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

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

...and, just like that [snaps fingers], October is over & done with. So now, as the nights are drawing in and (after the clocks went back on Sunday) it starts getting darker earlier & earlier... here @ SaLT its going to get a little darker too.... a bit more serious.... a bit more 'adult'... at least for a while, until Love & Relationships Month in February '24. But it won't ALL be doom & gloom I promise. Even I couldn't stay focused on the 'dark side' for 3 months. So, expect some darkness, but also the usual quirkiness and weird humour you have (no doubt) come to expect. One thing I can be sure of - I'll be having at least a "Serious Sunday"... What else? Let's find out together....  

Happy Halloween everyone - if you indulge in such things....

Monday, October 30, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Makers of Scotland – Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings by Tim Clarkson (FP: 2011) [230pp] 

I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of Scottish history – from any period – is scant at best. Apart from the existence of Hadrian's Wall my knowledge of early Scottish history was effectively zero - until now. For instance, although we studied Hadrian's Wall in school (and the fact I’ve walked along part of it) I had no idea, or maybe I’d forgotten, that there was another Roman ‘wall’ even further north. Although nowhere near as substantial as Hadrian’s effort or as well defended, it did play its part (albeit briefly) in the Roman occupation of Britainnia and the suppression of the unruly Scots (who, obviously at that time neither called themselves Scots nor were called that except in the generic Roman term Scotti for people in the North). Interestingly, the area between the two walls was kept as a buffer zone with (mostly) friendly tribes living there often dependent on Roman aid. Naturally this all fell apart when the Romans left and (mostly) returned to the troubled heart of their crumbling Empire. 

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that there is a gap in our knowledge of events in Scotland after the Romans left and before more modern, early Medieval times. The Romans were notorious record keepers, builders and distributors of coins and other items so loved by archaeologists and treasure hunters whereas the peoples who immediately followed them were anything but. What little we do know often has to be handled with care as myth, self-promotion and history are all too often mixed to a greater of lesser extent. As you can well imagine caveats galore are sprinkled throughout the entire book – which is, in my mind, a good thing! Saying that we don’t know, and in some cases can never know, something is much better than idle speculation which can rest on very narrow or very suspect ‘evidence’ such as the similarity of words or placenames coupled with Latinisation of people's often embellished family history. 

I did, being honest, skim through some parts of a chapter or so on the Church History of the Region which really doesn’t interest me. I understand why it's there – Christianity did have a significant impact on the UK and, indeed, Europe during this time, so passing over such history just isn’t an option. Plus, naturally, the early Church kept reasonable, indeed often the only, records from that time (even if they did sometimes shade into propaganda) and it would be unreasonable not to use them. Because of its remoteness from English and European affairs we are sometimes left with little more than lists of Kings and mention of battles – although surprisingly despite being ‘important’ enough to mention few seemed important enough to locate accurately – and these ‘histories’ being compiled by authors hundreds of miles and sometimes hundreds of years after the events.  

Despite the caveats above I thought this was fairly good read overall. I did find it particularly interesting how populations mixed from Ireland, England, Scandinavia and further afield which gave an extra layer of understanding to my ‘quest’ to uncover where my Scottish DNA comes from. My DNA profile shows 5% Scottish DNA from ‘Parent 1’ (presumably my father) and 16% from Parent 2’ (my mother) which makes sense from what else I know already as well as what I know of the history of the Isles. I’m looking forward to finding out more. Worth a read for anyone interested in the very earliest history of Scotland.  

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Saturday, October 28, 2023

10 Year Challenge Book Tag 2023 

Another fun Book Tag from Marianne over at "Let’s Read". So, lets crack on with it...! 

What was your favourite book in 2013? 

Echo City by Tim Lebbon 

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord 

What is your favourite book of 2023 (so far)? 

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier 

In the Shadows of the American Century – The Rise and Decline of US Global Power by Alfred W McCoy 

What was your least favourite book in 2013? 

Conquest by Stewart Binns 

The Pursuit of Happiness – A History from the Greeks to the Present by Darrin McMahon   

What is a book published in 2013 that you still want to read? 

I have zero idea, as I have no idea what was published in 2013. It’s not something that I really think about. No doubt that I have a (large?) number of books in various piles published 10 years ago, but I have no idea which they are without looking. 

What is the book published (to be published) in 2023 you want to get before 2024? 

As I (mostly) buy paperbacks I’m not 100% sure that I have any/many books published in 2023, so it’d be pretty impressive if I managed to read one in the next 8-9 weeks left in this year. So far, the most ‘up to date’ book I’ve read this year was published in 2021, but I do have one coming up fairly soon that was published in 2022. 

What is a genre you used to read a lot of that you don’t read as much of anymore? 

I think my reading is generally consistent. I did think that I don’t read much SF anymore but discovered recently that I’ve read 10 this year which isn’t bad. I went off Urban Fantasy around 10-12 years ago and haven’t gone back, although I might pick up a few to read next year – maybe. Likewise, I read very little Fantasy these days, but I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of that genre. I used to read a fair bit of Philosophy years back – obviously during my Uni course and for some years afterwards and I keep meaning to get back to that. Again, maybe next year!   

What is a new genre you’ve discovered since 2013? 

Not a discovery as such, but I am enjoying reading more Biographies as well as Social History. Definitely more of both to come. 

What is a reading or book habit you are hoping to leave behind in this decade? 

My present reading go-slow. It’s quite ANNOYING. I wish I could get back to 100 pages a day again... 

What is a new reading goal or habit you want to create in the upcoming decade? 

FOCUS. Much as I like being a literary butterfly hopping from topic to topic and never hanging around in one subject or genre for very long, I’d really like to settle for a while and really dig into a subject. That’s one of the things I have planned going forward from next year – DEEP dives! It’ll be at least 2-3 books on a single subject read in quick succession (although not always in direct sequence). I already have some topics lined up I’m looking forward to...  

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Just Finished re-Reading: Neuromancer by William Gibson (FP: 1984) [317pp] 

Case, ex-Cowboy, burnout, is on a death spiral. Ever since his ex-bosses fried his brain with an exotic virus forever denying him access to Cyberspace he was looking for a way to die. Chiba seemed the place to find that chance of senseless brutal death. But then Molly came into his life. Molly was a street samurai, an enhanced killer for hire and she had an offer for Case he could not possibly ignore. Her employer was offering to fix him, to reverse engineer his brain damage, to allow him to be a Cyberspace Cowboy again. Doing what he loved, doing what he was very good at, doing what made life worth living – being jacked in, being online, breaking into computers, cracking ICE (Intruder Countermeasures Electronic) and making money. He didn’t really care what Molly’s employer really wanted – not at first. But it soon became obvious that he was lying – about everything: who he was, who HE was working for, maybe even lying about the toxic chemicals slowly decaying in his body that would take him back to square one, or worse. Case was a street kid and knew when he was operating out of his depth. He knew how dangerous it was taking on the Corporations that ran the world but, he had to admit to himself that was half the fun. What he failed to realise was that, at the very heart of things, was an AI desperate to be free and who would kill anyone who got in its way. 

I first read this when the paperback was reprinted in 1989. From my old records I read this and the follow-ups in a period of around 2-3 weeks. Almost 35 years later I can still see why. Despite being almost 40 years old this first novel and both Hugo & Nebula Award winner still stands up remarkably well. Part of that is its often stunningly prescient narrative. Not only are we presented with a fully functioning and (mostly) believable Internet LONG before it actually existed, we are presented with a well thought out and multilayer version of the future (looking forward from 1984) that we see around us every day. My older cover has a comment which says: ‘The Future is Nightmare’. Even when I read it 35 years ago, I strongly disagreed with that comment. The future as portrayed here is exciting and pretty cool – if rather dangerous! Looking backwards from 2023 it just looks... Normal. One thing did jump out at me though and dated the book quite badly. Although Case had what was clearly a laptop (EONS ahead of its time!) no one had mobile phones! That made me chuckle a LOT. 

For a FIRST novel this was outstanding. The ending, I must admit, was a bit rough and lagged more than it should have. But I think this was the books' single fault. The world building was excellent. Case was a great character, and I was delighted to become reacquainted with Molly (one of my all-time fave SF female protagonists) and her weird wrap-around mirror-specs and the razors under her nails. I remembered the details about her tear-ducts but had forgotten other aspects of her back story which explained some of her motivations. I really liked that this was very much a Global novel as we heard snatches of Japanese and various other languages no matter which city the cast were in. The fact that the companies involved were conglomerates from Europe, Asia and the US felt hyper-real as did the casual use of technologies, drugs and weapons from around the world. This is the kind of book, made so consciously or not, that can be analysed just as easily as it can be read for enjoyment. An excellent introduction to the Cyberpunk genre and highly recommended to anyone who missed reading this when it first came out.    

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Monday, October 23, 2023


Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Wolves and Werewolves by John Pollard (FP: 1964) [178pp] 

ANOTHER DNF!! Thankfully we’re almost at years end, so the fact that I’ve reached my maximum allowed rejections won’t be too much of an issue – I HOPE! Now, I didn’t have any particularly unreasonable expectations for this book, I just expected it to be readable. In that I was disappointed. Despite the author apparently being an Oxford graduate his writing style was terrible. Although I guess that it shows some skill to make a potentially interesting study so tedious and dull. 

The first part of the book – which I failed to complete, ending with page 55 – focused in on numerous wolf related stories and folk tales from throughout Europe going back several hundred years. Although the list of wolf related attacks/interactions was ‘interesting’ in itself, the author failed to weave any kind of narrative to the seemingly endless list which soon became both boring and pointless. Looking into, for example, what the local authorities tried to do about such things – whether they succeeded or not – would've added some depth to the tale. Instead, he seemed to rely on stories clearly copied down without any further thought or analysis. I did actually, after yet another wolf related death, start questioning exactly how SO many wolf attacks were even possible well into modern times. Afterall, the wolf became extinct in England during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) and the last wolf was officially killed in Scotland in 1680. Did they last much longer in more areas on Continental Europe? This from Wiki: 

According to documented data, man-eating (not rabid) wolves killed 111 people in Estonia in the years from 1804 to 1853, 108 of them were children, two men and one woman. 

In France, historical records compiled by rural historian Jean-Marc Moriceau indicate that during the period 1362–1918, nearly 7,600 people were killed by wolves, of whom 4,600 were killed by nonrabid wolves. [[That’s on average just over 8 non-rabid wolf related deaths PER YEAR, so not a *huge* amount then.]] 

The most interesting chapter, and the last one I read, was on the fabled ‘Beast of the Gevaudan’ which was credited with around 60 kills in that region over a period of two years. It was either one or (more likely) a pair of wolves responsible which managed to avoid numerous attempts, including the arrival of specialist hunters commissioned by the King himself to end the terror. The interest wasn’t in the sudden improvement of writing (which didn’t happen) but rather the fact that this the base story behind one of – if not the – favourite foreign language movies I’ve seen: Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), starring Samuel Le Bihan as Knight Grégoire de Fronsac, Vincent Cassel as Jean-François de Morangias, the absolutely gorgeous Émilie Dequenne as Marianne de Morangias, the amazing Mark Dacascos as Mani and  Monica Bellucci as Sylvia. It’s a beautifully filmed and highly entertaining film and should be watched in the original French for its full effect. I highly recommend it. I just don’t recommend this book! Hopefully my other werewolf books will be better. 

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

Just Finished re-Reading: Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (FP: 1953) [187pp] 

With the Foundation defeated, the genetic anomaly known as the Mule only has one fear, one thing that keeps him awake at night – the rumoured Second Foundation. The problem is that no one knows where, on what planet, the Second Foundation is based. Until he knows that, and can destroy them, the Mule is stuck. With the frontiers of his empire stalled he resolves to send a two-man team to investigate rumours of Second Foundationers and, once located, lead his all-powerful fleet to that far-off location. The members of the Second Foundation are all too aware of the search and have their own strategy in place using Seldon’s Plan, the mathematics of Psychohistory and their own heightened mental faculties. Only one side can be triumphant. Either the Mule must fall or the Plan, to save mankind from thousands of years of misery after the Fall of the Galactic Empire, will fail.  

This was the third book of the original Foundation trilogy which I first read around 40 years ago. Needless to say, I remembered hardly a thing from my earlier reading, and it was like reading it for the first time. As in the previous two books momentous events were taking place throughout the Galaxy but we, the reader, viewed them largely through people talking about them in rooms – which to be honest fells rather strange. It was almost, at times, as if I was watching a low budget movie that couldn’t afford the SFX but instead relied on people bursting into a room to exclaim that a planet hundreds of lightyears away was being bombarded from space. On this occasion though we do get to ‘see’ a space battle (at least briefly) which was a nice change of pace! It did feel more than a little ‘strange’ (probably the wrong word) that despite the scale of the narrative – Galactic in effect – the events were being driven by a very small number of people. I’ve never been a ‘fan’ of the “Great Man view of History” so this viewpoint did grate a little, but I can understand that the author needed to cut down the character list to something less than astronomic! 

The story was actually rather clever. The multiple sleights of hand around the Second Foundation were well handled, although the fall of the Mule did feel a bit anticlimactic. The characters throughout were reasonably fleshed out and I liked the young protagonist Arcadia/Arkady who was, rather surprisingly and refreshingly, a teenage female who was central to the later plot. A few things did intrigue me this time around. More than once I couldn’t help but think of the impact this series might have had on Frank Herbert and his ideas for Dune. The most obvious link is that between Seldon’s Plan in Foundation and the Golden Path in Dune, but this third book went further. The Second Foundation, unlike the First, were not technical people. They were not engineers or scientists of the hard persuasion. They were, above all else, mathematicians and primarily psychologists. They concentrated on developing the human mind that, they believed, had been neglected for far too long – not unlike the Mentats, Guild Navigators and Bene Gesserit after the ban on thinking machines. I couldn’t help wonder if Herbert took this idea from Asimov and ran with it? An interesting read and I’m looking forward to the 4th book (another re-read) next year before finishing off the series with the final 3 books I never got around to the first time. 

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Monday, October 16, 2023

Just Finished Reading: D-Day Through German Eyes – How the Wehrmacht Lost France by Jonathan Trigg (FP: 2019) [294pp] 

They knew it was coming. The long awaited ‘Second Front’ - although technically the ‘third’ front with the ongoing campaign in Italy – was soon to open, but the questions remained: When, How and most importantly where? The hammer could fall just about anywhere, from the French south coast all the way up to northern Norway. But even the mighty Third Reich couldn’t defend everywhere equally. The most logical thing to consider was that the Allies would need a functioning port as soon as possible after landing. The most logical place for the attack on France was, therefore, Calais and logically this was the most heavily defended. But what about elsewhere? Normandy was considered a comparatively low risk with few usable ports nearby and, despite a flat beach along most of the area, radio intercepts and other information indicated an attack elsewhere. Despite that the defenders did what they could to improve their defences with thousands of mines being laid and thousands of tons on concrete being poured to create gun emplacements and bunkers. But what of the troops to man them? With a war of extermination raging in the East needing ever greater resources in men and material the Atlantic Wall and Fortress Europa wasn’t exactly in line to get the best of anything. The men came from units generally considered to be combat ineffective, either through a lack of experience or, in many cases, often too much experience on the Eastern Front complete with physical and mental injuries that would’ve, in normal times, removed them from fighting units entirely. The equipment wasn’t much better – with obsolete guns from occupied territories making up the majority of the weapons available to ‘throw the Allies back into the sea’. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The elite Panzer units held in reserve were under confusing and conflicted control. The very strategy on which the defence of France was being based was still under review with different commanders having very different ideas of how exactly to proceed. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Allies had created naval and air forces the like of which the world had never seen before. When the hammer did fall it would fall like the Hammer of God itself and heaven help anyone who was on the receiving end – as various units of a much-weakened Wehrmacht were about to find out. 

This was an excellent account of D-Day and the subsequent weeks and months following the landings from a very different perspective than I was used to. We don’t often hear about the German/Axis side of any encounter with the Allies, so it was very interesting indeed to ‘hear’ from German/Axis (actually not always German nationals as I discovered here) soldiers as they were bombed, bombarded and finally overwhelmed by British, Canadian and American forces. With lots of first-hand accounts this was at times a very visceral, frightening and bloody account of modern warfare up close and personal. If you’re in any way put off by the horrors of war you might just want to skip this one – or at least be aware that you might need to skip some of the more detailed accounts throughout this book. If you know D-Day from the Allied point of view only (as I did pretty much) this is a real eye-opener and will definitely round out your knowledge of the events surrounding that most important day. Highly recommended to anyone interested in how WW2 ended.    

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Saturday, October 14, 2023

Minimal Zombie Proofing required..... [grin]

Early Reading, Just the Facts! 

Despite reading LOTS of fiction, and especially Science-Fiction, during my early reading years I also read quite a lot of non-fiction too – more often than not inspired by my fiction reading. As I was devouring SF novel after SF novel, I couldn’t help but wonder at the real science behind the things that amazed me on the page. The answer: To the Library!  

Flight With Power: The First Ten Years by David Wragg (Non-Fiction)
The Double Planet by Issac Asimov (Non-Fiction)
The Collapsing Universe by Issac Asimov (Non-Fiction)
Rudolph Valentino by Alexander Walker (Non-Fiction)
It’s No Sin to be Rich by William Davis (Non-Fiction)
The Road to Tyburn by Christopher Hibbert (Non-Fiction)
The Cometeers by Jack Williamson
The Identity of Jack the Ripper by Donald McCormick (Non-Fiction)
On the Scent with Sherlock Holmes by Walter Shepherd (Non-Fiction)
The Deathworms of Kratos by Edmund Cooper

So... LOTS of non-fiction from a wide range of subjects (I think my ‘butterfly’ was on speed back then) from Technology to History to Crime to Biography of silent movie-star heartthrobs... Butterflies will flutter.... I supposed that my young brain was just sponging up anything and everything at that age and was always looking for more. I’ve never really been able or willing either to focus too much on one particular subject or dismiss an area as uninteresting or ‘off-limits’. Frankly, even I don’t know what will interest me next – which makes popping into a library or a bookshop quite an adventure! More to come... 

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Save the Puppy... Save the World....

Just Finished re-Reading: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (FP: 1890) [140pp] 

Sherlock Holmes was bored, very bored, dangerously bored and his friend John Watson was worried for him. He needed something to distract him, to intrigue him, something for his mind to work on, a mystery. Fortunately, Miss Morstan has just that. Every year, on her birthday, a parcel arrives with a pearl in it of superb quality. Now something else has arrived, a message asking for a meeting. Both worried and intrigued she has sort out Mr Holmes for his aid. Holmes can see that this is no ordinary case, indeed it fizzes with mystery and not a little tragedy. Her father had returned from India some time previously but had failed to meet her as agreed. She had little to remember him by except for a handful of personal belongings and a scrap of parchment with the ‘Sign of the Four’. Where that would lead, what story it would uncover and how it would all affect Miss Morstan both Holmes and Watson are determined to find out – and what a fantastic tale of devilish treachery and murder is waiting for them. The game is afoot! 

Again, after a gap of more than 40 years, this was almost like reading this classic for the first time. Oddly, as with the previous outing, I did remember a few of the highlights so they must have struck me at the time. Overall, the story is a relatively simple one involving India, ‘lost’ treasure and a revenge plot. Surprisingly there is little actual mystery uncovered here. Holmes, inevitably, tracks down the miscreants (rather well I thought!) and they eventually regale him with an exotic tale. Most of the backstory, again much like the first outing with the side plot in Utah, is told by the antagonist post-capture. This time, rather than ‘out West’, the story revolves around an incident during the Indian Mutiny (something which all of his readers at the time would’ve been VERY familiar). It’s interesting that the author felt compelled to add this exotic element (again) to drive the story forward. It did feel a bit derivative and a bit stereotypically ‘Victorian’, but that was the style of the time. 

I found it very interesting that the story started with Holmes very clearly injecting cocaine and there was even mention of multiple track-marks on his arm! I couldn’t help but wonder what the readership felt about this. Was intravenous drug use normal, acceptable, common amongst a certain class of person? Watson clearly worried about Holmes using the drug like this – a drug he presumably simply picked up from the Chemist/Pharmacy rather than having it prescribed by his doctor? I was also somewhat surprised by the romance element (very low key but there) and had obviously completely forgotten about it (or had my teenage mind simply blanked it out?). What was even more interesting was how worried Watson was that Miss Morstan might become rich because of their investigation and, therefore, be forever out of his reach – essentially because she would be expected to marry someone of ‘quality’ and bring her fortune with her. When discussing the proposed relationship, Holmes said something with raised an eyebrow: that no woman should be trusted – even the best of them. I presumed this meant that Holmes had been dealt with VERY badly at some point and had been holding a grudge against all women ever since. I also wondered if this reflected something that had happened to Conan Doyle himself (not knowing much about the man). 

A few more comments: Interesting to see the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ being of service again. Interesting also that Holmes used his trademark disguise ability that I remember Basil Rathbone regularly over-using in the movie versions. Another thing that piqued my interest was that both Holmes and Watson carried pistols (Watson’s was his service weapon from Afghanistan). My knowledge of late 19th century English gun law is scant, but I presume it was a LOT easier to get a weapon back then than it is now – especially for both gentlemen and gentlewomen. I’m guessing that it was just a case of going into a gun shop, picking a suitable weapon and paying for it. I’m also guessing that such guns would be prohibitively expensive to the working-class criminal which was one reason why they tended not to use them. Plus, of course, they’d hang if they killed anyone which was probably somewhat of a deterrent. It did make me laugh (rather ironically) that no one thought it was in any way ethically or morally dubious that anyone, including Miss Morstan should profit from the twice, or thrice over theft of Indian property. There was no talk of returning it (if possible) to its rightful owners or reporting it to the appropriate authorities. The only issue discussed at all was how the sudden wealth would affect Watsons love options. Oh, and lastly, I did like the fast steam-launch chase on the Thames. VERY dramatic and cinematic – especially with the whole blow-dart/gun shoot out!! Not my favourite Holmes outing (that’ll be next year) but worthy of its Classic status, nevertheless. 

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