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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Been there.... Thought that......

Just Finished Reading: Raptor Red by Robert T Bakker (FP: 1995)

Utah, 120 Million Years Ago. Raptor Red and her new consort are hunting. Over the past few months as they increasingly pair bond they have become a well-oiled, efficient and co-ordinated killing machine. But suddenly something goes wrong and her consort is killed. Bereft Rad is forced to hunt on her own something which Utah raptors are not very good at. Eating carrion and whatever she can catch Red eventually smells something familiar. A scent close to that of her siblings – but not quite. Recognising her sister’s brood she joins with her hatch-mate to hunt as a pair again. But Red wants to mate and is on the lookout for a suitable father of her future offspring. So when a young male comes courting she is more than pleased to take up the offer if he can prove himself worthy and if her sister can refrain from killing him on sight. Meanwhile Utah is becoming increasingly crowded with other bigger predators, strange new diseases and weird coloured foliage called ‘flowers’ seen for the first time. If Red and her adopted family can survive in this new environment the possibilities seem also endless. But it’s a big ‘if’ with some much competition and so many new prey species to investigate.

I picked this up at a roadside book stall years ago probably not long after watching one of the Jurassic Park movies. Raptors (as the author points out) are regularly voted peoples second favourite dinosaur after T-Rex. Personally I prefer the Raptors myself. Oddly for an author of entertaining speculative fiction this one is actually a palaeontologist and is well known in his ‘community’ probably for his willingness to speculate where his colleagues fear to tread. This his does ‘in spades’ in this novel not only imagining dinosaur behaviour but their emotional state and even inner mental lives. But don’t worry too much – there’s no dialogue here (except for grunts and squealing) – so it’s definitely not Disney. I did find it a bit silly in places but was impressed by the speed I actually found myself caring about Red and her quest to stay alive long enough to mate. If you’re a fan of the dinosaur movies and can hold onto a sense of disbelief to get you over the (very) speculative bits then this is the book for you. Entertaining and educational this I found was a surprisingly good read. Recommended.  

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book with nonhuman characters – COMPLETE (23/50)]

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Favourite Movies: The Guest (2014)

I was turned on to this superior B movie by my friend and fellow gamer Mr Ali P. I’s seen a brief trailer at the movies but the film itself seemed to pass me by. I regret not seeing it on the big screen.

The storyline (such as it is) starts with an unexpected visitor to a family still grieving at the loss of their eldest boy in Afghanistan/Iraq. Identifying himself as ‘David’ (and played superbly by Dan Stevens – previously of Downton Abbey if you can believe that!) he claims, with some justification, to be a close friend of the deceased and to be there to pass on his last message. Invited to stay ‘for a few days’ he becomes a rather awkward houseguest who listens to the husband bitch about being passed over for promotion, the son being bullied in school and the daughter secretly seeing her drug dealing boyfriend. In fact just another normal family in small town America. ‘David’ however is not the kind of person to stand idly by when he can help the family of his dead friend. Within days the husbands boss if found after an apparent suicide and the young boys problems with the bullies have been resolved by the private application of some rather brutal unarmed force. The daughter (again played brilliantly by Maika Monroe) is a tougher nut to crack. Initially suspicious of David, despite being attracted to him, she begins investigating his story and quickly finds holes in his background. She also alerts a private security company to his location and a hastily thrown together hit team led by Maj Carver (a rather understated Lance Reddick of Fringe fame) are immediately sent to ‘tie up loose ends’. Now ‘outed’ by the family he tried to protect David must now revert to protecting his own identity by erasing anyone who potentially knows the truth of his existence.

As things go this really shouldn’t have been anything special. After all we’ve seen this sort of low-budget stuff time and time again. What raises it far above the average B-Movie competition (for me at least) are two things – or rather two actors. Dan Stevens is quite simply superb and the every polite, ever calm David who even apologises to people he’s just killed unless that is they really piss him off – there’s no apology then, just a bullet in the head. Described as a psychopath (actually more likely a high functioning sociopath) and, rather ironically, as a perfect soldier he is very creepy and extremely scary to get on the wrong side of. It’s his ever calm demeanour that is really, really effective. No one normal is ever that calm! Likewise Maika Monroe is brilliant as the teenage (almost 20 she yells at her father) waitress who needs to grow up really fast if she and her younger brother are to survive David covering his tracks before moving on. Sassy, sexy and obviously very clever she proves more than capable of staying alive – though only just.

Oh, and then there’s the much talked about soundtrack that helps hold the whole thing together. It’s kind of an 80’s techno-goth pastiche thing that really, really works. I check for the CD version but couldn’t find anything until today. It appears to be available on MP3 download or vinyl. Go figure! Now the warnings: It’s quite violent in places and they don’t skimp on the blood. There’s one short sex scene and a bit of female nudity plus the occasional F word. In other words not much to take it into the 15 certificate category. Not exactly family friendly viewing but nothing the average teenager would have a problem with. Switch off your brain and enjoy 96 minutes of superior B-movie fun.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

'Earth 2.0' found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

23 July 2015

A haul of planets from Nasa's Kepler telescope includes a world sharing many characteristics with Earth. Kepler-452b orbits at a very similar distance from its star, though its radius is 60% larger. Mission scientists said they believed it was the most Earth-like planet yet. Such worlds are of interest to astronomers because they might be small and cool enough to host liquid water on their surface - and might therefore be hospitable to life. Nasa's science chief John Grunsfeld called the new world "Earth 2.0" and the "closest so far" to our home. It is around 1,400 light years away from Earth.

John Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California, added: "It's a real privilege to deliver this news to you today. There's a new kid on the block that's just moved in next door." The new world joins other exoplanets such as Kepler-186f that are similar in many ways to Earth. Determining which is most Earth-like depends on the properties one considers. Kepler-186f, announced in 2014, is smaller than the new planet, but orbits a red dwarf star that is significantly cooler than our own.

Kepler-452b, however, orbits a parent star which belongs to the same class as the Sun: it is just 4% more massive and 10% brighter. Kepler-452b takes 385 days to complete a full circuit of this star, so its orbital period is 5% longer than Earth's. The mass of Kepler-452b cannot be measured yet, so astronomers have to rely on models to estimate a range of possible masses, with the most likely being five times that of Earth. If it is rocky, the world would likely still have active volcanism and its gravity could be roughly twice that on our own planet. The new world is included in a haul of 500 new possible planets sighted by the Kepler space telescope around distant stars.

Twelve of the new candidates are less than twice Earth's diameter, orbiting in the so-called habitable zone around their star. This zone refers to a range of distances at which the energy radiated by the star would permit water to exist as a liquid on the planet's surface if certain other conditions are also met. Of these 500 candidates, Kepler-452b is the first to be confirmed as a planet.

Dr Suzanne Aigrain, from the University of Oxford, who was not involved with the study, told BBC News: "I do believe the properties described for Kepler-452b are the most Earth-like I've come across for a confirmed planet to date. "What seems even more significant to me is the number of planets in the habitable zone of their host stars with radii below two Earth radii; 12 is quite a few compared to the pre-existing Kepler planet catalogue. It bodes well for their attempts to provide a more robust measure of the incidence of Earth-like planets, which is the top-level goal of the Kepler mission."

While similar in size and brightness to the Sun, Kepler-452b's host star is 1.5 billion years older than ours. Scientists working on the mission therefore believe it could point to a possible future for the Earth. "If Kepler-452b is indeed a rocky planet, its location vis-a-vis its star could mean that it is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history," explained Dr Doug Caldwell, a Seti Institute scientist working on the Kepler mission. "The increasing energy from its aging sun might be heating the surface and evaporating any oceans. The water vapour would be lost from the planet forever. Kepler-452b could be experiencing now what the Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now, as the Sun ages and grows brighter."

Dr Don Pollacco, from Warwick University, UK, who was not involved with the latest analysis, told the BBC: "Kepler data allows you to estimate the relative size of a planet to its host star, so if you know the size of the host, hey presto, you know the size of the planet. However, to go further - i.e. is it rocky? - involves measuring the mass of the planets and this is much more difficult to do as the stars are too far away for these measurements (which are incredibly difficult) to make. So in reality they have no idea what this planet is made of: It could be rock but it could be a small gassy ball or something more exotic maybe."

Dr Chris Watson, from Queen's University Belfast, UK, commented: "Other Kepler habitable zone planets may well be more Earth-like in this respect. For example, Kepler-186f is approximately 1.17 Earth radii, and Kepler-438b is approximately 1.12 Earth radii. In fact, at 1.6 Earth radii, this would place Kepler-452b in a category of planet called a 'Super-Earth' - our Solar System does not actually have any planet of this type within it! Super-Earths are hugely interesting for this reason, but one might then say, well, is it really 'Earth-like' given all this?" He added: "When we look at the type of star Kepler-452b orbits, then it seems to be a star not too dissimilar to our Sun... The other Kepler habitable zone planets that have been discovered so far tend to be orbiting M-dwarfs - stars far cooler than our Sun, and therefore the planets need to orbit much closer to receive the same levels of heating. So it may be a potentially rocky super-Earth in an Earth-like orbit (in terms of host star and orbital distance). It's this combination of the host star and orbit that set it apart in my opinion."

The findings have been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.

[Cool! It looks like an excellent candidate for a planet (if it turns out to be a rocky one) with a distinct possibility of life. But at 1,400 light years away the only way we can check for sure if we can pick up radio signals [1400 years old!] from there. Shame really. It would have been great if it was close enough to think about sending a probe when we eventually develop the technology to launch things at an appreciable percentage of light speed.]