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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

We come to praise video games, not to shoot 'em up  

From The Observer,

Sunday 10 January 2010

Most guides to child development would counsel against encouraging kids to imagine themselves as mass killers, playing out repetitive fantasies of butchery to the exclusion of social activity. So it is perhaps peculiar that society is generally tolerant of video games that achieve just that.

But not all games, or even a majority, fit that description. And, of course, they are not just played by children. Many require complex problem-solving techniques and place the user in wholly peaceful scenarios where they must exercise moral, diplomatic and commercial judgment. As the writer Tom Chatfield argues in today's Observer, the sophistication of modern gaming has not had due recognition as a transformative cultural phenomenon. Games have been well remarked upon as an emerging force in business, rivalling cinema in the entertainment industry and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the technology sector.

The cultural backlash has also been well aired. An opinion poll last week highlighted fears that excessive gaming saps children's speech development. Too much screen time has also been associated with obesity and has fed into wider cultural laments that children don't get out enough. It is worth remembering in this context that novels were once presumed to corrupt the morals of young ladies and that Elvis Presley's hips were deemed obscene. Civilisation generally survives innovation in entertainment. The under-recognised aspect of gaming is in the conceptual changes it introduces to the way we get aesthetic thrills. Gamers are the subjects of the action, not passive observers. They also often interact with other players. Within some of the vast online gaming environments, players rehearse different strategies for consensus-building, regulation of competition and restorative justice. At the very least, this gives social scientists mountains of data to play with. In the past, revolutions in leisure, driven by new technology, have catalysed equivalent upheaval in society. The novel, made possible by mass printing, allowed people to retreat into an interior world of the imagination. That fed the subjective individualism of Enlightenment philosophy. Without rock'n'roll on the radio there would have been no 1960s counterculture.

The virtual gaming experience of today will surely breed some development with similarly powerful consequences. Too many people are having too much fun doing something that their great-grandparents could never begin to comprehend. That, human history teaches, is a recipe for social change on a revolutionary scale.

[OK, maybe I wouldn’t quite go that far, but I think that computer games are demonised far more than they should be or need to be. In one sense they may be solitary activities (but so is reading don’t forget) but they are interactive, responsive and, more and more these days, reliant on the co-operation of friends and strangers to complete successfully. They have been called escapist (again like books, television and movies) as if that is a bad thing and much worst besides, but I fail to see how they ‘damage’ the people who play them or the society which produces them in any way. Humans are natural game players. Computer games are simply a modern manifestation of that trait. As long as I am able to do so I, for one, will be playing them.]   

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Forensic Science – A Very Short Introduction by Jim Fraser

I’ve had a passing interest in forensics for some time, probably prompted by my reading of quite a few detective novels over the years. I’m not one for the CSI or NCIS TV shows however. I’ve just never got into them – though I’ve caught bits and pieces of them when I find myself bored and channel hop.

Anyway, this was a pretty interesting shotgun approach [grin] to the basics behind what Scene of Crime Officers do on a daily basis from managing a crime scene, analysing blood splatters to determine direction and distance from the trauma that caused them, and collecting evidence for later lab analysis. Inevitably there is quite a detailed chapter on DNA evidence which leads onto the ability to identify people, both victims and perpetrators by various forms of trace evidence they leave behind. In that particular section the main focus centred on fingerprints, shoe prints and bullet markings. Finally, the book examined the collection and analysis of trace evidence, from hair samples, glass, paint and, of course, various chemical substances including drugs. In conclusion there was a short piece on how science serves justice.

Despite being a bit dry and rather text-book like in places this was readable enough to finish it at almost a single sitting (taking into account it’s only 128 pages long). I learnt a few interesting little nuggets of information but I can’t say that this actually rocked my world. Recommended for those who might be starting to think about forensic science as a degree course or possibly as a career. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The eagled eyed amongst you will have noticed a new label over on the right-hand side. It’s Art. I already had a few arty things jumbled together in the Random Pix pile so I fished them out and put them in there. Also, during hunting for other things, I’ve started to accumulate some art that I think is pretty good. I hope you enjoy it too when I occasionally post it/them here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My Favourite TV: Terminator – The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Despite the fact that this series had quite a few faults with it I was still very disappointed that it only lasted 2 series. I thought that it definitely had the potential to run for 3-5 years before people got bored with the whole idea. It had lots going for it – apart from the obvious attractions of Summer Glau and Lena Headey – including some kick-ass action and some fairly good acting from the likes of Brian Austin Green who played Derek Reese, brother of Kyle who fathered John Connor – the saviour of mankind.

The first series followed the usual Terminator plot line as the Connors tried to prevent the birth of Skynet – the computer system (or virus according to the movie Terminator 3) that destroyed the world on Judgement Day. The ‘wrinkle’ in this was that Sarah and John – together with Cameron (the diminutive Terminator played mostly superbly by Glau) – jump into the ‘future’ so that they miss Sarah’s death due to cancer. This was a nice touch and took it out of the movie time-line which gave the series a bit more flexibility. The second, and last, series, took a different tack with the introduction of Catherine Weaver played, rather oddly, by the singer Shirley Manson from the band Garbage. She, as we far too quickly find out, is a liquid metal Terminator seemingly with a plan of her own which may or may not include Judgement Day. This was a very interesting development and, along with flashes forward to the war against Skynet, part of the internal conflict between different machine factions. That made things, for me at least, very interesting. The final episode, where Weaver and John travel to the future, was an amazing cliff-hanger which unfortunately will now never be resolved.

Of course because of my love for the franchise and the ideas behind the Terminator idea I inevitably had some problems with the series. Although Glau was great as Cameron and had the robotic fighting down to a fine art she still stuck out like a sore thumb in most social situations – and then – for no apparent reason became quite human. For an infiltration unit she wasn’t very adept. I know that the rebels/survivors of the nuclear war had access to time travel technology but seriously just how many people did they have the opportunity to send back to mess with the time line. Although I understand that its clearer for the audience to have an antagonist to recognise the whole Cromartie storyline was bordering on farce, oh, and as much as I liked the character of James Ellison played by Richard T Jones what was the actual point of him being there? Oh, and lastly John Connor – the future leader of mankind… Get over yourself John. You’ve done the whiney teenager thing who doesn’t want the responsibility. Now get a grip, get with the programme and be who you’re supposed to be.

Finally the things I actually liked about it – some a lot. Glau as Cameron rocked my world. She was superb in a sexy scary killer robot sort of way and if I was gay (or a girl) I’d totally do Derek Reese. I liked the glimpse of the future war which I found exciting. I liked the way some things that Skynet was doing were never explained – though maybe that was planned for future episodes? I liked the political aspects alluded to in the final few episodes where Connor was using revamped Terminators in his camps much to the annoyance of some of his troops. I was also very much intrigued by the idea of metal ‘factions’ within the robotic forces – that was a very nice idea. All in all I thought that the series was a creditable attempt to extend the franchise and could have probably worked very well considering and should have been given longer to settle down. I miss it (or would if I didn’t have both series on DVD). If you liked the movies and haven’t seen the series I’d definitely give it your attention.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

'Rapture': Believers perplexed after prediction fails

From The BBC

22 May 2011

Followers of an evangelical broadcaster who declared that Saturday would be Judgement Day are trying to make sense of the failed prediction. Some believers expressed bewilderment or said it was a test from God of their faith, after the day passed without event. Meanwhile, the evangelist at the centre of the claim, Harold Camping, has not been seen since before the deadline. He had predicted that Jesus Christ would return to earth on Saturday. True believers would then be swept up, or "raptured", to heaven, he had pronounced. The 89-year-old has used broadcasts on a Christian network and billboards to publicise his ideas as part of a campaign that went global. He said biblical texts indicated that a giant earthquake on Saturday - which he said would begin at 1800 at various time zones around the world - would mark the start of the world's destruction, and that by 21 October all non-believers will be dead.

Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired transportation agency worker in New York, said he had spent more than $140,000 (£86,000) of his savings on advertisements in the run-up to 21 May to publicise the prediction. After 1800 passed and nothing had happened, he said: "I do not understand why... I do not understand why nothing has happened. I can't tell you what I feel right now. Obviously, I haven't understood it correctly because we're still here."

"I had some scepticism but I was trying to push the scepticism away because I believe in God," said Keith Bauer, who travelled 4,830km (3,000 miles), from Maryland to California, where Mr Camping's Family Radio is based, for the Rapture. "I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this Earth," said Mr Bauer, a tractor-trailer driver, who took the week off work for the voyage. Other followers said the delay was a further test from God to persevere in their faith.

US media reported that there has been no sign of Mr Camping since the prediction turned out to be false, while calls and e-mails to Mr Camping's Family Radio went unanswered on Saturday. The Washington Post reported that suicide prevention hotlines were set up in case believers fell into depression after the apocalypse failed to happen. A group from the Calvary Bible Church in Milpitas, California, organised a Sunday morning service to comfort believers in Mr Camping's preaching, the New York Times reported. "We are here because we care about these people," the newspaper quoted James Bynum, a church deacon, as saying. "It's easy to mock them. But you can go kick puppies, too. But why?"  Many Christian groups however dismissed Mr Camping's ideas, with some describing him as a "false prophet". US atheists held parties to celebrate the failed prediction, while a group of non-believers gathered outside Mr Camping's Family Radio International headquarters in Oakland, California, as the deadline passed. "It was probably one of the saddest things that I'd ever read, the idea that there's kids out there whose parents spent their college savings funds, who sold their homes," one woman told the BBC. Earlier, Mr Camping has said he knew "without any shadow of a doubt" that "judgement day" was arriving, and said there was no "Plan B". He has predicted an apocalypse once before, in 1994, though followers now say that only referred to an intermediary stage.

[Easy to mock? I’d say very easy, in fact it’s bordering on obligatory.]

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Exoplanet near Gliese 581 star 'could host life'

From The BBC

17 May 2011

A red dwarf star 20 light-years away is again providing hints that it hosts the first definitively habitable planet outside our Solar System. The planet Gliese 581d is at the colder outer edge of the "Goldilocks zone" in which liquid water can be sustained. Now a study in Astrophysical Journal Letters suggests its atmosphere may keep things warm enough for water. The solar system also hosts another contender for habitability, unconfirmed planet Gliese 581g announced in 2010. However, the existence of that planet has since been called into question. Gliese 581d is less controversial; it was discovered along with the planet Gliese 581c in 2007, occupying the outer and inner edges of the Goldilocks zone, respectively. Gliese 581c was soon determined to be too close to its host star to sustain water, with a surface temperature exceeding 1,000C.

Conversely, the outlying planet 581d - with a mass about six times that of the Earth and twice its size - was initially taken to be too cold to have liquid water. Now, French researchers have run computer simulations of the planet's atmosphere, arguing that it is likely to contain high concentrations of carbon dioxide. They contend that conditions could be suitable for oceans of liquid water as well as clouds and rainfall. However, Gliese 581d's denser air and dim red light from its host star would make for a murky environment that would be toxic to humans. Robin Wordsworth, a member of the team from the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in Paris, said that the findings were further evidence that the sheer variety of planets and environments far outpaced that which we see in our own Solar System. Dr Wordsworth said that the simulations are tantamount to a first definitive claim for a habitable exoplanet.

"This discovery is important because it's the first time climate modellers have proved that the planet is potentially habitable, and all observers agree that the exoplanet exists," he told news agency PA. "The Gliese system is particularly exciting to us as it's very close to Earth, relatively speaking. So with future generations of telescopes, we'll be able to search for life on Gliese 581d directly.

[Impressive. It looks like the whole system could be a home to life and it’s only 20 light years away. It’s practically our next door neighbour! I wonder how long it will be before we can get probes there – decades if not longer unfortunately. Personally I’d be turning at least some of our radio telescopes in that direction and start listening for signals. You never can tell…. ]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Vagabond by Bernard Cornwell

England: 1346. On returning to his native soil after surviving the victory over the French at Crecy, Thomas of Hookton travels to Durham in search of a monk who lives there. Thomas needs to quiz him about the object of a quest the King has sent him on. Like many of the day Thomas seeks the Holy Grail as a guarantor of God’s peace on Earth. In a time of international strife nothing could be more precious. But Thomas is not alone in his search. As well as trusted companions there are darker forces dogging his every step. Amongst them are Thomas’s brother and a French priest under clear instructions to claim the Grail at any cost. Forced against his will to return to France, Thomas finds himself in a town besieged by forces loyal to the French king. Massively outnumbered their only hope is in the killing power of English bowmen but unknown to the few defenders the French lords have an answer to this deadly weapon – an answer that could turn the tide of the whole war.

This is the second part of Cornwell’s Grail trilogy and despite the first book being very good I actually found myself enjoying this much more. The storyline, characterisation and wonderfully descriptive prose drew me into a world very different from our modern experience. It was a world of few certainties except death and the power struggles of the rich and powerful. It was a world where men where expected to fight and die at the order of their lord and one where few questioned the rightness of it. It was a world where power and money are the only arbiters and where the only way a commoner can rise above his station in life is through the skill in arms he possesses. It was also a world on the cusp of change where Medieval Feudalism was starting to unravel and where opportunities for self-made men began to appear. All of this, and more, is conveyed in this superb piece of historical fiction. I have enjoyed just about every book Cornwell has written and this is no exception. It hums along at an enjoyable pace and is peppered with tough and brutal action. I am far from being familiar with the period but this novel has the feeling of reality about it. I am looking forward to volume three which, I imagine, will be read sooner rather than later. Recommended.   

Monday, May 16, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

New York – 1943. Rumours abound about the strange occupant of Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. Is he a mad genius, a visitor from another world, a man from the future or a dangerous security risk? Chambermaid Louisa, already fascinated by the secret lives of the people who pass through the hotel, is determined to find out. Letting herself into Room 3327 she discovers a strange mix of order and chaos. Part completed experiments fight for space with neatly stacked and labelled papers and the strangest thing she finds is the man himself. At first incoherent Louisa finally begins to understand the life of one of modern time’s greatest and greatly misunderstood men of genius – Nicola Tesla. Meanwhile strange events are happening in her private life as long lost friends reappear and a childhood romance is reignited by a man who claims he is from their future.

Either I’m becoming particularly skilled at spotting good novels or the bookseller Waterstone’s is becoming particularly adept at offering them in their regular 3 for 2 sales. Yet again it looks as if I have chosen a well written and frankly intriguing novel based around the last few months of Tesla’s life. How much of it is true I have no idea as I have only the scantest knowledge of Tesla’s life (and have in consequence added a biography to my Wish List). However, if he was half as bright as this novel makes out the world would be a very different place if people had actually listened to him and invested in his ideas. Whilst the life of Tesla is often strange enough the life of the chambermaid Louisa gets stranger with each passing chapter. With talk of time-travel, flash-backs and secret agents the novel could have collapsed into the worst kind of fantasy. Instead we are presented with an off-kilter magically-realistic New York for the 1890’s to the early 1940’s which, despite what can only be called fantasy elements, never becomes fantastically unbelievable. This is a very accomplished novel with deeply interesting characters and an unquestionably fascinating plot. I fell into the world created by the author and was honestly unwilling to return to the real world when I was forced to put the book done. It is an original work that deserves the widest audience. Highly recommended.    

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Frankenstein: 10 possible meanings 

From The BBC

14 March 2011

A global cinema audience will this week watch Danny Boyle's stage production of Frankenstein. It's the latest take on Mary Shelley's famous Gothic novel. But what's the book really about?

The idea emerged from a summer that didn't happen. Due to the largest volcanic eruption for more than 1,600 years, in Indonesia in late 1815, the northern hemisphere was plunged into a freakishly cool and sunless summer the following year. On the shores of Lake Geneva, the miserable weather kept five British tourists cooped up inside a villa for days, where they passed the time in a horror story-writing competition. The 19-year-old Mary Godwin, in Switzerland with poet Percy Shelley, envisioned "the hideous phantasm of a man" and turned her contribution into a novel published anonymously in 1818. It told the story of a Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who is so horrified by the ugly creature he brings to life from stolen corpses, that he abandons him, with terrible consequences.

Within a few years, the novel was being adapted for the stage, and in the 20th Century there were many memorable film versions that took the work in different directions. This week, a production by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle at London's National Theatre is being screened live to 400 venues in 22 countries. Nearly 200 years after that sunless summer, the novel is considered a landmark work and every decade brings a new interpretation. Here is a selection - some include plot details.

1. Science can go too far
The term "Frankenstein foods" - applied to genetically modified products - suggests the name of the novel has become a byword for bad science. But this metaphor is unfair, says Angela Wright, a lecturer in Romantic literature at the University of Sheffield. "There's evidence that she was very conversant with the scientists of her day. But she believed in the sanctity of human life and knew the work of Lawrence and Abernethy, who were working in Edinburgh in the 1810s in dissection theatres, on the re-animation of corpses. [Her husband] Percy Shelley was also very interested in that." She thought these people had crossed a line, says Wright, but she had a lot of admiration for scientific thought in general.

2. Actions have consequences
It's not just the responsibility of creating life that Shelley wants to emphasise, says Wright, and this is clear in the letters of Robert Walton that frame the Frankenstein story - the wider narrative that is often overlooked. Walton is the seafarer who rescues Frankenstein from an ice float deep in the Arctic, as the scientist pursues the monster. Encouraged by Frankenstein, the captain ignores the pleas of his crew to turn back, actions that Shelley appears to condemn. "Walton doesn't take responsibility for the safety of his men and that is criticised within the novel. He comes round but regretfully, simply because the atmospheric conditions are against him, not out of concern for his men. "He seems to be a very shadowy double of Victor Frankenstein in many ways, because he pants for tales of romance and adventure in the same way."

3. Don't play God
"As suggested by the novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein is an example of the Romantic over-reacher, who transgresses boundaries between the human and the divine," says Marie Mulvey-Roberts, author of Dangerous Bodies: Corporeality and the Gothic. According to Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, and suffered eternal punishment. The sense that Frankenstein has pursued forbidden knowledge is further underlined by the references to Milton's Paradise Lost, a work the creature reads and recites. His rejection by his creator can be seen as a second Fall of Man.

4. A warning about freed slaves
Shelley was writing the novel a mere 10 years after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and she did so in Bath, not far from the port of Bristol, where many of the slaving ships departed the country. There are references to it in the novel, says Mulvey-Roberts. "Frankenstein says he is enslaved to his work, and the creature escapes like a refugee slave, pursued by his master. But then there's a power shift, so you get a hegemonic master-slave dialectic where the slave is a master and the master is a slave to his work and to his obsession. "Mary Shelley was certainly no supporter of slavery but she did not protest when [Foreign Secretary George] Canning used the analogy of the Frankenstein as a spectre warning of the danger of slaves being emancipated too quickly. In the novel when the creature assumes mastery, he causes mayhem leading to the loss of life."

5. Shelley's maternal guilt
Many critics think the novel is shaped by the tragic events in Shelley's own life. Her mother died days after she was born and Shelley herself lost her first child, born prematurely. The first feminist interpretation of Frankenstein was by Ellen Moers, who read Shelley's novel as a sublimated afterbirth, says Diane Hoeveler, from Marquette University in Wisconsin, US. "The author expels her own guilt both for having caused her mother's death and for having failed to produce a healthy son for Percy, as his legal wife Harriet had done three months earlier. "For Moers, the novel's strength was to present the 'abnormal, or monstrous, manifestations of the child-parent tie' and in so doing, 'to transform the standard Romantic matter of incest, infanticide, and patricide into a phantasmagoria of the nursery'."

6. Post-natal depression
The novel can be read as a critique of the family as much as a longing for one. The monster can be seen as a way of coping with the loss of her mother shortly after Mary Shelley's birth as well as the loss of her own babies. It deals with the rejection, the lack of nurture - Victor's solitary male propagation. The feminist movement has championed the elevation of Mary Shelley to canonical rank, says Prof John Sutherland. And there are moments when the creation appears to be presented as a birth and Victor Frankenstein as a stricken mother. "It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils... It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?" (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Chapter five) Is this, asks Sutherland, inventor's remorse or post-natal depression?

7. Monsters are not born monsters
Boyle's production suggests the scientist is the real monster. The creature's initial innocence suggests you are not born a monster, says Vic Sage, a professor at the University of East Anglia who has written extensively on the Gothic tradition. "When he looks into the pool and sees himself, you want to shout out at him 'You're not a monster, you're OK.'" Many of the Hammer films didn't even give the monster a voice, he says, only capable of grunting the odd word. "Even with [director] James Whale, it doesn't ever feel like history could ever be on Boris Karloff's side. They are thought to be great films but they missed the point of the book. "Mary Shelley gave him a voice. It's great that he talks like an 18th Century philosopher because then you have this disparity between his appearance and his speech, which tests the viewer."

8. Difference should be celebrated, not shunned
Today's society has a greater understanding of the notion of difference, says Dr Sage, so the scene where Frankenstein rejects his creation, so repulsed is he by his disfigurement, has a wider resonance. "Everyone reading it now knows that she's dramatising difference in the most absolute way possible. Differences in race and class. That's why it's very important to think that the creature is a creature and not a monster, and that he has a voice."

9. Vive la revolution
Within decades of the book's publication, the central theme was picked up by cartoonists and used satirically, says Chris Baldick, author of In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing. In 1843, a cartoon entitled The Irish Frankenstein appeared in Punch, and depicted Daniel O'Connell, leader of the republican movement, being threatened by a thuggish Irish peasant. Forty years later, Charles Parnell appeared in the same magazine after the Phoenix Park murders, cowering from a simian-looking creature. The inference in both cartoons was that the politicians had helped to create a monster. Frankenstein's creature has been interpreted as symbolic of the revolutionary thought which had swept through Europe in the 1790s, but had largely petered out by the time Shelley wrote the novel. Critics said the creature's failure to prosper and the havoc unleashed was evidence that Shelley was anti-revolution, unlike her radical parents and husband, and supportive of the old order. But by applying modern values to the narrative, it is clear that the failings lie with man, the creator, and not the creature, says Dr Sage. "That's the notorious riddle: Who is the 'new Prometheus' of the title - Victor or his creature? You can read into it that it's a failure of the revolution that he represents, but only if you don't have the psychological and social attitudes of today."

10. Christian allegory
The book is really a dialogue between reactionary and progressive points of view, says Sage, and this applies to the question of the presence of Milton and the Christian myth - the treatment of the Fall - which it puts under the glass. "The creature has read Milton but, as he says, he feels more like the fallen angel than Adam in that story, because he has to play the part of the outcast. Mary Shelley dramatises the conflict between the Romantic view of Satan as a Promethean hero, out to take God's place, which was the projection of a set of male poets - Blake, Shelley, Byron and Goethe, for example - and the havoc that such idealistic projects wreak domestically, in people's actual lives."

[If you haven’t read Frankenstein and have been put off reading it by the movie versions you are missing out on one of the world’s great pieces of literature. I was surprised at just how good it was, how timeless the message is and how sympathetic Frankenstein’s creature is. It is a bought that will haunt you long after you have turned the last page. Read it soon.] 
Random Stuff

Being the pedant that I sometimes am I've split out some of my Random Pix posts because they contained pretty much exclusively text, so I've created a Random Text label. As you can no doubt guess from this I expect a fair few Random Text posts in future. I'll hope you'll enjoy reading them as much as I have collecting them.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Even with the early sunrise I'm still having problems getting out of bed.....

Just Finished Reading: Savage Wilderness by Harold Coyle

North America: 1754. After surviving the battle of Culloden in his native Scotland, Ian McPherson is transported to the Virginia Colonies in indentured servitude. On the termination of his four year term he’s offered a new profession and is tempted with the promise of his own land and a future in the New World. With mixed motives he joins the newly formed Militia led by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington. Facing both Indian attacks on the Frontier and the ever present threat of French forces moving south from New France (aka Canada) McPherson quickly learns the fighting skills necessary to survive in the dense forests of North America. The forces sent by Britain to defend her colonies do not fare so well. Trained to fight on the battlefields of Europe and led by uncaring or incompetent officers they are defeated time and again by more adaptable and better led French forces. Only as the years drag on and the stakes grow large do substantial enough British forces arrive to throw the French back. But not before the mutilated corpses of homesteaders, American Rangers and Redcoats multiply.

This book attracted me because of several things. I’ve read this author before and know that he produces very readable works. The cover – not the one above unfortunately – shows a scene very reminiscent of one of my favourite bits in the movie ‘Last of the Mohicans’ and it was about a place and period of history I know little about. Funnily the movie reference cropped up quite a few times as the scenes of battle and commanders in the field sparked memory after memory. The author’s notes in my version suggest that much of the background was historical fact. So I guess that the movie had quite a bit of fact mixed in too. It did at times feel like I was having déjà vu – but definitely in a good way. About the only grumble I had was the portrayal of the British officers as universally privileged (almost certainly true), narrow minded, hide-bound, stupid bigots. Whilst I suspect that some of this is also true – like I said not knowing much about the period – I can’t believe that not one man had any redeeming aspects. The proto-Americans and even the French were in contrast rounded characters with interesting flaws and, again universally, honourable traits. Maybe, being a Brit, I was more sensitive than his American readership would be expected to be but I did think he layered the anti-British sentiment a bit too thickly. Saying that, such a rather minor annoyance did not detract from an exciting and sometimes gruesome novel of America’s pre-Revolutionary past. It was a real page turner and I enjoyed it a great deal. This is the first book in an extended run of historical novels and I hope that they are all as good as this one. 

Monday, May 09, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Casino Royale

I am one of those slightly odd people who has seen every James Bond film – and, I think, read all of the original Ian Fleming books. In fact I watched all of the Sean Connery Bond movies again over the Christmas break. To me Connery was always Bond – cool but deadly. Of course I hated the Roger Moore movies. After Moore left the new Bonds where OK and occasionally good in parts but it wasn’t until Daniel Craig took over as 007 that I perked up and enjoyed watching Bond again. Here we have a Bond as he’s largely portrayed in the original novels. He’s a bastard but he’s our bastard who will kill anyone in order to get the job done and serve British interests.

Craig plays this angle superbly. He’s arrogant because he’s very good at what he does. He’s hard as nails and ruthless with it. Yet he still has his playful side and his sensitive side too – as shown in his brief relationship with Vesper Lynd played by the absolutely gorgeous Eva Green. Their verbal sparing on the Eurostar was a delight to watch and their developing relationship in the movie one of its highlights. Of course people come to Bond movies for action above all else and there was plenty of it in this film. From the jaw dropping ‘free running’ chase in the opening sequence to the chase across Miami airport this was Bond-style action at its best. Craig manages the action scenes with ease though, like his alter-ego Jason Bourne, he does not come away unscathed often showing the cuts, bruises and scars from previous encounters. Bond, for me at least, is all about fast thinking, fast physical action and is all about one man using his skill and training to survive and win against great odds. It’s not about high-tech gimmicks and silly gadgets. The new Bond largely goes back to its roots here by keeping the technology to an acceptable minimum or at least having the good taste to keep most of it hidden away. Out in the field Bond is on his own and will succeed or die on the strength of his skills and his own resources. The cavalry only arrive – if they do arrive – after the dust has already begun to settle. Bond is above all else a tale of one man facing great danger alone. Casino Royale brought Bond back in focus for me and I look forward to future outings with Craig as 007 – if any more get made that is.       

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Thinking About: Voting

We had elections here on Thursday and for the first time since I started voting in 1979 I almost decided not to cast my vote. A bit of background might explain this.

Back in the late 70’s when I was young and politically naïve I voted Conservative believing at the time that they stood for freedom and individuality. Yes, I’m sorry to say that I helped in a small part to bring Margaret Thatcher into power – sorry about that. Anyway, as I grew older and more world experienced (or world wary) I realised that the Conservative ideology stood behind those in power and for the protection of the wealthy. So I switched my allegiance to the Labour Party who where, back then, Socialists. Although I didn’t agree with everything they stood for I agreed with enough of it – indeed the majority – to give them my vote on a regular basis. Of course in those years they were mostly in opposition because Socialism wasn’t exactly popular. But they stuck to their guns and I admired them for putting principle before power. So when Tony Blair’s government came to power I, along with all of the Left, rejoiced – only to find out to our horror that we hadn’t elected a Socialist government at all but had instead installed a Tory government in all but name. Needless to say I despised them for what they had done – abandoning their ideals in order to form a government. I found that I could not in all conscience vote for them and haven’t since.

So, for the past decade or more I have voted Liberal-Democrat. At last, I reasoned, I had found a party of principle who openly opposed the Iraq War and believed as I believed….. Or so I thought. When they joined the Conservative Party coalition I had certain misgivings but the killer for me was when they went back on their promise to abolish student fees. Going back on a very public pledge was bad enough in itself but to add insult to injury they tried to justify themselves to the public by basically stating that principles are OK when you’re in opposition but once in power you have to be reasonable and pragmatic about things. In other words it’s OK to have principles as long as you are not expected to stand by them. Despite the fact that this particular policy has zero effect on me I was revolted by their complete about-face on the issue proving to me, and lots of other people, that they too are a party without principles who will abandon their ideals when it is pragmatically prudent to do so. At this point I was a hairsbreadth away from giving up on all politicians and sure that I would never vote again.

Two things however prompted me to stop off at my polling station on the way to work on Thursday. One was that I wanted to vote in the Alternative Vote referendum – I voted Yes. The other was to register my protest at the duplicity of all political parties. To do this I ‘spoiled’ my vote by writing NO after every candidate’s name. It was a pointless gesture as gestures go but a heartfelt one. I will continue doing this – or variations thereof – as long as I feel this way. It’s either that or not vote at all which I’m unwilling to do. Most people, I suspect, don’t vote through apathy. I’m not voting (for any of those lying bastards) through anger.

Oh, and rather gratifyingly the Liberal-Democrats were crucified in the local elections losing 695 council seats so far. It warmed my heart, it really did. A curse on all their houses!  

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Quakers – A Very Short Introduction by Pink Dandelion

Oh, I kid you not about the author’s name. I guess it could be worse.

Anyway, CQ lent me this (the 3rd of 5 VSI book from her) recently after we had several conversations regarding Quakerism. CQ is a Quaker so offered to ‘fill me in’ about some aspects of her beliefs. Some of it I’d picked up from elsewhere such as the origins of Quakerism during the bloody English Civil War and the fact that Quaker merchants were the first to offer fixed prices for their produce (before that haggling was commonplace). Other aspects were new to me though the tales of internal argument and schism didn’t really surprise me much – it seems to be the way of all religions as interpretation leads to debate and debate leads to argument, disagreement and eventual break-up. I’m actually sure that given long enough the world’s religions will multiply until every individual believer will have his/her own tailor made religious belief – but I digress….

A few things I liked about Quakerism included its idea that there should be no church official who stands in-between the believer and his/her God and that communication between them should be a direct two way transmission. I also liked the way that silence was used during this communication without the fanfare of some church ceremonies. I did find the liberal tendency in Quakerism to be the most reasonable but also the strangest as not only are they welcoming to non-Christians but also to non-theists. I could just about accept the idea of a non-Christian Quaker but a non-believing one….? That seems more that a little strange to me.

Quakerism is definitely a minority belief and I doubt if it will grow much over time. Some sides of the house are shading into convention mainstream religions such as Protestantism whilst the edges of the liberal tradition seem to be also fading into New Ageism and have a real danger of trying to be all things to all men (and women) and thereby being not much of anything to anyone. Needless to say I do not intend become a Quaker anytime soon – despite their many admirable qualities not least of which is their dedicated pacifism. If more of the world held these beliefs to the extent the Quakers hold them it would be a far more peaceful place. Interesting.    

Monday, May 02, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Crusades – A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Tyerman

Yes, yet another VSI book and the 2nd of 5 leant to me by my good friend CQ. Also yet again it’s an area that I know something about and have some interest in. Needless to say I know a lot more about them and my interest has increased also thanks to a very well written account of events spanning several hundred years of Medieval European ‘foreign policy’. As you probably already know the main focus of the Crusades was to restore the Holy Land to Christian dominion after its fall to the forces of Turkish and Arab origin. By and large these where spectacular and frankly embarrassing failures. Other crusades were focused inside Europe notably against the Cathars in France resulting in bloody massacres in the largely successful attempt to crush a dangerous heresy that could very well have overthrown the Catholic Church.

Of course this is all very interesting – if rather brutal and pointless seen from our 21st Century perspective – but what I enjoyed most about this slim volume (and I intend following up in other works by this author) is the often complex and less than obvious motivations for Crusading. Seen at face value the Crusades were attempts by the Catholic Church to both expand and defend Christendom. This, the author contends, is all too simplistic and fails to address the underlying political and economic drivers as well as the human factors involved. At heart the Crusades were about power. The Catholic Church, under attack from home and abroad, needed to assert its authority in the strongest way possible – at sword point. The defenders of the faith who went out the fight and die under the cross aided the institutions of Christianity rather than the beliefs themselves. Scripture was twisted to give authority to the soldiers in the field to be soldiers for God and to kill in his name. Kings and Princes were seduced, bribed and all too often threatened to ensure their compliance in the wars for Holy Mother Church - largely to stamp the authority of Rome (and for a period Avignon) on the growing temporal powers. Only with the rise of the nation-state with national self interests and later with the Great Schism did this authority wane and the Crusades fade into memory. Nations were no longer so eager to expend blood and gold on projects not clearly in their own best interests.

The history of the Crusades is rife with propaganda and judgementalism. The author manages to cut to the heart of things seeing beyond and behind the simple Christian piety that seems, on first glance, to be responsible for such an outpouring of violence. Seen in the context of political and economic trends of the time the facts of the Crusades become much easier to understand. He covers a substantial period of European history with knowledge, authority and wit which made for a fascinating and entertaining read. I shall be looking out for other books by this author. Highly recommended even to those who might have little initial interest in this phenomenon.