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

Monday, June 01, 2020

An Eighth View from the Apocalypse.

As the End of the World continues the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned on. Despite the fact that nothing has substantially changed – except the temperature – schools have started to go back, out of town superstores are reopening to HUGE crowds and all non-essential shops (including book stores) are scheduled to start reopening in around 10-14 days’ time. They’ve been told that they’ll have to take precautions to ensure social distancing but, apart from that, have at it. Seeing how people reacted to beaches and IKEA being open I’m guessing that, at least initially, any shop that opens will probably be mobbed. Either that or no one will show up. I’m betting on the mob though – ALWAYS bet on the mob, especially if there’s even a HINT of a bargain in the offing. Pubs, bars, restaurants and cinemas will open at a later – to be defined – date, again with social distancing restrictions in place. Interestingly the recommended 2 metre (6 feet) distance might be reduced to 1.5 metres. The reason for this? Apparently 2 metres restricts shops SO much that it significantly reduces trade. A 1.5 metre distance is much better for that sort of thing. Of course it does make you wonder….. Was the 2 metre rule pulled out of thin air (or somewhere else less savoury) or is increased economic activity more important than increased risk of, you know, death? I’m guessing both – bad science and poor public health.

Meanwhile I’m still here, still healthy and still (largely) sane. I’m reading lots – my review stack now totals 8 books – I’m catching up on my box sets (finished Series 1 of Lucifer today), watching some really good YouTube channels (presently a week by week study of WW1 called ‘The Great War’) and my garden looks SO much better now! I’m sleeping about 8hrs a day which is great and, as I’m mostly inside, my hay fever has hardly made an appearance so far! I’m going for short walks every few days just before it gets dark to get out of the house, get some fresh air and work on my expanding waistline so I’m definitely keeping reasonably busy. May (apparently our driest on record!) went by in a whoosh – much faster than I thought it would considering I’ve hardly been anywhere. I SO need a haircut though. I’ve been self-grooming AKA clipping off the straggly bits for the last week or so but definitely need professional help. Sorting THAT will be interesting.

Family and friends are all OK so that’s good. A friend of mine with underlying health conditions needs an operation at some point but that’s in the ‘we’ll fit you in when we can’ stage presently. It’s definitely more complicated than it would’ve been prior to Covid. I still haven’t returned my work laptop and phone yet. I’m expecting the call any time now – probably to coincide with the shops reopening. It’ll give me a chance to test out my new N95 face masks from China I picked up off Amazon. Speaking of which, I have a steady dribble of books arriving through the post to keep me going – like I NEED more books…. [lol] The last of a small group of VSI (Very Short Introduction) books on the Pandemic, in a roundabout way, arrived today so I’ll be ‘blitzing’ them in a week or so. I seem to have become temporarily obsessed with naval books ATM. I’m blaming Stephen over at Reading Freely for that. No doubt I’ll get him back as he’s FORCED to read several sea based series….. [lol]. Be safe and Stay Safe. See you all on the other side. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Going outside? Erm... Let me think about it for a few more months....

Just Finished Reading: The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (FP: 1957)

Post war America had a problem, actually a gigantic problem. During WW2 the US had become the de facto ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ producing war products on a staggering scale. Once the war was done though this manufacturing capacity – especially for military products – was no longer required in anything like that amount. So as factories converted back to civilian use it was soon discovered that domestic demand was nowhere near enough to sustain that kind of production. America’s natural overseas consumers where still recovering from the wars destruction and it was going to take some time before they could buy American products. It was down to the US consumer to take up the slack. But the average American, rich as they were (comparatively with the rest of the planet) could only buy so much or, put bluntly, wanted so much. They needed to be encouraged to consume more but standard advertising just wasn’t cutting it. Something new was required. Fortunately something new was readily available – Psychology, Psychiatry and Social Anthropology. These comparatively new social sciences were just the things that Madison Avenue needed to boost sales and boost them they did – spectacularly. With ever more sophisticated techniques being used and with more and more agencies getting on board with the new way of doing things America experienced a consumer boom the likes of which had not been seen before. Profits increased month on month, products left the factories and warehouses on the way to American (and later foreign) homes and everyone was happy – except for the end user who, to maintain economic growth, had to be forever dissatisfied with the products he now owned and the life he now lived. Welcome to the Consumer Society.

Looking back over 50 years after this classic expose of the new marketing techniques first print run the author sounds sweetly na├»ve. If he assessed today’s advertising industry with the same eyes he would be both shocked and appalled. The first thing that jumped out at me in this admittedly fascinating slim volume was the fact that the solution to ‘over production’ of actually cutting back on manufacturing rather than coming up with clever ways to convince people to buy things they didn’t need (or often want) with money they didn’t have (interestingly the author talked about the possibility of a future debt crisis and wondered about the rationality of an economy based on consumer borrowing) to impress people they didn’t know or like. More than one reference was made to car manufacturers who ignored the consumer requests for more fuel efficiency and, instead, produced larger cars so that their profit margin increased – manipulating their customer base to believe that bigger cars were a sign of success (and manliness) whist at the same time convincing their wives that big means safe no matter how they actually drove. The other thing that truly fascinated me throughout the entire work was, most likely, completely unintended. As with many older books the author was leaving many things either unstated or unjustified because they were obvious to everyone – himself and his readership. For example there was no need to explain or defend the patriarchy or even/especially consumer capitalism. At one point he discussed mental disorders – including homosexuality. Naturally cigarettes loomed large throughout the narrative and he referenced more than once ‘the recent cancer scare’ which the tobacco companies where doing everything to undercut. Reading between the lines I suggest that the author simply didn’t believe the cigarettes caused cancer. One other thing that really jumped out at me – again throughout the book those being interviewed both within and outside the advertising industry constantly complained that US citizens consistently failed to conform to any standards that could be easily dealt with. They were just too individualistic. But, they hoped, they could tap into a deep need for them to be accepted by their peers and not be seen to be strange or ‘un-American’ and use this to produce more conformity in the market in order to more control sales. Finally I couldn’t help but smile as the author ruminated on the idea of ‘packaging’ political candidates in order to ‘sell’ them to the public – in other words the idea of political parties or individual politicians becoming ‘brands’ in their own right. As Mr Packard died in 1996 I’m guessing that that increasing humming sound is him revolving ever faster in his grave. As interesting read for a whole HOST of reasons and a very interesting insight indeed into the minds and the culture of 1950’s America. Recommended.   

Monday, May 25, 2020


Just Finished Reading: The Jail Busters – The Secret Story of MI6, The French Resistance & Operation Jericho by Robert Lyman (FP: 2014)

Europe, Early 1944. Liberation is Coming. All along the South Coast of England a vast Armada is being put together to transport the men and equipment for the largest amphibious operation in history. Each day aircraft of the RAF and USAAF attack railyards, transport hubs and other strategic targets to slow or prevent counter attack. Each night agents of the SOE, OSS and DGSE rely on dropped equipment, agents and other assistance in their joint operations with the French Resistance, and lately a new menace has appeared – launch pads for rocket weapons have been appearing across Northern France in preparation for ‘Vengeance’ attacks against London and the south coast. Located by aerial reconnaissance and by elements of the French Resistance they are regularly attacked by ground attack aircraft and light bombers such as the Mosquito. But the Germans know that Liberation is coming too. They have no idea where the hammer will fall or when but they do know it will be somewhere on the French coast and that it will be soon. They are also aware of the importance of eyes on the ground and have been operating in overdrive to sweep up as many French Resistance units as possible prior to invasion and they have been very successful in their endeavours. Hundreds of these fighters, labelled as terrorists by the Germans, are being held in Amiens prison awaiting deportation or execution. In January 1944 a cry for help went out to MI6, their main British ally, to help. The RAF was happy to respond. On the morning of 18th February 1944 a force of 19 Mosquito fighter bombers took off in a snow storm and headed at wave top height for the French coast. Their mission was to breach the prison walls in Amiens allowing the escape of highly valued and much needed Resistance fighters. Less than three hours after taking off the surviving 17 aircraft landed back at base after successfully attacking the prison, flying at close to 300mph at rooftop level. The walls came down and many escaped that day in 1944 in one of the most daring bombing missions of the war.

Told with great detail and from multiple viewpoints – including the RAF planners and pilots, MI6 HQ, French Resistance leaders and even some of their opponents in France (both Germans and some French collaborators) – this was an exciting tale of a little known and highly unusual mission by the RAF. Such a thing would never have happened without a whole host of elements coming together in the right way and at the right time. Although highly successful in many ways this wasn’t a mission without casualties. Whilst only the prison itself was hit by bombs – except I think for a nearby church that was struck by one bomb that pierced the prison wall (which was expected to be stone rather than the brick it actually was), bounced on frozen ground and ‘skipped’ through the church without exploding – several of the buildings did collapse and a significant number of prisoners were killed. Two of the tacking aircraft were lost in the attack and at least two of the crew were killed. However, many of the Resistance fighters did escape and the attack itself was both a huge morale boost to the French and a disaster for the German security forces who lost much of their intelligence in the subsequent Resistance reprisals. With insights into Resistance operations in France and the assistance of British, US and even French secret services (a fact I was unaware of!) as well as interesting digressions of the RAF dealing with the V weapon threat this was an excellent read which brought to light pre-D Day elements hardly ever discussed elsewhere. Recommended for anyone interested in these topics. More on the V weapon response (Operation Crossbow) and from the author to come.