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

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Eater by Gregory Benford

When astronomers discover a strange object in the night sky they are intrigued. When they discover it to be a new type of black hole they are amazed and when they discover it is on a course to pass through our Solar System they are more than a little concerned. However, it’s not until they discover that it is slowing down that they become truly scared. But only when a message is received from the object do they become terror stricken. The object, which appears to be an intelligence billions of years in the making, desires converse and it won’t take no for an answer.

This was a great piece of hard-SF. I didn’t realise how much I missed this sort of thing. Hard science based – with diagrams – this puts centre stage a group of scientists who desperately need to figure out how to react to the growing demands of a very exotic creature indeed. Designed by alien hands billions of years ago, the Eater ‘collects’ civilisations the way Victorian entomologists collected butterflies. Our best weapons are useless against it and we are defenceless against its onslaughts. Only by understanding the nature of the beast – in all its esoteric splendour – do we have any chance of surviving. Much of the action, not surprisingly, takes place in conference rooms inside an increasingly under siege research facility on Hawaii. As the astronomers struggle to comprehend exactly what they are facing the reader is exposed to theories regarding Artificial Intelligence, Alien Civilisations, Black Hole physics and much else besides. But this is no dry theoretical debate. Human civilisation hangs by a thread and real people’s lives are being shaped, bent and broken by the experience of First Contact. This is an excellent example of why, after over 30 years of doing so, I’m still reading Science-Fiction. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Warning over 'surveillance state'

From The BBC.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Electronic surveillance and collection of personal data are "pervasive" in British society and threaten to undermine democracy, peers have warned. CCTV cameras and the DNA database were two examples of threats to privacy, the Lords constitution committee said. It called for compensation for people subject to illegal surveillance. The government said CCTV and DNA were "essential" to fight crime but campaign group Liberty said abuses of power mean "even the innocent have a lot to fear". Civil liberties campaigners have warned about the risks of a "surveillance society" in which the state acquires ever-greater powers to track people's movements and retain personal data. Controversial government plans for a database to store details of people's phone calls and e-mails were put on hold late last year after they were branded "Orwellian".

Ministers are consulting on the plan, which would involve the details but not the content of calls and internet traffic being logged, saying it is essential to fighting terrorism. The Department for Communities and Local Government said it had written to local councils to ask them to ensure surveillance powers were used "proportionately" and not for tackling minor offences such as dog fouling. A spokesman said: "It is right and important that councils have these powers of surveillance - they are an effective means of tackling real problems that can blight communities, such as rogue traders, fly tippers and loan sharks. "But the public must have confidence in who has these powers and that they are used in a proportionate and proper way which is why we are working closely with the home office and local government to develop training and guidance." In its report, the Lords constitution committee said growth in surveillance by both the state and the private sector risked threatening people's right to privacy, which it said was "an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom". People were often unaware of the scale of personal information held and exchanged by public bodies, it said. "There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state," committee chairman and Tory peer Lord Goodlad said.

Among areas of most concern were the growth of CCTV cameras, of which there are now an estimated four million in the UK. The UK is said by privacy campaigners to have the most cameras per head of population in the world, but no definitive figures are available. According to a 2004 European Commission report, Britain has the highest density of CCTV cameras in Europe. It found 40,000 cameras monitored public areas in 500 British towns and cities, compared to fewer than 100 cameras in 15 German cities and no open street CCTV at all in Denmark. In its report, the Lords committee said the use of cameras should be regulated on a statutory basis in the UK, with a legally binding code of practice governing their use. There was evidence of abuse of surveillance powers by some councils, with cameras wrongly being "used to spy on the public over issues such as littering". The UK's DNA database is the "largest in the world", the report concluded, with more than 7% of the population having their samples stored, compared with 0.5% in the US. Police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can take DNA and fingerprints from anybody arrested on suspicion of a recordable offence and the samples can be held indefinitely whether people are charged or not.

Campaigners say anyone not convicted of a crime should have their DNA removed, a position endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights in a recent ruling in the case of two British men. Ministers should comply with this ruling quickly, peers said, and legislate for a new regulatory framework for the database. Other recommendations include a requirement for any new data scheme to be preceded by a public assessment of its impact on privacy and for the information commissioner to be given powers to carry out inspections on private companies. "The huge rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and other organisations risks undermining the long-standing tradition of privacy and individual freedom which are vital for democracy," Lord Goodlad added. "If the public are to trust that information about them is not being improperly used, there should be much more openness about what data is collected, by whom and how it is used."

The government said CCTV and DNA were "essential crime fighting tools" but acknowledged personal data should only be used in criminal investigations where necessary. "The key is to strike the right balance between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data," a Home Office spokesman said. "This provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to protect the public... while ensuring there are effective safeguards and a solid legal framework to protect civil liberties." Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has rejected claims of a surveillance society and called for "common sense" guidelines on CCTV and DNA. She recently announced a consultation on possible changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, under which public bodies can conduct covert surveillance and access data, to clarify who can use such powers and prevent "frivolous" investigations. The Conservatives said the government's approach to personal privacy was "reckless". "Ministers have sanctioned a massive increase in surveillance over the last decade, at great cost to the taxpayer, without properly assessing either its effectiveness or taking adequate steps to protect the privacy of perfectly innocent people," said shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve.

Human rights campaigners Liberty welcomed the report. Director Shami Chakrabarti said: "Liberty's postbag suggests that the House of Lords is more in touch with public concerns that our elected government. Over the past seven years we've been told 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' but a stream of data bungles and abuses of power suggest that even the innocent have a lot to fear." Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, urged the government to "reassert" its control over the use of data. He said: "Governments tend to think that gathering new information on citizens is a good thing. But that's not true if our privacy is undermined and our data isn't secure. We need to see privacy by design: you can't bolt on privacy at the end of big government IT projects, we need privacy safeguards built into systems right at the start."

[I can’t help but wonder why it is exactly that we are the most spied upon nation on Earth. Are we really that naughty that we need the constant supervision of our ever watchful Big Brother?]

Monday, February 23, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Philosophers Without Gods – Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life Edited by Louise M Antony

With a title like that how could I possibly resist buying this book? Fortunately it turned out to be pretty good although the first section, which consisted of ten philosophers relating how they became or were confirmed in their Atheism by the study of Philosophy did, I couldn’t help but feel, drag on a bit. It was, however, surprising that many of them specifically pointed to the study of philosophy itself that undermined their faith in God. It’s an interesting by-product of such teaching and would encourage me, if such encouragement was necessary, to propose teaching it in schools as standard.

The second section dealt with philosophical issues surrounding faith, atheism or secular society. This I generally found much more interesting particularly when they discussed alternatives to Christian morality such as ideas from the Ancient Greek world (of which I am a big fan). Some of the arguments I found to be rather ‘technical’ in the sense that they relied on an understanding of theology I do not possess but still (largely) managed to get across their points on Providence, Transcendence and Evil. Other arguments went down the well worn paths relating faith to fundamentalism and discussing the self deception of the religiously minded.

In places this book certainly doesn’t pull any punches though some of the authors did speak of secular toleration rather than all out opposition. The book is certainly not just a polemic against religion but a serious attempt to challenge theism without the often mistaken view that it should be treated as critically immune because of its 'divine' status. Clearly this volume appears to be written to give non-theists ammunition and support in any confrontation with their theistic contemporaries. I doubt very much if its intention was to persuade anyone to change sides nor do I imagine it could do so if that was its intention. I can recommend this to anyone who does indeed desire to bolster his/her burgeoning disbelief and anyone on the theistic side who wants a greater appreciation of where we’re coming from.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Google dismisses 'Atlantis find'

From The BBC.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Lost City of Atlantis is still lost - despite hopes that Google Earth had located the fabled city on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Observers noted what seemed to be a grid of streets and the outlines of a big city on the sea floor about 960km (600 miles) off the African coast. Experts had said this was one of the possible sites of the city described by Plato, the Greek philosopher. But Google said the lines represented sonar data collected from boats. "It's true that many amazing discoveries have been made in Google Earth including a pristine forest in Mozambique that is home to previously unknown species and the remains of an Ancient Roman villa," a Google statement said.

"In this case, however, what users are seeing is an artefact of the data collection process. Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor," she added. "The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data. The fact there are blank spots between each of these lines is a sign of how little we really know about the world's oceans." The story of Atlantis, a fabled utopia destroyed in ancient times, has captured the imagination of scholars ever since it was first described by the philosopher Plato more than 2,000 years ago. He wrote of a land of fabulous wealth, advanced civilisation and natural beauty. Debate rages over where it might lie, if it existed at all: some say it is near Cuba, off the coast of Cornwall, near Gibraltar or in the middle of the Atlantic.

[It’s so funny when people talk about Atlantis. As far as I’m aware Plato invented it as an imaginary city in order to get over a philosophical point he was trying to make. I think that he’d be very amused that people have been looking for it in the real world. People are just so stupid……]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Thousands of US Weapons Astray in Afghanistan: Auditors

Thursday, February 12, 2009 from Agence France Presse

WASHINGTON - Thousands of US weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, may be in Taliban or Al-Qaeda hands in Afghanistan because of lax controls, congressional auditors warned on Thursday.

The Pentagon has failed to track an estimated 87,000 weapons given to Afghan security forces, one-third of the 242,000 shipped by the US government between December 2004 and June 2008, the Government Accountability Office said. A 46-page report by the GAO, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, said there had been no monitoring of a further 135,000 weapons donated by NATO allies to the poorly paid and corruption-rife Afghan army and police. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon had already taken action on the report's recommendations for tracking of serial numbers and physical inventories of weapons given by both the United States and allies. "We take our responsibility with regard to accountability of weapons seriously," he told reporters. "I think the record will show that our performance on this has improved over time for any number of reasons." Under-staffed US military officials neglected to record serial numbers or conduct on-site inventories once the weapons were delivered, the report said. "Given the unstable security conditions in Afghanistan, the risk of loss and theft of these weapons is significant," said the evaluation, which was submitted to a House of Representatives hearing Thursday.

Asked if US weapons could already be under Taliban or Al-Qaeda control, GAO international affairs director Charles Johnson cited military reports about "the theft of weapons and weapons potentially being sold to enemies." The chairman of the House subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs, John Tierney, said he would not want to explain to a grieving parent "why their son and daughter died at the hands of an Afghan insurgent using weaponry we provided. That's what we risk if we were to have tens of thousands of weapons we provided washing around Afghanistan, off the books," the Democrat said at the hearing. The report mirrored GAO findings in August 2007 that the Pentagon had lost track of nearly 200,000 weapons given to security forces in Iraq. Having toured Afghanistan last August, GAO inspectors wrote: "Lapses in accountability occurred throughout the supply chain. This was primarily due to a lack of clear direction from Defense and staffing shortages." Lack of manpower has long worried US commanders in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is expected shortly to decide on a request from General David McKiernan for up to 30,000 extra troops to combat the resurgent Taliban.

Aside from M-16 rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and mortars, the GAO report found inadequate oversight of 2,410 night-vision goggles issued to the Afghan National Army. The Pentagon waited 15 months, until October 2008, before it started monitoring the end use of the high-tech devices, which give a crucial edge on the nocturnal battlefield, and 10 remained unaccounted for. The GAO said that at the Afghan end, corruption and illiteracy were major impediments to keeping track of the weapons. Security was often risible, with just a wooden door and a miniature padlock guarding an arms room in one northern Afghan police station visited by the GAO inspectors. At the Afghan army's central weapons depot in Kabul, the team found "guards sleeping on duty and missing from their posts." A subsequent audit by the US military found 47 pistols had been stolen from the depot.

[So… How many of these weapons could be in the hands of the enemy? All of them? It just beggars belief. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just fly around in aircraft throwing them over the side? It would probably have the same overall effect! How is it even possible to ‘loose track’ of 87,000 weapons – in a war zone! What makes it worse – if such a thing was possible – is the ‘loss’ of night vision goggles. They are one of the things that we have a clear advantage in. Apparently no longer…… Now they can fight at night too…… If it wasn’t so idiotic it’d actually be funny. Truly amazing. I am, almost, speechless.]

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.

Ronald Malcolm (codename Condor) works for the CIA – not as a smooth, sexy agent fighting the forces of evil but in an office reading thrillers and murder mysteries. His job is to look for possible leaks and good ideas to pass on to his superiors. Ronald is bored and craves excitement. Unfortunately he is about to get his wish. Whilst out buying coffee and cake for the rest of his group a hit-team arrives and silently kills them all. The reason? To cover up a shadowy deal that has up till that point been running smoothly in the very heart of Washington. Unfortunately for Ronald almost everyone he knows and trusted wants him dead before he can figure out what happened. Unfortunately for Ronald even if he can work things out who can he trust to tell?

Aficionado’s of 70’s movies will know this as Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. It was certainly an enjoyable movie (though it won’t make my favourites list) and it was an equally enjoyable book. Short and pithy with little obvious padding this was a very creditable first novel by Mr Grady. It contained a goodly amount of tension, a nice does of mystery, and some well handled action scenes. The ‘love interest’ was a bit silly but I quickly forgave him his digression as it didn’t really detract from the storyline overly much. There was some nice characterisation – apart from Ronald himself – in particular the main assassin played by Max Von Sydow in the movie (he even ‘sounded’ like Von Sydow in the book!) All in all a more than reasonable read and a nice change of pace for me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Thinking About: Dreams

Most of the dreams I remember have involved combat of one sort or another. This is hardly surprising considering the books I read, the games I play and the movies I enjoy. In my dream life I have fought in conflicts all over the world and throughout time. When people tell you that if you die in your dream you die in real life (sounds a bit like The Matrix doesn’t it?) I can tell you for a fact that they’re wrong. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve died in dreams. The one I remember most vividly is being shot by a German soldier whilst crashing through a roadblock in an old truck. From the make of the vehicle and the clothes we were wearing I suspect it was during the German Occupation of France. I can tell you it felt very real indeed.

Not all of my dreams involve warfare though. Another vivid dream – or at least part of one – had me literally wading through a river of blood (and body parts) carrying a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. From the look of absolute devastation around me I took it to be Hades. One of my favourite dreams – which I related to a therapist – was more Sci-Fi than Horror. I was a member of an expeditionary mining team on an alien world. Everything seemed ordinary at first until we started noticing things going missing – particularly our equipment. One by one things either vanished or simple stopped working. Before we were trapped on the planet most of the team attempted to escape but the planet seemed to come alive and destroyed all of the ships both on the ground as well as in orbit. Slowly the survivors – except for myself – vanished until only I remained, alone and naked. It was only then that I met a survivor of a previous expedition previously unknown to us. It was he who taught me to stop fighting the world and to become one with it – twinning twigs and mosses in my hair and painting my body in various shades of green and brown. It was a very strange experience.

Recently I had what was possibly an even stranger one. At this stage I can only remember fragments so it probably won’t make a whole lot of sense. I remember that weird ability of being able to see through my own eyes and from an exterior vantage point at the same time as if I was watching myself. At some point the Universe literally came alive and reached out to touch me. For the briefest of moments I knew, with the utmost clarity, everything there is to know. I cried out with the joyful pain of ultimate knowledge. But as quickly as the feeling had erupted in my head it subsided leaving a singular message: The Journey is not the Journey (or possibly The Path is not the Path). Don’t you just wish that the Universe could be a little less cryptic at times like these? It could have least given me next weeks lottery numbers so I’d know it was on the up and up!

Apart from the occasional nightmare – now thankfully rare – I do enjoy my dream-states. I have no idea what they mean (probably nothing) but they are normally rather entertaining. On more than one occasion I have woken up – without any memory of the dream I has having before waking – with a feeling an enormous joy that sometimes lasts for several days but, saying that, I have also woken up in tears before now with a feeling of endless bottomless sadness. I guess even in dreamland you have to take the rough with the silky smooth.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

US Scientists Defend Darwin From Attacks on Evolution

From Agence France Presse

Friday, February 13, 2009

CHICAGO - While the rest of the world feted the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, US scientists were forced to defend the theory of evolution from a skeptical public and a concerted attack campaign. Top researchers gathered in Chicago presented papers showing how evolution can be witnessed in everything from the genetic similarities between humans and Neanderthals to the way planets form and crows use tools to catch bugs.

Mugs depicting the evolution of man are pictured at British naturalist Charles Darwin's home, Down House, in Bromley, Kent. While the rest of the world feted the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth Thursday, US scientists were forced to defend the theory of evolution from a skeptical public and a concerted attack campaign. "Evolution is not an idea. It's a fact," James McCarthy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said Thursday at the launch of a conference whose theme celebrated Darwin 's work. "It's impossible to deny evolution: the development of drug resistant microbes, pesticide resistant insects, there are abundant examples in ordinary life." But the message has not gotten through to the US public. Just 40 percent of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution, according to a Gallup poll published Wednesday. And previous polls taken over the past decade have consistently found that between 44 and 47 percent believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so. "It's a uniquely American problem," McCarthy said.

Evolution is not well taught in US schools and many religious groups advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible. One such group, which runs a 27 million dollar "Creation Museum" in Kentucky where animatronics dinosaurs frolic with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, is hosting a free conference this weekend refuting evolution. There are many more working behind the scenes to challenge or limit the teaching of evolution in the classroom, said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education. "There has been a concerted effort by a pretty well funded movement to educate the public that evolution is weak science, and scientists are giving up on it and making the argument that you have to choose between evolution and religion," Scott told AFP.

The vast anti-evolution movement has developed over the decades, but has been sharply drawn in the courts since the famous 1925 case when a young biology teacher, John Scopes, was put on trial for teaching evolutionary theory in Dayton, Tennessee. It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law making it a crime to teach evolution and ruled that it was unconstitutional to ban the teaching of evolution under the powers of the separation of religion and state. In 1987, the Supreme Court then ruled it was against the constitution to force creationism to be taught in schools, as that would be promoting religion in the state education system. In the last decade, a number of attempts have been made to promote the teaching of "intelligent design" -- the contention that life is too complex to have originated without a creator -- as an alternative to evolution. That theory has also been unable to pass the religious test in the courts, and so anti-evolutionists are instead trying to force teachers to allow for "criticism" of controversial science.

An "academic freedom" bill was passed in Louisiana last year and five other states are currently considering similar legislation, Scott said. "The latest strategy is not to promote the frank teaching of intelligent design, but to sneak it in through the back door," she said in a telephone interview." In the biology business we'd call that adaptation - if nothing else evolves, the creationists do. They're always coming up with ways to subvert evolution."

[Several things amaze me about the whole anti-Evolution idea. Firstly that a significant number of people don’t ‘believe’ in Evolution – which is to me like not ‘believing’ in Gravity – and that there appears to still be much hatred directed at Darwin and his dangerous idea. I mean, what’s all that about? That people can reject reality to that extent bewilders me completely. Does the fact that we are animals descended from other creatures over billions of years really cause that much offence? Personally I have no issue with recognising that I am related to pond scum or trees or the birds that I feed in my garden. Being part of the web of life is a source of joy and celebration not of condemnation or anger. Creationists might not like Evolution but they can’t change reality merely by denying it.]

Friday, February 13, 2009

Number of alien worlds quantified

From the BBC

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Intelligent civilisations are out there and there could be thousands of them, according to an Edinburgh scientist. The discovery of more than 330 planets outside our solar system in recent years has helped refine the number of life forms that are likely to exist. The current research estimates that there are at least 361 intelligent civilisations in our Galaxy and possibly as many as 38,000. The work is reported in the International Journal of Astrobiology. Even with the higher of the two estimates, however, it is not very likely that contact could be established with alien worlds.

While researchers often come up with overall estimates of the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe, it is a process fraught with guesswork; recent guesses put the number anywhere between a million and less than one. "It's a process of quantifying our ignorance," said Duncan Forgan, the University of Edinburgh researcher who carried out the work. In his new approach, Mr Forgan simulated a galaxy much like our own, allowing it to develop solar systems based on what is now known from the existence of so-called exoplanets in our galactic neighbourhood.

The first assumed that it is difficult for life to be formed but easy for it to evolve, and suggested there were 361 intelligent civilisations in the galaxy. A second scenario assumed life was easily formed but struggled to develop intelligence. Under these conditions, 31,513 other forms of life were estimated to exist. The final scenario examined the possibility that life could be passed from one planet to another during asteroid collisions - a popular theory for how life arose here on Earth. That approach gave a result of some 37,964 intelligent civilisations in existence.

While far-flung planets may reduce uncertainty in how many Earth-like planets there are, some variables in the estimate will remain guesses. For example, the time from a planet's formation to the first sparks of life, or from there to the first intelligent civilisations, are large variables in the overall estimate. For those, Mr Forgan says, we will have to continue to assume Earth is an average case. "It is important to realise that the picture we've built up is still incomplete," said Mr Forgan. "Even if alien life forms do exist, we may not necessarily be able to make contact with them, and we have no idea what form they would take. Life on other planets may be as varied as life on Earth and we cannot predict what intelligent life on other planets would look like or how they might behave."

[Here’s hoping it’s in the upper range of things. After all the existence of merely 300+ civilisations would make looking for a needle in a haystack look positively child’s play.]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Dead Things by Richard Calder

In the near future the world is suffering under the disease known as META. The virus turns females into Dead Girls who become obsessed with sex, and males into Dead Boys who become obsessed with death. The virus also distorts the perceptions of those it infects and has started to bend reality itself. Lord Dagon – a Dead Boy Inquisitor - along with his sassy weapon called Gun has just returned to Earth from a millennia long Galactic killing spree. Arriving before he originally left (care of the wonders of Relativity) Dagon and his fellow Inquisitors vow to end META once and for all by detonating the Reality Bomb in the heart of the infection. But on the eve of their greatest body count Dagon finds out that reality is not what it seems – and neither is he.

As you can probably tell from the synopsis above, this was hardly a straight forward novel. Reality is warped and the narrator is far from reliable. Memories are either false or have been tampered with and Dagon is also quite possibly insane. Added to this was the sheer weirdness of the future world so you can appreciate that this was at times a very difficult read. The first 100 pages in particular were very strange and I admit in my younger days I probably would have given up well before then. However, at just about the half way point the plot took a serious 90 degree shift which helped explain all of the preceding craziness. If you do feel up to this challenge I must warn you that this novel is certainly not for the faint hearted. There is much death and much sex both of which go beyond the merely kinky. If you are of a sensitive nature this is most definitely not the book for you. However, if you do have the stomach for it the novel is often rewarding both in its poetic style and haunting imagery. It undoubtedly burnt itself into my consciousness! A very strange read but I’m glad that I finally finished the trilogy which started with Dead Girls and Dead Boys.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Review: Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne

From New Scientist by Rowan Hooper

05 January 2009

The first "why" that struck me on seeing Why Evolution is True was why do we need yet another book on evolution? There are lots of good ones out there already and nothing less than a mountain of evidence to support the reality of evolution by natural selection.

But we do need another, insists Jerry Coyne, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Chicago, because creationism is spreading. And he's right - creationism is all over the place, not just in the US, where it often gains huge amounts of publicity. In December, a UK poll found that 29% of science teachers thought that creationism should be taught in science classes alongside evolution; a state of affairs that Richard Dawkins called "a national disgrace". It is also on the rise in Islamic countries. Creationism, Coyne tells us in this wide-ranging, beautifully written account, is like a roly-poly clown that pops back up when you punch it. But he resists the temptation to punch. He seeks to persuade, by carefully leading the reader through the overwhelming evidence, that evolution is a fact. The audience is those who are uncertain about explanations of life's diversity. The book is not aimed at people who hold faith-based positions - Coyne considers them to be lost causes - but you have to wonder how many people who are "uncertain" will be won over.

Coyne describes, for example, giving a talk on evolution versus intelligent design/creationism to a group of rich Chicago businessmen. You would think that people in the business world might think that evidence for something is worth taking into account, but this was the response Coyne got from one audience member after his lecture: "I found your evidence for evolution very convincing - but I still don't believe it". It is unfortunate that there are large numbers of people for whom no amount of evidence and elegant argument will do. For those of us comfortable with the fact of evolution, even those already familiar with many of the arguments and the examples demonstrating evolution, there is much in his book that is new and stimulating, even refreshing.

I loved reading of how Raymond Dart was literally handed the greatest fossil find of the twentieth century - the "missing link" between apes and modern man - while dressing for a wedding. Other highlights include a section on the remnant signs of evolution, such as the vestigial tail at the end of our spines, and a fascinating account of how evolution and even speciation can be seen occurring before our very eyes in the lab. Coyne ends by asking where evolution leaves us, and shows that it ennobles us, that human civilisation has improved despite our animal nature. That's why, when creationism is spreading to the extent that there is even a creationist church in the main town in the Galapagos, of all places, that we need another book on evolution. This is a marvellous one.

[It certainly sounds marvellous. So much so that I bought it in hardback 3 days before Amazon said it was going to be published. I shall be reading it during the Summer & will post my review then.]

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Is love just a chemical cocktail?

By Pallab Ghosh for the BBC

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

It is said that love is a drug. But is it just a drug? That is the contention of Larry Young, a professor of neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Writing in the respected scientific journal Nature, Professor Young argues that love can be explained by a series of neurochemical events in specific brain areas. If it is true, he says, people will no longer have to rely on oysters or chocolates to create a loving mood. Instead, it will be possible for scientists to develop aphrodisiacs - chemicals that would make people fall in love with the first person they see. And for those who have fallen in love with someone they shouldn't have, there could be an antidote to unrequited love. There is even the prospect of a genetic "love test" to assess whether two potential love-birds are predisposed to a happy married life.

Poets would have us believe that love is one of those things that are beyond understanding. But that concept is anathema to Professor Young. "I'm not sure we'll be able to understand it fully," he said. "But my belief is that our emotions have evolved from behaviours and emotions that are in the animal kingdom. I don't think that the way a mother loves her baby is that different to a mother's love in a chimpanzee or a rhesus monkey - or even a rat." In animals, scientists have observed that a chemical called oxytocin is involved in developing a bond between a mother and her young. Professor Young believes it is very likely that a similar process is going on in humans. "It's just that when we experience these emotions they are so rich we can't imagine that they are just a series of chemical events," he said. But even if that is true of maternal love, is romantic love simply down to a squirt of oxytocin and a few other love chemicals at a timely moment? Professor Young thinks it might be.

Researchers have found that oxytocin is involved in the bonding of male and the female prairie voles, which like humans, form an intense bond with each other that lasts for a very long time. And there have been studies in humans that show that oxytocin increases trust - the ability to read the emotions of others. So, Professor Young argues that it makes sense that the same sort of molecule might be involved in strengthening the bond between individuals. He believes there are other chemicals involved too - it is just a matter of doing the research and finding out which ones they are. "I'm sure that we are just beginning to tap the surface," he said. "There are hundreds of signalling molecules in the brain - they all act in different brain areas. I think one day we will have a much better understanding of how all these chemicals interact and act in specific brain areas that have specific function that give rise to these complex emotions." Other scientists argue that upbringing and psychology play a part. Professor Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, said: "We shouldn't think that this perspective on its own provides a full understanding of what love is. There are also evolutionary, psychological, sociological, phenomenological (a philosophical approach and method of qualitative research) and humanistic perspectives that offer important insights. Nurture has an important part to play," Professor Young conceeds. "But the way nurture works is through changing neurochemistry. We know from studies in humans that women that have experienced abuse or neglect early in their life have decreased levels of oxytocin in their brain. So I totally agree that our experiences have a huge impact on our ability to form relationships - but that impact occurs through changes in neurochemistry and gene expression."

So, if love really is just a complex chemical reaction, could that most powerful of human emotions be manipulated? "Oxytocin increases eye gaze, increases our ability to recognise emotions in others," Professor Young said. "It may actually enhance our ability to form relationships, and so it is a very real possibility that something like oxytocin could be used in conjunction with marital therapies to bring back that spark."

There are already perfumes on the market containing oxytocin, but Professor Young believes the levels are too low for it to be an effective aphrodisiac. "But I think in the future we can develop drugs that readily pass into the brain and can target certain brain areas that could do this," he said. Professor Bostrom believes it will become increasingly possible to manipulate the neurological mechanisms that play a role in romantic attachment. "Used wisely, such pharmacology could enhance human experience and mitigate unnecessary suffering. However, this kind of manipulation would raise a thicket of ethical and cultural issues, which would need to be carefully explored."

[What a Brave New World our children are going to inhabit – where it is possible to manufacture love in a bottle or, far more marketable I think, pop a pill and fall out of love with someone who doesn’t love you (or what remains of the rational part of your brain knows is very bad for you). I can’t help but wonder just how much neuro-chemical manipulation is possible? Can we manipulate any emotion and any thought we have simply by ingesting the right pill at the right time? What a truly bizarre world that would be!]

Friday, February 06, 2009

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Somewhere in the Night – Film Noir and the American City by Nicholas Christopher.

Feeling much more than its 266 pages (in a good way) this was an excellent cultural and historical investigation into Film Noir and the place of the American city within the genre. Christopher treats the city more as a stock character, like the Femme Fatale, rather than a mere backdrop against which the action develops and he makes a very good case to support it.

Film Noir is essentially American and dates, for very good historical and cultural reasons, from the Second World War. Its dark disturbing themes are laced through with themes of Totalitarianism, Atomic destruction, Psychoanalysis, Urbanisation, Political and personal corruption and the ever present possibility of violence. Despite its antecedents in the European movies of the 20’s and 30’s Film Noir is a mid 20th Century American art form par excellence. The author maintains that it just couldn’t have happened anywhere else – at least in the way it emerged from Hollywood. Only the confluence of events – the end of World War II, the fear of the Russians and especially Atomic destruction (already visited on Japan), the growing craze of Psychoanalysis and the burgeoning economy with its ever increasing supply of consumer durables could have produced this dark mirror of a movie genre – reflecting back on its audiences their deep fears and paranoia which later led to the insanity of McCarthyism.

This is a well researched, engaging and stimulating read. I certainly learnt a great deal about a movie style I have long enjoyed in comparative ignorance until now. It has also helped me focus on acquiring a collection of Noir movies on DVD that I have been slowly working through over the last few months. I’m positive that some of them at least will be showing up in my Favourite Movies posts. I shall be watching and appraising them with ‘new eyes’ after reading this book – so be warned. A must read for anyone interested is this most fascinating of movie genres.
Snowed in.... [laughs]

Monday, February 02, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Hellboy

In several ways this is a rather surprise entry for me. I first saw this movie with the guys and really didn’t like it – it basically left me cold and very unimpressed. Unfortunately, I had already promised to see it again with CQ who was away visiting her Mother at the time. Anyway, I gritted my teeth and dragged myself off to the cinema for a second showing – and, much to my surprise, actually quite enjoyed it. A little while later one of the guys at work gave me a downloaded copy I hadn’t even asked for. So I ended up watching it a 3rd time on a slow weekend – and found myself liking it even more. Eventually (actually last week) I bought a legitimate copy and watched it yet again – for probably the 7th or 8th time.

Despite seeing most (if not all) of the recent spate of super-hero or comic-book movies it’s a genre that I’ve never found particularly interesting. Despite the promptings of several of my friends I just don’t ‘get’ comics. To be honest I find them incredibly dull. So how is it that I find myself really liking this movie? Firstly its very well made. From the set design to the script to the acting, the whole thing is pretty much flawless. I liked how it didn’t take itself too seriously – without falling into comedy or slapstick. I always like it when obviously fantastic themes are played straight and deadpan as if (and rightly so) this kind of thing happens every day. I liked the fact that the baddies where almost cartoon Nazi’s of the type I enjoyed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But what I really loved about this movie was its central characters played by Ron Perlman (sheer perfection as Hellboy), Selma Blair (as his beautiful, troubled and conflicted ‘firestarter’ girlfriend), the always wonderful John Hurt (as his adopted ‘Father’and head of the Paranormal Division), Rupert Evans (as the innocent neophyte FBI Agent), Karel Roden (as the completely evil Gregory Rasputin) and finally Biddy Hodson (as the equally evil and probably psychotic Nazi lover of Rasputin, Ilsa Haupstein).

The storyline was almost archetypal in its use of themes – a hero completely out of his normal environment with a destiny and identity unknown even to himself, an evil genius with a burning desire to destroy the world, a good man who is on the point of death just when he’s needed the most, a woman who needs to accept what and who she is become she can gain control over her amazing abilities… it just goes on. This film is basically a master class in how to make good fantasy films which are strong on plot and character whilst avoiding the pitfalls many of the other movies of this genre keep falling into. To date this is (pretty much) the only super-hero/comic-book film I would rate as above average. Most of the rest didn’t even make my Bronze list. But this film just seems to get better every time I watch it. Brilliant.