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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bookmarks that wriggle? Not really a good idea......... [grin]

...and, of course, this is the final post in Book Month @ SaLT. I hope that you've enjoyed it, tolerated it or at the very least that it didn't bore you too much. No fully themed months now for a little while but I'm designating May as Super-Hero Art Month..... and not just because Iron Man 3 is out at the cinema.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Sleep – A Very Short Introduction by Steven W Lockley and Russell G Foster (FP: 2012)

Sleep is strange. We spend around a third of our lives in that state and apparently share it with all other living things – or at least with the majority of other creatures – yet there is no agreed definition or understand of what exactly sleep is. Sleep studies have made remarkable progress in understand the mechanisms of sleep yet the why of sleep continues to allude us. Lack of sleep results in progressive disorientation and eventual death yet still the why of sleep remains beyond our grasp. Is it a simple fact of biology that we must sleep to recover from the build-up of sleep toxins? Partly. Is there an evolutionary advantage in sleep? Arguably. Does sleep allow the formation of memories and the solidification of experience in the physical structure of the brain? Probably. But is that enough to explain the phenomena? Probably not.

This is the scope of this fascinating and intriguing little volume – the understanding of how and why we sleep and what to do about things when sleep alludes us. I certainly know a great deal about the mechanics of sleep: How sleep varies during the night, how brain waves and brain activity vary as the hours creep by, how forces under our control can enhance or degrade the amount or quality of sleep we get. It’s interesting to know that the standard 8 hours of continuous sleep which is the expected aim and norm is nothing of the sort and only really came into being with the Industrial Revolution. It’s interesting to know that teenagers do actually have different sleep patterns to adults and children. This book is full of pieces of information and pieces of the still incomplete puzzle of sleep.

Personally sleep is a very important part of my life. As far as I am concerned killing someone who is actively preventing me from sleeping is justifiable homicide. It’s not that I like to sleep (I do) or that I want to sleep (I do) but that I need to sleep. My record – back in my teenage years – is 16 hours. These days my maximum is probably 8-9 or maybe 10 if I’ve been particular active. During the working week I get by on around 7 if I get off straight away. Given the chance I’m generally a night owl and ‘hit the sack’ around midnight. In the mornings it takes me around 45-60 minutes to completely wake up. I hate getting up in the dark with a passion that’s hard to describe. As far as I’m concerned if it’s still dark it’s still night time and night time is for sleeping. Fortunately I’ve never had to work shifts (though it had been talked about a few times in previous jobs) which I think is a barbaric way to work. I would not like to see me or work with me on shifts. I think that I’d be unbearable!

Of necessity we all have a relationship with sleep – some good and some bad. As with all relationships a degree of understanding is a good thing. That’s what you’ll get from this book. It probably won’t save your life or give you a guaranteed good night’s sleep but it will arm you with useful information that could help or at the very least give you an appreciation of what’s going on inside your head when it’s in the Land of Nodd. Recommended.        

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Or a cup of Tea...................

Antarctic lake's clue to alien life

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

27 November 2012

The discovery of microbes thriving in the salty, sub-zero conditions of an Antarctic lake could raise the prospects for life on the Solar System's icy moons. Researchers found a diverse community of bugs living in the lake's dark environment, at temperatures of -13C. Furthermore, they say the lake's life forms have been sealed off from the outside world for some 2,800 years. Details of the work have been outlined in the journal PNAS. Lake Vida, the largest of several unique lakes found in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, contains no oxygen, is acidic, mostly frozen and possesses the highest nitrous oxide levels of any natural water body on Earth. A briny liquid that is approximately six times saltier than seawater percolates throughout the icy environment.

Dr Cynan Ellis-Evans, from the British Antarctic Survey (Bas), who was not involved in the recent research, told BBC News: "There are various lakes that are very salty down there... but this is a really freaky one. It's almost frozen solid right to the bottom. But you've got this brine 'mush' in the centre. For several years, they've been trying to get into it." He said the discovery of microbes at such low temperatures was "a very interesting discovery". During field campaigns in 2005 and 2010, Alison Murray, from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nevada, and colleagues drilled out cores of ice from the lake, collected samples of the brine from the frozen material, and assessed the water's potential for harbouring life.

The abundance of different chemical compounds present in the lake led the researchers to conclude that chemical reactions were taking place between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments, producing the nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The hydrogen, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine's diverse microbial life. In addition, the slow rate of metabolism of these microbes prevents the energy reserves from being quickly depleted. "It's plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock," said co-author Dr Christian Fritsen, also from the DRI. If this is indeed the case, said Dr Murray, it provides "an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryo-ecosystems on Earth and in other icy worlds of the Universe". Dr Ellis-Evans commented: "If you go to somewhere like Europa, this sort of finding is really of interest. You can apply this more or less directly. He pointed to recent evidence that pockets of slushy ice and liquid water might also persist in Europa's ice shell: "That would be just the sort of system we're talking about here, with limited connections to the outside world," he said. The PNAS report's publication comes as scientists fly out of the UK to join an effort to drill through the 3km of ice covering Lake Ellsworth, which is hidden beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The discovery of any microbial communities here would be significant because the lake water may have been sealed off from the outside world for up to half a million years. Late last year, a Russian team drilled through to Lake Vostok, an even larger lake covered by some 4km of ice. But preliminary analyses of lake water that froze on to the drill bit showed scant evidence for the presence of living organisms.

[We seem to be falling over organisms that can live in extreme environments these days. It all bodes well for finding life in equally extreme environments on other planets and increases the likelihood of finding life in places where once we considered it impossible to exist. Life it tough, very tough, and once established seems to be very difficult to eradicate. Planets once written off as lifeless will need to be examined again in light of new information and new discoveries right here on Earth. It is, at least in my opinion, only a matter of time before we find life elsewhere.] 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 2008)

England in the Year 1413 and Nicholas Hook has just failed to commit murder. Luckily for him his skill as an archer is more in demand than his body hanging from the end of a rope. But when he tries to save a heretics life he goes too far and is forced to run to France to join a company of archers who are unaware of his past. Stationed in the French city of Soissons he becomes one of the few who survive the fall of the city. Fleeing with a French nun he manages to return to the English lines only to be inducted into the great army of Henry V who is the rightful King of England and France – not that a great number of the French would agree with him. When the siege of Harfleur takes much longer than expected and dysentery thins the armies ranks the King decides to make for safe ground in Calais. Checked every step of the way by superior French forces the river Somme is finally crossed and Calais only days away. But the French have blocked the road and offer battle near a small settlement known as Azincourt, soon to become known across all Christendom as a place where arrows flew and the nobility of France fell.

Many of my readers will know that I am a serious fan of Bernard Cornwell. Indeed I think that this is the 25th novel of his I’ve read. Richard Sharpe, the hero of the Sharpe series of books based in the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century, is one of my all-time favourite characters. Likewise I have greatly enjoyed Cornwell’s Grail series (which takes place at the beginning of the Hundred Years war) and the Warlord Chronicles series based around the legend of King Arthur. I was rather surprised therefore that I didn’t enjoy Azincourt anywhere as much as I’d expected. Part of it was the main character Nick Hook was more than a little formulaic in my opinion. The way he picked up the French nun Melisande had too many echoes of both the experience of Thomas Hookton and Sharpe himself. The threat from both external and internal enemies I found more than a little predictable and it did feel at times that the author was going through a checklist of literary devices to produce what felt like a modular novel. I don’t know, maybe reading 10 books based in the same period (even if that lasted 1000 years) was just too much and I had become bored by the whole thing. Maybe I was just in a phase of my reading when I was a bit too critical rather than simply relaxing into the story and let it carry me along. Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky. Maybe I’ve just read too much. But whatever it was this novel felt like it had been phoned in and lacked the usual Cornwell sparkle I have come to know and trust. It is certainly the first Cornwell book that, when I closed the covers, I didn’t have a smile on my face. Not that this has put me off reading more of his work in the future. One reasonable book after 24 excellent ones certainly won’t stop me being a huge fan of his work.

This was the last book in the group of Medieval novels I had challenged myself to read. Next up, after my usual random interlude, will be 10 books with a Vampire theme. That’ll definitely be a bit different! 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Just Finished Reading: How are we to live? – Ethics in an age of self-interest by Peter Singer (FP: 1993)

As is often the case with works of philosophy this book is difficult to summarise in a few paragraphs. I suppose that in many ways that’s a good thing. It shows that the author takes ethics seriously enough not to offer simple and inevitably simplistic answers to how we should live in the 21st century. Written before the recent economic collapse brought about largely by an irresponsible banking system it seemed positively prescient at times by pointing out the driving greed that seems to pervade every aspect of western capitalism. Greed may no longer be good in the Gordon Gecko sense but it’s still a powerful (if not overwhelming) force to be reckoned with. I’m guessing that Singer would have been gratified by the level of outrage and disgust aimed at those rich and shameless speculators who got us in this mess. But why should they have acted any differently? What’s wrong with the starting point of asking ‘What’s in it for me?’

American readers in particular – even the more liberal amongst them – will probably take exception to the United States being used as an example of how not to run a civilisation. The author basically blames the US for introducing and promoting the ‘Me’ Generation that appears to be running and ruining the planet. I thought he laid this on a bit too thick and bordered on being boring at times. Although American is the de facto cheerleader of Capitalism the two are not wholly one and the same. But he certainly has a point. Capitalism may have produced wealth beyond the dreams of Kings gone by but at enormous cost elsewhere. This is the background against which the author asks the question: What can we do about it? Business as usual is not really an option. We living in a finite world – at least until we get off it in sufficient numbers – so we can’t all be avaricious all of the time. We need to moderate our behaviour – but why should we? What should motivate us to do so?

Rightly the author says that Christian ethics – the often unspoken baseline for over a thousand years in the west – just won’t do. We need something else, something new, something non or post Christian. Secular ethics is the new kid on the block and, the author contends, is still working out the wrinkles of its theories. But a lot of good work has been done in the areas of sociobiology, anthropology and genetics which can point us in the right direction. Work in the area of Game Theory can also give us ideas of where altruism comes from and why it can offer great advantages to those who practice it – and not only within their own kin groups. The most productive strategy is a simple one: Always open by giving and then respond in a tit-for-tat fashion. If the recipient gives back (or whatever is going on in the particular circumstances) then carry on giving. If the recipient does not respond in kind then do likewise the next time. Apparently it works and does so much better than anything else.

Without attempting to prĂ©cis the entire book (in which case you would miss lots of detail and some fascinating personal insights) I found this to be a very stimulating read and much better than I had originally expected. Singer is an erudite philosopher who writes very well indeed. His arguments are forceful and, with a bit of effort on the part of his readers mind expanding. The basis of his ethical platform is a deceptively easy one – the alleviation of suffering. Anything that is likely to increase the general amount of suffering in the world is a bad thing and anything that reduces it is a good thing. It’s a simple idea that has profound consequences when you start thinking about it and acting on it. Of course nothing is quite as simple as that and conflicts will inevitably arise but I can certainly think of a worse purpose for living than the alleviation of pain and suffering. Recommended. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

He'll get the hang of it.... Eventually!

Tau Ceti's planets nearest around single, Sun-like star

From The BBC

19 December 2012

The nearest single Sun-like star to the Earth hosts five planets - one of which is in the "habitable zone" where liquid water can exist, astronomers say. Tau Ceti's planetary quintet - reported in an online paper that will appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics - was found in existing planet-hunting data. The study's refined methods of sifting through data should help find even more far-flung worlds. The star now joins Alpha Centauri as a nearby star known to host planets. In both those cases, the planets were found not by spying them through a telescope but rather by measuring the subtle effects they have on their host stars' light.

In the gravitational dance of a planet around a star, the planet does most of the moving. But the star too is tugged slightly to and fro as the planet orbits, and these subtle movements of the star show up as subtle shifts in the colour of the star's light we see from Earth. This "radial velocity" measurement is a tricky one; stars' light changes also for a range of other reasons, and requires picking out the specifically planetary component from all this "noise". Now, Hugh Jones of the University of Hertfordshire and colleagues have refined their "noise modelling" in order to subtract it, and thereby see the smallest signals hiding in the data - starting with Tau Ceti. "It's a star on which we have a lot of data - an order of magnitude more data than we have for pretty much any other star," Prof Jones told BBC News. "It's a good test case for how low can we go, what size of signals can we pick up." The team started with data from three planet-hunting missions: Harps, AAPS, and HiRes, all of which had data on Tau Ceti. The trick to honing the technique was to put in "fake planets" - to add signals into the messy data that planets should add - and find ways to reduce the noise until the fake planets became more and more visible in the data. "Putting all that together, we optimised a noise-modelling strategy which allows us to recover our fake signals - but in the process of doing that, we actually saw that we were finding signals as well," Prof Jones said - actual planets. The quintet includes planets between two and six times the Earth's mass, with periods ranging from 14 to 640 days. One of them, dubbed HD 10700e, lies about half as far from Tau Ceti as the Earth is from the Sun - and because Tau Ceti is slightly smaller and dimmer than our Sun, that puts the planet in the so-called habitable zone.

It is increasingly clear that in existing data from radial velocity measurements there may be evidence of many more planets. On Monday, Philip Gregory at the University of British Columbia in Canada posted an as-yet unpublished paper to the arXiv repository, claiming to have seen three planets in the habitable zone of Gliese 667C, one of three stars in a triple-star system, 22 light-years away. It is also clear that in almost every direction we look and in every way that we look, there are planets around stars near and far. The catalogue currently stands at 854 confirmed planets, and is growing with every new publication.

[854 confirmed planets is a pretty good haul by anyone’s standards. One of the argument against life ‘out there’ is the apparent lack of stable environments where life could have evolved. Such an argument, at least in my opinion, no longer holds much credence. It truly appears that wherever we look we find planets orbiting stars just as ours does. This shouldn’t really come as any surprise knowing what we do about planet formation. But at least it’s nice to have common sense confirmed by science.]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Afgantsy – The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite (FP: 2011)

It’s not hard to draw parallels between the Russian experience in Afghanistan and that of the present Coalition of forces headed by the US who are essentially trying to do the same thing – build a country where none exists whilst being shot at and bombed 24/7. Not only is it a thankless task – especially (as always) for the poor bloody infantry – but it’s also an impossible task unless you are prepared to spend a great deal of money, a great deal of blood and generations of time to do so. Both the Russians before and the Coalition Forces today are finding that the price for ‘fixing’ Afghanistan is simply too high. It should come as no great surprise why the country (if you can call something a country merely because it has internationally agreed borders) has long been known as the ‘graveyard of Empires’. The Russians tried everything they could and despite the fact that they could be a great deal more unrestrained than the more ‘liberal’ western powers they still could not totally defeat the Mujahedin even before the US started arming them with modern sophisticated weapons. The Afghans have never taken kindly to foreign occupation – be it from Alexander the Great, The British Empire, the Russians or the Americans. They have resistance and rebellion in the blood and will fight anyone as long as they won’t leave – no matter how many of them you try to kill. The country is basically unconquerable unless you are willing to use every weapon at your disposal to supress the population – only to be left with a desert you never wanted in the first place.

This is the story of Braithwaite’s detailed and fascinating book. It is a book that every politician and every military commander should be forced to read. When we leave in 2014 the Coalition forces will have, like the Russians before them, achieved little of lasting impact. Like the years after the withdrawal in 1989 the country is likely to descend into bloody civil war as the strongest factions fight over the country and its meagre resources. Whether we, or any other nation, is stupid enough to try again in the future is anyone’s guess. I suppose that next time it will the turn of the Chinese to try their hand at taming the untameable. After all they’re just about the only ‘superpower’ that hasn’t tried yet.

If you’re interested in what went on in the 80’s and what is likely to go on in the middle years of the 21st century in that ungovernable region of the planet then this is definitely the book for you. I’m certainly a lot more informed about what happened back then and a great deal more clued into the difficulties our troops are having out there for precious little result no matter what the propaganda machine would have you believe. Highly recommended. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (FP: 2009)

England, Spring 1464. At the end of her tether Lancastrian supporter Elizabeth Woodville throws herself on the mercy on King Edward IV as her passes her father’s estate on the way to yet another battle to confirm his claim to the throne of England. Entranced by her beauty and her forthrightness he decides to give her back the lands taken from her husband after his execution for rebellion against his rightful lord. So begins a relationship that propels the Woodville family to the very centre of English politics during the turbulent years of what became known as The Wars of the Roses. With her two young sons she enters into royal life innocent of the powerful enemies she has created merely with her existence. Quick to make friends and place her family and loyal retainers in places of power she hopes that by doing so she can weather the inevitable backlash as her husband the King fights for his throne and the House of York he represents. But it is not only the Lancastrian pretenders that must be defended against. There are those in the House of York itself who think they would make a better King than the present incumbent and even the Kings brother is not above plotting against him. It is a dangerous time to rule and an even more dangerous time to be a woman with power.

I think this is only my second Philippa Gregory book. Many years ago – long before the Blogging habit – I read ‘A Respectable Trade’ about the slave trade in Bristol. I remember it being eminently readable but nothing more. This book however entranced me from the very first page (not surprisingly both Elizabeth Woodville and her Mother where both accused of being witches). Not only where the plethora of characters extremely well drawn but the feel of the period – especially now that I know more about it from other sources – comes across very well indeed. I did struggle more than once coming back to the early years of the 21st century after being totally absorbed in the goings on of the late 15th century. I literally lost myself in this book. Luckily for me – and you if you pick up this growing series – there are many more books to follow. Gregory excels at saving historic women from relative obscurity. Far too many of them have been overlooked by historians and by authors of historical fiction. Elizabeth Woodville is a fantastic character and I will look forward to reading more about the real Elizabeth after being so impressed by the fictionalised version. The Wars of the Roses brought several strong and decisive women centre stage and such women should not be forgotten. With authors as good as Philippa Gregory this will, thankfully, not come to pass. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stone tools 'demand new American story'

By Paul Rincon and Jonathan Amos

For The BBC

24 March 2011

The long-held theory of how humans first populated the Americas may have been well and truly broken. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of stone tools that predate the technology widely assumed to have been carried by the first settlers. The discoveries in Texas are seen as compelling evidence that the so-called Clovis culture does not represent America's original immigrants.

Details of the 15,500-year-old finds are reported in Science magazine. A number of digs across the Americas in recent decades had already hinted that the "Clovis first" model was in serious trouble. But the huge collection of well-dated tools excavated from a creek bed 60km (40 miles) northwest of Austin mean the theory is now dead, argue the Science authors. "This is almost like a baseball bat to the side of the head of the archaeological community to wake up and say, 'hey, there are pre-Clovis people here, that we have to stop quibbling and we need to develop a new model for peopling of the Americas'," Michael Waters, a Texas A&M University anthropologist, told reporters.

For 80 years, it has been argued that the Clovis culture was the first to sweep into the New World. These people were defined by their highly efficient stone-tool technology. Their arrow heads and spear points were formidable hunting weapons and were used to bring down the massive beasts of the Ice Age, such as mammoth, mastodon and bison. The hunter gatherers associated with this technology were thought to have crossed from Siberia into Alaska via a land bridge that became exposed when sea levels dropped. Evidence indicates this occurred as far back as about 13,500 years. But an increasing number of archaeologists have argued there was likely to have been an earlier occupation based on the stone tools that began turning up at dig sites with claimed dates of more than 15,000 years. Dr Waters and colleagues say this position is now undeniable in the light of the new artefacts to emerge from the Debra L Friedkin excavation. These objects comprise 15,528 items in total - a variety of chert blades, bladelets, chisels, and abundant flakes produced when making or repairing stone tools.

The collection was found directly below sediment containing classic Clovis implements. The dating - which relied on a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) that can tell how long minerals have been buried - is robust, says the team. And, they add, the observed sequence is also reliable; the sediments have not been mixed up after the tools were dropped. "The sediments were very rigid in the fact that they were clay, which worked to our advantage," explained Lee Nordt from Baylor University. "If you go to many other sites, they are loamy or sandy in texture, and they are mixed very rapidly by burrowing from animals or maybe from plant roots, etc."

The newly discovered tools are small, and the researchers propose that they were designed for a mobile toolkit - something that could be easily packed up and moved to a new location. Although clearly different from Clovis tools, they share some similarities and the researchers suggest Clovis technology may even have been derived from the capabilities displayed in the earlier objects. The Debra L Friedkin site lies just outside Austin "The Debra L Friedkin site demonstrates that people were in the Americas at least 2,500 years before Clovis," said Dr Waters. "The discovery provides ample time for Clovis to develop. People could experiment with stone and invent the weapons and tools that would potentially become recognizable as Clovis. In other words, [these tools represent] the type of assemblage from which Clovis could emerge." But anthropologist Tom Dillehay, who was not involved with the latest study, commented: "The 'Clovis first' paradigm died years ago. There are many other accepted pre-Clovis candidates throughout the Americas now." Professor Dillehay, from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told BBC News: "If you look at the prose of this paper, it bothers me a little bit because it's as if they are reconstituting the Clovis-Pre-Clovis debate and saying, 'Here's the site that kills it'." He commended the researchers on their well-presented data and "tight discussion". But he said that the OSL technique was less reliable than radiocarbon dating, which has been applied to other early American sites. And assigning the artefacts to Clovis and pre-Clovis technologies was not straightforward because the site lacked the projectile points required to reliably distinguish between the two. Clovis projectile points are unmistakeable.

In addition, said the Vanderbilt anthropology professor, the tools come from a floodplain deposit that is just 6-7cm thick. This, he said, was "potentially problematic" because of the possibility that artefacts were transported around by water. Professor Gary Haynes, from the University of Nevada in Reno, US, praised the "good work" by the research team. But he said it was plausible that natural processes could have caused some stone tools to migrate downwards in the clay - giving the impression of a pre-Clovis layer.

[I’ve come across this idea a few times – that the generally accepted argument for the ‘Clovis’ people populating the America’s – was just too simplistic and far too late. Although the find of early tools and other items are not beyond question it does appear from an increasing number of pre-Clovis dig sites that humans reached and colonised America early than is generally accepted. Cool when our ideas change about things in our deep past isn’t it?] 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Tubes – Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum (FP 2012)

As most stories do, this began with a squirrel. The squirrel in question had climbed up the authors nearby ‘telegraph’ pole and had bitten through his Internet cable – not that he knew that at the time his Internet connection inexplicably failed. Tech Support sent an engineer to investigate and with little else to do until the problem was resolved the author tagged along as asked questions – lots of questions. Like most people (myself largely included) he had never really thought about the Internet as a physical thing. It was, we are all told, ‘out there’ somewhere in the ‘cloud’. We hit ‘send’ and as if by magic an e-mail message simply appears thousands of miles away seconds later. After the squirrel incident the author wanted to know exactly where the cable went after it left his modem and vanished into the wall cavity – so he did exactly that and followed the tube.

If you’ve ever wondered in an idle moment where exactly the Internet is then this is definitely the book for you. Rather than see the ‘Net as some new form of existence in Cyberspace this fascinating and often humorous book looks for the actual stuff – the hardware – that makes it all work. From the Distribution Point at the end of his street to the Hub in his local town centre, to the huge data farms dotted across the planet to the truly massive, and surprisingly few, Internet Exchanges in cities such as Frankfurt (Germany), London, New York, Seattle, Tokyo and Milan the author did what any good investigator needs to do – he followed the data and followed the money. I found it interesting, to say the least, how the Internet was essentially cobbled together as and when it was needed, the speed it grew once it took off (amazingly not that long ago almost all of the world’s internet traffic went through a single Exchange that today would barely deserve the name) and the vast quantity of data that passes across it on a minute by minute basis – I actually went onto the Frankfurt IX website and discovered that they had exceeded the throughput mentioned in the book (published in 2012) by a considerable amount already and was still growing.

If you’re simply a Geek this book will undoubtedly delight you. If you’re just a user of the Internet with only the vaguest idea of what connects to what but have ever just wondered while waiting for something to download where exactly that video is coming from or how you can navigate to a website in Nova Scotia or Nantucket then this book is for you too. Rather than taking any of the magic away knowing something of how things actually work enhances rather than reduces the wow factor. Highly recommended for everyone who spends time online – and that means just about everyone these days. 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Death and the Devil by Frank Schatzing (FP: 2003)

Cologne, Germany in 1260. As the Great Cathedral rises above the city dangerous currents sweep through the population. Crusaders return from the East with tales of horror, religious tension between the various denominations increasingly lead to argument and sometimes to violence and the burgeoning merchant classes growing richer each year long to throw off the yoke of the landed aristocracy. Things come to a head when the cathedrals architect apparently falls to his death from a high scaffold. But one man sees it is not an accident and is in turn seen by the person who pushed the great man. Jacob ‘the Fox’ is stealing apples from a near-by tree and realising what he has just witnessed runs for his life. On his trail seems to be the very angel of death who kills everyone he comes into contact with in case he has let the secret out. With nowhere left to run Jacob stumbles across Richmodis the daughter of a local dyer who hides him when capture seems inevitable. Along with her uncle Jaspar Rodenkirchen who is the dean of St Mary Magdalene’s church they set out to make the truth known before the Devil in black takes them all.

I liked many things about this book. It zipped along at a good pace and felt a lot shorter than its 550 pages. The city of Cologne was well drawn and highly believable but the thing I liked most was, as usual, the rich characterisation of the main players and in particular the young precocious Richmodis and especially her uncle Jaspar who I would have honestly liked to sit down with during an evening drinking wine in his study. I’m sure that we would have had a very pleasant time if we could have spoken each other’s language! Unfortunately one of the downsides of it being so easy to read with characters easily identifiable with is that it just felt far too modern. This was 13th century Germany and yet the attitudes and dialogue would not have felt too much out of place in 1960 rather than 1260. Richmodis, lovely and feisty though she was, seemed very modern. Now I honestly have no idea what a 13th century tradesman’s daughter behaved like but it just didn’t feel right. Likewise I doubt very much if someone of that time would have described someone as a ‘rebel without a cause’…. It just felt out of place and jolted me out of the story with a bit of a bump. But saying that this was a very good novel and a real page turner, if a little overly contrived, a little too convoluted and a little too long. Recommended especially if you have a few pinches of salt handy.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Before We Die.

 …and another List from the Internet. This is one made up of 100 books we’re all are supposed to read before we die. There’s a lot of classics in there as you might expect but, at least as far as I’m concerned a few strange ones too (World War Z?). As before I’ve highlighted the ones I’ve read in bold and the ones I have in a pile somewhere with italics.

The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien
The Road Less Traveled – Dr. Scott M. Peck
Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
World War Z – Max Brooks
Education of a Wandering Man – Louis L’Amour
Watership Down – Richard Adams
The Iliad – Homer
The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
Paradise Lost – John Milton
Ulysses – James Joyce
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
1984 – George Orwell
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
Shogun – James Clavell
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
The Stand – Stephen King
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
The Art of War – Sun Tzu
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein
Deliverance – James Dickey
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
Eaters of the Dead – Michael Crichton
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
Night – Eli Wiesel
Exodus – Leon Uris
Contact – Carl Sagan
You Can’t Go Home Again – Thomas Wolfe
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
Blubber – Judy Blume
Foundation – Isaac Asimov
The Stranger – Albert Camus
The Trial – Franz Kafka
Rabbit, Run – John Updike
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler
Absalom, Absalom! – William Faulkner
Grendel – John Gardner
Hour of the Dragon – Robert E. Howard
The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer
Cop Hater – Ed McBain
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain
McTeague – Frank Norris
A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake
Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Magus – John Fowles
Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Complete Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Complete Shakespeare – William Shakespeare
Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin
I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
The Compete Plays of Aristophanes – Aristophanes
The Science of God – Gerald L. Schroeder
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre
Alexander of Macedon – Harold Lamb
Battle Royale – Koushun Takami
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Band of Brothers – Stephen Ambrose
Ancient Inventions – Peter James and Nick Thorpe
The Telltale Heart and Other Writings – Edgar Allan Poe
The Call of the Wild – Jack London
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – Frank Baum
The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer

Which I guess makes me pretty poorly read....... [grin] But I am working on it - slowly.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Madness – A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull (FP: 2011)

It would appear that madness of all things is rather difficult to define. Thinking about it a bit more I suppose it makes perfect sense – since sanity appears to be equally difficult to pin down. In some ways madness is one of those ‘we know it when we see it’ sort of things but as with most ‘common sense’ rule-of-thumb definitions it really doesn’t help much.

Of course the origins and cures for madness in all its forms have been debated and struggled with since Ancient times. Most of the names for the conditions we all know – and some of us have experienced – are either Greek or Latin. In those days the mad tended to be housed in ‘the community’ or exiled if they were considered too mad to be safe. Madness was seen as an affliction of the gods – for good or evil. Much later in the 16th and 17th centuries European civilisation began the big lock-up in such famous ‘hospitals’ as Bedlam. No real attempt was made in these imitations and intimations of Hell to understand much less cure people of whatever ailed them. Indeed such places operated as a form of entertainment and morality tale for the rich and shameless. Only with the 19th and especially the 20th centuries was any concerted attempt to systematically and scientifically understand exactly what was going on, what had gone wrong and what could be done about it. Inevitably the early attempts were crude involving various forms of shock treatment to bounce people back to normal. The surprising thing was that sometimes it actually seemed to work.
Inevitably I suppose there emerged two competing philosophies which attempted to explain madness – the psychological and the physical. The psychological was exemplified by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts such as Freud. At first this seemed to hold out great promise but, after decades of trying didn’t really seem to solve very much at all. Such very public failure allowed the pharmacologists to try their various chemical solutions which, again at first, seemed to promise so much and ultimately to deliver so little. Neither ‘side’ of course has yet to admit defeat and both have promised that a breakthrough is just around the corner or that they simply need more time.

At the core of the whole problem is the seeming inability to get to grips with the thing itself. Madness seems as elusive as ever. We can, to one extent or another, control it or supress it. But ultimately we have yet to understand it. Scull’s book is interesting in that it does not propose trite answers to difficult problems. It looks at the problem head on and says something that the professionals seem either unable or unwilling to confront – the fact that we don’t yet (and have really never) actually understood what we’ve tried to deal with and that it’s about time we started. Recommended for anyone interested in this equally fascinating and frightening subject.