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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

You just have to love the British. The street is practically destroyed in a bombing raid and the milk still gets delivered on time.

Just Finished Reading: Outlaw by Angus Donald

England – Late 12th Century. Young Alan Dale is hungry. Since the death of his father he has been trying to feed his Mother and sisters but there is never enough to go around. Seeing a recently cooked pie on a stall in Nottingham market he takes a chance, takes the pie and runs – straight into one of the Sheriff’s men. Quickly sentenced to lose his hand the next day he struggles free and manages to make it home. Realising the danger to the whole household his Mother takes him to the only person she can think of who can help – a local outlaw who makes his home in the nearby forest and who is afraid of no man. He has many friends and many powerful enemies; he also has many names one of which is Robin Hood. Taking an instant liking to the young thief he agrees to take him in and train him as a foot soldier in Robin’s growing army. As powerful forces gather to crush Robin and his band of outlaws Alan must navigate the challenges of moving into adulthood whilst staying alive in an increasingly dangerous time.

Robin Hood is, of course, one of England’s premier legends. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor he challenged Norman oppression and aided his fellow Saxons in time of need. Many, many fictional representations have been made over the centuries in poems, books, songs and movies. He’s not a character who is going away anytime soon. Anyone familiar with the legend will recognise much in this first book of a trilogy (inevitably). All of the familiar names are there although some of them are subtly changed. Also the regular theme – ex-aristocrat banished into the forest uses education and martial talent to protect and lead a rag-tag army against brutal but stupid adversaries. Despite the fact that the (slightly) new interpretation was at times rather overly contrived and sometimes very silly indeed – I won’t give too much away by saying that the pagan aspect was totally unnecessary and not a little annoying – overall it was generally entertaining is not exactly a gripping page turner. Some pretty good characters, some nice set-pieces, a few good fights (and one very silly one indeed) and a few nice touches. Reasonable.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Heaven – A Traveller’s Guide to the Undiscovered Country by Peter Stanford

Not my normal reading I know, but I do like to throw a little something different into the mix from time to time. After all the only difference between a rut and a grave is its depth…..

Prompted by a personal tragedy the author, a lapsed Catholic (IIRC), begins to ponder the question we all think about from time to time: What happens when we die or more accurately after we die? One of the possibilities is, of course, that we go to Heaven but what do we mean by Heaven? Not surprisingly, as the whole idea is a human construct, ideas of what Heaven is and even where it is have changed and evolved over time. As explorers came back from exotic lands with exotic tales the worldly paradise moved further and further away. Likewise as early astronomers explored the skies the idea of Heaven up above moved inexorably further and further away. Heaven had to become more spiritual and less physical as we gained deeper knowledge of the world and the universe around us.

Tracing the idea in Christian, Muslim and other religions the author lays out the cultural and historical evolution of Heaven and embeds it in its context without which it is difficult if not impossible to comprehend. It was an interesting and often fascinating ride full of surprising little nuggets of knowledge which sometimes made me exclaim in surprise – for example that early images of the divine had them wearing halo’s of different shapes instead of the expected, and now uniform, circles. In the past, depending on who you were, a halo could be square, triangular or a circle. It was only later that the circle became ‘standardised’. That was most certainly news to me! Overall this was an interesting and, at least to me, unusual read. Written neither from a religious nor sceptical/atheistic perspective the author neither hits you over the head with his piety whilst laughing at other beliefs nor does he poke fun or roll his eyes at all religions with their foolish ideas. Because of that I never turned off at any point nor could I see any cause why a person of reasonable faith would do so. Recommended therefore for both believers and non-believers alike.       

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - 200 Years Old today!

Saturday, January 26, 2013


US shoots down Death Star superlaser petition

From The BBC

12 January 2013

The White House has rejected a petition to build a Death Star - a huge battle-station armed with a superlaser as seen in the Star Wars films. In a playful response, a senior US government official said the Obama administration "does not support blowing up planets". The official also said the cost - about $850 quadrillion - was too high. More than 34,000 people had signed the petition, saying the project would spur job creation and strengthen defence. They also wanted the government to begin construction by 2016. The White House is obliged to respond to all petitions that gain more than 25,000 signatures.

Responding to the petition, Paul Shawcross, head of the administration's budget office on science and space, admitted in a blog that "a Death Star isn't on the horizon. However, look carefully and you'll notice something already floating in the sky - that's no Moon, it's a Space Station! Mr Shawcross was referring to the International Space Station, which currently has six people on board. And he ended his blog with an appeal to the signatories of the petition: "If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force”.

[Well, at only $850 quadrillion I’m amazed that they turned it down! Though I am starting to think that maybe this government petition thing isn’t such a good idea after all – except in informing the public just how crazy parts of it are!]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

All gone soon............................

Just Finished Reading: The Captive Queen by Alison Weir

The small Kingdom of France in the year 1151. Queen Eleanor, late of Aquitaine is bored with her life in the North and with her less than attentive husband. She dreams of having a passionate lover and returning to her beloved southern homeland. Almost as if fated she meets Henry of Anjou, known as Henry Plantagenet and start a torrid affair. Scheming to be together Eleanor manufactures a divorce settlement with Louis of France and runs into the arms of Henry to become his wife and with their marriage creating a vast empire which expands further with Henry’s ascension to the English throne. But slowly, despite their continued passion for each other, Eleanor’s grip on power begins to recede as her husband reduces her role within what he regards as his domain. Even producing a series of children that will continue the Empire into the future – including two future Kings of England – fails to secure her position. As battle lines are drawn – both literally and metaphorically – the whole of Europe holds its breath awaiting the start of a drawn out and bloody civil war. Central to its outcome is the tempestuous relationship between two of the towering characters of the age: Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

After reading two of her previous novels – Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth – I was really looking forward to this one. I hardly know anything about Eleanor or about that historical period so hoped to get at least some insights into it before reading actual history books on the topic. I was however more than a little disappointed. I had heard that Eleanor was something special, a strong and forceful character that inspired women down the ages. She certainly came across as a woman who knew her own mind and as someone used to getting her own way even, which was still fairly unusual in that time, ruling over men who had, apparently, the greatest respect for her. Unfortunately she also came across as someone ruled by her passions and as someone who was ultimately impotent against the power of her husband who repeatedly overruled her, repeatedly impregnated her and for over a decade had her imprisoned for daring to question his authority! This was, I couldn’t help thinking, not exactly the feminist icon I was expecting. After reading about, and being very much impressed with, both Lady Jane Grey and the Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) I’m afraid that Eleanor came across as a great letdown as far as strong women go. What made it worse for me, and made this novel somewhat of a slog, was that not a great deal happened to Eleanor. Much of the action in her life too place, as it where, off camera and she only heard about battles and deaths through letters delivered to her either at her own court or later under house arrest. Many of the great characters of the age – including her favourite son Richard who became know as Lionheart – came across either as petulant teenagers or two dimensional actors in someone else’s play. I honestly found most of this novel to be rather dull which came as somewhat of a disappointing surprise after enjoying her previous works so much. Maybe I simply looked forward to it too much or maybe I simply didn’t like Eleanor in the same way that I admired Jane or Elizabeth. Whatever it was it seriously diminished my enjoyment of this book.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Fargo

Jerry Lundegaard (played by the always superb William H Macy) needs money badly. So badly that he hires two petty criminals (played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to ‘kidnap’ his wife so that he can pay them part of the ransom he plans to get from her rich father. What could possibly go wrong? Answer: Everything. Practically from the beginning things begin spiralling out of control – the criminals (who have only just met) develop a deep loathing for each other, the kidnapping is botched and almost immediately the police become involved as they follow a trail of dead bodies across the state. Headed up by Police Chief Marge Gunderson (played absolutely superbly by Frances McDormand) the investigation slowly but inexorably begins to focus in on Jerry’s activities which only make matters worse as he begins to panic.

From the very outset we are presented with a very different kind of film-noir or even neo-noir. Indeed because of the washed out colours against a predominantly white background the movie has, rather tongue in cheek, been called film-blanc. Between the sober music and the hostile weather we imagine that this will be a dark and forbidding movie. Of course in many ways it is – there’s plenty of violence, swearing, threats, a kidnap and plenty of blood all round. But at the same time this is a deeply comic film pointing the finger at the absurdity of the human condition all, as Marge comments later, for a bit of money. Marge is central to the whole film and McDormand deserved the many accolades she received for her portrayal of this down to earth, heavily pregnant and relentless police officer who appears to have seen everything and seems to view crime as deeply disappointing and the people who commit them as worthy of her pity more than anything else. She is obviously bemused by the criminal mind and can’t understand why some people go to great lengths – or great shortcuts – to get ‘things’ whilst outside is a beautiful day they singularly appear to be unable to appreciate.

The two petty criminals aren’t the only ones who can’t see how good they’ve got it. Jerry (played convincingly by Macy) is at the end of his tether after a deal goes wrong and can’t see any easy way out so fabricates a lie that quickly gets completely out of his control. Because of that at least 5-6 people die and his world collapses around him - again all for a little bit of money. Marge is very disappointed in him too, you betcha. Marge and her husband, who paints and dreams of having his artwork on a postage stamp, are deeply in love and very happy although in a subdued no fuss way. They don’t have to say much or do much because both of them know how good they’ve got it. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the cast who have no idea what they want but only know that they want more and they want it now! Beyond the tale of deceit and bungled crime this is the heart and soul of the movie. Be happy with simple things and don’t expect unearned money to bring you anything but trouble and lots of it. As my regular readers will know I’m a definite fan of the Coen brothers who produced, directed and wrote this film. It is certainly the best movie of theirs I’ve seen (I haven’t seen them all) and honestly one of my all time favourite films. It is a delicious black comedy about human folly and human greed which can still reduce me to howls of laughter after repeated viewings. If you haven’t seen this you’ve really missed out on something. I’d rectify that ASAP if I was you.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ignored Exoplanet May Be a Watery World

By Mark Brown for Wired

May 18, 2011

Gliese 581, a red dwarf star some 20 light years away in the constellation of Libra, continues to excite planet hunters despite a checkered and controversial history.

Gliese 581g, a habitable Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the red dwarf, thrilled astronomers when it was discovered in September 2010 as it was the most feasibly habitable exoplanet yet observed. But a few months later its entire existence was brought into question — no one has seen any significant signal from 581g since. It could have just been noise in the stellar wobbles of the faraway red dwarf. The mysterious 581g sat in the so-called Goldilocks zone, where it orbited at just the right distance from its roasting parent star that water, if it existed on the planet, would neither boil nor freeze. But now a group of French researchers, led by British scientist Robin Wordsworth, have taken another look at the data for 581d — another of the red dwarf’s planets — performing a comprehensive 3-D climate simulation on the planet. The simulation uses fundamental physical principles to look at a wide range of conditions, and account for any atmospheric cocktail of gases, clouds and aerosols.

To the team’s surprise, it believes that 581d would have a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, which would give the planet a stable and warm climate. In a press release, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) concluded that 581d is likely warm enough to hold liquid water, in “oceans, clouds and rainfall”. Anyone who stood on the planet would probably see clear blue skies, like on Earth, also. Most planets’ thick atmospheres bounce the majority of sunlight back into space. On Earth, and potentially 581d, the Rayleigh scattering phenomenon lets more sunlight in, leading to blue skies and a warmer climate. But if humans ever did walk on 581d they’d still find a pretty bizarre planet with very un-Earthlike conditions. The dense air and thick clouds would drape the surface in a perpetually murky red twilight, and its hulking mass (at least 5.6 times that of Earth) means surface gravity would be double that of Earth’s. “The most important implication of these results,” a spokesperson for the Scientific Research center said in a press release, “may be the idea that life-supporting planets do not in fact need to be particularly like the Earth at all.”

[Of course for me the most exciting thing about this discovery is that 581g is only 20 Light Years away. I’m guessing that, given enough incentive, we could probably have probes capable of travelling that distance – maybe in 40 to 60 years – within a century or so. We could have a probe orbiting the planet – with a number of ground-based smart probes reporting back more detailed information – within 150 years (and the way technology advances I’m probably being very conservative here). It’s exciting stuff!]  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Risk – A Very Short Introduction by Baruch Fischhoff and John Kadvany

Risk is a part of life. We take risks every time we cross the road, buy food or date on-line. We also perform ad hoc risk assessments throughout the day when we decide to overtake a slower vehicle or when we assess the freshness of the fish in our local supermarket. Many of us are tasked to make formal risk assessments at work on the small scale when we adjust our workstation chair or display screen or on a much larger scale when we initiate projects that can cost a great deal of money. Personally I deal with risk on a daily basis – though fortunately I’m not high enough up the food chain for it to be a huge issue. After years of experience in the job I can pretty much automatically list the risks to what we are planning to do, rank order them by likelihood or impact and draw up risk mitigation plans and contingency procedures if things go wrong – as they often do.

Being a rather busy person (at work anyway) I’ve never actually managed to have any formal risk training. One reason is that I’m not a huge fan of training which I usually find deadly boring. The other factor is, again at the bottom of the pool, such training is not normally considered to be hugely cost effective. We simply don’t play with that much money for it to have too much of an adverse impact if we fuck things up. But some time ago I noticed this book (inevitably whilst looking for other books in the series) and thought that it might be worth a read to see if I was doing anything hugely wrong – I didn’t think I was – or to see if I could improve things or at the very least understand the official basis of what I was doing anyway.

As it was a bit more out of my comfort zone than I’m used to I did find this book a little difficult to get into. I think that was clearly my fault as the authors clearly set out exactly what they were talking about and had some pretty good examples of the kinds of things that needed to be taken into consideration. Inevitably they bandied about terms I’d never come across before to explain things I had either picked up along the way or had explained to me quite differently. Once I got the hang of things however it all made sense. I don’t think that I learnt a great deal from this slim volume but it was nice to actually have a formal foundation and a deeper understanding to risk, risk assessment, risk perception and risk communication. I certainly found the whole thing generally more interesting than I thought I would. If you deal with risks over and above the sorts of things we all deal with on a daily basis or even if you want to understand how risk affects us all on every level you could do worse than work you way through these 150 pages.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Monday, January 14, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Heretic by Bernard Cornwell

France in the year 1347.With the fall of the port of Calais the English now have a secure base of operations to prosecute their war. As the city is fortified against predicted attempts to retake it Thomas of Hookton is tasked by his liege lord to travel to Gascony to look for the Holy Grail. Taking a group of archers and men-at-arms with him he begins a process of raiding in the hope of bringing his cousin Guy Vexille out of hiding and within striking distance of his longbow. Needing a secure base of operations Thomas and his men take a small fortified town as their own. In its jail, awaiting execution by burning in the morning is a heretic woman accused of many things including witchcraft. Dismissing the charges and smitten by her ethereal beauty Thomas lets her free much to the annoyance of the townsfolk and several of his own men. But dissent within his troops are the least of Thomas’s problems. News of his actions in Gascony have reached the ears of the authorities – both temporal and ecclesiastical – and their forces are gathering against his small band. Meanwhile in the East and in the ports of the Mediterranean a strange sickness that kills without note of rank, age or sex is growing and could be the end of everything than man has built in his hubris.

Until the publication of his latest novel this was the last book in Cornwell’s Grail Quest trilogy which followed Thomas of Hookton’s journey from obscurity, through the Battle of Crecy and deeper still into the opening conflict that would become known as the Hundred Years War. Heretic would have been a fitting end to the series but now, I’m guessing, we’ll find out more about Thomas and his adventures against the French. As with all of Cornwell’s heroes Thomas is a misfit everywhere he goes. Although his family – or at least part of it – is highborn Thomas is far happier with the common men of his command. At the same time, because of his education, he can hold his own with the knights and lords he, through necessity, must serve with or serve under. Cynical of both church and state he is his own man with his own sense of personal honour and his own code of ethics he lives by. A consummate warrior he leads by example though constantly worries that he isn’t good enough to complete his mission or keep the men in his charge alive. Obviously Thomas can be compared to Cornwell’s great hero character Richard Sharpe and at first I thought that Thomas was just Sharpe transported 500 years into his past. Not so. Both Sharpe and Thomas are products of their time. Although they have much in common they are still very much their own men. After being gripped by Thomas’s tale in France I look forward to following him wherever he goes next. Recommended.  

[This is the first book in a series of 10 based in the Middle Ages. As with most of these things that period is fairly arbitrary and can vary from country to country. For the sake of convenience I’ve picked the English definition which is AD476 – 1485. Having basically a thousand years to work with should give me plenty of latitude. I’ll see what I can do with that!]  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sales of printed books slump in 2012

From The BBC

4 January 2013

Sales of printed books fell by almost £74m in the UK last year, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. In total, readers spent £1.514bn on physical books in 2012, down 4.6% from 2011. The rate of decline slowed slightly, principally because of E L James' Fifty Shades trilogy, which accounted for one in every 20 books bought last year. E-books continued to be popular, accounting for 13-14% of book sales. That marked an increase of about 5% from 2011, but the value of the entire book market shrank because of heavy discounting of digital titles - with many bestsellers retailing for less than a pound.

Data collected on the sales of physical books records around 90-95% of all consumer sales in the UK, but is less robust for the e-book market. However, Philip Stone from Bookseller said figures from Nielsen/Kantar show: "In essence, people are buying more books but they are paying less for them." The second half of 2012 was stronger for physical book sales, as blockbuster titles from authors including J K Rowling and Jamie Oliver hit the shelves for Christmas. In the 26 weeks to 30 June, sales were down by £51m year-on-year to £624m. Between July and December, sales were down £23m to £889m. It was only in July and December that print sales were up compared with 2011, in part due to the success of James' erotic series and the Christmas trade. The Fifty Shades trilogy is about a steamy romance between entrepreneur Christian Grey and literature student Anastasia Steele. It sold a combined 10.6m copies in print in the UK last year, making £47.3m.

The tally beat J K Rowling's record of £42.6m from 2007, the year when the final Harry Potter novel was released. The first book in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey, is now the best-selling novel of all time in the UK.

[Well, I can’t very well do it all on my own – despite trying hard! Apparently the average person in the UK reads 3 books a year. I regularly exceed 70 so I’m definitely doing my bit! But it does say a great deal about the average reader that 50 Shades is the best selling book ever. I do know lots of people who have read it/them (not me I hasten to add) but the overall comments have been generally very negative – but I guess it still counts as a sale. I suppose that if the worst happens and book sales fall so far that they’re no longer published in any great quantity I can take heart in the fact that at home I’ve got enough to keep me reading for the next 10-15 years. So no matter what happens you’ll still see me with a book in my hand whenever I have 5 or more free minutes.]

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Before you buy.......

Make sure that they're real.......

Just Finished Reading: Witness to Myself by Seymour Shubin

Fifteen years ago, teenager Alan Benning had a moment of madness and did something he never thought himself capable of. So horrified and shocked by the event he buried it deep in his mind and hoped that he would never have to relive that terrible afternoon. Now a successful lawyer with the best years of his life ahead of him he is confronted with his crime when a body of a young girl is found near where his parents holidayed all those years ago. When a suspect is found and a national outcry builds Alan finds himself wondering if he actually did commit the crime or whether he imagined the whole thing. Determined to uncover the truth of his own childhood his sanity begins to unravel as he starts to question everything about himself he once took for granted. At the heart of it all is a chance meeting on a beach and a young life snuffed out.

This was quite a strange detective novel where the perpetrator of the crime and the primary investigator where one and the same person. Benning was a seriously messed up individual who had problems separating fantasy from reality and spent most of the novel being paranoid (not helped by the fact that some people were actually out to get him). He was also an unreliable narrator – one of my most disliked formats – which irritated me quite a bit as his memories of events – granted 15 years previously – didn’t quite tally with actual events. Overall the psychological aspects of the novel where quite well handled and the plot became increasing claustrophobic which I think is what the author was going for. None of the characters appealed to be much so I didn’t really care what happened to them which made reading a bit of a slog. Reasonable.  

Monday, January 07, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Equilibrium

I watched this movie for at least the 5th time over the Christmas break but still remained in two minds whether I should add it to my favourite movies list. After weighing the pros and cons I decided (just) that it made the grade.

The story is a familiar one. In the 21st century, after a devastating nuclear war, the survivors decide that humanity cannot afford to fight a 4th World War so outlaw what they see as the underlying cause of all conflict – strong emotion. To do this each and every citizen needs to take a drug (Prozium) every day to suppress the emotions. Also everything that is designed to provoke a strong emotional response – music, art, literature – is marked for destruction. Those who refuse to take their meds or deliberately ‘use’ art or music are labelled sense offenders and are hunted down by clerics of the New Order. As with any oppressive state there is inevitably a resistance and, equally inevitably, a desire to see it destroyed. Enter the states greatest weapon – Cleric John Preston (played by Christian Bale) – who dedicates his life to finding banned items and eliminating sense offenders. But there is a wrinkle – when he accidentally misses his daily drug dose he starts to feel emotions and slowly comes to realise that the society he is fighting for is hugely mistaken in its approach. He becomes appalled at what he is called on to do and resolves that rather than destroy the resistance he will become its greatest champion. But of course it’s never going to be that simple……

This was one of those films I liked in parts rather than for the whole. Despite the fact that it was highly derivative – in particular referencing 1984, Brave New World and The Matrix – it still maintained a nice ‘feel’ throughout most of its 107 minutes. Bale was reasonably well cast as the largely emotionless Preston as he wasn’t required to emote that much or that often (never one of his strong points in anything I’ve seen him in). The script was reasonable and reasonably convoluted to keep my attention and it introduced the intriguing idea of the gun kata – a sort of firearm martial art using science to predict the maximum kill and minimal possibility of being hit by an opponent’s weapon. On the face of it a great idea but likely to be total fantasy – it did produce some great fight scenes however where Preston killed multiple enemies on multiple occasions without it feeling too silly (though they pushed the envelope quite a bit).

As to the things I didn’t like about it I probably have just as many reasons why I liked it. After watching it many times I still find the story disjointed, poorly scripted in places or actually badly edited. To me some scenes seemed out of sequence and more than a little confusing and I don’t think it was just me getting lost in the plot – I didn’t think it was that difficult to follow to be honest. Some of the acting was pretty dire especially Preston’s nemesis Brandt (played by Taye Diggs). For someone supposedly on Prozium he sure did emote a lot! I also thought that the ending was particularly poor with the resistance raising up at the last moment and overwhelming the bad guys (I’m not giving very much away here honest!). It seemed to me that their actions pretty much made anything Preston did moot to say the least.

So overall the film was, in my opinion, rather finely balanced between being yet another botched attempt at a futuristic dystopia and a creditable tale of resistance and rebellion. It is most certainly not a classic of its type but it does bring in some interesting new ideas and some new angles on some very old ones. I think it’s worth seeing at least once when you have a spare 107 minutes and are wondering what to do with them. You could do a lot worse believe me!