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

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Darwin Among the Machines by George Dyson

Charting the early development of Machine Intelligence this quite fascinating and well written book was my bedside reading for most of the summer. Dyson surprising traces back the philosophical origins of Artificial Intelligence to the 17th Century with the publication of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. I must admit that when I read a few bits of Hobbes last year I was rather taken aback by the mention of thinking machines – and had actually assumed Hobbes was using metaphor to describe something quite different. Following on from Hobbes, Dyson intrigued me further by discussing the 19th Century publication of Erewhon by Samuel Butler which talked of the dangers inherent in AI. The bulk of the book however concentrated on the post World War Two drive to produce computer systems for defence in a Nuclear Age and had the figure of John Von Neumann striding through that period like the Colossus that he was. As you can imagine from the prominent mention of the great biologist Charles Darwin in the title the evolution of both the hardware and software of present and future machines is the central focus of this work. The author draws on biological examples of increasing complexity and increasing intelligence as a way to understand technological progress with the production of both Artificial Life and Artificial Intelligence.

Of course AI has been promised as ‘just around the corner’ for sometime now yet we seem to be as far away from its realisation as ever. Machines are certainly ‘smarter’ today than ever before but I doubt if most people would regard them as exhibiting even the most basic intelligent behaviour. I think that this is because we have yet to understand the nature of intelligence itself. Without that basic understanding I think it will be very difficult indeed to create an artificial facsimile of it. Of course once we do understand how intelligent minds actually work I believe that the leap to fully functioning AI will be very rapid indeed. Whether that would be a good or a bad thing I’m still not sure. AI holds a great deal of promise but I also think that it holds some seriously dangerous threats too. Inevitably the military across the globe see AI as a future weapon – a force multiplier that needs no food, no sleep and no psychological counselling after combat. Designed in the right way AI’s could be the perfect killing machines. What is less clear is whether or not we would be able to understand our own creations and whether we could stop them if they decided that we posed a threat to them. You could easily accuse me of being paranoid and of reading far too much SF for my own good but I think that the threat is a real one and should not be underestimated. Handled in the right way AI will be a boon to future generations. Handled badly, those future generations (if there are any) will rightly curse our names.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Against all the odds, the world is becoming a happier place

James Randerson for The Guardian

Wednesday August 27

Despite deepening economic gloom and impending climatic destruction the world is becoming a happier place, according to an analysis of quarter of a century of data on wellbeing from 45 countries around the globe. The finding goes against the received wisdom that a country's economic advances do not translate into increased wellbeing among its citizens. The researchers who compiled the data believe increasing levels of happiness were not picked up until now because studies have tended to focus on rich countries where increases in wealth make little difference to their citizens' satisfaction with life.

"The classic view, which we are not disputing, is that there are diminishing marginal returns to economic development," said Roberto Foa at Harvard University. "So for initial levels of economic development people are escaping subsistence poverty and people's subjective levels of happiness will increase." Once their basic needs have been fulfilled - having shelter, enough food to eat and so on - then further economic development doesn't lead to more happiness in a straightforward linear way, said Foa. Social scientists call this the "hedonic treadmill" – like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, you keep running but don't make any progress. However, the new analysis does suggest that measurable increases in happiness have been occurring over the past 25 years. It used data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study, which conduct regular standardised questionnaire studies in a group of countries that between them contain 90% of the world's population.

The present study, which is published in Perspectives on Psychological Science and is reported in New Scientist, used data from the 52 countries with the most complete data set from 1981 to 2007. Of these, 40 showed an increase in average happiness - as measured by their "subjective wellbeing" score - while in 12 countries happiness levels dropped. The average percentage of people saying they were "very happy" rose by 7%.

The advantage of comparing data from these surveys is that in each case the questions were asked in the same way, so changes are likely to reflect real changes in happiness rather than different ways of answering a slightly different set of questions. Of the most improved countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Slovenia showed the largest hikes in average happiness while at the bottom of the table were Hungary, India and Australia. The US was firmly mid-table at 29th with Britain four places behind. However, both countries did better when it came to changes in the size of the happiest group of people. In Britain, the number of people saying they were "very happy" went up by around 13%. The equivalent figure for the US was around 8%. In Mexico, the number of people in that category went up by nearly 25%, a bigger rise than in any other country.

As in previous analyses of the data, Latin American countries come out as particularly happy – more so than you would expect based on their GDP alone. "Happiness is the gap between what you have and what you expect to have in life. If that gap is very small then you are happy, and if it is quite wide then naturally you are quite unhappy," said Foa.

To get happier you can either reduce your expectations or increase what you have. Foa believes that the strong religious and family traditions of Latin American societies have served to help people come to terms with what they have, while at the same time they have advanced steadily economically – so the happiness gap has been narrowed from both ends.

Another major finding from the survey is that personal freedoms, democracy and a tolerant society are important for a nation's overall happiness, particularly in richer societies. Happiness on a national scale correlated well with high scores in an index measuring how accepting people were of having immigrants, homosexuals and people of different races as their neighbours. "In more affluent societies, people give higher priority to free choice and self-expression, which accordingly, play an increasingly important role in shaping their wellbeing," the authors write. "People living in more tolerant societies tend to be happier, regardless of their own beliefs."

[Another uplifting story…. But don’t worry I’m sure that I can dig up a bit of gloom from somewhere.]

Monday, August 25, 2008

eBay insect fossil is new species

From the BBC

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

A scientist who bought a fossilised insect on the web auction site eBay for £20 has discovered that it belongs to a previously unknown species of aphid. Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK's Royal Entomological Society, bought the fossil from an individual in Lithuania. He then sent it off to an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed the insect was a new species, now extinct.

The bug has been named Mindarus harringtoni after the scientist. "I was interested to see what it was because I've worked with a team of people involved in monitoring and forecasting aphids, those of greenfly and their relatives in this country," Dr Harrington told BBC News. "I looked at it with my team and we thought we could identify it down to the level of genus, but we had no idea what the species was."

Dr Harrington sent the specimen to Professor Ole Heie, a fossil aphid expert in Denmark. "He discovered that it was something that hadn't been described before," Dr Harrington explained. The insect itself is 3-4mm long and is encased in a 40-50 million-year-old piece of amber about the size of a small pill. "I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi," said Dr Harrington. "Unfortunately, using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days."

Instead, Professor Heie named the new species after Dr Harrington. "It's not uncommon to find insects in amber... but I'm not sure that one has turned up on eBay that has been undiscovered before. It's a rather unusual route to come by [a new species]," the researcher, based at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, explained. He said the insect would have fed on a tree called Pinus succinifera which is itself now long since extinct.

[This story made me laugh. Dr Harrington not only has a sense of humour – apparently something the naming organisation lacks – but has effectively gained a form of immortality for £20 through surfing eBay. I mean….. how cool is that!]

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell

June 1815. After a brief respite the armies of Napoleon are once again on the march. After holding the French advance at Quatre Bras the scratch British force is forced to withdraw after the retreat of their Prussian allies exposes their flank. The great General Wellington must search for a place to hold the most dangerous army in Europe. Falling back towards Brussels he halts his meagre force at a sleepy village called Waterloo. It is here that the British will face the might of the Emperors forces. Both sides are largely undefeated on the field of battle and both realise that the future of Europe will be decided on the killing fields of Belgium. If the British can hold the advance until reinforcements arrive all could still be saved. In the thick of the fighting is the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sharpe brought back from retirement for one last battle with his old enemy. But even Sharpe can see that the odds are terribly stacked against them. Maybe this will indeed be his last battle.

This is my 10th Sharpe novel which equals my 10 Anita Blake books. Sharpe is a wonderful character created by the extremely talented Bernard Cornwell. His books are windows into a different time full of the grit, desperation and heroism. The Napoleonic Wars are brought to life in all their awesome horror. Massed cavalry charges cut down by cannon fire, ranks of barely educated men disfigured by musket round and sabre cut, officers without the first notion of war casually killing their men wholesale for prestige and delusions of honour. Sharpe of course, being the hero, saves the day at the appropriate moment but not before he causes mayhem behind the lines as he challenges his wife’s lover to a duel and attempts to kill his dangerously stupid superior officer. This is a great book to literally lose yourself in. I found that it took me some moments to reconnect to the real world after being immersed in Cornwell’s or rather Sharpe’s one. I couldn’t help thinking that this novel was less of a book and more of a time machine. No wonder my clothes started to smell of gunpowder…..

Friday, August 22, 2008

My Favourite TV: Kung Fu

Running for 45 episodes between 1972 and 1975 this ground breaking show successfully mixed the martial arts genre with that of the classic Western. The premise of the show had David Carradine (playing the half Chinese half American Kwai Chang Caine) on the run from a crime he committed in China whilst searching the West for his half brother who is the only surviving link to his past. Along the way he uses his skill at Kung Fu as well as large dollops of Chinese philosophy to help people he comes across on his journey.

What made this show special to me was the figure of Caine himself. I can’t remember being particular impressed with the martial arts but what did strike me rather forcefully was the way he went about things. The character exhibited an amazing reverence for all life – even that of his opponents. He was at peace in a violent place and was unafraid in a land pervaded by fear. Above all else he exhibited a deep wisdom that left all those around him profoundly moved and more often than not bemused. I think it is not too far fetched to say that the wisdom of Caine had a significant influence on my teenage persona and probably was an important component of what makes me the person I am today. I’ve just finished watching the first series on DVD and was still much impressed by Carradine’s portrayal of the kindly, knowing and wise Kwai Chang Caine. The actually episodes, viewed through the cynical eyes of a 21st century TV viewer, are rather simplistic and to be honest rather slow in tempo but the nuggets of gold scattered throughout each episode still glitter as they did over 30 years ago. Caine's philosophy is simply breath-taking and as meaningful today as it was back then – maybe more so. I am really looking forward to watching the second series. If you missed this the first time around or where just too young to catch it I can recommend buying or borrowing the DVDs. If it is indeed your first time then I envy you because you’re in for a real treat. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wild dolphins tail-walk on water

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

By Richard Black for the BBC

A wild dolphin is apparently teaching other members of her group to walk on their tails, a behaviour usually seen only after training in captivity. The tail-walking group lives along the south Australian coast near Adelaide. One of them spent a short time after illness in a dolphinarium 20 years ago and may have picked up the trick there.

Scientists studying the group say tail-walk tuition has not been seen before, and suggest the habit may emerge as a form of "culture" among this group. "We can't for the life of us work out why they do it," said Mike Bossley from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), one of the scientists who have been monitoring the group on the Port River estuary. "We're doing systematic observations now to determine if there's something that may trigger it, but so far we haven't found anything," he told BBC News.

In the 1980s, Billie, one of the females in the group, spent a few weeks in a local dolphinarium recovering from malnutrition and sickness, a consequence of having been trapped in a marina lock. She received no training there, but may have seen others tail-walking. Now, other females in the group have picked up the habit. It is seen rarely in the wild, and the obvious inference is that they have learned it from Billie. "This indicates that they do learn from each other, which is not a surprise really, but it does also seem that they exhibit elements of what in humans we would call 'cultural' behaviour," said Dr Bossley.

"These are things that groups develop and are passed between individuals and that come to define those groups, such as language or dancing; and it would seem that among the Port River dolphins we may have an incipient tail-walking culture." The "cultural" transmission of ideas and skills has been documented in apes, while dolphins off the coast of Western Australia are known to teach their young to use sponges as an aid when gathering food.

[I love stories like this. It helps to pop the bubble around us that makes us feel so much superior to other animals and supposedly so unique that we have to be ‘special’ or ‘different’ or some such nonsense. We ignore the fact that other animals appear to have cultural traits or distinct languages or reasoning powers because not only does it diminish our ‘special’ relationship with the rest of nature but it also calls into question how we treat our fellow creatures. It appears to be in the interests of no one to elevate the standing of any other creature to anything approaching our own. Just imagine the levels of our well deserved guilt for all of the horrible things we continue to do to them.

Anyway, this story made me smile all day and still brings a smile to my face now. Nature still has the capacity to surprise me, entertain me and enlighten me. Long may it continue.]

Monday, August 18, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Plato – A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

At a mere 91 pages this was a very short introduction indeed. Saying that, it also turned out to be a very interesting. I’ve read bits and pieces by Professor Annas before. She writes very well indeed in a style that is both accessible and illuminating. So far in my wider reading I’ve only really dipped into the works of Plato (actually reading more about him than by him) so it was good the come across another slant of his rather large body of work. I had assumed that, despite speaking through the mouths of others in his collected books, he was actually putting across a coherent if evolving philosophy of life. Not so apparently! I had also assumed that Plato’s Forms where central to his work – again not so apparently. Having that viewpoint now in my mind was alone worth reading this book for. Now its for me to decide if I agree with the author – once I’ve read enough Plato to form an opinion on the subject.

I have certainly developed a fondness for the Ancient philosophers of both Greece and Rome over the last year. Not only do many of them seem strangely modern but they also seem to be saying many of the right things that we need to relearn in the modern world. Despite the gap of thousands of years I believe that these ancient scholars can still speak directly to the minds of people today and I think that we would be wise to listen to them.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lord Carey backs call for an end to the blasphemy law

From Ekklesia

25 Nov 2007

Replying to questions on a BBC TV programme today, Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has publicly agreed with the Christian think-tank Ekklesia that it is time for Britain's archaic blasphemy law to be abolished. Lord Carey, who is an outspoken conservative evangelical within the Church of England, was responding to comments by Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley on a discussion about blasphemy on BBC1's Sunday morning current affairs and religion programme, 'The Big Questions'.

The ex-Archbishop protested against what he said was an increase in "offensive" material about Christianity in the public domain, including 'Jerry Springer - The Opera', over which Stephen Green of Christian Voice is trying to arraign the BBC in a private prosecution. But Lord Carey said that Christ told his followers to put away their swords and did not seek to defend faith by force. Bartley said that a blasphemy law was itself blasphemous from a theological viewpoint, because it suggested that the transcendent God somehow needed human laws for protection.

Ekklesia has also pointed out that Christ faced an accusation of blasphemy at the trial that led to his death, and a Christian dramatist on the show said that many of Jesus' stories and comments caused great offence in his day. Blasphemy as a legal offence was backed by Tory MP Anne Widdecombe, a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, "so long as there is an Established Church in this country". Other supporters of blasphemy couched it in terms of a Christendom (church-state alliance) or theocratic approach. Ekklesia has argued that such views undermine a gospel of radical equality and humility rooted in the life of Christ.

Author and scientist Richard Dawkins, a campaigning atheist, said that free speech was indivisible, and that charges of blasphemy leading to a fatwa for Salman Rushdie was obscene and had affected his life deeply. Doctor Who and Torchwood star John Barrowman, who was offered a part in the Jerry Springer musical, also backed free speech on religion, and called for acceptance of gay people by the churches. Author Mark Vernon, an Anglican turned agnostic whose latest book is 'After Atheism', talked on the TV show about the bizarre and traumatic experience of being investigated by the police for blasphemy over a controversial poem some years ago.

[The whole idea of a blasphemy law seems totally bizarre to me. If we have free speech in this country we should be able to say things that might offend some people. If God exists He certainly doesn’t need human laws to defend Him. It’s about time that we ditched this archaic and frankly farcical idea.]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Aliens Vs Predator – Prey by Steve Perry & Stephani Perry

Machiko Noguchi is a low ranking official in a huge interstellar corporation. Based on the backward ranching colony on Ryushi she is considering her future and hopes for more interesting times ahead. She should have been careful what she wished for as that destiny is already on route to her. For Ryushi is a Predator training planet where young warriors are put through their paces against the Hard Meat – very sleek, very deadly and very black aliens bread for the hunt. Unfortunately for the colonists caught in the middle they’re going to have to choose between being prey, hosts or warriors. Machiko gets her wish and her fight for survival begins. But first she needs to decide who her enemies are and who can help her stay alive in circumstances she never believed possible in her wildest dreams.

I don’t normally read tie-in books because I often find them inferior to the original idea. But thought I’d give this a go – partially on the recommendation of my online gaming partner Ali_P and partly as something ‘different’ from my normal fare. This actually turned out to be a highly enjoyable novel. Whilst not exactly great literature (which I wasn’t honestly expecting) it was competently written, didn’t push the AvP genre beyond what I expected of it and was honestly gripping. Reasonable characterisation, fairly good plot and lots of heart thumping, gut ripping, acid spraying action. If you want a simple, brain in neutral alien on alien gore fest – with some distinctly disturbing moments – this is definitely the book for you. Pure entertainment!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hot super-Earths could host life after all

From New Scientist.

11 July 2008

Massive, rocky worlds called 'super-Earths' – even those orbiting searingly close to their stars – may provide the right conditions for life, new research suggests. At up to 15 times the mass of Earth, the rocky bodies are bigger and easier to spot than Earth-sized worlds, which have yet to be detected. In fact, technological advances recently led to the discovery of up to 45 new super-Earths, and astronomers say a third of all Sun-like stars may host the brawny planets.

But could they host life? "There's no reason why the different chemical cycles that are important for life on our planet wouldn't work on super-Earths," says Lisa Kaltenegger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, US.

Kaltenegger helped organise a recent conference session on the topic, and she says the consensus of attendees was similarly positive – even for those planets once dismissed as being too harsh for life. Super-Earths orbiting close to their stars, for example, experience gravitational tugs that keep them 'tidally locked' to their hosts. That means one side of such a planet always faces its star, the way the Moon always shows the same side to Earth.

Astronomers previously assumed such planets would be two-faced worlds of fire and ice, with one half molten and the other frozen. Early models suggested the atmospheres of such worlds would quickly vanish, as water vapour and other atmospheric molecules on the planet's dark side would turn to ice and plunge to the ground. "It was thought that after the atmosphere on the dark side was completely iced out, then it would suck atmosphere from the hot side, freezing that out as well," Kaltenegger told New Scientist.

But new models show that if a tidally locked super-Earth has an atmosphere at least as dense as Earth's, strong winds could transport heat from its hot side to its cold side. Similarly, if the planet has a global ocean, its currents could help spread the warmth.

This effect still wouldn't offset the intense heat the planets would experience at close distances to Sun-like stars. But it means super-Earths could potentially host life as close as 0.05 astronomical units away from dim stars known as red dwarfs, which make up about 85% of the stars in the galaxy (for comparison, Mercury lies 0.38 AU away from the Sun).

And in some ways, super-Earths might even be more likely to support life than their Earth-sized cousins, scientists say. Recent research suggests that super-Earths will experience more plate tectonic activity than smaller rocky worlds. On Earth, plate tectonics – the shifting and colliding of continental plates – is necessary for life.

It plays a crucial role in the carbon-silicate cycle, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the planet. Plate tectonics also locks the greenhouse gas in surface rocks and sequesters it in Earth's interior so that the planet doesn't heat up too much.

"The way we have experienced life on Earth is enabled by plate tectonics," says Diana Valencia, a graduate student at Harvard. Super-Earths should have larger molten cores and should generate more heat than Earth-sized worlds, Valencia told New Scientist. This could cause more vigorous convection in the planets' mantles and create thinner plates that slip and slide more easily.

Eventually, missions such as NASA's upcoming Kepler space telescope could find an Earth-sized planet in our galaxy. "But there's going to be a lot of super-Earths discovered before that," Valencia says. "If we're concerned about finding life, those are the planets we should be investigating right now."

[Well, it looks like the range of possible life-bearing planets just got a whole lot bigger! I’m hoping that they find something in the next 50 years. I think that it will have a profound impact on the way we see ourselves. Not being alone anymore will give some heart and make others afraid. I doubt if anyone will be unaffected by the idea.]

Saturday, August 09, 2008

'Big Brother' plan for police to use new road cameras

By Alan Travis for The Guardian

Wednesday July 18, 2007

"Big Brother" plans to automatically hand the police details of the daily journeys of millions of motorists tracked by road pricing cameras across the country were inadvertently disclosed by the Home Office last night. Leaked Whitehall background papers reveal that Home Office and transport ministers have clashed over plans for legislation this autumn enabling the police to get automatic "real-time" access to the bulk data from the traffic cameras now going into operation. The Home Office says the police need the data from the cameras, which can read and store every passing numberplate, "for all crime fighting purposes".

But transport ministers warn of concerns about privacy and "the potential for adverse publicity relating to plans for local road pricing" also due to be unveiled this autumn. There are already nearly 2,000 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras in place and they are due to double as road pricing schemes are expanded across the country. Douglas Alexander, who was transport secretary until three weeks ago, told the Home Office the bulk transfer of data to the police was out of proportion to the problem and "might be seen as colouring the debate about road charging (that material being collected for traffic purposes is being used for other outcomes)". The leaked Home Office note emerged yesterday as it was announced that the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, had waived Data Protection Act safeguards to allow the bulk transfer of data from London's congestion charge and traffic cameras to the Metropolitan police for the specific purpose of tracking potential terrorists in and around the capital. Transport for London was very reluctant to hand over the data without the home secretary issuing a special certificate exempting it from legal action from motorists worried about breach of their privacy. The leaked paper reveals that Home Office officials rate even this limited proposal as "highly controversial," never mind extending it across the whole country for "crime fighting".

"Civil rights groups and privacy campaigners may condemn this as further evidence of an encroaching 'big brother' approach to policing and security, particularly in light of the recent e-petition on roads pricing," says a Home Office note on its 'handling strategy' for the issue in reference to the runaway success of a petition on the Downing Street website against road charging. "Conversely, there may be surprise that the data collected by the congestion charge cameras is not already used for national security purposes and may lead to criticism that the matter is yet to be resolved." The leaked document also reveals the scale of possible national surveillance with ANPR. The police can compare details of vehicles entering the London congestion charge zone against a hotlist of target vehicles, and identify cars that have been at several sites at key times. The police say this could help pinpoint finds of terrorist material. At present the police can apply for the London congestion zone records only on a case by case basis. The new power will give police live access to all the data.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, said the "unintended act of open government" had revealed the disingenuous attitude of ministers towards public fears about a creeping surveillance state: "No wonder Douglas Alexander was keen to tone down these proposals, since he must know that public resistance to a road charging scheme will go through the roof if it is based on technology which poses a threat to personal privacy. Bit by bit, vast computer databases are being made inter-operable and yet the government seems to running scared of a full and public debate." Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "It is one thing to ask the public for special measures to fight the grave threat of terrorism, but when that becomes a Trojan horse for mass snooping for more petty matters it only leads to a loss of trust in government."

[Don’t you just love function creep. I still think that we should cut through all the BS & cut right to the chase. Tattoo a barcode on everyone’s forehead and put cameras in peoples homes. Job done, everyone’s safe and we can all sleep snugly in our beds sure in the knowledge that our Government loves us and watches us 24/7]

Friday, August 08, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

Two thousand years in the future humanity is a (very) small part of a galaxy spanning civilisation billions of years older than the Earth itself. The galaxy is (heavily) populated with thousands of strange alien species whose knowledge and technology is far beyond our own, indeed so advanced as to be simply incomprehensible. One of the oldest – if you believe them – are gas-giant dwellers predictably called The Dwellers. Known for their strange ways, strange sense of humour and even stranger filing systems they are courted by groups of investigators who desperately try to glean information from their chaotic libraries full of ancient knowledge. Unknown to Fassin Taak he has already stumbled upon quite possibly the most important piece of information in history – a cipher responsible for revealing the location of millions of wormholes capable of transporting ships across vast distances in seconds. After news of the discovery leaks out, Fassin is ordered to return to the Dweller world of Nasqueron to secure the cipher. But even as he begins his journey a Tyrants massive invasion fleet is already on route to secure the source of galactic power for himself.

I just have to say this first to get it out of the way. Iain M Banks ROCKS! The man who invented The Culture can do little wrong as far as I am concerned and most certainly lived up to his reputation with this majestic work. I haven’t read any real space-opera for sometime and I now realise my loss. This book is on a truly enormous scale – both in time and space. We are talking 15 Billion years and the entire galaxy as the author’s playground – and play he does. His characters are universally gobsmackingly wonderful. His aliens (whilst often being very alien) are sympathetic, understandable, funny, and more often than not loveable. He has an amazing capacity to create instantly unforgettable people, places, ideas and….. Well, you get the picture. I only had one (minor) gripe with this book in that the initial quest for the cipher went on a bit too long for me and I started to get a bit impatient with it all. The final section, however, more than made up for this – in spades. I loved the amazing space battles, brief though they often were, I loved the weirdness of the aliens, I loved the AI’s (a recurring theme in Bank’s work), I loved the sheer madness of the Tyrant, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. Not his best but pretty damned close. Enjoy.

Monday, August 04, 2008

70 Years ago today.....

The first Spitfire was delivered to the RAF.....

Sizeable Minority In US Condone Torture

by Patrick Worsnip for Reuters

Friday, June 27, 2008

UNITED NATIONS - The number of Americans who would condone torture, at least when used on terrorists in order to save lives, has risen over the past two years and now stands at over 40 percent, according to a new opinion poll. The poll released by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project managed by the University of Maryland, found that a narrow majority of Americans — 53 percent — think all torture should be banned. But 31 percent would accept it in terrorism cases to save innocent lives and a further 13 percent said it should be allowed in other circumstances as well, the nationwide poll of 1,309 people found. The remaining 3 percent did not know or did not answer. The margin of error was 3.3 percent. WorldPublicOpinion said a 2006 poll found that 36 percent of Americans would accept torture in terrorism or other cases, compared with 44 percent now.

The latest poll was part of an international survey of public attitudes to torture, which found that 57 percent of respondents in 19 countries opposed it under all circumstances. But in India, Nigeria, Turkey and South Korea, a majority agreed with torture at least in some cases. The findings were issued at the United Nations ahead of International Victims of Torture Day on Thursday. The issue is controversial in the United States because of reports of tough questioning of terrorism suspects at U.S. detention centres in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President George W. Bush has said the United States does not practice torture. But the Central Intelligence Agency has admitted using “waterboarding”, a form of simulated drowning, and a recent Justice Department probe cited cases of sleep disruption, “short shackling” and other physical techniques. People polled were asked to comment on the statement: “Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that would save innocent lives.”

WorldPublicOpinion had little explanation for the apparent rise in U.S. public tolerance for torture except to say that “the U.S. public receives a steady stream of news reports about terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.” In other countries, it said, events in the past 18 months may have influenced the public. There had been attacks by Kashmiri separatists in India and Kurdish separatists in Turkey, while two South Korean aid workers had been kidnapped and killed by Taliban rebels in Afghanistan. But Steve Kull of WorldPublicOpinion told a U.N. news conference on Tuesday that “the Bush administration taking the position in defence of waterboarding … I think probably has contributed to some extent to a weakening of the norm globally.”

Yvonne Terlingen, U.N. representative of rights group Amnesty International, told the news conference, “The role played by the United States in undermining the universal prohibition on torture cannot be underestimated.” U.S. mission spokesman Richard Grenell dismissed the claim, saying Terlingen “knows the United States does not torture. The American men and women who protect us deserve our support.” Some 145 of the 192 U.N. member states are parties to a 1985 U.N. convention banning torture. But Amnesty says a majority of states either practice it secretly or are complicit in it by sending people back to countries where they know they will be tortured. India, which had the highest percentage — 59 percent — of people condoning torture for one reason or another, has signed but not ratified the convention. Terlingen said it was “really shocking” that overall in the 19 countries polled as few as 57 percent opposed torture.

[Amazing statistics. Personally I blame 24 and the actions of Jack Bauer……]

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Two Faces of Liberalism by John Gray

I have to admit that this was a difficult read – partially I think because it was, until recently, a part of my bedtime reading. This meant that I was reading it whilst feeling fairly tired and only managed four or five pages a night. This is a book that demands more concentration than my bedtime regime allows. Consequently after several weeks of minimal progress I finished Gray’s book whilst on a training course in London where I could give it the attention it needed in my hotel room.

Gray puts forward the idea that Liberalism contains threads which are basically contradictory, in that liberal philosophy teaches toleration of difference and yet at the same time puts forward its own philosophy (that of consensus) as the best form of society. Gray certainly made his point but ruined the message somewhat with incessant repetition. He did himself no favours by labouring his point and I lost count of the number of times I rolled my eyes and mumbled ‘OK, I’ve got that point… now move on to something else already!’ Despite being a rather short work (a scant 139 pages) I felt that it could have easily been condensed into a few chapters in a larger book. He did, I admit, produce a fairly devastating critique of both Human Rights and Rawlsian Justice which I found illuminating. Saving the best for last the final chapter on Modus Vivendi was an interesting discussion on different forms of government and how it is impossible – or at least very difficult – to see how Liberalism could possibly be the best fit in all circumstances. Overall this was worth the effort needed to finish it but I felt that it was far from his best work.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Picture Time.

Here's an awesome still from the 1950 version of Gun Crazy starring Peggy Cummins and Bart Tare. I really must order this on DVD.