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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Toxic Legacy of US Assault on Fallujah 'Worse Than Hiroshima'

by Patrick Cockburn for The Independent

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study. Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents.

Their claims have been supported by a survey showing a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s. Infant mortality in the city is more than four times higher than in neighbouring Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait. Dr Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster and one of the authors of the survey of 4,800 individuals in Fallujah, said it is difficult to pin down the exact cause of the cancers and birth defects. He added that "to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened". US Marines first besieged and bombarded Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, in April 2004 after four employees of the American security company Blackwater were killed and their bodies burned. After an eight-month stand-off, the Marines stormed the city in November using artillery and aerial bombing against rebel positions. US forces later admitted that they had employed white phosphorus as well as other munitions. In the assault US commanders largely treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone to try to reduce casualties among their own troops. British officers were appalled by the lack of concern for civilian casualties. "During preparatory operations in the November 2004 Fallujah clearance operation, on one night over 40 155mm artillery rounds were fired into a small sector of the city," recalled Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British commander serving with the American forces in Baghdad. He added that the US commander who ordered this devastating use of firepower did not consider it significant enough to mention it in his daily report to the US general in command. Dr Busby says that while he cannot identify the type of armaments used by the Marines, the extent of genetic damage suffered by inhabitants suggests the use of uranium in some form. He said: "My guess is that they used a new weapon against buildings to break through walls and kill those inside."

The survey was carried out by a team of 11 researchers in January and February this year who visited 711 houses in Fallujah. A questionnaire was filled in by householders giving details of cancers, birth outcomes and infant mortality. Hitherto the Iraqi government has been loath to respond to complaints from civilians about damage to their health during military operations. Researchers were initially regarded with some suspicion by locals, particularly after a Baghdad television station broadcast a report saying a survey was being carried out by terrorists and anybody conducting it or answering questions would be arrested. Those organising the survey subsequently arranged to be accompanied by a person of standing in the community to allay suspicions. The study, entitled "Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009", is by Dr Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi, and concludes that anecdotal evidence of a sharp rise in cancer and congenital birth defects is correct. Infant mortality was found to be 80 per 1,000 births compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 9.7 in Kuwait. The report says that the types of cancer are "similar to that in the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionising radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout".

Researchers found a 38-fold increase in leukaemia, a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults. At Hiroshima survivors showed a 17-fold increase in leukaemia, but in Fallujah Dr Busby says what is striking is not only the greater prevalence of cancer but the speed with which it was affecting people. Of particular significance was the finding that the sex ratio between newborn boys and girls had changed. In a normal population this is 1,050 boys born to 1,000 girls, but for those born from 2005 there was an 18 per cent drop in male births, so the ratio was 850 males to 1,000 females. The sex-ratio is an indicator of genetic damage that affects boys more than girls. A similar change in the sex-ratio was discovered after Hiroshima.

The US cut back on its use of firepower in Iraq from 2007 because of the anger it provoked among civilians. But at the same time there has been a decline in healthcare and sanitary conditions in Iraq since 2003. The impact of war on civilians was more severe in Fallujah than anywhere else in Iraq because the city continued to be blockaded and cut off from the rest of the country long after 2004. War damage was only slowly repaired and people from the city were frightened to go to hospitals in Baghdad because of military checkpoints on the road into the capital.

[It appears that our legacy of the ‘war’ in Iraq will still be there long after we eventually leave. No doubt something similar will occur in Afghanistan too. If wars are fought this way through necessity maybe we should start thinking of not having any more of them. War is a terrible way to decide the fate of nations and the lives (or deaths) of their populations. Surely it is not beyond us to find a better way to run our affairs than this?]

Friday, July 30, 2010

Proof Positive (at last) that Dinosaurs and Humans co-existed..... Just not for long!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Just Finished Reading: In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove

In a world where Germany and her Allies have won both the Second and Third World Wars it’s difficult to be in a minority. It’s dangerous in the extreme, however, to be a hidden Jew - especially when you’re living in the heart of the Reich and working for the Wehrmacht. Such is the secret life of Heinrich Gimpel who, along with a few close friends, attempt to keep the Jewish faith alive for at least one more generation. But when the Fuhrer dies and is replaced by a much younger man, an existence based on fear becomes one based on hope which is possibly the most dangerous thing of all – especially when a single slip can condemn everyone you love to instant death.

It’s good to be back reading SF again – even SF by Harry Turtledove. Sometimes I do wonder why I read him. He has several very annoying habits, all of which are exhibited in this chunky stand-alone volume. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe he thinks that his audience are slow witted or simply have poor memory skills, but he repeats information endlessly. OK, it’s often important information but he really doesn’t need to keep mentioning it as often as he does – like 10 or 15 times (at least). For example, he mentions repeatedly (sometimes several times on a single page) that the Jewish characters in the book need to hide their real identities from the authorities and that a single mistake could kill whole families. Yup, important bit of information. Gotcha. You may, at some point or even at several points want to drive that point home. But to then mention it around every Jewish character…. 10 or 15 times (at least)? That is just plain annoying. Turtledove also has a habit of padding his stories with trivia. If I had to read through 5 pages of one bridge game I had to read through four or five of them (which I ended up skimming through). Dull, dull, dull.

So about the first two-thirds of this book was slow reading indeed. It only got really interesting when the new Fuhrer started changing things. The author very clearly modelled this process on the concepts of Glasnost and Perestroika in the ex-Soviet Union. So much so that some of the characters where actually clearly avatars of Mikail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The resulting revolution in German politics and the attempted counter revolution by reactionary forces was actually well written and honestly gripping. Yet this final third of the book couldn’t save it from being a basically dull read. It Turtledove could curb his repetitions and cut out a lot of the padding he’d be a much better author. As it is I struggle to justify to myself why I read him at all. I doubt if I’ll be buying any more of his. Life is too short to sift through 500 page books looking for the good bits.

Monday, July 26, 2010

In the Beginning:

“Close to noon, the Father Sun baked pungencies out of turf and turned the forest that walled the northern horizon into a wind-whispery surf of leaves and shadow. Closer by, a field of hsakh stood golden. Kdatlyno slaves were hand-cultivating it in the ancient way, growing fibre that would be handwoven into cloaks for the mighty to wear at Midwinter Bloodfest and then burn. Scattered elsewhere were the dwellings of Heroes attendant upon his household. Though stately enough, they were dwalfed by the manor looming ahead of Ghrul-Captain.”

From: Pele by Poul Anderson in Man-Kzin Wars IX created by Larry Niven
My Favourite Movies: High Fidelity

In this smart comedy about romance – rather then a romantic comedy - Rob Gordon (played by the brilliant John Cusack) is unceremoniously dumped by his long term girlfriend (played by newcomer Iben Hjejle) causing his world to fall apart. He begins to examine where everything went wrong in the only obsessive way he knows how – by making Top 10 lists. Rob is a music geek who runs a specialist record store off the beaten track. Along with two other music snobs – played by Jack Black and Todd Louiso he intends to drift through his life apparently untouched by the real world around him. The wake-up call of Laura’s departure changes all that. Rather than go on a drinking binge, Rob decides to go on a relationship binge by calling up ex-girlfriends to find out what’s wrong with him. Meanwhile, Laura slowly moves out of their shared apartment…….

Not only was this a very funny film – often despite Jack Black’s over-the-top antics – it was also a very clever one. Not only did the fact that Cusack talked directly to the camera continually crack me up, he also managed to get across thoughts that I couldn’t help but nod along with. When done well, as in this movie, such a device is a delight to watch and Cusack is obviously at ease with it. The whole relationship angle was very well directed though, despite reading the book by Nick Hornby some years after seeing the film, I can’t remember if it’s because of the movie director or the original author. Either way it’s obviously material from someone who’s been there and been dumped by that.

Despite being well able to carry a scene on his own Cusack was ably assisted by Lisa Bonet, Tim Robbins (as Rob’s love rival), Catherine Zeta-Jones (as an ex-girlfriend) and his sister Joan (who plays Laura’s best friend). Although the movie clearly revolves around him as the central character and focus of the movie it is his interactions, funny, bitter sweet, or angry, with the other players that brings everything else alive. This is a thoughtful, mature, messy film that reflects and comments upon the lives and people we all know because we’ve all been there. I guess I identified with Cusack’s character to a significant extent. At times his dialogue could just as easily have been directly lifted from episodes in my own life – and no doubt millions of others. A high fidelity film in more ways than one.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

In The Beginning:

“Some years ago, after writing a book, The Celtic World, I received a letter from an American. He was, he said, an alcoholic and it had worried him but having read of the Celtic love of wine – a story told by the Classical writer Athenaeus of the Gauls – he was much reassured. His grandparents had been Celts from Scotland and his behaviour was thus explained: it was part of his Celticness and he would henceforth be proud of it. Many reading this might find it an innocuous story, and might indeed gain some reassurance for their own occasional overindulgences, but others might become apoplectic seeing in it yet further evidence of the insidious Celtic myth perpetuated by popular books. One academic member of this camp has even gone so far as to suggest that some authors deliberately use the word ‘Celtic’ in book titles to boost sales."

From: The Celts – A Very Short Introduction by Barry Cunliffe
Stephen Hawking Warns Over Making Contact with Aliens

by Jonathan Leake for The Sunday Times

Sunday, April 25, 2010

THE aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist - but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact. The suggestions come in a new documentary series in which Hawking, one of the world's leading scientists, will set out his latest thinking on some of the universe's greatest mysteries. Alien life, he will suggest, is almost certain to exist in many other parts of the universe: not just in planets, but perhaps in the center of stars or even floating in interplanetary space.

Hawking's logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved. "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," he said. "The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like." The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals - the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history. One scene in his documentary for the Discovery Channel shows herds of two-legged herbivores browsing on an alien cliff-face where they are picked off by flying, yellow lizard-like predators. Another shows glowing fluorescent aquatic animals forming vast shoals in the oceans thought to underlie the thick ice coating Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity. He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach." He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is "a little too risky". He said: "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."

The completion of the documentary marks a triumph for Hawking, now 68, who is paralyzed by motor neurone disease and has very limited powers of communication. The project took him and his producers three years, during which he insisted on rewriting large chunks of the script and checking the filming. John Smithson, executive producer for Discovery, said: "He wanted to make a program that was entertaining for a general audience as well as scientific and that's a tough job, given the complexity of the ideas involved." Hawking has suggested the possibility of alien life before but his views have been clarified by a series of scientific breakthroughs, such as the discovery, since 1995, of more than 450 planets orbiting distant stars, showing that planets are a common phenomenon. So far, all the new planets found have been far larger than Earth, but only because the telescopes used to detect them are not sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized bodies at such distances. Another breakthrough is the discovery that life on Earth has proven able to colonize its most extreme environments. If life can survive and evolve there, scientists reason, then perhaps nowhere is out of bounds. Hawking's belief in aliens places him in good scientific company. In his recent Wonders of the Solar System BBC series, Professor Brian Cox backed the idea, too, suggesting Mars, Europa and Titan, a moon of Saturn, as likely places to look. Similarly, Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, warned in a lecture earlier this year that aliens might prove to be beyond human understanding. "I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can't conceive," he said. "Just as a chimpanzee can't understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains."

[I think that the odds against the non-existence of alien life anywhere else in this Galaxy – never mind the entire Universe – is mind-staggeringly huge. With so much time and so many potential places to evolve it’s pretty certain that we are not alone in the Universe. Whether or not intelligence is rare is a whole other question. Although intelligence seems to be a winning evolutionary strategy it’s also a very dangerous bargain – as we clearly see with the only intelligent species we are aware of – us. However, maybe not all intelligence is the same. It’s difficult, to say the least, to extrapolate from a single example but I think that the odds in favour of intelligent life ‘out there’ are good. Not every species will end up killing itself off (even if we do). Some at least will grow, prosper and leave their home worlds making them much more difficult to kill off. Numbers wise its impossible to guess how many intelligent species we share this Galaxy with. The odds of actually meeting one – given the light-speed restrictions are pretty slim though. The possibility of them arriving in orbit in order to asset strip the planet is a little far fetched I think. But if they did at least we’d have our proof that we’re not alone!]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Indian Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Despite having a general (and genuine) interest in this area as well as reading several books on Buddhism over the past year or so, I honestly struggled with this small volume. Part of the issue was that it attempted to cover a very wide area of study in a mere 139 pages. Another issue was probably that I found the writing quite dry and overly academic. I also found myself becoming confused by the number of unfamiliar terms and unknown authors presented throughout the book. Despite all of this I did come away from reading it with a somewhat better understanding of the history of Indian Philosophy and an appreciation of how it all hangs together. I expect, or at least hope, that this will help me to put further future planned readings – again largely in the area of Buddhism – into some kind of coherent context. I think that this book was on reflection aimed too high for the general reader coming to this subject (as I did) with little background knowledge or preparation. There was a lot to take in and little space to cover all the necessary bases. Not my favourite VSI book to date.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thinking About: Food

It is often said, with a great deal of evidence, that we in the West have a problematic relationship with the food we eat. This is clearly seen both in the obesity ‘epidemic’ and in stark contrast the numbers of women (and increasingly men) who are virtually starving themselves to death seemingly in the hope of looking good or dying trying. Whilst I am in neither of these opposing groups I am not completely immune from having food ‘issues’.

I am, for one thing, in the rather odd position of being a vegetarian who is not a fan of either fruit or vegetables. You can see from the outset that this is going to cause me problems. Needless to say, the idea of a ‘balanced diet’ is somewhat alien to me. Actually I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t take the variety (and amount) of vitamins I do that I’d probably be suffering from various probably nasty deficiencies. I am also, on top of this, a rather faddish eater. Once I find something I like, be it food or drink, I will then eat or drink it repeatedly for months or even years at a time. Equally strangely I can stop eating or drinking this particular item if something ‘disturbs’ me about it – like getting a bad example of it (maybe it’d gone off before its use-by date or something). Two elements of my personality are at war where my eating habits are concerned. One side wants to try out new things whilst the other knows exactly what it likes and is quite happy, thank you very much, eating or drinking the same kind of thing since childhood. One way I do get introduced to new edible things is eating at friends houses. Inevitably they will have something on the menu that I haven’t had before. To be polite I’ll give it a go – not meat products of course – and sometimes I’ll adopt things into my own diet in future.

I’m definitely eating too much at the moment. In the summer months I usually eat less than normal because of the heat. Heat puts me off eating lots of things. However, I’m making an exception these days because I’m clearly comfort eating. Not that it’s bringing me a great deal of comfort. But such is the way of things. Despite being more active than I have been for a while – my job means I’m often away from my desk for a good part of the day – I’m still slowly gaining weight. I’m not happy with it but it seems that I’m less than fully motivated to do anything about it. I tried the gym for a while many years ago but found it incredibly boring. Physical activity has never really been my thing. It’s one of those things that I never really understood (like Religion, Jazz and Women). So, inevitably the pounds creep on and stay on. I am, I’m afraid to say, developing a noticeable middle-age spread. What I need to do is simply cut back on my snacks. Most of what I eat/drink tends to be diet this or low-fat that. Not my snacks however. Sometimes I like just to have them in the house so that I know I can have one whenever I really want one. Then, of course, I get peckish and before you know it the whole packet has gone. I need to develop the will-power to simply stop eating like that. It is, I think becoming more of a habit. I’ll be eating all three courses of a meal next. That’ll be it – the point of no return. For most of my adult life I’ve been a thinny and I really don’t want to be a fatty as I get older. But it’s a slippery slope. Maybe I can find something else to replace my comfort eating….. I’m going to have to give that some thought and put the biscuits back in the fridge.
In The Beginning:

“My good sir, I wonder if I might venture to offer you some help? Otherwise, I’m afraid you may not be able to make yourself understood by the worthy gorilla who presides over the comings and goings of this establishment: he only speaks Dutch. Unless you allow me to plead your case, he won’t guess that you want some gin. There: I dare to hope that he has got the message. That nod of the head should mean that my argument has won his ear. He’s off, look: making haste slowly, the clever chap. You’re lucky: he didn’t complain. When he refuses to serve you, he just grunts. No one argues with that. It’s the privilege of these big beasts to be moody when they like. I’m off, Monsieur, and glad to have been of service. Thank you; I’d accept if I were sure that I should not be imposing on you. You’re too kind. I’ll put my glass here, then, at your table.”

From: The Fall by Albert Camus.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Death By Drone: CIA's Hitlist is Murder

by William Fisher for the Inter Press Service

NEW YORK - As the Barack Obama administration continues to roll out justifications for its policy of targeting U.S. citizens and others thought to be attacking U.S. troops, legal and national security experts are pondering a central question: What if there's a mistake and the wrong person gets killed? There are no do-overs. It is a death sentence. That, in fact, has already happened. A Reuters cameraman was killed by a U.S. drone strike when the operator mistook his camera's long-range lens for a rocket-propelled grenade. Nevertheless, a top Obama counter-terrorism official is defending the government's right to target U.S. citizens perceived as terror threats for capture or killing, citing the example of the renegade al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al- Awlaki. Al-Awlaki, 39, was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is an Islamic lecturer who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Yemen. He is a spiritual leader and former imam who has purportedly inspired Islamic terrorists. His sermons are said to have been attended by three of the 9/11 hijackers. Michael Leiter, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, does not say whether al-Awlaki is on a U.S. target list, but a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official has previously confirmed that the cleric is among terror targets sought to be captured or killed.

What does the law say about targeting and killing people? Much of the discussion thus far has been about the constitutionality of such killings. But, counter- intuitively, the constitution is not the primary engine. It is largely the laws of war that are in play here. Except for those who do not believe the U.S. is at war. Among these is Marjorie Cohn, immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild, who tells IPS: "Targeted or political assassinations - sometimes called extrajudicial executions - are carried out by order of, or with the acquiescence of, a government, outside any judicial framework." She cited a 1998 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur that noted, "extrajudicial executions can never be justified under any circumstances, not even in time of war. Wilful killing is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, punishable as a war crime under the U.S. War Crimes Act." And "This is not a war," she adds.

On the issue of killing citizens vs. non-citizens, Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First (HRF), explains to IPS, "Whether the target is a citizen isn't so important, because he's targetable if he's an enemy belligerent or civilian who's directly participating in hostilities against the United States." She adds, "The problem with the government's drone program is that it hasn't provided the public with enough information to determine whether the government is complying with those legal requirements. The fact that someone is suspected of having ties to al Qaeda or even supporting al Qaeda does not make them a member of a foreign force fighting the United States, or someone directly participating in hostilities against the United States." "Until the U.S. starts providing information about not only who they're targeting but what evidence exists that this person is a legitimate target, then we can't know if what they're doing is legal," she says. Prof. Peter Shane of Ohio State University law school agrees. He tells IPS, "So long as the executive branch engages in reasonable processes to distinguish persons who are combatants from those who are not, I do not think that the use of force against them is ...unconstitutional. Whether any specific targeted killing is or is not a good idea, of course, is a completely different question," he says.

Scott Horton, a constitutional lawyer and contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, tells IPS, "There are two ways the government can justify the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen: one is when the person is in the act of a crime that threatens the lives of others, or serious injury to them, and no other means exists to stop him. The other is in the context of a war. The Obama administration appears to think that the second case is applicable with respect to Al-Awlaki, but if they have evidence to prove it, they certainly haven't advanced it to the public," he says. And even if they have such evidence, he adds, "They haven't explained why they don't simply have him arrested and brought back to stand charges based on the crimes they believe he has committed, which appear to include terrorist activities and perhaps treason. They obviously need to explain why that approach won't work before they go dropping bombs in circumstances that might kill large numbers of innocent civilians in addition to killing Al-Awlaki," Horton said. Col. Morris Davis, the Defense Department's former chief prosecutor for terrorism cases who argued on behalf of a terrorism suspect that the military justice system has been corrupted by politics and inappropriate influence from senior Pentagon officials, tells IPS: "The fifth amendment says U.S. citizens can't be 'deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.' If the constitution prohibits the government from taking your house without giving you a hearing and the opportunity to defend yourself, it seems rather ironic that they might take your life with even less formality and less process."

Prof. Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois shares serious reservations about how the government is conducting its targeting program. He tells IPS, "What is being proposed here with respect to al-Awlaki and other United States citizens on the CIA's now publicly admitted 'hit list' is murder, assassination, extrajudicial execution, a grave violation of their right to life and human rights law, and of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Glenn Greenwald, constitutional lawyer and contributor to Salon.com, is similarly troubled by the targeting policy. He asks: "Could the individuals who trust the U.S government to essentially convict people of terrorism and impose a death penalty through imperial decree - i.e., without any trials or judicial review, and based solely on the unchecked say-so of the Executive Branch - please identify themselves, and particularly explain the basis for that trust in light of this disgraceful and error-plagued record?" Greenwald concludes: "We really are talking about a president who believes he has the right to send the CIA to murder American citizens based purely on allegations and suspicions of wrongdoing."

Bruce Fein, a conservative legal expert who served in the Justice Department during the Ronald Reagan administration, proffers another idea. He tells IPS, "Congress should enact a companion law to FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.) The president should be required to obtain a judicial warrant based on probable cause to believe the suspected American is currently actively involved in seeking to kill United States citizens. The warrant should authorize capture of the American suspect for trial in the U.S., or, a targeted killing if capture is infeasible or would raise a grave risk of death or serious bodily injury to the U.S. authorities pursuing the capture," he says.

[What a wonderful world we are creating – where we can smite our enemies wherever they are in the world at the touch of a button. What could our enemies possibly do in response to that sort of power….? I’m sure that they are all so shocked and awed by it all they hardly know what to do……. Yeah, right.]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Only in Japan......
Just Finished Reading: Magic Street by Orson Scott Card

When an abandoned infant is discovered in a plastic bag near a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles he is adopted by the whole community. But from the very start of his life people who come into contact with him realise that he is unusual. Some people feel an almost uncontrollable urge to do him harm whilst others go out of their way to protect and nurture him. As Mack Street, as he’s named, grows up he wonders who his parents are and why they abandoned him. He also starts having ‘cold’ dreams that seem to come true in twisted evil ways. As he approaches puberty Mack begins to notice things that pass most people by. But it’s only when he discovers a doorway into another realm that he begins to understand both who and what he is – and the danger he represents to everyone he knows.

This is a delightful book full of interesting characters only some of which are human (despite outward appearances). The dialogue between them is often snappy and has a realistic feel. The storyline, whilst rather far fetched – this is fantasy after all – has an nicely dark edge to it and in places is moderately scary (or at least creepy). Card has created a very believable ‘real’ world underpinned by a fantasy realm that is interestingly different and suitably strange. The main character Mack is fully formed, full of doubts and natural hero material. The supporting cast are far from disposable (except for some very minor characters) and their reactions to what is going on around them feel real enough. This is a solid adult oriented urban fantasy with a difference and with some bite to it. It is also a good way to end my batch of fantasy novels that I’ve been working through over the past few months. Now back to Science Fiction!

Monday, July 12, 2010

20 Things that make my Atheist Life worth living.

I was on a Blog recently where they were discussing the Meaning of Life mainly from a theistic point of view. One of the commenter’s (who I think I’ve crossed swords with before) said that Atheists had no reason to live – and should reasonably commit suicide on the spot – because they did not believe in God who is the source of all meaning. Without God, therefore, there is no possible meaning to life hence the tempting long walk off a short pier. I, of course, replied that this position was abject nonsense. To which he issued me what he undoubtedly considered to be a challenge – presumably one he didn’t think I could answer. His challenge was to produce something that made my life worth living. So I posted back a single word: Brunettes.

What I’d like to do is to expand that a bit here and list 20 things I consider it worth living for.

Ice cream
Computer Games
Discoveries and the expansion of human knowledge
All of the possibilities encapsulated in the word Tomorrow
The ever changing world around us
New Technology
The Natural world
The Internet

…….. and Brunettes.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In The Beginning

“Almost three centuries have passed since a curious rash of hysterical vampire epidemics at the fringes of the Habsburg Empire first brought this type of oral folklore from the mysterious Balkans and the Transylvanian region into Western consciousness. Although there had previously been no precisely equivalent folklore about the ambulatory dead in the Roman Catholic and Protestant countries of Western Europe, the Inquisition’s prosecutions of people denounced as witches were still fresh in the public memory. In fact it was the possible recrudescence of such intolerable social injustice that prompted Empress Maria Theresa to send a noted scientist to a Slavic region on the north-eastern frontier to learn what these epidemics were all about and then to advise her on how to prevent a new round of witch hunts from emerging.”

From: Slayers and their Vampires – A Cultural History of Killing the Dead by Bruce A McClelland
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Giant ice flows bolster case for volcanoes on Titan

by David Shiga for New Scientist

28 March 2009

SLUSHY water from a hidden ocean may be pooling onto the icy surface of Saturn's moon Titan. Titan's exterior, where the temperature is around -180 °C, is thought to be mostly water-ice, but it may be a different story deep down. Variations in the moon's rate of rotation suggest an ocean could lurk below. An area of Titan called Hotei Arcus appears to fluctuate in brightness on timescales of several months, and in 2005 Robert Nelson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and colleagues, suggested this might be the result of "cryovolcanic" eruptions of water from below. Others argued that the flickers were caused by the moon's hazy atmosphere.

The cryovolcanism idea was bolstered in 2008, when observations of Hotei Arcus by a radar instrument aboard NASA's Cassini probe revealed structures that resembled lava flows. Some opponents of the idea still argued these might be deposits of sediment, carried by a flow of methane in the past. Now radar images from Cassini have allowed scientists led by Randolph Kirk of the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, to create a 3D view of the area, which he presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on 24 March. It turns out that the sinuous structures tower 200 metres above their surroundings. They say that this is consistent with the structures having formed when slushy water and ammonia squirted onto the surface and froze - but that they could not have been produced by a flood of liquid methane depositing sediment. The structures may have formed when slushy water and ammonia squirted onto the surface and froze

If slush volcanoes have been erupting recently, Titan would join a select group of solar system objects - Earth and Io - known to be volcanic at present. The idea of any life surviving in the erupted water is "pretty much out of the question", Kirk says, as it would freeze. As for the ocean below: "Who knows?" he says. "It's conceivable life could be going on down there." Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, says it's still not obvious that the structures flowed. "We haven't seen any unambiguous evidence [of volcanism] yet."

[Titan appears to be a good candidate for extraterrestrial life. It seems that the more we discover about this odd little moon the more likely it seems that life may have evolved their independently. I would really like it to be that case that Titan and other locations in our Solar System evolved life on their own. It would strongly indicate that the rest of the Galaxy would be teeming with life. I have a feeling that Earth is far from unique and that it is only our ignorance of other worlds and other star systems that makes us see our home world as particularly special. I look forward to confirmation of life on other worlds. Maybe such a finding will give us the much needed motivation to get some boots on alien ground.]

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Cathars – The most successful Heresy of the Middle Ages by Sean Martin

Early in the 13th Century the Catholic Church had finally had enough. On 22nd July 1209 forces loyal to the Vatican surrounded the French town of Beziers and demanded that they hand over 222 Cathar believers or face the consequences. They said no. In the ensuing bloodbath between 10,000 and 20,000 men women and children in the town were massacred all in the name of eliminating a growing heresy in the very heart of Christendom. The Cathars believed that the world had not been created by God but be an equal and opposite evil force and that the only way to escape from it was a life of poverty and contemplation. They considered the Catholic Church the very spawn of Satan and opposed it at every turn. The corrupt church which was hated throughout Europe, had been shocked to discover that not only had this particular heresy existed under their noses for decades but that it was spreading at an alarming rate. When circumstances allowed – crusades against Islam permitting – they fully intended to crush it and, in the century that followed they did just that. The Crusades against Catharism (and other heretical sects that cropped up during this period) do not exactly reflect well on the Catholic Church at that time. More than anything else they saw such groups as a direct threat to their hegemony on the Truth. In a time of political and religious turmoil this could not be allowed to stand. The ferocity of the response shocked even contemporary chroniclers and are certainly shocking looking back with more tolerant eyes.

I took two lessons from the story of the Cathars. First, that no organisation driven by a dogmatic ideology should ever again be given the political (and hence military) power to impose its will on the general population. If such a state of affairs was frightening enough 800 years ago it is truly terrifying today. Second, that things could have been very different. It was not a foregone conclusion that the Catholic Church would arise victorious from this conflict. There were times when things could have gone against them. It is entirely conceivable that the schism that later split the Church into Catholic and Protestant could have, in the 13th Century, split it into Cathar and Catholic. If that was the case it is conceivable that Catholicism could have entered a long phase of retreat and withdrawal leaving Catharism in the ascendant. Those who now strongly profess the Protestant faith would then, just as loudly, be professing the Cathar faith. Ideology of all shades is, by its very nature, dependent on historical accident. Things could always have been different, yet adherents would still have honestly believed that they had access to universal and irrefutable truths. Truth claims not backed by empirical evidence are inherently suspect and should be treated with the greatest scepticism. Their beliefs are based on historical events and are guided by historical figures that could have acted differently. This means that any claims that they have been given or have discovered THE answer are deeply flawed. If history could be run again then things might well have been rather different yet they would still profess that the new ‘truth’ is still THE truth. The Cathars are indeed a lesson from history, a lesson in the evils of dogma and ideology as well as the status of unsupported truth claims. They are valuable lessons to be learned by anyone.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Thinking About: Sleep

My bed is probably one of my favourite places to be. I feel at home there and look forward to sleeping in my own bed whenever I’m away for too long. Buying my present double bed and orthopaedic mattress turned out to be one of my better decisions – prompted as it was by my then girlfriend’s criticism of my futon (which I loved for different reasons).

Getting my sleep is very important to me. I do not function at all well if I don’t get my sleep and believe that it would be a fair defence in any future murder trial that the deceased had stopped me from sleeping enough. That’s something I’m not doing at the moment – sleeping enough. I’m tired pretty much all of the time which isn’t doing me any good at all. It got so bad about 18 months ago that I was almost hallucinating. Being me I was actually fascinated by the whole thing. It was a time when about half of my project team left within a matter of weeks of each other. The show had to go on regardless so for about 3 months or so we had three people doing seven peoples jobs. You can imagine what that was like. All of the day-to-day ‘donkey’ work was being done by just two of us. It was relentless. Near the end, just before we got some new people who fortunately hit the ground running (I shudder to think what state we would have been in if we’d had have to train them as well), I remember being in the Mall on my way to having a pizza with the guys prior to seeing a film. I was feeling pretty punch drunk – missing too many lunches probably not helping my blood sugar levels – and I could actually feel parts of my brain shutting down to rest themselves as best they could. It was the weirdest feeling. I couldn’t help comparing it to whales and dolphins who do something similar so that they can ‘sleep’ and still keep from drowning. It must also be something similar to the experiences of combat troops who need to stay alert for extended periods of time and basically rest when they can. It’s certainly something that I don’t want to repeat.

I much prefer sleeping on my own. It took me the best part of three months to get used to sleeping with my girlfriend. One reason is that is, from the evidence of my covers in the morning, I tend to move around a lot in my sleep. With someone else there a small part of my consciousness is obviously ‘on guard’ so that I don’t push them out or sock them in the mouth with a flaying arm and this inevitably cuts down on the deep sleep we all need to function. I also like to stretch out and use far more of my ‘fair share’ of the mattress which I can only do on my own. I’m just too conscious with someone else there. If I was living with someone permanently I’d probably give serious thoughts to separate beds in separate rooms. I hear it’s the way for relationship bliss.

I have slept in the nude since I was about 10 years old and intend to continue doing so until I die. I can’t stand wearing clothes in bed. I quickly overheat and feel constrained if I’m wearing much of anything. If it gets really cold I might wear a T-shirt until the bed warms up sufficiently but then it’s whipped off and my own body heat can do its thing care of a decent duvet. One of the things I like about the summer is that, for three or four days of the year on average, it’s warm enough to sleep on top of the duvet. It has to be my idea of Heaven. Maybe it shows that I’m just in touch with my animal nature but I think of it as a real treat. Anyway, all this talk of beds is starting to make me feel sleepy. So goodnight everyone!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Picking our brains: Can we make a conscious machine?

by Celeste Biever for New Scientist

06 April 2010

CHALLENGES don't get much bigger than trying to create artificial consciousness. Some doubt if it can be done - or if it ever should. Bolder researchers are not put off, though. "We have to consider machine consciousness as a grand challenge, like putting a man on the moon," says Antonio Chella at the University of Palermo in Italy and editor of the International Journal of Machine Consciousness. The journal was launched last year, a sign of the field's growing momentum. Another landmark is the recently developed "Conscale", developed by Raúl Arrabales of the Carlos III University of Madrid in Spain to compare the intelligence of various software agents - and biological ones too.

Perhaps the closest a software bot has come so far is IDA, the Intelligent Distribution Agent built in 2003 by Stan Franklin at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. IDA assigns sailors in the US navy to new jobs when they finish a tour of duty and has to juggle naval policies, job requirements, changing costs and sailors' needs. Like people, IDA has "conscious" and "unconscious" levels of processing. At the unconscious level she deploys software agents to gather data and process information. These agents compete to enter IDA's "conscious" workspace, where they interact with each other and decisions get made. The updated Learning IDA, or LIDA, was completed this year. She learns from what reaches her consciousness and uses this to guide future decisions. LIDA also has the benefit of "emotions" - high-level goals that guide her decision-making. Another advance emerged from designing robots able to maintain their function after being damaged. In 2006, Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont in Burlington designed a walking robot with a continuously updated internal model of itself. If damaged, this self-knowledge allows it to devise an alternative gait using its remaining abilities. Having an internal "imagined" model of ourselves is considered a key part of human sentience, taking the robot closer to self-awareness.

Along with an internal model, the robot developed by Owen Holland's team at the University of Sussex, UK, is also anatomically human-like. "A robot with a body that is very close to a human's will develop cognition that is closer to the human variety," Owen claims. None of these approaches solve what many consider to be the "hard problem" of consciousness: subjective awareness. No one yet knows how to design the software for that. But as machines grow in sophistication, the hard problem may simply evaporate - either because awareness emerges spontaneously or because we will simply assume it has emerged without knowing for sure. After all, when it comes to other humans, we can only assume they have subjective awareness too. We have no way of proving we are not the only self-aware individual in a world of unaware "zombies". You cannot prove that you're not the only self-aware person in a world of unaware zombies. While we may never know for sure if a machine is experiencing consciousness or only appears to, building such a machine would revolutionise our understanding of the brain. "My real goal is to figure out how minds work," says Franklin. "You really don't know how something works until you can build it."

[I am not one of those people who believe that there is something unique or special about biological consciousness that cannot be replicated in a machine. If it can be done, and I can’t see why not, then it will be done – and along the way we might finally get a handle on our own consciousness. It’s a fascinating (and somewhat scary) idea - that we can create conscious beings like ourselves. It may feel like science-fiction today but I doubt that it will remain so for long.]

Friday, July 02, 2010

In The Beginning:

“Heinrich Gimpel glanced at the report on his desk to make sure how many Reichsmarks the United States was being assessed for the Wehrmacht bases by New York, Chicago, and St Louis. As he thought, the numbers were up from those of 2009. Well, the Americans might grumble, but they’d cough up what they owed – and in hard currency, too; none of their own inflated dollars. If they didn’t, the panzer divisions might rollout of those bases and take what was owed the Germanic Empire this year. And if they collected some blood along with their pound of flesh, the USA might complain, but it was hardly in a position to fight back.”

From: In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove

Lt David Westwynter, squad leader of a special forces unit in His Pharaonic Majesty’s Second Parachute Regiment, is on a mission for his Lord God Osiris. Unfortunately for him and his men the mission has plausible deniability. When they’re ambushed in the desert and captured by forces loyal to the God Horus, bombers are sent to erase all evidence of the covert insertion including the men under David’s command. As the only survivor, David makes his way across the border to neutral territory – Freegypt where, by agreement, no Gods rule. Captured again he falls into the hands of the Lightbringer, a charismatic leader of a revolutionary group dedicated to overthrowing the Gods themselves. With his military experience David is more than aware of the difficulties ahead for this rag-tag force of badly armed zealots. For how exactly do you fight the Gods and hope to survive?

I picked this book up on ‘spec thinking that it sounded like a reasonable knock-off of a rejected Stargate SG-1 script. Although there were a few similarities (including the use of ‘staff’ weapons) this was a mostly original idea. The background was an interesting one. It appeared that all of the Ancient Gods actually existed and, for millennia, had been fighting it out in the spiritual realm for domination. In this book/world the Egyptian Gods have successfully eliminated the competition and now rule the planet. Earth is divided into power blocks, not unlike our world, and a God (or husband/wife team) rule in their name and fight with the other Gods on a fairly permanent basis. I didn’t have a great deal of issue with the idea – which was rather interesting - but did find it difficult to grasp any great distinction between our world and the God filled one. I mean, these people knew beyond doubt that the Gods existed. Yet this fact seemed to have precious little impact on their lives. Whatever changes the author did show were minor ones – name changes, family cartouches, pyramidic architecture, that sort of trivial thing. I would have thought that there would have been a radical shift in the way people thought and lived their lives. One thing that did surprise me, and I thought immediately eliminated any great tension, was the apparent rapid decline in the numbers of both Christians and Muslims. I doubt very much if the faith of billions of people would collapse very soon even in the circumstances portrayed in this novel.

Overall the storyline was reasonable and actually had me completely misdirected for a while. It did however have rather clunky sections amongst the Gods that interrupted the flow of the narrative more than necessary to tell the story. The dialogue often sucked and was, from time to time, as bad as Star Wars – yes, that bad! The battles were reasonably handled and the Gods had introduced some fascinating armaments including an interesting variation on binary weapons which made me smile. Overall, despite its many problems this turned out to be an interesting idea reasonably well done. I doubt if I shall be seeking out the next two books in the series (The Age of Zeus and The Age of Odin) despite finding the first book rather entertaining at times. An interesting oddity that could have been much better.