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

Monday, August 29, 2011

Being Challenged

When I started my voracious reading habits over 35 years ago I had no plan, no strategy for what I was reading. Accidently I had been introduced to SF at an impressionable age and dived into the genre head-first. My first love after all those years is still SF but, as you will have noticed, I read many other things besides Science Fiction these days. Indeed I’d have to say that an almost equal passion of mine presently is Historical Fiction. Like SF it has a huge range and will probably take me decades to exhaust all of the possibilities.

Recently – well about a year or so ago – I was becoming a bit fed up, even bored, with my reading habits. I was generally reading books I had bought recently or those that looked on the face of it like a fun read. I was in other words coasting along and my reading was suffering because of that. In effect I had become a lazy reader. What I needed was more of a challenge – so I created some. It appears to have worked. My reading has become more coherent and I’ve read many really good books that I might have overlooked if I had not had the various challenges I had set for myself. Now that I have completed several, of which more in a moment, I feel the need to push myself a bit more to see what I can do. In that case my self-imposed challenges will become more difficult and, hopefully, more interesting. The over-all strategy was to read 10 themed books initially followed by 5 non-themed to let off some steam and to enable me to read books that don’t readily fit into any theme. I have since extended this theme ‘break’ into 10 books to allow me some more flexibility in what I read.

So far my challenges haven’t been all that challenging. In order of those already completed these have been:

Single Word Titles
A Colour in the Title
Fantasy Books
Off-World Tales
Historical Novels

As I said – overall not that much of a challenge, but I’m only really warming up. Presently I’m coming to the end of my non-themed 10 (with the usual review lag presently running at 6 books) and the next theme will be Future Earth – so lots of SF coming up. After another non-themed 10 it will be a series of Books made into Movies which should throw up some interesting volumes. That little lot should take me up to Christmas, after which I’ll decide what themes to go with next. I have a few in mind already which should be fun. It does all sound a little crazy (if not actually bat-shit crazy) but it does seem to be producing a better class of reading material than picking each book on the spare of the moment impulse. I’ll see how it goes.   


Along with the other pictures I post here on a regular basis you will have noticed, no doubt, that from time to time I post pictures of women I find attractive. Rather shallow of me I know but then no one is perfect. Anyway, as I have reached 12 such postings in the last 3 years I have decided to give them their own label for ease of viewing and have called it: Girls. I hope that my female readership will not find such a label patronising. It’s certainly not meant to be. As always there will be more to come.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.......

'Smart' CCTV could track rioters

From The BBC

23 August 2011

CCTV that can automatically monitor criminal behaviour and track suspects is being developed by UK scientists. Researchers at Kingston University have created a system that uses artificial intelligence to recognise specific types of behaviour, such as someone holding a gun. The technology is capable of following a person across multiple cameras. Privacy campaigners warned that it might be used to target groups such as political protesters.

However, the developers insisted that their invention would allow police to focus on law breakers and erase images of innocent civilians. The technology works by teaching a computer to recognise specific types of public behaviour, known as ‘trigger events’. "In riot situations, it could be people running - a crowd might converge in a certain place," said Dr James Orwell of Kingston University "If somebody pulls out a gun, people tend to run in all sorts of directions. These movements can be detected."

When an event is triggered, the software collates video footage from before and after the incident to record a full history of the suspect's movements. "If a window was smashed and shop looted in a town centre street, the technology would trace back to see who smashed the window and then retrace his steps to see when and where he entered the town centre. "The technology would also trace where the man had gone after leaving the scene," said Dr Orwell. The study is part of the ADDPRIV project - a European collaboration to build a surveillance solution that acknowledges wider privacy concerns. A key element of the system is the automatic deletion of surplus video data. "There is a mainland European resistance to CCTV - tight controls on how long you can keep data," explained Dr Orwell. "This project addresses it by saying 'This is the event - let's wrap up everything that's relevant, then delete everything else.' "We're seeking to use surveillance to help control society, while avoiding the Big Brother nightmare of everybody being seen all the time," he added.

Charles Farrier from anti-surveillance campaign group No CCTV believes that excessive security powers would leave the system open to abuse. "Merely saying 'We promise we won't track innocent people' isn't good enough," said Mr Farrier. "If you've got a state-run camera system and the state wants it triggered on, say, peace activists, then they won't be bound by the same rules as everyone else.

[Of course no one seems to have picked up on the delicious irony about an intelligent surveillance system being developed by Dr Orwell and his team….. Anyway – I too doubt if any in-built safeguards will be enough to prevent the detailed tracking of anyone doing anything the authorities don’t like. It may indeed help in riot situations (which we have had twice in my lifetime) but I seriously doubt if that’s all they’ll be used for. We are awash in CCTV cameras in this country already. Will making the software behind them make us safer or more easily controlled in the future? It’s all rather… Orwellian don’t you think?]  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Dune and Philosophy – The Weirding Way of the Mentat edited by Jeffery Nicholas

Well, I just had to really……

I have been enjoying these Popular Culture and Philosophy books. They’re a great way to get into some of the philosophical ideas and concepts as well as delve a bit deeper into some of your favourite bits of pop culture. Of course few come closer than Dune which produced 6 original novels by Frank Herbert as well as many more expansions by his son and others. Then there was the ‘interesting’ movie and two made-for-TV mini-series. All in all that’s quite a bit of material to mine into for philosophical subject matter. Those who know of the Dune universe will not be in the least bit surprised that there is a great deal of fine philosophical material to mine! Indeed several authors in this outstanding collection call Herbert a philosopher in his own right rather than a SF author who just peppered his work with bits of philosophy. I would probably agree with them.

I read the first Dune trilogy back in my teens. Again for those who have experienced the books you can imagine the effect they had on an adolescent mind. Tales of Galaxy spanning empires, super beings, genetic manipulation on a species wide scale, cloning and much else besides made my head spin. Something of that effect, still with me after all those years, was present in this book. Some of the articles were very well written indeed, the majority were interesting at worst and often fascinating. A mere two were, in my opinion, largely unworthy to have been included – which out of sixteen articles actually wasn’t that bad. Discussions moved from the differences in politics between the worlds of Dune, the problems and dilemmas associated with planning to improve the species, the possibility of being enslaved by technology of our own creation, issues created by the idea of seeing the future – does it destroy free will or give us an amazing power to shape our own destinies and is it even possible to shape our own destiny never mind that of an entire species.

One of my favourite sections was a series of discussions on ideas of personal identity using one of my favourite Dune characters – the Ghola Duncan Idaho – as an example. If a clone of someone long dead can have his memories activated so that he is mentally the ‘same’ as his deceased counterpart is he the same person? What if two such clones exist at the same time? If you had multiple copies of yourself from previous lives and had access to their memories are you still you or are you them or someone completely new? It’s fascinating stuff. The last section – discussions about Paul Muad’Dib from a Nietzschean perspective – rocked my world. They were excellent. Inevitably I watched the movie, deeply flawed though it is, soon after reading this and am seriously toying with the idea of reading the Herbert novels again. Maybe I will – when I have an extra few weeks to rub together.

If you are a Dune fan, and I know some of my regulars are, you will definitely enjoy this book. It does help to have at least some knowledge of the series and the movie to get the full benefit from this book but on the other hand it might raise enough interest in those who haven’t read these landmark works to dive right in. Highly recommended.       

Monday, August 22, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Emma by Jane Austen

Emma is young, rich, spoilt and of the opinion, after apparently engineering the marriage of her governess, that it is her mission in life to assist those around her into the state of matrimony – a state she herself has declined to pursue. When the orphan Harriet enters her sphere she decides on Mr Elton – the curate – as the ideal partner for her new friend and begins her campaign to put them together. Almost from the outset things start to go wrong as Mr Elton is clearly more interested in Emma herself (as she shockingly finds out one Christmas). In her attempt to make things right for Harriet, Emma spins more and more fantastic plots and causes more chaos in her small select community until she realises the many errors of her ways. As she matures she realises that she too is looking for love and finds it where she least expects.

I am becoming quite a fan of Miss Austen now having read three of her six novels and watched TV and movie adaptations of her works as well as some of the many ‘spin-offs’ on offer. I actually watched the movie adaptation of Emma (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) just yesterday. I’m glad I insisted on reading the book first though, it was much better. This might, however, at least partially explain why I initially struggled with the book – I had no idea what it was about apart from the brief blurb on the back of my Vintage Press edition. For at least the first quarter of the novel I slogged through the text with little overall enjoyment. In my earlier days, and certainly before I had read any other Austen novels, I would have abandoned it at that point. I found very little to recommend it. Not very much was happening, though to be honest not very much of note actually happens in Austen’s novels, and very few of the characters were in the least likable. Emma herself was awful. She had no idea just how lucky she was. She had led a sheltered and privileged life which had produced a character so wrapped up in herself and her own schemes that she was often completely oblivious to the damage her words and actions caused around her. She had talent but little application never having had to do anything she didn’t want to. She was in a word obnoxious and on more than one occasion I could have happily slapped her for her unthinking behaviours but that is the genius of the work. Over the length of the book – about 12-18 months in ‘real-time’ the character of Emma is transformed from someone you would have little to do with beyond the first encounter to someone you could happily spend time with. As her schemes and behaviour bumps up against unforgiving reality Emma is forced time and again to think about what she is doing and the results of her meddling. The strength of her character is that she realises what a fool she has been and does whatever she can to rectify matters – not for some kind of acclaim from society but because of her empathy for those around her. Once out of her sheltered environment she grows from a spoilt brat into a considerate, kind and thoughtful young woman. The genius of Austen, and genius is not a word I use lightly, is to portray this metamorphosis in such a way as to make the reader move from loathing Emma to loving her. As layers of her character are exposed, examined, found faulty and rectified Emma grows before your eyes into the kind of person she was always capable of being. The story itself, with its other minor players, is almost superfluous other than as a mechanism to chip away at Emma’s persona to reveal, finally after much effort, a work of art in human form. Whilst she is far from my favourite Austen character as I still have issues getting over her initial significant character flaws I can’t help but admire her ability to grow as a person.

If you do attempt this book I can only recommend that you persevere with it. To begin with you may find yourself, like me, expending more effort than usual in working your way through the first third of the book. But take my word for it the effort will pay off handsomely in the end. One more thing: I read quite a bit of this during my lunch breaks at work. Rather inevitably it caused a modicum of surprise as most people see me reading SF or other ‘weird’ books. It also caused more than a little discussion as I found five other people who had actually read it or, in one case, was reading it at the same time as I was. I found it a lot of fun exchanging ideas about the book with the other people. It actually felt a little like the movie ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ as, just like the movie, I was the only male in the group.          

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What the Fairy Tales don't tell you.....

Galactic Dust Bunnies Found to Contain Carbon After All


March 12, 2009

Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers have found evidence suggesting that stars rich in carbon complex molecules may form at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. This discovery is significant because it adds to our knowledge of how stars form heavy elements -- like oxygen, carbon and iron -- and then blow them out across the universe, making it possible for life to develop.

Astronomers have long been baffled by a strange phenomenon: Why have their telescopes never detected carbon-rich stars at the center of our galaxy even though they have found these stars in other places? Now, by using Spitzer's powerful infrared detectors, a research team has found the elusive carbon stars in the galactic center. "The dust surrounding the stars emits very strongly at infrared wavelengths," says Pedro García-Lario, a research team member who is on the faculty of the European Space Astronomy Center, the European Space Agency's center for space science. He co-authored a paper on this subject in the February 2009 issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. "With the help of Spitzer spectra, we can easily determine whether the material returned by the stars to the interstellar medium is oxygen-rich or carbon-rich." The team of scientists analyzed the light emitted from 40 planetary nebulae – blobs of dust and gas surrounding stars -- using Spitzer's infrared spectrograph. They analyzed 26 nebulae toward the center of the Milky Way -- a region called the "Galactic Bulge" -- and 14 nebulae in other parts of the galaxy. The scientists found a large amount of crystalline silicates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, two substances that indicate the presence of oxygen and carbon.

This combination is unusual. In the Milky Way, dust that combines both oxygen and carbon is rare and is usually only found surrounding a binary system of stars. The research team, however, found that the presence of the carbon-oxygen dust in the Galactic Bulge seems to be suggestive of a recent change of chemistry experienced by the star. The scientists hypothesize that as the central star of a planetary nebula ages and dies, its heavier elements do not make their way to the star's outer layers, as they do in other stars. Only in the last moments of the central star's life, when it expands and then violently expels almost all of its remaining outer gasses, does the carbon become detectable. That's when astronomers see it in the nebula surrounding the star.

"The carbon produced through these recurrent 'thermal pulses' is very inefficiently dredged up to the surface of the star, contrary to what is observed in low-metallicity, galactic disk stars," said García-Lario. "It only becomes visible when the star is about to die." This study supports a hypothesis about why the carbon in some stars does not make its way to the stars' surfaces. Scientists believe that small stars -- those with masses up to one-and-a-half times that of our sun -- that contain lots of metal do not bring carbon to their surfaces as they age. Stars in the Galactic Bulge tend to have more metals than other stars, so the Spitzer data support this commonly held hypothesis. Before the Spitzer study, this hypothesis had never been supported by observation. This aging and expelling process is typical of all stars. As stars age and die, they burn progressively heavier and heavier elements, beginning with hydrogen and ending with iron. Towards the end of their lives, some stars become what are called "red giants." These dying stars swell so large that if one of them were placed in our solar system, where the sun is now, its outermost border would touch Earth's orbit. As these stars pulsate – losing mass in the process – and then contract, they spew out almost all of their heavier elements. These elements are the building blocks of all planets, including our own Earth (as well as of human beings and any other life forms that may exist in the universe).

The paper is co-authored by José Vicente Perea-Calderón of the European Space Astronomy Center in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain; Domingo Anibal García-Hernández of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, on Spain's Tenerife island; Ryszard Szczerba of the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center in Torun, Poland; and Matt Bobrowsky of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Tragedy – A Very Short Introduction by Adrian Poole

I am the first to admit that this book was more than a little out of my comfort zone – probably because it wasn’t really what I expected it to be. Of course I expected it to be about tragedy, but I didn’t expect it (though maybe I should have) to be largely about the treatment of tragedy in the theatre. As I said – more than a little outside my comfort zone! Naturally I understood that the literary tradition of tragedy came from the Ancient Greeks (actually its difficult to think of much that didn’t originate with them). However, my knowledge of particular Greek plays is minimal. I was on more sure ground (but only just) when the discussion moved onto Shakespearian tragedy. At least at this point I had some reference points having seen one of the Bards plays on stage and several of the movie versions. In consequence those areas in the book were more understandable and more interesting. Not so later discussions of plays and poems of which my knowledge stops at recognition of the title alone.

I did actually find parts of this short volume interesting (and informative) particularly the discussion of tragedy in its wider and both its historical and cultural context. I agreed with the author that we use the word far too freely these days when everything it seems is on the tragic scale (likewise we seem to live in an age where no one is simply angry but feel the need to be outraged by what in past times would have generated little comment. It is if we live in an emotional arms race where those who can show they feel the most win – but I digress). I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading this book as far too much of it was outside of my normal experience. If however you are a doyen of the stage I’m sure that it would mean much more to you and you would derive much more from it!     

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Favourite TV: Lost in Austen

Amanda Price (played by Jemima Rooper) is a typical 21st century city girl who loves to read Jane Austen to escape into a world of romance so unlike her own. Her particular favourite is Pride and Prejudice which she knows virtually word for word. When her boyfriend unexpectedly proposes to her Amanda’s world is thrown into turmoil so, with a wine glass in one hand and Austen in the other she escapes – until she hears a noise coming from her bathroom. Expecting a burglar she is astonished to find Miss Elizabeth Bennet standing in her bathtub. Seemingly the longing for Austen’s world to be real has created a doorway between the two realms. Intrigued by the 21st century Lizzie offers a Jemima a deal - for a short time they will swop places. After some agonising Amanda agrees and steps through the doorway. Things are exactly as she has imagined them until, with Lizzie away, things begin to spiral out of control. Knowing the story well Amanda tries ever harder to put things back on track but the more she tries the more things slip from her grasp. Can she put things back together the way they should before lives are ruined and what is she to do about Mr Darcy?

I only saw part of this (the last 2 of 4 episodes) when it was first shown on TV back in 2008. So when it came out on DVD I jumped at the chance of owning it. As a huge fan of P&P I did have some misgivings about the whole thing. I certainly didn’t think that they could improve on things and they had many opportunities to ruin the whole thing! Fortunately the director is a great Austen fan so it seemed to be in safe hands. There were many funny moments as Amanda Price attempted to fit in with early 19th century society – failing completely of course! She was just too modern and had problems controlling her use of modern idiom and a modicum of swearing. She was inevitably far too independently minded to stand for the way women were treated back then and, again inevitably, caused a degree of scandal – especially in Mrs Bennet’s eyes. Mr Bennet, after the initial shock, quite took to her which I thought was rather cool. I loved the way Amanda caused confusion by referring to Darcy as “OK, but no Colin Firth” and, much later on convincing him to walk out of the lake in riding boots and a flowing white shirt described it as a “wonderfully post-modern moment”. Briefly back in the present she asks her best friend to join her back in the 19th century. Being black, and being aware that such a thing would not no unremarked back then, she turns Amanda’s offer down. “Anyway”, she said “I can’t live without my phone, toilet paper or chocolate” to which Amanda replies “Oh, but they have chocolate!” Finally there was my favourite comment of the show – spoken by the much changed Mr Wickham. Whilst dressing Amanda in Paris finery she remarks “But aren’t we at war with France?” to which he replies “We are always at war with France, but never at war with Paris”. OK, it does sound a little corny but in context it was very funny.

Whilst not exactly anywhere as good as the original – what could be – this was a fun 3 hours in the company of people who loved Austen. Particular accolades go to the great Hugh Bonneville who played Mr Bennet as someone I’d love to spend an evening with in his library/study and the intriguing Mr Wickham played by Tom Riley. Definitely one for Austen fans unless you’re something of a purist – in which case you might have some serious issues!   

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Speaking of Steampunk.....

Buyers of Che Guevara T-shirts to undergo basic education in irony

From NewsBiscuit.Com

The Government announced today that people who wear T-shirts adorned with the image of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara will be compelled by law to undergo a re-education programme in a bid to help them understand the irony of their choice of apparel.

‘Many of the people buying these T-shirts simply don’t know any better and it’s right that we try to help them,’ said a government spokesman. ‘Focusing on basic history and the concept of irony, the course will address the key thinking deficits that inspired this inexplicable purchase.’ Those buying Guevara T-shirts will be required to attend a course where participants will be streamed according to their level of ignorance. ‘Sadly there are some who assume that Guevara was an ethnic-looking rock singer from before their time,’ continued the spokesman. ‘They have the furthest to travel, and we’ll ease them in gently with introductory modules such as ‘Communism for beginners’ and ‘Who was that beardy guy anyway?’’

For the marginally more informed who bought the garment to show solidarity with socialist causes, the course will principally focus on developing a proper sense of irony. Exercises will include group discussions on topics such as ‘If Guevara was still alive, what would he think about his image being commodified on a sweat-shop produced T-shirt?’ and ‘The importance of dressing well while planning for collectivist agrarian reform’.

‘Finally,’ added the spokesman, ‘those who claim to wear a Guevara T-shirt as apostmodernist statement will be spared the training course and will instead be set upon by a group of hunger-crazed militant Marxists before being ordered to sign the Pretentious Smartarse Register for the next ten years.’ But the government accepts that even after extensive training some buyers of Guevara T-shirts may still not get it. ‘Irony is a difficult thing to grasp. So those still none-the-wiser will be subject to the same fate as befell Cuban political dissidents at the hands of Guevara, and will be summarily executed by firing squad. That should help them understand.’

[As someone who, from time to time, wears one of these T-shirts I thought this was frankly hilarious. Thanks to CQ for pointing it out to me.]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Steampunk’d edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H Greenberg

It’s rare – you may have noticed – for me to read short stories. I’ve read quite a few over the years and some of them have been very good indeed. However, the short story is an art form that is difficult to master. In a novel the author has the space and the time to develop character, plot and a whole lot else. Of course the danger with a novel is that the author gets too relaxed and flabby or tries to put everything including the kitchen sink into the narrative. The short story in contrast is very restrictive and demands tight plotting, succinct characterisation or a well presented immediately enticing idea.

This slim volume contained 14 short stories of Steampunk. For those unfamiliar with this SF sub-genre you can think of it as the Victorian version of Cyberpunk. Of course if you’re unfamiliar with Cyberpunk that whole allusion would have been lost on you. Suffice it to say that Steampunk stories take place in a world where there was an explosion of technology in the mid-19th century and where future generations depend on variations of steam, clockwork and airships. I’ve read a few Steampunk novels in the past and thought that they had some interesting ideas but usually failed to deliver. It was about time, I thought, to get back in the dirigible and give it another try. Despite several of the stories in this volume being good I found myself generally disappointed. The attraction to me of Cyberpunk was that the majority of the plot takes place at street level. Gibson himself said something about the genre being about technology used by ‘punks’ in ways that had never been thought of by its designers. I was much less interested in the lives of the rich and shameless using their tech to control the world. My heart, and sympathies, was always with the hackers and bandits living and fighting in the cracks between the mega-corporations. Unfortunately this volume was far too much top-down looking rather than my preferred bottom-up. Basically there was plenty of steam but very few punks. Even as an introduction to the genre I’d feel disappointed. It didn’t have the down and dirty earthiness I was expecting. Maybe the stories were just too new, written by present day authors climbing onto the Steampunk bandwagon. Whatever the reason I didn’t find what I wanted from this collection. Maybe I’ll have better luck with some of the other collections I’ve subsequently picked up or, possibly more likely, in the longer novels. Not really recommended.     

Monday, August 08, 2011

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of The Samurai – The Way of Japan’s Elite Warriors by Jonathan Clements

I have been fascinated with stories of the Samurai for as long back as I can remember. These tales of amazing courage, skill and dedication couldn’t fail to move me and move me they did. The philosophy of Bushido – the Way of the Sword or the Way of the Warrior – was something almost mystical to aspire to. Over the years I’ve read a few books about certain aspects of the Samurai and their code so it came as no surprise that I instantly picked up this book on our recent visit to the Hay Book Festival and it’s no surprise that I read it so quickly afterwards. [As an aside it also alerted me to a whole series of Brief History books that I’ve started acquiring.]

I think what surprised me so much about this book is that the reality of the centuries of internecine warfare was so different to the legendary stories. In the seemingly interminable squabbles, feuds, uprisings and reprisals that characterised Medieval Japan I saw precious little sign of the Samurai virtues I had expected. Even their highest ideal of loyalty to their leader or Emperor was apparently open to interpretation and often, it seems, interpreted in a way that those seeking power acted in the way they needed to in order to take it. Although they often rushed directly at their enemies on the open battlefield calling out their names and ancestry to find a suitable opponent, they were not above killing their enemies by stealth, deception and the breaking of oaths. They certainly saw themselves as a cut above the ordinary soldier so, not unsurprisingly, hated the introduction of firearms which enabled a poorly trained peasant to kill a Samurai who had spent his whole life training with sword and bow. Such was the power of the Samurai in Japanese society that, after some years of being on the receiving end of matchlocks and later flintlocks, firearms of all types where first highly restricted and eventually banned from use.

Such halting of technological development and use became much easier when the ports were closed to foreigners and the country entered into a strange period of stasis. Despite efforts by the major European powers to open trade with Japan it was not until the advent of steam ships and the consequent need for coaling stations throughout the Pacific Rim that prompted the American Navy to force open negotiations with the Japanese at gun point. Of course after that everything changed though by this point the Samurai themselves had been in serious decline for some considerable time.

I did struggle a little bit with this generally readable history of an interesting but rather strange military elite. Above all else, I think, I just couldn’t keep track of the people’s names – especially when they intermarried, adopted and took on different family names. It was all rather confusing despite the author’s best efforts. Also, despite the fact that this was, inevitably, a book filled with battles I did find it a bit tedious to read about so many! Apart from that I did enjoy having my rather naïve preconceptions put right and being made aware of what really happened during a fascinating period in the history of, at least in my opinion, one of the strangest places on Earth.      

Saturday, August 06, 2011

"Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life."

Lord Acton in The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877)

Damn! I was betting on the Gherkin!

Cold, Lonely Planets More Common Than Sun-Like Stars

By Christopher Dombrowski for Wired News

May 19, 2011

Seems like every week astronomers find a new exoplanet, one that’s the biggest or the smallest or the hottest or most habitable. However, this week astronomers are announcing a truly unique and new class of exoplanets: Jupiter sized planets that are in extremely large orbits or completely unbound from a host star altogether. And there appear to be a lot of them, as these planets seem to be more common than main sequence stars.

 Finding a planet that is not associated with a star is no easy task. In the new search, a team of researchers used a technique called gravitational microlensing. As you look at a background field of stars, if an object passes between you and one of the stars, there will be a temporary brightening of that star. This occurs as the gravity of the object bends light around itself, which acts as a lens for light from the background star, hence “gravitational lensing.” Microlensing occurs when the foreground object is too small to create measurable distortion of the background star and only a brightening is observed. This makes it an ideal detector for small, dim objects. The mass of the lensing object determines the duration of the brightening event—the longer the duration, the more massive. A Jupiter-sized object would produce lensing event with a duration of around one day. The odds of a microlensing event occurring are exceedingly small, as the lensing object has to line up exactly between you and the background star. To compensate, astronomers looked at 50 millions of stars over several years, which yielded 474 microlensing events. Out of those 474, 10 had durations of less than two days, consistent with a Jupiter mass object.

No host stars were observed within 10 astronomical units of the lensing object. Previous work from The Gemini Planet Imager had set limits of the population of Jupiter-sized planets in extended orbits. From that data, the astronomers were able to estimate that 75 percent of their observed planets were most likely not bound to a host star at all, and are instead loose within the Galaxy. By creating a galactic mass density model that takes into account this new class of object, astronomers were able to predict how many of these unbound planets there might be. They found that there are ~1.8 times as many unbound Jupiter-sized object as there are main sequence stars in our Galaxy. This raises a number of questions. Did these planets from near a star only to be ejected from the system? And if they truly have never been bound to any stars, do these planets represent a new planetary formation process? In any case, these observations have discovered a whole new population of Jupiter-sized planets in the Milky Way, and there are a lot of them.

I wonder if these new planets are like our Jupiter and, like our Jupiter, have moons which are geologically active and warm. If so, these new planets may have significantly increased the number of places that life may exist.

[So the possible number of environments where life may exist has just increased again. I’m confident that it’s just a matter of when we find it rather than if…..]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Witchling by Yasmine Galenorn

Three sisters, all half-elf, one half-witch, one half-shapeshifter and one half-vampire are employed by the Otherworld Intelligence Agency (I kid you not) to keep an eye on things Earthside. Humanity is still getting used to having real, live supernatural creatures walk amongst them and things could get all too easily out of hand. Already several anti-otherworld organisations have sprung up and are causing trouble. But deep in the Under-realm things are stirring. There’s a new demon in town who is fast becoming top dog in that most deadly of environments. He’s out for ultimate power and intends to join all three realms together as his personal playground. To do this he needs nine keys to open the portals between the worlds letting the army he has amassed wreak havoc – unless the sisters can stop him.

So, is anyone else channelling ‘Charmed’ here? Apart from the author that is. For a while I was definitely cutting her some slack. It’s her first novel I thought (it wasn’t) or she’s writing it for a young teen audience (presumably not from the several fairly explicit sex scenes). By about the half way mark I’d pretty much given up hope that things would improve – and hopefully not get any worse. They didn’t – either way. This was cliché piled on cliché, poor characterisation, terrible dialogue and a barely rational plot. Just about the only reason I finished it at all was that it was so vacuous that it required almost no effort to read. Unfortunately I already have the next two books in the series (I think they were a birthday present from my Amazon Wish List – that’ll teach me!). I have doubts that I’ll get around to the next two but never say never and all that. If you want a fun, light and fast urban fantasy read I’d really pick something else. Avoid.