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

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As it's cold outside.... a little something to warm the cockles.

Monday, December 29, 2008

My Favourite Movies: Brotherhood of the Wolf

This is the first non-English language film on my list but certainly won’t be the last. Made in 2001 this excellent French film blew us all away when we went to see it at our local multiplex. From the trailer I did initially think that it was going to be a werewolf film – but it turned out to be much better than that.

Taking place in the years before the French Revolution we are introduced to a countryside held in the grip of terror. A seemingly supernatural wolf of huge dimensions, impervious to bullets, unafraid of men and possessed of an unnatural intelligence is praying on the local populace despite the best efforts of the areas ruling elite. Sent into this situation on the request of the King is Gregorie de Fronsac an explorer just returned from the New World (played amazingly by Samuel Le Bihan). His mission is to trap the beast for its display in the Kings gardens. Accompanying him is his Native American blood brother Mani (played by the excellent Mark Dacascos). Almost immediately on their arrival they find themselves ensnared in the manoeuvrings of local politicians which leads to some eye-popping fight scenes. Besides tracking down the wolf de Fronsac has other things in his sight – in particular the stunningly beautiful Marianne de Morangias played by the stunningly beautiful Emilie Dequenne (pictured above). The growing relationship between these two sophisticated people is a delight to watch – except to her brother (played by another excellent actor Vincent Cassel) who has a rather too personal interest in her. If things were not complicated enough at this point we are introduced to an agent of the Vatican (played by the amazing Monica Bellucci) whose task it is to see that any consequences of activities surrounding the hunt for the wolf do not rebound on her employer.

So the scene is set for a sumptuously filmed, consummately acted, funny, engaging, terrifying period drama full of monsters – a few of them in human form – lovers, spies, costumes to die for and some kick-ass martial arts for good measure. I know it sounds a bit weird but take my word for it – it really works. This film is just jaw droppingly good on just about every level. The only slight niggle I had was with the monster itself (which makes its first appearance about 45 minutes into the film) which doesn’t quite live up to its fearsome reputation. But saying that this was probably one of the best films we saw that year and probably one of the best I’ve seen in the last ten years. Oh, one thing though – you must watch it in the original language. The dubbing into English sucks as it tends to do with these things. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Habermas – A Very short introduction by James Gordon Finlayson

Yes, this is an example of my Christmas reading! Whilst not exactly light it did turn out to be rather interesting. Habermas is a modern German social/political philosopher from the Frankfurt School and therefore a proponent of Critical Theory. I’ve come across both of these during my general reading so it was nice to read about one of their greatest proponents. Though in some ways a neo-Marxist, Habermas was not only a critic of Capitalism but of Marx himself. Habermas introduced the idea of communicative rationality and the pragmatic theory of meaning both of which underscored his ideas of society and what forces bound it together.

Growing up in the Nazi period in Germany Habermas was a severe critic of Nationalism and great defender of the public sphere which he considered vital to the health of any democracy. He saw the public, unregulated, sphere under threat from commoditisation due to the influence of Capitalism and from the controlling influences of the State. A very prolific writer on a wide ride of social, ethical and political subjects, Habermas is considered to be one of the most influential social philosophers in the English speaking world. Being such I think he might deserve a bit more of my time in future! I did find myself agreeing with much that he had to say about the State and Modernity so I don’t think that I’ll find his ideas too challenging but I’ll let you know if I find him readable. Watch this space.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Haunted by Kelley Armstrong

Eve Levine is dead and has been for three years. This however hasn’t stopped her obsessing about the safety of her daughter or the relationship with her partner (also dead). Eve desperately needs purpose in her afterlife and is given it when the Fates task her with bringing an escaped demon spirit back to Hell. But this demon knows more tricks than Eve and has its sights on Eve’s daughter as its next victim. Eve must choose between the spirit world, her partner and possible angelhood in order to protect her child and each choice has its own deadly consequences.

After being very disappointed with Armstrong’s last book in this series Industrial Magic it’s taken me quite a while to pick up another of her books. Haunted certainly started out well with an interesting baddie (called The Nix) and some fairly interesting characters – most of which I’ve come across before in her previous 4 books. Unfortunately the book quickly lost coherence and began to ramble. Tightly plotted it was not, as the reader was led all over creation searching for The Nix as well as searching for a solution to capturing her. Haunted was at least 100 and possibly 200 pages too long and at times I did find myself skimming over pages just to get it over with. Fortunately at least it was a fast read as it lacked any real substance. I’m afraid that Armstrong has disappointed me again. Unfortunately I have already bought the next two books in the series though I suspect they won’t be read anytime soon!

So yet again I suffer though a disappointing book. This is not good. What I need, I think, is a change of tack. I’ve already (you may have noticed) instituted a scheme where every fourth fiction book was neither SF nor Fantasy which seems to be working out quite well. I’m also reading non-fiction exclusively on Sundays (which hasn’t worked it’s was into the reviews yet). But what I need to do is go further than this if I’m to improve my game. So, more non-fiction reading I think – especially in subjects I know comparatively little about. Also more non-SF/Fantasy I think as I seem to be enjoying them more that the other genres at the moment. Also more classics – both non-SF and non-fiction. Lastly I need to increase my reading of more substantial books and definitely cut back on the fluff! We’ll see what 2009 brings. Hopefully it’ll be a better year for literature.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rom-coms 'spoil your love life'

From the BBC

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Watching romantic comedies can spoil your love life, a study by a university in Edinburgh has claimed. Rom-coms have been blamed by relationship experts at Heriot Watt University for promoting unrealistic expectations when it comes to love. They found fans of films such as Runaway Bride and Notting Hill often fail to communicate with their partner. Many held the view if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you telling them. Psychologists at the family and personal relationships laboratory at the university studied 40 top box office hits between 1995 and 2005, and identified common themes which they believed were unrealistic. The movies included You've Got Mail, Maid In Manhattan, The Wedding Planner and While You Were Sleeping.

The university's Dr Bjarne Holmes said: "Marriage counsellors often see couples who believe that sex should always be perfect, and if someone is meant to be with you then they will know what you want without you needing to communicate it. "We now have some emerging evidence that suggests popular media play a role in perpetuating these ideas in people's minds. The problem is that while most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, some of us are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realise." As part of the project, 100 student volunteers were asked to watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while a further 100 watched a David Lynch drama.

Students watching the romantic film were later found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny. A further study found that fans of romantic comedies had a stronger belief in predestined love. Kimberly Johnson, who also worked on the study, said: "Films do capture the excitement of new relationships but they also wrongly suggest that trust and committed love exist from the moment people meet, whereas these are qualities that normally take years to develop." The researchers have now launched an online study on media and relationships.

[Ha! I knew this was always the case. After years of Rom-Com indoctrination no wonder people have unrealistic views of romance! No wonder that people can’t live up to the ridiculous idea of relationship perfection….. Fantasy romance is toxic!]

Monday, December 15, 2008

HUBBLE TELESCOPE FINDS CARBON DIOXIDE ON AN EXTRASOLAR PLANET

From NASA Dec. 9, 2008

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star. This breakthrough is an important step toward finding chemical biotracers of extraterrestrial life. The Jupiter-sized planet, called HD 189733b, is too hot for life. But the Hubble observations are a proof-of-concept demonstration that the basic chemistry for life can be measured on planets orbiting other stars. Organic compounds also can be a by-product of life processes and their detection on an Earthlike planet someday may provide the first evidence of life beyond our planet.

Previous observations of HD 189733b by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope found water vapor. Earlier this year, Hubble found methane in the planet's atmosphere. "Hubble was conceived primarily for observations of the distant universe, yet it is opening a new era of astrophysics and comparative planetary science," said Eric Smith, Hubble Space Telescope program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These atmospheric studies will begin to determine the compositions and chemical processes operating on distant worlds orbiting other stars. The future for this newly opened frontier of science is extremely promising as we expect to discover many more molecules in exoplanet atmospheres."

Mark Swain, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., used Hubble's near infrared camera and multi-object spectrometer to study infrared light emitted from the planet, which lies 63 light-years away. Gases in the planet's atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of light from the planet's hot glowing interior. Swain identified carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The molecules leave a unique spectral fingerprint on the radiation from the planet that reaches Earth. This is the first time a near-infrared emission spectrum has been obtained for an exoplanet. "The carbon dioxide is the main reason for the excitement because, under the right circumstances, it could have a connection to biological activity as it does on Earth," Swain said. "The very fact we are able to detect it and estimate its abundance is significant for the long-term effort of characterizing planets to find out what they are made of and if they could be a possible host for life."

This type of observation is best done on planets with orbits tilted edge-on to Earth. They routinely pass in front of and then behind their parent stars, phenomena known as eclipses. The planet HD 189733b passes behind its companion star once every 2.2 days. The eclipses allow an opportunity to subtract the light of the star alone, when the planet is blocked, from that of the star and planet together prior to eclipse. That isolates the emission of the planet and makes possible a chemical analysis of its atmosphere. "In this way, we are using the eclipse of the planet behind the star to probe the planet's day side, which contains the hottest portions of its atmosphere," said team member Guatam Vasisht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We are starting to find the molecules and to figure out how many there are to see the changes between the day side and the night side."

This successful demonstration of looking at near-infrared light emitted from a planet is very encouraging for astronomers planning to use NASA's James Webb Space Telescope after it is launched in 2013. These biomarkers are best seen at near-infrared wavelengths. Astronomers look forward to using the James Webb Space Telescope to look spectroscopically for biomarkers on a terrestrial planet the size of Earth or a "super-Earth" several times our planet's mass. "The Webb telescope should be able to make much more sensitive measurements of these primary and secondary eclipse events," Swain said.

[Fascinating, eh? I guess it’s only a matter of time now before they detect life-signs on a planet that we think can sustain life!]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

Shirley Angela has a problem. Her stepfather is dying – just not quickly enough. Shirley is 18 and just wants to have fun. Unfortunately she’s tied to her stepdads bedside looking after him as he slowly slips away and waiting in the bank is over $300,000 held in trust. Enter Jack Ruxton, a down at heels TV repair man desperately trying to shrug off a clinging ex-lover and keep his business afloat. Shirley has a plan to help her stepfather slide into that cold night and with Jacks help that’s exactly what she intends to do. Using her more than ample charms Shirley blinds Jack with passion until he agrees to help her. But once the deed is done things inexorably spiral out of control until the only thing to do is run.

Originally publishing in 1958 this is classic pulp noir. The characters are pretty much doomed from the start. Each has a tragic story to tell and each is on a clear trajectory from the gutter to the electric chair. Both Shirley and Jack see themselves as victims even before any crime is committed and apparently cannot help themselves as they scheme to recover the money. Shirley herself is part complaining child and part alluring woman and as such is irresistible to Jack who thinks that something – anything – needs to go right in his life. What he doesn’t see is that the problems he’s had are of his own making with bad decision piled onto of bad decision. Inevitably – as is the overarching theme of such things – plans fail and the more they struggle against what is clearly their fate the worse things get. Clearly a morality tale of sorts this was a well constructed though deceptively simple story or lust, greed, jealousy and rage. A real page turner and highly entertaining. This was my second foray into the Hard Case Crime series and certainly won’t be my last.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

War…..

AC Grayling for The Guardian

Saturday September 22, 2001

War is both the product of an earlier corruption and the producer of new corruptions - Lewis Mumford

War, always an evil, is sometimes the lesser of two evils. When it is, it is justified. The war against Nazism was a justified war, although not everything done in it by the opponents of Nazism was justified. This consideration prompts the inescapable question about the conduct of war: what should be its limits? Should ethics tie one's hands when faced with an implacable enemy, whose victory would be a disaster for the world? Churchill said, "There is no middle course in wartime." This hard truth forces one to recognise another: that every war, however justified, reduces the stock of human good, and diminishes civilisation - sometimes destroying in seconds what centuries were devoted to building.

War prompted by religion, even indirectly, is never justified. Whatever the proximate excuse for such wars, the basis of every one is exactly the same, namely, suspicion and hostility engendered by differences of belief and associated culture. Christian armies mounted crusades against "infidels" to capture the holy places of the Middle East, and against "heretics" such as the Cathars to rebut their falsehoods by exterminating those who thought them true. These are entirely matters of ideology. None of the major faiths is bloodless; history reeks with the gore of their wars and persecutions, all the more disgusting a spectacle for being, in essence, as simple as this: A kills B because B does not agree with A that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.

People should be left to believe what they like, so long as they harm no one else. Apart from normal expectations of politeness, it is not however clear why people should require their personal beliefs to be treated with special sensitivity by others, to the point that if others fail to tiptoe respectfully around them they will start throwing bombs. From a secular point of view, religious beliefs are at best absurd and at worst dangerous, and the amount of free play they are given in the public domain is a menace. Believed-in fairies should be kept at home as an entirely private matter, and their votaries encouraged to cease taking themselves so seriously that, when irritated by those who differ, they resort to Kalashnikovs. Apart from anything else, such reactions speak of little confidence in their own violently held certainties. When differences of belief and religion-based culture are the ultimate source of conflict, the real war that needs to be fought is the war of ideas. A secularist might hope that liberal scientific education would at last free the human spirit from its thraldom to ancient superstitions and practices. Realism prompts the more modest hope that people can learn to accept that others differ, that belief is a private matter, and that no one has the right to impose beliefs on others or to punish their non-acceptance.

This aspiration has a practical dimension. In order to accommodate a variety of religious and cultural differences in a single society, society itself needs to be wholly secular, most especially its educational institutions. "Faith-based" schools entrench and perpetuate the differences that too often lead to conflict; by educating children from all backgrounds together there is a far greater chance of mutual understanding and personal friendships. Enthusiasts of all faiths oppose secular education because exposure to other traditions has the effect of loosening the grip of their own. That, from a secular standpoint, is of course the consummation devoutly to be wished. The war of ideas today is what makes a difference to the occurrence or otherwise of shooting wars tomorrow. But the murderous grip of humanity's various immemorial belief systems is unavoidably here now, sprouting its bitter fruit. It is as hard for the innocents of one side to defend against the frenzy of fanatics as for those of the other to protect themselves against technological might. But the survivors, if there are any, can try to defend the future by winning the longer and greater war against the intolerance, bigotry, zealotry and hatred that so brutally divides humankind against itself.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Choosing Names – Man-Kzin Wars VIII created by Larry Niven.

This was basically a collection of 5 short to medium stories around the common theme of the Man-Kzin Wars. Taking place in Niven’s ‘Known Space’ they cover the earliest encounters between the peaceful (after all this is SF) Humans and the warlike Kzin. Now the Kzin are one of my favourite alien species from SF. They’re basically evolved tigers who learnt to walk upright and became the dominant species on their homeworld. Unfortunately for the rest of the galaxy a species known as the Jotok trained them as mercenaries before realising their mistake when the Kzin turned their guns on their erstwhile masters. The rest as they say is future history.

Despite being the eighth book in the series (I understand that there are four more – so far) it wasn’t half bad. Nothing really exceptional but entertaining enough. I did actually find it a bit bloodier than usual but maybe I’m just getting sensitive with age? Anyway, it was a fine addition to the (many) books based in Known Space and kept me turning pages – which when it boils down to it is what counts. Strangely though its probably the only book in the series without a cover available on Google images so no cover art this time. The stories were by Niven himself, Hal Colebatch, Jean Lamb, Paul Chafe and Warren W James. Unusually for any collection there’s not a duff one that needed skimming over. Basically for fans of the Kzin and Combat SF.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ancient supernova mystery solved

By James Morgan for BBC News

Thursday, 4 December 2008

In 1572, a "new star" appeared in the sky which stunned astronomers and exploded ancient theories of the universe. Now the supernova recorded by Tycho Brahe has been glimpsed again, by Max Planck Institute scientists. They used telescopes in Hawaii and Spain to capture faint light echoes of the original explosion, reflected by interstellar dust. This "fossil imprint" of Tycho's famous supernova is reported in Nature. The study will help solve a 400-year-old mystery over the nature of the celestial event which captivated observers across the globe.

In early November 1572, the brilliant "new star" appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia, and was even visible during daylight. Among those who marvelled was the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who recorded its precise position in his book, "Stella Nova". His measurements revealed the "new star" was located far beyond the Moon - contradicting the Aristotelian tradition that such stars were unchangeable - which had dominated western thinking for nearly 2000 years. This set the stage for the work of Kepler, Galileo, Newton and others. "The supernova of 1572 marked a milestone in the history of science," said Oliver Krause, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany. "It ultimately led to the abandonment of the notion of the immutability of the heavens. But its classification has been controversial. The determination of the exact supernova type has not been possible, without spectroscopic information."

Based on historic records, Tycho's supernova [SN 1572] has traditionally been interpreted as a type Ia supernova. Such supernovas are believed to occur when a white dwarf star undergoes a titanic, thermonuclear explosion. Material from the star is ejected at up to 18,000 miles per second - or one-tenth of the speed of light. Astronomers have reconstructed Tycho Brahe's 1572 supernova. The debris from Tycho's supernova has expanded over the last 400 years into a cloud of gas and dust with a diameter of more than 20 light years. But the nature of the original explosive event which created this remnant has remained unresolved.

To elucidate, Dr Krause and his team conducted a "post-mortem", by training their telescopes on faint light echoes from the original event. A supernova explosion acts like a cosmic flashbulb - producing light that propagates in all directions. The first direct light wave from the explosion swept past Earth in 1572, observed by Brahe. But even today, further waves of light from the original explosion continue to reach Earth indirectly - reflected in the "mirror" of interstellar dust particles. These "light echoes" contain a kind of "fossil imprint" of the original supernova, and are used by astronomers to "time travel" back to witness ancient cosmic events. Dr Krause and his team were able to detect an optical spectrum of Tycho's supernova at near maximum brightness, using telescopes at the Calar Alto observatory, Spain, and at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. "We find that it belongs to the majority class of normal type Ia supernovae," said Dr Krause. "An exciting opportunity now would be to use other [light echoes] to construct a three-dimensional spectroscopic view of the explosion." The new measurements may also shed light on important, unsolved questions about how type Ia supernovae arise. In one model, a white dwarf star accumulates (accretes) material from a companion star until it reaches a critical mass and undergoes a thermonuclear explosion. In another, the accretion occurs by the merging of two white dwarfs.

The proximity of Tycho - which lies in the Milky Way - makes it an ideal candidate for more detailed studies. "The technique of observing light echoes from supernovae is a remarkable observational tool," said Dr Andrea Pastorello, of Queens University, Belfast. "It will allow astrophysicists to characterise other supernova remnants in our galaxy and in nearby galaxies. This will hopefully clarify the relationship between supernova relics and their explosion mechanisms. Finally, it is likely that precise information about the frequency of the different supernova types in our galaxy and its surroundings will shed light on the star-formation history and chemical evolution of the local group of galaxies."

[This is a classic example of how scientific thinking changes our view of the Universe around us and gives us all a better understanding of what is really happening in the world. No other system of thought provides this valuable insight. That’s why science is so important and that’s why I love it.]

Monday, December 01, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Cayce Pollard is cursed (or blessed) by an almost pathological allergic reaction to brand names. At the sight of Prada or especially the Michelin Man she goes into intense panic attack. Fortunately this is a talent she can sell to advertising companies as she can instantly tell if a new brand is effective – or not – saving companies millions in potentially failed advertising costs. Cayce is also obsessed with the Footage – an Internet viral video depicting what might be a fragmented movie of outstanding quality. Cayce spends most of her on-line time discussing the Footage on Forums and by e-mail. After a job finishes in London she’s hired by an advertising mogul to track down the creator of the Footage which takes her first to Tokyo and then to Moscow. On the way she begins to unravel what happened to her father who disappeared in New York on September 11th.

I clearly remember the effect Gibson’s Sprawl series had on me in the late 80’s. The sheer imagination surrounding the world he created was breath taking. SF was never the same again after Cyberpunk crashed onto the scene. I miss those books and wish Gibson would write more of them. However he’s of the opinion, I’ve heard, that there’s no need to write science fiction based in the future – because the future we dreamed of (or had nightmares about) is already here. Hence Gibson now writes contemporary fiction. But you can still discern his Cyberpunk style even as he writes about the early 21st Century. He sees the world through slightly different lenses than the rest of us – seeing cities that are at once familiar and yet subtly different. His characters are outstanding, especially Cayce herself. She’s hip, knowing, sassy and yet vulnerable at the same time. I’ve known people like her sans the pathology of course. The other characters that litter the book are equally well drawn and about as diverse as you can imagine from a ex-Soviet oligarch mafia gangster to a Japanese cyber-geek afraid of his own shadow, from an American art-house film producer to a Eastern European market trader who works part time ‘infecting’ people in bars with viral advertising. Some of the book is laugh out loud funny or more often downright strange. After I was halfway through this book I had, by osmosis, become more sensitive to the sheer amount of branding we see everyday. It’s everywhere. We just don’t normally notice it.

This book was wonderfully written, wonderfully constructed and wonderfully executed. It was just plain wonderful. A rich, adult, knowing book that felt like drinking fine wine whilst having a intelligent conversation with people you really want to get to know. I shall savour my other Gibson books for next year I think. It’ll give me something to look forward to if I hit another stinker like my last book!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Favourite Movies: The Big Sleep

LA detective Philip Marlowe (played almost effortlessly by Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood to protect his wayward daughters from a blackmailer. Once on the case Marlowe finds himself slipping deeper into the sordid world of gamblers, grifters and pornographers. Everyone it seems is holding secrets – including the coldly beautiful elder Sternwood daughter (played by Lauren Bacall). Marlowe must figure out what each of the players is hiding before one of them literally kills him. Made in 1946 by Howard Hawks this iconic Film Noir is a master class in movie making. Not only beautifully filmed and acted to perfection this film is a gripping mystery as we watch Marlowe work his was through a labyrinthine plot to find what exactly is being held over the Sternwood family.

There are many things I love about this film. It’s not just the atmosphere that you could cut with a knife. It’s not just the ability of the actors playing the smaller parts – including the always watchable Elisha Cook Jr as the hard done by ‘heavy’ and the delightful Dorothy Malone playing the intrigued ACME bookstore owner and it’s not just the snappy dialogue. It’s the mixing of all of these things with Hawks’ consummate skill and not a little humour too.

I’d read somewhere that the plot – presumably taken from the original novel by Raymond Chandler (I couldn’t compare the two as its been many years since I read it) – makes no sense as Marlowe ‘discovered’ things that he couldn’t possibly have know in order for the plot to move forward. But when I watched it again recently I followed Marlowe’s trial quite easily. It was all very reasonable and logical. This is a great movie to watch on a wet Sunday afternoon with a glass of wine in hand. Just relax and let the Noir mood seep into your bones.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thinking About: My Dad

Somewhat strangely – or maybe not so strangely – I find myself thinking more about my Father now that he’s dead than I ever did when he was alive. Maybe it’s because now I have lost the opportunity to actually get to know him better. My family are not exactly forthcoming or emotional but is still surprises me that I actually know very little about my Dad. I know he was born in 1929 and joked that he was at sea during the war – being on a boat aged 10 with his family coming to England from Eire. I know he did National Service in the 50’s and was based, I believe, in Newcastle of all places. He must have met my Mum in the early 50’s and they got married, I think, around 1956. After that he spent most of his working life on various building sites. I know that times were not always easy but there was always food on the table and clothes on our backs. Thinking back I think that we were rather ungrateful children – at least me and my brother were – because we were blissfully unaware of my parents lack of money.

I think the most personal thing my father gave me was a love of film. I have memories of watching apparently endless black and white movies during the weekends as well as seemingly constant trips to the cinema where my love affair with the movies deepened. My father was also an explorer, taking us out on trips all around the area. Whenever we complained that we’d walked too far he always said “Let’s see what’s around the next corner.” Of course this turned into the next corner and the one after that. Then there were the museums and art galleries where we spent hours looking at artefacts from around the world and through the ages. We often ended up at Liverpool docks watching the ships come in. I remember (vaguely) scampering over warships that visited the port including – I think – the Ark Royal and a nuclear submarine. One of our favourite trips was on the ferry across the Mersey. In those days you only paid if you got off at Birkenhead so we stayed on and got a free trip across the river and back again. Of course the common denominator in all of this is that it hardly cost any money at all – because, I’m convinced, we simply didn’t have any. Oddly I can’t ever really remember noticing that we were poor in any way, probably because everyone around us was in pretty much the same position. I mean we didn’t have inside plumbing until 1970 after I had turned 10.

After I moved out on going to University I didn’t go home very often and as the years passed I became shocked at how old my father had become – as if the aging process had simply accelerated somehow. Of course it hadn’t it was just that I saw my family less and less often. Dad had always had problems communicating with his kids – though again oddly total strangers would stop him in the street for a chat (something they do to me too!) – so we never exactly engaged in long conversations. Then in the blink of an eye he was gone. I’d been home one November for a week because I wasn’t planning to go home for Christmas that year. Dad was still getting over a bout of illness and had recovered some of his strength and weight. He seemed actually healthier than I’d seen him in a while. A few weeks later he was in hospital with a lung infection. A few days after that he was dead.

I got some compassionate leave from work and got the train home. That was a weird trip. Everything seems either hyper-real or totally unreal. I can’t really make my mind up which. I hated the funeral. We were driven to the crematorium in a big black limousine and I felt as if everyone was looking at us – which they probably were. My mother – bless her – had requested a light Christian ceremony rather than the full on Catholic affair. She said to me “No tutting or rolling of the eyes, OK.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that. I actually lost count of the number of times the stand-in priest mentioned God but I kept my word and not one tut escaped my lips. What disgusted me most though was the conveyor belt process it turned out to be. After the words were said the coffin was whisked away and we were ushered out of the side door to allow the next family to have their 40 minutes of public bereavement. Then back home in the limo again. Apart from the family hardly anyone attended. This was partially because Mum didn’t want a fuss and partially because we don’t know that many people. I couldn’t help wondering how many people would be at my funeral.

I didn’t cry. After three years I still haven’t cried. I was expecting to after it hit me but still – nothing. I did feel numb for a while and sad for much longer but actual tears? No. I did feel a bit guilty about that. I still do. But I do think of him more than I ever did. Maybe that’s something at least. I do look in the mirror sometimes and can’t help seeing how much I look like him. Maybe that’s another of his legacies. Maybe that’s how I’ll keep on remembering him. That and classic movies oh, and John Wayne.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

National Intelligence Council Report: Sun Setting on The American Century

by Tim Reid for The Times

Friday, November 21, 2008

WASHINGTON _ The next two decades will see a world living with the daily threat of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe and the decline of America as the dominant global power, according to a frighteningly bleak assessment by the US intelligence community. The report said that global warming will aggravate the scarcity of water, food and energy resources. Don't worry, though, there's good news in it, too. "The world of the near future will be subject to an increased likelihood of conflict over resources, including food and water, and will be haunted by the persistence of rogue states and terrorist groups with greater access to nuclear weapons," said the report by the National Intelligence Council, a body of analysts from across the US intelligence community. The analysts said that the report had been prepared in time for Barack Obama's entry into the Oval office on January 20, where he will be faced with some of the greatest challenges of any newly elected US president. "The likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used will increase with expanded access to technology and a widening range of options for limited strikes," the 121-page assessment said.

The analysts draw attention to an already escalating nuclear arms race in the Middle East and anticipate that a growing number of rogue states will be prepared to share their destructive technology with terror groups. "Over the next 15-20 years reactions to the decisions Iran makes about its nuclear programme could cause a number of regional states to intensify these efforts and consider actively pursuing nuclear weapons," the report Global Trends 2025 said. "This will add a new and more dangerous dimension to what is likely to be increasing competition for influence within the region," it said. The spread of nuclear capabilities will raise questions about the ability of weak states to safeguard them, it added. "If the number of nuclear-capable states increases, so will the number of countries potentially willing to provide nuclear assistance to other countries or to terrorists."

The report said that global warming will aggravate the scarcity of water, food and energy resources. Citing a British study, it said that climate change could force up to 200 million people to migrate to more temperate zones. "Widening gaps in birth rates and wealth-to-poverty ratios, and the impact of climate change, could further exacerbate tensions," it said. "The international system will be almost unrecognisable by 2025, owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalising economy, a transfer of wealth from West to East, and the growing influence of nonstate actors. Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States' relative strength - even in the military realm - will decline and US leverage will become more strained." Global power will be multipolar with the rise of India and China, and the Korean peninsula will be unified in some form. Turning to the current financial situation, the analysts say that the financial crisis on Wall Street is the beginning of a global economic rebalancing. The US dollar's role as the major world currency will weaken to the point where it becomes a "first among equals".

"Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments and technological innovation, but we cannot rule out a 19th-century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries." The report, based on a global survey of experts and trends, was more pessimistic about America's global status than previous outlooks prepared every four years. It said that outcomes will depend in part on the actions of political leaders. "The next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks," it said. The analysts also give warning that the kind of organised crime plaguing Russia could eventually take over the government of an Eastern or Central European country, and that countries in Africa and South Asia may find themselves ungoverned, as states wither away under pressure from security threats and diminishing resources..

The US intelligence community expects that terrorism would survive until 2025, but in slightly different form, suggesting that al Qaeda's "terrorist wave" might be breaking up. "Al Qaeda's inability to attract broad-based support might cause it to decay sooner than people think," it said. On a positive note it added that an alternative to oil might be in place by 2025.

[Wow… Even centuries suffer from deflation… It looks like the American ‘Century’ is going to last less than 50 years. Personally I think that this century belongs to the Chinese……]

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Guess what? Self-interest is bad for the economy

Simon Caulkin, The Observer management

Sunday November 16 2008

If you thought you felt the earth shudder on 23 October, you were right. When Alan Greenspan told the House Oversight Committee 'I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms', the effect was the same as Frodo and Sam casting the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom at the end of The Lord of the Rings: the edifice of 21st-century management shook to its foundations.

Self-interest as the driver that, like an invisible hand, permits individuals acting on their own behalf to benefit society as a whole goes back to Adam Smith. But Smith at least realised the drastic inequities it would cause and proposed measures, including progressive taxes, to mitigate the worst effects. No such caution has been in evidence since the 1960s as the concept has become the central belief around which all Anglo-American corporate governance, and thence management as a whole, revolves. Self-interest (and the need to guard against it) is the reason for dividing the chairman and chief executive's role, just as it is for setting executive and non-exec directors against each other; self-interest justifies and encourages individuals to demand vast pay (including in the public sector) without thought for the consequences; finally, a near religious faith in the power of self-interest to both motivate and police is the foundation on which, as Greenspan now regrets, Wall Street's rocket scientists erected the teetering superstructure of debt instruments crashing down around us.

The real-world consequences of a commercial universe with self-interest at its heart thus give the lie to previous assumptions about how individuals and organisations work. In this sense, Greenspan's mea culpa might be likened to the Vatican's admission in 1992 after a 13-year inquiry that Galileo had, after all, been right ('It's official - the Earth moves round the sun,' as the Chicago Sun-Times caustically put it at the time). Common sense suggests a number of reasons why self-interest-centred commerce is as flawed a model as an Earth-centred solar system. Self-interest contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. It drives for reward, but once rewards reach a certain size it can no longer function as a discipline. When rewards were less high, self-interest was tempered by the need to nurture the reputation a career depended on. With salaries at current stratospheric levels, however, self-interest provides no such restraint, since careers are redundant. Anyone who has done one big deal - or worked in the City for more than a few years - never need work again. Far from being a restraining influence, in these circumstances self-interest promotes a short-term focus on transactions that in turn amplifies its second baleful impact: increasing distrust. As anyone not blinded by fundamentalist zeal must see, the obverse of the coin of self-interest is lack of trust - and both are self-reinforcing. The swelling of self-interest is in direct proportion to the draining away of trust, the cumulative results of which are now visible all around us.

An interesting recent article in the science weekly Nature, signalled by a correspondent, laments how dependent economics is on unproven axioms, and how resistant to empirical observation. In the physical sciences, notes the (physicist and hedge-fund manager) author, researchers 'have learnt to be suspicious of axioms. If empirical observation is incompatible with a model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient'. Not so in economics, whose central tenets - rational agents, the invisible hand, efficient markets - derive from economic work done in the 1950s and 1960s, 'which with hindsight looks more like propaganda against communism than plausible science. In reality, markets are not efficient, humans tend to be over-focused on the short term and blind in the long term, and errors get multiplied, ultimately leading to collective irrationality, panic and crashes. Free markets are wild markets' - for which classical economics has no framework of understanding.

In fact, it's even worse. It isn't just that, as the author points out, economics has been remarkably incapable of predicting or averting crises such as the present credit crunch; through the medium of management based on its faulty assumptions, it has actually helped to cause it. It's an error to think that management, or even economics, can ever be a 'hard' science, not least because of their self-fulfilling premises. That doesn't mean they are unworthy of study and understanding. On the contrary. But, as Greenspan sorrowfully acknowledges, the first step on that path is to bow to empirical observation and stop trying to prove the Earth is the centre of the universe.

[It would appear the greed is not good after all. Who would have possibly imagined that?]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Favourite Movies: Troy

This is certainly not a great film even in its own sword and sandal epic genre. Yet despite its many faults I have to admit that there are elements within the movie that I really liked. That being the case it just managed to nudge itself over the line to get my coveted Gold Award.

Now I haven’t read The Iliad – the Greek epic poem on which it was based – but I am aware enough of the story. In a nutshell the action takes place over 3000 years ago when King Agamemnon (played in rather over the top fashion by Brian Cox) is unifying Greece under his rule. His brother – Menelaus King of Sparta (played by Brendan Gleeson) – has just signed a peace treaty with the greatest city in the East, the legendary Troy. Unfortunately his new wife Helen has fallen in love with the Trojan prince Paris (played rather badly by Orlando Bloom) who steals her away to his home city thus sparking the Trojan War. Agamemnon puts together a huge armada of 1000 ships and sets sail to conquer the last remaining threat to his power. Of the 50,000 Greek soldiers he commands are heroes whose names have travelled down the ages – Ajax, Odysseus and the greatest warrior of the age Achilles (played by Brad Pitt).

It is the character of Achilles that sold me on this movie. Pitt, I thought, played him superbly. As I’ve said I haven’t read the original text so can’t comment on the accuracy of the characters portrayal but just loved the way it came across. Achilles was more than aware that he was the greatest warrior who had ever lived, who was undefeated and almost untouched in battle. Yet he was at the same time a deeply tragic figure who passionately hated his fate. He had a disregard for just about everything except that he was determined – driven even – to be remembered down the ages. At one point his mother told him that he had a choice between a long happy life with many children but ultimate obscurity or a short bloody life with eternal fame. Well, we all know which life he chose.

The other thing I liked very much about the film was Achilles’ fight with Hector (played competently by Eric Bana) outside Troy’s city walls which was quite superbly choreographed. I do remember though that at this point in the legend that Paris shot an arrow from the battlements which hit Achilles in his only vulnerable spot (his heel of course). The filmed however added a love story between Achilles and Briseis (played by the delightful Rose Byrne) which meant that the death of Achilles was delayed until after Troy fell care of the infamous Trojan horse.

Of course there was many things wrong with the film but they didn’t really add up to very much in my view. I do know people who took an instant dislike to the film – especially with its truncated timeline but textual accuracy has never really been a Hollywood priority. Whilst being far from a perfect film or even a great one Troy is still entertaining enough but it is the central character of Achilles that pushes this film into my favourite category. OK, only just but it still counts.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: RAMA Revealed by Arthur C Clarke and Gentry Lee.

I read the first book in this long running trilogy – Rendezvous with RAMA – in my youth and was suitably impressed. I don’t actually remember much about the sequel except for the fact that I read it some years back. So after reading a string of modern novels by (fairly) new authors I thought I’d pick up a book that has been literally collecting dust and finish the series off.

The book started off slowly and laid some foundations regarding the human occupation of the alien construct known as RAMA. Slowly it built characters and situations and introduced new elements. Slowly it expanded the exploration of the giant cylinder and its many strange inhabitants. I did feel on more than one occasion a bit like I did while watching the first Star Trek movie. The characters in that less than shining example of the genre seemed to spend most of their time gaping at the special effects as if to pass on their amazement to the audience. Well, it didn’t work in the movie and it didn’t work here either. As amazing as the object was and as amazing as the many creatures encountered in the first 214 pages were (that is as far as I got, not being able to work up enough enthusiasm to read the other 263) I was quite frankly bored senseless by the glacial pace of this novel. Although it contained fairly interesting characters, after 10 days of reading – yes at a mere 21 pages a day – I honestly couldn’t care if they lived or died, nor did I care if RAMA arrived at its final destination nor if the secret of the alien ship was finally revealed. After 10 turgid days I was about the give up the will to live – but instead I decided to give up on this book. This is a very rare event indeed. I have criticised bad books in the past on this blog but have at least finished them. Not so with this poor excuse for Science Fiction. Sorry Arthur, but as much as I have enjoyed your work in the past this was a true stinker of a novel. At least I had the good sense to abandon it now rather than struggle with it for another week or more. A truly awful book.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Now He Must Declare That the War on Terror Is Over

Friday, November 7, 2008 by Jonathan Steele for The Guardian

A day of joy but also another day of horror. Even as American voters were giving the world the man whom opinion polls showed to be the overwhelming favourite in almost every country, his predecessor's terrible legacy was already crowding in on the president-elect. Twenty-three children and 10 women died in the latest US air strike in Afghanistan, a failed war on terror that has only brought worse terror in its wake. In Iraq, explosions killed 13 people. Obama's stand against an unpopular war was the bedrock of his success on Tuesday, even though the financial meltdown sealed his victory. Now he must make good on his promises of withdrawal.

On Iran, the last of the toughest three issues in his foreign in-tray, his line differed sharply from McCain's. In contrast to the Republican's call to "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran", Obama offered dialogue. Though he qualified his initial talk of having the president sit down with his Iranian counterpart, he remains wedded to engagement rather than boycott. In this arc of conflict - Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - Obama's approach is preferable to Bush's or McCain's. The century-old paradigm of Republicans as the party of realism and the Democrats as the party of ideologues was turned upside down by the neocons. Bush led an administration of crusaders and took the country to disaster. Obama offers a return to traditional diplomacy. Nevertheless, his position contains massive inconsistencies. While his instincts are cautious and pragmatic, he has not repudiated the war on terror. Rather, he insists that by focusing excessively on Iraq, the Bush administration "took its eye off the ball". The real target must be Afghanistan and if Osama bin Laden is spotted in Pakistan, bombing must be used there too. This is a cul-de-sac. If the most important single thing that Obama should do quickly is to announce the immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay, the corollary has to be a declaration that the war on terror is over. Accept that terrorism is a technique. It is not an ideology. The west faces no global enemy, no worldwide Islamofascist conspiracy. Foreign crises should be treated on a case-by-case basis. Their roots lie in the complex interplay of local tensions, social grievances, economic inequalities, unemployment, food and water shortages and cultural prejudice that plagues so many countries. If fundamentalists of this ideology or that religion try to exploit that, they only scratch the surface. Don't hand them the gift of overreaction.

In Afghanistan that means separating the issue of the Taliban from that of al-Qaida. Nato's tentative new policy of talking to the Taliban should be expanded, so that foreign troops can be withdrawn from the south. The trend should be to bring troops out, not send more in. Erratic air strikes only enrage the population and foster the Pashtun resistance that is the foundation of the Taliban's support. Similarly in Pakistan Obama should forge stronger ties to the new government and give it funds to bring development to the North-West Frontier Province. Let Pakistani politicians take the lead in working with tribal authorities. In Iraq the contradictions in Obama's policy centre on his plans to keep a "residual force". His promise to withdraw all combat troops by June 2010 will be welcomed by a majority in Iraq's parliament, which has been refusing to accept Bush's draft agreement, partly in the expectation that Obama would offer terms that better respected Iraq's sovereignty. But what does Obama mean by a residual force? He says it would hunt al-Qaida militants, protect the vast US embassy, and train the Iraqi army. Officials on his team say it could number as many as 50,000 troops. Even if much of this force remains on bases and is barely visible to Iraqi civilians (much as the 4,500 British at Basra airfield are), it cannot avoid symbolising the fact that the occupation continues. Obama should seize the opportunity to withdraw the US from Iraq with dignity. Only a total pull-out can remove the anger over the US occupation felt by most Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will resist this. They will tell Obama that a US retreat hands victory to a resurgent Iran and Shias everywhere. But it is not a US withdrawal that will help Iran. Bush's war has already done that, since it was bound to empower Iraq's majority community. The best way to prevent Iran's strong relationship with the government in Baghdad from becoming a regional threat is for the US to engage with Iran and forge a new relationship. Of course, that is easier said than done. By coincidence, American voters elected Obama on the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. American attitudes are still distorted by feelings of anger, humiliation and revenge going back 29 years. Iranian leaders are also wary, assuming reasonably enough that Bush was bent on "regime change" and Obama's softer policy may contain the same sting. In his anniversary speech, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the hostage seizure, as usual, as a blow against "global arrogance" - the shorthand now used for the US instead of the "Great Satan". But Khamenei raised the stakes by insisting the US must apologise for Bush's efforts to undermine Iran. He attacked what he called "the various plots the US government has hatched against Iran for the past five years". "Americans have not only refused to apologise for their acts but have also continued with their hegemony," he continued. "We are for safeguarding our identity, independence and dignity."

Nevertheless, most analysts in Tehran believe Iranian politicians want a new start. "The only opponents of dialogue with the US are hardliners in the conservative camp," Dr Hossein Adeli, a former ambassador in London who heads the Ravand thinktank, told me last week. "They're scattered among various factions. The mainstream of the conservatives favour dialogue with the US, as long as they conduct it themselves. Only if the reformist were running the dialogue might the conservatives oppose it." In spite of his preference for dialogue, Obama refers to Iran's government as a "regime", and calls it "a threat to all of us". He also favours sanctions as long as Iran fails to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. Nor has he ruled out military action. But Iranians say the basis for compromise exists. The challenge for Obama is to show the world whether he is ready to offer Tehran a grand bargain rather than a big bang.

[Even with Obama in the Whitehouse next year I do wonder how much American foreign policy will change – or can change. I’m guessing that there will be somewhat less rattling of sabres but will the widespread targeting of suspected terrorists on ‘actionable intelligence’ via the medium of laser guided bombs and UAV launched missiles cease under his watch? Will the number of civilian casualties decline once Obama is in charge? I know much is expected of him, not just by Americans but by the rest of the world. But as much as I admire him – or at least what he says – I shall hold off on my full opinion until he shows us that he can back up his words with actions. I do hope that he can do so for everyone’s sake.]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Gunpowder Plot – Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now and it seemed an appropriate time to do so. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was the culmination of many months of planning and many years – indeed decades – of religious persecution. During the long reign of Elizabeth and the short reign of James I up to the historic events of late 1605 the minority Catholic population lived under an increasingly harsh Protestant regime. Non conformity to Protestantism resulted in fines and imprisonment as did the wearing of religious icons. Performing a Mass or importing religious artefacts could result in a particularly gruesome form of public execution. It was not a good time to be a devout Catholic.

But all of this seemed to be changing on the event of Elizabeth’s death. James had apparently offered the hand of reconciliation and tolerance to the Catholics in his new Kingdom. Unfortunately any hopes were quickly dashed and the full force of a theocratic police state was brought to bear on those outside the Protestant faith. Of course things had not been helped by the Pope excommunicating Elizabeth I and extolling her Catholic subjects – who where afterwards not subject to her but to the Pope – to rise up against their Sovereign. For real fear of armed insurrection the penalties levied on the Catholics were harsh indeed.

Thrown back on their own resources and with a growing feeling of desperation a small band of men decided that enough was enough. They decided that the only solution was the elimination of the King and his ministers in one awful spectacular. They would kill him and everyone around him on the state opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605. Of course, as every English schoolboy knows, events did not go as planned. Before the plot could come to its bloody fruition Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and the attempt to change English history unravelled.

Antonia Fraser in her very readable, if occasionally rather dry, book went into far more detail than I could have ever wished to know about the events surrounding this significant event in our nations history. I knew the basics but this book made me acutely aware of what it must have been like to have been a Catholic in the early 17th Century. I suppose this was all the more poignant from my perspective as, technically at least, I am a Catholic myself. It certainly made me feel more sympathetic than maybe I would have been if I were not ‘of that faith’. I couldn’t help wondering what I would have done if I had been in their rather troubled and undoubtedly painful shoes. Fraser most certainly brought home the plight of these clearly oppressed men and women who were in all honestly merely following their faith. Unfortunately for all concerned, the times and circumstances were against them. In some ways the Gunpowder Plot itself was inevitable given the level of oppression and the lack of viable alternatives. In other ways – as the author pointed out – it was a literally horrifying affront to the views of the time which contributed to the deaths of all involved and the backlash against the larger Catholic community.

In the final section Antonia Fraser mentioned, as if in passing, several facts that almost shocked me speechless. Apparently Catholics could not vote in local elections until 1797 nor could they vote in Parliamentary elections until 1829. That’s only 180 years ago! I couldn’t believe that ‘we’ – at this point I was identifying with the downtrodden minority religion - could not even exercise our democratic rights and duties until the early part of the 19th Century. So what must it have been like and what must it have felt like 220 years previously? I am still struggling to get my head around it. The things we do to each other in the name of religion never cease to amaze me. The sooner we turn our backs on it so much the better I think. History can teach us lessons for today. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 teaches us that oppression and discrimination breed violence and that desperate people in desperate times resort to desperate methods. It would appear that it is a lesson that many have forgotten.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Thinking About: Parenthood

There’s a good chance that I will never be a parent. Although I still think of myself as fairly young in the scheme of things I know that I’m not. Of course advanced age is no great barrier to becoming a father – especially in these days of pharmacological assistance – though I can’t help but question the wisdom of bringing a child into the world that you are unlikely to see into maturity. Then there is the ethical issue of bringing another mouth to feed to an already overcrowded and hungry world. I struggle with those who insist on producing child after child knowing that the quality of each successive child’s life will be lower than those that went before.

Of course the biggest stumbling block to me actually fathering any children is the lack of a partner. I have never exactly been successful with women and doubt if that’s going to change anytime soon. In some ways it would have been nice to have a few little Cyberkitten’s scampering around the house but in other ways I’m glad that fate had other things in mind for me. After all I have money in the bank and the ability to spend it on whatever I wish without the nagging voice (probably of my partner) telling me that food on the table and shoes on their feet is more important that a new 40” TV or the latest X-Box game. So being both single and childless does have some advantages.

But I do like kids – generally – and for some unfathomable reason most of them seem to like me. Probably it’s because I never really grew up together with the fact that I tend to treat everyone the same no matter what their age. Most of them I’m sure just think I’m weird but in an amusing ‘crazy uncle’ sort of way. It does amuse me when I get them to question their concept of adults. You can see them trying to fit me into their worldview and, often, failing. Maybe that’s why kids like me and women don’t? I’m difficult to pigeonhole. Well, it’s a good a theory as I can think of right now.

Luckily for me – in a strange sort of way – at least my genetic inheritance won’t die with me (and my brother who is as far as I know also childless) as my sister has managed to produce five healthy apparently normal children. As we’re both from the same side of the gene-pool her children will be carrying a fair few of my genes too. So all is not lost. It would still have been nice to have one of my own though or maybe two. Sometimes I think I would’ve been a good Dad but at other times I wonder just how much psychological damage I could have caused before they managed to escape the family home. Most of the people I know are examples of the walking wounded where families are concerned. I think I probably know no more than a handful of people who have described their upbringing as happy so maybe its best that I don’t add my fumbling attempts at parenting to the mix. I guess that I’ll just stay in my role of the weird uncle who swings by once a year distributing gifts. It’s probably safer for everyone that way [grin].

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Exoplanet circles 'normal star'

From the BBC

Monday, 15 September 2008

A planet has been pictured outside our Solar System which appears to be circling a star like our own Sun - a first in astronomy. Most of the potential exoplanets imaged to date have been seen orbiting brown dwarfs, which are dim - making it easier to detect companion objects. The new planet is huge, with a mass about eight times that of Jupiter. The Canadian team that obtained the picture says the parent star is similar to the Sun but somewhat younger.

Three astronomers from the University of Toronto used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to take images of the young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and the planetary candidate. The star and its companion lie about 500 light-years from Earth. "This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our Sun," said lead author David Lafreniere. "If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward."

The planet itself lies out at a great distance from its parent star: about 330 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. By comparison, the most distant planet in our Solar System, Neptune, orbits at about 30 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Dr Matt Burleigh, from the University of Leicester, UK, commented: "This is a very good candidate for a first picture of a planet orbiting a normal star. Now the team needs to make more observations to hopefully confirm that the two are moving together through space," he told BBC News. Finding a planetary-mass companion so far from its parent star came as a surprise to the astronomers, and poses a challenge to theories of star and planet formation.

The astronomers used adaptive optics technology to reduce the distortions to the image caused by turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere. The near-infrared images and spectra of the planetary candidate indicate that it is too cool to be a star or a brown dwarf - a failed star. It may take about two years to confirm that the star and its probable planet are moving through space together. The object is about 1,500C (1,800 Kelvin) - much hotter than Jupiter, which it resembles in terms of size. The work that led to this discovery is part of a survey of more than 85 stars in the Upper Scorpius association - a group of young stars formed about five million years ago.

[It sounds like a rather bizarre planet but there might be smaller planets closer in and somewhat cooler… maybe with liquid water and blue skies….. Maybe……]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

May 1941. Eric DeHann, Captain of the tramp steamer Noordendam wants to fight for his native Holland but failed to do so before his country was over-run by German forces. But now he is offered the chance to serve in another capacity. Approached by the British his ship is hired to deliver a contingent of commando troops onto enemy occupied Europe. When things don’t go quite as smoothly as expected Captain DeHann leads the surviving assault team back to his ship and safety. So begins the adventures of the Noordendam and her alter ego the Santa Rosa on missions in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas.

Whilst not Furst’s best book to date, this is still an exciting and vivid 2nd World War spy novel. Along with his signature attention to detail and a remarkable feel for time and place the author dazzles with an amazing array of characters – some drawn in a few words and gone in a few pages, others with a rich and deep background full of tragic detail and unfulfilled hopes. As always I was delighted by the seemingly pointless moments of random death and senseless survival. It is the meaninglessness of events that ring totally true. Events are often completely outside the power of the central characters to change or even understand. It is the very nature of the conflict they are involved in that is chaotic. Things happen without rhyme or reason because that’s how things are. Characters meet and part without establishing any real understanding between them yet they often cling to each other in the hope of arriving at some meaning to what is happening around them. It feels as if it must have been like this in the war. Events almost too big to comprehend, and often ignored because of that, help to shape the lives of people caught up in those events. They are not to be understood just lived through. Each character has their strategies for survival. Some work and some do not. But it is not the skill of the strategies that determine the outcome of their lives but, seemingly, fate itself.

Furst writes thoughtful and compelling tales of often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Often troubled and deeply flawed these characters portray a variety of responses from the entire human spectrum. Identification with aspects of each character is inevitable which draws the reader into situations where you cannot but ask yourself “What would I have done here?” It’s quite staggering how much the lives in his books haunt you for weeks – even months – afterwards as if you are remembering stories of people you knew. Needless to say I really enjoyed this book. I don’t like reading him too often because I always want one of his books on hand just in case I feel in the need for a sure fire excellent read. If you like a good spy novel or just an excellent character driven story I can heartedly recommend this one – or indeed any book by Alan Furst.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Remember, Remember.....

The 5th of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I know of no reason
why Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.


Freedom Forever.
There is hope....

Monday, November 03, 2008

My Favourite TV: Babylon 5

I was off work ill for a week a little while ago with a nasty bug that’s ‘doing the rounds’ and was so sick that I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read much. As daytime TV is universally terrible and most movies would have demanded more attention than I could give them I turned to my trusty collection of TV box sets. What should draw my eye but the first 4 seasons of the SF series Babylon 5 (the less said about season 5 the better I think). So I ended up watching the complete season 1 box set and then started on edited highlights of season 2. By now I’m about half way through season 3 but have the excuse that I’m much better and other things are competing for my time.

Anyway, some of you may be thinking “What the heck is Babylon 5?” Basically it was a long running sci-fi series which aired between 1994-1998 for a total of 110 episodes also generating several spin-off movies and a spin-off series (or two). It revolved (no pun intended) around a large space-station – the Babylon 5 of the title – “in the middle of neutral territory” and took place “ten years after the Earth-Minbari war”. It’s a bit too complex to summarise in a few paragraphs but basically it contained lots of alien species, lots of fighting, some definitely larger than life characters and some very decent writing. The SFX were very special indeed for their time and budget and it was at times honestly gripping.

By far the best thing about this series where the characters involved. They were complex, often flawed beings who made mistakes and suffered to live with them. They fell in love, fought, died, and did all the things we would expect great heroes and villains to do. No one was irremediably bad or too good to be true. They all had depth and some of them – I’m thinking about G’Kar here played superbly by Andreas Katsulas – had a character that I just adored which isn’t bad for a reptile! Then there was the ever wonderful – unless you got on the wrong side of her – Susan Ivanova played by the beautiful and talented Claudia Christian and not forgetting the clown of the piece the deeply flawed and troubled Londo Mollari played to perfection by Peter Jurasik. This was a series written by someone who had a real feel for SF – unlike another series I could mention – which knew the themes and played with them. Of course sometimes what it produced was fairly naff but out of 110 episodes damned few fell into that category. Lastly was of course the Vorlon Kosh. I must admit that I didn’t like the idea of him/it coming out of its ‘encounter suit’ and being… well, I don’t want to give away any secrets to those who haven’t seen it. Suffice it to say that I would’ve preferred him/it to keep its clothes on. There are far too many (largely) secondary characters to mention most of whom I liked to some extent or another. The only character I never did get on with was Dr Stephen Franklin played by Richard Biggs. Despite what I said earlier he really was a little too good to be true.

If you haven’t seen this before and want to immerse yourself in a long running, intelligent and well executed TV space opera you could do a lot worse than this. It was for a time there reason to stay in, not answer the door and take the phone off the hook. Some of the best TV of the mid to late 90’s.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Global Military Spending Soars 45 Percent in 10 Years

by Agence France Presse

Monday, June 9, 2008

STOCKHOLM - World military spending grew 45 percent in the past decade, with the United States accounting for nearly half of all expenditures, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said Monday. Military spending grew six percent last year alone, according to SIPRI’s annual report. In 2007, 1,339 billion dollars (851 billion euros) was spent on arms and other military expenditures, corresponding to 2.5 percent of global gross domestic product, or GDP, and 202 dollars for each of the world’s 6.6 billion people. The United States spends by far the most towards military aims, dishing out 547 billion dollars last year, or 45 percent of global expenditure.

Britain, China, France and Japan — the next in line of big spenders — lag far behind, accounting for just four to five percent of world military costs each. “The factors driving increases in world military spending include countries’ foreign policy objectives, real or perceived threats, armed conflict and policies to contribute to multilateral peacekeeping operations, combined with the availability of economic resources,” the SIPRI report said. Registering the greatest regional growth was Eastern Europe, which saw its military spending skyrocket 162 percent between 1998 and 2007 and 15 percent from 2006 to 2007. Russia, whose expenditures ballooned 13 percent last year, was responsible for 86 percent of the growth in the region, according to SIPRI.

North America meanwhile saw its military spending swell 65 percent, largely driven by the United States, which has seen its costs grow 59 percent since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. “By 2007, US spending was higher than at any time since World War II,” the SIPRI report said. In the past decade, the Middle East has boosted military expenditures by 62 percent, South Asia by 57 percent and Africa and East Asia by 51 percent each. Western Europe was the region with the least military spending growth at just six percent, followed by Central America at 14 percent.

At a national level, “China has increased its military spending threefold in real terms during the past decade,” SIPRI said, adding however that “due to its rapid economic growth, the economic burden of military spending is still moderate, at 2.1 percent of GDP”. As a direct result of the increased military outlay, sales by the world’s 100 leading arms producing companies (excluding in China) jumped nearly nine percent in 2006 compared to the year before to 315 billion dollars, SIPRI said.

Sixty-three of the 100 top weapons firms are based in the United States and Western Europe, accounting alone for 292.3 billion dollars in sales in 2006, the last year for which SIPRI has numbers.

[It would seem that no matter the economic situation there is always room for more military spending. It is also good to see the US helping so many people defend their right to kill other people by selling them the guns to do so - whilst at the same time making the world a much safer place to live in. Who said that the free market should stay out of the war business – because business is GOOD.]

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Dates from Hell by Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands, Kelly Armstrong & Lori Handeland

This was a small collection of four urban fantasy novellas around a common theme – that of dating. Although not exactly my normal reading – except for the urban fantasy part – I thought I’d give it a try. Unfortunately it really wasn’t really worth the effort. The first novella Undead in the Garden of Good and Evil by Kim Harrison revolved around the sexual politics of vampires – rather strangely split into the living, dead and undead varieties – with which they manipulated each other to get ahead in various organisations. It had its moments and the characterisation was OK but that’s about as far as it went. The next novella The Claire Switch Project by Lynsay Sands was just plain bad and I do mean bad. The story – such as it was – started in a lab where a group of scientists were working on a way to transmute living tissue. When a woman scientist – the eponymous Claire – is exposed to the changing rays she finds that she can assume the likeness of anyone she sees. Taking advantage of the fact her best friend proposes that Claire become her ‘date’ at her High school reunion – but as a world famous movie star. You can imagine the rest. Third was by far the best of the bunch Chaotic by Kelly Armstrong. Here a part demon reporter hunts down criminal supernaturals on behalf of the ruling Council. However, on her latest mission she discovers that she’s really working for an evil cabal and the man (actually a werewolf) she’s just caught isn’t as bad as she thinks he is. Finally we have Dead man Dating by Lori Handeland which was a post 9/11 tale of demons and the end of the world. Again a rather poorly told story with cut-out characters and little attention to plot.

Finally a warning for those amongst you who are a little faint hearted. This book does contain quite a lot of sexual content so beware – or enjoy! Other than that I recommend you avoid this particular book.