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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

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Just Finished Reading: Think by Simon Blackburn

Although billed as an ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ this is more of an introduction to philosophical thinking. On the face of it that’s quite a subtle difference but it managed to produce a much different book than I was expecting. Why, you might ask yourself, am I still reading introductions to a subject I recently finished a degree in? Probably because I still feel that my grounding in philosophy leaves very much to be desired. Philosophy is a huge subject and despite reading and studying the subject for the best part of 3 years now (not counting my previous random dabbling) I still often feel out of my depth. It’s not a feeling I particularly like – especially in respect to a subject I find fascinating.

Anyway – to the book in question: I’ve read a few things by Simon Blackburn and he has yet to disappoint. This book is no exception. Starting with the basics – like how we can know things, he progresses through the main questions that have vexed philosophers from the earliest days. Moving from the problem of knowledge he slides effortlessly to consider the problem of the Mind, Free Will, the existence of the Self, God, Reasoning, the World and finally ends up with Ethics. As you can imagine from the vast area covered (in a small format book of less than 300 pages) none of the discussions are in any great depth. Blackburn does very well however to bring out the essence of the problem and offers up some of the thoughts surrounding the possible answers. However, as anyone who has dipped their toe into philosophical waters knows only too well, answers do not come easy. But its not always about answers, it’s about the journey the questions take you on. That, I think, is the essence of philosophy. Not unlike the heroes of myth and story, the philosopher goes into the underworld of ideas and comes back transformed into a different being – hopefully a better being but certainly a changed one. Blackburn’s book approaches philosophy from the point of view of a journey of discovery rather than a simplistic question and answer exercise. It won’t provide you with many of the answers you’re looking for but it might change the way you look at the questions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pulp Fiction.
The Crazie Christmas

As has become a tradition amongst our little group we had a get together recently to exchange gifts, drink beer and munch on nibbles – followed by a selection of DVDs. Originally planned for the 29th December it was brought forward to the 28th to accommodate the plans of one of our clique now living in London. As I was travelling from the frozen North on that day I arrived at the Aginoth residence rather weary but perked up after some coke – the drink not the powder – and a bite to eat. Presents were distributed before the children went to bed and, as I often do, I received a collection of books to add to the several piles dotted around my house – more of which when I review them. After struggling to stay awake late into the evening we made our way home and I fell into bed in the early hours of the 29th.

After the best part of 10 days relaxing at my Mothers I’m enjoying a shorter relaxed period at my place before returning to work in the New Year. I most certainly needed the long break and will no doubt feel refreshed enough to give my job the energy and attention it needs. In the mean time I shall sleep late, read books, watch DVDs and play games…. Oh, and see 'Avatar' tomorrow….. I’m really looking forward to that.

I hope that all of my readers – yes, all six of you – have had the Christmas you needed and wanted and that 2010 will be an improvement on 2009.
Cartoon Time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Council 'spying' to be restricted

From the BBC

Friday, 17 April 2009

Councils in England and Wales face new restrictions on the use of surveillance powers for minor offences such as dog fouling and littering. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) allows public authorities to intercept phone and e-mail data and use CCTV to spy on suspected criminals. But Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has launched a review after fears it was being used for "trivial" offences. The Tories and Lib Dems say Ripa has become a "snooper's charter". But the government has resisted opposition calls for the use of the powers to be authorised by magistrates, arguing that the decision to use them should be left with councils and police.

Ms Smith said she could give elected councillors a role in overseeing council officials' use of the powers. The government is also considering raising the rank of local authority employee allowed to authorise surveillance to senior executives. At the moment relatively minor council officials can give the go-ahead to surveillance operations. Local Government Association (LGA) advice to councils is that it is inappropriate to use the powers for less serious matters such as littering and dog fouling, except in extreme circumstances. It says such offences should be tackled through methods such as wardens, fixed-penalty notices and standard CCTV - as opposed to covert camera surveillance. An LGA spokesman said: "Parliament clearly intended that councils should use powers under Ripa, and they are being used to respond to residents' complaints about serious criminals, like fly-tippers, rogue traders and people defrauding the benefits system. "Time and again, these are just the type of crimes that residents tell councils they want to see tackled. Without these powers, it wouldn't be possible to provide the level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve."

Ripa was introduced in 2000 to define for the first time when existing covert techniques, such as secret filming, could be used by everyone from the police to local councils and benefit fraud teams. Ripa legislation allows a council to carry out surveillance if it suspects criminal activity. On its website, the Home Office says: "The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act legislates for using methods of surveillance and information gathering to help the prevention of crime, including terrorism." It goes on to say the act allows the interception of communications, carrying out of surveillance and the use of covert human intelligence sources. In one case, benefit investigators covertly filmed Paul Appleby, a disability allowance cheat from Nottinghamshire, who had claimed £22,000 in payments. He was in fact a member of an athletics club - and secret filming of him competing in events was crucial to the case against him. But one example cited by the Home Office as wrong is an investigation into parents using a false address to get their child into a preferred school. Ministers said that an official should have simply knocked on the door of the home in question rather than mounting round-the-clock surveillance. Similarly, councils should stake out spots where dog fouling occurs and not follow suspect owners wherever they go. Human rights group Liberty said Ripa legislation had been abused. Isabella Sankey, its director of policy, said: "Surveillance is a vital tool in the battle against serious crime and terrorism but reports that mothers are tailed by council officers policing school catchment zones have seriously undermined public trust and confidence."

The Home Office has now launched a consultation on exactly which public authorities will be able to use the powers in the future. Ms Smith said the government had to ensure the authorities had the powers they needed to protect people's freedom "from interference by those who would do us harm”. But, she added: "I don't want to see these powers being used to target people for putting their bins out on the wrong day or for dog-fouling offences." The Conservatives say they would restrict the use of Ripa powers by local authorities only to crimes which could lead to a prison sentence and its use should be authorised by council leaders only. The Lib Dems are calling on the government to ensure that Ripa powers are used only where strictly necessary and that their use is sanctioned by magistrates.

[It is hardly surprising, with news like this, that we are one of (if not the) most snooped upon populations in the world. It seems that in order to ‘protect our freedoms’ some in government – both local and national – feel the need to constantly watch what we do. The question is of course is what exactly constitutes a society where our freedoms are protected – one where we are spied upon or one where we are not? I know which one I would choose.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Black Ships by Jo Graham

Decades after the destruction of Troy the survivors have started to rebuild as best they can. When raiders arrive from the West the defences are overwhelmed and many are taken as slaves. Within a year one of the slave girls gives birth to a daughter who she calls Gull to remind her of home. Crippled in an accident which results in a permanent limp, Gull is given to the local oracle and soon shows her talent for seeing the future. Years later – as she saw as a child – five black ships appear off the coast and begin to burn the town. Rushing to the centre she confronts the raiders who speak her own language. Now a servant of the Lady of the Dead, Gull takes control of the situation freeing the slaves and joining the raiding party as they escape to the open sea. Guiding them across the Sea using her visionary powers the band of warrior refugees eventually hire themselves out to the super-power in the region – Egypt. After they win a series of successful battles for their new masters a decision must be made – to stay and fade into history or strike out on their own. The outcome is a split judgment with less than half of the ships sailing even further West to the edge of the known world. There they intend to found a new city - one that will be known to all of history as Rome.

This book was a great read. It was all the more surprising as this was the author’s debut novel. As such it was simply outstanding. Told with real passion for the period – part myth and part ancient history – Jo Graham put the reader at the centre of things seen mostly through her delightful main character the seer Gull. At other times and in other places – be it the sumptuous palaces of Ramses II or the fighting decks of ancient warships - it felt as if you were placed just over the shoulder of the character in the spotlight. Gull was in fact far from the only character of note. The rest of the rag-tag band were almost equally fleshed out and fully three dimensional. Unless your heart is made of stone you cannot help to be moved by the plight of a people without home or possession except for their own determination to survive and prosper in a very hostile world. I found myself virtually cheering them on as the defeated their enemies and made new fast friends to help them in their quest for a home city. This book was actually frighteningly good and a cracking page turner. Based on several myths of the era this novel managed to flesh out the legends and make the heroes real. If you want a wonderful and honestly haunting read that will stay with you for weeks after you turn the final page then this is the book for you. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Martian methane mystery deepens

By Judith Burns for BBC News

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Methane on Mars is being produced and destroyed far faster than on Earth, according to analysis of recent data. Scientists in Paris used a computer climate model for the Red Planet to simulate observations made from Earth. It shows the gas is unevenly distributed in the Martian atmosphere and changes with the seasons. The presence of methane on Mars is intriguing because its origin could either be life or geological activity - including volcanism. Writing in the journal Nature, Franck Lefevre and Francois Forget from the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris describe how they used a computer model of the Martian climate to reconstruct observations made by a US team. Dr Lefevre says the chemistry of the Martian atmosphere is still a mystery. He told BBC News: "We put the dynamics and chemistry as we know it in the model and tried to match the measurements, to reproduce the uneven distribution they saw from Earth. The problem is if we just take into account the photochemistry as we know it on Earth and if we put it in the model, then we cannot reproduce the model and that was a surprise. The current chemistry as we know it is not consistent with the measurements of methane on Mars. There is something else going on, something that lowers the methane lifetime by a factor of 600. So if the measurements are correct, we must be missing something quite important."

Dr Lefevre says the work shows that if there is a much faster loss for methane on Mars there must also be a much stronger production of methane. But he urges caution: "It's a real challenge to measure methane on Mars from Earth and we've got only one example of this uneven distribution." The results the French team used were published in January this year in the journal Science. They were gathered by an American team using a technique called infrared spectroscopy at three different ground-based telescopes to monitor about 90% of the planet's surface. In 2003 "plumes" of methane were identified. At one point, the primary plume of methane contained an estimated 19,000 tonnes of the gas. Dr Michael Mumma, director of Nasa's Goddard Center for Astrobiology and lead author on the previous paper, told BBC News it was vital to understand how methane was destroyed on Mars and to explain how so much of the gas is produced and destroyed so quickly on the Red Planet. Dr Mumma does not rule out a biological explanation for the phenomenon but says it is possible that geology alone could be responsible.

If the methane is produced by geological activity, it could either originate from active Martian volcanoes or from a process called serpentinisation. The latter process occurs at low temperatures when rocks rich in the minerals olivine and pyroxene react chemically with water, releasing methane. In December, Dr Mumma's team will begin another study of the Martian surface using the new technique of adaptive optics at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. They hope to replicate their earlier results. Dr Lefevre says that if the variations are confirmed it would mean the Martian surface is very hostile for organics. But this would not necessarily exclude the possibility that life or the remnants of past life persist below ground, where conditions could be more benign.

Nasa is due to launch a $2.3bn nuclear-powered rover known as Mars Science Laboratory (also called "Curiosity") to the planet in 2011. Under one possible scenario, the European and US space agencies would then send a European orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to track down the sources of methane. A subsequent 2018 launch opportunity would be taken by the European ExoMars rover, launching on a US Atlas rocket. The proposal currently being discussed is that ExoMars should be joined by a slightly smaller rover in the class of the US Spirit and Opportunity vehicles that are on the surface today. ExoMars and its smaller cousin could be targeted at the Methane sources identified by the 2016 orbiter.

[It looks like Mars is still a candidate for life then. Unfortunately it’s taking far too long to find it. I’ll be dead and dust before they do at this rate! At least they’re looking though and with luck that methane will be produced by the tiny farts of living creatures. We can only hope so.]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Confirmed: God is Slightly Gay

by Mark Morford for The San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I am sitting here right now smiling just a little, fondly recalling that famously controversial children's book, the one about the gay penguins. Remember? That positively adorable pair of them, at the Central Park Zoo, who had adopted an abandoned egg and then hatched it themselves and were raising the chick together as a couple, even though the chick was clearly not theirs -- though of course how penguins can actually tell whose kid is whose is still a question. Never mind that now.

The best part: the story was absolutely true. The book, "And Tango Makes Three," was beautiful and sweet and touching in all the right ways -- except, of course, for the fact that it was also totally evil. For indeed, the penguins in question, named Roy and Silo, were both males. This meant they were clearly in some sort of ungodly, aberrant homosexual relationship, mocking natural laws and defying God's will that all creatures only cohabitate with the opposite sex and buy microfiber sofas from Pottery Barn and eat their meals in silent resentment and never have sex. Worst of all, the book depicted this relationship, this "family," as perfectly OK, as no big deal, as even (shudder) normal. After all, Roy and Silo didn't seem to give much of a damn. Tango sure seemed happy, what with not being left for dead and all. As of this writing, the Central Park Zoo has yet to be swallowed into a gaping maw of sinful doom. Any minute now, I suppose. I am right now amused at this because it turns out Roy and Silo were not really so much of an anomaly at all. Nor were they some sort of unholy freakshow, an immoral mistake in the eyes of a wrathful hetero God. Far from it. Turns out they were, in fact, far more the norm than many humans, even to this day, want to let on.

Behold, the ongoing, increasingly startling research: homosexual and bisexual behavior, it turns out, is rampant in the animal kingdom. And by rampant, I mean proving to be damn near universal, commonplace across all species everywhere, existing for myriad reasons ranging from pure survival and procreative influence, right on over to pure pleasure, co-parenting, giddy screeching multiple monkey orgasm, even love, and a few dozen other potential explanations science hasn't quite figured out yet. Imagine. Are you thinking, why sure, everyone knows about those sex-crazed dolphins and those superslut bonobo monkeys and the few other godless creatures like them, the sea turtles and the weird sheep and such, creatures who obviously haven't read Leviticus. But that's about it, right? Most animals are devoutly hetero and straight and damn happy about it, right? Wrong. New research is revealing so many creatures and species that exhibit homosexual/bisexual behavior of some kind, scientists are now saying there are actually very few, if any, species in existence that don't exhibit it in some way. It's everywhere: Bison. Giraffes. Ducks. Hyenas. Lions and lambs, lizards and dragonflies, polecats and elephants. Hetero sex. Anal sex. Partner swapping. The works. Let's flip that around. Here's the shocking new truism: In the wilds of nature, to not have some level of homosexual/bisexual behavior in a given species is turning out to be the exception, not the rule. Would you like to read that statement again? Aloud? Through a megaphone? To the Mormon and Catholic churches? And the rest of them, as well? Repeatedly?

Would you like to inform them that such behavior is definitely not, as so many hard-line Christian literalists want to believe, some sort of poison that snuck into God's perfect cake mix, nor is it all due to some sort of toxic chemical that leeched into the animal's water supply, suddenly causing all creatures to occasionally feel the urge wear glitter and listen to techno and work on their abs? And so we extend the idea just a little bit. Because if homosexual/bisexual behavior is universal and by design, if gender mutability is actually deeply woven into the very fabric of nature itself, and if you understand that nature is merely another word for God, well, you can only surmise that God is, to put it mildly, much more than just a little bit gay. I mean, obviously. But let's be fair. That's not exactly true. God is not really gay, per se. God is more... pansexual. Omnisexual. Gender neutral. Gender indeterminate. It would appear that God, this all-knowing and all-creating and all-seeing divine energy that infuses and empowers all things at all times everywhere, does not give a flying leather whip about gender. Or rather, She very much does, but not in the simpleminded, hetero-only way 2,000 years of confused religious dogma would have us all believe. God's motto: Look, life is a wicked inscrutable orgy of love and compassion and survival instinct, shot through with pain and longing and death and suffering and far, far too many arguments about who did or did not pay the goddamn mortgage.

Life on Earth is messy and bloody and constantly evolving and transmuting and guess what? So is sexuality, and love, and connection, and what it means to exist. And if you uptight, hairless bipeds don't soon acknowledge this in a very profound way, well, it ain't the damn penguins who will suffer for it. You feel me? This, then, is what science appears to be trying to tell us, has been telling us, over and over again: Nature abides no narrow, simplistic interpretation of her ways. Nature will defy your childish fears and laughable behavioral laws at nearly every turn. God does not do shrill homophobia. Of course, until very recently, science was also beaten with the stick of right-wing fear for many, many years, told to keep quiet about those damnable facts, or else. Homosexuality is a lifestyle! A choice! And you can be lured into it! Seduced by the evil rainbow! Just like those poor penguins! Right. Let us be perfectly clear. Not every individual animal necessarily displays homosexual traits. But in every sexually active species on the planet, at least some of them do, for all sorts of reasons, and it's common and obvious and as normal as a warm spring rain falling on a pod of giddy bottlenose dolphins having group sex off the coast of Fiji.

And either humankind is part of nature and the wanton animal kingdom, a full participant in the messy inexplicable glories of the flesh and spirit and gender play, or we are the aberrant mistake, the ones who are lagging far behind the rest of the kingdom, sad and lost in the eyes of a very, very fluid and increasingly disappointed God.

[Maybe the next time someone says that being Gay is “unnatural” they can be put….. straight.]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Elizabeth’s Spy Master – Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that saved England by Robert Hutchinson

Elizabeth 1st lived through turbulent times. She was a Protestant monarch surrounded by Catholic enemies both foreign and domestic. To keep these forces in check and to preserve her throne she relied heavily on the skills of Sir Francis Walsingham who was, in effect, the father of the British Secret Service. During his time in Elizabeth’s employ he uncovered and defeated numerous plots on her life and masterminded the execution of her greatest domestic rival, Mary Queen of Scots. He also provided vital intelligence that helped the British navy defeat the Spanish Armada and save England from direct invasion.

The Elizabethan era interests me a great deal. It is not only the beginning of England becoming a truly world player but, I think, reminiscent of our present political situation rife with the clash of religions and threats to public order. The response of the English establishment was shocking when looked back on but is, I suspect, what some people would like to see enacted here and now with intrusive surveillance, wholesale arrests and judicial torture. Of course it is arguable that such techniques worked back in the 16th Century and helped protect us both from a bloody religious upheaval or invasion by a foreign power (followed by a bloody religious backlash) but such excesses could not be countenanced today without an overwhelming threat to national security. Fortunately no such threat presently exists.

The paranoia of the period was immense with the feeling that all Catholics were potential enemies of the State. After the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth for her supposed heresy he urged all of the faithful living in England to renounce their allegiance to the crown. I for one – especially as a catholic (however nominal) – would not have liked to live through such a time which was one of grinding oppression. The brutality meted out to Catholics was shocking and almost universally undeserved. The results of this religious power struggle should be an example to us all of the dangerous road we tread were different religious factions are vilified as dangerous to civilisation.

Although I found this book a little dry in places and a little long winded in others it did provide me with another aspect of an historical period that I am becoming more fascinated with. I have other books to come covering the reign of Elizabeth both in fiction and non-fiction. I think it’s an interesting time in my countries history that deserves more of my attention.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Thinking About: My Childhood

I may have mentioned before that I have few memories of my early years. In fact I can remember very little of my life before I reached puberty. It crossed my mind, at least for a while, that maybe I had suffered some kind of abuse and that I had blocked out whole chunks of my early life because I really didn’t want to remember them. On further reflection I decided that I simply wasn’t paying that much attention to things happening around me.

My earliest memory was I think my first day at school so I must have been 4 or 5. It’s only the briefest of things but it does seem very vivid even today. I can only imagine that I must have literally sleep-walked through the first 4 years of my life and only had the briefest of awakenings after that until I had enough testosterone in my bloodstream to keep my brain active enough to record events in my day-to-day existence. I certainly remember a number of incidents in the 7-10 year age range including almost being killed by a speeding car. That’s the kind of thing you tend to remember long after the event itself. I also had my first encounters with girls around then so things got a little more vivid for me.

It was only really after I started High school at age 11 that I started laying down regular memories. I know that I had a huge crush on the girl next door that, fortunately, never really went anywhere. I really dodged a bullet there. I remember being bullied early on but that passed as the bullies and I went our separate ways. I remember good friends and good times and the girls I wanted who didn’t want me. It was all very teen angst clichĂ© territory but it was intense enough to lay down some pretty solid memories.

Maybe that’s my early years in a nutshell – nothing much actually happened, at least anything much worth remembering. Maybe I was just a happy little soul who went through each day doing basic animal things like eating, shitting and sleeping without a care (or thought) to interrupt things. Thinking back on it maybe it was simply the case that there was nothing that bad to remember. OK, maybe there was nothing that good to remember either but I’d take that over a violent or abusive childhood any day!

I have some very early photographs of me and my brother that must have been taken in the early 1960’s. I look really cute in shorts with my cropped blond hair. I have no recollection of the snaps being taken or little idea of where they were taken. They look like a park of some kind but which one I’ll probably never know. It does feel kind of odd not having, or at least remembering, your roots. Maybe that explains why I’m never planning on ever moving back to the place of my birth (which really shocked someone I chatted to at the wedding I went to recently). It’s because I have no memory of growing up there. Maybe that explains why I’m pretty happy living anywhere and why I hardly ever feel homesick. Maybe without the clutter of early childhood memories I have more room for interesting stuff. If only I can find some interesting stuff to remember……

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Icy moon's lakes brim with hearty soup for life

by David Shiga for New Scientist

23 November 2009

Saturn's frigid moon Titan may be friendlier to life than previously thought. New calculations suggest Titan's hydrocarbon lakes are loaded with acetylene, a chemical some scientists say could serve as food for cold-resistant organisms. At about -180 °Celsius, Titan's surface is far too cold for liquid water. But two pairs of scientists proposed in 2005 that alien organisms might live instead in bodies of liquid hydrocarbons on the frigid moon. They suggested such organisms could eat acetylene that falls to the surface after forming in the atmosphere, combining it with hydrogen to gain energy. Since then, Cassini has spotted dozens of lakes on Titan's surface, thought to be made of a mixture of liquid ethane and methane. But since no probe has directly sampled them, no one knows how much acetylene they might contain. An estimate made in 1989 suggested bodies of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan would contain a few parts in 10,000 of acetylene.

But an updated estimate based on data from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn now suggests the lakes contain much more food for any hungry alien life-forms that might be present. The new calculations were made by a team of scientists led by Daniel Cordier of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Renne, France. Data from the Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens probe, which parachuted to Titan's surface in 2005, helped Cordier's team re-calculate the lakes' likely composition. This depends on factors like a lake's temperature, which affects how easily chemicals will dissolve in it, and the rate various chemicals are produced in the atmosphere and rain onto the surface. The team found that acetylene would be hundreds of times as abundant as the previous estimate, making up one part in 100 of the lake's content. "Having about a per cent of acetylene is potentially interesting from the life point of view," says team member Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona in Tucson. The idea of acetylene-eating organisms on Titan is "highly speculative" but intriguing, he says.

"I think the results are very exciting and further support the possibility for life on Titan," says Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University in Pullman, one of the scientists who proposed the possibility of acetylene-eating life in 2005. "Titan should be one of the two top targets for future astrobiology missions, the other being Mars." But Tetsuya Tokano, a Titan researcher at the University of Cologne in Germany, says the exact amount of acetylene may be less important than other properties of the lakes that remain unknown, such as the existence of currents to keep them well-mixed. Tokano pointed out in a recent study that without mixing, hydrogen and acetylene would stay in separate layers of the lakes, limiting reactions between them that might otherwise power exotic organisms.

[It does continue to amuse me that theists in particular seem to pour scorn on the idea that life could have evolved independently on other worlds. Although we have no hard evidence of this, the amount of circumstantial evidence and well founded speculation continues to grow. It seems increasingly likely that life exists somewhere other than on Earth and that it emerged and evolved there independently of this world. Once this is firmly established I think that many theists will have to examine their belief in unique creation. How they will incorporate alien life into their belief systems I cannot even began to speculate on but I do suspect that when we do find life elsewhere it will yet again undermine our unique place in the universe and maybe, just maybe, make us a little more humble.]

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Quantum Theory – A Very Short Introduction by John Polkinghome

As part of my ongoing project to both widen and deepen my knowledge base I’ve been buying a selection of the ever growing list of VSI books. This is my first of the new batch – basically anything beyond the VSI philosophy books I’ve been working my way through until now.

I’ve had more than a passing interest in the very weird world of the Quantum for some time but haven’t managed to finish more than a few books on the subject. As I don’t really have that much of a background in the sciences it can be a little difficult getting into subjects like this – especially when even a half page of mathematical equations reduces my brain to mush. Thankfully there were only a few pages of professor Polkinghome’s book that required any math at all. Those I must admit I did pretty much skim over. The rest was math free and readable enough to keep me plugging away at the strangeness to begin to see some sort of comprehension dawning. I’ve still got a long way to go to get a real handle on this stuff but I think this book helped me to take a few baby steps in the right direction. Quantum physics, I think, holds the potential answers to some of the very big questions I see asked on the Web. I think it might answer how the Universe began. It might even say something about the origin of life and might explain some aspects of consciousness. But as this book quite clearly spelled out, we have a long way to go before we truly understand Quantum reality. Hopefully I’ll come across a simple book explaining the results when we finally do understand it! More VSI to come and more quantum mind stretching….

Monday, November 30, 2009

My Favourite Movies: The Magnificent Seven

My love of Westerns can easily be traced back to my father who was a huge fan of the genre. This particular example is, in my opinion, one of the best of its type. Based on the Japanese classic The Seven Samurai it tells to story of an oppressed Mexican village who seek help from American gunfighters down on their luck. Fortune is with them when they hire Chris – played iconically by Yul Brynner – to find the men they need. Each of the six additional gunfighters are introduced in cameo scenes that give an insight into their character as well as their character flaws. They are all, including Brynner himself, lost souls who have spent their lives being the best at what they do (with the noted exception of the youngest member Chico) that of killing rather than being killed. Now, as guns for hire, they have the opportunity to reflect on their profession and wait for their opportunity to redeem a part of their humanity buried under years of brutality.

The reason I think that this movie has stood the test of time and remained one of my favourite films is that it is much more that a simple cowboy film. It’s a film about life choices, it’s about regrets and above all else it’s about honour. The two main characters – played by Brynner and McQueen (pictured above) - are, despite their backgrounds, men steeped in ideals of honour. Despite the fact that they are being paid hardly anything at all they put their lives on the line and even return to the fight because of their agreement with the peasants. This is the fact that so confounds the bandit leader played by Eli Wallach because he is a man singularly without any idea of honour – as an aside I was most impressed by the fact that when asked Chris failed to answer the question why they came back, underlying the fact that Wallach should have known.

For years after seeing this film I simply wanted to be the Yul Brynner character. I guess in some way he became one of my childhood heroes – for reasons I’m only now beginning to understand. It obviously struck a chord with other people too when ‘Chris’ was resurrected in robot form – as an unstoppable killer – in the classic 70’s Sci-Fi Westworld. As a standard western The Magnificent Seven is a classic of its type but, digging just a little deeper, it is also much more than that. Watched with a critical eye it’s about the choice of virtue over vice, good over evil. It’s just so much more than a cowboy film.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Moral Dead Zone

by Robert C. Koehler for Common Wonders

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Mr. Ban said too many people had died and there had been too much civilian suffering." That almost bears repeating, but I won't because I don't believe it. Too many? In the moral dead zone of the human heart, perennially justified as "war" (evoking honor, triumph, glory), there's no such thing as too much suffering. There's no bleeding child or shattered family or contaminated water supply that can't be overlooked in the name of some great goal or strategic advantage, or converted to fodder for the next round of hatred, revenge and arms purchase. Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary general, about to embark on a peace and diplomacy tour of the Middle East, was speaking, of course, about the hellish conditions in the Gaza Strip, pummeled by Israel with modern weaponry and Old Testament fury for the last three weeks. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the coalition government. Close to a thousand have died. Many more thousands have been injured or displaced. Too many?

No. Not even close. If too many had died - if hell had reached its capacity, or some other limit had at last been achieved - something would change. The collective enterprise of human violence would convulse and start malfunctioning. Fear, perhaps, would mutate into courage, anger into forgiveness, hatred into love. Or at least we would start looking at what we're doing . . . how do I say this? With evolved compassion? With an understanding, with a determination to survive, we now disdain and mock? Israel's invasion of Gaza is the world's spotlight war right now, reaping headlines, global censure, a special endorsement from the U.S. Congress and, apparently, an audiotape hiss from Osama bin Laden, possibly from beyond the grave. What all of these reactions do, it seems to me, is confer an unwarranted special status on the war, as though it were isolated, without a context any deeper than its accompanying propaganda. This forces us to try to understand the war strictly on its own terms - who started it? who's the bad guy? who's innocent? - rather than as an occurrence within a larger, dysfunctional system as deep as human history and as wide as planetary politics.

This war, and the nine or 10 other armed conflicts officially classified as wars that are going on right now - including wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (4 million dead since 1997), Darfur-Sudan (500,000 dead since 2003), Somalia (400,000 dead since 1988), Sri Lanka (80,000 dead since 1983), and of course Iraq (possibly a million or more dead) and Afghanistan (35,000 dead) - whatever they are on their own terms, are also symptoms of a human syndrome of self-destruction. So are the local conflicts on city streets and other jungles that are too small to be called wars. So are the horrific aftermaths of conflicts that have officially ended, including poisoned environments, the ruined health of participants and bystanders, unexploded mines and bombs, the psycho-spiritual traumas that never go away, and the grievances that fester from generation to generation. What links them in an immediate way is the global arms industry, as corrupt as it is invisible, which does a trillion dollars worth of business annually worldwide, is crucial to every major economy and is therefore served, either with overt collusion or discreet silence, by governments and the mass media. But the problem is bigger than mere greed. The business of war, like war itself, defies rational control and containment because it is fed by the paradox of human fear. As we arm to protect ourselves and fight back, our enemy also arms, and thus is born, over and over again, the cycle of escalation, from which the cynical can profit handsomely. The industry of war is self-perpetuating. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that, as Anup Shah noted recently in an essay on the arms industry for GlobalIssues.org, "The top five countries profiting from the arms trade are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the U.S.A., U.K., France, Russia and China." Thus world peace - at least the sort of peace that most of us envision, which is sustained by international cooperation and universal disarmament rather than subjugation and the capacity for hair-trigger retaliation - would challenge the status quo of the world's largest economies, as they have come to constitute themselves.

As long as we stay trapped in the paradox of fear, we can't even use our intelligence to save ourselves. We have employed it to serve only our self-destruction. The ultimate paradox is that the military industrial complex, that highest of high-tech human endeavors, about which Dwight Eisenhower sounded the alarm nearly half a century ago, is wedded to the most primitive of human emotions. We have become trapped in our collective reptile brain. Only if we disarm our intelligence do we have a chance to find wisdom. And only wisdom can save us.

[Enough said, I think.]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Faith in the Age of Reason by Jonathan Hill

This little volume has been sitting on one of my shelf units for some time now. I picked it up a few weeks ago for a change of pace. On reading the blurb I almost put it back unread when I discovered that it was part of a series of books on key figures and periods in Christian History. But I thought, what the heck, and gave it a go.

It actually turned out to be a pretty good overview of the period known as the Age of Reason – which the author dates from 1648 – 1789. I had assumed, wrongly it turned out, that the book would be viewing the period from a Christian perspective. What it actually did, which (as far as I can recall) none of my previous history books on the period have done, is to weave religious happenings into the otherwise secular story of that period. Some of the names I recognised: Luther, Calvin and so on… Many, though, I did not. I did however recognise most of the Enlightenment scholars mentioned. Some of the streams of Christianity I recognised too – though again many I did not. What impressed me most about this little book is its even-handedness. I was expecting it to be either overly critical of Enlightenment advances in thought or overly sympathetic to the Christian responses but the author managed throughout to steer a middle course pointing out the strengths and the weaknesses of both sides. I actually learnt quite a lot about the period that is, from my reading to date, either ignored or side-lined. I certainly have a more rounded opinion of the period and I shall delve continue to into it in future. Overall this was a pretty good introduction to the intellectual life of a fascinating period in European history.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking About: Beer

I’ve never been what you could call a big drinker. Even in my drinking years at University I could never really keep up with the big boys and, thankfully, quickly stopped trying to. By the end of my degree I could certainly ‘down a few’ without appreciable signs of wear and tear but, paradoxically, that was half the problem - actually getting off-my-face drunk was starting to cost a fortune. Strangely I never really liked drinking to excess that much. Partially because I just couldn’t see the point – oh, it was fun for a while but only for a short while – partially because I’ve never really liked pubs (they’re much better now after the nationwide smoking ban) and I’ve always hated throwing up. Added to that was the horrible realisation that as I got older – leaving University at 26 – my hangovers where getting progressively worse. Sticking mainly to vodka helped but still the day after the night before became an increasing write-off.

The opportunity to cut back arrived after graduation – followed by a period of unemployment. Being on the dole meant that I had a simple choice – eat or drink. I chose to eat. It quickly dawned on me that I actually didn’t miss the booze and quite happily cut back almost to nothing. Getting a job in London didn’t change that very much. I was living a 30 minute train journey away from where I worked so any drinking sessions with the guys after we clocked off were normally short-lived. When I moved here things changed a little bit. I had a few close friends in the city and they were fairly big drinkers – at least in their youth. So I had increasing opportunities to get back into bad habits. Admittedly my alcohol intake did increase but only ever episodically and I rarely got myself into hang-over territory. I discovered what my limit was and, through diligence and some practice, refined my drinking behaviour to a point where I could maintain a merry state without tipping over to being drunk and disorderly. For a while there if I wasn’t drinking shorts – vodka still being my favourite along with gin – I tended to drink Bud. It was light enough so I wouldn’t get drunk (or merry) too quickly and I didn’t spend half my night in the toilet. One night that all changed when I was re-introduced to real ale. I have never looked back.

My first introduction to proper beer was, of course, in my University years when one of the guys introduced me to the delightful Theakston’s Old Peculiar (or OP as it’s normally called). This lovely dark beer is a favourite memory of mine from that period. Needless to say I have started drinking it again down here. As my appreciation of ale grew I made a point of trying out the local ales wherever I went. My preference though was always for dark beer – the darker the better. Indeed one of the best pints I’ve had in recent memory was on a trip – my only so far – to the US. We were in San Francisco on the way back home from Australia and found ourselves in a micro-brewery run by the San Francisco Brewing Company. It was their 14th Anniversary so we felt that it would’ve been rude not to stop for one or two. We ended up staying for several hours and getting very drunk indeed. But it was beautiful beer and left me the next day without a trace of hang-over. It was a very pleasant way to end a great holiday.

Just a few weeks ago I discovered a new favourite ale called Old Tom (I actually clocked it because it had a picture of a cat on the front – sad I know) which turned out to be a lovely dark beer with a deceptive kick – which really shouldn’t have surprised me being 8.5% proof which is double the alcohol content of my other favourite dark beer – Guinness. Beer may not exactly be my life but I think it’s going to be a (small) part of my life at least into the near future. Apparently it’s good for my heart and anyway I like the taste.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Found: first amino acid on a comet

by Maggie McKee for New Scientist

17 August 2009

An amino acid has been found on a comet for the first time, a new analysis of samples from NASA's Stardust mission reveals. The discovery confirms that some of the building blocks of life were delivered to the early Earth from space. Amino acids are crucial to life because they form the basis of proteins, the molecules that run cells. The acids form when organic, carbon-containing compounds and water are zapped with a source of energy, such as photons – a process that can take place on Earth or in space.

Previously, researchers have found amino acids in space rocks that fell to Earth as meteorites, and tentative evidence for the compounds has been detected in interstellar space. Now, an amino acid called glycine has been definitively traced to an icy comet for the first time. "It's not necessarily surprising, but it's very satisfying to find it there because it hasn't been observed before," says Jamie Elsila of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the new study. "It's been looked for [on comets] spectroscopically with telescopes but the content seems so low you can't see it that way."

Comets and asteroids are thought to have bombarded the Earth early in its history, and the new discovery suggests they carried amino acids with them. "We are interested in understanding what was on the early Earth when life got started," Elsila told New Scientist. "We don't know how life got started ... but this adds to our knowledge of the ingredient pool." Jonathan Lunine of the University of Arizona agrees. "Life had to get started with raw materials," he told New Scientist. "This provides another source [of those materials]." The amino acid was found in samples returned to Earth by NASA's Stardust mission, which flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 to capture particles shed by the 5-kilometre object.

The samples in Elsila's study came from four squares of aluminium foil, each about 1 centimetre across, that sat next to a lightweight sponge-like "aerogel" that was designed to capture dust from the comet's atmosphere, or coma.The researchers reported finding several amino acids, as well as nitrogen-containing organic compounds called amines, on the foil in 2008. But it was not clear whether the discoveries originated in the comet or whether they were simply contamination from Earth. The researchers spent two years trying to find out – a painstaking task since there was so little of the comet dust to study. In fact, there was not enough material to trace the source of any compound except for glycine, the simplest amino acid.

With only about 100 billionths of a gram of glycine to study, the researchers were able to measure the relative abundance of its carbon isotopes. It contained more carbon-13 than that found in glycine that forms on Earth, proving that Stardust's glycine originated in space. "It's a great piece of laboratory work," says Lunine. "It's probably something that couldn't have been done remotely with a robotic instrument – it points to the value of returning samples."

Elsila says she would like to see samples returned not just from a comet's coma but from its main body, or nucleus. "There might be more complex mixtures [of amino acids] and higher levels of them in a comet nucleus," she told New Scientist. Europe's Rosetta spacecraft should help shed light on the issue. The first mission designed to orbit and land on a comet's nucleus, it will reach the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 after a 10-year journey from Earth.

[The evidence is increasing that life here began (at least partially) out there with the help of meteor and comet impacts bringing in fairly complex chemicals to add to the soup already bubbling in our oceans. If that is the case – as it appears to be – not only is life on Earth becoming more reasonable and more explainable, but it’s looking more likely that life exists elsewhere wherever the conditions allow. It’s not a matter of if we find life on other worlds but it’s a matter of when.]

Friday, November 20, 2009

Poster Time.
Just Finished Reading: Hegel – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

GWF Hegel was undoubtedly one of the most important European philosophers of the 18th Century and had a huge influence on the ideas on the 19th and 20th Centuries particularly through the works of Karl Marx. His influence probably stemmed from his strong belief – hardly questioned at the time – that history itself operated with a purpose to ultimately produce the perfect society and the perfect people to live in it. He proposed that few men are truly free because they do not understand the world or themselves sufficiently and are, therefore, victims of strong emotion and avoidable ignorance. Hegel proposed that each human mind is but a small piece of universal mind which strives through history to understand itself. It is this mind, this spirit, that drives history forward. The universal mind is central to Hegel’s thinking and much of his philosophy flows from it.

Singer has managed to produce, in a scant 113 pages, a decent overview of one of the most influential – and to be honest most opaque – philosophers of recent times. I’ve come across some of his ideas before but have tended to shy away from them appreciating how difficult he can be to understand. Whilst not exactly fear free I am, at least, more open to ‘having a go’ at Hegel in the future. I think he’s quite important to get a handle on given his influence on both Mark and Nietzsche. It might indeed be argued that without at least an appreciation of Hegel it is difficult to truly understand the modern world. That being said you should expect to hear more about him – if not actual books by him – in the future. A recommended book for those who have thought about investigating Hegel but were unsure how to start.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Letter to a ‘German Friend’.

You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes. You supposed that in the absence of any human or divine code the only values were those of the animal world – in other words, violence and cunning. Hence you concluded that man was negligible and that his soul could be killed, that in the maddest of histories the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his only morality, the realism of conquests. And, to tell the truth, I, believing I thought as you did, saw no valid argument to answer you except a fierce love of justice which, after all, seemed to me as unreasonable as the most sudden passion.

Where lay the difference? Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness. Because you turned your despair into intoxication, because you freed yourself from it by making a principle of it, you were willing to destroy man’s works and fight him in order to add to his basic misery. Meanwhile, refusing to accept that despair and that tortured world, I merely wanted men to rediscover their solidarity in order to wage war against their revolting fate.

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justification against fate itself. And if it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice that man alone can conceive.

Albert Camus, Paris, July 1944.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Smart machines: What's the worst that could happen?

by MacGregor Campbell for New Scientist

27 July 2009

An invasion led by artificially intelligent machines. Conscious computers. A smartphone virus so smart that it can start mimicking you. You might think that such scenarios are laughably futuristic, but some of the world's leading artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are concerned enough about the potential impact of advances in AI that they have been discussing the risks over the past year. Now they have revealed their conclusions. Until now, research in artificial intelligence has been mainly occupied by myriad basic challenges that have turned out to be very complex, such as teaching machines to distinguish between everyday objects. Human-level artificial intelligence or self-evolving machines were seen as long-term, abstract goals not yet ready for serious consideration.

Now, for the first time, a panel of 25 AI scientists, roboticists, and ethical and legal scholars has been convened to address these issues, under the auspices of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in Menlo Park, California. It looked at the feasibility and ramifications of seemingly far-fetched ideas, such as the possibility of the internet becoming self-aware. The panel drew inspiration from the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in California, in which over 140 biologists, physicians, and lawyers considered the possibilities and dangers of the then emerging technology for creating DNA sequences that did not exist in nature. Delegates at that conference foresaw that genetic engineering would become widespread, even though practical applications – such as growing genetically modified crops – had not yet been developed.

Unlike recombinant DNA in 1975, however, AI is already out in the world. Robots like Roombas and Scoobas help with the mundane chores of vacuuming and mopping, while decision-making devices are assisting in complex, sometimes life-and-death situations. For example, Poseidon Technologies, sells AI systems that help lifeguards identify when a person is drowning in a swimming pool, and Microsoft's Clearflow system helps drivers pick the best route by analysing traffic behaviour. At the moment such systems only advise or assist humans, but the AAAI panel warns that the day is not far off when machines could have far greater ability to make and execute decisions on their own, albeit within a narrow range of expertise. As such AI systems become more commonplace, what breakthroughs can we reasonably expect, and what effects will they have on society? What's more, what precautions should we be taking?

These are among the many questions that the panel tackled, under the chairmanship of Eric Horvitz, president of the AAAI and senior researcher with Microsoft Research. The group began meeting by phone and teleconference in mid-2008, then in February this year its members gathered at Asilomar, a quiet town on the north California coast, for a weekend to debate and seek consensus. They presented their initial findings at the International Joint Conference for Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Pasadena, California, on 15 July. Panel members told IJCAI that they unanimously agreed that creating human-level artificial intelligence – a system capable of expertise across a range of domains – is possible in principle, but disagreed as to when such a breakthrough might occur, with estimates varying wildly between 20 and 1000 years. Panel member Tom Dietterich of Oregon State University in Corvallis pointed out that much of today's AI research is not aimed at building a general human-level AI system, but rather focuses on "idiot-savants" systems good at tasks in a very narrow range of application, such as mathematics.

The panel discussed at length the idea of an AI "singularity" – a runaway chain reaction of machines capable of building ever-better machines. While admitting that it was theoretically possible, most members were skeptical that such an exponential AI explosion would occur in the foreseeable future, given the lack of projects today that could lead to systems capable of improving upon themselves. "Perhaps the singularity is not the biggest of our worries," said Dietterich. A more realistic short-term concern is the possibility of malware that can mimic the digital behavior of humans. According to the panel, identity thieves might feasibly plant a virus on a person's smartphone that would silently monitor their text messages, email, voice, diary and bank details. The virus could then use these to impersonate that individual with little or no external guidance from the thieves. Most researchers think that they can develop such a virus. "If we could do it, they could," said Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, referring to organised crime syndicates. Peter Szolovits, an AI researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not on the panel, agrees that common everyday computer systems such as smartphones have layers of complexity that could lead to unintended consequences or allow malicious exploitation. "There are a few thousand lines of code running on my cell phone and I sure as hell haven't verified all of them," he says. "These are potentially powerful technologies that could be used in good ways and not so good ways," says Horvitz, and cautions that besides the threat posed by malware, we are close to creating systems so complex and opaque that we don't understand them.

Given such possibilities, "what's the responsibility of an AI researcher?" says Bart Selman of Cornell, co-chair of the panel. "We're starting to think about it." At least for now we can rest easy on one score. The panel concluded that the internet is not about to become self-aware.

[Well, at least they’re starting to think about the implications of AI. That’s a hopeful sign]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block

Johnny Hayden in an ex-grifter, an ex-conman. He’s also an ex-con having served two years in San Quentin. He now works as the night manager in a bowling alley and dreams of owning his own restaurant. Enter ex-partner Doug Rance with the perfect scheme. He is planning to fleece big time real estate entrepreneur Wallace Gunderman for $100,000 – more than enough for Johnny to buy his dream. The plan is perfect and cannot fail because Doug has someone on the inside – Gunderman’s long suffering girlfriend who wants to hurt him bad. Against his better judgement Johnny agrees to run one last con. But it’s not long before he realises that there are two cons running and that he might be on the sticky end of at least one of them.

After quite a gap I had decided to give the Hard Case Crime series another shot. After reading three books in this series so far I must admit that I haven’t been particularly impressed. This book is one of the best so far and has, at least partially, renewed my faith in things. It was well written, well paced and certainly kept me guessing almost to the end. I liked the ending too – nothing too dramatic or too flat. Overall the characterisation was pretty good as was the scam itself and the whole feel of things. Not exactly top class literature – not that I was really expecting anything of that quality – but good, solid, page turning stuff and whilst I didn’t exactly become attached to the characters as I sometimes do in novels I was interested enough in how things were panning out that I kept on turning those pages. Reasonable.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Politics of Fear – Beyond Left and Right by Frank Furedi

I’ve just ‘rediscovered’ Frank Furedi several years after reading his short book Where have all the Intellectuals gone? About the rise of 21st Century Philistinism. In this book – and in some of his other works that I have acquired recently – he addresses the failures of modern politics and, in particular, the increasing use of fear by politicians on both sides to manipulate their populations.

It is actually quite difficult to summarise such a densely argued book and still do it justice. However, I’ll give it a shot. Furedi argues that both the Left and the Right have lost touch – actually abandoned – what makes their particular ideological stands so distinct from each other. Indeed, he argues, they have largely abandoned ideology all together. This I definitely agree with at least on this side of the Atlantic. Both sides have attempted to dominate the so-called middle ground and it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between Left policies and Right policies. This is a consequence, Fruedi puts forward, of the cutting loose of the Right wing roots in the past and tradition and the Left wings dismissal of a utopian future. Both political wings are consequently now almost totally focused on the eternal present. In order to motivate people to align themselves with non-ideological proposals both sides (now barely distinguishable) use fear to persuade people to vote their way.

Unfortunately as politicians become more interchangeable and as their policies, which hardly warrant that name any more, become more focused on the here-and-now, people rapidly lose interest in the whole democratic process and simply decide to stay away from the polling stations come election time. In response to this politicians increase the fear factor and attempt to involve people – whilst at the same time distancing them – on single issues rather than fostering an involvement in politics itself. With the rising use of focus groups and other faux democratic processes individuals previously recognised as citizens or even voters are now seen as consumers of political ideas tailored to particular problems. With the resulting lack of power even more voters turn their back on the whole process. Voters are increasingly being treated like children and this on-going process further alienates people from democracy. I remember vividly some years ago when the Conservatives failed to win a General Election that they blatantly blamed the electorate for being too stupid to understand their platform of ideas. This is hardly the way to garner votes I thought.

Furedi proposes that the way out of this mess is the re-humanisation of humanism in such a way that we stop seeing ourselves as, and stop accepted the label of, being vulnerable creatures who exist merely at the whim of fate or circumstances far beyond our control. We need to see ourselves as capable of autonomous action and self-determination. We need to see that there are indeed alternatives and to reject the present malaise caused by both a fear of the future and a disconnection with the past. In order to move beyond the eternal present we must understand our history and have the strength to actively choose our future.

I was very impressed by this short volume, as you might be able to tell, and have already bought a further two of his works. Furedi seems to have a valuable insight into the stagnant politics of the 21st Century and I’m looking forward to having a better understanding his ideas. Highly recommended to anyone with a political bent.