Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Monday, July 29, 2013
My Favourite Movies: Lilo & Stitch
Despite being a serious lover of animation and having grown up with Disney (I mean who didn’t?) I am not a great lover of Disney films. I most probably enjoyed the classics and even watching them today you can still see the quality – dated though it is. But at some point I just switched off the whole thing. For one thing it was, and probably always had been, sickly sweet in a completely over-the-top fashion and then there were the songs. Every Disney film was basically a musical and I for one never really liked musicals or even movies with musical numbers in them. The idea that someone might burst into song is one thing but the idea that the whole cast would join in, with the inevitable dance routine, left me cold and frankly embarrassed – maybe it was a teenage thing?
So why have I picked Lilo & Stitch as one of my favourite movies? It certainly ticks most if not all of the usual Disney boxes: dysfunctional family [check], misunderstood child [check], an unfeeling or unsympathetic ‘system’ [check], a need for outside (dare I say heavenly) assistance to put things right [check] and lots of music [check], oh, and of course, a happy ending with hugs all round [big check]. One thing in this movies favour is that the musical numbers hardly ever turn into dance numbers. There’s a bit of dancing but it’s very much in context. The music, mostly Elvis which is hardly ever a bad thing, is either background music or played on vinyl (again in context) inside the movie so-to-speak so none of it broke up any of the action. Of course what really sold it for me was the character of Stitch himself (or itself as ‘he’s’ an alien – actually an artificial alien made in a lab with one purpose – destruction!). Escaping from detention (and probable dissection) he crash-lands on Earth, Hawaii to be exact, only to be adopted as a ‘dog’ by Lilo – the child hero – and her elder sister. Prevented from giving vent to his inbuilt destructive tendencies Stitch is forced to adapt to new circumstances and slowly, very slowly, learn the values of family Hawaiian-style. Meanwhile his evil-genius inventor and incompetent side-kick attempt to steal Stitch back with various degrees of mayhem ensuing in the process.
Despite being basically a warm-hearted family-friendly film it’s still a lot of fun (especially if you like Elvis Presley) and has some serious laugh-out-loud moments from when Stitch said ‘something’ supposedly in his defence at his trail that caused several of his judges to faint and one robot to throw up, to the fact that he took the only red runabout from the alien flagship to escape in, to Stitch building a model of San Francisco (when told to do something constructive) only to destroy it in a more than fair rendition of countless 50’s alien invasion films and more moments I will let you enjoy without any pre-emption from me. It’s light, it’s fluffy and its fun – so it might come as a surprise to some of you, but not to worry my next movie is a classic vampire flick.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Police number plate camera scheme broke law in Royston
By Tom Espiner for BBC News
24 July 2013
A police force must stop using number plate recognition technology after a warning from the UK's data watchdog. The Information Commissioner's Office said Hertfordshire Constabulary's use of cameras in and around the town of Royston was in breach of the law. It said the force had failed to carry out required privacy impact checks. The ICO's ruling may have wider significance for the gathering of number plate data in the UK. "It is difficult to see why a small, rural town such as Royston requires cameras monitoring all traffic in and out of the town 24 hours a day," said Stephen Eckersley, the ICO's head of enforcement. "The use of ANPR [automatic number plate recognition] cameras and other forms of surveillance must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to address. "After detailed inquiries, including consideration of the information Hertfordshire Constabulary provided, we found that this simply wasn't the case in Royston."
The ICO added that the use of seven cameras had made it impossible for motorists to drive into the town without a record being kept of their journey. It noted the scheme had become known locally as "the ring of steel". The police force has now been told it must take the equipment down unless it can justify its use. Hertfordshire Constabulary said it would not appeal the ruling. "The constabulary intends to continue using ANPR cameras, which deliver very substantial policing benefits, but also to ensure that its particular deployment of such cameras is - and is seen to be - fully justified," it said. "We look forward to working with the commissioner to achieve those objectives." The force added that it had carried out its own evaluation of why it had used the tech, but accepted it needed to do additional privacy checks.
The data regulator began investigating the use of number plate recognition in the town after a complaint in June 2011 by three civil liberties groups: No CCTV, Big Brother Watch and Privacy International. "Royston police decided to track everyone without any clear reason," said Privacy International executive director Gus Hosein. "Just because a technology enables mass surveillance, that doesn't mean that it is right to do so."
Number plate recognition is used by police forces around the world as a crime-fighting tool. Earlier this week the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) highlighted its concerns about the "widespread collection" of vehicle data by US police. Number plate surveillance could have a "chilling effect" on the way US citizens associate with each other and even discourage some people from meeting up, the civil liberties group said on Tuesday.
[A small victory for the good guys it would seem but so many battles have already been lost and so many others are yet to be fought…… Of course if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear. Yeah, right!]
Friday, July 26, 2013
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Just Finished Reading: The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn (FP: 2011)
England – 1593. Queen Elizabeth’s great spymaster Frances Walsingham has been in his grave for two years, yet still the twin wars England is fighting rage on. One is known to the general population and the other is known only to those who fight it in the shadows. England’s greatest spy – Will Swyfte – fights both wars with equal vigour protecting England from its enemies both Catholic and Inhuman. When his best friend, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, is apparently killed in a senseless pub brawl Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and bring his friends killers to justice – Swyfte justice! But when he begins to dig deeper he stumbles upon a plot to overthrow not only the English crown but the dominion of man itself. After their defeat years ago the Fey are finally moving in response and their plan is audacious in both its scale and ambition. But with powerful enemies accumulating both within the government and in the Unseelie Court can Swyfte and his diminishing band of fellow spies stay alive and one step ahead long enough to break the conspiracy and save the world from annihilation. Only Swyfte’s skill with his sword and his well-deserved reputation for daring stand in the way of the most powerful and dangerous enemy England has ever faced – but will it be enough this time?
After enjoying the first book in this series so much – after buying it by ‘accident’ not realising it was a fantasy novel wrapped in a historical novels cover – I did worry a little that the authors couldn’t possibly entertain me that much again. I mean, I now knew about Swyfte, his methods, his uncanny ability to beat odds heavily set against him and the way the opposite sex fell over themselves to be with him. I imagined him in my mind as an Elizabethan James Bond – with the gadgets (supplied by Dr John Dee who fitted neatly into the role of Q). So what more could the author show me? The answer: LOTS! In this book we learn much more about the overall plans of the Fey and the political response of the British and other governments – particularly the French – as well as the desperation of the Irish to throw off their supernatural enemies. We learn more about the character of Swyfte and delve a little more into his past. We are introduced to a host of new characters, both of this world and beyond, who are both the heroes and villains of the piece. We are also presented with the living, breathing, stinking cess pit that is late 16th century London at the mercy of the plague. There are scenes that turn your stomach, scenes that make you shudder in horror and disgust and scenes that make you laugh out loud. Finally there is a new woman in Will’s life, a fiery Irish buccaneer determined to gain knowledge that could save her country from the depredations of the Unseelie Court no matter the cost or consequence. The equal to Will in almost every respect I imagine that she will return in the next instalment – at least I do hope that she does. This is another non-stop, ballsy action-packed adventure full of daring action, nail-biting escapes and enemies worthy of Will Swyfte’s skills. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Monday, July 22, 2013
Just Finished Reading: Star Trek and Philosophy – The Wrath of Kant edited by Jason T Eberl and Keven S Decker (FP: 2008)
Boldly going where no philosopher has been before – OK, maybe not as the sections in the book cover age old questions using pop-culture to tease out some of the issues in a format the modern reader can appreciate – looks at the many issues raised and philosophical ideas broadcast during the long running saga of Star Trek (all of the series and movies up to the time of publication).
Some of the ideas will come as no surprise to Star Trek fans the world over: whether language can ever be separated from the culture that produced it and the need for cultural references to understand the spoken word (referenced by the rather strange TNG episode ‘Darmok’), can logic alone lead to the truth or is it just a way of making mistakes with confidence (referenced by numerous episodes in OS, TNG and Enterprise, plus ST III, V and VI), can data become anything like the human he aspires to without true emotions – one’s that he can’t turn off when they become inconvenient (many TNG references), is Khan right to seek revenge against Kirk and can revenge ever be a productive driving force (referenced, of course, by ST II and the original OS episode it grew from – aw well as the books by Greg Cox), can ultimate power ever lead to happiness or do we need to struggle our way to heaven (referenced by the many appearances of Q in TNG and Voyager), is it ever OK to kill your clone or is your clone actually you (referenced by the TNG episode ‘Masterpiece Society’), can Starfleet, basically a military organisation, really be a force for good in the Galaxy or will military ethics always be in conflict with more liberal democratic points of view (with many OS and TNG references), is Odo a collaborator both with the Cardassians and the Dominion (with many DS9 references), what place does ethics have in business or are they mutually exclusive (DS9 again), why is it so bad to be assimilated by the Borg (TNG, Voyager and Enterprise), why is Star Trek such a cultural phenomenon and would it be a good idea to live in their universe if we could (many references as you might imagine), why it’s not a good idea to live your life on the holodeck (many references again), if the Gods came back would anyone believe it and if so, why (mostly referenced by ‘Rightful Heir’ in TNG) and one of my personal favourites, is it ever really possible for deep seated enemies to ever get beyond their enmity for each other and sit down for meaningful talks at the negotiation table after the war is over (many DS9 references).
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Can we make ourselves happier?
By Pascale Harter for BBC News
29 June 2013
Can we make ourselves happier? According to studies from all over the globe collated by the World Happiness Database in Rotterdam, we can. But the path to happiness may not be where we are looking for it. Professor Ruut Veenhoven, Director of the Database and Emeritus professor of social conditions for human happiness at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, says his own study found a slight negative correlation between the number of times people in a study spontaneously mentioned "goals" and their happiness. "Though it is generally assumed that you need goals to lead a happy life, evidence is mixed. The reason seems to be that unhappy people are more aware of their goals, because they seek to change their life for the better." But perhaps the most intriguing finding from an array of studies on file at the database is the lack of correlation between seeing meaning in life and being happy. "Surprisingly I found no correlation," says Professor Veenhoven.
Studies suggest leading an active life is the strongest correlate with happiness. "In order to have a happy life, a rewarding life, you need to be active. So involvement is more important to happiness than meaning in the sense of the why, why we are here." But the best news on file at the World Happiness Database is that we can make ourselves happier, and not just through external changes like having more money. "Research has shown that we can make ourselves happier because happiness does change over time," says Professor Veenhoven, "and these changes are not just a matter of better circumstances but of better dealing with life. Elderly people tend to be wiser, and for that reason, happier."
So what should we do to make ourselves happier? Studies collated by the database say you tend to be happier if you:
Are in a long-term relationship
Are actively engaged in politics
Are active in work and in your free time
Go out for dinner
Have close friendships (though happiness does not increase with the number of friends you have)
And there are some surprising findings:
People who drink in moderation are happier than people who don't drink at all
Men tend to be happier in a society where women enjoy greater equality
Being considered good looking increases men's happiness more than it does women's.
You tend to be happier if you think you're good looking, rather than if you actually, objectively speaking, are.
Having children lowers your happiness levels, but your happiness increases when they grow up and leave home.
And be careful of that morning commute to work. A German study (by Frey and Stutzer published in 2004) found a strong link between time spent commuting and satisfaction with life. Those who spent an hour on their journey to work were found to be significantly less happy that those who did not commute. And the study suggests that higher earnings from a job that involves commuting do not compensate for the time lost. Professor Veenhoven and his colleagues have been trying to encourage people to do more of what makes them happy with a diary they can fill out online. So far it has attracted more than 20,000 users. Pensioner Jana Koopman says it has changed her life, not just because it helped her identify what makes her happy, and prompted her to take up a painting class, but because it made her do less of what doesn't make her happy. "You can make everything clean and tomorrow it's dirty again, so why do it? Or don't do it too often. I like to read. So now I just pick up a book I want to read and leave all the other things."
Don't worry, though, if you can't put down your laptop and pick up a book or a paintbrush. We can't be happy all the time. Research shows that sadness is useful. It acts as a red traffic light to curb negative behaviour. According to studies on the database it's actually good for us all to be sad 10% of the time. Professor Veenhoven and his colleagues have begun analysing the data collected in the online diary to conduct more happiness studies. So far, analysis on self-confessed workaholics shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that unwinding after work with exercise rather than a beer on the sofa makes for a happier life.
Top 10 happiest countries
Countries ranked in order of "satisfaction with life", according to the World Database of Happiness:
[So the trick to happiness seems to be, in a nutshell, be romantically and politically engaged with a small number of close friends, eat out on a regular basis, have some wine with the meal, believe you’re good looking, don’t have children, don’t spend too much time dusting and cleaning, do what you enjoy rather than chores….. and live in Denmark where the women are on equal footing, commuting distances are short and it isn’t too hot – OK, that last bit might just apply to me. I think I’m already half way there. Now just to work on the other bits…….. ]
Friday, July 19, 2013
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Just Finished Reading: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory (FP: 2010)
England, 1453. Margaret Beaufort believes herself to be special, special in the eyes of God and with a special destiny ahead of her. Already known for her piety at an early age she models herself on her hero Joan of Arc and expects either to lead a great crusade or possibly be a great Abbess. Her mother, however, has other ideas. Margaret is to do her duty to the family by producing an heir to the Beaufort fortune. To do so she is married to a wealthy and highly positioned Welsh landowner at the age of twelve. Quickly pregnant she goes through a dangerous birth to produce a boy which she names Henry in honour of the King and her cousin Henry VI. Convinced that she has given birth to a future king of England and head of the Lancaster family she is determined to bring up her son herself. The reigning House of York have no intention of allowing Henry to grow up as a threat to their rule and quickly pack him off to a foster family with a proven loyalty to the Yorkist regime. Not to be outdone Margaret begins a lifetime of plotting to put her beloved son on the throne no matter the opposition or the consequences.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Monday, July 15, 2013
My Favourite Movies: Leon
Leon (played by Jean Reno) is a ruthless killer – an assassin or ‘cleaner’ as he is euphemistically known. He is emotionless, highly focused and totally deadly. Living in a run-down apartment block in New York he witnesses a hit next door when operatives from the DEA led by a crazed officer know only as Stansfield (played in his usual menacing over-the-top fashion by Gary Oldman). The only survivor of the bloodbath is the 12 year old Mathilda (played exceptionally by the young Natalie Portman) who walks past the carnage and begs to be let into Leon’s apartment. Torn between his need for anonymity and his feelings for another person – a child – in distress he opens the door and lets her in. Little did he know that by doing so he will start the road to becoming a better person, a more emotional and loving person but also a road leading to bloody violence as Leon begins to teach Mathilda the basics of ‘cleaning’ so that she can revenge herself on the men who killed her baby brother in cold blood.
I am a huge fan of both the director (Luc Besson) and main actor in this film. The combination of Besson and Jean Reno was, for me, a definite must see. When I first went along I obviously had no idea who Natalie Portman was but I would have been in very good company as this was her first major outing then aged 13. Clearly I thought, this girl has very great potential. Even with the lack of experience she almost stole scenes from both Reno and Oldman. That’s quite something for someone that young! Of course Reno is the star of the film – Oldman just plays Oldman and is in many ways practically disposable – it is his character that grows, his character that is the focus of the film and his character who starts to believe that there is something more to life than being an efficient killer and drinking lots of milk. Of course being about a man in a violent profession the movie contains its fair share of violence but I don’t think it really deserves its 18 certificate (on my DVD anyway). The violence is over pretty quickly and, generally, there isn’t buckets of blood thrown around. I suppose that it was the casual nature of some of the violence and the fact that some of the victims were women and children – something that the character Leon takes particular offence over. But you shouldn’t let that put you off. Today’s films are far more violent than even those made 5 or 10 years ago (although that’s not exactly a good trend nor is it a recommendation) so you should be able to cope with it. Focus instead on the story and the character development, something quite rare in movies these days.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
Saturday, July 13, 2013
Thinking About: Addiction
Hello, I’m Cyberkitten and I’m an addict.
Or at least I think I am….. But first a bit of background: I have a history of headaches going back as long as I can remember. It seemed that I was always popping pills to relieve one ache or another. I also used to get migraines though thankfully not that often. When I could feel one coming – and I normally had a good few hour’s notice of one building – I’d pop some Paracetamol and hope for the best. Often they had no effect whatsoever and it wasn’t until my Mum was prescribed some heavy duty painkillers that I had access to something that really worked, so you can imagine that I’m not exactly without experience when it comes to headaches and their causes. On days like this – hot and sunny with temperatures in the low to mid 80’s – I mitigate the heat as much as I can and most certainly do not go outside for prolonged periods. Excessive heat (not even taking into consideration the dehydration factor) makes my physically ill with headache to match. Likewise bright lights (big-city?) which is why I always wear peaked caps and in this weather sunglasses if I can. You see after 50+ years you get to know your body and how it reacts to various environments or foods – or at least you should know after that amount of experience.
This is how I clued in the fact that I’m addicted to coke – fortunately the liquid type rather than the powdered variety. It probably started last winter or maybe the one before that. At work we were probably as busy as we’ve ever been and between us we must have been juggling 20+ individual projects all in various stages of completion. It’s the kind of environment where being tired isn’t really an option. Most of the rest of the time lived on tea and coffee but as I drink neither I needed to get my stimulants from somewhere. Part of this was in popping natural stimulants first thing in the morning to give me an early boost. Part of it was abandoning my usual fruit squash for Coke or Pepsi during the working day just to keep my eyes open. Like my hero Susan Ivanova I have trouble getting up in the dark so winters mean increased caffeine intake so that I basically don’t fall asleep at my desk. It worked, though I learnt not to drink the stuff after 6pm if I wanted to have any kind of normal sleep pattern – I did find myself in the habit of taking things in the morning to wake me up as well things at night to help me sleep. I broke myself of that habit as soon as I noticed it.
Friday, July 12, 2013
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Just Finished Reading: The Perfect Summer – Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson (FP: 2006)
I only really have myself to blame for this. On the front cover is a recommendation of a well-known right-wing newspaper and on the back a personal endorsement who embodies the image of upper-class elegance and sophistication. But then again if I didn’t take risks with my reading from time to time – care of the buy-one-get-one-free or three-for-two offers – then I wouldn’t have had some very pleasant surprises.
The post Victorian pre WW1 period in Europe is an interesting one. In many ways it symbolised the height of western civilisation and the confidence of a variety of societies on the top of their game. But much of that was, with hindsight, mere surface glitter. As this book repeatedly pointed out the prevailing emotion of the upper-class at least was crushing boredom. They had in effect, of often in fact, been everywhere and done everything. Their whole lives revolved around parties, gossip, the same yearly events attended time and again and, just to break the monotony, affairs. Maybe, I couldn’t help but think, the First World War was welcomed so much by so many as simply something different to do! But my interest in the lifestyles of the rich and shameless is generally too small to measure with present technology. I have no interest in who was sleeping with whom, what clubs they went to, what they wore (or ate) at particular events or how they embarrassed themselves or each other in public. Unfortunately well over 75% of the book was on just that. Looking back on it I almost can’t believe that I slogged my way through its 264 pages. Fortunately there was just enough of interest – outside of the society pages – to keep me on to the end.
First there was the summer itself – one of the longest and hottest ever recorded in England and, if memory serves, the first time that 90 degrees F had officially been recorded. Now when it hits 90 degrees these days people cast off their clothes with abandon. Not so in very straight laced Edwardian England – oh, no! Indeed the national press instigated a separate column for heat related deaths – until they became so commonplace that they no longer seemed worthy of reporting. Then there was a famous exhibition of Expressionist and Avant-Guard painting that almost caused riots because of its apparent incomprehensibility. Indeed at least one woman was reported to have fainted in the exhibition room – and not from the heat! What interested me more was the political unrest during that hot summer – at the very top of society was the reform of the House of Lords which was on the brink of causing a great constitutional crisis. At the opposite side of the social class structure where the dock workers who earned a pitiful wage when they could find employment. The resulting strikes and heavy-handed government response almost brought the country to its knees – although the author used this unrest largely as a backdrop and counter-point to the excesses of the rich which she clearly had little problem with.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Monday, July 08, 2013
Just Finished Reading: The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson
Rebecka Martinsson is making a new life for herself in a highly respected law firm in the city. It’s a struggle but she’s just starting to make the grade and is beginning to collect her own clients. Everything seems to be on track when she receives an early morning phone call – a voice from her past asking for help. The best friend she left behind in the small town of Kirana in northern Sweden has just discovered her brother – the charismatic preacher who has transformed the fortunes of that isolated religious community dead in his own church. If that wasn’t bad enough it appears that he has been ritually murdered and the tightly-knit members of his church are amongst the suspects including her friend. Of course she offers any help she can but had no idea where that simple response would lead her – back into a community she has grown to despise, back into a life she has turned her back on and back to a place that holds so many painful memories. But once Rebecka starts digging into the activities of the church and its ruling council she finds disturbing evidence of tax fraud and maybe, just maybe, something truly explosive. But with a multi-million Krona industry to protect some people will go to great lengths to silence her even if that means more blood in the snow.
I’m coming late to the Scandinavian crime scene (as it where) but at least I started off with a good one. This is a very impressive first novel. The main character Rebecka is very well drawn and nicely complex. She’s truly multi-levelled with a history (some of which we find out through flash-backs) that drives her. She is very real and I’d love to meet her. But this is not just a novel with a single strong character surrounded by puppets – no way. Rebecka’s life is full of interesting (as well as crazy) people she’s known for years and who know, or think they know, her. A person she doesn’t know beforehand, but gets to know and respect, is police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella who is heavily pregnant and supposedly deskbound until the birth of her child. But when she’s needed by her uncertain subordinate she can hardly say no. I hope to see more of her in future novels (I already have the second book featuring Rebecka but I’m not totally sure Anna-Maria makes an appearance). It’s my intention to read more novels by women – most of my novels are by men as you’ve probably noticed – as well as more books by non-Anglo Americans which provide an often interestingly different perspective on things. As always much more to come. (FB: 2003)