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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Children of Men by P D James

In the Year 2027 Theo Farren (played by Clive Owen & named Theo Faron in the 2006 movie adaptation) is just trying to get by as the world slowly comes to an end. For the last 25 years no new children have been born and slowly the world is falling apart, pulling back into the cities as an aging population gives up any hope for the future. Almost alone England is choosing to die with dignity. With Theo’s cousin in charge everything is going into orderly decline with sanctioned suicide, enforced social duty and regular fertility trails. Criminals of all kinds are transported for life to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea to fend for themselves and the State Police handle troublemakers before they can manage much more than simplistic poster campaigns. But then Theo is approached by a group calling themselves The Five Fishes who want his influence with the Warden of England. Knowing that he’s wasting his time he tries anyway and, as predicted, fails to change his cousin’s mind or the course of unfolding events. But when Theo discovers that one of the group is pregnant everything changes as State Security pull out all the stops to find them and Theo himself discovers he is in love for the first time in his life.

Mainstream authors like P D James – more know for her tightly plotted murder mysteries – don’t normally have any feel for Science-Fiction. James is one of those rare examples that do. In fact reading this book reminded me very much of the work of John Wyndham which is certainly not a bad comparison. Wyndham specialised in end-of-the-world stories where small groups of people from different backgrounds fought for survival against overwhelming odds and situations completely out of their control (or influence). Here we have a pretty good example of that often very English sub-genre. If you have seen the movie (which I generally enjoyed a great deal) you might be surprised, as I was, at just how different the book was. The basic disaster is the same as are the names of most of the protagonists. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. I’m not going to spoil things by giving details of the many differences as to do that I’d pretty much have the précis the entire book but you might get a flavour of what I mean when I tell you that the Theo character in the book is an Oxford don rather than a London reporter (possibly) in the movie. But despite both book and film being so very different they are still rather complimentary. You can see in the book where they got some of their ideas from and you can see where the director made many improvements – including tightening the plot a good deal. The book certainly works at the Wyndham level but because of that feels very dated. It is very much a gentle read rather than a thrilling one. Recommended.      

Monday, August 27, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The World As I See It by Albert Einstein

With my long time interest in Quantum Mechanics it’s hard not continually coming across Einstein’s name or his views on the subject. Apart from that he’s probably the most recognisable scientific figure ever – much as he apparently hated the fact.  But there was more to the man than his scientific breakthroughs (and his blind-spots). He was also a tireless campaigner for world peace (even before his successful work on the Atom Bomb) and for the peaceful Jewish occupation of Palestine. These, and other views, are expressed throughout this slim volume comprising news paper articles, letters, and speeches over around 30 years. So far, so good.

Unfortunately despite probably the best of intentions this book was practically unreadable. If it had been much longer than the mere 125 pages it was I’d have abandoned it very early on. The problem was the lack of context – letter followed letter, article followed article without the most basic background of what was being discussed. Most of the entries where undated making their placement in world events impossible and the names of people long forgotten where referred to without any explanation of who they were or why they where being discussed. In other words this volume lacked context and without it was merely a random seeming mishmash of views and opinions that made little or no sense. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a book so badly constructed or edited. It’s as if Einstein’s thoughts on paper were thrown up into the air and then pasted together between a book cover and published moments later. I suppose that it could have been deliberate – there was some attempt to bunch his views together in broad categories – but it came across as a ‘stream of consciousness’ where almost random snippet of thought followed on from the previous seemingly random entry. I’m still astounded that such a volume could even be published! If you want to get inside the mind of Albert Einstein definitely look somewhere, anywhere, else.       

Saturday, August 25, 2012



Nov. 2, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A new NASA study suggests if life ever existed on Mars, the longest lasting habitats were most likely below the Red Planet's surface. A new interpretation of years of mineral-mapping data, from more than 350 sites on Mars examined by European and NASA orbiters, suggests Martian environments with abundant liquid water on the surface existed only during short episodes. These episodes occurred toward the end of hundreds of millions of years during which warm water interacted with subsurface rocks. This has implications about whether life existed on Mars and how its atmosphere has changed.

"The types of clay minerals that formed in the shallow subsurface are all over Mars," said John Mustard, professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Mustard is a co-author of the study in the journal Nature. "The types that formed on the surface are found at very limited locations and are quite rare." Discovery of clay minerals on Mars in 2005 indicated the planet once hosted warm, wet conditions. If those conditions existed on the surface for a long era, the planet would have needed a much thicker atmosphere than it has now to keep the water from evaporating or freezing. Researchers have sought evidence of processes that could cause a thick atmosphere to be lost over time.

This new study supports an alternative hypothesis that persistent warm water was confined to the subsurface and many erosional features were carved during brief periods when liquid water was stable at the surface. "If surface habitats were short-term, that doesn't mean we should be glum about prospects for life on Mars, but it says something about what type of environment we might want to look in," said the report's lead author, Bethany Ehlmann, assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology and scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "The most stable Mars habitats over long durations appear to have been in the subsurface. On Earth, underground geothermal environments have active ecosystems."

The discovery of clay minerals by the OMEGA spectrometer on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter added to earlier evidence of liquid Martian water. Clays form from the interaction of water with rock. Different types of clay minerals result from different types of wet conditions. During the past five years, researchers used OMEGA and NASA's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer, or CRISM, instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to identify clay minerals at thousands of locations on Mars. Clay minerals that form where the ratio of water interacting with rock is small generally retain the same chemical elements as the original volcanic rocks later altered by the water.

The study interprets this to be the case for most terrains on Mars with iron and magnesium clays. In contrast, surface environments with higher ratios of water to rock can alter rocks further. Soluble elements are carried off by water, and different aluminum-rich clays form. Another clue is detection of a mineral called prehnite. It forms at temperatures above about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (about 200 degrees Celsius). These temperatures are typical of underground hydrothermal environments rather than surface waters.

"Our interpretation is a shift from thinking that the warm, wet environment was mostly at the surface to thinking it was mostly in the subsurface, with limited exceptions," said Scott Murchie of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., a co-author of the report and principal investigator for CRISM. One of the exceptions may be Gale Crater, the site targeted by NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Launching this year, the Curiosity rover will land and investigate layers that contain clay and sulfate minerals.

[Let’s hope that the new Mars rover can give us some meaningful data regarding water on the Red Planet. Once the initial testing of its systems is over with I expect we’ll be flooded with images and information. The next few years are going to be pretty amazing I think!]

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A New Breed of (Super) Hero.......

Just Finished Reading: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Chiyo is a young girl in the fishing village of Yoroido in 1920’s Japan. She is like thousands of other children growing up in poverty and obscurity except for one things – she has spectacular grey eyes. When her mother develops cancer and her father struggles to cope salvation seems to appear in the guise of the local business leader who offers to help. Before they know what is happening Chiyo and her sister are put on a train to Tokyo unaware of what is ahead of them. Within moments of arriving in the huge confusing capital the young girls are separated with Chiyo being taken in at a Geisha house while her plain sister ends up somewhere less pleasant. Chiyo slowly comes to the realisation that her father has sold both of his children into servitude. So begins the long and painful journey from a non-descript peasant girl from an obscure fishing village to the world renowned Geisha known as Sayuri (played by Ziyi Zhang in the 2005 movie adaptation) who is courted by the rich and powerful men of pre-war Japan. At the heart of it all is the young Geisha’s love for the man that she knows she can never possess (played by Ken Watanabe).

As a huge fan of Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh I was eager to see this movie when it came out in 2005. I haven’t watched it since, despite owning the DVD, but thought that I’d give the book a ‘go’ as I remembered enjoying the film at the time. During my reading of this book, during my lunch break at work, several of the women I work with remarked that they had read it and enjoyed it – though one did raise an eyebrow in my direction that I was reading such a thing! Although I enjoyed the first third or so – and maybe as much as 50% of this novel – I did find it overall rather slow, plodding and to be honest a bit dull. It was, of course, largely a story of unrequited love, or at least love that could not be publically requited. So we had people hiding their feelings for each other and suffering the consequences – for year after year after year. Either circumstance or culture prevented much from happening between the two main characters….. and that was basically it – for a little over 400 pages. I’m guessing that enjoying something like that must be more of a girl thing than a guy thing. It’s probably seen as romantic or something; you know the whole ‘love through adversity’ thing. Personally the word I would use is tedious – despite being well written and very visual. I struggled to finish it and can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it very much. Unsurprisingly therefore I can’t recommend it – to my male readership anyway.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Two words that have been used to describe me my whole life........ [grin]

My Favourite Movies: Blood Simple

I clearly remember watching this movie on video in the mid-1980’s. At the time I was probably not alone in being completely ignorant of the Coen brothers who wrote and directed this dark and disturbing film Noir outing, after all it was their first movie! Looking back with 20-20 hindsight it’s clear that not only did the brothers have talent but that their quirky film making would take them far – including to the Oscars more than once.

Blood Simple (1984) has a deceptively simple plot. Marty (played by Dan Hedaya) is convinced that his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is having an affair so hires a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to find him evidence for a potential divorce. When the evidence is found Marty asks if the detective will kill his wife and her lover Ray (John Getz). For $10,000 the answer is yes. But the detective has no intention of actually killing the illicit couple. He has a much better idea. Providing spurious evidence of their deaths he collects his money and then shoots Marty with his wife’s stolen gun. Thinking he has committed the perfect crime he pockets the money and leaves with a smile on his face. Only later does he realise that one of his fake pictures is missing and he can’t find his lighter. But when he returns to the scene of the crime he discovers that the body has gone and that someone has cleaned up after his killing. It’s then that things become far less simple than he had expected.

Looking back from the giddy heights of 2012 it is easy to see Blood Simple as a crude 80’s Noir knock-off trying to be more than its simple storyline would suggest. In many ways that is a fair assessment. It is indeed a rather crude film. But what elevates it about the norm and makes it, in my mind, a minor classic of its type is the sparse dialogue and the often outstanding cinematography. As my regulars will know I am a sucker for a well framed image. This movie offers plenty examples of that seemingly easy but in reality difficult art of presenting the audience with images that stick in your mind long after the film finishes. Two certainly spring to mind: where Ray is standing behind Marty as he slowly crawls away from the car, illuminated only by its headlights on a dark road, carrying the shovel he brought along to bury the body. The other is where Abby, hiding in her bathroom after driving a knife into the detective’s hand pinning him to a window ledge, watches as he fires his gun repeated through the wall in the hope of killing her.

One of the things I like doing is visiting the old movies of a favourite director to see things in his/her earlier films that show up, often heavily modified, in later offerings. If you too are interested in such things watch this movie and then watch Fargo made some 12 years later. Apart from the fact that both movies starred Frances McDormand you should see the techniques used in Blood Simple much perfected in Fargo. Oh, and don’t be put off by its seeming lack of pace. This movie is definitely worth the effort of sitting and watching the story unfold (and unravel) in front of you!   

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Only in Japan......................

The New Totalitarianism of Surveillance Technology

by Naomi Wolf for The Guardian

Friday, August 17, 2012

A software engineer in my Facebook community wrote recently about his outrage that when he visited Disneyland, and went on a ride, the theme park offered him the photo of himself and his girlfriend to buy – with his credit card information already linked to it. He noted that he had never entered his name or information into anything at the theme park, or indicated that he wanted a photo, or alerted the humans at the ride to who he and his girlfriend were – so, he said, based on his professional experience, the system had to be using facial recognition technology. He had never signed an agreement allowing them to do so, and he declared that this use was illegal. He also claimed that Disney had recently shared data from facial-recognition technology with the United States military.

Except that it turned out to be true. News21, supported by the Carnegie and Knight foundations, reports that Disney sites are indeed controlled by face-recognition technology, that the military is interested in the technology, and that the face-recognition contractor, Identix, has contracts with the US government – for technology that identifies individuals in a crowd. Fast forward: after the Occupy crackdowns, I noted that odd-looking CCTVs had started to appear, attached to lampposts, in public venues in Manhattan where the small but unbowed remnants of Occupy congregated: there was one in Union Square, right in front of their encampment. I reported here on my experience of witnessing a white van marked "Indiana Energy" that was lifting workers up to the lampposts all around Union Square, and installing a type of camera. When I asked the workers what was happening – and why an Indiana company was dealing with New York City civic infrastructure, which would certainly raise questions – I was told: "I'm a contractor. Talk to ConEd." I then noticed, some months later, that these bizarre camera/lights had been installed not only all around Union Square but also around Washington Square Park. I posted a photo I took of them, and asked: "What is this?" Commentators who had lived in China said that they were the same camera/streetlight combinations that are mounted around public places in China. These are enabled for facial recognition technology, which allows police to watch video that is tagged to individuals, in real time.

When too many people congregate, they can be dispersed and intimidated simply by the risk of being identified – before dissent can coalesce. (Another of my Facebook commentators said that such lamppost cameras had been installed in Michigan, and that they barked "Obey", at pedestrians. This, too, sounded highly implausible – until this week in Richmond, British Columbia, near the Vancouver airport, when I was startled as the lamppost in the intersection started talking to me – in this case, instructing me on how to cross (as though I were blind or partially sighted). Finally, last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to unveil a major new police surveillance infrastructure, developed by Microsoft. The Domain Awareness System links existing police databases with live video feeds, including cameras using vehicle license plate recognition software. No mention was made of whether the system plans to use – or already uses – facial recognition software. But, at present, there is no law to prevent US government and law enforcement agencies from building facial recognition databases.

And we know from industry newsletters that the US military, law enforcement, and the department of homeland security are betting heavily on facial recognition technology. As PC World notes, Facebook itself is a market leader in the technology – but military and security agencies are close behind. According to Homeland Security Newswire, billions of dollars are being invested in the development and manufacture of various biometric technologies capable of detecting and identifying anyone, anywhere in the world – via iris-scanning systems, already in use; foot-scanning technology (really); voice pattern ID software, and so on. What is very obvious is that this technology will not be applied merely to people under arrest, or to people under surveillance in accordance with the fourth amendment (suspects in possible terrorist plots or other potential crimes, after law enforcement agents have already obtained a warrant from a magistrate). No, the "targets" here are me and you: everyone, all of the time. In the name of "national security", the capacity is being built to identify, track and document any citizen constantly and continuously.

The revealing boosterism of a trade magazine like Homeland Security Newswire envisions endless profits for the surveillance industry, in a society where your TV is spying on you, a billboard you drive by recognizes you, Minority Report style, and the FBI knows where to find your tattoo – before you have committed any crime: "FBI on Track to Book Faces, Scars, Tattoos", it notes; "Billboards, TVs Detect your Faces; Advertisers Salivate", it gloats; "Biometric Companies See Government as the Driver of Future Market Growth", it announces. Indeed, the article admits without a blush that all the growth is expected to be in government consumption, with "no real expectation" of private-sector growth at all. So much for smaller government!

To acclimate their populations to this brave new world of invasive surveillance technologies, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and and his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, both recently introduced "snoop" bills. Meanwhile, in the US – "the land of the free" – the onward march of the surveillers continues apace, without check or consultation.

[Welcome to the wonderful world of 1984 Reloaded. Are we feeling safe yet?] 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of Britain 1066 – 1485 – The Birth of a Nation by Nicolas Vincent

I’m positive that my High School teachers would be proud of the interest (bordering on obsession) that I’ve managed to develop in history and in particular British history over the past 5 years or so. It seems like every other book I read has an historical bent to it – be they fiction or non-fiction. Books like this one are the reasons that my interest/obsession continues to grow. Like most inhabitants of this ‘sceptred isle’ I am generally familiar with the major facts, which King (or sometimes Queen) did what and when, battles being fought and history taking a new turn depending on the victory, and of course the dark side of our history, the murders, revolts, suspicious deaths and sometimes questionable lineage that makes up the story of our royal families. This book has it all – running the 400 or so years from the Battle of Hastings and the coming of the Normans in 1066 to Bosworth Field and the end of Plantagenet rule in 1485 in just under 500 pages it is, as you might imagine, quite a romp presenting those turbulent and often violent times with verve, an obvious love of the subject and a generous dose of (sometimes rather black) humour.

One of, the many, things I really liked about this book was the authors willingness to point to our basic lack of knowledge regarding the details about the earliest period being covered. Even the cataclysmic events of 1066 are shrouded in deep layers of mystery. Clearly we know who won the battle on Senlac Hill on that fateful day but we don’t know exactly how they won. As always the history of events are written and shaped by the victors who, as usual, portray the losers in a less than flattering light especially in a culture where victory in battle is seen as a ‘thumbs up’ from God. The lack of reliable sources is highlighted time and again which actually makes for a far more fascinating look at the period I’d assumed to be rather more known than it actually is.

The other thing I found particular fascinating was how (and how often) the English throne in particular changed hands. I had assumed, quite wrongly it seemed, that king followed king (and sometimes Queen) in a reasonably ordered fashion – apart from the occasional hic-up. Not so, it transpires. Although sometimes son followed father or agreed heir followed the death of kings more often than not the infighting which resulted from the death of a king was bloody, confused and decided by battle, treachery or poison than by bloodline or seniority. A disturbing number of royals died ‘falling from their horse’ or at the dinner table ‘suddenly’ and, as often as not, conveniently for one faction or another at court. Being in-line to the throne was a very dangerous place to be it would appear.

Lastly, although I was developing a fairly good idea of why Britain and France have had a very long, and again bloody, history together I now appreciate far more why exactly this is the case. Not only the Norman invasion but cross contacts both ways for hundreds of years afterwards left an indelible mark on both sides of the Channel that neither country could easily put to one side.

If you want to know about the early years of British history this is definitely the book for you. Very well written by someone who knows his ‘stuff’ and who is not afraid to point out the limitations of our knowledge and is likewise unafraid of pointing out the more questionable actions of some of our national icons, this is an eye opening, fascinating and sometimes laugh out loud funny introduction to the birth of a nation. Highly recommended to history fans and anglophiles. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Macon Leary (played by William Hurt in the 1989 movie adaptation) hates to travel – which makes him the ideal author of the best selling series of Accidental Tourist guidebooks specifically written for the tired businessman who hates being away from home. Set in his ways to the nth degree he copes with the chaos of life by simply ignoring it. As a life strategy it seems to work until his young son is killed in a random shooting. When his wife (played by Kathleen Turner) can no longer cope with his apparent inability to feel anything about the death she leaves him and asks for a divorce. Forced to cope on his own for the first time in his life things begin to spiral out of control. When his dog, Edward, bites a stranger he seeks help with his training from the local Meow-Bow dog clinic run my Muriel Pritchett (played by Geena Davis). With her basic chaotic nature and her persistence she attempts to connect Macon with a world he has never felt comfortable in. But can he cope with any more chaos in his life without going into complete meltdown?

I probably haven’t seen the movie of this book since I watched it on videotape in 1989. I’ve been a fan of William Hurt for years and, after finally reading this, see how much he nailed the character of Macon. Whenever I ‘saw’ him in the book or ‘heard’ his voice I saw and heard William Hurt. It was uncanny. To a lesser extent I ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ Davis as Muriel. Certainly at the beginning of their relationship I thought that she’s aced her adaptation too. It was only when things developed (and I’m not sure if this was in the movie) and they moved in together that I was presented with a harder, slightly crazier and more bitter Muriel that I didn’t recognise as Geena Davis. Like in the movie, Macon’s wife Sarah was mostly absent – either leaving or, briefly, coming back. This was primarily the story of Macon – falling apart, coming to terms, resisting change, slowly realising he can’t go on like this, fighting desperately to put things back together like before and finally deciding that the future must be different from the past.

I really liked the first half of this novel. It brought back many pleasant memories of the movie and, more than once, made me sigh with heartfelt sympathy for Macon’s circumstances. I even saw some of his coping strategies played out in my own life with some amusement. The second half I found to be more of a struggle. Tyler had already more than made her point by then but went back to it time and time again comparing Macon’s possible future with Muriel with Macon’s deeply dysfunctional siblings. More than once I thought to myself “Yes, I get it. Move on!” but she didn’t. At the end it became more than a little tedious and I had to grit my teeth to finish the last 50 pages. After such a promising stat that was more than a little disappointing. In consequence I can’t really recommend this. I can recommend the movie though……

Sunday, August 12, 2012

“Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of planets. Of the combination of causes that first converted a dead organic compound into the living progenitors of humanity, science, indeed, as yet knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and mutual slaughter, fit nurses for the future lords of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race conscious enough to know that it is insignificant. We survey the past, and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the Earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. ‘Imperishable monuments’ and ‘immortal deeds’, death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been.”

Arthur Balfour 1848 – 1930.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

How Republicans see Obama............. [grin]



Oct. 20, 2011

Using data from the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have detected for the first time cold water vapor enveloping a dusty disk around a young star. The findings suggest that this disk, which is poised to develop into a solar system, contains great quantities of water, suggesting that water-covered planets like Earth may be common in the universe. Herschel is a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions.

Scientists previously found warm water vapor in planet-forming disks close to a central star. Evidence for vast quantities of water extending out into the cooler, far reaches of disks where comets take shape had not been seen until now. The more water available in disks for icy comets to form, the greater the chances that large amounts eventually will reach new planets through impacts. "Our observations of this cold vapor indicate enough water exists in the disk to fill thousands of Earth oceans," said astronomer Michiel Hogerheijde of Leiden Observatory in The Netherlands. Hogerheijde is the lead author of a paper describing these findings in the Oct. 21 issue of the journal Science.

The star with this water-logged disk, called TW Hydrae, is 10 million years old and located about 175 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Hydra. The frigid watery haze detected by Hogerheijde and his team is thought to originate from ice-coated grains of dust near the disk's surface. Ultraviolet light from the star causes some water molecules to break free of this ice, creating a thin layer of gas with a light signature detected by Herschel's Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared, or HIFI. "These are the most sensitive HIFI observations to-date," said Paul Goldsmith, NASA project scientist for the Herschel Space Observatory at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It is a testament to the instrument-builders that such weak signals can be detected."

TW Hydrae is an orange dwarf star, somewhat smaller and cooler than our yellow-white sun. The giant disk of material that encircles the star has a size nearly 200 times the distance between Earth and the sun. Over the next few million years, astronomers believe matter within the disk will collide and grow into planets, asteroids and other cosmic bodies. Dust and ice particles will assemble as comets. As the new solar system evolves, icy comets are likely to deposit much of the water they contain on freshly created worlds through impacts, giving rise to oceans. Astronomers believe TW Hydrae and its icy disk may be representative of many other young star systems, providing new insights on how planets with abundant water could form throughout the universe.

[Where there is water there should (eventually) be life – or so we suspect. If water is as common as this observation suggests then it’s likely that rocky planets outside of our Solar System might be expected to have liquid water on their surface where conditions allow. As life on Earth almost certainly began in our oceans this looks good for the emergence of life elsewhere. The evidence, circumstantial though it is at present, keeps on piling up in favour of life elsewhere.] 

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Hero Within – Six Archetypes We Live By by Carol S Pearson

I picked this book up ages ago when I was doing research for my dissertation. I never actually got around to reading it – or to be honest even dipping into it – because I had more than enough to work with already without going off on a tangent. On finally reading it I was gratified (in some ways at least) that it wouldn’t have added very much to my argument – which doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting.

Although generally a little too ‘New Age’ for my liking the author did present some interesting ideas regarding human personal and social development. Basically written as a self-help book for women it argued that we each go through six archetypes – which shouldn’t be seen as progressive stages but styles-of-being that we individually go through at different paces and in different orders depending on a variety of things – from our initial starting point of the Innocent. With the end of innocence in early childhood we move into the Orphan phase when we realise the world is not made for us and that we have to live in a world where we can’t always get what we want and where things are far from perfect. It’s from this point that, the author maintains, we each go our separate ways.

I did actually recognise the archetypes she drew on either in me or people I’ve known. Clearly (as far as I’m concerned) my archetype is the Wanderer – a seeker after information, truth and ideas. I also recognised elements of the Warrior and Magician too. What I didn’t connect with at all was the Martyr though I’ve known several people (most often women) who see themselves in this role. I’ve also known more than a few Warriors in my time!

What the author proposed, and taught in her classes, was methods and ways of transforming the lives of people who have become stuck in a particular archetype at the expense of skills they could acquire from the others which, it seems, they are either too afraid or too dismissive of to use to their advantage. The classic Martyr – I’m sure we all know someone like this – constantly puts herself second (or third) behind partner and children sacrificing her life for others with little reward or recognition thinking that this is just how things are. She cannot give into her Wanderer aspect because she feels it would be a betrayal of her responsibilities and be selfish. Yet the Wanderer – even in something as simple as taking a weekly art class – would not only enhance her happiness but allow her to see life as something more than merely giving to others. Like I said, a little too New Age for my general recommendation. It is however a passably interesting read which did at least make me look at myself and other people in a somewhat different light for a few weeks.     

Monday, August 06, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Blithe Spirit

This is another one I can ‘blame’ my father for. I suppose that he grew up with films both during and after the war – being just 10 years old in 1939 when it started. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he saw this 1945 classic at the cinema aged 16. He certainly loved his movies enough to have got the money from somewhere, even in those difficult days.

Anyway, Blithe Spirit directed by David Lean was the film adaptation of the successful Noel Coward stage play. Indeed Coward produced the film which gives you some idea of its pedigree. The story revolves around author Charles Condomine (played effortlessly by Rex Harrison) and his new wife Ruth (played by Constance Cummings). To gain some background information for his latest crime novel and to entertain some guests he invites local psychic Madame Arcati (played completely over-the-top by the outstanding Margaret Rutherford) to hold a séance. Unfortunately for all involved not only is Madame Arcati a real psychic but Charles’s previous wife, the flighty and impulsive Elvira (played by the rather attractive and very funny Kay Hammond) has been looking for such an opportunity to re-enter his life. As the only person who can see her – at least initially – Ruth thinks that Charles has become quite mad. But as Elvira gets up to more and more mischief it becomes clear that it’s going to be a fight between Elvira and Ruth for the affections of Charles – a fight to the death!

This film is so frightfully British that you could almost run it up a flagpole and salute it. Not only are the accents very ‘BBC’ correct but the locations scream middle England (though apparently the Condomine’s live just outside Folkstone). Overall you get the impression that this is a comedy designed to get smiles out of its audience rather than crude belly laughs. It pokes gentle fun at the middle class with their pretentions and aspirations that can be enjoyed by classes either side of them as well as the middle class itself – if only it could stop being pompous for long enough to realise it’s the butt of the joke! It certainly evokes a era long gone – if it ever existed – where the middle class had servants, dinner parties and bags of leisure time. It is actually a time capsule of middle class ambition, an ambition made of paper which is easily torn apart by their ignorance and arrogance. Of course, being a Noel Coward play it’s also frightfully witty. One line in particular almost jumped off the screen at me:  “It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit”. It’s a wonderful line! This is a gently comedy from a much gentler age (despite being made just as WW2 finished) and should probably be viewed on a wet Sunday afternoon with a nice cup of hot chocolate and although it probably won’t have you howling with laughter it will probably leave a smile on your face for a few hours after the final scene.