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1229 Coffee

All too rare – the silky cappuccino

Australia is now hailed as having one of the world’s most developed and sophisticated coffee cultures, and not without good reason. Australia benefitted hugely in the post-Second World War period from a huge influx of migrants from Europe, among them, many thousands of Italians, who set up cafés right around the country and introduced European coffee culture. From this, slowly but surely, an appreciation of coffee and a skilful artistry in roasting, preparing and serving it has grown, something which would never have occurred had Australia remained an Anglo-Celtic monoculture. It took a long time, and there were many mishaps along the way, but here, now, in the 21st century, Australia is truly a coffee powerhouse, exporting both its artistry and coffee styles to the world.

Yet, whilst very excellent coffee, very well made can be found with relative ease, it’s not that uncommon still to stumble upon a pissweak, milky latte, a bitter flat white, or a foamy, not silky, cappuccino. To make a somewhat random comparison, the quality of Australian coffee is certainly up there with that of Rome, yet its consistency is lacking. During eight different visits to Rome over the years, including living there for four months in 2003, I don’t ever recall being disappointed by the quality of Roman coffee. Being a bit of a “milkdrinker”, I always tended to order either macchiato or cappuccino, which is roughly on a par with what I drink in Australia and so makes a good comparison. In Australia I drink macchiato or latté, but the latter is roughly the equivalent of the Roman cappuccino, which is far creamier on top and blended more evenly into the subsurface ocean of coffee, rather than floating on top like a rough, spongy scum, which is sadly, all too often my experience of Australian cappuccinos. It’s probably worth considering that, according to my mother, in the 1950s, she and her peers referred to a cappuccino as a “frothy coffee”. Perhaps the newly arrived Italian migrants thought Australians would drink their coffee if it looked more like beer, which an Australian cappuccino can often resemble. And, yeah, I get the whole chocolate on top thing, but it seems a bit of a clumsy ruse in all honesty. Is this the reason why we are really a nation of flat white drinkers? Because the cappuccinos aren’t actually that great, and the flat white is, in fact, more akin to the Roman cappuccino – a superior and silkier coffee.

Whilst nations overseas are now embracing the Australian flat white, it is for me, the Australian latté which deserves the most praise. Done properly, it can be a masterpiece – creamy on top and smoothly potent underneath, yet with the transition from the surface being soft and never too abrupt, hot or bitter. The elements should be both in juxtaposition and harmony, which, texturally, to put it into gelato terms, feels more like the slide between hazelnut and dark chocolate than say, going from lemon to fudge. It is not heavy, but light. It begins like dessert, but ends refreshingly.

Until recently I felt quite confident that I could get a great latté most places I went in Australia. Yet, lately, there have been whispers of discontent with the latté. I myself have suffered the indignity of such offenses as boiled milk; a pissweak and milky blend; frothy rather than creamy surface; low-fat milk when it wasn’t asked for (the difference, texturally and taste-wise is vast); and overly hot, thin coffee. On a recent visit to Brisbane, despite buying coffee on five different occasions, in five different locations, not one of them got the latté right. It was a disastrous mix of over-milky, watery, overheated second-rate gruel, and not the whole porridge once. I mean, the coffee was drinkable, and I drank it, but I never really enjoyed it, which is surely just as important, if not more so, than satisfying the chronic caffeine dependency which drives most of the developed world’s economies and societies. I just hope that Australian coffee hasn’t already peaked, and a decline set in, born of our seemingly innate complacency. Please, for all our sakes, don’t let it slide.

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8236 Supersymmetry

There are many words in the English language which seem like they ought to have an opposite form, but do not. At least not in common usage. Rather like the predictions of the theory of supersymmetry, which posits that each particle in the Standard Model has a partner particle, so we might conjure the missing partner words for those in our Standard Dictionary. Why, for instance, can we be disgruntled, yet never have the chance to be gruntled? Why can we postpone a meeting, but not prepone it for our convenience? Why can we can feel disappointed about something, yet we aren’t allowed to feel appointed when fortune shines? This alarming asymmetry in the English language needs immediate correction and, without further ado, I should like to offer up some linguistic opportunities which have so far gone begging, and present some sample passages displaying their possible usage.

The English language, of course, is a collaborative exercise and I must extend my thanks to those friends who contributed further suggestions on Facebook and elsewhere.

 

Appointed (adj) – Feeling pleased about an outcome.

“I felt most appointed when I heard the good news.”

 

Clare (v.) –  To hold back information.

“I’m not saying a word. I have everything to clare.”

 

Combobulate (v.) – to confidently clarify an otherwise confusing situation.

“His answer was most satisfying, positively combobulating.”

 

Concert (v.) – To settle or improve composure.

“His reassuring expression was most concerting, and I entered the meeting with great confidence.”

 

Dain (v. n.) – to show high regard; an expression or feeling of high regard.

“He greeted the lord with a great show of respect; exhibiting a somewhat over-formal air of dain.”

 

Downset (adj.) –  Feeling happy, above expectation; pleased.

“Yes, at first I was unhappy, but when I realised the truth I was pretty downset.”

 

Dulating – to have a flat form or outline.

“The Nullarbor Plain is a dulating landscape, flat as a tack.”

 

Gruntled – satisfied, pleased.

“After dinner I felt completely content, most gruntled indeed.”

 

Gurgitate – to swallow

“Doctors recommend chewing thoroughly before gurgitating.”

 

Gust (v, n) – to cause someone to feel attraction or approval. A feeling of strong approval.

“The smell coming from the kitchen was gorgeous; a wonderful, gusting aroma of cumin and turmeric.” “Her look of gust upon seeing how clean the bathroom was, was heart-warming.”

 

Mantle (v.)  – to put together.

“I bought a new cupboard from Ikea, and now have to mantle it.”

 

Member – (v.) To replace the detached limbs of something / someone. To bring separate parts together.

“In 1871 the various Germanic states were membered into a single entity.”

 

Posable (adj.) – Not intended to be thrown away after use. Long-lasting, durable.

“The market in posable water bottles has flourished in recent years.”

 

Prepone (v.) – cause or arrange for something to take place at an earlier time than scheduled.

“The 1530 meeting has been pre-poned to 1300. Lunch will be provided.”

 

Prosequences (n, pl.) – the positive effects or results of an action.

“There are many significant prosequences from early intervention.”

 

Rupt – (v.) To bring into a state of order and array.

“Amidst the chaos, John managed to rupt most of the guests and get the game underway.”

 

Shevelled (adj.) – Tidy, ordered, neat.

“You scrub up well – you look very shevelled indeed.”

 

Sipate (v.) – Appear or cause to appear.

“It was as though he sipated out of thin air. One minute the room was empty, then, before I could say Jove, Pandarr Zen’Awri was standing before me!”

 

Tant (adj.) – Nearby, close.

“It’s very tant, in fact, just around the corner.”

 

Tort (v.) – Pull or twist into shape. Give a true account of…

“With careful hammering, the front fender was torted back into shape.”

 

Turbing (adj.) – removing anxiety, reassuring.

“The good news was very turbing and I was finally able to sleep that night.”

 

There are, of course, countless other words with a form that hints at an opposite partner, but it would be far too exhaustive to attempt to detail them here. This contrariness might also extend into common expressions and exclamations where opposite meanings have the potential to be at the very least mildly amusing, and, at worst, utterly baffling. Take the expression “a pain in the arse.” Could we not describe someone as a real “Joy in the arse”? It’s all very well to say “Up yours!” and though “Down yours!” might seem counterintuitive, it is strangely absent from our language. “Fuck me dead!” is often used to show surprise or incredulity, and it can used both positively and negatively, yet surely its super-partner “Fuck me alive” could do with the occasional airing. Finally, there are many colourful colloquialisms the world over which could be even more colourful and confusing for foreign tourists were they to be inverted. The Australian expression “Don’t come the raw prawn with me,” which, in effect, means “don’t try to swindle me,” could be even more baffling were it mirrored with “You’re welcome to come the cooked prawn with me.” The rest I shall leave to your own devices and imagination, which I’m sure is sufficiently ripe to entertain thousands more such examples.

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I spend a lot of my time rehearsing speeches and conversations. It can be a highly distracting and frustratingly immersive exercise – especially since in many cases it seems more compulsion than desire that drives me to do it – yet, ultimately, I consider it to be a highly beneficial way of preparing for social situations, arguments, and, indeed, lessons.

orator

When I say rehearsing, I don’t mean sitting down with a written text and practising and memorising the words, but rather running through a simulated conversation or lecture in my head, as though I were engaged in a conversation or addressing an audience. I do this all the time – walking down the street, running, sitting on the train and bus, lying in bed, eating, showering, sitting on the toilet – you name it, I’m almost always rehearsing a conversation or speech when my mind isn’t actively engaged with another task.

It often begins with rethinking a conversation I’ve already had or a lesson I’ve taught and determining how I might have better made a certain point or explained something. In this case I’ll review the words I used at the time – I have an uncanny knack of recalling the exact phrasing – and determine what techniques, language, vocabulary, tone or structure would have better served the purpose. Sadly, the ability to recall conversations so accurately means that I frequently feel the profound embarrassment at past-howlers when I revisit them. It is also worth pointing out, especially for the sake of those who have experienced my absent-mindedness, that recall is based largely on level of engagement at the time. Apologies, therefore, for those occasions when I have not actively listened.

On rare cases where I think I nailed something the first time around – a line of reasoning, an explanation, a means of negotiating a difficult conversation – I’ll reward myself by recalling the conversation / lecture / speech and making note of what made it successful, impactful or persuasive, in case I might need to deploy a similar argument etc. in future. I also just plain enjoy language, and it is pleasing to feel that I produced something persuasive, effective, and, ideally, stylistically entertaining ; )

stumpspeakingdetail

Another type of conversation rehearsal involves running through a hypothetical situation and allowing the conversation to play out. This does not merely include considering my own words, but also how my interlocutor might respond and how I might adjust my line of reasoning according to their various responses. These conversations needn’t be imminent, relevant or even likely to happen and could deal with past, present or future circumstances, which might be possible or otherwise.

I have often imagined conversations with my father; thinking of the things I might say to him and how he might reply, then running over and over my choice of words in this hypothetical so that my point is made as clearly, eloquently and sympathetically as possible. This might be a case of re-hashing a past dispute or imagining conversations that should have taken place, but never did. Often the desire to run through such hypothetical conversation is motivated by feelings of frustration or regret, yet even when I imagine angry conversations, I am inclined to focus on a reasoned line, not devoid of emotion by any means, but not overwhelmed by it. In my rehearsals, I’m always reasonable and considerate, even when angry, though this does not necessarily reflect how I behave in reality.

Another common form of rehearsal is for imagined instances of public speaking or lecturing. This could be on any topic – the importance of keeping the state secular; the lack of media diversity in Australia; the joys of photography; the pleasing nature of good concrete formwork… – literally, anything. When I go running, I often compose lectures on the significance of the music I am listening to – provided it is significant. Recently I found myself composing a lecture on the importance of Midnight Oil in the canon of Australian music, for providing both a distinctly Australian voice and vision that was not only radical in style and sentiment but also engaged so many young people in politics. The other day, the subject was “when metal was mainstream” – focussing on the popular success of bands such as Metallica / Megadeth / Guns & Roses in the late 80s, early 90s. This, perhaps inevitably, led me to consider how I might address the topic of Cold War visions of future dystopias – so prevalent in the 1980s…

The subject can, of course, be personal as well. A couple of years ago I spent some time imaging what I would say were I to make a speech at my 40th birthday, and came up with a variety of structures, angles and tones. I neither wanted nor intended to make a speech at my 40th, so the exercise might seem redundant, yet I consider it to have been useful as a means of keeping rhetorically fit. Also, narratologically speaking, it was an effective means of examining my life and putting things into context.

The benefit of rehearsing all these speeches and conversations is that should the moment finally arrive, I will feel well prepared to engage on the subject and have a line of reason or argument already prepped – including key catchphrases and ways of putting things that sound so neat you might think I rehearsed them… I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet on this front, rather to discuss the phenomenon, but it is fair to say that one of the skills I do have is being able to speak eloquently and intelligently. I firmly believe that in part, this ability comes from a life-long habit of conversation rehearsal. It is also fair to say that occasionally I lose my shit and go ape and swear and curse like a total and utter bastard and at those times, whilst I might feel the brief satisfaction of rage, I also feel the long, drawn out coda of shame in the aftermath. I can be very to the point when I’m angry – so much so that there is often no coming back from what has been said.

Either way, this conversation rehearsal has saved my butt on countless occasions, especially in relationships. When faced with a difficult emotional situation, I will spend hours and hours running through the conversation that must come and determining exactly how I must be persuasive, what points to take and what to concede, and what kind of language will be most placatory / plausible / convincing etc. The techniques follow the standard rule-book of rhetoric in many ways, so are hardly revelatory, but I certainly do recommend the benefits. Too often people go into situations unprepared and say things that cause permanent, irrevocable damage. Without rehearsing conversations, I would no doubt have been dumped much more swiftly in the past.

Rehearsal is especially good for break-ups, largely because harm-minimisation is key in this endeavour. It’s very important to be aware of the impact of even the most apparently neutral statements and how they might be received in a moment of heightened emotional intensity. Expect irrationality, expect volatility, but prepare reasonably and at least you won’t add fuel to the fire by accidentally insulting someone or lowering their self-esteem further.

Of course all this takes a degree of empathy and understanding of the other person that isn’t always available. Then again, most people fall within a recognisable range of emotional responses, so if something is going to upset most people, it’s also likely to upset the person you’re talking to. Conversations do need to be specifically tailored to the audience / interlocutor, yet a sound line of reasoning and well-thought out argument or explanation with its own internal logic is difficult to refute, and at least it gives you the benefit of having tried to be reasonable and not having said something unnecessarily inflammatory or hurtful. Of course, you won’t always get it right and might overlook something very important, but having rehearsed puts you in a better position than not having done so.

Last but perhaps not least, it is worth mentioning the conversations that take place with the inner voice. Rather like Gollum, I have lengthy arguments with myself and often subject myself to some terrible insults and accusations: “What the hell is wrong with you, dog, you useless piece of shit!?” Yet I also offer praise where praise is due, and the two voices – the good me and the bad me, tend to balance each other out. Whilst these aren’t strictly hypothetical situations I am rehearsing, and more akin to internal arguments, often it’s this good me and bad me who end up being the two characters in a hypothetical conversation. The bad me is totally immoral, insensitive and crass – the good me is disciplined, formal, polite, passionate and sensitive. These two character types make for useful actors in a Socratic-style dialogue on, let’s face it, any bloody thing you can think of.

So, to conclude, I do indeed recommend rehearsing conversations when possible. Ideally you won’t suffer from a similar compulsion to do it at all times, but it does have its benefits when faced with negotiating a tricky situation, especially one where emotions are involved.

gollum

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People keep asking me what Kim Jong-Un is up to at the moment. What is he hoping to achieve? Does he actually want to start a war? Is he really intending to launch nukes? I’m flattered that my friends and acquaintances think I might have an answer for them, but I don’t exactly have a hotline to Pyongyang and am thus privileged to the same information as everyone else outside of the intelligence services. Having said that, I do have an answer of sorts, which is hardly all that original – it’s all just a lot of posturing.

Inspecting weapons

The recent escalation of rhetoric has certainly been dramatic. The bellicose reminder of the state of war between North and South Korea, tough talking about ballistic and nuclear capability, overzealous reactions to even the smallest slight from the south and, more recently, the statement that foreign embassy officials could no longer consider themselves safe in North Korea – all amounts to an alarming increase of tension, but likely little else. As an official at South Korea’s defence ministry quipped – “barking dogs don’t bite.”

Boat trip

Pyongyang’s recent attacks on the south – the torpedoing of the Cheonan, which left 46 dead, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, both in 2010have been by stealth, or come without warning. That doesn’t mean his threats have no substance, but it does suggests that talking and walking are by no means linked, so to speak.

The joys of authorising strikes

Some years ago a wit described the India / Pakistan nuclear arms race as “Viagra Diplomacy,” a term which applies itself well to the current situation with North Korea. There is something ludicrously phallic about rocket launches, a situation not helped by North Korea’s tendency to suffix its rocket names with the word “Dong.” Take the Taepodong for example, a name which lends itself spectacularly to punning, or the even sillier and counter-intuitive Nodong, which was effectively an adapted Soviet SS1 or “Scud” and, dare I say it, a bit of a flop. Joking aside, there’s no doubt that North Korea has made progress with its ballistic capability and just may have the capacity to mount a nuclear warhead, but the threat to rain down missiles on the United States seems farfetched considering their as yet limited range of roughly 6000 kilometres.

Missile test

Having said that, North Korea certainly has the capacity to target its immediate neighbours; the southern capital Seoul, at just 25 kilometres south of the border, is within artillery range. There is no doubt that North Korea could inflict terrible carnage if they wished to attack the south. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons aside, the scale of their conventional forces is staggering. A quick glance at the Wikipedia list of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel puts North Korea on top, with an active military of roughly 1.1 million, bolstered by an incredible 8 million reservists. The Korean war of 1950-53 cost the lives of two million people, and whilst any modern war would prove a very different beast, there is little doubt that it could also cost millions of lives.

Yet what, one must ask, would be the point? Surely, despite the capacity to inflict untold damage on the south, the North would ultimately be defeated. North Korea would have no allies – China would wash their hands of them and Pyongyang would find itself facing off against a broad alliance led by the United States and supported by the U.N. The north might achieve initial successes, but would surely lose the war, and, apart from the disastrous human, social, environmental and economic consequences of a conflict, losing the war would potentially mark the end of the regime, the end of military domination, and the end of North Korea as a state: the end of Kim Jong-Un. One suspects that nothing other than unconditional surrender would be demanded, especially considering how long the situation has festered and how great the desire to avoid any furtherance of this geopolitical cancer. What might follow is anyone’s guess: re-unification, a long and awkward occupation of the smoking ruins… It would all depend on the nature of the war, which, after an initial bout of shock and awe by both sides, could even be over in a couple of days with an internal coup.

Which brings us back to this important question of what the hell Kim Jong-Un is up to? If war is unlikely, what is the point of all this belligerent rhetoric and rocket-rattling? Surely the most likely explanation is that he wishes to shore up support at home.

Hello!

Song Launch

Kim with wife

Just as George Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair all rhetorically escalated the level of external threat to their respective countries after 9/11 in order to shore up domestic support for their imperial ambitions by creating a clear and present external danger, so it would seem King Jong-Un, perhaps struggling to define himself internally and to assert the legitimacy of his rule, wishes to create an almost hysterical climate of fear. If anything this whole business seems to highlight his insecurity rather than his capability or intent. Ironically the very survival of the regime depends on avoiding conflict, but the state largely defines itself through struggle and conflict.

Lovable

The real fear is that with tensions so high war might begin by accident rather than design. Miscalculation, misinterpretation… it seems unlikely, but it is by no means impossible. The levels of readiness are such that hell could be unleashed at very short notice – perhaps before clarity prevails. Should a war begin, even by accident, it will be extremely difficult to stop.

There is also the genuine possibility that Kim Jong-Un is something of a nutcase. He is certainly less predictable than his familial predecessors and less well understood, but he must know as surely as anyone else that war would be the end of his regime with all its privileges.

Kim Jong Un

It’s very easy to parody and caricature Kim Jong-Un as a greedy little brat of a despot, and I have to confess I’ve been guilty of such parody myself, yet whilst it might be childish fun to joke about him, it’s somewhat counterproductive. The belief that he is genuinely mad, propagated by the parodies and caricatures, only fuels the paranoia about his intentions.

Lunch not launch

Keep raffing

Yet, as always with humour, there is a great deal of truth in much of it. He likely is a spoilt brat with delusions of grandeur instilled through constant inflation of his talents and charms, drunk on power. He really does come across as the tubby, nerdy gamer kid with a chip on his shoulder. His recent actions remind me of people on Facebook, including myself, who, when lonely or feeling starved of attention, start posting in a more exclamatory and regular manner. His international threats are like bad-tempered tweets – mouthing off at a world he can neither influence nor change because of his own relative impotence, despite having a vast army at his back.

We must not forget how recent his accession to the throne was. Despite great popular efforts to create a new cult of personality around him, there must be pressure to put his own personal stamp on the regime and cement his rule. Perhaps there is internal pressure from within the military himself. Perhaps he fears the ambitions of those who surround him. Perhaps there is fear of popular unrest. Whatever the case, all this rhetoric seems to be more inwardly focussed, despite its outward broadcast.

The real question now is what happens next, and, to be honest, I haven’t got the faintest idea. I suspect things will die down, flare up, die down, flare up, die down, flare up… for the next decade, possibly even longer. Then again, Kim Jong-Un might be dead next week, assassinated by an ambitious general, or dead by deep vein thrombosis for that matter. Whether North Korea will ever come in from the cold is anyone’s guess, but as unsustainable as the current situation appears to be, we should remember just how long it has been sustained – sixty years this very year. It is hardly possible for this feudal Stalinist regime to become more isolated internationally, and anyway, it is isolation and insularity that allows the regime to survive. Rarely have two nations existed in such contrasting states of connectivity as North and South Korea, the latter the most wired state in the world, the former disconnected from everything, including, it seems reality.

Perhaps somehow the internet will work its magic; perhaps starvation will start a revolution; perhaps there really will be coup, or an unexpected Myanmar-style change of heart. In all honesty I think there won’t be a war and nothing will change. Ten years from today, Kim Jong-Un will still be there, fatter than ever, rubbing his wealth in the face of his own people and waving his latest Dongs at the world.

Lunch - it's alright for some!

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Forbrydelsen Season 1

The following review contains some spoilers…

Last week V and & finished watching the first series of the renowned 2007 Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing, written by Soren Sveistrup. I’d heard a number of anecdotal reports about what a great show this was from my parents and various others, but hadn’t quite separated its potential stand-out quality from my general dislike of crime dramas. The sheer amount of second-rate CSI-type pap out there has, quite rightly, made me extremely wary of the genre. Indeed, I’ve long been spmewhat disgusted by the pornographic and gratuitous manner in which they titillate their audiences with lurid details of rape and murder; so akin to the base and irresponsible reporting of the commercial news channels and rags we foolishly grant the title of newspapers in Australia.

From the moment we began watching Forbrydelsen, however, it was clear that something very refreshingly different was going on. If there was a spectrum of quality, measured primarily on realism and characterisation, then this show sat roughly eight miles along from the best English crime drama, with its American counterparts so far behind those as to be only detectable by their own implausibly neat forensics techniques. Forbrydelsen, it was clear from the start, was not merely good, it was the shit.

When we first sat down to watch it, we were a little baffled. Wasn’t this show Danish? If so, why did all the names sound so un-Scandinavian? We watched the opening thriller sequence in which a woman is chased through the woods to her impending, yet unseen demise, followed by an introduction to what was no doubt our blonde, good-cop female protagonist, looking strong, capable, quietly determined, fit and utterly in control of her life, out for a morning jog. Then she opened her mouth. Oh dear, this was the American version. Yep, and it showed.

A few peers and seeders later and we plugged in the USB to fire up the Danish version. Within seconds the vast gulf between quality European television and American drama was revealed. After a repeat of the frightening and chilling chase through the woods, we meet our brunette female good-cop protagonist – waking up from a disturbed sleep, tired and worn out, staggering around the house in her pyjamas, checking on her teenage son who is sleeping on the lounge in front of a static-filled television screen. A single mum, we soon meet her Swedish partner, also in his pyjamas, also waking up tired and worn out, stumbling through the dark amidst the boxes of her and her son’s belongings, all packed and ready to move to Sweden for a new life. Our protagonist, Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) smiles warmly when reassured that everything about the move will be ok, but we can see in her relief the fear and vulnerability that she carries with her; her anxiety and tension, the complexity and disarray of her domestic circumstances. None of it is glamorous, none of what we see establishes her as anything other than a real person who, like everybody else out there, has to deal with the banal and quotidian demands of real life.

We paused a moment here and let out a collective sigh of relief. Wow, how much more engaging and promising the original version seemed. Even after just four minutes of viewing the American remake, it was clear that it was going to be Forbrydelsen lite, the airbrushed, sanitised version in which its audience would not be challenged to accept that the flaws of the protagonist were not big ticket things like, for example, Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder in Homeland or the utterly contrived and unconvincing OCD of Hannah Horvath in the disappointing second half of Girls season 2, so clearly tacked on for want of a decent plotline. Instead, in Forbrydelsen, we were going to be treated to everyday pressures.

I should digress at this point to say that I found Homeland and Girls to be excellent, high quality television. Both of these shows also have great characterisation and, particularly in the case of the latter, elements of gritty realism. Yet whereas the former does this within an overtly sensational story in an airbrushed, suburban and upper-echelon America and the latter does so in an occasionally all too smug, convenient and self-congratulatory potpourri of zeitgeist, Forbrydelsen had the balls to develop its characters and story with the slow and almost painfully intimate realism that fans of quality Scandinavian cinema, drama and lit will recognise. Like a good Lukas Moodysson film or a Knut Hamsun novel, Forbrydelsen, made an epic not just of the crime investigation itself, but of the domestic turmoil that surrounds such a shocking crime and its toe-treading, home-invading investigative process.

For the uninitiated, here is a juicy detail about this show. There are twenty, one-hour episodes to cover ONE CRIME. I can’t pretend to have the numbers, but within that roughly twenty hours there must be almost two hours total spent in the homely kitchen of the devastated family whose daughter, Nanna Birk Larsen, was the victim. Their tears are real, their emotions utterly genuine, the detail of their experience is deliciously heart-breaking.

There is no one thing which makes this show so great. It is the writing, the direction, the acting, the music, the muted colours and dull uniformity of Copenhagen in November. The performances throughout are almost universally excellent. No one character is two-dimensional; all have their flaws, conflicts, quirks and idiosyncrasies, none of which seem cheaply contrived or tacked on to create some shallow show of complexity. These characters are simply convincingly real and complex, and not in the way that characters have complexity, but in the way that real people do:

Troels Hartmann, the mayoral candidate, who soon falls under suspicion, bearing up under the weight of hiding his loss and depression, is an alluring mix of ambition and self-doubt; of integrity and political game-playing.

Troels Hartmann, aka Lars Mikkelsen

Jan Meyer, Lund’s mercurial partner, whose initial rough edge is ultimately contrasted with the convincing softness of a father desperate to hold down a job and provide for his family.

Meyer

Pernille, the mother of the victim, whose face is always grippingly pregnant with withheld or unleashed emotion, the longing for revenge or satisfaction, the need for answers, juggling her husband Theiss’ flaws, her children’s needs, the pressures on their removal business and her family’s apparent duplicity.

Pernille Birk Larsen

And of course the very excellent Sarah Lund, our struggling protagonist, whose decision to stay in Copenhagen until the case is solved puts immense pressure on her family and relationship, and whose determination and stubbornness constantly rub against those with whom she works and is trying to help. The hardness of her character is extraordinary and constantly compelling. Her rough edges, her mistakes, her clever instincts, her obsessive nature, all emerge as the convincing traits of a plausible character.

Sarah Lund in one of her excellent jumpers

In Forbrydelsen, even the cast of supporting characters is excellent. Take, for example, the Mayor of Copenhagen, Bremer, whose smug sniping and cutting quips leave the audience constantly wondering what lies behind the mask of bemused confidence. Lund’s long-suffering mother, concerned and interfering, at times bitchy and cruel, at times deserving of great sympathy on account of her daughter’s thoughtless impositions. The list goes on, but the conclusions are the same throughout. With no exceptions that come to mind, these are masterful performances by skilled and naturalistic actors working with clever, plausible dialogue.

The show is certainly not without flaws. There are holes and apparent inconsistencies in the story that are not all satisfyingly wrapped up. Why did Holck, an otherwise seemingly well-adjusted career politician commit such serious crimes to hide his potential exposure for a crime that was far less serious? What exactly was going on between Troels Hartmann’s advisor Rie Skovgaard and the Mayor’s advisor? What actually was the connection between the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen and the other girl murdered 15 years earlier? Would Troels’ campaign leader Morten really go to the lengths he did to cover up what he thought was Troels’ role in the murder? I was left with a lot of questions about which I am still thinking, questions that no amount of googling has managed to satisfy, other than to confirm that others have wondered the same things as I have. Yet, having said that, the fact that I am still thinking about this show and still feel gripped by its story, despite having reached the end of it, says bucketloads about its sheer excellence. I miss the characters, I miss the setting, I miss the details of the investigation, none of which can really be made up for by the second season which may be as excellent – I have yet to watch it – but will follow a different crime with a different cast of support characters, give or take the ones around whom Sarah’s life closely gravitates.

Enough said. If you’ve not seen it and enjoy watching a show that cooks slowly without ever being boring, then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fill the fridge, keep the phone handy to call in sick, drug the kids, close the curtains and brace yourself for a serious case of “just one more episode” syndrome. It really is that good.

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So, it’s goodbye to Eggs, aka, Pope Benedict XVI. I can’t say I’ll miss him a whole lot, but that’s not surprising considering I’m an atheist with a strong dislike for religion and unscientific “belief” in all its forms. In the aftermath of his rather unexpected decision to resign, we’ve been subjected to the usual preliminary obituaries of his papacy, with all manner of people voicing their opinions about whether he was successful or otherwise. Today was his last day in office and now we have the rare and beautiful breathing space of an interregnum or interpontificatus (?)  as it were, during which time the papacy can choose the next man to annoy and frustrate the hell out of us secular non-believers.

"Eggs" Benedict

I have a strange relationship to the papacy, it must be said. Having done a PhD in early medieval Italian history and had a long obsession with the late Roman Empire and the cultural and religious transformation that took place during that period, I have long been fascinated by this ancient institution. It is worth remembering that Julius Caesar himself once held the title of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome, a position that came exclusively to be held by Christians in the fourth century once the Empire had made Christianity its official religion. The transition was not quite as smooth as this, but I’m not about to go into that sort of detail. Even in Caesar’s time, the position of Pontifex Maximus was already centuries old, which does lend the Papacy a certain cred for sustaining such an ancient institution.

Caesar

As an unabashed fan of Roman civilization, culture and law, with apologies for the slavery and warmongering, I found a certain sympathy with the popes of Late Antiquity. With the slow decline and ultimate collapse of the Western Empire (a process by which they practically delegated themselves out of existence) the popes came to the forefront of Roman affairs, playing an increasingly important role in protecting Roman interests. People Leo I “The Great” even went so far as to confront Attila the Hun when he invaded Italy in AD 452 and persuaded him to turn back.

During the sixth century, after the devastating reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565), the papacy became the major player in the organisation and defence of the much reduced city of Rome. Presiding over the depopulated, overgrown wreck of the once-great city, with only one of ten aqueducts still functional, the popes did their best to mitigate the chaos that ensued shortly after the reconquest when the Lombards invaded to find inadequate resistance and easy plunder in the derelict metropolises of the Italian peninsula.

Perhaps the most outstanding figure of this age was Pope Gregory I, also “The Great” (c. 540 – 12 March 604) who held the position from AD 590 until his death in 604. Gregory, a Roman aristocrat with an at times almost desperate nostalgia for the long-passed glories of Roman dominion over western Europe, lamented the moribund state of present affairs and did his best to make a difference. Gregory attempted to re-energise the Church’s missionary work and to re-establish closer contact with Catholic bishops in Visigothic Spain and Frankish Gaul. He is most famous for sending Augustine of Canterbury to spread the word amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded formerly Roman and Christian Britain in the 5th century. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The culture of education and learning promoted by the church during this period, helped significantly to spread literacy and preserve much of the dwindling knowledge accumulated during the heights of Roman power and civilization. On that score, props.

Gregory I "The Great"

During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Papacy worked hard to shore up the pockets of territory it held in Italy, along with those still directly governed by representatives of the Eastern Roman Empire – based at Ravenna – against the further incursions of the Lombards who had established themselves throughout Italy. It also found itself increasingly at odds with and slowly divorced itself from the policies and administrative demands of the Eastern Empire. Indeed, there was a most curious instance in 663, during the time of Pope Vitalian (657-72) when Emperor Constans II (641-68) actually visited Rome from Constantinople, allegedly considering moving his court there in the wake of a string of Islamic conquests of Roman territory in the Middle East and North Africa. In the end he stayed a mere twelve days, during which time he stripped the city’s churches of their valuables, including the gold gilding from the roof of the Pantheon. It’s hardly necessary to say that this did not leave a good impression.

Map of Italy, 7th century

When, in 726, the Emperor Leo III (717-741) decreed a new policy of Iconoclasm, banning the veneration of images, he faced revolts not only in Greece, but in the Italian territories as well. The defiant attitudes of Popes Gregory II and III soured relations with the Eastern Empire even further. Gregory II’s decision to excommunicate iconoclasts in Italy resulted in Leo’s retaliation by which he, on paper, transferred the provinces of southern Italy and Illyricum to the Patriarch of Constantinople. He further attempted to put down an armed outbreak in the Exarchate of Ravenna by sending a large fleet, but its destruction in a storm marked not only the failure of his attempts to bring Italy to heel, but also marked the final separation of the Italian territories from the Eastern Empire. From this period onwards, the destiny of all Italian territories was tied to that of the Papacy.

Likely the most significant figure of this period, however, was Pope Steven II (752-757) who first engineered an alliance with the Franks to protect against the constant Lombard threat. With the fall of Ravenna in 751, the Lombards began to look to Rome to complete their conquest of Italy. Not only did Stephen II prove himself extremely agile in negotiating with the Lombards and preventing further incursions, but he went so far as to travel to Paris to persuade the Franks, under Pepin the Short (752-768), to cross the alps in 756 and chastise the pesky Lombards in a manner they weren’t likely to forget in a hurry. The Franks forced the Lombards to surrender their recent conquests and guaranteed the lands between Rome and Ravenna should remain under the rule of the Duchy of Rome, now very much an independent entity.

It wasn’t, however, until 774, during the papacy of Adrian I, that the Lombard problem was solved once and for all. Distrustful of the intentions of the Lombards, Adrian appealed first to the eastern emperor, who was unable or unwilling to assist, and then to the Frankish King Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne saw it as a great opportunity both to obtain the support and legitimacy offered by the papacy, expand his territories into Italy, and get rid of the nuisance that was the Lombards once and for all. He did all of this and more of course, which is why his name is so well known into the present.

Charlemagne

From here on in the fortunes of the Papacy are far too complex and lengthy to narrate, suffice to say that towards the end of the ninth century, a period of decline set in which resulted in the period between 904 and 964 being referred to as a saeculum obscurum, or dark age. One scholar went so far as to refer to the Papacy of the 10th century as the “pornocracy,” so corrupt and seedy were its affairs.

So, in a nutshell, the early medieval period in Italy saw some rather extraordinary characters fill the role of pope, some of whom had very interesting names. Consider the following monickers:

Hilarius I, 461-468

Simplicius, 468-483

Gelasius, 492-496

Symmachus, 498-514

Hormisdas, 514-523

Agapetus I, 535-536

Pelagius I, 556-561

Sabinian, 604-606

Adeodatus, 615-618

Severinus, 638-640

Donus, 676-678

Agatho, 678-681

Conon, 686-687

Sisinnius, 15 January, 708- 4 February, 708

And the list goes on. All we get these days is boring old John Paul and Benedict. Indeed, I’m desperately hoping the new Pope will have a peculiar fascination with one of these early figures and take on a name not spoken for centuries. How great would it be to have Hormisdas II giving the Christmas homilies instead of the likely inevitable John Paul III or some equally dull name?

Not all of the Popes during this period were Italian either. Some came from Syria, Palestine, Constantinople. Perhaps, should another non-Italian Pope don the mantle and pick up the sceptre or whatever they get up to, we might see a more creative choice of name.

Speaking of the future, one cannot help but keep one eye on the past. It seems ironic, considering how many popes have proven so divisive throughout history, that the title “Pontifex” has a curious metaphorical meaning. It literally means bridge-builder, on account of the fact that the position originally also included these duties. It is fair to say that in more recent years the papacy has attempted to build bridges between itself and other religions, or those who have felt themselves victimised, hurt or excluded by its policies. Of course, it moves with the pace of continental drift, although the shake up of Vatican II was, historically speaking, the earthquake that broke the Richter Scale.

Either way, I don’t hold much hope of any significant change taking place and, on this front, without wishing to sound illiberal or reactionary, I’m not entirely sure I want the Catholic Church to change at all. Not because I support their backward policies on abortion, contraception and er, believing in God etc, but precisely because I want them NOT to be relevant to the modern world. These sorry bastards have persecuted people throughout history, burning them at the stake, sending them to prison, exile, condemning the cultures and religions of whole peoples as worthless pagan shite and brutally enforcing their own dogma, how dare they turn around and say, oh, perhaps we were wrong about that? They should stand by all their sorry and misguided beliefs, especially where people have died opposing them, and be shown up for the uselessly effete bunch of medieval paedophile-protecting snobs they actually are. My fascination with the survival of an ancient Roman institution does not necessarily mean I wish to accommodate its continuation into the future.

One thing I will say about the Pope, which I do consider to be a sort of positive, is that despite the relative hypocrisy of the institution’s history, at least he regularly goes around preaching peace in the world these days. That at least, is a nice thing, and I’ve often wondered if present tensions between “the West” and Islam wouldn’t be tempered by the presence of a similar central figure preaching peace to Muslims the world over. Not to suggest that Islam is intrinsically warlike or even an aggressor, but if such a message were broadcast by a figure of equal authority who garnered an equal degree of respect and deference, then perhaps there would be a few less instances of people resorting to violence. Of course, it is important to note that considering the degree of hostility to Islam offered by Israel, the USA and various other nations including my own, Australia, the anger is justified. But still, non-violence is always preferable and allows one to retain the moral high ground. Controversial as it might sound, and in lieu of people just quitting religion altogether, an Islamic Pope might not be such a bad thing.

So, in brief conclusion, bring on Pope Hormisdas II, I say, and may you oversee a rapid decline in membership and faith in your antiquated institution.

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The two greatest heroes of my adult life are not people, but machines: the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. This apparent idolatry might seem almost fundamentally misanthropic or oddly fetishist, yet rather it is born of a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise everything. David Attenborough remains firmly in place as my favourite human, alongside several mentors and acquaintances from whom I’ve had the good fortune to draw inspiration and wisdom. Yet no one, nor anything for that matter, in recent memory, has achieved the level of admiration I have developed for the two Mars rovers.

The rovers were of identical design and carried a range of instruments with which to carry out geological exploration: Panoramic cameras, a Thermal Emission Spectrometer for identifying and closely examining rock types and profiling the temperature of the Martian atmosphere, a so-calledMössbauer Spectrometer for closer investigation of rock mineralogy, an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer for analysis of the elements that make up rocks and soils, magnets for collecting dust particles, a microscopic imager for high-resolution imaging of rocks and soils, and a Rock Abrasion Tool for exposing fresh material beneath the rock and dust. Despite their six-wheeled design, the rovers were, in effect, made to mimic a human geologist, with the panoramic camera mounted on a 1.5 metre-high mast and a robotic arm which replicated the movement of a human elbow and wrist. The microscopic camera and rock abrasion tool in the rovers’ “fist” were designed to replicate the work of the geologist’s magnifying glass and hammer. With these sophisticated tools, it was hoped that the two rovers would be able to provide sufficient evidence to support the wet-Mars theory.

The two missions were launched on June 10 and July 7, 2003 and successfully landed on Mars on January 3 and January 24, 2004. The principal goal of both missions was to search for evidence of water, or a history thereof, and the rovers were sent to two different locations on opposite sides of Mars: Spirit to the Gusev Crater – a possible ancient lake-bed, roughly 14 degrees south of the Martian equator, into which the Ma’adim Vallis channel system drains, and Opportunity to the Meridiani Planum – a plain just two degrees south of the equator in the westernmost portion of Terra Meridiani, which hosts a rare occurrence of gray crystalline hematite. Hematite is usually found in hot springs or pools of water on Earth, whilst the apparent channels at Gusev closely resemble natural water courses on Earth. Hence both sites held promise of answering the question as to whether or not the surface of Mars was once partly covered with liquid water, which was strongly believed to be the case.

It is a difficult enough job landing a probe successfully on Mars – as several expensive failures have proven – let alone communicating with and driving a rover on the surface. The first successful landings on Mars were the two Viking missions of 1975, which arrived in 1976.

Both missions consisted of orbiting probes and landers, which were highly successful in providing detailed images and information about the surface of Mars, paving the way for future missions. Both landers were not mobile; they were designed to act, in effect, as stationary laboratories, testing soil samples for evidence of microbial life or organic compounds. The Viking 1 and 2 landers operated for six years and three months, and three years and seven months respectively, an extraordinary achievement in itself.

Despite this lengthy operation time, neither lander was able to discover any biosignatures that might suggest life was present or had previously existed on Mars.

Ultimately the missions only ended when the landers and orbiters failed in various ways, one by one. Whilst Viking 2’s battery failed in 1980, the tragic death of Viking 2 on November 13, 1982, was due to human error – during a software upgrade the antenna was accidentally retracted, permanently shutting off communication and terminating the mission.

It was not until 1997 that another probe successfully landed on the surface of Mars: the Pathfinder mission, which also consisted of an orbiter and lander. The major difference with the Pathfinder mission was the introduction of a mobile, roving lander -Mars Sojourner. Sojourner was just a little guy – a mere 65cm by 48cm, with a height of 30cm – it weighed in at just over ten kilograms. Operating in the Ares Vallis “flood plain”, one of the rockiest places on Mars, roughly nineteen degrees north of the equator, Sojourner’s rock analysis was able to confirm a history of volcanic activity on Mars, along with identifying erosion patterns consistent with wind and water erosion.

The mission was designed in large part as a proof of concept – that rover missions could be sent to Mars successfully for a fraction of the cost of the vastly expensive Viking missions, and to test new technologies, particularly the means by which craft were landed on other planets. Pathfinder used an innovative airbag system and effectively bounced along the surface like a giant ball.

The Pathfinder mission was considered a resounding success on all fronts – in cost-effectiveness, research significance and mission duration, which was extended two months beyond its initial target of just one month. During a mission of 83 sols (1 sol = 1 Martian day, approximately 24 hours, 39 minutes) Sojourner travelled a total of roughly 100 metres, never venturing more than 12 metres from its base-station. We thus have many lovely images of Sojourner at work on Mars photographed from its base station, a rare treat for a rover mission.

Without Pathfinder’s pioneering efforts, the successful landing of Nasa’s Spirit and Opportunity probes might not have been so easily achieved. Not to suggest for a second that it is ever easy to land a probe on another planet.

There is much more that could be said about human exploration of Mars by proxy – the Mars Voyager missions, the failed Soviet attempts to land a rover in the 1970s, the Mars Global Surveyor, the more recent Phoenix mission which landed in the northern polar region and after a successful operation, froze to death during the bitter winter, but that would be to stray too far from the base-station, as it were, and require far too many words.

Returning to the topic at hand, I’d first like to mention the dedicated teams of men and women behind Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover Missions. From the mission designers to the people who control and monitor the activity of the rovers, to the scientists who examine the data returned by the probes, many thousands of hours of hard graft have gone into this project. Not only have the teams at Nasa worked long and gruelling hours, those controlling and monitoring the rovers have been forced to operate on Martian time – a 24 hour, 39 minute and 35 second day, sometimes for months on end. Team members were issued with special watches and expected to adjust their schedule to stay in alignment with Martian time – meaning roughly forty minutes of jet-lag every day! The watches were also fitted with accelerometers as part of a study into the effects of such a time-cycle on the human body and mind. This is no mean feat, especially when we consider that initially the mission was due to run for three months in total and yet, it is still going – eight years (!) after the rovers first landed on Mars.

It is for this reason that I have become so deeply attached to these brave little rovers, and, it must be said, to those who have kept them running through all this time. Just recently, in June 2012, Opportunity, after waking from a semi-sleep during the Martian winter, provided us with a stunning panorama of the location at which it stopped to rest back in January.

Opportunity is not only still alive, but it is doing very well in a cold world of rock, sand and fine dust. With temperatures ranging from between -5 to -87 degrees Celsius, Opportunity has survived not only freezing conditions, but also dust storms and getting bogged in a sand dune.

During the last eight years, Opportunity, which was designed to travel up to forty metres a day for a total odometry of roughly 1 kilometre, has travelled a distance of just over thirty-five kilometres. Opportunity landed, by chance, in an impact crater dubbed “Eagle” in an otherwise flat plain. On account of its airbag-aided bouncy landing, the mission controllers could hardly predict exactly where either probe would land, and the landing in Eagle was referred to humourously as a  hole-in-one. It also proved to be of immense scientific interest, particularly a sedimentary outcropping dubbed El Capitan. Despite being unable to determine whether or not the layers of sediment were deposited by volcanic ash, wind or water, the discovery of the mineral Jarosite, containing an abundance of hydroxide ions, indicated it had formed in water. When Opportunity dug a trench and exposed more of the rock, it uncovered small hematite spheres, nicknamed blueberries, which are strongly believed to have formed in water. Already the mission was proving a resounding success.

Leaving the Eagle Crater, Opportunity travelled to another crater, Endurance, which it investigated between June and December 2004, methodically working its way into and around the crater.

When it moved on, Opportunity passed the some of the debris from its own heatshield, and, in an unexpectedly fortunate discovery, an intact meteorite, now known as Heat Shield Rock, was discovered nearby. This proved to be the first meteorite identified on another planet.

Shortly afterwards, as it drove towards the so-called Erebus Crater, Opportunity became perilously stuck in the sand – a problem that took six weeks to solve via Earth-based simulations, which were then successfully implemented.

Erebus Crater was a large shallow, partially buried crater, with a significant number of rocky outcrops to explore. Of course, the mission of the rovers was not merely to study the geology of the planet, but whilst at Erebus, Opportunity also photographed a transit of Mars’ moon Phobos across the face of the sun.

In September 2006, Opportunity arrived at the even more spectacular Victoria Crater. It explored the rim of the crater in detail, before returning to its original arrival point, Duck Bay. The wonderful panoramic views of the crater are some of the most evocative ever to come from the surface of another planet.

The rippled sand at the centre of the crater also makes a very alluring photographic subject.

In June of that year, Opportunity entered the crater where it remained until August 2008, conducting various analyses of the rocks and soil.

Without wishing to go into too much further detail about Opportunity’s journey across the surface of Mars, it will suffice to say that over the following years Opportunity made several stops at various other craters, including Conception, Intrepid and Santa Maria.

Ultimately, Opportunity’s destination was the much larger Endeavour Crater – no less than 23 kilometres wide – which it reached in August 2011. After spending another freezing winter sitting on the crater’s rim, Opportunity is now back in operation, doing what it does best – sophisticated geological investigation.

Of course, Opportunity has not merely been cruising about the surface taking photographs of the Martian landscape. During its travels the roverhas made many important observations and discoveries which have greatly expanded our understanding of the red planet. Principal among these were the identification of spherules – concretions which form in water, vugs – voids in rocks left by water erosion, and sulfates, which on Earth generally form when standing water evaporates. Whilst the data has been rigorously subjected to all alternative hypotheses, the nature and context of the evidence convincingly suggests the prior presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. So much so, that this is no longer in dispute. We cannot as yet prove that there was once life on Mars, or that it may indeed continue to exist there in some form, yet we can now confidently say that Mars was once wet, and consequently, would have provided almost ideal conditions for life to emerge.

Opportunity has so far performed well beyond all expectations and provided vast amounts of data about the nature of Mars. The sheer length of the mission, and the incredible utility of having a working, mobile rover on the surface of Mars, means that more discoveries are inevitable. The Nasa website for the missions contains archives of the raw photographic images taken by both Opportunity and Spirit, along with logs of the rovers’ progress for each day of the mission, should anyone wish for more detail about the progress of the rovers. Sadly, however, whilst Opportunity continues to provide valuable data and sustain a proxy human presence on Mars, the same cannot be said of its twin, Spirit.

The Spirit rover had a rather more difficult life on Mars from the very beginning. On January 21, a mere eighteen days after its arrival, Spirit suffered a crippling problem with its flash memory that threatened to end the rover’s mission prematurely. The rover seemed to be stuck in an endless reboot loop and was not responding as it should. It was not until the 3rd of February that mission controllers identified the problem as a file-system error and remotely reformatted the entire flash memory system, allowing Spirit to resume its mission.

To make matters more difficult, the Gusev crater site where Spirit landed, turned out not to be a sedimentary lakebed after all, but rather a plain of volcanic material. Spirit was sent as fast as possible across the plains to the so-called Columbia Hills, which were believed to be geologically more ancient.

Spirit made numerous pitstops en route, perhaps most notably at the so-called Humphrey Rock, a volcanic rock which appeared to show evidence of liquid water flow in its formation.

Little of interest was found at various other craters which Spirit passed, and eventually, after 129 Sols, Spirit finally clambered up the slopes of the Columbia Hills. Over the following two years, Spirit explored these hills– places with names such as Husband Hill, Cumberland Ridge, Larry’s Lookout, Tennessee Valley, Home Plate, McCool Hill, Low Ridge Haven and so on.

In 2006, Spirit finally came down from the hills to explore an area known as Home Plate, where it was to remain for the rest of its working life. Home Plate turned out to be a large “explosive” volanic deposit, surrounded by basalt which is believed to have exploded upon contact with water. The presence of salty water seemed confirmed by the high concentration of chloride ions in the surrounding rocks.

Throughout this time, Spirit encountered more difficult conditions and mechanical problems than Opportunity. One of Spirit’s front wheels had long been playing up, and on March 16, 2006, the wheel stopped working altogether. Spirit attempted to crawl backwards, dragging its wheel, to the north face of McCool Hill, where it was to spend the Martian winter, yet was unable to manage the ascent and was instead sent to winter in Low Ridge Haven.

The broken wheel on Spirit laterturned out to be a blessing of sorts, when its dragging through the soil uncovered a subsurface layer of silica rich dust in December 2007.

The resulting analysis suggested the silica was likely produced in a hot-spring environment, again suggestive of a water-rich history.

The site near the Gusev Crater was especially dusty and throughout its mission, Spirit’s solar arrays faced increasingly reduced capacity on account of the dust coating.

In 2007 dust storms threatened to shut Spirit down altogether, reducing the production capacity of its solar panels from 700 watt-hours per day to a mere 128, below the minimum threshold for sustaining battery charge to power the rover’s heaters.

To avoid risk of the rover shutting down completely, Spirit was kept in temporary hibernation on its lowest possible power setting. For two weeks between November 29 and December 13, 2008, on account of the so-called Solar Conjunction – when the sun is between Earth and Mars –no communication was possible with either rover.

Even when Spirit revived from its troubled hibernation, its solar arrays still struggled to produce sufficient power. It was not until February 2009, when a fortunate wind cleaned some of the dust off Spirit’s panels, increasing its energy production to roughly 240 watts per day, that the rover seemed ready to reach full exploration capacity once again. Unfortunately, however, on the first of May 2009, Spirit became stuck in soft soil and proved unable to free itself. With the failure of another wheel, the engineers and controllers were unable to extract Spirit from its location after numerous attempts to do so, via various simulations and manoeuvres. Eventually the rover’s purpose had to be redefined as a stationary research platform, but in truth, Spirit’s run had come to an end. The last communication was on March 22, 2010, the 2210th day of the mission. The cold, it appears, was the ultimate culprit. In previous winters, Spirit had been able to park itself on a sun-facing slope, allowing it to winter in temperatures averaging -40. Stuck out on the plains, however, Spirit endured temperatures of closer to -55 Celsius – more than its reduced energy production could cope with.

Many attempts were made to regain contact with Spirit, and it was not until May 2011 that the mission was officially declared over. The final entry for Spirit’s log on the Nasa website reads as follows:

SPIRIT UPDATE:  Spirit Remains Silent at Troy – sols 2621-2627, May 18-24, 2011:

More than 1,300 commands were radiated to Spirit as part of the recovery effort in an attempt to elicit a response from the rover. No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). The project concluded the Spirit recovery efforts on May 25, 2011. The remaining, pre-sequenced ultra-high frequency (UHF) relay passes scheduled for Spirit on board the Odyssey orbiter will complete on June 8, 2011. Total odometry is unchanged at 7,730.50 meters (4.80 miles).

Despite its incredible successes and the unimaginable extension of its mission, the loss of Spirit was a great disappointment for the mission controllers. Once it had become clear how well the rovers were performing on Mars, Nasa had made the decision to drive them until they broke down, and this was certainly the fate of Spirit. When the mission was finally abandoned, Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, sent a letter to his team, both celebrating and farewelling the great success of the tough little rover. An abridged version follows:

Dear Team,

Last night, just after midnight, the last recovery command was sent to Spirit. It would be an understatement to say that this was a significant moment. Since the last communication from Spirit on March 22, 2010 (Sol 2210), as she entered her fourth Martian winter, nothing has been heard from her. There is a continued silence from the Gusev site on Mars.

Importantly, it is not how long the rover lasted, but how much exploration and discovery Spirit has done.

Each winter was hard for Spirit. But with ever-accumulating dust and the failed wheel that limited the maximum achievable slope, Spirit had no options for surviving the looming fourth winter. So we made a hard push toward some high-value science to the south. But the first path there, up onto Home Plate, was not passable. So we went for Plan B, around to the northeast of Home Plate. That too was not passable and the clock was ticking. We were left with our last choice, the longest and most risky, to head around Home Plate to the west.

It was along this path that Spirit, with her degraded 5-wheel driving, broke through an unseen hazard and became embedded in unconsolidated fine material that trapped the rover. Even this unfortunate event turned into another exciting scientific discovery. We conducted a very ambitious extrication effort, but the extrication on Mars ran out of time with the fourth winter and was further complicated by another wheel failure.

With no favorable tilt and more dust on the arrays, Spirit likely ran out of energy and succumbed to the cold temperatures during the fourth winter. There was a plausible expectation that the rover might survive the cold and wake up in the spring, but a lack of response from the rover after more than 1,200 recovery commands were sent to rouse her indicates that Spirit will sleep forever.

But let’s remember the adventure we have had. Spirit has climbed mountains, survived rover-killing dust storms, rode out three cold, dark winters and made some of the most spectacular discoveries on Mars. She has told us that Mars was once like Earth. There was water and hot springs, the conditions that could have supported life. She has given us a foundation to further explore the Red Planet and to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

But in addition to all the scientific discoveries Spirit has given us in her long, productive rover life, she has also given us a great intangible. Mars is no longer a strange, distant and unknown place. Mars is now our neighborhood. And we all go to work on Mars every day. Thank you, Spirit. Well done, little rover.

And to all of you, well done, too.

Sincerely,
John

Indeed, to all of those people who made this possible, well done. I rank this among the greatest of human achievements. Not merely landing a robotic vehicle on an inhospitable planet thousands of kilometers from the Earth, but successfully exploring the surface of said planet for eights years ongoing, is truly incredible.

People may well wonder what the point of all this is and whether or not we can justify the cost of extra-planetary exploration. I would argue that the question of whether or not life exists on other planets, whether or not its genesis has occurred independently on other worlds and is, perhaps, endemic to the universe, is worth answering. If not merely for the reassurance that the universe might be teeming with life, then also as a means of addressing long-standing religious and philosophical understandings of the origins of life and its uniqueness. This a fundamental question that lies at the heart of human enquiry, and yet such exploration is by no means merely for philosophical purposes. There are also many practical reasons for exploring other planets, particularly one which has had a water-rich past, and yet appears now to be as dry as a bone. Where did Mars’ water go, and was it the result of catastrophic climate change, or the result of the solar wind’s stripping away the atmosphere once Mars’ magnetic field had weakened?

The cost of these missions is negligible when cast against the vast spending on military budgets the world over, and, it must be said, when compared to the cost of putting people in space. There have long been advocates of abandoning attempts to maintain the international space station, or put people back into orbit or on the moon. Do we really need to go ourselves when we can send probes there for a fraction of the cost and risk? Even were it only for the sake of satisfying our insatiable curiosity to know what is out there, the exploration of our solar system and the attempts to answer fundamental questions about our own origins and future via planetary geological survey are worth conducting. Ultimately, it will become a target of economic exploration – indeed, recently, several start-ups have begun to raise capital for near-earth asteroid mining. If we can pull the resources we need from space efficiently, where they exist in an unimaginable abundance, then it would greatly relax pressures on our own planet to dig up and destroy valuable ecosystems.

If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend logging into Google Earth and, using the drop down menu at the top, switching from Earth to Mars. Google Mars is a fantastic tool for exploring the surface of the red planet and learning more about its geology and geography. Mars might be just over half the size of Earth, yet it holds the largest mountain in the known solar system – Olympos Mons, which rises to a height of just under 22,000 metres – Everest clocks 8853. It also has one of the largest known canyon systems – Valles Marineris – which is 4,000 km long, 200 km wide and up to 7 km deep. The Grand Canyon, by comparison, would be a mere tributary. Simply searching for Spirit or Opportunity will take you to their landing sites, from which their journeys might be followed. The panoramic photographs are well worth delving into.

There are further missions planned to Mars, though recent budget constraints have also seen various mission abandoned. This year, on August 5,  in what may prove to be the last touchdown for a while, Nasa will attempt to land its latest rover dubbed Curiosity or the Mars Science Laboratory. This will be the largest rover ever sent to Mars – weighing in one tonne and roughly the size of an SUV – and it is hoped that it too might perform far beyond its initial mission plan.

I will be keeping my fingers crossed that all goes well and hoping for an early birthday present of some magnificent new images from the surface of the planet.

So, enough said! Long live Spirit and Opportunity! –  Two of the most incredible machines ever built and a testament to the brilliance of humans when they work tirelessly in pursuit of answers to the eternal questions of life, the universe and everything. Hear hear!

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I put the shirt back on the rack and gave it a last look of farewell. It was a tad loose around the middle and, being very picky about the cut and fit of a shirt, it hadn’t quite made the grade. Still, it was a Diesel shirt with a nice collar and cuffs and an arrangement of blue and maroon stripes on white which I rather liked. I decided to let it go.

I looked at the other shirt I was still holding. It was a perfectly respectable, blue, white and black striped business shirt – ideal for day to day use when teaching – the sort of boring, unadventurous, yet reassuringly generic shirt that allowed me to remain both anonymous and blandly appealing.

For years I’ve been trying to blend back into the modern world, after a long Indian summer of youth in which I rejected everything mainstream and uniform.

When, now more than a decade ago, it dawned on me just how unindividual self-professed individuals were – who proved, more often than not, to be far more image conscious than the cattle they derided – I came to understand that anonymity was, in everyday life, a blessing.

I put the second shirt back on the rack. After all, it was practically identical to another one I had at home, if slightly less attractive in its colouring and thickness of stripe. It did fit me perfectly, however – so well that my girlfriend, V, who was busily prowling through Vinnies with me, had remarked at its figure-hugging qualities when I emerged from the change rooms. I had gone in there with five shirts, hoping no one would be officious about the three-items only rule. The other three shirts occupied the same end of the spectrum as the two I’d ultimately selected, then rejected, and consequently they were now all reunited on the colour-coded rack.

I lingered a moment, asking myself once more whether I wanted these two shirts. Second hand, the two were a mere thirty dollars, yet without any urgent need, the purchase seemed frivolous unless I was utterly sold on the style and cut.

Vinnies, it is worth mentioning, is a chain of charity stores who recently rebranded themselves from St Vincent De Paul. It is also one of the greatest places to shop in the known universe. There are stores everywhere in Sydney and around Australia and their range of offerings is quite formidable. Some of the larger places do furniture, household goods and kitchenware, though many only have room for clothing, books, CDs, records and the like. What makes Vinnies so attractive is the sheer amount of stuff they sell. Inevitably, anything cool and retro gets picked out pretty swiftly by hipsters, nostalgics and various other subaltern fashionistas, but there is still plenty to choose from and every so often one gets extremely lucky.

Vinnies is especially good for business shirts, trousers and suit jackets. There are quite simply so many thousands of business shirts worn and tossed aside in the world that the average Vinnies store will have upwards of three or four-hundred to choose from. Many are at the extremes of size, and many are so awfully tasteless as to garner no consideration whatsoever. Yet somewhere in that horde there is usually a very fine garment or two waiting to be snapped up. One of my favourite places to shop is the Paddington store on Oxford Street. Owing to the very wealthy and decadent nature of the locals, this outlet regularly has high quality items on its racks. I recently purchased a fine blue and white striped Van Heusen business shirt – now a teaching staple – for a mere twelve dollars. When I got it home I noticed that it had a recent dry-cleaning tag on it. Only in Paddington would someone have a shirt dry-cleaned before donating it to the local charity shop.

Another great thing about shopping at Vinnies is the complete lack of attention from staff. They are certainly helpful when approached, but otherwise they leave you alone. As there is no hope of asking “do you have this in a different size?” or “will you be getting any more of these in?” it makes for a wonderfully free and aloof shopping experience. Another great plus is that Vinnies only sells second-hand goods, which is marvellous for the environment in a world which produces far too much of everything, irrespective of demand. This knowledge, however, is tempered by the sorry fact that people actually wore some of the dreadful things on the racks in the first place.

So, having rejected both shirts, I walked back to the counter where V. was purchasing a woollen jumper.

“I decided not to get the shirts,” I said.

“Oh, why? They seemed fine.”

“Yeah, I dunno. Just not sure I really need them.”

“But they looked very good on you.”

“Did they? Oh, thanks.”

“Yes, you looked good in them. You know, handsome and respectable.”

“Oh. Yes, but – ”

I hovered a moment at the counter. Thirty dollars was hardly a big ask, and it would add flexibility to my relatively limited wardrobe. As a clothing minimalist, I usually maintain no more than about four or five outfits – combinations to which I regularly return for their comfort, style, casualness, formality or climatic-suitability. I suppose at the very least, more shirts would add a little lee-way to the wash cycle.

“Okay, fuck it. I think I’ll get them.”

Sure enough, I walked back to the rack and collected both of the shirts.

Later that day, back at home, I noticed a small stain on the arm of the Diesel shirt I had purchased. My current fad is to soak everything in Napisan for twenty-four hours to remove the inevitable yellowing around the collar and armpits. Napisan works wonders, it must be said, and my shirts have never looked cleaner. I filled up a bucket with hot water, stirred in a capful of Napisan as directed, then preceded to soak the two shirts.

The following day, having put the shirts through the wash, then ironed them and hung them up to dry, getting ready to go to work, I took the Diesel shirt off the hanger and attempted to put it on. That something had gone horribly wrong was immediately apparent, for I could barely get my arms through the sleeves at all. What had, in the shop, been a size too large for me – a little ballooning around the middle, which I thought would be countered by wearing my favourite vest over the top – was now about three sizes too small. I managed to get my arm through one sleeve; pulled it around and forced my other arm through, but the tightness across the shoulders and chest were such that I could not do up the buttons!

I tugged and stretched the fabric as best as possible, yet it was quite firmly stuck in its new size and didn’t seem inclined to expand at all. I flexed, I pulled, I wrestled with this straight-jacket, and finally, after much effort, managed to do up the buttons. I knew already that I could not wear the shirt out, but hoped that if I wore it and flexed and moved about a whole lot, it might, given time, regain some of its former size. After all, it would ultimately be advantageous if the shirt finished up a little tighter than when I had originally tried it on.

I wore a different shirt to work that evening, and when I returned home after work, put the tight shirt back on and wore it round the house. I flexed, I stretched, I pulled, I bent, but to no avail. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it looked bloody ridiculous. And, I’m afraid to say, it still does.

The buttons strain across the chest, the sleeves hug my arms like a leotard, and whenever I move it rides high, popping open at the chest and sending the collar skywards like the headdress of the flying nun. Still, having spent so long deliberating over this purchase, having invested in it in this manner and feeling a certain fatefulness about the decision, I am determined to get the damned thing back to a wearable state. And so, for the last week, I have adopted it as my home shirt, to be worn as often as possible in the hope of loosening things up a little. It’s slow going, though I’m hoping ultimately to make some progress.

Having mentioned the saga of this shirt on Facebook, I’ve had a few tips as to what I might try. One friend, Sarah, suggested I go running in it. On Saturday evening, I did this – looking very silly indeed as I pounded around the streets of Glebe, my chest ready to burst out and my arms swinging robotically in the tight sleeves. On returning home, I took a long, cold shower, despite the winter weather, and stretched and flexed the fabric as much as possible. Having since hung it up to dry and attempted to wear it again, I found my efforts have made little difference in making this shirt wearable in public. Still, I hold out hope, and will continue to wear the shirt around the house. We’ll see who cracks first.

And so, by way of conclusion, I say to you people out there, check the washing instructions before stupidly assuming, as I did, that any shirt can be happily soaked in boiling Napisan. That is all.

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When I was a child, my favourite animals were tortoises. I was completely obsessed with them and went crazy over anything faintly tortoise or turtle related. All my soft toys were tortoises or turtles. Indeed, I had an entire family of stuffed toy tortoises, all of different design, gathered during my years as a toddler. There was the gigantic patchwork Papa Tort, the smaller yet still bulky bright red Mama Tort whom I won in a school raffle (organised by my mother and about which I’ve always been deeply suspicious), the less attractive and rather tatty Uncle Tort, and two younger tortoises, one named ‘Tootaloo’ – according to his label – and then, finally, Baby Tort. Together these formed the core of what my brother and I called the “Favourites” – in other words, soft toys.

My brother, on the other hand, was utterly obsessed with bears. He began with two excellent teddy bears, for which my mother used to knit jumpers, and then moved on to actual bears. Soft toy bears, that is, as we had two dogs and a cat and thus not enough room for a pet bear into the bargain. I’ll never forget his terrible sense of loss when one day our dog Poppy ate the bear my mother had brought him from Bern in Switzerland. It was made with real fur and to this day I shudder to think that perhaps it was made from bear fur, but am sure it must have been some other unfortunate animal who lost his hide. My brother’s discovery of the torn, slobbery remains sent a spear through his heart, and I hope that he has, after thirty odd years, recovered at last.

My tortoise obsession was such that I would almost certainly cry if anyone, in anyway, maligned tortoises. I remember my mother once told me what seems, in retrospect, a rather bad joke, but it went something along the lines of a Tortoise being sent to prison for “sticking his neck out.” On hearing this, and being of an age where it was difficult to divorce metaphor and wordplay from reality, I was utterly devastated and asked for days afterwards if that tortoise would be alright. Despite my mother’s reassurances that in fact she’d made the whole thing up, I never quite believed her and thought she was telling me this to stop me worrying about that poor tortoise in prison.

My tortoise collection never extended to the real thing sadly, so I had to make do with every other available manifestation of tortoises. One such was a number of small ceramic tortoises made for fish tanks. One day, I dropped one of these on the road whilst waiting at the bus stop, just as the bus was pulling into the kerb. I was saved from certain death by my mother, who restrained me as I tried to save the poor little tortoise. Unfortunately, the bus’s aim was good and after a pathetic crunching sound, all that was left was a pile of green-tinted dust.

Another of these ceramic tortoises was given by me to my father to take overseas on assignments. As a foreign correspondent who was often in warzones, or doing something ridiculously heroic like sailing around Cape Horn, we had cause to worry for his wellbeing, and naturally I thought a tortoise good luck charm would help. The great thing is that it did help, and my father managed to come back in one piece every time. So, for that matter, did the tortoise, and my father still keeps him as a travelling good luck charm.

This obsession with tortoises has stood the test of time and I retain my fondness for these curious, long-lived and fantastically ancient creatures. Yet, in my adulthood, I have come to take on a greater variety of animal totems who have, in soft-toy form, proved wonderful travel companions. These include platypuses, bilbies, rabbits and, of course, elephants.

My love of elephants also began during childhood, when I first saw these magnificent beasts at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. For a kid who, like every other kid on the planet, was totally obsessed with dinosaurs, the elephant seemed to be the nearest approximation to the lumbering beasts that filled the pages of my many dinosaur books. Watching the shuddering flanks of the elephants as they, admittedly forlornly, drifted around the then unimpressive compound gave me my first sense of what a dinosaur must have been like. Yet elephants were no mere second-rate sop for a real sauropod – rather, they were, in themselves, magnificent and curious creatures, with possible the most exciting appendage in the animal world. I had not yet seen the star-nosed mole, which, considering the appallingly lurid nature of its snout, is likely for the best. I’ve included one here for shock value.

That first experience of elephants was sadly poignant. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the elephants was swinging its foreleg bag and forth, and when I asked my father why this was, he told me it was because the elephant was used to being chained – the foot-swinging was habitual on account of its frustration. It was enough to break a small child’s heart.

Around the age of seventeen, my mother bought me a brass elephant key-ring. It took about two years before I adopted it, but I haven’t looked back ever since. That elephant key-ring has been everywhere with me in the last twenty years and not only do I dearly love it as my very favourite accessory, but hope to continue using it for the rest of my life.

Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate in being able to see elephants on a number of occasions. Firstly, when visiting Bali with my brother, during which trip we visited an elephant resort and I took a ride on one of the elephants. Being able to get so close to so many elephants was wonderful, though I did have many reservations about the way they were handled and kept. Not that I witnessed or suspected any mistreatment of the elephants, yet these are cultured, social and highly intelligent animals who live in sophisticated extended family groups, and the idea of them being exploited in this way, however pampered they might be, left me feeling like a bit of a hypocrite for supporting the elephant tourism industry.

I had similar reservations when I visited an “Elephant School” outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Here at least the elephants had more open, natural terrain around them, including a great river in which they were regularly allowed to wallow and wash. Yet, the elephant talent show, in which they performed tricks, played soccer, lifted logs, sat on their haunches, danced and painted, filled me with such an odd mix of pleasure, pathos and pity that I was conflicted for days afterwards. During the show a young Italian woman was overcome with emotion – seemingly the product of outrage and pity at the humiliating nature of the performance – and cried out in protest. Clutching her face in her hands and shaking her head, she hurriedly fled the scene. Her raw emotion lifted the veil of harmless fun and from thereon the spectacle was coloured with macabre thoughts of the sinister nature of archetypal circuses. Still, having said that, having come all this way, I retained sufficient excitement at being in such close proximity to so many elephants to busy myself photographing them for several hours.

It must be said that the situation of elephants the world over  is certainly a sorry one. The regular killing of elephants throughout Africa has not only reduced their numbers significantly, but also destroyed the social harmony of elephant communities. The consequences of this have been, among other things, the animal equivalent of delinquency among young males in particular, who are growing up without the support and structure of a full herd with all its subtleties and complexities. The same could be said of Asian elephants, who are even more on the back-foot than those in Africa. In India, despite much love and respect for elephants, alongside much exploitation of the creatures for work and tourism, those poor beasts remaining in the wild are often forced to compete with humans for habitat and resources, and sadly, humans invariably win these disputes.

Without wishing to say a great deal more on this subject, I believe it is time we came to respect the cultures of certain of our mammal cousins by recognising their right both to territory and to an unmolested existence therein. There has been a movement in recent years to extend an animal variant of human rights to marine mammals, to protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We try, where possible, to respect the still extant primitive human cultures on Earth, though we fail dismally on this front. Surely creatures so sophisticated as to be self aware, have basic language with clear vocabulary, sing songs, talk in their sleep, have local accents and dialects, play with dolls, use tools and pass on culture to their offspring should be regarded in a similar light – as cultures that ought to be respected and protected. Not only should such rights be extended to cetaceans, but also to any other creatures who show similar levels of cultural sophistication. This would of course include all elephant and primate species. I’m not exactly suggesting they should have a seat at the United Nations, though, come to think of it, a representative for the Animal Kingdom might not be such a bad thing after all.

And so, on that note, here are a bunch of elephant photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

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Since it was first unveiled to the world, there has been a lot of attention focussed on Kim Jong-Un’s haircut. The floppy-topped undercut rather suits the overfed little dumpling and frames his face nicely. It is, as an acquaintance, Penny, would say, quite an effective brand of turd polish which gives him a certain fascist pizzazz, knuckling down with post-lobotomy chic.

Yesterday at work, not quite knowing what the rules governing the haircut were, without the advice of Mr Google, speculation was rife as to whether or not imitation of the haircut in the tragic, sad and hungry Stalinist theme park that is North Korea would be considered appropriate homage to the dumpling, or an act of treason on the scale of usurpation – a pretender to the throne.

Would the mere idea of Kim Jong-Un’s haircut being emulated be sufficient to send him into paroxysms of rage, followed shortly by mass detentions and executions, or would it rather invoke a more positive response, as though such imitators had clicked his “like” button?

It was whilst teaching my next lesson that the following scene occurred to me:

Kim Jong Un, having finished annihilating the Zergs in a game of Starcraft 2, thus earning him further accolades as a brilliant general, rises to greet the military commanders who have come to raise a serious question about his latest dictat. The generals stand, heads bowed, shuffling nervously, fearful of the forthcoming dry-cleaning bill.

“Your Unparalleled Eminence,” says the boldest of them all. “Son of the Moon and Stars, Holder-Upperer of the Heavens and Gatekeeper of Hell, Grandmaster of Tides and Winds, Binder-Together of Atoms, Higgs Boson, Horse-Breaker, Lion-Tamer and Iron Chef Korean, with all due respect and loyalty, and in humble acknowledgement of your far greater powers of reason and deduction, and,” pointing to the computer screen, “tactical and strategic genius, we are concerned that having all citizens who dare to have the same haircut, or, for that matter, any barbers who are willing to provide said haircut, starved to death in the traditional North Korean manner, will be counter-productive to the revolutionary ideal of creating a kitsch cult of personality and sustaining the largest army in the world, on a per capita basis.”

Kim Jong-Un, standing silently, glowering with a sneer of withering contempt, tosses his bowl of chicken congee at the generals. Not satisfied with the splattering of their freshly-laundered, if stylistically-dated uniforms, with one fell sweep of his mighty bingo wings, he sends a plate of pork and chive dumplings in their direction. The generals, knowing the importance of stoicism in the face of even the worst tantrums, on pain of death for showing fear either in public or private, allow the dumplings to strike them, unblinking. Indeed, several of them begin smiling in thanks for this unexpected anointing, all the while secretly thankful that their master has finished his kimchi.

“This is my haircut! I am the dear leader and no one else! I am the dumpling king, not you! And certainly not the bloody proles!”

The boldest of the generals, having borne the full brunt of the soup course, with a dumpling perched rather comically on the peak of his cap, his glasses dripping with congee and quietly thanking his wife for discouraging him from having had the troublesome haircut, continues to defy his master’s beloved insolence.

“But, your Universal Greatness, the entire population is alarmingly thin. There is little chance that anyone in our great system can get enough protein to challenge the Iron Throne. So weak and thin are they, it takes twelve of them just to change a light-bulb. Upon your accession, it took no less than six-hundred and fifty-two men to attach the warhead for your celebratory missile launch.”

“This is my haircut!” shouts Kim Jong-Un. “The leader must be unique! What good is it if the people look like me!?”

“They won’t, your Divine Grace, because there’s simply not enough food in the kingdom – er, I mean, state. And, well, as for looking like you, this is Communism after all, I believe.”

At this point Kim Jong-Un chooses to surprise them with an enormous bowl of kimchi he has been hiding behind his vast monitor. Turning and hurling the contents towards the generals in a great fan of red, chilli pickled cabbage, he slumps back in his chair, exhausted.

“It’s my haircut! Mine! Mine!”

and so on, ad nauseam.

_____________________________________________

Having since had a chance to investigate further, it would seem that in fact, Kim Jong-Un’s haircut is all the rage in North Korea and that emulation, rather than being punishable by death, is in fact encouraged as a show of patriotism and loyalty. Kim Jong-Un has been described as a “style guru,” and his hairstyle has been called the “ambition” or “youth” haircut. The North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun wrote that “neat and short hair for young people makes them captivating.” They went on to say that:

“A young man with an ambitious high-sided haircut looks so sobering and stylish.”

It is not only in North Korea that such a style is currently popular. The United States has also seen a resurgence in the floppy-topped undercut, known colloquially as “a modified McSqueeb,” a “J. Edgar Hoover”,  a “Jimmy Darmody”, or, most popularly, a “Hitler Youth,” according to the New York Times. Though it can be difficult to nail the point of origin of any trend, it seems unlikely that style guru Kim Jong-Un is responsible for the popularity of the hairstyle in the U.S. Could it rather be that he has been watching Boardwalk Empire when not conquering his enemies in Starcraft and Civilization or trolling people in Aion and World of Warcraft? Either way the North Koreans have been rather slow in claiming this as a global coup for their new dear leader.

PS. I should like to note that whilst it is otherwise inappropriate to make jokes about people on account of their body weight and size and gluttony, I find it especially galling that this chap is so grossly overfed in a nation where people are starving to death as a direct result of the backward policies and misguided priorities of its leaders.

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