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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Atheists call for 'debaptism'

By Robert Pigott for the BBC

Saturday, 14 March 2009

John Hunt was baptised in the parish church of St Jude with St Aidan in Thornton Heath in south-east London. But 50 years later he stands outside and regards its brick facade without much affection. Mr Hunt was sent to Sunday school at St Jude's and later to confirmation classes, but he decided early on that he had no place in what he felt was a hypocritical organisation. He recalls that his mother had to get lunch ready early for him to attend the classes. "One Sunday I came back home and said 'Mum, you needn't get lunch early next Sunday because I'm not going to the class any more'. And she decided not to argue." Now Mr Hunt has become the pioneer in a rejuvenated campaign for a way of cancelling baptisms given to children too young to decide for themselves whether they wanted this formal initiation into Christianity. However, baptism is proving a difficult thing to undo. The local Anglican diocese, Southwark, refused to amend the baptismal roll as Mr Hunt had wanted, on the grounds that it was a historical record. "You can't remove from the record something that actually happened," said the Bishop of Croydon, the Right Reverend Nick Baines.

"Whether we agree whether it should have happened or not is a different matter. But it's a bit like trying to expunge Trotsky from the photos. Mr Hunt was baptised and that's a matter of public record." Instead the diocese suggested that the best way for Mr Hunt to renounce his baptism was to advertise it in the London Gazette, a journal of record with an ancestry going back to the 17th Century. Bishop Baines is willing to see such notices inserted into the baptismal roll to indicate decisions such as Mr Hunt's, but the Church of England's national headquarters made clear that such a concession was not official policy. A letter from the Archbishops' Council said that the Church of England did not regard baptism as a sign of membership, so any amendment to the record would be unnecessary. The Roman Catholic Church does view a person's baptism as incorporating them into the Church - and membership is later important to the Church if, for example, the same person wants to get married in a Catholic church. It is willing to place an amendment in the record. The National Secular Society would like the Church of England to devise a formal procedure for cancelling baptisms, with a change in the baptismal roll as part of it.

In the face of resistance from the Church, the society has come up with a document of its own. The "Certificate of Debaptism" has a deliberately home-made look, with its mock-official decoration and quasi-official language. Sitting on a bench in the grounds of St Jude's Church, John Hunt intoned the opening lines. "I, John Jeffrey Hunt, having been subjected to the rite of Christian baptism in infancy... hereby publicly revoke any implications of that rite. I reject all its creeds and other such superstitions in particular the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed of original sin." The society's president, Terry Sanderson, says the certificate is not designed to be taken too seriously, and he suggests displaying it in the loo. However, he says, it has now been downloaded more that 60,000 times, and has taken on a life of its own. "The debaptism certificate started out as a kind of satirical comment on the idea that you could be enrolled in a church before you could talk, but it seems to have taken off from there. "It was a comment originally, a rebuke to the Church if you like, but now it's become something else entirely." Among those taking it seriously is a man whose son was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church by his former partner against his wishes. "He now has custody of his son and wants to debaptise him", says Mr Sanderson. The Church wonders aloud why, if atheists and secularists believe baptism is so meaningless, they are letting it upset them. Mr Hunt supplies his own answer. "Evangelical noises are getting louder and louder. The recent change in European legislation has led to religious beliefs not being challenged at all, and there's no limit at all on what anybody can claim as a valid religious belief. I think it's important that more people speak out and say they don't subscribe to the historic beliefs of the Church."

[I was christened many years ago and am, technically at least, part of the Roman Catholic faith. This has the distinct advantage (or at least I think it does knowing practically nothing about Catholicism) that if I die in a ‘state of grace’ I’ll go straight to heaven no matter what my beliefs were in my lifetime. That might come in handy one day – laughs. Anyway, despite being baptised against my will – OK during a time when I still probably hadn’t realised I was alive never mind had cogent thoughts of my own on the subject - I see no reason to go through some ceremony in order to publically turn my back on the Church. People who know me certainly know my views on the subject of God. Why should I then give the church authorities any more recognition than they deserve by applying for de-baptism? To me that makes no sense at all. I guess that some people feel the need to make a very public break with their particular religions. I really don’t think that they warrant that kind of attention. There are far more important things to sort out on the Earth than renouncing a very trivial part of my past.]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Matter by Iain M Banks

As a war of expansion rages on Levels 8 and 9 of the Shellworld Sursamen, the ex-Princess now Culture Special Circumstances operative Djan Seriy Anaplian continues her on-the-job training of nudging primitive worlds in the direction of mature advancement. On hearing the news that both her father and brother have been killed in the latest advance of the Sarl army she decides to cut her training short and travel half-way across the Galaxy to find out exactly what happened. Meanwhile on Sursamen itself factions within the alien races that control access to the hollowed out world start their own war over the greatest prize imaginable – an ancient artefact buried for millennia that might be a fabled ancestor of the Oct long since considered extinct.

Matter was, above all else, a complex novel that the brief synopsis above does little credit to. Literally Galaxy spanning, it returns to what is probably my favourite utopian civilisation – The Culture. Banks has the ability not only to create a highly believable and attractive society that I would practically kill to be a part of but in this hefty tome manages to create (or at least imply) numerous other completely alien civilisations that I’d just love to visit. As always his characters – especially the machine life-forms – are a delight with very much their own personalities and motivations. The technology presented as ‘every-day’ is honestly a Geeks wet dream, from the wonderful knife missiles up to habitats millions of kilometres across containing trillions of life-forms and everything in between. His ships, as expected, have delightfully playful names and equally playful personalities but can make the really difficult decisions when called upon to do so. It’s just such a great Universe that Banks has created. However, this is not his best work. It is good (and in places very good) but it’s not quite up to some of his early Culture based books. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this novel a great deal and have no hesitation in recommending it to Banks’ fans. It is certainly a worthy addition to his excellent SF works. However, If you are new to Banks or The Culture I’d suggest you start off with some of his earlier works first.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Thinking About: The Borg

I’ve just finished watching a fan nominated DVD box-set collection of Star Trek episodes featuring The Borg, running (in Star Date order of course) from the episode of Enterprise – where they discovered the remains of the Borg ship destroyed in the movie ST: First Contact – up to the episode where Voyager returned from the Delta Quadrant via a Borg Trans-Warp conduit with a little help from future Admiral Janeway. Yes, I’m a Star Trek Geek – deal with it.

Anyway, I can’t help thinking what a superb invention the Borg really are. They’re implacable, almost unstoppable, relentless and completely unemotional. You can’t argue with them (argument being irrelevant), threaten them or, after they quickly adapt to your weapons, even kill them. Apparently one Captain (I sadly forget his name) said that they were ‘as close to pure evil as it was possible to imagine’. That’s quite an accolade. Funnily, during some of the monologues from the Borg Queen (an interesting idea in itself), explaining their way of life that I couldn’t help nodding in agreement. They were, on the whole, very persuasive arguments for assimilation – though I do wonder about the apparently universal need for baddies to monologue (I’m sure there’s another PhD thesis in there). Whilst it’s true that individualism has its many attractions – I’m a big fan of it myself – the idea of being part of the Collective does have its upside. For one thing there is a definitely advantage in numbers. Just think of all of that parallel processing for one thing. As Stalin is reputed to have said (regarding tank manufacture) quantity has a quality all its own. Of course the Collective is never in ‘two minds’ about things, it doesn’t debate (at least not for long) and once a decision is made that’s basically it. No factionalism, no back-biting and no politics. From someone who works in an environment of all three of the aforementioned traits assimilation sounds damned good.

But as with any organisation the Borg does have its downside. If the Collective all decide (for whatever reason) to jump off a (metaphorical) cliff then they all jump off the cliff. Also my skin is bad enough without it going mottled grey – but I suppose drones don’t really worry about such things. It’s not as if they have any opportunity or need to get laid, so no downside for me anyway. Then there’s the interior design element. I’m all for functionality but they take it just a bit too far and they should really do something about the green lighting. It makes everyone look half dead. The implants sound pretty cool although most of them certainly don’t look cool at all. I wonder what it would be like seeing in IR or UV. Interesting if nothing else I guess. Then there’s the fact that you’d never be alone. I mean all your friends would probably have been assimilated around the same time. But then the girl in the office you’ve always fancied would know you checked out her butt every time she walked by your desk – but at least she’d no longer care.

All in all assimilation doesn’t sound all bad. You get to fly around the Galaxy scaring the crap out of people whilst working towards a genuine goal of species perfection. It hardly gets more satisfying than that. Also so much we think of as important would be instantly irrelevant – the mortgage, the fact that The Sarah Conner Chronicles have been cancelled, the fact that I’ll be 50 soon…. All irrelevant. Sign me up… Now where’s the nearest Cube so I can flag that sucker down.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Call to scrap 'illegal databases'

From the BBC

Monday, 23 March 2009

A quarter of all government databases are illegal and should be scrapped or redesigned, according to a report. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust says storing information leads to vulnerable people, such as young black men, single parents and children, being victimised. It says the UK's "database state" wastes billions from the public purse and often breaches human rights laws. But the government says the report contains "no substantive evidence" on which to base its conclusions. A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the government was "never losing sight" of its obligations under the data protection and human rights acts. "It takes its responsibilities seriously and will consider any concerns carefully, adapting existing safeguards where necessary," he added. The government spends £16bn a year on databases and plans to spend a further £105bn on projects over five years but does not know the precise number of the "thousands" of systems it operates, the trust claims.

In the wake of numerous data loss scandals, the cross-party trust - which campaigns for civil liberties and social justice - examined 46 public sector systems. It said 11 were "almost certainly" illegal under human rights or data protection laws. These included the national DNA database and ContactPoint, an index of biographical and contact information on all children in England which notes their relationship with public services. ContactPoint, intended to aid child protection, has been criticised by opponents, who say at £224m it is too costly and could put children at risk if security is lax. When examining criminal justice systems, the trust discovered one woman's caution over a playground fight when she was 13 will stay on the Police National Computer until she is 100. Meanwhile, the genetic fingerprints of nearly four-in-10 black men aged under 35 were held on the DNA database in England, where records are not deleted even when people are acquitted or released without charge, the report claimed. Author, Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University, said: "Britain's database state has become a financial, ethical and administrative disaster which is penalising some of the most vulnerable members of our society." Co-author Terri Dowty, director of Action on Rights for Children, said systems such as Onset - a tool for identifying potential youth offenders - can stigmatise youngsters.

Professor Ross Anderson outlines the problems with the databases. With programmes under way to store Onset assessments and make them available to police, the information could cloud officers' judgement, she said. Ms Dowty said the fear of being monitored was such that young mothers were covering up their post-natal depression or not taking children to casualty for fear of triggering social services involvement. Meanwhile, the Department for Work and Pensions is developing an £89m data-sharing system for anyone issued with a National Insurance number, accessible to 140,000 government staff and 445 local authorities. Staff at 30 councils have already abused the system and information has been made available to private firms, according to the trust. "The problem with a lot of these information systems is the number of people who have access to them. It's the slack attitude to data security which is most worrying," said Ms Dowty. The trust wants the government to store data more transparently and to allow sensitive information to be shared only with people's consent, or at least when subject to clear legal rules. But the report claims civil servants and politicians do not want to address the issue in case it damages their career. "Like Chernobyl, some brave souls need to go in and sort it out," it says.

Peers on the Lords constitution committee warned last month that electronic surveillance and collection of personal data had become "pervasive" in British society and threatened to undermine democracy. The Data Protection Act requires organisations to allow individuals to see and amend information held about them on request, barring a good reason for withholding it - such as that its release would impede a criminal investigation. It also allows people to demand organisations stop using their details. Conservative justice spokeswoman Eleanor Laing said: "The government must urgently adopt a principled, proportionate, less centralised approach to collecting personal information that takes real account of our privacy and is based on the consent of individuals and families." Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "In their desperation to track our every move, ministers have created a glut of databases, many of which are quite simply illegal." A Home Office spokesman said ministers were committed to "striking the balance" between individuals' rights and the ability to fight crime, with DNA testing and CCTV providing "clear benefits". Tests were carried out to make sure measures were proportionate, transparent and featured safeguards, he said.

[Of course… if you’ve done nothing wrong there’s nothing to hide…. Right?]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Twentieth-Century French Philosophy by Eric Matthews.

Despite being brought up in a largely Anglo-American world view I much prefer Continental Philosophy to its Anglo-American counterpart. This is because, in the main, Continental Philosophy deals with what I feel are important issues of the day – politics and social issues – rather than the rather dry and dull issues of logic and meaning mulled over in Analytic Philosophy. Of course I am aware that if we do not understand the meanings of the words we use then communication of ideas is much more difficult, but I think that these pursuits should aid us in our understanding of our lives and should not be idle pursuits in themselves. Personally I prefer my philosophy to have a practical face rather than a purely theoretical one.

That being the case I was, of course, drawn to this overview of French philosophy in the 20th Century. I must admit to being more that a little disappointed with this volume. Maybe I should have know this when the author admitted to belonging in the Analytic tradition despite his overtures to bridging the gap between the two great Western schools of thought. He did actually provide a good historical background to the influences on great thinkers such as Sartre, Foucault and Derrida moving from the late 19th Century through the influence of the First World War, the Occupation and Resistance to the Germans (during which many philosophers worked for the most effective group – the Communists) and of course events in 1968. I was more than a little disappointed in his virtual dismissal of Camus though, especially as I have recently been reading him and find his work of great interest.

The most disappointing aspect of this work for me was the singular lack of the social and political philosophy I was expecting. The last third of the book in particular concentrated far too much on post-modern textual analysis which I honestly struggled with. In some senses in was all very interesting but, at least in my opinion, kind of misses the point in that although it throws some light on the kind of texts we use and how we use them in doesn’t address the issue of how we are to live. Although generally interesting as an historical overview of an interesting period in French Philosophy I think this book lost its way and fizzled out towards the end which was a pity as it was on the whole well written.

Monday, May 18, 2009

It’s a Classic.

Coming from a basically proletarian background I didn’t exactly have a lot of exposure to Classical music in my formative years. My first strong memory is the shock of our music teacher trying to get a bunch of working class kids to think about the classical pieces many of whom had never heard of. I remember him playing Mars from Holst’s Planet Suite (I think it was) and asking us what we thought. The shouts of ‘rubbish’ almost drowned out the music itself. “Why is it rubbish?” he persisted, “Not loud enough” came the cry so he simply turned up the volume which, of course, made no difference at all. Our level of ignorance was astounding but the music teacher persisted for the whole year and some, including me, began to like some of what he played for us.

Many years later when I began to buy my own Classical CD’s I realised just how much classical music I must have absorbed by some sort of cultural osmosis over the years. Most of it I had heard on TV advertisements, the rest embedded in movie soundtracks or ‘modernised’ by contemporary musical artists. This was how I discovered Debussy, thanks to a friend of my brother’s love of Tomita. Unsurprisingly, my taste in the classics is still pretty much plebeian consisting mainly of what are often disparagingly called the ‘popular’ classics – such as the Planet Suite. I have, I think, also developed my personal tastes finding that I love the sound of the piano which transfers to harpsichord and organ, that I have a deep love of the Baroque style and have even developed a taste for opera. Later on I developed a taste for ‘modern’ classics by Nyman and Karl Jenkins. But I consider my all time favourite classical piece to be Adagio in G minor for organ and strings by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni which, somewhat oddly, I first heard in the original Rollerball. To date I probably have more that a dozen different versions of it. In the right circumstances it can reduce me to an emotional wreck. I LOVE it. Another of my all time favourites is from two movies – The Seven Year Itch and Brief Encounter – Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. It’s totally sublime.

Showing my working class roots I also love Bach’s Toccata & Fugue (also from Rollerball) and quite a bit of Wagner (Apocalypse Now has a lot to answer for in that regard). But I also like the more odd-ball Satie and who could possibly ignore the Penguin Café Orchestra! I’m not such a fan of Mahler but like Mozart (who doesn’t?) and love Beethoven. Common tastes I know, but there you are. I was going to list my Top 10 tracks but I’d have to listen to hours of music to come up with something meaningful. Maybe at some later point? Needless to say my musical tastes don’t start with the 1980’s and end in the 1990’s. I’m also partial to a bit from the 18th and 19th Century too. I wonder if I became Middle Class at some point. Anything is possible.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Scientists more likely than ever to reject God belief

From The Telegraph

Date Unknown

A leading scientific journal concludes that increasingly, scientists have doubts about the existence of a deity or similar supernatural and religious claims. This finding questions the pop-culture view that science and religion are moving toward a consensus, and a shared view about the humanity and the universe. That claim is based on another study which repeats a historic survey first made in 1916 by Dr. James Leuba of Bryn Mawr University. It revealed that over eight decades ago, only about 40% of the scientists surveyed expressed belief in any supreme being. Leuba predicted that advances in education and technology would further erode faith in religious claims.

In 1997, Edward Larson of the University of Georgia decided to revisit Leuba's study and evaluate the prediction that religious belief was disappearing, at least in the scientific community. Author of the book "Summer for the God's" and a professor of science law and history, Larson said that Leuba's original survey raised ‘good questions.’ "They provoke responses and give much more insight into how people think than the vague Gallup poll question, 'Do you believe in God?'" he told a writer from Research Reporter. Larson closely followed Leuba's methodology, repeating the same questions and attempting to find a representative sample which met the original survey profile. "I had no idea how it would turn out," Larson said. 60% responded, a figure considered high for any surveys. Of those, 40% expressed belief in a deity, while nearly 45% did not. Larson's survey also discovered that physicists were less likely to have such faith, while mathematicians were significantly more likely to believe in a supreme being, as defined by Leuba.

The follow-up study reported in "Nature" reveals that the rate of belief is lower than eight decades ago. The latest survey involved 517 members of the National Academy of Sciences; half replied. When queried about belief in "personal god," only 7% responded in the affirmative, while 72.2% expressed "personal disbelief," and 20.8% expressed "doubt or agnosticism." Belief in the concept of human immortality, i.e. life after death declined from the 35.2% measured in 1914 to just 7.9%. 76.7% reject the "human immortality" tenet, compared with 25.4% in 1914, and 23.2% claimed "doubt or agnosticism" on the question, compared with 43.7% in Leuba's original measurement. Again, though, the highest rate of belief in a god was found among mathematicians (14.3%), while the lowest was found among those in the life sciences fields -- only 5.5%.

Dr. Larson, in commenting on his 1997 replication of the 1916 study, noted that as with Leuba's report, his revelations elicited wildly different accounts in the news media. "It's being spun in different ways," Larson observed. "The Christian Science Monitor ran an editorial exhorting the fact that scientists still do believe -- despite the fact that well less than half of the scientists in my survey believed in God -- while the Journal of Humanism ran a piece proclaiming that they do not. Is the glass half empty or half full?," Larson asked. It would be difficult to interpret the figures reported in "Nature," though, as suggesting that belief within the scientific community is gaining popularity, or even holding its own. The "belief in a personal god" category suggests a precipitous drop, from about 40% in Larson's survey to 7% in the "Nature" study.

[Interesting though, as always, those who believe in God will dismiss the findings and those who do not believe will call the result self-evident. Everything is spin it would seem.]

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Clandestine by James Ellroy

Fred Underhill is a lost soul living in 1950’s LA. His two major pastimes are picking up women and playing golf. Underhill is also a beat cop. Seeing existence as essentially meaningless he seeks out what he calls ‘the wonder’ of life on the streets. That is until his partner is gunned down during a convenience store robbery. When he becomes a hero for killing all three robbers he uses his notoriety to get him on the fast track to the detective division but soon becomes disillusioned with their casual brutality and blatant disregard for justice. After being accused of the arrest and torture of an innocent man Underhill is pressured into leaving the force and spends some years in the wilderness. But when a dead girl is found in similar circumstances to the case which ended his career he decides that maybe he got the right man after all. Delving deep into LA’s seedy underground Underhill is determined to get to the bottom of the murder even if he has to die trying.

This was a rather slow book for me. For most of it I wondered where exactly the author was leading me and although the tale was well enough told it didn’t – at least for the first half of the book – make a whole lot of sense. But slowly, as the story crept along, you began to see what Underhill saw and things gradually came into focus. The style was pure Noir – thought actually written in 1982 – which certainly added to the entertainment value. However, I struggled with the pacing as well as the unremitting sexism, racism and homophobia of just about ever character in the book. In effect there were no heroes to get behind and few true villains to watch fall. Practically every character was a victim of one sort or another – normally of random chance – who either coped by running away (normally into a bottle) or by hating the world they lived in. This is a seriously depressing book only suitable for those with a strong constitution. Not for the faint hearted and honestly not a book I greatly enjoyed.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Man on Fire

Denzel Washington plays William Creasy who is a burnt out counter-insurgency expert intent on drinking himself to death. During a visit to see his ex-partner and good friend Rayburn, played understatedly by Christopher Walken, he is offered a job in Mexico City – as bodyguard to a small girl (Pita Ramos) played by Dakota Fanning. Initially reserved and distant, Creasy cannot help to form an attachment to Pita and he begins to hope that he might be able to do some good in the world. But Pita is kidnapped and Creasy left for dead with three bullets in him. Hearing that Pita has been killed after a botched police attack on the kidnappers Creasy vows to hunt down and kill everyone involved in her death – no matter who they are. So begins the investigation to uncover who was involved and how widespread the secretive world of organised crime goes. Leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, Creasy creates his masterpiece of death in revenge for the hope of redemption in the shape of a young girl snatched away from him.

This was on many levels an awesome film. The story was a very powerful one – a tale of loss, revenge and ultimate redemption. The cinematography was, on first viewing, odd to say the least until CQ & I agreed that the visual effects overlaying the standard background seemed to be linked to Crecy’s thoughts and emotional states. It was a very interesting way to attempt to portray a character’s inner life on the screen. I was struck, when I re-watched the film recently, that not only is the film dripping with metaphor but that it is also chocked full of religious symbolism. Not only is Creasy seen reading The Bible throughout the film but there are numerous references to the hand of God, divine forgiveness and (of course) both redemption and retribution. After each killing Creasy is seen either gently swimming or simply immersing himself in a swimming pool as blood washes away. He is seemingly removing his sins after each death before he hunts down the next bad guy. Earlier on, as he enters Mexico across the US border, he appears to be travelling through one of the levels of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. There is also a very emotional scene were Creasy tries to kill himself with his own gun only to find that the round misfires. At that point Creasy has what is in effect an epiphany, an almost religious conviction that he is being saved for something special. It’s a deeply moving few minutes. Man on Fire is, superficially at least, a simple action film but it is much more than that even if you only dig an inch or two below the surface. I find it a deeply moving film that even after multiple viewings can still bring me close to tears. If you haven’t seen this gem of a movie you’ve missed a real treat – though I recommend you have a box of hankies ready just in case.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Yet More Good Quotes:

Individuals are sacred. The world, the state, the church, the school, all are felons whenever they violate the sanctity of the private heart. Bronson Acott

Little in life is as precious as the freedom to say and do things with people you love that you would not say or do if someone else were present. Janna Malamud Smith.

Let’s say that someday technology will allow anybody to find out every possible thing about my life. I can compensate by being so uninteresting that nobody could survive the process of snooping on me without lapsing into a coma. Scott Adams.

The right to privacy includes a sense of autonomy, a right to develop a unique personality and living space, and a right to distinguish one’s own persona from everyone else’s. Robert Ellis Smith.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Hammerjack by Marc D Giller

In the not too distant future the dream of generations has finally been achieved – after many failures a self-sustaining Synthetic Intelligence (SI) has been created. Unfortunately for her creators (and everyone else at the facility) she is insane and kills anyone who threatens her brief existence. Meanwhile, ex-Hammerjack turned hunter, Cray Alden is on a seemingly easy case of intercepting a data smuggler in SE Asia. When an airport shoot-out leaves dozens dead, including his target, he becomes infected with her cargo of datapacked viruses which begin to rewrite his DNA. Two factions, long at war with each other over the future of mankind, want to control or destroy both the SI and the virus. Alden finds himself in the middle of a global conflict for the soul of humanity with few friends and a price on his head that none can ignore.

Although not in the same league as Gibson or Sterling this was definitely in the ballpark. As a first outing of a new author this was a rather impressive read – despite a few fumbles and clichés here and there. With good characterisation and a reasonably strong (and more importantly coherent) storyline this is a fine addition to the Cyberpunk genre. Nicely visual with gadgets galore – though none of them ruin the plot by getting the hero out of impossible situations too often – action ‘sequences’ that shame the best that movies can provide and dialogue that often had me laughing out loud this is a fun read for any geek worth his voltage. I’m looking forward to the sequel – which is a good thing as I actually bought that first. Recommended.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Thinking About: Fate

I am an advocate of Free Will. Not that I can prove we have Free Will, to do that I would need to stand ‘outside’ of Time (in a sense) to see that my actions are indeed Free. Such a thing is impossible as there is no ‘outside’ in which to stand. However, as far as I can tell I am Free to make choices and I certainly feel Free – though this is hardly conclusive evidence of my freedom.

From the above you would think that I would dismiss the idea of Fate out of hand. However, things are not that straightforward. Just as I cannot prove that I have Free Will I cannot disprove that my actions (to a greater or lesser degree) are in any way fated. I am as yet not completely convinced about Causality. Effects certainly seem to follow from causes but it seems to me that such an obvious conclusion isn’t as obvious as it first seems. Just because B follows A in time does not necessarily imply that A causes B. Also, to say that effect X is caused by its predecessor P and so on back through time would mean that every action occurring everywhere in the Universe right now can be traced back to the Big Bang. Which means what exactly? It what way does that help us determine if an action is fated or not? If I hold a pencil above my desk and drop it, is that act fated or not? If I catch it on its downward journey did I act freely or not? How can I possibly tell?

At the same time I recognise that there is much in my life that is beyond my power and that these things impinge on my freedom of action. My physical being as an embodied human living in a certain time and place constrains the range of my possible actions. Other people likewise help to determine any course of action I undertake either by aiding or resisting me. Whatever way you look at it no one is totally free. But we can still make choices inside the boundaries of our freedom and it is those choices that make us free. But I still wonder about Fate.

Last year I studied the Stoic idea of Fate for an essay I was writing. I chose that particular subject because they seemed to hold two ideas that I considered contradictory. The believed both in Fate and Free Will. Their belief, in a nutshell, was that everything in the Universe is part of Fate (indeed they used Fate, Nature, the Universe and God to mean pretty much the same thing) including us. Fate acts upon us by producing the times we live through and the bodies – including our minds – that we live in. The thing that makes us different from the rest of life is that not only does fate act upon us but that we also have the potential to begin and end causal chains. In other words we can choose to stop something affecting us (thereby breaking a chain of causality) or originate action (thereby starting a chain of causality). The reason we could do this was frankly mystical but it’s an interesting idea nevertheless. The Stoics managed, as far as I was concerned, to ‘square the circle’ and reconcile Fate and Free Will in the same Universe. I was honestly impressed even if it took my several weeks of reading and hard thinking to get my head around the idea.

Do I then believe in Fate? The jury is still out on that one. Sometimes I see too many coincidences not to feel that something very odd is going on. I’m OK with coincidences from time to time, as such things are inevitable, but sometimes the odds against a string of them happening seem, at least to me, too great for chance to be responsible. Maybe I just don’t understand the Maths behind Large Numbers or maybe it’s Fate. I can’t help but wonder sometimes.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Nine Words You Might Think Came from Science but Which Are Really from Science Fiction

From Oxford University Press

In no particular order:

1. Robotics. This is probably the most well-known of these, since Isaac Asimov is famous for (among many other things) his three laws of robotics. Even so, I include it because it is one of the only actual sciences to have been first named in a science fiction story (”Liar!”, 1941). Asimov also named the related occupation (roboticist) and the adjective robotic.

2. Genetic engineering. The other science that received its name from a science fiction story, in this case Jack Williamson’s novel Dragon’s Island, which was coincidentally published in the same year as “Liar!” The occupation of genetic engineer took a few more years to be named, this time by Poul Anderson.

3. Zero-gravity/zero-g. A defining feature of life in outer space (sans artificial gravity, of course). The first known use of “zero-gravity” is from Jack Binder (better known for his work as an artist) in 1938, and actually refers to the gravityless state of the center of the Earth’s core. Arthur C. Clarke gave us “zero-g” in his 1952 novel Islands in the Sky.

4. Deep space. One of the other defining features of outer space is its essential emptiness. In science fiction, this phrase most commonly refers to a region of empty space between stars or that is remote from the home world. E. E. “Doc” Smith seems to have coined this phrase in 1934. The more common use in the sciences refers to the region of space outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

5. Ion drive. An ion drive is a type of spaceship engine that creates propulsion by emitting charged particles in the direction opposite of the one you want to travel. The earliest citation in Brave New Words is again from Jack Williamson (”The Equalizer”, 1947). A number of spacecraft have used this technology, beginning in the 1970s.

6. Pressure suit. A suit that maintains a stable pressure around its occupant; useful in both space exploration and high-altitude flights. This is another one from the fertile mind of E. E. Smith. Curiously, his pressure suits were furred, an innovation not, alas, replicated by NASA.

7. Virus. Computer virus, that is. Dave Gerrold (of “The Trouble With Tribbles” fame) was apparently the first to make the verbal analogy between biological viruses and self-replicating computer programs, in his 1972 story “When Harlie Was One.”

8. Worm. Another type of self-replicating computer program. So named by John Brunner in his 1975 novel Shockwave Rider.

9. Gas giant. A large planet, like Jupiter or Neptune, that is composed largely of gaseous material. The first known use of this term is from a story (”Solar Plexus”) by James Blish; the odd thing about it is that it was first used in a reprint of the story, eleven years after the story was first published. Whether this is because Blish conceived of the term in the intervening years or read it somewhere else, or whether it was in the original manuscript and got edited out is impossible to say at this point.

[Impressive. I always knew that reading SF did wonders for my vocabulary. I guess this confirms it.]