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

Friday, December 31, 2010

“After all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant – is not fit – it is not possible that it should be so.”

Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility.

If there is anything else that needed to be said to affirm Miss Austen’s genius I am presently unsure as to what that is……

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Spartans – an Epic History by Paul Cartledge

I’ve been somewhere between interested and fascinated by the Spartans since childhood. How I initially found out about them or why they evoked such a response is unsure. They were certainly a strange culture – even at the time, as the author points out repeatedly. The Spartans were also, for several hundred years, a regional superpower able not only to threaten near-by city-states such as Athens but to challenge the Persian Empire, the mightiest power of the age.

I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with this book. I had enjoyed the TV series based upon it (not in small part to the passion that Bettany Hughes brought to the subject) but this book seemed more that a little bland. It certainly covered the highlights – including the war with Athens and, of course, the now legendary battle of Thermopylae. What the author seemed to spend most of his time on where the successive kingships (an oddly dual arrangement) and how each incumbent affected their society. What I had actually hoped for was more analysis of the society itself. I knew that Sparta was basically a military camp dedicated to producing the finest soldiers anywhere – which it did for generation after generation. I knew that Spartan society existed in the way it did because of the number of slaves at its disposal (unusually made up of native Greeks rather than foreigners). I knew that the reputation of Spartan women was formidable – both for their beauty and for their shocking independence. Indeed Sparta was probably the only place on the Greek mainland where women had any say in their society and any kind of power or indeed education. I knew about the gruelling Agoge where boys of 7-18 trained to be warriors or died trying. I knew about the terrible war with Athens which almost destroyed both of them and did, in time, result in Sparta’s rapid subsequent decline. The extra details that the author provided didn’t really add much to this. Maybe I already ‘knew too much’ about the subject to get a great deal from a general book about Sparta? Maybe I need to read Plutach’s book on them to put more meat on the bones?

Sparta was at least an interesting experiment in living though probably not one that should be, or could be, recreated. It was in many ways a particularly harsh society, both on its vast slave population and but also on its own citizens. Failure was not an option. If you failed in the Agoge you either died or became a Spartan in name only which to many was a fate worse than death. If you failed as a newborn infant you were cast onto the rocks to die. If you failed in battle you came home on your shield and no-one mourned your passing. Forgiveness was not a Spartan trait it would seem. Despite their many, oh so many, shortcomings I still can’t help but admire them. When they were at the top of their game – before power and money corrupted them – they were something to behold. A society based on warrior virtues and honour above all things. It must have been quite something to be a Spartan and totally terrifying to face them in battle.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Social and Cultural Anthropology – A Very Short Introduction by John Monaghan and Peter Just

As you may be aware this is a huge subject to cover in a short introductory book. Rightly the authors didn’t attempt to just hit the highlights but, instead, concentrated on the business of doing anthropology drawing on their years of experience in the field and relating that back to wider issues. This made for both a fascinating and at times intimate insight into the many human cultures out there.

The two authors have spent a great deal of time in Indonesia and Mexico studying and living with indigenous peoples there. They brought back their experiences, insights and not a few cultural objects back to their teaching jobs. Starting with a brief historical introduction the authors moved on to the vitally important fieldwork element of anthropology along with discussions of the pitfalls and dangers of living with the people being studied. Insights, they point out, are however often only possible when incidents occur right in front of your eyes. Moving onto the ideas of both Culture and Society in more detail the authors point out that many things we in the west have taken for granted simply do not apply to all societies in all places. It appears on the face of it, despite our common human heritage, that we are almost infinitely variable and malleable. From apparently trivial aspects of deciding what is good to eat to the structure of all types of relationships everything it seems is up for grabs. It is not only the diversity that is surprising but the fact that often aspects of life are not simply variations around a common theme – but the fact that the themes themselves are sometimes radically different. What is considered normal in one place can be seen as strange, bizarre or inexplicable somewhere else. Anthropology brings you face to face with every assumption we have all made about the human condition and cannot help but to question each and every one of them.

I have long held the belief that much of what we do, profess as good, hold sacred and aim for in life is, by and large, a purely human construct brought about by each cultures long and accidental history - If things had been different or if we had accidentally been born in another culture or another time we would hold very different beliefs and think of them as being not only right but natural and, probably, universal. This slim volume managed to stretch even that belief almost to breaking point. I was simply unaware of the huge variety of lifestyles, beliefs and frankly bizarre ways of organising our societies. I knew that humanity was plastic but I didn’t quite realise just how plastic we are. If students of anthropology were not relativists when they started their courses I’m betting that the ones who could cope with the shock would be at the end. Although I can say with confidence that there are many ways for us to live I cannot say with any confidence that there is a best way to live – indeed I have almost come to the conclusion that I cannot really say that there are better ways to live than others. Such statements would, it appears, merely show my own cultural bias which a study of anthropology all too readily highlights. If you are at lest willing to entertain the possibility that everything you think you know is a product of your cultural upbringing and nothing more then I can recommend this book to you – but beware, it might start you on the road to questioning everything you do and everything you believe.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Biting Winters Driven by Global Warming: Scientists

by Marlowe Hood for Agence France-Presse

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

PARIS - Counter-intuitive but true, say scientists: a string of freezing European winters scattered over the last decade has been driven in large part by global warming. Climate sceptics who question the gravity of global warming or that humans are to blame point to the deep chills as confirmation of their doubts. Such assertions, counter scientists, mistakenly conflate the long-term patterns of climate with the short-term vagaries of weather, and ignore regional variation in climate change impacts. The culprit, according to a new study, is the Arctic's receding surface ice, which at current rates of decline could to disappear entirely during summer months by century's end.

The mechanism uncovered triples the chances that future winters in Europe and north Asia will be similarly inclement, the study reports. Bitingly cold weather wreaked havoc across Europe in the winter months of 2005-2006, dumping snow in southern Spain and plunging eastern Europe and Russia into an unusually -- and deadly -- deep freeze. Another sustained cold streak in 2009-2010, gave Britain its coldest winter in 14 years, and wreaked transportation havoc across the continent. This year seems poised to deliver a repeat performance. At first glance, this flurry of frostiness would seem to be at odds with standard climate change scenarios in which Earth's temperature steadily rises, possibly by as much as five or six degrees Celsius (9.0 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

New research, however, goes further, showing that global warming has actually contributed to Europe's winter blues. Rising temperatures in the Arctic -- increasing at two to three times the global average -- have peeled back the region's floating ice cover by 20 percent over the last three decades. This has allowed more of the Sun's radiative force to be absorbed by dark-blue sea rather than bounced back into space by reflective ice and snow, accelerating the warming process. More critically for weather patterns, it has also created a massive source of heat during the winter months. "Say the ocean is at zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. "That is a lot warmer than the overlying air in the polar area in winter, so you get a major heat flow heating up the atmosphere from below which you don't have when it is covered by ice. That's a massive change," he told AFP in an interview. The result, according to a modelling study published earlier this month the Journal of Geophysical Research, is a strong high-pressure system over the newly-exposed sea which brings cold polar air, swirling counter-clockwise, into Europe. "Recent severe winters like last year's or the one of 2005-2006 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it," explained Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and a physicist at the Potsdam Institute. "These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and north Asia," he said.

The researchers created a computer model simulating the impact on weather patterns of a gradual reduction of winter ice cover in the Barents-Kara Sea, north of Scandinavia. Other possible explanations for uncommonly cold winters -- reduced Sun activity or changes in the Gulf Stream -- "tend to exaggerate their effect," Petoukhov said. He also points out that during the freezing 2005-2006 winter, when temperatures averaged 10 C below normal in Siberia, there were no unusual variations in the north Atlantic oscillation, another putative cause. Colder European winters do not indicate a slowing of global warming trends, only an uneven distribution, researchers say. "As I look out my window is see about 30 centimetres of snow and the thermostat reads -14.0 C," said Rahmstorf, speaking by phone from Potsdam. "At the same time, in Greenland we have above zero temperatures -- in December."

[Ironic, eh?]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Aliens Vs Predator – Hunter’s Planet by David Bischoff

The Company don’t know quite how to deal with Machiko Noguchi. After her experiences on Ryushi, where she was the lone survivor of an alien attack, and the mysterious absence that followed her position on a farming station can only a temporary one whilst they figure out what to do with her. So when billionaire Livermore Evanston offers to buy out her contract she jumps at the idea – despite her understandable misgivings. The proposition she is offered seems on the face of it too good to be true. Hired to track down and destroy another alien infestation, it quickly becomes clear that there is far more going on in the rich mans hunting preserve being set up off the normal trade routes – and Machiko, for better or worse, is about to be thrown right in the middle of it.

After enjoying the first book in this series (AvP: Prey) I was honestly looking forward to the sequel. Unfortunately, almost from the get-go, I was disappointed. The author quickly deviated from the understood parameters of the AvP universe by presenting – much to my shock – an alien carrying weapons (as if they needed any). Further, although dropping in many interesting ideas about Predator culture, he ruined it for me by having several hunter groups meekly following Machiko’s orders in combat. But the thing that ruined the whole book for me was the character of the android Attila who seemed to develop exactly what was required at just the right moment to get the main character out of trouble or to move the plot along with the right piece of information. Not only did it ‘discover’ that it could talk perfect Predator (and Machiko, who had lived amongst them, could barely communicate with them) but produced combat winning weapons at the right moment whilst previously being unaware of their existence. It all became very tiring very quickly and I almost, more than once, gave up in disgust at the sloppy plotting. This was a very disappointing sequel and should be avoided by all but the most die-hard AvP fans (who will still probably hate it – maybe more so).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Daybreakers

Yes, I know – it’s another film that’s hardly been out for five minutes. But I do love vampire flicks that push the myth a bit further than previous attempts.

In this one a virus has spread through the world’s population turning most people into vampires. The few remaining humans are either in hiding or strapped up to machines in facilities designed to farm them for blood. Civilisation has survived as a vampiric parody of its former self complete with fang whitening adverts and with coffee carts serving cups with 20% blood. But such a world is unsustainable. The human population, and therefore the blood supply, is running out. Without human blood the human-looking vampires quickly turn into mindless monsters and, as the blood starts to thin, their numbers are increasing. In the thick of it is Ethan Hawke who plays a vampire scientist desperately searching for a human blood substitute. The company that funds his research – run by the always fantastic Sam Neil – is pinning its hopes on a last minute breakthrough. Whilst in the resistance the ex-vampire Willem Defoe offers another path – a path back to humanity.

This was a very interesting idea – that a fully functioning vampire society could exist compete with all of the technology that allows creatures who would die in sunlight to go about their ‘normal’ lives. I particularly liked the video technology allowing vampires to drive cars in the daylight and public information broadcasts warning people about sunrise times. I loved the beginning of the movie where a teenage vampire wrote a suicide note saying that she couldn’t live in a world where she would never grow up and then calmly sitting on her front lawn waiting to be immolated by the rising sun. I liked the way the human resistance fought back with crossbows (though thankfully not with crosses and holy water). Inevitably there were some parts of the film I didn’t like. One was when we saw – or actually didn’t see – the reflection of Ethan Hawke in his cars side mirror. That, I thought, was unnecessary. The bit that I really didn’t like was the explanation of how Defoe changed back from being a vampire to being human again. At best it was heavily contrived at worst it was plain silly. The consequences of that change back however, I thought were very well done. Overall I thought that this was a very interesting, if somewhat flawed, advance of the vampire genre, pushing the envelope enough to make it believable and fascinating to watch. Attention to detail was generally very good as was the acting of all the main characters. It is rather gory in places – hence deserving its 18 certificate – but if you don’t mind a bit of blood I think that you might enjoy this.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Snowed Out

While some people find that the adverse weather we’ve been having lately has caused them to be snowed in – isolated from the outside – I find that I have been snowed out. I had decided, for several reasons, to see my Mother/family for Christmas a day later than usual – that is today. It had snowed here over night (only about an inch or so) but I’d checked the local weather for my Mums place and it seemed OK. So I caught my planned train and headed North – into deeper and deeper snow. When I got just over half way I dug into my backpack for my mobile phone to see that I had missed two calls and had two text messages – both saying to call home immediately, which I did. Apparently it had snowed at least 12 inches deep at my Mums place and it was still snowing. Both my brother and sister thought it unlikely that they could drive to the nearest train station to pick me up and the local buses had stopped running. My sister, bless her, thought I should take the chance and continue with my journey. Luckily for me I’m more cautious than that and decided to reverse my journey and come home – which I managed after another four hours of travel chaos.

So here I am – back home. The downside is no Christmas with the family and no sight of my sister’s latest addition. The upside is that I have full Internet access for the whole Christmas break and access to my computer games. Missing out on my Mother’s Christmas dinner tips the balance in her favour so I’d have to say that today’s result is generally negative – but at least I’m not stuck somewhere freezing my ass off. I think that from now on I’ll visit in the summer. At least the worst that can happen is a heat-wave and a drought.

Voyager near Solar System's edge

By Jonathan Amos for BBC News, San Francisco

14 December 2010

Voyager is approaching the edge of the bubble of charged particles the Sun has thrown out into space. Now 17.4bn km (10.8bn miles) from home, the veteran probe has detected a distinct change in the flow of particles that surround it. These particles, which emanate from the Sun, are no longer travelling outwards but are moving sideways. It means Voyager must be very close to making the jump to interstellar space - the space between the stars. Edward Stone, the Voyager project scientist, lauded the explorer and the fascinating science it continues to return 33 years after launch. "When Voyager was launched, the space age itself was only 20 years old, so there was no basis to know that spacecraft could last so long," he told BBC News. "We had no idea how far we would have to travel to get outside the Solar System. We now know that in roughly five years, we should be outside for the first time." Dr Stone was speaking here at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, the largest gathering of Earth scientists in the world.

Voyager 1 was launched on 5 September 1977, and its sister spacecraft, Voyager 2, on 20 August 1977. The Nasa probes' initial goal was to survey the outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, a task completed in 1989. They were then despatched towards deep space, in the general direction of the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy. Sustained by their radioactive power packs, the probes' instruments continue to function well and return data to Earth, although the vast distance between them and Earth means a radio message now has a travel time of about 16 hours. The newly reported observation comes from Voyager 1's Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument, which has been monitoring the velocity of the solar wind. This stream of charged particles forms a bubble around our Solar System known as the heliosphere. The wind travels at "supersonic" speed until it crosses a shockwave called the termination shock. At this point, the wind then slows dramatically and heats up in a region termed the heliosheath. Voyager has determined the velocity of the wind at its location has now slowed to zero.

"We have gotten to the point where the wind from the Sun, which until now has always had an outward motion, is no longer moving outward; it is only moving sideways so that it can end up going down the tail of the heliosphere, which is a comet-shaped-like object," said Dr Stone, who is based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. This phenomenon is a consequence of the wind pushing up against the matter coming from other stars. The boundary between the two is the "official" edge of the Solar System - the heliopause. Once Voyager crosses over, it will be in interstellar space. First hints that Voyager had encountered something new came in June. Several months of further data were required to confirm the observation. "When I realized that we were getting solid zeroes, I was amazed," said Rob Decker, a Voyager Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument co-investigator from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. "Here was Voyager, a spacecraft that has been a workhorse for 33 years, showing us something completely new again." Voyager 1 is racing on towards the heliopause at 17km/s. Dr Stone expects the cross-over to occur within the next few years. Although launched first, Voyager 2 was put on a slower path and is currently just over 14bn km from Earth.

[Cool or what!]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Strange Days Indeed – The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen

Yet again it was rather odd – almost like déjà vu in fact – reading a history book about a time I lived through. The 1970’s where strange days indeed, at least in the US and UK – the two countries the author concentrates on. Switching between Nixon (was that man bat-shit crazy or what?) and our very own Harold Wilson, Wheen shows just how much paranoia infected the mind-sets of western leaders of the day.

Of course being paranoid didn’t mean that people were not out to get the leaders of the US and UK governments. They most certainly were. However, there is normally, and should be, a difference between having understandable enemies – these were politicians after all – and seeing everyone as enemies. Nixon in particular (my American readers are probably much more aware of this) seemed to spend most of his time in office ‘off the reservation’ in a way I almost totally unaware of. Likewise I was completely unaware of the crazy goings on inside No 10 Downing Street as the Labour leader Wilson tried to hold his party, his government and the country together against inside and outside forces trying to bring him down. At the same time we had people like Uri Geller spreading his ideas of spoon bending which countless millions believed, attempted prosecutions of radical sexual publications, and an explosion of terrorism across Europe from the Red Brigades to our very own Angry Brigade (or more aptly the bit miffed Brigade…..). Then of course there was the ever present fear of nuclear annihilation with 4 minutes warning. No wonder people were slightly off their rockers back then – and that probably including me!

This is both a fascinating and highly amusing book, made more so by my own memories of the time. Anyone who lived through what the author rightly describes as ‘the decade that sanity forgot’ – just think of the music and the fashion – will find this hugely entertaining and all the more interesting as we begin to seemingly be living through a strange replay of the age. Highly recommended as is his previous book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Just Finished Listening to……

A few of you have expressed an interest (and a modicum of surprise) in my musical tastes. I thought it might help you understand not just my favourite music but what I listen to generally by listing what I listened to this weekend.

So here it is:

The Pretenders – Greatest Hits

Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire

Big Country – Greatest Hits

The Verve – This is Music: The Singles 92-98

Pink Floyd – Echoes: The Best Of

Blur – Midlife: A Beginners Guide to Blur

Various Artists – This is Emo

Bob Dylan – The Best Of

Meredith Brooks – Blurring the Edges

Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters

30 Seconds to Mars – A Beautiful Lie

Skunk Anansie – Paranoid & Sunburnt

Nirvana – Nevermind

That’s pretty much a standard (though reasonably random) set of CDs I’d normally listen to on any given weekend. Although I do have favourites I like to vary things and, from time to time, push out in new directions. I also pick up tunes from friends and family and incorporate them into my existing tastes. I might do this again in a month or so to see what I come up with. Maybe there’s a pattern in there somewhere……?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Be Under No Illusion, NATO is in No Shape to Make Progress in this Graveyard of Empires

by Patrick Cockburn for the Independent

Saturday, November 20, 2010

If Iraq was bad, Afghanistan is going to be worse. Nothing said or done at the Lisbon conference, which is largely an exercise in self-deception, is going to make this better and it may well make it worse.

It is not just that the war is going badly, but that NATO's need to show progress has produced a number of counter-productive quick fixes likely to deepen the violence. These dangerous initiatives include setting up local militias to fight the Taliban where government forces are weak. These are often guns-for-hire provided by local warlords who prey on ordinary Afghans. The US military has been making much of its strategy of assassinating mid-level Taliban commanders, but one study on the ground showed that many of these are men highly regarded in their communities. It concluded that killing them infuriated local people and led to many of them being recruited by the Taliban. The US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will tell NATO leaders today of his plan to start handing over responsibility for security in some areas to the Afghan government in 2011. This sounds like wishful thinking on the part of General Petraeus and his selection of target dates is primarily to avoid accusations that NATO has no idea when or how it will get out. The Taliban currently controls or has influence in half of Afghanistan. While US reinforcements have been pouring into Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the Taliban have been expanding their enclaves in the north.

The whole idea of handing over security to the Afghan government is based on a rapid expansion of the Afghan army to 171,000 men and the police to 134,000. Not only are these new recruits likely to be poorly trained, but they will be drawn from the largely anti-Taliban Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities. The Pashtun, 42 per cent of Afghans and the community from which the Taliban is largely drawn, will feel ever more victimized. The differences between the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan underline that the latter is more dangerous for foreign occupiers. In Iraq the anti-US guerrillas sprang from Sunni Arabs, a community to which less than one in five Iraqis belonged. The post-Saddam government in Baghdad was supported by the Kurds and the Shia, making up four-fifths of the population. Afghans are more xenophobic than Iraqis. "Suspicion of foreigners is part of every Afghan's DNA," said a Western diplomat in Kabul.

The NATO leaders in Lisbon may want to consider two other respects in which Afghanistan may prove a more dangerous country. The Afghan government is much feebler than its equivalent in Baghdad where there is a tradition of central control and $60bn in oil revenues. Militarily, what defeated the Soviet army in Afghanistan was not the warlike prowess of the Afghans but the 2,500km long border with Pakistan. So long as this remains open, and the insurgents have safe havens in Pakistan, NATO and the Afghan government are not going to win.

[What a bloody, bloody mess. Both nations and Empires have tried to control Afghanistan. They have all failed. This is, at least, our third attempt to influence events there. I have a feeling that it will fail this time too.]

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Wellstone by Will McCarthy

In the far future, long after Earth has been reconstructed after a global catastrophe, a new utopia has been created. It is a place where death is only a temporary inconvenience, where health and wealth are guaranteed and where everything you desire is available at the touch of a button. But it is also a place where leaders are immortal and everything worth striving for is readily available. In such a place what exactly is there for the young to challenge? Only one thing – the very system itself.

This was, on the face of it, an interesting idea. In a perfect world how exactly, or indeed why would you, rebel? The only thing worth rebelling against is perfection. This is a story of disaffected youth who use the technology at their disposal to cause trouble for their immortal and complacent parents. Led by the crown prince – who will never become king – they ‘escape’ from summer camp (on a created moon) and hi-jack a freighter in deep space. Apart from the act of rebellion itself, rather a minor act to be honest, there is little substance to the rest of the book. It brims with interesting background ideas (as well as a few interesting philosophical issues) but I couldn’t help wondering if there was any actual point to the story. It probably didn’t help that I couldn’t really bring myself to care all that much for what were basically spoilt, bored rich kids out to cause trouble for no other reason than to cause problems for their over protective parents. Some of the technology was interesting – as were the cultural and economical consequences of its use – but apart from that I thought this was pretty dull. Not recommended.

Well, it looks like the Lib Dems are just another bunch of lying bastards. It is likely, baring something very special, that I will never vote for them again – and I’m betting that I’m not the only one who made that decision today.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Thinking About: Being Different

I think that I’ve known I’m different from a very early age. It became pretty obvious that I don’t think like or think about things the way most other people do. People seem to be constantly amazed, confused and, to be honest sometimes horrified, by what comes out of my mouth. Back before I learnt restraint I’d just say the first thing that came into my head which surprisingly didn’t get me into much more trouble than it actually did. After a couple of tense exchanges though I have imposed some self censorship and, on the whole, think about the consequences before I open my mouth.

But speaking my (at least to others) incomprehensible mind is only part of it. People have found almost everything about me worthy of criticism – and not just random strangers either. If I was a weaker person the constant criticism I have received from both friends and family would have reduced me to being a nervous wreck. The main focus of the needling is, rather inevitably, the books I read – or even the fact that I read so much of anything. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard “always got his head in a book” whenever I’m mentioned in conversation. Of course the fact that I read SF and Fantasy novels has come in for particular criticism – probably because I enjoy them so much. They are however “escapist” so have an immediate black mark against them. But it’s not only books. I have been advised to change my friends, my hairstyle(s), my clothes, my job, my house, the city I live in and so it goes on. It seems that my life would only be complete if I was more like the person giving me their ‘advice’. Stubbornly, however, I remain me – regardless of the consequences.

The consequences of being slightly ‘odd’ or ‘different’ are generally the negative effects it has on relationships. I have few friends for instance, most of whom are in the ‘odd’ or ‘different’ category – birds of a feather and all that. But because so few people ‘get’ me the pool of potential partners is a small one indeed. This is one of the reasons why I’ve spent most of my post-pubescent life on my own. In my youth I couldn’t understand what was wrong with other people, why they couldn’t see the real me. I learnt, somewhat to my shock and surprise, that the ‘problem’ wasn’t with them but with me. Other people had little problem forming relationships both of the short and long term variety whereas I often didn’t get past the first awkward moment which, being me, came fairly early. There’s an Alanis Morrisette song where she says something along the lines “what I’d give for a kindred”. I know exactly how that feels. In the 40 or so years of looking I’ve yet to meet anyone quite like me – never mind a female version! I’ve known some people who shared some of my interests, I’ve met people as smart as or even smarter than me (indeed on my last MA course I met some frighteningly smart people). But I’ve never really met a kindred spirit, no one who ‘got’ me most of the time never mind all of the time.

I think that mostly I’m tolerated by what I call ‘normal’ people. I’ll do something or say something and either their eyes will glaze over or they’ll roll their eyes and mouth ‘typical’ under their breaths. Sometimes I’m amusing in this way and sometimes I impress people by seeing links, connections, between things that no one else saw. But mostly I’m ignored or, even worse, expected to ‘perform’ on command. At least that’s what it feels like. Don’t get me wrong though. People, generally, like me. Most people anyway. Some hate me – I kid you not. Maybe they see me as some kind of threat or something. It’s quite bizarre but I do have fun ripping them a new one whenever we clash. Being fairly bright, witty and fast on my mental feet I can normally reduce them to laughingstocks before they realise what has happened.

Of course one way out of all this is to pretend to be normal. I do that already to some extent in order to ‘fit in’ to society. Actually becoming completely normal though would take a great deal of time, energy and effort, little of which I am prepared to waste on what I see is a pre-doomed endeavour. Anyway, I like being me – despite the real downside to it all. I am a misfit and, as much as I can be, proud of the fact. If people have a problem with that I shall refer them to a favourite Bette Midler quote: Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. Basically I’m not willing to compromise who I am to get what I want. Who I am is more important than that.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cyber Attack Forces Wikileaks to Change Web Address

From BBC News

Friday, December 3, 2010

Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has been forced to change its web address after the company providing its domain name cut off service. EveryDNS.net said it had terminated services because Wikileaks.org had come under massive cyber attacks. But Wikileaks has already reappeared using a Swiss web address. Wikileaks has also used micro-blogging site Twitter to urge its fans to redistribute its "raw" net address so it can be viewed at any time. This numerical internet protocol (IP) address remains live and accessible even when web domains - the normal "www" addresses used to access most sites - are unavailable.

Experts say it is likely that Wikileaks has done deals with lots of web hosting companies, although many are likely to back away from dealing with the controversial site in the light of recent web attacks. There is also a published list of mirror sites, which Wikileaks hopes will provide constant access to the site. Some of these sites have simply copied Wikileaks' content and put it on a different web server, while others are using different domain names to point at the original content. The more of these sites there are, the more difficult it will be to shut Wikileaks down, security analyst Paul Mutton told the BBC. In France, the industry minister Eric Besson has called for a ban of Wikileaks on French servers. One of the mirror sites, Wikileaks.ch, is currently hosted on servers in France. In a post on Twitter, Wikileaks acknowledged that its domain had been "killed" by EveryDNS.net. It was not clear how long disruption to the wikileaks.org site would last. In a statement on its website, EveryDNS.net said it had issued a 24-hour termination notice to Wikileaks which ended at 0300 GMT on 2 December.

The net appears to be closing in on Wikileaks as more and more companies it relies on distance themselves from it. Shutting down the main .org site will cause problems but it is by no means the end. Its Twitter feed remains defiant, urging fans to log on via its IP address with the tweet "Free speech has number:". In some ways, any attempts to cut off Wikileaks could be a case of too little, too late. The thousands of secret US diplomatic cables at the heart of the controversy are already with media outlets. A site as controversial and savvy as Wikileaks has plenty up its sleeve, like the mysterious encrypted file labelled 'insurance', which is believed to have been posted on Bit Torrent and is rumoured to contain all the leaks. It said the domain wikileaks.org had become the target of "multiple distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. These attacks have, and future attacks would, threaten the stability of the EveryDNS.net infrastructure, which enables access to almost 500,000 other websites," it said. "Any downtime of the wikileaks.org website has resulted from its failure to use another hosted DNS service provider," it added. Websites use web hosting firms such as EveryDNS.net to translate their raw IP addresses to a more memorable web address such as Wikileaks.org. But the IP address of a website will also direct users to the site.

One web expert explained that Wikileaks had managed to re-establish web access via a different address. "Users visiting the www.wikileaks.ch website appear to be directed via a Swedish website on to a server in France which is now hosting their main website," explained Sebastien Lahtinen, director of web hosting firm NetConnex. In a bizarre twist, the .ch address is actually hosted by EveryDNS, the firm which suspended Wikileak's .Wikileaks' address. "It seems a strange choice given that they pulled the plug on the .org address just a few hours ago," said Paul Mutton, a security analyst at internet services firm Netcraft. "It could be that Wikileaks is quite happy to play a cat and mouse game with them," he added. Using a Swiss domain could be Wikileaks anticipating the next line of attack - having its IP address de-registered, thinks Mr Mutton. "Moving to a non-US domain makes sense. Its previous domain was registered with a US company and as such has to work within US laws, with potential for the government to lean on it and get it suspended," said Mr Mutton. The Wikileaks situation is challenging the balance between free speech, commercial and technical pressures and the laws in different jurisdictions around the world. Wikileaks says its website has been under attack since it began publishing more than 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables. The memos, which discuss US diplomatic relations and military activities, have been causing controversy across the world. It turned to the online store Amazon to host its site but the company ended the agreement on Wednesday - a move welcomed by US officials. Amazon said that it had not removed Wikileaks because of a government inquiry. Instead it said that Wikileaks had failed to adhere to its terms of service. "It's clear that Wikileaks doesn't own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that Wikileaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren't putting innocent people in jeopardy," it said on its website.But freedom-of-speech campaigners remain defiant. "The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is Wikileaks. You are troops," tweeted John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

[It’s certainly difficult to keep a good website down. The Net sees censorship as damage and routes around it. Information wants to be free and it looks like DOS attacks aren’t enough to stop it spreading. The genie is most definitely out of the bottle here and I seriously doubt that anything the US or other governments try will shut things down permanently. This aspect of the affair is almost as interesting as the leaks themselves and almost as revealing as to the value some countries place on free speech and democracy.]

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Archaeology – a Very Short Introduction by Paul Bahn

Yet again I’m using the VSI series to broaden and deepen my understanding of a subject I have a passing knowledge of. Archaeology is, understandably, a huge topic. After all it covers all of human history and, indeed, pre-history.

What this small, and admittedly brief, volume attempt to cover were the highlights. Starting with its developments (in any systematic form) in the 19th Century, the author quickly moves onto the central question of accurately dating artefacts, the uses (and limitations) of new technology, a discussion regarding questions of how people lived in by-gone ages, the difficulty in reconstructing ways of thinking in ancient times (especially when only physical evidence is present), a brief tour of the idea of settlement and society, a discussion on how things change over time (and how this can be assessed), issues of gender and race bias (and how they can be addressed), how archaeology is presented to the public (a major reason for ‘doing’ archaeology in the first place) and finally a look towards the future of the past.

Told throughout in a light-hearted manner this was a fun and informative read. The author didn’t take himself too seriously and in so doing probably slipped through quite a lot of potentially ‘boring’ information in bite sized chunks. I think I found the sections on the difficulties – if not impossibilities – of attempts to discover how our ancestors thought most intriguing. Our knowledge of such things will forever remain imperfect at best (unless we eventually invent time travel) but such things are certainly worth the attempt – however unsatisfactory the result turns out to be. The other section I found almost as fascinating was how the attitudes of archaeologists have changed as more women and non-Anglo-American archaeologists have entered the field. Their attempts to address deficiencies in previous studies (either consciously or unconsciously sexist or racist) have provided new insights into whole ranges of questions. Despite being a mere 105 pages long this gives the casual reader much food for thought and many avenues to follow up. I for one will be doing such a follow up in the New Year. Recommended.

Monday, November 29, 2010

For Everything there is a First Time

First single bought: Lebanon by The Human League

First CD bought: Ambient Moods – a compilation.

First love: Jackie Morgan – literally the girl next door

First lover: Trisha Jones (many years later).

First job: General office worker in Central London

First owned home: My present location

First time abroad: Skiing in the French Alps with the school aged 13-14

First degree: BA(Hons) Social Ethics with Educational Studies

First drink: Vodka from a plastic elephant (previously containing bath oil) provided by my best school friend Andy aged 9-10

First hangover: Aged 11-12 after drinking the dregs of every glass left behind from a party my Mum had in our new house. Understandably I was very ill.

First book (that I remember): Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner written in 1929. I think I must have been about 10 and remember that it had a profound impact on me. Oddly I didn’t start reading voraciously until about 4 years later when I was introduced to SF by a friend of my brother.

First concert: The Stranglers in 1983. I was a very late convert to live music.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cosmos may show echoes of events before Big Bang

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

27 November 2010

Evidence of events that happened before the Big Bang can be seen in the glow of microwave radiation that fills the Universe, scientists have asserted. Renowned cosmologist Roger Penrose said that analysis of this cosmic microwave background showed echoes of previous Big Bang-like events. The events appear as "rings" around galaxy clusters in which the variation in the background is unusually low. The unpublished research has been posted on the Arxiv website. The ideas within it support a theory developed by Professor Penrose - knighted in 1994 for his services to science - that upends the widely-held "inflationary theory". That theory holds that the Universe was shaped by an unthinkably large and fast expansion from a single point. Much of high-energy physics research aims to elucidate how the laws of nature evolved during the fleeting first instants of the Universe's being. "I was never in favour of it, even from the start," said Professor Penrose. "But if you're not accepting inflation, you've got to have something else which does what inflation does," he explained to BBC News. "In the scheme that I'm proposing, you have an exponential expansion but it's not in our aeon - I use the term to describe [the period] from our Big Bang until the remote future. I claim that this aeon is one of a succession of such things, where the remote future of the previous aeons somehow becomes the Big Bang of our aeon." This "conformal cyclic cosmology" (CCC) that Professor Penrose advocates allows that the laws of nature may evolve with time, but precludes the need to institute a theoretical beginning to the Universe.

Professor Penrose, of Oxford University, and his colleague Vahe Gurzadyan of Yerevan State University in Armenia, have now found what they believe is evidence of events that predate the Big Bang, and that support CCC. They looked at data from vast surveys of the cosmic microwave background - the constant, nearly uniform low-temperature glow that fills the Universe we see. They surveyed nearly 11,000 locations, looking for directions in the sky where, at some point in the past, vast galaxies circling one another may have collided. The supermassive black holes at their centres would have merged, turning some of their mass into tremendous bursts of energy. The CCC theory holds that the same object may have undergone the same processes more than once in history, and each would have sent a "shockwave" of energy propagating outward. The search turned up 12 candidates that showed concentric circles consistent with the idea - some with as many as five rings, representing five massive events coming from the same object through the course of history. The suggestion is that the rings - representing unexpected order in a vast sky of disorder - represent pre-Big Bang events, toward the end of the last "aeon". "Inflation [theory] is supposed to have ironed all of these irregularities out," said Professor Penrose. "How do you suddenly get something that is making these whacking big explosions just before inflation turns off? To my way of thinking that's pretty hard to make sense of." Shaun Cole of the University of Durham's computational cosmology group, called the research "impressive". "It's a revolutionary theory and here there appears to be some data that supports it," he told BBC News. "In the standard Big Bang model, there's nothing cyclic; it has a beginning and it has no end.

"The philosophical question that's sensible to ask is 'what came before the Big Bang?'; and what they're striving for here is to do away with that 'there's nothing before' answer by making it cyclical." Professor Cole said he was surprised that the statistical variation in the microwave background data was the most obvious signature of what could be such a revolutionary idea, however. "It's not clear from their theory that they have a complete model of the fluctuations, but is that the only thing that should be going on? There are other things that could be going on in the last part of the previous aeon; why don't they show even greater imprints?" Professors Penrose and Cole both say that the idea should be shored up by further analyses of this type, in particular with data that will soon be available from the Planck telescope, designed to study the microwave background with unprecedented precision. Planck will provide a plethora of data that may prove or disprove the idea.

[How fascinating. If there was no Big Bang – more of a series of small bangs – then no single event ‘created’ the Universe. With no act of ‘creation’ another prop (often the most strongly argued prop) supporting the idea of God falls away….. Damn those atheist scientists!]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Just Finished Reading: One Minute to Midnight – Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs

I do find it more than a little odd reading about an historical event I lived through. Not that I actually have any memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was after all only 2 ½ years old in October 1962. What became very clear in this fascinating volume was how close I came to not seeing my 3rd birthday.

I think that most of my regulars know something about the events that almost led up to the world’s first nuclear exchange. Cuba, no friend to the USA, was offered nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union in retaliation for American nukes based on their border with Turkey. A U2 spy plane spotted them before they had become operational and before Khrushchev could announce it to the world. The US responded with a naval blockade, frantic diplomacy and threats of both bombing the sites and an invasion of the island. After several tense days the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the weapons and sail them home to Mother Russia. The world breathed a sigh of relief; I saw my 3rd birthday and the American nukes came home from Turkey.

Most of the above I was aware of before opening the pages of this book. What I was unaware of was the detail behind those headlines and just how close we came to nuclear war. Not through the acts of desperate or evil men but through accident, misunderstand and fear. Looking back almost 50 years it is difficult to credit just how unconnected the world was back then. At the height of the tensions created by the discovery of nuclear weapons a few hundred miles from American territory it sometimes took days – yes, days – for messages to travel between the major players. When life and death decisions for millions of people could be made in seconds it took hours – yes, hours – for information to pass between President Kennedy, Premier Khrushchev and the troops on the front line. What was even more interesting, to say nothing of disturbing, was the way that decisions on all three sides where being made in either the absence of information or based on the wrong information. From the God’s eye view of an author privy to details of conversations taking place in the White House, the Kremlin and in Havana the reader is allowed to see exactly what all three sides could not see. This ramped up the tension already inherent in a very tense story. Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the reader is shown a number of isolated incidents that could, if treated differently, have caused buttons to be pressed and missiles to fly. When a U2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba and another strays into Soviet airspace, when a nuclear armed Russian submarine is forced to the surface captained by a man at the end of his tether and when a simulated attack on Miami is flashed to NORAD and believed, for a few moments, to be the real thing. All of these things could have been the final straw.

This is undoubtedly a masterful work of historical writing. Not many history books can claim to be gripping. This was definitely one of them. The first 30 pages set the scene over the preceding weeks. The next five chapters (about 150 pages) covered the time from October 22nd to ‘Black Saturday’ October 27th. You can imagine the amount of detail the author goes into. The next 260 pages cover the weekend of 27-28th October hoping back and forth between events in Washington, Moscow, Cuba and the various military commands. Giving an almost minute by minute account of the events in such a way that the tension is almost overwhelming, this seemed like one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever read – and yet it was all real, which made it both more mesmerising and more appalling. If you know something about the Missile crisis you need to read this book to fill in the gaps to your knowledge. If this incident is new to you then you really need to read this book to see just how close we came to nuclear annihilation. It is a frightening and sobering read but one I enjoyed a great deal. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Favourite Movies: The Book of Eli

Sorry, but I’m back to the ultra-modern stuff again. I was actually in two minds (come to think of it more that two) about seeing this at the cinema. Despite being a big fan of Denzel and of end-of-the-world films, I was getting a little sick of the genre. I had also discovered that the movie had a religious – actually Christian – theme which might stick in my craw. But I bit the bullet and went along with the usual posse and felt that I could grit my teeth in the appropriate places if required. Fortunately I hardly needed to grit them at all.

In the movie the world we know and love had ended some decades previously. Although it’s never actually explained it appears to have suffered through a nuclear war of some kind. One of the first scenes appears to take place in fall-out with Washington (the man rather than the city) wearing a NBC ‘noddy’ suit – which seemed rather odd as its years after the bombs fell. Anyway, Denzel is making his way through a wonderfully filmed desolate landscape going west. Along the way he meets up with some people who try to take his things. Needless to say it does not go well for the bad-guys. On reaching a town recovering from the devastation we are presented with the figure of Gary Oldman who plays the brutal leader of biker gangs tasked with bringing back books. Oldman is looking for a specific book and soon discovers that Denzel holds a copy – maybe the only copy left in existence. The book is, we quickly discover, the Bible. Washington explains, to his tag-along runaway (played by Mila Kunis) that a voice spoke to him soon after the bombs fell directing him to the Bible and telling him to take it West. This he has been doing for many years. After adventures and misadventures Denzel and Mila deliver the book to Alcatraz (of all places) which has become a repository of the world’s knowledge.

There were several things that I immediately liked very much about this movie. Firstly, the cinematography was outstanding with washed out colours and utter desolation everywhere. Both Washington and Oldman played their parts wonderfully and were a delight separately and especially together when sparks flew. The supporting cast were adequate and largely disposable – indeed largely disposed of by Washington. Cute as she is, Mila Kunis really only plays Mila Kunis and is not that much different from the ungrateful character Jackie in ‘That 70’s Show’. The music was haunting and occasionally spiced up by tunes from Washington’s barely functioning iPod. The action sequences were well handled except for the laughable siege set-piece with the eccentric cannibal husband and wife team played by Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon which really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

From a philosophical point of view I did struggle with the idea that future generations would be able to build a better world with the Bible in it rather than without it. After all, a Bible inhabiting world had just been practically destroyed. I also struggled with the idea that a God could take such efforts in guiding someone across America, on foot, and giving him the skills to survive for decades in the harshest of environments whilst at the same time condemning billions of people to death in a nuclear holocaust. Of course none of these questions raised their heads during the movie. If God was dissatisfied with his human creations I’m sure there’s a more discriminating way of dealing with them than ICBM’s and MIRVs – but then again I’m not God so who knows! Overall though this was a very creditable end-of-the-world movie which worked for me on several levels. The problems I did have with it, which are the result of over-thinking things a bit, are minor in relation to the enjoyment I had from watching it. It’s certainly worth a mite less than 2 hours of your time if you haven’t seen it already.