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

Monday, May 29, 2023

Just Finished re-Reading: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (FP: 1952) [172pp] 

As the Galactic Empire slowly collapses, Hari Seldon’s legacy – the Foundation – grows ever stronger. But the Empire is far from dead and its leaders can still project awesome power when necessary. The next Seldon Crisis the Foundation must face forms around one such leader, maybe the last of his kind – a charismatic military mind with a loyal following and a passion for conquest. The magic of Psych-History is prepared though and the Foundation will not go down easily. Later, with another Crisis behind them, the Foundation is feeling pretty good about itself. So much so that it can finally put its house in order and expel the rump opposition forces once and for all. As yet another barbarian leader emerges in the ashes of the fallen Empire confidence is high that the Seldon Plan is unstoppable – but Hari Seldon warned, long ago, that his equations cannot predict the actions of individuals, especially someone like the ‘Mule’ who’s actions it seems cannot be predicted or easily opposed! 

This is the second book of the original Foundation trilogy. I first read it around 40-45 years ago so couldn’t remember much about it (except when the ‘Mule’ appeared). One thing that immediately became apparent was just how well the story still reads over 70 years after publication. There are a few things that have dated badly, but for the most part the text seemed virtually timeless. Essentially split into two halves, with the first half showing the Foundation near its best and the second how pride shouts from the rooftops before crashing and burning, it's interesting how the author can pull the rug out from under the readers expectations and leave them wondering if the seemingly god-like Seldon could actually be wrong. That, I thought, was rather brave of him but leaves the reader desperately wanting to know what happens next. It was also interesting that Asimov highlights not a flaw as such but a limitation built within the Seldon Plan – essentially what we would call these days 'Black Swan' events. When someone like the ‘Mule’ spontaneously emerges the maths of Psycho-History is helpless, as we’re shown. Naturally this sets up the narrative for the next book, which I hope/expect to read by the end of the year along with the 3rd ‘Dune’ book. A recommended example of golden era SF.  

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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Is History Bunk, Or Where Does History Live? 

I’ve been thinking (or more correctly over-thinking) about a comment made recently on Helen’s Blog [She Reads Novels] regarding Historical novels and when it’s legitimate to base them. This is, naturally, linked to the question: When is History? Now, you might think this is a strange question (and as a purveyor of strange questions I should know, right?), but consider this: psychologically humans tend to live in an eternal present – one second ago is the past and lost forever, one second from now is the future and forever unobtainable. So, the past is history, right? So, History begins one second ago, which means, naturally, that EVERYTHING is History and therefore all time – right up to a second ago – is the home of the Historical novel. Of course, you don’t need to waste that second thinking about how ridiculous that idea is. But where does that leave us (or, actually, me). 

Let’s look at things from another angle for a moment. I think it's beyond argument that the 19th century is History and clearly a place to locate a historical novel. As Bust follows Boom it's clear, therefore, that any period before the 19th century is likewise both History and the home of historical novels. But after the 19th century? Now clearly both World Wars (and the so-called ‘peace’ in between) are History and periods legitimately able to host historical novels. But what about after 1945? It that legitimate too? I think it’s at the very least arguable that the 50’s through to the 80’s (again) can be considered both History and (yet again!) a period where legitimate historical novels can live. After the 1980’s things get, I contend, a little more problematic. But here I’d turn to something I came across in my youth – the need for historical perspective and distance. 

Like many people I’m short-sighted and require glasses to see any great distance. But even being short-sighted I still need a minimum distance to see anything clearly. If I get TOO close to something (even in good light) I really can’t see what I’m supposed to be looking at. What makes it worse is the tree/forest conundrum. If you get TOO close to a subject – like History – you inevitably lack perspective and you can’t see things too well. Things that happened recently are very difficult topics for historians because it's difficult to know if they’re important or trivial or where they fit into the historical dynamic. This is why you might get a ton of history books about the 1960’s but you don’t get so many on the events of 2022 or 2023! So, how does that help? As far as I recall, historians tend to shy away from things that happened too recently and by too recently I think they mean around 25 years. That quarter-century is needed to allow the historian to stand back and look at events with at least some detachment. The events may have passed but their echoes are still with us and it’s much clearer what’s important and what many of the antecedents were. I think this is a good guideline when thinking about legitimate time periods for historical novels – 25 years. Within that quarter-century we’re still living with the event – it's still contemporary with us. It has yet to fade into the historical background so shouldn’t, in my opinion, be somewhere where the historical novel can take up a cozy residence. Conveniently, as we’re presently in 2023, I’d draw the line, in my considered but arbitrary fashion, at the convenient point of the Millennium (the celebrated one in 2000 rather than the actual one in 2001). Anything based before 2000 is OK for historical novels and anything after 2000 essentially isn’t. Opinions?     

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Just Finished re-Reading: Shoot the Women First by Eileen MacDonald (FP: 1991) [241pp] 

The first time she heard about it she wasn’t sure what to think. Apparently, a head of a German anti-terrorist unit was giving the advice that, in any terrorist situation, the security services of the country involved should prioritise in ‘neutralising’ the female terrorists as quickly as possible – in other words to shoot the women first. But why? This book was the authors attempt to discover the reason behind that advice – not by speaking to the security services (that came later), but by speaking to the terrorists themselves. Over the subsequent months she travelled to Spain to speak to the women of ETA, the Basque separatist organisation, interviewed Kim Hyon Hui the North Korean woman who planted the bomb on Korean Air Flight 858 killing all on board in an attempt to disrupt the Seoul Olympic games that year, spent time with the women of the West Bank and interviewed Leila Khaled, infamous hijacker of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), felt vulnerable, for the first time, when she spoke to women from the IRA, interviewed Susanna Ronconi of the Italian Red Brigades and finally spent some time with a number of infamous women of the Red Army Faction from Germany including Astrid Proll. 

I remember reading this not long after it came out in paperback. It was the days when I was commuting into London each day on the train from Kent. You can imagine to looks I got when people saw the title! Reading it over 30 years ago meant that I had very little memory of the text so it felt like the first time. It was interesting looking back to the sometimes dark days of the 70’s and 80’s when planes were being hijacked on a regular basis and bombs were going off all over Europe – including the very city I worked in each day. It was also interesting peeking into the minds of the women doing the hijacking, planting the bombs and shooting it out with the police and security services. Most interesting, naturally, was both their motivation and the ever-present question of why they were considered more dangerous than men.  The author went through several theories – including the old arguments about female terrorists being lesbians or ugly (neither of which is universally true) or even that they felt that had to out-do the men to prove they were worthy (sometimes true to some extent). The answer slowly crystalised through conversations and with a final interview with a member of the German Security Services. Male terrorists, it appeared, treated their activity as a ‘job’ - something they did. Female terrorists, by contrast, treated it as their life. Generally, they had sacrificed much more than the men – family, children, a future – and so their dedication to the cause was much greater. When confronted by armed police a male terrorist would be more likely to surrender, a female terrorist much more likely to pick up her AK-47 and start shooting.  

One of the things that most surprised the author – no doubt expecting the women she spoke to be monsters or at the very least damaged or broken people – was how very ordinary these women were. Although a few frightened her in various ways, she couldn’t help but like a number of them and even admire their stance in the face of oppression and dangerous violence. Many, if not all, were feminists of one sort or another striving for a form of equality. All of them were looking to the future for a better life and better prospects for their children or the future generations of their people. None took their activities lightly and many agonised over the people they had personally killed but felt they had little choice in the matter.  

In some ways this was not an easy read. These women were often killers after all who used violence and the threat of violence to promote their political ends. But terrorism cannot be effectively opposed in any age if we do not at least attempt to understand those who undertake these actions and the reasons behind their acts. I think this book – not at all dated since its original publication – goes a small way towards that understanding. Recommended if you can source a copy.  

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Monday, May 22, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan (FP: 2019) [276pp] 

Hereford, England, 1793. It is the Age of Revolution, both in politics and science. Europe is still reeling in shock at the French Revolution with repression and paranoia at home increasingly showing its hand. In science the world seems to be changing by the day after discovery follows discovery. Local horticulturist Herbert Powyss is desperate to be part of that world. Famous locally for his production of exotic fruit and vegetables – often to the bemusement of locals – and with the publication of several letters in scientific journals to his name is looking for something else, something to take his name above the ordinary and have it spoken about with admiration at the Royal Society in London. Being a solitary himself he wonders at the impact of a completely solitary lifestyle on the human psyche. Inspired by the tale of Robinson Crusoe he hires local ploughman, John Warlow, to live in his basement, without the prospect of direct human contact, for seven years with the promise of a handsome reward at the end of it. The problem for both men is that neither understands exactly what is being asked of them. Neither understands how solitude, even voluntary, can erode the chains of common humanity and Powyss had no idea of the charm of Warlow’s wife. A revolution is coming... 

As always, I picked this up some years ago because it sounded different and interesting. It was certainly both – in spades! The late 18th century is one of those ages where everything seemed ‘up for grabs’ or at the very least up for debate. It was the age of the subversive coffee houses and the age of great discovery. It must have seemed to those ‘in the know’ that the very ground was moving beneath their feet. The core of the novel is the ‘experiment’ with John Warlow in the basement. It seems more than a little ‘odd’ to modern sensibilities but I can see it being thought of as reasonable in an age before scientific ethics or even any great understanding between the classes. Even without the attractions, as such, of Hannah Warlow you could see that the experiment was going to be a ‘car crash’ for a host of reasons and it’s interesting to watch that unfold. The secondary plot (in both senses) in the household I thought was the more interesting with revolutionary sentiment fermenting in the staff as power structures come under increasing strain. Powyss is an interesting, if rather bizarre, character but my favourite was the kitchen/housemaid Catherine who was in that position through no fault of her own and longed to be a teacher. I liked her a lot. Well written, full of interesting ideas and characters and with more than a few fascinating looks at British society struggling to be modern, this was a fun and often thought provoking read. I shall be checking out some of the author’s other works. Definitely recommended.  

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Saturday, May 20, 2023

100 Questions – to get to know someone. 

91. What is one thing you would most like to change about the world? 

That we stop killing each other. Or maybe that we stop treating people as disposable ‘things’ rather than human beings. 

92. What piece of advice would you give 10-year-old you? 

Don’t take things TOO seriously and stop chasing or agonising over people who have zero interest in you. 

93. Have you ever broken the law? 

Probably. I’ve certainly been in cars that broke the speed limit. I’ve probably been in places that I shouldn’t have been. I don’t think I’ve ever stolen anything – except by accident. I’ve (at least potentially) enabled tax evasion by paying in cash. So, nothing of real consequence. 

94. If you won the lottery, what would you spend the money on? 

A bigger house so that I can have a room (or two?) purely dedicated to books with proper fitted shelves and stuff. That’d be cool. Plus, I’d travel First Class and stay 5 Star wherever I went. 

95. What was your favourite book as a child? Why? 

I didn’t really read as a child, so I have no really childhood favourites. But my favourite genre in my mid to late teens was Science-Fiction. 

96. Do you snort when you laugh? 

Generally, no. 

97. Are you a good dancer? 

Generally, no. 

98. If you could have any superpower, what would it be? 

Invisibility would be pretty cool if you could turn it off and on like a switch. Don’t want to be seen by someone, click, exit, click and you’re back! Teleportation – over any distance – would also be pretty good. Just think of all those savings on time & fuel! 

99. Do you believe in the death penalty? 

No. Apart from it being barbaric there’s always the possibility that they got or convicted the wrong person. The number of murder cases being overturned years or decades later is just far too many for me to be happy with condemning someone to death. No coming back from that one! 

100. Are you happy, genuinely, consistently happy? 

[laughs] Of course NOT. I’m a fully functioning (on a good day) adult with a reasonable comprehension and appreciation of the world. To be genuinely, consistently happy you either need to be a not too aware child or someone with DEEP psychological issues or possibly someone on some serious or exotic drugs for ‘chemical assistance’. 

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Transforming the Skies – Pilots, Planes and Politics in British Aviation, 1919-1940 by Peter Reese (FP: 2018) [250pp] 

The end of WW1 (AKA ‘The Great War) came as a relief to millions across the world but as a shock to Britain’s aircraft industry. Not only were government contracts terminated with immediate effect – despite aircraft still rolling off production lines – but a war ‘excessive profits’ tax was levied, again with immediate effect. The economic shock of both government actions sent companies into bankruptcy, hasty amalgamation or heavily in debt to banks, other institutions and friends with deep pockets. With few private orders, no more government contracts for the foreseeable future and a glut of engines and airframes on the market things looked bleak and remained so for most of the 1920’s. But all was not lost and a few companies, through hard work and a dose of luck managed to survive and, in some cases, almost thrive on the crumbs that came their way. This book is their story. 

Covering the earliest days of civil aviation - locally within the UK, the trickle to Europe and (mostly) to connect the Empire to London – the author looked at pioneering, often record breaking, flights to (very) far off places as proof of concept. Using, at least initially, old military stock the public became used to the idea of flight as a viable (just!) alternative to ocean liners – if you were especially adventurous. But old stock only took you so far and so fast. Bigger, faster and more spacious planes were needed and started to appear helping the air industry survive a little longer. But it wasn’t just air transport that drove innovation. An important sporting event thrown into the mix was the Schneider Trophy races where the need for speed helped produced both the fabulous Supermarine S5 (precursor to the Spitfire) and the iconic Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Innovation in the RAF, however, was a long time coming stymied by lack of funds, a strong international movement for disarmament, the belief that the bomber would ‘always get through’ so what was the point in a fighter-based defence (I kid you not) and, to be honest, sheer bloody mindedness in the Air Ministry. Luckily a handful of men (and at least one woman) saw which way the wind was beginning to blow in the 1930’s and laid the groundwork for the buildup of the RAF in the run up to the war and especially the Battle of Britain. 

I knew some of this from previous reading but I was honestly amazed at how close Britain actually was to losing its historic encounter with the Luftwaffe over the fields of Kent in 1940. Not for want of effort but for want of the right weapons. It was a real possibility, right up until the last years of the 1930’s that Britain could’ve been facing the German 109 fighters with BIPLANES. Astounding. Both the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were essentially private ventures that the Air Ministry initially reluctantly agreed to entertain as potential front-line aircraft. Only after MUCH effort and the ever-encroaching clouds of war did they get their finger out and start (just in time!) to produce these aircraft in significant numbers. 

But this excellent volume covers much more that that most significant fact. Full of interesting insights into British airship building, the earliest days of British Airways and tales of the great designers this was a fascinating read. Definitely a must for anyone interested in the aircraft industry between the two World Wars. Recommended.   

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Monday, May 15, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Poison Belt by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (FP: 1913) [103pp] 

It all began with a mysterious ‘blurring’ of Fraunhofer’s Lines in the visible spectra. Confusion reigned in the press with scientists, and others, supporting various theories and attacking others. But one letter in particular stood out – from the famous, or some would say infamous, Professor Challenger recently returned from an expedition. The ‘blurring’ was something that could not be ignored. More so, it presaged a cataclysmic event in Earth’s history and could not be easily avoided. Called to his residence outside London, journalist and friend Edward Malone is asked only one thing: Bring Oxygen. Intrigued, he acquires some only to find that his two companions from previous adventures have been tasked to do likewise. What is Challenger up to this time? Why does he think the Earth is in mortal peril and why the need for oxygen? All will be revealed, in all its horror, once they arrive – if they can make it in time! 

I picked up this slim volume some months ago because it looked like an interesting departure from the usual Conan Doyle fare. I’m a BIG fan of the author (more later!) so was expecting to be entertained and I was. Stories from this age often have an ‘otherworldly’ feel to them anyway – being both strange and familiar simultaneously – but this took that to a whole new level. Being so short (essentially a long short story or a slim novella) the action began quickly and moved on at a fair clip from then on. Without giving too much away there’s a global disaster complete with cities burning, governments falling and piles of bodies in the streets. The descriptions of these events, especially with our experience/knowledge now of two World Wars and multiple disasters played out on our TV screens, makes it all the more realistic. No doubt those who read this story would have remembered it in stark terms as they experienced gas attacks on the Western Front and read government advice (delivered along with the gas mask) in the run-up to World War Two. It must have been quite disturbing in the year before the Great War descended with all of its horror to read about the streets of London, arguably one of the greatest capitals of the world, brought low so quickly with the bodies of men, women and children in such abundance. I’m sure it would have caused more than a few nightmares at the time! 

Being so short this was a quick read – only a single day for me – and I can say that I really did enjoy it (especially towards the end). The ‘twist’ was to be expected but was handled reasonably well although maybe with a bit too much stoicism. There are, inevitably, a few instances of unthinking racism which I wrinkled my nose at but books of that age can’t but help convey the beliefs of the time. Knowing that such things are now, thankfully, far rarer is a sign of progress. The fact that the master of the house essentially ignored the well-being of his staff, knowing what was coming, was almost funny in its assumed superiority – again reflecting attitudes of the time. So, with a few historical and cultural caveats, this is well worth your time if you’re a Conan Doyle fan or one of early ‘Science-Fiction’. Recommended. 

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Saturday, May 13, 2023

100 Questions – to get to know someone. 

81. If you could choose any person in the world to be president, who would you choose? Why? 

ONE person to be the President of the World? I think that’s much too big a job for ONE person. Maybe one from each Continent, plus one other? Something like that... Although I think a unified World Government is going to be a LONG time coming. 

82. Do you daydream often? 

Depends what you mean by ‘daydream’. Thinking out plans and possibilities? Sure. Kind of dreaming what I’d do if I won the Lottery? Not so much! 

83. Do you know how to change a tire? 

Theoretically, yes. At least I’ve seen people do it. I could probably do it if I really HAD to. 

84. Do you have a hidden talent? 

I have so few talents I don’t think it’s wise to HIDE any of them. Hence, ‘all’ of my talents tend to be on full display. 

85. Do you consider yourself artistic? 

Well, my drawing is OK but I can’t paint to save my life. I can hold a tune (apparently) but don’t play any instruments. I did enjoy when my boss gave me a task with the rider: be creative, so I’m probably better at that than being ‘artistic’ as such. 

86. What is something you can't live without? 

Food, Air, Water..... Books...... 

87. Can you name all 50 states? 

US States? Probably not. I might get 30 or so on a good day though. I also couldn’t name all of the counties in the UK. Over half – maybe.... 

88. Do you eat soup with a fork or a spoon? 

What? There are people who eat soup with a FORK? HOW!?! That must be THICK soup!! 

89. Do you remember your dreams? 

Only the really interesting ones. Most of them are too mundane to remember for long. I did enjoy a good few though – the WEIRD ones and the seemingly profound ones. I had an interesting one based in Hades and another where I was trapped on an alien planet which slowly ate all of my tech until I became part of its ecosystem. That was VERY interesting. My mind/brain can be very entertaining at times! 

90. Are you superstitious? 

No. I was that kid everyone knows who deliberately walks UNDER ladders. 13 is also one of my favourite numbers. 

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy – What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens and Ourselves by Dr Arik Kershenbaum (FP: 2020) [324pp] 

It’s a deceptively simple question: What can we say about life beyond Earth in the rest of the Galaxy? The obvious, maybe even the instinctive, answer is: Nothing. We know of life in only one place, here on Earth. We can say, probably, with a fair degree of confidence that there IS life in the Galaxy but what is it like? With billions of planets orbiting billions of stars there must be countless environments where life could emerge, but how can we confidently extrapolate from a single example? We can’t, right? Or maybe, actually we can. 

Hollywood and Science Fiction authors have tried to envisage aliens for us to either fall in love with or have nightmares about. But even a cursory examination, with any scientific background, shows that most of the well-known aliens are nothing more than human life made either large or particularly malevolent. I mean, concentrated acid for blood? Yeah, right. But moving on from Hollywood is easier than you might expect. Until we actually find any and are able to analyse it, we don’t know if alien life will utilise the DNA we’re so familiar with. What we can be more certain about is that, no matter where life emerges, the environment will no doubt have limited resources. Because of this it follows that alien life will need to compete for those resources and that some alien creatures will be more adept at this competition than others. With those simple facts it appears that Evolutionary principles will operate throughout the Galaxy and, indeed, into other Galaxies too. Evolution is something we have a pretty good understanding of, and we can use that understanding to come to some reasonable conclusions about life elsewhere. 

This is the foundation for this fascinating book – that Evolution, as we know it here, operates in the same way out there no matter if aliens use DNA or if they’re carbon based (they’re highly likely to be!) or if their atmosphere is oxygen, methane or something else. From that baseline we can reasonably expect that aliens will move around – swim, fly, walk – and that they’ll be able to gain information about their environment through eyes, ears, whiskers or more exotic ways through magnetic fields. Likewise, they’ll be about to communicate through sound, light or in other ways in order to attract mates, ward of danger or even to sing. We may not know exactly what an alien creature might LOOK like, but we can expect things like kin bias, social structures, hierarchies and so much more we are already familiar with. There is indeed a great deal we can say about aliens without (at the moment) ever meeting one. 

This was a fun read for me. Most of my Science reading is in the Biology/Evolution sphere, so it's interesting to link that – not just speculatively – to my other long-term interest in alien life in the Galaxy. Hopefully, with the probe on its way to Jupiter’s moons we might get a good idea if life exists outside Earth and yet still inside our own Solar System. If strong indications of life ARE found that’ll be amazing. I’m a firm believer that life does indeed exist ‘out there’ and will not be in the least surprised if bacteria are found on Mars and that fish swim in the seas under the ice on a few of Jupiter's moons. Definitely a recommended read for anyone interesting in the alien life question.  

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