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

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

I remember vividly seeing this on the movies but find it difficult to believe that I saw it on release back in 1969. But maybe I did (then age 9) which might explain its impact on me and why, 40 years later, I still like this film so much.

If you haven’t seen it (shame on you) this winner of 4 Oscars revolves around the friendship of two notorious outlaws in the West at the point where the old ways where dying and modern times (represented by the bicycle of all things) was starting to make itself felt. After robbing a train twice – both on its inward and outward journey – the railroad owner decides that enough is enough and puts together the best of the best to track them down. Deciding that discretion is the better part of survival they travel to Bolivia where they continue to rob banks and live what passes for the high-life. But things, as they do, catch up with them and it ends rather badly.

On the face of it that doesn’t seem like the plot of a film anyone could fall in love with. What makes it special – for me at least – is the relationship between Butch, played by Paul Newman, and Sundance played by Robert Redford. I don’t know anything about their real relationship off screen but their on screen friendship (indeed love) for each other was clear to anyone with eyes to see it. They truly seemed to have known each other through the good times and the bad and to be determined to see things to the bitter end – together. But it wasn’t just the chemistry between the two main leads that made the plot, however exciting and fun it turned out to be, purely incidental to the enjoyment of this film. Part of the dynamic was the girlfriend of Sundance played by the beautiful Katharine Ross. Having been in similar relationships myself (always as the Newman character) not only did it add an extra dimension but also added a great deal of realism to what is, when all is said and done, a piece of pure escapism.

As with all things Western I can thank my father for the fact that I love this film and the genre in general. There’s definitely something about the wide open spaces, the freedom (both real an apparent) to go anywhere and do (pretty much) anything and its not surprising that the frontier is such an important part of the American psyche – who then of course exported it to the rest of the world. One other thing that might surprise some of my readers – or maybe not – is that I think I fell at least a bit in love with Redford in this film. I probably didn’t realise it at the time but looking back I can see it more clearly. Strange but true but who could blame me……..

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Science Fiction of Military Marketing

by David Sirota for the San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, August 28, 2009

I'm a video game geek, so as I sat through movie previews a few weeks ago, I was sure I was watching Nintendo ads. There on the cinema's screen was a supersleek plane flying over a moonscape while communicating with an orbiting satellite. In the next moment, a multicolored topographical map, orders being barked - and in my own mind, memories of Call of Duty graphics. And then, finally, two guys in front of a computer console, and the jarring punch line: "It's not science fiction; it's what we do every day," said the bold type, followed by a U.S. Air Force symbol. Before giving the audience a chance to digest the slogan, it was on to another montage, this one of helicopters and explosions with 1970s music playing in the background. A preview for a Steve McQueen-themed game, I thought. Then, though, the familiar kicker: "The drones fight terrorism and protect America, and in the process, they keep the frontlines unmanned," said the voiceover, adding, "This isn't science fiction; this is life in the United States Navy."

The ads preceded "The Hurt Locker" - a dramatized movie about soldiers who defuse roadside bombs in the midst of Iraq's horrifying carnage. And even with its fictionalized dialogue, the film was far more honest than the U.S. military's fantastical sales pitch. Join the armed forces, the ads suggest, and you don't have to experience the blood-and-guts consequences of combat. Instead, you get to hang out stateside, entertaining yourself with a glorified PlayStation. During this, one of the bloodiest months in the Afghanistan war, the spots promote a somewhat comforting, if disturbingly misleading, message - one aimed at potential soldiers and the public at large. For the former, the goal is reassurance. As Bush-era attempts to conflate bellicosity and patriotism were undermined by persistent body bags, military recruitment has become more challenging. In response, the Pentagon hopes to make prospective volunteers believe their tours of duty will be as safe as a night on the couch.

For the general public, the objective is sedation. New polls show the country strongly opposes the Afghanistan and Iraq wars - but military officials want to preserve the possibility of an escalation in Afghanistan and a permanent deployment in Iraq. So the Pentagon is seeking an opiate to placate the war-averse populace. What better anodyne than a marketing campaign implying wars are fun video games? Certainly, the ads aren't pure science fiction. As the armed forces build more unmanned drones, Popular Science magazine reports that recruiters are indeed looking to add new remote pilots. The science fiction is the specific assertion that "the frontlines are unmanned." Claims like that are deeply destructive, beyond their obvious insult to the thousands on those very frontlines. It's a good bet more than a few enlistees will expect their service to be video game tournaments, only to find themselves dodging real bullets in a Baghdad shooting gallery.

More broadly, the American psyche's slow progress toward an increasingly peaceful disposition could be stunted by the propaganda's powerful paradox: While sanitizing ads play to the country's growing disgust with militarism, they could ultimately lead us to be more supportive of militarism. How? By convincing us that violence can be just another innocuous expression of adolescent technophilia. If we end up thinking that, we will have once again forgotten what all wars, even the justifiable ones, always are: lamentable human tragedies.

[I suppose that it’s more than possible to fight a war – even a long war – without casualties (on our side at least). But I don’t think it’s at all possible to win a war without ‘boots on the ground’. UAVs, not matter how technologically advanced, can neither take nor hold ground – though they may be used to deny ground to an enemy force. Personally I think that the best way to eliminate casualties in future wars is simply by not having them in the first place. Keeping war at arms length – no pun intended – is a pipe dream designed to disarm – this pun was intended – a public sick of seeing its armed forces fighting in worthless deserts and coming home broken or in body-bags. Remote fighting from the safety of a computer console thousands of miles away from the front line may look like the answer but it’s not. The best way to win is not to fight in the first place.]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Painted Man by Peter V Brett

Three thousand years ago the demons that haunted the world were finally defeated and cast back into the Core. In the intervening years the truth of their existence was lost and finally became Myth. So when they returned nothing and no one stood in their way and mankind was helpless as they ravaged everything through the nights that followed. Only the rising of the Sun banished them back to their fiery home. Within weeks advanced human civilisation had fallen into chaos with only handfuls of survivors huddled behind hastily drawn magical wards. Three hundred years After the Return the remnants of civilisation are slowly crumbling under the nightly demon onslaught as wards fail and houses or whole villages are consumed. The legendary fighting wards used to destroy the original demon invasion have been lost and without them humanity will eventually fail. When Arlen’s world is shattered in a demon attack which takes his mother he sets himself on the path to find the fighting wards and finally take the battle to the demons. But first he needs to conquer his own fear of the night and survive long enough into manhood to see if the legends are true and that demon-kind can indeed be defeated.

Regular readers will no doubt have noticed that my fantasy reading is few and far between. Fantasy in general doesn’t really appeal to my sensibilities. I like my SF hard and fantasy is just, well too fantastic for my liking. Not so in this case. The author has managed to create a complete and complex world that makes frighteningly perfect sense. I particularly liked the fact that this fantasy world was our world – transformed by demons of (apparent) legend into a place full of horrors. Horrors however that are perfectly logical in context. The characterisation – and there are many main and secondary characters to consider – is complex and diverse with both strong (and weak) men and women all believable and multilayered. The surviving knowledge and technology from the old world is woven into the fabric of the new reality to offer up intriguing ideas and possibilities for future volumes. The graphic use of magical wards is explained – though not fully – in an almost mathematical way adding to the overall realism of the story. There are passages that will shock and others that will make you feel queasy as demons break through wards and feast on the living and the dead. But there passages that lift the spirits as humanity fights back against odds that seem overwhelming but only appear so because of a learnt fear of the night. It is this fear that must first be overcome before humanity can turn the tide and Arlen has the will to do just that. Driven by his hate of demons he is determined to see their reign end or die trying.

This was frankly one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in years and was even more impressive when I read that this was the author’s first novel. Very well written, gripping and a true page turner this has convinced me that maybe I was too harsh on fantasy and that I should give it another go. I will definitely do so – with the sequel. Watch this space. Highly recommended for a thrilling read.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Fahrenheit 451

This is a classic movie based on the classic novel by Ray Bradbury. In an unspecified future, reading books is illegal and firemen respond to incidents where books are burnt as simply too dangerous to the public. Inevitably there is a resistance organisation who horde every piece of literature they can find.

Enter the main protagonist, Montag (played by Oskar Wener). He’s a fireman on the rise, good at his job, unthinking, unquestioning of authority and deeply unhappy. One day he meets Clarisse on the monorail who looks surprising like his vacant drug addled wife Linda (both played by Julie Christie) and they begin a strangely intense platonic relationship. As Montag begins to question his life he takes home some of the books he should have burnt and begins reading. When his wife finds out and reports him to the authorities he must either run for his life or spend years in a re-education centre.

The first thing that strikes you about this 1966 film is that there are no opening credits. Details of director, actors and so on are spoken rather than written – in-line with the scope of the film. The style of the film is bleak with modernist architecture, giant view-screens on the wall (just like lots of people these days!) and strangely empty streets. Most people are zoned-out under the influence of bland TV and freely available tranquilisers. Only those who read seem alive – despite the risk of feeling sad or uncomfortable as they absorb new ideas or feel the emotions of tragic fictional characters. Far from subtle, this film is a polemic against authoritarian government and censorship. I do wonder what was happening at the time to prompt both the writing of the book and the making of the film. Historically it was deep in the Cold War but was that the only context behind both book and film? I have no idea. Obviously, from my point of view (as you might expect) this film is deeply disturbing. I mean… a world without books! I’m sure I’d be one of the first against the wall….. Despite being rather dated by now this film still has much to say about state control and the ‘dumbing-down’ effect of television. It also extols the written word which is never a bad thing. Overall this film is a deserved classic despite its few faults. Reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and, no doubt, highly influential on such later films as Equilibrium and V for Vendetta this is definitely one for collectors of dystopian cinema.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lesbians given equal birth rights

From the BBC

Monday, 31 August 2009

Women in same-sex relationships can now register both their names on the birth certificate of a child conceived as a result of fertility treatment. Female couples not in a civil partnership but receiving fertility treatment may also both be registered. The law change applies to female couples in England and Wales who were having fertility treatment on or after 6 April 2009. However critics say the change would be detrimental to family values. Previously, the mother's female partner could not be registered as a parent. But the change in the law confers legal parenthood on the mother's female partner. According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, there were 728 lesbians who underwent in vitro fertilisation (IVF) between 1999 and 2006. And in the same period, there were 5,211 lesbian females who received donor insemination (DI) treatment.

The changes to the Registration of Births and Deaths Regulations 1987 were approved by Registrar General James Hall earlier this year, following Royal Assent for new parenthood provisions contained in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. A spokeswoman for the Home Office said that there will be provision for a birth certificate to be used that will have two "parent" sections, rather than mother and father. Also, sperm donors will continue to be able to opt in or out of having their name on the birth certificate, but if both mothers wish to have their name on the document, the donor cannot be registered in that way.

Home Office Minister Lord Brett said: "This positive change means that, for the first time, female couples who have a child using fertility treatment have the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts to be shown as parents in the birth registration. "It is vital that we afford equality wherever we can in society, especially as family circumstances continue to change. This is an important step forward in that process." Conservative MP Nadine Dorries told the BBC that the move undermined the traditional family model. She said: "If we want to build a stable society, a mother and father and children works as the best model. We should be striving towards repairing and reinforcing marriage. I think this move sends out the exact opposite message."

Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, criticised the move, telling the Daily Mail that the change would "create a legal fiction around the parentage of the children" which would then result in a "legal minefield" when it came to issues of maintenance and inheritance. He was supported by Labour MP Geraldine Smith, who said: 'To have a birth certificate with two mothers and no father is just madness." Stonewall's Head of Policy and Research Ruth Hunt said that as a result of the law change, life for lesbian families "isn't only fairer, it's also much easier". She added: "As the law improves to provide further equality, knowing your new rights will help people make full use of the services they're entitled to. And, if discrimination occurs, the same knowledge can help them demand fair treatment. Now lesbian couples in the UK who make a considered decision to start a loving family will finally be afforded equal access to services they help fund as taxpayers."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just Finished Reading: A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine

I’ve been interested in and fascinated by Ancient Philosophy for some time now. The more I learnt about it the more impressed I have become. A few years ago as part of my recent University course I spent quite a few weeks studying Aristotle and have become a firm fan. But I think first place in my mind goes to the Stoics. For many years I have regarded myself as a Stoical person – even before I understood what that really meant (actually what I really meant was that I was pretty phlegmatic about things). Of course Stoicism is much more than this as is ably demonstrated by this present volume. Stoicism is, I think, is a philosophy that has stood the test of time. It is a set of teachings as relevant today as it was in the ancient world – because human nature doesn’t really change that much. We still have to deal with disappointment, death, and the daily irritations of other people. Throughout history we have wanted things we don’t need and expended effort in the quest to achieve goals that could be expended more profitably elsewhere.

Irvine has an interesting take on the whole Stoic philosophy. He identifies both Tranquillity and Joy as central to their ideas on how Stoics proposed we should live a good life – not by being indifferent to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but by realising simple and (frankly obvious) things about existence. Amongst these are truths that we often forget – that there are things beyond our control (which we should stop worrying about), things fully within our control (which we should spend most of our energy dealing with) and things that we can influence but not control (which is, rather inevitably, the problem area for most people). Another central theme the author concentrates on is the idea of negative visualisation. In this he recommends that we imagine a life without things we hold dear – be they objects that we have acquired over time – and often great expense – or loved ones that hold important places in our lives. Not only does imagining living without them make them more precious to us but also prepares us for their (probable) loss. In this way the negative effects of the theft or destruction of property or the death s of those around us is diminished and any pain felt shortened.

Irvine, after outlining the history of Stoicism explains psychological techniques for coping with the inevitable uncertainties of life, techniques that anyone can use in many situations and to good effect. Oddly I found myself more than once thinking – yup, already do that. Irvine also draws on Stoic writings to offer practical advice on dealing with other people, grief, anger old age and death. These topics where the subject of lively discussions in ancient Greece and Rome just as they are today. Sage advice from great Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus is drawn upon time and again to address real issues experienced everyday by real people. The only problem I had with this book – and I fully understand why he did it – was the author’s practical dismissal of the Stoic idea of Fate. I certainly understand that Fate is not central to the modern way of living. We are taught (or indoctrinated into) the belief that the world is our oyster to do with what we wish. The Stoics would have none of this. Fate was central to their philosophy. It did actually disappoint me that the author could ditch this because it, along with the foundation of their idea of Free Will, is difficult to accommodate with our modern sensibilities. Irvine’s mission is to bring the Stoics to the attention of the modern reader who would, I agree, find this difficult if he brought along all of their associated beliefs. He has tried, and mostly succeeded, in updating Stoicism for the 21st Century – or at least giving the modern reader an appreciation of their philosophy to a level that interested readers can go back to the original sources themselves. In that sense this book is a very good introduction to the subject and could easily form the core of an effective and practical philosophy of life for anyone in search of such a thing. Being a Stoic, the author makes clear, is no easy ride but walking their path and living their techniques could, with practice, improve the quality of your life. If you ever wanted to know about Stoicism but were put off by reading apparently dusty tomes written over 2 thousand years ago then this is a great book for you. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thinking About: Atheism

Looking at it from the inside I consider my Atheism not only to be reasonable but to be the only reasonable stand on the subject. Consequently I find other people’s religious beliefs to be frankly inexplicable. This may be because I have never actually been of the religious persuasion and so have no personal experiences to draw upon. Although I can understand that people believe in God (or variations thereof) I do not understand why they believe in God – despite friends and bloggers trying to explain it to me. What confounds me even further is why there are so few atheists in the world.

I don’t think it’s because we have evolved ‘religious brains’ either naturally or through the hand of God. I’m certainly unaware of any studies that show a difference in brain structure or function between those who believe and those who don’t. It certainly isn’t the strength of the religious arguments put forward for the existence of God which I personally find laughably inadequate. I think the proposal that beliefs are transmitted across the generations in such a way to guarantee an adherence to a particular religion has some merit but doesn’t explain why, later in life, more people don’t question the beliefs of their parents/sub-culture and reject them. I don’t believe that the vast majority of people are that deeply indoctrinated. I understand that studies have shown that religious communities are more stable, happier and longer lived than non-religious ones. There may be something to this though I suspect that things are never quite that simple. However, even if this is true would it or should it be enough for a reasonable person to adopt a belief system they suspect may be false just because it makes them happier? I would hope not, but then again I’m sure than many of us are aware that people generally want a comforting illusion rather than an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.

Of course one possible reason why there are so few atheists is that we’re quite simply wrong. Or, as some theists attest, we are childishly rebelling against God so that we can sin with a clear conscience. Moving beyond the sheer offensiveness of comments such as those it does tend to presuppose that so-called sinful behaviour is much more prevalent in the non-theist community (does such a thing exist I wonder) than the theist one. I think that recent revelations within the Catholic Church in particular put paid to that tired assumption. Also such an attitude seems to be predicated on the belief that there are no real atheists and those who profess to be such actually secretly believe in God – indeed some of them are so secretive that they don’t even know they believe in God. Of course this so-called ‘argument’ could very easily be turned on its head and aimed right back at the theist who proposes it. Maybe, it could be said, the theist secretly believes that there is no God and simply practices their religion to cover up their secret atheism. Indeed, such doubt could be buried so deeply in their psyche that they are consciously unaware of it. No matter what their behaviour or protestations to the contrary they are in fact atheists – I mean, how could you possibly prove otherwise?

I guess that I’m lucky in that I had the good fortune to be born in a place and an age where religious belief is largely irrelevant. Feeling and believing as I do, I could not bring myself to live in large portions of the world without finding myself increasingly aggravated and saddened by the beliefs of people around me. No matter where I was accidently born I would have, I think, moved to Europe where my lack of belief goes largely unremarked. I have no idea what the future holds for atheism. I would hope that it increases both in geographical and numerical senses but if such a thing does occur I wager that it will be a long and painful process. But despite rumours to the contrary atheism is far from dead. Such thoughts represent the wishful thinking of those theists who smugly think that they are in possession of the answers to questions we atheists would barely acknowledge as being questions – never mind important ones. Despite the staggering number of people who think otherwise I think that my beliefs (or actually lack of belief) on the subject are substantially correct. Truth is not a numbers game. Common, and indeed learned, opinion on many subjects in the past – the plethora of early abandoned religions amongst them - have been understood by later generations to be spectacularly wrong and I suspect that, if such a thing is even possible, religion in its many forms will eventually be shown to be just another failed group of beliefs. If something like that does happen it’ll long after I and anyone reading this are dead and forgotten. It’s a nice thought though.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Did 'midwife molecule' assemble first life on Earth?

by Bob Holmes for New Scientist

09 March 2010

The primordial soup that gave birth to life on Earth may have had an extra, previously unrecognised ingredient: a "molecular midwife" that played a crucial role in allowing the first large biomolecules to assemble from their building blocks. The earliest life forms are thought by many to have been based not on DNA but on the closely related molecule RNA, because long strands of RNA can act as rudimentary enzymes. This would have allowed a primitive metabolism to develop before life forms made proteins for this purpose. RNA strands are formed from building blocks called nucleotides linked together head to tail in a long chain. This happens easily if the nucleotides can bind to another RNA strand that guides their assembly. However, the earliest RNA molecules to form, billions of years ago, would have had no pre-existing RNA to guide them.

Till now, attempts to mimic this first synthesis have always hit a fatal obstacle: instead of binding to the tail of a new nucleotide, the head of a growing chain latches onto its own tail instead. This tendency to form circles keeps RNA molecules from growing much longer than three to six nucleotides – far too short to function as enzymes. "That is a big problem," says Nicholas Hud, a chemist at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "How do we get a molecule long enough to do something interesting?" The answer, Hud thinks, may be the presence of a "molecular midwife" – a molecule that nestles between adjacent nucleotides and encourages two growing RNA strands to bind together in a double helix. Since this double helix is much stiffer than a single RNA strand, it is less likely to bend around on itself and form a circle. If the concentration of molecules in the solution later decreased – as, for example, if rain diluted a primordial puddle – the midwives would tend to slip back out of their slots in the RNA molecule. This would allow the two RNA strands to separate, leaving exactly the sort of long, single-stranded RNA molecule that might act as a catalyst in the RNA world.

Sure enough, when Hud and his colleagues added ethidium – which is known to slip between a double helix – to a solution of nucleotides, they found that they joined up into long double helices instead of short circles. The team studied DNA nucleotides, because the resulting chains are easier to work with, but the same should apply for RNA, they say. Ethidium itself is a rather complicated molecule with several benzene-like or "aromatic" rings, and is unlikely to have been available to fill this role in the primordial soup. However, molecules found in ancient meteorites suggest that the prebiotic Earth was rich in compounds with a similar structure. Hud's next challenge is to show that some of these polycyclic aromatic molecules can indeed help RNA molecules assemble. "Ethidium demonstrates the principle. Is there something among that mix that serves the same purpose?" says Gerald Joyce, a biochemist who studies the origin of life at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

[Fascinating. It looks like we’ve just taken a significant step towards understanding how life first emerged on Earth.]

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs

Someone or something is killing the Fae. When Mercy Thompson’s ex-boss is arrested as the prime suspect she decides to do some investigating of her own and discovers some very strange goings-on at the Fae Reservation. As the first of the supernatural beings who have ‘come out’, followed recently by werewolves, the Fae are the most vulnerable to attacks prompted by public ignorance and growing hostility. If Mercy is the save her ex-bosses life she needs to uncover a powerful killer and stay alive long enough to get that information to the police. Meanwhile, if her life wasn’t complicated enough, two alpha werewolves are vying for her affection and may just kill each other to prove it.

Although certainly entertaining and readable enough this was a pretty much by-the-numbers urban fantasy novel not dissimilar to the 20 or so I’ve read before. Sassy main character – check. Complicated love life – check. Special powers or abilities she’s still trying to understand – check. Powerful friends (and enemies) in low places – check. It was, despite all that, rather well written with decent dialogue and some nice set-pieces. Briggs had some interesting things to say about the Fae (basically the original idea behind fairies but nothing like as nice) which made it rise above the ordinary but gripping it wasn’t. Fun but disposable stuff.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Thinking About: Regrets

It is difficult to live any kind of life without accumulating regrets along the way – for things you have done or not done, said or not said. Regret is part of the human condition and I am not alone in having my fair share. I have done and said stupid things, thoughtless things and questionable things but I do my very best not to dwell on them. I know what I have done, or not, or said, or not but the past is unchangeable and, to be honest, there are few things I would change – even my mistakes. This is because my past has made me what I am and I like that person – warts and all. Mistakes are something to be learnt from not something to torture yourself with. Such torture, as in general, serves little purpose and only keeps old wounds fresh enough to become dangerously infected. I am not proposing, however, that we simply toss-off our mistakes as beneath contemplation for without giving them appropriate (and I emphasise this word) thought. We should endeavour to understand what we have done, or not, and honestly draw conclusions from such analysis. At the very least we can decide not to do something we regret ever again. If we have ever struck out at a loved one in a moment of anger we can resolve never to do so again – no matter what. In such a way we mould our character into something better because of actions we have regretted. We do not dwell on things past but use that experience to shape a future with fewer regrets. In that way, despite the fact that actions or words can never be taken back once done or said, we can become better people rather than creatures labouring under a self-imposed burden we can never be rid of which does no one a favour least of all ourselves.

We are all fallible beings. In moments of weakness or passion we sleep with friend’s girlfriends or take money that does not belong to us. Normally, when the weakness passes or the passion is spent we regret our actions. Often nothing can be done to rectify things and we must face the consequences of our humanity. When no amends can be made or no amends is enough we can still learn from the fall-out and resolve to be better people in the future. We need to learn that although much about the world is beyond our control or even beyond our influence there is something that we do have a great deal of control over – ourselves and the actions or words that make up our daily behaviour. We must recognise that we have a great gift that, at least apparently, no other creature on this planet has – we can choose how we live our lives. We have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and from the mistakes of others. We can resolve to be better people in a malleable future without being slaves to or being burdened by an unchangeable past. What’s done is done and what is said is said. There is no amount of regret in the universe that can change a single thing in the past. Regrets when we have them should be fleeting and not a crushing lifelong millstone that destroys any chance of resolution or happiness. A lifetime on the rack achieves precious little except the production of a painfully distorted human. This is, I believe, completely unnecessary. Many unforgivable acts are anything but. Often the people who we have transgressed against forgive us long before we forgive ourselves. We all need to be more forgiving of our humanity and of our mistakes and we should all recognise that many things that impact on our lives are simply not within our power to control or even effect. What is in our control is our reaction to circumstance and our behaviour accordingly. As we become more aware of why we do what we do, we gain more control over our actions and our words. As this understanding increases so the reason for regret diminishes and we become better people.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Panic and Paranoia

by Leonard Pitts Jr. for The Miami Herald

Sunday, June 8, 2008

You’ve seen this gag in a hundred old cartoons: Cat turns to flee angry dog, steps on a rake instead, knocks himself silly. It’s not sophisticated humor, but it is a visceral illustration of an abiding truth: Panic can make you hurt yourself. Some of us, I think, need reminding. Consider the case of Rachael Ray and the scarf that made people scream. Ray, of course, is the preternaturally perky host of cooking shows on the Food Network — and a spokeswoman for Dunkin’ Donuts. In that capacity, she wore the aforementioned scarf around her neck in an online ad — and people started screaming. It seems that in the eyes of conservative columnist Michelle Malkin and a handful of blogosphere blowhards, the scarf resembled a kaffiyeh, the Arab headdress most infamously worn by the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Me, I thought the paisley scarf resembled a paisley scarf, but then, I haven’t been taking my paranoid lunatic pills lately, so what do I know? Those with more discerning vision cried foul, and late last month, the doughnut maker crumbled, pulling the ad lest anyone assume the company was selling mass terror along with its iced coffees and crullers.

As it happens, at roughly the same time the Guardian newspaper in London was reporting the case of one Rizwaan Sabir, a 22-year-old student working on his master’s at Nottingham University. Sabir was arrested, held for six days and subjected to what he describes as psychological torture after he downloaded a copy of an al Qaeda training manual. Also arrested: a university administrator, Hicham Yezza, on whose computer the manual was stored. It seems Sabir had asked Yezza to print the 1,500 page document because he could not afford to. But neither man will be prosecuted for terrorism. According to university officials, the materials Sabir downloaded were directly related to research for his degree. And get this: You know where Sabir says he got the offending manual? From a U.S. government website. In other words, it was publicly available and hardly top secret.

Taken together, these two episodes neatly illustrate what much of our world has become in the almost seven years since September of 2001. On the one hand, silly, able to see terrorism hiding behind every bush and hen house. On the other hand, petrified, convinced that overreaction is the only reaction. So we look suspiciously at everyone whose name is not Smith, Johnson or Jones, inspect scarves for terroristic subtext, but glance the other way as torture is committed, intolerance is embraced, habeas corpus is ignored and freedoms of speech, dissent and privacy are abridged. It’s like we have awakened into the 1950s. The paranoia is there, the gratuitous ruination of people’s lives is there, the abiding and unrelenting fear is there. The only thing missing is Joe McCarthy asking, “Are you now or have you ever been . . . ?” Apparently, Colin Powell was wrong. ”We’re Americans,” he said after the Sept. 11 attacks, “we don’t walk around terrified.” But we do. And because we do, we injure ourselves as surely as a cartoon cat panicked by a cartoon dog. So that here we sit, banged up something fierce: the rule of law, broken, moral authority, blackened, freedoms, fractured, seriousness of purpose on life support.

All in pursuit of a chimera called security we have yet to capture and never will. So we might as well go back to being America. I mean, when the Zeitgeist is indistinguishable from a Warner Bros. cartoon, something is wrong. To put it another way, let me repeat: Panic will make you hurt yourself. What’s it tell you that we have yet to learn something Bugs Bunny figured out a long time ago?

[…and what has changed in the last two years? Nothing.]

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Destroyermen – Into the Storm by Taylor Anderson

In the early days of the Pacific war the USS Walker is running for her life. Alongside her sister ship she is being pursued by a Japanese battlegroup who clearly intend to destroy any allied shipping in their way. The aging First World War destroyers only have one option – flee. Unfortunately for the American ships their enemies are both stronger and faster. Defeat seems inevitable until a strange squall is spotted and headed towards at full speed. Hoping to lose themselves in the weather anomaly they instead find themselves in uncharted waters, familiar yet strange. It is not long before the find that they are literally not in Kansas anymore – or any place that has even heard of Kansas. For they have entered a world where humans have not evolved, a world were descendants of predatory dinosaurs ravage the few remaining colonies of intelligent mammals. The crew of Walker must decide for their own survival to enter a war against an unknown enemy but at least in this world they have the technological upper hand. But will their guns be enough against the countless and implacable Grik?

This book had just about everything going for it – it was a combination of some of my favourite genres, alternate history and combat SF, it promised non-stop action, and it was the first book in a series. I was not disappointed. Despite being somewhat overly contrived in places – not that surprising for a first novel – this was a great deal of fun to read. The ship and its crew – plus a few extra passengers picked up from the evacuation of a pacific naval base – felt real. The action, both before and after passage through the squall, was gripping and the idea of a world where humans had failed to evolve was a very interesting one. There were bits that felt like excerpts for Jurassic Park but that could’ve just been me channelling Spielberg rather than the author doing the same. The enemy Grik – by the sounds of it descended from Raptors – were truly terrifying beasts worthy of the fear they instilled in the (fairly) peaceful Lemurians (descended from, no surprise here, giant Lemurs). I’m looking forward to exploring more of that world in future volumes (I’ve already bought the second book in paperback) to see how things turn out, to see if anyone else gets trapped there and to see if they finally make it back home. There are many possibilities worth exploring – which is what I have always loved about science-fiction. As always…… watch this space.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Guns, Germs and Steel – A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

I’ve had this book on my shelves for some time now and thought that it was about high time I read it. Diamond starts with an interesting, though deceptively obvious, question. Why is it that the West dominates the world and not Africa or South-East Asia? Why is it that Europe ‘discovered’ the America’s and not the other way around? The obvious answer is because of our technological advantages – but, why did we become so advanced? It would seem, from Diamond’s well argued text, that basically we got lucky in that Eurasia had several natural advantages denied to other continents.

One of them is that we started agriculture long before anyone else in the Fertile Crescent (now ironically largely desert) – though it is arguable that a similar process took place in what is now China and, possibly, South America. On top of this head start was the ready availability of high energy cross – wheat – and large mammals that could be domesticated for their meat, milk and pulling power. This was a huge leap forward allowing the building of the first cities and the stratification of society which lead to diverse activities such as politics, religion, a military cast and much else including artisans and inventors. Added to this was the important consideration of continental axis. Eurasia runs East-West with bands of climate, day length and seasons in common for thousands of miles. In these bands we can grow the same crops, cope with the same diseases and farm the same animals. Other continents whose axis is North-South do not have this advantage. Movement of crops between civilisations separated by a thousand miles would likely mean crossing difficult climatic barriers. Progress, if any, would be reduced to a crawl. Not so in Eurasia where wheat grown in Persia could be cultivated on the Spanish plain without much difficulty.

Many of our worst diseases apparently originated with our livestock – animals with whom early Western civilisations had a close relationship, often occupying the same dwellings. Without exposure to these various pathogens the other civilisations dotted across the globe – often in blissful isolation had no experience of or immunity to diseases Eurasia populations took for granted. It is unsurprising, therefore, that when the civilisations did eventually meet it is we that passed on our diseases and not the other way around. Of course the classic case – used in this book – of the clash of civilisations is the Spanish assault on the Mayan and Aztec cultures. Despite being vastly outnumbered the Conquistadors prevailed because of their use of steel weapons, horses and, most importantly, they were carriers of smallpox to which the locals had no immunity and which killed an estimated 90% of them.

It is understandably difficult to prĂ©cis a detailed and closely argued hypothesis in a short review but I hope that I’ve given at least a hint of Diamond’s argument. I personally found it compelling helped along by case studies and an amazing breadth of knowledge of world history. Obviously covering 13,000 years of history in just over 400 pages relies on a broad brush approach to things but such an approach is required to give history a much needed larger context. Although I can’t say that I’m a convert to the author’s way of thinking it has given me some serious food for thought and further research. I think that he’s definitely on to something and this book should be required reading for all budding historians.