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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Hope in the Dark – The Untold History of People Power by Rebecca Solnit (FP: 2004)

Despite the fact that this book was only 170 pages long I didn’t really intend to finish it in a single day. But without much effort and with a deal of enjoyment I did just that last Sunday. I’d picked up on the author whilst visiting another Blog mostly dedicated to books with a Left-Wing slant. Another of her works had been reviewed but for some reason I picked this one instead (I don’t remember my reasoning at the time. It might have simply been that as this was an experiment in new authorship I picked the cheaper or thinner book).

Anyway, I thought that the sub-title was a bit of a misnomer. This wasn’t the history of people power. If it had been I’m guessing it would have been a much chunkier volume. No, this was some examples of people power over the last 30 odd years and some of those the author had been involved in, interviewed people who were there or had admired. This was not a bad thing. The author, who writes exceedingly well, concentrated on what she knew – often personally – to get across exactly what people power could do when applied with passion, commitment, knowledge and not a little humour. Citing examples mostly in the US (with a few in the UK and the rest of Europe) she shows not only that people power can achieve its objectives but that sometimes only people power can do so. She is also very clear that activists who expect fast, predictable or even easily apparent changes should get used to being disappointed. Sometimes change can take years or decades before it becomes apparent – when something is accepted as normal today was vilified in the past but (as if by magic) imperceptibly changes year on year without any apparent engine of change (those people actively changing the minds of others) it can be disheartening. Likewise protests can seem to have little effect at the time but resonate down the years to produce results, although not always the results intended or hoped for, much later or far away. People can gain hope from others simply trying to achieve something which allows them to engage with their problem in a different or more effective way.

One story of unintended consequences (a theme running throughout the book) which made me laugh was about Viagra. Not only was the original drug developed to address heart problems – not other problems – but its availability has apparently saved several endangered species from becoming extinct as the demand for certain exotic substances (and body parts) in China has dropped dramatically thereby lowering their price sufficiently that poaching for some animals is no longer economically viable! As unintended consequences goes it’s a pretty good one.

The main message the book tries to get across (and I’m making rather a hash of in this garbled review) is that there is always hope no matter how hopeless a situation seems to be. Humans have a great capacity for reasonably deciding that nothing can be done and then going ahead to at least try to fix things. More often than people realise the nothing can be done turns into something can actually be done. The future is dark. Not, the author maintains, in a bleak way but in a hidden, unknown way. Within that darkness is the possibility of change and the possibility of hope no matter the odds stacked against you. The people do have power no matter what ‘they’ tell you. It’s a matter of finding that power within yourself and within others. Hope does indeed spring eternal and hope lives in the dark places, off centre stage, in the corners and in the shadows. Fascinating, well written, full of delightful ideas, interesting people and intriguing metaphors. A must read for anyone itching to get something done, large or small, local, national or global. Highly recommended.  

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book you can finish in a day – COMPLETE (15/50)]

Monday, May 18, 2015

NASA Hubble Finds a True Blue Planet 


July 11, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Astronomers making visible-light observations with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have deduced the actual color of a planet orbiting another star 63 light-years away. The planet is HD 189733b, one of the closest exoplanets that can be seen crossing the face of its star.

Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured changes in the color of light from the planet before, during and after a pass behind its star. There was a small drop in light and a slight change in the color of the light. "We saw the light becoming less bright in the blue but not in the green or red. Light was missing in the blue but not in the red when it was hidden," said research team member Frederic Pont of the University of Exeter in South West England. "This means that the object that disappeared was blue."

Earlier observations have reported evidence for scattering of blue light on the planet. The latest Hubble observation confirms the evidence. If seen directly, this planet would look like a deep blue dot, reminiscent of Earth's color as seen from space. That is where the comparison ends.

On this turbulent alien world, the daytime temperature is nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and it possibly rains glass -- sideways -- in howling, 4,500-mph winds. The cobalt blue color comes not from the reflection of a tropical ocean as it does on Earth, but rather a hazy, blow-torched atmosphere containing high clouds laced with silicate particles. Silicates condensing in the heat could form very small drops of glass that scatter blue light more than red light.

Hubble and other observatories have made intensive studies of HD 189733b and found its atmosphere to be changeable and exotic. HD 189733b is among a bizarre class of planets called hot Jupiters, which orbit precariously close to their parent stars. The observations yield new insights into the chemical composition and cloud structure of the entire class.

Clouds often play key roles in planetary atmospheres. Detecting the presence and importance of clouds in hot Jupiters is crucial to astronomers' understanding of the physics and climatology of other planets.

HD 189733b was discovered in 2005. It is only 2.9 million miles from its parent star, so close that it is gravitationally locked. One side always faces the star and the other side is always dark. In 2007, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope measured the infrared light, or heat, from the planet, leading to one of the first temperature maps for an exoplanet. The map shows day side and night side temperatures on HD 189733b differ by about 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This should cause fierce winds to roar from the day side to the night side.

[OK, you got me open mouthed with ‘raining glass – sideways’. What a truly bizarre Galaxy it is out there……!]

Saturday, May 16, 2015

'Take us with you, Scotland' say thousands in North of England

From the BBC

14 May 2015

Thousands of people in the north of England have been using the hashtag "take us with you Scotland" to express their upset about the result of last week's general election, and Scottish nationalists are welcoming this English minority with open arms.

Last Thursday's general election was a rough one for the Labour Party in its traditional stronghold in the north of England. But further to the north, the left-leaning Scottish National Party won nearly every seat it contested. That political contrast has made some left-wing voters in places like Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield look fondly on their neighbours. Since last Thursday's election in Britain the phrase "take us with you Scotland" has been used more than 24,000 times.

"Genuinely beginning to wonder if the North of England becoming a part of Scotland would be better for us, I really am," tweeted Aaron Miller from Yorkshire. Some cracked jokes under the tag after the North West Motorway Police account, which gives traffic updates, announced that they had "picked up a pedestrian on the M62 who was trying to walk to Scotland."

After an initial spike of jokes over the weekend, the hashtag really took off when users start to mobilise in support of around a year-old petition on the campaigning site Change.org. The petition calls for the north of England to secede from the rest of the country and join up with Scotland, and more than 12,000 people have signed it.

Its creator, a Sheffield resident who calls himself "Stu Dent", set it up to coincide with last year's Scottish independence referendum, and he also created a map imagining the boundary of a "Scotland plus the north" country.

Stu Dent runs the Twitter account Hunters Bar, named after an area of southwest Sheffield which is very popular with - you guessed it - students. Despite the account having thousands of followers on Twitter, when the map was first posted last year, the image was shared only about 100 times - however, in the past week it's been retweeted by thousands. Stu Dent told BBC Trending that he was surprised at how popular his idea has become. "In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn't have been," he said. "There is a huge frustration in parts of the UK about the things that have happened since 2010. I think people need a place to go where they can say 'not in my name! This is not the England I want'," he added.

But in addition to disappointment from some quarters about the election result, there might be another reason why the petition is getting a boost now: the power of the Scottish Nationalists on Twitter. What started as a post-election joke in the North of England was quickly embraced by the so-called "Cyber Nats" - and a trend was born. The SNP's social media strategist Ross Colquhoun expressed the party's mood about the hashtag best, in a post which was shared more than 500 times. "2014: #LetsStayTogether 2015: #TakeUsWithYouScotland What a difference a year makes" he tweeted.

[I did laugh loud and hard when I read this. As I’ve said many times to many people the only Socialists around these days seem to be the SNP so it’s no surprise that Labour’s heartland in the North should would want the border to come south to meet them. Maybe if Labour had moved more to the Left instead of their probable continual move to the Right (they call it being more ‘centrist’) they might have had more of an impact earlier in the month than actually happened. Although the border move will never happen – even if England leaves the EU and Scotland decides to stay – it was funny to think that I could move home and be in Scotland at the same time.]