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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Polish Officer by Alan Furst

In 1939, as the might of the German Army descends on Poland, Intelligence officer Alexander de Milja is given a new mission. He is to make his way to Paris to assist in the creation of a Polish Intelligence unit dedicated to expelling the Germans from his country. Within months France to is over run and de Milja is left behind in the confused evacuation. Left to his own devices he puts together a rag-bag collection of misfits to continue the struggle. Contacted by agents of the Polish government in exile – now based in London – de Milja is tasked to aid the fledgling French Resistance in any way he can and pass on any information to the British. When he discovers information that the Germans intend a cross-channel invasion of England he takes direct action to aid RAF attacks on the invasion staging posts. As a reward for his heroism he is sent into the belly of the beast to help the Russians fight off a German invasion of their territory. At this point he can not but wonder if he will ever see an end to the fighting or if he will live to see his country free again.

As some of you will know, Alan Furst is one of my top authors. I like to hold off reading his books so that I can savour them all the more. Unfortunately, I found to my surprise that I did not enjoy this book as much as I had been anticipating. It’s not that it’s a bad book – or at least not by any general standard. It’s just that I felt that it wasn’t up to Furst’s usually very high standards. It took me a while to get into which is unusual for his stories. Maybe it was me? I can, from time to time, almost give up on reading and sometimes need to almost force myself to turn the pages. This wasn’t one of those times but maybe I had a tinge of that feeling in the back of my mind. Whatever the issue was I just couldn’t loose myself in this particular novel. This wasn’t actually helped when I spotted what I think is an uncharacteristic mistake in historical accuracy. When describing a particularly dramatic attack on a French coastal harbour by elements of the RAF he described in gripping detail Blenheim bombers coming in at 50 feet causing havoc in the massed German invasion fleet. Now the Bristol Blenheim was one of my favourite early WW2 aircraft and I built several models of it in my childhood. I was, to say the least, ‘pumped’ by the scene he described and could see it clearly in my minds eye. Then, on page 198, he made his error. Describing the second attack on the port, this time from high level, he mentions that the craft are probably Lancaster bombers. Now most normal people would read that and move on blissfully unaware but I, as you may have noticed, am not most people. The section of the RAF attack was headed 7th September (in 1940 that is). So the problem I had was that the first flight of a Lancaster bomber was on 9th January 1941 and didn’t enter service with the RAF Bomber Command until early 1942. Although this certainly didn’t ruin the book for me, it did disappoint me and coloured my appreciation of the rest of the novel. Yes, I’m a pedant. I freely admit this. But this error was quite fundamental. You might even call it a schoolboy error. Either Mr Furst or his researcher did a pretty sloppy job on that one. It detracted from my enjoyment of the book and will probably affect my enjoyment of his future novels. This is a real shame as I am enjoyed his previous books immensely and still enjoyed this one too. I’m going to do my best not to read his next book looking for errors but that is now a real danger. Furst fans out there should not avoid this book. It has many, many fine attributes usually associated with his work. Just be aware that his historical accuracy halo has most definitely slipped here.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Aliens Vs Predator 2: Requiem

Few of the Alien or Predator movies received any kind of critical praise – with the possible exception of the movie that started them all – the SF horror classic Alien. The AvP films have come in for particular criticism and I can, to some extent at least, see their point. Although I enjoyed both AvP films I am far from gushing in my praise for either. But neither am I dismissive of what I regard as two decent SF films and one’s that add rather than detract from the Alien and Predator ‘franchise’.

AvP2 starts, appropriately enough, where AvP finished – with the body of the dead Predator lying in the departing starship when out of its chest pops an alien/predator hybrid. This, in well known fashion by now, grows and attacks the Predators on the ship which subsequently crashes somewhere in small town America. This was the part of the film that jarred the most. After it was pointed out to me that the crashed ship was very much smaller than the departing ship in AvP I watched carefully to see how, or if, this was explained. It was – sort of. Just before the alien causes the crash a smaller craft (lifeboat?) detached from the much larger ship. It was this smaller craft which crash landed in the forest surrounding the small town we all knew at this point wasn’t going to have a good day (telegraphed by the trailer which showed the town’s population counter in freefall soon after the crash). The confusing storyline continued when a Predator leaves what we can presume is their Homeworld to travel to Earth to investigate the crash. I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was dispatched from the larger craft already departing Earth unless the new alien hybrid had killed them all which I felt was unlikely given that their were clearly a large number of hunters on board: Such as idea felt disrespectful to the Predators.

The rest of the film was largely formulaic in that we are introduced to a number of young people, some of which look like survivors and others clearly alien fodder (the town bad kids). The only adults of consequence are the town Sherriff and a returning female soldier (presumably from Iraq). The scene shifts to a series of attacks where local people are impregnated by face huggers and the new method of direct implantation which, according to an expert source, goes against the known cannon of alien/predator lore. The scene in the forest with the father/son hunters is dramatic and scary. The scene in the maternity ward is rather gross. When all hell breaks lose the wheat and the chaff are sorted rather bloodily. Two brothers turn out to be the heroes who rescue a hand full of people along with the Iraq vet and her daughter. After the National Guard are quickly dispatched by a few passing aliens they ‘borrow’ an armoured transport and get out of the killing zone.

This is, in all honesty, a popcorn movie. The plot is minimal at best, the actors largely disposable and largely disposed of, the SFX are more than adequate though it is noticeable that most of the action takes place at night and you don’t actually see that much. There are a few reasonable moments and quite a few bits that might make you jump. But this is not a thinking film. It’s leave your brain in neutral and just go with it entertainment. There’s one good joke – about trusting the government – and an interesting bit at the end which nicely dovetails into the overarching story (plus leaving the inevitable door open for a sequel). I liked this movie because of its basic entertainment value. I’ve seen it several times now and could probably watch it several times more without getting bored by it. If you’ve been put off by the bad press and just want something to chill out to – and you’re into SF monster movies – you could do a lot worse than this. Just don’t expect to have any of your mental faculties engaged.  

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Is there a limit to life expectancy?

By Philippa Roxby for BBC News

19 March 2011

Move over Methuselah. Future generations could be living well into their second century and still doing sudoku to boot, if life expectancy predictions are anything to go by. Increasing by two years every decade, they show no signs of flattening out. Average lifespan around the world is already double what it was 200 years ago.Since the 1980s, experts thought the increase in life expectancy would grind to a halt but forecasters have repeatedly been proved wrong. So can we go on living longer and longer? Is there a limit to how long we can survive into old age?

The reason behind the steady rise in life expectancy is "the decline in the death rate of the elderly", says Professor Tom Kirkwood from the Institute of Ageing and Health at Newcastle University. He has a theory that our bodies are evolving to maintain and repair themselves better and our genes are investing in this process to put off the damage which will eventually lead to death. As a result, there is no ceiling imposed by the realities of the ageing process. "There is no use-by-date when we age, ageing is not a fixed biological process," Professor Kirkwood says. A large study of people aged 85 and over in Newcastle, carried out by Professor Kirkwood and his colleagues, discovered that there were a remarkable number of people enjoying good health and independence in their late 80s and beyond.

With people reaching old age in better shape, it is safe to assume that this is all down to better eating habits, living conditions, education and medicine. There are still many people who suffer from major health problems, but modern medicine means doctors are better at managing long-term health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. "We are reaching old age with less accumulative damage than previous generations. We are less damaged," says Professor Kirkwood. Our softer lives and the improvements in nutrition and healthcare have had a direct impact on longevity. Nearly one-in-five people currently in the UK will live to see their 100th birthday, the Office for National Statistics predicted last year. Life expectancy at birth has continued to increase in the UK - from 73.4 years for men for the period 1991 to 1993 to 77.85 years for 2007 to 2009. Life expectancy for females at birth has also increased - from 78.9 years (91-93) to 82 years (2007-2009). A report in Science from 2002 which looked at life expectancy patterns in different countries since 1840, concluded that there was no sign of a natural limit to life. Researchers Jim Oeppen and Dr James Vaupel found that people in the country with the highest life expectancy would live to an average age of 100 in about six decades. But they stopped short of predicting anything more. "This is far from eternity: modest annual increments in life expectancy will never lead to immortality," the researchers said. "It is striking, however, that centenarians may become commonplace within the lifetimes of people living today."

We do not seem to be approaching anything like the limits of life expectancy, says Professor David Leon from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "There has been no flattening out of the best of the best - the groups which everyone knows have good life expectancy and low mortality," he says. These groups, which tend to be in the higher social and economic groups in society, can live for several years longer than people in lower social groups, prompting calls for an end to inequalities within societies. Within populations, genes also have an important role to play in determining how long we could survive for - but environment is still the most important factor. It is no surprise that healthy-eating, healthy-living societies like Japan have the highest life expectancies in the world. But it would still be incredible to think that life expectancy could go on rising forever. "I would bet there will be further increases in life expectancy and then it will probably begin to slow," says Professor Kirkwood, "but we just don't know." Methuselah is not turning in his grave just yet.

[I wonder if there is indeed an upper limit to life expectancy. I guess that there must be. But what that limit is would be anyone’s guess. Is 200 or even 300 out of the question? With our increasing understanding of the human genome maybe in the not too distant future individuals might live to be 500 years old. If it’s just a matter of keeping the body successfully repaired a lifespan of beyond 500 years doesn’t seem particularly fantastic. Could people actually become immortal – or as immortal as it gets? I doubt if anyone living today will find out but our ancestors might look back on the present age and wonder how we coped surrounded by so much death.] 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Meaning of Life – A Very short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

The author of this interesting little book will be the first to admit that a very short introduction to the meaning of life is a difficult task to undertake. Cleverly, in my opinion, he chooses not to attack the question head on. Indeed he starts by questioning the very question itself by asking if the meaning of life question is itself a meaningful question. Although many questions exist not all of them are meaningful. We can ask ‘What is the Capital of France?’ and expect a definitive answer. But what if we ask ‘Is there life after death?’ or  ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Have we then asked anything that can, even theoretically, be answered or have we instead asked ‘How fast is Green?’ Of course this hasn’t stopped many of the world’s greatest minds attempting some kind of answer. The author illustrates the difficulty outlined above by referencing Wittgenstein, Sartre and Nietzsche amongst others who have expressed a range of views on the idea.

Interestingly the author reminds us that, until fairly recently, meaning of life questions did not normally arise in polite conversation. Until the advent of the modern age the meaning of life was clear to everyone. That meaning was, of course, God. It is only with the large scale demise of belief in such a being, in Europe at any rate, that philosophers and the reading public have turned their energies to answering such a question. Turbulent times often bring up deep seated questions about existence. Without the safety net of belief, now largely understood to be illusory, such questions are like echoes in a vast and empty room. Modernity, the author suggests, has not only pushed religion into the private realm but has commoditised even it to such an extent that, except at extremes, it fails to address this most fundamental question. It is no surprise therefore that meaning is sought in a plethora of places.

The author brings up two interesting points. Firstly, if the meaning of life question actually had an answer would that make any difference to our daily lives: What if finding out the answer turned out to be a bad idea? What, for instance, would be the consequence of us finding out that the reason for our existence was as a food source for beings we can barely comprehend? Such a revelation would hardly enhance our lives. Of course another question, which the author raises through the work of Schopenhauer, is: What if life is fundamentally meaningless? What if we search for meaning to combat our feelings of loneliness or cosmic inadequacy? Maybe the reason that no one has, as yet, produced a convincing meaning of life answer is that no such answer exists?

Overall I thought that the author had a very good stab at the whole ‘meaning of life’ argument. He certainly came at things from an interesting and unexpected direction (maybe not being a philosopher helped). His conclusion, after much preamble, seems to be rather pedestrian – despite its pedigree. He argues that the meaning of life is happiness in the sense that Aristotle proposed. The idea that happiness is achieved through individual and societal flourishing based on the expression of classical virtues. Although I agree that this is a worthy goal – both for individuals and cultures – I wouldn’t go so far as to propose it for a candidate for the meaning of life. Despite such quibbles and disagreements, this is a very interesting and thought provoking little volume. If you have ever pondered on the question of meaning this might provide some interesting grist for your mental mill.              

Monday, March 21, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Blood and Ice by Robert Masello

Nurse Eleanor Ames had no idea how long her relationship with Lieutenant Copley of the 17th Lancers would last or where it would take her. Even when she volunteered to follow him to the Crimea as part of Miss Nightingale’s field hospital little did she know that this was only the beginning of her adventure. Not until he came back from the Charge of the Light Brigade a changed man did she begin to understand that they were fated to be together for a very long time indeed. Running for their lives on Her Majesties ship Coventry, tossed by storm winds in the Southern ocean, their strange behaviour starts to turn the superstitious crew against them. Tossed over the side in chains the crew assume that they have disposed of their fears. They were wrong. Over 150 years later two bodies are discovered in the ice. At first unbelieving, the scientists at the Arctic Research station recover the find of the century which is sure to make visiting journalist Michael Wilde world famous. But as the ice melts and the strange couple vanish it slowly dawns on the isolated community that they have uncovered something that none of them are prepared for.

Although I never, or at least rarely, judge a book by its cover I must admit that I was totally entranced by this one. The look of the woman on the front literally sent shivers down my spine. If someone looked at me like that I’d be buying the first plane ticket out – no matter where it went. What I did learn, to my disappointment, is that the woman portrayed on the front cover is not the delightful Eleanor Ames I fell in love with in this book. It is probably meant to be her but, I believe, was created by someone who had not fully read the novel. In the novel Eleanor clearly has brown hair and green eyes, whilst the woman on the cover had black hair and blue eyes. As you can tell it rather rankled (pedantic, me?). Anyway, as to the story I was so looking forward to I can honestly say that I really liked it. The journalist Michael was OK despite being a bit wet, the scientists at the Pole were suitably odd and focused on their own particular pet projects but it was the characters of Lieutenant Sinclair Copley and especially Eleanor herself which sold me on it. The flashbacks to mid-Victorian England and the horrors of the Crimea war were very well told and very vivid. The incident that changed Sinclair’s and then Eleanor’s life was suitably creepy as was the resultant horror at the Arctic camp. I can certainly understand why Michael fell in love with Eleanor. The way she was described made me fall in love with her too. A young woman still full of life after all her strange experiences but lost in an age far beyond her wildest imagination would be a powerful attraction to most people. Of course knowing what she was as well as who she was would probably put quite a few people off the whole idea. But now I come to the biggest problem with the whole thing. I thought long and hard about how the author could end things. I had a few fairly detailed scenarios in my head and wondered which one he would pick. My answer: none of them. The ending was, at least in my mind, very unrealistic (yes, I know we’re talking horror/fantasy here so why am I bothered by realism) or maybe I should say unbelievable. Falling in love with such a woman might just about be acceptable but being blind to the enormous consequences of such an act are not. Although the ending didn’t ruin a hauntingly well written book it did leave a slightly bad taste in my mouth. Still, this is definitely recommended for anyone interested in a cracking good page turner. Just have a few pinches of salt ready at hand for the last 10 pages.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The S Word: We need both scepticism and consensus

By John Beddington for New Scientist

18 February 2011

Science is progress, but not progress unchallenged. In our era of "instant solutions" and immediate response, it is easy, and perhaps tempting, to forget that true advancement is attained through criticism, scepticism and debate. Great scientists have often challenged the status quo, but armed with the facts and evidence required to justify their view. Those who challenge the collective view should be scrutinised, and if this scrutiny results in truth, should be rightly celebrated.

Yet if we become fixated on divergence, we lose sight of the importance of consensus; significantly a consensus built upon rigorous enquiry. Only through a collaborative effort and purpose can the greatest global challenges be addressed and tackled. We are faced with some incredibly big challenges - climate change being one of the biggest. Yet whilst there is a scientific consensus around both the fact it is real and its fundamental cause, the serious public debate required to drive progress is being undermined by individuals or groups who cherry-pick facts to drive their own agenda. This trend is not unique to the climate debate; the controversy over the safety of GM crops is another prominent example. What concerns me is not that uncertainties are scrutinised, for uncertainties will always exist. What concerns me is our inability, and often, fear of communicating, and admitting, this fact. Indeed, as scientists we must be more transparent, more open to describing the gaps in our knowledge. Scepticism is the driving force for further discovery and better evidence. But often there is a thin line between healthy scepticism and a cynical approach which ignores or distorts inconvenient evidence.

It is human nature to find evidence more convincing when it backs up our own preconceptions, but when we allow that impulse to influence how society acts on important issues, it is irresponsible and dangerous. Let's return to what science actually is: the testing and retesting of hypotheses by experiment and scrutiny to create an evidence base. Where the evidence falls primarily on one side of an argument, a consensus is formed. Whether in policy advice, news reports or documentaries, to misrepresent the balance of evidence, whether explicitly or implicitly, is a dereliction of duty. So I would issue the following challenges: It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. We must make evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable. In a world of global communication, we cannot afford to only speak to ourselves. We must also be confident in challenging the misrepresentation or exaggeration of evidence and the conclusions it leads to. Where significant consensus exists, it must be made obvious. In the Civil Service and other organisations with a stake in policy, we must guard against ideology, and consider the whole body of evidence, not just that which supports our own views. I will continue to carry this message across government in my role as chief scientific adviser. Scientific evidence is only one factor in politicians' decisions but its integrity must be preserved if poor decisions are to be avoided.

I know journalists often have little time to cover complex issues. However it is not enough simply to report opposing views on an issue. The public is best served if each view, and the evidence behind it, is rigorously tested, scrutinised and challenged. The best science journalism is a testament to this and I make no apology for challenging all to reach the highest standards. We all have a stake in this. The pursuit of truth is not just for the scientific elite, nor Fleet Street, nor the corridors of Whitehall. This is a call to all of us - follow the evidence, and challenge those who seek to distort it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

I watched this on DVD over the Christmas break and was pretty impressed. I had no idea about the originating book – or any plan to read it – until I saw it on one of our contractor’s desks at work. After a very enjoyable 15 minute chat about the movie she offered to lend the book to me. An offer I gladly took up.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film (which I can heartily recommend) Into the Wild is an investigation of the last few months in the life of Chris McCandless who, in his early 20’s, dropped out of human society, took to the road and eventually ended up in the Alaskan wilderness, a place he had been in love with since reading Jack London’s Call of the Wild. There he took up residence in an abandoned Fairbanks City bus and there he died. Both the book and the film follow the time from his college graduation until his untimely death a few years later. Both book and film chart his withdrawal from modern civilisation and also, slowly, from human companionship itself. The advantage of the book over the film is that it has the time and space to go into much more detail about why such a bright, articulate and principled young man turned his back on just about everything. Although not completely successful on that point – we can never truly know what motivates other people (or ourselves sometimes) – the book does, I think, a creditable job in trying to understand what made Chris do what he did. Drawing on his own experiences in the wild and those of historical figures who seemed to be driven to need similar lifestyles, the author did manage to put him in context, not as an example of crazy, spoilt or disaffected youth but of someone who would have been, in ages past or in centuries still to come, a great explorer of unknown lands.

Although neither the film nor the book resonated very deeply with me – despite the grandeur of the story or the quality of the acting in the movie – I did understand at least part of where Chris was coming from. He saw just how false things are and how what we call civilisation is very often not civilised at all. He saw how badly we often treat our fellow humans and how cravenly we justify this to ourselves and each other. He recognised that buying into the ‘machine’ was a kind of mental and spiritual death that he seemed psychologically incapable of undertaking. So he rejected it all and headed for the hills. Of course it wasn’t that simple. Chris had issues with his father that where never resolved. I also think, more so from the book than the film, that he had underlying psychological problems which manifested themselves from a very early age. Individual human motivation, especially when trying to understand a persons whole life – even one as tragically short as that of Chris McCandless – is often a very complex business well beyond the scope of a 200 page book and certainly beyond a 142 minute movie – no matter how well made. However, both book and film are well worth experiencing if only to have a glimpse of something rare in our technologically obsessed society – someone who is willing to give that all up in order to walk into the wild.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Up

I have been a Pixar fan since their early days despite a few disappointments (I’m looking at you Nemo). Whilst The Incredibles is still the best of the bunch, in my opinion, Up comes a close second. It is a simple tale of old age, lost dreams, boy scouts, lost worlds and talking dogs – oh, and a whole host of balloons.

The story follows the life of Carl Fredrickson who, along with his life-long love Ellie, dream of adventure in the mysterious South American jungle. Unfortunately, as it often does, life gets in the way of dreams. They need repairs to the car and the house and, very sadly, hospital bills need to be paid. Almost before we’ve settled into our seats Ellie has died and Carl is left all alone (this is the saddest start to a Pixar movie ever). Years later Mr Fredrickson is a deeply grumpy old man who refuses to sell his house to make way for new developments. When it finally comes time to leave he escapes his old life by tying thousands of balloons to his house and sailing away – finally following his dream to discover lost worlds of adventure. Of course things are never really that simple. There’s Russell, an overeager adventure wilderness scout, to deal with as well as Dug, a talking dog. Of course there has to be a larger than life bad-guy too. This is the explorer Charles Muntz who has gone ‘off the reservation’ whilst looking for an extinct bird to save his reputation. When the dreams of Mr Fredrickson and Charles Muntz clash, sparks and dogs fly!

Once I got over the heart rending beginning I really enjoyed this film. Maybe this is partially explained by the guys at work who said that I was the real life Mr Fredrickson. I was honestly insulted. I don’t think that I’m anywhere near that grumpy! My favourite character – by far – was Dug the talking dog (can we keep him… please!) – who was one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in ages. So dumb, so friendly, so loyal….. so easily distracted [squirrel?]. As you might imagine, the animation was outstanding though purposefully cartoonish. The action moved right along and I didn’t roll my eyes once. Of course, being Pixar, there was a warm and fuzzy underlying story behind it all – don’t give up on your dreams but don’t let them consume you, don’t give up on life just because it’s dealt you a shitty hand and be really careful about helping boy scouts or adopting chatty pooches. But such things are easily forgivable considering how funny, clever and simply delightful this movie is. Even if you don’t have the ready excuse of having young children I can heartily recommend that you give yourself 93 minutes of high class entertainment – though I do recommend that you have a few hankies ready for the first 10 minutes. You might need them.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The royal wedding naysayers

By Jon Kelly for BBC News Magazine

The UK media is saturated with coverage of Prince William's forthcoming marriage to Kate Middleton. But what about those who don't think the event is important? You'll have put up the bunting, then? Organised the street party? Filled your house with souvenirs and commemorative pull-out supplements? And obviously you'll want to read all about the happy couple? Where they're going on honeymoon? Whether they've chosen canapes or sausages-on-sticks for the finger buffet? No? What do you mean, no? Studying much of the UK media's coverage of the Prince William and Kate Middleton's forthcoming wedding, you'd be forgiven for thinking that its advent had gripped the entire nation in a state of fevered, restless anticipation. In the four months since the couple's engagement was announced, there have been thousands of mentions of the term "royal wedding" in the UK's national newspapers while broadcasters, including the BBC, have been equally diligent in their pursuit of the story. Yet polls suggest the British public is not quite so uniformly receptive.

Graphic artist Lydia Leith, 24, from Carlisle, Cumbria, says she has sold thousands of "Royal wedding sick bags". "We've heard so much about the royal wedding already and I'd heard so many people saying they were sick of it. I sent the sick bags out to some graphic design magazines I like and in no time it was all over Twitter. I did it as a joke. I never knew it was going to take off as it has. I'm not an anti-monarchist but it's true that you can't escape it. I thought I could do something with that." In a ComRes survey of 1,006 British adults conducted in November 2010, a clear majority said they were "not excited" by the wedding. Of the sample, some 31% said they "couldn't care less" about the event and a further 28% described themselves as "largely indifferent". Groups which call for the abolition of the monarchy acknowledge that they are in a minority, with most opinion polls putting dedicated republicans at around one-fifth of the population compared with around 70% backing the present system. But a glance at readers' comments below any online news story about the marriage indicates the prevalence of antipathy towards nuptial ubiquity. Comedian Arthur Smith, best known for his curmudgeonly turns on TV's Grumpy Old Men, is aggrieved that journalists are focusing on one matrimonial ceremony at a time of austerity at home and unrest abroad. "What I hate most is the assumption that I care, when in fact I very much do not," he barks. "There are lots of important things happening right now and yet we keep hearing about it over and over again. I don't care about my friends' weddings, never mind theirs”.

Not all of those who express such sentiments are republicans or, indeed, grumpy old men like Smith. The Daily Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon is, in keeping with her newspaper's editorial slant, steadfastly pro-monarchy. As a 30-year-old woman she belongs to a demographic that advertisers and editors no doubt visualise cooing over bridal gowns and wedding favours. And yet she does believe the coverage - to which she has grudgingly contributed - has amounted to overkill, antagonising those who might otherwise be sympathetic to the House of Windsor as an institution. Additionally, she argues that the very currency of a royal wedding has been devalued from 1981 when 28 million people watched the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Exposure of and the rise of celebrity culture may be to blame. "It's not like in the early 80s when the royals were the big celebrities," she says. "Posh and Becks have usurped them. They even had thrones when they got married. Everyone has a royal wedding now - the average one in Britain costs about £20,000. It's not the big deal it once was. Plus, I can't relate to Kate. I don't know why anyone would marry into that family, for a start." With even such a natural royalist repelled by the blanket coverage, Palace officials might be expected to worry about its impact on support for the crown as an institution. Indeed, on the eve of the 2010 wedding of Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria, support for the country's monarchy slumped to its lowest-ever figure of 46%. Graham Smith, campaign manager for the pressure group Republic, which calls for an end to the monarchy, does not expect a surge in support for an elected head of state in the run-up to 29 April. Nor is he happy about the amount of coverage the event has so far received, having complained to the BBC for reporting it in a way which he feels has marginalised republican sentiment and insufficiently represented the fact the monarchy is a contested political institution.

But he does hope that the irritation felt by those either normally supportive of the monarchy or indifferent to its constitutional role will compel them to think carefully about the role it plays in British life. "Politicians and the media are behind the curve," he says. "They don't realise that Britain has moved on. We are far less deferential as a society and as a nation. Although they aren't demanding a republic, the public are small-"r" republicans in that they want to see a society of equals. That's why the obligation is on the media to report it just down the line and always acknowledge the 20% who want to get rid of it all." Such republicans may not constitute a majority. But whatever festivities mark the wedding itself, there will be plenty of Britons celebrating when the whole thing is over.

[I’m actually quite torn on this one. Am I a “couldn’t care less” or am I a “largely indifferent”…? It’s a tough call. I think that I’d have to go with “hostile indifference”, yes, that sounds about right. It’s not just because I see the Monarchy as an anachronism or even because I view the whole lot of them as parasites, it’s because the Powers that Be expect us to be uplifted (in these difficult times) by the expensive overblown wedding of two completely irrelevant individuals. This I’m supposed to get excited about? This is supposed to bring cheer into my life? The only and I do mean only good thing is that I get an extra day off work – with pay. Of course the many contract staff and self employed will general lose a days pay. No doubt (in these difficult times) all of those people will be more than happy to take the hit in the name of the Monarchy….. I think not, don’t you?]

Retreat? Hell, we just got here......

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss

Yes, its rebel time again. This book tells the now famous story – made popular by the 1960 Kirk Douglas epic – of the 73 BC slave revolt in the heart of the Roman Empire. For more than two years thousands of slaves who followed Spartacus the ex-gladiator ravaged the Italian peninsula until they were inevitably brought finally to battle.

This was a thin book in more ways than one. Only 189 pages long it still managed to pack in too much speculation for my liking. It appears that we actually know very little about the man Spartacus and the revolt he led. Even his origins are shrouded in mystery. It is suspected that he was from Thrace and probably served in the Roman Auxiliary units. It’s known that he was a gladiator for a short time until his escape. What isn’t known is what caused his apparent fall from grace. The date of his escape – along with a handful of fellow gladiators – is known but details of where he went and what his followers achieved is unclear. A number of battles were fought and each time the Romans were soundly beaten. Exact details of what happened during those encounters is largely unknown – including the actually locations of the battlefields. It is known that the crisis was discussed in the Senate but little remains of what was actually said. It is known that the slave army attempted to escape to Sicily but no one is quite sure why the pirate fleet double crossed them. It is also known that finally, after several years of fruitless and frustrating attempts to quell the rebellion, the Roman general Crassus finally did so by defeating the slave army. What actually happened to Spartacus himself is unknown. In order to stitch the narrative of this mythic rebel together the author was forced – all too easily I thought – to speculate on much of what actually happened, sometimes it seemed with precious little to go on. It was frustrating to see someone trying to build something with so little substance or foundation to support it. Part of the problem, possibly, is that on many levels this is indeed a great story waiting to be told. Unfortunately there appears precious little actual evidence to even determine who Spartacus actually was. Although he still has great mythic power – even after more than two thousand years – the brilliance of the myth surrounding him all but obliterates the real historical man. This is a great failing of this frankly disappointing book, all the more disappointing because it appears to be a subject and a person crying out for suitable biography. Unfortunately this isn’t it.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Tides of Light by Gregory Benford

In the far future the remnants of humanity are on the run from the machines that control most of the Galaxy. Looking for a new home on which to settle they detect a world under attack from a strange inexplicable device. When their ship is attacked they abandon it for the dangers of the planets surface. There they face an even greater threat. Thrown into a war between alien cyborgs and human soldiers once allied to the machines whom the cyborgs had defeated. Torn between loyalty to their human brothers and fear of the deadly cyborgs they must walk the path of survival while all around them the planet is being torn apart.

Oddly the back of this book says that it’s the second volume in the Galactic Centre novel series although you can see on the cover above that it’s apparently the fourth book in the series. This might explain why it took so long for me to get comfortable with it. I’d actually read the first (or third) book in the series some years ago – pre-Blog – but that didn’t really help. What did help was the character flashbacks and speculation about recent and ancient history. At least that gave me the context. I struggled a bit with the language though. The author had invented a sort of future shorthand and language drift which took a bit of getting used to, especially as I had to mentally translate what people where saying before I could move on with the plot. However, once these twin hurdles were overcome this actually turned out to be a very good and often gripping piece of hard sci-fi. Whilst the aliens – both cyborg and machine – where suitably alien they were understandable to the extent that I found the cyborgs in particular to be very interesting. Most of the humans turned out to be fairly two-dimensional but there was enough personality in the main characters to more than adequately carry the story forward. All in all, after a difficult start I really quite enjoyed this book and some of the images stayed with me a long time after I’d finished the final page. I have the next book in the series already (actually it along with this volume has been in the ‘pile’ for quite some time) and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m also going to have to see if I can get the first two books in the series now I know that they exist! Recommended – but I’d start from the first book rather than here.

On a more general note, I’m rather surprised by the lack of any significant number of SF novels based around the conflict between men and machines. With the popularity of the Terminator franchise and the drive towards autonomous military robots I would have thought such an area would prove very fertile ground indeed. It’s a rather odd, and obvious, gap in the genre.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Meteorite 'could have carried nitrogen to Earth'

By Neil Bowdler for BBC News

28 February 2011

A meteorite found in Antarctica could lend weight to the argument that life on Earth was aided by an extraterrestrial body, scientists claim. Chemical analysis of the meteorite shows it to be rich in the gas ammonia, which contains the element nitrogen - found in the amino and nucleic acids which form the basis of life. Analysis of other meteorites has revealed organic compounds which the authors of the new paper believe are too complex to have played a role.

Details of the study by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The new study is based on analysis of just under 4g of powder extracted from a meteorite called Grave Nunataks 95229 (named after its place of discovery in Antarctica). The meteorite was found in 1995 and belongs to the "Renazzo" family of "carbonaceous chondrite" meteorites, a group of meteorites that retain much of their original composition and have not been melted by their parent body. They can contain high proportions of water and organic compounds. The powder sample was shown to contain abundant amounts of ammonia as well as hydrocarbons (including the amino acids glycine and alanine). Analysis of the isotopes of nitrogen and hydrogen found within the sample suggest the material originated from a "cold cosmic" environment, and were not the result of Earthly contaminants.

Professor Sandra Pizzarello, who led the research, says the study "shows that there are asteroids out there that when fragmented and become meteorites, could have showered the Earth with an attractive mix of components, including a large amount of ammonia". She claims the meteorite provides better evidence of the possible "prebiotic" role played by meteorites than the "Murchison" group of carbonaceous chondrites. The professor says the Murchison meteorites represent "too much of a good thing" and contain hydrocarbon molecules which you would expect to find at the end rather than the start of the life story. She believes the composition of these compounds are too complex and too random in their molecular distribution to have played a role.

The theory that our planet may have been seeded by a comet or asteroid arises partly from the belief the formative Earth might not have been able to provide the full inventory of simple molecules needed for the "prebiotic" processes which led to primitive life. The suggestion is that the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, away from the heat and pressure of the forming planets, could have been a better place for such processes. Collisions between asteroids within the belt produce meteoroids which shoot off around the Solar System and which can carry materials to the Earth. Dr Caroline Smith, a meteorite expert at London's Natural History Museum agrees the important element in the new study is the nitrogen, even though she would like to see similar results repeated in other meteorites. "One of the problems with early biology on the early Earth is you need abundant nitrogen for all these prebiological processes to happen - and of course nitrogen is in ammonia.

"A lot of the evidence shows that ammonia was not present in much abundance in the early Earth, so where did it come from?" What specifically caused life to begin on Earth remains a mystery. Professor Pizzarello hypothesises material from a meteor may have interacted with environments on Earth such as volcanoes or tidal pools, but says all remains a matter of guess work. "You find these extraterrestrial materials (in meteorites) which have what you need," she says, "but on the how and when, in which environments and by what means - really, we don't know. You can only say that yes, it seems that the extraterrestrial environments could have had the good stuff."

[I think it’s reasonable to suggest that meteor impacts have had a hand in shaping life on Earth – beyond the one 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs and gave us our big break. We have been impacted by millions of rocks since the Great Bombardment and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if they had added vital material to our biosphere. How, or if, they were involved in the beginnings of life is still unclear. Maybe one day we’ll find definitive evidence to support the idea.]

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Resistance – The French Fight against the Nazis by Matthew Cobb

I’m not exactly sure why but I have had a lifelong interest in revolution, rebellion and resistance. So it should come as no surprise that on seeing this book I bought it immediately and read it shortly afterwards. Where I got it from I’m unsure, but for as long as I can remember I have held a deep admiration for the French Resistance to The Occupation between 1940 and 1944. This book has deepened that admiration even further.

Starting from the invasion and subsequent collapse of the French armed forces under the pressure of Blitzkrieg this book ran in two strands: the political aspect of the fight against the Germans (mainly conducted in London by the Free French administration under Charles De Gaul and the British government under the increasing guidance from Washington) and the actual fighting in France itself by individuals and, later, organised groups from both the Left and the Right. I actually wasn’t that interested – above acknowledging it as necessary background material – in the political side of things, except maybe to be cynical about the involvement of Allied governments in French affairs (and the attempts to manipulate the future of liberated France) as well as the largely self-serving influence of De Gaul himself. What interested me far more was the personal stories of the men and women – often frighteningly young and naïve – who resisted occupation with their lives. Where any simple act of defiance could result in torture, imprisonment or even death I was constantly amazed at the bravery and honest heroism of what we would regard as ordinary people. School teachers, farmers, postmen, house wives and students (including school children) ran huge risks producing pamphlets and newspapers, passing vital information to the Allies, undertaking acts of sabotage and assassination. Although initially ineffective through lack of resources, experience and a dangerous naïveté, the Resistance movement proved to be a very useful resource prior to D-Day destroying bridges and delaying the German response to the Normandy landings.

Reading the very personal stories of those who survived this conflict as well as the diary entries of those who did not I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done under similar circumstances. Like the early resistors I doubt if my life expectancy would have been measured in months – more likely in weeks or even days. That is if I had the necessary guts to do anything at all. Most French citizens did not resist. Indeed many collaborated, either passively or actively with their occupiers. I guess that it would have been the same here too if the German invasion of Britain had ever happened. The idea of Resistance is a very difficult one to contemplate especially if you have a family or loved ones who might be hurt because of your actions. Yet French men and women who were deeply in love with each other fought and died together in their war against German occupation. Amazing. These people are true heroes who should be better known and much more celebrated than they are today – even in France. If you want to know what heroism looks like then read this book.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Random Pix

As I spend a fair bit of my time on Google images it's inevitable that I come across a large number of interesting images that don't really fit into any category. Of course, if they're any good I itch to post them here - which I sometimes do. In the past week or so I've come across a new source of good pictures which I'll post here over the coming months. I hope that you like some of them as much as I do. If you check out the list of labels over on the Right, you'll see the new(ish) label: Random Pix. Enjoy..... 
Cartoon Time.