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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Interesting idea.... but I think I'd need a forest.

Just Finished Reading: The Golden City by John Twelve Hawks

In a near future world frighteningly similar to our own two shadowy organisations fight each other over the fate of mankind. The Brethren are dedicated to control through fear, manipulation and constant surveillance, The Travellers and their diverse followers believe in human potential, freedom and choice. Each side seek allies and information on other planes of existence through the activities of brothers Michael and Gabriel who have the ability to leave their bodies at will to travel along well worn paths to worlds out of myth. Now Michael is becoming frustrated at the pace of which his organisation is gaining control over the minds of millions. Convincing the higher echelons of The Brethren that he has the answer to the problems of accelerating control he causes a series of events across the world designed to generate fear and panic. When the time is right they will come out of the shadows to offer their solution to all our fears – a global surveillance system designed to keep us safe. The few remaining travellers know that this is an opportunity to strike back – but can such a diverse group pull together and co-ordinate a global response of its own? Only Gabriel can provide the impetus but his abandoned body lies awaiting the return of his travelling spirit which might very well be trapped in Hell itself.

This is the third book of the Fourth Realm trilogy I started some years ago. I enjoyed the first book (The Traveller) very much indeed but was disappointed by the second book (The Dark River) which didn’t really grip me at all. The Golden City is a welcome return to form with strong characterisation, a decent plot and some rather frightening ideas of how a cartel of powerful individuals can use technology to manipulate and spy upon most of the developed world. The technology is necessarily far fetched but only just. In a few decades much of the equipment and know-how will be available and could be (actually will probably be) put to these very uses. In a way this trilogy is a modern variation on 1984 – both more blatant in some places and more subtle in others. It’s certainly believable that this level of manipulation could exist without most people knowing about (or more scarily caring about it as long as it kept them ‘safe’). This is a book designed to be disturbing – a job it does very well indeed. Its creepiness is not in its use of monsters but almost in the banality of the process of creeping control. It contains a timely message for a worried age – don’t trust those who want to put a camera on every corner and a bio-chip in every arm, no matter what argument they use to make you scared enough to accept them. Recommended.   

Monday, May 28, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

England, 1536. At the age of three Princess Elizabeth hears herself referred to as ‘Lady’ and enquires: why? It transpires that her father – Henry VIII – has married again and that her mother has been executed for treason. As part of the legal process her parents marriage has been deemed illegitimate as has she herself. No longer in line for the throne her status has accordingly been downgraded. Struggling to come to terms with her mothers sudden death Elizabeth only slowly begins to realise that her once secure future has vanished and in its place is a world both more uncertain and dangerous. As she grows up her astute mind begins to mature into a formidable intellect powered by a deepening passion to rule and not be ruled by those – especially those men – around her. Navigating her way through palace intrigue, uprisings in her name, pressure to marry and even greater pressure to convert to Catholicism and the ever present fear of the executioners axe she knows that it is only her wits and the loyalty of those close to her that can guarantee her life and the throne she feels is her destiny to occupy.

This, my second Weir novel, covered similar ground to Innocent Traitor I read some time ago. Indeed both Lady Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey appear in both novels but with the focus reversed. Weir draws a very enticing picture of Elizabeth – arguably our greatest monarch – as a very bright, very astute and sometimes very lucky young woman. Of course setting up the novel as a ‘fight for survival’ has an inevitable problem – we know she survives to become queen (I’m really not giving anything away here). But the far more interesting part is exactly how she survives the intrigue going on all around her. If the fictionalisation of her early years – until she is crowned at age 25 – is as close to the truth as the author maintains (though admittedly with fictional additions, conflations and speculations) then it is a wonder that she made it that far. What a different world that would have been. Arguably without Elizabeth England may have become just another part of the growing Spanish Empire rather than the author of its downfall and after that…. Who knows!

Overall I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Innocent Traitor. That is not to say that this is a poor book - far from it! I just thought that the author laboured rather too much on the detail and that some parts could have been shortened without detrimental effect on the rest of the novel. However this book most certainly reinforced my growing interest in the Tudor and Elizabethan period of our nation’s history, so inevitably there will be more novels and non-fiction books to come from that time. Recommended.        

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I think that this little guy would have no trouble at all hearing his name when called......

Mars 'has life's building blocks'

By Mark Mardell for BBC News

25 May 2012

New evidence from meteorites suggests that the basic building blocks of life are present on Mars. The study found that carbon present in 10 meteorites, spanning more than four billion years of Martian history, came from the planet and was not the result of contamination on Earth. Details of the work have been published in the journal Science. But the research also shows the Martian carbon did not come from life forms. A team of scientists based at the Carnegie Institution for Science, based in Washington DC, found "reduced carbon" in the meteorites and says it was created by volcanic activity on Mars.

They argue this is evidence "that Mars has been undertaking organic chemistry for most of its history." The team's leader Dr Andrew Steele told BBC News: "For about the last 40 years we have been looking for a pool of what is called 'reduced carbon' on Mars, trying to find where it is, if it's there, asking "does it exist?" "Without carbon, the building blocks of life cannot exist... So it is reduced carbon that, with hydrogen, with oxygen, with nitrogen make up the organic molecules of life."

He says the new analysis has answered the first question. "This research shows, yes - it does exist on Mars and now we are moving to the next set of questions. What happened to it, what was its fate, did it take the next step of creating life on Mars?" He hopes the next mission to land on the Red Planet - the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the "Curiosity" rover - will shed more light on the big question. "The question 'are we alone' has been a big driver of science but it relates back to our own origins on this planet. If there is no life on Mars why? It allows us to make a more informed hypothesis about why life is here." So does Dr Steele think there was, or is, life on Mars?

He laughs: "Get me some rocks back, I'll have a look and let you know.”

[Of course it’s quite possible that despite the organic building blocks for life being present on the early Mars it never actually led anywhere. But we must remember that Mars had a wet past not unlike Earth. With organic chemicals in liquid solution present for an unknown time it might have been possible for simple life to have emerged before Mars lost most of its atmosphere and surface water. Knowing how tough life can be – just think of Earths extremophiles -  it’s entirely reasonable to speculate that life on Mars may have migrated underground along with the water it needed to survive. As we have literally only scratched the surface of the Red Planet I think that’s where the search for life should be focused. I have high hopes that we’ll find something amazing.] 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Ancient Warfare – A Very Short Introduction by Harry Sidebottom

I’ve been toying recently with the idea of doing another Masters Degree as my brain seems (at least sometimes) to be turning into mush. I’m almost more than a little fed up and think that’s because I’m not getting enough mental stimulation. I didn’t want to do anything I’ve done or touched on before so when I found a course on Ancient and Medieval Warfare at a nearby University it seemed idea. At the moment I’m still thinking about it – and will probably put it off until 2013 – but the course seems different enough that it could be quite fun even taking into account that I’d need to learn some Latin. This book then looked like an ideal introduction but turned out to be something I hadn’t really expected.

What I had expected was a potted history of the Ancient world with discussions of tactics and technology – The Greek phalanx and the Roman Gladus for example – with side debates on various pivotal battles like Thermopylae. Doing justice to this subject in a mere 128 pages would be difficult, I thought, but do-able. What I found was completely different. Instead of discussing things from the ground up the book took a far more top down approach. The author posed the question: Did the Greek and Roman civilisations create and develop a distinctive ‘Western Way of War’ in contrast to their many enemies and are we living with that legacy today. What hooked me from the start was the down to earth – and fun – approach to the subject. Not only does the author know his stuff, which you should expect from someone who teaches in Oxford, but he’s confident enough to play with his knowledge in order to engage his audience but without talking down to them or appearing in anyway condescending. I actually laughed as I read the first page which described the opening battle portrayed in the movie Gladiator when the Roman legions faced down the German barbarians. It seems true, the author starts, but in fact it was far from the truth. The Western Way of War was, he maintained, a cultural construct and like other cultural constructs had an origin, was based on how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us and, importantly, changes over time as cultures themselves change.

Throughout the rest of the book – using examples from both the Greek and Roman world – the author expands on his thesis by delving into how the ancients viewed war, what myths and stories about themselves they responded to (or against) and explodes a fair few myths about the way wars were fought and the reasons for going to war in the first place. It certainly gave me a flavour of what I might be up against in a future seminar and certainly gave me a lot to think about.

Expect more books on Ancient and Medieval warfare in the coming months and more military history books in general. It appears that my teenage interest in all things military has resurfaced. Watch this space.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The New Atheism – Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor J Stenger

I actually don’t read much atheist literature. This may seem odd to some of my regulars as they know me as a life-long and often outspoken atheist. In the not too distant past I’d spend a significant part of my blogging time debating the existence of God with a number of people on both sides of the divide. I enjoyed it too until I realised that I was completely wasting my time. For one thing it became obvious that my theist opponents could not be swayed or persuaded by arguments – presumably because they didn’t become Christians through the arguments presented to them. Our world views were just too different and it felt, more than once, that we were talking in completely different languages despite the fact that they sounded the same and seemingly used the same words.

Just like those earlier debates I found this book to be largely pointless. For one thing the author was preaching very much to the choir. I for one certainly don’t need my atheism explained to me or my arguments for it bolstered. I have given the subject a great deal of thought over the years and have arrived at what I consider to be a well reasoned position that I am more than happy with – so much so that I no longer give it much thought at all. This book is very definitely aimed at an American audience – which came as no great surprise to me. The battle the author is clearly taking part in is very much an American affair. Europe, I believe, moved on from this debate decades ago. The few books written by British authors – notably Dawkins and Hitchens – are similarly and squarely aimed at the US market. Despite the fact that their books sold well over here I believe that was prompted more by curiosity than by actual soul-searching.

Despite the fact that I agreed with virtually every word in this book (and because of that becoming increasingly bored with the whole thing) I became increasingly irritated with the authors attitude to his critics and those believers who had either failed to understand his position or where actively hostile to it. I agree with the author that the religious beliefs under discussion are foolish and without foundation. But it does not follow that the people who hold those beliefs are irredeemable fools. Unfortunately this seemed to be the attitude of the author which is rather self-defeating when you consider it. Anyone ‘of-faith’ reading this book would immediately take umbrage with the tone of the work and because of that completely miss the actual content which, despite the fact that I’ve heard it all before, was pretty good and generally well argued (if rather ‘thin’, that is without any real depth). Treating at least part of your target audience as complete idiots is not really conducive to getting them to actually consider your arguments at face value. This doesn’t mean that you have to bend over backwards to accommodate your opponents. You just have to treat them as, at least potentially, reasonable human beings and pitch your arguments accordingly. This the book singularly fails to do starting as it does from a position that Atheism is the obviously correct way of seeing the world (I agree) which needs little further exposition (which it does to those with radically different world views).

Finally it seems that the author is another of those Atheists who want their cake and eat it. A whole chapter was given over – plus references elsewhere – to a secular form of spirituality that can be gleaned from various Eastern religions and especially from Buddhism. Now I’m as interested in that sort of thing as much as the next Atheist but I don’t need it as a faux substitute for religion that the author seems to suggest it can be used as. I’ve come across the idea before that we, being without God, need to bolt on some kind of sanitised religious feelings (not called religious of course!) in order to feel complete rather than at the mercy of an indifferent and purely materialistic universe. I for one reject that cop-out of an idea. It’s like calling yourself a vegetarian and still eating fish or even chicken and thinking it’s OK as long as you don’t actually eat red meat. People like that amuse me to death – they really do.

So you can probably tell from the above that I didn’t quite enjoy this book as much as I might have done. That would be very true. I think it’s fundamentally aimed at the wrong audience – as both believers and non-believers will find it unsatisfying. What it should have been was a well thought out, reasonably argued and sober demolition of the religious world view rounding off with the case for Atheism. I’m confident that the author could have written such a book if only he hadn’t let his prejudice and, dare I say, arrogance get in the way of a good argument. Religious arguments for the existence of God are deeply flawed and have been repeatedly and comprehensively defeated time and again. Likewise the arguments for a Godless universe are on very solid ground. It’s just such a shame that the author didn’t use the opportunity to make his case more strongly. Obviously not recommended.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I have the feeling, that like much over-the-counter medication, its effectiveness would be questionable....



Jan. 10, 2011

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

The discovery of this so-called exoplanet is based on more than eight months of data collected by the spacecraft from May 2009 to early January 2010. "All of Kepler's best capabilities have converged to yield the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and primary author of a paper on the discovery accepted by the Astrophysical Journal. "The Kepler team made a commitment in 2010 about finding the telltale signatures of small planets in the data, and it's beginning to pay off."

Kepler's ultra-precise photometer measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from these periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star. Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone, the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the planet's surface. However, since it orbits once every 0.84 days, Kepler-10b is more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun and not in the habitable zone.

Kepler-10 was the first star identified that could potentially harbor a small transiting planet, placing it at the top of the list for ground-based observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory 10-meter telescope in Hawaii. Scientists waiting for a signal to confirm Kepler-10b as a planet were not disappointed. Keck was able to measure tiny changes in the star's spectrum, called Doppler shifts, caused by the telltale tug exerted by the orbiting planet on the star.

"The discovery of Kepler 10-b is a significant milestone in the search for planets similar to our own," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Although this planet is not in the habitable zone, the exciting find showcases the kinds of discoveries made possible by the mission and the promise of many more to come," he said. Knowledge of the planet is only as good as the knowledge of the star it orbits. Because Kepler-10 is one of the brighter stars being targeted by Kepler, scientists were able to detect high frequency variations in the star's brightness generated by stellar oscillations, or starquakes. This analysis allowed scientists to pin down Kepler-10b's properties.

There is a clear signal in the data arising from light waves that travel within the interior of the star. Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium scientists use the information to better understand the star, just as earthquakes are used to learn about Earth's interior structure. As a result of this analysis, Kepler-10 is one of the most well characterized planet-hosting stars in the universe. That's good news for the team studying Kepler-10b. Accurate stellar properties yield accurate planet properties. In the case of Kepler-10b, the picture that emerges is of a rocky planet with a mass 4.6 times that of Earth and with an average density of 8.8 grams per cubic centimeter -- similar to that of an iron dumbbell.

Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data.

[Just in case you missed the original announcement! Of course the discovery of rocky planets like Earth is a big step towards finding life elsewhere in our Galaxy. If these planets are as common as they appear to be I think the odds of finding life – even complex life – are pretty good. What we have is still pretty circumstantial but as more evidence accumulates of the possibility of life elsewhere – especially in environments not that dissimilar to those here – that possibility must be moving in the direction of certainty. Now all we need to do is determine which of the present candidates are the most likely to harbour life and send probes to have a look – no matter how long that would take.]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Definitely a schoolboy crush of mine......

Just Finished Reading: The Occupation by Guy Walters

Berlin 1945 – In an act of desperation Hitler orders the deployment of his final terror weapon, the V3. Designed to rain down hundreds of rockets on its target the effect of the devastation is heightened by the deadly warheads each missile contains. The only limitation is its comparatively short range. The solution is to base it on the almost abandoned island of Alderney – one of the occupied Channel Islands, the only British soil to be occupied by the Germans in WW2.

Alderney 1990 – During the construction of a new flagship hotel on the island workmen start to complain of mysterious symptoms and begin falling ill. The company, eager to avoid an investigation contrive a series of accidents to cover up the suspicious deaths. Recently sacked journalist Robert Lebonneur smells a story and tries to investigate only to be warned off by his editor. Incensed by this obstruction he decides to fly to Alderney himself to see what is happening. On route the pilot suffers from a heart attack and Robert must save himself and the rest of the passengers. But can he find out what is happening and what did happen on that island so long ago and who is trying to kill him to protect a wartime secret long since forgotten?

I think I bought this book in a pile of cheap novels in a book sale somewhere. I really didn’t expect very much from it and had decided to treat it pretty much as a throw-away book – something you normally pick up in an airport to take on holiday, read and instantly forget. It actually surprised me by being reasonably well written. OK, the storyline – especially the modern part – wasn’t handled very well, but the ‘flash-back’ to 1945 was, I thought, rather well written. In fact I sometimes struggled to reconcile the two halves of the book. Half was so-so whilst the other half was quite gripping. If the author had placed his story exclusively in the dying months of the war and told the tale of the building of the V3 and the attempts to destroy it I probably would have liked this book a great deal more. Overall it was a reasonable read as well as a pretty fast one. Definitely one for light holiday reading.   

[Oh, and that was my 3000th post.......]

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Dummies Guide to the Global Economy:

Helga is the proprietor of a bar.

She realizes that virtually all of her customers are unemployed alcoholics and, as such, can no longer afford to patronize her bar. To solve this problem, she comes up with a new marketing plan that allows her customers to drink now, but pay later. Helga keeps track of the drinks consumed on a ledger (thereby granting the customers' loans).

Word gets around about Helga's "drink now, pay later" marketing strategy and, as a result, increasing numbers of customers flood into Helga's bar. Soon she has the largest sales volume for any bar in town. By providing her customers freedom from immediate payment demands, Helga gets no resistance when, at regular intervals, she substantially increases her prices for wine and beer, the most consumed beverages. Consequently, Helga's gross sales volume increases massively.

A young and dynamic vice-president at the local bank recognizes that these customer debts constitute valuable future assets and increases Helga's borrowing limit. He sees no reason for any undue concern, since he has the debts of the unemployed alcoholics as collateral!!! At the bank's corporate headquarters, expert traders figure a way to make huge commissions, and transform these customer loans into DRINKBONDS.

These "securities" then are bundled and traded on international securities markets. Naive investors don't really understand that the securities being sold to them as "AA" "Secured Bonds" really are debts of unemployed alcoholics. Nevertheless, the bond prices continuously climb and the securities soon become the hottest-selling items for some of the nation's leading brokerage houses.

One day, even though the bond prices still are climbing, a risk manager at the original local bank decides that the time has come to demand payment on the debts incurred by the drinkers at Helga's bar. He so informs Helga. Helga then demands payment from her alcoholic patrons, but being unemployed alcoholics they cannot pay back their drinking debts.

Since Helga cannot fulfil her loan obligations she is forced into bankruptcy. The bar closes and Helga's 11 employees lose their jobs. Overnight, DRINKBOND prices drop by 90%. The collapsed bond asset value destroys the bank's liquidity and prevents it from issuing new loans, thus freezing credit and economic activity in the community. The suppliers of Helga's bar had granted her generous payment extensions and had invested their firms' pension funds in the BOND securities. They find they are now faced with having to write off her bad debt and with losing over 90% of the presumed value of the bonds.

Her wine supplier also claims bankruptcy, closing the doors on a family business that had endured for three generations, her beer supplier is taken over by a competitor, who immediately closes the local plant and lays off 150 workers. Fortunately though, the bank, the brokerage houses and their respective executives are saved and bailed out by a multibillion dollar no-strings attached cash infusion from the government.

The funds required for this bailout are obtained by new taxes levied on employed, middle-class, non-drinkers who've never been in Helga's bar.

Now do you understand?

[From an e-mail doing the rounds at the moment].

Saturday, May 12, 2012

World War II fighter found in Egyptian desert

By Nick Higham

BBC News

11 May 2012
A World War II RAF fighter, which crash-landed in a remote part of the Egyptian desert in 1942, has been discovered almost intact. There was no trace of the pilot, Flt Sgt Dennis Copping, but the British embassy says it is planning to mount a search for his remains. The RAF Museum in Hendon, north London, says it is hoping to recover the plane as soon as possible. There are fears souvenir hunters will start stripping it.
The 24-year-old pilot, the son of a dentist from Southend in Essex, went missing over the Western Desert in June 1942, flying an American-made P40 Kittyhawk single-engine fighter. Two-and-a-half months ago an aircraft believed to be his was discovered near a remote place called Wadi al-Jadid by a Polish oil worker, Jakub Perka. His photographs show the plane is in remarkably good condition, though the engine and propeller have separated from the fuselage. The original paintwork and RAF insignia are said to be clearly visible, almost perfectly preserved in the dry desert air. But of the pilot there is no sign. He appears to have executed a near-perfect emergency landing, perhaps after becoming lost and running out of fuel, and to have survived the crash. He rigged a parachute as an awning and removed the aircraft's radio and batteries but then apparently walked off into the desert in search of help.

Almost 100 miles from the nearest settlement, he stood virtually no chance. David Keen, an aviation historian at the RAF Museum, says the pilot broke the first rule of survival in the desert, which is to stay with your plane or vehicle. But the very same conditions which made the pilot's prospects so bleak have helped preserve the plane. Mr Keen says of the many thousands of aircraft which were shot down or crashed during the Second World War, very few survive in anything like this condition. He said: "Nearly all the crashes in the Second World War, and there were tens of thousands of them, resulted on impact with the aircraft breaking up, so the only bits that are recovered are fragments, often scattered over a wide area. "What makes this particular aircraft so special is that it looks complete, and it survived on the surface of the desert all these years. It's like a timewarp." The RAF Museum has a P40 Kittyhawk on display, but it has been put together from parts of many different aircraft. Recovering Flt Sgt Copping's plane will not be easy. It is in a part of the desert which is not only remote but also dangerous, because it is close to a smuggling route between Libya and Egypt. The defence attache at the British Embassy in Cairo, Paul Collins, says he is hoping to travel to the area in the near future, but is waiting for permission from the Egyptian army. He told the BBC: "I have to go down there. This is a serviceman who was killed, albeit 70 years ago. We have a responsibility to go and find out whether it's his plane, though not necessarily to work out what happened. "He went missing in action. We can only assume he got out and walked somewhere, so we have to do a search of the area for any remains, although it could be a wide area. "But we have to go soon as all the souvenir hunters will be down there," said Mr Collins. He said the British authorities are trying to find out whether Flt Sgt Copping has any surviving close relatives, because if his remains are found a decision will need to be made about what to do with them.

[It’s amazing to think that such things as this can stay hidden for over 60 years and then be stumbled upon in the deep desert. There’s also the very human story of a pilot crash landing his plane and then, after waiting for a rescue that never arrived, walking off into the desert in the hope of finding his way home.] 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I think I've found your reception problem...............

Just Finished Reading: Terminator and Philosophy – I’ll be Back, therefore I Am edited by Richard Brown and Kevin S Decker

I am, as most of you will know, a huge fan of the Terminator ‘franchise’ of movies and TV series. So it will come as no surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to read about some of the ideas behind James Cameron’s original ideas and their offspring. Of course many of these ideas are deeply philosophical – if not exactly anything particularly original. The most obvious point brought up in the movies is about machine intelligence. As Reese explain in the first movie regarding Skynet – “They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence and decided our future in a micro-second” – or words to that effect. So there are several articles about that aspect. My particular favourite however are those dealing with the other major aspect: Time travel and the possibility of changing the past (or the future) which, quite naturally, leads on to discussions of fate and free will. Some of the temporal mechanics is rather mind-bending and I did have to slow things down and read a few passages more than once – but it all made sense in the end. The two things to remember of course is that ‘Judgement Day is inevitable’ – though it can seemingly be delayed – and no matter how many killer robots (or protectors) you send back you can’t seem to change things very much or for very long. Tagged on to all this is the obvious question of where exactly are these Terminators coming from? Does that mean that the future already exists in some form or other? Surely it must if the cyborgs live there, right? Also, rather than repeatedly failing to stop its own destruction at the hands of humanity, does Skynet merely create other worlds and other timelines where different versions of itself sends back robots into our world? As John Conner said in the last movie: ‘This isn’t the future my mother warned me about’. Is that because of the meddling of Skynet (and the Resistance) in The Sarah Conner Chronicles?

I do love thinking about all this sort of thing. If you are as sad as me in that respect then this book is most definitely you. If you read it carefully you might even find out why we cry (cringe worthy moment par excellence!) Highly recommended but, be warned, it might make you watch all four films back-to-back like I did last weekend……..

Monday, May 07, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Set in Stone by Robert Goddard

In order to help Tony Sheridan start to cope with the sudden, tragic and mysterious death of his wife he is invited to stay with his sister-in-law and her husband in their new house, Otherways. Designed and built before the First World War the house is a one-off experiment of a radical architect who never had another design commissioned. Entirely circular and surrounded by a moat it almost defies description seemingly changing aspects of itself depending on the viewer. As Tony starts to settle into his new surroundings and put his life slowly back together he starts having vivid dreams about his sister-in-law, so like and yet so unlike his beloved wife. As he digs deeper into the history of the house he finds that incidents seem to be repeating themselves and not for the first time. Since its construction Otherways has been at the heart of betrayal, treason and murder. Will Tony become its latest victim or can he find out what is going on before he loses more than a few nights sleep….

This is a really difficult book to categorise – as you can tell from the labels I used: Fantasy, Espionage and Crime. It certainly contains all three genres – the house is like something from a horror movie, though much more subtle than most. There is a brooding malevolent presence about the place that is generally spooky. At the core of the novel is an act of betrayal when secrets are passed to the Soviet Union and lives are ruined in consequence. Lastly there is murder, infidelity, suicide and threats of savage violence. With so much going on – and so many genres seemingly being thrown into the mix – it would have been very easy for the author to have produced a muddled thriller that failed on each count. Surprisingly, and rather gratifyingly, he managed to hold things together to produced a decidedly odd but most definitely gripping thriller which I described to a work colleague as having more twists than a twisty thing. I can most definitely say that this is a solid page turner having finished it several days ahead of schedule after reading in excess of 150 pages on a single day. That alone is quite a recommendation. The narrative pulls the reader through seemingly without effort and before you know it whole chapters – and hours – have flown past. This is my second Goddard book and it will most definitely not be my last. Highly recommended for anyone wanting something more than a little out of the ordinary.      

Saturday, May 05, 2012

As ice cap melts, militaries vie for Arctic edge


Associated Press 

Monday April 16 2012

To the world's military leaders, the debate over climate change is long over. They are preparing for a new kind of Cold War in the Arctic, anticipating that rising temperatures there will open up a treasure trove of resources, long-dreamed-of sea lanes and a slew of potential conflicts. By Arctic standards, the region is already buzzing with military activity, and experts believe that will increase significantly in the years ahead. Last month, Norway wrapped up one of the largest Arctic maneuvers ever — Exercise Cold Response — with 16,300 troops from 14 countries training on the ice for everything from high intensity warfare to terror threats. Attesting to the harsh conditions, five Norwegian troops were killed when their C-130 Hercules aircraft crashed near the summit of Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain.

The U.S., Canada and Denmark held major exercises two months ago, and in an unprecedented move, the military chiefs of the eight main Arctic powers — Canada, the U.S., Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland — gathered at a Canadian military base last week to specifically discuss regional security issues. None of this means a shooting war is likely at the North Pole any time soon. But as the number of workers and ships increases in the High North to exploit oil and gas reserves, so will the need for policing, border patrols and — if push comes to shove — military muscle to enforce rival claims. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas is in the Arctic. Shipping lanes could be regularly open across the Arctic by 2030 as rising temperatures continue to melt the sea ice, according to a National Research Council analysis commissioned by the U.S. Navy last year.

What countries should do about climate change remains a heated political debate. But that has not stopped north-looking militaries from moving ahead with strategies that assume current trends will continue. Russia, Canada and the United States have the biggest stakes in the Arctic. With its military budget stretched thin by Iraq, Afghanistan and more pressing issues elsewhere, the United States has been something of a reluctant northern power, though its nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which can navigate for months underwater and below the ice cap, remains second to none. Russia — one-third of which lies within the Arctic Circle — has been the most aggressive in establishing itself as the emerging region's superpower.

Rob Huebert, an associate political science professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, said Russia has recovered enough from its economic troubles of the 1990s to significantly rebuild its Arctic military capabilities, which were a key to the overall Cold War strategy of the Soviet Union, and has increased its bomber patrols and submarine activity. He said that has in turn led other Arctic countries — Norway, Denmark and Canada — to resume regional military exercises that they had abandoned or cut back on after the Soviet collapse. Even non-Arctic nations such as France have expressed interest in deploying their militaries to the Arctic. "We have an entire ocean region that had previously been closed to the world now opening up," Huebert said. "There are numerous factors now coming together that are mutually reinforcing themselves, causing a buildup of military capabilities in the region. This is only going to increase as time goes on."

Noting that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, the U.S. Navy in 2009 announced a beefed-up Arctic Roadmap by its own task force on climate change that called for a three-stage strategy to increase readiness, build cooperative relations with Arctic nations and identify areas of potential conflict.
"We want to maintain our edge up there," said Cmdr. Ian Johnson, the captain of the USS Connecticut, which is one of the U.S. Navy's most Arctic-capable nuclear submarines and was deployed to the North Pole last year. "Our interest in the Arctic has never really waned. It remains very important." But the U.S. remains ill-equipped for large-scale Arctic missions, according to a simulation conducted by the U.S. Naval War College. A summary released last month found the Navy is "inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic" because it lacks ships able to operate in or near Arctic ice, support facilities and adequate communications. "The findings indicate the Navy is entering a new realm in the Arctic," said Walter Berbrick, a War College professor who participated in the simulation. "Instead of other nations relying on the U.S. Navy for capabilities and resources, sustained operations in the Arctic region will require the Navy to rely on other nations for capabilities and resources." He added that although the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet is a major asset, the Navy has severe gaps elsewhere — it doesn't have any icebreakers, for example. The only one in operation belongs to the Coast Guard. The U.S. is currently mulling whether to add more icebreakers.

Acknowledging the need to keep apace in the Arctic, the United States is pouring funds into figuring out what climate change will bring, and has been working closely with the scientific community to calibrate its response. "The Navy seems to be very on board regarding the reality of climate change and the especially large changes we are seeing in the Arctic," said Mark C. Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences University of Colorado. "There is already considerable collaboration between the Navy and civilian scientists and I see this collaboration growing in the future." The most immediate challenge may not be war — both military and commercial assets are sparse enough to give all countries elbow room for a while — but whether militaries can respond to a disaster. Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the London-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said militaries probably will have to rescue their own citizens in the Arctic before any confrontations arise there. "Catastrophic events, like a cruise ship suddenly sinking or an environmental accident related to the region's oil and gas exploration, would have a profound impact in the Arctic," she said. "The risk is not militarization; it is the lack of capabilities while economic development and human activity dramatically increases that is the real risk."

[Of course this is humanities depressingly familiar response to a crisis – even one as big as the acknowledge fact that the North Polar ice cap is melting. Rather than even attempting to address the issue and its causes what we do instead is to figure out ways to profit from it while at the same time preventing other countries from doing likewise. In other words we militarise things while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart. Some days it truly saddens me to be a member of the human species.]