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

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.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Atheist bus campaign gets off to a flying start

By Riazat Butt for The Guardian

Wednesday October 22 2008

The UK's first atheist advertising campaign has beaten its funding target in less than 24 hours, raising nearly nine times the amount needed to have its posters on bendy buses. Organisers of the campaign, which was launched yesterday, were seeking £5,500 to run adverts in London saying There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" on 30 buses for four weeks. By last night, individuals and organisations had pledged more than £47,900. Writer Ariane Sherine suggested the idea in a Guardian Comment is Free blog last June, saying an atheist bus campaign would provide a reassuring counter-message to religious slogans threatening non-Christians with hell and damnation.

She said: "Ours is a fun and light-hearted message but it does have a serious point to it: that atheists want a secular country, we want a secular school and a secular government. The strength of feeling has been shown with so many people willing to pay for this campaign." Sherine said she was surprised by the level of support but was pleased with the extra money, which would finance a more ambitious campaign. "We could go national, we could have tube posters, different slogans, more buses, advertising inside buses. The sky's the limit - except, of course, there's nothing up there."

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, will donate a further £5,500. His contribution is not included in the sum featured on the Just Giving website, nor is the Gift Aid supplement, which will add at least £6,000 to the total. The British Humanist Association has agreed to administer all donations. Churches have responded favourably. The British Methodist church welcomed Dawkins's "continued interest" in God, encouraging people to think about the issue. The Church of England said it would defend the right of any group representing a religious or philosophical position to promote that view through appropriate channels.

A spokesman added: "Christian belief is not about worrying or not enjoying life. Quite the opposite: our faith liberates us to put this life into a proper perspective. Seven in 10 people in this country describe themselves as Christian and know the joy that faith can bring." The atheist buses will run from January in Westminster.

[It’s about time that we saw some of this sort of thing. At least it makes a change from Christian propaganda on our buses – then again I haven’t seen any for a while now. Maybe the Recession is biting into their advertising budget?]

Friday, October 24, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Black Mass – Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray

Being described by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘a load of bollocks’ – quite an accolade from such a right-wing paper - as well as that it ‘could hardly be more bonkers if it was crawling with lizards’ how could I possibly resist picking this up and reading it cover to cover in three days? OK, so I was recovering from a nasty bug during a week off work but it’s not like I didn’t have anything else to read.

Anyway, I would already regard myself as a fan of Gray’s work so it should come as no surprise that I immensely enjoyed his latest book. He has a way of looking at the world that is at the same time refreshing and shocking. He’s certainly not afraid to see things differently and has the communication skills to convey his ideas in such a way as to make them seem obvious. Gray’s underlying argument rests on his idea that Enlightenment thinking rather than being a rejection of Christianity was in fact an outgrowth of it especially with regard to the perfectibility of both Man and his environment. This rather inevitably leads, in Gray’s opinion to the mistaken and highly dangerous idea of Utopia. Examples of this dangerous idea can be found throughout history but Gray concentrates on two examples from the 20th Century – that of Nazism and Communism. Both of these ideologies are, Gray asserts, outgrowths of the Enlightenment which was itself an outgrowth of Christianity, deeply infected with unrealisable utopian beliefs and, therefore, doomed to bloody failure. Gray however saves most of his ire and probably half of his book to a polemic against what he sees as the latest example of deeply misguided utopian thinking – the belief that democracy and free-market capitalism can not only be exported successfully to the rest of the world but that, once established, will usher in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity. Grey is not afraid of upsetting apple carts nor is he afraid of roasting sacred cows over the fires generated by his plainly evident wit and wisdom.

Maybe strangely for a book of political philosophy this is a real page turner. Gray has the ability and skill to see through to the heart of things and the devastating power of critical thinking to dissect policies exposing their rotten cores for all to see. Like a previous work Straw Dogs this book has the power to change the way you see the world. There are few enough of those books around so those that exist should be cherished. This is one such book. Highly recommended – despite what the Telegraph would have you believe!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Giant database plan 'Orwellian'

From The BBC

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Jacqui Smith said intercepting communications was 'vital' Proposals for a central database of all mobile phone and internet traffic have been condemned as "Orwellian". Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said the police and security services needed new powers to keep up with technology. And she promised that the content of conversations would not be stored, just times and dates of messages and calls. But the Lib Dems slammed the idea as "incompatible with a free country", while the Tories called on the government to justify its plans. Details of the times, dates, duration and locations of mobile phone calls, numbers called, website visited and addresses e-mailed are already stored by telecoms companies for 12 months under a voluntary agreement. The data can be accessed by the police and security services on request - but the government plans to take control of the process in order to comply with an EU directive and make it easier for investigators to do their job. Information will be kept for two years by law and may be held centrally on a searchable database. Without increasing their capacity to store data, the police and security services would have to consider a "massive expansion of surveillance," Ms Smith said in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research earlier.

She said: "Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime, including child sex abuse, murder and drugs trafficking. "Communications data - that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves - is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all security service operations since 2004. "But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. "If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that, to a certain extent, we all take for granted. The capability that enabled us to convict Ian Huntley for the Soham murders and that enabled us to achieve the convictions of those responsible for the 21/7 terrorist plots against London." She said the "changes we need to make may require legislation" and there may even have to be legislation "to test what a solution to this problem will look like". There will also be new laws to protect civil liberties, Ms Smith added, and she announced a public consultation starting in the New Year on the plans. "I want this to be combined with a well-informed debate characterised by openness, rather than mere opinion, by reason and reasonableness," she told the IPPR.

Ms Smith attempted to reassure people that the content of their e-mails and phone conversations would not be stored. "There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online. Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation. Local authorities do not have the power to listen to your calls now and they never will in future. You would rightly object to proposals of this kind and I would not consider them. What we will be proposing will be options which follow the key principles which govern all our work in this area - the principles of proportionality and necessity." But the idea of storing phone and e-mail records has provoked concern among experts. The government's own reviewer of anti-terror laws, Lord Carlile, said: "The raw idea of simply handing over all this information to any government, however benign, and sticking it in an electronic warehouse is an awful idea if there are not very strict controls about it."

Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve, for the Conservatives, said he welcomed Ms Smith's consultative approach but added her speech "begs mores questions than it answers. These proposals would mark a substantial shift in the powers of the state to obtain personal information on individuals," he said, adding: "The government must present convincing justification for such an exponential increase in the powers of the state." Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "The government's Orwellian plans for a vast database of our private communications are deeply worrying. I hope that this consultation is not just a sham exercise to soft-soap an unsuspecting public." He said the government had repeatedly shown it could not be trusted with sensitive data, adding: "There is little reason to think ministers will be any less slapdash with our phone and internet records. Ministers claim the database will only be used in terrorist cases, but there is now a long list of cases, from the arrest of Walter Wolfgang for heckling at a Labour conference to the freezing of Icelandic assets, where anti-terrorism law has been used for purposes for which it was not intended. Our experience of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act suggests these powers will soon be used to spy on people's children, pets and bins. These proposals are incompatible with a free country and a free people."

[…and little by little our freedoms are chipped away until, one morning, as if by magic, we wake up in a Police State and wonder how we got there……]

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Favourite Movies: Aliens (Special Edition)

57 years after the events of the original Alien movie Office Ripley is picked up by a deep space salvage crew and returned to Earth. After finding out that her daughter has died she is investigated to determine the facts surrounding the destruction of her cargo ship the Nostromo and subsequently demoted. Meanwhile, on orders from Earth a family of prospectors travels to the crash site Ripley’s team found nearly six decades previously. This act unleashes the horror that Ripley knows all too well. When the Colonial Marines are called in to investigate the loss of contact with the colony Ripley is coerced into joining them on their rescue mission. But by the time they arrive the worst has happened and hundreds of aliens have hatched. Can the Marines with their awesome firepower survive the onslaught of creatures the like of which they have never experienced before?

When I first saw this movie on its release in 1986 I was quite honestly awestruck. I had seen the previous horror flick Alien and enjoyed it very much but the sequel Aliens was kick-ass hardcore science fiction. The combat sequences just totally amazed me. This, I believed, was exactly how combat SF should be! With an excellent cast – led by Sigourney Weaver as the iconic Ellen Ripley – and outstanding special effects this instantly became on of my top 5 all time favourite films and for a long while my favourite SF film of all time. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen this movie but on watching it again recently I realised that I know whole chunks of it word for word. The highlights for me – apart from the already mentioned combat scenes – are the acting of Michael Biehn as (only a grunt) Hicks, Lance Henricksen as the artificial person Bishop, Bill Paxton as the complainer Hudson and the fantastic Jenette Goldstein as Vasquez.

This film has (probably literally) burnt itself into my consciousness. I use some of the lines from it in everyday life – “Marines.... we are leaving” – and cannot help thinking of the scene where Ripley and Hicks are in a lift waiting for the doors to close (followed by an Alien trying to force its way in) every time I press a lift button and then wait….. for the door to close! This is an outstanding SF film by a director at the top of his game and is still the best of the Alien series by far….. and I so want a pulse rifle for Christmas!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Scientists discover record fifth planet orbiting nearby star

From JPL - NASA

Nov. 6, 2007

WASHINGTON - Astronomers have announced the discovery of a fifth planet circling 55 Cancri, a star beyond our solar system. The star now holds the record for number of confirmed extrasolar planets orbiting around it in a planetary system. 55 Cancri is located 41 light-years away in the constellation Cancer and has nearly the same mass and age as our sun. It is easily visible with binoculars. Researchers discovered the fifth planet using the Doppler technique, in which a planet's gravitational tug is detected by the wobble it produces in the parent star. NASA and the National Science Foundation funded the research.

"It is amazing to see our ability to detect extra-solar planets growing," said Alan Stern, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "We are finding solar systems with a richness of planets and a variety of planetary types comparable to our own." The newly discovered planet weighs about 45 times the mass of Earth and may be similar to Saturn in its composition and appearance. The planet is the fourth from 55 Cancri and completes one orbit every 260 days. Its location places the planet in the "habitable zone," a band around the star where the temperature would permit liquid water to pool on solid surfaces. The distance from its star is approximately 72.5 million miles, slightly closer than Earth to our sun, but it orbits a star that is slightly fainter.

"The gas-giant planets in our solar system all have large moons," said Debra Fischer, an astronomer at San Francisco State University and lead author of a paper that will appear in a future issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "If there is a moon orbiting this new, massive planet, it might have pools of liquid water on a rocky surface." Fischer, University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy and a team of collaborators discovered this planet after careful observation of 2,000 nearby stars with the Shane telescope at Lick Observatory located on Mt. Hamilton, east of San Jose, Calif., and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. More than 320 velocity measurements were required to disentangle signals from each of the planets.

"This is the first quintuple-planet system," Fischer said. "This system has a dominant gas giant planet in an orbit similar to our Jupiter. Like the planets orbiting our sun, most of these planets reside in nearly circular orbits. Discovering these five planets took us 18 years of continuous observations at Lick Observatory, starting before any extrasolar planets were known anywhere in the universe," said Marcy, who contributed to the paper. "But finding five extrasolar planets orbiting a star is only one small step. Earth-like planets are the next destination."

The planets around 55 Cancri are somewhat different from those orbiting our sun. The innermost planet is believed to be about the size of Neptune and whips around the star in less than three days at a distance from the star of approximately 3.5 million miles. The second planet is a little smaller than Jupiter and completes one orbit every 14.7 days at a distance from the star of approximately 11.2 million miles. The third planet, similar in mass to Saturn, completes one orbit every 44 days at a distance from the star of approximately 22.3 million miles. The newly discovered planet is the fourth planet. The fifth and most distant known planet is four times the mass of Jupiter and completes one orbit every 14 years at a distance from the star of approximately 539.1 million miles. It is still the only known Jupiter-like gas giant to reside as far away from its star as our own Jupiter.

"This work marks an exciting next step in the search for worlds like our own," said Michael Briley, an astronomer at the National Science Foundation. "To go from the first detections of planets around sun-like stars to finding a full-fledged solar system with a planet in a habitable zone in just 12 years is an amazing accomplishment and a testament to the years of hard work put in by these investigators."

[So many environments for life to develop…..]

Friday, October 17, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Imagine a world without Man. Not a world where we never existed – an interesting idea in itself – but a world where we suddenly and non-violently disappeared. What would happen to everything we left behind? This was the fascinating premise of this equally fascinating book. Looking at the decay of whole towns – evidenced in the area around Chernobyl and DMZs around the world – the life spans of our various chemical compounds and the likelihood of our monuments being around for the next species to evolve sentience Weisman weaves an intriguing picture of the world progressively returning to nature. Full of so much information it’s hard to know where to start this book is humbling in that it shows just how fragile our supposedly commanding hold on the world actually is. Equally it continually points out just how the world and the creatures that suffer our attention would be better off if we did all just disappear over night.

This book was an absolute delight to read. I began by dipping into it for 10 or so minutes before I went to sleep but once I got half way through just couldn’t put it down any longer and finished it off over a weekend. I learnt so much from this book – both profound and trivial – that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is truly an awesome work which will haunt your imagination for months afterwards and will probably change the way you think about the world and our place in it. Christmas is coming up and that’s a good excuse to buy this book for your friends and maybe drop a hint or two that you’d quite like a copy too. Sheer brilliance.

Monday, October 13, 2008

We can't win Afghanistan war - Commander

The Independent

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The public should not expect "a decisive military victory" in Afghanistan, Britain's most senior military commander in the country warned today. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said the aim was to reduce the uprising to a level at which it could be managed by the Afghan army and made clear that this could involve talking to the Taliban. It was necessary to "lower our expectations" and accept that it would be unrealistic to expect that multinational forces can entirely rid Afghanistan of armed bands, he suggested.

Brig Carleton-Smith, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan, told the Sunday Times that his forces had "taken the sting out of the Taliban for 2008". But he added: "We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army. "We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency."

Brig Carleton-Smith said the aim should be to change the nature of the debate in Afghanistan so that disputes were settled by negotiation and not violence. "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this," he said. "That shouldn't make people uncomfortable."

[It sounds to me that Brigadier Carleton-Smith is onto something here…..]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thinking About: Emotions

I have been called a ‘cold fish’ more than once as I normally don’t show my emotions in public. Part of the reason is that, despite the existence of this Blog indicating otherwise, I’m actually a very private person. I really don’t think it’s appropriate to emote all over the place as I have seen some people do. I think that such behaviour is rather… unseemly. It’s not just that I’m a Brit with my in-built ‘stiff upper lip’. I know many of my fellow Brits who are very emotional. It definitely has to have something to do with my upbringing. My father in particular was very unemotional or at least very in control of his emotions. I’m confident that he felt things – maybe even deeply – he just never really showed the fact that he did. My mother by contrast can be very mercurial. Her emotional outbursts tend to be around the anger end of the spectrum and tip-toeing around her moods became second nature to me and my siblings.

A large part of my control issues though centred around my teenage years. I can say with confidence that I really didn’t like that time in my life. I was a seething cauldron of intense conflicting emotions that I really struggled to cope with. For a while there I thought that the only options were insanity, suicide or prison. I did actually actively consider suicide for a while in my early teens. I even remember telling my mother but I think she deliberately decided not to hear me as it was too much for her. I still remember the incident as being incredibly strange and rather surreal. Fortunately I found another way to deal with my emotions – control. Not suppression you understand. Even back then I knew that mere suppression of my feelings would be a bad idea like swallowing vomit - it just makes you worse. But I had to do something before I exploded. So even though I still had the emotional feelings I decided that the only way to get through my teens in one piece was to exert my reasoning faculties over my emotional drives. It was one heck of a fight I can tell you! On a daily – indeed minute by minute basis - my emotions were telling me to do one thing and my reason was intervening to stop them. It was almost like two siblings constantly fighting each other both to prove themselves and to dominate the other. One of the most important things I realised was that the emotion generated thoughts were not, in themselves, bad things as long as they stayed inside my head. Having ‘bad thoughts’ was just part of the hormonal ride I was on. The weapon I used against such thoughts was laughter. I literally laughed myself silly at some of the things my testosterone soaked brain came up with. I ridiculed my emotions on a daily basis until they started to behave themselves. Little by little my emotional turmoil subsided and any bubble of emotion that actually popped inside my head normally stayed inside my head. I was a much calmer person because of it.

Inevitably of course I went too far. In my attempt not to be controlled by my emotions I found that I had the greatest difficult in showing deep emotions when required – hence the cold fish comments. Girls, who I was inevitably passionate about, saw me as weird and to be honest a bit creepy because I simply couldn’t communicate with them on an emotional level. It took more than one painful rejection for me to loosen some of my control and publicly emote. I’m certainly much better with my emotions that I was 30 years ago and today I’m normally seen as calm or unflappable in a crisis rather than simply unemotional. Yet people, particularly women, sometimes don’t know what to make of me which doesn’t make relationships with them exactly easy but I know through experience that I can reduce the grip on my emotions without everything falling apart. I have been passionately in love which was a truly liberating experience I had never known previously nor since. I learnt that I could let my guard down almost entirely and still be loved by someone. I couldn’t always do it though – not even with her. My habit, my need, for control is too strong. Maybe even my fear of a loss of control is still too strong to let go completely though I remain in two minds as to whether or not this is a failing. I do sometimes worry that I’m too controlled, too self-assured, and too (apparently) invulnerable to be attractive to the opposite sex but I’m not sure if I can actually be any other way. Although I love being in love (so much so that in my teen years I conspired to fool myself into believing I was in love when what I was feeling was a mixture of lust and longing) I don’t generally value emotions highly. I remain passionate about some things; I have flashes of anger that burn like bolts of lightening, I still lust and long for women who attract my attention but I can’t help thinking sometimes that I would like to do without the emotional baggage that comes with being human. I can’t help but wonder if many of us would be better off if we didn’t feel so damned much so damned deeply. I do miss being in love though. Even as a transient ‘soap bubble’ of a thing it’s still sometimes worth the pain and the grief it causes. Sometimes…….

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pope laments decline of scripture

By David Willey for BBC News

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Pope Benedict XVI has opened a synod of more than 200 cardinals and bishops from around the world to examine the modern lack of interest in the Bible. The Pope lamented what he called the harmful and destructive influence of some forms of modern culture. This, he said, had decided that God was dead, and man was the sole architect of his destiny and master of creation. The synod is an advisory body of the Roman Catholic Church, which meets once every three years. The three-week long proceedings opened with a solemn Mass celebrated by the Pope at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.

Growing indifference to religion, particularly in Europe, is a source of concern to the Pope. He visited France last month, and was clearly referring to that country when he pointed out in his homily that nations once rich in the Christian faith and in vocations for the priesthood seem to be losing their Christian identity. To mark the opening of the synod, Italian state television will be broadcasting a marathon reading of the whole Bible for the next six days and nights. The Pope himself will start off the reading with the Book of Genesis. He will be followed by hundreds of other readers, including Italian politicians, celebrities from the world of entertainment and sport, as well as ordinary Italians - who have never been such enthusiastic readers of the Bible as Christians in Protestant countries.

[Well, if even the Pope himself can see the writing on the wall then it MUST be true. Religion is indeed in decline……..! We can only hope that he’s right.]

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Farside Cannon by Roger Macbride Allen

In the near future scientist Garrison Morrow is obsessed with finding the impact crater of the asteroid suspected of killing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Unfortunately for him and his team of geologists an asteroid mining company doesn’t want him to find his prize. After all finding the smoking gun from a planet killer can only harm a very profitable enterprise. After a successful dirty tricks campaign forces Garrison and his colleague off world they are exiled to Farside station located on the dark side of the Moon. There he hatches a plan to build an array of communication lasers capable of destroying an asteroid destined to enter Earth orbit and threaten the destruction of mankind. By when news of the Farside Cannon leaks out both Earth and the Settlement worlds want it destroyed and both sides are willing to go to war to prevent its activation.

This was a solid if rather unexceptional novel. Tending towards the harder end of SF with plenty of references to orbital mechanics, geology, and problems of living off-world it managed to produce a believable near-future culture where the settlement worlds – Mars, The Moon and Asteroid belt – had just about begun to flex their independent muscles. Written in the late 1980’s it was not alone in missing the idea of Global Warming and barely mentioned computers except in a very roundabout fashion. But SF is rarely as prophetic as some of its fans would have use believe. Whilst not exactly a great novel or even a great SF novel Farside Cannon was entertaining enough to keep me turning pages for the 4-5 days it took me to read it. Nicely paced, fairly good characterisation and with a healthy dose of drama I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

Monday, October 06, 2008

My Favourite Movies: The Driver

Despite never having owned a car nor really driven one and, unlike my brother, not being a petrol head I must admit to loving a good car chase film. As case in point is the 1978 release of the Film Noir like The Driver starring (rather oddly in my opinion) Ryan O’Neal as the eponymous anti-hero, Isabelle Adjani (pictured above) as the love interest and Bruce Dern as the cop out to stop him. The storyline – such as it is - is very simple indeed. The Driver drives for a percentage of the take on a heist, he’s very good at his job and has never been caught. The Cop wants to make his career by catching him in the act and will use any method – including blackmail and intimidation – to do so. The girl (AKA The Player) is little more than eye candy overall but is used by both Dern and O’Neal in different ways.

Apart from the quite superb car chases – and the demonstration of the Divers skills in an underground car park – what stands out for me in this movie was the character played by O’Neal. He was basically dead inside – for reasons unexplained – which enabled he to drive with apparent reckless abandon. A case in point was where he ‘played chicken’ with two police cars approaching at high speed. Clearly unconcerned about his own safety he forced the police to swerve at the last moment ensuring his escape. From his expression throughout I doubt if his heart rate went up much at all. But what really defined this film was, of course, the adrenalin fuelled chases through an unnamed darkened cityscape. They are some of the best I’ve seen and seemed to have been a particular expression of late 70’s cop movies. Of the many I saw in these my formative years the ones in The Driver are definitely amongst the best.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Full Marx if you can see history repeating itself

Simon Caulkin for The Observer

Sunday May 11 2008

To piece together the fragments of today's worldwide crisis is to grapple with a sense of deja vu. The sweep of globalisation; strident inequalities (last weekend's FT ran a breathless piece about the Bond-style security mechanisms built into the luxury homes of the international superclass - alongside stories of food riots); vast intervention by central banks to prop up the banking system; the origin of the crisis in the explosive mixture of masters and leftovers of the universe - what does all this remind you of?

It takes a reading of Francis Wheen's concise and lucid Marx's Das Kapital - a biography (Atlantic) for the penny to drop. The cantankerous ghost hovering over the global turmoil and glorying in the discomfiture of its chief agents is that of Highgate Cemetery's most eminent denizen and the UK's great revolutionary. The sense of the grinding of the gears of history, the shifting of the political and economic plates, comes straight from Karl Marx (although some might also want to add an element of Groucho). When the governor of the Bank of England talks of protecting people from the banks, and plaintively recommends that graduates should consider a career in industry as well as the City, shimmering eerily through his remarks is the Gothic vision of alienation and auto-destruction that Marx outlined 150 years ago.

Here in the middle of plenty is the grotesque exploitation of the poorest (last week, in a new report, the TUC astonished even itself with findings of workplace exploitation that are in a direct line from those observed by Marx and Engel). Here, too, is the appropriation of the spoils by the extraordinarily privileged few, and the socialisation of the losses on to the many. Marx would have been unsurprised to learn that on average we now work one-seventh more hours than 25 years ago for less financial security in old age, or of the painful lack of engagement (also recently highlighted in a new report) of most people in labour that feeds the machine of capital rather than the individual. Above all, the overweening economic dominance of the City would have provoked a grim nod of recognition - never has Marx's 'enslavement to capital' seemed less hyperbole and been more visible than today. Marx's work is usually discredited by association with the failed centrally planned economies of eastern Europe and elsewhere, and by the failure of capitalism to collapse as he had predicted. But Marx's Marxism was never a prescription - it was Lenin and Stalin who 'froze it into dogma' - much more a developing argument; and as Wheen notes, any errors 'are eclipsed and transcended by the piercing accuracy with which he revealed the nature of the [capitalist] beast'.

In fact, apart from the predictions of capitalism's impending demise, it is remarkable how much its sharpest critic got right. Along with creeping monopolies, growing inequality and the all-absorbing momentum of the capital markets, Marx foresaw many of the effects of globalisation, which he called 'the universal interdependence of nations', not least the effects of an international 'reserve army of the unemployed' in disciplining and depressing the wages of workers in the developed economies. His description of the 'cash nexus' foreshadowed the economic rationality at the centre of today's mainstream economic and management theories. Most prescient, as writers as different as the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter and the billionaire trader George Soros acknowledge, was Marx's insight that capitalism's most potent enemy was not outside but inside: market fundamentalism, in Soros' term, or, for Schumpeter, the waves of creative destruction that would eventually swamp whole economies. Capitalism, as is now clear, has most to fear from capitalists.

Marx vividly characterised capitalism as a kind of Frankenstein which would end up destroying its creator: man's work exists 'independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power'. As graphically, in Das Kapital's sprawling chapter on the working day, Marx described capital as 'dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks'. That is as different from today's dry economic discourse as it is possible to get. And this, as Wheen notes, is the point. Das Kapital is notoriously incomplete. Only the first of six projected volumes was completed before his death, and three more posthumously from notes and fragments. Marx displaced much of his energy into fighting creditors, conducting polemics and indulging in the occasional pub crawl up Tottenham Court Road. But capitalism is incomplete and chaotic too, as today's turbulence proves. Marx reminds us of the uncomfortable things we have grown so used to that we no longer see - including the ability and need to change. 'Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways,' he noted. 'The point, however, is to change it.'

[The present turmoil in the markets has done nothing to undermine this article originally published in May. It would appear that the ‘death’ of Marx has been greatly exaggerated….]

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Beachheads in Space edited by August Derleth

This was a collection of short SF stories from 1950-1952. What actually surprised me most about these stories was that they where almost without exception rather downbeat and depressing. I hadn’t actually read stories from this era for a while so it came as a bit of a shock. I would have thought that the 50’s was a time of optimism and hope after the depredations of World War 2. Apparently not – or at least according to this collection. One story in particular stuck in my mind. This was ‘The Years draw Nigh’ by Lester del Rey in which 40 starships have been sent out to explore the Galaxy looking for life and habitable planets to colonise. At the beginning of the story 39 had returned empty handed. Starship 40 is years overdue and presumed lost but finally returns with a story of mechanical failure and heroic repair efforts on a dead world. But the news they carry proves to be devastating - not a single habitable world discovered in years of searching. On receipt of this news Earth pulls back from further endeavour and continues its slide into hopelessness. All very depressing I can tell you! Only one for major fans of the era or maybe if you’re writing a paper on the cultural tenor of early 50’s America.