Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 18 March 2014

A real-life game of thrones

Anniversaries are not something we make much of here in the Tavern, but occasionally something comes along that is too good to miss.

On this day in 1314, Philippe IV of France had four high officers of the Order of Knights Templar brought from their prison cells to make a public confession of their sins and those of the Order, the culmination of a seven-year process of persecution designed to assert the King's spiritual authority and, conveniently, secure for the Crown the Templars' substantial assets.

Instead, to the consternation of the authorities, Grand Master Jacques de Molay and Geffroi de Charnay, Preceptor of Normandy, loudly recanted the confessions of heresy, sorcery and sacrilege that had been wrung from them by torture. The royal council immediately decreed they should be burned at the stake that same evening.

According to legend, as the flames rose about him, de Molay cursed the King and the Pope, who had assisted in the disbanding of the Templars; both, he said, would be summoned to divine judgement within a year. The curse may have been a later invention, but it is true that Clement V died only a month later and the King in November of the same year.

What happened next is history with more than a touch of drama and was certainly enough to fuel rumours of a family curse operating into the next generation.

The first event was a major scandal which erupted when Philippe's daughter observed two young knights wearing distinctive gifts she had given to her sisters-in-law. Two of Philippe's three daughters-in-law were found guilty of adultery while the third was said to have abetted and concealed the affairs.The King immediately had the princesses imprisoned in remote castles and their lovers publicly tortured, flayed and executed.

The succession of the Capet dynasty was already problematic; two of Philippe's brothers were believed to have been poisoned in childhood by their stepmother in favour of her own new-born son Louis who, along with Philippe's younger full brother, Charles, grew up to play an active part in disruptive political intrigues.

Philippe's death complicated matters further; the new king had only a single female child whose legitimacy was questionable and, with his wife imprisoned for adultery, little chance of producing another heir. A papal annulment proved impossible to obtain but, with suspicious convenience, the 24-year-old 'queen' died in prison a few months later and Louis X was free to marry again.

The following year he too died - rather picturesquely, after a vigorous game of tennis - leaving a pregnant wife and a daughter whose parentage was in doubt. In the face of this potential crisis, some hasty legal manoeuvring resurrected an ancient law excluding females from the line of succession, a law which was to foster decades of dynastic conflict.

As well as dividing the nobility of France, this ultimately led to the Hundred Years War; Philippe's daughter, thus excluded from the French throne but mother of a son with a possible claim, was none other than Isabella, wife of Edward II, whose notoriety owes much to her alliance with the ruthless Roger Mortimer and the untimely and unusual demise of her husband.

If all this sounds like the plot of a novel - and a novel you would like to read - I recommend 'The Accursed Kings' by Maurice Druon, a seven-book epic fraught with arrogant kings and warrior princes, renegade Popes, feuding noblemen (and -women), scheming politicians, adulterous princesses, religious fanatics, daring escapes, damsels in distress, a sprinkling of sorcery and, of course, the obligatory red-hot poker, all based on real events.

It'll help pass the time, anyway...

(Youtube link here)

Sunday 16 March 2014

Darwin's Cupcakes strike again!

If you're the sort of person whose idea of a treat is a miniature sponge cake topped with a mound of piped buttercream and a liberal sprinkling of glitter, then you probably wandered here by mistake.

Cynicism we have in abundance, along with satire and acerbic comment occasionally seasoned with song parodies and asteroids, but, if sparkly cupcakes are your thing, you're not going to find much to interest you here.

And you certainly aren't likely to want to know that, according to tests carried out by West Yorkshire Trading Standards on certain 'edible' cake decorations:
When the plastic glitter was placed under a microscope, it was shown to be made up of hexagonal fragments with jagged edges.  
In one case, the glitter was made of finely powdered brass.
Mmmmm, yummy! The findings were released eighteen months ago but, the legal system being what it is, the case has just come to court.
A businesswoman has been landed with a £13,500 legal bill for duping customers into buying “edible” cupcake glitter made out of shredded plastic - which ended up in the food chain.
Unlike the standard edible variety, which is based on gum arabic, the glitter in the samples tested was made from the same plastic as drinks bottles - polyethylene terephthalate (PET to its friends) - and was originally intended for craft use. The hearing was told that its effect on the human digestive system is unknown and it should not be eaten.

I should have thought that most rational beings, confronted with multicoloured glitter, would not naturally assume it to be edible, but there are clearly people out there willing to tuck in with gusto - Oooh, shiny! - and even feed the stuff to their children (on the plus side, the inevitable consequences should add a certain interest to potty-training).

Of course, one might argue that it's Darwin in action again; if you are fool enough to consume sparkly plastic flakes in a range of startling artificial colours, you probably deserve all you get.

Meanwhile, the boss of the firm has neatly sidestepped the issue by insisting that, despite selling the products to cake decorating shops and bakers, she had never suggested that they could be eaten. As for the homophonous company name printed - rather haphazardly - on the labels:
Protesting her innocence, Ed Able Art Ltd boss Margaret Martin claimed the name of her firm was inspired by three animated mice characters called Ed, Able and Art.
Nope, me neither. In fact these alleged mice are, as far as I can ascertain, conspicuous by their complete absence from the world-wide web - although I admit I was briefly sidetracked from the search by a fascinating scholarly article entitled:
Mice as a Delicacy: The Significance of Mice in the Diet of the Tumbuka People of Eastern Zambia
Ed Able Art products, however, are out there in abundance, offered for sale by cake decoration suppliers; I could even, if so inclined, order a pot of black and silver 'Asteroid Disco Glitter' for a mere £2.50, one of a range of 94 Disco Glitters including 'Neon Flamingo', 'Laser Blue Hologram' and 'Remington Steel'.

The £13,500 fine - surely a mere slap on the wrist in modern business terms - and 12 charges dropped out of a total of 24, combined with a number of previous unheeded warnings suggest that Trading Standards lack the teeth required to prevent inedible decorations reaching the market.

This means we are back to caveat emptor - and Darwin. To quote from my original post on the subject:

'Trading Standards warn that they do not know what the effects of eating glitter might be - I can see some interesting lawsuits pending when Yummy Mummies find out what they've been feeding their little darlings - but we can be fairly sure they will, by and large, be confined to that sector of the population prepared to throw common sense to the winds for a sparkly, self-indulgent treat.'

I'm sure you'll agree that, should the ingestion of plastic glitter prove to have negative consequences, this will ultimately benefit the human race.

Update: A brief tour of online retailers suggests that, even after buying clearly-labelled 'non-edible cake decorating glitter' - how is that supposed to work? - consumers are happily leaving comments about how much they and their children enjoyed eating it.

I'm starting to think that, if you ran up to them and shouted "Soylent Green is PEOPLE!", they would just smile and say "I know, but it makes lovely cakes!".

Friday 14 March 2014

Crowded Skies

It's been a busy week but there's still time to raise a glass to the two asteroids that passed by this morning a whisker over a million kilometres away.

Though relative tiddlers on a cosmic scale - 13m and 26m respectively - 2014 EP12 and EB25 surely merit a toast, as does 2014 EX24, which literally slipped under the radar last Sunday and wasn't spotted until two days after its closest approach at around 260,000km.

As an ideal accompaniment to your drink, assuming you are in a reasonably robust frame of mind, you might like to contemplate the work of some some enterprising astronomers who have created, in effect, a prototype Total Perspective Vortex.

(For those unfamiliar with the works of Douglas Adams: The prospective victim of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe - together with a microscopic dot bearing the legend "you are here". The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim's mind.)

Thursday 6 March 2014

Scotch for the rocks

A positive cornucopia of asteroids at the moment: yesterday brought us the 25-metre 2014 DX110 at a distance of 348,000 km and today a double helping in the shape of 'very small' asteroids 2014 EF at 120,000km and 2014 EC at 62,000 km.

Since we are in the habit of celebrating every flyby with a drink or two and things are very busy in the Tavern, I have decided to devote the rest of the evening to getting comfortably horizontal.

If you dropped in in search of entertainment, I do apologise; please feel free to have a wander through the archives or, if you prefer, pour yourself a drink and join us in a virtual toast to 2014's latest crop of asteroids.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

'Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!'

It seems that optimism reigns supreme north of the Border, where Alex Salmond has apparently claimed that an independent Scotland would be an 'economic powerhouse':
The First Minister said Scotland would rebalance the “economic centre of gravity of these islands” by becoming a “Northern light” that would act as a counterpoint to London’s “dark star”.
Since, according to the Telegraph, experts have warned that the fledgling state would start life deep in the red and that he has massively overestimated oil revenues, you have to wonder where he is getting his figures.

Oddly enough, I have something in the archives from last year that might give some indication of what happens when politics and mathematics collide...


According to a decidedly excitable headline today at the Scottish Daily Record:
Margaret Thatcher snatched £130bn of Scottish wealth as she axed 250,000 of our jobs
Mrs Thatcher, it proclaims, 'reaped a massive Scottish tax windfall' and 'squandered North Sea oil cash on her destructive policies', which, I think, roughly translates as "Let's all share a highly enjoyable outburst of righteous indignation".

Having obligingly done so, the readers will have probably gone off the boil rather by the time they reach the explanation that:
Extra Scottish revenues handed to the UK Treasury during the Iron Lady’s 1980s heyday would be worth a staggering £130billion at today’s prices.
So the figure has been adjusted. Never mind the intervening quarter of a century and the misleading 'as' suggesting contemporaneous events; what matters is that the journalist has an attention-grabbing figure to crown a collection of loaded phrases straight out of the rabble-rouser's handbook.

But wait a minute; what's this?
Finance Secretary John Swinney claimed the figures proved that Scotland’s oil wealth had been wasted by the Thatcher government. 
He said: “The additional revenue paid by Scotland totalled £130billion during the 1980s – or an average of £2541 per person each and every year."
So which is it? £130 billion then or now? Oil revenues are a complicated question at the best of times but understanding can hardly be helped by such apparent political sleight-of-hand.

When it comes to political speeches, most people don't listen out for the metaphorical small print; they just join in when they like the tune. Look at the crowds of under-30s out on the streets celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher and you'll see exactly what I mean.

We've become so accustomed to misdirection from our political masters on both sides of the border that
 it hardly seem worth remarking these days, but a combination of disinformation and opportunistic demagoguery cannot but harm the democratic process.

The Scottish people deserve better than this.