The Underground Railroad

Just finished my latest Audible book last week – it was called The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Before that, I had been reading a book about somebody’s life – and death – during the Holocaust, and like a bloody eejit I thought this might be a light-hearted foil. Why was I so dumb? Well, it isn’t a phrase that is commonly used in the UK, so it was only when I started that I learned that the book was about slavery.

It is an award-winning book – it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. That was the reason I chose it. I thought a book which won something like that was bound to be a good read. It took a while to get into it, though – I put it down about halfway through and didn’t pick it up again for a few months, so it wasn’t massively engaging. Second-time, I started from scratch but got all the way through.

It is about a slave-girl on a Georgia plantation, who escapes, and the tale follows her run up north. Obviously there are twists, but…you’ll have to read the book.

The thing I found strange about the book was that the Underground Railroad was written as an actual railroad – choo, choo, and so on – where my understanding is that it is a figure of speech. I had to do a double-take when I heard that.

I guess overall it was a good story. There was one part I’d have done very differently. They send a slave-catcher after her, who duly catches her, but at one point the tables are turned and she has a gun on him. She rides off, leaving him tied up. And, of course, he later comes back to haunt her. Me? I’d have shot him between the eyes. It’s simple – him or me. But I suppose the book would only be half as long if she’d done things my way!

Anyway, the subject matter was nowhere near as lightweight as I’d hoped – I assume that despite the story being fiction, the author made it as true-to-life as possible, and some parts are horrific – but overall I’d say this was a good read.

Audible – June 2020

Must be six months ago, I posted about my latest Audible choices. Here’s where I am at.

The easiest to talk about first: my Naomi Klein book. It was a good book but really it talked in too many names and numbers for an audiobook; I felt bombarded.

I was about 2/3 of the way through, slowly plodding my way through, when, one day, I just fancied listening to something else. That was that.

It’s a good book, it was just very hard-going. I must try and listen to it again at some point.

I kinda just assume that everybody knows who Louis Theroux is. If not, he’s a documentary-maker, his films air on BBC2 here, a channel aimed more at thinking than being entertained. He’s half-American, about the same age as me and he started his career making documentaries for Michael Moore on TV Nation. I think Theroux’s docs are less overtly political.

I quite enjoyed this book, and it was an easy read. It was essentially an autobiography. Since we’re the same age, maybe that should be my next project? He’s a likeable chap, but you know when you meet a psychologist, you feel they’re looking you up and down to determine if you’re an axe murderer? Come on, that can’t just be me! I think if you met this guy, you’d just be left wondering if you’re his next project. And he is obsessed with the now-disgraced UK DJ, Jimmy Saville.

My third book was far nd away the most difficult read. Renia’s Diary. It is still only recently released, so it should probably still be available. She’s in a part of Poland over which everybody played ping-pong. Originally the Nazi-Soviet Pact carved Poland up. She was in the Soviet part, and life continued. It’s funny, because even though we tend to think of 1939 as the kick-off, she lived relatively normally after this and finished her schooling. Then the Nazis declared war on the Soviets, and initially made quite rapid advances. So, she ended up living under the Nazis. But she lived under them for a while too – it was only really in 1942 that she started to speak more frequently about ghettos.

Actually, very little of the book concerns itself with current affairs. It is mostly her feelings for her boyfriend. It surprised me how innocent it all was – all these thoughts of true love. blah, blah, when, really, she’s talking about kisses and cuddles. In my day we just ended up shagging each other silly. I guess a lot of the lack of current affairs must have been fog of war, but also this is a young girl. And maybe that’s how you get through these things, by concentrating on the good things?

I think the remarkable thing about the diary is just that it got published at all. She left it in the trust of the boyfriend, and in fact the last few entries are by this guy. He survived the war, and got to the USA.

Years later, he tracked down Renia’s sister, who had also survived the war – Renia’s mother and sister posed as Catholics in Warsaw, living outside the ghetto. They also ended up in the USA.

She then put the diary into a safety deposit box, unread for decades, and in fact, it was her children who did the spadework.

As it happens, I canned my Audible subscription a couple of months ago. I was accumulating credits each month, and not spending them anywhere near as quickly.

Audible’s fiddle is that they take away those credits if you cancel your membership. It is most definitely a con trick – those credits are mine, bought and paid for. The way around their little “rule” was just to put the remaining credits into some acceptable books, although that required an instant choice. I can, at least, read these books at leisure. I can still use their app, I’m just not accumulating their credits.

So future listens will include:

  • Jamaica Inn. I started this last night,
  • The Underground Railroad, a recent-ish novel that I heard was pretty good,
  • The Tattoist of Auschwitz. I can’t handle this one, yet,
  • An Alexandre Dumas triple-bill. The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo. I always liked Dumas, I’ve read (properly read) the first and last, years ago. I think Musketeers, I read in the original French. Monte Cristo was, I think, an enormous read. But so good I could easily read these books again.

After these books are exhausted, I might consider buying another subscription.

Observations

I was going to post this one anyway, but the first bit, for sure, fits into Fandango’s One-Word Challenge (FOWC). belligerent. I was going to update you on my current audiobook, called Renia’s Diary.

As it happens, Renia was about fifteen, a Jewish girl from Poland, in 1939. Of course, we know what happened, in fact we are told up-front that Renia was murdered by the Nazis in 1941. But because it is a diary, she writes so present tense – we know what is ultimately going to happen, but Renia, as she writes, has no idea.

She starts off, in January 1939, mad because they have had to uproot the family home. She has been packed off to live with grandparents, somewhere I can’t pronounce. Her mother is in Warsaw, for reasons I haven’t discovered yet.

In the first few entries, she also talks about school, for school terms in Poland ran absolutely normally in 1938-9. She even goes on her summer holiday at the end of the school year.

When Poland is actually invaded, in September, only Warsaw resists for any length of time (a week!). Again, thinking about the present and the future. We will win, she writes. Poland was invaded by both the Nazis and the Soviets, as a result of their pact at the start of the war. Renia even talks about Stalin’s occupying army, how one of the soldiers was sweet on her.

That is where I’m up to. So far it is pretty much what a teenage girl would write, I guess, but I am expecting Renia to get older very quickly.

Because it is a diary, everything is contemporary, which gives the book a unique perspective. It’s not written as a history book, where the end is known all the way through, where the author is leading us through to some end point. We do, of course, know what finally happened to Renia, but she didn’t. I’m expecting the account to end quite abruptly. And, I wonder if she’d have been so worried about being sent to her grandparents if she’d have known all the things that would happen subsequently?

And it makes me wonder about us. We often have immediate worries and concerns, but only hindsight allows us to know whether we were part of history.

This girl was living through something which ultimately changed the world, although she wasn’t aware of the sheer scale in her diary. And I look at this virus, and can’t help wondering whether we are too? We’ve already been in a situation where a roll of toilet paper is a better bargaining chip than a five dollar bill, where governments are handing out billions and trillions in order to keep their citizens solvent. Governments will presumably want to to claw all that money back one day? I wonder how much joy they will have? Maybe a few hundred years more austerity? How do they think populations will react to that? Maybe we’ll get to the point where a society is not just defined in financial terms, where money is not the be-all-and-end-all?


You guys have probably heard by now that both Prince Charles and BoJo [Boris Johnson] are being reported in the media as positive. I have to say that my immediate reaction was to wonder how they knew? Why they have been tested when even front-line nurses have not been tested yet, although in BoJo’s case presumably he is quite central to the co-ordination effort, so periodic testing is probably justified.

My second thought was a little more positive. If these public figures can pick the virus up, then it wouldn’t surprise me if many others of us have picked it up, too. And we don’t know, because the symptoms happen not to have been particularly bad (in us. They are obviously bad in some people.) And we’ll never know yes/no for sure, because we’ll never get to a hospital and therefore never be tested?

It is just a thought.

Audible – October ’19

I’d let my Audible subscription go off the boil, I get a new credit every month and had accumulated three credits to spend.

Audible is a bit of a fiddle, because if I were to decide to halt my subscription, I lose these credits (even though I already bought them). Like many services, it is easy to subscribe but if you want to unsubscribe, some care is required.

I think I can spend every credit on a book (now), then halt the subscription, then read (i.e. listen to) each of the books, at my leisure. But it’s a bit of a pain that I can’t just stop buying new credits and cash them in one by one, whenever I feel like a new read.

The jury is still out on whether I keep the subscription, especially as I don’t use it so much any more. I’ve thought a few times about canning it, but after all it is only quite a small amounteach month. However I have decided that I need to do more than just sit on this growing pile of credits.

So, I’ve just spent my three. I thought I’d share my choices.

Straight in at #1 (actually, I’m not doing this in any particular order), I found a book on an interesting subject. A subject that interests me, in any case.

A book by Canadian (I think) author Naomi Klein, about the conflict between making money and the environment. I think we’re pretty adept at paying lip service to the environment in order to make a fast buck, but ultimately we’re headed for a crunch of some kind, so I was interested in what this woman had to say. It was written in the early 2010s, I guess, so we have a few more years of data to go on. I wonder if anything will have changed?

So, I’m about 2 baths into that book. I only really listen to Audible when I have a bath.

In at #2, still waiting to be opened, is a book by Louis Theroux.

I’ve got to love Louis Theroux. Seriously. His subject matter is, er, not what I’d choose myself, but nevertheless I enjoy his documentaries, and will usually record them if I see that they’re on TV.

I’m not even sure what this book is about, but figured it would be worth a read.

My last choice – I have no more credits until next month – was the one book that I really wanted.

It was only released a few weeks ago, and only on Audible for the last few days.

I know little about Renia’s Diary, save for a little of the back-story. Renia Spiegel was Polish and Jewish, and from 1939 she kept a diary about life – and ultimately, death – under Nazi occupation.

I don’t read paper books any more, because they are difficult on my eyes, and Audible is easier, but Renia’s story is exactly the kind of book that I used to read – an auto-biographical book by a first-time writer, somebody who’s had an experience worth sharing, and who’s not making a living by selling books. You can keep your “actor” and “sportsman” nonsense, I’m not interested, give me a real story any day. So I have high hopes for Renia, that’s why she’ll be last.

Explanations

Here’s a scenario for you all to consider. I’ve criticised my current Audible read in a previous entry, but it does provoke some thought.

The woman, originally from the C20th, has been transported (somehow) to the C18th.
The man is, and always has been, of the C18th.
The tale is set in the C18th, when they are also married to each other. Bear with it – if you bought that she could get back to the 18th century in the first place, this other should be no problem!

They’re having a row. She snaps at him, “why d’you always want to behave like bloody John Wayne?” Obviously, the response is “who’s John Wayne?”

Think about it. To try to explain movie star, you first have to explain movie. You probably then need to go back to still photography, how an image can make its way onto a piece of film…

What a bloody nightmare! 🤣

Audible (23 May 2019)

I mentioned the other week about my last Audible read, with some hope for the new one. A report so far…

This one is called Outlander, and I’m only about a third of the way through it. It starts just after WWII, when an English couple are on holiday in the Scottish highlands. She is miraculously transported back in time 200 years, with the highlands full of the old clans and the countryside interspersed with Redcoat forts.

She’s a fish out of water, very English in very Scotland, so regarded with suspicion by the Scots although taken to live with a clan. In the Forties, she’s meant to have been a war nurse, so has a smattering of French and some healing knowledge. That she has French makes her suspicious to the English too, but that she has nursing makes her a bit useful.

I mean, at that point, it was kind-of interesting. I thought there were a few ways in which the story could go, not least how to use her 20th-century knowledge to try and help people (whilst presumably managing not to be burned at the stake!), trying to explain how she’d got there in the first place. You can imagine that she might have wanted to get back home, but how on earth do you explain “home”? And so on.

But actually the direction that the book has taken is not so interesting, for me anyway. She’s taken in by some Scots but is wanted by the English. To try and protect her, she’s forced to marry a Scot, After just a month or so. Thereafter, there’s a lot of time spent describing the many and varied times they shag as newlyweds. I mean, I was a bit surprised because I tould assume that these sex scenes would titilate a man rather that a woman, and the book was written by a woman. Maybe it is written like that purely because men would appreciate it, and maybe buy the book?

I mean, all of that is harmless enough but it turns the book more into romance than sci-fi. I can obviously handle the sci-fi aspect – hence starting the book in the first place – but I’m not so much interested in the romance. We all have our own experiences of romance so, to me, other people’s are not something I’m particularly interested in.

It is a bit more sinister than that though. I don’t know whether this is just the story being faithful to the time, but I’ve picked up on this woman behaving very deferentially to the husband. In the scene I just read, this guy wallops her – that’d be enough for me to walk. I mean, you maybe don’t have a choice about the walloping, but you do have a choice about the dynamics of the ongoing relationship. In my world it is very simple – men and women are just 50:50, so I tend to notice when one partner becomes dominant. But as I say, that might just be the author’s portrayal of 18th-century Scotland.

Brave

After that Ken Clarke book, I’ve got back into listening to my Audible subscription. I tend to start work quite early, but by late morning I’m ready for a soak in the bath – and of course I listen while relaxing.

Anyway, I saw a News article a month or so ago. Somebody had an autobiography out, they were one of the people who’d been part of kicking off the #MeToo campaign, so for that reason I thought it might be an interesting read.

So I have been listening to a book by somebody called Rose MacGowan. (I’m afraid anybody who knows me won’t be surprised to learn that I just needed to look the name up!) I used to read a lot more than now, I used to like factual books, including biographies, but tended not to be interested in the entertainment or sport industries. I mean, of course these people entertain me, but let’s not lose our perspective, it is just something that transports me to a fantasy world for a short while, but after that….well, there’s enough going on in the real world, isn’t there? I suspect that most stories by successful/famous actors or sportsmen are not really any more than “I have a talent, and got a good job because of it”. Great, I’m pleased for you. So do I, just not in the same sphere as you. But obviously, when somebody is talking about abuse, that is real life, a whole level more serious.

I must admit to being a bit naive about how abuse happens. Naive is the wrong word, it is more really that I don’t understand what the turn-on is, if the other person is not a willing participant? It’s not even “what is the turn on?” but more “why is it a turn on?”. OK, it boils down to a “power” thing, but why is having power over somebody a turn on?

This woman – it sounded like she’s six or seven years younger than me – had quite a heart-wrenching childhood. I know from being a father myself that the one thing you try and do for your child is to provide some stable environment in which the child can feel secure and loved, but it is fair to say that she had little of that, and had a spell homeless before getting parts in movies almost by accident. She must have been quite successful at things before the abuse, because she says it happened at the Sundance Festival one year – something I have heard of, although I’m not exactly sure what it is. I don’t know whether she’s talking about Weinstein or not – she doesn’t use the name – but in any case, that’s just a detail. Her abuser was supported by other people who enabled the abuse to happen. So I get the feeling that the whole scenario is reflecting something more institutional than a lone wolf opportunist. Which means that it is the institutions which need to change – it’s not acceptable for someone to say “he’s the boss, so it is ok”. But that’s what the #MeToo is all about, I think. Plus, of course, she talks about the fallout, the blacklistings as soon as she opened her mouth – the punishment for daring to blow the whistle.

It’s a desperately sad story, and as a result, her book sometimes goes into a rant, which in turn made it difficult to read. She sees a lot of this as men vs. women, but I think there’s more to it than that. It might be true within her world, but I think it is probably more subtle than that. Especially as you get older and past child-bearing age, the male/female distinction is more blurred – to me, it doesn’t matter, although I do think we process things differently.The things that my wife picks up from something, say, are different from those that I pick up. I can only speak for myself but I was horrified by her story – as a white male. From my own experience, I know that when I was able-bodied I never consciously discriminated against disabled people, but now that I am disabled, I know that discrimination happens, so how do you square the circle? As far as I am aware, I have achieved what I achieved based on merit – no-one ever did me a favour – but there again I’m a white male, so perhaps I’ve just taken it for granted?

Still, all of this is food for thought. The only real point to any of this is that it improves the situation for people going forward, and in that I hope she succeeds.

Random

I like to have a short bath every day. At weekends, especially, the soak tends to be a bit more leisurely, and I have just been listening to my current audiobook, a geeky little number called Humble Pi.

It appealed to me because I’ve always been a bit of a maths geek. It’s basically about maths/engineering cock-ups, where bridges have collapsed etc. The US space programme features a lot. Last time he talked about a bridge between somewhere in Germany and somewhere in Sweden. They agreed a height for the bridge, and started to build half each with the intention of meeting in the middle.

It all went wrong because they agreed on a height, measured above sea level. But each set of engineers used a different reference point as “sea level”, so the two halves of the bridge met but one half was 50cm higher than the other! Things like that tickle me.

Today’s instalment was about random numbers, In particular, how difficult it is to generate truly random numbers.

“Proper” generators will use something physical – nowadays things might rely on quantum physics, for example, because at the quantum level, particles can appear and disappear at random – you can even get usb devices built along these lines. In the 1950’s the UK came up with ERNIE to generate random numbers – based on the length of time it would take a single electron to travel the length of a neon tube, which fitted the technology of the day. Because the path is chaotic, and therefore the distance travelled/time taken by the electron is random.

A cheaper/easier way is to produce something which looks as though it is random, called pseudo-random. It reminded me of one of my biggest programming challenges, many years ago. To produce a “seed” which, to all intents and purposes, was random. Lots of things will produce a seemingly random series of numbers, but they all rely on a seed. If you use the same seed twice, you get the same series of numbers, so the randomness of the seed is the key.

This algorithm took ages. In the end, I combined a bunch of things. The program ran on Windows so I ended up using stuff like mouse movements, and the interval between keystrokes. Even then, it was hard to be random, because trained typists didn’t use the mouse, and typed keys at surprisingly regular intervals. I got there somehow and the algorithm ended up being used by both Barclaycard in the UK, and Chase Manhattan in the USA, as part of their merchant operations. This was mid-nineties, so heaven knows if it is still in use (I can’t imagine so). The product I was working on used an American security library, which was subject to export restrictions, so I ended up going to the USA for the first time to do the work – with the same company I later went back several times, and was granted a visa to work there fulltime, as development lead.

Those were the days…