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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hints of time before Big Bang

By Chris Lintott - Co-presenter, BBC Sky At Night

Friday, 6 June 2008

A team of physicists has claimed that our view of the early Universe may contain the signature of a time before the Big Bang. The discovery comes from studying the cosmic microwave background (CMB), light emitted when the Universe was just 400,000 years old. Their model may help explain why we experience time moving in a straight line from yesterday into tomorrow. Details of the work have been submitted to the journal Physical Review Letters. The CMB is relic radiation that fills the entire Universe and is regarded as the most conclusive evidence for the Big Bang. Although this microwave background is mostly smooth, the Cobe satellite in 1992 discovered small fluctuations that were believed to be the seeds from which the galaxy clusters we see in today's Universe grew.

Dr Adrienne Erickcek, and colleagues from the California Institute for Technology (Caltech), now believes these fluctuations contain hints that our Universe "bubbled off" from a previous one. Their data comes from Nasa's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which has been studying the CMB since its launch in 2001. Their model suggests that new universes could be created spontaneously from apparently empty space. From inside the parent universe, the event would be surprisingly unspectacular. Describing the team's work at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in St Louis, Missouri, co-author Professor Sean Carroll explained that "a universe could form inside this room and we’d never know".

The inspiration for their theory isn't just an explanation for the Big Bang our Universe experienced 13.7 billion years ago, but lies in an attempt to explain one of the largest mysteries in physics - why time seems to move in one direction. The laws that govern physics on a microscopic scale are completely reversible, and yet, as Professor Carroll commented, "no one gets confused about which is yesterday and which is tomorrow". Physicists have long blamed this one-way movement, known as the "arrow of time" on a physical rule known as the second law of thermodynamics, which insists that systems move over time from order to disorder. This rule is so fundamental to physics that pioneering astronomer Arthur Eddington insisted that "if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation". The second law cannot be escaped, but Professor Carroll pointed out that it depends on a major assumption - that the Universe began its life in an ordered state. This makes understanding the roots of this most fundamental of laws a job for cosmologists. "Every time you break an egg or spill a glass of water you're learning about the Big Bang," Professor Carroll explained.

In his presentation, the Caltech astronomer explained that by creating a Big Bang from the cold space of a previous universe, the new universe begins its life in just such an ordered state. The apparent direction of time - and the fact that it's hard to put a broken egg back together - is the consequence. Much work remains to be done on the theory: the researchers' first priority will be to calculate the odds of a new universe appearing from a previous one. In the meantime, the team have turned to the results from WMAP. Detailed measurements made by the satellite have shown that the fluctuations in the microwave background are about 10% stronger on one side of the sky than those on the other. Sean Carroll conceded that this might just be a coincidence, but pointed out that a natural explanation for this discrepancy would be if it represented a structure inherited from our universe's parent. Meanwhile, Professor Carroll urged cosmologists to broaden their horizons: "We're trained to say there was no time before the Big Bang, when we should say that we don't know whether there was anything - or if there was, what it was." If the Caltech team's work is correct, we may already have the first information about what came before our own Universe.

[Weird. I’ve always been taught to think that asking what happened before the Big Bang was a meaningless question. Apparently not! Cosmology rocks!!]

It's been 1000 days since the birth of this Blog.....

Monday, July 28, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Ancient Rome – The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Simon Baker

Rome has an eternal fascination – at least it does to me. It’s incredible to think that from its foundation in 753BC the Western Empire lasted until it fell in AD476 with the Eastern Empire falling with Constantinople almost a thousand years later. Besides the awesome grandeur of Rome all other later Empires pall in comparison. I guess that’s why modern Empires from Il Duce’s Italy to modern day America want to be compared to it. Some chance I feel!

Simon Bakers book covers the period from Rome’s foundation – by the mythical Romulus and Remus – up till its slow slide into history after being sacked repeatedly by invading so-called barbarians. It’s a fascinating tale – some of which I knew already – told in chunks centering on iconic Emperors or significant events. In some ways it surprised me just how resilient Rome was despite its multitude of bad (and mad) leaders to say nothing of the in-fighting, assassination and corruption. Survive and prosper it did though even with all of the above. I learnt quite a bit from this book in spite of thinking that I had already a fairly good – if general – knowledge of the subject. Baker manages to write in such a way that Roman politics, often convoluted though it was, is easy to understand and appreciate even when I was despairing at how stupidly some of the people involved behaved. If only, I thought, some of these people had acted more in the interests of the Empire and less in their own then Rome could still be here. Of course that may not exactly be a good thing out here on the edge of the Empire – but hey, I can dream can’t I?

All in all this was a very good book. You’ll be hearing more from the Italian colossus in the future no doubt.

Strength & Honour!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Want to Be in the “World’s Best Military”? Ask German Veterans

Excerted from Having the ‘Best Military’ Is Not Always a Good Thing

From William J. Astore for TomDispatch.com

July 21, 2008

It may come as a shock to some, but the American army wasn’t the best in the field in World War I, or World War II either. And thank heavens for that. The distinction falls to the Kaiser Wilhelm’s army in 1914, and to Hitler’s Wehrmacht in 1941. Even toward the end of World War II, the American army was still often outmaneuvered and outclassed by its German foe. Because victory has a way of papering over faults and altering memories, few but professional historians today recall the many shortcomings of our military in both world wars. But that’s precisely the point: The American military made mistakes because it was often ill-trained, rushed into combat too quickly, and handled by officers lacking in experience. Put simply, in both World Wars it lacked the tactical virtuosity of its German counterpart.

But here’s the question to ponder: At what price virtuosity? In World War I and World War II, the Germans were the best soldiers because they had trained and fought the most, because their societies were geared, mentally and in most other ways, for war, because they celebrated and valued feats of arms above all other contributions one could make to society and culture. Being “the best soldiers” meant that senior German leaders — whether the Kaiser, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, that Teutonic titan of World War I, or Hitler — always expected them to prevail. The mentality was: “We’re number one. How can we possibly lose unless we quit — or those [fill in your civilian quislings of choice] stab us in the back?” If this mentality sounds increasingly familiar, it’s because it’s the one we ourselves have internalized in these last years. German warfighters and their leaders knew no limitations until it was too late for them to recover from ceaseless combat, imperial overstretch, and economic collapse.

Today, the U.S. military, and by extension American culture, is caught in a similar bind. After all, if we truly believe ours to be “the world’s best military” (and, judging by how often the claim is repeated in the echo chamber of our media, we evidently do), how can we possibly be losing in Iraq or Afghanistan? And, if the “impossible” somehow happens, how can our military be to blame? If our “warfighters” are indeed “the best,” someone else must have betrayed them — appeasing politicians, lily-livered liberals, duplicitous and weak-willed allies like the increasingly recalcitrant Iraqis, you name it. Today, our military is arguably the world’s best. Certainly, it’s the world’s most powerful in its advanced armaments and its ability to destroy. But what does it say about our leaders that they are so taken with this form of power? And why exactly is it so good to be the “best” at this? Just ask a German military veteran — among the few who survived, that is — in a warrior-state that went berserk in a febrile quest for “full spectrum dominance.”

[What a very interesting point of view……..]

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Ethical Brain – The Science of our Moral Dilemmas by Michael S Gazzaniga

This sounded really good when I spotted it on Amazon. Actually it was pretty interesting just not what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a discussion of how our brains make us moral creatures – in effect how we are wired (by evolutionary processes) to act in moral ways. Dr Gazzaniga touches on this subject but largely concentrates his time and attention elsewhere.

The main focus of the book is actually about bioethics – fascinating in itself but not exactly where my interests lie at the moment. He discusses stem-cell research and human cloning, the moral status of an embryo and the ethical implications of diseases like Alzheimer’s. He then goes on to discuss brain and memory enhancement and so on. There follows a few fairly interesting chapters on the legal use of memory – and at this point I started to get a little bored to be honest. Only at the very end of the book did the author briefly touch on what I had assumed the whole book would be about – the origins of morality & ethics in the human brain. Unfortunately he didn’t really have anything particularly illuminating to say of the subject and things seemed to just fizzle out. Maybe I had just turned off at that point, I’m not sure. Anyway, for whatever reason I found the book readable though rather disappointing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Guevara Children Denounce Che Branding

by Rory Carroll for The Guardian

Saturday, June 7, 2008

BUENOS AIRES - The scraggly beard, the beret adorned with a star, the intense gaze: it is an instantly recognisable image which has been used to sell everything from booze to T-shirts to mugs to bikinis. Che Guevara is an icon of the 20th century whose brand has turned into a worldwide marketing phenomenon. If you want to shift more products or give your corporate image a bit of edge, the Argentine revolutionary’s face and name are there to be used, like commercial gold dust.

The fact that Guevara was a communist guerrilla and Marxist ideologue is an irony of little interest to his capitalist exploiters. It has, however, become a problem for his children. Aleida Guevara this week denounced the commercialisation of her father’s image as an affront to his socialist ideals. “Something that bothers me now is the appropriation of the figure of Che that has been used to make enemies from different classes. It’s embarrassing.” A man who fought and died trying to overthrow capitalism and material excess should not be used to sell British vodka, French fizzy drinks and Swiss mobile phones, among other travesties, she said. “We don’t want money, we demand respect.”

Aleida, 47, the eldest of Guevara’s four children by his second wife, made the comments during an internet forum sponsored by Cuba’s government ahead of what would have been her father’s 80th birthday on June 14. The complaint came amid a surge of renewed interest in Guevara. The actor Benicio del Toro won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival this month for his portrayal in Steven Soderbergh’s four and a half hour epic Che. Camilo Guevara, a son, who participated in the forum, said he welcomed the film as long as it was faithful to his father’s memory. Last month Buenos Aires unveiled a towering bronze statute of the young doctor who left Argentina on a motorbike in 1953 and became radicalised by oppression and poverty in Latin America. He joined Fidel Castro’s guerrilla campaign against Cuba’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and became a key figure in the revolution before unsuccessfully attempting to export insurrection to Congo and Bolivia, where he was captured and executed by CIA-backed government troops in 1967.

Guevara was a more doctrinaire ideologue than Castro and a fervent critic of “material incentives” but in death he became transformed into an icon of daring and rebellion. The famous image portrait was based on an image taken by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in Havana in 1960. It was pinned to his studio wall for seven years until the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli mass produced it around the time of Guevara’s death. Korda willingly forfeited royalties but he sued a British advertising agency for using the photo to promote vodka. Cuba’s government has used the image to promote its revolution and to rake in tourist dollars through state-run stores which sell Che paraphernalia.

[Well, I honestly think it’s a bit late now. That horse has already bolted, died and been made into dog food.]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Buddhism Without Beliefs – A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor
This was an interesting little book that has been languishing on my bookshelf for quite a time now. Stephen Batchelor basically puts forward the idea that the Western mentality is more open to the non-mystical side of Buddhism and should concentrate on that rather than things little reincarnation. Such things, Batchelor asserts, are additions to Buddhism that can safely be ditched – because Buddhism was never intended to be a religion but was instead a methodology, as something to do.
This book is very interesting indeed and will reward re-reading at some point. It highlights the (obvious) point that life is suffering and poses the question: What are we going to do about it? Rightly, I believe, the author says that suffering is often caused by attachment. Ditch the attachment and you remove a powerful cause of pain. Of course this is much easier said than done! The book outlines some methods for recognising the causes of suffering and ways of reducing their hold on us. A lot of space is also dedicated to the Self – which according to Buddhist philosophy doesn’t actually exist. I can certainly appreciate their point and may indeed be coming around to their point of view (at least intellectually!).
I don’t think that this is a book you can (or should) simply read and forget. I think that the author is saying some important stuff here. This book has definitely increased my appreciation of Buddhist thought and maybe, just maybe, my understanding of it too. It’s an interesting philosophy that deserves the time and energy to explore. More to come on this topic I feel…..

Monday, July 14, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Noir Style by Alain Silver and James Ursini

I love Noir and of course one of the things I love it for is its unique style. I love the play of shadow, the darkened streets, the framing of protagonists in doorways, the inevitable hail of bullets and the tragic ending. I think it plays really well to the way I see the world. I don’t know who else to explain the deep unthinking emotional response to this genre not only in film – which this book exclusively deals with – but in literature too. There is something (or indeed many things) about the Noir style that speaks to me on a subconscious level that is hard to explain – a bit like love I expect.

I read this book over a weekend. Despite its large coffee-table format it was a very quick read being largely composed of (naturally) black & white photographs from the classic Noir movies. It was interesting actually to read the stylistic analysis of each example of the art and to begin to understand the method of creating a Noir feel. I’ve never really studied my love of certain movies critically fearing, I suppose, that they would lose some of their ‘magic’, that I would be analysing films rather than enjoying them. This is why I chose not to study English Literature being convinced (rightly I feel) that it would damage my love of books. Anyway, I hugely enjoyed this book and will no doubt be reading others of its like in the future. You’ll also be seeing reviews of Noir films and books here too. It would appear that this book has reawakened my love of the Noir Style!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Iran Warns US It Will Retaliate If Attacked

by Reuters

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

TEHRAN - Iran test-fired nine missiles today and warned the United States and Israel it was ready to retaliate if they attacked the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear projects. Washington, which says Iran seeks atomic bombs, told Tehran to halt further tests if it wanted the world to trust it. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, insists its nuclear programme aims only at generating electricity. Rising tensions have rattled financial markets. Oil prices, which had slipped from record highs, rebounded about $2 a barrel after today’s tests.

Speculation that Israel could strike Iran has mounted since its air force staged an exercise last month that US officials said involved 100 aircraft. The United States has not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the nuclear row. “We warn the enemies who intend to threaten us with military exercises and empty psychological operations that our hand will always be on the trigger and our missiles will always be ready to launch,” Revolutionary Guards air force commander Hossein Salami said, according to ISNA news agency. In televised comments, he said thousands of missiles were ready to be fired at “specific and pre-determined targets”. Missiles were shown soaring from desert launchpads, leaving long vapour trails. Iran should “refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested the tests justified an American missile shield plan with bases in Eastern Europe that Russia strongly opposes. “Those who say that there is no Iranian threat against which to be building missile defences perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians about … the range of the missiles that they test fired,” Rice said in Bulgaria. Russia, which has resisted US calls for tougher UN sanctions on Iran, nevertheless says it shares concerns about Tehran’s nuclear programme. It responded to an Iranian rocket test in February by questioning Tehran’s motives. Italy joined criticism of Iran’s latest missile tests. “These are very dangerous missiles - that’s why the international community and not just Israel has an interest in blocking this escalation in a definitive way,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

Iran’s State Press TV said the “highly advanced” missiles tested by the Guards included a “new” Shahab 3 missile, which officials have said could reach targets 1,250 miles away. Iran has said Israel and US bases are in its range. Some US facilities across the Gulf are little more than 200 km from Iran’s coast, putting them well within range of Iranian missiles, even if analysts question their accuracy. The United States also has forces based in nearby Arab states, including Qatar and Bahrain, along with ships patrolling the Gulf waterway. Iran has said US forces are vulnerable because of their presence in two of its neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power, has vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring an atomic bomb. “Israel does not threaten Iran, but the Iranian nuclear programme, combined with their aggressive ballistic missile programme, is a matter of grave concern,” Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said after the tests.

Leaders of the Group of Eight rich countries voiced serious concern yesterday at the proliferation risks posed by Iran’s nuclear work. World powers have offered Iran incentives if it will suspend uranium enrichment. Tehran has rejected the demand. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, conduit for about 40 per cent of globally traded oil, if it is attacked. The US military says it will prevent any such action. An aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader was quoted as saying yesterday that his country would hit Tel Aviv, US shipping in the Gulf and US interests in reply to any military strike.

[Just a little something for those who think that an attack on Iran – by either the Israeli’s alone or in concert with the US – will be without consequences. It would appear that Iran has both the capability and intent to strike back if they are attacked. Is a strike on their nuclear facility still a viable option? I think not.]

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Nietzsche – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Tanner

This was a wonderful little book written by someone who obviously loves the subject – but is not above criticising where such criticism is due. Moving in a chronological fashion from his earliest works, Tanner outlines Nietzsche’s thought processes as he attempted to grapple with the ideas of the horror and pain of life (and how we deal with that) and the underlying idea of meaning (or lack thereof).

Nietzsche himself is easy to read – in the sense that he writes in a very modern, poetic and often beautiful way - though far from easy to really understand (at least I have problems understanding him!) but Tanner’s book certainly helps with that. The author not only exhibits a clear love of the subject but is blessed with the ability to communicate that love to his readership. Tanner is concerned to put Nietzsche’s work into both historical and philosophical context as well as showing how the philosophers deteriorating mental condition affected his work. This he does very well indeed. Hitting the highlights of Nietzsche’s works the author lays out before his reader the crux of what he was trying (and often failing) to get across to his audience.

Nietzsche has had a huge impact on European philosophy and politics since his death in 1900 and the 20th Century is actually difficult to understand without reference to him. He was clearly a genius, probably ahead of his time and much misunderstood. Despite all of this he is very readable and rewards the effort taken in reading him. I’m looking forward to studying Nietzsche next year and you’ll certainly be hearing more of him in the coming months.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Comets as Toolkits for Jump-Starting Life

From JPL

December 14, 2006

Just as kits of little plastic bricks can be used to make everything from models of the space shuttle to the statue of liberty, comets are looking more and more like one of nature's toolkits for creating life. These chunks of ice and dust wandering our solar system appear to be filled with organic molecules that are the building blocks of life.

The discovery of two kinds of nitrogen-rich organic molecules in comet Wild 2 is the latest addition to the set of bits and pieces useful to the origin of life that has been found in comets. These discoveries were made by members of the Stardust Preliminary Examination Team, a group of scientists who have been studying the samples returned from comet Wild 2 by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft in January 2006.

"These results show that comets could have delivered nitrogen rich organic compounds to the early Earth where they would have been available for the origin of life," said Scott Sandford of NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "This discovery shows that the menu of compounds available for the origin of life was richer than had been previously thought," said Jason Dworkin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "The two molecules we discovered in comet Wild 2, methylamine and ethylamine, provide a source of fixed nitrogen, a commodity which could have been rare on the ancient Earth. Nitrogen fixation is the conversion of the very stable nitrogen (N2) gas in our atmosphere to a biologically usable form, like an amine or nitrate -- the same compounds found in fertilizer. Enzymes that fix nitrogen appear to be ancient, so finding a source of fixed nitrogen would have been an early challenge for life from the time of its origin. We determined that at least one type of comet would have provided significant quantities of stable, fixed nitrogen in the form of methylamine and ethylamine," added Dworkin.

This is the first time these molecules have been detected in comets. As the Stardust spacecraft sped through the comet's tail at nearly 21,000 kilometers per hour (13,000 miles per hour), a set of aerogel tiles mounted on a boom trapped dust and gas from the comet. Often referred to as "frozen smoke", aerogel is the world’s lowest density solid. Its low density allows it to slow and capture comet dust particles without vaporizing them. Although the mission's goal was to return samples of comet dust to Earth, the researchers looked for organic molecules that were embedded in the aerogel itself, rather than trapped in dust grains. "We found that the aerogel acted like a sponge, absorbing organic gases from the comet nucleus," said Daniel Glavin of NASA Goddard.

"And just like squeezing a sponge, we squeezed out all the good stuff -- the water-soluble organics -- by boiling samples of the aerogel in ultra-high purity water," added Glavin. The team analyzed the aerogel water extract with a liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer instrument to identify the organic molecules. Since Earth is crawling with life, the team had to rule out contamination from our planet before it could say the molecules likely came from the comet. Glavin and Dworkin analyzed dozens of "pre-flight" aerogels that were not flown on Stardust in order to understand the organic background levels within the aerogel.

The team found high levels of both methylamine and ethylamine in aerogel that was exposed to comet Wild 2. While they did find small amounts of methylamine and trace levels of ethylamine in the pre-flight aerogel, the total amount in the unflown aerogel was over 100 times less. Also, the relative amounts of the two molecules were very different from that found in the comet-exposed aerogel. The different total and relative amounts convinced the team that most of the two chemicals in the Stardust sample came from the comet. However, since Stardust was in space for seven years, the team had to be sure that the two chemicals weren't simply picked up while the spacecraft was cruising toward Wild 2. Since the pressure in space is so low, the spacecraft can release gas or volatile materials acquired during its manufacture on Earth. This is called "outgassing", and it could have contaminated the aerogel as well.

To reveal the levels of contamination from these two sources, the Stardust team included a special piece of aerogel called the "witness tile" on the spacecraft. It's a piece of aerogel located behind a dust shield that protected the spacecraft from high-speed collisions with comet particles. This location kept the witness tile from being exposed to gas and dust from the comet. But the witness aerogel was exposed to everything else Stardust encountered, including the manufacturing processes, shipping, the launch, spacecraft outgassing, and Earth reentry. "When we analyzed a sample of the witness tile, we did not detect methylamine or ethylamine, so we don't think Stardust was contaminated with these two chemicals on the way to Wild 2," said Glavin.

[Every time I read stuff like this my optimism for life elsewhere in the galaxy increases – and I thought it was pretty high to begin with. It looks like the (literal) elements of life are abundant in the lifeless universe. It only takes them being in the right place, in the right amounts at the right time for life to begin and it would appear that those right circumstances could be pretty common. Maybe we’ll know soon enough.]

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Cartoon Time.

[Click to enlarge to enhance your reading pleasure]

Saturday, July 05, 2008

‘Ball of Fire’ if Iran Attacked: IAEA Chief

Agence France Presse

Saturday, June 21, 2008 by

DUBAI - The UN atomic watchdog chief warned on Saturday that an attack on Iran over its controversial nuclear programme would turn the region into a fireball, as Tehran rejected an Israeli strike as “impossible.” Mohamed ElBaradei also warned that he would not be able to continue in his role as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general should the Islamic republic be attacked. His stark comments came as Iran stressed yet again that it will not negotiate with world powers over its nuclear programme if it is required to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment. “A military strike (against Iran) would in my opinion be worse than anything else … It would transform the Middle East region into a ball of fire,” ElBaradei said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television.

A report by the New York Times on Friday cited US officials as saying a major Israeli military exercise earlier this month seemed to be a practice for any potential strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In Athens, an official with the Greek air force’s central command confirmed the substance of the US media report, stating that it had taken part in “joint training exercises” with Israel off the Mediterranean island of Crete. The manoeuvres, code-named “Glorious Spartan 08,” took place on May 28 and June 12, and consisted of aerial exercises and knowledge exchange, said the Greek source, who requested anonymity. The goal was for more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets to prepare for long-range strikes and demonstrate Israel’s serious concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Times reported. But ElBaradei said any attack would simply harden Iran’s position in its row with the West over its nuclear programme. “A military strike would spark the launch of an emergency programme to make atomic weapons, with the support of all Iranians, including those living abroad,” he said. He did not believe that there was an “imminent risk” of proliferation given the current status of Iran’s nuclear programme and made it clear he would “not have a place” as IAEA head in the event of a military strike.

The West fears that Tehran could use uranium enrichment to make an atomic bomb although Tehran insists it only wants nuclear technology for peaceful energy purposes. ElBaradei’s comments come as Iran stressed on Saturday it will not negotiate with world powers over its nuclear programme if it is required to suspend its enrichment activities. “Suspending uranium enrichment has no logic behind it and it is not acceptable and the continuation of negotiation will not be based on suspension,” Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters. He responded to talk of a military strike by saying “such impudence and audacity to have an aggression against our national interest and integrity is an impossible action.”

For his part, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said Tehran would “continue uranium enrichment non-stop since this activity is under the 24 hour surveillance (of IAEA cameras). “The request to stop uranium enrichment is an old issue and does not have any legal or technical foundation,” he added. In Jerusalem, the Israeli parliament foreign affairs and defence commission chairman Tsahi Hanegbi said Saturday that Western diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear programme had failed. “Next year and the year after that will be crucial. The world must must decide if it gives more time to diplomatic efforts, which currently do not seem very promising,” he told Israeli public radio. “Western measures against Iran’s nuclear programme have failed.” On June 6 an Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Shaul Mofaz, warned that Iran would face attack if it pursues what he said was its nuclear weapons programme.

A week ago, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana presented a new offer to Mottaki on ending the six-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear drive, offering economic and trade incentives. Iran is still considering the plan. It was made on behalf of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

[Well, they do say that you should never underestimate human stupidity – and here’s a case in point. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities either by Israel on its own or in concert with the US would be the height of stupidity. Not only would such an attack be ineffective – even in the best case scenario – it would pour petrol on an already inflamed region. I really don’t understand the logic of such an attack. What if anything is it supposed to achieve? How can people suggest that there will be no significant consequences to such an act? Despite that I suspect that an attack has not only been planned but will probably go ahead regardless of any difficulties because of simple human stupidity.]

Friday, July 04, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Empire by Orson Scott Card.

In near future USA the political tensions between the Right and the Left boil over into conflict. A rocket strike hits the White House killing the President and his Chiefs of Staff and the Vice-President is killed in an apparent car accident. At the centre of it all is Special Forces Major Malich. It was his plan that the apparent terrorists used to kill the President and now whoever was behind the attack wants him dead. Running for his life and trying to clear his name Malich seems to have the knack of being in the wrong place and the wrong time when New York is attacked….

This book started out well enough with the interesting idea that the US could become a global Empire – akin to that of Rome – only after the fall of the Republic. But as soon as the dust had settled on the White House lawn the story just became more and more ridiculous. I might be able to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept the (faint) possibility of a Republican Vs Progressive Civil War but Card progressed it in such a ham-fisted manner that the whole plot became laughable. The reasons for the insurrection were flimsy at their very best. The plotters where not even two dimensional and often barely one dimensional. The technology and tactics used by the Progressive forces were quite frankly ludicrous as was the response by the regular Armed Forces. The story basically pilled nonsense on nonsense with a sprinkling of nonsense on top for good measure. Quite frankly this book gave SF a bad name and I am surprised that TOR published it. I can only imagine that the authors name sold them on the idea or that they mistakenly thought that a Left-Right conflict novel was timely. Luckily I’m presently reading a much superior SF novel that has restored my faith in the genre. If you want to keep yours intact I suggest that you avoid this book.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Against the gods, religious and otherwise.

By Mark Vernon for Ekklesia

3 Dec 2007

The occasion was the third annual Jeremy Bentham lecture, named after the eighteenth century philosopher who is a hero of secular rationalists. It was given by Tim Crane, a self-confessed atheist and professor of philosophy at University College London – the place where Bentham’s preserved remains, or ‘Auto-Icon’, can be seen to this day in a wooden cabinet at the end of the South Cloisters. The invitation to give the lecture, delivered in November 2007, was made by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The event was open to anyone but was intended as a humanist meeting of minds. ‘Like with like together strike’, as the saying goes. So, as a religiously-inclined agnostic, I felt a bit like an Anglican attending Catholic Mass who hopes they won’t be caught out receiving communion.

Sure enough, Crane took it as read that being a humanist entails being an atheist. He also seemed to have a pretty silly idea about religion – making references to creation in 4004 BCE as if that was standard thought, for example. Though perhaps he was just playing to his supposedly atheistic audience. But then something surprising happened. He turned on them too. He launched into a scathing critique of many humanists’ fundamental beliefs, denouncing them as delusions. His starting point was Richard Dawkins’ comment that humanism is ‘the moral outlook associated with atheism.’ What, Crane asked, does this moral outlook consist of? He turned to the website of the BHA, his host, for enlightenment – and came away disappointed. On the site, several statements are listed as core humanist beliefs. These include the centrality of scientific evidence as the basis for knowledge, and the determination of right and wrong as a matter for human beings and human beings alone. But Crane, for one, cannot assert any of these creedal confessions without qualification, clarification, and possibly not at all. Is he, then, not really a humanist?

Crane widened the divide between himself and his erstwhile fellows. He declared that he does not want atheistic holidays commemorating scientific big-hitters like Charles Darwin. Why do individuals like Richard Dawkins want to ape the religion they so loathe by starting new ‘saints days’, Crane asked bemused? Turning to another secularist bĂȘte noire, he similarly doesn’t understand the obsession with campaigning for humanist contributions to ‘Thought for the Day’ on the radio. He believes they would be no better than the candyfloss confections that are served up now, just with different sugar-sweet pieties. And then there is the ‘Brights’ movement, the campaign by some atheists to ditch

the inherent negativity in their position – not believing in this, objecting to that – with the power of positive feeling: rather than calling themselves Atheists, they want to call themselves Brights. Once more, the trappings of religion seem to be inherent in the concept, to say nothing of the cheap artwork of their logo which has all the saltiness of stick-figures in the Good News Bible, Crane declared. He agrees with Christopher Hitchens on Brights: ‘cringe-making and conceited.’

All in all, Crane believes humanism cannot add up to being a moral outlook. There is just not enough meat in it. Turning to the New Humanist magazine as another possible source of enlightenment, he was again dismayed. It appears to consist mostly in slagging off religion. There is nothing wrong with that but it does not make for a worldview or a flourishing way of life. Ouch! So what is humanism? Crane offered a minimal definition: it is a kind of rallying point or pressure group – more like Amnesty International than an

alternative to religion. He argued that it is actions in the world that matter not beliefs. Atheists would do better to address that, rather than obsessively attacking people’s beliefs. After all, religion will not go away, he continued. So humanists should avoid writing creeds, and cultivating blanket attitudes against all religion. A better goal would be to seek a framework that makes for harmony between people of different views – one driven by a quest for peace rather than truth, by being based upon tolerance.

Now, at one level it was cathartic to witness disagreements amongst atheists that are quite as uncomfortable and divisive as those that are never far from the surface between Christians. But the lecture suggested something else about the human condition to me too. The present age is a context with which all people are trying to grapple. They may be of religious faith or atheistic conviction: but no-one has a complete answer to the forces that shape and shake the modern world. Hence all the disagreements. To put it another way, the persistent pluralism of our times, even within apparently homogeneous groups, is evidence enough that no one worldview is universally satisfactory. Moreover, many of the faults that one side finds in the other – such as that atheism is empty, or that theism is primitive – actually conceal the same flaws in the side being defended too. Yet Crane’s lecture also suggested a way forward that can be adopted by anyone. If we are to make progress, and defuse the apparently escalating clash of convictions, self-honesty, self-examination and self-critique are crucial virtues. Strident creeds and dogmatic certainties – again whether secular or religious – may keep the subterranean anxieties of those who confess them at bay.

Alternatively, it is easy to define yourself by whom you are against. But the result is an intolerant rationalism, on the one hand, and on the other hand, an oppressive religiosity. It is a tolerant pluralism that counts. What cultivates that, at least in part, is the questioning of all assertions, the unsettling of all shibboleths. Even when among friends.

[What an interesting event that looked to be. I wish that I’d been there! So many interesting questions and so much food for thought. I certainly agree with Tim Crane regarding atheist ‘holidays’ and broadly agree on his views on the ‘Brights’. I’m not so sure regarding his assertion that Humanism isn’t a moral outlook. I think that Humanism informs a moral outlook so he may just be conflating the two. Likewise I don’t think that atheism is a world view or likewise a moral outlook but again informs such a thing – which is why they’re so closely allied (though not necessarily the same thing). Definitely something to think about.]