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

Monday, April 30, 2018

...and so ends Book Month here @ SaLT. I do hope that you have enjoyed four weeks of bookish delights. I now return you to 'normal' programming.

Identity, Please?

I’m spending far too much time on YouTube presently, so much so that it’s impacting on my reading. This is generally not a good thing. But it’s not that I’m watching silly cat videos or even random people doing stupid things. Most of what I’ve been watching is about Identity Politics. Most of this is taking place in the US but we’re starting to have elements over here too including where I work so I’ve taken more of an interest. To be honest I’m rather confused by the whole thing.

You see I’m fully aware that I can be grouped into a whole host of different categories. For example, I’m a white (pasty pink), straight, male in his late 50’s. I’m an Atheist, a Materialist, a Sceptic, and a Rationalist. I’m a Republican (in the anti-Monarchy sense), a Northerner (in fact a Scouser) and a Gamer. I’m Single, I wear glasses, and my favourite colour is Blue. I could go on but you get the idea. I could easily be dropped into an almost infinite number of groups but how much would you know about me if you knew which groups I belonged to or self-identified with? If you had my top 10, 20, 50 or 100 group associations would you know ME? I don’t think you would although you might think you do. This is for a very simple but apparently difficult to understand reason – I am an Individual. You can categorise me however you wish but these categories do not define who I am. I think this is where the latest ideas of Identity politics falls down. It seems to privilege group identity over individual identity as if individuals do not or cannot exist. Now as a Socialist (yet another label you can attach to me) I’m all for group solidarity but what I really don’t like it being primarily identified by (one of?) my many group tags and having my individuality ignored or dismissed. Yes, I’m a white guy but that doesn’t define WHO I am. That’s just an accident of birth. Yes, I’m straight but even that doesn’t define who I am. It’s just the way I’m wired. If I was gay that wouldn’t define me either. It would be, yet again, just the way I’m wired. It would be what I am but not who I am. There is a very important and vital difference. My (many) categories inform who I am but they do not determine or define who I am. I am, at least I hope and expect that I am, more than the mere sum of my parts. That I believe is what makes human beings so interesting in so many ways.

So, you can imagine that it confuses (and interests) me to come across people who seemingly define themselves by a single or small subset of categories they belong to. Their primary identification is with the group and not with themselves as members of that group. I find that rather odd. I can kind of conceptualise why this is the case. When you’re a group member you know that other members of that group will/should have your back. Individuality can be lonely and feel far riskier than being a group member. After all isn’t this why people join gangs – for the protection they provide? So I get that aspect of things. Being in a group is comfortable and safe(r). It’s also empowering knowing that if you’re attacked (literally or figuratively) you’ll always have back-up. But there’s always the danger that if you identify with the group too strongly you’re going to lose at least some of your individuality. That’s the trade-off. Some people, for a whole host of reasons, are willing to make that trade. Personally I like being my own person. I’m more than happy self-identifying as being associated with various groups or to have been accidentally born into various categories but they are not now nor have they ever been who I am. When we all make that mistake of identifying individuals as primarily a representative of a group we are heading for a whole world of hurt. But it looks like we need to learn that lesson again and again before we begin to treat people like the individual human beings they are with their own stories, their own problems and their own life trajectories. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Health warnings after toxic caterpillar outbreak in London

From The BBC

28th April 2018

An outbreak of toxic caterpillars that can cause asthma attacks, vomiting and skin rashes has descended on London, officials have warned. Oak processionary moths (OPM), which are in their larval stage, have been spotted across the south-east of England and in the capital. Hairs on the caterpillars can cause fevers and eye and throat irritations, the Forestry Commission said. The organisation has issued a caution not to touch the species. The biggest infestations of OPM were recorded in Greater London, stemming from Kingston upon Thames to Brent. Some infestations were also spotted in Bracknell Forest, Slough and Guildford.

OPM caterpillars were spotted emerging from egg plaques in mid-April, and trees were later treated on 23 April, the Forestry Commission added. "The treatment programme is expected to continue until late May or early June," a spokesman said. "After that the caterpillars will be too large to be affected by our preferred treatment product." One gardener was clearing an overgrown allotment unaware that an oak tree above her was infested with OPM. She said she suffered "severe symptoms" after coming into contact with the species. "My first symptom was a rash on my tummy. I was unaware of what is was and thought at first it was a heat rash," she said. "During this time I had spells of feeling violently sick. I thought I might have shingles. The rash got worse and the left side of my face became covered in this sore irritating rash. My left eye became very sore and weepy. I contacted my doctor and it was confirmed I had been severely affected by OPM and must keep away from the source as over time I had developed a severe allergic reaction."

As a caterpillar, each OPM has about 62,000 hairs, which they can eject. Hairs that fall to the ground can be active for up to five years. The moths only live for two to three days in July or August. It is thought that the moths were brought into the UK on trees imported from Europe for a landscape project. A population of OPM established itself in the west London area in 2006.

Key identifying features of OPM:

Move about in nose-to-tail processions

Often form arrow-headed processions, with one leader and subsequent rows containing several caterpillars abreast

Are most likely to be found in oak trees, and sometimes on the ground under oak trees

Are most likely to be seen in late spring and early summer

Have very long, white hairs which contrast markedly with other, shorter hairs

Do not live on fences, walls and similar structures, as some caterpillar species do

[NASTY. My first thought was this sounds like one of those low budget movies about the end of the world where everyone thinks ‘Big deal, it’s just a few bugs’ and then it cuts to 5 years later and 90% of the world’s population is dead and the survivors are killing each other over the last tin of tuna fish. I don’t have any oak trees near me (and I live over 100 miles away from London) so I won’t worry just yet….. Scary though…. Shudder]

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Moor’s Last Stand – How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came to an End by Elizabeth Drayson (FP: 2017)

Being born in the End Times is unfortunate. Being born into a position of power and authority in the End Times is nothing short of a curse. After 700 years of Islamic rule is Spain Abu Abdallah Muhammad XI, known as Boabdil became what was to be the last King of the southern Spanish province of Granada. Still in his 20’s he quickly realised that the weight of the Muslim world had landed on his shoulders. Pressed in on all sides by the Catholic forces of Ferdinand and Isabella Boabdil had little room for manoeuvre, few friends on mainland Spain and even fewer in North Africa. Faced with such a disadvantageous position and with so much at stake – the end of his civilisation – he would have hoped and expected to have unwavering support from his people, his ministers and his family. Nothing could be further from reality. The people were divided by faction, clan, family and religious affiliation. Some wanted to fight for every inch of ground with every breath in their bodies. Others hoped against hope that the Christians could see how valuable they were if left to their own devices. Others plotted the King’s overthrow and too Christian gold to help themselves to power. His Ministers plotted and schemed calling for Holy War or secret negotiation. His family, as with many such dynasties, was riven by jealousy, greed and the lust for power. Outside Grenada the Catholic forces spoke with almost a single voice and had just one objective – the ‘Reconquista’ of Spain and the ultimate expulsion of all Islamic influence in that long divided land. As the end of the 15th century approached a decades long struggle was about to come to a final and apocalyptic end in an event that reverberated down the centuries and still has an impact today – the fall of the last bastion of Muslim rule: Granada.

This is another one of those subjects that I knew a little bit about – that it happened along with a few names and some rough idea of dates. Partially through a general historical knowledge of Europe and, honestly, partially through historical drama like the movie El Cid. One of the interesting aspects of reading this book is that I visited Grenada and other areas on AndalucĂ­a over a decade ago with my then girlfriend. I was captivated both by the exotic mix of Islamic and Spanish architecture and the breath-taking beauty of the surroundings. When the Moors finally left Grenada I could certainly sympathise with their loss. If I had lived there for any time – never mind 700 years – I too would have been heartbroken to leave. One thing I hadn’t realised, which should have been obvious if I’d given it much thought, was that the re-conquest was nothing of the sort. It was an invasion of Muslim Spain by Catholic Spain. It’s a bit like England, after losing its final foothold in France with the loss of Calais in 1558, attacking France tomorrow and calling it a re-conquest taking back what was rightfully always ours. In some weird technical way it might be true but to make it seem legitimate would take a great deal of political spin – just like the re-conquest of Spain by northern Catholic forces. The final interesting aspect of this profound change in the history of Europe was how the image of Boabdil changed after the fall of Grenada in 1492. From coward and deeply ineffectual war leader to iconic hero both inside some parts of Spain and throughout the Islamic world. Over time the man has gone from historical figure, to myth to icon. Yet it is unclear how he died or where he is buried. It’s an interesting tale and one very much worth reading for anyone interested in Christian/Muslim relations and the history of the region. Recommended.   

Monday, April 23, 2018

More Book Thoughts…

The Idea of the Book

I’m often asked why I continue buying books when I already have so much still unread. Part of the reason (putting aside my obvious addiction) is a practical one. Partially because of the existing backlog it’s quite possible that a book I buy today might not actually be read for months or even years. So what if that book is part of a series? I could read it a year or two later, enjoy it, and look for the sequel only to find that it is no longer in print and either expensive or impossible to obtain where, if I’d bought it when it was published, I wouldn’t have that problem. So why don’t I just download it on Kindle or similar (I’m often asked) to save space? It’s a reasonable question but my interrogators don’t often like my answer. Books, I propose, are more – indeed much more – than words on a page and most especially when that page is actually a screen. Books are, at least to me, more than a finite amount of text in one place. A book is a thing, something you can hold in your hand, which has heft and a distinct physical presence. Without that element of physicality you don’t, again as far as I’m concerned, have a book – at least not a real one. You can see why I’ve been called a Luddite!


Hardbacks do have several advantages over their softer brethren.  There are much more durable than paperbacks for one thing. Within my collection the vast majority of hardbacks are non-fiction most especially reference books like Encyclopaedias. If you’re going to reference a book often then hardback is the way to go. Hardbacks have the distinct advantage of coming out sometimes LONG before that paperback appears. Sometimes, of course, the paperback never appears and you’re presented with a choice: hardback or nothing. Sometimes that’s a difficult choice. Naturally most of my books are paperback for practical reasons. They’re generally much smaller, often considerably less expensive and, probably most importantly, a lot lighter to hold and carry around. For me paperbacks are the way to go.

Children’s Literature

Although I could read from around age 3 years and could read easily in school (so much so that when I was assessed for reading age the assessor didn’t have a test far enough ahead for me to struggle with) I never read any of the classic tales most children grow up with. I’m not entirely sure why that was the case. Maybe I simply thought – OK, I can read, I can read well but is there any reason to actually read things? It was only much later, in my early teens, that the book bug bit me and hasn’t let go since. Because at that age being caught with a children’s classic would have been social and reputational death – even way before the Facebook age – I never went back to read them. I’ve managed a few over the years but will (finally) get around to reading what is often the foundation of a reading child’s imagination in the years ahead. I certainly no longer have any kind of fear of embarrassment reading The Jungle Book or Wizard of Oz as an adult.

The Other

There’s always a danger in reading, or any other activity, that we’ll naturally gravitate to the familiar and, by doing so, miss out on so many other experiences. One of the ways I like to challenge that tendency (and myself in the process) is to read books about and by people who are not like me. So I make a conscious effort to read books, both fiction and non-fiction, by women, books in translation (because I haven’t got the time, effort or, probably, capability of learning languages well enough to easily read in them), books written by people who grew up and died long before I was born and lived in very different worlds, books written in English by authors who originate neither from England or Europe and those who I know hold different viewpoints from my own. I am certainly not arrogant enough to think that I know everything. I am equally open to the idea, however low the probability [grin] that the ideas I do hold might be wrong. I’m one of those weird people who, when proven wrong, become quite excited and actually rather pleased that something I once held to be true has been thrown into doubt. Rather than proving that I held faulty beliefs I now, once corrected, hold better beliefs – right up to the point that I’m proven wrong again. Long may the corrective process continue! Maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll get a hint about what things are really all about. I’ll be sure to let you know when/if that happens.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Oxford Dodo was shot in head, scans find

From The BBC

20 April 2018

The Oxford Dodo - the world's most famous example of the extinct bird - was shot in the head, research has found. Historians believed the flightless creature had been kept alive in a 17th Century London townhouse. But recent forensic analysis of its skull found lead shot pellets, which were typically used to hunt wildfowl. Scientists hope to test the fragments to establish where the bird met its end. Oxford University has held the mummified skull and foot at its Natural History Museum for more than 300 years.

The specimen represents the most complete remains of a single dodo, and contains the only soft tissue samples known to exist. It has proved invaluable in learning more about the species, which became extinct 70 years after it was discovered on the island of Mauritius in 1598. But the Oxford Dodo's own fate had remained a mystery.

However, a team at the University of Warwick used forensic CT scanning to create a three-dimensional digital replica of its skull. The technology, which has also been used in criminal trials, showed evidence that the bird had been shot in the back of the head and neck. Prof Mark Williams, of the university's Warwick Manufacturing Group, said: "When we were first asked to scan the Dodo, we were hoping to study its anatomy and shed some new light on how it existed. In our wildest dreams, we never expected to find what we did."

The Oxford Dodo originally came to the city as part of a collection of specimens and artefacts compiled by John Tradescant in the 17th Century. Its remains ended up in the university museum, where author Lewis Carroll is said to have found inspiration for the dodo character in Alice in Wonderland. Museum director Prof Paul Smith said it was "a really great surprise" to learn lead pellets had been found embedded in the skin and the bone of the dodo, which he described as an "icon of extinction".

[OK, putting the weird ‘head-shot’ to one side for a moment….. this bit struck me: contains the only soft tissue samples known to exist. Presumably that means DNA? Maybe recoverable DNA in sufficient quantities to do a full genome? Would that mean there might be enough left to ‘magic up’ an egg if they can find a suitable host to produce one? Could they, at some point, bring the Dodo back from extinction? I mean it’d be a LOT easier that dinosaurs or (probably) mammoths they’ve been talking about for years. Just think of the possibilities….. Dodo burgers from KFC….. Dodo Tikka Masala…… Dodo Jambalaya….. After all the reason they (supposedly) went extinct in the first place was because they tasted so damned good…. ]

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Story of the Human Body – Evolution, Health and Disease by Daniel Lieberman (FP: 2013)

It’s hard not to be fascinated by the evolution of your own species. Equally it’s not hard to find the spate of global health issues both mysterious and worrying. In this deeply researched and wide ranging book the author deftly connects the two.

In the first half of the book the author delves back 6 million years to the era where humans and apes shared a common ancestor. Since that far away time we have, subtle change built on subtle change eventually, some half million years ago, produced Homo sapiens – us. When climate change radically altered African forests our ancestors were forced to travel further and further, change their mostly fruit diet to something far more varied and painfully learn to communicate complex ideas necessary to organise hunting parties. As adaptation led to further change we stood up, began walking longer distances than our more ape-like ancestors would have found impossible and then learnt to run long distances hunting much larger prey to exhaustion. With hands free to carry, craft and throw increasing sophisticated weapons (starting with thrown rocks, heat hardened spears and bow fired arrows) we became the terror of the grassland and began our expansion across the whole globe. Humans became an astounding evolutionary success story the like of which had rarely been seen before.

But here in the early 21st century we are learning that what so superbly adapted us to life on the African veldt is sometimes less than ideal today. With incidents of chronic medical conditions associated with modernity in danger of overwhelming health services across all developed nations is it time to look again at how we got here and what it means to be human. The author certainly thinks so. One of the major problems experienced wherever western style culture has prospered is the so-called obesity epidemic. It seems perversely easy to put on weight yet almost impossible to lose it again. Why? How is it that previously rare conditions like Type 2 diabetes has exploded across the developed world in the space of a few generations? More importantly is there anything we can do about them before they bankrupt nations already dealing with an aging and ailing population.
This is, I think, where I became slightly disappointed with the authors narrative. So far he had been excellent explaining exactly how our ancestors evolved and what pressures in the environment produced those changes. Likewise he made an excellent argument putting forward the idea that it was the mismatch between what we are evolved for – life on the African plain – and the environment we have created for ourselves in the 21st century. Those problems are caused by (and I agree with the author here) by the sheer abundance of high energy food – which we crave – and the increasing level of comfort around everything we do. The solution to all this – and no, it isn’t going back to a more Palaeolithic lifestyle! – is eating less, doing more and to stop demanding more and more comfort in our lives. OK, this is essentially the same message that we are bombarded with almost daily but, as the author rightly points out, we are also bombarded with sugary drinks, treats, soft cakes and other easily digested pap. We love this because we are ‘designed’ to want calories to ensure that in the lean times we still have enough fat to get us through famine – except we have (at least in our part of the world) eliminated that famine. We are presently living in an endless time of plenty and its showing on our waistlines. So if willpower isn’t enough, and for most people it isn’t, to stop giving into monumental temptation governments, the author proposes, should be willing to nudge us in the right direction. As the book is written primarily from an American viewpoint this is a problem to the author who would generally eschew such things. Of course both the EU and UK are increasingly intervening in the food industry regulating labelling, salt and sugar levels and, of course, false advertising. It’s too soon to tell if these measures will have a noticeable impact on public health but time will tell. Like Tabaco regulation and decades of health warnings it is slowly being recognised that what we eat has a huge impact on our health and on our health bills.

This was a very interesting and highly informative read tinged with a little disappointment at the end. I think it’s certainly changed the way I look at health related issues – both my own and in the wider community – and that’s hardly ever a bad thing. At the very least I’m more aware of why I’m more inclined to do some of the things I do (and know that I shouldn’t) and I’m more able to rationally plan how to turn things around. Recommended for anyone interested in human health issues at all levels. Much more Biology and Human Biology to come.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Be afraid...... Very afraid...... [lol]

Just Finished Reading: Secret Harmonies by Paul J McAuley (FP: 1989)

The failure of the colony ship to arrive was only the spark. The underlying cause of the rebellion had been growing down the years, ever since the original settlers had to deal with the regular influx of the disposed from far away Earth. But after decades of regular flights from the Wombworld, as the settlers called their original home, they had inexplicably stopped. No new technology, no new information, no new bodies to help tame a world hardly touched by man. Almost immediately there was a sense of alarm, of loss, of moving into territories unknown. Had they been abandoned and left to their own devices by an uncaring parent? Had something gone wrong with the ship to make it simply late or, worse, had something happened to Earth itself? A war maybe, or plague or asteroid strike. Not knowing was worse than any certainty and the natural instincts of the first families was to hunker down and control the situation. Naturally the long oppressed colony settlements throughout the thinly populated peninsula had other ideas. Finally free of Earth they could also be free from the controlling grip of the city – Port of Plenty. Rebellion, revolt and revolution was inevitable. Trapped in the middle of things is Richard Florey a university professor who dreams of understanding the planets weather systems and Miguel Lucas who just wants to be left alone and wander the scrublands unmolested. Neither would get their wish and before the end of things they would both see a great deal of death and destruction they could hardly imagine. But between the rebels and the city founders there is a third player unknown to either. Something that has little regard for the people of this alien world and something that has a plan that neither the victors nor the vanquished would wish on their most hated enemies.

I’ve read a few of this authors works before and I’ve always been impressed by his character driven stories. Despite that this book is based in the future and takes place on an alien world the people that populate it are as recognisable as your neighbours. They have hopes, dreams, fears and loves. They have depth, needs and disappointments. Before many pages are turned you care about them and want them to do well. All of the science-fiction stuff is background to a greater play – one about freedom and choice and self-determination. It puts people who would just rather get on with their lives in situations where difficult choices need to be made and either way, success or failure, people are likely to die – or worse. Like all good books it also poses the question to the reader: what would you do? Would you choose love over loyalty? Would you stand up to someone pointing a gun at you? Would you sacrifice yourself for future generations even knowing that no one will know what you did or why? Books like this are the reason I still read SF after over 40 years. Its books that involve you in other people’s lives. Its books that make you examine the things that are important in life. Its books, like this, that make you mull over things long after the last page is turned. Recommended.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Late risers at increased risk of early death, study finds

By Alex Therrien for BBC News

12 April 2018

People who go to bed late and struggle to wake in the morning are more likely to die prematurely than early risers, according to new research. Night owls are 10% more likely to have early deaths than morning larks, a study of some 433,000 people found. The research also found late risers were more likely to have a range of mental and physical illnesses. The paper's authors said more should be done to help night owls function in a "morning lark world".

Scientists asked study participants, who were aged 38 to 73, whether they considered themselves to be a "definite morning type", a "moderate morning type", a "moderate evening type", or a "definite evening type". The study, published in the journal Chronobiology International, then looked at deaths among these people for up to six and half years later. After adjusting for factors like age, sex, ethnicity, smoking, body mass index and socioeconomic status, researchers found the chance of an early death was lowest in the definite morning types, with the risk going up among each body clock type as they got later. Comparing the definite evening types with definite morning types, night owls were also 90% more likely to have psychological disorders and 30% more likely to have diabetes, as well as being more prone to gastrointestinal and neurological disorders. While the paper's authors did not look at how the health issues were being caused, they said it was likely that people with late body clocks were being harmed by having to adjust their habits to a "morning lark world".

Kristen Knutson, associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said: "It could be psychological stress, eating at the wrong time for your body, not exercising enough, not sleeping enough, being awake at night by yourself, maybe drug or alcohol use. There are a whole variety of unhealthy behaviours related to being up late in the dark by yourself." Malcolm von Schantz, professor of chronobiology at the University of Surrey, and another author of the paper, said the problems experienced by night owls were a "public health issue that can no longer be ignored". "We should discuss allowing evening types to start and finish work later, where practical," he said. "And we need more research about how we can help evening types cope with the higher effort of keeping their body clock in synchrony with sun time."

But while the study makes less than positive reading for late risers, Prof Knutson said night owls are not "doomed". Scientists say that about 40% to 70% of a person's circadian rhythm, or body clock, is genetic, with the rest influenced by environment and age. "Part of it you don't have any control over and part of it you might," Prof Knutson said.

Among the tips she and other sleep experts recommend to shift your body clock earlier are:

Make sure you are exposed to light early in the morning but not at night

Try to keep a regular bedtime and not let yourself drift to later bedtimes

Be regimented about adopting healthy lifestyle behaviours and recognise that the timing of when you sleep matters

Do things earlier and be less of an evening person as much as you can.

[OK, as a night owl I am less than impressed by both the study and the remedy for it. Personally if I tried to act as much as possible like a morning person that most definitely would shorten my life – probably as I accidently cut a vein whilst making tea at silly o’clock in the morning. Anyway, I thought we lived in a 24 hour culture. So what does it matter if I’m wide awake at 2am but don’t slide out of bed until 9am? I’d like to see a morning person compete with me at any skill based activity after midnight! Plus I’m a huge sceptic about this sort of thing. I bet there’s a huge range of ‘problems’ across the 433,000 people in the study. To say that 10% had ‘early deaths’ is to me meaningless. I also find it very interesting that the authors of the study said it was likely that people with late body clocks were being harmed by having to adjust their habits to a "morning lark world" yet still proposed the solution to the issue was doing exactly that….]

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The War in the West – A New History: Volume 1 Germany Ascendant 1939-1941 by James Holland (FP: 2015)

We all know the story. In September 1939 the technically advanced German army along with the best air support in the world erupted across the Polish border and started World War Two. Quickly defeating the Polish armed forces the victorious Germans turned on Norway, the Low Countries and France completely dominating them in frightening quick succession with Britain only surviving destruction by the skin of its teeth. Barely holding on during the Battle of Britain the English breathed a sigh of relief when Hitler attacked Russia despite his forces sweeping all before them yet again. Meanwhile German U-boats sank unprecedented numbers of allied ships bringing Britain’s capitulation due to starvation ever closer. Only America’s massive manufacturing base untouched by war could keep pace with both the increasingly desperate demands of the British and the depredations of the wolf-packs prowling the Atlantic.

All of that, or at least a goodly chunk of the received narrative is nonsense according to the author of this impressive part-work. Running to a little over 720 pages I waited until I had a lengthy break to do it justice. At the beginning of the book I was largely of the opinion that a mixture of luck, fortitude and Winston Churchill saved the day back in 1940. My opinion has since shifted somewhat. Although German armed forces are normally portrayed as technically brilliant and highly advanced this is only part of the story. Only a small number of German units were fully mechanised – most forced to walk across Europe – and the Army itself used thousands of horses to transport everything from supplies to artillery. Despite being famous for its tanks it transpired that France both had more of them and of a higher quality. The British Expeditionary Force sent to France was actually a far more integrated and mechanised force than the Germans it faced prior to the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’. In the air the Germans initially had the advantage of any attacking force – the ability to attack anywhere at their own choosing without their enemies knowing where to concentrate their defences. When they tried it over the Channel and the South East of England it was a very different story. With Radar and a co-ordinated aerial defence strategy the Luftwaffe quickly realised they were up against something they had yet to face – an enemy air force at least their equal technically and one much better directed, led, supplied and reinforced. Looked at in this way it is little surprise that the Battle of Britain was lost by Germany and was a defeat they never really recovered from. Not only did this leave a powerful and dangerous enemy on their western flank but it also showed the world that German might could indeed be challenged and overcome. Britain then became a future bridgehead into Continental Europe growing stronger each month and ever eager for payback. Rather than dealing with this problem Germany and Hitler stupidly looked East.

Looked at from the point of view of Germany’s need for resources – rather than as just a string of German victories – things start making sense a great deal. With the Southern flank apparent secure with Italy joining the Axis and with the non-aggression pact with Russia (inexplicable to many at the time) securing the Eastern flank Germany needed a quick series of victories before their resources bottomed out and before the inevitable British blockade began to bite. It was a hell of a gamble and everything had to go right – always. Norway was only a victory of sorts securing sources of iron but losing much of its naval forces in the process (effectively meaning that a successful invasion of Britain became much more problematical), the invasion of Holland and France although spectacularly successful resulted in the loss of many aircraft that would take time to replace – using up precious resources – and this was exacerbated considerably by the failure to destroy the RAF at even greater cost. Despite a series of quick wins England was still in the fight and actually getting stronger. In order to secure the required resources to continue the fight the occupied territories were asset stripped and the much avoided war on two fronts became a necessity. Again the great gamble was undertaken with the attack on Soviet Russia. Everything rested on a complete and swift victory. If that was impossible then everything was lost.

Whilst not exactly a revisionist history this rather hefty volume did look at the same events we all know and look at them from much more an economic and strategic point of view. When you realise how strapped for resources Germany was even in 1939 when they started the whole affair you can see why they reacted how they did and why they attacked where they did. But the author shows the reality of the situation. From the earliest days of the conflict Germany was in a bind. Everything it did had to go well. Yet even victories as unprecedented as the 6 week defeat of France only made matters worse not better. Occupation cost men, time and money. Every tank lost, even plane shot down, every bullet fired had to be replaced from a shrinking pool of resources and through a highly inefficient production system. As the war grew though necessity the problems just got bigger and bigger. Eventually they would get so big as to fall on the Axis powers and bury them. As soon as they failed to defeat Britain (an almost impossible task in 1939 the author maintains) it was only a matter of time before the German war machine lay in ruins. This was a very interesting look at a war I’m pretty familiar with or I thought I was familiar with. It has both made me rethink my views on the war and feel the desire to dig deeper into the many strategic decisions (almost always bad) made by the Germans in particular in the early years of the war. There is much food for thought here and much to chew over. I’m really looking forward to the second volume which I’ll be reading over Christmas. Highly recommended for all history buffs.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Baby, it’s COLD outside….

It seems that the only thing we learn from History is that we don’t learn from History. Because it looks like we’re slipping into a new Cold War a little bit more each day. Growing animosity to Russia from the old NATO countries has recently erupted into loud and very public slanging matches the like of which we haven’t really seen for some decades. I’m old enough to remember the original Cold War and although it was a pretty exciting time – nothing adds a particular frisson to the day than the ever present possibility of nuclear annihilation – I didn’t like it that much that I want to go through all that again.

Of course the cynic in me says that, with the recent practical destruction of ISIS and associated groups, the ‘War on Terror’ doesn’t really have the same headline grabbing power it once did. Time to look for a new enemy or, in these days or remakes, reboots and recycling, an old favourite: the Soviet Union AKA Russia. It has the advantage of easy brand recognition, familiar personalities and an older generation who can bore their children with stories of duck and cover and the 4 minute warning. Russia is a ready-made enemy ideally product placed to fill the bad-guy of the month slot so recently vacated by (insert latest Middle-Eastern terrorist group name here). Now the odds of us actually coming to blows with the Russians is vanishingly low – but all the better. We don’t actually have to prepare for conflict we just need to look (and spend) as if we do which will make the West’s hawks and defence contractors very happy indeed. Even more on the upside of history we appear to be moving beyond the rather disturbing 30’s feeling for a more comfortable 50’s one neatly jumping over the 40’s and that whole messy hot war thing.

Then, in the background is the ever present Chinese who seem to have dodged a bit of a bullet on this one. Despite talk of trade war – at least with the US – pretty much everyone thinks that annoying the Chinese is a bad idea. After all almost everything you use, wear, drive, listen to or play games on is either made in China or has components made in China. Oddly I say a baseball on one of my colleagues desks today brought back from the US by a friend. On picking it up I couldn’t help but notice that this icon of American culture was, in fact, made in China. So it’s probably not a good idea to pick a fight with them. I mean, they’ve already bought half the world and rent most of the rest. Personally if I had kids I’d be getting them a head start by teaching them basic Chinese. Sooner or later it’s going to become the 2nd global language of choice.

Anyway, back to the upcoming Cold War (unfortunately not exactly an antidote to Global Warming!) with Russia throwing its weight around trying to look impressive. They do seem to have made significant strides in propaganda and psychological warfare which you can’t help but admire. In that area we have quite a lot of ground to catch up. But I’m sure that similar dirty tricks are not beyond our capabilities. Despite the odd poisoning and TV appearance denying particular activities (when they even bother denying things that is) most of this new Cold War will likely to be fought on the Internet and in Social Media. Again Russia has significant experience in doing this but it’s only a matter of time before their own techniques are used against them and (as always) everyone loses. If things track as they look to be doing the next 10-20 years are going to be one hell of a surreal ride. To the Cold War history books – STAT! 

OK people.... I think it's *really* about time you got a life............ Practically the WHOLE cast of The Simpson's are stereotypes. It's why the comedy WORKS.

Sunday, April 08, 2018