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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Thinking About: Consumerism

I came to the opinion some time ago that the idea of consumerism is one of, if not actually the definitively, stupidest ideas that humanity has ever come up with. Yes, it’s even more stupid than religion – and that’s saying something. The thought that a persons primary role in life is to consume the fruits of industrial capitalism, with everything else as garnish, honestly disgusts me. I feel like standing in the middle of a shopping centre and shouting “I am not a consumer, I am a free man!” The concept of consumerism is, I think, directly responsible for the deep shit the world finds itself in – both economically and environmentally. We are being constantly extolled to buy more stuff we don’t need with money we simply don’t have. The only way to finance this is to borrow money against the future in the hope that there will be enough money in the future to pay for it all. Well guess what – there isn’t, hence the problems, the unemployment and the deepening crisis we’re in. The whole system depends, so we are told, on ‘consumer confidence’. In other words, if you feel it’s OK to go out tomorrow and buy that new car then everything will be fine and we can go on as before until the end of time. What an incredibly stupid way to run a planets economy. Did someone, or groups of someone’s, really sit down and think up this idea and expect it to work in the real world? Our economies are based on the abilities of businesses and governments to convince us that everything is OK enough for us to keep spending with confidence. The moment that spell is broken, and we look around us and see the reality of the situation, the whole system is irretrievably fucked. Guess what sports fans? Apart from those with their heads in the sand (or elsewhere) and those with their fingers in their ears, singing “la, la, la, I’m not listening” ever louder every day, everyone else realises that the system is well and truly broken. The efforts – from quantitative easing and other equally bizarre sounding initiatives – to ‘stabilise the markets’ aren’t working because more and more people are waking up to the fact that capitalism (or whatever system we’re actually living with at the moment) is inherently designed in its very fabric to make the rich even richer and to work the rest of us to death to pay for it all. Some of the proposed measures to ‘save the system’ could hardly be more blatant – tax cuts for the rich (they are after all the job creators of society) and pay freezes or cuts for the rest of us (you know – the ones who actually work in their factories and their offices making the actual money). To save an already broken system they honestly propose making the divide between rich and poor even larger than it already is. At least they could offer to kiss us before we get repeatedly fucked. The world wide protests against the capitalist colossus should not have come as any surprise to commentators who have witnessed the growing desperation of an increasingly impoverished population. When backs are against the wall the only option – if you don’t want to just lay down and give in – is to fight back. What good it will do is hard to tell. These are early days and it’s very difficult to predict tomorrow’s headlines especially these days. We have already seen some of the so-called free nations responses to understandable frustration and anger at austerity measures aimed at them to pay for the mistakes of the banks and other institutions that are walking away from the disaster with bonuses intact. The cynical part of me knows that history shows that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The more optimistic part of me wonders if it must always be so.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

NASA's Spitzer Spots Clump of Swirling Planetary Material


Sept. 23, 2009

PASADENA, Calif. -- Astronomers have witnessed odd behavior around a young star. Something, perhaps another star or a planet, appears to be pushing a clump of planet-forming material around. The observations, made with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, offer a rare look into the early stages of planet formation.

Planets form out of swirling disks of gas and dust. Spitzer observed infrared light coming from one such disk around a young star, called LRLL 31, over a period of five months. To the astronomers' surprise, the light varied in unexpected ways, and in as little time as one week. Planets take millions of years to form, so it's rare to see anything change on time scales we humans can perceive. One possible explanation is that a close companion to the star -- either a star or a developing planet -- could be shoving planet-forming material together, causing its thickness to vary as it spins around the star.

"We don't know if planets have formed, or will form, but we are gaining a better understanding of the properties and dynamics of the fine dust that could either become, or indirectly shape, a planet," said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. Muzerolle is first author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "This is a unique, real-time glimpse into the lengthy process of building planets."

One theory of planet formation suggests that planets start out as dusty grains swirling around a star in a disk. They slowly bulk up in size, collecting more and more mass like sticky snow. As the planets get bigger and bigger, they carve out gaps in the dust, until a so-called transitional disk takes shape with a large doughnut-like hole at its center. Over time, this disk fades and a new type of disk emerges, made up of debris from collisions between planets, asteroids and comets. Ultimately, a more settled, mature solar system like our own forms. Before Spitzer was launched in 2003, only a few transitional disks with gaps or holes were known. With Spitzer's improved infrared vision, dozens have now been found. The space telescope sensed the warm glow of the disks and indirectly mapped out their structures.

Muzerolle and his team set out to study a family of young stars, many with known transitional disks. The stars are about two to three million years old and about 1,000 light-years away, in the IC 348 star-forming region of the constellation Perseus. A few of the stars showed surprising hints of variations. The astronomers followed up on one, LRLL 31, studying the star over five months with all three of Spitzer's instruments. The observations showed that light from the inner region of the star's disk changes every few weeks, and, in one instance, in only one week. "Transition disks are rare enough, so to see one with this type of variability is really exciting," said co-author Kevin Flaherty of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Both the intensity and the wavelength of infrared light varied over time. For instance, when the amount of light seen at shorter wavelengths went up, the brightness at longer wavelengths went down, and vice versa. Muzerolle and his team say that a companion to the star, circling in a gap in the system's disk, could explain the data. "A companion in the gap of an almost edge-on disk would periodically change the height of the inner disk rim as it circles around the star: a higher rim would emit more light at shorter wavelengths because it is larger and hot, but at the same time, the high rim would shadow the cool material of the outer disk, causing a decrease in the longer-wavelength light. A low rim would do the opposite. This is exactly what we observe in our data," said Elise Furlan, a co-author from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The companion would have to be close in order to move the material around so fast -- about one-tenth the distance between Earth and the sun. The astronomers plan to follow up with ground-based telescopes to see if a companion is tugging on the star hard enough to be perceived. Spitzer will also observe the system again in its "warm" mission to see if the changes are periodic, as would be expected with an orbiting companion. Spitzer ran out of coolant in May of this year, and is now operating at a slightly warmer temperature with two infrared channels still functioning.

"For astronomers, watching anything in real-time is exciting," said Muzerolle. "It's like we're biologists getting to watch cells grow in a petri dish, only our specimen is light-years away."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The History of Life – A Very Short Introduction by Michael J Benton

Even I’m thinking that I should be reading science based books other than from the, actually excellent, VSI Series. Anyway we are were we are [grin].

As the book covers the last 4 billion years of life on Earth in 166 pages you would be correct if you referred to it as a bit of a romp. Rather sensibly the author decided to hit the highlights, or rather the turning points, in evolution starting naturally with the origin of life itself. Of course we know very little about this – or at least there is little confirmed knowledge of the event (or more likely series of events) – so he’s forced to speculate. After that he moves onto the more understood origin of that most important aspect of life – sex. The sharing of genes and the subsequent explosion in variation greatly increased the speed of evolution and the diversification of all types of life. The next highlight was the origin of skeletons. An internal support structure allowed larger creatures to appear and laid the ground work (pun intended) for the next leap forward – the invasion of the land. The author then moved onto flight before exploring several of the mass extinctions that seem to periodically almost wipe the slate clean. They are deeply fascinating events and, if the figures hold up, we may in fact be living through another mass extinction event right now. The last two chapters covered the rise of modern ecosystems – in the form that most of us would recognise and, rather inevitably, ended with the origin of humans.

This was very much an introduction to a very large subject indeed and, because of the shortness of the book reduced to giving the reader flavours and hints of things to follow up in further, deeper, reading. Life on Earth is something you could quite easily study for the rest of your life so you really shouldn’t expect that this book would be enough to learn very much from – except maybe what a huge subject it is. If you are new to this area then use this book as an eye-opener. If you haven’t studied this subject use it as a refresher course. Those who already have significant knowledge of this area should use it as a pleasant way to spend a few hours rather like listening to a well know piece of music enjoying it for its familiarity as much as for anything else. Recommended.   

Monday, October 24, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Classical Mythology – A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales

I have been interested and often fascinated by Myth for as long as I can remember. I think I grew up hearing about and then reading about Norse and Greek myths before I knew exactly what they were or what they meant. I’m guessing that’s something else I can thank my father for.

This excellent little volume isn’t one of those that retells or catalogues the myths of the ancient world. There are certainly enough of those around and the already crowded market doesn’t need another. What this well written, thoughtful and sometimes surprising book does is look at where myth comes from, what it means to those who create it – and live inside it – and how it shaped both the ancient and the modern world. Starting with the Greek myth of Europa the author shows how the original Greek tale has been modified, reinterpreted and used by political movements (and others) as a metaphorical social glue to advance their idea of Europe – both to its inhabitants and to the rest of the world. Of course myths have always been pliable, able to be moulded to the needs of those who would seek to use them to influence others or simply to make money (from, for example, Hollywood blockbusters). Purists protest at this lack of ‘mythological correctness’ but variations on a theme has always played its part in classical mythology. After all they have come down to us literally by word of mouth and no one version can be viewed as ‘gospel’. Without giving a synopsis of the whole book I’d have to focus on several chapters I found particularly interesting. One was on heroes which are a particular interest of mine at the moment in which the author digs deep into what makes and, of equal importance, what does not make someone a hero. The other was on sex and sexuality in classical myth (quite a lot as anyone who has read Greek mythology will know) and how this has often been covered up – quite literally in the many mythic paintings adorning the walls of galleries around the world – and how the often sanitised versions presented today make much less sense compared to the original unexpurgated versions.

If you already have a passing knowledge of classical myth this is definitely the book for you. It will most certainly help you, as it helped me, to interpret things a little more clearly. If you are new to the world of myth it will definitely whet your appetite for a deeper knowledge of the subject. Recommended.       

Saturday, October 22, 2011

V for Vendetta masks: Who's behind them?

From The BBC

20 October 2011

From New York, to London, to Sydney, to Cologne, to Bucharest, there has been a wave of protests against politicians, banks and financial institutions. Anybody watching coverage of the demonstrations may have been struck by a repeated motif - a strangely stylised mask of Guy Fawkes with a moustache and pointy beard. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange arrived at the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest to make a speech wearing one of these masks. He took it off, reportedly at the insistence of the police. They were thought to have been used first by the notorious hacker-activist group Anonymous in 2008 during a protest against Scientology, but have since spread throughout the global protest movement.

The masks are from the 2006 film V for Vendetta where one is worn by an enigmatic lone anarchist who, in the graphic novel on which it is based, uses Fawkes as a role model in his quest to end the rule of a fictional fascist party in the UK. Early in the book V destroys the Houses of Parliament by blowing it up, something Fawkes had planned and failed to do in 1605. British graphic novel artist David Lloyd is the man who created the original image of the mask for a comic strip written by Alan Moore. Lloyd compares its use by protesters to the way Alberto Korda's famous photograph of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara became a fashionable symbol for young people across the world. "The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny - and I'm happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way," he says. A curious Lloyd visited the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, New York, to have a look at some of the people wearing his mask. "My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism - V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system." The film of V for Vendetta ends with an image of a crowd of Londoners all wearing Guy Fawkes masks, unarmed and marching on parliament. It is that image of collective identification and simultaneous anonymity that is appealing to Anonymous and other groups, says Rich Johnston, a commentator on the world of comics. The widespread adoption of the masks was definitely a reaction to the film rather than the book, he argues. "The book is about one man bringing down the state but the film includes a scene of a huge crowd - making a statement against a faceless corporation."

"The masks were useful for the Scientology protests because it prevented individuals from being recognised," he adds. Lloyd said that when he and writer Moore created the character of V they had a basic idea of an urban guerrilla fighting a fascist dictatorship but wanted to inject more theatricality into the story. The mask is bought even in countries where Guy Fawkes is not such a well-known figure "We knew that V was going to be an escapee from a concentration camp where he had been subjected to medical experiments but then I had the idea that in his craziness he would decide to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes - our great historical revolutionary."

The masks were originally made by Warner Bros to promote the film and were handed out at screenings. Now they are being sold to everyone from activists to fancy dress enthusiasts. Rubies Costume Company, which makes the mask, sells around 100,000 a year worldwide, and 16,000 in the UK, according to spokesman Steve Kitt, who seems a little concerned that any association with activists might harm the company's image. Rubies is dismissive of the idea that Anonymous and other protesters have fuelled demand for the mask, saying it has been successful ever since the film was released. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been associated with the V imagery Lloyd says he has already heard anecdotes about police in the US searching for the masks in people's houses to be used as evidence of involvement with Anonymous hacker attacks, "which is scary but also ridiculous - you wouldn't prosecute someone for having a t-shirt with Che or CND on it".

Johnston is just back from the New York Comic Con and recalls one incident where a group of V for Vendetta fans, dressed as their hero, unwittingly wandered into the Occupy Wall Street protest and were mistaken for protesters by the police. Paul Staines, who blogs under the name of Guido Fawkes, said he finds it ironic that anti-capitalist, anti-corporation activists are inadvertently supporting Warner Bros - one of America's 100 biggest companies with profits last year of £1.6bn - by buying the masks. He thinks the widespread use of the mask "signifies a loss of trust in politics - Guy Fawkes is the most anti-political figure you can pick". One Anonymous member camping out in the shadow of London's St Paul's Cathedral said she was with a group of 15 people and planned to stay for "as long as necessary". She said that she and others had been wearing the masks, not only to protect their identity but also because it has become a symbol of the movement against corporate greed. "It's a visual thing, it sets us apart from the hippies and the socialists and gives us our own identity. We're about bypassing governments and starting from the bottom." Johnston sees the mask as fundamentally a violent image. "It's not a symbol of passive resistance but a symbol of active terrorism - it's about bringing down a government and a country and that could be quite scary and alienating to some people." The idea of the V mask being appropriated as a political symbol is inherently ridiculous, he suggests. "It's like assuming you can bring down a government using a light sabre or a He-Man sword."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn

Will Swyfte is a national hero. Stories are written about him in the penny dreadfuls that circulate on the streets and in the taverns all over England. People sleep safe in their beds knowing that he stands between England and her many enemies. But the propaganda hero is only half the story. If England knew of the other half there would be Hell to pay. Will is in the employ of England’s greatest Spymaster – Sir Francis Walshingham. Dedicated to protect England from enemies both foreign and domestic he uses whatever methods he has at his disposal to protect the country and the newly installed Queen Elizabeth. Things are looking grim when the Spanish plan to invade and conquer England is uncovered. Elizabeth’s treasury is empty of gold and most of Europe is dedicated to her downfall. But even greater dangers are abroad in the night. England faces an enemy far more dangerous than the might of the Spanish Armada – a vicious and unfeeling enemy who has prayed on humanity since the dawn of time and who have decided that the English must be expunged from the world forever: The Fey. When Walshingham learns of a new super-weapon that the Fey intend turning over to the Spanish he sets Will and the other spies privy to the secret war within a war to stop it falling into their enemies hands – but how do you fight supernatural beings with nothing more that wits and cold steel?

I actually bought this book by accident – well sort of. I thought – from the cover and a brief glance at the synopsis – that it was another historical novel set during the reign of Elizabeth I. But it was far more than that! It was, it turned out, a historical fantasy novel which delighted me from the first page to the last. I had hoped that it would last me most of the week I recently spent at my mother’s house. I actually raced through it in 4 days, which isn’t bad for a book of just over 600 pages. Swyfte is a superb character. He reminded me a great deal of James Bond – 1588 style. With little more than a sword, quick wits and a sparkling wit (with some great one liners) he carves his way through England’s enemies despite overwhelming odds. Of course he doesn’t get his own way. His apparent cavalier attitude hides a deep wound that drives him so hard against his enemies. There where times that I found this book painful, disturbing and creepy. At other times it was uplifting, funny and down right exciting and is probably the best, or at least one of the best, fantasy books I read this year or last year come to that. The sequel is already out in paperback and the third book is out in hardback. I will definitely be reading them both – avidly! Highly recommended for anyone with a hankering for a book they won’t want to put down.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

My Favourite TV: Star Trek – Original Series

It is difficult to calculate just how important Star Trek: Original Series (ST:OS) was to me. Without it I doubt if I would be even remotely the same person I am today. In my personal mythology I credit it – and in particular Leonard Nimoy’s Spock – with quite possibly saving my life at least metaphorically if not actually. In the days I watched this show religiously, regardless if I had seen the particular episode repeatedly and could happily play any of the major roles faultlessly, my teenage emotions where in turmoil. I felt as if I was being torn apart as my adolescent brain was slowly poisoned by hormones I had no control over. I was convinced for far too long that I was going mad. My saviour was someone seemingly going through exactly the same thing - someone who struggled with strong emotions on a weekly basis and who showed how they could be tamed with logic and reason. That’s right – Spock saved my life or at least my sanity.

Feeling nostalgic of late I bought the ST:OS box-sets from Amazon and spent a happy few months watching all 79 episodes one after the other. I remembered all but one instantly. For the first 10-15 minutes I thought that I had actually missed the odd one out. Not so I discovered. It’s possible that I had simply missed the beginning or, more likely from the plot, that I had become bored and zoned out from a rather dull and plodding story mostly based in court. The rest of them however at least kept my attention which isn’t bad after repeated viewings and decades of memories piled on top. Some of them thrilled me just as much as they did back in the 70’s when I watched them on TV again and again and again. Star Trek is largely responsible – no doubt along with the numerous Gerry Anderson puppet shows – for making me a life long fan of Science Fiction (enough on its own to be grateful for I think) as well as for having a life long passion for Science and the application of reason to solve problems (thanks again Mr Spock).

One of the interesting things I found while watching the extra bits on the DVDs was just how lucky anyone was to see Star Trek. The studios hated the pilot (I could see why) but fortunately liked the next offering. In the years that followed budgets were steadily reduced and transmission times varied apparently randomly. Finally they got what they wanted and the series was cancelled part way through the third series. As with a few other cult shows the fans kept it alive in conventions and in the early Internet chat rooms. Finally we got Star Trek: The Next Generation which, overall, I was somewhat less than impressed with. For me, despite the better effects and larger budget, it never really had the presence of the original series. It did manage a few very good episodes and I liked Picard very much but he was no James T Kirk and no matter how much he tried Mr Data was no Mr Spock. I was never a fan of DS:9 but did warm to Voyager. I even, just before they canned it, started to like Enterprise. I wonder if the franchise will get a new lease of life now that the movies are packing them in. Maybe Star Trek isn’t dead quite yet. I hope not – despite its rather patchy history.    

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Happy Birthday to Seeking a Little Truth (SaLT) – Six today!

It only seems like yesterday that I posted here that this Blog was 5 years old. Well, today it’s an amazing 6 years old! How time flies when you’re having fun – and fun it has been. Actually the most fun I get – apart from the comments and conversations that grow from them – is the search for new things to post here. My aim – as always – is to amuse, inform, and sometimes at least surprise or even shock. We are all, to one degree or another, set in our ways. We read the same newspapers, watch the same shows and read the same books that we know we’ll enjoy. Few out there actively challenge their own world view. I hope that I am a little more flexible than that – though I’m aware that there are areas of knowledge that hold no interest for me or that, as far as I’m concerned, need little further investigation (or at least not right now). At least I think that I’m aware of some of my prejudices, enough at least to prevent a fall into thinking that I actually know things for certain. I remain enough of a sceptic to realise that everything I think I know could be wrong. So I remain a seeker after truth – or at least a little truth. I have enjoyed sharing some of my thoughts here so far and no doubt will enjoy doing so for much longer. Here’s to the next 6 years…..  
Cartoon Time

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Huge Stash of Surface-to-Air Missiles Missing in Libya

by Ben Wedeman and Ingrid Formanek for CNN

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya  - A potent stash of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles is missing from a huge Tripoli weapons warehouse amid reports of weapons looting across war-torn Libya. The SA-24 Grinch (Russian name Igla-S 9K338) is the latest generation of Russian portable air defense missile system. They are Grinch SA-24 shoulder-launched missiles, also known as Igla-S missiles, the equivalent of U.S.-made Stinger missiles.

A CNN team and Human Rights Watch found dozens of empty crates marked with packing lists and inventory numbers that identified the items as Igla-S surface-to-air missiles. The list for one box, for example, written in English and Russian, said it had contained two missiles, with inventory number "Missile 9M342," and a power source, inventory number "Article 9B238." Grinch SA-24s are designed to target front-line aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and drones. They can shoot down a plane flying as high as 11,000 feet and can travel 19,000 feet straight out. Fighters aligned with the National Transitional Council and others swiped armaments from the storage facility, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The warehouse is located near a base of the Khamis Brigade, a special forces unit in Gadhafi's military, in the southeastern part of the capital. The warehouse contains mortars and artillery rounds, but there are empty crates for those items as well. There are also empty boxes for another surface-to-air missile, the SA-7.

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told CNN he has seen the same pattern in armories looted elsewhere in Libya, noting that "in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles." He said such missiles can fetch many thousands of dollars on the black market. "We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya, and I've seen cars packed with them." he said. "They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone." There was no immediate comment from NTC officials. The lack of security at the weapons site raises concerns about stability in post-Gadhafi Libya and whether the new NTC leadership is doing enough to stop the weapons from getting into the wrong hands.
A NATO official, who asked to not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said 575 surface-to-air missiles, radar systems and sites or storage facilities were hit by NATO airstrikes and either damaged or destroyed between March 31 and Saturday. He didn't elaborate on the specifics about the targets.

Gen. Carter Ham, chief of U.S. Africa Command, has said he's concerned about the proliferation of weapons, most notably the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. He said there were about 20,000 in Libya when the international operation began earlier this year and many of them have not been accounted for. "That's going to be a concern for some period of time," he said in April. Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union counterterrorism coordinator, raised concerns Monday about the possibility that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, based in North Africa, could gain access to small arms, machine guns and surface-to-air missiles. Western officials worry that weapons from the storage sites will end up in the hands of militants or adversaries like Iran. The governments of neighboring Niger and Chad have both said that weapons from
Libya are already being smuggled into their countries, and they are destined for al Qaeda. They include detonators and a plastic explosive called Semtex. Chad's president said they include SA-7 missiles.

An ethnic Tuareg leader in the northern Niger city of Agadez also said many weapons have come across the border. He said he and other Tuareg leaders are anxious about Gadhafi's Tuareg fighters returning home - with their weapons - and making common cause with al Qaeda cells in the region. Gadhafi's fighting
forces have included mercenaries from other African nations. The missing weapons also conjure fears of what happened in Iraq, where people grabbed scores of weapons when Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown. Bouckaert said one or two of the missing artillery rounds are "enough to make a car bomb." "We should remember what happened in Iraq," he said, when the "country was turned upside down" by insurgents using such weaponry. There have been similar concerns in Afghanistan, where the United States provided thousands of Stinger missiles to the Afghan mujahedeen when they were fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to buy them back, fearful that they would fall into the hands of terrorists.

[Now doesn’t that make you feel safe…….. War? What is it good for – unintended consequences, that’s what]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of The Age of Steam - The Power that Drove the Industrial Revolution by Thomas Crump

Two of my favourite historical periods are the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Steam that followed it. They were periods when humanity seemed to have unbounded confidence in their own abilities and a time when obstacles used to be called challenges or, to some enterprising fellows, opportunities. That all came to an end with the First World War as it became clear just what war on a truly industrial scale could accomplish. So in many ways the Age of Steam was both a confident age and a naïve one.

In one way the author was part of the steam age when he helped his farther compile a book of the history of a great railway empire. Such an experience, travelling the country and hearing the stories of the men still working in the industries which had been, until recently, dependent on steam produced a life long love of all things steam related. It really shows in this book that he is still in love with steam and that passion is infectious. Anyone who can make a discussion of improved safety features on Victorian railways actually interesting (and sometimes fascinating) is someone who should be applauded. About the only criticism I had of the book is that, from time to time, the author is a little too in love with his subject and had obvious trouble from holding back and ended up delivering a few facts too many and one interesting story too far. But then again he had a lot of interesting facts to mention and far too many interesting stories to tell – stories of the first railways in Britain and the opposition to them, stories of iron ships and revolutionary battles that changed naval warfare forever, stories of Mississippi paddle steamers and immense railway building programmes in China, Russia, and both North and South America. There are tales of genius and tales of disaster, tales of engineers and tales of the money men who financed a global revolution in transportation. It was the great age of steam when, it seemed, anything was possible and everything could change. The author brings this all to life in an excellent introduction to a fascinating time. I learnt a great deal and was prompted to investigate further into some of the great vehicles produced – of which more later. Needless to say that I powered through this book in a matter of days and enjoyed virtually every page of it – even the bits about railway safety. Highly recommended for all history buffs.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

They came out of the night in a place she thought would be safe. Being what they were she never heard a thing until they surrounded her. Fully expecting to die at their hands – or fangs – she was surprised when they carried her deeper into the woods until they finally deposited her, chained to a wall, in a crumbling lakeside mansion. She was, she quickly realised, an offering for the other person (if you can call them people) similarly chained to the wall. Now beyond simple fear she expects to die again before she sees the dawn. Little do her captors realise though what they have brought for dinner. Sunshine is more than they know and even more than she herself suspects. When her mother divorced her father she decided to tell her daughter almost nothing of her heritage. But the simple training passed on by her grandmother will save her life tonight and, if she can stay one step ahead of the creatures eagerly looking for her, may well save a great many more.

To begin with this book kind of threw me a curve – and I mean a dead mans curve. It started out as a vampire abduction novel and then – almost imperceptibly – morphs into something much stranger. I can only describe it as a cross between X-Men and Angel (the Buffy spin-off) plus a whole lot of other vampire/urban fantasy related works. It became clear, after 50-60 pages that this was not, thankfully, the world we know. There were many parallels but many changes too – most notable of which was that magic and supernatural creatures are not only real but recognised and, to some extent at least, legalised and regularised if not exactly embraced by regular society. It is, needless to say a fascinating and scarily dangerous world that I for one wouldn’t even like to visit – except from the safety of my favourite reading chair. Robin McKinley has produced a detailed, well constructed, logical world were magic exists and is, again to an extent, understood by rational scientific people and used by them to counter other darker magic which is an ever growing threat. If this wasn’t enough to grip me (and it would’ve been) the character of Sunshine herself was pretty marvellous. Apart from her need to overanalyse everything – been there, done that – she was outstanding as she tried to come to terms with what happens to her and what she discovers about herself. Peppered throughout are almost equally interesting secondary characters – especially her landlady who is also pretty outstanding – that flesh out the story and bring other aspects of her world to life. After the initial ‘WTF is going on’ feeling this settled down to be one of the best vampire novels of the year for me. Unfortunately it looks like it’s the only Sunshine novel the author has produced which is a great pity. Most certainly one for fans of vampire fiction or for anyone with a love of the fantastic. There is a bit of sex and the odd bit of swearing to contend with but nothing that should bother an adult reader. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Rising atheism in America puts 'religious right on the defensive'

By Paul Harris in New York for The Guardian

Saturday 1 October 2011

About 400 people are preparing to gather for a conference in Hartford, Connecticut, to promote the end of religion in the US and their vision of a secular future for the country. Those travelling to the meeting will pass two huge roadside billboardsdisplaying quotes from two of the country's most famous non-believers: Katharine Hepburn and Mark Twain. "Faith is believing what you know ain't so," reads the one featuring Twain. "I'm an atheist and that's it," says the one quoting Hepburn.

At the meeting, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) will hear speakers celebrate successes they have had in removing religion from US public life and see awards being presented to noted secularist activists. The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. "It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF. The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major "religious" demographic in the country. Professor Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, who conducts the national Religious Identification Survey, believes up to a quarter of young people in the US now have no specific faith, and scoffs at the idea, prevalent in so much US media and culture, that the country is highly religious or becoming more so. "The trending in American history is towards secularisation," Kosmin said. He cites the example of the changing face of Sunday in the country. It was not too long ago when many sporting events were banned on Sundays and most shops were closed too. Now the opposite is largely true. As in Britain, Sunday in the US has become a normal shopping day for many, or a day to watch big football or baseball games. "The great secular holiday in America is Super Bowl Sunday. Even in the deep south, the biggest mega-church changes its schedule to suit the Super Bowl," Kosmin said. He also pointed to social trends – greater divorce rates, gay marriage and much higher percentages of people having children out of wedlock – as other signs that the religious grip on society has loosened.

There are other indications, too. For a long time studies have shown that about 40% of US adults attend a church service weekly. However, other studies that actually counted those at church – rather than just asking people if they went – have shown the true number to be about half to two-thirds of that figure. More Americans are now choosing to get married or be buried without any form of religious ceremony. At universities, departments devoted to the study of secularism are starting to appear. Books by atheist authors are bestsellers. National groups, such as the Secular Coalition of America (SCA), have opened branches across the country. Herb Silverman, president of the Washington-based SCA, lives in Charleston, South Carolina. His local secularist group was founded in 1994 with 10 people, but now has 150 members. "I've been living here in the buckle of the Bible belt since 1976 and things are getting a lot better," Silverman said. Yet there is little doubt that religious groups still wield enormous influence in US politics and public life, especially through the rightwing of the Republican party. Groups such as Focus on the Family are well-funded and skilful lobbyists.

Kosmin said the attention paid by politicians and the media to religious groups was not necessarily a sign of strength. "When religion was doing well, it did not need to go into politics. Secularity of our population and culture is obviously growing and so religion is on the defensive," he said. However, it is still a brave US politician who openly declares a lack of faith. So far just one member of Congress, Californian Democrat Pete Stark, has admitted that he does not believe in God. "Privately, we know that there are 27 other members of Congress that have no belief in God. But we don't 'out' people," said Silverman. Others think that one day it will become politically mainstream to confess to a lack of faith as US political life lags behind the society that it represents. "Politicians have not yet caught up with the changing demographics of our society," said Gaylor.

[Interesting and heartening if true.]

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Destroyermen - Maelstrom by Taylor Anderson

The crew of the USS Walker and her sister ship are just beginning to adapt to the strange world they appear to be trapped in, a world in which humans did not evolve, a world where the last remnants of the Lemurian civilisation cling on to survival under the ever present threat of the reptilian Grik. But the American ships, obsolete in their own world, have become some of the most powerful in their new home and have become symbols of hope for an entire race. Yet facing them is their biggest challenge, for the Japanese cruiser that almost sunk them in their Pacific has followed them into this new almost familiar world and is bent on their destruction. The Americans and their Allies must do everything in their power to fight the twin forces on the Grik and the Japanese because they know that defeat means much more than losing a battle or even the war. Defeat means total annihilation. But always in the back of their minds are the rumours of other earlier contacts with human manned ships. Have they survived in such a dangerous world for possibly hundreds of years? Everything might depend on the answer to that question. Everything…..

This is the third book in the Destroyermen series and proved to be yet another cracking read. There are many things that I really, really like about these books. They appear to be very realistic in their portrayal of life aboard ship and the command structure just feels right. The dialogue fits too. Maybe it’s a little too modern (being actually based in the 1940’s afterall) but trying for 40’s realism might be pushing things a bit too far. The politics, between the humans and the Lemurians and between various Lemurian factions again feels real. The making and especially breaking of deals is exactly what you would expect from morally complex societies living in difficult times. Also, which is comparatively rare, people die in these books. Important central characters actually die. You become attached to characters not knowing if they are going to survive all the way through the book – which is great. There’s nothing as boring as knowing for a fact that the main characters are going to survive – no matter what the author throws at them (which inevitably calls into question why I like some of my other favourite books but no one said I wasn’t complicated or contradictory – I’m a human being, deal with it). Anyway, there are another three books to come and I fully expect to enjoy them as much as the first three. This is an excellent series and one of a growing number of naval based novels that I am enjoying a great deal. Definitely more to come and definitely highly recommended.    

Monday, October 03, 2011

My Favourite Movies: The Back to the Future Trilogy

OK, I’m kind of cheating here but Robert Zemeckis started it by basically making the same film three times – well, kind of…..

If you haven’t seen these movies (shame on you for that) it all starts (well, kind of…. this is a Time Travel movie/series so it’s difficult to say exactly where things start) with teenager Marty McFly, played or rather overacted by Michael J Fox, being accidently sent back in time to the 1950’s from the 1980’s. There he accidently bumps into his father and changes his own history. He needs the help of the 1950’s version of Doc Brown, played even more over the top by the superb Christopher Lloyd, to send him back to the future (or the present/past if you will…..). Of course things do not go smoothly and much running around, shouting (Great Scott!) and general mayhem ensue… In Part 2, which inevitably follows on directly from Part 1 (literally seconds later) The Doc and Marty are in the future (2015) to sort out Marty’s kids. Unfortunately Marty’s arch enemy and comedic foil, Biff (I’m not making this up… honest) sees the time machine (made out of an 80’s icon the Delorian – pictured above) and goes back into the past (the 1950’s again) to give a sports almanac to his teenage self in order that he can become rich. After much running around, much shouting and much reuse of original film footage, and no doubt quite a bit that would’ve made it onto the cutting room floor, everything is eventually put right again. As an aside Doc Brown gave a creditable explanation of the multiple universe model of Temporal Mechanics…. But I digress…. Part 3 followed on directly, seconds after Part 2 finished, and eventually ended up in the Old West – after yet another meeting with the 1950’s Doc Brown – where the story eventually went full circle showing the start of the clock in the clock tower and produced (for me) the best line in all 3 movies where the Doc explained that they were in fact conducting a science experiment that only looked like a train holdup!

Phew…..! I’m sure that somewhere someone has spliced all three movies together into a seamless whole. They certainly work that way. That’s one of the things I love about this movie/movies. It’s clever. Not only is it a very creditable Time Travel movie – which because of the knots you can tie yourself up in is not easy to do well – but it’s a funny and highly entertaining Time Travel movie with Lea Thompson in it (hubba, hubba). For me at least these movies manage to surf the edge of ridiculous silliness without falling flat on their collective faces. I watched all three movies over three days (even I’m not mad enough to watch them all one after the other – although Christmas is coming so it’s not such a crazy idea) and could quite easily have put the first one back on and watched them all again. I’m not a huge fan of MJF but cut him some considerable slack here. It probably helped that I was deeply in lust with Ms Thompson at the time of the first movie but that’s not the only thing it had going for it. My favourite character was definitely the Doc. Chris Lloyd managed to produce one of the all time great mad scientists whilst keeping him a good-guy. He might not make the best of neighbours but you’d never have a dull moment with him in the neighbourhood! If you haven’t seen this movie before or haven’t seen it for a long time I’d definitely recommend you relaxing for a few hours (or six if you want the full experience) in the company of some of the nicest, funniest and definitely wackiest people you’re never going to meet. Enjoy. 

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Only in Japan

'Steep' drop in public confidence in MPs, says watchdog

From The BBC

15 September 2011

There has been a steep decline in public confidence in MPs between 2008 and 2010, says the standards watchdog. The percentage of people in England who think MPs are dedicated to working well for the public dropped from 46% to 26%. The Committee on Standards in Public Life says its survey suggests concerns "with self-serving behaviour" by MPs overshadows other concerns. The survey of 1,900 people was carried out in the new year, 19 months after the MPs' expenses scandal. Although the watchdog's fourth survey shows a "long term decline in public confidence in those holding public office" since 2004, the report says that on many issues, the decline since 2008 has been even "steeper". It suggests there has been no "bounce" in confidence since the new government came to power - or if there was one it was short lived and died out before the survey was conducted, between 29 December 2010 and 4 January 2011. "Public satisfaction with the conduct of MPs has declined on every measure except taking bribes since the last survey was conducted," the report said.

Other findings included a drop in the number of people who believe MPs are competent, from 36% in 2008 to 26% in 2010, a reduction in the number of people who think MPs set a good example in their private lives from 36% to 22%, and a fall in those who think MPs tell the truth from 26% to 20%.Fewer people also think MPs make sure public money is spent wisely. The public attitudes survey lists 10 qualities considered important in an MP - including being dedicated to doing a good job for the public, not using power for personal gain, telling the truth and owning up when they make mistakes. But only on "not taking bribes" did a majority of people - 67% - believe that all or most MPs exhibited that quality. On each of the other nine, fewer than 40% of people interviewed in England believed most MPs had those attributes. The report says it suggests concerns about bribery, or about "outside influence" on politics "have been overshadowed by concerns with self-serving behaviour on the part of MPs". While the committee says it is not possible to say with certainty what lay behind the trend, "it is possible that the expenses scandal has had an impact on people's views and appear to have fed into and exacerbated the long-run trend of increasingly negative evaluations of politicians". People who supported one of the three main parties were more likely to believe standards were high among politicians. The young, people from ethnic minorities and those in higher paid jobs tended to have more trust in MPs in general. The survey was carried out before the latest escalation of the phone hacking scandal - and suggests that confidence in TV news and newspaper journalists had slightly increased since 2004.

In terms of who people trusted to tell the truth, judges and senior police officers were the most highly rated - with 80% and 73% of people trusting them respectively, followed by TV news journalists, top civil servants and broadsheet journalists. Tabloid journalists ranked lowest in terms of being trusted to tell the truth -
just 16% of people - while trust in MPs in general was at just 26%, although local MPs were more trusted. Committee chairman Sir Christopher Kelly said the results made "stark reading" and the drop in those who believed MPs were competent and dedicated to the public good was "worrying". He also warned parties not to duck the issue of reforming political funding, his committee has been carrying out an inquiry and is due to report soon. Sir Christopher said party funding, particularly donations of more than £100,000 were a source of "major concern" to the public and said most people believed they led to "special favours" for donors. "It would be a mistake for anyone to think this issue had gone away," he said adding that his committee's report would offer a "fresh, independent look at this issue. I firmly believe that the opportunity it offers to deal with this issue proactively, before another funding scandal forces change, should be taken”.

[…and in other News of the bleeding obvious……]