About Me

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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Don’t Die Young – An Anatomist’s Guide to Your Organs and Your Health by Dr Alice Roberts (FP: 2007)

Although I’ll deny it’s a New Year’s Resolution I decided around Christmas time that I should really read more useful, practical or at least contemporary non-fiction rather than being continually focused on the past and often the deep past. My recent book on combat robotics was an attempt to bring things up to date. This book was an attempt at something at least potentially useful. Unfortunately I found it somewhat less so than I had hoped. My copy was a medium format book with lots of medical style photographs and graphic cut-away’s showing all of the major organs. Indeed this book is so illustrated that it seemed to leave precious little space for the words! Of the 260 pages I’d have to say that at least 100 of them were photographs. The text itself was, in my opinion at least, aimed at someone who either took school level biology many years ago if at all. It was really too basic to be of any great use. Likewise the advice on how to keep our inside bits healthy bordered on the banal: Eat plenty of fruit and veggies, drink plenty of fluids, take regular exercise, don’t drink alcohol to excess and don’t smoke at all. Nothing new there then……. [yawn] I think what irritated me most about this book – especially as it was by someone I like and respect (and find very attractive if you must know) – is that its entire contents could have been distilled to probably 5-10 pages at best. It felt very, very padded with the same advice trotted out time and again. OK, it’s generally good advice but there was no real need to repeat it 10-12 times in such a short book. Hopefully my next foray into health issues will turn out to be a bit more enlightening!

Monday, February 25, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog (played in a brilliantly understated way by Forest Whitaker) is an assassin for the local Mafia. Over the past four years he has operated flawlessly and is highly valued by his employer. So when he is asked to kill one of his own he picks his best man for the job. Unfortunately, as a matter of honour, the Mafia boss decides that Ghost Dog himself should be killed in retaliation for a killing they themselves sanctioned. But they have seriously underestimated their strange assassin and have set in train a series of events that will result in a bloodbath.

I never saw this film on the cinema. In fact I don’t think that I had ever even heard of it until either my brother or I saw it in our local video shop and picked up on the word ‘Samurai’. It wasn’t exactly what either of us had been expecting. For one thing this film is in many places simply surreal (either that or rather badly edited!) The whole premise of the film is rather ‘off’ from the start. Ghost Dog (no other name is given for the Whitaker character) is seen being beaten up by white hooligans and is rescued by a local Mafia ‘soldier’. Four years later he returns and pledges himself as a ‘retainer’ and offers his services as a killer. In those four years it seems that Ghost Dog has become a Samurai complete with sword and all of the philosophical trappings underlined by Whitaker reading from several Samurai classics including Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (pictured here) both on screen and in voice-over. I was so impressed that I bought the book (of course). 

Despite, or maybe because of, the fact that he lives in a very rough and dangerous neighbourhood he has adopted the Samurai Code and does everything he can to live (and die) by it. Those around him can see that he is both a man of honour, a gentle unassuming man and someone not to be trifled with or crossed. Seemingly emotionless, or at least not emotionally demonstrative, he goes about his life and his profession with the minimum of fuss. Indeed, as shown in more than one scene he is practically invisible to most people around him. The only people in his life are his ‘boss’, his best friend (who rather bizarrely only speaks French throughout the movie – fortunately with sub-titles – and sells ice-cream from a van. What makes it more than a little surreal is that neither one can understand anything the other is saying! The only other person in his life – who he met by accident in the park is a young black girl (played by the delightful 9 year old Camille Winbush) – to whom he lends his Samurai books on the understanding that she reads them and talks to him about them later.

As I say, all very odd! But somehow the whole thing works. It can be more than a little difficult to get your head around and, if you want to get its full effect you’ll need to watch it more than once (I’ve seen it 4-5 times now and I’m still seeing things I missed or didn’t understand the first few times) but you’ll get something from it each time. It is pretty violent in places and there’s quite a bit of swearing but unless you’re easily offended it shouldn’t prove much of an obstacle. It is much more that your run-of-the-mill Mafia/assassin movie - you know the kind that Hollywood endlessly recycles every so often for the ‘teen’ market. It also has an excellent soundtrack (also bought) which is one of my favourite things about the film. Whitaker is superb as Ghost Dog. I haven’t seen him in much else but was very impressed by this portrayal. If you’d like to see something different and something that will stay with you for a while I can certainly recommend this to you. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Exoplanets near red dwarfs suggest another Earth nearer

6 February 2013

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

The nearest habitable, Earth-sized planet could be just 13 light-years away, research suggests. An analysis of small, dim "red dwarf" stars - which make up a majority of stars in our galaxy - shows that 6% of them host such a planet. The results will appear in Astrophysical Journal. Study co-author David Charbonneau of Harvard University said the findings had implications for the search for life elsewhere. "We now know the rate of occurrence of habitable planets around the most common stars in our galaxy," said Prof Charbonneau. "That rate implies that it will be significantly easier to search for life beyond the solar system than we previously thought."

The hunt for exoplanets has reached a pace that is difficult to keep up with. The Kepler space telescope has been the source of most of the known candidate exoplanets. It stares at a fixed patch of sky, watching a field of more than 150,000 stars for the tiny dips in starlight that occur if an orbiting planet passes between a star and the telescope.  A catalogue run by US space agency Nasa lists more than 800 "exoplanets", most of them spotted with this so-called transit method. That is just the tip of the planetary iceberg, however. On the basis of results from other methods, it has been estimated that on average, there are 1.6 planets around every star in the night sky. But a major goal has been finding something more like our home planet; because of the way that we search for exoplanets, it is easier to spot the largest examples, and many in the catalogue are far larger than the Earth. Yet, even roughly Earth-sized planets abound - more recent research suggests that one in six stars has a planet of about Earth's size in an orbit close to their host stars - making for at least 17 billion in our galaxy alone. But close orbits would broadly be too hot - the hunt seeks roughly Earth-sized planets orbiting at a sufficient distance that water, if it is there, can exist in liquid form - and not so distant that it freezes. This range is called the habitable zone - or colloquially, the Goldilocks zone.

The new announcement concerns Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones around red dwarf stars - far dimmer and smaller than our Sun. Their low light output means that the habitable zone is far closer in. Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) trawled through data from Kepler, plucking out a number of red dwarf stars. Red dwarfs make up three-quarters of the stars in our galaxy - and research has shown that older galaxies contain even more. The team found 95 planet candidates around the dwarfs, showing that at least 60% of them host planets smaller than Neptune. But from the analysis, three planets of about the right temperature and roughly Earth's size (between 90% and 170% of the Earth's radius) emerged - all between 300 and 600 light-years away. Taking into account the red dwarfs that are yet to be detected, the analysis suggests that 6% of the stars host an Earth-like planet in terms of size and temperature - that makes for at least 4.5 billion of them in our galaxy. And given the proximity of many red dwarfs to the Earth, the statistics suggest that our nearest cosy Earth-sized planet could be just 13 light-years away. "We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realise another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted," said Courtney Dressing, lead author of the study.

The findings hit at the heart of a question posed by the Kepler mission's principal investigator, William Borucki, during the American Astronomical Society meeting in January. "I think what we need to do, now we know most stars have planets, [is find out]: do most stars have small planets like the Earth in the habitable zone?," he told BBC News. "That's what we'd like to know - is there likely to be life? If we find lots of those planets, there probably is.”

[Lots of planets, lots of environments for life to emerge and evolve, lots more chances for us not to be alone in the Galaxy/Universe. It’s still all very circumstantial I know but even circumstantial evidence must count for something…..]

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Love is.........

Just Finished Reading: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick

England – The Year 1216. Young rebellious Miriel Weaver has finally gone too far in her disobedience to her new stepfather and is sent to the nearby convent to think on her sins. But her rebellious nature is not tolerated for a moment by the sisters and she is constantly in trouble and perpetually undertaking penance for her many rule infractions. Sent into the infirmary to look after the sick she meets the equally rebellious soldier of fortune Nicholas de Caen apparently shipwrecked on the treacherous coastal mudflats. Talking in his delirious sleep he mentions a hidden treasure and when he finally leaves Miriel escapes the confines of the convent and follows him to a hidden stash of gold. Seeing her chance she takes the opportunity to use part of the money to make a new life for herself away from the controlling ways of men. Meanwhile de Caen, finding himself robbed of a substantial portion of his money vows revenge against the duplicitous ex-nun no matter how long it takes to track her down. Years later, after many adventures for both of them, they finally meet again. Miriel now a successful married woman has never told her husband how she came by her original nest-egg that started her business empire and de Caen can never let it be known how someone so young managed to buy his first ship. The only question seems to be – who will betray the other first!

Despite being well written I found this book quite a slog. For one thing very little actually seemed to happen. There were few dramatic moments and they were rather far between as both main characters enlarged their respective businesses and both wondered about the fate of the other. Mostly I struggled with it because it was, fundamentally, a love story set in a medieval background. Although the characters themselves – including the minor characters too – were fully fleshed out individuals I didn’t particularly care for them very much. Not because any of them – apart from the villain of the piece – was particularly objectionable but because I had no real interest in whether or not they got together. On top of this it took an age for Miriel and Nick to finally admit to themselves and each other that they were more than old enemies and that their history together would play a large part in their future together. Chadwick continually telegraphed exactly what was coming up so any tension was reduced to a minimum. The few actual surprises could easily be surmised, and quickly accepted, because the plot demanded that they happen to get the lovers together in the final scene. It was, to be honest, all a bit of a yawn. Saying that, anyone out there not as jaded or as cynical as I am [grin] might enjoy a leisurely read following the rather circulatory path of true love in early 13th century England. If so, then this is definitely the book for you!  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Love is..........

Just Finished Reading: Science Fiction – A Very Short Introduction by David Seed

It may seem strange that, after almost 40 years of reading SF I read an introduction to the genre. I picked this book up (actually from Amazon) for several reasons but primarily, I suppose, to see if my interpretation of SF tallied with someone who has studied it academically. Now I certainly regard myself as widely read in SF (if not widely read overall) as I am familiar with many of the classics as well as both individual books and authors deemed by many to be seminal. Most of these I read in my teens and twenties decades before I started this Blog so you’ll see precious little reference here to Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Harrison or any of the greats of SF (oddly I was discussing the relative merits of E E ‘Doc’ Smith today with a fellow SF buff at work) but nevertheless I have read them (and in many cases still have the paperbacks on my shelves.

But, as always, I digress. As most such things do, this 130 page introduction began with the thorny issues of definition – only to sidestep the issue completely! I’m not entirely sure if this was a good start or not! He then basically dived into discussions of various sub-genres – Space Voyages (where it arguably all started), encounters with aliens, the use and abuse of technology, utopias and dystopias and finishing off with time-travel. As you can imagine in such a short volume much was glossed over and even more was missed out. On the whole, with a few notable exceptions, the author concentrated very much on the early examples of each sub-genre and then jumped to the much more modern – jumping from pulp to movies in the process. As a professor of American literature he also expended much more time and words on the American side of things – which is largely understandable as SF is pretty much a US field of endeavour. The few notable mistakes I noticed – regarding the Alien movie franchise mostly – might have been due to my relative ignorance of the American pulp scene but did make me wonder if experts in that filed would have taken him to task there too. He also, which seems to be expected these days, spent a great deal of time, mostly in the last section fortunately, looking at things from post-modern, feminist and Marxist perspectives which I found mostly to be twaddle, but maybe that’s just me….. Overall this wasn’t a bad little book and quite probably would encourage someone with a vague interest in the subject to dig a little deeper. Reasonable. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Russia sends clean-up team to meteorite-hit Urals

From The BBC

16 February 2013

A big rescue and clean-up operation involving more than 9,000 workers is going on in the Ural mountains following Friday's meteor strike, Russia's emergencies ministry says. President Vladimir Putin ordered the operation to help some 1,200 people who were injured, including 200 children, mostly by shattered glass.
The shockwave damaged an estimated 200,000 sq m (50 acres) of windows. Russian officials put the cost of the damage at about 1bn roubles ($33m). A fireball had streaked through the sky on Friday, followed by loud bangs. A large fragment reportedly landed in a lake near Chebarkul, a town in the Chelyabinsk region. A Russian army spokesman said a crater 6m (20ft) wide had been found there.

An emergencies ministry spokeswoman said a group of six divers would inspect the waters for the presence of pieces of a meteorite. Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov toured Chelyabinsk city on Saturday to assess the damage. He said: "We have a special team working... that is now assessing the seismic stability of buildings. We will be especially careful about switching the gas back on." More than 9,000 people are working to clear up the damage in the Chelyabinsk region. Most are locals, but some 1,800 people came from neighbouring regions. Mr Putin said he had thanked God that no big fragments of the 10-tonne meteor - which was thought to be made of iron and travelling at some 30 km (19 miles) per second - had fallen in populated areas. It had entered the Earth's atmosphere and broke apart 30-50 km (20-30 miles) above ground, according to Russia's Academy of Sciences, releasing several kilotons of energy - the equivalent of a small atomic weapon. Mr Puchkov said there was no confirmation yet that any fragments had been found.
The emergencies ministry urged calm, saying background radiation levels were normal after what it described as a "meteorite shower in the form of fireballs".

The Chelyabinsk region, about 1,500km east of Moscow, is home to many factories, a nuclear power plant and the Mayak atomic waste storage and treatment centre. The shockwave blew out windows in more than 4,000 buildings in the region. Regional governor Mikhail Yurevich said damage was estimated at 1bn roubles but dismissed as a "journalistic spoof" reports in Russian media that people had deliberately shattered windows to claim on meteorite-related insurance. Many children were in classrooms when the meteor fell at around 09:20 (03:20 GMT). Video posted online showed frightened, screaming youngsters at one Chelyabinsk school, where corridors were littered with broken glass.

Chelyabinsk resident Sergei Serskov told BBC News the city had felt like a "war zone" for 20 to 30 minutes.
"I was in the office when suddenly I saw a really bright flash in the window in front of me," he said. "Then I smelt fumes. I looked out the window and saw a huge line of smoke, like you get from a plane but many times bigger. A few minutes later the window suddenly came open and there was a huge explosion, followed by lots of little explosions." Scientists have played down suggestions that there is any link between the event in the Urals and 2012 DA14, an asteroid which raced past the Earth later on Friday at a distance of just 27,700km (17,200 miles) - the closest ever for an object of that size. Such meteor strikes are rare in Russia but one is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (770 sq m) in Siberia in 1908.

[Of course such things are bound to happen from time to time. After all the Solar System is still full of debris from its formation and it’s inevitable that, from time to time, rocks will fall from the sky. So far we’ve been pretty lucky. So far the rocks have been small and have fallen in largely underpopulated areas. The asteroid that just missed us over the weekend was a much larger cousin of the one that exploded over Russia in the early hours of Friday morning. Let’s hope that they continue missing us until we are able to do something about it – like mine them for their resources!] 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day! I hope that the arrows went in deep.........

Just Finished Reading: Target London – Under Attack from the V-Weapons by Christy Campbell

I remember as a pre-Teen making models of V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets and playing Spitfire Vs V-1 intercepts over the fields of Kent as the bomb headed towards London and the plucky pilot in the Mk X fighter literally pulled out all the stops to catch and kill the robotic killer. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only kid doing this back then. Even in the 60’s and 70’s the Blitz and the V-Weapons were still very much in the imaginations and memories of the British. After all I was born a mere 15 years after the last V-2 fell on London.

I’ve read a few books over the years that touched on the V menace and at least one rather thin book that concentrated on the British response. And of course there have been various movies about the events surrounding these events – notably Operation Crossbow which was a somewhat fanciful telling of the real operation to find and destroy the rocket sites and their manufacturing facilities. I was hoping for something similar from this book but was a little, though only a little, disappointed to discover that this was very much about the British government response rather than the technical and tactical response to these weapons. The author obviously had access to declassified wartime government documents – particularly meeting minutes by the impressive detail in many parts of the book – which gave substance to the palpable anxiety and almost a sense of panic as to the fear of the weapons being used (not exactly aided by misunderstanding and false exaggeration of the bombs and missiles warheads) and then exactly what to do about them. This is actually the bit that fascinates me most – the shear brilliance of the response to the V-1 in particular which accounted for the vast majority being destroyed long before they reached their targets. Of course once the V-2 left its launch pad there was nothing the combined military forces of the UK and US could do about it. Think how difficult it was to stop Saddam’s Scuds being launched during the Iraq War and then imagine the difficulties of doing something similar with 1945 technology and experience! For the time the V-2 was an awesome weapon and was technically years ahead of its time – which was, of course, its major flaw. Because it was so brilliant it stayed in development long after it should have been abandoned as a practical weapon system. But, fortunately for the Allies in many ways, the German high command thought that it was cool so poured ridiculous amounts of effort into its production. In bang-for-bucks terms it was pretty useless. Sure it had lots of terror effects but the practical damage was limited. If the resources wasted on the V-2 had instead going into Me262 production, for example, the Allied air forces would’ve had a much more difficult time bombing Germany into submission.

The only sure way to defeat both types of weapon was, in the final analysis, to over run their launch sites which the Allies did when they eventually took Holland, delayed by the disastrous Operation Market Garden (of ‘Bridge too Far’ fame) which was intended to significantly shorten the war. As the noose tightened around the dying regime the scientists and technicians who designed and built the world’s first cruise missiles and IRBM’s tried their best to surrender to the American forces rather than the undoubtedly less sympathetic Russians. Inevitably they were whisked away to build the weapons of the early Cold War and lay the foundations of the Space Race and man’s landing on the Moon in 1969.

This was a detailed and often fascinating study of a technically and tactically very interesting period of WW2. The exotic weapons pouring out of the German factories in the closing years of the war still have the power to fascinate and horrify in their implications of a potential German victory if they had been available earlier or in greater numbers. The V Weapons where Germanys last gasp but no less frightening or impressive because of that. If you’ve ever wanted to know the detail of what went on then this is an excellent place to start. Recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Wired for War – The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P W Singer

At last I’m catching up with my Christmas reading! Yes, I’m that far behind the review curve. But Christmas was the ideal opportunity to dive into this long anticipated and surprisingly substantial book (despite its mere 436 pages).

Of course my regular readers will know that I’m interested in (and have a bug-bear about) the use of military robotics. I’ve certainly posted enough articles on the subject here for that to be obvious. So it was nice, and rather refreshing, to have something much more sizeable to get my teeth into. Singer has certainly produced an important work here. He manages to cover a huge area of both established and emerging technology in military robotics without losing focus or going off into (too much) scientific hyperbole regarding the capabilities of the devices been used today in Iraq and Afghanistan by allied forces and without enthusing (too much) about weapons yet to come. Focused very much on the machines themselves and the men and women who design, manufacture and use them this book is a state-of-the-art exposition of what is in the field today and what we can expect in the near future. Thankfully the author didn’t just focus on the tech stuff. Although I’m pretty much a Geek where this kind of thing is being discussed there’s only so much hardware and software description I can take. A significant part of the books narrative considered the ethics of using autonomous and semi-autonomous robots as well as the psychological effects (at both ends) of warfare at a distance. One thing did surprise and somewhat disappoint me about the book however – the apparent blind-spot (or rather fuzzy spot) where fighting against machines was concerned. There were several mentions of robots basically being ‘kidnapped’ in the field, hacked, and sent back to attack allied troops (something that I was unaware of happening) and the odd brief mention of other nations – outside the US – eventually developing sophisticated fighting machines of their own but then the thought sort of just fizzled out. OK, I wasn’t exactly expecting a whole chapter about the dangers of future Terminators turning on their designers and bringing about the apocalypse (AKA Judgement Day) but I did expect the author to give it a bit more consideration. But I guess that’s just me….

What the author did do very well indeed was to highlight exactly what is going on in the world of military robotics and bring many disparate items together to create a cohesive whole. Once the big picture can now be seen it’s far easier to notice the way things are moving ahead. An increase in the numbers and use of autonomous and semi-autonomous robots by US and other allied forces is inevitable. Western militaries, after initial scepticism, are falling over themselves to have more and more such devices in their respective arsenals. In the near future the ubiquitous UAV will have its ground, sea and probably space equivalents. As the technology progresses the scope of activities undertaken by these machines will increase. Despite assurances to the contrary eventually humans will need to be taken out of the loop as they will be incapable of responding at the necessary machine like speeds on the battlefield. Like all technology – no matter how advanced or sophisticated – that of autonomous and semi-autonomous robots will spread with more and more nations and non-state actors getting hold of, developing or hiring out the devices as required. We are not too far away from machines fighting machines in future wars. Maybe we are indeed at the beginning of the end for human involvement in warfare – except at the very highest and the very lowest levels. What will war mean then? That is a question the author leaves us with. Without human soldiers what will future conflict mean? Will it simply be another form of entertainment, a sort of more visceral computer game where the enemies and the blood is real but the danger (for us at least) is not? Such a scenario is almost as frightening as the idea of Terminators sent by our enemies to infiltrate our societies and kill targets of value. Of course one option is that we stop here are say ‘this far and no further’. Both the author and I agree that this is the most unlikely option of all. Despite my few and trifling reservations I found this book to be highly informative and very thoughtful. If you have any interest in technology and particularly military technology or in the future in general this is definitely the book for you. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Swept off her feet.......

2011 Census: Is Christianity shrinking or just changing? 

By Robert Pigott

Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

The response from some Church leaders to the latest census figures has been to
describe them as "challenging". Churches had pointed to the 72% of people who described themselves as Christian in the 2001 Census to help justify their claim that Britain is a "Christian country". The sharp decline in the number of people in England and Wales identifying themselves as Christian to 59% is a sign of the religion's weakening influence in society. The secular trend is confirmed by the significant increase in the percentage of people describing themselves as having no religion from 15% to 25%. But the churches say they are not discouraged, claiming that Christian belief is still clearly alive and well. It is true that the raw figures hide a far more complex story, both about Christianity and secularism. By asking people to state their religion, or lack of it, the census was asking a complex question.

But it allows only a one- or two-word answer, obscuring almost as much as it reveals about what has happened to religion during the past decade. Religion is about more than belief. It can be a badge of identity, an inheritance of upbringing or a statement of moral intent. It was always clear that the 72% who said they were Christian in 2001 were by no means all churchgoers signed up to all of standard church teaching.
At the same time, according to academic researchers, many of those who said they had no religion still shared some religious beliefs and more general "spirituality". For several decades the boundaries between Christianity - as the mainstream, or default - religion in England and Wales, and "no religion" have been blurring.

By the time of the last census they were probably more porous than ever, reflecting fundamental change, as much as decline, in religion. Christian organisations insist that the census measured a sense of identity
rather than belief. The Christian research group Theos claims that "even amongst atheists, the most sceptical group in the population, nearly a quarter (23%) believe in the human soul, 15% in life after death, and 14% in reincarnation".

Once - had you gone to a hospital casualty unit with a cut hand and been asked routinely what your religion was, and answered, "Well, none really" - the receptionist might have helpfully suggested, "Let's put you down as C of E." That role has suffered as nominal Anglicans re-evaluate their relationship with a body whose traditional teaching on sex and gender has seemed out of step with secular priorities such as equality. Even the term "religion" has become associated in some people's minds with extremism and oppression. "Christianity" has for many people become an increasingly ill-defined practice, incorporating a wider array of spiritual aspirations and beliefs. This "softer" and more fuzzy form of faith no longer dictates how people behave, who their friends are or how they vote. Perhaps as people now look at their eclectic views, their personal collection of beliefs and spiritual practices, and realise how little it fits with any church, they are more ready to declare themselves to be of "no religion". But churches say those who do choose Christianity do so wholeheartedly.

Members of other religions are heeding calls to declare themselves As the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales put it: "Christianity is no longer a religion of culture but a religion of decision and commitment. "People are making a positive choice in self-identifying as Christians." During a decade in which the Christianity taught by mainstream churches seems to have faded from people's lives, non-Christian religions have gained members. The increase in the number of Muslims is particularly marked, up from 3% to almost 5% of the population. But there were more Hindus, Sikhs and members of smaller groups such as Spiritualists. The increasing numbers identifying themselves with non-Christian religions seem
partly the result of migration and higher relative birth-rates. But they are also explained by a number of campaigns encouraging members of minority faiths to acknowledge their religions, assuming that the bigger their numbers prove to be, the more influence they will have. Hindus are, for example, keen to break free of their joint labelling with other religious groups as "Asians". In another sign of changing patterns of faith, Pagans - who have achieved some recognition as a religion since the last census - recorded a membership of
57,000 people.

[As interesting as this is I agree with the main thrust of the article that things are rather more complex than the raw figures seem to be suggesting. Religion in general does seem to be fragmenting into smaller and smaller self-identifying groups. This in itself would reduce the number of people who described themselves as Christians. Of course the general decline in Christianity in the UK and Europe has been noted since the end of WW2. It would seem that the decline is continuing and continuing to accelerate. One thing that did jump out at me and made me laugh was the claim that a proportion of atheists believe in souls, life after death and reincarnation. That, at least in my opinion disqualifies them from the group that self-identify with. Maybe they don't even know what atheism is.....?]

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Liberty in the Age of Terror - A Defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values by A C Grayling

It may seem rather simplistic - and probably is - but at least on the face of it there are two opposing forces at work in the world, the force for increased liberty and the force of increased oppression. Since the 1980's there has been a gradual increase in oppression throughout the world despite the fall of the Soviet Union. This trend significantly increased after the attacks of 9/11 and the other terrorist bombings around the world. To the forces who wanted to counter the desire for ever increasing liberty this was an opportunity not to be missed and they responded with acts on both sides of the Atlantic (indeed almost exclusively in the UK and US) which infringed on long fought for rights. Of course, so we were led to believe, this was all for our own good and was above all else for our continued safety which was blatantly under attack. After the initial stunned compliance the inevitable backlash halted, or at the very least called into question, many of the laws and measures - both existent and proposed - that threatened the very way of life they were supposedly designed to protect. A C Grayling, in this book and in other ways, was part of that backlash.

Unfortunately for several reasons I found this book disappointing. Although I undoubtedly agree with his main thrust - that our Civil Liberties are under threat to an extent not seen for generations for no good reason -  I thought that he missed the opportunity to make his point as strongly as he could have, and should have, done. Part of the problem was that he seemed to view our liberties as so self-evidently positive and necessary to modern society that he failed to explain exactly why they are so precious. The simple fact that many people have fought and often died to gain us the liberties that many of us take for granted over the last few centuries does not in itself make them inherently valuable. Grayling also singularly failed to make the case that the restrictions under review are unnecessary to fight against the apparent terrorist threat and seemed to simply dismiss them for the red herrings they in fact are. Again I whole heartily agree with his conclusions but found his arguments more that a little weak. I was expecting a fully backed-up and robust defence of liberty on each and every page but found instead a disappointing lackluster argument against the forces of repression. Of course there are those who think that democracy, liberty and freedom need no real defence as they are self-evidently good. I'm afraid that this is not the case - as we have seen far too often in recent years from the mouths of those we elected to defend us against the tyranny they are attempting to impose upon us. I honestly expected a more strident and forceful, indeed rousing, series of arguments from Professor Grayling. So hopefully we have now reached the point where we no longer need them as the forces of liberty continue to strike back against those who would use the excuse of enemies both foreign and domestic to undermine our faith in ourselves and in our fellow citizens. Not, I am honestly sad to say, recommended.    

Monday, February 04, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Get Carter

Jack Carter (played with astonishing belief by Michael Caine) is a man on a mission. He's returning to his roots in the north of England to find out what happened to his brother who died under mysterious circumstances. Of course Jack is no ordinary citizen - he's a hard man, an enforcer for a top London mob so he has connections and the will to get things done. Within hours of arriving in Newcastle he's already ruffling feathers and has been offered very generous terms to return back home. It seems as if Jack is the only person who doesn't know how his brother died and quickly starts to realize that most people he meets are either indifferent or actively hostile to his quest. When he finally stumbles on the reason for his brothers death Carter begins to take his revenge on anyone associated with the murder and anyone who stood idly by who could have prevented it, and Jack is not a man who can be easily stopped before everyone pays the price no matter the cost.

Caine is great in this movie. He plays the hard man extremely well showing little emotion - except possibly anger - and certainly no fear as he takes on the combined forces of several northern gangs who want to stop him digging up things that they had hoped to stay buried. He's relentless and unforgiving as he uncovers the dark and dirty underbelly of 1970's Newcastle as it drags itself up from its industrial roots exemplified by the old Victorian back-to-back housing and tenement blocks to its modernist future of the multi-story car park and soulless windswept tower blocks. It is very much an excellent example of British Neo-Noir complete with the classic homecoming theme, seedy bars and nightclubs, the hopelessness of the downtrodden working class, the corrupting influence of drugs and illicit sex and the casual violence seen as part of 'doing business'. Hardly a police car is seen except rushing towards another death that Caine leaves in his wake. Justice, what little there is of it, normally comes from the bullet rather than the law court. It is all rather dark and unforgiving especially as it was made in 1971 before the hopes of the 60's had collapsed into the cynicism and political unrest of the 70's and 80's. There is no hope here and that's what makes it so devilishly Noir.

I've probably seen this at least 5-6 times so far (and probably more like 10 times thinking about it) and I still enjoy it a great deal. If you're a Noir fan, and I know some of my readers are, you should certainly check this out.