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

Monday, August 31, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Drone Warfare – Killing by Remote Control by Medea Benjamin (FP: 2012)

Drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as the military prefer them to be known) have been around for a little while now and until comparatively recently caused hardly a stir when they were used in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of the reason was, at least to begin with, the numbers where very low – less than 50 in 2000. By 2010 various arms of the US military and, increasingly, agencies such as the CIA had caused this number to increase to 7,500 and that number is still growing. Despite the global financial meltdown and the cut-backs in some defence spending the cost of drones has increased greatly and will continue to do so. Drones are big business and business is very good indeed.

Piloted often from thousands of miles away they are in many ways the ideal killing machine. They are relatively cheap (when compared to a fighter jet), can be deployed again and gain (unlike a cruise missile), can loiter over a target for hours before acting, have sensors powerful enough to pick out individual targets and can, now that they are increasingly armed with Hellfire missiles, eliminate most targets in seconds at zero risk to the pilot. It’s no real surprise that the US military are presently training more drone pilots that bomber and fighter pilots combined. There is even a persistent rumour that the latest NATO fighter – the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – might actually be the last manned fighter built. It’s been said before but with the latest models of drones soon to come on-line this time it might actually be true.

Of course not everything is sweetness and light in the world of the drone. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq practically over (at least from the boots on the ground perspective) drones are increasingly re-tasked to counter-terrorism operations. This means, in effect, targeted killing of terrorists or suspected terrorists largely (though not exclusively) in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The switched-on amongst you will already see the problem in that seemingly innocuous statement. For one thing we’re not in any kind of state of conflict with any of those countries yet we (in the Allied sense) are killing their citizens (and the occasional American citizen apparently) with little compunction. But, I hear some of you say, they’re bad guys doing (or planning) bad things. Indeed many of them are – ignoring for the moment the so-called collateral damage suffered by those unfortunate enough to be in the blast radius of the drone strike – but is that enough to justify the US (and it is largely the US presently) assassinating potential enemies anywhere in the world in the name of self-defense? Of course they can justify it to themselves – otherwise how could they produce and agree kill-lists - and some of them even call it legal (where clearly from many perspectives it is not). On the face of things it’s very effective. At a rough cost of $46,000 per missile per terrorist commander (if you’re lucky to get one) it’s great value for money. But what you’re actually doing, over time, is producing more resilient organizations (who can cope with its members being eliminated from time to time) populated by operatives that are skillful and lucky enough to avoid drone strikes. Drones are an evolutionary pressure that produces better terrorists – and many more of them as strikes themselves fuel the anger against a country that can kill from the sky at no risk to itself.

All this (and more) is outlined in this rather eye-opening, if sometimes overly polemical, discussion on the effects and likely future consequences of the continuation of the drone program. Presently only undertaken largely by the US, UK and (to a more constrained degree) Israel, the author rightly points out that such an effective weapon in the fight against terrorists of all persuasions will soon be used by any state capable of building/buying and deploying them. When the Russians, Chinese or Iranians start killing their enemies across the world using their own drones who can protest after the USA has already legitimized the practice? Welcome to the future and watch the skies!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Most graduates 'in non-graduate jobs', says CIPD

From The BBC

19th August 2015

The majority of UK university graduates are working in jobs that do not require a degree, with over-qualification at "saturation point", a report claims. Overall, 58.8% of graduates are in jobs deemed to be non-graduate roles, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. It said the number of graduates had now "significantly outstripped" the creation of high-skilled jobs.

The CIPD said the report's findings should be "a wake-up call". "The assumption that we will transition to a more productive, higher-value, higher-skilled economy just by increasing the conveyor belt of graduates is proven to be flawed," said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, the professional body for human resources managers.

The report found the issue was leading to "negative consequences" including employers requesting degrees for traditionally non-graduate roles despite no change to the skills needed for the role. As a result, it found graduates were now replacing non-graduates in roles and taking jobs where the demand for graduate skills was either non-existent or falling.

The trend was particularly prominent in construction and manufacturing sectors where apprenticeships have previously been traditional routes into the industry, the report found. Mr Cheese said that in many cases the "skills premium" graduates had "if it exists at all" was being "simply wasted". The CIPD is calling for a "national debate" over how to generate more high-skilled jobs. It said government and organisations both needed to act to help graduates make better use of their skills, but said the report also highlighted that for young people choosing an apprenticeship instead of university could be a "much better choice".

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: "We are providing the right mix of university places and apprenticeships to ensure more people have the opportunity to advance their careers and businesses to get the skills they need to grow."

[I was discussing this with some friends recently. My job is certainly not at graduate level and only one or two of my friends have appropriate degrees for their lines of work so it makes me wonder what the point is? I can understand the gaining of a specific degree for a particular job or profession – something that is required for the work being undertaken – but it does seem that some employers simply ask for a degree to limit the competition or to prove (by a very crude standard) that the person can stick at something for 3 years and be trained enough to produce good arguments. I think with most jobs you pick things up by doing them. From my own personal experience none of my university time was of any direct use to any job I’ve held in the past 27 years. Would I describe my degree’s a waste of time then? Only from a work point of view! But that’s not the reason I did them. By demanding degree level candidates in none degree level jobs employers are paradoxically devaluing university education and at the same time effectively forcing people to take degrees just to get their foot in the door. This isn’t really what university education should be about.]

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson (FP: 2004)

Lawyer Rebecka Martinsson is a mess. Barely functioning several months after she was forced to kill in self-defence, most of her work colleagues consider her a write-off or a basket case. Only her boss and her best friend are even trying any more. So when the chance came up to return to her home town of Kiruna, where her traumatic experiences took place, Rebecka had to be bullied into going as her bosses secretary and general dogs-body. Torn between running away and hiding and staying in an area she knows very well indeed Rebecka does both – by hiding at the edge of town on ‘holiday’ in an attempt to get her life back on track. It’s not long, however, before she discovers than a new priest has been murdered in a ritual fashion. Matilda Nilsson, found hanging in her own church, was loved and hated in equal measure by her new flock. Seen as a saviour by her female congregation she is seen as a trouble maker (or worse) by her male flock and by the male hierarchy she has to deal with on a daily basis. The suspect list is a long one including a few that Rebecka befriends during her stay.

It’s not long though before more bodies emerge and another priest goes missing under suspicious circumstances. Everything seems to be linked to Matilda and her women’s Bible Study group and their animosity to the local hunters but which one would gain most from Matilda’s death and why are more people becoming suspicious of Rebecka and her motives for staying in town?

After enjoying her first book in this series (The Savage Altar) I was really looking forward to this one. As a great fan of good characterisation I had hoped for something as gripping as her earlier work. Actually this was even better which pleased me a great deal. Rebecka is a great character, smart, complex, thoughtful, inquisitive and much else besides. I felt more than once that I would like to meet her in real life and that we’d get on with each other well. But I honestly squealed with joy at another characters appearance – Anna-Maria Mella, the head of the police investigators, who was heavily pregnant in the first novel and is now back part-time after her maternity leave. Along with her police partner Sven-Erik Stalnacke they made a superb team as they tried to figure out exactly what was happening and began to uncover, with the help of Rebecka, some of the darker goings-on in this seemingly peaceful small community. As will all of the best books of this type the cast of supporting characters (at least 10 or so) are fully fleshed out individuals who you get to know, understand, like or dislike (as the author intends) as the plot unfolds and you try to piece together the clues that (hopefully) point you at the murderer before to author reveals the truth.

This one kept me guessing to the very end. It wasn’t a rabbit pulled out of the hat (how I hate that type of so-called mystery) but it did come as a nice surprise (which in hindsight made perfect sense). But Rebecka, still recovering from the events in the first novel, did not come away unscathed and I’m quite worried about how she was left at the end of things. I’m just going to have to read the third book (soon-ish) to see if she’s going to be OK. She’s a tough cookie so I’m guessing she will be. Don’t you just love it when you actually care about fictional characters that much? I know I do. Heartily recommended for any crime fans and for those who just want a bloody good read (pun intended).

Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book set in a different country– COMPLETE (26/50)]   

Monday, August 24, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (FP: 1967)

This is one of the seminal books on modern western culture by one of its most revered commentators. Except it’s less of a book and more of a conceptual art work – it was the late 60’s after all when conventions such as books and the boundaries between art and literature where – well, square man!

Such as it is this is actually a quite interesting work. Despite much of it being very much of its time and place it still manages – between the apparent pretension and ‘pop’ cult artwork – to raise some interesting questions and the odd eyebrow. The idea (which came across to me as rather Marxist in outlook) that the medium – writing or television for example – is not just a way of communicating information but determines or constrains what type of messages can be transmitted. Much like the means of production determine what kind of society can exist the medium of information exchange determines what can and cannot be said or even thought because it shapes the very world view and the concepts within that view which are available to be used to think with. It’s a bold, and no doubt at the time, original idea. I think that it’s worth following up with some other reading on the subject. I don’t know where it might lead but I think it’ll be interesting to find out.

Because of its picture heavy content this is a very quick read. There’s a few gimmicks or toys to play with – a page of mirror writing for example – plus odd changes of font (why stick to convention, man?), juxtaposition of photographs and text in a collage format (why not?) and plenty of pictures that probably meant a lot more in 1967 than they do in 2015 without some research. It is, rather inevitably, focused very much on the American perspective but then again 60’s America was pretty much the cutting edge of western culture back then.

Despite its rather dated, now nostalgic and sometimes cute format this is still worth a few hours of your time to see what all the fuss was about. I do however recommend you get it from a library rather than buy it new. I really didn’t find it great value for money.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Chief executives earn '183 times more than workers'

From The BBC

17th August 2015

FTSE 100 chief executives (CEO) earn on average 183 times more than a full-time worker, research suggests. A report by the High Pay Centre, a think tank which monitors income distribution, shows that top bosses earned on average £4.964m in 2014. That compares to £27,195 median pay for a full-time employee in 2014, according to official figures.

The pay gap did not increase dramatically between 2014 and 2013, when chief executives earned 182 times the average workers pay, but the High Pay Centre points out that it is much bigger than in 2010, when CEOs earned 160 times more. "Pay packages of this size go far beyond what is sensible or necessary to reward and inspire top executives," said Deborah Hargreaves, director of the High Pay Centre. "It's more likely that corporate governance structures in the UK are riddled with glaring weaknesses and conflicts of interest."

Since 2013 UK-listed companies have had to publish a single figure detailing their top executive's salary, as well as being required to give shareholders a binding vote on directors' pay. Ms Hargreaves added that while the reforms had helped to get a better understanding of executive pay, they didn't go far enough. She told the BBC's Today programme: "We've seen executive salaries pulling right away from the rest of society, creating this small elite of people that are just paid astronomically."

The think tank would like companies to publish their own figures on the difference in pay between executives and their workers. It would also like a structure in which employees are represented in pay negotiations. In response to the study, the TUC said that inequality had now reached "stratospheric levels" while the Unite union called for institutional investors to "use their clout to draw a line in the sand over CEO pay". The business lobby group, the CBI said that high pay was only ever justified by "exceptional performance" and there must always be a clear link between the two.

"In FTSE 100 firms and beyond, it's important that boards and shareholders hold the highest earners to account," the CBI said in a statement. "Shareholders now have a vote on companies' pay policies and it is important that this is used effectively." But the free-market think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, was more forthright, saying that the right chief executive could make or break a company. "CEO pay rewards extraordinary talent and skills in a highly competitive, globalised market," said its deputy director Sam Bowman. "Good decision-making from the top might not be invaluable, but CEO pay reflects that it is as close to invaluable as one can get."

[OK, even if we agree that a CEO can make or break a company – a rather naïve and frankly offensive comment when a company could potentially be made up of thousands or tens of thousands of people who, it would seem add little value to it – are they really 183 times more effective or productive than someone on the shop floor or operating ‘front of house’? Are they really worth that kind of money? If the recent banking crisis is anything to go by – then the answer is no. CEO’s of some of the world’s premium financial institutions who are regularly paid staggering amounts of money almost crashed the world’s economy through their long-term mismanagement of their businesses. Are they being rewarded for ‘extraordinary talent and skills in a highly competitive, globalised market’ or are they simply ripping the rest of us poor slobs off fully expecting us to let them get away with it? Not surprisingly I’m going for the latter.]

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Making Sense of The Troubles – A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict by David McKittrick and David McVea (FP: 2000/2012)

I was 8 years old when what euphemistically became known as The Troubles began. Fortunately as a catholic I lived on the other side of the Irish Sea and so wasn’t ever directly involved. What would have happened to me if I’d been born in Northern Ireland doesn’t really bear thinking about. There but for the Grace of God and all that jazz…

Of course the outbreak of violence from 1968 onwards until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was a long time coming which probably explained its depth and ultimate longevity. Since Northern Ireland was hived off from the rest of Ireland in 1921-22 (of which more later in subsequent books on the region) the situation was stable in appearance only. With the domination of the Six Counties by a solid Protestant majority the Catholic minority, increasingly marginalised, could only suffer in silence or revolt. In the spirit of the 1960’s and following on the idea from MLK in America they chose revolt in the form of Civil Rights demonstrations, rent strikes and other political activities. With tensions already high in both communities violence ensued and televised exploits of the mostly Protestant police force made things worse. Violence, as violence does, spread. Feeling themselves to be at a distinct disadvantage the minority Catholic community responded positively to a pledge from the younger members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) to protect them. So began the cycle of killing, bombing and reprisals that characterised the North on and off for the next 30 years.

I remembered many of the incidents and atrocities catalogued in this often gripping account of those terrible years. I remembered many of the names of those involved too as well as watching almost nightly on the TV as the British Army struggled to control things – or at least keep the violence down to what one politician called ‘an acceptable level’. One consequence of this was that the British are amongst the best urban combat troops in the world as they proved in both Iraq and Afghanistan. History is full of such ironies. Of course what I, indeed what no one, was aware of at the time was that the much talked about ‘we don’t talk to terrorists’ rhetoric was just that. The British government had actually been talking to the IRA and Protestant organisations for decades to try to come to a peaceful resolution. It did eventually happen after much blood had been spilt and much damage done but we do now seem to be in a much better position than ever before. What violence there is has dropped to a low level almost unimaginable only a decade before.

As you might imagine from an attempt to be as even handed as possible to all those involved no one really comes out exactly smelling of roses. There’s certainly enough fault to spread around and enough people still alive for it to be laid at their door. Likewise some of those same people were instrumental in creating, developing and finally achieving an acceptable peace process that all sides could sign up to. Maybe it was simply that everyone (or most of those involved) became sick and tired of the continuing violence and just wanted it to stop – and stop it eventually did.

This was not exactly the UK’s best moment. I grew up with bombs and bomb scares, with explosions going off across London and other areas whilst I worked there. I remember vividly how my train pulling into London missed a bomb by two platforms and 10 minutes one morning while on another occasion I walked past a pub on my way to work at 8:30 that morning only to have a bomb go off inside four hours later. Tense just doesn’t cover it. I sometimes think of those carefree days when if you left a bag unattended for too long it was likely to be pinched. These days such a bag would cause a security alert and if you got it back would likely be in pieces after being destroyed by the Security Services. Definitely a book for anyone who ever wondered what the Troubles were all about. Recommended.

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Favourite TV: Battlestar Galactica – The Mini-Series (2003)

When I first heard that they were remaking (reimaging I suppose) Battlestar Galactica [BSG] I just couldn’t stop laughing. What on earth, I thought, possessed anyone to remake such a truly awful show? I mean, I know that the original series is still popular with a certain crowd but personally I don’t have good memories of it. OK at times it was just about watchable but generally it was badly written, badly acted late 1970’s camp.

Then I saw the first trailers and I thought, oh, this looks different and somewhat interesting. I liked the space scenes (largely silent) and the fact that they used guns and missiles instead of lasers. Then I saw a bit more and I was hooked. It was dark, broody and very, very modern. No camp here. So I sat down and watched what turned out to be the initial mini-series of 4 episodes. Against all of my expectations it quite simply blew me away.

I was, almost from minute one, impressed with the acting talent, the acting itself, the way it was filmed (and just the SFX) and the script. Set 40 years after the first series the initial focus was on the decommissioning of the last of the original Battlestars – essentially space capable ‘aircraft’ carriers – that had fought in the first Cylon War. Coincidentally the Cylons have decided to finish the job they started decades ago with a combination sneak attack and a widespread infiltration of human society with 8 variations of Cylon almost indistinguishable from humanity itself. As you might imagine, if you don’t already know, the attack on the 12 Colonies goes with predictable machine efficiency and humanity is almost wiped out in a single short blow. Except for a ‘rag-tag fleet’ cobbled together by the new President – 43rd or 46th in line to the position. Of course the Commander and crew of the only surviving Battlestar want to ‘get back in the fight’ but, as the President keeps reminding them they’ve already lost and right now need to ‘start having babies’ if humanity has any chance at all of survival. So they do the only thing they can do – run. But where and how far? Then the Commander pulls a rabbit out of the hat to give everyone the one thing they no longer have – hope. Hope of a refuge, hope of a new home. A place called Earth.

I read somewhere that the mini-series and the later episodes where distinctly different and I can see why. It seemed that the mini-series was a kind of half-way house between the original and the new. Reference to the original series from the fighter design (beautiful by the way) to the fly-by theme, to the child Boxey (fortunately without robot dog and for only one episode never to be mentioned again) and, of course the names of the characters – thought interestingly Apollo is now a call-sign rather than a name as such (nicely commented upon when the President said that Apollo had ‘a nice ring to it). Then, thankfully, there were many, many differences. Probably the most striking (and seemingly most controversial) was the casting of women in roles previously held by men. For one thing – it being the 21st century now – we have female fighter pilots exemplified by ‘Starbuck’ played by the superb Katee Sackhoff. ‘Boomer’ is also a girl played by Grace Park (incidentally who is having an affair with the engineering crew chief against regulations). Then we have the XO played by Michael Hogan who is a drunk, Commander Odama played by the also superb Edward James Olmos who is still coming to terms with his son’s death in flight school, his other son ‘Apollo’ played by Jamie Bamber who blames his father for his brother’s death whilst secretly wanting to take his place in the bed of his girlfriend who just happens to be Starbuck and then we have the new President played by the great Mary McDonnell who is completely out of her depth and who has just been told she has terminal cancer.…. So, you can see how it’s VERY different from the almost cosy 70’s version. Needless to say, as the series roll on, it gets even darker and moves into some very dark places indeed. But that’s in the future and I wouldn’t want to spoil things too much by looking too far ahead.

For an essentially 4 episode mini-series I’ve barely scratched the surface. I haven’t even mentioned the human form Cylon we’re first introduced to (Six) played by Tricia Helfer who was the series sex-symbol (honestly doing very little for me) and her lover/human traitor Gaius Baltar played by James Callis. There’s so much more going on that I could probably fill a few more pages but I’m neither going to precis the 3 hour show nor analyse it to death. All that I will say at this point is that my view of the show turned 180 degrees from my first impression. The mini-series hooked me for the next 4 years into some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the mini-series (if you haven’t already) and then watch the rest of them. It’s often uncomfortable viewing and certainly not for the faint of heart but by the Gods of Cobol it’s worth it.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Prof Stephen Hawking backs venture to listen for aliens

By Pallab Ghosh for BBC News

20 July 2015

Prof Stephen Hawking has launched a new effort to answer the question of whether there is life elsewhere in space. The venture is said to be the biggest yet in support of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. The 10-year effort will listen for broadcast signals from a million of the stars closest to Earth. The £64m ($100m) initiative was launched by the Breakthrough Initiatives group at the Royal Society in London. Speaking at the launch, Prof Hawking said: "Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos - unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence. Either way, there is no bigger question. It's time to commit to finding the answer - to search for life beyond Earth. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know."

Those behind the initiative claim it to be the biggest scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. They plan to cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programmes and scan five times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster. It will involve access to two of the world's most powerful telescopes. - the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Among those involved in the search is Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. "The search for extra-terrestrial life is the most exciting quest in 21st-century science. The Breakthrough Initiatives aim to put it on the same level as the other ultimate scientific questions," he said. The public will be invited to participate in efforts to find a signal from another world through the SETI@home project.

Yuri Milner, a high tech US based-billionaire and founder of the initiative said technology had developed to a point where it was possible to put listening for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence on a proper scientific footing. He said: "Current technology gives us a real chance to answer one of humanity's biggest questions: Are we alone? With Breakthrough Listen, we're committed to bringing the Silicon Valley approach to the search for intelligent life in the Universe. Our approach to data will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks.

Prof Hawking added that he believed the search was one of humanity's most important scientific endeavours. "To understand the Universe, you must know about atoms - about the forces that bind them, the contours of space and time, the birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies, the secrets of black holes," he explained. "But that is not enough. These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars, but not the lights that shine from planet Earth. To understand these lights, you must know about life. About minds."

[Compared to other things – even what we spend on cat food - £64 million is pocket change. But with it we might be able to answer one of THE fundamental questions – Are we alone in the Galaxy? I’m hoping that we’re not. The more pessimistic side of my nature thinks that we might be if humanity is anything to go by. Is the fact that we’ve never picked up a verified signal just a case of the fact that we haven’t really been listening for very long or is it a symptom of the fact that intelligent life simply develops the technology to destroy itself and then is stupid enough to use it before making its presence known in the stellar neighbourhood? Let’s hope it’s the former!]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall (FP: 1960)

For Private Detective Ben Gates it was a straight forward bread and butter assignment – stand around looking tough, keep the guests away from the (very) expensive wedding presents and pick up a reasonable pay check from the Insurance Company in the morning. And it was straight-forward, right up till the point where someone slipped him a micky and he went bye-bye. When he woke hours later he found a police detective standing over him, expensive jewellery missing and two dead bodies to explain. Unless Gates could discover exactly what happened while he slept he’ll never work for the Company again and, after the story hit the papers, may never work again. With a suspect list as long as the guest list, a detective with a chip on his shoulder about Private Eyes, a client who lies every time he opens his mouth and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of women throwing themselves at him in the hope he’ll be distracted away from the case he certainly has his work cut out if he want to find out who drugged him and who gain from the double murder.

To date the Hard Case Crime series has been disappointingly hit and miss. Surprisingly (or not if you think about it) the older books tend to be a hit far more often than their more modern imitators. This was one of those time. I chuckled my way through this typical Noir detective story complete with wise cracks (you could almost hear the gravelly voice over at times), dangerous dames, a morally dubious high class family with enough skeletons in their closets to start their own cemetery, desperate scam artists and their jaded girlfriends trying to get out of the dirty movie business and much more besides. It was almost too much of a cliché but because of that, not to mention good writing and sparkling dialogue that made me laugh out loud more than once, this was both a delight and a breeze to read. It’s one of those books where you can put your brain into neutral and just go with the story. Little actual thought is required but there’s still enough mystery and action to keep you effortlessly entertained. Definitely one of the best of the series so far.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book that came out in the year you were born– COMPLETE (25/50)]    

Monday, August 10, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Zero History by William Gibson (FP: 2010)

Ex-musician Hollis Henry knows almost nothing about the fashion world – which makes her the ideal candidate to track down a secret clothing brand known as ‘The Gabriel Hounds’, at least as far as her strangely Machiavellian boss Hubertus Bigend is concerned and no one, but no one, argues with the head of the Blue Ant ad agency. Wearing a ‘hounds’ leather jacket as an ‘in’ with the in-crowd Hollis is given her first clue to the identity of the mysterious designer of this must-have brand as well as an assistant she just can’t figure out. Known only as Milgrim he seems to see things – patterns, objects, trends – that no one else can perceive. ‘Born again’ in a rehab centre after years of near fatal drug addiction he is the latest prodigy created by Hubertus for as yet reasons unknown. Only beginning to find his way in a strange yet familiar world Milgrim has another unique quality that few in the modern ultra-connected world can even aspire to. Because of his years active in the drug underworld avoiding all contact with the authorities he has left little trace in cyberspace. He has, in effect, zero history. So when another agency, even more aggressive than Blue Ant, are determined to get to the Hounds designer no matter the cost – in money or blood – it might be this special talent that saves them all.

I’ve been a huge fan of Gibson since I read his ‘Sprawl’ novels in the late 1980’s. His nearer stuff, like this fascinating story, is both stranger and more down to Earth. Based in the now/very near future rather than decades hence these novels have the same feel of speed, street level culture, hyper violence and cool ‘punk’ technology as any of his tales of Cyberspace – yet with the impact of today’s headlines. As always his characters are brilliant – flawed, real, troubled, with their individual strengths, weaknesses, histories and relationships that immediately feel real. The dialogue is outstanding and does honestly feel that you’re listening in to real people having real conversations as you walk past them in the street. How he does that I have no idea but the ‘feel’ of things throughout the book is very tangible – even when little is actually happening ‘on screen’.

The odd thing was that for at least a good ¼ to 1/3 of the way through the book I had no clear idea what was actually going on – and it absolutely didn’t matter because the writing was just so damned good! When it all started to come together at around the half way mark I found myself nodding and grinning as things fell into place and it all started making much more sense. Needless to say I really, really liked this book. It’s not often that, on turning the last page, you feel like you’re losing access to people you actually want to get to know better and to sit down with them in a bar somewhere and just chat. This novel was chocked full of those kind of people and I really hope that I meet some of them again in his future novels. Highly recommended for anyone interested in adult literature that doesn’t patronise you or treat you like a child. You might need to put some effort into keeping up with things but I can certainly say that it’s worth the effort.    

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Four-legged snake ancestor 'dug burrows'

By Jonathan Webb for BBC News

24 July 2015

A 113-million-year-old fossil from Brazil is the first four-legged snake that scientists have ever seen. Several other fossil snakes have been found with hind limbs, but the new find is estimated to be a direct ancestor of modern snakes. Its delicate arms and legs were not used for walking, but probably helped the creature to grab its prey. The fossil shows adaptations for burrowing, not swimming, strengthening the idea that snakes evolved on land. That debate is a long-running one among palaeontologists, and researchers say wiggle room is running out for the idea that snakes developed from marine reptiles.

"This is the most primitive fossil snake known, and it's pretty clearly not aquatic," said Dr Nick Longrich from the University of Bath, one of the authors of the new study published in Science magazine. Speaking to Science in Action on the BBC World Service, Dr Longrich explained that the creature's tail wasn't paddle-shaped for swimming and it had no sign of fins; meanwhile its long trunk and short snout were typical of a burrower. "It's pretty straight-up adapted for burrowing," he said. When Dr Longrich first saw photos of the 19.5cm fossil, now christened Tetrapodophis amplectus, he was "really blown away" because he was expecting an ambiguous, in-between species. Instead, he saw "a lot of very advanced snake features" including its hooked teeth, flexible jaw and spine - and even snake-like scales. "And there's the gut contents - it's swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature. "It was pretty unambiguously a snake. It's just got little arms and little legs."

At 4mm and 7mm long respectively, those arms and legs are little indeed. But Dr Longrich was surprised to discover that they were far from being "vestigial" evolutionary leftovers, dangling uselessly. "They're actually very highly specialised - they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end. What we think [these animals] are doing is they've stopped using them for walking and they're using them for grasping their prey."

That comparatively feeble grasp, which may have also been applied during mating, is where the species gets its name. Tetrapodophis, the fossil's new genus, means four-footed snake, but amplectus is Latin for "embrace". "It would sort of embrace or hug its prey with its forelimbs and hindlimbs. So it's the huggy snake," Dr Longrich said. In order to try to pinpoint the huggy snake's place in history, the team constructed a family tree using known information about the physical and genetic make-up of living and ancient snakes, plus some related reptiles. That analysis positioned T. amplectus as a branch - the earliest branch - on the the very same tree that gave rise to modern snakes.

Remarkably, this significant specimen languished in a private collection for decades, before a museum in Solnhofen, Germany, acquired and exhibited it under the label "unknown fossil". It was there that Dr Dave Martill, another of the paper's authors, stumbled upon it while leading a student field trip. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 they were principally visiting to see the museum's famous Archaeopteryx fossil. "All of a sudden my jaw absolutely dropped, when I saw this little fossil like a piece of string," said Dr Martill, from the University of Portsmouth. As he peered closer, he managed to spot the four tiny legs - and immediately asked the museum for permission to study the creature.

Dr Bruno Simoes, who studies the evolution of snake vision at the Natural History Museum in London, told the BBC he was impressed by the new find because the snake's limbs are so well preserved, and appear so well developed. "It's quite a surprise, especially because it's so close to the crown group - basically, the current snakes," he said. "It gives us a good idea of what the ancestral snake was like." Dr Simoes suggested that alongside several other recent findings, this new fossil evidence had clinched the argument for snakes evolving on land. "All [the latest findings] suggest that the ancestor of all snakes was a terrestrial animal... which lived partially underground."

[Interesting. I remember seeing vestigial limbs (well two at the rear end) of one of my brother’s snakes. I suppose it makes a weird sort of sense that snakes started out with limbs and then lost them later because of their inconvenience to their current life-style. Interest also that there was a debate – which I was unaware of – that snakes evolved in water and only moved onto land after they lost their limbs. It would appear that this debate seems to have been answered.]