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

Monday, July 30, 2012

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of Fighting Ships – Ships of the Line and Napoleonic sea battles 1793 – 1815 by David Davies

I see to have developed quite an interest in naval history of late. I can probably date it back to reading the Roman naval trilogy by John Stack and, a little later, Bernard Cornwell’s description of Trafalgar. So it should come as no great surprise that I snapped up this book the moment I saw it and that I enjoyed it a great deal.

Davies is certainly a man who knows his stuff. Not only is he a sailor himself but he is also an ex-military engineer with a passion for all things Napoleonic and it shows in his writing. He is a man with an excellent grasp of his subject and possessed of the wit and skill to make even the apparently mundane details of the battleships-of-the-line (shortened to ‘battleships’ when they ceased to fight in rigid line formation) seem more than merely interesting. Here’s a few of the things I learnt:

At the time the two sides of the ship where Larboard and Starboard – Port only came into use from the middle of the 19th century.

It took 80 acres of (preferably English) oak trees to build a single 74 gun ship.

Ships were built of oak, rather than the much more rot resistant teak, because of one very good reason. The majority of casualties in a sea battle were caused by flying splinters. Wounds made from teak splinters invariably turned sceptic whilst those from oak did not.

Rather surprisingly the smaller frigates where almost never fired upon by the battleships unless fired upon first. As a broadside from a capital ship could reduce the much smaller frigate to match wood in seconds such an engagement was considered unsporting.

Whilst the first quarter or so of the book dealt with the details of ship construction, weapons and so on the rest covered some of the crucial engagements of the period. Starting with the somewhat less than ‘Glorious’ First of June (1794) engagement of French forces protecting a much need grain shipment from America (then very much in favour of Revolutionary France), to more famous – and militarily significant – encounters at Cape St Vincent, Camperdown, The Nile, Copenhagen and (of course) Trafalgar in 1805. Each battle is brought to life with detailed maps showing the movements of the fleets involved and the tactical changes which eventually brought victory after victory against Spanish, Dutch and French opponents. At the heart of these developments were classic British heroes such as Admiral Lord Nelson who inspired a generation of intelligent and daring captains.

Written with verve and style this was a fascinating read which really put you at the heart of some of the most important battles of that time, battles which helped to defeat Napoleon on the European mainland and made the Royal Navy the world’s premier floating fighting force. A must read for anyone with an interest in the period or in naval affairs. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My only Olympic post..... (probably)



Aug. 8, 2011

WASHINGTON -- NASA-funded researchers have found more evidence meteorites can carry DNA components created in space.

Scientists have detected the building blocks of DNA in meteorites since the 1960s, but were unsure whether they were created in space or resulted from contamination by terrestrial life. The latest research indicates certain nucleobases -- the building blocks of our genetic material -- reach the Earth on meteorites in greater diversity and quantity than previously thought. The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that the chemistry inside asteroids and comets is capable of making building blocks of essential biological molecules. Previously, scientists found amino acids in samples of comet Wild 2 from NASA's Stardust mission and in various carbon-rich meteorites. Amino acids are used to make proteins, the workhorse molecules of life. Proteins are used in everything from structures such as hair to enzymes, which are the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions.

The findings will be published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the new work, scientists analyzed samples of 12 carbon-rich meteorites, nine of which were recovered from Antarctica. The team found adenine and guanine, which are components of DNA nucleobases. Also, in two of the meteorites, the team discovered for the first time trace amounts of three molecules related to nucleobases that almost never are used in biology. These nucleobase-related molecules, called nucleobase analogs, provide the first evidence that the compounds in the meteorites came from space and not terrestrial contamination.

"You would not expect to see these nucleobase analogs if contamination from terrestrial life was the source, because they're not used in biology," said Michael Callahan, astrobiologist and lead author of the paper from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "However, if asteroids are behaving like chemical 'factories' cranking out prebiotic material, you would expect them to produce many variants of nucleobases, not just the biological ones, because of the wide variety of ingredients and conditions in each asteroid."

Additional evidence came from research to further rule out the possibility of terrestrial contamination as a source of these molecules. The team analyzed an eight-kilogram (21.4-pound) sample of ice from Antarctica, where most of the meteorites in the study were found. The amounts of nucleobases found in the ice were much lower than in the meteorites. More significantly, none of the nucleobase analogs were detected in the ice sample. The team also analyzed a soil sample collected near one of the non-Antarctic meteorite's fall site. As with the ice sample, the soil sample had none of the nucleobase analog molecules present in the meteorite.

Launched in Feb. 7, 1999, Stardust flew past an asteroid and traveled halfway to Jupiter to collect particle samples from the comet Wild 2. The spacecraft returned to Earth's vicinity to drop off a sample-return capsule on January 15, 2006. The research was funded by NASA's Astrobiology Institute at the agency's Ames Research Laboratory in Moffett Field Calif., and the Goddard Center for Astrobiology in Greenbelt, Md.; the NASA Astrobiology Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the agency's Headquarters in Washington.

[If the basic building blocks of DNA exist in the spaces between planets – either on the countless dust particles or meteors and asteroids – then it’s likely that not only have they rained down onto the Earth for millennia but they have rained down onto other worlds circling other stars too. Whenever they land in an environment fit for life, however widely you want to draw those particular limits, they can’t help but influence, boost or even kick-start the whole process. If it’s as widespread as it seems to be it could point, yet again, to life being common throughout space. I’m confident that it’s only a matter of time (and effort) before we find it.] 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Christine by Stephen King

Arnie Cunningham (played by Keith Gordon in the 1983 movie adaptation) is one of those people who spend their life being picked on and bullied. If it wasn’t for his football jock friend Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell) he would have probably ended up dead in High School. But now Arnie has a new friend who can help him through life in more ways than one. A friend who whispers into his ear late at night, a friend who gives Arnie the strength to stand up to bullies and when required kill them for him. Christine is no ordinary friend as everyone who crosses Arnie Cunningham will eventually find out. Christine is indeed a blood-red 1958 Plymouth Fury and she’s aptly named because she’s got a lot of fury deep inside her and she only needs Arnie’s focus to let it out. Before too long many people are wondering just what happened to the spotty geek who crept through the shadows to avoid those intent on his painful humiliation. Those who are still alive to wonder of course……..

I’ve never been what you would call a huge Stephen King fan. I’ve generally enjoyed the (many) movie adaptations – particularly Firestarter and Dreamcatcher – but have generally avoided his books. I’m just not into horror or the idea of scaring myself on purpose. I really can’t see the point (and avoid things like roller-coasters and bungee jumping for the same reason). But, as this book has been sitting on my shelf for years – probably decades – and I’m doing the whole movie-related theme thing how could I actually avoid something so obvious. Of course like most of adaptations Hollywood use the idea of the book without necessarily following the plot of the book. It’s certainly been along time since I saw the movie (probably in the late 80’s or early 90’s) but I’m pretty certain that it was significantly different than what I read between these pages – and not in a good way. As you might expect the book – especially as it was just under 600 pages – went into a great deal more detail than the movie ever could. Unfortunately for me King spent at least 100 and probably more like 200 pages going over the same ground again and again. I guess that he was building tension (of which there was some) but laboured mightily to do so. King certainly got across a brooding menace inherent in the character of Christine complete with outpourings of sudden and bloody violence but, I thought, either undersold or oversold the effect. The movie had a clearer, because of time and media constraints, idea of what Christine actually was – inherently evil or possibly demon-possessed. The book went into great detail about how is was the deep hate of the world and everything in it embodied in her previous owner (prior to Arnie) who was, in effect, the possessing spirit which to me didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Finally I found the almost constant use of swearing (mainly F and quite a few C’s) to be frankly wearing and unnecessary adding very little to the story. All-in-all I was rather disappointed with the whole thing. It certainly hasn’t turned me on (or back on) to Stephen King probably because it’s really just not my type of literature. I know many people worship the ground he walks on, but I’m not one of them.   

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Power of Books.....!

“That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilisation ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism to order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how I hate them! War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked to pieces than take part in such an abominable business.”

Albert Einstein.

Monday, July 23, 2012

My Favourite Movies: American Beauty

I still remember being totally blown away in 1999 by this movie. I had no real idea what it was about when I sat down in the movie theatre next to my friend CrazyQueen. I actually think it was her idea to see this and I simply consented to go along for the ride. How glad I was that I made that decision!

The movie revolves around the mid-life crisis of advertising executive Lester Burnham played with superb understatement by the great Kevin Spacey. He finds himself as a fortysomething man whose wife hates him (when she’s not ignoring him) and whose daughter holds him in contempt. Unsure what to do with himself he’s dragged along to his daughters cheerleading debut and meets her school friend Angela Hayes played by Mena Suvari. Soon deeply infatuated with the teenage wannabe model and movie star he starts ‘working out’ to look good in front of her. Meanwhile new neighbours have arrived – the Fitts family comprising of father (Chris Cooper), Mother (Allison Janey) and son Ricky played by the amazing and mesmerising Wes Bentley. Not only is Ricky a drug dealer par excellence he’s also a collector of film footage of events around him – from dancing plastic bags to decomposing birds. After some initial sparks Lester’s daughter (played by Thora Birch) and Ricky become lovers. Meanwhile Lester’s wife Caroline (played with over-the-top intensity by Annette Benning) starts to ‘find herself’ in the arms of a new lover and on the firing range. All the pieces are now in place for the drama to unfold ending, as is foretold in the opening scenes, with Lester’s death within a year.

I am not in the least surprised (although maybe I should be considering other winners) that American Beauty won 5 Oscar’s and 6 BAFTA’s including Best Film at both ceremonies. Not only was the acting of a very high standard (though I was less than impressed by Ms Suvari) but the storyline is truly magical. The American mid-life crisis plotline is so hackneyed that it was about time that a film such as this was made. As it delves into the seedier side of American suburban living we are quickly made aware that everything we see is a front, a fa├žade. As is made all too clear as Benning takes advice from the Property King himself when he says “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times”. Nothing about reality here, just about image. But that’s another thing I love about this movie. It’s got some great observations and very quotable lines. Like Ricky, though in my case for 3-4 minutes rather than his 15, I have watched a carrier bag ‘dancing’ in the wind. Like Ricky I think I see things that people simply don’t notice – though I think his being overwhelmed by the beauty in the world might be more to do with his drug taking that anything actually there! But it could, of course, all be a matter of perspective. But before I finish and recommend you see this movie ASAP I’ll leave you with one of the laugh-out-loud moments when Lester is asked to write out his job description and any reasons why the company shouldn’t fire him:

"My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men's room so I can jerk off while I fantasize about a life that doesn't so closely resemble Hell."


Sunday, July 22, 2012

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it every so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

Albert Einstein. 

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

America Needs to Talk About Gun Control in the Wake of the Colorado Shooting

by Gary Younge For The Guardian

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The chorus of empathetic responses to the tragic shootings at the Aurora movie theater, near Denver, Colorado early Friday morning marks a stubborn refrain in a perennial American elegy. Different singers mouthing different words, but basically singing the same song.

Psychological profiles of the shooter emerge, along with portraits of the victims, while the political class closes ranks so that the nation can heal. Incanted tones to sooth a permanent scar. All rituals serve a purpose. And this one is no different. At least 12 people have died. Their families must be given space to mourn, and that space should be respected. But it does not honour the dead to insist that there must be no room in that space for rational thought and critical appraisal. Indeed, such situations demand both. For one can only account for so many "isolated" incidents before it becomes necessary to start dealing with a pattern. It is simply not plausible to understand events in Colorado this Friday without having a conversation about guns in a country where more than 84 people a day are killed with guns, and more than twice that number are injured with them.

Amid all the column inches and airtime devoted to these horrific slayings, though, that elephant in the room will remain affectionately patted, discreetly fed and politely indulged. To claim that "this is not the time" ignores the reality that America has found itself incapable of finding any appropriate time to have this urgent conversation. The victims in Colorado deserve at least that. And these tragedies take place everyday, albeit on a smaller scale. America's president, Barack Obama, understands this. The number of homicide victims in his home town of Chicago this year has outnumbered those of US troops serving in Kabul. Speaking in Fort Myers, Florida on Friday morning, Obama was right to suspend the routine campaign rhetoric and play the statesman. Nobody wants to hear about Mitt Romney's tax records and stimulating the economy on a day like this. There will be other days for electioneering.

But he was wrong to insist on this:
"There are going to be other days for politics. This is a day for prayer and reflection."

For what are we to reflect on if not how this, and so many other similar calamities, came about. Those who insist that we should not "play politics" with the victim's grief conveniently ignore that politics is what caused that grief. Not party politics. But a blend of opportunism on the right that flagrantly mischaracterises the issue, and spinelessness on the left that refuses to address it. Americans are no more prone to mental illness or violence than any other people in the world. What they do have is more guns: roughly, 90 for every 100 people. And regions and states with higher rates of gun ownership have significantly higher rates of homicide than states with lower rates of gun ownership. The trite insistence that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" simply avoids the reality that people can kill people much more easily with guns than anything else that's accessible. Americans understand this. That's why a plurality supports greater gun control, and a majority thinks the sale of firearms should be more tightly regulated.

The trouble is that people feel powerless to do anything about it. The gun lobby has proved sufficiently potent in rallying opposition to virtually all gun control measures that Democrats have all but given up on arguing for it. In the meantime, the country is literally and metaphorically dying for it. Gun control is possible. There are both a constituency for it and an argument for it. But it can't happen without a political coalition prepared to fight for it. If America can elect a black president, it can do this.

[Yet again the world is treated to a vision of a country drowning in guns and the consequences of the frankly crazy idea that the right to bear arms somehow makes you free. Most of the rest of the world seems to manage without this ‘right’. Most of the rest of the world seems to avoid the regular carnage too. What are frighteningly isolated incidents in most of the rest of the west are frighteningly regular incidents in the US. I really have to wonder just how many people need to die before someone somewhere says enough is enough: Many, many more by the sounds of things. It would appear that 84 deaths a day are considered to be ‘acceptable losses’ compared to the infringement of ‘fundamental freedoms’ such as gun ownership. I wonder if the families of the victims feel that way. I’m guessing, and I’m really hoping, that they do not. But, of course, little or nothing will come of this latest ‘incident’. There might be some talk in the media but I doubt very much if any American politician will even mention the phrase ‘gun-control’ except to say that such ideas are simply beyond debate. So it’s only a matter of time before another ‘crazed lone gun’ makes international headlines again… and again… and again. Welcome to the land of the free – please be aware of hurricanes, drought and occasional mass shootings. Have a nice day now!]   

Thursday, July 19, 2012

You just have to admire his ambition.... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Privacy – A Very Short Introduction by Raymond Wacks

I am, despite the irony of the statement, a private person. So it’s understandable that the concept of privacy interests me a great deal. Unfortunately I should have read the potted biography of the author a little more closely and realised that this book really wasn’t what I was looking for on the subject. Professor Wacks is an international expert in the law of privacy – which is something I only find tangentially interesting. Fortunately for me, not only is the author a gifted communicator he also peppers the book with the historical origins of modern privacy (which is an interesting subject in its own right) as well as the implications of modern technology – with Facebook and surveillance camera’s featuring prominently in the discussion – and speculates on the future of privacy in a world easily conceived of and which is becoming all too real, in other words a world without a real private sphere.

Whilst this book wasn’t a huge struggle to read – for all of the reasons outlined above – I can’t really say that I enjoyed it very much. I guess that if I was of a more legal frame of mind that this would have provided me with a comparatively light and thought provoking read. As I’m more of a Geek with a passion for history I’m afraid that my interest was focused more on his introductory chapters and his technological sidetracks. Definitely one for the lawyers amongst us I think!  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Foreign Language Films

My love of the movies has never been completely focused on films made in my own language – despite only speaking English and having the barest smattering of other tongues. From a fairly early age I was watching predominantly French movies with my Dad who introduced me to Jacque Tati and Francois Truffaut. It is no real surprise therefore than my love of French cinema in particular has stayed with me into advanced adulthood. On top of this I have developed a major interest in both Chinese and Japanese cinema prompted initially by being introduced (or re-introduced) to it by my more cultured friend RCA.

Anyway, I have been slowly amassing quite a collection of foreign language films over the years. Many of them I saw at our local multiplex who have never been afraid to use one of their smaller screens to show the odd foreign film. Many times I’ve sat there, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend (or two) in a largely empty cinema watching a truly great film. Often I will later pick up the movie on DVD and sometimes I’ll pick up the DVD unseen at my local supermarket. Only rarely have I been disappointed with my purchase. Here are the best of my foreign film collection. Some of them I’ve already reviewed and some I will review at a later date.

Brotherhood of the Wolf (France)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China)
Fearless (China)
He loves me, He loves me not (France)
Seven Samurai (Japan)
Let the Right One In (Sweden)
The Army of Crime (France)
District 13 (France)
22 Bullets (France)
Mesrine – Parts 1 and 2 (France)
Flame and Citron (Denmark)
Max Manus – Man of War (Norway)
Metropolis (Germany)
Hero (China)
A Very Long Engagement (France)
House of Flying Daggers (China)
Seven Swords (China)
L’apartment (France)
Nikita (France)
Troll Hunter (Norway)
Captain Alatriste – The Spanish Musketeer (Spain)
13 Assassins (Japan)
The Motorcycle Diaries (Argentina)

If you get a chance to watch any of the above I’d recommend it. Foreign films have a way of portraying the world in subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different ways from Anglo-American cinema. Open your mind and start reading at the movies! 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Samurai 'Jack' Rabbit.......



August 04, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Observations from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars.

"NASA's Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, "and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration." Dark, finger-like features appear and extend down some Martian slopes during late spring through summer, fade in winter, and return during the next spring. Repeated observations have tracked the seasonal changes in these recurring features on several steep slopes in the middle latitudes of Mars' southern hemisphere.

"The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. McEwen is the principal investigator for the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and lead author of a report about the recurring flows published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science. Some aspects of the observations still puzzle researchers, but flows of liquid brine fit the features' characteristics better than alternate hypotheses. Saltiness lowers the freezing temperature of water. Sites with active flows get warm enough, even in the shallow subsurface, to sustain liquid water that is about as salty as Earth's oceans, while pure water would freeze at the observed temperatures.

"These dark lineations are different from other types of features on Martian slopes," said MRO project scientist Richard Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Repeated observations show they extend ever farther downhill with time during the warm season." The features imaged are only about 0.5 to 5 yards or meters wide, with lengths up to hundreds of yards. The width is much narrower than previously reported gullies on Martian slopes. However, some of those locations display more than 1,000 individual flows. Also, while gullies are abundant on cold, pole-facing slopes, these dark flows are on warmer, equator-facing slopes.

The images show flows lengthen and darken on rocky equator-facing slopes from late spring to early fall. The seasonality, latitude distribution and brightness changes suggest a volatile material is involved, but there is no direct detection of one. The settings are too warm for carbon-dioxide frost and, at some sites, too cold for pure water. This suggests the action of brines which have lower freezing points. Salt deposits over much of Mars indicate brines were abundant in Mars' past. These recent observations suggest brines still may form near the surface today in limited times and places.

When researchers checked flow-marked slopes with the orbiter's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), no sign of water appeared. The features may quickly dry on the surface or could be shallow subsurface flows. "The flows are not dark because of being wet," McEwen said. "They are dark for some other reason." A flow initiated by briny water could rearrange grains or change surface roughness in a way that darkens the appearance. How the features brighten again when temperatures drop is harder to explain. "It's a mystery now, but I think it's a solvable mystery with further observations and laboratory experiments," McEwen said. 

These results are the closest scientists have come to finding evidence of liquid water on the planet's surface today. Frozen water, however has been detected near the surface in many middle to high-latitude regions. Fresh-looking gullies suggest slope movements in geologically recent times, perhaps aided by water. Purported droplets of brine also appeared on struts of the Phoenix Mars Lander. If further study of the recurring dark flows supports evidence of brines, these could be the first known Martian locations with liquid water.

[Of course liquid water doesn’t necessarily mean life, but if there’s water periodically on the surface there might be permanent wet region or at least a damp one below the surface. If life emerged on Mars in its Earth-like wet period and managed to evolve enough to cope with the changing conditions then it might have migrated underground along with the water. That’s a lot of ifs I know but once life gets going it appears to be very difficult to kill off completely. Now all we need is a long term human presence on the Red Planet to find out once and for all.] 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Delft, Holland: 1664. After her father is blinded in a kiln accident Griet (played by Scarlett Johansson in the 2003 movie adaptation) is forced by her family into becoming a maid in the household of local artist Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth). As she struggles to fit into her new, and strange, surroundings she begins to develop a relationship with the artist himself. At first tentatively and then with slowly building confidence both parties realise that Griet can contribute to Vermeer’s art – with the physical work of grinding paint, using her unique way of seeing things to suggest ideas and, finally, as a model. But when this becomes known, first in the house itself and then beyond its walls, those around her react in different and surprising ways – with anger, envy, jealousy and rage. But what is a girl to do when she is presented with the opportunity to be immortalised in oils?

At a mere 248 pages this is a delightful little book. Griet herself is a fascinating creation – confident in her abilities (in another age she would have been an artist too) and yet stifled by convention from expressing them, more than aware of her very limited possibilities for happiness because of the accident of her lowly birth, yet smart enough to see her way through a host of difficult social situations. Supported by a host of interesting and individual characters – from the great artist himself to his objectionable sponsor, from the artists constantly pregnant and deeply unhappy wife to the spitefully dangerous daughter of the house determined to do anything to have Griet expelled in shame, this is a novel full of the day-to-day drama that makes up the existence of the majority of humanity. Very evocative of time, place and the fragility of life it highlights the tightrope that women of that time needed to walk in order to get what they could out of life without pushing convention too far and thereby ending up with nothing but a disgraced reputation. Reading this is definitely a good way to spend a pleasant weekend far away from the cares of the 21st century world and in the company of a girl coming of age and struggling to find her way in the world. Recommended.  

Monday, July 09, 2012

My Favourite Movies: The 13th Warrior

Adapted from a Michael Crichton novel (Eaters of the Dead) this 1999 movie is the best thing I’ve seen Antonio Banderas star in. Playing a disgraced Muslim poet in the early 10th century he is sent as an ‘ambassador’ to the primitive peoples of the North. When their caravan is attacked they flee in the direction of the nearest river only to be confronted by several Viking long-ships in mid-ceremony for their fallen leader. When another ship arrives on the following day, the new leader of the Viking trading party Buliwyf (played by Vladimir Kulich) is asked to come to the aid of an old friend whose lands are under attack from an apparently supernatural force. Calling on their soothsayer to aid them in choosing who will go on such a perilous mission she points to the stranger in their midst who must be the 13th warrior. Travelling to a land he has never seen and has barely heard of, Ahmed (Banderas) must learn a new language, new customs and a new way of fighting if his compatriots are to understand and respect him. Oh, and he has to survive the attacks of the Vender who come in the night and cannot be killed!

This has to be one of my most favourite films. I think I probably picked it up on ‘spec’, partially because I quite like Banderas but mostly, I suspect, because it’s about Vikings which I’m a sucker for. I probably didn’t expect very much which might explain why it had such an impact on me. Someone – either Crichton or John McTiernan, the director – I think did their homework. The death scene of the Viking leader is straight out of the history books (actually a real Arab account of the event) which impressed me. The Vikings themselves are almost exclusively played by either Scandanavians, Eastern Europeans, Irish or Scots which probably wouldn’t have been much out of place in the year 922. My favourite of the group was probably the only Latin speaker – Herger – played superbly by Norwegian actor Dennis Storhoi. The Banderas love interest was supplied more than adequately by the stunningly beautiful Olga played by Maria Bonnevie from Sweden.

Of course with a Viking picture you should expect lots of sword play, drinking and dark humour. This is supplied during several pitched battles, at night and (thankfully) in daylight, as well as several individual contests which, again, looked authentic. Whilst not exactly epic – only lasting 98 minutes and largely confined to a small piece of presumably Denmark or Norway - this film will nevertheless provide high entertainment for anyone who enjoys the clash of swords and the gallows humour of men willing to kill and to die in equal measure. I’ve probably seen this movie 5-6 times now and I enjoyed it as much the last time (this Saturday) almost as much as the first time I saw it over a decade ago. I even still notice things that had passed me by before. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

No evidence of mermaids, says US government

From The BBC

3 July 2012

There is no evidence that mermaids exist, a US government scientific agency has said. The National Ocean Service made the unusual declaration in response to public inquiries following a TV show on the mythical creatures. It is thought some viewers may have mistaken the programme for a documentary. "No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found," the service wrote in an online post. The National Ocean Service posted an article last week on its educational website, Ocean Facts.

Images and tales of mermaids - half-human, half-fish - appear in mythology and art from across the world and through history, from Homer's Odyssey to the oral lore of the Australian aboriginals, the service wrote. The article was written from publicly available sources because "we don't have a mermaid science programme", National Ocean Service spokeswoman Carol Kavanagh told the BBC. She said that at least two people had written to the agency asking about the creatures. The inquiries followed May's broadcast of Mermaids: The Body Found, on the Discovery Channel's Animal Planet network. The programme was a work of fiction but its wink-and-nod format apparently led some viewers to believe it was a science education show, the Discovery Channel has acknowledged.

[Well, at lest that’s all cleared up….]

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Love & Sex with Robots – The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships by David Levy

With my interest in all things technological, robotic and science-fiction-like I could hardly not read this book. I did however decide to read it purely at home rather than put up with the funny looks on the commuter bus or the inevitable sarcastic comments from the people I work with.

Whilst not exactly breaking a great deal of new ground the author does manage to bring things out in the open that maybe, up until now, have been lurking in the shadows for quite a while. Humanity has a definite tendency to use its inventiveness to enhance pleasure in all its forms. Sex is certainly one of those areas which has benefited (you could say) from the advances in technology – indeed a significant portion of this book is given over to discussions of the march of science and technology into the bedroom. No doubt as robots become more human-like and more intelligent/emotional they will be used as progressively more sophisticated sex toys by both men and women. On the emotional side I’m fairly certain that some people at least will form emotional attachments to their robotic lovers in the same way that many people form attachments to other objects such as cars. The author even argues that, with machines sophisticated enough to ‘read’ their human controllers and modify themselves accordingly, people could actually fall in love with this perfect partner substitute. I think that it’s certainly possible that such a thing could happen though I doubt it would be as widespread as the author suggests. Where I went into full scoffing mode (complete with belly laugh) was where he suggested that, by 2050 no less, people would eventually end up married to their robot partners and that this marriage contract would be ratified and accepted by the state apparatus. This I think is highly unlikely for several very good reasons.

For one thing I think he is very optimistic concerning the technological barriers that need to be surpassed before such a thing could happen. I still think we are much more than 30 years away from human level AI. I also don’t think that the economic drivers are there to push the technology forward at the speed required for this to take place in that timeframe. But the problems are much deeper than that. The author sites the examples of mixed race marriage (now an unremarkable commonplace) and gay marriage (likely to become unremarkable soon) as a way of looking at the future of human-robot relationships, moving from unthinkable, to fought over, to tolerated , to accepted, to seen as unworthy of comment. Of course there is one huge difference the author seems to forget: no matter how sophisticated the robot becomes they are still essentially machines – tools. In order to get married they need to do something that, at least at present, only humans and only certain types of humans can do – freely consent to do so. In order for a robot to be allowed to legally marry a human it must be considered in the eyes of the law as someone who can freely consent – in other words be an autonomous sentient being with free will. In order for that to happen the progress in AI would need to be staggering indeed!

Added to this the author regularly says that as robots are infinitely programmable their owners would be able to manipulate their software to produce any kind of sexual experience they wished to have. What he seemed to forget (or not understand in the first place) was that it would be highly immoral, and probably illegal, to attempt any kind of radical reprogramming on a sentient robot! It would be tantamount to brainwashing your partner (or would-be partner) until they loved you which these days is rather frowned upon in polite society.

Sex with robots is highly likely and already takes place in a crude fashion today (pun definitely intended). Falling in love with robots will probably happen in some cases but will be the butt of stand-up comedians in the future – some of whom will be robots. But legal marriage? Highly, highly unlikely. When robots get that sophisticated I think it much more likely that we’ll end up fighting them rather than fucking them which is something the author singularly fails to consider. Over all this is a fairly interesting idea expressed too simplistically without considering the sociological, philosophical or legal aspects of the main thrust of the argument (pun intended again). Recommended for Geeks only.