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

Saturday, March 30, 2013

That's either a very good friend or some serious bullying!

Privacy 'impossible' with Google Glass warn campaigners

From The BBC

26 March

Google Glass and other augmented reality gadgets risk creating a world in which privacy is impossible, warn campaigners. The warning comes from a group called "Stop the Cyborgs" that wants limits put on when headsets can be used. It has produced posters so premises can warn wearers that the glasses are banned or recording is not permitted. The campaign comes as politicians, lawyers and bloggers debate how the gadgets will change civil society.

"We are not calling for a total ban," one of the campaign workers called Jack told the BBC in a message sent via anonymised email service Hushmail. "Rather we want people to actively set social and physical bounds around the use of technologies and not just fatalistically accept the direction technology is heading in," he wrote. Based in London, the Stop The Cyborgs campaign began at the end of February, he said, and the group did not expect much to happen before the launch of Google Glass in 2014.

However, the launch coincided with a push on Twitter by Google to get people thinking about what they would do if they had a pair of the augmented reality spectacles. The camera-equipped headset suspends a small screen in front of an owner and pipes information to that display. The camera and other functions are voice controlled. Google's push, coupled with the announcement by the 5 Point Cafe in Seattle to pre-emptively ban users of the gadget, has generated a lot of debate and given the campaign a boost, he said. Posters produced by the campaign that warn people not to use Google Glass or other personal surveillance devices had been downloaded thousands of times, said Jack. Stop The Cyborgs wants to spark debate about the use of augmented reality headsets. In addition, he said, coverage of the Glass project in mainstream media and on the web had swiftly turned from "amazing new gadget that will improve the world" to "the most controversial device in history".

The limits that the Stop The Cyborg campaign wants placed on Google Glass and similar devices would involve a clear way to let people know when they are being recorded. "It's important for society and democracy that people can chat and live without fear that they might end up being published or prosecuted," it said in a manifesto reproduced on its website. "We are not anti-technology," said Jack. "We just want people to realise that technology is a powerful cultural force which shapes our society and which we can also shape."

In a statement, Google said: "We are putting a lot of thought into how we design Glass because new technology always raises important new issues for society. Our Glass Explorer program will give all of us the chance to be active participants in shaping the future of this technology, including its features and social norms," it said. Already some US states are looking to impose other limits on augmented reality devices. West Virginia is reportedly preparing a law that will make it illegal to use such devices while driving. Those breaking the law would face heavy fines. In addition, bloggers are debating the influence of augmented reality spectacles on everyday life. Blogger Ed Champion wrote up 35 arguments about the gadget saying it could force all kinds of unwanted changes. He warned it could stifle the freedom people currently have to enjoy themselves because they know they are not being watched.

[The way I see it the anti-Google glasses campaign has already missed the boat. Privacy in the 21st Century is already largely a moot issue and will probably only exist in the home within a few decades – if the home will prove to be any bastion against technological invasion that is. People may certainly believe they are not being watched and act accordingly but, more and more, they are being watched (passively in the main) whether they are out on the street – especially in the UK which had more CCTV cameras per head of population than anywhere else on Earth – on in department stores, supermarkets or nightclubs. If it is recognisably a public zone it’s highly likely that CCTV will be installed. You are already being watched. Of course turning it around you could view it as the watched now also being the watchers. When more and more people wear these glasses – and the tech that will inevitably follow it – the more that will be observed and recorded. Accidents, crime and indeed any incident where at least one witness is present will be recorded and uploaded in HD before the person even knows what is happening. This means that suppression of events anywhere in the world will become a lot more difficult. Remember the uploaded video from Iran and other places which showed the world what was really happening in those places that regular media couldn’t get to? Imagine now 100,000 people simultaneously uploading eye-witness reports of demonstrations, police brutality and government crackdowns. Individual privacy might be dying but maybe something more important is being born – the inability of government to hide from its people…..] 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

[Shiver] Ain't it just!

Just Finished Reading: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland (FP: 2008)

The Year is 1348 and plague has come to England. A scarred trader in Holy Relics who calls himself Camelot considers his options at a county fair. Head inland, he thinks. That will be safest. Stay away from the ports and wait until the cold winter kills the pestilence as it always has before. Travel fast, travel light and travel alone. That’s the best and safest way. Fate, it would seems has other ideas. Before his journey inland starts he has already accumulated a pair of Italian musicians pretending to be English as well as a young girl and her adult guardian. Before many miles have been travelled a pregnant young woman and her husband, a storyteller and a travelling showman joins the group. Each has their own reason for being on the move in these dangerous times. Each has their story to tell and each has a secret or two to hide. But as stories are told and secrets inevitably come out it becomes apparent that someone in the group is much more than a simple refugee. Someone in the group is extracting each secret and is using it to extract a terrible revenge on each member in turn. With the plague spreading throughout the countryside the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not it is safer to stay in the ever shrinking group or if they should risk a different kind of horror lurking in the towns and villages on their path north.

This was yet another one of those books I picked up ‘on spec’ because it looked interesting and different. It was most certainly both of those. I had expected a straight historical tale of human survival during the Great Plague which devastated large portions of Europe in the 14th Century. This I got – in spades – what I also got was a kind of mystical, horror, magical tinge that added an extra and rather disturbing dimension to the whole thing. Written 12 years after her award winning first novel this book is well plotted, peppered with well realised three dimensional characters and very evocative of time and place. It was one of those books that seduces you into getting lost between its covers and where you find it difficult to disentangle yourself from the beautifully written narrative and re-engage with the real world. This book has a real magical quality about it – in more ways than one. It is an excellent study of what people will do in extreme circumstances when everything they know and believe in is slowly being stripped away from them. Each character in the book slowly reveals their true selves to the rest of the group and to the reader in such a way that is deeply engrossing. We feel, along with the villain of the piece, that the secrets must be revealed at any cost. We simply must know the truth being the interlocking web of lies and liars. This book haunted me long after I closed the last page and I am looking forward to reading more of he works. Highly recommended.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

Just Finished Reading: More Matrix and Philosophy – Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded edited by William Irwin (FP: 2005)

Rather unsurprisingly this is the sequel to The Matrix and Philosophy also edited by Irwin which I read some years ago – pre Blog. The Matrix, it would seem at least, is practically single-handedly responsible for the plethora of many of the pop-culture philosophy books presently cluttering up my book shelves. The Matrix, no matter what it detractors say, is certainly a movie that can be dissected philosophically much more than any other later 20th Century film – so what about its much debated sequels?

Well, 18 authors (some of who are professional philosophers) attempt just that. As with most things like this, at least in my experience, the quality or at least the interest they generate, varies with the author. Some of the articles I found moderately interesting. Some I found rather pretentious and others I found truly interesting. One aspect of the movies that I hadn’t really thought about prior to reading this volume was the music in the movies. Now I liked the soundtracks and even bought them. The opening credits music still sends a shiver up my spine now but no matter how much I enjoy the music I’d never really thought about it much. Theodore Gracyk made one point which really stopped me in my tracks. He was describing a scene where Neo gets ‘killed’ in the first movie and briefly assumes a Christ crucified pose hinting that he is indeed the new Messiah. Behind it is clearly religious music but why do we recognise it as such. In some countries The Matrix was heavily edited before finally being released. In places the obviously Christian message was edited out – but they left in the music because, it would seem, that even though the religious imagery was clear to them the religious music was not. Playing a Western audience clearly religious music from other ‘unknown’ cultures gets a similar response. We have no idea what we’re listening to! I never really thought of music that way before…. My other favourite article was by Nick Bostrom who brought up the old idea that we might be living in a Matrix ourselves. He actually made a very good case that any sufficiently advanced civilisation would, and could, simulate either previously existing environments (for study or just for fun) and that if the Universe is as old as it appears to be have had plenty of time to do just that. If these simulations have been running long enough, he suggests, they would have created their own simulations inside simulations and so on ad infinitum. The odds suggest that the world we think of as real is really just a Matrix within countless other matrices. The kicker is, of course, that we could never find out if this was true. If a software ‘bug’ became obvious enough for the Sims to discover the truth it would be rolled back or patched in order to correct the mistake and they’d never know it happened. It’s an intriguing if pointless idea!

Overall this was an enjoyable read especially for anyone who enjoyed the trilogy (OK, the first movie kicked ass and the others where…. Shall we say less than they could have been?) as much as I did. Recommended.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

100 Science-Fiction books you should read

I got this list from somewhere - no idea where I'm afraid - and thought it might be a good idea to re-post it here. I've highlighted in bold the one's I've actually read. The ones in italic are books I own but haven't read yet. See how many you've read.

  The Postman – David Brin
  The Uplift War – David Brin
  Neuromancer – William Gibson 
  Foundation – Isaac Asimov
  Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov
  Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov
  I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  The Long Tomorrow – Leigh Brackett
  Rogue Moon – Algis Budrys
  The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
  Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
  Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
  2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke
  Armor – John Steakley
  Imperial Stars – E. E. Smith
  Frankenstein – Mary Shelley 
  Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card 
  Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card
  Dune – Frank Herbert
  The Dosadi Experiment – Frank Herbert
  Journey Beyond Tomorrow – Robert Sheckley
  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
  Valis – Philip K. Dick
  A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
  1984 – George Orwell
  Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
  The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells 
  The Time Machine – H. G. Wells
  The Island of Doctor Moreau – H. G. Wells
  The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
  A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
  A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  A Journey to the Center of the Earth – Jules Verne
  From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
  Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
  Nova Express – William S. Burroughs
  Ringworld – Larry Niven 
  The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  The Unreasoning Mask – Philip Jose Farmer
  To Your Scattered Bodies Go – Philip Jose Farmer
  Eon – Greg Bear
  Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
  The Andromeda Strain – Michael Crichton
  Lightning – Dean Koontz
  The Stainless Steel Rat – Harry Harrison
  The Fifth Head of Cerebus – Gene Wolfe
  Nightside of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs
  Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson 
  Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
  The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
  Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
  Doomsday Book – Connie Wills
  Beserker – Fred Saberhagen
  Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. LeGuin
  The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin 
  Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
  Dhalgren – Samuel R. Delany 
  Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
  The Forever War – Joe Haldeman 
  Star King – Jack Vance
  The Killing Machine – Jack Vance 
  Trullion: Alastor 2262 – Jack Vance
  Hyperion – Dan Simmons
  Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein
  Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
  More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
  A Time of Changes – Robert Silverberg
  Gateway – Frederick Pohl 
  Man Plus - Frederick Pohl 
  The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
  Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
  The Execution Channel – Ken Macleod
  Last and First Men – W. Olaf Stapledon 
  Slan – A. E. van Vogt
  Out of the Silent Planet – C. S. Lewis
  They Shall Have Stars – James Blish 
  Marooned in Realtime – Vernor Vinge
  A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
  The People Maker – Damon Knight
  The Giver – Lois Lowry
  The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  Contact – Carl Sagan
  Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
  The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
  Battlefield Earth – L. Ron Hubbard
  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain
  Little Brother – Cory Doctorow
  Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Jack Finney
  Planet of the Apes – Pierre Boulle 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Conquest by Stewart Binns (FP: 2011)

England in the Year 1053. Despite the firm hand of the King, Edward I (The Confessor) the realm is not as secure as it could be. The King has failed to produce an heir and claimants are already positioning themselves to be his nominated successor. Meanwhile in the Fens a young, headstrong Hereward of Bourne is causing trouble in his small tightly knit community. Infatuated with a local beauty he will let nothing stand in his way to see her as often as he can. When he hears that a local cleric has also shown an interest in her he plans to run away and start a new life together. But before he can act the cleric, a powerful man, hires three killers to teach her and her lover a lesson they will never forget. Left for dead Hereward is found by his family’s retainers and is nursed back to health. Vowing revenge he acts months later tracking down his would be killers and dispatching them in a very public manner. Moving onto the cleric he is stopped just in time and is banished for his crime. Forced to wander England as an outlaw Hereward finally finds his way into Wales and thence to Ireland and Scotland before finding his true calling as a sword for hire in Europe’s interminable wars of conquest. Returning finally to England over 10 years later he becomes part of the personal guard for a man he grows to greatly admire – Harold Godwinson, one of the most powerful men in England and a man who is rumoured to be the next King of England. When Edward dies suddenly Harold is crowned King but before he has had time to take up his position he is forced to defence the nation against attacks both in the North and the South. With Hereward at his side he is convinced that he can beat off the opposition to his rule – but his most dangerous opponent knows his battle techniques all too well and seems to have both Right and God on his side, William Duke of Normandy. If Harold is defeated Hereward vows to lead the survivors in a covert war against the hated Normans – but can one man stand if a nation has fallen?

I was looking forward to this book for some time. Not only have I become rather fascinated with Anglo-Saxon England and the final Battle of Hastings which marked its end but I still remember the thrill of discovering the story of Hereward of Borne (or Hereward the Wake as we knew him) when I was still very young – probably no older that 7-8. The idea of a single man, leading a rag-tag collection of fighters against probably (one of) the best fighting force(s) in the world at the time and more than holding his own (apparently) stirred my little heart. Hereward was, at least for me back then, one of the premier English heroes. He has certainly kept that place – along with the other British greats – since then. So, as you can imagine I was hoping for something that stirred the blood and thrilled the spirit. How disappointed I was! The author clearly had an idea of making Hereward into a towering hero but that was the problem. Binns’s Hereward wasn’t a man to be reckoned with – he was a god come down to Earth, a giant of a man, unbeatable in battle who could wield weapons others could not even lift! He was, in other words, simply unbelievable. During his time in European exile not only did he meet and impress Duke William himself but El Cid! Everyone seemed to be clambering to have Hereward as his personal bodyguard. He was, clearly, without peer – until Binns introduced Harold who, rather bizarrely, he first presented as someone who could barely make a decision – suddenly transformed into a battle winning warrior on his ascension to the throne. Binns also repeated and appeared to give a great deal of credence to the idea, called heavily into question by historians, the Harold had given his fealty to William and had agreed to serve him as the rightful King of England and that, becoming King himself, his taking up arms against the Norman invasion was an act of rebellion. More than once I almost put the book down almost in disgust at the sloppy writing, questionable characterisation and deep inconsistencies. Sometimes I kept going through sheer momentum and the hope, vain it turned out, that things would get better. The set-piece battles where well described and, as far as I know, pretty accurate, but everything else really didn’t gel with me. Deeply disappointing, at least for me, so cannot be recommended. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Heathers

I’m sure that Heathers was pretty much written and produced as an anti-John Hughes film. It is the very opposite of sickly sweet movies such as 16 Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful. It has all of the same elements that we know and love from the seemingly endless series of 1980’s teen High School dramas – the girl that tries to fit in with the top clique despite the fact that she’s smarter than the rest of them combined (in this case played by Winona Ryder), the bad boy biker who has spent his life moving from school to school (an early typecasting for Christian Slater), the beautiful girls (all rather confusingly called Heather!) that everyone wants to join or to fuck and most people hate, the jocks who terrorise the Geeks and think that the height of culture is a touchdown and a brewski, the uncaring parents and the confused teachers…. You know the drill, we’ve all seen it a hundred times before – but in this case, almost from the outset, it’s clear that we haven’t seen it all before. Heathers is darker, funnier and much more twisted than any other brat-pack movie before and probably since. The difference with this movie is that the teens with the angst – Veronica (Ryder) and her new boyfriend JD (Slater) – decide to do something about it rather than simply complain, bitch and eventually fall in love with real people rather than the image they wanted to at the beginning of the movie.

After a particularly bitchy episode Veronica decides to get her own back on one of the Heathers by making her puke after a night out. JD has other ideas and substitutes milk and orange juice for drain-o causing Heather to drop dead on the spot. When Veronica forges a pithy suicide note Heather becomes a school hero who exhibited hidden depths and hidden pains behind her confident fa├žade. Confused by this turn of events Veronica and JD decide to stage a double suicide of a pair of bully jocks who apparently killed themselves because of their inability to ‘come out’ as gay lovers in an uncaring world. When they too are effectively canonised by the school JD flies into a rage and Veronica suddenly sees what he is capable of. It’s at this point that she needs to make a decision – does she follow JD on his trail of destruction or does she try to stop him if she can.

This is probably a film that probably couldn’t be made today and certainly not as a comedy. The image of students gunning down their fellows or simply pulling a gun in the cafeteria to make some jocks piss their pants just wouldn’t make it on to the screen in today’s politically charged climate. I don’t know if school shootings where unknown back then or maybe they were rare enough so that making fun of them really wasn’t considered to be in questionable taste (at best). The film is an 18 Certificate probably for the swearing and at least some of the content. It is not, to be honest, a great film or actually a particularly good film especially taken out of its historical and cultural context. After all it was directed by Michael Lehmann – the person who brought you Hudson Hawk (but then again he did go on to direct 14 episodes of True Blood and a few episodes of Dexter). What it stands out as being is a rather crude but fairly well made riposte to the John Hughes style of teen movie (which actually I had a lot of time for back then). Seen in that context it did its job well enough sending up the genre in some style. If you are or have been a fan of John Hughes in particular it will be worth seeing this movie just to see how successfully Lehmann has twisted the ideas that Hughes made his name with in a whole new and much darker direction. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013


'No signal' from targeted ET hunt

From The BBC

1 June 2012

The hunt for other intelligent civilisations has a new technique in its arsenal, but its first use has turned up no signs of alien broadcasts. Australian astronomers used "very long baseline interferometry" to examine Gliese 581, a star known to host planets in its "habitable zone". The hunt for aliens is fundamentally a vast numbers game, so the team's result should come as no surprise. Their report, posted online, will be published in the Astronomical Journal. In recent years, interest in such targeted searches has begun to surge as the hunt for planets outside the Solar System continues to find them at every turn. Astronomers currently estimate that every star in the night sky hosts, on average, 1.6 planets - implying that there are billions of planets out there yet to be confirmed. But a number of stars have already been identified as playing host to rocky planets at a distance not too hot and not too cold for liquid water - the first proxy for amenability to life.

Gliese 581, a red dwarf star about 20 light-years away, is a particularly interesting candidate for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or Seti. It has six planets, two of which are "super-Earths" likely to be in this habitable zone. So astronomers at Curtin University's International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia, put one of radio astronomy's highest-resolution techniques to work, listening in to the star system. Very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) is the process of using several or many telescopes that are distant from one another, carefully combining their signals to make them effectively act as one large telescope, peering intently at a tiny portion of the sky. The team trained the Australian Long Baseline Array onto Gliese 581 for eight hours, listening in on a range of radio frequencies. The result was radio silence - but the team used their experience to validate VLBI as a technique particularly suited to this kind of targeted search. Seth Shostak, principal astronomer at the Seti Institute in the US, said that the approach's strength lies in the fraction of the sky it examines. "It's like they're looking at the sky through a 6-foot-long cocktail straw - a tiny bit of the sky, so they're only sensitive to signals that are coming from right around that star system," he told BBC News.

That is useful not only for getting a high-resolution view, but for excluding the signals from Earthly technologies that plague Seti efforts. "Figuring out 'is this ET or AT&T?' isn't always easy, and VLBI gives you a good way of discriminating, because if you find something from that tiny, tiny dot on the sky you can say that's not one of our satellites," Dr Shostak said. He added that the team's negative result was not disheartening, because the odds have it that the hunt for aliens, if it is ever to find them, will require thousands or millions of observations of this kind. "Consider the fact that you could've looked at the Earth for four billion years with radio antennas - here was a planet that's clearly in the habitable zone, has liquid oceans, and has an atmosphere - and yet unless you had looked in the last 70 years and were close enough, you wouldn't have found any intelligent life," he said. "The fact that we look at one star system and don't find a signal doesn't tell you that there's no intelligent life."

[The fact that no signal was received in the 8 hours of the study should certainly not be disheartening to anyone. As Dr Shostak rightly stated if you had aimed the same equipment at Earth 150 years ago you wouldn’t have picked up anything either – which doesn’t actually prove that no intelligent life existed here back then! It’s definitely a useful tool and a useful technique to look for – and possibly find – intelligent life out there but only life that has produced recognisable radio technology in the timeframe being looked at. It would be very nice to get a positive result but I’m not particularly holding my breath on this one – after all it’s a big-ass sky.]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Just Finished Reading: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (FP: 1956)

I have long been fascinated by the tragedy of the Titanic. Part of it is, of course, that it’s such a great ‘story’ which is why so much has been written about it and why the mystique still resonates more than 100 years after the event. Part of it is, at least for me, the feeling that its sinking was arguably the beginning of the end of the Western world’s belief that progress was eternal and that, if we put our minds to it, we could conquer anything – especially the natural world. Maybe we could have recovered our Victorian optimism after the event if only the failure highlighted by its demise had not been underlined by the horrors of trench warfare just two short years later and the loss of a whole generation of young men on the killing fields of Europe. What makes the story a little more personal for me was that I discovered that two of the steerage passengers who embarked in Ireland at the start of a new life in America both had my surname and that they both died like so many others of their class. Whether or not they were any blood relation to me I have no idea. My surname is not exactly unusual in Southern Ireland so there’s a fair possibility that there was in fact no family relationship at all but I have neither confirmed nor denied it – yet.

The book itself is hailed (rightly in my opinion) as probably the classic on the subject. Numerous books had been written on and around these events in the years after the event but few it seemed caught the public’s imagination in quite the same way. For one thing the narrative is breathlessly told in just 169 pages starting with the sighting of the fateful iceberg and ending with the last lifeboat being picked up by the Carpathia around 6 hours later. As you can imagine the feel of the book is intense - indeed the whole narrative gripped me from beginning to end like a taught thriller. Despite knowing the overall story fairly well I found myself agonising over the lives of those involved and the decisions they made which either resulting in them living or dying on that fateful night. The very real sense of being there with the passengers and crew was conveyed by a mixture of meticulous detail (which was sometimes just a little too much) and the knowledge that the conversations attributed to the people described actually happened – though the author was confident enough in his skill to let the reader know when different people ‘remembered’ incidents and conversation differently as might be expected with the passage of decades before they were interviewed about the traumatic events of that night. I suppose what added an extra something was that I had recently watched the movie of the same name which (at the time unbeknownst to me) was based on this book. I watched it subsequently and managed to pick out snippets of conversation and some of the action that actually happened as the ship slowly sank into the freezing Atlantic.

What thrilled me in the film and thrilled me even more in this book was the tale of the Carpathia whose captain threw all caution to the wind and raced towards the last know position of the Titanic at full speed, at night, with icebergs known to be in the area. Unfortunately the Carpathia was over 50 miles away and had no way of getting to the Titanic before she sank with such a huge loss of life. Much closer, or so it seemed, was the Californian which might have been less than 12 miles away but apparently did nothing. Its captain was vilified and long denied that he was as close as some people believed him to be. He was definitely the villain of the piece and some people have criticised Lord for pointing the finger so solidly at him.

This is a great work of historical writing which will honestly thrill anyone who knows the story of the Titanic. Its style and delivery are practically faultless and for the few days it took me to read this short book I almost felt that I was standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women on the boat deck awaiting the next lifeboat to be lowered into the icy water. A brilliant work and highly recommended. Just don’t ruin it by watching the James Cameron version afterwards!    

Monday, March 11, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Philosophy of Neo-Noir edited by Mark T Conard (FP: 2007)

This was another one of those books whose title (and cover featuring Sean Young as the replicant Rachel from Bladerunner) made it irresistible to me. As my readership already know I am a huge fan of Film Noir and its modern successor Neo-Noir so I was really looking forward to reading about the philosophical underpinnings of the whole thing. I was however slightly disappointed with the whole thing – though only slightly and only until I adjusted my preconceptions a bit. For although the word Philosophy was prominently displayed on the front cover and even mentioned several times in the various articles between its covers the main thrust of the book was very much from the film studies genre rather from any philosophical point of view. Of course, by and large, this was no bad thing and I must admit that I did learn a thing or two about Neo-Noir in general and the movies discussed in particular it’s just that I would’ve liked a bit more philosophy and a bit less discussion of the cinematic arts (to say nothing of one particular section that I found almost unreadable as it was chock full of film jargon and, to be frank, so far up its own arse as never to see daylight again.)

Anyway….. After a general explanation of what exactly Neo-Noir was – basically Noir type movies made after the classic Noir films – a selection of authors dived into various movies to discuss the ins and outs of each one logically starting with Bladerunner (1982) as it appeared on the cover. This was probably the most philosophical of all the articles concentrating on the idea of humanity, free choice and authenticity in the Sartre sense. Then we had several interesting articles on Point Blank (1967) and Memento (2000) discussing personal identity (without memories who are we really?) and the nature of reality (how can we be sure that any of our experiences are actually real?). After that it got a bit less philosophical with a discussion of The Onion Field (1979) and the idea of guilt vs justice, A Simple Plan (1998) and the idea of moral corruption, Hard Eight (1996) and atonement, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill 1 & 2 (2003, 2004) and the idea of redemption. After that I felt that we moved fully away from any philosophic bent and moved straight onto film criticism (with a slight tinge of philosophy to shoe-horn the articles between the pages of a philosophical publication) as various authors discussed Chinatown (1974), Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), The Big Lebowski (1998) and finally – and bizarrely to my mind – the 1980’s TV series Miami Vice.

Now I didn’t exactly dislike this book. Once I got over the mild disappointment of it not being as philosophical as I had hoped and expected it was reasonably interesting. I certainly learnt quite a bit about various aspects of Neo-Noir that I would probably never have considered prior to reading this book. It probably would have helped if I’d have seen more of the films being discussed (I think I managed about 50% to be honest) so maybe the feeling that it could have been a better more engaging book stems from my apparent ignorance of the modern genre. It’s certainly possible. So although I won’t be giving this a blanket recommendation I’ll leave it to other Noir fans to decide if this is a good book or not.   

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Cambridge boffins fear 'Pandora's Unboxing' and RISE of the MACHINES

By Brid-Aine Parnell for The Register

26th November 2012

Boffins at Cambridge University want to set up a new centre to determine what humankind will do when ultra-intelligent machines like the Terminator or HAL pose "extinction-level" risks to our species. A philosopher, a scientist and a software engineer are proposing the creation of a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to analyse the ultimate risks to the future of mankind - including bio- and nanotech, extreme climate change, nuclear war and artificial intelligence. Apart from the frequent portrayal of evil - or just misguidedly deadly - AI in science fiction, actual real scientists have also theorised that super-intelligent machines could be a danger to the human race. Jaan Tallinn, the former software engineer who was one of the founders of Skype, has campaigned for serious discussion of the ethical and safety aspects of artificial general intelligence (AGI). Tallinn has said that he sometimes feels he is more likely to die from an AI accident than from cancer or heart disease, CSER co-founder and philosopher Huw Price said.

Humankind's progress is now marked less by evolutionary processes and more by technological progress, which allows people to live longer, accomplish tasks more quickly and destroy more or less at will. Both Price and Tallinn said they believe the rising curve of computing complexity will eventually lead to AGI, and that the critical turning point after that will come when the AGI is able to write the computer programs and create the tech to develop its own offspring. “Think how it might be to compete for resources with the dominant species,” says Price. “Take gorillas for example – the reason they are going extinct is not because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environments in ways that suit us, but are detrimental to their survival.”

CSER hopes to gather experts from policy, law, risk, computing and science to advise the centre and help with investigating the risks. “At some point, this century or next, we may well be facing one of the major shifts in human history – perhaps even cosmic history – when intelligence escapes the constraints of biology,” Price said. “Nature didn’t anticipate us, and we in our turn shouldn’t take artificial general intelligence (AGI) for granted. "We need to take seriously the possibility that there might be a ‘Pandora’s box’ moment with AGI that, if missed, could be disastrous. With so much at stake, we need to do a better job of understanding the risks of potentially catastrophic technologies.”

[Much as I hate the word ‘boffin’ it’s good to see other people being as paranoid as I am about a future populated with killer robots of our own design. It’s just nice to know that it won’t be just me saying ‘I informed you thusly’ when the first Terminators infiltrate and start killing people.]

Friday, March 08, 2013

I still remember seeing this in the flesh (so to speak). I wish that we had more time just to gaze at the genius of the design and wonder at the powerful imagination housed in Michelangelo's mind. I mean he designed this statue of David to be looked at on a column from ground level. Looked at straight-on the proportions are all wrong, but looked at from a lower position the proportions are exactly right..... and he did that all in his head..... and then produced it out of stone.... with chisels...... I was, and still am, stunned by the ability of this man. The stature was literally awe inspiring and honestly took my breath away. I still remember seeing a young woman, probably an art student, gazing up at it simply entranced. I couldn't help smiling as I understood exactly what she was experiencing. This is a truly amazing work of art and if you ever get the opportunity to see the real thing I couldn't recommend that you do so more highly. 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Evolution in action......

Just Finished Reading: The Mosaic of Shadows by Tom Harper (FP: 2003)

Constantinople in 1095. When one of the Emperor’s bodyguards is killed by a mysterious and powerful weapon the leaders of his elite Varangian guard are at a loss to explain things. So his chief Minister turns to Demetrios Askiates, a former mercenary who has developed a reputation within the burgeoning middle-class as something of a solver of mysteries, to aid them in their investigations. Within hours of being assigned to the case Demetrios has already proven his worth by locating the spot where a would be assassin stood to fire his mysterious weapon and has managed to gain a fair description of the boy involved. But before he can investigate further it becomes obvious that powerful forces are ranged against him. Intrigue within the palace itself seems to be involved with fingers increasingly pointing to the Emperor’s younger brother. But with forces like these how would it be possible for Demetrios to gain enough evidence without putting himself and his family in mortal danger. If this was not enough to put the fear of the gods in him an army of Christian knights is approaching from the west – their intention to gain access to the Holy Land with or without the co-operation of Constantinople. Demetrios cannot but wonder if their arrival is a coincidence of if something much bigger that a simple palace coup is happening around him. With only weeks to provide answers Demetrios must find a killer in a city of thousands and increasingly watch his own back.

As a first novel this was very impressive indeed. The character of Demitrios is well drawn with depth, history and real motivations. Likewise the men and women (or more accurately woman) he needs to deal with during his investigation are rounded characters (in the main) if a little stereotypical. The plot is a little too clever and convoluted, and a little too long to be honest, but this is a common failing of first novels as the author tries to cram as much as possible into what might end up as their only book deal rather than the first of many. I have learnt to forgive such examples of over exuberance. Overall, cutting the author a modicum of slack, this is a solid example of historical political/crime thriller. Without the use of forensics, except for the very crudest kind, Demetrios is forced back on questioning witnesses (and suspects) and determining where the stories overlap and where they conflict – thereby hopefully arriving at what really happened. This he does very well and the progress is logical and honestly impressive. The protagonist wasn’t clear (at least to me) until the last quarter of the book and wasn’t really revealed until very late indeed which I enjoyed. He certainly kept me guessing, and turning pages, until the very end. Recommended.