About Me

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

Monday, August 31, 2009

Republicans, Religion and the Triumph of Unreason

by Johann Hari for The Independent

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Something strange has happened in America in the nine months since Barack Obama was elected. It has best been summarised by the comedian Bill Maher: "The Democrats have moved to the right, and the Republicans have moved to a mental hospital." The election of Obama - a black man with an anti-conservative message - as a successor to George W. Bush has scrambled the core American right's view of their country. In their gut, they saw the US as a white-skinned, right-wing nation forever shaped like Sarah Palin.

When this image was repudiated by a majority of Americans in a massive landslide, it simply didn't compute. How could this have happened? How could the cry of "Drill, baby, drill" have been beaten by a supposedly big government black guy? So a streak that has always been there in the American right's world-view - to deny reality, and argue against a demonic phantasm of their own creation - has swollen. Now it is all they can see. Since Obama's rise, the US right has been skipping frantically from one fantasy to another, like a person in the throes of a mental breakdown. It started when they claimed he was a secret Muslim, and - at the same time - that he was a member of a black nationalist church that hated white people. Then, once these arguments were rejected and Obama won, they began to argue that he was born in Kenya and secretly smuggled into the United States as a baby, and the Hawaiian authorities conspired to fake his US birth certificate. So he is ineligible to rule and the office of President should pass to... the Republican runner-up, John McCain.

These aren't fringe phenomena: a Research 200 poll found that a majority of Republicans and Southerners say Obama wasn't born in the US, or aren't sure. A steady steam of Republican congressmen have been jabbering that Obama has "questions to answer". No amount of hard evidence - here's his birth certificate, here's a picture of his mother heavily pregnant in Hawaii, here's the announcement of his birth in the local Hawaiian paper - can pierce this conviction. This trend has reached its apotheosis this summer with the Republican Party now claiming en masse that Obama wants to set up "death panels" to euthanise the old and disabled. Yes: Sarah Palin really has claimed - with a straight face - that Barack Obama wants to kill her baby.

You have to admire the audacity of the right. Here's what's actually happening. The US is the only major industrialised country that does not provide regular healthcare to all its citizens. Instead, they are required to provide for themselves - and 50 million people can't afford the insurance. As a result, 18,000 US citizens die every year needlessly, because they can't access the care they require. That's equivalent to six 9/11s, every year, year on year. Yet the Republicans have accused the Democrats who are trying to stop all this death by extending healthcare of being "killers" – and they have successfully managed to put them on the defensive. The Republicans want to defend the existing system, not least because they are given massive sums of money by the private medical firms who benefit from the deadly status quo. But they can't do so honestly: some 70 per cent of Americans say it is "immoral" to retain a medical system that doesn't cover all citizens. So they have to invent lies to make any life-saving extension of healthcare sound depraved.

A few months ago, a recent board member for several private health corporations called Betsy McCaughey reportedly noticed a clause in the proposed healthcare legislation that would pay for old people to see a doctor and write a living will. They could stipulate when (if at all) they would like care to be withdrawn. It's totally voluntary. Many people want it: I know I wouldn't want to be kept alive for a few extra months if I was only going to be in agony and unable to speak. But McCaughey started the rumour that this was a form of euthanasia, where old people would be forced to agree to death. This was then stretched to include the disabled, like Palin's youngest child, who she claimed would have to "justify" his existence. It was flatly untrue - but the right had their talking-point, Palin declared the non-existent proposals "downright evil", and they were off. It's been amazingly successful. Now, every conversation about healthcare has to begin with a Democrat explaining at great length that, no, they are not in favour of killing the elderly - while Republicans get away with defending a status quo that kills 18,000 people a year. The hypocrisy was startling: when Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska, she encouraged citizens there to take out living wills. Almost all the Republicans leading the charge against "death panels" have voted for living wills in the past. But the lie has done its work: a confetti of distractions has been thrown up, and support is leaking away from the plan that would save lives.

These increasingly frenzied claims have become so detached from reality that they often seem like black comedy. The right-wing magazine US Investors' Daily claimed that if Stephen Hawking had been British, he would have been allowed to die at birth by its "socialist" healthcare system. Hawking responded with a polite cough that he is British, and "I wouldn't be here without the NHS". This tendency to simply deny inconvenient facts and invent a fantasy world isn't new; it's only becoming more heightened. It ran through the Bush years like a dash of bourbon in water. When it became clear that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, the US right simply claimed they had been shipped to Syria. When the scientific evidence for man-made global warming became unanswerable, they claimed - as one Republican congressman put it - that it was "the greatest hoax in human history", and that all the world's climatologists were "liars". The American media then presents itself as an umpire between "the rival sides", as if they both had evidence behind them. It's a shame, because there are some areas in which a conservative philosophy - reminding us of the limits of grand human schemes, and advising caution - could be a useful corrective. But that's not what these so-called "conservatives" are providing: instead, they are pumping up a hysterical fantasy that serves as a thin skin covering some raw economic interests and base prejudices. For many of the people at the top of the party, this is merely cynical manipulation. One of Bush's former advisers, David Kuo, has said the President and Karl Rove would mock evangelicals as "nuts" as soon as they left the Oval Office. But the ordinary Republican base believe this stuff. They are being tricked into opposing their own interests through false fears and invented demons. Last week, one of the Republicans sent to disrupt a healthcare town hall started a fight and was injured - and then complained he had no health insurance. I didn't laugh; I wanted to weep.

How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality? It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have "faith" - which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don't have "faith" that Australia exists, or that fire burns: you have evidence. You only need "faith" to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational. Up to now, Obama has not responded well to this onslaught of unreason. He has had a two-pronged strategy: conciliate the elite economic interests, and joke about the fanatical fringe they are stirring up. He has (shamefully) assured the pharmaceutical companies that an expanded healthcare system will not use the power of government as a purchaser to bargain down drug prices, while wryly saying in public that he "doesn't want to kill Grandma". Rather than challenging these hard interests and bizarre fantasies aggressively, he has tried to flatter and soothe them. This kind of mania can't be co-opted: it can only be overruled. Sometimes in politics you will have enemies, and they must be democratically defeated. The political system cannot be gummed up by a need to reach out to the maddest people or the greediest constituencies. There is no way to expand healthcare without angering Big Pharma and the Republicaloons. So be it. As Arianna Huffington put it, "It is as though, at the height of the civil rights movement, you thought you had to bring together Martin Luther King and George Wallace and make them agree. It's not how change happens." However strange it seems, the Republican Party really is spinning off into a bizarre cult who believe Barack Obama is a baby-killer plotting to build death panels for the grannies of America. Their new slogan could be - shrill, baby, shrill.

[I thought that it would be interesting to my American readership to see how we view what’s going on in the US from over here. I think the words most used are “bizarre” and “crazy”. Sometimes I do wonder if American culture is beyond understanding – or maybe just beyond reason.]

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Max Payne

Max is a New York detective working in the Cold Case section. Years before his wife and child had been killed and the third member of the gang that killed them had escaped never to be found. Until now…. Max is onto something and follows a trail of dead bodies to a new and highly addictive drug. What he doesn’t have yet is the final piece of the puzzle that ties it all together. But he’s not letting anything or anyone get in his way to discover the truth.

On the face of it this is a pretty run-of-the-mill revenge flick. Hero suffers loss, hero discovers conspiracy, hero tracks down bad guys, hero kills bad guys, hero destroys conspiracy, and hero saves the world. You know the plot. Hollywood have produced hundreds of films with this formula – because its basically a good formula. What pushed this particular movie into a favourite movies category were the visuals. The cinematography is, in my opinion, quite outstanding. Even in the normal scenes, in the daylight, there is a brooding dark menace. It gets even better when the ‘supernatural’ elements are introduced. I loved in particular when the snow flakes became sparks and burning embers. That was a wonderful effect. I was also impressed by the sound in this film. I liked the way some individual sounds – during a shootout for instance – were isolated and exaggerated. It helped to produce an interesting scene.

One of the things that made me laugh during this movie was the inclusion of Mila Kunis who I liked in That 70’s Show and as the voice of Meg Griffin in Family Guy. I remember thinking – when she started talking in Russian (or more probably Ukrainian) with her sister played by the stunning Olga Kurylenko – that her accent sounded really good and I was impressed by her acting ability. Until that is I looked her up on IMdb to find out that both of them are actually from the Ukraine so were actually talking in their native language!

Overall I enjoyed this film very much. I watched it again yesterday and noticed lots of Film Noir references (and not just in the way it was filmed) including Noir movie posters in the Internal Affairs detectives office and, I think, a bust of Friedrich Nietzsche on his desk which is rather intriguing. This is a good solid action film but take your time with it and enjoy the visual effects more than anything else. They’re quite wonderful.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith

Moscow 1991. State Special Investigator Arkady Renko receives information from a black-market banker. Moments later the informant is dead as his car explodes in flames. When the bankers flat is searched a fax is discovered with the cryptic message: Where is Red Square? The return phone number is in Munich, West Germany. As the Soviet Union enters its final moments of collapse the only recently reinstated Renko must battle against official interference and mistrust, the machinations of the Russian Mafia and the lack of any decent forensic equipment. All that he has are his years of experience and a determination to get to the bottom of things whilst each night he listens to the voice of his ex-lover on a pirate radio station based in Germany - a woman who cost him his career and caused him to suffer through years of internal exile.

As anyone who reads my book reviews knows, I’m a lover of good characterisation. Renko is one of the best characters I have come across in the genre of political/detective fiction. I ‘fell in love’ with him after watching the movie of the first book in this series - Gorky Park – where he was played marvellously by the truly wonderful William Hurt. Whenever I read any of the books in this series Hurt always plays Renko. This novel is beautifully atmospheric. The feel of a decaying Soviet Union in terminal decline is just awesome. The language is delightful in its knowing cynicism and unspoken hope. Renko is a man who is deeply aware of his situation and, despite the forces ranged against him, is still his own man. Buffeted by forces he cannot control or often understand he not only survives but lives to challenge the movers and shakers of his world. This is part political thriller, part detective and part love story. Renko basically put his existence on the line (in the first novel) to help his lover Irina to defect to the West and then sacrificed himself so that she could go free. The subsequent reunion, years later in West Germany, was handled superbly without sentimentality. Again it felt totally real. Indeed it almost felt embarrassing that the reader could intrude so much into the lives of these living breathing characters (there I go again). I honestly loved every minute I spent on this book and savoured every page. Thankfully there are another three books in this series to look forward to and I’m hoping that they all approach the excellence of this book. Highly recommend for anyone who simply wants a damned good read.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis

After dispatching a group of vampires terrorising a small mid-western town, supernatural investigator Quincey Morris (descendent of the Quincey Morris who aided in the dispatch of Dracula) is called in on a case of a suspected poltergeist haunting a New England family. Quincey soon discovers however that this is no poltergeist but is in fact a curse laid on the family as part of a generational feud between witch clans going back to the original Salem trials. Out of his depth, Quincey calls on the services of white witch Libby Chastain to aid him fighting off the machinations of a very powerful witch with death on her mind. In the background meanwhile another witch is procuring the means to destroy all human life on Earth and is leaving the bodies of young children in her wake.

This was the first in a new series of supernatural urban thrillers and wasn’t bad at all. Although pretty run-of-the-mill for the most part the characters were interesting enough and the plot nicely paced. There were few actual surprises and some parts that were either superfluous or just plain silly but it was entertaining enough to keep those pages turning and was interesting enough to keep my attention through almost 500 of them. It was a pretty fast read too which is normally a good sign. It also appeared that the author had actually done a modicum of research into magic and the occult so it had a good overall feel to it. Certainly a reasonable read and I’ll probably be picking up the sequel at some point. If this falls into your lap at some point take a weekend having a bit of fantasy in your life. Otherwise maybe you should try something a bit more meaty or original.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Surveillance made easy.

New Scientist

23 August 2008

"THIS data allows investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time." So said the UK Home Office last week as it announced plans to give law-enforcement agencies, local councils and other public bodies access to the details of people's text messages, emails and internet activity. The move followed its announcement in May that it was considering creating a massive central database to store all this data, as a tool to help the security services tackle crime and terrorism. Meanwhile in the US the FISA Amendments Act, which became law in July, allows the security services to intercept anyone's international phone calls and emails without a warrant for up to seven days. Governments around the world are developing increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance methods in a bid to identify terrorist cells or spot criminal activity. However, technology companies, in particular telecommunications firms and internet service providers, have often been criticised for assisting governments in what many see as unwarranted intrusion, most notably in China. Now German electronics company Siemens has gone a step further, developing a complete "surveillance in a box" system called the Intelligence Platform, designed for security services in Europe and Asia. It has already sold the system to 60 countries.

According to a document obtained by New Scientist, the system integrates tasks typically done by separate surveillance teams or machines, pooling data from sources such as telephone calls, email and internet activity, bank transactions and insurance records. It then sorts through this mountain of information using software that Siemens dubs "intelligence modules". This software is trained on a large number of sample documents to pick out items such as names, phone numbers and places from generic text. This means it can spot names or numbers that crop up alongside anyone already of interest to the authorities, and then catalogue any documents that contain such associates. Once a person is being monitored, pattern-recognition software first identifies their typical behaviour, such as repeated calls to certain numbers over a period of a few months. The software can then identify any deviations from the norm and flag up unusual activities, such as transactions with a foreign bank, or contact with someone who is also under surveillance, so that analysts can take a closer look.Included within the package is a phone call "monitoring centre", developed by the joint-venture company Nokia Siemens Networks.

However, it is far from clear whether the technology will prove accurate. Security experts warn that data-fusion technologies tend to produce a huge number of false positives, flagging up perfectly innocent people as suspicious. "These systems tend to produce false positives, flagging up innocent people as suspicious. Combining two different sources of data has the tendency to increase your false-positive rate or your false-negative rate," says Ross Anderson, a computer security engineer at the University of Cambridge. "If you're looking for burglars in a run-down district where 50 per cent of men have a criminal conviction, you may find plenty. But if you're trying to find terrorists among airline passengers - where they are extremely rare - then almost all your hits will be false." Computer security expert Bruce Schneier agrees. "Currently there are no good patterns available to recognise terrorists," he says, and questions whether Siemens has got around this.

Whatever the level of accuracy, human rights advocates are concerned that the system could give surveillance-hungry repressive regimes a ready-made means of monitoring their citizens. Carole Samdup of the organisation Rights and Democracy in Montreal, Canada, says the system bears a strong resemblance to the Chinese government's "Golden Shield" concept, a massive surveillance network encompassing internet and email monitoring as well as speech and facial-recognition technologies and closed-circuit TV cameras. In 2001, Rights and Democracy raised concerns about the potential for governments to integrate huge information databases with real-time analysis to track the activities of individuals. "Now in 2008 these very characteristics are presented as value-added selling points in the company advertisement of its product," Samdup says. In June, the PRISE consortium of security technology and human-rights experts, funded by the European Union (EU), submitted a report to the European Commission asking for a moratorium on the development of data-fusion technologies, referring explicitly to the Siemens Intelligence Platform. "The efficiency and reliability of such tools is as yet unknown," says the report. "More surveillance does not necessarily lead to a higher level of societal security. Hence there must be a thorough examination of whether the resulting massive constraints on human rights are proportionate and justified." Nokia Siemens says 90 of the systems are already being used around the world, although it hasn't specified which countries are using it. A spokesman for the company said, "We implement stringent safeguards to prevent misuse of such systems for unauthorised purposes. In all countries where we operate we do business strictly according to the Nokia Siemens Networks standard code of conduct and UN and EU export regulations." Samdup argues that such systems should fall under government controls that are imposed on "dual-use" goods - systems that could be used both for civil and military purposes. Security technologies usually escape these controls. For example, the EU regulation on the export and transfer of dual-use technology does not include surveillance and intelligence technologies on the list of items that must be checked and authorised before they are exported to certain countries.

The problem is that surveillance technologies have developed so rapidly that they have outpaced developments in export controls, says Samdup. "In many cases politicians, policy-makers and human-rights organisations lack the technical expertise to adequately assess the impact that such technology could have when it is exported to repressive regimes."

[The future’s bright. The future’s under computer surveillance.]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Beyond Human – Living with Robots and Cyborgs by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malarte

Being a technophile I could hardly resist this book, especially when it was on the Scientific American recommended reading list, and it actually wasn’t that bad. It started from the easy stages of body enhancement and fixing biological problems such as pace-makers and such like. Things basically that we all know about and don’t actually seem like we’re becoming cyborgs.

Of course, once you staring fixing things its always tempting to go further – to make things better, faster, stronger. Then of course there’s the issue of AI. Can we build it? Will they come? What actually is intelligence? Can machines be truly intelligent? The authors – wrongly I think – consider it unlikely. I’m not sure if they think it’s simply beyond us or that there is something about the combination of embodiment and emotion that makes machine intelligent unlikely. I think such attitudes are another way of saying that we’re special in some way and that ‘mere machines’ can’t be really intelligent – or in other words we are certainly not mere machines, thank you very much!

Moving on the authors discuss the possibility of immortality by either being uploaded into a machine/AI or of being physically implanted into a machine body. They think that both have serious problems – not just technical but also psychological. Again I think they exaggerate the problems and underestimate our abilities. Inevitably they discuss the possibility of robot wars – both fighting alongside us and against us. It’s actually a very hot topic at the moment – particularly the problem, in today’s urban conflicts, of simply detecting who the enemy is. Personally I think anything approaching Terminator type weapons are at least 50 years away if not a lot further.

Then there’s the whole moral and legal aspect to be considered. Would AI’s be considered persons? Would they have Rights? Could they commit crimes? Would they be responsible for their actions? Could we actually trust them to be both autonomous and safe? It’s all very interesting stuff – and is actually going to be more interesting as time goes on and we come across more robots in our daily lives. I think that this will be more of a debate for our kids but I think that even us (comparative) oldies will see the edge of things as it approaches.

I did have some issues with this book despite the level of interest it managed to maintain. It was, yet again I found, significantly angled towards the USA in its content and opinions. Personally when I think of cutting edge robotics I think of Japan – which in this volume barely got a mention. Europe was only mentioned, in mocking tones, as being resistant to an increased robotic presence and, therefore, being backward looking. The very idea of questioning the introduction of robotics or the idea of debating the issue was considered by the authors as rather bizarre. America, they said, would never do such a thing. The authors – apart from their jingoism – where, I thought, rather na├»ve about the social impact of this technology and at the same time dismissive of its potential power. The almost blanket dismissal of the possibility that Artificial Intelligence could exceed biological intelligence was I think deeply mistaken and simply reflected the authors prejudice. But putting these problems to one side this is still an informative book which will warm the heart of any robo-geek out there without necessarily introducing him/her to anything startlingly new. As with most books on technical subjects they are pretty much out of date as soon as they’re published. This book is no exception. Still pretty good but it could have been much, much better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Clever rooks repeat ancient fable

By Rebecca Morelle for the BBC

Thursday, 6 August 2009

One of Aesop's fables may have been based on fact, scientists report. In the tale, written more than 2,000 years ago, a crow uses stones to raise the water level in a pitcher so it can reach the liquid to quench its thirst. Now a study published in Current Biology reveals that rooks, a relative of crows, do just the same when presented with a similar situation. The team says the study shows rooks are innovative tool-users, even though they do not use tools in the wild. Another paper, published in the journal Plos One, shows that New Caledonian crows - which like rooks, are a member of the corvid group, along with ravens, jackdaws, magpies and jays - can use three tools in succession to reach a treat.

The crow and the pitcher fable was used by Aesop to illustrate that necessity is the mother of invention. But until now, the morality tale was not thought to have a grounding in fact.To investigate further, a team from the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) presented four captive rooks with a set-up analogous to the fable. The birds were shown a clear tube containing a small amount of water. Floating upon it was an out-of-reach worm. And a pile of stones were positioned nearby. Dr Nathan Emery, co-author of the paper, from QMUL, said: "The rooks have to put multiple stones in the tube until the worm floats to the top." And the four birds did just that. Two, called Cook and Fry, raised the water-level enough to grab the floating feast the very first time that they were presented with the test, while Connelly and Monroe were successful on their second attempt. Footage of the experiments shows the rooks first assessing the water level by peering at the tube from above and from the side, before picking up and dropping the stones into the water. The birds were extremely accurate, using the exact number of stones needed to raise the worm to a height where they could reach it.

This experiment shows how the remarkable rooks opt for larger stones over smaller ones to raise the water level more quickly. In another experiment, the rooks were presented with a similar scenario. This time they were given a combination of small and large stones. Overall, Dr Emery told BBC News, the rooks opted for the larger ones, raising the worm to the top of the tube more quickly. He said: "They are being as efficient as possible." And when given a choice between a tube filled with water and another filled with sawdust, the birds were more likely to opt for the liquid-filled tube. The researchers say their findings suggest that Aesop's ancient fable may have been based on fact. They said: "In folklore, it is rarely possible to know with certainty which corvid is being referred to. "Hence, Aesop's crow might have easily been Aesop's rook."

Earlier this year, the same team revealed that rooks were able to use different tools to solve a variety of complex problems. Dr Emery told BBC News: "I used to say, maybe two or three years ago, that everything they did surprised me. "But nowadays, we've had so many startling findings that the rooks just don't surprise me that much any more. You almost expect them to do the cleverest thing." The only other animals reported to have solved an Aesop-like problem are orangutans. Christopher Bird, co-author on the paper, added: "Corvids are remarkably intelligent, and in many ways rival the great apes in their physical intelligence and ability to solve problems." This New Caledonian crow used three tools in succession to reach a tasty treat. A different study published this week has also shed light on corvid intelligence. A team at the University of Oxford found that New Caledonian crows were able to use three tools in succession to reach a reward. These birds, which are found on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, use tools in the wild, crafting them from branches to pluck grubs from holes and crevices. But this study builds on their tool-using repertoire. Captive crows were presented with several horizontal tubes. One of the tubes contained some out-of-reach food. The others contained long and medium-length hooks - but, again, these were all out of beak's reach. And a shorter hook-like tool was positioned nearby. The researchers found that the birds picked up the short tool, then used this to grasp the medium-length tool, which they then employed to retrieve the longest tool from the tube. Finally, they were able to use this to drag out the tasty morsel.

Four out of seven of the birds tested were able to use three tools in the right order, the team said. Professor Alex Kacelnik, an author on the paper from Oxford's Behavioural Ecology Group, said: "The essence of our paper is to try to understand the mental processes used by the animals to actually achieve their goals." He said that the complexity of the task made it unlikely that the crows were solving the problem using trial and error. He added: "We are aware that the animals probably do it by putting together, in creative ways, things that they have learned individually." Researchers believe that an ancient ancestor of the corvids might have evolved the capacity to use tools, and that all members of the corvid family may have this innate ability. However, only New Caledonian crows draw upon it in the wild, potentially because of ecological pressures.

[Fascinating. Maybe birds will replace us at the top of the food chain after we become extinct? It’s interesting to speculate what an avian civilisation would look like….]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Rollerball

Based in the year 2018 this ground breaking movie depicts a world run by massive corporations. In this world there are no wars, no poverty and no freedom. People have consciously given up their freedoms for material comfort. The corporate world is one where the individual does not matter and where the game of Rollerball was devised to drive home that point – that individual effort and individual action changes nothing. Unfortunately for the corporations the game has produced something it was never designed for – a champion in the guise of Jonathan E. Played by James Caan, Jonathan becomes a hero to millions without planning to do so. He is, he believes, just a particularly gifted athlete. But when he starts to question the fabric of corporate society he becomes a revolutionary force that the Executives must eliminate at any cost.

I can’t remember if I saw this movie when it first came out in 1975. I have a feeling that I did. It’s certainly the kind of thing that would have interested me back then. I’ve probably seen it at least 10-15 times by now. It is an odd sort of film from several perspectives. For one thing it seemed very much of its time and yet it’s also timeless in its portrayal of the iconic individual versus the state. In many ways Jonathan E is the archetypal hero. He is alone even when surrounded by team mates or attentive women. He is very much focused on the task in front of him and is very good at what he does. He is fully aware of the range of forces that are against him and yet shows – indeed feels – no fear because of that. He is a tragic hero who lives without love and has to watch his friends fall around him. He is a hero driven by revenge at the injustices heaped upon him but always keeps his cool even as he disables his opponents.

The game itself – virtually created during the filming – is superb. As the director later said it’s very difficult to create a completely new game. But it’s easy to imagine a real live Rollerball sporting event. I know that people would pay good money to see it – and I think I’d be one of them! The filming of the games in particular is quite outstanding and inevitably places it at the centre of the movie. But there is much more going on. The society that runs Rollerball is portrayed as an appalling place – despite its very evident wealth. It is a decadent society where old fashioned values of honour and heroism have no place. It is a society where everything and everyone has a price – except Jonathan. It is not a nice place.

This is probably one of my Top 10 films of all time and might even be in my Top 5. I love just about everything about it. In any decent totalitarian state it would be banned and for that alone has high value. It is a great story about an amazing game that gives rise to an outstanding hero. It is a consummate film about the power of the individual and a master class in the concept of the hero. Finally it introduced me to the music of Albinoni. It doesn’t get much better praise than that. If you missed this classic – or have only seen the re-make – I’d rent or buy it as soon as you can. It is two hours of your life that you’ll value in the years to come.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The Year is 1867. In a northern Canada wrapped in deep winter a cabin lies apparently abandoned. In it lies the corpse of trapper Laurent Jammet – brutally murdered. Before long the ripples of this awful crime move through the close-knit community of Dove River. A young boy goes missing either in pursuit of Jammet’s killer or guilty of the crime itself. The local magistrate fears for his two daughters and remembers the mysterious disappearance of two young girls years ago. The missing boys adoptive mother decides to go after him exposing a deep rift in her own marriage and the boy himself must decide on his future in a society dedicated to conformity. In the middle of it all is the ever present wilderness, the bone numbing cold and the howling of the wolves.

I picked this up on impulse some months ago. As my regular readers will know over the past few years I have developed quite a passion for historical novels. This did not disappoint. Despite it being Ms Penney’s first (and apparently only) novel it won the 2006 Costa (coffee) Book of the Year award. I don’t know what else it was up against but I can see why the judges liked it. Told from several perspectives – including the first person perspective of the mother – this is a multi-layered and complex novel (sometimes actually a bit too complex) which digs deeply into the lives of small communities living on the edge of the great wilderness, the lonely lives of trappers, the brutal reality of companies built of a dwindling fur trade and the appalling treatment of native Canadians. As with most first books, the author tries to do too much but the surprising thing is that she almost carries it off. This is a very impressive – indeed frighteningly impressive – first novel. Rich in atmosphere and with a large cast of believable fully rounded (and interesting) characters this is without doubt a book you can lose yourself in. It is both haunting and beautifully evocative. If you want to put the real world at arms length for a few hours at a time, this is the book for you. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dark.... Heavy..... Anxious thoughts I'm guessing - like why he wanted the job in the first place.....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Air Force Plans for All-Drone Future

by David Axe for Wired

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is the day of the hot-shot fighter jock nearly done? As of 2009 the Air Force’s robotic drone fleet stands at 195 Predators and 28 Reapers. An Air Force study, released without much fanfare on Wednesday, suggests that tomorrow’s dogfighers might not have pilots in the cockpit. The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan. which sketches out possible drone development through the year 2047, comes with plenty of qualifiers. But it envisions a radical future. In an acronym-dense 82 pages, the Air Force explains how ever-larger and more sophisticated flying robots could eventually replace every type of manned aircraft in its inventory — everything from speedy, air-to-air fighters to lumbering bombers and tankers. Emphasis on “might” and “could.”

While revealing how robots can equal the capabilities of traditional planes, the Air Force is careful to emphasize that an all-bot air fleet is not inevitable. Rather, drones will represent “alternatives” to manned planes, in pretty much every mission category. Some of the missions tapped for possible, future drones are currently considered sacrosanct for human pilots. Namely: dogfighting and nuclear bombing. Drones “are unlikely to replace the manned aircraft for air combat missions in the policy-relevant future,” Manjeet Singh Pardesi wrote in Air & Space Power Journal, just four years ago. Dogfighting was considered too fluid, too fast, for a drone’s narrow “situational awareness.” As for nuclear bombing: “Many aviators, in particular, believe that a ‘man in the loop’ should remain an integral part of the nuclear mission because of the psychological perception that there is a higher degree of accountability and moral certainty with a manned bomber,” Adam Lowther explained in Armed Forces Journal, in June. Despite this, the Air Force identifies a future “MQ-Mc” Unmanned Aerial System for dogfighting, sometime after 2020. The MQ-Mc will also handle “strategic attack,” a.k.a nuke bombing. Less controversial is the conjectural MQ-L, a huge drone that could fill in for today’s tankers and transports.

But just because a drone could replace a manned plane, doesn’t necessarily mean it definitely will. “We do not envision replacing all Air Force aircraft with UAS,” Col. Eric Mathewson told Danger Room by email. “We do plan on considering UAS as alternatives to traditionally manned aircraft across a broad spectrum of Air Force missions … but certainly not all.” In other words, in coming years drones might be able to do everything today’s manned planes can do — technically speaking. But the Air Force still might find good reasons — moral, financial or otherwise — to keep people in some cockpits.

The Flight Plan represents a new twist in a heated debate raging in Congress over the Pentagon’s 3,000-strong fighter force. The legislature is split over whether to fund more F-22 fighters — a move that could draw a veto from President Barack Obama. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has long favored drone development over buying more manned fighters, and in May Joint Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen predicted Gates’ position would win out, over the long term. “There are those that see [the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] as the last manned fighter,” Mullen said. “I’m one that’s inclined to believe that.” General Atomics, which makes the popular Predator line of drones, underscored Mullen’s comment by unveiling its new, faster Predator C.

If Flight Plan proves an accurate predictor, it’s not just manned fighters (maybe) headed for extinction, but (maybe) nuclear bombers, transports, tankers … nearly all human-occupied military planes.

[Didn’t SkyNet operate the B-2 bomber fleet with 100% efficiency before it tried to destroy us? Another step towards the Terminator future I think…. Then again they’ve been saying that pilots are obsolete since the 1970’s so I’m not particularly holding my breath here.]

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Martian methane mystery deepens

By Judith Burns for the BBC

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Methane on Mars is produced and destroyed far faster than on Earth, according to analysis of recent data. Scientists in Paris used a computer climate model for the Red Planet to simulate observations made from Earth. It shows the gas is unevenly distributed in the Martian atmosphere and changes with the seasons. The presence of methane on Mars is intriguing because its origin could either be life or geological activity - including volcanism. Writing in the journal Nature, Franck Lefevre and Francois Forget from the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris describe how they used a computer model of the Martian climate to reconstruct observations made by a US team.

Dr Lefevre says the chemistry of the Martian atmosphere is still a mystery. He told BBC News: "We put the dynamics and chemistry as we know it in the model and tried to match the measurements, to reproduce the uneven distribution they saw from Earth. The problem is if we just take into account the photochemistry as we know it on Earth and if we put it in the model, then we cannot reproduce the model and that was a surprise. The current chemistry as we know it is not consistent with the measurements of methane on Mars. There is something else going on, something that lowers the methane lifetime by a factor of 600. So if the measurements are correct, we must be missing something quite important."

Dr Lefevre says the work shows that if there is a much faster loss for methane on Mars there must also be a much stronger production of methane. But he urges caution: "It's a real challenge to measure methane on Mars from Earth and we've got only one example of this uneven distribution." The results the French team used were published in January this year in the journal Science. They were gathered by an American team using a technique called infrared spectroscopy at three different ground-based telescopes to monitor about 90% of the planet's surface. In 2003 "plumes" of methane were identified. At one point, the primary plume of methane contained an estimated 19,000 tonnes of the gas. Dr Michael Mumma, director of Nasa's Goddard Center for Astrobiology and lead author on the previous paper, told BBC News it was vital to understand how methane was destroyed on Mars and to explain how so much of the gas is produced and destroyed so quickly on the Red Planet. Dr Mumma does not rule out a biological explanation for the phenomenon but says it is possible that geology alone could be responsible.

If the methane is produced by geological activity, it could either originate from active Martian volcanoes or from a process called serpentinisation. The latter process occurs at low temperatures when rocks rich in the minerals olivine and pyroxene react chemically with water, releasing methane. In December, Dr Mumma's team will begin another study of the Martian surface using the new technique of adaptive optics at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. They hope to replicate their earlier results. Dr Lefevre says that if the variations are confirmed it would mean the Martian surface is very hostile for organics. But this would not necessarily exclude the possibility that life or the remnants of past life persist below ground, where conditions could be more benign.

Nasa is due to launch a $2.3bn nuclear-powered rover known as Mars Science Laboratory (also called "Curiosity") to the planet in 2011. Under one possible scenario, the European and US space agencies would then send a European orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to track down the sources of methane. A subsequent 2018 launch opportunity would be taken by the European ExoMars rover, launching on a US Atlas rocket. The proposal currently being discussed is that ExoMars should be joined by a slightly smaller rover in the class of the US Spirit and Opportunity vehicles that are on the surface today. ExoMars and its smaller cousin could be targeted at the Methane sources identified by the 2016 orbiter.

[Don’t you just love a mystery – especially when it’s associated with Mars! It would be so great if Mars was geologically active… but it would be awesome – and then some – if the methane was being created and/or destroyed by LIFE. Now we just have to wait 9 years……. ]

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul – A Study in Heroic Individualism by Leslie Paul Thiele

I skim read parts of this book some months ago whilst researching for the essay for my Nietzsche unit. It didn’t prove very useful for that essay but made a very good impression on me and gave me some ideas which I have incorporated into my Dissertation. After I returned it to the library I bought a copy from Amazon. It was well worth it.

This is certainly the best book on Nietzsche I’ve read so far. OK, it’s a pretty short list but the comment stands. Despite being easy to read Nietzsche is difficult to understand. My 10 week unit was enough to whet my appetite for me but really no more than that. I became fascinated with the man’s obvious genius and, on more than one occasion, felt I was breathing in pure oxygen whilst reading his stuff. It’s no wonder that the head of Philosophy was worried about teaching him (especially to undergrads apparently) being such heady stuff. I do feel that I have a much better grip on Nietzsche after reading this volume. Although academic in tone it’s clear that the author has an appreciation not only of Nietzsche’s work but also of the man himself. Indeed he remarked on more than one occasion that the man and the philosophy could not – indeed should not - be disentangled. Following a theme of individualism, Thiele shows how the philosophers works highlighted the working out of his philosophy and the effect it had on the philosopher himself. Anyone who has read Nietzsche will find it unsurprising that he went mad later in life. Not only did he talk the talk he definitely walked the walk!

Not only did Nietzsche have some very interesting things to say about the rise of the individual (a central theme throughout his works) but had some very remarkable things to say about the ‘self’ or absence thereof. It’s an idea I’m coming around to so it was good to read another perspective on it. The use of archetypes – the philosopher, the Artist, the Saint and the Educator/Solitary – brought out much of Nietzsche’s thoughts on the genealogy of the individual and how he is manifested in real life. I also now understand much more about the love of fate Nietzsche proposed and the idea of Eternal Recurrence. All in all this was an excellent book. Not only did it prove – as expected – central to my Dissertation it also both broadened and deepened my knowledge of one of my favourite philosophers. I think it’ll take years to actually understand the man but I think I’ve now got more of an appreciation of what I’m up against! It probably helps to have at least a passing awareness of Nietzsche to do justice to this work but you’d still get a fair bit of understanding – and a whole lot of references – to start off an exploration of one of the greats of European philosophy. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 03, 2009

My Favourite Movies: I, Robot

I remember sitting in the big screen of our local multi-plex waiting for this film to start. I had, as usual, avoided most of the incessant publicity regarding it but still sat there with quite a bit of trepidation. I grew up on the Asimov stories this movie was ‘inspired’ by and knew what Hollywood normally did with its source material – anything from simply using the title and ditching the storyline of adding incongruous elements to make it sexier or some such nonsense.

At least I, Robot managed to avoid the first trap and actually seemed to use some of the source material. Susan Calvin started out as I remember her – cold, emotionless and at a loss in human company. She was always much more at home with robots than with people. The famous Three Laws of Robotics were there – firmly at the heart of the movie which impressed me. The feel of the movie certainly hit the spot and relaxed me enough to accept the second half of the film which was pretty much the bog-standard Hollywood fare of chases, explosions and set-piece action scenes.

The transition from lab-coated Calvin to leather jacket machine gun wielding Calvin was – well silly just doesn’t cover it. It was quite frankly ridiculous and probably had poor Isaac spinning in his grave. But I swallowed hard and forgave this gross travesty because of the underlying cleverness of the film. Yes, I thought that this was a clever Hollywood film, which is why it made it into my Favourite Movies list. I think it must have been written by someone who had actually read Asimov and what’s more even understood what he was getting at. In the stories – as far as I can remember as I read them 30 years ago – there was always a tension in the Three Laws centred around the First Law that a robot cannot harm a human being or by inaction allow a human being to be harmed. That’s the important bit – by inaction…. Robots must protect humanity – even if they have to harm some humans in the process. They cannot stand idly by and let us have wars, firearms or car accidents if any of it can be avoided – which it can be if robots run our lives for us – for our own benefit of course. This was the clever underlying plot of the movie and it was handled very well indeed – despite all of the running around Will Smith did wise-cracking as he fired his guns in all directions.

Once you get past all of the razzmatazz, glitter and noise, once you see beyond the action adventure genre this movie easily slides into you can see that some thought went into its construction. That’s what I liked about it more than anything else. That’s why I bought the DVD and that’s why I can watch it over and over again – because it’s clever. I do hope it was intentionally that way…. And that I’m not just reading too much into it…It wouldn’t be the first time! [grin]

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Science is just one gene away from defeating religion

Colin Blakemore for The Observer

Sunday 22 February 2009

When I was a medical student at Cambridge in the Sixties, I walked to lectures past the forbidding exterior of the Cavendish Laboratory, as famous for Crick and Watson's unravelling of DNA as for Rutherford's splitting of the atom. One day, scrawled on the wall, was a supreme example of Cambridge graffiti: "CRICK FOR GOD".

No surprise that pivotal advances in science provoke religious metaphors. Crick and Watson's discovery transformed our view of life itself - from a manifestation of spiritual magic to a chemical process. One more territorial gain in the metaphysical chess match between science and religion. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was certainly a vital move in that chess game - if not checkmate. In an interview for God and the Scientists, to be broadcast tonight in Channel 4's series on Christianity, Richard Dawkins declares: "Darwin removed the main argument for God's existence." That wasn't, of course, Darwin's intention. In 1827, he scraped into Cambridge to study for the church. But by 1838, with the wealth of experience from the Beagle's voyage inside his head, Darwin had conceived the idea that natural selection - survival of the fittest - had created new species. Even after she accepted his marriage proposal, Darwin's cousin Emma, a strict Unitarian, fretted that his heretical theories would lead to their separation in the afterlife!

Darwin agonised for more than 20 years before publishing On the Origin of Species, and another two before he could say, in The Descent of Man, that "Man must be included with other organic beings in any general conclusion respecting his manner of appearance on Earth". In the final words of that transcendent book, Darwin couldn't avoid the religious metaphor: "Man with all his noble qualities... with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system - with all these exalted powers - Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins." Throughout the love-hate relationship between science and Christianity, the idea that human rationality is a gift from God has frequently been used as a justification, or an excuse, for scientific inquiry. Pope Benedict XVI has gone further. In a speech read at La Sapienza University in Rome last year (in the face of opposition from the academic staff) he argued: "If, however, reason ... becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life." What on earth was the Pope saying? That only Christians can be good scientists? Sorry, Pythagoras; sorry, Galen; sorry, Einstein; sorry, Crick. Science has rampaged over the landscape of divine explanation, provoking denial or surrender from the church. Christian leaders, even the Catholic church, have reluctantly accommodated the discoveries of scientists, with the odd burning at the stake and excommunication along the way. But I was astounded to discover how topical the issue of Galileo's trial still is in the Vatican and how resistant many Christians are to scientific ideas that challenge scriptural accounts. More than half of Americans, even a third of Brits, still believe that God created humans in their present form. The process of Christian accommodation is a bit like the fate of fieldmice confronted by a combine harvester, continuously retreating into the shrinking patch of uncut wheat.

Ten days ago, on Darwin's birthday, Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Atheism, and Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, conducted a public conversation in the Oxford University Museum, where Bishop Sam Wilberforce and Darwin's champion, Thomas Henry Huxley, had debated Darwin's ideas in 1860. The two Richards were more civilised. But inevitably, Richard H claimed for religion a territory that science can never invade, a totally safe sanctuary for Christian fieldmice. Science is brilliant at questions that start "how", but religion is the only approach to questions that start "why". Throughout history, human beings have asked those difficult "why" questions. It's true that spiritual beliefs of one form or another are universal, almost as defining of humanity as language is. But the universality of language and the fact that bits of the human brain are clearly specialised to do language suggest that our genes give us language-learning brains. Is the same true of religion? Brain scanning has indeed shown particular bits of the brain lighting up with activity when people pray, look at pictures of the Virgin Mary or recollect intense religious experiences. Richard Harries said: "It would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief." But there is another interpretation, which might eventually lead to the completion of the scientific harvest.

Human beings are supremely social animals. We recognise people and judge their feelings and intentions from their expressions and actions. Our thoughts about ourselves, and the words we use to describe those thoughts, are infused with wishes and wants. We feel that we are the helmsmen of our actions, free to choose, even to sin. But increasingly, those who study the human brain see our experiences, even of our own intentions, as being an illusory commentary on what our brains have already decided to do. Perhaps we humans come with a false model of ourselves, which works well as a means of predicting the behaviour of other people - a belief that actions are the result of conscious intentions. Then could the pervasive human belief in supernatural forces and spiritual agents, controlling the physical world, and influencing our moral judgments, be an extension of that false logic, a misconception no more significant than a visual illusion? I'm dubious about those "why" questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of "how" questions that science answers so well. When we understand how our brains generate religious ideas, and what the Darwinian adaptive value of such brain processes is, what will be left for religion?

[Interesting. If religion exists as an illusion created by the brain… and we can understand why the brain would do such a thing…. Where does that leave religion? Nowhere – but as a by-product of our brains functioning in such a way as to ensure our survival. I doubt if it will deal religion a mortal blow but it will give people much to think about!]