Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The House of Lorraine Has Never Flown So High

I'm feeling a little embarrassed right now.  I've just written yet another birthday greetings, my fifty fifth since I started this blog.  However I titled it "Birthday Greetings #54".  Why?  On going back through my blog entries over the years I found that I had given two separate birthday greetings to Francis of Lorraine of all people.  Francis wasn't even a spectacular failure like Nero.  He was just a mundane failure of the type you can run into anywhere.

Nevertheless I inadvertently saw fit to grace him with two birthday greetings while genuine talents like Marcus Aurelius have had to make do with one.  Fortunately I didn't contradict myself otherwise people may well have doubted the quality of my research on these little biographical pieces.  Allow me to assure you that my research is as good as wikipedia can make it with the added assistance of some broad but not particularly coherent reading.  If there any any mistakes I can assure you that they are simply due to laziness, disinterest or an outright desire to deceive.

Nevertheless doubling up on Francis has brought something slightly unpleasant to my mind.  None of you noticed!!  Is anybody reading this blog?  In my more fanciful moments (most of them) I like to think that people source my blog when studying history, or politics or environmental science or at least the prevalence of mental illness in today's society.  According to the hit counter there have been over thirty thousand hits on my blog since its inception only about half of which are mine.  Thirty thousand isn't actually a lot for a blog that has been going for several years and now it appears that even the handful who do read it (hi Mum) aren't actually paying close attention.

One of the most popular entries I've written in recent times was actually a write up of the latest Jurassic Park movie which I entitled "Dinosaur Snuff Porn".  I was a little surprised that this struck such a chord with the internet community until I worked out that a lot of people had googled "snuff porn" and had been directed to that blog entry by mistake.  On the one hand, thanks for the hits.  On the other hand, eww!

Still it does give me an idea.  After each movie I watch from now on I will write a blog entry with a title referring to some deeply disturbing sexual practice.  The blog hits should explode.  I just hope none of the readers can trace me.  In the meantime I will just have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I have given Francis of Lorraine probably more publicity than he ever expected and certainly more than he warranted.  Hopefully my Order of Maria Theresa is in the post.

Birthday Greetings #54

Yes, another birthday greetings.  The last one was for Nero who ruled when the Roman empire was still shiny and new.  This one is for a third century ruler when the empire was starting to look distinctly frayed around the edges.  Our boy would patch it back together again, at least for his lifetime.

So, happy birthday to Diocletian, Roman emperor.  Diocletian had the traditional career path for a Roman emperor during the third century.  Low birth, military service, promotion to a position near the emperor who then conveniently died (of lightning strike according to Diocletian which seems unlikely as he wasn't playing golf at the time).  The emperor's son took over but shortly afterwards he came down with a serious case of death as well and with Diocletian hanging around looking professional and imperial there really wasn't any opposition. Well there was, the dead emperor had a brother and some other guy thought he'd try his chances as well but Diocletian swiftly stomped them flat and settled down to rule.

Ruling turned out to be a little difficult.  The last fifty years hadn't been good to the empire.  There had been twenty six "legitimate" emperors and any number of pretenders.  A legitimate emperor was pretty much a pretender who persuaded the senate to legitimise his revolt after the event.  The empire split up, fought countless civil wars, suffered barbarian invasions, plague and economic collapse.

Things had calmed down just a little by the time Diocletian added his name to the list of ambitious generals engaged in self promotion but things were still rather a mess.  Once in charge Diocletian beat up some troublesome barbarians (there were always some) and then took stock of what he had actually taken over.  What he had taken over was a surly, near bankrupt empire full of ambitious soldiers some of whom were already having themselves measured for purple robes.  In addition it was so damned big!  If there was a revolt in Britain (and there was always a revolt in Britain) it could be months before he heard about it.  If something happened in Armenia at the same time his only choice would be which threat he was going to ignore.

Diocletian came up with a unique solution.  The problem, he decided, was that Rome didn't have enough emperors.  It needed more, so they could be in the right places making decisions in something approximating real time and getting things done.  Without any sons of his own Diocletian promoted an old army buddy to the rank of Caesar making him official (although junior) co-emperor.  His name was Maximian and he was sent to take care of the western half of the empire while Diocletian headed east.  Diocletian fought the Sarmatians to a draw and beat the Persians.  Unfortunately Maximian wasn't doing so well in the west.

There had been another revolt in Britain.  This doesn't mean the British revolted.  For the most part they didn't really seem to care.  What it meant was that the Roman troops in Britain revolted.  In this case as a result of an anti piracy campaign gone badly wrong.  The guy Maximian sent out to stop the pirates turned out to be, well, a pirate.  He was keeping all the loot from captured pirate vessels for himself.  Maximian demanded that he explain himself whereupon he fled to Britain, raised the legions there in revolt and persuaded those in northern Gaul to follow suit.  Diocletian dropped in on Maximian who it is fair to say had some explaining to do of his own.

Obviously two emperors wasn't quite enough so Diocletian knocked up a couple more.  This was the Tetrarchy a brilliant solution to the empire's governance issues just as long as Diocletian was around to enforce it.  Maximian was raised to the level of Augustus (ie equal of Diocletian).  Then each of the now joint emperors took a junior partner whom they made Caesar.  Each emperor would rule a quarter of the empire but with the two junior emperors reporting to their superior and the two senior emperors consulting on all matters of interest to the state at large.  As his Caesar Diocletian took his son-in-law Galerius.  Maximian selected his own son-in-law (likely at Diocletian's strong suggestion) as his own Caesar and dropped the British revolt into his lap.  Possibly to his chagrin the son-in-law cleaned up the entire mess.

Diocletian meanwhile went back to the east where he fought another war (his third) against the Sarmatians and this time managed to beat them sufficiently to persuade them to keep out of the way for a few decades.  Then Galerius got himself badly spanked in a fresh war with Persia.  Diocletian may or may not have been present at the time but all the blame was dumped on Galerius.  The new method of imperial government did have its uses for the man at the top after all.  Galerius (and possibly Diocletian) eventually beat the Persians and settled down to persecute the Christians.

Christians irritated Roman emperors.  All that tedious "one god" crap.  It was bound to annoy all the other gods and it meant that the Christians refused to worship at the shrines of deified emperors which was pretty damn close to treason.  The Jews were just as bad but at least they'd been doing it for millennia (the Romans loved tradition), the Christians weren't even as old as the empire itself and they expected to be taken seriously as a religion.  Honestly they were just asking to be fed to various animals.

Despite a lion induced life expectancy shortage the Christians refused to go away.  They were weird, blasphemous and definitely unRoman.  Diocletian wanted none of them.  Neither it appeared did anybody else.  Tentatively Diocletian suggested that Christians be excluded from government positions.  Galerius suggested that they just kill them all.  Ultimately Diocletian went with option B.

One of the reasons for excluding Christians from the government was that suddenly there was a lot more government to exclude them from.  Diocletian's multiplication of emperors naturally led to a multiplication of bureaucracy as each of them needed staff.  More than this though Diocletian expanded and regularised the civil service.  Up until him the Roman empire had been possibly the least governed empire in history.  There had been an emperor, various governors and a handful of support staff for each.  This along with a certain number of legal officials and a whacking big army had been sufficient.  Nobody really expected the government to fight crime, educate children, promote trade or indeed do anything much at all.  The government made war, protected the citizens (from foreigners, not each other) and killed anyone who dissed the emperor, that was more or less it.  Now Diocletian as part of a deliberate policy built up a powerful bureaucratic machine.

The main purpose behind this policy was not to improve government but to exalt the person of the emperor by making him a remote, godlike figure beyond the ken of ordinary mortals.  With any luck that would stop people trying to kill him.  Diocletian dressed himself up in sumptuous robes, smothered himself in jewels, painted his face red and demanded that everybody kiss the hem of his clothing.  Apparently the Roman idea of a remote, godlike figure rather resembled an egocentric transvestite with more money than taste.  Reflecting on their gods for a moment they may well have nailed it.

Diocletian stabilised the empire after half a century of chaos.  He built the system which for better or worse would hold it together for a century and a half after he was dead (and for an extra thousand years in Byzantium).  He couldn't restore the economy but that was probably beyond his ability despite the fact that he didn't have any economists to get in his way.  He didn't wipe out the Christians either but they've proved to be a tediously resilient bunch over the centuries.

After twenty one years on the throne Diocletian introduced yet another innovation into Roman imperial politics.  He quit.  His system of government required the two senior emperors to retire after a time allowing the two junior emperors to step up and appoint their own juniors.  In such a way the empire would be ruled by an endless succession of mature competent men who had had on the job training.  This lasted about as long as you might expect.  Maximian, who Diocletian forced to retire with him, didn't wait long before coming out of retirement and bidding for his old job.  Meanwhile Maximian's replacement had died and his son was angling for his position.  Maximian's son wanted a piece of the action too.  History records that Constantine, the son of Maximian's junior colleague came out on top much to the relief of the public.  History records this because Constantine made damn sure he wrote it.

As for Diocletian, he turned his back on the chaos of Roman politics and spent his last days peacefully gardening at his palace in Split (now in Croatia).  He died quietly and without fanfare.  Constantine, who had become a sort of Christian, blackened his name but took over his structure of government pretty much intact.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I'm Prepared to "Like" Christmas on Facebook

The foyer of the building I work in is getting a little cluttered these days.  Not only is there a honking great tree bedecked with various tasteless gold gewgaws but a significant amount of floor space appears to have been taken over by a group of itinerant buskers playing Christmas carols.  For some reason they didn't look impressed when I tossed a coin in their direction as I went past.

Building management has certainly decked the halls and the slight inconvenience in fighting my way into the office to do some work is surely compensated for by the joys of the season.  One of the joys of the season that is bringing me particular joy at the moment is an endless list of facebook posts exhorting me to fight back against the "war on Christmas".  If it wasn't for these facebook entries I wouldn't even know there was a war on Christmas.  Does anybody know where I can go to surrender?

Apparently despite the blanket Christmas themed advertising, the government mandated days off, the proliferation of Christmas themed wrapping paper in the shops and alcohol sodden corporate parties Christmas has not yet been completely trashed and somebody is trying to finish it off.  Who?  No idea, I've never encountered anyone trying to wipe out Christmas (although most of the above mentioned activities are doing a good job incidentally).  All I've encountered is other people complaining about those trying to wipe out Christmas.

Christmas has proved to be tediously resilient because the war goes on every year.  I know this because the same "fightback" messages turn up on facebook about the same time.  At what point do you persuade these people to declare victory and just shut up?

Don't misunderstand me; that there might be people desperately trying to abolish Christmas doesn't actually surprise me.  The PC loony left are populated by the same type of demented imbeciles who populate the irrational right.  These two groups can be safely left to fight it out in the sure and certain knowledge that any casualties on either side aren't anyone the human race will miss.  The rest of us can ignore them both and enjoy Christmas.  I'm going to enjoy Christmas despite being an atheist and I hope Jews, Pagans, Buddhists and Muslims enjoy it too.  I don't even mind if Christians enjoy it.  It's Christmas I'm prepared to be charitable.  Not charitable in the sense of handing out money to anyone but charitable in a vague "like it on facebook" sort of way.

I absolutely support Christmas if only because eventually it will be over and that means those damn buskers in the foyer will have to leave.  If there was no Christmas they might feel entitled to stay.  I'm hoping the tree will make itself scarce sometime after December 25th as well.

Happy non gender specific, anti religious, bigotry free, misogyny avoiding holidays which we are apparently having for no particular reason.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What Colour is Your Carbon?

A climate accord was recently signed in Paris.  All sorts of countries promised to do all sorts of things to help combat global warming and all of the other countries pretended to believe them.  It was announced as a staggering success and indeed it was.  Thousands of delegates sat down and hammered out agreements nobody is going to follow and argued furiously about exactly what is was that they were going to pretend to do.  So now the world is officially saved and we can all go back to sleep.

Um, ok wake up now, apparently we need to talk about mangroves.  This is what an article said on The Sydney Morning Herald's website today.  Furthermore this conversation should involve a little more than bitching about how smelly, humid and mosquito ridden they are.  It is fair to say that mangroves don't have great press.  However apparently when they aren't reeking up the joint and facilitating disease mangroves are our unsung climate warriors.

Mangroves apparently hold vast stocks of "blue" carbon.  Blue carbon is like black carbon only bluer.  Coastal wetlands lock up massive amounts of carbon (designated blue presumably to indicate that its difficult to run a power station on it) which would otherwise go to less helpful places like the atmosphere.  Environment hating psychopaths who prefer marinas, seaside resorts and their children not dying of malaria are sweeping mangroves away.  This is bad.  Well its bad for the mangroves obviously but it might also be bad for us as everytime we do so apparently we are unleashing hordes of blue carbon onto an already suffering world.

More study is needed to determine exactly how much carbon the wetlands are storing and how this should be factored into the planet saving activities that we won't be getting up to as a result of the Paris conference.  While figures are rubbery at the moment initial indications are that mangroves are the ultimate carbon storage system.  If we covered the planet in mangroves the only climate change we would have to worry about is ice ages and presumably we could fix that by burning some of them.

Sadly there's a problem.  Mangroves, sea grasses and the like are simultaneously aesthetically displeasing and situated on land that would be highly desirable if it wasn't for all the damn mangroves and sea grass.  As a result mangroves and sea grass are swiftly vanishing from the world's surface.  An expert from UTS claims that developed and developing countries have destroyed their coastal habitats.  If you exclude developed and developing countries from any list I don't actually think you have anything left.  So the mangrove situation is parlous to say the least.

Let me be the first to issue a clarion call for the mangroves survival.  Compared with most of the stuff we're supposed to do to save the planet putting up with a handful of stinking swamps seems pretty cheap and easy really.  I'm doing my part.  I live near the Cooks River, a handsome waterway flowing through southern Sydney.  It reeks like an open sewer and the principal decoration on the riverbanks are signs warning you not to eat any fish you might catch there.  It is tidal and, yes folks, there are mangroves.  Not many as the suburbs have encroached as close as they dare but some.  So far despite the smell and the presence of mosquitos in squadrons I have resisted the temptation to take an axe to a single tree.

Birthday Greetings #54

Happy birthday to Nero, Roman emperor.  Nero was everything an emperor should be with dissolute parties, poisonings, extravagant building plans, conspiracies, revolts being crushed all over the place (although not, significantly, the last one) tortures, persecutions and all of the other stuff that makes for really great history.  Certainly the historians of the time really went to town and the general impression is of Nero as a vicious, self indulgent wastrel.

But was this the truth?  Who cares?  It's fun.  If we rehabilitate Nero we'd have to do Attila the Hun next.  According to the same historians who tell us he was a monster we learn that his mother was a manipulative psychopath as well.  This charmer (by the name of Agrippina the Younger) married the then emperor Claudius and persuaded him to adopt Nero, her son from an earlier marriage.  Claudius was also Nero's great uncle so there was already a family tie there of sorts.

Claudius died (poisoned by Agrippina according to Suetonius) and with his natural son being well under age his adoptive son Nero was proclaimed emperor.  His three closest advisors were his mother (poisoner), Seneca (philosopher, author, loan shark and sleazebag) and Burrus (praetorian prefect and thug).  All of these three had their talents but spent most of their time arguing with each other (although Burrus and Seneca were united in advising Nero to watch out for his mother).

As time went by Nero listened to his mother less.  She responded in a mature and sensible way; she cultivated Britannicus (the natural son of Claudius) now reaching his majority in the hopes of having him proclaimed as emperor in Nero's place.  Nero had learnt Mother's lessons well however and Britannicus died of a sudden attack of poison.  A few years later after she apparently found someone else to promote to the throne Nero had his mother murdered as well.  A fancy, collapsible boat was created designed to fall apart as Agrippina was being transported home unfortunately nobody bothered to check if she could swim.  When she emerged from the waters dripping and furious Nero had no choice but to send in the praetorians with sharp implements.  It was dressed up as suicide.

Meanwhile Burrus died (surprisingly of natural causes) and Seneca (facing embezzlement charges) withdrew into private life; after being implicated in a plot against Nero he withdrew into private death.  Nero was on his own.  On the one hand promoting the arts and athletic competitions is certainly not a bad thing.  He won a war with Parthia (well his generals did but he got the credit) and a revolt in Britain was crushed.  He toured Greece, participated in the Olympic Games and returned to Rome loaded with prizes he hadn't earned.  Certain tax exemptions and a promotion of the theatre gained popularity.  On the other hand the murders kept coming and while a certain amount of hanging out in brothels and sleeping with the wives of your subordinates was considered de rigeur Nero took it to slightly ridiculous lengths.  He also performed on stage which was shocking, demeaning to his office and apparently he wasn't very good.

Having ditched the wife his mother foisted on him he took up with another wife.  Specifically Poppaea was the wife of Otho, one of his mates, party companions and general hangers on.  Nero packed Otho off as governor of Portugal and moved the guy's wife into the imperial palace.  She later died, vicious rumours suggested Nero had kicked her in the stomache while she was pregnant.  This may or may not be true but its certain Nero was devastated by her loss going so far as to castrate a slave who looked like her and marry him.  Any chances that this particular union might have had a happy ending were scotched by Nero's absent minded habit of calling him Poppaea.

Then Rome burnt down.  Not all of it but a considerable amount of it.  This allowed rumour mongering historians to blame Nero for the conflagration.  Perhaps sensing a public relations opportunity Nero was active in the rescue work and paid for a lot of disaster relief out of his own pocket.  He then blew all of that popularity by spending public funds building himself a massive house on the ruins.

Sensing that he was losing the love of the people Nero blamed the fire on an obscure and rather irritating religious sect known as the Christians and had them slaughtered in creative and appalling ways.  By this time everybody was sick to death of Nero's rule.  It is important to note that "everybody" in this sense meant "everybody important enough to catch the attention of the historians".  He retained his popularity with the masses.  Unfortunately the masses didn't command legions.  Way over in Judea the Jews were revolting and troops were sent to put them down.  While this was going on the troops of the Rhine legions grew restive. 

The governor of one of the Gallic provinces revolted, largely as a tax protest (something the Americans would do with more success several centuries later).  Loyalish troops from the Rhine put down the revolt but simultaneously Galba, until then inoffensively governing Spain, claimed the throne.  Support for Nero collapsed and Nero panicked.  In fact had he toughed it out he may well have won or at least saved his life.  As it was he seems to have had a bit of a meltdown.  He ran in circles, fled Rome, returned to Rome, fled again and when a delegation from the Senate turned up to negotiate an honourable retirement he lost it completely and screwing up all of his courage (or rather, screwing up a slave's courage) got one of his retainers to run him through with a sword.

So what to make of Nero?  That he was a vicious, self indulgent thug with pretensions to artistic skill seems to be pretty much agreed.  Whether he was any worse than most people in that day and age is more debateable.  Certainly there were some good initiatives in the early days of his reign when he still had the advice of Seneca and Burrus and its also true that the loathing and discontent of the ruling elite wasn't matched by the populace.  But if you're going to be an emperor then keeping the ruling elite onside while not completely sacrificing the opinion of the mob is a circle you have to square.  At this Nero failed and once he realised that he'd failed lost his shit so completely that he killed himself when he most likely didn't have to.  Compared to Caligula he was probably an improvement.  Compared with Vespasian or Marcus Aurelius he was a dissolute nobody playing a role.  And as mentioned earlier, his acting skills sucked.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Silly After Action Report Part 2 - In Which the Predictable Becomes the Inevitable

Ivan Kent and I met up (in the electronic sense) to complete Scenario AP59 - Taking Heads.  People who bothered to pay attention to the first entry will note that at the end of Part One my all conquering Japanese had swept the miserable Filipino rabble before them and were poised to attack the village and make official an inevitable victory.  Purely out of modesty I had noted that the rabble sweeping had taken a little longer than was really desirable and that possibly, just possibly, I might be a gnats squeezed for time.  I might also have mentioned in terms of constructive criticism the inability of the massed firepower of three of my elite squads to deal with a single one of Ivan's nestled in a foxhole.

So with hope in my heart and a song on my lips (or possibly a song in my heart and hope on my lips) I resumed battle.  We started with Ivan's turn 4 which saw his troops slinking away from their flashing eyed Japanese foes and finding holes to hide in.  The only ones who couldn't slink off were the broken units stuck out in the open and I took a sadistic delight in slaughtering these with my defensive fire.  Since time was short I needed to amass victory points swiftly and that was four gained for no more effort than shooting.  Ivan also moved his half track around to the east of the board so its 75mm could cover the approach my troops were obviously going to use.  I had seized his 37mm anti tank gun in the rally phase and more for laughs than anything else I shot at the half track as it went by.  I didn't hit it but the number was so low that I could feel Ivan sweating over Skype.

End of Turn 4.  Ivan has pulled back and I'm about to start my despairing run.

Ivan's redeployment tightened up his position and solidified his position in the village.  I would have to punch him out of it and here is where two things conspired against me.  Firstly, having dawdled in the beginning I was short of time and would thus have to take risks and secondly my inability to harm his flank defenders in the slightest meant that what I originally intended as a flanking manoeuvre would now unpleasantly resemble a headlong dash into the teeth of his defences.

Firstly I wanted a little more smoke to protect my advance, I turned to my trusty mortar who chose this moment to reveal that he had donated his smoke rounds to a children's party.  I had another mortar but he was not in a useful position.  Still, having decided to bite the bullet I moved out.  Over on the right I slid troops through the trees and kunai until I was adjacent to one of his squads.  In the centre I pushed troops down the road and over the roadblock taking advantage of the cover provided by a merrily burning halftrack (remember that?) in doing so.  I sidled up to one of the victory buildings and somehow survived the defensive fire and prepared to advance in.  I had decided to try and mince my way through in close combat.  To put it bluntly my guys ran out in the open and charged towards buildings and jungle occupied by enemy soldiers.  If this sounds stupid that's because it was but I was running out of time.  Soon I would be running out of troops.  Before that happened though I gained a minor victory on the far left where my mortar finally broke a half squad that had been guarding the flank all game.  My accompanying squad galloped forward and killed it for failure to rout, another victory point to me which was countered when the 75mm on his halftrack reduced one of my squads to a red smear on the earth.

Here two close combats rage, both of which would result in disaster.

Uttering a prayer to the dice gods I launched my guys into close combat.  The dice gods are bastards!
I failed to inflict any injuries on his force and in return he killed a squad and a half of mine.  I fired into both melees in my next fire phase resulting in a pin on one of his squads.  On the other a morale check resulted in Ivan getting heat of battle which resulted in fanaticism and hero creation.  Because he wasn't doing well enough already apparently.  My personal morale collapsed at this point.  My spearpoint had been shattered and I would now have to do exactly the same thing again with my surviving troops only now against better opponents.

Two interesting things happened in Ivan's turn, attempting to shore up his last line of defence he dashed a squad and mmg across a road in full view of one of my surviving squads.  My dice roll was low and it was Ivan's turn to wash some of his casualties off the street.  The other was the blessed malfunctioning of his damn 75mm gun which had created carnage up until that point.  At least now my guys would only be hit by small calibre weapons.  Or smallish, there was still a .50cal machine gun out there somewhere.  I assumed it would be in the church steeple (wrong)and I attempted to make its job of hitting me harder by dropping some smoke.  My other mortar came up trumps and a beautiful smoke cloud billowed over his troops.  The very next turn on the weather check I rolled up gusts and blew it all away, so much for the cover.

Things were now desperate, that is they were more desperate than they had been a short while ago.  Somehow I managed to move more troops into close combat with his newly fanaticised troops over on the right while some desperate running down the street resulted in more deaths but also placed squads near a couple of victory buildings.  At which point Ivan revealed his .50cal not in the church steeple but in a building right next door to where one of my squads had just arrived, panting and lathered with sweat.  Just to prove that the dice gods are equal opportunity bastards Ivan promptly broke the thing with his first shot and it took no more part in the game.

Not that there was much of the game left.  I did finally manage to seize one of the victory buildings (the one next to the blaze) but in the close combat to the east Ivan rolled snakes and not only killed more of my troops but added an 8-0 officer to his hero and fanatic squad.  If I'd attacked one more time he would probably have wound up with a tank.  But there was no more attacking, I was done.  I had in total about six squads left of the thirteen I had started with.  I had killed some units and captured a building but the price had been far too high and the rest of the village was beyond the grasp of my remaining troops.  With one turn to go I conceded.  

In retrospect two things contributed to my defeat.  I was far too cautious at the beginning which meant I was slow in getting up near the village.  This put me under time pressure.  The other was my absolute inability to deal with his flanking troops.  It was never my intention to charge straight up the middle but rather ease around a flank.  With his flanks solid I had to attack frontally and naturally paid a horrible price in doing so.

Thanks to Ivan for the game, next time I swear I'm going to get you even if I have to make a human sacrifice to the dice gods.  On that note I think I might invite my brother over for "tea".

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I Want A Day

I'm sitting here under a fine coating of pumice stone.  This means I've either been ground zero for an unambitious volcano or I've been to the dentist.

For an hour or so I lay in a chair while a cheerful, chatty woman bombarded my innocent teeth with pulverised rock.  As a side effect a fair amount of the upper part of my body is covered with grey dust.  I resemble a slightly animated inhabitant of Pompeii.  Thanks to this avalanche writ small I now have gleamy, clean teeth.  Or at least half my teeth are gleamy clean.  The other half are the shabby mess they've always been.

If she had cleaned alternate teeth I would have at least had a symmetrical pattern happening but instead she did one side of my mouth and left it at that.  The result is that my mouth feels somewhat lopsided.  On the positive side apart from a couple of holes and general neglect my actual teeth are in moderately goodish condition.

My mouth may be lopsided now but when the other half of my teeth are cleaned I will apparently possess a mouth of unparalleled beauty.  Or I would do if it weren't for the fact that my next dental appointment isn't for a month so by the time the other side gets cleaned the first lot will be back to their usual shabby state.  Thus I am doomed to spend the rest of my life with a lopsided mouth.

I won't play on my newfound disability too much.  I won't park in disabled parking spots or apply for welfare.  I will, of course, expect preferential treatment in restaurants and for people to give up their seat to me on the train.  That seems only fair.  Those of us who suffer from Lopsided Mouth Syndrome (LMS) are the modern day's tragic heroes.  We nobly bear our disability and ask for very little in return.

Sadly the lack of awareness of LMS means that I and my fellow sufferers (I presume there are some) are frequently the target of abuse by the ignorant and misinformed.  More than once some doddering pensioner or pregnant woman has responded with hostility when I demand their seat on a bus.  Several restaurant owners point blank refuse to accept my right to priority seating, churlishly demanding that I make a reservation and be prepared to pay the bill.  Even the police are unsympathetic, moving me along everytime I try to raise money for LMS by appealing to the kindness of people in the street.

To combat such blatant prejudice I've written to the United Nations demanding a day to raise awareness for LMS and SBS has approached me in relation to a fifteen part documentary about the difficulties of living with LMS.  At least I think that was what it was about, it was a little difficult to understand the person on the other end of the phone.  Most importantly of all I have produced our very own coloured ribbon to hand out to people at railway stations and intersections.  Its a sort of off yellow colour with brown streaks.

With a UN day and a coloured ribbon to pin to our clothing I think everyone would agree that there is simply nothing more to be done to assist sufferers of LMS and that all I have to do now is sit back and wait for the good times to be hand delivered to my door.  Which explains why I took the rest of the day off.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Have You Done Your Anti-Corruption Day Shopping?

Following hard on the heels of Love Your Lawyer Day comes its ideological twin.  The United Nations has announced that December 9th will be Anti-Corruption Day.  That's right quinoa got an entire year but anti-corruption gets twenty four hours.

For those of you who can't help thinking that the UN promoting Anti-Corruption Day is rather like hyenas promoting Anti-Scavenger Day I would respectfully point out that this is the same organisation that put Cuba, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia on its human rights commission.  For those of you who think that western civilisation is the source of all evil in the world I might just mention that the USA and the UK are members too so no matter what your ideological bent the human rights commission has something to disgust everybody.

Anti Corruption Day is being sponsored (if that's the right word) by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organised Crime.  I didn't realise that the UN had such a body and I must admit I fail to see its point.  Drug trafficking and organised crime have been flourishing for years, I'm sure they don't need the assistance of the UN.  Nevertheless its good to see them raising awareness about corruption.

This is what the day is all about, raising awareness.   Essentially it is a UN organised shout out; "Hey! Corruption happens!  And, on balance, its probably a bad thing!  Can I have some money now?"  With such weapons does the UN fight the ingrained habits of several thousand years of human behaviour. 

Let's face it, corruption has been with us a long time.  The opportunity to abuse a position of trust is traditionally one of the perks of having it.  Its only in the last few centuries that people, or at least some people, have been getting all uppity about the fact that their office bearers and civil servants are no more trustworthy than they are.  Indeed corruption has been woven in with the human condition for so long that we could probably claim any attempt to remove it is an act of cultural genocide and utterly disrespectful of the traditional rites and practices of the indigenous population (whoever and wherever they may be).  I would love to see the UN trying to wrap their collective skulls around that one.

One would think most people would be pretty aware of corruption whether its because some sleazebag politician rezoned the land next to the local school for a lead refinery or because a friend who's a police officer just helped you out with a speeding ticket.  Nevertheless the UN feels that awareness needs to be raised and I'm doing my little bit to help.  So with corruption dealt a mortal blow at the hands of the crusaders (or jihadists if you prefer) at the UN we can all look forward to a happier, healthier and wealthier tomorrow.  Except, of course, for all of the people who used to be corrupt.  Those suckers are going to starve.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Silly After Action Report - Part 1 "Prelude to Defeat"

In March 1942 General Douglas MacArthur faced the media in Australia and said "I came through and I shall return."  He said a bunch of other stuff as well but that's the bit that got quoted.  It was stirring stuff and it certainly went down better than if he had said "The army I raised, trained and commanded has had the stuffing knocked out of it and I ran yelping for Australia".  Of course the second is grossly unfair to MacArthur (and it is quite difficult to be grossly unfair to MacArthur).  No less a person than the American president (cigarette holder, wheelchair) had ordered his evacuation from the Philippines before the final blow fell.

Of course between the Japanese attack and the speech in Adelaide quite a lot of American and Filipino soldiers had to do a fair bit of dying, something that didn't actually stop after they surrendered.  It's fair to say that the Japanese were on a roll, they were invading everywhere and carrying all before them.  Now however they may have met an obstacle that will lead them to disaster.  I'm going to be commanding them.

This is ASL Scenario AP59, Taking Heads.  Set on New Years Day 1942 when MacArthur was still in the Philippines it pits a strong force of Japanese against a somewhat nearly equal number of Filipino army troops backed up with some American weaponry.  Ivan Kent having been beaten as the Americans in the past jumped at the opportunity to lead them to victory by playing me.  My attackers consisted of thirteen elite Japanese infantry squads, three first line squads with a gunless crew making up the numbers.  Support weapons consisted of three light machine guns, three 50mm mortars, a demolition charge and an antitank rifle so heavy those manning it were likely to die of a hernia before they reached the battle front.

Ivan had thirteen second line troops (American 447s) a .50cal heavy machine gun, two medium machine guns, a 37mm antitank gun (why? I don't have any tanks) and two thinly armoured halftracks carrying 75mm guns.  He also had wire, a roadblock and foxholes galore.  Victory would be determined by victory points amassed.  These were gained by the traditional "killing of the enemy" method but there were also two points on offer for each non hut building location (thirteen in all), points for any Japanese who managed to exit off the south edge of the board (fat chance) and points to the Japanese if they can clear the road of enemy troops.

Ivan set up with a few speedbumps forward and a line of foxhole hidden troops behind the road.  One half track was over on the far left side of the board and the other was set up to fire straight up the road.  A patch of jungle which commanded much of the road was just begging to be occupied by a machine gun.

The left side of the board didn't seem to me to lead anywhere useful with nasty spreads of bamboo so I set up the bulk of my forces on the centre and the right.  A single squad plus a half squad with mortar would, I hoped, keep things under control in that area (wrong).  My first objective was to secure the road leading to the village.  With that under control my middle force would push down the centre more or less along the road while the right hand force would cross the road and push through the huts and approach the village from the right hand side.

End of turn 1. My guys have come from the top of the board and are easing their way towards the enemy

Since I was almost certain that the .50 cal would be guarding the road (wrong again) circumspection was the order of the day for the first couple of turns.  My troops entered and fanned out through the kunai, nervously heading for the defences.  The only exception to this was on the extreme right where a sacrificial squad charged straight down the road to tempt his defenders to open fire.  This they did with no result.  This permitted me to move next to him and when his unit broke on final protective fire a small massacre gained me my first victory points.

Despite the circumspection of the rest of my advance his half tracks swiftly proved their worth killing one of my officers and an entire squad despite having multiple kunai hexes to shoot through.  My howls and whimpers probably disturbed the neighbours.  Fortunately vengeance was at hand with my hernia inducing anti tank rifle.  As my troops oozed closer Ivan decided to relocated one of the half tracks.  In a reverse of the low odds rolls he had achieved with his guns my atr crew rolled snakes and set the thing on fire.  This was a great result in the short term although the ensuing smoke may or may not be of benefit later.

At the end of turn two I had closed up to the road but my troops and mortar had had no success in dealing with his suspected machine gun position (or even stripping concealment).  Still I had Japanese and they're supposed to be able to handle heavy fire so I dashed a squad across the road.  It survived but Ivan finally revealed not the .50cal but a medium machine gun with which he set up a fire lane down the road.  Undaunted I assault moved a further two squads into the road, one striped but the other survived intact. 

End of Turn 2.  I don't seem to have got very far but I am making a bit of a push on the right.

My centre force including a pair of mortars started pounding his mmg position with a singular lack of success.  The same cannot be said for his response when he managed to get a K/2 shot which wounded my best leader and halved his associated squad.  My leadership has been reduced to a blood spattered mess.  One officer is dead and both the others are wounded.  How did the third get wounded?  My guys who got across the road pushed forward according to plan.  An opportunity emerged to take out an isolated squad in some huts and I charged my DC toting 8-0 forward to draw fire.  He didn't just draw fire he painted a picture of fire and is now a blood leaking 7+1 hiding behind a wall.  However Ivan's squad once again broke himself with some desperate FPF and is now looking very close to death.  On the far right an 8FP firegroup has proved utterly incapable of breaking a single squad in a foxhole.  I'm going to give them one more turn then its time for some summary execution.

On the left the paucity of attackers has prompted Ivan to thin out his defenders and pull them back to the village.  The inability of my mortar and squad back there to take out a single halfsquad is at least partly to blame for this.  His surviving halftrack has also moved around no doubt to beat me up if I manage to approach the buildings.

End of Turn 3.  I have two forces ready to hit him (I hope).  Note the sword waving 10-1 leader, by the end of turn 4 he will be a wounded 9-0 reduced to using his sword as a splint.  The DC is carried by an 8-0 come turn 4 he will be a bleeding 7+1, my officers certainly lead from the front if only briefly.

Finally things turned my way when my mortars broke his mmg unit,  I scampered a squad around behind them to prevent rout and almost looked silly when his hidden 37mm popped up and shot at them at point blank range.  Then for good measure he did it again.  I survived and slaughtered the crew in CC but it did give Ivan's squad an opportunity to rout at least a little distance away.  Still I'm not in a bad position now but I feel I'm about one turn late in getting there.  I have only three turns left to snatch some serious victory points, which means buildings, and I will need to take chances.  That means more opportunities for Ivan to kill me and build his own VPs.  Plus my slow limping leaders can do little except shout encouragement from the rear, banzai charges will be a little more difficult to arrange.  If the dice and the gods go my way I might get lucky.  If things play out in their usual fashion then when Ivan and I play the second half of this scenario in a couple of weeks I'll probably finish by beating myself to death with my computer keyboard.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Long Service

Yesterday, being at rather a loose end, I wandered up to Springwood Sports Club to see my parents being awarded long service medals for their thirty plus years service with Blaxland Bushfire Brigade.  Others were being similarly acknowledged but I was really only interested in my parents.

My family moved to Blaxland in the Blue Mountains over thirty years ago (most of us are still there) and my parents joined the local volunteer bushfire brigade more or less the next day.  My father had a Class C drivers licence which came in handy operating the war surplus, ex military vehicles the brigade was equipped with at the time.  Those vehicles were eventually replaced in the 1980s but my parents weren't.

For thirty six odd years my parents and their colleagues gave up their spare time for training, maintenance, hazard reduction, fund raising and occasionally (although not occasionally enough for those who love them) risking their lives fighting bushfires.  I can recall as a child occasions when my father would come home filthy and reeking of smoke (I do the same thing now but for much less salubrious reasons) or my mother would come in absolutely exhausted having spent the previous twelve hours organising and despatching fire crews and liaising with higher up the organisational chain for the allocation of scarce resources.

Now, in the function room of a modest local club and in the (very brief) presence of various politicians that service was acknowledged.  Acknowledged is the right word.  It isn't payment or reward, a medal is a small piece of coloured ribbon attached to an equally inconsequential lump of base metal.  But what it does say is that somebody noticed and thought such service was worth recognising.

The ceremony, rather ironically, took place while it poured with rain outside although this did limit the likelihood of proceedings being interrupted by an emergency call out.  Various politicians were in attendance including the local state and federal MPs.  The state MP made a speech in which she mentioned her adolescent son had been going off the rail but that becoming a member of the local bushfire brigade had helped to sort him out.  This is great news for him, her, the brigade and society at large but it did rather give the impression that she thought the bushfire brigade was some sort of community outreach program.  The federal MP gave a speech of such rambling incoherence that I still have no idea what she was talking about.

Neither of them stuck around for the actual presentation.  They gave their speeches and then left.  Personally I think they could have showed more respect by either staying to the end or not turning up at all.  The local mayor did stay to the end but then he's a volunteer firefighter.

With the politicians out of the way and escorted safely off the premises the actual presentation could commence.  This was undertaken with just enough glitches to show that most of those involved actually only did this in their spare time in between their jobs and their lives.  Below is a photograph of my parents.  I'm terribly proud of both of them.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Birthday Greetings #53

Happy birthday to Otto, Holy Roman Emperor.  Here we go you think, another shout out to a second rate Habsburg more interested in composing funeral masses and marrying his niece than running an empire.  Sorry to disappoint but Otto was made of sterner stuff.  Otto was emperor at a time when the precursors of the Habsburgs were two bit counts of one of the less desirable parts of Switzerland.  He was the first Holy Roman Emperor for thirty eight years.

That last sentence might require a little explanation.  So here is a little explanation.  Charlemagne, a Frankish warlord conquered the crap out of most of western Europe (and made a pretty good start on eastern Europe as well) while simultaneously kissing up to the pope and providing him protection from his many enemies.  Popes were serious guys in those days rather than the Palpatine impersonators and tree hugging hippies we've been stuck with lately.  In return for blood spattered services rendered the pope at the time crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor a title which seems to have been made up on the spur of the moment.

Certainly if territorial extent and maniacal conquest were the qualifications then nobody has been bettered qualified than Charlemagne.  Of course when he died he passed the imperial title down to one of his sons.  Unfortunately the Franks had a policy of dividing their territory up amongst their surviving sons, bastards and the occasional stranger who happened to be passing by at the time.  As a consequence the amount of territory actually controlled by the emperors tended to diminish with each generation.

By the time Otto's father came along the Carolingian inheritance was in somewhat shabby condition.  Charlemagne's empire had been chopped up into West Francia (more or less a France-ish sort of thing), East Francia (inaccurately but conveniently analogous to Germany), Burgundy (which isn't really very near Burgundy) and Italy.  The "emperor" was some pissant Italian princeling who could barely command the attention of the people in the same room as him and when the last of these died nobody bothered replacing him.

Otto's father was a Saxon, indeed he was Duke of Saxony and he must have impressed the previous King of East Francia because on his death bed that fellow persuaded his brother and heir to stand aside and appoint the Duke of Saxony as King.  Suddenly a German was ruling Germany.

Although "ruling" is not perhaps quite the right word.  Each of the mighty dukes of the realm was pretty much independent and Otto's father (his name was Henry) largely saw himself as a "first among equals" which is pretty much how the others regarded him (perhaps with a little less emphasis on the word "first").  This attitude helps to explain why Henry died of natural causes.

All that changed when Otto took the throne.  He was determined to rule and determined that the over mighty dukes would bend the knee to him.  Eventually they did.  Between his coronation and that happy event was quite a lot of bloodshed.  Otto's epithet "the Great" should give you a clue.  They didn't hand that title out because a ruler was kind to his mother and good with children.  The term "the Great" is shorthand for "anybody who might disagree with my possessing this epithet is already dead because I killed them; now, do we have a problem?"

Of course maniacal bloodshed was only part of Otto's policy.  There was also marrying his relatives into the families of said dukes and waiting for them to die.  Sometimes he helped the process along.  Something else he did was foster the use of lowborn men of talent as administrators.  The nobility weren't happy as they traditionally held those jobs themselves but Otto's policy brought a vast improvement in the quality of service, and also loyalty.  Since the entire nobility hated these lowborn jacks in office only the fact that Otto was alive and on the throne kept breath in their bodies.  As such they had a strong incentive to remain loyal.  By the end of his reign Otto had cemented his authority over the lords of Germany.  Oh yes and Italy.  He was the first German king of Italy and if he had been the last Germany would probably be better thought of in Italy today.

Italy was a bit of a mess at the time.  A statement which it occurs to me could have been made at any time since 476AD with complete accuracy.  Still even by the standards of Italy things were a bit rough.  The Kingdom of Italy had splintered into various squabbling principalities ruled by people who spent most of their life fighting, plotting, murdering and betraying each other.  It was rather like an extended season of Dallas with the added advantage of not being set in Texas.

In 950AD the current ruler of some bits of Italy attempted to shore up his rather precarious position by forcing one Adelaide (who was the surviving heir of someone who could claim to have legitimately ruled Italy if you didn't look too closely) into marrying his son.  Appalled at the prospect Adelaide cast about for the most dangerous thug she could find and offered to marry him instead.  Said thug was our boy Otto who married Adelaide (his first wife having conveniently died) and took the crown of Italy.

It wasn't that easy of course.  Otto had duties north of the Alps and he left Italy in charge of his son.  Said son had very few troops and pretty soon the murderous thug (not Otto, the other one) that Adelaide had been trying to avoid raised a powerful following.  Between a rock and a hard place the son (whose name was Luidolf) came to an arrangement whereby this character was acknowledged as king of Italy under Otto's suzerainty.  To say Otto was unimpressed was an understatement.  He cut his son dead (figuratively for a change) when the poor lad reported what he had done.  This prompted Luidolf to rise in revolt (with some assistance from not entirely subdued German dukes).  The fighting was drawn out but Otto won in the end and then stomped into Italy smacked the incumbent about the head, resumed direct control of the kingdom and, almost as an afterthought, got himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor.  Then he left again whereupon the son of the guy he removed rose in revolt so Otto had to come back again.  This time he stayed for several years and made damn sure the Italians wouldn't revolt again (for a while).

Looking at Otto's career it seems that he spent much of his time fighting to remain in control of places he nominally already ruled.  It appears to be a tedious litany of revolts, insurrections, treachery, betrayal and sedition.  Indeed it is but the point is Otto won, each time.  Eventually people stopped rebelling if only out of exhaustion.  A strong ruler was on the throne and he was taking no shit.  Along the way he married his son and heir to the daughter of the Byzantine emperor thus holding out the possibility of a union of the two "Roman" empires into a true continent wide state.  That didn't quite come off but it was a bit of a diplomatic coup at the time.

When he wasn't fighting his subjects Otto was fighting someone else.  For the last couple of generations Germany had suffered from an acute attack of Magyars.  Several acute attacks to be precise.  They poured out of their Hungarian homeland (which they stole from someone else but, whatever) on vast raiding expeditions which laid waste to the eastern portions of Germany (and Bohemia, Italy and everywhere else they could reach as well).  The German military response had been patchy at best.  There were occasional victories but basically the Magyars cleaned house.  Things hadn't been helped by the predilection of Germany's dukes (and thus military leaders) to spend at least as much time revolting as they did defending Germany. 

Again Otto changed the paradigm.  With his imperial title fresh upon him he gathered together his own forces, those of his dukes and forces from Bohemia as well and despite being outnumbered two to one smashed the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld.  This nailed down his legitimacy.  The King of East Francia and Holy Roman Emperor had led the forces of Christianity to a crushing victory over the infidels.  Things weren't entirely plain sailing of course but from this point on no one seriously disputed Otto's right to rule.

Strangely when you consider his career Otto followed in his father's footsteps by dying of natural causes at the age of 60.  It is a measure of his success that when his seventeen year old son inherited the throne absolutely no one seriously disputed it.  For the time and place Otto really was Great.  We shall not look upon his kind again, with any luck.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Travelling Fearfully

An expedition such as the one I planned was not to be taken lightly.  History hasn't bothered to record the names of those who failed.  They fell unnoticed and their bones now bleach under a hostile sun.  More than once I had turned back at the very start, fear, or perhaps wisdom, driving me back to my home.

This time, however, I was determined.  I had put my affairs in order, dressed in dull, hard wearing clothing and dug out my father's old service revolver.  It would be of no use against the hazards I must face but in the final extremity the single round loaded into the chamber could be my last and dearest friend.

Thus equipped I set forth.  Before I was ready the bridge stretched before me and my courage almost failed me.  Nobody still living remembers when the bridge was built or why.  We only know to guard it.  The soldiers were tense, nervous, weapons at the ready.  They didn't try and stop me as I placed one foot on the bridge, suicide prevention isn't part of their duties.

My god the bridge seemed narrow, a thin ribbon stretched across the fetid, deadly river that separated our lands from, the other.  No rushing, foam flecked cascade this.  It was a thick, hateful ooze, dark and malevolent.  Touch not one drop the old tales warned us.  Drink nothing, eat nothing caught and don't stare too long into its dark turgid depths.  If you do you may see the souls of those who disobeyed these strictures staring back at you screaming eternally and futilely for release.

I hurried across the bridge as swiftly as I dared, praying the aging structure wouldn't abruptly collapse and carry me to my doom in the gangrenous flow beneath.  Once across, before I could change my mind, I turned my back on home and set forth.  If my heart hammered in my chest I tried not to let it show on my face.  The lairs of those who inhabited this fell place were all around me and the smell of fear was sweet to their nostrils. 

The very weather spat at me, flecks of rain from a cloudless sky.  Heat and cold followed each other with apparently no interest in the natural passing of seasons.  Around me the ugly lumps of rock that housed the grim residents pressed on me with a relentless force.  Temples to strange gods glared at me as I passed, blank stone radiating hate.  I hoped their priests needed no sacrifice today.

The hillside rose before me, I needed to climb, descend and climb again before I could reach my goal.  I struck out trusting, of necessity, to a map that owed as much to imagination as cartography.  I trusted too readily, I was lost in a maze of hateful dwellings twisting and reaching to snag the unwary.  I dared not go back, I was running on bluff.  Retreat would show uncertainty and uncertainty would be death.  Trying not to show my desperation I struck uphill roughly towards my goal in the hopes that I could once again encounter the faint trace of a path that my map boldly presented as a road.

Upward I forged, gaining in confidence as the ridgetop neared.  Abruptly I stopped.  Sprawled in my path was one of the denizens of this dark realm.  A hulking form, blue and black its misshapen form knotted with muscle.  I froze but it made no move, dare I hope it was asleep?  With infinite caution I eased past and as I did so a lid peeled back from a single bloodshot, yellow eye.  For a minute it studied me with lazy hostility but then the lid rolled back.  Indolence had conquered hunger, for the moment.  Trying not to run, not to scream, not to sob I moved on towards the top of the ridge.

As I reached the summit a temple to death, openly worshipped in this mad place, rose proud and grim, the finest building I had yet seen.  Keeping my gaze averted I hastened along the ridge seeking the path down into the next valley that my fickle map had promised me.  A path?  A thin, twisting strand clinging to a hillside eager to be rid of it.  I made my way down with as much care as my jangled nerves permitted.  Blank rock rose on my right.  On the left?  A tangled mass of vegetation; grass, vines and trees writhing and knotting together in hate filled competition for the poisoned moisture in the corpse fed soil.

Unbidden a memory struck me like a blow.  Of two small children wandering lost and tearful amid this same hateful greenery with the grass itself reaching out to smother this young flicker of life.  Bathed in sweat and blinking away sudden tears I hurried on, desperate to put the place behind me.  I crossed a second bridge almost without being aware of it.  There was a stream at the bottom of this second valley.  There were no stories of it being poisonous or a prison for the souls of the long dead.  There were no stories about it at all.  I was desperate and chanced a drink.  It was thick, dark and warm but death didn't come.

For the first time since I started I allowed myself a sliver of hope.  More than half my journey was completed and surely it was the worse half.  Rejuvenated I moved forward, my path would have been accounted a road in this world  and I passed along swiftly enough never stopping to look at the dwellings that glowered down from above.  Ahead of me was more than a road, it was a thoroughfare thronging with a mass of warped, devilish beings.  Yet I must pass along it or wander helpless in the wildlands without even a path to provide comfort.

Alien eyes, some fierce, some sullen but all hostile bored into me as I strode down the thoroughfare with a confidence I was far from feeling.  Even as I left them behind I could hear the silent words those eyes shouted at me as I passed.
"This is our domain stranger," the eyes proclaimed.  "You are here on sufferance, a sufferance that can be rescinded at any time for any reason or no reason at all.  Be afraid!"

I was afraid but I walked on, my destination now beckoned and once there I could ignore those eyes and laugh at their threat.  I was so close in my mind's eye I had already arrived, then my map failed me completely.  Where it said there should be a path there was instead a wall of trees, bare limbed and twisted blocking my way.  Retreat wasn't an option, not with those hungry, hostile eyes behind me.  With despair filled bravado I plunged between the trees driving forward hard and defying the danger.  Reptilian things scuttled and slithered from my path as I forced my way forward.  Trees loomed up and I barely bothered to avoid them, slapping aside branches and vines as I passed.  Whether born of fear, despair or anger this burst of aggression carried me through and beyond the trees I found the house I sought.  The dark forces of this land withdrew more in surprise than defeat.

Before me was my destination and to greet me, dear friends.  What on earth possessed Morganne and Kate to move to Bexley?  I swear to god next time I'm going to take the bus.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Can I Just Like My Lawyer Instead?

Last Friday was "Love Your Lawyer Day" an event held annually on the first Friday in November.  I can't believe I missed the tickertape parades and the parties in the street.  Indeed it took a mention from my employers (not coincidentally lawyers) to inform me that the day actually existed.

Love Your Lawyer Day was inaugurated by the American Lawyers Public Image Association when they realised that everyone hated lawyers.  Since people have hated lawyers for centuries and the ALPIA only instituted the day in 2001 I think we may have some indication of what the problem is.

I must confess I have the same view of lawyers that I have of guns.  That is, lawyers don't kill people.  People who hire lawyers kill people.  Or something along those lines.  Of course in an ideal society we would have no requirement for either guns or lawyers (or police officers, sheriffs, county clerks, advocacy bodies, prison officers, judges, parking inspectors, ticket collectors, dog catchers, park rangers, soldiers, regulatory bodies or fair trading commissions).  In fact I think one of the principal hallmarks of utopia will be mass unemployment.

But back to lawyers.  It's a little sad when an organisation has to arrange its own celebration.  So I thought I would help out by highlighting in my own modest (and wildly inaccurate way) a lawyer to be proud of.  I have to go back a fair way of course.  To the thirteenth century to be precise.  Step forward please Saint Ivo of Kermartin. 

Ivo was a lawyer and a churchman plus a member of the minor gentry or the French equivalent.  He studied civil law at the University of Paris and subsequently studied canon law at Orleans.  Appointed as an ecclesiastical judge he gained such a reputation for impartiality and integrity that the poor loved him even when he decided against them and the powerful disliked him even when he decided for them.  He was famous for not accepting bribes and for encouraging out of court settlements despite the reduction in income for lawyers this caused.

In addition to his job he provided, free civil and ecclesiastic legal advice to those who could not afford it and represented the poor in both courts and gained a reputation as a champion of the poor.  Actually he was a champion of the law it was just that the poor were so used to being screwed over that when someone came along who stopped that they thought he was on their side.

Ivo was canonised (and back in the days when that actually meant something, not in batches of a hundred like they seem to do nowadays) and has been made the patron saint of lawyers and the legal profession.  He's also the patron saint of abandoned children although I'm not entirely sure where that comes from.

Across Ivo's tomb is written (in Latin) "Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.  To the astonishment of the people."

So, love your lawyer, give them a hug.  Encourage them in their profession and in their good deeds.  Given the correct encouragement it isn't completely beyond the bounds of possibility that one day the legal profession may throw up another person like Ivo of Kermartin. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Another Silly After Action Report

On the 1st of September 1939 with a bellow of tank engines, a thunder of artillery and a howl of air sirens Germany invaded Poland in what must rate as one of the noisiest acts of naked aggression thus seen.  Much less well known to history is that at the same time Slovakia was conducting its own modest and understated invasion of Poland or at least those bits of Poland most convenient to Slovakia.

In keeping with the polite reticence which marked their entire war (it would be a little unfair to add the word "effort:") the Slovaks have never demanded that the history books give their invasion of Poland more publicity.  Indeed it is unknown how many Poles at the time were actually aware of the Slovak attack as their attention was pretty much occupied with one and a half million Germans noisily dranging nach Osten across their country in wilful disregard of the no trespassing signs.

Some Poles did notice though.  Specifically those Poles in the immediate vicinity who found their retreat path blocked by elements of the Slovakian army conducting one of the most tentative conquests on record.  Eager to get on with the real job of fighting the Germans the Poles grabbed some nearby artillery and attempted to sweep the Slovaks aside.  This is ASL Scenario AP112, First Ally which sees some thirteen Polish squads supported by some (as it turned out very unreliable) artillery attacking nine Slovakian squads with mediocre leadership and a couple of machine guns.  Ivan Kent commanded the Poles and I took over direction of the Nazi lickspittles, sorry Slovakians.

The Poles had to set up in the hills to the north and west while the Slovaks were obliged to set up in buildings.  To win the Poles had to occupy all of the multihex buildings on the playing area most of which you see above although there is another lurking to the south.

A glance at the map shows my problem.  There are quite a few multihex buildings and I don't really have that many squads to hold them.  Trying to defend all of them would leave me weak everywhere while concentrating on a few would hand the rest over to Ivan and allow him to concentrate his forces against my undergunned troops.  Plus the Polish artillery could easily massacre any large congregation.  I decided on a compromise.  The hill in the foreground would be my defensive position.  I placed a squad and a half of expendables in the buildings to the north so that Ivan had to allocate some troops to their capture and the remainder garrisoned the hill.  The squad in the building on the right wasn't expected to last long but I hoped it might deter a flanking attack.  The stone buildings would be my main line of defence.  Here I would attempt to delay Ivan for several turns while a squad or two slipped south to garrison the buildings just out of shot.  Hopefully by the time he worked his way through the hill defences he would be too short of time for the final push.  I placed a half squad with my sole medium machine gun on the second level of the rearward building with another squad to protect it.  I envisioned this as a bastion.  For the rest I was planning a fall back defence.

Ivan set his troops up in two main forces.  Fearing neither my non existent artillery or my feeble firepower he gathered his troops in two powerful groups.  In the south west a group of four squads were lined up for a direct assault on my "bastion" while to the north a kill stack of two squads and two medium machine guns was positioned to sweep the battlefield.  A few squads were detailed to clear out my delaying troops in the north and the remainder nestled in the woods to the east (right) obviously planning to challenge my flank guard.  His spotting officer with the radio sat on a hill gazing down while fingering his radio eagerly.

Unfortunately he must have fingered it too hard because Ivan managed to draw two red chits on his first two attempts at battery access.  So much for the artillery, the Poles would have to do it by hand.

With his bad luck safely out of the way on battery access roles Ivan got down to the serious business of destroying my hopes and dreams.  A rate tear from his kill stack slaughtered my mmg crew before they could fire a shot.  His flankers darted forward tempting fate, one half squad died but the rest crowded up towards my position.  In the southwest my "bastion" had been crippled.  Prep fire from one stack had pinned the flank guard and the remaining squads scooted past him and up the hill.  Up in the north I retreated as he advanced, hoping to keep a sort of "fleet in being" situation happening.  This was without a doubt the most successful thing I did all game.

Turn two brought me to the edge of despair.  Ivan drove into my bastion, killing the defending squad while his flankers destroyed my flank squad and seized that building too.  A squad with a light machine gun that I moved across to help guard the flank fired at everything that moved with no result and was routed in its turn.  Suddenly both flanks had caved in and I had done no real damage to him at all.  His most significant loss was the failure of his artillery for which I could take no credit at all.  Things were so bad that I indicated to Ivan that I was prepared to concede.  I would play out this turn and then down tools.

The end of turn two saw a brief renaissance in my fortunes.  I had scuttled a squad down to the rear most building and Ivan thinking my bastion conquered had moved a couple of his squads away allowing one of mine to sneak back in.  This delayed him for the remainder of the game as he had to reconquer the building.
Up in the north my half squad had died but his squad buddy had survived and was about to show his metal.  No, I haven't misspelled that.

Ivan was still oozing around my right flank but with a battle raging for the bastion (and my leader picked up the mmg and started firing it on his own) and the centre untouched things looked a little hopeful.  Things looked even better when in the north he advanced a squad into close combat to be ambushed and slaughtered by my troops there.

The next few turns saw swings of fortune, Ivan's kill stack broke another squad which fled yelping to the rear.  He ground his way slowly through the centre buildings but I still held the rear building and (part of) the bastion while in the north his one remaining squad was tied down in close combat for three long turns.  So concerned was Ivan about this that he diverted a squad and a half to reinforce the melee which eventually decided it in his favour but as a delaying action it had served its purpose magnificently.

The aftermath, only Poles are left on the battlefield and most of Ivan's troops have wound up in the bastion.

Finally it all came down to the bastion.  Ivan swooped through the woods and took out the rear building (assisted by the fact that my poor firepower was making it very hard to hurt him) but the bastion battle raged on.  At one point we had managed to encircle each other on various levels of the building as we shuffled our forces around.  Ivan was trying to build up the firepower to completely wipe me out whereas I was doing my best to stay out of harms way.  It couldn't last though.  It took until the final turn but Ivan eventually put together the firepower to crush me utterly.  Not one single unit of mine survived the battle.

So kudos to Ivan for a well constructed victory and some slight cheer for me at recovering from an almost impossible situation on the second turn.  This seems to me to be a little hard on the Slovaks, I can't imagine what might have happened if Ivan's artillery had been in play to shoot him forward.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Birthday Greetings# 52

Happy birthday to Constans II Pogonatos, Byzantine emperor.  The term "pogonatos" apparently means "bearded" although since Constans became emperor at the age of eleven it was probably applied a little later.

There are times when its good to be emperor, when the people are subservient, the land is at peace and the tax dollars are just flowing in.  Then its party time in the imperial palace.  There are other times when it isn't so good to be emperor.  When the people are surly (or outright revolting), your predecessor left you a war which is going really badly and such tax revenue as you can extort has to be pumped straight into what's left of your army.  The reign of Constans was pretty much an ongoing example of option B.

Inspired by the then shiny and new religion of Islam the population of Arabia had exploded out of the desert sands and had overrun about a third of the empire smashing up a goodly proportion of the imperial military in doing so.  When one considers the size and power of the empire it seems a little unbelievable that a bunch of camel happy tribesmen could cause them so much trouble but the truth was all was not well with the empire Constans inherited.  A decades long war with Persia had left the army exhausted and the nation close to bankrupt but the issue went deeper than that.

Islam was not the first religion to cause trouble for the empire.  Christianity engendered an amazing amount of strife as well and since it was the official religion of the empire there was no getting away from it.  At the time the biggest sticking point was the dual nature of Christ.  Such as, did he have one (or do I mean two?).  The argument in favour went something like this; Christ was God and as such naturally had a divine nature.  But Christ was also Man deliberately designed be by God and as such he must have had a human nature as well.  This was important because the whole point of Christianity was that Christ suffered crucifixion, torment and death to absolve the world from sin.  However if his nature was solely divine it rather cheapened the sacrifice as a purely divine being could take as much or as little torment as it pleased.  The human nature was the part that suffered and that suffering was deep and genuine, hence the importance of the sacrifice.

Opponents of this view weren't really trying the cheapen the sacrifice of Christ, they just had a bit of difficulty acknowledging that at one point the being they worshipped pissed its nappies and wailed for its mother's breast milk.  If you were Byzantine this difference of opinion was certainly worth killing for and many people found it worth dying for.  The result was that the empire had been in a state of low grade religious civil war for decades.  As it happened the bulk of the dual nature believers were to be found in the western parts of the empire (including the capital) and the bulk of the single nature believers were found in the east and were just about to be overrun by Arabs.

The second problem was taxes.  Byzantium presented an image of being a glittering, sophisticated, highly advanced (for the time and place) civilisation and that was true.  However this civilisation was a thin veneer overlaid on top of a largely subsistence level economic base.  The only way the civilisation, and the army that protected it, could be paid for was by taxing the crap out of people who considered it a good year if they produced enough to eat.  The result was when the Arabs turned up they encountered an overtaxed, desperate population, religiously estranged from its political masters and deeply distrustful of the army supposedly protecting it due to the fact that its principal role was to ensure the taxes were paid.  Perhaps not surprisingly the armies of the Caliphate went through the eastern provinces of the empire like a knife through butter.

It is at this point that our boy Constans appears on the scene.  He was co-emperor with his uncle.  His uncle was widely suspected of murdering his father.  With the help of the army the eleven year old Constans had his uncle's nose slit and his aunt's tongue cut out and then settled down to rule with the aid of a regency council.  Eleven year olds, no matter how proactive they are in the field of relative mutilation, should not be allowed to rule by themselves.

For a while it didn't seem to matter as the Arabs were advancing through Armenia and eastern Anatolia.  At this rate there might not be an empire left to worry about.  Still Constans clung on for a few years and finally managed to sign at least a temporary peace which enabled him to keep what was left.  This was good as the Arabs had in the meantime discovered the ocean and were enthusiastically experimenting with piracy.  Constans mustered a massive fleet to drive them off but suffered a spectacular defeat which wound up with him swimming for his life.

Fortunately just when things looked at their worst the Arabs engaged in their own civil war and Constans was able to snatch back some territory from his now distracted opponents.  With that modest win under his belt he marched west into the Balkans.  The Balkans were technically imperial territory but had been pretty much completely overrun by Slavs.  Constans won a couple of victories and in an early example of ethnic cleansing transferred large numbers of Slavic captives to Anatolia to help make up some of the shortfall in his own population base.

Now sporting an impressive beard and with some sort of a record of success Constans decided to settle the religious situation.  Despite the Arab conquest of Syria, Palestine and Egypt there were still enough single nature followers in the empire to cause trouble.  Constans made a ringing appeal to his people.  The gist of his argument was "Look, failing an official statement from God nobody is going to know whether Christ had two natures or not so why don't we just put the entire thing aside.  We'll find out after we're dead and in the meantime how about a little Christian charity".  This ringing appeal to Christian unity had its effect.  Christians of both factions were united in rejecting the suggestion utterly.  Things weren't helped when Pope Martin over in Rome condemned Constans's attempts at peace making.

Constans reacted in a sensible way.  He had the pope kidnapped, condemned as a criminal and sent into exile on the Black Sea where he died. Strangely this didn't improve his relations with members of either faction.  Things got even worse after he murdered his brother.  Constans suspected he might have been making a bid for the throne although why he would want it is anyone's guess.  Constans tossed him in a monastery and, apparently deciding that wasn't permanent enough, had him killed. 

By this time Constans was cheerfully hated by the bulk of the population for any number of pretty good reasons.  The only people he hadn't mortally pissed off were the inhabitants of Italy, so he went there.  The empire ruled two large chunks of Italy, one based around Ravenna in the north east and the other around Sicily and Bari in the south.  Constans turned up in Syracuse, and then visited Rome where he promptly stripped all of the bronze and copper decorations from the public buildings to help pay for his army.  Said army got itself beaten in a couple of battles against the people running the bit of Italy in between the two Byzantine chunks and Constans retired back to Syracuse muttering to himself.

Constans apparently wanted to make Syracuse the capital of the empire.  He was tired of Constantinople where everybody had hated him for years and apparently wanted to set up shop in a place where the people had only hated him for a few months.  Before anything definite could be done about this proposal however one of his counsellors bludgeoned him to death in the bath with a soap dish.  We're still not entirely sure why.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wear Your Ribbons Proudly

Last Friday I and an assorted selection of colleagues trotted down to the Intercontinental Hotel for the firms All Ribbon Breakfast.  What is an all ribbon breakfast?  Well you know how apparently nowadays one can't have any sort of charitable endeavour without a coloured ribbon to go with it?  This was a breakfast to support charities of various ribbon denominations.  Seriously, there were more ribbons than on a war veterans chest.

My firm, in one of its more noble activities, has held an annual pink ribbon breakfast for the past few years.  This year the net had apparently been widened.  A whole raft of charities were represented and employees of the firm who either possessed an altruistic bent or were not adverse to a free meal at the firm's expense turned up to support/take advantage of it.  Each table represented a different charity and we were encouraged to come up with decorative centre pieces for our tables to emphasise our deep and passionate commitment to whatever cause we had wound up inadvertently supporting.

The table I and my colleagues were seated at was allocated to the Australian Conservation Foundation.  We had riots of artificial greenery and small stuffed animals (largely made out plastic I was amused to note).  I think if fake ferns and stuffed koalas were on the endangered list we must surely have lifted them off it by now.

Speeches were given by representatives of some of the charities involved, the ongoing help of the firm and its employees was acknowledged and thanked and future directions (and of course the desire for money to pursue them) were outlined.  I can't say I was paying a great deal of attention, I spent most of the breakfast surreptitiously reading a blog dedicated to the wit and wisdom of General Sir Harry Flashman, VC.  I tried not to giggle at what appeared to be serious moments.

The old general would have had some sulphurous things to say about the entire affair but then he wasn't noted for his altruism.  He was, however, able to sniff out bullshit at a hundred yards.  Most of the causes present were worthy enough and certainly deserve support from people willing and able to provide it.  Those people are the taxpayers of Australia who will ultimately foot the bill for any generosity that might be displayed as a result of the breakfast.  I donate to a couple of the charities noted.  My firm has a donation system set up which allows funds to be taken directly from my pay which is handy.  They appear on my group certificate to be offset against my tax which is also handy.

Possibly the most useful thing that such workplace giving does is to distribute what would otherwise be tax dollars to various charities without having to set up a government department to administer it.  For this alone it deserves praise.  It is also a handy way of bringing various deserving causes to the minds of people who might have otherwise overlooked them due to not giving a crap.  There were charities mentioned I had never heard of but there they all were sporting enough ribbons to make them look like survivors of Iwo Jima.  There was even one I will be making (tax deductible) donations to in the future.

Such events are necessary if only to bring people likely to give into the presence of those in need.  Intellectually I know this and my firm's support of these charities probably has kick on effects further than I can see.  This is how the world works and such networking is invaluable to those charities who are trying to help people in genuine need.  And yet a small part of me wishes that the firm had calculated the entire cost of the breakfast and all the associated expenses and simply made a donation for that amount to one of the charities, anonymously.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Pontius Pilates

I've taken up pilates.  Well, that's a rather bold statement seeing as how I've only done it twice so far.  "Taken up" indicates more of an investment than I really think my achievement to date justifies.  For those who don't know pilates is a sort of exercise thingy.  I don't really know a better way to describe it than that.  It seems to consist of balancing yourself on one of your four appendages (usually, although not exclusively, a foot) while simultaneously flailing the other three appendages around very slowly, preferably with your eyes closed.

Oh yes, and then there's the breathing.  Breathing is very important to pilates.  I think I can go so far as to say if you can't breathe then you can't do pilates.  Breathing is something I can normally manage to do very well.  The problem emerges when somebody continuously reminds me to breathe while I'm simultaneously undergoing what looks like a slow motion epileptic seizure.  Then I find that I can't breathe at all.  Until I do but not at the right time.  I've discovered that I can either focus on breathing or focus on exercise but doing both simultaneously is a little beyond me.

Nevertheless I do my best, which fortunately isn't too much more difficult than doing my worst.  I breathe (or not) at the wrong times and fall over while attempting to extend my toes to the wall, my right hand to the ceiling and my left hand to Mecca or something similar.  This position is called the frenetic lamprey or possibly the hyperactive wombat.  At some point someone decided it would be fun to give silly names to all the various bodily contortions we are called upon to do.

I think a fair few of these names were pinched from yoga which also gives silly names to its activities.  This is permissible in yoga seeing as how it seems to be an exercise routine for half starved people in poor parts of the world who are probably lightheaded from hunger and suffering.  Pilates doesn't have this excuse being very thoroughly an invention of the western world.  With its emphasis on control, coordination and breathing at precisely the right moment you probably won't be surprised to learn it was invented by a German.  He called it contrology but subsequent people possibly concerned with such an Orwellian sounding title decided to name it after him.  Unfortunately his name was Joseph Pilates.

It's marginally better than contrology I suppose if only because it has less of a "ve have vays of making you exercise" vibe about it.  Further it sounds silly enough to have been imported from the Orient or one of those other places that demonstrate how enlightened and culturally sophisticated they are by living short wretched lives of deprivation alleviated only by philosophies that tell them, essentially, how to lead short wretched lives of deprivation.  Still as names go I suppose pilates isn't the worst they could have come up with.  You'd look like an absolute idiot turning up with a rolled up mat to take a class of joseph..