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

Monday, February 27, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Accelerando by Charles Stross

Manfred Macx is a man on the edge – it’s where he lives and where he excels. Manfred surfs the wave of the future staying minutes and sometimes hours ahead of his closest rivals. Crossing and re-crossing a near future Europe increasingly wired and future ready he gives ideas to those who need them and watches as they make millions and sometimes billions from his throw-away lines and musings on possibilities. Manfred, much to the annoyance of his wife in Internal Revenue, cares nothing for money. He has his focus on better and bigger things. Manfred is out to change the world and herald the arrival of The Singularity beyond which the future is completely unpredictable based on anything that has gone before – not just a step change but a completely new way of doing things, a future literally beyond our imagination. All is going to plan until he hears rumours of a signal received from deep space apparently from an intelligent civilisation less than 100 light years away. At first denied to exist at all the message is said to be beyond our best minds capabilities to decipher. That is until Manfred’s heavily re-engineered robot cat intercepts the real message from space. Then everything changes…….

Despite the short synopsis above this is a very difficult book to describe in a single paragraph. I’ve managed to put down a few of the essentials (at least from the first third of the book) but this novel is far, far more than that. Its rare finding a work – especially one that isn’t a first novel – packed with so many ideas. The author could have very easily written 20 or more books exploring each of the major threads of this book – and probably another 20 with the elements in the background or those that lasted for a few pages at best. That’s not to say that this book is just a hodgepodge of ideas thrown into a melting pot in the hope that some of them are half decent enough to fool the reader into thinking the author is clever. It is so far from glitter to dazzle the uninformed that I was honestly staggered at his inventiveness. This is another example of why, after almost 40 years I am still reading SF. It is the sense of wonder I get when I read books like this that honestly leaves me amazed at one mans vision of a possible future. I was, much more than once or twice, awe struck with his vision. This book is jaw droppingly good. It’s a rare thing that I become more impressed page after page and chapter after chapter as the author builds on idea after idea. This is most certainly one author that you will be hearing a great deal more of in future as I intend to read everything the man has ever written. If you want to have your mind well and truly blown, fried and scrambled all at the same time and yet be left with a sense of awe (and with a crazy smile on your face) then you really need to read this book. Oh, and it didn’t do the book any harm at all that, amongst a whole host of great characters, the hero of the piece was (kind of) a cat. Very highly recommended.        

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Just gotta love Geek humour....

Lord Carey warns 'Christianity marginalised'

From The BBC

Saturday 11th February 2012

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has said the Christian faith is facing "gradual marginalisation". His warning came after the High Court ruled a council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers at the start of meetings, a ruling which could affect councils across England and Wales. He told the BBC the ruling was "an empty victory" and councillors could simply pray privately before meetings. The case had been backed by the National Secular Society. Lord Carey told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was concerned people hostile to religion were trying to redefine the public role of religious faith. In the Devon case, action was brought against Bideford Town Council after an atheist councillor complained about the prayers. Lord Carey said the issue was "nonsense" and he did not worry too much about the specific case. "All that needs to be done is for councils up and down the country to say 'we believe prayer is important because in these moments what we are doing is saying something about council work'," he said.

Lord Carey said it was simply a matter of finding a way to accommodate the wishes of councillors, like those in Bideford, who wanted to say prayers. But he said he had a wider concern about the place of Christianity in society. "This is the gradual marginalisation of the Christian faith, being pushed to the outskirts," he said. He said this was partly due to people misunderstanding the role of the church. But he also said there was "a deliberate attempt by groups like the National Secular Society and others, who are campaigning to get rid of Christianity as a public faith".

Former Bideford councillor, Clive Bone, an atheist, had argued he faced discrimination and had his human rights infringed by having to be present for prayers during council meetings. On Friday, the High Court ruled the prayers were not lawful during meetings because they were not inherent to the council's work so the council had no power to hold them as part of its formal agenda. However, the judge said prayers could be said in a council chamber before meetings as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.

Lord Carey continued: "The test of democracy is how we contain disagreements and particularly contain minorities." He said Christians did not just leave their faith "at the door" when they went to work or were involved in the public sphere and that meant that there could sometimes be confrontation and competition. He said religious freedom no longer seemed to be a priority. "Equalities seem to trump all other kinds of freedom," he said. "This is a time for Christians to stand up and be counted."

He had earlier written in the Daily Mail that the judgement - a test case for England and Wales - could have "incredibly far-reaching consequences". He called on the government to act and allow local councils to decide for themselves whether they wished to say prayers or not He wrote: "These legal rulings may also mean army chaplains could no longer serve, and that the Coronation Oath, in which the King or Queen pledges to maintain the laws of God and the lessons contained in the Gospels, would need to be abolished. This is a truly terrifying prospect." Mr Bone said he had taken the action so that people who were not religious would not be put off from applying for public service roles. Communities secretary Eric Pickles described the ruling as "disappointing" and said Britain "remained a Christian country". He said he would try to bring forward the Localism Act - which gives local authorities more power - in order to reverse the ban on council prayers. "The new law will be in place this time by next week and the local authorities will be in a position to be able to do what they have always done which is to have prayers before a meeting."

On Saturday the National Secular Society, which had backed the case, tweeted: "Secularism seeks to ensure & protect freedom of religious belief & practice for *all* citizens. Challenging privilege is not anti-religious." On Friday, the society's executive director Keith Porteous Wood called the judgment "an important victory" for those seeking a secular society where they would not be disadvantaged by religion.

[It is interesting just how defensive Christianity is in this country. It would appear that any diminution of their position, power or privilege is seen as an organised attack on the very foundations of their religion – and by extension the foundations of civilisation itself. Despite the fact that there is a Church on every street corner, that thousands of Church schools across the country teach our children and that Bishops sit in the House of Lords they see themselves as under increasing attack in the public sphere. I can’t help but wonder what exactly Lord Carey and his followers actually want. They seem to easily and loudly voice their displeasure at what they don’t want to see or to happen but what exactly do they want? What kind of more religious society would they like to see in this country? Maybe if they actually laid this out before the public we could make an informed decision about whether or not we’d like to live in that world.]   

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them – Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir by John T Irwin

As some of you will already know I’m a big fan of Noir both in movies and in literature, so it was nice to find a book that examined both. In this largely well written and often fascinating book the author (who is a professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University) compares a handful of early written works and then discusses them in relation to each other and to the movies they spawned.

As you might be able to tell one of the books/movies discussed (illustrated and quoted on the front page) is the brilliant Maltese Falcon penned by Dashell Hammett. This, along with Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, James Cain’s Double Indemnity, W R Burnett’s High Sierra and Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes makes for a rich and detailed investigation of the history, cultural placement and raw power of Noir fiction as it burst onto the scene in the 1930’s 40’s and 50’s. I do think that some of the analysis would have gone over my head if I hadn’t read Hammett, Chandler or Cain or hadn’t seen any of the movies. So maybe some prep-work is needed to get the full use out of this text. But I suppose if you’re going to be reading this you’d be a fan already and have at least seen some of the movies listed!

Probably the thing I found most interesting in this book was the discussion of how the movie version of The Big Sleep varied from the book. This revolved around Humphey Bogart who was, at that time, getting a divorce from his then wife whilst having an affair with his co-star Lauren Bacall. To play this down and to make the film more marketable by playing up the romance between the two leads some heavy editing of the script took place – to such an extent that parts of the film clearly make little or no sense.

The main thrust of the author’s thesis regarding the Noir genre was the idea of the detective/protagonist as an independent contractor who saw everything other than his independence to be of secondary importance – which leads to the rejection of both bribes and brides. A case in point is the Sam Spade rejection of his ‘girlfriends’ idea that they cover up his partners murder because they’re in love. Spade, played by Bogart on top form, gives her up to the police – not only for his business partners murder but also because if he gave into her suggestion she would have something to hold over him for the rest of his life.

Just about the only thing I didn’t like about this book – and through which I more than happily skimmed – was a Freudian analysis of Cornell Woolrich. I mean FREUD? Please don’t make me laugh! If this had been at the beginning of the book or if the author has persisted in his ‘interpretations of the Noir author’s motives using this outdated and frankly ridiculous methodology I would have quite happily have consigned it to the unreadable pile. Fortunately he only used it in this one instance (why I wondered).

Anyway, apart from that particular wobble, this was a very interesting and often insightful study of some of the classic Noir stories that I, for one, know and love. If you’re a Noir fan (and I know that some of my regulars are) I think you’ll enjoy this – even with the Freud bit (shakes head).   

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thinking About: The Future

I’ve just finished a batch of 10 SF novels based on a variety of Future Earth’s and it couldn’t but make me think about the planets future (not that I don’t do this anyway on a regular basis). Most of the scenario’s outlined in the novels where, in my opinion, rather unlikely or just too far fetched. I don’t think that a general nuclear war is likely any time soon for instance. It’s not that it can’t happen, or won’t happen, but I find it difficult to conceive of the circumstances where such a thing might come about. I do think it likely, however, that at some point in the next 25-30 years that a nuke will go off somewhere – probably as the result of terrorism. The most likely candidates for an actual nuclear exchange between states are Pakistan and India but I think even those odds are pretty long at this point. I think that its probable that Israel will be stupid enough to attack Iran on the suspicion that it will sooner rather than later develop nuclear weapons of its own thereby initiating a balance of terror between the two countries that Israel simply cannot abide. I predict that any war between the two will not go well for the Israelis or the region as a whole.

Internationally it’s pretty certain that China will continue her rise to world domination and that the USA will continue her decline. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that the single Super-power of the future is China rather than America. Presently I see two options for American decline – the slow path or the fast path. I’m hoping for the slow path as the fast one could get very messy for the rest of us. The Europeans will, as always, muddle through. The present malaise in the Euro-zone will continue for a few more years and then, I suspect, get steadily better. I predict that there will be a lot more integration coming up and we’ll probably end up with a United States of Europe before too long – say 25-30 years. The UK – if it still exists after Scotland pulls out of the Union (followed by Wales I suspect) – will sit on the sidelines as always.

The climate will definitely get worse before it gets better. Global Warming is too advanced now – even if we actually start doing something about it today – not to have a negative effect on human existence for decades to come. I predict several major disasters where at least tens of thousands of people will die directly due to climate events. It will take at least two, though probably three, such events to occur before world opinion demands something be done about it. This will be too late (if it isn’t already) to avert some bad times before we shift the worlds economy along a much more sustainable path. Advanced technology – particularly in the field of biology - will certainly help there. Our knowledge of the genetic code will enable us to literally weather the storm ahead. Many species we take for granted will go extinct but others will be created by us. The world’s ecosystem in 100 years time will be very different from today – and that includes us too. Our knowledge of our own genome will initially allow us to build better drugs but that will be child’s play compared to first fixing and then improving our own genes. In the not too distant future we will command our own evolutionary path. Where exactly that will lead is anyone’s guess at this point.

Hopefully in the next century we will finally get off this rock and start moving out into the Solar System. This will be the start of something really big. With the amount of virtually free energy and the staggering amount of natural resources out there it will make the Industrial Revolution look like a small cottage industry in a poorly resourced 3rd world nation. The future of humanity is most definitely in space.

The next 100 years are going to be quite something – both terrifying and awe inspiring. It is pretty certain that, as our powers continue to grow, we will do some truly horrifying things to each other. I can only hope that we don’t go too far or are actually stupid enough to put our very existence in peril. If we manage to survive the next century relatively intact we should be in a position to become a system spanning civilisation. Once off the Earth in sufficient numbers to make any individual colony viable it will be very difficult indeed to stop us going further. We are ingenious enough and crazy enough to both dream of going to the stars and actually getting there. Given enough time and luck I think we can move out into the Galaxy. That’s if we can survive long enough to make the first steps off world. That, I think, is the hard part. It’s quite possible that most civilisations never make the leap into deep space because, in any number of ways, they’ve managed to kill themselves off before being able to do so. Maybe we can be one of the few to make it. Wouldn’t that be fun!     

Saturday, February 18, 2012



Sep. 29, 2010

WASHINGTON -- A team of planet hunters from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet with three times the mass of Earth orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star's "habitable zone." This discovery was the result of more than a decade of observations using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, one of the world's largest optical telescopes. The research, sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation, placed the planet in an area where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one.

To astronomers, a "potentially habitable" planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one where humans would thrive. Habitability depends on many factors, but having liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important. The new findings are based on 11 years of observations of the nearby red dwarf star Gliese 581using the HIRES spectrometer on the Keck I Telescope. The spectrometer allows precise measurements of a star's radial velocity (its motion along the line of sight from Earth), which can reveal the presence of planets. The gravitational tug of an orbiting planet causes periodic changes in the radial velocity of the host star. Multiple planets induce complex wobbles in the star's motion, and astronomers use sophisticated analyses to detect planets and determine their orbits and masses.

"Keck's long-term observations of the wobble of nearby stars enabled the detection of this multi-planetary system," said Mario R. Perez, Keck program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Keck is once again proving itself an amazing tool for scientific research." Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution lead the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey. The team's new findings are reported in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. "Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet," said Vogt. "The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common."

The paper reports the discovery of two new planets around Gliese 581. This brings the total number of known planets around this star to six, the most yet discovered in a planetary system outside of our own. Like our solar system, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly-circular orbits. The new planet designated Gliese 581g has a mass three to four times that of Earth and orbits its star in just under 37 days. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with a definite surface and enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere. Gliese 581, located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra, has two previously detected planets that lie at the edges of the habitable zone, one on the hot side (planet c) and one on the cold side (planet d). While some astronomers still think planet d may be habitable if it has a thick atmosphere with a strong greenhouse effect to warm it up, others are skeptical. The newly-discovered planet g, however, lies right in the middle of the habitable zone.

The planet is tidally locked to the star, meaning that one side is always facing the star and basking in perpetual daylight, while the side facing away from the star is in perpetual darkness. One effect of this is to stabilize the planet's surface climates, according to Vogt. The most habitable zone on the planet's surface would be the line between shadow and light (known as the "terminator").

[The thing that really jumped out at me was that the planet – despite it large size (and presumably therefore increased surface gravity) and the fact that it is, like our Moon, tidally locked (therefore having rather strange weather) – is the fact that it is squarely in the middle of the star's "habitable zone." That means that there is likely to be liquid water and probably conditions changeable enough to promote adaptive evolution of any creature that does emerge on its surface and its only 20 Light Years away! I’d definitely put that star system on my priority watch list and once we have probes capable of speeds approaching that of light (probably a century or more away I know) it should be very high indeed on the visit list. Very cool indeed.]

Friday, February 17, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

21st Century America - a hugely competitive, technologically obsessed nation. The price for a constantly accelerating pace of change is a severe and growing social disconnect, a feeling that everything is beyond control, it is a society living with Future Shock. In a effort to keep their countries competitive edge, the US government institute a series of institutions designed to create the managers and leaders of the future who can see patterns where others see chaos and who can successfully act on information others are barely aware of. Teenage misfit Nickie Haflinger is one such person, or at least potentially one, when he is inducted into the elite Tarnover Academy. It’s not long before he realises though that not all is as advertised. As he continues to out-think his supposed tutors he discovers the real purpose behind the government programmes – control and manipulation of the entire population for the benefit of the few chosen leaders. Escaping back into society Nickie becomes a chameleon, blending into multiple personalities always two steps ahead of his pursuers. Until that is he discovers another version of himself and a strange town called Precipice where he decides to change everything.

This is, in many ways, a rather odd SF Classic. Despite being based in the early to mid 21st century it is clearly a product of its time. First published in 1975 it predates the computer age and therefore fails to predict most of the day-to-day ‘miracles’ we take for granted. Yet at the same time the author manages to predict some of the more commonplace headlines of today that would surely have astounded anyone picked up from that time and plonked down in front of a widescreen TV anywhere in the ‘developed’ world. The book had an almost quaint nostalgic feel to it but at the same time highlighted just how much the world has changed in the last 35 odd years when compared with the ‘future’ envisioned between its pages. It was almost at times like watching several versions of a movie superimposed over to top of each other – a sort of landscape with things how they where, things how they are and things how it was imagined they would be all mixed in together. This book is, I think, above all else a very political book. It is a work deeply critical of modern technological society and what it does to the people – who are essentially still the same apes that trooped across the African Savannah millennia ago – forced to cope with change upon change without any opportunity to influence or effect what is being asked of them. Holding this book up to the 21st century as is – rather than the one imagined – shows how much has changed technologically and yet how little has changed in human nature. The majority of people do seem to be able to cope with the pace of change experienced today (which is honestly far higher than that portrayed in this book – rather unsurprisingly) but how long this human adaptability can continue to absorb the continual shocks is anyone’s guess.

I did struggle a bit with this because of the way it was written – but that might just be a purely personal failing. I think it quite clearly deserves to be called a Classic but it does (IMO) require some more effort than I’ve been finding with other books in this genre lately.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Favourite TV: The Invaders

For those of you too young to remember The Invaders was an American SF show running for 43 episodes over 2 series in 1967 and 1968. Even though I was very much alive at the time I doubt if I saw the original run of either series – partially because it probably ran in a late evening slot and it may have been before we had our first TV. One thing I do know is that it certainly made an impact on me in my pre-teens as Architect David Vincent (played superbly by Roy Thinnes) tracked across 60’s America attempting to convince a disbelieving world that the Invaders were already here (to quote the fantastically evocative voiceover).

Over the last few weeks I’ve been enjoying sitting down, at the end of a hectic day, to this slice of pure nostalgic heaven. I finished Series one last week and Series two is waiting to be screened over the coming months. Of course I don’t expect there to be any conclusion to the fight against this deadly and largely ignored enemy – after all they look just like us (apart from the odd crooked finger) and who believes in aliens anyway? I’m guessing – after all these years it was like watching the series for the first time which was great – that the series was canned in mid-flow without any planned conclusion. So it’ll be left hanging. Did he finally defeat the aliens or convince enough people to join his cause? It’s difficult to say – the evidence (such as it was) was inconclusive. The aliens seemed very adept indeed at covering their tracks. It obviously helped that they self-disintegrated on death and they their weapons vaporised anything they hit (including equipment that could have given them away moments before the authorities arrived). Then of course there was the mixture of wilful disbelief at just about every level coupled with years of alien infiltration throughout the establishment to ensure that any evidence or reports of alien activity disappeared in one way or another without arousing too much suspicion.

Of course the whole thing was a product of Cold War paranoia. The aliens, emotionless and often seen wearing dark boiler-suits, where clearly meant to be Communist infiltrators. They had little regard for any life, including their own, and where dedicated to one cause only – the overthrow of the Earth (represented inevitably by the USA). In many ways – rather obvious in hindsight – The Invaders was very much a precursor of The X-Files where alien conspiracies are uncovered only to have any solid evidence whipped away at the last minute leaving the protagonist(s) looking rather foolish. It irritated me a great deal in the X-Files and it did irritate a little in The Invaders too. But I think the thing that exasperated me most about the show was that even when people (other than the lead) had direct contact with the aliens and survived – a fairly rare thing I admit – they still either didn’t believe or where too afraid to do anything about it except run and hide in a corner. But the things I loved about the show far exceed this rather minor irritation. I loved the idea of the show, its pervading sense of menace, the thought that anyone could be an alien. I loved the weird alien space craft, the noises they made and their clear technological superiority. I loved the guns the squirted globs of red flame that incinerated anything they touched and I loved the fact that David Vincent never gave up in his quest to rid the Earth of this menace. Despite the fact that, not surprisingly, this is very dated TV this is still a very watchable slice of SF history. If you have a slow evening, try an episode or two. You’ll be hooked before you know it.           

Saturday, February 11, 2012

SeaWorld sued over 'enslaved' killer whales

From the BBC

7 February 2012

Deadly orca back in Florida show Five killer whales have been named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit which argues they deserve the same constitutional protection from slavery as humans. A US judge is considering a complant by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (Peta) against SeaWorld. It is reportedly the first time a US court has heard legal arguments over whether animals should enjoy the same constitutional protections as humans. SeaWorld's legal team said the case was a waste of time and resources. The marine park's lawyer, Theodore Shaw, told the court in San Diego: "Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the 'We the people'... when the Constitution was adopted." He said that if the case were successful, it could have implications not just on how other marine parks or zoos operate, but even on the police use of sniffer dogs to detect bombs and drugs.

Peta says the killer whales are treated like slaves for being forced to live in tanks and perform daily at the SeaWorld parks in California and Florida. It is not considered likely that the whales will win their freedom, but campaigners said they were pleased the case even made it to a courtroom. The lawsuit invokes the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which abolished "slavery or involuntary servitude" in the US. Jeffrey Kerr, the lawyer representing the five whales, said: "For the first time in our nation's history, a federal court heard arguments as to whether living, breathing, feeling beings have rights and can be enslaved simply because they happen to not have been born human. By any definition these orcas have been enslaved here." Hearing the arguments for about an hour, US District Judge Jeffrey Miller raised concerns over whether animals could be represented as plaintiffs in a lawsuit. He will issue a ruling at a later date.

Peta names the five wild-captured orca plaintiffs as Tilikum and Katina, at SeaWorld Orlando; and Kasatka, Corky, and Ulises, at SeaWorld San Diego. It is not Tilikum's first time in the media spotlight - he drowned his trainer before horrified spectators in February 2010, prompting a ban on the Florida park's employees entering the water to perform tricks with the orcas. The same whale has also been linked to two other deaths.

[Of course if you’ve been following this story you’ll know that the case failed. It’s still an interesting proposition though – Are Orca’s people? Personally I wouldn’t have chosen them as the creatures to use to gain rights for non-humans. I’d picked some of the great apes such as Orang-utan’s or Gorilla’s. Orca’s are, I think, too alien to be easily classified as people even if they are self aware and as intelligent as they seem. I wouldn’t be too surprised if such a ruling is made somewhere at some point – especially if (actually when if I think about it for a second) we start to manipulate other creatures genomes to enhance their cognitive functioning. As they say: Watch this space!]  

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Dawn’s Uncertain Light by Neal Barrett, Jr

Decades after a Nuclear and Bacteriological war devastated the world what was the USA is still in deep trouble. Racked by a destructive and seemingly irresolvable civil war and existing without many of the large mammals who feed billions before the conflict every day is a struggle for existence. Born into this world is Howie Ryder, a young man who six years earlier watched his sister be chosen to live on Silver Island, a light in the darkness and the future of American society. Except that, as Howie has found out, is a lie. Silver Island does indeed exist but for much darker purposes. Desperate for meat of any kind the Government has developed a substitute for the lost cattle – cloned humans who live without developing consciousness or any sense of self. The only problem is that inbreeding over generations has weakened the stock. The only way to stop this inevitable decline is to introduce new blood, new genetic material – from humans. Howie quickly learns the fate of his sister and also that the meat grown for human consumption is a lot closer to human that anyone dares to realise. Horrified by the realisation of what humanity is doing to itself he determines that he will do all in his power to bring the whole project to an end. He is astonished when he finds friends to help him in his endeavours but is unaware that larger forces are moving in the background and that his every move is being calculated and manipulated by those closest to him.

This is another of those books that have been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I almost didn’t read it on this occasion after I discovered that it was the sequel to Through Darkest America published in 1987 which is presently out of print. Then I thought of the likelihood of ever picking up the original (about nil I would imagine) and said to myself ‘what the heck’. I need not have worried. Not only is this well written you don’t actually need to have read the first book to understand what’s going on. The occurrences in the first book are alluded to in enough detail – without becoming tedious – to give you enough background to what’s going on. Also I think most of us are fairly familiar with the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of SF to pick up enough of the references without too much effort. Because of the subject matter – virtual institutionalised cannibalism – this is sometimes a disturbing read as Howie realises what has been and still is going on (not least of which is that he was part of the accepting majority before he realised the truth). The novel also raises some very interesting philosophical and political questions about just how far would we, could we or should we go – both as individuals and societies – to survive in a hostile world. Eating the dead might just about be acceptable during a temporary survival situation but how acceptable is it the actually breed other ‘humans’ for their meat? This is often a haunting narrative that will linger long after you finish the last page. It’s well written and thoughtful with good characterisation and the subtle application of strong emotional themes. Recommended (though I think both books might be out of print now so you might have some problems picking either of them up).     

Monday, February 06, 2012

My Favourite Movies: The Long Kiss Goodnight

Now, if I was pitching an idea to a cynical studio executive about an amnesiac assassin who recovers her memory just in time to foil a terrorist plot I really wouldn’t go with the name Geena Davis in the lead role. Not that I don’t like her, I do, but just that “action hero” and “Geena Davis” don’t usually form parts of the same sentence or at least they didn’t until this 1996 movie came along.

The plot is about as far fetched as they come. We are introduced the frumpy local teacher and home maker Samantha Caine who can’t remember anything about her life prior to 8 years ago. Until that is she gets involved in a car wreck around Christmas time. Over the next few days she starts having nightmares and waking visions about another more violent version of herself. When someone tries to kill her in her own home (and fails) she goes on a hunt for her past with low-life detective Mitch Henessey played by Samuel L Jackson in his usual wisecracking form. Of course the bad-guys (in the guise of her former employers the CIA) want her out of the way before she can uncover the plot about to be hatched to manufacture a terrorist incident on US soil as a much needed ‘fundraiser’ care of the US tax payer. What the baddies don’t realise is that their actions to silence Charlie Baltimore (Samantha Caine’s ‘real’ name) awakens the ruthless assassin hidden deep inside her with awesome consequences.

A number of things lift this movie above the generic factory produced film this could have been. The way that Geena Davis and Samuel Jackson spark off each other is highly entertaining. Both actors are funny and quick witted with it. It must have been very amusing to watch them in action on the set. The action sequences where nicely done with plenty of bullets flying and some inventive additions to a pretty tired genre (even back then). Then, of course, there was the seemingly bizarre choice of Geena herself. Even sitting there watching it it’s difficult to believe that she’s doing the things she does – casually breaking bad guys necks and shooting them dead with astonishing accuracy and with barely a flicker of emotion. I think I watched this movie the first time 16 years ago honestly open mouthed followed by howls of laughter as bad guy after bad guy gets what’s coming to him. Both Geena and Sam get some great one-liners and their timing is flawless. All in all this is highly entertaining hokum where you really need to put your brain in neutral and just go for it. Let the whole thing just wash over you (carefully ignoring your critical faculties) and just have fun. But be warned – this is far from a family friendly film as the swearing content is very high as is the body count.        

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Welcome to my World (of Warcraft).

Aliens May Destroy Humanity to Protect Other Civilizations, Say Scientists

by Ian Sample for The Guardian

Friday, August 19, 2011

It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim.

Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth's atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilization growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain. This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by a NASA-affiliated scientist and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future. Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA's Planetary Science Division and his colleagues compiled a list of plausible outcomes that could unfold in the aftermath of a close encounter, to help humanity "prepare for actual contact". In their report, Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis, the researchers divide alien contacts into three broad categories: beneficial, neutral or harmful.

Beneficial encounters ranged from the mere detection of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), for example through the interception of alien broadcasts, to contact with cooperative organisms that help us advance our knowledge and solve global problems such as hunger, poverty and disease. Another beneficial outcome the authors entertain sees humanity triumph over a more powerful alien aggressor, or even being saved by a second group of ETs. "In these scenarios, humanity benefits not only from the major moral victory of having defeated a daunting rival, but also from the opportunity to reverse-engineer ETI technology," the authors write. Other kinds of close encounter may be less rewarding and leave much of human society feeling indifferent towards alien life. The extraterrestrials may be too different from us to communicate with usefully. They might invite humanity to join the "Galactic Club" only for the entry requirements to be too bureaucratic and tedious for humans to bother with. They could even become a nuisance, like the stranded, prawn-like creatures that are kept in a refugee camp in the 2009 South African movie, District 9, the report explains. The most unappealing outcomes would arise if extraterrestrials caused harm to humanity, even if by accident. While aliens may arrive to eat, enslave or attack us, the report adds that people might also suffer from being physically crushed or by contracting diseases carried by the visitors. In especially unfortunate incidents, humanity could be wiped out when a more advanced civilization accidentally unleashes an unfriendly artificial intelligence, or performs a catastrophic physics experiment that renders a portion of the galaxy uninhabitable.

To bolster humanity's chances of survival, the researchers call for caution in sending signals into space, and in particular warn against broadcasting information about our biological make-up, which could be used to manufacture weapons that target humans. Instead, any contact with ETs should be limited to mathematical discourse "until we have a better idea of the type of ETI we are dealing with." The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilizations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilizations. "A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilization may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilizational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions," the report states. "Green" aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet. "These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets," the authors write. Even if we never make contact with extraterrestrials, the report argues that considering the potential scenarios may help to plot the future path of human civilization, avoid collapse and achieve long-term survival.

[Honestly……? I think that alien invasion is about the least likely future scenario I can think of……]

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Just Finished Reading: How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

I guess that there are a number of Titanic related books coming out at the moment because the 100th anniversary is due soon – in about 10 weeks actually. This one caught my eye mainly because my local bookshop was selling it for half price. That’s still a hefty price (being in hardback) but I thought it’d probably be worth it. I was right.

I’ve been interested in the Titanic disaster for some time. I mean who wouldn’t be, it’s just such a great story on the human level, the technological level and the cultural level (and not forgetting the mystery level too). This absolutely fascinating book concentrated on the human, the personal, level focused through the lens of one man – J Bruce Ismay. He was, at the time of the tragedy, the owner of the White Star line who managed the Titanic and her sister ship. He was also one of the few survivors who, apparently, calmly stepped into a lifeboat and never looked back. After returning to England he became a social outcast who was shunned by high society as being tantamount to a coward who should, as did the captain, the chief engineer and a great many of the crew, have gone down with the ship. Of course, as the author makes clear, he didn’t do anything wrong. According to his own testimony, and those of others, he left on one of the last boats and there was no one else in that area at that time. At the same time a famous American polo player stepped into the boat with him and disappeared from history – after being divorced by his wife for abandoning her on the Titanic itself (she survived by getting into a boat of the opposite side – with no help from her husband). The problem with Ismay, unfortunately, was that his disposition didn’t lend itself to sympathy (little of which was available in that age if men survived and women and children died in their place). Ismay had a distant seeming personality and often failed to understand the emotions of others. Because of this he came across as being indifferent to the suffering of others as well as being arrogant in his attitude to both the American and British enquiry. Worst of all, despite no accusation actually being made, he was accused of influencing the route the ship took, the speed at which it travelled (and the speed at which it subsequently hit the infamous iceberg) and the fact that it tried to limp away to arrive at New York under its own power, which was something I was completely unaware of.

Without giving too much away this was an excellent addition to the growing number of books on one of the defining incidents of the early 20th century. Not only does the central figure of Ismay give the whole book a focus, a backbone if you will, it allows an examination not only of Edwardian attitudes to the disaster, and Ismay’s apparently shocking behaviour, but also uncovers a series of fascinating sub-stories surrounding that fateful April night in mid-Atlantic. I found the whole thing fascinating and found myself reluctant to put it down at the end of the day. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone with an even passing interest in the subject.

[As an aside I remember reading some years ago a list of the survivors and was surprised (and pleased) to discover two people with my surname on it. However, on searching an on-line database recently I discovered that both young people – aged 21 and 23 – did not in fact survive. I can’t help wondering if they were related to me. My fathers name is not exactly common (though it is apparently far more common in his native Ireland) so you never know. Maybe I should try to find out? I wonder what else it might turn up?]