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

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Favourite Movies: The Big Sleep

LA detective Philip Marlowe (played almost effortlessly by Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood to protect his wayward daughters from a blackmailer. Once on the case Marlowe finds himself slipping deeper into the sordid world of gamblers, grifters and pornographers. Everyone it seems is holding secrets – including the coldly beautiful elder Sternwood daughter (played by Lauren Bacall). Marlowe must figure out what each of the players is hiding before one of them literally kills him. Made in 1946 by Howard Hawks this iconic Film Noir is a master class in movie making. Not only beautifully filmed and acted to perfection this film is a gripping mystery as we watch Marlowe work his was through a labyrinthine plot to find what exactly is being held over the Sternwood family.

There are many things I love about this film. It’s not just the atmosphere that you could cut with a knife. It’s not just the ability of the actors playing the smaller parts – including the always watchable Elisha Cook Jr as the hard done by ‘heavy’ and the delightful Dorothy Malone playing the intrigued ACME bookstore owner and it’s not just the snappy dialogue. It’s the mixing of all of these things with Hawks’ consummate skill and not a little humour too.

I’d read somewhere that the plot – presumably taken from the original novel by Raymond Chandler (I couldn’t compare the two as its been many years since I read it) – makes no sense as Marlowe ‘discovered’ things that he couldn’t possibly have know in order for the plot to move forward. But when I watched it again recently I followed Marlowe’s trial quite easily. It was all very reasonable and logical. This is a great movie to watch on a wet Sunday afternoon with a glass of wine in hand. Just relax and let the Noir mood seep into your bones.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thinking About: My Dad

Somewhat strangely – or maybe not so strangely – I find myself thinking more about my Father now that he’s dead than I ever did when he was alive. Maybe it’s because now I have lost the opportunity to actually get to know him better. My family are not exactly forthcoming or emotional but is still surprises me that I actually know very little about my Dad. I know he was born in 1929 and joked that he was at sea during the war – being on a boat aged 10 with his family coming to England from Eire. I know he did National Service in the 50’s and was based, I believe, in Newcastle of all places. He must have met my Mum in the early 50’s and they got married, I think, around 1956. After that he spent most of his working life on various building sites. I know that times were not always easy but there was always food on the table and clothes on our backs. Thinking back I think that we were rather ungrateful children – at least me and my brother were – because we were blissfully unaware of my parents lack of money.

I think the most personal thing my father gave me was a love of film. I have memories of watching apparently endless black and white movies during the weekends as well as seemingly constant trips to the cinema where my love affair with the movies deepened. My father was also an explorer, taking us out on trips all around the area. Whenever we complained that we’d walked too far he always said “Let’s see what’s around the next corner.” Of course this turned into the next corner and the one after that. Then there were the museums and art galleries where we spent hours looking at artefacts from around the world and through the ages. We often ended up at Liverpool docks watching the ships come in. I remember (vaguely) scampering over warships that visited the port including – I think – the Ark Royal and a nuclear submarine. One of our favourite trips was on the ferry across the Mersey. In those days you only paid if you got off at Birkenhead so we stayed on and got a free trip across the river and back again. Of course the common denominator in all of this is that it hardly cost any money at all – because, I’m convinced, we simply didn’t have any. Oddly I can’t ever really remember noticing that we were poor in any way, probably because everyone around us was in pretty much the same position. I mean we didn’t have inside plumbing until 1970 after I had turned 10.

After I moved out on going to University I didn’t go home very often and as the years passed I became shocked at how old my father had become – as if the aging process had simply accelerated somehow. Of course it hadn’t it was just that I saw my family less and less often. Dad had always had problems communicating with his kids – though again oddly total strangers would stop him in the street for a chat (something they do to me too!) – so we never exactly engaged in long conversations. Then in the blink of an eye he was gone. I’d been home one November for a week because I wasn’t planning to go home for Christmas that year. Dad was still getting over a bout of illness and had recovered some of his strength and weight. He seemed actually healthier than I’d seen him in a while. A few weeks later he was in hospital with a lung infection. A few days after that he was dead.

I got some compassionate leave from work and got the train home. That was a weird trip. Everything seems either hyper-real or totally unreal. I can’t really make my mind up which. I hated the funeral. We were driven to the crematorium in a big black limousine and I felt as if everyone was looking at us – which they probably were. My mother – bless her – had requested a light Christian ceremony rather than the full on Catholic affair. She said to me “No tutting or rolling of the eyes, OK.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that. I actually lost count of the number of times the stand-in priest mentioned God but I kept my word and not one tut escaped my lips. What disgusted me most though was the conveyor belt process it turned out to be. After the words were said the coffin was whisked away and we were ushered out of the side door to allow the next family to have their 40 minutes of public bereavement. Then back home in the limo again. Apart from the family hardly anyone attended. This was partially because Mum didn’t want a fuss and partially because we don’t know that many people. I couldn’t help wondering how many people would be at my funeral.

I didn’t cry. After three years I still haven’t cried. I was expecting to after it hit me but still – nothing. I did feel numb for a while and sad for much longer but actual tears? No. I did feel a bit guilty about that. I still do. But I do think of him more than I ever did. Maybe that’s something at least. I do look in the mirror sometimes and can’t help seeing how much I look like him. Maybe that’s another of his legacies. Maybe that’s how I’ll keep on remembering him. That and classic movies oh, and John Wayne.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

National Intelligence Council Report: Sun Setting on The American Century

by Tim Reid for The Times

Friday, November 21, 2008

WASHINGTON _ The next two decades will see a world living with the daily threat of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe and the decline of America as the dominant global power, according to a frighteningly bleak assessment by the US intelligence community. The report said that global warming will aggravate the scarcity of water, food and energy resources. Don't worry, though, there's good news in it, too. "The world of the near future will be subject to an increased likelihood of conflict over resources, including food and water, and will be haunted by the persistence of rogue states and terrorist groups with greater access to nuclear weapons," said the report by the National Intelligence Council, a body of analysts from across the US intelligence community. The analysts said that the report had been prepared in time for Barack Obama's entry into the Oval office on January 20, where he will be faced with some of the greatest challenges of any newly elected US president. "The likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used will increase with expanded access to technology and a widening range of options for limited strikes," the 121-page assessment said.

The analysts draw attention to an already escalating nuclear arms race in the Middle East and anticipate that a growing number of rogue states will be prepared to share their destructive technology with terror groups. "Over the next 15-20 years reactions to the decisions Iran makes about its nuclear programme could cause a number of regional states to intensify these efforts and consider actively pursuing nuclear weapons," the report Global Trends 2025 said. "This will add a new and more dangerous dimension to what is likely to be increasing competition for influence within the region," it said. The spread of nuclear capabilities will raise questions about the ability of weak states to safeguard them, it added. "If the number of nuclear-capable states increases, so will the number of countries potentially willing to provide nuclear assistance to other countries or to terrorists."

The report said that global warming will aggravate the scarcity of water, food and energy resources. Citing a British study, it said that climate change could force up to 200 million people to migrate to more temperate zones. "Widening gaps in birth rates and wealth-to-poverty ratios, and the impact of climate change, could further exacerbate tensions," it said. "The international system will be almost unrecognisable by 2025, owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalising economy, a transfer of wealth from West to East, and the growing influence of nonstate actors. Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States' relative strength - even in the military realm - will decline and US leverage will become more strained." Global power will be multipolar with the rise of India and China, and the Korean peninsula will be unified in some form. Turning to the current financial situation, the analysts say that the financial crisis on Wall Street is the beginning of a global economic rebalancing. The US dollar's role as the major world currency will weaken to the point where it becomes a "first among equals".

"Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments and technological innovation, but we cannot rule out a 19th-century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries." The report, based on a global survey of experts and trends, was more pessimistic about America's global status than previous outlooks prepared every four years. It said that outcomes will depend in part on the actions of political leaders. "The next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks," it said. The analysts also give warning that the kind of organised crime plaguing Russia could eventually take over the government of an Eastern or Central European country, and that countries in Africa and South Asia may find themselves ungoverned, as states wither away under pressure from security threats and diminishing resources..

The US intelligence community expects that terrorism would survive until 2025, but in slightly different form, suggesting that al Qaeda's "terrorist wave" might be breaking up. "Al Qaeda's inability to attract broad-based support might cause it to decay sooner than people think," it said. On a positive note it added that an alternative to oil might be in place by 2025.

[Wow… Even centuries suffer from deflation… It looks like the American ‘Century’ is going to last less than 50 years. Personally I think that this century belongs to the Chinese……]

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Guess what? Self-interest is bad for the economy

Simon Caulkin, The Observer management

Sunday November 16 2008

If you thought you felt the earth shudder on 23 October, you were right. When Alan Greenspan told the House Oversight Committee 'I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms', the effect was the same as Frodo and Sam casting the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom at the end of The Lord of the Rings: the edifice of 21st-century management shook to its foundations.

Self-interest as the driver that, like an invisible hand, permits individuals acting on their own behalf to benefit society as a whole goes back to Adam Smith. But Smith at least realised the drastic inequities it would cause and proposed measures, including progressive taxes, to mitigate the worst effects. No such caution has been in evidence since the 1960s as the concept has become the central belief around which all Anglo-American corporate governance, and thence management as a whole, revolves. Self-interest (and the need to guard against it) is the reason for dividing the chairman and chief executive's role, just as it is for setting executive and non-exec directors against each other; self-interest justifies and encourages individuals to demand vast pay (including in the public sector) without thought for the consequences; finally, a near religious faith in the power of self-interest to both motivate and police is the foundation on which, as Greenspan now regrets, Wall Street's rocket scientists erected the teetering superstructure of debt instruments crashing down around us.

The real-world consequences of a commercial universe with self-interest at its heart thus give the lie to previous assumptions about how individuals and organisations work. In this sense, Greenspan's mea culpa might be likened to the Vatican's admission in 1992 after a 13-year inquiry that Galileo had, after all, been right ('It's official - the Earth moves round the sun,' as the Chicago Sun-Times caustically put it at the time). Common sense suggests a number of reasons why self-interest-centred commerce is as flawed a model as an Earth-centred solar system. Self-interest contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. It drives for reward, but once rewards reach a certain size it can no longer function as a discipline. When rewards were less high, self-interest was tempered by the need to nurture the reputation a career depended on. With salaries at current stratospheric levels, however, self-interest provides no such restraint, since careers are redundant. Anyone who has done one big deal - or worked in the City for more than a few years - never need work again. Far from being a restraining influence, in these circumstances self-interest promotes a short-term focus on transactions that in turn amplifies its second baleful impact: increasing distrust. As anyone not blinded by fundamentalist zeal must see, the obverse of the coin of self-interest is lack of trust - and both are self-reinforcing. The swelling of self-interest is in direct proportion to the draining away of trust, the cumulative results of which are now visible all around us.

An interesting recent article in the science weekly Nature, signalled by a correspondent, laments how dependent economics is on unproven axioms, and how resistant to empirical observation. In the physical sciences, notes the (physicist and hedge-fund manager) author, researchers 'have learnt to be suspicious of axioms. If empirical observation is incompatible with a model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient'. Not so in economics, whose central tenets - rational agents, the invisible hand, efficient markets - derive from economic work done in the 1950s and 1960s, 'which with hindsight looks more like propaganda against communism than plausible science. In reality, markets are not efficient, humans tend to be over-focused on the short term and blind in the long term, and errors get multiplied, ultimately leading to collective irrationality, panic and crashes. Free markets are wild markets' - for which classical economics has no framework of understanding.

In fact, it's even worse. It isn't just that, as the author points out, economics has been remarkably incapable of predicting or averting crises such as the present credit crunch; through the medium of management based on its faulty assumptions, it has actually helped to cause it. It's an error to think that management, or even economics, can ever be a 'hard' science, not least because of their self-fulfilling premises. That doesn't mean they are unworthy of study and understanding. On the contrary. But, as Greenspan sorrowfully acknowledges, the first step on that path is to bow to empirical observation and stop trying to prove the Earth is the centre of the universe.

[It would appear the greed is not good after all. Who would have possibly imagined that?]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Favourite Movies: Troy

This is certainly not a great film even in its own sword and sandal epic genre. Yet despite its many faults I have to admit that there are elements within the movie that I really liked. That being the case it just managed to nudge itself over the line to get my coveted Gold Award.

Now I haven’t read The Iliad – the Greek epic poem on which it was based – but I am aware enough of the story. In a nutshell the action takes place over 3000 years ago when King Agamemnon (played in rather over the top fashion by Brian Cox) is unifying Greece under his rule. His brother – Menelaus King of Sparta (played by Brendan Gleeson) – has just signed a peace treaty with the greatest city in the East, the legendary Troy. Unfortunately his new wife Helen has fallen in love with the Trojan prince Paris (played rather badly by Orlando Bloom) who steals her away to his home city thus sparking the Trojan War. Agamemnon puts together a huge armada of 1000 ships and sets sail to conquer the last remaining threat to his power. Of the 50,000 Greek soldiers he commands are heroes whose names have travelled down the ages – Ajax, Odysseus and the greatest warrior of the age Achilles (played by Brad Pitt).

It is the character of Achilles that sold me on this movie. Pitt, I thought, played him superbly. As I’ve said I haven’t read the original text so can’t comment on the accuracy of the characters portrayal but just loved the way it came across. Achilles was more than aware that he was the greatest warrior who had ever lived, who was undefeated and almost untouched in battle. Yet he was at the same time a deeply tragic figure who passionately hated his fate. He had a disregard for just about everything except that he was determined – driven even – to be remembered down the ages. At one point his mother told him that he had a choice between a long happy life with many children but ultimate obscurity or a short bloody life with eternal fame. Well, we all know which life he chose.

The other thing I liked very much about the film was Achilles’ fight with Hector (played competently by Eric Bana) outside Troy’s city walls which was quite superbly choreographed. I do remember though that at this point in the legend that Paris shot an arrow from the battlements which hit Achilles in his only vulnerable spot (his heel of course). The filmed however added a love story between Achilles and Briseis (played by the delightful Rose Byrne) which meant that the death of Achilles was delayed until after Troy fell care of the infamous Trojan horse.

Of course there was many things wrong with the film but they didn’t really add up to very much in my view. I do know people who took an instant dislike to the film – especially with its truncated timeline but textual accuracy has never really been a Hollywood priority. Whilst being far from a perfect film or even a great one Troy is still entertaining enough but it is the central character of Achilles that pushes this film into my favourite category. OK, only just but it still counts.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: RAMA Revealed by Arthur C Clarke and Gentry Lee.

I read the first book in this long running trilogy – Rendezvous with RAMA – in my youth and was suitably impressed. I don’t actually remember much about the sequel except for the fact that I read it some years back. So after reading a string of modern novels by (fairly) new authors I thought I’d pick up a book that has been literally collecting dust and finish the series off.

The book started off slowly and laid some foundations regarding the human occupation of the alien construct known as RAMA. Slowly it built characters and situations and introduced new elements. Slowly it expanded the exploration of the giant cylinder and its many strange inhabitants. I did feel on more than one occasion a bit like I did while watching the first Star Trek movie. The characters in that less than shining example of the genre seemed to spend most of their time gaping at the special effects as if to pass on their amazement to the audience. Well, it didn’t work in the movie and it didn’t work here either. As amazing as the object was and as amazing as the many creatures encountered in the first 214 pages were (that is as far as I got, not being able to work up enough enthusiasm to read the other 263) I was quite frankly bored senseless by the glacial pace of this novel. Although it contained fairly interesting characters, after 10 days of reading – yes at a mere 21 pages a day – I honestly couldn’t care if they lived or died, nor did I care if RAMA arrived at its final destination nor if the secret of the alien ship was finally revealed. After 10 turgid days I was about the give up the will to live – but instead I decided to give up on this book. This is a very rare event indeed. I have criticised bad books in the past on this blog but have at least finished them. Not so with this poor excuse for Science Fiction. Sorry Arthur, but as much as I have enjoyed your work in the past this was a true stinker of a novel. At least I had the good sense to abandon it now rather than struggle with it for another week or more. A truly awful book.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Now He Must Declare That the War on Terror Is Over

Friday, November 7, 2008 by Jonathan Steele for The Guardian

A day of joy but also another day of horror. Even as American voters were giving the world the man whom opinion polls showed to be the overwhelming favourite in almost every country, his predecessor's terrible legacy was already crowding in on the president-elect. Twenty-three children and 10 women died in the latest US air strike in Afghanistan, a failed war on terror that has only brought worse terror in its wake. In Iraq, explosions killed 13 people. Obama's stand against an unpopular war was the bedrock of his success on Tuesday, even though the financial meltdown sealed his victory. Now he must make good on his promises of withdrawal.

On Iran, the last of the toughest three issues in his foreign in-tray, his line differed sharply from McCain's. In contrast to the Republican's call to "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran", Obama offered dialogue. Though he qualified his initial talk of having the president sit down with his Iranian counterpart, he remains wedded to engagement rather than boycott. In this arc of conflict - Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - Obama's approach is preferable to Bush's or McCain's. The century-old paradigm of Republicans as the party of realism and the Democrats as the party of ideologues was turned upside down by the neocons. Bush led an administration of crusaders and took the country to disaster. Obama offers a return to traditional diplomacy. Nevertheless, his position contains massive inconsistencies. While his instincts are cautious and pragmatic, he has not repudiated the war on terror. Rather, he insists that by focusing excessively on Iraq, the Bush administration "took its eye off the ball". The real target must be Afghanistan and if Osama bin Laden is spotted in Pakistan, bombing must be used there too. This is a cul-de-sac. If the most important single thing that Obama should do quickly is to announce the immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay, the corollary has to be a declaration that the war on terror is over. Accept that terrorism is a technique. It is not an ideology. The west faces no global enemy, no worldwide Islamofascist conspiracy. Foreign crises should be treated on a case-by-case basis. Their roots lie in the complex interplay of local tensions, social grievances, economic inequalities, unemployment, food and water shortages and cultural prejudice that plagues so many countries. If fundamentalists of this ideology or that religion try to exploit that, they only scratch the surface. Don't hand them the gift of overreaction.

In Afghanistan that means separating the issue of the Taliban from that of al-Qaida. Nato's tentative new policy of talking to the Taliban should be expanded, so that foreign troops can be withdrawn from the south. The trend should be to bring troops out, not send more in. Erratic air strikes only enrage the population and foster the Pashtun resistance that is the foundation of the Taliban's support. Similarly in Pakistan Obama should forge stronger ties to the new government and give it funds to bring development to the North-West Frontier Province. Let Pakistani politicians take the lead in working with tribal authorities. In Iraq the contradictions in Obama's policy centre on his plans to keep a "residual force". His promise to withdraw all combat troops by June 2010 will be welcomed by a majority in Iraq's parliament, which has been refusing to accept Bush's draft agreement, partly in the expectation that Obama would offer terms that better respected Iraq's sovereignty. But what does Obama mean by a residual force? He says it would hunt al-Qaida militants, protect the vast US embassy, and train the Iraqi army. Officials on his team say it could number as many as 50,000 troops. Even if much of this force remains on bases and is barely visible to Iraqi civilians (much as the 4,500 British at Basra airfield are), it cannot avoid symbolising the fact that the occupation continues. Obama should seize the opportunity to withdraw the US from Iraq with dignity. Only a total pull-out can remove the anger over the US occupation felt by most Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will resist this. They will tell Obama that a US retreat hands victory to a resurgent Iran and Shias everywhere. But it is not a US withdrawal that will help Iran. Bush's war has already done that, since it was bound to empower Iraq's majority community. The best way to prevent Iran's strong relationship with the government in Baghdad from becoming a regional threat is for the US to engage with Iran and forge a new relationship. Of course, that is easier said than done. By coincidence, American voters elected Obama on the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. American attitudes are still distorted by feelings of anger, humiliation and revenge going back 29 years. Iranian leaders are also wary, assuming reasonably enough that Bush was bent on "regime change" and Obama's softer policy may contain the same sting. In his anniversary speech, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the hostage seizure, as usual, as a blow against "global arrogance" - the shorthand now used for the US instead of the "Great Satan". But Khamenei raised the stakes by insisting the US must apologise for Bush's efforts to undermine Iran. He attacked what he called "the various plots the US government has hatched against Iran for the past five years". "Americans have not only refused to apologise for their acts but have also continued with their hegemony," he continued. "We are for safeguarding our identity, independence and dignity."

Nevertheless, most analysts in Tehran believe Iranian politicians want a new start. "The only opponents of dialogue with the US are hardliners in the conservative camp," Dr Hossein Adeli, a former ambassador in London who heads the Ravand thinktank, told me last week. "They're scattered among various factions. The mainstream of the conservatives favour dialogue with the US, as long as they conduct it themselves. Only if the reformist were running the dialogue might the conservatives oppose it." In spite of his preference for dialogue, Obama refers to Iran's government as a "regime", and calls it "a threat to all of us". He also favours sanctions as long as Iran fails to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. Nor has he ruled out military action. But Iranians say the basis for compromise exists. The challenge for Obama is to show the world whether he is ready to offer Tehran a grand bargain rather than a big bang.

[Even with Obama in the Whitehouse next year I do wonder how much American foreign policy will change – or can change. I’m guessing that there will be somewhat less rattling of sabres but will the widespread targeting of suspected terrorists on ‘actionable intelligence’ via the medium of laser guided bombs and UAV launched missiles cease under his watch? Will the number of civilian casualties decline once Obama is in charge? I know much is expected of him, not just by Americans but by the rest of the world. But as much as I admire him – or at least what he says – I shall hold off on my full opinion until he shows us that he can back up his words with actions. I do hope that he can do so for everyone’s sake.]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The Gunpowder Plot – Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now and it seemed an appropriate time to do so. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was the culmination of many months of planning and many years – indeed decades – of religious persecution. During the long reign of Elizabeth and the short reign of James I up to the historic events of late 1605 the minority Catholic population lived under an increasingly harsh Protestant regime. Non conformity to Protestantism resulted in fines and imprisonment as did the wearing of religious icons. Performing a Mass or importing religious artefacts could result in a particularly gruesome form of public execution. It was not a good time to be a devout Catholic.

But all of this seemed to be changing on the event of Elizabeth’s death. James had apparently offered the hand of reconciliation and tolerance to the Catholics in his new Kingdom. Unfortunately any hopes were quickly dashed and the full force of a theocratic police state was brought to bear on those outside the Protestant faith. Of course things had not been helped by the Pope excommunicating Elizabeth I and extolling her Catholic subjects – who where afterwards not subject to her but to the Pope – to rise up against their Sovereign. For real fear of armed insurrection the penalties levied on the Catholics were harsh indeed.

Thrown back on their own resources and with a growing feeling of desperation a small band of men decided that enough was enough. They decided that the only solution was the elimination of the King and his ministers in one awful spectacular. They would kill him and everyone around him on the state opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605. Of course, as every English schoolboy knows, events did not go as planned. Before the plot could come to its bloody fruition Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and the attempt to change English history unravelled.

Antonia Fraser in her very readable, if occasionally rather dry, book went into far more detail than I could have ever wished to know about the events surrounding this significant event in our nations history. I knew the basics but this book made me acutely aware of what it must have been like to have been a Catholic in the early 17th Century. I suppose this was all the more poignant from my perspective as, technically at least, I am a Catholic myself. It certainly made me feel more sympathetic than maybe I would have been if I were not ‘of that faith’. I couldn’t help wondering what I would have done if I had been in their rather troubled and undoubtedly painful shoes. Fraser most certainly brought home the plight of these clearly oppressed men and women who were in all honestly merely following their faith. Unfortunately for all concerned, the times and circumstances were against them. In some ways the Gunpowder Plot itself was inevitable given the level of oppression and the lack of viable alternatives. In other ways – as the author pointed out – it was a literally horrifying affront to the views of the time which contributed to the deaths of all involved and the backlash against the larger Catholic community.

In the final section Antonia Fraser mentioned, as if in passing, several facts that almost shocked me speechless. Apparently Catholics could not vote in local elections until 1797 nor could they vote in Parliamentary elections until 1829. That’s only 180 years ago! I couldn’t believe that ‘we’ – at this point I was identifying with the downtrodden minority religion - could not even exercise our democratic rights and duties until the early part of the 19th Century. So what must it have been like and what must it have felt like 220 years previously? I am still struggling to get my head around it. The things we do to each other in the name of religion never cease to amaze me. The sooner we turn our backs on it so much the better I think. History can teach us lessons for today. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 teaches us that oppression and discrimination breed violence and that desperate people in desperate times resort to desperate methods. It would appear that it is a lesson that many have forgotten.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

Thinking About: Parenthood

There’s a good chance that I will never be a parent. Although I still think of myself as fairly young in the scheme of things I know that I’m not. Of course advanced age is no great barrier to becoming a father – especially in these days of pharmacological assistance – though I can’t help but question the wisdom of bringing a child into the world that you are unlikely to see into maturity. Then there is the ethical issue of bringing another mouth to feed to an already overcrowded and hungry world. I struggle with those who insist on producing child after child knowing that the quality of each successive child’s life will be lower than those that went before.

Of course the biggest stumbling block to me actually fathering any children is the lack of a partner. I have never exactly been successful with women and doubt if that’s going to change anytime soon. In some ways it would have been nice to have a few little Cyberkitten’s scampering around the house but in other ways I’m glad that fate had other things in mind for me. After all I have money in the bank and the ability to spend it on whatever I wish without the nagging voice (probably of my partner) telling me that food on the table and shoes on their feet is more important that a new 40” TV or the latest X-Box game. So being both single and childless does have some advantages.

But I do like kids – generally – and for some unfathomable reason most of them seem to like me. Probably it’s because I never really grew up together with the fact that I tend to treat everyone the same no matter what their age. Most of them I’m sure just think I’m weird but in an amusing ‘crazy uncle’ sort of way. It does amuse me when I get them to question their concept of adults. You can see them trying to fit me into their worldview and, often, failing. Maybe that’s why kids like me and women don’t? I’m difficult to pigeonhole. Well, it’s a good a theory as I can think of right now.

Luckily for me – in a strange sort of way – at least my genetic inheritance won’t die with me (and my brother who is as far as I know also childless) as my sister has managed to produce five healthy apparently normal children. As we’re both from the same side of the gene-pool her children will be carrying a fair few of my genes too. So all is not lost. It would still have been nice to have one of my own though or maybe two. Sometimes I think I would’ve been a good Dad but at other times I wonder just how much psychological damage I could have caused before they managed to escape the family home. Most of the people I know are examples of the walking wounded where families are concerned. I think I probably know no more than a handful of people who have described their upbringing as happy so maybe its best that I don’t add my fumbling attempts at parenting to the mix. I guess that I’ll just stay in my role of the weird uncle who swings by once a year distributing gifts. It’s probably safer for everyone that way [grin].

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Exoplanet circles 'normal star'

From the BBC

Monday, 15 September 2008

A planet has been pictured outside our Solar System which appears to be circling a star like our own Sun - a first in astronomy. Most of the potential exoplanets imaged to date have been seen orbiting brown dwarfs, which are dim - making it easier to detect companion objects. The new planet is huge, with a mass about eight times that of Jupiter. The Canadian team that obtained the picture says the parent star is similar to the Sun but somewhat younger.

Three astronomers from the University of Toronto used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to take images of the young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and the planetary candidate. The star and its companion lie about 500 light-years from Earth. "This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our Sun," said lead author David Lafreniere. "If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward."

The planet itself lies out at a great distance from its parent star: about 330 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. By comparison, the most distant planet in our Solar System, Neptune, orbits at about 30 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Dr Matt Burleigh, from the University of Leicester, UK, commented: "This is a very good candidate for a first picture of a planet orbiting a normal star. Now the team needs to make more observations to hopefully confirm that the two are moving together through space," he told BBC News. Finding a planetary-mass companion so far from its parent star came as a surprise to the astronomers, and poses a challenge to theories of star and planet formation.

The astronomers used adaptive optics technology to reduce the distortions to the image caused by turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere. The near-infrared images and spectra of the planetary candidate indicate that it is too cool to be a star or a brown dwarf - a failed star. It may take about two years to confirm that the star and its probable planet are moving through space together. The object is about 1,500C (1,800 Kelvin) - much hotter than Jupiter, which it resembles in terms of size. The work that led to this discovery is part of a survey of more than 85 stars in the Upper Scorpius association - a group of young stars formed about five million years ago.

[It sounds like a rather bizarre planet but there might be smaller planets closer in and somewhat cooler… maybe with liquid water and blue skies….. Maybe……]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

May 1941. Eric DeHann, Captain of the tramp steamer Noordendam wants to fight for his native Holland but failed to do so before his country was over-run by German forces. But now he is offered the chance to serve in another capacity. Approached by the British his ship is hired to deliver a contingent of commando troops onto enemy occupied Europe. When things don’t go quite as smoothly as expected Captain DeHann leads the surviving assault team back to his ship and safety. So begins the adventures of the Noordendam and her alter ego the Santa Rosa on missions in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas.

Whilst not Furst’s best book to date, this is still an exciting and vivid 2nd World War spy novel. Along with his signature attention to detail and a remarkable feel for time and place the author dazzles with an amazing array of characters – some drawn in a few words and gone in a few pages, others with a rich and deep background full of tragic detail and unfulfilled hopes. As always I was delighted by the seemingly pointless moments of random death and senseless survival. It is the meaninglessness of events that ring totally true. Events are often completely outside the power of the central characters to change or even understand. It is the very nature of the conflict they are involved in that is chaotic. Things happen without rhyme or reason because that’s how things are. Characters meet and part without establishing any real understanding between them yet they often cling to each other in the hope of arriving at some meaning to what is happening around them. It feels as if it must have been like this in the war. Events almost too big to comprehend, and often ignored because of that, help to shape the lives of people caught up in those events. They are not to be understood just lived through. Each character has their strategies for survival. Some work and some do not. But it is not the skill of the strategies that determine the outcome of their lives but, seemingly, fate itself.

Furst writes thoughtful and compelling tales of often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Often troubled and deeply flawed these characters portray a variety of responses from the entire human spectrum. Identification with aspects of each character is inevitable which draws the reader into situations where you cannot but ask yourself “What would I have done here?” It’s quite staggering how much the lives in his books haunt you for weeks – even months – afterwards as if you are remembering stories of people you knew. Needless to say I really enjoyed this book. I don’t like reading him too often because I always want one of his books on hand just in case I feel in the need for a sure fire excellent read. If you like a good spy novel or just an excellent character driven story I can heartedly recommend this one – or indeed any book by Alan Furst.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Remember, Remember.....

The 5th of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I know of no reason
why Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.

Freedom Forever.
There is hope....

Monday, November 03, 2008

My Favourite TV: Babylon 5

I was off work ill for a week a little while ago with a nasty bug that’s ‘doing the rounds’ and was so sick that I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read much. As daytime TV is universally terrible and most movies would have demanded more attention than I could give them I turned to my trusty collection of TV box sets. What should draw my eye but the first 4 seasons of the SF series Babylon 5 (the less said about season 5 the better I think). So I ended up watching the complete season 1 box set and then started on edited highlights of season 2. By now I’m about half way through season 3 but have the excuse that I’m much better and other things are competing for my time.

Anyway, some of you may be thinking “What the heck is Babylon 5?” Basically it was a long running sci-fi series which aired between 1994-1998 for a total of 110 episodes also generating several spin-off movies and a spin-off series (or two). It revolved (no pun intended) around a large space-station – the Babylon 5 of the title – “in the middle of neutral territory” and took place “ten years after the Earth-Minbari war”. It’s a bit too complex to summarise in a few paragraphs but basically it contained lots of alien species, lots of fighting, some definitely larger than life characters and some very decent writing. The SFX were very special indeed for their time and budget and it was at times honestly gripping.

By far the best thing about this series where the characters involved. They were complex, often flawed beings who made mistakes and suffered to live with them. They fell in love, fought, died, and did all the things we would expect great heroes and villains to do. No one was irremediably bad or too good to be true. They all had depth and some of them – I’m thinking about G’Kar here played superbly by Andreas Katsulas – had a character that I just adored which isn’t bad for a reptile! Then there was the ever wonderful – unless you got on the wrong side of her – Susan Ivanova played by the beautiful and talented Claudia Christian and not forgetting the clown of the piece the deeply flawed and troubled Londo Mollari played to perfection by Peter Jurasik. This was a series written by someone who had a real feel for SF – unlike another series I could mention – which knew the themes and played with them. Of course sometimes what it produced was fairly naff but out of 110 episodes damned few fell into that category. Lastly was of course the Vorlon Kosh. I must admit that I didn’t like the idea of him/it coming out of its ‘encounter suit’ and being… well, I don’t want to give away any secrets to those who haven’t seen it. Suffice it to say that I would’ve preferred him/it to keep its clothes on. There are far too many (largely) secondary characters to mention most of whom I liked to some extent or another. The only character I never did get on with was Dr Stephen Franklin played by Richard Biggs. Despite what I said earlier he really was a little too good to be true.

If you haven’t seen this before and want to immerse yourself in a long running, intelligent and well executed TV space opera you could do a lot worse than this. It was for a time there reason to stay in, not answer the door and take the phone off the hook. Some of the best TV of the mid to late 90’s.