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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lasers could replace spark plugs in car engines

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

24 April 2011

A team at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics will report on 1 May that they have designed lasers that could ignite the fuel/air mixture in combustion engines. The approach would increase efficiency of engines, and reduce their pollution, by igniting more of the mixture. The team is in discussions with a spark plug manufacturer. The idea of replacing spark plugs - a technology that has changed little since their invention 150 years ago - with lasers is not a new one. Spark plugs only ignite the fuel mixture near the spark gap, reducing the combustion efficiency, and the metal that makes them up is slowly eroded as they age.

A team from Romania and Japan has now demonstrated a system that can focus two or three laser beams into an engine's cylinders at variable depths. That increases the completeness of combustion and neatly avoids the issue of degradation with time. However, it requires that lasers of high pulse energies are used; just as with spark plugs, a great deal of energy is needed to cause ignition of the fuel. "In the past, lasers that could meet those requirements were limited to basic research because they were big, inefficient, and unstable," said Takunori Taira of the National Institutes of Natural Sciences in Okazaki, Japan. "Nor could they be located away from the engine, because their powerful beams would destroy any optical fibres that delivered light to the cylinders." The team has been developing a new approach to the problem: lasers made of ceramic powders that are pressed into spark-plug sized cylinders. These ceramic devices are lasers in their own right, gathering energy from compact, lower-power lasers that are sent in via optical fibre and releasing it in pulses just 800 trillionths of a second long. Unlike the delicate crystals typically used in high-power lasers, the ceramics are more robust and can better handle the heat within combustion engines. The team is in discussions to commercialise the technology with Denso, a major automobile component manufacturer.

[Those who know me will appreciate that this isn’t the usual kind of story that interests me – not being a petrol-head or even a car driver. However, I do find it fascinating that laser technology is moving into another area of everyday life probably with profound consequences. With more fuel efficient and less polluting engines the laser spark plug will undoubtedly increase the projected lifespan of the internal combustion engine. No doubt future technologies will increase its lifespan further into the future. Like the demise of the book I suggest that the death of the car has been greatly exaggerated.] 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Valentine’s Exile by E E Knight

On a devastated future Earth under the rule of the terrifying alien Kurian Order the human resistance are celebrating the liberation of Dallas. As a reward for his part in the action, David Valentine is offered a staff position in the Free Territories military command. But before he can take up his new position he is arrested for war crimes against the Quisling soldiers butchered by concentration camp inmates. Despite the questionable nature of the charges against him he is advised to plead guilty for the good of ‘the cause’. Unwilling to do so he is threatened with the death penalty if he does not comply. Realising that he has made enemies is high places he escapes and continues his search for the wife of his commanding officer who vanished months previously. The search leads Valentine into the heart of enemy territory and to a heavily guarded hospital complex where deeply disturbing things are happening.

This is the 5th book in the Vampire Earth series – and, as far as I recall, the first book in the series to mention Vampire Earth in the text. So far this series has been universally very good. Unfortunately the author stumbled here and produced a novel which failed to move the storyline on very much, introduced few interesting new characters and only unveiled what I saw as minor aspects of a very much altered planet not covered in his previous books. Whist not exactly bad in any great degree this novel did come across as rather flat and work-a-day with little excitement and few thrills. Although certainly readable it was definitely not one of his best. I do hope that the steam has not gone out of this narrative because I think it still has much to say and far to go. Hopefully the next instalment(s) will get things back on track. I really do hope so as this was shaping up as one of my favourite series in recent years.     

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thinking About: Being an Aries

By an odd statistical coincidence out of a team of six people at work four of them (including me) have birthdays in April less than 10 days apart. This, as you might imagine, has caused some surprise and not a small amount of amused conversation. This year one of the big bosses found out – during one of his flying visits – and began musing on what characteristics we had in common. None, I said, because Astrology is bollocks. He seemed quite taken aback by my statement or maybe it was because he’s unused to hearing moderately crude language from someone he considers to be fairly well educated?

Anyway…. Aries. Let’s see how much the supposed Arian Personality matches my own shall we?

Aries personalities are independent. [Yes, I consider myself to be very independently minded. I go my own way and do my own thing. This trait has increased with age.]

Being the first of the zodiac signs, they venture out and are go-getters, often leading the way. [No, I am almost never venturesome nor am I go-getting. In fact I have often been criticised for not being a go-getter. I do not lead, nor do I generally follow. I do not regard either trait to be natural to me.]

Their upbeat and magnetic personality often entices others to follow their lead because Aries personalities bring excitement into others lives. [This made me laugh. Me…? Upbeat? I am universally recognised as being quite dour and always looking at the dark-side of things. If I have any kind of magnetism it’s the type that repels other things rather than attracting them. I doubt very much if I bring excitement into others lives. If 100 people where asked to describe me in one word I’m guessing that exciting would not feature.]

Aries are good friends, they always look out for their friends with caring and generosity and will protect them should the need arise and encourage them with their natural optimism. [Agreed. I am a good friend and seem to spend a great deal of my time encouraging others. Go figure. As to being naturally optimistic….? This caused another good laugh.]   

If success is not immediate, they tend to lose interest and give up easily. Aries are notorious for not finishing what they have begun. This is due to the low tolerance for boredom and lack of patience. [I am not a completer/finisher. Never have been. It’s not really that I’m bored with the first project but that the next one, and the one after that, seems more important. I don’t sweat the small stuff because I hardly take any notice of it. It’s actually a running gag at work. I give up easily on most things because I see them as fundamentally unimportant. For the important things – I never give up. I am, in the right circumstance, quite relentless.]

Independence is key to Aries astrology, they do not like to take orders from others and enjoy getting their way. [Years ago, when I was still comparatively young, my then boss learnt that I was quite interested in all things military. Well then, she said, why don’t you join the Territorial Army (pretty much our version of the American National Guard)? I just looked at her and said that I have a pathological inability to take orders. Of course everyone would like to get their own way (which must be quite enjoyable). I am no different. I would certainly like to get my own way more often.]

In order to get their way, Aries will tell a lie if it seems advantageous to do so. They are however, not very good liars and other people can usually see through them. [I don’t tell lies very often. Lies are generally too complicated and I have a shocking short term memory which makes me a poor liar.]

Underneath the strong, independent surface may lie insecurity. This is due to the intense drive to succeed and Aries put too much pressure on themselves, thus resulting in self-doubt however, the natural optimism and enthusiasm overtakes this and the underlying insecurity may never be known to others. [Although I am in many ways rather insecure it is most definitely not due to my ‘intense drive to succeed’ (which does not exist) and it is not covered by my natural optimism and enthusiasm (likewise). I doubt. It’s what I do. I’m a sceptic by nature and part of this scepticism is a doubt about my own abilities. Oddly I have succeeded at, or at least coped with, virtually everything I have undertaken in the last 50 years from education to work.]

An Aries man has a lust for adventure so if you are thinking about having a relationship with an Aries man, be prepared for fast-paced adventure, novelty and excitement. [Pretty much 100% wrong. Although not a prude I do like my creature comforts and do not believe in taking silly risks for thrills in a relationship. I can be impulsive – indeed I like being impulsive but feel that spontaneity has its time and place and works best with some decent planning behind it.]

Let Aries know that you admire them, they thrive of admiration and followers. [A little bit of admiration is never a bad thing but I have little time, and less respect, for followers. I am an independent person who expects others to be independent too.]

They love compliments more then most other astrology signs of the zodiac. [Oh how I hate compliments. I am find them deeply untrustworthy and often do not believe a word.]

They like conversation about intellectual topics and engage them in a lively discussion, or a friendly debate. They love the challenge and the stimulation of good, intelligent conversation. [Most definitely as you may have noticed.]

The head is Aries' most powerful erogenous zone. Stroking their hair and rubbing their scalp will make them feel relaxed and heighten their sensations. Nibble the ear, for especially the men, they will not be able to resist this, he will get uncontrollable urges and you will soon be all his! [The only person I don’t mind playing with my hair is my hairdresser. As to nibbling my ears…… You have got to be kidding me!]

The Aries zodiac sign is straightforward, aggressive and adventurous and this is reflected in their approach to sex. Expect it to be physical, quick and rough, they like to dominate and have the upper position. [Whilst a quick fuck can be lots of fun – especially when time is short – I much prefer taking my time, building tension and even conversation during sex. I also like it when my partner takes the lead and shows me what she likes. After all it takes two to tango successfully.]

So, as you can see, apart from a few definite hits most of the Aries personality profile does not apply to me – sometimes spectacularly so. It is indeed a load of bollocks. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Terminators: Drone Strikes Prompt MoD to Ponder Ethics of Killer Robots

by Richard Norton-Taylor and Rob Evans for The Guardian

Monday, April 18, 2011

The growing use of unmanned aircraft in combat situations raises huge moral and legal issues, and threatens to make war more likely as armed robots take over from human beings, according to an internal study by the Ministry of Defence. The report warns of the dangers of an "incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality", referring to James Cameron's 1984 movie, in which humans are hunted by robotic killing machines. It says the pace of technological development is accelerating at such a rate that Britain must quickly establish a policy on what will constitute "acceptable machine behaviour".

"It is essential that before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) … we ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely," warns the report, titled The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems. MoD officials have never before grappled so frankly with the ethics of the use of drones. The report was ordered by Britain's defence chiefs, and coincides with continuing controversy about drones' use in Afghanistan, and growing Pakistani anger at CIA drone attacks against suspected insurgents on the Afghan borders. It states that "the recent extensive use of unmanned aircraft over Pakistan and Yemen may already herald a new era". Referring to descriptions of "killer drones" in Afghanistan, it notes that "feelings are likely to run high as armed systems acquire more autonomy". The insurgents "gain every time a mistake is made", enabling them to cast themselves "in the role of underdog and the west as a cowardly bully that is unwilling to risk his own troops, but is happy to kill remotely", the report adds. Pakistan last week demanded that the US stop drone strikes and the CIA drastically cut its officers there. David Cameron said in December that British drones had killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan since June 2008, hailing them as a "classic example of a modern weapon which is necessary for today's war". The drones, known as Reapers, have to date fired 167 missiles and bombs in Afghanistan.

The report was drawn up last month by the ministry's internal thinktank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), based in Shrivenham, Wiltshire, which is part of MoD central staff. The centre's reports are sent to the most senior officers in all three branches of the armed forces and influence policy and strategy. The concept of "fighting from barracks" or the "remote warrior" raises such questions as whether a person operating the drones – sometimes from thousands of miles away and "walking the streets of his home town after a shift" – is a legitimate target as a combatant. "Do we fully understand the psychological effects on remote operators of conducting war at a distance?" ask the officials. There is one school of thought, they note, that suggests that for war to be moral, as opposed to just legal, "it must link the killing of enemies with an element of self-sacrifice, or at least risk to oneself. The role of the human in the loop has, before now, been a legal requirement which we now see being eroded," the MoD report warns. It asks: "What is the role of the human from a moral and ethical standpoint in automatic systems? … To a robotic system, a school bus and a tank are the same – merely algorithms in a programme … the robot has no sense of ends, ways and means, no need to know why it is engaging a target." Chris Cole, a campaigner who runs the Drone Wars UK website, which monitors the development of unmanned weapons systems, welcomed the MoD study while calling for a halt to the use of drones by British forces." There needs to be an open and public discussion about the implications of remote warfare, and it may be that a parliamentary select committee inquiry would be the appropriate forum to begin this discussion," he said. The report notes that the MoD "currently has no intention to develop systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain". However, the MoD, like the Pentagon, is keen to develop more and more sophisticated "automated" weapons, it admits.

The report also identifies advantages of an unmanned weapons system, such as preventing the potential loss of aircrew lives, which mean it "is thus in itself morally justified". It adds: "Robots cannot be emotive, cannot hate. A robot cannot be driven by anger to carry out illegal actions such as those at My Lai [the massacre by US troops of hundreds of unarmed civilians in South Vietnam in March 1968]. "In theory, therefore," says the MoD study, "autonomy should enable more ethical and legal warfare. However, we must be sure that clear accountability for robotic thought exists, and this raises a number of difficult debates. Is a programmer guilty of a war crime if a system error leads to an illegal act? Where is the intent required for an accident to become a crime?"

The US-manufactured General Atomics Reaper is currently the RAF's only armed unmanned aircraft. It can carry up to four Hellfire missiles, two 230kg (500lb) bombs, and 12 Paveway II guided bombs. It can fly for more than 18 hours, has a range of 3,600 miles, and can operate at up to 15,000 metres (50,000ft).
The Reaper is operated by RAF personnel based at Creech in Nevada. It is controlled via a satellite datalink. Earlier this year, David Cameron promised to increase the number of RAF Reapers in Afghanistan from four to nine, at an estimated cost of £135m.The MoD is also funding the development by BAE Systems of a long-range unmanned aircraft, called Taranis, designed to fly at "jet speeds" between continents while controlled from anywhere in the world using satellite communications.

[It’s nice to see that it’s not just me and my wild imagination that can foresee problems ahead. An "incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality" indeed. I couldn’t have said it better myself – even if I already have. At least they can't say that they haven't been officially warned now!]

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Medieval Britain – A Very Short Introduction by John Gillingham and Ralph A Griffiths

Despite knowing most of the names and some of the highlights mentioned in this busy little volume I was surprised at the amount of detail I was clearly unaware of. After reading this excellent book I at least now know the main elements of my ignorance. I am actually surprised by how little I seem to know of my own countries history. We covered some aspects of this period in school history classes – 1066, the Wars of the Roses, things like that – but I never realised just how things fitted together before. The Middle Ages now makes a great deal more sense. I certainly have a much greater understanding about our long lasting enmity with France for example – that our political and royal histories are so deeply intertwined that it would be difficult for us not to have become century’s long enemies. Like competing siblings we simply have too many ambitions and desires in common to become friends without the maturity that only time brings. One thing that did surprise me very much, though on reflection should not have done, is how turbulent the whole period was. Not only was war an almost constant feature of the time but, combined with civil unrest, invasion, famine and plague, every thing seemed to be in flux. It’s pretty amazing how anything managed to keep going. But it did – often through the skill and willpower of kings, queens and great men.

The Medieval Period hasn’t really been on my radar. I’m actually far more interested in the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution and the Elizabethan Age. This very impressive little book has, however, shifted my interest in that direction and I will delve a little deeper into that murky and dangerous period of my countries history. On a wider note I’ll also be concentrating more on European history in general where, it’s becoming obvious, I have much to learn. But if you have every wondered about the foundations of British history you could do far worse than read this book. You’ll learn lots and be fired up to learn much more. Enjoy!     

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Doctor Who star Elisabeth Sladen, who was also in spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, has died aged 63. Sladen appeared as Doctor Who assistant Sarah Jane Smith in the BBC television sci-fi series between 1973 and 1976 opposite Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. In more recent times the Liverpool-born actress went on to appear in four series of The Sarah Jane Adventures on children's channel CBBC. BBC entertainment reporter Lizo Mzimba said she had had cancer for some time.

[I had a HUGE crush on Elisabeth Sladen in her Tom Baker assistant role. She was probably one of the most important formative influences on what I found attractive in women. A sad day indeed. I’m honestly gutted….. ]

Making new friends (some assembly required). 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Last Match by David Dodge

After leaving the Army in Germany the main character [I don’t think he actually has a name] decides to try his luck as a gigolo in the South of France. Down on his luck he drifts into petty crime and finally smuggling across the Mediterranean. Arrested on arrival back in France he serves a few months of a long sentence only to be released into the custody of a young and beautiful heiress who thinks she can reform him. Not ready to be caged he departs for the Middle East and them onto South America scamming anyone he comes across and always staying one step ahead of Interpol and the heiress.

I bought quite a few Hard Case Crime novels a year or so ago hoping that they would be the literary equivalent of Film Noir. After less than half a dozen books I have been disabused of that idea. Apart from one or two OK novels the rest have been pretty dire. Maybe this explains why most of the other Hard Case Crime books on my Amazon Wish List are no longer available. Anyway, this book was readable – just – and I did manage to finish it. The only real character was the central guy who is apparently based on the author. Everybody else was, at best, a cardboard cut-out and pretty soggy cardboard at that. His women characters were so offensively drawn as to be laughable. In effect the whole book was a teenage wet-dream fantasy which had brainless women throwing themselves at the main character and him, more often than not, throwing them back after he’d had his way with them. This was only just on the right side of being terrible and looking back on it I struggle to think why I even finished it. Avoid.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gates Warns Against More Wars Like Iraq and Afghanistan

by Thom Shanker for the New York Times

Saturday, February 26, 2011

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim.

Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here. “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here. That reality, he said, meant that the Army would have to reshape its budget, since potential conflicts in places like Asia or the Persian Gulf were more likely to be fought with air and sea power, rather than with conventional ground forces. “As the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations,” Mr. Gates warned. “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying, and administering a large third-world country — may be low,” Mr. Gates said, but the Army and the rest of the government must focus on capabilities that can “prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly — and controversial — large-scale American military intervention.”

Mr. Gates was brought into the Bush cabinet in late 2006 to repair the war effort in Iraq that was begun under his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and then was kept in office by President Obama. He did not directly criticize the Bush administration’s decisions to go to war. Even so, his never-again formulation was unusually pointed, especially at a time of upheaval across the Arab world and beyond. Mr. Gates has said that he would leave office this year, and the speech at West Point could be heard as his farewell to the Army. A decade of constant conflict has trained a junior officer corps with exceptional leadership skills, he told the cadets, but the Army may find it difficult in the future to find inspiring work to retain its rising commanders as it fights for the money to keep large, heavy combat units in the field. “Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties,” Mr. Gates said. “The consequences of this terrify me.” He said Iraq and Afghanistan had become known as “the captains’ wars” because “officers of lower and lower rank were put in the position of making decisions of higher and higher degrees of consequence and complexity.” To find inspiring work for its young officers after combat deployments, the Army must encourage unusual career detours, Mr. Gates said, endorsing graduate study, teaching, or duty in a policy research institute or Congressional office. Mr. Gates said his main worry was that the Army might not overcome the institutional bias that favored traditional career paths. He urged the service to “break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most battle-tested young officers to lead the service in the future.” There will be one specific benefit to the fighting force as the pressures of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan decrease, Mr. Gates said: “The opportunity
to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training — including mechanized combined arms exercises — that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars.”

[I wonder if anyone will listen to him or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes that led us into two expensive and stupid wars. From experience it seems to me that learning from our mistakes only comes hard if at all. I doubt very much if the world will get any safer in the future and doubt even more the ability of the US military in particular to do anything about it. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Cryptography – A Very Short Introduction by Fred Piper and Sean Murphy

I’ve been interested in computer security for about 20 years which was a little before actually using one. My initial fascination was with hacking and such – both the doing and protecting against. Inevitably this sort of bled into things covered in this slim volume – the protection of data and the breaking of codes.

One of the most famous code breaking exercises is, of course, the Enigma code which, arguably, shortened the war by at least 6-12 months. It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if we hadn’t have broken Enigma. Just over a third of the book looks at historic codes such as this along with exercises in code breaking you can try out – if so inclined. Of course more modern ciphers leave Enigma standing in the dust with increasingly long and complex codes. The authors explain public-key encryption and how important encryption is in commerce and, as you may be aware, in quite a lot of things we do on a day to day basic from getting our money out of an ATM to making a cell-phone call. Encryption is almost invisibly everywhere.

I did find this book a bit of a slog and rather dry. It might be the fact that it came across as rather text-book like – complete with a significant number of exercises which honestly didn’t interest me that much. These days cryptography is basically mathematics and unfortunately me and maths haven’t been on talking terms for quite some time. Although I did learn a thing or two I did have to dig around rather too much to excavate the nuggets of knowledge. For me there was rather too much maths and it was all just a bit too serious for my tastes. Maybe I’m not that much of a nerd after all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Soundtrack to My Life

One of the pleasures of visiting the cinema, after the movie itself and (often) spending time with friends, is the music that accompanies the whole experience – be it incidental music composed specifically for the film or existing songs from various artists. A significant percentage of the music I have bought by new artists (or at least new to me) has been the result of hearing them first in a movie. So being the person I am I have accumulated quite a collection of movie soundtracks and here they are (in no particular order). I suspect that some of them will surprise you.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Tan Dun

Cyber City Oedo 808 – Rory McFarlane

Akira – Geinoh Yamashirogumi

Streets of Fire – Various

Cruel Intentions – Various

Pump up the Volume – Various

2001: A Space Odyssey – Various

Strange Days – Various

Braveheart – James Horner

The Matrix – Various

XXX – Various

Ghost Dog – Various

Cradle 2 Grave – Various

Lilio and Stitch – Various (mainly Elvis)

Shrek 2 – Various

Kill Bill Vol 1 – Various

Queen of the Damned – Various

Underworld – Various

Man on Fire – Harry Gregson-Williams

Quadrophenia – Various (mainly The Who)

Kingdom of Heaven – Harry Gregson-Williams

Pride and Prejudice – Dario Marianelli

Happy Feet – Various

Shoot ‘em Up – Paul Haslinger

300 – Tyler Bates

Across the Universe – Various (The Cast)

Donnie Darko – Various

Wanted – Danny Elfman

The Crow – Various

Inception – Hans Zimmer

Alice in Wonderland – Danny Elfman

Sucker Punch - Various

Saturday, April 09, 2011

 Why haven't we found aliens yet?

By Alex Hudson for BBC News

14 December 2010

The question of whether or not we are alone in the galaxy is one that has fascinated everyone from mathematicians to conspiracy theorists. But, if extra-terrestrial life forms are abundant in the Universe - as some people believe - why have they not been in contact? From Doctor Who to Superman, ET to Marvin the Martian, fiction has regularly brought aliens to Earth as friends or enemies but, as yet, no-one has proved
they have ever seen an alien apart from on film or TV. In 1960, a radio telescope was pointed out into space to listen for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence, trying to add scientific fact to the question "is anybody out there?" But 50 years on, nobody knows the answer to it. "It's probably the most important question there is," says Dr Frank Drake, who was a pioneer of radio astronomy and is considered the father of Seti - the
Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. "What does it mean to be a human being? What is our future? Are there other creatures like us? What have they become? What can evolution produce? How far can it go? It will all come out of learning of extra-terrestrials and this will certainly enrich our lives like nothing else could."

Back in 1961, Drake created a formula to work out how likely it was that we are alone in the galaxy, a formula which still underpins how experts view the question today. The Drake Equation is a formula designed to find the number of intelligent civilisations in the galaxy, using:
The number of stars formed every year
Multiplied by the fraction of those stars with planets
Times the number of those planets in the solar system that could support life
Multiplied by the fraction of those planets on which life appears
Multiplied by the fraction of those life-bearing planets on which intelligence arises
Times the fraction of those that would become technologically advanced with a desire to communicate
Multiplied by the length of time that they continue to transmit detectable signals into space

The so-called "Drake equation" estimates the amount of civilisations able to communicate with Earth. And the figure Drake and his colleagues estimated in 1961 was 10,000. Many argue over the exact figures, as the equation is based on unknowns. But if that number is anywhere near correct then the more pressing question is why haven't we got any firm evidence of their existence? This was a question posed by the physicist Enrico Fermi as far back as 1950, saying "where is everybody?" to his colleagues over lunch. It formed the basis of the Fermi paradox which juxtaposes the high estimates of intelligent life and the lack of evidence put forward. This "great silence" - as it is often referred to - draws attention to the size of the universe and how alone we appear to be. It is a paradox which has yet to be satisfactorily solved. Astronomers have estimated there to be around 70 sextillion - or seven followed by 22 zeroes - stars in the visible Universe. A recent census of planets said that there could be an Earth-like planet circling 23% of the stars in the night sky.The maths alone is an almost inconceivable headache of scope, size and scale.

"We should be prepared" for aliens, says professor of space science John Zarnecki, from the Open University. Stephen Hawking says aliens almost certainly exist and senior Seti astronomer Seth Shostak has said that the hunt for alien life should take into account alien "sentient machines", almost disregarding the possibility that there's nothing to search for. Recent research suggested that there could be up to 50bn Earth-like planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way But many scientists argue that because humans have been using wave technology for little over a century - compared to the Earth's age of over four billion years - even if anyone is out there, the window of opportunity to have similar technology is incredibly small. Indeed, the radio wave as we know it for our communication purposes, is already changing from an analogue wave into a digital pulse, a much more complex signal to detect. And similarly, the waves scientists are looking for may not be the right ones. While a larger amount of the wave spectrum is being examined, it is still a small fraction. The theory goes that no other inhabited planet is likely to be using the same technology at the same time, or at least within distance of making contact. The actual practicalities of ET phoning home would be, they would argue, basically impossible.

Another theory is that with intelligence comes destruction. The time between being able to make contact and the self destruction of the species is short. Purveyors of this theory cite nuclear warfare or the creation of a man-made virus only possible with technological advances as examples of why it is likely. And many disagree about whether this is anything to look for at all. Indeed, the simplest answer to Fermi's Paradox is that there is no intelligent life to search for so none has been found. The human race is either an accidental blip in the Universe or we are special and the conditions we evolved in were unique. The Rare Earth hypothesis argues that because of the intricate design and infrastructure of our planet, the amount of coincidences and circumstances that must occur together make life almost impossible. Philosophy Professor Nick Bostrom, of Oxford University, has even posed the question whether humans are living in a computer simulation created by beings with a superior intellect. In this model, other beings would not be created within that programme. But Dr Drake has a more simple answer to why life hasn't been found: "We just haven't tried enough," he says. "We've looked carefully at only a few thousand stars and very few channels that are possible on the electromagnetic spectrum and that's hardly even a start. If you take reasonable or optimistic values for the [Drake] equation, it suggests that right now, there may be around 10,000 civilisations we can detect in the galaxy. That's one in 10,000,000 stars. Before we have a good chance of succeeding, we still have a long way to go."

[Personally I give the Drake Equation little credence. It has just too many unknowns and rests on too much speculation. But he is right to say that life elsewhere in the Galaxy cannot simply be dismissed because, in the 50 or so years we’ve been searching, we haven’t found anything yet. 50 years is nothing when you consider the scale of the territory we’re searching on a low priority, low budget methodology. It’s only recently we’ve begun to discover planets and even more recently that we’ve been able to detect planets that might be considered to be habitable (even that is quite simply mind-blowing). I’m confident that life exists out there. Where there is life there will be evolution and intelligence is a heck of an evolutionary advantage. Given time intelligent species such as ourselves will evolve and probably begin to explore their local region of space. Probably tied to sub-light exploration the only way we’ll detect them is via radio signals or gross changes in their surroundings – like blanketing their suns in energy absorbing materials. There could be advanced civilisations signalling us right now from hundreds of light wears away waiting eagerly for their signals to reach us. It’s probably only a matter of time one way or another. I for one have certainly not given up on the possibility of ET phoning us….]

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Now in her late 20’s Anne Elliot is beginning to think that she will remain unmarried. Persuaded at 19 to end her engagement to a man considered to be unsuitable by her family she has little hope for her future prospects. But when her Baronet father falls on hard times and is forced to rent out the family home things begin to change. The new tenant is an Admiral Croft recently returned from the war with France. As her family relocates to Bath, Anne stays behind to care for her sickly married sister and is surprised to hear that the Crofts have a visitor. The man she was to marry all those years ago is back in England, now a famous and wealthy Captain. Anne’s emotions are thrown into turmoil. Will Captain Wentworth remember her? Has he married? If not is there any opportunity to renew their relationship? Will her family consent to such a renewal even if such a thing was possible? Anne must discover what is in Wentworth’s heart before she answer any of these burning questions but how will she do so in polite society without offending her families sensibilities?

Most people I know are surprised that I read and enjoy Jane Austen. As you can tell from the usual books I review here it’s not exactly my normal reading fare. I’ve actually been a huge fan for probably 25 years or more, ever since watching the BBC versions of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion back in the 80’s. Although it was actually only after we saw the Keira Knightley version of P&P that I picked up and read the copy of the book that had been sitting on my shelf for 30 years (I kid you not). After that I promised myself that I would read all of her books. After all there are only six of them! After the supernova that is P&P – and after basically being in love with Lizzie Bennet all of these years – I’m afraid that I found Persuasion to be not anywhere near as good. No real surprises there I guess. I still loved the language though. Austen does write beautifully crafted books – again not a great surprise after the amount of time and effort she lavished on them.  Inevitably I couldn’t help comparing Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet. Of course Anne came off worse but at the same time she was obviously a strong independently minded woman making her own way through difficult circumstances. I can see that, at the time, she would have been viewed as a rather bold heroine who had decided on a course of action – despite her knowledge of her family’s misgivings – and who plotted that course as best she could given the circumstances she found herself in. She managed to avoid what would have been an unfortunate marriage with a very unsuitable man and, after 8-9 years delay, finally found true love. Although not as feisty, intelligent or as passionate as Miss Bennet, the character of Anne Elliot certainly stands out in this book. She is kinder, less class or position conscious, more open and modern and less hind bound by convention than the majority of people around her. So, whilst I didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed P&P (which is my present benchmark for such things) I did find it eminently readable and not just for the strange looks I got from people who normally see me reading SF. If you are thinking of venturing into classic literature in general or Austen in particular you could be a lot worse than start here.              

Happy Birthday to me! 51 Today.......

Monday, April 04, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Culture of Fear Revisited by Frank Furedi

I always find it difficult writing a synopsis of a Furedi book. My experience of three of his books so far seems to point that way. His writing style just doesn’t lead itself to snappy one-liners or quick prĂ©cis. I will, however, try to give you something even if it’s my own impressions of what I think he’s getting at.

I think that we can all agree that our present age is characterised by fear – fear of the other, fear of the future and fear of our neighbours. Furedi attempts, successfully I think, to see where this fear comes from and asks what we can do about it. Unlike some other commentators he quickly dismisses the idea that our fear is the result of manipulative governments manufacturing threats in order to control their populations. Although there is something (or quite a lot) in that Furedi sees this as another symptom rather than the cause itself. As far as I can see he points the finger clearly at post-modernity and the rise of the autonomous individual – in other words at the fracturing, the atomisation, of society. The questioning of authority has resulted in the collapse of authority. Now all we have is opinion. We no longer have faith in our leaders, our elders or our great thinkers. We do not trust anyone to provide us with answers and we do not trust ourselves to know the answers if they are presented to us. Because we cannot trust anyone, including ourselves, we are paradoxically prey to agencies, organisations and individuals who offer us safe havens, who will take the burden of thought and action from our shoulders – until we realise that they too cannot be trusted.

In this climate the only reasonable sensible response is fear. We fear the side-effects of the drugs we take, we fear our next door neighbour because we do not know them, we fear for our children so keep them close, we fear the stranger on the bus or sitting next to us on the plane, we fear the dark and we fear for the future. We are encouraged in our fears by those in whose interests it is to have us in a constant state of uncertainty. Yet they themselves fear many of the things they teach us to fear. They even fear us. The language of risk has permeated everything we do. We often do a quick risk analysis when crossing the road, eating a chocolate bar or speaking to a stranger. The idea that life is inherently risky is not far behind. Yet the odd thing is, whenever we actually investigate the risks we usually find that they have changed very little from decades ago. Child murder statistics (to take a particularly emotive topic) have remained static for the last 50 years – yet the reality of the situation has little effect on parents fear for children even momentarily out of their sight. Every child, they are told repeatedly, is at risk of attack.

We live in an age of counselling. Whenever people are exposed to trauma, or even exposed to the news of trauma they are inevitably offered counselling to help them cope with the experience. People damaged in this way are it seems damaged for the rest of their lives. Self-help or self-reliance is seen as self-delusional and resistance to counselling is seen as a sign of deep unresolved trauma. Oddly 60 years ago at the height of the London Blitz no counselling was offered or asked for. People got on with their lives despite the death and destruction all around them. Few it would seem remained traumatised for the rest of their lives. Such an attitude, often satirised as the ‘stiff upper lip’, was seen as the natural and reasonable reaction to tragedy. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on. Such an attitude today would be seen as clearly inadequate at best and probably dangerous to the survivors and everyone around them. Today it is assumed that people will not be able to cope – with anything. This treatment of adults as if they were infants removes any kind of power that could be used to transform lives after tragedy. The counselled many are seen as helpless victims inherently unable to cope.

The only way out of this vicious cycle of fear and dependency according to Furedi is a renewal of trust and a moderation of the pervasive cynicism all too readily used as a default position. As you might expect this is far from easy. When we swim in an ocean of fear it is difficult not to swallow mouthfuls of anxiety with every breath we take. The building block we must use to build the foundations of a new way – or indeed an old way – is to start to trust ourselves. We need to trust our ability to make decisions knowing, in an adult fashion, that sometimes we’ll make bad ones. We need to recognise that knowledge is power and that we can actually have valid knowledge to work with. We need to take control of our lives by asking why we are expected to be so fearful so much of the time. When we are told to fear something or someone ask yourself why we are being told this, who is telling us and what advantage they will take from us buying into that fear. Those in ages past built global empires, faced war, plague and all manners of difficulties without giving up or rushing into the arms of a counsellor. They were no different from you and me. It is just that they had faith in each other and faith in their collective future – something it seems we have lost. It is something we need to find again if we are not to drift into an unknown future drenched in the stink of fear.  

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Two-thirds of Britons not religious, suggests survey

John McManus for BBC News

21 March 2011

Nearly two-thirds of people do not regard themselves as "religious", a new survey carried out to coincide with the 2011 Census suggests. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which commissioned the poll, said people often identified themselves as religious for cultural reasons. The online poll asked 1,900 adults in England and Wales a question which is on this month's census form.

While 61% of the poll's respondents said they did belong to a religion, 65% of those surveyed answered "no" to the further question: "Are you religious?" Two surveys were commissioned, one covering England and Wales, and the other for Scotland. The Scottish survey was commissioned by the Humanist Society of Scotland. South of the border, 61% of respondents said they did have a religion. But only 29% also said they were religious, while 65% said they were not. Among respondents who identified themselves as Christian, fewer than half said they believed Jesus Christ was a real person who died, came back to life and was the son of God. Another 27% said they did not believe that at all, while 25% were unsure. In Scotland, 42% of respondents said they did not belong to a religion, yet in a further question "Are you religious?" 56% answered "no". The BHA has complained the wording of the optional census question about religion encourages people to wrongly identify themselves as believers. In the last census in 2001, 72% of people were classed as Christians - a figure which is much higher than other surveys. The BHA believes people might tick "yes" to the census question on religion for reasons of cultural identity.

The chief executive of the BHA, Andrew Copson, is running a national campaign encouraging non-religious people to state their unbelief clearly on their census forms.He said: "This poll is further evidence for a key message of the Census Campaign - that the data produced by the census, used by local and national government as if it indicates religious belief and belonging, is in fact highly misleading. The humanists say data which might indicate a greater amount of religious belief than actually exists, is being used to justify faith schools, and the continuing presence of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. The Office for National Statistics has defended the wording of the religion question. A spokesman told the BBC: "The religion question measures the number of people who self-identify an affiliation with a religion, irrespective of the extent of their religious belief or practice." The think tank Theos, which undertakes research into religious matters, says attempting to measure cultural affiliation to religion - rather than actual, regular practice - is a good idea, as it shows the broad values society shares. It also disputes the BHA's assertion that the collected data is used for political purposes.

[I never really trust statistics – at least not from various surveys attempting to discover the religious make-up of the country. They all come back with different figures which makes me believe that none of them are representative. From personal experience I know very few people who would come out and declare their faith in any of the major religions. Of course this might be very much a self-selecting group and religion is never a common topic for discussion. Faith, of any kind, is usually seen as a personal issue and is hardly discussed even amongst friends. Pushing a religious position is considered to be rude and maybe even the height of rudeness. What the true level of faith is in England is anyone’s guess. Personally I find it difficult to believe that 72% of the population believe in God. I find it almost as difficult to believe that 65% do not. I do think that non-belief is on the rise though. Generation by generation less people throughout Europe attend church, get baptised, join religious orders, and just about any other way of measuring religious observance. All of the indicators are, apparently irresistibly, on a downward trend. Long may it continue.]