Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hero of the Soviet Union

Heroes with feet of clay was the topic the writing group chose back in September last year. I wrote this:

Hero of the Soviet Union

April 12 1961 (and later)

George was fascinated by the news that a man had flown in space and then returned. Everyone else seemed worried. The Russians had won the space race and now everything outside the Earth would be communist. To George, avid reader of The Eagle and Dan Dare fan, it was like the real world had caught up with his imagination.

As the days passed he clipped blurry photos of Yuri Gagarin from the paper and added them to the posters of Dan and Dig and Professor Peabody on his wall. When better pictures appeared in the magazines he moved the poster of his beloved Spurs (destined to come third in the league that year) up to the ceiling to make room. He considered scribbling out Khrushchev holding up the hand of the cosmonaut. He left him in, but it made him uneasy.

March 28 1968

Exactly how close the Vostok 1 mission came to failure was not revealed until later. The capsule was so weight restricted they couldn’t fit in a parachute that would allow it to land safely; it would crash into the ground too fast for the cosmonaut to survive. Gagarin had to eject from the craft at 7 km (22,000 feet) altitude. George found it difficult to imagine; flying into space for 90 minutes, then having to leave the spaceship and drift on a parachute for another 10 minutes.

Gagarin had been made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his only spaceflight. That had been followed by an endless round of publicity tours. He had taken too much advantage of the Russian habit of every social occasion involving large amounts of alcohol. There was also the rumour that his wife had caught him with another woman. During the incident he had escaped off a second floor balcony, falling and injuring his forehead so hard it left a scar.

His later career sometimes seemed more farce than tragedy. That had changed yesterday when the Soviet authorities’ efforts to protect their hero had come to an end. Gagarin had crashed his MiG-15 while on a training flight.

None of that mattered today as he walked into the white room to be greeted by the nurse.

“Congratulations Mr Mackenzie. You’re the father of a beautiful little girl!”

He was stopped in his tracks. “A little girl?”

“Over here.” In his wife’s voice he could hear the you idiot she didn’t say. She was holding a bundle of cloth with a tiny pink face at the top.

Sometime later they were interrupted by the nurse again. “Would you like a cup of tea?” After they agreed they did, she went on “Have you thought what you’re going to name her? The registrar will be coming round later.”

“I... hadn’t thought about it. Ellen, what do you think?”

“I’m too tired. But, you’re not going to name her after that terrible Russian astronaut.” He agreed. It was too morbid, too soon. This was a new person, who should have a new name.

Ellen had other concerns. “His name sounds too much like wee.”

“I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe Joceyln?”

She shook her head. “Too old fashioned. It’s 1968! We should be broadening our minds.”

“How about Laika?”

“That’s the name of a dog. A Russian dog.”

He frowned. “Perhaps... Comet?”

“That’s Supergirl’s horse.”

He looked up. “What?”

“I said, it sounds like something from a comic. Look I don’t see why this is so hard. All we need is something modern, distinctive and not too silly sounding.”

He paused, concentrating for a while. “Then how do you feel about Andromeda?”

19 February 1989

George answers the phone “Hello?”

“Hi Dad, it’s Andi.”

“Hello sweetheart. Shall I get your Mum?”

She sighs at this 117th repeat of his joke greeting. “No, I’m actually calling for you today.”

“Oh? Are you short of money?”

“No. Well not really. I’m actually calling because we’re getting a guest speaker for SpaceSoc. I thought you might be interested. It’s Valentina Tereshkova.”

 “Valentina Teresh-who?”

“Daaaaad. You know perfectly well who. Stop messing about. Do you want to come and meet her?”

He nods, then realises she can’t see him. “Yes. Yes I would. Thank you darling.”

Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, carried a flag at the winter Olympics in Sochi; last year at the age of 76 she expressed interest in joining a proposed one way trip to Mars.


****

It's worth noting that I was NOT named after Neil Armstrong, but I am aware of other Neils who were named after him.

EDIT: It's also worth noting that for wordcount and topic reasons I am cruelly unfair to Gagarin's later career, in which he was in charge of cosmonaut training and spaceflight safety at various times, making important contributions to both.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Confession

A writing group suggested the topic Confession. So obviously I wrote some fanfic.

****

I confess. I am the vigilante. I am the one who goes out at night dressed up in the costume to beat criminals to a pulp with my bare hands.

It’s not a sex thing.

I’ve never liked bullies. Even before the event – the thing that happened to my parents – I hated the ones at school. The squealers, the brawlers, the sneaking gossipers. But worst of all were the stealers, both the thieves who got into everything and the daylight robbers who baldly demanded tribute. I told my parents, the teachers, even the prefects. None of them did anything.

So I stood up to them. I picked the worst, a gross slab of muscle called Kent. No one liked him, so no one would back him up. The only disadvantage was that he was two years older, six inches taller and half again my weight.

It was a brutal fight. In the end I won. The endless hours with the child psychologist that resulted were worth it, because every time Kent tried to extort anything I was there. One glare stopped him in his tracks. The rest of the bullies avoided confronting me but continued their foul schemes on other victims.

I had learnt a lesson; that if you face down the villains, you become a target of the authorities. So I began to use guile. I spied on them and arranged for their secrets to come to light, for their lockers to accidentally come open, or their bags to fall apart when they carried the most incriminating evidence. The most cunning of them I followed and, identity hidden by a ski-mask, I beat them into surrender.

I was still a child, still believed in justice. The mask is just to hide my identity from those who would use it against me. It isn’t a sex thing.

Later came the hard times. With my parents gone I knew that if there was to be justice I would have to make it myself. With my own hands and feet and most of all with my mind. I learnt how to disappear, how to fight six men at a time. How to out-think them so that I had won before the fight even began. And I learnt to bury my guilt with anger, to hide it all in my fight against crime.

I won’t tell you where the equipment is, or where it came from. I won’t tell you who helped me. You've heard rumours that I was endangering children, even recruiting them into an army. It’s not true. If you ever find them – if they ever give themselves up – you’ll learn they were all adults, all volunteers. Even if some of them are not as tall as me.

They have their own reasons for helping me, for disguising themselves and fighting crime. It’s not a sex thing.

So I confess to it all. I am the vigilante. I am the dark knight, the guardian of the city, the caped crusader. I am the reason criminals are afraid to go out at night.

My name is Selina Kyle and I am The Batman.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I Watch Films: Lucy

Until it started I had not realised that Lucy (2014) was a Luc Besson film. When his name came up I adjusted my weirdness expectations upwards to what turned out to be appropriate levels.

In fact here's what I knew about Lucy, from the adverts when it was released last year: Lucy is played by Scarlett Johansson; people only use 10% of their brains (I'll come back to this) but for some reason she's using more and so gets superpowers; Morgan Freeman is the scientist who explains stuff; and there's some kind of link to the early hominid skeleton called Lucy, the oldest ancestor of mankind (I'll come back to this too).

And basically all that stuff IS in the film. There's also a fairly standard drug-mule-double-cross plot which is how Lucy ends up with a drug in her system that allows her to use a greater percentage of her brain, and is also used to create action scenes and tension. This doesn't really work because...

Okay so let's start again.

Most action films are actually pretty childish, with thrillers tending towards the adolescent. This is not a problem; if your film is about spectacle, then why not have a cursory story to hang your action scenes on and rely on the charm of your actors to carry it through? Nevertheless, it can get tiring watching dumb heroes doing dumb things to create big dumb explosions. When a film steps forward into the Sixth Form to look for ideas, I can only applaud.

Like most Sixth Form Common Room debates, the ideas in this film quickly fall apart. Firstly the "We only use 10% of the brain"[1] fact is actually a myth. Although some brain functions are a mystery, most areas of the brain have been observed doing something for various reasons at various times. This, and other bad science, gets ignored because Morgan Freeman is pretty damn convincing. The cutting between his lecture on what might happen if we used more of our brain and the initial events in Lucy's story are an interesting choice, giving us calm moments between the tense scenes of the drug-deal-gone-wrong[2]. (We don't need to liven his lecture because Freeman is the best lecturer as was proved in the series Through The Wormhole)

By the 40 minute mark (the film is a pleasingly brief 89 minutes, so once we remove time for the credits, this is just about the halfway point) Lucy has gained control over 30% of her brain giving her invincible superpowers. This leaches tension from almost all the action scenes from then on, as the question stops being "can she get out of this?[3]" and becomes "what cool special effect will this lead to?" Besson tries to replace this with a more philosophically tense question: "What happens when she reaches 100% brain use?"[4]

The answer to that, or rather the question that she's trying to answer is "time". So as her brain shifts gear into the 90%s she has visions of the past, while also extruding a black-organic-cable looking supercomputer, which at the end offers Morgan Freeman a big USB stick with Total Knowledge on it. I'm dubious.

I'm dubious because in her vision she travels to New York, then goes back in time. When all the buildings are gone and there's just grass and trees, some Plains Indians on horses appear. So 1. No not in New York. 2. The first Native Americans to embrace the horse, the Comanche, did not have enough horses to mount their tribe until 1730. 3 In 1730 New York City had a population of over 10,000.

This is all moot, as she meets Lucy, probably not the oldest known ancestor of humanity, a native of Ethiopia. When she blasts off into space after this meeting, it's clearly from Manhattan, so I guess this isn't a literally true vision, just a bunch of stuff. Which calls into question everything else she sees.

In the end the Sixth Form Common Room philosophical debate is a bit of a flop. "Everything is connected and Time gives existence meaning." Thanks Lucy. Well done. Are you sure that was 100% of your brain you were using?

(That was mean. 7 out of 10, Film of the Year)

[1] "So what do we use the other 10% for?" as I inevitably reply. Sorry.
[2] My favourite part is when she's confronted by Chinese gangsters (in Taipei) and none of them speak English, so the boss gangster calls up a translator on speakerphone. Why hasn't this been used before?
[3] The answer up until then is mostly "Yes, but she ends up in a worse state."
[4] It was possible that she would hit 99% and then the Chinese gangsters would kill her, stopping the Ultimate Revelation and/or Armageddon in it's tracks, but that's not what it seems to be ramping up to.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fraud and Dickens

This piece, from 2014, was in response to a writing class task about Dickens.



Fraud
In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens describes the workings of the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. It is a fraudulent organisation run by the con-man Montague Tiggs (or Tiggs Montague); specifically it is a Ponzi scheme which attracts investors with promises of high returns. However payouts come from the money given by the victims rather than from any profits.
Ponzi schemes (named after Charles Ponzi, who was not born until 1882, 38 years after Chuzzlewit was published and 12 years after Dickens’ death) are nothing new. The Roman Empire had insurance scams, fake investment schemes and real estate bubbles. The interesting thing to me is the con, or confidence part of the con-game. Montague Tiggs has connections throughout London society. He gives lavish dinners and has very posh offices. Various people who, and it is important to be clear on this, are definitely not employed by the company talk up what a wonderful opportunity it is.
Charles Ponzi was an Italian immigrant to the US and most of his clients were from the Italian-American community. This kind of crime is known as affinity fraud, in which the confidence in the con-man comes from them having something in common with the victims. The con-man is seen as ‘one of us’ and uses the connections in the community to promote his schemes.
In 2008 Bernie Madoff, a Wall Street investor, was arrested for securities fraud. Investigators estimated that the size of his firm’s liabilities was in the region of $57 billion, although they recovered $36 billion in assets, making it the largest fraud in US history[1]. Up until his arrest Madoff was prominent in the American Jewish community, who were amongst his biggest investors. His offices and lifestyle were those of a successful Wall Street investor. Although many financial firms were suspicious and did not deal with him, he continued to attract new customers right up until his arrest.
Some people have suggested that we need a new Dickens for the 21st Century. In this, as in many other cases, perhaps we should start by paying attention to the Dickens we already have.

[1] Although not the largest in history. That continues to be debated, but a leading candidate is Alvos dos Reis who instigated the Portuguese Bank Note crisis of 1925, one of the causes of the 1926 coup d’etat. It indirectly lead to the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister (and effectively dictator) of Portugal from 1933 to 1968, an economist who stabilised the economy as Finance Minister.

 ****

More on Martin Chuzzlewitt can be found in my review of the book, part of my (re-) read of Dickens.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Read Books: India Black

I Review The Book

India Black by Carol K Carr is an adventure novel set in 1876. The eponymous protagonist, India Black, is the madam of a brothel who finds herself caught up in an espionage plot (hence the series name, Madam of Espionage).

It is fast paced and amusing. Several historical characters turn up showing slightly more disreputable faces than the history books tend to emphasise. This is not unexpected in a plot that revolves around ridiculous political skulduggery, 19th century European politics at the down-and-dirty level and also prostitutes. The book declares it is not that sort of prostitute's memoir, although it does get quite bawdy (mostly by implication and the strategic use of telling details).

There's quite a lot of people getting captured and tied up, a briefcase of secrets to keep out of the hands of various parties (that turn out to not be quite as vital as might be thought) and some actual history going on if that's what you want. India Black has a distinctive voice; witty, a little world-weary, cynical and self-interested, and wanting just a bit to show these fine gentlemen that she may be a woman and a prostitute, but she can get the job done.

Period hats and clothes are described appropriately, but are not the main focus of the novel.

I have, of course, some nits to pick, most of which are quite unfair. If you're not interested, then skip to the end where I have my recommendation.

I Pick Nits

It is, of course, not written in actual Mid-Victorian English, and thank goodness for that. Mostly the vocabulary, phrasing and slang are suitable, using words and phrases appropriate to the period but in a streamlined 21st century manner. Only once was I jarred out of the book by a poor choice of word: "The tobacconist's shop was only a few blocks from Lotus House..." is not something that a Londoner would say, even today. Blocks are for rationally designed cities, not maze-like London.

(Exactly where Lotus House is located does not seem to be defined, which is probably wise)

Later there is a long coach chase in the snow from London to the channel ports. Now coaches were widely used at this time, especially for short trips and across the countryside. Nevertheless long distance travel would more usually take place by train.

This is not precisely a problem. The pursued are spotted in a coach driving out from Greenwich, apparently on their way to Dover. Knowing they are being pursued, it would make sense to avoid railway stations. Yet I'm not convinced. Here are the lines:

"I followed 'em as far as Greenwich. I'd say they're 'eadin' for Dover."; and

"I jumped off when they got near Greenwich. I figured they was on their way to the coast."

Now they inform their agents at Dover (and presumably the other channel ports - see later) to watch for the pursued, so it does make sense to follow them. And when they do follow them and they stop to change horses at inns, the horses are terrible, as you'd expect when long distance posting is dying due to competition from the railway. And finally it turns out that (SPOILERS) they're not leaving from Dover, but from a small fishing/smuggling village somewhere nearby. So that bit makes sense.

Except the assumption of Dover is odd; leaving London via Greenwich why could they not continue along the Thames estuary and catch a boat, from Gravesend, Chatham or Ramsgate? If they turn to go to the south cast, they might as easily depart from Folkestone, or if they want to go out of their way end up in Deal, which would be a good candidate for smuggling/fishing, although it was (and is) somewhat larger than the place described.

(For that matter, although it is night and winter and snowbound, they find that Kent is very rural, with country inns and hamlets. Presumably the people they are pursuing are avoiding the main highways and major towns of the county. Exactly how they know to follow this path rather than the direct route through (probably) Dartford, Rochester and Canterbury is left unanswered.)

(Exactly where the smuggling/fishing village might be located is a bit of a puzzle too; I can't tell if they are on the north, south or east coast of Kent.)

Anyway, this is completely unfair of me; the author apparently lives in Missouri in the 21st century and her version of 19th century London and Kent is superior to most who write in that setting. Adding more explanation of why they're travelling by coach or how Vincent knows they're going to Dover would simply have given me more and different nits to pick. I am interested rather than aggravated, which is probably a good result.

I Sum Up My Thoughts

Buy This Book: For an amusing, clever 19th century adventure-thriller with good research but not too much consequence
Don't Buy This Book: If you find melodramatic chases, farcical break ins and people continually taking each other prisoner and making cutting remarks are of no interest. Also if you insist on the geography of Kent being absolutely accurate and important to the plot.
And One Other Thing: The name of the author: Carol K Carr. It's quite fun to say.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

150 Words of Crime

 I wrote this for a flash fiction crime competition with a limit of 150 words. I don't think it quite works, which is probably why I never sent it in or posted it anywhere. As it was in January 2014 floods were topical.

--

The council who’d called it a ‘glorified call centre’ when justifying cutbacks had stopped complaining when the floods came. Now Amber’s calm voice and excellent planning skills were in great demand in the fire brigade communications centre. She was putting in a lot of overtime, as were her friends from Blackwell Station, the next on the list to be closed.

“Hello Flood Assistance Helpline.”

“You’ve been forced to leave your house. No one got left behind? No pets?”

“I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t mean to imply anything.  I have to ask, even if you’re a county councillor. What was the state of the property?”

 “You had to leave in a hurry? I’ll see if we can get someone to take a look at it. If you’ll just give me your address.”

“Well, that’s lucky. Blackwell Station are nearby in their boat. I’m sure they can give it appropriate protection.”

Friday, May 29, 2015

I Read Books: Return of a King

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, 2013

Keen readers of Night of the Hats (which after this long hiatus is probably a cohort of zero even including myself) may recall that in 2011 I read and reviewed a book called Signal Catastrophe: The British Retreat from Kabul, 1842. I commented at the time that "A little more documentation from the Afghan point of view would not have hurt the book."

My note was, of course, criticised as such records were rare and mostly unavailable. Point taken. Entertainingly, at much the same time as I was reading Signal Catastrophe, William Dalrymple had already been to Afghanistan and tracked down several Persian Language accounts of the First Anglo-Afghan War and was in the middle of writing his own take on the topic. Having now read this history, I will not only stand by my earlier statement, but expand on it: The Afghan sources greatly enhance the book.

To continue my unfair comparison between the two books, Signal Catastrophe was narrowly focused: Why was there a retreat, What happened and How did it go so wrong? Return of a King takes a much wider view, looking for the roots of the war in Anglo-Russian relations and attitudes to Central Asia, the role of Persia, the Punjab and to a much lesser extent other countries in the region. It investigates the dynastic and tribal background of the important factions and players in the Afghan kingdom. When the war begins, it looks at the major actions and representative smaller skirmishes. It is especially good at giving us a view of what was happening in Shah Shuja's court, and how as they lost control the British sidelined him more and more, and the ways this fatally made their position untenable.

Perhaps less good are it's views on the outcome and legacy of the war, which are detailed in a handful of pages. (To be fair the final chapter finishes on page 487 and is followed by 80 pages of Author's Note, notes, glossary, bibliography and index, and a proper history of the results would make the book at least half as long again. At least.) Dalrymple draws explicit parallels between the First Afghan War and the current occupation, although he doesn't dwell on it, and keeps in mainly for the introduction and author's note at the back.

Because I can't sum up, let me finally give you a couple of interesting bits from the text. Firstly a quote from Emily Eden, sister of Lord Auckland the Governor General on a problem with the post*:
"We try all sorts of plans; but, first, the monsoon cripples one steamer, and the next comes back with all the letters still on board that we fondly thought were in England. Then we try an Arab sailing vessel; but I always feel convinced that an Arab ship sails wildly about drinking coffee and robbing other ships..."
Secondly, in his summing up (because, as a decent popular historian, he can), Dalrymple notes that in the Afghan documents the British forces had no respect, and would loot and rape and treat them dishonourably; as he puts it:
"The British, in other words, are depicted in the Afghan sources as treacherous and oppressive woman-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect Afghans to look at us."
Read This Book: If you have any interest in Afghanistan, British Imperial History, Central and South Asia or, anything related to that. Also if you want to see what a well-researched, really excellent popular history should be.
Don't Read This Book: If all this stuff is boring or depressing to you. If I have a criticism it's that Dalrymple's prose is mostly simple and inelegant reportage, but since he quotes extensively from letters, journals and even Afghan epic poems of the events I can't really criticise his wordsmithing**.
Am I Going to Plug My Brother's Central Asian Tours? Under no circumstances.

* The regular post ship having been sent as part of the flotilla to occupy the island of Kharg in the Persian Gulf.
**His writing is more interesting in City of Djinns his memoir of a year living in Delhi (where he now lives permanently I believe).