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

Monday, April 15, 2024

I LIKE it!!

Just Finished Reading: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (FP: 1937) [212pp] 

I grew up (ages 10-23) about 7 miles from Wigan so it's not that surprising that I’d heard about this classic for as long as I can remember. Recently, especially after reading another non-fiction by Orwell, I thought it was about time I finally got around to reading it. It wasn’t really what I was expecting and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed that Wigan itself didn’t appear more prominently in the narrative. But that was my only, very minor, quibble with this work. 

The word that comes to mind concerning his descriptions of working-class life in the North of England around that time is: grim. Not only was unemployment rife and of long duration – the area was only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression despite industrial uptick due to the ongoing (slow) rearmament program – but the general living conditions were often appalling. Born in a dilapidated Victorian terrace myself (built I think in 1888) I could easily visualise Orwell’s accounts of the houses he stayed in during his time there. I could also sympathise with the tales of overcrowding – although I have no solid memory of such – as my parents and my brother and I shared a TWO-bedroom house with my maternal grandparents. How we actually managed that is beyond me! 

Another early section that really jumped out at me was his description of a visit to a coal mine and a discussion of the conditions below ground as well as how poorly treated (and paid) the coalminers were. In the 1970’s - so a little over a generation later – my school offered a trip to one of the last working coal mines in the area. I THINK it was probably Golborne Colliery. So, when Orwell described the conditions at the coalface and the hardship of just getting there and back – UPAID – I was right there with him. The group of us (plus a teacher or two) only stayed there a few hours but by the time we got back I was both exhausted and filthy – and we hadn’t actually DONE anything. The guys who actually WORKED down there, 8, 10 or more hours a day, week in and week out – just the thought of it amazes me, as it did Orwell who had nothing but praise for them. 

Whilst the first half of the book covered conditions for the workers – both above and below ground – the second half moved onto more political and sociological discussions of Class which was much more important and honestly rigid almost 100 years ago. Orwell had some interesting ideas about the prospect of a ‘classless’ society as well as the problems of ‘social mixing’. In some ways little has changed, although so-called social mobility is far easier these days where money talks louder than old-school ties – at least in most places. I did find it interesting when Orwell mused on the possible future European war and the dangerous rise of fascism both on the Continent and in England itself. Interestingly he thought that fascism could indeed take hold here if it wasn’t intelligently challenged.  

Overall, this was a very interesting look at a particular Class in a particular part of England at a particular time – and viewed (of course) from a Middle-class perspective [Orwell was VERY conscious of his position in the class hierarchy and that in itself was another fascinating look at the lived experience of the control system that Class was/is]. Inevitably this was at times very dated – a LOT has changed in the last 90 years or so – and, as a look into a very different world, could be quite confusing at times – even the language used was different in some ways back then – but as a brief glimpse of a slice of cultural/political/industrial history it's definitely worth a read and is worthy of the name Classic. More Orwell to come. Recommended.  

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Happy Birthday: Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), also known as Guido Fawkes while fighting for the Spanish, was a member of a group of provincial English Catholics involved in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was born and educated in York; his father died when Fawkes was eight years old, after which his mother married a recusant Catholic.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Humans by Matt Haig (FP: 2013) [293pp] 

It was a punishment assignment, that was obvious from the start. His briefing was practically non-existent, he didn’t even know the language though, luckily, he was a quick learner. When they arrested him later – for not wearing cloths, how ridiculous! - he managed to cover his many mistakes with a simple phrased he’d picked up from Cosmopolitan: Nervous Breakdown. It was (almost) literally a get out of jail free card, well that and a bit of technologically enhanced hypnotism. It took a while longer to realise that they’d also lied to him. He’d just assumed that everything he ‘knew’ (or it turned out thought he’d known) was true, indeed obvious. It wasn’t. Sure, humans were indeed violent creatures who were wholly ignorant of how the Universe really worked but there was more to them than that. They had music, the poetry of Emily Dickenson and a wonderful food called ‘crunchy peanut butter’. They also, rather bizarrely, cared for their children and even knew who their parents were. Probably because of that oddness they also had something called ‘love’ but all of that was distracting from the mission.  

The real Dr Andrew Martin, who he had replaced soon after he was taken, had achieved a mathematical breakthrough. If allowed to be known it would propel humanity beyond its wildest dreams, into their Solar system and beyond into the greater Galaxy beyond. Such a thing could simply not be allowed to happen. The new ‘Andrew Martin’ would need to find out who knew about the breakthrough and eliminate them. Then, to make sure another breakthrough didn’t occur he needed to destroy all and any evidence. To be particular, he had been ordered to eliminate Andrew Martin’s wife and teenage son – just in case. That’s where the problems started and Newton the dog wasn’t exactly helping either... 

Sandwiched between a pair of serious books (the second of which is reviewed on Monday) I thought I’d drop in something silly, something different. This was definitely ‘it’. This is my 3rd book by this author and again I was not disappointed. He has the kind of off-beat quirky mind that I like – a lot. It would be easy to compare the author to Douglas Adams and this book to ‘Hitchhiker's Guide’ but that would be a disservice all around. Both are ‘light’ SciFi, both are commentaries on the absurdity of human existence, and both are ironically funny – and there the comparison falls apart. Essentially this is a novel about human relationships seen from a very ‘outside’ PoV. It's about just how HARD it is to communicate with others, even if you live with them, even if you gave birth to them, even if you love them – most of the time anyway. It’s about owning your mistakes; it's about admitting failure and doubt and it’s about knowing how inadequate the word "sorry" is. It is, in fact, all about being human. Funny, sad, profound at times and endlessly thought provoking I really liked it. Highly recommended – but you might need a few tissues ready for the sad bits.              

Monday, April 08, 2024

Just Finished Reading: National Populism – The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (FP: 2018) [315pp] 

When the Soviet Union fell, and History ‘ended’ (or at least it seemed to according to some observers) it was assumed – by many this time – that Liberal Democracy had ‘won’ and that was it. For a while this rather simplistic view of things seemed to hold true. Democracy did indeed spread, and, for a while at least, it looked like Democracies would dominate the planet. But even the most optimist thought that Authoritarian regimes wouldn’t just vanish overnight. North Korea, China and other places would resist democratisation for years, decades, to come, right? What few saw is that the tide of democracy stopped and then turned back. Slowly at first, the numbers of clearly democratic counties actually REDUCED. What was going on? 

The problem, it would seem, was with Liberal Democracy itself. Much had been promised but little seemed to have been delivered except to the vanishingly few at the top of the tree. What little trickle down that actually existed (rather than simply being talked about and talked up) wasn’t anywhere near enough to satisfy those who felt ‘left behind’ by the pro-globalist forces. Something needed to change. As the so-called ‘peace-dividend’ failed to materialise, the housing bubble burst, the rich and shameless received their bailouts and a Pandemic spread across the globe people simply had had enough. It was time for something different, something new or actually something old – strong leaders who could ‘sought things out’ once and for all. With these reactions – against the ‘liberal elites’ - parties that had traditional stayed in the margins or even the shadows began winning seats in parliaments across the globe, from the UK, Europe, Asia and even the bastion of democracy, the USA itself. 

I did have some problems getting ‘into’ this book because, at least at first, I thought the authors were simply apologists for Authoritarianism. But I persevered and actually found the later part of the work much more interesting and even incisive. It’s clear that the present iteration of western Democracy has a problem – actually a number of problems. Sure, some of them have been exaggerated for effect by the Far Right, but there are the real foundations to their criticisms. The present political systems across the west do not accurately represent everyone they’re supposed to. That’s clear enough. The so-called ‘political classes’ have been for too long receding into the distance away from ‘ordinary people’ (a phrase I personally hate) and their concerns and instead of actually listening to their constituents (rather than merely going through the motions) are giving people what they should want, rather than what they actually want – or at very least taking actual desires into account.  

It shouldn’t have but the reaction against democracy has come as quite a shock both to politicians and political commentators in the media. If both groups had been paying more attention to falling voter turnout, increasing numbers of votes cast for ‘fringe’ candidates, street protests, rising acts of violence and a host of other indicators they might not have been. The ‘solution’ for many centrist parties, or even for those already on the centre-right, has been to try to steal the thunder of the more extreme political forces by moving to the right and adopting some of their policies in watered down versions. This is the ‘easier’ of their options and seems to be working at least in the short term. A much tougher option, at least from their perspective, is to make democracy work for everyone – as it should already be working. If Democracy is broken, or at least in need of some level of TLC, then it needs to be fixed rather than abandoned. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of world history knows exactly where growing Authoritarianism leads and its not to a happy place. If Democracy needs saving, which arguably it does, then we need to improve it, to ask the hard questions and be prepared to fix what needs fixing, to ACTUALLY listen to people's concerns, to involve more people more often in previously ‘elitist’ policy. You know, to be more democratic. That, I think, is the way forward to a happier place.  

This was an interesting, if sometimes depressing or disturbing, read and shows us that authoritarianism is, at least in the short term, here to stay. What I can but hope is that, if the right steps are taken, it will move back to the fringes and the shadows where it belongs. But, for the present it's not going anywhere. To understand why you could do worse than start here. A sobering read. Recommended.  

Saturday, April 06, 2024

Only 15.......? Really......? 

I don’t know if you’ve had this experience recently, but I’ve been bombarded with a ‘meme’ on TicTok about the fact that the ‘average’ American house has only 15 books in it. Funnily the TicTokers I’ve seen have responded with incredulity and have said that they have at least 50 and in a few cases as many as 100 in their homes. Naturally this made me chuckle a bit as I’ve probably got at least 1500 and likely to be more in the region of 3-4K. I am still *thinking* of actually counting them but the amount of effort involved is putting me off. If they were all on shelves I’d give it a shot, but at least half of them are stacked on the floor (and a futon in my ‘spare’ room). Anyway, I was intrigued by the whole 15 books thing and did maybe 20-30 seconds of ‘research’ to discover how accurate it was – and found this:    

How Many Books Does The Average Person Own

By Rakib Sarwar 

September 6, 2023 

How many books is a lot to own? How many books does the average person buy? How many books does an average person read every year? How many books does the average person read? How many books are in the average American household? 

So, how many books does the average person own? The answer may surprise you. According to the Pew Research Center, the average American household owns around 29 books. However, this number is slowly declining as people move towards digital reading options. Interestingly, though, Americans still buy more physical books than any other country in the world with an average of 12 books purchased per year. And although we’re reading less print material than ever before, we’re still averaging about 5-6 books a year. 

How many books does the average person buy

The average person buys or collects about 12 books a year. You may think that this number is too low, but it really isn’t. When you consider how little time we have to read, the average person only has a small window in which they can purchase books. And unless you’re a professional reader, chances are, you may only buy one or two books every six months. This is especially true if you’re a busy individual. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, it is estimated that millennials buy about 4 books per year while Gen Xers buy around 8. So, if you look at these numbers, it’s not surprising to learn that the average person only purchases 12 books per year. 

How many books does an average person read every year

Although the average number of books purchased is around 12, how many of those books do people actually read? According to a study by Pew Research Center, the average American reads just 4 books in a year. This is where things get interesting. If you look at this statistic over time, you can see that it has shifted. 

For example, in 2021 the average American read 24 books a year. Of course, this was during a time when ebooks were becoming wildly popular and contained an abundance of information. In the years leading up to 2021, though, the number of books read was much smaller. So clearly, something is happening in the world of publishing that is pushing the average person to read more. 

How many books does the average person read

The answer to this question depends largely on the individual. There are some people who have developed a love for reading, and as such, they want to read every day. If you’re someone who reads a lot, chances are that you probably average around 60 books a year. On the other hand, there are some people who only read a book or two every six months. This number is much smaller, but not everyone likes to read or needs to read. 

How many books are in the average American household

This number is changing from year to year, but it’s currently hovering around 30 books. This is an interesting number because most homes today are filled with more than one type of media. For example, many homes today have a TV in every room. This means that the average household may actually own around 100 books. 

However, the number of books in a home isn’t always reflective of its owner. If you have young children, you probably have a number of children’s books lying around. You may also have a few books that you plan on reading at some point in the future. Regardless of how many books you have, it’s likely that you’re buying an average number of books each year. 

Although the number of books in an average American household has decreased, there is still a demand for books and book ownership. Owning fewer books doesn’t mean that people are reading less, it could just mean that they are reading different types of books. With more ways to access information, such as the internet and e-readers, owning physical copies of books may not be as important as it once was.  

[Despite being a pretty poorly written ‘article’ it does show that I, and no doubt many people who regularly read/contribute to this Blog, am an outlier in this regard (plus not being American so the reported stats don’t really apply!). I’ve always been surprised by how LOW such ‘averages’ are and the fact that this must mean that a significant number of people must be reading VERY few books per year, if any at all. Unless people like me are SO out there that we’re practically a different class of human. Thoughts?] 

Happy Birthday: James Dewey Watson (born April 6, 1928) is an American molecular biologist, geneticist, and zoologist. In 1953, he co-authored with Francis Crick the academic paper proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material".

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Blood on the Tracks – Railway Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (FP: 2018) [383pp] 

I thought that I’d end my set of railway themed reading with this moderately chunky BLCC shorts collection, and I was far from disappointed. Over the 15 stories contained within its covers I was pleased that hardly one left me wanting, indeed most of them left me wanting more. A case [pun unintended!] in point was The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy. I knew her of Scarlett Pimpernel fame but didn’t realise she also wrote short crime mysteries. On further investigation I discovered, to my delight, that this mystery was part of a collection spanning 3 whole volumes of the ‘Teahouse Detective’. Much more to follow, I assure you! 

An early intriguing tale, which I greatly enjoyed, was The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L T Meade and Robert Eustace. Without giving TOO much away this hinged on a bit of scientific knowledge and I managed to guess the cause without ruining the subsequent discovery. Interestingly there was both a non-Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle called The Man with the Watches penned in the interim between Holme’s ‘death’ and his return as well as a Sherlock Holmes tale penned by Ronald Knox called The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage!  

Having enjoyed a superbly plotted novel by Freeman Wills Crofts I was pleased to discover that he was also the master of the short story with The Level Crossing as an apparently perfect murder of a blackmailer begins to unravel almost from the first moment. Of course, a classic crime stories can’t avoid the odd, and sometimes very odd, Gothic or supernatural tale and I really enjoyed the slightly creepy (in a good way) tale of a hangman on his way home in The Railway Carriage by F Tennyson Jesse. 

Without going into each and every tale, this was a cracking set of short crime/mystery stories either set on trains or associated with them. If you have an interest in either trains or classic mysteries this is most definitely the book for you. With authors as varied and exalted as Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Sapper you won’t be disappointed. Most definitely recommended. 

Monday, April 01, 2024


Just Finished Reading: The Spitfire Story – Told by Those Who Designed, Maintained and Flew the Iconic Plane by Jacky Hyams (FP: 2017) [243pp] 

It is understandable that the RAF pilots who flew the iconic Spitfire in the Battle of Britain and beyond get the lion's share of the attention. But they could never have achieved their deserved reputation without so many others. In this slim but interesting book the author addresses that oversight by including the stories of those who designed, built, delivered, maintained, armed and repaired the fighter to ensure it flew when it needed to and kept on flying when it had to. 

From the original test pilots who were most impressed with the original design to the armourers who struggled to fit early cannon ‘upgrades’ that failed to operate as advertised because of lack of testing and an accelerated development schedule, there are many voices here to give the reader a more rounded picture of the aircraft and its operations. The fighter itself, even in action over the English countryside, was only the tip of a very long and complex spear. A significant number of cogs in this machine were, as seen in previous books, were women including transport pilots, factory workers, radar operators, anti-aircraft gunners, plotters at Sector stations, nurses, and much else besides. No doubt, if such a thing had ever been allowed or required, a goodly few would have made excellent combat fighter pilots too. 

The Spitfire airframe experienced major changes throughout the war adding armament, upgraded engines, and various design improvements. All of this had to be designed, manufactured, tested and evaluated in combat – then changed, approved or discarded as required. All of this required a whole host of experts in their particular fields – again given voice here. 

Overall, this was an interesting if a rather shallow ‘broad brush’ affair. It did cover a wide canvas, rather inevitably, but it suffered by being a bit too diffused at times. Still, it’s certainly worth a read to fill in gaps in the aircrafts story that are too often overlooked by other writers. Reasonable. 

This is the last of my ‘deep’ dives for now. I have some more scheduled for later in the year. I hope you enjoyed these first attempts and I’ll see if I can go deeper with other topics whenever possible.          

Welcome to April..... Welcome to Book Month here @ SaLT. Expect a *few* more book related posts for the next 4 weeks.... [grin]

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Dancing Pet People? 

I had an e-mail a few days ago from Ancestry.Com regarding a new ‘personality trait’ they’d just released. Intrigued I logged on to have a look and ‘discovered’ that they had previously published a few more. Intrigued further I read on.... 

Now I’m not that impressed about linking too much personality to genetic drivers. I’m a fan of Free Will and, personally, don’t like the idea that my behaviour or personhood is significantly determined by the luck of the genetic lottery. Of course, I don’t think that I’m a completely Free Agent because of my life history and growing up in a particular culture but I think humanity in general is ‘plastic’ enough to modify itself – both collectively and individually – when required or desired. So, what do my genes apparently show? 

The first thing is that I’m unlikely to have a pet. Whilst this is technically true and has been for some time now since my cat died, I did have her for 16 years. Added to that is the fact that I grew up in a house overflowing with pets, from a German shepherd that I only just remember to hamsters, fish, budgies & minor birds, rabbits (LOTS of rabbits), jerboas and so on. So, on balance I’d have to say it's probably dead wrong to say that I’m not a pet person – although the website does say that having a pet is at least 2% genetic and at most 98% environmental. That’s not a lot to go on really! 

Next up is dancing. I doubt if many people have seen me dance – at least not sober! One of my ‘special powers’ is to increase my bodily density whenever anyone tries to get me onto a dancefloor. That very quickly give up before they pull a muscle or dislocate something. Interestingly, Ancestry scientists found more than 1,730 DNA markers connected to enjoying dancing and that enjoying dancing is at least 7% genetic. It would seem that I have few of those genes in my DNA! 

As before Ancestry has me down as an Extrovert – which I’m most definitely not. Sometimes I appear to be one, but this very much depends on who I’m with and where I am. I actually think that the whole extrovert/introvert dynamic is complete bullshit, so I’m not particularly surprised that they got me so wrong. It doesn’t help that only around 1% of our genes are apparently link to this behaviour characteristic – despite that being 8,000 genes! 

The website has me down as a Night person which I most definitely am. I don’t usually start feeling tired until around 11.30pm and can fairly easily stay up past midnight and still function reasonably well. Try me at 6am and you’ll see a very different person! At that time in the morning I might appear to be awake, but my brain is still in the early stages of a slow reboot. It’s interesting to see that being a morning or night person is at least 17% genetic and I can certainly accept that it has a significant genetic component that you can’t really mess with too much! 

One other thing I think was spot on was the ‘hint’ that I’m a picky eater. I am in fact a VERY picky eater. If I’m presented with something unannounced and are expected to simply eat it, then you have another thing coming. Even before becoming a veggie, I would ask, politely at first, exactly what it was. If such facts were not forthcoming whatever it is definitely goes nowhere near my mouth or my stomach. Plus, once I find a food I like I’m likely to eat/drink it for the rest of my life (ditto with things I don’t like & don’t eat). However, I can and have simply drop a particular food item from my ingestible list sometimes for reasons even I can’t understand... 

Finally, the trait that got me laughing the most – risk taking. Now no one who knows me would ever describe me as a risk-taker, indeed I am notoriously risk averse – so much so that I’ve been called boring, a wimp and much besides for not joining in with some idiocy my risk-blind friends are doing. I look at something, quickly assess any risks and if I see that it's too high (and it doesn’t need to be all that high) I become a completely immovable object on the subject. However, according to my genes I’m more likely to take risks than 60% of the population. Really? I think not! But if taking risks is at least 9% genetic I’m guessing that it's been overlayed by the other 91% of environmental factors. 

Happy Birthday: Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade, he created approximately 2100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life. His oeuvre includes landscapes, still life's, portraits, and self-portraits, most of which are characterized by bold colours and dramatic brushwork that contributed to the rise of expressionism in modern art. Van Gogh's work was beginning to gain critical attention before he died at age 37, by what was suspected at the time to be a suicide. During his lifetime, only one of Van Gogh's paintings, The Red Vineyard, was sold.