About Me

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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

I think that most cat 'owners' have had this conversation.... [grin]



May 18, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Astronomers, including a NASA-funded team member, have discovered a new class of Jupiter-sized planets floating alone in the dark of space, away from the light of a star. The team believes these lone worlds probably were ejected from developing planetary systems. The discovery is based on a joint Japan-New Zealand survey that scanned the center of the Milky Way galaxy during 2006 and 2007, revealing evidence for up to 10 free-floating planets roughly the mass of Jupiter. The isolated orbs, also known as orphan planets, are difficult to spot, and had gone undetected until now. The planets are located at an average approximate distance of 10,000 to 20,000 light years from Earth.

"Although free-floating planets have been predicted, they finally have been detected, holding major implications for planetary formation and evolution models," said Mario Perez, exoplanet program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The discovery indicates there are many more free-floating Jupiter-mass planets that can't be seen. The team estimates there are about twice as many of them as stars. In addition, these worlds are thought to be at least as common as planets that orbit stars. This adds up to hundreds of billions of lone planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone.

"Our survey is like a population census," said David Bennett, a NASA and National Science Foundation-funded co-author of the study from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "We sampled a portion of the galaxy, and based on these data, can estimate overall numbers in the galaxy." The study, led by Takahiro Sumi from Osaka University in Japan, appears in the May 19 issue of the journal Nature. The survey is not sensitive to planets smaller than Jupiter and Saturn, but theories suggest lower-mass planets like Earth should be ejected from their stars more often. As a result, they are thought to be more common than free-floating Jupiters.

Previous observations spotted a handful of free-floating planet-like objects within star-forming clusters, with masses three times that of Jupiter. But scientists suspect the gaseous bodies form more like stars than planets. These small, dim orbs, called brown dwarfs, grow from collapsing balls of gas and dust, but lack the mass to ignite their nuclear fuel and shine with starlight. It is thought the smallest brown dwarfs are approximately the size of large planets. On the other hand, it is likely that some planets are ejected from their early, turbulent solar systems, due to close gravitational encounters with other planets or stars. Without a star to circle, these planets would move through the galaxy as our sun and others stars do, in stable orbits around the galaxy's center. The discovery of 10 free-floating Jupiters supports the ejection scenario, though it's possible both mechanisms are at play.

"If free-floating planets formed like stars, then we would have expected to see only one or two of them in our survey instead of 10," Bennett said. "Our results suggest that planetary systems often become unstable, with planets being kicked out from their places of birth." The observations cannot rule out the possibility that some of these planets may have very distant orbits around stars, but other research indicates Jupiter-mass planets in such distant orbits are rare.

The survey, the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA), is named in part after a giant wingless, extinct bird family from New Zealand called the moa. A 5.9-foot (1.8-meter) telescope at Mount John University Observatory in New Zealand is used to regularly scan the copious stars at the center of our galaxy for gravitational microlensing events. These occur when something, such as a star or planet, passes in front of another more distant star. The passing body's gravity warps the light of the background star, causing it to magnify and brighten. Heftier passing bodies, like massive stars, will warp the light of the background star to a greater extent, resulting in brightening events that can last weeks. Small planet-size bodies will cause less of a distortion, and brighten a star for only a few days or less.

[It’s quite a weird thought that there are potentially billions of planets just merrily floating about between the stars. I imagine – because they’d have little chance of holding onto a stable atmosphere – that the odds of them carrying life would be slim indeed but you never can tell. A Jupiter like planet – if such places can sustain life – would be just as likely to be habitable in deep space as they are orbiting a star. It’s certainly an interesting addition to the range of potential environments to be considered when we think about the potential of life in the Galaxy.]

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Terrorism – A Very Short Introduction by Charles Townshend

I guess that I can date my interest in terrorism back to the early 1970’s during the last big upsurge of activity. With the IRA bombing cities across the UK, the various Red Brigades operating in Italy, Germany and Japan, Action Direct in France, The Weathermen in the US and our very own home grown Angry Brigade in England hardly a day went by without some mention in the press or on the TV. Then, of course, those of us who are old enough will remember the birth of Palestinian terrorism, hijackings and various other attacks designed to bring attention to their situation.

All of this, and more, was covered in this excellent little volume by the author of ‘Easter 1916 – The Irish Rebellion’ which I reviewed here back in September 2010. Odd as it initially seem the author began by struggling to define terrorism (in distinction to acts of terrorism) and found it – just like many before him, to be a difficult process indeed. Most definitions used to date, he suggests, are either too inclusive or too exclusive to be of much use. Moving on the author went on to discuss the different types of terrorism drawing on the rich historical record for examples – The Terror of the French and Russian revolutions, the 19th Century revolutionary terrorists in Europe and the USA, their more contemporary followers in Latin America in the 20th century and the nationalistic terror of Ireland and the Basque region of Spain, ending with a brief overview of religious terror which has been around a lot longer than we generally think.

Finally the author recounts some of the ideas and some of the ways nations have attempted to combat terrorism and a very interesting analysis of how most terrorist campaigns end – between 1968 and 2006 only 10% could reasonably claim victory whilst a similar percentage had been successfully crushed by direct military force. Contrast this with around 40% being terminated by police investigation and a slightly larger percentage (43%) ending in political settlement. These figures certainly make a mockery of the present ‘war on terror’ which should have been focused on police action leading towards some kind of political understanding. After all, when all is said and done, terrorism is a crime – normally encompassing murder and property damage. Existing laws may need periodic ‘tweaking’ to keep pace with developments but, I contend, most terrorist activity can be controlled (but never wholly eliminated) by the police, the courts and, in exceptional circumstances, military special forces under the direction of civilian authorities.

As weapons technology progresses (if you can use such a word) more and more deadly devices will fall into the hands of people who are willing to use them for their own political objectives which they think will be advanced by killing civilians and making the world take them seriously. This I think is inevitable. What we must not do in response to this threat is either abandon our liberal democratic way nor fall for the apparently seductive charm of perpetual war. What we can do is to treat terrorism as crime and respond accordingly. Bombs will always go off from time to time and innocents will die but by controlling our response to what is reasonable and proportionate we can prevent or at lest reduce a great deal of future damage and even more casualties: the opposite, in fact, to what we are doing right now. A highly recommended book that puts the ‘war on terror’ into perspective.       

Monday, June 25, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have always known that they’re special. Growing up in the exclusive English school at Hailsham they have been taught from an early age that they must take the greatest care of themselves and each other. Only slowly do they find out what is in store for them when they leave their safe harbour and make their own way in the world. Looking back on those days 31 year old Kathy (played by Carey Mulligan in the 2010 movie adaptation) must come to terms with her knowledge of all of their fates as she cares for Ruth (Keira Knightly) and her long love Tommy (Andrew Garfield) as they play their part in society.

[SPOILER – For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie and want to I’d advise you to stop reading hereSPOILER]

OK, has everyone logged off who doesn’t want to hear the rest of it [pauses, looks around]. Right……

I found this book to be quite a struggle but not because it was difficult to understand or because it was badly written per se. I was irritated by its style first and foremost. Told in flashbacks it meandered all over the place as the narrator Kathy related stories of her youth and her relationship with Ruth and Tommy. Quite quickly we find out the secret of their existence (OK you were warned that there would be spoilers). They’re all clones. Now this didn’t come as a huge shock to me as I’d heard about this particular angle before I read the book. What did surprise me much more was that the clones themselves didn’t seem particularly bothered (or interested overmuch) by that news. There was some childish nonsense about finding the real-world person they were a copy of but only to discover how things might have turned out if they didn’t have that other thing hanging over their heads – because being clones was only part of it. They were actually being specifically bred to provide the larger society with organ donations which would eventually, and inevitably, kill them. What did they do with this news? Absolutely nothing except hold on to the vain hope that if they could prove they were in love that they’d get some kind of stay of execution for a few years before calmly being led off to slaughter.

A theme throughout the book was the idea that the children were encouraged to produce works of art and that the best of these – poetry, paintings sculpture – would be taken away each year for reasons unknown. Near the end of the book Kathy and Tommy find out what really happened to them. They were exhibited to patrons who were interested in the welfare of the clones and wanted to prove that they were practically human so should be treated in a humane fashion not, apparently as they were elsewhere, like cattle. This whole theme made me more than a little angry. To me it was bloody obvious that these clones were less than human because, after being informed that they would be killed at the whim of a largely uncaring society they did not even conceive the idea of rebelling against it. They calmly went on with their lives and right up to the moment of their inevitable death on an operating table remained proud of their sacrifice for the greater good. Where was a Clone Resistance I asked myself? Why no suicides as acts of aggression against the system that bred them? But of course the novel had no political and a minimal sociological aspect to it. With them it would have been completely different and would have actually deserved the name of Science-Fiction.

Reading some of the reviews on the back I was struck by one from the Sunday Times which described it as “A novel with piercing questions about humanity and humaneness”. I think they missed the point. I don’t think it was about how we treat people at all. I think it was about how we treat our animals that provide us with food and clothing. Do we treat them well right up until the moment we kill them and eat them or do we treat them like things bred to be eaten and, therefore, hardly to be thought of. Or do we actually treat our fellow creatures with somewhat more consideration and not eat them in the first place? Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the rest were cattle and behaved like cattle even assisting the State in their own slow executions. Like cattle they were rounded up, herded and killed whenever someone needed a heart or a kidney or a few feet of intestines. Maybe the book did exactly what it meant to do – it got an emotional response out of me. It certainly did that! It also means that I will never read anything else by this author.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Earth Cannot Be Saved by Hope and Billionaires

by George Monbiot for The Guardian

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Worn down by hope. That's the predicament of those who have sought to defend the earth's living systems. Every time governments meet to discuss the environmental crisis, we are told that this is the "make or break summit", on which the future of the world depends. The talks might have failed before, but this time the light of reason will descend upon the world.

'To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy. We know it's rubbish, but we allow our hopes to be raised, only to witness 190 nations arguing through the night over the use of the subjunctive in paragraph 286. We know that at the end of this process the UN secretary general, whose job obliges him to talk nonsense in an impressive number of languages, will explain that the unresolved issues (namely all of them) will be settled at next year's summit. Yet still we hope for something better. This week's earth summit in Rio de Janeiro is a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago. By now, the leaders who gathered in the same city in 1992 told us, the world's environmental problems were to have been solved. But all they have generated is more meetings, which will continue until the delegates, surrounded by rising waters, have eaten the last rare dove, exquisitely presented with an olive leaf roulade. The biosphere that world leaders promised to protect is in a far worse state than it was 20 years ago. Is it not time to recognize that they have failed?

These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed. Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires' banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho. You have only to see the way the United States has savaged the Earth summit's draft declaration to grasp the scale of this problem. The word "equitable", the US insists, must be cleansed from the text. So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women's empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change "unsustainable consumption and production patterns", and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources. Most significantly, the US delegation demands the removal of many of the foundations agreed by a Republican president in Rio in 1992. In particular, it has set out to purge all mention of the core principle of that Earth summit: common but differentiated responsibilities. This means that while all countries should strive to protect the world's resources, those with the most money and who have done the most damage should play a greater part. This is the government, remember, not of George W Bush but of Barack Obama. The paranoid, petty, unilateralist sabotage of international agreements continues uninterrupted. To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy.

While the destructive impact of the US in Rio is greater than that of any other nation, this does not excuse our own failures. The British government prepared for the Earth summit by wrecking both our own Climate Change Act and the European energy efficiency directive. David Cameron will not be attending the Earth summit. Nor will Ed Davey, the energy and climate change secretary (which is probably a blessing, as he's totally useless). Needless to say, Cameron, with other absentees such as Obama and Angela Merkel, are attending the G20 summit in Mexico, which takes place immediately before Rio. Another tenet of the 1992 summit – that economic and environmental issues should not be treated in isolation – goes up in smoke. The environmental crisis cannot be addressed by the emissaries of billionaires. It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers' rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law. So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalize
democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do not mobilize, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope from which we all hang.

[We are SO screwed……..]

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Oh, look. More rain......

Just Finished Reading: Stoic Warriors – The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind by Nancy Sherman

I bought this book some time ago because I thought it could help me with my last Masters dissertation. It certainly looked the part. So I skim read it for an hour or so and came up blank. Slightly disappointed it went back on my Philosophy bookshelf and I moved onto the next volume in my reading list. Finally I picked this back off the shelf and gave it a good cover the cover going over.

On the face of it this seemed like a good read in waiting. I’ve been interested in the military mind for quite a while now and have an almost as long interest in Stoic Philosophy. Unfortunately this turned out to be a very disappointing book indeed (and not completely because of my initial high hopes). Some parts of the book did actually interest me. The author related several stories, in particularly about US Navy pilot James B Stockdale who was shot down over Vietnam, captured, imprisoned and tortured before finally being released much later. Part of what kept him both physically and mentally alive was his strong Stoic sensibilities. So far so good I thought. But when she moved onto other militaristic themes I grew less and less enamoured by her arguments and her general portrayal of applying ancient philosophy to modern combat situations. I lost count of the number of times Sherman outlined the Stoic stance on say Grief, attempt to apply it to the real-world situation of military men and women put in that position and then saying how basically inappropriate it was. Time and again, despite the fact that she was a supposed expert on the subject I found myself strongly disagreeing with her interpretation, or even her understanding, of what the various Stoic authors meant. Now I would hardly call myself an expert on the subject but I found myself continually reading between the lines of the text and uncovering much more about the authors beliefs rather than, as I expected, her understanding of the Stoic mindset. Two examples I think will suffice. Firstly she built up the idea of the Stoic Sage – not too dissimilar it seemed to the Nietzschean Superman being beyond Good and Evil – being detached from the world and yet still interacting with it. This Sage-like figure could literally soak up the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without so much as a raised eyebrow – in other words Mr Spock. Such distance, the author maintains is both impossible and would make the person for all intents and purposes inhuman. I disagreed. Secondly she harped on (and on) about the need to cultivate moral indignation, and indeed righteous anger, as a healthy motivator to go out into the world a right its wrongs. I really didn’t know whether to laugh out loud at this point or simply stop reading.

As you might imagine I was less than impressed with the author’s attempts to reconcile or meld Stoicism and the military mind of the 21st century. This was a real shame as I think the area is a fertile one. The whole book is a massive opportunity repeatedly missed and missed again. It seemed to me that the author’s own beliefs got in the way of any objective evaluation of the uses of Stoicism to both understand and mould the military mindset. Generally very disappointing.      

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thinking About: Life in the Galaxy

If you have been reading this Blog for any length of time you’ll know that I periodically post articles about Extraterrestrial life. You will no doubt have realised that I am of the opinion that the probability of such life existing is high (if not actually certain) and that it is only a matter of time before we stumble over it or it stumbles upon us. After all, our Galaxy is certainly old enough for life to have emerged in it – we even have a confirmed example of it: Earth. Our Galaxy (one of many, many Galaxies) contains billions of stars around which probably orbit billions of planets. Any one (or any one other) could be the home of life so the odds against such a thing occurring elsewhere are literally astronomical. So the question remains: Where is everyone (else)? It’s a very good question and is usually referred to as the Fermi Paradox. If the Galaxy is really old enough, diverse enough and capable of producing life in multiple locations why haven’t we found it yet? Let me consider some of the facts and some speculations to try to answer that.

The first thing we need to consider is the size of the Galaxy. It’s big, really big. The distances between the stars are vast. Light from even our nearest star takes a little over 4 years to get here and light, as you may know, moves at a fairly decent speed. To send a probe there using present technology would take thousands of years. If the speed of light is indeed the universal speed limit – putting all of the various SF propulsion systems to one side – it’s hardly surprising that no one has come calling. But what about sending signals? After all radio waves move at the speed of light, right? So why haven’t we received any signals either? There was a comment from the head of NASA in one of those asteroid movies when he tried to explain why no one had seen it coming until it was almost upon us. He said that they only scanned a small percentage of the sky and it was a big-ass sky. We’ve only been listening for signals for about 50 years (though we’ve been leaking signals for somewhat longer) and it’s certainly a big-ass sky. Presumably the discovery of planets around a host of ‘nearby’ stars can narrow the search a bit but there’s still an enormous amount of ground to cover. It’s possible that a signal is one its way right now from a star 100 or 200 light years away which will get to us in 50 or 100 years. It may simply be a case that we haven’t listened long enough or we’re searching in the wrong places rather than the sky being empty of life.

We know for a fact that life exists on one world: Earth. We also know that our star isn’t particularly unique. We suspect that the same forces that produced our solar system are likely to operate universally which means that planetary systems just like ours exist orbiting stars just like ours – and that some of those planets will be in the so-called ‘Goldilocks zone’ where conditions allow liquid water on the surface and are suitable for the emergence and evolution of life. I have long contended that where conditions are conducive to the emergence of life that it will indeed emerge. After that has occurred evolution will kick in and things will start getting interesting. But it should be remembered that for the vast majority of life on Earth it was the domain of single or simple multi-cellular animals. It’s quite possible that even if life is prolific in the Galaxy that it’s at this simple level. Of course intelligent life has only existed on Earth for about a million years or so (depending on your definition of intelligent). It’s only in the last 100 years or so that we’ve begun broadcasting signals into space. It’s possible that we are the first species to do so in this part of the Galaxy so there’s no on to listen to (or to listen to us) yet. Likewise intelligent life could have flourished within 100 light years of us but may have died out 500 years ago either due to a natural or home-made catastrophe. Intelligence that can build radio transmitters and receivers capable of interstellar communication may also, inevitably maybe, create atomic bombs and bio-weapons and be stupid enough to use them. We certainly are. Maybe what intelligent life emerges in the Galaxy quickly snuffs itself out before anyone else is around to hear them? Or maybe they are snuffed out by wandering fleets of machines bent on the destruction of all organic life? It’s just as possible that one (or more) of the emergent civilisations destroyed itself by creating intelligent machines that see all organic life as a threat and have spent the last 100 million years hunting down radio signals are whipping out their producers. With a Galaxy this big, this diverse and this old such an idea might not just belong between the covers of science-fiction novels or in summer blockbusters at the multiplex.    

Of course it’s quite possible that the Galaxy is indeed as empty as it appears to be. We might be the first intelligent (and I use this word advisedly) species to have evolved or simply the only one to be around at this time – others having become extinct or not evolved far enough yet. But I think the odds are against this. If intelligent life is a fairly late product of evolution, which seems likely given its obvious advantages, it’s likely that intelligent life will have evolved many times in this Galaxy. Maybe those that do exist are far above is in evolutionary terms and simply don’t regard us as worthy of communicating with. Would you spend too much time trying to speak to ants? I think not. Maybe any nearby alien life is simply too different from us and can’t see the point in dropping by to say hello. Maybe they’ve tried and failed – thereby proving that we’re not worth communicating with?

We could certainly speculate all day about why ET isn’t calling us. Presently we just have too little data to work with. My gut feeling is that it isn’t because intelligent life simply does not exist anywhere else but here (with the usual caveat). My best guess on the subject is that the vast distances involved make communication very difficult. Together with the fact that we really haven’t been listening for that long and until very recently really didn’t know exactly where to look it’s hardly surprising that we haven’t heard any alien chatter. We may be receiving messages within days of me posting this or we might have to wait hundreds of years. I really have no idea. After all…. it’s a big-ass sky.    

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Top 10 greatest Science Fiction detective novels

From Wired Magazine

30 April 2010

China MiƩville's detective story The City And The City is well on its way to being the award-winningest novel of the year. But it's not the only great novel about science fiction/fantasy sleuths. Here are 10 other SF detective classics. Speculative fiction and detective fiction have a lot in common -- they're both about digging down to the truth of matters. Fictional scientists and explorers, like detectives, follow clues and act on hunches. The truth is enshrouded in an ocean of red herrings and false trails. Plus, a lot of great science fiction authors, like Ray Bradbury and Robert Silverberg, also wrote detective novels, for money or as a change of pace.

A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr

I loved this book when it came out in the early 1990s, but I see it has tons of mixed reviews online. In a nutshell, it's the future - the year 2013 - and we've replaced executions with punitive comas as a method of punishment for extreme criminals. And a neurologist has discovered that men with a particular brain configuration are much more likely to become sociopaths and serial killers. Everybody gets tested, and the list of men with this deficiency is kept on file, with each man given a code name from the Penguin Book of Great Thinkers. One of the men, codenamed Wittgenstein, finds out about his diagnosis - so he hacks into the confidential database and erases his information, then goes around killing the other men on the list. And the serial killer begins to see his murders through the lens of Wittgenstein's philosophy. It's up to police officer Isadora "Jake" Jakowicz to find out who Wittgenstein is and stop his murder spree. Like I said, I loved it.

The Retrieval Artist novels by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This series, which started with the short story The Retrieval Artist, takes place in the future, when the Moon has been colonized for centuries and humans are in contact with lots of alien races. And when humans inadvertently break the laws of alien cultures, they have to face those aliens' punishments - no matter how bizarre or severe. And people sometimes try to disappear, or change their identities, to avoid this harsh alien justice. Detective Miles Flint and his partner Noelle DeRicci wind up solving murders whose solution is often startling - like the cleaning robots were reprogrammed to rearrange the crime scene, or the murder wasn't what it first appears - and at the same time, avoid offending the strange customs of the alien races living
amongst us.

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

It's the 22nd century, and the Arab world has advanced far beyond the West, into a cyberpunk marvel. Marid Audran is a cocky, wisecracking hero who's forced to solve a series of brutal murders - the killer is using "moddies" to download the personalities and skills of some of history's most bestial serial killers into his brain, making him more than a match for the non-upgraded Audran. Audran finally discovers and overpowers the killer, but his problems are just beginning.

Tea From An Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan

Detective Dore Konstantin is called upon to investigate the murder of a young man inside an Artificial Reality chamber, and discovers that he died the exact same way inside the game as in reality. Her investigations into AR worlds lead her into the VR gamescape of post-apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty, and she begins to discover that other people have died while wired into the game. The murders turn out to be part of something much more complex, and startling.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez

Mack Megaton is a nearly indestructible robot, built by a scientist bent on world domination. But he's gained free will, and decided to give up the world-domination racket in favor of assimilating with society and driving a cab. So far so good - until his neighbors are kidnapped and he decides to find them. His quest takes him into the secrets of Empire City, aka Technotopia, and he confronts talking gorillas, mutant villains and robot thugs, eventually going on a rampage of destruction that might just save Empire City.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Another cyberpunk-esque noir future, in which people can be "shelved" and then later "resleeved" into new bodies. For the super-rich, known as Meths (or Methuselahs), it's possible to remain young and healthy for hundreds of years, just regrowing a new body whenever you want one. So when someone apparently murders wealthy asshole Laurens Bancroft, he just gets resleeved in a new body soon afterwards. But he still wants to know who killed him, so he hires/enslaves former soldier and current convict Takeshi Kovacs, giving Kovacs a new body, which happens to have a nicotine addicition and a few other annoying quirks. Possibly the greatest classic of the "future noir" genre. James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin, V For Vendetta) wants to make the movie version.

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem's trippiest novel, this book follows Conrad Metcalf, a detective in a world where asking questions is considered shockingly rude, and guns have a violin soundtrack. He's looking for the murder of a prominent urologist, and this takes him through a futuristic version of Oakland and San Francisco, in a world full of weird drugs, uplifted animals, babies with adult consciousness and erotic nerve-swapping. The mob has a kangaroo enforcer. And psychology is now considered a weird cult.
Lethem writes the whole thing in a wise-acre Chandler pastiche, which makes it just so bizarrely awesome. "The sky was clean and blue. I tried to concentrate on it, to keep my mind off what I'd just held in my arms and pressed against my body, as well as the fact that I made my living picking the scabs off other people's lives. But the day I can't shrug off a twinge of self-pity is the day I'm washed up for keeps."

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

The creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series turns his twisted mind to detective fiction, and creates a story so convoluted, it will turn your brain into haggis. The plot revolves around a ghost possessing a guy to kill another guy, and also embedding clues into the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge that will allow him to use a secret time machine to prevent his spaceship from blowing up four billion years in the past. It's sort of a mash-up of the Doctor Who stories "Shada" and "City Of Death," but the genius is in the telling of it and the way in which the titular "holistic detective" infers stuff based on the fundamental inter-connectedness of all things.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

One of the great meldings of detective fiction with alternate history - the other one being Robert Harris' Fatherland, which is in the list of "other notable titles" below - Chabon's Hugo Award-winning novel takes place in an alternate world where the Jews settled a patch of Alaska and Israel was never founded. Mayer Landsman, an alcoholic homicide cop, is called to investigate the execution-style murder of a man in a residence hotel. But the chess-playing victim turns out to be more than he first appears. Chabon's prose pays homage to Chandler, as well as Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammett, but his alternate-history world building elevates the story beyond the pure detective genre, and creates something much stranger and funnier.

The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov

As Asimov writes in his introduction to one edition, "[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader - and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel." In a nutshell, in this novel and The Naked Sun, Asimov pioneers the human-robot "buddy cop" genre, with policeman Elijah Baley paired with robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw.

Other notable titles:

The Andrea Cort novels by Adam-Troy Castro, the KOP novels by Warren Hammond, the October Daye novels by Seanan McGuire, Daymare by Frederic Brown, Zombies Of The Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb, the Johnson and HARV novels by John Zakour, The Elysium Commission by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Dark Heart by Margaret Weis and David Baldwin, the Victory Nelson series by Tanya Huff, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Sacred Ground by Mercedes Lackey, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and the Arabesk novels by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. There are also several anthologies of SF detective stories, including Isaac Asimov's Detectives, a collection of mystery stories from the pages of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Mike Resnick's Down These Dark Spaceways, and the Asimov-edited 13 Crimes Of Science Fiction.

[As a fan of both detective novels and SF I had to share this list. I’ve already read a few of them and will be checking out a few more in the future – pun intended.]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Ipcress File by Len Deighton

The story starts when the unnamed protagonist (called Harry Palmer and played by Michael Caine in the 1965 movie adaptation) is transferred from his old post in Military Intelligence – probably part of what is now called MI5 – into a counter-espionage unit led by the enigmatic character Dalby. Here he learns that British scientists have been disappearing over the past few months and it’s their job to find out what is happening and stop it. Of course things are simply not that easy. The chief suspect is thought to be a double agent – although there’s no proof that he is – and the one scientist they get back has large chunks of his memory missing and is now useless to HM Government. If that wasn’t bad enough the American’s suspect that MI5 has been penetrated by the Russians and ‘Harry’ is their main suspect.

When it was published in 1962 this novel was hailed as a breakthrough in the espionage genre. For the first time spying was shown as just another job with meetings, file keeping, arguments over expenses and heavy layers of bureaucracy. It showed, or at least appeared to show, the more down-to-earth side of things. So much so that it drips with the details and minutia that embedded it firmly in its time and place thereby dating it very badly. Probably a good thing at the time but over 40 years later maybe not – except maybe for the social historians amongst its readership. That may have been part of what helped confused me for ¾ of the book. Although it was eminently readable I really didn’t have much of a clue what was going on. Memories of the film didn’t help much as (IIRC) the plot was significantly different – with enough similarities to make it even more confusing! I’ve read several Deighton books in the past – most recently XPD – and have pretty much enjoyed all of them (in particular SS-GB). But I can’t honestly say the same about this offering. One for dedicated Deighton fans only I think. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Prey by Bernard Cornwell

England: 1807. After the death of the woman he loved and the apparent rejection of the army he thought of as home Richard Sharpe is at his wits end. Just as his options begin to run out he is spotted in a tavern and offered a job – escorting a rich, fop of an officer to Copenhagen to deliver a bribe to the Danish government. After the loss of the French fleet at Trafalgar, Napoleon needs more ships urgently if he is to fight the British at sea on anything like equal terms. Only the Danish can supply him with what he needs at short notice – but they have denied him. Britain is not about to let these ships fall into enemy hands so first they will offer a bribe and then they will send in their army to either capture the ships of burn them in their moorings. In the middle of this is Sharpe, betrayed, alone and in mortal danger – and in love. Before the week is out he needs to save the money, the ships, his woman and above all else his reputation. But first and foremost he must find the man who betrayed him and kill him if he can!

This is yet another cracking novel from Bernard Cornwell who, even after 13 novels in this series, continues to produce exciting and well constructed novels. As I have said before Sharpe is a great character, full of anger at a system that continually holds him in distain while he fights their wars and wins their battles for them. His strength of character and especially his unwavering sense of honour and duty make him fast friends at all ranks and equally implacable enemies. Gratifyingly his enemies do not stay enemies for too long. Those who get on the wrong side of Sharpe almost invariably end up dead at some point – usually on the end of his sword or with a bullet (or two) in them care of his Baker rifle. I have enjoyed his journey from India to Europe and beyond and am looking forward to the next 8-9 books in the series I have salted throughout the pile o’ books awaiting to be read. If you are in the mood for gritty period adventure and love the smell of cordite and gunpowder in the morning this series is most definitely for you. Enjoy!  

Saturday, June 09, 2012



Feb. 02, 2011

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface. Five of the potential planets are near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars than our sun.

Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets. Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system. "In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today's reality," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA's science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos."

The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data, released on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter. Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size -- up to twice the size of Earth -- to larger than Jupiter. The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009, of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler's field of view, which covers approximately 1/400 of the sky.

"The fact that we've found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy," said William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the mission's science principal investigator. "We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water." Among the stars with planetary candidates, 170 show evidence of multiple planetary candidates. Kepler-11, located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth, is the most tightly packed planetary system yet discovered. All six of its confirmed planets have orbits smaller than Venus, and five of the six have orbits smaller than Mercury's. The only other star with more than one confirmed transiting planet is Kepler-9, which has three. The Kepler-11 findings will be published in the Feb. 3 issue of the journal Nature.

"Kepler-11 is a remarkable system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation," said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at Ames. "These six planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets' mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume. By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we determined they are among the lowest mass
confirmed planets beyond our solar system." All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11 are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outward, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is half as far from its star as Earth is from the sun.

The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which indicates that they formed within a few million years of the system's formation. "The historic milestones Kepler makes with each new discovery will determine the course of every exoplanet mission to follow," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Kepler, a space telescope, looks for planet signatures by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars caused by planets crossing in front of them. This is known as a transit. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take three years to locate and verify Earth-size planets orbiting sun-like stars.

[Slightly old news I know but worth repeating (or bringing to your attention if you missed it). The discovery of Earth-like planets in habitable zones in star systems very much like our own gives great (if admittedly circumstantial) credence to the idea that life – even intelligent life – could very possibly exist on other worlds orbiting other stars. Those who continually dismiss even the possibility of life elsewhere need to contend with the growing number of planetary discoveries orbiting stars not too dissimilar to our own and in just the place they need to be to allow liquid water to exist on their surface. If, like me, you believe that life emerged on Earth as part of a natural process without the need for supernatural agency you cannot but agree that if it can happen here in the right circumstances then it can happen elsewhere too if those circumstances are similar enough. The odd, it increasingly appears, are being stacked in favour of finding life elsewhere in our galaxy. Now all we need to do is actually go and find it.]  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Dreaming – A Very Short Introduction by J Allan Hobson

Dreams have long fascinated mankind and our species has spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to discover what they mean: Which has all been a monumental waste of time – according to the author of this interesting little book! In the 143 closely argued pages Hobson makes the case for looking at the brain and the mind as purely material entities (which I strongly agree with) and analysing dreams as by-products of this materialism. Dreams, he contends, are not messages from the Gods nor are they shape shifted entries into the workings of the subconscious as Freud would have us believe. Freud indeed comes under special and very critical analysis for leading dream research in the wrong direction for the majority of the 20th Century.

Dreams can, the author proposes, tell us a great deal – but not about what they have long believed to inform us about. What dreams and dream research can tell us about is the functioning (and sometimes malfunctioning) of both the brain and the mind it produces and especially about the operation of human consciousness. The contents of dreams – such as they are – are red herrings which will, to mix my metaphors here, lead the unwary down various garden paths. Rather than the content once the form of dreams is considered, along with various scans (CAT, MRI etc.), they give vital clues to how the brain/mind operates when we’re asleep – basically attempting in vain to bring some order and structure out of the chaos that is our sleeping brains whilst the very centres dedicated to rational analysis have been decoupled and are unavailable. With these areas of the brain off-line the remaining centres try their best to weave a narrative using disparate images, memories and other elements we are all familiar with (at least briefly) on awaking.

The author certainly makes a convincing case – OK I was already starting from the purely materialist stand-point but it’s still a valid point – that old ideas of dream analysis are bunk and have prevented the real analysis of what’s actually going on in our brains to move much beyond modern versions of shamanism. With our increasing knowledge of how the brain works we are beginning to understand what function dreams uncover behind their often bizarre outward appearance. If you want an interesting and thought provoking view of something we all do for a considerable amount of time during our lives then this is a very good place to start. More on sleep (and dreams) to come.     

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Quiet...... Someone's coming......

My Favourite Movies: The Terminator Series

OK, I’m kind of cheating here but as I watched all four films back-to-back recently it seemed reasonable to review them all at the same time too.

For those of you who have just returned from another planet or woken from a particularly deep slumber the Terminator movies (and the rather missed TV spin-off The Sarah Connor Chronicles) follows a story arc as follows: At some point in the near future – the date changes because of actions in the present – a military computer system called Skynet becomes self-aware and tries to destroy mankind by launching its missiles against Russia forcing them to retaliate against western targets. The survivors – who call the event Judgement Day – then face a new threat, machines bent on their destruction. At the point of human extinction a hero arose – John Connor – who leads the human resistance and destroys Skynet….. or does he? In its dying moments Skynet manages to send a Terminator, a killer cyborg with living tissue over a metal endoskeleton, to kill his mother Sarah before John is even born. The resistance sends a soldier, Kyle Reese, back in time to protect her which forms the first movie in the series The Terminator made in 1984 with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator (in admittedly a seminal role for him), Linda Hamilton as Sarah and Michael Biehn as Kyle. I reviewed this movie here back in September 2008 so I won’t repeat myself much, except to say that, apart from some dodgy SFX (which I guess were OK for the time) it was a pretty good and in many ways unique movie. I liked the killer robots from the future idea very much and thought that Arnie played his part very well indeed (I was a huge Arnie fan back then). Hamilton was OK in the role of Sarah but I guess she was meant to be largely out of her depth – I mean who wouldn’t be if some crazy person came up to you saying that you have been targeted for termination but a killer robot! By far my favourite character in the movie was Kyle played by the superb Michael Biehn who stole, in my opinion, every scene he was in. My favourite bits, as in all of the movies, where the scenes played in the future.

We had to wait until 1991 for the cunningly titles sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In it the young John Conner (Ed Furlong in his first ever film) lives with foster parents while Sarah (this time played superbly and in iconic fashion by Linda Hamilton) languishes in the Pescadero Mental Hospital. John does not believe in his mothers ravings about killer robots until one tries to kill him in the Mall (Jason Patrick) and another saves him just in time (Arnold Schwarzenegger again but this time as a ‘good’ Terminator). What follows is basically a chase movie as the liquid metal Terminator T-1000 (Patrick) tries to kill the Connors and Arnie tries to save them. There are some very exciting chases and a lovely set piece at Cyberdyne Systems where Sarah and John try to put an end to the whole Skynet issue by blowing everything up. As you might expect the SFX is much improved although the liquid metal Terminator FX left something to be desired from time to time. Although probably the best movie in the series it did have some things in it that I really didn’t like. I hated the sentimentality between Arnie and John – the whole ‘Why do you cry’ business and most especially the puke inducing thumbs-up scene in the foundry at the end. Totally nauseating.

In the 2003 movie Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines we learnt the Judgement Day is inevitable despite the destruction of Cyberdyne when a T-X Terminator (played very ably by the beautiful Kristanna Loken) starts killing John Conner’s lieutenants before finding Kate Brewster (impressively played by Claire Daines) who has just stumbled upon John Conner at her veterinary practice. Just in the nick of time another T-101 (Arnie again) shows up and slows the T-X down long enough for John and Kate to escape. We are then back in chase territory which, quite honestly, gets a bit silly from time to time (complete with unnecessary and annoying sound effects). In the few pauses we learn that Sarah has died of cancer – but not before she outlived the original date of Judgement Day – and that the date has merely been postponed by the Conner’s efforts in T2. The focus of which was wrongly placed on Cyberdyne when it should have been on Kate’s dad who is the head of the military research facility that is responsible for Skynet and the early Terminator machines. Racing to get to her father and avert Judgement Day (again) they arrive just too late and Skynet goes ‘live’. It’s at this point that we find out that Skynet is a ‘virus’ which has taken control of the worlds computer systems – which kind of makes the idea of smashing the machine complexes in the future kind of moot if Skynet could in effect infect any and every computer on the planet and come right back at you from anywhere, but hey, I didn’t write the fucking thing! Overall this was a pretty good movie despite it basically being a rehash of T2 with a few tweaks. At least it moved the story on to the point where the missiles flew and Judgement Day happened. Again we had nice set-pieces with the end scenes of robots moving through the research facility killing the scientists and engineers being particularly effective.

Since 1984 I had wanted them to make a film wholly based in the future after Judgement Day. In 2009 I finally got my wish with Terminator: Salvation starring Christian Bale as John Connor. I just loved the opening where the human forces, protected by A-10 anti-tank attack planes, landed in helicopters to blow up a Skynet facility. I really liked it when the skid of one helicopter landed on a damaged Terminator and Conner steps out and shoots it repeatedly in the head. Awesome! After that it got a little patchier (inevitably considering how much I had been looking forward to this movie for 25 years). By far the best thing in the film, at least for me, was the role played by Sam Worthington. We see Marcus Wright on death row being readied for execution and then, years later, emerging from the very same place that John Conner had been trying to destroy. How did he get there and why doesn’t he know about Skynet, Judgement Day and the war with the machines? Of course things are explained during the course of the movie (and quite well considering). We are also introduced to the ‘love interest’ in the form of A-10 pilot Blair Williams (played by the very eye-catching Moon Bloodgood) who takes a shine to Marcus and his ‘strong heart’. Although I still rank this as one of my favourite movies I have to say that overall I was a little disappointed with it. Conceptually it was OK. It had, as we have come to expect, very good set-piece action sequences and robotic inventiveness. I wasn’t overly impressed with Bale as Conner who, in Christian Bale fashion, looked moody and shouted a lot. I was very impressed with Sam Worthington who stole every scene he was in. I would have liked more stand-up fighting between humans and machines and I would, eventually, like to see John Connor sending Kyle Reese back to 1984 to complete the circle (or cycle) but, as Salvation didn’t do so well at the box office we’ll never see it. Oh, and I really didn’t like the ending.

Overall the four Terminator movies are a worthy contribution to SF film although it still surprises me that with our own ‘rise of the machines’ going on around us that more focus on this topic hasn’t been forthcoming. Who knows? Maybe there’s something in pre-production right now?