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

Monday, August 30, 2021



Just Finished Reading: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – A Memoir by Kim Barker (FP: 2011) [300pp]

It was the opportunity of a lifetime plus, as her editor rightly said, she was expendable: no marriage and no children. But was it a step far too far? Sure, Kim was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune with years of journalistic experience under her belt but her experience as a foreign correspondent was zero. Actually she had barely been outside the US, spoke only English and knew almost nothing about Islam or Osama Bin Laden – so of course Afghanistan would be the place to cut her foreign debut teeth. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Apparently lots but if Kim was one thing she was a quick study. She only managed to offend her guide once when arguing with him about the substance of Islam after reading a book about it, she only annoyed the US military command once when she reported back exactly what the troops on the ground felt about the war and she very quickly learnt how to deal with Pakistani men who constantly tried to pinch her backside at every opportunity. Some skills came easier than others and some skills she wished she had never needed to acquire – like learning to concentrate exactly where you walked and where you put your hands after reporting on the aftermath of suicide and car bombs. But oddly, and even she found it practically inexplicable, not only did she adapt to an environment and situation completely outside her previous experience but she started to actually thrive in it and then become addicted to downtown Kabul and the day to day, hour to hour drama that was Afghanistan.

I picked this up some time ago because I’d seen trailers for the movie of the same name and because Tina Fey was on the cover. From seeing the trailer (I never saw the movie) I had assumed that this was going to be a light-hearted semi-sarcastic look at the war in Afghanistan told from the view of a reporter completely out of her depth and making mistake after mistake as she tried to get ‘good copy’ for her paper back home. There was certainly an element of this – especially early on – along with plenty of rye humour (which I always ‘heard’ in Tina Fey’s ‘voice’ throughout the book!) but there was some much more here. To say I was surprised by the quality of the writing says much more about me than the author. It was to be honest THE surprise hit of the year for me. Being largely inexperienced and not a little ignorant of foreign countries and cultures Kim managed to ‘see’ much of what was going on (and just as importantly not going on) in Afghanistan with an almost innocent eye and reported back her impressions without the sophisticated gloss we’re so used to. Reporting from ground level, both before and after the war expanded into Iraq, we see the lives of the local Afghans, political leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan (who’s influence in Afghanistan is far too often overlooked), how other journalists saw the conflict and the thoughts of the ‘boots on the ground’ which were all too often a mixture of ignorance, arrogance and mystification.

Author (Left) and Tina Fey (Right)

Like many people on the ground during those early years Kim saw a deep lack of understanding from the military of who exactly they were fighting and what exactly the overall mission was, she saw either unforgivable ignorance of or tacit complicity with the enormous levels of corruption at every level of the Afghan government, she saw the wasted opportunities occasioned by the sudden switch of resources to Iraq at just the wrong moment and she saw US troops confused at how exactly they were supposed to train their future Afghan replacements with inadequate resources and little support themselves. In total it was, Kim understood after her time there, a complete clusterfuck waiting to happen. She was right – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed. If you want an idea of what was happening in Afghanistan and why the project ultimately failed (as many people knew it would) this will definitely give you a good idea. One of the highlights of 2021 for me and most definitely, and very unexpectedly, highly recommended. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Books & Life Book Tag (from A Book Olive on YouTube)

On a scale of 1-10 where 1 is a normal person how much are books and reading a part of your life?

I was, naturally, tempted to say 10 or at least 9 to this question. Books are and long have been an integral part of my life, but they are not ALL of my life – just a significant lump of it. So, honestly, I’d have to say 7-8 on my best days.

Where does your personal library stand in relation to the rest of your life? Do you have more books now than you’ve ever had? Fewer? How has your library changed?

I have more books now than I have ever had. In part that’s because I have my own house and full control of it so I can have book shelves in multiple rooms rather than, in my teen years, ‘only’ three tall bookshelves along one wall of my bedroom in my parents’ house. I’ve also a lot more disposable income after 30+ years of working so no longer really think about the costs of books these days.  

What is the most likely first bookish impression a newcomer would have in your home?

I’m sure people who have never met me before would think that I’ve just moved in to this house with books in piles on the floor or in cardboard boxes under the stairs. Their second thought(s) would probably be: “My, you have a LOT of books”, followed by “Have you READ all of these?”  

How often, if ever, do you clean or reorganise your books?

I dust my books from time to time. It’s rare they get reorganised on the shelves though. Mostly they’re clumped by author or subject so don’t need reorganising very much, in fact I still have two entire shelf units containing books I purchased for my Masters degrees still pretty much as they were from years ago. I am thinking of reorganising my 'Belief' unit though to something a bit more 'current'. I do periodically reorganise the piles of books though into subject areas so I don’t need to go looking for particular books too often. The last few mini-reorganisations have, mostly, followed additional Blog labels and reflect future reading plans.

On average how many books do you acquire in any given week?

It does vary a bit. Some weeks could be as low as 2 and, very occasionally, none at all. If I’m heading into ‘town’ and hitting my favourite independent bookshop I’d anticipate around 10-15. Similarly I get books for my birthday both from friends and on my own. So, pure guesswork, I’d say that *average* weekly purchases is around 4. Which is of course a slight problem as I only read around 2 each week….

What percentage of your self-control do you retain in a well-stocked bookshop?

Erm, none! OK, there are *some* caveats – I need time to shop properly and I need some way to carry my purchases home. Money probably wouldn’t come into it and I’d figure out where to put them later….

Do you ever feel the need to take a break from books and, if so, what form does it take?

I take breaks from books all the time. I don’t like to ‘chain-read’ so if I finish a book at 3pm I wouldn’t start another one until the next day. A reading break longer than a few hours is a rare event and not actively wanting to read is a very rare occurrence. If I’m not ‘feeling it’ I either game or watch YouTube documentaries, or maybe play in the garden or even, weather permitting go for a walk.

When you meet a new person how long does it take to bring up books?

Depends on the person and depends on what we’re doing. If they’re around me for very long they’ll see me with a book in my hand and we’d be off from there.

Have you given any thought or made any provision for your personal library after you croak?

Yes, I intend to hand over the entire ‘library’ to my sister to distribute among her kids. They’re all readers of various intensity and I’m sure that the youngest especially would like access to so many books for free.

Are you known among your friends and loved ones for your weird and probably unhealthy relationship with books?

What do you think? My Mum and brother are both fairly big readers (although they do tend to concentrate on crime fiction almost exclusively) but my ‘friends’ think I’m bat-shit crazy for being so book-obsessed. The people I worked with, especially the non-readers among them, honestly thought I was from another planet. Even those who read a bit couldn’t really understand how I managed to ‘read so many books’ (around 60-70 at the time) or why I was interested in so many different subjects. I lost count of the times that people @ work said a variation of: “Jeeze, what are you reading NOW?” This amused me GREATLY and, to be honest, I did sometimes read moderately ‘odd’ books at work just to get a reaction from people. Bad me…..

Thursday, August 26, 2021


Just Finished Reading: WTF? By Robert Preston (FP: 2017) [280pp]

It was the double-whammy of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US that made the author (and to be honest many other people) to wonder WTF? In this interesting and often entertaining book the author attempts to answer that question in the form of a long letter written to his departed father.

Although the Trump Presidential victory is mentioned in passing throughout the book the vast majority of it is about the author trying to figure out both why people voted to Leave the EU and, probably more importantly, why the Liberal media elite (in which he recognises himself) singularly missed the signals that said a Leave vote was coming. Part of the reason, he freely admits, was that he lived for the most part in a Remain ‘bubble’ in London among his other Liberal Remain intelligentsia friends and family. For the author the fact of Remain was a no-brainer. In the months before the vote I spoke to a reasonable number of people at work (so a very self-selecting group) plus other friends and family and actually called the 52-48% split to Leave. I actually regretted not putting a bet on as I could have made a few ‘quid’ on that! What the author didn’t realise, as he honestly should have being a political journalist(!), is that a great many people did not see Remaining as a no-brainer at all but quite the opposite. The Remain campaign, as most of my friends agreed, spent far too much time harping on how bad things would get if we left the EU. I actually think that they’re basically right but such statements were quickly dubbed ‘Project Fear’. The problem with this approach is that quite a few people honestly thought (and presumably still think) that they had precious little left to lose so such losses hardly figured in their calculation. What the Remain campaign also failed to realise is that they were essentially trying to sell a ‘Business as Usual’ message to people who had been suffering under such a regime and watching their livelihoods crumble year after year and decade after decade as they were increasingly side-lined and ignored in favour of a Southern (mostly London) Europhile ‘elite’. They were hardly going to vote in droves for more of the same. Leave, meanwhile, gave the ignored a voice all of a sudden in a vote with actual consequences – rather than one which merely rearranged the deckchairs on their political Titanic. So the Leave vote really shouldn’t have come as THAT much of a shock (actually they should have been more surprised that it was THAT close!). Given that they had nothing of consequence to lose (or at least that was the perception) they voted to Leave at least in the hope that the abandonment of ‘Business as Usual’ at least MIGHT make things better – plus it gave them the warm feeling of slapping the elites in the face for ignoring them for so long. Such a response is completely understandable. But, like the author himself, far too many people in the Remain camp (or the South-East/London ‘bubble’) missed just how annoyed – or down right angry – many people were, with a great deal of justification.

Although this was generally an interesting read I did feel a bit disappointed that the situation in America wasn’t covered more that the occasional passing reference. I was pretty much expecting this to be a 50-50 compare and contrast deal – which it definitely wasn’t. I suppose I also found it a little bit boring at times because I’d hashed and rehashed the arguments around Brexit over and over again with my friends and at work (I only touched on it briefly with my family as they all voted to Leave – even my Mother who hadn’t voted for anything since the late 1970’s). Recommended only really for those who didn’t live through it on an hourly basis for the last (seemingly) million years…..        


Monday, August 23, 2021


 Dressed for Arrakis? 

 SERIOUSLY people..................! [rotflmao]

Just Finished Reading: Computer Crimes and Capers edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh (FP: 1983) [250pp]

Continuing with my intermittent theme of Man(kind) Vs Machines this was a collection of crime(ish) related short stories involving robots or computers. As with most such collections the quality was a little hit and miss despite a plethora of top flight authors including Gordon R Dickson, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg and, naturally, Isaac Asimov.

Amongst the most interesting examples was Darl I Luv U by Joe Gores (1962) where a Defence Department computer hunts through the lost and the lonely for victims, Spanner in the Works by J T McIntosh (1963) where a hacked computer is outsmarted in time to prevent an enemy takeover and While U Wait by Edward Wellen (1978) where a Private Detective uses his computer background to outwit a hit-man during an ‘skype’ type interview. My favourite of the bunch was Sam Hill by Poul Anderson (1953) which told the story of a Totalitarian future America and the fictitious creation of a super Resistance operative within the Government computer network that takes on a life of its own and brings the Revolution quite a few steps forward.

So, a mixed bag but generally pretty good although, unfortunately, the longest tale is also the weakest by far. As always with these things the stories are much more about the present than any future they’re set it – in this case mostly the Cold War paranoia of the time(s). Plus one of the fun parts is seeing how various authors ‘predict’ the future so badly. One in particular struck me with the idea of nuclear powered cruise ships, rockets lifting off from the local city spaceport but hard-wired phones, only the rich owning personal computer terminals (complete with punch cards!), the NYSE handling ’50 million shares a DAY “without flinching”’ and only men doing the important stuff – this all being based in February 2016….. Funny……. Reasonable over all if only for the nostalgic elements.  

"The human mind prefers to be spoon-fed with the thoughts of others, but deprived of such nourishment it will, reluctantly, begin to think for itself - and such thinking, remember, is original thinking and may have valuable results."

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger (1943), p83

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Thursday, August 19, 2021


Just Finished Reading: Arachne by Lisa Mason (FP: 1990) [263pp]

Her creation had cost a small fortune. Her body was sculptured in the latest style, her cybernetic implants were top shelf and her training at the best schools decades long. She was ready, ready to take her place in the world, ready to start earning the big bucks and ready to pay back her enormous debts. When Carly Nolan got her placement at one of the most prestigious law firms in post-quake San Francisco she knew that she had it made. But then, like a buddle bursting, everything went wrong. Just as she started her opening remarks on her very first case the nightmare happened – her link into ‘telespace’ failed and refused to re-connect. When she finally reappeared multiple seconds later the AI judge was less than impressed with her excuses. For wasting its valuable time the judge decreed that Carly needed to undergo an immediate therapy probe to determine the issue behind her problems and suspended her law licence until it was all sorted out. From potential golden girl to office pariah on her first day – how the mightily in debt have fallen. Seeing no option to comply Carly makes her appointment with an AI known as Prober Spinner to find out what happened to her Link. But the AI Prober has other ideas of what it can achieve with Carly under its probe. Spinner is part of an underground illegal AI racket bidding for parts of human souls they leave in ‘telespace’ every time they use the Link. Carly Nolan might be Prober Spinners ticket to the big time if only it can find a way of extracting her soul without being discovered.

This was, as you can imagine, a bit of an odd one. Clearly Cyberpunk in nature (or at least background) it was advertised as ‘LA Law scripted by William Gibson’. Sadly it wasn’t quite that good but it certainly had a few moments. The environment of a shattered and, as yet, unrecovered San Francisco was well handled complete with weird gangs, lots of homeless people and the great mass of urban poor/precariat. The legal firm is suitably cut-throat and is full of highly unlikable go-getters on various mood enhancing and skills enhancing pharmaceuticals which are suitably and nastily addictive. So the Cyberpunk vibe is definitely there. Most of the characters are pretty disposable (and often disposed of!) and, apart from Ms Nolan herself, there are few that you end up actually caring about. Prober Spinner is an interesting character as an AI on tracks – I saw ‘him’ as an almost analogue of ‘Number 5’ from Short Circuit – but even it/him along with Carly Nolan didn’t really have enough heft to carry the whole novel. I think the thing I liked most about Cyberpunk in general was missing here. Cyberpunk is, in my mind, the essence of high-tech low-life. Here we had some fairly high-tech but the low life aspects were very much in the background where they stayed. Although the main character was using her (largely artificial) skillset to escape from the lower strata of that world we don’t see very much of it from her point of view. I think it would have been more interesting if somehow she’d ended up back at the shallow end but with her enhanced skills now put to more nefarious ‘street’ uses. Saying all that this was, generally, a pretty reasonable read and I certainly enjoyed it enough to finish it. But saying THAT I won’t be spending any time looking out for the sequel. Reasonable.   

Monday, August 16, 2021



Just Finished Reading: The Wolf Within – The Astonishing Evolution of Man’s Best Friend by Bryan Sykes (FP: 2018) [259pp]

I’ve always thought, despite being at heart a cat person, that dogs are something special. I don’t remember our first dog, a German Shepard, but my sister had a dog growing up who was a lot of fun. Not only was he bat-shit crazy at times (and therefore hilariously entertaining at times) he was incredibly loyal both to my sister and her kids and I honestly think he would have died for them if he saw a need to. That kind of loyalty is rare in people but all too common in dogs. So, where do dogs come from and why do they have such a special place in the lives of humans – even cat lovers like me.

It seems obvious on first glance that dogs must be descended from wolves but such a link was only confirmed comparatively recently. Charles Darwin, much interested in dog breeding, thought that we might never know for certain where the ancestors of dogs came from, but that was long before the discovery of DNA and investigations into the canine genome. That, genetics and the compilation of the canine family tree, is the focus of this interesting book. Starting with a rather (admitted by the author) romantic musing of the origins of how man and wolf met and ended up co-operating with each other the author moves onto discussing the sparse but fascinating evidence for the incorporation of the dog into human society to the mutual advantage of both. I particularly liked the speculation around two sets of footprints in the rear of a cave in France. Side by side, in what must have been a darkened part of a cave complex are imprints of a child’s footprints next to those of what is obviously a dog or dog-like creature. Although dating both prints to exactly the same time is difficult if not impossible it appears to be clear that the dog/wolf was not actually hunting the child. It’s easy to imagine a parent watching the child wander off and telling a nearby resting dog to ‘go with’ the child to keep a watchful eye on them. After all it’s what it would do for one of its own pack mate’s cubs.

Wolves and humans have broadly similar social structures and comparable hunting styles so it’s understandable that a wolf/dog would have an easier time of fitting into a ‘pack’ hierarchy than many other creatures. You really couldn’t see this happening with lions for example. Of course once they started being integrated you’d get specialisation – hunting dogs, guard dogs and war dogs. From there the diversity exploded across the world as wherever we went our dogs would go with us. It’s a fascinating story which is at least touched on here, from evolution to breeding and from owner’s relationships with their animals (both pets and working dogs) to the idea of cloning dogs for a kind of immortality. Being the person I am I enjoyed owner stories somewhat less than the studies of canine genetics and evolutionary family trees but there’s something for everyone here. It has certainly given me some interesting insights into my second favourite ‘pet’ and I think any dog owner will find it at least as interesting. Recommended. More on wolves to come!       

Saturday, August 14, 2021

 Looking Backwards: An Onion by Any Other Name

I have a ‘thing’ about names. To me some names just ‘go’ or ‘sing’. They make sense, they have a ‘ring’ to them, or they ‘work’. Other times they most certainly don’t. At best they might be clunky or difficult to pronounce, as if the words fall over each other or end up ignoring each other at opposite ends of a signature. Some names are just bad. I’ve heard of babies being named and my first thought was “You should really teach that kid to fight as soon as possible because they are SO going to be picked on in school’. The last time I thought this was when someone named their new baby boy ‘Huckleberry’. They probably thought this was a pretty cool name, a heroes name, and that his school friends would naturally shorten it to the even cooler name of ‘Huck’ but, kids being kids, I’m guessing he’ll go through his school life being called various kinds of ‘Berry’. I feel sorry for him already. But anyway, back to my ancestors (where I should be) and, of course, Onions.

One of the first names that jumped out at me during the delve into my past was Emma Onions (1857-1909) who was the wife of an early favourite named relation Simeon Doughty (1854-1916) who’s name does ‘go’ in my opinion. However, following Emma’s line backwards in time we eventually get to Paul Onions (1708-1786) who was my 7th great-grandfather. As mentioned in a previous comment he married Sarah Cheese (1711-1797). I did wonder if this caused any amusement at the time with comments about it being less of a marriage and more of a ploughman’s lunch. But I digress…. With 722 ancestors at least minimally ‘discovered’ so far there’s bound to be a handful of what I consider to be great names and here’s a few of them I have a weird fondness for…

Mary Vanstan (1717-1789)

Mary Barfoot (1624-1708) and her mother Elizabeth Madgwick (1598-????)

Bridget Maloney (1856-1913) which is a CLASSIC Irish name – LOVE it!

John Harper Lockier (1637-1668)

Maudlyn Beffield (1612-1684)

Joyce Wynstons Whiston (1597-????)

Prudence Evans (1664-1742) as I do so love the name Prudence!

Elizabeth Felicia Elwell (1682-1737)

Cassandra Nevison (1682-????)

Mary Gilson Pomfrett (1630-1653)

Sampson Cotton (1584-1635)

Benjamin Gibbons (1595-1664)

Martha Smout (1648-1741)

Prudence Torr (1665-1720) and another Prudence!

Silvester Grubb (1783-1858) and like something out of a Dickens novel!

Susannah Sukie Newell (1741-1768) and I must find out where ‘Sukie’ came from!

Jane Harriet Staunton Stanton (1537-1640) and I think I’m going to have to confirm her 103 years!

Bartholomew Pee (1674-1759) and lastly my all-time favourite ancestor name yet

Druscilla Husslebury (1820-1900) the wife of my 4th great-granduncle Enoch Onions (1823-????) and another possible Dickens character. I can just imagine her, always late for an appointment, always moving at top speed complaining that there’s not enough hours in the day……

Obviously I’m still digging and still, slowly, scraping away at centuries of detritus surrounding my ever expanding family history. I’ve essentially stopped going as far back as I could and am now investigating sideways and along family names – like the Onions clan! – for a bit more meat on the (so far) bare bones. It’s amazing what I’ve discovered in less than 3 months. No doubt there will be MUCH more to come. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

 Ready for your close-up?

Just Finished Reading: Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland (FP: 2019) [525pp]

I honestly bought this (OK, almost) by accident. I do have a few of his other books in various piles – largely about Ancient Rome – so kind of latched onto the name. I had thought that it was going to be about the development of Enlightenment thinking and how it permeates Western thought but I was wrong. It’s my fault, I freely admit, for not even glancing at the blurb on the back cover until I got home later that day. After reading the blurb I almost took it back to the bookshop and would have asked for a possible refund – but I didn’t.

So, there it was, in danger of collecting dust or turning into coal at the base of a stack of books when I read the previous book of the same name (minus sub-title naturally) and thought that here was an opportunity to get it out of the way. The bonus was, of course, its size as a way to boost my page average towards the target of 350 (still some way to go yet). Anyway – to the book itself…. When I finally read the blurb I found that, rather than being a history of Enlightenment thought, this was a history of Western Christian thought from its inception to the present day. So, not exactly a topic I’m hugely interested in to begin with. After around 50 pages I started occasionally skim reading over early Church history and by 100 pages I was giving thought to simply DNFing it. But I persevered. It did actually get better from the Middle Ages onwards and became readable again so I stopped skimming. I think part of that was the fact that I actually disagreed with a lot of what he was saying – not so much the facts, which I couldn’t really argue with being very much a novice in this area of history, but his implications he was drawing from Christian history. Now, I’d be the first to admit that Atheism wouldn’t exist without Theism. If you have light you’re bound to get shadow and all that. Likewise it’s obvious that Secular society would be meaningless without the idea of Religion. But…. The author’s proposition was that everything in Western culture has a Christian foundation and, therefore, by definition Western culture IS Christian culture. Naturally I disagreed.

The metaphor that immediately sprang to mind – though I’m not exactly sure why – was cooking a bird for Christmas (or Thanksgiving for my American readers). The tough old bird of Western culture has been around for quite a while now and has been slowly simmering under a low light. It has also, for most of the last 2000 years been marinating in a Christian sauce which has, over the last few centuries, been leaking out of a whole in the baking pan until almost all of the sauce has dripped away. Despite the fact that most of the sauce has now disappeared the old bird still tastes of marinade because it’s been basting in it for a long time. But this does not mean that the marinade IS the foundation to the bird. Given another 500 or 1000 years future partakers of the bird might not even be able to discern any flavour of sauce or even detect it with scientific instruments. At that stage is the bird still, fundamentally, a Christian bird?

I am a great believer in antecedents. Christianity did not just ‘pop’ into existence from nowhere. Even the author admits that Greek philosophy had a significant impact on some of the ideas which made it into the final cannon of the Bible. Likewise ideas from Hebrew texts and ideas from further East influenced the thoughts and ideas of the original scribes. So, clearly, the foundations had themselves foundations beneath them and so on – all the way down. Christianity clearly had a significant (even huge) impact on Wester culture due to its pervasiveness and the sheer amount of time it’s been around. But at the same time the idea that our culture is a Christian culture is at the very least debatable if not disputable. Naturally I do not believe that the author made his case here. However, if you do (unlike me!) have an interest in the early Christian church or how Christian ideas affected Western culture that you’ll probably get much more out of this book than I did.

[Side Note: This is only the 7th reviewed book to date published in 2019. So far I have still to review anything published in 2020 or 2021.] 

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

Average Page Count: 338pp (+2pp)