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…

Audible (15 Jan 2018)

The quality of my vision means that it is difficult for me now to pick up a book. Whereas I could once take in a line at a time, I now have to concentrate on individual words and letters, the pace is slower, and ultimately this reduction in fluency has left me disappointed.

I have tried Kindle, and this is an improvement.

However I am becoming a fan of my new audiobook subscription, which I’ve now had for a couple of months.

The subscription is with Audible, who are owned by Amazon. I don’t like Amazon much – they’re far too big and they don’t pay their fair share toward society – and so while I’ve known about Audible for a while, I have refrained. The type of books that I read (I never really bothered with fiction, instead preferring to read biographies of unknown authors who had experienced exceptional events) means that I would expect to run out of interesting material at some point, but at just a few months in, it hasn’t happened yet. I’m also interested in reading some classics to make myself better-read. Some of these I like, some I know I don’t like (for example I never got on with Dickens), but it would be usedul to know the plotline of Shakespeare’s plays, for example.

Anyway, to give a more solid idea of my tastes, here is what is currently in my “library”. Bear in mind, I have olny been at this a few months.

Books I have listened to so far:

  •  Cousin Bette (Balzac),
  • Adults in the Room (Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, this one about his encounters with the EU. it is well worth the “read”, but draw your own conclusions.)
  • Treasure Island
  • a lecture by journalist Robert Fisk – I don’t see this guy as particularly political, but he’s an expert on the Middle East and is very good at pointing out consequences of countries’ policies, not least the UK and USA. He understands a history that many of us in the UK have forgotten.
  • Talking to my Daughter – a Brief History of Capitalism (Varoufakis once again. I quite like this guy’s politics, although this book was more about economics. I was able to follow it but bear in mind that it was written with people like me as an audience. Doubtless the real world would be more complicated.)

Books I have bought, in preparation:

  • The Book Thief (the film came on TV, and I thought that the book is always better, so I stopped the film and bought the book instead)
  • The Infinite Monkey Cage (Brian Cox, the astrophysicist. This was my subject, all those years ago, still interests me now)
  • a Karen Carpenter bio
  • And the Weak suffer what they must? (Varoufakis)

But then you must know already from this blog that my tastes are……