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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Damn those Magicians! Setting off their Atomic Spells!
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

You may have noticed that we have a pretty important election coming up on this tiny island just off the coast of Europe. In June (23rd I think) we get to decide if the UK stays in the EU or leaves to find its own place in the world. Those who know me well will know that I’ve already made my mind up on the issue. From what I’ve seen of the propaganda so far – surprisingly little considering the importance of the question – I have the feeling that people will vote to come out, because when you get right down to it people generally are pretty stupid.

From what I’ve seen/heard so far the OUT voters are focused on immigration, that great bugbear of modern politics. If we’re outside of the EU, they believe, we’ll have far more control over who comes into the country and it’ll be all carrots and apples from then on. Apparently leaving the EU will have no, or only minor, negative effects which can be compensated for elsewhere in the world. Of course what they’re missing is the mainland Europe is by far our largest trading partner. After we leave any agreements will either become null & void and will eventually lapse. The problem will be when the agreements are renegotiated – are they going to be identical in nature or worse? I hardly expect them to be better than before. Then there’s laws that have been written into UK law on the insistence of the EU as part of our membership agreement. Will they become null & void, simply ignored or actively repealed? You know, small things like the Working Time Directive which limits the number of hours someone can work and other things like, for instance, our signing up to the European Human Rights legislation. Will all that now be swept away? No doubt some out there couldn’t agree more. Why do we need to force companies not to employ people for ridiculous periods and who needs Human Rights anyway. After all they only get in the way of what we want to do so why not get rid of the whole lot of them. What could possibly go wrong?

I know at least two people in my team who will be voting OUT so I can at least cancel out on of their votes. If you’re a UK resident I’d definitely advise you to vote in this one. I missed the last one because I was too young and the decision in June is going to have huge consequences whatever the outcome. Don’t assume that one side or the other has already won (OK I did that at the start but I’m still casting my vote!). The media always pull shit like that and are then surprised by the real outcome. I don’t know what the rules are yet but I do hope that it’s not a simple majority. I think the bar should be at 66% or above to make it valid. Wasn’t the Scottish Referendum 75%?

Oh, and speaking of Scotland, it’ll be interesting to see if the overwhelming majority of English vote to leave and the majority of Scot’s vote to stay in. That, some have said, would prompt an automatic revote on Independence and I honestly don’t think that they’ll say No this time! I guess I might be retiring to Scotland in a few years…..

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Must be the new Panda Line in London.....

Just Finished Reading: Zoo Station by David Downing (FP: 2008)

Berlin, early 1939. British journalist John Russell is beginning to think that his time in Germany is limited. After 14 years in country it increasingly looks like war is coming and if it does the very best that he can hope for is to be interned for the duration. But he doesn’t want to leave. After 14 years he has accumulated too much just to pack his bags and go – an ex-wife, a teenage son and a glamorous girlfriend, not to mention friends in the international press. But if John didn’t think that things were complicated enough they’re going to get a whole lot more so. Approached by the Soviet authorities he is persuaded to spy for them against his better instincts. Catching on that he’s working for the Soviets (in an apparently innocent capacity) the German secret service ask him to spy for them too. Then, when the British ask him to spy for them too, it gets really complicated! But it is the parting request of a friend in the American consulate that could be the complication that breaks everyone’s back. Asked to teach two Jewish teenage girls English to make their exit from Germany easier John become involved in Germany’s increasingly dark internal politics. It seems only a matter of time before one of his jobs will be the end of him.

My regular readers will no doubt remember my love of Alan Furst espionage novels based just before and into the early years of WW2. It seems that he now has a very serious rival indeed. John Russell is a great character who’s embedded in the regime and so can take the reader on a guided tour of the high and mighty as well as the poor and destitute. The evocation of late 30’s Germany is incredibly powerful and well done. It’s probably a toned down version of what was really happening then but is, in some places at least, stomach churning enough that I honestly don’t want to know the awful truth. But if you want a flavour of the time without the need to wash your hands (or have a shower) afterwards you can probably do worse than this. The author is a historian as well as an author of fiction so he knows enough about the period to make things feel real. Personally I was riveted practically from the first page to the last. Luckily this is the first book in a series of adventures for John Russell and I shall be acquiring future books as soon as I can – because, you know, I need even more books in my life! Well written, believable, not exactly for the faint hearted but highly recommended. Very good indeed!  

Monday, March 21, 2016

I paid for the round so I'm finishing it........
Experts could overrule 'Boaty McBoatface' name choice for polar ship

From The BBC

21st March 2016

The name of a new polar research vessel will be chosen by a panel of experts, even if the public overwhelmingly votes to call it Boaty McBoatface. Lord West, ex-First Sea Lord, said he was rather proud "silly names" had been suggested but hoped none were chosen. The Natural Environment Research Council had urged people to name its ship in a competition, which saw Boaty McBoatface easily topping the poll. The final name will be selected by the NERC, according to competition rules. Boaty McBoatface is currently leading with more than 27,000 votes, while the second place pick trails with around 3,000. The names Pingu, Usain Boat and It's Bloody Cold Here have also been put forward.

Lord West told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's a typical thing of the Brits going mad - normally silly season, rather than this time of the year." He said the NERC had only expected "marine research fans" to get involved. "I think I would probably go for an Arctic or Antarctic explorer - that would be appropriate - bearing in mind this is a key bit of research where we are probably leading the world, and we should all be very proud of it. I'm rather proud that we have silly names going around, but I hope we don't select one."

The state-of-the-art £200m vessel will be launched in 2019 to replace Royal Research Ships (RRS) Ernest Shackleton and James Clark Ross. Launching the competition to name it last week, the NERC said it was looking for something inspirational - something that will exemplify the ship's work. "We are excited to hear what the public have to suggest and we really are open to ideas," the chief executive said. On Sunday, the poll website crashed under the weight of people trying to cast their votes.

James Hand, a former BBC Radio Jersey presenter, was behind the suggestion of Boaty McBoatface but says he has since apologised to the NERC. "I've actually been speaking a bit to the people behind the website. I've apologised profusely. What I keep saying to people is, this is actually nothing to do with me. I made the suggestion but the storm that's been created, it's got legs of its own. I just feel it's a very British thing which a lot of people have pointed out." Julia Maddock, acting associate director of communications and engagement at the NERC, responded to Mr Hand's apology on Twitter, saying her organisation was "loving it". In another tweet, she wrote: "We wanted people to talk about our ship and get involved. We are delighted!"

Mr Hand said he was "still thoroughly rooting" for his idea to be chosen but understood the public's choices were only ever a suggestion. In second place, with more than 3,000 votes, is RRS Henry Worsley. Worsley died trying to make the first unassisted solo crossing of the Antarctic in January. Another of the more serious suggestions is RRS David Attenborough. The 15,000-tonne, 128m-long vessel is being built at Cammell Laird on Merseyside.

[Brilliant and bloody hilarious! It’s such a British thing to do, it’s also very British to ignore the public’s suggestion and go with something very formal and serious. But oh, just for a moment, consider the possibility, however remote, that they might go with Boaty McBoatface. LOL.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Most Precise Measurement of an Alien World's Size.


24th July 2014

Thanks to NASA's Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system. The size of the exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-93b, is now known to an uncertainty of just 74 miles (119 kilometers) on either side of the planetary body.

The findings confirm Kepler-93b as a "super-Earth" that is about one-and-a-half times the size of our planet. Although super-Earths are common in the galaxy, none exist in our solar system. Exoplanets like Kepler-93b are therefore our only laboratories to study this major class of planet.

With good limits on the sizes and masses of super-Earths, scientists can finally start to theorize about what makes up these weird worlds. Previous measurements, by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, had put Kepler-93b's mass at about 3.8 times that of Earth. The density of Kepler-93b, derived from its mass and newly obtained radius, indicates the planet is in fact very likely made of iron and rock, like Earth.

"With Kepler and Spitzer, we've captured the most precise measurement to date of an alien planet's size, which is critical for understanding these far-off worlds," said Sarah Ballard, a NASA Carl Sagan Fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of a paper on the findings published in the Astrophysical Journal.

"The measurement is so precise that it's literally like being able to measure the height of a six-foot tall person to within three quarters of an inch -- if that person were standing on Jupiter," said Ballard.

Kepler-93b orbits a star located about 300 light-years away, with approximately 90 percent of the sun's mass and radius. The exoplanet's orbital distance -- only about one-sixth that of Mercury's from the sun -- implies a scorching surface temperature around 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit (760 degrees Celsius). Despite its newfound similarities in composition to Earth, Kepler-93b is far too hot for life.

To make the key measurement about this toasty exoplanet's radius, the Kepler and Spitzer telescopes each watched Kepler-93b cross, or transit, the face of its star, eclipsing a tiny portion of starlight. Kepler's unflinching gaze also simultaneously tracked the dimming of the star caused by seismic waves moving within its interior. These readings encode precise information about the star's interior. The team leveraged them to narrowly gauge the star's radius, which is crucial for measuring the planetary radius.

Spitzer, meanwhile, confirmed that the exoplanet's transit looked the same in infrared light as in Kepler's visible-light observations. These corroborating data from Spitzer -- some of which were gathered in a new, precision observing mode -- ruled out the possibility that Kepler's detection of the exoplanet was bogus, or a so-called false positive.

Taken together, the data boast an error bar of just one percent of the radius of Kepler-93b. The measurements mean that the planet, estimated at about 11,700 miles (18,800 kilometers) in diameter, could be bigger or smaller by about 150 miles (240 kilometers), the approximate distance between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Spitzer racked up a total of seven transits of Kepler-93b between 2010 and 2011. Three of the transits were snapped using a "peak-up" observational technique. In 2011, Spitzer engineers repurposed the spacecraft's peak-up camera, originally used to point the telescope precisely, to control where light lands on individual pixels within Spitzer's infrared camera.

The upshot of this rejiggering: Ballard and her colleagues were able to cut in half the range of uncertainty of the Spitzer measurements of the exoplanet radius, improving the agreement between the Spitzer and Kepler measurements.

"Ballard and her team have made a major scientific advance while demonstrating the power of Spitzer's new approach to exoplanet observations," said Michael Werner, project scientist for the Spitzer Space Telescope at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is responsible for Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

[Impressive. We’re getting really good at this sort of thing. Now to actually GO to these places!]

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Happy St Patrick's Day!

Just Finished Reading: Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (FP: 2011/2014)

Even at a wrist aching 466 pages this was still, of necessity, a whirlwind romp through Human history from our pre-historic ancestors (and the other human species that shared our world with us for a while) up to the present. Told in a chatty, breezy style – at times rather annoyingly so – this was an easy read whilst recovering from a bad cold. Cut into sections clustered around the various revolutions in our progress to the present giddy heights of world dominance the author concentrates on the great leap forwards represented by the Cognitive Revolution when, seemingly out of nowhere, we started planning, communicating more effectively as well as producing the first religious artefacts and leaving behind the first known works of art. Then there was the Agricultural Revolution where, over hundreds of years, our nomadic ancestors settled for longer and longer periods in one place building settlements and the first documented civilisations. Interestingly the author refers to this several times as a trap and most probably a bad move on our part. Of course with settlement and civilisations comes writing, hierarchy, organised religion, money, tax, professionalization, war, epidemics, famine and all the other good stuff that has followed us through history ever since.

As humans spread across the globe, ever so slowly at first but with increasing speed aided by commerce, religion and science, a recognisable uniformity began to emerge. Now we see it as McDonaldisation, or Hollywoodisation or other western cultural imperialistic that come to mind, but it has been a long time coming and the author makes compelling arguments to say that such global unification is inevitable. Of course, like agriculture, this doesn’t mean that the wo/man on the street will see better times. As with anything there are upsides and downsides and the final price might be a long time coming – generations – and when we see the price tag it might already be too late to go back.

Finally there is the Scientific Revolution – the Pandoran gift that keeps on giving. From very humble beginning indeed Science has allowed us to reshape the world as we see fit, the mould the very creatures around us, the alter the landscape on a planetary scale and to become the first animal which evolved on the planet to manage to get off it. The curve of progress, just about however you measure it, is going vertical. Where that level (and speed) of change is taking us is something the author speculates on – briefly – in the final section. He sees three possibilities: That we’ll use bio-engineering to transcend our humanity and become much more than evolution could ever achieve naturally. That we’ll meld man and machine and become neither or both and effectively no longer being human in the sense we understand it today. Or we create artificial life using silicon rather than flesh which will quickly outstrip its creators and do who knows what. As the Scientific Revolution speeds towards the Singularity the possibilities become infinite. But what will humankind do with this power? If History is any guide – probably nothing universally good. He ends to book with what reads as a warning and it worth quoting: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” I guess future generations will find out – unless that is we manage our dissatisfactions and suddenly become much more responsible. But what are the odds?

Sometimes despite his style the author makes some very good points including one’s I thought I had come up with myself: the big one was the idea that everything we believe it – religion, politics, economic systems and much, much else besides are stories we tell ourselves, myths that we hold dear, consensual illusions that bind us together that have absolutely no foundation in fact. All of these things are ideas that live in our heads and, potentially in millions or billions of others and which are the very foundation of our ability to create global civilizations and everything you see around you. It is the stories we tell ourselves that make us who we are. If we tell different stories or stop believing in the ones we grew up with then the world changes. Monarchies become Democracies and money becomes less than worthless. Stories, nothing more. I found it a very persuasive argument but then again I was more than half way there to begin with.

If you fancy a chat around the campfire about the history and future of your species that doesn’t demand much background knowledge but will raise eyebrows and give you plenty of food for thought then this is definitely the book for you. Whilst not as amazingly earth-shattering as the critics would have you believe it’s still a very good read and well worth the time it’ll take you to finish it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Now THAT'S driftwood!

Just Finished Reading: Iron Kingdom – The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark (FP: 2006)

I suppose that, like most people, my knowledge of Germany revolves around WW2 and hundreds of bad movies. So it was good to address that level of ignorance with this rather hefty (just under 700 pages without notes) though highly readable study of a largely misunderstood state. It was also good to move away from my personal focus presently on the 20th century. Delving back into the 17th proved less than fascinating (despite the expression on the cover that this book was ‘gripping’) than I had hoped but I definitely found enough happening in the 18th and onto the 19th that kept my turning those pages.

So what did I discover? I definitely have a much greater appreciation of why the German’s (and especially the Prussians) have acted how they did during both world wars. In a word – Fear. Back in the 17th century the tiny state of Brandenburg, with its capital in Berlin, was the kind of place that your armies travelled through to get to fight someone important. Its fighting capacity was negligible but luckily for the inhabitants they had nothing worth taking. With few natural resources to feed or buy an army and no easily defendable borders the state of Brandenburg was a pushover slowly becoming sick of being central Europe’s whipping boy. But then things changed – partially through luck, partially through advantageous marriages and therefore alliances but mostly through the fact that four of the country’s leaders in a row actually seemed to know what they were doing. Generation on generation built wealth, position and power and Brandenburg stated to be somewhere you wanted to be involved with, allied with, and invested in. Progressive leader’s copied new ways from their more powerful neighbours and the Brandenburgers even won a few battles much to the surprise of those who knew the area well. For decades in any conflict (large or small) they had become involved in the burgers in Berlin, through wheeling and dealing and an eye on the prize, usually ended up on the winning side. Territory was accumulated as was gold and defensible borders became a real possibility. Security was slowly coming into their grasp and they liked it.

The turning point, as with much of European history, was the wars with Napoleon. Chaffing under French occupation they finally had the chance the throw off their oppressor when the decimated armies retreated from Moscow through Germany. With an often frightening ferocity the German people fell upon the stragglers and, after some heavy fighting, threw the French out of German territory (and event mythologised ever since). Coming to the aid of Wellington at Waterloo sealed the myth forever and put Prussia on a collision course with history. With yet more territory and an army to be reckoned with it was about time that other countries thought twice before they took Prussia for granted. After several decisive battles against Austria in the intervening years it was the turn of France again in 1870-71 and the founding of the German state itself. After that there was only one way to go – up – and Germany moved from being a regional power to a world player thinking of colonies in the sun and a navy to rival Britain. But to the West there was France and to the East Russia. Both were threats and both needed to be neutralised if lasting security was to be achieved. The rest we know – it was in all of the papers. The search for stability, respect and, above all, security resulted in two world wars and millions of deaths.

The vast majority of the book is deep ground work. Although running over 300 years in time the modern age is only briefly addressed. What we see here are the foundations of the German state not the later superstructure. What we are left with is, at least from my perspective, a much clearer appreciation of why the Prussians and later the Germans acted as they did. Neither world war was inexplicable nor did it suddenly emerge out of nowhere. The shot in Sarajevo lit the fuse but much of the explosives had been in place for decades or longer. The early history of Prussia was a significant part of this. Without this appreciation, without this understanding, both world wars seem a little less explicable. If you manage to make it through this book – it took me around a month to do so – you’ll understand 20 century history a great deal more than you did before. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the Why of the last century.  

Oh, and one more thing - the author has interesting sections both on the Revolutions of 1848 and the uprising in 1918-19 that provided me with more information than I'd had before. More on that to follow with more books on Germany to come.        

Saturday, March 12, 2016

I *love* the English language. It's just SO funny.... [lol]
Artificial intelligence: Google's AlphaGo beats Go master Lee Se-dol

From The BBC

12th March 2016

A computer program has beaten a master Go player 3-0 in a best-of-five competition, in what is seen as a landmark moment for artificial intelligence. Google's AlphaGo program was playing against Lee Se-dol in Seoul, in South Korea. Mr Lee had been confident he would win before the competition started. The Chinese board game is considered to be a much more complex challenge for a computer than chess. "AlphaGo played consistently from beginning to the end while Lee, as he is only human, showed some mental vulnerability," one of Lee's former coaches, Kwon Kap-Yong, told the AFP news agency.

In the first game of the series, AlphaGo triumphed by a very narrow margin - Mr Lee had led for most of the match, but AlphaGo managed to build up a strong lead in its closing stages. After losing the second match to Deep Mind, Lee Se-dol said he was "speechless" adding that the AlphaGo machine played a "nearly perfect game". The two experts who provided commentary for the YouTube stream of for the third game said that it had been a complicated match to follow. They said that Lee Se-dol had brought his "top game" but that AlphaGo had won "in great style".

The AlphaGo system was developed by British computer company DeepMind which was bought by Google in 2014. It has built up its expertise by studying older games and teasing out patterns of play. And, according to DeepMind chief executive Demis Hassabis, it has also spent a lot of time just playing the game. "It played itself, different versions of itself, millions and millions of times and each time got incrementally slightly better - it learns from its mistakes," he told the BBC before the matches started. This virtuous circle of constant improvement meant the super computer went into the five-match series stronger than when it beat the European champion late last year.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has flirted with games since its beginnings, because only smart humans excel. Unlike the real world, a closed system of fixed rules suits computing. Despite critical voices, Arthur Samuel's draughts playing program was an incredible achievement in 1959. Like AlpahGo it learned by playing itself repeatedly only many orders of magnitude slower. Then the goal posts moved. The critics said chess was beyond computing's capability because it needed human intuition and creativity. But then when good amateur challengers had to eat their words in the 1970s, the goal post shifted again.

Critics claimed a horizon where computers might beat some professionals but certainly not grand masters. So when IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, the world was astonished. But Deep Blue was not the human-like intelligence that the founding fathers of AI had hoped for. It won by brute force by searching through millions of moves in seconds. Humans have limited memory and need brilliant pattern perception and creative strategies to win.

So the critics turned to Go as the impossible. Even with today's vast computer memories and incredibly fast processors (which have doubled more than eight times since Deep Blue), the ancient game will not yield to brute force. The size of the search required for Go is larger than chess by more than the number of atoms in the universe. It is the holy grail of AI gaming. When Facebook announced earlier this year that their program had beaten a strong Go amateur, jaws dropped in the AI community - and fell to the floor that same day when Google's Deep Mind genius team announced their AlphaGo beat the European champion 5-0.

To beat one of the world's top players, Deep Mind used a mixture of clever strategies to make the search much smaller. They trained their machine on 30 million expert moves to start with, and then the learning machine played against itself millions of times. It worked - the holy grail is in the bag and the goal posts can shift no further.

Does this mean AI is now smarter than us and will kill us mere humans? Certainly not. AlphaGo doesn't care if it wins or looses. It doesn't even care if it plays and it certainly couldn't make you a cup of tea after the game. Does it mean that AI will soon take your job? Possibly you should be more worried about that.

[…and Judgement Day just edges just a little bit closer…..]

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Poisoned Crown by Amanda Hemingway (FP: 2007)

With the cup and now the sword safe on Earth only one piece remains to enable the Great Spell to be spoken and a Universe saved from ultimate destruction. But this time Nathan Ward really has his work cut out for him. The next piece of the puzzle – the crown – is on Widesea a world without any land apart from the artic pole, a world populated by weird sea creatures the like of which Nathan has never encountered before and a world very jealously guarded by a demon who hates all non-aquatic life. Meanwhile with the feeling that something truly momentous is about the happen the few remaining magical creatures are going to ground but not before they tell stories of previous attempts at performing the Great Spell and the disturbing consequences for those directly involved. As the end approaches Nathan’s mother Annie finally tells him the story of his conception and how she suspects that he was always part of the plan to bring the Great Spell to fruition. Feeling betrayed and lied to his entire life Nathan is blinded to his real father’s plans for our Universe. Can he wake up before it’s too late?

This was a very good ending to a very good trilogy. All of the existing elements are there and all of the fine characters continue doing their things. Nathan himself is maturing fast as he approaches his 16th birthday. Hazel is learning both the danger and power of her witchcraft and even Inspector Pobjoy is developing an open mind – reluctantly. There’s much humour at Nathan hanging out with a mermaid definitely not drawn by Disney (no covering shells) and lots of tension as battle lines are drawn on both worlds. The ‘boss fight’ on Widesea was a bit of an anti-climax but I forgave that. The design/description of the world was very good and the ‘people’ who lived there suitably complex. I had guessed some of the final act but was impressed by a mother’s power to overcome to protect her only child. I was really proud of Annie when the dust has settled and I’m sure that Nathan was too! I thought that this was a delightful little (very) English fantasy trilogy and enjoyed it/them a great deal. If you want a read that isn’t too strenuous or want your kids to read something after Harry Potter then this is definitely the series for you. Recommended.    

Monday, March 07, 2016

SkyNet’s Screwed: Or Why Machines from the Future can’t Kill John Connor.

I watched Terminator Genysis the other day. After the somewhat disappointing Salvation it was a nice and much required return to form for probably my favourite movie franchise. It was also nice for the story finally to go full circle and watch John Connor send back Kyle Reese to 1984 to protect his mother and, in the process, give rise to himself – the saviour of mankind. Of course that makes no sense at all – especially as John already knew that Kyle was his father and sent him back on purpose in order to be born. If Kyle was time travelling for the first time and had yet had no chance to meet Sarah then how is it possible for the son of a liaison that hasn’t happened yet to send his father to do anything?

That’s not the only problem. When John Connor’s resistance army destroy SkyNet in an act of desperation it uses ‘the first tactical time machine’ to send a Terminator back to 1984 to kill John Connor’s mother Sarah (who was an apparently no-account waitress at the time) and so remove its greatest enemy from the timeline before he was even born. Less than 30 minutes later John sends back a volunteer – Kyle Reese – to protect her but, of course, it’s already too late. The Terminator is back in 1984 and has had decades to hunt down and kill a single, unarmed and completely untrained woman. As soon as the Terminator is sent back then SkyNet has won - probably. At worst it has eliminated John Connor from its list of future enemies. But if that’s so then how did he manage to send Kyle back to protect Sarah (successfully) and father himself between all the running and shooting in ’84?

Here’s the thing. In the ‘original’ timeline (if we can use that word) SkyNet has been defeated after a long and bloody war. When the original Terminator is sent back it kills Sarah Connor and creates an alternate timeline where John Connor never existed and SkyNet (probably) wins the war against humanity. But the original timeline is still in play so John can still send Kyle back to the alternate (or an alternate) 1984 to save Sarah, give rise to himself, defeat Skynet and save humanity. So with three timelines in play now we’re batting humanity 2, SkyNet 1. As far as I can tell that’s the only victory that SkyNet is capable of.

So where does the questionable genesis of John Conner come into things? We can definitely know one thing for certain. The ‘original’ John Connor was Sarah’s son but Kyle Reese was most definitely not his father. Kyle was born 5 years after (the original August 29 1997 version of) Judgement Day which means he could have never impregnated Sarah in the original timeline most especially as Sarah died of cancer shortly after that particular Judgement Day happened (as an aside she died of cancer in 2005 in the TV series though jumped over that to 2007 using a time machine just 2 years after blowing up Cyberdyne in Terminator 2). John’s original father must have been someone else – someone never referenced as far as I’m aware. So in the first movie, when the original John sent back Kyle Reese not only didn’t he know that Kyle was his father but Kyle wasn’t his father: at least not yet! Only after Kyle goes back and creates a third timeline and becomes John’s father does John become, in effect, his own progenitor or as near as anyone is ever likely to get.

In Genysis, John says something very interesting in the underground parking structure when Kyle and Sarah discover his new allegiance. Sarah says that he can’t kill her because then he would never have been born. She’s wrong on several counts but John’s answer is more interesting. He says that he doesn’t think so because he believes that the three of them have become detached or separated from time. I think he had that right – pretty much. For one thing killing Sarah in the Genysis timeline of 2017 would have no effect on the other timelines still running (I think we’re up to around 5 so far in the movie version of the universe) and we need to keep in mind that none of the major players are actually from that [Genysis] timeline so killing any of them would have no effect on Skynet being defeated in the original timeline (I’m really trying to avoid giving the timelines numbers or letters here so please forgive any confusion I’m undoubtedly causing you).

So why can’t SkyNet win – apart from that one time (pun intended!)? I think because SkyNet has already lost in the original timeline even without the intervention of Kyle in 1984. This means that John can send him back and ‘self-generate’ himself. John has now become a time-loop of his own. In a very real sense John Connor has, admittedly accidentally, moved himself outside the normal time stream. Every time (oh, the puns keep on giving) that SkyNet tries to kill John they just end up making him stronger and increase the chance of SkyNet being defeated later on and, incidentally, creating yet another timeline where SkyNet loses. With Sarah protected in 1984, in hiding prior to the war and training John to become a military leader, SkyNet is essentially screwed. After all in the very original timeline John defeated SkyNet with no previous training or prior knowledge. In the second timeline (now with Kyle as his father) John has pre-knowledge of SkyNet but in that timeline Skynet is meeting him for the first time. It’s hardly surprising that his soldiers think he’s a messiah or can see into the future because in a way he can – and SkyNet would have no idea how to deal with that. Again SkyNet didn’t have a chance.

Of course one further thing is that, although the device used in the first and (so far) last movie was the first ‘tactical time machine’ it’s obviously not the only one. With SkyNet destroyed as a power to be reckoned with at least it still managed to send back a T-1000 to try to kill John as a teenager and a T-X to kill his lieutenants while he stayed ‘off-grid’ and in Genysis SkyNet sent another Terminator (probably another T-X by the sounds of things though we never see it) back to kill Sarah as a child at Big Bear lake. So many shots and so many misses! It seems, just like Judgement Day itself, that John Connor is inevitable.

I thought through most of this reasoning (although to be honest I’ve forgotten some of my original argument while I put finger(s) to keyboard) relaxing in bed one morning prior to getting up – yes, I’m that kind of Geek. But in the true spirit of this sort of thing I’m going to test my hypothesis later in the month by watching all 5 films over the Easter break. I’ll see if it still all makes sense after that.