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

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Seems legit.......

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Stars and Stripes Forever by Harry Harrison (FP: 1998)

As my regular readership will know it’s a rare thing indeed that I don’t finish a book once started. After 40+ years of I’ve normally weeded out anything that I don’t think I’d read long before it appears in my hand. Not so in this case. On the face of things it was going to be at least readable. It’s by a famous (and actually very good) classic SF author. It’s about an Alternate US Civil War and it’s the first book in a trilogy published over 10 years ago. So, it should be fine……

It’d actually been on my shelf for a bit because I’d heard rumours that it wasn’t very good, but as I was reading a whole bunch of alt-history stuff I thought why not. It certainly had a fairly interesting idea behind it. US Civil War starts, Britain backs the South, British ship is bordered by a US warship, diplomatic row ensues, row goes deeper, and war breaks out between US and British Empire.

I started having misgivings from early on. The characterisation was pretty lame for one thing. The Southerners where either stupid or evil or stupid and evil whilst the Northerners where honourable, wise if a bit na├»ve and too nice for their own good. The British where arrogant fools full of their own self-importance who were too short sighted and selfish (to say nothing of money grabbing) to see the North’s cause as a just a true one. You see where I’m going with this….? The icing on the cake which transformed itself into the nail in the coffin was the portrait of Queen Victoria as a raving nut-job and deeply hysterical woman. Now I’d be the first to admit that I’m not an expert on this period of British history but most of it appeared less than true to the facts. Reading about the series once I abandoned this book I must say that I am so grateful that I hadn’t wasted the money on the next two books. I think that reading how the plucky United States took on and defeated the combined forces of the Confederacy, the French and the British Empire would have probably had me tearing my hair out and foaming at the mouth! Fortunately my sanity survived by throwing the book on the floor in disgust around page 70.

Taking into account that this was by one of my favourite SF authors who was partially responsible for getting me into the genre in the first place this was a huge disappointment. Save your money, time and sanity by avoiding this junk.  

Monday, July 28, 2014



Thinking About: The Way Things Are

I’m just coming to the end of reading a bunch of Alternate History books (one in the review pile, surprisingly unfinished, and one more to finish off in the next few days). Alt-History is a sub-genre of SF dealing with the possibility of historical events happening differently which usually produces a radically different ‘present’ often with historical figures we recognise in very different situations. It’s always good for speculation and, as you should know by now, I do love to speculate about things. But this time I’m not going to think about what might have been but what was and, more importantly, what is. The question is: Why are things the way they are? Or why is the world the way it is rather than some other way?

Let’s start by eliminating things so we can hone in on the nub of the issue. Does the world have to be this way? Could it have been any different? I think the obvious answer to that is yes it could have been different. If different things had happened in the past, battles won or lost, people living or dying or never being born, things could have been very different. That’s certainly one thing that alt-history (and the supposedly more academic Counterfactual Studies) shows us. If things had happened differently in the past then the present would have been different. So much is obvious. I think it follows therefore that the present is not the result of a Plan nor is it the result of Destiny or Historical Inevitability. History flows but it does not flow in prescribed paths. Like a river it meanders, crosses its own path, doubles back, and basically flows both where it can and where it will. History is a force but, like Evolution, it is an unguided force. Those in the past (and the present no doubt) who try to personally force History into a certain path are usually crushed by that particular juggernaut unless they give up in understandable frustration beforehand. Things can change, don’t misunderstand me on that point, but you could probably count the number of individuals who radically changed the course of history on the fingers of both hands. Influence is certainly possible (actually inevitable) but that level of change is a rare beast I think and, actually, that’s probably a good thing considering the effects of grand historical changes! So, if things can be different, why are things the way they are? To put it bluntly, why aren’t things better than they are? Why do we still have wars, genocides, death and destruction on a frightening scale? Why do we still have poverty, disease, disorder, crime? Why are things that are out of control not under control? If things are not as they must be then why are they not as they could be? I think there are four main factors in play here: Geography, Accident, Mistake and Choice.

By Geography I mean the base physical level we have to deal with – the world we are born into. There are places with abundant natural resources and those with few or none. Some places are prone to floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes whilst some are quiescent. Some places, known throughout history because battles are continually fought there, are on choke points or natural avenues of invasion. The Chinese would, no doubt, call them ‘interesting’ places. Others seem as if nature has conspired to make them difficult in extreme to take by force. All of these factors and more deeply affect the histories of the people in these places. Accidents of geography and accidents of birth are difficult to overcome, sometimes very difficult.

Accidents happen. Some are predictable, some are avoidable, some can be mitigated against and some just have to be lived with. We can reduce the effect of them once they happen. We can try and reduce their incidence through training, awareness and flexible thinking but I doubt if they can ever be eliminated. Some points of history pivot on accidents where some take advantage of a sudden unexpected occurrence where others are stumped or react far too slowly if at all. Wars have been won and lost, empires have fallen and people’s lives changed forever because of accidents. It is always something that should be kept in mind.

It goes almost without saying that humans make mistakes – to err is very much to be human. Some mistakes are simple others more complex. Mistakes happen because of lack of attention, distraction, poor or no information, haste, stupidity, ideological blindness and a hundred other reasons. History is full of minor and monumental mistakes that have shaped the times we live in. Imagine if some of the mistakes you know of, or those you have made yourself or seen others make, had not happened. Without them we might be living in a very different world.

Finally we come to choice. As Neo said to the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded the problem is choice. It seems to be that choice is at the heart of the question of why the world is this way. Without a Plan, without Destiny we are left with choice. Basic geography does not determine history, accidents influence history but do not drive it, mistakes likewise impact on histories flow but do not govern it. The force behind history, as far as I can tell, is choice. The world is the way it is because of our choices. Each day billions of people make choices in their lives. Most are minor, some are major, and some affect history much more than others. People with more influence, in effect more power, have a greater impact on things with the choices they make. But when it comes down to it the world is this way because we choose it to be this way. The world is like this because we, as a species, want it to be like this. In the end it’s all about choice.

Can the world be different? Of course it can. Can the world be a better place? Of course it can. Can we eliminate war, poverty, disease, ignorance, crime and the seemingly numberless problems we are beset with on this small blue dot? Of course we can. These things do not exist by fate and are not here because they are destined to be here. Some exist because of accidents but accidents can be coped with. Some are here because of mistakes but mistakes can be avoided or rectified. Most I think are here by choice. We choose to do something or choose not to. Sometimes we make bad choices or choices with poor or misleading information. Sometimes we are forced into making choices between the lesser of two evils and sometimes we are simply too tired, too distracted or too angry to make good choices and so choose badly. If we want a better world for ourselves and our children we need to make much better choices. It’s really as simple and as complex as that. Our choices have made the world the way it is and our choices can, if we choose well, make a better world too. Choose wisely.      

Saturday, July 26, 2014



Thinking About: Rationality

I was reading a BBC Magazine article a few days ago where a famous contrarian philosopher stated that not only are humans a deeply irrational species but that the idea of us being another other than irrational is deeply irrational in itself. Whilst I agree with his proposition – that humans are, pretty much by definition, irrational I do not agree with his conclusion.

It is hard to argue with the demonstrable fact that humans do things, say things and propose things that are irrational. We only have to pick up a newspaper, watch the news or observe people around us to understand that. But let’s think about that brute fact a bit more before we write ourselves off. Are, for instance, all people equally irrational? Are they simply irrational in different ways or are there actually individual differences in levels of rationality (how you would accurately measure something like that is beyond me). Now it’s pretty obviously that there are a small number of people who are very, very irrational. We normally label these people bat-shit crazy. One the other end of the scale are a very small number of people who are seemingly very, very rational. We normally also label these people bat-shit crazy, just in a different way. The word Sociopath comes to mind here. But beyond these two extremes live the rest of us distributed along a graph from barely rational (but not crazy) to barely irrational (but not crazy). The majority of people will fit somewhere in the middle with a good mixture of both rational and irrational elements. I like to think of myself, of course, on the more rational side of the graph but readily recognise that I’ve done plenty of irrational things in my time and will probably do plenty more given the opportunity. I do, however, try to be as rational as I can be. I’ll let others judge how successful I am in that regard!

I’m confident that you’ll agree that some people are, generally speaking, more rational than others. I also think that even the most irrational amongst us (outside of the crazy groups) can have rational episodes lasting minutes, hours or even days at a time. Of course those at the other end of the spectrum can have irrational episodes too. In fact it’s arguable that a completely rational (but not crazy) creature would struggle to be labelled human. At least that’s my impression. Irrationality does, at least in some sense, helps define our humanity in often interesting ways. But if we, as a species, are inherently irrational, does that mean we are designed that way by our very DNA? Is that why, not matter how we try to train our minds to be more rational we still act irrationally from time to time. Is it because our genes tell us to act irrationally? Until very recently that would have been the end of the argument. Genes trump minds QED. That was then, this is now.

We’ve been interfering with Natural Selection long before recorded history through selective breeding of plant and animal species. It was always a rather hit and miss process until the actual mechanism of inheritance was discovered, increasingly understood and now, rather crudely so far, manipulated to a much higher degree than our ancestors could have imagined. Today in the early 21st Century we are not too far away from manipulating our own species genome with confidence. With that being the case then isn’t it in our grasp (sooner rather than later) to discover the combination of genes that, apparently, build in irrationality and modify or even eliminate them? Could we get to a point where we could design babies that are appreciably, significantly, more rational than their parents and can pass on this extra rationality to their offspring. Over the generations it’s entirely possible that the general level of rationality in our species would slowly increase. As our power in the genetics lab increases with our understanding we could fine-tune human rationality to its optimum level, not too much but enough to get over our more irrational impulses. Would that make it a better world? I have no idea. Views of better or worse are often deeply subjective (or irrational). From our own perspective a much more rational world might seem like a soulless nightmare. From the perspective of its future inhabitants it might seem like perfection.  

Friday, July 25, 2014




Summer is for reading..........

Just Finished Reading: Stuff by Daniel Miller (FP: 2010)

Stuff is all around us – from the clothes we wear, to the houses we live in and the cars we drive to work. Our stuff isn’t just a part of our lives, a part we have in no small part created ourselves, but is, in a very real sense, part of us. Take away a human beings stuff and what do you have – apart from a very unhappy human being? Something, the author contends and I’m inclined to agree with, that is less than human. Not only would a human being, naked and alone, have a rather short lifespan out in the wild s/he would be human in name only. Ever since the first human (or more likely pre-human ancestor) picked up the first rock or shaped the first crude tool we have become something other and something different from our more natural contemporaries. We have become wedded to the things we make, the things we use and the things we hold dear that help to define us.

Stuff is about our relationships with those things that we often take completely for granted and, unless focused on, have virtually vanished from sight. They have become ubiquitous, faded into the background, hardly given a second conscious thought. Studying these things with the mind of an anthropologist (as the author is) throws up some interesting questions and some non-obvious answers. Why do poor Caribbean women spend so much of their small income on clothes and why do they own so many shoes? How exactly do you wear a Sari and why is wearing it well so difficult (I learnt so much about something I’d barely given a moment to think about here!), Why is it so difficult for Western women to decide what to wear in the morning and how is it possible to have a wardrobe full of clothes and yet have nothing to wear (one of the great mysteries of the Universe to most men). Why are houses designed the way they are? Are they simply ‘machines for living’ and if so why are they so different across time and across cultures? What do interior furnishings say about the culture using them? How do the interiors of houses translate to the interiors of private cars? Does the type of housing simply reflect the politics of the age and the power relationships between classes? Why do some working class families modify their state-owned properties while others don’t? Do power relations between genders in a household have an effect on their interior design? Why are some houses thought to be haunted and why to people periodically rearrange the furniture? Can mobile phones help to alleviate poverty or will people use them in unexpected and counter-intuitive ways? How are websites designed to trap surfers into staying longer than they had planned to? Can you find God online? Are anonymous game character Avatars as liberating as they appear to be? Can you really have a relationship via mobile phone? Is it a pointless battle to deny boy children toy guns? Can you truly stop children eating chocolate? Why is Barbie still popular in a post-Feminist world? How do you deal with people’s stuff after they die? What do you keep, what do you throw away and what do you give away to others? Can you really keep someone’s life essence in a shoebox?

An often bizarre, sometimes profound, occasionally difficult but generally rewarding read. I’ve dipped my toes into Anthropology a few times and have always found it interesting – after all the subject matter is people who I find endlessly fascinating anyway. In another time and another place I could have so been an Anthropologist - maybe I am already. I’m always trying to figure out exactly why people do (or don’t do) what they’re doing. Definitely a recommended read for anyone interested in our relationship to the stuff many of us hold dear.

Monday, July 21, 2014



Mobile phones move into a new largely untapped market............

My Favourite Movies: Pacific Rim

Think about it for a few minutes. Giant alien creatures (known as Kaiju) – not unlike Godzilla - start appearing from a fissure in the ocean floor and begin to ravage coastal areas causing untold death and destruction seemingly shrugging off the best efforts of the military to bring them down. Eventually after weeks of battle they are brought down only for months later another and then another appears to take their place. Now given that scenario what is the absolutely least likely response from a technologically advanced world? That’s right – Giant human operated robots designed to go toe-to-toe with the creatures and take them on in basically unarmed combat (with the occasional rocket barrage thrown in for good measure) which mostly means fist fighting on an epic scale. But there you have it – the plot of Pacific Rim.


By all reasonable standards this is a film that shouldn’t really work. The plot, as I’ve shown above, is beyond silly. The characters are, by and large, paint-by-numbers which fits the plot nicely. The dialogue is often laughable with a few exceptions – though far too short I did like the leaders rousing speech just before the final battle:

Today... At the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there is not a man nor woman in here that shall stand alone. Not today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them! Today, we are *cancelling* the apocalypse!

The actors themselves where largely OK. The aforementioned leader – Stacker Pentecost – played by Idris Elba was definitely one of the better ones and carried his role pretty decently. The hero – Aussie Raleigh Becket – played by Charlie Hunnam was fairly nondescript and luckily very little acting was required from him. The love interest – Mako Mori – played by the delightful Rinko Kikuchi (above) was probably the only character to develop through the film moving from a frightened child survivor of an early attack (played very well indeed by 9 year old Mana Ashida - pictured below), to a researcher in thrall to Pentecost, to a fighter in the ring able to more than hold her own with hero Raleigh, to a rookie Jaeger (hunter robot) pilot to a celebrated combat veteran and world saver.


Of course, as with most of these films it’s the fight/combat sequences that really sell it. CGI these days is pretty much capable of anything so the thrills are basically only limited by the imagination of the director and his crew (in this case Guillermo del Toro). Which means that, certainly in this case, the battles are truly awesome events. If you haven’t seen this before just think of 100+ metre tall humanoid robots throwing and being thrown around by equally huge creatures in a cityscape with all of the resulting devastation. Now think of multiple robots and multiple creatures doing the same. You get my point I hope. One set of robots Vs creatures equals pretty amazing. Three of each and it’s off the scale awesome! OK, maybe it’s a teenage boy thing (basically how this film made me feel) but it hardly ever gets better than giant robots kicking giant alien monster ass – take my word on it!


One of the things you’ll need to do to enjoy this film is to give your more critical faculties a few hours off to do their own thing. If you start questioning things within the film that don’t make sense, don’t add up or are just plain silly (and sometimes downright stupid) you’ll have a hard time getting past the first 30 minutes. This is a film to be enjoyed on a simple emotional level. Just let out your inner adolescent (especially if you’re male) and go with it. The nonsense techno-babble is there to give the movie some much needed gravitas. Don’t give it a second thought. When it’s inconvenient to the plot the science is un-ceremonially dropped anyway so don’t give it a second thought. Oh, and try your best to ignore all of the basic scientific and technical mistakes scattered throughout the movie – although it could be fun picking them out on subsequent viewings with techie friends and a few cold beers. Above all else this film should be treated as fun and spectacle that certainly won’t stretch the mind but if you’re anything like me it will make your palms sweat.

Saturday, July 19, 2014



Advice for foreigners on how Britons walk

by Mark Easton for the BBC

18 July 2014

We drive on the left, but which side do we walk on? Some friends from Australia asked me this question as we battled down London's Oxford Street the other day, weaving our way through determined shoppers, rushing office workers and ambling tourists. The answer is we don't. The British have little sense of pavement etiquette, preferring a slalom approach to pedestrian progress. When two strangers approach each other, it often results in the performance of a little gavotte as they double-guess in which direction the other will turn.

The British are ambulatory anarchists. We are oblivious to the Rules for pedestrians helpfully published by Her Majesty's Government. There are 35 in total but, frankly, who knew and who cares? Rule Number One tells us we must "avoid being next to the kerb with your back to the traffic" which implies we ought to walk on the left of the pavement. Such advice is blithely ignored, as any stroll down a busy high street will confirm. An attempt to bring order to this chaos was suggested in 2000, amid reports of rising "pavement rage". The Fast Lane Campaign proposed designated coloured lanes for pedestrians walking along Oxford Street in London - a fast lane for those rushing to get from A to B and a slow lane for window-shoppers and dawdlers. Inevitably, the idea was laughed away. One group representing the rights of pedestrians dismissed it as anathema to the anarchic spirit of British walkers. The British are bemused by countries which police pedestrians - treating those who don't use designated crossings as criminals. There are laws against jaywalking in the US, Singapore, Poland, Serbia, Iran, Australia and New Zealand among other countries. But in Blighty, the state leaves it up to the individual to make their own judgement. The only exception is in Northern Ireland where, occasionally, a pedestrian may be prosecuted for jaywalking if it is deemed to have caused an accident.

We may have a reputation for orderly queuing but I suspect that stems from foreign bewilderment that such organised behaviour, where it still exists, is voluntary. There is no rule that says you have to line up at the bus stop. Residual affection for the queue is explained by a general belief in fair play, first-come first-served and good manners. The accepted autonomy of the pedestrian, free to ignore the demands of pelicans and zebras, is in contrast to views on the behaviour of cyclists. The shift from foot to wheel, from kerb to street, changes everything. The sight of a bicycle rider happily free-wheeling through a red light inspires a fury never inspired by a walker who won't wait for the green man at the crossing. The rule of law may be a fundamental British value, but we recoil at legislation that might impact on our right to roam free in the public realm. A sign demanding that we Do Not Walk On The Grass is often seen as an invitation for rebellion. A legacy of the enclosures which robbed people of their village greens and common land, perhaps, Brits fight for such freedoms.

 At some busy UK railway stations, I have seen one-way systems for pedestrians - staircases and walkways emphatically marked with arrows and "no entry" signs to regulate foot traffic. While tourists obediently follow the instructions, the locals seem almost to take pleasure in walking up the wrong side. On London tube escalators there are instructions to walk on the left and stand on the right, some with feet symbols to ensure everyone knows the form. People do obey these requests, for the most part, suggesting that different rules apply underground. But on the street? No, we don't walk on the left or the right. We are British and wander where we will.

[It’s funny that when I used to work in London I thought that two types of people existed: those in a hurry, and those who get in the way of people in a hurry. It took me months to slow down again when I moved out of the city to somewhere a little more sedate. I did enjoy dodging foot traffic though. I tried to walk as fast as I could whilst weaving, dodging and avoiding other traffic often doing exactly the same. It was a lot of fun! But I know exactly what the author of this article means – we Brits are pedestrian anarchists. No one can tell us where we can and can’t walk and any attempt to do so will be ignored, subverted and eventually abandoned. I am a Brit and I’m a Free Walker. We have nothing to lose but our footpaths!]

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Restful..............

Just Finished Reading: War on Wheels – The Evolution of an Idea by C R Kutz (FP: 1940)

This is yet another book I picked up in my misspent youth haunting out of the way bookshops. First published in the USA in 1940 my edition is the 2nd published in the UK in 1942. Telling the story of wheeled (and to a lesser extent tracked) warfare since ancient times it ponders on how Blitzkrieg came about and what, if anything, could be done about it as the war in Europe developed so badly for the Allied forces. Those final chapters where the author speculates on an unknown future (if any) for the Western democracies are both poignant and a stark reminder of the darkest days of WW2.

The road to those final chapters is equally fascinating. Focused mainly on WW1 the author mainly focuses on the development, deployment and use of armoured cars first on the Western Front where they inevitably became bogged down in the mud and trenches of that largely static fighting. Subsequent chapters told of the much more fluid fighting on the various Eastern Fronts but about a third of the book analysed the fighting in the Middle East with its often ideal conditions for highly mobile warfare which suited wheeled conflict a great deal. Showing how early attempts to shackle the cars with horse cavalry eventually became recognised as a huge mistake the author explained how fast moving combat vehicles, supported by truck loaded infantry, artillery and air support could range far afield and cause chaos wherever they went. Blitzkrieg, he clearly illustrates, did not emerge from nowhere. The tactics so ably used by the Germans in the opening years of WW2 had been developed by the Allies in WW1. Decades later the Germans had learnt, adapted and improved those lessons whilst the Allies had, by and large, forgotten them. Despite its title and main focus it was difficult for the author to completely ignore tanks and he spent several chapters discussing their origin and early halting use. Rather bizarrely he also spent a chapter discussing armoured trains which whist vaguely interesting did seem a little pointless.    

Overall this was an interesting and largely well written book on a weapon platform that is largely ignored. Armoured cars for reconnaissance and the daring dash into enemy territory to take and hold strategic points of interest generally gets short shrift from histories of both wars so it’s good to see that redressed a bit here. Almost equally as fascinating is that this is a historical document written as WW2 was in progress with the outlook looking rather bleak for the Allies. You can almost hear the fear and uncertainty in his ‘voice’ as he writes what may be indeed the final chapters in his story. Although probably long out of print this is worth picking up if you can get hold of it.

Monday, July 14, 2014


The Church of England has voted to allow women to become bishops for first time in its history.

From the BBC

Monday 14th July 2014

Its ruling General Synod gave approval to legislation introducing the change by the required two-thirds majority. A previous vote in 2012 was backed by the Houses of Bishops and Clergy but blocked by traditionalist lay members. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said he was "delighted" but some opponents said they were unconvinced by the concessions offered to them.

The crucial vote in the House of Laity went 152 in favour, 45 against, and there were five abstentions. In November 2012 the change was derailed by just six votes cast by the lay members. In the house of Bishops, 37 were in favour, two against, and there was one abstention. The House of Clergy voted 162 in favour, 25 against and there were four abstentions.

[Well, it's about bloody time........................................]

Thinking About: Identity

I was chatting to one of the guys at work recently and the subject of identity came up (in the context of the upcoming vote on Scottish independence). He said that, although he was born in Scotland and only spent the first 10 months of his life there and have never been back, he still thought of himself as Scottish. This, of course got me thinking about the whole idea of identity and the difference between what you are and what you think or label yourself as. So here is how I see my identity:

Male

Although I’m male and rather enjoy the fact (apart from the drag of shaving most days) I don’t think that this simple brute fact means very much. I’d rather hope that if fate had plonked me inside a woman’s body rather than a man’s that I’d pretty much be the same person despite the predictable life experience differences. If changing gender was as easy as popping a pill and waiting a few weeks for things to rearrange themselves I’d think that I’d try the opposite gender out to see what it was like. Unfortunately technology is far, far away from such experimentation – more the pity.

White

Well, more of a pasty pink really. Again I’d hope that my core personality would be the same no matter what my skin tone was. Although maybe 50+ years of casual, unconscious and occasional overt discrimination might have changed me somewhat. I’d hope not. Anyway, I don’t think that my skin colour does, or should, define who I am from the outside or the inside.

Straight

Despite a few people over the years thinking that I’m gay, I’m not. I actually have a deep and overwhelming interest in women. Whilst I’m not blind to good looking or otherwise attractive men I have no interest in them as sexual beings. To be quite honest boys smell and grunt far too much for me to find them in any way attractive. If I was a girl I’d definitely be gay. Women are, generally, majestic creatures and just great to look at before you even get to know them. I mean, what’s not to like?

English

I was fated to be born in one of the best countries in the world. I can think of maybe 4-5 other countries I wouldn’t mind living in but only as an alternative rather than a first preference. I certainly don’t think my country is perfect, far from it, and I’ve not one of those people who take their patriotism just too far (I do not own a single Union flag in any format) but I do very much like the idea if being English. Saying that I also identify with being European (which I think is a no-brainer). We may live on an island located 26 miles off the European mainland but we are still in Europe whether we like it or not. Personally I like it.

Northern

Despite living about half my life (so far) in the South I still think of myself as a Northerner. No matter how long I stay here or where I eventually end up I will die a Northerner. It is literally in my blood. I fully identify with ‘The North’ and it makes my heart glad every time I get on a train and pass a certain part of the route home. That’s what it’s about – home. My home, no matter where I happen to live, is in the North. A good chunk of the identity revolves around my home city (there’s that word again) of Liverpool. Some years ago I was in Wales with a friend of mine and one of his friends asked me if I was from England. No, I said, I’m from Liverpool. Funnily I saw a sign at work near someone’s desk which said ‘You are now entering the People’s Republic of Liverpool’. It did make me laugh and I still smile about it today. But that’s how many of us Liverpudlians see ourselves, different, separate and special.

Socialist

I suppose being Left Wing is part and parcel of being a Northerner. Sure, there are pockets of Conservatives and Liberals in the North but they’re only pockets. I have voted for other parties including for over a decade the Liberals, but this is because there are no Socialist parties these days worthy of that name. Back in the day when Labour actually had a Socialist ideology I loved them for it despite, or possibly because of, the fact that it made them unelectable for years at a time. But they stuck to their beliefs no matter what. Back then the Labour Party actually had principles and stuck to them. I was honestly delighted when New Labour got into power right up until the moment it became bloody obvious that they no longer had socialist ideals or, indeed, any ideals at all. My other wider political views flow from this fundamental belief. I’m egalitarian, meritocratic and a republican and I loathe the very idea of privilege or patronage.

Rational

I do my best to be as rational as I can be considering that humans are, by nature, deeply irrational. I try to look at things calmly, without too much emotion getting in the way. I like to be presented with facts rather than opinion and with theory rather than argument. I like to make up my own mind about things, to think things through, looking at contrary evidence, consequences and historical precedents. I try not to take things at face value and am always cautious whenever anyone says ‘trust me on this one’.  Wrapped up into this simple header is the fact that I see myself as a Humanist, a Materialist, an Atheist and a Sceptic. I like to see myself as level headed, logical (up to a point) and willing to change my mind if new compelling evidence is presented to me. I’m not a scientist by training (my degree’s being in the Humanities) but I do my best to think like one.

Stoic

I came across elements of Stoicism through my wide reading across the decades and liked what I saw. I liked their philosophy of deciding on which elements of life you had control of (so can do something about), which you had no control of (so should stop trying to change) and which you could influence but not control. Knowing which element of your life fits into each category can be tricky – especially the influence section – but once you have largely figured it out life can go a whole lot more smoothly as you cease wasting time and energy on things you cannot change (like the past). Funnily I instinctively gave my boss a Stoic answer recently when he asked if I was looking forward to my 54th birthday with pleasure or anxiety. I smiled at him and said “Indifference”. He had no idea what to say in response.

Gamer

I have been playing computer games since the early 1970’s and took to it like a fish to water. It goes far beyond enjoying the challenge, the bright colours, the micro encouragements and much else besides. Being a Gamer is, I think, at the core of who I am. There are people who don’t play and don’t understand, games, there are people who play games and there are gamers. It is not simply an addiction it is much more than that. It is an attitude, it is a way of seeing the world, it is a way of life. I can chart times in my life by the game I was playing at the time: Doom, Command & Conquer, SimCity, Diablo, Total Annihilation, Dawn of War, Battlefield 2, Call of Duty, Borderlands, World of Warcraft. Gaming is in my blood, cut me and I would bleed pixels, kill me and I would respawn and come looking for you. When I die I want to wake up in Pandaria with quests to do and dragons to fly.

Reader

Presently I’m managing to read about 70 books a year. That’s not bad but I’d like to push it to 100 if I could. That was the number I was managing back in my teens and early 20’s before life, university and work got in the way. I read therefore I am. If something prevents me from reading for more than a few days I start getting twitchy and then depressed. I find myself reading street signs, shop fronts, advert hoardings, cereal packets – anything. My reading is driven by the need to know, to understand things. It’s definitely something deep in my psyche. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy things that I read, quite the contrary. I love finding out new stuff, new ideas, new directions to take my investigations. There is so much I am yet to discover. Who knows, I might actually find a Rosetta Stone that puts it all together so that everything falls in place and finally makes sense. Maybe it’s sitting in one of my TBR piles right now, waiting to be discovered?

Naturally these are only the highlights. I’d be horrified if anyone could sum me up on just under 3 pages of A4 paper! I do hope that I’m at least a little more complex than that, a little more nuanced, a little more interesting. Well, it’s a work in progress, as they say. Come back in 10 years and see who I am then or stick around and see what happens from day to day. There’s just a chance that it might be an interesting journey (or maybe a quest?)    

Saturday, July 12, 2014


The perfect traffic jam solution.......
FIRST PLANETS FOUND AROUND SUN-LIKE STARS IN A CLUSTER

From NASA

Sept. 14, 2012

WASHINGTON -- NASA-funded astronomers have, for the first time, spotted planets orbiting sun-like stars in a crowded cluster of stars. The findings offer the best evidence yet planets can sprout up in dense stellar environments. Although the newfound planets are not habitable, their skies would be starrier than what we see from Earth.

The starry-skied planets are two so-called hot Jupiters, which are massive, gaseous orbs that are boiling hot because they orbit tightly around their parent stars. Each hot Jupiter circles a different sun-like star in the Beehive Cluster, also called the Praesepe, a collection of roughly 1,000 stars that appear to be swarming around a common center. The Beehive is an open cluster, or a grouping of stars born at about the same time and out of the same giant cloud of material. As such, the stars share a similar chemical composition. Unlike the majority of stars, which spread out shortly after birth, these young stars remain loosely bound together by mutual gravitational attraction.

"We are detecting more and more planets that can thrive in diverse and extreme environments like these nearby clusters," said Mario R. Perez, the NASA astrophysics program scientist in the Origins of Solar Systems Program. "Our galaxy contains more than 1,000 of these open clusters, which potentially can present the physical conditions for harboring many more of these giant planets."

The two new Beehive planets are called Pr0201b and Pr0211b. The star's name followed by a "b" is the standard naming convention for planets. "These are the first 'b's' in the Beehive," said Sam Quinn, a graduate student in astronomy at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the lead author of the paper describing the results, which was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Quinn and his team, in collaboration with David Latham at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, discovered the planets by using the 1.5-meter Tillinghast telescope at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona to measure the slight gravitational wobble the orbiting planets induce upon their host stars. Previous searches of clusters had turned up two planets around massive stars but none had been found around stars like our sun until now. "This has been a big puzzle for planet hunters," Quinn said. "We know that most stars form in clustered environments like the Orion nebula, so unless this dense environment inhibits planet formation, at least some sun-like stars in open clusters should have planets. Now, we finally know they are indeed there."

The results also are of interest to theorists who are trying to understand how hot Jupiters wind up so close to their stars. Most theories contend these blistering worlds start out much cooler and farther from their stars before migrating inward. "The relatively young age of the Beehive cluster makes these planets among the youngest known," said Russel White, the principal investigator on the NASA Origins of Solar Systems grant that funded this study. "And that's important because it sets a constraint on how quickly giant planets migrate inward. And knowing how quickly they migrate is the first step to figuring out how they migrate." The research team suspects planets were turned up in the Beehive cluster because it is rich in metals. Stars in the Beehive have more heavy elements such as iron than the sun has. According to White, "Searches for planets around nearby stars suggest that these metals act like a 'planet fertilizer,' leading to an abundant crop of gas-giant planets. Our results suggest this may be true in clusters as well."

[Wherever we look, there they are. Brilliant.]

Thursday, July 10, 2014



Just Finished Reading: Destroyermen – Distant Thunders by Taylor Anderson (FP: 2010)

The great Battle of Baalkpan is over. With the help of their American allies the Lemurians have, for the first time in their history, not only survived a Grik Horde attack but have destroyed the Grik force in the process with tens of thousands of enemy dead.  But great as the victory is it is still the first battle in an expanding war – but now there is hope, hope of victory rather than the meagre thought of escape and survival. As the clear up continues and the city state of Baalkpan licks its wounds and burns its dead a complicating factor stays off shore and watches. Four ships of the Imperial Navy of New Britain arrived at the height of the conflict and watching in awe and fear as the Grik were defeated. Now both sides must decide if they want the other side as allies in the future war or if they will become enemies neither wants. If that wasn’t enough of a headache for the lost Americans it soon become clear that the British are far from a unified people and that a serious struggle for power is going on back home at the very highest levels. The British fleet commander Commodore Jenks seems like a man to be trusted but how far can that trust go when the fate of an entire world is at stake. Furthermore what happened to the surviving Japanese crew once the Amagi sank in Baalkpan Bay? Are they still helping the Grik? Can they modify their nature in time to launch a new and successful attack on the fragile alliance of disparate and desperate Lemurians? Just as interesting and maybe far more vital to their survival is what else has come through the rift that brought them to this strange world they are starting to call home, not only from their own Earth and their own time but from other Earths too? What is waiting for them in the vast expanses of a world that has never felt the presence of man until so recently?

I always think that the sign of a good book is always wanting to know what happens next – be it the next page, next chapter or next book in the series. This book had all of that in spades. Despite a long slow start I found it difficult to put down. The stand-up fight with the repulsive Grik might have been enough to keep me reading but the addition of the British complication (and it is very complicating), the actions of the Japanese, discoveries on other islands, the beginnings of a technical industrial civilisation directed by a handful of Americans, and the hinted possibility of truly alien encounters left me wanting more and then more again. I did roll my eyes a few times I admit, the references to the ‘dame famine’ and speculation of human-lemurian relations wore a little thin after the 3rd or 4th reference but I forgave the author this little foibles and missteps. I actuallt thought that he was very brave, or very confident, to spend so much time and so many pages relating the rebuilding of defences and the building of new weapons without using them very often at all. I suppose with at least 8 books in print in the series he can take the time to do things properly. After getting about ¾ of the way through (a total of 415 pages) I had already received the next volume from Amazon. I am enjoying this series a great deal and fully expect to enjoy them as long as the author decides to write them. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014