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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

I have a feeling that this just won't catch on.......

2011 is UK's second warmest year on record - Met Office
From The BBC

30 December 2011

This year was the second warmest on record for the UK, the Met Office says. Provisional figures show that only 2006, with an average temperature of 9.73C (49.5F), was warmer than 2011's average temperature of 9.62C (49.3F). This year saw high temperatures for lengthy periods; including the warmest April and spring on record, the second warmest autumn and the warmest October day. Early figures suggest 2011 is ending with a "close to average" December. The Met Office said its figures were a mean temperature taken over day and night.

John Prior, national climate manager at the Met Office, said: "While it may have felt mild for many so far this December, temperatures overall have been close to what we would expect. It may be that the stark change from last year, which was the coldest December on record for the UK, has led many to think it has been unseasonably warm." All bar one of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997 and all the UK's top seven warmest years happened in the past decade. The warmest temperature recorded this year was 33.1C (91.5F) on Monday 27 June at Gravesend in Kent. The Met Office said it was the warmest temperature recorded in the UK for five years. Apart from January, the other months that had below-average temperatures were June, July and August.

Gravesend was the location for the warmest October temperature ever, when 29.9C (85.8F) was recorded on 1 October, beating the previous record of 29.4C (84.9F) in the Cambridgeshire town of March on the same day in 1985. The coldest temperature was -13C (8.6F) at Altnaharra in the Scottish Highlands on 8 January, while the strongest gust of wind was 165mph (265.5kph), recorded at the highest point of the Cairngorms mountain range on 8 December.

[This doesn’t stop Global Warming being a Myth of course…. [laughs]]

Friday, December 30, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Valentine's Resolve by E E Knight

In 2075 Earth is under new management. For over 50 years the alien Kurians have ruled with an iron fist and an insatiable lust for blood. They are effectively immortal, living in high places around the world they send out their Reapers to gather the life force of their human subjects to enhance their own. But for years now a human resistance has been growing. Winning small victories here and there they finally seem to be turning the tide. With the aid of Lifeweavers, who have enhanced the innate capabilities of some humans such as Valentine himself, they have taken the fight to the hated enemy.

But now Valentine is on his own. Abandoned by Southern Command he pursues his own agenda striking at Quislings working for the Kurian Order. However, when he is apparently captured by a special unit he thinks his days are finally numbered. But it is not to be. The ‘unit’ is made of serving Southern Command soldiers who offer him reinstatement if he accepts a covert mission from them: Travel to Seattle where a new force is successfully pushing back the territorial ambitions of one of the worlds most feared Kurians. Valentine’s mission is to join this new army and to discover its secret and to confirm the existence of a Lifeweaver amongst them – possibly the last of its breed. But as usual in a world turned upside down not everything is exactly like it seems.

This is a welcome return to form after the disappointing Valentine’s Exile. I suppose that after 6 books in a series it’s difficult to maintain the required focus and forward momentum. But the lacklustre Exile seems to have been a wobble (or quite possibly the fact that I wasn’t really in the mood at that time for another Vampire Earth novel). I found Resolve to be a more tightly scripted affair than its predecessor which certainly helped. The format (or formula) was a familiar one. We didn’t learn a whole lot more about the new world – except regarding Kurian death games and in-fighting and the rather surprising remnant of human government living deep undergrownd. We were presented with a few more mysteries regarding the apparent demise of the Lifeweavers (which I suspect are simply a different faction of Kurian) and interesting hints that the invasion of Earth was part of a much larger attack on other now Kurian occupied worlds – which of course opens up literally whole other worlds of possibilities. There are also hints of a reuniting of Valentine with his alien side-kick who apparently died in a previous novel. These things are never exactly great works of literature and should never be viewed as such. This was however an entertaining enough novel to keep me interesting in the next volume and, probably, the next 2-3 after that. Reasonable.    

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Déjà vu

My regular readers will realise that I’m a big fan of films starring Denzil Washington and an equally big fan of clever well thought out movies. In Déjà vu we have an excellent example of both.

Seemingly we are, at first, presented with a by the numbers Jerry Bruckheimer visual spectacular. But the fact that the movie is directed by Tony Scott should hint that something more than explosions and clever camera effects will be forthcoming. In the opening sequences we see a New Orleans ferry filling with hundreds of Navy personnel and their families on the way to a celebration. Before they travel too far down the river there is a huge explosion and the ferry sinks with a large loss of life. It is very soon obvious that this was no accident and that terrorism is involved. Enter ATF officer Doug Carlin played by Denzil Washington. We see him investigate the crime scene before being pulled away on an apparently unconnected death of a young black woman identified as Claire Kuchever played by Paula Patton. While trying to understand how her death firs in with the unfolding tragedy he is approached by FBI Agent Paul Pryzwarra played by Val Kilmer. He is the head of a new Task Force set up to investigate such events and wants Carlin to join the team as a local expert. Carlin quickly discovers that the new Task Forces technology is not exactly as advertised. Let in on the secret he is told that scientists working on optics at NASA accidentally discovered a way to see back in time. Although though limited in range – both in distance terms and in time – this could be a valuable tool in the war on terror. But they need to know where to look. Carlin decides to look into the life of Claire Kuchever during the 4 day window prior to her death and the attack on the ferry. As he learns more about Clire’s life he realises two things – he is beginning to discover that she can sense them watching her and he is starting to fall in love with her. When he asks if any information could be sent back to notify the authorities of the upcoming attack he is given an ambiguous answer. But the more fundamental question remains completely unknown: Can you change the past and if you can what then happens to the present?

Even without the time-travel aspects this would have been a very creditable police thriller. With those aspects added in it knocked it out of the park for me. I’m a sucker for a good cinematic portrayal of time-travel (even if its just viewing the past as it happens) and this was a very good example of that. My favourite bit – without spoiling things too much – is a ‘car chase’ along a freeway where Carlin chases the suspects car ‘now’ but also 4 days in the past using a head-mounted unit to see where he was and what he did. That to me was very clever indeed and very dramatic. All in all this was a gripping police thriller, a race against time and with more that a little SF thrown in for good measure. Good acting throughout along with high drama and rather inventive camera work add spice as well as a host of other aspects to admire. If you missed this at the cinema back in 2006 I’d recommend you fix that oversight as soon as you can. I’ve watched it three times now and have enjoyed it just as much on each viewing. Enjoy.         

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Is it Christmas yet....?



Dec. 7, 2011

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has found bright veins of a mineral, apparently gypsum, deposited by water. Analysis of the vein will help improve understanding of the history of wet environments on Mars.

"This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for Opportunity. "This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can't be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It's not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it's the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs." The latest findings by Opportunity were presented Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union's conference in San Francisco.

The vein examined most closely by Opportunity is about the width of a human thumb (0.4 to 0.8 inch), 16 to 20 inches long, and protrudes slightly higher than the bedrock on either side of it. Observations by the durable rover reveal this vein and others like it within an apron surrounding a segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. None like it were seen in the 20 miles (33 kilometers) of crater-pocked plains that Opportunity explored for 90 months before it reached Endeavour, nor in the higher ground of the rim. Last month, researchers used the Microscopic Imager and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on the rover's arm and multiple filters of the Panoramic Camera on the rover's mast to examine the vein, which is informally named "Homestake." The spectrometer identified plentiful calcium and sulfur, in a ratio pointing to relatively pure calcium sulfate.

Calcium sulfate can exist in many forms, varying by how much water is bound into the minerals' crystalline structure. The multi-filter data from the camera suggest gypsum, a hydrated calcium sulfate. On Earth, gypsum is used for making drywall and plaster of Paris. Observations from orbit have detected gypsum on Mars previously. A dune field of windblown gypsum on far northern Mars resembles the glistening gypsum dunes in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.

"It is a mystery where the gypsum sand on northern Mars comes from," said Opportunity science-team member Benton Clark of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "At Homestake, we see the mineral right where it formed. It will be important to see if there are deposits like this in other areas of Mars." The Homestake deposit, whether gypsum or another form of calcium sulfate, likely formed from water dissolving calcium out of volcanic rocks. The minerals combined with sulfur either leached from the rocks or introduced as volcanic gas, and was deposited as calcium sulfate into an underground fracture that later became exposed at the surface.

Throughout Opportunity's long traverse across Mars' Meridiani plain, the rover has driven over bedrock composed of magnesium, iron and calcium sulfate minerals that also indicate a wet environment billions of years ago. The highly concentrated calcium sulfate at Homestake could have been produced in conditions more neutral than the harshly acidic conditions indicated by the other sulfate deposits observed by Opportunity. "It could have formed in a different type of water environment, one more hospitable for a larger variety of living organisms," Clark said.

Homestake and similar-looking veins appear in a zone where the sulfate-rich sedimentary bedrock of the plains meets older, volcanic bedrock exposed at the rim of Endeavour. That location may offer a clue about their origin. "We want to understand why these veins are in the apron but not out on the plains," said the mission's deputy principal investigator, Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis. "The answer may be that rising groundwater coming from the ancient crust moved through material adjacent to Cape York and deposited gypsum, because this material would be relatively insoluble compared with either magnesium or iron sulfates."

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of extended missions and made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit stopped communicating in 2010. Opportunity continues exploring, currently heading to a sun-facing slope on the northern end of the Endeavour rim fragment called "Cape York" to keep its solar panels at a favorable angle during the mission's fifth Martian winter. NASA launched the next-generation Mars rover, the car-sized Curiosity, on Nov. 26. It is slated for arrival at the planet's Gale Crater in August 2012.

[If water flowed on the surface of Mars for long enough it might, just might, have been around long enough for life to emerge within it…. And if that life was around for long enough to evolve diversity some of it might have survived the drying conditions by, possibly, living below the surface. Mars might not be as dead as it looks at first sight. As our probes become more numerous and more sophisticated maybe one day [soon?] they will stumble upon definitive proof of life. Here’s hoping!] 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Winter Solstice at last...... Longer days ahead.................................. [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Bad Voltage by Jonathan Littell

In early 21st Century Paris Lynx, founder of the Livewires street gang, is considering his future. Now in his 20’s he’s beginning to wonder if a life causing trouble, taking drugs and playing violent war games in the underground caverns beneath the city is enough. Things come to a head when his lover is killed by the police during a daring race through the crowded city streets. Falling under the spell of rich socialite Angelique he learns how the other half, the rich and decadent, live. They have moved beyond simple pleasures into the realms of the gothic where they literally feed on the poor. Horrified at what he has witnessed he runs back to the streets but not before his spurned new lover vows that she will use her considerable resources to hunt him down and watch him die in front of her. In order to survive Lynx must draw on all his street survival skills and convince the Livewires to go to war on his behalf. Lynx also discovers he has a most unexpected ally – Angelique’s dead brother who is out for revenge.

This is another of those books that has been sitting on my shelf for years. Written in 1989 it is a prime example of the art of Cyberpunk. Full of street-talk (which took a bit of getting used to but once you got the hang of it became very easy to follow), fast action, sex, drugs, violence and techno-babble it certainly gave anything that Gibson produced a run for its money. Rooted in the streets, where all Cyberpunk belongs, this even had its own soundtrack (helpfully fleshed out in the appendix – I kid you not) which was unique as far as I know. With strong characterisation throughout, nice bits of world political commentary, cool technology – some of which was believable – and more action that should be packed into a single volume this was a seriously fun and engaging read. In many ways this is very adult SF, not just for the violence, sex (both gay and straight) and repeated drug use but for the overall tone. It is certainly not for the faint hearted or easily shocked. But don’t let that put you off. This is a quality piece of Cyberpunk that should definitely be on the shelves of anyone interested in that ground breaking genre. Highly recommended.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Catholicism – A Very Short Introduction by Gerald O’Collins

I have been accused (more than once) of simply not understanding religion which is the reason I laugh and poke fun at it as if it makes no sense. I have also been accused (more than once) of being an Atheist because of my ignorance. If only I made the effort to understand (I am told) rather being simply dismissive I would appreciate the religious viewpoint more and decide to join them. There is at lest some truth in these statements. I am largely ignorant of the religious viewpoint on things. I have never lived inside ‘the bubble’ (as I call it) that religious people seem to inhabit. I have tried, from outside the bubble, to understand exactly where they’re coming from. Even in Europe it’s hard not to come across religious people from time to time and just like rats you are never that far from a church of one denomination or another. So having a general understanding of religion in all its myriad forms can come in handy when you try to understand the world around you. After all the past at least has been deeply shaped by religious considerations and if we do not understand the past it makes understanding the present and the future much more difficult.

To finally arrive at the point I’m trying to make I’ve made another (unfortunately abortive) attempt to understand at least a small part of the religious spectrum by reading this book on Catholicism. As a nominal member of that particular faith (having been baptised into it at a very early age) I thought that after 50 or so years it was about time I learnt something about it. There is however no need to worry – the possibility of me becoming a practicing Catholic in the foreseeable future is rather more unlikely than the imminent discovery of the Higgs boson. So I tried to read a 126 page book on the basics of the Catholic faith that was part of a series of books I hold in high regard. I made it to page 72 before I realised that I couldn’t really go on with it. When I thought about reviewing it here I realised at that point that I had no clear idea what those 72 pages had said. Most of it was, at least to me, incomprehensible gibberish. It was clearly not aimed at the non-Christian reader as I found assumption piled on unvoiced definition which lost me at every turn. I thought that maybe if I read a bit further some sort of explanation would be presented and everything would fall into place. Maybe at some point after page 72 such an epiphany might indeed have taken place. I guess that I’ll never find out. This may be a useful, informative and even well written book for those with a Christian mindset but for someone who’s knowledge of the whole area is rather scanty at best it was basically a waste of paper. At least I tried, that’s something I suppose. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ahhhh…. Guinness….. [smacks lips]

Thinking About: Christmas

As some of you will remember last Christmas didn’t work out exactly as planned. Because of heavy snowfall around this time 12 months ago my journey north stopped at the half-way point after being informed that my family had been snowed in – leaving me snowed out. So I decided this year to have my Christmas trip home in September and my actual Christmas here rather than there. Rather typically, apart from a few hail showers and the occasional episode of sleet, we’ve seen no snow here and, as far as I’m aware, not a lot around where my family live. None is forecast until after the middle of next week at the earliest. But so it goes….

So here I am at the beginning of a 17 day break over Christmas and New Year. It’s a break I really needed and I have been looking forward to the time off work for several months now. My plans, such as they are, are simple ones. I’m looking forward to:

Getting up on 17 consecutive days in the daylight without the ‘aid’ of an alarm clock.

Watching around 10 movies on DVD – some of which I haven’t seen before.

Reading 6-8 books. It would’ve been many more (I think I read 12 last year) but as I’m here and not at my Mum’s I have both Internet access and my computer games to occupy my time.

Listening to lots and lots of music.

Having lots of computer game time.

Eating far too many snacks and other things that are generally bad for me. I also picked up some nice real ale and a few bottles of alcoholic ginger beer which I’m looking forward to.

It is, all in all, going to be a very relaxing 17 days. There is even a slim possibility that I might get bored. Fortunately over the years I have become quite adept at entertaining myself. I have also, though necessity, developed a pretty high boredom threshold. By the middle of next week I’ll be fairly humming along, coasting into the New Year and totally chilled by the time I’m back in office on the 3rd Jan…… and relax…. [grin]

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Fly in the Cathedral – How a small group of Cambridge scientists won the race to split the atom by Brian Cathcart

The history of 20th Century science – particularly that of physics – has long fascinated me. At the end of the previous century it was considered that just about everything about the physical universe was understood. Only a few niggling problems remained to be solved. One of these problems concerned the nature of light whilst another sought to understand the structure of the atom. As scientists throughout the world delved into these areas instead of answering questions they generated more and worse still produced mysteries that seemed to be beyond anyone’s understanding.

In Cambridge the great New Zealand eccentric Lord Rutherford determined that the only way any of this would be understood is by experiment after experiment until something shook free. But first his team needed to build sophisticated enough apparatus to produce the effects that generated enough results for the theoreticians to work with and that apparatus was at the very edge of existing technology. They were stuck in the classic chicken and egg scenario. But slowly throughout the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s they managed to push forward the underlying technology they needed to run experiments at high enough voltages to produce the effects they needed. On lab desks throughout Europe and the US scientists, technicians and engineers built the very first particle accelerators – atom smashers – that first chipped away at the atomic structure and later smashed it completely.

All of this, painfully pieced together over decades by some of the greatest minds that ever lived, is one of the greatest stories ever told and one that is in the headlines again today as we edge closer to understanding where mass comes from with on-going search for the Higgs Boson. Needless to say the understanding of particle physics is fundamental to our understanding of the universe, everything that exists within it and probably why it exists in the first place. There is much within this field that I do not understand and probably never will. Yet I find the subject endlessly fascinating so keep trying to at least form an appreciation of what’s going on in the field and gain at least a partial understanding of how it all works. This book helped by filling in some of the historical background and a little of the actual science too. Being aimed at the lay reader it only assumes an interest in the subject and a very basic knowledge of atoms. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. The story of the very first atom smashers is a very human tale of men (and some women) that needed to know how everything fitted together. From there early discoveries to the present day we are finally approaching that very point – or at least so it seems. Maybe there is something just around the corner that will blow everything we think we know clean out of the water. That’s the real excitement of science. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Streets of Fire

After posting a few very recent movies reviews we move back into one of my favourite eras – the 1980’s. Now the 80’s as decades go was shitty on several levels but it did manage to produce some great music and more than a few great films. Although this example can hardly be called great it is very typical of the age and did have some really good songs – so much so that I bought the soundtrack which remains one of my favourites.

Oddly this example of 80’s style is based in a very stylised 50’s New York (at least it seems like New York). As the movie opens the singing sensation Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is about to go on stage in her home town. During the first song the concert is disrupted by a violent biker gang called The Bombers intent on kidnapping the singer. Raven, their leader (Willem Defoe), is obsessed with her and wants them to ‘fall in love’ for a few weeks. In desperation a local dinner owner Reva Cody (the lovely Deborah Van Valkenburgh) calls her brother – Ellen’s old flame – so save her. So enters the hero of the piece – Tom Cody (Michael Pare) – who proceeds to annoy just about everyone he meets in his quest to get Ellen back. Tagging along for the ride is McCoy (Amy Madigan) and Ellen’s manager/boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis). They need to travel deep into Bomber territory and make it back in one piece, something that Raven is not going to let them do easily.

This is one of those films where the style outshines the actual story which is fairly basic and the acting which honestly isn’t that great. But it is the look, the feel and most of all the sound of it that struck a cord with me when I first saw it over 25 years ago. Filmed in a mix of intense colour and shades of grey deepening to black it is visually arresting if not unique. In step with the rest of the film the 50’s look is oddly contrasted with a clearly 80’s soundtrack (some of which is lip-synched by Diane Lane in concert and – rather surprisingly in one scene – on a video juke box) from artists such as Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Ry Cooder (who did the incidental music) and at least 3 songs by Jim Steinman which I’ve been humming bits of since watching this movie on Saturday.

As this flopped at the cinema there’s a good chance you’ve never seen or heard of this film. I only saw it way back when because my brother was experimenting and picked it up in the video store. It made a big impression on both of us and after watching it again just a few days ago it still got my foot tapping and Ellen Aim is still singing her heart out in my head. This is a classic little movie in more ways than one. If you’re an 80’s fan like me you’ll love it.        

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jurassic Pork...?

Kepler 22-b: Earth-like planet confirmed

From The BBC

5 December 2011

Astronomers have confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet in the "habitable zone" around a star not unlike our own. The planet, Kepler 22-b, lies about 600 light-years away and is about 2.4 times the size of Earth, and has a temperature of about 22C. It is the closest confirmed planet yet to one like ours - an "Earth 2.0". However, the team does not yet know if Kepler 22-b is made mostly of rock, gas
or liquid.

During the conference at which the result was announced, the Kepler team also said that it had spotted some 1,094 new candidate planets - nearly doubling the telescope's haul of potential far-flung worlds. Kepler 22-b was one of 54 exoplanet candidates in habitable zones reported by the Kepler team in February, and is just the first to be formally confirmed using other telescopes. More of these "Earth 2.0" candidates are likely to be confirmed in the near future, though a redefinition of the habitable zone's boundaries has brought that number down to 48. Ten of those are Earth-sized.

The Kepler space telescope was designed to look at a fixed swathe of the night sky, staring intently at about 150,000 stars. The telescope is sensitive enough to see when a planet passes in front of its host star, dimming the star's light by a minuscule amount. Kepler identifies these slight changes in starlight as candidate planets, which are then confirmed by further observations by Kepler and other telescopes in orbit and on Earth. Kepler 22-b lies 15% closer to its sun than the Earth is to our Sun, and its year takes about 290 days. However, the planet's host star puts out about 25% less light, keeping the planet at its balmy temperature that would support the existence of liquid water. The Kepler team had to wait for three passes of the planet before upping its status from ‘candidate’ to ‘confirmed’.

"Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet," said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at Nasa's Ames Research Center. "The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season." The results were announced at the Kepler telescope's first science conference, alongside the staggering number of new candidate planets. The total number of candidates spotted by the telescope is now 2,326 - of which 207 are approximately Earth-sized. In total, the results suggest that planets ranging from Earth-sized to about four times Earth's size - so-called "super-Earths" - may be more common than previously thought. As candidates for planets similar to Earth are confirmed, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) has a narrower focus for its ongoing hunt. "This is a superb opportunity for Seti observations," said Jill Tarter, the director of the Center for Seti Research at the Seti Institute. "For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems - including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analogue in the habitable zone around its host star.

[Brilliant news! Let’s hope that SETI is pointing their radio telescopes at that sucker right now…… Who knows what they pick up….?]

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

On the streets of a not too distant future Bangkok undercover company man Anderson Lake has made a startling discovery – a new kind of fruit seemingly completely immune to the host of bio-engineered plagues running rampant across the globe. Millions of people are already dead and billions more live on the edge of starvation or in constant fear that a cough or otherwise innocuous rise in body temperature might be the first stage in a frightening new disease. But the fruit holds out some hope that mankind can once again dominate the world’s ecosystems rather than constantly react to the every changing and ever more deadly environment. Meanwhile the Japanese are developing a different response to the bio-crisis. In their labs they are producing New People - ‘more Japanese than the Japanese’ - used as slaves, soldiers and sex toys. One such toy is Emiko – a Windup Girl designed to bring endless pleasure to bored Japanese executives working away from the Homeland. Abandoned on the teeming streets of Bangkok where her kind are outlawed she must face daily degradation to survive. When she meets Lake in a seedy nightclub he gives her hope for a better future by telling her of villages deep in the hills where the Windups live without masters. But Emiko has a different fate ahead of her, one that is deeply entwined with the future of the city itself.

This was another of those books I picked up in one of the ‘3 for 2’ offers at my local bookshop. It’s a great way to experiment with new authors or less read genres. Initially I thought this was either Cyberpunk or possibly future based Steampunk (if that isn’t an actual contradiction): I found to my surprise, and honest delight, that it was neither. I don’t know if this sub-genre has a name yet but I’m going to coin the term Genepunk. With luck I’ll be the first person to use the term and I’ll be remembered for decades because of it. Anyway, the future world brilliantly imagined by the author is one where the old oil-based economies have collapsed. At the time of this story the old Great Powers are at last resurgent thanks to genetic engineering and a world wide ruthless use of industrial espionage. Whole countries have fallen in the wake of agents from the various western agricultural conglomerates. Bangkok is determined not to be numbered amongst them. It is in the offices and on the streets of this incredibly detailed and totally believable city that the well drawn characters play out their parts in the great drama to come. You can smell the rotting decay, feel the crushing humidity and the constant jostling of the millions of refugees who will do anything to live just one more day. It is not a place I’d like to live in nor one I’d like very much to visit except in my imagination but I couldn’t help but be drawn into this detailed, well rendered and above all else heartbreakingly believable world. The memory of those few virtual days in future Bangkok will remain with me for many months. One of the best books I’ve read this year and in consequence highly recommended.    

Monday, December 05, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Limitless

In some ways (actually in many ways) this is an odd film. But in another way it is very modern. This is a film about instant gratification – or at least practically instant. It’s a film about someone who gets almost everything he wants with the minimal effort required to swallow a pill. This is a film about drugs pure and simple. Eddie Morra is a struggling writer – struggling indeed to write the first word. His long suffering girlfriend (played by the gorgeous Abbie Cornish) has decided to leave him and he’s at a low point in his life. Enter the rather seedy brother of his ex-wife who offers him a ‘FDA approved’ drug called NZT. Thinking he has nothing to lose he pops it and finds to his amazement that all of his mental facilities go into overdrive. But how does he use this new found ability? To get his landlords girlfriend into bed! Desperate for another ‘hit’ he contacts his ex-brother in law and that’s when everything starts to spiral out of control. Eddie now has a stash of NZT but both the police and the mob want to know how he’s involved. Using the drug to make money – after finishing his book in a few hours of frantic typing – he begins to get noticed by the rich and powerful. It is only then, as things start to get very good indeed, that the side-effects and stories of what happened to previous users come to light. Eddie now has a choice – stay on the drug to keep gaining money and power or come off it and possibly die from withdrawal symptoms. That’s if the mob doesn’t find and kill him first.

This is an interesting film in many ways. It deals with personal, political and philosophical issues in ways you don’t often see in modern movies. It looks into the mind of an average no future, no hope individual and shows what would probably happen if you could light up their mind like a Christmas tree. Inevitably because, as the rather wasted Robert De Niro character rightly said, he hasn’t earned any of his abilities through hard work and experience he responds as a child would respond in a candy store – reaching out for the most obvious objects. In Eddie’s case it was sex, money and finally political power. These were shallow dreams from an essentially shallow man. He achieved his aims but where they really worthy of achievement by someone who could see peoples moves before they even thought of making them, for someone who could see patterns in data that no one could even conceive of never mind see. Eddie largely got what he wanted but personally I don’t think he got very much. He certainly wasn’t using his newly enhanced brain power for anything productive. He merely used it to use the system to his advantage which I thought was a huge waste of talent. At least that’s what I took away from the film. Other people might just see it as a cool film about what money and power can get you – basically more money and more power. To me this was a kind of morality play saying that getting what you want is less important than knowing what you want. To me it was saying that sex, money and power are all very nice but that’s not the point. I think that Eddie was just beginning to realise this (or was just about to start realising this) at the end of the movie. He was beyond the manipulation of others, had sorted out his supply issues and had conquered the side effects. Now he could start using NZT properly – if only he could figure out how to do that! Looking beyond the razzmatazz and deeper into the sub-text this was an interesting look at what it means to live in a modern capitalistic society and, more importantly, how not to live.        

Sunday, December 04, 2011

“Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.”

Richard Dawkins.
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

By Jason Palmer for BBC News
22 March 2011

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers. The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation. The team's mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one. The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries. Nonlinear dynamics is invoked to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part. One of the team, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, put forth a similar model in 2003 to put a numerical basis behind the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.

At its heart is the competition between speakers of different languages, and the "utility" of speaking one instead of another. "The idea is pretty simple," said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. "It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. "For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there's some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not." The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. Some of the census data the team used date from the 19th century "In a large number of modern secular democracies, there's been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%," Dr Wiener said.

The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the "non-religious" category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction. However, Dr Wiener told the conference that the team was working to update the model with a "network structure" more representative of the one at work in the world. "Obviously we don't really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society," he said. However, he told BBC News that he thought it was "a suggestive result". "It's interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going. Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out."

[Whilst I’m sceptical enough not to base much on statistical modelling it is interesting that nine countries could be effectively religion free - if trends continue - in an (admittedly) indefinite period in the future. It makes you wonder…….] 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Buried Soul – How Humans Invented Death by Timothy Taylor

This is actually quite a difficult book to write a meaningful précis of. As the sub-title suggests it’s about death – or rather the human cultural construct our species has designed around it to help societies cope with our inevitable mortality. Yet as with most things human there is a hierarchy of responses determined by social standing. Slaves seem to have been casually discarded almost without further thought. Human bones – both adult and children – have long been discovered in tribal rubbish heaps. For most of human history women have generally been treated similarly unless they are particularly highborn and even then their burials seem to reflect more the wealth of their husbands rather than their own status (with notable exceptions). It is only when the powerful die that the full impact of human mortality comes to the forefront of our cultural response to death. It is here that we are presented with leaders buried in their ships often surrounded by their dead servants and retainers. It is hear that we see the construction of innumerable barrows throughout Europe and the great pyramids of Egypt. It is here that the author presents an interesting hypothesis – that burial, with all of the associated ceremony and the final internment of the body is only partially the result of grief on the part of the leader’s subject population. Primarily, the author maintains, it is because they fear that the now disembodied soul will return to cause harm amongst the living. This is the reason for the elaborate tombs of the ancients with their hidden passages and dead ends. Not to keep grave robbers out – which they generally failed to do – but to keep the souls of the angry dead confined and confused. The dead were confused by the noise and pomp of ceremony, then bribed by the burial of grave goods, then locked away beneath the earth where they could do no harm. It’s certainly an interesting twist on what seems on the face of it a reverence for the recently departed tribal leader.

Attitudes to death and the dead have varied widely (and wildly) across the world and across the eons. There appears to be a great deal of evidence that we have eaten our dead until comparatively recently. Some societies literally live on top of the graves of their ancestors, others give up the bodies of their relatives to carrion birds and then reverently keep the bones of their dead as mementoes. We in the modern West are odd in that we distance ourselves from death with many of us never actually seeing a dead body (I personally have never seen one). This distancing is, again, a very recent phenomenon. Throughout the book the author never fails to make the point that our attitudes to death, despite being driven by the same fears and anxieties founded on the mysteries of mortality, have ranged through a very wide range indeed because, like much else, they are culturally and historically determined. The reaction to the universal fact of death is filtered through the accumulated culture of each society. Activities which seem strange, bizarre or just plain wrong when seen from the outside can seem perfectly reasonable when seen from the inside. Picking your way through that particular cultural mine-field is far from simple. Books like this, however, make such endeavours at least a little easier by bringing to the notice of those who might encounter such things some explanation of why certain groups act as they do. This is a must read for anyone interested in cultural anthropology or for those interesting in how humanity has tried over its long and bloody history to cope with death. Not always a fun read or a comfortable one it is however simply fascinating.