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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

No one's gonna mess with her!
Just Finished Reading: Revolutions – A Very Short Introduction by Jack A Goldstone (FP: 2014)

Of course with my interest in all things revolutionary this was a must read for me. With so much ground to cover I hoped that it could provide me with some much needed perspective. Interestingly, and before moving on to various categories of revolution, once definitions had largely been put to bed the author concentrated on the process of revolution – their causes, their leaders and their outcomes. It became very clear that although the underlying causes of revolution seem, at first sight, to be essentially straight forward the fact that revolutions are rare events – never mind successful revolutions which are even rarer – illustrates the case that it is the complex interactions between these ‘simple’ elements that enable revolutions to periodically disrupt everything they touch.

The historical examples outlined in the book are categorised to illustrate the authors recurring themes: there are the Constitutional Revolutions in America, France, Europe (1830 and 1848) as well as Meiji Japan. There are the ideologically driven Communist Revolutions in Russia, China and Cuba. There are Revolutions dedicated to the overthrow of tyrants and dictators as in Mexico, Nicaragua and Iran (more of which later), the so-called ‘Colour’ Revolutions in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, the USSR and Ukraine and the recent Arab Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Revolution, as we can see on our television screens, is still very much with us. It is a present phenomenon not an historical phenomena. Revolutions are most certainly not over and we can expect more to erupt in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Where people are oppressed, where economies are failing, where dictators rule, where ideology grows and where foreign interests encourage it the possibility, indeed the likelihood of Revolution – violent or otherwise – exists in its infant form right now. Revolutions come as a surprise, sometimes to the revolutionaries themselves, because no one, either inside or outside the country can see all of its elements in enough detail simultaneously. Only generally in retrospect can we see all of the elements working together to produce the final surprising outcome. That’s one reason why Revolutions are so fascinating.

This was another hit for me from the most impressive VSI Series by Oxford University Press. This is actually the last VSI book I own presently so I’ll be buying more next year. I’ll see if I can push the boat out a bit and challenge myself to explore the waters outside my usual comfort zone. With VSI I doubt if I’ll be disappointed by taking the risk.       

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Monday, November 27, 2017

Being a Mailman on the Mars run was never easy.........

Just Finished Reading: The Mighty Hood by Ernle Bradford (FP: 1959)

The sinking of HMS Hood in May 1941 in the Denmark Straight sent shockwaves throughout the Empire and was a huge blow to British morale. The manner of her death shocked the nation that gave her birth even more so. Hit by merely two salvoes from the German pocket battleship Bismarck she exploded with huge loss of life sinking almost immediately.

Laid down in the closing months of WW1 the Hood missing combat in the Great War and spent the 1920’s touring the Empire flying the flag and representing British naval power to ally and enemy alike. The restrictions of the Washington Treaty meant that no larger ship could be built – on the assumption that no major Power conflict would arise in the next 10 years – and she became the pride of the fleet and the pride of Britain. Everyone seemed to know her from stem to stern and could recognise her silhouette from miles away. But as the drums of war began to beat again her age and her design faults began to be noticed and, slowly, addressed. Firstly, in the age of the torpedo and dive bomber her anti-aircraft guns needed upgrading adding extra weight and slowing down her exceptional turn of speed. Next was the lessons finally learnt from the Battle of Jutland where Admiral Beatty famously stated that there was ‘something wrong with our bloody ships today’. That ‘something’ had been inherited by the Hood. At extreme range shells fired by the enemy tended to plunge towards the desk rather than impact on the heavily armoured sides of the opposing battlewagons. But as war became inevitable the Hood needed to be everywhere at once. There was no chance that she could be taken out of service long enough to have a complete refit. That would have to wait until new ships came on-line to take the strain of combat.

After a brief but eventful time in the Mediterranean the Hood returned to her home port of Scapa Flow as part of the North Sea blockading force. The German navy had several highly effective units ready to break out into the Atlantic convoys and cause untold mayhem. Everything possible needed to be arranged to stop this and alarm bells began to ring as the Bismarck and her escort Prinz Eugen left port and headed North. Designated to guard the Denmark Straight the Hood and HMS Prince of Wales met their prey on the cold and dark morning on 24th May. All too briefly the engagement was over with the Hood sunk and Prince of Wales heavily damaged and making smoke to escape a similar fate. It looked as if all of Hitler’s boasting had been correct – that the Bismarck was unsinkable and the most dangerous ship afloat. But the Royal Navy still had options. Calling in ships from all directions, dangerously stripping convoys of their vital protection they hunted the Bismarck with a revengeful intensity. Lost, found, lost and finally found again the pride of the German navy met her fate as she limped into the protective arms of the promised U-boat screen advancing on her position from their new bases on the French coast. Battered to a blazing pulp the Bismarck went to the bottom of the sea with its battle ensigns still flying. The pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck was one of the most dramatic endeavours ever undertaken by the Royal Navy. The loss of the mighty Hood added a dose of tragic poignancy to the affair which, if possible, made the event that much more memorable. The events of those few days have been woven into the mythic history of WW2 and the Hood will long be remembered. 
I actually remember building a model of HMS Hood in my teens and honestly loved that ship. I’m not sure if that was before or after watching the 1960 movie ‘Sink The Bismarck’ which still brings a lump to my throat every time I watch it. Hood was one of a kind and the last of her kind. I learnt a great deal about her history that I was unaware of from this interesting little book and I think I love her all the more because of it. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Royal Navy history. Much more on the battle with the Bismarck and other Royal Navy encounters to come.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Women have 1.9 children on average, a record low

By Katie Silver, Health reporter, BBC News

24 November 2017

Women in England and Wales are having 1.9 children on average, fewer than their mothers who had 2.2 offspring, according to the Office for National Statistics. That's a small decrease but the lowest level on record and continues the downward trend of the past few years. The decline is in part due to a growing number of women not having children, with one-fifth now childless. There has also been a fall in the number of teenage pregnancies. About 6% of women have a baby before their 20th birthday, again continuing a long-term downward trend. But "it's not just childlessness," said Emily Knipe of the Office for National Statistics. More and more women are having fewer babies. The data showed about one in 10 mothers today having four or more children, compared with one in eight of their mothers' generation.

Women are also having babies later. By their 30th birthdays, women today are likely to have had one child. Their mothers were likely to have had 1.8. The ONS suggested this is because more women are going into higher education and are also delaying finding a partner. Ms Knipe said: "It's not just a biological factor of people leaving it too late. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests people are choosing not to have children." The data showed that the number of women having children in their teenage years, after peaking in the mid-20th Century, now matches figures for women born in the 1920s. Imogen Stephens of Marie Stopes UK said it "shows that young people are taking better control of their fertility. It is a big financial commitment to start a family and it is completely understandable that more women are choosing to complete their education, develop their careers and get on the housing ladder before having children. What is vital is that we support women's choices to have children at the age that is right for them."

[My Mum was one of six and I was one of three so, in a nutshell, you can see the trend right there. My sister with six kids kind of blows that trend out of the water but she’s unusual in that respect (and in so many other ways!) that we can’t really draw any conclusions from her. Most of the women I know who have kids only have two. But I know quite a few women who have stuck at one or have even, for a whole host of reasons, chosen to remain childless. With already far too many mouths to feed on this resource strapped planet I certainly applaud the idea of reducing the birth-rate, and it looks like it’s moving in the right direction at least here and, I suspect, all across so-called first world countries. Long may it continue.]

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Cosy..... But how do you get *out* of it!
Just Finished Reading: International Security – A Very Short Introduction by Christopher S Browning (FP: 2013)

With quite a lot of ground to cover (as you might imagine) in 117 pages this was a very short but compact introduction to a complex and important subject. International Security has never been more central to the daily business of so many government across the globe and of never more vital interest to every one of us – to the comparatively trivial aspect of helping determining where we go on holiday to understanding who our allies are, who our enemies are and why we go to war.

Many consider Security to be the primary value in a troubled world. Without an adequate level of security on the world stage other values become much more difficult to obtain or maintain. But what kind of security are we talking about? Traditionalists see it from the point of view of the (Nation) State – seeing things that affect the security of the State and security issues between States. Meanwhile Critical Theorists see security from the point of view of the individual or group where issues of food security, security of life, property and ways of life are important. Inevitably these viewpoints clash where the secure state rests on the insecurities of minorities within its borders, for example. National security also presents a paradoxical dilemma. In order to be secure a State may build up its military resources in order to defend itself against all potential attackers. It may indeed loudly state that it’s growing military might is purely for defensive purposes only. Meanwhile near-by States become more and more concerned about the growing disparities in the military spending and power so increase their defence budgets. Concerned that this might lead to future attacks the growing power increases its military budget still higher. No longer able to compete with the now global military power the smaller States make mutually binding defence pacts in an act of collective self-defence. Seeing this as an unacceptable threat the global superpower attacks the smaller States before they can overwhelm it and start a world war that results in its destruction along with those of its enemies. Increased strength and security lead to disaster and the ultimate insecurity. The question is: How Secure is Secure enough? Does the existence of Nuclear Weapons inevitably lead to more countries acquiring them in a pursuit of a balance of power (or balance of terror). Can any self-respecting country turn its back on nuclear power if their enemies or potential enemies refuse to do so? Are Nuclear States more secure than non-nuclear ones?

In a post-Cold War world can the UN finally begin to operate as it was expected to do so after WW2? Without the Soviets and Americans vetoing each other’s agendas can the UN increase global security? Not having its own military forces (or indeed its own independent budget) this seems unlikely but need this be the case? In a multipolar world what will Security look like? How much of the International Security the world is in need of be provided by Private Contractors who can, and will, tread where the UN or States fear to go? How will Ethnic Conflict continue to destabilise regions especially if Global Warming continues to impact on scarce resources as expected? Will future wars be exclusively resource wars?

Full of interesting insights this is a book that even a casual reader can probably polish off in a weekend or so. Equally divided to security theory and hard examples of both successes and failures this will give any reader much food for thought and a much greater appreciation of the international situation. What is maybe more important, and is to be expected from this series of books, is the decent bibliography in the back. This is, after all, and introduction and such things, especially this well written, need to be followed up. Recommended. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Force is STRONG in this one.......

Just Finished Reading: Homo Britannicus – The incredible Story of Human Life in Britain by Chris Stringer (FP: 2006)

It seems that we Brits have been occupying the old homestead for quite a while. Humans were here over 600,000 years ago hunting, fishing and leaving artefacts scattered around just like today. But, naturally, things are much more complicated than that! For one thing the humans were not ‘us’, not Homo Sapiens. The earliest people to populate, at least temporarily, the British Isles were an off-shoot of humanity the Neanderthals. Now extinct they crossed from Europe across a land bridge – yes, the British Isles for a great deal of its history wasn’t actually an island – and settled in the sheltered areas of the southern and eastern coastal areas as various Ice Ages retreated north leaving comparatively lush landscapes and fertile hunting grounds behind it. But when the ice expanded again they left (or died) mostly to return when the ice moved north again hundreds or thousands of years later. However, rather bizarrely, it seems that for a considerable period Britain was essentially empty of human life. For thousands of years there is no evidence at all, at least none so far discovered, for human occupation. It’s quite a mystery where all the people went.

The idea of a land bridge is fascinating though – especially as we’ve 'always' been separated from the Continent for all of recorded history and beyond. The idea that we were physically connected to Europe by a not insubstantial ‘bridge’ is quite bizarre. Just imagine how different things would have been if the land bridge still existed. How so very different our history would be and how often we would have been invaded! But for that obviously cataclysmic event after the last Ice Age that destroyed the bridge forever the whole flow of European events would have taken a very different course. Geology determines History – discuss!

When Sapiens left Africa we took our time moving north and were comparative latecomers to Britain. Neanderthals were far better adapted to the cold it seems although Sapiens had a few tricks up their animal hide sleeves. From what little evidence exists it appears that Sapiens had a much better developed culture, far reaching trading partners and bigger tribal structures. It seems that, by and large, as the climate improved (for us) it pushed the Neanderthals to the edges and, finally, off them to oblivion. Whether we killed them or out competed them we may never know. But we are the only human species to make it this far.

It’s interesting to see that Britain was populated by elephants (and not just mammoths), hippo, hyena and more species associated with the African plain. It brings to mind how so many things we accept as the natural way of things are temporary and contingent. To envisage humans in that kind of environment hunting or scavenging in groups with stone axes and flint tipped spears whilst simultaneously being in what would be Kent makes you almost do a double take. But it’s true and we have the hard physical evidence to show it is. That the amazing thing revealed time and again throughout this slim volume. That accidental discoveries from the Industrial Revolution to this day have brought to light (often literally) evidence for human occupation in Britain and Europe going back over 1.5 million years. That’s amazing and when I read about human habitation in areas of Central Europe that far back I honestly took a sharp intake of breath. We’ve (in the genus Homo sense) been around in Europe for a VERY long time. As soon as the ice left we arrived, were forced out and came back again and again just to prove, if proof where needed, just how resilient we are. I didn’t really think that my delving into British and European history would be going quite this far back. I guess that I was (happily) wrong on that score. More digging to come no doubt.     

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Germany bans children's smartwatches

By Jane Wakefield, BBC Technology reporter

17 November 2017

A German regulator has banned the sale of smartwatches aimed at children, describing them as spying devices. It had previously banned an internet-connected doll called, My Friend Cayla, for similar reasons. Telecoms regulator the Federal Network Agency urged parents who had such watches to destroy them. One expert said the decision could be a "game-changer" for internet-connected devices. "Poorly secured smart devices often allow for privacy invasion. That is really concerning when it comes to kids' GPS tracking watches - the very watches that are supposed to help keep them safe," said Ken Munro, a security expert at Pen Test Partners. "There is a shocking lack of regulation of the 'internet of things', which allows lax manufacturers to sell us dangerously insecure smart products. Using privacy regulation to ban such devices is a game-changer, stopping these manufacturers playing fast and loose with our kids' security," he added. In a statement, the agency said it had already taken action against several firms offering such watches on the internet. "Via an app, parents can use such children's watches to listen unnoticed to the child's environment and they are to be regarded as an unauthorised transmitting system," said Jochen Homann, president of the Federal Network Agency. "According to our research, parents' watches are also used to listen to teachers in the classroom." The agency also asked schools to "pay more attention" to such watches among students.

Such watches - which are sold by a large number of providers in Germany - are generally aimed at children between the ages of five and 12. Most are equipped with a Sim card and a limited telephony function and are set up and controlled via an app. In October, the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) reported that 'some children's watches - including Gator and GPS for kids - had flaws such as transmitting and storing data without encryption. It meant that strangers, using basic hacking techniques, could track children as they moved or make a child appear to be in a completely different location. It is not clear whether the German decision to ban such devices was based on the privacy issues associated with them or wider security flaws that have been uncovered by NCC and others. Both firms said that they had resolved the security issues. Finn Myrstad, head of digital policy at the NCC said: "This ban sends a strong signal to makers of products aimed at children that they need to be safer." He called for Europe-wide measures to increase the security of such devices.

[WOW! What an amazing shot across the bow for all technology companies making this trash. As if we’re not spied on enough these days a tech company (or actually a host of companies) build devices to track kids – for their own safety of course – and actually makes them less secure through their own security incompetence. Did they have no thought at all that if a legitimate person can track someone then it can be spoofed by someone you really don’t want tracking your kids? And don’t get me started on the whole idea of tracking people! The very idea, the very concept, the very thought makes my skin crawl. I hope (and expect) that there are people out there busily beavering away at technology that defeats this kind of bullshit. Sign me up for those puppies right now!]

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas (FP: 2004)

P.I John Blake could hardly believe his eyes. Miranda Sugarman, his High School girlfriend was in the paper – looking just as she had 10 years previously when he’s seen her last. That’s because they had used her High School Year Book shot. Well, they could hardly have used her most recent pictures shot by the police before they took her body away. Especially when she had been shot twice in the head at point blank range. If that wasn’t mystery enough for John to wrap his head around there was the fact that her body had been recovered from the roof of a strip joint – a particularly seedy strip joint – where Miranda had worked and she wasn’t behind the bar. What had happened in the intervening 10 years? When Miranda left New York she was going to College to become a doctor. What had happened to change her direction so drastically and who was responsible for her particularly bloody and apparently senseless death. John was determined to find out no matter what it cost. His Boss warned him against such a personal case, the strip club owner warned him not to interfere, the police warned him not to take the law into his own hands and, just before he lost consciousness the club bouncer warned him that, next time, he’d kill him. But John has something to prove and he’s young enough, still green enough and romantic enough to think he can do just that.

I’ve read about a dozen of the Hard Case crime novels so far – pretty evenly split between classic 40’s and 50’s tales and more up to date versions of noir themes. Almost without fail the older books have been consistently entertaining and the more modern books consistently poor. This book definitely breaks that mould. Bang up to date but with a lovely noir feel to it, a simple but rather convoluted plot, flawed, shady but complex characters (even the main gangster has understandable motivations that can be appreciated if not approved of) and enough red herrings to start a fish shop. More than once I thought I had worked things out only to find that I had been misdirected and was off down the wrong street full of confidence. Not only was the dialogue often fizzing away even in casual conversation but the asides and ‘off camera’ comments were equally noir-ish. This was my particular favourite: They’d gotten there quickly, but there’s no such thing as quickly enough when you’ve been shot in the head with hollow point bullets….. and that was on page 25 with another 200 pages to go. Needless to say that I enjoyed this immensely. Luckily I have the sequel with I’ll be reading in the next few weeks. Unfortunately Mr Aleas has only two books to his name. Shame that. Real shame. Recommended for all hard-nosed crime fans.     

Monday, November 13, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The English Rebel – One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties by David Horspool (FP: 2009)

We Brits are a belligerent bunch. Not only will we pick a fight with just about anyone but we never know when we’re beaten (or invaded) and never take a slight or insult lying down. We’ll fight each other and we’ll fight anyone who has the temerity to tell us what to do - at least that’s what it feels like reading through this fascinating history of rebellion. Starting with the 20+ year resistance to the Norman Invasion (they probably regretted invading us not long after they arrived), the all too regular power grabs from the friends and family of the rulers, the Baron’s rebellion that led to the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the Wars of the Roses (incorporating the uprisings led by Jack Cade and Perkin Warbeck), the arrival of Mary Tudor and the death of the Earl of Essex who plotted with Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Catesby and the Gunpowder Plot, the Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Mutiny’s and Strikes throughout the 18th Century, The Chartists, The Suffragettes, the General Strike of 1926, the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and ending with the Poll Tax Riots in 1990. All in all quite a breathless ride!

I was impressed that I’d at least heard of most of the incidents discussed in these 400 pages although one or two events were new to me. I did enjoy learning more about (and the links between) popular protests from the 18th century on. Most of the earlier stuff – pre-modern – normally concerned grabs for power within the existing power elite. Although an important part of our history it actually interested me less than the more popular or class based revolts and rebellions of peasants and the working class. From the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution a more political revolution was never really far below the surface. People like the Luddites and the Chartists showed that the workers could never be taken for granted or ever completely subdued. Especially after the horrors of the French Revolution the upper class of Britain never slept in their beds in total ease. Taken more for granted these days there is still that vague fear that the ‘lower orders’ might turn on their ‘betters’ if pushed far enough. The periodic riots in some major cities are proof of that. The English Rebel is far from dead!

As an overview (it could be little more with 400 pages covering almost 1000 years) this is a solid introduction to political unrest in England – Scotland, Ireland and Wales need their own similar book to cover their individual rebellious history. I shall be examining some of the more modern rebellions in more detail later (indeed I’m reading about the 1926 General Strike presently) so there’s much more rebellion to come. This certainly helped to focus future reading and future investigation and helped me define any likely post-retirement PhD project a little more. Recommended for anyone interested in rebels or rebellions.     

Sunday, November 12, 2017

...and I forgot.... AGAIN. My Blog was 12 Years old around four weeks ago on 16th October! Who would have thought I'd last this long? Not me..... [grin]

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Do we need to teach children joined-up handwriting?

By David Molloy for BBC News

11 November 2017

The US state of Illinois has passed a law requiring school students to learn joined-up handwriting, or "cursive", overriding the governor's veto. It is no longer a requirement in US schools, and some countries have dropped the skill from the curriculum or made it optional. Why, then, do some - like the UK - still insist on it in a digital age? Shouldn't children learn to type effectively instead?

While victorious Illinois senators claimed the skill was essential, the reality is that many adults no longer write much by hand. A 2012 survey of 2,000 adults by UK mailing firm Docmail found that on average, it had been 41 days since respondents wrote - and that two-thirds of us only write short notes like shopping lists. The clear, blocky "print" style that children are first taught is enough for that purpose. And for an increasing number of young children, that's where their training ends. US states such as Indiana have dropped joined-up writing entirely; Finland phased out handwriting lessons; and Indian schools are reportedly abandoning it. The usual argument is that the time investment could be used to teach modern skills such as typing or coding instead. But is there a benefit to hours spent painstakingly copying the joined alphabet?

Teaching children to write by hand seems to have some advantages that typing on a keyboard does not. A 2005 paper by researchers at Aix-Marseille University compared typing and writing in children aged three to five to see if there was a difference later in recognising the letters. Their evidence suggested that writing by hand helped the older ones recall the letters better. A study in 2012 went further, putting five-year-old children who had yet to learn to read and write through similar tests - writing, typing, or tracing letters. Then, they were shown images of the same letters and shapes while an MRI machine scanned their brains. In the children who wrote - but not in those who typed - an area of the brain used in reading activated. Researchers concluded that it's possible - but not proven - that the physical act of writing might help children learn to read. "The motor control is important," said Dr Karin James, one of the authors. "Doing things is important in setting up brain systems that are important for cognitive development." Later research from Dr James also suggests that learning joined letters by watching someone else write them - rather than doing it for yourself - does not provide the same benefit.

One argument for the importance joined-up writing is that it's usually faster and more fluid for note-taking than printing letters. But a skilled typist can copy words down even faster - so after early childhood, is there any benefit? The evidence so far suggests that writing by hand retains its benefits for memorisation long beyond early childhood development. A 2014 study from UCLA, titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, found exactly that. It studied laptop use among university students, and said it could be "impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing". It tested students by asking them to take notes from a lecture, using either a laptop or a pen and paper, and then tested their recall on both facts and deeper conceptual questions. Essentially, the study found that students taking long-form notes on pen and paper tended to process the information on a deeper level. "When somebody's telling you something and you're writing it down by hand ... you paraphrase it... you somehow have ownership of it and put it in your own words," Dr James said of the study. Typed notes, though faster, tended to be closer to lecture transcripts than personal notes.

There are also cultural issues. Proponents of cursive argue that hundreds of years of manuscripts could not be read by a generation who never learned it. We also tend to view "a fine hand" favourably for its elegance, and careful calligraphy remains popular on elaborate documents and wedding invitations. In the same way, bad handwriting leads to poorer test scores, according to a study by the Carnegie Foundation. The same thoughts and ideas expressed "in a less legible version of a paper" tended to be scored more harshly. Meanwhile for students with dyslexia, typing can help significantly increase exam grades, according to the British Dyslexia Association. And those with physical impairments have long used technology to record their thoughts. For now, there isn't an international consensus. And with many hours of classroom time spent on traditional cursive writing, the benefits, some argue, may not be worth it.

[I think it would be a real shame if we stopped teaching children to write well. Sure, typing is a useful skill of which I’m rather jealous of those who can, but good cursive script is a thing of beauty. Personally my handwriting isn’t brilliant if I’m just taking brief notes or I’m in a hurry. Given a bit of time and a modicum of effort though and I think my handwriting isn’t all that bad. What a skill to lose though. Imagine a future, not that far away, when reading other people’s handwriting (presumably long dead people) becomes increasingly difficult or impossible because no one writes any more. Imagine the information lost to time…..]

...and I'm Back!!!

Thursday, November 02, 2017

...and a *diet* coke.

Just Finished Reading: Timekeepers – How the World Became Obsessed with Time by Simon Garfield (FP: 2016)

I pretty much knew that I’d enjoy this rather wide-ranging and eclectic book when I read this in the blurb on the back: Time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana. With an author with a sense of humour that much out of whack I just knew that I’d be chuckling over this book for days and I was – and, even more importantly, I learnt stuff too.

Some of which, being the reader I am, I knew or had heard about elsewhere. Like the fact that, before the rise of the railways (or more important railway timetables) that most places operated on local time rather than any agreed time zone. So it could by 10:15 in London and 10:21 in Bristol at the same time in relation to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). With the proliferation of time tables and the inherent danger of two trains operating on different times meeting each other local time just had to stop (although it didn’t go down without a fight – but then neither did the switchover from the Julian to Gregorian calendar). Ever wondered why a single was around 3 minutes and a Cd started out at around 76 minutes? Ever wonder why a music album is called that? You’ll find out here (hint: it’s a mixture of technology and the love of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony). Why is Switzerland the home of time? What makes that place so special in the hearts of horologists that they’d spend thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on a watch actually less accurate than a $50 quartz watch powered by battery? Why did it take so long to break the 4 minute mile and once broke why was it broken time and time again shortly after? How did Roger Bannister cope with having to relive those 4 minutes over and over again for the rest of his life (despite being an accomplished and published medical practitioner). Being in the right place at the right time can change your life – and get you a Pulitzer Prize for photography. Having film in the camera ready to go and seeing something unfold in front of you helps too as several photographers found out in Vietnam. But being in the right place is nothing compared to having what you need, where you need it, just when you need it. After all time is money especially when time is in motion – like on a production line. Sure doing to same thing over and over again, timed down to the second, kills your soul but just think of how many widgets will roll off the line every hour of every day. Not forgetting just how much time you can save if you just had the right time management programme. There’s certainly enough experts out there with their own world beating system to shave off those seconds and allow you to cram in even more to our ever accelerating lives (oh, how I hate this idea!) but what if we could turn the world on its head and actually slow things down, with slow food, slow towns, slow lanes and (hopefully) sloe gin.

I could go on but who has the time? This book was, as I rightly suspected, a delight from beginning to end (OK, there was a bit over half way that I struggled with for a time about the passion of owning wristwatches but I did find myself wondering if I should go for an upgrade to something a little smarter – rather than my usual supermarket throwaway versions) full of interesting stories and strange people obsessed with their own piece of time (how about a 10 hour day each of 100 minutes, 10 days in a week and 10 months in a year). If nothing else this book clearly demonstrates, time and again, that we humans have a very strange relationship with time which goes far beyond the rational or, frankly, sane thinking that you’d hope to find with something as predictable and as regular as the ticking of a clock. Recommended if you’ve ever wondered about time and where it goes when you’re not looking – in this case between the pages of a book well worth the time to read it.