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

Monday, January 30, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Black Hawk Down

This is a little more up to date than my last fave but still old enough to have some perspective on it. Along with my love of Westerns I’m a big fan of decent thoughtful War Stories. War can, despite all the questionable aspects surrounding it, bring out the best (though more often the worst) in people. BHD – based on the excellent account of the battle by Mark Bowden – is an example of what happens when young men, who are singularly unprepared for what happened to them, are put through the meat grinder. Inevitably the movie is a very much cut-down version of real events. Several actual people are often moulded into a single actor and incidents are told in the wrong order, enhanced for dramatic effect or missed out all together. It often needs to be remembered that we are watching a Hollywood movie here and not a documentary about contemporary events. What we see on the screen is, first and foremost, for our entertainment. All war movies come in for criticism. No matter how realistic they try to be they can never truly show both the horror and the banality of war. No matter the sentiment they will, inevitably it seems, be accused of either glorifying conflict, promoting imperialism (either political or cultural) or of being – as this movie was – racist. Sometimes it would seem you just can’t win.

But I guess Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer (yes, him again) must have been doing something right as this film won a pair of Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound (now I can see why the DVD just said “Winner of 2 Oscars”) though it was at least nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Director. But what about the actual story? It takes place in Somalia in 1993 where a crushing civil war is tearing the country apart. The US decides (along with the UN) that enough is enough and sends in Delta Force and The Rangers to sort things out. The mission featured in the movie – and in far more detail in the book – is an attempt to capture senior members of the controlling militia. To that end helicopter forces drop in and start doing just that – but as everyone knows, no plan survives contact with the enemy. When a Black Hawk helicopter is shot down everything changes and the snatch becomes a rescue in hostile territory against incredible odds – with limited food, water and ammunition. Told that they would be away from their base for no more than a few hours many of the young soldiers didn’t take much of anything with them. Now trapped and running out of just about everything needed to survive they need to rely on each other to get through the night.

There are many outstanding performances in this film and I’ll highlight just a few. Josh Hartnett plays Sgt Eversmann who’s just been given his first command. Dedicated to keeping his men alive he finds the realities of combat almost too much to bear. Tom Sizemore played I think my favourite character Danny McKnight who walked across ever battlefield as if he was walking across a quiet beach or going for a stroll in his hometown. He seemed completely impervious to gunfire even when one bullet clipped his neck. Then there was Eric Banner as Hoot, a laconic member of Delta force who tries to teach Eversmann that no matter how hard he tries he can’t control events once the shooting starts.

Despite finding the last few minutes a little too ‘arty’ for my liking this was both an exciting and thoughtful modern war movie for the Call of Duty generation used to seeing US troops fighting and dying in 3rd World countries. The combat was visceral, brutal and bloody. It certainly felt real – though I hope that I never find out just how accurately it was portrayed. Watching some of the mini-documentaries on the DVD I was amazed to discover just how much of the film was CGI. Things have certainly come a long way in putting the audience on the front line. If you’ve been put off watching this movie by some of the bad press it received on release in 2001 then don’t be. See it and make up your own mind. It certainly doesn’t glorify war and it most certainly isn’t racist.       

Sunday, January 29, 2012

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.”

Edsger W. Dijkstra

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, January 28, 2012




Aug. 26, 2010

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Kepler spacecraft has discovered the first confirmed planetary system with more than one planet crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star. The transit signatures of two distinct planets were seen in the data for the sun-like star designated Kepler-9. The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c. The discovery incorporates seven months of observations of more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. The findings will be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Science.

Kepler's ultra-precise camera measures tiny decreases in the stars' brightness that occur when a planet transits them. The size of the planet can be derived from these temporary dips. The distance of the planet from the star can be calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star. Small variations in the regularity of these dips can be used to determine the masses of planets and detect other non-transiting planets in the system.

In June, mission scientists submitted findings for peer review that identified more than 700 planet candidates in the first 43 days of Kepler data. The data included five additional candidate systems that appear to exhibit more than one transiting planet. The Kepler team recently identified a sixth target exhibiting multiple transits and accumulated enough follow-up data to confirm this multi-planet system.

"Kepler's high quality data and round-the-clock coverage of transiting objects enable a whole host of unique measurements to be made of the parent stars and their planetary systems," said Doug Hudgins, the Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Scientists refined the estimates of the masses of the planets using observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The observations show Kepler-9b is the larger of the two planets, and both have masses similar to but less than Saturn. Kepler-9b lies closest to the star with an orbit of about 19 days, while Kepler-9c has an orbit of about 38 days. By observing several transits by each planet over the seven months of data, the time between successive transits could be analyzed.

"This discovery is the first clear detection of significant changes in the intervals from one planetary transit to the next, what we call transit timing variations," said Matthew Holman, a Kepler mission scientist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "This is evidence of the gravitational interaction between the two planets as seen by the Kepler spacecraft."

In addition to the two confirmed giant planets, Kepler scientists also have identified what appears to be a third, much smaller transit signature in the observations of Kepler-9. That signature is consistent with the transits of a super-Earth-sized planet about 1.5 times the radius of Earth in a scorching, near-sun 1.6 day-orbit. Additional observations are required to determine whether this signal is indeed a planet or an astronomical phenomenon that mimics the appearance of a transit.

[Finding more planets is always good news. The more planets out there, the more environments there are for life to emerge and evolve which increases the odds that one day either we’ll find them or they’ll find us. So, pretty cool…..] 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy – New Life for the Undead edited by Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad

Although I have had a long fascination with Vampires I have never really understood the interest with the walking dead (or these days the running dead). Obviously I understand that they can be seen – though the eyes of the survivors of any zombie attack - as a metaphorical triumph over death itself, I can’t see where you go after you realise this. Then again I have never been a huge fan of any of the general horror genres so my lack of interest (or maybe understanding) in watching animating corpses shuffle after the tasty living.

So it should come as no surprise that I was hoping that the majority of this book dealt with the various philosophical and culture aspects of vampirism. Not so unfortunately – or at least I thought this to begin with. Rather surprisingly I actually enjoyed the sections on zombies and ended up thinking that the subset of articles on vampires were rather dull. The zombies in question were, almost exclusively, those created by George Romero – the ‘Dead’ series of movies (none of which I’ve actually seen all the way through. Probably my favourite article in the whole book discussed the philosophical idea of zombies – rather than its cinematic variant. This is the problem of other minds – that being that because we have direct access to the thoughts of others there’s no actual way to confirm that other people have minds like you (or actually like me – because I don’t know if you actually exist as people!). You can see the problem. Other ‘people’ might respond in an appropriate manner but how can you tell if that’s just a conditioned response rather anything driven by another consciousness? Dale Jacquette discussed this in an intriguing way – by thinking about zombie gladiators. What if we could train zombies (the philosophical type not the rotting corpse type) to fight in gladiatorial contests for our entertainment? What if they looked just like us, shouted in pain just like us and bled to death just like us? But what if they only acting these things out because they never actually had minds – and we could tell that because of a tattoo on their skin ‘inked on’ as soon as their lack of consciousness was discovered. Would such contests be OK and if not why not? Probably the second interesting argument – put forward by several authors – was the socio-economic view of what zombies mean (beyond the critique of consumerism so blatant in the second (?) ‘Dead’ film with its now classic Mall scenes). Typically the vampire related articles explored the question of whether vampires are inherently evil or if good vampires (with or without a soul) can actually exist outside of the Buffy universe.      

Overall, despite my initial disappointment in the lower than hoped for number of vampire related articles, I found this book to be nicely diverting. I certainly learnt quite a lot about the zombie mystique – not that it is going to encourage me to watch any of Romero’s movies anytime soon. I can look at the whole zombie genre in a different way though – be it political, economic or philosophic. Books like these are great ways of ‘doing’ philosophy without appearing to do so. If you’re either a zombie or vampire fan you’ll find something in here that will interest you – and you might just pick up the odd (and sometimes very odd) philosophical concept along the way. Recommended.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Adventures in Babysitting

I’m on a bit of a nostalgia kick at the moment. One of the results is that I’ve been recently re-watching some of my favourite 80’s movies. Adventures in Babysitting is a creditable example of its type. Coming late to the party (1987) it had all of the elements of the teen movie that many of us grew up with. The plot, whilst basically rather silly, is a simple one. Chris Parker (played by the lovely Elisabeth Shue) has been dumped by her boyfriend and is depressed enough to accept a babysitting job despite feeling too old to do so – she’s 17. During what is expected to be a very dull evening she gets a call from her best friend who has run away from home – only to have also run out of money at the cities bus station. Feeling threatened she calls Chris to come pick her up. Torn between her duty to her friend and her responsibility to the kids she’s sitting, she decides to take them into the city with her. But after a blow-out on the freeway and the discovery of a purse left in the suburbs they become caught up in a series of increasingly bizarre events as they are chased by criminals across town in search of a very special Playboy magazine.

This to me was 98 minutes of fun. Shue was delightfully cute and quirky and even had a reasonable voice during her Blues number (which honestly has to be seen to be believed). The three kids are hardly ever annoying with the 10 year old Maia Brewton in particular giving a notable performance as a Thor obsessed pre-teen. The baddies were suitably 2 dimensional cut-outs complete with bad Italian accents and there was the obligatory romance bit between the High school senior Shue and the College student (played by George Newbern) whose party they crashed to use the bathroom. Then of course there were the clothes, those haircuts and the music all of which dripped 80’s so-called ‘style’. All in all it was often unintentionally funny and just as unintentionally evocative of a simpler and much more innocent age. Although it will never be hailed as a work of art or even as the best of its genre this is still a good example of a particular type of teen movie. It managed to push quite a few of my buttons when I first saw it 25 years ago and it still managed to do so – somewhat more gently – a few days ago.       

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Iran's Nuclear Scientists Are Not Being Assassinated. They Are Being Murdered

by Mehdi Hasan for The Guardian

January 17, 2012

On the morning of 11 January Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the deputy head of Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, was in his car on his way to work when he was blown up by a magnetic bomb attached to his car door. He was 32 and married with a young son. He wasn't armed, or anywhere near a battlefield. Since 2010, three other Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in similar circumstances, including Darioush Rezaeinejad, a 35-year-old electronics expert shot dead outside his daughter's nursery in Tehran last July. But instead of outrage or condemnation, we have been treated to expressions of undisguised glee.

On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear programme in Iran turn up dead," bragged the Republican nomination candidate Rick Santorum in October. "I think that's a wonderful thing, candidly." On the day of Roshan's death, Israel's military spokesman, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, announced on Facebook: "I don't know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I certainly am not shedding a tear" – a sentiment echoed by the historian Michael Burleigh in the Daily Telegraph: "I shall not shed any tears whenever one of these scientists encounters the unforgiving men on motorbikes." These "men on motorbikes" have been described as "assassins". But assassination is just a more polite word for murder. Indeed, our politicians and their securocrats cloak the premeditated, lawless killing of scientists in Tehran, of civilians in Waziristan, of politicians in Gaza, in an array of euphemisms: not just assassinations but terminations, targeted killings, drone strikes. Their purpose is to inure us to such state-sponsored violence against foreigners. In his acclaimed book On Killing, the retired US army officer Dave Grossman examines mechanisms that enable us not just to ignore but even cheer such killings: cultural distance ("such as racial and ethnic differences that permit the killer to dehumanise the victim"); moral distance ("the kind of intense belief in moral superiority"); and mechanical distance ("the sterile, Nintendo-game unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight or some other kind of mechanical buffer that permits the killer to deny the humanity of his victim").

Thus western liberals who fall over one another to condemn the death penalty for murderers – who have, incidentally, had the benefit of lawyers, trials and appeals – as state-sponsored murder fall quiet as their states kill, with impunity, nuclear scientists, terror suspects and alleged militants in faraway lands. Yet a "targeted killing", human-rights lawyer and anti-drone activist Clive Stafford Smith tells me, "is just the death penalty without due process". Cognitive dissonance abounds. To torture a terror suspect, for example, is always morally wrong; to kill him, video game style, with a missile fired from a remote-controlled drone, is morally justified. Crippled by fear and insecurity, we have sleepwalked into a situation where governments have arrogated to themselves the right to murder their enemies abroad. Nor are we only talking about foreigners here. Take Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamist preacher, al-Qaida supporter – and US citizen. On 30 September 2011, a CIA drone killed Awlaki and another US citizen, Samir Khan. Two weeks later, another CIA-led drone attack killed Awlaki's 21-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman. Neither father nor son were ever indicted, let alone tried or convicted, for committing a crime. Both US citizens were assassinated by the US government in violation of the Fifth Amendment ("No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law").

An investigation by Reuters last October noted how, under the Obama administration, US citizens accused of involvement in terrorism can now be "placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions … There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel … Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate." Should "secret panels" and "kill lists" be tolerated in a liberal democracy, governed by the rule of law? Did the founders of the United States intend for its president to be judge, jury and executioner? Whatever happened to checks and balances? Or due process? Imagine the response of our politicians and pundits to a campaign of assassinations against western scientists conducted by, say, Iran or North Korea. When it comes to state-sponsored killings, the double standard is brazen. "Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them," George Orwell observed, "and there is almost no kind of outrage … which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side". But how many more of our values will we shred in the name of security? Once we have allowed our governments to order the killing of fellow citizens, fellow human beings, in secret, without oversight or accountability, what other powers will we dare deny them?

This isn't complicated; there are no shades of grey here. Do we disapprove of car bombings and drive-by shootings, or not? Do we consistently condemn state-sponsored, extrajudicial killings as acts of pure terror, no matter where in the world, or on whose orders, they occur? Or do we shrug our shoulders, turn a blind eye and continue our descent into lawless barbarism?

[If this is true – and I’m cynical enough to believe that it is – then what a bloody awful indictment of our so-called democracies, when we can, apparently with a clear conscience, reach out and kill those who might be a danger to us anywhere in the world. Do we have any right to do this? Can it be justified in any other way than by saying we can do it so we will do it? Can you imagine the furore if Iranian agents killed a nuclear scientist in London or New York? In the past such things have resulted in wars or retaliatory bombings. Do we authorise such things because we know we can, at least for now, get away with them without the fear of retaliation? Can we, in all honesty, be surprised at all when a car bomb goes off in a European or even an American city to say “Look, we can do this too”? Do we REALLY want to live in a world where nations assassinate each others brightest and best in order to degrade their future ability to do us harm? If the scientists become too hard to target shall we move on to targeting top University students or the brightest kids in High school? Where do we stop in the name of security? Just how far are we willing to stoop?]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park – The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women who worked there by Sinclair McKay

What happened in Bletchley Park during WWII was one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Indeed the work carried out there remained a secret until the late 1970’s. For decades after the war friends and even partners of people who worked there, including rather surprisingly partners who actually met there, never knew the full story of its groundbreaking efforts in combating first the Germans and then the Japanese. It is widely believed that the famous breaking of the German military Enigma Code shortened the war by at least two years. Some authorities believe that the figure could be as high as five years. The significance of this result cannot be overstated. The codes broken in this most secret of places allowed Allied shipping to avoid U-boat attacks thereby allowing vital food and supplies to get to England to sustain her war effort. Without it the possibility exists that we may have lost the Battle of the Atlantic and have had to capitulate, leaving the US to fight alone.

What is almost as remarkable is the way the Park was set-up and operated and the kind of people who worked there. Initially it was a very British affair – when some very bright people managed to convince the military authorities that a modern code breaking service was needed. When the government turned out to be reluctant to provide the money it is rumoured that a wealthy senior naval officer bought the house himself and gave it to the Admiralty department staffed by many of his friends. The first recruits were largely made up of friends of friends and came from the higher echelons of society – in other words the ‘right set’ who were assumed to be loyal merely because of their social position. It was, in many ways, a very different world back then. Of course they needed academics too and these were recruited, again by word of mouth and private recommendations, from the great Universities of the land. Amongst them was the great Alan Turing who was instrumental in laying the foundations of the modern computer age.

The ultimate triumph of the breaking of the various Enigma Codes, despite its ramifications, is told here on a very human scale. Before the invention of the earliest computers it was human brain power exercised over long hours that chipped away at the German secrets. But as the war progressed and the numbers at Bletchley Park ballooned it became necessary to industrialise the process of cracking codes. This is where the technical genius of groundbreaking engineering ideas came to the fore which led, through necessity, to the invention of the world’s first computers. This in itself is a fascinating story. What the author brings home to the reader, through interviews with many of the people who worked there, is the human side of things. How they coped with the pressures when they knew that delays in code breaking cost lives and how many of them coped with being away from home for the very first time without the safety valve of talking about their work to anyone else. It reminded both myself and the author of going away to University – helped along by the fact that many of the senior code breakers where well known academics in their own fields – with the added elements of secrecy and inner knowledge of doing vital war work. It is, in many ways, a fascinating story of hardworking people doing incredible things in very difficult times. Recommended.    

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Best Books of 2011

I reviewed 71 books in 2011. These below are the best of the bunch.


Bluestockings – The remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson

Jane’s Fame – How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

The Resistance – The French Fight against the Nazis by Matthew Cobb

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

The Buried Soul – How Humans Invented Death by Timothy Taylor


Heart of the Comet by David Brin and Gregory Benford

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Ship of Rome by John Stack

A Gentle Axe by R N Morris

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Sharpe’s Trafalger by Bernard Cornwell

Emma by Jane Austen

Captain of Rome by John Stack

Destroyermen - Maelstrom by Taylor Anderson

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Honourable Mentions: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Blood and Ice by Robert Masello, Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Perils of 2012: When Austerity Bites Back

by Joseph Stiglitz

Friday, January 13, 2012

The year 2011 will be remembered as the time when many ever-optimistic Americans  began to give up hope. President John F. Kennedy once said that a rising tide lifts all boats. But now, in the receding tide, Americans are beginning to see not only that those with taller masts had been lifted far higher, but also that many of the smaller boats had been dashed to pieces in their wake. In that brief moment when the rising tide was indeed rising, millions of people believed that they might have a fair chance of realizing the “American Dream.” Now those dreams, too, are receding. By 2011, the savings of those who had lost their jobs in 2008 or 2009 had been spent. Unemployment checks had run out. Headlines announcing new hiring – still not enough to keep pace with the number of those who would normally have entered the labor force – meant little to the 50 year olds with little hope of ever holding a job again. Indeed, middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realized that they were, in fact, forcibly retired. Young people
who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all. People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless. Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss. More than seven million American families have lost their homes.

The dark underbelly of the previous decade’s financial boom has been fully exposed in Europe as well. Dithering over Greece and key national governments’ devotion to austerity began to exact a heavy toll last year. Contagion spread to Italy. Spain’s unemployment, which had been near 20% since the beginning of the recession, crept even higher. The unthinkable – the end of the euro – began to seem like a real possibility. This year is set to be even worse. It is possible, of course, that the United States will solve its political problems and finally adopt the stimulus measures that it needs to bring down unemployment to 6% or 7% (the pre-crisis level of 4% or 5% is too much to hope for). But this is as unlikely as it is that Europe will figure out that austerity alone will not solve its problems.   On the contrary, austerity will only exacerbate the economic slowdown. Without growth, the debt crisis – and the euro crisis – will only worsen. And the long crisis that began with the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 and the subsequent recession will continue. Moreover, the major emerging-market countries, which steered successfully through the storms of 2008 and 2009, may not cope as well with the problems looming on the horizon. Brazil’s growth has already stalled, fueling anxiety among its neighbors in Latin America.

Meanwhile, long-term problems – including climate change and other environmental threats, and increasing inequality in most countries around the world – have not gone away. Some have grown more severe. For example, high unemployment has depressed wages and increased poverty. The good news is that addressing these long-term problems would actually help to solve the short-term problems. Increased investment to retrofit the economy for global warming would help to stimulate economic activity, growth, and job creation. More progressive taxation, in effect redistributing income from the top to the middle and bottom, would simultaneously reduce inequality and increase employment by boosting total demand. Higher taxes at the top could generate revenues to finance needed public investment, and to provide some social protection for those at the bottom, including the unemployed. Even without widening the fiscal deficit, such “balanced budget” increases in taxes and spending would lower unemployment and increase output. The worry, however, is that politics and ideology on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in the US, will not allow any of this to occur. Fixation on the deficit will induce cutbacks in social spending, worsening inequality. Likewise, the enduring attraction of supply-side economics, despite all of the evidence against it (especially in a period in which there is high unemployment), will prevent raising taxes at the top.

Even before the crisis, there was a rebalancing of economic power – in fact, a correction of a 200-year historical anomaly, in which Asia’s share of global GDP fell from nearly 50% to, at one point, below 10%. The pragmatic commitment to growth that one sees in Asia and other emerging markets today stands in contrast to the West’s misguided policies, which, driven by a combination of ideology and vested interests, almost seem to reflect a commitment not to grow. As a result, global economic rebalancing is likely to accelerate, almost inevitably giving rise to political tensions. With all of the problems confronting the global economy, we will be lucky if these strains do not begin to manifest themselves within the next twelve months.

[It looks like we’ll be living through ‘interesting times’ for a little while longer. I do sometimes wonder if things will ever get back to normal or if this is the beginning of a substantial change in the ways of the world. I guess only time will tell.]

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Fairyland by Paul J McAuley

Alex Sharkey is in trouble – deep trouble. Unable to pay his protection to the local Mob boss and being threatened by the police to provide evidence against him he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. But then the Mob boss offers him a way to pay off all of his debt in one go. Jumping at the deal Alex agrees to bio-engineer a synthetic hormone that turns sexless artificial dolls into fully functional fairies. This is the world of mid-21st Century Europe where nano-technology and bio-engineering has allowed anyone with the necessary equipment to produce tailored viruses capable of just about anything. It is a world where a company enhanced child tricks Sharkey into producing the first of a new race capable of its own reproduction, a race just as smart as man in many ways but without moral scruple. Travelling across a barely recognisable Europe Alex tries to put the genie back in the bottle the he and Milena released. But she has other plans both for her co-creation and for Alex.

This is both a very good and seriously strange novel. It is also one of the best almost-cyberpunk novels I’ve read. Concentrating on the impact of biotechnology, rather that computer technology, it considers what would happen if tomorrow’s hackers could hack the genome of any creature they have access to – including humanity itself. Where hackers, rather than hiding in their bedrooms breaking into computers on the other side of the world, break into the double helix in their bathrooms and produce viruses who function are only limited by their imaginations. It is both a deeply disturbing and fascinating world picture and certainly one I would not like to live in – though I suspect people living 100+ years ago would find our present day reality equally horrifying!

I’ve read a few of McAuley’s works now and have been singularly impressed by his power to create fully realised believable characters living in deeply complex rich worlds. Not only did I recognise places mentioned both in London and Paris I was shocked by how different they had ‘become’ in the future and no matter how strange things got – and they got very strange from time to time – the incidents in the book were always believable. The only thing I would have to recommend you do with this book is approach it with a very open mind. I have been reading SF now for over 30 years and this still managed to really mess with my head. SF, even after all that time, is still by far my mind altering drug of choice and books like this one are the LSD of the SF world. One more thing: this book is not for the faint of heart or the easily disturbed. I think of myself as very open-minded about most things but I have to admit that this book did manage to raise a few eyebrows here and there. It’s often violent, contains some graphic sex and some definitely disturbing images. It is however very well written and very thought provoking. If you feel in the mood to really blow your mind then I can heartily recommend this book to do that for you.  

Monday, January 09, 2012

My Favourite TV: Firefly

Those of you who read my Blog on a regular basis will know that I spent a pleasant New Years watching the 2002 SF series Firefly. I could do this in one day – actually in about 12 hours with a few breaks - because they only made 14 episodes. Oddly when I first saw it I couldn’t understand why it lasted that long.

A bit of background might help here. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I heard that its creator, Joss Whedon, was working on another show and that it was going to be SF I was already signed up to the area. When it finally arrived I was shocked. I mean… cowboys in space, dressed like cowboys, acting like cowboys, talking like cowboys…. In the future? What was that all about? But because I really liked the creator I gave it enough time to make an impact on me. At episode 4 or 5 I gave up and wrote it off as a turkey. By the sounds of it, as it was axed half way through the first series, I wasn’t alone in my assessment. It was just too damned strange and a little too different to work properly.

Then, as with Stargate: Atlantis, I caught the inevitable re-runs and then I watched the re-runs after that and fell in love with this quirky misunderstood gem of a TV show. It’s strange looking back on it that I loved the show later for what I disliked about it the first time around. I really started to love the mix of genres and realised that it really did work. Space, or at least that bit of space in the series, was the Wild West complete with frontier towns and Indians in the shape of Reavers (scary, scary stuff!) There are soldiers who lost a kind of Civil War despite being on the ‘right side’ – it didn’t take much of a leap to see them as the remnants of the Confederacy and the victorious Alliance as the Union who are technologically strong but morally weak. I’m sure that an expert on the Civil War period and just after could draw all kinds of parallels. Of course what really made this show so special in my mind was the cast and, more importantly, how they acted together as a group. From episode one it seemed that the crew of the spaceship Serenity had known each other for years. It felt right. The unspoken history was there, some of which we found out about later, the usually unspoken tensions were there too as they would be in any group.

Of course it did the show no harm in my eyes that it was packed with very attractive women. My favourite (difficult as it was to pick just one) had to be the brilliantly natural engineer Kaylee played by the beautiful Jewel Staite. I loved the way she talked as much as the way she looked. Then there was the captain’s love interest Inara played by the very sultry Morena Baccarin. Inara was a high class, high cost prostitute or, as the captain repeatedly called her, a whore. Plain speaking about such things was a central aspect of the show. They really didn’t beat about the bush on adult issues. Next in line was Zoe played by Gina Torres, wife of the pilot Alan Tudyk. She played the ships second in command and was in the captains unit during the war. Lastly was River Tam, a young girl hunted by top Alliance operatives because of what she knows and what she can do. River was played by the disturbingly excellent Summer Glau. Probably the character I identified with most was the captain himself – Malcolm Reynolds played by Nathan Fillion. He played a man of honour in a universe largely without any, a man on the raggedy edge with little to lose except his crew, his ship and his self respect. I liked him a lot.

With only 14 episodes to work with we didn’t really learn that much about the characters themselves or about the worlds they inhabited. What we did learn was enough to unfold in a half dozen series. Cut short (even with a later movie filling in some of the background detail) we never learnt what Shepherd Book was before he became a Shepherd. We never had closure with Mal and Inara. That will they won’t they thing could have lasted years! As could the maybe/maybe not relationship between the doctor (River’s older brother) and Kaylee. We could also have found out far more about the Alliance and just how those guys with the blue gloves fitted into things. So many questions we’ll never know the answers to now.

If you’re either a fan of SF, Buffy, Joss Whedon or Westerns this might be the thing for you – if you haven’t already seen it. It is weird so you might not ‘get it’ the first time. But its only 14 episodes so you’ll be able to watch it a few times in a month or so. After repeated exposure you will (probably) begin to love it as much as I do. It’s a real, real shame that it was canned so early and that the movie didn’t do very well at the box-office. It was, I suspect just a bit too quirky and different to be popular. I for one know how that feels which is probably why I’m such a fan.           

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Kids: Teach them to love books and give them a cat........

US Had 'Frighteningly Simplistic' View of Afghanistan, says McChrystal

by Declan Walsh for The Guardian

Friday, October 7, 2011

One of America's most celebrated generals has issued a harsh indictment of his country's campaign in Afghanistan on the 10th anniversary of the invasion to topple the Taliban. Stanley McChrystal said the US and Nato were only 50% of the way to achieving their goals in Afghanistan. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP The US began the war with a "frighteningly simplistic" view of Afghanistan, the retired general Stanley McChrystal said, and even now the military lacks sufficient local knowledge to bring the conflict to an end.

The US and NATO are only "50% of the way" towards achieving their goals in Afghanistan, he told the Council on Foreign Relations. "We didn't know enough and we still don't know enough. Most of us, me included, had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years." McChrystal led the Obama administration's "surge" strategy that started in 2009 and sent US troop levels in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. Widely acknowledged as a gifted military commander, he was forced to resign last year amid controversy over remarks he made to Rolling Stone magazine. The 10th anniversary of the war, marked on Friday, has prompted sober reflection in the US about a conflict that has passed Vietnam as the military's longest war. Just over 2,750 foreign troops have been killed – 28% of them in Helmand – while between 14,000 and 18,000 civilians have died as a result of fighting, according to various estimates. Yet although the US entered Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and topple the Taliban, its most prominent targets quickly slipped across the border into Pakistan. The al-Qaida leader was discovered in Abbottabad, north of Islamabad, last May, while the Taliban have used remote border bases in Pakistan's tribal areas to launched a stiff resurgence.

In his comments on Thursday night, McChrystal also indirectly criticized the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, saying it made success in Afghanistan more difficult to achieve. The invasion "changed the Muslim world's view of America's effort", he said. "When we went after the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, there was a certain understanding that we had the ability and the right to defend ourselves and the fact that al-Qaida had been harbored by the Taliban was legitimate. I think when we made the decision to go into Iraq that was less legitimate [in the eyes of the Muslim world]." The 10th anniversary has also been marked in downbeat fashion in Afghanistan where talk of US-driven "nation building" has largely evaporated. Despite $57bn in international aid since 2001, aid agencies say most people remain mired in deep poverty. "There has been some important progress, especially in urban areas," said Anne Garella of Acbar, an umbrella group of 111 foreign and local aid agencies. "But our research highlights the gap behind positive rhetoric and grim reality." An Acbar study found that 80% of Afghans now have access to health services compared with 9% in 2001. The number of children in school has rocketed from barely one million a decade ago, 5,000 of them girls, to seven million today, one third of whom are girls. But Afghanistan still has been some of the world's worst health indicators due to shoddy facilities, conflict and official corruption. Afghans have grown highly skeptical of western aid over the years, with a widespread perception – partly well founded – that much of the money finds its way back to western countries through security costs and inflated expatriate wages.

But the greatest worry for most Afghans now is the consequence of the US drawdown planned for the end of 2014, which will see the vast majority of 150,000 foreign troops leave the country. The American plan is to hand power to the shaky Karzai-led government, which is plagued by corruption and enjoys diminishing credibility. McChrystal said that building a legitimate government that ordinary Afghans believed in, and which could serve as a counterweight to the Taliban, was among the greatest challenges facing US forces. Efforts are under way to bolster the government's authority. NATO says it will have trained 325,000 Afghan soldiers by January 2015, and the US is likely to continue financial support, although exact levels have yet to be decided. But rising ethnic and political tensions could destabilize the country before then. And plans to bring the Taliban to peace talks were hit by the assassination of Karzai's main peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, last month.

[Maybe the 'Frighteningly Simplistic' or indeed dangerously simplistic view of Afghanistan has something to do with the apparently simplistic US view of the rest of the world? From what I’ve heard of the views of leading US politicians and military men this certainly seems to be the case. What is worse is that the people at the top don’t seem to be learning the reasons behind military and diplomatic failures. You cannot simply view your ‘enemies’ as rabid, evil men bent on your destruction for completely irrational reasons and prevail against them. To fight an enemy successfully you have first and foremost to understand them. Without such an understanding any conflict is doomed to last years longer than it should and probably end in failure. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are classic examples of this and should be held up as such.]

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Full Circle – How the Classical World came back to us by Ferdinand Mount

I remember seeing this ages ago in hardback and thinking that it looked vaguely interesting. So when I recently had some money – actually some vouchers from work – to spend I treated myself to the paperback. The author had an remarkable premise – that we are returning to a world that our ancient Greek and Roman ancestors would understand. In many ways, at least according to the author, we are coming full circle, after a 2000 year detour, back to a pagan world. Why you may ask: Simply because of the decline of Christianity especially in Western Europe. Where Christianity declines, he proposes, the natural pagan virtues return as if the intervening millennia had not existed. We are, he seems to be saying, deeply pagan at heart.

It’s an interesting idea – even if not wholly convincing. He starts, rather oddly I thought, by discussing public baths. Big in the classical world they declined heavily after Christianity became the empire-wide religion of choice. Because, he maintains, the new Christians either denigrated the body or thought physical pleasure of any kind unseemly or irrelevant. But the baths never really went away (surviving in the Eastern Empire as Turkish baths) and where reintroduced by, of all people, the Victorians. Their numbers have been steadily growing ever since. Likewise Gym culture which was hugely popular in pre-Christian times. Today even the smallest of towns has at least one gym if not more. This re-engagement with the body beautiful (something again seen as almost unthinkable until fairly recently) has become pervasive as our culture surrounds itself with sexual imagery and is reflected in the belief that virtually ‘anything goes’ between consenting adults. Again these are, the author contends, pagan attitudes rather than Christian ones. Another part of the sensual spectrum is reflected in our obsession with the food we cook, eat and talk about. Foodies are no longer viewed with suspicion but given their own TV shows and best selling books (and the ear of governments).

But I’m not going to attempt to précis the entire book. The arguments the author makes and the evidence he uses to back them up has an impressive range although some links back to antiquity are a bit of a stretch. He is, for instance, too liberal with his interpretation of Greco-Roman science in comparison to today. The Greek idea of atoms, for example, was as far as I understand it not exactly analogous to our own ideas and hardly widely accepted at the time. They might have been groping towards an idea we might recognise but, like their ideas on Evolution, it was a speculation amongst many without any real evidence to back it up.

Overall though this was an interesting argument well presented which made me look at things I consider to be very modern with different eyes. It seems that we are not as forward looking as it first appears. It also underlies, at least theoretically, that our default mind-set (once Christianity has withdrawn enough) is a deeply pagan one. Maybe the Christianity out culture lived through was nothing more than a thin coat of paint applied to a pagan statue. As the paint flaked off over the centuries the pagan statue begins to emerge in all its sensual glory. It’s most certainly an entertaining thought. Recommended.       

Monday, January 02, 2012

Christmas & New Years DVDs

2011 was the year when I almost stopped watching TV. Weekday mornings I have it on when I’m getting ready for work to catch up on news and current events. In the evening I watch the news (again) and some of whatever catches my eye for a half hour or so before gaming time. Weekends I don’t watch TV at all from when I get home on Friday afternoon till Monday morning when I get up for work. This Christmas and New Year break has been no exception with the TV being on only to watch DVDs at any point in the last 17 days. If I wasn’t such a movie fan I might even consider not having a TV at all. I really don’t think I’d miss it all that much. But with a stack of DVDs to watch and plenty of time to watch them I most certainly made serious inroads to the pile stacked in front of the TV. They where (in chronological order):

There Will be Blood

The Breakfast Club

Weird Science

Black Swan

Pale Rider

Déjà Vu

The Runaways

The Outlaw Josey Wales


Mr Nobody


I also finished off Season 4 of Futurama, saw Puss in Boots at the cinema and watched the first episode of the ITV classic Inspector Morse detective series. I tried, and failed, to watch Blue Valentine only managing to sit through 50 minutes (after two attempts) before giving up. Oh, and I watched all 14 episodes of Firefly back-to-back on New Years Eve just because I could. So numbers wise it wasn’t not too bad though I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the overall quality. Maybe I’ll have better luck with new movies in 2012 – but I’m not exactly holding my breath here.