About Me

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

Monday, February 28, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Cloverfield

I don’t normally do hype. Whenever a film is basically advert bombed I avoid it – partially out of principle (I hate being manipulated) and partially out of the experience that hyped films are usually crap so need hyping.

I can’t exactly remember why I broke this rule to see Cloverfield (on my own I think) but I’m glad I did. Although for the first 10-15 minutes I thought it was going to be terrible. That was how long the opening bit lasted or seemed to last. Where the ‘Friends’ wanabees where saying goodbye to their friend going off to Japan for a new job and to escape from the love of his life. Of course, as you should know, all hell breaks loose from then on. Filmed on a handheld camera – a very sophisticated handheld camera complete with image intensification no less – one of the friends ‘records the moment’ when a giant alien creature rampages through the streets of New York with local National Guard units and other military units apparently helpless to stop it.

There are many things I liked about this movie. Not least of which was the way it got you to care about the people running around scared just trying to get through things. It’s definitely a post 9/11 film. Although it could have been made prior to the Twin Towers I doubt if it would have had the same visceral effect that it did – even on me sitting thousands of miles away from both incidents. The shaky camera and the incidents ‘stumbled upon’ by the excellent cast really brought you face to face with the storyline. After a mere 81 minutes in their company it was difficult not to start to care for them despite the fact that superficially they were not exactly nice people. They were actually your average yuppies, not sure about what they wanted or how to get it. They were 21st Century you and me. I think that was a huge selling point to me and what made the whole thing ‘real’. Like most good monster films we didn’t see all that much of the big guy – actually what little we did see of it was, in my opinion, too much – but the brief glimpses we got were suitably alien. I was impressed by the street battle the cast got caught up in. Of course I need to mention the sound track – or actually the rumbling base track to be more precise. Hiding in a subway station whilst battle raged above them was transmitted through the floor and through the seat of my pants by more base than I’d ever felt before. Again an important part of ‘making it real’. Of course we wanted to see the people we were following survive and get out of New York. Some were cut down, some seemed to escape and some might have survived (but probably didn’t). In some cases we just don’t know. That I do like in a movie – the brave ambiguous ending. While not exactly a great film this is a highly entertaining one, full of action, drama and a few surprises (actually shocks) thrown in for good measure. It’s a clever movie on several levels. It knows exactly what its doing and does it well. If you missed it because of the hype – like I almost did – take a deep breath and hire it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why doesn't sci-fi win best picture?

By Tim Masters for BBC News

Sci-fi has barely dented the Academy Awards through the years. When it comes to the Oscars, science fiction films are rarely rewarded outside the technical categories. So what chance does British director Chris Nolan's nominated film Inception have of being named best picture this year? "Inception hasn't got a chance of winning in the same way that District 9 didn't have a chance last year," says Dave Calhoun, film editor of Time Out. "If we had five instead of 10 best picture nominees it's unlikely that Inception would have been nominated." The Academy increased the number of best picture nominees in 2010, which saw District 9 and James Cameron's 3D juggernaut Avatar rubbing shoulders with low-budget indie fare like the Coen brothers' A Serious Man and The Hurt Locker. It was the latter film - Kathryn Bigelow's bomb disposal drama - that won on the day. Oscars history shows that sci-fi films haven't fared well when up for best picture. The original Star Wars (1977) may have starred a robot that looked like a golden Oscar statuette, but the top prize that year went to Woody Allen's Annie Hall. George Lucas's space adventure was rewarded with seven other Oscars, including editing, visual effects and music. In 1982, Steven Spielberg's blockbuster ET: The Extra-terrestrial was beaten by Gandhi. "There's definitely a sort of film the Academy likes to honour," says Calhoun. "It likes to honour the craft of acting, the craft of writing. Sci-fi is seen as a showcase for the technical art of film-making. I don't think anyone walks out of Star Wars and thinks - 'wow, wasn't the acting terrific in that?'"

Calhoun sees Avatar in a similar way. "I thought Avatar was an impressive technical spectacle, but it wasn't about the acting. A lot of Avatar fans say the 3D looked brilliant, and the way they captured human performances was fascinating, but it was a pretty corny story." When science fiction films spring from traditional literary sources, then it is more likely to be taken seriously, Calhoun points out. "That says something about the attitude toward sci-fi - in a literary sense it's not seen as being very credible," says Calhoun. Author Kazuo Ishiguro, whose science fiction novel Never Let Me Go was adapted by Alex Garland for the big screen, echoes that sentiment. "Never Let Me Go certainly has that speculative, dystopian dimension to it," he tells the BBC. "If you're a novelist of my generation, we grew up with a prejudice against sci-fi - we felt slightly snobbish about it, whereas people of Alex Garland's generation embrace computer games, manga, and graphic novels. They mix all these things with highbrow ideas. "I've learnt a lot from them, and being friends with those guys helped me lose my prejudices and a whole exciting world opens up. In cinema it's never been like that. Some of the greatest highbrow films like Metropolis, 2001 or Solaris have been sci-fi movies."

Director Neil Marshall, whose films include Dog Soldiers and The Descent, describes sci-fi genre as "the cinema of ideas", adding that since many Academy voters are actors - they might favour a film that's more performance-led. "Maybe it's just too popular. Avatar and Star Wars get the money so they give the awards to the other films," he says. At the Venice Film Festival in 2007, director Sir Ridley Scott declared that the science fiction genre had "nothing original" to offer and was going the same way as the western. But the western genre is seeing something of a resurgence this year with the Oscar-nominated True Grit, produced and directed by the Coen Brothers. The siblings have enjoyed huge success at the awards with more than 30 nominations for their films. So is there any chance they will ever tackle a sci-fi movie? Ethan Coen tells the BBC: "That's one genre that I don't know that we would know what we were doing," he says. "It's funny given the degree to which some of our movies are stylised, but there has to be some kind of anchor in reality in order to get our minds around a story." In Time Out's own recent list of British Top 100 Films, chosen by industry experts, science fiction barely makes a dent. Its first appearance is Terry Gilliam's Brazil at number 24. Says Dave Calhoun: "I suspect if we polled a wider group of the film-going audience you would get a bit more sci-fi/fantasy. "Frankly, the industry itself is a little bit sniffy about sci-fi, and that applies to the Oscars as well."

[As I suspected Inception doesn’t really have a chance on Oscar night – at least not at the top prize. SF has always been looked down on by the critics not matter what its quality is. SF is often seen as juvenile and escapist without any real substance. Even philosophical films like Inception and The Matrix before it are still not considered to be ‘proper’ films. No wonder then that they get a nod for FX and for little else.]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Heart of the Comet by David Brin and Gregory Benford

In 2061 the most advanced nations on Earth send an expedition to Halley’s Comet. As they recover from decades of ecological damage they hope to mine it for millions of tons of rich chemicals. When they arrive initially things go very well despite a few accidental deaths. But when machinery begins to fail, clogged with an unknown fungus, it seems that their problems are just beginning. When the expedition members themselves start falling ill they realise just what they are up against. The organic compounds deep in the ice are in fact hibernating alien life forms that react to the heat, light and oxygen the people from Earth need to survive. So the fight is on, between strange alien life and the technical know-how of humanity. But when things get really tough the scientists and engineers begin to split into factions each with its own political and ecological agenda. The question on everyone’s mind is: Can humanity be united enough to take control of the comet or will internal divisions finally kill them all?

Despite being slightly too long – by a hundred pages or so – this was a very interesting and enjoyable hard SF novel. Not only were the details of ‘catching’ and burrowing into the comet explored but the authors allowed the protagonists to discuss Artificial Intelligence, uploading of consciousness, tele-operation, the ethics of genetic engineering, the biology and evolution of exotic life forms, the origin of life on Earth, symbiotic relationships and other stiff I can’t remember. There were even detailed diagrams! Something you don’t often see in novels outside the SF genre. If this wasn’t enough, the authors had created a number of very interesting (and three dimensional) characters with believable motivations and deep back stories. The political side of things was also handled really well. Shaped by the Hell Years of ecological disasters we were allowed to see brief glimpses of the national, international, and religious ramifications of a world and a humanity in deep trouble. The only down side to the whole novel is the authors inability to end it cleanly – or at least at the appropriate moment. I can only guess that they got carried away with having so many good ideas that they didn’t want to let any of them go – no matter how little they contributed to the overall story arch. But that’s a pretty minor quibble really when taking into account just how good this book was. Certainly recommended for any hard SF fan.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Renaissance – A Very Short Introduction by Jerry Brotton

One of my major historical interests is in what I call “Periods of Transition”. By this I mean times where culture changes from one type to another. One example would be the Industrial Revolution another would be The Renaissance where, arguably, the Medieval world started to become something we would recognise as modern. Part of this transition is a change in attitude to the universe at large. It was the beginnings of scientific endeavour and when more and more thinkers turned their attention to the future and away from the classical knowledge of the past.

Brotton makes a good point early on that what we call The Renaissance didn’t just happen in a handful of Italian cities. It was a phenomena that happened all over Europe, though at different times and at different speeds across the Continent. Prompted by discoveries of ‘lost’ ancient texts as well as new books and ideas originating in the Arab world – where we acquired many things including the idea of Zero, the use of algebra, superior navigational equipment and knowledge of medicine – and spread by the invention of the printing press, this explosion of ideas and ways of thinking shattered old certainties including the bedrock of western civilisation: The Catholic Church. We can date the rise of the individual, the nation state and capitalism from this period. Books such as The Prince by Machiavelli and Thomas More’s Utopia helped define politics, the introduction of perspective into art made pictures come alive as never before. New Worlds were discovered and conquered bringing new wealth, new cultures and new diseases back to Europe. It was a time of great change, great energy and great upheaval.

This is my 30th Very Short Introduction book. (Almost) every book I read in the series has been a delight and I am very impressed by the overall quality of the books I’ve read so far. This particular volume is no exception. I have around another 10 books in this series in ‘the pile’ as well as a few more that I have my eye on. I think that I’ve learnt a lot from these small volumes and they have prompted me to investigate some subjects further – which, after all, is the very reason that they exist. If you haven’t tried any of them so far I can recommend you dip into a subject you know a little about and find out more. Enjoy, I did!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Driving Straight Into Catastrophe

by Julio Godoy for Inter Press Service

Monday, January 24, 2011

PARIS - Despite repeated warnings by environmental and climate experts that reduction of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is fundamental to forestalling global warming, disaster appears imminent. According to the latest statistics, unprecedented climate change has Earth hurtling down a path of catastrophic proportions.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the global consumption of primary energy in 2010 reached some 500 exajoules (EJ), a number just under the worst-case scenario formulated ten years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC's Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, published in 2000, calculated the worst-case scenario as 525 EJ consumed in one calendar year. The IEA found that coal was one of the largest sources of energy consumed in 2010, comprising approximately 27 percent of the total energy consumption. Coal, one of the cheapest sources of energy, is considered the filthiest of all, as far as greenhouse gases emissions (GHGE) are concerned. Correspondingly, the global GHGE, measured as equivalent to carbon dioxide, reached at least 32 billion tonnes last year, only one step below the most pessimistic scenario imagined by the IPCC in 2000: 33 billion tonnes of CO2. The results for 2010 were conditioned by the present global economic crisis - meaning that under normal economic circumstances, the numbers would have been higher. In other words, total consumption of energy in 2010 would have been worse than the most pessimistic scenario the IPCC formulated ten years ago had the global economy been in better shape. These findings have prompted leading environmental experts to warn that humankind is racing towards destruction. "The year 2010 was the hottest ever measured since the beginning of the recordings, 130 years ago," Anders Levermann, professor of climate system dynamics at the Physics Institute of the Potsdam University told IPS.

Levermann referred to the newest global temperature measurements carried out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2010. According to the NOAA, "For the 2010 year (January-November), the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was 0.64 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average - the warmest such period since records began in 1880." Levermann explained that, contrary to appearance, the arctic winter in Western Europe is just another negative consequence of climate change. "Global warming is melting the ice in the Kara Sea, in the Arctic Ocean," he explained. "This leads to a high pressure area above Siberia, which drives extremely cold winds towards Europe." Levermann pointed out that the extreme global weather conditions experienced in 2010 - very cold weather in Western Europe during the winter, massive floods in Pakistan and Australia, extremely hot summers in Russia and Western Europe - illustrate the limits of even the most expert climate predictions. "The more greenhouse gases we emit, the more the global climate gets out of control," Levermann said. "But the weather extremes that we cannot predict, such as the floods in Pakistan and Australia and the fires in Russia, are the ones that set the limits to human life." According to the newest IPCC estimations, global temperatures may rise as much as eight degrees Celsius by the year 2200. Levermann explained that the temperature difference within an interglacial period, such as the one we are living now, have historically reached about five Celsius degrees. "The transition between these temperature extremes lasted some 50,000 years in the past," Levermann said. "But at the present rate of GHGE we are reducing such a transition by 50 times." He added that the rapid rising of global temperatures could provoke extreme weather catastrophes that humankind won't be able to survive. "The rising frequency of weather extremes, with their enormous social and economic consequences, would not allow public budgets to recuperate, nor give societies the time to breathe again," Levermann said. "Nor would insurance companies be able to compensate for the damages."

Levermann echoed earlier warnings that climate change could destroy countries such as Bangladesh, cities situated near the oceans, such as New York and Amsterdam, and make large parts of Africa uninhabitable. "Climate change would destroy drinking water supplies, agriculture, habitats, and provoke giant waves of migration and mass mortality," he explained. Levermann compared the consequences of global warming to a wall hidden in fog. "We cannot see the wall, but it is there. And we are driving at the highest possible speed towards it."

[With every passing month, as we continue to do little or nothing to combat or even limit global climate change, I become more and more convinced that, as a species, we are simply too stupid to survive. Maybe, when it becomes blindingly obvious what consequences our environmental actions will have on future generations we’ll actually bend some effort to reducing our emissions and their inevitable impact. Of course that will be far too late and our children and grandchildren will have to live through the world we have created for them. Hopefully though late will not turn out to be too late. Personally I think we are well and truly fucked.]

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Sensation and Sex by Lucretius

It is instructive, I think, to occasionally read a book written before the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th Centuries. In discovering what people thought of as explanations for natural phenomena and the natural world they occupied in the centuries before the scientific method became the accepted way to discover the reality of things, it becomes abundantly clear why human advance was so painfully slow before that time. Although humans have not increased noticeably in intelligence in the millennia since this book was written it is obvious that the simple speculations outlined in this slim volume were practically useless without a robust method to decide which speculations were reasonable and which were not – through experimentation and accurate verified data gathering. These are the two things that Lucretius desperately needed and had no access to. Therefore speculation rested on unfounded assumption which inevitably gave rise to deeply flawed conclusions. Indeed it is instructive to note that virtually everything Lucretius proposed in this book regarding the mechanisms behind the 5 senses where completely wrong. Without a method of building conclusions on verifiable, repeatable, understandable and rational evidence he was building castles in the air without a single credible foundation.

This is existence without science – basically Lucretius was lost in a world he singularly failed to understand though, rather frighteningly, he was convinced that his assumptions were actually facts both because he was unable to check them and his critics, if any, were unable to challenge him except by producing other equally unfounded speculations. It is no wonder that any technological advance or increase in the basic understanding of the world in that age was glacially slow. Although I cannot recommend this book on any other grounds it is instructive to peek inside the mind of an intelligent, questioning person who does not have an adequate tool set to test his hypotheses about the reasons and forces behind everyday phenomena. Both enlightening in one way and truly frightening in another – lest we forget that forces exist in the world bent on turning the clock back to these ignorant times.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Thinking About: Romance

Today is definitely the day to think about such things. It’s difficult to get away from all the paraphernalia extolling people to be romantic on this day if no other. Of course it leaves single people, with no one to pass on their romantic longings to, rather out in the cold.

I, for one, have been single throughout most of my adult life. My longest relationship in that time lasted approximately 2 years. Even that wasn’t exactly smooth and the best descriptive phrase I could use about it is probably ‘roller-coaster’. It was, though, one hell of a ride. I was, for a time, deeply, passionately in love with the woman and at other times contemplating murder. The whole relationship was very instructive on multiple levels and made serious contributions to who I am. I grew up a lot in those brief years and suffered the pains associated with growth, but grow I did. For that, if nothing else, I will be forever grateful.

Luckily for me, and especially my sanity, I generally don’t mind being on my own. I am psychologically and philosophically largely self-sufficient. I am not incomplete without someone else in my life or in my bed. I do not need a ‘better half’ to complete me. I am already a whole person and not someone with a partner shaped hole in my life. Of course saying that I still have desires and I still form emotional attachments to people around me. But as through most of my life these attachments appear to be largely a one-way street. This is not to say that the women I interact with don’t like me – they do. It’s one of the things that has always perplexed me about relationships with women. They like me. Some of them like me a lot. Few, it appears, like me enough to want to be a part of my life however. It’s making that transition that seems to continually defeat me. It’s not as if I’m not trying – though I do give up from time to time. Of course I’m continually being given conflicting advice – about trying too hard for example. So I back off a bit only to seem disinterested. If I turn my interest up a few notches I’m seen as needy or creepy. I have witnessed women being made uncomfortable in my presence just by me being there. I find such experiences deeply troubling as you can imagine as they call into question my beliefs about who I am.

Presently I find myself with an emotional attachment to a woman at work. Maybe because of this I actually find it surprisingly difficult to hold conversations with her. It’s very reminiscent of my teenage years when I used to ‘fall in love’ every time the wind changed but charged the ‘relationship’ with so much importance that I could barely say a word to them in case I said the wrong thing. Thankfully my teenage years are long behind me but I do find my present lack of communication skills most frustrating. Oddly there is another woman I work with who I find very sexually attractive and yet have no problems talking to her at all – indeed we’ve had some pleasantly long conversations on the company clock which both of us have enjoyed a great deal. If only I could have these kind of conversations with the object of my emotional desire! Not, I suspect, that it would do any good. Everyone in the office knows that I like her a great deal. I’m sure that some of them are under the impression that we are actually in a relationship already as they sometimes ask me where she is if she’s running late or has a day off – as if I should know. Yet she seems blithely unaware of how I feel. Either she’s not picking up on things – and I’ve been fairly blatant about it – or (as I suspect is much more likely) she likes me enough to ignore my overtures hoping that I’ll get fed up and bother someone else rather than telling me to take a hike and sling my hook. It’s rather frustrating and more than a little perplexing. I have always had trouble picking up on ‘signals’. Subtlety is most definitely lost on me. I work best when I know exactly where I stand with someone and have in the past pushed and pushed at something until I’ve had a definitive response – and sometimes a very definitive response! It’s something I really don’t want to do in my present situation though. What I need to do, and have been trying to do in a half-assed way, is to give up on her. I’m sure that things would be better without the emotional attachment I have developed – which, when I try to analyse it, makes little obvious sense. The problem I have with this idea though is that, illogically as it sounds, I feel that this might be my last chance at something. It feels as if giving up on her is the same as giving up on love itself.

Thinking about it, this may not actually be such a bad idea. Love has not exactly been kind to me in the last 35 or so years. Maybe it’s about time I returned the favour by turning my back on the whole idea. Of course there’s a very small part of my psyche that thinks that as soon as I do this that someone will walk into my life to prove me wrong. The rational part of my psyche will inevitably have none of this. Do I want to live without even the possibility of love? Not really, no. I guess though that I have managed so far without the reality of love. I do wonder sometimes how my sanity has survived. If someone had told me in my mid-teens that I would spend the next 35 years in an emotional desert with only the occasional shower of rain and the odd oasis to sustain me I would probably have despaired (and actually not believed them). Fortunately I have, through necessity, become desert adapted. This does not, however, stop me longing for the passing clouds I see every day to pause in their travels and rain on me a little, nor does it stop me dreaming of an oasis I could call my own. Ah, the metaphors we live by! I can almost feel the burning sun on my back and the sand between my scaly toes. Time to burrow deep and wait for the rains I think. Maybe they’ll come one day and turn this desert into a garden. Stranger things have happened.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

U.S. Officials Privately Say WikiLeaks Damage Limited Despite Obama administration's public statements to the contrary

by Mark Hosenball for Reuters

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WASHINGTON - Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary. A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers. "I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said. But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. "We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging," said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials. WikiLeaks caused a media and diplomatic uproar late last year when it began to dribble out its cache of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Major headlines were generated by some of the cables, which revealed that Saudi leaders had urged U.S. military action against Iran and detailed contacts between U.S. diplomats and political dissidents and opposition leaders in some countries. "From our standpoint, there has been substantial damage," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told Reuters. "We believe that hundreds of people have been put at potential risk because their names have been compromised in the release of these cables," he said. National security officials familiar with the damage assessments being conducted by defense and intelligence agencies told Reuters the reviews so far have shown "pockets" of short-term damage, some of it potentially harmful. Long-term damage to U.S. intelligence and defense operations, however, is unlikely to be serious, they said.

Some of the cases of more serious damage have occurred in countries where WikiLeaks' revelations have publicized closer ties with Washington than local officials publicly admit. For example, a cable released by WikiLeaks quoted Yemen's president saying he would allow U.S. personnel to engage in counter-terrorism operations on Yemeni territory even as he said publicly that the operations were being handled by domestic security forces. U.S. officials say the continued media attention on such revelations has made it difficult for Washington to repair relations with governments critical to its counter-terrorism operations, such as Pakistan and Yemen. Two U.S. intelligence officials said they were aware of specific cases where damage caused by WikiLeaks' revelations have been assessed as serious to grave, though they said they could not discuss the subject matter because it remained highly classified. Mr. Crowley said the State Department had helped move a small number of people compromised by the leaks to safer locations. Damage assessments by the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community are still continuing, so the current view of many officials that damage has been limited could change if and when WikiLeaks and its media partners publish more documents. The assessments also cover the leaking of tens of thousands of military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Special investigative teams are also combing through unpublished material which U.S. investigators believe is in the hands of WikiLeaks. U.S. officials and sources close to WikiLeaks have said the website is sitting on a cache of documents related to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which includes intelligence-based risk assessments of detainees. A spokeswoman for the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, said, "The irresponsible and reckless behavior of WikiLeaks has of course caused damage and will continue to be damaging in the months and years to come." But current and former intelligence officials note that while WikiLeaks has released a handful of inconsequential CIA analytical reports, the website has made public few if any real intelligence secrets, including reports from undercover agents or ultra-sensitive technical intelligence reports, such as spy satellite pictures or communications intercepts. Shortly before WikiLeaks began its gradual release of State Department cables last year, department officials sent emails to contacts on Capitol Hill predicting dire consequences, said one of the two congressional aides briefed on the internal government reviews. However, shortly after stories about the cables first began to appear in the media, State Department officials were already privately playing down the damage, the two congressional officials said. The U.S. government is examining whether criminal charges can be brought against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Mr. Assange is in London fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning in a sexual misconduct investigation.

[It would appear that we’re being lied to… again….]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Jane’s Fame – How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

Ah, another impulse buy in the 3 for 2 section of Waterstone’s…… Or at least semi-impulse. After all I am a big fan of Ms Austen’s work. Or at least of the one book I’ve actually read – pre-Blog so there’s no review to check out…..

Anyway….. I think I first fell in love with Jane’s work – and not incidentally Lizzie Bennet – through the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Much later, after loving the BBC version of Persuasion (though not as much as P&P) I renewed my love of Austen’s work with the recent Kiera Knightly movie version of Pride and Prejudice (reviewed her on 9th August 2010). After that I had to read the book – which I did with relish, much chuckling and a growing realisation of why her books are such timeless classics.

This book is unusual for me in several ways. For one thing I don’t normally read books about books. Also, in general, I have little or no interest in the lives of the artists I enjoy. This crosses all boundaries from authors, musicians, actors or indeed actual artists. I have no desire to know anything about their personal lives or personal histories. So although the first part of this book didn’t bore me at all, I didn’t take any great delight in the uncovering of the details of Jane’s early life (interestingly told though it was). About the only thing that came as any great surprise was at how young she was when she died – probably of cancer – in her 40’s. The rest of her family lasted so much longer. I did wonder what would’ve happened if Ms Austen had lived long enough to produce more than 6 books. Or maybe the fact that she produced so few highly polished works is part of her everlasting appeal. What did interest me much more was the growth of the love of her books which rose from relative absurdity not long after her death to the towering place they occupy today. The number of books about Jane and her work, the websites, societies and much else besides – to say nothing of the increasingly odd-ball spin-offs – continues to grow at an amazing pace and shows no signs of subsiding.

I found this book honestly delightful and passed a very pleasant few days in its company over the Christmas break. It has prompted me, if such prompting was required, to read the rest of her books over the coming year or so as well as other classics from around that time – presently gathering dust on my bookshelves. I hope that her other works, after falling in love with P&P and Elizabeth all over again, live up to my first introduction to her work. I have every expectation that they will. I highly recommend this to all Austen fans and anyone else interested in a true publishing phenomena.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Human Evolution – A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Wood

I think that the thing that most surprised me about this book is the fact that, prior to the burying of our dead some 100,000 years ago, there have actually been very few discoveries of human fossils. At one point the author described how the total human fossil collection pre-dating 100KYA would easily fit into a shopping trolley. No wonder then that the full detail of our origins is largely missing and that arguments rage unresolved about which particular ancestor gave rise to recognisable Homo Sapiens.

Ideas of our origins are as old as human culture but it is only in the past 400 years or so, since the emergence of science, that we have actually been able to slowly piece together where we came from. With the framework provided by Darwin’s Evolutionary theories we are able to place humans on their correct taxonomic branch of the tree of life. With it we are able – as best we can – to place our evolutionary ancestors going back to the point where we spilt from the other apes and Great ape and arrive at the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees some 5-8 Million years ago. Again I was surprised to discover that we know almost nothing about the evolution of chimpanzees – the only fossil evidence we have (at the time of the books publication) are 700,000 year old teeth from a site in Kenya. The evidence to the parting of the ways comes primarily from genetics rather than from the fossil record. This is something that I will definitely need to read more about. Of course the lack of fossils – for both early humans and chimpanzees is easy to account for. Before we buried our dead they would have been discovered by carrion eaters and scattered to the four winds. The very earliest bones were often discovered in caves – not because our ancestors lived there – but because scavengers took bones there to eat later. It is lucky that we have any fossils of early humans at all.

With so few fossils to examine it is hardly surprising that there is much debate as to whether these remains constitute different sub-species of humanity or if they simply represent natural variation within a species. It appears that at this stage we cannot know this with any certainty. Of course this leaves the actually evolutionary path of humans rather undefined. There is most definitely more work to be done here. What does seem certain though is the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis. It appears, from the evidence that we have so far, that humans first evolved in Africa and spread to the rest of the world from there in successive waves probably caused by climate change.

I found this book both fascinating and rather surprising. I had thought that we had a reasonable handle on our early evolution but this appears not to be the case. There is still much to discover and many debates to be settled. I definitely need to read up more about this and will attempt to do so in the coming year – so, as always, watch this space.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Exoplanet hunt turns up 54 potentially habitable worlds

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

Astronomers have identified some 54 new planets where conditions may be suitable for life. The announcement from the Kepler space telescope team brings the total number of exoplanet candidates they have identified to more than 1,200. The data release also confirmed a unique sextet of planets around a single star and 170 further solar systems that include more than one planet circling far-flung stars. The Kepler telescope was conceived to hunt for exoplanets, staring into a small, fixed patch of the sky in the direction of the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It looks for the minuscule dimming of light that occurs when an exoplanet passes in front of its host star. Kepler spots "candidate" planets, which typically are confirmed by ground-based observations to confirm their existence. In just its first few months of operation, as a paper posted to the Arxiv server reports, Kepler has spotted 68 Earth-sized candidates, 288 so-called "super-Earths" that are up to twice Earth's size, 662 that are Neptune-sized, and 184 that are even larger.

On Wednesday, members of the team announced it had confirmed the Kepler-11 solar system, comprising six large exoplanets tightly circling an eight billion-year-old star that lies about 2,000 light-years away. "The fact that we've found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy," said William Borucki, who heads Kepler's science programme at Nasa's Ames Research Center. "We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water." The bountiful nature of the data from just a few months of observing time from Kepler makes profound suggestions about the preponderance of exoplanets in general, and about the existence of multiple planets around single stars in particular. In a separate paper, team members outlined how the Kepler candidates include 115 stars that host a pair of planets, 45 with three, eight stars with four, one with five planets, and Kepler-11, which hosts six. "Even in first four months of Kepler data, a rich population of multiples appeared, and we recognised this was going to be a very important discovery," David Latham, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told BBC News.

[It seems that everywhere we look we keep finding new planets – some of which seem, at least on the face of it, capable of supporting life as we know it. As the head of the programme said, the fact that they’ve found so many planets in such a small arc of sky points to the fact that planets – even Earth-like planets - are very common in our Galaxy. If that is the case, it would seem prudent to suspect that life is common too. I suspect that it’s only a matter of time until we confirm that too.]

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Unfettered Mind – Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master by Takuan Soho (translated by William Scott Wilson)

It should be easy to imagine how I feel about a philosophy that puts forward the idea of not thinking. Of course it isn’t quite that simple. Zen proposes that we should stop thought getting ‘in the way’ of what we would be doing (or could be doing) without its presence. In the context of a sword fight this makes a kind of sense. If a sword is inbound on a killing stroke you really don’t want to spend a few micro-seconds thinking about how to respond. You just want to respond and then kill the guy before he has any change to counter strike. Without thought getting in the way the swordsman should be able – after years of swordsmanship training of course – to act and react without thinking. Weirdly, on reading the explanation of the process I knew exactly what the author meant because I had experienced Zen-like moments during my years of gaming. There have been times when, usually during RTS games that I have been ‘fighting for my life’ to such an extent that there is no time to think. For seconds at a time (and sometimes whole minutes at a time) I was acting and reacting without a single thought going through my head. To think in these circumstances is to die.

Despite that I can’t really imagine the idea of “not thinking” as much of a foundation for a philosophy that I can buy into. I can understand how useful it would be in certain circumstances but not as an end in itself. I will, however, be reading more in the area of Zen and especially how it applies to the Samurai warrior. The Samurai are a fascinating group that have interested me since my early youth and really deserve more of my attention. They will get this sooner rather than later I think.