Mini review: “Night Heron” by Adam Brookes (audiobook version)

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This is the story, set in China, of a prisoner who escapes and wants to sell secrets to the British government, for whom he worked as a spy many years before.  I wanted to like this book more but something just has not clicked.  Nothing stood out as exceptional – the story is unremarkable, the characters are not bestowed with any real warmth.

I think it is partly to do with the audiobook narration – the actor Jason Isaacs does a professional job but it can become slightly monotonous.  Several of the British characters sound similar.  This has led me to lose track at some points of details, of which character said what.

Overall, I was disappointed.

Mini review: “Spy Line” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

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This is the middle book in the second of Len Deighton’s trilogies featuring weathered English spy Bernard Samson, set a few years after the end of the Game, Set and Match series.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of earlier books in the series, I first read these stories over a decade ago.  It surprises me how little I actually remembered about the plot of this one considering that this brings the story (so far) to a chronological end.  The final book in the series takes a look back at the whole story from a different point of view.

Spy Line takes the main twist introduced in the previous book, Spy Hook, and runs with it.  There are a number of subplots and characters introduced that at first seem surplus to requirements but ultimately all play a role in how the storyline comes to a close.  I have to deliberately be a bit vague at this stage, but I can say that the story gets going quickly and maintains the pace all the way through.  In my first review of this book (see the Len Deighton books page) I wrote about “a distinct feeling of melancholy”, and although older characters are reaching the end of their days and their influence is on the wane, I didn’t get that sense so much this time.

The narration of the audiobook is as excellent as ever, although I must say that some of the American accents do tend to sound similar.

I remember being blown away by Spy Sinker, the last book in the trilogy.  It comes out in under two months so my little project of listening to the new audiobook versions of these stories will soon be at an end…

Also see…

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Berlin Game” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Mexico Set” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “London Match” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Hook” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (including my original review of Spy Line)

• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks

Mini review: “The Establishment: And how they get away with it” by Owen Jones (audiobook version)

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This is a brilliant book that does not pull any punches.  To be fair, you can pretty much tell how much you are going to appreciate the book just by reading the title.  However, don’t think that the author just picks on the Tory party – the Labour party and all politicians in general come into the firing line, over a long period of time.

Points raised include:

• the impact of intrinsic government relationships with the media, the police, big business, the financial world

• how risk and costs remain with the state whilst profit heads towards the private sector

• the different ways in which the rich and poor in society are treated by government

• the close ties between politicians in government and right-wing think-tanks that allow ideas to be floated that politicians could not raise themselves without risking the wrath of the people (eg privatisation of the NHS).  These policy ideas – if taken up by politicians – would just happen to nicely benefit the backers of the think-tanks.  It is hard to determine the precise motives of these think-tanks as they do not widely publicise where their funding comes from.  Despite that it is clear that a core principle is to roll back the role of the state

• the sense of entitlement felt by members of the Establishment and how politicians felt free to fiddle expenses, as if they are envious of the people who have become rich on the back of the policies they have introduced.

A note about the narration of the audiobook version: in general this is very well read, adding just the right amount of vitriol when necessary but I found it a bit irritating how the narrator tries to differentiate the written text and quotes.  Quotes from men are all in the same gruff voice and he manages women with only moderate success.  To throw in some inconsistency he tries the odd impression of some of the more well known characters in the book and attempts some foreign accents.

As I write this it is the day after the 2015 UK General Election.  The expected hung parliament / coalition government outcome did not come about – instead the Conservatives managed to win a majority.  The Scottish National Party won nearly every seat in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats were nearly wiped off the political map despite being the minor partner in the previous coalition government and holding a number of the Cabinet ministerial positions.  The Labour and Lib Dem leaders resigned this morning, as did the leader of the UK Independence Party.  I mention this because the result must surely make the Establishment believe that they now have no opposition, that they are invincible.  The outcome of the election is that a lot of the people who actually have experience of running the country or holding high-ranking positions in the opposition are no longer around.  A new, more inexperienced generation of politicians will now be in power.  I suspect that the Establishment will be able to run rings around this fledgling bunch and that ties to the Conservative government will only get stronger.

The bottom line: if you live in the UK you should read this book.

Also…

• The Guardian: Owen Jones

• The Guardian: “The case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?  The austerity delusion” by Paul Krugman

• Spare Cycles: Review: Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World (Audiobook)

• The Guardian: General Election 2015

Mini review: “The Race For Space” by Public Service Broadcasting

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I heard one of the band members talking on the radio about how they go about making their music and it sounded really interesting, so I checked this out.  They find old audio recordings and then make music around them.  This album is all about the early space race, so they are using snippets from NASA and the Russian space agency archives.

It can be vibrant and funky but also poignant, suspenseful and sad. These are reflections on real events and as such they showcase the full range of emotions involved in taking those first few steps towards one of mankind’s greatest endevours.

This is not something that I would have been aware of if I hadn’t heard it on the radio and I wondered at first why I like it so much.  Then it occurred to me that lately I have been drifting off to sleep listening to the soundtrack from the film Gravity and Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe.  It fits right in.

A word about the cover art.  The cover of the album that you will normally see is the image above – the “USA” version.  However on the other side is the “Russian” version.  These are interchangeable.  Here’s the Russian version:

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A great day out at the Edinburgh International Science Festival – 2015 edition

The Edinburgh Science Festival recently came to an end but I had the pleasure to visit with my daughter once again.  We don’t get to go every year but if it is on whilst we’re in the area then I make sure we get to do something.

This year we went on the first day.  We eschewed the lure of a Dino day at Summerhall and went to the National Museum of Scotland for a day that ended up being more technical than scientific but was a great experience nevertheless.

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I liked the sound of “Lost in Space”, a presentation about our place in the universe.  We were lucky to get in as we literally got the last ticket.  The presentation was good and for the children there was a chance to touch and learn more about meteorites.  My daughter also got to have a go on Oculus Rift, a brand new virtual reality headset.   I had heard good things about the next generation technology.  She was less impressed, even when I told her that she was one of the first people in the world to try it out.  Her conclusion: it was blurry and buggy.

I was impressed when my daughter wanted to do the “Code Yourself!” workshop, using a software platform called Scratch which she had previously used at school.  This session was really well presented and perfectly pitched at the right level for the children.

Code Yourself is actually a full course you can study online.   You can download Scratch for free so she can pick this up again in the future if she wants.

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There were other areas that had very hands-on little experiments but the rest of the day was spent in the videogame exhibition “Game Masters” that was also in the Museum but not part of the Festival.  This was a big collection of original arcade and video games from the very early days until the present day, including Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Outrun, Super Hang-On.  There were also series of games like Super Mario Bros that they showed through the generations, so you could play it on NES, Nintendo64 and Wii.

Overall it was another great day out.  It’s always interesting, always different.  I really wish I could be in the area longer so I could see events throughout the Festival and check out the Mini Maker Faire at the end.  This summer Maker Faire is coming to London – I can’t wait…

• Spare Cycles: A great day out at the Edinburgh International Science Festival

• Spare Cycles:  A great day out at the Edinburgh Maker Faire

• Spare Cycles:  A great day out at the Digital Revolution exhibition (Barbican Centre, London, August 2014)

• Spare Cycles: The Royal Observatory Planetarium – a great day out

• Spare Cycles: An evening out at Café Scientifique

Preparing for Future Learn: “Big Data: Measuring and Predicting Human Behaviour”

I’ve signed up for my first Future Learn online course – Big Data: Measuring and Predicting Human Behaviour – which starts in late April 2015.

The people running the course recommend watching a playlist of TED Talks called “Making sense of too much data” before the course starts.  Here a couple of my favourites (found on YouTube):

Hans Rosling – The best stats you’ve ever seen:

Shyam Sankar – The rise of human-computer cooperation:

I recommend watching all the talks and can’t wait for the course to start…

Winter (A Berlin Family 1899 – 1945): “The Fourth Book of the Trilogy”

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I’ve started reading Len Deighton’s “Winter: A Berlin Famiy 1899 – 1945″ to get more background to the Bernard Samson trilogies “Game, Set and Match” and “Hook, Line and Sinker”.  It takes me time to sit down and read a book – hence my liking for audiobooks – so don’t expect a review any time soon, but I noticed this description on the inside front cover:

The Fourth Book of the Trilogy:

Readers of Len Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (set in the 1980s) will be pleased to discover in Winter some people they know already such as Lisl Henning, the hotel proprietor and her bridge partner Lothar Koch.  Here too are friends and relatives: Werner Volkmann’s father and Bernard Samson’s father both play important parts in the story, so does Bret Rensselaer’s step-father.  Readers will recognise many other old friends from the previous stories and see why Winter is indeed the fourth book of the trilogy.

Ideally this book should be read between the two trilogies…

Also see:

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Berlin Game” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Mexico Set” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “London Match” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Hook” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books

• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks