About Me

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

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I think that this movie was my introduction to Chinese cinema that made me fall in love so much with foreign film. I’d heard of it vaguely when my friend RCA proposed that we go along and see it in a small independent cinema locally. She was always dragging me along to such things, being the adventurous type and I think I was her project for a while to spread culture amongst the deserving. So I went along in the hope of a good film and in the expectation of a good evening. I got both.

Crouching Tiger is basically about two entangled and tragic love stories set in ancient China. On one side is Li Mu Bai (played by the outstanding Chow Yun Fat) a master swordsman and Yu Shu Lien (played by the superb Michelle Yeou), on the other is Jen Yu (played by the stunning Zhang Ziyi) and her outlaw lover Lo ‘Dark Cloud’ (played by Chen Chang). What ties them all together – apart from love – is a 400 year old sword called Jade Destiny which is owned by Li and stolen (twice) by Jen. Jen it transpires has been trained in special martial arts techniques despite being a woman and wants the sword to help her carve out her own path in life rather than the one her parents have mapped out for her. Li wants to get the sword back and stop Jen hurting anyone in her efforts to free herself from obligations to her family whilst coming to terms with his own past and making up for lost time with Yu who he has been in love with for years.

Not only is this a superb and subtle tale of love unspoken and love hidden from view it’s also a great martial arts film with some of the best sword fighting I’ve ever seen. Some of it does come across as a little silly – particularly the ‘fight’ in the bamboo trees and the running across both water and roof tops – but I took this as part of Chinese cinema rather than over exuberance with wire-work. I was particularly impressed with the two women fighting both in the initial roof top chase and at Yu’s home in the courtyard. Not only are the fights simply outstanding the cinematography portraying the fights is beyond impressive and adds a great deal to the scenes. Even the incidental music (to say nothing of the often beautiful scenery) adds to the overall effect and really brings that by-gone era of China to life. There is also a fair amount of Chinese slapstick humour provided by the supporting cast which had me smiling more than once and must have had a Chinese audience rolling about laughing.

But for me it was the three stars Chow Yun Fat as the serious sword master examining his life choices and finding great fault with the path he’s taken, Michelle Yeou as the equally serious and successful businesswoman who suffers because of her perceived duty to he dead fiancĂ© and, of course, the gorgeous Zhang Ziyi as the headstrong and impulsive young woman who will do anything to get her own way no matter the cost to those around her. Oh, and if you watch this movie I do recommend you see it with the subtitles on. There’s almost nothing worse than a dubbed foreign film. You just lose so much and the English/American accents really grate. I don’t know why they even bother with them.   

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Oil, Geo-Political Experts Say Attacking Iran Poses Huge Risks

by Jim Lobe for LobeLog.com

Monday, October 22, 2012

As a bastion of foreign-policy realism, the Center for the National Interest (CNI), formerly the Nixon Center, is known around Washington for hosting very lively discussions among experts, and Friday’s session, entitled “War With Iran:Economic and Military Considerations”, was particularly engaging, and virtually
unanimous — and almost unanimously scary — in its conclusions.

The three presenters were Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, who served as deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command and commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, among many other posts; Geoffrey Kemp, a CNI fellow who served as a Gulf expert on Reagan’s National Security Council; and J. Robinson West, the chairman and founder of PFC Energy who has also held senior positions in the White House, the Energy Department, and the Pentagon under various Republican administrations. Kemp, it should be noted, is working on a major study, due to be released in January, on the issue that was under discussion. Of the three, West’s assessment was particularly grim. He asserted that Iran, with its arsenal of ballistic and shorter-range missiles and the Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) elite Qods Force, could without much difficulty take more than eight million barrels of oil a day off the market — specifically 5 million barrels from Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility and the pipelines that run to the Ras Tannurah terminal on the Gulf just across from Iran (the missiles, he said, may not be too accurate, but “something is going to hit something); another 2.5 million barrels that run through southern Iraq where “the Iranians have a lot of agents” who could presumably wreak havoc on the pipelines; and as much as another one million more barrels that are pumped from the Caspian Sea to Ceyhan, Turkey, on the Mediterranean. (“If Iranians have agents on the ground, these pipelines are very vulnerable,” he said.) “You could lose eight million barrels a day of production, and it would not come back quickly,”according to West. “We believe the price of oil will go above $200 a barrel,” he said. (Brent crude is currently selling at about $112/barrel.) Moreover, he added, that conclusion does not take account of any Iranian effort to block the Strait of Hormuz (an eventuality which, he said, he believed the US Navy could clean up quite quickly) or the possibility that Tehran may also use its missiles to strike the huge LNG facilities in Qatar. If they did, “the lights go out in South Korea and Japan,” he said.

“From my standpoint, the cost would be just enormous,” West said. “For them to tie up the oil business wouldn’t be that difficult.” Echoing Kemp, who had spoken just before, he predicted that Washington will come under great pressure from “people on our side” to stop the war. Fitzpatrick said he agreed “completely” with West’s assessment regarding the vulnerability of the oil infrastructure in the Gulf and Iraq and also stressed the vulnerability of tanker traffic both in the Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz (especially compared to 25 years ago during the “tanker war”). While the U.S. Navy can deploy some defenses against Iran’s sea-skimming missiles that travel almost at Mach speed, he said, tankers are helpless against them. “[The Iranians] are able to hold critical geography at risk,” he said, adding that the biggest problem U.S. forces would face would be a “bolt out of the blue” by which he meant a unilateral Israeli attack with little or no notice to the U.S. Once hostilities began under those circumstances, he said, Iran can be expected to move its mines into position, and “one mine makes a minefield.” They would also disperse their ballistic and anti-ship missiles very quickly, he said, making it far easier for them to strike back in the Gulf and beyond. As to the cooperation Washington would get from its Gulf allies, “obviously, they are more pro-U.S. than most of the countries we deal with, at least the leadership,” he said. “The problem we will have is with the populace.” Moreover, in order to secure the Strait, it’s almost certain you would have to put “boots on the ground,” at least on the three islands that lie in or close to the Strait. “This is going to be a messy war to win fast,” he said, noting that it took NATO 78 days of bombing to break Milosevic’s will in Serbia, which is “postage-stamp size” compared to Iran’s territory. “If the [Iranian] people believe they’re right, they’re going to hunker down,” he said, adding that he was quite uncertain “how would we make Iran capitulate.”(The general sense of the participants in the discussion, who included other experts in their own right, was there was no way to “win” the war — meaning, eliminating Iran’s nuclear program — without occupying the country. “Militarily, you’re back to Desert Storm at a minimum,” said Fitzpatrick, who noted that U.S. troops in that conflict used Saudi Arabia as their launching pad. “To get to Iran, you’d have to go through either Pakistan or Iraq,” he noted. “I don’t think we’d be able to come through Iraq,” he asserted. “Then we’d be fighting two wars.”)

Kemp focused primarily on the larger strategic consequences of an attack on Iran. If the U.S. and/or Israel launched the attack, he said, “we can expect extremely strong opposition from Russia, China, Brazil, and even India. ….I do worry that we have not clearly thought through how some of our allies might behave”, he added, recalling, in particular, Germany’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and Turkey, which also declined U.S. requests to use its territory as a launching pad into Iraq but is now close to war with Iran’s major ally in the region, Syria. Moreover, “if we get involved in yet another war in the Middle East, what’s going to happen to the ‘rebalance’ in Asia” in what is a critical moment in that region, especially if we have to pay for it with dollars borrowed from China? Ultimately, he suggested, the financial costs inflicted by such a war may force Washington to back down, much as Britain and France were forced to withdraw from Egypt during the 1956 Suez War when then-President Dwight Eisenhower threatened London with a run on the pound if the European powers did not withdraw. Dmitri Simes, the former head of the Nixon Center and noted Kremlinologist, warned that an attack on Iran would be a “game-changer” in relations among the great powers. Russia, which he last visited earlier this month, was likely to react particularly harshly, he predicted — not only by lifting its own sanctions against Iran, but also quite possibly expediting the long-delayed sale to Tehran of its highly-touted S-400 anti-aircraft missiles systems, in addition to renewing cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program. If U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran lasted more than a day or so, “you are opening a Pandora’s box” in terms of Russia’s and possibly China’s response, he warned.

[Of course an attack on Iran by Israel, the US, or both is of the highest insanity. Not only is their no rational reason to attack them – other than to appease the Israeli’s – but the fall-out hardly bears thinking about. Those hawks who think that Iran will not or cannot retaliate against Israel or the US are living in a fantasy land. Just endangering the flow of oil from the Middle East (never mind actually doing anything) will send the price of crude skyrocketing. If a single tanker is targeted or hit in the Gulf they will simply stop running through the Straights of Hormuz. No insurance company in the world will underwrite the risk involved and no insurance means no ships. Iranian allies in the Gulf region would, no doubt, be given anything they ask for after any attack and be let off any leash Iran is using presently. Then there are potential attacks all around the world against US interests which will undoubtedly increase – even without Iranian help. Is any of this worth it? Without a full invasion and occupation of Iran (which is frankly unthinkable) their nuclear programme might be put back several years by a concerted and successful attack on their nuclear facilities. But I bet that their next attempt will be 100% successful. Once they become a nuclear power they will become invulnerable to any kind of direct military pressure and they know it. As to a nuclear Iran becoming a ‘destabilising force’ in the region I am curious why this same logic doesn’t apply to a nuclear Israel. All in all either the sabre rattling is nothing more than that and is uselessly and stupidly raising temperatures in an already dangerous region or they’re for real and are beyond stupid. The whole situation is, to me, yet another reminder that as a species we are simply too stupid to live. It both saddens and disgusts me.]  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Caught Blogging.......

Just Finished Reading: Witchcraft – A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

I’ve been interested in magical thinking, magic and witchcraft for some time now. I’ve read quite a few books on the subject (pre-Blog) and have even actively studied the subject at an academic level. So when I found this book – part of a series I’ve been very impressed with – I picked it up to reacquaint myself with the subject.

In 8 chapters (Fear, Heresy, Malice, Truth, Justice, Rage, Fantasy and Culture) and a little over 120 pages the author managed to cover the ground very well indeed. As with most things the author started out with definitions, and the problems of defining something as widespread, ancient and controversial as witchcraft. Heresy and Malice both dealt with the Christian response to ‘the discovery of witches’ and the many deaths that followed in what modern day witches refer to as the Burning Times. Truth, Justice and Rage went into some details with individual trial transcripts and tales of the mass executions – especially in Germany and parts of France - whilst Fantasy noted how, over time, increasingly sceptical judges, magistrates and political leaders moved away from such witch trials and witch burnings seeing both accusers and the accused being part of a fantastical belief system rather than a conspiracy against Christian civilisation. Finally in Culture the author explores the (comparatively) recent re-emergence of the witch in western culture from its invention in post-war Britain to the recognition of Wicca as a religion in some countries (notably the USA) and, of course, its ever present place in movies, TV and books.

If your only experience or knowledge of witchcraft comes from ready Harry Potter and you’re interested in increasing your knowledge of the subject – before moving on to better and more detailed things – this is definitely the introduction for you. The focus is very much on the western European and North American experience but despite that it should pique its reader’s interests enough to investigate other aspects too. Recommended.    

Monday, October 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

After being defeated in battle and seeing his city destroyed by the enemy, young Rictus makes his way to the capital city of Machran to join one of the mercenary bands recruiting there. Once in the city he finds a soldier clad in the black armour of a curse-bearer – armour whose origin was shrouded in myth and mystery, armour that cannot be penetrated by any known weapon forged by man. Directed to the training fields outside the city walls Rictus joins a unit awaiting orders. Being without armour himself he is allocated to the auxiliaries, the Running Dogs, who will be scouts and skirmishers for the army amassing before his very eyes. Only on the day of departure are they told their destination and their new employer – they are marching into the Asurian Empire in the pay of the Great Kings brother who is determined to gain the throne himself. But as the Macht army – the largest and most renowned army even seen - batters its way ever deeper into enemy territory it dawns on Rictus that if anything goes wrong that it’s going to be a very long and hard fight every mile of the way home.

I think that the author was quite clearly channelling Greek history when he wrote this book. Although I’m not exactly certain of the details this does remind me of a Greek mercenary army fighting for the King of Persia who had to fight there way back home after he was defeated in battle. I might also be thinking of Alexander’s wanderings in Persia and India and the return of his men after he died somewhat mysteriously – but the point stands. However, the possible lack of originality takes nothing away from this excellent fantasy novel – inevitably the first book in a trilogy. The characterisation was suitably heroic and gritty. These where real soldiers who had grown up in a world with death as a constant companion – indeed Death was personified as a major god in their pantheon. There was a wonder sense of mystery surrounding the black armour some of the men wore. It was indestructible but only 500 sets existed in the whole world. Its origin was as much a mystery as its means of manufacture. I’m hoping that that’s one mystery the later books answer. My particular idea is that they were made by the original human settlers who realised that their superior technology wouldn’t last forever so made the armour in the hope that future generations would survive because of it. The non-human characters were as well drawn as the humans with very different, but understandable, motivations. Although the humans thought that they’d always been on the world in question – Kuf – the non-humans seemed to see them as newcomers which threw up a whole new set of questions. Finally the battles themselves were awesome – very up close and personal with spears and swords being primary weapons. This is the kind of battle where you smell your enemies bad breath as you kill him and his emptied bowls afterwards – it’s not pretty and it’s not something you forget in a hurry. This is, above all else, a very adult fantasy novel. There is death in abundance, sex (not always in a good way) and a fair amount of swearing. But more than that it has a realism – despite being a fantastic tale – that grips you and puts you in the front lines of the Macht phalanx as they push into the enemy lines and start killing. It felt to me how you would imagine ancient Greek or Roman battles to be fought. I was most impressed so highly recommend it to all fantasy readers or to anyone who wants to be blown away by some really impressive storytelling.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Exoplanet around Alpha Centauri is nearest-ever

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

17 October 2012

Astronomers have found the nearest planet outside our Solar System, circling one of the stars of Alpha Centauri just four light-years away. The planet has at minimum the same mass as Earth, but circles its star far closer than Mercury orbits our Sun. It is therefore outside the "habitable zone" denoting the possibility of life, as the researchers report in Nature. However, studies on exoplanets increasingly show that a star with one planet is likely to have several. At the very least, the work answers the question first posed in ancient times about planets around our nearest stellar neighbours. The closest star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, which is believed to be part of a three-star system that includes the brighter stars Alpha Centauri A and B. The planet was found near Alpha Centauri B by the Harps instrument at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile. That puts it far closer to Earth than any of the more than 840 confirmed exoplanets

Like a dance between one enormous and one tiny partner, as an exoplanet orbits its much larger host star, its gravity causes the star to move in a small orbit. Harps and instruments like it measure the subtle change in colour - the redshift or blueshift - of the host star's light as its orbit moves it slightly closer to and further away from Earth.

What has delayed this finding is that because Alpha Centauri is itself a complicated system of stars orbiting one another, the effect of a comparatively tiny planet is difficult to detect. Many planets in similar orbits are "tidally locked", meaning the same side is always facing the host star, but further observations will be required to examine the planet further, finding out for example if it has an atmosphere. Since the very first planets outside our solar system were discovered in the early 1990s, the hope has been to find an "Earth twin" - a planet like ours, orbiting a star like ours, at a distance like ours. The new planet around Alpha Centauri B matches Earth only in terms of its mass - making it among the smallest exoplanets we know of. But in a catalogue with hundreds of confirmed planets and thousands of planet candidates added since 1992, it is otherwise unremarkable - except for its proximity. "Alpha Centauri B is of course a very special case - it's our next door neighbour," said Stephane Udry of the Observatory in Geneva and senior author of the paper. "So even if the discovery just stands perfectly normally in the discoveries we have had up to now, it's a landmark discovery, because it's very low-mass and it's our closest neighbour."

Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, said that beyond that, the planet's very existence makes a tantalising suggestion. "Everything that we've discovered in the last few years tells us that where we find one small, rocky planet there are likely to be others," he told BBC News. "I think the odds are very good that there may well be other planets in this system a little further out, perhaps a little more comfortable temperatures - so I think the hunt is on."

[I wasn’t going to bore you with yet another astronomy post but I was very excited by this story. Although the planet discovered is generally unremarkable – and about as unlikely to harbour life as you could imagine – it is, at least in astronomic terms very close. It’s only a little over 4 light years away. FOUR! If, as is suspected, that other planets in the habitable zone are discovered it’s possible (or at least not impossible) that we could get a probe there within, I speculate, 100 years. Say 20-30 years of active technological development to produce the best solar sail, orbital laser and ion drive tech that we can, 50-60 years to get there and 4 years for the first video to be transmitted back to us. A child born today could be watching the first images from an alien world in their lifetime! I must admit when I read this article at work in the week I was very excited indeed. If we can get a probe moving at up to 10% of light speed this is definitely do-able. Sure it will take a lot of investment in time, money and manpower but what would you rather spend it on – useless wars? Something like this, a project to put a probe in orbit around a world orbiting another star, could have a massive impact on our planets future. The challenge might just get us off this rock and into space for more than joy rides and extreme sky diving. Personally I think it’s worth the cost.] 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Being a Pedant

I have a reputation, admittedly deserved, for being somewhat pedantic or at least, and more accurately, for being notably pedantic from time to time (or simply more noticeably pedantic). A case in point some time ago concerned the installation of a set of doors at work. Now we have a number of disabled people in my organisation and a strong commitment to make them as welcome and productive as they can be. As part of that we install push button doors wherever they are required. One set of these doors set off my pedantic alarm by being labelled ‘Automatic Door’ which, of course, is incorrect as you needed to press a button to open them. I raised this – after initially dismissing it as beneath my attention – with the appropriate people (and anyone else who would listen. A few weeks later I noticed, not without some satisfaction, that the sign had been changed to ‘Power Assisted Door’.

Now to the book cover above. From time to time I cruise various websites looking for potential new books to buy in the future. Laughingly I call it ‘book-porn’. Anyway, I saw this volume (above) and thought it looked interesting. Then I took a closer look at the handsome looking pistol on the cover and my pedant alarm went off. The gun is quite clearly of the percussion type rather than a flintlock which is what I would’ve expected. Not having the exact date of such things I Googled ‘percussion cap’ and discovered that such things were used after 1839 and resulted in making black power weapons much more reliable in damp conditions which is kind of handy in north-western Europe. Then I Googled ‘Highwaymen’ and discovered, as I thought, that they were already in decline after 1815 and that the last recorded incident was in 1831 – 8 years before the percussion cap came into use, hence the gun on the front cover being anachronistic. Score one for me. Then, of course, I had to go one step further and thought that the weapon in question looked more like a duelling pistol (being rather ornate) rather than a more work-a-day hold-up gun. Using Google again I did indeed discover that the picture of the gun on the cover is actually an early to mid 19th Century duelling piece and not, as it should have been a late 18th Century flintlock pistol. Score two for me and award myself a Pedant Award for services to historical accuracy. Needles to say I won’t be buying the book.     

Is it any wonder, I ask you, why several people at work have started calling me Sheldon? 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Just Finished Reading: The Battle of Hastings – The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Harriet Harvey Wood

The Battle of Hastings on Senlac Hill in late 1066 is arguably one of those turning points in history when everything changed. At the time it was seen as a calamity on a Biblical scale. It was to the Anglo-Saxons the end of their world. After 1066 they were no longer in control of their own country or their own destiny. From that fateful date they were an occupied people in an alien land.

But how and why did such a thing happen? Why did a successful warrior and leader of men like Harold Godwinson end up on the wrong side of history and bring down his whole civilisation with him? That is, it seems from this narrative, the mystery of Hastings – Why we lost. I say we for several reasons, firstly like the author of this work I fully identify with the resident Anglo-Saxons rather than the invading Normans. Second looking back on the invasion and the aftermath with the 20:20 vision of historical hindsight I think it’s more than reasonable to say that, although we lost the Battle, we almost certainly won the cultural war. Not long after their ‘victory’ the Normans both at home on the Continent and here in their new possessions went into terminal decline and practically vanished from history in surprisingly quick order. Their culture – what there was of it – was absorbed into and diluted by the Anglo-Saxon culture that was both more sophisticated and with deeper roots in the community.

In many ways Harold was unlucky. If the dying King had lived just a few more years it is unlikely that William would have been in a position to invade. If the bad weather that held William in France had lasted a few more days (or a few less weeks) there would have been ample time for Harold to defeat Tostig at Stamford Bridge – a major victory only overshadowed by his defeat at Hastings – or to meet William on the coast with a full army and navy not yet released for the harvest. With so little actual hard evidence to go on historians either throws up their hands and says that nothing truly meaningful can be said on the subject or are forced to speculate in order to weave a coherent story from very thin thread. This author certainly weaves a good tale of a masterful warrior and good king forced to fight battles at opposite ends of the country only days apart with an almost predictable outcome during battle number two. She tries to understand what motivated Harold to force battle the way he did when, apparently, all he needed to do was wait out the Normans crushing them at his leisure. Then, of course, there is the famous arrow and the unlucky eye. The author comes down on the side that Harold was indeed hit by an arrow in the face and this caused his battle line to fall apart at exactly the wrong moment. His personal bodyguard – all high ranking aristocrats in their own rights – stood by him and died to a man ensuring that no one was left alive to solidify a useful opposition force hence accelerating the fall of the rest of the country.

Finally the author speculates on what might have happened if Harold had won (or William had lost) and sees England entering into a Golden Age which would have changed the course of European, and hence World, history away from the one we know. Knowing at least a little about the time and the way politics was done back then I somehow doubt that this would have been the case. It is interesting however to speculate about Harold being victorious and either driving the upstart Normans into the sea or even killing William in battle – he was after all unseated from his warhorse at least twice on the day.

Despite being biased (in a good way in my opinion) this was still a very good and often thrilling interpretation of 1066 and the events leading up to it. Obviously sad as to the outcome the author tries her best to understand just what went wrong. On its own this book would probably give an at least mildly distorted picture of Hastings but, in conjunction with the other works already reviewed and the others in the pipeline, potentially rounds out the view of the battle and its antecedents in opposition to the pro-Norman historians who think that we should get over being beaten and move on. Like Harold and his Housecarls I say come over here and make me!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley

The Year is 2126 and Earth is under attack from The Swarm, a remorseless part insect, part reptilian life form that destroys everything in its path. Falling back to the home planet after several outlying colonies have been over run Earth’s defence forces prepare for a last stand. Meanwhile three hastily built colony ships are dispatched at random across space in the hope that, if Earth falls, at least something of humanity will live on.

Over a hundred years latter the humans who made it to the planet called Darien thrive in conjunction with the local inhabitants who are slowly recovering their world after an ancient catastrophe that almost scoured their world of all life. Unbeknown to the human population they are about to be re-contacted by an Earth ship now in alliance with a powerful galaxy spanning Empire who defeated The Swarm in Earth’s most perilous hour. But Earth’s ally, the Hegemony, has much greater motivation for returning Darien into the Human sphere of influence. The planet is located in disputed territory and is peppered with ancient ruins that are only partially excavated. Legends tell of a titanic conflict in the far past that almost destroyed all life in the galaxy and of terrible weapons located deep underground - weapons that, in the hands of the Hegemony could guarantee its rule for a thousand years.

I’ve missed proper galaxy spanning space opera. Luckily this pretty much fits the bill – I say pretty much because although this is indeed space opera and it does span a significant chunk of the galaxy its not exactly great space opera. It does have quite a few of the characteristics that make up the genre but is, from time to time more than a little clunky, is occasionally responsible for some serious eye-rolling and made me actually cringe more than once. I can only think that the author let his 14 year old son write either sections of the book or insert particular characters. Yet despite this I actually enjoyed this book enough to race through its impressive 620 pages in about a week and buy the next two books in the series (OK I did have the 2nd book in the series before reading this but bought the 3rd book in the trilogy afterwards which must mean something – probably that I need my head examining). Of course one of the fun things to do is to figure out where this fairly derivative novel got its ideas from: Starship Troopers, Star Wars, Avatar, Empire Strikes Back etc, etc….. [laughs] I’m not exactly selling this very well am I? Despite the fact that little or anything between these covers could be called original – indeed very little is anymore – the author did create some very good characters, some decent alien environments and some half decent battles/shoot-outs. Although it probably won’t change your life or anything it should provide you with a few days of light and fluffy entertainment. Reasonable. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cartoon Time.



Jan. 26, 2012

MOFFET FIELD, Calif. -- NASA's Kepler mission has discovered 11 new planetary systems hosting 26 confirmed planets. These discoveries nearly double the number of verified planets and triple the number of stars known to have more than one planet that transits, or passes in front of, the star. Such systems will help astronomers better understand how planets form. The planets orbit close to their host stars and range in size from 1.5 times the radius of Earth to larger than Jupiter. Fifteen are between Earth and Neptune in size. Further observations will be required to determine which are rocky like Earth and which have thick gaseous atmospheres like Neptune. The planets orbit their host star once every six to 143 days. All are closer to their host star than Venus is to our sun.

"Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates. This tells us that our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits."

Kepler identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars to detect when a planet passes in front of the star. That passage casts a small shadow toward Earth and the Kepler spacecraft. Each of the new confirmed planetary systems contains two to five closely spaced transiting planets. In tightly packed planetary systems, the gravitational pull of the planets on each other causes some planets to accelerate and some to decelerate along their orbits. The acceleration causes the orbital period of each planet to change. Kepler detects this effect by measuring the changes, or so-called Transit Timing Variations (TTVs

Planetary systems with TTVs can be verified without requiring extensive ground-based observations, accelerating confirmation of planet candidates. The TTV detection technique also increases Kepler's ability to confirm planetary systems around fainter and more distant stars. Five of the systems (Kepler-25, Kepler-27, Kepler-30, Kepler-31 and Kepler-33) contain a pair of planets where the inner planet orbits the star twice during each orbit of the outer planet. Four of the systems (Kepler-23, Kepler-24, Kepler-28 and Kepler-32) contain a pairing where the outer planet circles the star twice for every three times the inner planet orbits its star.

"These configurations help to amplify the gravitational interactions between the planets, similar to how my sons kick their legs on a swing at the right time to go higher," said Jason Steffen, the Brinson postdoctoral fellow at Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Batavia, Ill., and lead author of a paper confirming four of the systems. Kepler-33, a star that is older and more massive than our sun, had the most planets. The system hosts five planets, ranging in size from 1.5 to 5 times that of Earth. All of the planets are located closer to their star than any planet is to our sun.

The properties of a star provide clues for planet detection. The decrease in the star's brightness and duration of a planet transit, combined with the properties of its host star, present a recognizable signature. When astronomers detect planet candidates that exhibit similar signatures around the same star, the likelihood of any of these planet candidates being a false positive is very low. "The approach used to verify the Kepler-33 planets shows the overall reliability is quite high," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper on Kepler-33. "This is a validation by multiplicity."

These discoveries are published in four different papers in the Astrophysical Journal and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

[…and we’ve really only just started looking…………..]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Just Finished Reading: Your Inner Fish – The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor by Neil Shubin

It is, of course, difficult for me to resist a book with such an intriguing and playful title. I certainly recognise my inner child (not being very far from him for the last 50+ years) but hadn’t really considered my inner fish (especially as I’ve never been overly fond of water. This book changed all that.

Shubin is one of those scientists (and science writers) who can communicate on several levels simultaneously. His fascinating book is at one level his own story of the search for the ‘missing link’ between fish and amphibians – effectively the first land creature that pointed the way 375 million years later to you and me. One another level it’s the story of how, over many millions of years, creatures such as the Tiktaalik (described wonderfully as the first fish capable of push-ups) slowly and painfully evolved into humanity and what the legacy of those developments are – including hiccups and that annoying problem of choking on our food and drink. On yet another level the book describes the decades long unravelling of the Human Genome and how developments in the research into other terrestrial inhabitants throws a great deal of light on not only how we develop the way we do but, far more importantly, exactly why we and our ancestors have developed the way we and they have.

Not only is this book a delight to read it is also absolutely packed with revelation after revelation about our very intimate relationships to every other living creature on Earth and how those relationships developed over the millennia. It shows how our understanding of human anatomy and physiology can only be enhanced by an understanding of the evolutionary processes that led to them. Without an appreciation of our fishy past some elements of the very things that make us human remain a mystery. With such an appreciation we can look at the structure of the skull, the inner ear or the path of some of the major arteries or nerves and nod sagely because we understand why they look and behave as they do – because millions of years ago they served often very different functions in very different bodies but had been adapted – through the process of Natural Selection – to serve the purposes they now do in our bodies.

If you want to appreciate the explanatory power of Evolution you need look no further than this work. It is an intelligent, compelling and above all enthusiastic discussion of Evolution connecting two apparently very different beings separated by a vast span of time. By continually linking the present with the far past it manages to bring our ancestor to life before our eyes and helps us all to embrace our inner fish and be proud of the fact that 375 million years ago our long dead relatives dragged themselves out of the water and took a breath of terrestrial air – and never looked back.     

Monday, October 08, 2012

My Favourite Movies: Capricorn One

I think I saw this 1977 movie at the cinema and probably with my older brother who, like me, was a great movie goer back then. The story would have certainly appealed to me at the time and I doubt that I would have only seen it years later when I brought home a borrowed video player.

Anyway, whenever I saw it I remember that it had a lasting effect on me. Probably prompted by persistent and nonsensical conspiracy theories about a faked Moon landing, Capricorn One told the story of man’s first flight to Mars. A 16 year dream for NASA director Dr James Kelloway (played by Hal Holbrook) he faces a tough decision when, weeks before the launch they discover that the life-support system has a fault that will kill the three astronauts long before they reach their destination. With NASA’s reputation, and funding, on the line Kelloway decides there is only one alternative – fake the landing to save the programme. Minutes before take-off the 3 astronauts are whisked away to a secret location and blackmailed into taking part in the deception. All is going well until, during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield accidently detaches and the crew are ‘killed’. The living crew are now not only an embarrassment to Dr Kelloway but a threat to the organisations that receive billions in funding for the Space programme. It’s about time that the ‘dead’ astronauts, so inconveniently alive, follow their fictional counterparts to the grave. But Willis (Sam Waterston), Walker (O J Simpson) and Brubaker (James Brolin) have other ideas even if they have to cross a desert as inhospitable as the surface of Mars to do it.      

Although now badly dated – and not just by the fashions – I still remember the interesting impact this film had on me. Not only did it highlight the possibility that, with sufficient will and technology, anything can be faked on TV (helping to deepen my growing scepticism of especially ‘approved’ images) but may have even planted the germ of an interest in survivalism which I have maintained a nodding relationship with. I did enjoy the part of the movie where the three escapees tried out their various skills in the blazing desert with various degrees of success. One other thing that I really liked was the sinister way a pair of helicopters was filmed as if they were living alien creatures hunting down the fleeing humans. There was definitely a deliberate use of their insect like qualities to add an extra dimension to the chase. Finally there was a rather funny cameo by Telly Savalas as the half-crazy crop duster hired by journalist Elliot Gould to search for the men. The movie is not exactly ‘top draw’ but I’m not reviewing the best films ever made but those which have, in large or small ways, stayed with me over the years and still have fond memories associated with them. Capricorn One probably won’t win any awards but I enjoyed it 35 years ago (now that doesn’t bare thinking about!) and I still enjoyed it last weekend. That alone should mean something.      

Saturday, October 06, 2012



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."

[Every planet we find – and we find planets almost everywhere we look – increases substantially the number of environments where extra-terrestrial life can emerge, evolve and flourish just as it did here on Earth. The odds against life elsewhere and the odds that we are the only planet with life decrease every time we find another world orbiting another star. Those who still think that we are alone in the Universe can only see the weight of circumstantial evidence mounting against them and must realise that it is only a matter of time before definitive evidence for life is found. I personally look forward to their howls of anguish as we lose yet another of our ‘special’ attributes!]