About Me

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Darkest Hour by James Holland (FP: 2009)

England, May 1940. On his return from the abortive fiasco of the mission to save Norway, Sergeant Jack Tanner and his surviving platoon members are assigned to a training company to pass on their invaluable experience. But almost from the moment they arrive they encounter problems. The base oil is regularly being stolen and displaced Polish troops are being blamed. Jack thinks otherwise. At the centre of everything appears to be someone from Jack’s past in India. But before Jack can confirm his suspicions the balloon goes up and the company are sent to France to become part of the British Expeditionary Force whose job it is to hold back the advancing German forces. Badly led as before, but with more equipment this time, the British at first hold their own. But as the French forces are required to retreat again and again the British must follow suit or be surrounded. Forced into a fighting retreat Jack must hold his platoon together, train up a promising Lieutenant and watch his back as his authority is undermined at every turn. When a general retreat is ordered Jack and his men are told to hold the line long enough for the greatest escape in British military history to take place – the Miracle of Dunkirk. The only question is whether there will be any ships left to take them off the beaches when their time comes to save their own lives.

Holland is a best-selling historian and it shows. His description of the combat and confusion in Northern France in the chaotic six weeks between invasion and the Fall of France is gripping. Both on the ground and in the air his description of the fighting is vivid and, despite knowing that Jack himself would no doubt survive, I still held my breath at times as the bullets, bombs and shells fell on the British positions. Reading about the fictionalised events was bad enough. The reality must have been appalling. Tanner is a great character rightly called ‘Sharpe for the Blitz years’ by the Sunday Telegraph and I’m really looking forward to reading his future adventures (I have the next book and am waiting for the 4th book to appear in paperback). I do hope that the series runs and runs. In this particular novel I did feel that the whole theft and criminal conspiracy in the company was unnecessary and added a layer of complication that didn’t add very much to the story. The events of May 1940 were dramatic enough without adding another layer. Hopefully Holland will dispense with such things in future books and concentrate on what he does so well – combat. I shall definitely be finding out on way or another. Recommended to any fan of war fiction, WW2 or indeed Richard Sharpe.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The 1960's. The beginning of the End for the Soviet Union.......
“As a natural process, of the same character as the development of a tree from a seed, or of a fowl from its egg, evolution excludes creation and all other kinds of supernatural intervention.”

Thomas H Huxley, Aphorisms and Reflections (1907)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy - One Book to Rule Them All edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson (FP: 2003)

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Tolkien’s classic trilogy is a deeply philosophical text – or at least can be treated as such. Likewise it shouldn’t come as any surprise at all that such a book would interest me. As usual with such things the editors and publishers of this work – and the series of which it forms a part – have picked a wide variety of philosophers and cultural experts to tease out the themes represented in the books and films that make up the trilogy. Split into five parts this slim volume (at 218 pages) covers power and responsibility represented by the one true ring as well as the threat of emerging technologies (Part I), the quest for a happy life with a brief excursion into Existentialism (Part II), the nature of Good and Evil in Middle Earth (Part III), the idea of death as a gift, the importance of tradition and the books environmental themes (Part IV) and finally the idea of Providence, Buddhist and Taoist themes in the books, the Journey motif and the concept of the books as an extended fairy tale (Part V).

Overall this was a very interesting and thought provoking work. Often in books such as this there are stand-out contributions and those which can happily be skipped over or lightly skimmed. This volume was one of those rare examples where every section had its nuggets of gold and every article had something, and often multiple something’s, of interest. Of course you really shouldn’t pick up this book without having at least a passing knowledge of the books or movies – and preferably both. The works are heavily referenced and the uninitiated could quite easily get lost (or bored) by being bombarded by details that go over their heads. Several authors reference other Tolkien works (one of which, The Silmarillion, I have never read) but in such a way that your understanding is increased rather than clouded over. If you’ve read the books or watched the films with the excitement and wonder that I did you’ll have no problems when authors delve into the background of some scenes and go all fan-boy on the themes involved in Middle-Earth. The authors are, at least as far as I could tell, both knowledgeable and interested in the world Tolkien created. They have sometimes thought very deeply about the implications of his work (maybe too deeply on occasion!) and present their thoughts here with real enthusiasm. More than once I found myself smiling at a comment, laughing out loud at an observation or nodding sagely in agreement with a point of view. I also found myself more than once with a raised eyebrow and a ‘so that’s what that meant’ feeling as topics within the books where discussed and dissected in detail. If you are in any way a fan of this series – and I know that some of my regulars are – then this really should be on your bookshelf or downloaded to your Kindle. Impressive and recommended. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

If Only.......................
Cockroaches lose their 'sweet tooth' to evade traps

By Victoria Gill for BBC News

24 May 2013  

A strain of cockroaches in Europe has evolved to outsmart the sugar traps used to eradicate them.

American scientists found that the mutant cockroaches had a "reorganised" sense of taste, making them perceive the glucose used to coat poisoned bait not as sweet but rather as bitter. A North Carolina State University team tested the theory by giving cockroaches a choice of jam or peanut butter. They then analysed the insects' taste receptors, similar to our taste buds. Researchers from the same team first noticed 20 years ago that some pest controllers were failing to eradicate cockroaches from properties, because the insects were simply refusing to eat the bait.

Dr Coby Schal explained in the journal Science that this new study had revealed the "neural mechanism" behind this refusal. In the first part of the experiment, the researchers offered the hungry cockroaches a choice of two foods - peanut butter or glucose-rich jam [known as jelly is the US]. "The jelly contains lots of glucose and the peanut butter has a much smaller amount," explained Dr Schal. "You can see the mutant cockroaches taste the jelly and jump back - they're repulsed and they swarm over the peanut butter." In the second part of the experiment, the team was able to find out exactly why the cockroaches were so repulsed. The scientists immobilised the cockroaches and used tiny electrodes to record the activity of taste receptors - cells that respond to flavour that are "housed" in microscopic hairs on the insects' mouthparts "The cells that normally respond to bitter compounds were responding to glucose in these [mutant] cockroaches," said Dr Schal. "So they're perceiving glucose to be a bitter compound. The sweet-responding cell does also fire, but the bitter compound actually inhibits it - so the end result is that bitterness overrides sweetness." Highly magnified footage of these experiments clearly shows a glucose-averse cockroach reacting to a dose of the sugar. "It behaves like a baby that rejects spinach," explained Dr Schal. "It shakes its head and refuses to imbibe that liquid, at the end, you can see the [glucose] on the side of the head of the cockroach that has refused it."

The process of natural selection would strongly favour any chance genetic change that caused a cockroach to avoid the bait and therefore death. Since individuals with the trait would have a greater chance of surviving and reproducing, their descendants with the trait would in time replace those that lacked the trait in the cockroach population. This is the same process that has led to the evolution of antibiotic resistance in disease-causing bacteria, and warfarin resistance in rats. The discovery of natural selection was one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time and this year sees worldwide celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who co-discovered natural selection with Charles Darwin in 1858.

Dr Elli Leadbeater from the Institute of Zoology in London said the work was exciting. "Usually, when natural selection changes taste abilities, it simply makes animals more or less sensitive to certain taste types. For example, bees that specialise on collecting nectar are less sensitive to sugar than other bees, which means that they only collect concentrated nectar. Evolution has made sugar taste less sweet to them, but they still like it. In the cockroach case, sugar actually tastes bitter - an effective way for natural selection to quickly produce cockroaches that won't accept the sugar baits that hide poison." Dr Schal said this was another chapter in the evolutionary arms race between humans and cockroaches. "We keep throwing insecticides at them and they keep evolving mechanisms to avoid them," he said. "I have always had incredible respect for cockroaches," he added. "They depend on us, but they also take advantage of us."

[Another example of Evolution in action alongside the increase in anti-biotic resistance that is causing us more and more headaches at the moment. Of course when you think about such modifications are inevitable. We humans are just another selection force on many creatures we come into contact with. Some of them have been or will be pushed into extinction because of our actions. Some will be pushed to the boundaries of the world where we have little or no interest and thrive there. Some will evolve strategies to combat out attempt to control or kill them and some will fight back – with varying levels of success. Some, probably viruses or bacteria, will become much stronger because of our efforts to eradicate them and could eventually destroy us because of that. All the more reason to understand evolutionary processes and act accordingly. For without that level of understanding we may unwittingly bring into being something that could finish us off.] 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of Britain (1485 – 1660) - The Tudor and Stuart Dynasties by Ronald Hutton (FP: 2010)

The very first thing I thought when I picked up this book was that it looked a bit thin. How, I thought, can the author cover and do justice to 175 years of British (not just English!) history in 290 pages. It’s not exactly as if those years were times of quiet contemplation after all! Only the large scale we had the end of Plantagenet rule with the death of Richard III at Bosworth and the rise of the Tudors who are arguably the most famous and loved of our monarchs. Both Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I tower above so many other people during the Early Modern period that it’s difficult to see anyone else – though some very impressive people are scattered through their time. Then there’s the English Reformation caused by Henry’s split with Rome and the inevitable conflict between Catholic and Protestant both at home and abroad including the threat from Catholic Spain which sent her famous Armada against us. Of course Elizabeth being the ‘Virgin Queen’ didn’t leave an heir and had to be followed by James Stuart in 1603 and Charles Stuart in 1625. In the following 17 years tensions between King and Parliament led, in 1642, to a long and bloody Civil War and finally to the declaration of a republic, known as the Commonwealth in 1649 led by Oliver Cromwell who has been a figure of hate and admiration ever since depending on the political stance (and nationality) of the people involved. With the collapse of the Commonwealth in 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne in a matter of weeks and the brief experimentation with republicanism passed into history.

This is only the very briefest of overviews. Mixed in there are plots, wars, revolutions, battles, deaths and much else besides. It was it seems a very dangerous time to be around be you monarch or commoner. So you can imagine that the author certainly had his work cut out for him. What is all the more surprising was that not only did he cover all the bases in sufficient detail that I had a real appreciation of what happened, why it happened and what the consequences where but I was also treated to the authors thoughts on the state of religious observance in Britain, the many effects of the Reformation on the nation and his musings on historical narrative itself. It was all pretty fascinating, if understandably brief, stuff. Hutton has a very good writing style which is at one and the same time chatty and authoritative. It’s almost a case of learning lessons without knowing you’re doing so. It is, in effect, edutainment – but in a good way! Like all good books this left me wanting more. Therefore, I’ll be filling in the gaps, or at least some of them, in the coming months with histories of the Tudors, the Reformation and the Civil Wars – yes Wars, not War. That’s one thing I learnt from this book. What I thought was a singular event (not counting the earlier Wars of the Roses as such) was anything but. But I can address that in more detail later. Needless to say my passion for my own countries history continues and continues to grow. Much more to come!  

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Interview with the Vampire

As you will know by now I’m a fan of vampires in most genres – especially movies and how could I avoid this one. Starring some of my favourite actors and adapted from one of my favourite series of books by Anne Rice.

Telling the story of Louis (played by and large in an understated manner by Brad Pitt) who, on losing his wife and child in 18th Century New Orleans, invites death at every opportunity. Enter Lestat (played in over-the-top fashion by, I think, somewhat of a miscast Tom Cruise) who offers him death or eternal life as a vampire. Louis chooses life and regrets it for the next 400 years. Telling his story in modern day San Francisco to struggling author Dan Malloy (played in typical fashion by Christian Slater) he relates his struggles with immortality – whilst still feeling guilt with every life he takes – the ‘making’ of the child vampire Claudia (in one of Kirsten Dunst’s early roles), their journey across Europe looking for more of their kind and his final meeting with the vampire Armand (played with real style by Antonio Banderas) and the violent fall-out of their encounter. Beautifully filmed and told with style (it’s a Neil Jordan film after all) I found this movie a delight to watch. Despite not exactly seeing Cruise as Lestat (Stuart Townsend played him much better in Queen of the Damned I thought) he was often suitable frightening, perverse and borderline scary just as a creature without apparent limits would be I guess. Dunst, then aged a mere 12 years old was amazing as the woman trapped forever in a child’s body because of Lestat’s desire to keep Louis with him through his love for her.

Full of sumptuous locations, sudden violence, plenty of blood and a fair bit of gallows humour this is a treat for any vampire lover out there. Since its release in 1994 I don’t think it’s aged at all and seems just as fresh as it did back then. These guys (and girl) are proper vampires. They kill whenever they need to or simply want to. By and large, once Louis gets over his guilt trip, they see humans as food to be consumed and discarded as required. Sometimes they play with their food and sometimes they dispatch it without another thought. They think of themselves as superior to mere mortals and revel in their abilities – just as proper vampires should. They’re not nice people (even Louis) and don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are – predators. They don’t glow in sunlight, they die. OK, Rice messed about with some of the folklore – crosses, stakes and holy water have no effect on them – but the rest is pretty much spot on and traditional. It’s definitely how I like my vampires – carnivores rather than wimpy vegetarians!

If you’ve managed to miss this or if you haven’t seen it for a while I can certainly recommend it to you. Although not as good as Queen of the Damned in my opinion it’s still far better than the Twilight series which has made vampires into cuddly monsters rather than a real reason to fear the night. If you want nothing to do with such extreme revisionism then this is definitely a movie for you.   

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I'm betting on the Cat!

A Brave New Dystopia

by Chris Hedges for TruthDig.com

December 27, 2010

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled. 

Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement. Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.  “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake,” Orwell wrote in “1984.”  “We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” in his book “Democracy Incorporated” to describe our political system. It is a term that would make sense to Huxley. In inverted totalitarianism, the sophisticated technologies of corporate control, intimidation and mass manipulation, which far surpass those employed by previous totalitarian states, are effectively masked by the glitter, noise and abundance of a consumer society. Political participation and civil liberties are gradually surrendered. The corporation state, hiding behind the smokescreen of the public relations industry, the entertainment industry and the tawdry materialism of a consumer society, devours us from the inside out. It owes no allegiance to us or the nation. It feasts upon our carcass. 

The corporate state does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader. It is defined by the anonymity and facelessness of the corporation. Corporations, who hire attractive spokespeople like Barack Obama, control the uses of science, technology, education and mass communication. They control the messages in movies and television. And, as in “Brave New World,” they use these tools of communication to bolster tyranny. Our systems of mass communication, as Wolin writes, “block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue, anything that might weaken or complicate the holistic force of their creation, to its total impression.” The result is a monochromatic system of information. Celebrity courtiers, masquerading as journalists, experts and specialists, identify our problems and patiently explain the parameters. All those who argue outside the imposed parameters are dismissed as irrelevant cranks, extremists or members of a radical left. Prescient social critics, from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky, are banished. Acceptable opinions have a range of A to B. The culture, under the tutelage of these corporate courtiers, becomes, as Huxley noted, a world of cheerful conformity, as well as an endless and finally fatal optimism. We busy ourselves buying products that promise to change our lives, make us more beautiful, confident or successful as we are steadily stripped of rights, money and influence. All messages we receive through these systems of communication, whether on the nightly news or talk shows like “Oprah,” promise a brighter, happier tomorrow. And this, as Wolin points out, is “the same ideology that invites corporate executives to exaggerate profits and conceal losses, but always with a sunny face.” We have been entranced, as Wolin writes, by “continuous technological advances” that “encourage elaborate fantasies of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through surgery, actions measured in nanoseconds: a dream-laden culture of ever-expanding control and possibility, whose denizens are prone to fantasies because the vast majority have imagination but little scientific knowledge.”

Our manufacturing base has been dismantled. Speculators and swindlers have looted the U.S. Treasury and stolen billions from small shareholders who had set aside money for retirement or college. Civil liberties, including habeas corpus and protection from warrantless wiretapping, have been taken away. Basic services, including public education and health care, have been handed over to the corporations to exploit for profit. The few who raise voices of dissent, who refuse to engage in the corporate happy talk, are derided by the corporate establishment as freaks.

Attitudes and temperament have been cleverly engineered by the corporate state, as with Huxley’s pliant characters in “Brave New World.” The book’s protagonist, Bernard Marx, turns in frustration to his girlfriend Lenina:

“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?” he asks. 

“I don’t know that you mean. I am free, free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed, “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We have been giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated.

The fa├žade is crumbling. And as more and more people realize that they have been used and robbed, we will move swiftly from Huxley’s “Brave New World” to Orwell’s “1984.” The public, at some point, will have to face some very unpleasant truths. The good-paying jobs are not coming back. The largest deficits in human history mean that we are trapped in a debt peonage system that will be used by the corporate state to eradicate the last vestiges of social protection for citizens, including Social Security. The state has devolved from a capitalist democracy to neo-feudalism. And when these truths become apparent, anger will replace the corporate-imposed cheerful conformity. The bleakness of our post-industrial pockets, where some 40 million Americans live in a state of poverty and tens of millions in a category called “near poverty,” coupled with the lack of credit to save families from foreclosures, bank repossessions and bankruptcy from medical bills, means that inverted totalitarianism will no longer work.

We increasingly live in Orwell’s Oceania, not Huxley’s The World State. Osama bin Laden plays the role assumed by Emmanuel Goldstein in “1984.” Goldstein, in the novel, is the public face of terror. His evil machinations and clandestine acts of violence dominate the nightly news. Goldstein’s image appears each day on Oceania’s television screens as part of the nation’s “Two Minutes of Hate” daily ritual. And without the intervention of the state, Goldstein, like bin Laden, will kill you. All excesses are justified in the titanic fight against evil personified. The psychological torture of Pvt. Bradley Manning—who has now been imprisoned for seven months without being convicted of any crime—mirrors the breaking of the dissident Winston Smith at the end of “1984.” Manning is being held as a “maximum custody detainee” in the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. He spends 23 of every 24 hours alone. He is denied exercise. He cannot have a pillow or sheets for his bed. Army doctors have been plying him with antidepressants. The cruder forms of torture of the Gestapo have been replaced with refined Orwellian techniques, largely developed by government psychologists, to turn dissidents like Manning into vegetables. We break souls as well as bodies. It is more effective. Now we can all be taken to Orwell’s dreaded Room 101 to become compliant and harmless. These “special administrative measures” are regularly imposed on our dissidents, including Syed Fahad Hashmi, who was imprisoned under similar conditions for three years before going to trial. The techniques have psychologically maimed thousands of detainees in our black sites around the globe. They are the staple form of control in our maximum security prisons where the corporate state makes war on our most politically astute underclass—African-Americans. It all presages the shift from Huxley to Orwell.

“Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling,” Winston Smith’s torturer tells him in “1984.” “Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” The noose is tightening. The era of amusement is being replaced by the era of repression. Tens of millions of citizens have had their e-mails and phone records turned over to the government. We are the most monitored and spied-on citizenry in human history. Many of us have our daily routine caught on dozens of security cameras. Our proclivities and habits are recorded on the Internet. Our profiles are electronically generated. Our bodies are patted down at airports and filmed by scanners. And public service announcements, car inspection stickers, and public transportation posters constantly urge us to report suspicious activity. The enemy is everywhere.

Those who do not comply with the dictates of the war on terror, a war which, as Orwell noted, is endless, are brutally silenced. The draconian security measures used to cripple protests at the G-20 gatherings in Pittsburgh and Toronto were wildly disproportionate for the level of street activity. But they sent a clear message—DO NOT TRY THIS. The FBI’s targeting of antiwar and Palestinian activists, which in late September saw agents raid homes in Minneapolis and Chicago, is a harbinger of what is to come for all who dare defy the state’s official Newspeak. The agents—our Thought Police—seized phones, computers, documents and other personal belongings. Subpoenas to appear before a grand jury have since been served on 26 people. The subpoenas cite federal law prohibiting “providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” Terror, even for those who have nothing to do with terror, becomes the blunt instrument used by Big Brother to protect us from ourselves. “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?” Orwell wrote. “It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (FP: 2008)

16 year old Katniss Everdeen is not exactly your average teenager. Ever since her father died in a mining accident she has been providing food for her family, keeping a watchful eye on her younger sister and trying desperately to keep her mother focused on the here and now. But in the here and now there is the ever present fear of the Hunger Games. A contest that involves two children from each district fighting to the death for the entertainment of the Capital and the education of the 12 Districts that have survived both war and violent rebellion. Kat knows that, in its 74th year, she has only two more years to be chosen and then she’ll be free. But in her first eligible year Kats 12 year old sister is inexplicably picked to represent the District. Knowing that this is in effect a death penalty Kat offers herself as Tribute in her sister’s place. Almost written off from the start Kat and her co-Tribute Peeta start the long process of wowing the crowd and training for inevitable combat. As they prepare for the upcoming event in the Capitol Kat begins to find within herself the strength to challenge the odds which she knows, from bitter experience, have never been in her favour.

I’d heard the buzz about this book when it came out in 2008 but put it down to the hype surrounding much of the Young Adult market in paperbacks – especially when the hero is a young woman. I certainly had no intention of looking out for it and probably would never have read it except for several things. Firstly I saw the movie. Now to be honest I wasn’t that impressed. The story was pretty run-of-the-mill and, apart from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, not particularly well acted. So why read the book(s)? Mostly, I have to say, because several of my friends had already read them and a few of them recommended it/them highly. The final piece of the puzzle was that I was offered all three books for the ridiculously low price of £5 ($7.65). It was an offer this bookaholic just couldn’t refuse.

So…. Did I like it? Oddly, yes I did. I say oddly because the book was very close to the movie adaptation that I thought was merely OK. What I think made a huge difference was what was missing in the film – partially the historical and political background to the society that Katniss and Peeta grew up in. But the big difference, and the most interesting thing from my point of view, was the internal dialogue that we, as readers rather than viewers, were privileged to have access to. Rather than simply seeing what she did and trying to understand her motivations and reactions we, again as readers, knew exactly why she was reacting as she did. This I think made a huge difference. As I knew exactly what was going to happen the book could have been incredibly boring – indeed I was fully expecting it to be a slog rather than something I would enjoy – but I found it to be anything but. It also makes me look at the movie in quite a different way and I almost wish that I had read the book before seeing the movie rather than the other way around. I’m now even looking forward to seeing the sequel when it’s out which I wasn’t prior to reading this. If you have managed to miss the book because of the hype or your reaction to the film I can recommend that you give this a try. Although far from ground breaking stuff it is still a good story well told. Surprisingly recommended.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)

“The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own.”

Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975)

Cartoon Time.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Books light up your life....

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, or even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”

Henry David Thoreau (1813 – 1862)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Past Caring by Robert Goddard (FP: 1986)

London, 1910. Up and coming MP Edwin Strafford is at the pinnacle of his political career when, apparently out of the blue he tenders his resignation. Within hours the woman he is due to marry inexplicably rejects him and his life – both personal and professional – lies in tatters at his feet. Offered a face saving post on the island of Madeira he fades from history.

London, 70 years later. Down on his luck ex-history teacher Martin Radford is offered the chance of a lifetime. The man who bought Strafford’s house in Madeira has discovered an unpublished memoir that hints at the reasons for his sudden fall from grace and wants to know more. Unwilling to take time away from his business interests he hires Martin to do his leg work for him. The mission – to find out exactly why Strafford resigned his post as the youngest Home Secretary in the 20th Century. Using the memoir as his guide Martin quickly discovers that an unlikely love affair between the Home Secretary and a young Suffragette is at the heart of things. But as he digs deeper and asks questions it appears that powerful people want a 70 year old mystery to remain dead and buried. As Martin slowly approaches the truth behind Strafford’s nightmare 48 hours all those years ago he begins to realise that not only reputations but lives are at stake.

This is my third Goddard book and his first novel. Part of my interest in it was to see how his style had developed from those early years. He explores his regular theme of uncovering the past with, I think, mixed results. The extracts from Strafford’s memoirs are very good indeed. I wonder if he wrote them originally as the idea for a book based wholly in 1910 but found that he couldn’t continue on that tack? It might explain the bolted-on feeling I had about the 1970’s investigation into the origins of his fall from grace. The historian Radford was, in all honesty, a pretty poor investigator and not exactly anything like a decent historian. For many reasons I found him oscillating between tedious and unbelievable to say nothing of annoying. Most of the other characters were either crude cardboard cut-outs (most especially Radford’s “love” interest Eve who I thought was terrible). Such character failings where particularly noticeable as they were in stark contrast to Strafford and his love interest Elizabeth who were both very well drawn indeed and totally believable. It seemed at times that the novel had been written by two different people and then edited together by a third. It was all very strange. Maybe the author was going after some effect – the different cultures of 1910 compared to 1970 maybe? – but whatever the reason was it escaped me. The ending caught me by surprise which was good as I didn’t really expect the hero to fail like that (I’m not really giving anything away with that revelation).

Overall this was a flawed but still at times very enjoyable novel. It certainly showcases many of the things Goddard perfects in his later novels (both of the one’s I’ve read so far have been solid and effective thrillers with more than a few moments of excellence). It’s also interesting – to me at least – to see the origins of a prolific author I look forward to reading in the years ahead. Reasonable.     

Sunday, May 12, 2013

“Reading good books is like having a conversation with the most distinguished men of past ages.”

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)

“How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!”

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1851)

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Kepler telescope: Earth-sized planets 'number 17bn'

By Jason Palmer for BBC News

8 January 2013

Astronomers say that one in six stars hosts an Earth-sized planet in a close orbit - suggesting a total of 17 billion such planets in our galaxy. The result comes from an analysis of planet candidates gathered by Nasa's Kepler space observatory. The Kepler scientists also announced 461 new planet candidates, bringing the satellites' total haul to 2,740. Their findings were announced at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in California.

Since its launch into orbit in 2009, Kepler has stared at a fixed part of the sky, peering at more than 150,000 stars in its field of view. It detects the minute dip in light coming from a star if a planet passes in front of it, in what is called a transit. But it is a tricky measurement to make, with the total light changing just tiny fractions of a percent, and not every dip in light is due to a planet. So Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics - who discovered the first Earth-sized planets set about trying to find out not only which Kepler candidates might not be planets, but also which planets might not have been visible to Kepler.

"We have to correct for two things - first [the Kepler candidate list] is incomplete," he told BBC News. "We only see the planets that are transiting their host stars, stars that happen to have a planet that is well-aligned for us to see it, and [for each of those] there are dozens that do not. The second major correction is in the list of candidates - there are some that are not true planets transiting their host star; they are other astrophysical configurations. These might include, for example, binary stars, where one star orbits another, blocking some of the light as the stars transit each other. We simulated all the possible configurations we could think of - and we found out that they could only account for 9.5% of Kepler planets, and all the rest are bona fide planets," Dr Fressin explained. The results suggest that 17% of stars host a planet up to 1.25 times the size of the Earth, in close orbits lasting just 85 days or fewer - much like the planet Mercury. That means our Milky Way galaxy hosts at least 17 billion Earth-sized planets.

Even as Dr Fressin reported an analysis of the most recent Kepler catalogue, it was increased substantially by results reported by Christopher Burke of the Seti Institute. Dr Burke announced 461 new candidate planets, a substantial fraction of which were Earth-sized or not much larger - planets that have until now been particularly difficult to detect. "What's particularly interesting is four new planets - less than twice the size of Earth - that are potentially in the habitable zone, the location around a star where it could potentially have liquid water to sustain life," Dr Burke told BBC News. One of the four, dubbed KOI 172.02, is a mere 1.5 times the size of the Earth and around a star like our own Sun - perhaps as near as the current data allow to finding an "Earth 2.0". "It's very exciting because we're really starting to pick up the sensitivity to these things in the habitable zone - we're just really getting to the frontier of potentially life-bearing planets."

William Borucki, the driving force behind and principal investigator on the Kepler mission, said he was "delighted" by the fresh batch of results. "The most important thing is the statistics - not to find one Earth but to find 100 Earths. That's what we'll be seeing as the years go on with the Kepler mission, because it was designed to find many Earths."

[17 BILLION? Stick THAT in your Drake Equation!]

Friday, May 10, 2013

“It is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then, at last, words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.”

Lucretius (c.98-55 B.C.E.)

“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”

Epictetus (50-130)

Thursday, May 09, 2013


Just Finished Reading: Atheism – A Guide for the Perplexed by Kerry Walters (FP: 2010)

Over the past year or so I have become increasingly bored with the so-called God Debate (or should I call it the So-called Debate). I have come to the conclusion that those arguing the point are merely stating their own opinions and attempt to argue against the opinions held by the other ‘side’. Neither group can offer the killer argument because there isn’t one. You can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God – especially to the other side’s satisfaction. Any debate about God him (or her) self is speculation of the idlest sort. If God exists (which I firmly do not believe despite everything I’ve just said) I sincerely doubt if we could know anything significant about him/her/it. It would, I feel, be a bit like asking an ant crawling along a cable to speculate about the attributes of the Internet as data pours along the fibres beneath its feet. It’s about as pointless as it gets. What increasingly surprises and saddens me is that some of the world’s greatest minds – and not just on the side of the Atheists – spend a great deal of time, effort and energy debating the subject when they could be off doing something useful with their lives.

With that in mind it might surprise you that I spent a long weekend reading this book especially as I’m hardly perplexed about my Atheism. To be honest I’m not exactly sure why I picked it up either. I’d actually forgotten that I’d bought it and had only recently rediscovered it ‘lost’ between two piles of books. In a moment of weakness I thought I’d see if Professor Walters could actually produce a readable and interesting book on a subject that I had basically given up on. Surprisingly he did – which is why I managed to read its 177 pages without throwing my hands up in horror/exasperation or being bored to tears. He did elicit a few eye rolls (especially when he talked about a rapprochement between theists and atheists) but overall managed to be very even handed in his treatment of both sides which was honestly refreshing these days. At times I did feel he was giving the theist too much leeway but then, within a few pages, I felt that he might be giving the atheists a bit too much credit. If I had to place him on one side or the other I’d plump for him (just) being on the side of the atheists as he effectively called into question every theist argument for God rightly saying that they are all inadequate and some are so seriously flawed as to be embarrassing. He also rightly pointed out that there is no killer argument on the atheist side that shows beyond doubt the God does not or cannot exist. Their arguments are better (both he and I believe) but they are not the last word.

I can’t say that the last section ruined things for me but he did call into question his apparent impartiality by proposing and calling for a constructive dialogue between the two sides of the debate – over the apparent common ground of spirituality. He was very careful to draw similarities between theistic beliefs and the natural wonder and sometimes awe we all feel sometimes just by experiencing the world/universe that we’re all part of. Whilst I acknowledge that such a thing exists I think that he’s making a fundamental mistake of attempting to compare things that, on the face of it, could be seen as the same – or very similar – things but are in fact quite different. Awe at the universe might be a factor in religious feeling but I don’t believe that a meaningful relationship between the two opposing sides can be built on such a thing.

Anyway, this is an interesting book for either atheists or theists who are, like me, tired of the polemics and tirades from both sides and just want to understand what all of the fuss is about (not a great deal I contend). In centuries to come I hope that people are truly perplexed as to why so much energy and words were used on this subject in the same way we laugh at the supposed medieval debates on angels dancing on pin-heads.  

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”

Diogenes the Cynic (c. 412-323 B.C.E.)

“Humanity subdues inhumanity as water subdues fire.”

Mencius (c. 372-289 B.C.E.)

Cartoon Time.