The Warsaw Anagrams

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall acr...

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall across Świętokrzyska street near intersection with Marszałkowska street. In the back “Magazyn Bławatny” store of Jan Tarnowski & Co. at Marszałkowska 133 street. This is not the final location of the wall on Świętokrzyska street, according to book “Getto Warszawskie” in 1941 the wall was a block farther between Zielona and Bagno streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the enormity of some of the stuff that happened during Word War II. The conflict itself was horrific in its scale with fighting taking place across much of the globe. Countries routinely sent dozens of aeroplanes filled to the brim with explosives across the sea to drop on population centres. But beyond the death and destruction at the front line, on the home front as we now know, something awful took place.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi occupied Europe during the war. The Nazis corralled 400,000 Jews into a tiny section of the city separated by huge barbed wire topped walls. There are various estimates as to how many of the ghetto dwellers lost their lives and how many survived. The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler tells the story of one those ghetto dwellers.

I don’t know what made me pick up this book. I played a game called Last Train Out of Warsaw, which follows a train full of Polish fleeing from the German invasion and I read a game book called Grey Ranks which portrays children of the resistance inside the ghetto walls. If you can ignore the inherent misery and despair, these games give a fascinating insight into the world of wartime Warsaw. Besides which, I fancied a change from my regular diet of science fiction.

At the start of the book, we know the protagonist is dead because he returns to Warsaw as a ghost. Once there, he relates his story to the only man who can see him and a fascinating tale unfolds. Erik is a psychologist. He can see the writing on the wall so he decides to move to the ghetto on his terms before everyone else is rounded up. He moves in with his sister and her 9-year-old son. Initially, he is resentful of the son as he has to share his bed. In time they become much closer as they come to terms with their forced confinement.

Unfortunately, just when they are getting close, Adam is murdered and Erik sets out to discover who killed him and dumped his mutilated body. Along the way he discovers things he didn’t know about Adam and other children who suffered the same fate. It is an easy read and a cracking mystery. I like the way that the essence of the Jewish culture is interwoven with the story. The odd Jewish word here and the odd reference to a Jewish custom really help to make the story authentic.

So is it miserable? Yes the despair is there, but there’s so much more. I can’t believe how much the ghetto is brought to life. There’s love, hope, ambition and people helping other people. There is smuggling, murder and suicide. There is coldness, hunger and disease. Read this if you want to know what happened and if you want to understand the pride of the people it happened to.

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Arthur C. Clarke

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthu...

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. This was published by Harcourt in June 1956 and was the first release of this novel. The image is used to illustrate the article The City and the Stars. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up until relatively recently, the only way I knew of Arthur C. Clarke was as the host of some interesting documentaries about cool stuff that no-one could explain.

He was a bald guy who lived in Sri Lanka who posed questions about crystal skulls and markings in ancient Peru that only made sense when viewed from altitude. I knew he wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey and the follow-up 2010, but it never occurred to me just how prolific he was as a science fiction author.

It was only when I came across his books in the science fiction masterworks series that I realised just how many books he penned. Unlike many great science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke has the distinction of having two books released under the banner; Rendezvous With Rama and The City and the Stars. From reading the back covers, Rendezvous sounded more interesting, so that’s the one I read first.

Arthur C. Clarke has a great way of describing technical and physical things in a way that they make sense to the reader. He can bring them to life in the space of a few short sentences. In Rendezvous with Rama, the story revolves around a gigantic spaceship that visits our future Solar System so he has plenty of opportunity to exercise his craft.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling cheated when I reached the end. If I were unkind, I might summarise the plot as: a huge alien spaceship turns up; humans explore it; it buggers off taking all its secrets with it. At the end of the book, he explained little or nothing about the culture that built the spacecraft. Were they alive or dead? Were they benevolent or malicious? All we know is that they build cool spaceships populated with robots.

In all my disappointment about the first book, I felt reluctant to read the second. It was only when a friend recommended The City and the Stars that I picked up the book. I have to say – what a difference. If not much happens in the first book, the whole universe changes in the second book.

The action starts off in the sterile city of Diaspar. Everything is safe within the city’s dome. People are reproduced as necessary from within  the central computer’s memory banks and have to live according to preset conditioning. The central character, Alvin, is born with something no-one else seems to have; curiosity. He wants to know what’s out there and boy does he find out and changes the city, the world and the universe in the process. It’s a great novel and I was staggered to find out that he wrote it in the 50s. I was doubly staggered to find out that it was a rewrite of the first story he ever penned.

It’s hard to believe that Arthur C. Clarke wrote both books. The second is a masterpiece. The only criticism I have is that I don’t find his descriptions of people to be particularly evocative. But who am I to judge?

Asimov

Cover of "The Complete Robot (Robot Serie...

Cover of The Complete Robot (Robot Series)

I don’t know why I never got round to reading it. I picked it up in a charity shop eons ago. The cover showed its age and the title didn’t seem that exciting. Even the blurb on the back of the book failed to motivate any kind of desire to read it. How wrong I was.

I tend to find books where politics form the central thread of the story tedious. There are some notable exceptions; The Song of Ice and Fire trilogy by George Martin the main one that springs to mind. I also have low tolerance for books that don’t grab me early in the story. So I didn’t have high expectations. Despite all that, Foundation is the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read.

The central premise of the story is interesting. The behaviour of any sufficiently large society can be mapped and predicted using mathematical models. Professor Hari Sheldon, as a Psychohistorian predicts the downfall of the empire using such mathematical models. There is no way to avoid it, but the effects are mitigated by forming the Foundation.

The story rattles along at a cracking pace as the epochs unfold. Each epoch requires a different set of skills and a different set of people to come to the fore. The scale of the story is sometimes staggering, but as a writer, I can appreciate the crispness of Isaac Asimov‘s prose. The end of every era is marked by a crisis as the new epoch is born. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was genuinely disappointed when the book finished. 

I went to the local bookshop to pick up the sequels, only to find that they were out of stock. Impatient to get another dose of Asimov, I picked up the Complete Robot anthology. All of the 31 stories revolve around the robots of the US Robotics and Mechanical Men corporation and the nuances of the 3 laws of robotics. Some might think that such a subject would be severely limiting, but there is huge variety in the stories. My personal favourite is Reason where the robots decide that the best way to obey first law is to start locking the humans up.

By a sheer stroke of coincidence the day after I finished the series I, Robot came on the TV. I have yet to read the story, but I couldn’t turn down the chance of some visual Asimov goodness. The character names and the terminology used are reminiscent of the world I’ve come to know and love, but it’s almost as if they put together all the ingredients of a good Asimov robot story and threw half of them away. Not a bad film, but somehow a wasted opportunity.

I can’t wait for someone to create a film version of Foundation. In the meantime, I’m patiently waiting for the next books in the series.

My science fiction itch

Sketch of Larry Niven's "Ringworld"

Sketch of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated with anything futuristic. My favourite viewing as a child ranged from the Tomorrow People through to Logan’s Run and everything in between. When the Star Wars films came out, I was in heaven. Although I liked the science fiction represented on TV and in the cinema, it took me a long time to grow a liking for literary science fiction.

I tried many books, but found that most of them lacked the raw guttural excitement of what I’d seen on screen. I found myself drawn to fantasy fiction. Somehow, the reverse was true. Most fantasy films were pretty ropey when compared to the best of the written word. Of course, these days we are spoilt with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit & Game of Thrones.

Lately though, I have a science fiction itch that I can’t quite scratch, so I find myself steadily ploughing through the SF Masterworks series from Orion Publishing. I can pick them up for a song from my favourite disorganised bookshop. I started with the Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Published almost 40 years ago, the novel still seems fresh and follows the life of a soldier in an interstellar war against the Taurans. The war ebbs and flows as both sides learn from the conflicts. Straight after this, I read Tau Zero by Poul Anderson which is even older. The bed-hopping colonists in the book suddenly realise there is something terribly wrong with their ship. Although the scope of the novel is epic – the destruction and rebirth of the Universe – I can’t help being disappointed with the ending.

Larry Niven‘s Ringworld was next – again, an old book. Published in the year I was born, it follows an unlikely group of 4 voyagers setting out to explore a the massive ring like construct of the title. The story bounces along at a jaunty pace and the characters grow throughout the book. Of the three, this was the best so far. What struck me about each of these books was the role that physics plays in the story. They almost read like stories made up to illustrate the theory of relativity.

More recently, I read the Demolished Man which is the oldest so far. In a world full of people who can read minds – how can you murder someone? An intriguing concept and the story proceeds at a breakneck pace. Of all the books – it is very difficult to believe that this was written over half a century ago. It feels so fresh. Highly recommended!

Right now, I’m reading Hyperion. A massively imaginative tale of a group of pilgrims heading to a religious site on the planet of the title. The story unfolds in a Canterbury Tales-esque fashion with each character telling their story. Of course each tale is intertwined and quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This is the most recent tale and the first to convince me to seek out the sequels. My disorganised bookshop doesn’t carry them, so I’ll have to pay full price – but somehow, I’m convinced they are worth it!

What else should I read to scratch my science fiction itch?

You never know what you might find…

Cover of "Indiana Jones and the Raiders o...

Cover via Amazon

There can’t be too many people in the world who haven’t seen the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a lot to like about it. It’s one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best scenes, if not a little depressing, is the scene at the end where the US government locks away the precious Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse along with many other treasures and antiquities.

It’s depressing because I can imagine some misguided government doing that just to keep the status quo. I mean the last thing that any government wants is radical change and the moral and ethical questions around a hotline to the supreme being are enough to make any politician’s toes curl. The warehouse reminds me of something else, however, my favourite book store.

When I go into a high street book store, I tend to follow exactly the same pattern every time. I’ll go and have a look at the Science Fiction section and then I naturally progress to the Fantasy section as it’s usually right next door. I always take a gander at the graphic novels, just in case there’s anything there that tickles my fancy. Because of my profession, I have a little look at the computer section and the books that tell you how to be a good manager.

Because of my routine, I am seldom surprised, and it’s rare that I buy anything. I’ve read pretty much everything I want to read in those sections and the pace at which new books are published means that I have many fruitless visits to the book store.

My favourite bookstore, however, is totally different. It is just like the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse – a massive building containing many fine treasures. Why do I like it so much? Anyone with OCD who entered the building would have a nightmare as if there is any kind of organisation of the books inside, I certainly don’t know the rules of what goes where.

But it is precisely this disorganised nature of storing books that I like, because I can’t just go to the sections I like. I’m forced to browse through books I wouldn’t even dream of looking at normally. Of course, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess, but I nearly always come away with some books to read, unlike when I visit the high street book stores. Not only that, but the books are heavily discounted too.

The name of this house of treasures is “Books 66” and if you have one nearby, it’s well worth a visit.

Whatever happened to my treasured possessions?

 

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. ...

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Owing to a recent rodent induced flood (don’t ask), we have had cause to reassess the value of lots our belongings in the Bailey household. Many items have slid down the treasured possession scale from “don’t throw away under any circumstances” to “discardable tat” with frightening speed. Thanks to the household insurance, almost everything can be replaced. What surprised me was how distinctly unattached I felt to all of my possessions – they’re just easily replaceable things.

It never used to be that way. When I was growing up, everything I owned was almost sacred. I had a massive collection of plastic soldiers which I played with endlessly. Rain, wind or shine, I would be out in the garden digging bunkers and conducting world war across the lawn. I was obsessed by World War II and I had a big boxful of Commando comics which I read over and over.

Whilst these were important to me at the time, they paled into insignificance compared to two hard backed books.

The first was a ladybird book called “In the train with Uncle Mac”. I don’t know where it came from and it was well-worn by the time it came into my possession. It was the story of a journey on a steam train with a kindly uncle. I read the book incessantly. So much so, that it started to fall to bits. As a young boy, I liked all kinds of machines, but especially trains. Time after time, mum had to perform running repairs with Sellotape just to keep it in one piece. By the time she finished, there was more Sellotape than book.

The second was a similarly sized hard backed book with a plain dark red cover. It had no dust cover and at some point in its life, it had been in the wrong place during some decorating and white paint flecked the front of the book. It was presented to me by my uncle Martin. I could tell by the solemnity of the way he gave me the book that he was handing over a precious heirloom. It was a copy of a Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

With gravity, he told me that the book I held in my hands was his favourite story ever. He then read it to me. I can’t say that it converted me to being a Charles Dickens fan, but the moment possessed a certain magic all the same.

I feel guilty that I no longer have either of these books and for the life of me, I have no idea what happened to them. I could buy another copy of both these books to replace the ones that I’ve lost over the years, but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.

 

The psychology of ebooks

books

books (Photo credit: brody4)

I enjoy writing. It’s like a new hobby to me and I try to write something whenever I get the opportunity. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get a new hobby, I spend a lot of time reading about it. I don’t just want to be a writer – I want to be a good writer – so I have read blogs, magazines and articles on how to improve. The one piece of advice that almost all of them contain is that avid writers should read lots of books.

So I have made a concerted effort to read more. Like most budding technologists, I have the ability to read ebooks. I have Kindle installed on every device I have and have a nice little collection of ebooks in my library. This means that these titles are available to me pretty much everywhere.

I also have a big pile of crusty old physical books as well. There are shelves and shelves of them in our house. I regularly buy more of them – typically from the charity shop. Unlike the ebooks, I have to make a conscious choice to carry these books with me if I’m going to read them. So in theory, they are available to me much less often than their electronic equivalents. The odd thing is, my ebook library is littered with unfinished reads, whereas I’ve flown through the last 10 physical books I picked up from the charity shop. How does this make sense?

Either consciously or unconsciously, my preference is to read the physical manifestation of the text rather than the electronic. I do find reading a very emotive, tactile experience. I like the smell of old books. I like well read books from the charity shop because it reassures me on some level that other people have enjoyed that title too.

The physical form factor is important too. I need to feel like I am making progress through the book, so I prefer books with larger text and shorter chapters. I know that the font size can be set in electronic books, but somehow, the effect is not the same. When you are reading a physical book, you can easily see how far you are through by looking a the block of pages read compared to the pages you still have to read. I know that I can see that numerically at the base of my kindle screen, but again – it’s just not the same.

There are a few other downsides too. I can pick up a superb potboiler from the charity shop for 50p, but prices for ebooks seem far too high considering there are no raw materials or distribution costs. Once I have finished my physical book, I can lend it to someone else or even take it back to the charity shop for someone else to enjoy. I can’t do that with my ebooks.

There are good things about electronic books such as the anonymity – nobody knows what you are reading which surely helped the recent success of the 50 Shades trilogy. They are also weightless – apart from the device itself (which many people carry anyway) – each book adds no weight or bulk.

But when it comes to ebooks – colour me a Luddite.

Heavy weather

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have found Steve Jobs biography to be tough going. It’s not the writing, it’s the subject. Before I started reading the book, I had no real image of Steve Jobs in my head other than his public persona. The more I read of his life story, the less I find myself liking him. I try to persevere – but it’s hard work.

So I was interested to see Walter Isaacson, the author presenting at IBM’s Impact conference last week. I didn’t really know much about him either, but it turns out that Steve Jobs is not the only subject of his biographies. He has also written the life stories of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Apparently, Steve Jobs approached him and asked why not do his biography next. Walter joked about Jobs thinking his name being the next name in the sequence after Einstein & Franklin showing a distinct lack of humility.

He argued that smart people are relatively common, but what set his subjects apart was imagination. He told the story about Steve Jobs painting a fence with his father. Confounded by his suggestion to apply as much care and attention to the back of the fence as to the front, Steve Jobs asked why – who will know? His father told Jobs that he would know. That notion of caring obsessively about every facet of his products extended throughout his career.

Walter went on to say that innovation requires passion and curiosity. Einstein’s father gave him a childhood gift of a compass. He became fascinated with the idea of magnetic fields and Maxwell’s equations They state that the speed of the magnetic field remains constant regardless of your speed or direction. Einstein couldn’t understand why this would be the case until he fathomed out the theory of relativity.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin spent a lot of time on ships going to and fro across the Atlantic Ocean. He couldn’t understand why the journey was shorter going one way than the other. So he began experimenting by pulling buckets behind the ship and sampling the water as the ship travelled. Through experimentation, he discovered that the water in one direction was warmer than the other which accounted for the ease of passage.

Benjamin Franklin was also very open and collaborative, which Walter argued was also important to innovation. He told a story about the declaration of independence which because of my lack of familiarity with the document didn’t mean that much to me, but I assume it illustrated his point. Paradoxically – Apple is not what you would describe as an open and collaborative company but there you go.

The slogan from Apple’s famous Orwellian advertising campaign was “Think Different” which all of Isaacson’s subjects live up to.

So, will my Steve Jobs biography become easier having seen the author himself. Unfortunately – probably not. But I am tempted to try another of Walter’s books. He is currently working on a history of computing which sounds like it would be right up my street.

The games people play

 

Game designer and author Jane McGonigal at Mee...

Game designer and author Jane McGonigal at Meet the Media Guru in Milan, Italy, May 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picture the scene. You see 3 children sat on a sofa. Each of them is playing on some sort of electronic device. What thoughts come into your head? The chances are that the words “waste of time” are uppermost in your mind. Up until 24 hours ago, I would have agreed with you, but I was lucky enough to see Jane McGonigal’s presentation at IBM Impact in Las Vegas.

Jane is a self professed future forecaster and author of Reality is Broken. She has a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. An enthralling speaker, she rattles off facts and figures about gaming and the effect on society in convincing fashion. According to her figures, there are a billion gamers in the world today. Angry Birds alone is played for a total of 300 million minutes a day by the human race.

Wikipedia has become an exhaustive knowledge source for just about everything. At the time of writing, the site consists of approximately 4 million articles. Encyclopaedia Britannica contains about 85,000. If all the gamers playing Angry Birds stopped, and turned their attention to recreating Wikipedia (assuming they had the knowledge), it would take them just three weeks.

Interesting – but why does that make gaming anything more than a frivolous waste of time? Apparently, gamers regularly experience 10 distinct positive emotions ranging from curiosity to joy. They are more innovative. More creative. They are more resilient (chiefly because they spend 80% of the time during games failing). Gamers are also more likely to help other people.

There are medical benefits too. According to a Nature Reviews study, gamers with ADHD find that their symptoms are massively diminished or even disappear whilst playing games. Gamers with autism show increased social intelligence. In clinical trials, games give more positive results than pharmaceuticals in patients with depression.

She gave the example of a game called Remission. The hero in the game fights against the agents that cause cancer. Patients suffering from the disease who play the game have better outcomes than patients who just watch the game being played. Observation or brain activity whilst playing the game shows increased activity in the Thalamus (responsible for not giving up) and the Hippocampus (responsible for long term memory and habits). If you play the game, you are less likely to give up  and much more likely to continue treatment.

During her presentation, she told us that we were going to play Massively Multiplayer thumb wrestling. As I was surrounded by 9,000 other people, I decided in an instant that I was far too British to take part in any such nonsense. When the time came, I became wrapped up in the moment and I was thumb wrestling with the best of them and I won with one thumb, which apparently makes me a grand champion of thumb wrestling! Jane asserted that we would all feel a number of positive emotions afterwards, and I did, once I had composed myself and straightened my tie.

I can’t wait to read the book.

 

My favourite book

Books

There is something really special about a good book. Somehow, I find them so much more satisfying and immersive than a film or game. I must have read hundreds, maybe thousands of books in my lifetime, but I am cursed with a memory that allows me to remember relatively few. I suppose the ones I do remember are the ones I enjoyed most.

There are some I remember from an early age. One of them, an illustrated dictionary, I still have. The other, regretfully has long since passed from my possession. It was a Ladybird Book. One of a series of small hardback books that we were all weaned on. I forget the title, it was something like “On the train with Uncle Jack” and it was all about rail travel.

I don’t know if it was because I came from Swindon, but I had an unhealthy obsession with trains so I read this book so much that it was practically falling to pieces. Mum and Dad had managed to apply copious amounts of sellotape in an effort to hold it together and it was just as well, because I probably read that book more than any other since.

Like most children, I lapped up Enid Blyton books. The famous five and the secret seven had my imagination working overtime. I also remember other books about a child called McGurk who was a child detective. Unlike most children, I also became obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and read the complete works from cover to cover umpteen times.

It was only later in life that I developed an interest in fantasy fiction. A colleague recommended the Dragonlance trilogy to me, which I loved at the time but it left me hungry for more. A friend recommended Magician by Raymond Feist which has to rank as one of the best fantasy novels of all time.

I enjoyed the hobbit and because of the seminal nature of Lord of the Rings, I tried to read that too, but I found it interminably slow. Other books I’ve read since have had the same pedestrian pace (such as the Dragonbone Chair trilogy) but for some reason,  I found them much less turgid.

Robin Hobb‘s assassin series was absolutely brilliant (until the ending which had me physically throwing the book across the room) and anyone who enjoys humour in a fantasy setting really owes it to themselves to read the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch.

Combining a really good book with an environment that reflects the book’s content can make it seem much more real and relevant. Reading Pirates by Celia Rees whilst on a Caribbean cruse and The Terror by Dan Simmons whilst on a transatlantic voyage really transports you in a way that reading them at home in a comfortable armchair never would have done.

So – what am I reading now? I am struggling with Steve Job’s biography. Maybe it’s because this is the first biography I have ever read, but to be honest I am really struggling. Nothing I have read so far endears me to the man. I can’t take away from his commercial legacy, but I find little in his character that appeals to me.

Time for something lighter I feel…