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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Always...... Don't you?
A Point of View: The advantages of pessimism

From The BBC

12 August 2011

Incompatibility between our big aspirations and the reality of life is bound to disappoint unless we learn to be a bit more gloomy, says Alain de Botton.

Today I want to advance the unusual idea that we'd be a great deal more cheerful if we learnt to be a little more pessimistic. And, from a completely secular point of view, I'd like to suggest that in the passages before they go on to promise us salvation, religions are rather good at being pessimistic. For example, Christianity has spent much of its history emphasising the darker side of earthly existence. Yet even within this sombre tradition, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal stands out for the exceptionally merciless nature of his pessimism. In his book the Pensees, Pascal misses no opportunities to confront his readers with evidence of mankind's resolutely deviant, pitiful and unworthy nature.

In seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion. "Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself," he says. Misery is the norm, he states: "If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it." And we have to face the desperate facts of our situation head on. "Man's greatness," he writes, "comes from knowing he is wretched." Given the tone, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed. The work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious. For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man's every last hope into the dust. The Pensees - far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realisation of hidden potential - has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet. If Pascal's pessimism can effectively console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope. It is hope - with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians and our planet - that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us.

The incompatibility between the grandeur of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments which rack our days and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces. Hence the relief, which can explode into bursts of laughter, when we finally come across an author generous enough to confirm that our very worst insights, far from being unique, are part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind. Our dread that we might be the only ones to feel anxious, bored, jealous, perverse and narcissistic turns out to be gloriously unfounded, opening up unexpected opportunities for communion around our dark realities.

We should honour Pascal, and the long line of pessimistic writers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of our sinful and pitiful state. This is not a stance with which the modern world betrays much sympathy, for one of its dominant characteristics and - in my opinion - its greatest flaw is its optimism. Despite occasional moments of panic, most often connected to market crises, wars or pandemics, the secular contemporary world maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on a quasi-messianic faith in the three great drivers of change - science, technology and commerce. Material improvements since the mid-18th Century have been so remarkable and have so exponentially increased our comfort, safety, wealth and power, as to deal an almost fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic - and therefore, crucially, to our ability to stay sane and content. It has been impossible to hold on to a balanced assessment of what life is likely to provide for us when we have witnessed the cracking of the genetic code, the invention of the mobile phone, the opening of Western-style supermarkets in remote corners of China and the launch of the Hubble telescope.

Yet while it is undeniable that the scientific and economic trajectories of mankind have been pointed firmly in an upward direction for several centuries, you and I do not comprise mankind. None of us as individuals can dwell exclusively amidst the ground-breaking developments in genetics or telecommunications that lend our age its distinctive and buoyant prejudices. We may derive some benefit from the availability of hot baths and computer chips, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than were those of our medieval forebears. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising its population that happiness could ever make a permanent home for itself on this earth. The secular are at this moment in history a great deal more optimistic than the religious - something of an irony given the frequency with which the religious have been derided by the non religious for their apparent naivety and credulousness. It is the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realised on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind.

The benefits of a philosophy of pessimism are to be seen in relation to love. Christianity and Judaism present marriage not as a union inspired and governed by subjective enthusiasm but rather, and more modestly, as a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in society and thence, with the help of a close friend, undertake to nurture and educate the next generation under divine guidance. These limited expectations tend to forestall the suspicion, so familiar to secular partners, that there might have been more intense, angelic or less fraught alternatives available elsewhere. Within the religious ideal friction, disputes and boredom are signs not of error, but of life proceeding according to plan. These religions do recognise our desire to adore passionately. They know of our need to believe in others, to worship and serve them and to find in them a perfection which eludes us in ourselves. They simply insist that these objects of adoration should always be divine rather than human. Therefore they assign us eternally youthful, attractive and virtuous deities to shepherd us through life while reminding us on a daily basis that human beings are comparatively humdrum and flawed creations worthy of forgiveness and patience, a detail which is apt to elude our notice in the heat of marital squabbling.

Why can't you be more perfect? This is the incensed question that lurks beneath a majority of secular arguments. In their effort to keep us from hurling our curdled dreams at one another, religions have the good sense to provide us with angels to worship and lovers to tolerate. A pessimistic world view does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break out across their darkened horizons.

[I am a well known sceptic and pessimist. This does not mean, as the author above points out, that I cannot have fun or appreciate the joys of life. It’s just that I don’t expect good things to happen to me or others on a regular basis. Shit happens and sometimes a lot of shit happens. Such is life. If you expect things to go your way, if you think that things will turn out OK in the end then you will be continually disappointed with things – because life just isn’t like that. Pessimism is just another way of saying realistic. Optimists might (arguably) have more fun – at least on a short term basis – but pessimists are more often right. Personally I’d rather be right and see the world as it really is. You definitely get blind-sided a lot less that way!]

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Getting up in the dark (AKA Night Time)..... REALLY not my thing!
Just Finished Reading: Ancient Greece – A Very Short Introduction by Paul Cartledge (FP: 2011)

The author recognises upfront that it is difficult to do justice to such a large subject – even in an introduction – in a mere 144 pages. But as with all of the VSI books they are designed as a taster, an entrĂ©e, a glimpse into a much larger world. They are there to provide a hook to entice the reader to go on exploring. This book certainly does exactly that – but in quite an intriguing way. Normally you would expect most history books to progress in a chronological fashion. After all, as we know, history is just one damned thing after another. The author doesn’t exactly turn this idea on its head (I’ve read books that did and they worked pretty well) but rather comes at the subject sideways – by examining one of the defining aspects of Ancient Greek culture from a historical perspective: Cities. After all Greece as we know it today simply didn’t exist back then. The Greeks living in independent or semi-independent city-states, each with its own history, culture and place in the unfolding story of that civilisation. Each city interactive with and was acted upon by its neighbours and other cities further away. They fought, formed alliances, fell, were rebuilt and gave rise to the men who produced the artefacts, ideas and philosophies that define the era. Of course some cities just had to make the authors list – he kept it down to 11 – including Athens, Sparta, Syracuse, Thebes and Alexandria. Others might be less well known but had their impacts, both subtle and dramatic, just the same – Cnossos, Mycenae, Argos, Miletus. Each city had its role to play in the overall triumph and tragedy of that part of the world. Each produced artists, diplomats, philosophers and storytellers that are still known today thousands of years later. The author gives a glimpse of this very different yet somehow familiar world.

As I expected the standard chronological approach to this subject it did take me a little while to get my head around the author’s narrative thrust, but once it settled into place and things became clearer I began to really enjoy it. I know the story of the rivalry between Athens and Sparta reasonably well but was less aware of some of the other events and personalities from across the area. I now have more of an inkling of what was going on elsewhere and will be following up some of those interesting episodes in later books. If you are unfamiliar with Ancient Greece or just want a refresher this is a pretty good place to reignite that interest.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Viruses – A Very Short Introduction by Dorothy H Crawford (FP: 2011)

Viruses are fascinating if generally nasty little creatures. Very primitive in many respects they are highly sophisticated infiltrators that have existed probably as long as life on Earth. Viruses live on the edge of the life/non-life barrier and cannot prosper without a host to infect in order to reproduce. For centuries their existence was unknown or unproven despite a host of circumstantial evidence. Only comparatively recently has the reality of these enigmatic creatures been confirmed, catalogued and gradually understood.

Such is the scope of this fascinating little volume. Looking first at the nature of the beast, their diversity, structure and evolution the author discusses how the human immune system in particular has developed and adapted over time to the viral threat. The disturbing subject of emerging viruses is covered next including the spread of West Nile virus, SARS and, of course HIV. Leading naturally to the subject of Epidemics and Pandemics the author relates the fight against Measles, Smallpox and Flu. After a chapter on persistent viruses such as Herpes (400 million years old it seems!) and HIV (again) the author moves onto discuss the growing number of viruses know to or suspected of producing tumours. Finally, the author turns to the ongoing fight against viruses – both the successes (smallpox, polio and rabies) and relative failure (AIDS) and debates the arguments for and against vaccination. In the final chapter she discusses the history of viruses in human populations and speculates on the future of the seemingly everlasting war against them.

This is an interesting little book aimed at the general reader. I did find I needed to concentrate a bit more than usual during the discussion of the ins and outs of viral DNA and exactly how viruses operate but I’ve been out of the world of biology for quite some time. It was, in effect, a good refresher course for me! The sections on the emergent problem where very good if more than a little disturbing. With humans moving into areas little explored until now due to population pressures it’s inevitable that we will encounter diseases for which we have little or no immunity. With global communications and international transport a new virus could potentially spread across the world before the first person exhibits symptoms. This is seriously scary stuff! Whilst most definitely an introduction into the subject this book does have a handy glossary of technical terms and a short bibliography. It is a subject I’m quite interested in and will be following up some of the subjects highlighted above in future reading. Recommended.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Thinking About: Being the Smartest Person in the Room

One of the bosses came up to me a little while ago at work and told me that I was the highest qualified person in our group of some 70 people. Apparently our educational ranking goes up to level 9 (I had no idea such a ranking even existed up till that point) and I was the only person to attain level 8 (twice actually). Of course what made the very idea even funnier to me is that my actual level ranking in the organisation is two up from the bottom and it goes a long way up!

Now of course this doesn’t mean that I’m the smartest person in our little group. Some of the people I work with are clearly smart cookies with years or decades of experience behind them. It’s just that a lot of what we do doesn’t really require the kinds of qualifications I’ve acquired. What’s more, attaining a certain level of qualification doesn’t necessarily make me smarter than people who haven’t attained and have no reason to attain it. As we all know things just don’t work that way. But it did get me thinking…..

Certainly for most of my school life I was probably one of, if not the, smartest person in my class. With some of the schools I went to this actually wasn’t that difficult. I’d always gone to state schools in basically working class areas so not that much was expected of us. Most people I grew up with lived up to that expectation. What did surprise me from time to time was that I seemed to be brighter than some of my teachers. I very quickly learnt that some of them really don’t like being corrected by what they probably assumed was a write-off educationally speaking. One or two really didn’t like it when I was right and they were wrong. Of course there were those who liked what they saw and encouraged me. A few teachers leant me books to get me thinking in wider areas beyond the basic curriculum. I still remember my English teacher lending me her own scholarship edition of Orwell’s 1984 when I was 11 or 12 so she obviously saw something going on between my ears! But no one likes a smart-ass (though I’d love to see a longitudinal demographic study on that broken down by gender and ethnic background) so I made sure that I didn’t put my health in danger by always putting my hand up first and always getting questions right. Being lazy helped though it finally screwed up my results when I took my exams at 16 and barely scrapped through. It was a bit of a shock to my teachers that I did so badly after they expected so much of me (finally). It was a bit of a shock to me too but not enough, apparently, as I screwed up my exams at 18 too and I didn’t even have a teen romance or two to blame it on.

For want of something else to do, with the economy in one of its periodic downturns, I went back to college and re-took some of my exams. Again things didn’t go exactly to plan and my results were not good enough for university. Back once more, again with high expectations from my tutors, I managed to scrape into university on the third attempt. Once there it became clear that I was no longer the smartest person in the room. What a relief that was! No longer having to hide behind indifference or ignorance was quite a breath of fresh air. Finally my peers were actually my peers! It was great to be in the company of people who could finally understand what I was talking about (mostly) and who could actually argue the toss with me without wanting to punch me because they thought they were being insulted somehow. Those years saw a much more confident personality emerge behind my eyes. Consequently I loved my time at university which showed in the fact that, after stumbling over my exams previously, I managed to get a 2.1 Honours degree without working nearly as hard as some people I knew in my year. Inevitably after that experience, now in the somewhat less stimulating workplace, I missed the intellectually challenging environment of university life.

So after a gap of far too many years I went back (twice) to do a couple of Masters Degrees. It was in the second that I met and was taught by some frighteningly smart people. I knew for a fact that in those two years I was far from the smartest person in the room – and found it greatly stimulating. Despite not having studied Philosophy to any great depth before-hand (one unit during my BA years and a handful of books since) I managed to hold my own in a group of people up to 30 years my junior and who had mostly graduated the previous academic year from a BA Philosophy degree. My essay scores where surprisingly impressive – related I think to the panic induced by not exactly being sure what I was doing coupled with a great deal of effort in their construction – and I know they raised a few eyebrows amongst my fellow students. My tutors seemed to be fairly impressed too, not only giving me generally high marks but recognition for good arguments and clarity of thought. Coming from people I recognised as head and shoulders above myself I definitely took that as a complement. In that kind of environment I had, indeed I had to, up my game and it felt as if my brain had dusted off unused or little used parts of itself to keep up with the intellectual challenge I had forced upon myself. Thankfully I had some very good tutors and a good bunch of fellow students to help me out and bounce ideas off. I definitely couldn’t have done it in a one-on-one situation. No longer being the smartest person in the room was again a liberating experience. It meant that I could relax, be myself and respond to the demands of the course work. I felt for the first time in quite some time fully awake. Some of the subjects stretched me a great deal. I struggled with Nietzsche for weeks before I got a handle on him and then for months more when I tried to work his ideas into my dissertation. But I don’t think I could have done that without the spur of not taking for granted that I was smatter than everyone else around me. I like being with smart people, I like it a lot and although I certainly wouldn’t like to be the dumbest person in the room I’m more than happy not being the smartest either. I’ll settle for being in the top 20%. That’ll do me fine.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Vampire Hunters Casebook edited by Peter Haining (FP: 1996)

As I had said many times before, the main risk with reading collections of short stories is their variable quality. This volume is no exception to that rule but the percentage of poor stories is thankfully very low. I think only one made my toes curl and my nose twitch at how truly poor it was. Most of the others were at the very worst readable and actually generally of good quality especially considering the age of some of them. However, the true weakness with this collection is the narrowness of, or at least the interpretation of the narrowness of, the subject matter. Each and every story is about vampire hunters who discover, track and dispatch (in the main) their vampire prey. Each story is a variation on a very minor theme and after reading 14 of them in reasonably quick succession I did feel more than a little bored with the whole thing. Saying that there are some gems in here including early works by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1871-72) and Arabella Kenealy (1896) which pre-date Bram Stoker’s seminal work. Despite my qualified praise above this is still worth the time and effort of any fan of vampire literature. Reasonable.

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Favourite Movies: The Replacement Killers

John Lee (played by Chow Yun-Fat) is a killer working off a debt to his ruthless employer Chinese gangster Terrence Wei (played by Kenneth Tsang). When the crime lords son dies in a police shoot out he directs John Lee to kill the police officers 7 years old son in revenge. But Lee cannot kill an innocent child and goes on the run – back to China to protect his family from the wrath of Terrence Wei. But before he can leave the USA he needs a fake passport. Enter smart forger Meg Coburn (played by the lovely Mira Sorvino – dressed mostly in her underwear throughout the film) who offers to produce fake documents for $1000 cash. Before any documentation can be handed over thugs hired by Wei interrupt things the way only thugs can – with lots and lots of bullets. Now both Lee and Meg are on the run moving from seedy hotel to low-life hang-out only minutes away from another set piece shoot-out. Initially hostile to each other Meg and Lee begin to work together and understand each other until they finally realise that the only way out is through Terrence Wei and his criminal organisation.

This is a film long on style and rather thin on substance which honestly appealed to the young teenage boy in me. Not only does it have the great Chow Yun-Fat, who I adore, it also had the delightful Ms Sorvino, mostly getting dressed and undressed and mostly just wearing a leather jacket over her underwear (was that the style in 1998 or did I miss something?). On top of this was the fact that the story, such that it was, strung together some great shoot-outs clearly choreographed by the great and wonderful John Woo – full of sweeping flowing motions in slow-motion and more bullets than you could count. It is, above all else, a wonderfully made if far from subtle film. My DVD copy is an 18 certificate though I struggle to see why. There’s plenty of violence and quite a bit of blood but nothing more than you see in 15 certificate movies. There’s no sex and no nudity and very little to no swearing. The subject matter isn’t particularly strong so what made it an 18? No idea. That certainly shouldn’t put you off watching it (if you’re over 15 that is!) although I wouldn’t classify it as family entertainment. It’s a stylish fusion of Hollywood and Hong-Kong that impressed me at the time and I still enjoy watching 15 years later. Oh, but make sure that you leave your critical faculties on pause during the whole experience. Much of the film is rather silly if you think about it too much. Just go with the flow and enjoy the ride. You won’t have your mind expanded but you might have 84 minutes of action-packed fun.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

'Super-Earth' exoplanet spotted 42 light-years away

From The BBC

8 November 2012

Astronomers have spotted another candidate for a potentially habitable planet - and it is not too far away. The star HD 40307 was known to host three planets, all of them too near to support liquid water. But research to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics has found three more - among them a "super-Earth" seven times our planet's mass, in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist. Many more observations will be needed to confirm any other similarities. But the find joins an ever-larger catalogue of more than 800 known exoplanets, and it seems only a matter of time before astronomers spot an "Earth 2.0" - a rocky planet with an atmosphere circling a Sun-like star in the habitable zone. HD 40307 is not particularly Sun-like; it is a smaller, cooler version of our star emitting orange light. But it is subtle variations in this light that permitted researchers working with the Rocky Planets Around Cool Stars (Ropacs) network to find three more planets around it.

The team used the Harps instrument at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile. Harps does not spot planets directly - it detects the slight changes in colour of a stars' light caused by planets' gentle gravitational tugs - the "redshift" and "blueshift" that small motions cause. Most recently, the instrument was used to spot an exoplanet circling our second-nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri B. It is by its nature a high-precision measurement, and it has only been with the team's improved analysis of the natural variations in HD 40307's light that the team could unpick just how many tugs were changing it. "We pioneered new data analysis techniques including the use of the wavelength as a filter to reduce the influence of activity on the signal from this star," said University of Hertfordshire researcher and lead author of the paper Mikko Tuomi. "This significantly increased our sensitivity and enabled us to reveal three new super-Earth planets around the star known as HD 40307, making it into a six-planet system."

The outermost of the three new finds, HD 40307g, orbits the star in about 200 Earth-days and has a mass at least seven times that of Earth, joining a growing class of exoplanets called super-Earths. The team say that the next step is to used space-based telescopes to get a more direct look at the planet and assess its composition.

[I find this interesting for two reasons – first it’s so close (in galactic terms) and second that HD 40307 is a multi-planet system just like our own. If we understand system formation as much as we think we do then it appears that multiple planet formation is part of the normal process. This means that not only do stars generally have planets (I’m guessing that planet-less stars are very much the exception) but that they have multiple planets. The implication is that our system if far from unique and if our planet can give rise to intelligent life then other planets around other stars will too.]

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Extreme Photography...!

Just Finished Reading: First Blitz – The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 by Neil Hanson (FP: 2008)

With most of the concentration on the bombing campaign in World War 2 it’s sometimes easy to forget that many of the techniques and effects where presaged and pre-staged in World War 1. Strategic bombing, in its primitive form at least, was certainly amongst them. For most of the war the aircraft used in both conflict and reconnaissance were barely fit for purpose. It should come as little surprise therefore that it took some time before they could be used by the German High Command to attack English cities with any kind of effectiveness. Only the Zeppelins initially became a concern although their bomb load was meagre even by WW2 standards. Their effectiveness came from the fact that, until new fighter aircraft had been developed for the RFC and RNAS few of the British fighters could climb high enough to confront the enemy airships before they had dropped their ordinance and begun their journey home. Only with the joint developments of better aero engines, better detection and early warning and incendiary bullets did the defenders get the upper hand and defeat the Zeppelin menace. But as both the war and technology progressed it was not long before Germany began building larger and larger bombers capable of reaching London whilst carrying a potentially highly damaging bomb load. This they did in greater and greater numbers in 1917 and 1918. Reluctantly forced to bring back fighter squadrons from France an increasingly sophisticated defensive strategy developed to meet this new threat and in many ways laid the foundation for the successful Battle of Britain a generation later.

But the story of the German bombing campaign outlined in this frankly fascinating tale is not just about the men who risked their lives in fighting machines high above the English countryside and the dangerous English Channel. It is also the tale of the civilian population who suffered under sporadic and random bombing throughout those final years of the war. For the first time populations many miles away from any front line could become casualties of war and neither the civilians themselves nor their political masters knew exactly how to handle things or even if they could be handled. There was a real fear that the common people would crack under the pressure of air-raids that, despite their general ineffectiveness, had the potential of causing mass panic. Those who could left London and moved, at least temporarily, to somewhat safer locations. Those who could not leave suffered and waited for the drone of bombers and the roar of anti-aircraft fire. A number of tragedies, especially when a school was hit in a working class area, added to the calls of revenge and retaliation as well as verbal attacks on the government who were failing to protect them. Little did the population know what the Germans had in store – the largest attack yet was being planned using the latest technical advances in incendiary weapons. The aim was to start a fire so intense that it fed upon itself forming a firestorm that would destroy large parts of the capital.

The German raids against England at the close of WW1 were very much a forerunner of the more familiar attacks in WW2 and became a training ground for both the attackers and defenders as well as the poor bloody civilians who had to live and work beneath the action. Told with access to dairies, letters, official documentation and newspaper reports of the time, the author weaves together a very human story of bravery, fortitude, danger, death and blind luck. It is hard to imagine, even with our much deeper appreciation of the WW2 Blitz just what the people involved went through. No one had any clear idea of the effectiveness of the raids or their responses to them. The civilians could not draw on previous experience to help them through and politicians were often at a loss as to what to do. Everyone was learning and everyone had to cope as best they could. This is a much under-reported aspect of WW1 that the author brings brilliantly to life. It is very much a story with a human face, as the best history should be, and one that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Recommended.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Paint It Black by Nancy A Collins (FP: 1995)

Sonja Blue is pissed, really pissed with Lord Morgan – the vampire who turned her into an Undead monster. Years previously she had managed to get close enough to him to use a silver blade and scar him in a way that will stay for him for a very long time indeed. But scaring the man who killed her is only the start. She intends to kill him once she finds him. But Lord Morgan hasn’t stayed alive for hundreds of years by being stupid or easy to track. So when Sonja receives a series of newspaper cutting hinting at vampire activity in New York she naturally suspects a trap. Nevertheless she can’t help but follow the trail to a city she knows well in the hope that the trap can be sprung on the very creature who she suspects placed it there. Meanwhile hundreds of miles south, hidden away from prying eyes Sonja’s ex-lover and psychic friend watches in fascination as his adopted daughter grows at amazing speed. In three short years of accelerated growth she could already pass for a girl of ten or older. What will happen, he wonders, when she reaches puberty? With Sonja in New York on her well published hunt for Morgan the talk of the cities vampire community she becomes the focus of the endless political struggle between ancient dynasties. But Sonja is like a guided missile locked onto a single target, one much stronger, more ruthless and more cunning than even she realises.  

This is another one of those books that have been sitting on my shelves for far too long. Part of it is probably that it’s part three in a series that is now largely out of print. Part of it is my habit of taking years, and sometimes decades to ‘get around’ to books that have migrated to the bottom of the particular pile they inhabited as newer books arrived. Anyway, to the book itself…. It’s certainly a novel of many elements. Dropping into the third book left me floundering a bit to begin with but there were enough references to previous goings on (life before she became a vampire and such) that filled in the background adequately. Sonja herself is a great character and I think I’ll expend some effort getting more of the novels she appeared in. The world she lives in is interesting if a little far-fetched – though often pretty standard these days – in that supernatural creatures inhabit the same world but are hidden by their ability to practically stealth themselves except to psychics and crazy people. Indeed (which I found interesting) these creatures had been manipulating the human genome to prevent more people seeing them for what they are. Such ideas certainly pushed this above the often run-off-the-mill urban fantasy novels I’m used too. Typically though there is the usual level of semi-graphic violence – these are vampires after all – torture and kinky sex that you find in most books of this genre these days. Again these often boring episodes are taken above the norm by inventiveness and attention to detail. Some of the book is definitely creepy and those with a delicate constitution might find some sections difficult. This is most definitely not a teen novel so be warned! Definitely a solid contribution to the vampire genre and so recommended to any blood sucking fans out there. If you want to read the whole series it looks like the easiest way to get them is through download onto your Kindle rather than trying to pick them up in hardcopy. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Cool design... and the car isn't bad either!

Thinking About: Being Bored

I don’t know what it is exactly but several people have been asking me lately if I was bored. I answered them honestly as said yes. But, I explained myself, that’s pretty much my default position. I’m normally bored – it’s just a matter of degree. It’s actually something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. In the early part of my life I don’t think I noticed it so much because back then, before I ‘woke up’ in effect, I didn’t really take much notice of anything. It was as if I spent my days sleep walking through my life. Whether I could have sustained that somnolent state for my entire life I’m not sure but in my early teens I began to realise that the world passed me by largely unobserved and unremarked. It’s probably at that point that my mind realised that it needed far more input than I’d been giving it up to that point – hence the feeling, sometimes crushing so, of boredom.

Luckily for me at around that time I was introduced to books. Imagine if that same person had introduced me to drugs so I could make the world – and hence boredom – go away rather than inviting the whole universe to take up residence inside my skull? Boredom turned out to be less of a curse (or I turned it around to be that way) and more of a motivation – along with several other pressures of my teenage years – to make me into a hoover of as much of the world’s knowledge that I could get my hands on. Again luckily I had access to a pretty good local library and some very helpful librarians who were more than happy to encourage me to order books on whatever subject I had become fascinated with that week. They even smiled indulgently when I regularly had to be asked to please bring back some of the books I’d ordered over and above the 12 I was allowed at any one time. I guess that they were just happy that someone in that town had a passion for books and wanted to feed it before it burnt itself out. Of course it’s still burning. Maybe not as strongly as it did 40 years ago but still with a deep sustained heat.

Reading anything and everything was only one of my strategies, even if probably the most useful, I developed in the early years to stave off boredom. In the 70’s and 80’s I watched a lot of television, and I mean a lot! It certainly helped to pass the time and numb the ache but only to an extent. It was in the early 80’s that my second most powerful anti-boredom weapon really came into my life – computer games. Not only did they manage to distract me they also managed to engage me more than anything else with the exception of the written word. Gaming has, from time to time, completely eliminated boredom so much so that I loose myself entirely and have entered into something I can only call a Zen-like state where the ‘I’ no longer exists and I become part of the game itself. This has lasted sometimes for tens of minutes where conscious thought and control over the gaming experience seems to become totally automatic where things happen far too fast for mere thought to get in the way. It is only at times like this and when I am completely engrossed in a written narrative that I am not bored in any way shape or form. Such times are, as you can imagine, few and far between but are treasured all the more so because of that.

The third major weapon in my fight against boredom is cinema. Most films I see are at the very least entertaining. At a bare minimum they pass the time in a reasonably enjoyable way. At best they take me out of myself and put me within the story where again I loose myself for moments or tens of minutes at a time. The weirdest feeling in a cinema – thankfully rare – is when you are completely disengaged from a film and see yourself watching moving images on a flat screen while around you other people are engaged with what is going on in front of them. It almost feels like having a gods-eye view of things, of being outside of reality looking in. It’s bizarre and not something I like to repeat – not least of which I feel it’s a complete waste of entry money!

You could almost define my life as a continual, if rather idiosyncratic, fight against boredom. I do so hate it but I’ve also learnt to use it as a great motivator to get off my ass and do something. OK, that something isn’t often what could be considered useful (or even interesting or fun by people looking in) but I’ve found that, by and large, it works for me. At least most of the time I’m only slightly bored and my years of schooling taught me how to deal with such trivialities, meanwhile my reading has taught me and given me the resources to live inside my own head when necessary. Am I bored? Yes, but only slightly and not for long….

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Cat by Katherine M Rogers (FP: 2006)

It’s nice to have a change of pace from time to time. After reading a collection of sometimes rather heavy political discourse a book about the cultural history and significance of cats is just what the vet ordered.

Cat have been around for a very long time but it wasn’t (apparently) until they wandered into the houses and fields of Ancient Egyptians and proved their worth as mouse catchers that they started on their road to semi-domestication. It wasn’t long before the Egyptians saw in their cats what we see today – their independence of or, if you want to look at it that way, indifference to the human world. Their seeming aloofness, as if they understood far more than normal creatures, intrigued their owners and they started attributing abilities – often of a supernatural nature – that have been associated with felines ever since. It comes as no surprise to any cat owner (and I use the word owner in its most general sense) that the Egyptians eventually came to worship these often otherworldly creatures and treated their deaths with the same reverence as they did with human death. As they spread from Egypt to Greece and then to Rome they became increasingly popular but paradoxically less revered. By the time of the Fall of Rome and throughout the Middle Ages cats became the pets of the poor, the underprivileged and the outsider. Again it comes as no surprise that they became linked with the supernatural dark forces that seemed to trouble the world so much. Cats often became fair game in any hunt for the causes of disease, death or unexpected events – ironically the killing of cats in the time of plague probably helped the Black Death to spread much faster than it might otherwise have done.

It is only in relatively modern times that cats have regained their revered status – although not in all sections of society as some hold them responsible for the wholesale slaughter of wild rodents and birds. Cats as purely pets – rather than mouse/rat catchers – only really came back into fashion with the great migration to urban centres. Cats eventually equalled and then arguably exceeded dogs in their inherent appeal though dogs remained the favourite companion of men whilst, generally at least, women preferred cats. There are now millions of house cats happily living their still semi-domesticated lives in residences across the globe. Unlike the normally loyal and faithful dog they seem to have retained more of their natural wild nature as largely nocturnal hunters. Their solitary predatory nature still defines them after thousands of years within human settlements. Maybe one day they’ll become fully domesticated though, I would argue, they would no longer be truly cat like at that point.

The author lavishes her attention on probably my favourite creature on the planet. With a host of drawings and paintings from across the world this is a delightful little book and should give any cat lover hours of pleasure. This is turning out to be a fascinating series of books (having read ‘Wolf’ a while back) looking at the cultural side of animals that we probably take for granted or completely ignore. Definitely more of this series to come. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013