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

Monday, April 30, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

With the sudden and unexpected death of their father the Dashwood sisters and their mother are reduced to comparative poverty. Forced to move out of their rambling home, now the property of their brother, they find a new home and new friends in the country. Now Mrs Dashwood must find suitable partners for her two eldest daughters, prudent and sensible Elinor as well as flighty and impetuous Marianne. But with nothing else to recommend them except their good name, looks and accomplishments it is surely going to be far from easy to attract men of good standing in society especially when some offers are not all that they seem and when those around them have secrets that have yet to come to light.

This is my fourth Austen book and, unfortunately, my least favourite. This is partially because the tale of poor little ‘rich’ girls looking for love is honestly wearing a little thin. There is some humour here but not nearly enough to make light of a fairly dull story told at a glacial pace. I know from experience that nothing much happens in an Austen novel but this sometimes takes that truism to great lengths. Most of the action takes place in drawing rooms where the main characters converse in hushed tones during and after interminable dinner parties. The main character of Elinor is so prudent and careful of her affections as to be incredibly dull. Meeting her in real life would undoubtedly leave you with the impression of someone either incapable of expressing emotion or incapable of having any. Marianne is more alive and open to new experience but has little common sense although I did enjoy her outburst during a dance meeting where she verbally ripped apart her would-be lover. I had to admire her for that no matter how indelicate it was! One of the things that surprised me was the almost invisibility of anyone who could be called working class. Servants are occasionally mentioned briefly in passing but even the London streets seem to be populated purely by members of society. Austen is clearly no Charles Dickens in this regard – indeed reading this book made me want to read Dickens just to see things from the other perspective! Lastly I thought that the ending was very rushed indeed. For probably 80-90% of the book things plodded along in good Jane Austen fashion. Then in the dying chapters the pace speeded up considerably and within 5-10 pages both sisters are miraculously married (this actually gives very little way). It’s as if Ms Austen either became bored with her novel or was advised to get it ready for publication post haste. Needless to say that, overall, I was rather less than impressed with this effort. Even after having some trouble slogging through the first third of Emma I still rate it much more highly. At least Emma, both the book and the character, had several redeeming features. Frankly this volume has few and although I would never say that this novel should be avoided I would have to say that it is by far my least favourite of hers so far. Hopefully Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey will restore my faith in Jane Austen.   

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Feathers fly in first bird debate
From The BBC

27 July 2011

For 150 years, a species called Archaeopteryx has been regarded as the first true bird, representing a major evolutionary step away from dinosaurs. But the new fossil suggests this creature was just another feathery dinosaur and not the significant link that palaeontologists had believed. The discovery of Xiaotingia, as it is known, is reported in Nature magazine. The authors of the report argue that three other species named in the past decade might now be serious contenders for the title of "the oldest bird". Archaeopteryx has a hallowed place in science, long hailed as not just the first bird but as one of the clearest examples of evolution in action. Archaeopteryx is one of the most famous fossils ever unearthed. Discovered in Bavaria in 1861 just two years after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, the fossil seemed to blend attributes of both reptiles and birds and was quickly accepted as the "original bird". But in recent years, doubts have arisen as older fossils with similar bird-like features such as feathers and wishbones and three fingered hands were discovered.

Now, renowned Chinese palaeontologist Professor Xu Xing believes his new discovery has finally knocked Archaeopteryx off its perch. His team has detailed the discovery of a similar species, Xiaotingia, which dates back 155 million years to the Jurassic Period. By carefully analysing and comparing the bony bumps and grooves of this new chicken-sized fossil, Prof Xu now believe that both Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia are in fact feathery dinosaurs and not birds at all. "There are many, many features that suggest that Xiaotingia and Archaeopteryx are a type of dinosaur called Deinonychosaurs rather than birds. For example, both have a large hole in front of the eye; this big hole is only seen in these species and is not present in any other birds.

Several species discovered in the past decade could now become contenders for the title of most basal fossil bird. Epidexipteryx - a very small feathered dinosaur discovered in China and first reported in 2008. It had four long tail feathers but there is little evidence that it could fly. Jeholornis - this creature lived 120 million years ago in the Cretaceous. It was a relatively large bird, about the size of a turkey. First discovered in China, and reported in 2002. Sapeornis - lived 110 to 120 million years ago. Another small primitive bird about 33 centimetres in length. It was discovered in China and was first reported in 2002.

"Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia are very, very similar to other Deinonychosaurs in having a quite interesting feature - the whole group is categorised by a highly specialised second pedo-digit which is highly extensible, and both Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia show initial development of this feature." The origins of the new fossil are a little murky having originally been purchased from a dealer. Prof Xu first saw the specimen at the Shandong Tianyu Museum. He knew right away it was special "When I visited the museum which houses more than 1,000 feathery dinosaur skeletons, I saw this specimen and immediately recognised that it was something new, very interesting; but I did not expect it would have such a big impact on the origin of birds." Other scientists agree that the discovery could fundamentally change our understanding of birds. Prof Lawrence Witmer from Ohio University has written a commentary on the finding. "Since Archaeopteryx was found 150 years ago, it has been the most primitive bird and consequently every theory about the beginnings of birds - how they evolved flight, what their diet was like - were viewed through the lens of Archaeopteryx. So, if we don't view birds through this we might have a different set of hypotheses."

There is a great deal of confusion in the field says Prof Witmer as scientists try to understand where dinosaurs end and where birds begin. "It's kind of a nightmare for those of us trying to understand it. When we go back into the late Jurassic, 150-160 million years ago, all the primitive members of these different species are all very similar. So, on the one hand, it's really frustrating trying to tease apart the threads of this evolutionary knot, but it's really a very exciting thing to be working on and taking apart this evolutionary origin." Such are the similarities between these transition species of reptiles and birds that other scientists believe that the new finding certainly will not mean the end of the argument. Prof Mike Benton from the University of Bristol, UK, agrees that the new fossil is about the closest relative to Archaeopteryx that has yet been found. But he argues that it is far from certain that the new finding dethrones its claim to be the first bird. "Professor Xu and his colleagues show that the evolutionary pattern varies according to their different analyses. Some show Archaeopteryx as the basal bird; others show it hopped sideways into the Deinonychosaurs. New fossils like Xiaotingia can make it harder to be 100% sure of the exact pattern of relationships." According to Prof Witmer, little is certain in trying to determine the earliest bird and new findings can rapidly change perspectives. "The reality is, that next fossil find could kick Archaeopteryx right back into birds. That's the thing that's really exciting about all of this."

[Birds, it seems, are on the cutting edge of evolutionary studies these days. With all of the new fossils coming out of China and South America recently a lot of the gaps are being filled in and our understanding is growing year on year. Exciting indeed!]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Master of Rome by John Stack

The Western Mediterranean: 255BC. War has a habit of unexpectedly moving from victory to defeat, especially for a navy as inexperienced as that fielded by Rome in its first conflict with the mighty Carthaginian empire. Overstretched and badly led by political appointees the planned invasion of North Africa results in humiliating defeat and disgrace when bad weather destroys most of the Roman gallies. As one of the few survivors and the highest ranking officer to make it back to Rome the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Greek captain Atticus. Seeing it as an opportunity for revenge his enemies in the Senate charge him with treason. Only just managing to keep his life he is sent back to the tattered remnants of the fleet with clear orders and yet another political appointment above him. But this time things are different. Not only does the new commander want to beat the hated Carthaginians in battle and thus assure his political ambitions back home he also has a personal grudge against Atticus and wants to see him dead. With enemies both foreign and home-grown out for his blood Atticus must be on his guard at all times. But even if he manages to avoid the assassins blade there is still the might and expertise of the Carthaginian naval to face – with only hastily built ships manned by deeply inexperienced crews. It is a fight to the death, a fight that neither empire can afford to lose.

This is the final book in the roman naval trilogy by John Stack and it is a fitting end to an excellent series of books. Building on the previous two volumes it follows Captain Atticus Perennis as his star rises and falls with success or defeat in battle – often commanded by inferior men with no experience of war or the sea who take little blames because of their political connections. Political intrigue at the highest levels on both sides is contrasted with life aboard the fighting ships of both navies as well as a fascinating mercenary blockade runner whose local knowledge and agile ship give his distinct advantages over the slower and more heavily armed combat vessels. The sea battles themselves are masterfully described in all of their horrific details where rammed ships sink to the bottom of the Med with their slave rowers still chained to their oars. On land the legions fight in North Africa and for their main prize, the island of Sicily. Here too the action is brutal and uncompromising where both sides can smell the breath of the men they kill with short sword and thrown spear.

The author’s next book – out in hardback recently – moves to another great naval encounter with the story of the Spanish Armada. Needless to say that I will buy this book the moment it comes out in paperback. Stack writes extremely well, creates very believable characters and often leaves you gasping for breath in the thick of hand-to-hand and ship-to-ship combat. Very highly recommended.        

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“I did not lose my faith – I gave it up purposely. The motivation that drove me into the ministry – to know and speak the truth – is the same that drove me out… Opening my eyes to the real world, stripped of dogma, faith and loyalty to tradition, I could finally see clearly that there was no evidence for God, no coherent definition of a god, no agreement among believers as to the nature or moral principles of ‘God’, and no good answers to the positive arguments against the existence of a god, such as the problem of evil. And beyond all that, there is no need for a god. Millions of good people live happy, productive, moral lives without believing in god.”

Dan Barker.

Cartoon Time.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thinking About: Gaming

There are many potential words you could use to describe me – some of them are even printable. One I would have no issue at all with is “gamer”. I have been regularly playing computer or ‘video’ games since the early 1970’s and would argue that I have a gamer mentality even before that. I seem to have treated a large proportion of my life as a game and this outlook colours much of what I do on a day-to-day basis.

I first encountered video games in a hotel in the French Alps during a school skiing trip. Tucked away in the corner of the ‘games room’ was one of the early Pong games where a pair of operators used dials to move a paddle to intercept a bouncing dot. Missing the dot at the vital moment would result in you conceding a ‘goal’ From my very first encounter I was hooked and spent nearly all of my holiday money in small change pumping Franc after Franc into the slot. Of course I just had to get my hands on a device that could produce such delights and (many) years later managed to get myself – after borrowing money and begging a lift off family members – a brand new Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1982. I remember using this rather crude machine as much as humanly possible, not only buying pre-designed games but spending a great deal of time programming it line by line from a plethora of Spectrum related magazines. I wonder what might have happened if I’d had the opportunity (or at least the time) to keep programming rather than going off to University in 1983 to study Humanities. Of course I found student life to be very computer game friendly – especially as the hours of study, in the first year at least, were hardly onerous. The early 80’s was the time of Space Invaders, Missile Command and Galaxions. But the game I remember most from that time was a Star Wars game based around the X-Wing attack on the Death Star. Living in a seaside town a few miles away from the University gave me dozens of different games to try out on a regular basis and, yet again, I probably spent a significant percentage of my grant money on arcade video games in those 3 years. It was time and money very well spent!

In the late 80’s I moved to London to take up my first full-time paid employment. After a few years in basic administration jobs (having no previous work experience to draw on) I manage to drift into an IT position where I stayed for well over 10 years. Almost immediately I fell in with fellow gamers one of which was the teams network expert who just happened to have his very own lockable ‘workshop’. It was in here I spent many a happy lunch break playing networked Doom with up to three other players. Being in a confined space and being able to hear everything the other players said gave the game a whole new level of immersion. I never forgot the joy of those days. Around the same time I had installed, though I really shouldn’t have, a copy of SimCity on my desktop so I could play it at lunchtime or after work for an hour or so. I was subsequently told to delete it but not before a disastrous reactor meltdown had taken most of the PC with it.

Moving to my present location and planning to stay here for some time I finally had the stability and the money to buy my own PC – never having had the Console bug – and began working my way through games almost too numerous to mention. My favourites were always RPG (Role Playing Games), RTS (Real-Time Strategy) and to a lesser extent (FPS) First Person Shooter despite my love of Doom. One of the highlights of this time was a game called Total Annihilation where you picked one of two sides fighting a robotic war over a number of planets somewhere in the galaxy. The ultimate aim was either to destroy the galaxy (from a safe place) or prevent its destruction. Needless to say it was far more satisfying blowing it up than saving it. But the best part for me was the almost Zen-like trance states I used to find myself in when fighting apparently impossible odds for 5, 10, 20 minutes at a time. Any hesitation indeed any thought was lethal. The only way to win was with no-mind. Later I played games such as Age of Empires, Cossacks and other RTS classics such as Command & Conquer. I still remember on one occasion when I thought that my PC had suffered a spectacular system crash only to discover that my PC opponent had nuked one of my installations!

Of course by this time many of the stand-alone games had become (at lest partially) networked allowing multiple players to join in the fun. Still working in IT at that time I had several good friends spread across the local area who could join me on my evening adventures. Together we really did command armies and conquer worlds. Mostly we played the Dawn of War series of games with their various add on packs fighting Orks, Eldar, The Tau, Necrons and Tyranids in the name of the Empire of Man. Much carnage ensued especially when my regular playing partner Ali P ‘modified’ various aspects of the game to make it that much more lethal. With much practice we became very good at speedily setting up our defences and taking on multiple all-comers before crushing them mercilessly. Then onto FPS again with Battlefield 2 which I loved dearly – so much so I even played it on-line on my own. Then inevitably I joined the big-boys to play various editions of CoD (Call of Duty) which, at least initially I found incredibly frustrating when I kept dying so much. Learning anything was a great struggle but eventually I did develop a style of play that allowed me to survive long enough to learn, to kill opposing players and to really, really piss them off. My favourite comment of all time is still ‘Die you camping bitch!’ which appeared on my screen just after one of the enemy wasted a hellfire missile on me. I laughed so hard I think I pulled a muscle somewhere. I think this was the largest group game I played with up to 5-6 players interacting with each other on Teamspeak. That was one aspect I really loved about it especially when sometimes 3-4 of us carried Stinger anti-aircraft missiles on our backs. It was a definite competition to see who could shoot down an enemy call-in first. If it flew it most definitely died – often before it fired a single shot in anger. After that we kind of oscillated between Company of Heroes (a WW2 RTS) and Borderlands (FPS) which was another game I loved mostly for the inbuilt off-beat humour. I’m looking forward to the next version.

We spent sometime after Borderlands dulled a bit looking for the next game. After several false starts – including a poorly designed Starcraft 2 – we settled on a game that I thought I’d never play. For probably the last 6 months I’ve been playing World of Warcraft and have honestly become a bit of a WoW bore about it – though I’ve stopped talking about it at work now much to the relief of the people I work with. I never thought that I’d in effect ‘rent’ a game but I’m enjoying it far too much to worry about £8.99 going out of my account every month. My favourite character/avatar is a tall and rather vicious werewolf called Hiasynth. She rocks and kicks some serious ass! I think it might be love…

Even though I’m supposed to be all grown up and mature – yeah, right – I have no intention of giving up computer gaming any time soon. That will only stop when I’m physically incapable of pressing a key or using a mouse/joystick. Long may it continue.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

“There are, after all, atheists who say that they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or who have relinquished belief only with regret. To this I reply: who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be, at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis.”

Christopher Hitchens.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Definitely a Store Manager with a sense of humour.... [grin] 



Dec. 02, 2010

WASHINGTON -- NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the
fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth. Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's
associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it." This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth. The research is published in this week's edition of Science Express.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells. Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

"We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we've found is a microbe doing something new -- building parts of itself out of arsenic," said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology research fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo ParkCalif., and the research team's lead scientist. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

The key issue the researchers investigated was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became incorporated into the organisms' vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA, proteins and the cell membranes. A variety of sophisticated laboratory techniques were used to determine where the arsenic was incorporated. The team chose to explore Mono Lake because of its unusual chemistry, especially its high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of
arsenic. This chemistry is in part a result of Mono Lake's isolation
from its sources of fresh water for 50 years.

The results of this study will inform ongoing research in many areas, including the study of Earth's evolution, organic chemistry, biogeochemical cycles, disease mitigation and Earth system research. These findings also will open up new frontiers in microbiology and other areas of research. "The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake."

[Of course the idea of alternative biochemistries means that the scope for life increases appreciably. We no longer have to assume that for life to exist on other worlds that those worlds must be as close as possible to our world in their basic make-up. That being the case the possibility of life in what we would consider unsuitable or extreme environments must increase and with it the possibility – or indeed probability – of life being even more widespread than previously thought.]  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Silent State – Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy by Heather Brooke

For those who don’t know (myself including to begin with) Heather Brooke is the journalist who broke the MP’s expenses scandal that washed over Whitehall and through the corridors of power a little while ago. Whilst not about that specifically (though it was touched on from time to time) Brooke laid out her thoughts and investigations about what she saw, and I largely agree with her, as the problem at the heart of the British State – secrecy. In that although the State goes to great efforts to know as much as it can about its citizens it resists, with all the powers at its disposal, the often innocuous requests for information from it. Not only that but it clamps down on those, often very clever people, who attempt to provide information to the public in a more efficient a cheaper way than the government can manage. The State, the author maintains, is a serious information control freak who thinks that Public Relations – AKA ‘spin’ – actually constitutes information transfer (which of course it doesn’t). Using stories from her own experience and from interviewing several individuals and groups who have had run-ins with the State information control apparatus the author produces a very convincing attack on an overly secretive system.

Despite agreeing with much of what the author said I did have several reservations about this book. I was for instance regularly irritated the tone of her argument rather than with its substance. She seemed to have bought into the idea that everyone in government is at best indifferent to the public if not actually and wilfully obstructive and appeared to be saying, or at least implying, that anyone with the least bit of power or influence came from a public school background and despised the working class who they regarded as basically incapable of understanding policy decisions at any level. She also appeared to view the rank and file government employee as either so demoralised or browbeaten by their superiors that they can no longer see, or care about, the many problems with the system resulting in far too much control of information – often for its own sake. Again I see something in what she says. Information does not flow as it should and various governments – of all types – do not respect the average voter enough to tell them anything of great account. It is, in many ways, a very vicious circle where we are not trusted enough to know stuff so are kept in the dark where we are clearly too ignorant to be allowed to make or vote on important decisions. About the best thing that can be said for this book – which actually isn’t that bad – is that it raises peoples consciousness of what is, or more often is not, going on in the heart of government and throughout the various public facing agencies. I guess that I’m already cynical enough to think that everything the government/state tells us is lies and propaganda so it came as no great surprise to me that it really is. A fast and often illuminating read but not a particularly earth-shattering one if you’re as cynical as I am.       

Monday, April 16, 2012

Just Finished Reading: A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes

Female heroes or warriors have almost become a cliché these days. Especially in the urban fantasy genre where no story would be complete without a Buffy wanabe or look-alike. That’s not to say that reading about women taking charge, killing bad guys (or monsters) and not bothering to take names afterwards isn’t fun – it certainly is.

As with most books of short stories the quality is variable. Fortunately with 13 stories crammed into just under 300 pages I didn’t have long to wait before a mediocre story was replaced by a better one. I liked The Drifter by Jane Lindskold about a female gunslinger in the old west looking for the vampire that killed her family, Elizabeth & Anna’s Big Adventure by Jeanne Stein about a little girls babysitter who turned out to be anything but human but everything a babysitter should be, No Matter where you go by Tanya Huff about a Vampire ex-cop who goes the extra mile (and the extra dimension) to protect a bunch of teenagers dabbling in magic. Somewhat less likable where Murder She Workshopped by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who I expected more from) about a writing workshop preyed on by evil forces, Signed in Blood by P R Frost about a magical pen and, the only SF story in the list, Invasive Species by Nina Kiriki Hoffman about a pest controller cleaning spaceships who stumbles on an alien invasion in progress. Generally entertaining but I’m sure there are better collections out there. Oh, and for a book referring to guns and monsters there seemed to be a distinct lack of gunplay – just saying.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world – not even in infinite space. I was free – free to think, to express my thoughts – free to live to my own ideal – free to live for myself and those I loved – free to use all my faculties, all my senses – free to spread imaginations wings – free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope – free to judge and determine for myself – free to reject all ignorant and crude creeds, all the ‘inspired’ books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past – free from popes and priests – free from all the ‘called’ and ‘set apart’ – free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies – free from the fear of eternal pain – free from the winged monsters of the night – free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought – no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings – no chains for my limbs – no lashes for my back – no fires for my flesh – no master’s frown or threat – no following another’s steps – no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.”

Robert G Ingersoll (1833 – 1899)

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

How times change..........................

Early origins for uncanny valley

From The BBC

Friday, 6 November 2009

Human suspicion of realistic robots and avatars may have earlier origins than previously thought. The phenomenon, called the uncanny valley, describes the disquiet caused by synthetic people which almost, but not quite, match human expressiveness. Experiments with macaque monkeys show they too are suspicious of replicas that fall short of the real thing. The research suggests a deep-seated evolutionary origin for the reactions such artificial entities evoke.

The phrase the "uncanny valley" was coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori and shows that human disquiet increases as avatars and robots look more and more human. Many people who watched films such as Beowulf, Polar Express and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within reported that, despite the impressive 3D animated effects, the people portrayed were not entirely convincing. Many explanations have been put forward for such responses, said Princeton neuroscientist Dr Asif Ghazanfar who carried out the research on the monkeys. Some suggest the reactions are caused by a suspicion that those who look human but act oddly are ill and avoiding them makes good evolutionary sense. Others have advanced cultural reasons to explain the response. "The range of explanations for the uncanny valley in humans is large and by doing this experiment we can reduce it quite a bit," said Dr Ghazanfar.

The Princeton team was led to investigate whether monkeys show uncanny valley responses because of work they were doing on the best way to investigate macaque communication. "What we wanted to do was make a monkey avatar to interact with real monkeys. That would allow us to have real time social interaction occurring where we monitor brain activity in a real monkey," he said. "Having an avatar gives us complete control over one side of the interaction which is unprecedented," Dr Ghazanfar told the BBC. The reactions of real macaques to the artificial monkeys were intriguing, he said. "We were not terribly surprised that they show an uncanny valley effect," he said. "What I am surprised by is that we can evoke it using such a rudimentary procedure - measuring simply how long they look. The animals were not trained or rewarded yet they were completely consistent in their reactions," he added. The results were reported in the journal PNAS. Macaque monkeys are a favourite among researchers because of their biological similarity to humans. Their social lives have enough in common with humans to make comparisons apt, said Dr Ghazanfar. Macaques have a "despotic" social network that means monkeys that are physically frail, old or sick are excluded. It also suggests, he said, that human reactions to almost human avatars do have an evolutionary origin. "I think there's a lot of interest in it because there's an increasing number of folks who are pursuing human interaction with artificial agents," he said. "We can demonstrate that evolutionary hypotheses are tenable and that the uncanny valley has something to with social experience and neural processes across many primate species."

The Princeton team plans to keep on using artificial macaques to investigate monkey vocal communication. "The positive spin is that we have made an avatar realistic enough that it has produced expectations from our real monkey," said Dr Ghazanfar. "The monkeys, like humans, quickly habituate to the creepiness of the avatar."

[It’s odd – to say the least – that humans and other primates seem to be hard-wired to spot and negatively react to simulations of themselves. It’s often intrigued me, as a fan of SF movies, that simulations of humans, either the CGI versions or ‘robots’, can be so easily spotted on the screen although its getting progressively more difficult as the technology improves. But what is much more interesting is the visceral reaction to them, the fear, and the incomprehension but above all else the revulsion felt during the initial encounter. For us to have evolved a response at this level there must have been a consistent and constant threat to warrant it. My over-active imagination could easily produce scenario’s where lives would depend on the ability to tell real human from fake human but they are all based on Fantasy and Science-Fiction ‘realities’ and not the one I live in every day. The cause will, no doubt, be far more mundane than any my free wheeling imagination could come up with but I can’t help wondering what on earth made us so good at spotting simulacra of ourselves……..]     

Thursday, April 12, 2012

100 years ago this week......................

Just Finished Reading: The Reformation – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Marshall

The Reformation is another one of those periods in European history that I know something about via other sources – be it history books touching on it tangentially or novels based during that turbulent time. We may have even mentioned it in passing in school though I can’t remember anything specific about it. Just about the only highlights I could mention – like one of those word association games where someone says “Reformation” – is Henry the Eight’s dissolution of the monasteries in England, the Thirty Years War and Martin Luther nailing his thesis to a church door. Apart from that, at least until I read this slim but excellent volume, my knowledge was scant indeed.

Although still far, far from an expert on the period I do now have a greater appreciation of the complexities of that time, some of the major causes of the split in the ‘one true church’ (more nuanced and longer running that I’d first appreciated) and have been made aware of some of the myths surrounding the actions of Luther in particular (I was for example surprised that nailing your thesis to a church door was standard practice in those days and that the thesis in question hardly caused a still at least at first). Marshall certainly knows his stuff and is a good enough writer to make what is essentially church history – before the whole episode got down and dirty – frankly fascinating. Not only do I now have a greater insight into the Reformation itself but that knowledge has helped me to understand European history in general much more. This is simply because the various fallouts from the great schism in Christianity are still with us today – whether you believe in the tenets of either side or neither side. Not only did the process tear the church into two but it also rebounded on itself with the Counter-Reformation which arguably made the Catholic Church the powerhouse it still is today. As both sides fought for European supremacy they were both forced to become true world religions for the first time prompting voyages of discovery and conquest. Likewise the antagonisms between Protestant and Catholic had huge cultural implications as art, music, architecture and the written word where all utilised in the ongoing war of ideas and ideology. Things, as they say, would never, could never, be the same again. It is even arguable that the growing chasm between the two sides of the Christian faith allowed the development and present dominance of secularisation in Europe.

Overall this was an enlightening little book which has certainly prompted me to read more about this period in European history. That is most definitely the point of the series and this is a fine example of a job well done. Highly recommended to anyone who knows a bit about the topic and wants to know a bit more without wading through any heavy handed prose.          

Monday, April 09, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Cowboys & Aliens

Mixing genres, especially those as seemingly different as the western and science fiction, is difficult to pull off convincingly. Fortunately here we have an example that worked rather well.

It all starts with in the middle of scrubland when Daniel Craig suddenly wakes after what looked like a particularly bad dream. He’s alone, unarmed and has apparently been shot but can’t remember how he got there or, indeed, who he is. Almost before he’s got a moment to think he’s surrounded by three Indian hunters who think he might be a prisoner on the run – especially as he has ‘iron’ on one of his wrists. Big mistake – for the three would-be bounty hunters. Now dressed and armed the cowboy without a name or a memory rides into the nearest town where he is recognised as outlaw Jake Lonergan and is almost immediately arrested. Before he can be transported to the nearest judge the town is attacked, from the air, by things no one has ever seen before – flying vehicles that pluck people from the ground and disappear into the darkness. Only Lonergan manages to shoot one of them down when he discovers that the ‘iron’ on his wrist is in fact some kind of weapon. Riding in pursuit of their abducted town folk Lonergan joins forces with local cattle Baron Colonel Dolarhyde (played rather badly by Harrison Ford) and the mysterious female gunslinger Ella Swenson (played by the very beautiful Olivia Wilde). But in order to defeat an enemy literally light-years ahead of them they need to put old enmities to one side and join forces with local Indians and with Jake’s old gang. For if the aliens succeed here they’ll be back in force and then no one will be safe!

Setting an alien invasion film in the past isn’t that new an idea in the SF book (or comic book) world. Putting it on the big screen – especially with some very big names – is not something you see every day. Probably half the reason I saw this is the interesting mixture of genres. The other half was probably Daniel Craig who was quite honestly superb in this. He certainly didn’t say very much but he most definitely kicked some serious arse whether it was human or alien. Olivia Wilde not only provided some serious eye-candy (frankly I could barely drag my eyes off her every time she was on screen) but more than held her own whenever she appeared with the two main stars. The supporting cast was pretty good too – even the ubiquitous kid was OK and definitely has a future in movies. Overall this is not a movie that will stretch your mind or your endurance (coming in at just under 2 hours) but if you like a good western, a good SF adventure or a mixture of the two you’ll definitely enjoy this. There’s some very nice, and sometimes creepily disturbing, scenes (I particularly liked the upturned paddle-steamer) lots of action, some humour and a potentially ambiguous ending. If you didn’t catch it at the cinema, being put of by the idea of it, don’t miss it on DVD rental or download.      

Saturday, April 07, 2012

That almost looks like my house.......

Happy Birthday to Me! 52 Today!

Super-Earths 'in the billions'

By Jonathan Amos for The BBC

28 March 2012

There could be many billions of planets not much bigger than Earth circling faint stars in our galaxy, says an international team of astronomers. The estimate for the number of "super-Earths" is based on detections already made and then extrapolated to include the Milky Way's population of so-called red dwarf stars. The team works with the high-precision Harps instrument. This is fitted to the 3.6m telescope at the Silla Observatory in Chile. Harps employs an indirect method of detection that infers the existence of orbiting planets from the way their gravity makes a parent star appear to twitch in its motion across the sky. "Our new observations with Harps mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet," said team leader Xavier Bonfils from the Observatoire des Sciences de l'Univers de Grenoble, France. "Because red dwarfs are so common - there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way - this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone."

The Harps team came up with its numbers after surveying 102 carefully chosen red dwarfs, which are dimmer and cooler than our Sun. The group found a total of nine super-Earths (which are defined as planets with one to 10 times the mass of the Earth), with two judged to be orbiting inside their stars' habitable zones. Putting all its data together, including observations of stars that did not have planets, the team was able to produce an estimate for how common different sorts of planets are around red dwarfs. This assessment suggests super-Earths in the habitable zone occur in 41% of cases, with a range from 28% to 95%.

Given how many red dwarf stars there are in close proximity to the Sun, it means there could be perhaps 100 super-Earth planets in the habitable zones of stars that are less than about 30 light-years distant. "The habitable zone around a red dwarf, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface, is much closer to the star than the Earth is to the Sun," commented co-researcher Stephane Udry from the Geneva Observatory. "But red dwarfs are known to be subject to stellar eruptions or flares, which may bathe the planet in X-rays or ultraviolet radiation, and which may make life there less likely."

[Again we play the numbers game. Even if the habitable zone around these stars are potentially or periodically bathed in X-rays and UV with up to 160 BILLION – that’s a huge number – in our Galaxy alone the odds are good that at least some of them have evolved life on them. Even if only 1% of them manage it that’s still a significant number. My hopes for life elsewhere in the Milky Way have just gone up again……]  

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Yojokun – Life Lessons from a Samurai by Kaibara Ekiken (Translated by William Scott Wilson)

Many of you will be familiar with the idea that Samurai thought revolves around death – either having an honourable one or delivering a swift one. This book, written by a 17th Century Samurai physician, is from quite the opposite perspective. It’s about the living of a long and healthy life. The lessons are simple and are, rather inevitably, based around Ancient Chinese medicine. Mostly, at least it seemed to me, they revolved around reduction and restriction. Reduce the amount you eat especially of spicy food. Reduce the amount of hours you sleep. Don’t sleep on your back or during the day. Reduce the amount of words you use. Don’t sit or sleep in draughts. Oh, and don’t spit – too far. One interesting and amusing paragraph suggested that you shouldn’t take up the foreign habit of smoking as it is both addictive and expensive. But mostly the advice was obvious, banal or just plain bizarre.

Fortunately the whole thing was in bite sized chunks for easy digestion. I was also intrigued enough to continue reading in the hope that a little gem would be uncovered. I was, unfortunately, disappointed. Although this is an interesting book from a cultural or historical point of view – especially if you have a great interest in the Samurai – I did find it on the whole to be fairly pointless. But remember – I read these kinds of books so you don’t have to.