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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Particle Physics – A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close

This book is part of my continuing plan to use the excellent VSI series to expand my knowledge base into new areas and deepen my knowledge in others. I have read several books in the area of Quantum Mechanics and Sub-atomic physics over the years and, though I don’t fully understand everything I read, find myself fascinated by this bizarre aspect of our reality.

Starting from seemingly very simple questions regarding matter and existence – so much so that for the first few pages I thought that the author had pitched the contents too low even for an introduction - this small volume quickly ramped up the pace forcing me, at times, to struggle to keep up. Fortunately for my Humanities trained brain, the author peppered this book with very few mathematical equations and charts but with enough detailed diagrams for me to grasp the meanings behind his explanations. I’m still convinced that I missed quite a bit but felt confident enough to imagine various ‘flavours’ of Quarks forming the sub-atomic particles we know and love. I’d heard about many of them before but was introduced to a few that were new to me including the Bottom Quark – yes, you read that right! Funnily these guys seem to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Apparently bottom quarks are more massive than their anti-matter alternative so, not long after the Big Bang and the resultant matter/anti-matter annihilation there was still enough matter left over to make everything you see around you. At least that’s what I took away from the explanation offered. So next time a theist asks that particularly annoying question you can confidently reply: Bottom Quarks!

Anyway, the author covers theories of matter, how we actually learn about it, the different types of accelerators and colliders and how the particles are actually detected. Further discussion is on ‘exotic’ matter, anti-matter and the curious question of where matter comes from. Questions raised at the end of the book cover ideas on Dark matter (and Dark energy) as well as the hopes for the, then under construction, Large Hadron Collider.

All in all this was an interesting if, at times, difficult read. It certainly hasn’t put me off reading more on this fascinating subject and I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be able to wrap my head around some of the more general ideas in this field. I’ll never understand the maths but at least I can stand back and appreciate the wonderful strangeness of it all. Recommended for anyone who fancies a bit of mind stretching.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Broken by Kelly Armstrong

When Elena Michaels’ werewolf pack is offered the location of a human eating solitary in exchange for some breaking and entering it’s a hard to turn down. Even when told that the object of the theft is the infamous ‘From Hell’ letter supposedly penned by Jack the Ripper the alarm bells remain silent. If only things were that simple! When Elena accidently opens a dimensional portal hidden in the letter with a drop of her blood, the pack is faced with the task of cleaning up the mess. With seemingly unstoppable zombies, disease carrying super rats and a series of grisly murders they certainly have their hands full. Making things worse – if such a thing was possible – is that Elena is heavily pregnant with the first successfully produced werewolf babies in centuries.

After the rather poor previous novels in this series, Industrial Magic and Haunted, I was hoping that Armstrong would be back on form with her strongest character Elena Michaels. It was not to be. Practically from the outset this book was poorly plotted and very slow. The idea of a dimensional portal hidden in a famous letter was on the face of it an interesting one but even that was badly handled. The characterisation – if I can call it that – was lacklustre at best and, too often, almost insulting to readers with discernment. The ‘bad-guy’ was blatantly obvious from also the moment he appeared yet none of the main characters could see him for what he was. This particular blind spot was very annoying but not as annoying as the juvenile dialogue and meaningless ‘plot twists’ – and don’t even get me started on the lesbian vampire with the hots for Elena, just don’t OK!

I have one more book by Kelly Armstrong somewhere in ‘the Pile’ but on the evidence of the growing string of turkeys it’ll be staying in there for quite some time. Even if you’re a fan of Urban Fantasy I’d avoid this like a plague of Zombies.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

US Developing New Non-Nuclear Missiles

by Craig Whitlock for The Washington Post

Thursday, April 8, 2010

As the White House pushes for cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the Pentagon is developing a weapon to help fill the gap: missiles armed with conventional warheads that could strike anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Launched from a B-52, the proposed X-51 hypersonic cruise missile could travel 600 miles in 10 minutes to strike elusive, fleeting targets. The mission: Attack anywhere in the world in less than an hour. But is the Pentagon's bold program a critical new weapon for hitting elusive targets, or a good way to set off a nuclear war? U.S. military officials say the intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as Prompt Global Strike weapons, are a necessary new form of deterrence against terrorist networks and other adversaries. As envisioned, the conventional missiles would give the White House a fresh military option to consider in a crisis that would not result in a radioactive mushroom cloud. The Prompt Global Strike program, which the Pentagon has been developing for several years, is already raising hackles in Moscow, where Russian officials predict it could trigger a nonnuclear arms race and complicate President Obama's long-term vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. U.S. military officials are also struggling to solve a separate major obstacle: the risk that Russia or China could mistake the launch of a conventional Prompt Global Strike missile for a nuclear one. "World states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Tuesday in Moscow.

The White House says that development of Prompt Global Strike is not affected by the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are scheduled to sign Thursday in Prague. Analysts say, however, that any conventional ballistic missiles would count the same as nuclear ones under the treaty, which places new limits on each country's stockpile. Deployment of a conventional ballistic missile is not expected until 2015 at the earliest. But the program has received a recent boost from the Obama administration, which sees the missiles as one cog in an array of defensive and offensive weapons that could ultimately replace nuclear arms. The administration has asked Congress for $240 million for next year's Prompt Global Strike development programs, a 45 percent increase from the current budget. The military forecasts a total of $2 billion in development costs through 2015 -- a relative bargain by Pentagon standards. After years of preparation, the Air Force is scheduled to perform an initial flight test of a prototype next month. "Capabilities like an adaptive missile defense shield, conventional warheads with worldwide reach and others that we are developing enable us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons," Vice President Biden said in a February speech at the National Defense University. "With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong."

Nuclear arms have formed the backbone of U.S. deterrence strategy for six decades. Although the strategy worked during the Cold War, military leaders say they need other powerful weapons in their arsenal to deter adversaries who assume that the United States would refrain from taking the extreme step of ordering a nuclear strike. "Deterrence can no longer just be nuclear weapons. It has to be broader," Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leading proponent of Prompt Global Strike, told a conference last month. Some U.S. military officials say their current nonnuclear options are too limited or too slow. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles, which travel at several times the speed of sound, it can take up to 12 hours for cruise missiles to hit faraway targets. Long-range bombers likewise can take many hours to fly into position for a strike. "Today, unless you want to go nuclear, it's measured in days, maybe weeks" until the military can launch an attack with regular forces, Cartwright said. "That's just too long in the world that we live in." Other military officials said potential scenarios might include the discovery of an imminent plot by terrorists to use a weapon of mass destruction, or indications that an enemy state was preparing to launch a missile attack on a U.S. ally. The Air Force prototype Prompt Global Strike design is a modified Peacekeeper III intercontinental ballistic missile. If it is successful, the plan is to deploy a handful of the missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The weapons would be overseen by the U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, who leads the command, based near Omaha, has said he sees Prompt Global Strike as a niche weapon, not one that could substitute for nuclear arms. "I look at that as an additional weapon in the quiver of the president to give him options in time of crisis today, in which he maybe only has a nuclear option for a timely response," Chilton told a House committee last month. Although it is technically simple to replace nuclear warheads on a missile with conventional ones, Prompt Global Strike has been dogged by a significant problem: how to ensure that Russia could tell the difference if a launch occurred.

To alleviate the risk of an accidental Russian nuclear retaliation, the Air Force is developing a conventional, land-based ballistic missile that would fire into space at a much lower altitude than nuclear warheads, something that could be detected by Russian early-warning radar systems. U.S. military officials have also said they might be willing to grant access to Russian inspectors, or warn Moscow about a conventional strike on a third-party target. The Army is working on a separate design that is not as far along in its development. The Navy had been preparing yet another design -- a conventional version of its submarine-based Trident missile -- but Congress curtailed that program two years ago because of concerns that it was too difficult to distinguish from a nuclear-armed Trident. Critics acknowledge that the technological hurdles are surmountable. But they say a more basic problem is that taking the nuclear part out of the equation could make it too easy for the White House to order a Prompt Global Strike attack. Intelligence in fast-breaking crises is rarely rock-solid, they note, and could result in a rushed strike on the wrong target. "People watch '24' and think that's how intelligence comes in," said Jeffrey G. Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. "It's not like the president has his brain cybernetically linked to satellite images."

But proponents of Prompt Global Strike said its primary value would be in adding a level of deterrence to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. "At the end of the day, anybody who would be your adversary walks away thinking, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to pay dearly,' " Cartwright said last month. "There just can't be any doubt in their mind."

[Ah, the latest idea in a long, long string of ideas to make America safe – or at least feel safer. It seems to me that the US military is thinking about a strategic withdrawal from the world inside a Fortress America where they can lob non-nuclear ballistic missiles at potential enemies safe in the knowledge that no one (yet) has the technology to retaliate in kind. Of course such hi-tech solutions only offer the illusion of safety and defence against the shadowy enemies that appear like evil miasma wherever America looks around the world. No attack can be made without consequences and no one weapon system – indeed no resort to weapons – will make any country safe from attack. To think so is to ignore history and to relinquish any semblance of reality – not that it’s going to stop people coming up with (and getting funding for) such ideas.]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Golden Compass and Philosophy – God bites the Dust edited by Richard Greene and Rachel Robinson

How could I honestly resist this book? A book that discusses the philosophical implications of one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. The idea of discussing philosophical issues through analysing popular cultural themes does appeal to me deeply. Not only does it make philosophy in general much more interesting (I hate to use the word accessible) to a wider audience but it also delves into the philosophical ideas raised by reading a series of books, watching a series of TV shows or watching a movie (or a franchise of movies). Being the person that I am, I do like looking for the philosophical underpinnings of cultural artifacts like books and films. So these books – of course there’s a whole series of them – are ideal for me.

This volume was particularly satisfying as I’ve only read the occasional and, to be honest, not very good book on Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. This collection of essays knocks everything I’ve read so far out of the park. The first essay in particular which examined the underlying structure of his series was very good and raised interesting issues and not a few eyebrows. Other essays looked at the charge that Pullman was corrupting the young, whether Lyra was free enough within her destiny to actually be a true hero as well as speculations on the nature of Dust, the operation of the Subtle knife and the claims of the Magisterium.

Reading this inevitably made me want to read the trilogy again. It still remains one of the few series I’ve actually read more than once. Truthfully I didn’t enjoy it quite so much the second time but the rush I got from the first reading could hardly be replicated on my second visit. With so much else to read I am resisting the temptation to follow Lyra on her singular adventure again but will be reading both of Pullman’s shorter volumes in this (and other) universes shortly. I’d just wish he would produce the long anticipated Book of Dust rather than working on other projects. Needless to say I can recommend this to anyone who has read and, hopefully, enjoyed the Dark Materials books. Much of this volumes impact would, of course, be lost if you haven’t read them although you don’t have to had seen the somewhat questionable movie as well.

Monday, April 19, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Kingdom of Heaven

Despite thinking that Orlando Bloom (playing the lead character Balian) didn’t have what it takes to carry a film of this type (and being proven correct on that count) I was more than willing to give this film a chance when it came out in 2005. The director – Ridley Scott – and the ensemble cast which included Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons and the stunning Eva Green would have been more than enough for me to part with good money for over two hours of entertainment. The fact that this movie has made it into my favourites list testifies to what I thought of it.

Based at the time of the Crusades this is a tale of the blacksmith Balian who, on discovering he is the bastard son of a lord and having nothing to stay for in his French village, joins his father on the journey to the Holy land. On reaching Jerusalem he quickly discovers that things are far from what he expected. There is a deep internal dispute between those who want to protect the city for all worshipers – both Christian and Muslim – and those who want to start a war against Islam they are clearly unable to win. Driven by fanaticism the Christians believe that they cannot be defeated in battle as God is on their side. Hot heads in the Islamic forces believe the same but are reminded by their new leader Saladin that they won few enough battles before he arrived. Inevitable the fundamentalists get their way and Saladin attacks the city. Forced through circumstance into leading the defence Balian shows his skills both as a soldier and diplomat impressing the great Saladin himself.

Taken as a straight historical epic this is a very good film indeed. The scale of the picture is immense, sweeping across half of Europe and the deserts of the Middle East. The fight scenes and the much larger full blown battles are handled expertly as you might expect from the director of Gladiator. But much more than this – which caused no little controversy – was the attention to both philosophical and religious themes. Scott certainly did not shy away from the religious aspects of the movie but met them head on. Indeed I think he made the film in a way that only a European could. Not only was it deeply cynical about the motives of the Roman Catholic Church – the Bishop of Jerusalem was a particularly unpleasant character – but showed more than a little sympathy to Islam. Indeed at the end of the film (not giving too much away here) Saladin is shown replacing a fallen crucifix with reverence where, earlier in the film, Christians are shown as being deeply disrespectful to their Islamic counterparts. The Muslims – apart from the European leads – are shown as much more civilised that the Christians who are, supposedly, saving civilisation from them. All in all this was a well made, exciting and thought provoking film. Bloom was somewhat wooden throughout and I would have liked to see more of Neeson (pictured above with a beautiful sword) but neither of these quibbles detracted from a highly enjoyable experience. Speaking of which – look out for Eva Green. Tall, beautiful and smart. Oh, my….. oh, my…….

Saturday, April 17, 2010

US Creationists Unswayed by Evolution Exhibition

by Virginie Montet for The Telegraph

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Each year, a group of biology students at the Christian university based in Lynchburg, Virginia, travels to the Natural History Museum in Washington to learn about a theory they dismiss as incorrect - Darwin's theory of evolution.

Lauren Dunn, 19, a second-year biology student, was unimpressed."210 million years, that's arbitrary. They put that time to make up for what they don't know," she said. Nathan Hubbard, a 20 year-old from Michigan and a first-year biology major who plans to become a doctor, regarded the model with suspicion. "There is no scientific, biological genetic way that this, this rat, could become you," he said, seemingly scandalised by the proposition. Liberty University is the most prominent evangelical university in the United States, with around 12,000 students who adhere to strict rules and regulations regarding moral conduct.

Its biology curriculum includes a course on "Young Earth Creationism", which juxtaposes Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species with the Book of Genesis. "In order to be the best creationist, you have to be the best evolutionist you can be," said Marcus Ross, who teaches paleontology and says of Adam and Eve: "I feel they were real people, they were the first people." David DeWitt, a Liberty University biology professor, opens his classes with a prayer, asking God to help him teach his students. "I pray that you help me to teach effectively and help the students to learn and defend their faith," he says. Strongly expressed faith is not unusual in the United States, a country where 80 per cent of the population claim to believe in God and ascribe to established religions.

Polls taken in the last two years found that between 44 and 46 per cent of Americans believe that the Earth was created in a week, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Creationism, an increasingly popular theory in the United States and elsewhere in the world, rejects Darwin's theory that all living species evolved over the course of billions of years via the process of natural selection. The school of thought has adherents among Jehovah's Witnesses and some fundamentalist Muslims, but in the United States it has won the most converts in the evangelical Christian community. Former president George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, is among those who say evolutionary theory does not fully explain the Earth's creation, though the ex-president also noted he is not a "literalist" when it comes to the Bible. Creationist belief has implications for the way people understand a variety of fields, including biology, paleontology and astronomy, but also impacts questions about climate change and educational debates. At the Smithsonian Institute, among crowds of weekend visitors, the Liberty University students visited the evolution exhibition. But Darwin's explanation for why giraffes have long necks - that they evolved over time so they could reach higher foliage - and displays of fossil evidence failed to sway them. "Creationism and evolutionism have different ways of explaining the evidence. The creationist way recognises the importance of biblical records," said Ross. He teaches his students that dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the Earth 4,000 to 5,000 years ago during the flood that Noah survived by building an ark. He says carbon-dating techniques that have been used to suggest the Earth is in fact billions of years old are simply not reliable. He doesn't reject one prominent theory that dinosaurs were wiped out by a massive asteroid that collided into Earth, but suggests the collision coincided with the biblical flood. Though Ross acknowledges that the United States is among the most welcoming environments in the world for creationists, he said it can be difficult to convince people to take him and his beliefs seriously. "The attitude is when you are a creationist you are ignorant of the facts," he said.

[What would convince fundamentalist Christians that evolution was true – nothing probably……. ]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Sleipnir by Linda Evans.

I really should’ve taken more notice of the tag line of this book: OK, Odin – Make my day! That should have warned me off this novel before I parted with my money. Luckily I’d actually picked this up in a second hand shop so didn’t feel all that cheated.

Anyway, as to the story….. As far as I can tell after struggling through the first 150 pages this was basically a tale of revenge. When a soldier’s best friend is killed in an accident he starts seeing and experiencing strange things including a sighting of Sleipnir (the Norse God Odin’s trusty steed) and the activities of a strange knife with a mind of its own. Swearing revenge against the God he considers the killer of his friend, the soldier (I can’t remember his name and can’t work up the effort to look through the book until I find it) finds his way into the Norse underworld looking for a fight…. And that’s as far as I got before I gave up.

This might have been an interesting idea but I thought it was very badly told. I didn’t really care very much about any of the characters and, after a while, thought that the whole thing was just plain silly. It’s just possible that this book suffered in comparison to the previous two fantasy novels – both of which had been really good – but I think that might be being a bit too kind. Basically this book was borderline rubbish and I don’t have the time or the energy to wade my way through books like this. Needless to say I’d recommend that you avoid it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Spirituality for the Skeptic – The Thoughtful Love of Life by Robert C Solomon

I’m still not sure what to make of this book - which probably explains why I had to have two attempts at it. For months it has languished by the side of my bed half read and largely ignored. Only recently did I pick it up again to give it a second chance driven, largely, by the idea that I should really finish some of the books I’ve already started before embarking on any more.

I’ve read some of Robert Solomon’s scribblings before which prompted me to investigate this book. It probably helped that it had the word skeptic in the title – which actually is one of the things that confused me. The author, contrary to my previous readings and the title of the book didn’t seem all that sceptical about spirituality. Indeed it seemed to me that Solomon wanted his cake and then proceeded to eat it. It appeared, at least to me, that the author wanted the advantages of secular scepticism with all of the trappings of religion without the inconvenience of worship. In his attempted reconciliation of the philosophical with the religious (why I wonder would you want to do that?) he proceeded to not only bend over backwards to accommodate a type of spirituality in a seemingly (to my way of reading him) grey and lifeless universe but to tie himself in knots to reconcile the two. In his attempt to produce a sceptical spirituality he instead produced a meaningless mis-mash and mismatch of ideas that I frankly found largely incomprehensible.

What I think he was attempting to do, and singularly failed to do in my case, was to imbue various aspects of life with a spiritual essence in such a way that they would by-pass any of our normal sceptical guardians. In this attempt he cited passion, ‘cosmic trust’ and even rationality as spiritual aspects of life. In the synopsis on the back of the book it proposes that it “answers the need for a non-institutional, non-dogmatic spirituality that leads to personal fulfilment and satisfaction”. My question to this would be “”What need?” But beyond that I don’t think that Solomon answers his own question. By using (what I would consider) non-spiritual aspects of life or by extending them beyond their normal range of applicability he, in my mind, showed himself to be simply a drowning man in search of any non-religious lifebelts in a harshly secular ocean. He is a man desperately clutching at straws, a man who apparently sees his own secular beliefs as deeply lacking in some manner but one unwilling to abandon them completely forcing him to ‘bolt on’ aspects of spirituality that he finds acceptable. Although I don’t believe that his approach is dishonest I do think that his sceptical response (what I saw of it) was far too weak. From the way I read this book it seemed that Solomon was trying less to convince other sceptics of his case than his was trying to convince himself. Read as an exploration of one man’s need to square a particular circle it is an interesting case study. Read as a manifesto for spiritual scepticism it is, I’m afraid, an epic fail.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Have a Nice World War, Folks

by John Pilger for Common Dreams

Published on Sunday, March 28, 2010

Here is news of the Third World War. The United States has invaded Africa. US troops have entered Somalia, extending their war front from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and now the Horn of Africa. In preparation for an attack on Iran, American missiles have been placed in four Persian Gulf states, and "bunker-buster" bombs are said to be arriving at the US base on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In Gaza, the sick and abandoned population, mostly children, is being entombed behind underground American-supplied walls in order to reinforce a criminal siege. In Latin America, the Obama administration has secured seven bases in Colombia, from which to wage a war of attrition against the popular democracies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. Meanwhile, the secretary of "defence" Robert Gates complains that "the general [European] public and the political class" are so opposed to war they are an "impediment" to peace. Remember this is the month of the March Hare.

According to an American general, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is not so much a real war as a "war of perception". Thus, the recent "liberation of the city of Marja" from the Taliban's "command and control structure" was pure Hollywood. Marja is not a city; there was no Taliban command and control. The heroic liberators killed the usual civilians, poorest of the poor. Otherwise, it was fake. A war of perception is meant to provide fake news for the folks back home, to make a failed colonial adventure seem worthwhile and patriotic, as if The Hurt Locker were real and parades of flag-wrapped coffins through the Wiltshire town of Wooten Basset were not a cynical propaganda exercise. "War is fun", the helmets in Vietnam used to say with bleakest irony, meaning that if a war is revealed as having no purpose other than to justify voracious power in the cause of lucrative fanaticisms such as the weapons industry, the danger of truth beckons. This danger can be illustrated by the liberal perception of Tony Blair in 1997 as one "who wants to create a world [where] ideology has surrendered entirely to values" (Hugo Young, the Guardian) compared with today's public reckoning of a liar and war criminal. Western war-states such as the US and Britain are not threatened by the Taliban or any other introverted tribesmen in faraway places, but by the antiwar instincts of their own citizens. Consider the draconian sentences handed down in London to scores of young people who protested Israel's assault on Gaza in January last year. Following demonstrations in which paramilitary police "kettled" (corralled) thousands, first-offenders have received two and a half years in prison for minor offences that would not normally carry custodial sentences. On both sides of the Atlantic, serious dissent exposing illegal war has become a serious crime.

Silence in other high places allows this moral travesty. Across the arts, literature, journalism and the law, liberal elites, having hurried away from the debris of Blair and now Obama, continue to fudge their indifference to the barbarism and aims of western state crimes by promoting retrospectively the evils of their convenient demons, like Saddam Hussein. With Harold Pinter gone, try compiling a list of famous writers, artists and advocates whose principles are not consumed by the "market" or neutered by their celebrity. Who among them have spoken out about the holocaust in Iraq during almost 20 years of lethal blockade and assault? And all of it has been deliberate. On 22 January 1991, the US Defence Intelligence Agency predicted in impressive detail how a blockade would systematically destroy Iraq's clean water system and lead to "increased incidences, if not epidemics of disease". So the US set about eliminating clean water for the Iraqi population: one of the causes, noted Unicef, of the deaths of half a million Iraqi infants under the age of five. But this extremism apparently has no name. Norman Mailer once said he believed the United States, in its endless pursuit of war and domination, had entered a "pre-fascist era". Mailer seemed tentative, as if trying to warn about something even he could not quite define. "Fascism" is not right, for it invokes lazy historical precedents, conjuring yet again the iconography of German and Italian repression. On the other hand, American authoritarianism, as the cultural critic Henry Giroux pointed out recently, is "more nuance, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent."

This is Americanism, the only predatory ideology to deny that it is an ideology. The rise of tentacular corporations that are dictatorships in their own right and of a military that is now a state with the state, set behind the fa├žade of the best democracy 35,000 Washington lobbyists can buy, and a popular culture programmed to divert and stultify, is without precedent. More nuanced perhaps, but the results are both unambiguous and familiar. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, the senior United Nations officials in Iraq during the American and British-led blockade, are in no doubt they witnessed genocide. They saw no gas chambers. Insidious, undeclared, even presented wittily as enlightenment on the march, the Third World War and its genocide proceeded, human being by human being. In the coming election campaign in Britain, the candidates will refer to this war only to laud "our boys". The candidates are almost identical political mummies shrouded in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. As Blair demonstrated a mite too eagerly, the British elite loves America because America allows it to barrack and bomb the natives and call itself a "partner". We should interrupt their fun.

[In a world where war is peace is ignorance then strength? Since when is being opposed to war an impediment to peace? Are we that far gone that the only answer, the only response, is the cruise missile and the armed UAV? I am, as you may have noticed, more than a little disgusted and more than a little saddened with the state of the world. Is this the best we can be? Is this the way we’re always going to treat each other? If this is indeed the best of all possible worlds I shudder to think of what the others must be like.]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Just Finished Reading: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

After an absence of two years, urban sorcerer Matthew Swift is back in London and back from the dead. His revenge against those who killed him will not be easy, however, as he quickly discovers the powerful forces ranged against him. His mentor and teacher has built a supernatural organisation known as The Tower and is using his dark talents to crush all opposition, amassing both wealth and magical artefacts in the process. Matthew was his greatest hope and greatest disappointment in the quest for immortality – for Matthew has a special relationship with the Blue Angels who live in the telephone lines in the gaps between conversations. Now Matthew and the Angels are one, melding into each other to produce a new type of being. A being who is at once a real danger to The Tower’s existence and an embodiment of its leaders hopes to transcend the mortal realm. Using and being used by the remnants of magical opposition to The Tower, Matthew Swift plans to bring down the organisation and finally face the man who taught him how to use his powers as a child.

This is a very different type of urban fantasy novel. Normally the city is used as a backdrop to the goings on of magical creatures – usually vampires and werewolves with the odd witch or demon thrown in for good measure. They are standard fantasy stories modernised for a more urban readership that have grown up on Buffy and her acolytes. Kate Griffin’s novel uses the idea of urban magic that places the city centre stage. In a very real sense the city is a magical environment for those who have eyes to see it – from the protective sigils in the graffiti to the handy magical directories deposited on the tops of bus shelters. The city in her book is a magical resource and technology, rather than being the antithesis of magic, actually generates a different type of magical power available to anyone who can see it and use it. Magic, as Swift says on more than one occasion, is simply a point of view.

This is a wonderfully rich and adult read. The author has obviously done her research to bring alive modern urban magic in a truly believable sense. With minimal effort suspension of belief is more than possible. The reader, after what I think is a deliberate disorientating introduction, cannot help but be drawn into Swift’s life and believe that magic is all around us, even in the most technologically advanced cities, for those with the eyes and the attitude to see it, to feel it. Life is, as Swift is fond of saying, magic and there is nowhere as alive as a city. Griffin has created a great character in the reincarnated Swift and we cannot help but empathise with him as he comes to terms with his new life and his now intimate relationship with the Blue Angels who cohabit in his body. Swift also finds himself surrounded by a whole host of magical, semi-magical and mundane characters each with their own agendas, strengths and all too human weaknesses. This was by far one of the best fantasy books I can remember reading as well as one of the best books I’ve read in years. I was delighted to discover, half way through this book, that the sequel had just been published. Needless to say I have already bought it! I shall saviour the idea of reading more about magical London before actually reading it – maybe over Christmas….. [muses]. As you can probably imagine I highly recommend this book to anyone jaded by the present poor state of modern urban fantasy or to anyone who wants a damned good off-the-wall read.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Thinking About: Thinking

It should not come as any surprise to my regular readers that I think about things a lot. Indeed it has been said more than once that I think far too much. Not surprisingly I have always been rather mystified by this comment. How, I thought, is it even possible to think too much? Part of the implied criticism is that I think about things other people – arguably normal people – do not think about at all (or only fleetingly). Most people I come into regular contact with consider that I’m a little odd when I talk about the things that interest me or articulate some of the thought processes that regularly pass through my mind. Of course, over the years, I’ve learnt to moderate my outbursts or wild speculations not wanting to alienate or ‘creep out’ those around me. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. I actually enjoy thinking about things very much. Though from time to time, especially when I’m snuggling into my bed, after a long day I do wish that my mind would “shut the fuck up” so that I can get some much needed sleep.

Whilst rejecting the idea that I think too much about things, I can understand another aspect of what people mean. I have a very annoying tendency to over analyse things – to the extent that it can stop me doing anything at all. This is especially pronounced when I’m thinking about relationships or potential relationships. If I’m uncertain about things I try to look at them from as many angles as I can before making a decision. Unfortunately I find that I’m often working with inadequate information and feel that I don’t have enough grounds to jump one way or the other – so I hesitate…. And then hesitate some more until the person I’m either in a relationship with (on those rare occasions) or hoping to be in a relationship with gives up in exasperation and moves on to someone who can actually make an apparently simple decision. I think that it’s largely based on fear. The more I’m emotionally invested in a decision the more difficult I find choosing a course of action which, because of inadequate information (or bad thinking), may be the wrong one. In these circumstances rather than potentially making the wrong decision I default to making no decision which, rather ironically, is normally the wrong decision. If, however, my emotion commitment is low or absent (or my confidence levels are high enough) I can make apparently important decisions instantly even in the absence of sufficient information. Go figure.

Generally speaking I don’t believe that people think about things enough. They fail to look ahead and consider the consequences of their actions, they go on gut-instinct or emotional response which, more often than not, gets them into a whole heap of trouble they try to instinct their way out of or just attempt to deal with. I’ve seen this happen so often that it’s just not funny any more. Although I’m not beyond a bit of instinctive behaviour from time to time and I probably have similar emotional responses to other people, the thinking part of my mind has a tendency to jump in at that point, wave its metaphorical arms in front of me, and caution me to think before I do anything rash. I have probably avoided a good many mistakes in that way though I’ve probably missed out on a fair share of opportunities too. On balance though I consider that thinking about things – even too much – is better than not thinking about things. People’s lives and the world in general would, I think, be better if we all gave things a bit more thought rather than doing the first thing that comes into our heads and living with the consequences afterwards. I shall, then, be continuing to think about things for the rest of my life and some of them I shall continue to share with you here.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

US Troop Deaths Double in Afghanistan

by Sebastian Abbot for The Associated Press

Sunday, March 28, 2010

KABUL - The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared with the same period last year as the United States has added tens of thousands of additional troops. Those deaths have been accompanied by a spike in the number of wounded, with injuries more than tripling in the first two months of the year and heading in the same direction based on the latest available data for this month. U.S. officials warned that casualties are likely to rise as the Pentagon completes its deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and sets its sights on the Taliban's home base of Kandahar province, where a major operation is expected in coming months. "We must steel ourselves, no matter how successful we are on any given day, for harder days yet to come," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month. In total, 57 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in the first two months of 2010 compared with 28 in January and February of last year, an increase of more than 100 percent, according to Pentagon figures compiled by The Associated Press. At least 20 U.S. service members have been killed this month, compared with 13 a year ago.

The steady rise in combat deaths has generated less public reaction in the United States than the spike in casualties last summer and fall, which undermined public support in the U.S. for the American-led mission. After a summer marked by the highest monthly death rates of the war, President Obama faced serious domestic opposition over his decision in December to increase troops in Afghanistan, with only about half the U.S. people supporting the move. But support for his handling of the war has improved since then, despite increased casualties. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll at the beginning of this month found that 57 percent of those surveyed approved his handling of the war in Afghanistan, compared with 49 percent two months earlier. The poll surveyed 1,002 adults nationwide and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the poll results could partly be a reaction to last month's offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province, which the Obama administration painted as the first test of its revamped counterinsurgency strategy. Some 10,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan forces seized control of the farming community of about 80,000 people while suffering relatively few deaths. But the Taliban continue to intimidate the locals, and the hardest part of the operation is to come: building an effective local government that can win over the loyalty of the people. "My main thesis ... is that Americans can brace themselves for casualties in war if they consider the stakes high enough and the strategy being followed promising enough," O'Hanlon said. "But such progress in public opinion is perishable, if not right away then over a period of months, if we don't sustain the new momentum."

The rise in the number of wounded, a figure that draws less attention than deaths, shows that the Taliban remain a formidable opponent. The number of U.S. troops wounded in Afghanistan and three smaller theaters where there isn't much battlefield activity rose from 85 in the first two months of 2009 to 381 this year, an increase of almost 350 percent. Fifty U.S. troops were wounded last March; in comparison, 44 were injured during the first six days of March this year. The increase in casualties was partly driven by the higher number of troops in Afghanistan in 2010. U.S. troops rose from 32,000 at the beginning of last year to 68,000 at the end of the year. "We've got a massive influx of troops, we have troops going into areas where they have not previously been, and you have a reaction by an enemy to a new force presence," said NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale. The troop numbers have continued to rise in 2010 in line with the recent build-up. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that one-third of the additional forces, or 10,000 troops, are already in Afghanistan. They plan to have all 30,000 troops in the country before the end of the year. U.S. officials have said they plan to use many of the additional forces to reassert control in Kandahar province, where the insurgents have slowly taken territory over the past few years in an effort to boost their influence over Kandahar city, the largest metropolis in the south and the Taliban's former capital.

Many analysts think the Kandahar operation will be much more difficult than the Marjah offensive because of the greater dispersion of Taliban forces, the urban environment in Kandahar city and the complex political and tribal forces in the province. The goal of both operations is to put enough pressure on the Taliban to force them to the negotiating table to work out a political settlement to end the war.

[It’s the last sentence of this article that got me: forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table to work on a political settlement….. Erm, if my country was invaded and was presently being occupied I think that the only politically acceptable solution would be for the foreigners to get the hell out of my country and go back to theirs! I shouldn’t think that any pressure would be sufficient to make me negotiate with invaders for my own country. Ending the war is very, very simple: We pack our bags and leave. Or we could fight the various Afghan forces ranged against us for the next 10, 20 or 30 years and then leave. It seems like a fairly easy choice to me – having even a general knowledge of the failed attempts to hold that country in the past (and I don’t just mean the Russians).]

Thursday, April 01, 2010

First Day of an 11 Day Easter break....... and Relax.
Just Finished Reading: Rifles – Six Years with Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters by Mark Urban

Part of my abiding interest in the 19th Century is that, in many ways, it’s a period of transition between a slower paced and more rigid world and something that was becoming recognisably modern. It was a time when the Industrial Revolution of the previous century was starting to have recognisable effects and when the pace of change became ever more noticeable. The military, often rightly accused of preparing for the last war, where not immune for this climate of change. The Napoleonic Wars where amongst the last to be fought by massed ranks of soldiers in bright uniforms blasting away at each other at seemingly insane close ranges. The advent of the rifle, and later the machine gun, made such tactics suicidal – though it took several wars and countless dead to convince everyone of that fact.

Accomplished historian and broadcaster Mark Urban uncovers the beginnings of this process in this remarkable tale of Wellington’s sharpshooters during the Peninsula War in Portugal and Spain as well as actions that led up to the battle of Waterloo which ended any chance of Napoleon returning successfully from exile. Tracing their exploits through a series of engagements from May 1809 to June 1815 Urban shows how the effectiveness of the rifles and the men who used them was recognised (though often reluctantly) and used with deadly effect against their French opponents who for various reasons eschewed their use. The tally of French officer dead after each battle was impressive indeed and resulted in both confusion and dismay amongst their massed ranks. Without adequate direction the regimented response to battlefield conditions – often the very bedrock of their effectiveness – crumbled under aimed fire rather than the volleys delivered by ordinary infantrymen. Everything from the darker uniforms, the use of cover and concealment and the loosening of the brutal discipline meted out for the slightest infraction of the rulebook pointed towards the armed forces of the future. In the Rifles, junior officers and even the lowest ranker were expected to show initiative and were rewarded for doing so - at least eventually. Progression up the ranks was normally based on talent – something rare indeed in a system where officers either bought their commissions or used their family’s position to influence promotion or placement in fashionable regiments.

After reading this historical page turner I certainly have a greater understanding of the background to the series of Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell based around the Rifle division during this period. Urban writes extremely well, peppering his sweeping narrative with seemingly trivial details that help bring the whole period alive in the readers mind. It was a brutal time and a brutal profession but it allowed at least some individuals – especially in the Rifles – to shape European history and to progress to ranks unthinkable in other regiments. This is a fascinating story of a remarkable regiment in interesting times. Highly recommended for anyone interested in military history.