Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Love The Irish. Really.

Enjoy this musical video clip.

Or not. But it sure as hell made me laugh.

Monday, September 24, 2012

USAnian Politics

In theory, there are two men running for the Presidency of the USA this coming November. One is the incumbent, Barack Obama. Say what you will of the man; I don't live there, so I'll offer no opinion.

The other is a man called Mitt Romney. Again, I won't vouchsafe an opinion. But I will put this statement forward:

Mitt Romney has just publicly stated that he thinks passenger airliner windows should be able to roll down, in case of fire.

Don't take my word for it:  Source 1... Second Source.

I put to my two boys, aged 9 and 12, the question of whether or not passenger airliner windows should roll down in case of fire. Unsurprisingly, both boys looked absolutely horrified, and explained immediately that opening the windows of an airliner at operating height would result in horrific decompression. (They actually said "everyone and everything inside would be sucked out the window and there would be no air".)

All right. I know there's no lower limit on the IQ of persons running for public office. But... for the love of sanity, America, don't you think that perhaps there should be?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Games And Social Observations

Well, I've switched gaming styles with the boys. We were playing a sandbox-style adventure, with a broadly constructed world and plotlines generated internally, from the actions of the players. It's my preferred method of running a game: organic, and challenging, because you have to riff off what the players are doing to keep the whole story running neatly.

The problem is that it calls for regular sessions, so character development -- which is really important to the whole sandboxing thing -- can happen smoothly. And it's hard to account for players who have to miss the odd session. You're pretty much obliged to keep them in as NPCs for the session, which is less than satisfying.

But given that I'm short of time, and it's hard to get the group together regularly, I switched over to a new campaign setting yesterday, using a slightly varied form of the Savage Worlds rules.

I tested the waters a few months back by running a Paranoia one-off. The players enjoyed themselves tremendously, and so did I, so I figured we could get away with a more sessional sort of game play: like individual, module-style adventures placed against a developing, complex background. Savage Worlds lends itself to that kind of thing, I find. Combat works pretty quickly, and allows for plenty of improv and cinematic silliness, which kept everyone happy, and if you do a little groundwork beforehand, there's lots of role-playing opportunity.

I'm pretty happy with the new setting. I'm calling it "Imperium", and the players are operating in an alternate history year 1600, out of England. There are two crucial split-points from our world. One lies in the Spanish invasion of Peru and Mexico: the Spaniards got there, and discovered that the Aztecs had a direct link to their terrible, bloodthirsty gods... and around the world, strange and ancient things began to stir.

In Europe a young priest named Martin Luther decided that the moribund and corrupt Catholic Church couldn't deal with the threat of the hideous gods of the New World, and created his own version of the Faith, aimed at keeping to God's word properly. Meanwhile, the Spanish got their arses kicked in Mexico, but are making some headway with Peru -- a mixture of diplomacy and conquest, and even a certain amount of conversion to the renewed Christian faith.

In England, word of the Spanish discoveries caused a degree of fear and disbelief. But the other split-point from our world occurred back in the seventh century, at the Synod of Whitby. In the real world, the Celtic church fell into line with the Roman church, and the centre of Christian religion remained Roman. In the world of Imperium, the Celtic church told the Romans to go and fuck themselves, because they'd been given a secret Gospel which shed a different light on Jesus and the crucifixion. In fact, they believed Jesus had been sent as a peacemaker, to reconcile the Old Gods with new ways, and to preserve the natural order of the world... and so in the England of Imperium, the Christian church (such as it is) worships the King In Green, and they wear a little model of the crown of thorns, rather than the cross which was treacherously used to slaughter the peacemaker.

So, yes -- when word came to England of the Old Gods in South America, Henry VIII decided to revitalise the Church of the King in Green. He gave permission to the elders to pull down the stone monasteries around the country, and grow new tree-churches in their place. (Of course, some of the old stone buildings were kept for the sake of their beauty. But there are trees around them now.)  And when it became clear that the Spaniards were cautiously negotiating with the less fearsome forces in the New World, Henry and the elders of the Green Church went to the ancient sidhe mounds in Ireland and Scotland, and contacted allies of their own...

... so it's 1600. The Spaniards are at war with much of the world. The Roman church is fractured. There are rumours of strange happenings in India, in China, and in dark Africa. There's even talk of giants in the cold Northern lands. The Green Church is helping defend England under Good Queen Bess (did you know there were actually two more Spanish Armadas after the one famously trashed by Drake? Both of them were defeated by "bad weather". True historical fact there.)  but the situation is perilous...

...and so,  Sir Robert Cecil decides to revive an old idea that got shelved when the Queen's infamous spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, died back in 1590. With guidance from Sir Francis Bacon (the prototype of the modern scientist) and Magister John Dee (court astrologer to Elizabeth I, and a famous figure in the history of magic, etc) he sets out to establish a group to deal with... unnatural threats to the Crown. Think of it as an alt-universe "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", or even a kind of "Forsooth! Avengers!" thing, and you've got it.

It went very well. We had six players. One is Bacon's protege, a Weird Science guy. He's got a little piece of "electrum" from the Sidhe, and has used it to build a "lightning gun". He's all about gadgets and nifty stuff. Another is Dee's protege. She's also in the Weird Science category, but her particular schtick is potions. She's got a belt of grenades, another belt of smoke bombs... and a final bandolier of Alkahest bombs. (Alkahest was the alchemical name for the much sought-after "universal solvent". She has it in grenade form. Gotta love that.)

We also got a dour Germanic fighter-knight, a wild-man gamekeeper raised by wolves, a highly skilled Irish thief-girl, and a delusional linguistic genius notorious for being able to talk his way into, or out of, almost anything. It was a great mix, and it played out very well. I gave them a nice set-up: a peace envoy, coming from Spain's Phillip III to talk about ending the war, and a mysterious master assassin known as "The Eagle", come to London to murder the envoy and destroy the hopes of peace. Throw in a malevolently murderous red herring, and some suitably confounding clues, and it all went very well -- culminating in a desperate fight inside Whitehall Palace itself to save Queen Bess from a ravening vampire-assassin.

Both the Lightning Gun and the Alkahest Grenades came into play... but the assassin got close enough that Queen Bess had to take a hand in the matter herself, setting off the twin blunderbusses rigged underneath her gigantic ballgown in order to distract the vampire long enough for the Irregulars (known as Section H) to do their job in appropriately cinematic fashion.

Actually, the Section H thing triggered my own favourite improv line of the session. I just pulled "Section H" out of the blue, and of course, one of the players asked the inevitable: "What does that stand for?"

I was doing Sir Robert Cecil at that moment, so I gave the players my best British Nobleman sneer, and said: "My dear, it stands only for the fact that Sections A through G have already failed, and died."

I think a game master should be allowed to pat himself on the back for moments like that. The look on the players' faces was just lovely...

... meanwhile, there are other things cheering me up as well. Spring weather is dodgy, but warm, which makes Natalie happier. And best of all? Well, it turns out that Hip-Hop and Rap are in deep, deep trouble. I've never liked either of them. I'm not sure if they're separate entities, or just manifestations of the same deeply unmusical hazardous waste, but it doesn't matter: I'll be glad when they're consigned to the trash dumps of history, next to Disco and a host of other equally irritating crap.

So... why do I think Rap/Hop is in trouble? Oh, that's simple. When portly, middle-aged Korean pop-stars can turn out a worldwide pop phenomenon with Korean Rap -- well, it's hard to imagine self-respecting American gangstas staying with a trend that produced Gangnam Style.

And not before time!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Springy Stuff

Ahh, spring.

You spend all winter shuttered away. There's maybe nine hours of light in the day. It's dark. It's cold. It's wet. You don't go outside much. Illnesses travel around the community. Then suddenly, spring.

My children have gone from being near-catatonic (relatively speaking) to unstoppable balls of irritating activity. Leave them alone for ten minutes and they start wrestling, or playing soccer, or hurling javelins... and this is bad, because after the winter, they have the habit of being in the goddam house, which is really no place for javelin tournaments. (The cats hate it.)

Unfortunately, spring is also about the dodgiest of dodgy weather. Sunshine to rain to hail to sunshine again in the space of an hour. Or it can go the whole day, overcast and threatening, but the only rain you get is one or two brief showers which somehow unnaturally coincide with your every effort to send the children outside.

I do have a secret weapon, of course. When I need rain, I put the clean laundry on the line outside. When I need to send the kids outside, the laundry goes into the electrical-bill-inflating clothes-dryer. It's not a perfect system, but you'd only be surprised at how well it works if you were some kind of a believer in the dark magic of statistics, rather than a person like myself, who understands the innate, and personally-directed malice of the universe.

Today is one of those threateningly grey days. The weather radar map is inconclusive. The real question for the day is this: how much more Wii bowling with my kids can I withstand? 

It's been fun, I admit. For some reason, they've rediscovered Wii Sports, and we've been rebuilding our stock of little Mii avatars, since our old lot expired with the original Wii machine. We've built "The Question", the no-face, low-power superhero from DC comics. We've built a cyclops. A dinosaur-headed guy. A guy with a face that looks surprisingly like a dog's. We've build Jesus, Adolf Hitler, and Osama Bin Laden. We've also built a Samuel L Jackson avatar, and named him "Nick Furry". (He has two eyes, unfortunately. What was wrong with the designers of the Wii? Why can't you get a decent range of hats, eye-patches, fangs, whiskers, bizarre ears and excitingly gonzo hair for your little Mii avatars? This is unacceptable!)

Nevertheless, we're chafing a little.

Yesterday we took off; all of us. We drove across to Latrobe, and the Reliquaire -- that store of wonders. It was... damaging, as always. The Mau-mau now possesses a particularly foofy new dress in which to go to the ballet with her mother tonight. Genghis has a big brass padlock and key of antique style, and a freestanding cardboard cut-out Dalek nearly two metres tall. (I put it next to his bed last night while he slept. It was the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes this morning. I felt good about that.) And Jake has a lovely nib pen set, complete with inkwell, ink, multiple nibs, and a fine leatherbound journal in which to write.

We tried out a new restaurant on our way home through Launceston, on the recommendation of my friend the second-hand bookstore owner. Free plug for My Bookshop right here: this place is everything a second-hand bookstore should be. It's got good turnover, interesting stock, and pleasantly crowded premises. Best of all, the proprietor loves books and everything to do with them, and she's a big reader in speculative fiction. She's also articulate, funny, and loves nothing more than a chat about whatever it is either of us happens to be reading at the time. I try to get in there a couple times a month, and every now and again, I drop by with an embarrasingly large drop-box of books that have become surplus to requirements. She never complains.

Anyhow, it was the proprietor of said bookstore who directed me to Thai Buddha (great name!) in Charles St. I'm always interested in trying a Thai place, and this one is definitely the goods. It's a small place in a charming old building, but it's scrupulously clean, light and airy. The people who run it are lovely -- friendly and helpful without being in your face. Prices are good, but best of all, the food is top-notch.

It's not strict by-the-book Thai. The standout dish -- and it really was a standout -- from last night was a Chef's Special; a Thai-style salad built around Tasmanian smoked salmon, and shredded green apple. I was curious, so I gave it a try, and I was delighted.

The dish had all the right qualities for a Thai salad: the contrasting textures of the crunchy apple, and the creamy, melting smoked salmon. The dressing had the right notes of sweet and sour and salt -- but of course, neither smoked salmon nor green apple is anywhere near the list of canonical Thai ingredients. But who cares? The flavours married superbly. It was one of the most innovative and utterly delicious things I've eaten in a long time, and any chef who is prepared to extend the style of a classic cuisine to embrace signature produce from the particular region where he works has got a future.

If the restaurant has a flaw, it's that they're sparing with the chili. I like Thai cooking. I like fiery, furious chili. When the meal was done, and it was abundantly clear from the empty plates and happy expressions that we'd enjoyed it, I quietly asked the waitress if it might be possible, on a future visit, perhaps to have some thin-sliced raw chili on the side as a condiment.

Well, her face just lit up, and she apologetically explained that they'd learned to rein in the chili for local tastes, but they would be only too happy to cook extra chili into any dishes I requested. She looked so utterly delighted to find someone asking for chili that I almost laughed. I can understand it, though. Local tastes run to the blander end of the English and Scots spectrum, in regard to spices. I'm doing my best to educate people, but it's slow going.

All right. I'd better close up shop here. I've got a busy spring day in front of me. Adios!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Spring Means Lemonade

Oddly, this year winter slammed on the brakes precisely at the right time, and on the dot of September first, it was noticeably spring. Much warmer. Sunnier. Breezier. Altogether nicer.

Right now, the kids are out playing some bastardised form of cricket in what passes for a back yard. They've been at it off and on all day, and much of yesterday. In fact, in the last two days they've spent more time outdoors than they have cumulatively in the three months preceding, I suspect.

Meanwhile, the lemon trees are loaded, and ripening frantically. It's good. Last year, some irritating beastie ate the rinds off all the ripe lemons while they were still on the trees, and I got very few lemons at all. I like lemons. If I'd found the beastie in question, I would probably have breached certain rules of wildlife protection...

This year, though, we have lemons. Oh, how we have lemons. I sent the Mau-Mau out to pick thirty ripe ones. She did so. I couldn't see any difference to the trees. Some of the lemons she'd picked had big, thick rinds, which I didn't want, so I sent her out to pick another twenty. I still can't see any difference to the trees.

I have done two things with all that lemony goodness. One is a large jar of preserved lemons. Not quite the "Moroccan Lemon" thing, but just as versatile and tasty. What I do is this: I get a bag of rock salt, a bag of hot red chilis, and a shitload of  lemons.

The lemons get individually halved and juiced. The skins and attached pulp are reserved. When I've got enough, I get a large jar. I start with a layer of rock salt. Then I put in a layer of lemon rinds. A sprinkling of rock salt. A layer of chilis. A sprinkling of rock salt. A layer of lemon rinds... and so forth. Crush the contents down. You want to shove as much as you can in there.

Once the jar is almost full, I pour boiling water over the contents until they are covered, then seal the jar and put it aside. A month or so later, the rinds and the chilis are both salt-pickled, and full of amazing flavour. Lemon rinds and chilis preserved in this fashion will last ages, and they are absolutely brilliant with seafood or chicken dishes, or chopped up and tossed through cous-cous, etc. Yum.

But what about that lemon juice, eh? Well, that becomes Flinthart's Very Special Excellent Lemonade. It works like this:

  • Take your bowl of lemon juice and pulp. Strain it and squeeze it to get the juice out. For this lemonade, you don't want floaty bits. Might seem contrary to expectations, but... trust me.
  • Once you've got all the juice you can extract, add caster sugar to taste. Make it sweeter than you really think is right, though, because you're going to use this like a kind of cordial/flavouring. Once you've sweetened it, stir in maybe a half-teaspoon of pure lemon oil (if you've got it) or good quality lemon essence (not nearly so nice as the lemon oil.)
  • Now: for each glass of lemonade, you'll need about four tablespoons of this strong, sweet, lemony wonderfulness. Add a few ice cubes, and then gently add plain soda water. Give it a quick stir, throw in a sprig of mint to make it look really groovy, and drink.

Seriously: the best lemonade that money cannot buy, right there.

And just between us grownups: adding a splash of good gin turns it into outright black magic.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Anyone Want A Surplus Billionaire?

Dear America

You're our ally, right? We've done lots of little military and trade favours for you, right? Electronic spying stations in the outback... handy air- and sea- bases in the South Pacific... support in Iraq... support in Afghanistan.... you know. Stuff like that.

Not that I'm saying you owe us anything, no. Not me. Actually, I'm just setting up to do you a favour here. Really!

See, I know how much you love billionaires over there. You just love the bastards, don't you? You collect 'em. You show 'em off. You like to gloat about how many you've got, and kind of, you know, hold them up so that everyone can look at 'em.

You even take them from other countries, sometimes. You lifted Rupert Murdoch off us, for example, and we're still truly grateful for that. (Thanks again, by the way. Rupert's a real turdsucker. Try and keep him occupied, will you? Have an election or something. Rupe just loves elections.)

You also took Mel Gibson, even though he's only a multi-multi-millionaire. Sure, you took him before he was widely identified as a crazy, foul-mouthed, wife-beating, drunken, God-freaking bigot, but you know, we're still grateful. For a while there, people thought of Mel as an Australian, and frankly if that was still going on, who knows what people would think of us, eh?

Mel Gibson. In case you'd forgotten what crazy looks like.

Now, here's the favour I want to do you, America. I want to enhance your billionaire collection. And it's not just any old billionaire this time. Not some little media magnate or shipping overlord, no. Actually, I want to give you no less than the world's richest woman.

Yeah. Let that one sink in, eh? The world's richest woman.

Come on, that's gotta be special, right? No way your collection is complete as long as Australia's got the world's richest woman. You want her. You need her. Morally, philosophically, in every way that counts, she's really yours, right? Right?

Okay, it's true. Gina Rinehart is uglier than the wrong end of a naked mole rat. But she's rich. Rich!

A naked mole rat. Not pretty, no. Nor is it rich. But I'd still rather sit next to it on a bus than Gina Rinehart.

And okay, she's a morally bankrupt anal fissure who inherited her wealth and has already gone to unconscionable (and apparently illegal!) lengths to prevent any of her offspring from inheriting their share. But she's rich, and that sort of thing goes over perfectly well in America, if you're rich enough.

Okay, yes, she's also a deranged right-wing nutter who makes the masters of the slave economy in your Old South look like kind, gentle, socialist philanthropists. But since when has that ever been a problem for you, America?

Gina Rinehart: more American than America. Come and get her!


**Edited to add: if anyone thinks I have a particular problem with Rinehart because of her gender... heh. That's nice. You go on thinking whatever you like. But before you start any kind of discussion with me on my sexist approach to fat bastard billionaires, watch this youtube video. Twice.**

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Quiet Word To Anyone Listening

Eleven years ago I moved to Tasmania because my wife wanted us to have kids. I felt then, as I do now, that Tasmania would be a useful place to raise children, and I said quite clearly to those who asked back then that I thought there were some difficult times coming to the mainland.

I didn't foresee the 9/11 shit, no. But I did foresee the decline in oil and energy availability, and I guessed at the economic problems which would result. I also guessed that Queensland was going to cop some real problems from a climate which was already quite obviously beginning to change, and I'd point out that in the last couple years, we've seen record-breaking storms up north, and unprecedented floods in the south. 

I'm not claiming any kind of prescience. I just saying that I read carefully from a wide variety of news sources, and I'm good at pattern recognition, and I've been prepared to make very big life-decisions for myself and my family based on these things. Decisions which have stood up very well for us.

Well. It's that time again, folks.

There's trouble ahead.

Now, I'm well set for this trouble - or as well as I can imagine, short of getting a decent solar installation up and running. But I'm going to talk here, briefly, because those of you who might not yet have discerned the pattern of what's coming might want to maybe think about what steps you want to take for yourselves.

Here's the problem: the world's biggest exporter of food, particularly staples like corn, grain and soybeans, has been in the grip of a once-in-a-century drought for several months now. That would be the USA, of course. There's already been a very significant uptick in basic food commodity prices, and there's more due.

On top of that, it turns out that America's biggest single highway is also badly fucked by this drought. I'm referring to the Mississippi river. Something like 60% of US grain is moved along that river, and God alone knows how much of the soybean crop. Moving the stuff by barge costs a third what it would by rail (if they could find enough rail capacity) and moving it by truck costs maybe six times the cost of barge travel. And again, the sheer volume of river carriage is such that there just aren't enough road-trucks to handle it.

Unfortunately, the river is now so low, and so narrow, that it just can't carry all those big barges. And nobody really knows what to do about it. There's a lot of crops in storage, and in those barges right now. From what I read, they've got maybe two weeks to shift them before they start to go bad.

This, obviously, is not good. But let's add a few things.

Turns out that the grain/corn belt in Europe is also drought-struck at the moment, though not as badly as the US. Badly enough to make things difficult, though.

Now, one more thing: according to CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, it looks as though the El Nino phenomenon is building up once more in the Indian Ocean. And of course, El Nino means drought in Australia -- particularly in the Victorian and NSW wheat-belt areas, probably in about a year's time. Maybe two. (Or not at all. El Nino is hard to predict. We might get lucky. Maybe.)

All of this is already on the table. Any further crises of any sort will only intensify the problems we're already going to face. It would be nice if we didn't get any unexpected floods, fires, tsunamis, crop blights, giant storms, etc... but that's not how the world works, is it? 

A few years ago the world had a food production/distribution crisis. (I should point out that there is a large body of evidence to support the very interesting argument that it was precisely that food crisis which sparked off a series of riots, uprisings, and outright rebellions throughout the Arab world.)  We got through it, but as a result, the world's ready food stores are low. We haven't got a big safety margin here.

I don't pretend to know what kind of ramifications will result from a really serious, world-wide shortfall in food production. I don't know where the wars and riots will start. I don't know which countries will be thrown into turmoil. I don't know which aspects of our global economy will be damaged or destroyed.

I do know this: over the next two years, it's going to be extremely hard to feed seven billion people. And that is, without question, going to cause some very big problems.

You might want to think about your plans fairly carefully. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Winning At Being Dad

Busy day today. We had one extra with us -- the eldest Double-Banger child -- and we headed into Launceston to run a bunch of errands. Some of those errands took us past the music store: notably a trip to clean and refurbish Genghis' cornet.

Bit of a side story there. Launceston has one pawn shop I know of, and the proprietor is an amiable, interesting fellow. He gets a lot of odd stock through, and Launceston being Launceston, some of it is interesting musical instruments. I mean, right now, hanging in the window, there's a bowl-back lute, a very large zither, and an interesting stringed instrument I don't even recognise. Plus lots of others.

Anyway, a while back I'd dropped in there, and what should they have but quite an old, silver-plated cornet. I was curious, and asked to see it. Turns out it's a Besson, Australian made, and (estimating from the serial number and some Internet research) made somewhere around 1910-1920. But it had been beautifully looked after, and Besson make damned good instruments... so I bought it. It was priced under $200, so it wasn't exactly a gamble, but now, a couple years later, Genghis has taken to the trumpet like a much smaller, much whiter, much more sober Miles Davis, and the investment is paying off. (Yes. He's still playing bass, and enjoying it. But why not two instruments?)

So, we were at the music shop, putting the cornet in for a cleaning and service. And the Mau-Mau... she noticed the ukeleles.

I fuckin' hate ukeleles. I acknowledge their increasing popularity. I acknowledge that the ones coming onto the market now are generally a lot better than the fuck-awful pieces of shit that haunted my youth. I acknowledge that many of the people who play them do so with a sense of irony that adds an extra layer to their enjoyment. But... I fuckin' hate ukeleles.

I was, therefore, less than impressed when Natalie acquiesced, and the Mau-Mau acquired a shiny new music-fucker. However: about five minutes later, in the car, the universe spun dizzily on its axis. The stars aligned... and lo! It was good to be dad.

My seven-year-old daughter was sitting in the back of the car, picking out her first tune on the ukelele. Plucking the tune purely by ear and memory, she did it quite clearly, with decent timing, and a great deal of determination.

Yes. It was Smoke On The Water, by Deep Purple.

That's it, folks. I. Have. Won.