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

Sunday, February 28, 2021


So ends Love & Relationship Month here @ SaLT! Didn't it go FAST? Next up....? Mad March. You Have Been Warned [grin]


 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

 Arrakis...... Dune..... Desert Planet.....




These are two of my favourite YouTube channels on the Dune Universe. If you're a fan like me you might be interested in these. BE WARNED: These videos contain SPOILERS if you haven't read all 6 of the original books. Have FUN. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021


 


Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Naked Came the Robot by Barry B. Longyear (FP: 1988) [214pp]

The nuclear war was really the last straw. When the radioactive dust had settled the protesters shouted out their message: “No more War”. But both sides – The Americans and the Soviets – had the same problem. With only 10% of their populations dead but their economies destroyed they needed to do something to keep their side in the fight – but without actual fighting. The answer? Welfare for the people and Robots for the economy. Within a few years it was all humming along nicely. The general population were quiet and the few humans still in the economy were doing very nicely thank you. But all was not as advertised in the new Cold War economy as new young executive Henry Fleming was about to find out. Joining the Economy on the eve of an expected Soviet victory he discovers that the robot economy is a mess of strikes and civil unrest and that being caught up in a riot is only the start of his problems.

OK, I admit I was somewhat cautious about this from the get-go. I’d read a few books by this author before and, although they were rather ‘weird’ at times I enjoyed them. This, however, was pretty much dross after only a few chapters. How I managed to get around 100 pages in before abandoning it I’m not exactly sure. It was an interesting concept that could have been a fun read. Some of the plays on words and silliness did in fact make me chuckle but overall it quickly became clear that the author was literally making shit up as he went along and what might have been an entertaining surreal adventure just became a total farce. Now my second DNF of the year, but hopefully my last! Avoid.   

Monday, February 22, 2021


 


 


Just Finished Reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (FP: 1970) [352pp]

When they realised their mistake it was already too late, far too late. When the original settlers arrived they were still weak from their sea voyage and were totally unprepared for the New World. They were, it seemed, no threat and the land was endless and full of game for everyone. Giving up a small part of their land to the newcomers was barely an inconvenience – even if they did survive which was in doubt. When the natives returned to check up on their new neighbours they were surprised at how the settlement had grown – both from births and further landings. Cabins had been built, trees cut down and fields planted. The natives were greeted but looked on with suspicion. They returned to their tribes troubled about the future. Within a few years the original settlements had grown further and others had sprouted up like weeds along rivers and further along the coast. Each day, it seemed, more ships were arriving. Before long the expansion of White settlers started to impinge on the native hunting grounds. Arguments ensued and it was not long before blood was spilt. Something needed to be done. Maps were drawn and lines on those maps were drawn to show land owned by White men and land owned by the Red man. Without any real concept of land ownership the natives smiled and let the Whites have ‘their’ land and moved further into the endless steppe. Years passed in comparative peace. The natives didn’t really mind White settlers crossing their land. What they did mind, and strongly objected to, was the indiscriminate killing of game, the temporary settlements that seemed to persist for years and the search for useless rock the Whites called ‘Gold’ or ‘Silver’. But when objected to the White authorities and the previous treaty mentioned the only response was the need for a new treaty and more land concessions. Increasingly the natives wondered where it would end. Just how much land did the Whites need? Just how many White settlers were there?

Pushed, pushed and pushed again, some of the natives began to push back. Blood was again spilt either with or without the tribal chief’s knowledge or agreement. Rather, as they expected, that being the end of the matter the Whites pushed back – hard. The natives, seen until this point as a possible impediment to expansion, now became perceived as a potential threat. Something needed to be done and it was – at the point of a sabre and at the point of a gun. The inevitably defeated natives were then settled on ‘reservations’ which usually encompassed the worst of the available land and left there. Repeated time and again, often with increasing brutality, the native numbers and geographical reach dropped year by year as the numbers and spread of Whites increased like the locusts they were all too often compared to. It was the beginning of the end.


I can see why this book – published near the height of the Hippy years – had such a huge impact in the US especially. Undoubtedly this powerful narrative brought home to many white Americans the true history of the Native Americans who preceded them for the first time. I image that many of them were shocked and honestly appalled at the treatment of the first settlers who roamed the land long before the events at Plymouth Rock. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a slow motion Holocaust. Some of it was, no doubt, accidental with the unintentional spread of European diseases onto a continent unfamiliar with them. Some of it, likewise, was the unintended consequence of other actions but by far the greater part of it was deliberate, calculated and sanctioned by local, federal and national agencies and individuals. The natives were in the way and needed to be ‘dealt with’. I freely admit that I don’t know enough about the continental genocide euphemistically called the Indian Wars but this book did come across (at least to me) as more than a little partisan. I can understand the need, especially at the time, to put forward a viewpoint (from the Native American side) that I presume had hardly been heard up till that point but still I found the depiction of Whites as essentially bad/greedy/untrustworthy, with a few notable exceptions, and Natives as essentially na├»ve/peaceful/trusting as rather simplistic in order to make a point. However, like all knowledge gained, it’s never a good idea to rely on a single book or a single PoV on any subject. In that vein I shall be reading more about the Native American experience in the months to come. An interesting and historically important read. Recommended with caveats.
 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Thursday, February 18, 2021


 Love in the Time of Influenza.


Just Finished Reading: Austerity – The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth (FP: 2013) [272pp]

Selected as the Best Book of 2013 by the Financial Times and Bloomberg News this is a well presented, deep and blistering attack on the response to the (fast fading from memory) financial crisis of 2008. Putting the blame where it belongs – in other words NOT with the governments who were forced to use tax payers money to bail out the banks and financial institutions that actually caused the problem – the author looks at two aspects of the financial fall out. Looking first at the USA – ‘too big to fail’ – then moving onto the Eurozone ‘too big to bail’. I was mostly aware of the American response to the crisis so most of it didn’t come with many surprises. What really caught be unaware though was what exactly happened in the Eurozone. I was aware of the bank bailouts (with Iceland being the very notable exception here) and the deepening crisis in Greece but what I failed to appreciate was the total mess within the Eurozone almost completely caused by issues around the single currency (which we never joined) and the dictates of the European Central Bank controlled by the Germans. It almost, emphasis on the almost, made me cheer to fact that we’re no longer IN the European Union. What it did make clear was that fiscal integration within Europe moved MUCH faster than it should have done as was far to in advance of political integration which should have happened first. Despite the real danger that this whole debate could have gone very technical very quickly the author not only managed to make it interesting but I felt that I actually understood a LOT more about European political decisions over the last ten years than I had prior to reading this excellent volume.   

After spending around half of the volume dealing with the US and Europe the author moved onto the history of the idea of Austerity handily debunking theory after theory – which often had either little basis in reality or were actually (and in effect fraudulently) based on manipulated or massaged data sets to arrive at forms of political positions that could be made (or made to sound like) into ideas palatable or at least grudgingly acceptable to the voting public. Of course we all know WHY governments stepped in and bailed out the criminals who caused the Crash of 2008. They had to, or at least they knew that if they didn’t that they would pay the political consequences at the next election. Of course most of those responsible walked away without a scratch and, in too many cases, actually better off. It still astounds me that organisations and individuals supposedly dead set against government intervention of any kind and especially intervention in economic affairs were more than happy accepting government bailouts – from institutions that many of them believed did not need to exist nor should exist. Hypocrisy just doesn’t cover it. If they’d had an atom of honour (yeah, right) they would have admitted that they’d fucked up, refused the bailout and fallen on their collective swords. Personally I would have stopped the economic collapse, arrested those involved and thrown the lot of them in jail (if they were lucky) and then asset stripped their companies to pay back as much as they could.

Unfortunately austerity is one of those toxic ideas that refuses to do the right thing and slink off into the woods to die alone. Despite failing time and time again it is brought out as a ‘solution’ to the problem of recession or depression despite the fact that throughout recorded history it has made recessions longer, deeper and more painful. If you’re of an economical mind-set and wonder exactly why the financial fallout from the Crash of 2008 played out the way it did across the world this is definitely the book for you. Definitely recommended.    

Monday, February 15, 2021


 


 


Just Finished Reading: Kept – A Victorian Mystery by D J Taylor (FP: 2006) [470pp]

Suffolk, England 1863. Mr Henry Ireland apparently falls from his horse and dies from injuries sustained in the accident. Norfolk, England 1866. Mr James Dixey, who has been attending to the special needs of the seemingly deranged Mrs Ireland now in his care, is found dead at his estate seemingly attacked by a wild animal – possibly a wolf. Investigating both incidents is the fabled London police officer Captain McTurk. But questions abound like no case he has yet been involved in. Is there a link between the incidents over that of Mrs Ireland? Was Mr Ireland’s demise really an accident as it first appeared? Why was Mr Dixey’s estate in such poor repair despite his extravagant expenses elsewhere? What is Mr Dixey’s connection to a group of ‘gentlemen’ in London who are of interest to Captain McTurk’s ongoing investigation of the Crime of the Century – the removal of a great deal of gold bullion from a moving train? Finally, where on earth is Mrs Ireland?

This is a strange one – so much so that I even mused (for a while at least) about DNFing it. I’m so glad I resisted that impulse. The problem I had, which actually wasn’t a problem at all, was that this was an unexpected experience stylistically speaking. Although I was fully expecting a Victorian mystery I did not expect it be written in the style of a mystery novel of the period. As the blurb rightly declares this is not a simple ‘whodunit’ or a police procedural. This is a mystery in the sense of a Conan Doyle, Dickens or Wilkie Collins. As any reader of Victorian fiction knows from experience the plot of such mysteries does not progress in anything approaching a linear fashion. Here we are introduced to a small army of characters each of which has something to say or something to do with the deeper mystery (or indeed mysteries) involved here. Clues, such as they are, only appear important later when pieces of the intricate puzzle slowly fall into place. Although there is a central investigator he only appears near the end of the novel as he attempts to pull together all of the disparate elements of the central enigma (the location and disposition of Mrs Ireland who is the binding element of the tale). Elements of the prior investigations are undertaken by other interested parties such as servants, cousins, friends of the family as such like. All of this means that you cannot simply skim over sections that appear to be purely background and concentrate on the clues (and red herrings) as they fall into place. Oh, no. Nothing as simple as that. You have to read, and more importantly, pay attention to everything and everyone portrayed here. You have to immerse yourself in the lives of characters who only have small pieces of the puzzle and no more. Only the reader, with their omniscient eye, can see what the other characters cannot but even we cannot see everything all at once. That’s the thing that kept me reading and kept me in the strange but oddly familiar world on England in the 1860’s. This was a real, if somewhat unexpected, treat and will delight anyone with a love of subtle mysteries and wonderful writing. Definitely recommended.

New High Score (since records began 22nd October 2020)

Page count: 470pp [+15pp]         

Saturday, February 13, 2021


Back in the Good Old 1950’s

For the last week or so I’ve been spending around 90 minutes each day watching old SF movies, some of which are amongst my favourite movies of all time. They were (mostly in order):

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

It Came from Outer Space

This Island Earth

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Tarantula!

The Thing from Another World

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When Worlds Collide

The War of the Worlds

Them!

Watching so many so close together I noticed several things which jumped out at me. What I hadn’t really noticed before was how often things are ‘recycled’ in these films (and I don’t just mean the plots). Several films starred actors in similar roles, props showed up in several movies as did locations, buildings and, at least twice that I noticed, entire towns. I couldn’t help but notice that both deserts and the city of Los Angeles were recurring themes – most probably because of the location of the studios and the fact that desert locations are (presumably) cheap and (mostly) flooded with lots of available light. Being the beginning of the ‘Atomic Age’ you couldn’t help but notice the oft repeated mention of the bomb tests – often responsible for the particular monster in that movie – and the fact that at least one scientist in each movie had something to do with atomic power or ‘the new atomic engines’!

Speaking of scientists, the range throughout the movies was interesting. Generally they were just called that – scientists – no matter their field or area of expertise. I remember laughing during ‘War of the Worlds’ when it was pointed out that a ‘bunch of scientists’ were fishing somewhere and they could be contacted to explain the situation as if any scientist can explain any phenomena and are completely interchangeable at all times. Plus in WotW the main scientist was an expert in atomics so why should he know anything at all about meteorites? Would a plant geneticist be just as good? At least in ‘Them!’ the lead scientist was an expert in his field – ants. At least they got that right. Plus in ‘This Island Earth’ all of the scientists were atomic experts – tasked with finding a more efficient way of producing atomic energy. At least that one tracked! The other thing that jumped out at me (apart from the fact that 99.9% of the cast were white!) was the use – or misuse – of female scientists. I think in only one (When Worlds Collide) did you see a woman in any kind of meaningful scientific role actually using a slide rule [sidebar: they stopped using slide rules in my maths class the year before we got there so I never learned how to use one. We used Log Tables instead which I loved] during a confirmation exercise to determine if the star/planet combo was actually going to hit us. The only other case of a female scientist doing science stuff was in ‘Tarantula’ where she assisted the main scientist in some lab work. Interestingly she liked to be known as ‘Steve’ – maybe as a way of saying it was OK to be a scientist (complete with white coat) but you can’t be feminine at the same time? [sidebar: In ‘WWC’ the third-wheel was the male lead who played a pilot accidentally let into the secret that the world was going to end but kept around at the request of the lead scientists daughter. BTW – Have you noticed just how many elderly male scientists have beautiful daughters yet we never see their mothers?]

Of course, being the 50’s, the other thing that really, really, jumped out at me was the (at least once) mention of God. I don’t think that God or The Bible came up in either ‘Tarantula’ or ‘Black Lagoon’ but I think it did in every other movie on the list – from 6 days for the Martians to destroy humanity, to the ants in ‘Them’ being a Biblical plague, to the spaceship in ‘WWC’ being an Ark both literally and figuratively and the comment in Island Earth about judging us humans by the ‘size of our God’ – presumably by soon to be extinct atheist aliens. I’m not a huge expert in other countries production of SF movies during that era but I’m fairly confident that God gets far fewer mentions that the US variety.

Overall though 50’s SF movies by and large deserve their classic status. Many of them were cheap, some of them (probably too many) were nasty but a handful were real gems of movies. My particular favourites being ‘This Island Earth’, ‘The Thing from Another World’, ‘When Worlds Collide’ and ‘Them!’ which still has the power to make me gasp and shudder despite its age and the fact that I’ve seen it multiple times. If you haven’t checked out any of my list I recommend you do so. You’ll be in for a treat, just make sure you have popcorn and don’t take them too seriously!          


 

Thursday, February 11, 2021


 Now, that's a BIG spider in the bathroom!


Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Marx and Marxism by Gregory Claeys (FP: 2018) [462pp]

I read this, or at least went into reading this, as part of the exploration of how far down my Socialism goes. I guess growing up in the North in the 60’s and 70’s I didn’t give my political beliefs much thought – not unlike growing up in an overtly religious family/environment – but too for granted that the Left was where it was ‘at’. Oddly my family are, mostly, either apolitical or Right leaning rather than a Leftie like me. I do think my Dad was a grass-root Socialist though. He never said as much but, the more I think about it, the more I think he was.

Anyway, I managed to get in around 100 pages before I gave up on this one. It wasn’t that it was bad per se or that I found it particularly difficult or in any way politically problematic. It was just that the whole section I was wadding through at that time was heavily down in the ‘weeds’ of the history of Marxist ideas and was going into great detail of how his ideas changed over time as he interacted with and reacted to other thinkers of the time and how Marx came to embrace the idea of Communism. Unfortunately for me I kept losing the thread of the argument so was in a constant state of confusion and increasing irritation. Any idea, especially powerful ones, are rarely born whole and complete and must therefore originate in quite different guise then change and mature over time. The problem I had, which others may not have, is that the author dug into this process and then kept on digging and then dug some more. If I was writing a paper on the development of early Marxist ideas this would have been gold but I, as someone with a more general interest in the topic, just found it too heavy, too detailed and too exhaustive (and exhausting) to carry on into what I hoped to be the more interesting (to me anyway) bit of how these ideas spread across the world and the consequences they had on world history going forward. I’m fairly confident that if the author had glossed over the birth of Marxist thought with references, footnotes and an annex or two I would have finished the book and probably enjoyed it. However, this was not to be and so we have the first DNF of the year!  

Monday, February 08, 2021


 


 


Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Fury by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 2006) [371pp]

Cadiz, Spain 1811. Only the single port of Cadiz remains free from French occupation. In its parliament arguments rage as to the way ahead. One faction wants to take up the offer of continued British help and retake their country. The other wants to make an accommodation with Napoleon and move with France against the British. The balance is delicate. Britain needs to victory to show the Spanish that they can beat the seemingly unstoppable French armies. The last thing Britain needs is a diplomatic scandal but one is about to break and throw everything into chaos. The head of the British delegation in Cadiz has been foolish – very foolish. He has become entangled with a beautiful woman (who is not his wife) and has even more foolishly sent her compromising letters that have fallen into the hands of Britain’s enemies in the Spanish parliament. Enter Richard Sharpe. Tasked with recovering the letters he is told he must be discrete, that he must not under any circumstances cause a diplomatic incident, that he must not threaten, harm or kill anyone and that he must respect Spanish property. Fortunately the death and destruction that usually follows Sharpe like an over attentive puppy will be forgiven – just so long as his mission is successful.

This is quite a different Sharpe novel than I’ve been used to lately (my 17th I believe). Although there is a small skirmish at the beginning and a few short encounters early on, along with a much bigger battle at the end which Sharpe and his men are only tangentially involved in, most of the story takes place in Cadiz itself with Sharpe acting ‘covertly’ or at least as covertly as Sharpe can. He’s picked for the mission because he’s the only man available that the higher-ups can trust. So he does his best – which is, as both the reader and Wellington knows only too well – is very good indeed. It’s just that Richard is a bit more direct than most of his superiors would like. As usual in these tales Sharpe has a bumbling senior officer who tries to do him harm – at least as far as his career goes – and some ‘love interest’ which, as usual is well handled and often funny. The dialogue is sparkling and adds a whole additional level to the fun of reading Cornwell’s work. Although not really a stellar example of a Sharpe novel this is a solid piece of historical/Napoleonic fiction and is much fun to read. Once again I am reminded that most of my knowledge of the Peninsular War is derived from Sharpe novels. I really need to address that at some point! Recommended.