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

Monday, June 29, 2009

My Favourite Movies: National Treasure

Nick Cage plays Ben Gates in this historical romp and hysterical treasure hunt/chase movie. The Gates family came into part of a secret through accident that leads, so generations have thought, to a treasure beyond measure. Only Ben has yet to give up the dream. His initial team mate, played rather badly by Sean Bean, clearly is more interested in the money that the treasure and the fact that they need to steal the Declaration of Independence doesn’t faze him at all. So begins a parallel chase and puzzle solving race to unearth clues and find the treasure. As they race across New England the FBI are also on Gate’s tail for conspiracy, theft and the kidnapping of the beautiful curator of the museum he robbed.

This is beyond a doubt a very silly movie. The trick, however, is to keep the audience in a state of breathlessness as clue follows on clue and chase follows chase. This film literally doesn’t stop. This film is also dripping with patriotism, but (rather strangely) the irritation level is very low because the information is presented in small bite sized pieces and with a heavy does of humour. It’s like a history lesson given by a teacher who, from time to time cracks a joke or simply winks at his audience as he continues to educate them. I suppose that this film is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s a film that I really shouldn’t like. But I do – a lot. I did however hate the sequel with a deep passion. It had none of the ‘originality’ of the first movie and was without any sense of fun. National Treasure is a film fully aware of what it is and does not try to be anything else than a tongue in cheek adventure movie that knows exactly what its doing and is not afraid to let the audience know it knows what its doing. That, I think, is the selling point for me. I love it and I’m not ashamed to say so.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Childless is not a synonym for weird

By Ruth Sunderland for The Observer

Sunday 24 May 2009

Helen Alexander, the first female president of the CBI, lost no time when she was appointed a couple of days ago in declaring she wants to see more women in the boardroom. She will have her work cut out: new research has found that not only are working mothers subjected to discrimination in the office, so are childless women who singlemindedly devote themselves to their career. A new book by Dr Caroline Gatrell, based on several years of research on women in employment, found some bosses consider those who choose not to have kids to be cold and odd, and refuse to promote them, since their deficiency of maternal instinct is seen as tantamount to a lack of "essential humanity". Quite right too, according to one female columnist, who argued that non-mothers in the workplace are selfish, hungover, predatory bitches vying for the attention of male executives. Women who did not choose their childless state don't fare much better - these unfortunates are dismissed as "the unwilling barren". Tricky, then, to choose between professional personae: pitiable, wrung-out victim or materialistic, unnatural hag.

I hope these sentiments are not widely held, but one national newspaper editor is on record as saying that he didn't think anyone could do his job unless they were married with children, as they "wouldn't understand the human condition". He backtracked and apologised to gay men - but not to childless women. The research, first reported in this newspaper, did spark a lively defence of the childless woman at work: parents were reminded that non-breeding females, along with gay men, will be manning many of the desks this week while the fecund swan off for half term. True, but beside the point, which is that it is outrageous for women's careers to be hobbled by intrusive and ill-founded inferences about their character, based purely on their fertility status. Even supposing those hollow husks of women who prefer their BlackBerry and their Blahniks to babies actually are inferior workers, what makes employers so sure they can distinguish them from the "unwilling barren", who presumably deserve slightly better treatment? I know plenty of women in their late thirties and forties who don't have kids, but only one who took a deliberate decision to be child-free and she's not even a careerist - dogs and gardening are her thing. The others haven't reproduced for a variety of messy, muddled reasons: they got divorced before they got pregnant; they didn't meet the right man in time; they tried but nothing happened. Which among them should be branded childless by choice? Hard to say. Given a totally free choice, I'd guess most of them would have plumped for a decent partner, a couple of adorable children and a good job, but that wasn't what was on offer. They made the best decision they could from the options available.

Women without kids are a sizable minority: a fifth of those born after 1975 are predicted to remain childless. They can't neatly be divided into ball-breakers and victims, because they are real, ambivalent human beings, not cartoon figures. The reasons women don't have kids can be complex and sensitive, involving deeply private medical and emotional issues. Tricky to explain it all to a judgmental, sceptical employer and no one should ever have to. Whatever we do at work, it seems we will still get it wrong: if you're under 40 and childless, they won't promote you because they think you'll get pregnant, but if you're over 40 and childless, you're not going to get promoted either, because they think you won't - they reckon you're going to morph into Cruella De Vil instead. After decades of feminism, it's unbelievably depressing to see that childless women are still viewed as threatening, selfish and verging on the subhuman. It seems we have barely moved on from the spiteful polemicists who attacked the "surplus women" left single and childless after the Great War. In her book on that generation, Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson quotes one male writer, Anthony M Ludovici, who labelled them as "malign... deficient... wretched". His insults did nothing to stop a pioneering generation of professional women from making their mark, including Richmal Crompton, whose William books are testament that a woman can be childless and still have a profound understanding of human nature. Motherhood is a huge part of female identity and any woman who doesn't experience it, for whatever reason, has to find meaning and self-definition in different ways. Work is one important area for childless women to find fulfilment and to contribute to society, and employers should recognise what they have to offer, not seek to punish them for being outside the maternal mainstream. Being childless means what it says: a lack of children, not a lack of ability, a lack of empathy or a lack of humanity.

[It does surprise me that even in these days of global recession and global warming exacerbated by an ever growing population there is still a less than subtle societal pressure to produce children. Those of us – for various reasons – who have refused that particular siren call are seen as odd or, rather strangely, selfish. As if having money in the bank and the ability to take several foreign holidays a year is a sign of selfishness! Anyway, it’s about time we moved on from the archaic notion that the ability or desire to produce children gives the parents some kind of special kudos. It doesn’t. Indeed bringing yet another hungry mouth into the world, rather than choosing not to, can be seen as the height of irresponsibility. Maybe in the not too distant future it will be seen as such.]

Friday, June 26, 2009

Word of the Week: Dystopia

[Gk. Dys-, “bad” + topos “place”, after UTOPIA] an imagined society or state of affairs in which conditions are extremely bad, especially in which these conditions result from the continuation of some current trend to an extreme; the genre of fiction set in such a society.

First recorded use: 1868. J.S. Mill Hansard Commons (March 12): It is perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practical; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practical.
Picture Time.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

Mercy Thompson is a hard working mechanic in modern day America. What most of her clients don’t know is that she’s also a supernatural creature. She’s what the Native Americans call a skin-walker, a shape-shifter who can change at will into a Coyote. This comes in handy when dealing with her nearest neighbour (and would be lover) who is also the Alpha of the local werewolf pack. Mercy lives in too worlds, the natural everyday and the supernatural. Times however are a changing. Some of the magical creatures that have always been with us are making themselves public. First the Fae, who hide behind their storybook image, and lately the werewolves who portray themselves to the public as heroes in war and the emergency services. But there is another group who have no intention of going public. Vampires have every reason to keep in hiding and even more reason to stop anyone from breaking their silence. Into this explosive mix comes a new vampire with insatiable needs to cause death and chaos. Although newly made he holds a secret of his life before he was turned. Before joining the ranks of the undead he was a sorcerer already inhabited by a demon. A demon who is determined to bring Hell to small town America unless the local vampires can stop him and continue hiding in the shadows – and to do this they need Mercy’s help, help that will reveal part of her kinds history and also reveal why the vampires are so afraid of her.

This was the second book in the Mercedes Thompson series and lived up to the expectations resulting from the first book. Good characterisation, a consistent plot and an interesting larger situation into which the action was placed produced a real page turner. Modern urban fantasy is a huge genre populated by a plethora of sassy females whose task it seems to be to save the world on a regular basis - Buffy Summers certainly has a lot to answer for. This is only the second Briggs books I’ve ever read and I am very impressed so far – I already own the third book in the series and the first book of another series by her so you’ll be hearing from Ms Briggs again I assure you. If you’re a fan of modern fantasy with strong female leads or just want to try out the genre for the first time I can certainly recommend this series as a good place to start. You won’t be disappointed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Just Finished reading: Imperium by Robert Harris

In Republican Rome circa 79BC a young ‘New Man’ without family history or fortune to call on has a burning ambition to rise to power in the greatest civilisation the world has ever seen. To do so he uses the only talents he has – his intellect and his voice. That man is Marcus Cicero who, through political manoeuvring and pivotal court cases, became the most famous orator of the ancient world. But such a political journey is not without its dangers – especially when your contemporaries are some of the most ruthless and dangerous men who have ever lived. Men who crave power like a normal man craves air and water. Men like Pompey, Crassus and the young upstart Julius Caesar. If Cicero puts one foot wrong he signs his own death warrant. But if he can navigate through the alliances he needs to make he could become the most powerful man in Rome.

Told through the reminiscences of his household slave and personal secretary this is often a gripping tale of political intrigue and courtroom drama played against the background of Republican Rome as it slides towards Empire. Both an accomplished historical account and an often powerful political drama I learnt more about the Roman legal system that I ever thought possible or ever wanted too. It would be easy to make such a drama drag – especially when the time and place is so far away but Harris manages to bring to life the real day to day events of people in that far away place. There were times when I did think enough was enough but Harris managed to always keep on the right side of an interesting and often funny subject. His characters were very well drawn indeed as were his places and often threatening situations. It takes real talent to present the different in a familiar way and Harris manages to mix both very well indeed. I was certainly impressed enough to read his other Rome based books in the future. This is a very good read for anyone with even a passing interest in Roman history.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The police should take note: little brother's watching you

By John Naughton for The Observer

Sunday 12 April 2009

The attack on Ian Tomlinson was the Metropolitan Police's "Rodney King moment". King, you may recall, is a black American who, in March 1991, was savagely beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers after being stopped for a speeding offence. A resident videotaped the proceedings from his apartment. The Los Angeles District Attorney charged four officers with use of excessive force. A jury acquitted three of them and failed to agree about a verdict on the fourth. Six days of rioting followed, in which more than 50 people died and $1bn of property was destroyed.

The assault on Tomlinson will not spark off a riot, but nobody should underestimate the outrage it has generated. And from the instant the video footage - shot by an American bystander using his digital still camera - appeared on the Guardian website, it was clear that we had reached a pivotal moment. Consumer technology had given citizens a serious tool for recording how policemen behave. It also brought to mind the case of Blair Peach, the young New Zealand teacher who, on a demonstration 30 years ago, was clubbed by a police officer and died the day after of his injuries. Nobody was ever tried for the assault and the coroner recorded a verdict of "death by misadventure".

There was no "citizen journalism" at the time of the Peach case. Nobody had a cameraphone or a digital camcorder, because they hadn't been invented. And the incident wasn't recorded by any press photographer or film crew. So the cop who attacked the young teacher escaped scot-free. In a normal democracy we would expect that the technology which revealed what really happened to Tomlinson would stimulate a reassessment by the police about how they conduct themselves. Accidents will happen, terrible things are sometimes done in the heat of the moment, and political demonstrations attract their share of violent and disturbed people, but from now on the police will have to reckon with the possibility that anything they do will be recorded and globally published. At one time, they - and the authorities they serve - were the only ones with CCTV and face-recognition technology, the ones with the sole prerogative to videotape and photograph demonstrators. Now this technology is in the hands of consumers.

The police have two choices. Accept that digital technology will make them accountable for their actions or try to control the technology. In any normal society there would be no decision to be made. But since 9/11 the threat of global terrorism has given the state - and its security apparatus - carte blanche to take whatever measures it deems necessary. And it has imbued in every uniformed operative, from "Community Support" officers and the bobby on the beat to the bored guy in the airport checking your toothpaste, the kind of arrogance we once associated only with authoritarian regimes. You think I jest? Talk to any keen amateur photographer. As a group, photographers have been subjected to increasingly outrageous harassment by police and security operatives. Try photographing a bridge, public building or a police car parked on a double-yellow line and you will have a goon demanding your camera, image card or film. Better still, ask John Randall, a Tory MP who recently told the Commons how one of his Uxbridge constituents, a Mr Wusche, photographed properties he thought were in bad repair to pass on to the council. In front of one building was a police car containing police community support officers who had parked on a double yellow line as they popped into a sandwich bar. Randall told MPs that "one of the PCSOs went over to Mr Wusche" - who fled fascist Italy in his youth - "and told him that he must immediately delete the photographs. When Mr Wusche asked why, he was handed a notice and pretty much cautioned. That upset him a great deal". It upsets me too. And I expect that when the fuss over Ian Tomlinson's tragic death has died down, we will find that the Nokia N82 and the Canon Digital Ixus have joined flick-knives, knuckledusters and coshes on the list of "offensive weapons". Welcome to New Labour's National Surveillance State.

[Yet again I’m sure that this is all for our own good. But it is nice to see Big Brother being filmed by his little brother’s and sister’s when he’s up to no good. As we have seen during the recent demonstrations in Iran it’s very difficult to keep things secret any more when just about everyone has a camera in their mobile phone. Welcome to 1984 Mr Policeman. How do you like it!]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Just Finished Reading: 1968 – The Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

It’s an odd feeling reading a history book about a time you actually lived through. It feels as if there’s some kind of temporal echo going on as you struggle to think if you actually remember something at the time or only heard about it later. I felt like that more than once during my reading of this fascinating and detailed book.

1968 was a pivotal years in many ways and contained more than its fair share of important events. It was the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that heralded the end of the war 7 years later (now that I have very clear memories of). It was the year both MLK and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. It was the year when the Civil Right movement looked unstoppable as well as the year when the new Feminism hit the headlines. It was the year of global student protests which almost brought France to its knees and forced the Russian invasion of Prague. It was the year of the black power salute on the Olympic field in Mexico and the year 'Tricky Dickie' finally made it to the Whitehouse. In many ways it was the year that everything changed.

Mark Kurlansky’s book is a journey through that amazing year. Sometimes in a little too much detail he delves into the events that shaped a generation and the lives of the people who shaped the events. It’s sometimes hard to believe that so much happened in only twelve months. I certainly now know more about the times than I ever thought I needed too and in some cases ever thought I wanted too. Generally Kurlansky hops across the globe dealing with each incident before moving onto something equally fascinating. Much of the book does concentrate on events in America, and rightly so, but he did, at least from my point of view, linger a bit too much there. Although he did spend quite a few pages describing things in Europe he often seemed to feel the need to relate it to what was happening back in the States. Again I appreciated why he did this – as many of the protest methods originated in the US campus student clashes and the unifying theme of the protests world wide was America’s war in Vietnam. I did feel nonetheless that there was a gentle bias which I couldn’t help finding slightly irritating. This was, however, a very minor quibble about a generally well written, well researched and highly readable book. If you have any interest in why the world is how it is today then this book with help you understand part of the picture. Recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Poll: Just 53% Favor Capitalism Over Socialism

by Craig Brown for Common Dreams

Friday, April 10, 2009

Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better. Investors by a 5-to-1 margin choose capitalism. As for those who do not invest, 40% say capitalism is better while 25% prefer socialism. There is a partisan gap as well. Republicans - by an 11-to-1 margin - favor capitalism. Democrats are much more closely divided: Just 39% say capitalism is better while 30% prefer socialism. As for those not affiliated with either major political party, 48% say capitalism is best, and 21% opt for socialism. The question posed by Rasmussen Reports did not define either capitalism or Socialism.

It is interesting to compare the new results to an earlier survey in which 70% of Americans prefer a free-market economy. The fact that a "free-market economy" attracts substantially more support than "capitalism" may suggest some skepticism about whether capitalism in the United States today relies on free markets. Other survey data supports that notion. Rather than seeing large corporations as committed to free markets, two-out-of-three Americans believe that big government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors.

Fifteen percent (15%) of Americans say they prefer a government-managed economy, similar to the 20% support for socialism. Just 14% believe the federal government would do a better job running auto companies, and even fewer believe government would do a better job running financial firms. Most Americans today hold views that can generally be defined as populist while only seven percent (7%) share the elitist views of the Political Class.

[I guess that as the questions posed did not define either Capitalism or Socialism what we have here is a demographic breakdown of prejudice rather than anything meaningful….. If you don’t know what you’re voting for how can the results be in any way accurate?]

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why we still love Star Trek

by Lawrence Krauss for New Scientist

12 June 2009

NOTHING has surprised me more in the past month than the barrage of phone calls I received from reporters about the new Star Trek movie. Many asked me to comment on what Star Trek technologies have been realised since the original series, which ones remain a vague hope and which are impossible. Others wanted to know what I thought of the science in the movie, from space-diving to black-hole time travel.

Frankly, I had expected quite the opposite reaction to the prequel, figuring that fans would pan it and pundits would bemoan an attempt to hark back to a 1960s phenomenon. Yet the fascination with Star Trek is everywhere, in magazines and on the opinion pages of major newspapers. Why, 43 years after it first aired, does Star Trek still hold us in such thrall? I think that a large part of the fascination can be traced to our many current crises, both fiscal and environmental. Of all science-fiction drama in the past half-century, Star Trek was based on a hopeful view of the future - one where the "infinite possibilities of existence", as the character Q said in The Next Generation series, could be exploited for the benefit of humankind and aliens alike. A future where science and reason would prevail over superstition, religious fundamentalism and petty myopic rivalries, and where technology could be developed to address almost any challenge.

Many aspects of this vision were and still are unrealistic. Nevertheless, it has obvious appeal in times of uncertainty. The current generation faces for the first time problems that are truly global in nature: climate change, dwindling oil and rising population, to name just a few. There are hopeful signs that we are moving closer to a society based on reason, as in Star Trek. President Obama has spoken out explicitly for the need to base decision-making on sound science, as well as acknowledging the reality of various environmental and energy challenges and pointing out that we urgently need to exploit science and technology to meet them. Will we have the wisdom to move towards a future where all of humanity has a common goal? Will we as a species finally discard the silly religious myths that separate groups and get in the way of an honest and realistic assessment of the world around us, so that we can address real problems with real solutions? Star Trek does not present a world free of conflict, emotion, jealousy, love or hatred. The essential tension between the chief protagonists, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, over what is logical versus what is right forms a key dialectic, but the show ultimately presents a world in which human emotions and reason can peacefully coexist.

It remains to be seen whether science and reason can help guide humanity to a better and more peaceful future, but I think this belief is part of what keeps the Star Trek franchise going. I can only hope that it is not as unrealistic as falling into a black hole and coming out in one piece.

[I am a huge fan of the original series. Not one of those fans who walk about in OS uniforms or dress their dogs as cast members but a huge fan nevertheless. What hardly crossed my mind at the time were its utopian aspects. I actually don’t think that ST:OS was that utopian. Now TNG certainly had its utopian side – which were normally the bits I really didn’t like. Life in the Federation looked decidedly boring to me. Of course out on the Frontier it was a different story. That was where the action was and that was where the Enterprise was helping people whilst kicking ass and taking names – if they could spell them. DS9 was, I thought, a vast disappointment so the less said about it the better. Voyager I liked in parts – and I’m not simply talking about Seven here. Finally Enterprise was very hit and miss. The Temporal War was very silly as was the whole Xindi arc. Only at the very end, typically just before it was cancelled, did Enterprise start regularly hitting it out of the ballpark. But my love of the franchise has little to do with its utopian aspects (I actually despise utopia’s) but much more to do with the exploration and adventure, the seeking out of new worlds and the boldness to go where no one had gone before and meet people there who spoke English. That’s what Star Trek was all about to me.]

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Rebel by Albert Camus

It sometimes makes a refreshing change to read a book of philosophy rather than a book about philosophy. Of course this usually means that you’re in for a hard time trying to understand just what this particular philosopher is all about and it can pretty intense at times. So it was with my first full-on exposure to Camus. I’d read about him before – at a slight distance – but have never read anything by him until now. I must say that I was generally very impressed.

The Rebel is, not surprisingly, about the idea of rebellion through modern (mostly European) history. Beginning with the rebellion against God – via a rebellion against His earthly representatives and the concept of the divine right of Kings – Camus concentrates mostly on the French Revolution, which he critiques in great detail bringing many facts to light regarding how far some of the revolutionaries were prepared to go to ‘save’ the revolution from the people it was supposed to represent, before setting his sights on the Russian Revolution and the triumph of Soviet Communism. After being involved in the Communist French Resistance – by far the most effective section of that movement – you would be justified in thinking that Camus would give his support to the Soviet State. How wrong we would both be on this point. In the middle of this book Camus produces what I can only describe as some of the most effective, withering and relentless criticism of an ideology I can remember reading – ever. Reading it almost made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I hadn’t really felt that way since reading Nietzsche for the first time. It was awesome. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his good friend Sartre and the French Communist party roundly attacked him for his views.

The later part of the book proved to be a particular struggle for me. Here Camus discussed the artist as rebel and this proved to be quite honestly way above my head. However, the majority of this work was very interesting and I can see clearly why students all over the world took this book, and this author, to its collective heart in the rebellions of the 1960’s. Camus writes like a novelist rather than a philosopher which is where some of the criticism of his status comes from I guess – either that or the fact that he did actually write novels, but then again Sartre wrote plays so who can say (and of course Rousseau wrote Opera). Whilst not always an easy read Camus does get his ideas across even to someone still finding his way in philosophy like I am. You’ll certainly be seeing his name here again… and soon. Recommended.

Monday, June 08, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

In 1939 New York the airship Hindenburg III docks with the Empire State Building. On it is a mysterious run-away scientist fleeing for his life from the even more mysterious Dr Totenkopf. Investigative journalist Polly Perkins – played to perfection by Gwyneth Paltrow – is chasing a story of missing scientists and meets her contact at the Radio City Music Hall. As she is leaving with startling new evidence New York is attacked by giant robots intent on stealing heavy equipment. As the local authorities are overwhelmed they call for help from the only force capable of intervening – Sky Captain (played by Jude Law). After he cripples several of the robots they vanish as quickly as they arrived, leaving devastation and confusion in their wake. When Sky Captains mechanical genius side-kick Dex discovers a signal controlling the robots he tracks the origin to a remote area of Tibet. Sky Captain and ex-lover Polly set off in pursuit to unmask Totenkopf and save the world from destruction.

This is a seriously fun film. Made almost entirely in CGI it is nothing less that a moving work of art. Almost everything from the backgrounds to the vehicles to entire sets were created by computer with the only real objects being the actors themselves and a few props. The idea works wonderfully to create the atmosphere of the Saturday morning Matinee serials of the 30’s and 40’s I am far too young to remember – except in TV re-runs. Basically a homage to the classic hero story almost forgotten in a world of cynical exploitation and greed this film kept me glued to the screen the whole time. It was dramatic, touching and funny in turn and obviously made by people who knew and loved their genre. Being a Brit I particularly loved Angelina Jolie as Franky the frightfully well spoken Squadron Leader complete with fetching eye patch and tight jet-black uniform. The Dan Dare like flying aircraft carriers were works of genius (though highly impractical if not downright impossible) and I absolutely loved it when the fighters dived towards the sea and became submersibles. Brilliant. If you missed out on this 2004 masterpiece I suggest you rent it or borrow it from a friend. It might take a bit to get into as its probably very different from anything you’ve seen before but trust me, it’ll be worth the effort. Make yourself a mug of your favourite hot drink and enjoy a sample of no holds nostalgic heroism at its best.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

'Gay penguins' rear adopted chick

From the BBC

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Two "gay" male penguins have hatched a chick and are now rearing it as its adoptive parents, says a German zoo. The zoo, in Bremerhaven, northern Germany, says the adult males - Z and Vielpunkt - were given an egg which was rejected by its biological parents. It says the couple are now happily rearing the chick, said to have reached four weeks old. The zoo made headlines in 2005 over plans to "test" the sexual orientation of penguins with homosexual traits. Three pairs of male penguins had been seen attempting to mate with each other and trying to hatch offspring from stones.

The zoo flew in four females in a bid to get the endangered birds to reproduce - but quickly abandoned the scheme after causing outrage among gay rights activists, who accused it of interfering in the animals' behaviour. The six "gay" penguins remain at the zoo, among them Z and Vielpunkt who are now rearing the chick together after being given the rejected egg. "Z and Vielpunkt, both males, gladly accepted their 'Easter gift' and got straight down to raising it," said a zoo statement. "Since the chick arrived, they have been behaving just as you would expect a heterosexual couple to do. The two happy fathers spend their days attentively protecting, caring for and feeding their adopted offspring." Humboldt penguins are normally found in coastal Peru and Chile, but their numbers have been dwindling due to overfishing, reports the AFP news agency.

There have been previous reports of exclusive male-to-male pairings among penguins, some of which have also included the rearing of chicks. Homosexual behaviour is well documented in many different animals, but it is not understood in detail, says Professor Stuart West, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. Professor West says it has been suggested that homosexual activity could serve various purposes - for instance, it may relate to social bonding and establishment of dominance among bonobo chimps, while in some bird species, females may come together to rear young. Other animals may simply exhibit a "drive to mate", while others may, like humans, enjoy non-procreative sexual activity. "Homosexuality is nothing unusual among animals," Bremerhaven zoo said on Wednesday. "Sex and coupling up in our world do not necessarily have anything to do with reproduction."

[Stories like this illustrate, if any such illustration was actually needed, that homosexual behaviour is completely normal in a number of animal species – including our own. Maybe we can finally ditch the whole ‘not-natural’ argument and move on now?]

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Transparent Society – Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and freedom? By David Brin

It’s pretty much always a strange feeling reading books about technology – particularly IT. Even though this book was written in 1998 and is intended as forward looking it still manages to seem rather quaint and dated. Living amongst our technically charged society the speed of progress can seem very impressive. But it’s really when you read books about the subject that you can see just how fast things are moving.

Brin, who I previous knew purely as an author of hard SF, puts forward the interesting idea that the best way to handle the growing danger of computer advancement impinging upon and finally defeating any idea of privacy is the exact opposite of what many people seem to be advocating. Many, it seems, put their faith in stronger and stronger encryption and such devices as anonymous re-mailers. This faith, Brin suggests, is deeply flawed because those in power – and not just the government – have the resources to break encryption without anyone being aware of it. If this came to pass – if it hasn’t already done so – we would have a society where ‘they’ can spy on us but we (in blissful ignorance) are still incapable of spying on them. Brin’s idea is rather than increase secrecy we instead increase openness. We turn the (metaphorical and the real) CCTV camera’s on everyone – no matter who they are. Rather naively Brin thinks that we’d get pretty tired pretty quickly of snooping on our neighbours – especially knowing that they could be snooping at us snooping at them. Of course this was written before the world wide television phenomena known, rather ironically in this context, as Big Brother.

Whilst presently an interesting idea in a readable, though sometimes plodding, fashion I thought that Brin singularly failed to make his case. If the Authorities, and other parties equally capable, could theoretically crack even the best encryption codes I’m pretty sure that they could dupe most of the people most of the time into believing that their society was far more transparent that it actually was. Brin, I thought, was either simply naïve or strangely unaware that those in power will never give it up without a very long and very hard fight. Recent events on both sides of the Atlantic show that those in power simply cannot be trusted. Brin’s naïve suggestion that they can be controlled by well-meaning whistle blowers and hackers comes I think very much from a pre-9/11 mindset. These days control is everything and control is never easily relinquished. Several things did irritate me in a general sense about this book – the fact that it was almost universally American focused and that it definitely had the whiff of right wing bias or maybe that’s just me reading between the lines too much. This is a worthwhile background read on the subject and presents a different point of view from the mainstream but if you’re interested in the subject I’d pick up something a bit more up to date.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Thinking About: Toddlers and Puppies

On the bus on the way home last night I watched with interest as a young mother struggled to keep the toddler in her arms under some kind of control. He wasn’t being annoying or loud or anything bad he was just looking around the bus in open mouthed amazement at the world. I really couldn’t help smiling. He was just so full of life it was a delight to watch. It’s a bit like my attitude towards puppies – they are quite literally ‘life on a leash’. Toddlers look at the world with a real sense of wonder because everything is a new experience for them. As adults many of us have lost that ability to watch a butterfly flutter by with open mouthed joy, to feel wonder at a plant many consider a weed growing between the cracks in a wall, to be entranced as a plastic bag dances in the wind. These are every day sights that most people either ignore completely or dismiss as irrelevant. But if we see, at least for a moment here and there, the world through a toddler’s eye I think that our lives would be greatly enhanced. Toddlers not only have begun to realise that they are alive but revel in each moment as impression after impression flood into their sponge like minds. They drink in life in huge laughing mouthfuls. I am envious of their gusto and try, as much as I can, to sprinkle a bit of that into my day to day existence. It’s not easy. Life is busy and full of problems. It’s difficult to even notice things going on around you most of the time. We have things on our minds that toddlers can’t even conceive of so it’s not surprising that we don’t see the little things that we’ve seen a thousand times before. We adults are jaded creatures often blissfully unaware at just how amazing it is to be alive. I recommend the next time you’re out in public to check out the way toddlers react to things we just take for granted. Stop being so blasé about day to day wonders and at least stop from time to time to watch life go by with wonder in your eyes and delight in your hearts.