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

Monday, January 30, 2023

32 years in full-time employment. Never had to do my taxes once......... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Time of Death – The True Story of the Search for Death’s Stopwatch by Jessica Snyder Sachs (FP: 2001) [258pp] 

It’s probably the first thing a fictional detective asks: Doc, can you tell me the time of death? At which point the medical examiner/coroner usually says something like: Sometime between midnight and 2am... That’s with only a cursory examination of the body and no time or opportunity to do any further probing back at the lab. Which is, pretty much, why this sort of thing shows up in fiction, because it’s fictional (if not actually fantasy). 

It used to be thought – back in the 18th/19th century at the dawn of scientific forensics – that such accurate timings of death where possible because of the general understanding of the decay process. But as scientists across the world looked to make Time of Death even more accurate, they instead produced the opposite effect. The more they discovered about what happens to the human body post-mortem the more they realised that the hard and fast rules of decay were nothing of the sort. The so-called ‘standardised’ process depended on sex, local environment, what the cadaver was wearing, what they had been doing just prior to death and a whole host of other things. It soon became almost impossible to show (and to PROVE in court) exactly when someone died within a 24–48-hour window. Something else needed to be added to the mix. This is that story. 

The suprising thing about the ‘knowledge’ of what happened soon after death was that it was, by and large, nothing of the sort. It was a mixture of assumption, guess work and a scattering of laboratory observations in ideal conditions. The relation of this science to what happened to a human body left in a ditch or in a shallow grave was tenuous at best. The only way to find out for sure was to study a body as it decayed outside the laboratory – literally in the field. Another aspect of the process investigators started looking at was bugs – both their impact of the decay process and what information can be derived from their activities and life cycles (and, again, PROVEN in court). 

As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly a fun experience for the casual reader. Not only does it deal with a rather gruesome subject – with case studies – it also goes into a fair amount of detail of the process of death and human decay and pulls few punches in the telling. Added to this is the rather unsavoury subject bugs/flies/various insects, how they develop and what they do to a body in the exercise of their life cycles. Although I’m not exactly easily ‘grossed out’ I did find myself either micro-skim reading or wrinkling my nose from time to time. There’s always the running gag that people working in morgues either had a (often very) weird sense of humour or are completely oblivious to what makes other people look for a receptacle to vomit into. Well, the people running the experiments in this book are those people!  

Although this is now 20 years out of date and, no doubt MUCH more has been learnt about the immediate post-mortem ‘experience’ since publication, this is still an interesting insight into the issues surrounding determining exactly when someone died which is fundamental in determining exactly who could have been the person who ‘helped’ them to shuffle off this mortal coil. Recommended if you have a reasonably strong stomach.  

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Saturday, January 28, 2023

It’s a DATE! (AKA: Always Late to the Party) 

I was browsing through my book listing today and realised that I’d only read two books published in 2021 and nothing after that date. This got me thinking – how late to the party am I generally? He’s what I discovered: 

2013: 43 

2014: 50 

2015: 37 

2016: 22 

2017: 31 

2018: 27 

2019: 19 

2020: 8 

2021: 2 

2022: 0 

2023: 0 

That’s essentially from the last 10 years – actually from Feb 28th 2013 when I started officially noting the first publication (FP) date. It appears that generally there’s at least a 2-year lag between the books original publication and my reading of it. This applies equally to both fiction and non-fiction. Part of this can easily be explained by the fact that the majority of my readings are paperbacks which are, generally, published around a year after the hardback original publication which I use as my FP date (obviously). Part of it is also, I think, the reluctance to insert a brand-new book into an already existing reading plan (unless I’ve been really looking forward to it and need to read it NOW).  The fact that I’ve only read 10 books with post-2020 publication dates is in line with my unscientific perception of the 2-year lag. I guess that more 2021 books will be showing up this year and it’ll be 2024 before we start seeing last year’s publications show up. Interesting [lol].   

Thursday, January 26, 2023

What a simple & brilliant idea.......!

Just Finished Reading: The Child Thief by Dan Smith (FP: 2012) [355pp] 

Vyriv, Western Ukraine, Winter 1930. Luka knew that no good deed goes unpunished but, despite everything, he had yet to lose his humanity. The man walking towards them looked half dead with exhaustion, his last words being ‘Thank God’ before he collapsed at their feet. But it was the contents of the sled that shocked Luka and his two sons – a pair of children, dead, frozen and one, seemingly, partially butchered. Was the stranger a killer or a rescuer? They’d have to wait until he recovered to answer those pressing questions. Returning to his village, Luka hoped to keep the young bodies secret so as not to worry the others further. But in such a close-knit community such a secret was impossible with predictable consequences. The nightmare seems to be over until Dariya, his niece, fails to return home that night. A search party finds nothing until Luka’s tracking skills show a pair of tracks heading into the forest. One track is clearly Dariya’s, the other is unknown, a stranger's track, an outsider. There is nothing left to do but follow and hope. But this is not a simple case of abduction. The child thief wants to play with his pursuers and he’s very good at the game... 

As with most of these thriller novels, I picked this up because it looked different and interesting. It was certainly that! Peppered throughout with insights into the Soviet occupation and exploitation of Ukraine during Stalinist rule, this was a tense tale of man dealing with an uncomfortable past and looking towards a more troubling future. Luka is an interesting character study – a Russian living in Ukraine with a complicated military history fighting for the Imperial Army, the Communists and then the Ukrainian Anarchists as his disillusion grew with grand ideas. A soldier forced by circumstances to farm, a loving husband wracked by doubt and nightmares, a man more adept with a rifle than a shovel who just wants the best for his family – if only circumstance and history would leave him alone. 

Luka is the core of the novel and carries that weight and responsibility well. The atmosphere is very well crafted, from small village prejudices to Soviet arrogance, from the damage war causes years after the fighting stops to the desire to be left to your own devices no matter how sparse they are. The winter environment is real enough to produce a chill and there is little fault with the overall narrative. The only irritation for me at least was the behaviour of Luka’s teenage sons, but then again they were teenagers so I guess they SHOULD be irritating. This is often not exactly a pleasant or uplifting read but it is consistently a page-turning one. Full of interesting and believable characters in the midst of a threatening situation you do find yourself hoping against hope for those caught in the middle of things and cheering on Luka as he does his best for his family and everyone else he comes into contact with. Definitely recommended. 

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Monday, January 23, 2023

Prompted by a recent conversation with Marianne. I first heard this during an episode of Stargate: Atlantis where an alternate reality main character (who was a BIG fan of Johnny Cash in 'our' reality too) had it on his car stereo. INSTANTLY fell in love with it.    

Just Finished Reading: The Border – The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics by Diarmaid Ferriter (FP: 2019) [146pp] 

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is in the news again. When both the UK and the RoI were both in the European Union it was, in effect, invisible. Brexit, of course, changed all that. Naturally with the history of both sides and especially the more recent history of ‘The Troubles’ that particular borders issues are going to be complicated. But these complications go back to the start of its existence with the end of the Irish Civil War and, indeed, in some ways back to the boundaries of the counties created in the 17th and 18th centuries. As I said, complicated. 

Because Ireland was under British rule for centuries prior to the Irish Civil War (28 June 1922 – 24 May 1923) and the subsequent partition the county boundaries were practically meaningless. Borders ran down the center of roads, through parts of villages and between milking sheds and pastures. The Boundary Commision created to settle these issues failed to do so as neither the South nor the North was willing to trade territory for rationality. But being practical people at heart, the Irish either ignored the border or found ways to work (and walk) around it. With so many crossing points and so little surveillance available, smuggling was both rife and highly profitable. Again, this was (mostly) tolerated and largely ignored. There was just no practical way to stop it. Then things turned NASTY with The Troubles and the attempt to stop cross border incidents. Slowly crossing points were reduced, hardened and surveillance increased. The border was still permeable – there wasn’t any way to make it secure without building an Iron Curtain equivalent which no one wanted and would’ve been prohibitively expensive – but at least some control was possible. Then came the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and the border posts were dismantled, bridges between communities literally re-built and things started moving again. Economic and cross border, cross culture ties increased and people on both sides started to put the bad old days behind them. Then, as we all know, came Brexit. 

Not surprisingly the Northern Irish border was one of THE main sticking points in any negotiations with the EU. But as my friends and I discussed it there was obviously a flaw in the UK’s ‘plan’. Now obviously you can’t have a wide-open border between the UK (in the guise of Northern Ireland) and the EU (in the guise of the Republic of Ireland) once the UK left. At the same time, you couldn’t have a HARD border between the two entities because of the Belfast Agreement and subsequent cross-border processes and organisations. To square that particular circle the UK proposed a ‘frictionless’ border with customs checks taking place automatically with new (as yet to be developed) technology. This magically process was accepted by both sides at the last minute in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit and all of the consequences that would follow from that. Of course, this magical tech has yet to appear (years later) and undoubtedly will never appear because, spoiler alert, it’s MAGIC. 

So, if the Irish border issue has ever caused you to scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about, this is definitely the book for you. I learnt a LOT from this short and very well written (and sometimes honestly hilarious) history of a sometimes very contentious line on a map. Definitely more coming on Irish history from this author. 

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Saturday, January 21, 2023

100 Questions – to get to know someone. 

31. Where would you bury hidden treasure if you had some? 

The very best place to ‘hide’ things is in plain sight. No one expects anything obviously on show to be secret, hidden or valuable. Well, at least it works in the movies & in books – at least until someone points it out (usually at the end). 

32. Would you ever strip or pose nude for a photo in a magazine? For a movie? 

Good GOD, No. I can KIND of understand nudity in films as long as it's important to the plot but think that 99% of the time it's pure fluff to keep people (usually men) interested in an otherwise poor plot/movie. The number of times I’ve seen them drop a ‘love scene’ into a film around the halfway mark and thought that even the director/producer knows it’s a bad movie at this point!     

33. What has been your best Halloween costume this far? 

Not something I’ve ever done. 

34. Are you stubborn? 

In the right circumstances I AM that immovable object. I think I get it (via my mother) from at least my Gran who took umbrage with the Catholic church for *decades* following a dispute with the local priest. She only relented (with gritted teeth no doubt) when she realised she was dying. 

35. Do you sing in the shower? In the car? 

Sure, plus when I have headphones on, just walking along.... Music is LIFE. 

36. Do you take vitamins daily? 

LOL – Just a few, yes. Actually, I take a variety. I started taking a standard multi-vitamin each day around 30(ish) years ago and then added what I called a ‘guest’ vitamin whenever something was on offer. Slowly the guests increased, and I started doing some research into things. Presently I’m popping around 10 pills per day – although some of them are repeats.    

37. Have you ever cried because you were so happy? 


38. Can you swim without plugging your nose? 

I never learnt to swim (bad I know) but on the few occasions I have been in the water – either pool or sea – I've never plugged my nose. I’m not sure why you’d want or need to. 

39. Have you ever won a contest? 

Yes, many. When I was younger, I used to do a lot of phone-in or write-in competitions. The radio station I listened to stopped taking my calls because I kept winning. I remember one contest where the question of the day was the population of Hawaii. I couldn’t believe that people were GUESSING. I just looked it up (in a book back in those days) and, naturally, won. The presently called me a smartarse for getting the number spot on..... [lol] 

40. Do you want kids? How many? 

I’ve never wanted children, not to any great degree anyway. Kids are OK (mostly), but I think they’re too much responsibility (for me) and I think I’d just spend my whole time worrying about them. Plus, to be honest, I don’t think I’d like to bring another mouth to feed into this world. I’m really not confident about the future. Plus (plus) I’ve never been with anyone long enough to even think about it.  

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Hip-Deep in Alligators by Robert Campbell (FP: 1988) [206pp] 

Nothing quite says ‘Mind your own business’ like being assigned to check on Chicago’s extensive sewage system. But Jimmy Flannery didn’t mind it too much. He knew his bosses would let him back into the fresh air eventually. It was just the price he had to pay for being a pain in the system's backside. What Jimmy didn’t expect was the body he stumbled upon – or should that be body parts. Two to be precise, apparently torn in half. What the coroner found surprised him even further. Embedded in the body was a tooth – of an alligator. Did that mean the urban legends were true after all? Did alligators and other critters flushed into the sewers by countless exotic pet owners survive down there in the dark and the effluent? Jimmy wanted to find out, for his own health as much as anyone else’s. But it seemed like he was on his own – again. The coroner's report had been sealed and the police were less than enthusiastic to spend resources and manpower looking for an urban myth. What really intrigued Jimmy was the growing pressure on him to look somewhere else and be somewhere else. Why were so many people apparently eager NOT to find alligators in the city's sewers. It was time for Jimmy to find out. 

After enjoying the first book in the Flannery series I was looking forward to this one. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as good as his previous outing. Flannery is a great character for a host of reasons and both he and the city he inhabits are well drawn. Equally well drawn are the lessor characters that fill out his life and the rest of the plot. The plot itself, however, lacked narrative punch this time. I think part of the problem is that the plot was a little too convoluted and contrived for an easy suspension of disbelief. Another problem was that the author seemed to get distracted from time to time and would suddenly seem to remember what the main plot was supposed to be. As I approached the end of the book, still without a resolution at hand, the narrative seemed to go into warp drive and, with the help of some lengthy exposition, come to a swift if reasonably satisfying conclusion. It all felt rather rushed. Overall, the story was still readable but, apart from a few flourishes from time to time, never really maintained much of an above average score. Reasonable. 

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Monday, January 16, 2023

The genes are STRONG in this one..........

Just Finished Reading: Life Everywhere – The Maverick Science of Astrobiology by David Darling (FP: 2001) [182pp] 

This interesting slim volume was written in response to my previous book on the subject [Rare Earth – Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter D Ward and Donald Brownlee] reviewed back in March last year and was, essentially a refutation of its conclusions and many of its underlying assumptions of the so-called special or unique nature of planet Earth where life is concerned. Contrary to the ideas in ‘Rare Earth’ the author here contends that life is common throughout the galaxy and that increased complexity is almost certain based on what we know about life on Earth. Of course, since we’re working with a single example here, extrapolation is difficult but not impossible. Even 20 years ago when this book was published, we had a pretty fair understanding about when and how life emerged on this planet. One thing that really stuck out was that it was QUICK. As far as we can tell the moment life could begin it did. That alone suggests that the start of life is comparatively easy given a reasonable set of starting conditions. What’s more, now we know about the number and range of extremophiles living quite happily in environments thought to be hostile to life, those conditions seem to be a lot wider and less benign than we first thought.  

So, we can say with a fair degree of confidence that, where a wide range of conditions allow, life will emerge quickly. Once life has emerged it will grow, expand and evolve. Part of that evolutionary process is to adapt to the local conditions and also quite naturally slowly increase in complexity. Earth in this sense cannot be unique. Contentions that for life to exist or evolve a planet needs a large moon or any other obviously Earth specific attribute is nothing more than special pleading and yet another defensive redoubt to protect the supposedly special place of Earth or (by extension) humanity in the grand scheme of things. With what we know of the Universe this simply won’t stand. 

The author contends (and I agree with him) that the prospect for the longed-for existence of life on Mars is possible – if only just. Life may have emerged independently there (indeed it's possible that life on Earth may have been at least partially seeded from Mars) in its warm wet period and then either become extinct or moved underground. We’ve found some tantilising hints so far but nothing definite at least yet! Much more likely (and I agree again) is the possibility of life under the ice on several of Jupiter’s moons. Knowing what we know of the ‘black smokers’ on our own seabed I think it’s entirely likely that not only bacteria exist in those oceans, but I fully expect our probes to find complex fish. If we do find life – proven as far as possible to have evolved independently of Earth – on any other body in this Solar System, it would indeed indicate that life is everywhere. I do hope so! 

Overall, despite its age, this was an interesting read and a good introduction to the ideas behind Astrobiology and the search for life elsewhere. If the topic intrigues you I can definitely think of worse places to start reading about it. Recommended. More current reading on this topic to come.    

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Saturday, January 14, 2023

A matter of Influence-ah? 

As my regular readership will no doubt remember, I have a (very) long-term project to read some of the world’s influential or significant books of the last few centuries. Part of the (non-rational) reason for this is a vague sub-conscious feeling of educational inadequacy from going through the State educational system design, in large part, to produce working class factory fodder. The Comprehensive Schools I attended certainly had little room and no remit to produce scholars! So, I thought, if my education system didn’t do it, I’ll do it myself. Of course, being ME, I didn’t go at this ‘project’ directly but kind of sidled up to it like I was ‘hunting wabbits’. The list below is what I’ve managed so far (in the lifetime of this Blog) with new additions in BOLD. I’m not sure what (if anything!) I’ll be adding this year. I need to sort through my piles of books & dig something important out and dust it/them off....    

The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World by Eric Schlosser

The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon
Dune by Frank Herbert
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
Rock of Ages – Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould
How Children Fail by John Holt
The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
Suffragette – My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
The Old Straight Track - Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones by Alfred Watkins
The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence
The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
The Rights of Man by H G Wells
The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes
The Two Cultures by C P Snow
The City by Max Weber
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
The War of the Flea – A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory & Practice by Robert Taber
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton
Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panther Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley
Achtung Panzer! – The Development of Tank Warfare by Heinz Guderian
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
About Looking by John Berger
A Vindication of The Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
War on Wheels – The Evolution of an Idea by C R Kutz
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Design as Art by Bruno Munari
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
The Rebel by Albert Camus
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
A Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara

Only 3 added this year which isn’t great but isn’t too bad. This year I’ll try for at least 3 again and do my best to find at least 1 of them that most other people will at least have heard of! Wish me luck....  

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (FP: 2004) [436pp] 

Berne, Switzerland. It was, so it seemed at first, a normal day. Raimund Gregorious was walking his normal route to the college where he had been teaching Greek, Latin and Hebrew for as long as anyone could remember. He was crossing the bridge he had crossed a thousand times at this time of day, when he saw the women in front of him obviously emotionally disturbed by the letter she was reading. Gregorious thought little of it until he saw the woman slowing slip out of her shoes. Worried that she might be contemplating suicide, Gregorious did something completely out of character – he intervened. That was the day his life changed. He convinced her to follow him to his college and watched as she sat through his first lecture of the day. His students, long used to his familiar ways, hardly knew how they should react. Little did they know that this would only be the start of the surprises ahead of them that day. Still disturbed by his early morning encounter, Gregorious walked into town and found himself in a local bookshop. Almost unconsciously he picked up a discarded book and started to read, only to discover that the book was in Portuguese, a language he was unfamiliar with. The shop owner then translated a passage and Gregorious felt as if he had been struck by lightning. How was it possible that an author he had never heard of before, writing in a foreign language, could be speaking as if directly to him? Over the next few hours, the conviction within him grew. He would need to find out more about this author and how he came to his views on life and living. He would need to go to Lisbon – immediately. 

As usual with such things I picked this book up, a little over 10 years ago now, because it looked ‘different’. It certainly was that! I’ve actually been thinking over the past few weeks how I can possibly review this book. I know one thing – it's not going to be straightforward. One of the easiest ways to describe it is to portray the tale of a late middle-aged man going through a mid-life or existential crisis. There is something to that but there’s far more going on here. Gregorious is a man in crisis sure enough – except that, until the meeting on the bridge – he had barely recognised this to be the case. He was almost as shocked as those around him regarding what his quest forced him to do and forced him to consider about himself as well as the life he had lived and continued to live. Obviously his ‘quest’ was scripted by the author of this amazing novel, but it felt like Gregorious was being directed on a course of action he had little control over. It’s hard to describe but I couldn’t help but think that there was a “magical realism” ‘tint’ to the story as if everything was hyper illuminated or hyper-real. I felt like the ‘contrast’ of the images in my mind had been turned up to 11. The metaphor of his new glasses was a little ‘on the nose’ but I didn’t mind at all. I’ve had new glasses myself that have had a similar, if not quite so philosophical, impact. I really liked the metaphor of the chess games which I thought worked really well and then, naturally, the metaphor of train travel. All very well done. His adventures and encounters in Lisbon were endlessly fascinating. I was there, briefly, a little over 20 years ago and loved what I saw. The city and the people he met there – all amazingly drawn – completely absorbed me. It was probably some of the best character creations I’ve read in a very long time. A book filled with people you would want to know – even the supposed ‘difficult’ ones!  

But you may be asking about now, what was the book actually about? It was about regret and loss, it was about love and parental pressure, it was about loyalty and friendship, it was about forgiveness and duty, it was about realising how little we know other people and how we can be fooled into thinking we know ourselves – and that only begins to scratch the surface of this quite brilliant book. I’m finding it hard to imagine reading a better book this year – though I’m going to try because I do like a challenge! It was the kind of book that not only could you easily read it again and get more from it, but it was the kind of book that, once finished, you could start again from the beginning immediately and still derive both pleasure and insight the second time around. I think I’ll definitely be reading this again. Maybe at the beginning of every year from now on. That might sound a little crazy, but believe me, it’s not. Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read and, therefore, very, very highly recommended. 

Translated from the German by Barbara Harshav 

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