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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Amazing Tales for making Men out of Boys by Neil Oliver

This was one of my best impulse buys ever. Neil Oliver tells, in almost breathless Boys Own fashion, twenty or so tales of courage and acts of heroism that would, he hopes, quicken the blood of any would-be manly man. His thesis is that such men have not only become merely historical oddities but that the idea of heroes of the type he outlines has become somewhat embarrassing. I can see his point – up to a point. It’s no longer seen to be acceptable (I hesitate to use the words ‘politically correct’) to even mention British heroes of by-gone ages unless you also mention all the bad things associated with Empire and the inherent evils of Imperialism. The heroes of the Second World War that I and millions of others ‘grew up with’ cannot, it seems, be mentioned without the inclusion of questionable actions of our wartime leaders and an in depth discussion of the atrocities caused by our bombing of Dresden and Hamburg. Oliver has none of this and simply tells cracking good stories of men who took it on the chin and, more often than not, died where they were told to die.

Despite the cover picture – of Scott’s doomed attempt at the North Pole – this book is not exclusively about British heroes (though it does concentrate on them). Along with tales of Scott – the story that is used to bind all the other tales together – Oliver tells us of the Foreign Legion in Mexico, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the crew of Apollo 13 and the French at Dien Bien Phu. But he reserves the best stories (at least in my opinion) to those plucky Englishmen who stood up, often against ridiculous odds, and who either triumphed or failed in equally spectacular fashion. These are the heroes that I grew up with and as a child stood in total awe of. This I can ‘blame’ my Father for. I guess that growing into manhood during the Second World War, as he did, you couldn’t but help take onboard the ideal of the British hero. Yet, despite the fact that I knew most of the tales outlined in this book they still managed, on more than one occasion, to bring a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. From modern tales of the Penlee lifeboatmen, to the (at least until comparatively recently) well know stories of Trafalgar, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Yangtze Incident and, of course, the Battle of Britain, Oliver tells classic tales of classic Englishmen with stiff upper lips fighting to the last round in the name of Queen and Country. It’s all great rousing stuff and something, I agree with Oliver, that is sadly missing from contemporary culture. Even if we put to one side tales of courage during wartime Oliver tells the totally fascinating story of the failed Shackleton expedition to the North Pole and the incredible privations these men had to put up with just to survive. I lost count of the number of times I said “Oh, my God!” at the heroic efforts simply to stay alive in that kind of environment with equipment even today’s weekend explorer would consider both primitive and wholly inadequate.

Needless to say, from all the gushing above, I absolutely loved this book. It was a cracking read even with the authors sometimes heavy-handed Boy’s Own sensibilities. It reminded me of my childhood and of my Father in ways I really wasn’t expecting. It made me proud to be British and rekindled my interest in my own countries history. I also, again rather unexpectedly, found this to be a very emotional book and decided, despite my desire to read it as swiftly as possible, not to read it at work. I was sure that tears of pride in my lunch break would have just confirmed in my colleagues just how strange I really am. For anyone interested in the human potential for heroism or for those who want to bring up their sons (or daughters) in a way now considered to be old fashioned then this book is most definitely for you. Brilliant and highly recommended.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Favourite Movies: This Island Earth

On his return from a conference on the application of nuclear energy, Dr Cal Meacham’s plane suffers a fatal engine failure. Sure of his certain death he is astonished when control is restored and his plane lands itself safely while pulsing with a ghostly green light. If that wasn’t strange enough on the return to his lab he discovers that requested parts for his equipment have been replaced by ‘beads’ which are both hundreds of times smaller and much more powerful. Intrigued he orders more parts and, with some help, builds an Interocitor – an odd looking communication device. As the screen fills with the image of the strange Exeter (played by Jeff Morrow), Meacham is hooked by his burning curiosity. Accepting a job offer at a secret lab he has little idea of what he is letting himself in for.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw this classic 1955 Sci-Fi B movie. I was probably in my early teens I guess. My Dad, being a fan of such things, was constantly watching such movies on TV and I grew to love this genre as much (or maybe even more) than he did. This was definitely a cut above the B movies of the time. Although crude by our standards, the SFX are still pretty good especially when you take into account the fairly low budgets of these movies. One of the many things I liked about this film is the fact that the scientists at the heart of the movie – at least to begin with – actually acting like I would have expected scientists to act. They hypothesised, they experimented and the tested things. They asked lots of questions. Of course being very much of its time it also had more than its fair share of annoying moments – topped off by the behaviour of Dr Ruth Adams, a physics PhD played by Faith Domergue, who not only performed no science on screen but spent most of her time mooning over the hero and running around screaming at the monsters. Given the fact that she would’ve had to prove herself time and again in a very male environment I’d have thought she would have been made of sterner stuff!

The aliens themselves, distinguishable by their enlarged foreheads (and presumably large brains behind them), were OK as aliens go. They were a rather arrogant lot on the whole – especially as they were getting their asses kicked in some kind of interplanetary war. The war itself, what we saw of it, was well handled and had some neat SFX to back it up. Of course most of the science in this SF movie didn’t make a whole lot of sense – having to travel through a ‘heat barrier’ similar to a sound barrier was just silly. The compression/decompression idea was an interesting one except for the obvious flaw that you really couldn’t have some people who had and some people who hadn’t decompressed without bad things happening to them. But such things can be forgiven as signs of the times. All in all this is a fun, if dated, romp with plenty of action and (once you suspend your disbelief enough) a half decent story-line. Definitely one for a wet Sunday afternoon and a movie that should be in any self respecting SF buffs DVD library.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Red Dust by Paul J McAuley

After 500 years of Chinese occupation Mars is dying. With the Emperor in his sprawling Virtual Reality construct his Representatives left behind vie for power. Slowly, a grinding Civil War driven by greed and backed by the Peoples Army grinds the peasants into red dust. But the forces dedicated to the death of Mars are opposed by the Anarchists living in orbit around Jupiter. For centuries they have attempted to seed Mars with nano-viruses to accelerate the melting of the permafrost allowing the release of billions of tons of water into the environment changing the face of Mars forever. Some of these viruses have infected the population – amongst them Wei Lee, an Environmental engineer. As they enhance his abilities and direct his actions he becomes the catalyst for a planet wide revolution which aims to open Mars to a future amongst the stars. Aided by the avatar of an anarchist soldier and his hero Elvis Presley, Wei Lee makes his way across the Martian landscape towards Olympus Mons - the centre of Imperial power. Everything is riding on Lee’s new abilities and the companions he’s acquired along the way.

At first this book was a bit of a struggle to get into because it was so off-the-wall. But once I got my head around the often strange and fascinating world invented by the author it became a delight. Populated by a rich cast of characters – both goodies and badies – this was basically a multi-layered quest novel. Wei Lee is not only trying to save his planet but also trying to uncover his own personal history. With the help of his virus induced avatars he soon discovers that his life has been manipulated even before he was born and because of that knowledge transcends his ‘design’ and becomes an individual in the process. Although I wouldn’t classify this as hard SF in the scientific sense it is brimming with advanced technology and discuses many aspects of science in at least superficial detail. Covering diverse subjects such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, terra-forming, virtual reality, AI and much else besides this is a rich, deep, multi-faceted and above all adult science-fiction novel that rewards the patience of anyone who sticks with the first few chapters. Recommended.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Balmy water once bathed Mars rock claimed to host life

by David Shiga for New Scientist

28 August 2009

A 1996 claim of fossilised microbes in a meteorite from Mars has yet to be confirmed, but a new analysis does suggest the rock's Martian environment had the conditions conducive to life. Researchers led by David McKay of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, caused a sensation 13 years ago when they proposed that a chunk of Mars rock found in Antarctica, called ALH 84001, contained possible signs of past life on the Red Planet, including complex carbon-based molecules and some microscopic objects shaped like bacteria.

But the claim was never widely accepted. Other scientists countered that the shapes were ambiguous and that the complex carbon-based molecules could have been produced without life, since they are also found in chunks of asteroids that fall to Earth as meteorites, for example. And some argued that the carbon in the meteorite could have been deposited in very harsh conditions, involving water at more than 150 °C. Even the hardiest known terrestrial microbes die above about 120 °C. But a new analysis suggests the water involved was cool enough to allow for life, which at least keeps open the possibility of fossilised life in the meteorite. The study was led by Paul Niles of NASA Johnson. Neither he nor any of the other team members were part of the 1996 life claim.

To explain deposits of minerals containing calcium, magnesium, and iron, in the rock, Niles and his colleagues suggest the rock was sitting at or near the surface of Mars, with water rich in carbon dioxide bubbling up to the surface in the area from deep underground, perhaps as part of a hot spring. The relative amounts of the three metals deposited from solution depend on the temperature of the water they were dissolved in. The team used previous measurements of these amounts to calculate a water temperature of less than 100 °C. This was not a certainty beforehand, since water can remain liquid above that temperature at the higher pressures underground. "These minerals were formed in what is very likely to have been a habitable environment," Niles says.

The study shows there is still more to learn from what is "probably the single most examined rock in all of human history," says Marc Fries of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who has previously examined samples of the meteorite but was not a member of Niles's team. But there is still no proof of any past Martian life in the rock, he and Niles agree. Determining whether Mars ever harboured life may require a mission to bring back rock samples from the planet, he says.

[Looking good for at least fossilised life on Mars I think. It’d be fascinating if they could determine if life evolved independently there as well as here. If that can happen twice in a relatively ordinary system as ours then the possibility of life out there goes up quite a few notches. Exciting times!]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bed sharing 'bad for your health'

From the BBC

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Couples should consider sleeping apart for the good of their health and relationship, say experts. Sleep specialist Dr Neil Stanley told the British Science Festival how bed sharing can cause rows over snoring and duvet-hogging and robs precious sleep. One study found that, on average, couples suffered 50% more sleep disturbances if they shared a bed. Dr Stanley, who sleeps separately from his wife, points out that historically we were never meant to share our beds. He said the modern tradition of the marital bed only began with the industrial revolution, when people moving to overcrowded towns and cities found themselves short of living space.

Before the Victorian era it was not uncommon for married couples to sleep apart. In ancient Rome, the marital bed was a place for sexual congress but not for sleeping. Dr Stanley, who set up one of Britain's leading sleep laboratories at the University of Surrey, said the people of today should consider doing the same. "It's about what makes you happy. If you've been sleeping together and you both sleep perfectly well, then don't change, but don't be afraid to do something different. We all know what it's like to have a cuddle and then say 'I'm going to sleep now' and go to the opposite side of the bed. So why not just toddle off down the landing?"

He said poor sleep was linked to depression, heart disease, strokes, lung disorders, traffic and industrial accidents, and divorce, yet sleep was largely ignored as an important aspect of health. Dr Robert Meadows, a sociologist at the University of Surrey, said: "People actually feel that they sleep better when they are with a partner but the evidence suggests otherwise." He carried out a study to compare how well couples slept when they shared a bed versus sleeping separately. Based on 40 couples, he found that when couples share a bed and one of them moves in his or her sleep, there is a 50% chance that their slumbering partner will be disturbed as a result. Despite this, couples are reluctant to sleep apart, with only 8% of those in their 40s and 50s sleeping in separate rooms, the British Science Festival heard.

[I always sleep better alone than with someone else in the bed with me. I remember it took me about a year to get used to sleeping with my last partner and I still looked forward to coming home and sleeping in my own bed – on my own. I think it might be because I do tend to move around a lot in bed and probably suppress that when I’m in bed with someone else so not to disturb them. So I can’t ‘let go’ as much as I do on my own – hence I don’t sleep as deeply. Of course one of the things I liked about sharing a bed is the fun (at least in the early days) of waking up to someone who wanted a cuddle and possibly more even before you even think about the need to get up. I’ve been late into work so much because of that – happy days……..]

Friday, September 18, 2009


If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Thomas Jefferson, 1816.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just Finished Reading: So Say We All – An Unauthorised Collection of Thoughts and Opinions on Battlestar Galactica edited by Richard Hatch

Slightly different from my previous book on BSG (the philosophical side of things) this collection of articles was more interested in the television history aspects, the cultural impact, as well as delving into the religious background of one of the best SF shows ever….. Unless that is you read the article by Bill Gordon called GINO – Galactica In Name Only. As you might be able to tell from the less than subtle title he really, and I do mean really, didn’t like the re-imaged show. Whilst personally I thought the original show was…… well, unprintably bad. I loved the new show with a passion – though I did struggle with the last half of the last season.

This was a very engaging (and not just for the few philosophical bits) collection of articles covering the first two seasons only. There was, for example, a very interesting speculation regarding the fact that Baltar had a version of Caprica Six in his head whilst she had a version of Gaius in hers. Many of the authors made reference to the impact of 9/11 on the show, both to account for its bleakness and in the way it could tackle deep and dark aspects of war, torture, resistance and guilt – in ways unimaginable only a few years before. How the characters coped (or failed to cope) with the destruction of their civilisation mirrored the shock many American’s felt and contrasted starkly with the apparent lack of effect it had on the cast in the original series.

Of course much was made of the gender bending aspects of the series with the idea of Starbuck especially being a woman. I actually loved this feature of the show and Kara Thrace was, for me, a huge selling point in making this show so watchable. Despite many aspects of BSG being so controversial – especially for the fans of the original – all but one of the articles is either positive or positively ecstatic about the re-imaged version. Personally I was blown away by the whole thing especially as I thought the original was honestly pathetic. This is a book written by fans and for fans. If you liked the show half as much as I do and miss it half as much as I do then this is definitely the book for you. Recommended.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Spectacle of the Scaffold by Michel Foucault

This is basically the first two sections of Foucault’s larger work – Discipline & Punish – in a handy pocketbook size and is part of the Penguin Great Ideas series (the 4th so far I’ve read). In it Foucault discusses, in some graphic detail, the standard practice of gruesome public executions undertaken throughout Europe until comparatively recently and ponders why such things happened and why the practice died out (no pun intended).

Foucault’s main focus (from my reading about him rather than work by him – this being my first) is on power in society. Public executions for Foucault were an expression of naked power and existed primarily to educate the majority of the people to understand their place – at the bottom of things. In the ages Foucault concentrates on crime against property was crime against the State rather against other individuals and was punished accordingly.

The slow decline and eventual demise of public torture and bloody execution was, Foucault maintains, only in part the result of Enlightenment thought and the growth of the political franchise. It was, he maintains, primarily caused by a shift in the nature of punishment from the body of the criminal to the mind of the criminal. No longer was it necessary to horrify the population during a public event but to educate them after a suitably humbled criminal confesses his wrongdoings to the crowd – or even in one of the emerging newspapers or many pamphlets. The change from public to private justice was part of a shift away from crude public demonstrations of power which, more often than not, backfired in an orgy of demonstration and rioting – the public previously expected to vent its anger at the accused which then spilled over into general rampage. Whilst the power of the State did not fade away (far from it) it became more subtle in its application and achieved the same end – control.

This was an interesting read in a basically bite sized chunk. Foucault has some interesting ideas about power and reminded me more than once of Nietzsche. I have several books by him – and a few about him – that I’ll be reading in the next year or so. If I do a future degree in politics, which seems likely to be honest, no doubt a background in Foucault will be useful. Watch this space.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

PM apology after Turing petition

From the BBC

Friday, 11 September 2009

Gordon Brown has said he is sorry for the "appalling" way World War II code-breaker Alan Turing was treated for being gay. A petition on the No 10 website had called for a posthumous government apology to the computer pioneer. In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself. The campaign was the idea of computer scientist John Graham-Cumming.

He was seeking an apology for the way the mathematician was treated after his conviction. He also wrote to the Queen to ask for Turing to be awarded a posthumous knighthood. The campaign was backed by author Ian McEwan, scientist Richard Dawkins and gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. The petition posted on the Downing Street website attracted thousands of signatures. Mr Brown, writing in the Telegraph newspaper, said: "While Mr Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him."

He said Mr Turing deserved recognition for his contribution to humankind. In the statement he said: "So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better." A niece of Mr Turing, Inagh Payne, said that at the time she had no idea about his contribution to the war effort because he kept his work "hush-hush". She was also unaware of his sexuality and his prosecution as the family "kept mum about that sort of thing". She said she was "very grateful" for the apology. "We realise now that he was gay and we think he was treated abominably," she said.

It's fantastic there has been an apology, says Dr Sue Black of Saving Bletchley Park. Welcoming Mr Brown's move, Peter Tatchell of gay rights group Outrage! said a similar apology was also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who suffered similar treatment. "Singling out Turing just because he is famous is wrong," he said. Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue to work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). He is most famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. However, he also made significant contributions to the emerging fields of artificial intelligence and computing. In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called On Computable Numbers and in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test. After the war he worked at many institutions including the University of Manchester, where he worked on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. There is a memorial statue of him [pictured above] in Manchester's Sackville Gardens which was unveiled in 2001.

[Victory….! At least a small victory…..]

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Just Finished Reading: The Grey Ones by John Lymington

After his wife walks out on him for another man, Jim decides to kill himself by jumping off a nearby cliff. Ironically at the very edge he slips and almost falls to his death. In that moment he realises he wants to live. On returning to his home he finds the village completely devoid of life. In a panic he searches house after house to find them all abandoned. Thinking he’s either going mad or is actually dead Jim is relieved when the population return – but only for a moment. Quickly Jim discovers that the entire population of the village have changed, becoming more animalistic and devoid of any morality. It’s not long before he discovers that this has something to do with the mysterious new tenant of the great hall and heads that way to solve the mystery.

This was in all honesty a truly appalling book. The only reason I managed to finish it was because of its thankfully short length – 126 pages. The plot (such as it was) was terrible. Characterisation was feeble (at best). Dialogue was worse than anything George Lucas could come up with and the ending was frankly pathetic. I’ve read a few of Lymington’s books over the years and, although he writes in a particular genre – kind of a poor man’s John Wyndham – he’s normally quite entertaining. Not in this instance however. One of the worst books I’ve managed to finish in years. Avoid.

Monday, September 07, 2009


I’ve been keeping note of the movies in my favourite list that I’ve been blogging about over the past year or so and have discovered something interesting. Of the 33 mentioned so far a rather amazing 8 are all from 2004. What a good year for movies that was.

The Incredibles
The Bourne Supremacy
Man on Fire
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
National Treasure
I, Robot

Not bad, not bad at all……

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Thousands call for Turing apology

From the BBC

Monday, 31 August 2009

Thousands of people have signed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous government apology to World War II code breaker Alan Turing. Writer Ian McEwan has just backed the campaign, which already has the support of scientist Richard Dawkins. In 1952 he was prosecuted under the gross indecency act after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself. The petition was the idea of computer scientist John Graham-Cumming.

He is seeking an apology for the way the young mathematician was treated after his conviction. He has also written to the Queen to ask for a posthumous knighthood to be awarded to the British mathematician. Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). "This added insult and humiliation ultimately drove him to suicide," said Peter Tatchell. "With Turing's death, Britain and the world lost one of its finest intellectual minds. A government apology and posthumous pardon are long overdue."

Alan Turing is most famous for his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during WWII, helping to create the Bombe that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. However he also made significant contributions to the emerging fields artificial intelligence and computing. In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called "On Computable Numbers" whilst in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test. After the war he worked at many institution including the University of Manchester, where he worked on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the first recognisable modern computers. There is a memorial statue of him in Manchester's Sackville Gardens which was unveiled in 2001.

"I kept reading about potential funding cuts at Bletchley Park and I suddenly felt really mad about it," said Mr Graham-Cumming. "I felt Turing was getting overlooked as being a British genius and that there was a blindspot in the public eye about an important man." He has so far collected more than 5,500 signatures. He admits that an official apology to Alan Turing is "unlikely", as Mr Turing has no known surviving family, but he says that the real aim of the petition is symbolic. "The most important thing to me is that people hear about Alan Turing and realise his incredible impact on the modern world, and how terrible the impact of prejudice was on him," he said.

[What a great idea. It’s terrible how the prejudice of the time destroyed one of the founders of modern IT and a man who was instrumental in breaking the Enigma Code. His work helped shorten the war and was central to producing the information rich world we live in. Recognition of this fact is long overdue as is a public apology for his treatment by the British government. I for one would certainly sign that petition.]

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Just Finished Reading: Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality by Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

This was one of my set texts in my pervious MA. I’d skimmed certain sections before basically data-mining for essay material but never actually read it from cover to cover. I decided on a whim to do so recently. This is basically a study of the various ways Magic, Religion and Science have been defined and related to each other by Western anthropologists from the 19th century onwards.

Things started off with the idea that there was a steady evolutionary progress from Magic to Religion. Not surprisingly few of these, often armchair, scholars failed to follow their own logic and propose that Religion will in turn be superseded by Science. The evolutionary idea clearly failed to answer questions of cultures that practice both scientific and magical activities and much else besides. So it was replaced by the theory that societies (and individuals) hold multiple orderings of reality which explains quite easily how some people can be both scientists and still believe in God or understand the workings of the internal combustion engine and practice magic at weekends. We hold different beliefs that are compartmentalised in such a way that we can bring them out at the appropriate time and place.

A major problem with studying any other culture is, of course, the issue with translating what they do in such a way that we can understand them without losing too much detail in the process. Some believe that such translation is simply impossible – that we might think we understand other cultures but that this is simply an illusion. Of course there must be some points of commonality – the trick is finding exactly what they are. Moving onto science, Tambiah made two interesting points – firstly that it is a product western European culture but seems to be freer of potential cultural bias than either magic or religion and that it is in effect a product of the Protestant mind-set. So maybe without the major schism between Catholicism and Protestantism we may not have had science as we know and love it. Interesting, I thought – and another pointer to the fact that everything we hold dear is in fact dependent on a long series of contingent accidents.

Although a reasonably interesting book this was both fairly difficult to read and not exactly Earth shattering. This is a moderately good, although rather academic, introduction to a very wide subject indeed. I’ll be reading more of this sort of thing later.