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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Geek Humour.... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Half the Blood of Brooklyn by Charlie Huston (FP: 2007)

Joe Pitt is back in the fold working as an enforcer for The Society. If anything is his niche this is it – which is why he really needs to fuck things up a little. The problem with Joe is that he has an attitude problem. He’s a wise mouth, a jerk and not forgetting an asshole. When he’s told to shut his mouth and behave he does the opposite – no matter what the consequences and no matter how many times he’s been beaten, shot or threatened with various painful deaths. If only he knew when to shut up he’s probably live longer – except for the fact that Joe is already dead, at least sort of. Things are a bit more complicated than that. For want of a better word Joe, and The other members of The Society, is a vampire. Not that he really gives a shit, not about that anyway. It just allows his to smoke with impunity but prevents him from getting drunk which is really annoying. The only thing that he does actually give a shit about is his girlfriend who is dying of AIDS. If only he had the courage to infect her, kill her and save her life – such as it is. In the meantime, while he makes up his mind what to do, he has a diplomatic mission to complete. As power shifts between the various vampire groups The Society need friends and allies across New York. Sent to Staten Island with a high ranking member of the Clan the mission falls apart when they are attacked by another group fighting for territory. Miles from home and with dawn approaching Joe needs to save his Clan contact, get back to home ground and see his girlfriend – though not necessarily in that order. Only one thing is certain: Much blood will flow and Joe intends that very little of it will be his.

This is my 3rd Joe Pitt novel and I have to admit he’s fast becoming one of my favourite fictional characters. He is honestly a scream a minute. He is totally his own man and will do whatever he thinks is right no matter the consequences. He spends his time speaking truth to power and getting slapped down because of it – but he never bends, never breaks and if pushed far enough will smile sweetly as he puts a gun against his enemies head and empties the clip into it (vampires being hard to kill and all that). He’s not a man to be crossed – no matter who is doing the crossing – and when he’s pissed off he will bring your world crashing to the floor even if he has to kill himself (again) in the process. I just LOVE the guy! If you enjoy a good, tightly plotted story and don’t mind blood, profanity and graphic violence and, more importantly, love noir fiction with crackling dialogue, wonderful characters, a richly dark urban environment and a world that rings true despite its fantastic elements this is most certainly the series for you. Start with number 1 and work your way through all 5 in the series. I certainly intend to. Highly recommended.    

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thinking About: The Cost of Things

I buy a Sunday paper on a semi-regular basis. A good part of the reason I do so is for the more in-depth analysis of world events you don’t get on most TV news programmes. Part of the rest is to see what’s going on in the world and finally to laugh at the stupid prices people (apparently) pay for pretty mundane objects.

Mostly the adverts are aimed at women – with handbags and shoes predominating. Frankly, if I was a woman I’d be insulted at the crap I’m supposed to spend my hard earned money on. Would I spend £325 on a pair of sunglasses even if they are by Prada? No, I wouldn’t. Apart from the fact that they are frankly ugly I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on something that is probably no more functionally effective as something costing 10% of the price. Would I spend £150 on a (again) frankly ugly T-shirt by Levi’s even if it has a ‘vintage’ print on it? No, I wouldn’t. It’s a ridiculous price to pay for something like that, as is £120 for some beach shorts or £345 on a muddy brown beach bag. OK, I admit that a £120 pair of shorts will probably be of better quality than a £10 pair but will they be 12x better? 6x? 3x? What justifies the price tags except designer names and the willingness of some people (enough for the companies to keep selling them at these prices anyway) to pay for them? Why do people feel the need to buy over-inflated items and them display them to everyone else? Is it simply that people feel the need to show that they have enough disposable income to effectively waste it on expensive (and often hideous) items of clothing and accessories? Do they expect other people to admire their buying power or, harder to believe, their taste and therefore to look up to them and want to get to know them? Do other people actually look at someone with a Prada bag and think “There’s someone to admire. I wish I could get to know them or be them.” Really? Are we humans really that shallow? OK, stupid question…..

Oh, I am aware that, generally speaking, you get what you pay for. A case in point is my last wristwatch which I paid the princely sum of £8 for from my local supermarket. It looked OK and told the time accurately enough so why, I thought, pay a fortune for something else which would essentially be the same product? Within 3-4 months the watch strap has basically disintegrated forcing me to buy a replacement. This time I splashed out on a £14 watch of much superior quality and one which I fully expect to last several years if not longer. Conceivably if I saw a wristwatch that I loved the sight of (unlikely but let’s suppose) and which would last me the rest of my life I might pay £50 or even £100 if it was truly amazing but would I pay £200, £500 or more for something basically indistinguishable from the cheaper model because it had Gucci or Armani or Rolex stamped on it? No, I wouldn’t – no matter how much money I had in the bank.

I do wonder why I baulk at the prices of some things much more, generally, than other people I know. Part of it is probably my formative years when my family didn’t have a lot of money to waste on what might be called luxuries or fripperies. But I’ve seen that go both ways with people buying expensive items to somehow compensate for what they saw as a deprived childhood. I did a little of that when I got my first job. One of the first things I did was to buy myself a leather jacket and a denim jacket that I’d always wanted but could never really afford before then. But after that I pretty much bought what I needed, plus a bit more, and then stopped. I wore that denim jacket to death, had my Mum patch it when it started falling apart, and then never replaced it. I’d got what I wanted. I couldn’t really be that enthusiastic over buying another one. I do, inevitably, appear to be the odd-one-out here. I didn’t feel a huge urge at any point to buy the latest this or the designer that long before I stopped watching adverts. These days such things either leave me bemused or crying with laughter or open-mouthed in astonishment at what some companies try to (and often succeed in) get us to buy.

Of course if more people like me existed (heaven forbid) then global capitalism would come crashing down around our ears. After all the entire world’s economy is built on people like you and me buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t even like. But that’s just not me. Probably because I don’t even try to impress people I do like! Without that driving force there seems little to motivate me to get my wallet out and hand over my credit card. Maybe I have developed an immunity to advertising? Knowing that most adverts are designed to make the viewer’s feel inadequate in some way helps – especially when you often find their crude attempted manipulation hilariously funny. In the meantime I’ll keep my money in my bank and buy things when I want to or when things break rather than when an advertising executive or a designer thinks I should.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dinosaurs 'shrank' regularly to become birds

By Zoe Gough For BBC Nature

31 July 2014

Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, scientists have revealed. Theropods shrunk 12 times from 163kg (25st 9lb) to 0.8kg (1.8lb), before becoming modern birds. The researchers found theropods were the only dinosaurs to get continuously smaller. Their skeletons also changed four times faster than other dinosaurs, helping them to survive. Results from the study are reported in the journal Science.

Previous work has shown that theropod dinosaurs, the dinosaur group which included Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor and gave rise to modern birds, must have decreased in size at some point in their evolution into small, agile flyers. But size changes frequently occurred in dinosaur evolution, so the research team members, led by Mike Lee, from the University of Adelaide, Australia, wanted to find out if the dramatic size reduction associated with the origin of birds was unique. They also wanted to measure the rate of evolution in dinosaurs using a large data set. The authors used sophisticated analytical tools - developed by molecular biologists trying to understand virus evolution - to study more than 1,500 dinosaur body traits coded from 120 well-documented species of theropod and early birds. From this analysis they produced a detailed family tree mapping out the transformation of theropods to their bird descendants. It traces evolving adaptations and changing body size over time and across dinosaur branches.

They found that the dinosaur group directly related to birds shrank rapidly from about 200 million years ago. It showed a decrease in body mass of 162.2kg (25st 7lb) from the largest average body size to Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird. These bird ancestors also evolved new adaptations, including feathers, wishbones and wings, four times faster than other dinosaurs. Shrinking and new bird-like traits jointly influenced the transition of dinosaurs to birds, researchers say. The researchers concluded that the evolution of the branch of dinosaurs leading to birds was more innovative than other dinosaur lineages. The authors say this sustained shrinking and accelerated evolution of smaller and smaller body size allowed the ancestors of birds to develop traits which helped them to cope much better than their less evolved dinosaur relatives. "Birds evolved through a unique phase of sustained miniaturisation in dinosaurs," Mr Lee said. "Being smaller and lighter in the land of giants, with rapidly evolving anatomical adaptations, provided these bird ancestors with new ecological opportunities, such as the ability to climb trees, glide and fly. Ultimately, this evolutionary flexibility helped birds survive the deadly meteorite impact which killed off all their dinosaurian cousins."

The researchers believe that miniaturisation and the development of bird-like traits had a joint influence on the evolution of the dinosaurs into today's birds. Professor Michael Benton, from the University of Bristol's school of earth sciences, said: "This study means we can't see the origin of birds as a sudden or dramatic event, with a dinosaur becoming a powered flyer overnight. The functions of each special feature of birds changed over time - feathers first for insulation, and later co-opted for flight; early reductions in body size perhaps for other reasons, and later they were small enough for powered flight; improvements in sense of sight and enlargement of brain - even a small improvement in these is advantageous. So perhaps it's a long-term trend associated with deputation to a new set of habitats, in the trees, to avoid predation, and to exploit new food resources."