About Me

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Shooting in the Dark – Riot Police in Britain by Gerry Northam (1988)

For most of the history of the British police force individual ‘bobbies’ have been armed with no more than a wooden truncheon, their authority and their own wits. Mostly this was enough. The public respected the police and saw them, by and large, as someone there to protect them. Even criminals saw them, mostly, as someone to respect. Of course there have long been armed criminals but few resorted to fatal violence against the police and those who did where both vilified and treated with heavy sentences. Then came the 1960’s and an era of large scale protest. The police coped, mostly, and relied heavily on large numbers of (again) unarmed police to restrict any public disturbance to a minimum. But it couldn’t last.

With increasing terrorist activity from the IRA and other groups throughout Europe as well as political upheaval and increasing political violence at home the police authorities themselves began to wonder and worry that their membership was at increased risk of injury or even death. Added to this was the concern that the increasing number of women officers could be in enhanced risk of serious attack. Respect for the ‘thin blue line’ was, it seemed eroding year by year. At first the changes were unobtrusive. The design of the traditional helmets was changed to make them tougher giving enhanced protection against thrown missiles. Likewise the material used in the uniform was upgraded to provide better fire protection from the increasing use of petrol bombs during rioting. But such subtle changes were nowhere near enough. During a series of urban rioting in the early 1980’s television audiences saw unarmed and clearly under equipped police driven (however briefly) from the streets under a hail of rocks and other objects that they fended off with bin-lids. It was a pitiful sight that deeply disturbed the establishment and, to be honest, a good portion of the public. Something had to be done and done it was – although largely behind closed doors and without much in the way of oversight.

Of course the British police had much experience to draw on from, for example, the French CRS anti-riot squads and the RUC in Northern Ireland. The idea of a dedicated riot police force was rejected as both too extreme and too expensive. Likewise the more military response in Belfast and other areas was considered too controversial and too confrontational. So the police looked elsewhere – Hong Kong. The Colonial Police in that exotic urban environment had a great deal of experience in riot control and could offer comprehensive advice on details such as armoured Land Rovers, the use of ‘snatch squads’ and CS gas not to mention ‘baton rounds’ and plastic bullets. Such advice was eagerly sought and incorporated into the classified Public Order Manual then distributed to Chief Constables around the UK. An intensive training programme followed with thousands of officers and senior officers training in simulated environments against real people (other police officers) using real rocks and real petrol bombs. The next time a riot and public disturbance happened the police were ready and it showed.

Which, as the author maintains, was part of the problem. The police had indeed become semi-professional riot police and had, seemingly, moved from a force operating by consent to one operating by force of arms – and all without a hint of public debate. It was this fundamental change in role and the secrecy surrounding it that the author aimed to expose to the world. Interviewing many of the people involved in the programme, including some of its critics on the inside, this is a detailed (and sometimes over-detailed) analysis of how we got here (in 1988!) and the way it seemed to be going with the increasingly apparent para-militarisation of the police and the slow drift into an occupation force dedicated to the suppression of revolt and dissent.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Looking back from 2018 we can see that most of his fears were unfounded. The police might be much better today at managing public disorder and coping with urban riots - to say nothing of responding to terrorist incidents - but they have not morphed into the paramilitary occupation force the author feared. Still most of the police are unarmed most of the time. The number of armed officers has certainly increased as has their level of individual protection with light body armour fitted as standard issue but this has been a slow, gradual process and may actually be trailing public opinion on the subject. Seeing armed police today – including those at airports or outside public buildings with automatic weapons (usually the H&K MP5 or MP7) no longer causes comment or even a second glance. I clearly remember in the early 1990’s when the government brought in the idea of a ‘ring of steel’ in central London where I worked which included roving road blocks. Walking along, minding my own business one lunchtime, several unmarked transit vans stopped in the road and seemingly dozens (so probably around 10-14) police armed with machine-pistols emerged, took up positions on either side of the street and started pulling cars over. It was astonishing to see and people stopped and stared as it went on. By the third time I’d seen this in action people around me didn’t even slow down or comment on what was happening mere feet away. We’d already adapted to the new reality. Likewise seeing an armed police officer in my local supermarket who had popped in to pick up a few supplies before going back on motorway patrol. Odd, but barely worth talking about.

So, despite the fact that the author’s polemic stand now seems rather quaint, this slice of political history is still very much worth reading as an insight into the mind-set of both the police at that time and the dissenters who, wrongly in my opinion, saw what they thought would inevitably give rise to paramilitarism. I don’t believe that the police themselves want it (as evidenced in a recent survey inside the police about the regular carrying of guns) and I don’t think that the public would stand for it without a very good reason – after appropriate public consultation. An interesting read but probably only for those actively interesting in the history of riot police.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Modern humans left Africa much earlier

By Pallab Ghosh for BBC News

25 January 2018

Researchers have identified the remains of the earliest known modern humans to have left Africa. New dating of fossils from Israel indicates that our species (Homo sapiens) lived outside Africa around 185,000 years ago, some 80,000 years earlier than the previous evidence. Details appear in the journal Science. The co-lead researcher, Prof Israel Hershkovitz, told BBC News that the discovery would fundamentally alter ideas of recent human evolution. "We have to rewrite the whole story of human evolution, not just for our own species but all the other species that lived outside of Africa at the time," the researcher, from Tel Aviv University, explained. Prof Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, said: "The find breaks the long-established 130,000-year-old limit on modern humans outside of Africa.

"The new dating hints that there could be even older Homo sapiens finds to come from the region of western Asia." The new scientific dating evidence raises the possibility that modern humans interacted with other, now extinct, species of humans for tens of thousands of years. It also fits in with recent discoveries of remains and genetic studies that also indicate an earlier departure from Africa. The researchers analysed a fragment of a jawbone with eight teeth, found in Misliya cave in 2002. The jawbone looked as if it was from a modern human rather than from one of the other species of human that existed at the time. It is only now that an international research team has conclusively shown that the archaeologists' initial gut feelings were spot on. The researchers confirmed that the jawbone belonged to a modern human by carrying out computed tomography (CT) scans of it, building up a 3D virtual model and comparing it with archaic human fossils from Africa, Europe and Asia - as well as modern human remains. Separate scans also enabled the researchers to probe the tissue beneath the tooth crowns, which was found to be uniquely associated with modern humans. Three separate dating methods, conducted in three separate laboratories unaware of the others' results concluded that the fossilised remains were between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. Before that, the oldest evidence of humans outside Africa came from the Skhul and Qafzeh archaeological sites in Israel, and were dated to between 90,000 and 125,000 years ago.

The Misliya remains were found in a layer containing stone tools that belong to the Levallois type, which was used in the region between 250,000 and 140,000 years ago. If Levallois tools are associated with the spread of modern humans into the area, it suggests that our species may have journeyed beyond Africa even earlier than the dates for the Misliya material. Until recently, early evidence for excursions outside Africa by Homo sapiens was limited to the Levant. But in the last few years, discoveries of modern human fossils from Daoxian and Zhirendong in China dated to between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago suggest early waves of migration pushed further into Eurasia than previously supposed. In addition, genetic studies have turned up signs of early interbreeding between African humans and our evolutionary relatives the Neanderthals. Last year, researchers published evidence from German Neanderthal remains of mixing that occurred between 219,000 and 460,000 years ago. And in 2016, a team found signs that pioneer groups from Africa interbred with Neanderthals in the Altai region of Siberia about 100,000 years ago. "We had so many new pieces of evidence and we didn't know where they fitted," said Prof Hershkovitz. "Now with the new discovery, all the pieces fall into place - an exodus possibly as early as 250,000 years ago, which is the date of the tools found in the Misliya Cave."

However, the early excursions into Eurasia by African Homo sapiens represented at Misliya are generally thought to have ended in extinction. Findings from genetics and archaeology suggest that present-day people living outside Africa trace their ancestry to an exodus just 60,000 years ago. Most DNA studies have failed to find evidence of these older migrations in our genes. Other discoveries have shed light on when humans in Africa evolved to become anatomically modern. Last year, a team announced that fossils thought to be early versions of Homo sapiens in Morocco had been dated to about 315,000 years ago. This is much earlier than the generally accepted 200,000-year date for the origin of our species, which is based on genetic studies and fossil finds such as the 195,000-year-old Omo remains from Ethiopia. And it's possible that future discoveries might push the date back even further.

[I do find it rather interesting how the originals of humans and the date of our leaving Africa keep moving back in time. Of course human fossils are very rare beasts so it’s not too surprising that any new finds will have a significant impact on the history of our species. It does appear that we’ve been around for a LONG time. If we originated in Kenya and arrived in Morocco 315,000 years ago then obviously the species is older by X years than 315K. How much older? I don’t know but I guess we will know eventually. I’m looking forward to new evidence in the years to come pushing it back even further and other surprising revelations. It’s one of the many things I love about science – the horizon is always moving ahead of us in all directions. Exciting isn’t it!]

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The City by Max Weber (FP: 1921/1924)

According to the 1958 preface of this short work American sociology, at least in regard to the cultural aspects of the city, was in disarray. The problem was twofold – US cities hadn’t really been around long enough to have accumulated enough studies of a high enough quality to work with and the much more extensive European literature on the subject was considered to be irrelevant because of the supposed cultural differences between the Old world and the New. The translation and publication of Weber’s book was designed to address both issues – both by supplying the depth of historical research much needed in American circles to give the necessary perspective and by showing, with examples from the Ancient world, Medieval Europe, India and China that despite often profound cultural differences the structure and development of cities had enough similarities and common themes that Weber’s theories could be applied to the American city just as easily.

Whilst the preface itself was interesting enough, giving as it did an insight into 1950’s American thinking on the subject, the body of the work was the meat of the argument. Despite its wide range, both geographically and temporal, I found the discussion on the political wrangling and frank experimentation of the Italian city states in the years before unification and the mercantile empire of the German Hansiatic League most interesting. What I found much more of a struggle was the style of writing (both rather dry and academic) and the seemingly endless repetition. This became much more explicable after I had searched for the original German publication date not mentioned inside my 1960 hardback English edition of the earlier 1958 American one. Everything fell into place once I discovered that this book was published posthumously in 1921 (and again in 1924 as part of a larger work) from notes the author had produced some 8-10 years previously. I had a definite ‘that explains things’ moment when I discovered this as I’d thought that parts of the book had a real feel of notes rather than fully formed thoughts. It is indeed quite possible that, like Aristotle’s most famous works, what finally ended up in book form was never actually intended for publication. I expect that, if Weber had lived long enough to publish this work in his lifetime then it would have been much more polished. Unfortunately, despite no doubt the dedicated attention of the publishing house, this had a distinct unfinished feel to it which probably distracted from the quality of the book. Interesting and informative at times I felt that this is definitely one for the hard-core urbanophiles only.

Translated from the German by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth.   

Monday, January 22, 2018

Places of Interest

Keen eyed readers of this Blog will have already noticed that I tend to focus on particular themes, people, time periods and places in my reading. What you, obviously, won’t be aware of is the types of books I own but have yet to read/review as well as the books I continually add to my ever growing Amazon Wish List. Even I have been not exactly surprised by but intrigued by where my attentions mostly are especially when it comes to places of interest.

As I’ve already stated on several occasions I have limited my historical reading to British and European examples. Despite the fact that my interests extend beyond the borders of Europe I can’t dedicate myself to the history of an entire planet whist doing (or reading) anything else. I just wouldn’t have the time. As my ancestry is from Ireland I have a focus on that troubled land too. So starting with those two reasonably obvious examples where else does my interest reside?

UK and Ireland
North Africa
The Middle East

That probably covers over half the world and is more than enough to be getting on with I feel. I have minimal interest in most of Africa except that bordering the Mediterranean with the possible exception of South Africa at the time of the Boer War. I do have an interest in South-East Asia, and in particular Vietnam, but I’m going to restrict myself typically to the French occupation/empire in Indo-China before the US became involved. As to America itself, despite its relatively short history, I imagine that I could spend years trying to understand that continental player on the world stage but, yet again, really don’t have the time to focus any great energies on it. No doubt American history will be touched upon – as in my reading of Civil War blockade runners – just not exclusively. All of the above will, generally, apply to my reading of history. My fiction reading will continue to range across the globe and, hopefully, to other worlds too. My non-history reading, likewise, will be global in nature. With my underlying attempt to understand just how we got here I can’t very well edit out half the globe without seriously throwing any subsequent judgements into doubt. I think it’s going to be an interesting journey. I’m particularly ‘pumped’ about my future Middle East reading but that passion will probably fade over time and my focus will be somewhere else. Such is the bane of having a butterfly mind….. [lol]

Saturday, January 20, 2018

'Adolescence now lasts from 10 to 24'

By Katie Silver for BBC News

19 January 2018

Adolescence now lasts from the ages of 10 to 24, although it used to be thought to end at 19, scientists say. Young people continuing their education for longer, as well as delayed marriage and parenthood, has pushed back popular perceptions of when adulthood begins. Changing the definition is vital to ensure laws stay appropriate, they write in an opinion piece in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal. But another expert warns doing so risks "further infantilising young people".

Puberty is considered to start when the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus starts releasing a hormone that activates the body's pituitary and gonadal glands. This used to happen around the age of 14 but has dropped with improved health and nutrition in much of the developed world to around the age of 10. As a consequence, in industrialised countries such as the UK the average age for a girl's first menstruation has dropped by four years in the past 150 years. Half of all females now have their period by 12 or 13 years of age.

There are also biological arguments for why the definition of adolescence should be extended, including that the body continues to develop. For example, the brain continues to mature beyond the age of 20, working faster and more efficiently. And many people's wisdom teeth don't come through until the age of 25.

Young people are also getting married and having children later. According to the Office of National Statistics, the average age for a man to enter their first marriage in 2013 was 32.5 years and 30.6 years for women across England and Wales. This represented an increase of almost eight years since 1973. Lead author Prof Susan Sawyer, director of the centre for adolescent health at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, writes: "Although many adult legal privileges start at age 18 years, the adoption of adult roles and responsibilities generally occurs later." She says delayed partnering, parenting and economic independence means the "semi-dependency" that characterises adolescence has expanded.

This social change, she says, needs to inform policy, such as by extending youth support services until the age of 25. "Age definitions are always arbitrary", she writes, but "our current definition of adolescence is overly restricted. The ages of 10-24 years are a better fit with the development of adolescents nowadays." Prof Russell Viner, president-elect of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health, said: "In the UK, the average age for leaving home is now around 25 years for both men and women." He supports extending the definition to cover adolescence up until the age of 24 and says a number of UK services already take this into account. He said: "Statutory provision in England in terms of social care for care leavers and children with special educational needs now goes up to 24 years," as does provision of services for people with cystic fibrosis.

But Dr Jan Macvarish, a parenting sociologist at the University of Kent, says there is a danger in extending our concept of adolescence. "Older children and young people are shaped far more significantly by society's expectations of them than by their intrinsic biological growth," she said. "There is nothing inevitably infantilising about spending your early 20s in higher education or experimenting in the world of work." And we should not risk "pathologising their desire for independence. Society should maintain the highest possible expectations of the next generation," Dr Macvarish said. Prof Viner disagrees with Dr Macvarish's criticism and says broadening adolescence can be seen as "empowering young people by recognising their differences. As long as we do this from a position of recognising young people's strengths and the potential of their development, rather than being focused on the problems of the adolescent period."

[Well, that explains a LOT. I think that people are definitely maturing emotionally later than in previous decades. Even back in the 1960’s what we would regard as teenagers were out in the world holding down poorly paid jobs while either still living at home of living in a bedsit or some such. I can understand why the leaving home age is so high at 25 (although I was 23 when I left). The young, either saddled with student loans or simply low paid, can’t afford to buy a house and can barely afford to rent anywhere – especially in the big cities. The average age for the first marriage did surprise me though - 32.5 years for men and 30.6 years for women. That’s high I thought! But then again I suppose that it’s also financial without leaving it too late if children are part of the equation. Interesting….] 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Fright by Cornell Woolrich (FP: 1950)

Prescott Marshall has a plan. It’s a good plan. It’s a simple plan where nothing can go wrong. He’s young, a man about town, he’s popular a fun to be with and he has a girlfriend with family connections. After they get married he’ll be a member of that family too, her connections will become his clients and the money will start rolling in. It’ll be perfect, it’ll be easy. He has a ring, he has the speech all ready and he’s waiting at the restaurant ready to go…. And the phone rings and the waiter says it’s for him. His girl is in tears, her aunt and uncle have just been killed and she needs to comfort her mother. She hopes he understand. He does and promises to be there for her and her mother whenever they need him. At a loose end he has a drink at the bar, and then another angry at his bad luck. Moving onto another bar and another drink he picks up a woman and then another. Soon the night is a vague memory and he wakes in his bed, in his apartment fortunately alone except for a pounding headache. Getting ready for work there’s a knock on the door and a girl waiting outside. Without being invited she walks in and smiles. Marshall has never seen her before but she knows him alright. About last night, she says. We has a swell time didn’t we, she says. So how about $50 just to cover expenses. Angry at her crude hustle Marshall starts to through her out and then he starts to remember and starts to worry. What if his real girl found out? What if the hustler ruined his plans? Surely $50 is worth it just to get her to leave him alone? Months pass and the young hustler is just a bad memory. It’s the wedding day. The Best Man is on his way and there’s a knock at the door. It’s her again, the hustler. Its $250 this time and a lifetime of blackmail ahead of him, each payment more and more as his fortune grows. There’s only one way out. The only way to make the girl go away – permanently. Before Marshall knows what he’s done the girl is on the floor, dead and the Best Man is knocking. With a body in his bedroom there’s no way Marshall can stay in New York. It’s only a matter of time before the police catch up with him. All of his plans are in tatters. Everything he does, everywhere he goes, and everything he says to everyone he meets needs to be filtered through the memory of that body in that city. He needs to be constantly on alert for strangers asking questions, funny looks, and mention of other women and a host of other things both trivial and profound. He needs to be his guard. Now, always, forever…..

I have a thing, a problem you might say, with the idea of the unreliable narrator. If a story or movie is being narrated and the viewer/reader is being directed in certain ways then it behoves the narrator to be truthful. They can leave gaps for the reader to fill in, they might mislead or misdirect (especially if they’re the villain of the piece) but the actively lie, to fabricate things that do not exist doesn’t sit well with me – especially when you can’t tell if anything in the story actually happened or is the fantasy of a fevered imagination. This is how I felt for well over half the book. I constantly asked myself – did that actually just happen? Is this real? Or is it just paranoia? I must admit it did get rather wearing after a while! The ending didn’t really help as it threw everything I thought I knew about the narrative up in the air never to come down again. Honestly, I struggled at times to finish this. It wasn’t particularly badly written – except that none of the characters were actually likable and none of them seemed to deserve my attention much less my sympathy. The only one who had much of a character to be honest was the hustler and she didn’t last too long! Overall, despite the very positive write up, and the fact that the author apparent wrote ‘Rear Window’ this was a slow and painful ready which barely kept my attention. Not really recommended except, maybe, if you have trouble sleeping. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Good advice............. You can also stab stupid people with your head.

An Attempt at Future Significance

As some of my readers may be aware I have a somewhat surprising ‘inferiority complex’ where my reading is concerned. OK, it might be a bit on the strong side (being actually quite proud of my reading achievements) but I am moderately haunted by the whisper of an idea that my reading just isn’t ‘up to snuff’. Maybe at some point in my long lost youth I was told that I was ignorant, ill-informed or some such because I hadn’t read a particular obscure book? Who knows? But I do have a nagging feeling that, although the quantity of the books I read is good – and at over twenty times the national average I’d hope so – but that the quality falls short. Maybe it’s because I haven’t (yet) read a great many of the classics that come up in conversation. I mean, until a few months ago I’d never read Dickens! I’m yet to read Woolf or Hemingway or Tolstoy or Steinbeck. Classically I’m barely literate (working on that) and in other ways I’m ignorant of many of the books that have changed the course of human affairs. I call these books ‘Significant’ and have, lately, been trying to increase my knowledge of them. My aim is to read at least three significant books every year. So far I think I’m doing OK despite the fact that I’m starting from a very low level and from a deep ignorance of what actual books I should be reading to address my perceived inadequacy. The list as it appears presently is this (with the latest additions in bold):

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
The War of the Flea – A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory & Practice by Robert Taber
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton
Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panter Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley
Achtung Panzer! – The Development of Tank Warfare by Heinz Guderian
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 

All in all that’s not a bad list. It’s not a great list but it’s not bad. There’s quite a few obviously significant books that have yet to make it on there and I’ll see about addressing that as soon as I can. I do have one significant book in my review pile and another two coming soon so I’ll definitely make my minimum again this year. I might even get around to reading some classical philosophy from cover to cover. It’s high time I did. I might, just might, sneak in come classic political texts – from the Left naturally…..

Saturday, January 13, 2018

I'm guessing an isolated spot???
Light shed on mystery space radio pulses

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

10 January 2018

Astronomers have fresh insight on a mysterious source of recurring radio pulses from space. Fast radio bursts (FRB) are one of the most persistent puzzles in astronomy. While usually short-lived, one source in the sky was sending out repeated flashes. Now, a team says the emission may be caused by a dead star located in a very powerful magnetic environment. Details were reported here at the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting. The first FRB was discovered in 2007, in archived data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. Astronomers were searching for new examples of magnetised neutron stars called pulsars, but found a new phenomenon - a radio burst from 2001. Since then, 18 FRBs - also referred to as "flashes" or "sizzles" - have been found in total. The mystery surrounding their nature has spawned a variety of different possible explanations, from black holes to extra-terrestrial intelligence. Only one of these sources of radio energy has erupted more than once - a so-called burster catalogued as FRB 121102. This FRB has sent out around 150 flashes since its discovery in 2012. Now, in the journal Nature, a team of scientists explains how the emission might come from a neutron star, perhaps one near a black hole or one embedded in a nebula.

The researchers found something interesting about the polarisation of the radio waves - which describes the direction in which they vibrate. When polarised radio waves pass through a region with a magnetic field, the polarisation gets "twisted" by an effect known as Faraday rotation. And the stronger the magnetic field, the greater the twisting. "The only sources in the Milky Way that are twisted as much as FRB121102 are in the galactic centre, which is a dynamic region near a massive black hole. Maybe FRB121102 is in a similar environment in its host galaxy," said Daniele Michilli, a co-author from the University of Amsterdam. "However, the twisting of the radio bursts could also be explained if the source is located in a powerful nebula or supernova remnant," he added. Vishal Gajjar, from the Breakthrough Listen project and the Berkeley SETI Research Center, commented: "At this point, we don't really know the mechanism. There are many questions, such as, how can a rotating neutron star produce the high amount of energy typical of an FRB?" The team used the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia to probe the source at higher frequencies than ever before.

Andrew Seymour, a staff astronomer at the Arecibo Observatory, said: "The polarisation properties and shapes of these bursts are similar to radio emission from young, energetic neutron stars in our galaxy. This provides support to the models that the radio bursts are produced by a neutron star." A year ago, the research team pinpointed the location of FRB121102 and reported that it lies in a star-forming region of a dwarf galaxy at a distance of more than three billion light-years from Earth. The enormous distance to the source implies that it releases a monstrous amount of energy in each burst - roughly as much energy in a single burst of one millisecond as the Sun releases in an entire day.

[The Universe is indeed a very strange place and chocked full of strange phenomena like this. I’d never heard of FRB’s until today. They are truly bizarre events. I can see why some people immediately jumped on the ET bandwagon. But if they are natural phenomena as suggested at least we still have hope that at some point in the future they’ll pick up a message or a warp signature or something and we’ll finally know we’re not alone…. At least we can hope….. [grin]]

Thursday, January 11, 2018

High Five....!

Just Finished Reading: The Empire of Necessity – The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty by Greg Grandin (FP: 2014)

With the world still staggering from the American and French revolutions and the Haiti slave uprising the Spanish slave ship Tryal is spotted by an American sealer obviously in distress. Offing any assistance he can Captain Amasa Delano of the Perseverance becomes increasingly annoyed at his Spanish counterparts standoffish nature and is glad to leave the ship hours later and return to his own. Strange as the experience has proven so far Captain Deano is completely unprepared when the Spanish captain jumps into his boat and demands his help. For the past weeks the remnants of the Spanish crew have lived under the threat of death. The slaves on board had revolted and had managed to kill most of the crew and passengers only leaving enough men alive to sail them back to Africa. Hoping to be approached by a friendly ship Captain Benito Cerreno had only pretended to sail back across the Atlantic until finally, at the end of his tether, rescue arrives in the guise of an American ship down on its luck and approaching mutiny itself. Giving chase in the expectation of prize money the badly damaged slaver is quickly captured and the slaves aboard either killed or recaptured. Their long trial and even longer journey away from their homeland has only just begun as they find themselves back in captivity and fought over in the courts of South America.

This was, to be honest, a complete impulse buy. I think the thing that really ticked a few boxes for me was the word ‘rebellion’ in the title and it being (yet again) a tale based at least in some part at sea. What I didn’t really expect was just how completely gripping the story was. The backbone of the tale was the rebellion aboard and recapture of the Tryal. But it was much, much more than that. Not only did the author discuss in some detail the biographies of the two captains (originating from very different cultures – imperialist Spain and newly confident revolutionary America) and well as the background to the despicable trade in human life and human misery of which I was reasonably familiar (or at least I thought I was) but the author also delved into the revolutionary changes occurring at this time across South America as the countries we are familiar with today fought for their independence against Spain and Portugal.

Several thing surprised me during this riveting narrative. One was the number of Muslim slaves taken from Africa and deposited (at this time) mostly in South America to work in mines and in the sugar cane fields. Indeed followers of Islam amongst the slave population was so common, and growing through importation and dissemination of the faith amongst existing non-Muslim slaves, that slave runners were advised not to take captives from certain areas because they were known to be educated, speak multiple languages, be resilient and resistance to forces and to be capable to organising sophisticated rebellions. The other thing that really struck me was the hypocrisy of both the French and American traders who regularly espoused on the virtues of Liberty and Fraternity but still traded in human life – even when they had black members amongst their own crews. The cognitive dissonance must have been so thick you could’ve cut it with a cutlass. There is far, far too much in this 270+ page book to even gloss over in passing. The narrative throughout is strong, directed and endlessly fascinating. Covering most of South America, the Caribbean, Africa and the American East coast this is a richly detailed look at an age at once familiar and yet very strange indeed. Highly recommended and, although it’s too early to tell, definitely one of the highlights of the year.