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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Science of Dune – An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science behind Frank Herbert’s fictional Universe by Kevin R Grazier

How could I possibly resist this book? Not only does it ease me into reading science based books again but it’s about the science in one of my all time favourite SF novels. Dune by Frank Herbert seems to be on my mind a lot lately. I keep thinking about reading it again (after the best part of 30 years) but part of me wonders if it’ll still have the same effect on the adult me as it did on the teenager. Anyway, I’ve recently bought some more books based in the Dune Universe so I’ll get around to reading the original trilogy at some point.

But, back to the book pictured above: This was actually a pretty good collection of articles written by people with both a love of the subject and more than a passing acquaintance with science – indeed 11 of the articles were penned by PhD’s (which says a lot about the relationship between science and science fiction I think). The subjects tackled are: The drug Melange, Precognition/Second Sight, Sandworm biology and Arakeen ecology, breeding programmes and genetic engineering, Dune Universe cosmology and stellar mechanics, the practicality of stillsuits, pain and where it comes from, navigating folded space, the suspensor field, cloning and memory recovery in golems, and the possibility of FTL.

As you can imagine I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I don’t think that any of the articles was long enough or off base enough to bore or irritate me. The authors had certainty read at least Dune itself and often many more of the books in the series – including the new batch. Some admitted to being die-hard Dune fans and even mentioned the effect of Dune on their career choice. This was not a thrown together volume designed simply to get money from Dune fans. The authors themselves fell into this category. Although often critical of the science in Dune – which was when all is said a done a work of fiction – they almost universally praised the scientific ideas presented in the original trilogy and beyond. I would hesitate to say that this is a must-read for any self respecting Dune fan but it is a worthy addition to any SF fans science of pop culture library. Recommended.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Thinking About: Science

I have been fascinated with Science and Technology since at least my early teens. Despite this I am not a Scientist. Most of my formal, as well as my informal, education since age 18 has been in the Humanities.

I think this is for several reasons. In my late teens I kind of hit a brick wall with Mathematics. I just sort of turned-off or even tuned-out. Funnily in my early teens I loved (and I’m not exaggerating here) Quadratic Equations and could do a lot of them in my head which exasperated my Maths teachers who had to constantly remind me to show my working out. Stupidly, looking back on it, I followed the equations into 6th Form and was surprised to find that I just didn’t ‘get it’ any more. About 6 months in I literally gave up on Maths and these days, whenever I see a page of equations, my mind just freezes. Needless to say pursuing almost any science subject at University at that point became pretty moot. Luckily I had found another passion – History. I became interested in people and why they do what they do and how all of that produced the world we live in. Unfortunately my academic future in History didn’t quite work out either so I ended up studying Social Ethics.

I never did lose my interest in science of course. The fires were probably regularly fanned by all the SF I was reading (as they still are) as well as the occasional popular science book I managed to fit in between the aliens and the starships. Probably by my early 20’s I figured that I knew enough of the basics not to feel the need to investigate much further. I did read a few books by Dawkins which fired my scientific imagination to new heights but any other delving into the scientific world have been both fairly random and rather shallow.

I do, however, feel at least a basic understanding and appreciation of science is important (actually vital) to an understanding of the world around us and the universe beyond that. Scientific investigation is by far the best way to discover much of what we need to know to survive and prosper in the coming centuries. Without it we are lost in a chaotic world were seemingly unpredictable - or even actively capricious - elements can do us harm. Of course science is not the only form of knowledge worthy of its name and not everything responds to scientific enquiry. Outside of science we have art, music and literature. We also have history and philosophy to help us understand who we are and were we came from. But not all forms of enquiry are equally valid. If science tells us that the Earth is 4.5 Billion years old (for example) and other, more traditional, sources tell us that it is considerably less then it is towards science that I look to give the definitive answer. Science can explain things and predict new occurrences because it understands the fundamentals of things. Religion often tells a good tale but cannot tell us much about the world in which we live. Before the advent of science whatever progress society was capable of was glacial. Whilst today such advances in our knowledge exceed the capacity of many to comprehend and show little sign of slowing. Such advances would be impossible without scientific understanding. Science made the world it is today and will mould the future in ways we have yet to envisage (unless you read lots of SF). To understand things you really need science. QED.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Recession Blamed for Sharp Increase in Shooting Sprees

by Matt Spence for The Times

Friday, April 10, 2009

WASHINGTON - The US economic crisis and soaring job losses have brought a rash of killings across America with at least 58 fatalities in eight incidents over the past month. The shooting at an immigration centre in New York State last week was carried out by a man who had lost his job. A Vietnamese immigrant who had recently been sacked from his job at a vacuum cleaner factory stormed into an immigration centre in New York State last week and killed 13 people before turning the gun on himself. A letter sent by the gunman to a local television station blamed his “poor life” and police harassment for the rampage.

In Oakland, California, a 26-year-old man on parole shot and killed four police officers after a routine traffic check on March 21. His relatives said that he was frustrated about not finding work and feared returning to jail. Two weeks later, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an unemployed man opened fire, killing three police officers. In January a man in Los Angeles sent a letter to a local television station filled with tales of job loss, mounting debt and bad cheques. He was found dead, having shot his wife and five children before killing himself. It was the fifth such incident in the Los Angeles area in a year. While detailed statistics on such tragedies have begun to be kept only in recent years, experts note an emerging pattern. Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Washington-based Violence Policy Centre, said that in most so-called murder-suicides, particularly in the “family annihilator scenarios”, there was “clear, significant involvement of financial pressure”. “And there has clearly been an increase since the economic down-turn,” she added.

Mark Safarik, a former FBI profiler, is also startled at the number of deaths. “Boy, this is a lot,” he said. He noted that most people who commited such crimes shared the presence of a single catastrophic event, or trigger. “It’s the . . . perfect storm of someone’s last shot at something. For them there’s just no other way out. Or if there’s another way out, they don’t choose it, because they’re going to punish somebody,” Mr Safarik said. He added: “I think that people that are on the edge, that are contemplating such tragic events, sometimes all it takes is that being highlighted in the media for them to go, ‘You know, I could do something like that. I’m that angry’.” The recent spate of shootings has also reignited the emotive US debate over gun control. In 2005, the most recent year for which official records exist, there were 11,346 gun-related killings in the United States. In England and Wales there were 50 homicides involving firearms during the reporting period from 2005-06.

Gun-control advocates hope that a new Democratic Administration will mean an opportunity to tighten restriction on firearms but others fear losing their weapons. The shooter who murdered three police officers in Pittsburgh, friends said, feared that the Obama Administration would take away his guns. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said: “We have a gun crisis in America. As important as the economic crisis is, the right to be safe at home and work and play needs at least as much attention from our policymakers as the right to economic security.” Calling for tougher gun laws, he added: “What we’re doing now is not working.”

[So unemployment and concern about the financial future is an excuse for killing other people? It might be an excuse for killing yourself, but for killing groups of people you’ve never met until the day you kill them? Has the whole world gone insane! Stories like this really make we wonder why our species deserves to survive.]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Surveillance by Jonathan Rabin

Lucy Bengstrom is a free-lance journalist living in post 9/11 Seattle. Struggling to make ends meet and bring up her eleven year old daughter on her own she is delighted to be given the job by GQ magazine of tracking down and interviewing the latest publishing sensation. Boy 381 by August Vanag is an autobiographical heart rending tale of his survival as a young child in Nazi occupied Europe. The book has remained at the top of the Best Sellers list for months and there is talk of the movie rights being sold. But the reclusive Vanag apparently does not give interviews. After Lucy tracks him down to an isolated island off the Seattle coast she finds him to be a charming, off beat eccentric who is more than happy to be interviewed. However, whilst researching background information for the piece, Lucy finds disturbing evidence that Vanag’s autobiographical memories may have been cleverly fabricated. Meanwhile in other parts of her life she worries about her daughter who is slipping away from her as she grows into adulthood, her best friend suspects his HIV has become full blown AIDS and her new Chinese landlord has fallen in love with her. All in all it’s not going to be an easy year for Lucy – and in the background the Government continues to ramp up the tension with terrorist attack drills of increasing scale and realism.

I picked this up simply because of its title. It turned out to be completely different to what I had expected. This book was very well written. I could almost say beautifully written – almost. About two-thirds of the way through I was still thinking to myself “What exactly is this book about?” Thinking about it afterwards I’m not entirely sure that it was “about” anything – yet at the same time it seemed to be about everything. It boiled down into a slice of life in a near-future America obsessed with security and still coming to terms with 9/11. It’s probably the only post 9/11 book I’ve read that explicitly references those events. Part of the book – or maybe the main theme – is an on again off again discussion about the level of security necessary for the US to survive in a more dangerous would and the whole host of fears that brings to the surface. The characters, even the sleazy landlord, are amazingly detailed and real. The author is obviously a talented observer of human behaviour as all of his characters live and breath on every page. This was a sheer delight to read. But be prepared for the ending. It’s certainly not what I expected and to be honest I had some difficulty accepting it. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it or try it out on my recommendation. Saying that, this is an excellent book and is probably one of the best I’ve read this year. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Them!

Deep in the New Mexico desert a State Patrol plane is circling checking out a report of a lost little girl wandering in the scrub. When the police find her she is practically catatonic with shock. Tracing her back to the trailer she wandered away from the police find a scene of total devastation. So begins an investigation that gets stranger by the hour. That evening a local store owner is found dead, crushed and with enough formic acid inside him to kill 20 men. At a loss the local police send for the FBI who are equally baffled. When Washington gets involved they send two of their scientists to investigate. It’s not long before they produce an amazing theory. Just nine years before the US had exploded the first atomic bomb not far from the site of the grisly events under investigation. In that time local ants had, the believed, mutated into giant monsters. But it’s only when they’re attacked in the desert by a wandering scout that theory becomes terrifying reality. When the nest is located and destroyed with cyanide gas they discover to their horror that two queens had already escaped to make new nests somewhere in the vast empty spaces of the USA. Left undiscovered they could produce millions of the giant killers and threaten the existence of mankind itself.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw this 1954 classic. I do know that I found parts of it deeply disturbing. The noise the giant ants make can still give me Goosebumps and several scenes can still creep me out. Early on one of the police officers investigates a noise in the night and goes to investigate. Cunningly we don’t see anything – he’s off camera at the time – we just hear ant-noise, gun fire and then screaming. It must have terrified audiences 50 years ago. But my all time favourite scene has to be the hatching of the nest on board a steam freighter at sea. Intercut with the teletype message from a US Navy destroyer heading for the location we see the crew desperately fighting the newly hatched monsters with whatever weapons come to hand whilst the radio operator, already severely wounded, calls for help by Morse code. It’s a gripping image.

OK, the acting was a bit wooden at times and the dialogue sucked in places but, despite inadequate SFX this movie works. It does work better before the ants are actually seen but that’s common to all Horror/SF films up to and including Alien. What makes this film one of my all time favourites is the suspense, the drama, the plotting and the pace of this movie. It also has a very good atmospheric score. For all its dated qualities this is still a great SF B-movie. If you love SF you really need to have seen it at least once.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium

“Better freedom with danger than peace with slavery.”

The Palatine of Posen, father of the King of Poland and Duke of Lorraine.

In other words: It is better to live with fear than in chains.
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pentagon Exploring Robot Killers That Can Fire on Their Own

by Robert S. Boyd for the McClatchy Newspapers

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

WASHINGTON - The unmanned bombers that frequently cause unintended civilian casualties in Pakistan are a step toward an even more lethal generation of robotic hunters-killers that operate with limited, if any, human control. The Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous, or self-governing, armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own. On-board computer programs, not flesh-and-blood people, would decide whether to fire their weapons.

The Army's 350-pound MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) mobile robots, each carrying an M240B medium machine gun."The trend is clear: Warfare will continue and autonomous robots will ultimately be deployed in its conduct," Ronald Arkin, a robotics expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wrote in a study commissioned by the Army." The pressure of an increasing battlefield tempo is forcing autonomy further and further toward the point of robots making that final, lethal decision," he predicted. "The time available to make the decision to shoot or not to shoot is becoming too short for remote humans to make intelligent informed decisions." Autonomous armed robotic systems probably will be operating by 2020, according to John Pike, an expert on defense and intelligence matters and the director of the security Web site GlobalSecurity.org in Washington. This prospect alarms experts, who fear that machines will be unable to distinguish between legitimate targets and civilians in a war zone. "We are sleepwalking into a brave new world where robots decide who, where and when to kill," said Noel Sharkey, an expert on robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, England. Human operators thousands of miles away in Nevada, using satellite communications, control the current generation of missile-firing robotic aircraft, known as Predators and Reapers. Armed ground robots, such as the Army's Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, also require a human decision-maker before they shoot.

As of now, about 5,000 lethal and nonlethal robots are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides targeting Taliban and al Qaida leaders, they perform surveillance, disarm roadside bombs, ferry supplies and carry out other military tasks. So far, none of these machines is autonomous; all are under human control. The Pentagon's plans for its Future Combat System envision increasing levels of independence for its robots." Fully autonomous engagement without human intervention should also be considered, under user-defined conditions," said a 2007 Army request for proposals to design future robots. For example, the Pentagon says that air-to-air combat may happen too fast to allow a remote controller to fire an unmanned aircraft's weapons. "There is really no way that a system that is remotely controlled can effectively operate in an offensive or defensive air-combat environment," Dyke Weatherington, the deputy director of the Pentagon's unmanned aerial systems task force, told a news conference on Dec. 18, 2007. "The requirement for that is a fully autonomous system," he said. "That will take many years to get to." Many Navy warships carry the autonomous, rapid-fire Phalanx system, which is designed to shoot down enemy missiles or aircraft that have penetrated outer defenses without waiting for a human decision-maker.

At Georgia Tech, Arkin is finishing a three-year Army contract to find ways to ensure that robots are used in appropriate ways. His idea is an "ethical governor" computer system that would require robots to obey the internationally recognized laws of war and the U.S. military's rules of engagement. "Robots must be constrained to adhere to the same laws as humans or they should not be permitted on the battlefield," Arkin wrote. For example, a robot's computer "brain" would block it from aiming a missile at a hospital, church, cemetery or cultural landmark, even if enemy forces were clustered nearby. The presence of women or children also would spark a robotic no-no. Arkin contends that a properly designed robot could behave with greater restraint than human soldiers in the heat of battle and cause fewer casualties. "Robots can be built that do not exhibit fear, anger, frustration or revenge, and that ultimately behave in a more humane manner than even human beings in these harsh circumstances," he wrote.

Sharkey, the British critic of autonomous armed robots, said that Arkin's ethical governor was "a good idea in principle. Unfortunately, it's doomed to failure at present because no robots or AI (artificial intelligence) systems could discriminate between a combatant and an innocent. That sensing ability just does not exist." Selmer Bringsjord, an artificial intelligence expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is worried, too. "I'm concerned. The stakes are very high," Bringsjord said. "If we give robots the power to do nasty things, we have to use logic to teach them not to do unethical things. If we can't figure this out, we shouldn't build any of these robots."

[Reading stories like this I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I suppose that if we’re stupid enough to continue going down this road of building better killer robots – with or without an ‘ethics’ chip - I guess that we deserve everything we get. If humans cannot tell the difference between combatants and non-combatants can machines be programmed to tell the difference? Can we really build humane killing machines with the built in capability to decide who lives and who dies? Don’t these people read Science-Fiction?]

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Machiavelli – A Man Misunderstood by Michael White

After reading his less than informative biography of Leonardo I wasn’t expecting much from this further foray into Renaissance Italian history. I was, however, rather surprised to find this a much superior work. Although I am interested in the period (as I am in other ‘Periods of Transition’) I admit that my knowledge of it is largely shallow and fleeting. I certainly know more now.

Dealing with the turbulent times from the end of the end of the 15th Century into beginning of the 16th White’s book follows Niccolo Machievelli’s life as he rose to prominence in the Florentine Government then crashed to Earth as his fate changed for the worse. Fortunately for the world – or not depending on your point of view – during this exile he penned his greatest works amongst which were The Prince and Discourses which both discussed politics in often graphic and uncompromising detail. Despite using examples from antiquity (or maybe because of that) as well as personal experience of diplomatic missions to some of the most infamous politicians and religious leaders in the medieval world, Machiavelli produced timeless classics that can still be read for insight 500 years later.

This volume didn’t change my opinion of Machiavelli (which was its clearly stated aim) for the reason that I had hardly formed an opinion of the man – except one of admiration of his unblushing acceptance of human nature – so the book ‘failed’ in that respect. However, I am now certainly more informed about the fascinating, if somewhat bizarre and chaotic, history of Renaissance Italy and its relationship with the rest of Europe. The Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance can, I think, teach us a great deal about the multi-polar world we are moving into and the works of Machiavelli deserve study for that reason. I actually have several copies of The Prince which I tried, and failed, to read in my youth. Maybe I’ll appreciate it now that I’m a bit more mature and a lot more cynical. I will, of course, review it here when I finally do get around to reading it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

My Favourite TV: The Devil’s Whore

Historical drama is something that British TV does particularly well. The BBC in particular is world renowned for its costume drama and adaptations of classic literature such as Pride and Prejudice. Although not from the BBC this Channel 4 production is truly outstanding historical TV.

Following the life of fictional character Angelica Fanshawe through the turbulent times of the English Civil War it introduces us to the very human consequences of ideological conflict on a massive scale as the country is brought to its knees by years of internecine warfare. Angelica originally marries her childhood sweetheart who is a staunch Royalist but both an inexperienced lover and poor military commander. Confused by Angelica’s passion he accuses her of being a whore and wonders if she has been possessed by a demon she claimed to have seen in childhood. Forced into a battle he cannot win he later surrenders the family estate to the Parliamentarian forces causing Charles Stewart to have him executed. Angelica is thrown on her own resources and starving becomes prey to powerful men who desire her for her beauty. Not one to be beaten down by circumstance she finds herself in the Parliamentarian camp and in love with the radical revolutionary Thomas Rainsborough. This firebrand and potential leader of the new English state is at odds with his friend Oliver Cromwell who proposes coming to terms with the King. If things in Angelica’s life were not complicated enough her mercenary bodyguard Saxby is also in love with her after seeing her on her wedding night. Sworn to protect her no matter what he also changes sides after becoming disgusted with the Royalist side but quickly becomes equally disenchanted with Parliament after witnessing Cromwell’s Machiavellian manoeuvring and political assassinations. Finally forced to challenge Cromwell directly he seals his own fate – but not before it becomes entwined with that of Angelica.

This was probably, above all else, a love story told in a time of supreme upheaval. From another perspective it is a tale of the striving for freedom from tyrannical government in a time when Kings had a divine right to rule. It is also an interesting speculation of what might have been if Thomas Rainsborough had replaced Cromwell as the head of State during our brief flirtation with Republicanism. I must admit I did develop a great sympathy with Rainsborough and was delighted to discover that not only did he actually exist but that his views expressed in this four part production seemed to be those he held in real life. This was a violent, sexy, politically charged and more than occasionally funny insight into one of the most brutal periods in English history. It did admittedly gallop through the period at quite a pace and may have played fast and loose with some of the events (after all this is drama not documentary) but it was highly entertaining and apparently has prompted even school children to become interested in their own countries history – so it can’t be all bad. Needless to say I loved this for its intelligence, political cynicism and gritty realism. The cast of Andrea Riseborough (Fanshawe), John Simm (Saxby), Michael Fassbender (Rainsborough) and Dominic West (Cromwell) where superb. If you missed this when it was shown on TV I can only advise you to catch it on DVD. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter, Mithra has Risen!

[Found somewhere on the Internet]

The Vatican was built upon the grounds previously devoted to the worship of Mithra (600 B.C.). The Orthodox Christian hierarchy is nearly identical to the Mithraic version. Virtually all of the elements of Orthodox Christian rituals, from miter, wafer, water baptism, alter, and doxology, were adopted from the Mithra and earlier pagan mystery religions. The religion of Mithra preceded Christianity by roughly six hundred years. Mithraic worship at one time covered a large portion of the ancient world. It flourished as late as the second century. The Messianic idea originated in ancient Persia and this is where the Jewish and Christian concepts of a Saviour came from. Mithra, as the sun god of ancient Persia, had the following karmic similarities with Jesus:

(1)Mithra was born on December 25th as an offspring of the Sun. Next to the gods Ormuzd and Ahrimanes, Mithra held the highest rank among the gods of ancient Persia. He was represented as a beautiful youth and a Mediator. Reverend J. W. Lake states: "Mithras is spiritual light contending with spiritual darkness, and through his labors the kingdom of darkness shall be lit with heaven's own light; the Eternal will receive all things back into his favor, the world will be redeemed to God. The impure are to be purified, and the evil made good, through the mediation of Mithras, the reconciler of Ormuzd and Ahriman. Mithras is the Good, his name is Love. In relation to the Eternal he is the source of grace, in relation to man he is the life-giver and mediator" (Plato, Philo, and Paul, p. 15).

(2)He was considered a great traveling teacher and masters. He had twelve companions as Jesus had twelve disciples. Mithras also performed miracles.

(3)Mithra was called "the good shepherd,” "the way, the truth and the light,” “redeemer,” “savior,” “Messiah." He was identified with both the lion and the lamb.

(4)The International Encyclopedia states: "Mithras seems to have owed his prominence to the belief that he was the source of life, and could also redeem the souls of the dead into the better world ... The ceremonies included a sort of baptism to remove sins, anointing, and a sacred meal of bread and water, while a consecrated wine, believed to possess wonderful power, played a prominent part."

(5)Chambers Encyclopedia says: "The most important of his many festivals was his birthday, celebrated on the 25th of December, the day subsequently fixed -- against all evidence -- as the birthday of Christ. The worship of Mithras early found its way into Rome, and the mysteries of Mithras, which fell in the spring equinox, were famous even among the many Roman festivals. The ceremonies observed in the initiation to these mysteries -- symbolical of the struggle between Ahriman and Ormuzd (the Good and the Evil) -- were of the most extraordinary and to a certain degree even dangerous character. Baptism and the partaking of a mystical liquid, consisting of flour and water, to be drunk with the utterance of sacred formulas, were among the inauguration acts."

(6)Prof. Franz Cumont, of the University of Ghent, writes as follows concerning the religion of Mithra and the religion of Christ: "The sectaries of the Persian god, like the Christians', purified themselves by baptism, received by a species of confirmation the power necessary to combat the spirit of evil; and expected from a Lord's supper salvation of body and soul. Like the latter, they also held Sunday sacred, and celebrated the birth of the Sun on the 25th of December.... They both preached a categorical system of ethics, regarded asceticism as meritorious and counted among their principal virtues abstinence and continence, renunciation and self-control. Their conceptions of the world and of the destiny of man were similar. They both admitted the existence of a Heaven inhabited by beatified ones, situated in the upper regions, and of a Hell, peopled by demons, situated in the bowels of the earth. They both placed a flood at the beginning of history; they both assigned as the source of their condition, a primitive revelation; they both, finally, believed in the immortality of the soul, in a last judgment, and in a resurrection of the dead, consequent upon a final conflagration of the universe" (The Mysteries of Mithras, pp. 190, 191).

(7)Reverend Charles Biggs stated: "The disciples of Mithra formed an organized church, with a developed hierarchy. They possessed the ideas of Mediation, Atonement, and a Savior, who is human and yet divine, and not only the idea, but a doctrine of the future life. They had a Eucharist, and a Baptism, and other curious analogies might be pointed out between their system and the church of Christ (The Christian Platonists, p. 240).

(8)In the catacombs at Rome was preserved a relic of the old Mithraic worship. It was a picture of the infant Mithra seated in the lap of his virgin mother, while on their knees before him were Persian Magi adoring him and offering gifts.

(9)He was buried in a tomb and after three days he rose again. His resurrection was celebrated every year.

(10)McClintock and Strong wrote: "In modern times Christian writers have been induced to look favorably upon the assertion that some of our ecclesiastical usages (e.g., the institution of the Christmas festival) originated in the cultus of Mithraism. Some writers who refuse to accept the Christian religion as of supernatural origin, have even gone so far as to institute a close comparison with the founder of Christianity; and Dupuis and others, going even beyond this, have not hesitated to pronounce the Gospel simply a branch of Mithraism" (Art. "Mithra").

(11)Mithra had his principal festival on what was later to become Easter, at which time he was resurrected. His sacred day was Sunday, "the Lord's Day." The Mithra religion had a Eucharist or "Lord's Supper."

(12)The Christian Father Manes, founder of the heretical sect known as Manicheans, believed that Christ and Mithra were one. His teaching, according to Mosheim, was as follows: "Christ is that glorious intelligence which the Persians called Mithras ... His residence is in the sun" (Ecclesiastical History, 3rd century, Part 2, ch. 5).

"I am a star which goes with thee and shines out of the depths." - Mithraic saying

"I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright morning star." - Jesus, (Rev. 22:16)

[What a coincidence…. Or should I say a whole string of ‘coincidences’.]
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thinking About: Being Single

I’m lucky in that I actually like my own company. I’m not driven, as I know some people are, to seek the company of others. Which is all to the good as I’ve spent most of my adult years single. Of course this state has many advantages – I can stay up until 2am playing video games if I want to, I can buy just about any weird piece of junk I like, I can eat what I want, when I want and as often as I want, I can wear anything (or nothing) if it pleases me, I can sleep in or get up at dawn if the muse takes me, I can listen to loud music in the middle of the day, so basically I can do pretty much what I like without needing to think about another person or take their thoughts into consideration. I suppose some could say that I’m being selfish – but as I’m not exactly harming anyone I’d have to say ‘So what’.

I have enjoyed several fairly long (a comparative term I know) relationships and have largely enjoyed them. The good times where great and the bad times… where instructive - I think is the best way of looking at it. Entering into another relationship after so long alone would, I think, be difficult. I’m pretty much set in my ways now so would probably see another person in my life as intrusive. Sure, a bit more sex might be fun but I don’t miss it that much. My libido is certainly active enough even at my advancing age but we’ve come to an arrangement and try not to bother each other too much. I think what I miss most is intimacy. Friendship is good but relationships with lovers are much more satisfying, like the difference between a snack and the three course meal. Actually it’s more than that. It’s not a difference in degree but a difference in kind. I remember being with Carol when I literally couldn’t see anything beyond 6 feet away just because it wasn’t of any interest to me. Such memories are inevitably tinged with sadness but they’re still great memories. I do miss that intensity of feeling. Maybe it’s just that it’s Spring and the sap is rising.

On the bright side I have money in the bank and oodles of free time to read books I’m sure any partner wouldn’t approve of. I am irredeemably who I am I’m afraid which, it would seem, is more than a little off-putting to any prospective lover. I actually shudder at the prospect of living with someone. I’d have to be tidy for one thing (or at least tidier). I’m not sure if I could cope with that and I’m pretty certain that she wouldn’t be able to cope with me. I think its best that if I ever do accidently fall into a relationship that we live in separate houses. I think that’s best all around.

Stranger things have happened (usually at sea for some reason) so I don’t rule out another fling before my life fizzles out. It would be nice waking up next to someone in the morning – though maybe not every morning. It would be nice sharing ideas over dinner or out walking the dog (if we had a dog). In the meantime I’ll crank up the music so I can hear it upstairs whilst watching my Heavy Bolter team cut the enemy into bloody chunks……

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Reunion by John Gribbin and Marcus Chown

Tugela’s world is dying. It’s been years since the comets stopped coming and the air is becoming too thin to sustain life. People are either pulling back to the capital and its thicker atmosphere or planning rebellion against the apparently invincible Priests who control everything. Travelling to the Forbidden Zone in the foot steps of her grandfather Tugela discovers that everything she thought she knew about her world was a lie. So begins her journey to the almost mythical world known as Earth and beyond into the depths of space where a deranged AI is deciding the fate of both worlds.

This was clearly aimed at the juvenile SF market. Both main characters are teenagers who go on a Quest that the adults are either unwilling or unable to attempt and both grow up in the process. It’s a standard plot of many a classic novel. This certainly resides in that mould and has many of the characteristics you would expect from something written in the Golden Age of SF – except that this was published in 1991. Anyway, this was a solidly constructed tale told reasonably well. It did stagger a bit here and there but not too badly overall. There were few surprises but it did have its moments and was entertaining enough to keep the pages turning. Basically above average fare that did pretty much exactly what was expected of it.

Monday, April 06, 2009

My Favourite Movies: Pitch Black

I remember seeing this for the first time in a friends house on imported DVD. I was so impressed by this fairly low budget SF film that I saw it at the cinema a few weeks later when it was released over here.

The storyline is a fairly basic and well trodden one. A disparate group of passengers aboard a spaceship crash land on a hostile planet and bond together in their mutual dependence. However, several of them have less than pleasant backgrounds as becomes clear as the film progresses. The most obvious misfit in the transported criminal Riddick played by Vin Diesel in what I think was his breakthrough role. Then there’s the docking pilot who had to be restrained from dumping her human cargo to save her life and of course there’s the junky cop/bounty hunter bringing Riddick in for murder. The planet itself is a hot dry desert but it this wasn’t bad enough the castaways as well as the audience begin to realise that the desert if far from being as dead as it first appears. Living in the dark spaces underground are creatures out of anyone’s nightmares. Severely photo-phobic these creatures are waiting for their chance to leave the caverns, fight and breed the next generation. They are awaiting the darkness and a long eclipse is coming. Pity the humans who get caught outside – in the pitch black. You’re not afraid of the dark… are you?

On the face of it this is a by-the-numbers SF/Horror in the mould of Alien where the tension is maintained by not fully seeing the monster before the closing part of the film where it/they steadily work their way through the cast list until only the leads are left. What makes this rise above the usual straight to DVD movie is the outstanding performance of Diesel as the scary convict/hero and the constant sense of tension the movie manages to get across. The ensemble cast is a pretty good one too with at least adequate performances from even its most minor characters. I would’ve liked Claudia Black to be a bit more kick-ass but you can’t have everything I suppose. I did like Radha Mitchell as the surviving pilot Carolyn who played her guilt ridden role to the hilt and then some. For what it was this was a class movie. Whilst not exactly original it was innovative enough to interest and occasionally delight me. I thought that the aliens where particularly well done and very alien – as they should be. If you’re not of a nervous disposition and don’t jump when the shadows move I’d recommend this to you…. but if you are afraid of the dark…. I’d let this one pass you by. It certainly won’t help you sleep at night.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Just too good not to post.

[Seen over @ Stardust's Blog.]

Cartoon Time.
Is life bubbling up in Mars mud?

by David Shiga for New Scientist

20 March 2009

IS LIFE bubbling onto the Martian surface in muddy squirts? The discovery of what could be mud volcanoes on the planet suggest it is possible, providing a new focus in the hunt for alien microbes.

Three plumes have recently been identified as sources of methane in Mars's atmosphere (New Scientist, 24 January, p 19). This has led to suggestions that the gas could have been produced by microbes living a few kilometres beneath the surface, where it could be warm enough for liquid water to persist. This would be difficult to confirm as drilling that deep for samples on another planet is beyond current technology. Now it seems that nature may have done the hard work for us, bringing mud from deep within the planet to the surface via mud volcanoes. Using images from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, Dorothy Oehler and Carlton Allen of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, identified dozens of mounds at a site in the northern plains of Mars that bear a striking resemblance to mud volcanoes on Earth. These form a distinctive large hill of sediment with a central crater.

Further evidence comes from infrared images of the Martian mounds, which show that they cool down more quickly at night than rock should, suggesting they are made of a fine-grained sediment such as mud. Together with David Baker of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, Allen and Oehler also took a fresh look at some possible mud volcanoes identified previously by other researchers, about 1000 kilometres further north. Using light spectra of the mounds recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they found hints of iron oxides, which form in the presence of liquid water. Both studies will be presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, this month.

Jack Farmer of Arizona State University in Tempe agrees that the mounds could be mud volcanoes, but cautions that other processes, like the retreat of glaciers, can leave behind similar heaps of sediment. Nonetheless, studying the clay from mud volcanoes would be of great interest, he says. "Clays have the ability to sequester organic molecules, like ammonia and proteins," he says. "They might retain a memory of any organisms that were there."

[Warmth, liquid and a possible chemical ‘soup’, it sure sounds hopeful. I think the odds of finding life outside of Earth have just gone up a little bit.]

Friday, April 03, 2009

When I die….

I don’t want to be buried or cremated. I want to be frozen for 38,000 years, revived and installed in an Imperial (Hellfire) Dreadnought.

It’s not too much to ask.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell

In the Year 1342 Thomas of Hookton’s life changed forever. Out of an early morning mist French raiders arrived to sack his village. But they are after more important things than the meagre pickings provided by a poor settlement. They are after a religious relic – the lance used by St George himself to kill the fabled dragon. As he holds his dying farther in his arms Thomas learns of his true heritage in France and of the significance of the lance. Leaving his old life behind he joins a band of archers who are retained to fight the French on their own soil. So begins a quest that will bring Thomas face to face with the man who destroyed his life and place him on the battlefield of Crecy where the might of French chivalry are determined to end the English threat once and for all.

I have made no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell and have enjoyed many of his Sharpe books based during the Napoleonic Wars. I did catch a brief glimpse of Sharpe in this novel and, just for a moment, wondered if the author had merely transported his most famous creation back over 400 years but it was not to be. This book, the first part in the Grail Quest trilogy, though similar in some senses is very different in others. Cornwell has the real gift of creating characters that are fully formed and either lovable or hateable in equal measure. He also has the skill, which is fairly rare amongst male authors, of breathing real life into his female characters as much as his male. I managed to positively power through the nearly 500 pages of this book in a matter of days which says much for both his writing style and his ability to produce a real page turner. Yet again I have greatly enjoyed a historical novel much more than many of my recent excursions into SF. I also, at least in a superficial manner, gained an appreciation of a period in European history that I know very little about – apart from the battles of Crecy and Agincourt which bookend the 100 Years War between England and France. I think that I will be reading the next two books in this series fairly soon.