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

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Robot border guards to patrol future frontiers

by Paul Marks for New Scientist

08 January 2010

A MIGRANT makes a furtive dash across an unwalled rural section of a national border, only to be confronted by a tracked robot that looks like a tiny combat tank - with a gimballed camera for an eye. As he passes the bug-eyed droid, it follows him and a border guard's voice booms from its loudspeaker. He has illegally entered the country, he is warned, and if he does not turn back he will be filmed and followed by the robot, or by an airborne drone, until guards apprehend him.

Welcome to the European border of the not-too-distant future. Amid the ever-present angst over illegal immigration, cross-border terrorism and contraband smuggling, some nations are turning to novel border-surveillance technologies, potentially backed up by robots, a conference on state security at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, heard in November. The idea is to scatter arrays of sensors in a border area in ways that give guards or robots plenty of time to respond before their targets make good an escape. The need to secure borders is evident across the globe, from India - which is constructing a 3400-kilometre, 3-metre-high barbed-wire and concrete border wall to close itself off from Bangladesh - to Libya, where foot patrols are being augmented with new people-sensing technologies.

Libya has an agreement with the European Union to try to limit the flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa traversing its borders before crossing the Mediterranean and entering Italy. To help it enforce this deal, Libya is spending €300 million on technology for what it calls a "large border security and control system", made by Selex Sistemi Integrati, part of Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica. Selex says its command, control and communication technology will include all the computers and software necessary to make sense of the data gathered by a raft of different sensors on the Libyan border. Project details remain under wraps, but Selex already makes acoustic, infrared and remote-imaging sensors, which could find uses in border control. Elsewhere, the US Department of Homeland Security, along with Boeing Intelligence and Security Systems, is fielding sensors on the border with Mexico, in an $8 billion project called the Secure Border Initiative network. SBInet will eventually comprise some 400 25-metre-high towers similar to cellphone masts and containing an array of remote-controlled optical and infrared cameras. The towers will also carry a primary sensor designed to detect humans. This sensor is a 10-gigahertz, or "X-band", ground surveillance radar made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in Tel Aviv. The towers will be dotted along the US's 3000-kilometre triple-layered border fence.

The radar will supplement acoustic and vibration sensors strewn around the border zone that pick up voices and footfalls, and will provide patrols with early warning of activity in the border area - as far as 10 kilometres from the fence. So says Mark Borkowski, who directs the SBInet project for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency in Washington DC. The idea is that robotic cameras will zoom in automatically on any activity detected by radar or sensors. "Then we classify the event to gauge our response: is it just a stray cow? A person? If so, are they carrying weapons or maybe drugs?" says Borkowski. "We're not foolish enough to think a fence alone will work: we know people can build ramps and cut through it." A prototype SBInet system, based on nine temporary towers, has been tested on a 45-kilometre stretch of the US-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona, for the past three years. Called Project 28, it had problems: the X-band radar produced too much signal clutter from the ground, making it tough to detect human activity. And the satellite links it used took too long to send sensor data to base - so people had often disappeared by the time an alert was raised. The radar has been modified and satellite links abandoned in favour of fast ground-based microwave links, says Tim Peters, Boeing's SBInet project chief. The project moves to its deployment phase in mid-2010, when 17 permanent towers near Tucson will be turned on. Magnetic sensors will be added to detect vehicle movements and weapons, too. CBP is also trialling Predator drones on the border to feed surveillance pictures into SBInet.

IAI is a partner in the EU's Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land Border Surveillance (TALOS) programme, which eschews static ground sensors and border walls in favour of the aforementioned bug-eyed robots - replete with human-sensing radar - and aerial drones. TALOS is needed because the expanded 27-nation EU has a porous eastern border that it cannot afford to monitor conventionally, says Agnieszka Spronska of the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements (PIAP), based in Warsaw, Poland. PIAP is leading the 10-nation TALOS consortium, which is spending €20 million on developing the architecture for a mobile network of ground robots, drones and the command centres from which they are run. "TALOS will be very scalable depending on the terrain - you can use as much of it as you need without static elements," says Spronska. More than one ground robot will approach people, she says, as groups often split up. More than one of the ground-based robots will approach people, as groups often split up. But where does this deep-probing 24/7 surveillance technology leave residents who are living near borders, in terms of privacy? "We protect the camera and sensor systems from any kind of illegal or unauthorised use," says Borkowski. "But it is indeed a balancing act. People are right to be asking such questions."

[Another link in the chain….. I wonder if this one will make us feel any safer – even if it works as advertised, which I doubt.]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Dark Side of the Screen – Film Noir by Foster Hirsch

Continuing my interest in Film Noir this coffee table book was a real treat. Full of detailed analysis and copious amounts of large black and white movie stills this was a great insight to one of, in my opinion, defining genres of modern cinema. Although only lasting around 10 years – depending on who you read – Film Noir produced some of the best – again in my opinion – movies of the post-war period. Not only that Noir filtered into the mainstream and influenced many, if not all, subsequent movies especially but not exclusively in the crime film genre.

Hirsch’s book delves into the history of Noir from its cinematic origins in German Expressionism of the 1930’s and its literary origins in the pulp writers of the 30’s and 1940’s. The book highlights the thematic character of Noir giving entire chapters to the locations (the city at night), the distortion of reality (often featured by the distorting mirror), the skills and attributes of both Noir actors and directors as well as the distinctive Noir narrative structure. Despite have a lot of ground to cover the author packs a great deal of detail, and not a little passion for his subject, into just over 200 large format pages. Hirsch never looses his focus and always manages to get across the often labyrinthine plots and deeper meanings of the great Noir movies. Easy to read and beautifully illustrated this could turn you into a Noir fan if you’re not one already. Reading this over successive weekends I did feel a hankering to pop on a classic DVD and fall into a world of dangerous dames and violent men. Highly recommended for anyone with more than a passing interest in cinema.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Bolt

Some of you will know how much I like – indeed love – animation. The technology for producing animated movies, with the advent of powerful CGI, means that almost anything is now possible. But all of the advanced computer graphics packages in the world still can’t produce a great film without both a decent plot and – most importantly of all in my opinion – heart. Bolt had all three: Excellent CGI which they repeatedly showed off to great effect, A more that adequate plot as the eponymous Bolt came to the realisation that he wasn’t a super-hero but could still be a hero and that hard to define ‘something’ that makes you identify with unreal characters enough to care about them.

Bolt is definitely a superior Disney film that, fortunately, fails to be overly sentimental or annoyingly preachy – although to be fair it does approach both from time to time. Without giving too much away to those who haven’t seen it, Bolt is the star of a TV show along with his ‘person’ Penny. In order to make the audiences believe that Bolt can do all of the amazing things he’s supposed to do the studio have constructed a worldview for Bolt to believe in. In it Bolt actually believes he really is a super-dog. Unfortunately he’s accidently shipped to New York on the opposite side of the country from his beloved Penny and spends most of the film getting back to her – and along the way learning that being super isn’t all about having super-powers. Trite I know, but actually well handled without tipping over into saccharine sentimentality. Bolt – voiced by John Travolta – has a great cast of extras including Penny – voiced by Miley Cyrus, Mittens the cat – voiced by Susie Essman and my personal favourite Rhino the hamster voiced by the awesome Mark Walton. If you missed this movie in theatres or have been avoiding it because its Disney or a kid’s film then please correct that mistake and hire it immediately. I pretty much guarantee that you’ll laugh your way through 92 minutes of crazy action-adventure. Woof!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Those Who Follow Sarah Palin are Sowing the Seeds of Their Own Destruction

by Gary Younge for The Guardian

Monday, November 23, 2009

In the film, The American President, the president's speechwriter Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J Fox) appeals to the commander-in-chief to take a firm, clear stand against the Right. "People want leadership, Mr President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone." he says. "They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand." The president (played by Michael Douglas) retorts that the American electorate's problem is not a lack of leadership but an undiscerning palate. "We've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight," he says. "People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference."

As the faithful wait in line in small towns across the country (some for more than a day) to see Sarah Palin on her book tour, the question of whether the US is deprived of a competent political class or gets the leadership it both deserves and truly desires seems as pertinent as ever. On the one hand there is roughly between a quarter and a third of America that will clearly believe anything. That is the figure that strongly approved of George Bush's handling of the economy last year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the bailout. That same figure, in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, believed that Bush's response to the disaster was "about right", and still supports the war in Iraq. That also happens to be approximately the same proportion of Americans who back Palin for president. Most data suggest the overlap is considerable. Palin's rise to prominence, from little-known governor to one of the most popular and arguably most charismatic Republicans in the country in just a year, has been startling. She had a thin record when she was picked to run as vice-president. Today, having quit the Alaska governorship mid-term and published a bestseller, only her wallet is thicker.

Her resignation speech was so rambling that you would have struggled to find a coherent sentence with an industrial-strength searchlight. "Let me go back to a comfortable analogy for me - sports," she announced. "I use it because you're naive if you don't see the national full-court press picking away right now: A good point guard drives through a full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket ... and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win." This was not the answer to a hostile interview from the "liberal media elite" but a prepared speech of her own making. It would be easy to discount her as just a media phenomenon who would go away if we stopped talking about her. That would be a mistake. It would be even easier to poke fun at her as just a small town hick who has blundered into the limelight with a nod, wink and a "you betcha". That too would be a mistake. For the very things that liberal commentators ridicule her for - being inarticulate, unworldly, simplistic and hokey - are the very things that make her attractive to her base. Indeed, every time she is taunted she becomes more popular because it reaffirms the (not entirely mistaken) view that the deeply held values of a sizable section of the population are being disparaged. The same dynamic was true for George Bush, but with one crucial exception. Bush is the scion of a wealthy family who turned his back on the cultural trappings of his class while embracing the social confidence and political and financial entitlement that came with it. Palin had none of those advantages: she grew up far from power and privilege in every sense.

The difference in their comfort levels when put on the spot with simple questions was evident when each was asked about their newspaper reading habits. Bush was cocky: "The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Palin froze: "I've read most of them ... all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years." In her world, Ivy League is a slur; cities are not the "real America"; and those who know the price of arugula but cannot handle a rifle are not to be trusted. Palin is the antithesis of an aspirational figure. Her supporters love her not because they want to be like her, but because they already are like her. So for better and for worse, Palin is an entirely self-made - and, if her book is anything to go by, self-invented - personification of the kind of political animal Bush sought to both emulate and nurture. Bush was Palin-lite. To that extent her performance over the past year has been more tragic than comic. Palin represents the thwarted aspirations and brooding resentment of a large section of white working class Americans. That is not to suggest that her supporters are necessarily racist, but polls show her support is racially exclusive. Her base has plenty to be resentful about. Their wages are stagnant, their economic security has eroded, and their prospects for social and economic advancement have stalled. In 2004, white Americans were the only racial group for whom the poverty rate actually rose. The fact that it was lower than every other group is of little comfort. Demographically, they are set to become a minority by 2042. Geopolitically, the country for which they display so much patriotic fervour has lost one war, is losing another, and is regularly lectured by others about the urgency of putting its fiscal house in order. America is not what it used to be. The country they keep saying they want to "take back" no longer exists and is not returning.

So when Palin rails against Washington DC, bank bailouts and elitist media she catches their ear. The longer unemployment keeps rising, house prices keep falling and universal healthcare continues to be elusive, the more ears there will be. Motivated, organised and angry, Palin's wing of the Republican party does not have the numbers to make bad things happen; but, as it showed over the summer during the healthcare town hall meetings, its determination to derail good things should not be underestimated. The trouble is that while many of their grievances are well founded, their affection is certainly misplaced. None of their problems can be remedied by the politics championed by Palin. Indeed, the greater the traction her politics gets, the worse things will be for her base. The America whose passing they mourn was lost precisely because of the freemarket, low-tax, warmongering agenda she advocates.

To crawl through the desert in search of water only to find sand is disappointing; to not know the difference between water and sand is delusional; but to go looking for sand in the belief that it will truly quench your thirst, not once but twice, well that is truly depressing.

[It is a truly frightening thought that this woman could have any kind of real power in the world. Just imagine her – for a brief horrific moment – as President of the USA. Now that could give me sleepless nights!]

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Keys of Egypt – The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs by Lesley and Roy Adkins

What little I previously knew of this subject interested me enough. After reading this book I am now officially fascinated. I knew, in a rather vague fashion, that the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt had something to do with the Egypt mania that swept through Europe prior to his defeat in 1815 and I knew that material recovered (or stolen) from Egypt helped fuel investigations into that Ancient civilisation’s great past but that’s as far as it went. I wasn’t aware, until now, of the great efforts made by the genius of Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphs and the personal sacrifices he made to be able to do so. I had little idea of the hardships suffered by the savants of the day to travel into the Egyptian interior to recover artefacts and, more importantly, documents that would have been lost without what was, in effect, wholesale grave robbing. Without Champollion’s efforts it is arguable that today we would know almost nothing of ancient Egypt and so much else besides. For that alone he should be seen as a pivotal figure in understanding our collective past.

This well written and often gripping book often reads like a thriller as it follows the work and life of the man who unlocked the deepest secrets of our hidden past. Driven to understand the origins of the world itself Champollion instead uncovered one of the major streams that went into making Western civilisation. His work was certainly that important. Despite living through a time of war, rebellion and revolution Champollion and his brother managed to keep working over long years – indeed decades – on the quest to understand the apparently undecipherable writings on hundreds of tombs and thousands of documents. The effort most certainly hastened his death but the drive to know the truth of things was too strong to resist. His triumph was the ability to read the inscriptions on ancient monuments at a glance and to open up a whole new field of study. The courage of Champollion and his contemporary explorers is amazing. Reading about their exploits in the burning deserts of the Egyptian hinterland made me gasp with amazement and not a little thirst. These men were pioneers in their respective fields and incredibly brave into the bargain. With hindsight we can say that their techniques were questionable – if not actually illegal – but they did save much that would have been destroyed otherwise and this is not something that should be lightly overlooked. Champollion and his colleagues did the world a great favour by doing what they did. This book goes a long way to explaining the reasons behind such acts and the treasures that we all now have access to because of it. A fascinating read about a fascinating period of exploration.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Crisis? What Crisis? – Britain in the 1970’s by Alwyn W Turner

You may remember that I recently read a book on 1968 and was surprised that, although I was alive at the time (if only 8 years old), I remembered very little of what was going on around the world. This may have been, as alluded to in another post, that I simply wasn’t paying attention. How different it was in the 70’s.

This was one of my Christmas reading books and I was delighted that I remembered many of the events and incidents – as well as the personalities involved – during that turbulent decade. Maybe it was because I’d reached puberty by that time and all of those hormones coursing through my body finally woke my brain up. Either way the constant refrain heard in my mother’s house was – Oh, I remember that! Anything I didn’t remember – for example the Government plan to introduce petrol rationing (complete with ration books) – my older brother remembered clearly. Of course those of us who lived through what was, and reading this book clearly reminded me of, a truly frightening time will remember the different aspects that directly affected us – whether it was the strikes, the layoffs, the rolling power-cuts (I particularly remember doing homework by candlelight), the multiple governments in a single year, the piles of rotting rubbish in the streets – and much else besides. It was also a Golden Age of TV despite the existence of only three Channels. Who could possible forget ‘The Good Life’ (I had such a crush on Felicity Kendal) and – featured on the books cover – ‘The Sweeny’.

I guess that the 70’s are a special decade for me because I entered them as a child, went through my teenage years and exited them as an adult – with the backdrop of a country in crisis, the demise of the Labour Party as a force for Socialism, the rise of Thatcherism, Glam Rock, New Wave and, of course, Punk Rock. What an amazing decade and what a time to be a teenager. Despite everything I think that I honestly loved the 70’s. Sometimes I think it’s what it must have felt like to live during wartime. It really was that bad. I was probably protected from a lot of it by my parents but the general anxiety level could’ve been cut with a knife. This book brought a lot of those feelings back and really showed me how touch-and-go things were for a while there. It was a dangerous time in many ways and I think I loved just about every minute of it!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Awful Prospect of Turning War Over to Machines

by Ron Smith for The Baltimore Sun

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Once in a while, everything about the world changes at once. This is one of those times." This is a quote from social commentator Chuck Klosterman that I saw atop Chapter 11 in the important and disturbing book "Wired for War" by P.W. Singer. If you doubt the accuracy of the observation, all you have to do is read the book and you'll see there is no denying it. Modern warfare is moving at warp speed to a future where robots and robotic systems do most of the fighting on battlefields. We get a hint of it every time a news story mentions that X number of "insurgents" were killed somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan by missiles fired from an American drone aircraft. We are in the midst of the most astounding revolution in the waging of war since the creation of the atom bomb.

The U.S. Air Force now trains more drone pilots than it does pilots for manned aircraft. Airmen leave their homes stateside, drive to work, monitor video from Predator drones circling the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, and sometimes let loose Hellfire missiles that obliterate people thousands of miles from their consoles. Mr. Singer is an expert on military matters. His previous books reported the details on the rise of private military firms and on the widespread use of child soldiers in modern wars. This one is the result of four years of intense research and interviews with scientists, military experts, science fiction writers, ethicists, inventors and other people involved in or pondering the phenomenon of machines replacing people on the killing fields. The questions this breakthrough raises are many and profoundly important. Western militaries are notoriously casualty-averse in the 21st century. When President Bill Clinton decided to bomb Serbia 10 years ago, he ordered that our incredibly expensive bombers and fighter-bombers not fly lower than 15,000 feet over their targets. The result was a ridiculously low level of accuracy in the bombing, but not a single airman was lost, and that was goal number one. Since then, the science of robotics and its use in war has exploded to the point where fewer soldiers, Marines and airmen are being exposed to lethality on or above battlefields.

It's tempting to say that this is an unalloyed blessing, but it really isn't. Reading Mr. Singer, you'll come to understand the questions and dilemmas that arise from having this technology to employ. For example, it will make wars easier for politicians to start and - while saving lives - will almost certainly lower the moral and psychological barriers to killing. The so-called "warrior ethos," by which fighting men are defined, will be eroded. There is the possibility of Terminator-like scenarios with robots rebelling against humans, and if you think that's ridiculous, just read the book. Also, technology knows no borders. Other nations, notably Japan and China, are well advanced in robotics, and down the road there is always the chance that nonstate actors, or even determined, Timothy McVeigh-like characters, will be able to deploy machines, sowing destruction for their own malign purposes. Finally, as for the public and unmanned wars, as Mr. Singer puts it, "Wars, even the best of them, lose their virtue. They instead become like playing God from afar, just with unmanned weapons substituting for thunderbolts." Already, YouTube viewers flock to videos showing vehicles and people blown up by IEDs, or "insurgents" vaporized from on high. War is hideous, and when it is reduced to a spectator sport, something viewed from the comfort of your home or office, with machines doing the killing, it becomes much too easy a thing.

Near the book's end, Mr. Singer quotes cultural historian Paul Fussell, a World War II combat veteran, saying, "If there is no risk, no cost, then it isn't war as we think of it. If you are going to have a war, you've got to involve people and their bodies. There's no other way. In the end”, he laments, "People will support the next war because the TV tells them to." Machines are getting smarter all the time. People? Not so much so. As Einstein said, "Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal."

[There is no Fate, as Sarah Connor rightly said. It is not our fate to fight with machines or against machines but it looks like there are powerful forces at work in the world to make this science-fiction reality our reality. I wonder where it will all end – a Terminator world or maybe a Matrix one. It is still for us to decide what kind of future we want for ourselves and our children. Just because we can build killer robots and fear that someone else will if we do not, does not mean that we must build such devices. I have a feeling that such technology will not remain in our control for very long.]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead

Georgina Kincaid isn’t your average bookshop assistant. For one thing she’s effectively immortal. For another she is supernaturally alluring – which goes with the fact that she’s a Succubus, a sex-demon. As part of Seattle’s supernatural community her main job is to seduce humans on the orders of the cities arch-demon whilst taking their life energy to sustain herself. It’s a pretty good gig until a vampire who threatened her turns up dead and the authorities become suspicious of her activities. However, it’s not long before the true killer shows his colours as well as his love for Georgina.

Despite the many shortcomings of this hefty volume it was a very easy read – probably because the content was so light and fluffy. Inevitably it seems these days the central character is very pretty and very sassy, always ready with the come-back line. At least here Georgina isn’t a cheap Buffy knock-off (as so many of the new breed of urban fantasy heroines seem to be) but is actually virtually helpless against any kind of violence. No high-kicks for this demon! Swiftly making my way through a tad over 470 pages – at a romping 150 pages a day – because of the basic lack of any real content, I found this book just about readable. Fortunately I haven’t already bought any more of this series and I really don’t intend to. It’s hard to tell if this was written for teenagers – and whether or not that’s an insult to teenagers – as the ‘story’ (such as it was) revolved around Georgina’s love life or lack thereof – seeing that anyone who had regular sexual contact with her would have a very short (though presumably very pleasurable) lifespan. Surprisingly though, despite the main character needing sex to exist at all there was very little sexual content in this book and what sex there was, was very tame indeed. Basically this was a great big nothing of a book that can hardly be recommended even as the light read I found it to be.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Philosopher and the Wolf – Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness by Mark Rowlands

I picked this up for two main reasons: It had an amazing picture of a beautiful wolf on the cover and the fact that I’d read some interesting general philosophy texts by him before. This semi-autobiographical tome revolved around how the author’s life changed after he made the rather crazy decision to buy a wolf cub as a pet. For the next 11 years his life was dominated by the wolfs needs rather than his own – not only because wolves are high maintenance creatures in general but also because they are incredibly destructive if left along for too long – like anything more than 5 minutes.

It’s actually difficult to describe exactly what this book was about. Largely it’s about the author’s relationship with and deep respect for the wolf Brenin. But between the autobiographical storytelling there are real philosophical nuggets. Rowlands has a deep mistrust of humanity based as much on personal experience as on an understanding of our evolutionary past. Not surprisingly he turned out to be both a loner and somewhat of a misanthrope. Personally I wouldn’t go that far but I could certainly see his point. He contrasts his antagonism towards humans with his admiration for the wolf – both in its undying loyalty to the ‘pack’ and its ability to live in the now, unlike humanity who seem both trapped by the past and mesmerised by the future. Rather gratifyingly he ended this short, if rather intense, volume by bringing up some interesting speculations on the ‘meaning of life’ question that gelled with my own thoughts expressed in my recent dissertation. It was nice to be backed up by a professional philosopher and I would’ve totally quoted him if I’d read this book first! If you have a vague interest in philosophy or more than a passing interest in wolves this could be the book for you. An interesting if, at times, strange read.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

UK from space - 7th Jan 2010.
Life during Wartime.

I’m not exactly sure how we got onto the subject but my Mother mentioned one of her wartime experiences over the Christmas break. Although she was only 3 when the Second World War started she was 9 when it ended and remembers vividly watching a V-1 flying bomb buzzing its way over the Liverpool cityscape when it’s engine cut out. This was the time when everyone nearby took whatever cover they could find. Buzz-bombs were designed in such a way that when the timer kicked in the fuel to the engine was cut off causing the device to fall out of the sky and explode on contact with the ground. As they carried a one-ton payload it made one heck of a bang and a sizable crater.

It’s hard to imagine, even in these so-called dangerous times, a 9 year old girl watching death fall from the sky on houses in the distance. I suppose that we adapt to just about anything given time but even so I hope that no one reading this will need to get used to such things in the future. When children are placed in the front lines of any conflict we are doing something seriously wrong. If we must fight, and unfortunately it seems like we must from time to time, then we must not involve the innocent in our conflicts no matter what the provocation. If we must have war, and I do so wish that we could turn our backs on that distasteful activity, then the very least we could do is spare the children of that particular man-made horror. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Pastwatch – The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card

In the distant future the remnants of the human race – now reduced to 700 million people – are busily rebuilding the planet most recently ravaged by war and ecological disaster. Hoping to recover the lost treasures of our cultural heritage they begin scanning past ages in order to recreate lost works of art. Other operatives in the Pastwatch organisation collect data on long dead cultures and one team sends shockwaves through their hierarchy when they apparently discover that some of the people being watched can sense them. It is not long before the idea is raised that information could be sent into the past to ‘correct’ the future. Whilst the debate rages amongst the scientists and politicians another discovery rocks them to their core. Such manipulation has already taken place! Pastwatch agents from an alternate – now vanished - future have managed to manipulate Christopher Columbus in order to focus his attention on finding a way to Cathay over the Atlantic thereby discovering the America’s. But why did they do that? Was the alternative of not sailing West so much worse than what had already occurred? Would it be possible to manipulate this pivotal figure again and save the world from destruction even if it meant that the existing timeline would be reset yet again?

This was a pure delight to read. Books such as this explain the fact why I’m still reading SF after 35 years. Incredibly well written and full of interesting ideas this is much more than a shining example of alternate history. It is a well researched and illuminating study of what was and what very well might have been. It is a ‘what-if’ par excellence. Card has managed to produce a deeply adult tale of exploration, tribulation and redemption as well as an intriguing story of a possible utopian future full of hope. As usual with such rare gems I both wanted to devour this book and savour every page, ever event and every character. As you might imagine I now want to find out as much as possible about the period to see just how much of the authors detailed storytelling is real. It certainly felt real so I guess he did his job sufficiently for me to totally suspend any disbelief I might have had. This is probably the best book I’ve read in the last 12 months and one of the best in the last 5 years. Its attention to detail and simultaneous breadth of vision is literally breathtaking. I found myself staring at a page more than once completely blown away by the quality of the ideas washing around inside my head. Such feelings are rare indeed especially after the thousands of books I’ve read. It’s the feeling of finding something uniquely good, of finding something great and the wistful feeling of wanting to read it for the first time again. It was the feeling I remember from my teenage years when I first discovered SF. I know by saying such things I’ll probably raise some peoples expectations too far and they’ll be disappointed by the book itself but somehow I don’t think so – at least I hope not. This is a truly wonderful work of speculative fiction that should delight anyone with any hint of a ‘what-if’ questioning mind. I can not, as you may have noticed, recommend it too highly. Quite superb.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Red Genesis by S C Sykes

Graham Kuan Sinclair has it all, wealth, power, prestige, enemies – on a green and pleasant future Earth. But when toxic waste erupts from the ocean floor killing thousands he is accused of crimes against nature. Despite his stated innocence, enough paperwork exists to tie him into decisions that led to tragedy and mass death. Avoiding the death penalty, Sinclair is exiled to the struggling Mars colonies to spend the rest of his life away from everything and everyone he loves. Without any skills the colony needs Sinclair trains as a doctor and begins to impress those around him with his dedication and eerie calm. Convinced by others to teach them Tai Chi he starts a craze for Eastern mysticism that moves through the colony like a virus. But it is only when he gets involved in local politics that things really get interesting and very dangerous for everyone he gathers to his cause – a Free and Independent Mars.

Political SF is a comparatively rare beast so it’s a real pleasure when you come across one such book that is also well written. Sinclair is a great character with multiple layers that are worth exploring. He’s the kind of person that you would like to get to know and be friends with. His interactions with the myriad characters in this book have a feel of realism about them that can’t help but involve you in their particular stories. The author’s depiction of Mars itself – one of my favourite SF subjects – also has a realistic feel to it as Sinclair and others around him explore, mine and modify the Martian environment to their needs. Whilst not in the same league as Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson this book adds enough nuance and difference to the Mars Colonisation sub-genre of SF that makes it worth hunting down and reading. Although not as ‘hard’ as some hard-SF I’ve read in the past it does contain quite a few interesting technological, political, artistic and sociological ideas to make the reader ponder our future here on Earth and on other planets in our System. Recommended.
Baby, it's *cold* outside!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Outlander

I like both movies and books that mix genres – at least when they do it well. This movie is a good example of what can be done when a bit of thought is applied to an interesting idea. The story revolves around an alien soldier Kainan who’s ship crash lands on Earth in 8th Century Scandinavia. What he quickly discovers is the cause of the crash was far from natural. Stowed away aboard is another alien creature called a Moorwen, a creature straight out of legend. Possessing incredible strength, cunning and a deep need for revenge against Kainan’s people for the devastation of its home planet, the Moorwen begins to kill everything and everyone in its path. The only thing that Kainan can do is hope that the fighting skills of the local population can help him kill the beast. Luckily for Kainan the skills of the local population are impressive indeed – for they are Vikings and are not afraid of dragons!

I honestly laughed when I saw the trailer for this movie. Amongst the group there were more than a few eyes being rolled. I thought it would be fun – if it worked and truly dire if it didn’t. Fortunately – at least as far as I was concerned – it worked for me. Despite the fact that the hero – played by Jim Caviezal - was a bit wooden and slightly two dimensional he was (just) enough of a presence to carry his role well enough. Ron Perlman was rather wasted as the leader of an opposing clan and John Hurt, now well past his prime, phoned in his role as the King of the clan at the centre of the Moorwen’s new territory. This was indeed in every sense a B movie but, wisely, had no pretentions beyond that. It was above all else entertaining – partially because you could play spot the cultural/mythological reference which the writer/director plundered along the way. Don’t expect anything overly original here. The core of the story is clearly based on the tale of Beowulf with elements of other Nordic myths and even a nod to Lord of the Rings in places. Do, however, expect to be entertained without being mentally taxed for 110 minutes. Oh, and as in some previous discussions can you guess who ends up as the leader of the victorious clan at the end……? It appears that it’s quite a common theme [grin].