns in Valentinian's bodyguard to avenge the murder of Aetius (did I mention he got on well with Huns when he wasn't killing them?).  This they did by beating Valentinian to death while he was training in the Campus Martius.  The empire would last another fourteen years, astonishingly they would manage to have another nine emperors during that period.  Apparently it was a temp job.