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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Easter 1916 – The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend

I’m trying to deepen my knowledge of areas I’m at least partially aware of already rather than move into completely uncharted territory. As part of that knowledge creep I picked up this book recently to find out the details of the Easter uprising in Dublin during Easter 1916. I guess that part of my interest in this event is my Irish ancestry and the fact that my father was born 13 years after and a mere 26 miles south-east of the main event. I can guess that he must have grown up with stories of the Catholic heroes who held off the might of the British army. He certainly mentioned some of the people discussed in this book which was an interesting personal link to an historic event.

I had already been horrified, and incensed, but stories of British atrocities in Dublin during that fateful weekend. I knew about the use of artillery on the streets of central Dublin to clear out rebel strongholds (not unlike the Russian army in Berlin it seemed) and I knew about the fatal error of the British authorities who executed the rebel leaders after the uprising had failed. I remember my disbelief (and righteous anger) when I was told about one rebel who, after being injured in the retaking of the city, was executed after being tied to a chair as he was incapable of standing up to be shot. I can imagine how badly that was received in the Catholic communities at the time – never mind to my less than fully active ‘Catholic’ sensibilities almost a century later.

What I didn’t realise, though maybe I should have, was the level of Imperial oppression prior to the events of 1916. Basically England treated Ireland like a dominion territory – not unlike India. Unsurprisingly the Irish population resented it. When WW1 exploded onto the scene the British administration could not understand the Irish reluctance to join the fight to defend their oppressors. When, after several years of fighting in Europe, the idea of compulsorily conscription was brought up that alone nearly caused a rebellion. With the idea of Home Rule hanging in front of the nation like a carrot – only after the war of course – tensions within the Irish political scene produced a group of radical thinkers (later to become founding members of the IRA) who decided that only an uprising could force the issue. Unfortunately the rebels did not have the weapons, the knowledge or the experience to pull it off. What followed was a series of mistakes on the Irish side which made their positions untenable. But it was the actions on the British side that ironically made the rebellion a successful one. Because of their heavy handed response – both in putting down the immediate act of rebellion and in the subsequent executions – they turned what was basically a farce into an act of heroism that has informed Irish politics even since.

Despite a fairly complex narrative and a large cast of characters, the author managed to keep my attention (often riveted if truth be told) focused on the events of 1916. I did lose track of some of the names from time to time but, overall, managed to keep a grip on things. On one level this can be seen as the story of a romantically bungled uprising by people who had no business being revolutionaries. On another level it was the story of what happens when a powerful nation treats its weaker neighbour with distain. It is also the story of brave, if naïve, men and women who fought and died for freedom in a time of global conflict. Overshadowed by the war in Europe it is easy to forget or overlook the events in Ireland but that, I think, would be a mistake. The fallout of the events that occurred in Dublin in 1916 have echoed down the years and present day Ireland cannot be understood without reference to it. Recommended for those of Irish ancestry or for anyone interested in the history of revolt and revolution.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Favourite Movies: The Chronicles of Riddick

The first thing that strikes you about this film is how different it is from Pitch Black which introduced us to the anti-hero Riddick. Chronicles is much bigger that the original – not only in budget but in scope. Riddick has moved from being a criminal to being a mysterious alien called a Furian who is fated to kill the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers who are rampaging across the galaxy converting or killing everyone who gets in their way. Another change is the character of Jack who (was actually a girl) who is now Kyra who is most definitely a woman. Finally the action takes place on several worlds – some unnamed – particularly Helion Prime and the rather unforgettable prison planet Crematoria.

There is much to recommend this film. Vin Diesel is a great action character who is not only fun to watch but is able to deliver great one-liners. What would a hero be, after all, without a killer quip at the right moment? The SFX are very good as are the action scenes. Even after seeing it at least 4-5 times the battles still get my heart racing. The prison planet was interesting but the set-piece during the escape was very silly and almost ruined the whole film for me. Although very dramatic and nicely shot the whole lot of them would have been toast before they got to the hanger. Only holding on to my sense of disbelief with grim intensity got me through that bit. Then there was the wonderful Judy Dench as the Elemental. Dame Judy is undoubtedly a national treasure and has acted in just about every kind of movie you can imagine. Her range is fantastic. I love her to bits.

Of course one thing you should never do during this film is think too much about things. Once you do that things quickly unravel and you end up chasing your tail in search of logical plot development. However, this film is gloriously entertaining in a bigger than life kind of way. It’s a total popcorn movie which is one reason why I like it so much. Lots of things are left unexplained (probably because the writers had no idea how to explain them) which is fine with me. These people grew up in their particular universe so knew stuff that would need to be explained to outsiders – but of course (apart from the audience) there are no outsiders – and so no silly explanations! So, basically ignore the first film, put your brain into neutral and enjoy the ride.

You’re not afraid of the dark – are you?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

We must learn morality from each other, not God

By Mary Warnock in The Guardian

Sunday 5 September 2010

Thursday's headline in the Times, "Hawking: God did not create the Universe", reached new depths of absurdity. It provoked an immediate outbreak of hostilities between atheists and believers, raising again the question of the status of religion in an age of scientific advance that has been accelerating since the Enlightenment. Hawking appears to believe (and so far I can judge only from the extracts in the Times magazine, Eureka) that he has proved the nonexistence of God. But the trouble with his proof, as with so much religious discussion, is that he takes the name "God" to be used to refer to an object that exists (or does not exist) in the world as other natural objects exist. And most people who are religious believers fall into the same confusion. They assume that God the Creator is a being, albeit supernatural, to whom can be ascribed other praiseworthy attributes, who can be identified with God the Loving Father, or God the Founder of all Morality, who literally, at one and the same time laid down both natural laws and moral principles.

It would be as well if people could take time off from the battle to read Section XI of David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It isn't very long. But it contains the argument that even if we could infer from the nature of the world that God must have created it (a fashionable form of theology in the 18th century), this would be a useless inference, since we would have no grounds for ascribing any other characteristics to this creator. All the characteristics usually attributed to the deity – that he is morally perfect, that he loves his creatures, that his human creations are images of himself – all these are quite gratuitous additions to the inferred creative function. We would be landed with a God about whom nothing could be said except that he made the world. The antagonists in the present engagement might prefer to read Kant, who denied that God's existence could be either proved or disproved, but held that all our language about God must be metaphorical. To think otherwise, he wrote, would be grossly anthropomorphic. Whence could we get the idea of perfect goodness or infinite forgiveness except from our knowledge of human goodness and human forgiveness?

The great monotheistic religions are powerful works of the human imagination that have woven themselves deeply into our culture. To some people, their imagery still appeals most strongly; their narratives convey truths and insights not elsewhere available. To others, they no longer have any but historical significance. The mischief done to science and religion by the current battle lies in the belief that all truth must be literal truth. One thing is certain. Just as, if Hawking is right, we do not need the idea of God to teach us the origin of the universes around us, so we do not need the idea of God to teach us what is good and what is bad. We can learn this from society itself, not from tablets of stone handed down from Mount Sinai. Whatever the continuing role of religion today, in philanthropy, in education, in ceremonial, in music, in personal comfort and hope, there is no obligation to believe. We can value things without God to tell us what is valuable. We know, without faith, that love is better than war.

[Wise words….]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield

Greece - 1250 BC. At the edge of history, Theseus King of Athens leads an expedition into the fabled land of the ‘Free People’. Known to some as the Amazons they are regarded as amongst the most deadly of foes. Initially welcomed as fellow warriors the mood of women changes when their Queen elopes with the Greek King. As anger grows amongst the Amazonian tribes a leader emerges who promises them the end of the Athenian upstart nation and its experimental democratic system. Acquiring allies eager for booty and slaves, a massive army the like of which the known world has never seen before moves against the Greeks destroying everything in its path. Can Theseus and his citizen army stand against such a horde or will Athens fall and with it all hope of free men?

After reading several of the authors books – notably Gates of Fire – I was looking forward to a gripping historical read. I wasn’t exactly disappointed but found this particular book to be my least favourite of his so far. The narrative was interesting enough and the characters varied but I did find this a bit of a slog at times. It might be the fact that it was 500 pages long. Losing 100 pages out of this would not have affected the story but might have tightened things up a bit. The siege of Athens lasted for 7 months but I don’t think it should have felt like that. The fighting was intense but failed to grip me in the way his previous novels did. I couldn’t help thinking that his depiction of the Amazons themselves relied far too much on him channelling ideas of the Native Americans of the Plains. I suppose that this was understandable as the Amazons themselves are, as far as I know, myths rather than a real people so the author would have had very little to go on. Whilst hardly a great page turner this was, on the whole, still entertaining enough without being particularly memorable. I have several more of his books in ‘the Pile’ and this hasn’t put me off reading them. Maybe he was just having a bad few months. I do hope so.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Walking to the beat of a different drummer

I walk a lot. Not ever having owned or driven a car I don’t really have a lot of choice in the matter. Actually I like walking. You get to see a lot more of the world at walking pace. Recently I’ve started wearing my MP3 player again. Normally I only listen to my music at weekends or on my days off – like today. But lately, because of all the shit that’s going on at work and the complications in other parts of my life, I’ve felt the need to listen to music more often. So each morning as I leave the house I slip on my headphones and crank up the volume to one notch below ear-bleeding level and walk to my bus stop. Forty minutes (or so depending on traffic) later I stop the music just before I walk into my office, relaxed and ready for the day. Eight hours later, after solving problems and attempting to keep things on track, I reverse the process by listening to music loud enough to (almost) stop me thinking.

I seem to have hit upon a handful of CD’s that have the right tempo and the right sound to lift my sprits no matter what occurred during the day. I find myself walking in time with the music – striding even – and feeling better about myself and the world with every song. I’ve also replaced Snow Patrol as my present favourite band. My new favourite is a band called 30 Seconds to Mars, headed up by Jarred Leto (who you may remember played an aspiring rock musician in the teen angst series My So Called Life). Recently I ‘discovered’ that 30 Seconds is an Emo band. This caused quite a laugh at work when I announced that I was an Emo. I mean, I’m hardly a Lost Boy! I don’t even wear that much black….. After my brother introduced me to the band last year I bought their latest CD (This is War) which rocks. I then, inevitably, bought their previous two CDs which I have also grown to love. Added to this are two Paramore CDs – Riot! and their latest Brand New Eyes. I have fallen in love with Hayley Williams (pictured above) who has a voice to die for. Another band that my brother introduced me to was Flyleaf who also feature on the MP3 player. Apparently all of the members including the lead singer Lacey Mosley are apparently Christian but say that they are not strictly a Christian band. From their lyrics you really could have fooled me. Anyway, they rock. Finally there are two CDs one of the guys at work lent to me. Tsunami Bomb – who sound like a more punky version of the Go-Go’s – and Don’t Look Down, who I haven’t really made my mind up about yet.

One of the weird, and unplanned things, about the music is that it isn’t in CD order. I think that it might be alphabetical, which means that I get a nice mix and even after 4-5 weeks am still unsure exactly what’s coming next. I have my favourite tracks of course but I’m finding that I can listen to the 9 or so CDs over and over and over again without getting bored by them. At the moment I think that my rather dated MP3 player is doing its part in keeping me sane. I have found music that I love and I’m playing it to death right now. I shall have to let my brother know that he’s got very good taste.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Iraq inquiry: Ex-MI5 boss says war raised terror threat

20 July 2010

From the BBC

The invasion of Iraq "substantially" increased the terrorist threat to the UK, the former head of MI5 has said. Giving evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Baroness Manningham-Buller said the action "radicalised" a generation of young people, including UK citizens. As a result, she said she was not "surprised" that UK nationals were involved in the 7/7 bombings in London. She said she believed the intelligence on Iraq's threat was not "substantial enough" to justify the action. She said she had advised officials a year before the war that the threat posed by Iraq to the UK was "very limited" and believed that assessment "turned out to be the right judgement". Describing the intelligence on Iraq's weapons threat as "fragmentary", she said. "If you are going to go to war, you need to have a pretty high threshold to decide on that." The Chilcot inquiry is continuing to hear evidence about decisions taken in the build-up to the invasion and its aftermath. Baroness Manningham-Buller, head of the domestic intelligence service between 2002 and 2007, said the terrorist threat to the UK from al-Qaeda and other groups "pre-dated" the Iraq invasion and also the 9/11 attacks in the US.

However, she said the UK's participation in the March 2003 military action "undoubtedly increased" the level of terrorist threat. A year after the invasion, she said MI5 was "swamped" by leads about terrorist threats to the UK. "Our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalised a whole generation of young people, some of them British citizens who saw our involvement, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam," she said. The ex-MI5 chief said she shared her concerns that the Iraq invasion would increase the UK's exposure to terrorism with the then home secretary but did not "recall" discussing the matter with the prime minister. MI5 did not "foresee the degree to which British citizens would become involved" in terrorist activity after 2004, she admitted. "What Iraq did was produce fresh impetus on people prepared to engage in terrorism," she said. "If you want me to produce evidence, I can do that." As director general of the domestic security service, Baroness Manningham-Buller was part of the government Joint Intelligence Committee before the war, whose then chairman John Scarlett drew up the controversial dossier on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction in September 2002 - which stated they could be activated with 45 minutes of an order to do so.

Asked about the dossier, she said she had very limited involvement in it but it was clear, with hindsight, that there was an "over-reliance" on certain intelligence. She added: "We were asked to put in some low-grade, small intelligence into it and we refused because we did not think that it was reliable." She said MI5's responsibility was to collect and analyse intelligence and to "act on it where necessary" to mitigate terrorist threats but stressed it was not her job "to fill in gaps" in the intelligence. A year before the war, the former MI5 chief advised Home Office officials that the direct threat posed by Iraq to the UK was "very limited and containable". In a newly declassified document, published by the inquiry, Baroness Manningham-Buller told the senior civil servant at the Home Office in March 2002 that there was no evidence that Iraq had any involvement in the 9/11 attacks. While there were reports of links between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, there was no intelligence to suggest meaningful co-operation between the two. In that letter, she said the possibility that Iraq might use terrorist tactics in defending its own territory in the event of an invasion could not be ruled out. But she stressed Iraqi agents did not have "much capability" to carry out UK attacks, adding her view of this never changed.

[So much for invading Iraq making us safer…..]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Just Finished Reading: The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

I’m not entirely sure why I bought this. It certainly isn’t my normal sort of read. Maybe it was because the blub sounded interesting, or that I found the cover picture [The bronze sculpture Listening to History by Bill Woodrow] intriguing. Maybe I just felt the need to read outside of my normal comfort zone. In any case I had no real idea what I was letting myself in for.

The Captive Mind has several strands to it. It is part autobiography, part history and part socio-psychological analysis. The author, writing in Paris in 1950/51 after defecting from his native Poland – then under Soviet rule – tries in an almost defensive manner to understand why he felt the need to leave his homeland and choose a life of self-imposed exile. He is, in effect, attempting to come to terms with that life changing decision. On one level the whole book is his justification to himself of why he was writing in Paris and not Warsaw. To justify such an event he calls upon the mindset of those who have adapted, or have attempted to adapt, to life under a totalitarian Soviet style Communist regime. In a series of detailed case studies of men and women he knew well the author describes the hoops that each has had to jump through and the positions they bend their minds in to accommodate the new way of thinking. Those who failed early on were often killed by the authorities (either directly with a bullet in the back of the head or worked to death in camps). Those who, through luck or effort, managed to live a double life – outwardly conformist but inwardly free – went mad with the pressure and either cracked in public (and then where executed or internally exiled) or ended up committing suicide. The few who could bend their minds to think dialectically survived in some form but effectively killed their personality to do so. The author – both unable to submit but likewise unable and unwilling to contort his own mind – decided on external exile as the only reasonable option left open to him.

The autobiographical strand of this book was often harrowing. Growing up in Poland in the 1920’s and 30’s he saw his country grow weak and internally divided. He experienced both the German and Russian invasions and lived through both Nazi and Soviet occupation. The things he saw, the things he and his friends witnessed can hardly be described in words. It is a wonder that anyone can stay sane under those conditions. With the end of the war and as a recognised poet, the author had, for a time at least, a privileged position in Soviet society as long as he wrote in a way that he was directed to write – using Soviet Realism. No other form was allowed. No expression of individuality was allowed or countenanced. Freedom of thought could not exist even in your own head. Slowly the parameters of free expression narrowed until nothing was left. It was, he felt, the very death of the spirit. So he had no other choice and left everything he loved behind.

Of course this book was hugely controversial at the time – especially amongst those who heaped praise upon the Soviet experiment. Milosz was less than popular with the Left which, of course, deepened his isolation. However, as his book won the Nobel Prize for Literature it seems that he was doing something right. Indeed he was. Often beautifully written this is an amazing work. Deeply personal, greatly incisive and often disturbing this is a must read for anyone who thinks that the worlds problems can be solved by the imposition of any State ideology that is divorced from common humanity. It is an important book that should be taught in schools across the world. Not just for its devastating critique of Soviet Communism but for it’s championing of human freedom. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Amelie

I can’t remember seeing this at the movies. At least I have no clear recollection of doing so. It’s possible that back then – in 2001 – that I wasn’t as in love with French cinema as I am now. Anyway I’ve probably seen this film 4-5 times since it came out. I think that my initial reason for watching this was my attraction for the female lead Audrey Tautou. Not only is she a strikingly beautiful woman but she has a quirkiness (at least in this movie) that I find very enticing.

Tautou plays the eponymous Amelie Poulain who, after being brought up by over protective parents retreats into her own fantasy world. On leaving home she becomes a waitress in a small café where she keeps a comfortable distance from the people she works with. Until one night where she discovers a tin box of memories and mementoes left behind by a previous occupant of her apartment. Determined on a whim to reunite the box with the boy who left it behind, Amelie starts on a road that is difficult to leave. She is determined to work behind the scenes to make people happy. But the one person she seems incapable of helping is herself.

This is a delight of a movie. It’s engagingly filmed, very funny (if like me you have a particularly quirky sense of humour), sweet, full of interesting characters (I do find that French movies often have great ensemble casts where a great deal of effort goes into characters that might only get a few minutes screen time), so many sub-plots that it makes your head spin, and, not least, the lovely, delightful and quirky Audrey Tautou (who I think is one of the most beautiful women alive). I think that my love of French cinema may have gone to a whole new level with this film. Not only did it prompt me to amass the core of a respectable collection of French films but it probably led me to experiment which films from other European countries – much to my surprise and general enjoyment. If watching sub-titled films puts you off watching films like this then you are missing some of the best films I’ve ever seen. Don’t let the language put you off. Watching these films in the original is the only way to go. I’ve seen others that have been dubbed and they are quite frankly awful. Even if you miss a few words here and there don’t worry. French films in particular are very visual things (which seems obvious I know) and the more you watch the better you’ll get. After a while it will seem as if they’re speaking English or you’re thinking in French. Anyway, if you haven’t seen this total gem of a movie you’re definitely missing out on a real treat. Take the plunge, take the risk and rent the DVD – of even better buy the DVD and save yourself the rental cost, because you’ll be watching this more than once.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

'Cannibal Cafe' in Berlin a Vegetarian Campaign Hoax

by Kate Connolly for the Guardian

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It boasted that it would introduce a new dining movement to Germany, called for diners to donate body parts to be incorporated into the dishes, and even advertised for a surgeon to perform the amputations. But Flime, the Berlin restaurant which was nicknamed the "Cannibal Cafe" and was due to open in Berlin today has - perhaps not surprisingly - been exposed as a fake.

Flime stands for Fleisch Isst Menschen, or Meat Eats People, and has been revealed as the idea of the German Vegetarian Society (Vebu) as a rather obscure way to bring consumers' attention to the evils of meat-eating. The only trouble is that the publicity sparked by the high-profile promotion for the hoax restaurant has far outweighed the attention paid to today's press conference at which Vebu announced it was all a ruse to illustrate a serious point.

"Vebu wants to draw attention to all of us who are affected by the worldwide consumption of meat," the society said in a statement. It pointed out that every 3.6 seconds somebody dies in the world due to undernourishment, while the majority of grain production is used for the feeding of farm animals. "Nobody really thinks about those facts in their day-to-day routine. Because of that it was necessary to call this creative campaign into action," said Sebastian Zösch of Vebu at a Berlin press conference. Vebu added that livestock farming "produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector" and that water consumption could be cut drastically if people gave up eating meat, due to the large quantities of it that are used in meat production.

Last month the Guardian reported that the campaign for the restaurant which was in ewspapers, online, on TV and radio, had provoked angry reactions from Berlin residents, many of whom were reminded of the case of the German cannibal Armin Meiwes who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering and consuming Berlin technician Bernd Brandes in 2001. The supposed restaurant owners claimed their cuisine was inspired by the indigenous Brazilian Waricaca tribe, famous for once practicing the ritual of "compassionate cannibalism", in which parts of the corpse of a loved one were consumed as a way of coping with death.

[Well, at least no one can accuse veggies of not having a (admittedly warped) sense of humour…]

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Destroyermen – Crusade by Taylor Anderson

After escaping into another world – one in which humans had not evolved – the old destroyer USS Walker and her crew find themselves involved in a deadly conflict between the mammalian Lemurians and the reptilian Grik. Now the most powerful ship on the planet the war against the Grik looks at least winnable. When her sister ship USS Mahan is found again – heavily damaged but afloat – it looks increasingly like the war could be over quickly. Using techniques perfected by the Romans, the crew of the Walker teach the Lamurians a way of war that can defeat the unorganised Grik on land as well as sea. Spirits are lifted when a massive Grik invasion force is defeated and new Lamurian allies join the crusade. But everything is thrown into doubt when reports of a gigantic ship sailing with the Grik make it clear that the Japanese cruiser Amagi has made it intact from their world and is in the hands of the enemy. Can the destroyermen face the ship that almost destroyed them so recently – especially when it is backed up by hundreds of Grik vessels? One thing is certain; the American ships certainly have a fight on their hands.

As much as I enjoyed the first book in this series – Into the Storm – I really enjoyed this one. The American sailors are beginning to settle into their new environment and coming to terms with their situation. Likewise the almost human Lemurians are beginning to understand and appreciate their new friends and allies. We are finding out more about the mysterious Grik, learning that they are possibly even more dangerous than they initially seemed. There is also the tantalising possibility of humans surviving from earlier ships trapped in the ‘new world’. This may, eventually, alleviate the ‘dame’ problem – although the Lemurians appear to be open (or at least not adverse) to cross species partnerships. The pace is fairly relentless, as you might expect in what is in effect a war novel. Not only is the combat – both at sea and on land – handled very well indeed I am impressed by the authentic sounding politics and double dealing going on behind the scenes. This too was handled well and the author certainly seemed to be at home and confident with both sides of the equation. Needless to say I have already purchased the third book in paperback and am already itching to read it. Book four is out in hardback and (hopefully) book five is being written. I am really looking forward to finding out if the crews of the USS Walker and USS Mahan make a home for themselves in this strange new world or if they eventually get back home. I have an idea of where things could end up but I’ll have to see if the author agrees with me. I am looking forward to finding out. Recommended.

Monday, September 06, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Hidalgo

I think that CQ and I went to see this primarily because we are both fans of Viggo Mortensen (for different reasons I suspect). I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it but was more than pleasantly surprised.

The film told part of the life of Frank T. Hopkins, a legendary long-distance dispatch rider. After he delivered the dispatch that precipitated the massacre at Wounded Knee his life fell apart as he tried, and failed, to deal with the guilt of what he had done to his own people – as Hopkins is half Lakota Sioux. Years later Hopkins is part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and is slowly drinking himself to death. Billed as the worlds best long-distance rider he is challenged to prove this in the annual race across the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000 mile race across the Arabian Desert. Thinking that he has nothing to lose he enters into what will be the race of his life.

I loved this film for many reasons – not least of which was the beautiful horse Hidalgo himself. Not only was it a great story well told in the classic adventure mould (without the requirement for endless explosions, expletives or pointless titillating sex scenes) which would already be enough to earn it a recommendation from me, it also managed to push many of my hot buttons. It was beautifully filmed, particularly in the desert scenes. It is sprinkled with honourable characters who act the way they do because of deeply held personal codes – exemplified by Hopkins/Mortensen and by Sheikh Riyadh played by Omar Sharif. The hero is deeply troubled by internal conflicts about personal identity resulting in a film that was, in effect, a journey within a journey with the desert crossing symbolizing the heroes wandering away from his true self, only finding it at the point of almost giving up. Enough the love interest was handled very well indeed. The Sheikhs daughter, Jazira played by Zuleikha Robinson, is fascinated by the handsome Hopkins but, despite their obvious attraction for each other, nothing happens. They don’t even kiss, which would have been, given the time and place unthinkable. Both CQ and I were most relieved when they parted without anything more than a lingering look into each others eyes.

CQ and I were so impressed by this film that we saw it twice in the week it came out – I think we might have actually seen it on consecutive nights. We saw it again the following week. So far I’ve probably seen it two or three times on DVD including last weekend. I could easily watch it again this weekend and confidently enjoy it as much. It’s a great little film that might have passed you by. If you haven’t seen it I can heartily recommend it. It’s a feel good film without the smaltziness you often find in so-called feel-good movies. Watch it. Enjoy it. Try not to buy a horse because of it.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Rich exoplanet system discovered

By Victoria Gill For BBC News

24 August 2010

Astronomers have discovered a planetary system containing at least five planets that orbit a star called HD 10180, which is much like our own Sun. The star is 127 light years away, in the southern constellation of Hydrus. The researchers used the European Southern Observatory (Eso) to monitor light emitted from the system and identify and characterise the planets. They say this is the "richest" system of exoplanets - planets outside our own Solar System - ever found. Christophe Lovis from Geneva University's observatory in Switzerland was lead researcher on the study. He said that his team had probably found "the system with the most planets yet discovered". The discovery could provide insight into the formation of our own Solar System "This also highlights the fact that we are now entering a new era in exoplanet research - the study of complex planetary systems and not just of individual planets," he said. The research has been submitted for publication to the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Eso's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (or Harps) instrument was responsible for the discovery. Harps measures the wobble of a star; this gives a measure of how much it is being tugged on by an orbiting planet. "If there is one planet it will induce a little movement - the star will come towards us and move away," Dr Lovis explained to BBC News. "And what works for one [planet] works for many." With many planets orbiting the star, its movement becomes a very complex "superposition" of several different planet-induced movements.

Using Harp, Dr Lovis and his team were able to measure this and break it down, in order to calculate how many planets were in the system, how great each of their masses was, and even the path of each individual planet's orbit. The researchers said the system around HD 10180 as unique in several respects. It has at least five "Neptune-like planets" lying within a distance equivalent to the orbit of Mars, making it more populated than our own Solar System in its inner region. And all the planets seem to have almost circular orbits. Dr Lovis said: "Studies of planetary motions in the new system reveal complex gravitational interactions between the planets and give us insights into the long-term evolution of the system."

So far, the astronomers have picked up clear signals from five planets, along with two slightly "fuzzier" signals. One of these possible sixth and seventh planets was estimated to be just 1.4 times the mass of the Earth; if its presence in the system was confirmed, it would be the lowest mass exoplanet yet discovered. It is also predicted to be very close to its host star - just 2% of the Earth-Sun distance, so one year on this planet would last only 1.2 Earth days. Dr Lovis said he was 99% certain that this small planet was there. "There are five signals that are really strong that we have no doubt, but we have another two with a 'false alarm' probability of 1%," he said. Martin Dominik, an astronomer and exoplanet hunter from the UK's University of St Andrews said the complexity and structure of this system made it an interesting discovery. "The richness of the system of planets around HD 10180 with its many characteristic features marks the way forward towards gathering the information that will put our own existence into cosmic context," he told BBC News. He cautioned against describing this as the "richest system" saying that it was not clear whether other systems that had already been detected hosted further planets. Dr Dominik added: "I am tempted to consider the detected system as one of the most 'informative' ones. Like most discoveries in science, the findings come with more questions than answers; but in my opinion, this is what really advances a field."

[So many environments for life to evolve in……. Is that cool or what!]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Egyptian Myth – A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch

I’ve touched on the mythology of the Ancient Egyptians over the years and have always found the subject fascinating. It seems – amongst the myths that have influenced European culture the most – to be the strangest of the bunch by far. Central to this strangeness, for me anyway, is the number of deities who are partially or wholly animal in nature. I suppose that this is understandable given the proximity and importance of wildlife to both the Egyptian economy and environment but it still takes some getting used too. The many, many Gods and Goddesses mentioned throughout the millennia long history of Egypt – a surprising number which are familiar – stem from the names given to them dependent on who was giving the name, where they were located at the time and the particular aspect of the God being addressed. Sometimes it is enough to make your head spin. Being used to Gods with single names – no matter who was addressing them and no matter which of their aspects were being expressed - it is confusing at best for deities to have five, ten, even fifteen names. Sometimes though you simply have to accept the facts and learn them.

An interesting thing I learnt from this book is the common misunderstanding, which I shared, that the Ancient Egyptians where obsessed with death. They were in fact dedicated to life – as they believed that it was only their ritual actions that kept the world in existence. They believed that the natural order of things was Chaos – not Order – and that every day it was the responsibility of the great, the good and the commons to make sure that existence continued. The Gods themselves were an important part of this process and humanity was central to giving the Gods the power to ensure that Chaos did not triumph in the short term.

This was a well written and often fascinating little volume. Easy to read and informative I actually read it in a single day (without a great deal of effort). Obviously such a short volume can only really give you a taste of the subject – especially one so large as this – so don’t expect to become an expert on the subject on the back of it. However, this book does give you a grasp of the basics and does provide a useful bibliography to follow things up. You’ll soon pick up the details of the major players (especially if you’ve ever watched Stargate SG-1) and you’ll be surprised at how familiar some of the stories are. Recommended to anyone with an interest of our ancient past.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


The keen eyed amongst you will have noticed the increased number of labels over on the right of the screen. I’ve been adding them over the last week or so to break up the monolithic ‘book’ label. Added to the existing non-fiction categories of Philosophy and Politics I’ve now added Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Espionage and Crime. In the next few days I’m going to add History, Alt-History and Vampires. That should cover just about all of my major reading categories. If you can think of a label/category that I’m not using but might be useful to you (or just interesting) please let me know.
' Combat' troops leave Iraq.......