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

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.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Blackpool Highflyer by Andrew Martin (FP: 2004) [336pp] 

Halifax, Yorkshire 1905. After his adventures in London, young Jim Stringer is back on his home turf. Well on his way to achieving his aim of becoming an engine driver and with a new wife to support, life is at last moving in the right direction. He is soon reminded however of the duties and responsibilities of his coveted position when his engine narrowly avoids being derailed due to an object left deliberately on the track. Feeling responsible for the passenger's safety he starts a private investigation into who was responsible. The list, however, is far from a short one. Did the wreckers target his train specifically because of a passenger on it? Was it at attack on the Mill who organised the excursion or an attack on excursions themselves? Was it personal, political or financial? It was enough to make anyone’s head spin with the possibilities. In the hot summer of 1905 with Special trains running to the resorts and beyond Jim had his work cut out for him to figure out exactly where the danger was coming from. What made things worse, and more urgent if such a thing was possible, was that his wife, recently confirmed to be pregnant, was scheduled to be aboard the Blackpool Highflyer – so recently attacked – and Jim himself was due to man the footplate... 

This is my 2nd Jim Stringer ‘Steam Detective’ novel and although I enjoyed it, I did also find it rather frustrating. The issue I had, unlike with the other rail detective series, is that Jim doesn’t have an official (or actually unofficial) position on the railways so is essentially reduced to asking people questions and musing on the results. Jim is also both young and still quite naive so doesn’t yet possess the skill set he needs to progress his enquiries in anything like a logical manner. The fumbles and struggles his way to something like a conclusion – and sometimes not. It took me a while – actually a few days or so after finishing this novel – to realise what my problem was. It’s that I was expecting an historical detective novel, and this isn’t it. What we have here is an historical novel based on the Edwardian railways. Within that novel, mostly about the time and place in which it takes place, is a scattering of crimes (often petty) and mysteries (sometimes unresolved). These are actually secondary to the story itself rather than driving the narrative. Looked at in this fashion I’m going to be a lot less frustrated in future outings with Jim and his trains. 

Overall, I can say I enjoyed this although I did honestly find a quite long diversion into Edwardian vaudeville shows somewhat tedious. This was made up for by insights into the sometimes fractious political situation in England and across Europe at the time as well as an insight into the lives of the Northern working class. Reasonable. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

From Wiki:

Pistol dueling was a sport at the 1906 Intercalated Games and 1908 Olympics.

In the 1906 Intercalated Games, competitors fired duelling pistols at plaster dummies from 20m and 30m.

In 1908, pistol dueling was demonstrated as part of the concurrent Franco-British Exhibition, using the Olympic fencing arena and in front of invited guests. There were no official demonstration sports until 1912. The competition involved two competitors firing at each other with dueling pistols loaded with wax bullets and wearing protective equipment for the torso, face, and hands. Teams were sent by countries including France, the UK, and the USA. The 20-meter competition was won by the French team of Major Ferrus, J Marais and J Rouvcanachi.

Monday, March 25, 2024


Just Finished Reading: Spitfire Women of World War II by Giles Whittell (FP: 2007) [280pp] 

It was a fight even before the fighting had started. From the very beginning of the conflict the Air Ministry knew that the supply of aircraft of all types in a timely manner was vital to the war effort. But the idea that these aircraft could be delivered, flown, by women was unthinkable. Fortunately for the female pilots themselves desperate times call for apparently desperate measures. Naturally it was never going to be quite that simple. For starters the women pilots would need to have flying hours under their belts far in excess of their male counterparts – at least to begin with. Naturally they would need to fly with a perfect record – the fear of a single crash landing causing the cancelation of the whole effort was a real one – and naturally they would be restricted to the most basic trainer aircraft. Oh, and a few other things: the women would be required to wear skirts, no matter how impractical and, naturally, they would receive 70-80% of their male counterpart's wages. 

This was what the original female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) were up against. But at least they got to fly and to assist with the war effort in an immediately useful and practical way – plus it was, once some of the stranger restrictions were lifted or modified, fun. Starting with the most basic of basic trainers, it wasn’t long before operational needs required that they fly larger, faster and eventually, multi-engine aircraft. More than a few lusted after piloting the latest fighters – Hurricanes and especially Spitfires – but it took quite a long time and much persuading before that happened. Once fast fighters were at last on the cards it wasn’t long that logic and need (again) led to the women being authorised to deliver two engine and then four engine bombers to front line commands. But it was the fighters and, most especially, the spitfire in particular that many of the women loved. It was, they said, designed for them. Many would remember those experiences their entire lives. 

Covering much the same ground as my previous read on the ATA (Hurricane Girls – The Inspirational True Story of the Women who Dared to Fly by Jo Wheeler) I thought this was a better look at both the organisation itself and the women who served there. Overall, this had more heft, more gravitas and more depth than my previous read so (naturally) I enjoyed this rather more. The author gave a more solid background to the women involved – from all classes (eventually!) and from across the Empire, Occupied Europe and the US, plus a few other notables. The author also extended the narrative into the early jet age which was interesting in itself. Definitely worth a read for a host of reasons – not least the struggle of more than competent women to be taken seriously be the authorities – and therefore recommended as an example of an all too often overlooked aspect of the Battle of Britain. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Where In the World? - 2023/2024 edition. 

A few years ago now I wondered about the fictional geographical distribution of my reading – yes, I ponder such things from time to time – so did a quick survey and wasn’t TOO surprised that most of my novels were based either in the UK or US with only a smattering of examples elsewhere. So, I decided to at least try to do something about that disparity and, as I suspected, its proving to be harder than expected to change my reading habits. As mentioned last time, these are fictional locations rather than the nationality of the author. I’m only counting books that take place mostly in a single country (with the odd exception) and am not counting Fantasy or SF. As always Changes and additions since last year are in BOLD. 

Afghanistan – 2
Australia - 1
Canada – 2 (+1)
China – 1
Crete - 1
Cuba – 2
England – 73 ½ (+17)
Estonia - 1
France – 13 (+2)
Germany – 5 ½
Greece – 2
Holland - 1
India – 2
Ireland – 1
Italy – 4
Jamaica - 1
Japan – 2 (+1)
Norway – 2 (+1)
Malaya - 1
Portugal – 3
Russia – 4
South Africa – 1
Spain – 3 (+1)
Sweden - 3
Scotland – 2
Turkey - 2
Ukraine – 1
USA – 54 ½ (+9 ½)
Vietnam – 1 (NEW)

A rather disappointing show, I think! Only a single new country added as well as the VAST majority of additions going, as expected unfortunately, to England and the USA. But there is better news on the horizon. I should be adding several new countries by this time next year and should, I DO hope, be adding more reads outside the UK/USA axis. I guess we’ll see in 12 months!  

Happy Birthday: Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910 – September 6, 1998) was a Japanese filmmaker and painter who directed 30 films in a career spanning over five decades. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. Kurosawa displayed a bold, dynamic style, strongly influenced by Western cinema yet distinct from it; he was involved with all aspects of film production.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Just Finished Reading: 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie (FP: 1957) [281pp] 

Elspeth McGillicuddy could hardly believe her own eyes, so it came as no surprise that the police refused to believe that she’d seen a murder committed right in front of her. The railway authorities were likewise less than impressed at her story of seeing a woman being strangled on another train as it drew level with her own. Quite distressed by the whole experience she knew that she could rely on one person to take her seriously – and she was right. Jane Marple had known Elspeth since her long-ago school days and knew when she was telling the truth, but how to convince the police to investigate further? Feeling her advancing years Miss Marple could only thing of getting someone younger and fitter to take her place poking around in the undergrowth and asking subtle questions. Then she hit on the solution – Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a much sort after and highly efficient home help. The question foremost in her mind was how to convince young Lucy to be her eyes, her ears and her hands. But delighted by the odd challenge and the thrill of something different she jumps at the idea. Hired by the local Crackenthorpe family sets about her tasks – sorting out a fractious and chaotic household and the discovery of a dead body... 

Reading this I couldn’t but help have brief images from the 1961 movie adaptation (Murder, She said) starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. Probably for streamlining purposes Miss Marple, in this movie version, both saw the murder from the 4.50 from Paddington and hired herself as a maid to the Crackenthorpe family. Not surprisingly, I thought that the additional characters in the novel worked much better. Jane has been detecting criminality for far too long to be knee deep in brambles between cooking and cleaning for 5-6 adults and a pair of (very well behaved) young boys. I actually thought that the character of Lucy was brilliant, and she fast became one of my favourite fictional females. It would be really nice to ‘see’ her again in future novels but I’m guessing this is both the first and our last time with her. Oh, and I can’t but mention the feeling that Christie had FAR too much fun with her family names here! I mean, McGillicuddy, Eyelesbarrow AND Crackenthorpe.... [lol] 

The plot, as you might expect from Christie is both somewhat convoluted and brilliant. Typically, I failed to spot the murderer – not even close this time – nor the motive but loved the process of finding out. The only disappointing aspect of the whole investigation was the fact that I liked the murderer until the point of revelation – that was new. One of the things I really enjoyed here, and there was a lot to enjoy being honest, were the very well-drawn characters. Even the two schoolboys – they must’ve been around 11-12 I think – were a scream, if FRIGHTFULLY British... Not only were they allowed to see the body (for their education) and spent a great deal of their time looking for clues, but they also prompted a clever reveal as to the corpse's identity which threw things in a whole other direction. Overall, I can hardly praise this too highly. It’s now one of my favourite Miss Marple novels – and that’s a HIGH bar – and I loved it from beginning to end. Very highly recommended to all classic crime fans.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Battle of Britain by Patrick Bishop (FP: 2009) [332pp] 

It is virtually without argument that the Battle of Britain, fought mostly in the skies over southern England between 10 July and 31 October 1940, was the most significant conflict in the country's modern era. If the battle had been lost and the Luftwaffe had gained even temporary air-superiority over the coast there was a real danger that an invasion could have been attempted (it would have failed IMO). Fortunately for Britain and, again arguably, the world the battle was won and Operation Sealion – the ‘planned’ invasion of Great Britain – was postponed indefinitely. 

Organised in 5 sections covering (very roughly) 2-6 weeks depending on the level of activity, this well written and often fascinating study lays out the battle as it ramped up. Initially German High Command (or at least AH himself) fully expected Britain to seek terms following the retreat from Dunkirk. Of course, Churchill had no intention of surrendering and it was always going to be ‘fight on’. Although essentially on our own – not strictly true in the grand scope of things – the UK had a lot going for it. The English Channel was only 26 miles at its most narrow point but was often both a treacherous and unpredictable stretch of water. However much the Germans thought of it as a particularly wide river it was nothing of the sort. Despite the loss of a great deal of equipment in France the British army was far from defeated and would, it was expected, give a good account of itself if any planned invasion did occur. What is more, the Royal Navy was still the largest in the world and would be expected the throw everything it had at any invasion fleet. It would be far from plain sailing even across a theoretically calm English Channel. But it was the RAF that was Britain’s first line of defence. If it could hold back the might of the Luftwaffe all bets would be off – but could it do so? 

On the face of things, it was going to be a very hard fight indeed for the RAF. Not only were they greatly outnumbered in both fighters and bombers, but the German pilots had gained a great deal of valuable experience on their European battlefields. However, that wasn’t a completely good thing. OK, they had gained experience – but at the cost of overconfidence. Most of their enemies across Europe had been using out of date aircraft and had quickly succumbed to highly effective tactics and had been largely destroyed on the ground. Such conditions would not prevail over England. Likewise, the Luftwaffe was mainly designed to excel at one task – supporting the army in its Blitzkrieg tactics – and this it did very well indeed (at least early on). But over England these tactics would not be required and a whole other skill set would be needed. The German bomber force, likewise, was a tactical rather than a strategic one. In 1940 the Germans did not possess a single 4 engine bomber, so their range and bomb load were limited. 

Facing them were two fighters – the Hurricane and Spitfire – that were at least the equal of anything the Germans had to oppose them. On top of this the British boasted probably the most sophisticated and technically advanced air-defence system in the world – something the Luftwaffe had never faced before. Although outnumbered, the RAF fighters always seemed to be in the right place and the right time. It was very rare indeed for any number of German aircraft not to be intercepted either on their way to a target, on their way back or even both. Although initial losses for Germany were light, they were constant. What made things worse of course, was that a German pilot bailing out over England was captured whereas a RAF pilot doing likewise could be back in a fighter the very next day. What was even more telling was the disparity in aircraft production. During the battle the RAF were hardly ever short of fighters – indeed production of new planes and recovery of damaged ones increased during the fight. The shortage – sometimes desperate – was pilots, especially experienced ones. There are so many stories of fresh, incredibly young, pilots who went straight from minimal training into combat within hours of arriving at their new squadrons only never to come back. 

Without trying to precis the whole book, the Battle of Britain amounted to a massive miscalculation on the part of the Luftwaffe and most especially of Herman Goering who promised AH that he could defeat England in a matter of weeks. German ‘intelligence’ was quite pitiful consistently underestimating the strength of the RAF until it became obvious that they could not be defeated in the given timeframe with the planned invasion of the Soviet Union pressing. But failing to knock Britain out of the war allowed for the dreaded ‘war on two fronts’ that the German High Commanded worried about so much – rightly. Ultimately, of course, it allowed Britain to be a jumping off point for European liberation and as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for bombing raids deep into the Reich itself. 

Even if you have a good grasp of the Battle of Britain this is definitely worth a read. Although I regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable, I still picked up on a few things – even such basics as why the RAF fighters flew in ‘Vic threes’ whilst the Luftwaffe flew in ‘Finger fours’ - which always pleases me. I think this is my second book by this author and it won’t be my last. Recommended.  

Saturday, March 16, 2024

VERY clever........................!!

Happy Birthday: Jerry Lewis (born Joseph Levitch; March 16, 1926 – August 20, 2017) was an American comedian, actor, singer and humanitarian who was famously nicknamed "The King of Comedy", with a career lasting over eight decades. He appeared in more than 60 motion pictures, starting in 1949 including sixteen Martin and Lewis musical comedy films with Dean Martin, as his partner.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Farjeon (FP: 1932) [272pp] 

It all started with an annoying carriage companion on the journey from the North. By the time Richard Temperley had arrived in London in the early hours of the morning he was both exhausted and unwilling to wake his sister at an ungodly hour. Taking advice from a station porter he heads for a nearby hotel to freshen up and rest before journeying on only to find his snoring companion has already arrived. Too tired to change his plans, Richard decides to stay and starts to drift off before realising that something is wrong – the silence. Approaching the now quiet ex-companion Richard discovers, to his horror, that he’s quite dead – shot through the chest. Questioned by the police he has little information to offer. For some reason he fails to tell them about the attractive young woman who left just as he had arrived. He also fails to mention that he has in his possession her left-behind purse and that he knows both her name and home address. Wanting to know if she was indeed somehow involved in the bizarre death of a seemingly harmless man, he makes his way to her apartment only to realise he’s being followed – by the police or by the murderer? What Richard doesn’t know is that the girl is at the very centre of things and that more bodies are already on the horizon.  

This was a bit of a strange one. At times it felt all rather Hitchcockian, and I had flashes of ‘North by Northwest’ going through my mind. Essentially it was two previously unconnected people – both young & both single naturally – thrown together by circumstance and trying to figure dangerous things out as they race across an equally dangerous landscape in pursuit of a murderer – whilst in turn being pursued (or used as bait) by the police. Although I found the plot a little on the ‘thin’ side from time-to-time the actual mechanics of the tale were mostly well done. Both Richard Temperley and his motivating love interest, Sylvia Wynne, were well drawn and likable. The baddie was a rather over-the-top cardboard villain though nasty with it. The side characters, Richard’s sister, the police inspector and the put-upon taxi driver, were fun (and often funny) which lightened the mood when necessary and I liked all three. The long-distance chase gave characters time to know each other as well as muse on the case at hand which was a decent way of progressing things. The end scene was suitably dramatic and cinematic, and the wrap-up made sense. Despite being a little too chaotic from time to time and a touch overly contrived here and there this was still mostly a fun read. Not one of the best BLCC books I’ve read but still above average in the grand scheme. Reasonable.  

Monday, March 11, 2024

Just Finished Reading: How to Speak Whale – A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication by Tom Mustill (FP: 2022) [249pp] 

When a seemingly peaceful whale almost kills you, it’s reasonable to ask why. When the author and a friend were kayaking off the Californian coast and encountered a number of whales, they rightly considered it a magical moment. But when one of them breached and landed almost on top of them (caught on camera below), capsizing their boat and almost killing them both it turned, momentarily, into a nightmare. But the author, a wildlife filmmaker, was more intrigued than afraid. Why had the whale acted that way? Was it afraid, annoyed or something else? Did it even know they were there and, most intriguingly, did it make a conscious effort to avoid landing directly on top of them – which would surely have killed them both. So, his journey began to find answers until one scientist made what appeared to be an off-hand comment that directed his investigation in a whole new and fascinating trajectory. When asked if the whale HAD made any effort to avoid them – after it breached and maybe for the first time noticed they were almost directly underneath it – the scientist responded: “Well, it’s not like you can *ask* it”. At which point the author mused: Why not? 

Whales have been known to ‘sing’ for centuries and probably gave rise to myths of mermaids and sirens. But no one, so far, has been able to determine why (we’re actually getting closer to the question of How though...) or if the ‘songs’ ‘mean’ anything. While whale song certainly isn’t just random ‘noise’ it’s far from clear if it's a form of communication, never mind a potentially understandable language that could, again potentially, be used for two-way communication with these elegant beasts. Many have tried, and failed, to understand what, if anything, the whales are ‘saying’ to each other but recent developments in cryptology and AI have opened a possible window to understanding. Together with much better methods of recording both songs and behaviour simultaneously for context clues there is hope that if enough song data can be accumulated it might enable the understanding of any ‘language’ structure which could lead to real communication between our species. Even the thought of such a breakthrough is mindboggling. 

This was a completely fascinating look at the numerous projects across the world trying to understand animal communication – mostly in regard to whales but in other species too. Most surprisingly there are groups out there making real progress and we could, within decades, be directly speaking to these creatures and really communicating with each other. The ramifications and potentials are immense – not only here on Earth but possibly for any future communication with aliens beyond our world. I did wonder if we’re seeing the very beginnings of a true Universal Translator! There is SO much going on between these pages that it's impossible to summarise it all, but needless to say, if you have any interest in whales or even the hint of a possibility of talking to them – plus primates, dogs or even birds – this is most definitely the book for you. Highly recommended.