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

Monday, April 28, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Aztec Century by Christopher Evans (FP: 1993)

Almost three years after the unprovoked attack on the British Isles by the Aztec Empire, Princess Catherine, her sister and husband are still in hiding in a remote part of unoccupied rural Wales. Finally making contact with her elder sister, wife to the Russian Czar, they plan their escape and dream of returning with an army to evict their invaders. Betrayed at the last minute the royal sisters fall into the hands of Aztec soldiers and are taken to the still partially destroyed capital where Extepan, son of the great Aztec leader in Mexico, rules over a quiet population. Refusing to co-operate in any way at first, Catherine is slowly forced to compromise her position first to aid British rebels and then to aid her people in more practical ways. Convinced that some of the horror stories surrounding their occupiers are true Catherine begins to dig into what is really going on in her own country, on the Russian battlefields and finally in Mexico itself. But nothing can prepare her for what she finally discovers – that other Earth’s exist and that the Aztec Empire dreams of conquering them too!

To begin with I found this book rather strange, indeed a little off-putting. For one thing it took place in the modern day (well, 1993-1996) where for some reason I expected it to be set in the 19th century. Another thing was the rather bizarre way that things seemed normal – but with a twist. Little was directly explained and the reader was presented with clues, passing comments and other titbits that could be used to piece together the history of this strange little world. All in all it was very well done, vivid with good characterisation, intriguing, disturbing and honestly, at the end, quite spooky – and not in a good way! It was, in a way, all too credible and very well thought out. The double dislocation in the final section was particularly well handled and was more than a little disorientating – actually it was a bit of a head fuck if truth be known. The end stayed with me for a week or more after I finished the book which is quite rare these days. Sinister yet very credible and a hell of a page turner. This reads like a nightmare you can’t quite escape – and does have a pronounced dream-like quality at times – and will definitely keep you turning pages. Highly recommended if you can get a copy.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Thinking About: Beliefs & Opinions

Back in my youth – many years ago now – I used to argue with people, both on and off line, about religion. I wasn’t in the business of trying to convert them but I did try, reasonably hard at times, to show that they were wrong. These days I do far less of that sort of thing and only really get involved at all when someone who holds such beliefs tries to convert me to their way of thinking. The reason I don’t argue the toss so much now is that I’ve come to the conclusion that beliefs, not matter how strongly held, are nothing more than opinions and that arguing opinions is an almost complete waste of time. For one thing it is very difficult indeed to change someone’s opinion on a subject once they’ve made their mind up without a considerable amount of effort and evidence. In this case I can’t really justify the effort involved especially when the evidence is either non-existent or very hard to come by. For another I have realised that not only will we be merely trading opinion in this scenario but that our opinions are completely contingent – in other words the opinions or beliefs we hold so dearly are based on an accident of birth.

As an example let me bring up (again) a story my Mother told me shortly before my father’s funeral. During WW2 my grandmother fell out with the Catholic Church over a priest’s lack of basic charity and only went back when she realised she was dying. Because of that fact my mother and her siblings where never brought up as Catholics and because of that neither my siblings nor I had a Catholic upbringing despite all being baptised into the Church (on a side note none of my sister’s children have been baptised). If the priest in question had offered my grandmother the small amount of money she requested it’s very possible that I could, today, be a believing and practicing Catholic. It’s also entirely possible that I could hold those beliefs very highly indeed and be the kind of Christian who holds people like the actual me – a confirmed Atheist – to be as sinful as it gets. My beliefs, the ones I hold dearly and would argue with anyone, are the product of accidents of history. If I had been born in a different place and time I might well have held my ‘natural’ belief in Christianity (of any particular flavour), Islam, Buddhism or anything else for that matter. All beliefs, because they are, in my mind nothing more than opinion, are a product of the environment and culture we all just happen to be born in and grow up in. When we change our opinions it is because of people we meet and mix with, books we read and things that happen to us. If those things had not happened or had happened in different ways we would have either not modified our opinions/beliefs or would have modified them in different ways. A persons beliefs are the product of that person’s personal history which, rather inevitably, is part of the history of the culture they grew up in. So arguing which opinion or belief is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ has to me become completely irrelevant and definitely pointless. That doesn’t mean that I no longer think I’m right – I do. I’m an Atheist and I’ve heard nothing, read nothing and seen nothing that has persuaded me to be otherwise. But I recognise the fact that such a belief in merely my opinion. I can’t prove it to anyone else because there’s nothing to prove. I can produce arguments and maybe even some evidence to back my claims up but I don’t expect you (generic reader) to change your opinions because of that – because the contingent aspects of our lives will inevitably be different therefore you’re opinions/beliefs will not be my opinions/beliefs.

So I don’t argue the point any more. To be honest it’s no longer fun – except when two (or more) people can discuss such things as friends and simply agree to disagree whilst testing their own beliefs in a secure environment. Been there, done that, was fun for a while. But on the internet? Or with strangers who have no investment in rational discourse? No thanks, been there, done that, hated it. When people hold beliefs (which are really just opinions remember) as if they are facts and defend them accordingly you’re going to get a lot more heat than light produced. Wars have started for less and friendships lost. But I’m not asking you to keep your opinions to yourself. Opinions are part of, maybe a big part of, what makes us individuals. Just remember that they are opinions and that, in different circumstances, you could have held quite different ones. Maybe such an idea will take a bit of the heat out of things?

Just Brilliant!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of Britain (1660 – 1851) The Making of the Nation by William Gibson (FP: 2010)

This is the third in the series of the History of Britain and covers the period I probably know least about – basically from the Civil War(s) to the height of the Victorian Age. But it’s not nothing much happened in this period. Quite the opposite in fact! We start with the Restoration of the Monarchy (after the death of Cromwell), recovery from the Civil War(s), the Glorious Revolution, The Regency Period and finally the crowning of Victoria. Whilst all that was happening we had the world’s first Industrial Revolution, successfully fought wars with the Dutch (gaining New York previously New Amsterdam), the French and the Spanish and acquiring a global Empire almost by accident. We also trembled in our boots during the French Revolution in case it happened here to and, of course, lost our American Colonies. We also hosted our very own version of the European Enlightenment and made great strides towards becoming a Democracy. During this period Britain became much more recognisable as a truly modern nation with all of the attributes and institutions you would expect. The final bracketing date – 1851 – signified Britain’s growing confidence on the world stage with the Great Exhibition of that year held at the newly built Crystal Palace.

Oddly, not being a royalist in any way, I found the royal succession to be one of the most interesting aspects of this era especially when Parliament got rather anxious over the idea of a potential Catholic monarch and decided to choose a King more to their liking by basically inviting in the Dutch William of Orange and his wife to please rule over us! As it was a pretty peaceful affair as these things go it earned its name of the Glorious Revolution – it was in fact pretty much a coup. Of course later on we decided to bring in The Elector of Hanover to be our King who was crowned as George I ushering in the German line of the present monarchy which was strengthened by Victoria marrying Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whose ancestors later changed their name to Windsor because it sounded more patriotic and rather less, you know, German).

As you might imagine it’s difficult to condense 190 years of history into a few paragraphs. Luckily the author (who, as far as I know, has no relation to the SF author of the same name) had 345 pages to do the period more justice. But as always with such things much of the detail is missing and only the highlights get any kind of wordage. Despite this he did get me interested in an age I am now somewhat more familiar with and I’ll be following up some of the topics covered by him. You’ll probably already be aware that I have a long time interest in the Industrial Revolution but I’ll see if I can dig a bit more up about some of the political aspects of the age as working people, and women, began finding their own voices and their political ‘feet’. Much more British History to come.

Monday, April 21, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Inception

As always when we left the cinema after seeing Inception my friends turned to me and asked me what I thought of it. I remember answering in two words: wonderfully ambiguous – and so it was. The plot is hellishly complex and you really need to be on your toes to keep up with things. It all centres on Cobb (played brilliantly by Leonardo Dicaprio) who is desperate to return home to the US and his children but unable to do so after being accused of killing his wife Mal (played by the wonderfully talented Marion Cotillard). After failing in an extraction – basically industrial espionage inside someone else’s head – he’s made an offer he simply can’t refuse by the man he’s just tried to rob (Mr Saito played by Ken Watanabe). The offer is deceptively simple – insert an idea into someone’s mind and make him believe that it’s his own idea: Inception. A method that Cobb knows to work because he successfully planted such an idea inside the mind of his wife, the deceptively simple and equally deadly idea that ‘this world isn’t real’ which leads to tragic consequences and Cobb’s present predicament. Assembling a team to undertake this difficult mission Cobb needs to recruit a new dream architect (Ariadne played by the ever cute Ellen Page) who becomes aware that Cobb’s hold on reality is slipping and that the sub-conscious energy of his dead wife could kill them all.

Of course the synopsis above really doesn’t do any justice at all to my favourite film of 2010 by far. Not only was this film very intelligent it made little effort to mollycoddle the audience and instead treated them like adults with enough imagination to keep up with the increasingly complex and convoluted narrative. I know at least one of my friends lost the plot and had some definite WTF moments especially when the action became a dream within a dream within a dream and proceeded to move between all three states and back again. I kept up but there were times that I really had to concentrate there! This is mostly definitely not a movie you could watch, pop out for a hot dog, and expect to pick up the storyline as if you had never left (use that pause button on the DVD if you need the loo or a drink – trust me!). But apart from the wonderful way this whole movie was filmed – jaw droppingly good in places – there are two main reasons why I love this movie so much. Firstly is the originality of the whole thing. The script is brilliant and the acting is equal to the challenge. Indeed the only person who seemed to be acting at any point was Ellen Page. Everyone else was seamlessly part of the plot especially Dicaprio (I was seriously impressed by him in this movie) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I thought gave Dicaprio a run for his money).

But above everything else was the whole idea of the nature of reality. Not long after the movie came out there was much discussion about whether or not the whole movie was in fact inside a dream – presumably Cobbs’. After several viewings I come down firmly on that side. There are numerous examples of characters in the movie (or bits of his subconscious) telling him to ‘wake up’, ‘come back to reality’, ‘stop fooling himself’ and so on. There are so many references to the unreality of the situation – often quite subtle – that if you look for them they crop up everywhere: just like in a dream. Then, of course, there’s the ending. Cobb needs to know (does he suspect) if this is real or just a dream – and we’re never allowed to find out, hence the wonderful ambiguity. But think on this – Several characters tell Ariadne that she must use a device she made herself (or uses exclusively) to tell her if what she is experiencing is real – and yet Cobb uses his wife’s totem……. I do so love to read between the lines in movies like this. The construction of the whole thing is a work of genius and is a practically faultless film. It’s not often that I use words like that. Brilliant.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Thinking About: Individuality

Our culture idolises the individual in books, movies and music. The hero, alone, different, superior, triumphs over the mass, the mob, the group every time. He (or more rarely she) is iconic and held up to be praised and emulated. The heroic individual (who is, rather ironically, usually an outcast in one way of another) is the one who produces the answer to whatever challenge is presented to us, be it a monster, a disaster, an invading force, the workings of twisted politicians or just the run-of-the-mill evil bad guy. It is the individual, initially dismissed as a crank or worse, who follows their own individual instincts (after being warned not to or simply being laughed at and ignored from then on) who puzzles things out, builds the outlandish weapon, tracks the creature to its lair or discovers the alien/creatures hidden weakness (which is often pretty mundane) and saves the day against all expectation and prediction. Initially feted for doing so they are often then ignored or shunned again because they are simply too different or, at least sometimes, welcomed into the fold – thereby implicitly losing their individuality at that point – once things have become normal again.

Of course that’s one of the great ambiguities of the hero – both idolised and isolated, or accepted and, by extension, destroyed. Yet we are expected not only to look up to the hero of the piece but also to emulate them. We are told, both explicitly and implicitly, that it is the individual that saves the day whilst the group flounders in argument, confusion and in-fighting. Working alone, to their own agenda, the individual is free of all of this. The hero’s doubts are their own and are not compounded by the doubts and failings of others. Flawed, they are still free to act in ways that the group, the herd, the mass cannot or will not. This is their strength and why they are heroes in the first place. They can act, decisively, to end whatever crisis is in front of them.

Meanwhile, in the real world, things are not exactly so clear cut. Despite individualism being apparently so highly valued at a cultural level it is usually viewed as at the very least odd and at the extreme seen at best as challenging or even dangerous. People who flaunt their individuality are, more often than not, outcasts. They, quite obviously, don’t fit in. They’re not ‘team players’, they’re not ‘with the programme’, they’re disruptive, asking difficult questions, challenging decisions, even shockingly, undemocratic. Generally such people are laughed at (or at least sniggered at behind their backs – if not to their faces), talked about in derogatory fashion, wondered about, pointed at, questioned, ignored, marginalised, discriminated against and, from time to time, hounded, expelled, exiled or, given the right set of historical circumstances, eliminated.

As you can imagine this is all rather confusing. How can individuals be both lionised and feared, extoled and exterminated? Is it that our culture, for thousands of years, has a deeply dualistic nature? That we want people to be individuals but only within the safety of groups? Are only culturally approved versions of the individual allowed and anyone who steps outside of those bounds to be punished for being just too individualistic? It would seem to be that way. Unless it’s designed to be this confusing. Are we being encouraged to be ourselves only so that we can be punished for it? It that the real reason behind the deep gulf behind culture and reality? Are individuals so dangerous to society that they must be controlled through this kind of social-cultural double think – be an individual but don’t express it too much? Being careful not to cross the line – which you aren’t told about until you cross it – whilst being encouraged to do just that? Is our cultures portrayal of the individual just yet another means of control? Is it worth the effort being a wolf when you can lose yourself in the herd of compliant, peaceful, seemingly happy sheep?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

So many books to read..... but I need to sleep..... (sometimes).

Just Finished Reading: Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove (FP: 2009)

Europe, September 1938. Using the assassination of a German politician as an excuse Hitler orders his armed forces to launch an all-out attack across the Czech border. With immediate effect both the British and French declare war – hence starting WW2 a whole year ‘early’. Whilst the fighting begins to ramp up in Czechoslovakia the on-going conflict in Spain turns up the gears as fresh supplies arrive from both Germany and the Soviet Union. As French forces tentatively move across the German border and British forces move up to their new front line in France on the Belgian border the Czechs finally fall to the German onslaught led by its new Panzer tanks with close support from the terrifying Stuka dive-bomber. Within days the German forces retake its territory and move through the Low Countries threatening French soil. The question on everyone’s mind is whether the combined forces of France, England and their respective colonies can hold back the full might of the Wehrmacht.

I’ve been avoiding Turtledove for some time now because I had become bored and irritated with his writing style. Despite being a reasonable storyteller he has the annoying habit of constant repetition – characteristics of the main players revealed over and over and over again, constant reference to events that occurred earlier in the book or, if you read far enough into his numerous series, things that happened in the previous book or the three before that. As you can imagine that gets tedious rather fast! One good thing about this book – being the first in the series – is that the repetition never gets to the level where I wanted to throw the book against the wall in frustration. There were times, many, many times, where I rolled my eyes and sighed after yet another mention of a Stuka pilots milk drinking habit or the fact that neither the Russian or German troops could speak freely without the possibility of being ‘disappeared’ for being politically untrustworthy but it didn’t stop me largely enjoying this novel. OK, I’m highly unlikely to read any more in the series, but I still found this interesting and fun enough to make my way through just under 500 pages in quick order.

Being a Brit a few things did stand out. First was the fact that UK air defence was much better than anything the Germans had encountered before and they got their asses handed to them in early engagements (and even more so in ‘our’ Battle of Britain) particularly the early Stuka attacks against mainland targets. It was interesting that the first attacks were beaten off by a Hurricane/Gladiator combination. The second thing that struck me was the loss of Gibraltar to Spanish forces. Now I’ll be the first to admit that a detailed knowledge of the Rock in WW2 is not something that I can claim but the fact the Gibraltar remained firmly in British hands throughout WW2 must stand for something. With the base their being vital to holding the Med it would have been defended with everything we had. Losing it the way the book presented just didn’t seem realistic at all. Despite everyone mentioned above though I did actually enjoy this breezy read and it proved to be a reasonable start to a stack of 10 Alternate-History books I had planned for the early summer. Obviously much more to come.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Just Finished Reading: In Other Worlds – SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood (FP: 2011)

I’m a sucker for books on SF which is by far my favourite genre (though historical fiction is fast catching up). As an added bonus I thought I’d try the much talked about Ms Atwood. I thought I’d read something by her years ago but now I’m not so sure. He style is so unique that I’d definitely remember it if I had.

Anyway, to the book itself. This turned out to be only in part about SF and was probably in equal part about her growing up in Canada and becoming an author herself in later life. The book consisted of (largely though not exclusively I think) a collection of slightly modified articles about SF previously published elsewhere. In part one she covered (kind of) super heroes in relation to her very earliest ‘creations’ as a child, how both heaven and hell had to keep relocating to keep at least one step ahead of real-world explorers and (one of my favourite bits) the evolution of Utopia and Dystopia over the centuries. This was followed by various book ‘reviews’ both classic and modern which she analysed with great wit including She by Rider Haggard, Dr Moreau by Wells, Brave New World and a rather intriguing book called Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben. The last section consisted of 5-6 very short pieces of fiction.

Despite its scatter gun approach I really liked this little volume. I’d heard Atwood speak on TV a few times and found that she writes exactly as she speaks – or so it seemed to me. Her special unique voice certainly came across loud and clear in every paragraph here and was honestly a delight to sit back and enjoy. It really did feel like I was having a fascinating conversation with a very well read and very intelligent eloquent woman. As I said, a delight. I smiled, I laughed, I nodded sagely in agreement, I gasped at an incisive comment or observation and I downloaded the covers of most of her books to remind me to start picking them up. That’s a warning, by the way. If you do read this you might end up buying her entire back catalogue – just like I’m going to. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

'Grunting' teens need school help, says head teacher

From BBC News

11 April 2014

Schools should do more to ensure teenagers are not "grunting and monosyllabic" so they can succeed in life, a former aide to Tony Blair says. Peter Hyman, now a head teacher, told the TES it was a moral issue that young people be taught to speak eloquently. He also criticised the government's decision to downgrade speaking and listening in GCSE English. The government said it wanted all pupils to be able to speak in public, make presentations and debate.

It added that its English curriculum in primary and secondary schools places a far greater emphasis on the spoken word. But changes to GCSE English means there are no longer any marks awarded in the final exam for speaking and listening. Mr Hyman is a former speech-writer for Tony Blair who now runs School 21 - a free school in Newham, east London. He told the Times Educational Supplement that speaking and listening was an "undervalued area of literacy". Instead, the spoken word should be "built into the DNA of the school", he said. "Speaking eloquently is a moral issue because to find your voice both literally and metaphorically and be able to communicate your ideas and your passions is crucial to how they are going to be a success in the world," he said. "If you can speak and articulate yourself properly that will happen. But it's also the number-one issue that employers put in all their surveys: they want good oral communication. We've got to dispel the myth of the grunting teenager, the monosyllabic teenager that make employers say, 'I've got this person who I know on paper is quite good, but they can't string a sentence together.'"

Despite its importance, Mr Hyman said the general trend was moving further away from encouraging pupils to develop their speaking and communication skills. The Department for Education said in a statement: "The primary curriculum is clear that all teachers should develop their pupils' vocabulary and provide extra support where necessary. Speaking also plays a vital role in all other subjects, including maths and science. In addition, we have given all schools the freedom to set the length of the school day, with many already using these freedoms to run extra-curricular activities, such as debating competitions." It added that in primary school, children were expected, to be able to listen and respond appropriately to adults and their peers, ask relevant questions to extend their understanding and knowledge and articulate and justify answers, arguments and opinions.

[Well, that certainly made me laugh out loud! Eloquence and the ability to get across ideas – in other words communicate effectively – is a ‘moral’ issue. Really? Of course what made me really laugh was the inevitable “it's also the number-one issue that employers put in their surveys”, because as we all know the only (and, it would seem, not even the primary) function of education is to serve the Corporate Machine and to be rewarded with a ‘good job’ until your services are no longer required when you’ll be thrown on to the scrap heap without so much as a thank you because it’s a tough world out there and we should all just learn to deal with it etc, etc…. Of course it’s all very well teaching teenagers – or even children – to speak well but would that entail them being able to think and reason well too? Or is that just a little bit too dangerous to a system that prefers people to be educated but unthinking drones? Is it really eloquence they’re after or the appearance of eloquence without the intellectual substance to back it up. The ‘monosyllabic teenager’ (if they even exist) is a creation of the very system that is now criticising their existence. To change that it’s not anywhere near as simple as changing the teenager. You need to change the system that produces them. Which, of course, is never going to happen.]

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (FP: 1869)

In the Year 1866 a strange story began to circulate on both Atlantic coasts – a creature never seen before had been spotted either resting on the surface or swimming at high speed in each of the world’s oceans. Ships sent to investigate or those who tried to hunt it came up empty or never returned from their dangerous quests. The legend of the great sea-monster produced scientific papers and newspaper headlines all around the world but to no avail. Nothing was known about it for certain. Until that is the American government commissioned a ship to search for and kill this most mysterious of creatures. On board the USS Abraham Lincoln was the renowned marine scientist Professor Pierre Aronnax, his trusty servant and veteran harpoonist Ned Land.

Sighting the creature in the Pacific they gave chase but never got close enough to engage it with the ships formidable armoury – until one night the creatures turned and attacked! Thrown clear by the collision the Professor is thrown overboard and watches in dismay as the wounded warship limps away into the night apparently oblivious to his predicament. But he is soon joined by his trusty servant who had jumped in after him and they make their way to a shallow shoal. On gaining dry land they discover to their fascination that what they originally suspected to be an uncharted reef clearly is an artefact manufactured by an intelligent hand. Soon joined by Ned Land they wait until morning when a hatch is opened and they are dragged inside by men, much like themselves, but talking in a language quite unknown to them. Finally after days of captivity they are brought before the captain of this strange machine who explains that the ship – a submarine vessel called the Nautilus – is under his command at that his guests can never leave the vessel alive. Surrounded by wonders almost beyond imagination they are at first entranced by the whole idea of an underwater voyage across vast uncharted oceans but it gradually becomes clear that the captain – who calls himself Nemo – has many secrets which he has no intention of sharing and who might very well be completely mad.

I’ve had this particular copy of this book on my shelves for at least 20 years and possibly much. Much longer. I think I tried to read it not long after watching the Disney version (which I really enjoyed except for the inevitably really annoying ‘show tunes’ which peppered his films) but found it too hard going for my teenage brain. But after successfully reading several other Verne books I thought it deserved another outing. The first thing I noticed was that, apart from the first 20 pages or so the book and the film had very little in common except for names and the brute fact of the existence of the submarine itself. Nemo’s motivation in the film was almost totally absent from the book and was only hinted at by Nemo himself and through several observed, but never explained, actions. This I found incredibly frustrating. There was almost endless descriptions of the sea, the sea floor and the wildlife encountered on their voyage but no explanation as to exactly what the vessel was doing or why. The mystery of the captain and his ship was heightened, speculated upon and never resolved. Even the language the crew spoke – which was probably Esperanto – was never fully accounted for. Some of the mechanical details, fixtures and method of propulsion was gone into in some details but Nemo’s background, reasons for his emotional outbursts and periodic melancholy was barely touched upon. It did seem like this was a great idea looking for great underlying story which, rather oddly, I thought was actually there – including odd unscheduled stops or detours, the passing of recovered gold to revolutionary groups and the periodic avoidance of warships searching for them. It was to me the ghost of a story that needed much more drama and much more flesh. So although I found the book eminently readable (though I admit I did skim through a few of the lists of fish types seen through the glass windows) I did find it all rather dull and definitely frustrating. Worth a read but don’t expect to be riveted.