About Me

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Looks like my perfect day........

I am NOT a Resource.

Every year we have a Survey at work to find out what the troops think, amongst other things, about our Lords and Masters in the top echelons of the organisation. Largely, I believe, this is for purely PR reasons but our Middle Management seem to take it seriously (or more likely have been told to take it seriously) so after almost every survey we sit in a room for a few hours and discuss the results. For at least the past 3-4 years the views from the shop floor about those apparently leading us to a brave new future have been universally bad – and when I say bad I mean pretty appalling. I don’t think that they particularly care about this – after all why should they – but it seems that someone has convinced them that they need to appear to care, hence the meeting to understand what we’re thinking. As usual we didn’t really get anywhere because Middle Management didn’t want to ask the hard questions (opening up the proverbial can of worms) and no one on the shop floor wanted to say what was on their minds as we all wanted to keep our jobs – no attributable comments? Yeah, right….

Anyway, I don’t normally Blog about work and I’m not going to start here – or at least I’m not going to continue (much) before I get to my point. So as not to descend into the expected bitch-fest our get-together was ‘facilitated’ by someone from our HR Department who asked all of the politically correct questions salted with a few examples from TV shows and comments about his children. But one thing he did say, pretty much as an aside, made me say something in return. He said that we all, everyone in the room including himself was a resource, not unlike the flipchart he was writing on. To which I responded (to the room rather than to him) at a volume only those closest to me could hear was that I wasn’t a resource I was a human being. It got a laugh from a few people near me and then the pointless meeting went on. Now I’ve had this kind of argument before with people – and again since our group meeting. People (and organisations) can see me as a resource, they can classify me as one and treat me like one but that doesn’t make me a resource. Oh, I understand why they do it. In many ways it’s more efficient (and that’s a whole other argument) not to treat us as individuals. From a top-down perspective, especially from a great height, we’re simply not individuals but are in effect worker ants doing their thing as directed from above. But down at the coal face we sure feel like individuals (or at least I do) and don’t like being treated or thought of as a resource, a number on a spreadsheet or anything else that dehumanises us.

Inevitably when I bring up this objection the first thing people say is that I’m overreacting, that it’s just a word, that I can be an individual on my own time and that the company pays my wages so I am actually a resource whether I like it or not. To which I respond that names are important and although they pay my wages that doesn’t mean that they’ve bought me and that they certainly don’t own me. Of course this idea is rather more fundamental than being called a resource by someone who, not surprisingly, works in Human Resources. It’s the idea that people and human related activities are commodities to be bought, sold and traded like any other thing in the marketplace. Such an idea is one of, if not THE, biggest problems (or mistakes) in the world today. The idea that people can be bought, be owned, and that relationships or any other human activity can be ‘traded in’ for ones with a better return is corrosive in the extreme. I might be persuaded, cajoled or even bullied into a course of action but (at least I believe) I don’t think I can be bought. OK, no one has actually valued me enough to try but still I hope that I ‘value’ myself highly enough that no one would be willing to even try to tempt me with hard cash. As far as I know I’m simply not for sale – at least I hope not. I’ll let you know if anyone has that kind of folding money available to try their luck. In the meantime I shall remain a human being, no matter what they call me.      

Saturday, February 27, 2016

California methane leak 'largest in US history'

By Matt McGrath BBC Environment correspondent

26 February 2016

A scientific analysis of a natural gas leak near Los Angeles says that it was the biggest in US history. The Aliso Canyon blowout vented almost 100,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere before it was plugged. The impact on the climate is said to be the equivalent of the annual emissions of half a million cars. Researchers say it had a far bigger warming effect than the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

First detected on 23 October, the leak came from one of the 115 wells connected to a massive underground natural gas storage facility, the fifth largest in the US. Seven unsuccessful attempts were made to shut down the billowing plumes of methane and ethane by the owners, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas). Concerns over the impacts of the spewing gas eventually led to more than 11,000 nearby residents being evacuated as California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the area. The blowout pushed enough of the gas into the air every day to fill a balloon the size of a football stadium. At its peak, the flow doubled the rate of methane emissions from the entire Los Angeles basin. The leak was permanently sealed on 18 February. By then almost 100,000 tonnes of methane had poured into the atmosphere.

Scientists have now completed an analysis based on 13 research flights that captured air samples in and around the methane plume as well as from the ground. The initial aircraft readings were so high that the researchers rechecked their monitoring equipment for errors. The amount of methane entering the atmosphere from the leaking well makes it the largest of its kind recorded in the US. A bigger escape of gas occurred in Texas in 2004 but as most of this methane burned off in a fire that followed an explosion, the impact on the climate was muted. The researchers say that the blowout will have a significant impact on California's ability to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets this year. Methane is a short-lived atmospheric chemical but is highly potent as a warming gas, with an effect 25 times higher than CO2 over a 100-year time period. "In terms of the methane release, Aliso Canyon is by far largest," said lead author Dr Stephen Conley, from the University of California, Davis. "It had the largest climate impact; it beats the BP oil spill."

The analysis found above normal levels of several potentially harmful chemicals that came from the natural gas leak. These included benzene, toluene and xylenes, which have been linked to health impacts from long-term exposure. The authors believe there are important lessons to be learned from the leak - particularly the need to monitor oil and gas facilities more carefully. They say that there has been little co-ordinated oversight of the biggest oil and gas leaks in recent years. They point to Aliso Canyon, the BP spill and the Total Elgin rig blowout in the North Sea as examples where luck more than intent ensured the impacts on the environment were monitored. In the case of Aliso Canyon, the surveying aircraft was working on another project searching for pipeline problems, when the scientists were asked to overfly the leaking well. "The state's response to Aliso Canyon was teed off by the first measurement we took, at that point no-one had any clue that this was 50,000kg per hour of gas," said Dr Conley. "That to me is a huge oversight, especially with the Paris Climate Agreement. How can we commit to monitor and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without measuring our biggest emitters? These sort of leaks will continue to happen. Let's try to be continuously looking for them so we can seriously talk about reducing our emissions."

The research has been published in the Science magazine.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

...although apparently I'm an outrageous flirt..... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Final Impact by John Birmingham (FP: 2007)

It is the 3rd May 1944. The place is the Pas de Calais – D Day! The final assault against Fortress Europe is underway. With massive Allied firepower the Atlantic Wall is breached by air-fuel explosives. Overhead the latest American jet-fighters patrol the skies as the helicopter assault forces deliver troops directly to the front line. Meanwhile Hitler, convinced that the real attack will fall on the Normandy beachheads as in the other D Day holds back his best divisions to cover the expected invasion. In the Pacific a massive American fleet approaches Japanese controlled territory believing that they are prepared for anything that can be thrown at them. With beefed up air defences they are as ready as they’ll ever be for the Kamikaze planes that will make up Japan’s final throw of the dice. But unlike the Third Reich the Japanese are not working on nuclear weapons or other exotic weapons from the future. Instead they have developed a weapon they believe will hold off the Allies until they can be covered by the German nuclear umbrella. Admiral Kolhammer is worrying about the future though – not his already lived through future but the future legacy he has imposed on this world in 1944. With future knowledge in the hands of allies and enemies alike it is only a matter of time before hot war becomes Cold War and then, quite possibly Nuclear War if Stalin gets his way. With Roosevelt determined to treat the Russians as allies now rather than future known enemies Kolhammer must play a dangerous game of manipulating his new future whilst fighting a very strange rematch of WW2 and keep his own government in the dark as to his final intentions. The only question that really matters in the final analysis is who will have the nukes first?

This this the third in the Axis of Time trilogy which started with the arrival of an early 21st century battle fleet in the Pacific in 1942. Jumping forward 2 years from the previous books we are at the final stages of the war with German and Japan fighting to hold their expanded territories long enough to hold off the Allies by any and all means – including the use of WMD. As always the combat sequences where excellent as was the characterisation of both the ‘temps’ (contemporary) and 21st century arrivals. I was particularly impressed by several strong female characters. I was a little disappointed that the overall planned manipulation of the timeline was side-lined a bit more than I’d have liked (it was one of the things that frankly fascinated me in the previous novel) but it was very much a minor issue. The ending did feel a little rushed – especially with the addition of a chapter outlining what happened next to the major players after VE and VJ Days – but again the tying up of loose ends is forgivable taking into account the quality of the rest of the book. Overall this has been a highly entertaining series and I have enjoyed it on several levels a great deal. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who likes combat-SF, Alt-History of just an action-packed story well told. More from Mr Birmingham soon….  

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Decade of Some Significance.

As my few regular readers will know SaLT has just passed its 10 birthday. They will also know that despite reading a reasonable number of books per year (about 75 on average) I still have a nagging feeling that I’m not reading ‘the right kind of books’. Now I’m more than aware that simply reading anything these days (with the possible exception of Harry Potter or 50 Shades) is considered by some as unusual at best or elitist at worse, but I do feel that I need to ‘up my game’ and read at least some ‘better’ books. I know this will undoubtedly make me, in the eyes of some, even more elitist but I’ve been shrugging off such criticism for as long as I can remember.

One of my ideas, along with reading more of the Classics (as well as Classical literature – something I’m singularly failing to do so far) is to read more ‘significant’ books, in other words books that have had a significant impact on the cultural, political and other aspects of life over an extended period. Some of these books are pretty obvious, others less so. That’s part of my problem of course. Not being the best educated person in the world I struggle to know exactly which books meet the ‘significant’ category – so I grope, feel my way and rely on lists from experts at least to point me in the right direction. I’m certainly more conscious of this trend in my reading these days but I’ve been looking for these books with varying degrees of deliberateness for the lifetime of this Blog. So let’s see what I’ve managed so far – in reverse chronological order.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
About Looking by John Berger
A Vindication of The Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
War on Wheels – The Evolution of an Idea by C R Kutz
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Design as Art by Bruno Munari
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
The Rebel by Albert Camus
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
A Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara

Well, about the only thing you can say about 17 books of varying significance over a period of 10 years is that it’s not completely pitiful and that, looking on the bright side as I invariably do, the only way is definitely up! An average of less than 2 significant books a year can’t be that difficult to beat after all…. At least I hope not! Luckily I’ve already had one reviewed this year and it’s only February. Even if my review pile (only 2 books presently) nor my 'reading next' pile (4 books) actually contain significant books I’m confident that there should be at least 2 more making their way into 2016’s list of reviewed books – a military manual from the 1930’s and a political biography from the 1960’s. I might even make it 4 books this year – but that’s quite a stretch at this point [grin]. I do promise that the average from now on will be at the very, very least 2 significant books a year – but I’ll try for 3 and even try to push it beyond that. It’ll be interesting what I can dig up from places as yet unknown….  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Following orders 'distances us' from our own actions

By Jonathan Webb

Science reporter, BBC News

18 February 2016

Neuroscientists have added fresh insight to the observation that people are surprisingly willing to hurt others if they are ordered to do so. This was famously shown by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. In the new study, subjects in pairs were paid to deliver mild electric shocks to one another. If they were instructed to administer the shocks, they sensed more of a delay before the jolt was delivered, compared to when they made their own decisions. Researchers regard this timing judgment as an indicator of how responsible we feel for our actions. When we switch on a light, for example, we know we are in control and we usually perceive the effect as instantaneous, even if there is a lag. By contrast, the new findings suggest that if we are following orders, that joined-up perception drifts a little and our sense of "agency" is genuinely reduced. "A useful marker of the sense of agency... is the subjective compression of the interval between what I do - and what I make happen," said Patrick Haggard, senior author of the study, which appears in Current Biology.

"Most previous work had been based on just asking people whether they felt responsible; that's a little bit tricky, because people tend to report what they think they should say." He and his colleagues wanted to test whether being bossed around produces a real, measurable change in how people perceive their own actions. What is the psychological underpinning, if any, for the claims of Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials that they took no responsibility because they had orders to follow? It was in the wake of those trials that Dr Milgram's experiments achieved notoriety. Volunteers obediently ramped up the shocks they were giving to a "learner" in an adjoining room - actually an actor - whom they could hear protesting and, eventually, in obvious distress. Those findings were taken as a powerful illustration of our propensity to decouple ourselves from our choices, if someone else - in that case, a commanding man in a white coat - is giving the orders. They are a touchstone of psychology courses worldwide and were the subject of a recent film.

"Milgram's interest was really focused on whether people will obey an instruction or not. But he did not really focus on what it feels like when people do follow instructions," Prof Haggard, from University College London, told BBC News. In Prof Haggard's key experiment, subjects could choose to give their co-participant a "painful but tolerable" electric shock - or not - by pressing one of two keys. Each shock would add 5p to their fee for taking part, and each pair took turns so that both subjects knew exactly what the shocks felt like. "Pressing either key on the keyboard produces a tone, and the participant's task is to report, in milliseconds, how long they think the interval between the key-press and the tone was," Prof Haggard explained. That interval, in reality, varied randomly between 200, 500 and 800 milliseconds. "That gives us our implicit measure of sense of agency." Crucially, a scientist was also in the room and for half the trials, she firmly told the participants which key to press. "The interesting result is that people perceive the interval between the action and the tone as longer, in the condition where they've been given a coercive instruction, than in the condition where they decide for themselves what to do," said Prof Haggard.

"Coercion produces some subjective experience of distancing. Instructions really can change the way we feel about what we're doing." The team also recorded brain activity during some of the experiments, using electrodes on the top of the scalp (an electroencephalogram or EEG). These measurements revealed subtle differences between how the brain responded to the sound of the tone, depending on whether the subject had been ordered to act or not. "We take this as showing that coercion has a surprisingly powerful effect on the brain, reducing the extent to which the brain processes the consequences of our actions," said Prof Haggard.

Dr Molly Crockett is a social neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. She said the new findings were interesting and novel - particularly because previous studies of coercion had largely relied on people self-reporting their feelings of responsibility. "You can imagine that explicitly, if someone wants people to think they're a better person, they would report, 'Oh yeah, I totally didn't feel responsible when someone asked me to do this bad thing,'" Dr Crockett said. "But on this implicit measure, which people are unlikely to be able to manipulate, you still see a signature of reduced agency - which is really cool." Asked about the implications of his findings, Prof Haggard said there was no reason to give any credibility to the so-called "Nuremberg defence". "We always need to be sceptical of that defence - of somebody who says, I was only obeying orders," he said. "Because very often, people have a secondary motive for saying that. They think they can avoid punishment. Secondly, just because somebody feels they are not responsible, doesn't mean they are not responsible. Society might still want to hold them accountable."

Instead, he suggested, the results emphasise the power - and the responsibility - of those who are giving orders. "I think we need to hold people who give orders even more accountable. Because the people who execute those orders may not feel as responsible as one might like."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Human Universe by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (FP: 2014)

Science often shies away from the BIG Questions, not so Brian Cox in this interesting informative and often funny book. Reading it is more like having a conversation with an intelligent and endlessly curious person than turning dry pages relating an even dryer subject. The author (ably aided by the BBC producer of the TV series on which the book is based) is easily able to get across his boyish and infectious enthusiasm for Science in all its many guises. Starting with the apparently simple question: Where Are We? He explores the early attempts to place us, and the Earth, in the context of the Universe and the increasing realisation that each discovery moved us further from the centre of things. Moving on to one of my favourite questions: Are We Alone? The author surprised me by coming to the conclusion that, although he expects our galaxy to be teaming with life he has little expectation that any of it will be intelligent. His opinion, which I don’t share by the way, is that intelligence is so rare that it is highly unlikely that two intelligent species capable of sending messages into the void will occupy a similar volume of space at the same time – answering Fermi’s Paradox of where is everyone? I thought that was a bit of a leap personally especially when we only have a single example to work from (which he reminded us more than once). Yes, intelligence took a long time to appear on Earth and the journey there wasn’t exactly without incident but who knows how it could have gone on other worlds? Not that I have an answer for Fermi…..

Who Are We? Moves out of the author’s comfort zone – or at least his qualified comfort zone to look at human evolution and anthropology. It’s a well-trodden story from Ape-man, to Man, to Space-Man (almost shades of 2001 but not quite). Naturally the author couldn’t really do justice to our heritage and progress since our early knuckle dragging days in a single section and, of course, never really tried. He did however mention several times the fact that always leaves me open mouthed – that someone could have experienced Man’s first powered flight and the first landing on the Moon as these are only 66 years apart. That still sends a shiver through me every time I think about it!

Finally we move onto the biggest of the big questions: Why Are We Here? Not, as you might expect, an attempt to answer the meaning of life the universe and everything but something rather deeper – why is the universe seemingly made for us. After all if any of the ‘Laws’ of the Universe had been ‘off’ by only a few percent then life or much else would have been impossible. So was the universe made for us? Of course it turns out that it’s the exact opposite – we are made for the universe. There is also increasing actual evidence to suggest that ‘our’ universe is one of many (no longer just a left-field theory justified by some convoluted mathematics) and that each of these sister universes have different ‘Laws’ which makes our Goldilocks existence somewhat less inexplicable.

Lastly the author looks ahead with the question: What Is Our Future? Picking just two possibilities the author considers just how little we spend on a credible asteroid defence system (looking for giant rocks falling from the sky – never mind doing anything about them once they’re detected) which amounts to less than the salary of a reasonably well-paid footballer. The other possibility (or hope actually) is for humanity to finally make it into space in ever increasing numbers – and staying there. One can but hope….

This is a very good overview of some of the latest science out there presented in an easily digestible format. The author is a past master at explaining sometimes difficult concepts (he only really ‘lost me’ once) in ways that practically anyone can understand. You’ll appreciate this if you’ve ever seen any of his TV appearances. Of course the great thing is his enthusiasm which he manages to pass on to his readership and his viewers – the idea that not only can you understand this sort of thing but that it’s interesting and even fun. Recommended and with more of his works to follow.    

Monday, February 15, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie (FP: 1932)

It all started as a bit of fun, something to pass the time on long evenings in the village. A group of friends meet on Tuesday nights and call themselves, not surprisingly, the Tuesday Night Club. Each week one member must bring with them a mystery that only they know the answer to and the others have to guess. Some of the friends have more experience than others solving puzzles of human nature – an actress who needs to assume the persona of others, an author who needs to produce believable characters, a vicar who needs to see into men’s souls, a doctor who must diagnose the ill and a police inspector who has seen every kind of evil – oh and a spinster called Miss Maple who regales the group with stories of village life which she regards as a microcosm of life everywhere else. As each problem is presented the gathering is stumped with puzzle after puzzle unresolved until Miss Maple speaks and surprises them all with her incisive analysis of each and every case.

I admit that after enjoying Miss Marple’s first outing a little while back I didn’t enjoy this half as much – although it made me smile and even chuckle more than once. I think it was because of the format which was essentially 13 short stories told in a room. They were, generally at least, interesting stories but I think I was after more substance. I wonder in Ms Christie was rushed into publication after her first book or just wanted to try out some new ideas. Either way it felt rather incomplete in a way. I was more than pleased that I solved 3-4 puzzles before Miss Maple gave her opinion, so I was happy with that. I’m not a great one for solving these things unless it’s pretty obvious (and that, I’ve always thought was the sign of a poor crime writer!). It certainly hasn’t put me off Maple or Christie and I have several more of her books in the pipeline. I fully expect them all to be better than this (slightly) disappointing one.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Good Point.......... [lol]

Rare Easter Rising photos show Dublin in rubble

From The BBC

13 February 2016

On Easter Monday 100 years ago, Irish Republicans occupied buildings in central Dublin and declared independence from the United Kingdom. Few photographs were taken of the short-lived Easter Rising, but an exhibition now on display in London provides a unique insight into the six days of fighting. "Dublin was always called the second capital of the empire, and O'Connell Street was one of the great boulevards of Europe," says Luke Dodd, curator of the exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery. "One of the things the insurgents had banked on was that the British authorities wouldn't bomb property - and boy, were they wrong. The entire centre of the city was completely eviscerated."

Although the British authorities were caught off guard by the rebellion, they quickly organised themselves. The rebels, who numbered about 1,500, had failed to capture Dublin's ports and railway stations so the British were able to bring in thousands of reinforcements. By the end of the week there were 16,000 troops in the city. The British also pounded the city with naval guns mounted on a ship stationed on the River Liffey, as well as from artillery positions along the river bank. About 450 people were killed and more than 2,500 wounded - most of them civilians. Few photographers were willing to brave the streets during the bombardment, partly because of the physical dangers, but also because of wartime censorship. "It was the height of World War One," says Dodd. "Anybody seen with a camera would have been arrested, because there was a blanket ban on any kind of publicity." When the fighting was over however, Dubliners went out on to the streets in droves, and some keen amateur photographers took their box cameras with them.

The General Post Office (GPO) building on O'Connell Street was a well-known landmark - it was here that the rebels read out their proclamation of independence and hoisted the flags of their new Irish republic. But as historian Roy Foster writes in an essay accompanying the exhibition, the GPO, along with nearby buildings such as the Imperial Hotel, Clery's department store, and the favourite cafe of the literati, the DBC, became a battleground. "Theatrical brio was part of the enterprise," he writes. "Several observers at first mistook the takeover of Dublin's centre by dashingly-dressed volunteers as the rehearsal for a play."

Most of the leaders of the rebellion were largely unknown to the public but that changed once 15 of them were sentenced to death. The manner in which leaders such as Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and James Connolly - who was tied to a chair and shot because he was too badly wounded to stand - were executed, provoked widespread anger in Ireland and beyond. This did more to foster sympathy for the rebellion and its aims than the Rising itself, and pictures of the rebel leaders taken before the Rising suddenly took on new meaning. "Photography's unique capacity to immortalise its subjects made it an essential part of the nationalists' armoury," says Dodd. The medium played a powerful role in establishing "nationalist archetypes such as 'hunger-striker', 'rebel', 'traitor' and 'spy'," he says.

All sides in this emerging struggle used photography for their own purposes, though. Scenes of tenants being evicted at the behest of absentee landlords showed, first-hand, British oppression (even if the photos were occasionally staged). Unionists in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, were quick to circulate images of the Ulster Volunteer Force - a militia dedicated to opposing Irish Home Rule, by force if necessary. And the British themselves, concerned about rumours of German support for Irish independence, circulated images of loyal Irish soldiers.

Of all the images associated with the Easter Rising, a carefully posed photograph of Countess Constance Markievicz is one of the most striking. A member of the Irish establishment who was radicalised in London while a student at the Slade School of Art, Markievicz "went back to Ireland and dedicated herself to Irish republicanism", explains Dodd, "and had herself photographed just before the rising in a uniform she had pulled together". The countess fought during the Rising and was sentenced to death but because she was a woman, her sentence was commuted. She was interned, then granted an amnesty in 1917, along with thousands of others. She ran for election to the British parliament, representing Sinn Fein, and became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. In line with Sinn Fein's policy of abstention, she refused to take her seat at Westminster. "But she became this huge focus for independence," says Dodd. "She was hugely important after the revolution as a rallying point. People like Countess Markievicz and others who lived through the 1916 rebellion were trenchantly opposed to partition."

Two months after the Rising, the Somme offensive in France saw the death of thousands of Irish soldiers. Troops from the 36th Irish division from Ulster suffered about 5,000 casualties, including about 2,000 dead on the first day alone. Their compatriots from the mainly Catholic 16th Irish division were introduced to the battle later in 1916. Between them, the two divisions were awarded five Victoria Crosses. Subsequently, the events of 1916 were viewed very differently in northern and southern Ireland. "World War One and the Somme become reified north of [today's] border and the Easter Rising is entirely ignored," says Dodd. "South of the border the contribution of Irish men to the war effort in World War One is completely ignored and forgotten about, and instead 1916 becomes the great moment at which Irish independence becomes inevitable."

Thursday, February 11, 2016

...called Elizabeth Bennett.

Just Finished Reading: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (FP: 1938)

In late 1936, along with many other men of his generation, Eric Blair travelled to war torn Spain to do something about the Fascist tide sweeping across Europe. Largely ignorant of war but full of na├»ve hope the book was a record of his experiences during the country’s Civil War. Staying for about a year – before being severally wounded – he spent most of his time at the front lines trying to keep warm and find food. Mostly he looked across at the enemy lines and wondered if anything was going to happen that day or the day after. Blair – who is rather better known under his literary name of George Orwell – felt that he was largely wasting his time although he tried his best to train the soldiers under him how to keep their rather obsolete rifles clean and the rudiments of military practise. Back in Barcelona he became tangentially involved in the sudden in-fighting between various left-wing factions in the city. Having fought with the Anarchists and their Socialist allies this became his natural home in the street fighting that followed. This, on top of everything else he had already experienced in Spain, turned him forever against the Communists directed from Moscow. After their duplicity in Spain he had no trouble understanding their later non-aggression pact with Hitler that caused so much anguish amongst Communists throughout the West. Not for Blair/Orwell the need to leave the Party or the forced mental contortions of those who stayed behind and who had to justify this unexpected volte-face. He had seen the Soviets for what they were at first hand and had – just – lived to tell the tale.

This, the political side of Orwell’s experiences in Spain (partially relegated to a few annexes in my edition), was the part that most fascinated me. I knew of some of the in-fighting that emasculated if not destroyed the Left’s ability to beat their more unified opponents on the Right but it was stimulating to get if from someone who had actually experienced it himself. It was clear from Orwell’s account that political ideology from the Communist side always trumped military or any other kind of logic. Hundreds of loyal Spanish fighters who were totally dedicated to fighting against Fascism where arrested and, some at least, executed because they would not bend to the Soviet way of doing things. Again, luckily for Orwell, he saw the way the wind was blowing and managed to get out of Spain before he was arrested.

Although I knew that Orwell had been injured in Spain I hadn’t appreciated just how serious the injury was and just how lucky he was to survive. Shot in the throat he was not expected to survive the trip to hospital. The bullet apparently missed a major artery in his neck by millimetres. A small distance in one direction and his writing career would have ended with a handful of books to his name and, possibly, a footnote in English literary history. Imagine, for a moment, a world culture without Animal Farm or 1984. A fraction of an inch separates the two worlds!

Whilst not exactly gripping or a great page turner this is worth the time and effort to read – especially if you’ve read 1984 and ever wondered where some of the ideas came from. It’s also worth the read to see war, and a rather chaotic civil war at that, from the ground by someone who was there. I am definitely coming to see contemporary first-hand accounts of historic events as a valuable means of getting to the heart of the action. An interesting and probably significant work.    

Monday, February 08, 2016

I think I've had most of those with the exception of a perfect match... kind of.. [muses]

Thinking About: Retirement

I’m 56 in April so my thoughts have been turning more and more to retirement. The only thing (OK the main thing) keeping me at work is the fact that, at the moment, I simply can’t afford to retire as I have a powerful need to eat from time to time. But 60 is looking good (or at least do-able). My mortgage finishes in 2020 so that’s one less thing to be concerned about and I have a policy that matures that year too which will help. My company pension is claimable from 60 too and with 32 years in harness by then the pay-out isn’t bad. OK, it’s not exactly enough to live on (not quite) but with my savings and a little applied frugality it should get me to my State Pension age if I manage to live that long (crosses fingers). I don’t need much to keep me going – a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food on the table. As long as I have that I’m doing OK. I’m not planning on living the high life once I stop working so I doubt if I’ll miss that! I even said to people – after that asked me if I could afford to retire – that I’d rather eat cold beans out of the tin than work myself into an early grave. If I would actually do that….. well, I don’t know. Although I like to think that I would.

When I talked about taking ‘early’ retirement a few weeks ago my boss asked me “Won’t you be bored?” I just looked at her, chuckled and remarked that I didn’t come into work for something to do. Personally if I retire at 60 and live 10, 15 or 20 years more and spend most of that time sitting at home reading books I won’t consider that time wasted in the least. As to boredom – I’m going to have the time to really delve into things, to immerse myself in the world’s knowledge and to follow my interests wherever they lead for as long as I want to follow them. Who knows what I might find on that journey. It’ll be like going on a classic quest meeting interesting (if often dead) people along the way and sitting by their fireside on a cold and windy night (just like this one) discussing the meaning of life and the really big questions like ‘Do Penguins have knees?’

One of the things I’m hoping to do is to push my reading level back to that of my teenage years when I cleared 100 books a year on average. If I could get to those levels again I’d be very happy indeed. I’m also giving some serious (back burner) thought to doing a PhD. The problem I have, at the moment at least, is that I’m not sure what to do it in – which is a bit of an issue. It’ll definitely be in the political philosophy area (well, OK, probably) but there will definitely be a heavy historical component too. It’ll need to be something I’m passionate about, something that I can delve into, investigate and keep on digging. That will definitely take some deep thought. It’s a most perplexing three pipe problem….. [muses]. I’m hoping that something I read in the next few years will create a spark to builds and builds into quite a conflagration…. At least that’s the theory!

Ideally I’d like a lottery win (wouldn’t we all) to take a year or two off the 4 years I’ve yet to serve at the coalface but the odds of that are pretty long. It’s a dream that I shouldn’t really think about or it’ll just depress me. Oh, to win a million and spend the rest of my life in my own library! We can all dream – and that’s mine. Retirement here I come, one day at a time.