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

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Pre-Blog Classic SF – Part 2 

Before listing my non-SF pre-Blog Classic reads, I wanted to get my SF classics out of the way first. I’ve always seen SF as a particularly ‘special’ genre as it was my ‘gateway drug’ into literature. Although I did heavily, and indeed almost exclusively, read SF in my early days (approx 14 years old plus) I eventually branched out into non-fiction and other genres of fiction – sometimes actually prompted by my SF reading. Somewhat ironically, for example, I began reading Raymond Chandler novels after discovering William Gibson as he was described as the Chandler of SF. As I LOVED his Cyberpunk novels, I had to try out Chandler too – and loved his works also! Of course, I should have been reading noir fiction because I LOVED noir movies but, hey that’d be FAR too simple. Anyway, before we move on to classic Classics here’s my final SF Classic list. 

Earth Abides by George R Stewart 

The Left-Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin 

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle 

The Midwich Cookoos by John Wyndham 

Make room, make room! By Harry Harrison 

Neuromancer by William Gibson 

Count Zero by William Gibson 

Burning Crome by William Gibson 

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson 

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton 

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester 

My Name is Legion by Roger Zelazny 

Lest Darkness Fall by L Sprague DeCamp 

Less than last time (I think) and no doubt I missed a few, but it’ll give you some idea of the kind of SF I was reading pre-Blog. The next list (classic Classics) will probably interest people a bit more. But that’s for next time. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Deadly Companions – How Microbes Shaped Our History by Dorothy H Crawford (FP: 2007/2018) [215pp] 

Viruses, bacteria and parasites have been around far longer than humans. But interestingly it’s only comparatively recently that we have been exposed to those microbes responsible for the great epidemic diseases that fill our history books. For most of human history the vast majority of people lived in hunter-gatherer bands of around 50-150 people. In that kind of environment there was little ‘purchase’ that any virus (for example) could take hold of. With only a few tens of possible targets to infect the early human diseases where either shrugged off, killed or debilitated their hosts enough that the group could no longer sustain them or recovered from the agent and acquired a level of immunity to further infection. Within a very short time the infectious agent had nowhere left to move to – and died out. It was only at the very dawn of human history, when people began settling in larger static communities that all of the diseases we know and, at least some of us, have coped with took hold. From that date to very recent human history humanity has had to cope with (or more often suffer through) epidemic, plague and pandemic events ever since. This, in a nutshell, is the story told in this excellent short book. 

With the advent of modern medicine and especially techniques like inoculation and vaccination, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how dangerous, deadly and frightening disease was. Before the wide acceptance of Germ Theory people had no clear idea of why people got sick and died. Even once the vector of the disease was understood it still took a long time to devise ways to combat it – especially the deadliest epidemics that swept through Europe in the Middle Ages like the infamous Black Death in the 14th century that killed over 30% of the population with deaths exceeding 60% in places. Such events could not help to be both catastrophic and life changing on an historic scale. [Side note: It’s interesting to see that the reasons for the end of the widespread plague outbreaks have yet to be definitively accounted for. They simply stopped without any apparent reason and certainly not because of human action.] Thankfully, most of the old scourges that literally plagued mankind have been eliminated – at least in countries with access to safe drinking water and with a health community of a sufficient level to tackle them. Instead, we have a growing issue with anti-biotic resistance and the distinct possibility of new diseases (or old diseases in new packages) introduced into the human population as the result of climate change, habitat destruction and a transport system seemingly designed to spread pathogens in the most effective way possible – as we saw very recently with the COVID-19 outbreak we’ve just lived through.  

I’m never one to shy away from a topic that’s exploding (or has recently exploded) on the News and I’m a firm believer that it’s far better to know stuff and be informed than to be ‘safely’ ignorant. This is very much a general introduction to human pathogens and how we’ve dealt with them over the millennia and is a very useful background read for anyone new to or refreshing their knowledge of epidemiological history. Recommended.  

Monday, April 25, 2022

Too true.........

Just Finished Reading: A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (FP: 1950) [310pp] 

It came as a surprise to everyone in the village, including the family who was to apparently host the event. The ‘hostess’ thought it was someone’s idea of a joke but knew that there would be those in the village who would inevitably fall for it so ordered a minimum of preparations to be made – just in case the expected few did, in fact, show up. The rest of the village inhabitants didn’t quite know what to make of it suspecting that it was going to be one of those ‘murder adventure’ evenings where a ‘victim’ was randomly picked and the rest of the party had to work out exactly who ‘dunnit’? Dutifully, on the evening in question the guests arrived and waited in anticipation for something to happen – and happen it did. At the appointed hour a young stranger appeared and threatened the assembled group just as the excitement (and potential giggles) began to rise two shots rang out followed by a third. When the lights came back on the stranger was lying dead on the floor, his gun besides him. Accident? Stupidity? Suicide? What exactly had just happened? When the police arrived it looked, on first examination, all very straight forward. It was, everyone naturally agreed, a botched robbery. Luckily no one, apart from the incompetent perpetrator had been harmed. But something didn’t quite ‘feel’ right and the planned inquest was delayed. As the police began investigating further things became more complex, more confused. Was it actually an attempted robbery or something much more sinister? Where lives still at risk? The case had to be solved – and quickly. The Chief Inspector had a rather unconventional idea which might help the investigation gather the necessary speed, someone who had been of assistance in a previous case, a consulting detective as it were. Her name, Miss Marple. 

This is my 5th Miss Maple book and yet another one that confounded me to the very end. In my defence it was probably the most complex Miss Marple case that I’ve come across so far. For one thing the cast of suspects was larger than usual – or at least it felt that way – and their relationships quite convoluted. As usual, with the great gift of hindsight, all of the clues were in the text, Christie does not, in my experience, need to pull clue rabbits out of plot hats in order to bamboozle her readership. Close attention to the text and especially what people say (or don’t) points the way – as I learnt (much to my shame and embarrassment) at the end! As usual in these things, and real life, not everyone was telling the truth and not everyone was who they appeared to be (or said they were!). I managed to pick out (or at least I suspected) one such interloper but honestly that didn’t help much. I still read through Miss Marple’s explanation, over tea and cake naturally, and found myself repeating “Of course” and “Why didn’t I see THAT!” As always HIGHLY entertaining and definitely recommended for all classic murder mystery fans. 

Now the other stuff: As with all ‘older’ works, and not just the Classics, there are countless references throughout to events of the day which would have seemed completely normal (and unworthy of further comment) and often added as ‘filler’ to add a level of authenticity. Looking back 70 years such things are a mine of information if you’re interested in what was happening at the time and especially what people were thinking or focused on. Several things in particular are worth highlighting – there was much talk throughout the book about rationing (and in particular coal shortages) which didn’t fully end until 1954. Interestingly, there was also MUCH talk about people in the village operating a barter system with eggs, vegetables and chickens which was (unknown to me) apparently illegal! Another thing that jumped out at me was the number of characters who were living with friends or family out of long-term necessity. I’m guessing that this was because the housing stock in bombed cities still hadn’t recovered. [Side note: on my daily walk I stroll past a fairly large group of pre-fabricated single floor houses originally designed to cope with the post-war housing shortage and which were expected to be demolished within a year or two as people moved back into new builds. Surprisingly some people became really attached to their pre-fabs and demanded to stay in them. 70 plus years later you still see them all across the country.] 

One of the stranger characters in the book was a refugee from ‘Mittl Europa’ who served as the cook in a main character's house. There was much talk about her being ‘difficult’ and exaggerating her troubles during the war. It was never made clear exactly where she came from but she had a real fear of the police and anyone in uniform. Interestingly, despite being hired as a cook her expertise was in Economics. Something that raised an eyebrow, and a few laughs to be honest, was a brief discussion of the reluctance to own German breed dogs – like the dachshund. Personally, I both like and feel sorry for these little guys who seem to struggle on their walks because of their little legs. I do think they’re quite cute though. Of course, the implication, rather understandable a mere 5 years after the war, was a prejudice against all things German. I guess parking a VW beetle outside your cottage might get a few mumbles, sideways glances and ‘tuts’ whilst standing in the post office waiting to be served. I probably missed a few things, but you get my point – old novels are a great way of discovering (or at the very least thinking about or being prompted to investigate) elements of the past that might never cross your mind otherwise. More Miss Marple to come – of course! 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Pre-Blog Classic SF – Part 1 

With the recent posting of my Dune review and plans for reading the rest of the series plus plans for reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, I’ve been asked a few times about why I don’t read more Classic SF. The easy answer to that is that I have – LOTS – but nearly all of that happened pre-Blog. I started reading SF heavily back in the 70’s and 80’s and read a LOT of Classic SF around that time. I thought it might interest some of you at least to see what I’ve read (pre-Blog) in the area before moving onto the more ‘classical’ classics later. So, here’s part 1 of the SF list in chronological order of reading. [Note: I won’t be mentioning books like 1984 or anything by H G Wells as these will be covered in my classical classic post]. 

Triplanetary by E E Doc Smith 

Dune by Frank Herbert 

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov 

City by Clifford Simak 

Childhoods End by Arthur C Clarke 

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke 

Foundation by Isaac Asimov 

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke 

Ringworld by Larry Niven 

A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G Weinbaum 

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick 

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham 

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss 

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman 

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss 

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein 

Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement 

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore 

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham 

The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin 

I was actually quite ‘hard’ on what I considered a classic here – if I was in any doubt I erred on the side of caution and said ‘No’. No doubt, if you asked me again the list might be slightly different. I should complete the pre-Blog list next time. It’s not exactly an exhaustive list as there’s a short gap between the end of my paper(!) records and the Blog starting but it’s close enough. More next time. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Just Finished Reading: The Physics of Wall Street – A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable by James Owen Weatherall (FP: 2013) [243pp] 

For as long as there has been gambling (a VERY long time) there have been those who tried to ‘play’ the system in such a way that they could ensure winning much more often than losing. For most of that history such actors have operated by using their instincts, magical thinking and, where possible, cheating or some sort of manipulation. As you might expect the vast majority of these schemes fall at the first turn of a card or very shortly afterwards. That all changed with the advent of mathematics and the development of probability theory. Once games of ‘chance’ and skill, such as Blackjack (21) and Roulette, became capable of being modelled mathematically it became possible to predict outcomes with a fair degree of accuracy – and certainly more accurately that the average player was capable of. But even with maths, theory and the odd (early) computer behind them these theorists found that making a LOT of money needed a LOT of initial investment, something which most of them and most of their university departments either didn’t have or were loath to loan either with a high probability of a low return. But when modelling card games started to fall out of favour the mathematicians and physicists saw a much more lucrative and much more challenging prospect – the Stock Market. 

Of course, modelling the Stock Market was never going to be easy. Indeed, many scoffed at the very idea of attempting to predict the unpredictable but, ever up for an impossible challenge, some mathematicians tried and, more radically, put their own money where their mouths were. Early models (and it needs to be kept in mind that these were models and not reality) of early Stock Markets – notably in France – where neither particularly accurate nor particularly responsive to sudden changes. But they didn’t need to be – at least generally. Even with the advent of the telegraph the amount of stock being traded was small and the speed of the trades almost glacial compared to today. Even so the early crude models had a long way to go and they only really began to take off with the advent of computers post-WW2. As computers got faster the capability of the Stock Market models improved in step – but so did the size and complexity of the Market itself. Still, many thought the task was simply impossible. There was no predictable market to model, they were wasting everyone's time and, more importantly, money. It was time to put up or shut up and that’s exactly what one team of physicists did by creating a Hedge Fund based on their theories. What happened next astounded everyone and changed financial management forever. Not only did the Hedge Fund consistently make money but it consistently outperformed other Hedge Funds made up of supposed market experts. The Quants had arrived.  

This was an interesting story, well told. It seemed obvious to me that Stock Market prices cannot possibly be random and that the ebb and flow of the Market cannot, therefore, be completely unpredictable. If that was the case there would be no way to regularly make money on the market as every deal would be a crap shoot. As at least some people obviously make a great deal of money from market trading, and do so consistently, there are rules governing the system that can be discovered, followed and exploited. Likewise, the better your model is of actual behaviour then the better and more consistent your results will be even when markets become volatile. What was more interesting from my PoV is that modelling the Stock Market is, essentially, modelling aggregate human behaviour. This mean that, at least theoretically and at least crudely, human behaviour – in the aggregate can be modelled mathematically if you have the right algorithms to do so. With my long-standing interest in Asmovian Psycho-History it raised the possibility that these early predictive tools for Stock Market trades could be the foundational (pun intended!) building blocks of such a theory. Definitely a recommended read for anyone interested in the Stock Market, mathematics or the possibility of prediction human behaviour. More to come on this and associated subjects.  

Monday, April 18, 2022

Just Finished re-Reading: Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert (FP: 1969) [221pp] 

[WARNING: If you haven’t read the first book, still haven’t seen the movie (and want to) or don’t want the plot ruined for the second movie the following WILL contain spoilers!] 

A little over 20 years after the events on Arrakis and the defeat of the Emperor Shaddam IV, the new Emperor Paul Atredies known as Muad’dib still struggles with his terrible legacy. Throughout the known Universe the forces of Jihad released by Paul have already been responsible for 60 billion dead and the war goes on. Equally appalled and frightened by his fragmentary visions of the future Paul tries to reduce the carnage as much as he can, but he knows that more and more death follows his every action – or inaction. Slowly, too slowly, he begins to realise that the path of least resistance, of least death, might not be the best path. Meanwhile, although his many enemies have been defeated, they have not been vanquished. Arrayed against him are the most powerful organisations in the universe – The Spacing Guild who are, seemingly, invisible to the Emperors prescient sight, The Bene Gesserit who are desperate to get their genetic manipulation of bloodlines back on track, and the Tleilaxu, a guild of assassins and manipulators of flesh itself. A core element of their plan is to offer Paul something he cannot possibly refuse – a perfect copy of his closest friend and teacher: Duncan Idaho. Even Paul cannot see the consequences of accepting the ‘gift’ but he does so anyway – setting into motion a cascade of events that will change everything. 

I first read this around 40 years ago and not long after the first book, Dune, blew my mind as a teenager. As with re-reading anything that had such a profound impact on your youthful self it was a strange read with ‘echoes’ and memories of my first read interspersed with memories of the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation which they smushed together with the next book Children of Dune. I can see why they did that – Messiah is largely people talking in rooms, either plotting against Paul or musing on the deeper meanings of things seen and unseen. Most of the ‘action’ takes place on Arrakis with only a few mentions of other worlds. The notable addition to the Dune universe is that of the Tleilaxu ‘face dancers’ who can imitate almost anyone to get close enough to kill them. They’re an interesting group who also meddle in biological engineering and especially cloning. I think an important part of this volume is the doubt eating away at Paul and his struggle, not only with the huge power he now has, but with the fact that he knows he’s not the ‘god’ figure most people see him as. People think he knows everything because he has prescient ‘sight’. What they don’t realise is just how complicated this is and how stifling it is seeing the consequences of your actions play out in myriad possible futures – knowing that as soon as you act some of those possibilities wink out of existence leaving fewer (and sometimes worse) choices ahead. But what I found the most interesting is that Paul isn’t what people think he is – and that includes the Guilds in opposition to him – and even more interesting is that HE isn’t what he thinks he is (or has been led to believe he is). One of the many reasons why this series has gained the acclaim it has is, in my opinion, the fact that you can read it on multiple levels. On the surface its essentially Game of Thrones in the far future. But it’s actually MUCH more than that. There is just so much going on here – not just about power and its abuses but about technology, fate/destiny, free will. You can read a section, a paragraph, a sentence and go down the rabbit hole of implications built on assumptions built on deeper implications. Much more Dune to come. Obviously recommended.     

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Thursday, April 14, 2022

...and now sitting on the bottom of the Black Sea.

Just Finished Reading: The Regency Revolution – Jane Austen, Napoleon, Lord Byron and The Making of The Modern World by Robert Morrison (FP: 2019) [289pp] 

Despite being a determined fan of the works of Jane Austen I often wondered at the (generally speaking) noticeable lack of servants, tradespeople and especially the poor in both her novels and, especially, in her many on-screen adaptations. Likewise, the oft referenced ‘timelessness’ of these often-brilliant portrayals of Regency society relies on the lack of actual, sometimes inconvenient, historical references. With those observations in mind, it should hardly come as much of a surprise that Austen’s image – especially through the more modern lens of contemporary TV and movie adaptations – has little in common with the reality of Regency England. No doubt this is greatly responsible for the romanticisation of the period and the (very) misplaced desire of those who would choose to live there (a temporary visit might be ‘interesting’ as long as you’ve had the required vaccines for visiting a ‘3rd world country’ that’s in the process of societal collapse).    

So, what exactly did Austen get ‘wrong’ about the period she lived in and gave us to chuckle over? In as few words as possible – everything. The Regency (1811-1820) happened because of the ‘madness of King George III’ and his incapacitation to continue as monarch. In his place, the future King George IV, was installed as Regent until either the King recovered or didn’t. When George III died in 1820 his son, the Regent, became King and the Regency Period ended. During those brief but eventful 10 years England went through quite a lot – both good and bad. Firstly, the Regent himself was (very much!) a man who just wanted to have fun, including lots of food, drink and especially women. Even in the rather uber-liberal age through which he cruised, the Regent was a constant scandal which resulted in him being the constant butt of jokes and salacious cartoons. Interestingly, many fights – and victories – over the freedom of the Press revolved around attacks on the Regent, so we have at least that to thank for him.  

The other regular theme throughout the period – ignoring for the moment both the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 – was the social and political upheaval in England, Scotland and (as was often the case) Ireland. The Irish unrest can, largely, be laid at the feet of famine and systemic neglect by absentee landlords. Scotland was at the same time in the throes of the consequences of highland clearances and the resulting diaspora into England and across the Empire, plus to America (often joined by their Irish compatriots). The English unrest was the result of poverty, political oppression (to suppress the growing movements to increase the franchise) and, of course, increasing industrialisation – this was the time of the Luddites. To say that the whole country was convulsed by political and social upheavals would be understating the fact. 

Covering a LOT of ground, the author concentrated on crime and punishment (very interesting), the theatre (rather long and not very interesting from my PoV), sex (again unnecessarily too long), Empire and war (definitely more my subject) and the changes happening with the increasing use of steam technology and its greater knock-on effects (ditto). Overall, it was an interesting (and often very interesting) read. The author did irritate me slightly with ‘woke-ish’ comments – especially in regard to attitudes to sexuality – which I really don’t think have a place in historical analysis. Whilst criticism of actions or decisions by historical figures in certainly valid it’s inappropriate to judge people in the early 19th century by attitudes and beliefs of those in the early 21st. We know only too well that the past is a foreign country and that they do things differently there. No doubt 100 years hence (if the species survives that long) we will be, equally inappropriately, heavily criticised by our descendants for similar moral failings. Definitely worth a read – especially if all of your previous knowledge of the period came from Miss Austen – but be prepared to be shocked and dismayed by the acts of far too many who should have known better. 

On a final note: It does amuse me greatly when I hear people profess to wish that they could have lived during the Regency. It should be remembered that women in particular, even those of high birth, had vanishing little power, little education and could not control their own finances. On marriage whatever they did own (including themselves!) became the legal property of their husbands. Divorce was almost unknown in England and had to be obtained (when it could and usually by the husband) by an Act of Parliament... and don’t get me started on the dangerous activity of childbirth. In an era before the Germ Theory of disease, with zero access to anesthesia or anti-biotics you could literally die from a bad tooth or a papercut – no matter your personal wealth! This was an age where they fought duels of ‘honour’, were sudden poverty on the death or disability of the bread-winner could result in the starvation of families and where children were executed for stealing apples. The Regency was most certainly not an Austenesque romantic fantasy – as you will find out between these pages! Be warned.    

Monday, April 11, 2022

Horses and bolted doors come to mind....

Just Finished Reading: Ghosts of War by George Mann (FP: 2011) [348pp] 

New York, 1927. It started with the birds falling from the sky – dead before they hit the ground. Then the disappearance's, random, sudden, unexplained. The police responded in the only way they could, with warnings in the newspapers and over the radio, with talk of a curfew and with increased airship patrols. Still the abductions occurred without apparent rhyme or reason. The Ghost watched from above and caught only glimpses of strange looking brass creatures seemingly searching for something. He wanted to discuss them with his police contact but Inspector Donovan had other priorities. The commissioner himself had tasked him with an important matter of national security. A British spy had obtained information vital to the nation's defence and needed to be tracked down and stopped immediately. All other tasks must be dropped. The spy was Donovan’s top priority. If the spy managed to leave New York it could mean another World War. But both the Ghost and his friend the Inspector knew that such a request didn’t feel right. Tracking down spies wasn’t something the NYPD did, that was a task for the Secret Service. Plus, why was an isolationist politician putting so much pressure on Commissioner Montague which he then applied to Donovan? Maybe they both needed to find the spy (if he even existed) and talk to him before handing him over to the authorities – unless the long-predicted war with the British Empire broke out first! 

This was the second book in the Ghost series (two more to go) and as much as I enjoyed the first book – with a few minor caveats – I enjoyed this one more. As I’d hoped after reading the first book, the author expanded his world a little and we discovered a bit more about the Ghost’s background and experiences during the Great War and his early encounter with a tentacled creature in No Man’s Land. We also discovered a bit more about the British Empire and it’s less than amicable relationship with the growing power of the United States. The Ghost also had a new love life, or actually a reintroduced love life, in the shape of Ginny who turned out to be a capable asset who could handily cope with a shoot-out or an encounter with an alien beast from another dimension (always useful in a girlfriend I think!). Although I was a little disappointed by the baddie in the previous book, I had no problems at all with this one (or actually with this cabal plus the ubiquitous mad-scientist). Each baddie was suitably bad, with few if any redeeming qualities and even fewer moral scruples. We were obviously supposed to cheer when they came to bad ends and, in true pulp style, we did when they did! The inevitable final ‘boss fight’ was handled very well, especially when it looked like the author had painted the Ghost into a corner but got him (and the rest of the world) out of it without use of any ‘magical’ device or anything like that. Things were solved by ingenuity and the application of sufficient – or more than sufficient! - force. Overall, this was a solid work of SF, alt-history, horror tinged, steampunk and I really enjoyed it. I’ll definitely be reading the other two books later in the year – probably when the nights start drawing in again – as I’m still intrigued with the world the author created and where he’s going to take us next. Definitely recommended for steampunk and HP Lovecraft fans.     

Saturday, April 09, 2022

Two Whole Years, Really? 

It was, I freely admit, a strange time to retire. Only 3 weeks after the WHO announced that COVID-19 was now a pandemic I left The Company (no, NOT the CIA!) after 32 years. Things, of course, had already started getting weird. Any time someone coughed or sneezed EVERYONE in the office (or on my bus home) stared at them and people – including me – were washing their hands almost obsessively at every opportunity. Management had supplied anti-bacterial wipes for each set of desks (as we were already ‘hot-desking’ then) so we could wipe down our workstation when we left for the day. It was, honestly, quite surreal at times. We all remember the lack of toilet paper in the stores but I had already stocked up on that in advance plus I still had my post-Brexit stock that I was backfilling so I wasn’t worried about that aspect of things. The empty shelves of pasta was a bit annoying and I couldn’t help but wonder at the constant lack of hand sanitiser, anti-bacterial soap (helping with a virus how exactly) as well as ANYTHING else even vaguely associated with hygiene.  

Then, with only a few weeks to go before I finally walked out the door I got ill. This was, of course, before Covid tests became easily available. It ‘felt’ like a cold but late March wasn’t that common a time to have one. Not completely unusual, but not that common so I phoned in sick and told work that I was self-isolating. Now, to be honest I’m not one of those ‘troopers’ (or as I like to call them: inconsiderate idiots) who come into work ill and give whatever disease they’ve picked up from their kids to the rest of the office. The only time I’d be in work sneezing regularly was during the hay fever season. If I had a cold, even a reasonably mild one, I’d stay off for a few days and kill it where it sleeps. Of course, not exactly knowing WHAT I had this time I wasn’t going to take the risk. My ‘cold’ or whatever it was turned out not to be that debilitating – just annoying in its timing more than anything else. With everything else going on, and with me being the only person that knew certain things and had certain skills my plan was to spend the last 2-3 weeks at work writing briefing papers for my successor when they got one. Fortunately, our team had been ‘mobile’ for a while. This meant that when we arrived in the office in the morning, we took whatever desk was available (if there was one!). What it in effect meant was that the early birds had the pick of the desks (and normally sat in the same desk every day until senior management told them off for doing so – which made no sense to anyone) and latecomers like me played desk ping-pong. On any given day I had no idea where I would be sitting or who I would be sitting with. Mostly it was with my team, nearly always it was on the same floor but very occasionally I’d be sitting on my own in another team's area and in a different building. It was interesting both to discover how territorial I was and how adaptable I could be. After a few months I actually ‘liked’ not knowing where I was sitting that day – plus it made me harder to physically find and bother, especially when reading in my lunch break. But, the point of all that was that I was mobile with a work laptop and iPhone. So, being at home, even being ill at home, didn’t mean I had to stop working.  

As my last day approached my leaving meal was cancelled (very soon after that, restaurants stopped taking bookings) as well as my leaving drinks – all those people in confined spaces breathing on each other [presumably with the occasional hug] wigged people out too much. I had some leave to take so I actually ‘left’ about a week before my official date of 8th April (cunningly one day after my 60th birthday) and I transitioned from full-time work to retirement at home just as the first lockdowns shut almost everything down. We all know how weird the first 6 months of Covid was and it was easy to imagine myself as someone looking forward to an active retirement only to find themselves in the middle of an apocalypse. Seeing how people sprang away from strangers was like living through the first 30 minutes of an end of the world movie to be honest and, again to be honest, totally fascinated me. Like many people no doubt, I had grown up on end of the world narratives from the 1960’s onwards and I found it really interesting to see how the whole thing played out in ‘real life’.  

Overall, it was interesting (to say the least!) to enter the post-retirement arena during a global pandemic. It has meant that some of my plans had to be put on hold for a year or more. It did also mean that I have had lots of time to read – as was a major part of my plan – and at least I didn’t have to spend time and resources fighting off zombies or worrying about asteroid impacts. Isolation during an ongoing viral outbreak probably affected my mental health in some ways – mostly low-level anxiety I suspect – but generally I think I coped with it pretty well. It was frustrating that I couldn’t go places and do things but Amazon still delivered and the lights (and the Internet!) stayed on, so the impact on me, personally, wasn’t too bad. Two years later things are almost back to ‘normal’ or some sort of new normal. Most people aren’t wearing masks anymore and people don’t seem to mind crowds as much as they did at the beginning. Events are back on and people tend to stand a LOT closer than they did 24 months ago – it's actually quite strange in a way. Of course, Covid is still around and people are still catching it (and dying from it) but with vaccinations, the new anti-virials and LOTS of experience in the NHS the odds of getting it, getting really ill or dying from it are vastly lower that when the whole thing started. With luck and a fair wind, the NEXT two years should be a lot less interesting – although with the Ukraine war likely to go on for at least another 6 months impacting on oil and wheat production (to say nothing of the global fertiliser trade!) and all of the other shit happening in the global background who knows? I guess we’ll see when we get there.   

Thursday, April 07, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Hiking With Nietzsche – Becoming Who You Are by John Kaag (FP: 2018) [229pp] 

Unlike the author of this rather strange but intriguing sideways look at the ever-controversial German philosopher, I don’t believe I ever studied Nietzsche at an undergraduate level. My BA (1983-86) was in Social Ethics and although it had at least one Philosophy unit I don’t think we ever actually studied any of his works. Naturally I knew about him, I mean who doesn’t, but I only actually, formally, studied part of his work much later. I can see why.  

This is as far from a ‘straight’ look at Nietzsche and his work as you could probably get. The book consists of several interweaving strands that, together, make a both interesting and compelling narrative. Of course, Nietzsche and his works are at the core of things, how could they not be. The author gives insights into Nietzsche’s life, his relationship with his father (mirrored to an extend by the authors relationship with his father) and his troubled/complex relationship with women. The potted biography formed the skeleton of the text to which the author attached discussions of Nietzsche’s works – the philosopher’s location and relationship status being directly related to his philosophical output (in a way I found very interesting and often overlooked). Interwoven with this were the experiences of the author himself both hiking in the Swiss Alps during his undergraduate period – and deciding there NOT to commit suicide! - and a follow up visit with his 2nd wife and their child now as a university professor. 

I learnt a lot here – not just about the man himself (Nietzsche that is!) but also about the underlying philosophical and psychological foundations of his thoughts. Naturally merely reading this thin volume won’t mean you’ll understand everything that Nietzsche was getting at – that's a lifetime quest I think – but it’ll give you paths to follow and an idea of whether you’re ready to follow the easier grades or are ready to try your hand on the slopes with the mountain goats. Nietzsche, as you might guess, is not the most accessible and easy to understand modern philosopher. His work takes work to get the most out of. But, I think, the effort can be worth it. 

I studied Nietzsche for one unit of my Philosophy Master's degree (2008-10) and I remember, just before the course started, the Head of the Department popped in for a chat. She said that she always worried about teaching Nietzsche, especially to undergraduates, because his ideas were so radical, so powerful, and especially so to youth (most of the students in that class were under 25 – I was 50). I can agree. I compared his work – or at least the one we studied (The Genealogy of Morality) - to breathing pure oxygen. It certainly felt like that some weeks. The unit we studied blew me away and I decided that I’d do my Dissertation on an aspect of Nietzsche's ideas and really enjoyed producing the resultant piece of work. It wasn’t easy (being Nietzsche based!) but it was definitely mind expanding. 

Overall, this volume provided some interesting insights into the mind and works of one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented European philosophers of modern times. If you’ve ever wondered what all of the fuss was about but didn’t know where to start (or were too afraid to ask!) this is a pretty good place to begin your journey into the foothills before trying anything requiring pitons. Recommended. More Philosophy to come.         

Happy Birthday to Me! 62 Today!