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

Monday, March 30, 2020

Pedal Power!
A Fourth View from the Apocalypse

Time certainly flies when the whole world is on lock-down. Last week was my last week in the office – except I spent the first 3 days of it in bed and the last 2 working from home. It was an odd way to leave a company I’ve been with for 32 years….. Technically I’m on vacation now until the 8th April which is when I actually leave. But still, basically I’m retired now…. I was hoping, at least after a few weeks doing very little but chilling at home, to wander around locally and even take some short train journeys around the region. After all Spring is in the air etc…. But, it was not to be.

We have been (strongly) advised to stay indoors as much as possible and only to venture out for food and emergencies. It helps that there’s nowhere to go – practically everything is shut – but it’s still passing strange. After being ill and them catching up with my final workload I hadn’t left the house for around a week. I did venture out on Saturday briefly to pop to my local supermarket partially to pick up a few things but mostly to see what’s occurring. Stocks of things were fairly good – still no toilet paper though – and I managed to get some fresh bread which I hadn’t had since the previous Sunday. I’m OK for most things as I was casually stockpiling for Brexit so I’m not worried about that.

Social distancing isn’t bothering me too much either. I’m pretty much a homebody anyway and have a lot of practice at not being around other people. I know a few people who are struggling with the isolation – despite everything Social Media can do to alleviate it – but it’s barely registering with me so far. I’m certainly not bored. Not having to go to work means I’m sleeping longer plus I’m reading more and can finally start to catch up with my accumulation of TV boxsets – Westworld Series 1 presently. Of course I’m also reading more too. I finished a non-fiction Science book yesterday and am already half way through a (admitted thin) political biography. I’m also heavily hitting a few YouTube channels that I stumbled across a few months ago. Several of them have over 1000 15 minute videos so I’m sorted for quite some time to come and am learning quite a bit of science, history, Lit an movie crit and more…. And, of course there’s music – lots of music (Herbie Hancock presently in the background). 

Although this is now the new normal it won’t be like this for long. Ultimately there will be a vaccine although it’s probably at least a year away. Things will probably ease off in the Summer although they’ll probably get worse again over the Winter. In the meantime all the things we should have been doing before the Pandemic will be, at last, in place so if there is a new surge in the winter we’ll be ready for it. This has been a hell of a learning experience for everyone. Maybe now the world’s leaders will take this seriously. A Pandemic such as we’re living through has been predicted for decades and we’ve had a few very near misses over the last decade or so. Yet we were caught woefully unprepared and we’re paying the price. We need early warning stations out there, we need well-funded global organisations capable of swift threat assessment and containment measures and we need health services that have enough flexibility to respond well to a crisis. Cutting everything to the bone and saving pennies off budgets now only stores up problems for later. Hopefully this is a world-wide wake-up call to all concerned. I do hope so because the next Pandemic could be a lot worse.

Stay Safe & Be Safe.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Boer War – A History by Denis Judd and Keith Surridge (FP: 2002)

They just wanted to be left alone and to be able to carry on their lives how their fathers before them had lived – before the coming of the English and their Empire. But when things looked as if such an accommodation inside the Empire’s boundaries wasn’t possible they did the only thing they could – they left on a trek further into the African wilderness to carve out a new life. There they hoped that things could continue as before. Until they found both their economic salvation and a lure the British could not easily ignore. In a short space of time the retreating Boers – Afrikaans descended from the original Dutch settlers – had not only discovered both diamonds and gold but two of the largest deposits of each in the world. Having a potentially unfriendly and independent nation on the edge of Empire with that kind of resource behind it was at best a problem. At worse it could destabilise the region and threaten the coaling station to India. The Boers needed to be absorbed into the Empire – by choice or not. After increasing pressure the Orange Free State and the Transvaal decided they had no option but to fight for their independence.

It looked on the face of it like a foregone conclusion. It was a David and Goliath fight where David had no chance at all. Even the Boers thought they couldn’t win but if they gave the Empire a bloody nose early on they’d be in a better position to bargain. No one was more surprised than the Afrikaans forces when they handily defeated the British in their first encounters. This was not a war that would be over in weeks or even months. As soon as this was realised the British delivered a massive force to Cape Town with the express mission of defeating the rebels and saving the honour of Queen and Country. It was not going to be easy. The Boers were no native force unused to modern warfare and modern weapons. They had some of the best rifles in the world, an intimate knowledge of the country and, most important, total mobility. They could hit anywhere which forced the British to be everywhere. It was a whole new way of warfare and the British had a lot of catching up to do.

Any Brit of my age will know about the Boer War, it was a top subject in our History class about Empire, the start of the 20th Century and the lessons that the British Army were forced to learn during the conflict that went a long way to prepare it to fight in a very different conflict just over a decade later in France and Flanders. What this book had, in spades, was both the level of detail missing from those history lessons so long ago as well as the ability to tell the full story from both sides. Like all wars, especially more modern ones, this was a complex fight full of heroism and tragedy. It called the Empire into question like never before and called into existence the concentration camp where thousands of men, women and children died in order to deny the Boer Commando units local assistance. Initially seen very much as a side-show of Empire it was a war that deserves to be remembered for a whole host of reasons and the authors do a very fine job indeed of covering the events. Recommended.

Monday, March 23, 2020

A Third View from The Apocalypse

Well, how quickly things change. For one thing I’m ill. I started feeling rough yesterday and then it built throughout the day. Whether or not it’s Covid-19 I have no idea. It feels like a bad cold. I’m running a reasonable temperature – not too high ATM – and I’m blowing my nose a LOT. I do have a cough but it’s not a dry hacking cough so I’m not too worried about that. Plus I’ve had a cough for the last two or three weeks following another cold in Feb. So far at least my breathing is fine. So, if it is Covid I’m guessing it’s the mild (non-hospital) version. At least I hope so.

I’ve just watched the PMs speech. It was pretty draconian to say the least. Essentially for the next three weeks we are not to leave our homes except for food, medicine and emergencies. If people are spotted in groups larger than two they’ll be broken up by the police. Yup, it’s that bad, it’s that real. Reading about historical events can often be fascinating. Living through those events on a day to day basis – not so much.

Because I’m ill I’ll be self-isolating until at least the end of the week by which time I hope to be feeling a lot better. I have enough food, medicine and, importantly, toilet roll to last me until then at least. Then it’ll be 20 minutes in my local supermarket once or twice a week for absolute essentials. I don’t really need much. There’s just me so I’ll manage.

The timing though…. My last day at work on Friday 27th – and I’ll be at home, as I will be all this week. I guess I’ll give back my work kit when we’re allowed to move around again. Totally weird. It’s definitely going to be a very strange 2020.

Be safe. Stay safe. I’ll see you on the other side!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Although barely.... (so I've been told).

Just Finished Reading: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (FP: 2001)

Waking up from the dead, in someone else’s body, on an alien planet was never going to be a good start – until it got worse: His new body, his sleeve, was a smoker and he’d just managed to quit. Then there was the reason he’d been brought back. A rich guy, a Meth, a Methuselah who was effectively immortal, had apparently committed suicide but was convinced he’d been killed and wanted Kovacs to find out who killed him. It wasn’t going to be easy. Kovacs was new to Earth, new to its culture and new to the life of the immortals. He needed help and that wasn’t going to come easy either. The police had better things to do than investigate a victimless ‘crime’ but others seemed to have a different agenda – they wanted the investigation stopped and stopped dead if necessary. But in a world where the rich and powerful live forever and even the average person gets a second chance at life how do you come to terms with jumping through time, occupying other bodies and losing the fear of death itself? What would you do to give life meaning if you had forever to find out?

I’d heard of this first as a series from Netflix never having come across the book or the author before that. The clips I saw on YouTube looked interesting so when the reissued paperback came out I picked it up. I have to say that, for a first novel, this was quite something. Although the action takes place several hundred years in the future – in San Francisco – the plot is recognisably Noir. If you’ve ever seen, and enjoyed, the American detective films from the 30’s and 40’s you’ll really like this book. It really has the feel of a grey tone Phillip Marlowe film complete with excellent dialogue (which more than once made me laugh out loud it was so spot on). Likewise with characterisation:  Kovacs himself is a brilliant character, laconic, deeply flawed, hurting (and not just for nicotine) and cynical. He has the Noir sensibility nail down. The main love interest, Kristin Ortega, is equally complex and believable. I liked her and I equally liked the strange assassin/hard case Trepp who didn’t mind too much that Kovacs had killed her earlier in his quest for the truth. But this was far more than a well-executed Future Noir. The implications of effective immortality were both shown and discussed in many of its aspects, how it shaped society, individuals and culture including religion. The issue of being “re-sleaved” in a different body hundreds of years after ‘dying’ is a fascinating idea. Even more so was an almost side issue of those who believe that uploading the consciousness would fail to upload the soul and therefore upload was death. As the legal penalty for many crimes was upload and storage for the length of the sentence to them every crime carried a death sentence! How would you cope with that and what if you were ‘brought back’ for some reason? How would you cope? There’s a novel right there!

Now the caveats: This is essentially a gritty crime novel with an updated Noir sensibility. That means there’s a fair amount of swearing, rather bloody violence and sex. Often taking place in the shadows there’s also drug use, blood sports, sexual exploitation and torture – both real and virtual. Needless to say this is not for the faint of heart! But, if you have the stomach for it, it’s an excellent future noir and I am really looking forward to the other two books in the series. Definitely one of the best SF novels I’ve read in years. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Second View From the Apocalypse.

So, here we are a week later. A lot has changed in the last 7 days! Both China and South Korea seem to have a handle on things and places like Italy have been hit particularly badly. Indeed in a somewhat surprising development China is now offering technical and practical help to Italy. Who would have thought that a year ago? Closer to home the number of cases of Covid-19 has been growing steadily here as have the numbers of deaths including at least one in my closest large city. It has, as they say, been getting real.

In advance of Government advice both individuals and organisations have been reacting to the hourly events. Sporting and other social events have been cancelled or postponed. Schools haven’t been closed yet but they probably will be by the end of the week or at least by the end of the month. The Prime Minister’s speech tonight will probably mean that a great deal more people will be working from home shortly. My work has been putting plans in place for just that and I expect to be told tomorrow that we’ll be expected to be working from home by Friday. Which is kind of a bummer from a purely personal and selfish perspective as we had planned a team evening out at a nice Italian restaurant followed by much alcohol this Friday. The way things are I/we really can’t justify that now – not only for the risk to ourselves but for the risk to others if we catch it whilst out enjoying ourselves and then pass it on to someone who has a bad time of things (or worse!). Of course rather ironically it’s my last week in work next week so I’ll be spending the time writing memo’s to people explaining my job, where we keep the photocopier paper and who to ask to get sensible answers on X, Y and Z.

After I give my laptop and cell phone back I guess that I’ll be spending a lot of time at home – practicing social distance. So pretty much a normal weekend then, just extended for a few months (at least). We’ll see how that goes. It’s not like I don’t have enough to read, watch and listen to in order to keep me occupied. That certainly won’t be a problem. Fortunately I like my own company and most definitely don’t bore easily! Cabin fever won’t really be an issue with me – I’ve had far too much practice to let a bit of ‘isolation’ bother me. It will mean that some of my planned short trips will need to be postponed (probably to next year) but a year with my feet up sounds pretty good to be honest.

Naturally people are still panic buying. Another week in and the shortage of toilet roll continues but my local supermarket did have some (briefly) this weekend. I didn’t need any so left it on the shelf. Still no hand-sanitiser (which I haven’t seen now for at least 2-3 weeks), little in the way of liquid soap but (oddly) LOTS of hard ‘cake’ soap. Go figure. Today I also noticed a much reduced supply of peanuts – weird. As Boris has recommended that pubs and clubs close I’m guessing that the next thing to fly off the shelves is various styles of alcoholic drinks. I’m OK for most things – at least day to day stuff. I had a mini-stockpile of various items in prep for Brexit so I’m most definitely not in panic mode… unless that is they run out of Coke Zero or Pepsi-Max. That could start a real riot – at least in my head.

One thing I probably won’t be doing in going ‘Up North’ this year to see my Mum. She’s 84 this year and I certainly don’t want to be responsible for bringing home an unexpected visitor after sitting for 3 hours on a train. Hopefully by next Christmas (2021) we’ll have a vaccine and I can stop worrying about being a disease vector. Keep safe and don’t forget to wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds! See you on the other side.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The House of Wisdom – How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons (FP: 2009)

With the collapse of the Roman Empire (in the West anyway) Europe entered the euphemistic Dark Ages which were not quite as dark as most people think. But progress of any kind became glacial to say the least. Some innovations did emerge but, generally, knowledge was based around fragments of Greek and Roman literature that met the approval of the Catholic Church – pagan knowledge that called into question (or potentially did so) the teachings of the Church on any subject was either ignored or, occasionally, strongly preached against. Generally this was effective enough to limit the spread of new or heretical ideas. Then came the First Crusade….

The object of the Crusades was at least two, if not three, fold: to redirect martial aggression away from internal European wars against an exterior enemy (Islam), to bind the temporal and secular authorities closer to Mother Church and to reclaim Jerusalem from the Infidel Muslim occupiers. Most Crusade’s failed spectacularly in all these aims but they did result in one substantial increase at least – trade. Throughout the region trading centres sprang up – partially to aim pilgrims to the Holy Land – which filtered exotic cloths, spices and other valuable items to the rich and powerful in the West. Along with everything else came ideas and books in Arabic, Greek and Latin. At first it was a trickle. Forward looking academics, plus more than a few chancers, made the hazardous journey to Constantinople, Antioch and other destinations looking for volumes on Astrology, Medicine and the new subject of Alchemy. Along the way they found books on celestial navigation, mathematics and another new subject – algebra. Some of the works were the Greek and Roman classics lost to the Fall of Rome and thought lost to time itself. Missing works from Aristotle and Plato began arriving back in personal and University libraries across Europe were scribes immediately began copying them.

But there was more, much more, than lost tomes. The Arabs had been studying these texts for centuries and had been commentating on them, expanding them and, where required, correcting them. But there was more, much more, than commentaries on Plato. There was new discoveries, new insights, new methods and whole new areas of study completely unknown and undreamt of in the West. At first these books, these ideas were curiosities. They were ideas that could be taken down, examined and put back. But some scholars started making their own commentaries on the new Arabic ideas and discussing what had already been discovered and began speculating on what was yet to be found. By the time the Church began to notice the shift in the academic currents it was already too late. Suppression failed time and again, banned books still found those willing to read them and willing to copy them. The rich and the powerful throughout Europe wanted the books and the leading intellectual lights of the day at their courts and paid handsomely for the privilege. Once that had happened there was no going back. After centuries of slumber the European colossus was waking up and with the Arab knowledge coursing through its veins would reach across the globe.

Its common knowledge that knowledge held by the Arabs kick started the European Renaissance in the 15th Century. What I didn’t realise was that this knowledge not only encompasses texts lost from European libraries and returned or reclaimed by the West but consisted of a significant portion of new Arabic knowledge. These days such a mass plundering of foreign ideas would be called cultural appropriation. Not only did the West adopt Arabic numbers (as well as the Hindu idea of zero) but also ways of manipulating numbers (al-gebra), mapping the skies and the use of navigational instruments such as the astrolabe. Although a little dry in places this is still a fascinating look at the massive influx of knowledge and technology through trade with the Middle East and the ‘Reconquista’ of Spain. If you’re interested in how Europe broke out of the Dark Ages this is definitely a book for you. Recommended.

Monday, March 09, 2020

A View From the Apocalypse.

Watching the media these days has the feel of the first 15 minutes of an Apocalypse movie. Panic is in the air, stock markets are tumbling and cruise ships are being refused entry into ports. The only thing to add really is either zombies or alien invaders to make the scene complete – roll cast list…..
I am torn though. Obviously things are serious and people are dying – quite a lot of people are dying but it’s good to put things in perspective. Here in the UK we have around 17,000 deaths from flu each winter. After having had flu twice I can vouch for the fact that it’s a killer – at least it felt like it could have killed me given the opportunity. That’s one disease I respect and never, ever, want again. As to coronavirus (Covid-19) so far we’ve had over 25,000 tests, 319 confirmed cases and 5 deaths. No doubt that will go up, by how many is anyone’s guess but it’s not the end of the world which is how some people seem to be reacting.

One of the first things to disappear from the shelves of stores across the country was sanitising hand-gel. I checked again in my local supermarket and they’re still out with a whole shelf empty. Likewise it’s increasingly difficult to buy toilet paper (the supermarket near my house has sold out twice in two days) and, apparently pasta and beans. I can only assume that people are presuming that either the supply chain will fail or they’re going to be self-isolating in their homes for weeks on end waiting for the whole thing to blow over.

Inevitably we have a plan at work if things get bad – essentially work from home with laptop and mobile. That wouldn’t be a problem for most people including me. Hopefully that won’t be the recommendation before I actually retire in less than 3 weeks. I just need it to hold off until then (selfishly). After that I can easily isolate myself considering I’ll probably be spending 80% of my time alone anyway – until things adapt to the new post-retirement reality. The only real change on the personal level (work associated) is that I wash my hands now both when I get into work and when I get home after using public transport. I’m also much more conscious of touching hard surfaces that other people will have touched. I’m trying not to touch my face, and especially my mouth and eyes, as much as normal. After a few days that’s becoming second nature. Also at work we’ve been provided with anti-bacteria wipes so people are wiping their desk surfaces down either when they arrive or when they leave (we hot-desk/desk share so I for one bounce around like a ping-pong ball in our office).

People are getting very germ focused though. Every time someone coughs you can see people staring at them and frowning. A friend of mine had a coughing fit (on the bus) last week and the person in front of him got up and walked to the front of the bus and stayed there for 4 further stops before getting off. This is not unusual these days. I haven’t seen anyone wearing a mask yet. Of course the paper disposable ones are essentially useless to protect you again Covid-19. In fact wearing them for hours at a time probably increase your chance of catching something rather than protecting you.

So far we’ve had no cases in the immediate area. There’s been, I think, 4 cases in my local city about 6 miles away and another about 20 miles away. I do actually know someone who knows someone who has been diagnosed with the virus. Luckily for him they haven’t physically interacted for months and I haven’t seen my gaming friend IRL since Christmas. Small world though! I think the odds of me catching it are presently slim and will reduce further in a few weeks when I’m not using public transport as much. If I catch it? Well, I’ll just have to take my chances. I’m at the lower end of the danger age range and I don’t have any underlying health conditions so…. My immune system is pretty good so if it’s of flu like intensity I expect to have the stamina to fight it off. But we are heading into the Spring which should slow it a bit. No doubt it’ll be back over the Winter 20/21 and I think that’s when it will probably peak. By the time of Winter 21/22 comes around they’ll have a vaccine and it’ll probably be incorporated into that years flu shot. But we’ll see how everything unfolds. In the meantime keep washing your hands and stay safe…..

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Europe experiences exceptionally warm winter

From the BBC

5 March 2020

The 2019/2020 winter has been the warmest on record for Europe, with average temperatures 1.4C above the previous high of 2015/2016. Winter is defined as the months of December, January, and February. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) says the warmth was very evident in the north and east of the continent where a number of local temperature records were being broken. Last month was also the second hottest February on record globally. It was cooler by only 0.1C compared with the previous high of 2016.

It said the mild conditions this winter led to a number of impacts across Europe, including "difficulties for reindeer herding in northern Sweden, failure of the ice-wine harvest in Germany, and having to import snow for sporting events in Sweden and Russia". The December-February average was 3.4C above the 1981-2010 norm. This made 2019/20 by far the warmest European winter in the data records from 1979 on which the service's climate bulletins are based.

[It has been VERY mild here this winter. We had a few very brief snow flurries – literally minutes long – and a few hailstorms, again minutes long at best, and that’s it. Mostly it’s been rain and the odd bright blue sky kind of chilly day that I love about Winter. Not surprisingly to anyone living here we’ve also just had the wettest February since the 1860’s which has resulted in a lot of flooding in Wales and the North East. Some unlucky buggers were flooded on multiple occasions during the last few months. Sometimes it’s due to developers building on flood plains – the clue’s in the name people! – whilst other times it’s just being unlucky in locations on river banks or coastal areas where erosion is going crazy. Needless to say, things are only going to get worse as Global Warming progresses. Those who still don’t accept the fact of Global Warming just haven’t been paying attention.]