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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thinking About: Attraction

I have a somewhat deserved reputation of being picky, indeed overly picky, when it comes to potential partners. My reply to this is that I have standards and that my standards are more important than the possibility of a quick grope or an orgasm with someone I neither know nor even like. Contrary to my pickiness is that fact that I don’t believe that I have a definite ‘type’ that I prefer over all others. OK, I have a strange ‘thing’ about red-heads, but I wouldn’t call that an actual type. To be honest the lack of type is probably to do with the fact that I’m far more interested in the person themselves rather than the body they happen to occupy. I am attracted to, and fall in love with, personalities not bodies. What I have found, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in this, is that a person becomes more physically attractive the more you become emotionally attached to them. It’s certainly true for me. No doubt we’ve all known someone with a partner we can’t understand them being with. Love, or at least a healthy dose of affection, is the reason. Love isn’t exactly blind but it does alter reality around the lovers. When you fall out of love (or lust which is a close relative thereof) you exclaim “What did I possibly see in that person?” It’s because you’re no seeing them at ‘reality warp 5’. When a friend says to you in all honesty that someone is bad for you or just not for you it’s because they are literally not ‘seeing’ the same person that you are.

Of course even the fact that I know what’s going on in my head doesn’t stop me being attracted to unsuitable or unobtainable people. Been there, done that, bought several T-shirts. My much valued rationality doesn’t even get a look in when I go over the deep end about someone. Luckily though, I have, through repeated painful experiences as well as just a hint of maturity, stopped following the object of my affection around like a lost puppy. I’ve also managed to cut down on the sighing and the pointless romantic gestures. These days if my attraction is reciprocated I virtually need to be hit over the head by a prospective partner to make any kind of move. I am, all too often, the last to know that I’m about the get lucky.

Being the person that I am, I have a natural tendency to talk during sex. I don’t mean anything as crass as talking ‘dirty’ but actual conversations which, I have been told, is highly amusing if somewhat irritating from time to time. Rather inevitably I was explaining my thinking on the subject with my ex. I explained that I was making love to her, handily (lightly) tapping her on the forehead with my free hand, only I was doing so through her body. She seemed to get the idea and, as far as I could tell, appreciate the fact. Short of being telepathic it’s probably the closest we get to the merging of two personalities. It’s just a pity sometimes (from my perspective at least) that there’s flesh getting in the way. I don’t think that I’m particularly odd in being more attracted to minds than I am to bodies, though it does seem that bodies are a much higher priority to most people. When a friend points out a particularly attractive woman I might not even raise my head and look (which sometimes results in some rather strange criticisms and might be a component in some people thinking that I’m gay) but generally I can’t see the point. Beautiful women are everywhere. If I want to see an endless parade of them all that I need to do is turn on my television. What interests me are beautiful minds which are rather harder to see and consequently harder to find.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Games 'permit' virtual war crimes

From The BBC

Monday, 23 November 2009

Video games depicting war have come under fire for flouting laws governing armed conflicts. Human rights groups played various games to see if any broke humanitarian laws that govern what is a war crime. The study condemned the games for violating laws by letting players kill civilians, torture captives and wantonly destroy homes and buildings. It said game makers should work harder to remind players about the real world limits on their actions.

The study was carried out by two Swiss human rights organisations - Trial and Pro Juventute. Staff played the games in the presence of lawyers skilled in the interpretation of humanitarian laws. Twenty games were scrutinised to see if the conflicts they portrayed and what players can do in the virtual theatres of war were subject to the same limits as in the real world. "The practically complete absence of rules or sanctions is... astonishing," said the study. Army of Two, Call of Duty 5, Far Cry 2 and Conflict Desert Storm were among the games examined.

The games were analysed to see "whether certain scenes and acts committed by players would constitute violations of international law if they were real, rather than virtual". The group chose games, rather than films, because of their interactivity. "Thus," said the report, "the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real-life situations on the battlefield." The testers looked for violations of the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols which cover how war should be waged. In particular, the testers looked for how combatants who surrendered were treated, what happened to citizens caught up in war zones and whether damage to buildings was proportionate. Some games did punish the killing of civilians and reward strategies that tried to limit the damage done by the conflict, said the study.

However, it said, many others allowed "protected objects" such as churches and mosques to be attacked; some depicted interrogations that involved torture or degradation and a few permitted summary executions. The authors acknowledged that the project was hard because it was not clear from many of the games the scale of the conflict being depicted. This made it hard to definitively determine which humanitarian laws should be enforced. It also said that the games were so complex that it was difficult to be confident that its testers had seen all possible violations or, in games in which they found none, that no violations were possible.

It noted that, even though most players would never become real world combatants, the games could influence what people believe war is like and how soldiers conduct themselves in the real world. It said games were sending an "erroneous" message that conflicts were waged without limits or that anything was acceptable in counter-terrorism operations. "This is especially problematic in view of today's reality," said the study. In particular, it said, few games it studied reflected the fact that those who "violate international humanitarian law end up as war criminals, not as winners". The authors said they did not wish to make games less violent, instead, they wrote: "[We] call upon game producers to consequently and creatively incorporate rules of international humanitarian law and human rights into their games." John Walker, one of the writers on the Rock, Paper, Shotgun games blog, said: "Games really are treated in a peculiar way." He doubted that anyone would campaign for books to follow humanitarian laws or for James Bond to be denounced for machine-gunning his way through a supervillain's underground complex.

He said the authors did not understand that gamers could distinguish between fantasy and reality. Said Mr Walker: "For all those who mowed down citizens in Modern Warfare 2's controversial airport level, I have the sneaking suspicion that not a great deal of them think this is lawful, nor appropriate, behaviour." Jim Rossignol, who also writes on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, said there was scope to mix real-world rules of war into games. "Whether or not the rules of war are included in the game should be based entirely on whether that improves the experience for the player," he said. Mr Rossignol said there was plenty of evidence that gaming violence is "fully processed" as fantasy by gamers. Studies of soldiers on the front line in Iraq showed that being a gamer did not desensitise them to what they witnessed. He added: "Perhaps what this research demonstrates is that the researchers misunderstand what games are, and how they are treated, intellectually, by the people who play them."

[Computer games are treated quite oddly in our society. They are vilified in the press and talked about in Government. Many now have a certificate rating similar to movies. But books, as John Walker mentions above, have portrayed much worse than any video game for much longer. The pouring out of sadistic murder book after serial killer book hardly raises a note of protest. There has been no call to certificate books or to have them teach moral tales of appropriate behaviour. I doubt very much if playing violent video games desensitises people to violence that where not already desensitised. Most computer games contain violence of one sort or another. Some are very violent indeed as they deal with men and women in combat. I suppose that it would be relatively easy to eliminate any civilians from the warzones these virtual conflicts take place in but how realistic would that be? If everyone not in an American uniform was an enemy unit where would the challenge be? Wouldn’t that send a much more questionable message – that anyone not ‘us’ can be killed on sight? Innocent people are killed in all modern conflicts as they tend to take place in built up areas. The risk of killing non-combatants is a very real one as our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq know only too well. To eliminate this risk from a game is, I think, a backward step. As to the infamous airport mission in Modern Warfare 2, for one thing it’s purely optional. I’ve played it (once). The completeness of the mission is not dependent on the player killing innocents. You can play the mission, if you want, and kill no one. It’s your choice. Taking away such choices limits the kind of moral questions people can ask themselves. Having combat games that only operate within International Law is ridiculous when such laws are broken on the real battlefields every day. We cannot produce a more moral generation by denying them the opportunity to make virtual moral choices.]

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Consciousness – A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore

Consciousness is a very strange beast indeed. In this slim and fascinating volume the author attempts to discover just what kind of beast it is by examining our own beliefs about it and looking at ways to distinguish unfounded beliefs from actual knowledge.

The odd thing about consciousness is that although we all seem to understand that we have it, it has proven very difficult to actually pin down. Once questions relating consciousness to brain function are asked we starting hitting what has been called ‘the hard problem’. It seems clear that brain activity has something to do with it and that brain damage can result in consciousness issues. But there does not appear to be anywhere in the brain that is in control of things. There is no core where consciousness lives. There is no physical inner ‘self’ that is consciousness itself. The idea of an ‘inner theatre’ watched by a single self is untenable. No part of the brain corresponds to that ideal. Blackmore very successfully calls into question the standard model of the Self and undermines it to the extent that I have moved further along the road to being sceptical about its existence (already being on that road probably helped).

Blackmore also successfully, at least in my largely ignorant opinion, calls into question the major explanations we have to date relating to consciousness and the existence of the Self. One by one she sets up the explanations and one by one she knocks them down. However, although I applaud her conclusion that we don’t really understand consciousness at all (yet) she goes a little too far in her concluding remarks – or at least too far for me at the moment. To get around all of the problems outlined in this book Blackmore proposes something quite radical (IMO) – that conscious itself is a complete illusion. She puts forward the idea that we are not actually conscious beings! The consciousness we apparently feel and live with every day is a fabrication of the brain and, the moment we stop looking for it or at it, it simple vanishes as if it had never existed only to be recreated the next time we ‘look’ in its direction. This idea I will have to give considerably more thought and more book time. The Self being an illusion I can go with. I’m probably already half way there. But Consciousness being an illusion? That I can’t accept, at least not yet.

This was a fascinating read. People at work roll there eyes when they see me reading books like this in my lunch break. What they fail to realise is that such books both expand my mind and engage my emotions. They stimulate my intellect as well as exercise my ability to feel awe at the incredible universe we live in. Knowledge contained in books such as this is the best and only mind expanding drug I’ll ever need. People who can’t see that are missing out on so much. Which is why I’ll continue smiling through their comments and raised eyebrows. If you want to mess with your mind a little then read this book.

Monday, June 21, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Assault on Precinct 13

I watched this movie again this weekend and realised just how much I love it. Am I crazy, I hear you ask? Do I honestly love that dull police ‘thriller’ from some 5 years ago starring Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fisburne? No, I don’t. I found the less than impressive remake, well, less than impressive.

I am (of course) enthusing over the 1976 John Carpenter original which has since become a well deserved cult classic. The storyline is, on the face of it simple – actually so sparse as to be almost non-existent. After a group of young radicals are gunned down by the police in violence torn LA the survivors of the group vow revenge. So, this being LA, they drive around the city looking for someone to kill. Eventually they succeed but are followed by the father of a murdered young girl who shoots one of them dead. Subsequently chased by other gang members he stumbles into a police station on the verge of shutting down – the eponymous Precinct 13 (keen eyed observers will note that the inscription over the door clearly says Precinct 14). Inside are a selection of admin staff wrapping things up and a few policemen. Moments later a prison bus turns up with one very sick and several very dangerous prisoners. As they arrive all hell breaks loose as the gang pour fire into the building from all directions. The questions are: Can the criminals and police co-operate in the defence of the building and are any of them getting out alive?

This film is wonderfully atmospheric, helped along by a haunting soundtrack also written by John Carpenter. The street gang members responsible for most of the violence are deeply nihilistic motivated by a single desire – revenge against a system and a world that has clearly abandoned them. Hardly saying a word throughout the entire movie they let their actions speak for them. The police Lieutenant is a newly promoted black man who is very conscious of the racism he faces on a daily basis within his own department. Probably my favourite character is the killer on his way to death row – Napoleon Wilson played superbly by Darwin Joston. Despite the fact that he has killed several men for reasons never revealed he is a man of honour which is revealed throughout the hour long siege. Winning the trust of the Lieutenant and the love of the female lead (played by the stunning Laurie Zimmer) he is the lynchpin of the whole movie and emerges as one of the three heroes of the piece. We are left at the end of the film not knowing how his actions inside the Precinct house affected his upcoming execution. This, and many of the other unanswered questions, are one of the things I love about this film. It leaves you wanted to know more and leaves you unable to do so – just like real life. Of course being an early Carpenter movie stocked with unknown actors (many of whom remained largely unknown) it is a bit clunky in places. Some of the dialogue is less than smooth but this is more than made up for by the intensity of the film itself. This is a well deserved classic that really never needed ‘re-imaging’. The original has dated very well indeed. See it and be amazed.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Timing of Leak of Afghan Mineral Wealth Evokes Skepticism

by Jim Lobe for Inter Press Service

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

WASHINGTON - The timing of the publication of a major New York Times story on the vast untapped mineral wealth that lies beneath Afghanistan's soil is raising major questions about the intent of the Pentagon, which released the information.

Afghanistan could be holding $1 trillion of untapped mineral deposits including critical industrial metals such as lithium, the New York Times reported on June 14. Given the increasingly negative news that has come out of Afghanistan - and of U.S. strategy there - some analysts believe the front-page article is designed to reverse growing public sentiment that the war is not worth the cost. "What better way to remind people about the country's potential bright future - and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans - than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region's potential wealth?" wrote Marc AmBinder, the political editor of 'The Atlantic' magazine, on his blog. "The way in which the story was presented - with on-the- record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM [Gen. David Petraeus], no less - and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense [Paul Brinkley] suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war," he added. The nearly 1,500-word article, based almost entirely on Pentagon sources and featured as the lead story in Monday's 'Early Bird', a compilation of major national security stories that the Pentagon distributes each morning, asserted that Afghanistan may have close to one trillion dollars in untapped mineral deposits. These include "huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and critical industrial metals like lithium", the story said. Afghanistan's total annual gross domestic product (GDP) last year came to about 13 billion dollars.

One "internal Pentagon memo" provided to the Times' author, James Risen predicted that Afghanistan could become "the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium,' a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberrys". "There is stunning potential here," Petraeus told Risen in an interview Saturday. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant," he said of the conclusions of a study by a "small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists". The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose recent efforts to begin a reconciliation process with the insurgent Taliban have been criticized by the Pentagon, quickly seized on the report. In a hastily arranged press briefing Monday, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the report was "the best news we have had over many years in Afghanistan". Other commentators, however, suggested the news about Afghanistan's underground wealth was not all that new. As noted by Blake Hounshell, managing editor at 'Foreign Policy' magazine, the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) already published a comprehensive inventory of Afghanistan's non-oil mineral resources on the internet in 2007, as did the British Geological Survey. Much of their work was based on explorations and surveys undertaken by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980's. The nearly trillion-dollar figure is based on a simple tabulation of the previous estimates for each mineral according to its current market price, according to Hounshell.

So, the question for many observers was why the article, which dominated much of the foreign news in the network and cable broadcast media during Monday's news cycle, was published now. Risen himself suggested an answer in his story, noting "American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan." Indeed, U.S. and NATO casualties have risen sharply in recent weeks; a four-month-old counterinsurgency offensive to "clear, hold, and build" in the strategic region around Marja in Pashtun-dominated Helmand province appears to have stalled badly; and a planned campaign in and around the critical city of Kandahar has been delayed for at least two months. The latest polling shows a noticeable erosion of support for Washington's commitment to the war compared to eight months ago, when President Barack Obama agreed to the Pentagon's recommendations to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bring the total U.S. military presence there to around 100,000 later this summer.

Moreover, what little support for the war remains among the publics of Washington's NATO allies - never as high as in the U.S. in any event - is also fading quickly. NATO and non-NATO countries, excluding the U.S., currently have about 34,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan. On the eve of a NATO ministerial conference in Brussels last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that Washington and its NATO allies had very little time to convince their publics that their strategy against the Taliban was working - a message that has since been strongly echoed the coalition's commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and by Petraeus himself. Indeed, the administration is committed to a major review of its strategy in Afghanistan at the end of the year, and Obama himself has pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011.

Obama is already coming under pressure from right-wing and neo-conservative media - some of which have been cultivated by Petraeus, in particular - and Republican lawmakers to delay that date. That view was seconded last week by former Petraeus aide, Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.), a counterinsurgency specialist who is now president of the influential Center for a New American Security. Nagl worked closely with Petraeus in authoring the much- lauded 2006 U.S. Counter-Insurgency Field Manual, which stressed the importance of efforts to influence media perceptions in any counterinsurgency campaign. "The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counter-insurgents, their operations, and the opposing insurgency," they wrote. "This situation creates a war of perceptions between insurgents and counter-insurgents conducted continuously using the news media." In that respect, the appearance of the Times story Monday looked to many observers like part of an effort to strengthen the case for giving the counterinsurgency effort more time. In an interview with Politico's Laura Rozen Monday, former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani said he had commissioned the assessment of Afghanistan's mineral wealth. "As to why it came out today... I cannot explain," he said.

[…and governments across the Western world wonder why their respective citizens are so political cynical. Go figure.]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Threshold by Caitlin R Kiernan

Chance Matthews is not having a good life. As a teenager her parents are killed in a car crash and she is brought up by her grandparents. Both being geologists they greatly influence her career choice and give her a fascination with anything ancient. For a time at least everything is right with the world. But when her grandmother hangs herself from a tree in the garden Chance realises that all is not well. When her grandfather dies of a heart attack in her twenties she is left all alone and determines to seek out the family secret that has been nagging at her since her childhood. For in the collect of fossils hidden away in a corner room is the impression of an impossible creature that living long before the dawn of man, a creature that still exists and will go to any length to stay out of the daylight.

This book was not at all what I was expecting. For one thing I was expecting a fairly interesting work of urban fantasy. What I was presented with was more gothic horror. Not the kind of horror where creatures jump out of the dark but a story with a overpowering sense of dread and foreboding. Despite the fact that it was well, indeed often beautifully written, this book really failed to engage me and was, because of that, a much heavier read than it should have been. The characters were interesting enough but none of them were exactly lovable – or even that likable. The plot – though often tense – moved at much too slow a pace. Any other book not as well written as this was would have been rejected long before the 300 pages had ended. Speaking of endings….. I still can’t get my head around how the author finished up. The book was moving (slowly) to a natural confrontation and then, very suddenly, it wasn’t. It’s almost as if either she’d realised that she’d painted herself into a corner (which I don’t think she had) or she had no real idea how the bring the whole thing to a conclusion. It was all very strange and very disconcerting. Needless to say I shall not be looking out for more works by Ms Kiernan.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Underworld

I was just dying to see this (no pun intended) from the moment I saw Kate Beckinsale drop 6 stories bounce once to absorb her momentum and then casually keep on walking without any effort at all. That, I said to myself, is how immortal supernatural creatures should be - graceful, unafraid and drop-dead gorgeous. My only fear was that the rest of the movie wouldn’t live up to the preview. Mostly, except for a few wobbles, it actually exceeded my expectations.

The plot is a fairly simple one. It’s a love story as well as an echo of a love story between a vampire (Beckinsale) and a Werewolf (or actually descendent of the original immortal who is later ‘turned’) - played by Scott Speedman - which shadows an earlier love story that started off a 600 year old war between the vampire overlords and the werewolf slave race. It is, in many ways, a long story. Anyway, in the present the war is almost over – or at least that’s how it seems until a traitor is discovered in the vampire coven followed by lots of dead bodies! But it’s not the plot that sold me on this film and it’s not even the lovely Kate. What I liked so much, I could almost say loved, is the whole look and feel of the movie. For one thing both vampires and werewolves use guns against each other – silver bullets on one side (as you might expect) and ‘liquid light’ bullets on the other (as you wouldn’t really expect). One thing that did kind of confuse me however, is why no one wears body armour. Maybe their apparent immortality makes them too arrogant to even consider dying?

The special effects I thought were generally very good – especially the werewolf change process. The many fight scenes were suitably fast, brutal and well choreographed. The acting was largely good except for the suitably named Craven played by Shane Brolly who was actually appalling. I honestly don’t know how he got the job. My favourite actor in this movie was Michael Sheen who played Lucien, the werewolf forced to watch his vampire lover and their unborn child burn to death under the rays of an unforgiving sun and under the orders of an unforgiving father. He was quite simply superb and acted everyone else off the screen by his very presence.

I was honestly less than impressed by both the sequel and the prequel – especially the prequel which I thought was both very boring and completely unnecessary. At least Underworld: Evolution had a few saving graces though none of them come to mind readily! Anyway, if like me you enjoy the whole vampire genre and are looking for something more than the usual garlic and neck biting this could be for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have on numerous occasions.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reducing World to Good and Bad Leads to Trouble

by Caroline Arnold

For the Kent Ravenna Record-Courier (Ohio)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Incredible how the top dog always announces with such an air of discovery that the underdog is childish, stupid, emotional, irresponsible, ... incapable of learning - but for god's sake don't teach him anything! - and both cowardly and ferocious. The oppressed is also treacherous, incapable of fighting fair, full of dark magics, prone to do nasty things like fighting back when attacked, and contented with his place in life unless stirred up by outside agitators. ... Once I learned the tune I stopped believing the words - about anybody."

Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree, Jr., 1973

In Kent we've heard those tunes and believed those words about Underdogs since May 4, 1970; they're still being hummed: "They destroyed private property," "outside agitators were responsible." We're now hearing those tunes from our southwest border: "Remember, Illegal is illegal, whether it's a bank robbery or a person who sneaks across the border illegally, and we need to deal with it as harshly as we can." After a bruising spring, with an earthquake in Chile, a volcano in Iceland, a mine disaster in Appalachia and an oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, Americans celebrated Memorial Day with food, flag-waving parades and prayers for soldiers lost in elective wars. In the Middle East poor people went hungry, mourned civilians killed in those wars, (90 percent of all war casualties today are civilians - the majority women and children) while being buffeted by powerful economic, political, technological or natural forces over which they have no control.

Then on Memorial Day a Turkish ship manned by civilians without firearms and carrying humanitarian aid to blockaded Gaza was boarded by Israeli soldiers in international waters. Nine civilians were killed; the Israelis claim self-defense. This caused hardly a ripple in the U.S. media, and the Top Dogs' same catchy tunes started circulating: "They deserved it," "that's the only way to deal with those people," "innocent" people do not carry knifes and clubs." Our president expressed mild regret, while suggesting that an investigation conducted by Israel alone would be adequate to manage the situation. To reduce the complexity of the world we live in to manageable dimensions, we like to reduce everything to immutable binary oppositions: Everything is zero or one: on/off, right/wrong, good/evil, true/false, male/female, God-ordained/work-of-Satan, loving/hateful, secure/dangerous, pure/corrupt, worthy/unworthy, human/non-human.

These binary oppositions cause a lot of trouble. They tempt us to sort instead of think, to dismiss instead of examine; they make it easy to refuse to negotiate, and to despise those who disagree with us. They divide us into Good Guys and Bad Guys, Top Dogs and Underdogs. We should be wondering whether a world where the Top Dogs are furnished with robotic weapons, nuclear warheads, advanced technologies for murder, mayhem, oil extraction and communications media can be managed at all. We should be wondering whether, in a world in which "terrorists" (or anyone accused or suspected of being one) can be targeted by the CIA for extermination or torture, stripped of constitutional rights and protections, or put on a "no-fly" list, (but not prevented from buying guns) we can even be human, trust one another, help one another, govern ourselves and manage human affairs rationally, fairly, sustainably and humanely. Most people don't like the way the world is going, but instead of trying to fix things, keep singing the same old songs. We want to be rich, powerful, popular, in charge, free to carry a gun and shoot it, to have the power to keep Underdogs (poor people, women, brown people) under control, to get rid of Bad Guys, to use the earth's riches for our cars and comforts.

Tiptree called the tune: "We can't live with _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite demons: terrorists, socialists, insurgents, illegal immigrants, Taliban, Palestinians, Israelis, Islamists, political activists, students, abortionists, gays, feminists, "other" ). It is therefore just and necessary to kill them, injure or disable them and/or destroy their livelihoods in order to _____ (insert your favorite noble purpose: get rid of them, teach them a lesson (though by definition they are incapable of learning), pacify them, free them from ____, control them, bestow on them ____ (democracy, law and order, salvation, "other")" This should make it easy to settle everything by lining up well-fed Top Dogs on one side with stun-guns, Tasers, drones, radio-guided missiles, robotic warriors, cluster bombs, nuclear warheads, giant aircraft, ships, earth-movers, satellite communications and commercial media - plus all the oil and money needed to manufacture and deploy them - and hungry, barefoot Underdogs on the other side with knives, rocks, bottles, clubs, sharpened sticks, IEDs and homemade rockets.

I'm disappointed that President Obama has failed to manage the world. But I fear it's because the world we have constructed out of our old tunes and words is fundamentally unmanageable. It has badly skewed systems of communication, catchy tunes instead of news, too much information and too few community-based information tools to manage it. The present world is too large, too fragmented, too polarized, too unequal, too full of technology for war, too driven by fear and hate, too reckless with natural resources and human life and too committed to the old, deadly words and tunes of our Top Dogs.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I always suspected that smart was sexy.......
Just Finished Reading: The Motorcycle Diaries – Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

This has been in my pile-of-books since I saw the movie of the same name (although I understand that the movie concentrated on the diaries of Che’s friend and companion Alberto Granado). Taken as a straight travelogue this is interesting enough. Two young men in their 20’s set out on a journey across South America with far too little planning and far too high expectations of ultimate success. Both of them write diaries of their adventures which are eventually published. The defining thing about both books – though I have yet to read the Granado account – is that one of the young men later becomes a defining icon of the 1960’s. For one of the adventurous young men is the 23 year old Ernest Guevara – later known throughout the world simply as ‘Che’ (which is apparently the widely used slang name in Latin America for anyone from Argentina).

Whilst very readable and often funny I did find this slim volume a little disappointing. The film certainly made great play of the events during the epic journey that shaped Che’s later revolutionary radicalism. There were several instances mentioned in this book where the treatment both of the poor and the native population caused Che to examine closely some of the oppressive regimes they motored through but there was nothing like the flash of realisation I was expecting. This is not the story of how Ernesto became Che but the story of how two friends managed to stop from killing themselves on a badly thought out and poorly planed adventure. Despite the fact that this book will not really help you understand how a young doctor to be became a revolutionary, this is still an interesting read. It represents a snap-shot of South American life in 1952 and can stand on that alone. It also puts some context into the pre-Che personality of a future revolutionary which, again, is interesting in itself. Just don’t, as I did, expect it to tell you much about why he was so central to the Cuban revolution and why he died in Bolivia fighting for what he believed in.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A(nother) Book Meme.

Thanks to Rust belt Philosophy for this:

Do you snack while reading?

Often yes. I also read during my lunch-break at work so sandwiches could be involved too.

What is your favourite drink while reading?

Old Jamaica Ginger Beer

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

Oh, I really hate it when people write in books. If you want to make notes then use a pad like normal people!

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat?

I use anything that comes to hand though for years I’ve been using the rip-off part of my payslip. They’ve changed its design so now I used everything from old credit cards to discarded bus tickets.

Fiction, non-fiction or both?

Both. My preference is for fiction but I read quite a bit of non-fiction too. I’d miss out on far too much if I didn’t. There’s a natural part of me that once it becomes interested in a subject – which could be just about anything – I feel the need to read up about it.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?

I can stop a book in mid-sentence, though I prefer to stop at least at the end of a paragraph. I’m not driven to finish a chapter – mostly for practical reasons (sleep and work).

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

I have ripped a book in half before now when I became very angry at what it said. To cut a long story short I’d had a particularly bad day with my (then) girlfriend and was disgusted to read about how wonderful the day was supposed to be – according to a yearly horoscope book I was reading. So I read out the passage to her and then ripped the book in half and threw it in the bin under my desk. The people I work with – this all happened in my office – where plainly stunned at how I had treated a book. They knew how much I valued them. Looking back on it the whole incident was highly amusing.

What are you currently reading?

The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove, Consciousness – A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore, Voltaire’s Bastards – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul and The Bloodless Revolution – Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India by Tristam Stuart.

What is the last book you bought?

It was a pair of books on special offer: The Making of Modern Britain – From Queen Victoria to VE Day by Andrew Marr and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?

Saturday at home, although I can (and do) read just about anywhere. When I’m awake enough I like to read in bed for 10-15 minutes just before turning in for the night.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?

I don’t care really – though if a series is good enough I do find myself both itching to read the next instalment and restraining myself so the experience isn’t over too soon.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

Alan Furst – probably the best historical spy novel writer I’ve had the great privilege to read.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

If I’m anywhere near a computer, yes. Google is very useful in that regard.

How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)?

The books that I can fit on my shelves are organised by author (fiction). I also have two complete bookshelves containing the books I bought for my two recent courses. The rest – the unread piles(s) tend to be pretty randomly organised (although technically by date – sort of). I do, however, have fiction piles and non-fiction piles.

Background noise or silence?

At home – at weekends – it’s music. Evenings normally silence after muting the TV. At work it’s the hum of conversation and the ringing of telephones. Fortunately people have learnt to leave me alone (mostly) when they see a book on my desk. I don’t mind too much about necessary interruptions though.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

'Too Fat' for Empire? Military Generals Target School Lunches

by Mary Clare Jalonick for Associated Press

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

WASHINGTON - School lunches have been called many things, but a group of retired military officers is giving them a new label: national security threat. A new report being released Tuesday says more than 9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too overweight to join the military. The retired officers are saying that school lunches have helped make the nation's young people so fat that fewer of them can meet the military's physical fitness standards, and recruitment is in jeopardy.

The officers' group, Mission: Readiness, was appearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The military group acknowledges that other things keep young adults out of the armed services, such as a criminal record or the lack of a high school diploma. But weight problems that have worsened over the past 15 years are now the leading medical reason that recruits are rejected. Although all branches of the military now meet or exceed recruitment goals, retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr., a member of the officers group, says the obesity trend could affect that. "When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice," Barnett said. He noted that national security in the year 2030 is "absolutely dependent" on reversing child obesity rates. Recruitment isn't the only problem posed by obesity. According to the report, the government spends tens of millions of dollars every year to train replacements for service members discharged because of weight problems. This isn't the first time the military has gotten involved in the debate over school lunches. During World War II, military leaders had the opposite problem, reporting that many recruits were rejected because of stunted growth and inadequate nutrition. After the war, military leaders pushed Congress to establish the national school lunch program so children would grow up healthier. The program was established in 1946, "as a measure of national security," according to the original bill language.

Today, the group is urging Congress to eliminate junk food and high-calorie beverages from schools, put more money into the school lunch program and develop new strategies that help children develop healthier habits. The school lunch bill, currently awaiting a Senate vote, would establish healthier options for all foods in schools, including vending machine items. The legislation would spend $4.5 billion more over 10 years for nutrition programs. The Army is already doing its part to catch the problem earlier, working with high schoolers and interested recruits to lose weight before they are eligible for service, says U.S. Army Recruiting Command's Mark Howell. He added that he had to lose 10 pounds himself before he joined the military. "This is the future of our Army we are looking at when we talk about these 17- to 24-year-olds," Howell said. "The sad thing is a lot of them want to join but can't."

[It would appear that there are some people who think that American society should be dedicated to one thing above all else – War. I can’t help but wonder what that means for the rest of the world. I hazard to guess that it won’t be peace.]

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Language of Stones by Robert Carter

In an England that is not quite England, in a 15th Century that is far from our 15th Century, trouble is brewing. Prophecy says that The Realm is approaching a crossroads in its history, a crossroads that could lead to an age of peaceful plenty or to an age of war and death. At the centre of this prophecy is a young boy – Willand – an orphan brought up in secret, a child with an unknown past and a difficult future, a child who may be the reincarnation of The Realm’s greatest hero – Arthur. But before prophecy can play itself out Willands protector – the aging wizard Gwydion (also know by some as Merlin) – must both teach him about and protect him from the many dangers abroad in the increasingly troubled land.

This is by far the most standard Fantasy novel I’ve read recently. It is in large part very reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and I’m fairly positive that I picked up on some straight references to the one text that birthed them all. Of course it’s just as possible that both texts rely heavily on the original Arthurian legends which is where at least some of the similarities come from. Although derivative to a great degree this by no means indicates that it’s a poor knock-off – it isn’t. Language of Stones is actually quite a page turner. Despite its size – at just under 600 pages – I managed to ‘blast’ through it in just over a week (which at the moment is very good indeed). Both the main and the many subsidiary characters are well drawn and are believable in context. The dialogue is well constructed and is full of the kind of pagan wisdom I would expect from this sort of book. The retelling of history of this place that is not quite our world is fascinating and the underlying story is very believable indeed. On just about every level this is an interesting and highly enjoyable read. I have recently discovered that this is, rather inevitably, the first book in a trilogy (though it can actually be read as a totally stand-alone work) and I will see about getting the other two books. I’m interested to know who things turn out which is always the sign of a good book. Recommended to all classic Fantasy fans.