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

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Gotta LOVE The French..... [lol]

Just Finished Reading: Operation Kronstadt by Harry Ferguson (FP: 2008) 

It was an impossible mission, so of course he agreed to go. Lieutenant Augustus ‘Gus’ Agar RN had missed the ‘big shows’ during the Great War and was eager to show his mettle. This mission for a struggling MI6 looked just the thing. The plan, such that it was, was deceptively simple. ‘Gus’ and his chosen men would temporally join the British Fleet in the Baltic along with 3 of the navy’s radical torpedo boats. They would then run missions into Bolshevik occupied areas to drop off and pick up intelligence operatives including Paul Dukes who was at that time the only SIS agent operating inside St Petersburg and a vital British asset. At their earliest opportunity ‘Gus’ and his team would extract Dukes and return home. Simple really – except for a few minor issues. For one, no one had been in touch with Dukes for weeks and it wasn’t at all certain that he was still at liberty. For another the boats being used had never operated in Baltic waters before and no one really knew how they would perform. The boats themselves, whilst not exactly experimental, where on the cutting edge of naval technology. They were fast, VERY fast, but where incredibly noisy at high speed and frighteningly delicate because of the need to reduce as much weight as possible. Even a near miss from any shell of appreciable size would easily destroy the craft and kill everyone on board. The engines where modified from aircraft use and were notoriously temperamental and, the weight restrictions had another effect. The torpedoes couldn’t be launched forwards using compressed air to fire them ahead at their intended target. Nothing so rational, oh no. They were ejected backwards – using a powered ram – which meant that the boat had to swerve out of the way to avoid being hit by their own weapon. But that was OK. No one expected that the torpedoes would be required. But as the weeks slipped by without any message from Dukes, ‘Gus’ had an idea. The Bolshevik fleet was in easy reach of his team and they could, if given permission, wreak havoc in a confined space. Appalled by the idea that any of the boats could be lost before Dukes could be rescued MI6 gave an emphatic ‘No’ to the operational request. ‘Gus’ went anyway and, as predicted havoc did ensue. After a successful mission was completed the British admiral in the Baltic saw an opportunity to deal the Russians a crushing blow and maybe drown the Bolshevik Revolution in its crib. Only two things stood in the way – the combined firepower of the Kronstadt Fortress and the Soviet Baltic Fleet.

I knew that we had spies in Russia both in the run up to and in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution but I had no idea that the British navy was so heavily involved in operations in the Baltic at that time. I know that Allied Forces were stationed briefly on Russian territory supposedly to assist the ‘Whites’ in their civil war with the ‘Reds’ but I never realised that British and Russian forces actually came to blows with thousands dead around Kronstadt. It was completely off my radar. I certainly know a LOT more about that now! This was essentially a story in two halves – the espionage bit with Dukes in St Petersburg and ‘Gus’ in the Baltic in his torpedo boats. Both sections were incredibly tense and very exciting (with the benefit of 100 years distance!). I was honestly entranced by the whole thing. The rescue plan itself and Dukes being in place in the heart of Soviet Russia were typical ‘make do with what you have and improvise the rest’ British operations wholly dependent on the grit, determination and bloody mindedness of all involved. Luckily for most of those involved (without giving TOO much away) things largely worked as hoped – at least eventually! This was a story of a little known operation  quite brilliantly told. Highly entertaining – especially if you enjoy real hair-raising moments – and highly recommended.       

           [!Coming next: A Pandemic Blitz Read, so buckle up ]

Monday, July 27, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Replay – The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan (FP: 2010)

I started playing video/computer games in the early 1970’s and have been hooked ever since. But, after my first encounter with them on a Pong machine in a hotel in the French Alps, I had a close to 10 year hiatus in the gaming arena. I missed out on many of the advances talked about in the first sections of this totally fascinating history not having the resources to buy any of the early gaming rigs – though I did have a few friends whose families had somewhat larger disposable incomes than mine. My next real encounter with gaming was in the arcades of the seaside town of Morecambe where I spent the 2nd Year of my University days pushing my grant money into slot machines like Space Invaders and X-Wing. I see from the history of such things the driving forces of why particular machines ended up there – I think I was there in the transition away from pinball machines to video game machines – and moved away just as the video arcade hit its apogee and started to collapse in on itself in a blaze of multi-coloured pixels. Machines were getting bigger, more powerful, and naturally more expensive to both use and run/maintain. Then, of course, came the console….

I, for one, was never a console player. Again I knew people with various gaming rigs but I never owned one even after starting work. Looking back on it I’m not exactly sure why. My 6 year stint in London was definitely video game lite except for the (very) odd trip to the nearby seaside resorts in the summer. In those days – prior to moving here with work – I was without a computer but did (briefly) try out the Atari Lynx. I still have it somewhere….. Only in the early 90’s did I reconnect with the gaming world – now exclusively on the PC – with games like the iconic Doom (my first ever multi-player experience) and SimCity. After I borrowed an older model 386SX from work I really didn’t look back and have been playing ever since.

Naturally the nostalgia index was high whilst reading through this pretty exhaustive account of the video game industry from its earliest days up till about 10 years ago. My potted history of personal gaming will show you that most of gaming development passed me by so it was interesting and informative to fill in the gaps. It was fun to recognise games and incidents from growing up and even more fun remembering playing them and some of the experiences I shared with various gaming buddies over the decades. Even many of the games I’d never played, or systems I’d never played on, elicited recognition if nothing else.

One of the things that I did find fascinating was the chaotic nature of the gaming industry in the early years/decades. It was only really after games themselves and the technology used to both create and play them became much more expensive that the *industry* we know and hate these days became such a factor. Before that things were pretty much thrown together and, to be honest, often looked it. Of course one of the main issues with the corporatisation of gaming is the lack of imagination and the reduction of risk taking (to say nothing of taking fans/users for granted). It seemed, at least for a while, that the BIG companies would kill the goose that had laid so many golden eggs. Then came the Internet, independent games designers and platforms such as Steam to distribute them online. With that everything changed……

If you’re a gamer like me this will pretty much be a guaranteed fun read. It was definitely interesting to understand how games came about, the wild-west style industry in the early days and the ever expanding technology that helped it grow. Much nostalgia was experienced (along with a sprinkling of sadness at the loss of some ‘freshness’) and many a smile passed across my face. A recommended fun read.     

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Just Finished (re)Reading: The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean (FP: 1962)

It was an inside job. It had to be. Things had been going ‘missing’ for months and the facility was far too secure for any thief to have gained access from outside. What made things worse, if that was possible, was that a few months after each theft the Soviets made an unexpected advance in bio-weapons technology. That could hardly be a coincidence. But who could be doing such a thing, such a violation of national security? Pierre Cavell had been given the job of finding out and, during his brief stay as Security Chief at the installation had narrowed the field of suspects to one of five or six men – everyone with impeccable credentials and all of the highest clearance levels. Working better from the outside Cavell’s dismissal was manufactured and he began working on each case file in turn until the latest theft – the one that changed everyone’s priorities. It was no longer a case of National Security but national, even human, survival. Less than 24 hours previously the timed locks on the laboratory had been set, one of the doctors had failed to report for work that morning and part of the security fence had been cut. Everything pointed to a problem with E Block – where they held vials of the most dangerous bacteria man had ever manufactured including one with a melodramatic name that summed up its potential for cataclysmic consequence – The Satan Bug. With Cavell’s investigation barely begun the first demand arrives: Close the Morden Research Facility immediately or a vial of Botulinus toxin would be released somewhere to kill thousands. They had 24 hours to respond…..

According to Amazon I bought this paperback around 10 years ago. Later I discovered that I’d actually previously read the book around 30 years before that. I remember being completely entranced by the movie – especially with the monologue of what The Satan Bug could do if released – but couldn’t remember if the book and movie corresponded much. I’d actually been trying to get hold of a copy of the movie on DVD for a while now but it seems to be one of the few MacLean movie adaptations that is unavailable. So, I thought, what about YouTube and there it was – not exactly a great copy but there in its entirety. I watched it, with more than a little satisfaction/pleasure, just as I started the book. The first section of the novel had a great deal in common with the movie – with the notable exception of location move from the UK (novel) to the US (film). Even some of the dialogue is taken directly from the book, often word for word. After the first quarter or so the plot of book and film start to diverge quite a lot. The book has red herrings galore, Soviet spies and so on and is generally a rather hurried detective novel with a particularly dangerous ‘McGuffin’ to chase down. The movie is much cleaner in narrative and flows much better. The novel is very much of its time with the Soviet threat and the realisation that Britain couldn’t possibly keep up with either Superpower in the nuclear arms race – hence the concentration on bacteriological weaponry. Of course the concept of The Satan Bug itself is a nod to the idea of a Doomsday weapon that would only be used in the anticipation of losing in any future war – basically the idea that, OK we’re dead, but we’re still going to take you with us kind of thing. An ultimate deterrent – of course this would kill everyone, not just the enemy, so it’s a bit harsh over all. But I do get the point – pull that trigger and *everyone* dies. Apart from being dated the book is, to be honest, not particularly well written over all. The idea is spot on but the execution is rather stilted and far too convoluted (with too many cliff hangers) for my liking. Only really of any great interest if you want to compare it to the superior movie version. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

The PERFECT location for 'The Lair'.

Just Finished Reading: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (FP: 2014)

They called it the Georgian Flu because it seemed to appear on the world stage at the edge of Russia. At first it seemed like just another wave of seasonal flu passing over the world but it wasn’t. But at least it was far away, another countries, another continents problem. Until the plane arrived and, hours later, passengers started showing up sick at the local hospital. Within 24 hours they knew just how bad it would be. Warning calls went out to friends, families, colleagues: Get somewhere safe, get enough food, and stay away from EVERYONE. Too late, far too late. For most of those who got sick the prognosis was pretty clear – death within 48-72 hours. For the lucky few they had something else to deal with – a world without electricity, without cell phones, without Google, where a cut or a bad tooth could kill you as easily as a looters bullet. The survivors emerged into an empty world of small communities and travelling players – relaying news and bringing music and, most importantly, Shakespeare and a feeling of almost normality. Kirsten was there the night it happened, the night movie star Arthur Leander died on stage. Twenty years later she is on stage again playing different roles in a very different world. Much has been lost, much can never be replaced, but much has been retained, saved, cherished. The human story is far from over because mere survival has never been sufficient.

I don’t know how I managed to miss (or possibly why I avoided) this novel for so long. I have a vague memory of picking it up when it came out and just as quickly putting it back down again. But after hearing the glowing reviews and reading some of my Blog Buddies comments I felt I had to finally take the plunge. I’m so glad I did. I’ve read some pretty good novels this year but I think I can confidently put this at the head of the pack. Not only is it a compellingly told story it is a dozen compelling told stories. I think the thing that impressed me most about this very impressive novel – and apart from just how beautifully it was written in liquid prose – was how the narrative circled back on itself shuttling between the ‘now’ of today, the ‘future’ after the pandemic has passed and the ‘past’ of characters back stories which all together weave the narrative picture. Even objects – like Kirsten’s comic books and glass globe – get this treatment as we follow them through time and space to explain how they got there and what they meant to different people along the way. I think this is one of those very rare books that you could read repeatedly and still get things from it. It is also one of those rare books that I would recommend (or even give a copy of) to almost anyone. Despite the fact that the genre if most definitely Science-Fiction this novel most definitely transcends that genre into something more universal. It is simply a great novel – period. I honestly loved it and everything about it. I don’t think that I could find a single thing I didn’t like about it. I was deeply impressed by the characterisation (always so important for me) and thought that the author really understood each and every one of them. None of their personalities seemed ‘off’ or contrived to move the narrative forward. Things just seemed real. Very highly recommended. I’ll most definitely be reading everything she has and will produce. A total gem.   

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Just Chillin........
A Tenth View from the Apocalypse.

Rather inevitably as the opening-up gathers pace so do the virus outbreak spikes: Because people forget something important – that nothing has substantially changed. I see it out and about – more people in small groups (as allowed) doing normal stuff. Followed – 2 or 3 weeks later – by illness and hospital admissions. Some of my friends are having family get-togethers at the moment which is fine I suppose, but we’re still very much shying away from getting together ourselves so nu pubs and no restaurants that we’d normally be frequenting between the rain clouds. There are more people out there wearing masks and there will be a lot more of that from next week as we’ve been told that masks will be part of the shopping experience from 24th July. In preparation I’ve purchased a box of 50 disposables which should last me a little while….

Speaking of masking up, I visited the recently re-opened Mall last week. Partially it was to ‘check it out’ to see how it was operating and partially that I needed some things for the house and, naturally, to pop into my fave bookstore. As I bus everywhere I needed to be masked up to use Public Transport (apparently no mask, no travel) and, this time at least, had very little hyperventilating or misting of glasses. No mask required at the Mall (at least not yet) but I was greeted at the main entrance and informed – as this was my first visit post-apocalypse – on the new rules. Essentially they had instituted a one-way system (which most people followed most of the time) and plenty of hand-sanitiser stations at each entrance, throughout the Mall concourse itself *and* outside (or just inside) most shops. Being Monday lunchtime there was very little activity – I’d say about 100 people in there – so everything was pretty smooth going.

I’m still hacking & slashing my way through the brambles that had taken over my garden over the winter and lopping off the odd low hanging branch from any tree silly enough to encroach into my garden. I’ve even trimmed one of my neighbours (with permission of course) which was fun. I’d LOVE to chop the whole thing down but it’s FAR too big for that and I’d have no idea where it would fall. That’s going to be a professional job I think – for NEXT year! I’ve also been hacking at my hair too which sorely needed it. I purchased a Braun ‘grooming’ kit so will be trying my hand at some serious trimming soon enough. I just need to cut back the flowing locks a bit before I ‘go electric’. Otherwise it’d be like tackling a wheat field with a lawn trimmer.

Apart from that things are fairly quiet. Everyone I know of are still fit and well including friends and family. I’m still reading copiously (although I’m presently almost 500 pages into an almost 800 page novel) and still enjoying Oxygen Not Included despite losing my 2nd colonist/explorer to an unfortunate accident/oversight. The last 4 months have honestly rushed by in a blur and it’s hard to believe it’s already the middle of July (the weather here isn’t helping much with that!). I’m getting the hang of the ‘retirement during a pandemic’ lark and am keeping busy enough easily enough. When things normalise a bit more (post-vaccine) I’ll be able to do some of the things that I had been planning to be *before* the End of the World. But that’s probably still a year away – so we’ll see. Onwards!   

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Caught in the Revolution – Petrograd 1917 by Helen Rappaport (FP: 2016)

Russia was still in the war – but only just. The Allies were pushing hard for her continued involvement but tensions were growing both on the front lines and on the streets of Petrograd. After a series of defeats and continued food shortages the ruling elite had finally had enough and demanded that the Czar – tainted by his direct involvement with military planning and his wife’s continued infatuation with the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin – step down in favour of his brother who subsequently declined the offer to become the next in line. The coup/revolution was, as these things go, relatively bloodless and hopes were high that the new government could do what the Czar had failed to do – prosecute the war and feed their own people. But riven by faction, indecision and active opposition both from within and without they only succeeded to limp from crisis to crisis. Seeing their chance to drive Russia out of the war they allowed Vladimir Lenin, notorious political agitator, to pass through German occupied territory and return to his homeland. Their hopes succeeded beyond all expectations as Lenin and other Bolsheviks brought down their more Liberal opponents in a more bloody but still relatively bloodless second Revolution. Inheriting a country in chaos and promising everything to everyone they, very much like their predecessors, lurched from one crisis to the next seemingly unable (or unwilling) to quell the rising tide of violence on the streets and equally unable to feed the dwindling number of city residents despite widespread looting and authorised confiscation of goods. As bad as things were they became much worse when the head of the new Soviet Secret Police in Petrograd was assassinated and, days later, Lenin himself was shot and almost killed. Responding with the utmost ferocity to an attack on the heart of the Revolution itself the true terror of the Bolshevik response would shock the world. In the middle of it all were the foreign diplomats, businessmen, medical staff, spies, journalists, well-wishes and even tourists (who wanted to see the Revolution at first hand) who experienced the events of 1917 in all its majesty, chaos and terror at first hand.

Told from the outside looking in this was a fascinating account of the Russian Revolution as experienced by the men and women – largely French, British and American – who stayed behind (for a whole host of reasons) or who simply couldn’t leave (ditto). Using diaries, letters home (both published and unpublished) and archive material from the government’s involved the author weaves an amazing narrative of often extraordinary people living through a very extraordinary time and set of circumstances. I am, by and large, reasonably familiar with the circumstances around the 1917 Revolution but this perspective gave me new insights into the week by week playing out of events. The chaos and random acts of violence (and other random acts of kindness) are pretty astonishing looking back 100 years. What they really must have been like to the people having to deal with them is barely comprehensible. Petrograd in 1917 must have been one of the most dangerous places on Earth at the time and that’s saying a lot considering that there was still more than a year of World War still to run. It’s pretty amazing that any of the people profiled here made it out in one piece – although more than a few left with nothing more than the shirts or dresses on their backs. One case did jump out at me though – one of the British nurses trapped in 1917 had previously survived the sinking of Titanic. I couldn’t make up my mind if she was extremely lucky or equally cursed. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in these extraordinary events.         

Monday, July 13, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Street Philosopher by Matthew Plampin (FP: 2009)

Manchester, Northern England 1857. He was in hiding, there was no denying it. But he couldn’t hide from himself no matter where he went. He couldn’t hide from what he’d seen, the carnage, the death, the suffering. At least here the nightmares had started to subside and the headaches, those awful headaches, had at last started to ease. He still saw them though, most often out of the corner of his eyes, or, when things were really bad, in broad daylight right in front of him. Bodies, bodies of the dead and the dying everywhere. But at least he was away from his erstwhile employer and mentor. At least there was that. Until that damned art exhibition. As a street philosopher, a common purveyor of gossip and the events of the day, it was his job to write about the exhibitions that the newly rich in this so industrial city loved so much. And what a prize it was too – with the Queen and her Prince consort in attendance. Of course the centrepiece, the mysterious portrait from exotic Crimea, was going to be the big attraction and had already put the city on the art map of the Empire. But he knew where it came from, he saw it stolen and he saw the men killed to keep it secret. Now it was in Manchester and no doubt its owner would be here too, and where he was his employer, hell bent on revenge that he was, wouldn’t be far behind. And then he saw him, bold as brass and twice as loud as always. As he had been during the bloody Crimean adventure, as he had been before he lost his illicit love forever, as he had been before he destroyed all of their lives, as he had been before it all came crashing down. There would be a reckoning all right and blood would be spilt and he would be there – to see it end.

Rather embarrassingly I bought this, or at the very least noticed this, because of the word ‘philosopher’ on the cover having only recently (over 10 years ago) completed a degree in the subject. I’m glad that I did. Essentially split into two halves and, mostly, hopping between the two, this told the tale of young Thomas Kitson a reporter for the British press based in the Crimea during the brief but bloody war with Russia. The events of that campaign are viscerally represented throughout a series of (almost) flashbacks beginning with the arrival of a new war artist and his failure to integrate with the journalistic team headed by the mercurial, abrasive and opinionated Irishman Cracknell. Not only does Cracknell, much to the anger of the local military commanders, regularly heap cutting criticism on their heads for an appallingly managed campaign – at all levels of the organisation – but he is a personal thorn in the side to a particular Colonel with a very pretty wife in attendance. He is, on many levels, a thoroughly disreputable character and a LOT of fun because of that! Kitson himself is more of a sensitive soul who, rather than simply report the carnage, is determined to help reduce it as much as he can. As you can imagine clashes of personality ensue! Both characters are very well drawn as are both of the love interests in the Crimea and, much later, in Manchester. What impressed me though – at least in the Crimea sections was the detail underpinning the incompetence of the British war effort. It’s prompted me to investigate further. Part war story, part art theft, part revenge narrative, this was a gripping read that really got my blood moving – in a good way! Well-paced, full of interesting and believable characters and insights both into the Crimean campaign and Victorian society both at war and at home this was a delight from beginning to end. Being about 50% war novel it is rather violent and bloody at times but if you have a reasonably strong stomach for blood and gunpowder you’ll be OK. Highly recommended for all historical fiction buffs.   

Saturday, July 11, 2020

You too... Pal!
Just an Admin Thing….

I’ve been thinking (dangerous I know) about my ‘Religion’ label over on the right (now gone). It’s not a subject I read much about having lost a great deal of interest in the subject from the heady days of being a quite outspoken Atheist. It still holds *some* interest but I have almost zero interest in *what* people believe but I am rather fascinated in *why* they believe things. Anyway, the Religion based books (very) occasionally dropping into that category gradually became wider and wider in scope and were often out of the Religion slot unless you squinted at them HARD. So, I thought the label needed relabelling. I had a few ideas – Superstition or Supernatural – but they really didn’t seem appropriate (and to be honest both sounded rather derogatory!) so I finally decided on ‘Belief’ as a catch-all category which seems fine all round. So there it is…. Over on the right. Of course this doesn’t mean that there will be a whole truckload of Belief based books coming this way…. But there will be a few now and again…. Maybe around Halloween….. Maybe….. 

I'd *heard* about this but........ Jeeeeze..... [shudder]