Thursday, February 23, 2017

Greetings From the Planet Exo

One of the ways I find out what is going on in the world is by checking out what Google is distracting us with on their title page.  Yesterday it was all about exoplanets.  For thousands of years we thought (or at least hoped) we were alone in the universe and now suddenly we're hip deep in exoplanets.  Excited articles chattered about the possibility of finding alien life and how cool that would be without asking the obvious next question; if we do find alien life, what the hell are we going to do with it?  Put it in a zoo (possible)?  Conquer it (likely)?  Attempt to make contact and then through a series of misunderstandings, personal ambition and political duplicity get involved in a horrible war that will wipe out one and possibly both of us (based on past experience the most likely of all)?

But before we and whatever godforsaken species has had the misfortune to be selected as the target of our first contact trigger off the chain of diplomatic catastrophe that will inevitably lead to the eradication of life in this section of the galaxy another question has to be asked!  What the hell is an exoplanet?

I'm glad you asked.  "Exoplanet" is a term given to planets that orbit stars other than our own.  The main purpose the word serves is to give the impression that the person using it knows more than you do.  By extension I would presume that we are currently living on an endoplanet.  Another word for "exoplanet" is "planet".  Please feel free to use this at any moment when you might think the term exoplanet is appropriate. 

With the entire exoplanet issue satisfactorily sorted out does that mean that we can now undertake the necessary preparations for contact with alien life (polishing up our diplomacy, learning to eat exotic foods, placing our nuclear weapons on a hair trigger; that sort of thing)?  Well possibly not.  We haven't actually discovered life.  What we've discovered are exoplanets or, as traditionalists would have it, planets.  The first few paragraphs of the article I read waxed lyrical about the life finding possibilities of the sudden plague of exoplanets but buried in the last couple were all the caveats.

We have indeed discovered exoplanets, a whole mess of them, sitting within what might be considered the sweet spot for supporting life.  However said exoplanets orbit a star much cooler than ours and thus are very much closer to it.  They also are so close to each other that if life on one of them stretched in the morning it could very well inadvertently punch life on one of the others.  Also these planets don't appear to rotate which means that, cool though it is, their sun is permanently baking one half of the planet while the other is shrouded in darkness.  This leads me to assume that any life present is either nocturnal or terribly sleep deprived.

What searchers are actually hoping for is water.  This would be a good indicator of life because life as we know it can't survive without the wet stuff.  If nothing else it means that when we travel there we'll only have to take drinking supplies for a one way trip.  If life has indeed evolved it means the explorers will have a supply of fresh meat as well. 

But in all likelihood said explorers will spend their days clad in armoured spacesuits wandering around the boiling hot or freezing cold (depending on location) new world sticking flags in things and looking for amoeba so they can cheerfully inform said amoeba that they live on an exoplanet.  To which the amoeba will no doubt reply, "huh?"  First contact will probably occur when we inadvertently step in it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

From Garlic to Plums

It's been a little difficult to get information out of Tasmania recently.  Apparently the flying monkeys we use as couriers are being shot down and eaten by half starved locals desperate for protein.  Experiments with flying jellyfish have so far been inconclusive.  The last message I got from my Tasmanian correspondent was actually tattooed onto the flesh of an asylum seeker that was washed up on a Sydney beach.

The effects of seawater and an inappropriately placed Celtic tribal tattoo made it a little difficult to read but apparently the strains of garlic farming are weighing heavily on the shoulders of my correspondent.  The spirit is willing but apparently the flesh has broken down into fits of hysterical tears.

It's a hard life for those who work on the land.  Unsheltered from the elements (even the radioactive ones) they break their backs and ruin their health so that those of us in the cities can enjoy the fruits of nature without ever having to encounter nature.  With the sweat running down her face and her muscles screaming for release my correspondent has apparently been working all the hours that the weekend brings alternately planting and digging up garlic depending on the time of year.

Even in the times between planting and harvest there is no relief.  The waiting, oh my god the interminable waiting, creates a nervous strain that bears heavily on muscles still ravaged from the planting (or harvesting).  Then there is weeding and persuading obese cattle that they might live a little longer if they didn't eat the frigging garlic.  Yes life is tough for those who commute to the land on weekends.

Out there in the country (about an hours drive from Hobart) no mistakes can be made.  If one plants when one should harvest one looks like a little bit of a prat.  Mother Nature doesn't take prisoners and the tears of those that failed wet the floors of welfare offices all over the Apple Isle.  Only the tough survive down here; garlic is a cruel mistress and it would appear that my correspondent has had enough.

So now she's growing plums.  Or to be more accurate she is standing nearby while a tree in her backyard grows plums.  Or to be even more accurate still, she is standing nearby while a tree in her backyard grows a plum.

Nature normally goes for bulk.  Seahorses expel literally millions of young in the hopes that a few of them survive.  Fruit trees normally have fruit weighing down every branch in the hopes that some escape the attention of hungover backpackers paying for their holidays.  Every now and then however you get something that goes for quality rather than quantity.  The plum tree in my correspondent's backyard has apparently put all its creative and reproductive effort into producing a single, magnificent plum.  It was the size of an apple, shiny, appealing, a plum for the ages.  And from the use of the past tense in the previous sentence you can probably guess what happened to it.  My correspondent says it was delicious.  Meanwhile the plum tree is learning that seahorses aren't as stupid as everybody thinks.

While my correspondent waits for the next plum to grow I hope her muscles and morale heal to the point where she can journey down to the garlic patch again.  It's not that I'm so crazy about garlic I just want to know how Mr Moo is getting along.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Not The Silliest Holiday I've Heard of but Probably in the Top Three

Of course most of us are at work on a Monday.  Willingly we leave hearth and home (does anyone have a hearth these days?) and journey to the temples of capitalism in which we are the lowliest acolytes there to perform the rites that will ensure that each of us will be granted the boons of productivity from a beneficent lord and our larders will be filled with tins of food to enable us to survive another day.  Thus it is, thus it has always been.

Except in Tasmania of course where the lazy buggers have the day off.  To be fair not all of them have the day off.  Assuming anyone is actually employed in the north and western parts of the state (somebody must be handing out the welfare cheques) they will be turning as usual.  In the south and east however idleness reigns.  For today is Hobart Regatta Day.  On this day apparently everyone in the south-east of the state is given the day off to mess about in boats.

According to this blog's Improbable Holidays correspondent there will be boat races, dressing up as pirates, wood chopping (???) and an attempt at the Guinness World Record for the simultaneous launch of canoes and kayaks.  That's right the sort of activity that normally only occurs when Greenland goes to war is apparently dignified with a public holiday.

The Royal Hobart Regatta is apparently Australia's largest aquatic event.  At least, according to the Royal Hobart Regatta it is.  Judging from the photos on their website its pretty big in the wood chopping stakes as well.  And it isn't just chopping, apparently there is sawing as well.  Anything that can done to a hapless chunk of timber is apparently turned into a spectator sport with vast crowds baying for sap as the splinters go flying.

But of course the tree butchery is a mere sideshow.  It's on the water where the real action is.  There are powerboat races, sailing boat races. rowing races and of course the aforementioned canoes and kayaks.  All of this aquatic enthusiasm takes place under the benign eye of the Flagship of the Regatta.  The flagship of the regatta this year is HMAS Choules a navy vessel that was actually designed to haul tanks, troops and other assorted bits and pieces to those parts of the world not connected to Australia by motorways.  She is described as being "highly operational" which is better than just plain old operational because, well, its highly.  Part of being highly operational apparently involves being landed on by helicopters.  It managed 1000 helicopter landings in a twelve month period, presumably some of them took off again.  The presence of such a floating transport hub means, of course, that Hobart airport is now only the second busiest airport in the state.  Fortunately for the airport's pride I presume the Choules will be leaving once the regatta is over (unless her presence is part of a secret plot to invade Tasmania while everyone is busy at the regatta).

I hope my blog's correspondent is enjoying herself as she bobs, disguised as a jellyfish, in the Derwent River taking notes while jetskis thunder past and clouds of woodchips make breathing the air only slightly easier than actually inhaling a tree.  I expect tales of excitement, horror, drama and suspense to make their way to me tomorrow.  For those wretched denizens of Tasmania who don't live close enough to Hobart to have a public holiday they have another eight or so long weary months before they get their own public holiday.  I believe its called Not Hobart Regatta Day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fun in Lifts

When you add together the amount of time I spend in trains getting to and from work and the amount of time I spend in lifts going from the ground floor of my building to level 60 where I'm shackled to the wall during office hours I seem to spend half my life being hauled around in rectangular metal boxes.

Of the two I prefer the train because it has seats.  It also takes marginally less time for a train to travel from Dulwich Hill to the City than it does for a lift to travel from the ground to level 60 particularly when it feels the need to stop at every floor along the way.  I find that greeting everyone who gets on the lift with a big cheery smile makes the journey more enjoyable.

This is because, without exception, the reaction of everybody who gets into a lift to encounter someone grinning like a loon is to recoil slightly, flick their eyes about in silent desperation and then to occupy a space as far away from me as possible.  Occasionally I like to stand right at the lift doors in the pose of a grizzly bear about to attack and make growling noises when the doors open.  So far no one has shot me although I suspect its been close on a couple of occasions.

The thing is, lift journeys take up a considerable amount of my day.  It does seem as though I should do something with the time expended rather than just stand there.  It's ok on the train, I can read, play on my phone or use any of the other tools modern society has created to prevent interaction with one's fellow human beings.  In a lift it's different.  Apart from the use of headphones there isn't really a lot you can do to ignore your fellow metal box inmates and its difficult to pretend not to see someone standing approximately three inches away from you.

So if one can't ignore one's fellow humans the only remaining option is to interact with them.  And what better way to interact than with a big friendly grin or a slightly too enthusiastic grizzly bear impersonation?  Another thing I enjoy doing is suddenly bursting into laughter for no apparent reason (but not the cheerful hearty laughter that would suggest remembering a good joke, rather the low devious chuckle which implies one is recalling an undeserved not guilty verdict). 

Our lifts have mirrors at the back which allows people to spend a few seconds touching up their appearance and provides them with an excuse for not making eye contact with anyone else in the lift.  This is acceptable if a little predictable but I'll bet I'm the only person who's thought to use that mirror for shaving.  All of these little touches provide me with some innocent amusement (and allow me to get up five minutes later) and most importantly creep people out and make them less likely to interact with their fellow human beings (of which I, at a stretch, can be considered to be one).

A lack of interaction with one's fellow human beings is a vital social tool which allows large numbers of people who, at best, cordially detest each other to live in close proximity.  Inhabitants of small country towns tend to boast of their friendliness, particularly by comparison with the sullen, surly city (neat alliteration huh?) in which I live but they miss the point.  Small country towns tend to be racially and culturally homogenous to a great extent.  When people say their town is friendly what they mean is, their town is friendly towards straight, white people who were born there.  I live in a city where, with the best will in the world, you can't know what all the other inhabitants are doing and can't reassure yourself that they worship an appropriate god, date the appropriate gender or have the appropriate skin tone.  A carefully cultivated disinterest allows us to put up with all of these freaks and more importantly allows them to put up with me.  Shaving in a lift is a small price to pay to perpetuate this state of affairs.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

CanCon AAR

Well a week has past since CanCon.  The dust has settled, my floods of tears have dried and concerned bystanders have finally succeeded in wrestling the kitchen knife out of my hands.  So time for a brief recap of the wretched failure and unfulfilled dreams that hovered vulture like over my head as I pitted my, I hesitate to say "wits", against my opponents in five rounds of vicious cardboard on cardboard action.

Up in the nosebleed seats of the CanCon festival reserved for those fit enough to climb a single flight of stairs we proud ASLers gathered, gazing godlike down onto the scrum of black t-shirts and morbid obesity displayed before us (although there was one cute trans girl with red hair and interesting tattoos I wouldn't have minded getting to know better).  But people watching was not our purpose, the cardboard battlefield awaited.  There would be cheers, shouts and hysterical weeping (I'll leave it to your imagination as to who might providing the latter) as the dice rolled and battles were won and lost.  In my case, mostly lost.

The first scenario was 11th Company Counter Attack which pitted a group of top quality Finns supported by a pair of huge, lumbering but powerfully armed SP guns against some Soviet interlopers in 1944.  I had the Soviets and my objective was simple.  At the end of the game I had to have at least one unbroken squad still on the board.  A railway bisected the battlefield and I set up the bulk of my forces hiding in foxholes in the woods to the south.  A couple of squad strength positions (including an atr) went to the north to prevent Andrew from rushing forward and out flanking me.  A measure of the success of this strategy can be determined from the fact that Andrew rushed forward and outflanked me.  My very first roll, against a probing halfsquad, was boxcars, breaking an lmg and encouraging Andrew to be even more aggressive in the north.

In the south his frontal assault went slower as I skulked and hid amongst the trees as his troops pushed forward.  I was holding my ground well but by turn three Andrew had swept my now undergunned northern troops aside and was mounting the railway embankment to surround me.  A sniper killed a leader I had placed in the rear to serve as a rally point for retreating squads and suddenly I was neck deep in Finns.  I surrendered at the end of turn three when one of my few remaining squads went berserk and prepared to abandon its defences to charge directly at about five Finnish units.
0-1

Fresh from this painful initiation I moved on to command elements of the British 7th Armoured Division tangling with Michael Wittman's SS panzers in Normandy.  If you've read your history you know this is probably a hiding to nothing.  The scenario was Test of Nerves and involved a small British infantry force backed by a group of five tanks trying to hold a crossroads against a somewhat larger force of German infantry backed by a trio of Tiger tanks (led by Wittman himself) and one PzIV which must have been there to make up the numbers.  My opponent, Peter Jeffrey from Queensland would command the Germans.

The sole British victory condition was that at the end of the game at least one tank had to have a line of sight to the crossroads.  All British and German tanks could set up HIP.  I had one Sherman Firefly that could take it right up to the Tigers.  The remainder were metal meat for the 88s.  I hid the Firefly as far back as I could and still have a bead on the crossroads.  This was my last stand position.  Everything else was to protect that.  I set up a 57mm atg so that it could fire across the relevant street (57 vs Tiger armour, not great) and placed my scanty troops in buildings around the crossroads.  Over on the left I had a pair of Cromwells looking over open ground.  I couldn't hope that they would bag a tiger but I thought they might be able to take out some infantry.  I had one more tank, a Cromwell mounting a 94mm something or other.  I treated this with deep suspicion and hid it in the woods (although also with a line of sight to the crossroads).

Things started well when one of my overwatch Cromwells broke a German halfsquad.  Unfortunately it did it right under the nose of a Tiger tank.  Have you ever seen a Tiger get a rate tear.  It isn't pretty.  At the end of one firephase I had lost two Cromwells and a halfsquad.  And this before the game had really begun.  Peter used his Tigers cautiously, supporting his infantry as they worked their way through the buildings towards the crossroads.  I kept my remaining tanks hidden secure in the knowledge that if they never revealed themselves I would win.  In the centre Peter ground slowly forward but I was more concerned about my flanks.  He was filtering troops round both of them and on the right his troops were backed up by his PzIV, obviously trying to draw fire from an as yet hidden tank.  Fortunately for me he drove it right next to my 57mm gun and a PzIV was well within its capabilities.  Any more fire drawing would have to be done by the tigers.  My gun crew were soon broken and he captured the gun before I managed to break his squad in turn, my gallant crew then rallied and recaptured the gun.

Over on the left things weren't so great.  His troops had outflanked my position and I only had one asset to stop them.  My hidden Cromwell 94.  I started up, reversed into a woods hex and promptly bogged.  However I bogged in a convenient location allowing the Cromwell's guns to beat up his flankers, or at least threaten to.  But this meant I had only one tank left with a sight to the crossroads.  The as yet hidden Firefly.  Biting the bullet Peter rolled his Tigers forward.  The Firefly killed two and the maligned 57mm killed the third courtesy of a sabot round at pointblank range.  With my last card revealed all I could do was await his final infantry rush.  They came straight down the road, most of my infantry was dead now and could do nothing to stop them.  My gun crew fired at pointblank range but in the ensuing morale checks he battle hardened and rushed on.  The Firefly used machine guns, main armament and then intensive fire but couldn't stop them.  They plunged into close combat with the Firefly, if they could destroy it they would win the game.  They failed, at game end my Firefly stood proudly intact, still with the crossroads in its sight.
1-1

That was the first day and I wasn't too disappointed.  I looked forward to a resumption of the cardboard carnage tomorrow.  Alas my eagerness was misplaced.

The next scenario was Maximum Aggression which pitted a low grade British force defending a Malayan village against the Japanese while a much better British force charged to the rescue.  I had played this once before at the end of a long and depressing competition and conceded on the second turn.  I was determined to do better this time.  I guess you could say I did.  The game went on much longer.

My opponent was David Bishop commanding the Japanese.  It didn't take him long to wipe out my less than stalwart village defenders courtesy of white phosphorous, banzai charges and close combat but nemesis, I hoped, was coming.  My British reinforcements were supported (if that's the right word) by a solitary Marmon-Herrington armoured car.  This thing conducted its own miniature panzerblitz while my infantry panted along as best they could.  I hit on three sides trying to get into the village on both flanks and the centre.  Unfortunately David and I both suffered a rather debilitating problem.  We couldn't roll for shit.  Anything less than a nine by either of us was a topic of much discussion and rejoicing by the successful roller.  The armoured car sat in a road for three turns with its rear to the enemy while David unsuccessfully attempted to destroy it while my infantry (which the car was supposedly supporting) made almost no progress towards actually hurting the Japanese.  I did manage to push forward a little on the left (thanks largely to David's strategic withdrawals) and on the far right I captured a remote building he hadn't bothered to garrison.

Eventually David managed to roll low enough to destroy the car and in return I managed to roll low enough to stripe a squad and set some huts on fire but it was a curiously low key and casualty light affair throughout.  Without any significant damage to his troops I couldn't really push through to the buildings I had to capture.  The final turn saw the usual despairing charge into withering fire most of which in keeping with the game so far did absolutely nothing.  But one shot managed to inflict a morale check on a squad aiming at a building.  I failed the check and thus couldn't attempt to capture the building thus giving David the win.  Partway through the game we started keeping a tally of all the nines we rolled.  David won that too but not by much.
1-2

In the afternoon I sat down with Jackson Keddall to play Friday the 13th.  This pitted a tough bunch of Germans paratroopers supported by a trio of PzJIVD tank destroyers against a solid bunch of late war Soviets with a .50cal machine gun and a 57LL gun amongst their other toys.  Once again I had to seize a bunch of buildings and once again I came up sadly short.  At least because I didn't use enough smoke.  I knew the PzJs had smoke shells but I'd forgotten the smoke dispensers and grenades which could have sheltered my troops as they went forward.

Still, forward they went bulling up to the Soviet front line and there they stopped for several turns.  My tank destroyers had left their HE shells at home and suddenly I was short of fire support.  Jackson played a smart game, pulling back, maintaining concealment and maintaining a solid front line.  Over on the right he had skilfully wired a possible outflanking area and for a couple of turns my troops hid in woods and behind buildings hoping somebody else would do the difficult "killing of the Russians" part of the scenario. 

The only glimmer of joy for me was when I fired a panzerschreck at a concealed squad in a victory building.  A critical hit killed the recipients outright and I managed to snatch a couple of buildings and challenge for a couple more but Jackson's defence was essentially intact.  He didn't get much use out of his .50cal but that's an indication of how successful his defence was.  He killed one PzJ by firing an antitank rifle through the roof which pleased him although he was less keen when in the closing stages I roared my one fully functional PzJ over a wall offering him an underbelly shot from his atg.  He broke the gun and the PzJ plunged forward to wreak havoc.  Unfortunately I had left it too late in the day and I slunk away from the second day without a single victory to my name :(
1-3

The next day replete with a dinner of delicicous Korean food (kimchi is awesome) I faced the grim reality.  If I didn't win today my track record (of 2 wins and three losses) at CanCon would be broken.  I faced Mark McGilchrist for the final round.  We were playing Ultimate Treachery which pitted a force of Japanese attacking the French in Hanoi near the very end of the war.  The French had a mixture of green and first line squads and a single FT-17 tank, possibly the most useless armoured vehicle of World War II to defend several blocks of downtown Hanoi.  I got the French and positioned my green squads forward (to do most of the dying) with my first liners and machine guns in reserve.  For the French in this one its all about delay.  The Japanese have to capture 45 building locations (that is each level of each hex of each building).  All the French have to do is cling to enough to prevent them.  Stern defence from sacrifice squads and slow withdrawal from the others would appear to be the order of the day.  I put the FT-17 where it had a line of sight down a street and told it to stay there.

The first few rounds went quite well despite my stupidity in getting a pair of green squads locked in CC with a Japanese squad, yes they killed it eventually but time was lost and a bite was taken out of my defence.  Mark plastered likely areas with white phosphorous (I prayed for rain but was denied) and pushed forward vigorously.  Where I stood and fought I died (but hopefully bought some time) and with my other squads withdrawing in good order I started to entertain hopes of a victory.  Mark had other ideas, pushing forward aggressively and leaving my remaining delay troops the option of dying in place or fleeing.  They chose to die in place.

Upper level encirclement is a bitch but fortunately my FT-17 stepped forward breaking a crucial halfsquad and allowing me to escape the consequences of my own stupidity in surrendering lower level stairwell hexes without much of a fight.  With this relief I still had a hold on half of a large building Mark needed to capture to win.  The only other way to win would be to push into my rear area defended by an lmg, an hmg, the FT-17 and a couple of other squads.  I started to feel good.  That was probably a mistake.

With a turn and a half to go Mark was short of the buildings he needed and I still had an hmg team and a concealed squad ready to beat up any last minute attempts to push forward.  Then I rolled low.  I rolled Mark's sniper number low.  In one firephase his sniper broke my hmg team and the concealed squad and my defence was shattered.  He didn't need to capture the remaining buildings, he just moved in.  Mark coaxed me out of my foetal position long enough to inform me I had lost.

So there we have it.  One victory and four losses, not a great record but I'm not too disheartened.  I felt competitive in at least two of the games I lost so I've put suicide prevention on hold and am plunged into a VASL game with some chap from Perth which involves both night rules and falling snow.  I must be mad.  Much thanks to Andy Rogers and Eric Topp who organised all and selected a good bunch of scenarios and also thanks to Ivan for putting up with the running cow commentary on the way down (and back).

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Running Out of Things to Say About Canberra

Somewhere around the turn of the previous century a group of isolated colonies on this great brown land banded together and declared their proud dependence on Great Britain.  A few years later it was decided that this new semi-nation required a capital.  A city where the elected representatives of those who weren't black, Asian or female could gather to debate the issues of the day.  At that point we had two major contenders; Sydney, Australia's first city, was large, vibrant and business oriented.  Or to put it another way it was dirty, crowded and corrupt.  The other contender was Melbourne, at least in its own opinion Australia's cultural capital.  In other words it was, preening, self important and the weather was deeply suspect.

There were certain other cities in Australia of course but nobody seriously considered them as a national capital.  Brisbane was the sort of place we exiled people to, not governed them from.  Hobart was remote and the capital of a state which couldn't even manage corruption efficiently.  Perth, depending on the current value of the minerals under its soil was either in a state of secessionist fury or mendicant beggary and Adelaide was beautiful, nicely laid out and well designed.  It's no wonder the nation's most creative serial killers tend to originate there.

So the choice was narrowed to Sydney and Melbourne and immediately a problem was struck.  The representatives from each city indicated they would cheerfully sever a limb rather than visit the other on any sort of semi permanent basis.  So a new city was commissioned.  Midway between Sydney and Melbourne and thus irritatingly inconvenient to both.  It was even more inconvenient for representatives who came from any of the other cities but there's no record their opinion was sought.

In 1908 the order went out, "Let there Canberra!".  And so Canberra came to pass, just as soon as we found the money, imported an architect, dammed a river to provide an ornamental lake and built a whole bunch of buildings in the middle of nowhere.  Slightly more than a hundred years later and things have changed.  Canberra is no longer in the middle of nowhere, it is the middle of nowhere.  Driving into Canberra is like entering a country town and it stays like that until you've left again.

Once again I and others of my ilk ignored the tears of our loved ones and left civilisation behind us to journey to where only politicians and heroin addicts are known to gather.  For the time has once again come for CanCon.  A gaming festival situated on the Australia Day/Invasion Day long weekend when any sane person is getting hopelessly drunk as close to home as possible.  Gaming buddy and incidental chauffeur Ivan Kent turned up with either a large hatchback or a small four wheel drive and loaded myself and a bleary eyed Aaron Cleavin into such passenger spaces as weren't occupied by gaming paraphernalia and pointed the headlights at the nation's capital.

After last years minor geographic catastrophe I had acquired an airbnb host a mere block away from Ivan's hotel which cut down on driving and opportunities to get lost.  I really didn't care but I'm sure Ivan appreciated it.  I walked in, met my host, dropped my bags and promptly went out again.  Drinks with the boys (average age 52) was the first social activity on an agenda crammed with human interaction as long as that interaction involved rolling dice in a cup.

It has to be said Canberra was buzzing this year.  There were so many people around that in the evenings diners and drinkers almost outnumbered derelicts.  As I wandered through the street of downtown Canberra, carefully avoiding the less photogenic beggars I felt I could gaze onto a city that has really arrived.  Admittedly it had arrived in Canberra but it had arrived nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Birthday Greetings # 63

Happy birthday to Leo IV the Khazar, Byzantine emperor.  Leo came to the throne in 775AD when his father died of a fever while campaigning in Bulgaria.  At the time the Byzantine empire was filling in its spare time by having a furious religious argument.  This is what the Byzantine empire did whenever it had some time on its hands and frequently even when it didn't.

This particular ecclesiastical tiff revolved around the use of icons.  Specifically whether they should be used or not.  Those in favour argued that it was traditional usage, helpful for spreading the gospel amongst those who couldn't read (almost everybody in those days) and that the icons were "venerated" rather than worshipped.  Those opposed pointed out that God had actually written a commandment specifically forbidding them.  They further went on to state that the level of adulation given to the icons in many cases went a hell of a lot further than "veneration".  Some people were actually naming the icons of saints as godparents to their children.

There was also a geographical aspect; most, although not all, of the icon puppies came from the western parts of the empire.  Most, although not all, of the statue breakers came from the eastern parts (much muttering that the proximity of Islam might have led them to such unpleasant attitudes as the Moslems are most definitely opposed to icons).  The problem for the statue freaks was that the best soldiers in the empire came from the east and thus tended to be opposed to icons.  The problem for the closet Moslems was that the bulk of the bureaucracy and most of the monastic houses were located in the west and tended to favour setting up graven images.

Debate was tense, homicidally so.  Leo's grandfather was an eastern soldier who by a combination of low cunning, judicious murder and quite possibly outright treason had wound up as emperor.  The bulk of the soldiers who supported him opposed icons.  So icons were banned.  Uproar ensued.  Legislation was enacted, oppression occurred, icon supporters were tortured, exiled, killed and ridiculed (not necessarily in that order).  It got even worse under Leo's father.  The grandfather had been a cynical pragmatist doing what he needed to maintain the army's support but Leo's father (Constantine the Shit according to the pro icon historians who documented his reign) was a genuine fanatic.  The army however loved him and responded by winning battles.  This fact led to Constantine dying of natural causes as noted above.

Leo came to the throne and calmed things down a bit.  He wasn't exactly pro-icon (although his wife was) but he did seem to feel that possibly estranging 50% of his subjects couldn't be a particularly wise move in the long term.  While he personally was no more keen on the icons than his father or grandfather he adopted a bit of a "don't ask don't tell" policy.  Supporters of icons praised him to the skies for his moderation which seemed to embarrass him.

Meanwhile over in the east the Arabs considered the vigorous debate going in within the empire as a perfect opportunity to invade.  However the icon hating army proved to be capable of handling their incursions (and the bureaucracy in the capital probably wouldn't have minded too much if a lot of them got killed doing it) and Leo managed to maintain his borders unchanged.  So to speak.  The term "border" is a reasonably modern concept.  In those days you simply travelled further away from your own centre of power until you wound in somebody elses.  Somewhere in between a border had obviously been crossed but where it actually was could be considered a matter of debate.  Indeed whole armies spent a lot of their time debating it.

But it wasn't just the Arabs who were trying to move the Byzantine border a little closer to Constantinople.  Over in Europe the Bulgarians were also on the warpath.  Leo took time out from drooling over precious stones (an odd fetish but a harmless one) and not quite persecuting the icon lovers to march against Bulgaria.  Before he did so he stopped having sex with his wife and instigated a harsher regime against the icon freaks.  His wife, Irene, was a dedicated supporter of icons ("superstitious women" muttered the not at all misogynistic soldiers who surrounded Leo) and had introduced various icons and icon favourers into the palace.  Leo found them, and indulged in a little torture and imprisonment just to let everybody know that he couldn't be taken for granted.

With his status as an icon breaker reasserted and his wife "punished" by his absence from the marital bed Leo marched on Bulgaria like his father before him and like his father before him caught a fever and died.  His son (aged nine) ascended the throne as Constantine VI.  His mother Irene was regent and pretty soon icons were everywhere.