About Me

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

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (FP: 2020) [241pp] 

It was perfect, the ideal vacation home. Only a few hours' drive from New York but off the beaten track enough to feel like another world. Plus, it had everything there, at your fingertips except for decent phone reception but that could be an advantage too – the office would only be in touch when they drove into ‘town’ a few minutes away. It was the best excuse of being uncontactable. Of course, the kids grumbled a bit being ‘offline’ from their friends, but the pool and the big screen TV helped. Anyway, it was only for a week – they could survive for a week without constant Facebook updates. Barely a day, that’s how long the idyll lasted. Late at night there was an unwelcome and unexpected knock at the door. They almost didn’t answer. Standing there was an old black couple who claimed to be the owners of the Airbnb they were vacationing in. Further they claimed that New York and, by the looks of things, the whole eastern seaboard has had a power failure. They were here to wait things out and see what the problem was. Without their phones, without the Internet and without TV there was no way to know what was happening. Did the old couple really own the expensive house miles from anywhere? Was there really a blackout that wasn’t affecting them personally? But the old couple seemed to know where everything was and even had keys to locked cabinets. Was that enough to trust them and let them stay the night? It wasn’t long before strange things began to happen – deer walking across the lawn seemingly oblivious to the human looking at them in surprised awe, strange weather for the time of year and then there was the loud bang in the sky without a hint of cloud. Was it thunder or a sonic boom? What on earth was going on? 

I’d heard good things about this novel months before I finally got around to reading it. Yet again I’d picked it up soon after it came out because it looked ‘different’ and ‘interesting’. It was certainly that! What made it somewhat more interesting was a question in the ‘hints for reading groups’ at the back suggesting that it would be getting a very different reaction after the pandemic than before, and I could certainly see that. BTW – this isn’t a spoiler. The ‘event’ or events that are in the background are never fully fleshed out or explained – which had both a good side, in that it enhanced the mystery, and a bad side, in that we never really knew what REALLY was going on. Actually, I’m still in two minds about the book in general – despite being very well written – and a technique used throughout of hinting at events that the characters didn’t know about and could never or did never discover as well as hints of events years later that grew out of the BIG event behind the whole book. On one level this was intriguing and left me wanting to know more. On another level it did feel at times that the author was throwing a kitchen sink full of post-apocalyptic ideas on the page hoping that at least some of them would stick with his readers. Again, this is not to say this was a bad or poorly executed book, it wasn’t. I certainly mulled the plot over in my minds for days after reading the last page. The style was interesting – alternatively creepy and mysterious – with more than decent characterisation throughout and believable reactions to the strangeness being experienced. But in some ways, this did feel like half a book – as if the author had a good idea (and it was a good idea) but didn’t know how to or simply didn’t want to get into what I would regard as the meat of the situation. As a character study of how people, and especially strangers thrown together, react to a mysterious event it was very good, but I would’ve liked to see more of the outside world and their reaction to that. But maybe there’s a sequel coming? Recommended with caveats. 

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 53] 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

First thought....? That cigarette is a *real* fire hazard with the material of her negligee... 

I do find it ironic (far too weak a word, I know) that a political party supposedly dedicated to Free Speech and so opposed to 'cancel culture' are also so keen to support book bans. Maybe they're not as 'freedom' loving as they like to make out....?  

Monday, June 26, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Pandora’s Jar – Women in Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes (FP: 2020) [288pp] 

First off, I have to say that this was an excellent ‘companion’ read to my previous book ‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller. It wasn’t exactly planned that way, but I’ll take it. I’d read a non-fiction work by this author previously so knew something of her style. Here though we had a mix of deep knowledge and obvious love of the subject mixed with a fair bit of humour and topped off with a feminist vibe. 

The thing that most jumped out at me throughout this book was the idea that the Myths we know (or think we know) exist in multiple versions. Those that have made it to the modern day have either been cherry-picked from a range of examples or have simply been the one that survived the passage of time down the ages. Other versions, presently lost, are hinted at by ancient authorities but we have nothing more. Those facts alone give me pause for thought when people try to talk about the ‘real’ myth as opposed to other versions with different endings or different outcomes for some characters. Greek myth, I realised or had been prompted to remember, is a very fluid thing. 

Unfortunately, like most people I imagine, my ‘knowledge’ of Greek myths is generally derived from Hollywood movies (along with some random reading over the decades). This means that generally the female characters in these myths are all too often relegated to love interests, helpers (usually quickly disposed of), people to be rescued or all too sexualised villain's and temptresses. Of course, some of this at least is taken straight from the myths themselves where the female characters – created it must be remembered in a time and place that allowed women very little space to become individuals in their own right – were (often but not always) very much sidelined or presented as an example or a danger to the male heroes. But what we would regard today as strong or nuanced female characters did exist in plays of these mythic stories and many of those roles are eagerly sought after by modern actresses (it’s interesting to note that, much like Shakespeare’s time, all stage roles in Classical Greece were played by men). 

I think the first surprise, which handily got me prepared for the rest of this excellent book, was the tale of Pandora. I thought I knew this tale and quickly learnt that I simply didn’t. For a start the ‘box’ was a much later invention and she started out with a jar – as in a Greek style vase. The other thing that really jumped out at me was the fact (if we can talk about facts within myths) was that Pandora was *designed* by the Gods as a living weapon in retribution for Prometeus giving humans fire and therefore, by extension, a comfortable life. Pandora was sent in order to make men miserable again, just as Zeus wanted. She was programmed to open the jar thus releasing all the bad stuff. It wasn’t her fault. THAT puts a whole other gloss on things and changes the whole story. That was just the first chapter! After that we had tales of Jocasta, Helen (lots of weird stuff there including the Helen in Troy being a hologram!), Medusa (very badly treated by all and sundry), The Amazons (more later!), Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea (who, of course, everyone loves to hate) and Penelope. Needless to say, not only has my knowledge and appreciation of Greek myth increased by leaps and bounds but I’m also looking at those myths in some interesting and, for me, new ways. If you have any interest or curiosity about the Greek myths – and most especially the place of women in them – this is most definitely the book for you. Told with a fair bit of humour as well as modern cultural references from movies – Clash of the Titans (original), Troy (naturally), Wonder Woman (ditto) - literate reinterpretations and Star Trek I enjoyed this a LOT. It was largely from a feminist perspective which, no doubt will annoy/irritate some readers, but the perspective is a valid one and works well here. Highly recommended and much more to come.  

[Labels Added: 2, Labels Total: 53]  

Sunday, June 25, 2023

I remember working in London and, once I adapted to the pace of life there, I categorised people into two types - those in a hurry and those who get in the way of people in a hurry. On moving here it took around 3-4 months to slow down to normal speed..... 

Yeah, I think I'm safe from Alien Abduction...!

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Keeping cool.....

Thinking About: Time Travelling 

There has been much chatter (apparently) on social media regarding supposed evidence for Time Travellers including early photographs of people holding mobile phones, carvings of ancients holding laptops and, my personal favourite, a carving of an astronaut on the side of an English medieval church. Most of these are somewhere between silly and nonsensical along with a smattering of ignorance about when things were actually made. 

But (of course) it got me pondering... Is Time Travel even possible – never mind actually recorded in stone or paint. Technically, yes. But... So far, the only way we know of breaking the Time Barrier is by travelling REALLY fast and relying on Time Dilation. As time is perceived as passing much slower inside the vehicle than outside you could travel REALLY fast (maybe doing a loop of the Solar System) and what feels like a few months onboard ship might translate as a few hundred years ‘outside’. The trip however would only be forward and there’s no way back. But what about dialling a date and going there like in the movies? Is that even theoretically possible? 

I’ll be the very first to admit that my knowledge of Temporal Mechanics is largely from watching Star Trek, so non-existent then. But, coming at it from another direction I’m guessing that you’ve probably heard of the ‘Grandfather Paradox’? Basically, it’s the idea that you can’t go into the past and kill your grandfather (or less violently ensure he never meets your grandmother) because you’d never have been born and therefore couldn’t have travelled back to do the deed. Many SF short stories have been based around this idea. But I think this illustrates another bigger problem I’m calling the ‘Everything Paradox’. Imagine you hop in a friends Time Machine and travel back 100 years and appear in an empty field miles from anywhere. You step out of your craft, look around for a while, see or interact with no-one, get back in and come back to the present, arriving ‘here’ mere seconds after you left. No problem, right? Maybe a bit pointless but an OK proof of concept. But... Just being there, in the past were you never existed before has changed things. The movement of air and wind patterns will be different because of you and your craft. You breathed oxygen that wasn’t previously breathed and expelled CO2 likewise. You walked around, maybe stepping on some bugs, making footprints that filled with water later and maybe providing a drink for creatures thirsty enough to have been easy prey for a passing owl later that night. A fox you didn’t even see certainly saw you and changed direction to avoid you. Coincidentally that fox missed meeting up with a passing vixen, who you also didn’t see, and so didn’t father a set of cubs – one of which would’ve been the ancestor of a fox being hunted nearby in a few years, so the politician that would’ve been chasing it didn’t fall off his horse and didn’t break his neck. That same politician went on to take up an important role that would’ve been vacant to a much more able incumbent, so a problem became a crisis, and a crisis became a war. Butterflies and their effects BITE – just ask Homer Simpson. Yet nothing like this has happened in the Time Travellers history, so does that mean nothing CAN be changed no matter what? Are Time Travellers ‘doomed’ to be mere invisible observers unable even to breath ancestral air?  

But if the Time Traveller comes back and nothing has changed what does this actually prove? Does it mean that the past cannot be changed, no matter what? If the Traveller did indeed go back and, for unresolved family issues, successfully kill his grandfather and returns to find that not only does he still exist but his parents are there to greet him on his return and on the way home they swing by grandpa’s house, what does that mean? The problem, I think, is in thinking of Time as an arrow straight line – Past, Present, Future and so on. So, you affect the past (in any way), you affect the Present (in which the Traveller started his travels) and you affect the Future (when he gets back from the trip). This, naturally, gives rise to the dreaded Paradox, but only if Time is indeed Linear. What if it isn’t? 

I think Doc Brown explained it pretty well in Back to the Future II, when Biff used the future Sports Almanac to become fabulously wealthy and mess up the Timeline. Doc’s hypothesis though was based around the idea of a single Timeline. Marty’s actions in the past changed things so his and everyone else’s future was different, and the ‘original’ Timeline simply ceased to exist. The plot of the 2nd film revolved around efforts to put everything (or at least most things) back the way they “should’ve been”. A more logical solution, in my mind anyway, is the idea of the Multi-verse so loved by Marvel Studio. Every act (or inaction) results in a split of the Timeline so that in the Multi-verse everything that could happen does happen. So, getting back to grandpa, a Time Traveller CAN indeed go kill him and come back still existing and still with gramps on his porch because the homicide changed one reality – just not the Travellers reality. Which means, if true (which, honestly, it probably isn’t) you can indeed go into the past, you can fully interact with it, you can change things – radically if you want to – and still return to the completely unchanged world you left. So, no going back and killing Hitler (sorry!), but that’s a discussion for another ‘time’ I think.... 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Circe by Madeline Miller (FP: 2018) [333pp] 

Maybe it was her youth, but Circe seemed to be the only one with a heart, the only one who saw Prometeus in pain and who wanted to do something about it. The other Titans looked on with a mixture of boredom and disdain. It was, after all, his own fault. Giving mortals the ‘gift of fire’ wasn’t in the plan envisioned by Zeus for mankind. But it was too late now. But that act of disobedience wasn’t the thing that caused her exile, THAT was much worse. The problem with Circe was that she had power, the power to change things, the power to heal and the power to kill. Circe, just like her siblings was a witch – the first in the world and even the gods themselves feared that kind of power in the hands of an Immortal. Trapped, isolated and alone Circe did the only thing she could, she perfected her art and found that she was actually quite good at it once she stopped trying too hard and felt her way by instinct towards the results she wanted. Her isolation, however, was never total – despite the agreement between her father and Zeus. Hermes, messenger of the Gods, visited to gently torture her whilst passing along morsels of information of the outside would. There were other visitors too, some welcome, most not. Although the unwelcome visitors regretted their arrival, at least briefly, before they died – or worse. Then there was Odysseus...   

I enjoyed the author’s previous book ‘The Song of Achilles’ very much so had high hopes for this one. I was definitely not disappointed. Impressively I thought this was even better than her first work and am looking forward already to her future output. Many things impressed me about the book. One of the things that really stuck out for me was the fact that, seemingly like most celebrities from any age, Circe seemed to have more than a nodding relationship to almost every famous (or infamous) hero/ine of the Ages and not just that most central hero Odysseus. Oh no, she had dealings with Daedalus (father of Icarus), was a friend of Ariadnne (of Minitour fame), sister to the Minitour’s mother PasiphaĆ«, Medea the lover and later wife of Jason (of the Argonauts fame) was her niece, she was the creator of the sea monster Scylla and much else besides. She had one HECK of a life, which isn’t all that surprising considering just how long she lived! Certainly, if you have only a passing knowledge of Greek Myth and, like me, gleaned a goodly chunk of that knowledge from children's books and Hollywood movies you’ll have a much deeper and wider knowledge of the subject after reading this wonderful novel. I did almost at times think it was bordering on too much information coming my way, but the writing was so masterful as well as more than occasionally either laugh out loud funny or poetically beautiful that I couldn’t help but forgive the authors exuberance and love of the subject. If you’ve ever wondered about the Greek Mythical world but couldn’t face a potentially dry tome listing gods and heroes and their deeds or misdeeds, then this is most definitely the book for you. But be warned, this just might make you into an avid fan of Mythology and those heavy tomes you’ll end up buying aren't cheap! Highly recommended. 

[Labels Added: 1, Labels Total: 51]  

Monday, June 19, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The End is Always Near – Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses by Dan Carlin (FP: 2019) [246pp] 

We seem to be being bombarded with End of the World stories at the moment – from Climate Change (or as I still like to call it Global Warming), Putin’s threats of Nuclear War or the imminent arrival of aggressive AI systems. Of course, these fears are nothing new – apart from the details – but there have been times when not only was the fear very real but the reality tried its very best to live up to it. Some of those times are covered in this unexpectedly gripping narrative. 

I say unexpected because what I *was* expecting was a history of End of the World beliefs rather than the incidents themselves. But, as I found out here, that’s not a bad thing – especially when you have an author who clearly knows his stuff and has lots of interesting ideas on the things he presents. We start with the still mysterious and hotly debated Bronze Age Collapse where early (largely unrecorded because writing was still in its early stages) European and Middle Eastern civilisation went into sudden and near total collapse for, as yet, undetermined reasons. No doubt it wasn’t from a single cause but even the proposed multiple causes still don’t fully add up. Then there’s the much-studied Fall of the Roman Empire (which prompted me to think about how you could tell if your civilisation was collapsing if you were already in the middle of it) and then one of my favourite all-encompassing disasters – The Black Death. This was responsible not only for millions of deaths across Asia, the Middle East and Europe  but radically changed the course of Western history. That’s hardly surprising considering the average death toll was somewhere between 30-50% of Europeans and in some places literally killed EVERYONE. Interesting – given the publication date – the author speculated on how well we would handle a Pandemic, even one nowhere near as devastating as the Black Death. Now of course we know the answer to that one: Badly. 

Probably the most interesting chapters for me concerned the development, use and consequences of nuclear weapons. One of the things I hadn’t heard before that the intended first target – Berlin (I may have heard this before and skimmed over it but this really got me thinking of the consequences for Europe if that’d actually happened). The reason the first (and second) bombs were in fact dropped on Japan and not Germany was that Germany capitulated a few months before the first successful nuclear test. Lucky Berlin. The author then discussed the use of the bomb and its effect on the war and, of course, on the Soviets. Again interestingly, a number of hawks in the US Administration wanted to nuke Russia immediately before they eventually got ‘The Bomb’ too. It was considered it would take them up to 20 years to do so – it didn’t - and thankfully cooler heads prevailed. It was also interesting how the very existence of nukes, even before the Soviets and other countries acquired them, changed both the power of the US Presidency and US Foreign Policy to the present day. Nukes, in effect, changed everything about the modern world. 

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this book and consider it one of the most interesting and thought provoking reads of the year. I was impressed by the authors breadth of knowledge as well as his ability to see through the historical haze and pluck fascinating ideas and theories out for closer examination. Being the person that I am, inevitably I immediately flicked to the bibliography and was delighted by both its length and depth. So, more disasters to come.... Highly recommended for those who don’t mind an apocalypse or two in their lives. 

[Labels Added: 1, Labels Total: 50]

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Thinking About: Horoscopes 

As a young child I had a bit of a fascination with horoscopes in our daily newspaper. Not only was I intrigued at what being born Aries actually meant but I was more than a little proud of the Arien reputation (which, actually, I hardly match in any respect). So, I’d read my ‘stars’ each day and waited to see how they matched with reality – which, naturally, they hardly ever did. It was good training in scepticism and confirmation bias. Thinking about the subject three incidents came to mind. I’ve mentioned them before (I think) in passing but I thought I’d put them all together here (maybe with some more detail) for new readers. 

The first incident was at work where I was leafing through a free Horoscope Year book I’d plucked off the front of a magazine I’d bought. In those days I was working in the same office as my (now long ex) girlfriend and we were going through a particularly bad patch during a ‘break’ in our relationship. So, reading my book to take my mind off things I was informed by it that this particular day was a good day for Love & Romance. As I’d just had a bloody awful morning with her and was already angry this ‘prediction’ simply made me more so. I made a LOUD “Huh!” sound – so everyone in the office looked in my direction, ripped the book in half along its spine – much to the astonishment of the whole room who knew by then how much I loved books, and threw the offending article – with a resounding “clang” into the waste bin under my desk. If I say so myself, it was QUITE the scene... 

The second incident was sometime later. I’m not sure but I think a few years at least had passed. For some reason I was still interested in Horoscopes and had signed up for a Day School on the subject in a local Adult/Continuing Education Centre. It took place on a Saturday and was reasonably cheap so I thought ‘Why Not?’ The woman running the course was very good and was a professional Horologist, so it was interesting talking to her. Two things struck me – when she asked for a volunteer for her to do a quick and dirty full Horoscope while we toiled at some tasks she’d set us, I put my hand up immediately and was picked. I gave her my details (date & place of birth) and off she went. A few hours later she put up my chart and talked through it for the rest of the class. The most intriguing aspect was that she highlighted my anxiety about large bodies of water and suggested that I’d had a near-drowning experience when younger. I told her, no doubt much to the amazement of the others, that I had indeed nearly drowned as a child on a school trip to the local baths in my pre-teens. The other thing that struck me was when I asked how exactly the planetary influences were supposed to work. She said, with definite points for honesty, that no one knew and they if anyone told us that they did know that they were lying to us. 

The last incident was at work again, many years later. An off-site team we had regular phone & e-mail communication with was relocating to the main site where I worked and Senior Management had the bright idea for an ‘Away Day’ to help with the integration. So, off we went to waste a day in a hotel somewhere. As part of the initial ‘ice-breaker’ everyone had to line up in birthdate order without divulging details of when you were born. In those days our team of around 12 plus at least one member of an associated team consisted, coincidentally, of 6 people all born with 2 weeks of each other. When we lined up like that, we were told we were ‘doing it wrong’ so had to explain the coincidence. This apparently filtered its way up to one of the top managers who came around to pretend to care about us. He mentioned the coincidence and asked what attributes we had in common with half the group being Aries. “None”, I said “Because Astrology is bollocks”. He imitated a beached fish for a few seconds, smiled (or tried to) and left.  

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The End of the World and Other Catastrophes edited by Mike Ashley (FP: 2019) [328pp] 

I don’t know if it says something deep (or disturbing!) about me, but I think one of the great pleasures of reading Science-Fiction is reading about the ‘End of the World’ in all its countless variants. Of course, people have been predicting the End for as long as there have been other people around to hear the ‘prophesy’ shouted from the rooftops or held high on placards. The great thing about fictional representations of the End is that we get to see and experience it for ourselves. Obviously, I’m not the only one fascinated in seeing things fall apart or there wouldn’t be a whole sub-industry catering to lovers of the zombie apocalypse or whatever else is the disaster of choice. Of course, WHY exactly so many hold this fascination is a whole other topic and, probably, points to some deeply troubling things in Western culture. But I digress... (as always). 

This was my third outing with the British Library Science Fiction Classics short story collections (more to come!) and, I think, one of the best ones. The 13 stories run from 1889 to 1956 with the preponderance of tales being published before 1930. Being mostly British SF its interesting how many of them focused on the destruction – and sometimes the utter destruction – of London, rather than the usual target of such things: Paris. My favourite of those was ‘The Freezing of London’ (1909) by Herbert C Ridout where a scientist demonstrates his super-weapon for a disbelieving Ministry of War with disastrous consequences for the capital of the Empire he’s trying to defend.  It was also interesting just how many stories revolved around scientists, either gone mad with power or simply unaware or unconcerned about the consequences of their breakthroughs such as ‘Within an Ace of the End of the World’ (1900) by Robert Barr, where the need for more Nitrogen fertilisers to feed the worlds growing population causes the gas level to drop in the atmosphere and being replaced by oxygen with the usual disasters to follow (plus an interesting look at the effects of oxygen narcosis!). The archetypal Mad Scientist was represented in spades by ‘The Madness of Professor Pye’ (1934) by Warwick Deeping, where the eponymous Professor uses a breakthrough in atomic science to make all of the annoying stupid little people go away and leave him alone. Interestingly the heroes of the hour where a scientist from Manchester and a pioneering lady pilot. Even more interesting was a cameo from Benito Mussolini himself in a very positive role! Finally, I must mention ‘The Great Crellin Comet’ (1897) by George Griffith  where an approaching comets impact with the Earth is averted by a projectile containing 1.5 tons of explosive!! 

Overall, I enjoyed this collection quite a lot. As always there were a few weak stories but despite their general age the quality was surprisingly high. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in classic SF or the End of Everything. 

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 49]

Monday, June 12, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Nocturnal Brain – Nightmares, Neuroscience and the Secret World of Sleep by Guy Leschziner (FP: 2019) [315pp] 

I like my sleep and if I say so myself, I’m pretty good at it. My record, as a teenager naturally, is 16 hours. Thankfully my parents left me to it apart from some sarcastic remarks when I finally emerged from my room. Thankfully too I can say that I’ve had very few problems with my sleep apart from the odd, and sometimes very odd, nightmare (mostly when I was young) and the occasional (thankfully short) bout of insomnia generally as the result of work-related stress. In the last few years at work, I was almost constantly tired and relied on a regular coke intake – mostly Pepsi actually – to keep me awake. This was actually my own fault as I’d go to bed quite late – I'm most definitely a night-owl – and then struggle to get up at a ridiculous hour in the morning and have to function through a full day. Self-inflicted but I wasn’t prepared to give up my life so I’d be perkier at my desk each day. 

Anyway, to the book itself. I’m aware that sleep disorders are not exactly rare. Apart from my own minor issues (plus being told that I mumble in my sleep and tend to move about a bit in bed), my sister used to sleep walk as a child (we’d sometimes find her curled up on the sofa in the morning) and a friend at Uni apparently had sleep apnoea where he’d momentarily stop breathing which would wake him up (and scare the hell out of his girlfriend). But I wasn’t aware of the number of problems and the damage they cause until reading this fascinating and honestly frightening book!  

Circadian rhythms have long interested me ever since learning about them. The idea that we have a (roughly) 24-hour in-built clock that can sometimes malfunction is intriguing to say the least, especially discovering that ALL life – including plants and bacteria – have the same clock. It’s VERY old. But what’s really weird is when it malfunctions and you’re cursed with a 25-hour one. This doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that means slowly moving out of and then back into synch with the rest of the world. Disruptive or what! Then there’s sleepwalking and variations thereof – including sleep driving(!), sleep eating(!!), sleep sex(!!) and sleep crime(!!!). I’ve already mentioned sleep apnoea but imagine stopping breathing for a few seconds but HUNDREDS of times a night. You might not even remember most of it but imagine the damage it’s doing to your sleep patterns and your general health. Then there’s things like narcolepsy, falling asleep for a minute or so at random moments which, of course can be incredibly dangerous. There’s Restless Leg Syndrome, Night Terrors which put my piddling nightmares to shame, and other neurological disorders that threaten our need for sleep.  

This was honestly a riveting read. The author, a consultant neurologist at Guy’s Hospital in London, is an excellent communicator and has filled this slim volume with case studies, explanations and not a little humour. One of the things that struck me was his humility in stating time and again the present limits to our knowledge of the human brain. But we are learning fast and some of the seemingly intractable problems of today will, no doubt, be able to be addressed in the future. I most definitely count myself lucky that I haven’t had to manage any of the scenario's outlined in the book. But if you, or someone you know, is having serious and persistent sleep issues this book could point you in the right direction for possible solutions. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the grey-matter between our ears or for anyone dreaming of a good night's sleep. 

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 49] 

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Thinking About: Not Flying, But Falling with Style. 

I’ve been reading a few books recently on the theme of apocalypse and one thought in particular struck me. When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476CE would the average Roman citizen, living away from the capital, have known or suspected that such a thing had happened? Although Historians like to put definitive dates on things to separate them off, it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint the start and end of things. To use a more modern example when did WW2 start and finish? The dates we use are from the declaration of war between the British Empire (making it global) and Germany on Sept 3rd 1939 and the end as the capitulation of Japan in 1945. But it could be argued that the war started much earlier in China or Spain. It could also be argued that the war continued LONG after the armistice in 1945 because of the continued fighting in China and elsewhere.  

But beyond the academic interest and debate about beginnings and ends here’s a more interesting question to ponder. If we are experiencing the fall of ‘western civilisation’ (whatever THAT means!) would we even know it? Much like the Roman citizen, could we point to something or a string of somethings and say: THAT’s when it fell. The problem, naturally, is that the fall of an Empire or Civilisation isn’t an event, it’s a process. Unless we get hit by a GIANT rock falling from the sky – which, incidentally, made us what we are today – or destroy ourselves in an act of nuclear mass stupidity, any collapse is going to take time, somewhere between decades and generations and we’re not really ‘designed’ to notice something that happens that slowly. Even our children or grandchildren might not be able to tell. They’ll see things as being different, with some improvements and some things worse or non-existent but will they think that their civilisation is in decline or that it had fallen sometime in their own lifetimes or during an earlier generation? Will they have the historical perspective to make any firm conclusion or pronouncement?  

The so-called ‘Decline of the West’ (however you define ‘West’ in this context) has been talked about and, all too often, shouted from the rooftops for at least the last 100 years and, most probably, long before that. But does that mean it's true? Have we at some point ‘fallen’ from a previous Golden Age? Some people point to Rome or Greece as exemplars but the more you know about those civilisations the more questionable that high pedestal becomes. But what else have we got to point to? Every age, every Empire, every civilisation has questionable ‘achievements’, questionable ideas, questionable morality. How can any age be compared with another and said to be ‘better’ or ‘worse’? That begs the question: from what perspective? Ours? Living in glass houses as we do, can we dare start throwing stones? We can’t stand ‘outside’ human culture and human history to judge things ‘objectively’ as some would maintain – there is simply no place to stand to make those judgements. A fall or decline must surely be measured against something higher, something greater for the idea to make sense. So, when someone talks of fall or decline, we must ask ourselves what they are measuring it against and is that measurement a valid one.