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

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Best Books of 2007

I reviewed 52 books here in 2007. These are my Top 5 from that year – in chronological reading order:

Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams
Blood of Victory by Alan Furst
Conventions of War by Walter Jon Williams
Way of the Wolf by E E Knight
The Feast of All Saints by Anne Rice

The Best Books of 2008

I also reviewed 52 books here in 2008. These are my Top 5 from that year – in chronological reading order:

Permutation City by Greg Egan
The Algebraist by Iain M Banks
The World without Us by Alan Weisman
Black Mass – Apocalyptic Religion and the death of Utopia by John Gray
The Gunpowder Plot – Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Humans 'left Africa much earlier'

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

27 January 2011

Modern humans may have emerged from Africa up to 50,000 years earlier than previously thought, a study suggests. Researchers have uncovered stone tools in the Arabian peninsula that they say were made by modern humans about 125,000 years ago. The tools were unearthed at the site of Jebel Faya in the United Arab Emirates, a team reports in the journal Science. The results are controversial: genetic data strongly points to an exodus from Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago. Simon Armitage, from Royal Holloway, University of London, Hans-Peter Uerpmann, from the University of Tuebingen, Germany, and colleagues, uncovered 125,000-year-old stone tools at Jebel Faya which resemble those found in East Africa at roughly the same time period. The authors of the study say the people who made the tools were newcomers in the area with origins on the other side of the Red Sea. The researchers were able to date the tools using a light-based technique, which tells scientists when the stone artefacts were buried.

So-called anatomically modern humans are thought to have emerged somewhere in Africa some 200,000 years ago. They later spread out, migrating to other continents where they displaced the indigenous human groups such as the Neanderthals in Europe and the Denisovans in Asia. DNA from the cell's powerhouses - or mitochondria - can be used as a "clock" for reconstructing the timing of human migrations. This is because mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) accumulates mutations, or changes, at a known rate. Researchers used a dating technique that relies on when the tools were buried Studies of mtDNA had suggested a timing for the "Out of Africa" exodus of 60-70,000 years ago. But scientists behind the latest study argue that the people who made tools at Jebel Faya 125,000 years ago are ancestral to humans living outside Africa today. Professor Uerpmann said the estimates of time using genetic data were "very rough". "The domestic dog was said to be 120,000 years old, and now it is 20,000. You can imagine how variable the genetic dating is," he explained.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at London's Natural History Museum, said: "This archaeological work by Armitage and colleagues provides important clues that early modern humans might have dispersed from Africa across Arabia, as far as the Straits of Hormuz, by 120,000 years ago. "This research augments the controversial idea that such populations could have migrated even further across southern Asia, despite conflicting genetic data that such movements only occurred after 60,000 years." The researchers say the toolmakers at Jebel Faya may have reached the Arabian Peninsula at a time when changes in the climate were transforming it from arid desert into a grassland habitat with lakes and rivers. These human groups could later have moved on towards the Persian Gulf, trekking around the Iranian coast and on to South Asia. Indeed, Dr Mike Petraglia at the University of Oxford has uncovered tools in India that he says could have been made by modern humans before 60,000 years ago. Some tools were sandwiched in ash from the eruption of the Toba super-volcano in Indonesia that geologists can date very accurately to 74,000 years ago. However, other researchers suggest that the people living in India at this time could have died out and been replaced by a later wave of humans. Anthropologists already knew of an early foray out of Africa by modern humans. Remains found at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel date to between 119,000 and 81,000 years ago. But the Skhul and Qafzeh people are generally thought to have died out or retreated south, perhaps because of climatic fluctuations. They subsequently disappear, and their sites are re-occupied by Neanderthals. Professor Stringer said the fact that the tools found at Jebel Faya did not resemble those associated with modern humans at Qafzeh and Skhul hinted at "yet more complexity in the exodus of modern humans from Africa". He posed the question: "Could there have been separate dispersals, one from East Africa into Arabia, and another from North Africa into the Levant?"

[The very early history of our species is still largely unknown to us and, therefore, any potential breakthrough such as this has huge implications. It will be interesting to see what other evidence for the earlier migration of humanity emerges in the next few years. Always fascinating stuff….]

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Feminism – A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters

The title was a bit of a misnomer here. This interesting short volume was actually about the history of the rise of Feminism in England during the last 200 years or so. I suppose that a 140 page introduction to the whole gamut of Feminist history and writing would just be far too general to actually mean anything or far too fragmentary to make much sense.

I was rather surprised to see this book start with the religious roots of Feminism – believing that Christianity at least was deeply misogynistic. Reading the opening chapter actually failed to disabuse me of this idea despite, or maybe because of, the early attempts by religious females to become recognised as a valuable contributor – beyond the production of babies and the means to feed them. Apparently this cut little ice with the male dominated religion of the time. Only, it seems, with the increasingly secular 17th century – no doubt helped by the upheaval of the Civil Wars – did recognisably modern Feminism begin to emerge. The 18th century saw the increasing influence of women such as Mary Wollstonecraft with the publication of her Vindication of the Rights of Women [which is on my ‘to read’ list]. But it was the 19th century, with the rise of the Suffragists and the Suffragettes, that really saw true social progress for women. With the achievement of the Vote and greater penetration into the workplace it seemed like much had been achieved but as the 20th century progressed it became clear that there was still much to do – including the female regulation of reproduction and the fight against both conscious and unconscious male domination. These fights persist today.

Although much of this book was not exactly new to me it still, in conjunction with several other books I have been reading lately, concentrated the mind onto the plight of women who suffered, from a modern perspective, to an intolerable degree until comparatively recently. The advantages that many take for granted today – and sometimes openly disparage – have a long and contested history which should be appreciated in the same vein as the fight against slavery and other abuses of basic humanity. I fail to understand why, throughout most of our history, women have been treated as second class citizens at best and far too often as chattels to be disposed of as men see fit. Books such as this remind those who need reminding that today’s more enlightened view – at least in the West – is a fairly recent phenomenon and should not be taken too lightly or for granted. Women still have things to gain and much to lose. Recommended.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Leviathan’s Deep by Jayge Carr

In their ever expanding need to seek out new markets the Terrene have begun to exploit the world of Delyafam. On the face of things it will be a push-over. The Delyene are a primitive Bronze Age civilisation based around a warrior culture and steeped in the ideas of honour and duty. But they pose no direct threat to the humans. They are outgunned and out-‘scienced’ at every turn. It seems that assimilation is inevitable and that any form of resistance to a much stronger invading culture is dangerously pointless. The Lady Kimassu thinks otherwise. A virtual outcast in her own society because of the paleness of her skin, she is captured and held hostage by the captain of the human star ship because of her perceived beauty. When he fails to indoctrinate her to human ways and human values she becomes the Terrene’s most implacable enemy. So begins a fight for the world of Delyafam and for the soul of the Delyene.

I couldn’t help wondering if James Cameron had read this novel since its publication in 1979. Throughout the novel I couldn’t help thinking of scenes from Avatar or, maybe, the author was simply channelling the story of Pocahontas which they could share as a common originating idea? In either case it was a little off-putting to say the least. But even saying that, this was an interesting, well told and dramatic tale of the clash of cultures and technologies we have seen throughout world history and something that will, no doubt, be seen on other worlds if we even get there and meet other ‘people’ already occupying them. If we’re lucky (in one sense at least) it will be us doing the assimilating. If not we will be on the receiving end of a very dirty stick.

It is books like this, I believe, that laid the seed that grew into my fascination with other cultures. The description of the alien Delyene is fascinating: A Matriarchal Bronze Age warrior culture whose evolutionary ancestors were fish (not that long ago) who had lived much the way they had been found for thousands of years. The society itself intrigued me a great deal and would be an Anthropologists dream to study. It is this that made the book so readable for me. The clash between human and alien cultures – whilst interesting enough – was very much of secondary appeal. All in all, especially considering that this was it was Ms Carr’s first novel, this was an enjoyable read and is recommended to anyone with an interest in ‘alien’ cultures.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Risks of cyber war 'over-hyped' says OECD study

From the BBC

The vast majority of hi-tech attacks described as acts of cyber war do not deserve the name, says a report. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study is part of a series considering incidents that could cause global disruption. While pandemics and financial instability could cause problems, cyber attacks are unlikely to, it says. Instead, trouble caused by cyber attacks is likely to be localised and short-lived. However, it warns that governments need to plan for how it could mitigate the effects of both accidental and deliberate events.

Attempts to quantify the potential damage that hi-tech attacks could cause and develop appropriate responses are not helped by the hyperbolic language used to describe these incidents, said the OECD report. "We don't help ourselves using 'cyberwar' to describe espionage or hacktivist blockading or defacing of websites, as recently seen in reaction to WikiLeaks," said Professor Peter Sommer, visiting professor at LSE who co-wrote the report with Dr Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute. "Nor is it helpful to group trivially avoidable incidents like routine viruses and frauds with determined attempts to disrupt critical national infrastructure," added Prof Sommer. The report acknowledged the risk of a catastrophic cyber incident, such as a solar flare that could knock out satellites, base stations and net hardware, but said that the vast majority of incidents seen today were almost trivial in comparison as they did not last long and only hit a few people or organisations. Attempts to decide how to deal with the wide variety of potential attacks and attackers were being hampered because words used to describe incidents meant different things to different groups. For instance, it said, an "attack" could mean phishing e-mails trying to steal passwords, a virus outbreak or a concerted stealthy attempt to break into a computer system. "Rolling all these activities into a single statistic leads to grossly misleading conclusions," said the report. "There is even greater confusion in the ways in which losses are estimated."

The report also played down the risk of a conflict between nation states being played out over the net. "It is unlikely that there will ever be a true cyberwar," said the report, most likely because no aggressor would stick to one class of weaponry. Also, it said, existing defences and the unpredictable effects of such an attack could limit its effectiveness. However, it noted, that even if a cyberwar is unlikely to ever happen, there was no doubt that the weapons used in such a theatre of war were becoming ubiquitous and would likely be used in the future alongside conventional weapons as "force multipliers". Under the heading of cyber weapons the report included viruses, worms, trojans, distributed-denial-of-service using botnets and unauthorised access to computers ie hacking. Finally, it said, while the net may be a vector for attack it might also help in the event of a large-scale event. "If appropriate contingency plans are in place, information systems can support the management of other systemic risks," it said. "They can provide alternate means of delivering essential services and disseminate the latest news and advice on catastrophic events, reassuring citizens and hence dampening the potential for social discontent and unrest."

[It would appear that we’ve had a breakout of common sense, reason and proportionality. It would also appear that (shocked look) a fear has been over-hyped. Well, I never……….]

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Just Finished Reading: An Attack on an Enemy of Freedom by Cicero

Shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar the great orator and lawyer Cicero gave a series of speeches in the Roman Senate attacking the political ambitions of Marc Antony. In the two polemics contained in this slim volume Cicero, with surgical precision, eviscerates Antony’s character and undermines his crude attempts to take power in Caesar’s place.

Easy to read and very powerful, these speeches are delightfully acerbic. Dripping with poisoned sarcasm they show just how dangerous a talented public speaker can be to the naked ambition of a lesser man. I probably missed some of the nuanced effect due to my relative ignorance of the events following the demise of Caesar. However, it was hard to miss the unrelenting assault on Antony and I for one would not have liked being on the receiving end of Cicero’s tongue lashing. Not surprisingly after the polemics failed to have the desired effect of denying Marc Antony a position of power, Antony had Cicero assassinated.

This was one of the series of Penguin Great Ideas books which are, generally, very good indeed (if sometimes extracts from much larger works). This is no exception and gives an insight into events taking place at the very beginnings of the Roman Empire. Interesting both from an historical and political point of view.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Hancock

I know that some of you will be surprised that what is an essentially light comedy vehicle for Will Smith turns out to be one of my favourite films – but bare with me. For those who missed this little gem the story is quite a simple one (at least on the surface). Smith plays the eponymous Hancock, a superhero with no memory of his early life and a serious attitude problem. Hancock is also a drunken bum who’s attempts to help people and save lives inevitably go wrong. Basically he’s a super fuck-up. Of course, being basically invulnerable, the authorities are powerless to stop him. That is only part of the problem. Hancock is on a downward spiral of self destruction and there seems to be no one who can stop him. Until that is he saves the life of PR executive Ray played by Jason Bateman who, to pay back the debt, decides to turn Hancock’s life around with the power of Public Relations. But on meeting his wife, played by Charlize Theron, there is an immediate attraction between the two which spells trouble ahead.

..and now the spoilers.

At this point the movie changes tack rather radically and it is here that, for me at least, the movie moves from interesting to something special. But not because of the romantic complications of a drunken super-hero, no. The thing that took me by surprise was that Hancock is not alone. He is not the last, or only, one of his kind. Theron is the only other living super-hero or, as she points out, angel or god – the labels being simply a case of historical and cultural semantics. They are in fact a matched pair, created that way thousands of years ago to protect humankind. But there’s a catch – as there always is. Only when they are apart can they remain super and invulnerable to harm. When they get too close for too long they become mortal and can be killed which, she tells him, is what happened to the others. For their own safety they have to live separate lives despite their long history together. For me that tragic element makes the movie for me. It is the choice they have to make between being apart literally forever or together for a very brief time (whilst at the same time leaving humanity vulnerable). It is clearly a tough choice.

The baddies in the movie are ordinary bad-guys from central casting. What they discover, much to their pleasure, is that they can harm Hancock in his weakened state. So the choice is forced on him as he struggles for his own and his eternal lover’s life. It is all, as you can imagine, very dramatic. Of course, being a Will Smith film, there is plenty of opportunity for his particular brand of humour which hasn’t really changed much since his days in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Taken as a light action-comedy this movie is entertaining enough for its 88 minute runtime. Looking deeper at the tragic side of the Smith-Theron relationship it is, I believe, something more. It’s certainly one of the very few ‘super-hero’ films that I can stand to watch more than once. If you haven’t seen it before for whatever reason I can only recommend that you give it a chance and be prepared to really, really like it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

US Drone Attacks Are No Laughing Matter, Mr. Obama

by Mehdi Hasan for The Guardian

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Speaking at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in May, Barack Obama spotted teen pop band the Jonas Brothers in the audience. "Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but, boys, don't get any ideas," deadpanned the president, referring to his daughters. "Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming." The crowd laughed, Obama smiled, the dinner continued. Few questioned the wisdom of making such a tasteless joke; of the US commander-in-chief showing such casual disregard for the countless lives lost abroad through US drone attacks.

From the moment he stepped foot inside the White House, Obama set about expanding and escalating a covert CIA programme of "targeted killings" inside Pakistan, using Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles (who comes up with these names?) that had been started by the Bush administration in 2004. On 23 January 2009, just three days after being sworn in, Obama ordered his first set of air strikes inside Pakistan; one is said to have killed four Arab fighters linked to al-Qaida but the other hit the house of a pro-government tribal leader, killing him and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child. Obama's own daughter, Sasha, was seven at the time. But America's Nobel-peace-prize-winning president did not look back. During his first nine months in office he authorised as many aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W Bush did in his final three years in the job. And this year has seen an unprecedented number of air strikes. Forget Mark Zuckerberg or the iPhone 4 – 2010 was the year of the drone. According to the New America Foundation thinktank in Washington DC, the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan more than doubled in 2010, to 115. That is an astonishing rate of around one bombing every three days inside a country with which the US is not at war.

And the carnage continues. On Monday, CIA drones fired six missiles at two vehicles in a "Taliban stronghold" in north Waziristan, on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, killing 18 "militants". Or so said "Pakistani intelligence officials", speaking under condition of anonymity to the Associated Press. Today another round of drone strikes is thought to have killed at least 15 "militants" in the same area. These attacks by unmanned aircraft may have succeeded in eliminating hundreds of dangerous militants, but the truth is that they also kill innocent civilians indiscriminately and in large numbers. According to the New America Foundation, one in four of those killed by drones since 2004 has been an innocent. The Brookings Institute, however, has calculated a much higher civilian-to-militant ratio of 10:1. Meanwhile, figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities suggest US strikes killed 701 people between January 2006 and April 2009, of which 14 were al-Qaida militants and 687 were civilians. That produces a hit rate of just 2% – or 50 civilians dead for every militant killed.

The majority of Pakistanis are against the use of drones in the tribal areas on the Afghan border. Their own government, however, despite public opposition to the bombings, has in private expressed support for America's drones. "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is quoted as saying, in a 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks. "We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it." This is not a left/right issue; criticisms of the drone strikes have come from figures as diverse as Sir Brian Burridge, the UK's former air chief marshal in Iraq, who has described the aerial slaughter inflicted from afar by unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft as a "virtueless war"; and Andrew Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and former adviser to General David Petraeus, who says that each innocent victim of a drone strike "represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased". Kilcullen is spot on. The cold-blooded killing of Pakistani civilians in a push-button, PlayStation-style drone war is not just immoral and perhaps illegal, it is futile and self-defeating from a security point of view. Take Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square bomber. One of the first things the Pakistani-born US citizen said upon his arrest was: "How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan." Asked by the judge at his trial as to how he could justify planting a bomb near innocent women and children, Shahzad responded by saying that US drone strikes "don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody."

But the innocent victims of America's secret drone war have become "unpeople", in the words of the historian Mark Curtis – those whose lives are seen as expendable in the pursuit of the west's foreign policy goals. Killed via remote control, they remain unseen and unremembered. Forgive me, Mr President, for not seeing the funny side.

[On the face of it this targeted killing may seem like a good thing. Enemies are dead and no American lives are lost. But the so-called collateral damage will, I believe, merely result in larger problems for the future. When children grow up who have lost parents and siblings to American drone attacks who do you think they will blame and what do you think they will do? I certainly know what I would do with my every waking hour. Winds are being sown and sooner or later whirlwinds will be reaping.]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Bluestockings – The remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson

I have a problem with prejudice and discrimination. My problem is that I don’t understand it. When I meet someone I don’t think of them as a member of any particular group. I see that as a unique individual rather than an example of a ‘race’, colour, gender or sexual orientation. Knowing that you’ll have a clearer understanding why some of the attitudes in this book perplexed me.

It would seem that there has always been opposition, until very recently, to the idea of educating women – at all. Not only where they considered to be basically unable to reason in the same way men did but that too much thinking could make women sterile – or worse, independently minded. The early resistance to the very idea of teaching women anything other than how to run an effective household was staggering which made the pioneers of women’s education all the more heroic. These often forgotten women (and a few men) fought against prejudice and ignorance to found the first schools, colleges and later universities where women could learn the same subjects as men and pass the same exams. The time and effort it took is staggering to behold. I never realised that, what many take for granted today – that women are the equal of men in all things – was a truly alien concept until very recently (actually within living memory in some cases). Of course education of women inevitably led to demands for greater job opportunities and even the vote – which some early critics pointed out would bring down western civilisation (represented at that time by the British Empire). In some ways they were of course right. The west has changed out of all recognition in the 200 years or so between the first fumbling steps to educational equality for women and the opportunities that both genders have today.

Drawing on personal memories of the early pioneers still living and the diaries of those now dead, the author weaves a fascinating tale of hard battles won and lost in the drive for equality between the sexes. Sometimes deeply personal, this book often surprised me with the deeply irrational barriers put in the way of women who wanted nothing more to learn, think and be heard. It astounded me that otherwise well respected men (and even more surprisingly women) dismissed the possibility of an educated woman as if such an idea was absurd at best. The vitriol directed at these women and their supporters staggers belief. The threat felt by those who represented the ‘Establishment’ must have been heart felt indeed. Luckily more sensible, reasonable and forward looking heads prevailed and slowly women took up the challenge they had so long fought for – an education as good as any man. I take my hat off to those pioneers who fought so long and so hard for an apparently simple thing – equality of opportunity. I am impressed both with them and this book that brought them to my attention. Heartily recommended for anyone interested in modern (mainly English) social history.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley

Shortly after winning our first interstellar war against an alien race simply known as The Enemy, astronomers on Earth discover a red dwarf star heading towards us at an incredible impossible speed. Assuming it to be an Enemy attack a warship is dispatched to investigate. When it finds a strange moon orbiting a gravitationally attached gas giant, the Navy call in scientific help to understand where the star came from and what the deep shafts in the moon mean. After probes are sent to investigate the phenomena, they find that the shafts are in fact sub-space conduits leading to the heart of the galaxy. On travelling through they discover, to their amazement, that ancestors of the Enemy are in the process of building new stars using exotic ancient alien technology. Not only does this represent an immediate threat to humanity but, if not stopped, could result in the heat death of the galaxy itself.

The first 50 pages of this book confused me. Even though I like it when an author drops you into the middle of things without explanation I thought that this time he’d gone just a little too far. In consequence I found myself floundering, trying to piece things together and keeping up with the action. What I soon realised, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, is that this is a sequel rather than a stand-alone novel. What is really embarrassing is that I actually own the original book. Duh! Anyway, after the initial struggle I did manage to clue into the background – thanks to several character flashbacks and explanations – and begin to understand just what was going on. Without ruining things too much – though I expect I should advise you to read things in the right order – it transpired that the Enemy where in fact a break-away group on the run from a greater enemy they called ‘the eaters of all children’. Most of the insights to the aliens are provided by Dorothy Yoshida who had been held captive by them during the war. A natural telepath she had been ‘infected’ by a number of their personalities and was, therefore, considered both a security risk and a security asset. Hired to discover what was really going on by the quasi-immortal ‘Golden’ Barlstilkin and accompanied, at least part of the way, by ex-fighter pilot Suzy Falcon, the trio become part of a much larger plan to stop the aliens in the galaxies heart from destroying everything.

Even after I resolved my initial self inflicted problems with this book I still found it a bit too long and a bit too complicated for my liking. I couldn’t help feeling that the author was being clever for cleverness sake. He did create some interesting characters, especially Doctor Yoshida. The science and tech talk was fascinating and highly believable. The aliens were very alien and very interesting because of that…. And yet…… there was something about the book that made me want to press the fast forward button from time to time. I think that there was just too much going on, some of which didn’t really help the plot all that much. I also felt as if the author didn’t really know how to end it and it felt as if the end was stumbled into rather than planned. He managed to keep my interest all the way through and parts of it were very good indeed but it would’ve been a lot better with a bit more restraint and a bit less relentless wow factor. If you still want to read this after my rather mixed praise you should read Four Hundred Million Stars first – as I should have.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Furore over 'censored' edition of Huckleberry Finn

From The BBC

6 January 2011

A new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word. Twain scholar Alan Gribben says the use of the word "nigger" had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic. In his edition, Professor Gribben replaces the word with "slave" and also changes "injun" to "Indian". But the publisher says hundreds of people have complained about the edits. First published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the great American novels. While telling the story of a boy's journey down the Mississippi River some time between 1835 and 1845, the novel satirises Southern attitudes on race and slavery. "The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book," said Cindy Lovell, executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri. "He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose," she told Reuters news agency. The novel has often been criticised for its language and characterisations and it is reported to be the fourth most banned book in US schools. The "N-word" appears 219 times in the story.

Professor Gribben, who teaches English at Auburn University in Alabama, said he had given many public readings of Twain's books - and that when he replaced the word with "slave", audiences were more comfortable. He said he wanted more people, especially younger people, to be encouraged to read the novel. "It's such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvellous reading experience and a lot of readers," he said. But the idea has been condemned by other scholars, teachers, writers and rights activists. "Trying to erase the word from our culture is profoundly, profoundly wrong," said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor. Dr Sarah Churchwell, a lecturer on American literature, told the BBC that it made a mockery of the story. "It's about a boy growing up a racist in a racist society who learns to reject that racism, and it makes no sense if the book isn't racist," she told BBC World Service's Newshour programme. "You can't make the history of racism in America go away."

Mark Twain did not take kindly to editing He is quoted as saying that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter". And when a printer made punctuation changes to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain wrote later that he had "given orders for the typesetter to be shot without giving him time to pray". The publisher of this new edition of Huckleberry Finn, New South Books, says dozens of people have telephoned to complain and hundreds have sent e-mails. The press have also weighed in to the debate, generally in defence of the original version. "What makes Huckleberry Finn so important in American literature isn't just the story, it's the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language," the New York Times said in an editorial. "There is no way to 'clean up' Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work." In the UK, an editorial in The Times called the new edition "a well-intentioned act of cultural vandalism and obscurantism that constricts rather than expands the life of the mind". The sanitised version will be published on 15 February, in a joint reissue with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which also has the offensive epithets replaced.

[How very Orwellian – editing the past to make it more ‘palatable’ to the present. Not only does this destroy a recognised classic work of literature it apparently defeats the whole object of the book itself, which was to raise people’s consciousness about racism. This editorial vandalism merely shoots itself in the foot. How deliciously ironic is that? I suppose that the next step will be to edit out of existence particularly offensive fictional characters that supposedly prevent people from reading classic books. After that I’m guessing that it’s but a short step to editing objectionable events out of history itself. When you ‘edit’ the past you destroy the past. After that happens we have no past to anchor ourselves to and measure ourselves against. We would be forever afloat in the eternal present without any sense of time or history. Of course I’m sure that some sections of society would love that to be the case, but it is not the way things should be. The past is always open to new interpretation but should never be airbrushed for our convenience and to spare our blushes. Such an idea, not matter how seemingly attractive at first sight, is counter-productive, stupid and dangerous.]

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Capitalism – A Very Short Introduction by James Fulcher

Capitalism has been around for quite some time. Back in the 17th century the merchants who sent ships half way around the world to bring back spices gained their capital from investors who took a great risk for the possibility of great profit. The more anarchic style of capitalism that Marx in particular heavily criticised, and some modern day commentators want to bring back, which prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries inevitable gave raise to opposition and Socialism which resulting in the managed Capitalism of the 20th century. When this hit trouble in the 1970’s it slipped into the present form of market Capitalism we know so well.

This very concise and highly readable book traces the origins of Capitalism and explains its many forms and the historical reasons why it emerged first in England in particular and Europe in general. The author explains how Capitalism adapts itself to the environment and the social history of the countries in which it has taken hold and, using examples from England, Sweden, Japan and the USA, shows how it can be all things to all people. Looking at Capitalism as a global phenomenon, the author considers that it has yet to achieve a truly global character despite the propaganda surrounding the idea. Capitalism certainly has a global reach and a global impact but there are still many places where capitalism has yet to take hold. Finally turning to the ever topical problems of the regular cycle of crisis that capitalism appears to fall in to, the author asserts that crisis and capitalism are part of the same process and that it is difficult to consider capitalism without regular crisis. His overall message in that regard is: Don’t Panic. As there appears to no longer be a credible alternative to the capitalist endeavour, the author found it difficult to conceive of any successor economic philosophy. Capitalism is, it would appear, it and is here to stay – in an ever changing adaptable form, but still recognisably capitalistic. I wasn’t entirely convinced on that point. Capitalism certainly appears to have emerged victorious on the world stage but it has a host of systemic problems that have not really been addressed. Whether any of these problems in isolation or conjunction with others can bring the whole system crashing down I don’t know, but its entirely possible that another system, either as yet to be discovered or simply waiting in the wings for a ‘Mass Extinction’ to open an appropriate niche for it, could replace what he considers irreplaceable.

Easy to read, informative, not uncritical and sometimes funny, this is a good general overview of a system that most of us either live in, aspire to or rage against. As it’s unlikely to fade away in our lifetimes I think it’s a good idea to understand exactly what it’s all about. This is a pretty good place to start.

Monday, January 03, 2011

My Favourite TV: Thunderbirds

I think that this is another TV series that I can’t imagine watching during its original transmission. Running for 32 episodes from 1965 to 1966 it was the story of a secret organisation dedicated to saving lives through the application of advanced technology. Based in 2065 it portrayed a world very like our own, peppered by amazing devices and rich lifestyles but also a place of armed conflict, crime and even terrorism. Watching it again over 40 years later – as I have been doing over the past few months – I was surprised that I remembered so much from the individual episodes (the rescue ones anyway) though I suppose that I must have seen some episodes many times over.

Of course watching the series with an adult mindset is a wholly different experience. Despite being very dated by now the show is still surprisingly dramatic – despite the fact that all of the characters and rescue victims are played by puppets complete with obvious strings attached. The production values, especially for what was a children’s show in the early 1960’s, are still fairly impressive and could probably still captivate a very young audience today. The effects are often completely over the top with explosions ripping apart buildings or mountainsides with great effect. Everything – and I do mean everything – appears to be atomic powered including trans-Atlantic airliners. But what made me chuckle more than anything else was the cause of many of the almost disasters. Nearly every call-out of International Rescue was because of failures in design or a practically non-existent Health and Safety regime. Be it illegal satellites being damaged by run-away rockets or gigantic department stores with faulty sprinkler systems to say nothing of automated (atomic powered naturally) mobile logging factories out of control and heading towards a newly constructed dam, it was the lack of foresight and simple planning that put people in peril and resulted in IR blasting off from their secret base in the mid-Pacific ocean to rescue them. It was, at times, almost hilariously funny.

The show did, I think, have a huge impact on my very impressionable young self. I think it taught me that problems – no matter their source of their cause – had technological, scientific, reasonable solutions. Not only were the heroes flying around in and driving technological wonders (as often were those being rescued) but problems were solved and solutions arrived at by the engineering genius behind the organisation – known naturally as Brains. It was Science that saved the day, even if it was sometimes Science that caused the problem in the first place (I’m thinking about the giant alligators here….). Anyway, if you have small children and access to the DVD box-set I’d check it out and see what they think. It might be a bit dated for the computer game generation, but the little ones might like it. I certainly enjoyed watching them again.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Europe Faces Rising Austerity Protests in 2011

by Peter Apps for Reuters

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

LONDON - As austerity bites, Western Europe faces a near inevitable rise in protest and unrest in 2011 which is likely to hit markets and dampen weak governments' appetite for reform but not affect policies dramatically. So far, social unrest over the financial crisis has varied from country to country. In some of the worst affected nations such as Ireland and Latvia, acceptance and even apathy has prevailed, while Greece has seen fatalities and street clashes. Increasingly, there are signs of rising social pressures. Many Western European countries are only just embarking on multi-year deficit-reduction packages, a hard sell in states where expectations have risen for generations. Greek protesters clashed with police in central Athens on Wednesday as tens of thousands marched against austerity measures aimed at pulling the country out of a debt crisis. On Tuesday, Italian rioters and police fought battles in Rome after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi won a no-confidence vote. Britain saw its worst clashes in two decades last week as students demonstrated over tuition fee rises, with Prince Charles and wife Camilla caught up in the melee. More unrest is expected next year as unions protest against much broader cuts. "It's almost inevitable that there will be more protest in 2011 than 2010, particularly in countries such as Greece and the UK where there are real public divisions over how much austerity is necessary," said Carina O'Reilly, European security analyst at IHS Jane's. "It's going to get nastier. We could well see deaths or serious injuries. We could well have seen deaths in the London riots last week. We were just lucky."

None of the European protests have so far had a major policy impact. But in some countries at least, particularly those with upcoming elections, worries over further unrest will deter the government from more aggressive reforms. French President Nicolas Sarkozy forced through pensions reform despite widespread protests earlier this year. But he faces elections in 2012 while Berlusconi is expected to test the electorate next year despite having won this week's vote. "The propensity for civil unrest in France and Italy will act as a check on their governments," said Nomura political analyst Alastair Newton. "Sarkozy may have seen off the unions ... but they are angry and will want to reassert themselves possibly around the public sector pay round in the spring." Spain has elections in 2012 and Portugal's minority government is also seen lacking the political clout to manage serious street protests -- again slowing reform at least as long as markets remain more forgiving than for Ireland or Greece. But at the same time, Portuguese and Spanish unions and many potential protesters are also seen as reluctant to take steps which could spark the downfall of left-of-center governments and usher in the right. The two Western European countries facing the deepest cuts -- Greece and Ireland -- have seen very different trends in terms of protest and unrest. Both are being watched closely by wider markets, and any suggestion reforms might be threatened could spook investors worldwide. Violent demonstrations in Athens in May which saw three people die in a burning bank hit global markets, but also sparked national soul-searching and a falloff in protests. The Socialist government elected last year is seen as strong enough to force through reforms, but not without a backlash that has so far also included apparent anarchist parcel bombings. Ireland has seen some of the largest demonstrations in Europe, but much less violence. Elections expected next year will likely oust the government, but the Fianna Gael opposition looks set for similar policies to keep its IMF-EU deal in place. "The Irish still seem broadly accepting austerity," said IHS Jane's O'Reilly. "In Greece, it's a different matter. There are a lot of people who simply see it as being imposed from outside. In Britain, again, enough people just aren't convinced." Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was elected in May, and most see it serving a full five-year term in part because the junior partner Lib Dems are now so unpopular they face electoral annihilation if they spark elections. The coalition is pushing through the toughest cuts in a generation.

Britain is under much less immediate market pressure than troubled Eurozone borrowers such as Greece or Ireland, where some potential demonstrators have openly said the fear of a bond market meltdown has deterred them from protest. That dynamic -- together with the emergence of a hard-core of angry young protesters with an increasingly antagonistic relationship to police -- could provide a fertile soil for protest even if it does not prevent austerity. "I would expect to see violence on the streets of Britain for some time to come," said Nomura's Newton. "I also expect there to be an increase in public sector strikes and demos as the cuts bite harder. But, overall, I suspect public sympathy is limited and the government will be able to tough it out."

[It will be interesting to see just how far European governments will go in their measures to compensate for the greed and incompetence of the global banking sector. I think that they underestimate the anger and resolve of the supposedly quiescent public at what they, and I, see as the poor being forced – yet again – to pay for the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. As much as I regret to say this I must predict more blood on the streets if any government expects the voters to simply take it laying down. The protests we have seen so far, all over the Continent, are just the beginning.]

Happy New Year!

May 2011 bring you some peace, some prosperity and lots of good times.