Monday, 14 November 2011

The Master Commander's tale

As much as I have wanted to avoid it, this blog has expired; died an all too quiet death. I have, as they say, other fish to fry! However, I have, as you have guessed, not been idle; I simply do not write a blog any more. So, in order to keep this alive for a short time at least, I will post snippets, amuse-bouches, from my masterpiece; my chef-d'ouevre. They are merely first drafts, signposts along the way, but perhaps they may amuse.

The first such is the tale told by the Master Commander to his 'regent', although she is aristocracy in name only; still she commands respect. Whenever I get around to filling in the backstory, perhaps I will.

“So, Gräfin, you wish to hear my tale,” the Master Commander said. He thought for the briefest moment about how much he should disclose but decided that anything less than the whole story would be an affront to the Gräfin and would, in any event, fail to convince her of his fealty; well, if she hates me, she hates me, he thought.

“Gräfin, you must first understand that I am from Ganth; that well-spring of the first Monocrat. Long subjugated, from the very beginning, we are a sorely impoverished people. We eke out our meagre lives by subsistence fishing supplemented by what grains the Monocrat should dole our way in his infinite mercy. It is a hard life and few sustain life beyond forty or forty five standard years; less measured by Ganth’s passage around our star.

As the youngest of my seven siblings, I could not hope that my father’s nets and that the little hovel, which we called home, should one day pass to me and there is no other way for us than to rely on our brothers to share what little we had. Should that prove insufficient then, as the youngest, I would be the first to starve; even unto death. Is it any great wonder that I should join the Monocrat’s fleet as soon as it became possible to do so?

I enlisted at the age of fourteen standard years after trekking half way around the planet, subsisting on what roots and foliage as I could gather for myself and fishing from little pools which were to be found occasionally upon the way; I was nigh on starved to death when I fell in through the door of the enlistment station. As soon as I had made known my intent to enlist, the Monocrat’s minions fed me; seldom does the Monocrat fail in his duty to immediate, and urgent, need to those who would fight for him.

I will not bore you with the long wait for a ship to arrive, nor of the horrors of the holding pen which I and the other fools occupied while we awaited transport off-planet; suffice to say that only one half of those that arrived embarked on the transport ship. Nor will I burden you with the training barracks and the long days spent learning astrogation, provender, battle systems and so forth to the lowest level. We acquired just enough knowledge that we would not jeopardise our shipmates but not enough to prevent our sole goal; to die for the Monocrat!

After two standard years, I had learnt sufficiently well enough to die for my Monocrat but little else. I was transferred to an orbiting ship, we call it a Barque, which is the least of the Monocrat’s fleet, save one; this ship. I spent the next five standard years aboard that ship patrolling the environs of Alterre. Little action did we see and even less planetfall; the Monocrat does not willingly give planetleave to those who might abscond and, believe me, we had many reasons, my fellow recruits and I, to wish to abscond. Food was plentiful but so were the beatings and the scourgings, an idiosyncrasy of the Monocrat’s minions, but little of sleep and free-time, away from duties and sleep; they were non-existent.

However, I learnt well and within five standard years, I had managed to elevate myself to Battle Systems Second aboard the Barque. I had good aim and could compute trajectories in my head faster than the Computing Engines. I do not wish to brag, Gräfin, but rumour of my prowess had spread around the ships in our small corner of space, even isolated as we were from other ships, and soon my Commander was receiving copious requests for my transfer.

I was finally transferred to Battle Systems Lead on a cruiser running escort for freighters plying their trade between the mines of Kep-Lar and the smelting works which make up almost the entire planet of Alterre. I do not know why the Monocrat felt the need for escort ships on this or any other route. In more than six standard years, I saw not even a glimpse of a ship which might have been a threat to us or the convoy of freighters. In that time, I learned to trust my Second, with whom, I am ashamed to tell, I had a brief dalliance, but nonetheless, with little real work to do, it gave me time; time to learn and time to study.

The rumours of my prowess with the Battle Systems declined year by year; I had, alas, nothing to shoot at. Finally, I applied to Commander School, much to my Master Commander’s chagrin! After passing all tests and examinations, both physical and mental, both strategic and tactical, I earned my bars and my braid.

Although I had expected a command of my own ship, however lowly, I received a posting as Second Commander on a Dreadnought, which were the biggest ships in the fleet at the time, and one which no one Master Commander could hope to command alone. In my folly, Gräfin, I was so proud, so very proud. I do not think I had ever been so pleased, so grateful, as I was that day; to the fleet, to my teachers, yes, and to the Monocrat!

Five years I spent on board that ship but, bar a few actions, mostly strikes against minor, planetary insurgents or reminders, by way of a tactical strike against a town or a city, of the ill-wisdom of rising up against, or arguing with, the Monocrat, I saw no more than I had in the previous years. My Master Commander at that time was more than satisfied with my work aboard his ship and he thought highly of me. On his recommendation, I was finally given command of my own ship; Master Commander of my very own cruiser!

It was about a standard year later, maybe a little more, when we were ordered to group up around the Portal in the Omegan sector of the galaxy. The Monocrat does not divulge his intentions to his Master Commanders, he only requires obedience, and it was not until our arrival that we realised how many ships were being marshalled in the area; hundreds, Gräfin, hundreds! Never have I seen so many ships in a single sector of space; the scopes of our scanners were simply one large, white blob; it was impossible to see each individual ship, only the read-outs gave such information. Barques, Cruisers, Dreadnoughts, Troop Ships, Supply ships and four ships, the like of which I had never seen before, although I now know what they were; one of them follows us now.

I do not remember now exactly how long we waited but eventually we were all marshalled in a single line and with our subsequent trajectories mapped out, we hopped through the Portal, each ship fanning out in a semi-circle as we reached the termination point of the Portal. We had arrived just inside an asteroid belt but before us lay a star and a small planet, perhaps three or four times the size of Ganth. The ships formed up in orbit around the planet. Then we were ordered to unleash the ‘deluge’, as it is known among the Monocrat’s navies. Such firepower, Gräfin, I hope you do not ever have to witness it. The bombardment was relentless for a whole six watches; never sleeping, never resting. I now know that the flashes that we saw through the planet’s atmosphere, hundreds of them, were the projectiles from the four largest ships but, at the time, I could not fathom what they might be. Our beam weapons do impact on the planet but they are diffuse in appearance; no less destructive but without the concentrated pinpoints of light peculiar to these other weapons.

We were ordered to remain in orbit together with three other cruisers; to guard the troopships, they told us, while the remaining ships returned via the still open Portal. We stayed in orbit for over a quarter of a standard year before the troopships were given the order to disembark and make planetfall. I watched from the small, transparent opening in my quarters as the troopship disgorged thousands upon thousands of small ships carrying the soldiers planetside. They were as a meteor shower, Gräfin, the largest that you have ever seen; a myriad of bright coals, far more than you could count, all glowing brightly as they made their way through the atmosphere. It was spectacular. Never before did I understand the words written in the ancient tomes as I did then: “Behold the might of the Monocrat and be justly afeared!”. I believe that I had never known real fear until that point in time; but I knew it then.”

The Master Commander paused and drank the remainder of his wine, swallowing it down in huge gulps as if he were attempting to suffocate flames in his very stomach.

“Väinämöinen, my friend, this does not explain all,” the Gräfin whispered. “I fear there is more.”

“Aye, there is more,” the Master Commander bellowed. “There is much more but I shall spare you the details,” he continued but was now more subdued. “I overflew an area with my little shuttlecraft, the craft that is small enough to take us down to a planet, some standard days later. There was little to be seen except ruins for as far the eye could see. It was obvious that this had been a great city and more cities, more smoking ruins, could be seen in the distance. I flew lower, keen, no eager, as I thought, to get a clearer view. There were the Monocrat’s troops in small groups moving over the rubble, stepping over the charred and broken bodies of those destroyed in the cataclysm; so many, Gräfin, o so many, beyond count they were. Occasionally, someone would appear from amidst the ruins; in answer to their entreaties, which I could not hear, they were shot, or worse. I was sickened!

I thought that I had known what the Monocrat could do; I thought that I knew what the Monocrat’s navies, his troops, could do; I thought I knew how far his lust for power, for subjugation, for degradation might reach; I knew nothing!

Is it any wonder that I made my way to your side?”

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Reading the Riot Act

As an encore to yesterday's return to something approaching a post, I would like to share a little amuse-bouche with you.

In the light of the 'rioting' that has been going on in the UK these past days, you may care to know that there used to be an actual Riot Act in the UK.This from Wiki:

"The Riot Act[1] (1714) (1 Geo.1 St.2 c.5) was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain that authorised local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action. The Act, whose long title was "An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", came into force on 1 August 1715, and remained on the statute books until 1973."

It has since been superceded by the Public Order Act 1986.

In order to have any legal force, a specific form of words had to be read to the assembled masses (or 12) by a magistrate. This took the form of:

"Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies.


The said 'pains' were death by hanging and, later, just transportation to Australia.

If the assembly did not disperse within an hour, all hell broke loose. Troops would be called and they could use whatever force they deemed necessary, including 'shoot to kill', to break up the crowd. If an enterprising citizen decided to chip in on the troops' side, he or she was indemnified for any injury or loss of life which be occasioned upon the rioters.

Ah, how times have changed! It's where the English phrase 'to read the Riot Act' comes from.

Now this would be merely a idle curiosity were it not for one fact. The last time the Riot Act was actually read was in 1919; to striking policemen who were insisting that the Government recognise their trade union, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, along with the usual changes to the Terms and Conditions of Service and better pay. Needless to say, the Government of the day did not capitulate (it read the mood of policemen rather better than the NUPPS) and it is why your average bobby has only a Federation, which is not allowed to ballot members for a strike, rather than a recognised Trade Union.

Does that count as ironic?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riot? Vandalism, arson and theft more like

Being as far removed as I am to what is/has been going on in the past few days in London, it's not something on which I am perhaps qualified to write but I had an email from MG today saying that it had even extended to his local retail park!

Now MG does not live in a 'sink estate'; most of the properties around him are either 'Victorian artisan dwellings' or '30s' semi detached, the vast majority of which are owner occupied or privately rented. There is very little 'social' housing. What land could be used for social housing lay waste for decades until they built the retail parks in an attempt to 'rejuvenate' the area.

So, why 'riot' there?

I should like to say before I begin that there is very important evolutionary issue here. Human males are statistically much more likely to have a violent altercation with another male between the ages of 16 and 23 than at any other time of their lives. You can guess why! Sex! Mammalian males have a tendency to compete in fights over the right to breed, especially in apes, like humans. It's why the cannon fodder in wars are generally the youngest; they are already 'primed' to fight. (I'm not excusing this behaviour, merely pointing it out.

I've tried to do a little background reading on the circumstances which led to the initial riot and it seems that an armed black man was shot dead by armed police who, as far as I can determine, was wanted for 'questioning'. Now the London police are not usually armed, it's a special squad, so there is at least the possibility that the police expected him to be carrying a weapon, which of itself is a crime in the UK.

The police appear to have been initially reticent about giving the full details but they always are, every discharge of a firearm is investigated before they release any more that the 'bare bones'. The family, understandably upset by the shooting, organised a peaceful demonstration to complain about the police's behaviour.

The Tottenham district of London has been prone to periodic outbreaks of rioting. It has a large black population which feels disadvantaged; it has a lot of badly engineered sink estates; a lot of youths have been poorly educated and thus find it difficult to find work; there is furthermore a high level of crime and the police use their 'stop and search' powers to the full, some might say to overflowing. So there is a social backgound to all this.

There are rumours, not reported in the press as far as I can tell, that what sparked the riot was the treatment of a teenage girl when she 'confronted' a police line; a trucheon was used! Whether this was deliberate provocation to promote a response, whether she just wanted to know the time or whether it is all internet fabrication, I do not know. However a riot ensued. In the course of this riot, I understand, Molotov Cocktails were thrown at police and buildings, along with other large objects, local shops were torched and cars overturned; ah, the spirit of 1968! Wholesale looting followed.

I would like to ask but one question. To make a Molotov Cocktail, as everyone knows, you need a glass bottle, petrol or some other highly flammable liquid and rag or paper to provide a stopper and a fuse to ignite the petrol. Who caries such things around with them? Even if you make one on the 'fly', you are going to have to buy a bottle of cheap vodka, drink it or tip it down the drain (milk comes in cartons and other beverages in plastic), a length of tubing so that you can siphon the petrol from a car's tank, a newspaper and some matches if you don't smoke; all in all about £12.50 and that's just for one!

So, might there be a degree of organistion, orchestration, here? I merely ask the question.

However, what appears to be happening around the country and elsewhere in London is simple mayhem for the sake of it and theft of consumer goods under the guise of a protest against 'rich' people; it would be funny if it were not so dangerous and damaging. Get real, kiddies! When you target local shops, in your High Street, you target not the rich but people who earn about the same as your parents or less. When you target 'big business', do you think they care? They are insured! It's a minor inconvenience if one store out of 1,000 is out of action for a month or so for a refit. They refit stores all the time! It's just one more.

I once wrote a blog about paeodophilia; about how certain individuals prey on the naivite and defenceless nature of the young; is this any different? Only the naive would spout the nonsense that these people are coming out with!

Just a brief aside to Donnacha DeLong, I heartily agree with you; anarchy has been getting bad press ever since Cromwell, perhaps before. Good that the Police retracted it.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Biomimetics, Sandstorms and Geckos

You will have noticed, if you have been paying any attention at all throughout this blog's existence, that I do not have a particularly high regard for Homo Sapiens Sapiens when it comes to planet management. Well, all that could change over the coming years.

You see I came across a small but active field of scientific endeavour the other day, biomimetics, that I thought it might be good to share with you in the absence of anything else to do with my time now that the 'book' is finished. Biomimetics, or biomimicry, is the study of how examining Mother Nature and her solutions to design problems, honed over three billion years, might help humans to overcome design issues with their current problems and concerns.

Have you ever wanted to be Spiderman? Not so much the web-weaving and flying through the air on extruded silk but the ability to climb walls, even glass ones. It has always been a problem for firefighters; their ladders have never been long enough for the kinds of buildings you build nowadays. What if you could climb up the sheer, vertical surface of the building and rescue the damsel in distress; how cool would that be? Well, maybe by studying nature, you might gain the ability.

You see, Mother Nature has already solved the problem! The gecko, a small lizard, is able to run up vertical walls, even glass ones, very fast and can even hang upside on ceilings providing a bit of the gecko is on the wall. MG says that you see them all over Greece doing just that. So, do they have sticky feet? Yes, but not in the way you might think.

The big problem with 'glue' is that it has to be strong enough to hold your weight but weak enough that you do not get permanently stuck to the surface. This is enormously tricky to manufacture since it is all dependent on the size of the gecko; you would need varying strengths of glue dependent on the weight of the individual gecko. This would be difficult for you and just as hard for Mother Nature, however ingenious she may be.

Perhaps the gecko takes advantage of tiny imperfections in the surface? Nope, they can climb a metal sheet smooth to the width of an atom/molecule.

What they appear to do is to take advantage of a fundamental force of nature which humans only discovered in the late nineteenth century, van der Waal's forces, which make up a small set of forces, eg co-valent bonding, which binds molecules together in compounds. The gecko's feet are covered with very fine hair. This hair has the most notorious split ends! Not content with that, the split ends have split ends. The cumulative effect of all the hairs, millions upon millions, is to bind the gecko to the molecular structure of the wall; but only just. The real trick comes when the gecko needs to disengage the foot from the wall!

The gecko 'unpeels' each toe on its foot by progressively bending the toe outwards and back on itself so that the muscular force required to 'unpeel' each section which is to be 'unbonded' is not overcome by the forces present; it, needless to say, does this extremely quickly. What is remarkable is that once the principle was understood, humans mimicked it and, yes, a rock climber climbed a veritcal brick wall using only outsized 'gecko hands' which utilised exactly the same principle as the gecko! Wonderful thing, science, don't you think?

This would, I think, be no more than an interesting curiosity were it not for one scientist's 'take' on biomimetics.

There is an enormous pressure on sub-Saharan communities due to the progressive desertification of those people who live at the desert's edge; how do you stop the desert's relentless march south? The proposal is to use the desert itsef. If you seed the sand dunes with a particular bacteria, and keep it fed, it will metabolise the sand into sandstone, thereby creating a 'wall'. Once the wall is created, you stop feeding the bacteria and the process stops. Such elegance. Such beauty! You can even make dwellings out of the sandstone wall you have created! It would be nice if everyone could agree to put this into place. A Great Wall across Africa to stem the march of the desert! A wall to rival that of China!

Friday, 22 July 2011

Literary Pretensions and pseudo-intellectual nonsense

Well, well, well. Has it been a whole year? How time flies when you are having fun!

I just thought that I would stop by and give you a quick update on what I have been doing when I have not been writing this blog. Not very much! However, I have achieved a significant milestone in the annals of the penguin. The journal of a year in the penguin's life is now complete; all nine months and 105,000 words of it.

A tale of love, redemption and two Danish pastries! While there is not much chance that it will ever see the light of day on Amazon, we can but hope! It is significant because, at long last, I have made up for this blog's glaring omission from December 2008; the report of Cozy's little extravanza, 'you'll believe a penguin can fly' is finally complete. Yes, barrel-rolls, somersaults and Cozy's escapades with the flares; they are all there!

Should Penguin Books not see fit to publish my masterpiece, I might well publish it here, or at least extracts from it. I have no intention of completely giving up hope; it is, after all, a masterpiece to rival Melville!

Oh, in case any of are wondering, the quality of the 'newbies' hasn't improved at all! They are still as doltish as ever!