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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Name to a Face?

It’s all about Choice.

There’s a trend I’ve noticed at the moment on the Internet – that great fount of all things stupid and silly in the world. It’s the vilification of women, particularly young women, who come out publically as not wanting to have children. Apparently this position is somehow scandalous and, apparently, borders on mass murder (or some such hyperbole). Now, apart from the inexplicable venom directed at these women, I find the whole thing rather strange. You see, as adult humans, we have something that seemingly some people have yet to appreciate – free will and choice. In my worldview adults can do (or choose not to) many things and one of those things is to have or not have children.

I for one, although being male my opinion in this area is easily discounted, have no intention of having children for reasons outlined in another post which I won’t bother to repeat here. So I have no problem with other people – male or female – making that same decision, that same choice. Actually I think it’s a good choice, a wise choice, a sensible choice but if others disagree (and I know they do) then feel free to have as many children as you can afford – just don’t expect me to join you. There’s the rub of course. Those who attack women for not wanting to have children can, presumably, have children of their own so why do they want to force women to have children who don’t actually want them? You see to my mind just because you can physically have children puts you under no obligation to actually have them. There is no law (at least in the West) that demands that women of child bearing age actually bear children, no understanding, no expectation, no convention, no imperative – nothing.

One of the many things surrounding this topic that really confuses me is the idea that people who choose not to have children are in some sense selfish. How exactly? Is it because deliberately childless couples have more money, more free time and generally more freedom than those who have chosen (or not) to have children themselves. Is this the ‘selfishness’ that they speak about? That people have made a decision that benefits them at no expense to anyone else? Is that selfish? Or is it that a childless couple are denying a child’s existence by their selfish wilfulness? But since when do we have obligations to people that don’t exist? How can we be obligated to produce a child that at the moment is only a future possibility? That makes absolutely no sense. It’s like having an obligation to a fictional character or an inanimate object – it just can’t be done unless you want to move to a very strange place indeed.

Women, and men, have every right to make the choice not to have children. For most people it’s a choice that they make – either to have a child in the first place or allow it to be born if the ‘choice’ has already been made through accident or momentary stupidity. Women might very well be ‘designed’ to have children but they are not baby factories and should never be seen as a way simply to produce more people with more mouths to feed. If you want to have children then fine – have at it. If you don’t then that’s fine too. Women (and men) should not be made to feel any less human, any less rational or any more selfish for choosing what they want to do with their own lives and their own bodies. As with much about the adult world it’s all about choice.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Report finds apps regularly 'spy on users'

From The BBC

5th November 2015  

Apps on Apple and Android smartphones leak lots of users' information to third parties, research has suggested. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, and Carnegie-Mellon universities studied 110 apps available on Google Play and the Apple App Store. They found 73% of the Android apps shared users' email addresses, and 47% of the iOS apps shared location data.

The study, Who Know What About Me? A Survey of Behind the Scenes Personal Data Sharing to Third Parties by Mobile Apps, tested 55 of the most popular Android apps and the same number of iOS apps. The researchers recorded the HTTP and HTTPS traffic that occurred while using the different apps and looked for transmissions that included personally identifiable information, behavioural data such as search terms and location data.

They found the Android apps sent sensitive data to 3.1 third-party domains, on average, while the iOS apps connected to 2.6. The Android apps were more likely to share personal information such as name (49% of the apps) and address (25%) than the iOS apps, where 18% shared names and 16% shared email addresses.

Three out of the 30 medical, health and fitness apps the researchers studied shared search terms and user inputs with third parties. Android health app Drugs.com shared medical information - including words such as "herpes" - with five third-party domains, including doubleclick.net and googlesyndication.com.

The Android apps were most likely to leak data to Google and Facebook, with the most leaky being Text Free, which offers free calls and text over wi-fi and sent data to 11 third-party domains. The most leaky iOS app was Localscope, a location browser, which sent data to 17 third-party domains. The research also found that 93% of the Android apps tested connected to the domain safemovedm.com. "The purpose of this domain connection is unclear at this time; however, its ubiquity is curious," wrote the researchers. "When we used the phone without running any app, connections to this domain continued." It said the connection was "likely due to a background process of the Android phone". Google was asked by the BBC to explain more about safemovedm.com but did not provide information by the time of publication.

Privacy International said that the report "highlights the many ways that the devices we use can betray us".  "The analysis in the paper suggests that a large proportion of apps tested share sensitive information like location, names and email addresses with third parties with minimal consent," said Christopher Weatherhead, a technologist at PI. It was concerned about how such information would sit with new UK draft legislation for data retention. "With the recently announced draft Investigatory Powers Bill, many of these connections to third-party websites would be retained as internet connection records," Mr Weatherhead said. "So, even if you have never visited these websites, they would be indistinguishable from your actual web-browsing activity. This would allow the security services to make assumptions about browsing habits which are not correct."

Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of data shared apps. A survey of 2,000 Americans by the Pew Research Centre suggested 54% of users had decided not to install an app after learning how much personal information they would need to share to use it. Some 30% said they had uninstalled an app after learning it had collected information they did not want to share, while 30% of smartphone owners turned off the location tracking feature of their phone. The latest research follows a study last month by Timothy Libert, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, who said almost nine in 10 websites leaked user information to third parties that users were "usually unaware of".

[Yet another good reason to be wary of technology that we don’t understand and not to rely on our phones too much. Smarter, it seems, is not always better. So check what you have on your phone and check what it’s doing – with or without your knowledge or permission.]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Inquisition by Alfredo Colitto (FP: 2009)

The Italian city of Bologna, 1311. Despite opposition from the Holy Inquisition medic and scientist Mondino de Liuzzi is determined to understand the workings of the human body. Forced to use recently buried corpses he lives on the edges of legality just a few steps away from being denounced. But, he believes, the risks are worth it to save even a single life. Surprised and initially delighted that his new student Gerardo brings him a fresh corpse in the dead of night Mondino quickly realises that something isn’t right. Examined by candlelight it becomes plain that the man’s chest cavity has been exposes and, a sight which shocks him to his core, the heart had been turned into iron. Only a powerful alchemical reaction could have caused such a transmutation and Mondino is determined to find out how such a seemingly diabolical change could have taken place. With such knowledge the physician could map the human circulatory system down to its smallest extant and move science ahead decades in a single night. As if finding the source of the affliction wasn’t complicated enough – with its religious and sacrilegious overtones – Mondino discovers that his student is both more and less than he seems. Gerardo is a Templar on the run from the Church who have been charged with the extinction of that heretical Sect. As the secret of the transmutation and the identity of the sorcerer becomes clearer Mondino must determine how far he is willing to go in the name of knowledge and decide if the ends justify any means to attain them.

I wasn’t 100% sure about this book when I started. I do roll my eyes somewhat at all the nonsense written about the Templars and the so-called esoteric knowledge they’re supposed to have gathered around them. It makes for a good fantasy tale – for about 10 minutes – before the whole edifice falls apart with the simplest of investigations. However, after a rather sedate start, this book proved to be rather entertaining. The characters of both Mondino and Gerardo are multi-faceted and multi-levelled and you learnt more about both as the story progressed. I thought several times that Mondino would be an interested person to sit and chat with over a glass of wine. The Inquisitor was from central casting and about as evil as you might imagine but I forgave the author this one as there were plenty of other things (and people) to keep me interested. I was pleased that the identity of the sorcerer/killer wasn’t revealed until the author wanted it to be – I was definitely kept guessing to the end on that one and rather surprised by the reveal which was great. The city itself was very well presented ‘visually’ and I never really got ‘lost’ in the back streets during various chases. I even liked the ending (along with the moral of the story) delivered by a very intriguing Arabian ‘witch’. Overall I enjoyed this rather a lot – more than I thought I would certainly – and although I wouldn’t exactly say it was great literature or even that gripping it certainly kept my attention and kept me turning pages. Very reasonable.

Translated from the Italian by Sophie Henderson.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Kepler Finds a Very Wobbly Planet 


February 4, 2014

Imagine living on a planet with seasons so erratic you would hardly know whether to wear Bermuda shorts or a heavy overcoat. That is the situation on a weird, wobbly world found by NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

The planet, designated Kepler-413b, precesses, or wobbles, wildly on its spin axis, much like a child's top. The tilt of the planet's spin axis can vary by as much as 30 degrees over 11 years, leading to rapid and erratic changes in seasons. In contrast, Earth's rotational precession is 23.5 degrees over 26,000 years. Researchers are amazed that this far-off planet is precessing on a human timescale.

Kepler 413-b is located 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It circles a close pair of orange and red dwarf stars every 66 days. The planet's orbit around the binary stars appears to wobble, too, because the plane of its orbit is tilted 2.5 degrees with respect to the plane of the star pair's orbit. As seen from Earth, the wobbling orbit moves up and down continuously. Kepler finds planets by noticing the dimming of a star or stars when a planet transits, or travels in front of them. Normally, planets transit like clockwork. Astronomers using Kepler discovered the wobbling when they found an unusual pattern of transiting for Kepler-413b.

"Looking at the Kepler data over the course of 1,500 days, we saw three transits in the first 180 days -- one transit every 66 days -- then we had 800 days with no transits at all. After that, we saw five more transits in a row," said Veselin Kostov, the principal investigator on the observation. Kostov is affiliated with the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The next transit visible from Earth's point of view is not predicted to occur until 2020. This is because the orbit moves up and down, a result of the wobbling, in such a great degree that it sometimes does not transit the stars as viewed from Earth.

Astronomers are still trying to explain why this planet is out of alignment with its stars. There could be other planetary bodies in the system that tilted the orbit. Or, it could be that a third star nearby that is a visual companion may actually be gravitationally bound to the system and exerting an influence. "Presumably there are planets out there like this one that we're not seeing because we're in the unfavorable period," said Peter McCullough, a team member with the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University. "And that's one of the things that Veselin is researching: Is there a silent majority of things that we're not seeing?"

Even with its changing seasons, Kepler-413b is too warm for life as we know it. Because it orbits so close to the stars, its temperatures are too high for liquid water to exist, making it inhabitable. It also is a super Neptune -- a giant gas planet with a mass about 65 times that of Earth -- so there is no surface on which to stand.

NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., is responsible for the Kepler mission concept, ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery mission and was funded by the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

[OK, not a chance in hell of life here but….. WEIRD! What a strange Galaxy it is out there. No matter what SF writers come up with I bet that Nature can come up with stranger yet!]

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Antibiotic resistance: World on cusp of 'post-antibiotic era'

By James Gallagher

Health editor, BBC News website

19 November 2015

The world is on the cusp of a "post-antibiotic era", scientists have warned after finding bacteria resistant to drugs used when all other treatments have failed. They identified bacteria able to shrug off the drug of last resort - colistin - in patients and livestock in China. They said that resistance would spread around the world and raised the spectre of untreatable infections. It is likely resistance emerged after colistin was overused in farm animals. Bacteria becoming completely resistant to treatment - also known as the antibiotic apocalypse - could plunge medicine back into the dark ages. Common infections would kill once again, while surgery and cancer therapies, which are reliant on antibiotics, would be under threat. Chinese scientists identified a new mutation, dubbed the MCR-1 gene, that prevented colistin from killing bacteria.

The report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases showed resistance in a fifth of animals tested, 15% of raw meat samples and in 16 patients. The resistance was discovered in pigs, which are routinely given the drugs in China. And the resistance had spread between a range of bacterial strains and species, including E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. There is also evidence that it has spread to Laos and Malaysia. Prof Timothy Walsh, who collaborated on the study, from the University of Cardiff, told the BBC News website: "All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MCR-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era. At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do."

Resistance to colistin has emerged before. However, the crucial difference this time is the mutation has arisen in a way that is very easily shared between bacteria. "The transfer rate of this resistance gene is ridiculously high, that doesn't look good," said Prof Mark Wilcox, from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. His hospital is now dealing with multiple cases "where we're struggling to find an antibiotic" every month - an event he describes as being as "rare as hens' teeth" five years ago. He said there was no single event that would mark the start of the antibiotic apocalypse, but it was clear "we're losing the battle".

The concern is that the new resistance gene will hook up with others plaguing hospitals, leading to bacteria resistant to all treatment - what is known as pan-resistance. Prof Wilcox told the BBC News website: "Do I fear we'll get to an untreatable organism situation? Ultimately yes. Whether that happens this year, or next year, or the year after, it's very hard to say."

Early indications suggest the Chinese government is moving swiftly to address the problem. Prof Walsh is meeting both the agricultural and health ministries this weekend to discuss whether colistin should be banned for agricultural use. Prof Laura Piddock, from the campaign group Antibiotic Action, said the same antibiotics "should not be used in veterinary and human medicine". She told the BBC News website: "Hopefully the post-antibiotic era is not upon us yet. However, this is a wake-up call to the world." She argued the dawning of the post-antibiotic era "really depends on the infection, the patient and whether there are alternative treatment options available" as combinations of antibiotics may still be effective.

New drugs are in development, such as teixobactin, which might delay the apocalypse, but are not yet ready for medical use. A commentary in the Lancet concluded the "implications [of this study] are enormous" and unless something significant changes, doctors would "face increasing numbers of patients for whom we will need to say, 'Sorry, there is nothing I can do to cure your infection.'"

[Well it appears that not only are our politics moving back to the Middle Ages (complete with Crusades!) but our medicine is going that way too. It appears that the best thing to do in decades to come is not to get ill and definitely not to have any unnecessary surgery. Let’s hope (at least until we’re ready for it) that the whole Black Death thing holds off for a while longer….]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Hope and Glory – Britain 1900-1990 by Peter Clarke (FP: 1996)

Despite the difficulty of rendering 90 years of 20th century British history into a mere 404 pages I do enjoy the efforts made and appreciate the resultant overview that I can fill in at a later date confident in knowing a seal about the background. Books such as this provide the map, the territory, into which (God like) we can focus our attention on a particular incident (the 9 days wonder of the 1926 General Strike for example) or on a particular person (Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Asquith, Chamberlin, Thatcher and a hundred other political giants of the age) in later follow up books now knowing that such events and such people shaped the world we live in today.

Of course, as with any work such as this much is left out. This volume is an unapologetic political history of Britain with only short confined forays into cultural history (there are very fine chapters on the growth of mass communication - the BBC etc and the rise in prominence of women in British society) and, to be honest is far more focused on England than its UK neighbours in Wales and Scotland. Ireland is mentioned somewhat more but only, by and large, as an English problem rather than an Irish history per se. But none of this came as any great surprise (or disappointment) as the author had already laid his cards clearly on the table for all to see.

What I did find odd (and a tad confusing/disconcerting) is how the author broke up the 90 years under review. He certainly didn’t arbitrarily divide things, as they are often divided, into decades but into political chunks of time often delineated by elections won or lost. So we have a chapter covering 1900-1908 and another (oddly that it covers WW1) 1916-1922. It took a little getting used to I admit although it did fit admirably into the authors narrative flow. Another thing that helped move things along was the author’s humour which seemed at times to be delightfully irreverent especially coming from a professional historian – from Cambridge! I guess that there have been enough historic events and characters (in the full sense of the word) for provide humourist grist for the historian’s mill and this author certainly found his fair share.

Overall the theme of the book was a challenge to the idea of (inevitable) decline from the 19th and early 20th centuries of glory and empire. Yes, after WW2 the British Empire basically went into a tailspin but it was a managed withdrawal handled far better than (for instance) the French withdrawal from Algeria and South East Asia. It is also unarguable that the Commonwealth was no Empire but it was never intended as a faux substitute. In one sense British power (or more accurately firepower) did decline substantially after WW1 but what we lost in one area we more than gaining in another – in the financial impact of London and our cultural impact which has long been well above what might be expected from a small island off the coast of Western Europe.

I admit that this was a dull read at times. Much like my history course in college this volume dwelt too much on who won what election by how many seats. Such things interest me hardly at all. However, apart from these rather narrow trips down our political history I found this book very interesting indeed and it has, rather inevitably, given me some ideas to follow up in future. Much more British history to come.  

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book written by an author with your same initials– COMPLETE (29/50)]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Favourite Movies: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Some of you will already know how much I liked the Bourne trilogy which changed my view of Matt Damon forever. So here we have a kind of spin-off without the man himself. How’s that going to work? Needless to say I was in two minds about this but three things pushed me over the edge of wanting to see it (ignoring the whole Bourne thing for a moment) – the trailer which looked interesting and the fact that I liked the two leads, Jeremy Renner (who plays ‘Subject 5’ AKA Aaron Cross) who I a lot of time for and Rachel Weisz (who plays geneticist Dr Marta Shearing) and who I think is very underrated.

But what really impressed me about this movie was the fact that the director (Tony Gilroy) took his time to actually tell a story rather than just string together the usual action sequences with the minimal of fuss in between. Interestingly this film wasn’t actually a sequel to any of the existing Bourne films but actually happened at the same time as the first movie – and actually cut scenes from The Bourne Identity into the narrative to allow the audience to see where everything fitted in. That, of course, was another thing that impressed me – the fact that the director expected the audience to be intelligent enough to keep up with the complex storyline and (I think) had expected them to come already having seen (and understood?) the previous three films.

You definitely had to keep your wits about you with this one. Not only was their lots (and I mean lots) of covert goings on in the CIA and other agencies – and these activities being covered up (usually by killing people) – but there was also a lot of discussion of the Programme itself which was designed to ‘tweak’ the human body chemically (and later virally) to enhance both physical and mental abilities – where do I sign up I couldn’t help thinking! However, with most of the complexity in the background (brilliant to watch but nevertheless happening in the shadows and dark corners of the plot) the central story is a simple one. After the attempt to kill Aaron Cross fails (I’m not giving a great deal away here!) he needs to obtain a secure supply of his ‘chems’ to be able to function at the levels he’s used to and useful for. To do that he latches onto Dr Shearing (Weisz) and incidentally saves her life from another aspect of the rolling cover-up. Much explanation (and a great virtual ‘chase’ scene) ensue as they go where the ‘chems’ are.

Of course the great thing about series like this is the amount of depth they can develop after four movies which I personally love to delve into. Equally expected from the whole Bourne series is amazing action and especially close-in fight scenes that, I think, changed this aspect in other thrillers afterwards (as seen in the new Bond films for one thing). I still remember Jason Bourne defeating a baddie with a rolled up magazine – and it came across as totally believable! Cross doesn’t do anything quite that off the wall but he does have an interesting encounter with a Hellfire armed Drone that I thought was superb if a little far-fetched. There’s some pretty good fight scenes (mostly with normal people) and a great motorbike chase in Manilla to finish off that I enjoyed a great deal. Overall I thought it an excellent addition to the Bourne storyline and I hope that they make more of them.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Change in sense of humour 'a sign of impending dementia'

By Michelle Roberts

Health editor, BBC News online

10 November 2015

An increasingly warped sense of humour could be an early warning sign of impending dementia, say UK experts. The University College London study involved patients with frontotemporal dementia, with the results appearing in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

Questionnaires from the friends and family of the 48 patients revealed many had noticed a change in humour years before the dementia had been diagnosed. This included laughing inappropriately at tragic events. Experts say more studies are now needed to understand how and when changes in humour could act as a red flag for dementia. There are many different types of dementia and frontotemporal dementia is one of the rarer ones. The area of the brain it affects is involved with personality and behaviour, and people who develop this form of dementia can lose their inhibition, become more impulsive and struggle with social situations.

Dr Camilla Clark and colleagues recruited 48 patients from their dementia clinic at University College London. And they asked the friends or relatives of the patients to rate their loved one's liking for different kinds of comedy - slapstick comedy such as Mr Bean, satirical comedy such as Yes, Minister or absurdist comedy such as Monty Python - as well as any examples of inappropriate humour. Nearly all of the respondents said, with hindsight, that they had noticed a shift in the nine years before the dementia had been diagnosed.

Many of the patients had developed a dark sense of humour - for example, laughing at tragic events in the news or in their personal lives. The dementia patients also tended to prefer slapstick to satirical humour, when compared with 21 healthy people of a similar age. Dr Clark said: "These were marked changes - completely inappropriate humour well beyond the realms of even distasteful humour. For example, one man laughed when his wife badly scalded herself."

Dr Simon Ridley, of Alzheimer's Research UK, said anyone concerned about changes in their behaviour should speak to their GP. "While memory loss is often the first thing that springs to mind when we hear the word dementia, this study highlights the importance of looking at the myriad different symptoms that impact on daily life and relationships," he said. "A deeper understanding of the full range of dementia symptoms will increase our ability to make a timely and accurate diagnosis."

[I did struggle with this idea. I’m OK with the idea that a radical personality change can indicate a physical brain problem. But I’m less convinced that a ‘warped sense of humour’ (whatever exactly that means and how on earth you’d agree on it) points to early onset dementia and needs medicalising. Aren’t we moving into an area where, for the later good of a patient of course, we start prescribing drugs to supress behaviour that society judges as ‘inappropriate’? That is a very dangerous road to go down I feel and although no doubt well intentioned this study did ring decided alarm bells for me. Maybe some pills will help me sort that out?]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Purge by Sofi Oksanen (FP: 2008)

Estonia, 1992. Aliide Truu just wants to survive. That is her only aim and after decades of doing so, through an early peasant life of hard backbreaking work, the German invasion, The Russian invasion and Occupation, the Soviet collapse and the slow death of peasant existence she’s getting pretty good at it. But the only way to survive in that world is to be hard and carry secrets buried so deep that they will never be revealed. Zara is also a survivor and has almost as many secrets. But Zara is also on the run from the Russian mafia who have been using her in the illegal sex trade in Germany. When they meet, deep in the Estonian forest, it seems like an accident at first. But some of Zara’s secrets involve Aliide and it slowly becomes clear that they have more than a casual connection. But both women have forgotten how to trust and cannot bring themselves to share secrets even if it might save both of their lives.

This is rather a strange book and not just because of its Finnish/Estonian origins. It’s told in a series of flashbacks told from multiple viewpoints which hop between the 1990’s and the 1940’s and times in-between. The story advances slowly (actually too slowly I felt at times) and although you learn quite a bit about both women – from memories and from their conversations in Aliide’s kitchen – I never really engaged with their life stories (tragic though they were). Despite the fact that both of them demanded sympathy for what had happened to them I never developed any kind of emotional attachment to either. I suppose in a lot of ways neither of the women were particularly likable, so I had problems caring a great deal about them.

This is not to say that the novel was particularly badly written – it wasn’t. It was certainly visual enough and more than believable enough considering things reported in the press. Also knowing a little of the experience (thankfully at third hand) of Soviet Occupation those passages that related to that rang true. Yet still I failed to engage. I guess from my point of view there was insufficient tension throughout undoubtedly not helped by my lack of caring for either woman. I hesitate to use the word ‘boring’ but I felt that this definitely moved in that direction. I did actually toy, from time to time, with abandoning it but managed to keep the pages turning to the end. Be warned that there’s a substantial amount of violence in this book generally directed at women and that the sex content is quite high too. Considering the context of the sex this is definitely not one for the faint hearted.

Translated from the Finnish/Estonian by Lola Rogers    

Monday, November 09, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Spike Island - Portrait of a Police Division by James McClure (FP: 1980)

I could see early on why it took me several attempts to finish this book. It had been sitting on my shelf for years (I think I might have bought it new!) after at least one – or possibly two – previous attempts to read it. Unfortunately it’s actually quite badly written. Fortunately I’m made of much sterner stuff these days and there was enough of interest, buried in the meandering text, to keep me going long after I gave up previously. Plus I had a box to tick for the 2015 Reading Challenge!

This is a 533 page rambling account of the daily life of a police force in what was at the time the toughest inner city area in Western Europe. That quite a claim to fame though I suspect it probably wasn’t true. The interesting thing from my point of view is that ‘A’ Division immediately bordered where I was born – Toxteth in Liverpool – and many an officer mentioned just how bad it was there. OK, we moved away some years before this book was written but I never thought it was all that bad. Sure I grew up in a two bedroom house occupied essentially by two families (Mum, Dad, Brother, Me & Grandad/Grandma) but I never really noticed the poverty that must have existed back then. I guess that children don’t really notice that sort of thing – at least not for a while.

It was funny though, reading about the people the police came across – the criminals (often referred to as ‘bucks’), the victims, the needy and the lost. If we had stayed in that area I couldn’t but help thinking that I might have been one of them (if I hadn’t actually appeared as a cameo in the book as a buck that is!). There but for the grace of my parent’s forethought and planning….  

The author does, despite his wandering narrative, bring up some interesting ideas – although most of what he talked about has been overtaken by events. This was a time, despite the actions of the IRA, that the police (rank and file as well as senior officers) were dead set against being armed on a regular basis. Several of those interviewed had a deep repugnance for firearms and only issued them when absolutely necessary. This has changed a great deal although the average ‘bobby’ still goes unarmed most of the time. The other big topic discussed at length – from both sides – was the integration of women into the regular force patrolling rough areas on foot with nothing to protect them but their radio to call for help (in those days women officers didn’t even carry batons). Part of the worry from senior officers was that their male colleagues would over-react if a female officer got into trouble. But in the main having a woman confronting male offenders more often than not calmed things down. I’m not sure if that would happen today.

A few things did surprise me. One was the basic lack of equipment. Mostly on foot – with a handful of cars to draw on – police still flagged down taxi’s or even buses to get to a disturbance. Another thing was the acceptance of violence as a fact of life – that at some point in their career they’d probably end up in hospital after being in a fight. There was lots of talk, as you might expect, and much criticism of the legal system especially aimed at defence lawyers who seemed less interested in justice (or even the law) and more interested in being payed or simply criticising the police. Politicians came in for some equally frank criticism for both not helping the crime situation (being focused too much on statistics) or for actually making things worse. No solutions to either of these problems was forthcoming.

Overall, despite its many flaws, this was a reasonably interesting read. I did find it at times fascinating to ‘see’ parts of Liverpool I’d been to, lived near or visited later described from a police officer’s point of view. I honestly did raise an eyebrow (or maybe both) when one police inspector talked about Toxteth exploding in violence soon if nothing was done about things – a year or so later this is exactly what happened in the worst riots for a generation. Interesting from an historic and an anthropological perspective.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book that takes place in your hometown – COMPLETE (28/50)]