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

Monday, May 30, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (FP: 1964) [180pp] 

Charlie knew he was loved very much by his parents and by both sets of grandparents living with them. Each day, both before he went to school and again when he came home, they made certain that he knew he was loved. But he couldn’t help feeling that a few less draughts, a bit more heat or a larger portion of food would be pretty good too. But at least his birthday was approaching and with it, just like every year, he would have a whole bar of Mr Wonka’s chocolate all to himself. If he offered any of it to his family, as he did every year, they would refuse him – it was HIS birthday after all! But this year there was an extra something to look forward to – the possibility of a GOLDEN ticket inside the bar. A ticket that would give Charlie access to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and a lifetimes supply of his very special chocolate. All he needed to be was lucky... VERY lucky. 

This will definitely surprise some of my readers! I mean, why on Earth am I reading children’s books? What might surprise people more is that I hardly read a thing as a child, which meant that all of the children’s classics passed me by – including this one. I’ve seen both movie versions (I actually preferred the 1971 Gene Wilder version) but never even thought about reading the book – until it dropped into my lap (I think it was free inside a box of breakfast cereal). Reading it so late, and at such an ‘advanced’ age, I still found it quite charming and quite funny in places. I did chuckle to myself throughout the rather brief experience. Growing up with the Disneyfication of everything I actually didn’t expect the Oompa Loompa songs in the book. I fully expected that these had been added for the movie – not true! I think the thing that most surprised me though was the absolute poverty of Charlie and his family. After his father lost his job – putting on the tops of tubes of toothpaste – the family were literally slowly starving to death! Talk about pathos and social commentary!! I doubt if I enjoyed it quite as much as a child in the 1960’s did (even if I WAS a child in the 60’s) but it was entertaining enough and would probably still entertain a young child today. There’s some solid moral teaching here sprinkled with enough silliness to make the kids chuckle along with the parental reader. Recommended and more children's classics to come. 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Latest DNA Update 

Ancestry.Com have just added a DNA ‘traits’ assessment to their website. It was £15 to activate it but that’s a pretty minimal charge in the grand scheme of things – equivalent to an expensive non-fiction paperback. So, what did it find? Mostly what it highlighted didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it was interesting to see both what data my DNA contained and if they got anything wrong. Here are some of the results: 

Apparently, my DNA suggests that I might be ‘more Introverted’. Now those who know me well will be aware of the problems I have with the whole Introvert/Extrovert ‘thing’, but in this case I’ll hold back on that particular tirade and go with it. If I had to choose, I’d say that yes, I am ‘more Introverted’. Score 1. 

Apparently, I’m well within the average for remembered dreams. That feels about right. Sometimes I have VERY vivid dreams (which I’ve remembered) and I also have recurring types of dreams too. I’ve mostly figured out what they are and why they happen – it's my ‘lizard brain’ trying to communicate without the ability to speak..... but that’s a WHOLE other story. 

Nutrient wise I (apparently) have typical levels of beta-carotene, average omega-3, typical levels of B12 (nice to know being a veggie!), typical vitamin C, slightly lower than average levels of vitamin D and typical levels of vitamin E. So, no inherent biological problems there – although I do take a multi-vitamin tablet every day (as I have for over 30 years) plus a number of other vitamin-esque tablets.  

Fitness-wise things got a bit interesting. Apparently, I have “some DNA differences that are commonly found in elite endurance athletes”. That made me laugh a bit but I do have what I regard as a reasonable level of stamina. My heart-rate recovery is average which is OK. I do tend to quiet down quickly after a sudden burst of effort – like running for a bus & such. I’ve always been pleased with that. Interestingly, my “muscles may tire faster than average” which honestly, I haven’t really noticed too much. I’ve never been particularly active, muscle-wise, so probably haven’t really noticed any great problems. Rather interesting too is the fact that I seem to have the ‘sprinter gene’ which came as a bit of a surprise! Seems that I’m quick off the mark but tire easily, but at the same time have some endurance genes – quite a mix there! Lastly here apparently, I have an average ability to increase my oxygen uptake during exercise. Centre of the pack – just where I like it. 

In other news, I don’t ‘flush’ after drinking alcohol, I’m probably not sensitive to certain bitter tastes (probably why I like Brussels sprouts), my caffeine consumption is probably higher than average (as I sip some vanilla Coke zero), I don’t have a problem with fresh coriander (Oh, I love Indian food – period), I’m not lactose intolerant (I’m OK with a glass of milk or ice cream but if I drink TOO much milk in a short period I can feel a bit queasy – although this might not be any kind of tolerance issue), apparently I’m less sensitive to savory flavours (I do like a bit of savory but can live without too much of it), I might sneeze when exposed to bright light (not sure if I do that, I’ll check next time I look at the sun – if it appears at some point!), and I have a sweet tooth – well, duh! 

My DNA suggests that I was of average (that word again) birth weight which I think I was, that I don’t have a cleft chin (true), that I have blue eyes (also true), that my ring finger may be longer than my index (pointer) finger (probably true on my right hand and definitely true on my left), that I probably have freckles (some, though not many), that I’m blonde and could pass on red hair to my children (I was actually born with red hair which then went white-blonde before getting progressively darker [or dirty] blonde before eventually going grey), my hair is naturally straight (true even when it reached my shoulders back in my teens), I have a low chance of hair loss (yeah!), I have a light skin tone (true and I really don’t tan well!), I don’t have a unibrow (true!) and, finally, I’ll get (or probably already have had) all of my wisdom teeth. 

So, I’d say that the results – although pretty mundane as things go – are spot on. I wonder what else they can learn just from your DNA. If they come up with more (and interesting!) results I’ll let you know. 

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Footnotes – How Running Makes Us Human by Vybarr Cregan-Reid (FP: 2015) [293pp] 

Like many children I liked running as a kid. In school, whenever we did track days, I was never particularly fast (despite, I've just learnt, having what has been referred to as the ‘sprint gene’) and usually came in the last 3-4 during the 100 metres and in the bottom quarter in the 200. When distances got up to 500 metres and then 1500 metres I was usually somewhere in the middle of the pack. It was only when we did what was euphemistically called ‘country running’ - essentially running 3 miles over semi-broken ground at the very edge of the school – that I came in the first 3rd of the bunch. Despite the fact that we often did these runs in pretty bad weather I often kind of enjoyed them (interesting I’ve also just learnt that I have some of the genes common to endurance runners). These days I don’t really run at all. I go for short walks when the weather permits and the last time I ran anywhere – not exactly a long distance – was a for a bus I didn’t want to miss. I was still impressed (after I caught it) by how quickly my breathing returned to normal, but then again, I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, so there’s that. 

Like the author of this often-fascinating book, I’m convinced that humans are built, designed even (by millennia of evolution) not only to run but to run long distances. Our physiology, from lung capacity, to the Achillies tendon, to the number and position of sweat glands and a whole lot of other adaptations mean that we can sustain fairly impressive speeds for long durations. In the greater animal world both predators and prey are adapted to very impressive bursts of speed, to attack or flee, that we simply cannot compete with. However, where we naturally excel is endurance. I’ve seen it proposed (and I think we have more than anecdotal evidence to support it) that humans can outrun HORSES over long distances. This makes sense when you think about our hunting ancestors on the African savannah – a small group of humans stealthily approach a zebra or equivalent, a rock or spear is thrown (accurately!) and injures the prey, which runs off at high speed. The small group give chase in a lopping, ground eating, gait and eventually catch up with the wounded creature which has paused to catch its breath and off it runs again at high speed – only to stop again to catch its breath and cool down – but is forced to flee again as it sees the humans approaching. Gradually the prey animal either succumbs to blood loss or heat exhaustion and collapses – as a human approaches and finish it off with a sharp or blunt rock, and then walk back the ten miles they’ve just run to feed their tribal group. That’s why we both can and often enjoy running marathons – we were literally built for it! 

With the author regularly running ten or more miles each time he feels the pull to do so, he has plenty of personal and theoretical knowledge to sprinkle throughout this work. With discussions of the pros and cons of treadmill, road and off-road running, the advantages of (and problems with) barefoot running, the types of running shoe and why some can cause more problems than the solve and SO much else besides this is both a treasure trove of information and just a fascinating insight into the world of the ‘casual’ non-professional runner. If you do run (either for fun or competitions) and haven’t read this book I, as a non-runner, can definitely recommend it. It hasn’t made me go for a run – yet! - but it did make me at least think about it and maybe go for longer more countryfied walks (at least!). A strange read for me, I know, but more on various aspects of running to come. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Defectors by Joseph Kanon (FP: 2017) [290pp] 

Moscow, 1961. For publisher Simon Weeks it was the opportunity of a lifetime – actually two opportunities. First, he would get a book deal – KGB approved no less! - which will put his publishing business into the big leagues and he would hopefully finally learn why his older brother defected to the Soviets almost a decade previously. Simon had every right to be angry with his older sibling. The loss of friends and his job in the State Department was bad enough but the constant suspicion, whispered comments and an unbreakable association with a traitor to America should have been grounds enough for that, but Frank was still his brother despite everything that had happened. Meeting in Russia wasn’t a problem. Everything had been arranged by the Soviets. What Simon didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was something he had kept from everyone – including his wife who just happened to be Simon’s ex-lover. Frank was dying. It was heart trouble – not exactly unknown in his profession – be inoperable in the USSR. But it was possible, just possible, that doctors in the States could save him. Of course, the KGB would never let him return to the US just like that. The only alternative: Frank would defect again, back to the Land of the Free and Simon, his younger loyal brother, would help him do it – wouldn't he? 

I’ve read several books by this author and I have yet to be disappointed. This was no exception. The whole book, the vast majority of which took place in Moscow, had a wonderful feel of claustrophobia even in open spaces. The pervading tone throughout is of suspicion, hidden meaning, double dealing and things unsaid. The whole main cast – Simon, Frank, Jo (Frank’s wife & Simon’s ‘ex’) and Boris (Frank’s KGB ‘minder’) - were wonderfully drawn and all completely believable. I actually liked Boris a lot despite being a very strait-laced Russian. Despite the fact that this was most certainly not an ‘action’ novel or really much of an espionage one (most of the actual spying took place in the ‘past’ or off-page) this was gripping in other much more subtle ways. Not only did we have the mystery of Frank’s defection to unravel – or to be revealed – we also didn’t always know who was working for who and exactly what people’s true motives were. Everything said, everything talked about and everything seen had to be viewed and reviewed through Cold War politics to figure out exactly what was, and what wasn’t, going on. The say that the book immersed you in the Cold War vibe is really a great understatement and the whole thing was, on many levels as you should expect from the time, very clever indeed. Although I began to suspect how things were going towards the end, how things progressed did come as a rather pleasant surprise all told. Definitely recommended to all lovers of Cold War based fiction. Much more from this author to come.      

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Pre-Blog classic Classics – Part 3 

My plan (such as it is) is to read 6 Classics this year. I’ve reviewed one so far with another in my review pile. I’ve got a third coming up in an ‘insert in read pile when appropriate pile’, so I just need to ‘find’ three more – which won’t present ANY problems as I have LOTS to choose from. I’m thinking at some point maybe I could read 10 Classics in a row. It’d be ‘fun’ figuring out what and in what order to keep things fresh and interesting.... [muses]. Anyway, way back in the mists of tome (pre-Blog) I was also trying to read more Classics. As the months/years went by I got better and picking them (I like to think!), so here’s the final pre-Blog Classics list. 

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain 

The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger 

Flatland by Edwin A Abbott 

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler 

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler 

Farwell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler 

A Story of Days to Come by H G Wells 

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammett 

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes 

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler 

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut 

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley 

Land Under England by Joseph O’Neill 

Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward L Beach 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie 

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque 

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? By Agatha Christie 

The High Window by Raymond Chandler 

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne 

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

That’s not a bad list, if I say so myself. Obviously, there’s still HUGE gaps in my Classics reading but I’m looking at that. It’ll be interesting to see exactly where we end up. Onwards!   

Thursday, May 19, 2022

RIP: Vangelis.

Just Finished Reading: Hurricane Girls – The Inspirational True Story of the Women who Dared to Fly by Jo Wheeler (FP: 2018) [330pp] 

It seemed like a reasonable request, a reasonable offer. But the idea of women flying to aid Britain’s war effort was too much to ask, a step too far. Anyway, it was argued more than once, women where temperamentally unsuited for such things. Flying, most especially in wartime, was a man's job. Reality, and most especially the base reality of simple logistics, had other ideas. Aircraft had to be delivered from factories and other locations to training bases and frontline units. Britain didn’t have enough male pilots to spare to ferry them. They were, primarily, required for combat duties that everyone agreed definitely could not be filled by women pilots – no matter how good. But air-taxi drivers and deliveries? Women could do that, right? With much grumbling and a fair bit of bad grace it was decided that, yes, women could fly in wartime.... But.... 

There’s always a but... The women would be under military supervision but would hold no rank or have any authority and they would wear regulation uniforms, including skirts of regulation length. Naturally this was highly impractical. Flying an aircraft in a skirt was bad enough but getting in and out of one – especially the older trainers was impossible. Again, with much grumbling, the female pilots were allowed to wear regulation trousers whilst in flying duty. Initially they were only allowed to fly trainers and only if they had 600 hours flying time accrued (which was FAR in excess of that required by male pilots performing the same duties) and finally they would be paid 1/3 less than their male compatriots. Wanting to ‘do their bit’ the first batch of female pilots agreed – even (at least initially) to the reduction in pay. So began the influx of women into the Air Transport Auxiliary. 

In the years that followed the flying hours threshold dropped, dropped again and was finally abandoned all together – they'd learn to fly on the airfields they were based at. The trainers gave way to transport planes, then fighters and finally heavy bombers. After years of pressure, they even achieved equal pay – a first for the time. The pilots also risked their lives on a daily basis – from bad weather, faulty equipment (most of the early planes had no radios or navigation equipment), barrage balloons, trigger happy anti-aircraft gunners and even the odd enemy plane! Pilots died in accidents or simply vanished, never arriving at their intended destination. It was most definitely not a soft option.  

Told with obvious love of the subject this was an interesting, if at times somewhat ‘thin’, look at an often-overlooked aspect of wartime Britain. The Air Transport Auxiliary provided a much-needed service providing aircraft where they were required to enable the continued prosecution of the war effort. More on this subject to come. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

"Since actual mobility is achieved only by a few, the quest for some unmistakable proof of superior status and identity replaces the ideal of success for many. Consequently, the pitiless dichotomy of us-versus-them at the foundation of modern nationalism is reinforced."

Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger - A History of the Present, 2017 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Hurricane – Victor of the Battle of Britain by Leo McKinstry (FP: 2010) [322pp] 

In the mid-1930's in was becoming increasing clear that war with Germany was coming. The question this posed, with Britain still only just recovering from the Great Depression, was what to do about it – and specifically where to spend the scarce resources in rearmament. Arguments raged, and nowhere more heatedly that in the RAF. The majority, the doctrine fundamentalists, where convinced by the long agreed upon argument that the bomber would ‘always get through’ which made beefing up air defences less than useless. A good defence, no matter how good, would never deter an attack. No, the only way to deter Germany was the building of an overwhelming bomber force that could crush its targets with a sheer weight of bombs. Luckily, for Britain's survival and for world history, other voices had the power to make themselves heard. Rather ironically, with the advantage of hindsight, one of those voices was Neville Chamberlain. Before he became Prime Minister in 1937, he was responsible for Britain’s finances and ensured that there was money (never enough but at least it existed) to build a proper fighter defence organisation headed by Hugh Dowding. But what of the fighters themselves? 

Like many other nations after the horrors of WW1 Britain had drastically cut its defence spending and especially during the dark Depression years. Home Defence in the mid-30's relied on out-of-date biplanes which could barely keep up with the new generation of light bombers never mind chase and kill them. Something clearly needed to be done and done it was. The Air Ministry sent out for proposals of single engine monoplane fighters and began sifting through applications. Fairly quickly it was decided that one design was the clear winner in all regards – the Supermarine Spitfire. Orders were placed and production of the first operation planes expected at least a year before war broke out. Whilst the Air Ministry and RAF waited, and waited, and waited some more it became clear that all was not well at Supermarine. But what could be done? Other designs had been rejected as unusable or simply unnecessary – like Hawker’s design. The simplicity of mass production really called for a single fighter design rather than introducing the increased logistical problems of having two. However, with the war drums getting louder and the Spitfires still not arriving a decision was made to start producing as many Hawker Hurricanes as soon as possible. A legend, and the backbone of Fighter Command during the pivotal Battle of Britain, was about to be born. 

I think, like many kids growing up post-war, I saw the Hurricane as a rather podgy and somewhat inelegant substitute for the much more iconic Spitfire. In many ways it was – it was slower and (generally) less maneuverable but could carry a much bigger offensive armament and could take a LOT of damage and still bring the pilot home. Without it in the fighting line its arguable that the Battle of Britain could have been lost with the faster Spitfires simply overwhelmed by the Luftwaffe. This was a very interesting read and alerted me to a whole host of facts I was completely unaware of – the early production difficulties with the Spitfires for one! The author didn’t shy away from the fact that the Hurricane was increasingly combat ineffective following the Battle of Britain – at least in a fighter role – but had a revived (even if only short lived) role as a ground attack fighter-bomber and very effective early tank buster. I shall definitely be looking out for the authors other works on other iconic aircraft. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in the Battle of Britain or fighter aircraft development.      

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Pre-Blog classic Classics – Part 2 

During my rather callow youth I had a mixed, somewhat ambiguous relationship with classic literature. There was a feeling that I should be reading them, that doing so was important and culturally enriching. The other, sometimes equally strong feeling, was that I shouldn’t bother and that classics, by their very nature, would be boring, difficult and honestly pointless to read. I had tried, growing up, a handful of classics (mostly prompted no doubt by movies or BBC adaptations), but had largely crashed and burned each time. As you can see from my previous listing my early forays into the classics consisted of truly classic SF, a touch of Fantasy and good old Sherlock Holmes. As many people have done over the years, I developed a real love for Conan Doyle’s prose and this, I believe, broke forever the fear of ‘difficult’ older texts. The more classics I read, the more classics I felt that I could read. So, I continued thus... 

Men Like Gods by H G Wells 

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

The Call of the Wild by Jack London 

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee 

Animal Farm by George Orwell 

One, Two, Buckle my Shoe by Agatha Christie 

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie 

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie 

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie 

The French Lieutenants Woman by John Fowles 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark 

The Natural by Bernard Malamud 

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce 

On the Beach by Nevil Shute 

Looking back, I’m rather surprised by the number of classics I accumulated over time – still a vanishing small percentage of the whole (and rather ‘obvious’ ones too!) but you have to start somewhere... Part 3 next week.  

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Just Finished Reading: Transcendence – How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time by Gaia Vince (FP: 2019) [243pp] 

A great many events, accidents and preparation made us the global species we are today. Without them we would still be the minor hominid we were for most of our existence. Indeed, without the ‘luck’ of the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that led to the ultimate demise of the dinosaurs we, as the species we know and love/hate, wouldn’t be here at all. 

In this fascinating look at the very earliest history of our species the author looks at 4 themes that have influenced our evolution: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Fires seems to be the most obvious factor that made us so formidable in the survival stakes. We saw it naturally occur and clear large areas of brush and imitated it to startling effect (so much so that regular burning of scrubland led to the greater expansion of grassland that favoured vast herds of herbivores), we corralled it and used it to cook our food – making it both more edible (leading to an increase in brain size which increased our overall survivability) and greatly reducing the impact of parasites – and we used it to produce the first pottery which allowed us to store and transport food and liquids vastly more easily. Later fire allowed us to extract the first metals and produce (at first) crude weapons and cutting tools which increased our power even further. All of these advances fed into each other in positive feedback loops driving our evolution forward and forever separating us from our less able primate contemporaries. 

Fire also allowed us to protect ourselves against predators and changed the way we spent the dark dangerous nights. Rather than up in the trees away from predators we stayed on the ground, huddled around the fire, and talked to each other. Language developed as a tool for social interaction, social grooming, social bonding. We became better organised, better coordinated, able to hunt in teams with an understanding of what we hoped to achieve, powered by imagination and foresight. 

On our hunting trips we saw things of beauty and, if possible, brought these beautiful things back to the group. Shell necklaces have been found in graves and caves going back to the very dawn of mankind. Possibly worn as status symbols and certainly traded across hundreds of miles – shells with bore holes for various types of cord have been found a LONG way from any coast – things of natural or enhanced beauty were probably the foundation of trading systems. 

No doubt as we looked at the sky, we quickly saw patterns in the movement of the sun, the phases of the moon and the sweep of the night sky. We learnt to discern the days, months and seasons knowing when to plant, about tides and we began predicting events such as migrations of prey animals and much else besides. Knowledge of time led to questions about causes and speculation led to experimentation. 

The above hardly does justice to this total gem of a book. Despite its comparative shortness there’s a LOT packed in here covering millennia and the whole planet. Not only did I discover (or become reacquainted with) an updated view of humanities earliest times but the beautifully written text left me (again) fascinated with the whole subject – so brace yourself for more of this sort of thing! Definitely one of the best evolution/anthropology books I’ve read to date and definitely the science highlight of the year (so far!). A MUST read for anyone interested in humankind and the processes behind what made us the species we are today. Very highly recommended.