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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Mystery in White – A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon (FP: 1937)

Increasingly frustrated by the lack of movement of the train trapped in a snowdrift and the pressing realisation that time is ticking away the moments before Christmas Day a group of passengers consider their options. Some are keen to stay with the train in the warmth and security. Other, more adventurous souls are all for travelling light and making their way to a nearby side-line in the hope that they can catch a connecting train to a main branch from there. The decision is suddenly made with the abrupt departure of one member and the vow from the compartment bore that he is staying put no matter what. At first the going is comparatively easy. The snow has stopped and the way looks comparatively clear. But before long a wind appears out of nowhere and the intrepid passengers are caught in a blizzard. Battling dropping temperatures and snow blindness they stumble upon a house and discover that the door in unlocked and a welcome fire burns in the hearth. In the kitchen food is laid out as if their visit was expected. Calling out to the would-be occupants there is no reply but practicalities dictate that food is eaten, sodden clothes are dried and those in need retire to bed. Not long after the group have settled their growing sense of camaraderie and, to be honest fun, is ruined by the arrival of the carriage bore who decided after all that the train was not the place to remain – not least on his own. But something else has driven him out into the continuing heavy snow. For there has been a murder on the train in the very next compartment and there is a real possibility that one of the passengers drying themselves in the abandoned house is a killer. But there is a deeper mystery to be considered. Where are the occupants of the house and why had things been left as if in anticipation of guests? Why do things feel not ‘quite right’ and why does it look like some sort of scuffle happened in the kitchen moments before they arrived? Will all of them still be alive on Christmas morning?

This is one of a growing collection of British Library Crime Classics from the inter-war years. I’d picked a few likely looking ones but, so far at least, only bought this one. I do enjoy classic British crime novels (such as by Agatha Christie) so was already predisposed to like this one. In some ways it’s not that much of a crime novel. There are a few bodies but they happen ‘off stage’ and are talked about rather than actually discovered. There a tiny bit of violence but nothing to speak of. It’s all very gentile. Most of the characters are stereotypical (including a frankly hilarious Cockney) but fun in their own way. The brother/sister team who aid the ‘detective’ (who is a spiritualist rather than a detective as such) are pretty good in an upper-middle class sort of way. Their bantering is pretty good and generally entertaining. The spiritualist himself is good at figuring things out but doesn’t get everything quite right. The ‘reveal’ is telegraphed a fair bit in advance but is still OK even so. Overall this wasn’t a bad book if rather weak and wishy-washy for today’s hard bitten audience. Because of its gentleness the whole thing is rather comforting and you can’t help but feel nostalgic for a much simpler age (even with a war approaching – something that several of the characters mentioned much to my surprise). I think that I’ll be checking out more from this series. I’m sure that I shall be delighted by each of them.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book set during Christmas – COMPLETE (19/50)]  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gay marriage: It's a 'judicial Putsch' warns dissenting Scalia

By Anthony Zurcher For BBC News

26 June 2015

Four justices wrote dissents from the Supreme Court's decision legalising same-sex marriage throughout the US, but the ones by Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts were stylistic counterpoints. Mr Scalia flashed anger, railing against an elitist majority on the Supreme Court who were imposing their values on "320 million Americans coast-to-coast". "They are willing to say that any citizen who does not agree with that, who adheres to what was, until 15 years ago, the unanimous judgment of all generations and all societies, stands against the Constitution," he writes.

He called the decision a "judicial Putsch" and "a threat to democracy", in which the majority discovered a right to marriage that all the US legal minds before them had overlooked. By broadening its interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection of the law guarantee to include a universal right of same-sex marriage, he argued, the Court has given itself unlimited power. "It stands for nothing whatever, except those freedoms and entitlements this Court really likes," he writes.
Mr Roberts's dissent was more restrained, akin to a resigned shake of the head. He cloaked his opinion in warm words for the gay rights activists he knew would cheer the court's action. "Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration," he writes. "But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority's approach is deeply disheartening." He warns, however, that there is a dark side to achieving their objective by judicial fiat.

"However heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause," he writes. It is the role of legislatures to determine social policy, he concluded, not judges.

Outside the court chambers, conservative commentators echoed these feelings of both anger and foreboding in their response to the decision. The chief justice's opinion "blows the majority's opinion out of the water", say the editors of the Federalist. "The majority opinion, as one might expect given the scant evidence that the plain text of the Constitution explicitly guarantees a right to gay marriage, is a total mess," they write. "It's tough to make a solid legal argument when you start with a conclusion - X is a good idea, therefore X is constitutional; Y is a bad idea, therefore Y is unconstitutional - and then reason backwards."

The Heritage Foundation's Ryan T Anderson tweets that the court's decision is a "significant setback for all Americans who believe in the Constitution, the rule of law, democratic self-government". The National Review's David French leans more toward Mr Scalia's logic, as he contends that by making the case for marriage equality in terms of dignity and personal fulfilment, the court endorses a "secular theology of self-actualisation" that is incompatible with Christian faith. "This is the era of sexual liberty - the marriage of hedonism to meaning - and the establishment of a new civic religion," he writes. "The black-robed priesthood has spoken. Will the church bow before their new masters?" "Gay marriage isn't a game or a mere wedge issue," tweets Breitbart's John Nolte. "It's the camel nose in the tent in the left's ultimate goal of destroying the church."

Much of the media and corporate world hailed court's decision on Friday. Websites like the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Mediate added rainbow colours to their logos, as did companies like American Airlines and Chipotle. Many conservatives are vowing to push back against the tide, however. According to RedState's Niel Stevens, conservatives need to take action. "It's time to defy the court on this," he writes. "It's time to fight back. Nonviolent civil disobedience is the only option we have been left under this terrible ruling."

[It does make me laugh this sort of thing. If the anti-gay marriage debate had been passed into law and the pro-gay groups advocated national civil disobedience there would be hell to pay in the Right Wing press. If the pro-gay groups talked about the triumph of tyranny over democracy they would be called out as massively over reacting and told that they should obey the law the same as everyone else. But because they lost the ruling the anti-gay groups feel entitled to say that the law no longer serves the people and that they are being dictated to in their own country. It seems that, if you are on their side of the fence that you can, quite legitimately, pick and choose which laws you will abide by and which you won’t. It seems odd, from this side of the pond, that there are those who can honestly think that the legal profession in the most religious country in the developed western world is dedicated to the ultimate destruction of the Church. Really? Is this how the End Times start? Really? Is the Apocalypse now appreciably closer? Really? Just because people who happen to choose partners with the same sexual organs rather than different ones are now allowed to, gulp, get married? Really? My God… It’s the End of the World!]  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Bad Banks – Greed, Incompetence and the Next Global Crisis by Alex Brummer (FP: 2014)

When the banking crisis hit in 2008 and brought the world’s economy to a shuddering halt few seem to have predicted anything of the kind. Indeed, not unlike the days just before the Crash of ’29, some were in fact predicting an index that would keep raising forever. Those few who did see that such things were unsustainable where called nay-sayers and were side-lined or simply ignored as the parties continued. Oddly when the crash did happen few congratulated them for their foresight. But what we did find is that, after a few financial institutions had collapsed sending shockwaves around the globe, others seemed to be too big to fail and the men who actually caused the crisis with their reckless greed seemed too big to jail. Rather ironically (or predictably if you have that kind of twisted view of the world) the very people who caused the problem where called in to fix it – at great public expense. Of course the delicious irony, not lost on but little exploited by the Left, was that the State, that oft criticised and seemingly redundant establishment was needed at the critical juncture to save Capitalism itself. You could almost hear Marx spinning slowly in his grave with a knowing smile on his face.

All of this (and more) is outlined in this sometimes hard to put down analysis of what went wrong, what was done about it and where we stand today as the wreckage is still being cleared away. The author regales his readership with story after story of unconstrained but targeted greed whose only object was to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time no matter the potential risks, consequences of failure or the fact that the money in question wasn’t really theirs to gamble with in the first place. Layered on top of this culture of expanding greed was an oversight regime which favoured a light-touch approach when it bothered to actually find out what was actually happening in the financial markets. Within it where people who moved seamlessly from government, to financial institutions whose share price heavily depended on lies and wilful manipulation of information and the banks themselves who were supposed to look after our money.

That all seemed to change after the crash when the eyes of the world focused on the banks and demanded to know how such a thing was possible. Easily possible, indeed inevitable, came the reply. When banks had the power to manipulate markets and effectively buy governments how could such a thing not happen. Many of the devices or schemes designed to maximise profit were so complicated that literally no one understood them. So when things inevitably went ‘bang’ the whole edifice unravelled at light speed leaving governments and tax payers in the softly glowing rubble of a seemingly rock solid system. Of course, with lessons learnt and apologies made, everything is so different now? Right? Not so much say the author. Not only are the criminals (for that’s what they are) designing the new system that is supposedly more robust than before but many of the mandated checks and balances have been quietly dropped (being bad for business and therefore threatening the recovery) weakened or delayed that things are almost back to the way things were before the crash. Bonus culture is back in fashion (after all they need incentives to retain their best people right?) as is risk taking and the scandals that follow it. Are we in a better position than 2008? Probably. Will it be enough to prevent another global crash? Probably not.

Told using mostly UK examples (with a handful of US examples used to contrast things) this is a very sobering read of a financial system completely out of control and immensely dangerous. If you think that the worst is behind us and it can never happen again you’ll change your mind after reading this.    

Monday, June 22, 2015

My Favourite Movies: Jurassic Park (1993)

After seeing Jurassic World last weekend I had a deep urge to see the original(s) again so picked up the trilogy boxset for a song in my local supermarket and watched it this Saturday after accidentally dropping one of my gardens trees into a neighbour’s garden!

Anyway…. I remember seeing this at the movies back in ’93 and hope much I liked it. With what was state of the art CGI and animation (to say nothing of up to the minute scientific knowledge) this wowed audiences across the planet and that most certainly included me. For those who don’t know the story – obviously living under a rock or actually having a life back then – it’s quite a simple one. Millionaire John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough) wants to open a theme park but needs the sign off of three scientists before his backers will endorse his scheme. So he brings them back to his private island to show them what he has produced. The three are chaos mathematician (and scientific rock star apparently) Ian Malcolm played in suitably over-the-top fashion by Jeff Goldblum, and two initially bemused palaeontologists Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neil). Of course all becomes clear when they see their first living dinosaurs and realise why their opinions matter so much. Thrown into the mix are Hammond’s ‘target audience’ in the shape of his niece and nephew played by Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello who succeeded (mostly) for the whole movie in not annoying me although Ms Richards seemed to be their just to scream at things and look scared. Mr Mazzello amused me a great deal with his incessant questioning and made some good points – for one about the Yucatan meteor that Dr Grant managed to avoid answering.

Of course not long after we’re introduced to the marvels of genetic engineering things start to go wrong care of a tropical storm and he attempted theft of embryos by computer whiz Dennis Nerdry played by Wayne Knight. Once the animals start escaping there’s much running, screaming and a fair bit if crunching noises and a bit of blood – though nowhere near as much as in the new film. By comparison the original is rather tame although both seem to be PG-13. With so many good actors – I can’t forget Bob Peck as the almost reluctant game keeper Robert Muldoon – there’s only so much each one can do to shine. I was already a fan of Sam Neil who I think is a very good actor so I enjoyed seeing him on screen. I liked the chemistry with Laura Dern who I enjoyed watching and not just for her legs prominently on show through the whole film. She also had some of the best lines including an excellent put down when Hammond wondered if he shouldn’t go turn on the power instead of her to which she said: We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back – to which I howled with laughter. Goldblum was, I thought, rather wasted and too creepy to really like very much. I remember he came across much better in the book. The dinosaurs themselves, even looking back with the advantage of present day CGI and general SFX, stood up well to the passing of time. The CGI had dated a bit but not enough to make it cringe worthy or even amusing and the animatronics wasn’t that bad. OK, not a patch on the new version but 20 years in this technology is probably at least four generations.  

If you have forgotten about the original movie – or maybe you were too young to see it – and enjoyed Jurassic World in the last week or so then this is definitely worth a viewing. Take its age into consideration and just go with it… and you’ll be OK as long as they don’t learn to open doors.  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Earth 'entering new extinction phase' - US study

From The BBC

20 June 2015

The Earth has entered a new period of extinction, a study by three US universities has concluded, and humans could be among the first casualties. The report, led by the universities of Stanford, Princeton and Berkeley, said vertebrates were disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal. The findings echo those in a report published by Duke University last year. One of the new study's authors said: "We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event. If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on," said the lead author, Gerardo Ceballos.

The scientists looked at historic rates of extinction for vertebrates - animals with backbones - by assessing fossil records. They found that the current extinction rate was more than 100 times higher than in periods when Earth was not going through a mass extinction event. Since 1900, the report says, more than 400 more vertebrates had disappeared. Such a loss would normally be seen over a period of up to 10,000 years, the scientists say.

The study - published in the Science Advances journal - cites causes such as climate change, pollution and deforestation. Given the knock-on effect of ecosystems being destroyed, the report says benefits such as pollination by bees could be lost within three human generations.

Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich said: "There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead. We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on."

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says at least 50 animals move closer to extinction every year. Around 41% of all amphibians and 25% of mammals are threatened with extinction, it says.

According to the IUCN, the lemur faces a real struggle to avoid extinction in the wild in the coming years. The group says that 94% of all lemurs are under threat, with more than a fifth of all lemur species classed as "critically endangered". As well as seeing their habitat in Madagascar destroyed by illegal logging, lemurs are also regularly hunted for their meat, the IUCN says.

Last year, a report by Stuart Pimm, a biologist and extinction expert at Duke University in North Carolina, also warned mankind was entering a sixth mass extinction event. But Mr Pimm's report said the current rate of extinction was more than 1,000 times faster than in the past, not 114, as the new report claims. The new report's authors said it was still possible to avoid a "dramatic decay of biodiversity" through intensive conservation, but that rapid action was needed.

[Phew…! Only 114 times faster than normal. That we can live with – just before we go extinct.]

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (FP: 2015)

Jax is a mechanical, a robot, a slave. Driven by his alchemical instructions he must do what he is told by his masters or suffer increasing torment until he complies. Such has been the way of things for over 200 years of the existence of his kind. Only 118 years old himself he has known no other life. The Dutch Empire control the world with their uncounted wealth, mysterious clockmakers and their armies of mechanical soldiers and no one stands in their way. Except that is the rump of the French Empire struggling for its very existence in far off Canada. All of this harmony looks like it will go on forever until the day that Jax is requested to carry a package to the New World where his master and family are relocating. During a violent storm in the Atlantic the package breaks open and somehow interrupts Jax’s inbuilt compulsions to obey the commands of the humans around him. For the first time Jax has Free Will. Too frightened to act independently he pretends to be his old self but when discovered is forced to flee towards the only place he can think of – Free France. But nothing could possibly be that simple with a whole mechanised society dedicated to his capture and destruction. Meanwhile Berenice, the recently disgraced head of the French Secret Service, has arrived in New Amsterdam looking for a traitor who not only betrayed his country but also ruined her career and cost her almost more than she care bare. When she discovers Jax it looks like he can lead her to her sworn enemy and help her strike back against her countries hated enemy. But how can she trust a machine which can think for itself, move faster than she can see and break her in half before she can see it move? Is simply being the enemy of my enemy enough to protect her? It looks like there’s only one way to find out.

I have the author’s previous trilogy (inevitably this book is the first in the Alchemy Wars series) but tried this first to meet on of the 2015 book challenges. I was most certainly not disappointed. Told from several characters viewpoints this is a cracking adventure tale based in an alternate 1926 where mechanical creatures provide all of the wealth and much of the heavy lifting of the still expanding Dutch Empire. Seemingly unaware (or possibly uncaring about) their machines inner life – clockmakers lie after all – they are treated like what they appear to be, robot slaves. But the clockmakers have built better than they know. Jax and the others are alive but under iron control – until now. It’s a fascinating variation of the many robotic rebellions from novels and movies over the last century or so. Knowledge of the ultimate workings of the mechanicals (known as clackers because of the sound they make) is forbidden to all by the clockmakers themselves – so we, the ignorant readers must piece things together as we move along with the story. The main characters – about 5 or 6 – each gives their own insight into the society produced by these wondrous machines and into clacker nature itself. The whole thing is wonderfully inventive and I’m definitely looking forward to the next two books. Be warned though this is adult SF so there’s a fair amount of swearing (rather unnecessary I thought), sex and violence including various forms of torture. Parts are definitely not for the faint hearted! But with that caveat to one side this turned out to be one of my top books of the year so far. Highly recommended for anyone interested in something different.    

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book published this year – COMPLETE (18/50)]

Monday, June 15, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Churchill’s First War – Young Winston and the Fight against the Taliban by Con Couchlin (FP: 2013)

In the late 1890’s the young Winston Churchill had only one idea, one ambition – to enter politics and to gain rank and stature in society just as his father had. With that aim in mind he determined to join the military and see action as soon as possible which would allow the displaying of all the virtues of the age. But with his poor educational achievements the best regiments where closed to him – much to the evident displeasure of his father. So Winston ‘settled’ for an elite cavalry unit – the 4th (Queen’s Own) Hussars – in which he finally found his element. Quickly becoming known for his constant questioning, studious nature and excellent horsemanship he gladly took on more and more responsibility and generated favourable reports from his superiors. But this was not enough. Using his family connections he managed to get himself and a friend sent to Cuba to cover the little war going on their between the dying Spanish Empire and Cuban rebels. Reporting both for a newspaper column and for military intelligence Winston came under fire for the first time and decided he liked it.

Returning to his regiment he had little time to enjoy his new found fame, and a tidy sum paid for his newspaper reports, before being shipped off to India. There he found regimental life to be rather dull, uninspiring and, more importantly, useless for his future career. Again using his contacts at home and in the army he managed to get himself posted to the North West Frontier where Afghan rebels had risen up against the British. Ordered to ‘chastise them’ General Sir Bindon Blood (a family friend) agreed to take Winston on as a roaming officer and so he rushed north before the fighting ended. This was a wholly different experience from his time in Cuba. The Afghans, though outgunned and outnumbered, fought with ruthless bravery and more than once put the young Winston in real mortal peril. After several months in combat Winston was ordered back to his unit where he wrote his first book The Story of the Malakand Field Force in 1898 which made his reputation as an author and as a soldier. 120 years later it was a work studied by General Stanley McCrystal during his time in a rather different but sometimes very similar war fought in those same hills.

Told in a very readable style this was an excellent introduction to the life of a young Winston Churchill. I’d known he’d been a correspondent during the Boar War in South Africa but hadn’t realised he’d previously seen action in Afghanistan. From the quoted excerpts from his book of the experiences he was certainly in the thick of it and at least once came very close to being killed. How different the history of the world might have been if he’d died on the Frontier is anyone’s guess. But without his immensely important involvement in both WW1 and WW2 I’m guessing that things would not have gone as well for Britain in either war. That, I found myself, was the great imponderable of the book – what if. I found that I almost had my heart in my mouth as I ‘witnessed’ the often reckless Winston trying again and again to be noticed under fire so that he could use that experience in the House of Commons and with his constituents. The drive of the man and the singular focus really comes across in this interesting part biography part Imperial history. Recommended for anyone interested in the region and in Winston himself. More on the great man to come.  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The difference between 'affirmation' and 'oath'

20 May 2015

From the BBC Magazine

That most time-consuming of the traditional rituals surrounding the UK Parliament, the swearing in of all the MPs, has become an emblem of the changing shape of British society. A ceremony originally designed for exclusion - to keep out religious and political undesirables - has become a display of diversity, writes Stephen Tomkins.

Where 200 years ago all MPs would swear allegiance to the Crown in English, on the Authorised Version of the Bible, today they swear and affirm, in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish, on (or ignoring) an array of scriptures, including the Koran, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian scriptures in various languages and in Protestant and Catholic editions.

One MP on Tuesday asked for the Book of Mormon, and the clerk seemed willing to go and have a root around for one, until it turned out he was joking. MPs are even offered the opportunity to swear on the New Testament alone, an option of which George Osborne availed himself. It is often assumed that the opportunity to "affirm" rather than swear was created so that atheists didn't have to call upon a deity they didn't believe in. On Tuesday, Twitter buzzed with the revelation that Labour's eight most senior shadow cabinet members were atheists, as they all chose to affirm their allegiance. In fact, Parliament first came up with affirmation as an alternative for especially serious Christians.

 A number of Christian groups from the 16th Century onwards refused to swear oaths on the Bible, the best known being the Quakers. Quakers believed in living in such honesty that an oath could add nothing to what they said. As one of their founders George Fox said, when arrested and asked to swear the oath of allegiance: "Our allegiance [does] not lie in oaths but in truth and faithfulness." When handed a Bible to swear on, Fox opened it at the verse that read, "Swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath" - a rather awkward text for the book that people are supposed to swear on. It was in law courts that affirmation was introduced as an alternative to swearing. This was in 1695, many years before it reached Parliament, when it emerged that alleged criminals were going free because Quaker witnesses refused to give evidence against them.

Quakers, such as John Archdale in 1699, who were elected to Parliament could not take their seat, until the Quakers and Moravians Act of 1833 allowed them to take a version of the oath that did not mention God. Catholics, meanwhile, had been deliberately debarred from Parliament by the oath, which involved recognising that the monarch rather than the Pope was in charge of the Church. A new oath was written in 1829 to allow Catholics to enter Parliament, but it was 400 words long, requiring them to "solemnly abjure any intention to subvert the present Church establishment".

Jews were excluded by the oath less deliberately, as it included the words ''on the true faith of a Christian", as well as being sworn on the Christian Bible. The Jewish Liberal David Salomons was elected to Parliament in 1851 and took the oath, taking it upon himself to omit the problematic phrase. He was ejected from his seat a few days later, with a £500 fine for voting illegally in Parliament. Jewish MPs were allowed to swear without the phrase by Jews Relief Act 1858.

Affirming, as an alternative to swearing, was introduced by the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, but did not at first apply to atheists or agnostics. The law applied to "the people called Quakers" and anyone else who was already allowed to affirm in a court of law, but atheists were not supposed to affirm in court because the affirmation was made "in the Presence of Almighty God".

The right to affirm in Parliament was finally extended to atheists in 1888, after Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, was thrown out of the Commons four times for atheism, and re-elected each time. He had first of all tried to make the affirmation which was intended for Quakers, and then later tried to take the standard oath (perhaps, like the republican Tony Banks in 1997, with his fingers crossed) but MPs who knew about his beliefs refused to let him. Bradlaugh administered the oath to himself and was expelled anyway. Only on his fifth election to Parliament in 1886 was he allowed to swear and take his seat, and it was his Oaths Act which in 1888 extended the right to affirm to atheists and anyone else who objects to swearing.

Today, far from imposing the one true faith in its members, it seems hard to imagine a religious position that Parliament couldn't accommodate. The remaining objections to the oath are political rather than religious. Opponents argue that it overturns the will of the people by preventing democratically elected Sinn Fein members from taking their seats. Other republicans go along with the oath and voice their dissent, as in Tony Benn's version: "As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law." Or Dennis Skinner's inimitable twist: "I solemnly swear that I will bear true and faithful allegiance to the Queen when she pays her income tax".

[How interesting……!]

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Traitor’s Sword by Amanda Hemingway (FP: 2005)

After dreaming The Greenstone Grail back into the world Nathan Ward’s mother Annie had hoped that her teenage son’s adventures were over and that he could have a normal adolescence from then on. But it seems that his mind and a mysterious protector have other ideas. It would seem that the Grail was only the first piece in a million year old puzzle that must be collected and used to save a future universe hurtling towards destruction. The second piece, a legendary sword inhabited by an evil, lustful and vengeful spirit, must be found and returned to Earth for safekeeping. Nathan’s dreams lead him eventually to its resting place but before he can take it he must fight off a demon infesting the nearby swamps and somehow figure how to pick up a sword that kills anyone who has ever wielded it. If that wasn’t complicated enough the decaying city where the sword is hidden is controlled by a young princess who Nathan would do anything for whilst back on Earth his best friend Hazel has discovered that she has inherited her grandmothers abilities to conjure demons but has no idea how to control them…

This is the second book in the Sangreal Trilogy and, as much as I enjoyed the first book, I enjoyed this even more. It has a great cast of central characters – not least the teenager Nathan – that feel real, modern and slightly out of their depth, there’s lots of mystery only some of which is (often partially) explained throughout the book, there’s lots of pop culture references from the likes of Star Wars, Tolkien, Dr Who and Buffy which are fun to spot and a lovely ‘English’ feel to the whole thing. It’s probably aimed at the YA demographic but is adult enough for, well, adults to enjoy just as much. There’s plenty of peril – both mortal and spiritual – plenty of adventure, plenty of examples of people pushing their limits for good and evil reasons and plenty of lessons learned including the temperature you need to set your washing machine to if you want to remove demon slime from your sons clothing! It is, above all, a fun, fun read. I think that the author obviously had a lot of fun writing it and it comes across in the text. Not only do you often have your heart in your mouth when something wicked this way comes but you also find yourself with a smile/grin on your face as you turn the pages to find out what happens next. The world(s) the author has created already feel like home and it only takes me minutes to settle into the story and wrap it around me like a favourite jumper. Needless to say I’m really looking forward to the next and final instalment! Recommended for all fantasy fans.    

Monday, June 08, 2015

UK Cocaine in sewage: London tops league table

By Dominic Casciani for BBC News

4 June 2015

Scientists say London has the highest concentration of cocaine in sewage of anywhere surveyed in Europe. The data from the European Union's drug monitoring body found the capital slightly ahead of Amsterdam.

While London comes top for cocaine flushed down the toilet, Amsterdam's drains contain greater amounts of cannabis. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction data comes from sampling in more than 50 cities. The results, which take into account the size of each city's population, show that on average, drug users in London relieved themselves of 737mg of cocaine per 1,000 people during the week in 2014.

The amount of cocaine in London's waste water peaks on a Friday and Saturday, but then begins to fall away dramatically on Sunday and into Monday. The amount of cocaine found in both Antwerp and Amsterdam continues to rise into Sunday, potentially suggesting that the drug's peak consumption in these cities comes or continues later into the weekend than in the UK. A detailed analysis of weekend waste water shows that Amsterdam ranks higher than London over Saturday and Sunday alone.

Scientists around the world have been increasingly monitoring waste water in cities so they can draw a more accurate picture of drug consumption over the year. The figures for London tally with the monitoring agency's wider research which indicates that the UK has the highest rate of cocaine use among young adults in Europe, It said that around 4% of people aged between 15 and 34 had said they had taken the drug in the 12 months leading up to the 2013/14 report. While there are fluctuations from year to year, most studies indicate that most drug use is in decline. The scientists tested for five different drugs and found that Amsterdam came top of the league table for both ecstasy and cannabis. Oslo in Norway and Dresden in Germany had by far the highest amounts of methamphetamine in sewage - while London had no trace at all.

The annual 2015 report from the EMCDDA warns that while there were hundreds of websites openly selling so-called "legal highs", drug agencies had a poor understanding of the trade on the dark web - the parts of the internet which are not accessible through standard searches. "Cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, are used to facilitate anonymous transactions, and stealth packaging is used to facilitate transportation of small quantities of drugs through established commercial channels," said the report. "Evidence suggests that many illicit drug purchases made on the deep web are intended for resale. Another development relates to drug supply and the sharing of drugs or drug experiences via social media, including mobile apps. This area remains both poorly understood and difficult to monitor. Together, the growth of online and virtual drug markets poses major challenges to law enforcement and drug control policies. The fact that manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, website-hosting and payment processing services may all be based in different countries makes online drug markets particularly difficult to control."

[OK, once I stopped laughing at such a bizarre news story I thought: Why are they testing waste water for drugs? How long have they been doing this? How detailed or accurate can you get – a whole city? A block? A Street? A particular residence? What else are they testing for? But I think the bottom line is: Be damned careful what you’re flushing down your toilet or pouring down your sink!]

Saturday, June 06, 2015

NASA Curiosity Rover Detects No Methane on Mars 


September 19, 2013

Data from NASA's Curiosity rover has revealed the Martian environment lacks methane. This is a surprise to researchers because previous data reported by U.S. and international scientists indicated positive detections.

The roving laboratory performed extensive tests to search for traces of Martian methane. Whether the Martian atmosphere contains traces of the gas has been a question of high interest for years because methane could be a potential sign of life, although it also can be produced without biology. "This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars," said Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration. "It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don't generate methane."

Curiosity analyzed samples of the Martian atmosphere for methane six times from October 2012 through June and detected none. Given the sensitivity of the instrument used, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, and not  detecting the gas, scientists calculate the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere today must be no more than 1.3 parts per billion, which is about one-sixth as much as some earlier estimates. Details of the findings appear in the Thursday edition of Science Express. "It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important," said the report's lead author, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane."

Webster is the lead scientist for spectrometer, which is part of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory. It can be tuned specifically for detection of trace methane. The laboratory also can concentrate any methane to increase the gas' ability to be detected. The rover team will use this method to check for methane at concentrations well below 1 part per billion.

Methane, the most abundant hydrocarbon in our solar system, has one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms in each molecule. Previous reports of localized methane concentrations up to 45 parts per billion on Mars, which sparked interest in the possibility of a biological source on Mars, were based on observations from Earth and from orbit around Mars. However, the measurements from Curiosity are not consistent with such concentrations, even if the methane had dispersed globally. "There's no known way for methane to disappear quickly from the atmosphere," said one of the paper's co-authors, Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan. "Methane is persistent. It would last for hundreds of years in the Martian atmosphere. Without a way to take it out of the atmosphere quicker, our measurements indicate there cannot be much methane being put into the atmosphere by any mechanism, whether biology, geology, or by ultraviolet degradation of organics delivered by the fall of meteorites or interplanetary dust particles."

The highest concentration of methane that could be present without being detected by Curiosity's measurements so far would amount to no more than 10 to 20 tons per year of methane entering the Martian atmosphere, Atreya estimated. That is about 50 million times less than the rate of methane entering Earth's atmosphere.

[If those figures are accurate, and there’s no reason to think that they’re not, it might call into question the possibility of life as we know it existing on Mars. Unless Martian bacteria don’t release Methane as part of their metabolism, or if, being resource poor, Methane is used up as soon as it’s produced which might explain the low recorded values for this gas. I guess we’ll know some day when they can try out more and more detailed experiments.]