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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Valentine’s Rising by E E Knight

Returning from the Caribbean, David Valentine carries with him a consignment of Quickwood – a plant that is supremely toxic to the Reapers, the shock troops of the Kurian race now dominating life of a conquered Earth. On his return to the Ozark Free Territory his small group is ambushed by human forces loyal to the New Order. Scattered to the four winds Valentine discovers that during his absence the Free Territories have fallen to the invader and that nowhere is safe for him or his men. As he discovers survivors hiding in the hills Valentine puts together a daring plan to rejoin the rebellion. Standing in his way is a partially built fortress designed to hold the land in thrall to the Overlords. Posing as new recruits, Valentine’s band take the fortress through subterfuge and are ordered by the remaining Ozark High Command to hold it at all costs. As the area rises against its alien masters Valentine’s makeshift unit become the focus of the enemies counter attack. Determined to hold the encampment and fight to the last man the rag-tag force face the might of the Kurian army. The question is: Will anyone be left alive when the relief forces get there?

This was the fourth book in the Vampire Earth series. It continues the struggle of David Valentine and the other humans fighting against almost 50 years of alien oppression. The Kurians are creatures from legend made flesh – vampires who literally drink men’s souls, their life essence. On the side of humanity are a small number of Lifeweavers – brothers of the Kurians – who are opposed to their quest to extend their lives indefinitely. With the aid of their technology some humans are modified into beings capable of fighting the Kurian menace with at least a small hope of winning.

This is a very good combat SF series containing just about everything you could ask for. Good characterisation – Valentine in particular is a multi-layered hero who struggles with his chosen profession, great story telling – both the combat and non-combat elements are very well done indeed and a driving narrative that keeps those pages turning. The plot is compelling in that it tells the story of resistance to oppression and the fight for freedom in a fallen world. Each book stands alone but also builds on the others to reveal a deep and richly rendered world that, although not a nice place to live is, at least, an exciting and interesting place to visit. I am enjoying this series immensely and look forward to the next volumes of which there are at least four more to come. Watch this space for more adventures – and hopefully victories – for David Valentine.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My Favourite TV: The Big Bang Theory

I can’t remember if I caught this late one night whilst channel hopping or if my friend CQ alerted me to it. However I found it I’m thankful that I did. Not only does it remind me of my college days in some ways but can’t help thinking that it speaks to my inner geek (OK, my geek isn’t that deeply buried but you get the point).

The plot is a very simple one. Two ubergeeks Leonard Hofstadter (played by John Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) find they have a new neighbour when aspiring actress and cheesecake waitress Penny (played by the drop-dead gorgeous Kaley Cuoco) moves into their apartment block. The rest as they say is very well written and highly intelligent comedy. Penny struggles to get to know her less that socially skilled neighbours as Leonard struggles to date Penny and Sheldon just struggles with human interaction. The cast is rounded off by the sexually obsessive engineer Howard (played by Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (played by Kunal Nayyar) who is pathologically unable to talk to women – unless he’s drunk.

The individual episodes are only 21 minutes long but each one packs in enough jokes and amusing situations for a much longer show. By far the best thing about this series (apart from the amazingly funny Jim Parsons) is the interactions between the characters who are very easy to indentify with – CQ has called me Sheldon on more than one occasion (though I’d love to be that smart…. Maybe). Kaley Cuoco’s Penny is not only lovely to look at (and often rather under-dressed) but is both very funny and not half as dumb as she makes out in the show. Her comic timing is excellent and she makes a fantastic foil for Sheldon who really doesn’t know what to make of her.

I’ve just finished watching Series 1 on DVD and am already looking forward to the next 23 episodes. Unfortunately they show them at odd hours so I often miss them live. Thankfully I have enough on DVD to watch in the mean time before the second series comes out – with the added bonus of no adverts!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Clever boys dumb down to avoid bullying in school

By Jessica Shepherd for The Observer

Sunday 29 March 2009

Clever children are saving themselves from being branded swots at school by dumbing down and deliberately falling behind, a study has shown. Schoolchildren regarded as boffins may be attacked and shunned by their peers, according to Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, who carried out a study of academically gifted 12- and 13-year-olds in nine state secondary schools. The study, to be published in the Sociological Review next year, shows how difficult it is for children, particularly boys, to be clever and popular. Boys risk being assaulted in some schools for being high-achievers. To conform and escape alienation, clever boys told researchers they may "try to fall behind" or "dumb down".

One boy told researchers: "It is harder to be popular and intelligent. If the subject comes naturally ... then I think it makes it easier. But if the subject doesn't come naturally, they work hard and other people see that and then you get the name-calling." This may in part explain boys' perceived underachievement, Francis said.Clever girls, meanwhile, can be seen as less attractive and less popular in some schools than girls who manage average grades.

One girl told the researchers: "My friends are all really nice people and have [a] really good sense of humour, and they're all really pretty and stuff, but because they do well in school they're not popular." But clever girls were, on the whole, under less pressure to fall behind deliberately. What counts as a swot varies from school to school, but the threshold for what is constituted "boffin behaviour" tended to be lower at poorer-performing schools.

[This was certainly my experience. In the early years of Secondary school I made a fairly conscious effort to the class clown rather than the class swot. I enjoyed being laughed at far more than being punched or intimidated by those who, rather illogically, felt threatened by me. I figured out several effecting coping strategies – one of which was to deliberately fail at things. I did however take this too far though and struggled to get into university. Failure by then had become an unfortunate habit. It would seem that no one likes a smart-arse (though I would like to see a demographic breakdown of that). Thankfully as I got older and stayed on at school I spent progressively more time with my intellectual peers and, by the time I got to university, in an environment full of people who were at least my equal and who were sometimes frighteningly clever. It was such a relief not to pretend any more. These days I’m more comfortable with my ‘inner geek’ though I know for a fact that it sometimes makes people around me feel uncomfortable. At my age though I have almost stopped caring that nearly everyone I’ve known thinks I’m weird. Almost………]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

This was a rather strange book though in general easier to read that my previous work by this author (The Rebel). Written and published during the Occupation, Camus attempts to answer the question of why we don’t choose to kill ourselves – basically asking the question of what makes life worth living. Typically of Camus, and maybe French philosophy in general, he doesn’t tackle the question head on but sidles up to it from an oblique but interesting angle by putting forward the idea of Absurdity.

As far as I can work out so far, Camus believes that human life is patently absurd in that we fully expect the world to be rational when obviously it isn’t – yet we still act as if it is. We expect things to make sense, for effect to follow cause, for history to flow in a certain direction, for things to progress and so on. None of this, according to Camus, is true. In another sense of the meaning of absurdity, Camus relates how the universe is silent to our questions basically because it is made out of dead matter which we imbue with a purpose it does not possess. Because we basically impose our meaning(s) on a meaningless universe the inevitable result is an absurd situation. In order to cope with this Camus proposes that individuals strong enough to deal with the consequences attempt to see things as they really are – to become lucid. Once lucidity is achieved (on a semi-regular basis) the individual who has accomplished this state becomes free from many of the constraints that bind other people to the pervasive illusions surrounding them allowing him to move beyond many of the disappointments that cause so much pain and fear.

I’m still wrapping my head around his ideas and think that I’m slowly working them out. Both Sisyphus and Rebel have been an instrumental foundation in the dissertation I’m working on and I think the idea of absurdity and lucidity have a great deal of mileage in them. If I remember correctly though, Camus says that the tension created by the acknowledgment of the divergence between our beliefs about the world and the reality should be maintained. I actually thought that once the world was fully accepted for what it is – essentially dead and meaningless – then the tension would no longer exist and the person holding that idea would be truly free. It’s something I’ll have to work on further. Of course holding this idea would be a heroic thing to do – what I think Camus is proposing is facing the universe naked without the comfort of arbitrary and contingent beliefs protecting us from raw reality. This is, as you might expect, far from easy (if achievable at all). It did actually read in places like some Buddhist books I’ve read in the past – the idea that giving up and letting go will be inevitably liberating. Or maybe, as I sometimes do, I’m reading too much into it.

Despite its strangeness, or more likely because of it, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Camus is often a beautiful author and I found myself on more that one occasion wishing that I could write that well. This talent probably comes from his other literary ventures which must bleed into his more philosophical works – indeed from what I can tell there is no great barrier between his two work strands. If you get the opportunity to read Camus I’d encourage you to do so. He can be hard work at times but he has a valuable insight into the human condition that challenges many of our deeply held and seemingly obvious conceptions of the world. Go on, expand your mind. When it bounces back it’ll never be quite the same again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Thinking About: Weddings

Despite not exactly being the marrying kind and actually a person who struggles with the very concept of marriage I do actually like the events themselves. I’ve just literally come back from a friend’s wedding and enjoyed myself immensely. After a four hour train ride I dropped my bags in my hotel room, called a cab, and shot off to the pre-wedding BBQ at the bride’s mother’s very nice house – complete with a decent sized swimming pool and the obligatory bouncy castle for the kids. Much veggie food was consumed, old acquaintances renewed and new people introduced. Some people were there who I hadn’t seen in almost 10 years so it was really good to catch up with events in so many people’s lives. Afterwards ‘the guys’ retired to a nearby pub for ‘a few beers’ which I understand – having left at about 10:30pm – lasted until 2am. Needless to say the groom, my friend, was a little worse for wear on his wedding day – which didn’t help his nerves!

Although the day started out with blue skies and white fluffy clouds, by the time the wedding party began to assemble the sky had turned grey and threatened rain. Sure enough about 45 minutes before the classic coaches arrived to take us to the 11th Century church, the heavens opened in a mighty downpour. But by the time everyone was ready to go – including me inevitably on the wrong bus – the worst had passed and we managed to board in relative safety. By the time we arrived at the beautiful church, some 6 miles away, the rain had faded to nothing and we made it inside completely unscathed. After about 10 minutes the bride arrived in a stunning crème dress with flowers and jewels in her hair. Even I heard the groom take a sharp intake of breath half way down the church. The service itself was more religious that I expected, though both being modern people, neither said ‘love, honour and obey’. I did smile at that. As the service was coming to an end the rain started again clattering in the church roof and I think all of us accepted that the post-wedding photo-shoot was going to be a wash-out. It was not to be! As soon as the newly married couple – her now with a double barrelled name – began walking back down the aisle the rain once again stopped and, apart from a few drops here and there, did not return.

The photo-shoot itself was a fairly typical affair enlivened, for me at least, by the fact that one of the photographers was probably one of the most beautiful women I’ve seen in years. I tried to surreptitiously take a photograph of her but short of blatantly doing so – which thinking about it later I just should’ve done – I only managed to get a few distant shots which do not do her justice. I took about 30 photo’s myself and a few at least turned out to be half decent so I’ll drop them onto a CD over the weekend and pass them onto the happy couple.

Back at the reception the bride had obviously been working hard to couple up as many singles as possible – especially with the interesting idea of having gender specific starters and sweets to encourage sharing and, I guessing she hoped, other things too. It wasn’t quite strong enough magic to work for me, at least not with the women sitting on either side of me. I did, however, share some interesting conversations with the woman across from me who turned out to be a SF fan. Much discussion of various movies ensued over the music provided by a local DJ. Why we simply didn’t move to a quieter room never occurred to either of us. I for one cannot blame alcohol poisoning as, apart from the congratulatory champagne I stuck to my regular diet-coke (mainly to keep awake). Later as we departed to separate hotels we both said how lovely it was to meet each other. Of course I fully expected that this was the last I’d ever see of her. Fate, however, had other ideas.

The following day – I made my way (later than planned) to the very small local railway station for the journey back home via London to do a bit of book shopping (final haul only two books but I did pick up four T-shirts in compensation). I’d missed the train I was aiming for by 16 minutes so had a ¾ hour wait for the next one. Who should show up 20 minutes later but my lovely SF fan from the previous evening. We managed to continue our conversation – this time mainly on books and the dangers of travelling to unfamiliar destinations resulting in the familiar panic every time the train pulls into a station. I must admit to have been quite a smitten kitten at this point. She has a wonderfully deep smile that seems to well up from somewhere deep inside. I’d noticed it the night before when she was reading some of the comments left in a book of congratulations. She smiled and it just kept building and building. It was quite something. Anyway, I digress……

Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Weddings……. Fortunately I wasn’t directly involved in this one so was, in effect, along for the ride. As the stress levels were quite high at times I am truly grateful for that. I think everyone had a good time. I saw lots of laughter and a few tears but in the end everyone went away with something – if only a piece of individually wrapped wedding cake. I had a really good – if fairly exhausting - time and I was very glad to have been invited. Here’s to the next one [raises glass of champers….]

Friday, July 17, 2009

Word(s) of the Week: Ion drive.

a space drive that generates thrust by emitting a stream of ions in the direction opposite to that of travel; (especially in modern and scientific use) such a drive generates a relatively weak but steady acceleration that accumulates over time to produce high sub-light velocities.

1947 J. Williamson Equalizer in Astounding SF (Mar.): It had its own ion drive, a regular crew of six, and plenty of additional space for our party.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

Europe. 1938. The world is drifting towards war. In Paris, Hungarian émigré Nicolas Morath does favours for his uncle, the diplomat Count Janos Polanyi, favours that include crossing borders under false papers, delivering passports to strangers and passing on information from renegade Abwehr officers to British Intelligence. Everything is bent towards the task of avoiding the coming storm. When Austria falls under German domination the threat of war becomes closer and all parties become desperate. Agents are gunned down on the streets of Paris and no one it seems is safe from betrayal, imprisonment, torture and death. Moving between assignments he barely understands Morath tries to stay alive whilst both the world and his personal life collapse around him.

Those of you who have regularly read my book reviews know that I am a huge fan of Alan Furst. I don’t read his books very often because, as they’re so damned good, I like to space them out a bit as extra special treats. This book, like all his others, is that treat. I can hardly say more than I’ve already said in previous reviews regarding this author. His storylines are so sublime and agonizingly realistic that it is almost too painful to read them. You cannot help but fall in love with even his minor characters. They are beautifully drawn in living 3D. They live, breath and die on the pages in front of you. You cannot help but to care for them. You live inside their heads and in their lives so full of pervasive peril and random death. Furst has an amazing literary gift. He often tells his stories between the lines of dialogue and between the scenes of the plot. More often than not the actual events in the story are only alluded to and never directly referenced. Sometimes results are simply never known or only heard about later through rumour and newspaper reports. Characters simply vanish and are presumed dead. Few things have a beginning, middle and an end. Life, real life, simply isn’t that neat. The messiness of life – especially in the world of espionage just before the Second World War - is brilliantly portrayed in Furst’s books. I have honestly never read anything quite like them. They are achingly good. Not only have I fallen in love with Paris (again) but am developing a growing interest in the history of Europe between the wars. If you want to be bowled off your feet by a haunting tale that will leave you gasping for more then this and other books by Alan Furst are what you are looking for. This is so highly recommended that it’s off the scale. A work of genius.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Live Long… and Prosper?

He’s an interesting factoid – I’m not exactly sure if it is in fact a fact… but it does sound good – so……

I was reading a book recently (of which more later) where the author began speculating on how long people would live if all other causes of death – except accidents – had been eliminated. The figure he produced (apparently from a study of actuarial rate tables) was 1,500 years. That’s right. I did type it correctly. FIFTEEN-HUNDRED-YEARS. Now that’s what I call a fair bite of the cherry.

OK, it’s not exactly immortality but maybe it’s pretty close to e-mortality. Just imagine it…. 1,500 years – presumably of reasonable active life. Because 1,400 of senility would be pretty close the Hell right? Then again no countries economy at the moment is set up for over 1,400 years of pensions – so we’d probably have to work the first thousand years of our lives to afford to pay for 500 years of leisure.

Such an eventuality (unfortunately not in the lifetime of anyone reading this) would mean a radical change in not only our economy but just about everything we hold as basic to human life. Children, families, relationships, employment and much else would have to change. Just think about the perspective we would have to adopt to even cope with such a long life span. How would you change your life if you could pretty much expect to be alive in the year 3509? I’d hardly know where to start. But I’m pretty certain I’d have a better understanding of life, the universe and everything by the time I made it through the first thousand years or so. Who knows where such knowledge could lead…….. [muses].

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Dawn of Robot Wars

by Eric Stoner for The Indypendent (New York)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

With little public scrutiny, robotics is quickly revolutionizing not only how war is fought, but who fights in war. While the U.S. military first began to experiment with remote-controlled weapons during World War I, the Pentagon had no robots on the ground when it invaded Iraq in 2003, and only a handful of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air. Today, according to P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the U.S. military has some 7,000 UAVs in operation - more than double the number of manned aircraft in its arsenal - and more than 12,000 robots on the ground in Iraq alone.

Predator drones armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles have regularly bombed Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, and their use is skyrocketing. In 2008, 71 Predators flew 138,404 combat hours - a 94 percent increase over the year before, according to a recent presentation by U.S. Air Force Col. Eric Mathewson. And over the last year, drones flown largely by the CIA have launched missile attacks inside Pakistan more than 40 times. Rather than reconsider this deadly policy, President Obama has become an enthusiastic backer. Since his inauguration, he has authorized 11 such attacks that have collectively killed over 145 people, many of them civilians, and sparked large protests within Pakistan. UAVs are also increasingly being used inside the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has deployed unarmed drones to monitor the borders with Mexico and Canada. Police departments in Los Angeles, Houston and Miami have been testing drones for surveillance purposes in their cities. And according to the Washington Post, activists have even reported seeing insect-sized spy drones at antiwar rallies in Washington and New York.

In Iraq, there are at least 22 different unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in operation. While they are used primarily for reconnaissance and to help soldiers defuse roadside bombs, the first armed ground robot was deployed south of Baghdad in May 2007. The Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System, or SWORDS, stands three feet tall and rolls on two tank treads. It's currently fitted with an M249 machine gun that can be swapped for other powerful weapons and controlled with a modified laptop. More sophisticated UGVs - such as the MAARS and the one-ton Gladiator - are currently being developed and tested and will likely see combat in the near future. Congress has helped spur this revolution. In 2001, the Defense Authorization Act stated that one-third of the military's deep strike aircraft should be unmanned within 10 years, and that one-third of the ground combat vehicles should be unmanned within 15 years. And in the Defense Department's 2007 budget, Congress ordered the Pentagon to show "a preference for joint unmanned systems in acquisition programs for new systems." Congressional backing and the increasing popularity of these systems within the military have fueled a booming robotics industry. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, for example, has 1,400 member companies and organizations from 50 countries looking to cash in on the future of war.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? While robots spell big money for weapons contractors, they will make the work of antiwar activists far more difficult. In all likelihood, as the proponents of military robots claim, the number of U.S. soldiers who are killed on the battlefield will decrease. This has been the trend with continual advances in military and medical technology and as the Pentagon has turned to mercenaries and civilian contractors who are not included in official death tolls.For example, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam. Today, after six years of fighting in Iraq, fewer than 4,300 U.S. soldiers have died in combat. And in Afghanistan, about 1,100 soldiers from Western countries have been killed. The use of robots is partly responsible for this dramatic reduction in U.S. casualties. As unmanned systems are deployed in greater numbers, that figure will drop.

This may sound like a positive development, but its potential downsides are profound. At the same time that the number of soldiers killed in war has dropped, the percentage of civilian casualties has steadily risen. In World War I, less than 10 percent of casualties were non-combatants; in World War II, the percentage of civilian casualties was roughly 50 percent, and today over 90 percent of those killed in wars are civilians. In Iraq, one detailed study estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had been violently killed by June 2006. By allowing soldiers to kill from greater distances, which makes it easier to pull the trigger, robots may take this trend a step further. There is already evidence that the use of aerial drones is disastrous for civilian populations. The Sunday Times of London recently reported that as many as one million Pakistanis have fled their homes "to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army."

Some argue that military robotics will also increase the threat of terrorism. "If people know that they are going to be killed by these robots," argues Fr. G. Simon Harak, director of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, "then why would they not therefore retaliate against civilian centers in the United States? It only makes military sense that they'll find where we are vulnerable." More than anything else, the prospect of U.S. troops dying on some far-off battlefield limits public support for military force. Therefore, if the number of soldiers coming home in body bags can be significantly reduced, then the public will probably pay even less attention to foreign policy and future wars. This will in turn make it easier for politicians to start wars. For instance, John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, recently wrote in the Washington Post that robots would allow the United States to intervene militarily in Darfur or other hot spots where politicians are currently reluctant to send flesh-and-blood soldiers.

Robots will also affect the counter-recruitment movement. Whereas each SWORDS is controlled by at least one soldier, progress in the field of artificial intelligence may allow a soldier to control multiple robots simultaneously. James Canton, chief executive officer of the Institute of Global Futures and an expert on military technology, predicts that future military units may consist of 150 humans and 2,000 robots. Such a development would allow the government to go to war with far fewer humans.

GROWING RESISTANCE While a robotized military presents new challenges for antiwar activists, it also creates new organizing opportunities. Many weapons builders that develop unmanned systems, such as iRobot and Northrop Grumman, are publicly traded companies. That exposes them to potential shareholder resolutions and makes them more sensitive about their public image. Some military contractors also make consumer products. For example, iRobot manufactures both the PackBot, a bomb-disposal robot that can be armed with a shotgun, and the popular Roomba vacuum cleaner. As the market for personal and service robots - which was valued at $3 billion in 2008 - continues to grow, boycotting corporations that make both consumer and military robots is potentially an effective tactic for activists.

With nearly 350 colleges and universities reportedly conducting research for the Pentagon, another possible target is robotics research funded by the Department of Defense. On March 2, 2007, activists with the Pittsburgh Organizing Group blockaded the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the largest academic military contractors in the country. Fourteen activists were arrested in the action, which successfully shut down the robotics lab for the day and garnered considerable media attention. Finally, activists are beginning to protest at military bases where the drone pilots work. At Nevada's Creech Air Force Base - one of the locations where controllers use Predator and Reaper drones to bomb Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - protesters who participated in the Nevada Desert Experience's annual Sacred Peace Walk kept a presence outside of the base for 10 days, and 14 were arrested in an act of civil disobedience on April 9. When it comes to killer robots, the stakes are high. If activists don't work to stop this robotics revolution in its tracks, science fiction has warned us about our potential fate.

[The world of Terminator takes another step forward. Will we hail the arrival of fully autonomous killing machines as the end of human casualties on the battlefield – enemy and civilian dead not counting of course – before they turn on their creators? Are we witnessing the birth of our own demise? Rather then building machines to do our killing for us wouldn’t it be better for everyone simply to stop waging war? It’s just a thought…..]

Friday, July 10, 2009

Word of the Week: Virus

[a computer program that is capable of replicating itself and installing these copies onto other computers without the users’ knowledge, and which usually also performs damaging or irritating actions on the computers]

1972 D. Gerrold When Harrie Was One 175: You know what a virus is, don’t you […]. The VIRUS program does the same thing.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Shock of the Old – Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton

I’m not entirely sure why I bought this book. I do have an interest in both technology and history but this isn’t normally the kind of thing I read – at least not for a while. Maybe it was just one of my impulse buys? Maybe I should just stop thinking about it.

Anyway, David Edgerton has an interesting idea – in that the standard history of technology is wrong headed, being far too concerned with invention and innovation, and by concentrating on these particular aspects to the exclusion of all others actually hides far more that it reveals. Through 20th century historical examples he shows where invention and innovation did not suddenly spring into life and sweep all before it, where innovation was resisted for very good reasons and where old technology – supposedly supplanted by the ‘next big thing’ – not only lingered for years or even decades after it was apparently overtaken by its successor, but actually thrived, rivalled and evolved alongside it. What Edgerton was saying is that, like life, the evolution of technology is a lot less straight forward than a simplistic overview, punctuated with brilliant invention and the spread of new technology, would have you believe.

Chocked full of real examples from all over the globe, this book is a real challenge to the standard picture of the history of technology. It certainly made me look at things in a different way. Edgerton makes a convincing argument that progress is far from linear and that much more than invention and innovation needs to be taken into account when looking at the development of any technology. This was a fascinating read for any technically minded person and will delight anyone with the heart of a Geek (in a glass jar in his basement lab).

Monday, July 06, 2009

Thinking About: Time Travel

I’ve just finished watching my second box-set of Star Trek DVDs – this one being on the theme of time travel. My particular favourites were Yesterday’s Enterprise from ST:TNG (strictly speaking an Alternate Universe story rather than a time travel one – although the two are interconnected of course) and Year in Hell from ST: Voyager.

When handled well, tine-travel stories are amongst my favourite SF sub-genre. Not only do they allow the reader/viewer to visit possible futures they also allow access to the past and allow for the possibility of actually changing things. Of course that’s a particularly enticing idea. I’m sure we all have past experiences that we wish we could go back and change or the ability to leave messages for our past selves written with the hindsight of our present selves. I know I do! Then, of course, there’s the possibility of changing historical events. As all good SF shows this is fraught with problems. Not only ethical issues of, to use that old chestnut, of killing Hitler as a baby but the very real possibility that no matter how badly things really turned out any meddling with the past could actually make things much worse!

Being able to simply observe past events would certainly clear up a lot of historical mysteries – but we have to remember that the past started a second ago so future historians could be watching any of us right now. Viewing the past means an end to any kind of privacy. Then there are the countless missing artefacts lost in time – or maybe in some time travellers vault! Of course if time travel is even possible (which it might be) the question is: Where are all the time travellers? Is it like the Fermi Paradox which asks the question: Where are all the aliens? Maybe time travellers are indeed amongst us – just very well hidden or very well policed.

It would certainly be fun (if not actually profitable) to travel in time. I like the idea of creating countless alternate universes every time I travel back (or forward) in time. The question arises though about how I would actually recognise my time line from any of the alternates – and would it really matter. Maybe I could create an ideal world in the present by manipulating the past. I wonder if the ends would justify the means.

The idea of time travel is fascinating. It opens up literally endless possibilities and the real prospect of fixing our past mistakes. It is however a very dangerous game to play if it ever becomes reality. Maybe too dangerous for the existence of site-seeing tours or holidays in past ages – to say nothing of dinosaur hunts. Maybe a giant rock falling from the sky didn’t finish off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Maybe it was time travelling big game hunters…..

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Four out of five Britons repudiate creationism.

By Ian Sample for The Guardian

Monday 2 March 2009

The east of England may be the most godless region of the UK, according to a "belief map" published by a theology thinktank today. Almost half of adults there believe the theory of evolution makes God obsolete, and more than 80% disagree with creationism and intelligent design, which propose that humans were created by God in the past 10,000 years, and that life owes its complexity to divine intervention.

The map was drawn up by the thinktank Theos following a survey of 2,060 people across the country who were chosen to be representative of the adult population. The survey, which was conducted to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, found that nearly half of the British adult population could not name the country's greatest naturalist as the author of On the Origin of Species, the 1859 book that introduced evolution through natural selection to a sceptical Victorian society.

The poll also revealed some extraordinary views on more recent writings, with 5% of adults thinking Darwin wrote A Brief History of Time, a bestseller on the science of spacetime, which was written by the Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking and is widely regarded as the most popular science book never to be completed by its readers. A further 3% of those surveyed thought Darwin wrote The God Delusion, by the arch-atheist and Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, while 1% thought Darwin was the author of The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver. The study found only 15% of people knew that Darwin was a self-described agnostic towards the end of his life, with a fifth believing he was an atheist. Nearly half thought evolution challenged Christianity but said it was possible to believe in both.

The survey suggests there is a widespread lack of religious sentiment across Britain. National average figures revealed that less than a third of adults see evolution as part of God's plan, 89% dismiss intelligent design and 83% reject creationism as plausible explanations for the existence of human life. The survey reveals a relatively high proportion of people in London who believe in creationism. "Whereas the national average is 17% who believe that human beings were created by God in the last 10,000 years ... in London, that figure is 20%. That may well be due to the growth of Pentecostal churches in London, which are growing at an extraordinary rate," said Paul Woolley, director of Theos. According to the survey, Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of people who believe in intelligent design (16%) and creationism (25%). "The research clearly indicates there is a great deal of confusion about what people believe and why they believe it," said Woolley. "There are two lessons in particular that we can learn from Darwin. The first is that belief in God and evolution are compatible. Secondly, in a time when debates about evolution and religious belief can be aggressive and polarised, Charles Darwin remains an example of how to disagree without being disagreeable," he added.

[Interesting – though I find it rather disturbing that as many as 17% of Britons still believe that humanity is less than 10,000 years old.]

Friday, July 03, 2009

Word of the Week: Android

[modern L. androides Gk. Andr-, “man”] an artificial being that resembles a human in form, especially one made from flesh-like material (as opposed to metal or plastic). [Early cites refer to an alchemical creation and to purely mechanical automata.]

1727-51 E. Chambers Cyclopaedia: Albertus Magnus is recorded as having made a famous androides.

1883 J. Ogilvie Imperial Dictionary of English Language 102/1: Android […] A machine in the human form which, by certain springs, imitates the natural motions of a living man.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Far North by Marcel Theroux

In an unspecified but near future a group of Quakers decide to turn their backs on an increasing corrupt and violent world. They buy a piece of marginal land in the Far North of Siberia and settle in. Unfortunately for them the long predicted collapse of human civilisation happens and their settlement is quickly overrun by wave after wave of refugees. After much debate and soul searching a group decide that the only way to hold onto their way of like is to take up arms to defend it – but it’s too late. Their town is a shadow of its former self and the decline is clearly terminal. Years later the lone survivor of their community – simply known as Makepeace – comes across a run-away slave. Taking her in Makepeace discovers she is pregnant and cares for the girl until she reaches full term. Disaster strikes as both mother and baby die in childbirth. This is the last straw and Makepeace decides to commit suicide. Whilst drowning in a nearby lake Makepeace sees a plane fly over and crash into a hillside killing all on board. Deciding to find the last remnant of civilisation still capable of running and maintaining aircraft Makepeace sets out into the wilderness to see what is left of mankind.

You can probably tell that this is not exactly a cheerful book. Oddly though it is not anything like as depressing as you might suspect from reading the synopsis above. This very well written book is, I think, more that anything else a message of hope. Hope that no matter what the circumstance humanity – in all its best forms – can still survive. Makepeace is also a great invention. With a tragic personal history and a grim determination to survive Makepeace is at the very heart of this journey not only into the remains of civilisation but into the psyche of a complex and very likable character. I found myself reading this book as slowly as I could so that I could savour the situations and the delightful prose. Though I’d never heard of the author before I was certain from almost the first page that he was not normally a writer of Science-Fiction. His use of language and his descriptions of the desolation both in the landscape and in human society – such as it was – was far too literary to be anything but mainstream. This was quite honestly a wonderful read and I recommend it to SF and non-SF readers. I believe they call this sort of thing a ‘cross-over’ novel. Regardless of the technicalities I think anyone interested in an adult read will enjoy this book. It’s not for the faint of heart but that’s part of its grip on the imagination. Quite, quite excellent.