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

Saturday, March 31, 2012


Amazon boss Jeff Bezos 'finds Apollo 11 Moon engines'

From The BBC

29 March 2012

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he has located the long-submerged F-1 engines that blasted the Apollo 11 Moon mission into space. In a blog post, Mr Bezos said the five engines were found using advanced sonar scanning some 14,000ft (4,300m) below the Atlantic Ocean's surface. Mr Bezos, a billionaire bookseller and spaceflight enthusiast, said he was making plans to raise one or more. Apollo 11 carried astronauts on the first Moon landing mission in 1969. The F-1 engines were used on the giant Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo landing module out of the Earth's atmosphere and towards the Moon. They burned for just a few minutes before separating from the second stage module and falling to Earth somewhere in the Atlantic. Mr Bezos' announcement comes days after film director James Cameron succeeded in his own deep-sea expedition, reaching the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet.

Announcing the discovery on his Bezos Expeditions website, Mr Bezos described the F-1 as a "modern wonder" that boasted 32 million horsepower and burned 6,000lb (2,720kg) of rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen every second. "I was five years old when I watched Apollo 11 unfold on television, and without any doubt it was a big contributor to my passions for science, engineering, and exploration," he wrote, confirming that his team had located the engines but without hinting where they might be. "We don't know yet what condition these engines might be in - they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years. On the other hand, they're made of tough stuff, so we'll see," Mr Bezos wrote. His privately funded team was planning to raise one or more engines, he wrote. He said he planned to ask Nasa - which still owns the rockets - for permission to display one in the Museum of Flight in his home city of Seattle. Nasa said it looked forward to hearing more about the recovery, the Associated Press reports. Other elements of the Apollo missions - including the Apollo 11 command module - are on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. The attempt to raise the F-1 engines is not the first foray into space technology for Mr Bezos. In 2000 he founded a private space flight firm, Blue Origin, which has received Nasa funding and is working on making orbital and sub-orbital spaceflight commercially available.

[Cool – OK cool GEEK – story. The best of luck to him!]

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Zero Cool by John Lange

In the mid 1960’s newly qualified radiologist Peter Ross decides to celebrate with a trip to Europe – in fact he intends to lie on a Spanish beach picking up sunrays and foreign women. All seems to be going to plan when he meets the beautiful Angela Locke, but not before he is warned off a job he has yet to be offered – to undertake an autopsy of a recently killed gang boss. Despite several pointed refusals to do so he is finally persuaded – with some helpful death threats to undertake the surgery only to be stopped part way through to help with the insertion of a small heavy box into the corpse. Later, when he tries to leave the country he is abducted by a rival group who want to know where the item – and the body – is now. Unable to help them he is told a fantastic story of ancient treasure and family heirlooms involving a priceless object. Chased across Europe Dr Ross and his now girlfriend Angela Locke need to find the mysterious object or die trying.

This is my 7th book in the Hard Case Crime series and I have to say that I have been generally disappointed up until now. Unfortunately this book did not exactly raise the bar. It was, at best, readable although it did have the saving grace of at lest having witty dialogue. It was overall rather formulaic and actually reminded me in many ways, other than in the quality of the writing, with The Maltese Falcon – with multiple groups chasing after a fantastically expensive item from a bygone age which may or may not actually exist. Not exactly the worst thing I’ve ever read but should only really be read on a beach holiday and probably left in the hotel room when you return home.     

Monday, March 26, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Fortress by Bernard Cornwell

Newly promoted Ensign Richard Sharpe is starting to wonder if accepting being an officer was such a good idea. The men he served with no longer know how to treat him and his fellow officers ignore him as he is far from being a gentleman. Wanting only to fight – about the only thing he has discovered he’s good at – he is frustrated by the senior staff that seem keen on preventing him from doing so. Sent to investigate irregularities in the Supply Train he discovers a set up riddled through with corruption. At the heart of it is Sharpe’s old enemy Sergeant Hawkeswill who plots to kill Sharpe once and for all, but Sharpe is a hard man to kill as many have found out to their cost. Forced to run for his life Hawkeswill throws himself on Britain’s enemy in India and finds himself in the great fortress of Gawilghur, an apparently impregnable strongpoint held by the renegade British officer William Dodd. To face his enemies Sharpe must do the impossible – take a fortress that has never fallen.

This is my 12th Sharpe novel. That fact alone should tell you how much I enjoy reading the adventures of Richard Sharpe. Sharpe is such a fantastic invention; he is a man who has had to fight every day of his life just to survive in an uncaring world. Yet he is a man of honour who makes a firm friend and a fearsome enemy. Almost despite himself he is rising through the ranks making many people he comes across deeply uncomfortable. He is, above all else, a fish out of water except in the one element where he excels – combat. Here he is without peer and the men who follow him into the carnage that was the combat experience of 19th Century soldiering know it. Never asking men to do anything he would not do himself troops will follow him into Hell itself. Fortress is a cross-over novel in a way. It takes place before the original first novel in the series and explains – or at least strongly hints at – how he finally arrived in Europe as part of the nearly formed Rifle Regiment. Presently my plan is to fill in the chronological gaps in the story, so I will follow Sharpe to Europe (actually told in Sharpe’s Trafalgar which I read some time ago). It’s going to seem a little disjointed but you’re going to have to bear with me. If you’re a fan of military or historical fiction this is definitely a must read series – but I’d start at the beginning if I was you!      

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring is here.... (at last)!

Militant secularisation threat to religion, says Warsi

From The BBC

14 February 2012

Britain is under threat from a rising tide of "militant secularisation", a cabinet minister has warned. Religion is being "sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere", Conservative co-chairwoman Baroness Warsi wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph. The Muslim peer said Europe needed to become "more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity". She will also highlight the issue in a speech at the Vatican on Wednesday. "I will be arguing that to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds," she wrote in the Telegraph. "In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages." Baroness Warsi, who is Britain's first female Muslim cabinet minister, went on to write: "You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes."

She wrote that examples of a "militant secularisation" taking hold of society could be seen in a number of things - "when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won't fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere". She also compared the intolerance of religion with totalitarian regimes, which she said were "denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities". Her comments come days after the High Court ruled that a Devon town council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at meetings. And, as BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott reports, the Church of England could soon lose its traditional role as the provider of the chief chaplain to the Prison Service. The Ministry of Justice has confirmed it is "considering arrangements" for appointing a new Chaplain-General - but the job might not go to an Anglican. Our correspondent says the move may be seen by some Anglicans as the latest sign of the reduced influence of the "established" Church of England in public affairs.

On Baroness Warsi's article and speech, BBC political correspondent Louise Stewart said it was not the first time a senior Conservative had called for a revival of traditional Christian values. "Last December, Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK was a Christian country and 'should not be afraid to say so'," she said. The British Humanist Association (BHA) described Baroness Warsi's comments as "outdated, unwarranted and divisive". "In an increasingly non-religious and, at the same time, diverse society, we need policies that will emphasise what we have in common as citizens rather than what divides us," said BHA chief executive Andrew Copson. Baroness Warsi's two-day delegation of seven British ministers to the Holy See will include an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the UK in 2010. This visit marks the 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of full diplomatic ties between Britain and the Vatican.

Meanwhile, new research suggests Britons who declare themselves Christian display low levels of belief and practice. Almost three quarters of the 1,136 people polled by Ipsos Mori agreed that religion should not influence public policy, and 92% agreed the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal beliefs. It also found that 61% of Christians agreed homosexuals should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as heterosexuals. And a further 62% were in favour of a woman's right to have an abortion within the legal time limit. The survey was conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK), which describes itself as promoting "scientific education, rationalism and humanism"

[Of course the phrase ‘militant secularism’ is code for “no one is listening to us anymore” or “we’re losing power again” rather than what it’s meant to mean. As far as I can tell religion has been falling back into the private sphere and away from the public sphere for over 50 years. It appears that most people see any religious influence on local or national government policy to be, at best, questionable and at worst intrusive and dangerous. My gut feeling is that, in Europe at least, the time of great religious observance has passed into history. Baroness Warsi is harking back to a time and a place that no longer exists in this country. He calls for a time when religion was loud and proud will, I expect, largely fall on deaf ears and religion will continue its long decline until it only exists within the minds of a slowly reducing minority of people. It is about time, I suggest, that we should like it die with dignity rather than bemoan the fact that it’s terminally ill.] 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of The Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis

It was clearly the intention of the author to rehabilitate the image of the Celt away from that of the violence drunk warrior people who sacked Rome more than once and made a major contributor to the downfall of that civilisation offering nothing in its place. Such an image has remained in place because of the views (largely) of the very Romans they helped to destroy. Julius Caesar himself, in his classic and oft quoted Conquest of Gaul, puts them firmly in their place as stereotypical barbarians good for little else but slaughter on the battlefield.

But, as this book clearly points out time and again there was far more to the Celts than their warrior persona. But first Ellis put to bed the sometimes argued idea that the Celts themselves did not exist and where in fact yet another Victorian invention. With both documentary and archaeological evidence Ellis nails this erroneous idea as yet another attempt to redefine history contrary to literally mounds of evidence. After outlining their political and social structure – equally as complex as the societies around them – Ellis delves deeply into their religious Elite, the Druids who were at the time universally admired by all who interacted with them with the notable exception of Rome who went to great lengths to destroy them as a force in the Celtic world. This fact alone shows how important they were.

There is no getting around that the Celts were a warrior people – though such was hardly unusual at the time. Indeed the Celts proved to be one of the Roman Empires deadliest opponents who were responsible for numerous defeats of Roman ambitions throughout the European continent. Without their influence it is arguable that some of what we regard as Roman weapons and tactics may never have been applied to such good effect against Rome’s enemies. In the centuries of bruising conflict between the two sides Rome learnt a great deal from its many defeats and set-backs.

One of the things that shocked Romans when they came into regular contact with Celtic society was their women. Roman observers were scandalised by the fact that women often decided who their lovers and husbands would be and could divorce them if they proved to be inadequate. Such a thing – along with owning property, inheriting land as well as leading warriors into battle – was practically unheard of in the Ancient world. One thing that really struck me was a Celtic law that allowed a woman to take any action against her adulterous husband for 48 hours after learning of his adultery: - It being considered that she would be far too angry and emotional to be held accountable for her actions. Such a law did not, however, apply to men who were considered to be rational enough to be in control of what they did and therefore to be held accountable for their actions!

Ellis shows time and again that not only were the Celts great warriors (and enlightened law makers) but that they were also renowned weapon smiths, artists, engineers and, rather oddly given their reputation, road builders. They were far from, it would seem, the mindless barbarian hordes we have long assumed them to be. But this is not simply revisionist history or a romantic overlaying of the noble savage onto the bare bones of a real one. Ellis clearly bases his ideas on hard evidence some of which has only come to light in the last few decades. It’s nice to know that my ancestors were not only the beer swilling destroyers of civilisations but could also craft a good knife, farm the land, speculate on existence and treat their women like individuals long before so-called civilised peoples did the same. If you have any hint of Celtic heritage or just want to put the record straight this is definitely the book for you. I am very much looking forward to reading his book on the Druids. Watch this space. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

OK... I'm not exactly sure why I like this..... but I do!

Thinking About: Personal Demons

We all have them – those voices in the back of our minds that tell us that we’ll fail at whatever we’re attempting or that no matter what we do or how we are that no one will ever truly love us. They are our own personal demons. Of course, they’re not really demons (which don’t exist) but are aspects of our own personalities. Some of them are internalisations of parents or siblings absorbed into our early psychological make-up long before we had defences to keep them out. Tell a child bad things about itself often enough and it will believe that it’s stupid or ugly no matter what it becomes or believes in later life. No matter what happens there will always be that voice telling them that they will simply not be good enough – ever.

For as long as I can remember I have been criticised for the things I do and the person I am. In subtle and not so subtle ways I have been told for probably 50 years that any problems I encounter in my life are primarily the cause of my personal inadequacies and that if only I stopped doing X or started doing Y or behaved more like Z then I would lead a much happier life and get what I want from it. In other words if only I wasn’t ME things would be so much better. I don’t think I ever actually made a conscious decision to regard this as the bullshit it is rather than try (impossibly) to be that person that other people wanted me to be, but at some point I must have said NO (internally) and decided to be who I wanted to be (or simply to discover who I really was). Inevitably this only increased the level of criticism aimed at me. After all how dare I think I knew best and how arrogant of me for wanting to be an individual in a world populated by clones too afraid to be who they should be. Of course I wasn’t born with this attitude ‘problem’. Like anything under attack I developed my defences over time. Which meant that some of the early attacks made it through and caused damage before I was ready for them. Some of the surviving attackers stayed behind as infiltrators and ‘fifth columnists’ and it’s with these early invaders that the nagging voices originate like propaganda broadcasts attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the incumbent regime.

So, how do I deal with these ‘broadcasts’? Mostly I ignore them as beneath my notice. When I have to deal with them – when they get too strident or too confident or when the ‘regime’ has moments of weakness - I have two stock responses: laughter or ridicule and cold hard reason. Most of my demons would make excellent stand-up comedians. Their snipping criticisms are so far off-beam and so ridiculous that the only rational response is howls of laughter. Of course knowing that they are in fact serious makes the whole performance even funnier. They are literally laughed off the stage. Other demons are harder to shift. They use my own mental abilities against me to fabricate arguments I should have difficulty refuting. Classically they put forward the oldest arguments – some of which I’ve actually heard from real live people and not just from my demons. Sweeping statements like “You’ll never amount to anything” or “You’ll never get anywhere (with an attitude like that)” are intermingled with “No one will ever love you” and “You’ll die alone”. I’ve heard these statements so often that they have become – if anything – rather tedious and frankly boring. To each I turn on the cold, hard light of reason and watch with delight as the demons scuttle away into the few shadows left clearly shaking in their cloven boots. “What exactly am I supposed to be amounting to?” I ask. “Where is this place I am meant to go to?” I question and “What makes is such a great place?” In response – silence. As to love I retort that I have been loved in the past (apparently) and may be loved again before I die. But tellingly I respond that love is too often a passing emotion, too often misunderstood by those in its grip and designed simply to bind two people together long enough to carry children beyond their most vulnerable early years. My personal experiences and my observations of others, I lecture my demons, tell me that love is a ‘nice to have’ but that actively seeking it and placing it as a central need in your life simply results in opening you up to a whole world of disappointment. Life, I continue firmly in lecture mode, would seem happier on the whole and on balance without the turmoil of love. At this point I am delighted that my demons are beginning to shuffle in their seats, look at their watches and to stifle yawns. Finally a smug looking demon shouts out that no matter what I do with my life and no matter how I defend myself I will inevitably die alone. So I look that particular demon squarely in the face and smile for a moment. “We all die alone” I say drawing that particular sting. “More important”, I remind it “is the fact that when I die all of you demons will die with me.” As the realisation hits them and their eyes begin to widen in shock I turn my back on them and walk away….. laughing.          

Saturday, March 17, 2012



Oct. 28, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Nearly one in four stars similar to the sun may host planets as small as Earth, according to a new study funded by NASA and the University of California. The study is the most extensive and sensitive planetary census of its kind. Astronomers used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii for five years to search 166 sun-like stars near our solar system for planets of various sizes, ranging from three to 1,000 times the mass of Earth.

All of the planets in the study orbit close to their stars. The results show more small planets than large ones, indicating small planets are more prevalent in our Milky Way galaxy. "We studied planets of many masses -- like counting boulders, rocks and pebbles in a canyon -- and found more rocks than boulders, and more pebbles than rocks. Our ground-based technology can't see the grains of sand, the Earth-size planets, but we can estimate their numbers," said Andrew Howard of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of the study. "Earth-size planets in our galaxy are like grains of sand sprinkled on a beach -- they are everywhere," Howard said. The study is in the Oct. 29 issue of the journal Science.

The research provides a tantalizing clue that potentially habitable planets also could be common. These hypothesized Earth-size worlds would orbit farther away from their stars, where conditions could be favorable for life. NASA's Kepler spacecraft also is surveying sun-like stars for planets and is expected to find the first true Earth-like planets in the next few years. Howard and his planet-hunting team, which includes principal investigator Geoff Marcy, also of the University of California, Berkeley, looked for planets within 80-light-years of Earth, using the radial velocity, or "wobble," technique.

They measured the numbers of planets falling into five groups, ranging from 1,000 times the mass of Earth, or about three times the mass of Jupiter, down to three times the mass of Earth. The search was confined to planets orbiting close to their stars -- within 0.25 astronomical units, or a quarter of the distance between our sun and Earth.

A distinct trend jumped out of the data: smaller planets outnumber larger ones. Only 1.6 percent of stars were found to host giant planets orbiting close in. That includes the three highest-mass planet groups in the study, or planets comparable to Saturn and Jupiter. About 6.5 percent of stars were found to have intermediate-mass planets, with 10 to 30 times the mass of Earth -- planets the size of Neptune and Uranus. And 11.8 percent had the so-called "super-Earths," weighing in at only three to 10 times the mass of Earth. "During planet formation, small bodies similar to asteroids and comets stick together, eventually growing to Earth-size and beyond. Not all of the planets grow large enough to become giant planets like Saturn and Jupiter," Howard said. "It's natural for lots of these building blocks, the small planets, to be left over in this process."

The astronomers extrapolated from these survey data to estimate that 23 percent of sun-like stars in our galaxy host even smaller planets, the Earth-sized ones, orbiting in the hot zone close to a star. "This is the statistical fruit of years of planet-hunting work," said Marcy. "The data tell us that our galaxy, with its roughly 200 billion stars, has at least 46 billion Earth-size planets, and that's
not counting Earth-size planets that orbit farther away from their stars in the habitable zone." The findings challenge a key prediction of some theories of planet formation. Models predict a planet "desert" in the hot-zone region close to stars, or a drop in the numbers of planets with masses less than 30 times that of Earth. This desert was thought to arise because most planets form in the cool, outer region of solar systems, and only the giant planets were thought to migrate in significant numbers into the hot inner region. The new study finds a surplus of close-in, small planets where theories had predicted a scarcity.

"We are at the cusp of understanding the frequency of Earth-sized planets among planetary systems in the solar neighborhood," said Mario R. Perez, Keck program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This work is part of a key NASA science program and will stimulate new theories to explain the significance and impact of these findings."

[When it comes down to it, the search for other life in the Galaxy is basically a numbers game. The more habitats – small rocky planets like Earth – out there then the more possible habitats there are for life to emerge, evolve and spread. If this study is correct then those habitats are common – or at least more prevalent than some sceptics think. It’s all really about the odds and it seems that the odds are good for life – if not intelligent life – to exist around other stars. When our sensing technology becomes good enough we might be able to see clear evidence for that life on alien worlds. I hope that I’m still around the day that hits the headlines!]  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson

California 2047. It is 60 years after a series of nuclear blasts destroyed the United States as a world power. In the small seashore community of San Onofre life is hard – a constant struggle to make ends meet as they battle unpredictable weather, disease and scavengers who live in the ruins left behind by their ancestors. Their hand to mouth existence looks like all they are destined for until strangers arrive from San Diego with a story of a growing resistance movement dedicated to putting America back on top again. But first they need to recruit new members and spread the word far and wide, they need to push the scavengers back from their borders and they need to find a way to strike back against the ships patrolling off shore which launch missile strikes against any target showing evidence of technology. A group of teenagers relish the thought of adventure to replace the boring tasks of farming and fishing despite older and cooler heads advising caution, but the young must learn their own way – no matter the consequences.

This was, I believe, KSR’s first novel (published in 1984). In some ways it shows, it’s a bit too long and a bit too wordy, the pace is a little under powered and a few of the characters are a bit too like wooden cut-outs. But saying all that it was his first novel and as such I’d certainly be proud of something this well written. The day to day drudge of San Onofre is well portrayed as well as the little victories over the elements. The various central characters are pretty well done and their relationships with each other ring true more often than not. The villain of the piece was probably the most unbelievable character in the whole book but fortunately stayed in the background enough so that you could almost forget him. The overall idea was an interesting one – an America effectively held in quarantine for the protection of the rest of the world (I’m not giving too much away here). Overall it kept me turning pages and left me mussing the possibilities.

So ends my series of books based on Future Earth. As I suspected early on this actually wasn’t much of a challenge (yet again I’m afraid). I had plenty of this sub-genre to pick from so was in no real danger of missing my 10 book target. Probably the only problem I could have faced would have been boredom with the sameness of the plots. Fortunately I have enough ‘capacity’ to alternate between post-apocalyptic and high-tech futures (though I’d hardly call any of them utopian). I also need not have worried that they’d all take place in variations of American futures. Three of them were based in Europe and one on the Far East which made a very nice change from what I would have expected. Presently I’m about to start the fourth book in my ‘random’ ten book interlude and then I’ll move on to ten books that have been made into movies. I hope to surprise both you and me with that batch. I’m going to try and read at least a few books that will raise an eyebrow (or two).      

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Dial M for Murder

I’ve got a bit of a Hitchcock thing going ATM. I picked up a cheap box-set of 6 of his films (for an amazing £10) and went straight to two of my favourite examples – more on the second one at another time.

Anyway, Dial M for Murder was released in 1954 and starred Ray Milland as an aging ex-tennis star/ex playboy and Grace Kelly as his apparently dotting wife. Now my regular readers will know that the beautiful Grace was probably my first crush when I reached puberty – yes, I had great taste that far back! Anyway, if that wasn’t reason enough to watch this movie it’s also a very clever murder mystery thriller. You see Milland has discovered that his wife is actually in love with someone else and has decided to kill her off for her money – but he can’t do it himself of course. So he blackmails an old college chum to do it for him. Unfortunately for him it all goes wrong and she survives – I’m not actually giving too much away here as the best bits come after the attempted murder. The problem is that the husband had set up an elaborate plot to put the police off the scent – but now everything starts to unravel – not helped by the fact that his wife’s lover – a detective novel writer by trade – won’t let things stand and is constantly haranguing the police with wild ideas including one where the husband is actually the bad guy here…..

All in all this is masterfully done. I’m pretty sure that this must have started life as a stage play because of the way it’s filmed – almost entirely in the couple’s apartment and often from camera’s suspended over head as the follow the action from room to room. The lover – played somewhat over-the-top by Robert Cummings – is fairly disposable but Milland gives a good performance as the increasingly desperate husband/would be killer trying to put his perfect plan back together. Kelly is pretty much eye candy (something she does very well) and not much else is expected of her. The star of the show for me was the police Inspector played by John Williams who was very droll and obviously frighteningly clever. Of course what makes this film rise above the rest is the Hitchcock factor – the way it’s filmed, the intricacy of the plot and the way the whole thing hinges on the simplest of mistakes. I enjoyed it a great deal when I saw it again – probably for the 8th – 10th time a few weekends ago – and can recommend it to anyone who likes a well plotted and clever film. More Hitchcock to come…….       

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Could vegetarians eat a 'test tube' burger?

By Chi Chi Izundu

For BBC News

23 February 2012
The world could get its first lab-grown burger this year, with scientists using stem cells to create strips of beef. But could vegetarians eat it? Scientists in the Netherlands hoping to create a more efficient alternative to rearing animals have grown small pieces of beef muscle in a laboratory. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn. The stem cells in this particular experiment were harvested from by-products of slaughtered animals but in the future, scientists say, they could be taken from a live animal through biopsy. One usually assumes the main motivation for vegetarianism - aside from those whopractise for religious reasons - is about the welfare of animals. The typical vegetarian forswears meat because animals are killed to get it. So if the meat does not come from dead animals is there really an ethical problem?

It's not as simple an equation as that, says Prof Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He says the burger as currently envisaged isn't an acceptable substitute for vegetarians, but is still a step forward. "Synthetic meat could be a great moral advance. It won't be suitable for vegetarians because it still originates in meat by-products, but bearing in mind that millions of animals are slaughtered for food every day, it is a step forward to a less violent world." According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian does not eat "any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or the by-products of slaughter". The lab-grown meat created so far has been grown from stem cells taken from foetal calf serum. This is usually a by-product of slaughter, although stem cells could be harvested in smaller volumes without killing animals. Prof Julian Savulescu the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Ethics says it doesn't matter how the product is made and "the fact that the meat is made from animal by-products is morally irrelevant. People who are vegetarian for moral reasons - the environment, the treatment of animals - have a moral obligation to eat this meat. They need to do this because it will contribute to an ethical alternative to conventional meat."

For many vegetarians though, the issue is a complicated one. "Some are waiting with bated breath, keen to experience the taste and texture of meat without actually harming an animal, while others find the whole idea utterly repulsive," says Su Taylor from the Vegetarian Society. The UK Food Standards Agency's Public Attitudes to Food survey of 3,219 adults in 2009 found 3% of respondents were "completely vegetarian" and an additional 5% "partly vegetarian (don't eat some types of fish or meat)". Just because the meat has been grown artificially, doesn't mean it is vegetarian, says Vegetarians International Voices for Animals (Viva). But Viva insists vegetarianism and veganism aren't religions so individuals should make up their own minds. "Certainly, with over 950 million land animals slaughtered in the UK each year," says Viva spokesman and campaign manager Justin Kerswell, "and the vast majority of them factory farmed in awful conditions, anything that saves animals from suffering is to be welcomed."

There's already been discussion about whether meat-eaters could be persuaded to eat the artificial meat, but at the moment the price tag is likely to be prohibitive. The first lab-grown burger is likely to cost in the region of £200,000 to produce. Savulescu says most people won't give up meat, but if there was a palatable alternative, conventional meat eaters might move to it."Moral vegetarians need to promote, use and consume this test tube meat," Savulescu said, "Then it will become cheaper."

The research on artificial meat has been prompted by concerns that current methods of meat production are unsustainable in the long term. But to Kerswell, the research seems unnecessary, particularly as many vegetarians believe a diet excluding meat is more healthy. "Why grow it in a Petri dish or eat the meat from a slaughtered animal when plant sources of protein and meat replacements are ever more commonly available and are better for our health?" Of course, there are plenty of nutritionists who speak of the value of eating some meat. Dr Elizabeth Weichselbaum, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says meat is an important source of a number of nutrients in our diet, including high quality protein, iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin D and some B vitamins. "It can make an important contribution to a healthy and balanced diet. Meat and other protein sources, including eggs, beans and nuts, should be eaten in moderate amounts."

So could vegetarian chefs be persuaded? Denis Cotter, who runs a vegetarian restaurant in Cork, says "after an instinctive shudder of revulsion" he can see the benefits of the burger, but it won't be making its way on to any of his menus. "Personally, I don't like synthetic food, and avoid all that soy-based fake meat stuff aimed at vegetarians. So, no, I wouldn't be interested in using it, either as a restaurant product or on my plate at home. But I would back it as a better way to produce meat than burning down rainforests and gobbling up useful farmland."

[After the initial ‘yuk’ factor I can see that this is, potentially at least, a good idea. If meat could be vat-grown in sufficient quantities (with sufficient quality controls) it would eliminate the need for the amount of land presently taken up with animal farming as well as much of the land used to produce crops to feed to those animals – though the vat-meat will, presumably need to be ‘fed’ in some way. So environmentally it has definite advantages and, as several of the people in the article mentioned, there should be a massive reduction in animal suffering. Does this mean that I will be tucking into ‘vat burgers’ when they hit the shops? No, I won’t. I was actually astonished and almost speechless when I read that Prof Julian Savulescu advocates that vegetarians should eat artificial meat for moral reasons as it will lead to less animal suffering – well how about encouraging people to eat less (or even no) meat instead of thinking up better ways of having meat without the moral burden associated with it? Prof Julian Savulescu, and others quoted above, seem to be starting from the unquestioned assumption that we want to eat meat, we need to eat meat and that we must eat meat. Once the moral objections are ‘removed’ it is expected that vegetarians would simply flock back into the carnivorous fold and be welcomed back with open arms. I wonder if those – like me – who refuse to return to our meat eating ways will be pointed out in the street and made to wear a scarlet V on our clothes? Synthetic meat probably will be produced in quantity in the future. It may even become that standard way to produce meat for mass market consumption. That doesn’t mean that I, nor other vegetarians – to say nothing of vegans – will leap at the chance to eat it.]  

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Communism – A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes

Being politically from the Left (or, from an American perspective, the Far Left) I have more than a little sympathy with the idea of Communism. Structured in the correct fashion and populated by people dedicated to its ideals it could work and, I think, work rather well. Of course no such society has ever existed. It’s even debatable as to whether such a society could exist (or more likely would be allowed to exist). The author is indeed quite explicit that the states which called (or the few that still call) themselves Communist where nothing of the sort. Marx was quite clear, on this point at least, that although the inevitable outcome of the inherent contradictions of Capitalism the final utopia of Communism cannot be hurried or simply set-up in a single country. This is, of course, exactly what Lenin (and especially Stalin) attempted to do in Russia with disastrous consequences – just as Karl Marx predicted.

Marxism, like Communism, is deeply out of fashion with the distasteful stories which emerged out of the old Soviet Union forever tarnishing their ideas and aspirations. With the recent economic turmoil, however, it would appear that the pragmatic Chinese solution of missing the best of both worlds – Communism and Capitalism – seems to be working better than anyone could have expected. Maybe Marx was right and Stalin just far too impatient? After all Marx thought that a period of Socialism needed to precede Communism, before the entire state apparatus finally faded away, and maybe China is doing exactly that? It’s intriguing to wonder exactly what Karl would make of it all.

As I have come to expect from this excellent series of books this was an informative and thought provoking read. Not only did I learn quite a bit of the historical nature of Communism throughout the world but also a great deal about its political, economic and social structures – all without a single yawn! This is a definite book to recommend to my more Progressive American readers who might be a bit afraid of challenging those ignorant idiots who persist in labelling President Obama as a Socialist or (worse in their minds) a Communist. This book will definitely give you the ammunition to rip them a new one! Highly recommended for those who have heard the propaganda and want a more balanced view of an ideology that, for a time, ruled half the world and seemingly threatened the other half so much.             

Monday, March 05, 2012

Thinking About: The Past

I’ve said to people more than once that I’m very much like a shark – not that I’m sleek and deadly (far from it) but that I’m always moving forward. Just like the Italian race driver in one of those 70’s driving films (possibly The Gumball Rally) said, as he removed the rear-view mirror “What is behind me is of no concern.”

Of course I do have a past – we all do – but what I don’t do is dwell on it. I have pleasant memories and I have regrets – we all do – but I just don’t live there any more. I can, as you know, be nostalgic sometimes and maybe I’m getting more nostalgic as I grow progressively older but I don’t want to live back in the 70’s or 80’s or whenever. Generally speaking the best time to be alive is always now – today. No matter how much you enjoyed things in another part of your life they’re now part of history. You can take the memories, like old books off a shelf, and flick though them but the time comes around when they need to be put back and forgotten about. Likewise our regretful actions, despite being part of what makes us the people we are today, should not be allowed to *define* who we are. We’ve all made mistakes, we are after all only human. I’m sure that many people reading this (and I definitely include myself here) have fucked up more than a few things in their lives through ignorance, anger, jealousy or moments of weakness. Such incidents are part of our lives and should be viewed as such. We make mistakes, we regret the damage they cause, we try to make amends and then we move forward after learning valuable life lessons. That’s how we mature as people and how we gain wisdom. A person who has led a blameless life, if such a thing is even possible, has had no experience of regret, and learns little.

Until fairly recently I hardly ever gave much thought to the future which is odd considering that I’m such a huge fan of SF. If I planned more than a few days ahead it was unusual. I was, and still am to a large extent, a creature very much of habit. My job has changed that aspect of me – at least where work is concerned. I’m now regularly thinking and planning 4-6 months ahead. It’s taken several years to get my head around the idea of planning that far out but it’s becoming second nature to me. As to my personal life – outside of work that is – I’ve no real need to plan that far ahead. I know roughly when I’ll be taking my holidays and what book I’m going to be reading next (and often the one after that) but that’s just about as far as it goes. Like Edna (pictured above) I tend, more often as not, to live in the moment. I know my past well enough for it to have informed who I am. My experiences have let light fall on aspects of my personality I might never have discovered without them. Some aspects I like, others not so much. But they are all part of me and, arrogant as it might sound to some ears, I like who I am right now. That being the case how can I anguish over things that made me this way? The past is something to be viewed from an emotional distance, with perspective and with a healthy dose of forgiveness. To err is very human indeed; to forgive yourself is vital rather than divine. Let the past be the past. Live in the present and look forward to the future. Swim like a shark…..         

Saturday, March 03, 2012



Oct. 28, 2010

PASADENA, Calif. -- The ground where NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit became stuck last year holds evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis. Stratified soil layers with different compositions close to the surface led the rover science team to propose that thin films of water may have entered the ground from frost or snow. The seepage could have happened during cyclical climate changes during periods when Mars tilted farther on its axis. The water may have moved down into the sand, carrying soluble minerals deeper than less-soluble ones. Spin-axis tilt varies over timescales of hundreds of thousands of years.

The relatively insoluble minerals near the surface include what is thought to be hematite, silica and gypsum. Ferric sulfates, which are more soluble, appear to have been dissolved and carried down by water. None of these minerals is exposed at the surface, which is covered by wind-blown sand and dust. "The lack of exposures at the surface indicates the preferential dissolution of ferric sulfates must be a relatively recent and ongoing process since wind has been systematically stripping soil and altering landscapes in the region Spirit has been examining," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Analysis of these findings appears in a report in the Journal of Geophysical Research published by Arvidson and 36 co-authors about Spirit's operations from late 2007 until just before the rover stopped communicating in March. The twin Mars rovers finished their three-month prime missions in April 2004, then kept exploring in bonus missions. One of Spirit's six wheels quit working in 2006.

In April 2009, Spirit's left wheels broke through a crust at a site called "Troy" and churned into soft sand. A second wheel stopped working seven months later. Spirit could not obtain a position slanting its solar panels toward the sun for the winter, as it had for previous winters. Engineers anticipated it would enter a low-power, silent hibernation mode, and the rover stopped communicating March 22. Spring begins next month at Spirit's site, and NASA is using the Deep Space Network and the Mars Odyssey orbiter to listen if the rover reawakens.

Researchers took advantage of Spirit's months at Troy last year to examine in great detail soil layers the wheels had exposed, and also neighboring surfaces. Spirit made 13 inches of progress in its last 10 backward drives before energy levels fell too low for further driving in February. Those drives exposed a new area of soil for possible examination if Spirit does awaken and its robotic arm is still usable. "With insufficient solar energy during the winter, Spirit goes into a deep-sleep hibernation mode where all rover systems are turned off, including the radio and survival heaters," said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. "All available solar array energy goes into charging the batteries and keeping the mission clock running." 

The rover is expected to have experienced temperatures colder than it has ever before, and it may not survive. If Spirit does get back to work, the top priority is a multi-month study that can be done without driving the rover. The study would measure the rotation of Mars through the Doppler signature of the stationary rover's radio signal with enough precision to gain new information about the planet's core. The rover Opportunity has been making steady progress toward a large crater, Endeavour, which is now approximately 5 miles away.

Spirit, Opportunity, and other NASA Mars missions have found evidence of wet Martian environments billions of years ago that were possibly favorable for life. The Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008 and observations by orbiters since 2002 have identified buried layers of water ice at high and middle latitudes and frozen water in polar ice caps. These newest Spirit findings contribute to an accumulating set of clues that Mars may still have small amounts of liquid water at some periods during ongoing climate cycles.

[…and where there’s water….. there might still be life living under the surface protected from the freezing temperatures and UV light. Eventually I suppose that we’ll move beyond probes – no matter how sophisticated they become – and get ‘boots on the ground’ which will allow us to dig deeper into Mar’s many mysteries. Hopefully sooner rather than later…..]