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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Love, Life, Goethe – How to be Happy in an Imperfect World by John Armstrong (FP: 2006)

This is rather a strange one – not helped by the sub-title not exactly being 100% honest. On the face of it this looks like a kind of off-beat self-help book possibly using the works of the great 18th Century German author and playwright as examples. In a roundabout way that would be right. But only somewhat. What it actually turned out being was an off-beat biography of the man himself - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832).

Now I’d be the first to admit that all I knew of Goethe prior to reading this rather long but interesting book is that he was German and that he’d written some classic works of literature. I’m not even sure, prior to being immersed in his life, that I could’ve told you which century he lived in. My knowledge of German culture is, as you might imagine, rather sparse. I am now much more familiar with his works, nicely explained throughout, and with the time in which he lived. He was undoubtedly a very lucky man. He was lucky enough to be born into position and reasonable wealth and was being groomed, from an early age, to take up a position of power and prestige in his home city of Frankfurt. Sent away to study Law he developed other ideas and produced a novel which became a runaway best seller and made him the toast of European society and all whilst still in his 20’s. The novel, The Sorrows of Young Werter, made him a cultural superstar who everyone wanted to meet or befriend. One such benefactor was Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (based in the small town of Weimar) who managed to entice Goethe to move to his principalities capital and to stay there for most of his life. Whilst there Goethe produced a number of plays, including a very well received re-imaging of Faust in two parts (the 2nd part only publish after his death and, together, running for over 13 hours of stage time), several travelogues – he loved Italy – some poetry and even some scientific work (apparently getting involved in a huge row with Isaac Newton about the nature of light!) He also managed to become Karl August’s friend, a minister in his government and a companion on his military adventures (including against Napoleon himself). If that wasn’t enough Goethe had an eye for the ladies which was more than reciprocated. A handsome man into late middle-age, famous, connected and not exactly poor he was quite a catch in anyone’s book. All the stranger then when he fell in love with, had children with and finally married a pretty local girl with no education, no money and no position. Whilst not exactly staying faithful to her throughout her life they did stay together until her death late in his life.

So, where does the rather strange sub-title come in? The author, with some style I must admit, makes a good case for Goethe’s philosophical stance using evidence from his literally works, later autobiography and various letters to his many, many contacts throughout Europe. He did say some interesting, if potentially mundane, things. One of the most interesting I thought was his belief that it was simply not possible to know other people anywhere as well as you could, at least potentially, know yourself. He was certainly sure that no one would understand him after he died no matter what material he left behind (and he deliberately left a lot!). Something even more mundane was his belief in home comforts. The home should be your refuge and should be clean, tidy and orderly. With such a place to retreat to almost any trial could be overcome. He was though, above everything else, most concerned that people saw the reality of the world and did not spend their lives disappointed (or worse) that life in general or their lives in particular were not turning out the way they imagined they would. Projecting our wishes onto the real world and expecting some positive outcome was, he thought, simply asking for trouble. Whilst not exactly what I was expecting this was still an interesting (and often fascinating) delve into a world and an author I had previously know very little about. If you’re interested in Goethe, 18th century literature or European culture this is the book for you. Recommended.

[Next up in non-History non-Fiction: Our Dark Future]  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Robot 'drowns' in fountain mishap.

From BBC News

18 July 2017

A security robot in Washington DC suffered a watery demise after falling into a fountain by an office building. The stricken robot, made by Knightscope, was spotted by passers-by whose photos of the aftermath quickly went viral on social media. For some, the incident seemed to sum up the state of 21st Century technology. "We were promised flying cars, instead we got suicidal robots," wrote one worker from the building on Twitter. "Steps are our best defence against the Robopocalypse," commented Peter Singer - author of Wired for War, a book about military robotics.

It is not the first accident involving Knightscope's patrolling robots, which are equipped with various instruments - including face-recognition systems, high-definition video capture, infrared and ultrasonic sensors. Last year, a 16-month-old toddler was run over by one of the autonomous devices in a Silicon Valley shopping centre. And earlier this year, a Californian man was arrested after attacking a Knightscope robot. The man, who was drunk at the time of the incident, later said he wanted to "test" the machine, according to Knightscope.

[LOVED the Peter Singer quote. At least for now, just like the Daleks, we are safe from killer robots as long as they can’t climb steps (or can’t stop themselves falling down them). Presumably we’d also be safe behind a closed, never mind locked, door or anywhere where the robot has to cross more than a 3 inch gap. Of course all of these obstacles will be navigated in time. But for now at least we’re safe! But you know what? I still feel sorry for the little robotic guy.......]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Good Father by Noah Hawley (FP: 2012)

It’s always difficult for a parent when a child goes wrong. It’s more difficult for a father to watch his son drift away and then be caught on camera committing a crime. The guilt felt at such a moment is a palpable thing. Now imagine a father watching in stunned disbelief as his son, thousands of miles away, pulls out a gun and shoots the hope of a nation dead on television. Even before the echo of the gunshot has faded, or so it seems, there is an insistent knock on the door. Forcing himself to at least act normally he opens the door only to be confronted by serious men, dressed in black, carrying guns. “Dr Allen, come with us please?” With these seemingly innocuous words a father who has always considered himself to be a good man and a good father watches his world slowly fall apart. Could his son have really shot the front runner in the Democratic race for President of the United States? Could he have ended the hope of millions with a single bullet? Will his son join the growing line of disconnected lone killers who change the course of world history? Or is he, like so many before him, an innocent youth, manipulated, covertly trained, brain-washed and used as a deniable weapon by war mongers and arms dealers in order to keep their profits high as the war machine rumbles on. How did his bright little boy, who cried when a neighbour’s dog died, end up in a place where he bought guns, trained himself on shooting ranges and avoided security to kill another human being in cold blood? Was he, as his father, ultimately responsible for his son’s destructive act? As the investigation begins and the trail approaches the nightmare for Dr Paul Allen is only just beginning….

Told largely from two viewpoints – both father and son – as their lives move into eventual collision this is a gripping story of loss, regret, guilt and the facing up to the fact that we are not, and never can be, accountable for the actions of others – even our own son’s. The anguish of the father is real. Any parent reading this book will feel Paul’s pain as he tries to figure out where it all went wrong and pulls out all the stops to prove his son’s innocence. Anyone who has gone through their teenage years will identify with Danny as he struggles with issues of identity, resentment at his parents’ divorce and his disillusionment at the world which is much less, in so many ways, than he has been promised or as adults still pretend it is. The characterisation throughout is frankly superb. For the vast majority of the book both Paul’s and Danny’s thoughts are our thoughts and the reader cannot help but feel their pain as both of their world’s appear to be ending in front of them.

Salted throughout the novel are asides, investigations by both main protagonists, of earlier assassinations and spree killings. The details of each had a journalistic reality about them that brought them alive with the reader at the heart of the action. Highly ‘visual’ throughout I could barely put this down and on several occasions found myself reading late into the night and having to drag myself off to bed knowing I had work in the morning. Most definitely one of the highlights of the summer and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the movie version showed up at your local multiplex in the very near future. Highly recommended but I’d make sure that you had a few days of free time to give this novel the attention it deserves.