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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thinking About: Interesting Times

Anyone who has picked up a newspaper recently or has tuned into a decent news programme cannot have failed to notice that we live in interesting times. Not only do we live in an era with a background of Global Warming rumbling on apparently inexorably we are now faced with what seems to be an ever widening revolt of the people against their leaders. It’s something else that has been quietly building during the past few decades. I suppose that it really hit the headlines with the anti-globalisation movement that was becoming increasing more organised and more effective against what many previously believed to be the inevitable process of turning the world into variations of western democracies all operating under one form or another of universal capitalism. Many commentators saw this as some kind of end point in human progress. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary I suppose that many of them still do.

Looking back, if you can use such a phrase about something that is still unfolding in front of us, the latest iteration of the global revolt happened during the Arab Spring which, with winter here, is still blossoming feed by the blood of martyrs in Syria and in Egypt (again). No one saw it coming and no one could’ve imagined that we in the west would begin to emulate it so effectively. What has become known as the Occupy movement could have equally been called the Western Winter of Discontent (and may well be by future historians). Interestingly it is not confined to nations too poor to cope with the austerity measures brought on by the global economic problems created by the staggering greed of the already super-rich. Protests have sprung up throughout the west in a decentralised ad hoc fashion that has surprised supposedly acute political commentators on all sides of the issue. The people – the much vaunted 99% - seem to finally be saying that they have had enough. For far too long, they appear to be saying, they have been taken for granted. No longer. They have found their voice and their voice will be heard despite often being ignored by the media or suppressed by the authorities. Oh, and what a huge mistake that suppression has been – when combat veterans are hospitalised for defending free speech and free assembly, when peaceful protesters are pepper sprayed and tear gassed, when celebrities, University professors and police captains are arrested on camera for questioning the actions of an elected government we know that something is deeply wrong with the way things are. Throughout Europe and increasingly the United States people are waking up to the fact that politicians no longer believe that they work for us and not the other way around. People are waking up to the fact that electing an official and getting that official to act on their promises and pledges are two very different things. People have moved from passively not voting to actively marching and occupying to show their deep disgust and distrust of those supposedly in power to do our bidding.

It is far too early to tell where this will eventually lead. It is still possible that the whole movement might well fizzle out despite the radicalisation of many thousands of people, both young and old, across the world. Alternatively, despite or because of the heavy handed response of so-called democratic governments, the pressure could continue to grow leading eventually to a global uprising the like of which has not seen since the European revolutions of 1848. Most likely it will be somewhere in-between with lessons learned in each encounter with an increasingly desperate authority rippling across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. One thing alone can be guaranteed – whatever happens it will be televised one way or another……  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cartoon Time.

Astronomers do it Again: Find Organic Molecules Around Gas Planet


Oct. 20, 2009

Peering far beyond our solar system, NASA researchers have detected the basic chemistry for life in a second hot gas planet, advancing astronomers toward the goal of being able to characterize planets where life could exist. The planet is not habitable but it has the same chemistry that, if found around a rocky planet in the future, could indicate the presence of life. "It's the second planet outside our solar system in which water, methane and carbon dioxide have been found, which are potentially important for biological processes in habitable planets," said researcher Mark Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Detecting organic compounds in two exoplanets now raises the possibility that it will become commonplace to find planets with molecules that may be tied to life."

Swain and his co-investigators used data from two of NASA's orbiting Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope, to study HD 209458b, a hot, gaseous giant planet bigger than Jupiter that orbits a sun-like star about 150 light years away in the constellation Pegasus. The new finding follows their breakthrough discovery in December 2008 of carbon dioxide around another hot, Jupiter-size planet, HD 189733b. Earlier Hubble and Spitzer observations of that planet had also revealed water vapor and methane.

The detections were made through spectroscopy, which splits light into its components to reveal the distinctive spectral signatures of different chemicals. Data from Hubble's near-infrared camera and multi-object spectrometer revealed the presence of the molecules, and data from Spitzer's photometer and infrared spectrometer measured their amounts. "This demonstrates that we can detect the molecules that matter for life processes," said Swain. Astronomers can now begin comparing the two planetary atmospheres for differences and similarities. For example, the relative amounts of water and carbon dioxide in the two planets is similar, but HD 209458b shows a greater abundance of methane than HD 189733b. "The high methane abundance is telling us something," said Swain. "It could mean there was something special about the formation of this planet."

Other large, hot Jupiter-type planets can be characterized and compared using existing instruments, Swain said. This work will lay the groundwork for the type of analysis astronomers eventually will need to perform in shortlisting any promising rocky Earth-like planets where the signatures of organic chemicals might indicate the presence of life. Rocky worlds are expected to be found by NASA's Kepler mission, which launched earlier this year, but astronomers believe we are a decade or so away from being able to detect any chemical signs of life on such a body.

If and when such Earth-like planets are found in the future, "the detection of organic compounds will not necessarily mean there's life on a planet, because there are other ways to generate such molecules," Swain said. "If we detect organic chemicals on a rocky, Earth-like planet, we will want to understand enough about the planet to rule out non-life processes that could have led to those chemicals being there. These objects are too far away to send probes to, so the only way we're ever going to learn anything about them is to point telescopes at them. Spectroscopy provides a powerful tool to determine their chemistry and dynamics."

[Presumably if organic molecules exist around the systems gas-giant then it’s likely that such organic molecules also exist on any, as yet undetected, rocky planets in the same system. Maybe wherever we find such gas-giants that the odds of finding life later are much higher. Here’s hoping…]

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Prodigal by Marc D Giller

In the near future the global hi-tech civilisation is on the verge of defeating the anti-technology terrorist group known as the Inru. The greatest weapon against them is Lea Prism an ex-terrorist herself. With the aid of the worlds first functioning Artificial Intelligence she has tracked down and killed most of their operative and destroyed most of their installations. Now only one Inru operation is left – led by Avalon an assassin with almost supernatural abilities. As corporate mercenaries close in on Avalon’s position a discovery is made on Mars. A ship sent to salvage equipment from the failed Mars colony discover a shielded cave containing the bodies of a military unit is suspended animation. Afraid that they are infected with the deadly virus that destroyed the colony years previously they are brought aboard but kept in deep quarantine. But its only when the soldiers are already waking that the crew realise that one among them is an Inru agent and that a deadly plague is on its way back to Earth.

This was the sequel to Hammerjack which I read back in May 2009. I was impressed enough with his first effort and was even more impressed by this one. Giller’s writing has matured nicely since his earlier work and the extra largely unnecessary flourishes which peppered his original book are largely missing. He has kept his detailed sense of place and managed to ramp up the ‘realism’ without losing any of his focus. The plot is nicely tight with good characterisation and some very nice snappy dialogue. Each major character has their own voice, their own sense of self and their own believable history. There are a few stock moments and generic scenes but they were easily forgivable because of the quality of the rest of the book. This is good solid Cyberpunk mixed with a decent dose of Military SF. Prism is a great character and it was a shame to see that the author apparently hasn’t published anything else since 2006/2007 but at least we have the pleasure of his two published works. Recommended.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Favourite Movies: Source Code

Well, I guess you can’t get much more up to date than this choice. Source Code came out here in April this year. The trailer looked interesting enough and I’ve liked Jake Gyllenhall since I first saw him in Donnie Darko. I did have a few misgivings after seeing previous films that tried to look at incidents from various viewpoints (for example the terrible Vantage Point) but then I thought of Déjà vu (starring Denzil Washington) and thought it might be OK.

OK, spoiler time. If you haven’t seen this movie and intend watching it on DVD anytime soon I’d stop reading now and skip to my Motivational poster on Tuesday….. So, for the rest of you here’s a basic synopsis of the plot:

Gyllenhall is army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens who, inexplicably at first, finds himself on a train without any memory of getting there. Across from him is a very pretty girl (played by the lovely Michelle Monaghan) who appears to be in mid conversation with him. As he struggles to understand what’s going on around him he catches a glimpse of his face in the window – and it isn’t his face. Just as he’s beginning to realise that something very strange is going on the train explodes and he’s suddenly in what looks like a space capsule. At this point totally disoriented he is talked down by an Air force officer in the shape of Vera Farmiga. After some reluctance she tells him that he is part of a special project which can send him back in time to a specific location for 8 minutes where he inhabits someone else’s body. His mission is to find out who bombed the train and to get this information back to the authorities before the bomber can strike again. But he can only do this in 8 minute slices at the end of which he dies, again and again and again until he finds out the information they want.

Now this could have easily been a very tedious film indeed – even if the runtime is only an amazingly short 89 minutes. But several things make it far from tedious. Although we are forced to watch as the same 8 minutes unfound, each time with an explosive conclusion, we learn different things each time around. We learn more about Colter, what happened to him before he first appeared on the train and we watch as he develops a relationship both with his Air force ‘handler’ and with the woman sitting in front of him on the train. We also see him trying to change the outcome of the explosion even though he is told repeated that such a thing is impossible. That for me was one of the most interesting aspects of the movie. Despite all of the techno-babble that the Director of the project used to ‘explain’ things to Colter he still tried to change things and save the lives of the people on the train knowing that their deaths had already happened. There is even some talk about changing things in alternate realities (though the story isn’t explicit about this and doesn’t really follow this up). What is surprising is what actually happens at the end of the film. I won’t be giving too much away by saying that Colter succeeds despite the warnings that he’s wasting time even trying to save people (the movies tagline: Change the Past – Save the Future kind of telegraphs things here!) I am, as always, a sucker for a clever film – actually even a film that tries to be clever but fails despite a good effort. Generally this was such a clever film. It was a bit heavy handed with the military relationship between Colter and his handler. It was a bit too obviously post 9/11 – though interestingly the terrorist is a local nut-job rather than stock Islamists. About the only thing that disturbed me about the whole thing was what happened to the original guy that Colter took over? Colter is effectively dead but has been given a chance to live again in a new body – except that he needs to eject the previous owner to do so…. And he seems OK with that. Maybe he sees it as collateral damage or as payment for saving a whole bunch of people on the train. But no one seems in the least bit bothered that he’s basically just body-jacked someone. The ethical questions surrounding this are difficult at best – and completely ignored.

However, apart from my serious ethical misgivings this is an interesting, clever and at time tense thriller. If you missed it at the cinema I’d recommend you rent it soon. It won’t twist your brain too much (unlike say Inception) but it will entertain you enough that the (almost) 90 minutes will fly by. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Government: Rich Getting Richer, More People Poor

by Tom Raum for Associated Press

Saturday, October 22, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Fifty percent of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 last year, reflecting a growing income gap between the nation's rich and poor, the government reported yesterday.

There were fewer jobs, and overall pay was trending down - except for the nation's wealthiest. The number of people making $1 million or more soared by over 18 percent from 2009, the Social Security Administration said, citing payroll data based on W-2 forms submitted by employers to the Internal Revenue Service.

Despite population growth, the number of Americans with jobs fell again last year, with total employment of just under 150.4 million - down from 150.9 million in 2009 and 155.4 million in 2008. In all, there were 5.2 million fewer jobs than in 2007, when the deep recession began, according to the IRS data. The figures are just one more indication of the toll that the worst downturn since the Great Depression has taken on the U.S. economy. They were published as demonstrations rage on Wall Street and in cities across the nation protesting a widening income gulf between average wage earners and the nation's wealthiest. The unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.1 percent, with more than 14 million out of work and 11 million other discouraged people who have stopped looking for work or are stuck in part-time jobs. Since 1980, roughly 5 percent of annual national income has shifted from the middle calls to the nation's richest households, according to the Census Bureau.

While the average U.S income last year was $39,959, the mean income - the figure where half earn more and half earn less - was much lower, $26,364. This disparity reflects the fact that "the distribution of workers by wage level is highly skewed," according to Social Security. Median compensation last year was just 66 percent of the average income, compared with nearly 72 percent in 1980.

[What a shocker – the Rich get richer and the poor get poorer…… Why are people protesting again?]

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Monitor – The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the man whose Invention changed the Course of History by James Tertius deKay

I remember reading about or being taught about the epic 1862 battle between the Union ship Monitor and the Confederate ship Merrimac (AKA Virginia) in my early childhood and being amazed. I imagined an unstoppable object meeting an unmovable force and slugging it out with little effect as onlookers stared in awe. I have a vague memory of a class in school where we made models of the Monitor (no one seemed interested in making a model of the ‘beaten’ CSA ship). Even on this side of the Atlantic over 200 years after the even the historical significance was clear. On that March day the world’s military fleets became effectively obsolete.

I think that most people know the story. As Union forces withdrew from territory they could not readily defend they left behind the ruins of Norfolk naval base and the burnt out hulks of scuttled warships. Desperate for any advantage the Confederate forces salvaged as much military equipment as they could including the hull of the USS Merrimac – which the rechristened the CSS Virginia. But rather than just rebuilding her from the keel up they decided to produce a rough and ready ironclad capable of breaking the Union blockade and changing the face of the Civil War. Fortunately the fledgling Union navy already had an answer being built. Unlike the highly modified Virginia, the Monitor was a new type of ship designed and built to a radical design. The world had not seen its type before. Yet after its classic, and in some ways indecisive, battle it changed the way modern navies thought about warfare at sea.

A delight to read from cover to cover, this book was a mixture of a familiar story peppered with unfamiliar detail. I was singularly unfamiliar with much of the background to the Monitor’s designer who was apparently loathed by the US Navy Department. I was unfamiliar with the tale of the Monitors near destruction on the eve of the battle as well as the political and financial manoeuvres in the months up to its commissioning which nearly derailed the whole project. At almost every stage it appeared that the cards had been heavily stacked against the Monitor ever meeting its adversary on the battlefield of the Hampton Roads. If any one of a number of things had occurred and the Union ship had failed to make its debut on the world stage its possible (if unlikely in my mind – though not exactly being a Civil War expert I far from sure) that the fortunes of the Confederacy might have been much different. It is easy to imagine that, after breaking through the Union blockade, the CSS Virginia might have sailed north to shell Boston or New York with impunity. What might have happened after that s anyone’s guess!

All in all this was a fascinating battle story told very well indeed. The story lost none of its tension in the retelling and the attention to (often fascinating) detail was a delight. I must admit that I have enjoyed immensely a number of books on naval subjects lately and that this is a very worthy addition to them. Highly recommended for anyone interested in military history or historical turning points. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Favourite Movies: High Noon

As I have mentioned before I can trace my love of Westerns back to my fathers influence. He was a huge fan of John Wayne and this naturally led to other greats in the genre including this 1952 Oscar Award winning classic.

As with most of these films the story is deceptively simple. It starts with Sherriff Will Kane (played effortlessly by Gary Cooper) about to get married to his Quaker bride (the stunningly beautiful Grace Kelly). Just as rice is flying he hears that a killer he put away for murder has been released and is presumably on his way to seek revenge. Encouraged to leave by the townsfolk the newlyweds hightail it out of town only for Kane to turn back – initially for practical reasons and then for ethical reasons too. No one, including his new wife, can understand why he chose to return and put himself in danger. One by one his support falls away as friends and town businessmen find excuses why they can’t or won’t stand by him. It seems that the peace and stability the rule of law has brought is too restrictive impacting as it does on the takings in the saloon or the local hotel. People have forgotten how it was when cowboys roamed free in the town all too eager to use their guns on each other and anyone unlucky to get caught in the crossfire and when it was barely safe enough for a woman to walk across the street in broad daylight. So finally, when everything is at stake Kane is left alone to face Frank Miller and his gang alone.

It is easy to see why this film won 4 Oscars back in 1952. The flawless script steadily builds tension throughout the 85 minutes right up to the classic rolling shoot-out. The cinematography is brutal in black and white (I don’t think it would’ve working in colour as well as it did) and presents a deeply claustrophobic feeling despite being filmed on open empty streets. Cooper portrays the growing desperation of Kane brilliantly as he struggles to understand the town’s reluctance to get involved as well his own fear and desire to simply be with his new wife. All of that is balanced with his oath of office and his moral duty to defend people even if they seemingly chose the opposite. The warring emotions are clearly seen passing over Kane’s face like the dark clouds that herald a terrible storm. It is truly mesmerising and terrifying to watch. You can only wonder if you would have his strength of conviction and moral certainty in the face of such odds and indifference to those around him.

This is a true classic, not just of the Western genre but of any kind of cinema and whilst I do not hold it to be as good as The Magnificent Seven (which is probably my all time favourite Western) it’s definitely up there in my Top 10.       

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Holding it all together.....



Sept. 24, 2009

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed frozen water hiding just below the surface of mid-latitude Mars. The spacecraft's observations were obtained from orbit after meteorites excavated fresh craters on the Red Planet.

Scientists controlling instruments on the orbiter found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that range in depth from approximately 1.5 feet to 8 feet. The craters did not exist in earlier images of the same sites. Some of the craters show a thin layer of bright ice atop darker underlying material. The bright patches darkened in the weeks following initial observations, as the freshly exposed ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere. One of the new craters had a bright patch of material large enough for one of the orbiter's instruments to confirm it is water ice. The finds indicate water ice occurs beneath Mars' surface halfway between the north pole and the equator, a lower latitude than expected in the Martian climate. "This ice is a relic of a more humid climate from perhaps just several thousand years ago," said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona.

Byrne is a member of the team operating the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera, which captured the unprecedented images. Byrne and 17 co-authors report the findings in the Sept. 25 edition of the journal Science. "We now know we can use new impact sites as probes to look for ice in the shallow subsurface," said Megan Kennedy of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, a co-author of the paper and member of the team operating the orbiter's Context Camera. During a typical week, the Context Camera returns more than 200 images of Mars that cover a total area greater than California. The camera team examines each image, sometimes finding dark spots that fresh, small craters make in terrain covered with dust. Checking earlier photos of the same areas can confirm a feature is new. The team has found more than 100 fresh impact sites, mostly closer to the equator than the ones that revealed ice.

An image from the camera on Aug. 10, 2008, showed apparent cratering that occurred after an image of the same ground was taken 67 days earlier. The opportunity to study such a fresh impact site prompted a look by the orbiter's higher resolution camera on Sept. 12, 2009, confirming a cluster of small craters. "Something unusual jumped out," Byrne said. "We observed bright material at the bottoms of the craters with a very distinct color. It looked a lot like ice."

The bright material at that site did not cover enough area for a spectrometer instrument on the orbiter to determine its composition. However, a Sept. 18, 2008, image of a different mid-latitude site showed a crater that had not existed eight months earlier. This crater had a larger area of bright material. "We were excited about it, so we did a quick-turnaround observation," said co-author Kim Seelos of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., "Everyone thought it was water ice, but it was important to get the spectrum for confirmation."

The Mars orbiter is designed to facilitate coordination and quick response by the science teams, making it possible to detect and understand rapidly changing features. The ice exposed by fresh impacts suggests that NASA's Viking 2 lander, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug four inches deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers characterized the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface. They also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The Context Camera was built and is operated by Malin. The University of Arizona operates the HiRISE camera, which Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colo., built. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory led the effort to build the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer and operates it in coordination with an international team of researchers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Just Finished Reading: The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

Only six missiles flew in World War Three but it was enough to end civilisation as we know it. The mixture of nuclear bombs and biological weapons was enough to push mankind over the edge into oblivion – except for one place: The Mormon State of Deseret.

This was a book of five short stories telling the story of the collapse and eventual rebuilding of western civilisation by the Mormon Church starting with ‘West’ – a tale of a group of Mormons attempting to find their way through a wasteland to Salt Lake City which was pretty good if standard post-apocalyptic survivor stuff. ‘Salvage’ told of a group of teenagers diving in the flooded Salt Lake looking for treasure which was something and nothing. ‘The Fringe’ told of the efforts of farmers to push back the desert to feed their growing population and the efforts of one man to root our corruption. This was nicely done and had some impressive characterisation. My favourite was next which was ‘Pageant Wagon’, a tale of a family of travelling players who argue in front of a hitch-hiker they pick up on the outskirts of a small town. The characterisation and dialogue are very good and felt realistic. Lastly was America which told of the downfall of the revived civilisation from the point of view of a young boy and a South American shaman.

Overall the book was good if rather strange. It was in several ways religious SF – not something I’ve actually come across all that often and not the sort of thing that I’d normally sit and read. The religious aspects, although clearly central to all of the stories, are kept low key enough as not to annoy although I must admit that my scepticism meter twitched from time to time. Actually I had no idea that Card was a Mormon – not that I’ve read all that much of his work. Here he made his background blatant – reinforced by the added author’s notes at the back. I won’t say that it put me off the book completely but I was more than a little uncomfortable with any possible agenda he was pushing. An interesting read if a rather strange one from time to time.    

Monday, November 07, 2011

Thinking About: Irrationality

Despite the fact that we are fully capable of being rational I think that humanity in general is deeply irrational – even if we put religion to one side for a moment. We are constant pray to our emotions, we love and we hate without a rational thought entering our heads. We follow political parties or football teams for no better reason than our parents follow them and take any criticism of them as personal insults. We kill and we die for beliefs that other cultures and other times find completely incomprehensible. Looking back into our blood soaked history we see armies slaughtering each other over religious arguments that few soldiers could even begin to articulate. At other times armies clash and cities burn over subsequently discredited ideologies passionately believed in and passionately defended by young men and women taught both to accept ideas and not to question them.

Reason itself has been vilified as a root problem of human existence. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism famously said “Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding”. He was not, and is not, alone in this viewpoint. Far too many people reject reason because it has the power to undermine their faith. This, in my opinion, is simply irrationality piled on irrationality. Luther, and those like him, view reason as the enemy and want it stopped being taught to our children. “I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labour in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth” he said. It’s ironic of course that his prescription for avoiding Hell would probably ensure its dominion on the Earth as religious faction fought religious faction over interpretations of the words of each sects founding fathers. Of course you don’t have to delve into the historical record to find evidence of widespread irrationality. We have enough of that around us today – the so-called Global Warming ‘sceptics’, those who refuse to accept the fact of evolution or the fact that the Earth is more than six thousand years old and those who work tirelessly to prevent Gay marriage (as if homosexuality isn’t as natural as heterosexuality).

Of course I’m not going to hold myself up as a shining example of rationality. I’m a human being and, by my definition at least, that makes me irrational – which I am. I have irrational fears as well as highly rational ones. I sometimes let my emotions get the better of me and let them cloud my judgement – sometimes seriously so. Indeed the idea of being a fully rational human is a contradiction. Any creature who was fully rational is most definitely not a human being and would probably be close enough to sociopathic (or at least psychotic) as to be very dangerous indeed. So I am not advocating a fully rational world, nor am I aiming to be fully rational myself. What I do attempt to be and what I would like the world to be is simply more rational than I/we are at the moment. I am convinced that many (if not all) of the worlds problems could be solved by the application of deep rational thought. If we put aside, even for a short time, our more irrational nature and saw issues as they really are (in other words mostly of our own making) we would see our way to building better worlds without the usual foundation of numberless dead bodies. I’m not holding my breath though that this is going to happen any time soon. Such optimism would, in my rational opinion, be deeply irrational. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Cartoon Time.

It's all about priorities and multitasking.....

US Stops Payments to UNESCO over Palestinian Vote

Agence France Presse

Monday, October 31, 2011

WASHINGTON — The United States said Monday it is stopping financial contributions to UNESCO after the Palestinians were admitted to the organization as a full member.

Palestine became a full member of the U.N. cultural and educational agency Monday, in a highly divisive move that the United States and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts. The United States also acknowledged that it would lose its right to vote in UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization if it makes no payments over the next two years, saying the Obama administration will need to consult Congress about the impact on US interests. "We were to have made a 60 million dollar payment to UNESCO in November and we will not be making that payment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. Nuland said the Palestinian admission "triggers longstanding (US) legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO."

The United States, Israel's top ally, in the 1990s banned the financing of any UN organization that accepts Palestine as a full member. The United States provides about 22 percent of the UNESCO annual budget. The November payment amounts to a tranche of what US officials say is total a annual US contribution of $80 million to the UN organization. Nuland echoed earlier remarks by the White House which said UNESCO's admission of the Palestinians as a full member was "premature" and undermined international peace efforts and hopes of direct talks on a Palestinian state. The vote "is regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East," Nuland said. The vote, backed by 107 countries in UNESCO, was a symbolic victory for the Palestinian drive towards full statehood recognition. But the United States, which has vowed to block a separate Palestinian call for statehood recognition at the UN Security Council, believes the campaign detracts from tough bargaining needed with Israel on the terms of a Palestinian state. Nuland said the United States is aware its own interests could be undermined by its withholding funding to UNESCO.

"Under UNESCO's constitution, a member state will have no vote in the general conference if it gets more than two years in arrears in its contribution. So our actual arrearage status will begin in January," she said. "We now need to have consultations with Congress," she said. "Not paying our dues into these organizations could severely restrict and reduce our ability to influence them, our ability to act within them, and we think this affects US interests," Nuland said. "So we need to have conversations with Congress about what options might be available to protect our interests," she said, declining to elaborate.

[Is anyone else in the least bit surprised by this? Organisations that go against American policies are made to suffer for it. Any organisation that, in any way, questions Israel is made to suffer by their American allies – no matter what else the organisation does or does not do. The nonsense of ‘premature’ recognition is completely blown out of the water by the almost instant recognition of the Libyan Transitional Council. What they really mean is that the Palestinians will be ‘recognised’ 10 years after they stop making trouble for American interests in the Middle East. How transparent and petty American policy is – only they cannot see how it looks to the rest of the world. 107 countries vote for something – America says: No. Democracy in action? I think not.] 

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Classical Thought – A History of Western Philosophy (1) by Terence Irwin

I haven’t read any philosophy for quite some time so thought that I’d ease back into things with a history of one of my favourite philosophical periods. I was, unfortunately, a little disappointed with this volume.

Things certainly started well with an interesting chapter on the lasting effects of the works of Homer and how they prompted the early Greek moral philosophers to challenge some of the ethical implications of his work. This led, after some meanderings through the debate about the physical world, to Socrates and onto Plato. Actually as Socrates apparently left no written texts of his own the main source of Socratic philosophy is Plato – so it is rather difficult to separate the two and whole careers have no doubt been made on drawing the line between where the real Socrates ends and where Plato uses him to sell his ideas to a larger audience. I’m actually not a huge fan of Plato – especially in regard to the eternal perfect Forms he postulated. This, in my opinion, was a huge error and a serious dead end (and helped to underpin early Christianity into the bargain). Much more to my liking is Aristotle whose works on Ethics and Politics – and much else besides – have become deserved classics in their own right. After studying him a few years ago I developed quite a fondness for the way his mind thinks. I also liked his telling criticisms of Plato which are outlined in this book. Post Aristotle things became rather fragmented with various new and breakaway schools of thought vying for the attention of the rich and powerful (and with the rest of the thinking public – men that is) amongst these where Epicureanism and the Stoics (one of my favourites). Arguments raged between these groups about the reliability of the senses, the nature of reality, virtue and free-will. Finally the author ended with the ideas of Plotinus – who reworked and commented on Plato – and discussed his impact on Christianity’s early days.

I’m not entirely sure why but I did find this book rather dull and more of a slog than I expected it to be. Maybe it was because most of the text wasn’t exactly new to me because I don’t think it was particularly badly written. Actually some parts of this book I found to be very interesting indeed. Maybe I should have just pushed the boat out into new areas rather than covering old ground again. I’ll try to be less lazy next time I pick up any philosophy. Useful I think if you’re new to the subject.