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

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Heavy reading............

Just Finished Reading: Amiens 1918 by Gregory Blaxland (FP: 1968)

Everyone knew it was coming. With the collapse of the Eastern Front due to the Russian Revolution whole armies of German soldiers where making their way across central Europe to reinforce the Western Front. But this was not simply a shoring up of German defences – the Americans were coming and the clock was ticking loudly. If German could not act soon it would be only a matter of time before the power of the emergent US military would crush them. They needed to attack – now. The Allied forces knew this and they had a pretty good idea where the hammer would fall. Aerial reconnaissance and the testimony of captured soldiers made that very clear. So the British, their colonial allies and the French reinforced their front lines, dug their defences deeper and started to prepare a mobile reserve force available quickly to respond to any potential breakthrough. Then, as preparations continued, all hell broke loose.

It was like nothing ever seen before. In a war used to massive bombardments this one surprised everyone with its ferocity. Also as soon as it had begun it was over and as dazed Allied soldiers began to wonder why the shelling had stopped the enemy were amongst them. Using new tactics and light weapons German Stormtroopers made their way through the weakest points in the defences, cut communication lines and isolated pockets of resistance before moving on, cutting deeper into the Allied lines. Mobile warfare, it seemed, has returned to France after years of stalemate. As much as the Allies prepared they had not prepared for this. In the first hours of the attack entire Allied units were annihilated where they stood and the rest fell back – only to be outflanked and forced to fall back again and again. Every heroic stand only slowed the enemy momentum but never stopped it. Counter attacks were repulsed, headquarters overrun, phone lines cut, and fuel depots destroyed minutes before the enemy arrived. It was chaos. The German plan was to drive the British to the coast to protect their precious ports and to force the French to protect their beloved Paris. If they managed to do so the Allies would be split and the tantalising possibility of victory rather than a negotiated peace could almost be seen – shimmering in the near distance.

Orders were issued – not another yard given to the enemy. It was tried and it failed or was ignored and the retreat continued. The Germans meanwhile were frustrated. Although unheard of progress had been made and thousands of Allied soldiers killed or captured the Allied lines had not broken. Wherever the German forces pushed Allied soldiers were ahead of them. In limited numbers in makeshift defences but they were there nevertheless and after weeks of relentless fighting both sides were exhausted. But this is what the Allies also knew – that they did not need to defeat the German onslaught, they just needed to survive it. If it failed then the war was won in this year – 1918 – not the following year as most of the Allies expected. Slowly at first and then with mounting realisation the German advance slowed and stopped. Attacks elsewhere were initially equally successful but quickly stopped too. Finally it was over.

But the new status quo could not be allowed to last for long. The British alongside their Australian, Canadian and South African allies counterattacked and push the weary German forces back and back again. Tanks in ever increasing numbers were thrown into the fight and greatly assisted in attack after attack despite increasing loses. Even the first tank vs tank battle took place – a clear sign of things to come. But once the German forces began falling back they never moved forward again. In a matter of weeks they were back at their starting lines and retreating further towards home and Fatherland. The end of the war was now only a matter of time.

Coincidentally, because I don’t actually plan my reading this well, it was the 100 anniversary of Amiens just recently. It was a pivotal stand which helped turn the war from defeat into victory. After Amiens the Germans only moved back – not forward. Told with real verve and passion this was an exciting blow by blow account of how the Allies survived a massive onslaught which could have possibly ended the war in Germany’s favour in 1918 producing a potentially very different world. More on this time and the consequences of WW1 to come. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Actually it's a really good (sensible) idea: micro-achievements. Not only are they actually achievable but it means you get a buzz from achieving stuff much more than other people who only go for the big stuff.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Curious creatures.......... 
The Rebel Library.

I suppose, in some ways at least, I read to find out who I am. It’s certainly true about a lot of my political reading. I know what I believe – politically – but I’m not 100% sure why I believe what I do. Thinking about it recently I can’t help but think that at least some of it was picked up in brief conversations with my Dad. I certainly can’t remember sitting down with him at any point and actually talking politics but there where comments here and there about the right thing to do that must have seeped into my psyche over the decades. He was most definitely on the Left. Whether he would’ve described himself as a Socialist I don’t know but he did mention a book on several occasions that stuck with me and which I picked up recently which strongly hints in that direction: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell first published in 1914. I really need to read it as it clearly made an impression on him.

Those who know me as well as those who read this Blog are aware that I have a reputation of being a rebel – or just being plain awkward. Rebellion is something deep in my bones. Mostly I’m fairly happy-go-lucky and wouldn’t say ‘boo to a goose’. I am generally as inoffensive as them come – until that is something or someone pushes up against my rebellious side. When that happens and when I consider myself in the right nothing can move me. The barricades go up, the flags are hoisted and I’m ready to take on the world. Where, oh where, does THAT come from? It’s probably why I’ve had a lifelong interest in (and admiration for) rebels and rebellions. Naturally over the decades I’ve read quite a bit about both but it’s only fairly recently that I’ve been making more of an effort to dig deeper and understand rebels and therefore, hopefully, understand myself a bit more. As part of that I created the R4 category for books (Revolt, Rebellion, Resistance and Revolution) to try and put the many threads of the subject and my search to understand it all in one place. Presently it’s pretty much a shotgun approach to things as I tease out where the boundaries are and where the core is. I’m still working on that but I do think I’m moving in the right direction. I guess only time will tell. But so far here’s the present list of books in the Rebel Library. It won’t teach anyone how to rebel or to plan a successful rebellion but it should give food for though. I know it has with me.

 Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
 Marx – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer
Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens
 The Gunpowder Plot – Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser
The Spanish Civil War by Antony Beevor
 The Rebel by Albert Camus
1968 – The Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky
The Evils of Revolution by Edmund Burke
Politics of Fear – Beyond Left and Right by Frank Furedi
Crisis? What Crisis? – Britain in the 1970’s by Alwyn W Turner
The Motorcycle Diaries – Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
Easter 1916 – The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend
Strange Days Indeed – The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen
The Resistance – The French Fight against the Nazis by Matthew Cobb
The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss
Culture of Fear Revisited by Frank Furedi
Towards the Light – The Story of the struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the modern West by A C Grayling
Communism – A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes
Terrorism – A Very Short Introduction by Charles Townshend
The Rebel Raiders – The Astonishing History of the Confederacy’s Secret Navy by James Tertius deKay
The Sea King – The Life of James Iredell Waddell by Gary McKay
Liberty in the Age of Terror - A Defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values by A C Grayling
Afgantsy – The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite
The Rebirth of History – Times of Riots and Uprisings by Alain Badiou
The Terrible Year – The Paris Commune, 1871 by Alistair Horne
Revolution 1989 – The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen
On The Spartacus Road – A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy by Peter Stothard
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus
Americans in Paris – Life and Death under Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass
The Unfree French – Life under the Occupation by Richard Vinen
1848 – Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport
Eleven Days in August – The Liberation of Paris in 1944 by Matthew Cobb
Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum
Hope in the Dark – The Untold History of People Power by Rebecca Solnit
Butcher & Bolt – Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan by David Loyn
Churchill’s First War – Young Winston and the Fight against the Taliban by Con Couchlin
Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple
Making Sense of The Troubles – A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict by David McKittrick and David McVea
Fatal Path – British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 by Ronan Fanning
The Republic – The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923 by Charles Townshend
The Rebel Sell – How the Counterculture became the Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Iron Kingdom – The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark
The Downfall of Money – Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class by Frederick Taylor
The People – The Rise and Fall of the Working Class by Selina Todd
Them and Us – Fighting the Class War 1910-1939 by John Newsinger
Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm
The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley
1066 – A New History of the Norman Conquest by Peter Rex
Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid
Travelling with Che Guevara – The Making of a Revolutionary by Alberto Granado
The Free State of Jones – A True Story of Defiance during the American Civil War by Victoria E Bynum
Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panter Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton
To Hell and Back – Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw
Fusiliers – How the British Army lost America but learned how to Fight by Mark Urban
The War of the Flea – A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory & Practice by Robert Taber
Clydebuilt – The Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armoured Rams of the American Civil War by Eric J Graham
The English Rebel – One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties by David Horspool
Revolutions – A Very Short Introduction by Jack A Goldstone
The General Strike by Margaret Morris
The Empire of Necessity – The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty by Greg Grandin
Shooting in the Dark – Riot Police in Britain by Gerry Northam
Rebels Against the Future – The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age by Kirkpatrick Sale
Rebel Cities – From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey
How to Stage a Military Coup – From Planning to Execution by David Hebditch and Ken Connor
Why it’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere - The New Global Revolutions by Paul Mason
Governing the World – The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower
Days of Rage – America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough
The Myth of the Strong Leader – Political Leadership in the Modern Age by Archie Brown
The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
The Road Not Taken – How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution 1381-1926 by Frank McLynn

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Cartoon Time.

Choose VERY carefully.....!
NASA Finds Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane on Mars


June 07, 2018

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet. While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface. The new findings – “tough” organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere – appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.  “With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.” Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources.

“The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter,” said Eigenbrode. “Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.” In the second paper, scientists describe the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years. This variation was detected by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year. "This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it," said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. "This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal 'breathing.'"

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. The rock samples were analyzed by SAM, which uses an oven to heat the samples (in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock. SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample – fragments of larger organic molecules that don’t vaporize easily. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make car tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars’ surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene. In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface. These results also inform scientists’ decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars. “Are there signs of life on Mars?” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. “We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”

[Despite all of the obvious issues (and those we’ve hardly considered) I still have high hopes that life will eventually be found on Mars. Likely to exist underground – maybe in caves where it’s much warmer, sheltered from dangerous surface conditions and, more importantly, possibly wet – it might even consist of primitive multi-cellular life forms. I doubt very much if we could hold a conversation with it but I expect it will be visible to the naked eye. At least I hope so!]

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Glass Cage – How Our Computers are Changing Us by Nicholas Carr (FP: 2014)

Automation has been a great boon to the world – most especially the developed West – with decades long increases in productivity, wealth and much else besides. Advanced countries could not be where they are without it but what else has happened as robots take over factories, artisans become machine minders and more of what we used to do ourselves is done by the machines we are developing?

This is the question that the author tries to answer in this interesting book. Beyond the intentions of engineers, managers, IT gurus and politicians are the unintended and, sometimes at least, dangerous consequences of all of the advances we live with each day. With the very best of intentions (plus to both make and save money – naturally) increasing automation was supposed to lead to more leisure and, hopefully, to more fulfilled lives for all concerned. It’s a laudable aim. After all who wants to be forced to undertake dirty and dangerous jobs when machines can do them more safely and more efficiently? It’s pretty much a no-brainer, right? Of course it is. So we automate. We reduce danger, we reduce effort, we reduce stress, we reduce training, we reduce the need for intelligence, we reduce a job to pushing the occasional button and, if things go wrong, jumping in and fixing things – unless all of that watching and waiting hasn’t put the operator into a coma. This is, the author maintains with evidence to support him, what happens when humans are put in to a supervisory role with machines. Humans are not built to concentrate on things for extended periods of time. We are not ‘wired’ to be able to respond instantly and accurately after hours (or days) staring at a screen before something goes wrong. It takes time to ‘wake up’ and realise there’s a problem, it takes time to find out what the problem is and figure out a way to resolve it – most especially if it’s been weeks (or longer) since you last actually operated the machinery. When that machinery is a passenger jet and you have less than 2 minutes to save everyone on board that could be, and has been judged to be, a very real problem.

But the malaise, the author contends, is not just with airline pilots and machine operators – it’s with me and you too. How do you get around these days? Do you have a GPS device sitting on your dash or plugged into your ear when you walk around even a familiar place? Do you take any notice of physical landmarks or do you listen to the seat voice saying ‘turn left in 200 yards’ and then you do so without thinking or, possibly, looking what’s ahead of you. Why do we hear regular stories of truck drivers stuck under low bridges or bus drivers decapitating their vehicle likewise? I’ve seen my friends use GPS to get home from their local cinema – a journey that they’ve done HUNDREDS of times. Our apparent reluctance to actually navigate ourselves around – whilst potentially annoying (and sometimes dangerous) is only a symptom though – of our increasing outsourcing of knowledge and expertise to machines and software apps. We are increasingly refusing to learn difficult skills or knowledge knowing that there’s an app for that. It’s why many people walk around gripping their phones as if they are more than symbolic life preservers. It’s because far too many of us no longer know where we are and no longer have the skills (or the will) to find out. With the world becoming more complicated by the day and, coincidentally, we adopt more technological aids to get us through the day, we are increasingly in danger of making ourselves incapable of solving or even responding to the problems coming our way. Technological fixes, especially when they seem to solve our problems efficiently and cheaply, should be treated with caution and this book importantly underlines that fact. Recommended for anyone concerned about the future and the technology in their hands today. Much more technology to come….

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Change of Direction – To Infinity & Beyond!

A few weeks ago I was presented with a choice. I could continue on with things that had been in place for years or I could strike out on my own into pastures new. Partially due to good timing and part due to cost (and a recommendation from a friend) I changed my ‘go to’ game from World of Warcraft to No Man’s Sky (Next).

I have to admit it was a risk, if a small one – a mere £20. When the game originally came out in 2016 it promised much – the entire Universe actually – and pretty much failed to deliver. Here, two years later, they seem to have got it right. Not that I thought so to begin with! The game is touted as a ‘survival sandbox’, something that I had honestly never heard of before. But when I loaded into a new game I found out – fast. Actually I learnt what it was all about in the first 8 minutes before dying horribly. You see when you ‘spawn’ there’s a very good chance you’re on a planet that is trying to kill you – either with heat, cold, radiation or toxicity. Mine was radiation. I started in a damaged spacesuit, an unknown distance from my ship (if I had one!) with no idea what to do about the warning ‘radiation protection falling’ screaming in my area. After trying to find something (anything) to keep me alive I keeled over dead. EIGHT minutes into the game and I had failed in my primary objective of staying alive. It wasn’t exactly a great beginning to exploring the galaxy. My (primary gaming) friend was less than impressed. He downloaded it the same day. Likewise died after 8 minutes and hasn’t playing it since. Meanwhile I have racked up around 60 hours and have only died twice more (possibly three time) in all that time. Once was through my own stupidity (eaten alive by ‘biological horrors’) and the other was in a space battle with pirates (outnumbered and outgunned).

But in those 60 hours…. Well, I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…… But first I had to fix my ship (whilst keeping alive which turned out to be comparatively easy once you know how), fuel it and get off the radioactive rock I started on. Once in space I looked for somewhere a bit more hospitable. It was here that I realised something that should have been obvious. There might be LOTS of planets out there – according to some there 18 Quadrillion in the game (that’s 858 BILLION years of gaming if you land on each one for 1 second) – but the vast majority of them are not exactly nice places to be. Even the nice ones – one of which was labelled a ‘paradise planet’ – might have periodic dangerous or deadly storms. I think of around 35+ planets so far only one could be called Earth-like apart from, that is, the colour of the vegetation or the WEIRD lifeforms wandering around.
That is, of course, where things get interesting. I LOVE exploring and poking my nose into things. I want to see what’s over the next hill, what’s under that stone, what’s in that cave. So it’s kind of the game for me really. Plus there’s a mystery at the heart of it all. I’ve decided not to follow the main story (yet anyway) but you can’t but help coming across strange abandoned installations where, obviously, something BAD happened years or even centuries ago. But what was it? Where is everyone and what’s that pulsating gloop on the console screen……? I want to know. I’m formulating theories but I might just have to go to the centre of the galaxy to find out. With limited warp capability (so far) that could take a while.

But, so far at least, things are pretty peachy. I haven’t died for a while, I’ve seen some very impressive landscapes, some TOTALLY strange fauna, made a bit of money (who knew that SALT was so tradable), traded in some ‘junkers’ for reasonably swish (and working) star ships and I’m finding my space legs. Jumping across 100 light years no longer ‘phases’ me and I’m getting to love desert planets (apart from those superheated dust storms – those I can live without). Over every hill I wonder what I might find and who I could sell it too. You never know… One day I might even bump into another player but the odds are WAY against it…..     

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Body scanners to screen LA subway riders

From The BBC

17 August 2018

Body scanners will be used on the Los Angeles subway to screen passengers for explosives and weapons, the local transport authority has announced. It is the first mass transport system in the US to adopt the technology. Portable scanners will be used to screen passengers as they enter stations, without them having to pass through a security checkpoint. Authorities said the screening would be "voluntary", but those refusing a scan will not be allowed to travel. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) said it had ordered equipment from UK manufacturer Thruvision. The company's equipment is not currently used on UK public transport, but it has been trialled at the Farnborough Airshow. The scanners have a wide field of view and can screen passengers as they ride an escalator or enter through ticket barriers. The company says its scanners can detect suspicious items from up to 32ft (10m) away, and can scan more than 2,000 passengers an hour. However, it will be used on a pop-up basis rather than permanently installed at specific stations in LA.

David Pekoske, from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told the Associated Press that the country faced "persistent threats to our transportation systems". "Our job is to ensure security in the transportation systems so that a terrorist incident does not happen on our watch," he said. Alex Wiggins, from the LACMTA, said the authority was looking for weapons that could cause a "mass-casualty event" such as explosives and assault rifles, rather than smaller weapons. The authority hopes to buy additional scanners that can follow individual suspects. The TSA has previously tested body scanners in New York's Penn Station, which is described as the busiest rail hub in North America. In December, a 27-year-old man was injured when he set off a "low-tech explosive device" in a subway passage near Times Square, New York. Three other people suffered minor wounds when the device blew up in an underpass.

[My first thought was a flash to the subway scene in Total Recall but it looks like the technology isn’t quite that sophisticated. It’s essentially an infra-red detection device that picks up on ‘dark’ areas on a person’s body that might reveal concealed weapons or suicide vests. If the trail is successful I’m guessing that such things will be showing up at all mass transit facilities and the police will start using them, or something similar, on the streets before long. Oh, what a brave new world we have created for ourselves….]

"If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are."

Nicolas Carr, The Glass Cage, 2014

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (FP: 1927)

Harry Haller has a problem. All around him he sees decay, mundane living, and the daily drudge. The world is flat, uninviting, monochrome. What few pleasures he takes from life are all too fleeting and he sneers at his own weakness in needing them. Harry’s problem is that he is split in two – with a human half seeking reason and order and an animal half seeking chaos and intense emotion. Harry is a wolf from the steppes – a Steppenwolf – in human clothing fitting into neither world and suffering in both. Or at least so he believes….

After verbally attacking his host at a late night get-together Harry finds himself in a nightclub in need of a drink. Before he can start drinking himself into oblivion he is approached by Hermine, a cute almost boyish young woman full of life and the knowledge of the night. Seeing him for exactly what he is Hermine takes charge ordering Harry food and drink and forcing him to rest whilst she dances. Entranced by his new found friend Harry promises to do whatever she says. What she wants is to teach him to dance and to laugh and to enjoy himself. Reluctantly Harry agrees and so begins his new life of dancing with strangers, finding a new young lover (procured by Hermine), enjoying Jazz music, taking various drugs (supplied by his new friend Pablo) and learning how to laugh. For all of this however Hermine demands a price – on their first evening out she extracts a promise from Harry, that when he falls in love with her he must do the one thing he can barely bring himself to think about. On the night he falls in love he must kill her to put her out of the misery she feels every day.

This has been sitting on my shelf for some years now untouched. It was one of those books that almost everyone had heard about but almost no one had read. Back when I first bought it I didn’t even try to read it – maybe I thought I could just absorb these classics by literary osmosis? Tried that – didn’t work. So read it I must! It was to be honest rather weird. The last 5th of the book was the weirdest of all (essentially an extended dreamscape) but the rest of it preceding this was, by and large, a standard narrative (with a few sprinkles of magical realism thrown in). What I did honestly find fascinating was his descriptions of Harry’s inability to fit into or accept standard bourgeois society. This was because, Hermine explained: “Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…..” Well, it was like a German author from the late 1920’s was talking directly to me. That, to be honest, knocked me back on my heels for a while! And that wasn’t the only passage that resonated deeply with me. His understanding, not only of German culture between the wars, but of human nature itself was profound. He certainly gave me many moments for thought. This was, despite my rather rambling synopsis, a gem of a book. It probably won’t sit well with most people but the Steppenwolves out there will know exactly what he’s talking about. Care to find out if you’re one……?

Translated from the German by Joseph Mileck and Horst Frenz

Monday, August 13, 2018

A (Temporary) Loss of Focus…..

Over the last few months I’ve noticed an odd lack of focus – on reading. Part of it, I’m sure, is to do with the unseasonably fine summer weather. After all this is England and the last thing we expect in the summer is day after day of hot dry weather. It’s not affecting my sleep as much as I thought it would but it did have an effect. Then there’s the dry and the dust which effects my eyes. Not so easy to read when your eyes are watering (not taking in to account my hay fever).

On top of that I’ve been spending quite a bit of extra time on YouTube watching US News shows, bits of gaming videos, motivational videos (I kid you not) and anything else that attracts my notice for a few minutes. It’s all rather addictive once you get going! Finally I have a new game which is eating up quite a bit of my time – although mostly late at night when I’m too tired to actually read but it’s not bed time yet. The game is No Man’s Sky (Next) which was half price on Steam and one of the guys alerted me to the fact. So I downloaded it…… 30+ gaming hours later I’m just finding my feet (on alien worlds) and am really enjoying it. I can’t play it much until later in the week because, until Wednesday, I’m playing Company of Heroes 2 with my primary gaming partners. So, what happens on/from Wednesday? The latest expansion to World of Warcraft drops….. Now normally I’d be all over that and would have been spending the last few weeks getting ready. But as I now have NMS(N) I feel that I just can’t devote the time to TWO open ended games. So I had to choose and I chose to explore an entire friggin’ UNIVERSE in a completely new game rather than continue in a game I had been playing for the last 5+ years. Seemed eminently sensible.

Compared to some people (several regulars here!) I don’t read that much or that fast. My aim is to average 50 pages a day which I do (or did until recently) 95% of the time. These days’ 50 pages is a struggle even at weekends – although I was impressed that I read 100+ pages on Sunday. Taking that into account I thought that my reading drought (something I experience periodically) was coming to an end. I do hope so! One very noticeable effect of all of this is the reduction of my review pile – presently sitting at zero. This almost never happened in the past 10 years and has now become the norm. I expect to have a book to review on Thursday but presently I’m not too sure. Of course I’m not going to bust a gut to finish it quickly just to be able to review it for you guys (and any lurkers out there) but I have temporarily increased my lunch breaks and am making more of an effort to read on the bus on the way into work. That helps.

What I essentially need to do is focus more. These days I seem to be particularly easily distracted after 4, 5, 10 pages and will do something else for 30, 45, 60 minutes before coming back to the book. I need to concentrate more. It’s a habit I seem to have (hopefully temporarily) misplaced….. and speaking of which I’ll go red for 30 minutes (at least) before bed…… 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Organic solar cells set 'remarkable' energy record

By Matt McGrath, BBC Environment correspondent

9 August 2018

Chinese researchers have taken what they say is a major step forward for the development of a new generation of solar cells. Manufacturers have long used silicon to make solar panels because the material was the most efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. But organic photovoltaics, made from carbon and plastic, promise a cheaper way of generating electricity. This new study shows that organics can now be just as efficient as silicon.

The term organic relates to the fact that carbon-based materials are at the heart of these devices, rather than silicon. The square or rectangular solid solar panels that most of us are familiar with, require fixed installation points usually on roofs or in flat fields. Organic photovoltaics (OPV) can be made of compounds that are dissolved in ink so they can be printed on thin rolls of plastic, they can bend or curve around structures or even be incorporated into clothing.

Commercial solar photovoltaics usually covert 15-22% of sunlight, with a world record for a silicon cell of 27.3% reached in this summer in the UK. Organics have long lingered at around half this rate, but this year has seen some major leaps forward. In April researchers were able to reach 15% in tests. Now this new study pushes that beyond 17% with the authors saying that up to 25% is possible. This is important because according to estimates, with a 15% efficiency and a 20 year lifetime, organic solar cells could produce electricity at a cost of less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. In 2017, the average cost of electricity in the US was 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

One of the things that has made OPV less efficient in the past is the fact that the organic materials have loosely bound molecules which can trap electrons and slow down the generation of electricity. So researchers have tried to get around this by putting different layers of material together in what's termed a tandem cell approach. "Tandem cell means you have two devices built together in the same structure," said one of the authors, Dr Yongsheng Chen, from Nankai University in Tianjin, China. "We have two layers of active materials, each layer can absorb different wavelengths of light. That means you can use sunlight in the wider wavelengths or more efficiently and this can generate more current."

Dr Yongsheng Chen compares the OPV to organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED. This technology has been introduced in the past few years and is widely used for high-end TVs. "These are already commercial, and they use a similar material to OPV," Dr Yongsheng Chen told BBC News. "The physical principle is the same, just a different direction, one is from solar to electricity, the other from electricity to light, the device and structure are similar. I am very positive for OPV, and it may not need five years," he added.

Flexible, printed solar cells offer a wide range of possibilities. They can work indoors and they can be made semi-transparent, so they could be incorporated into windows and generate power during daylight. They offer huge potential for buildings as they are lightweight so might be ideal for deploying on the roofs of houses in developing countries where structures might not suit heavy silicon. They could be used on the roofs of cars, and in clothes, even in glasses to charge your phone while you are out and about. "Their optional semi-transparency enables their use in windows or glass facade shading," said Dr Alexander Colsmann and expert on organic photovoltaics from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. "The very same properties render organic solar cells ideally suited to also power mobile applications - camping gear, smart wearables or phone chargers, just to name a few - which have been only insufficiently addressed by classical solar cell technologies such as silicon."

Other experts in this field were generally positive. "This looks a remarkable result to me," said Dr Artem Bakulin, from Imperial College London. "The development of such new materials with previously unthinkable properties allowed them to achieve the reported record efficiency and, in general, makes OPV technology much more promising." Dr Feng Gao from Linköping University in Sweden also believes the new paper is significant. "This work is a very important contribution to organic solar cells and will certainly inspire new developments in the field," he said by email. "The tandem organic solar cells with record efficiencies in this work indicate great potential of organic solar cells for practical applications."

[Wow, this seems to be quite a breakthrough and potentially going into commercial production reasonably soon. Imagine *windows* in your house generating power or even the tinted ‘skin’ of your car or even the clothes you’re wearing as you walk around outside. It could be a brave new world in not that many years from now!]

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Road Not Taken – How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution 1381-1926 by Frank McLynn (FP: 2012)

It’s an oddity of European political history that Britain has never experienced a revolution (I’m ignoring – as does the author – the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 which was nothing of the sort). We’ve come close though, more than once. The author concentrates on the major ‘near misses’ from the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 to the General Strike of 1926 showing the background to each event, how it unfolded and, most importantly, why each outbreak of revolutionary fervour failed to produce the expected revolutionary outcome.

I think the first thing that surprised me was the fact that I knew of the very earliest would-be revolutionaries partially from previous reading but also from some of my earliest school history lessons. I wonder if the teacher who taught me about Wat Tyler and Jack Cade also taught me to lionise Hereward. After all this was the late 60’s and early 70’s and I’m sure that there must have been some teachers in working class Comprehensive schools with left-leaning and revolutionary ideas themselves! The early examples – the 1381 revolt and the later Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 – where interesting enough but my interest solidified when the book reached the 17th century Civil Wars (something I need far greater knowledge of) and the eruption of various radical political ideas such as the Levellers and, of course, the Diggers both of whom tried the patience of Cromwell’s Commonwealth to breaking point and beyond. I was particularly interested in John Lilburne (who I’ve only really ‘met’ fictionally before now) who, yet again, I’m going to have to read up on a great deal more!). Of course the Commonwealth, also known as the Interregnum, is the only (brief) period where England was a republic – hence my abiding interest. After the chaos of the latter half of the 17th century we enter into the political mess of the 18th with the Jacobite menace and the uprising of 1745. This is (again) something I had heard of in passing but had no real knowledge of – no longer! I had no idea that the Jacobite’s (supporters of the previous James Stewart dynasty) where around for so long and that they posed such a threat to the house of Hanover then in power. On then to the turbulent 19th century – I had no idea that the last 3 centuries had so much civil unrest – with the advent of the Chartists who campaigned and agitated for the increase in voting rights for all adult males – such myopia when the rights of women were concerned seems to have been part of most so-called radical political agendas with a few notable exceptions. Lastly was a detailed (and honestly fascinating) analysis of the 9 day wonder of the 1926 General Strike. I’d read about this event before in a book written for its 50th anniversary (in 1976) which failed to address exactly why the Unions collapsed so early. Well, now I know! Needless to say it involved duplicity, incompetence and self-serving. But that’s another event I need to read up about!

Overall I was very impressed by this book. I think it’s pretty clear that the author is a left-leaning historian but that was never really in doubt. This is something I don’t mind. Wearing your political bias on your sleeve is far more appreciated than trying to hide it and failing. But the author was not shy from attacking the motivations (or indeed competence) of the Left throughout the book pointing out mistakes, missed opportunities and much else besides. I found myself chuckling more than once at his pointed references to character flaws all around. More than ably written with style, gusto and deep knowledge this was a delight from beginning to end. Despite covering a lot of ground in a little over 500 pages there is a lot of detail and analysis here that will leave you wondering of might have been’s and what if’s. Highly recommended for the student of revolutionary political history.