Thursday, December 27, 2018

Children of Time - Adrian Tchaikovsky

I picked up an Adrian Tchaikovsky book before (Empire in Black and Gold), recollect enjoying what I read of it, but it unfortunately fell during a time when some shitty things were happening in my life and I lost my reading mojo. Now I’ve read Children of Time and am considering going back to take a look at those Shadows of the Apt books.

If any book appears here it is because I finished it, so right away it is to me an enjoyable book. Life is too short for anything else and anything that doesn’t make the grade after a few chapters ends up in the charity shop bag. In fact that usually happens after just a few pages. This one made the grade in spades.

Two story threads weave the whole together with on the one hand the travails of the survivors of the human race travelling out in an arc ship to find the remains of a previous old empire, and on the other an uplift project (the space station concerned of course being called the Brin) – the terraforming of a world and the placement of a ‘barrel of monkeys’ there to rise to civilization. The driver of this is a nano-virus that accelerates evolution by dint of making acquired abilities heritable. This is overseen by Doctor Avrana Kern who, to survive during a rebellion in that old empire, becomes an amalgam of an upload of herself, her cold coffin body and the computer system of the satellite she occupies. The project goes wrong, and what rises to intelligence and civilization is somewhat unexpected. Okay, that’s enough, since I don’t want to give the plot away.

This being a doorstep of a book I had my doubts about whether I could stick with it, but over 600 pages of science fiction goodness I enjoyed myself immensely. The rise of the ‘alien’ race parallels (and nicely diverges from) the rise of humanity and the world-building there is excellent. I did get an ‘oh shit’ moment with the battle of the sexes turned on its head (but for perfectly understandable biological reasons) but fortunately it didn’t lapse into proselytizing on gender politics as seems par for the course elsewhere. The thread aboard the arc ship kept my nose in the book too – at no point did I think ‘Nah, move along’. I cared about the characters there and on the terraformed world.

Thoroughly recommended.   

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Revenger - Alastair Reynolds (A Christmas Story)

This was written a couple of years ago, but it seems appropriate to post this now, since it has baubles in it. 

I recently bought a stack of old SF books from a second-hand shop. Unfortunately it seems my discernment has changed over the years and quite a few of them went into a bag after a few pages to go back to a charity shop. I also went into Waterstones and bought some new books from writers who have never really failed me, and one of those is Alastair Reynolds. Finally giving up on the second-hand stuff I picked up Revenger.

Here we have a far future human civilization after the planets have been broken up and formed into millions of small worlds called the Congregation. There have been many ‘occupations’ of these worlds – the rises and falls of previous civilizations – which have left all sorts of high tech goodies scattered across space. These are often to be found in ‘baubles’ – worlds often concealed under force fields that open intermittently. This opening can be predicted by augury, usually by experts aboard the sailing ships that seek out this treasure. Of course the sailing ships run the perfectly feasible technology of light sails but, you know, there are pirates too.

Arthur C Clarke tells us that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Reynolds takes hold of this and gives us alchemy, a form of phrenology that delighted me, and all the dusty weirdness where advanced technology has become ancient, whipped up with a riff from Pirates of the Caribbean. I had a ball with this.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Bosch and Chicago PD on Amazon

Beginning to scrabble about to find something to watch on Amazon I had a punt at some of the cop shows available.

The first of these was Bosch, Hieronymus or Harry Bosch. The use of this name and the style of the whole thing leads me to suspect these are based on books. The plotting was tight, I cared about the characters and, frankly, I enjoyed four seasons of this and will probably enjoy more as they appear. The main character plays his role well – I’ve seen him elsewhere too (Agents of Shield). The only problem I have with him is that he is supposed to be a tough ex Special Forces guy, but physically is not at all convincing.

Hoping to find something more in the same vein I next tried Chicago PD. This started out well with a tough cop who had a beat them till they confess technique for solving crimes. The characters and story lines all gelled and his ‘intelligence’ unit had to deal with some nasty crimes using morally grey methods. I enjoyed the subplots with the uniformed officers too and to a certain extent this reminded me of The Shield. However, after a couple of seasons it began to wander off course. Too much lengthy emoting seemed to become the thing – long stretches of cops suffering emotional problems and being hugely empathetic. And, increasingly, the modern disease of TV and film began to encroach. I’m up to Season Four and finding myself fast-forwarding. There doesn’t seem to be an episode now without politically correct proselytizing shoehorned in and, as is the case when this bullshit starts, the plots are falling apart and the characters ceasing to be believable. Shame really.  

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Another look at Ecigs

Recently I put up a so-called science article on vaping in which the writers repeated the popcorn lung myth and even went so far as to say, "There is still no definitive answer on whether these risks (of vaping) outweigh the benefits of switching from traditional tobacco cigarettes". This is despite even the BMA, who were anti ecigs in the beginning, rating them as 99% less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. 

Numerous comments ensued, some by those whose lives, and health, have been vastly improved by switching from smoking to vaping, some by those who are against it. I found myself getting irritated by the latter, and somewhat defensive. This of course is not unusual in someone who has used vaping to quit cigarettes. I smoked for about forty years. I took my first puff on a cigarette before I reached my teens and was a full-time smoker by the age of sixteen. I grew up in a society in which smoking was common and allowed just about everywhere. I had heard of course that smoking is bad for you but, as with many, the reality of this did not impinge on me until I felt intimations of mortality in later life. From my 20s to 30s I smoked unfiltered roll-ups but started noticing chest pains, in my 30s to 40s I was using filters but the pains returned. In my late 40s I was delaying the first cigarette of the day with nicotine gum. Throughout all this time I made numerous attempts to quit, on a couple of occasions giving up for as much as a year. I tried NRT and it wasn’t much help. This bears out the statistics on NRT with its dismal quit rate and massive cost to the NHS for each smoker who does quit using by it. By my 50s I had crappy facial skin, frequent eye infections, often used an inhaler to be able to sleep at night and at other times too. 

Six or seven years ago Caroline and I had come to the conclusion we had to quit soon – smoking was fucking us up. Out on Crete we saw it in the people around us, with just about every smoker in their 60s facing serious health problems: heart stents and bypasses, emphysema, asthma and of course cancer. Out there Caroline became ill and this gave us a final push and, before heading back to the UK, friends gave us a box of quit smoking items. The usual NRT stuff was in there, but also some early vaporizers. These, when they actually worked, worked very well. Back in the UK I investigated further and discovered a vaping subculture and through that the next generations of vaporizers. Using these more advanced devices we both quit with surprising ease. In my case, within just a few weeks, I no longer needed the inhalers and the pain left my chest. Over further time my skin cleared up and the eye infections all but went away. As I have detailed here before, Caroline died of bowel cancer. Whether that was due to smoking can never be ascertained, but I would say it certainly didn’t help.

On my return to Crete I discovered other changes. My first time swimming again, rather than have to stop after a few hundred yards to catch my breath and cough the debris from my lungs, I swam a straight mile with ease. Also any form of exercise was easier and I did a lot. As a smoker it had almost felt like a pointless pursuit. Vaping had been practically miraculous for me and, in the ensuing years around the world, smoking rates plummeted because of it. But there was a big nasty worm in this apple.

I was utterly baffled by the rise in anti-vaping propaganda. Here was something – a product of small industry – improving and saving people’s lives. I read much of this nonsense: a Daily Mail article screaming about the carcinogens in ecig vapour, it later turning out that the quantity was minimal – no more than in NRT nicotine patches – and below the threshold were any effect could be detected; the panic about diacetyl in ecigs producing popcorn lung, despite the fact that there is more of the stuff in cigarettes and not much in the way of popcorn lung in smokers; ecigs as a ‘gateway’ into smoking for ‘the children’ when all research showed that they did the opposite. Article after article appeared whose sum aim seemed to be to stamp down on, control and even stop an activity that was saving lives. It even became legislation in the EU with the damned Tobacco Products Directive reducing the size of ecig tanks and the strength of their liquids so that they were a lot less effective than they had been. I even began hearing the madness that vaping was worse than smoking. Where was all this coming from? 

Crazily a lot of it came from people in the ‘health lobby’. It was almost as if, having spent years singing the ‘quit or die’ mantra and pushing to make cigarettes illegal, they were jealous of something that had turned up from outfield to do a better job than them. Further one can suppose that they were protecting their jobs and inflated salaries. Not so crazily Big Tobacco and drugs companies were against it. The Tobacco Products directive was partially the result of their lobbying of the corporatist (crony capitalist) EU. In both cases this was about sales, in the first sales of cigarettes and in the second the shitloads of money the drugs companies were making from NRT and, if you want to be really cynical, from the medication of smoking related diseases. Governments themselves are also culpable. Ecigs are a disruptive technology and governments are resistant to change, especially when it comes to sources of revenue.

But though the above explains some of the reasons for much of the propaganda it does not fully elucidate it. The ‘fake news’ and such pushes for legislation, control and bans, cannot operate in a vacuum because they need lots of people inclined to believe the first and on board with the rest. Why are many people without financial motives against ecigs? Having had many discussions about this I’ve come to some conclusions.

First off the public has been subject to decades of social engineering – indoctrination – against smoking. Some don’t quite understand how deeply rooted in their minds this is while, admittedly, others have always disliked smoking. A portion of both are against ecigs because they cannot see them as different from smoking. A person is breathing in ‘addictive’ nicotine and producing a visible cloud. How is this different from smoking? The simple reality here is that, on the whole, only those who have smoked and quit by using ecigs fully understand the differences. Over years of social engineering people have also been told nicotine is an evil addictive substance. This is a fallacy. Nicotine is only ‘evil’ by association with smoking. By itself it causes little more damage than the addictive substance caffeine. It is the delivery system – the cigarette – that causes the damage with its carcinogens, tar, monoxide, burning leaves and heavy metals. Ecigs don’t do that. ‘But you’re addicted!’ we hear the cry, because obviously this is a bad thing. Is it? Why is addiction, per se, a bad thing? 

Again this is association. Addiction has, historically, always resulted in damage – to health, to finances, to the mind, whatever. Whenever people hear the word they immediately think of smokers, or someone shoving heroin into their arm, people stoned out of their skulls in rotting tenements, people skull-fucked on cannabis and all the outfall of these. However, if addiction results in none of the above, why is it bad? Quite simply it isn’t. The attitude to addiction is a mind-set, programming, irrational. 

Beyond addiction we come to the vapour an ecig produces. Part of the indoctrination against smoking has been the risible ‘studies’ about the damaging effects of second-hand smoke. These studies have even slid into the Twilight Zone of third-hand smoke. Many people (not all) have been taught to fear it and be disgusted by it, even more than the car fumes that are doing them more damage. To a certain extent I agree with these reactions, but my agreement is limited. Anyone suffering from a lung complaint has reason to abhor cigarette smoke. And they of course have every right to complain. As for the disgust . . . it is only when you stop smoking do you realize how strong it smells and how much it lingers. Is it a bad smell, though? To some people it always has been, but to the majority it has only become such after being subjected to the aforesaid indoctrination. Very few people thought tobacco smoke was horrible fifty years ago, many in fact liked the whiff of a cigar or a pipe.

Now, when some see ecig vapour, which is little more than flavoured steam with a nicotine quantity that has practically zero effect on them, they react as they have been indoctrinated to react to cigarette smoke. Laughably many of these same people will be going home to put a new cartridge in their plug-in air freshener that does much the same thing as an ecig. Ecig vapour dissipates fast and the biggest ill effect most people will get from it is being subjected to a whiff of caramel or banana. Yet, they will wave their hands and cough dramatically to try and exclude the horrible social pariah who, despite all the evidence, they still think of as a smoker.                  

But here comes the ‘however’. Though many are reacting as they have been indoctrinated to react to cigarette smoke, there are others whose reaction may be perfectly valid. When I’ve been involved in discussions about this I’ve heard mentioned, with some ire, big clouds of vapour. My own ecig produces a brief waft of vapour that disappears in a few seconds and in some situations I will ‘stealth vape’ i.e. hold the vapour in long enough for it to settle so I breath out nothing visible. But, unfortunately, there are vapers for whom the objective of the practice is not to quell addiction, enjoy a hit of nicotine or the flavour of the liquid they are using, but to produce as large a cloud of vapour as they can manage. When I first saw this, in light of ecig advocates fighting to prevent bans and killing legislation, I felt it was madness. Such a cloud can affect the breathing of others, especially if they have some sensitivity or ailment like asthma, and it can piss off those with none of these. 

Here I have to add here that because of the aforesaid indoctrination many are already predisposed to be pissed off, and to have hysterical reactions which could be the root of ill effects. It’s not just the indoctrinated, but quite often ex-smokers. Part of the requirement of many of the latter, in giving up, was learning to hate their habit, and anything remotely like it.

Why do some vapers produce these big clouds? I think it partially relates to the hand waving and dramatic coughing reactions I mentioned above. People can be pushed but only so far, then they push back. The big cloud vapers are probably saying, ‘I can do this here, it’s legal, stop your dramatics and just fuck off.’ There’s a sense of rebellion in it. They were smokers who were turned into pariahs, found a way to stop smoking, only to then discover that some people still classify them as social pariahs, and they’re holding up a middle finger. It’s not clever and it’s not helping along this health revolution, but as we know, whenever a good thing comes along there are always those inclined to screw it up.