About Me

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

For Everything there is a First Time

First single bought: Lebanon by The Human League

First CD bought: Ambient Moods – a compilation.

First love: Jackie Morgan – literally the girl next door

First lover: Trisha Jones (many years later).

First job: General office worker in Central London

First owned home: My present location

First time abroad: Skiing in the French Alps with the school aged 13-14

First degree: BA(Hons) Social Ethics with Educational Studies

First drink: Vodka from a plastic elephant (previously containing bath oil) provided by my best school friend Andy aged 9-10

First hangover: Aged 11-12 after drinking the dregs of every glass left behind from a party my Mum had in our new house. Understandably I was very ill.

First book (that I remember): Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner written in 1929. I think I must have been about 10 and remember that it had a profound impact on me. Oddly I didn’t start reading voraciously until about 4 years later when I was introduced to SF by a friend of my brother.

First concert: The Stranglers in 1983. I was a very late convert to live music.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cosmos may show echoes of events before Big Bang

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

27 November 2010

Evidence of events that happened before the Big Bang can be seen in the glow of microwave radiation that fills the Universe, scientists have asserted. Renowned cosmologist Roger Penrose said that analysis of this cosmic microwave background showed echoes of previous Big Bang-like events. The events appear as "rings" around galaxy clusters in which the variation in the background is unusually low. The unpublished research has been posted on the Arxiv website. The ideas within it support a theory developed by Professor Penrose - knighted in 1994 for his services to science - that upends the widely-held "inflationary theory". That theory holds that the Universe was shaped by an unthinkably large and fast expansion from a single point. Much of high-energy physics research aims to elucidate how the laws of nature evolved during the fleeting first instants of the Universe's being. "I was never in favour of it, even from the start," said Professor Penrose. "But if you're not accepting inflation, you've got to have something else which does what inflation does," he explained to BBC News. "In the scheme that I'm proposing, you have an exponential expansion but it's not in our aeon - I use the term to describe [the period] from our Big Bang until the remote future. I claim that this aeon is one of a succession of such things, where the remote future of the previous aeons somehow becomes the Big Bang of our aeon." This "conformal cyclic cosmology" (CCC) that Professor Penrose advocates allows that the laws of nature may evolve with time, but precludes the need to institute a theoretical beginning to the Universe.

Professor Penrose, of Oxford University, and his colleague Vahe Gurzadyan of Yerevan State University in Armenia, have now found what they believe is evidence of events that predate the Big Bang, and that support CCC. They looked at data from vast surveys of the cosmic microwave background - the constant, nearly uniform low-temperature glow that fills the Universe we see. They surveyed nearly 11,000 locations, looking for directions in the sky where, at some point in the past, vast galaxies circling one another may have collided. The supermassive black holes at their centres would have merged, turning some of their mass into tremendous bursts of energy. The CCC theory holds that the same object may have undergone the same processes more than once in history, and each would have sent a "shockwave" of energy propagating outward. The search turned up 12 candidates that showed concentric circles consistent with the idea - some with as many as five rings, representing five massive events coming from the same object through the course of history. The suggestion is that the rings - representing unexpected order in a vast sky of disorder - represent pre-Big Bang events, toward the end of the last "aeon". "Inflation [theory] is supposed to have ironed all of these irregularities out," said Professor Penrose. "How do you suddenly get something that is making these whacking big explosions just before inflation turns off? To my way of thinking that's pretty hard to make sense of." Shaun Cole of the University of Durham's computational cosmology group, called the research "impressive". "It's a revolutionary theory and here there appears to be some data that supports it," he told BBC News. "In the standard Big Bang model, there's nothing cyclic; it has a beginning and it has no end.

"The philosophical question that's sensible to ask is 'what came before the Big Bang?'; and what they're striving for here is to do away with that 'there's nothing before' answer by making it cyclical." Professor Cole said he was surprised that the statistical variation in the microwave background data was the most obvious signature of what could be such a revolutionary idea, however. "It's not clear from their theory that they have a complete model of the fluctuations, but is that the only thing that should be going on? There are other things that could be going on in the last part of the previous aeon; why don't they show even greater imprints?" Professors Penrose and Cole both say that the idea should be shored up by further analyses of this type, in particular with data that will soon be available from the Planck telescope, designed to study the microwave background with unprecedented precision. Planck will provide a plethora of data that may prove or disprove the idea.

[How fascinating. If there was no Big Bang – more of a series of small bangs – then no single event ‘created’ the Universe. With no act of ‘creation’ another prop (often the most strongly argued prop) supporting the idea of God falls away….. Damn those atheist scientists!]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Just Finished Reading: One Minute to Midnight – Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs

I do find it more than a little odd reading about an historical event I lived through. Not that I actually have any memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was after all only 2 ½ years old in October 1962. What became very clear in this fascinating volume was how close I came to not seeing my 3rd birthday.

I think that most of my regulars know something about the events that almost led up to the world’s first nuclear exchange. Cuba, no friend to the USA, was offered nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union in retaliation for American nukes based on their border with Turkey. A U2 spy plane spotted them before they had become operational and before Khrushchev could announce it to the world. The US responded with a naval blockade, frantic diplomacy and threats of both bombing the sites and an invasion of the island. After several tense days the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the weapons and sail them home to Mother Russia. The world breathed a sigh of relief; I saw my 3rd birthday and the American nukes came home from Turkey.

Most of the above I was aware of before opening the pages of this book. What I was unaware of was the detail behind those headlines and just how close we came to nuclear war. Not through the acts of desperate or evil men but through accident, misunderstand and fear. Looking back almost 50 years it is difficult to credit just how unconnected the world was back then. At the height of the tensions created by the discovery of nuclear weapons a few hundred miles from American territory it sometimes took days – yes, days – for messages to travel between the major players. When life and death decisions for millions of people could be made in seconds it took hours – yes, hours – for information to pass between President Kennedy, Premier Khrushchev and the troops on the front line. What was even more interesting, to say nothing of disturbing, was the way that decisions on all three sides where being made in either the absence of information or based on the wrong information. From the God’s eye view of an author privy to details of conversations taking place in the White House, the Kremlin and in Havana the reader is allowed to see exactly what all three sides could not see. This ramped up the tension already inherent in a very tense story. Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the reader is shown a number of isolated incidents that could, if treated differently, have caused buttons to be pressed and missiles to fly. When a U2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba and another strays into Soviet airspace, when a nuclear armed Russian submarine is forced to the surface captained by a man at the end of his tether and when a simulated attack on Miami is flashed to NORAD and believed, for a few moments, to be the real thing. All of these things could have been the final straw.

This is undoubtedly a masterful work of historical writing. Not many history books can claim to be gripping. This was definitely one of them. The first 30 pages set the scene over the preceding weeks. The next five chapters (about 150 pages) covered the time from October 22nd to ‘Black Saturday’ October 27th. You can imagine the amount of detail the author goes into. The next 260 pages cover the weekend of 27-28th October hoping back and forth between events in Washington, Moscow, Cuba and the various military commands. Giving an almost minute by minute account of the events in such a way that the tension is almost overwhelming, this seemed like one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever read – and yet it was all real, which made it both more mesmerising and more appalling. If you know something about the Missile crisis you need to read this book to fill in the gaps to your knowledge. If this incident is new to you then you really need to read this book to see just how close we came to nuclear annihilation. It is a frightening and sobering read but one I enjoyed a great deal. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Favourite Movies: The Book of Eli

Sorry, but I’m back to the ultra-modern stuff again. I was actually in two minds (come to think of it more that two) about seeing this at the cinema. Despite being a big fan of Denzel and of end-of-the-world films, I was getting a little sick of the genre. I had also discovered that the movie had a religious – actually Christian – theme which might stick in my craw. But I bit the bullet and went along with the usual posse and felt that I could grit my teeth in the appropriate places if required. Fortunately I hardly needed to grit them at all.

In the movie the world we know and love had ended some decades previously. Although it’s never actually explained it appears to have suffered through a nuclear war of some kind. One of the first scenes appears to take place in fall-out with Washington (the man rather than the city) wearing a NBC ‘noddy’ suit – which seemed rather odd as its years after the bombs fell. Anyway, Denzel is making his way through a wonderfully filmed desolate landscape going west. Along the way he meets up with some people who try to take his things. Needless to say it does not go well for the bad-guys. On reaching a town recovering from the devastation we are presented with the figure of Gary Oldman who plays the brutal leader of biker gangs tasked with bringing back books. Oldman is looking for a specific book and soon discovers that Denzel holds a copy – maybe the only copy left in existence. The book is, we quickly discover, the Bible. Washington explains, to his tag-along runaway (played by Mila Kunis) that a voice spoke to him soon after the bombs fell directing him to the Bible and telling him to take it West. This he has been doing for many years. After adventures and misadventures Denzel and Mila deliver the book to Alcatraz (of all places) which has become a repository of the world’s knowledge.

There were several things that I immediately liked very much about this movie. Firstly, the cinematography was outstanding with washed out colours and utter desolation everywhere. Both Washington and Oldman played their parts wonderfully and were a delight separately and especially together when sparks flew. The supporting cast were adequate and largely disposable – indeed largely disposed of by Washington. Cute as she is, Mila Kunis really only plays Mila Kunis and is not that much different from the ungrateful character Jackie in ‘That 70’s Show’. The music was haunting and occasionally spiced up by tunes from Washington’s barely functioning iPod. The action sequences were well handled except for the laughable siege set-piece with the eccentric cannibal husband and wife team played by Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon which really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

From a philosophical point of view I did struggle with the idea that future generations would be able to build a better world with the Bible in it rather than without it. After all, a Bible inhabiting world had just been practically destroyed. I also struggled with the idea that a God could take such efforts in guiding someone across America, on foot, and giving him the skills to survive for decades in the harshest of environments whilst at the same time condemning billions of people to death in a nuclear holocaust. Of course none of these questions raised their heads during the movie. If God was dissatisfied with his human creations I’m sure there’s a more discriminating way of dealing with them than ICBM’s and MIRVs – but then again I’m not God so who knows! Overall though this was a very creditable end-of-the-world movie which worked for me on several levels. The problems I did have with it, which are the result of over-thinking things a bit, are minor in relation to the enjoyment I had from watching it. It’s certainly worth a mite less than 2 hours of your time if you haven’t seen it already.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Life is found in deepest layer of Earth's crust

By Michael Marshall for New Scientist

18 November 2010

IT'S crawling with life down there. A remote expedition to the deepest layer of the Earth's oceanic crust has revealed a new ecosystem living over a kilometre beneath our feet. It is the first time that life has been found in the crust's deepest layer, and an analysis of the new biosphere suggests life could exist lower still.

On a hypothetical journey to the centre of the Earth starting at the sea floor, you would travel through sediment, a layer of basalt, and then hit the gabbroic layer, which lies directly above the mantle. Drilling expeditions have reached this layer before, but as the basalt is difficult to pierce it happens rarely. To facilitate the task, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme set its sights on the Atlantis Massif. Tectonic activity beneath this submerged mountain in the central Atlantic Ocean has pushed the gabbroic layer within 70 metres of the sea floor, making it easier to reach. A team led by Stephen Giovannoni of Oregon State University in Corvallis drilled down to 1391 metres, where temperatures reach 102 °C.

There, they found communities of bacteria that were sparse but widespread. The type of bacteria they found came as a surprise to Giovannoni, who has previously found micro-organisms living in the basalt layer. "We expected to find similar organisms in the deeper layer," he says. "But actually it was very different. "One key difference was that archaea were absent in the gabbroic layer. Also, genetic analysis revealed that unlike their upstairs neighbours, many of the gabbroic bugs had evolved to feed off hydrocarbons like methane and benzene. This is similar to the bacteria found in oil reservoirs and contaminated soil, which could mean that the bacteria migrated down from shallower regions rather than evolving inside the crust, the team say.

"This deep biosphere is a very important discovery," says Rolf Pedersen of the University of Bergen, Norway. He points out that the reactions that produce oil and gas abiotically inside the crust could happen in the mantle, meaning life may be thriving deeper yet.

[Maybe if life evolved on Mars, before it lost its atmosphere and surface water, it migrated deep underground and we’ll eventually find it there, safe from the UV rays and freezing temperatures on the surface.]

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

Lededje Y’breq was born Intagliated. Her body had been genetically manipulated before birth to produce incredibly intricate patterns on every inch of her skin. This was not her choice or that of her parents. For Lededje is part of a payment for their debt to the most powerful person on their world. As she grew up she began to realise just what she was – property. When her last escape from servitude and sexual abuse goes wrong, she is murdered by her patron and owner. Apparently moments later she awakes inside a virtual reality simulation thousands of light years away on a Culture ship. Offered the chance to be revented – given a new and almost perfect body – she jumps at the chance of another life and the opportunity to return to her home world with revenge in mind. But bigger things are happening. There has been a war in heaven – fought across virtual space – which has been ragging for 30 years between two groups who are deeply opposed to each others ideologies. One faction opposes the existence of virtual Hell’s where self-aware avatars of the dead are sent to suffer eternal torment. The other faction passionately believes that the fear of Hell is the only thing keeping whole civilisations together. As Ledeje approaches her home for a final confrontation, the virtual war is in danger of erupting into the Real and at the centre of everything is her patron and killer.

As soon as I saw that the latest Culture novel was out I had to have it. No way was I going to wait until March 2011 for the paperback! So I stumped up about twice what I’d normally pay (with the shops £5 discount helping) to read it now rather than later. I have to say that it was worth every single penny. The brief synopsis above does the book very little justice. This is a very complex book bursting with amazing ideas. It is also much darker than previous Culture based novels. For one thing there seems to be an inordinate amount of swearing – largely I have to say completely in context. For another the main protagonist Ledeje has a history of sexual abuse from her early teens. Added to this are large sections taking place in one of the alien virtual Hell’s which are both deeply disturbing and frequently stomach turning. In many ways this is definitely not a book for the young or the faint of heart. As to be expected with Bank’s Culture novels the characters, ships (which are very much characters in themselves), aliens and environments are amazingly real. I would love the opportunity to live in the Culture – even for a short time and experience that kind of awesome advanced civilisation. I love it so much that it’s quite painful to return to reality – this mundane world – with a bump after being ensconced between the pages of such a sublime novel for the best part of a week. I do honestly miss it – although it does live inside my head now. One of the odd things missing from his latest novel is the many autonomous (and often very funny) drones that make up part of the Culture citizenry. However, this is more than made up for by the inclusion of a seriously strange and obviously deranged (indeed probably psychotic) Culture warship that agrees to carry Ledeje to her destination. Always up for a good fight – and particularly up for a bad one – it never ceased to both entertain and appal me. It was brilliant! Just never get on its wrong side. I loved this book, as I have with all of his Culture novels to a greater or lesser degree, and am pleased to see that it won’t be his last. I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Female Voice

Those of you who know me IRL or have been long time regular visitors here will know that I have very wide tastes in music. I enjoy Bob Dylan and Beethoven as much as Marilyn Manson and Mozart. But one thing that I probably enjoy above all else is the female voice in all of its variety. Below I’ve put together a non-exhaustive list of women I could listen all day to. They are in no particular order or preference. Where they are the lead singer of a band (and it’s not immediately obvious who they are) I have put the bands name in brackets.

K T Tunstall
Tori Amos
Alicia Keys
Neneh Cherry
Sharleen Spiteri (Texas)
Nina Simone
Tracey Thorn
Janis Joplin
Amy Lee (Evanescence)
Lacy Mosley (Flyleaf)
Annie Lennox
Belinda Carlisle
Venessa Carlton
Tracey Chapman
Natalie Merchant
Alison Moyet
Sheryl Crow
Alanis Morissette
Toyah Wilcox
Kate Bush
Fiona Apple
Grace Slick
Shirley Manson (Garbage)
Avril Lavigne
Norah Jones
Sam Brown
Meredith Brooks
Hayley Williams (Paramore)
Billie Holiday

Saturday, November 13, 2010

When Will We All Need to Carry Identity Papers?

by Jerry Lanson for CommonDreams

Monday, August 30, 2010

Once again, what we don't know about the erosion of rights in this country can be as bad as what we do. While Americans debate and litigate the Arizona law authorizing search and seizure of anyone police "reasonably suspect" to be an illegal immigrant, U.S. immigration officials on trains and buses up to 100 miles south of the Canadian border are confronting and sometimes strip-searching dark-skinned passengers whose only "crime" may be that they bought a public-transportation ticket to travel within the United States, The New York Times reports.

It's part of what some consider the new and improved border patrols to protect "the homeland" from potential terrorists. No matter that the kind of people being stopped, The Times reports, include an 60-year-old Ecuadoran-born U.S. citizen who carries a passport while visiting her sister in the Midwest because she's been stopped before and hassled without it. No matter that it includes a Taiwanese-born PhD student who, two days after delivering a paper at a Chicago conference, was taken from a train -- one that had never crossed any borders -- in Batavia, N.Y., strip-searched in a detention center and held, facing detention, because his visa had expired. No matter that a 21-year-old Long Island high school graduate was taken from the Lake Shore Limited in Rochester, N.Y., held for three weeks while her mother frantically tried to reach her and released at night at a rural Texas gas station. These are not rumors. They are true stories, reported and told by The New York Times. They smack of overt racial profiling: How many blue-eyed Swedes and fair-skinned Russians do you think have been stopped on the trains and buses, whether they are gangsters, terrorists or simply PhD students? And they raise chilling reminders of World War II movies in which Nazi soldiers would walk down the aisles of trains looking for Jews. "It's turned into a police state on the northern border," Cary M. Jensen, director of international services for the University of Rochester told The Times. He said foreign students, scholars and parents all have been questioned and, in some cases, jailed because the patrol did not recognize their legal status, the paper reports.

As I said, some Americans, frightened by our decade of war and fearful of anyone "different," will applaud the newfound vigilance of immigration officials. Some, no doubt, were among the tens of thousands who flocked to the Lincoln Memorial this weekend to hear calls that America return to a more honorable time when we didn't have to worry about foreigners (read non-white foreigners) crossing our borders. Just when that was I'm not sure since we are a nation founded by the poor and persecuted. What the Tea Party folks may not be thinking is that this is how police states start. I wonder how they'd feel as white Americans (and the Tea Party is white) if police in Mexico pulled them off a train and threw them in jail because they'd forgotten to carry identity papers? As for the rest of us, perhaps it's time to do more than yawn and turn on that new flat screen TV to catch pre-season football. My father fled Hitler's Germany on foot in 1935, walking through the mountains into what was then Czechoslovakia. If he taught me one thing it was this: What happened there can happen anywhere. That is why even as an American Army vet and longtime U.S. citizen, he never let his passport expire. He was always prepared to move on. War and fear erode a country's moral compass and distort its sense of just action. Subtly for most, we've lived in a state of both for nearly a decade. And in the process -- a little domestic wire-tapping here, a few false arrests of foreign-born there -- we've begun to accept the significant erosion of the very principles on which this country was founded: its openness, its acceptance of difference, and its welcoming of those with little in their wallets, but with an ethic of hard work and a can-doism that's always allowed this country to be inventive and thrive. These were captured in the Emma Lazarus poem taught to all school children and mounted at the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Be sure to tell those huddled masses not to ride the buses or the Lake Shore Limited routes from Chicago to New York. In the Buffalo sector alone, the border patrol reports arresting 1,050 on trains, buses and the stations of both in the six months between October 2007 and April 2008, The New York Times reports. That's roughly six people a day.The Buffalo sector didn't say how many people were questioned and let go. Or how many of those arrests proved false. You may shrug. Not your issue. I hope not. Me? I'll keep my passport current.

[Frightened people create frightening times. What we all need to realise is that it doesn’t have to be this way.]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Nightwatch by Andrew M Stephenson

Early in the 21st Century – this book was written in 1977 so we’ll cut it some slack – ward of state Daniel Frome is sent to the Moon on an important mission. Trained in cybernetics from an early age he has helped to develop an Artificial Intelligence device called a Golem. The publicised plan is to house it in a probe shortly to be sent to Jupiter. However, on reaching the lunar surface he is told the real story. Year’s earlier astronomers had discovered an alien spacecraft slowly approaching the Solar System from deep space. The plan is to use the Golems in defence platforms in case the alien craft proves to be hostile. Meanwhile on Earth the political situation deteriorates to such an extent that nuclear war is a real possibility. The situation is mirrored on the Moon as factions fight, and kill, for positions of power – and day by day the alien gets closer.

I never thought of the 1970’s as a great time for SF. Partially because they seemed to be full of doom and gloom reflecting, I guess, the spirit of the time. In some respects this novel was no different with the threat of nuclear annihilation ever present. Where it bucked the trend was its interesting political infighting within the lunar administration and there was a creditable stab at aliens actually being quite alien. The main character was pretty well drawn as were some of the leading lights of the moon colony. The psychological impacts of the alien approach and the possibility of war on Earth were likewise handled well. For a first novel – I’m unsure if he actually wrote anything else – and one (with my already stated bias) written in the late 70’s this wasn’t half bad. It didn’t say much I hadn’t heard a hundred times before but was constructed well enough to keep me turning pages. Reasonable.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Thinking About: The Age of Austerity

I have lost count of the number of times the phrase ‘Age of Austerity’ has been mentioned by politicians and commentators recently. It’s as if they have all received the same script in the post and are simply reading from it. It has become the default phrase to describe the mess we’re in. Of course the ironic bit is that the people who caused this present financial fiasco will feel little or any of its effects. Bonuses are back in style. Some of the very people who are responsible for the world-wide banking failures will be getting a bonus this year which exceeds what many of my readership receive in their salaries over 20 years. Of course, we are told rather patronisingly, we have to pay them their huge salaries, bonuses and perks because they, the noble few, will pull us out of the recession they created with their ingrained entrepreneurial spirit – bless them! Where as we, at the bottom of any particular totem pole, are told to get on with consuming (or saving or both) to provide the cash that they will use, for the good of us all, to build a better world. Of course their will be a modicum of pain in the process of getting to this economic Promised Land. There will be unemployment, spending cuts, hardship and despair but, as we are regularly told on TV, we’re all in this together – though it appears that some are more in it (the shit that is) than others who drive past it in their limousines.

Presently it appears that those within the Anglo-American axis are taking it lying down. Not so our Continental friends who are protesting, rioting and burning cars in the streets. You have to admire the French (in particular) and the Greeks. They certainly know how the throw a riot – and the odd petrol bomb. You can’t say that they’re taking events lightly. No, sir! They are not following the orders of their betters and falling on their collective swords in the name of economic solidarity. They have singularly failed to grasp that for the rich and shameless to maintain their necessary lifestyles that some (OK quite a lot) of peasants must fall by the wayside. It is the way of things after all. For the rich to stay rich, or if possible get richer, the poor must stay poor and do what they’re bloody well told to do. We Brits have been know to go for the odd riot ourselves, but the most famous tend to be way back in our history – the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1834), the Peterloo Massacre (1819) as well as the much more contemporary Poll-Tax riot (1990). Until fairly recently we would have written a strongly worded letter to the Times or our MP. These days we are more likely to whinge about things to our neighbours – if we talk to them – or in the pub over copious pints of cheap watery beer.

In many ways I am in a rather privileged position. My job is fairly safe for the next 2 years or so until the project I’m working on finishes. I own my own house which is presently ‘worth’ much more than I paid for it. I have money in the bank and could, if things took a decided turn for the worst, probably live on my savings – yes, I’m one of those strange people who saves money at the end of each month – for 6 months without getting into debt with the banks. Things should be much better by the time I could be looking for another job. The cycle of boom and bust moves ever onwards. Of course it should be back to the ‘bustier’ side of things when I’m coming up to retirement in 10 years or so. Knowing the likelihood of that it might be a good investment – whilst I actually have money – to start buying gold and burying it in my garden. It’s the prudent thing to do in these uncertain and austere times.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Anti-terrorist hotline ad banned for being 'offensive'

From the BBC

11 August 2010

A radio advert urging listeners to report suspected terrorists has been banned by a watchdog for potentially offending law-abiding people. The anti-terrorist hotline ad suggests suspicious behaviour may include paying with cash and keeping curtains drawn. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), which was behind the campaign, said seemingly insignificant behaviour could be linked to terrorism. But the Advertising Standards Authority ruled it could cause "serious offence". Some 18 listeners who heard the advert, broadcast on Talksport, complained to the watchdog. Of those, 10 said it could be offensive to law-abiding citizens, while the rest said it could encourage people to harass or victimise their neighbours and was appealing to people's fear.

In the advert, a man says: "The man at the end of the street doesn't talk to his neighbours much, because he likes to keep himself to himself. He pays with cash because he doesn't have a bank card, and he keeps his curtains closed because his house is on a bus route." It then says: "If you suspect it, report it." The campaign by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) was aimed at promoting the confidential anti-terrorist hotline. The Metropolitan Police, speaking on Acpo's behalf, said the ad addressed the issue of terrorists living within communities "and sometimes what appeared to be an insignificant behaviour could potentially be linked to terrorist activities". It said the behaviour mentioned was based on trends identified by the police and evidence given in court.

Talksport said the script avoided stereotyping and made no appeals to prejudice. But the ASA concluded the ad could describe the behaviour of a number of law-abiding people within a community. "We considered that some listeners, who might identify with the behaviours referred to in the ad, could find the implication that their behaviour was suspicious, offensive. We also considered that some listeners might be offended by the suggestion that they report members of their community for acting in the way described. We therefore concluded that the ad could cause serious offence." However the ASA also found the advert was not sensationalist, nor did it encourage victimisation or make an undue appeal to fear. The ASA banned the advert in its current form.

[Sometimes I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry, or maybe give sensible people a round of applause. I don’t talk to my neighbours much….. I pay in cash from time to time and I close my curtains to keep the sun off my computer screen…. I guess that I must be acting suspiciously! Maybe I should take counter-measures… Just in case I’m under police surveillance….]

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Existentialism – A Very Short Introduction by Thomas R Flynn

Even after reading this, and other books on the subject, I’m still not exactly sure what Existentialism is. That is not to say that this was a bad book, it wasn’t. I understand where Existentialism came from (the experience of French philosophers during the German occupation) and what some of its antecedents where. I understand that, in contrast to Anglo-American philosophy, it deals with how we live our lives or more accurately how we should live our lives. I understand that it attempts to address the issues raised by the individual coming to terms with the fact of his or her existence. But I still think I’m missing something fundamental. Maybe I’m not – which is why I can’t find it. I could be looking for something that simply does not exist.

Anyway, although not exactly a walk in the park as philosophical books go I really didn’t struggle with much of this. I feel far more at home with Continental philosophy than with its trans-Atlantic cousin. To me the philosophy of France (in particular) and Germany (along with other European countries) makes sense. To me philosophy is about the choices we are presented with in our lives and the choices we make as to how to live our lives. Philosophy is about ethics and politics, about aesthetics and the meaning of life. These are questions the Existentialism attempts to answer from its own unique (very French) perspective. It is what I found so fascinating in the philosophical works of Camus and what is prompting me to read Sartre and de Beauvoir. I am intrigued by the concept of personal Authenticity and by ideas of the Absurd nature of mans relationship with the world. I am intrigued enough to read more so that I can understand exactly what attracts me to the subject. As soon as I find out I’ll let you know!

Monday, November 01, 2010

My Favourite Movies: Dirty Harry

I’m not entirely sure when I saw Dirty Harry for the first time. It’s almost certain that I didn’t see it until long after it came out at the cinema. Not even as lanky as I was back then could I pass for a 15 or even an 18 year old aged just 11. So it must have been in my mid-teens (at least) that I saw this iconic cop drama – on VHS video. Oddly, after watching some of the extra’s on the collectors edition DVD I picked up recently, the narrator said that the critics at the time saw this film as a modern urban western. As I re-watched it over the weekend I was having that very thought. Maybe it was natural for Clint Eastwood to follow up his equally iconic ‘spaghetti’ westerns with a Hollywood version? It certainly felt like that as Eastwood drove around the city tracking down the bad guy whilst fighting city hall.

The plot of the movie is a simple one. Inspector Callahan is a lone-gun and known maverick who is used to getting his own way. Unfortunately for him times change and political correctness is now in force from the top. Harry really couldn’t care less. His job, as he see’s it, is to keep the bad guys off the streets in the most direct way possible – usually by shooting them at least once. Clearly a reaction to what some saw as the less welcome aspects of a more liberal culture – sexual promiscuity, black rights and open homosexuality – Harry is a disturbingly right-wing hero who cuts through the bullshit to get the job done. Bringing down the bad guy – who has just abducted, raped and then killed a 14 year old girl – without due process, the courts let him go to commit more crimes. Fortunately for all of us Harry is there to save the day with his very large gun (compensating for what I wonder) and killer quips.

Despite being an enjoyable visceral experience this is, on some level (I almost said subtle then but little about this film is subtle) a deeply disturbing film, particularly the continually reinforced ethic that might is right and that justice – rather than law – flows from the point of a gun. In many ways Harry is a vigilantly with a badge. He decides who the bad guys are – admittedly its pretty obvious – and serves summery judgement on them. It’s all very simple – and simplistic – until the wrong person gets shot (which of course they never do in this movie). Despite the often questionable underlying ethic of this film you cannot argue that it is not iconic. The figure of Dirty Harry has become – from Bruce Willis to Arnold Schwarzenegger – reinterpreted ever since. Both of its time and strangely timeless you should see it at least once despite its sometimes dubious subtext.