Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Postman’s Knock 3

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[TL:DR – a thorough account of how a trusted organisation prosecuted 900 of its own people for crimes they did not commit, extracted large amounts of money from them and sent a good few to prison. They then covered this up for 15 years. 10% of the revenue from sales goes to the fund to assist Sub-postmasters in their claims. Buy this book!]

Regular readers may recollect that I’ve been making a big thing out of the Horizon scandal in the UK Post Office – and rightly so, for it is truly scandalous. I have now read Nick Wallis’ account of his uncovering of the scandal and the fight for justice for the 900 or so people wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office for a failure in software testing, which was magnified many times by a client who accepted at face value a contractor’s assertion that a deployed system was without faults (which any of us would instantly know to be an astonishing claim and almost certainly untrue), but then compounded matters by making strenuous efforts to push that belief to all who queried the integrity of the system. In the course of things, this may well mean that various people perjured themselves and/or may have committed the crime of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Nick Wallis’ book is a detailed account of his involvement with the campaign, from his first coming into contact with one case locally, up to August 2021 when the Post Office’s case had been disproved in court (despite strenuous efforts on their part to derail the legal process) and a start had been made on quashing at least 750 convictions now found to be unjust. In the end, the book is more about the legal arguments and the personal stories of many of the Sub-postmasters involved. As Nick Wallis is not an IT person, the conclusions about systems and testing are only made tangentially, though there is enough in the book for anyone with even an outline of IT technical knowledge to understand many of the shortcomings in the system, its implementation and management. If you have any knowledge of legal process, disciplinary processes and investigative procedures, your reaction might well be the same as mine: as I was reading, many pages provoked a reaction in me of “They did WHAT???!!!”

In testing, we often work by the concept of heuristics – rules of thumb that give a way into thinking about a particular problem. Last time I posted about Horizon in my testing blog, I coined the idea of the Heuristic of the Elemental Error, that under stress, users may do something wrong that they otherwise would never do or never even think of doing. This seems to be a major driver behind what many Sub-postmasters did when they found their systems malfunctioning; the book shows how important it is to design and build systems that take that idea into account.

My full review, which would run to some five pages if printed out, can be found here: https://deepwatersreading.wordpress.com/2022/09/29/the-great-post-office-scandal-the-fight-to-expose-a-multimillion-pound-it-disaster-which-put-innocent-people-in-jail-by-nick-wallis/

James Christie has written a series of blog posts on Horizon which go far further into the technical detail than either my review or Nick Wallis’ book. I commend them to you, starting here: https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/the-post-office-horizon-it-scandal-part-1-errors-and-accuracy/

Sadly, since the book was published, Government and the Post Office still seem to be doing their best to kick the whole matter into the long grass. Kudos to Nick Wallis and all the other campaigners for exposing this scandal and keeping it in the public eye.

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September 30, 2022 at 12:22 am

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Back in the old routine

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One of the things that I’ve had to do without for the past couple of years has been science fiction conventions, which regular readers will remember I’ve written about in the past. My preference is for the sort of event where writers, readers and publishers meet up for a weekend of talking about books, and writing, and nary a pointy ear in sight. Drink may also be taken.

Last weekend, I went to my first convention since the Dublin World Convention in 2019 (which I wrote about here). This was the somewhat more prosaic Novacon, organised by the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. Novacon 50 was due to be held in 2020, but for obvious reasons that didn’t happen. Then, further difficulties presented themselves. The regular venue for Novacon over the past few years, the Park Inn in Nottingham, was not available because it had been block-booked by the Ministry of Justice to serve as a Nightingale Court (a temporary extra court to hear the backlog of cases that built up during the pandemic) until the end of the year. After a frantic search, a suitable venue was found – the rather splendid, if slightly fraying at the edges, Palace Hotel at Buxton, in the Derbyshire Peak District.

(You might be excused for wondering why a Birmingham society holds its conventions in places such as Nottingham or Buxton. The simple answer is that with the increasing popularity of Birmingham as a commercial conference venue, the hotels in that city capable of holding such a convention have priced themselves rather out of the reach of ordinary people such as the average science fiction fan.)

As the first convention I’ve been to in quite a long time, it was pleasant to just get away for a change in scenery and to see people I haven’t met in months. Unsure of the wisdom of mixing with people from across the country so soon, a number stayed away; the hotel and convention imposed a number of social distancing and COVID security measures, one of which was to turn up the ventilation in the main convention hall to the “icy blast” setting. By the last day of the convention, a number of people (including myself) were complaining of hypothermia…

Guests of honour included the authors Christopher Priest (whose novel The Prestige was the basis for the film of the same name), Claire North (her first novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, was well-received both within and beyond the sf community), and artist Chris Baker, who paints under the Tolkienesque nom de plume ‘Fangorn’, but who broke into the serious big time when he was discovered by Stanley Kubrick during the extended gestation of the film later completed by Steven Spielberg as A.I. His Hollywood career as conceptual artist, storyboarder and visual designer resulted in his doing a lot of work with some of the biggest names in Tinseltown – “not bad for a lad from Bordesley Green”, he said!

Perhaps the strangest event for me was getting to meet someone I didn’t expect to – Booker Prize-winning author Bernadine Evaristo. Evaristo is known more for black womens’ writing than any excursions into fantastic literature; but she was attending the convention to support her husband, David Shannon, at the launch of his first (science fiction) novel, Howul; a life’s journey, set in an alternate, post-apocalyptic world. It was nice to see an acclaimed “mainstream” writer who was happy to take a back seat to support their partner, especially as so many in that “mainstream” see genre literature as something of a disreputable cul-de-sac.

(Interestingly, that makes two Booker prizewinners I’ve had vague connections with; my first boss at Ofwat, I.C.R. [now Sir Ian] Byatt, was the first husband of the novelist A.S. [Antonia] Byatt, who writes using her married name because of the long-standing disagreement between her and her sister, Margaret Drabble.)

It was nice to be in Buxton again, a town I haven’t set foot in for many years. And just next to the hotel was the end wall of Buxton station, as seen on the front cover of my own book, The Lost Railway: the Midlands. Hardly science fiction, but certainly a picture of past times now lost to us. (Well, selling books does involve a certain degree of self-publicism…)

So, just to pique the interest of those with a love of rambling Victorian piles, here are some more pictures of the Palace Hotel.

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Written by robertday154

November 18, 2021 at 12:08 am

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Bora! Bora! Bora!

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Once more, I am a former Saab driver.

My 18-year old 9-3 (NG 900)’s problems kept building up; my garage, a former Saab main dealer, couldn’t tell me why I kept getting low oil pressure warnings when I put my foot on the brake and engine revs dropped to idle. I’d had some major work done to try to remedy the oil leaks on the car, and the garage had not only changed the oil but also flushed the engine block. They were as puzzled as I was, and diagnosed some residual oil sludge blocking one of the galleries where the oil pressure switch was, and so they expected it to improve as I drove the car more, but it actually got worse. Then I got a warning light that the passenger side airbag wasn’t working – but that came and went. Oddly, when this light was illuminated, the oil pressure light didn’t come on so much – so were we looking at a real oil pressure problem, a voltage regulator on the way out, or some incipient problem in the engine management system?

The final straw wasn’t much – the car was suddenly incontinent of screenwash when I topped that up – but with model club meetings starting again soon, I felt I couldn’t face a forty-mile round trip keeping one eye on dashboard lights, especially negotiating road junctions at night. And I had the feeling that the problem was as much electrical as mechanical, which meant that things could get very much worse.

A peruse of the Internet didn’t help. Yes, there were plenty of affordable cars, but all much of a muchness. Although second hand car prices have improved since the height of the pandemic last year, my war chest would still only buy me an old car with a high mileage. And some of the dealers looked a bit iffy. When Google Street View shows a dealer to be located on a street with half the properties boarded up, that isn’t a great incentive to go and find them.

And then I saw this.

It’s a Volkswagen Bora (a Golf with a boot). (And a much bigger boot than you’d expect.) Four years older than the Saab – for non-UK readers, the ‘V’ prefix to the number plate dates this as 1999-2000 – but lower mileage by some 40,000. Two owners since new, and a thick wodge of service history, most of which was with the same garage. Then I looked at the dealer’s website. He deals in enthusiast cars, so he knows his stuff. So I made an appointment, saw the car, drove it and we did business. And as an enthusiast, his reaction to an 18-year-old Saab with Issues was “I know just the people who will want that and who will work on it…”

Some of my more petrolhead friends commented “Ah, a Volkswagen Boring”; and yes, it doesn’t perform as well as the Saab. Although it has a similar sized engine, the Saab had a low-pressure turbocharger whereas this is normally aspirated. And I have to try to break myself of the habit of reaching down between the seats to switch the engine off. (Saabs have a fairly unique location for the ignition switch, and I suppose I’ve driven Saabs for a total of something like 40 years.) But it’s nice to have a car where all the bits are present and work, and nothing rattles.

Written by robertday154

August 20, 2021 at 11:26 pm

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Postman’s Knock 2 – This Time, It’s The Law!

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Last May, I wrote a post about the Horizon Scandal, the prosecution by the (UK) Post Office of more than 700 “sub-postmasters” for charges of theft and/or false accounting which were being challenged because the fault was found to lie with a new point-of-sale IT system called Horizon. Earlier this week, the Court of Appeal overturned 39 convictions, clearing the names of those accused. The Criminal Cases Review Commission has invited others caught up in this now to make claims. The implication is that the Post Office may be put in serious financial jeopardy if the levels of compensation are as substantial as many think they may be. The scandal goes to the top of the Post Office, with decisions made by senior executives over their reaction to an increasing level of financial shortfalls across their network; and their relationship to their primary contractor, Fujitsu, and their apparent (but ultimately false) infallibility. Government Ministers are also implicated, given that the Post Office is an “emanation of the state”, even if the majority of its shareholdings are now in the private sector.

(Readers should not confuse the Post Office, which operates the network of post office outlets, with Royal Mail, which actually collects and delivers mail, even though sometimes the two organisations operate from the same premises, their businesses are intertwined and their branding complimentary.)

At the same time, I’ve been reading a number of blogs in the software testing community about how manual testing is dead and how testers are not needed because you can programme a computer to test itself and validate its own code.

This is errant rubbish. Yes, you can run IT applications that will submit a piece of code to a set of tests, comparing a set of outputs from an application with expected results, and these will demonstrate that the code is working as expected. But that’s not an adequate test for any application that will rely on human beings to interact with it.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I had an encounter with a public-facing application put out by a major UK supermarket chain. It was designed to allow customers in-store to access their loyalty scheme accounts via touch-screen terminals. I was reasonably OK with this application, until I came to this screen:

(The graphic is my own reconstruction from memory.)

When you landed on this screen, the cursor was in the first box (top left) where it asked for the first line of my address. So I entered it. Then it asked for my postcode. As I said, it was a touchscreen terminal, so I tapped the second box. Nothing happened. I kept tapping. Still nothing. So I tried the on-screen keyboard, using all the usual ways of advancing workflow – the Return key, the Tab key, even the space bar. Nothing worked. Eventually, out of desperation, I tried the big green arrow at the bottom of the page that said “Next”.

You’ve guessed it. The arrow that looks as though it’s intended to take you to the next page actually was there to move you to the next step in the workflow, even on page elements that did not look as though they should be part of that workflow. Yet this was accepted by the supermarket as good design for a workable application. Why? I can only think that the client was assured that the app passed all its tests. And this would have passed an automated test. The test would have gone something like this (though I have no idea what the code said): the logic would be:

  • Input an address (the test suite would draw this from a list of test input data)
  • Advance the workflow (the test software would activate the Next button code)
  • Input a postcode (again, the test suite would draw this from another list of test input data)
  • The application under test would compare the two inputs, looking for a match.
    • If the application finds a match between the input address first line and the input postcode, it will then activate the Next button code again to move the user to the next page.
    • If the application does not find a match, it will display an error message on-screen inviting the user to correct the address they entered in the first box.

Nothing wrong with that. On paper. But it doesn’t match real life. Faced with the screen I’ve shown above, how many people would think that to move from one input box to another, you should tap a button at the bottom of the screen that is designed to look as though it takes you to the next page, and nothing else? I’ve been working with IT applications since the early 1990s, and it took me numerous tries before I tried that button in desperation. And there was another problem.

I couldn’t get the application to accept my address as matching my postcode. My address isn’t to the usual format of house number/street name that many UK addresses have. The format I use is the one on my tenancy agreement. But there are two widely-used databases for UK postcodes, and the other one had my address in a different format. The first line of my address on my tenancy agreement is ‘Flat X, Heatherlea’; but the other database records this as ‘X, Heather Lea Flats’. Now, normally, applications asking the user to validate an address ask for the postcode first, and then present a list of addresses covered by that postcode for the user to select the right one. But this application was doing this the other way around, and would not allow the user to select a variant of their address which a human being would recognise but a machine wouldn’t. And again, this would pass an automated test. The test would have a defined set of test inputs, and a defined set of test matches, and even if the person programming the test inserted a test that would fail, to make sure the error message was properly displayed, it would not cover the possibility that the user had input the correct address but made a simple error.

I’m writing this blog whilst I wait to join an online meeting. The organisers of that meeting have had a bit of a panic in the past twelve hours, as the person who was due to circulate the joining instructions had an e-mail outage last night and couldn’t circulate the meeting link. A colleague who recirculated it (as a belt-and-braces measure) made what he described as a “schoolboy error” of not sending the message as a blind copy, meaning that all recipients could see the addresses of all other recipients, which is not only bad data protection, but also means that any casual reply to that message (“Thanks for the link!”) would be circulated to everyone. This has led me to think of a new test heuristic, a rule of thumb that you should apply when testing. It is the Heuristic of the Elemental Error, that under stress, users may do something wrong that they otherwise would never do or never even think of doing.

And that brings me back to the Horizon Scandal. One of the noted bugs in the system was, apparently, that if you registered a transaction but that transaction didn’t appear on the screen immediately, any further keystrokes from the terminal would be registered as new transactions before the old transaction was completed. But sub-postmasters, not necessarily used to IT installations (especially when they have gone unresponsive) saw nothing happening on their screens and so kept hitting the Return key in the belief that the system had frozen. Instead, the system was silently logging up transactions which did not match the actual money in the till. Of course, when Post Office managers looked at the outputs from Horizon and tried to reconcile them with the cash returns from sub-post offices, they found major discrepancies. That they were then assured that these discrepancies were not down to an IT error but were the result of possible criminal activity is a matter which future enquiries will have to address. Hopefully, they will drill down to the level of the IT managers who put their faith in automated tests, and will challenge them as to why they did not try the system out with human testers as well.

I remain firmly of the view that if your system is going to be used by human beings, it has to be tested with human beings. Human beings are imperfect; they make mistakes. Any IT system has to be able to deal with those mistakes. IT managers are under a responsibility to make sure that this happens, and it’s time they accepted that responsibility instead of taking fashionable industry views that human testers are obsolete. Because it’s one thing for a user not to be able to get at their supermarket discount coupons. It’s quite another if an IT system error leads to someone being sent to jail.

Written by robertday154

April 24, 2021 at 11:58 am

Let Us Not Praise Famous Men

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(This post is mostly cross-posted from my book reviews blog Deep Waters Reading.)

I have recently finished reading a biography of an Italian writer and political figure very few will have heard of. the book is entitled The Pike; Gabriele d’Annunzio – poet, seducer and preacher of war by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate, 2013). It is a substantial book, but as well as telling the story of d’Annunzio, it has given me much to think about our own political condition today.

The Pike is a mammoth biography of the Italian godfather of fascism, Gabriele d’Annunzio. Claimed as Italy’s greatest living poet and playwright in his day, he was lauded by Mussolini. D’Annunzio, in turn, detested Mussolini and considered him a “crude imitator”. He equally detested Hitler. He embraced Nietzschean ideals, wrote a lot about Country, Flag and Sacrifice, evolved the visual style of much fascist spectacle but never specifically claimed he was a fascist himself. He was a massive self-promoter, narcissist and serial seducer of women (only for some of his writing to display distinct homoerotic tendencies). It’s a fascinating but highly detailed book with some 640 pages of text; little seems to be omitted.

D’Annunzio was born into comfortable circumstances in the Italian east-coast province of the Abruzzi. From an early age he determined to become a great writer; as he grew into manhood, he also developed an enormous libido. Growing up in a recently-unified country, he admired the heroes of the Risorgimento, and absorbed political turmoil just as avidly as he did all the latest artistic trends. He was widely read and had a solid understanding of his art. In time, those arts came to embrace the poetry of action, promotion and spectacle, as well as the more traditional ones of verse, prose and drama. He seized upon the works of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, and soon embraced the idea of the “superman” – not our modern image of some caped superhero, doing good for all and fighting evil, but rather the idea of the “superior man”, whose innate qualities set him above the ordinary mass of the people. To such a man, rules, moral norms and laws should not apply, for only then can they achieve their destiny to lead. His studies of Italian history led him to identify with the Romans and to yearn for a time when Italy could regain the power and status that once was Rome. He also identified with the condottieri, the Renaissance mercenary leaders who waged war across the peninsula at the same time as many of the world’s greatest artists and thinkers were founding Western civilization. This contrast fascinated d’Annunzio.

He identified with the Futurist movement, which in turn reinforced his fascination with power, new technologies and mechanised warfare. D’Annunzio’s self-publicism arose at the birth of mass media; he was ever anxious to embrace, and what was more understand, new media. The propaganda of fascism was essentially his invention. In the years before the First World War, he was lauded by many of the greatest literary figures of the age. This led to his leading a lifestyle well beyond his means; even as a best-selling author, he was regularly evading bailiffs and fleeing from debts. Bankruptcy drove him to Paris in 1909; five years later, he returned to Italy to await his Destiny.

Having agitated for Italy to join World War I in 1915, he went to the front and participated in various military actions – but always those that reflected well on him and that he could write about, turning the action and attention onto himself. He was especially active in writing about the “irredeemed” territories that Italy should seize by force of arms to establish the nation’s esteem amongst the other World Powers. He came to concentrate on the territories on the Dalmatian coast, now part of Yugoslavia; at the end of the war, a number of these places were about to change hands, and d’Annunzio wanted to be certain that the hands they fell into were Italy’s. He concentrated on the port city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) and marched into the city at the head of a band of irregulars who would eventually become the basis of Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Over the next year, he declared himself the leader of a new Utopia based on Nietzschean principles, only to find himself unable to control his followers and outmanoeuvred by politicians in Rome. Mussolini rose to power partly on d’Annunzio’s coat-tails; he stole his ideas, his style and his methods and made them his own.

D’Annunzio died in 1938 at the age of 74; perhaps the one area where the book falls down is that the narrative ends with his death. There is nothing about the extent to which he is remembered today in Italy. His books are all still in print (most of them written before his moves into politics, war and totalitarianism), though we are only left with contemporary accounts of the praise they attracted. It is difficult to get any idea of what d’Annunzio was like as a novelist. At the same time, I was led to wonder about what this book was telling me about modern Italian history. Although Mussolini imposed racial purity laws similar to Hitler’s in 1938, Italian Jews were not deported to concentration camps within the Reich until German troops moved into the country in 1943 in pursuit of war aims. Indeed, until the 1970s, many Italians believed that their country had played little or no role in the Holocaust. This book isn’t specifically about the wider role of fascism in Italy, but the extent of the adulation for d’Annunzio at the time, the hints about his status since his death, and the parallels that the book invites with more recent Italian politics gives pause for thought.

The book has a wry turn of phrase at times; it is not dry and is certainly no hagiography. And throughout, I felt the urge to compare d’Annunzio with political figures of our time hard to deny. Such figures – narcissists, serial liars, persons who claim the moral high ground whilst not practising their own creeds, people who use high rhetoric to whip up a following amongst the populace whilst personally despising the ordinary people for being followers, people who feel that they are too important for rules to apply to them – are unfit for public office and in a just world would be excised from public life. I do not need to supply names.

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April 13, 2021 at 12:21 am

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On the road again

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Like so many other people, my blogging has dried up as life went into some sort of stasis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I started working from home in March; my employers floated the idea of re-opening the office in the early summer (though well aware that our premises are not spacious and so would have to enforce some sort of social distancing, probably by only having people in on a rota, which rather negates the point of having people in the office if you want them to bounce ideas off each other). When I said that my views would be influenced by my being 63 with Type 2 diabetes, the response was “So you’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future, then.”

I was able to get out a bit over the summer. The UK Government eventually decided that single-person households (that’s me) could form a “support bubble” with one other family and have unfettered access to them (state of health permitting). That has persisted even under the new, stricter three-tier rules imposed in the UK ten days ago. I was able to form such a bubble with some friends of mine who live the other side of Lincoln, and we’ve met up a few times over the past few months.

In August, I drove up to Lincolnshire, only to have the power steering on my car fail because I lost all the power steering fluid. The car was garaged there, and whilst waiting for parts, I had them put the car through its MoT (for non-UK readers, an annual safety test that every car older than three years has to undergo). Because of lockdown, the Government had allowed drivers to delay their MoTs by up to six months; mine was three months overdue, so I thought I’d take the opportunity.

The delay in finding parts was because we were looking here at a country garage in a rural area; by contrast, the garage I usually use is a former Saab main dealer in Leicester, who has access to major parts factors on the doorstep – or half an hour away at worst – and who do so much business with parts factors that they have the clout to easily request stuff that might be delivered within the hour.

I finally got the car fixed, only to find on the way back from Lincoln that I was suddenly getting intermittent low oil pressure warnings. As the car was due for a service anyway, I arranged for that to be looked at. The answer appeared to be that the oil pressure sensor was defunct; fixing that appeared to solve the problem and also address one of the many oil leaks that the car was subject to.

Except it didn’t. Within days of getting it back, I started getting intermittent oil pressure warnings again. This time, it was diagnosed as a failing oil pump; replacing that would be a £600-plus job. For good measure, I also asked the garage to price how much replacing all the leaking gaskets would be. The total came to over £1000.

I’ve just had the car back after having that work done. It was an eye-wateringly expensive job, and you’d be forgiven for asking if it was worth it. I know I did.

(For the record, my Saab is now 18 years old and has 143,000 miles on the clock.) I reckoned that I could easily put my hands on between two and three times the amount I paid for the Saab three years ago. So I looked online for cars in a 20-mile radius of Leicester. And you know what? I could afford to buy a car exactly like mine. Nothing newer than 15 years old, only two cars with mileages under 100,000. COVID has pushed up the price of secondhand cars, as people are avoiding public transport.

I could easily have gone out and bought a “new” car. Most traders these days would offer such vehicles with a full service and at least six month’s MoT validity. But that would be no guarantee that some big ticket item wouldn’t fail within a short time. And that’s why my Saab still graces the front of the house.

Written by robertday154

October 24, 2020 at 5:57 pm

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Postman’s knock

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(This post is cross-posted from my testing blog, Probe probare. It may interest other readers because of the light it throws on a much-loved British institution.) 

BBC Radio 4 is running a series this week about the Post Office Counters Horizon IT system scandal. System errors (which seem to have arisen after the rollout of new PIN keypads) led to massive discrepancies between the sums of money the post office staff took and the amounts recorded on the system. The Post Office pursued prosecutions; many of the affected staff had their livelihoods and lives ruined; some went to jail.

(For non-UK readers: post office services in much of the UK outside town and city centres are delivered through a network of “sub-post offices” – post office counters set up in local or village stores, often run as a subsidiary business by the shopkeeper. The British Post Office ceased to be a Government department in 1969, instead becoming a Government-owned corporation. From 2001, it adopted a more commercial outlook, including formal share capitalisation, though with a controlling interest and two ‘golden shares’ held by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Treasury Solicitor respectively. In 2011, this was changed to a structure of 90% of shares being issued on the financial markets.)

A campaigning group of sub-postmasters brought a civil claim for compensation in December 2019 after the Post Office settled, with the judge providing some scathing criticism of the Post Office, and Fujitsu, the IT supplier, who had to pay £57.75 million to settle the case (“Fudge-it-for-you” as they were known in other organisations I’ve had dealings with before Horizon). Further, in March 2020 the Criminal Cases Review Commission decided to refer to appeal the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters on the grounds of the Post Office’s “abuse of privilege”. Compensation is liable to be eye-wateringly high, especially if the Court of Appeal decides to make an example of them.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), testing blogger James Christie has written a series of three posts on the subject. I commend them:

https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/the-post-office-horizon-it-scandal-part-1-errors-and-accuracy/

(Read this one for the account of “the Dalmellington bug” alone. Let the implications of the bug sink in – it’s a gem. It shows how a system issue can have catastrophic real-world impacts)

https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/the-post-office-horizon-it-scandal-part-2-evidence-the-off-piste-issue/

https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/the-post-office-horizon-it-scandal-part-3-audit-risk-perverse-incentives/ (This has a lot to say on the subject of risk, and how unsafe it is to try to reduce risk to a set of easily-measurable and assessible criteria.)

This is of interest because it shows the impact of failing to carry out proper regression tests following a change way downstream in the system. Even then, the problem could have been addressed had senior managers not taken the view that the system was infallible and so any cash shortfalls had to be down to malicious actors. Rolling out any system that is manifested in the real world, with real people interacting with real kit, demands the highest possible standards of testing, together with clarity of thought on the part of those administering the business. Sadly, it seems that neither were the case in this instance; and innocent people suffered. Robust exploratory testing, feeding back not only to developers but also to business managers, might have avoided this whole sorry state of affairs.

Written by robertday154

May 27, 2020 at 11:58 pm

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My 100 books – 10

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New readers start here. (Where have you been all this time?)

91- Walt Whitman: On the Beach at Night Alone

I have a couple of collections of Whitman’s poetry, but this one includes The Explorers, which I first encountered as a part of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. It made a lasting impression on me, so much so that I use a line from it as the title of this blog.

Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

92 – Edmund Wilson: To the Finland Station

The approach Wilson takes in this book (originally dating from 1940) is interesting; the book starts off as a work of literary criticism, looking at nineteenth-century French historians reacting to the French Revolution. As we progress in time, the historians comment less and less on historical events and begin to relate their writings to their actions and the contemporary political scene. By the time we reach Marx and Engels, we are looking at fully-fledged activists. The work is then brought to its conclusion with Trotsky and Lenin, ending with Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd at the eve of the October revolution.

I particularly liked the description of the events of Lenin’s return to Petrograd; it had a very vivid sense of someone walking into a situation that they were not expecting (Lenin was half expecting to be arrested) and then running with the situation as they found it, and of events taking their own momentum and running away from people who thought they were in control. How much of that is the Soviet accepted history, how much is fact and how much Wilson’s own imagination I cannot say, but it makes quite interesting, even exciting reading!

The strengths of this book are in the pre-history of European socialism, and in the pen portraits of the earlier players. Marx and Engels in particular are sympathetically portrayed, even whilst their faults are not glossed over (at least, as much as you’d expect a non-revisionist work to be). The accounts of Trotsky’s and Lenin’s early lives are also interesting, though I gather that they were compiled from mainly Soviet sources, so it must be expected that they will reflect the Party line (although, of course, by the time of writing, Trotsky was officially an ‘unperson’, so the line there would be the one from the early Bolshevik era). The accounts of the political manoeuvering in the years leading up to 1917 is helpful in giving an overview, though it feels a little journalistic and sketchy in places. Certainly, Lenin’s years in exile are dealt with in very short order. And the book only mentions Stalin and his purges in passing; I had the feeling that Wilson was treating them as a given, but specifically did not want to talk about them. In a way, this is understandable; Stalin and the direction he took the Soviet Union has very little to do with revolution, but it was the end result of the process that started with Marx and Engels, and no historian today would get away with not mentioning it.

There are omissions: others have commented that the portrait of Lenin is excessively kind, having again been assembled from Soviet sources; and Wilson at one point acknowledges gaps in the record caused by Soviet editing of Marx’s correspondence, and but a few paragraphs later excuses this as an act of socialist zeal, enthusiasm and loyalty. And he spends a chapter trying to explain the concept of the Dialectic and just succeeds in muddying the waters further. (I certainly emerged from that chapter little wiser than when I went in.) He also expounds on the Labour theory of value, and whilst he has more success with that, he does seem to spend more time explaining what other people thought of it than examining it himself.

For a Lenin apologist, he is not uncritical of some of the tenets of socialist thought. He does expose flaws in the concept of the Labour theory of value, and has a very good analysis of why there was no socialist revolution in Britain (the ruling class made concessions and the managerial class negotiated with the trade unions, who were more interested in securing advantages for their members than pursuing revolution) or America (there was no ruling class to revolt against). And his explanation of Lenin’s anti-democratic statements – that there is no place for democracy in a revolutionary movement, because once you stop to debate issues and subject them to democratic processes, you lose the ability to plan in secret and to act decisively – makes everything fall into place. That, ultimately, has to lead to the realisation that if you once seize power by force, you can only retain it by force – but Wilson lacked the historical perspective we have nowadays to understand this.

So: a useful book, but it should certainly not be your only source in revolutionary history. And it should serve as a warning. Wilson’s analysis of why there was a revolution in Russia and not in Britain or America needs to be heeded; when political leaders start to act as though they possess absolute power, and when the employers and owners of capital are not prepared to negotiate, or consider the opinions of those who work for them, but consider that they have all the rights and the workers have none, then we are seeing the growth of conditions for revolution, the same sort of conditions that there were in Tsarist Russia. All that the situation lacks is a sufficiently dedicated band of revolutionary leaders; and perhaps it is good that we do not have such people, because such people can make dreadful things happen in the name of their revolution.

93 – P.G. Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters

Wodehouse was an integral part of my childhood; his stories were forever being dramatised on television whilst I was growing up; later, I discovered his books. He borrowed some of his stylistic tricks from predecessors such as Jerome K. Jerome, and indeed the whole foolish-master-wise-servant comedic trope goes back to classical Greek and Roman literature; but Wodehouse’s output was far more prolific than Jerome’s. Like Jerome, he had an eye for observation. Lest anyone mistake his naive (and enforced) collaboration with the German hierarchy in World War 2 for whole-hearted support, I would draw your attention to his portrait of the leader of the Fascist Blackshorts, Roderick Spode, in this book and its sequel Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves. Wodehouse pierces Spode’s pomposity and ridiculousness far more effectively than any righteous rage could do.

94 – Gene Wolfe: The Shadow of the Torturer

This book is the opening of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which extended to four novels, a pendent novel bridging to a second series of novels, The Book of the Long Sun, and a final trilogy, The Book of the Short Sun. All are set against a far future background of a world where the Sun is dying and everyday life is carried on in baroque surroundings, littered with remnants of old technology, some of which works and some of which doesn’t.

The story is narrated by Severian, who in the course of this novel is revealed to be an apprentice torturer. This is far from his eventual destiny, and in this book we see the cause of his deviation onto his new path. It is many years since i read this (and it is due for a re-read reasonably soon), but the novel has a sense of strangeness that has always stayed with me.

95 – Jack Womack: Terraplane

Amid all the excitement about the birth of the cyberpunk movement in the late 1980s with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, there were a number of other writers who came to attention: Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan and the author of this book, Jack Womack. Terraplane was his second novel, set in the same dystopian world as his first, Ambient. Both were very high-energy, exciting novels with a lot of weird action in strange societies. But Terraplane introduced an alternate reality to the cyberpunk mix, and I’ve always been something of a sucker for alternate histories.

Jack Womack produced six novels in his sequence relating to a near-future dystopian America, seen through the focus of the Dryden Corporation; and a seventh, Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, set in contemporary, just post-Communist Russia. He hasn’t published a new novel since 2000; but his voice is unique and we need to hear more from him.

96 – Derek Wood: Project Cancelled; the disaster of Britain’s abandoned aircraft projects

This classic book tells the story of how successive British governments of both political colours condemned the British aviation industry to second place in the world, through a mixture of political interference, ignorance, stupidity, blind adherence to political dogma and appeasement of the United States of America. It tells how the British aircraft industry was hamstrung by timidity, a failure to understand the laws of physics and the realities of aviation and wild decisions by Ministers, such that the 1958 Defence White Paper declared that manned military aircraft were obsolete because the next war would be fought with missiles alone. That decision, by the Tory Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys, caused the cancellation of a number of projects that would have been world-beating aircraft had they made it to actual hardware, with many export sales in the pipeline.

The 1945 Labour government does not escape criticism, mainly for the cancellation of the Miles M.52, a supersonic research aircraft that would almost certainly have been first the break the sound barrier, had it not been for budgetary constraints (to be fair, Attlee did sink a lot of money into the V-bomber project, working on three different designs plus the Short Sperrin stop-gap aircraft in case none of the V-bombers worked out) and the fact that Air Ministry officials didn’t believe in the science of supersonic flight.

An entire chapter is devoted to TSR.2, the advanced jet bomber cancelled by the incoming Wilson government in 1964. That decision was based on a combination of poor project planning (the RAF kept changing the specification and then moaning when the resultant delays continually pushed back the entry of the aircraft into service and caused the bill to rise), political infighting within the MoD (the Chief of Defence Staff at the time was Lord Louis Mountbatten, who went around publicly rubbishing TSR.2 because, as an Admiral of the Fleet, he had a vested interest in having the Navy become the sole custodian of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, an interest he backed to the hilt), and Realpolitik, as the incoming Labour Government could happily scrap the aircraft because of the massive cost over-runs whilst not realising that not allowing the aircraft to enter service ensured that the whole project became a total waste of money instead of just a huge one. What they didn’t mention at the time was the political pressure from the USA, which became a factor because the Americans considered Wilson to be a dangerous Leftist and probably a Soviet spy, but more importantly because the US military-industrial complex considered TSR.2 to be a major threat to their business interests, so in the interests of “Free Trade” it had to be scrapped and the British would have to buy the General Dynamics F-111 (which was even more delayed and more expensive than finishing TSR.2 would ever have been). In the end, we never got either aircraft, but instead ended up with F-4 Phantoms with Rolls-Royce Spey engines at Wilson’s insistence of some pay-back for British industry – thus saddling the RAF with the quickest variant of the Phantom but also the one with the most maintenance down-time. But that, like the political disaster in the States that was the F-111, is another story.

Reading this book can make one yearn for the smack of strong dictatorship, if only to ensure that real-world decisions are taken for clear reasons and other people’s agendas can be safely ignored. It’s cold comfort to think that that alternative has even greater drawbacks in the form of the dangers that such clarity of political vision can bring. (Think Hitler. Think Franco. Think Mussolini. Think Stalin. All Men with Clarity of Vision.) The only way to avoid such scandalous waste of human time, effort and expenditure is not to do militarism at all – or, given that the same sort of issues arose with civil aviation projects, not to do industrialisation either. Go far enough down this path of reasoning, and you end up wondering, as the late Douglas Adams put it, why we should have bothered emerging from the sea at all. Truly, too much progress can be a bad thing…

So this book is one of the best arguments for pacifism I can think of – probably not its intention, but the only real conclusion that can be drawn from it. But if only this story was restricted to military projects, then we could draw that sort of comfort from the book. However, as the Thatcher government’s attitude to the potentially world-beating space launch system HOTOL showed, blind dogma and stupidity can be found anywhere in politics, at any time.

97 – Michael Young & Peter Willmott: Family and Kinship in East London

A seminal work of British sociology, this book made a massive impression on me when I first read it as a student in the 1970s, mainly because I had family who lived in that part of East London during the 1950s and 1960s, and it painted a detailed and accurate picture of life in Bethnal Green. That world has now gone, but this book is its testimonial.

98 – Yevgeny Zamyatin: We

This novel is set in a future dystopian state where all citizens live regimented lives under continual surveillance. One citizen begins to keep a forbidden diary, in which he details his journey towards dissidence, aided by a woman who he finds captivating. His revolt is ultimately crushed by the state; finally, the narrator achieves a level of personal acceptance of the status quo.

This is not George Orwell’s 1984. Rather, it is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, written in 1921. In We, citizens do not have names, only numbers; and life is lived to a regimented schedule so that all Numbers (as citizens are called) do the same things at the same time each day. The novel is set in a distant future when much of the world has reverted to a state of nature; only the City of the One State survives, cordoned off from the disorganisation of nature, and ruled over by The Benefactor. The One State is working towards launching a spaceship, the Integral, whose objective is to journey to other worlds and to find beings who are to be persuaded of the merits of the perfection and order that the One State brings. Comparisons with Star Trek’s Borg are quite appropriate.

Zamyatin was a naval engineer, and he makes his main protagonist an engineer working on the Integral. The picture painted of The One State is quite idealistic; only as the protagonist begins to query the state’s motives and objectives does he lose faith. There is an element of autobiography in this, as Zamyatin was himself a Bolshevik; arrested during the 1905 revolution, he was exiled to Siberia but escaped. He supported the 1917 October Revolution, but became disillusioned with the direction that the Soviet Union took.

I became interested in this book precisely because it was a different take on the dystopian story well known to us in 1984. Comparing the two novels is an interesting exercise; and with having a more far-future setting, We comes over as a much fresher work than Orwell’s novel.

99 – Roger Zelazny: The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth

This is a collection of short stories by the American writer Roger Zelazny. Many won awards. The stories that stick in my memory are the title story, about big game fishing on a Venus of the imagination (i.e. dating from before we found out what a hostile world Venus actually is); A Rose for Ecclesiastes (love, life and dance on a dying Mars); This Mortal Mountain, (climbing an impossibly high mountain on an alien world); and This Moment of the Storm, (about life on a colonised world with extreme weather).

Zelazny’s prose had something of the hard-boiled noir detective story: in The Doors of his Face… , the narrator walks out of an argument: “I closed the door quietly behind me, and left him waiting for it to slam.” I always found something appealing in his writing, and the fact that the four stories I have quoted are ones I haven’t read in many years should tell you how memorable they are.

100 – J.M. Ziman: Public Knowledge; the social dimension of science

In this slender book. John Ziman wrote about how science is done, how it should be communicated to the public (who after all are paying for it) and how it is essentially the same process as we all use in everyday life to take everyday decisions. He talks at length about how science aims to achieve consensus and why so few scientists actually understand their role in society. The book was written in 1968, long before anyone thought of “fake science” or “we don’t need experts”. This book is a good start on the road to undermining those false views (though a lot of scientists could learn from it too).

-oOo-

So there it is: 100 books that have influenced me over the past sixty years or so. There are many more that I may have forgotten; many that are memorable to me but haven’t made the same impression; and a list of my ‘favourite’ books would be rather longer. But I hope readers  – especially anyone who has made it all the way to the end!) – have found this interesting and have perhaps been inspired to seek some of these books out (or even produce their own list!).

[Previously: John Sweeney to Patrick Whitehouse]

Written by robertday154

April 4, 2020 at 11:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 9

with 2 comments

New readers start here.

81 – John Sweeney: Purple Homicide, or Fear and Loathing on Knutsford Heath

This is at the same time the funniest and the most frightening book I have ever read. It is the account of how former BBC journalist Martin Bell, noted in particular for his front-line reports from the Bosnian civil war and his trademark crumpled white suit (which did not prevent his being wounded in that conflict) stood in the 1997 General Election in the Tatton constituency against the sitting Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who had been implicated – but at that time, not proven to be involved – in a scandal involving taking cash from the Harrods owner Mohammed el-Fayed for asking Parliamentary questions. Bell stood as an independent, ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate, and the other major political parties withdrew their candidates to allow him a clear shot at a major target.

The book details the campaign day-by-day in the constituency, with wry humour and detailed satirical pen-portraits of many of the players. Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine were portrayed in a very unfavourable light, best described as ‘harsh but fair’; and the antics of both their supporters and the British media are by turns funny and shocking. This is the frightening part of the book – that and the expose of Hamilton’s record and his past – and at the time, his involvement in the ‘cash for questions’ matter was sub judice, and was not referred to (by Bell) in the campaign. The story is enhanced by Martin Rowson’s cutting cartoons.

Against the odds, Bell won. Hamilton was exposed. This book tells how. John Sweeney’s career has not been without controversy; but oddly, this book attracted very little of it.

82 – Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky (yes, apparently a distant relative of that Tchaikovsky) had built up a fairly solid track record in fantasy before producing this, his first, stand-alone sf novel. It marks a return to old-fashioned sense of wonder sf with big themes and an almost cosmic span of events.

The basic plot: a human seedship sets out to colonise a new world and uplift simians to sentience as a client race. (Tchaikovsky nods to David Brin for his concepts of ‘uplift’, though as will be seen, things do not go to plan – despite one of the human characters expecting that they have, a deft touch.) However, some political plotting goes badly wrong, resulting in the simians being destroyed before making it to the target planet and the uplifting nanovirus being deployed against a population mainly comprised of spiders and ants. This then causes a major upset when a later human colony vessel arrives expecting to be able to inherit a new planet ripe for colonisation.

Tchaikovsky displays a command of plot development, using relatavistic flight and coldsleep technology to enable his crew of humans to undertake voyages whilst generations of development occur on the spider planet. Through the device of giving different characters in the spider narrative the same names (which works well; the spiders have access to distilled genetic memories of ancestors, and so descendents can easily identify one with another), we are shown the development of the spider society over time through characters with similar traits and so the story moves forward in different eras as though seen through the (eight) eyes of the same dramatic character.

Meanwhile, the human generation starship finds its options getting narrowed down by the vastness of space and the ever-increasing age of their technology. I found the human characters a little less sympathetically drawn but they play their parts well enough. Tchaikovsky interestingly depicts arachnophobia on both an obvious, personal level (in the shape of one particular character) and on a cultural level, where the humans continue to think of reclaiming the spider world after “burning out the infestation” or after a bug-hunt; only slowly – too slowly – do they realise that they are facing sentient beings rather than simple insect pests.

Tchaikovsky makes a good attempt at depicting a spider society, with some clever manipulation of phrase and saying to translate our human experience into spider terms. (For instance, I particularly liked suggesting solidarity amongst spiders through saying “standing knee-to-knee” where we would say “shoulder-to-shoulder”.) Indeed, I came out of the novel knowing more about spiders than I did previously. He takes the opportunity to reflect some human traits back onto the spiders in terms of their matriarchal society and some of its attitudes as that society evolves. Some might see that as preachy; but the spiders only make high-level conceptual breakthroughs in understanding their world once they have evolved to recognise the contributions made by males to their society (and stop eating them after sex – though there is one instance where, having established the cessation of that practice as a badge of societal evolution, Tchaikovsky neatly turns that on its head to show heroism in an arachnid context).

There is a streak of humour dotted through the story; but overall, I was left with an overwhelming sense of the span of time; as the humans spend thousands of years in coldsleep, the spiders pass through major societal and technological change. The sense of the passage of time is almost Stepledonian; in the coda to the novel, an expedition sets out to find the source of new signals from another old human colony, and the atmosphere is almost that of the ending of Wells’ Shape of Things to Come.

Readers should note that I do not suffer from arachnophobia!

83 – Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood

Painting with words. In my mind’s ear, this always comes out in the voice of Richard Burton.

84 – Lavie Tidhar: Osama

A private investigator straight out of Central Casting Noir is given the job of tracking down the author of a series of pulp thrillers. But the world this gumshoe inhabits is not ours, and the thrillers are part of a series entitled Osama bin Ladin: Vigilante

The world-building is intriguing. It’s hard to tell if the world of Joe, the PI, is a “real” world or some construct of the human imagination. It is certainly a timeless setting, any time from the 1940s to the 1990s. Yet at times, “our” reality breaks through into the novel. There are opium dens, and London private members’ clubs, and a disused Tube station, and villains, and a Sydney Greenstreet character, and Bogart, and a fan convention, and people who become transparent and disappear. Is this an afterlife? Which is the fantasy world? Who is the author of the bin Ladin novels, and whose story is he really telling? Is our world fantastic, or just unbelievable?

Tidhar’s perspective is interesting. An expatriate Israeli with a cosmopolitan background, his sympathies are not where you might think they’d be.

The style is economical, the chapters short, but I had the urge to continue reading. This is a book I shall want to come back to.

85 – Peter Tinniswood: Tales from a Long Room

Peter Tinniswood has long been a purveyor of a strange sort of Northern humour that veers between the diverse poles of whimsey, gritty reality, fantasy and pure barking madness. His cricketing tales from ‘The Brigadier’ may lack northern grit but are just as funny – and as barking.

What can you say about the tale of von Himmelweit, the only Zeppelin captain to take up a career in first-class county cricket? “No-one ever knew his Christian name. But then again, I don’t suppose he was the sort of man to have one.” Or the MCC’s Test against a Pygmy XI? Or Queen Victoria’s cricketing career?

Inspired madness.

86 – James Tiptree Jnr.: Warm Worlds and Otherwise

A notable collection of short stories from Tiptree, including The women men don’t see. But this book is mainly notable for the introduction by Robert Silverberg, where he categorically and definitively states that, from the evidence of stories in the collection, the reclusive James Tiptree Jnr. is, despite rumours to the contrary, a man. And indeed, could not possibly be a woman. “…(T)here is, for me, something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing” he says.  Around the same time,   Harlan Ellison had introduced a Tiptree story in his anthology Again, Dangerous Visions with the opinion that “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man.” Within a few weeks, Tiptree was identified as a pen-name of Alice Raccoona Sheldon. Though to be fair, the second printing (which I possess) does include a postscript from Silverberg to say “Well, how wrong can you be? And doesn’t it just go to show?”

87 – Frits van der Gragt: Gute alte Tram; Tramnostalgie DDR [Good Old Trams; East German tram nostalgia]

Pure Ostalgie! Colour photographs from the 1950s – 1970s, showing ordinary life in the former East Germany through the medium of its trams in towns both old and rebuilt. The photographer was a Dutch enthusiast who travelled to the DDR in the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Given that photography of transport was generally forbidden, the photographer did quite well in avoiding official entanglements – though it helped that his car was often strategically parked for a quick getaway. Though the fact that it was bright red and carried Dutch plates hardly made it inconspicuous…

The trams themselves are a mixture of pre-war types, post-war East German standard vehicles, and post-1965 Comecon standard Tatra tramcars. (In the middle 1960s, industrial production was rationalised across the whole Comecon bloc. Specific industrial production was allocated to particular works, and tramcars were allocated to the CKD-Tatra plant in Czechoslovakia.)

There are scenes here of trams in medieval streets, in rural zones and in front of blocks of workers’ apartments. All East German life is here, with the authentic patina of towns and cities from that time. Recommended to anyone who knew the time and place (which includes Westerners who were there and regularly crossed into the East before the Wall went up…).

88 – Howard Waldrop: Night of the Cooters

It was hard deciding between which of Howard Waldrop‘s books to include in this list, but in the end I plumped for Night of the Cooters, mainly because of the title story. In the past, people have commented on H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds that it is strange how, when the Martians have conquered London and the Home Counties, the fall of the rest of human civilization is taken as granted. Well, in Night of the Cooters, Waldrop recounts the fate of the Martian cylinder that landed in Texas.

Other notable stories include Fin de Cyclé, wherein the 19th century Parisian Dreyfuss Affair is exposed in film and settled by bicycle duel; and A Dozen Tough Jobs, which translates the mythical Labours of Hercules to the American South. All the other stories in this collection are equally off the wall.

89 – Scott Westerfield: The Risen Empire

A very different space opera, despite the outward appearance of fairly conventional ingredients. Galactic Empire – check. Space fleet – check. Small fighter ships – check. An Undead Emperor – check. An implacable cyborg foe – check. A Senate – check. Suicide rituals – check. Artificial intelligences – check.

But – the first chapter pitches us into the cockpit of a fast fighter ship, or so it seems. Except that by the end of the chapter, we realise that the ship is microscopic and piloted by VR remote control. And everything else that looks so much like ‘by the numbers’ space opera isn’t. There’s not too much hand-waving in the science, and every so often Westerfeld deals us a surprise in some idea that comes at the reader from out of the left field. For instance, the space fleet has something not unlike Political Officers along the old Soviet model – though they don’t enforce any sort of ideology that we’d recognise. And just how implacable is that implacable foe?

We start with a rescue mission for a hostage situation on a distant world which goes badly wrong. The implacable foe has a hidden agenda; but along the way to putting that into action, a greater secret is uncovered. The Emperor’s position is threatened by that secret; and his efforts to cover it up and contain the situation fill the rest of the book.

The story moves between the points of view of various different protagonists, though we quickly realise that there are a handful of important ones – a starship captain; his lover, a Senator; his Executive Officer; and a female commando who is the sole survivor of the hostage situation. Other characters also get their moments in the spotlight; some last longer than others. One character’s situation is reflected in an interesting shift in the point of view. Back histories are told in regular flashbacks that paint in some more of the characters’ motivations.And there’s a house run by an AI who is almost a character in their own right.

The political maneuvering is clever and consistent with the invented society. Characterisation generally is adequate; but this is a 700-page novel and there’s a lot of activity to get in there, so characters are drawn no more deeply than they need to be. That’s not too much of a problem, though, and I did read the last twenty pages cheering for the Senator rather.

The late Brian Aldiss coined the term “wide-screen baroque” for a particular species of space opera, and the term definitely applies here – but the trappings, and the terminology, and the overall thoughtfulness in the way the story unfolds, exceeds all expectations. This may be space opera, but certainly not as we know it.

(Note: in the UK, this novel was an omnibus edition of two books published in the USA, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, which together comprise a sequence known collectively as Succession. Apologies for any spoilerism, especially as it’s unclear as to where the split between the books occurs in the combined narrative.)

90 – Patrick B. Whitehouse: On the Narrow Gauge

This 1964 book recounted many of Pat Whitehouse’s travels around the world in search of narrow gauge railways. Although my railway interest came out of having a railwayman for a father, and so always travelling by train until he left the railways in 1966, it never manifested itself until 1968, after he had left the railways, when we went on holiday to North Wales. At that time, there were two narrow-gauge railways available to tourists on the Welsh coast, the Festiniog at Portmadoc, and the Talyllyn at Towyn. (Other lines, such as the Vale of Rheidol or the Welshpool were a bit further off the beaten track.) But the landscape was littered with the remains of other lines: the Welsh High;land, especially prominent in the form of the tunnels through the Aberglaslyn Pass, or the Dinorwic quarry lines, all highly visible to even the most casual traveller and making me wonder what else was hidden in the hills and valleys.

I saw this book referred to in various other publications, and eventually tracked a copy down, at Hay-on-Wye, I believe. Pat Whitehouse had been one of the founders of the Talyllyn preservation society (see no.71, Lines of Character, written by Pat and Tom Rolt), but his narrow gauge travels had taken him much further afield than that. By then, we’d made it to the Welshpool line and I’d becomes intrigued by their Austrian rolling stock (donated to the railway by the Zillertalbahn); this book contained accounts of the narrow gauge in Austria, and other places. The last quarter of the book recounts Whitehouse’s exploits in filming the Yugoslav narrow gauge in the late 1950s, often at odds with the authorities, and this story stuck with me for years afterwards.

[Previously: L.T.C. Rolt to Neal Stephenson]

[Next: Walt Whitman to J.M. Ziman]

Written by robertday154

March 20, 2020 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 8

with 3 comments

New readers start here.

71 – L.T.C. Rolt & Patrick Whitehouse: Lines of Character

L.T.C. (Tom) Rolt was a writer, noted for his biography of Brunel, and a founder member of both the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society and the Inland Waterways Association; P.B. (Pat) Whitehouse was also an early member of the Talyllyn society, but also became well known as a photographer and for a while helped produce the Railway Roundabout series for BBC Television. They collaborated on this book in 1952, writing about interesting railways they had visited. It came to my attention because they covered a line local to me when I was growing up: the Cromford & High Peak Railway, which joined the Derbyshire River Derwent with the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge, between Buxton and Manchester. It was originally promoted as a canal, but the engineers quickly realised that there would be difficulty in securing and retaining a water supply on the line’s summit over the Derbyshire High Peak. So instead, they built it as one of these new-fangled “railways”; but they didn’t change the route, so it was engineered as if it were still a canal, with contour-hugging level sections interspersed with inclined planes, substituting for flights of locks, where wagons were hauled uphill by stationary winding engines.

My interest in this line, acquired when I visited it just before it closed in 1967, directed me to this book, where I found much more that was unusual and noteworthy. It fired my interest in seeing more of this sort of thing and also showed me that it was possible to write about such railways in ways that would inspire interest.

72 – Bob Shaw: The Palace of Eternity

Bob Shaw was one of the writers who came up through Irish science fiction fandom. His third novel, The Palace of Eternity, combines huge themes – life, death, stellar engineering, life after death and panspermism – in an economical package. Bob could always be relied upon to cram more ideas into his well-realised worlds than many other writers working at twice his length.

The human race is locked in a long-running interstellar war with an alien race we cannot communicate with. The novel’s hero, Matt Tavernor, helps develop a weapon that isolated colonists can use to defend themselves, but then retires to a world colonised mainly by artists. When the military comes to that world, Tavernor knows that the war will follow. In trying to stop it, he is killed – and that’s only part-way through the novel! A transcendent middle section leads on to Tavernor’s resurrection in the body of his own son. When the aliens attack the colony world, he and his sister/step-daughter are taken prisoner by the aliens – the first time this has ever happened. A resolution follows.

As an engineer by profession, Bob Shaw realised his worlds in terms of inventions that seemed fantastic to readers but everyday to his characters. He was always capable of throwing off all manner of ideas in a few words. For example, as a child, Tavernor had witnessed the death of his father in an alien raid, because in getting Tavernor to safety, his father had been unable to shoot accurately at the aliens with an automatic weapon held in one hand only. So in later life, Tavernor developed a gyro-stabilised automatic rifle. Shaw’s deft touch was to say (and I’m quoting from memory) “The military never understood Tavernor’s requirement in the specification, that the gun should be able to be fired accurately with one hand whilst dragging a child with the other…He called it the ‘Tavernor Compensating Rifle’, though only he knew what it was compensating for.” Only a writer of Bob Shaw’s calibre could have told so much of one character’s life story in a few words describing the technical specification of a weapon.

Bob was beloved in the fan community, and most people thought of him as a friend. In later years, he admitted to having struggled with alcohol issues; yet once he started writing professionally, he produced a string of novels and short stories on a regular basis – possibly too regular. Some readers felt that he didn’t devote enough time to his novels and he tried to cram too much into a short space. Yet in later years when he tried writing to greater lengths, he never seemed comfortable, preferring to pack ideas into an economical package to inspire and delight his readers and friends. For me, The Palace of Eternity was a page-turner with new wonders wherever I looked and vivid world-building taking place in my mind’s eye. His better novels do not deserve to fade into obscurity.

For an appreciation of Bob from another author I’ve written about, Christopher Priest, see here.

73 – Robert Silverberg: Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg is probably one of the last “Golden Age” science fiction writers surviving (certainly, he claims that “everyone who won a Hugo Award before me is dead”). He made his reputation in the 1950s as a writer for the science fiction magazines who could produce work to order to meet a deadline. In the 1960s and 70s he re-invented himself as a serious sf novelist, though his work was seriously infused with the period’s zeitgeist.

Dying Inside is the story of a telepath living in contemporary America. He knows he has an unusual talent; but that talent is on the wane. From being someone with a secret power over ordinary mortals, he is in decline and that power will soon be gone. How does someone come to terms with that?

Telepathy and other paranormal powers were major themes in science fiction from the 1940s  up until the 1980s; the growth of the cyberpunk genre, where mind-to-mind communication could be achieved far more realistically using IT, often implanted, rather removed the need for paranormal powers as plot devices. But none of this takes away from the power of Dying Inside as a portrait of an individual facing a life-changing event that no others can share.

74 – Clifford D. Simak: Way Station

Clifford D. Simak evolved a pastoral style of science fiction. His protagonists were usually ordinary people coping with extraordinariness intruding into their lives. This 1963 novel, which was a Hugo Award winner the following year, is perhaps the best example.

Enoch Wallace survived the War between the States, but lost everything. He is approached to see if he’d like a very special job; to be the supervisor of the Earth station of a galaxy-wide system of matter transmitters. Earth isn’t part of the network; and his house, converted to hold the transmitter technology, is impenetrable to outsiders. Inside the house, he doesn’t age. So he looks after his special job, day after day, for a century or more. But try as he might, he can’t avoid the fact that some people are beginning to notice something odd…

75 – Dan Simmons: Hyperion & 76 – Dan Simmons: The Fall of Hyperion

(These two books are considered together as they form one novel, split into two for publishing reasons.)

Simmons had written some well-regarded horror novels before this/these book(s), but Hyperion came as something of a surprise: a well-realised future society, with thousands of inhabited worlds connected together by matter transmitters – ‘farcasters’ – that are as ubiquitous as our mobile phones (though rather less portable). But the farcaster network doesn’t reach everywhere; so we join a group of pilgrims, en route to Hyperion where the fabled Time Tombs will open. All those on the pilgrimage have their own reasons for travelling. But first they will have an encounter with the Shrike, who inhabits Hyperion and is associated with the Time Tombs. Many of them have met the Shrike along their own paths at different times. The Shrike is a bringer of pain and suffering, yet is worshipped by a cult of followers. And hard behind the pilgrims is the vanguard of a distant army, prophesying war.

The universe of Hyperion is massive, all-embracing and very highly Baroque. The reader has to work at the story; there are few expository lumps to explain what is happening, but once you realise that we are in an updated Canterbury Tales, the picture begins to come together. Given Simmons’ background as a horror writer, there is an expectation that there will be explicit violence, though this is no gore-fest. But it was the whole scene-setting that made this pair of books stick in my memory.

There are two further books in what has become known as the Hyperion Cantos; Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. They are set some twenty years after the events of these novels, and the reader is not obligated to continue the series after The Fall of Hyperion. The first pair of books are complete in themselves.

Recently, Simmons has attracted criticism for comments on social media about climate change activists (which he has since withdrawn). The argument about whether you can separate the artist from their work has been going on for centuries; I suppose it’s inevitable that we so often find our literary heroes to have feet of clay.

77 – John Sladek: The Reproductive System

John Sladek wrote surreal, satirical novels and short stories; much like the man himself. (He also wrote at length on the debunking of paranormal beliefs; his best-known work in that field was 1978’s The New Apocrypha). This 1968 novel satirises the military-industrial complex, amongst many other things. A struggling doll company decides that their only route to financial salvation lies through getting a military contract of some sort; indeed, any sort. They enrol a scientific adviser from MIT; unfortunately, they never catch on that the MIT their successful applicant attended was the somewhat spurious Miami Institute of Technocracy. This “expert” designs for them an autonomous electronic system whose sole function is to reproduce itself. Things go downhill from there, rather quickly.

78 – Filip Springer: History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town

One of the less often told stories of World War 2 concerns the cleansing of Silesia and Eastern Poland of ethnic Germans in the weeks following the Nazi defeat in May 1945. This book helps redress that balance somewhat. It concerns the town of Kupferberg, in the foothills of the Riesengebirge (Giant Mountains) which today separate Poland from the Czech Republic.

Silesia was noted, in pre-war Germany, for its scenic beauty. After the war, it attracted attention because of its reserves of uranium, which was suddenly strategically important. So the ‘polification’ of Kupferberg – renamed Miedzianka – was followed by an influx of workers who were directed to mine uranium, with little regard for the consequences, either for themselves, for the town, or for the environment. (Uranium can be found throughout that mountain range, which in its westward extension forms the border between the former East Germany and the present-day Czech Republic). Eventually, the town became so undermined by the uranium workings, and the townspeople so affected by the side-effects of working n the mines, that it was evacuated and allowed to fall into ruins. Today, hardly any sign can be found of the town on the ground, and indeed maps do not show the location beyond an isolated church marked in the middle of nowhere.

Springer recounts the story of the town through a series of stories about the families and the people. The stories interlock quite elegantly and you soon begin to build up a picture of the people and families., Over time, we see children grow up and take up jobs in the mines, or in support industries in the surrounding area.

Perhaps the best known product of the area in the West is the beer, Kupferberg Gold. The unique feature of the beer in times past was the local water, infused with radioactive salts that gave the beer a distinctive taste. I’ve actually tasted Kupferberg Gold – the brand still exists – but I do not recollect any unique flavour to it. The area is perhaps better known now for the rumours of German “treasure trains” hidden in secret tunnels; it’s perhaps much more likely that those “secret tunnels” are actually old mine workings, The truth is usually far more prosaic.

I recommend this book to anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know about the wars of the twentieth century.

79 – Francis Spufford: Red Plenty

An interesting book, straddling the divide between fiction and non-fiction. Its premise is the vision of the future that existed in Soviet Russia, which painted a picture where communism would have won and ordinary Soviet citizens would enjoy lives of ease and comfort in the perfect workers’ state. The reality was different, where the internal pressures and problems of running a centrally-managed economy caused the system to fail. Meanwhile, economists battled with ideology, politics and reality – all of which pulled in different directions – to try to make sufficient changes to bring about the perfect society by 1980.

Meanwhile, a selection of Soviet citizens, real and fictional, try to get on with their lives as best they can, navigating their way through the complexities of the system. But there is no perfect society, either capitalist or socialist; and this book is an important object lesson in this. Spufford came to Soviet Russia with hindsight and with no previous knowledge of his subject. Starting without preconceptions, he brings the clarity of new discovery to his work; so he shows us that the Soviet economy was growing faster than the USA’s in the 1950s, even when all the propaganda and double accounting are stripped out; or he explains some of the basics of Marxism that suggest that capitalism has not, as some commentators put it, “won” and socialism “lost”, but rather that capitalism just hasn’t reached the end of its useful life just yet and socialism’s time may still be to come.

80 – Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

This densely-packed, complex novel explores a range of stories centring on cryptanalysis and the fate of Nazi looted gold during World War 2. Action is centred fairly much in the Phillipines, but with excursions to Shanghai, Bletchley Park, North Africa, the north of Scotland, the coast of Norway, the Gulf of Bothnia and West Coast America, as intertwined fates work out their destinies. Along the way, readers will pick up a lot of coincidental stuff about cryptanalysis. The highly mathematical parts can be skimmed (I would suggest skimming rather than skipping, as they are central to the story).

Much of the writing is in a rather circular style, sometimes reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse and almost as funny; other segments have more in common with William Gibson, especially his very near future Blue Ant novels. Some of the wartime segments bear more than a passing resemblance to Catch-22, especially those involving General MacArthur. The action switches between World War 2 and the “present day” (1990s), where two entrepreneurs are trying to establish a data haven and cryptocurrency vault in the Phillippines. Although Stephenson has a reputation as a science fiction writer, this is not particularly a science fiction novel, although Stephenson writes with an sf writer’s sensibilities; he knows the hacker community and their interests and attitudes, and that includes accepting science-fictional ideas as a given.

The technology in this novel is around twenty years out of date, but only in terms of detail. A reader who knows anything about IT will be at home here, and will have a proper understanding of the technological implications of what the characters are trying to do and how they are trying to do it. With all the hype about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it’s interesting to see the genesis of those things in fictional form.

And then, towards the end, there is a stunning scene between two of the protagonists which throws the whole Nazi gold story into sharp relief.

Ultimately, this book is about the foundations of our modern world – power, money, information and the rise of Pacific Rim economies. Plus some hints of conspiracy theories which don’t involve the Usual Suspects…

[Previously: Miyamoto Musashi to T.W.E. Roche]

[Next: John Sweeney to Patrick Whitehouse]

Written by robertday154

March 13, 2020 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized