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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!