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Announcement: Why I'm starting a new blog

I started this blog on Serendipity in March 2004, which was only a couple of years after Serendipity first became available. I was replacing an earlier blog on WordPress, which had destroyed my database. I've been pretty happy with Serendipity over the years, but now I've decided to start a new blog�once more, ironically, using WordPress. So why?

Although Serendipity is still available I get the impression, I hope wrongly, that development is slowing at present, particularly as regards themes and plugins. It has a small team of developers and I think a small user base as well. It receives little attention on the Net these days, probably because the way in which blogging works is now different from how it was fifteen years ago, as I found when I started to look into alternatives.

In fact, Serendipity seems to be just about the last man standing when it comes to self-hosted purely blogging platforms. WordPress was one of these in 2004 but now it has become something more ambitious, a Content Management System (CMS), which includes blogging as one of its components, though admittedly an important one. The same is true of other blogging platforms such as Joomla!.

I wasn't enthusiastic about going down the CMS route at first and was particularly suspicious of WordPress in view of my previous experience, but after about two weeks' experimentation with other possibilities I've come to the conclusion that WordPress is the best solution for me. So my new blog is now on line. If you can't beat 'em...

That doesn't mean my Serendipity blog will disappear. It's difficult or impossible to migrate material from Serendipity to WordPress so I shall keep my previous blog available here indefinitely (it gets a number of hits every day).

Please note comments are turned off at present owing to spam.

Book review: The Gathering _Storm [Book II]. by Winston S. Churchill


Note: This is the first volume of Churchill's six-volume memoir of the Second World War. It is in two parts. Book I describes events in the years preceding the outbreak of war, and Book II deals with the start of the war. This review is of Book II; a review of Book I is also available.


Book II begins with Churchill's appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty (the post he had held previously during the first world war) and ends with his becoming Prime Minister in 1940. He refers to the early months of the war as the twilight war, usually known today as the phoney war (which Churchill describes as an Americanism). At this time life in Britain went on much as usual, which was fortunate because it gave Britain the chance to start to catch up with the military preparations that had been neglected in the interwar years. As well as his naval responsibilities, which included taking measures to counteract German mines and submarines, as a member of the War Cabinet Churchill was closely involved in the government's planning of the war as a whole.

Although the war was making little difference to life in Britain at this stage, things were very different in eastern Europe, where Hitler was carrying out his plan to attack Poland. This resulted in huge suffering and destruction and ended in the partition of the country between Germany and Russia. There was nothing Britain or France could do about this, but Churchill and Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, made a number of visits to France to coordinate plans for the expected attack from Germany. These didn't go well; the French refused to agree to Churchill's plan for mining the Rhine, fearing German reprisals.

This idea of not irritating the enemy did no commend itself to me.…Good, decent, civilised people, it appeared, must never themselves strike till after they have been struck dead.


In late 1939 occurred the famous naval engagement with the pocket battleship Graf Spee at the River Plate off Montevideo. This British victory lifted spirits at home and reduced the threat to British shipping in the Atlantic from German surface warships. But soon afterwards matters took a different turn when the Germans invaded Norway and Britain attempted to recapture two strategic Norwegian ports, an enterprise that ultimately failed. The description of this episode makes up a major part of Book II. Troops were landed in two locations but were unable to establish their positions. Churchill was assured that in the prevailing conditions the Germans would be unable to counter-attack, but this proved wrong. "In this Norwegian encounter some of our finest troops, the Scots and Irish Guards, were baffled by the vigour, enterprise and training of Hitler's young men."

Eventually the British forces had to be withdrawn; fortunately the evacuation was carried out without major losses, but Churchill thinks he was lucky to survive politically after this failure.

The Government received a lot of criticism at home in the aftermath of the Norwegian campaign. And matters became much worse on 10 May 1940, when the Germans launched their long-anticipated attack on Holland and Belgium. After a tense debate in Parliament Chamberlain decided he must resign as Prime Minister, and was succeeded by Churchill as head of a Government of National character, which the Labour Opposition agreed to join.

I acquired the chief power in the State, which I held for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.


Churchill says that during this momentous time his pulse had not quickened at any moment and he slept well.

The impressive readability that characterised Book I is maintained or even increased in Book II. Appendix M provides an interesting account of the techniques that were used to counteract the dangers from magnetic and acoustic mines.

Book review: Almost Like a Whale, by Steve Jones


Note: I started to review this book without realising that I had already done so almost twenty years ago. Unusually, I've decided to update the review. What I write here isn't a radical revision of what I wrote previously but I think it's a better reflection of what I think about it today.


Hardly any biology students today read The Origin of Species; it is mostly students of literature who do this, which suggests that many people regard it as mainly of historical interest. Steve Jones has set himself the ambitious and possibly eccentric task of correcting this misapprehension by updating Darwin's book for the twenty-first century. The principal difficulty faced by Darwin was the lack of a satisfactory explanation of the mechanism of inheritance; Jones, as Professor of Genetics at University College, London, was in an excellent position to supply the deficiency. So naturally genetics figures prominently in the book. The constantly evolving AIDS virus provides a useful example of how this works, and it figures prominently in the book, like a spectre at the feast (treatment was not as advanced when Jones was writing as it is now).

Genetics is important in the story but Jones ranges much more widely, to adduce an astonishingly large volume of biological information to illustrate Darwin's thesis. No doubt every fact he mentions will be known to one specialist or another, but there can be few who know all of them. It was mainly this that kept me reading, but the problem with Jones's method is that the relentless flow of information can become overwhelming; one feels the need to surface and get one's breath back. Jones seems to have felt this himself; his explanations are sometimes compressed to the point that they become difficult to understand. Probably that is why I found this book less enjoyable than most of those by this author.

As a rule Jones is a lively writer with a light touch and plenty of humorous asides, and these do figure here, such as the comment on the life cycle of the sea squirt which, "after an active life, settles on the sea floor and, like a professor given tenure, absorbs its brain". And, as in his other books, he can come up with a fine elegiac passage as he contemplates the ephemeral nature of human existence.

Sixty billion people have lived, he says, since modern humans first appeared, but only a tiny number of these have left any fossil traces.

The lost armies of the dead have a moral for evolution. They are a reminder that the geological record is a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines.…The history of ancient Egypt, of the present century—and of the existence of our own species—will soon be gone for ever.


The book is written as a homage to Darwin, and this extends even to its literary style. It uses Darwin's chapter titles and concludes each chapter with a summary in Darwin's own words; the whole final chapter is taken directly from The Origin. None of this produces a sense of discontinuity. Darwin's phrases sometimes find their way into the text; in further echoes of the past, Jones quotes measurements in feet rather than metres and flouts political correctness by constantly using "Man" and "he" to refer to the human species.

Taken as a celebration of Darwin's opus the book certainly succeeds, but beyond that I'm not sure who its audience is likely to be. Probably few readers will be impelled to go back to Darwin's own work, if that was Jones's intention. At least in part he appears to be hoping to counter the arguments of critics who claim that Darwin's thesis is "just a theory" which is contradicted by numerous facts. Jones presents plenty of evidence to contradict such views, but I doubt that any advocates of "Intelligent Design" will be among his readers. So the book is likely to appeal mainly to those who are already convinced of the truth of evolution by natural selection and sexual selection.

Readers in the last category may find useful information to use in arguments with friends and acquaintances, although they will need to keep in mind that today (2019) it is twenty years since the book appeared and much new information has come out since then. For example, Jones states that the human genome contains 75,000 to 100,000 genes, but these numbers have now been reduced to about 20,000 and this is probably still falling. And the "interlude" at that makes up the penultimate chapter, which looks at human evolution, has been overtaken by events. Advances in genetics mean we now know much more about the Neanderthals, including the fact that they (and the Denisovans, unknown when Jones was writing) interbred with humans outside Africa.

None of this is Jones's fault, of course; it was inevitable. And probably he would not be too perturbed by the flood of new informatio on human origins and the speculation that has accompanied it. "With so little from the past, anthropology is one of the few sciences in which it is possible to be famous for having an opinion, and until more facts emerge such speculation is bound to emerge." All the same, I was surprised to find Homo erectus\ described as "a large-brained ape that looked rather like a man".

The index has been prepared with less care than I would expect.

The Brexit fiasco


Statesman are not called upon to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.
Winston S. Churchill: Vol I: The Gathering Storm

Book review: The Gathering Storm [Book I], by Winston S. Churchill


Note: This is the first volume of Churchill's six-volume memoir of the Second World War. It is in two parts. Book I describes events in the years preceding the outbreak of war, and Book II deals with the start of the war. This review is of Book I; a review of Book II will follow later.


The central idea that runs throughout the book is that the war was avoidable. It happened because we—meaning the victors in the First World War, especially Britain—believed what we wanted to believe rather than what was happening. Time and again opportunities were lost. The main reason for this was the understandable wish for peace, which was what led to the establishment of the League of Nations. Germany was supposed to be disarmed, but so too were the victorious nations. During what Churchill calls the Locust Years (1931–1935) British security was neglected shamefully, principally by the Conservatives but also by Labour and the Liberals. The result was "a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even as far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience".

Churchill traces Hitler's seemingly inexorable rise to power after 1933 and shows time and again how he thinks this could have been at least checked for a time and possibly completely prevented. The German invasions of the Ruhr, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were all gambles; in all of them resolute action by Britain and France could easily have called Hitler's bluff, but nothing was done. I was familiar with this in outline but there were many surprises. For example, it seems that the German generals were so appalled by the risks that Hitler was running in his plan to invade Czechoslovakia that they were plotting to arrest him.

I was also surprised at the complexities of the relationship between Mussolini and Hitler; the two dictators were initially not as cooperative or friendly to each other as they became later. And I hadn't realised how close Russia had come in 1938 to forming an alliance with Britain and France against Germany; this might have happened if the Western powers had been less lukewarm to the idea, although Poland and the Baltic states were also unwilling to allow Russian troops to traverse their territories

Statesman are not called upon to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself. Having got ourselves into this awful plight of 1939, it was vital to grasp the larger hope.


Throughout the period he describes in Book I Churchill was a Member of Parliament but not a minister, so his role was that of a spectator and adviser but not an actor. That was soon to change. We leave him in his home at Chartwell, accompanied by a retired Scotland Yard detective; they are both armed and taking it in turns to sleep, in case one of Hitler's Nazis, of whom there were known to be twenty thousand in Britain, should come to assassinate him.

Not the least remarkable thing about this book is its sheer readability. Before starting on it I had expected to find it rather hard going, but quite the opposite. I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time and tend to alternate between them according to my mood, I soon found myself returning to this one in preference to anything else, as I might to a thriller—which, in a sense, it is.

Pupils' demonstration against climate change

Today, schoolchidren across the country are staging a demonstration against climate change. In a po-faced response the Department for Education has said they would be better off attending to their education by being in class. I applaud the children's action and if I were in school myself I'd certainly take part. If climate change isn't stopped or at least mitigated the world these children will inhabit will be one in which the putative benefits of a day in class will be totally irrelevant in face of the devastation that climate change is likely to bring about. By protesting they are displaying a lot more sense than many of their elders, especially President Trump. Participation in the demonstration will be a more useful lesson than anything they might learn sitting at a desk.

Gmail - Using Canned responses (templates)

Introduction
I should say at the outset that I don't like Gmail and avoid it whenever possible (I use Mutt), but my wife uses Gmail all the time and needs the facility to have templates (which Gmail calls Canned responses). Some time ago I researched how to set this up for her but recently I found it didn't work any more. Apparently Gmail has "improved" its method of doing this. I searched the Web and discovered plenty of instructions, mostly out of date. The best site I came across was by Heinz Tschabitscher (21 Nov 2018), but even that has one or two inaccuracis due no doubt to subsequent changes in Gmail; also, I think, the author doesn't suffiently draw attention to the peculiarities of the Gmail menu system. Here I offer an outline of the steps I use at present (15 Feb 2919).


A. Preliminary: enable canned responses (if not already done)
1. Start Gmail
2. Click cogwheel symbol (Settings) at top right
3. In the menu, click Settings
4. Click Advanced (towards right-hand end of top line)
5. Enable Canned responses (templates)
6. Click Save changes

B. Composing a Canned response (template)
1. Click Compose
2. Write the text you want to use as a template (don't fill in To: or Subject: at this stage)
3. Click More options (three vertical dots at the bottom right)
4. Choose Canned responses
5. In the Canned responses menu, click New canned response
6. You'll be prompted for a name for the new template; type in something to identify it
7. Click OK to save the template

C. Using a Canned response (template) in an email
1. Click Compose
2. Fill in To: and Subject:
3. Click More options (three dots. at bottom)
4. Choose Canned responses
5. In the menu, choose a template FROM THOSE AT THE UPPER PART OF THE MENU! (ignore duplicate entries for the same template that appear further down - see Note 1 below)
6. The template text will appear in Compose, where you can edit it if necessary
7. Click Send

Notes
1. The Canned responses menu is confusing. It has greyed-out entries for Insert, Save, and Delete. Usually greying-out means that a button is inactive for some reason and I assumed that this was the case here. In fact, these are section headings. You will see every template listed under each section - three times in all. If you click on a template that appears under Delete you get the option to delete it. If you click on the same template under Save it will be replaced with whatever you have in Compose (if there is nothing there you will get a blank template). Clicking a template under Insert will paste the template into Compose ; this is what you want most of the time.

2. If you change your mind and want to use a different template in your email you must delete the draft and start afresh (click the X at top right of Compose or the symbol like a little house at bottom right)


Book review: La Hermana San Sulpicio [in Spanish], by Armando Palacio Valdes

This novel was first published in 1889 but it remains surprisingly fresh in tone today. It is cast as a first-person narrative by Ceferino Sanjurjo, a young man who falls in love with a nineteen-year-old nun and wants to marry her. She is Andalusian, from Seville; he is from Galicia, in north-west Spain, and this difference in background is a recurrent theme in the story. Galicians had the reputation of being rural and unsophisticated, not to say boorish; Sanjurjo is sensitive about his origin and tries to de-emphasise it as much as possible.

In fact, Sanjurjo's father, who is a pharmacist, is quite well off and provides a good allowance to his son. Sanjurjo has trained as a doctor but doesn't want to practise and has literary ambitions, which he is pursuing in Madrid. He fails as a dramatist but enjoys some success as a descriptive poet. When his over-indulgent lifestyle leads to stomach problems he goes to a health spa at Marmolejo, in the Andalusian province of Jaén. Here he meets Sister San Sulpicio, who is also taking the waters together with her cousin, likewise a nun, and a Mother Superior.

Sanjurjo quickly falls in love with the beautiful and very lively Sister San Sulpicio, and when the nuns return to Seville he follows, intending to marry her. This is not as out of the question as it might seem; she has not yet taken her final vows and says she plans to leave the convent when the time for renewal comes up, as it will shortly.

Soon after returning to Seville she does indeed leave and goes back to her home, where she talks to Sanjurjo at night at the reja (the window with an iron grill traditionally used by courting couples). She admits that she is as much in love with him as he is with her. But all is by no means plain sailing from this point; Gloria, as she is now known, has a difficult and eccentric widowed mother who shares her house—on exactly what terms isn't clear—with a strange and rather intimidating man who controls her completely. Matters are made more complicated by the fact that Gloria is an heiress who will bring a large dowry with her when she marries. Her mother's companion is well aware of this and so is Sanjurjo, in spite of his protestations of indifference.

In the end, of course, all ends happily. But there are numerous twists and turns in the plot along the way, and we also get a vivid picture of life in Seville at the end of the nineteenth century. The two main characters are explored in some depth and subtlety and there are plenty of interesting minor characters and subplots as well. There is also comedy, mostly occasioned by Sanjurjo's encounters with the unfamiliar Andalusian ways and customs, which he finds almost as seductive as Gloria herself. Andalusian speech is rendered phonetically to enhance the effect.

Book review: Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The octopus and its close relatives (cuttlefish and squid), known collectively as the cephalopods, are the nearest we are likely to come for a long time, perhaps for ever, to meeting an intelligent alien life form. Godfrey-Smith provides an insightful and often profound analysis of the mind of these extraordinary animals. His unusual professional background—he is a philosopher of science and a historian—no doubt has helped here, and in addition he has an almost personal sense of involvement with his subjects. He doesn't just study them in the laboratory, he is a scuba diver who spends extended periods with them in their native habitat.

Intelligence is found on Earth in only a few groups of animals. Most are chordates—animals with backbones—including fish, reptiles, mammals and birds. Among these, still fewer groups exhibit a high degree of intelligence: primates, the elephant family, whales and dolphins, and some bird species, especially crows and parrots.

All these are comparative latecomers in evolution, whereas the cephalopods constitute a striking anomaly. They are molluscs, meaning they are related to slugs, snails, clams, and whelks, all of which originated in very remote times, long before the mammals and birds. None of the other molluscs possesses a complex nervous system.

Godfrey-Smith provides plenty of evidence for octopus intelligence. Some of this comes from formal testing in the laboratory, but not all; some is based on spontaneous behaviour. 'Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting water at the bulbs when no one is watching, and short-circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild.'

Godfrey-Smith is careful to point out that this behaviour may not be as astonishing as it seems. Octopuses dislike bright light and in the wild they squirt water at things that annoy them. Still, he is impressed by how quickly they have learned the new trick. This seems to be one aspect of their fondness for exploring their environment and even playing with objects, which they also do.

But perhaps the most remarkable story is told by Jean Boal, an experimenter who is known for the strictness of the criteria she applies to apparent evidence for intelligence in her subjects.

Octopuses have definite food preferences and don't much care for thawed-out squid or shrimp, although they will eat them. One day Boal was walking down a row of tanks giving a piece of squid to each occupant.

On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she'd come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.

It's difficult to resist the idea that this story is evidence for recognition of another mind by an octopus. Another finding that points in the same direction is the fact that octopuses can recognise individual humans and react to them in different ways. One octopus, in the same laboratory that had the lamp-squirting problem, took an objection to a particular staff member, for no apparent reason, and squirted her whenever she walked past. At another lab an octopus took to squirting all new visitors although the regular staff were not squirted.

Godfrey-Smith has a chapter in which he tries to answer a question that I have wondered about for a long time. Why do such intelligent animals have such short life spans—only one or two years in most species? An advanced brain is a 'costly' item in a biological sense; it seems odd for evolution to go to the trouble of producing it and then to throw it away almost immediately. This is not true, for example of elephants, primates or birds, which are long-lived.

Godfrey-Smith thinks that at least part of the explanation may lie in the fact that the cephalopods evolved from animals with a shell. Early cephalopods had shells but the octopus has lost its shell entirely; squid and cuttlefish have retained it only internally. The lack of a protective shell makes the animals vulnerable to predators. Acquiring a complex nervous system enabled them to behave in ways that enhanced their chances of survival. Even so, they can't expect to live very long. A short life but a merry one seems to be the outcome.

It isn't only their highly evolved nervous system that makes the cephalopods so remarkable. Another characteristic of the group is their ability to make rapid complex colour changes. Octopuses use this mainly for camouflage. Cuttlefish carry out astonishingly complex colour displays, which are usually thought to be signals to other members of a group. But here we encounter another mysterious fact: cephalopods are apparently colour-blind! This is based on the fact that their eyes contain only one kind of colour receptor, which is insufficient for colour vision; we usually have three. In part the explanation may be that the skin of cuttlefish is light-sensitive and may be able to perform some kind of colour recognition.

In any case, not all colour changes in cuttlefish seem to be intended for others. Godfrey-Smith describes witnessing a prolonged display of this kind by a giant cuttlefish. 'It reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other.' And yet, to what end? There were no other cuttlefish in sight; Godfrey-Smith was the only witness.

It occurred to me that he was paying so little attention to me that all of this might have been going on while he was asleep or half-asleep in a state of deep rest. Perhaps the part of his brain that controls the skin was turning over a sequence of colors of its own accord. I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream—I was reminded of dogs dreaming, their paws moving while they make tiny yip-like sounds.


Although the book is primarily about cephalopods, Godfrey-Smith digresses at times to talk about consciousness in general and human consciousness in particular. He has an interesting discussion on the role of 'inner speech' which he thinks is important, although perhaps not essential, for 'higher-order thought', meaning the ability to think about one's own thinking,

This is not a long book but it contains much more than I can indicate in a review like this. Perhaps the dominant idea I'm left with is the feeling of familiarity coupled with strangeness that comes from the description of the cephalopod mind. One aspect of this that I hadn't known about is that although the octopus has a large brain, its awareness is not entirely centred there as it seems to be in us. The octopus's nervous system is widely distributed throughout its whole body, so that each tentacle is partly autonomous. So the octopus mind seems to be diffused rather than sharply localised. Coupled with this, the octopus body itself lacks precise definition; it can take an almost infinite number of shapes and can squeeze through any space that is only a little larger than its eye. Octopus consciousness must be very different from ours in many ways, yet we can communicate with each other.

One final reflection. People often speak or write as if they thought it was the 'purpose' of evolution to produce intelligent life. But is it? Given its scarcity, that seems hard to believe. Do we perhaps over-value this trait because of its importance to us? Is it merely one manifestation of life among a myriad others, resembling the apparently pointless shifting colour patterns produced in sleep by Godfrey-Smith's cuttlefish friend?

06-01-2019
%T Other Minds
%S The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life
%A Godfrey-Smith, Peter
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-0-99-822627-5
%P x+255pp
%K biology
%O colour plus monochrome illustrations

Book review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

The central character here is Ursula, whom we first meet as a baby in 1910, as she is being born with the cord round her neck. The doctor cannot get to the house because of heavy snow and Ursula's mother can't find the scissors to cut the cord, so the baby dies. Immediately after this we get the same scene again but this time the doctor does arrive in time and Ursula survives.

This duplication sets the pattern for the book. We follow Ursula as she suffers crises of various kinds, many of them fatal, as do other characters. A major theme is that of the London blitz in the second world war, during which Ursula is killed twice. The war also appears in another of Ursula's lives, in which she marries a German and is trapped in Germany after war breaks out. She becomes a friend of Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, and stays for a time with her at the Berghof, Hitler's alpine retreat. In yet another scenario she prevents the war by shooting Hitler; in fact, this is the opening scene in the book although it is repeated just before the end.

Ursula's multiple lives are, of course, what the title alludes to, although it is perhaps rather misleading. The lives are not consecutive, as in Ken Grimwood's Replay, but rather concurrent or nearly so. Unlike Grimwood's protagonist, Ursula is never fully aware of her situation although she does have inklings of it in the form of occasional flashes of a strange mental state which her mother describes as déjà vu. This results in Ursula, at the age of ten, being dispatched to a Jungian-sounding psychiatrist who at least partly intuits what is happening, although he talks in terms of reincarnation.

The risk with these repeated multiple time shifts is that they can confuse the reader, who has to remember which time frame is operating at the moment. Each section has a heading, for example 'September 1940', but some of the sections are quite long and it would have been useful to have the time reference at the head of the page as a reminder, but the Kindle version, at least, lacks this.

In fact, I had the impression that the multiple lives theme is as much a literary device allowing Atkinson to see bow different narrative possibilities affect the same character as it is a means to metaphysical exploration of the nature of time and the possibility of free will. Being myself attracted to ideas of this kind I would have welcomed a slightly more explicit treatment of them. It's here, I think, that Grimwood is more satisfying. But perhaps the comparison is unfair; the two writers are not aiming at exactly the same target.

In any case, quite apart from the time-shift element, this is a remarkably rich and satisfying novel on many levels, especially in its account of life (and death) in the blitz. Much of this is, obviously, horrific, and Atkinson doesn't pull her punches here, but events are refracted through Ursula's constant sense of irony, which doesn't desert her even as she is dying; and this helps to make bearable what would otherwise be difficujlt to read.

02-01-2019
%T Life After Life
%A Atkinson, Kate
%I Transworld Publishers
%C London
%D 2013, 2015
%G Epub ISBN 9781409043799
%P 530pp
%K fiction
%O author note on Life After Life
%O kindle version downloaded from Amazon, 2018

Book review: Two Centuries of Silence, by Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub

Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub (1923-1999) was an Iranian teacher and scholar who wrote on a wide range of subjects including history and Persian literature. This is his best-known work, in which he presents his account of events and cultural changes in the first two centuries that followed the Muslim conquest of Iran.

The first question he considers is why the desert Arabs were able to conquer the seemingly much stronger Sasanian Empire. In fact, the Arabs were afraid of embarking on invasion. But the Sasanian state had become much weaker by this time, as a result of both the long-standing war with the Byzantines and civil war. Even so, the conquest was a more prolonged affair than I had realised. It began in 633 but there was a great deal of fighting in the following years, as the Iranians resisted fiercely. By 651 most of the urban centres, apart from those in the Caspian region, were under Arab control, but even after that there were numerous revolts which were ruthlessly suppressed by the new rulers.

Conversion to Islam was gradual, and even when it occurred it was sometimes more an expedient accommodation to the new state of affairs than a heartfelt adoption of a new religion. The Persian language was initially displaced in public life in favour of Arabic, but gradually Persian reasserted itself, along with the arising of religious sects based in Zoroastrianism. This revival of Persian culture is ostensibly the theme of Zarrinkoub's book, although a lot of the text is concerned with the various rebellions that occurred and the often savage execution of the unsuccessful rebels.

Iranians were involved in the early struggles for power in Islam, as the caliphate moved first to Damascus under the Umayyads and then to the new city of Baghdad under the Abbasids. Iranians became increasingly influential at this time. Zarrinkoub's depiction of the Abbasjd caliphs is highly unflattering; they appear cruel, extortionate, corrupt and immoral in the style of Roman emperors such as Nero or Caligula. One caliph, Harun, had a pet ape which he made an emir; anyone who attended the court was required to kiss the animal's hand, and it 'deflowered several virgins', which seems a little improbable.

Not all Abbasid caliphs were quite as bad as this. Harun's son Ma'mun, although by no means deficient in extortion and ruthlessness, had a philosophical side. He arranged debates, at which he was usually present, where Muslim theologians reasoned with Zoroastrians and sectaries of various kinds, including Manicheans and Magians. Dualism, free will, and the origin of evil were among the subjects discussed. But toleration had its limits: the Mazdakite sect was not accepted as a 'People of the Book' and its adherents were not allowed to take part in public debate.

This is a slightly unusual kind of history. The translator says that Zarrinkoub was a 'littérature' as much as a historian. This seems to mean in part that he makes use of flowery language, using a plethora of synonyms; the translator has pruned these to some extent, but even so the text sometimes reads oddly. It also means, I think, that Zarrinkoub makes no pretence of objectivity but comments on the events he describes with a particular agenda in mind. He wants to demonstrate the clear superiority of Iranian culture in comparison with the crudity and barbarity of the Arabs, whom he represents as lacking any real interest in ideas or literature. Yet he professes his admiration for Islam and the Qur'an, which poses an implied contradiction that he never really confronts: how did this barbarous society come up with such an impressive religion?

Zarrinkoub may have ignored this contradiction when he wrote but it came back to bite him after the Islamic Revolution, when he was labelled a pseudo-intellectual and a Westerniser. He then radically revised his earlier opinion (p.xix). 'The change became unmistakable by 2005 [sic], when the tenth edition of…"The Report Card of Islam"…appeared.' (Since Zarrinkoub had been dead for six years by then, this date cannot be correct unless publication was posthumous, in which case can we be sure he actually wrote the text?)

Put side by side, Two Centuries of Silence and 'Report Card of Islam seem mirror images of each other. In fact…for every statement in the former one can find a counter-statement in the latter. Clearly the Zarrinkoub of Two Centuries of Silence was night-and-day different from the Zarrinkoub of 'The Report Card of Islam'. He seems to have forsworn his advocacy of national secular policies promoted by the Pahlavi shahs for the universal egalitarian message of Islam.


Readers hoping for an objective hjstory of Iran in the years after the conquest should probably look elsewhere. But its author's apparent subsequent disavowal of his earlier passionately-held view is a telling indictment of intellectual repression in modern Iran. When Zarrinkoub was writing it was a different country.

21-12-2018
%T Two Hundred Years of Silence (second edition)
%A Zarrinkoub, Abdolhossein
%I Mazda Publishers
%C Costa Mesa, California
%D 2017
%G ISBN 9781568693602
%P xxviii+315pp
%K history
%O translated from the Persian by Paul Sprachman

Book review: Greek Buddha, by Christopher I. Beckwith

This book challenges many or even most of the ideas about the origin of Buddhism that I have had for a long time. According to the conventional picture, Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was an upper-class Indian who lived in the fifth or possibly fourth century BCE. He was born at Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. He had a luxurious upbringing and was married, but he renounced all this to become a wandering ascetic in search of enlightenment. At first he was unsuccessful but eventually he found his own path (the Middle Way) and became Awakened; the epithet 'Buddha' refers to this. Following his Awakening he began to teach and founded the monastic system which still exists today. The central doctrines he taught are known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

While there has long been much debate about all the details of the Buddha's life, Beckwith goes a lot further than most and challenges almost every accepted feature of the story. So it's important to say at the outset that he is well qualified for his contentious role, being a professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He has academic qualifications in Chinese and Tibetan and teaches Old Tibetan, Central Eurasian languages, and Central Eurasian history; his research interests include a number of other languages.

Beckwith makes an important distinction between Early Buddhism (the ideas of the Buddha himself and his immediate followers) and 'Normative Buddhism'—the Buddhism largely based on the collection of scriptures known as the Pali Canon, which was compiled 500 years after the Buddha's death and is still the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. Beckwith believes that this contains a lot of material that is later than what was taught by the Buddha.

The doctrines of karma and rebirth, for example, were not part of the Buddha's message and reflect ideas that were included in Buddhism as late as the first century CE. (Incidentally the 'rebirth' which appeared at this time was thought of as occurring in Heaven or Hell, which were temporary states.) Monasticism, the development of a monastic rule, and the building of monasteries were all features of Normative Buddhism.

Much of this is admitted by many scholars of Buddhism. But Beckwith goes considerably beyond the general consensus in what he asserts, starting with the Buddha himself. Probably his most startling suggestion is that Gautama was not Indian but Scythian. (The Scythians were a people who lived in the western and central Eurasian steppes and probably spoke a form of Iranian language.) Another name that is applied to the Buddha, Shakyamuni, refers to this, meaning he was a 'Saka', a type of Scythian.

Beckwith also revises the background against which Buddhism arose. It is usually thought to have been a reaction against Brahmanism, but Beckwith suggests that Buddhism is older than Brahmanism. It is also older than Jainism. If anything, Buddhism was a reaction to Zoroastrianism (which implies a later date for Zoroastrianism than is usually quoted). And Beckwith finds evidence that Taoism in China was closely connected with Buddhism; the concept of the 'tao', he thinks, is practically the same as the Indian 'dharma'.

The reference to Greece in the title is a little misleading. It doesn't imply that Buddhism came from Greece (as is sometimes claimed); in fact, rather the reverse. It has often been remarked that Buddhist artwork was influenced by Greek forms and this is supposed to reflect the arrival of Alexander, but Beckwith is concerned with currents flowing in the opposite direction. Among the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander was Pyrrho, who is usually credited with founding the sceptical school of Greek philosophy known as Pyrrhonism. His ideas were radically different from the general trends of Greek philosophy but were virtually identical with those found in 'the earliest known bit of doctrinal Buddhist text. [Author's emphasis].

And it wasn't only philosophy that Pyrrho seems to have taken from Buddhism; he also learned the characteristic Buddhist type of meditation known as 'insight meditation', although Beckwith approaches this from a intellectual rather than any kind of mystical angle.

The Buddha says that in meditation he reached the fourth and highest state in which he abandoned both bliss and pain. He describes this in the Mahasacca Sutta.

What the Buddha is abandoning here is the distinction between the opposite qualities or antilogies that are mentioned [in the text]. This is Pyrrho's adiaphora state of being 'undifferentiated, without (an intrinsic) self-identity, which is identical to the Buddha's state of being anatman without (an intrinsic) self-identity. It is equated with nirvana…'extinguishing (of the burning of the passions)' and the peace that results from it. [Author's emphasis]


As others have done, Beckwith finds important parallels between Buddhism and the philosophy of David Hume, who was strongly influenced by Late Pyrrhonism.

These revolutionary ideas have not been welcomed by most scholars of Buddhism. But they are not idle speculation; Beckwith supports them with abundant references to the earliest available documents and inscriptions. This is a scholarly work that seems to be aimed at a professional audience; almost every page has footnotes, which are often quite lengthy and may include quotations from Chinese and Greek texts in the original. So it is by no means light reading. Still, the actual writing is informal and quite readable, with occasional flashes of dry humour.

For example, in discussing the date of certain inscriptions that are supposed to provide evidence for the Buddha's date, Beckwith writes: 'However, as Härtel has effectively shown—with extreme care not to make the significance of his points easily grasped—the inscriptions…cited by nearly everyone as crucial data are at best much later than [others of known date] and at worst forgeries.'

Some have objected that the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander would not have been able to communicate effectively with the people they met and so could not have formed a clear idea of their beliefs. But Beckwith dismisses this claim.

It is entertaining to imagine Alexander the Great and his men as mental weaklings who bumbled their way around Asia conquering a huge empire largely by accident, like Inspector Clouseau solving a case, but the Court was in the territory of the Persian Empire for ten years, five of them in Central Asia and India, and the ancient Greeks were hardly mental weaklings. After years of exposure they must have learned Persian at least, and some undoubtedly picked up other local languages, while the local people would have been powerfully motivated to learn Greek, the language of the invaders, and many local people in formerly Persian-ruled "India" knew at least some Persian.


There is in fact plenty of documentary evidence to show that communication would not have been a problem.

Beckwith is careful to say that the ideas he discusses in this book in no way detract from the value of Buddhism as we know it today. And it is true that Buddhism does not attach the weight to the historical events of the Buddha's life that Christianity, say, does to the life of Christ. Even so, this is an important book for anyone with a serious interest in the development of early Buddhism.

15-12-2018
%T Greek Buddha
%S Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism
%A Beckwith, Christopher I.
%I Princeton University Press
%C Princeton and Oxford
%D 2015
%G ISBN 978-0-16644-5
%P xx+275pp
%K religion
%O three appendices

Should we treat mild hypertension?

More from the BMJ, this time Minerva (BMJ 2018;l362:k821). The trend these days is to start treatment at ever lower blood pressure levels, but is that really beneficial? A survey of nearly 40,000 electronic records of people in the UK aged less than 75 with mild hypertension but no symptoms or evidence of cardiovascular disease suggests not. Over 6 years the mortality of those who were treated was no lower than that of those who were not, but they did have an increased incidence of unwanted effects, including fainting and acute kidney injury.

Guidelines that recommend treatment for anyone with a blood pressure above 140/90 mm Hg may not he in the best interests of people at low risk of cardiovascular disease.

Book review by Anthony Campbell: All Hell Let Loose, by Max Hastings

Hastings has written eight books on various aspects of the Second World War previously. In this one he presents an overview of the whole conflict, with particular emphasis on the experiences of people who were alive at the time. To do this he draws extensively on contemporary records…memoirs and letters from both combatants and civilians.This makes for a sense of immediacy and drama, so the book, although long, is never dull. It isn't light reading, however; there is no shortage of horrors. In fact, I couldn't read continuously but had to break off at times to read something lighter, otherwise the succession of tragedies became too overwhelming.

But I don't want to give the impression that the book is just a collection of reminiscences; these serve merely to illustrate the story of the war, which Hastings tells with considerable skill. To do this he has had to knit together events in three very different theatres of conflict: Western Europe and the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific and Far East. There are also two different enemies to consider, German and Japanese (the role of the Italians was minimal). Although Germany and Japan were allies, each largely pursued their own agenda and there was little direct collaboration between them.

The beginning of the war, leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation, was a disaster for Britain. Invasion seemed imminent (although it probably wasn't) and only Winston Churchill's coming to power averted collapse. (Incidentally, Churchill is three times referred to as having been First Sea Lord; he was in fact First Lord of the Admiralty, which is not the same thing.)

Paradoxically, we owed our survival and ultimate victory over Germany to Hitler; his decision to invade Russia ultimately led to his downfall. But the Japanese also played their part by making an equally big mistake that brought America into the war when they attacked Pearl Harbor. The role of Britain amid these events was of secondary importance, although that was not how it was perceived here.

A recurring theme in the book is Hasting's admiration of German military professionalism. Time and again the Wehrmacht out-manoeuvred and out-fought their opponents both in Europe and in Russia, at least to begin with. They also had better tanks and fighter planes, at least in the early years of the war. After the Normandy campaign one of Montgomery's ablest staff officers wrote of the Germans, for whom he had boundless admiration, 'I have often wondered how we ever beat them.' So why didn't the Germans win?

There seem to have been two main reasons, according to Hastings. One was that although the Germans repeatedly succeeded tactically on the battlefield, their strategic planning was poor. In part this was due to the generals, who were mostly less competent and imaginative than their divisional commanders; but a major contribution to defeat came from Hitler. Time and again he made bad decisions, especially in Russia. He also repeatedly forbade strategic withdrawals and insisted that units should fight to the last man, thus wasting enormous amounts of human and material resources.

Even if the Germans' strategic planning had been better, however, they would most probably have lost the war—certainly after the USA came in. This was because Germany was economically weaker than the Allies realised and was unable to replace its losses in sufficient numbers. It was also short of fuel after Romania fell to the Russians.

This may seem surprising, but Hastings isn't averse to discounting widely held opinions about events and personalities. The ultimate Allied success in the North African campaign was significant in that it provided a much-needed boost to morale at home, but its strategic importance was not as overwhelming as it appeared at the time. Neither Rommel nor Montgomery, Hastings finds, merits the great reputations they have acquired. Among the Americans Douglas MacArthur comes across as a 'vainglorious windbag'. Eisenhower was not a great strategist but his success lay in coordinating the forces of different nationalities under his command. The ablest British general, Hastings finds, was William Slim, who led the recapture of Burma from the Japanese in 1945.

The war in the Pacific had greater importance in American than in British minds; the Americans hated the Japanese but had little dislike of the Germans. I found Hastings' account of the defeat of Japan particularly interesting because I knew relatively little about it, probably because initial Japanese success against the British in Burma, Singapore and elsewhere appeared so inexplicable and shameful that we heard relatively little about it. In fact, the Japanese won thanks to British incompetence as much as to their own fighting ability. This was publicly admitted at a reckless press conference by a British field commander.

Allied censors smothered publication of his remarks, but they reflected the defeatism, incompetence, and incoherence prevailing among British commanders in the East. Churchill minuted the chiefs of staff: 'I am far from satisfied with the way the Indian campaign is being conducted. The fatal lassitude of the Orient steals over all these commanders.'


The role of the 'Chindits'—British forces that operated behind Japanese lines—was much trumpeted in the Indian and British Press, but they had little practical importance, as one survivor later confirmed: 'we had achieved absolutely nothing'.

Plenty of other little-known facts emerge in the course of the book. For example, when troops were brought from North Africa to take part in the invasion of Normandy there was nearly a mutiny among the 3rd Royal Tanks. And when troops did arrive in Normandy to liberate the French there was a fair amount of looting.

I was a boy during the war so many of the events narrated here are familiar to me, at least in outline, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity now to set them in their narrative context, as well as to know what was going on in other parts of the world while we in Britain were relatively spared, in spite of rationing and the Blitz. I read this in the kindle version, but it would have been better to have the printed version because in kindle the maps are so difficult to see as to be practically useless.

So was the war worth fighting. In a word, yes, but with qualifications.

Allied victory did not bring universal peace, prosperity, justice or freedom; it brought merely a portion of those things to some fraction of those who had taken part. All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.


In 1920 a book appeared with the title The First World War. It was a best seller but the title was considered to be sinister and in poor taste because it implied there would be another.

To call this book The Last World War might tempt providence, but it is at least certain that never again will millions of armed men clash on European battlefields such as those of 1939–45. The conflicts of the future will be quite different, and it may not be rashly optimistic to suggest that they will be less terrible.


Let's hope he's right.

19-11-2018

Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D health benefits?

More than half the adults in the USA take dietary supplements for health and the figures are probably similar in other wealthy societies. This is certainly good news for the manufacturers of these supplements but do they actually work? Increasingly, claims of this kind are being shown not to be supported by evidence.

The latest instance of this comes in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine,, which carries articles looking at omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer in the light of two large trials (VITAL and VITALD). (Incidentally, these are all free to read.). Ths significance of the research is discussed in an editorial.


Thus, in the absence of additional compelling data, it is prudent to conclude that the strategy of dietary supplementation with either n?3 fatty acids or vitamin D as protection against cardiovascular events or cancer suffers from deteriorating VITAL signs.


The same issue of NEJM also has an article looking at whether low-dose methotrexate can reduce cardiovascular disease. Methotrexate is a drug used to treat cancer and also some autoimmune disorders. It reduces inflammation, which is important in cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately it didn't work.