Thursday, January 31, 2013
Outlaw by Angus Donald
Robin Hood is, of course, one of
England’s premier legends. Stealing
from the rich and giving to the poor he challenged Norman oppression and aided
his fellow Saxons in time of need. Many, many fictional representations have
been made over the centuries in poems, books, songs and movies. He’s not a
character who is going away anytime soon. Anyone familiar with the legend will
recognise much in this first book of a trilogy (inevitably). All of the
familiar names are there although some of them are subtly changed. Also the
regular theme – ex-aristocrat banished into the forest uses education and
martial talent to protect and lead a rag-tag army against brutal but stupid
adversaries. Despite the fact that the (slightly) new interpretation was at
times rather overly contrived and sometimes very silly indeed – I won’t give
too much away by saying that the pagan aspect was totally unnecessary and not a
little annoying – overall it was generally entertaining is not exactly a
gripping page turner. Some pretty good characters, some nice set-pieces, a few
good fights (and one very silly one indeed) and a few nice touches. Reasonable.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Monday, January 28, 2013
Heaven – A Traveller’s Guide to the Undiscovered Country by Peter Stanford
Not my normal reading I know, but I do like to throw a little something different into the mix from time to time. After all the only difference between a rut and a grave is its depth…..
Prompted by a personal tragedy the author, a lapsed Catholic (IIRC), begins to ponder the question we all think about from time to time: What happens when we die or more accurately after we die? One of the possibilities is, of course, that we go to Heaven but what do we mean by Heaven? Not surprisingly, as the whole idea is a human construct, ideas of what Heaven is and even where it is have changed and evolved over time. As explorers came back from exotic lands with exotic tales the worldly paradise moved further and further away. Likewise as early astronomers explored the skies the idea of Heaven up above moved inexorably further and further away. Heaven had to become more spiritual and less physical as we gained deeper knowledge of the world and the universe around us.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Saturday, January 26, 2013
US shoots down Death Star superlaser petition
From The BBC
12 January 2013
The White House has rejected a petition to build a Death Star - a huge battle-station armed with a superlaser as seen in the Star Wars films. In a playful response, a senior
US government official said the
Obama administration "does not support blowing up planets". The
official also said the cost - about $850 quadrillion - was too high. More than
34,000 people had signed the petition, saying the project would spur job
creation and strengthen defence. They also wanted the government to begin
construction by 2016. The White House is obliged to respond to all petitions
that gain more than 25,000 signatures.
Responding to the petition, Paul Shawcross, head of the administration's budget office on science and space, admitted in a blog that "a Death Star isn't on the horizon. However, look carefully and you'll notice something already floating in the sky - that's no Moon, it's a Space Station! Mr Shawcross was referring to the International Space Station, which currently has six people on board. And he ended his blog with an appeal to the signatories of the petition: "If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force”.
[Well, at only $850 quadrillion I’m amazed that they turned it down! Though I am starting to think that maybe this government petition thing isn’t such a good idea after all – except in informing the public just how crazy parts of it are!]
Friday, January 25, 2013
Thursday, January 24, 2013
The Captive Queen by Alison Weir
in the year
1151. Queen Eleanor, late of Kingdom
of France Aquitaine
is bored with her life in the North and with her less than attentive husband.
She dreams of having a passionate lover and returning to her beloved southern
homeland. Almost as if fated she meets Henry of Anjou, known as Henry
Plantagenet and start a torrid affair. Scheming to be together Eleanor
manufactures a divorce settlement with Louis of France and runs into the arms of
Henry to become his wife and with their marriage creating a vast empire which
expands further with Henry’s ascension to the English throne. But slowly,
despite their continued passion for each other, Eleanor’s grip on power begins
to recede as her husband reduces her role within what he regards as his domain.
Even producing a series of children that will continue the Empire into the
future – including two future Kings of England – fails to secure her position.
As battle lines are drawn – both literally and metaphorically – the whole of Europe holds its breath awaiting the start of a drawn out
and bloody civil war. Central to its outcome is the tempestuous relationship
between two of the towering characters of the age: Henry II and Queen Eleanor
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Monday, January 21, 2013
My Favourite Movies:
Jerry Lundegaard (played by the always superb William H Macy) needs money badly. So badly that he hires two petty criminals (played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to ‘kidnap’ his wife so that he can pay them part of the ransom he plans to get from her rich father. What could possibly go wrong? Answer: Everything. Practically from the beginning things begin spiralling out of control – the criminals (who have only just met) develop a deep loathing for each other, the kidnapping is botched and almost immediately the police become involved as they follow a trail of dead bodies across the state. Headed up by Police Chief Marge Gunderson (played absolutely superbly by Frances McDormand) the investigation slowly but inexorably begins to focus in on Jerry’s activities which only make matters worse as he begins to panic.
From the very outset we are presented with a very different kind of film-noir or even neo-noir. Indeed because of the washed out colours against a predominantly white background the movie has, rather tongue in cheek, been called film-blanc. Between the sober music and the hostile weather we imagine that this will be a dark and forbidding movie. Of course in many ways it is – there’s plenty of violence, swearing, threats, a kidnap and plenty of blood all round. But at the same time this is a deeply comic film pointing the finger at the absurdity of the human condition all, as Marge comments later, for a bit of money. Marge is central to the whole film and McDormand deserved the many accolades she received for her portrayal of this down to earth, heavily pregnant and relentless police officer who appears to have seen everything and seems to view crime as deeply disappointing and the people who commit them as worthy of her pity more than anything else. She is obviously bemused by the criminal mind and can’t understand why some people go to great lengths – or great shortcuts – to get ‘things’ whilst outside is a beautiful day they singularly appear to be unable to appreciate.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Saturday, January 19, 2013
Ignored Exoplanet May Be a Watery World
By Mark Brown for Wired
May 18, 2011
Gliese 581, a red dwarf star some 20 light years away in the constellation of Libra, continues to excite planet hunters despite a checkered and controversial history.
Gliese 581g, a habitable Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the red dwarf, thrilled astronomers when it was discovered in September 2010 as it was the most feasibly habitable exoplanet yet observed. But a few months later its entire existence was brought into question — no one has seen any significant signal from 581g since. It could have just been noise in the stellar wobbles of the faraway red dwarf. The mysterious 581g sat in the so-called Goldilocks zone, where it orbited at just the right distance from its roasting parent star that water, if it existed on the planet, would neither boil nor freeze. But now a group of French researchers, led by British scientist Robin Wordsworth, have taken another look at the data for 581d — another of the red dwarf’s planets — performing a comprehensive 3-D climate simulation on the planet. The simulation uses fundamental physical principles to look at a wide range of conditions, and account for any atmospheric cocktail of gases, clouds and aerosols.
To the team’s surprise, it believes that 581d would have a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, which would give the planet a stable and warm climate. In a press release,
National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) concluded that 581d is likely
warm enough to hold liquid water, in “oceans, clouds and rainfall”. Anyone who stood on the planet would probably see clear blue
skies, like on Earth, also. Most planets’ thick atmospheres bounce the majority
of sunlight back into space. On Earth, and potentially 581d, the Rayleigh scattering
phenomenon lets more sunlight in, leading to blue skies and a warmer climate. But
if humans ever did walk on 581d they’d still find a pretty bizarre planet with
very un-Earthlike conditions. The dense air and thick clouds would drape the
surface in a perpetually murky red twilight, and its hulking mass (at least 5.6
times that of Earth) means surface gravity would be double that of Earth’s. “The
most important implication of these results,” a spokesperson for the Scientific
Research center said in a press release, “may be the idea that life-supporting
planets do not in fact need to be particularly like the Earth at all.”
[Of course for me the most exciting thing about this discovery is that 581g is only 20 Light Years away. I’m guessing that, given enough incentive, we could probably have probes capable of travelling that distance – maybe in 40 to 60 years – within a century or so. We could have a probe orbiting the planet – with a number of ground-based smart probes reporting back more detailed information – within 150 years (and the way technology advances I’m probably being very conservative here). It’s exciting stuff!]
Friday, January 18, 2013
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Risk – A Very Short Introduction by Baruch Fischhoff and John Kadvany
Risk is a part of life. We take risks every time we cross the road, buy food or date on-line. We also perform ad hoc risk assessments throughout the day when we decide to overtake a slower vehicle or when we assess the freshness of the fish in our local supermarket. Many of us are tasked to make formal risk assessments at work on the small scale when we adjust our workstation chair or display screen or on a much larger scale when we initiate projects that can cost a great deal of money. Personally I deal with risk on a daily basis – though fortunately I’m not high enough up the food chain for it to be a huge issue. After years of experience in the job I can pretty much automatically list the risks to what we are planning to do, rank order them by likelihood or impact and draw up risk mitigation plans and contingency procedures if things go wrong – as they often do.
Being a rather busy person (at work anyway) I’ve never actually managed to have any formal risk training. One reason is that I’m not a huge fan of training which I usually find deadly boring. The other factor is, again at the bottom of the pool, such training is not normally considered to be hugely cost effective. We simply don’t play with that much money for it to have too much of an adverse impact if we fuck things up. But some time ago I noticed this book (inevitably whilst looking for other books in the series) and thought that it might be worth a read to see if I was doing anything hugely wrong – I didn’t think I was – or to see if I could improve things or at the very least understand the official basis of what I was doing anyway.
As it was a bit more out of my comfort zone than I’m used to I did find this book a little difficult to get into. I think that was clearly my fault as the authors clearly set out exactly what they were talking about and had some pretty good examples of the kinds of things that needed to be taken into consideration. Inevitably they bandied about terms I’d never come across before to explain things I had either picked up along the way or had explained to me quite differently. Once I got the hang of things however it all made sense. I don’t think that I learnt a great deal from this slim volume but it was nice to actually have a formal foundation and a deeper understanding to risk, risk assessment, risk perception and risk communication. I certainly found the whole thing generally more interesting than I thought I would. If you deal with risks over and above the sorts of things we all deal with on a daily basis or even if you want to understand how risk affects us all on every level you could do worse than work you way through these 150 pages.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Monday, January 14, 2013
Heretic by Bernard Cornwell
Until the publication of his latest novel this was the last book in Cornwell’s Grail Quest trilogy which followed Thomas of Hookton’s journey from obscurity, through the Battle of Crecy and deeper still into the opening conflict that would become known as the Hundred Years War. Heretic would have been a fitting end to the series but now, I’m guessing, we’ll find out more about Thomas and his adventures against the French. As with all of Cornwell’s heroes Thomas is a misfit everywhere he goes. Although his family – or at least part of it – is highborn Thomas is far happier with the common men of his command. At the same time, because of his education, he can hold his own with the knights and lords he, through necessity, must serve with or serve under. Cynical of both church and state he is his own man with his own sense of personal honour and his own code of ethics he lives by. A consummate warrior he leads by example though constantly worries that he isn’t good enough to complete his mission or keep the men in his charge alive. Obviously Thomas can be compared to Cornwell’s great hero character Richard Sharpe and at first I thought that Thomas was just Sharpe transported 500 years into his past. Not so. Both Sharpe and Thomas are products of their time. Although they have much in common they are still very much their own men. After being gripped by Thomas’s tale in
I look forward to following him wherever he goes next. Recommended.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Sales of printed books slump in 2012
From The BBC
4 January 2013
Sales of printed books fell by almost £74m in the
UK last year,
according to data from Nielsen BookScan. In total, readers spent £1.514bn on
physical books in 2012, down 4.6% from 2011. The rate of decline slowed
slightly, principally because of E L James' Fifty Shades trilogy, which
accounted for one in every 20 books bought last year. E-books continued to be
popular, accounting for 13-14% of book sales. That marked an increase of about 5%
from 2011, but the value of the entire book market shrank because of heavy
discounting of digital titles - with many bestsellers retailing for less than a
Data collected on the sales of physical books records around 90-95% of all consumer sales in the
UK, but is less robust for the
e-book market. However, Philip Stone from Bookseller said figures from
Nielsen/Kantar show: "In essence, people are buying more books but they
are paying less for them." The second half of 2012 was stronger for
physical book sales, as blockbuster titles from authors including J K Rowling
and Jamie Oliver hit the shelves for Christmas. In the 26 weeks to 30 June,
sales were down by £51m year-on-year to £624m. Between July and December, sales
were down £23m to £889m. It was only in July and December that print sales were
up compared with 2011, in part due to the success of James' erotic series and
the Christmas trade. The Fifty Shades trilogy is about a steamy romance between
entrepreneur Christian Grey and literature student Anastasia Steele. It sold a
combined 10.6m copies in print in the UK last year, making £47.3m.
The tally beat J K Rowling's record of £42.6m from 2007, the year when the final Harry Potter novel was released. The first book in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey, is now the best-selling novel of all time in the
Friday, January 11, 2013
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Witness to Myself by Seymour
Fifteen years ago, teenager Alan Benning had a moment of madness and did something he never thought himself capable of. So horrified and shocked by the event he buried it deep in his mind and hoped that he would never have to relive that terrible afternoon. Now a successful lawyer with the best years of his life ahead of him he is confronted with his crime when a body of a young girl is found near where his parents holidayed all those years ago. When a suspect is found and a national outcry builds Alan finds himself wondering if he actually did commit the crime or whether he imagined the whole thing. Determined to uncover the truth of his own childhood his sanity begins to unravel as he starts to question everything about himself he once took for granted. At the heart of it all is a chance meeting on a beach and a young life snuffed out.
This was quite a strange detective novel where the perpetrator of the crime and the primary investigator where one and the same person. Benning was a seriously messed up individual who had problems separating fantasy from reality and spent most of the novel being paranoid (not helped by the fact that some people were actually out to get him). He was also an unreliable narrator – one of my most disliked formats – which irritated me quite a bit as his memories of events – granted 15 years previously – didn’t quite tally with actual events. Overall the psychological aspects of the novel where quite well handled and the plot became increasing claustrophobic which I think is what the author was going for. None of the characters appealed to be much so I didn’t really care what happened to them which made reading a bit of a slog. Reasonable.
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
Monday, January 07, 2013
My Favourite Movies: Equilibrium
I watched this movie for at least the 5th time over the Christmas break but still remained in two minds whether I should add it to my favourite movies list. After weighing the pros and cons I decided (just) that it made the grade.
The story is a familiar one. In the 21st century, after a devastating nuclear war, the survivors decide that humanity cannot afford to fight a 4th World War so outlaw what they see as the underlying cause of all conflict – strong emotion. To do this each and every citizen needs to take a drug (Prozium) every day to suppress the emotions. Also everything that is designed to provoke a strong emotional response – music, art, literature – is marked for destruction. Those who refuse to take their meds or deliberately ‘use’ art or music are labelled sense offenders and are hunted down by clerics of the New Order. As with any oppressive state there is inevitably a resistance and, equally inevitably, a desire to see it destroyed. Enter the states greatest weapon – Cleric John Preston (played by Christian Bale) – who dedicates his life to finding banned items and eliminating sense offenders. But there is a wrinkle – when he accidentally misses his daily drug dose he starts to feel emotions and slowly comes to realise that the society he is fighting for is hugely mistaken in its approach. He becomes appalled at what he is called on to do and resolves that rather than destroy the resistance he will become its greatest champion. But of course it’s never going to be that simple……
This was one of those films I liked in parts rather than for the whole. Despite the fact that it was highly derivative – in particular referencing 1984, Brave New World and The Matrix – it still maintained a nice ‘feel’ throughout most of its 107 minutes. Bale was reasonably well cast as the largely emotionless
Preston as he wasn’t
required to emote that much or that often (never one of his strong points in
anything I’ve seen him in). The script was reasonable and reasonably convoluted
to keep my attention and it introduced the intriguing idea of the gun kata – a
sort of firearm martial art using science to predict the maximum kill and
minimal possibility of being hit by an opponent’s weapon. On the face of it a
great idea but likely to be total fantasy – it did produce some great fight
scenes however where Preston killed multiple
enemies on multiple occasions without it feeling too silly (though they pushed
the envelope quite a bit).
As to the things I didn’t like about it I probably have just as many reasons why I liked it. After watching it many times I still find the story disjointed, poorly scripted in places or actually badly edited. To me some scenes seemed out of sequence and more than a little confusing and I don’t think it was just me getting lost in the plot – I didn’t think it was that difficult to follow to be honest. Some of the acting was pretty dire especially
Preston’s nemesis Brandt (played by Taye
Diggs). For someone supposedly on Prozium he sure did emote a lot! I also thought
that the ending was particularly poor with the resistance raising up at the
last moment and overwhelming the bad guys (I’m not giving very much away here
honest!). It seemed to me that their actions pretty much made anything Preston did moot to say the least.