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

Monday, June 30, 2008


Just Finished Reading: The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

Tuscany in 1958. Final year student Adam Strickland has been recommended by his Professor to study the garden of the Docci family villa just outside Florence. Built 400 years previously during the Renaissance it quickly becomes apparent to Adam that its design is much more than it seems. Slowly he unravels the symbolism to discover a crime hidden for centuries. But there is another more recent event that he has also uncovered. A death of a Docci family member who was apparently killed by the retreating German army less than fifteen years previously – an event still raw and emotionally charged. At the centre of everything is the young and beautiful Antonella. Is she the key to everything or the means of Adams demise? It’s going to be an interesting summer if Adam can survive it.

I actually picked this book up in my local supermarket on impulse. It looked different and interesting so I thought I’d give it a go. It certainly didn’t disappoint. This is only the authors’ second book but shows a very good grasp of character, tension and mystery. The garden theme was used in an intriguing way to both uncover an ancient and a modern mystery simultaneously. The character interactions were pretty flawless even if some of them initially seemed to be stock characters designed purely to move the storyline on or to frustrate the protagonist in his quest. The garden – almost a character in itself – is central to the plot and is wonderfully rendered. If it doesn’t exist (which I suspect it doesn’t) then it should! This was a wonderful read – one of those books that are painful to put down. I read it slowly both to savour the excellent writing and to put off the inevitable ending. Mills will certainly be going on my ‘to read more’ list. I highly recommend it.

Oh, has anyone else noticed how (lately at least) that I appear to be enjoying non-SF a whole lot more than my SF/Fantasy books lately? Maybe, after 34 years, I finally am getting bored with Science Fiction. I do hope not. I have many, many SF books sitting in the ‘pile-o-books’ waiting to be read [laughs].

Saturday, June 28, 2008

HUBBLE finds Extrasolar planets far across Galaxy

From NASA

Oct. 4, 2006

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered 16 extrasolar planet candidates orbiting a variety of distant stars in the central region of our Milky Way galaxy. The planet bonanza was uncovered during a Hubble survey called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). Hubble looked farther than has ever successfully been searched before for extrasolar planets. Hubble peered at 180,000 stars in the crowded central bulge of our galaxy 26,000 light-years away. That is one-quarter the diameter of the Milky Way's spiral disk.

This tally is consistent with the number of planets expected to be uncovered from such a distant survey, based on previous exoplanet detections made in our local solar neighborhood. Hubble's narrow view covered a swath of sky no bigger in angular size than two percent the area of the full moon. When extrapolated to the entire galaxy, Hubble's data provides strong evidence for the existence of approximately six billion Jupiter-sized planets in the Milky Way.

Five of the newly discovered planets represent a new extreme type of planet not found in any nearby searches. Dubbed Ultra-Short-Period Planets (USPPs), these worlds whirl around their stars in less than one Earth day. "Discovering the very short-period planets was a big surprise," said team leader Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore. "Our discovery also gives very strong evidence that planets are as abundant in other parts of the galaxy as they are in our solar neighborhood."

Hubble could not directly view the 16 newly found planet candidates. Astronomers used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to search for planets by measuring the slight dimming of a star due to the passage of a planet in front of it, an event called a transit. The planet would have to be about the size of Jupiter to block enough starlight, about one to 10 percent, to be measurable by Hubble.

The planets are called candidates, because astronomers could only obtain follow-up mass measurements for two of them due to the distance and faintness of these systems. Following an exhaustive analysis, the team ruled out alternative explanations such as a grazing transit by a stellar companion that could mimic the predicted signature of a true planet. The finding could more than double the number of planets spied with the transit technique to date. There is a tendency for the planet candidates to revolve around stars more abundant in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, such as carbon. This supports theories that stars rich in heavy elements have the necessary ingredients to form planets.

The planet candidate with the shortest orbital period, named SWEEPS-10, swings around its star in 10 hours. Located only 740,000 miles from its star, the planet is among the hottest ever detected. It has an estimated temperature of approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. "This star-hugging planet must be at least 1.6 times the mass of Jupiter, otherwise the star's gravitational muscle would pull it apart," said SWEEPS team member Mario Livio. "The star's low temperature allows the planet to survive so near to the star."

"Ultra-Short-Period Planets seem to occur preferentially around normal red dwarf stars that are smaller and cooler than our sun," Sahu explained. "The apparent absence of USPPs around sun-like stars in our local neighborhood indicates that they might have evaporated away when they migrated too close to a hotter star."

There is an alternative reason why Jupiter-like planets around cooler stars may migrate in closer to the star than such planets around hotter stars. The circumstellar disk of gas and dust out of which they formed extends in closer to a cooler star. Since the discovery of the first "hot Jupiter" around another star in 1995, astronomers have realized this unusual type of massive planet must have spiraled in close to its parent star from a more distant location where it must have formed. The inner edge of a circumstellar disk halts the migration.

Planetary transits occur only when the planet's orbit is viewed nearly edge-on. However, only about 10 percent of hot Jupiters have edge-on orbits that allow the planet to be observed transiting a star. To be successful, transit surveys must view a large number of stars at once. The SWEEPS transit survey covered a rich field of stars in the Sagittarius Window. The term "window" implies a clear view into the galactic center, but much of the galactic plane is obscured by dust. Hubble monitored 180,000 stars for periodic, brief dimming in a star's brightness. The star field was observed over a continuous seven-day period Feb. 23-29, 2004.

To ensure the dimming was caused by an object orbiting a star, the team used Hubble to detect from two to 15 consecutive transits for each of the 16 planet candidates. Two stars in the field are bright enough that the SWEEPS team could make an independent confirmation of a planet's presence by spectroscopically measuring a slight wobble in the star's motion due to the gravitational pull of an unseen companion. They used the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, located on Mount Paranal in Chile, to measure a slight wobble in the star.

One of the planetary candidates has a mass below the detection limit of 3.8 Jupiter masses. The other candidate is 9.7 Jupiter masses, which is below the minimum mass of 13 Jupiter masses for a brown dwarf. A brown dwarf is an object that forms like a star but does not have enough mass to shine by nuclear fusion. Since the stars are so faint and the field of view is so densely packed with stars, measuring the slight wobble in the star's motion using spectroscopy to confirm most of the planet candidates is not feasible. Future telescopes such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will provide the needed sensitivity to confirm most of the planet candidates.

The Hubble SWEEPS program is an important proof-of-concept for NASA's future Kepler Mission, scheduled for launch in 2008. The Kepler observatory will continuously monitor a region of the Milky Way galaxy to detect transiting planets around mostly distant stars. Kepler will be sensitive enough to detect possibly hundreds of Earth-size planet candidates in or near the habitable zone, the distance from a star where liquid water could feasibly exist on a planet's surface.

[So, there could be six billion Jupiter sized planets in this Galaxy alone. That's a lot of planets. It's probable that systems with Jupiter sized planets have smaller Earth sized planets too - some of which will reside in the habitable zone where liquid water exists. That could mean millions of life bearing planets - in this Galaxy alone. I thin k that the odds for life elsewhere just went up - don't you?]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Rousseau’s Dog – Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds & John Eidinow

It quickly became apparent on reading this historical work that the dog referred to in the title had a double meaning – that of Rousseau’s faithful companion Sultan and the fact that Rousseau suffered from the darkest depressions. It also became apparent that the ‘war’ alluded to in the sub-title was nothing of the sort. The actual conflict – between Rousseau and the Scottish philosopher David Hume - was more of a spat, conducted in public, over a simple misunderstanding. Fought in the press and through letters to friends both in London and Paris the argument – such as it was – became a momentary sensation and distraction to the intellectual elites of both great cities of Enlightenment Europe.

Though interesting enough from an historical point of view the authors rarely touched on the philosophy of either Hume or Rousseau (which disappointed me slightly) but did throw a great deal of light of Rousseau’s character and the many flaws in contained. Clearly the man was very ill indeed and I couldn’t help wondering what would have been the consequence for philosophy and politics if Rousseau could have been cured by the judicious use of chemicals. Would we have lost a great mind or gained one of even superior genius?

This was an enjoyable enough read – if more than a little disappointing – and, I think, should be read as a historical study rather than a philosophical one. Offering interesting insights into the character of both Hume and especially Rousseau it should really be read as a study of the times rather than a study of the gentlemen involved. An informative piece of background reading, but little more than that I’m afraid.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bad guys really do get the most girls

New Scientist

18 June 2008

NICE guys knew it, now two studies have confirmed it: bad boys get the most girls. The finding may help explain why a nasty suite of antisocial personality traits known as the "dark triad" persists in the human population, despite their potentially grave cultural costs. The traits are the self-obsession of narcissism; the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behaviour of psychopaths; and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism. At their extreme, these traits would be highly detrimental for life in traditional human societies. People with these personalities risk being shunned by others and shut out of relationships, leaving them without a mate, hungry and vulnerable to predators.

But being just slightly evil could have an upside: a prolific sex life, says Peter Jonason at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "We have some evidence that the three traits are really the same thing and may represent a successful evolutionary strategy." Jonason and his colleagues subjected 200 college students to personality tests designed to rank them for each of the dark triad traits. They also asked about their attitudes to sexual relationships and about their sex lives, including how many partners they'd had and whether they were seeking brief affairs. “High 'dark triad' scorers are more likely to try to poach other people's partners for a brief affair”The study found that those who scored higher on the dark triad personality traits tended to have more partners and more desire for short-term relationships, Jonason reported at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this month. But the correlation only held in males.

James Bond epitomises this set of traits, Jonason says. "He's clearly disagreeable, very extroverted and likes trying new things - killing people, new women." Just as Bond seduces woman after woman, people with dark triad traits may be more successful with a quantity-style or shotgun approach to reproduction, even if they don't stick around for parenting. "The strategy seems to have worked. We still have these traits," Jonason says. This observation seems to hold across cultures. David Schmitt of Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, presented preliminary results at the same meeting from a survey of more than 35,000 people in 57 countries. He found a similar link between the dark triad and reproductive success in men. "It is universal across cultures for high dark triad scorers to be more active in short-term mating," Schmitt says. "They are more likely to try and poach other people's partners for a brief affair."

Barbara Oakley of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, says that the studies "verify something a lot of people have conjectured about". Christopher von Rueden of the University of California at Santa Barbara says that the studies are important because they confirm that personality variation has direct fitness consequences. "They still have to explain why it hasn't spread to everyone," says Matthew Keller of the University of Colorado in Boulder. "There must be some cost of the traits." One possibility, both Keller and Jonason suggest, is that the strategy is most successful when dark triad personalities are rare. Otherwise, others would become more wary and guarded.

[Ha! I always knew that women liked bastards. Now we have scientific proof! I guess that I’m just too nice for my own evolutionary good – laughs]

Friday, June 20, 2008

I've been Tagged....

... by Stardust over @ Stardust Musings. Here's my response.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

Basically a lack of belief in the existence of God. Some people go further and actually dispute His existence – as I do myself from time to time – but it’s a much harder position to hold and defend. Atheism is a sceptical response to the God question. Nothing more.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

My parents are (or where in my Dads case) Catholics – at least nominally. I was baptised into the faith so basically if Heaven does exist I’m a shoe-in as long as I die in a state of grace. Saying that, neither of my parents has ever professed any faith position as far as I know. I had little exposure to religion in general or Catholicism in particular during my childhood. Indeed my parents insisted that I attend CofE schools (Protestant) rather than the Catholic equivalent – for which I will be eternally grateful.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

Laughable.

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Science in general excites me. But in particular there’s Space exploration (not enough of that going on), AI & Robotics, Genetic engineering, and Alternative power sources.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

I don’t think that there is an ‘atheist community’ at least not on this side of The Pond. Over here, as far as I can tell, people are either Agnostic, Atheists or completely indifferent to Religion. Very few people I know profess to have any religious faith. I don’t think we atheists need a community being by nature rather individualistic.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

Laughter – assuming that s/he was winding her old man up…


Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

I like the classic – “Where do morals come from”? – as if we don’t have thousands of years of cultural history behind us! Morality, I tell theists, is a cultural construct that has developed in particular places over long periods of time. This culture is passed on to new members of that society in the same way all other such constructs are. This is why morality varies with time and between cultures. There is no objective morality. My own morals are an amalgam of my culture, my upbringing, my schooling, my peer group, my life experience and my genes.


Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I’m not sure if there are ‘general attitudes amongst atheists’. Anyway, I am anti-monarchist and think we should become a Republic, that the State should have nothing whatsoever to do with Religion and that people should have to pass some kind of test before they are allowed to have children…. Have I reached ‘controversial yet?


Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I like Dawkins very much though I found The God Delusion rather boring, I find Dennett difficult to read though he speaks well, I don’t like Hitchens as a person but he does write well and I enjoyed Harris’s book The End of Faith. I’d have to go with Dawkins – but only for his Evolution books.


Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I’m not in the business of de-converting anyone. If someone loses their faith because of debating with me I’d think that their faith was pretty weak to begin with. I’m not even sure if it’s at all possible to convince anyone that their faith position is wrong. Faith is not amenable to reason. If it was there would be a lot more atheists about I’m sure.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Foreign Legions created by David Drake

A ‘lost’ Legion of Rome fighting on alien worlds, an armada of 14th century knights and men at arms snatched from a deadly storm to do likewise…. Alien abductions are real and have been occurring throughout our history – just not for the reasons usually mentioned (just what is it with those anal probes?). The truth is that factions within an intergalactic trading empire are fighting for supremacy amongst the stars. The only rule is that they cannot use superior technology to conquer primitive species. Enter the Roman Legion apparently destroyed in Partia. Fielded on alien worlds they become an invincible fighting force with hundreds of years of combat experience. Controlled by fear and ignorance the ‘commanders’ singularly underestimate their native cunning until the moment comes when they strike back. Once in control of an alien ship the Romans quickly realise that they have a far greater empire to carve out than any Emperor ever dreamt of.

Starting with the classic Ranks of Bronze by David Drake this was a collection of short stories and novellas based in the universe Drake created. Almost uniformly entertaining this was a good collection of slightly odd combat SF stories by David Weber, S M Stirling, Eric Flint and others. It was actually a nice change of pace from ‘death rays’ and orbital bombardments to read about aliens being sliced & diced by Roman swords and English longbows. The final story was rather silly but had some nice touches – such as retro-fitted battleships taking part in space battles against an alien invasion fleet. But if you can get past things like this I’m sure you’d enjoy this bit of light reading. Enjoyable if not exactly mind bending stuff.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

US Military’s Middle East Crusade for Christ

by Robert Weitzel for CommonDreams.org

Monday, June 9, 2008

“They are proselytizing not on behalf of the Constitution of the United States . . . but rather on behalf of some sort of fanatical view of end times. And they are using our army to affect that.” -Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson

Last August the watchdog group Military Religious Freedom Foundation foiled a Pentagon plan that would have allowed the shipment of “freedom packages” to soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The parcels were put together by the fundamentalist Christian ministry, Straight Up, and contained Bibles, proselytizing tracts in English and Arabic, and the apocalyptic “Left Behind” computer game, in which Christian Tribulation forces convert or kill infidels-nonbelievers, Muslims and Jews. On May 1 the Senate approved the promotion of Brigadier General Robert L. Caslen Jr. to Major General. Currently the commandant of cadets at West Point, he will become the commander of the 25th Infantry Division. He is also president of the stridently fundamentalist Officer’s Christian Fellowship, whose vision is a “spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform, empowered by the Holy Spirit.”

General Caslen was promoted despite the Defense Department’s recommended disciplinary action against him and several other senior military leaders because they had “improperly endorsed and participated with a nonfederal entity while in uniform” by participating in a promotional video for the Campus Crusade For Christ’s Christian Embassy, an evangelical organization that ministers to Beltway politicians and sponsors weekly Bible studies at the Pentagon. According to the DoD Inspector General’s report, one of the generals involved “asserted that Christian Embassy was treated as an instrumentality of the Pentagon Chaplain’s office for over 25 years, and had effectively become a ‘quasi federal entity.’” Arguably, he believed his participation in the video was in the line of duty. Considering both the Pentagon’s evangelical proclivity and a 2006Pew survey which found that of the major religious groups in America, evangelicals have the most negative views of Islam and Muslims, the U.S. sniper who was recently caught using the Quran for target practice in the Baghdad neighborhood of Radhwaniya might be excused for thinking the book was a legitimate target upon which to perfect his craft . . . excused for thinking he was acting in the line duty.

And is it any wonder that with evangelicals and fundamentalists at the very top of the military’s officer corps — to say nothing of their Commander in Chief — that an enlisted Marine was passing out Christian “witnessing coins” inscribed in Arabic at a checkpoint in Fallujah? One side of the coin asked, “Where will you spend eternity?” An evangelical favorite, John 3:16, was on the flip side.Sheik Adul-Rahman al-Zubaie, a tribal leader in Fallujah who was outraged by the Marine’s proselytizing said, “This event did not happen by chance, but it was planned and done intentionally.” While the Marine’s proselytizing is not the official policy of the predominately Christian force occupying the predominately Islamic Iraq, it was done “in the line of duty” with a wink and a nod from his chain of command. Think Abu Ghraib! From Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest basic training facility, where trainees are encouraged to attend Campus Crusade’s weekly “God’s Basic Training” programs, to the U.S. Air Force Academy where students are pressured to attend the Crusade’s weekly “cru” (short for crusade) Bible study, American military personnel are, as Campus Crusade’s Scot Blom gloats, “government paid missionaries” when they complete their training.

As the demands of fighting a perpetual war against “radical Islam” begins to strain both the military’s resources and the country’s resolve, the Pentagon has begun outsourcing larger chunks of the war to private contractors. Predictably, our “government paid missionaries” have become more expensive and much less controllable or accountable. The Bush administration’s favorite contractor, Blackwater, is the most powerful private army in the world. It commands thousands of mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, has over a billion dollars in government contracts, and enjoys complete immunity from prosecution for its theater of operations’ conduct. Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, a staunchly conservative Catholic, has also served on the board of directors of Christian Freedom International, a crusading missionary organization operating in the overwhelmingly Islamic countries of Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Prince envisions an evangelical “end time” role for his warriors: “Everybody carries guns, just like Jeremiah rebuilding the temple in Israel — a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.”

No one in the last decade has contributed more to end time, apocalyptic evangelism than John Hagee, a televangelist seen by millions of viewers weekly and pastor of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church. Hagee preaches that in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture of true believers, Islam first has to be destroyed. In a 2006 interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, Hagee told her, “Those who live by the Quran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews.” He went on to claim that there are 200 million Muslims waiting for the chance to attack Israel and the United States. From his pulpit, Hagee makes it clear to his congregation and the radio and television audience what they can expect from American Muslims if such an attack ever took place: “While American Muslims live in America, 82 percent are not loyal to America and are not willing to fight and defend America.” In his book, “Jerusalem Countdown - A Warning to the World,” Hagee warns that the war between Islam and the West “is a war that Islam cannot and must not win.”

John Hagee is not just a mad evangelizing prophet. He is the mad evangelizing prophet who is courted by a war president, a hawkish presidential candidate and members of Congress from both parties. His Islamophobic bile has trickled down from Capital Hill, through the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon, and into the chamber of a sniper’s rifle and the hand of a Marine guarding a checkpoint in Fallujah. Officers in the military are expected to lead by example. Enlisted personnel are expected to follow that example. If the recent incidents at Radhwaniya and Fallujah are not just the acts of renegades, then the chain of command seems to be working the way it was designed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

She'll be back.....

[Please click on the image to enhance your viewing pleasure.]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

'Nation of suspects' fear on DNA

From the BBC

24 February 2008

A DNA database containing details on all people in the UK would create a "nation of suspects", the Tories say. Shadow home secretary David Davis said allowing the state to hold profiles would be "incredibly intrusive" and called for an "effective" debate. A senior police officer has suggested a universal register, after two killers were convicted using DNA evidence. The Home Office has said ruled this out, saying it would raise "significant practical and ethical issues". Sally Anne Bowman's killer, Mark Dixie, and Suffolk serial murderer Steve Wright were both captured because their DNA was taken after unrelated offences.

Speaking on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show, Mr Davis said: "Do we want to turn Britain into a nation of suspects? We have always had a presumption in our law, our basis of freedom, that people are not guilty until found guilty." He said a universal database risked "changing the relationship between the ordinary citizen and the state". Mr Davis added: "The simple truth is that fingerprinting has been around a long time. There's never been a call for a fingerprinting database. The same argument applies that we are criminalising the whole population... DNA is an incredibly intrusive thing." He said there had to be a debate about making the use of DNA information "more effective but with the minimum intrusion to the liberties of the British citizen".

Meanwhile, former home secretary David Blunkett suggested the database could be extended on a voluntary basis. He told Sky News: "I don't think the government could possibly go snap and just say well let's move from those who have committed a crime or been arrested to the whole population. "I don't think in one go that is a feasible proposition, but I think actually saying to people you've got nothing to fear from this so long as we legislate to protect you." The Liberal Democrats have said the party is opposed to the idea of a national system, saying it did not "stack up on practical grounds".

The Association of Chief Police Officers is calling for a debate on whether to expand the current database - of DNA details taken from crime suspects - to cover all people in the UK. Wright was on the existing system after being convicted of theft in 2003, and when police found his DNA on the bodies of some of his victims they matched it with his profile. But Dixie was not on the system at the time of Sally Anne Bowman's murder in 2005. It was only when he was arrested for assault after a fight in a bar nine months later that his DNA was taken and he was linked to the murder. He was arrested within five hours. Det Supt Stuart Cundy, who led the murder hunt, said: "It is my opinion that a national DNA register - with all its appropriate safeguards - could have identified Sally Anne's murderer within 24 hours."

The DNA database, which covers England and Wales, currently contains around 4.5m profiles - routinely taken from criminal suspects after most arrests. It is already the largest of its kind in the world but is controversial. Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence - all but the most minor offences - has remained on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted. The existing register could be threatened when the European Court of Human Rights is asked to rule next week on a test case of two Britons who want their details removed from the database.

[You know, this New Labour government makes me so angry sometimes that I could almost bring myself to vote Tory – again. Almost…….]

Monday, June 09, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Shape of Things to Come by H. G. Wells.

Subtitled: A Prophetic Vision of the Future this book was definitely not what I imagined it would be. The cover illustration – on my edition (rather than the one pictured above) shows the giant gun & Raymond Massey as featured in the 1936 film directed by William Cameron Menzies. After seeing the film several times – worth a viewing if you haven’t already seen it – I fully expected that the book would follow the same plot. How wrong I was. It appears that Menzies took some of the essence of the book and really ran with it.

I wouldn’t classify the book itself as a work of fiction at all. It is a speculation from the point of view of citizens living in a World State in the Year 2105. Actually written in 1933 the first half was a criticism of the Western World up to that point – with particular emphasis on the fiasco of World War 1 and the apparent inevitability of another war. Somewhat prophetically Wells put the date of the next war at 1940 starting with an attack between Germany and Poland. After that, however, his speculation became more and more divergent with real historical events. Wells put forward the idea of massive air fleets - largely unopposed – dropping various forms of gas on civilian populations. This lead (rather inevitably it seems) to the collapse of civilisation and a descent into barbarism. Only the remaining technocrats had the vision, knowledge and resources to pull humanities collective assess out of the fire by imposing a World State on the shattered remnants after decades of fruitless war.

This is definitely not a light read and took me almost two weeks to finish – being almost 500 pages long didn’t help. There is a lot of discussion of the failings of both capitalism and democracy which may seem rather quaint and uninformed from our perspective 75 years after the book was published. There are also rather offensive comments regarding the role of women and non-Europeans (which is par for the course at the time but still irritates). The second half of the book is generally more interesting though somewhat far fetched as a reasonable speculation. The World State might indeed be possible but I had serious doubts throughout that it can be achieved in the ways outlined in this work. Though fairly interesting as an historical document I wouldn’t class it as one of Wells' best. One for Wells ‘completists’ only I think.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

My Favourite Movies: The Matrix

If I had to pick my all time favourite movie at gun point The Matrix would probably be it. I remember seeing it in a small(ish) city centre cinema, virtually on my own, one Saturday afternoon. Pretty much from the moment the music started – which still gives me goose-bumps every time I hear it – I was totally hooked. The opening scene where Trinity (played by the coldly beautiful Carrie-Anne Moss) escaped from a group of police and Agents of the System (headed up by the marvellous Hugo Weaving) made my jaw repeatedly hit the floor. I was, literally, stunned by the whole thing.

I did have some issues with the casting of Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson/Neo. There were times that his acting bordered on the very wooden indeed but, fortunately, he did improve as the movie progressed. By far the best actors in the movie were Hugo Weaving as the now iconic Agent Smith and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus ‘considered by some to be the most dangerous man alive’. Anderson, whose hacker alias is Neo (The One), is, unknown to himself, being searched for the very man he is looking for. Morpheus considers him to be central to the war against the machines that enslaved humanity a century or more ago by placing them in an electronic dream-world known as The Matrix. Once out of the simulation and in the ‘desert of the real’ Neo begins to discover he can do things that none of the rest of the team are capable of including ‘dodging bullets’ – in yet another iconic scene.

There is just *so* much in this movie that can be discussed at great length – because the whole film is, in itself, iconic. The movie broke *so* many rules that it became a benchmark for all that followed it and that’s before we get into the philosophical aspects! The Matrix not only wowed audiences across the world it also made them think – and how many Hollywood blockbusters do that these days? People began wondering if we do indeed live inside a giant computer simulation, began wondering about Artificial Intelligence, about personal identity and much else besides. A whole publishing industry sprang up overnight to feed the voracious demand for books on these subjects, University courses began to discuss these issues and more besides. I’m sure many people discovered philosophy (and maybe Buddhism too) for the first time after seeing The Matrix. It was, not to exaggerate too much, a life changing experience.

A movie that is definitely in my Top 10 best movies ever (even without a gun pointing at my head), a piece of cinematic history and a 20th Century cultural icon. The Matrix has it all.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Sun's properties not 'fine-tuned' for life

22 May 2008

New Scientist

There's nothing special about the Sun that makes it more likely than other stars to host life, a new study shows. The finding adds weight to the idea that alien life should be common throughout the universe. "The Sun's properties are consistent with it being pulled out at random from the bag of all stars," says Charles Lineweaver from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. "Life does not seem to require anything special in its host star, other than it be close."

Some previous studies of the Sun's vital statistics have concluded that it is unusual among stars, for instance, by having a higher mass than average. Such atypical properties might somehow help explain why the Sun seems to be unique, as far as we know, in having an inhabited planet. But the earlier studies only looked at a small number of solar features, such as its mass and iron content. Lineweaver suspects there was a temptation to sift through the Sun's properties, then focus on the outstanding ones while ignoring the normal ones.

"You can mistakenly come to the conclusion that the Sun is 'special'," Lineweaver told New Scientist. With his ANU colleague José Robles and others, Lineweaver has now analysed 11 features of the Sun that might affect its ability to have habitable planets.

They included its mass, age, rotation speed and orbital distance from the centre of the Milky Way. Then they compared these with well-measured statistics for other stars to answer the question – overall, does the Sun stand out from the crowd any more than some other randomly chosen star would? The Sun did stand out in two ways: it is more massive than 95% of nearby stars and its orbit around the centre of our galaxy is more circular than those of 93% of nearby stars.

But when all 11 properties were taken on board, the Sun looked very ordinary. Robles's team calculates that there would be only about one chance in three that a star selected at random would be "more typical" than the Sun. They conclude that there are probably no special attributes that a star requires to have a habitable planet, other than the obvious one – the planet must be within the star's habitable "goldilocks" zone, orbiting at a distance where the temperature is not too hot for life, nor too cold, but just right.

[Interesting….]

Monday, June 02, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy edited by Jason T Eberl

How could I possibly resist a book on two of my favourite subjects? Well I did – for about 3-4 weeks. It was coming up to my Birthday when I spotted it and I didn’t dare buy it immediately just in case someone else had bought it for me. No one had, so I bought it on my Birthday itself – I was out shopping as I never work on my actual birth day.

Anyway, was it any good? Indeed it was. BSG is, of course, oozing with philosophical issues and this book hits all the highlights. One of my favourite chapters was on the Cylon ‘slave morality’ as outlined by Nietzsche (in his case talking about Christianity). Other chapters covered fleet politics with reference to Machiavelli, Cylon ‘personhood’ and identity in the face of multiple copies of the same ‘person’ and ‘resurrection’, trans-humanism and the emergence of intelligent machines and the ethics of resistance to repressive occupation. A whole section was given over to the Cylon and Colonial interpretations of the idea of God(s) together with a discussion of destiny, providence and the idea of Free Will.

This is certainly a book for anyone interested in the deeper meaning behind some of BSG’s most challenging ideas. It’s also an easy way for a fan of the series to start to get their heads around some of the basic philosophic ideas. I have uniformly enjoyed the pop-culture/philosophy books I’ve come across so far and recommend them to those who, like me, are interested equally in both. This was an excellent and thought provoking book.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Random Quote:

The world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those that feel. - Horace Walpole.

Personally I think it's a Tragic-Comedy.
Cartoon Time.