27 July 2016

On Vatican corruption

The anecdotes are endless: the monsignor who appropriates a room from the adjacent apartment of a poorer priest simply by knocking down the party wall while the other man is in hospital; the diplomat priest who takes advantage of the diplomatic bag to carry mafia money across the Swiss border; the organisation Propaganda Fide, instituted to evangelise the world, that spends relatively little on this mission while owning almost a thousand valuable properties in and around Rome, many of them rented way below market price to friends and favourites.

It is striking how many Catholic organisations seem to do a whole range of lucrative things they were never set up to do, while still enjoying tax exemption as religious institutions. When priests in Salerno were granted €2.3 million of public money to build an orphanage in a depressed urban area, they built a luxury hotel instead. Found guilty of appropriating funds under false pretences in 2012, the archbishop of Salerno avoided punishment when the crime lapsed under the statute of limitations before his appeal could be heard. Others went to jail.

- Tim Parks, 'The Passion of the Bureaucrats', London Review of Books, 18 February 2016

See also:
Italy: Fra Mauro's map, 23 July 2015
Italy96 hours in the Eternal City, 16 October 2010

17 July 2016

I captured a Boyar

Lord Margaer of Ulburban. Don't all queue up at once, ladies.
Indie fantasy RPG Mount & Blade Warband, which I picked up in the Steam summer sale, is a lot of fun but there's a steep learning curve. It's frustrating how comprehensively rubbish I was at combat at the beginning. And in a game mostly about combat that could be considered something of a liability. Like many others starting out, I was captured and imprisoned by more puissant warrior-folk four or five times in a row when I first ventured out into the perilous kingdoms of Calradia. This quickly became irksome. The only solution was finding the wandering ransom broker to sell off some bandit hostages for cash, then track down my two freebie hero companions, Katrin and Ymira, who I was split up from when captured for the first time by some Khergit Khanate pillock with an overwhelming stack of doom. Plus I needed to raise enough to buy another horse, because being a medieval pedestrian totally sucks.

Part of the solution to these problems was capturing a Boyar. Having learned a few of the combat ropes by trial and a lot of error, I barged into a relatively even fight between a raiding Vaegir lord and a Swadian count with whom I had a passing acquaintance, and my 30 meagre chaps tipped the balance. A few days later before I could track down a ransom broker I got a message offering me 3800 denars for my noble prisoner! At the time this was an enormous sum to me, and I wasn't sure what to do with all the dough, but I vowed not to blow it all on a fancy pony.

At this stage I was only just tinkering with giving battle orders, preferring a simple and straightforward approach of going at 'em and trusting to fate. This seems to have worked so far, perhaps because my warrior, Margaer, became somewhat more skilled in evading stronger pursuers.

Not long afterward I noticed a fleeting game message saying Margaer had graduated to the lofty realm of those with ‘right to rule’. This seemed to result in more effusive greetings from nobles who knew me relatively well, and was presumably aided by my recently captured another unlucky Boyar for ransom. This latter gambit didn’t pan out though, because my captive vanished from my inventory before I could cash in when Swadia declared a truce with the Vaegirs.

Having really enjoyed graduating to the ranks of the slightly less insignificant, I particularly relished how the game remembers your dealings with various lords. One Rhodok lord who I’d pleased by laboriously training up six Veteran Spearmen sent me on a message errand to a Khergit lord, and after traipsing for days to the Khergit’s court at the edge of Calradia I was told that we’d met previously on the field of battle. Presumably I’d fled!

By this stage Margaer was keeping a strong well-trained force of around 40 to 45 men including six named companions, and was broadening my search for missions into Rhodok lands. This led to a foolish leap in the dark when on a whim I pledged my allegiance to a Rhodok usurper, seeking to depose the current king. I didn't realise this would mean revoking my hitherto profitable allegiance to the king of Swadia. And the situation became doubly entangled when I cut loose the would-be usurper, without realising the huge impact would have on my character's honour and standing.

However, after this string of mis-steps, things started to look up. Venturing north into the snowy realm of the Vaegirs, I chanced upon King Yaroglek and pledged my allegiance to him. Margaer could've been knocked down with a feather when the king offered him a village of his own to support his efforts in the king's service. Sure, Ulburban is a desolate, poverty-stricken, isolated, snowbound hovel, but it's my desolate, poverty-stricken, isolated, snowbound hovel. Lord Margaer of Ulburban now sports a well-trained fighting force of 60 men in the service of the Vaegirs, and has befriended several influential Boyars, including the current marshall, Boyar Naldera. Things are looking up!

See also:
Games: Elite Dangerous, 2 March 2016
Games: Civ 5, 11 February 2014
GamesXCOM, 25 January 2014

06 July 2016

No swimmer will find fault with the baths and conveniences

Thorndon Summer Pool, 2 July 2016

On Saturday 29 November 1924 a new public bathing facility opened in Thorndon, Wellington. The Thorndon Summer Pool has served the city since then, open to the elements and therefore only used for the more temperate months of the year, from late October to early April. For the remainder of the year it looks like the view above: empty until the thermometer rises again. On opening day in 1924 the Evening Post had a thorough report on the new pool, with only a minor gripe to show that everyone's an expert in town planning, even journalists:

The official opening of the new fresh water baths at Thorndon took place at 3 p.m. to-day, when the Mayor (Mr. R. A Wright, M.P.) declared the baths available to the public, who had their first sight of them and afterwards were invited to have a swim, no charge being made on this occasion. The new pool is of the standard length of 33 1-3 yards by 40 feet. The depth ranges from eight feet to three feet. The whole of the sides and bottom are faced in white tiles with lines of green tiles to direct the swimmers. A trough round the sides will provide for clearing the surface water and keeping the baths clean. 
Following the opening, a programme of races arranged by the now revived Thorndon Swimming Club were put on.  
The opinion amongst swimmers is that it will not be very long before alterations will be required at Thorndon. For many years the Te Aro Baths have proved unsatisfactory for the holding of carnivals, one distinct drawback being that spectators were situated so far from the swimmers that it was difficult to follow them. The new baths will be a very distinct improvement in this respect, the spectators being right at the water's edge. However, for the size of carnival and the attendances of spectators that are hoped for in future operations in Wellington, the new baths, it is held by many, should prove quite inadequate in the matter of accommodation for spectators, only one side being gallaried [sic], and both ends and the other side providing no seating accommodation. It is also questionable whether the present number of cubicles will be adequate if the baths prove as popular as they should be. No swimmer will, however, find fault with the baths and conveniences, which are excellent, except that a medium high diving board will be required.
- 'New Baths. Opening at Thorndon', Evening Post, 29 November 1924 
 The official opening the pool, Mr Wright, was a Reform member who was the city's mayor from 1921 to 1925. A little over a month before opening the pool he had also officiated at the opening of the new De Lux Theatre, which we now know as the Embassy Theatre. Following his term as mayor of Wellington, Wright was Minister of Education from 1926 to 1928 in the Reform administration under Gordon Coates.

The Evening Post of 29 November mentions plans in Sydney to build an underground rail network to address the city's traffic problems. It also notes the good sense of good traffic planning for Wellington, an altogether smaller city but one with its own distinct challenges:

Wellington now is in a relative position somewhat resembling Sydney many years ago. The traffic difficulties ahead are becoming apparent. Our city is not likely to grow as the capital of New South Wales has grown, because the New Zealand population is distributed; but we are pressed against the hills as Sydney is not. We should endeavour to apply the lesson while there is yet time, and remodel our traffic routes before the cost becomes prohibitive. It will be more expensive now than twenty years ago, but twenty years hence it will certainly be no cheaper. 
See also:
TransportWellington tramlink, 14 January 2015
Blog: Thorndon Fair 2013, 1 December 2013
Photography: Ans Westra Wellington 1976, 30 June 2013

04 July 2016

A fixed star in a rootless world

On his road trips through America, Nabokov gained a familiarity with the landscape that would inform Lolita, his signature novel. Decades after its publication, Lolita’s subject matter continues to shock, and its most disturbing aspect lies in its basic contradiction: How could something so beautifully written advance a story of such utter debasement? Here again, Nabokov’s enduring fascination with memory figures into his art. The novel’s central character, Humbert Humbert, tells the story in retrospect, giving a morally bankrupt relationship the grandness of myth. Lolita is about many things, but one of its themes is the plasticity of the perceived past—how it can be bent through the biases of recollection to serve our personal conceits. In a kind of counterpoint to [Nabokov's memoir] Speak, Memory’s treatment of the past as pure transcendence when transmuted into narrative, Lolita hints at literary recollection as a corrupting influence as dark as Humbert’s carnal appetites. That Humbert is a supremely sophisticated aesthete suggests the book as a cautionary tale about the black magic of art, its power to not only define reality but distort it.

But in Speak, Memory, Nabokov implies that memory, flawed though it may be, is the closest thing we have to a fixed star in a rootless world. He speculates that, when it came to remembering things, “Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known.”

- Danny Heitman, 'Why Nabokov's Speak, Memory still speaks to us', Humanities, Summer 2016

See also:
Blog: Mr Putin departs Brisbane, 16 November 2014
BlogCharles & Fyodor, 3 January 2014