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

Monday, December 30, 2019

Still no chance of snow here.... Or in Moscow!

General Administration…

My plan was to post about one of my favourite (comparatively Recent) TV shows but I still have 3 episodes of the first series to watch so that’ll have to be shifted to next week/year. In the mean time I’ll just post a short (quite boring) piece about upcoming changes to the labelling scheme/list over on the right-hand side of the Blog page.

I mentioned recently about the addition of a Travel label (still with 5 entries) and I might at some point be adding an associated Exploration label and then have the ‘fun’ of deciding which book falls into which category. I’ve also mentioned a Sport label which will be appearing next year. There’s no book entries in this category (yet) but they are coming – with running and road racing already mentioned.

The other additions have been prompted by my recent trawls through my Random Pix and Art sections looking for images of ships and aircraft to add to my All @ Sea and Up in the Air sections. During the trawl I came across a significant number of train images (I mean who doesn’t like trains, right?), car related items – as well as the recent prompt from Mudpuddle about classic French cars – and, rather surprisingly horses, yes, that’s right, horses. So, coming soon will be the following new labels:

On Track
On The Road
My Kingdom 4

Presently all of these labels will contain pictures only. But I do have several train, car and even horse related books in the pipeline. Yet again I lay the blame at the feet of my ever present butterfly mind. Maybe someday I’ll run out of new topics to be interested in… but then again, probably not. 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Rosetta’s comet contains ingredients for life

From ESA


Ingredients regarded as crucial for the origin of life on Earth have been discovered at the comet that ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has been probing for almost two years. They include the amino acid glycine, which is commonly found in proteins, and phosphorus, a key component of DNA and cell membranes. Scientists have long debated the important possibility that water and organic molecules were brought by asteroids and comets to the young Earth after it cooled following its formation, providing some of the key building blocks for the emergence of life.

While some comets and asteroids are already known to have water with a composition like that of Earth’s oceans, Rosetta found a significant difference at its comet – fuelling the debate on their role in the origin of Earth’s water. But new results reveal that comets nevertheless had the potential to deliver ingredients critical to establish life as we know it. Amino acids are biologically important organic compounds containing carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, and form the basis of proteins.

Hints of the simplest amino acid, glycine, were found in samples returned to Earth in 2006 from Comet Wild-2 by NASA’s Stardust mission. However, possible terrestrial contamination of the dust samples made the analysis extremely difficult. Now, Rosetta has made direct, repeated detections of glycine in the fuzzy atmosphere or ‘coma’ of its comet. “This is the first unambiguous detection of glycine at a comet,” says Kathrin Altwegg, principal investigator of the ROSINA instrument that made the measurements, and lead author of the paper published in Science Advances today. “At the same time, we also detected certain other organic molecules that can be precursors to glycine, hinting at the possible ways in which it may have formed.” The measurements were made before the comet reached its closest point to the Sun – perihelion – in August 2015 in its 6.5 year orbit.

The first detection was made in October 2014 while Rosetta was just 10 km from the comet. The next occasion was during a flyby in March 2015, when it was 30–15 km from the nucleus. Glycine was also seen on other occasions associated with outbursts from the comet in the month leading up to perihelion, when Rosetta was more than 200 km from the nucleus but surrounded by a lot of dust. “We see a strong link between glycine and dust, suggesting that it is probably released perhaps with other volatiles from the icy mantles of the dust grains once they have warmed up in the coma,” says Kathrin. Glycine turns into gas only when it reaches temperatures just below 150°C, meaning that usually little is released from the comet’s surface or subsurface because of the low temperatures. This accounts for the fact that Rosetta does not always detect it.

“Glycine is the only amino acid that is known to be able to form without liquid water, and the fact we see it with the precursor molecules and dust suggests it is formed within interstellar icy dust grains or by the ultraviolet irradiation of ice, before becoming bound up and conserved in the comet for billions of years,” adds Kathrin. Another exciting detection made by Rosetta and described in the paper is of phosphorus, a key element in all known living organisms. For example, it is found in the structural framework of DNA and in cell membranes, and it is used in transporting chemical energy within cells for metabolism. “There is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the chemistry on early Earth and there is of course a huge evolutionary gap to fill between the delivery of these ingredients via cometary impacts and life taking hold,” says co-author Hervé Cottin.

“But the important point is that comets have not really changed in 4.5 billion years: they grant us direct access to some of the ingredients that likely ended up in the prebiotic soup that eventually resulted in the origin of life on Earth. The multitude of organic molecules already identified by Rosetta, now joined by the exciting confirmation of fundamental ingredients like glycine and phosphorous, confirms our idea that comets have the potential to deliver key molecules for prebiotic chemistry,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist. “Demonstrating that comets are reservoirs of primitive material in the Solar System and vessels that could have transported these vital ingredients to Earth, is one of the key goals of the Rosetta mission, and we are delighted with this result.”

[I know that there has been much speculation of where the original complex chemicals came from that started life on Earth. It’s possible that at least some of them might have come from comets – as long as they survived getting through the atmosphere – but I don’t think that’s where life originated. The way I see it it’s a matter of quantities. The amount of amino acids from space is probably miniscule in the grand scheme of things. I think that most if not all the chemical basis for life originated on Earth – and by extension the chemicals for life on other worlds originated there too. But it’s good to know that complex chemicals can be formed outside of a planetary environment. That indicates to me that such things are extremely common in the galaxy and, by extension, so is life itself.]

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (FP: 2006)

Istanbul, 1836. Change is coming as inevitably as Day follows Night. After yet another defeat at the hands of Europeans the great Ottoman Empire must modernise or die. In 10 short days the Sultan will issue a new Edict changing rules for dress, commerce, and much more besides. Modernity will be the order of the day. But with any change there is always opposition, those who follow the old ways, those who revere the past and everything it represents, those who will do anything to protect long held traditions. As the day approaches four young Army officer cadets disappear on a night out. One by one their mutilated corpses are found at sites holy to the Janissaries lately crushed by the new administration. As panic begins to spread throughout the city Yashim the eunuch, who has been useful before, is sent for to investigate the killings and prevent, if possible, whatever is coming to challenge the Sultan’s wishes. With time pressing and a cadre of killers more than willing to burn the city to the ground Yashim must not only discover the truth of things but find out who he can trust both within and outside the administration. No doubt the Russian’s would like to see the Sultan fail so that they could apply pressure and gain access to the Mediterranean Sea but is that motive enough? What of the displaced Janissaries? Everything points to their involvement and their resurgence but is that a cover for something else, something more insidious and something far more dangerous? Yashim needs to find out – before it kills him.

Despite having several first novel (but not first publication) faults – some repartition (particularly regarding the fact that the main character/detective is a eunuch and is still angry about it after many   decades) and a little too much exposition (excellent and informative though it was) – this was still a most excellent historical crime novel. Yashim is an outstanding character, self-reflective, sophisticated, intelligent and with a variety of interesting friends and associates and is a superb tour guide to early 19th century Turkey in all its complexity. Rather inevitably my interest in the region and the period has been piqued so I’ll be investigating further. Fortunately I already have several histories of the region in my Middle East pile so I’m set for a while! Also fortunately this volume is the first of 5 books in the series so you’ll be hearing far more of Mr Goodwin. Interestingly the author has written extensively on the region so is coming to the genre with a deep background understanding of the city, its culture and history and this shows (in spades) between these covers. It’s an easy way to learn about the Ottoman Empire without really trying. You might also pick up a few recipe idea as the main character cooks his way through the investigation (the author – not surprisingly – has also produced an Ottoman Cook Book!). As historical crime novels go this is one of the best I can recall in recent years. Some of the murders are a bit grisly so they might put off the more sensitive souls who might be thinking about reading this work but you can always skip a half page or so without missing too much of this highly recommended romp. Definitely more to come!           

Monday, December 23, 2019

Reading Plans for 2020 & Beyond…..

I was going to do this next week but I couldn’t think of anything else so…… As we approach the end of the year and, indeed the end of the first decade in the 21st century, it naturally comes to mind to think ahead to what books I’m planning to read next. Now I’m the first to admit that I have grand ideas and mad plans that either never come to fruition or take AGES to get going. But with that caveat in mind here’s a few of my ideas for the year(s) ahead….

I’ve mentioned a few times about reading deeply into the beginning of World War Two and particularly that short period between the Fall of France in 1940 and the US entry into the war at the end of 1941 when Britain essentially stood alone against the Axis Powers. That will (finally) be arriving next year. I have over 30 books covering that time period so it’s about high time I get to reading them! I also have a growing pile covering the period from D-Day into the Cold War after WW2 ended in 1945. I do get a Cold War vibe occasionally from the nightly news so inevitably my interest in this time (just before I was born) has been piqued. Rather oddly (or maybe it’s just me?) as I’m reading a series of books about the end of WW1 and the effects of that conflict between the wars I’m intending to shift back a bit to address how it all started in 1914 and even a little further back to the transition of the Victorian Age to the Edwardian and the emergence of clearly modern times. Saying all of that I am very conscious of the fact that the vast majority of my history reading is based in the 20th century (where I feel most at home). I’ll see if I can address that by at least dipping into the 19th and maybe even sooner.

Geographically I shall still be concentrating on UK and European events and will mostly be looking at other countries through the European lens. The List over on the right of the page already has entries from Afghanistan to the UK and this list will probably grow over time. For now my outside Europe reading will be mostly focusing on the Middle East, China & Japan and the USA. As part of this, to get away from a purely historical viewpoint, I’ve been looking at some travel stories – both classic and modern – from around the world so they should be filtering through fairly soon. I’ve already added a Travel tab into the List covering previous volumes so you’ll be seeing that figure (presently 5) regularly increase.

Somewhat of a surprise – to me as well! – will be a number of sport related books in the future. As someone who barely registers that sporting events even occur my burgeoning interest in the area intrigues me probably as much as it does you. So far the only sports being covered are running and motor racing but that will probably expand as we go. We’ll see where that one leads……

Politically I’ll still be focusing on my special R4 category (Revolt, Rebellion, Resistance and Revolution) with the emphasis on the Resistance aspect and, therefore inevitably, mostly 20th century. At some point, when it all starts to gel in my mind, I hope to turn it into a PhD project but that’s another thing we’ll have to see about. Naturally my political reading will still be primarily from the Left of things but I’ll no doubt be tipping my toes into the other side – particularly if I’m reading about 20th century Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Having such a butterfly mind my reading will, from time to time, be all over the place. My ‘probabilistic’ approach is, I think, working really well so I’ll be continuing with that. This will mean that rather surprising books will turn up periodically which should be fun for all of us. Although I do like structure and don’t much like surprises the probability side of things does keep things interesting!

Finally, for now, is the issue of my upcoming retirement in March 2020. With (much) more time on my hands I hope/expect to be reading (much) more. My average presently is in the low 60’s. Next year I’m aiming for 75. The year after I’ll see how far I can push it to 100. From then on 100 will be my yearly target. How often I meet it…. Well, we’ll see! Here’s (hopefully) to some interesting a fruitful reading years to come!   

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Best avoided @ Christmas parties..... [grin]
Climate change: Met Office says warming trend will continue in 2020

By Matt McGrath, BBC Environment correspondent

19 December 2019

Next year will continue the global warming trend with temperatures again likely to rise more than one degree above pre-industrial levels. According to the Met Office, 2020 will likely be 1.11C warmer than the average between 1850-1900. The year ahead is set to extend the series of the warmest years on record to six in a row. Scientists say the strongest factor causing the rise is greenhouse gas emissions.

The world first broke through one degree above pre-industrial temperatures back in 2015. Each year since then has seen temperatures close to or above this mark. The warmest year on record is 2016 when a strong El Niño made a significant difference. This weather phenomenon sees sea surface temperatures increase in the central and eastern Pacific and it's associated with a range of impacts around the world, including the overall global level of warming. According to the Met Office, the chances of a strong El Niño in 2020 are low. They forecast that the global average temperature next year will be in the range of 0.99C to 1.23C with a central estimate of 1.11C. The researchers say that the key factor will be emissions of CO2 and other warming gases. "Natural events - such as El Niño-induced warming in the Pacific - influence the climate system, but in the absence of El Niño, this forecast gives a clear picture of the strongest factor causing temperatures to rise - greenhouse gas emissions," said Professor Adam Scaife, the Met Office head of long-range prediction.

According to researchers, carbon dioxide emissions this year have risen slightly, despite a drop in the use of coal. The Global Carbon Project's annual analysis of emission trends suggests that CO2 will go up by 0.6% in 2019. The rise is due to continuing strong growth in the utilisation of oil and gas. The scale of emissions has a direct bearing on temperatures, scientists say. Provisional figures released earlier this month by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) suggest 2019 is on course to be the second or third warmest year ever. If those numbers hold, 2015-2019 would end up being the warmest five-year period on record. The Met Office say they have confidence in their prediction for 2020 based on what's happened in previous years. This time last year they estimated that 2019 would be 1.10C above the 1850-1900 mark. The actual temperature recorded this year from January to October shows a global mean 1.11C.

"The forecast for 2020 would place next year amongst the six warmest years on record, which would all have occurred since 2015," said Dr Doug Smith, a Met Office research fellow. "All of these years have been around 1.0C warmer than the pre-industrial period." With temperatures keeping close to the one degree mark, there will be renewed concern from scientists that the world is on track to breach the 1.5C limit that many researchers say is the threshold of increasingly dangerous impacts. 2020 will see a major push to get countries to ramp up their plans to ensure the world stays below the 1.5C mark. The recent COP25 summit in Madrid saw several key issues kicked down the road to Glasgow where countries from all over the world will meet next November. The critical issue of increasing ambition to curb emissions is set to dominate the discussions, which will be presided over by the UK. The Committee on Climate Change has warned the government that Britain needed to do better to meet its own targets if it wanted to have credibility with negotiators in Glasgow.

[I was just saying to the guys tonight just how ridiculously mild it is here this year. They’re predicting 45F on Christmas Day and 49F on New Year’s Day. I don’t know if that’s unprecedented but it’s bloody mild! Presently we have heavy flooding South-East of us (it’s essentially been raining on and off for a good 6-8 weeks now) and there’s no sign of let up. Australia could really do with some of our rain and the entire country looks to be on fire – which is exactly what Climate scientists have been saying for years. I saw recently that predictions as far back as the late 70’s are coming true. So when are governments going to start listening I wonder???] 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Deluge – The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (1916-1931) by Adam Tooze (FP: 2014)

No doubt it was offered with the very best of intentions however naïve. But all the same the idea was like political acid – self-determination. Never fully explained or even understood it meant many things to many people and that, at its heart, was the problem. Throughout Europe and the wider world the idea of the right to and expectation of self-determination worked its magic helping to break up old empires and create countries out of whole cloth. It encouraged people’s, previously disenfranchised, to rise up against their governments to be allowed their own homeland and equal rights in the eyes of the law, and it brought democracy where none had previously existed. The Genie was very much out of the bottle and no one, even at gun point, was going to put it back in – although some would try very hard indeed.

Of course principles are easy to state, safely between two oceans with little or nothing to lose by the statement. Living up to the same principles when they hit the hard reality of international politics was something else. The easy part was returning Alsace-Lorraine to France (despite the number of ethnic Germans living there). The harder part was countries like Poland which had to be carved out of the pre-existing territories of Germany, Russia and others. Most especially difficult was the provision of natural resources and, more importantly, access to the sea at Danzig. No self-determination there just hard economics, realpolitik and hard bargaining. Even those on the ground could see that the Polish solution was storing up problems for the future. But that was for the newly formed League of Nations to resolve or at least that was the idea before it was effectively emasculated by its Byzantine internal set of rules in an attempt to appear fairer than it in fact was as well the aspect that America never took up its place at the table to spare any future European entanglements.

As a forward looking people the Americans – in the public guise of President Wilson – had little interest in Europe’s Imperial past. They did have an interest in the world’s economic future, unrestricted access to new markets, an open seas policy enforced by a navy at least the equal of Britain’s and the speedy recovery of war debt accrued by the Entente powers. Almost as important in many eyes was the restriction of Japanese expansionism within China and throughout Asia. Not only did the US consider the Pacific to be within their sphere of influence but they thought of the Japanese themselves with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. The US policy towards China itself was hardly coherent and managed to send mixed signals to both the Japanese and Chinese authorities which did little to help stabilise that chaotic region.

At the centre of everything were two countries fighting in many ways for their very existence – Germany and Russia. Germany was the vanquished foe trying to recover from the heavy blow of defeat and the heavier blow of post-Versailles reparations. Stumbling from government to government, fighting elements from both the hard-left and the hard-right, it had an uncertain future. Russia meanwhile was trying to decide between being a failed state or a pariah state. After the 1917 revolution, the declaration of a separate peace with Germany and a descent into years of Civil War the newly formed Soviet Union, birthed in a sea of blood, began to take its place on the world stage. Contained for now by the western powers it still had the capacity, real or imagined, to infect the rest of the world with the ideas of universal Communism. It was in many ways a useful bogeyman.

In this truly formidably impressive work the global chaos caused by 5 years of war, the likes of which had never been seen before, is laid out for all to see and the echoes of this great conflict are followed through as they impacted countries as diverse as Japan and Ukraine. Despite its world spanning reach and its 15 year timeline the detail presented between these 500+ pages is awe inspiring. It is by no means an easy read but the effort is amply rewarded and then some. Not only does the author clearly explain exactly the damage – political, economic and in a real sense moral – caused by the war but he also (again very clearly) shows how this often unresolved and unaddressed damage significantly facilitated an even greater disaster a mere two decades later. The author rightly points out that although World War Two was not the inevitable result of its predecessor the fact that systemic problems in the world system after 1918 were not addressed – even when known about and warned about – meant that any realistic options for peace were increasingly closed off between then and 1939. This is an important work and a must read for anyone who wants to understand exactly how we got here. I can think of much worse places to start if you’re willing to put the time and brain effort into it. Highly recommended. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Cyberkitten & the December Election

Well, I got THAT wrong! I don’t think I have much of a future as a political forecaster….. I did do some research though. I talked to my gaming buddies who had varying opinions on the subject covering most of the options available – including not voting at all. I also talked to quite a few people at work both inside and outside my team. The consensus was pretty much the same whoever I talked to – that they were largely undecided and that all of the parties had problems and that any voting decision was going to be a tough one. When the prediction first came out that the Tories were going to win with an 80+ majority I didn’t believe it. After all they were expecting a majority last time and actually LOST seats. But then reality intruded….

As usual I’d book the day after off (so brought the start of my Christmas Leave one day forward to Friday 13th December) and planned to stay up all night watching the results as they came in. In the event I stayed up till around 3am and had lost interest by that point. By then it was obvious that the Conservatives were going to win and win big so I went to bed. Checking next morning I was actually shocked by the result. True the Tories didn’t do quite as well as predicted but they still managed to get a majority of 39 after gaining 47 seats so they should be able to do pretty much what they like despite any backbench rebellion. It also means that they should be able to push through their Brexit programme pretty much unopposed. Labour got destroyed – much more than I expected and apparently chalked up their biggest election defeat since 1935! Not surprisingly several of the leadership including Jeremy himself will be falling on their swords and bowing out of things. This will, inevitably, be followed by much in-fighting and bloodletting which will make the Labour Party unelectable for at least 5-10 years. We’ll probably end up with something akin to the Blair version of New Labour eventually. Even more surprising, at least to me, is the shift that didn’t happen as the Liberal Democrats picked up fewer votes than I expected and actually reduced their number by 1 – embarrassingly the seat of their leader who, in accordance with their rules, has had to stand down from her leadership position. About the only thing I got right, which to be honest was bloody obvious, was how well the Scottish Nationalists did – gaining 13 seats and almost taking the whole of Scotland (again). All of the pundits think this will mean an inevitable clash between the Scots and the British parliament and a possible constitutional crisis if Scotland insists on a second Independence Referendum and the British government deny them one.

So, not exactly the opposite of what I expected to happen but close enough. It does mean yet another 5 years of Tory government with a chaotic opposition and, probably, another 5 years after that too. Brexit will be agreed early next year but I doubt that we’ll be fully out by the Christmas 2020 deadline. I think it’ll drag on a year or two after that….. But we are eventually leaving. I’ll never see it as a good idea (or even a sane one) but I do need to accept that it is really going to happen. Interesting Times will continue for some time yet – you’d better buckle up!     

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Emotion-detecting tech should be restricted by law - AI Now

By Leo Kelion, BBC Technology desk editor

12 December 2019

A leading research centre has called for new laws to restrict the use of emotion-detecting tech. The AI Now Institute says the field is "built on markedly shaky foundations". Despite this, systems are on sale to help vet job seekers, test criminal suspects for signs of deception, and set insurance prices. It wants such software to be banned from use in important decisions that affect people's lives and/or determine their access to opportunities. The US-based body has found support in the UK from the founder of a company developing its own emotional-response technologies - but it cautioned that any restrictions would need to be nuanced enough not to hamper all work being done in the area.

AI Now refers to the technology by its formal name, affect recognition, in its annual report. It says the sector is undergoing a period of significant growth and could already be worth as much as $20bn (£15.3bn). "It claims to read, if you will, our inner-emotional states by interpreting the micro-expressions on our face, the tone of our voice or even the way that we walk," explained co-founder Prof Kate Crawford. "It's being used everywhere, from how do you hire the perfect employee through to assessing patient pain, through to tracking which students seem to be paying attention in class. At the same time as these technologies are being rolled out, large numbers of studies are showing that there is... no substantial evidence that people have this consistent relationship between the emotion that you are feeling and the way that your face looks." Prof Crawford suggested that part of the problem was that some firms were basing their software on the work of Paul Ekman, a psychologist who proposed in the 1960s that there were only six basic emotions expressed via facial emotions. But, she added, subsequent studies had demonstrated there was far greater variability, both in terms of the number of emotional states and the way that people expressed them. "It changes across cultures, across situations, and even across a single day," she said.

AI Now gives several examples of companies that are selling emotion-detecting products, some of which have already responded. Oxygen Forensics was cited for offering emotion-detecting software to the police, but defended its efforts. "The ability to detect emotions, such as anger, stress, or anxiety, provide law-enforcement agencies additional insight when pursuing a large-scale investigation," said its chief operating officer, Lee Reiber. "Ultimately, we believe that responsible application of this technology will be a factor in making the world a safer place." Another example was HireVue, which sells AI-driven video-based tools to recommend which candidates a company should interview. It uses third-party algorithms to detect "emotional engagement" in applicants' micro-expressions to help make its choices. "Many job candidates have benefited from HireVue's technology to help remove the very significant human bias in the existing hiring process," spokeswoman Kim Paone told Reuters news agency. Cogito, which has developed voice-analysis algorithms for call-centre staff to help them detect when customers are becoming distressed, was also mentioned. "Before emotion detection can own making automated decisions, the industry needs more proof that machines can in fact effectively and consistently detect human emotion," its chief executive Joshua Feast told the BBC. "What can be done today, is to evaluate the behaviours that proxy for certain emotions and provide that intelligence to a human to help them make a more informed decision. For tomorrow and the future, it's up to all practitioners and leaders in the field to collaborate, research, and develop solutions that help foster deeper, common understanding that will eventually lead to more connected relationships with one another - not in spite of technology, but because of it." The BBC also asked some of the other named companies for comment, but got no reply.

Emteq - a Brighton-based firm trying to integrate emotion-detecting tech into virtual-reality headsets - was not among those flagged for concern. Its founder said that while today's AI systems could recognise different facial expressions, it was not a simple matter to deduce what the subject's underlying emotional state was. "One needs to understand the context in which the emotional expression is being made," explained Charles Nduka. "For example, a person could be frowning their brow not because they are angry but because they are concentrating or the sun is shining brightly and they are trying to shield their eyes. Context is key, and this is what you can't get just from looking at computer vision mapping of the face." He, too, thought there was need to regulate use of the tech. But he expressed concern that in doing so, lawmakers did not restrict the work he and others were doing to try to use emotion-detecting software in the medical field. "If things are going to be banned, it's very important that people don't throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said.

[It does seems that we (or at least some companies) are determined to automate discrimination and disadvantage based on algorithms – and flawed algorithms at that. If your face doesn’t fit – literally -  based on a computers reading you could fail an interview or even get arrested in some pre-crime style dystopia and just because a computer programme makes a decision and because people believe what’s on a screen in preference to what’s in front of their eyes. We will rue the day that this sort of thing because accepted and in widespread use.]

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Just Finished Reading: Destroying Angel by Richard Paul Russo (FP: 1992)

Everyone thought, or at least hoped, that it was over. No new bodies had been discovered for years. Maybe the killer had moved on or maybe even died or had been arrested for a different crime. Maybe it was just over, finished. In a wat Tanner no longer cared. He’d left the force, made a new life for himself. He was finally getting by. Even the nightmares had started to subside. Then they found the bodies. Two of them chained together just like the last time. Whatever the explanation the Angel of Death was back in business. As much as he tried not to get involved Tanner had information the police could use. If it was still currant that is and if the police would agree to the terms Tanner’s informant would ask for. That was the problem of course. The police never really liked making terms with a cop killer even when the cops he’s had killed were as dirty as they come. Cops just hated cop killers and who could blame them. But it was the only way so Tanner got his green light. He’d go back to working for the cops this time rather than with them. He’d get his expenses and maybe some back-up if the shit really hit the fan but mostly he’d be on his own, reliant on his old contacts, calling in favours and hoping that none of his old enemies still wanted him dead. After a few days the nightmare’s started again but bad dreams were the least of Tanner’s problems as he was about to find out…..

I’d been wanting to read this for a while. I always loved cyberpunk from the moment I stumbled across it back in the late 80’s. Although I’d never read this author before I was delighted to discover that he was a skilled practitioner of neo-noir. This is essentially a hard-boiled detective novel transplanted to near future (21st century) San Francisco. Although the high-tech aspects are dated somewhat – no cell phones for example or even smart phones – the story still follows the high-tech/low life themes common throughout the cyberpunk genre. Most of the action takes place at street level and even the few rest periods as well as periodic meeting with police investigators takes place on the mean streets rather than in the glass and chrome towers where the future is really happening. This reality is acknowledged but ultimately skirted around. A reality of the world but someone else’s reality. Most of the main characters are criminals. Even Tanner is a smuggler of sorts useful to the police who usually turn a blind eye to his operation, useful to certain parts of the Corporations and helping to maintain local hospitals who can’t afford the latest designer drugs. Most of the street criminals do what they do to get by – petty theft, illegal gambling, prostitution, and drug dealing. Others prey on the lower levels and meet out judgements where ‘required’. It’s a dog eat dog world where law is rarely seen. The feel of the city is gritty and realistic. Things are mostly falling apart and everyone knows it. The name of the game is simple survival. Needless to say I really enjoyed this. What’s even better that it’s the first book in a trilogy. OK all three books are out of print but that just makes it more of a challenge. Well written, well-paced, nicely visual, edgy and with a decent ending this was a breeze to read and was a real page turner. Highly recommended if you can get a copy. (R)