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

Monday, August 30, 2010

The *BIG* Book Meme

Copied from This Week @ the Library…..

1. Favorite childhood book?

I hardly read a thing before I was in my Teens (hard to believe I know) but my favourite teenage reading was The Lensmen Series by E E ‘Doc’ Smith.

2. What are you reading right now?

Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield and Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend

3. What books do you have on request at the library?

I haven’t used the library for years. I’ve usually got more (and better) books than they do!

4. Bad book habit?

Buying more books than I can read in a lifetime. I probably have enough unread books to last me at least 15 years. I’m still buying books – indeed on average I’m probably accumulating books faster than I’m reading them. This is not good.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library

Nothing. See response to Q3.

6. Do you have an e-reader?

Thought about it. Still thinking.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

I’m normally reading one fiction and at least one non-fiction at the same time.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

Not really. I do sometimes think I’ll read something to surprise or entertain my readership – but I’d be doing that to entertain or surprise myself. There might be a few books I have that I’d think twice about reviewing (which might be stopping me reading them) but I’ll probably get over that.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)

Sleipnir by Linda Evans.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin…. Possibly…….. I’ve been lucky enough (or possibly skilled enough) to read some very good books this year.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Not often enough.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

SF.

13. Can you read on the bus?

Not really. Going around corners whilst reading makes my head ache. It took me months to teach myself to read on the train. Fortunately they tend to go in straight lines most of the time.

14. Favorite place to read?

Anywhere where I won’t be disturbed and is reasonably quiet.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

Only one book at a time and only to close friends.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

No.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Never. What a horrid idea!

18. Even in college textbooks?

No way.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?

English. It’s the only one I know.

20. What makes you love a book?

Well written characters who you care about or a believable world you’d love to visit (or even move to). The Culture stories by Iain Banks are an example of the latter.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

Having had an enjoyable reading experience.

22. Favorite genre?

Science-Fiction (naturally).

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

Good spy novels or classic crime thrillers.

24. Favorite biography?

I’m actually not interested enough in other individuals (as a rule) to read books about them. I’ve read a few biographies in the past but found them less than inspiring.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

I’ve tried a few but found them boring, trite or incomprehensible.

26. Favorite cookbook?

As I don’t really cook….. that would be none.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys by Neil Oliver.

28. Favorite reading snack?

Anything I can hold in one hand. God bless John Montagu fourth Earl of Sandwich.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

I generally don’t listen to hype much and tend not to read what could be called popular novels. The books I do read – apart from the odd one or two – tend to be pretty much hype free…. Then again I haven’t read my copy of Twilight yet!

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

The only critics I read regularly are the guys from SFX magazine (and occasionally in The Observer). Mostly they’re spot on but it helps to be aware – and beware – of their favourites.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

Oh, I have no issue with that – as readers of my Blog will know.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

French. If their books are anything like their movies I’d love them too.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

I’m rarely intimidated by a book. I certainly see some as more of a challenge than others – the hard sciences can get a bit much especially where mathematics is involved for example.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

I have a copy of The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Physical Universe by Roger Penrose which does make me nervous in a way. This probably explains why, after an initial skim, I haven’t opened it after sitting on my bookshelf for several years now.

35. Favorite Poet?

Again poetry just isn’t my thing. I’m definitely a prose person.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

Back in my youth when the reading habit hit (and I didn’t have much money) I regularly borrowed beyond the maximum aloud number of books – which was 12. I remember once being asked to bring some of the 16 books I had out back. I told the librarian that her records were out of date. I actually had 24 books out at that time.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

More than once.

38. Favorite fictional character?

Probably Sherlock Holmes.

39. Favorite fictional villain?

I can’t think of a specific villain off-hand but the type of villain I like is pretty much the same as the type of hero I like: complex, multi-layered, conflicted and, above all else, flawed. The thing I really can’t stand in my villains: Stupidity.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

At Christmas I normally read through a few novels and a few non-fiction. Holidays are for larger volumes that I don’t want to lug into work everyday and for more difficult works that require concentration.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Almost 2 years (oddly the first 2/3 of my time at University – go figure!)

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

Rama Revealed by Arthur C Clarke.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

People visiting my desk to ask if I’m “on lunch” and the phone ringing.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

Pride and Prejudice or A Very Long Engagement.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?

I found The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) disappointing. Partially because they truncated a perfectly good ending, but mostly because it lacked both the heart and the bite of the novel. I’m not entirely clear what was missing from the adaptation – but something definitely was.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

In an actual bookshop – probably £80 or so. On Amazon – maybe £150

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

Only non-fiction. I check out chapter headings and maybe the bibliography and might do some spot reading of particular chapters that piqué my interest.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?

Sleep usually! But I tend to finish books that I start unless they’re really bad. I might pause a book – for years sometimes – if I find something much more interesting to read in the meantime. Presently I have about 20 ‘paused’ books.

49. How do you keep your books organized?

Autobiographically….. No, only kidding! Most of my bookshelves are fairly random (though authors tend to gravitate in clumps). I tend not to mix fiction and non-fiction. I also have two complete bookshelves with purely philosophy books and the other with religion/magic books. Most of these are presently unread and are the result of buying books during my last two University courses.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

I generally keep everything I read (or buy to read). Very rarely I give books to Oxfam.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

Ones that I’m fairly confident I won’t like. Although I do like to be experimental from time to time (not often enough I fear) life it just too short to attempt to read books I’d be wasting my time with.

52. Name a book that made you angry.

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest. It was a wonderful read telling of an author drifting into madness and gradually retreating from reality. On the last page the main character turned around and……… It just ended. Like that. I screamed in frustration!

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

Language of Stones by Robert Carter.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The Mocking Programme by Alan Dean Foster

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

I don’t feel any ‘guilt’ about my reading habits. I read what I like – or think I’ll like. Some people tut-tut at my reading sometimes but that’s pretty much the standard reaction to SF and anything slightly ‘odd’ which I tend to enjoy.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Campaign asks for international treaty to limit war robots

by Nic Fleming for New Scientist

30 September 2009

A robotics expert, a physicist, a bioethicist and a philosopher have founded the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) to campaign for limits on robotic military hardware. Roboticist Noel Sharkey at the University of Sheffield, UK, and his colleagues set up ICRAC after a two-day meeting in Sheffield earlier this month. Sharkey has spoken before of ethical concerns about military systems that make their own decisions. "Robot weapons are likely to change the character of warfare," Sharkey told New Scientist. "We seem to be rushing headlong into the development of autonomous weapons systems without any real concern for the long-term impact on civilian populations."

In its opening declaration the committee called for military robots to be banned from space and said no robotic systems should carry nuclear weapons. The other founding members of ICRAC are physicist Jürgen Altmann of Dortmund University of Technology, Germany; Robert Sparrow of the Centre for Human Bioethics, Monash University, near Melbourne, Australia; and philosopher Peter Asaro of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The committee will recruit more people to monitor the development of autonomous weapons and to campaign for the preventative arms control – like the regulations that govern nuclear and biological weapons – to be applied to robots.

The US air force's remote-controlled aircraft – MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers – are playing an ever-growing role in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And thousands of ground-based robots have been used to help western forces carry out surveillance in dangerous areas of these countries and to locate and disarm bombs worldwide. Among the most advanced military robots are Talons – small tractor-mounted units with chemical, temperature and radiation sensors that can also carry grenade launchers, machine guns and 50-calibre rifles. Close to 50 countries either already have or are working to obtain robotic military systems, says Sharkey. So far these are all controlled remotely by pilots or other operators.

ICRAC fears the principle of keeping a "man in the loop" will be eroded, so that the next generation of robot soldiers will be trusted with life-or-death decisions. Indeed, research into just such scenarios is taking place with US military funding. The committee is also worried that countries will be more likely to go to war if their casualties will be robots rather than human soldiers. They have also raised the danger of autonomous systems starting and escalating conflicts automatically. They are drawing up a report on their concerns to present to the European parliament and plan to invite researchers, politicians and representatives of the military to a conference in Germany next summer. However, robot soldiers have their place, says Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank in London. "If you are using them to clear mines and there is no one at risk, it makes absolute sense to use them. If one reaches the stage of artificial intelligence where robots become unpredictable because they are making their own minds up, it will be difficult to retain responsibility in the user," he concedes. "But that is an issue that will be some way in the future. There is time for ethics and law to cope with this eventually." Robotics engineer Ron Arkin at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, has argued that machines could perform more ethically than humans in some battlefield situations if they had ethical rules and biases incorporated into their control software.

[The best thing I can say about this is that at least some people are becoming aware of the issues around the potential use of intelligent robots in warfare. I can’t help but think though that this is a cardinal case of too little too late. I doubt very much if any military organisation anywhere in the world will listen to academics about the risks associated with any future autonomous killing machines that will be developed to fight our wars for us. But at least they can’t say that no one told them.]

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Age of Absurdity – Why Modern life makes it hard to be Happy by Michael Foley

I really liked this book, partially because it quickly became obvious that it was the kind of book I would have written if I’d had the opportunity and I often found myself agreeing with the majority of what he had to say. This was actually one of those rare books that I started reading almost as soon as it arrived from Amazon. In fact the only reason I didn’t start it right away – which I was tempted to do so after skimming the highlights – was that I already had too many books on my reading ‘plate’ at the time.

The author’s idea – which unsurprisingly I agree with – is that the way we live today in the West is pretty much designed to make us unhappy or at the very least is dedicated to making it difficult to attain any kind of happiness beyond the most fleeting kind. Like the self-help books he despises, and who in their right mind doesn’t, he divides his book into three main parts. The first part identifies the problems: the way advertising feeds on the insatiable appetites of the human Id, the growth of an entitlement culture, the delusion of status and so on. The second part identifies where these problems lead: to an undermining of personal responsibility, the constant emersion in an ever demanding 24 hour world leading to a lack of healthy detachment, the rejection of the idea that things can be and should be difficult to obtain or overcome, the weakening of the thought that experience is both necessary and required and the desire for instant on-demand transcendence. All of this, the author believes and I largely join him in this, leads to an unhappy existence – because real life just isn’t like most people would like it to be. Reality has a way of treating delusions – either individual or cultural - very badly indeed. In a straight fight the smart money is on reality because reality bites!

In the final section the author applies the wisdom of the Stoics, Buddhists, Existentialists and others to address the problems outlined in the first two sections in regard to practical every day aspects of life – in this case work, love and age. The author basically argues, very successfully I think, that life is generally absurd. The trick – if I can use such a word – is to recognise this absurdity and then work with it. Full of interesting ideas and observations from some of the worlds deepest thinkers this is a delight for anyone with an interest in philosophy and a desire to see its practical application to problems in modern living. There is much food for thought in this book and I fully intend to read it again in the future once it’s filtered down and percolated in my brain for a little while. A most enjoyable read (with a few very minor niggles) that may just nudge your life in a slightly different and slightly happier direction. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A World of Ideology

It is arguable, indeed more that arguable, that all of the worlds ideologies and religions are ‘formulae’ designed, above all else, to provide a structure for mankind to inhabit safely in the knowledge that their lives do indeed now have meaning. It is often implicit, if not exactly explicit, in all ideologies that meanings are assigned to the world or the actions of man enabling an event or historical end to come about. Individual meaning is achieved by being part of this process of bringing about such a desired end. Being part of the process becomes meaningful for those absorbed into their particular ideological paradigm. Yet without at least a reasonable level of understanding of the flow of history or God’s Plan or whatever the overarching scheme in question it becomes impossible to gauge the significance of these larger endeavours in which we hope and expect to find meaning whilst being embedded within them.

It soon transpires that when examined to any great degree such structures hold scant refuge for the meaning hungry individual and that any psychological benefits derived from them are often based to a significant degree on the active ignorance of their deficiencies. Without the level of ignorance required for belief to take hold the beliefs themselves wither and die under constant investigation. It is not surprising that the probing questioning of any ideology – either secular or theistic – is considered as the highest heresy resulting in expulsion and even death. Serious investigation into the roots of meaning can be a very dangerous business indeed. When an ideology is called into question this is often perceived as a direct attack on the ideologies adherents who have used it to assign meaning to their lives. Such an ‘attack’ has the very real possibility of unearthing the fact that any meaning associated with a particular ideology is simply a human fabrication and nothing more. The understandable inconsistencies within many religions in particular have, upon reflection, turned people away from their faith in whichever particular God they previously worshiped. Such abandonment, not surprisingly, can lead to deep despair and possibly suicide.

[Another slightly amended extract from my MA dissertation: The Death of God and the Challenge of Nihilism.]

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Thank God Global Warming is a Hoax

by Mark Morford for the San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I mean, right? You know? Because gosh Jesus in angry apocalyptic heaven, wouldn't it be just terrible if it were all true? Wouldn't it be horrible if all this stunning, insanely mounting, irrefutable evidence -- death, floods, fires, heat waves, the worst this and the most violent that in 1,000 years -- were some sort of surefire, cumulative sign that we have, if not directly caused, then wildly accelerated and amplified the imminent implosion of this planet? But we didn't! And we haven't! And we aren't! I mean, whew. I am delighted to remember that hardcore science has lied, misguided, misnomered and whatever else weird science does to confuse the world about the real impact humanity has had on global ecosystems. All those thousands of highly trained scientists educated at the finest universities, learning the most difficult and fraught information of our age, all in universal agreement that humankind's actions directly affect climate change, and they are all totally full of it because they are clearly in cahoots with Nazi Liberal Jesus, the solar panel manufacturers and the hippies who want me to compost my KFC Double Down wrapper.

I am delighted to be reassured by the fringe right wing that the piles of dead bodies, millions of lost homes, and even the very sun itself are part of a vast conspiracy, a plot to form an evil one-world government, a lefty liberal charade even in places that don't understand or care what the hell a liberal is. See? Do you understand how powerful the lie? Amazing. Because otherwise, wow, what sort of hell is this? Pakistan, Russia, China, Greenland, Niger and on and on it goes. Unprecedented heat waves, scorched crops, giant icebergs, savage droughts, dire emergencies, thousands dead here and 10,000 more over there and nothing like these events in the history of the world, ever. Even the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, is in on it, coming back from Pakistan stunned and shaken by the epic flooding he witnessed there. "The magnitude of the problem; the world has never seen such a disaster. It's much beyond anybody's imagination," he said, putting out the urgent call for more international aid. I mean, sure global warming is happening -- even some of the more ignorant climate change deniers have had to reverse course on that -- but humanity had nothing to do with it, OK? We don't need to change our behavior one iota. If God wants another Ice Age or whatever, who are we to argue? Heathen book-learners and their ridiculous studies, that's who! Scientists are saying that all these severe weather patterns fit in exactly with what they've been predicting all along. Not only that, but they say it's increasingly likely that we've waited too long to change our behaviors, cut emissions, reduce consumption and other such liberal gibberish, and now it might be too late to do anything about it. Increasingly extreme, violent weather will now be the norm, and the devastation, disease and death will only increase.

Good news! If I blink a few times while clicking the mouse, it all goes away. Hey look, Lindsay Lohan's mom is all up in it! Snooki is so wasted! All is as it should be. Thank you, Interweb. But dammit, their godless eco-agenda just won't stop. 2010, they say, is not being very nice, is setting all sorts of unpleasant records. Already, the most national extreme heat records in a single year (17). Already, the hottest half-year on record in planetary history. Already, the five warmest months in tropical Atlantic history, possibly resulting in more hurricanes. Already, millions of people sensing, deep down, that Something Is Very Wrong Indeed. Good thing their calmly intuitive souls are full of crap. I mean, please. Isn't it like this every year? Always with the floods and fires. Always with the hurricanes, earthquakes and numbing body counts. Is this year, this decade really that different? I'm sorry, I can't hear you, I just turned up this Glenn Beck podcast. Here is your big lesson: Do not listen to people who actually know things. Only listen to people who react, negatively and whiningly, to people who actually know things. It's the American way. Have you seen the photos from the Gulf of Mexico, all shiny and clear thanks to toxic chemical dispersants, the miracle of ocean currents and armies of PR people who smell like hate? What happened to all the oil? It's all gone, even though it's really not! Absorbed into the planetary bloodstream like magic! Even the president is there, splashing around in waters that, not a month ago, had hundreds of million of gallons of crude oil and chemicals floating in it. Just more proof that God's favorite creatures can cause no lasting harm. We're innocent as pie. And guns. And Corexit 9500. I'm dumping some used motor oil into this city sewer right now, in celebration.

I just read the flooding in Pakistan has already caused more devastation than the 2004 tsunami in Asia, worse than the Haiti earthquake. One quarter of the country is underwater. They say Pakistan also just broke a record for the single highest temperature ever recorded on the Asian continent, at 128 degrees (16 other nations also met or broke heat records this year, too). That record was set in a city. Where people live. But not for very much longer, because they do not have giant air conditioners and pallets of Fiji water from Costco like we do, so they probably won't survive. Yes, it's tragic. It's unprecedented. It's never happened like this before. Heck, even here in the eco-terrorist homeland of San Francisco, they say the change in ocean temperatures will soon mean Fog City will be entirely fog bound, edge to edge, nearly year round. But I repeat: It's not our fault. Seven billion rapacious, industrialized bipeds have the impact of a feather. All this destruction and death? It's just God's will -- except for those places that don't believe in a Christian God. Serves them right, doesn't it? By the way, there's an obvious solution to many of these horrors -- to the Russian heat waves, the violent droughts in Niger, the dead bodies floating in Pakistan, the floods in China: Do not go there. Do not go to these terrible, hot, messy places. It's so easy!

I mean, so what if giant icebergs four times the size of Manhattan are suddenly breaking off in Greenland? That's happening way, way up there. I'm overconsuming energy and blocking out inconvenient truths way, way down here. There is no cause/effect, no connection whatsoever, never mind that dark, nagging sense of self-wrought doom, deep in my bones. I know that's just a liberal lie, an implant, completely futile -- just like those failed climate talks in Copenhagen, and the soon-to-be-failed ones coming up shortly in Mexico. I mean, whew.

[Phew indeed. I’m so glad I found this out. I can relax and stop recycling, throw away my low energy light bulbs and maybe even buy a car – that’s such a pressure off my mind…….]

Friday, August 20, 2010

When I was a Rock God.......
70 years Ago today.....


This famous speech was given by Winston Churchill:


The enemy is, of course, far more numerous than we are, but our new productions already, as I am advised, largely exceed his, and the American production is only just beginning to flow in. It is a fact that after all this fighting our bomber and fighter strengths are larger than they have ever seen. (Cheers.)

We hope and believe that we shall be able to continue the struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases, and the longer it continues the more rapid will be our approach first towards that parity and then into that superiority in the air upon which in a large measure the decision of the war depends. The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world except in the abodes of the guilty goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Prolonged cheers.) All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aims their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often at serious loss, with deliberate, careful precision, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. (Cheers.)

On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers, who will play an invaluable part in the case of an invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meantime on numerous occasions to restrain. I have no hesitation in saying that the process of bombing the military industries and communications of Germany and the air bases and storage depots from which we are attacked, which will continue on an ever-increasing scale until the end of the war and may in another year attain dimensions hitherto undreamed of, assure one at least of the most certain, if not the shortest, of all the roads to victory. Even if the Nazi legions stood triumphant on the Black Sea or indeed upon the Caspian, even if Hitler was at the gates of India, it would profit him nothing if at the same time the entire economic and scientific apparatus of German war power lay shattered and pulverised at home. (Cheers.)
Just Finished Reading: Man-Kzin Wars IX created by Larry Niven

This was a very relaxing “chewing gum for the mind” kind of read. Based in Niven’s ‘Known Space’, a part of the Galaxy I know well from reading stories based in it over the past 30 years, these short stories mostly revolve around the alien occupation of the human colony world Wunderland – orbiting around one of the binary stars in Alpha Centuri. The first, Pele written by Poul Anderson tells of a scientific expedition to a dying star system interrupted by the arrival of a Kzin warship. The second, His Sergeant’s Honor written by Hal Colebatch tells of the final surrender of Kzin forces on Wunderland after the arrival of a huge human fleet of warships. The third, Windows of the Soul by Paul Chafe told of the co-operation between Kzin and human law enforcement to track down an illegal organ smuggling ring on a hollowed out asteroid and last was Fly-by-Night by Larry Niven telling how a human, a Kzin and a Jotok slave outwit a renegade Kzin raiding party saving their own lives and the lives of hundreds of frozen hostages.

I haven’t read any ‘Known Space’ stories for a while but slipped back into things very easily. Niven’s creation is endlessly fascinating containing as it does both the exotic environments and exotic creatures which inhabit them. One of whom, the oft mentioned Kzin above, are one of my favourite aliens in SF. Wrongly pictured, I believe, as bipedal lions (as on the cover) these ‘rat-cats’ as they are known are distinctly alien although superficially feline in nature. Their anatomical differences to our Great Cats, what’s left of them, are many – including the fact that the Kzin are generally bright Orange! Portraying them as lions is, in my opinion, just plain laziness. Detailed descriptions of the Kzin are readily available in Niven’s early writing – so there’s just no excuse. Anyway – getting off my trusty old steed Pedant for a moment – this is a worthy addition to the ‘Known Space’ series of stories and, whilst not exactly startlingly original, they are very readable and entertaining. Although you can just start reading here I do recommend that you do read the previous books first. There is plenty to recommend them.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Celts – A Very Short Introduction by Barry Cunliffe

With an Irish heritage on both sides of my family I see myself very much as a Celt (or at the very least of Celtic ancestry). I was intrigued, therefore, to see if this book would back up that claim. Fortunately it did which means that one of my personal ‘myths’ is a little safer from my default sceptical nature – probably caused by the very same Celtic genes [grin].

This small volume attempts to cover a great deal of ground and does it admirably. Well written and easily accessible for those, like me, with much more interest in the subject than knowledge about it this was both an easy and very informative read. Starting with the idea that contemporary ideas of Celtic-ness have a tendency to mean many things to many different groups the author goes in search of where the Celts came from and wonders if they indeed actually existed at all. Although the groups encountered by the Greeks and later fought by the Romans may not have called themselves Celts there clearly existed a widespread culture that, in hindsight, can be called Celtic. Roman accounts and later archaeological evidence supports the idea of an Atlantic seaboard culture extending from Hungary in the East to Ireland in the West. Despite the existence of local variations it appears that they held much in common from artefacts and even an understandable common language.

Today, after a period of Romanisation followed by a longer period of Christianisation we are left with the remnants of that culture in places such as Wales, which has managed to bring its distinct language back from the brink, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and parts of Brittany. It is likely, especially with the continued decline in European Christianity that the centres of Celtic culture will continue to grow as they look for deeper historical foundations. It is also likely that the idea of the Celt will be reinvented in other areas as the grip of the Church weakens and cultures struggle with ideas of national identity. The Celtic idea is far from dead for which I’m grateful. It’s nice to have such deep roots in European history.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Birth of Meaning

It is interesting to speculate (speculation being the only tool at our disposal in this case) on the origins of the desire and oft stated apparent need to find meaning in things larger than ourselves. We do not waste much effort pondering the meaning of reading novels or eating food as both give us pleasure and one helps keep us alive. We no longer ask advice on the meaning of storms or the position of the stars in the sky – although the continued popularity of newspaper horoscopes signifies that at least some of the general population still do so. Yet we still brood over not only the meaning of our own lives but the meaning of all life, of all existence. As far as we know we are the only creatures on Earth to do this. Neither mice nor ants appear to give any thought or expend any energy examining the ‘meaning of it all’ as they gaze into a night sky full of stars. They are in fact incapable of such musings because they are incapable of self-reflective thought. They may be acutely aware of their surroundings in order to prosper in their environmental niche but they are not, at least as far as we can tell, aware of themselves being aware. They are neither conscious nor self aware and are, as far as we are able to ascertain, blissfully ignorant of their place in the universe. It is only man that asks himself why he is here and what it all means. It is entirely possible that the universe acquired any meaning at all only though a supreme act of arrogance on the part of a self-aware humanity when one of its earliest thinkers asked the question: How can such a universe be meaningless when I am in it? As soon as such a question is posed it is but a short journey to the construction of ideologies and religions which provide the desired meaning that can now be imposed on a previously uncaring, silent and indifferent universe. Such ‘meaning’ serves apparently deep psychological needs which may account for its widespread nature. There is seemingly something within the self-aware mind that requires meaning to exist in order to function. Such a desire often seems overwhelming and explains why many hold onto whatever meaning they have derived or bought into with such fervour. The idea that life is essentially meaningless is not only anathema to many but also deeply terrifying.

[Extracted – slightly amended - from my MA dissertation: The death of God and the Challenge of Nihilism.]

Friday, August 13, 2010

A refreshing example of honest advertising… Or a simple piece of Capitalist propaganda?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Fall by Albert Camus

I just didn’t ‘get’ this novel. Or maybe I did and thought “…and?”

Billed as ‘The most perfect of his meditations on human isolation and bewilderment before an enigmatic universe’ this novel by the noted French philosopher and novelist told the story of ex-lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence who relates his life story to a stranger he meets in an Amsterdam bar. After years in a successful Paris career he decides suddenly that his life is a sham and begins to cynically manipulate the people around him. Seeing no value in anything the narrator’s response is a life of Hedonism punctuated with periods of drunkenness and sexual debauchery – none of which satisfies him in the least. Finally he decides that he must live as if he is the only person of value and that the rest of the world should either vanish or worship him.

…and that was it.

I did struggle with this book, thinking – just what is the point of the narrative… which may actually have been the point! It probably didn’t help that I read most of the 92 pages in my lunch break during a particularly hectic week at work, where I was often interrupted by visitors to my desk or by phone calls about the latest ‘crisis’. It’s hard to tell, though I don’t think that I can bring myself to give it a second ‘go’ just yet. I’ll let it simmer a bit in the back on my mind for a while. I do have two more novels by Camus which I shall be reading at a later date. I hope, and expect, I’ll find them a better read that this one – although maybe this is what Existentialist novels are like….. [grin]

Monday, August 09, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Pride and Prejudice

I very vividly remember seeing this when it came out in 2005. I’m not exactly sure why the guys didn’t see it with us but I ended up going just with CQ. Maybe it was because it was a costume drama? Maybe it was because it was billed as a major ‘chick-flick’? Maybe it was because it was Jane Austen?

Anyway, we arrived early fully expecting to have to fight our way through the crowds only to discover no long line of people patiently waiting. Momentarily perplexed we realised that the Multiplex had decided to show the film on one of its two largest screens seating around 300 people. That explains it we thought. Wrong! When we got into the screen itself it was packed and we struggled to get two decent seats together. The audience was probably 97% women all eagerly chatting about the treat ahead. I’m struggling to remember if I read the book before or after I saw the movie. I have a feeling it was afterwards. Not that I needed any additional pre-knowledge of the plot. It is, after all, a classic of English Literature. Originally published in 1813 the story is an often acerbic critique of the society Austen was born into and especially the very constrained place of women within it. Central to the story is Miss Elizabeth Bennet (played as if the role was written for her by Keira Knightley – pictured above). She is the 2nd eldest of five Bennet girls all who need to be married off if their family are not to lose the estate they have grown up on. The eldest daughter Jane is considered the beauty of the family and the local area who, it is assumed, will marry very well indeed. Lizzie is the family cynic and thinker - always with her nose in a book. I fell in love with her in the film (and not just because she is played by the pretty and oh so serious Ms Knightley), the BBC series and in the book. She is most definitely my kind of woman!

The rather complicated plot revolves around a series of misunderstandings. At a ball held in the local hall we are introduced to several visiting members of the landed gentry – Mr Bingley played by Simon Woods (with a reported income of 10 thousand a year) and Mr Darcy played by a rather disappointing Matthew Macfadyen (with an even larger income of 20 thousand a year). Mr Bingley falls head over heels with Jane Bennet and there is a definite spark between Mr Darcey and Lizzie. However, because of both pride and prejudice on both sides their relationship is a very challenging one indeed. Although incredibly romantic – I lost count of the number of heartfelt sighs emanating from the entire audience – this film is also incredibly funny. Austen’s writing is well observed and very witty indeed. The book, which is one of my all time favourites, is, if anything, even funnier. I found myself chuckling along to Austen’s insightful comments and dialogue that oozed some of the deepest most cutting sarcasm I have ever read. A great deal of this made it – sometimes word for word – into the movie. The sparring dialogue, especially between Lizzie and Darcy, is like watching an expert martial arts contest – using only words and whit. It is quite simply brilliant. I found myself, again to an even greater degree in the book, simply speechless at the genius of the writing. Coupled with this the cinematography throughout the film is impeccable. I loved it from the opening few minutes. The camera glides through scenes in a way that often defies description. Just watching the way scenes are filmed is a delight in itself and adds, if any addition was required, to the overall feel of this movie as a work of art. As you can tell by now I loved this film. With a superb supporting cast – special mention must be made of Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as Mr and Mrs Bennet – this was a delight to watch from start to finish. All that is left is to find my own Lizzie. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife……

Saturday, August 07, 2010

I've just surprised myself.

I've been playing with the new Blog Template - which I've decided I like - and have been rearranging (and adding to) a few labels - now on the right. I was surprised to discover that I've posted over 100 items on Atheism. These include articles by other Atheists, book reviews, videos and my thoughts on the subject. What surprised me was the volume of posts. Although I am indeed an Atheist I do not consider this to be an Atheist Blog - just a Blog by someone who happens to be an Atheist. Maybe it's a bigger part of who I am than I original thought.... [muses]

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Slayers and their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead by Bruce A McClelland

With my known interest in (most) things vampiric I could hardly resist such a book. Adapted from his PhD thesis – and how cool is that – this is a very readable account of the origins of the vampire myth and, more importantly, the changing role of the vampire slayer. Originating in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – particularly Serbia – the vampire myth appeared to be the product of the clash of Christian and pagan beliefs possibly dating as far back as the 6th century only taking on a more recognisably modern form from the 11th Century onwards. Yet it was only with the much later 19th century cultural cross-over into Western literature, exemplified by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that we get both the slayer and the vampire in a form we are all familiar with. This is, however, very different from its Slavic origins to the point of being almost unrecognisable. Vampires, McClelland contends, were specific examples of scapegoats within a particular community who could be used as a means to explain mysterious incidents and whose ‘killing’ could be used as a way of cleansing a village of supernatural fear. Our modern, western vampire is an outgrowth of those beliefs distorted by our own cultural heritage. Likewise the slayer, originally an outcast, and often a half-vampire themselves, has been transformed by Stoker and more recently in TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, into almost super-hero status.

I certainly know more of the origins of the vampire myth than ever before. I can also see where people like Stoker and Joss Wheddon must have picked up some of their ideas from. It is interesting to see how cultural ideas such as these develop and transform over time and across cultural boundaries. In a culture becoming increasingly obsessed with youth and the promise of immortality it is unsurprising that vampires have become so iconic, even revered. This book puts both the vampires themselves, as well as those dedicated to their destruction, into both historical and cultural perspective. I shall certainly be picking up on much more of the symbolism the next time I watch a vampire movie or an episode of Buffy. This is definitely a work for anyone with more than a passing interest in vampire lore. Recommended.

Monday, August 02, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Queen of the Damned

Surprisingly, taking into account my love of vampire movies and the fact that Queen of the Damned is my favourite Ann Rice book, I never saw this at the movies. I had read that the movie was so bad as hardly to be believed – so I decided to save some money and give it a miss. Big mistake.

Months later I saw it in the cheap bin at one of my local video stores and chanced a few pound thinking if it was as bad as people had said I could pass it on to a friend. I was rather surprised, therefore, at just how good this movie was. Cobbled together from pieces of the books The Vampire Lestat and the sequel Queen of the Damned this told the story of Lestat (who we met in Interview with the Vampire played by Tom Cruise) - in this version played by the rather odd Stuart Townsend – who is awakened from a long sleep by the sound of rock music. Deciding on a whim to become a global rock star he takes over the band and hits the big time. This predictably annoys his fellow nightwalkers who decide to make him permanently dead rather than simply un-dead. Enter the vampire Queen Akasha (played by Aaliyah) who decides to come back from a very long sleep indeed in order to recreate her hell on Earth she had left behind in Ancient Egypt. In the middle of all of this is Jessie, descendent of generations looked after by her ‘Aunt’. Jessie is a new member of a shadowy group of academics called The Talamasca who monitor supernatural activities without interfering in them. Jessie become fascinated with Lestat and wants him to ‘make’ her.

I honestly love this film. Townsend is suitably weird, other-worldly and massively egotistical as Lestat should be. Aaliyah is even more off the reservation as the millennia old queen of all the vampires. There are interesting flash backs telling how Lestat was ‘made’ by Marius which filled in some interesting back-story and there was, of course, a lot of pretty good music. The icing on the cake for me was the beautiful Marguerite Moreau who played the vampire wannabe Jessie. Of course much of why I liked the book so much failed to appear in the movie – the centuries long activity of The Talamasca and the definitive history of vampire kind (except in the book the origin of the first vampire Akasha seemed shrouded in a fair degree of mysticism). Nevertheless, this was a creditable stab at a difficult book to film and is, I think, an important addition to vampire cinema. If you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it for a while I can recommend spending 100 minutes of your life doing so. Oh, and if you like the music as much as I do you should find that the MTV style videos are on the DVD too which I thought was a very nice touch.