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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cartoon Time.


“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it would be better for him to do so, because it would make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859) 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Little Stormtrooper

Heatwave breaks records in parts of US and Canada

From the BBC

23 July 2011

The mercury in Newark, New Jersey, reached 108F (42C) on Friday, the highest ever recorded in the city. In Canada, an extreme heat alert remained in effect, a day after two dozen cities and towns broke their previous single-day heat records. At least 22 deaths have been blamed on the heat. Across the US alone, where nearly half of the population was under a heat advisory, more than 220 heat records have tumbled.

Many regions in the central US and parts of the eastern seaboard have seen heat indexes - a combination of temperature and humidity - topping 43C. Airports near Washington and Baltimore hit 40.5C (105F); Boston 39.5C (103F); Portland, Maine, and Concord, New Hampshire, 38.5C (101F); and Providence, Rhode Island, 38C (100F). Philadelphia - where bathers at public swimming pools were asked to leave every half hour to allow a new crowd to enjoy a cooling dip - saw temperatures of 40C (104F). New York City also hit 40C, just a degree short of its all-time high, although with the oppressive humidity, it felt like 45C (113F). As New Yorkers roasted in the heat, health officials warned them to stay out of the water at four beaches on New York Harbor after a sewage treatment plant damaged by fire began pumping raw waste into the Hudson River. Several hundred homes and businesses in New York were hit with temporary blackouts. Voltage was reduced in several neighbourhoods in the city and suburbs to keep underground cables from overheating.

On Friday, the medical examiner's office in Chicago listed heat stress or heatstroke as the cause of death for seven people. An 18-year-old landscape gardener who died on Thursday night in Louisville, Kentucky, had a temperature of 43C (110F), a coroner said. In Canada, temperature records were broken in two dozen cities across Ontario and Quebec on Thursday, including the hottest ever July temperature in Toronto, at 37.9C (100.2F). Asphalt and concrete pavements and buildings in cities were "re-radiating" the heat, forecasters said. Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the BBC: "This is an exceptionally strong ridge of high pressure that really has an exceptional scope and duration." The combination of high heat and humidity make it hard for the human body to cool itself - because sweat does not evaporate efficiently, he added. Officials in the central state of Missouri say 13 people have died, and there have also been fatalities in neighbouring Oklahoma, including a three-year-old boy.

In the south, more than three-quarters of Texas is suffering from drought amid the worst dry spell in the state for decades. High temperatures - the number one weather-related killer in the US - claim 162 lives on average in the country each year. The most severe heatwave in modern North American history took place during theGreat Depression in 1936. The heat that summer was blamed for more than 5,000 deaths in the US and Canada.

[Oddly – or not – this is exactly as predicted by global warming scientists. But no doubt there will be those who pass it off as a freak event, though I have to wonder how many ‘freak’ events will have to occur before people realise this is the new norm. Over here we’re having a rather patchy, cool and wet summer. As much as we gripe about it I think I prefer this weather to what large parts of the US are getting – especially as I and many other people I know don’t have any air-con.]

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Solitude by Anthony Storr

As my regular readers will know I’ve spent most of my adult life on my own and I expect that I’ll spend the rest of my life like that too. So it’s not surprising that I have an interest in the idea of solitude. This book by the renowned psychiatrist questions the widely held belief that happiness can only, or can be primarily, achieved through personal relationships and that more than minimal solitude should be avoided. Contrary to that Storr puts forward the idea that an important element in the happiness equation is maturity of outlook and the opportunity for personal growth – both of which take place to a great extent when we are alone, with time to think and with minimal distractions (AKA other people). I largely agree with this. I have long felt that an important factor in creating the person that I am – and actively enjoy being – is due in large part to the time I have spent alone living inside my own head. Also, I have known a few people who actively seek out other people and other forms of distraction for the very reason that they dislike (or fear) being alone with themselves. This fear of being alone, a fear based more on the fact of not being able to drown out their own thoughts than anything else, I feel is a deeply immature one.

Despite the fact that I (generally) like people and have little obvious problems forming relationships, outside sexual ones of course, I would have serious issues being with people 24/7. Actually being in that situation is probably the closest I get to the idea of Hell – maybe I’ll find out one day? So it’s never been a case that I’m solo because I don’t have a choice. OK, it’s not like I’m telling people to leave me alone on a regular basis but even if I had the opportunity to be with someone every day I’d still tell them that I need my space (and not just as an excuse to do something I shouldn’t). Storr provides an interesting collection of some of the greatest artists, composers and philosophers who, for one reason or another, spent some extended periods of time alone – either through choice or because of circumstance. Using quotes from their work or diaries as well as comments from contemporaries, as well as his own observations, he makes a good case for their solitude being instrumental in the production of works that have become humanities greatest treasures.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I’m going to produce an opera or world class piece of philosophy that defines the age at any point soon. But it’s nice to know that I could do so [grin]. Where Storr and I agree most it that solitude – even for fairly extended periods – is not, in itself, a bad thing. Times for reflection, retreat and regrouping are important in that they give us an opportunity to pause and gather our strength before going back out into the fray of everyday life. Whilst it didn’t exactly illuminate my world this was a refreshing study and analysis of a part of life most people would rather live without or simply not talk about. Storr has produced a slim volume extolling the virtue of solitude in a world seemingly dedicated to the opposite. It was about time for such a book to be produced.       

Monday, July 25, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

New York – 1909. The very day after the controversial figure of Sigmund Freud arrives for his only visit to the US a beautiful debutant is found bound and strangled in her penthouse apartment. Within days another attack takes place. This time the young girl survives the ordeal but can neither speak nor apparently remember her attacker. Called into consult by the police, Stratham Younger, a disciple of Freud, attempts psycho-analysis on the victim and finds himself drawn into a tangled web of power politics, decadence and sexual perversion. At the heart of it all is the new method of examining, and curing, the darkest fears of the human mind – something that a secret cabal will stop at nothing to prevent contaminating America.

This is the author’s first novel and shows both the best and the worst aspects of that fact. It is meticulously researched allowing the reader to believe in the New York backdrop of 1909: It feels real. The level of detail is, however, a little overwhelming at times. Characterisation is very good but, in the case of Freud and party, a little too dry and almost academic. The pace of the novel is generally good but draws to a halt in places as the main characters discuss things and draw conclusions before moving on to the next set piece. Some of the discussions are very interesting indeed – in particular a rather irrelevant discussion about the psychology of Hamlet – but add nothing to the plot. At times the action is a little too clunky as the author twists the storyline a little too much out of shape for often unnecessary shock effect. One thing it does very well indeed is keep you guessing to the last handful of pages. The surprise ending that was pulled out of the bag at the last minute made sense and wrapped up the whole thing rather nicely – and I had no idea it was coming (which I enjoyed). Despite all its faults (not all that many to be honest and not all that jarring) this was a quick, rather enjoyable and often fascinating read. Whilst clearly a first novel it was written well enough to show promise which I am rather pleased with as I already own the sequel. I shall look forward to another outing with Stratham Younger and his friend in the New York police department as they solve another case using psychoanalysis and good old fashioned police work. Overall this was a more than reasonable historical crime novel. Recommended.

BTW – This was the last book in the recent batch of historical novels. I’ll now be taking a short break from any themes before embarking on my next themed batch which will be Future Earth – so back to SF soon (phew!).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Like father.... Like son....


Jan. 15, 2009

NASA News RELEASE: 09-006

WASHINGTON -- A team of NASA and university scientists has achieved the first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This discovery indicates the planet is either biologically or geologically active.

The team found methane in the Martian atmosphere by carefully observing the planet throughout several Mars years with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The team used spectrometers on the telescopes to spread the light into its component colors, as a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The team detected three spectral features called absorption lines that together are a definitive signature of methane.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif." Mumma is lead author of a paper describing this research that will appear in Science Express on Thursday. Methane, four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom, is the main component of natural gas on Earth. Astrobiologists are interested in these data because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane.

"Right now, we do not have enough information to tell whether biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," Mumma said. "But it does tell us the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It is as if Mars is challenging us, saying, 'hey, find out what this means.' " If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface where it is warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life, as are energy sources and a supply of carbon.

"On Earth, microorganisms thrive about 1.2 to 1.9 miles beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen and oxygen," Mumma said. "The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon. Gases, like methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons, connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or canyons."

It is possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide into the serpentine group of minerals creates methane, and on Mars this process could proceed using water, carbon dioxide and the planet's internal heat. Although there is no evidence of active volcanism on Mars today, ancient methane trapped in ice cages called clathrates might be released now. "We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane," said co-author Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America in Washington. "The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air."

According to the team, the plumes were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. Plumes appeared over the Martian northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra, the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano about 745 miles across. One method to test whether life produced this methane is by measuring isotope ratios. Isotopes of an element have slightly different chemical properties, and life prefers to use the lighter isotopes. A chemical called deuterium is a heavier version of hydrogen. Methane and water released on Mars should show distinctive ratios for isotopes of hydrogen and carbon if life was responsible for methane production. It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to discover the origin of the Martian methane.

{I do so hope that when they discover what’s causing this out-gassing it isn’t low level geological activity. I really holding out for life on this one!]

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Towards the Light – The Story of the struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the modern West by A C Grayling

I was doing my best to resist reading any non-fiction history on top of my recent batch of historical novels but could hardly resist something like this – a long look at the idea of liberty by one of my all-time favourite modern philosophers. Needless to say I was not disappointed.

Set within a chronological narrative Professor Grayling starts with the fight for religious freedom from was, at that time, the only major Western faith – Catholicism. The great schism that produced the Protestant churches (themselves the product of later schisms) was the spark that lit the fuse which blew apart the idea of any kind of unassailable power based on simple authority. From that point there was no going back. After religious liberty was established it, rather inevitably, led to greater and greater freedom of thought – freedom that led to scientific investigation that ultimately began to undermine the idea of religion itself. Once the authority of the church (and even God) had been questioned, challenged and, to varying degrees overthrown, it was not long before these free thinkers began looking at the power and authority (often seen as divine in nature) of those who ruled over us. Questions of their legitimacy soon followed along with calls from greater and greater enfranchisement of the population. Hot on the heels of those questions came the issues of women’s rights, slavery, and the rights of racial minorities. All in all it has been a hard fought and hard won fight for the increasing liberty of individuals within a more just society. Progress indeed!

There were many things I liked about this book – not least of which was the author’s impressive breadth of knowledge and ease of bringing an immense subject down to manageable proportions. He also introduced me to some new men and women who fought for the freedoms that many of us – including me – often take for granted. I have been quoting some of those here over the last few weeks. In the almost 300 page book I only had a single gripe. The author rightly stated that both the French and American revolutions and declaration of rights had a huge influence on liberty in the modern West. Were I disagreed with him was his seemingly blinkered statement that, before 9/11 and the resulting increase in restrictions on freedoms enshrined in the Patriot Acts and other legislation, American was in some way a singular shining paragon of virtue. Now I will be the first to say that my knowledge of American history is rather incomplete and is, in some areas, rather sketchy but just off the top of my head I can think of slavery (which the author considered to be unfortunate in the US), the virtual extinction of its indigenous population, the treatment of African –Americans after slavery was banned, the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WW2, the McCarthy witch hunts, the Salem witch trials, the treatment of women and gays, the treatment of atheists and other ‘minority’ groups, the union busting in the early 20th century and so on which do not exactly reflect kindly on a country that prides itself of being at the vanguard of liberty. But that small criticism aside, this is still a very readable and very valuable defence of the principle of liberty which is all the more valuable considering the troubled times we live in. If you haven’t read anything by Grayling before I can think of worse places to start. Highly recommended.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Predators

My regular readers will know that I am a fan of both the Alien and Predator movies despite the rather patchy nature of both. So it should come as little surprise that I both saw and liked this movie too. Billed as ‘the sequel the original deserves’ this tells the story of a half-dozen or so mostly military types who wake up to find themselves falling through cloud. As their chutes open they discover they are about to hit the jungle with quite a thump. It’s not long before they realise that they’re not on Earth anymore and that something is hunting them. They need to band together to figure out exactly what is going on and how to survive against unknown and unseen Predators.

That’s basically the story – basic. In many ways this is a homage to the original film complete with an almost exact copy of the original soundtrack. In the Arnie role is Adrien Brody as a hard-case mercenary who only cares for his own life. Brody actually isn’t bad. I hadn’t seen him in much of anything before so I was fairly impressed. More impressive, for a number of reasons, was Alice Braga who provided one more back-link to the original film by recalling the Arnold mission and what happened to his team – both adding suspense and bringing anyone who hadn’t seen the original up to speed. I recognised her immediately but had to check on IMdb to remember where I’d seen her before: City of God, I am Legend and Repo Men. The other expendable cast member who caught my eye was Louis Ozawa Changchien who played a Yakuza equally at home with a gun or a sword. Rather inevitably he does indeed come across an original Samurai sword and uses it with great effect against one of the Predators. Of course I have to mention the rather strange appearance, again in more ways than one, of one of my favourite actors Lawrence Fishburn who plays a survivor of a previous abduction/hunt. Quite insane he preys on anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with him but serves as a useful plot device as he fills everyone in on what’s really going on.

Whilst not exactly a work of art this is a highly entertaining addition to the Predator movie franchise. Robert Rodriguez, the director, is obviously a fan of the original movie and has tried to stay true to the spirit of the original idea – except for the rather glaring inclusion of the idea of the existence of two distinct types of Predator explained as the equivalent of dogs and wolves, basically big Predators and even bigger Predators. It’s all rather odd and, in my mind, rather unnecessary. But that aside if you enjoyed the original you’ll certainly enjoy this. I did.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

More Enlightenment Quotes

“I confess that a Being who exists somewhere and yet corresponds to no point in space, a Being who, lacking extension, yet occupies space; who is present in his entirety in every part of space, who is essentially different from matter and yet is one with matter, who follows its motion, and moves it, without himself being in motion… a Being about whom I can form no idea; a Being so contradictory in nature, is a hypothesis difficult to accept.”

Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert  (16 November 1717 – 29 October 1783)

“Nothing is required for enlightenment except freedom and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.”

Immanuel Kant  (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804)

So small.... So perfectly formed.....

Attacks Show Taliban are Not as Weak as the US Claims

by Patrick Cockburn for The Independent

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful Afghan in the south of the country, will reinforce the feeling among Afghans that the Taliban can strike anywhere at any time and are not weakening as American military commanders haveclaimed.

This will be the impact regardless of who killed Mr Karzai because the assassination follows the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and the killing of top officials in northern Afghanistan. These spectacular and highly publicised attacks are typical of developments in the war since the United States launched its troop surge in 2009, which is now in the process of being reversed. The Taliban reportedly killed and wounded 56 per cent more US soldiers in the nine months leading up to May, compared with a similar period a year earlier. When they have come under pressure in one valley, they move to another one. If necessary, they can also take temporary refuge in Pakistan, which shares a 1,550-mile border with Afghanistan – about the same distance from London to Moscow. Also in the Taliban's favour is the deteriorating relationship between the US and Pakistan since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

There are other signs the Taliban remain a well-organised military group, such as the spectacular escape from Kandahar prison of 541 prisoners down a 1,200ft tunnel dug over five months in April this year. The US claim to have killed many mid-level Taliban commanders is probably true, but they are being replaced by vengeful cousins and brothers who are less likely to support local or national peace agreements than their predecessors. The overall problems of the Afghan government and its foreign allies remain the same. The central government is weak and is regarded as a collection of racketeers by much of the population. The Taliban may not be very popular, but the total alienation of so many Afghans from the government gives it undiminished political and military strength.

Claims of social and economic progress are also often misleading. More children may go to school and university but there are few jobs for them when they graduate. Despite the US spending $10bn (£6bn) a month, millions of Afghans try to survive on $2 a day.

[So, after a war that has lasted as long, or longer, than the First and Second World Wars combined the Taliban remain a coherent and able fighting force despite everything we have thrown at them. Two questions spring immediately to mind: Is this a war that we can win? Is this even a war that we should have any part of?]

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Trafalger by Bernard Cornwell

India, 1805. Newly promoted Ensign Richard Sharpe is going back to England to join his new regiment. But before he leaves he has a score to settle. The Indian company who had been storing his belongings has lost everything in a fire – or so it seems. On the cusp of getting what he wanted he saves the reputation of the Captain Chase of his Majesties ship Pucelle – a captured French 74 gunner - and they become firm friends. Waving goodbye to India and Captain Chase, Sharpe embarks on the East Indiaman Calliope. Expecting a tedious voyage home he is pleased to find that a fellow passenger is a beautiful woman – Lady Grace Hale. Hardly believing his luck Sharpe has caught her eye too. But as things progress it becomes clear that the other passengers and even some of the crew have their own interests at heart which do not match the interests of the Crown. The Calliope presents a great prize to any French ship that can capture her and such an eventuality is not unwelcome to everyone on board. But unknown to everyone involved is that their final destination can only be arrived at by passing through the waters destined to be forever remembered for one of the greatest naval battles in British history – a battle that will decide the fate of the whole European continent.

This is my 11th Sharpe novel and one which holds a special place on my book shelves. It was signed by the author, dedicated to me, on my 40th birthday. Yes, it’s taken me 11 years to get around to finally reading it. I can tell you it was worth the wait. This is the first Sharpe book I have read in which the hero is literally out of his element. As the consummate land soldier Sharpe is conscious that much of what he has learnt up to that point is at best useless but quickly learns to put his native courage and natural fighting skills to good use doing the thing he loves best – killing Frenchmen. I understand that the author found writing this book difficult too as ships-of-the-line in those days were amongst the most complicated vehicles designed by humans. Although many of the terms were unfamiliar to me they didn’t get in the way of the story – indeed I now think I can recognise a mizzen mast! The most impressive thing I found about this novel was the battle of Trafalger itself. Explained masterfully, the brutality of naval warfare in the early 19th century was brought home to me in ways that I could hardly imagine prior to reading this. The tactic or technique of raking – where a ship empties its guns into the stern of an enemy allowing unimpeded progress through the length of the enemy causing massive damage – was not completely new to me but to ‘see’ its effects was a revelation. The tactical innovations of Nelson – again very well explained in this novel – tipped the balance against a numerically superior Franco-Spanish force.

Rather sedate to begin with (without being in the least bit boring) and ending in a pages long battle this was a seriously fun read. I have definitely been away from Sharpe for far too long. I’m in the process of filling in my gaps in the narrative (3 books acquired so far) so will be returning to his adventures with increasing frequency. You’ll also notice more naval fiction in the future as well as some history books about naval warfare. As you can tell this has certainly piqued my interest – as a good book should. Highly recommended for anyone interested in military fiction or a cracking good read.   

Monday, July 11, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Why Evolution is True by Jerry A Coyne

As the author rightly points out early on, this is a book that should not have needed to be written. However, because opposition to Darwin’s great idea is so widespread (and possibly growing) he felt that his hand was forced. Normally I wouldn’t read this sort of book. All too often I find author’s who are basically preaching to the choir – which couldn’t be more boring. As one who has fully accepted Evolution, and everything that goes with it, it seems rather redundant that I read books in its defence. I did however relent for two reasons – first I had read a review of this book some time ago which sold me on reading it and second I felt that I might have become out of touch with the latest thinking on the subject which could possibly leave me open to the accusation that my ‘belief’ in Evolution is based on nothing more than childhood indoctrination in our secular school system (oh, and Richard Dawkins!).

So, I took this slim volume on my recent holiday and began reading. I need not have worried about it being boring. Far from it, this book was actually rather fascinating and was full of evolutionary quirks and details that intrigued me – for instance that ants are descended from wasps! But I digress…… Throughout the 250 page tract the author lays out, step by step, discovery by discovery, the mountain of evidence to support Darwin’s early idea. In almost everything Darwin was spot on. Where modern evolutionary studies differ – slightly – are in areas where Darwin was completely ignorant, for example in genetics or the mechanics of Continental Drift. After defining evolution (in a whole chapter) Coyne begins with the evidence to support it – the fossils, so-called ‘missing links in the move from aquatic life to land-based creatures and, inevitably, the origin of flight from reptiles to birds (Archaeopteryx being one of the most famous examples of this process) and the rather peculiar evolution of whales from land mammals to the giant sea creatures we see today. There follows an interesting chapter on vestiges (the appendix for example), embryos (and their similarities to ancestral forms and (my particular favourite) examples of bad ‘design’ where evolution has had to ‘make do’ with the available material to construct something else (and often quite different). Next time you choke on something that went ‘down the wrong way’ blame our fish ancestors who’s branchial arches produced their gills and our throat structure. Oh, and ask any surgeon about the mess that is our circulatory system around the heart – you can blame fish for that too!

Of course I have no intention of paraphrasing the entire book – even if I could – but needless to say it bolstered my already firm acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory (which is also a fact – or as near as we get in science). Of course if it was only a matter of argument and evidence it would be ‘case closed’. Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. As the author stated late on after giving a talk to American businessmen who had been very impressed by his presentation but still unconvinced, it’s not about the bones or the DNA its about the persons beliefs and how acceptance of Evolution would challenge or even change them. This, of course, totally negates one possible reason why this book has been written at all. It will never convince those who do not base their beliefs (for want of a better word) on evidence, reason or fact. It will however certainly support those who might already accept evolution without fully understanding it and may convince those who are wavering on the sidelines. All in all this is a very interesting and very well presented book on a central topic. It’s definitely worth the time and possible effort to read it – even if you’re already a believer.      

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Enlightenment Quotes:

“When superstition is allowed to perform the task of old age in dulling human temperament we can say goodbye to excellence in poetry, painting and music.”

Denis Diderot (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784)

“It [the Church] found the very light of the natural sciences hateful and suspect, for it is extremely dangerous to the success of miracles; and there is not a single religion that does not force its devotees to swallow a few scientific absurdities. Thus the triumph of Christianity was the signal for the complete ruin of the sciences and philosophy.”

Nicolas de Condorcet (17 September 1743 – 28 March 1794)

Reading in the bath? You're doing it wrong!

Autonomous tech 'requires debate'

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

Wednesday, 19 August 2009
The coming age of lorries that drive themselves or robots that perform surgery is fraught with legal and ethical issues, says a new report. The Royal Academy of Engineering says that automated freight transport could be on the roads in as few as 10 years. Also, it says, robotic surgery will begin to need less human intervention. But it suggests that much debate is needed to address the ethical and legal issues raised by putting responsibility in the hands of machines. "We're all used to automatic systems - lifts, washing machines. We're talking about levels above that," said Lambert Dopping-Heppenstal of the Academy's engineering ethics working group. "It's about systems that have some level of self-determination."

Issues surrounding autonomous systems and robots with such self-determination have been discussed for a number years, particularly with regard to the autonomous machines of warfare. However, the era of autonomous road vehicles and surgeons is slowly becoming reality, making the issues more urgent, the report says. The removal of direct control from a car's driver is already happening, with anti-lock braking systems and even automatic parking systems becoming commonplace. But the next step is moving toward completely driverless road vehicles, which already exist in a number of contexts, including London's Heathrow Airport. The Darpa Grand Challenge, a contest sponsored by the US defence department's research arm, has driverless cars negotiating traffic and obstacles and obeying traffic rules over courses nearly 100km long. "Those machines would have passed the California driving test, more than I would have," said Professor Will Stewart, a fellow of the Academy. "Autonomous vehicles will be safer. One of the compelling arguments for them is that the machine cannot have an argument with its wife; it can run 24 hours a day without getting tired. But it is making decisions on its own."

Professor Stewart and report co-author Chris Elliott remain convinced that autonomous systems will prove, on average, to be better surgeons and better lorry drivers than humans are. But when they are not, it could lead to a legal morass, they said. "If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you're going to be better off with a robot surgeon," Dr Elliott said. "But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do." Professor Stewart concluded: "It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a truck."

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

England, 1537. Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset, goes into labour with the hope of producing an heir for her husband. After a long and potentially dangerous effort she is disgusted to discover she has produced a useless daughter. Ignoring her new child she immediately hands her over to a wet nurse who dotes on the beautiful baby. In the first few years of life the child Lady Jane learns what it is to be the family’s unwanted eldest daughter. Groomed to be useful as a bargaining chip to be married off at the earliest opportunity neither of her parents notice that she is growing up to be an impressive young woman, in looks, in whit and in intelligence. Only her looks are considered as asset that can be used to snare a profitable match. When King Henry VIII finally fathers a male heir the Brandon’s conceive of their most ambitious plot yet – to seat Jane on the throne of England. But first they must scheme and plot to have her in the right place at the right time – and beat any resistance out of her in the process.

Such a brief synopsis does little credit to this tale of parental ambition in a very dangerous age. Not only are such schemes inherently dangerous in that they must overcome the schemes of others but such things can all too easily be seen as treason – a crime that all too often ends with the plotters heads on spikes on the walls of the Tower of London. If this was not enough in itself this is a time of religious upheaval when the new religion of Protestantism is in the process of ousting the old religion of Catholicism from centre stage. As each contender for the throne cleaves to one faith or the other the consequences of a ‘wrong’ monarch taking the throne would be calamitous to the opposing side. Weir is a world class historian who has turned her hand to the historical novel. In her first outing she impressed me with the feeling of realism that carries the reader through the book. Tudor England seems both alien and yet strangely familiar. I had a vague knowledge of the time gleamed from half-remembered school lesions and a smattering of movies, plays and documentaries of the period. I now think I know a lot more of what was going on in those very violent times. I never realised, until reading this novel, just how fraught with danger royal succession was. Backing the wrong contender could quite literally result in you losing your head. The tragic figure of Lady Jane Grey was one I had heard of but, again until reading this novel, I had no idea just how tragic her very short life really was. Pushed into a situation she clearly wanted no part in, her power hungry parents put her in an impossible position which resulted in dire consequences whilst she was still in her teens. Although I realised that children of the aristocracy where expected to grow up fast in those days I never realised that their childhoods were so compressed. Jane had an awful life – despite her very privileged background. In another time or place she might have made a real contribution to the world. Instead she was the victim of the ambition of others and paid the price for being a suitable bride for a future king.

I picked up Alison Weir’s third novel today on the strength of this book. It did feel a little heavy handed at times but generally I liked it very much indeed. It had a wonderful sense of time and place, very impressive characterisation and a very strong story to say nothing of a very strong central character in the guise of Jane herself. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the period or if you want a very fulfilling if tragic story to spellbind you.  

Monday, July 04, 2011

Thinking About: The Lives of Others

I’ve been lucky so far in the people I work with. To date I haven’t had the misfortune of working with people I don’t like or even actively dislike. The present team I’m a part of is no exception to this. We are a diverse lot from very different backgrounds who have, over the past few years, gelled together as a highly effective project management team. Inevitably though there is somewhat of a fly in the ointment.

About half of the team seem to be inordinately interested in the lives of other people. In our periodic downtimes between the crises we handle on a daily basis, when the conversations regarding work have been exhausted, the talk often turns to the public and private lives of those we work with. Some members of the team seem fascinated with the fashion and hair colour choices of those around us, others speculate on sexual orientation and holiday destinations, others gripe about people who bend (or possibly break) in-house rules and seem to get away with it. I’m sure that when I’m not around they talk about me too – though I can’t imagine what they say. I doubt if I give them much to gossip about. Of course when everyone’s habits have been discussed to death (again) the conversation will inevitably move onto the latest celebrity goings on, who is shagging who, who is having who’s baby and the rest, then there’s so-called reality TV and conversations about what X was wearing and that they never liked them anyway. After 20-30 minutes of this I sometimes want to scream. With what else is happening in the world their focus on trivia (which actually gives trivia a bad name) astounds me. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to face what’s really happening out there. Maybe they just can’t think about it without going off the deep end – so it’s The Apprentice and My Big Fat Greek Wedding instead.

I do wonder if their lives are so empty that they need to incorporate other people’s lives into their own to add a bit of sparkle. But this can’t be true. They have lives – partners, families, young children and everything else that goes with it. Surely it should be someone like me who needs to wrap themselves in other people’s every day existence to add something more to their lives. On the contrary, I struggle to understand why anyone is really interested enough in the lives of total strangers to be hooked on Big Brother and all of the other relentless prime-time TV shows that bring so-called ordinary people into our homes. It wouldn’t be so bad if any of these people where actually interesting. As far as I can tell they are far from it. Maybe, as has been put forward to explain the Jerry Springer phenomena, it’s that watching people who are basically fuck-ups makes the viewing audience feel good because no matter how bad our lives get at least we’re not as bad as those people. Maybe that’s it? Maybe my life just isn’t too complicated, too boring or too frantic for me to need to relax in front of the Box while watching other people’s lives fall apart? Maybe I’m not watching the numberless mind-numbing ‘Talent’ shows because I know that most of the people simply don’t have the talent of a hamster. The shows are designed not to sift out the talented ones but for us, the audience, to laugh at those who don’t have talent but only think they do. This, I’m afraid, is what passes for entertainment in the 21st Century and I will have none of it. But I digress……

The vast majority of people on this planet will forever remain strangers: Even those with thousands of Facebook ‘friends’ will remain ignorant of the lives of billions of other people. This is how it should be. The puerile interest in the failings, disasters and poor taste of people we will never meet and never know more than superficially through the medium of television honestly appals me. It panders to humanities baser instincts and we undoubtedly will regret the fact that we’ve let it become so pervasive. I have never understood the desire to poke and pry into other people’s lives and have no interest in doing so. It saddens me that so many people see this as entertainment. If this is human nature then I’ll be handing my membership card back – cut in half.     

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Killing in the name…….

“Religion resides in the heart and not in the body, which is why the swords of kings and princes cannot reach it. The church can no more be built by persecution and violence than a wall can be built by cannon blasts. Therefore to kill a man is not to defend a doctrine but simply to kill a man.”

Sebastian Castellio (1515 – December 29, 1563)

The very essence of cool......

Moons like Earth's could be more common than we thought

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

5 June 2011

About one in 10 rocky planets around stars like our Sun may host a moon proportionally as large as Earth's, researchers say. Using computer simulations of planet formation, researchers have now shown that the grand impacts that resulted in our Moon may in fact be common. The result may also help identify other planets that are hospitable to life. A report outlining the results will be published in Icarus.

Last year, researchers from the University of Zurich's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Switzerland and Ryuja Morishima of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in the US undertook a series of simulations to look at the way planets form from gas and smaller chunks of rock called planetesimals. Our own moon is widely thought to have formed early in the Earth's history when a Mars-sized planet slammed into the Earth, resulting in a disc of molten material encircling the Earth which in time coalesced into the Moon as we know it. The team used the results from their initial study as the input to a further "N-body simulation" to find out the likelihood that large-scale impact events could form large satellites in the same way. Their results showed that there is about a one in 12 chance of generating a system comprising a planet more than half the Earth's mass and a moon with more than half that of our Moon (taking into account the errors in the simulation, the full range of probabilities was between one in 45 and one in four). Sebastian Elser of the University of Zurich said the new estimates for the likelihood of Moon-sized satellites could inform the hunt for extrasolar planets. Such large moons can confuse the measurements that spot the planets, and knowing that large satellites may be common could make the measurements easier.

The cataclysmic impact that resulted in the Moon still presents a number of computational mysteries Also, our Moon has served to stabilise the tilt of the Earth's axis - or its obliquity - which could otherwise have varied drastically over relatively short time scales. That in turn would wreak drastic changes to the way heat from the Sun is distributed around the planet. It thus can be said that the Moon's presence made a more stable environment in which life could evolve, Mr Elser said. "Checking for the possibility of an obliquity-stabilising moon is a good thing if you're trying to find out how many habitable worlds are out there in the galaxy," he told BBC News. "But it's surely not the only one and not the most important." Eiichiro Kokubo is a planet formation expert who has published widely on the mechanics behind the development of both the planets in our Solar System and the Moon. He called the result an "interesting estimate" but cautioned that there are several as-yet unknown parameters "which greatly affect lunar formation and evolution and thus the probability of hosting a large moon". He told BBC News that, for example, it is still impossible to put numbers to the effects of a planet's initial spin before impact, or how the disc of material is formed and evolves after it. "I think we should take the paper as a trial calculation based on what we know about formation of terrestrial planets and moons today,"

[An interesting estimate indeed....]

Friday, July 01, 2011