Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Out in the Snow, Part One

            For the past couple of days for some reason I have been thinking about winter gear. What is the best equipment to have if you have to operate in the snow like the final level of the movie Inception? In that movie the “good guys” wear pure white cold weather gear, but in the real world that is not too practical. During the invasion of Russia the German army issued a number of items of winter clothing in white.  Troops naturally tended to wear these warm items all the time and very soon the white got dirty and lost all its camouflage performance. The correct approach was to make warm clothing and primary camouflage separate and issue thin snowshirts, helmet covers or oversuits that could be worn only when needed and easily washed and dried when dirty. Last night I watched the old black and white movie “Armored Command” which featured American soldiers in WW2 operating in the snow. No one in this movie attempts to use snow camouflage. This got me thinking on the topic of snow gear again.

            The first people to consider when it comes to cold weather survival are the Inuit. They brave the Artic in a parka and trousers of caribou skin. According to an excellent museum exhibit I saw in Berlin (or more probably Copenhagen) these garments are made from a double layer of furred hide, the outer layer with the fur outward and the inner fur in and are worn over the bare skin. The exhibition also had some embroidered seal skin g-strings that were apparently the only undergarment worn in winter and sometimes the only thing worn while relaxing in the “warmth” of a shelter. In sub-zero conditions the challenge is often to keep your garments dry and avoid them becoming soaked with condensing perspiration. I imagine Inuit winter clothing is fairly permeable and being relatively thin ensures that the dew point occurs outside the garments. I have used Buffalo Double P clothing that I suspect works on a similar principle. This consists of a layer of fibre pile (artificial fur) with an outer layer of pertex, which is windproof but quick drying and permeable. Buffalo recommend that their items be worn with the fibre pile next to the bare skin so that it can wick perspiration away to escape through the pertex before it can condense.

            The Russians are the obvious military to think about when it comes to sub-zero military operations, but if you know your history you will know that the Finns taught them a few hard lessons about winter warfare. Checking one of the few sources I had handy on Finnish military uniforms in the 1940s indicated that each Finnish soldier was issued with a sheepskin outfit for winter operations. Like most armies of this time period the uniform worn underneath was made from wool. I have little experience wearing sheepskin, but I suspect that it will behave rather like the Inuit clothing.

            The archetypical Russian soldier’s winter clothing is the Telogreika or padded jacket, often worn with matching padded trousers. Apparently the filling was cotton batting or cotton wool. If this is true, and not a “Wiki-fact” I would expect these garment to become pretty cold and uncomfortable if it is allowed to get wet. The Telogreika was originally intended to be worn under the greatcoat but ended up being worn on its own, particularly when a long greatcoat would be too encumbering. The Russian greatcoat was often carried rolled up and what most people assume to be a blanket roll being worn by Russian soldiers was in fact the greatcoat. Russian greatcoats had hook and eye fastenings instead of buttons, which seems unusual but if you think about it was probably much easier to use if you are wearing thick mittens or gloves.

            That will have to do for today’s blog. I will cover more specific topics later.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Put the phone in your pocket and look at the world.

            Yesterday I was talking with a colleague about the all too common stupid habit of people walking while looking at their phones. This is a piece of idiocracy that extends across the generations, including to those who were actually brought up before the existence of mobile phones that were taught as children to look where they were going. A few years ago everyone was worried that mobile phones might cause tumours, when in fact the real danger was that they seem to make you stupid. My colleague had had a woman looking at her phone and carrying a coffee walk into him. He had stopped when he saw her but was unable to move out of the way due to a wall on one side and a flow of pedestrians on the other. She had walked into him, spilt the coffee down herself and then acted like it was his fault.

            In my book I have talked about the necessity of keeping aware of your surroundings as a component of personal safety. I have known people who have been assaulted and robbed because they were too busy talking or looking on their phones. As for driving while using your phone and texting, this is way too common and the courts really need to impose harsher sentences.

            I came across this video today so I thought I would share it on the blog. Phones are a useful tool, but like any tool, use them wisely and pay a little more attention to the world around you. You may just avoid missing something nice.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Roman Marching Kit

            Recently I saw a comedian pose the question “Why did it take so long to put wheels on suitcases? We put men on the moon before we thought of putting wheels on cases!” It may be hard for younger readers to grasp, but the logical step of putting wheels on cases is relatively new.

            I mention this because I have always been interested in alternate ways of doing things. Just because we do things one way does not mean that this is the only or necessarily the best way. In that vein I will pass on this rather nice video about Roman Marching kit. I’ll comment that most Furcas (the forked pole) that I have seen have had larger forks. Doubtless these items also served many useful roles around camp, acting as support poles or pot lifters. Also worth noting is that the roman infantry made use of animal transport, each contubernium (8-man squad) having a mule to carry their tent and some other gear.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Narcissism and Aggression.

            Surfing channels last night, looking for something different and I came across a program about cult leaders. In addition to the history of several examples there was also some content on the psychology behind some famous incidents.

            One interesting piece of information was that many people who believe they are having a religious experience and hearing the voice of god are in fact undergoing a temporal epileptic seizure. Inducing such seizures under laboratory conditions will produce the same experiences. This was interesting since there is considerable evidence of links between epilepsy and certain criminal acts. That may be the subject of a future blog, but for the moment I will point out that that statement should not be taken to imply that all epileptics are criminals or dangerous.

          Another trait of cult leaders discussed was narcissism. The program described an experiment where subjects were given a questionnaire to determine if they were strongly narcissistic or not. The subjects were then asked to write an essay, and the essay was taken away for marking by an unseen party. In reality the essays were not read but were instead randomly assigned either an “A” grade or marked “F. Worst Essay I Have Ever Read!” The graded essays are then returned to the subjects and the subjects given the opportunity to subject the unseen (and non-existent) grader with a blast of sound. Not surprisingly, many F-graded subjects did not like being criticised. What was significant was the narcissistic students tended to inflict more intense and longer duration punishments on the “grader”.

            Quite interesting, I think. Obviously many of the cult leaders in the program were narcissistic and in the majority of examples their violent crimes seem to have been triggered by their perception that they were losing control or things were not going to go their way. An extreme example of this was Jim Jones and the deaths at Jonestown.

            In your day to day life you will doubtless have to deal with some narcissistic and potentially more volatile individuals. It is a good policy to avoid humiliating enemies unless it is necessary. In my book I mention using “mental judo” to let aggressors back out of a fight while saving face, or make it appear that such actions are their idea. This has applications in other fields too. Over the years I have influenced many colleagues to adopt practices that I think are better. Many of them are quite convinced that these were originally their good idea and defend them accordingly. Only a few close colleagues know that I was the origin of these ideas or know about the various hints and nudges it took.

Monday, 9 September 2013

"Foxy shovels love fights!"

              I came across this illustration the other day which I found sort of charming (if that is a correct term for the subject matter!)

           I have talked about entrenching tools in both my books and will doubtless cover them further in other blog posts, but since it is a Monday and getting late I will leave you to enjoy the picture for today's blog post.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

On desires, acceptance and meditation...

            It is coming up to that time of year when I have increased contact with another generation of younger people. One thing that has struck me over the past few years is how many individuals (and not just those younger than myself!)  cannot distinguish between what they want and what they can have. Stop for a moment and think about that and you will realize this is the root of so many conflicts between individuals  and within yourself.

            Often trying to have what you desire hurts others. If you cannot have what you want then another option is to be happy with what you can get. Well, perhaps “accept” is a more practical goal than “happy”. What cannot be cured, must be endured. There are some things in my life I accepted long ago and they do not bother me while the same things are a source of worry to others. My girlfriend was laughing at a friend of hers whose hair was thinning. I glanced upwards at my own long bare pate and raised an eyebrow. “You being bald does not matter” she explained “you are cool with it and don’t let it bother you so it is nothing on you”. There are, of course, other aspects of my life I apparently cannot change and I have not yet been able to accept, so I am making more of an effort to work on that.

            Recently I saw a program that included a section on meditation, in particular mindfulness meditation. It seems that scientific studies have indicated changes in brain mechanism resulting from practice of meditation and it has proved to be have a positive effect in a number of situations and institutions. Many of you, like me, may have assumed that meditation involves letting your mind go blank, which is a very difficult if not impossible for most of use. What in particular struck me in this program was a comment that made it clear that “clear your mind” was a constant and dynamic process during meditation. It is inevitable that thoughts will pop-up in your head. The trick was to not dwell on them and dismiss them until an appropriate time. This reminded me of a friend of mine who used to seem to go out of his way to think about his problems and used to torture himself something rotten as a result. We all know  that is can be a good policy to distract yourself when you have something on your mind, and for major problems such as grief from the lost of a loved one I know that sleeping as much as possible is often the best medicine. One of the things Mindfulness Mediation seems to teach is the ability to discipline your thoughts and dismiss those that are not at that time relevant.

            Possibly the most accessible form of mindfulness mediation is sitting meditation. Just sit, concentrating on a single thing, such as your breathing and practice dismissing any other thoughts and ignoring any external distractions. No need for a special outfit, scented candles, CD of whale noises or anything else. One thing I have noticed recently is that I have found my exercising (mentally) quite relaxing. My mind has just been concentrating on each movement and dismissing anything else that pops into my head at that moment. Tai Chi, of course, is often described as “mediation in movement” and we can see a similar process here. I was quite interested to learn there was also such a thing as mindfulness meditation while walking. Rather than concentrate on each breath you concentrate on each step, and the sensations it brings. You can, of course, advance to concentrating on both your steps and breathing. From a self-defence point of view walking anywhere without paying attention to your surroundings is a bad move so walking meditation has the potential to become even more advanced while you concentrate on a number of things while eliminating unnecessary thoughts.

            Something to research further and experiment with.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


            When she was a little girl my favourite aunt fell into a patch of nettles. At the hospital, through her tears she demanded “Dock Leaves!”. Interestingly no one at the hospital understood why she was demanding them.

            I can very distinctly remember when I learnt about dock leaves. I was a small child in the beer garden of a pub. At one end of the garden was a very tall nettle. My father patiently explained to me the danger that this posed and also how rubbing a sting with a dock leaf would negate its effects, and that dock leaves would always be found where nettles grew.

            Recently I went for a walk in a park with my girlfriend. She was overjoyed to encounter some brambles with a good growth of blackberries and was soon wading among then picking as many as she could. All of a sudden she announced “my arm is burning”. Turns out that while she recognizes blackberries they do not have nettles in Brazil so she was quite unaware of the risk of brushing against these innocuous looking plants. I began hunting for dock, but contrary to common wisdom there were none nearby and I had to search a good twenty yards away. Not entirely sure what I found was dock, but rubbing them on the sting did seem to reduce the effects.

            Back at work I told her to use some soap to neutralize the effects of the sting. A colleague had some Olbas oil and this proved effective. Olbas oil is part of my travelling first aid kit so it was interesting to find yet another use for it.

           In addition to dock I now learn that Greater Plantain and Dandelion leaves could have been used instead. There were quite a few of these growing closer to the nettle. Alkalis such as baking soda or soap work, as does hot water. Other remedies include Horsetail, Jewelweed, the underside of a fern (the spores), mud, saliva, oil and onions, lemon juice, and topical use of milk of magnesia. Worth knowing.