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

Monday, March 02, 2015

Just Finished Reading: A Vindication of The Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (FP: 1792)

Once I got past the late 18th century use of English (basically frustratingly convoluted and with an amazing number of commas per sentence – though little other obvious punctuation) not only was this slim volume surprisingly modern in tone but what was even more surprising, at least in my mind, was how little had actually changed in the preceding 200+ years.

The author, famously the mother of Mary Shelly and partner of Anarchist philosopher William Godwin would, I think, be very pleased with some of the progress that women have made since her time as she called for equal educational opportunities which would lead, so you suspected, to greater opportunities in work and life – all of which was true. What she might have been less impressed by is the fact that in her day (and still I think in ours) women are taught from an early age to trade on their looks and, basically, to use sex to manipulate men to get what they want from life if they cannot acquire it any other way. That is how she saw the purposely badly educated and uneducated women or those who hid their natural abilities in order to attract a man – because nothing puts a man off marriage faster than a smart opinionated woman apparently (I have seen similar things voiced even today where men are supposedly either afraid of or emasculated by women who can actually think for themselves). Women, it seemed to her, are taught to look pretty, flatter men and have their children. They are not expected to hold their own in conversation, to understand the issues of the day, hold opinions of any kind (good or bad) or actually do anything – in other words they are supposed to be weak both physically and mentally and to need men to control, direct, protect and regularly bed them.

Of course Mary was having none of this. She made the very salient point that these uneducated, weak, shadows of things are expected to bring up the next generation (of both girls and boys) without anything but instinct to guide them. Is it any wonder, the author muses, that the world is in the mess it is? If these women are educated sufficiently and are motivated to excel they could become the mothers of future leaders in society and, generation on generation, actually increase (rather than decrease) the moral and intellectual capital of the country. Of course once women are educated the danger exists that they may no longer wish to serve as baby factories and as pretty birds on the arms of men. So those men would be expected to fight such education tooth and nail (as they did).

200+ years later what has really changed? We now have women doctors, soldiers, politicians and much else besides. We are a world, a continent, away from the conditions of women in late 18th century England. Yet women are still obsessed with their looks, with fashion and with attracting (and keeping) the perfect man. They want children, love, romance, to be pampered and looked after, to be forever beautiful and forever young. They know that smart women, who show how smart they really are, don’t often get this. Books, movies, magazine articles show the Geeky girl as the outsider, the loner, the plain Jane, the spinster. It’s the pretty flighty girl in pretty colours who has empty-headed fun before capturing her man. Looks win, every time, just as they did (apparently) in the 1790’s. I’m sure if she could see us now Mary would be slowly rotating in her grave. So much gained and yet still so far to go.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book more than 100 years old – COMPLETE (7/50)]    

Saturday, February 28, 2015

...and I think I've finally found my totally ideal Valentine's card!

How do you catch a drone?

From The BBC

26 February 2015

French authorities have been left mystified by two consecutive nights of illegal drone flights over central Paris. The small unmanned aircraft appeared over landmarks including the Invalides military museum, Place de la Concorde, and two of the old city gates. Environmental activists, terrorists, and pranksters have all been mentioned as possible suspects, but no-one has claimed responsibility. The difficult question now for the Paris authorities and in cities around the world is, how do you catch a drone? We've taken a look at five of the best options.

Shoot it down
 Since the September 11th attacks, there has been a shoot-down policy in place for any aircraft in UK airspace deemed to present a threat. If authorities were sufficiently concerned about a drone they could in theory scramble RAF jets on a rapid reaction alert to shoot it down. A jet fighter to down a cheap, commercially available drone might seem like a hammer to crack a nut, but aviation expert Chris Yates told the BBC that even a small drone could present a threat to sensitive locations. These kind of drones could be fairly easily modified to carry a payload, Yates said.

Laser it
 Not as far-fetched as it might sound - both China and the US have successfully experimented with anti-drone lasers. In November last year, Chinese state media reported that the country had developed a highly accurate laser weapon system that can shoot down a drone within five seconds of locating it. The laser reportedly has a range of 1.2 miles (1.9km) and is effective up to a maximum altitude of 500m (1,600ft). The weapon works by fixing a laser beam on the aircraft for long enough to burn through it. In 2012, the US military tested a similar system aboard a Navy ship, successfully downing a surveillance drone.

No-fly zone
 Last year, a drunk government employee stirred up a security frenzy at the White House after accidentally steering his DJI Phantom drone onto the president's lawn. In January, SZ DJI Technology, the Chinese manufacturer of the hugely popular Phantom, introduced a firmware update to the drone that aimed to prevent it happening again. Now GPS will detect whether the drone is within a 15.5 mile radius of central Washington DC and cut the motor - so if you try and fly towards the famous doric columns your drone will have a bumpy landing somewhere short. The same technology prevents drones flying anywhere near airports. DJI has said it is also planning to prevent the drones crossing borders after enterprising drug dealers were caught trying to fly methamphetamine from Mexico to the US.

Use a net
 One ingeniously simply way to catch a drone is to use a bigger drone, with a net. Earlier this month, shortly before the mysterious flights over Paris began, French authorities launched a DJI Phantom and then sent up a bigger drone to go after it. The successful demonstration, in La Queue-en-Brie, east of Paris, followed illegal drone flights over at least 13 nuclear facilities in France that left authorities concerned about security. With no bullets, missiles, or lasers needed, this could be an attractive option in urban areas.

Jam it
 A problem tracking drones is that they are just too small for ordinary radar, which can confuse them with birds. And if they are non-metallic, they won't trigger a radar return. But they do require some signals to operate - either radio, from a remote control somewhere nearby, or GPS - and those could technically be interfered with in order to incapacitate the drone. Authorities with the means could also hack into the aircraft and seize its controls.

[Drones are certainly going to be big, big news over the next 5-10 years. They will, indeed, probably become a commonplace sight flitting over the urban environment delivering everything from pizza to Amazon books, filming sporting events, being used for crowd control and traffic monitoring by the police, looking for lost dogs, children and runaway car thieves and, rather sadly but I believe inevitably, delivering bombs as well as books and perform spying as well as monitoring (but spying for who we will wonder). It won’t be long before the first drone, either privately or police operated, is shot down or at least shot at (or shot up) either for the fun of it or to stop it doing what it’s tasked to do. It won’t be long before one crashes either deliberately or accidently into other aircraft (like the recent near-miss at a London airport) or falls out of the sky killing or injuring pedestrians or car users. It’ll be interesting to see how both the authorities and the rest of us react to them. Will we stop looking up because we know that they will catch our facial image on their camera’s, will someone develop a cheap, one time use, throw away anti-drone device which means that if it flies it dies? Interesting science-fiction time’s lay ahead I think….]  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Love is: Seeing Beyond the (minor) Differences.

Just Finished Reading: A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir (FP: 2012)

Two young women connected by one of English history’s greatest mysteries – what really happened to the Princes in the Tower? Kate Plantagenet has the more personal reason for finding out. Her father, King Richard III, has been widely accused of having them killed in order to illegitimately take the throne of England otherwise why does he refuse to publically show them still alive? Years later Lady Katherine Grey, sister of the recently executed Lady Jane Grey, has a more tenuous reason for wanting to know the truth. Drawn to her namesakes painting and dreaming of her on a regular basis she is drawn to the mystery by the discovery of documents uncovered in the London residence of her future family. Both women find themselves caught up in the tumultuous events of their day – Kate with the bloody culmination of the Wars of the Roses and Katherine with the political and religious machinations of the Tudor court. Both women want to marry for love and both are prevented from following their heart because of reasons of State. Both are made aware that their bodies and their lives are not their own. Who they are is of little consequence. What they are – real or potential contenders for the throne or producers of future heads of State – matters a great deal. Their wishes or desires are irrelevant, their actions are all too significant and potentially deadly when love itself can be seen as an act of the greatest betrayal.

I remember the tale of the Prince’s from school where we had been told as a fact that Richard had them killed to clear his way to the throne. His subsequent defeat at Bosworth which led to the Tudor Age was seen as putting things back on the right track. But things are far from clear and there appears to be no direct evidence that Richard had them killed or even if they died in the Tower at all. Weir looks into these ideas through the eyes of both of her heroines – it did seem more than once actually that we, the readers, where being lectured directly by Weir which was a bit annoying – but the story itself is fascinating enough (and convoluted enough) to keep anyone digging and guessing with or without supporting facts. I did find it interesting that in the early years of the Tudor reign several ‘imposters’ rose up claiming that they were the long lost and presumably murdered princes which Henry VII took very seriously indeed. That’s something I’ll be investigating later.

One other thing I’ve taken from this and previous Weir books (and from those of Philippa Gregory) is that there are female heroines scattered throughout history (and not just English history) that appear to be largely forgotten and overlooked that could be held up as admirable in a world largely dominated by powerful men. Male heroes are easy to find, female heroes noticeably less so. But what I am discovering is that they are there, often side-lined, often obscured and in the shadows but they are there if time and effort is taken to seek them out. Authors such as Weir, Gregory and others seem to spend their time shining light into the corners where these women have long existed (at least according to largely male historians) and much kudos for doing so. I shall look forward to finding out more about these lost, and now rediscovered, heroes.