Monday, November 11, 2019

I'd like to try cooking them

I was amused to read that clay tablets, many thousands of years old, containing ancient Babylonian recipes have been decoded, and researchers are trying to prepare the dishes they describe.

The instructions for lamb stew read more like a list of ingredients than a bona fide recipe: “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” But it’s impossible to ask the chef to reveal the missing pieces: This recipe’s writer has been dead for some 4,000 years.

Instead, a team of international scholars versed in culinary history, food chemistry and cuneiform (the Babylonian system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia) have been working to recreate this dish and three others from the world’s oldest-known recipes. It’s a sort of culinary archaeology that uses tablets from Yale University’s Babylonian Collection to gain a deeper understanding of that culture through the lens of taste.

. . .

Of the older three tablets, the most intact is more of a listing of ingredients that amounts to 25 recipes of stews and broths; the other two, containing an additional 10-plus recipes, go further in depth with cooking instructions and presentation suggestions, but those are broken and therefore not as legible.

The challenge was to peel back the layers of history while also maintaining authenticity amid the limitations of modern ingredients.

. . .

“I was really surprised to find that what is a staple in Iraq today, which is a stew, is also a staple from ancient times, because in Iraq today, that is our daily meal: stew and rice with a bread,” Nasrallah said. “It is really fascinating to see how such a simple dish, with all its infinite variety, has survived from ancient times to present, and in those Babylonian recipes, I see not even the beginnings; they already had reached sophisticated levels in cooking those dishes. So who knows how much earlier they began?”

There's more at the link.

It's fascinating to trace human history and wanderings through local, regional and international cuisine.  Many people are unaware of just how many influences have helped to shape and form a food culture that they mistakenly regard as unique.

To take just one example in the United States, consider Texas "cowboy cooking".  It blends food traditions from West Africa, the Caribbean, the Carolinas, Cajun and Creole influences, Spanish and South American dishes, and the uniquely home-grown "cook what you've got" approach of frontier settlers, plus modern adulterations of those historical influences, and combines them all into what has become a food tradition in its own right.  A fascinating book on the subject is "The Texas Cowboy Cookbook:  A History in Recipes and Photos", which devotes a chapter to each of the major influences affecting that cuisine, and offers many authentic recipes.  I've made some of them.  They're delicious!

It's the best historical treatment of its subject that I've yet found, and the photographs in particular (many dating from the era in question) are intensely interesting.  It's one of my standard reference books for the "Ames Archives" series of Western novels, not just in terms of meals, but the supplies that would be carried and used by travelers, trail drives and the like.  You'll read a lot more about them in the next Walt Ames novel, to be published in 2020.


That's a trick they didn't teach us at seminary . . .

Being a retired chaplain, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at yesterday's Pearls Before Swine comic strip.  (Click the image to see a larger version at the comic's Web page.)

The comic amused me on many levels, but it also highlights a sad truth.  I don't believe in the so-called "rapture" (it's not biblically valid at all, and was never part of the teaching of the early church), but an awful lot of people seem to spend an awful lot of time arguing about it.  In fact, so many alleged Christians spend so much time arguing about when and where we've come from, and when and where we're going to, they forget that being a Christian necessarily implies living out one's faith today, and every day.  That's the Biblical principle, anyway.

As far as I'm concerned, the end of the world can look after itself.  If I'm still around at the time, I daresay I'll find out about it!


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sunday morning music

While I was in hospital last week, a reader sent me the link to a new music video by Russian trio (and occasional quartet) Silenzium.  They appear to be a living definition of "Don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle" (or, in this case, "Don't sell the music, sell the sexy!").

I'd never heard of them, so I looked them up. says of them:

Silenzium was created in 2004 by young musicians from Novosibirsk Philharmonic Society. Silenzium is a classical string quartet with the addition of a contrabass and a drum set, which breaks all the stereotypes about a traditional sound of a string band.

There's more at the link.  Interesting reading.

They certainly have a varied and eclectic musical repertoire.  I've selected three of their pieces, including the one sent to me.  To begin, here's one they call "Storm", based on Vivaldi's music.  They say of it, on their Russian-language Web site (courtesy of Google Translate):
We present to your attention our new clip - Silenzium - Storm (Vivaldi cover)! Currently, there are many versions of this classic masterpiece, but we could not pass by without showing the world our vision of this music. For us, the Storm is about nature ... women! Women are free, passionate, beautiful and happy in their freedom!

Next, here's a more reflective performance they call "Moment of Peace".

Finally, here's their cover of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence".

Interesting performances, although less musically than aesthetically, I suspect!  Still, they have quite a following.  You can see and hear more of their work on their YouTube channel.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Saturday Snippet: Repairing a capitalist motorcycle in communist Yugoslavia

Tim Severin is almost legendary among modern explorers and historians.  From his college days, he's specialized in studying an ancient voyage of discovery or some other historical travel narrative, and recreating it using technology of the period and in as practical a way as possible.  In doing so, he's dispelled many myths, but he's also proved that many stories thought to be myth and fable were, in fact, firmly grounded in reality.  (Two of the most fascinating are the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Ulysses' voyage from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca, both re-enacted aboard a galley built in classical Greek style.)  I have most of his many books in my collection.

His first book, published when he was still studying at university, is titled "Tracking Marco Polo".

In it, he and two university student colleagues used motorcycles to retrace the footsteps of Marco Polo across Europe and Asia, trying to demonstrate that the fabled journey of this Venetian explorer was, in fact, true and verifiable.  Although unable to enter China, they got through Afghanistan to the Chinese border, shedding new light in today's troubled world on how that part of the world was not many decades ago.

One of the more amusing parts of their journey was trying to get a much-abused motorcycle repaired in Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia.  I thought you might enjoy their adventures there.

Mike, who had been learning to drive, crashed his machine whilst coming down a steeply winding mountain road; this time it was Stan who was in the sidecar. We had not gone much more than twenty-five kilometres from Belgrade when the accident happened, so Stan drove back to the city on the remaining motorcycle to fetch help. Meanwhile Mike and I awaited his return confidently, for we knew that Stan was at his best when faced with the problem of organizing other people into doing something that he wanted. We had noticed this phenomenon time and again when the expedition had been held up for want of some small detail or other. A favourite pastime was to ask Stan to obtain bread in some small wretched-looking village where no baker’s shop could be seen and where we did not even speak the local dialect. Like a huge bear, Stan would roll into the darkened doorway of a peasant’s hut, and gruff grunts were heard from inside. Then Stan’s tousled head would re-appear as he emerged blinking from the scene of operations, clutching a large loaf to his chest and often bearing other local delicacies as well. He seemed to take the whole exercise so nonchalantly that we never inquired how he managed the whole thing without ever parting with any money.

As ever, Stan excelled himself. After a few hours he returned from Belgrade on a very ancient pick-up truck in the company of its very, very drunken crew and a beautiful ballerina! The latter had been given a lift en route and was highly decorative, but useless, whilst the truck’s crew were not even decorative. They had been enticed away from their homes by Stan’s blandishments and on the way had stopped at every opportunity for powerful fortifiers. The scene, as we attempted to load the battered motorcycle and sidecar onto the lorry in the late twilight, was pure comic opera. The befuddled Serbs placed two planks against the truck’s tailboard to act as ramps. Then, when our precious machine was halfway up, the planks slipped away and the sidecar fell down with a shattering crash. On the second attempt we made sure that the planks were firmly positioned, but this time, when the motorcycle combination was halfway up, the lorry quietly slid away from under the planks and went careering off down the hill. Above the noise of our machine nosediving onto the road in a repeat performance, we could hear the two Serbs screaming insults at each other for forgetting to set the lorry’s handbrake. This exchange of recriminations was only brought to a halt by a dull thud farther down the road as their precious lorry came to rest against a brick wall.

Finally we recovered the lorry, loaded our machines on board and set out in the darkness along the winding mountain road back to Belgrade. The journey was a nightmare, for not only was the roadworthiness of the lorry highly suspect, but its headlights had been effectively obliterated earlier in the evening. This did not deter our Serbian friends in any way at all, even though the driver was in such a state of intoxication that he kept on getting his arms entwined in the spokes of the steering wheel, while the vehicle tore round the hairpin bends at full speed. The members of the expedition clung for dear life to the crazy super-structure of the truck, as we fought with brute strength to hold down the motorcycle which threatened to slide overboard at any moment and shoot off into space when the lorry’s tail hung tantalizingly out over the mountain shoulder of the road. Naturally, we stopped for more slivovitz, and yet somehow we were all still in one piece when we reached a garage on the outskirts of Belgrade.

Once more the Marco Polo Route Project was back in Belgrade, heartily sick of the city and condemned to a further frustrating halt while we waited for the motorcycle and its sidecar to be repaired. The garage where we left the machines was a depot for the hard-worked lorries and buses that belonged to the State Transport Services. However it was not so much the repair of public vehicles which delayed the only available mechanic from attending to our needs; the real trouble was that he spent the whole of every morning washing down and polishing an enormous bulbous limousine which belonged to a Party Chief. The little mustachioed mechanic’s name was Popovitch, and with him was a sour-looking individual who never opened his mouth in our presence. This character’s name was never mentioned, but we were told he was a key Communist, Russian trained and a strong Party man.

Whilst the key Communist looked on, Popovitch eventually started repairing the bent sidecar. Now the Serbo-Croatian idea of repairing anything seems to be to belabour it very hard with a sledge hammer. This method is crude, but in certain situations most effective. Above all, it is quick, so once he had actually started on the job, Popovitch soon fixed things up, after which he and I decided to go for a victory spin down the main street. While I mounted on one machine, Popovitch rode the other and the Ubiquitous Communist climbed up behind him, presumably to check up on any capitalist deviations. During the race I managed to edge into the lead and when a tram forced me to brake suddenly, Popovitch, naturally enough, crashed heavily into the rear of my machine. Turning round with a sinking heart, it was immediately clear that a further dose of the Serbian sledgehammer technique was required. The only consolation was that our tight-lipped Communist fellow-traveller had at last broken silence and was hopping furiously around as he shrieked a stream of curses at the capitalist machine which had struck him a sharp blow on the knee-cap.

In an attempt to cheer ourselves up whilst the machines went back for repairs, the three of us took a bus ride a few kilometres out to a fair at Avala. The fairground was at the top of a small hill where stands a monument to the Unknown Resistance Fighter, or ‘The Ignorant Partisan’, as we were charmingly misinformed. From the hill you could look out over well-cultivated fields to the junction of the Danube and the Save where they meet at the site of an old Roman camp to flow on as one river to the Black Sea.

. . .

Next morning, impatient to be on our way, we called in early at the garage, but to our dismay Popovitch and one of the motorcycles were missing. Furious, we tracked down the Popovitch home in a dusty suburb. There we found his wife in tears, barely able to speak through her sobs. With one expressive gesture, her hand came forward and turned an imaginary, but very conclusive, key. There was no doubt that poor Popovitch had been locked up under a serious charge. So we went to the enormous grey barracks of Police Headquarters, 29th November Street. Inside, we were conducted along gloomy passages and past doors with the paint flaking from them, until we were finally ushered into the office of the Chief of Section III, Investigations. Behind an alarmingly empty desk under the usual picture of Marshal Tito sat a very tough-looking official. The translator stated our case and a quick telephone call was made.

Some minutes later Popovitch was escorted in. The poor fellow looked utterly worn out and terrified. He had been using our motorcycle to get home at the end of his day’s work when he had been arrested on suspicion of having stolen the machine. He beseeched us to verify his story, and he was so completely pathetic that we sprang to his defence with some very sharp comments about the whole situation. In the end we took Popovitch back to his home, and he was literally crying with gratitude when he moistly kissed us goodbye, and we went our way, sombrely reflecting on police procedures.

As the author freely admits, they were three ill-prepared amateurs in search of adventure, who all too frequently found what they were looking for!  Still, it's fascinating to read how many details of Marco Polo's adventures they were able to verify as based on fact.  Severin would go on from strength to strength as an explorer and author, writing many books based on his expeditions.  All are worth reading, and many have recently been republished in very economical e-book editions.  Recommended for those who like real-life travel and adventure.

You can read more about Tim Severin and his books, movies, etc. at his Web site.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Well, that was fun (NOT!)

In October 2009, I suffered a heart attack, that led to quadruple bypass surgery.  Since then, I've had other medical issues, but my heart has behaved itself.

On Tuesday morning (November 5th, which is, perhaps appropriately in this case, Guy Fawkes Day), I had brunch about 10 a.m., carried on with my morning's work, and took a brief nap during the early afternoon.  When I woke up, I had a tight feeling in my chest, not unlike indigestion, but it grew in intensity, centered over my heart, and I began to get radiated pain in my left arm.  Sounds familiar, no?

I called Old NFO, who kindly ran me in to the emergency room at Big Hospital in a nearby city (which was faster than calling an ambulance to come out from there, pick me up, and go all the way back).  EKG and other test results were normal, but since my first heart attack, they've developed some new ones, including a cardiac enzyme test.  The first reading they took was normal, but they had me wait in the ER to do a follow-up test, two hours later.  The second reading was elevated, indicating something was going on.  By then, my chest pain had subsided, but they kept me overnight for observation and continued testing.

By Wednesday morning, the enzyme level was very elevated, indicating damage somewhere in there.  An echocardiogram still didn't show anything, so my cardiologist, who's been keeping an annual eye on me since we moved here, scheduled a heart catheterization for Wednesday afternoon.  He found that one of the bypasses installed in 2009 had become blocked, in what's called a "silent heart attack", not presenting most of the usual symptoms.  Rather than open up my chest to repair it, he was able to unblock the artery that it had originally bypassed, using a balloon catheter and a stent.  (Apparently that technology has improved since I had bypass surgery.)

It was probably the weirdest surgical experience I've ever had (and I've had 19 surgeries so far!).  I was conscious throughout the proceedings.  To feel... things... crawling around inside me, snaking through my armpit to reach across my chest to the heart, was... it was unnerving, to put it mildly!  At one point, the surgeon casually remarked, "This is going to feel like fire ants crawling up inside your arm".  It did!  Very uncomfortable, and really, really weird.

To cut a long story short, the procedure was a success.  I'm on added medication for the next year, to keep my blood thinned and prevent a clot forming in the stent (apparently the heart doesn't like foreign bodies being shoved into it - who'd o' thunk?).  I was released yesterday morning, with a warning to be very, very careful over the next week while my arm heals up - weight limits on lifting, no sudden effort, and all that sort of thing.  (Apparently major blood vessels don't like having foreign objects shoved through them to reach the heart, and take time to get back to normal.)  I've also been warned (and have since experienced) that I'm likely to experience sudden shortness of breath and dizziness from time to time, but I'm told this will wear off after "some days".

Thanks for your patience during my silence on this blog.  I probably won't get up to full blogging speed until Monday, but I'll try to put up something here and there to let you know I'm still around.  Thanks, too, for your prayers and good wishes.

One good thing about hospital stays;  if you can't sleep, and have a laptop computer with you (thanks to Miss D. bringing it from home), you can still get some writing done.  I managed to write a chapter and a half on the work in progress, and I'll pick up the pace once I'm over this.

Oh - one more thing.  If you've had any unexplained feelings in your chest that resembled indigestion, or shortness of breath, or anything else that worries you, you might want to read more about silent heart attacks.  I'm told they happen rather more often than people suspect, and can lead to future complications.  It can't do any harm to check, if your medical insurance covers such examinations;  and it might help to prevent an early shuffling off of this mortal coil in future.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Unexpected absence

For reasons I won't go into right now, I find myself unable to keep a regular blogging schedule today. Please amuse yourselves with the blogs in my sidebar, and forgive my absence.  I hope regular blogging will resume tomorrow, God willing.



Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Testing a new anti-tank missile - in combat

I recently came across an extraordinary voice recording on YouTube that brought back many memories.  Before I embed it, a little background information is necessary.

South Africa bought ENTAC anti-tank missiles from France during the 1960's.  Like many such first-generation weapons, they proved pretty useless in combat, scoring some hits, but many more misses.  During the 1970's, MILAN anti-tank missiles were added to the inventory, including a version produced under license.  However, this was a short- to medium-range missile, and did not provide the long range or striking power the Army wanted for bush warfare.  Unfortunately, thanks to the 1977 arms embargo against South Africa, a more modern, more capable system could not be bought on the open market.

South Africa therefore turned to some creative industrial espionage.  It got hold of some American BGM-71 TOW missile systems, and set its engineers to work on them.  With the aid of foreign electronics and technical assistance, a version was developed that used a laser beam for guidance instead of a wire deployed from the missile, very similar to the Israeli MAPATS.  (Hughes would later develop a similar, but more advanced, version of such a round as the TOW-2B Aero RF.)

A production line was established for the new missile, which was initially known as the ZT3 (although why that name was chosen, I don't know;  it was later renamed the ZT3 Ingwe).  In order to prove its quality, pre-production test missiles were rushed into action in Angola in 1987, just in time for Operation Moduler, where they helped to destroy Angola's 47 Brigade on the Lomba River.  The first examples displayed a distressing tendency to "sky" (i.e. zoom upward, aiming at the sun, rather than following the laser beam):  but enough of them worked to score destructive hits on 3 Angolan T-55 tanks.  They also provided enough "combat testing" information to greatly improve the quality of subsequent production missiles.

Here's the audio from Major Hannes Nortmann's ZT3-equipped Ratel infantry fighting vehicle during that early engagement.  There's a fair amount of foul language, and some pretty tense moments as missiles malfunction, as well as jubilation when they hit.

And here's what one of those tanks looked like after it was hit.

The reason I was so excited to find that audio recording was that I wasn't far away at the time.  It brought back a lot of memories!

The ZT3 is still in service, in upgraded form, and has been sold to several international customers.


A nationwide scam on Airbnb?

I've never used Airbnb myself, but I have several friends who've done so.  I was therefore rather worried to read that there seems to be a widespread scam going on involving properties listed on Airbnb.

I had unknowingly stumbled into a nationwide web of deception that appeared to span eight cities and nearly 100 property listings—an undetected scam created by some person or organization that had figured out just how easy it is to exploit Airbnb’s poorly written rules in order to collect thousands of dollars through phony listings, fake reviews, and, when necessary, intimidation. Considering Airbnb’s lax enforcement of its own policies, who could blame the scammers for taking advantage of the new world of short-term rental platforms? They had every reason to believe they could do so with impunity.

. . .

Airbnb only refunded me $399 of my $1,221.20, and only did so after I badgered a number of case managers over the course of several days. The $399 didn’t even include the service fees Airbnb charged me for the pleasure of being thrown out on the street.

. . .

It seemed as if one person or group might have created numerous phony accounts to run a much larger Airbnb operation. If that proved true, it meant whoever ran the five accounts I’d located was controlling at least 94 properties in eight different cities. How many other people who had been scammed out of money like me?

. . .

No one at the company ever agreed to speak on the record about the specifics of what I uncovered. Nor would anyone answer any of my questions about Airbnb's verification process. As far as what obligation it has to people who have fallen victim to a scam on Airbnb's platform, the company only said in an email that it is "here 24/7 to support with rebooking assistance, full refunds and reimbursements" in cases of fraud or misrepresentation by hosts. Maybe Airbnb couldn't get more detailed about its verification process because it doesn't have much of one at all.

There's more at the link.

I'm not in a position to comment from personal experience, but the investigative work done by the author of that article appears to be credible and convincing, on the face of it.  If you use Airbnb, or are thinking of doing so, I urge you to read the article in full, and learn the warning signs that your rental may be part of such a scam.  It might save you a lot of money.


For boys needing cutting-edge toys

Being African born and bred, I've always had a high regard for a machete as a very useful all-round tool.  It can not only clear brush or chop up light wood;  it's easier to carry than an axe, it's a very viable weapon if push comes to shove, and it's cheap enough that if you break one, it's seldom a problem to replace it.

That being said . . . Cold Steel is currently having a sale on many of their machete models.  Some are below $10!  They make good tools, and the prices they're advertising are the lowest I've ever seen for some of their models.

If you don't have a machete, or don't have enough machetes (who does?), or have friends who need one, there are some very good deals.  No, I'm not shilling for them, and they're not compensating me in any way for publicizing this.  I just own several of their products, and I thought my readers would be as interested in these deals as I am.



Monday, November 4, 2019

The Albanian Mafia - it's a real thing

A couple of years ago, my wife and I went down to Dallas-Fort Worth to buy some replacement chairs for our dining room table.  We were given the address of an "interesting" restaurant furniture shop, which seemed to be stocked largely with things that had fallen off the back of various and sundry trucks.  The proprietor, "Eddie", was a very interesting person too:  an Albanian immigrant, who'd been in the USA for a couple of decades, but hadn't lost anything of his Mediterranean background or his Albanian customs.  Miss D. was highly amused by the almost courtly way he treated her as the wife of an honored customer... but she had to keep her place.  No new-fangled women's lib around here!

Anyway, we were laughing about "Eddie" and his ways on the way home, and I got to thinking.  I knew that the Albanian Mafia was a big thing in the criminal underworld of Europe, and to some extent in the USA.  What if they, in due course, extended their tentacles into space?  After thinking about it some more, I wrote the Cochrane's Company trilogy, which was published in 2018, and has proved fairly popular.  It deals with precisely that - the Albanian Mafia in space.

I was reminded of this backstory by a crime report last weekend.  I won't go into details, because a friend is involved, but it seems an Albanian gang tried to extort a business owner, and got shot up for their pains.  It seems both criminals and potential victims have a hard streak to them in Albania!


Meeting an old friend for the first time

Last Saturday, Miss D. and I drove down to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to meet someone with whom I've had contact online for something like twenty years, but never actually met.

Kim du Toit is well known in the blogosphere and shooting fraternity, and is also a writer.  He used to blog at The Other Side of Kim, but that went away some years ago.  To my great pleasure, he started blogging again a couple of years ago at his new online home, Splendid Isolation.  He's recently remarried, after the death of his first wife, and his lady (also from South Africa) is settling down and finding her feet in her new home.

We met at the British Emporium, a mecca for expatriate British and South Africans that stocks many of the foods and other goodies with which we grew up.  I daren't visit there too often - it's bad for my bank balance!  After each putting a dent in our respective wallets, we adjourned to a barbecue restaurant and enjoyed a very good, very meaty meal.  (It's the first time I've had prime rib prepared in barbecue style.  It was interesting.)  Thereafter we adjourned to Kim's home for tea and conversation, where I salivated over his minty-condition SMLE rifle dating from World War I.  (I told him I'd buy it anytime he wants to sell it, but I suspect I'm a long way back in the queue!)

We had to take our leave at last, and wend our way through DFW evening traffic to get back on the road homeward.  (I truly detest big-city traffic, which is one reason I don't live in a big city any more!)

It was great to finally meet Kim.  We've invited him to come up here and join us for one of the regular get-togethers of the North Texas Writers, Shooters and Pilots Association, and I hope he and his wife will soon count themselves members.


The collapse of America's cities into Third World conditions

It's infuriating to be living in the leading nation in the First World, the largest or second-largest economy in the world (depending on who's measuring, and how), and the most powerful nation in the world, and yet see Third World levels of filth, infrastructural breakdown and dysfunctional government invade many of our cities.

The headlines over the past few years tell a horrifying story to anyone who values the achievements of civilization.  I won't bother linking to actual reports here;  there are so many that simple Internet searches will find an abundance of them.  Consider these areas of concern:
  • Public urination and defecation;
  • Homeless encampments invading city streets, inconveniencing businesses and passersby;
  • Partisan city governments choosing sides in political debate, to the extent of deploying their law enforcement agencies to support one side and muzzle the other;
  • Crimes being incorrectly reported, and low-level crimes being deliberately ignored so as to "better allocate" scarce police and prosecution resources;
  • Politically correct criteria being used to define who is "good" or "bad" on any particular issue, and use city resources accordingly to support or block them;
  • The wholesale waste of taxpayer money on politically correct projects, or those aiming to enrich the "privileged few", while ignoring the ever-increasing burden being placed upon taxpayers;
  • The use of pension promises to enrich those working for city governments, without making provision to actually pay what has been promised.

There are many other elements and criteria one could use, but they merely contribute more to the same result - the breakdown of our cities.  Daily examples may be found in San Francisco's infamous "poop map", Chicago's crime statistics, and other sources.  They tell the same story in different words.

What I find most infuriating (and most incomprehensible) is that so many Americans appear willing to just let this go on.  Why is there not a massive public outcry against so great a breakdown of the standards in which most of us were raised?  Why are we not demanding that our local governments act to clean up our cities?  In the final analysis, if our local authorities refuse to take action, why are we not doing so ourselves?

I've lived in Third World countries.  I've seen cities like Kinshasa in Congo, Nairobi in Kenya, and Harare in Zimbabwe.  I've even been in real hell-holes like Massawa in Eritrea, and some of the ports in West Africa during the worst of the unrest there.  American cities are nowhere near that bad yet . . . but they've fallen a long way from the pinnacle to which they'd climbed.  If you took a resident of San Francisco, or Chicago, or Baltimore, or Philadelphia, in the 1950's and 1960's, and dropped him into the same cities today, he'd be horrified, outraged and disgusted to see how his home town had deteriorated.

Why have we tolerated this, and why are we doing nothing to reverse it?  It's no good blaming our politicians.  We elect them.  If we persist in electing such feckless, useless nonentities, it's on us, not them.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sunday morning music

I had a very long day yesterday, driving down to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex with my wife to meet new friends.  We had a great time, but arrived home quite late, thanks to Saturday evening traffic down south.  (Living up here in north Texas, we sometimes lose sight of how nice it is to live in communities small enough that rush hour lasts twenty minutes or so, and never stops moving!)

That didn't leave me much time to think about this morning's post.  As a placeholder, and because I found myself listening to it a lot this week (food for inspiration while writing a particular scene), here's Clamavi de Profundis, a musical family group, with their version of the Lament for the Rohirrim from the film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings".

Lovely music, and great food for thought for writers.


Saturday, November 2, 2019

Saturday snippet: urinary frigidity

A few weeks ago, I published an excerpt from the late Brigadier Dick Lord's history of the South African Air Force, "From Fledgling to Eagle".  It was well received, particularly because it was very funny, and I had several requests for more of his tales of flight and fighting in the service of three different countries.  I'm happy to oblige, and I'll post more snippets from his books at odd intervals in future.

This tale comes at the end of his advanced training as a pilot in Britain's Fleet Air Arm, during the very early 1960's.  It's taken from his autobiography, "From Tailhooker to Mudmover", which is well worth reading for any aviation enthusiast.

Winter can be very severe in the 'frozen' north of Scotland. To protect its aircrew the navy insists they wear immersion suits on all flights during the winter months - a wise precaution that has saved many lives over the years.  However, the 'Goon Suit' is not the easiest piece of clothing to put on or take off.

. . .

Getting dressed in the morning is similar to a military operation, which requires proper planning and minute attention to detail. This detail includes ensuring that one's necessary bodily functions are completely attended to before the final layers of suit are applied.  The manufacturers, in a gesture of kindness to the occupants, modified the suits with the addition of a 'pee-tube'.  It was always a wise precaution to check, before flight, that the attached waxed cord securely bound this opening at the crotch.

. . .

Saying cheerio to the Lossiemouth controller, we turned south and started the long climb to 41,000 feet.  This took 21 minutes in the old Venom, and during the climb, physical science took effect. As the aircraft ascended, the outside air temperature dropped by 2 degrees Centigrade [about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] for every 1,000 feet increase in height. However, inside the cockpit, the heating system maintained a comfortable temperature.

A more noticeable scientific phenomenon became increasingly apparent as we climbed. As our height increased, the outside air pressure decreased. As this outside pressure decreases, the effect on the human body is similar to an inside pressure increase. Now, I had consumed many cups of coffee during the morning, and the higher we climbed the greater became the pressure differential. As we leveled off at the top of the climb, I spoke to Nick on the intercom, and told him to look at his charts and find a place to land. In answer to his very surprised "Why?" I told him that I needed to pee.

We were sprogs eager to complete our training so, after a discussion, he convinced me that we could not land just anywhere to have a pee. This decision did nothing to relieve my ever-worsening situation. I could not cross my legs because of the offending control column; things were becoming critical.

Looking around the cramped cockpit for some form of salvation, my eyes settled on Nick's helmet. My request was flatly refused. Next I looked at the Cape leather flying gloves we were wearing. Mine was an older pair and the stitching at the end of the fingers was coming adrift. Nick's, however, were brand new and he grudgingly removed one after I convinced him how real the emergency had become. With this glove I held the solution to my problems, but nothing in life is easy!

I was wearing a 'goon suit' with all the required underclothes. I was strapped into my parachute with lap, shoulder, and waist straps. I was also strapped into the ejection seat with a further set of lap, shoulder and waist straps. Just below my knees, leg garters attached to the seat pan, and across my chest hung my main and emergency oxygen hoses. A radio lead attached my helmeted head to the aircraft. Between my legs was the control column, which protruded from the cockpit floor, and my feet extended below the instrument panel on the rudder pedals.

An additional complication was that the Sea Venom did not have an automatic pilot. This meant that Nick would have to lean his left arm across me, while I endeavored to unstrap and ease the internal pressure. Having never flown an aircraft before, he would then have to fly the jet left-handed, at 41,000 feet and at 420 nautical miles per hour!

This was the plan, and in accordance with the principles of war, we maintained the aim. While I unstrapped, Nick proceeded with his first flying lesson. We wandered all over Scotland until at last I managed to get the glove, and everything else, into the right position. My intention was to relieve the pressure just a wee bit, if you will pardon the pun, but once you start these things you can't stop.

A warm sense of well-being replaced the excruciating anxiety suffered during the previous 15 minutes. At last I started to see the amusing side of the whole affair. Not so Nick! On completion of the task I had filled the glove to the brim. Feeling relieved, I told Nick he would have to hold it because I needed both hands to fly the airplane. Once again, Nick refused, but he agreed we had to do something. The novelty of his first flying lesson was quickly wearing thin.

With a spark of genius he said, "Throw it out of the window." After discussing the ramifications, I agreed. The Venom has a triangular window on the left-hand side of the windscreen, which is locked with a large knurled knob before take-off. We remembered to depressurize the cockpit before I opened the window. As soon as I had it open I raised the brimming glove and pushed it out. Right then we learned a very important lesson! Never, ever, try and push a full glove into a 420 nautical mile an hour headwind! There was an immediate blow-back into the cockpit, but fortunately, with the temperature now a frigid -63 degrees Centigrade [-81.4 degrees Fahrenheit], it froze on contact. I even had to scratch a little hole in the ice on the windscreen to see where we were going.

Being sprogs, we never dared to try to claim a world record; our future was too precious to give away our secret. In retrospect, if it was not the world's highest un-pressurized pee, it was almost certainly the highest free-fall drop of a frozen glove on record. If any reader happens to spot a single glove when passing through the border town of Carlisle, it belongs to Nick.

My own adventures with airborne urination have fortunately all involved airline toilets.  There were a couple of occasions when I could have used a pee break aboard South African Air Force helicopters, but the crew chiefs would threaten us with extreme violence if we peed out of the open doors as we flew along, because they claimed everything would be blown back inside, and all over the occupants.  Discretion being the better part of urination, we complied.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Gun crime and lead poisoning - a link?

No, not the kind of lead poisoning that comes from getting shot.  A Milwaukee report suggests a different kind of linkage.

More than half of the people who were perpetrators or victims of gun violence in Milwaukee in recent years had elevated blood lead levels as children, according to a study released Friday by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The study of nearly 90,000 residents, conducted at the University's Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, suggests a link between early childhood lead exposure and gun violence in later years.

. . .

Lindsay R. Emer, the study's lead author ... said that while the study was not able to definitively prove cause and effect, the link is striking:

According to their findings, 56% of the shooters and 51% of the victims were found to have blood lead levels equal to or greater than the recommended limit of lead exposure of 5 micrograms per deciliter.

. . .

The study follows a consistent vein of prior research connecting lead exposure and violence:

Researchers at Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley published a study in 2016 that concluded that cities that used lead water pipes had homicide rates that were 24% higher than cities that did not.

Two researchers published a paper in 2017 for the National Bureau of Economic Research that studied the link between lead exposure and juvenile delinquency and found that as blood lead levels increased, so did the probability of suspension from school.

. . .

Bruce Lanphear, professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, described lead exposure in children as insidious.

"If it's not overt poison, one of the challenges is you don't really see acute symptoms," he said. "You do see symptoms more like acting-out type behaviors: ADHD type behaviors, problems with schoolwork, risk-taking behaviors, impulsive behaviors in kids, delinquency in kids."

Those behavioral challenges, he noted, don't just disappear once someone turns 18.

"Conduct disorder in children matures into delinquent and sometimes even criminal behavior," he said.

There's more at the link.

I'd be interested to see this study correlated with others concerning ethnic groups, education levels, socioeconomic "class", location (e.g. whether or not living in a specific suburb or area is likely to lead to a greater level of delinquency), etc.  If it can be shown that lead poisoning is a definitive, across-the-board factor in youth crime, particularly involving firearms, it may be a valuable step forward in finding new ways to combat that scourge.  Heaven knows, restrictions on firearms have done nothing to stop it!


Bureaucrats don't like non-compliant, rebellious serfs

The Foundation for Economic Education highlights how bureaucrats weaponize the child protection system against parents wanting to protect their children from increasingly dysfunctional schools.

Schooling is adept at rooting out individuality and enforcing compliance. In his book, Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky writes: “In fact, the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on—because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

This filtering process begins very early in a child’s schooling as conformity is rewarded and divergence is punished.

. . .

An investigative report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost released last month revealed that schools are increasingly using child protective services as a “weapon” against parents. It said:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

More troubling, these threats disproportionately target low-income and minority parents.

There's more at the link.

It's a very troubling report for parents - and not just those who home-school their kids, either.  If you have children in the "official" school system, and you're at all independent-minded, teaching your kids that they don't have to believe or swallow everything they're spoon-fed in school . . . you may end up a victim of this.

Personally, I think any bureaucrat trying this, whose complaints are later disproved or dismissed, should be fired at once and barred from ever again working in the field of education.  However, that's not about to happen, as we all know - more's the pity.

Tar.  Feathers.  Rails.  Bureaucrats.  Some assembly required.