Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Maison Des Girrafes Caption Competition #32

On learning that the younger Croxi have a yen to play chess, and finding that no chess set in the Maison Des Girrafes exists that runs to the full number of pieces [I know how that feels - Ed] I ordered a set of chess pieces from eBay.

Having once seen the Isle of Lucy Lewis Chessmen at the British Museum, I thought it would be fun to get a replica set. Well, it arrived this morning, and the pieces seem so very lifelike that they just demand captions…
'How many times have I told you? Go to the dentist!'

Note: my replica pieces have been cast in resin, rather than carved from walrus ivory like the originals. Just thought you should know that, in case either one of you is or has ever been a walrus.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ideas For Making My Fortune #613

Long ago I dreamed up a wonderful way of making my fortune - the guinea-pig-powered lawnmower. A wire-frame cage exposed only to the ground could be filled with guinea-pigs and placed on the lawn. The enclosed rodents would chomp the grass to an even length, and fertilize the ground at the same time. Once the guinea pigs had cut the grass you'd move the contraption to an un-mown square. The problem was that guinea pigs are soon sated, so it took a long time to cut a fairly small area of lawn to an even length.

Back to the drawing board.

Then I had a better idea - produce and market an all-natural diet and health supplement from rabbit droppings. But it seemed a bit icky, and I only have one rabbit.

From this you can see that the reason these ideas didn't take off was nothing more than a simple failure of ambition. If you are going to be a successful entrepreneur in this day and age, you have to think BIG. What would Richard Branson do, I asked myself?

I know ...

I am going to start an airline.

It'll be a very special airline, catering to a very special class of customer. You could say it's a somewhat niche market. It'll be called HalachAir, with routes between New York, Ben-Gurion, Newcastle and London Stamford Hill Stansted, it'll cater exclusively for Haredi Jews. The world's first Torah Jewish airline.

Here's the schtick pitch. Haredi customers have very peculiar particular requirements. When on regular, commercial flights ostensibly open to all and run without discrimination on the basis of religion or gender, they insist on gender-segregated seating, and male passengers have caused flight delays by standing around in the aisles until other passengers, especially women, have been bullied persuaded to switch seats, because - why! - no self-respecting Haredi man would want to sit next to some shiksa a woman. The very thought is quite outrageous! I mean, she might be undergoing her menses, and, well, ick.

This is obviously a great cause of distress to all concerned, so HalachAir would offer gender-segregated seating as standard. Men would sit down one side of the 'plane, women on the other, with a nice filigreed modesty screen in the middle. There'd be three cabins - the super-luxury Cohen class up front, the Levi class in the middle and everyone else at the back. Food would (of course!) be glatt kosher.

Aisles (in the male section) would be extra-wide to facilitate schmoozing and random acts of worship. To accommodate these extra-wide, schmooze-friendly aisles and separate sections for men and women, HalachAir will be taking the concept of wide-bodied airliners seriously and chartering ex-USAF C5 Galaxy transports, which will be modified for civilian use (under rabbinic supervision, naturally.)

A HalachAir plane taking on extra supplies of matzot. Recently.
These planes are, in fact, so big that they'll be able to accommodate a mikveh, and not one but two onboard synagogues, so each passenger can have a synogogue they go to - and a synagogue they don't go to.

Although HalachAir will serve only a small number of destinations, careful routing will be a priority, to ensure - for example, that no flight ever passes over a graveyard, embarrassing Cohen-class passengers.

There will be no assigned seating within each class or gender, for market research shows that this segment of the jet-setting public likes nothing more than a good argument about their seating relative to other passengers, and will of course enjoy a good kvetch about it, so it seems best to let everyone sort it out for themselves. There will, naturally, be no kind of onboard entertainment of any kind. Passengers will be encouraged to make their own entertainment. Loud conversation, even yelling, will be positively encouraged. All seats can be detached from the floor by the passengers to facilitate the occasional impromptu in-flight simcha.

You might say that by catering only for the ultra-Orthodox community I'm going for a market too niche to support such an outlay. Well, the Haredi community is small, but it's increasing at a rapid rate. Mindful of the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply, the Haredi breed like rabbis rabbits, so this is a customer base that's growing all the time.

But I have saved the best until last. The engine mountings of HalachAir planes would be capable of full rotation, so that the plane could, if necessary, fly tail-first. This is to ensure that even when leaving Ben Gurion, the plane will be facing Jerusalem at all times.

HalachAir. The Torah Jewish choice. We say 'Next Year in Jerusalem', but why wait that long?

With welcome contributions from an anonymous well-wisher in Iowa.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Brilliance of Beards

Abu Qatada (with beard)
Say what else you like about radical Moslem cleric Abu Qatada, but his beard is absolutely brilliant.

If he were ever in an identity parade, he'd have to have been lined up with quite a few Tolkienian dwarves and two-thirds of the American beat combo ZZTop.

Notwithstanding inasmuch as which one critic, as I recall, noted that the vigorous physiognomical mycophily of actors in the magic-lantern version of The Fellowship of the Ring as hailing from 'The Osama Bin Laden school of coiffeur', and the nice irony that the only facially unadorned member of ZZTop goes under the moniker of Mr Beard.

But I digress.

Some time ago in these annals I wrote of some academic research on the prevalence of beards, showing that they were subject to what evolutionary biologists, irrespective of facial furniture, refer to as 'negative frequency-dependent sexual selection'. In ordinary language this means 'rarity value'. When men with beards are scarce, women will tend to go for beardies. But when beardies become the norm, a clean-shaven boat race is the preferred option.

It is my opinion that beardiness among (male) science and SF writers is cool. Forget the clean lines of yer Brian Cox or yer Richard Dawkins, but two of my favourite science writers, Brian Clegg and John Gribbin, are bearded, as is the well-known writer of speculative fiction Professor Trellis of North Wales (not pictured) and they are fantastic. I am also so adorned, trying to cultivate a trendy beardy-yet-bald style typified by hip SF author Neal Stephenson.

Beardiness is not without problems, though. Being as I am a Four-And-Two-ish Red-Sea Pedestrian of a somewhat swarthy cast, I sometimes find myself in what my friends of Indian and Pakistani origin call the 'brown queue' at airports, especially as I often travel alone and with only carry-on luggage. Once, I found myself at the barber and glanced in the mirror after he had shaved my head but before he'd tackled the very full beardage, and I could have passed for one of Osama Bin Laden's more loony cousins.

It's not just what I think, though. A few years ago my mother artlessly remarked that whenever she saw the mugshots of Islamist terror suspects on the TV news "I always think that they look just like Henry."

Now, when your own mother thinks you look like an Islamic terror suspect ...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice #167

This one spotted in scenic (or, as he would put it, 'glamorous') Snowdonia, by Professor Trellis of North Wales, who apprised the image using photographic equipment of his own and belonging to him, so it is, and used with permission.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Joyless In Night Vale

I expect by now all three of you know that Crox Minor and I are fans of the cult podcast Welcome to Night Vale, a spoof community radio broadcast from a small, fictional desert town somewhere in the US, where every conspiracy theory of which you have ever heard is, in fact, true; where Hooded Figures keep you from the Dog Park; where show-anchor Cecil Palmer rhapsodizes over his love for visiting scientist Carlos; and where the mayoral candidates include a five-headed dragon and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home. It has been compared - very aptly, I think - to what Lake Woebegon would have been like had it been written by Stephen King.

Crox Minor and I would huddle each fortnight in the Home Orifice to hear the lastest broadcast, and reminisce afterwards about our favourite characters and lines. I've even submitted some original music to 'the Weather'.

Imagine, then, our joy at finding other Night Vale fans when we went to WorldCon last month.
Fans of Welcome to Night Vale, recently.
Imagine, even more, how loudly we went 'squueeee!' at the thought that there would be a panel on our favourite show. Here is the excerpt from the WorldCon programme:

Well, it was heaving with fans and we were expecting to pass a pleasant hour soaking up the camaraderie engendered by the shared love of ephemeral popular culture.

When we left, I had a bad taste in my mouth, and I confess my ability to enjoy Welcome To Night Vale has decreased as a result.

The panel, I regret to say, was stuffed with the Politically Correct, who rather than sharing their views, were intent on telling us, the great unwashed audience, What To Think.

It is clear to anyone who listens to Welcome To Night Vale that it is steeped in the schlock that is H. P. Lovecraft. Indeed, earlier editions of the show even reference the batty old scribbler from Providence by name. But the first person in the audience in the Night Vale session at WorldCon who mentioned Lovecraft was shouted down by a panellist. "Don't even mention Lovecraft to the creators of Night Vale!" we were told, on account of the fact that Lovecraft was the most dreadful racist. So he was, but that (I submit) shouldn't prevent one enjoying his horror fiction. I mean, I enjoy the verses of Hilaire Belloc, even though he was an anti-semite. The authority on which the panellist could base this ukase was questionable - none of the creators of Night Vale was in evidence. This interview (with actor Cecil Baldwin, who plays Cecil Palmer,) suggests that the creators of Night Vale don't like Lovecraft's world view, but recognise that it's very dated, and that doesn't mean one cannot appreciate or be influenced by his work.

Then came an extended tirade from one of the panellists on how poorly (in her opinion) Night Vale treated disabled people. This made no sense at all to me, nor, I guess, to many of the audience. Night Vale has a panoply of characters with all kinds of peculiarities. People have varying numbers of heads, for example, or are invisible, or have been turned into lizards, or - in the most discussed case - were born as the single hand of an adult male. To me, this looks like a clear riff on The Beast With Five Fingers or, perhaps, that character from the Addams Family. But, Oh No, we were told - this was all about people with disability and how they are treated in our Society.

Er … what?

I should say, at this point, that Welcome to Night Vale is perhaps the most PC broadcast you will ever have heard. The anchor is openly, joyously gay. You'll find absolutely no kind of discrimination in Night Vale on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or number of heads. Nobody ever seems to carry a gun, not even the Sherriff's Secret Police. And everyone is quite happy with this. It's all just wonderful. How anybody at all can find anything objectionable in Welcome To Night Vale beats me.

And yet, still, they do.

This suggests to me that Political Correctness is less about promoting equality and ending discrimination than of the purposed domination of thought by a joyless, humourless, sanctimonious, self-important and most of all self-elected elite, who will plainly not stop finding offence with things until all originality and creativity have been expunged forever.

To me, an English listener, Night Vale is funny. It is an entertainment. Yes, there is, buried not too deeply, some biting political and social satire, and a recent episode had some trenchant remarks to make about retirement, and how we shouldn't define ourselves by our jobs - for when we retire from our jobs, what are we then? But it derives its comedy from the Absurd. It reminds me very much of old-fashioned radio comedy such as The Goon Show and Round The Horne. Anyone who takes it too seriously should probably loosen the bolts in their necks.

Many American listeners of this American show, though, especially those cast in a younger and more self-important mould, cannot help slather it in the noisome ichor that is Political Correctness, and, in so doing, suck all the joy and laughter and fun out of it.

The Politically Correct are like the Dementors in the Harry Potter adventures. Let them in and they will flood your soul with despair. For me, they have tainted my appreciation of a show I once loved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scotland, Upon A Peak in Darien

As the world and its terrier (complete with tartan coat) ramps up to the Scottish referendum on independence this Thursday, I did a little digging around into the circumstances of the Act of Union in 1707, in which the Kingdom of Scotland formally joined the United Kingdom. They were, it has be be said, squalid.

England and Scotland had shared a monarch since 1603, but in all other respects the nations were quite separate - rather like, say, Canada and Australia today. So what prompted the formal, political union more than a century later?

It wasn't necessary.

Neither was it inevitable.

Well, it turns out that Scotland's membership of the Union came as the result of an heroic failure on the international stage. I speak not of football, but of a colonial adventure which drove Scotland to the brink of bankruptcy - and into the arms of England.

The scheme, in the closing years of the seventeenth century, was the establishment of a Scottish colony at Darien on the Ishthmus of Panama, a bridgehead with the potential to control trade between Atlantic and Pacific.

As an idea, it was brilliant.

As a practical proposition, it was mad.

The Scots sent two expeditions - the first in 1698, the second in 1699 - to establish a colony. It foundered in a welter of malaria and debt. Unable to gather sufficient capital to back the scheme from abroad, the Scots went alone and backed the enterprise to the tune of around £500,000 - about half the entire capital of Scotland at the time, including contributions from many individual Scots. They lost the lot. So ruined, Scotland had little option but to throw in its lot with England to create the UK.

Now, it has to be said that some of the hands which prompted the failure of the Darien Scheme were English. The plan was certainly viewed with extreme disfavour by the vastly powerful East India Company - which, it is important to remember, was not an agent of the Crown, but an independent commercial concern, as it was right up to the Indian Mutiny in 1857.  Today we'd see it as a kind of investment bank with its own army.

Are there lessons here for the referendum in two days' time? I hesitate to draw parallels. But I do wonder whether this interesting yet near-forgotten diverticulum of history has been considered by anyone in the current debate. Perhaps it should.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


A little while ago I told you how I'd started to freshen up my Home Orifice. Given that I spend a great deal of time in the Home Orifice, either on my recognizance or in my work at the Submerged Log Company, and that it hadn't been refurbished since I moved into it four years ago, I felt it needed some attention.

Well, by dint of elbows, knees, my amazing dancing teeth and the awesome power of chi, it's done. All the walls have been repainted; the shelves are up; (almost) all the clutter has been removed; the floor has seen a vacuum cleaner; and I have even dusted the piano.

Here is the view from the doorway, looking North.

…and here is the view southwards, from the Chair.

What's not perhaps evident is that I have gained about ten metres of shelf space. I did this by removing one of the two desktops (which only attracted rubbish), filling out every unused corner, putting a shelf above the window and so on.

Until I'd spread the books out a bit, it looked like a catalog warehouse the day after Christmas. But the space is still there, which means I have space for more books!