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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Thinking About: Why I Read (so much)

I have been asked more than once why I read so much. Occasionally I’m even asked why I read at all. That question used to really perplex me. I mean, how can you not read? Reading to me is akin to breathing. It’s something I have to do, something that comes naturally to me, something that I hardly need to think about but can scarcely conceive of not doing.

In a way I am driven to read. In my late teens I felt a burning desire to understand the world. To be honest life and living confused me. There was so much about life I simply did not understand. My education at the time was singularly failing to fill the gaps in my knowledge. I guess that state educational isn’t really cut out to answer the heart felt questions of teenage boys. So, already reading fiction voraciously, I plunged headfirst into the world of non-fiction too, reading anything and everything looking for answers that continued (and largely continue) to elude me. Oddly, looking back 30 or more years, I’m surprised that I didn’t read much more philosophy back then. Maybe it’s just that my local library didn’t have much of a philosophy section – it could be that simple. After a (long) while I gave up the direct seeking of some kind of universal truth and followed my nose looking for books that interested me at that time. By nature I have an annoyingly butterfly type mind. I find myself fascinated by a subject for a short period of time, read everything I can on it, then move on to a new fascination. About the only subject I keep returning to, year after year and decade after decade, is Science Fiction. Everything else is ephemeral. My seeking these days is both more focused and more casual. I’m not driven in the same way as I was 30 years ago. I guess I’ve developed perspective along with my grey hair. I no longer expect to find the secrets of the universe or the secrets of life in a single book. I accept that such a book does not exist and probably never will – no matter what some people would have you believe.

After reading thousands of books in the last 35 or so years that I have been an avid book consumer I am beginning to wonder if the answers to my questions exist at all. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. After all, the scope of human knowledge is vast. I stand in awe at the amount of things I do not know and never will know. I am sure that there are whole areas of knowledge I am totally unaware of. Even when I am aware of such things my knowledge of those areas is often scant. It would take a hundred life times to understand a goodly proportion of what we have learnt to date about the universe we inhabit. I am, in consequence, full of doubt and ignorance. I actually can’t help but laugh at those who profess any great certainty about things and I’m astonished by those who honestly believe that they have the answers to life, the universe and everything – often encapsulated in a single ancient text. Such an attitude to me is quite simply incomprehensible. To profess such knowledge is a sure sign of staggering ignorance.

So why do I read (so much)? These days I read mainly for entertainment. One of my recent tutors couldn’t believe that during a fairly intense course load I still had time to read fiction. He was amazed that I had the time. But it is a truth universally acknowledged that all work and no play would make Cyberkitten a very dull boy indeed. The second driver is, of course, enlightenment. I’m still hoping that I’ll discover something truly profound in the books I read. I’m seen hints and followed them as best I can. When I have something substantial to report you’ll read it here first.
Well, it’s Official. I had an e-mail from my University a few days ago. I am now the (very) proud owner of a shiny new Masters Degree in The History of Philosophy. I think it’s about time I cracked open a bottle of deeply chilled champagne…….

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Immaculate creation: birth of the first synthetic cell

by Ewen Callaway for New Scientist

20 May 2010

For the first time, scientists have created life from scratch – well, sort of. Craig Venter's team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California, has made a bacterial genome from smaller DNA subunits and then transplanted the whole thing into another cell. So what exactly is the science behind the first synthetic cell, and what is its broader significance?

What did Venter's team do?

The cell was created by stitching together the genome of a goat pathogen called Mycoplasma mycoides from smaller stretches of DNA synthesised in the lab, and inserting the genome into the empty cytoplasm of a related bacterium. The transplanted genome booted up in its host cell, and then divided over and over to make billions of M. mycoides cells. Venter and his team have previously accomplished both feats – creating a synthetic genome and transplanting a genome from one bacterium into another – but this time they have combined the two. "It's the first self-replicating cell on the planet that's parent is a computer," says Venter, referring to the fact that his team converted a cell's genome that existed as data on a computer into a living organism. How can they be sure that the new bacteria are what they intended? Venter and his team introduced several distinctive markers into their synthesised genome. All of them were found in the synthetic cell when it was sequenced. These markers do not make any proteins, but they contain the names of 46 scientists on the project and several quotations written out in a secret code. The markers also contain the key to the code. Crack the code and you can read the messages, but as a hint, Venter revealed the quotations: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life," from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; "See things not as they are but as they might be," which comes from American Prometheus, a biography of nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer; and Richard Feynman's famous words: "What I cannot build I cannot understand."

Does this mean they created life?

It depends on how you define "created" and "life". Venter's team made the new genome out of DNA sequences that had initially been made by a machine, but bacteria and yeast cells were used to stitch together and duplicate the million base pairs that it contains. The cell into which the synthetic genome was then transplanted contained its own proteins, lipids and other molecules. Venter himself maintains that he has not created life. "We've created the first synthetic cell," he says. "We definitely have not created life from scratch because we used a recipient cell to boot up the synthetic chromosome." Whether you agree or not is a philosophical question, not a scientific one as there is no biological difference between synthetic bacteria and the real thing, says Andy Ellington, a synthetic biologist at the University of Texas in Austin. "The bacteria didn't have a soul, and there wasn't some animistic property of the bacteria that changed," he says.

What can you do with a synthetic cell?

Venter's work was a proof of principle, but future synthetic cells could be used to create drugs, biofuels and other useful products. He is collaborating with Exxon Mobil to produce biofuels from algae and with Novartis to create vaccines. "As soon as next year, the flu vaccine you get could be made synthetically," Venter says. Ellington also sees synthetic bacteria as having potential as a scientific tool. It would be interesting, he says, to create bacteria that produce a new amino acid – the chemical units that make up proteins – and see how these bacteria evolve, compared with bacteria that produce the usual suite of amino acids. "We can ask these questions about cyborg cells in ways we never could before."

What was the cost of creating life?

About $40 million. Cheap for a deity, expensive if you are a lab scientist looking to create your own synthetic bacterium. "This does not look like the sort of thing that's going to be doable by your average lab in the near future," Ellington says.

This reminds me of Frankenstein's monster! Are synthetic cells safe?

Yes. Venter's team took out the genes that allow M. mycoides to cause disease in goats. The bacterium has also been crippled so it is unlikely to grow outside of the lab. However, some scientists are concerned that synthetic organisms could potentially escape into the environment or be used by bioterrorists. Ellington brushes aside those concerns, noting that the difficulty of engineering cells is beyond the scope of all would-be bioterrorists. "It's not a real threat," he says. "Unless you are Craig Venter with a crew of 20 postdocs you're not going to do this." However, George Church, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School, is calling for increased surveillance, licensing and added measures to prevent the accidental release of synthetic life. "Everybody in the synthetic biology ecosystem should be licensed like everybody in the aviation system is licensed."

[So, not exactly creating life – but almost. It’s certainly a step towards the ability of creating life……. from scratch. I didn’t honestly think we were quite that close but it looks like we are. It appears that we’ll be able to design completely new life-forms that have never existed before in years if not decades. That is totally amazing. We are truly in the Age of Biology.]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just Finished Reading: A Pelican in the Wilderness – Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses by Isabel Colegate

I bought this book completely ‘on spec’ a year or so ago because it was so different from anything I can remember reading before. It probably helped that it was in the 3 for 2 section at my local mass market bookshop. Otherwise I may never have stumbled across this little gem.

The author weaves the history of hermits and recluses intricately with her own experiences of finding a hermitage on her land and travelling across the world to seek out other famous places where hermits have (and in some cases still do) live out their lives in practical solitude. Her interviews with modern hermits and her observations of the conditions they live in bring the subject alive in the way that discussion of the purely historical examples never could. Clearly hermits and reclusive men (and women) are not a thing of the past. In some ways this is hardly surprising. The urge to separate oneself from society must have been growing in those susceptible to such things as what we call modern civilisation encroached more and more into people’s everyday lives. Before the Industrial Revolution it must have been comparatively easy to disappear into the countryside for almost as long as you wanted. Yet it seemed that as far back as Medieval times there are those who needed to retreat from society often, at least back then, to be closer to God. After all, most of the hermits famous to history have been religious men (and women) who sought God in the wilderness and in the silence, away from the constant noise and chatter generated by towns and cities.

I did, rather inevitably, have a few niggles with this book. For one thing it seems a little too unstructured for my liking. The book, interesting enough though it was, suffered as the story jumped all over the place dragging interesting snippet after interesting foible into the mix. A little less eagerness and a little more pause for reflection, deliberation and depth would have improved this work quite a bit. Naturally the result of this butterfly approach was lack of focus. The author tried to cover too much ground and because of that spent too little time with her most interesting subjects. She would have done better to discuss fewer better documented cases in greater depth that hopping all over the world for half page stories and anecdotes – interesting though they were. Saying this, I still found this book to be a fascinating page-turner which basically introduced me to a whole area of world history that previously I had hardly given any thought to. It even, as I read of hermits ancient and modern, made me think of seeking out a retreat or monastery where I could spend a few days in quiet contemplation. I’m sure that there must be places like that not too far away. Inevitably the romance, or at least the suspected romance, of the monastic cell has faded a little after I finished the book but reading it was like a breath of fresh clean country air in my lungs. The author, despite the failings caused by her obvious enthusiasm for the subject, has produced a delightful, fascinating and often intriguing book on a subject that appears to be little examined. For opening my eyes on this aspect of human history I am thankful. Recommended for anyone seeking solitude in an increasingly maddening world.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Favourite Movies: The Island

This was a film that, at its heart, contained an interesting idea – actually several interesting ideas. It was a real shame, therefore, that Hollywood turned it into a chase movie, albeit a good one (chase that is).

This was in essence a movie of two halves. In the first we are presented with an apparently futuristic society made up of survivors of a global catastrophe called ‘The Contamination’. In reality, as we discover through the experiences of Lincoln Six Echo (played by Ewan McGregor), the so-called survivors are in fact copies – clones – of their super-rich sponsors and are being used as repositories for spare parts and as pain free baby factories. When his best friend, Jordan Two Delta (played by Scarlett Johansson) is chosen to go to ‘The Island’, the supposed last refuge for mankind but in fact a euphemism for organ harvesting, Lincoln investigates and discovers the truth about everything. The second half consists of Lincoln escaping with Jordan which triggers a dramatic (OK overly melodramatic) chase across America as the two clones try to make their existence public and the corporation who owns them does everything to stop them.

There were several interesting questions raised in the first half of the movie before it honestly got rather silly (don’t get me started on the flying motorbikes!). Questions regarding the nature of identity, ownership of ‘property’ that happens to be living human beings and the powerful desire for longevity (or even immortality) by any means necessary. In line with the overall philosophy of the film the cast were by and large disposable or at least interchangeable. They were certainly able enough the carry the film forward but, for me at least, the only character who stood out – probably because he was just about the only character in the film - was Djimon Hounsou who played the leader of the team assigned to bring back the clones for orderly disposal. After being hired to do a job – return or destroy defective product – he quickly finds himself conflicted between his orders and his personal history of having a father executed for being involved in a failed rebellion against an oppressive regime.

It may seem strange on the face of it that, taking into account all of the above, I’m still picking this movie as one of my favourites. In all honesty this is not a great film. Although adequately scripted it is full of plot holes and plain lazy directing. Watch when Jordan is returned to the facility near the end of the movie. Now just try to work out where that gun came from! There is a great chase sequence on a freeway that’s almost ruined by the previously mentioned flying motorcycles but at least both of the leads are very engaging to watch. I’m a fan of McGregor and, as you know, deeply in lust with Johansson so quite happily watched her run all over the West coast often filmed from behind…… The ‘bottom’ line is that despite everything wrong with this film it’s still lots of fun especially if, unlike me, you don’t pick holes in the plot – at least too much. For a brain in neutral two hour bit of fun you could do a lot worse. Believe me, I have.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Britain’s PM Wants Relationship with US Re-Evaluated

by Eric Margolis for The Toronto Sun

Sunday, May 16, 2010

PARIS - "Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests," Britain's Lord Palmerston famously said in the 19th century. Contradicting Palmerston, Winston Churchill later proclaimed a "special relationship" between Britain and the United States, an undying bond of brotherhood, loyalty in war and friendship transcending politics. This transatlantic myth has gripped both nations ever since. But Britain's new 43-year-old leader, Conservative David Cameron, has stated he wants U.S.-British relations re-evaluated and made more pragmatic. In a sharply pointed reference to the era of Britain's former PM Tony Blair, the newly appointed Conservative foreign secretary, William Hague, called for Anglo-American relations that were "solid, not slavish." Last month, a special multi-party parliamentary group suggested an end to the use of the term "special relationship" and a review of "unbalanced" (read: Onesided) U.S.-U.K. relations. Britain's new deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, said the time for "unthinking subservience to U.S. interests" was over. Clegg has long opposed Britain's involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and Washington's one-sided Mideast policies.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who is interested in issues rather than personalities, has also been steering away from the Churchillian mythology of eternal Anglo-American brotherhood and has also urged more pragmatism in Atlantic relations. After Obama took office, he ordered a bust of Churchill in the president's Oval Office removed. PM Gordon Brown got something of a cold shoulder in Washington. It was not a slight, as Britain's media howled. Obama's attention was focused elsewhere, namely Afghanistan, the Mideast, India and China. Britain is falling out of Washington's favour because it is no longer as useful as in the past. Cameron's new government must quickly slash $240 billion in spending or risk a Greek-style financial crisis. There will be deep cuts in military spending, including aircraft carriers, submarines, nuclear forces, transport aircraft and money to wage war in Afghanistan. The small but hard-fighting British Army has become the elite auxiliary to U.S. imperial forces abroad, the same role as Nepal's fierce Gurkhas played in the colonial armies of the British Raj. But those days are over.

Many Britons, including Conservatives, were appalled by Tony Blair's servility and sycophancy towards President Bush and his arrant lies. Proud Brits were rankled to hear Blair called "Bush's poodle," mocked as bootlickers by French and Germans and branded an American protectorate. Many Europeans shared DeGaulle's view of Britain as an American Trojan Horse whose mission was to sabotage European unity. Britain has indeed been a quasi U.S. protectorate since the Second World War. The U.S. maintains key airbases in Britain with stockpiled nuclear weapons and long-ranged radar installations. Britain's nuclear arsenal, developed with secret U.S. assistance, is said to require Washington's permission before it can be used. Britain's military relies on U.S. intelligence, material, and technical support. Britain would probably have lost the Falklands War without Washington's secret supply of advanced Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The world has changed. In 1904, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II presciently predicted that 50 years hence, the mighty British Empire would be crushed between the weight of emerging America and Russia.

In 1914, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the globe. Two world wars championed by arch imperialist Winston Churchill, and the rise of American and Soviet power, put paid to the British Empire, upon which the sun never set. The end of Britain's imperial era came in 1956 when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered Britain (and allies France and Israel) to end their invasion of Egypt or face American-induced bankruptcy. Britain remains an important mid-level power. According to geopolitician Zbig Brzezinski, Britain provides American power a stepping stone onto the European continent, as does Japan in Asia. The new Cameron-Clegg coalition will continue to favour the U.S. rather than the European Union, of which the U.K. is a half-hearted member. But the days of seeing Anglo-U.S. relations through the rose-tinted glasses of emotions and patriotic propaganda are past. Lord Palmerston was quite right.

[I honestly thought I’d never say this, but I actually approve of, indeed applaud, something that the new Conservative-Liberal government has done. It is way past the time when we should be reassessing our clearly unbalanced (to be diplomatic for a moment) relationship with the US. If anything broke this for good it was the joined at the hip double act of Bush and Blair. Bush for taking our compliance for granted – and being disdainful and dismissive of it – and Blair for dragging us into an endless war that was none of our business. We may well have similar interests and I’m sure that our common interest will coincide in the future but we are not now, nor have we ever been the 51st State of the USA and I am not alone in finding that belief deeply offensive. So, well done Mr Cameron! Please surprise me again. Maybe I’ll even vote for you next time……..]

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Schopenhauer – A Very Short Introduction

As with most of the philosophers I read about in this excellent VSI series I’d heard of Schopenhauer before and knew a little about his ideas. This book certainly filled in a lot of the blanks in my knowledge, though still only really managed to scratch the surface of his work.

Like other German philosophers of the 19th Century, Schopenhauer thought long and very hard about the difference between appearance and reality. To be honest the whole idea kind of leaves me cold and I ploughed my way through the first few chapters on this subject – well told that they were – with slightly gritted teeth. I did find his idea of embodiment and the Will as somewhat more interesting, especially as it seemed to foreshadow much of Nietzsche’s work. It is also interesting, especially taking the times into account, that Schopenhauer wrote on sex and sexuality appearing to ‘discover’ the unconscious some years before Freud brought it to prominence. What interested me most, as it has long been a particular focus of my philosophical readings, were his ideas on Ethics which seemed to me rather Stoical. It is something that I will try to follow up at some point.

While this small volume didn’t exactly set my world on fire, it did pique my interest in Schopenhauer enough to want to know more about his ideas. In that sense this book did its job. Some of the arguments I did find a little too dense for my brain to get around but, it would seem, that’s the German philosophers for you. To be honest, from what I’ve read I still far prefer the French way of things – with the possible exception of Nietzsche who I’m still struggling with. I can kind of recommend this book if you want to bend your mind more than a little. If I read anything better on him I’ll be sure to let you know.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thinking About: Vitamins

I’ve been taking a multi-vitamin tablet practically every day for the last 20 years or more. It started out as a test and as part of a legitimate concern that I wasn’t eating as healthily as I should or could be. It wasn’t long before I started taking more pills. I introduced what I called a ‘guest’ vitamin – basically whatever was on ‘special offer’ at my local health food store. Not being one to turn down a bargain I inevitably started to accumulate bottles of pills to use later. I think they call this sort of thing function creep.

Being the person I am – you should know where this is leading – I started reading about vitamins and other supplements. What I discovered – once you get past the hype and the scare mongering – was that I could improve my health and (maybe, just maybe) increase my longevity by adding a cocktail of vitamins, minerals and other more exotic substances to my diet. This I proceeded to do as an experiment on myself. I have yet to regret my decision. It appears that I am ill less often and for shorter periods than previously. I also remain healthy despite my age, questionable diet (and not just because I’m a vegetarian) and my less than active lifestyle. Various medical tests over the years appear to confirm my feelings on the subject. My blood pressure has been remarked on as ‘text book’ and I have been asked what sport I play – to which (when I stopped laughing) I remarked that I don’t even watch sport! Recently my optician told me that she was very surprised that my distance vision had not deteriorated in the seven years since my last eye-test and this was ‘very unusual’. It appears that I am doing something right. Of course I can’t help but wonder what I’d be like if I ate healthily and exercised a bit too!

Needless to say I have been laughed at and criticised for taking the vitamins that I do. But then again I have been laughed at and criticised about many things over the years. I am however a rather stubborn person and the more you tell me not to do something that I want to do the more I will continue doing it. I certainly have no intention of stopping taking the ten or so pills I take each day. All of the data I have on their efficacy is subjective I know but I believe that they are doing me more good than harm. I have read enough on the dangers of mega-dosing and I am aware that some vitamins are more dangerous than others in the quantities I take. I may be, in some ways, odd or even a little mad, but I am rarely stupid. I do not overdose on fat soluble vitamins such as E which can cause real harm but I’m quite happy to piss out pure Vitamin C if my intake exceeds what my body can use on a daily basis. As with most things, only time will tell. I don’t expect to live much beyond the average life expectancy – despite the fact that I’ve never smoked and hardly drink – but I do hope that I will remain in fairly good health up to the moment of my death. At least that’s the plan. If I’m still writing this Blog in 50 years time you’ll know that I was right all along. Here’s to the next 50 years…..

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cartoon Time.
'Misty caverns' on Enceladus moon

By Jonathan Amos for the BBC

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Nasa's Cassini spacecraft has obtained strong evidence that Saturn's tiny moon Enceladus retains liquid water. The probe has detected sodium salts in the vicinity of the satellite, which appear to spew from its south pole. Liquid water that is in prolonged contact with rock will leach out sodium - in exactly the same way as Earth's oceans have become salty over time. If confirmed, it is a stunning result. It means the Saturnian satellite may be one of the most promising places in the Solar System to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. "We need three ingredients for life, as far as we know - liquid water, energy and the basic chemical building blocks - and we seem to have all three at Enceladus, including some fairly complex organic molecules," commented John Spencer, a Cassini scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "That's not to say there is life on Enceladus but certainly the 'feedstock' is there for life to use if it does exist," he told BBC News.

Scientists have been looking for sodium near Enceladus since the discovery in 2005 that this 500km-wide moon was active and hurling water vapour and ice particles into space. The vapour and ice particles emerge in super-fast jets from a series of "warm" surface cracks referred to as "tiger stripes" because of their resemblance to the big cat's coat markings. Researchers speculated that the jets could be being fed by a large sub-surface body of liquid water, even an ocean. But the best indicator remained frustratingly elusive. If it existed, such a mass of water in contact with rock deep within Enceladus would acquire a range of dissolved salts over time and these ought to be detectable in the jets by Earth telescopes. Indeed, sodium (which in Earth's oceans forms the dominant sea salt, sodium chloride) is one of the easiest elements for observatories to spot in space.

However, even mighty telescopes like the Keck on Mauna Kea in Hawaii could never see sodium when they looked towards Enceladus. The latest Cassini data appears to solve this conundrum. The Nasa spacecraft has been flying through Saturn's outer E ring which is sustained by the constant stream of material coming up from the tiger stripes. Using its Cosmic Dust Analyser (CDA), Cassini has analysed thousands of ice grains and directly "tasted" the missing salt - principally sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate ("baking soda"). The amounts, though, are tiny - less than 2% of the mass of the sampled grains. The low abundance helps explain why the telescopes had overlooked the salt. The fact that the sodium is bound into the water-ice molecules also effectively hides its light signature from the observatories' instruments. However, scientists say the Cassini and telescope observations taken together give hints about what the water reservoir on Enceladus might look like.

The popular picture that is now emerging is of a very deep mass of water pressed up against the moon's rocky core and which is dissolving the salts. Water from this sub-surface sea is then working its way up to shallower reservoirs through a network of faults in Enceladus's ice mantle. Scientists envisage misty caverns just below the tiger stripes where some of the water vaporises free of sodium and some of it becomes frozen into the small grains detected by Cassini. "Water droplets are probably lifted by gas bubbles in the water (like the spray you see above sparkling water)," said Nature author Frank Postberg, a CDA scientist with the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, Heidelberg, Germany. "These aerosol-droplets shock freeze and conserve the liquid composition. Then they are accelerated upwards through the cracks in the ice crust by the up-streaming vapour."

Critically, the whole process cannot be too energetic otherwise the salt would be blown into space in a way that would be visible to Earth telescopes. A previous suggestion that the jets are geyser-like phenomena is dead. "This idea of slow evaporation from a deep cavernous ocean is not the dramatic idea that we imagined before, but it is possible given both our results so far," said Professor Nicholas Schneider, whose telescopes team has a companion paper to Postberg's in Nature. But the Colorado University-Boulder scientist also cautioned that the presence of sub-surface water was not yet proven fact. Several other explanations for the jets were equally plausible, he said. "It could still be warm ice vaporising away into space. It could even be places where the crust rubs against itself from tidal motions and the friction creates liquid water that would then evaporate into space," he said. "These are all hypotheses but we can't verify any one with the results so far."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a co-operative project of Nasa, the European Space Agency (Esa) and the Italian space agency (Asi).

[Despite the cautionary note at the end, it looks like the odds that we have independently evolved alien life-forms in our own Solar system just took a huge step forward. It would be so cool if they could confirm it in my lifetime……]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

Lyra never suspects anything is wrong when a witch’s daemon asks her for help. Her human counterpart is desperately ill and only one man – a dabbler in the esoteric arts – can produce the potion to save her life. But when Lyra leads it/her to the man in question it soon becomes obvious that she has been tricked and that her life is in mortal danger.

This is a lovely little book – though actually hardly more than a short story at only 48 pages – whose tale takes place not long after the adventures of Lyra and Will in the authors famous (or would that be notorious) Dark Materials series is a delight. Not only does it drop the reader back into that ‘magical’ universe it also provides some hard ‘evidence’ that can be examined at leisure including a fold-out map of that alternate Oxford which has, I discovered, many close correspondences with the ‘real’ Oxford, a postcard sent by Mary Malone and cruise details of the S. S. Zenobia which has yet to appear (IIRC) in any of the Dark Materials books. Despite all of this fascinating items however, the book did leave me slightly more exasperated that Pullman has yet to produce anything more substantial, especially the long awaited Book of Dust. Basically this is fun but is also a sweet and subtle torture. Read it at your peril.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thinking about: The Election

We had a General Election last Thursday. As predicted by many political pundits it resulted in what we call a ‘hung’ parliament, which basically means that no party gained overall control of the House of Commons and so, therefore, cannot automatically form a new government. At the moment the Conservatives (AKA the Tories) are in talks with the Liberal Democrats in the hopes of forming some kind of coalition government. Personally I think that any agreement between them – if any such agreement is possible – won’t stand the test of time and another General Election will have to be called within 2 years and possibly before the year is out. The Conservatives might try to govern as a minority administration but the chances of them getting anything through the parliamentary process would be pretty slim.

We haven’t had anything quite like this since 1974. I don’t remember much about that – politics not being high on the priorities of a 14 year old – but I think the Heath Government (also Tory) didn’t last a year. On the bright side at least the Conservatives haven’t got the mandate to destroy the countries economy as they hope to do nor can they destroy our relationship with our European counterparts. So we have something to be thankful for! I was hoping that the Lib Dems would’ve had a better result especially as they were riding high in the polls. As it turned out they actually lost 10 seats – go figure! One odd, and refreshing, piece of news is that we have our first Green MP. That did cheer me up.

As I have been doing for the past 3 (or 4) elections, I stayed up all night to watch the results as they came in. This time I kind of cheated by using my latest addictive computer game to ‘keep me awake’ which meant that I spent most of Thursday night/Friday morning on-line treasure hunting/killing aliens and only popped downstairs to watch the election every hour or so. I did, however, get the gist of what was going on.

After voting Liberal Democrat in the last three elections I am a little concerned at how they seem to be getting into bed with the hated Tories – who I loathe. Then again I almost equally loathe the ‘Labour’ party so whatever Nick Clegg (Leader of the Lib Dems) decides it will probably taint my opinion of them. So far I’m pleased that they haven’t gone for power and seem to be holding to their principles. Their position on Europe is diametrically opposed to the Tories so I’m guessing that’s a real sticking point between them. If the Lib Dems give in on their principles it might mean that I’ll not be voting for them next time and I suspect I’m not alone in that. But we’ll see soon enough. One way or the other we’ll have some sort of government by the end of the week. What flavour that will be is pretty much anyone’s guess at this point. Interesting isn’t it?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Two killer whale types found in UK waters

By Jody Bourton for the BBC

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Scientists have revealed that there is not one but two types of killer whale living in UK waters. Each differs in its appearance and diet, with males of one type being almost two metres longer than the other. The killer whales could be at an early stage of becoming two separate species, the researchers say. The international group of scientists has published its results in the journal Molecular Ecology. "It's exciting to think about two very different types of killer whale in the waters around Britain," says Dr Andy Foote from the University of Aberdeen, UK, who undertook the study. "Killer whales aren't really a species that we think of as being a regular visitor to Britain, but in fact we have two forms of these killer whales in our waters," he told the BBC. Scientists have found different forms of killer whale that occupy particular niches in the Pacific and the Antarctic, but this is the first time that they have been described in the North Atlantic. Dr Andy Foote undertook the study along with colleagues from universities and museums in Denmark and the UK.

Killer whales (Orcinus orca), otherwise called orcas, live in family groups called pods. As the largest member of the dolphin family, killer whales are known for their intelligence and range of hunting behaviours. There was very little prior to this study to suggest that different types of killer whale would be found in the North Atlantic. However, Dr Foote and colleagues studied teeth from remains of killer whales stranded over the past 200 years and found a difference in tooth wear. "We found that one form, which we call 'type 1' had severely worn teeth in all adult specimens," explains Dr Foote. "The other form, 'type 2', had virtually no tooth wear even in the largest adults." In the wild, killer whales that "suck up" herring and mackerel display this tooth wear. Knowing this, the researchers suspected a difference in diet and ecological niche between the two groups.

Using stable isotope analysis that gives clues to the orcas' diet, the scientists found that type 1 is a generalist feeder, consuming fish and seals. Type 2, on the other hand, is a specialist feeder that scientists suspect exclusively feeds on marine mammals such as small dolphins and whales. This specialisation for alternate ecological niches has also resulted in a difference in shape and appearance. "The two types also differed in length, with type 2 adult males being almost two metres larger than types 1 males," Dr Foote says. The researchers also found that colour, pattern and number of teeth vary between the groups. Dr Foote says the fish feeding type 1 killer whales are found across the North East Atlantic and around Britain. The cetacean hunting type 2 killer whales are regularly seen off the west coast of Scotland and Ireland.

Genetic analysis indicates the two types belong to two different populations. "Type 1 specimens were from closely related populations, but the type 2 whales were more closely related to a group of Antarctic killer whales," Dr Foote explains. Comparing the findings with studies on killer whales around the world shows that killer whales have radiated to fill different ecological niches. "It's similar to how Darwin's finches have adapted to different ecological roles in the Galapagos, but on a larger scale," Dr Foote notes. He suggests this could be an important discovery for the future of the animals. "They seem to have occupied completely different ecological niches and have started to diverge morphologically. This divergence may eventually lead to the two types becoming different species." He also recommends the two types be considered "evolutionary significant units" and monitored separately in order to more effectively conserve one of the oceans most charismatic animals.

[It would appear that we have here an example of speciation in action. How fascinating. Evolution is clearly on-going (obviously), a fact that some people at least attempt to dismiss as an unobserved phenomena. Not anymore it seems…….]

Friday, May 07, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Paper Mage by Leah R Cutter

Not one of Xiao Yen’s family could have suspected where her active imagination would take her. When she’s spotted by a great teacher of paper magic he persuades her family to allow her to train as a mage. Isolated by the fact that she is the only girl in the group and shunned by most of her relations she has little choice but to concentrate on her studies. When she becomes one of the most talented students of the magic school she is sent on her first escort mission travelling hundreds of miles towards the border populated by hostile barbarians. When a Goddess pleads for her assistance in freeing her sister’s soul from the clutches of an evil immortal warlord, Xiao Yen must put her fears aside as she embarks on an adventure that could bring her everlasting fame or leave her in an unmarked grave.

This was an unusual, and therefore interesting, variation on a fairly common theme. The main character is withdrawn from her family at an early age because of her natural talent. She must cope with the taunts of her schoolmates and disapproval of a patriarchal society which increases her isolation but also makes her free. She must then face a challenge before she is fully ready which will change her life as well as that of anyone she comes into contact with. So far it’s pretty standard stuff. What made this book stand out was that the action took place in Ancient China against a background of social upheaval within a deeply rigid society. A nice touch I thought was the type of magic employed – Origami – paper folding. The descriptions of the creatures that come alive after they are folded into existence is very interesting and I have read nothing quite like it before. Cutter is an excellent storyteller and despite a few very minor wobbles has produced a very accomplished first novel. I shall be looking out for more of her work. If it’s anywhere near as good as her first attempt I know I’ll be in for a treat.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Thinking About: Solitude

As I have spent most of my adult life alone it is fortunate indeed that I enjoy my own company. I do more, however, than merely tolerate or even cope with solitude – I need it, actually I crave it. As I get older I find that I want to be on my own more and more. Sometimes I find this drifting away from sociability a little disturbing. I see in my minds eye images of my future self spending longer and longer behind locked doors and closed curtains shunning human company and only venturing out when I need food. I honestly don’t think I’ll get that bad but the thought is there.

Although from time to time I want the pleasure of another person in my life and honestly miss the intimacy of having a lover, I am also horrified at the thought of being with anyone 24/7. I would like to wake up next to someone in the morning – just not every morning. I think this is partially why at least some of my relationships have failed in the past. I just didn’t want to be with my significant other all of the time. My last long term relationship was, at least in that aspect, ideal from my point. Although we spent a considerable amount of our time in bed together we rarely shared the same bed for more than a few nights in a row and although we did talk briefly about moving into the same house I think that we both felt that separate houses had many advantages. Frankly the idea of sharing a house with someone, of having little or no opportunity to have more than a few minutes on my own in any one day, closely approximates my vision of Hell. As Sartre rightly said – in a slightly different context – Hell is other people. If it wasn’t for my time alone, even during evenings and weekends, I’m confident that I’d go completely mad.

I have actually never been the most sociable of people. I have seen friends walk into a room full of strangers and walk out with lifetime friends. I have never made friends that easily and it still astounds me that I make many at all – but I do. It may seem on the face of it that I might be avoiding people because I have poor social skills. This is not the case. I freely admit that I am not the most empathic kid on the block but I have spent a great deal of time and effort studying my fellow humans in order to be more social acceptable. To an extent this has worked but I still feel a species of stage-fright whenever I meet someone new and I am rarely relaxed with people even in the company of those I have known for years. I am almost constantly self-conscious in my interactions with others. Of course I am assuming that for most people interacting with others comes easily. From the outside that’s certainly how it appears. I have no idea how much effort other people are putting in to their day-to-day relationships. Maybe, like me, they are regularly ‘winging it’ and are not really sure from moment to moment what they’re actually doing and hoping that no one else will notice the effort involved. Maybe everyone feels like this?

However, I’m not booking myself into a retreat just yet (though the thought does interest me) and I’m unlikely to become a hermit any time some – at least not any more than I am already. I shall continue to leave my safe heaven and venture out into the uncertain world of human interaction. I may not always like it, I may not always be good at it but I shall continue making the effort and will try to keep my hermitic tendencies in check whilst recognising them as an important part of who I am.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

War Crimes Fears Force Israelis to Cancel UK Trip

by Amy Teibel for the Associated Press

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

JERUSALEM - A group of Israeli military officers called off an official visit to Britain last week, fearing they could face possible arrest on war crimes charges, officials said Tuesday. The four unidentified officers, holding ranks from major to colonel, are the latest in a string of Israeli politicians and military officials to be forced to call off travel to Britain because of fear of legal prosecution. Britain is one of the European pioneers of universal jurisdiction, a broad legal concept that empowers judges to issue arrest warrants for nearly any visitor accused of committing war crimes anywhere in the world. Pro-Palestinian activists have sought to use this concept to press charges against Israelis involved in military operations in Palestinian territories, particularly since last year's Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. British officials have vowed to change the law, which has severely strained relations with Israel.

The Israeli delegation had been invited to visit by the British army. But officials said they were forced to call off the trip after their British counterparts could not guarantee that they would not be arrested. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter has become a sore point in relations with Britain. Neither the Israeli military nor the British government would comment. Tuesday's announcement came as Britain's attorney general, Patricia Janet Scotland, was in Israel on a private visit. Scotland was scheduled to deliver a lecture at an Israeli university later Tuesday, though it was not clear if she would address the war crimes issue. The British government has pledged to reform its war crimes law so its judges could no longer issue secret arrest warrants against Israeli officials or military officers. But no change has yet been put into effect. Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, raised the issue in a meeting with Scotland on Tuesday. In a statement released after the meeting, Ayalon said he made it clear that the situation is "intolerable," and said "this makes normal relations between the two countries difficult."

Last month, pro-Palestinian activists persuaded a London judge to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, who was foreign minister during the war in Gaza last year. The warrant was withdrawn after Livni canceled her trip, but the matter badly strained relations between Britain and Israel. More than 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed in the three-week offensive, which was launched to quash years of rocket attacks on southern Israel. Thirteen Israelis were also killed. A U.N. investigation has accused both Israel and Hamas militants of committing war crimes during the fighting. The threat of arrest has forced several former security officials to call off trips to London, including a former general who remained holed up on an airplane at Heathrow Airport in order to avoid arrest. Last fall, Defense Minister Ehud Barak fended off an arrest attempt by successfully arguing he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. In Britain, pro-Palestinian groups have condemned moves to reform the law. "We believe no attempt should be made (to change the law)," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. "There's no reason why Israel should be singled out for special treatment. If they're accused of war crimes, we have a duty - and legislation - to prosecute."

[Israeli military officers arrested for war crimes? Never… going… to … happen.]