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

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Typing is still pretty useful..... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: How Children Learn by John Holt (FP: 1967) [173pp] 

Prior to my BA degree, part of which was in Educational Studies, my only interest with education was the fact I was going through it and wondering (at least sometimes) how exactly it was supposed to be working. I felt, more than a few times, that I was learning things despite the education system – from my own extra-curricular reading among other things – rather than because of it. So, when I came across Holt and other educational sceptics, I couldn’t help but nob at least at some of the points he, and others, made about educations (many) failings. 

I have long wondered at the difference in attitude between a pre-school child and one who has been in the system for some time. Toddlers and small children are like the embodiment of curiosity on speed. Kids are into everything and what the know everything. Parents, no doubt the world over, live in constant dread of the word ‘why’ which seems to be a constant refrain from small children. But send them to school and, for many, they stop asking. Why exactly does this happen? Because asking questions in school is generally frowned upon and discouraged – simply because there isn’t time to answer questions when work & study needs to be got through on a scheduled timetable. So, in far too many ways – at least in the standard system - schools are where curiosity goes to die. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way as the author constantly points out in this intriguing short work. Left to their own devices children soak up knowledge like a sponge. Without the normal restrictions placed in their way be a rigid and regimented school system children will explore and delve into anything and everything they find interesting (which is essentially everything) and will keep on going until they’re satisfied (which is generally never). So, Holt recommends, the best thing a school can do it get out of the way and be around to offer advice and direction – but only when its specifically asked for: by the Child. In the real world, in the present educational system, this (of course) simply wouldn’t work. You can’t have 30-40 questing and questioning young children in a class being guided by a single overworked teacher. You certainly could have a rigid system with timetables to follow – with each child in reality learning and growing at their own individual pace – and with standard tests and exams to pass. It just wouldn’t work – not even a little bit. 

Sceptical by nature (or maybe I just grew up that way learning as I go) I found this idea more than a little utopian. But, and it's a pretty big but, Holt actually talks a great deal of sense. Young children learn by doing and by following their own noses. They ask questions like ‘Why is water wet?’ or ‘Why is the sky blue?’ and adults, as a rule, either dismiss the question (and the child) or shrug and say ‘I don’t know. Stop asking stupid questions’, when the question is FAR from a stupid one. What the parent/adult *should* do is say ‘You know what, I’m not sure. Let’s both go find out, shall we?’ and treat it as the learning adventure it is. Life is full of learning opportunities like that. Give a child ‘permission’ to learn like that and watch them impressively go for it.  

Using examples of learning through games and experiments, talk/conversation, reading, sports and art, the author outlines his experience of children learning outside the system imposed on them and how they often surprise the adults around them, many of which who have long forgotten how much FUN it was to learn at that age. No doubt anyone in Education has already heard of (and maybe even read) this authors series of books – one more to come from me – and thinks of him either wistfully (or as a utopian fool). But even those not in the ‘industry’ can find many useful gems here despite the books age. A recommended read, most especially to anyone with young children in their lives.  

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Happy Birthday: Frank Oz (born Frank Richard Oznowicz; May 25, 1944) is an American puppeteer, filmmaker and actor. He is best known for his involvement with Jim Henson and George Lucas through the Muppets, Sesame Street, and Star Wars, as well as his directorial work in feature films and theatre.

During his adolescence, Oz worked as an apprentice puppeteer in Oakland, California. Despite his interest in journalism, Oz continued his career as a puppeteer when he was hired by Jim Henson in 1963 to work for The Jim Henson Company where he went on to perform several characters in multiple television series and specials. Oz performed the Muppet characters of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle on The Muppet Show (1976–1981), and Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover on Sesame Street (1969–2013). He was hired by George Lucas and began performing the character of Yoda in the Star Wars series, beginning with The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and reprising the role in six subsequent films and various media for the next forty years, including into the Disney era.

His work as a director includes The Dark Crystal (1982), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), What About Bob? (1991), In & Out (1997), Death at a Funeral (2007), and an episode of the US television series Leverage (2011).

Friday, May 24, 2024

So, let's deconstruct this shall we...? Firstly the teenager on the left (rather ironically) is *clearly* Russian. I REALLY don't think any Russian combat troops 'stormed the beach at Normandy'. Second, I understand that the average age of US combat troops in 1944 was around 28 and not 18. Third, "almost certain death"? Well, the senior brass back in London (including Winston Churchill) fully expected to lose 30% of the first wave which by any standards is a horrendous and unsustainable attrition rate. Fortunately for everyone concerned the actually casualty rate was MUCH lower. Some beaches in particular did indeed take high casualties - but still nothing like 30% and definitely not in the 'almost certain death' category. 

This from Wiki: Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day, with 875,000 men disembarking by the end of June. Allied casualties on the first day were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. The Germans lost 1,000 men. 

So, 'almost certain death' actually turns out to be - in reality - on average about 2.5%. But don't let facts get in the way of half-assed propaganda, right? 

"The facile dichotomies between Light and Darkness, free world and obscurantism, sweet tolerance and blind violence, tell us more about the overweening pride of their authors than the complexity of the contemporary world."

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fear of Barbarians

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Post Truth – Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It by Evan Davis (FP: 2017) [302pp] 

Bullshit seems to be everywhere these days and not just in the political realm. Of course, it may be just because the level has been rising for some time now from the previous ankle deep to the present waist deep plus the fact that the smell is getting worse. It’s certainly nothing new and, contrary to some opinion has been around LONG before Donald Trump made its use increasingly blatant. 

We are, of course, used to BS in advertising. Indeed, I’m sure in some language advert & BS are synonyms. Over the decades we’ve individually and as a society developed mental defences against the exaggerated and (when they can get away with it) bogus claims of advertisers and discount most of what they say about any particular product or service. The good question is why do they continue to bullshit us if they know we discount it? Part of the answer rests with us – because we expect them to lie to us, if a company just told us the plain (unexciting) facts about a product we’d still discount it and be even less likely to buy it. So, bullshitting doesn’t ‘work’ but NOT bullshitting is an even worse option. 

Until relatively recently if a politician was caught to rights in a lie, they would initially deny it and then (generally) confess – often with some added BS to smokescreen things – and then, hopefully for them, we’d either forget about it or something would come up to distract the public. Being caught in a scandal – often presaged with a period of lying/bullshitting - would normally end a politician’s career at least temporarily. Today the playing field has shifted. Not only do politicians lie – as they always have – but now they lie more frequently and FAR more blatantly. As always, they use ‘political speech’ to say things in certain ways (often so that they can’t be accused of actually lying) but today the use of “alternative facts” - AKA bullshit of the 1st order – has taken things to a whole new level. When you can stand up and tell people not to believe their own eyes but to believe only what a politician SAYS is happening you know we’re no longer in Kansas. The problem – for us not them – is that far too many people either believe the bullshit or ignore it as irrelevant. Facts and actual truth (yes, it does exist) are no longer seen as important or relevant, at least not compared to other things. In a lot of ways this is OUR fault (and not just the politicians who spout this stuff or the media who reports (or ‘reports’) it. Politicians today know that they can get away with blatant lies because, even at the ballot box, there are no real consequences. When they’re caught in a lie they can simply deny it, attack their accuser, throw up smoke screens and 100 other deflections. Even when, much against their better judgement, they are forced to apologise everyone knows – including the person making the apology – that its far from sincere. Even if, in the very rare occasion it happens, someone is forced to resign over an issue you can bet that they’re back onboard their particular political gravy train in quick order. 

This was an interesting read despite the fact that I agreed with the author quite a bit – which usually means the book bored me (not true in this case). As an Economics journalist he’s had his fair share of bullshit to work through and has struggled through his whole career to understand WHY politicians and others use it knowing that we know what they’re doing and that they know that we’re discounting much of what they say. There’s lots of insight into the use of language – especially of the political type – and how we detect when people are bullshitting us. There’s also the sad truth that said bullshitting isn’t going away anytime soon. Although this was written 7 years ago now (so has only taken me 6 years to get around to) I really don’t think we’ve hit PEAK bullshit just yet. I do wonder (and hope against hope) when we’ll all get royally sick of it? Recommended. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Nice of Rishi to fall on his sword and take the Conservative government with him earlier than expected. Looking forward to 4th July so we can see the back of this shower.........  

Monday, May 20, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Red Devils – The Trailblazers of the Paras in World War Two – An Authorised History of the Parachute Regiment by Mark Urban (FP: 2022) [280pp] 

You couldn’t help but be impressed by the German’s use of glider and parachute forces as the Blitzkrieg rolled across western Europe. With bridges secured and supposedly impregnable fortresses taken it would be hard not to be. The second inevitable thought was: why haven’t we got anything like that? So was born the idea and the seed of Britain’s elite Parachute Regiment. 

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was, of course, notoriously fond of special elite units like the Royal Marine Commandoes and the Special Air (and Boat) Service. So, he was delighted with the idea of dropping in troops from the skies to take and hold positions – and much else besides – where required. But the question was – where can they be used, and would they be of any use? Their first test came with a smash & grab operation in France early in 1942. The mission, Operation Biting, was a simple one – to grab German radar equipment that was giving the RAF a hard time so that countermeasures could be developed (more to come on this). It was both a successful mission and an ideal opportunity to learn valuable lessons before moving on to anything bigger. Naturally one of the consequences of ‘going large’ was that a purely volunteer force was no longer an option, so entire Infantry units were transferred over, and parachute (or glider) training was undertaken.  

The next opportunity/learning experience was in North Africa where more limitations were exposed for all to see – specially the lack of heavy anti-tank equipment – which cost the Regiment dearly. But it was also the place where they got the famous ‘nickname’ of the Red Devils, given to them by the opposing German forces before of their fighting prowess. Not surprisingly, the name was adopted with pride. Moving on to Sicily more painful lessons along with more encounters with their opposite numbers, the German parachutists, helped harden the Regiment for its toughest and most important mission yet – the invasion of Continental Europe: D Day. The deployments of paratroopers and glider forces (including the famous taking of Pegasus Bridge) before and around D-Day was a huge success and paved the way for the successful landings that day and in the following ones. Losses were high but still significantly less than expected or feared. The new doctrine had more than lived up to expectations. 

Not surprisingly, after such a success the temptation was to go even larger. Hubris, it must be said, played a significant role in the idea and planning of Operation Market Garden which hoped to shorten the war by leapfrogging through the Low Countries and end with pointing a dagger at the heart of the Rhineland. It was, as we now know with hindsight ‘a bridge too far’ as the attempted capture of the crossing at Arnhem failed spectacularly. From the authors notes it does seem that the idea was both rushed in the planning stage and in its application. Cooler heads should have seen that the operation was simply too risky and relied with everything going exactly right. Having many year's experience at this point the planners should have been well aware that NO plan survives contact with the enemy. So, when the troops at Arnhem met a Panzer division at rest it was effectively game over – despite a truly heroic defence of their perimeter (more later!) which has since passed into legend.  

Although a little too exhaustive in places, this was often a fascinating look at – from the British standpoint at least – a new way of warfare. When used properly (certainly not always the case) it was devastatingly effective. When used improperly (when strengths and weaknesses were not understood by Infantry commanders) casualty lists ballooned. Even so, the Parachute Regiment always fought above its weight as befits an elite unit and has more than earned its place in history. An interesting read and, therefore, recommended. 

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Looks like old computer graphics..., before they figured out how to do weather effects & grass blowing in the wind...!

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Happy Birthday: Walter Adolph Georg Gropius (18 May 1883 – 5 July 1969) was a German-American architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, who, along with Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modernist architecture. He was a founder of Bauhaus in Weimar (1919). Gropius was also a leading architect of the International Style.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Play the Red Queen by Juris Jurjevics (FP: 2020) [346pp] 

Saigon, 1963. It would’ve been nice to have been on the investigation from the start but since when has the Army done anything in a straightforward manner? So, with the third American officer shot dead in broad daylight on a busy street Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser and Sergeant Clovis Robeson of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division are practically starting from scratch. Not that there’s much to go on. Each of the victims was a US military ‘advisor’ to the Army of South Vietnam, each was killed at fairly close range with a single shot from an automatic handgun with the killer apparently being a young girl who then escaped on the back of a motorbike. In a city of thousands of motorbikes and tens of thousands of pretty young girls riding on their backs that information was practically useless. So, where to start? There’s a basic rule in police work – if you can’t investigate the murderer then investigate the victims. The ‘random’ killings of American soldiers turned out to be nothing of the kind – they were linked, they knew each other or worked in the same department, the area of the Army responsible for the importation of American supplies into the South. It was an area awash with money. Were the officers on the take or had they refused to be corrupted? Was someone simply cleaning house prior to the much rumoured ‘coup’ that had been talked about in the local bars for months now? Was the hit-girl Viet Cong or someone closer to home? With regular in-fighting and powerplays between members of the South’s ruling ‘elite’ who could tell which death-squad was responsible for which execution or assassination? It was impossible to keep track. What made things worse, if they could get worse, was that the American ambassador was in town doing deals and making waves. His life had already been threatened and he might even be on the assassins ‘list’. Closing the case wasn’t going to be easy in a town full of refugees, undercover agents, factions and teenage killers. But orders are orders – find the girl and stop the killing... 

As usual I picked this up because both the blurb on the back and the distinctive cover looked ‘interesting’. I was most definitely not disappointed with my choice! This turned out to be one of my best reads of the year so far. The author writes beautifully and, having served in Vietnam for “fourteen months, nine days and two hours” knows his way around the city, the people and the culture of the region (like knowing NOT to pat a Vietnamese kid on the head!) which made the reading both highly entertaining and very informative. It was, honestly, like being there complete with the oppressive humidity, the constant sound of traffic (and distant gunfire), the regular random power cuts and knowledge that if you stayed there long enough you were going to open the wrong door, meet the wrong person or just start the wrong car and that would be that – Game Over. It’s a real shame that the author died not long after completing this novel – his third – so I can’t look forward to reading him in the years ahead. I’ll definitely be looking out for his other novel based in Vietnam though. If you’re interested in the very early phase of the Vietnam War – when the American’s were still in their ‘advisor’ phase before that started shipping in troops by the tens of thousands and carpet-bombing entire countries – including those not even involved in the war – this will intrigue you. If you just want a bloody good read and want to lose yourself in a faraway place and a very different time I can't recommend this book too highly. One thing I need to do, going forward, is to read up on the US Ambassador – Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. If he’s anything like his character in this novel, he deserves my attention! More to come on the region, the war and from this author.   

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Monday, May 13, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Red Summer – The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter (FP: 2011) [271pp] 

After their sacrifices on the battlefields of France they thought things would change on their return. With the words of President Wilson still ringing in their ears with talk of Democracy and Self Determination as the cornerstones of a new world order, with talk of peace, prosperity and progress for all they thought things would be different, that they’d be treated with more respect and that many would, at long last, be able to cast their votes without fear of the consequences. In 1919 they realised they were wrong. Nothing had really changed. Despite filling many of the jobs lost to soldiers fighting abroad and despite fighting and dying on European battlefields – when they were actually allowed to fight – they were treated exactly the same and were expected to take up their subservient roles again as if nothing had happened. Not surprisingly, many decided that things had indeed changed – maybe not in American society but within themselves. The feeling, most especially amongst returning veterans, was that they deserved better and that they would demand batter. So began the slow, painful and often bloody awakening of Black consciousness across America – from resistance to lynching, to fighting back in the cities (both North and South) when attacked, to the founding and growth of organisations designed to help black American’s gain access to legal remedies previously denied them as well as procuring professional legal representation in court cases where life and death hung in the balance.   

I’d come across various examples of this aspect of the American experience scattered through my reading of US history, but I lost count of the number of times I was honestly shocked at what went on and people's reaction to it. A few times I had to put the book down and go do something else for a while for my brain to function again. There’s only so much casual racism and targeted brutality I can cope with before my mind loses all comprehension. From 1919 into the early 1920’s I’m stunned at what black Americans had to put up with and I’m not surprised in the least that at least some of them decided that enough was enough. Some white commentators actually complained that the problem was caused by the French who had the audacity to treat black American soldiers like human beings which inevitably gave them ideas ‘above their station’. While American officers treated black soldiers who wanted to fight as simple labourers the French officers were more than willing to lead them into battle – and did so to great effect. The French could care less about their skin colour (having black soldiers themselves) but only cared if they were willing to kill the Boche.  

This detailed and very well written history was a real eye-opener for me. I kind of ‘knew’ how bad it could be being black in early 20th century America, but I had no real idea – until now. If you have a reasonably strong stomach and you can keep your anger and disgust in check this is a worthwhile if sobering read which helps to put a lot of black activism into a solid context. Black Lives Matter and its predecessors did not pop into existence out of thin air. It had LONG antecedents – even long before the focus of this book. I think that I am at least beginning to understand where some of the animosity and suspicion of American blacks comes from. This book was a real education. Highly recommended to anyone wanting to understand a still vital aspect of America. More to come from this author. 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Happy Birthday: Dame Margaret Taylor Rutherford, DBE (11 May 1892 – 22 May 1972) was an English actress of stage, film and television.

She came to national attention following World War II in the film adaptations of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. She won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for her role as the Duchess of Brighton in The V.I.P.s (1963). In the early 1960s, she starred as Agatha Christie's character Miss Marple in a series of four George Pollock films. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 and a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1967.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Red Eagles by David Downing (FP: 2014) [232pp] 

Europe 1945. With the European war swiftly coming to an end Premier Joseph Stalin is looking to the future and he doesn’t like what he sees. It has become obvious that the USA will, with the inevitable defeat of the Axis Powers both in Europe and Asia, become the world’s dominant power for years if not decades to come. What is worse, if such a thing can be imagined, is that they will for most of that time be the world's only nuclear power. Knowing about the bomb's existence before the American President told him was a delicious moment but that fleeting moment didn’t count for much with a radioactive Sword of Damocles very publicly dangling over the head of the Soviet Union. Their own programme was advancing at pace. People, even scientists, work wonders when their families are threatened. But there was one element that even death threats cannot conjure out of thin air – enough Uranium 235 to build enough bombs to counter the Capitalist threat. If they couldn’t make enough fast enough there was only one real alternative – they would have to steal it from the Americans. Easily said but certainly possible – except for one thing, the Americans would both know it had been taken and how many bombs could be made from it. A deception plan would be needed, and a third party needed to be blamed. If there was time for the Germans to act before the Third Reich collapsed. 

This was, to say the least, an intriguing work of fiction! I’ve been watching a long running series of YouTube History videos on the end of the European war, so I had lots of background information sloshing around my brain cells which helped fill in some of the background details. The plot was very clever, and I really liked the inevitable problems that arose – no plan surviving contact with the enemy (AKA reality) - as well as to how they were believably handled. As always (broken record time!) good characterisation was key to my enjoyment and here we had that in spades with the Russians, Germans and Americans all being well drawn and, mostly, likable. The only character we were supposed to dislike – and I did – ended up satisfactorily dead which was good. The romance elements actually made sense (normally I skip over those bits) and I didn’t have a single eye-rolling moment which is a pleasant change. Pacing was good and despite being rather short gripped enough to feel longer – in a good way. I actually don’t think I can fault this in a single way, and I consequently enjoyed it a great deal. More from this author to come. A solid above average read. Recommended.