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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard

Stephen had always believed that his uncle, Eldritch Swan, had died during the Blitz. At least that’s what his parents had told him all these years. So he was more than a little surprised when his mother told him that his supposedly dead uncle was coming to stay with them for a while – after serving 36 years in an Irish jail for reasons unknown and unquestioned. The mystery deepens when, a few days after he arrives, a London lawyer offers him a job tracking down what happened to some missing Picasso paintings now believed to be fakes. With the aid of his younger, fitter, nephew to do all the running around Eldritch is determined to lay some of the ghosts in his past to rest - unless they decide that the past should stay buried along with Eldritch and his inquisitive nephew.

This was another of those random books I’ve been picking up in my local bookshop’s 3 for 2 offerings. It’s an ideal way to experiment with new authors or genres slightly outside of my normal reading comfort zone. Mostly I hit pay dirt. This was one of those examples. I’d never read anything by this author before but, after searching on Amazon, I discovered that he has written a considerable number of thrillers. From reading the blub on some of them it appears that a common theme is that of uncovering the past. This novel is basically split into two alternating stories. The present day – in 1976 – and the buried past – in 1940. As Eldritch reveals more and more it slowly becomes clear that his involvement in possible art theft goes much deeper and eventually explains why he spent so long in jail. Despite being just over 500 pages long the pages turned rather easily and the story hummed along at a good pace. Although I wasn’t exactly intellectually challenged at any point the story and the style were certainly entertaining enough to keep me reading late into the night on more than one occasion. This is a reasonably well written, often intriguing and highly visual thriller weaving together the desire to uncover past mysteries and the need to make things right. I have since picked up four more of the authors books and expect to be equally entertained by all of them. In no way a difficult read this should help the winter evenings pass quite nicely. Recommended.      

Monday, September 26, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Planet in a Pebble – A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz

I never thought I’d say that I’ve read an interesting (indeed often fascinating) book on Geology, but here it is. The author starts with a deceptively simple question as he picks a stone off the beach: Where did this stone come from? The simple answer would be to say that it was part of a much larger rock that fell off the cliff face onto the seashore where it rolled around in the surf for long enough to lose its rough edges and become pebble shaped. But take it back a bit further: Where did the cliff come from?

It’s then that the author takes a huge, and I do mean huge, step back in time to the origin of everything in the Big Bang – or actually some minutes after the Bang when atoms started forming. I knew at that point I was going to be in for quite a ride! Moving along quickly from the first stars (which produced most of the atoms we know and love) to the heavier atoms produced in Supernova and onto later generation stars – like our Sun – and to the formation of the Earth itself the author follows the tale of the elements that are contained within the handful of rock. He follows then through the cooling of the crust, asteroid and comet impacts (which added countless atoms not originally in this part of the accretion disk) and the eventual creation of oceans and landmasses. Then we get erosion and deposition, Continental Drift and zones where massive plates are forced deep underground to melt in the fires of the core. Close analysis of the rock gives rise to discussion of how life played its part in its creation and shaping, how sea creatures both above and on the sea floor made their individual contributions over the eons with their bodies. Anyway, you get the picture of the grandeur and the level of details we’re dealing with here – basically everything from the creation of whole planets to the impact of microscopic plankton dying in their millions. It’s certainly one hell of a narrative the author weaves just to explain the rock he’s holding in his hand. It puts things in the kind of perspective you feel when you realise for the first time that the stars twinkling in the night sky are actually suns with (probable) planets around them and the fact that the Earth has been around for around 4 billion years. It’s the wow factor.

Geology has never been my strong point. I have an appreciation of the basics of rocks and stuff but hadn’t really, until reading this book, put it all together in a way for it to make a fully coherent story. I now feel that, along with a much greater appreciation of rocks, I have at least an appreciation of where things fit together. I certainly learnt a lot reading this book and, unless you are already a jobbing geologist, I’m sure you will too.     

Saturday, September 24, 2011

As the nights draw in... be seen... be safe.....



August 19, 2009

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. -- Humans might not be walking on Earth today if not for the ancient fusing of two microscopic, single-celled organisms called prokaryotes, NASA-funded research has found.

By comparing proteins present in more than 3000 different prokaryotes
- a type of single-celled organism without a nucleus - molecular biologist James A. Lake from the University of California at Los Angeles' Center for Astrobiology showed that two major classes of relatively simple microbes fused together more than 2.5 billion years ago. Lake's research reveals a new pathway for the evolution of life on Earth. These insights are published in the Aug. 20 online edition of the journal Nature.

This endosymbiosis, or merging of two cells, enabled the evolution of a highly stable and successful organism with the capacity to use energy from sunlight via photosynthesis. Further evolution led to photosynthetic organisms producing oxygen as a byproduct. The resulting oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere profoundly affected the evolution of life, leading to more complex organisms that consumed oxygen, which were the ancestors of modern oxygen-breathing creatures including humans. "Higher life would not have happened without this event," Lake said. "These are very important organisms. At the time these two early prokaryotes were evolving, there was no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. Humans could not live. No oxygen-breathing organisms could live."

The genetic machinery and structural organization of these two organisms merged to produce a new class of prokaryotes, called double membrane prokaryotes. As they evolved, members of this double membrane class, called cyanobacteria, became the primary oxygen-producers on the planet, generating enough oxygen to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and set the stage for the evolution of more complex organisms such as animals and plants. "This work is a major advance in our understanding of how a group of organisms came to be that learned to harness the sun and then effected the greatest environmental change Earth has ever seen, in this case with beneficial results," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which co-funded the study with the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Founded in 1998, the NASA Astrobiology Institute is a partnership between NASA, 14 U.S. teams and six international consortia. The institute's goals are to promote, conduct, and lead interdisciplinary astrobiology research; train a new generation of astrobiology researchers; and share the excitement of astrobiology with learners of all ages. 
...and I'm Back!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Captain of Rome by John Stack

After the crushing defeat of the Carthaginian navy, Rome is confident that her forces can continue to push back the forces of Carthage and bring the whole of Sicily under its dominion. Led by a young and ambitious new Tribune the Roman fleet is ambushed due to his inexperience and almost destroyed by an act of cowardice. It is only the swift action of Captain Atticus of the flagship Aquilla that staves off total disaster. But the Tribune has powerful friends and the Greek born Atticus precious few. Vilified for his part in the abortive attack Atticus must prove himself time and again in combat against superior forces at sea and assassins on land. Meanwhile the Carthaginians are planning their most audacious attack yet – a direct assault on the city of Rome itself!

This is the second book in the trilogy surrounding the lives of the captain, crew and marines aboard the Roman trireme Aquilla. I was very impressed with the first book – which I believe was the authors first novel – and I was even more impressed by this one. Strong characterisation, a wonderful sense of time and place and, above all else, grippingly brutal sea battles kept me glued to this book. It was a deep, if rather exhausting, pleasure to read. I managed, however, to read it slowly enough so as to savour it all the more and it lasted me the best part of a week. I could probably have devoured it in a few days but the deferred gratification was all the sweeter because of the deferment. I have developed quite a ‘thing’ recently for naval warfare stories and will carry this new found passion into other works of both fact and fiction. The third, and unfortunately final, book in this trilogy is due out in hardback. If I can restrain myself (and don’t see it on special offer anywhere) I shall wait for the paperback. It will be tough to resist. There is even better news to come – John Stack has written a novel about the Spanish Armada which is due out early next year. That is most definitely something to look forward to. Long may he continue producing books of this quality of naval warfare. He has at least one dedicated fan here though I’m very confident I’m not alone in that. Highly recommended.      

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Favourite TV: Generation Kill

Generation Kill was a 7 part 2008 serialisation of the book of the same name by Evan Wright who was an embedded reporter with 1st Recon Marines as they entered Iraq during Gulf War Mk 2. Told from the point of view of the grunts on the ground this was a visceral experience of long periods of deep boredom peppered by short periods of terror as both enemy and friendly bullets and bombs came their way. The squad, held together by Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert (played amazingly by Alexander Skarsgard), fight their way through IED’s, enemy snipers and their own commanders often glory fuelled incompetence. Their main preoccupation, apart from some seriously off-key singing and off-colour humour, is simply to stay alive long enough to get sent home once their tour is over. This proves easier said than done in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

I liked this so much when they showed it on late night cable TV that I bought the DVD box-set when it came out. Although probably toned down from reality it was gritty enough and seemingly realistic enough to feel incredibly fresh. The chaos of war was portrayed beautifully again and again as random events, sometimes resulting in equally random death, happened wherever the camera pointed. American troops, never really know for their fire control, seemed ready to gun down people just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – sometimes for ‘something to do’ or just to have a ‘kill’ against their name. The deep cynicism about their commanders, who seemed to have little or do appreciation of what they were asking their troops to do, pervaded the whole series. This was only counteracted by the even deeper loyalty to each other – even the fuck-ups in their own Humvee’s. You don’t have to read between the lines to realise that this was a severe and telling criticism of the whole Iraq adventure while at the same time showing an admiration and an understanding of the grunts tasked to implement highly questionable policy decisions made thousands of miles away. This series is very much not for the faint of heart. As the warning clearly says on the back of the DVD box: Contains strong language, violence, sex references and real corpses. If you haven’t seen it before and haven’t been put off by that I can highly recommend this to you. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy it – it’s not that kind of TV – but I don’t think that you’ll forget it anytime soon. Oh, and definitely watch the interview with the real 1st Recon Marines (some of whom played themselves in the series). It’s an eye-opener.     

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Future?

Report: Weapons Manufacturers 'Lost' More Than 16,000 Guns over Two Years

by Jordy Yager

Sunday, September 4, 2011

More than 16,000 guns were “lost” from gun manufacturers’ inventories over the last two years, according to a report by a gun control advocacy group. The report, released by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, pulled data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and found that 16,485 guns left the inventories of nearly 4,500 licensed gun manufacturers throughout the country without a record of them ever being sold. In 2004 Congress passed the Tiahrt amendment – named for its sponsor then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas) – which prohibited the ATF from requiring gun manufacturers to track their inventory. The Brady Campaign has long advocated for a repeal of the Tiahrt amendment. “It is shocking that gun makers are so oblivious to public safety that they lose track of thousands of guns every year,” said Dennis Henigan, the acting president of the Brady Center. “Given the lethality of its product, the gun industry has a special duty to act responsibly. Instead, it has a scandalous record of carelessness.”

The report states that the unaccounted for guns are often used in crimes because a trace of the weapon is not as likely to lead law enforcement officials back to the criminal. “This lack of any security or inventory requirement for gun manufacturers and dealers makes it easy for gun sellers to claim falsely that firearms they have sold illegally and “off-the-books,” were lost or stolen,” the report states. “Firearms that disappear from gun manufacturers’ plants without records of sale are frequently trafficked by gun traffickers and prized by criminals. Guns taken from gun manufacturing plants may also be removed before they have been stamped with serial numbers, making them virtually untraceable.” The report was not able to identify which specific gun manufacturers had the greatest number of missing guns. The Brady Center released the report in the wake of an internal shakeup within the ATF and the Justice Department.

Three top officials, including the acting head of the ATF Kenneth Melson, left their positions as a result of their role in the botched Fast and Furious gun tracking operation, which attempted to sell thousands of guns to known and suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels. But officials declined to provide the weapons and their buyers with adequate surveillance, allowing the guns to flow into the hands of criminals on both sides of the border. The ATF has been without a Senate confirmed director since 2006 largely because of lobbying efforts by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which views some of the agency’s power as an infringement on Second Amendment rights.

[Maybe Sarah Conner is stockpiling them for Judgement Day?]

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Just Finished Reading: XPD by Len Deighton

In the closing days of WW2 the US forces stumble upon a secret cache of priceless art and other items hidden away by retreating German forces. Tempted by the gold and cash they were carrying a group of American soldiers ‘lose’ 3 of the trucks and disappear into the night. Years later they have each become successful businessmen with links to a Swiss bank holding millions in gold. But one of the treasures held in the bank can not be measured in its dollar valuation. For amongst the currency and bearer bonds is a set of Top Secret minutes of a meeting that might have changed the course of world history. Attended by only four people in England’s darkest hour it revealed a secret so devastating that any knowledge of it could wreck the reputation of whole countries. To stop this happening the British Secret Service have been ordered to treat anyone they even suspect of knowing about the documents as enemies of the State and to implement directive XPD – Expedient Demise.

This is a solid Cold War thriller that pits expendable members of the Secret Intelligence Service against ruthless Soviet agents both in Europe and in the USA. It’s fairly fast paced, rather convoluted to say the least, full of good characters and had a generally believable idea underlying the whole thing (though the details of the meeting minutes were frankly ridiculous). I’ve read a few Deighton novels over the years and have always found them reliable page turners. Whilst not exactly high literature they are guaranteed to entertain in the same way that Ian Fleming entertains. It’s all very believable – with a small pinch of salt – and all very down to Earth. No fancy gadgets, no super villains just fairly ordinary people charged to undertake difficult and dangerous tasks. They are foot soldiers in a war too large for them to comprehend directly especially when their own bosses keep them in the dark as to exactly why they have been tasked to do the things they have been told to do. Gritty, realistic and fun. If you enjoy a classic spy story you’ll certainly enjoy this!   

Monday, September 05, 2011

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of The Vikings – The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? by Jonathan Clements

I have a ‘thing’ about warrior cultures as well as an interest in Vikings dating back to my childhood. Indeed it’s probably quite likely that I have some Viking genes kicking around my DNA (OK probably along with a lot of other Europeans) as they settled in the part of Ireland my Father was from – at least that’s what the romantic side of me thinks anyway.

But to the book itself….. Interestingly he doesn’t start with the usual introduction of the Viking Age with the attack on the monastery on Lindisfarne. He starts much further back in Roman times when there are apparent reports of Viking style raids on the East coast. Rather inevitably after the Romans left the raids increased and, from time to time, sometimes they stayed. As you might expect they never actually called themselves Vikings – indeed no one at the time called them that. Like many things to do with English history it was a term invented by the Victorians. But whatever they called themselves they came from Scandinavia sometimes as traders (AKA spies) and sometimes as raiders – especially when times were hard back home. They both raided and traded throughout Europe – all over England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, France (Normandy being named after them of course) and as far East as Russia. Apparently they tried to raid further East in the Arab lands but got their assess handed to them – although ironically they were sort after as mercenaries by various sultans. From bases in Iceland they sailed West discovering and occupying Greenland (presumably much greener back then) and more famously Vinland AKA Newfoundland where they had issues with the Native Americans – always a fascinating Alternative History jumping off point.  They most certainly got around. But where they most interested me and fed my ever growing interest in English history was how the Viking colonisation impacted on it. Of course this ended in 1066 with Harold Godwinson fighting the successful battle at Stamford Bridge followed by the much less successful one near Hastings. William the Bastard (later William the Conqueror) was of course a descendent of Vikings who had settled in Normandy.

I found this book very enjoyable indeed. Not only was it on a subject that I have long been interested in, the style of the writing was engaging with lots of interesting information that was new to me. Unlike the recent book on the Samurai I was able to keep track of most of the various characters in the book though I admit it helped to have heard of a fair few of them before. If you are interested in early European history in general or the Vikings in particular this is definitely the book for you. Recommended. 

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sorry Kids......
Cool Stars Have Different Mix of Life-Forming Chemicals


April 7, 2009

Life on Earth is thought to have arisen from a hot soup of chemicals. Does this same soup exist on planets around other stars? A new study from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope hints that planets around stars cooler than our sun might possess a different mix of potentially life-forming, or "prebiotic," chemicals.
Astronomers used Spitzer to look for a prebiotic chemical, called hydrogen cyanide, in the planet-forming material swirling around different types of stars. Hydrogen cyanide is a component of adenine, which is a basic element of DNA. DNA can be found in every living organism on Earth.

The researchers detected hydrogen cyanide molecules in disks circling yellow stars like our sun -- but found none around cooler and smaller stars, such as the reddish-colored "M-dwarfs" and "brown dwarfs" common throughout the universe. "Prebiotic chemistry may unfold differently on planets around cool stars," said Ilaria Pascucci, lead author of the new study from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. The study will appear in the April 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Young stars are born inside cocoons of dust and gas, which eventually flatten to disks. Dust and gas in the disks provide the raw material from which planets form. Scientists think the molecules making up the primordial ooze of life on Earth might have formed in such a disk. Prebiotic molecules, such as adenine, are thought to have rained down to our young planet via meteorites that crashed on the surface. "It is plausible that life on Earth was kick-started by a rich supply of molecules delivered from space," said Pascucci. Could the same life-generating steps take place around other stars? Pascucci and her colleagues addressed this question by examining the planet-forming disks around 17 cool and 44 sun-like stars using Spitzer's infrared spectrograph, an instrument that breaks light apart, revealing signatures of chemicals. The stars are all about one to three million years old, an age when planets are thought to be growing. The astronomers specifically looked for ratios of hydrogen cyanide to a baseline molecule, acetylene. They found that the cool stars, both the M-dwarf stars and brown dwarfs, showed no hydrogen cyanide at all, while 30 percent of the sun-like stars did. "Perhaps ultraviolet light, which is much stronger around the sun-like stars, may drive a higher production of the hydrogen cyanide," said Pascucci.

The team did detect their baseline molecule, acetylene, around the cool stars, demonstrating that the experiment worked. This is the first time that any kind of molecule has been spotted in the disks around cool stars. The findings have implications for planets that have recently been discovered around M-dwarf stars. Some of these planets are thought to be large versions of Earth, the so-called super Earths, but so far none of them are believed to orbit in the habitable zone, where water would be liquid. If such a planet is discovered, could it sustain life?

Astronomers aren't sure. M-dwarfs have extreme magnetic outbursts that could be disruptive to developing life. But, with the new Spitzer results, they have another piece of data to consider: these planets might be deficient in hydrogen cyanide, a molecule thought to have eventually become a part of us. Said Douglas Hudgins, the Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington, "Although scientists have long been aware that the tumultuous nature of many cool stars might present a significant challenge for the development of life, this result begs an even more fundamental question: Do cool star systems even contain the necessary ingredients for the formation of life? If the answer is no then questions about life around cool stars become moot."

Other authors include Daniel Apai of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.; Kevin Luhman of Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Thomas Henning and Jeroen Bouwman of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany; Michael Meyer of the University of Arizona, Tucson; Fred Lahuis of the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, the Netherlands; and Antonella Natta of the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, Italy.

[Interesting. Does this mean that cool stars, without a building block of DNA, would be surrounded by lifeless planets or could they contain life not based on DNA? One day we might find out…..]

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Say It With Bullets by Richard Powell

Bill Wayne is back in the States and looking for his friends. Five years previously they had left him for dead, shot in the back, bleeding out his life on an airfields tarmac. Now freshly arrived from China he is shot at from the dark and is convinced that his ex-friends want him dead before he tracks them down. As cover he signs up with a tour company travelling from Cheyenne to Salt Lake City and from Reno to Yosemite. At each stop he finds a ‘friend’ and at each stop a ‘friend’ dies – but not at his hand. For someone is dogging his every move and killing his ex-friends before he can find out who shot him all those years ago. To add to his ever present worries Bill has become attached to the tour guide, a girl from his past who he had all but forgotten. Before their journey ends it’s likely that one of them will end up dead. The question is who and when.

Written in 1953 this was a pretty good example of noir fiction complete with a fast pace, snappy dialogue (some of which was frankly hilarious) and some pretty good action sequences. Although there was nothing particularly innovative or outstanding about this novel but it was solidly entertaining from beginning to end. It was certainly one of the better examples of the Hard Case Crime series (which actually isn’t saying very much) and might suit someone either new to noir fiction or someone looking for a weekend of light reading. Generally recommended.