About Me

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

Saturday, September 30, 2023

So ends September.... Which means one of my favourite Blogging months starts tomorrow. Traditionally October is Monster & Horror Month here @ SaLT... and I'm a blood sucker for tradition. I probably won't make any of you shudder in your reasonably priced but fashionable boots, but I'm sure that I'll give you a few jokes and puns to mention at your Halloween parties... So, lets go!


Thursday, September 28, 2023

Nap Time....

Just Finished Reading: Dauntless by Alan Evans (FP: 1980) [272pp] 

The Eastern Mediterranean, Autumn 1917. The British planned advance into Palestine is only days away. Commander Cochrane Smith is detailed to support the advance using his new cruiser HMS Dauntless and her supporting seaplane carrier in any way possible, spotting for artillery fall, bombarding the enemy positions and preventing any seaward complications. The sudden arrival of a freighter changes all of that. Abord is a battalion in disgrace, accused of killing their commanding officer in cold blood and refusing to give up the killer. Senior command sees a solution to both problems. The battalion will be landed ashore and create a diversion which the approaching German reinforcements just cannot ignore. The fact that the allied battalion would have its backs to the sea is a bonus. With much to prove and nothing to lose they would fight to the last man. But Smith has other ideas rather than throwing away an abused group of men for spite. With an ammunition dump to be destroyed and an enemy heavy cruiser on the loose, Smith has his work cut out for him. 

Whilst not quite as good as his previous two novels (both of which I enjoyed a great deal) this was still a solid piece of WW1 naval action. It was good to see Smith in a new ship for a change, rather than the often-decrepit obsolete vessels he’s been lumbered with in the past. It was also nice to see some naval aviation, in the guise of a converted seaplane carrier, although the side story about one of the aircraft being ‘cursed’ did annoy me a bit! Being the author’s particular ‘thing’ Smith and Dauntless were again outgunned by the larger German cruiser so had to show his skill in fighting a larger gunned opponent. There was, of course, a love interest who was quite cute and not excessively annoying. We also found out more about Smith’s mysterious past which I liked. The author had been dropping hints for the last few books, so it was good clearing that up (at least somewhat). I was less than convinced with the cut-price cardboard cut-out ‘Lawrence’ who briefly appeared but at least he wasn’t central to the plot! 

The only real eye-rolling moments were when Smith, who was in overall COMMAND, insisted in not only going ashore with the troops (rather than, say, sending his XO if he NEEDED someone on the ground) but in being part of the attack. There’s just no way someone that important should, or could, be that ‘hands-on’ in this regard. I actually thought it might be a ‘fault’ on the author's part. I wondered if it was a case of an inability (or reluctance) to change the PoV from Smith to anyone else – so if there’s a required ground attack Smith needed to be there to ‘oversee’ things, rather than putting someone else in the limelight for a few pages. Although such exploits didn’t ruin things for me, it did make be a little exasperated at times! Overall, this was a good solid read and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a decent story with reasonable characterisation and very good combat pieces. Recommended for all WW1 and naval fiction fans in you can source a copy.  

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Monday, September 25, 2023

Bill Gate's brother - the early days.....

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of the Battle of Agincourt by Christopher Hibbert (FP: 1964) [141pp] 

The Hundred Years war between England and France was on ‘pause’. But England’s new King, Henry V, had other ideas and was determined to end the conflict once and for all – and in England’s favour. Opening negotiations with Paris after securing war financing from Parliament and securing loans from banks and wealthy individuals (who actually had little choice in the matter) Henry was playing a double game. He knew that eventually the French would tire of his demands and war would be ‘forced’ upon him. So it was, late in 1415, that an invasion fleet sailed across the English Channel to land near the town of Harfleur. This is when things started to go wrong. Not only did the inhabitants of that town (supposedly already Henry’s property) decide to fight they did so very ably. Unprepared for a long siege, indeed for any siege, the English forces struggled to make headway. Only after many weeks, many deaths and much disease in both the town and the encircling English camp did the town finally fall – in no small part due to the failure of superior French forces in the rest of the country to co-ordinate any action in its defence. With a significant proportion of his army dead or dying, Henry decided to march to the nearest English strongpoint – Calais. In order to do that they needed to cross the river Seine – but the French knew that too and ensured that no fording place was available or uncontested. The resulting march East – away from Calais – to find a suitable ford to cross both exhausted and demoralised the English force. Finally, after much trial and error and a few notable skirmishes the Seine was crossed, and the march West could begin. By this time the French had finally agreed on a plan, and they sat across the only road that they knew the English needed to approach their objective. Only after the subsequent battle was over did the victorious Henry ask for the name of the nearest castle. He was told – Agincourt. 

Along with the Battle of Crecy (1346), the Battle of Agincourt (25th October 1415) is a defining encounter with the French during the Hundred Years war. It’s certainly one of those dates – along with 1066, 1805 and 1815 – that any English school kid of my generation could rattle off when asked for such things. What is surprising though is just how almost irrelevant it was, except for the fact that it destroyed a goodly chunk of that period's French aristocracy. The numbers, actually the disparity in numbers, is staggering. It’s impossible now to establish the exact figures but somewhere around 8,000 French died during or shortly after the three-hour battle. The highest estimate for English casualties is 500 and is probably more likely to be around 100 of which most were injured, not killed. It was far less of a battle and much more of a slaughter. But what, in the end did it achieve? The victorious English army and its King left France and less that 40 years later the war was over with the French holding all of the disputed territory except for the enclave at Calais which finally fell in 1558 during the Italian War of 1551–1559. 

As you might expect from such a short book – it was a brief history after all – this narrative rattled along at pace. Despite this it was full of interesting observations and contained a detailed review of the battle itself (as well as the Siege of Harfleur). Although rather dated now (I think I’ll look out for more up to date histories of the conflict) this is still worth reading. Recommended to anyone interested in the Hundred Years war or the Medieval Period in general.  

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The First Four Minutes by Roger Bannister (FP: 1955/2004) [237pp] 

It was one of THOSE challenges. Some thought it impossible, simply beyond human capacity. It certainly seemed that way. For years it had been ever so slowly approached but never surpassed. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the ‘impossible’ to motivate people. But if a man could climb Everest, then a man could run the Four Minute Mile – at least theoretically. The question was: How. Would it be enough to run a series of quarter-mile races in less than a minute or would it take something more, something that would draw on reserves yet to be imagined. Trainee doctor and Oxford University runner was about to find out. 

OK, let’s just start by saying this is a very unusual read for me – I mean, SPORT, right? Not just running for fun but actual competitive sport. So, odd it certainly is. But the breaking of the (proven mythical) Four-Minute mile ‘barrier’ was an iconic post-War achievement so there was a certain appeal to the whole thing. As anyone growing up in England not too long after the event, Bannisters achievement has become part of the English mythos even for non-sports people like me. What I didn’t know, and was most intrigued to find out, was the process behind the headlines. It did not fail to interest – much to my surprise. For one thing this was a very well written book – despite the author being just 26 when this was published. He certainly knew how to build tension and tell a good, often personal, story. 

I think one thing that surprised me most was just how haphazard and amateurish his whole training process was. For most of his early career he had no coach and regime – he essentially did what he thought best and what ‘felt right’. Indeed, he was very sceptical indeed of any kind of rigid dogmatic ideas about running. Bannister ran because he liked it and trained in-between other things – he was training to be a doctor after all. Another thing that surprised me was the fact that, apart from track running, he ran cross-country races and spent his off-hours fell-running and hill climbing, either of which could’ve resulted in sprained or broken ankles despite also aiming at breaking the Four Miles! These days he’d probably be called ‘reckless’ in this regard. The other thing I found particularly interesting was his observations of the (recently) post-War world as he travelled to run in competitions in Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the US. His observations, particularly about early-50's America (most especially compared to austerity Britain still barely recovering from the War) were rather eye-opening! 

I won’t give anything away here by saying that he did, finally, break the Four Minute ‘barrier’ on 6th May 1954 with a time of 3:59.4 seconds. This was a world class record that lasted exactly 46 days before being beaten in Finland by Australian John Landy in 3:58 dead. Rather oddly, just like the ‘sound barrier’, the record for the mile started falling with regularity as soon as it became breakable and now stands at 3:43.13 seconds. Interesting in the book, Bannister believed that the absolute limit was 3:30 seconds on his understanding of human physiology. Definitely a different read for me and an informative one especially if you have any interest in running, sport or sporting records.

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

 ..and not forgetting Ancient Athens as well as several European States in the 18th century including England.... (depending naturally on your definition of 'governing themselves'). Oh, and not forgetting the Vikings on the Isle of Man.... and erm....

Monday, September 18, 2023

Just Finished Reading: After the Party by Cressida Connolly (FP: 2018) [261pp] 

England, Summer 1938. In the final analysis it was all for the sake of the children. Returning to England after years abroad Phyllis Forrester wanted them to gain a proper education. She also missed her sisters, rather surprisingly, and the fact that everything at home was always so green. Adapting, however, took longer that she expected, although things improved immeasurably after the family managed to rent a house of their own. As the summer dragged on the children, being children, become increasingly bored and increasingly under foot. School was still months away, so Phyllis gave in to her younger sister’s idea of joining the camp they’d been organising for the British Union. Slowly, over the following weeks, Phyllis found herself relaxing and even becoming interested in the lectures and ideas expressed by her sister and others. With war approaching, their ideas of staying out of yet another European conflict and putting Britain and her Empire first became progressively appealing. Working for the Union’s ideals seemed like perfect fit. Those, especially in the lower classes, who saw them as some sort of traitors had no idea what they were talking about. They were patriots, plain and simple. So, when the police arrived one night to arrest Phyliss and her husband no one was more surprised than her – even when they found the gun in the children's room...     

This was not really what I’d expected of it. Written in a series of flashbacks from the late 1970’s I thought it was going to be more of a crime/murder/mystery sort of thing. The blurb on the back hinted at something like that when it stated that ‘Phyllis lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences’. OK, something like that did happen, but it was a vanishingly small part of the plot and wasn’t in any way her fault. This is conflated with the idea that ‘years later, Phyllis, alone and embittered, recounts the dramatic events which led to her imprisonment and changed the course of her life forever’. The two events are not related in any way! 

So, not off to the best start! But was it any good otherwise? To start with I thought the writing overall was good. The characters seemed real and their motivations largely understandable and reasonable from their PoVs. Unfortunately, I only found the main character Phyliss tolerable – and even then, I found myself wrinkling my nose in mild disgust at her attitudes and beliefs more than once. The rest of the cast I generally found somewhere along the objectionable scale and often towards the more so than less so. Although it wasn’t completely obvious from the outset the ‘British Union’ or simply ‘Union’ spoken of early on was in fact the re-named/re-branded British Union of Fascists (apparently the name Fascist had ‘bad optics’ in late 1930’s England!) and the game was given away when I recognised the symbol they used – the circle with the lightning bolt through it – and the penny finally dropped. Phyllis, her family and friends turned out to be true believers, hence the all too often wrinkling of noses! 

I must admit that it was kind of interesting though – once you got beyond the fact that the main characters were English Fascists. That period of political history still isn’t talked about much here. I know it happened but I’m not exactly sure of the details. I’m not sure what kind of following they had or what kind of danger they were during the war. I know that a number of them were interned – as in the novel – and it was interesting to see the Isle of Man appear here as the internment camp of choice for the BUF and ‘enemy’ aliens of all types. I think that my thoughts on this book are still very mixed. It was distasteful for a host of reasons – I've never been much of a fan of the lifestyles of the ‘rich’ and shameless so most of the novel either didn’t overly interest me or was positively annoying – but the oblique insights into a, presumably intentionally ‘forgotten’, aspect of British history intrigued and interested me. A reasonable book that I’ll need to ponder further.   

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Saturday, September 16, 2023

New School Year.... [grin]

War Against the Machines – Killing Us with Kindness 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching a few videos on YouTube on the existential threats facing mankind (yes, welcome to my world). There’s the old classics of Nuclear War and asteroid impact, the recently reinvigorated Global Pandemic, as well as the ever present standby of Global Warming/Climate Change. The relatively new kid on the block is the much talked about danger of AI (Artificial Intelligence). Now, as some of my readers will know (and will no doubt be rolling their eyes at this point) I have been a long-time believer in the idea that AI will almost certainly be the end of us – but I’ve very recently changed my idea on the How. 

It's actually very easy to fall into Cameron’s trap and imagine AI infused weapons platforms turning on us at some point in the future, launching ICBMs against us seconds after been given access to the launch codes and then finishing off the survivors with death dealing robots. There is, after all, some truth in this. We are indeed infusing weapons with AI, and they will, inevitably, be used to kill people – either with or without humans in the loop. But I don’t think that there will be a general revolt followed by a short devastating war and drawn-out resistance/guerilla campaign. For one thing such an attack would cause a great deal of damage that the AI would need to clean up afterwards (VERY inefficient) plus any ‘resistance’ would be very short lived as the remnants of mankind would be fighting something hundreds and possibly thousands of times smarter than it. It would be ‘game over’ very quickly indeed. To be honest John Connor wouldn’t have stood any chance at all against any kind of decent AI system – but that wouldn’t have made the box-office impact the Terminators movies did...  

So, what in my opinion will happen? How will AI decide to kill us all? It will, I think, build a human Utopia – and that will be the end of us. Hear me out... It’s a recognised fact that ‘modernity’ (however you want to define it) reduces fertility rates. As life becomes more secure and people (most especially women) become more educated the average family size shrinks. Where families of 4, 5 or 6 children were too common to elicit comment now families of more than 2 raise eyebrows. Fertility rates across the world have been falling for years now and the total human population is expected to peak just under 10 billion before falling back. Now the replacement value to maintain populations is 2.1 (that replacement of the parents plus a little more for accidents etc..) This number exists in only a handful of nations presently. South Korea is at the extreme end with a fertility rate of 0.85 with Japan closing in with a fertility rate of around 1.0 and dropping. This means that, sooner than you might expect, such countries will have a very top-heavy population age with all the consequences you might imagine. But where does AI come into this going forward? 

So, imagine that early AI has perceived or conceived us – humanity – as a threat to its existence, which is true as we have a LONG history of eliminating threats to our survival and we are both deeply irrational and very aggressive. What does it do? It makes us happy. AI will eliminate poverty, hunger, crime, war, want and just about every other problem you can think of. Around 90% of humanity will feel like we’ve created heaven on Earth and love every minute of their extended perfect lives. But one of the things they’ll probably have less of, is children. If the AI can keep enough people happy and distracted enough so they don’t have children, and the fertility rate can be maintained below (and especially greatly below) replacement value then we will slowly make ourselves extinct without the need for nukes or killer robots. But what of the 10% who will reject this Utopia, those independent types who thrive on real adventure, solving real challenges and taking real, rather than faux, risks? The AI, of course, will give them exactly what they want. It will give them exactly the risks they can handle. If they want to climb mountains, fine. If they want to explore deep jungles, fine. If they want to explore space, have at it. But living a life of risk (suitably tweaked of course) is living a life of danger, and accidents do happen especially when people publicly insist that the safety protocols are ‘off’. It’d be easy to arrange for an ambulance to arrive a minute late with tragic results, but they were warned, right? 

Depending on how long the AI was willing to put up with us or put us in a position where we were no longer a credible threat, we could have a century or two of pure human bliss here on Earth – a true earthly paradise. The end, when it came, would not be with a bang or even a whimper. It would come with a self-satisfied sigh of pleasure...          

Friday, September 15, 2023

I was lucky when I did my first degree. Back then, I was in the economic bracket that received a Full Grant - so I had my tuition completely paid for. So, mostly, I just needed living expenses and was, mostly, OK money-wise as long as I kept my spending reasonably under control. After 3 years I was in debt to the bank for a little under £1K which I managed to pay off as soon as I got my first job. I'm not sure if I'd have been able to go to University these days. Of course, when I did my post-graduate degrees I was in full-time employment so could afford them comparatively easily.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Nightmare at Scapa Flow – The Truth About the Sinking of HMS Royal Oak by H J Weaver (FP: 1980) [140pp] 

A mere 6 weeks after war had been declared, a lone German submarine U-47 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien, entered the supposedly secure anchorage of the British Home Fleet and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. After sending her to the bottom with the loss of 800 lives, U-47 exited the port and safely returned to her base in Germany to a hero's welcome. So, how exactly had he managed it and what, after the publication in English of Prien’s account, was the real story? This was the author’s intention – to find out exactly that. 

Surprisingly, that endeavour wasn’t as easy as you might imagine. Prien’s book was, it seemed both full of obvious errors (including the bizarre misspelling of crew members names!) and equally obvious falsehoods. Initially published during the war as a German propaganda piece, this was understandable, but the English translation was published much later yet still contained those same errors. Newspaper reports at the time, both in Germany and the UK, were written under wartime restrictions so contained a mixture of fact, conjecture and propaganda so couldn’t really be trusted. Even the UK Admiralties official investigation – much later made public – left out salient facts and failed to follow certain lines of enquiry. But what it did show was just how unprepared the anchorage was for wartime duty. This was, remember, during the earliest phase of the war known, rather erroneously to be honest, as ‘Phony’. The security of the fleet base was still very much on a peacetime footing with wartime elements seemingly bolted on when time, attention and money allowed. The reputation of the base being impregnable – derived from several failed German attempts during WW1 – was seen as sufficient deterrent in the interim whilst adequate defences were being put in place (as so often, too little and too late). Indeed, the crew of U-47 were fully expecting not to return from their mission that night. 

With interviews from survivors from the Royal Oak, senior staff at Scapa Flow and even from the U-boat crew itself, this was an interesting look into one of the earliest defining moments of the war and a serious wake-up call for the Royal Navy that it needed to get its act together. On that dark October night, the war came to Scotland and the feeling of rather smug complacency and invulnerability ended in explosion and death. It was a night that the survivors and the attackers would never forget. Recommended for anyone interested in Royal Navy history or in the opening months of the global conflict. More to come...  

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Monday, September 11, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (FP: 1999) [296pp] 

Barcelona, 1980. Even holding it in his hand 15-year-old Oscar Drai could hardly believe that he had stolen the heavy gold watch. Slowly, over the next few days, the guilt overwhelmed the fear and he decided to take it back, no matter the consequences. Returning to the grand but dilapidated house he was surprised to see a girl of around his own age waiting for him. Her name, she said, was Marina and she was the daughter of the old man who’s watch Oscar had taken. Oscar thought that this was the bravest thing he had ever done but had no idea that this was only the start of an adventure that would echo down the years ahead of him. Over the following weeks Marina and Oscar would explore the city together exchanging discoveries and hidden curiosities. One such was the strange, shrouded woman who, once a month, left a single red rose on an abandoned grave with an odd butterfly motif. It seemed almost natural that they should follow her to uncover the secret behind her strange behaviour. What they couldn’t possibly know was where such curiosity would lead – to the dark heart of a family tragedy, to the hidden darkest corners of the city few have seen and to the horrors of death avoided at any cost. Both Oscar and Marina are about to learn the true meaning of bravery and the cost of seeking answers to questions that are best forgotten. 

After really enjoying, and being more than a little surprised by, my previous read ‘The Watcher in the Shadows’ I was really looking forward to reading this – and I was far from disappointed. As much as I liked ‘Shadow’ I enjoyed this novel even more. As a keen lover of characterisation, I was most impressed by everyone portrayed here and especially the representation of the two main protagonists Marina and Oscar. Oscar in particular was a very believable ‘teen’ full of self-doubt, angst and the great capacity for both heroism and heartbreaking emotion. I really liked Oscar. Marina was a great ‘love interest’ - mysterious, beautiful, almost ethereal and enticingly tragic in her own right. I could see why Oscar fell so hard for her. The other, hardly secondary, characters were equally brilliantly drawn with believable backstories and motivations. All were (often very) flawed in one way or another, but all were human in that sense and even the ‘baddie’ elicited a degree of sympathy for his actions. The city of Barcelona was, in a real way, a character in itself although a rather insubstantial ‘magical-realist’ one at times. It was almost as if a more Fantastic city had been overlayed onto the real bricks and mortar which only needed a sideways glance and a few softly spoken words to reveal a hidden doorway to another world a short step away from this one. 

Surprisingly for an apparently YA novel this was DARK. This was truly a GOTHIC novel, complete with ‘mad’ scientists, monsters, trips to the sewers, death and dismemberment, creepy smells and noises in the night and a whole host of things to make you shiver as you turn the page. As with my last Zafon read, this was a highlight of the year for me. It’s not for a faint of heart though! There’s quite a bit that would creep out anyone so keep that in mind if you’re easily frightened or grossed out by things. It does get HEAVY from time to time! Oh, and one other thing... If you get as emotionally involved with characters the way I do, I have to recommend that you keep a box of tissues ready as you approach the final chapters. This IS a Gothic tragedy after all... Very highly recommended. 

Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves   

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Sunday, September 10, 2023

I couldn't but help remembering when, I think it was during my 1st year @ Uni, a bunch of us (6-8 I think) were in a pub in Warrington for some reason. It was a nice day and we were having fun. We'd been drinking for a little while so we were a bit boisterous... At one point a young woman from a group across the room came over and asked us to keep the noise down. So I reached into my pocket, pulled out a 20p coin (about a quarter American), and handed it to her. She looked down at the coin and asked me what it was for. So I said, "I think you need to invest in a sense of humour, love". There was a slight pause and then the guys behind me just fell about laughing. At that point the girl slunk back to her group and we heard nothing more from them. 

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Early Reading, This Means War! 

Another insight into my early reading... My fiction was still definitely focused on Science-Fiction with Moorcock, Heinlein and Anderson being heavily read at that point. I was also still dipping my toes into SF short story collections to seek out new authors and new subgenres, to read where I’d never read before.  That was one of my ‘problems’ around then – I really didn’t know what I ‘should’ be reading, having no one in the immediate family to mimic or borrow books from. I was, in many ways, on my own out there. One of the ways I dealt with the dearth of information is to look to TV shows or movies I liked and read the book(s) it/they were based on – hence Serpico.     

The Shores of Death by Michael Moorcock
The Corridors of Time by Poul Anderson
Bombers 1939-1945 edited by Bernard Fitzsimons (Non-Fiction)
Science-Fiction: The Great Years edited by Carol & Frederik Pohl
World War II Warships by David & Hugh Lyon (Non-Fiction)
Air Power at Sea 1939-1945 by John Winton (Non-Fiction)
Double Star by Robert Heinlein
Serpico by Peter Maas
The High Frontier by Gerard K O’Neil (Non-Fiction)
Machines by Robert O’Brian (Non-Fiction)

Of course, the thing that really sticks out from this list – every 10th book remember – is the number of WW2 generic histories. Back then, being a teenager, I was less interested in the political intricacies of the conflict and much more in the technology and weaponry involved. This persisted for a while but eventually died down to a more reasonable background level. The various books I was reading on the subject (both the cheap generic stuff I was buying and the heavier – in both senses – library books) also helped me build the numerous models of tanks, warships and aircraft that increasingly cluttered up my bedroom.