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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Rather impractical.... but wouldn't it have been marvelous to see these things on the road!

Hey, What are You Rebelling Against?

I suppose that it amused and intrigued me in equal parts. I’d been chatting for a little while with a new woman in our building when she said “I’m not sure if I should be seen talking with you. You have the reputation of being a bit of a rebel.” Now I could tell from her body language and tone of voice that she was amused by the idea – the knowing smile and twinkle in her eye was a dead giveaway – but still….. I have a ‘reputation’ of being a rebel? How deliciously amusing!

Of course I’ve long been known for being ‘different’ than the rest, maybe more outspoken, more ‘political’ and undoubtedly more thoughtful. I’m not above questioning received wisdom (no matter where it comes from) so I guess that I’ve always had a bit of that kind of ‘edge’ to me. Lately it seems to have solidified into something a bit more definable. For no great reason I can come up with I’ve had the word ‘difficult’ attached to me. I suppose it’s because at work we’ve been presented with a whole host of changes that I’ve been highly, and vocally, critical of. I have been told by my boss on more than one occasion that I have the ‘wrong attitude’ and that I should ‘get with the programme’. I have even been told, by both my boss and her boss, that opposition to what is happening is pointless and that I should just accept the new reality. To which I responded in true CK style “Resistance is never futile. Resistance is actually character building.” To which all I get these days is frowning, rolling of eyes and shaking of heads rather than the expected, and usual, laugh.

I do think that management probably consider my response to what’s happening as a pose or that it’s just me ‘acting out’. They fail to see, because they don’t really know me and have made no attempt to find out why I’m being like this, that my opposition – light though it is – comes from a lifetime of thought and experience. Mostly I ignore the bullshit that we all have to swim though on a regular basis especially if we work in any kind of large organisation for long enough. Senior management get a bee in their bonnet and new ideas or ‘ways of working’ sweep through only to be replaced 5 years later by yet another ‘latest idea’ that’s supposed to transform our lives. After you’ve seen 3-4 of those initiatives you get kind of cynical about the whole thing. That’s part of what’s going on here – simple cynicism. The other thing is that quite a lot of what’s rolling downhill at us is, at least in my opinion, both stupid and wrong-headed. But these days, it would seem, having a contrary opinion is having ‘the wrong attitude’ especially (I suspect) from someone from the shop floor. Down at the sharp end we’re just supposed to ‘get on with it’ and stop complaining.

Some of the flack (or advice) coming my way consists of the old excuses that have been purveyed in these circumstances for as long as hierarchies have existed. That we’re paid to do a job and not to think, that you can’t fight city-hall (to which I immediately flash to the episode of Sarah Conner where Derek Reese said ‘Whoever said that didn’t have as much C4 as we do’), that the changes are going to happen whatever we say, think or do so we should just accept them, that we should embrace what our managers say because they know best, that causing ‘trouble’ is counter-productive, and that (one of my favourites) no matter what, we can’t win – as if winning (or the possibility of winning) determines if you’re going to fight or not. After all hopeless causes are the only ones worth fighting for! Oh, and an Internet saying I came across recently seems relevant ATM: Anyone who says that you’re too small to make a difference hasn’t spent the night in a room with a mosquito…… What am I rebelling against? What have you got?

[PS – I’m pretty sure that if I’d lived in Occupied France I’d definitely be in The Resistance! Viva La Liberty!]

Saturday, May 28, 2016

US nuclear force still uses floppy disks

From the BBC

26 May 2016

The US nuclear weapons force still uses a 1970s-era computer system and 8-inch floppy disks, a government report has revealed. The Government Accountability Office said the Pentagon was one of several departments where "legacy systems" urgently needed to be replaced. The report said taxpayers spent $61bn (£41bn) a year on maintaining ageing technologies. It said that was three times more than the investment on modern IT systems.

The report said that the Department of Defence systems that co-ordinated intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft "runs on an IBM Series-1 Computer - a 1970s computing system - and uses eight-inch floppy disks. This system remains in use because, in short, it still works," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt Col Valerie Henderson told the AFP news agency.

"However, to address obsolescence concerns, the floppy drives are scheduled to be replaced with secure digital devices by the end of 2017." She added: "Modernisation across the entire Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications enterprise remains ongoing."

The report said that the Pentagon was planning to fully replace the system by the end of 2020. According to the report, the US treasury also needed to upgrade its systems, which it said was using "assembly language code - a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed".

[Well, it’s good to know that the world’s largest nuclear arsenal is being controlled by tried and tested technology almost as old as I am. I’ll sleep soundly in my bed tonight because of that knowledge.]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Just Finished Reading: A Matter for Men by David Gerrold (FP: 1983)

Still recovering from a disastrous war and struggling to rebuild her armed forces under Versailles style conditions, the US is in no state to fight off a world spanning plague. Millions are dying across the globe when a second plague emerges, and a third, and a forth until eight distinct pandemics rage unchecked. Finally with billions dead the plagues begin to die themselves leaving human civilisation holding on seemingly by sheer will power alone. As nations begin to rebuild they discover strange plants and animals never seen before beginning to dominate any eco-system they encounter. With few scientists available to decide exactly where these creatures came from or what impact they will have on the recovery programme teams are hastily dispatched to investigate. Among them is James McCarthy who, with two years of science at University, is the closest thing they have to an expert. But nothing Jim has learnt so far can prepare him for what he sees on his first mission. Earth is now the home to giant strange looking worms who hunt anything in their territory including man himself. Almost impossible to kill with conventional weapons the human teams must resort to the use of flame throwers and banned napalm to do the job but as the human casualties mount the remaining American armed Forces begin to realise that they are not simply fighting an unknown infestation but are being faced with an invasion of unimaginable power. The object is not only colonisation but the transformation of Earth’s entire ecology and the giant worms are only the first stage!

It did seem like a good idea when I picked this book up in my favourite SF book shop in London decades ago – a whole series of 4 books dealing with the remnants of humanity fighting off an alien invasion. Of course by the time I got to thinking about reading this series the next three books are out of print. I managed to get a decent copy of the second book but, at least presently, have failed to get any more….. and thankfully so! Because this book was quite honestly very poor indeed. In fact I’d go so far as to say, apart from brief moments when an actually decent story was revealed between the dross, that this was pretty appalling. Not only was the plot all over the place (with whole sections seemingly dropped in at random), but the characterisation was terrible, the dialogue even worse than Star Wars and the author had to tie himself in knots to get the story to make even minimal sense. What made it even worse, if such a thing was possible, was that the author continually stopped what little action actually occurred to regularly, and at great length, lecture the reader on his own particular politics. Almost everyone, at some point in the book, stopped the ‘hero’, sat him down and spent 5, 10, 20 pages telling him how to de-programme himself from the existing political regime (presumably one that existed in 1980’s America) and adopt another that I can only surmise could be called ‘Libertarian’. It was all quite bizarre, rather annoying and, frankly, very boring. I’m really sorry that I spent all of that effort trying to get the second volume. Most definitely not recommended.      

Monday, May 23, 2016

Saw one a few days ago..... Totally classic motor.

Just Finished Reading: Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones (FP: 2011)

You don’t have to look far – newspapers, political speeches, comedy shows on TV. These days the once powerful and respected working class, the very salt of the Earth have become the scum of the Earth. In other words – Chavs. These are the remnant, the non-aspiring working class who are either unable or unwilling to move (along with everyone else apparently) into the only class worthy of mention – the middle class. According to politicians both from the Right and Left we’re all middle class now. To which the author says: nonsense!

For one thing survey after survey shows that over 50% of the British population regard themselves as working class – so hardly a left-over rump then! Not everyone it seems aspires to be comfortably in the middle of things. The image of things, rather than the reality, is something quite different. Those who don’t aspire are feckless, scroungers, criminal and racist – at least according to the right-wing press and the right-wing politicians who feed the flames of class war (which they believe they’ve won). Ever since Maggie took on and defeated the union shock troops made up of the miners in the early 80’s things have gone from bad to worse for the workers – with ever growing restrictions on union activity and ever loosening constraint on businesses in their hiring and firing practices leading to abominations such as zero hours contracts and so called internships where young people work for months without pay in the hope (rather than the expectation) of a job at the end of it. Inevitably only those whose parents can support them through their university and internship (not the working classes by the way) have any hope at all of progressing in this way leading to the not unsurprising finding that the vast majority of top jobs are occupied by often privately educated children of the upper middle class. Is it any wonder that they look down on their social inferiors?

Time and again, with facts and figures to back up his arguments as well as an impressive array of interviews from the man (or woman) in the street to the so-called great and good who made decisions that affected millions of workers the author successfully debunks myth after myth and lie after lie. Not only does he show that the so-called ‘sink’ estates are products of government policy – particularly the right-to-buy scheme coupled with heavy restrictions on council house building programmes leaving the most run-down areas as the only affordable place to live for the very bottom strata of society but the reason for so much poverty (not unsurprisingly linked to chronic unemployment or underemployment) is again deliberate government policy which eviscerated the very industries that working class areas depended on for their economic and psychological wellbeing.

About the only thing I disagree on, in this otherwise very readable political polemic, is the author’s fixation on Margaret Thatcher as the instigator of the Class War still raging in this country. The war against the working class has its roots in a time before that class existed. It is a war that has been raging since before the Industrial Revolution and it’s not over yet. The rich may think they’ve won and that the workers have been finally put in their place but we’ve been here before and it didn’t go too well for the rich back then. Workers of the World unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains….

Saturday, May 21, 2016

April breaks global temperature record

From The BBC

16th May 2016

April was the seventh month in a row that broke global temperature records, Nasa figures show. Last month smashed the previous record for April by the largest margin ever, the data show. That makes it three months in a row that the monthly record was broken by the largest margin ever. But in terms of its departure from the 1951-1980 temperature average used by Nasa, April was equal with January 2016. February and March this year showed greater departures from the norm. The new record for April trounced the previous one, set in 2010, by 0.24C. "The very unfortunate circumstance we have now is the overlap of a very intense El Nino that has been magnified by climate change," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

[You know, I’m starting to think that maybe Global Warming isn’t such a myth after all – especially with the record breaking temperatures in India…… ]

I've just registered over 400,000 hits on this Blog! Yet another milestone....... Here's to the Half Million! I'm as excited as a boy who's just met Tinkerbell..... Well, almost!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Maritime Dominion and the Triumph of the Free World – Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World 1852-2001 by Peter Padfield (FP: 2009)

This was definitely a book of two halves – or more accurately two sections. One the one hand we had very good/excellent discussions on seminal naval encounters mostly in the 20th century, whilst on the other we had some serious axe grinding and quasi-triumphalism pitting the ‘evil’ continental powers against the free and, by extension, virtuous maritime powers – the Dutch, British and American capitalist democracies. After the first such tirade I honestly went into skim mode whenever he strayed from talking what I wanted to read about – naval warfare. Of course what makes this even more irritating was that, when he concentrated on the actual military side of things (rather than slagging off the Germans, French, Russians, Japanese and, later, the Chinese for their many faults) he was really good. His discussion on British naval global strategy in WW1, coupled with a very good description of the joined battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands was very good indeed and I learnt a number of new things which always pleases me. Likewise his two chapter discussion of the strategically decisive battle of Jutland almost 100 years ago is honestly gripping even if he didn’t produce any new information I was unaware of.

Meanwhile both the description of the Russian defeat in 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima by the newly industrialised Japan gave the author an ‘in’ to criticise the Japanese commercial class for not exerting greater influence over the burgeoning Nippon culture and turning the Samurai spirit away from aggressive war and more along the path of aggressive marketing. Japan, the author freely admits, is an anomaly that doesn’t fit his idea of maritime powers dependent on trade inevitably becoming more open, freer and more democratic. This anomaly is never adequately explained. His later discussion on the Pacific war and the Battle of Midway in particular allowed the author to show his deep distaste for everything Japanese if the reader hadn’t already picked up on that.

Finally we had the rather bizarre chapter on the ‘Cold War and After’ allowing more deep seated criticism, tinged with the usual distaste of all things ‘continental’, of the Soviet system followed by a head shaking and tutting condemnation of the European Union. I can guess which way he’s going to vote in the referendum next month.

Despite the very good chapters outlined above, as well as those on the battle for the Atlantic in both world wars, the fact that the author couldn’t stay objective about regimes he found objectionable for various reasons ruined the book for me. This is a real shame as he obviously has a very good grasp of the battles themselves and the historical context in which they took place. If only he left his axes at home rather than needing to grind them in public and had kept his political prejudices in check this could have been an excellent history of 20th century naval conflict. Unfortunately it wasn’t. If you still want to read the good bits I recommend you get this from a library and go into fast-forward whenever you see him going off the reservation.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Last surviving Casablanca actress Madeleine Lebeau dies

From The BBC

15th May 2016

French actress Madeleine Lebeau, the last surviving cast member of the classic 1942 film Casablanca, has died at the age of 92, her family says. Her stepson, filmmaker Carlo Alberto Pinelli, told the Hollywood Reporter that she had died on 1 May in Spain. In Casablanca, Lebeau plays Humphrey Bogart's spurned lover. In a famous scene, she tearfully shouts "Vive La France", after the clientele in Rick's Café sing La Marseillaise to drown out singing by German soldiers.

Born in 1923 near Paris, she fled Nazi-occupied France with her then husband, prominent actor Marcel Dalio, in 1940. The couple ended up in Hollywood, and both played in Casablanca.

In the film, Bogart plays an American cafe owner in Morocco, a territory controlled by France's Nazi collaborationist regime. He must choose between his love for a woman and helping her husband escape Casablanca to continue fighting the Nazis.

Lebeau played in two more US films before returning to France after the war. Her subsequent work includes the role of a temperamental French actress in Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).

[Casablanca is one of my Top 10 movies of all time. I just love it. The scene where Lebeau aids in the drowning out of the Germans singing their own anthem is brilliant – and still brings a lump to my throat. Imagine the reaction of any French ex-pats watching it across the world! I feel motivated to watch it again this weekend….. Vive La France!]

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Roads.....? Where we're going...... Oh, and this was my 6,000th post!!!!
Flight delayed after passenger becomes suspicious of equation

From The BBC

8 May 2016

An Italian economist says his flight was delayed after a fellow passenger saw him working on a differential equation and alerted the cabin crew. Guido Menzio was taken off and questioned by agents who did not identify themselves, after the woman next to him said she felt ill. He showed them what he had been writing and the flight eventually took off - more than two hours late. Mr Menzio told the Washington Post that the pilot seemed embarrassed. He wrote on Facebook that the experience was "unbelievable" and made him laugh.

The University of Pennsylvania associate professor boarded the Philadelphia-Syracuse flight on Thursday on his way to Ontario, where he was due to give a lecture. Before the flight took off, the woman sitting next to him passed a note to a member of the cabin crew. She initially told them she was feeling unwell but then voiced her suspicions about Mr Menzio's scribblings. He wrote: "It's a bit funny. It's a bit worrisome. The lady just looked at me, looked at my writing of mysterious formulae, and concluded I was up to no good. Because of that an entire flight was delayed." He told Associated Press that the crew should have run additional checks before delaying take-off. He said: "Not seeking additional information after reports of 'suspicious activity' is going to create a lot of problems, especially as xenophobic attitudes may be emerging."

American Airlines, whose regional partner Air Wisconsin was operating the flight in question, said the crew followed protocol to take care of an ill passenger and then to investigate her allegations. It was established that they were not credible. The woman was re-booked on a later flight.

[Ok, once I stopped laughing I became quite annoyed. In a world where writing down mathematical equations is ‘suspicious behaviour’ I couldn’t help but wonder what next? Holding an intelligent, but to the general public, unintelligible conversation? Reading a book that isn’t a bestselling novel – especially if in a foreign language? Just reading a book? Or just reading – anything? Are we really that far gone? Are we really that paranoid that anything ‘out of the ordinary’ or outside of people’s general day to day experience is now ‘suspicious’ and a cause of security alerts? What kind of world are we creating here?]

Thursday, May 12, 2016

So that's what the plug-like thing does...............

Just Finished Reading: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (FP: 2012)

Julia is just about to turn 12. Returning to school after the summer break she is expecting miracles in the year ahead when girls suddenly become women and boys inexplicably become men. But something even stranger is happening – the Earth’s rotation is slowing. First by unnoticed seconds and then by minute piled on minute both the days and nights are getting longer. By the time it becomes easily noticeable the scientific community go public and the government tell everyone to remain calm. So the panic buying starts and half of Julia’s schools student fail to turn up for class. But humans are adaptable creatures and we begin to adapt. Timetables are re-written on a weekly basis to keep pace with the lengthening day until they can no longer keep pace – so ‘clock-time’ is created and the fact of day or night is ignored at least by the majority. The minority – real-timers – plan their day by the sun rising and setting quickly claiming that the lengthening days are lengthening their lives. With days now hours and then tens of hours longer the consequences start piling up – millions of birds drop from the skies dead from unknown causes, people become ill with a range of symptoms presumed to be caused by circadian rhythm irregularities, ocean currents and tides change beaching hundreds of whales on shores across the world – and still the rotation slows a little more each day. Soon nights are cold enough to have snow in Julia’s Californian suburb and days are hot enough to kill all unprotected vegetation. Then, as the slowing continues, the tragedy gets worse as the magnetic core itself falters are the Earth’s magnetic field start to collapse. Is this the end of humanity?

For a first novel this is a highly accomplished piece of work. Everything is told and experienced from the narrators point of view – an 11 year old girl just beginning to make sense of the world, who wonders about the mutability of friendship, the fickleness of adult relationships and the mystery of boys. Meanwhile around her everything she thought she knew is slowly, very slowly being brought into question and almost imperceptibly falling apart. I honestly think this is one of the reading highlights of the year. One of the comments on the back calls it a ‘beautifully wrought novel’ and I definitely can’t disagree. It is simply a delight to read and beautiful is most definitely a word that comes to mind when reading it. Julia is a great, and more importantly, believable character full of her own hopes and fears for the future even before the world started ending. Seeing the events through her eyes and her experiences was a brilliant idea which works really well. We see the world end through ordinary, simple and trusting eyes rather than through the usual heroes, scientists or plucky survivor types. This grounds everything in place and makes the whole thing much more believable and, therefore, all the more emotionally intense. The feelings generated by this book stayed with me for days afterwards and I still find myself thinking about what I, or anyone, would do in this kind of situation. Beautifully haunting and a most definite recommendation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

...and that's Star Wars Week (to celebrate Star Wars Day last week) over and done with until next year. Normal postings - or what passes for 'normal' here - will resume from tomorrow. May the Force be With You!