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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Driverless car bill is signed in California at Google headquarters

From The BBC

26 September 2012

A bill to bring driverless cars to roads in California has been signed. State governor Jerry Brown backed legislation on Tuesday, and said: "Today we're looking at science-fiction becoming tomorrow's reality". The bill was signed at the headquarters of Google, which has been testing a fleet of 12 autonomous computer-controlled vehicles for several years. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said self-driving cars would be "far safer" than those driven by humans. Other manufacturers, including Audi, Ford and Volvo have also been experimenting with the technology.

The bill, drawn up by Senator Alex Padilla, will establish safety and performance regulations to test and operate the vehicles on roads across the state. It requires the California Department of Motor Vehicles to draft the regulations by 2015. A licensed driver would still be required to sit behind the wheel, however, in order to provide back-up in an emergency. Google has said that it has logged more than 300,000 miles in its cars without an accident - although one of its vehicles was involved in a minor crash in summer 2011. The company said it was being driven manually at the time. "I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, adding that he thought the vehicles would be commercially available within the decade. Mr Brown said self-driving cars would at first make passengers feel uneasy. "Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish," he said. "But they'll get over it."

The cars are powered and controlled using a combination of sensors, location tracking and on-board computing power to drive the vehicle safely. Other less ambitious autonomous driving functions are already in use across the car industry - such as guided parking and adaptive cruise control. However, speaking after the signing of the Californian bill, one motoring trade group voiced concern. "Unfortunately this legislation lacks any provision protecting an automaker whose car is converted to an autonomous operation vehicle without the consent or even knowledge of that auto manufacturer," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said.

Mr Brown's backing follows new regulations in Nevada, where a law was passed earlier this year to allow driverless cars on the state's roads. In Florida, similar moves have been made - but have ended up the subject of political debate. An advert which criticised a local Senate candidate was entitled "Those darn driverless cars", and raised questions about the technology's safety. One motoring news website described the advert as being "so misinformed, it may cross the line into libel".

[How fascinating! I knew that several companies had been working on autonomous vehicles but I had no idea that things where actually this advanced. It is about time though. I’ve long thought that our grandchildren will look back on this era and marvel at the fact that people actually drove cars themselves at high speed without any kind of computer control. I’m sure that it will feel weird for a while but we’ll adapt to the new technology in the same way we have to all the other changes in the last 50 years until it’s hardly remarked upon. I do find that reading SF does help with the process though! We are living in a truly SF world…. So watch the skies!!!] 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cool looking place............

Just Finished Reading: The Eiger sanction by Trevanian

Jonathan Hemlock (played by Clint Eastwood in the 1975 movie adaptation) leads a double life. One life is as a respected art expert and university lecturer, the other is as a paid assassin of the American counter-espionage organisation the CII whose job it is to kill anyone who targets American operatives anywhere in the world. When a courier is killed in Canada Hemlock is dispatched to assassinate a pair of enemy operatives but only manages a single hit. Coerced into a second kill he learns that the target – one of three climbers – are due to attempt to climb the notorious North Face of the Eiger. With Hemlocks background in mountain climbing he is an ideal choice for the assignment except that CII has consistently failed to identify who the killer is. Forced into the climb without sufficient preparation Hemlock must decide who the killer is, dispatch him without the others realising what he has done whilst surviving one of the greatest climbing challenges on the planet. This time he’s certainly going to earn his fee!

I haven’t seen this movie in ages but the book certainly brought back a lot of memories from the last time I saw it. I could recall that significant parts of the novel made it straight onto the screen and even had snatches of dialogue brought up from deep in my subconscious. Fortunately I couldn't remember too much detail – until I was right on top of it – so having seen the film didn't really ruin things for me. I did laugh at the cover of my particular novel (not the one pictured above) which had a comment from the New York Times announcing that the book contained “Plenty of Action, Plenty of Sex”. How very Seventies, I thought. There was a fair bit of action between the covers and a moderate amount of sex but nothing too graphic – actually it was all rather tame by modern standards. There was a fair degree of sparkling conversation with Hemlock having some very good lines. I’ll need to dig out the sequel (which I think I have) and see if the author managed to maintain the standard set here. Overall it was a pretty decent read if rather dated. It was certainly entertaining enough to keep me turning pages which is really what it’s all about in the end.

This was the last in the series of books made into movies I've been reading lately. It’s been an interesting experience especially when the book and the film turned out to be two radically different beasts! Next up, after my usual non-themed batch is a series of books based in the Middle Ages. This is, rather inevitably, a rather arbitrary period of History – though more so that I imagined – so I’m going with the English definition of AD 476 – 1485. That gives me 1000 years to play with so I should be able to get a reasonable spread of stories there. I’m looking forward to it.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Bullitt

This is another of those movies I can’t possibly have seen at the cinema – at least not when it first came out in 1968 – being only 8 at the time. As the DVD is rated as a 15 certificate there’s little chance that my father would’ve taken me to see this even if he could have sneaked me in somehow.

Anyone, Bullitt is basically a cop movie based in San Francisco. The early shots set the scene showing the eponymous hero (played by the great Steve McQueen) going about his daily business, shopping for food and meeting his architect girlfriend (played by the very lovely Jacqueline Bisset) then going out to eat in a restaurant. Once the foundation is over with – so we’re happy with both time and place – we are introduced to the ubiquitous slimy politician (played superbly by Robert Vaughn in his first role after the end of The Man from UNCLE). It seems that Chalmers (the politician) has a way to enhance his reputation by producing a witness to testify against The Mob and he wants Bullitt to guard him for the next 40 hours until the hearing. Gathering his team together Bullitt visits the safe house where the witness has been stashed away and immediately realises that something isn’t quite right. Leaving his men to stand first watch Bullitt goes home to bed only to be awoken several hours later when professional killers arrive and kill the witness and injures his partner. Determined to get to the bottom of who betrayed his team Bullitt begins a dangerous cat and mouse game with Chalmers, the killers and his own department.

Of course right in the middle of all of this is one of the best car chases ever filmed as Bullitt in his iconic Mustang first evades and then chases the bad guys through the streets of San Francisco and then out on the highway. Filmed, like much of the movie, in almost documentary style full of close-ups and changes of camera angles, the chase itself makes my heart beat faster and my palms sweat which is always a sign of a good chase! I think McQueen did a lot of his own stunt work in this film which, inevitably, makes everything that much more realistic. It certainly shows.

Although rather dated in many ways – the clothes, music and attitudes screams late 60’s – this actually holds up really well being more of a time capsule rather just an outmoded and outdated concept. Of course central to the whole thing is the inherent honour of the main character and his refusal to compromise it for any reason – particularly for any political reasons. In one of the final scenes the sleazy politician sneers cynically saying that “Integrity is something we sell to the public” prompting a look of utter distain and the comment “You can sell what you want”. It’s a nice scene.

If you missed this during the preceding 44 years I’d see if you can get it on Netflix or acquire the DVD from somewhere. It probably won’t rock your world but if you’re anything like me I think you’ll enjoy it.         

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I think she's happy with the result... or maybe surprised.....!



Dec. 20, 2011

MOFFET FIELD, Calif. -- NASA's Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun. The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler-20e orbits its parent star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. These short orbital periods mean very hot, inhospitable worlds. Kepler-20f, at 800 degrees Fahrenheit, is similar to an average day on the planet Mercury. The surface temperature of Kepler-20e, at more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, would melt glass. "The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone," said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature. "This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them."

The Kepler-20 system includes three other planets that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. Kepler-20b, the closest planet, Kepler-20c, the third planet, and Kepler-20d, the fifth planet, orbit their star every 3.7, 10.9 and 77.6 days. All five planets have orbits lying roughly within Mercury's orbit in our solar system. The host star belongs to the same G-type class as our sun, although it is slightly smaller and cooler. The system has an unexpected arrangement. In our solar system, small, rocky worlds orbit close to the sun and large, gaseous worlds orbit farther out. In comparison, the planets of Kepler-20 are organized in alternating size: large, small, large, small and large.

"The Kepler data are showing us some planetary systems have arrangements of planets very different from that seen in our solar system," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "The analysis of Kepler data continue to reveal new insights about the diversity of planets and planetary systems within our galaxy." Scientists are not certain how the system evolved but they do not think the planets formed in their existing locations. They theorize the planets formed farther from their star and then migrated inward, likely through interactions with the disk of material from which they originated. This allowed the worlds to maintain their regular spacing despite alternating sizes.

The Kepler space telescope detects planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets crossing in front, or transiting, their stars. The Kepler science team requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet. The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates the spacecraft finds. The star field Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can be seen only from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

To validate Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, astronomers used a computer program called Blender, which runs simulations to help rule out other astrophysical phenomena masquerading as a planet. On Dec. 5 the team announced the discovery of Kepler-22b in the habitable zone of its parent star. It is likely to be too large to have a rocky surface. While Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are Earth-size, they are too close to their parent star to have liquid water on the surface.

"In the cosmic game of hide and seek, finding planets with just the right size and just the right temperature seems only a matter of time," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead and professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University. "We are on the edge of our seats knowing that Kepler's most anticipated discoveries are still to come."

[Although small rocky planets like ours are not prerequisites for life I’m guessing that they’d more likely be homes of life like ours – rather than the weird and wonderful life forms possibly living in the atmospheres of Jupiter type planets or even more oddball environments. A planet with a solid surface that isn’t too big, too close (or too far) from its Sun and holding liquid water would be a very positive candidate for life. The more small rocky planets we find increases the likelihood that we’ll find life out there (probably). It’s all good.]

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Rebel Raiders – The Astonishing History of the Confederacy’s Secret Navy by James Tertius deKay

There is one thing about books that delights me even more than a well crafted story or an interesting and novel idea. It’s the delightful feeling of wonder and surprise when a whole new world opens up before you as you turn the pages of a seemingly innocuous history book. That’s exactly the feeling, the thrill, I experienced reading this slim volume. As my regular readers know by now I love filling in the gaps of my knowledge and reducing my vast ignorance a little bit more with each book I read. This fascinating tale certainly filled a big gap in that knowledge!

As I’ve said before my knowledge of the American Civil War is fairly basic. When we covered it back in my school days the aim was, by and large, to look at how it affected us on this side of the Atlantic so we covered some of the motivations for the war, its impact on the British cotton trade and moved swiftly on to India. Over the years I’ve built up a little more information – major battles and so on – but haven’t really gone into things in much depth. So you can imagine my surprise to learn that not only was Britain (and the British government) involved in the war but that reparations were paid to the US because of that involvement. What surprised me even more was that my home city and port of Liverpool was intimately involved in some of the most notorious – though completely unknown to me prior to reading this book – events of that terrible conflict.

When war broke out it was immediately clear to the new Confederacy that the Union navy would blockade their ports in an attempt to wage economic warfare to which, with no navy to speak of, they could not respond. Before the noose was tightened however James Dunwoody Bulloch was despatched to Europe to buy or build ships to help the South in its cause. Despite an official backing for the Union and knowledge of Confederate activity in Liverpool and on the Clyde in Scotland the British government turned a blind eye to what soon became the obvious building of ships of war. After strenuous diplomatic efforts the British government finally acted but not before two ships had been launched – both from Liverpool – and subsequently named the CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah. These two commerce raiders alone caused millions of dollars worth of damage and basically destroyed all Union sea trade by the end of the war. The effect was so dramatic that there was even talk in Congress of actually going to war with Britain over its blatant duplicity! I was astonished to read that the Alabama was finally brought to heel and sunk in the English Channel (having no idea that the Civil War reached this side of the Atlantic) and that the Shenandoah only surrendered (actually some time after the war was officially over) by delivering herself and her crew into Liverpool harbour where she began her voyage years before.

What repeatedly surprised me throughout this book was that I was totally ignorant about any of these events. I know that it was by-and-large a war in another century in another country but I was astonished that a very important part of it happened here and apparently soured relations between the US and UK for decades afterwards (to say nothing of costing the UK government $15.5 million in fines). As you can imagine I’m going to be reading more about these events and look forward to sharing my thoughts with you. It still feels strange – and a little disturbing to be honest – that these events were a complete mystery to me until very recently. It’s not as if we’re talking about incidents in the dark and unrecorded past here. These events were recorded in major newspapers of the day as they happened – complete with illustrations and interviews. It felt like I had woken up in an alternate world were the history I thought I knew no longer existed. It was an exhilarating feeling which made my heart beat a little faster and my brain burn a little brighter. What else, I thought, am I completely ignorant about? Time, I replied to myself, to find out!

Oh, and if you haven’t already guessed….. I highly recommend this! 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes

This was another of those Amazon recommendations that I actually took some notice of and I’m glad that I did. Not only is it a subject that I have developed quite an obsession with it is written in a style that’s both highly entertaining and very informative.

Starting with her love of all things Ancient from an early age Ms Haynes proceeds through ancient ideas of politics, philosophy and culture relating their difference, their many similarities and dispels not a few myths along the way. Told in a breezy, knowing and fun style – she is a stand-up comedian by profession – she examines the Greek jury system (with up to 1000 jurors) that made bribery almost impossible and always ruinously expensive, political systems where department heads serve for 24-48 hours only and where political leaders remain in power for a single year preventing (yet again) power remaining in the hands of tyrants or incompetents for too long and thereby limiting any damage done, the wonderful world of philosophy (she seemed particularly fond of Socrates), the early years of Christianity (and how both the Greeks and the Romans tolerated religious diversity far more than they ever did), the ancient views on women under the best chapter heading in the book ‘Frankly, Medea, I don’t give a damn’ (the ancient Greeks in general didn’t treat their women very highly – with the possible exception of the Spartans but the Romans made up for this by and large with some ideas that seemed very liberal until the 19th/20th centuries), a very interesting chapter on Greek tragedy – something I knew almost nothing about – comparing it to modern soap-opera (I totally agree with her on that one!) and an almost equally involving chapter on money and value.

Despite all of the many similarities between ancient and modern times – not surprising as we are to all intents and purposes the same people just living in different environments – Haynes reminds us again and again that it is very difficult to get inside the minds of the average Greek or Roman citizen of that period for very good reasons. One thing is that very little is actually known of the day to day detail of ordinary lives. Likewise it is all too easy to attribute modern sensibilities to people where none exists. Although we do have a great deal of written evidence from those periods – especially from the obsessive record keeping Romans – much has unfortunately been lost in the intervening centuries. But if you have ever wondered why the study of the Ancients is so rewarding (or even worthwhile at all) this book will answer that for you. It is an absolute delight to read, full of interesting stories, observations and detours. It won’t put too much strain on the old grey matter but you’ll still put this book down knowing a great deal more about our ancient ancestors than you imagined possible from a seemingly light-hearted work. Lots of fun (including some laugh out loud moments). Highly recommended.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Always looking on the bright side.... [grin]



Nov. 16, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Data from a NASA planetary mission have provided scientists evidence of what appears to be a body of liquid water, equal in volume to the North American Great Lakes, beneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa. The data suggest there is significant exchange between Europa's icy shell and the ocean beneath. This information could bolster arguments that Europa's global subsurface ocean represents a potential habitat for life elsewhere in our solar system. The findings are published in the scientific journal Nature.

"The data opens up some compelling possibilities," said Mary Voytek, director of NASA's Astrobiology Program at agency headquarters in Washington. "However, scientists worldwide will want to take a close look at this analysis and review the data before we can fully appreciate the implication of these results." NASA's Galileo spacecraft, launched by the space shuttle Atlantis in 1989 to Jupiter, produced numerous discoveries and provided scientists decades of data to analyze. Galileo studied Jupiter, which is the most massive planet in the solar system, and some of its many moons.

One of the most significant discoveries was the inference of a global salt water ocean below the surface of Europa. This ocean is deep enough to cover the whole surface of Europa and contains more liquid water than all of Earth's oceans combined. However, being far from the sun, the ocean surface is completely frozen. Most scientists think this ice crust is tens of miles thick. "One opinion in the scientific community has been if the ice shell is thick, that's bad for biology. That might mean the surface isn't communicating with the underlying ocean," said Britney Schmidt, lead author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin. "Now, we see evidence that it's a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable."

Schmidt and her team focused on Galileo images of two roughly circular, bumpy features on Europa's surface called chaos terrains. Based on similar processes seen on Earth -- on ice shelves and under glaciers overlaying volcanoes -- they developed a four-step model to explain how the features form. The model resolves several conflicting observations. Some seemed to suggest the ice shell is thick. Others suggest it is thin. This recent analysis shows the chaos features on Europa's surface may be formed by mechanisms that involve significant exchange between the icy shell and the underlying lake. This provides a mechanism or model for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and the vast global ocean already inferred to exist below the thick ice shell. This is thought to increase the potential for life there.

The study authors have good reason to believe their model is correct, based on observations of Europa from Galileo and of Earth. Still, because the inferred lakes are several miles below the surface, the only true confirmation of their presence would come from a future spacecraft mission designed to probe the ice shell. Such a mission was rated as the second highest priority flagship mission by the National Research Council's recent Planetary Science Decadal Survey and is being studied by NASA. "This new understanding of processes on Europa would not have been possible without the foundation of the last 20 years of observations over Earth's ice sheets and floating ice shelves," said Don Blankenship, a co-author and senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics, where he leads airborne radar studies of the planet's ice sheets.

Galileo was the first spacecraft to directly measure Jupiter's atmosphere with a probe and conduct long-term observations of the Jovian system. The probe was the first to fly by an asteroid and discover the moon of an asteroid. NASA extended the mission three times to take advantage of Galileo's unique science capabilities, and it was put on a collision course into Jupiter's atmosphere in September 2003 to eliminate any chance of impacting Europa.

[Liquid water………? Well, we all know what that means!]

...and I'm back!

Thursday, September 06, 2012


Just Finished Reading: The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian

The Western Mediterranean: 1812. Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe in the 2003 movie adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) is looking with regret at the probable end of his navy career and the breaking up of his beloved frigate Surprise. Awaiting orders to return to England he is given instead orders to pursue and engage an enemy frigate reported to be making its way to the Southern Pacific ocean in order to endanger the British whaling fleet based there. But to find such a mall target after a voyage of thousands of miles with a mixed crew of old salts and new recruits will test all of his abilities to the limit and that is even before they attempt to cross the treacherous waters of Cape Horn.

Despite not being Russell Crowe’s biggest fan I enjoyed this naval romp at the movies and even picked up the DVD once it hit the cheap box. So when I had the opportunity to pick up the 1984 novel I did so expecting a story of tense naval warfare in the Napoleonic Age. Without going into too much detail or giving too much away I really didn’t get what I expected. The first thing that jumped out at me was the rather fundamental difference in Aubrey’s enemy. In the movie it was quite clearly a French frigate up to no good although it had been built – if memory serves – in Boston. In the book the frigate was American and rather than being based during the Napoleonic War was instead based during The War of 1812 when Britain and American were at war with each other. As I read more and more of this comparatively brief novel (running to just over 340 pages) it dawned on me that this was a completely different story than that portrayed on film. Apart from the main players (including the good Doctor Maturin played by Paul Bettany) and the bare facts of the plot it transpired that nothing else made it from the book to the screen. That didn’t, however, make this any less interesting or readable. Within a handful of pages I found myself hooked by the early 19th Century language (gleaned from actual Admiralty reports apparently) and the completely unapologetic – and unexplained apart from a detailed diagram in the preface – use of sailing terms used at the time. It did take a little while to get my head around the terminology but by the half way mark I was pretty confident that I could tell the difference between a studdingsail and a top gallant. Of course I already knew my jibs from my spankers but then who doesn’t?

I think what the author was going for, and admirably achieving, was a total emersion in a world long gone (unless that is you’re one of those people who can afford to go sailing on a regular basis). It was a world where it took weeks or moths to get any great distance and where being years away from home was hardly remarked upon. I did find myself more than once struggling to regain the 21st Century after being lost in the early 19th for more than half an hour. With an almost effortless style O’Brian managed to drop me right in the middle of things and expected me to get on with them and to, in effect, sink or swim. It was an interesting experience that I shall be repeating in the not too distant future. The only slight warning I would give is the unstated expectation that you are willing to learn your way around a Royal Navy frigate and to cope with a whole different set of terms I for one had never come across before. It is an effort (or it was for me) but it’s most definitely worth it. Recommended.    

Monday, September 03, 2012

I'm guessing that this is probably on the World Health Organisation building...............

My Favourite Movies: Bound

I can’t remember why exactly I picked up this DVD of this 1996 Film Noir. It certainly wasn’t because it was directed and written by the Wacowski brothers who went on to make The Matrix as it was only years later that I learnt of the connection. I suspect that I picked it up because of the two female leads – Gina Gershon who plays Corky a recent ex-con and Jennifer Tilly who plays Violet a gangsters ‘moll’. The fact that I knew these characters became lovers added a certain allure no doubt but I found, much to my enhanced pleasure, that this movie was much more than simply lesbian soft porn (I can see my Blog hit counter react positively to that particular phrase!).

Anyway, I mentioned that Bound is Film Noir which it most definitely is. The story basically goes like this: Violet (Tilly) is tired of being Caesar’s girlfriend and wants out. But you don’t just leave a man like Caesar (played superbly by Joe Pantoliano). After all he’s a gangster who’s more that a little crazy with connections to ‘the business’ as the Mafia like to be called apparently. But an opportunity presents itself when a local accountant is caught skimming money off the top – to the tune of $2 million. When Caesar has to literally launder the proceeds Corky and Violet – who are now lovers – hatch a plan to take the money and force Caesar to run for his life. The plan sounds perfect until Caesar decides to stay and fight rather than skip town.

Like all good Noir movies this has a seemingly simple plot, a straight forward theft and a meticulous plan that goes wrong due to unforeseen events and quickly spirals out of control followed by gun play and death. But what made this movie stand out from the crowd – indeed head and shoulders above the crowd – was the solid acting all round (even when playing arguably stereotypical gangsters it was done well), the intricate yet entirely plausible plot, the cinematography (typically I enjoyed the way this movie was filmed as much as the content of the film itself), the claustrophobic feel to the whole thing (with lots of close ups and clever filming in fairly roomy apartments) and even the atmospheric music which was nicely understated. Inevitably I did have a few issues with one scene in particular – although the scene was nicely tense and was used to great effect, not least of which was to move the plot forward, it blatantly ignored the sense of smell which would have ruined the whole thing (you’ll understand if/when you see the film).

But apart from the usual minor quibbles (I’m difficult to please and know it) this is a great work of Noir that would mark the Wacowski brothers as directors/writers of note even if they had never created the seminal Matrix Trilogy. If you haven’t seen this and love movies (especially crime movies) you’re missing out on a great treat. But be warned, there are several decidedly erotic sex scenes early one, several heavy duty bits of violence (including torture) and practically constant swearing from several of the main players. Definitely not one for the sensitive or easily offended – luckily I am neither.  

Saturday, September 01, 2012

So many books..... So little time.....

Security services to get more access to monitor emails and social media

By Mark Townsend for The Observer

29th July 2012

Britain has quietly agreed to measures that could increase the ability of the security services to intercept online communications, experts say. Although the Home Office is at pains to stress that the draft communications and data bill, which is going through parliament, will not involve checking the content of emails and social media, experts say British officials have been simultaneously involved in international moves that could allow increased interception of online data – moves that will not be subject to the scrutiny of MPs.
The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (Etsi), the body that sets industry standards, has agreed measures that analysts say could force internet service providers to ensure that their systems meet government standards for intercepting communications. The government's data bill restricts the authorities to only being able to see who is contacting whom, when, where and how, while the content of online communications would remain private unless a court warrant was obtained.
A joint scrutiny committee of MPs and peers, set up following widespread concerns about increased intrusion following the unveiling of the draft bill last month, is understood not to have been informed of the Etsi standards, which critics say could precipitate an escalation in state surveillance. While the bill does not authorise interception, experts warn that there is nothing in the proposals that prevents the authorities from then installing their own hardware capable of intercepting the communications network.
A draft report from the Etsi technical committee on lawful interception, dated April 2012, indicates that standards have been agreed that could lead to increased data interception. It reveals that measures have been agreed to monitor "nomadic access", which means surveillance of an individual whether they go online from their home computer, mobile or an internet café. To facilitate this, service providers "must implement a Cloud Lawful Interception Function (Clif)" that could mean the installation of a new monitoring interface "or more likely ensuring presentation of information in a format recognisable to interception mechanisms".
Etsi has faced criticism in the past for the pre-emptive inclusion of wiretapping capabilities, a decision that critics say encouraged European governments to pass their wiretapping laws accordingly. According to Ross Anderson, professor in security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, the institute has strong links with the intelligence agencies and has a significant British contingent, along with a number of US government advisers.
The development has led to fears among civil liberties campaigners that the bill could become a stepping stone towards plans to monitor and control access to content. Anderson said: "It's an absolutely massive extension of state surveillance. At present the government can watch anybody. What they want in the future is to get into a position where the government can watch everybody. They are saying this is only about communications data, but in fact it is not. If you build the infrastructure that Etsi have agreed, it can be used for interception. The documents show that there is a clear and continuing intention to use it for interception."
Some experts believe that allowing the government to install its own hardware at internet service providers, as currently proposed by the bill, would have to comply with the Etsi standards and would lead to interception of an individual's online content. Nick Pickles, director of the privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "We're seeing moves at an international level to make it easier for the content of communications to be intercepted. For Home Office officials behind the communications data bill, spying on who we are emailing or Skyping is not their final objective. Officials from Britain are working internationally to force service providers to ensure that their systems are easy to tap into."
He said it was worrying that the Etsi standards had not been disclosed to the committee of MPs and peers, introduced as one of the safeguards following opposition to the proposals. The committee will examine all aspects of the draft bill and is expected to report in November. However, a Home Office spokesman said there were no plans to collect the content of online data. "It is simply untrue to suggest we would be able to collect the content of communications data. The changes we are making only relate to the who, where and when of communications data. The interception of the content of any communications is a completely separate matter and continues to be strictly controlled by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, requiring a warrant signed by the secretary of state."
[Brick by brick the Government are quietly laying the groundwork for an all encompassing surveillance state – in the name of keeping us safe from a largely nameless and faceless enemy intent on doing us harm. Critics have been called ‘conspiracy theorists’ because, as we know, our Government cares for us and would never do anything to endanger innocent people. What could possibly go wrong?]