Monday, July 27, 2015

Fancy Food, Fancy That

I blame the unusual proliferation of cooking shows.  There was a time when there was food, we cooked it and then we ate it and that was pretty much the end of our involvement.  Now, apparently we have to get creative.  We have to develop "new takes" on traditional food.  Usually this consists of taking some traditional ingredients, adding a whole bunch of new ingredients and then attempting to persuade the people we have inflicted these on that they are eating something traditional.

Which is why when I trotted along to the canteen that my employers helpfully provide in the hopes of preventing their employees from leaving the building at lunchtime the "bangers and mash" on offer were slightly unusual.  There were indeed bangers, there was indeed mash and to top it all off there was onion gravy.  Simple, traditional and, let's face it, not too exciting fare.  But wait; these were pork and fennel sausages.  How new and exciting.  How deeply interesting.  How in the hell did anyone come up with that? 

At what point precisely did somebody sit down and think that what the world really needed was a licorice flavoured sausage?  Would anybody attempt to market sausage flavoured licorice?  Well, probably yes.  If not now then eventually.

I actually like fennel.  I like sniffing it and bruising fresh sprigs of it between my teeth.  Allowing it's flavour to permeate a sausage however does make me think that the people involved in food preparation nowadays simply have too much time on their hands.

Despite my English heritage (thanks Dad) I am not one of those who thinks that non-bland food is an offence against Christ.  I am also prepared to accept that in the course of experimentation there are going to be a number of cockups along the way.  What I don't understand is why these cockups must then be foisted upon the unsuspecting public with the strong implication that if we don't like them there must be something wrong with us.  There is a hint of the emperors new clothes about the entire situation.  Everybody is so awestruck at sitting down to a wonderful dinner produced by a first class chef that nobody has the nerve to point out that the food tastes like crap.

It has been pointed out to me that I have a dreadful palate.  That I tend to like simple foods with an emphasis on meat and gravy and perhaps less interest in the wonders of the vegetable kingdom.  Do vegetables have a kingdom?  Animals have a kingdom but I strongly suspect that vegetables would have a people's republic but I digress.  As I said it has been pointed out to me that I do not have an adventurous palate.  This is true insofar as I won't eat absolutely anything simply for the novelty value of eating it, nor do I necessarily find virtue in blending together a dozen ingredients that have never been blended before just because they haven't been so blended before.  I have, however in the course of a life that isn't over yet eaten beef, chicken, buffalo, deer, goat, duck, kangaroo, sheep, crocodile, wild boar, quail, octopus and numerous things I couldn't quite identify but were, on balance of probability, animals of some sort.  Most of the preceding came accompanied by vegetables some of which I also ate.  I also like salt and vinegar crisps in icecream.  In short I do not think I am particularly precious in my dietary requirements (apart of course from a refusal to eat sea dwelling animals, the octopus was a rare and not repeated exception).

Despite the catholicity of my eating tastes I refuse to believe that licorice flavoured sausages are a good idea.  And while we're making fancy sausages can we focus less on the putting of new things into them and a little more on removing the bits of gristle currently present.  Let us leave the licorice flavour to things like ouzo and sambucca both of which I also detest but which I am unlikely to inadvertently order for lunch.  Let us realise that there is only so much we can do to a dead animal before it ceases to be cooking and simply becomes mutilating a corpse.  And on that note. Bon appetite.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Lumpier the Head the Better

In keeping with my recent blog entry on cupping I have turned my eye to another piece of idiot barbarism masquerading as medicine, specifically; phrenology.  Phrenology is one of those things that managed to sound so sensible at the time that it was quite a while before anyone realised how utterly stupid it was.  Similarly the sensible sounding bits (once stripped of the associated rubbish) proved to be an important step forward in understanding brain function.

Phrenology posits that various mental and personality attributes were controlled by different parts of the brain.  This was quite a forward thinking attitude at the time and an important step forward in the understanding of how the brain operates.  Unfortunately for the reputation of its practitioners phrenology didn't stop there.  It claimed that the various parts of the brain that were most used would naturally enlarge and that those least used would diminish, it further claimed that the skull fitted the brain like a glove moulding itself to every little irregularity.  Thus a person's personality could be determined by an (appropriately trained) practitioner running their fingers over the scalp and feeling for the little bumps (enhanced brain activity) and depressions (less brain activity) that would indicate what the brain was getting up to underneath.

At this point you can be forgiven for thinking that nobody had ever taken off the top of a human skull to see what things looked like underneath but this isn't true as we know that trepanning had been around for millennia before anybody tried phrenology.  Still if human history has proved anything it is that an idea doesn't have to make sense for people to adopt it.  For several decades in the nineteenth  century phrenology was quite the thing and was used to justify (among other things) racism and attempts to rehabilitate criminals.

Of course it couldn't last.  Eventually scientifically minded men took time out from feeling the head bumps of criminals and slaves to realise that what they were doing was complete rubbish although not before amassing an impressive collection of human skulls.  Strangely if you cut the head off a warrior in battle and take it as proof of your prowess that means you're a savage (and phrenology would no doubt prove it) but if you hack the head off a corpse that you didn't even meet in life and then start fondling the head bumps apparently you're a scientist (or possibly a necrophiliac).

Nowadays, in this enlightened age phrenology has been put where it belongs;  in alternative medicine clinics, fifth rate horror movies and shops that cater to people who may live in the real world but aren't particularly crazy about it.  This last is where I encountered phrenology.  In a hippy shop in Springwood I ran across a bust (not actually a skull which seems a bit of a ripoff) that had all of the various different "regions" of the brain mapped out on it so that an amateur phrenologist could make his diagnosis. 

The hippy shop was typical of the breed, it sold soap, beads, incense, little porcelain froggy things that even a real frog wouldn't want, brightly coloured but not particularly good crockery and clothing that was so natural it was practically fraying as you watched.  Plus a whole lot of imported crap from China and phrenology busts.  I'm hoping they were being sold as curiosities and not as a careers advice tool for children.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Another Silly After Action Report

There is a time for heroism and a time for cowardice.  Part of the secret to being a successful soldier (ie, one who comes home alive) is picking which option to choose at any given moment.  The Italian army in the Second World War proved remarkably bad at picking.  While cheerful mass surrenders did preserve a lot of soldiers lives they interspersed this with occasional fits of heroism, generally at the most inappropriate moments.

As 1942 lurched shivering into 1943 the Italian Alpine Corps were doing their own shivering and lurching stuck out on the Russian steppe while the Soviets attempted to smash through their lines and encircle Stalingrad.  The alpini defended their positions ferociously, throwing back attack after attack.  Unfortunately the troops on either side of them folded like wet cardboard so the principal result of the alpini's courage was to find themselves stuck 200km behind the new Soviet front line with their rear areas infested with cavalry, tanks, soldiers and machine guns mounted on sleds pulled by horses.

Having finally decided that death on the move was slightly preferable to death in place what was left of the alpini gathered themselves together and struck out on foot in the general direction of Rome.  Leading this cavalcade of misery was the still more or less combatworthy "Tridentina" division.  Following them was a ragtag shambles of rear area troops, survivors from shattered formations and general refugees.  Bringing up the rear were the battered remnants of the "Julia" and "Cuneense" divisions.

The Italians were short on food, ammunition, transport and hope.  As they struggled through a frozen, Soviet infested wasteland it soon became evident that something else they were short of was adequate communications and a sense of direction.  For this reason when the vanguard, spearheaded by the Tridentina went one way the Cuneense bringing up the rear went another and found themselves isolated and up to their waists in snow while the pursuing (and ambushing, because the Italians were effectively surrounded) Soviets gathered for the kill.

This then is ASL Scenario AP25, The Last Day of the Cuneense.  Here I shall command what is left of the Cuneeense division (fourteen elite squads, some pretty impressive officers and a handful of support weapons with scanty ammunition) as they attempt to flounder their way to safety.  Ivan Kent will take command of the pursuing Soviets.  Ivan has ten pursuing squads (most of them elite) a couple of officers and one of the aforementioned horse drawn machine gun sleds.  We both enter on the same edge of the board, the Italians a half turn earlier than the Soviets.

The Italian objective is simple, they enter from the east and have to exit off the west.  Twelve victory points worth of troops (equivalent of six squads) have to make it off, at least one of them has to be an officer.  In addition to the pursuers Ivan gets another seven squads of reinforcements coming in on the flanks in turn three and the option of bringing another three squads on from the west on turn five.  There are also a pair of partisan squads hidden somewhere on the map waiting for the Italians to pass by.  The Italians have to simultaneously run for the exit while leaving behind enough to slow down pursuit, guard the flanks against reinforcements and push through anything in front.  Not surprisingly the game is considered somewhat unbalanced in favour of the Soviets so we played it with the Italian balance, removing one of the hidden partisans.  It wasn't enough.

My guys are fleeing (far too slowly) for the top of the map while Ivan's troops prepare to spoil their day

I eyed up the board, the centre had a village which seemed to be a good home for partisans and would cost time to struggle through.  The right had a ghastly amount of open ground to cross.  I opted to make my push on the left centre.  My designated exit force (fourteen points worth to allow for casualties) would move up between the village and the woods on the left.  Far to the left a squad with a leader and an mmg would climb a hill and act as rearguard.  In the centre another pair of disposable squads (one with an lmg) would act as another pursuit discourager while on the right a pair of squads and a mortar would move up that flank.  The plan being to possibly split his defences but also give me a chance of getting something off if the main force got stopped.

The first turn or two went rather well for me.  My escape force ploughed slowly through the snow heading for the exit while my delaying force snuggled into the buildings.  Ivan came on right behind me with the exception of the machine gun sled which turned up on the right side of the board, slid slowly towards my right flankers and was promptly shot to bits with small arms fire.  Things got even better when my delaying force broke one squad and killed another outright.

The next turn went much the same, my forces inched forward through the deep snow and his forces inched up behind me.  The lack of available cover slowed my forces to a crawl, even more than the snow itself.  My main force was now involved in a running battle while in the centre my delaying force was beating off everything that came near and my guys on the far right had an open path but a lot of territory to cover.  Ivan's pursuit took another setback when he gained a morale check on a laggardly squad resulting in a heat of battle and that rarest of all sights, the berserk Italian.  While the rest of my guys tried to escape this group of heroes charged back the way they came seeking blood.  Blood there was in plenty, pointblank fire killed half my berserkers but then they charged into close combat and wiped out an entire squad without loss.  Unfortunately this left them as a non berserk halfsquad surrounded by Soviet troops.  They didn't last long.

Here my berserkers are just about to kill their opponents and succumb in their turn.  Note the pleasing whorls created as a result of incompetent photographing of a computer screen

Ivan was closing up but my machine gun squad had scrabbled up a small hill and held them off for a while, killing another squad.  It couldn't last, my rolls had been spectacular but now Ivan's dice started to respond.  He broke my machine gun squad with a 2+2 shot and rolled forward.  With my rearguard gone I had to be continually concerned about attack from the rear.  I was struggling through trees trying to avoid gunfire when his flanking reinforcements came on.  He brought a couple of squads and another machine gun sled over on the far right thus killing any chance of my flankers actually getting past and the remainder poured in the top left corner.

I was close now but Ivan was building a wall of arms and legs between myself and the exit.  Somehow I would have to neutralise the defenders and still slip some troops past for the win, difficult.  Difficult and as it turned out impossible.  A squad led by my redoubtable 10-3 officer slaughtered some more defenders and my (now somewhat reduced) escape force trudged slowly through the woods towards the exit.  Ivan pulled back as I advanced, maintaining a force between myself and victory.  To make absolutely sure certain he brought on his last group of reinforcements and guarded my only exit route with a ring of steel.  Over on the right his reinforcements and my flankers fought their own little battle with losses on both sides but all the time my guys were fighting of course they weren't getting any closer to the exit.

Ultimately I couldn't make it.  My last movement phase arrived, I was within striking distance, all I had to do was walk through a hail of lead and I would win.  Of course I didn't.  In the end it came down to rushing through open ground while Ivan indulged in a turkey shoot.  Strangely quite a few of my men survived but a series of breaks and pins meant I finished just short of the exit.  Not a single Italian escaped although the rate of killed and injured on both sides was appalling.

The final moments.  In the next turn I would launch my death ride for freedom which would collapse in a welter of blood.

Sigh, well history repeated itself.  This really was the last day of the Cuneense.  Many thanks to Ivan for the game and much thanks for his patience as my internet proved to be its usual unreliable self.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Leave the Cupping to Your Tailor

I went past an alternative medicine place the other day.  It offered a range of what, for want of a better word, I will call treatments.  One thing being offered was cupping.  I can't help thinking at this point that "alternative medicine" would be better described as "an alternative to medicine".  I also have to wonder if people who embrace alternative medicine would similarly embrace alternatives to other fields of study.
"Hurry up with my cupping, I'm due at my trial by ordeal in fifteen minutes."

For those of you for whom the intricacies of cupping have so far been a mystery permit me to elucidate.  Cupping, quite logically, involves the placing of glass cups on various exposed portions of one's anatomy.  With the cups in place the air pressure within them is then reduced, usually by the application of heat.  This results in, well, red circles on your skin.  I've no idea what therapeutic effects this is supposed to have and the modern medical establishment tends to agree with me but we've been doing it for thousands of years and thus it must be heaps better than any medical treatment that we've come up with in the last couple of centuries, you know since we started to know what we're doing.

Proponents of alternative to medicine claim that mainstream medicine (commonly known as "medicine") is biased against traditional methods and I'm sure there is some truth to that.  After all if you've studied for years to learn how to treat medical ailments you're likely to get a little irate if some witchdoctor turns up and claims to be able to achieve the same results with half a cup of bat's piss and ritual scarification.  However I suspect that the principal objection the mainstream medical community has to alternative therapies is that they like their treatments to work.  They also like to know how and why they work.

I also feel that the people who are so fond of alternative medicines have forgotten where modern medicine comes from.  Modern medicine is traditional medicine. It's just been organised logically, tested for results and where possible improved upon.  Take aspirin for instance; a thoroughly acceptable alternative to aspirin is to chew white willow bark.  White willow bark works because it contains salicylic acid which is also the active ingredient in aspirin.  All modern medicine did was identify the active ingredient, put it in a somewhat easier package and make it available to people who didn't actually have a white willow tree growing in their backyard.

An even better example is trepanning.  It just doesn't get any more traditional than this.  We have been successfully trepanning people since (quite literally) the Stone Age.  It worked then and it works now (although I don't recommend trying it at home).  Which is to say if you are suffering from something that can be alleviated by trepanning then trepanning will work.  Modern medicine has tightened up the somewhat scatter gun approach for using it (trepanning is no good against migraines for example), cleared up that ugly post operative infection rate and retitled the practitioners as neurosurgeons.  This last is probably for the peace of mind of the patient's relatives who aren't likely to be reassured if the nursing staff inform them that the witchdoctor is on his way.

Modern medicine is actually quite shameless in appropriating traditional methods.  If there is something they haven't appropriated it is very likely because it doesn't work.  Trepanning is practiced in rare and specific circumstances.  Cupping isn't practiced at all except at a dubious tailor.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Forget About A Grexit, Who Permitted the Grentry

The Greeks have voted in a referendum which has resoundingly said "no" to something.  What it said no to is a little harder to grasp although it has something to do with austerity (they want less), money (they want more) and the EU (they want to stay in it as long as they don't have to endure any more austerity and can continue to get money).  This puts the EU in a bit of a pickle.  What are they going to do with Greece?  The Greek opposition leader has resigned as has the Greek finance minister.  How did it get to this?

It didn't start in 2001 but that's as good a place to start as any.  That's when Greece joined the Eurozone, connecting its sclerotic, debt ridden economy with the rest of the nations silly enough to think a single currency was a good idea.  The Greeks got in by basically lying through their teeth, about their debt and budget deficits.  Now, having borrowed about a gigabillion dollars with little to show for it except a lot of swimming pools in up market suburbs of Athens, they are struggling to meet repayments.  And by "struggling" I mean completely unable.

So it's all the Greek's fault?  Well, yes and no.  A fair amount of blame can be sheeted home to the people who accepted their paperwork and let them into the Eurozone in the first place.  Since borrowing unsustainable amounts of money and subsequently going bankrupt has been pretty much Greece's only economic policy since 1830 anyone who believed their assurances of fiscal rectitude must have a case of criminal negligence to answer.

Once Greece was in it was breathtakingly easy to borrow money, so they did.  The only other alternative was to live within their means.  Greece is a poor, ageing, thinly populated country.  Living within their means pretty much implied living in poverty.  They decided not to and large numbers of governments and financial institutions were prepared to lend to them.  The lenders, in defiance of all rational probability, apparently believed that Greece was good for the money.

Strangely, the only people to come out of the above with any credit are the Greeks.  They knew their economy was a basket case so they lied through their teeth, gained access to the Eurozone and, for a while at least, new streams of money.  Everybody else appears to have been a gullible moron which would be believable if we weren't talking about some of the best educated people in the best educated continent on earth.

Still it is amazing how stupid intelligent people can be when intelligence is inconvenient.  The Euro bureaucrats were giddily building their empire and crafting their quite idiotic dreams of European unity imposed from Brussels (Brussels can't even impose unity on Belgium) and the financial institutions probably figured they could get out before reality got too burgeoning.  Then came the global financial crisis and evidence that the major financial institutions across the world combined a breathtaking level of moral bankruptcy with an almost staggering amount of incompetence.  In short everyone (with the possible exception of the Greeks) had bought so heavily into their own propaganda that they actually believed it. 

Disillusion when it arrived was unpleasant.  For the most part the banks managed to persuade governments that tax payers should take the strain thus demonstrating that they hadn't completely lost the skill set that made them rich in the first place.  Governments (and tax payers) screamed, buckled and somehow staggered on, except in Greece.  Greece had never been able to pay back the money it had borrowed.  All the financial crisis had done was point this out very clearly to everyone they owed money to.  Not surprisingly these people a) asked for their money back and b) stopped lending any more.

Well the Greeks tried, or rather they tried to make it look as though they were trying.  Austerity measures were implemented with the very predictable result of destroying what was left of the economy.  If your economy basically relies on you spending money you don't have  then ceasing to spend that money doesn't help.  It actually makes things worse.  Cuts in government spending meant that people selling things to the government went broke.  Cuts to salaries and pensions meant that people selling things to government employees and pensioners went broke.  With all of these new people broke they couldn't afford to buy anything either and anyone left in the country who wasn't broke went broke.

So what happens now?  Well the Greek government is still talking to the IMF and various other concerned bodies.  It's fair to say everybody wants a solution since if there isn't one everybody is going to look like a complete imbecile.  Except the Greeks who kept the game going as long as they could and by comparison with everyone else involved in this crisis actually appear more level headed and rational than most.  At least they knew they were bankrupt and were taking the EU for every penny they could get.  Still based on experience to date one would be unwise to discount the imbecile option.  One thing I do know, Greece won't pay back what it owes.  It can't, purely and simply, it can't.  What is under discussion now is exactly what are the consequences of that going to be for everybody.  Once that is thrashed out Greece can start borrowing money again and gets its "economy" back on track.  In the meantime can we please focus on China.  The economic problems there have the capacity to do more than just make a bunch of Eurocrats look like idiots.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bill & Toni's

Every couple of months or so a couple of friends and I meet for dinner.  Normally I only see Jason and Tony when they need comedy relief for one of their camping trips but a few times a year we gather at Bill & Toni's in Darlinghurst to dine on inexpensive Italian food washed down with free cordial and bread.  We could probably afford to go somewhere more expensive but suggesting such a thing would be a heresy equivalent to denying the dual nature of Christ.

Over dinner Tony and Jason catch us up with what's been going on in their lives.  They have small children so if nothing else there is at least going to be growth of offspring to acknowledge.  Jason has recently sold a house so we had an enjoyable time cursing out his estate agent.  Tony is still talking about early retirement which he had better arrange quickly otherwise it will be just normal retirement. Then a perfunctory query is made to see if anything has happened in my life (it hasn't) after which the conversation moves by unspoken mutual consent to more general topics.

"More general topics" is basically a euphemism for an endless stream of personal abuse thinly disguised as conversation.  I am reliably informed by Tony that my wit in this area has been dulled by age and my sallies now resemble being beaten with a stalk of boiled celery.  I like to think I have simply raised his standards over the years.  Eventually the topic wandered around to the subject of why I never organise these dinners.  It was implied (and by "implied" I mean "explicitly stated") that I was rather dragging the chain in this regard.

There are reasons for my neglect in this area, principally the fact that I'm the only one who doesn't have to gaffer tape children to the wall and tell outrageous lies to a spouse before slipping out for the evening.  As such it makes a lot more sense for me to wait until they are free rather than try and arrange an evening around my own availability.  The last time I tried neither of the other two managed to turn up.  Still I made vague promises which I've already forgotten and the conversation, like a mortally wounded beast, stumbled on.

After dinner we dragged our swollen bellies downstairs for coffee.  In deference to the fact that one of us still hasn't quit smoking we sit outside which is pleasant in Summer and, er, less so in Winter.  Jason and Tony quit smoking when we stopped sharing a house together and they ceased to have ready access to my cigarettes.

By the time the coffee arrives Tony & Jason are comfortably ensconsed and ready to spend the next hour and a half telling each other what fantastic parents they are while I drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and make up conversations in my head.  From time to time my opinion is sought on one of the finer points of child rearing which I answer in a non comittal, non judgemental, non being stupid enough to actually give an answer sort of way.  Occasionally I suggest something outrageous like buying Tony's daughter a bear as a pet or enlisting Jason's seven year old son in the army.  I'm prepared to bet neither of them even remember that.

Eventually when we acknowledge that Tony & Jason's wives will notice somebody is missing in a few hours we drag ourselves off to our respective homes.  Apparently I did agree to organise the next dinner, it must have slipped in among the child rearing questions.