Hitchcock photo


I placed an order with Amazon for a book on March 5th, 2013. The order was accepted and I was provided with a delivery estimate from 15th March to 21st March (2013).

I placed an order with Amazon for a book on March 5th, 2013. The order was accepted and I was provided with a delivery estimate from 15th March to 21st March (2013).

All the items but one arrived in a reasonable timeframe and on 25th March I received an e-mail informing me that Amazon was having a problem supplying one book and I was offered the opportunity to cancel the order for the item. I chose to keep the order open.

Today I decided to contact Amazon and ask if my order had fallen through a hole or was there a process churning away in the background to make sure my five month old order was going to be fulfilled.

The response I received was tripping over itself apologising for any inconvenience experience by this delay and explaining… Why don’t you read it:
“…I'd like to bring this to your information that we do our best to ensure that all of our customer orders leave our Fulfilment Centre as close as possible to the availability and delivery estimates that are listed on our website.

However, on rare occasions, we may receive multiple orders for the same item in a short period which can add time for the orders to get dispatch as we fill orders as quickly as we can on a first-come, first-served basis.

Because of this reason, this book has not been dispatched yet. I assure you that we are working hard to obtain this book for you and we will ship it as soon as we are able to obtain it.

We have several fulfillment centers across the UK, meaning the items in your order may be stocked at different locations and will be delivered at the earliest, once we've received the stock for you…”

At the bottom of the e-mail there were two links: one to click if the response solved my problem and one to click if it did not solve my problem. I clicked the “did not solve…”

This brought me to a screen where I could rate a few things and/or leave a message.

I left a message stating the response did not solve my problem and left me with no confidence that I would see that book any time soon.

On finalising my comment I was offered the opportunity of having Amazon telephone me on the issue. I was reluctant to do that, but after a few minutes I thought it would do no harm. Having worked with many customer relationship systems I knew the operator who would ring me would have all the details about the issue, including my response and may be able to do something about this pathetic lack of communications.

Clicking on the “Ring me” button I was asked for my telephone number and whether I wanted to be called now or in five minutes. I left it at now and as soon as I clicked go my phone rang.

Most impressed I answered the phone and said, “Hello!”, expecting to be talking to an agent. Instead I was greeted by a recorded message telling all the agents were busy at the moment, that my call was important to Amazon and that I would be put through to an agent as soon as possible.

I contemplated hanging up but decided to give them a couple of minutes. In that time I was put through to an agent who introduced himself and asked how he could help me.

I told him I was responding to a call from his contact centre which was prompted by Amazon’s system that had all the details about the issue and that I would have expected him to have the details presented to him before I was contacted.

He started saying he did not have visibility of the screen and…

At that point I had had enough and I informed him that I was accepting a call from Amazon where all the details of my issue were available and that I was not going to waste my time explaining it all over again. I told him I thought the process was pathetic, thanked him and said good night.

I wonder if Amazon will do anything more on this issue.

Amazon seems pretty impervious to any complaints. I’m sure my order will still be open for that item on 5th March, 2014 and I will not have received any more communications on the issue.

The Late Breakfasters by Robert Aickman

The Late Breakfasters
The Late Breakfasters by Robert Aickman (Victor Gollancz 1964 251pp)

Robert Aickman is best known for his “weird tales” and this novel, while apparently taking place in the real world is not entirely devoid of elements, or should I say hints, of the supernatural.

“The Late Breakfasters” traces the experiences of Griselda de Reptonville as she enters society and learns about love, loss, and earning a living in the real world.

Prejudice and the old world order feature as major themes in the book. Prejudice is demonstrated through the characters in relation to social class, lesbianism, and the position of women in the family and in society. Anti-Semitism is demonstrated and servants are presented as little more than the chattel of their masters.

Part one recounts the events on the occasion of Griselda’s visit to ‘Beams’, a stately home ruled over by Mrs Hatch for whom Griselda’s mother fagged at public school. This introduces the reader to the English upper classes, including the Prime Minister and a number of his cabinet colleagues, as well as visiting foreign aristocracy. One also discovers that Beams is haunted and has the opportunity to share with Griselda her feelings on first falling in love. This part of the book is similar to P.G. Wodehouse's stories about Bertie Wooster and his man-servant, Jeeves, only more serious.

The wit and language of the story are the two attributes of this book that I find most entertaining. I found the portrayal of the class divide in England at the time most interesting. Prejudices were presented in some forceful fashions and in subtle ways, almost totally understated.

A common feature of difficult conversations in the book was the refusal of the self-perceived more senior member of the interactions to be specific about the topic under discussion. This of course left their interlocutors at a disadvantage and never too sure as to the cause of any difficulties involved.

One thing the book brings out very clearly is how the English upper class lived in a world totally disconnected with the lives of the ordinary working person and how they believed it was their role in life to manage the masses.

I have noted one commentator stating the book has an enigmatic ending, but having finished the book and then reread the first couple of paragraphs I can say the ending is quite clear.

I found this book fascinating and would recommend it to anyone interested in books that provide a feeling of life in a period long since gone and who have a fine sense of humour.

Unfortunately this book is quite difficult to obtain and I would encourage someone to re-publish this novel. It is a little gem that should be readily available to readers of Robert Aickman’s writing.
Hitchcock photo

The PC Week!

As the Christmas period approaches I keep coming across the politically correct American approach of referring to Christmas simply as the “holiday” period. It is admirable the way in which they have managed to find a title that does not favour any particular religious group and prevents offending other religious groups.

This got me thinking about how this approach and line of thinking should be extended to other periods of the year. Following the inherent logic demonstrated by this approach I contemplated the days of the week.

Wouldn’t you know it, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday are all names derived from one religious mythology or another. This is too much and something must be done about it.

I propose we follow the PC approach of removing any religious connotation from the names of the days of the week. My proposal for renaming the days of the week, while maintaining consistency with the approach used to rename Christmas holiday, is:
Monday becomes Day
Tuesday becomes Day
Wednesday becomes Day
Thursday becomes Day
Friday becomes Day
Saturday becomes Day
Sunday becomes Day

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The Hydrogen Sonata

I have always enjoyed the Culture novels. They are like a comfort blanket to me. I enjoy wrapping myself up in the whole Culture universe. This is probably why I am more tolerant than some other reviewers regarding The Hydrogen Sonata.

That having been said, I would not regard this novel as the best Culture novel, but rather an adventure with, for me, a few highlights and a few lowlights. I would also suggest that it is better read knowing something of the nature of the Culture minds and ships, i.e. read other Culture novels before taking up The Hydrogen Sonata.

Beyond this point in my review I will be mentioning points about the book that I liked or found less than satisfactory. If you haven’t already read the book you may wish to leave the rest of this review until you have done so.

I found one thing that could be considered a negative in the story. This was the philosophising and moralising by the Culture minds. Some of the discussions went on a bit too long and I felt newcomers to the Culture novels could find this a bit off-putting and could make the book seem a bit of a slog.

The things I found positive about the novel include the discussions held internally by individuals about whether their original selves or copies of themselves are the real them, and also the idea of the original being being jealous of a copy of himself. This reminded me of the excellent treatment of the same subject in Ken MacLeod’s novel, Newton’s Wake.

I also enjoyed the moralising about simulations and any entities created in the simulations. While eminent scientists, such as Roger Penrose (see The Emperor’s New Mind) believe we are unlikely to develop sentient artificial intelligence, it was still interesting to read the discussion on what should or shouldn’t be done with simulated worlds that have been created as part of an experiment.

There was also discussion on the meaning of everything and whether one could find meaning in life without a religious framework, a question that was answered in the positive.

All in all I enjoyed reading this novel and I found the philosophical and moral discussions of interest. While I didn’t find it to be the best Culture novel I did find it satisfactory and it did not damage my comfort feeling when reading one of Iain M. Banks books set in the Culture universe. Perhaps when I am reading a Culture novel I have a false sense of security that makes me feel I am being watched over by drones that will protect me from any nastiness that might surround me and that cradle me in their fields and ensure that the parameters of my immediate environment are kept at optimum levels.

Oh! I think it has suddenly gotten cold. Where did that draft come from?

The Most Distressful Country by Robert Kee

most distressful country

The Most Distressful Country: Volume One of The Green Flag by Robert Kee (Quartet)

Until his thirteen episode History of Ireland started its broadcast run on BBC2 in 1980 I had only known Robert Kee as a British journalist who sometimes appeared on the news reporting on some incident or news item. When his documentary on Irish history started he became someone I have admired to this very day. If I were someone who used the term I would say he is one of my heroes.

Robert Kee was the first British journalist I came across who reported facts about the troubles in Northern Ireland without bias. He told it as it was. He didn’t push one side of a story over another. In The Most Distressful Country: Volume One of The Green Flag, he has taken the same approach to reporting the history of Ireland. I know it’s unbiased as the facts he presents, well supported with detailed references to relevant documentation, would equally upset any Irish Republican or Loyalist extremist.

This volume covers the period from 1170 to the 1860s. The earlier parts of the book present information intended to answer the question of who are the Irish while the rest of the book addresses the issue of how the political concept of Irish nationhood came about.

Robert Kee has done a masterful job in showing the contradictions in Irish history, highlighting the stupidity and confusion surrounding many of the famous events that took place, and demonstrating the tragedy of the poorest people in the country, the peasants, who worked on the land and who were treated as little more than slaves or chattel by most of the landowners.

Kee has also been skilful in showing how the comfortable middle-class, while responsible for generating all the political hype for insurrection in the name of Irish home rule, was totally out of touch with the peasants who constituted the majority of the population and who were the people the nationalist politicians were depending on to make their political dreams a reality.

Irish history of the time is set in context with events such as the French Revolution(s) and the American War of Independence. This book also spells out the horrors of the potato famine and the blind eye turned by the English parliament on the occasion of Irelands darkest hour.

In 1994 I had the great pleasure of attending the launch of Robert Kee’s book on Charles Stewart Parnell, “The Laurel and the Ivy”, and I was delighted to have had the opportunity of informing Mr Kee of how highly I regard his work and to thank him for the wonderful service I believe he has done for Ireland and the Irish people.

In case you have not worked it out by now, I think this book is wonderful and would strongly recommend it to anyone wishing to gain a good introduction to Irish history.

Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño came to my attention when his book 2666 appeared on a shelf in my local bookshop. 2666 is an enormous book and it looks impressive and is quite pretty. Always being susceptible to the charms of a pretty book I investigated, saw the ebullient praise of Bolaño’s work and got suspicious. Is he this good? Will I like his work?

“Amulet” provided the toe in the water for this author’s writing and my impression, having finished this teaser, is that I shall be reading his other works.

In “Amulet”, Bolaño gives the reader a view of the world of South American poetry, and the poetry scene in Mexico City in particular, over a period spanning the 1960s and 70s. The narrator is a lover of poetry who has devoted her life to being near the poets whose work she loves, and the young poets whose energy, enthusiasm and freedom of thought touches her.

If asked what this book is about I would say it is about poetry, revolutionary thoughts, love, the passing of time and growing old.

Bolaño’s mechanism for presenting this history is interesting and I think frees the reader from the linear passage of time, and blurs the boundaries between real memories and possible memories.

I would suggest the narrator is not one hundred percent reliable, but the result comes across as a credible perception of Mexico City in those decades and the symbiotic relationship between the poetry movements and South American revolutionary thought, and indeed, action.

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod


It’s not giving anything away to mention this book is about the social, political and security consequences that follow Hope Morrison’s decision not to take the “Fix”, a wonder drug that if taken during pregnancy “fixes” the genes of the baby in the womb with the result that the child is born immune to a range of childhood illnesses.

I was rather disappointed with the start of this novel as it fell into the trap of any novel written with a message. The first few chapters made it feel like a book written to give a message. These chapters dealt with introducing the characters, giving some background indications of the state of technology and the global political situation, and edging the reader into the space where issues of freedom, choice and liberty could come to the fore. I won’t spoil the book by giving away specifics, but I felt the roles played by the characters were a bit stereotypical and everything was focused on setting the story up for the message and nothing included for window dressing or decoration. Sub plots do not play a significant part in this book.

Once Hope meets her local Member of Parliament at a rally for the Labour Party the book does step up a gear and the action flows much faster from there on in.

Ken wrote this book while he was Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum at Edinburgh University. As is obvious from his blog and other publications, Ken loved his work with the Genomic Forum and it was only natural that he should write a book on the subject and that he should weave in his excellent understanding of social issues and politics.

The message I took from the book was that a country that is implementing policies and laws based on good intentions in relation to childcare, health, etc… could display all the hallmarks of a totalitarian state, especially if the global socio-political environment gives rise to strong security agencies. I got a hint of Ken complaining abut the “Nanny State” and venting some irritation against the smoking ban in the UK. If I were a psychologist I’m sure I could interpret this entire novel as a lash at the UK government for banning smoking in workplaces.

I was disappointed however, to see Ken regularly using singular verbs with plural subjects in his reported speech. It doesn’t help the standard of English usage if a well regarded author reinforces sloppy grammar.

Ken was good at portraying the feeling of living in a state where the population is constantly under surveillance. While the level of technology was different his writing did remind me of when I lived in Northern Ireland during the 1970s with constant surveillance by the army and police. The interactions with the members of the security forces were particularly realistic.

I enjoyed Ken’s descriptions of Lewis. Given that the author grew up on Lewis it is obvious where he got his material and he demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the terrain and the difficulties of traversing it on foot.

Another attractive element was seeing the similarities between Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. All the Gaelic words Ken used are pronounced the same way in Irish Gaelic, but the spellings are quite different. Also, the legend of Tir Nan Og (in Irish, “Tír na nÓg”) is obviously the same on both sides of the North Channel. If you are not familiar with the tales of Tir Nan Og you should look them up. Knowledge of these would give a better understanding of what happens at the end of the book.

The book is a good read once one gets past the initial introductions and scene setting. Despite some silly, and somewhat extraordinary decisions by the characters, the book is enjoyable.

The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway

The blind giant

The Blind Giant is Nick Harkaway’s first non-fiction book and it is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. As its title suggests it deals with the impact of digital technology on humans, both as individuals and groups of all sizes, couples, families, communities, nations, and beyond. It also discusses the choices open to us and makes the point that we are not innocents adrift in a sea of technology, but that we are complicit in the negative consequences of everything we allow to happen. This includes wars in Africa where armed groups clash for control of the mines producing minerals that are essential for the production of virtually all the mobile devices we take for granted in our everyday lives.

But this is no cold treatise containing a lifeless analysis of the mechanics of how modern technology, specifically the Internet, affects us all. It is a hearth-side conversation, probably with a pint of ale to hand, ranging in subject matter from the immediacy of on-line shopping to the toppling of governments in the Middle East.

The book is very up-to-date with inclusion of the social issues surrounding the London riots of 2011 and the Arab Spring that swept away governments in the Middle East, and the role played by the Internet in facilitating both the initiation of these events and the subsequent recovery and stabilization.

Harkaway is inviting debate. In his conversational style he lays out his views and concerns on the disappearance of traditional work rolls and the unintentional consequences of the large, new corporations of the digital age that promote good intentions but, due to their size and reliance on old financial structures, end up doing damage they never intended.

A website has been provided (www.blindgiant.co.uk) for readers to enter into a conversation on the subject matter of each chapter. This is an example of the new immediacy Harkaway demonstrates the Internet has enabled. It is an attempt to encourage debate on the decisions we need to make to minimise the unintentional consequences of not making conscious decisions on how we wish to use the new Internet technology.

This book’s breadth of scope is vast and it deserves to be read, considered, and responded to. If you use the Internet, if you have a smart phone, if you buy things on-line, you have a duty to read this book and enter into the debate on how society should use our new toys so that they don’t destroy the lives of those around us, and then our own.

Critical Mass by Philip Ball

Critical Mass book cover

This book asks whether there are underlying natural laws that govern the endeavours of humans in the same way that natural laws govern processes in nature, such as the growth of snow crystals, phase shifts between liquid and gas, and the way in which metal changes from being magnetised to non-magnetised when heated. To help him address this question Ball introduces tools commonly used in the physical sciences to analyse and simulate natural processes.

In the initial chapters the author describes the history of social science, economics and statistics. He tells how tools of the state, statistics, were adopted in the physical sciences. Then ball looks at processes in human society such as the formation of traffic jams, the pattern of movement in a crowd trying to escape a burning building, the growth pattern of cities, Internet morphology and what it owes to The Cold War years. In all these areas he demonstrates common traits that can be used to analyse and understand the processes in operation.

Ball describes the application of these tools in the natural sciences and then reports on how they have been used in the analysis of human behaviour and such things as the movement of share prices in the stock market.

It is Ball’s contention that there are fundamental patterns that describe many behaviours and trends in human endeavour, from the voting patterns in elections, through the distribution of wealth in nations, to the boom and bust nature of the world’s economies, and that understanding of these fundamentals will improve decision making and planning.

He also reports on simulations carried out to assess the effectiveness and otherwise of different forms of government, i.e. dictatorship, democracy, etc… This is most enlightening and interesting.

While he claims these tools can help us describe process behaviour and help us, he warns against the idea that they can necessarily be used to predict behaviour.

The above paragraphs do scant justice to this book. It is the first non-fiction book I have read in a long time that I was loath to put down. It is vast in scope and presents information at a level that the majority of readers will find accessible. This is a thought provoking book that I will be returning to time and again.