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

Monday, June 29, 2020

Guess the 'Object'?
Just Finished Reading: Inequality and The 1% by Danny Dorling (FP: 2014)

Capitalism certainly didn’t create fiscal inequality but it most certainly exacerbated it – a lot! According to several figures I’ve seen, something like the 5 richest people have more wealth than the bottom billion. That’s wealth inequality on a truly awesome global scale. In this rather polemical review of this ever growing disparity the author says that this phenomena is one of, if not the, most important issues in the world today. Although the facts are indeed shocking I’m personally not convinced.

One other interesting piece of financial information I came across recently is that people on the ‘poverty line’ in most Western countries are still in the top 25% in terms of wealth globally. Essentially the poor here would be comparatively rich anywhere else. Of course most of the 99% barely interact with the 1%. We often live in very different worlds. But is this a problem? Sure, the wealthy are like Black Holes pulling more and more of the money supply to themselves but still we are, comparatively speaking, still generally better off than most of the world throughout most of human history. Damage is being done – but I don’t think it’s in the way the author thinks it is. I think that the most damaging aspects of extreme wealth are cultural rather than crudely financial. The ‘gravity’ of wealth generates its own particular ‘pull’. Wealth (and the greater the better) is seen – in movies, books and much else - as a prime good: something that should be strived for to the exclusion of almost everything else. But, ironically, the very act of striving for great wealth is also all too often portrayed as destructive to those who obsessively seek it – like poorly equipped moths attracted to a too hot flame. Wealth, our culture seems to tell us (that is the 99%), is something both to be striven for and essentially beyond our reach. It is an activity almost designed to both elevate the status of the already rich whilst, at the same time, prove that most (99% maybe?) are unworthy of attaining that status. In other words we are being stimulated by an unobtainable dream to work ourselves to death to achieve an unreachable goal – it is the brilliance of the Capitalistic system that has worked very well indeed.

To me at least the fact of wealth – even extreme wealth – is not the crux of the great economic problem. As I see it the problem is hinted at, indicated by, the great fiscal disparity between rich and poor. It is not that there are so few of the super-rich but that there are so many of the super-poor across the world. To twist an old saying: The Rich have ALWAYS been with us and, to be honest, they probably always will be. The challenge of the 21st Century and beyond is what we do about the *Poor* and most especially those living a hand-to-mouth life on the edge of existence itself. Naturally the Rich themselves can help in that regard – both through a reasonable level of taxation – that isn’t so easily avoided or evaded – and through being encouraged to invest in programmes designed to permanently reduce the absolute number of the poor and through public recognition of the exercise of the philanthropic impulse.

The author argues that countries with ever increasing fiscal inequalities are both unhappier in general (at both ends of the spectrum and not just at the shallow end) and more politically unstable. This may in fact be true. It is definitely in the best interests of the Rich not to leave the other 99% with nothing left to lose. Such societies tend not to last very long and when they inevitably fail that ending tends to be bloody. Although the author does make some valid points I think he fails in his larger argument that we cannot and should not learn to live with the 1%. It is entirely possible that such an argument does in fact exist but this book is not the place to find it. Overall rather disappointing.         

Sign of The Times?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

At least some groups are making money.........

Just Finished Reading: The Outlander by Gil Adamson (FP: 2007)

The Canadian wilderness, 1903. Mary Boulton, 19 years old, and self-widowed is on the run. She has no idea what to do except flee. With no money, no idea where to go and no knowledge of where she even is, she knows that her days among the living are numbered indeed. Sleeping in ditches after walking herself to exhaustion she can only hope and learn to accept her fate. Helped by an eccentric spinster her only answer is betrayal – with the theft of provisions and a horse. Her only driving ambition is to escape beyond her husband’s brothers reach. But where to go to avoid such implacable trackers. Only one place – up into the mountains, away from people, away from civilisation. However, Mary quickly realises that she has no skill for survival. She could be surrounded by food and not recognise it or simply freeze to death on the mountainside. On the edge of collapse she is discovered by another refugee from civilisation. A man simply know to the authorities and the North West Mounted Police as the Ridgerunner. Despite saving her life and despite a growing attraction she cannot stay in the mountains forever and he can never return to town. When they part they both think it is the end of things but Fate, it seems, has other ideas. Finally at peace in a mining camp every time Mary looks up into the hills she wonders what happened to the Ridgerunner. Meanwhile the brothers have hired an expert tracker and they are closing in on their quarry with revenge very much in mind.

I’m really not surprised that this stunningly good novel was shortlisted for The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. After turning the last page and repeating the last two words of the narrative several times over – with a large grin on my face – I was already convinced that this was the best book I’d read in 2020. Mary is a great character who develops throughout the novel from a frightened and hunted 19 year old into a very capable young woman. The Ridgerunner, likewise, develops from an enigma barely able to interact with others and even an almost stereotypical ‘mountain man’ (although he was nothing of the sort) into someone who you couldn’t help but respect and root for. The cast of secondary characters – the Preacher in the mining camp and the owner of the camps store – are brilliantly rendered and were living breathing creatures full of hopes, dreams and all too real faults. No one here is perfect – far from it – but everyone in the book is a believable human being no matter the brevity of their time ‘on stage’ – from a family of American horse thieves to an Italian miner who can understand English perfectly but only speaks in Italian (which no one can understand!). For that alone this is worth reading. In many ways this is both a coming-of-age story (watching Mary grow beyond her original confines) and a love story between Mary and the Ridgerunner but there is FAR more to it than that simple distillation. There is a lot going on here. The story is very much a character driven tale of hope over adversity and not just for Mary. Nearly everyone encountered in this excellent novel are damaged in some way and are either living with the pain on a daily basis, coming to terms with loss or looking for a form of redemption. There is more of a lyrical quality in this book than I have experienced for quite some time. It was, at times, quite beautiful and I was deeply impressed by the writing skill of this first time author. Naturally as soon as I put it down I wanted to read her other works. At this point I was presented with both bad and good news. So far, this is her only novel. But the good news is that in 2021 she’ll be publishing a second – about the life of the Ridgerunner. Sounds like I’ll be buying a hardback next year…… Very highly recommended. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Keeping it real & relevant.........

Just Finished Reading: The Nile – Downriver through Egypt’s Past and Present by Toby Wilkinson (FP: 2014)

Travelling at the pace of the river itself from the great dam at Aswan to Cairo and the Nile delta the author has chosen an ideal introduction to the great river and the country it gave birth to, for without the life giving properties of the Nile the millennia long occupation of Egypt would simply not have been possible. Not only does the Nile provide for extensive irrigation on both of its shores allowing the growth of much needed crops but periodic floods inundate the fields to replenish nutrients taken out by them each season. Generally each years surge is enough for one more growing season but some years the surge is insufficient and hunger follows. If the following year is also bad their follows famine and political strife. If the surge is too strong the floods devastate rather than replenish and chaos ensues. It is no wonder that the river itself was worshiped and so much of the early Egyptian religion centred on it and the creatures that inhabited its waters.

This periodic uncertainty ended with the control of the Aswan dam built with Soviet assistance during the Cold War. Other monuments to greatness are far, far older as the author outlines during his journey stopping off at iconic locations such as Luxor, Thebes, Abydos and Cairo. Although Egypt never cornered the market in monumental architecture it certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying. Temples, tombs and obelisks not only wow recent visitors but have been humbling both tourists and conquerors for centuries – so much so that they often removed items that had been in situ since before the Christian era. The Roman Empire, Napoleon and later the British during its mandate were notorious for their ‘acquisitions’ of antiquities many of which still grace the streets of Rome, Paris and London. I actually saw an obelisk in Rome that had been stolen by the Romans around two thousand years ago and was erected on one side of a main gate into the city. When it was stolen all of those centuries ago is was already three thousand years old. Antiquity never felt so old! I’ve also seen similar obelisks in Paris and London that must have amazed their citizens and certainly impressed me with the engineering obstacles overcome to get them to their new homes.

Naturally Egypt is awash in history and there’s no way a 300 page book can do it any justice. But what the author manages to do – in spades – is to bring out the majesty, the antiquity and the importance of a country that has been so important in global culture. Egypt has always fascinated the world and the craze for its artefacts, art and architecture has swept across the globe more than once – I actually have multiple mini-statues in my house of Egyptian gods (I am a CAT person after all!) – and its culture has had a profound effect on western civilisation for centuries. This delightful book really brings that alive. Full of interesting characters – from the ancient world to 19th century Europe – this is the kind of work that spawns 100 research paths into people and places that could keep you metaphorically digging in the sand for years. I have hardly touched upon the details in this book which is packed with little stories and insights and betrays a real love for the country on the part of the author. After reading this I can see why he admires the river and the country it brought to prominence so much. Definitely recommended for anyone with any interest at all in the ancient world or just one of the world’s most fascinating places. Much more on Egypt to come. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Best use of time indoors.. 

Just Finished Reading: Getting Our Way – 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue: The Inside Story of British Diplomacy by Christopher Meyer (FP: 2009)

Told in rather florid style by the former ambassador to the US based in Washington (as he often references throughout the test) this is actually a pretty fascinating insight into British diplomatic efforts throughout the world since Elizabethan times. Most of the focus, however, is after the Napoleonic Wars with the British influence over the Congress of Vienna that (largely) settled European affairs between the fall of Napoleon and the start of the First World War. Divided into three sections – Security, Prosperity and Values – this book looks at the three pillars of diplomacy in turn and picks out examples where the British ambassador on the ground attempted, not always successfully, to achieve each of them for his (and all the examples are male) masters back home in London.

Being a fan of European history (as you may have noticed) I was particularly interested in the section covering the political aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars which was, until then, something of a mystery to me. I knew *of* the Congress of Vienna but very little about it. I shall be digging into this more later. Naturally we were coming into this event from a great position of strength (which helped greatly) so our influence was correspondingly strong. It was interesting however how the congress was radically different from, and how far more effective in outcome, they were from the century later Versailles Treaty negotiations. It’s a shame that some of the format of the former was not transferred to the later. Imagine a world without World War Two!

My favourite section – warts and all – was on Prosperity which concentrated on our relations with China and covered the Opium Wars, gunboat diplomacy and the retreat from Hong Kong where we most definitely were negotiating from a severe position of weakness. The double dealing and outright bullying – never mind that it was all over the *forced* importation of opium! – of the British in the Opium Wars was astounding. How those people slept at night is beyond me. Much more on our relations with China to come (and fairly soon).

Lastly another section I enjoyed greatly was based around ‘The Great Game’ between the Russian and British Empire’s fought out – sometimes literally in the Ottoman Empire and especially Constantinople/Istanbul. Again it’s something I’m aware of happening without appreciating the details. Careers and reputations were both made and destroyed in those secretive and tumultuous times. Some of the events read like an early version of James Bond, they really do! Again much more of this fascinating history later.

Overall, apart from a few niggles and annoyances with the narrative, this was a pretty good introduction to what diplomats do and what some famous (and infamous) British diplomats have done over the preceding centuries. Interesting and recommended to anyone looking for insights to what happens behind closed doors in smoke filled rooms.     

Monday, June 15, 2020

Good Advice!
Mystery Blogger Meme Thing….

I’ve been tagged by Sarah (again!) over at “All The Book Blog Names Are Taken” so here’s my answers:

Three Things About Me

I have an older brother and a younger sister who has six kids. I don’t know how she does it but I’m VERY impressed!

I’m not a great traveller but have somehow managed to visit Scotland, Wales (on multiple occasions), Holland & Belgium, France (several times), Spain, Portugal, The Canary Islands, Italy, Canada, The USA, Australia and New Zealand. Not too shabby considering……

For most of my teenage years (well, it WAS the 70’s) I had very long hair – down to my waist at longest but mostly just to the bottom of my shoulder blades. The style in those years among the girls was for short hair so, at least for several years I had the longest hair in my school. I kept it long until my early 20’s when I went to University and one day, on a whim, had a short back & sides/crew cut and it’s been mostly that short ever since.

What fictional mode of transportation do you wish you could take?

The Time Machine from the HG Wells story – but the fantastic Victorian design from the 1960 movie version with Rod Taylor. Actually thinking about it a bit more it’d make more sense (as the HG Wells machine couldn’t move through space as well as time) to want the Back To The Future 2 DeLorean as it could FLY! Just think of the places you could go. I think my first visit would be back to Liverpool (my home town) in the early 1960’s to see The Beatles perform at The Cavern Club before they became famous.

What three fictional characters would you go on a road trip with?

My heroes – Mr Spock, Sherlock Holmes and Bugs Bunny.

If you could invite your favourite author over for dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve?

Iain Banks (except he’s dead but that’s allowed – right?). With pizza and beer. He’d be FINE with that I’m sure. I would SO love to pick his brain about his Culture novels.

What was your favourite picture book when you were a kid? 

Rather oddly, and many find this had to believe, I didn’t really read books as a kid. I only REALLY got into books in my very early teens. Of course I COULD read and did read some things but nothing at all memorable until Triplanetary by E E ‘Doc’ Smith blew my world apart.

If you had to add a regular non-bookish feature to your blog, what would you write about?

Well, my passion is History so it’d have to be about that!

Is there any book you have collected multiple copies/editions of, and if so what makes that particular book so special to you?

I have several copies of classic SF novels but mostly because I loved the garish covers rather than that they meant anything particular to me. Plus I always hoped that they’d be worth money someday.

If there is any book or series you could rewrite the ending to you, which one and why?

Endings are REALLY tricky things. Sure, I’ve been disappointed with a few in my time but I don’t think I’d want to rewrite them.

Do you prefer stand-alones or a series?

If I find a good book, or a great one, I always want it to be the first book in a series so that I can explore those characters or that world MORE. But there’s always a point when enough is enough. I just like good books – whatever format they come in.

What is your favourite hobby outside of reading?

Oh, that’s an easy one – Computer Gaming! Although I did also enjoy table top war gamming in my youth…

 Are you more likely to pick up a newly released super-hyped book, or do you wait until the furore has died down before giving it a try?

I’m not a great one for hype – indeed the more a book is hyped the less likely I am to pick it up immediately. If it interests me that much I’ll wait until other people have read it and see what they thought of it… and then I’d still probably wait a bit more.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Feed by Mira Grant (FP: 2010)

It was an Age of Miracles – the End of Cancer, the End of the Common Cold and the Age of the Zombie. Well, you can’t have everything, right? Naturally it was all with the best possible intentions. Two separate labs working on epoch changing medical advances in secret, the Internet rumour that the cold cure would only be for the rich and the eco-terrorists who released it into the atmosphere before any real testing had been done. When the first of the dead came back and started attacking people no one really believed it. That was the stuff of science-fiction and poorly made cheap horror flicks. Even the uploaded video didn’t really change much until it was almost too late. Before things got back under control almost a third of the world was lost although no one would ever know the full body count. Too much of the planet was simply too dangerous to go into and too dangerous to try to keep or take back – like Alaska. But a kind of equilibrium had been achieved. Sure there were still outbreaks – how could there not be when everyone was pre-infected with the zombie inducing virus – but they were getting really good at containing the damage now. After all, 26 years of zombie fighting experience has got to mean something. Even after that long zombies were still news though – thankfully for brother and sister Bloggers Shaun and Georgia Mason and their team of hackers and news hounds. The good news is that they’ve just scored their biggest gig ever – by being picked as the hottest new Presidential candidate’s official Blog team. The bad news, apart from all of the political BS they’re going to have to deal with, is that someone really doesn’t want the candidate to get the nomination and will do anything to stop it – including using zombies as weapons.

OK, first I have to say that zombies really aren’t my ‘thing’. I’ve never seen the attraction in either the shuffling, walking or running dead. I’m most definitely more of a vampire person. But there was just something about this book and this author that made me give it a chance. I’m definitely glad I did. This is definitely not a shuffle of the mill zombie novel For one thing it takes place 26 years AFTER the night of the living dead. The world building is really good and is one of the things that kept my turning pages. Everything has changed because of the zombie virus – from diet, to life style, to outdoor gatherings and sporting events, even to architecture – as, naturally it would. All of it is logical and, with the odd pinch of salt, makes sense in context. Most of the time the zombie apocalypse is just the background, the context, in which the narrative takes place. The focus is on the blog news team and what they discover during their time with the wannabe President and his opponents. The characters are well drawn – especially the sibling main characters – and their motivations are well grounded in the context of the world the author created for them. Everything, by and large, made sense. The only part of the narrative that I had problems with was the technology used – this is 2040 with no great or insurmountable discontinuity in technology yet the main news people were Bloggers – not even Vloggers – whose primary method of disseminating information was TEXT. They even had very sophisticated spy cameras etc everywhere and they even uploaded short video bites but primarily they uploaded blocks of TEXT. This seemed so at odds with everything else and at odds with 2020 never mind 2040 that it did break me out of the narrative more than once. However, significant though it was, this is the only real gripe I had with the book. It not exactly the first (or the last) work that dates much faster than anticipated. I did at one point, I won’t give too much away, decide that I wouldn’t be reading any more in this series when the author managed to kill off my favourite character but the satisfying (if somewhat predictable) ending made me want to know what happens next and how things play out afterwards – so you’ll definitely be hearing more from the author and from the Mason’s in future. Definitely recommended for all zombie fiction fans and even recommended for those who haven’t tried it yet. Naturally being zombie related there is a fair bit of gore involved – but not that much in the scheme of things!       

Monday, June 08, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Last by Hanna Jameson (FP: 2019)

It was annoying, inconvenient even, but what could you do. The fire in the hotels kitchen meant that the conference had to be moved. Short notice meant that they had to take what was on offer, no matter how remote or how far from the nearest airport. At least it was quiet. At breakfast that morning it began with a scream and a crash of cutlery. Everyone looked across the room to see what the problem was. A woman was standing holding her phone, hand across her mouth. She was crying without seeming to notice she was doing so. Other phones starting beeping with Internet alerts and then they all knew – Washington was gone. Seconds later more alerts… London, Rome, San Francisco and then…. Nothing. The Internet was down. No phone service. No news. In the panic that followed some of his colleagues begged Jon to join them as they left for the airport. Jon could only think of his wife Nadia and their two daughters. He’d left them in San Francisco. But San Francisco was gone. When he came to his senses the hotel was all but empty. Around 20 people, including some of the staff, had elected to stay or had nowhere else to go. They still had electricity and the kitchen had a healthy stock of food. For the time being at least they were safe – or at least as safe as you could be in a world where nuclear weapons flew. As the new reality set in and the shock began to wear off the suicides began. First one and then two more. Then calm, waiting for rescue, watching the endless cloud cover, watching the trees die. But they had to do something. They couldn’t just wait for someone to come, wait to die. So they organised. They rationed. They even hunted for deer in the forest. Water was going to be a problem though. They’d need to arrange something with the roof tanks. It was then that they found the child’s body. She’d been there a while. From that day. From the End. But none of the guests would possibly leave a child behind, no matter what the circumstances. Which could mean only one thing – as the world fell apart there was a murderer amongst them.

I’m really only giving a hint about this book. Sure, it’s an end of the world narrative as a group of disparate people try to survive in a post nuclear war world. On the face of it this sounds like yet another killer in an isolated hotel mystery – it’s even described as a post-apocalyptic ‘And Then There Were None’ – but it’s much, much more than that. That’s just the base, the background narrative. What pushes this excellent novel way above the expected account is both the intense claustrophobic structure and the fascinating cast of characters dealing with their own personal end of the world. Jon, the main character who narrates the story via diary entries, starts out as an average deeply flawed everyman just trying to do his best and proves to be much better than that. But my favourite character by far was Tomi (Tomisen Harkaway) the only other American at the hotel who everyone hates because she voted for ‘him’ so is held accountable for the war. Not only is she far more complex and nuanced than people give her credit for she’s also a clear-headed consummate survivor who shakes Jon out of his misery and starts him on the road to recovery and, dare I say it, personal growth. This is an intense book, there’s no getting away from that fact, but it is an excellent gripping read. The character driven narrative is one of the best I’ve come across in years and I could barely put it down. Being the type of book it is there’s death, sex and a fair bit of swearing/drug taking but most of the death takes place ‘off camera’. Almost all of the perspective is from Jon’s point of view but we see other elements of what happened on Day One and later through Jon’s interviews with the rest of the hotel survivors as he investigates the child’s death (almost as something to keep his mind off the end of the world which is an interesting way of constructing things). Highly recommended. This is actually her fourth book. I’ll definitely be checking out her earlier work.   

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Combat drone to compete against piloted plane

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

5 June 2020

The US Air Force will pit an advanced autonomous aircraft against a piloted plane in a challenge set for July 2021. The project could eventually lead to unpiloted fighter aircraft that use artificial intelligence (AI). Lt Gen Jack Shanahan, head of the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, called the test a "bold, bold idea". Air Force Magazine also described the development of autonomous fighter jets as a "big Moonshot" for the military. At a briefing organised by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Lt Gen Shanahan said he had exchanged emails last weekend with the team leader on the project, Dr Steve Rogers of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). He said the AFRL team would attempt to field "an autonomous system to go up against a human, manned system in some sort of air-to-air". Shanahan said that, at this stage, it may not use "a lot of AI", but in time, humans and machines working together would make a "big difference".

When announced in 2018, the project envisioned the development of an unpiloted fighter jet. Asked by Air Force Magazine whether this was still the objective, Lt Gen Shanahan said he did not know but added that AI-enabled systems could be used in other ways. "Maybe I shouldn't be thinking about a 65ft-wingspan, maybe it is a small autonomous swarming capability," he explained. Such swarms of drone aircraft could be deployed under a pilot's control or operate autonomously. A US military project called Skyborg will explore how the pilot of a fighter jet could control other drone aircraft - which would act as airborne sidekicks.

These projects feed into an ongoing effort to explore ways of using artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the American military's capabilities. But Shahahan said legacy systems would not "go away overnight" and that it was a question of finding a balance and using AI where it could make things more efficient. "The last thing I would claim is that carriers and fighters and satellites are going away in the next couple of years," he said. Earlier this year, Elon Musk also entered the discussion, telling the audience at a military conference in Orlando, Florida, that the "fighter-jet era has passed". Mr Musk said the F-35 fighter jet's competition should be a drone, remotely-controlled by a human with manoeuvres augmented by autonomy. "The F-35 would have no chance against it," he tweeted. Lt Gen Shanahan said that the military should be absorbing the best lessons from work on autonomous cars in the commercial sector. But he warned that among manufacturers, 10 companies spending $13-17bn on research over the last decade had still not developed a Level 4 autonomous vehicle. Level 4 vehicles are those that no longer require a human driver's attention for safety.

[The era of manned fighters – or indeed manned aircraft – is definitely coming to an end. It’s just a matter of when. Even flown remotely, rather than under the control of a future autonomous AI, the drones will be faster, pull much higher G forces and, ultimately, be ‘disposable’ in a way that manned craft never can be. The latest F-35 might well be the last manned fighter aircraft that the West produces. Oh, just one more thing though….. Skyborg? Really? SKYBORG? Why not just call it like it is – SkyNET.]

Too true....