Monday, November 30, 2020
Just Finished Reading: Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything) by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos (FP: 2017) [324pp]
I hadn’t read any pop-Philosophy for a while and as a Gamer this seemed to be an ideal way to get back into a sub-genre I’ve enjoyed in the past. The authors are both writers specialising in video games rather than philosophers with a gaming interest so the focus of the game is definitely from the gaming and gaming industry point of view. It was also less about the philosophy itself (which is what I was expecting it to be about given the title) and much more about the philosophical underpinnings used by various game developers in their games. Interesting but not a huge focus as far as I’m concerned. Although games can work well with a coherent underlying philosophy I never really gave it that much though as I hacked or shot my way through hordes of Orks or Zombies trying to kill me. Much like my interest in music – I like what I hear without knowing much or anything about the artist or group – my knowledge of individual developers or even gaming ‘houses/companies’ is minimal. I certainly recognise the names of companies [like Blizzard] that I’ve played games by before but I’ve never been one to seek out (or avoid) particular ‘brands’ unless they’re consistent stinkers or simply don’t produce the kinds of games I usually play (like sports games which I have zero interest in).
That’s actually just a long and somewhat involved explanation as to why this book really didn’t ‘do’ it for me. One thing was that the games they chose to illustrate various points I hadn’t, by and large played – BioShock, Ultima and Portal for example. Although it was passing interesting having their developers interviewed and explaining exactly what they were hoping to achieve it left me fairly cool about the whole thing. The philosophical discussions were generally reasonable although a few times I thought that the authors had either missed the point or misunderstood some of the underlying actual philosophy under the game version. It raised the odd eyebrow anyway! A few of the discussions – notably about the philosophy of Mind (which is of particular interest to me) were interesting but, overall, they didn’t really push the envelope much as far as I was concerned. Despite not being a bad book per se I couldn’t help but be disappointed in it for the simple reason that it wasn’t really what I was expecting or wanting going in to it. I had expected/hoped that it was going to be much like the previous pop-Philosophy books I’d read before. Unfortunately, from my own personal interest point of view, it wasn’t. A reasonable read – especially if you’re interested in particular games philosophy rather than the philosophy of games or Philosophy in general.
Sunday, November 29, 2020
Friday, November 27, 2020
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Final Hour by Tom Wood (FP: 2017) [455pp]
Dying is bad enough, but coming back hurts – a LOT. It didn’t make it any easier that she couldn’t tell her doctors the details of the drug that had been used to kill her or the antidote she had used to save her life. They were curious enough, and suspicious enough, of the Jane Doe who couldn’t remember who had slipped her the drug or even her own name. It was only a matter of time before such suspicions raised red flags in places she really didn’t want them raised and they sent people to investigate. It was going to be best if she left before that happened. Meanwhile the man who ‘killed’ her, only know as ‘Victor’, had problems of his own. After a job in Italy went wrong the CIA was royally pissed with him and members of the Agency were expending a lot of time and energy tracking him down. If that wasn’t bad enough a high price contract on his life was starting to impact on his ability to do his job. Being a lone operator Victor had no way to cover all of his bases so he did the only thing he could and contracted himself to British Intelligence in a Quid Pro Quo – he’d do some jobs for them and they’d help him find out who was trying to have him killed. Then things got really complicated…..
I’d picked this book up ages ago in one of my usual random browsing through the Best Seller section of my local supermarket and only read it now because of the similarity to the title of my last book [more of that to come!]. But what a difference…! Almost from the first page I loved it. Overall I don’t think that I have a single quibble. Although the 7th book in a series (I had no idea at the time) it was virtually effortless to get into the story. The main characters – Victor and Raven (the poisoned woman in the hospital) – are quite brilliant and completely believable as international assassins for hire with few allegiances but equally deep seated professional moralities (which actually explains a lot of Raven’s motivation in the novel). Likewise the secondary characters in both the CIA and British SIS are well drawn and believable. The ‘baddies’ here are likewise understandable and believable in their context. I was highly amused at one point where Raven called them ‘The Consensus’ only to be huffily told that they were an amorphous organisation and didn’t have a name. “I know”, she said “But I have to call you *something*”. The dialogue throughout was equally impressive and actually deepened the plot, explained some of the background and fleshed out various characters in such a naturalist way that it didn’t slow down the plot in the least. These were not simply contrived pauses between ‘boss fights’. Considering the profession of the two main protagonists this is a book with a fair amount of violence. Both Raven and Victor are very capable people and I lost count of the bodies fairly early on (although it’s not a particularly large number). There are a few torture scenes here too but nothing particularly graphic. I’m doing my best not to give too much away here which might explain some of the scattergun approach to the review. There is a LOT going on in this book but the fairly complex plot is handled so well that it seamlessly falls into place ahead of you. EVERYTHING makes sense here. It is a world of big players, professionals, amateurs and civilians. At one point Raven and Victor muse at the idea of what would happen if ‘civilians’ (that’s *US* by the way!) knew what was really going on in the world. Read this and you might just start to suspect what that is! This is a highly polished, well written and gripping thriller. If you don’t mind a bit of brutal violence and love playing in the dark world of espionage and assassination this is definitely the book for you – but (again) I’d start with the FIRST book in the series as I will be soon. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Monday, November 23, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom (FP: 2018) [361pp]
Rome, AD265. It was a trap, at least it was probably a trap, but knowing that he had an advantage. Not that he had much choice but to meet his contact. If the information he had was correct it was explosive. A threat to the Emperor himself? It could not be ignored. On arrival the expected trap was sprung but they had underestimated him. In the ensuing fight his contact was wounded but lived long enough to pass on the vital clue as to when and where the assassination was due to take place. He had less than a day to make it to the Emperor’s side and warn him of the plot against him. But powerful forces within the Empire, here in Rome itself, wanted the Emperor dead and replaced by someone less strict, less honest, less restrictive to the advancement of those who deemed themselves worthy of high office. They would do anything possible to stop the messenger reaching the ear of the Emperor – anything. They would kill, they would threaten his family and they would make it impossible to cross the city he knew so well. What could one man do? Alone, unarmed, without money of friends? He could try or die. The choice was that simple.
Billed as ’24 in Ancient Rome’ (I think I saw one episode of the first series) and ‘Jack Reacher in Ancient Rome’ (never read any of the books or seen any of the movies) I was looking forward to a thrilling roller-coaster ride as one man struggled against impossible (and mysterious) odds to cross a city and save the Empire. Unfortunately this didn’t grip me at all. The idea was pretty good. Set one man – a barbarian hero – against a mysterious conspiracy and set him off to cross just a few miles in 24 hours. Simple, right? Naturally there are obstacles ranged against him – both physical and human – which he manages to surmount in ingenious ways or by the application of simple brute force. So far so good except that after a while it was pretty obvious that the threat, the peril, was on the low side. Not only was the main character, the northern barbarian Ballista, seemingly very good at his job (although surprisingly easy to spot in a city of a million people) he was also very lucky in the people he bumped into that helped him on his way. There were certainly a goodly few nice set-pieces which were very ‘cinematic’ in their execution but again with little tension. As I’ve found in other novels recently the thing that annoyed/irritated me more than anything else was the internal dialogue of the main character who repeated his worries for his family and thoughts about his comrades. OK, he had several motivations to get to the Emperor in time but once these were established we didn’t really need to be reminded of them so often. Finally my other bugbear was the fact that Ballista’s travels took him ALL over the city as route after route was closed off to him. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that at each historic stopping point the narrative stopped dead for Ballista to explain something about the significance of the building/wall/monument he was standing or fighting next to. It was all very interesting (in another context anyway) but did nothing to move the story forward. Overall this was a decent story – if a little on the thin side – but unfortunately the execution was too stilted and too often interrupted with introspection and exposition to be exactly thrilling. Reasonable but only just.
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Saturday, November 21, 2020
Reading – The Kitten Years
I’ve just finished a book that was, at least partially, about how children learn to read and it got me thinking about my own experiences. So I thought that I’d relate them here.
I don’t actually remember learning or being taught to read. I certainly don’t have any memories of sitting on either parents lap having stories read to me in the classical fashion – but then again I do find that HUGE chunks of my childhood are blank spaces. I know for a fact that I could read when I arrived at school age 5 or so. I suspect that both parents were involved in getting me that far although I suspect that my Mother’s motivation may have been so that I didn’t embarrass the family. She really need not have worried.
Only two early school reading related things really jump out at me looking back. The first was when I was presented with a book to read and had the whole lesson period to do so. I have a very vague recollection of what it was about but I do remember black and white line drawings and around three lines of text per page, or at least something like that. So I sat down and read it. After slowly reading my way through for about 10 minutes I looked up to see everyone else still reading and the teacher busy with something so I read it again. Now about 15-20 minutes into the lesson I was starting to get a bit bored, so I got up, walked over to the teacher and asked for another book. “You need to read that one”, she said. “I have”, I said. “Twice”. “You couldn’t have” she said. So, again I said that I had. “OK, then”, she said. “What was it about?” So I told her. She paused for a moment. Pointed over to the classroom book shelf and told me to take any one I liked.
The second incident I have a strong memory of is when a School Inspector came to visit. I think this must have been a few years later. So I was, maybe 7-8 years old. As far as I can tell she was testing reading age. I was called into a small office and sat down looking at my teacher and the visitor. I was then handed a small piece of card with typing on it and was asked to read it back – which I did. I expect this was probably the ‘place holder’ to show both that I could read and that I’d met the minimum standard. She then handed me a second card to read – which I did and handed it back. I’m guessing that this was probably to see that I was reading at my correct age group. She then handed me a third card, which I suspect was above my age group, which I read and handed back. Then another – ditto. I think she may have produced one more which I also read. At this point there was, I remember, so confusion or embarrassment because she’d run out of cards and I hadn’t run out of reading age.
Strange as it may seem I didn’t really read much (outside school) until my early teens. The classic children’s stories passed me by and I still haven’t read them – although I am planning to during my retirement/second childhood. I do remember reading the families’ daily newspaper though. Maybe that’s where I got my word power from? The only childhood book I do remember reading – although I have zero idea how it came into my hands was a German children’s book called ‘Emil and the Detectives’ (1929) by Erich Kastner. How weird is that! But I LOVED that book. Then, around the age of 13 my English teacher obviously saw something in me and leant me her graduation presentation copy of ‘1984’ by George Orwell. Needless to say it rocked my world but still failed to ignite my reading fire. That had to wait until a fateful day, not long after, when a friend of my brother came over to our house and tossed a paperback into my lap. “This is pretty good”, he said. “I think you’ll like it.” I looked down and read the title – ‘Triplanetary’ by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith. A few days later my mind was on fire and only on thought occupied it: MORE!
Friday, November 20, 2020
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Indian Mutiny 1857 by Saul David (FP: 2002) [382pp]
It had been simmering for some time if anyone had being paying attention enough to notice. The conditions of the local troops hadn’t really improved for years and it showed. But most of the British Army officers and those of the East India Company throughout central India had other concerns than the native forces under their control. The spark, when it happened, could have been foreseen. In part at least simply a case of a process not thought through and in part the result of poor or absent communication what could have been a smooth transition to an updated rifle cartridge was enough to cause dismay, confusion and, with the help of agitators, ultimately mutiny. As rumours quickly spread through Indian units that the new cartridges had been tainted with pig or cow fat – thereby offending both Hindu and Muslim soldiers – British officers struggled to contain the growing disquiet. When ‘suspect’ units were disarmed and returned to barracks – often at gunpoint – the mere rumour of this happening to others finally brought things into the open. Whole units rose up and killed their British officers as well as anyone suspected of supporting them. Then they turned on the local population, killing foreigners and Christian converts – men, women and children. As the revolt grew so did the panic in the European communities across central India. Some senior officers tried to take control and talk their men back to barracks. Most tried and died. Some fled to higher command or barricaded themselves and local Europeans in any structure considered secure enough to hold out until relieved. Some, as at Lucknow, managed to hold out. Others, as at Cawnpore, ended in surrender and, ultimately, massacre. When the British response came it was crushing and brutal. Stories of massacre and the ‘dishonouring’ of women circulated within the army units as they marched north to relieve garrisons and extract revenge. The stories of widespread rape turned out to be unfounded but the wholesale killing by rebel forces was anything but. The British were by this time in no mood to engage in gentlemanly warfare and executed any local official suspected of helping or aiding the mutiny and, once battle was given, took very few prisoners. It was a very bloody affair indeed with no quarter asked and very little given. Of course when it was all over – months later – the subsequent enquiry revealed that the whole sorry incident could have been avoided if more attention had been given to native soldiers and reforms both in the army and government at all levels been undertaken. Much of this did indeed follow the end of the Mutiny but could have been instituted without the resultant bloodshed. But one important thing, at least from the British perspective, did follow the Mutiny: the East India Company lost its mandate to administer large parts of India and the British government took over. The Raj, the jewel in the Imperial crown, was about to be born.
Yet again the Indian Mutiny was something I knew of but precious little about. No longer! This was quite simply a brilliant and detailed look at the causes of the Mutiny, the fight for control (which honestly could have gone either way) and the subsequent British victory. The two sieges – at Cawnpore and Lucknow – were covered in some detail (using personal accounts) and were honestly fascinating. Naturally this was an important incident in both Indian and British Imperial history and deserves to be remembered. It was most definitely not the Empire’s finest hour for a whole host of reasons. Even so it was a time full of heroism, fortitude and sheer grit in the face of sometimes impossible odds. Both gripping and appalling in equal measure this is a work deserving of attention if you have the stomach for it as the author pulls few punches and is not afraid to show atrocities (by both sides) in their historical context. Highly recommended.
The Tale of Two South's........
So, South Korea - with a population of around 52 Million - has just had around 500 Covid related deaths, whilst South Dakota - with a population of less that 1 Million - has just had over 600 Covid related deaths..... May I suggest that something is VERY wrong in South Dakota..... Unless there's some other explanation for having over 50x the death rate..... Just saying....
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
Monday, November 16, 2020
Just Finished Reading: Ice Cold Heart by P J Tracy (FP: 2019) [366pp]
At first glance Minneapolis PD thought it was a sex game that had gone tragically wrong. They’d seen that sort of thing before and such things no longer surprised them. But it soon became apparent that things just didn’t add up. There was the distraught husband, the victims online chat record and the sex ‘game’ partners ability to cover his tracks so well. This was no accident. As investigations continued they had a breakthrough – a similar unsolved killing had been reported on the other side of the country and there was a link. Both deaths had taken place at the same time an exhibition by a controversial artist who used bondage images in his work had opened in both locations. It started to look like they had a deranged ‘fan’ on their hands. But then things started to get complex. A foreign member of Interpol was in the city tracking down a war criminal from the former Yugoslavia who had killed and tortured his way throughout the region during the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. It looked like both organisations might just be after the same man….
As you might imagine (if you know me by now!) I read this because it had a very similar title to my last book – Cold Cold Heart. Such things amuse me. Despite its name and the fact that it was about a foreign national killing women in reasonably inventive ways this was a very different book that the previous read. For one thing this was a very good example of a police procedural novel, something I haven’t read for a while now! The central narrative is from the PoV of the local PD as they investigate the crime(s), interview witnesses and acquire clues/information. This was handled very well indeed and gave you just enough information to chew on as the investigation proceeded. The two detectives were very well drawn and sounded just like cops. The second narrative, eventually mixing with the third, was from the PoV of a group of IT Security experts (one of whom who was one of the detectives partners) called the ‘Monkey Wrench Gang’ who did free consulting for the police and other law enforcement agencies. The third, and I think much weaker, narrative was from the PoV of the Interpol agent who, at least in my opinion, didn’t act particularly rationally (although her back story might explain that!) and was there at times (I felt) to add jeopardy and simply move the plot forward. The story would have been none the weaker without her. But apart from that one niggle this was a cracking read which I devoured inside a few days – not really helping my review backlog! Whilst looking for the cover I discovered that this is actually the TENTH book in the series (so it looks like I’ve got some catching up to do) and that the ‘author’ is a mother and daughter team. Regretfully the mother died recently so I expect this will be the last book in this particular series. If you can stand a bit of tension (there’s hardly any ‘gore’ in the entire book which I liked) this is an excellent police thriller and I was very entertained by it from the start. As dark as the previous book was this is quite the opposite and seemed full of light and air. A delight and very recommended to all crime lovers…. Although it might be best starting with the FIRST book in the series!
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Saturday, November 14, 2020
The US Elections: Not one Brits Opinion
OK, I WAS going to give my (largely uninformed) opinion of the US Election from the perspective of someone with no ‘skin in the game’ and from the other side of ‘the pond’. But then I thought that not only would I simply annoy people, and not only those who voted for Trump, but I wouldn’t be contributing anything particularly useful to any ongoing conversation (AKA Flamewar).
So, I’ll just say a few things and then get to the point. Naturally (from my own PoV) I’m pleased that Biden won and, more importantly, Trump lost. However, that needs to be tempered by the fact that over 70 MILLION people voted for Trump even after experiencing FOUR YEARS of his ‘administration’. That alone is enough to ponder….. What the 2020 result also clearly shows is that Trumps election in 2016 was not a ‘fluke’ and that ‘Trumpism’ will not end in January 2021. From my, admittedly scant, understanding of US political history the brief Trump Presidency is far from unique. ‘Trumpism’ (which actually has nothing to do with Trump) goes back to at least the 1960’s and probably back to the 1860’s if not all the way back to the Foundation.
As with anything I don’t understand – I so HATE to be confounded by things – I am naturally driven to investigate further. I already have an inkling as to why Trump was and is so popular. I’ll see if I can flesh that out a bit in the next four years of the Biden administration. I might also read up a bit on *actual* Socialism to give my American readership something to muse on.
There’s definitely going to be interesting times ahead for my American friends. It’s most definitely NOT going to be easy. Still, those who wanted this outcome should celebrate for a little while. But keep in mind that there’s a LOT of work to do if you don’t want another Republican and another Trumpist in power in 2024. Looking on the bright side, like I always do, I suspect that a convicted felon can’t stand for President… so there is that……
In other completely unrelated news I’ve been label thinking again in preparation for future reading themes. So I’ve added ‘Oceans’ and ‘Poles Apart’ – not on American political divides but the actual North & South Poles. Both are naturally rather sparsely populated so far but that’ll change.
Friday, November 13, 2020
Thursday, November 12, 2020
Just Finished Reading: Cold Cold Heart by James Elliott (FP: 1994) [344pp]
It was quite the catch. A high ranking KGB officer wanted to defect with more high level information in his head than the CIA had acquired in decades. A new identity and a lifetime on the government payroll was a small price to pay. The fact that he was apparently under investigation by his own side only added to his credibility. Years later, now known as John Malik, the ever present ‘itch’ is back. It’s been too long since he managed to scratch and the environment was SO target rich. The complication, once the bodies of the young girls started appearing was the FBI ongoing investigation. Despite the CIA’s less than stellar regard for their law enforcement colleagues there was always a chance, a small chance, that they might stumble upon the fact that their killer was part of a CIA protection programme. It was time to do some covering up. That’s where the problem really started. Malik’s CIA handler was in jail – serving 3 years for contempt of Congress by refusing to spill the beans on the Agency. Now they wanted him to help them sort out their dirt, now they wanted him to put the suicide of his wife to one side long enough to help his country and the Agency avoid the inevitable publicity and embarrassment this could cause. His price was going to be steep but worth it. If, that is, he could get to Malik before the FBI did or before the whole sordid episode became public knowledge care of the ex-cop journalist from the Washington Post already hot on Malik’s trail.
I have no recollection of buying this so I’ve probably had it for years (as usual) gathering dust in a corner somewhere. As a story it’s pretty standard stuff – psychotic serial killer (with the twist that he’s ex-KGB so we get CIA/FBI added to the mix), multiple body count, race against time, yadda yadda. It is, however, rather well written, fast paced and very cinematic (in fact more than once I thought I was watching a movie play in my head or at least that the author was pitching a script to someone). So, the pages turned. Characterisation was above average although only just above the clichés we know so well from the serial killer genre. Of course looking back 26 years this sort of thing is very hackneyed plus not a little disturbingly offensive in the killers drive to hunt, capture and kill (rather graphically) young women who somehow ‘challenge’ him. If it wasn’t generally unpleasant it would actually be boring. There was a fair bit of nose wrinkling going on throughout the book but times have changed a great deal since its publication. A reasonable thriller of its type but not really recommended. Definitely not for the faint of heart or easily disturbed.
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Monday, November 09, 2020
Just Finished Reading: The Plague by Albert Camus (FP: 1947) [238pp]
When a dead rat is found near a housing complex it is a source of embarrassment for the landlord and his tenants. When ten dead rats are found in the locality it is a mystery, a curiosity to be spoken of in the café with friends. When hundreds of dead rats are found across the Algerian city of Oran it is no longer a curiosity but a source of anxiety and even fear. But it was only when a sick local, suffering from a condition none of the doctors had ever seen before, died in agony that some began to realise that something was very wrong. When the single case turned into two, then three then more all across the city the mayor called a meeting of all of the medical experts to understand exactly what was happening. No one was sure and samples had been sent to Paris for analysis but Dr Rieux has his suspicions – which he keeps to himself for now. Days later, after more unexplained deaths, the results come back from Paris. To everyone’s shock a disease from the past, long thought dead forever, has returned. It is the Plague. Certain that it will spread beyond the city if swift action is not taken the gates to the city are closed. No one is allowed to leave, and no one entering will be allowed to leave until the disease has either been conquered or has moved on after taking its fill of the population. Each citizen must now decide how they will continue in the knowledge of their cities tragedy. Will they hide in their homes and wait until the plague passes them by, will they turn to God to help them in their hours of need, will they pay criminal gangs to get them ‘over the wall’ to escape back to their homes and loved ones far away or will they stay, do what they can and choose to fight the scourge with everything at their disposal.
Cometh the moment, cometh the Classic. As usually I’ve had this book sitting in a pile for years after I bought it. I got into Camus during my Philosophy Master’s degree and have been very impressed with him ever since. I think this is my second novel by him and by far the better of the two. Taken at face value this is a study in character during extreme times. Each of the wonderfully drawn players in this drama (the narrator Dr Rieux is my favourite but others such as his friend Tarrou and his 75 year old asthma patient really stood out for me) has to decide how to react to the cities quarantine measures depending on their circumstances, character and personal philosophies. But naturally coming from the pen of Camus it is much more than that – and indeed much more than an exposition of his philosophical ideas in the real world. It is, as you probably already know, an allegory on the German Occupation of France in World War Two. Reading it and knowing this is quite weird. It is like seeing an image, a photograph maybe, and then seeing, sometimes clearly and sometimes in an almost after-image, another photograph superimposed on the first. Some of the photographs are similar enough to be subtle echoes of each other. Some are jarring in their difference and sometimes threatened to break the spell of the novel itself as part of the analytical side of the brain tried to understand not only what the author was saying but understand what it meant – from two perspectives at once. It could, at times, almost give you a headache – but in a good way! Needless to say I enjoyed this book immensely. I am a lover of French cinema and this novel had that continental ‘feel’ to it (despite being based in North Africa). Obviously the characters throughout the book were very ‘French’ and I found myself smiling more than once as I visualised the scene in my head almost complete with sub-titles and some accordion music in the background. It is a book you can revisit time and again teasing out various elements to hold them in your mind’s eye in an attempt to discern exactly what the author meant by this scene or that observation. Some if it is obvious even to someone not French and who did not experience the Occupation and everything that wrought on the French psyche. Other elements, quite possible much of the hidden narrative, will past over the heads of modern non-French readers. I suspect taking to time to dive deeper into the narrative itself and the history of the times it reflected would be worth the effort. Highly recommended and a deserved Classic.
Translated from the French by Robin Buss.