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

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Voyager surfs Solar System's edge

By Jonathan Amos for The BBC

28 June 2013

"It could be any day, but it could also be several more years." Ed Stone cannot say when the Voyager-1 spacecraft will leave the Solar System, but he believes the moment is close. The latest data from this extraordinary probe, reported in this week's Science journal, suggests it is surfing right on the very edge of our Sun's domain. The particles streaming away from our star have reduced to a trickle at its present location, 18.5 billion km from Earth. Particles flying towards it from interstellar space, by contrast, have jumped markedly in the past year. It all points to an imminent departure, which would make Voyager the first man-made object to cross into the space between the stars.

"It's hard to imagine there's another layer between the one we're in and the outside," Dr Stone told BBC News. "Topologically, it makes sense that this is the outermost layer. The only question is: how thick is it?" Launched way back in 1977, the probe has now travelled so far from home that its constant chatter of data takes 17 hours to arrive at the US space agency's receiving network. And chatter, it does. Voyager's instruments are busy sampling the far-flung environment. This has allowed Dr Stone and colleagues to map the shape and reach of the heliosphere - the giant bubble of charged particles blown off from our Sun. In 2004, it reached a turbulent region referred to as the heliosheath, where particles bounced around in all directions. It was expected this would be the final stage before the leap to interstellar space. But, as has been the case throughout this 35-year mission, Voyager threw up yet another surprise. Last year, it detected what appears to be a discrete boundary layer that Ed Stone's team call the "heliosheath depletion region" in Friday's three Science papers. It is a kind of magnetic highway where energetic particles on the inside can get out easily, and the galactic cosmic ray particles on the outside can zoom in. "It is where the Sun's magnetic field has piled up, compressed up against itself. It has also doubled in strength. It's smoother than anything we've ever seen with Voyager," Dr Stone explained.

The team is now watching the direction of the field lines very carefully. Currently, they orientate east-west, wound into a spiral by the rotating Sun. But when Voyager finally breaks through into interstellar space, they are expected to shift dramatically, running north-south. This is an acid test for Dr Stone. Although some might argue the particle data is evidence of Voyager being outside the Solar System, the project leader believes the probe cannot truly be said to be beyond the Sun's domain until it has also escaped our star's magnetic influence. But do not expect an immediate, definitive announcement from Nasa that Voyager is in interstellar space when the magnetic signal does switch. Instead, the instrument scientists will sit and listen to the probe's chatter, perhaps for several months. They will want to be absolutely sure Voyager has broken through the so-called heliopause.

Like the surfer who rides the front of a breaking wave, battling the foam, Voyager will take some time to move completely clear of everything behind. "The edge may be somewhat turbulent. We just don't know," Dr Stone told BBC News. "This is exploration after all, and we will find out how Nature makes this interface. But it will be moving because the Sun does 'breathe' in and out. Voyager 1 is on course to approach a star called AC +793888, but it will only get to within two light-years of it and take some 40,000 years to make the passage. Voyager 2, which was launched a few weeks before Voyager 1, is on a slightly slower path to interstellar space and is probably a few years from seeing the heliosheath depletion region. Both probes have sufficient power in their plutonium "batteries" to keep working into the next decade.

[What amazes me, truly amazes me, is not that Voyager 1 has just about reached the edge of the Solar System, but that it continues to send back data – and useful data at that! What an amazing piece of engineering it is. The men and women who worked – and continue to work – on this project should be rightly proud of their achievement. Excellent!]

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Endless Forms Most Beautiful – The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom by Sean B Carroll (FP: 2005)

The last time I studied biology in general or genetics in particular in any depth was around 35 years ago. Since then I’ve read the odd book or two on the subject so whilst not exactly out of the loop on the subject I’m not as familiar as I once was (or arguably still should be) with the ins and outs of the workings of DNA. In consequence I honestly struggled with the first half of this book. It wasn’t that it was badly written or poorly explained – it certainly wasn’t that – it was just that some of my mental processors had rusted up in the intervening decades of relative inactivity. Despite the amount of effort it took to keep up with the intricacies of DNA in action and the assimilation of new discoveries about how exactly wings, legs, eyes and eye-spots come into existence and change form and function over time I did manage to keep up – though sometimes only just – with this fascinating story. Facts inevitably came thick and fast, experiments reeled off and detailed photographs explained to show how the same gene(s) that gave rise to the eyes of a fly gave rise to the very different eyes in mice and men. All in all there was quite a lot to absorb even after you got over the wow factor and, sometimes, the yuk factor.

I was far happier with the second section of the book – or should I say more at ease – where the author applied everything he brought up in the first section. Here he moved on from the ‘pure’ genetics of Evo Devo (Evolutionary Development Biology) to its application(s) out in the real world. Here he looked at the questions that had baffled previous generations of biologists and showed how the new approach could offer solutions – problems like the Zebra stripes, the development of the eye (not ‘re-invented’ on multiple occasions as previously thought), the development of flight in insects and birds and the development of the human brain plus much else besides. I can’t possibly pr├ęcis the amount of information held in this book nor will I attempt to do so. I can only suggest that you sit down in a quiet room with a good strong cup of coffee and some of your favourite biscuits and have at it. It will probably be hard going unless you’re a lot closer to your College biology class than I am. But it’s definitely worth the effort to get to know what’s been going on in the world of evolutionary genetics in the last few years. The myths that Darwinian evolution is falling apart, has hit an impenetrable impasse or has simply run out of steam are blown apart. Real solid progress is outlined on practically every page. The implications are sometimes quite staggering. Not only are we moving into an era where we have a much greater knowledge of how Evolution actually works on a day-to-day basis we are not that far away from being able to manipulate this process at a cellular level. Once we know for certain exactly what needs to happen to produce a butterflies wings or a fish fin we are in a position where we can truly design living beings. Not only will we be able to design bacteria to produce any chemical in any quantity we wish we can bring back extinct creatures and create new ones that have only previously existed in the human imagination. The power of this technology is incredible. We are, it appears, not too far away from creating life from scratch. It’s all very exciting and more than a little disturbing!

I have more evolutionary biology books in the pipeline which will, I hope and expect, both deepen and widen my knowledge of this ever fascinating subject which informs both where we came from and, probably, where we are going. Along with Quantum Mechanics the subject has long had a hold on me which refuses to let go. Long may it continue. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne (FP: 1863)

In Early 1862 intrepid explorer Dr Samuel Fergusson, his friend and determined sportsman Dick Kennedy and hid man-servant Joe set out from the island of Zanzibar determined to cross the whole of Africa from east to west by means of a hydrogen filled balloon. Where they will finally make landfall is entirely in the hands of Providence and the skilful handling of the balloon by Dr Fergusson himself. Along the way they must battle against a harsh hot environment, hostile natives and bands of slavers, aggressive animals and the ever present danger of being suspended under a balloon filled with explosive gas! It is only through the dedicated application of science, common sense and the very latest in weapons technology that they manage to make their way across the Dark Continent. But real hazards exist and nothing worthwhile is gained without a modicum of danger. Sacrifices are made in order for the expedition to move forward, blood is split, sweat is required and in the final stages of the flight it is down to every true Englishman to do his duty even at the cost of his very life. Only in this way can the occupants of the balloon maintain their superiority over the ignorant and superstitious natives who dog their every step.

I believe this to be Verne’s first published work presumably serialised in a magazine or newspaper as these things were back then. There’s certainly enough cliff-hangers to keep people buying the next instalment despite its short length – only 127 pages in my edition (‘edited for schools’ apparently although what was edited out escapes me). It certainly followed the type of late 19th century novel I’m familiar with from Wells and Conan Doyle amongst others (including Verne himself). What did surprise me more than a little, though it shouldn’t have done really, was the sheer amount of casual racism peppered throughout the pages. Practically on every page is a casual comment on the inferiority of the African inhabitants – including Arab traders – as compared to the obvious superiority of Europeans (particularly the British and the French). Yet this ‘superiority seemed to be evidenced by shooting everything that moved – especially if the creature was unknown to them – in order to cook it over a handy fire to see what it tasted like. Likewise contact with any native contingent seemed to be made more often by bullet than any attempt at an actual dialogue. I winced more than once at the attitudes of the balloons occupants. It’s possible that this was intended as satire but I have a feeling that the book was intended to be much more of an adventure story than something to elicit chuckles from under the bed sheets of young boys late at night. Obviously it is difficult to judge novels of an earlier age by modern standards – indeed reading such books allows us to see clearly how attitudes to many things have changed in the intervening years – but I couldn’t help but find this short novel to be more than a little distasteful. One for a Verne completest only I think.   

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A day late for the Summer Solstice.......... 
Antimatter atoms are corralled even longer

By Jonathan Amos for BBC News

6 June 2011

Scientists have succeeded in trapping atoms of anti-hydrogen for more than 15 minutes. The feat is a big improvement on efforts reported last year that could corral this mirror of normal hydrogen for just fractions of a second at best. The researchers tell Nature Physics journal that they can now probe the properties of antimatter in detail. This will help them understand why the Universe is composed of normal matter rather than its opposite. The laws of physics appear to make no distinction between the two and equal amounts should have been created at the Big Bang. "We have improved the efficiency of trapping compared with what we published last November," said Jeffrey Hangst, who works on the Alpha collaboration at the Cern particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. "In order to make these studies, it surely helps to have more atoms and we've made an improvement of about a factor of five. We announced 38 trapped atoms [last year]; we've now studied about 300 which have been held for varying amounts of time."

Particle physics labs such as Cern can make antimatter particles routinely but until now they have had great difficulty in retaining this material because it will instantly annihilate on contact with conventional containers made of normal matter. The Alpha collaboration, however, has developed a frigid, evacuated, "magnetic bottle" that allows its scientists to enclose anti-hydrogen particles and draw out the time before they are destroyed. Initially this was a mere two-tenths of a second but the team says it has increased this period more than 5,000-fold. The significance is that it allows the antiparticles to relax to their ground state. "If you think of an atom as a little planetary system with the electron orbiting the nucleus - or in our case, a positron orbiting the anti-proton - the ground state is the one where the electron or positron is closest to the nucleus," explained Dr Hangst. "We think we make our anti-hydrogen in excited states; in other words the positron is at a larger distance from the nucleus. It has more energy. That's not the state we want to study. It takes some fraction of a second for these atoms, once they're produced, to get to the ground state. "If you hold them 1,000 seconds, you can be quite sure they're in the state you want to study; and this is the first time that anyone can make that claim." The Alpha team now plans to use microwaves to probe the anti-hydrogen atoms' internal structure.

They would also like to see how these particles behave in the gravitational fields that exist in our "normal Universe".  At the moment, the anti-hydrogen atoms are held in their bottle at just half a degree above absolute zero. For the gravity experiments, conditions would need to be a few thousandths of a degree above the theoretically coldest achievable temperature. "The question is very simple: do matter and antimatter obey the same laws of physics? That's a very simple question, but a very profound one," Professor Hangst told BBC News. "The Big Bang theory says there should have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter at the beginning of the Universe. Nature kinda 'took a left turn' and chose matter. "We know that we're missing something from the current model of how the Universe works; we just don't know what that is. So, anytime you get your hands on antimatter you should look very carefully to see if you can find something different."

One task is to increase the number of anti-atoms in the trap. The team says this is more useful now than trying to increase the anti-atoms' longevity which is ample for the planned experiments. But collaborator Dr Makoto Fujiwara says this could change: "Our current apparatus is not optimised in fact for even longer life-time. It's possible that we have them much longer already but it will be limited by the vacuum - the residual gas in the system - and in the future I think we want to optimise that for even better life-times because in some cases we may want to hang on to the antimatter longer." The Alpha collaboration originally posted news of its 1,000-second confinement earlier this year on the the Arxiv repository. The research has now been formally published in Nature Physics.

[I couldn't but help wonder, reading about this breakthrough in controlling anti-matter, if we are seeing the very beginnings in the development of Star Trek style warp engine technology. If we can keep anti-matter stable enough for long enough and can them mix it with matter at the appropriate time was could release an almost unimaginable amount of energy whenever we wanted to. Of course apart from engines capable of transporting us to the stars I’m confident that someone somewhere will also develop anti-matter bombs that will make our present nukes look like kids firecrackers. But that’s how it goes I guess. Let’s just hope that a few star ships get away from here before we start throwing anti-matter bombs at each other!] 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Just Finished Reading: War at Sea in the Ironclad Age by Richard Hill (FP: 2000)

As I have said several (OK, many) times before I have a particular interest in historical periods of transition such as the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance and so on. One of the much shorter transitions that I find fascinating is the move from sail and wood to steam and iron in ship construction. Over an amazing 50 years the worlds navies moved from a largely sail powered, wooden constructed and broadside gun battery design to something recognisably modern – the British built Dreadnought with advanced steam engines, iron and steel hulls and boasting fore and aft large calibre guns in fully rotatable turrets. It was nothing less than a revolution in sea power progressing at such a rapid speed that warships practically became obsolete within a few years of slipping into the water for the first time and without firing a shot in anger.

Starting from the US Civil War – the origin of many of the innovations later to become standard in navies across the world – the author outlines the technical and strategic drivers for the development of advanced warships built to compete with the designs produced for the British, French, Russian, German and Japanese navies to name the major players in this global game of one-upmanship. Surprisingly very few of the ships designed with such great effort where ever used to dominate other ships of their class. Apart from clashes with out-of-date and heavily outclassed opponents there are very few notable encounters between modern fleets and the few lessons that could be drawn from these encounters where difficult in the extreme to interpret accurately. Such lessons – both correct and incorrect – would come to haunt all of the world’s navies in the upcoming clash of giants in World War 1.

With detailed diagrams, lots of contemporary photographs and drawings, and analysis of both fleet actions and individual encounters this is an interesting an informative look at a time when everything was changing and the modern world we know today was being born. If you have an interest in naval affairs, military technology or, as I do, periods of transition then this is a book you should have on your shelf. At only just over 200 pages it is only an overview but with a decent bibliography it is a gateway to larger and more detailed accounts of the times and their consequences. More naval history to come. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Kiss the Girls

I’m fairly certain that I saw this 1997 film at the cinema before I watched (and re-watched) it on DVD. It has that cinematic feel in my mind every time I watch it – OK in a generally darkened room on a large widescreen TV but the point stands. I can’t quite remember if I read the book before or after though. I have a feeling it was after because I saw the second Alex Cross film (Along Came a Spider) after reading the book – which probably explains why that movie disappointed me.

But I digress and ramble, which is never a good combination.... Kiss the Girls is a detective thriller set mostly in North Carolina where a number of exceptional women have disappeared. When the niece of Alex Cross (played by the wonderful Morgan Freeman) is added to their number he high-tails it to the area to offer his assistance as one of the country’s top criminal psychologist’s. What he finds is a local police department completely out of its depth and reluctant to ask for help it doesn’t feel it needs. Things come to a head when young surgeon Dr Kate McTiernan (played by the gorgeous and talented Ashley Judd) is kidnapped and then manages to escape from the self-styled Casanova. Cross is convinced that only the Doctor can help him find and release his niece and the other women before the kidnapper (and sometimes killer) either leaves them to die or kills them himself. The investigation itself goes slowly and is thrown into confusion by revelations both close to home and across the continent in California. The question that Alex must answer in time is are these just distractions or are they vital to unravelling the case? Alex also needs to decide if he can save his niece without destroying his career in the process.

The first thing that hit me when I watched this recently was the cinematography which I thought was very good indeed – with sweeping panorama’s of the woods where some of the girls had been found and the use of slow motion to show emotional turmoil and exactly where the protagonists were focusing their attentions. Freeman was, as I expected, superb as Cross. I know there’s a new Alex Cross film out but Freeman isn’t in it and that, more than anything else, is stopping me giving it a screening. Whenever I read an Alex Cross novel I see Freeman no matter how the author describes him. For me Freeman is Cross. Understandably I love Ashley Judd. I think I’ve only seen her in 3 movies (not counting the cameo in Olympus Has Fallen) which are Heat, Kiss the Girls and Double Jeopardy. She essentially plays the same character in all three. Maybe she’s been type-cast or maybe that’s just how she acts or maybe that’s just her. Either way I can barely take my eyes off her. The rest of the cast deserve a mention too. Cary Elwes was suitably creepy as one of the local detectives and Brian Cox was suitably abrasive as his boss. Lastly I’ll mention Jay O Sanders who played the FBI lead who obviously had a history with and deep respect for Cross. They had a good chemistry on screen and I wouldn’t be very surprised if they were friends in real life.

Despite being an 18 certificate (at least over here and on my DVD) this isn’t a particularly gory or that shocking a film. There is a bit of blood, the theme of men preying on women is well handled without being prurient and the bad guys are shown to be morally bankrupt losers. There’s some swearing (the F word from time to time) but again nothing excessive, so I don’t think it deserves its elevated rating. But I’ll let you decide that. If you like Freeman, Judd or a very good detective thriller then this is definitely the movie for you. Just remember to lock your front door after you’ve watched it and make a point of not putting out your garbage the night before it’s going to be picked up! 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Geek much?
Man calls Solihull police to complain about prostitute's looks

From The BBC

13 June 2013

A man has been warned after he dialled 999 to complain about a prostitute's looks after meeting her. West Midlands Police said they were contacted by the caller who said he "wished to report her for breaching the Sale of Goods Act". The force said the call was received at about 19:30 BST on Tuesday complaining that the woman was not as attractive as she had claimed. Officers have now sent the man a letter warning him about wasting police time. West Midlands Police said the man had claimed he met the woman in a hotel car park.

"The caller claimed that the woman had made out she was better looking than she actually was and he wished to report her for breaching the Sale of Goods Act," a spokesperson for the force said. "When he raised this issue with the woman concerned, she allegedly took his car keys, ran away from the car and threw them back at him, prompting him to call police."

During the call, the man can be heard to say: "I've arranged a meeting with her, but beforehand I've asked her for an honest description, otherwise when I get there I'm not going to use her services. "Basically she has misdescribed herself, misrepresented herself totally. She was angry because she obviously thinks I owe her a living or something." Sgt Jerome Moran, based at Solihull police station, called the man back to offer some advice. He said: "It was unbelievable - he genuinely believed he had done nothing wrong and that the woman should have been investigated by police for misrepresentation. "I told him that she'd not committed any offences and that it was his actions, in soliciting for sex, that were in fact illegal." Despite the man refusing to give his details, police were able to identify him and have sent him a letter warning him about his actions.

The Sale of Goods Act 1979 gives consumers legal rights, stipulating goods which are sold must be of satisfactory quality, be fit for purpose and must match the seller's description.

[OK, after I stopped laughing at this I really had to check the date. Is it April Fool’s Day already? Apparently not….. How anyone could call 999 (the UK equivalent of 911 – for my American readers) to complain about a prostitute’s looks beggars belief. But it seems that there are people out there really that dumb!] 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley (FP: 2010)

Before the lost human colony on the planet Darien was rediscovered the uncovering of ancient ruins were a mere curiosity. No longer. Now they are the focus of increasingly disparate and desperate forces. On one side are the human settlers and their local Uvovo allies. Ranged against them is the Sendruka, rulers of a vast Interstellar empire and apparent saviours of Earth in its recent conflict with an Achorga hive. Determined to fight with little hope of success the humans and Uvovo dig in and await the first Sendruka attack. They don’t have long to wait. Meanwhile another force determined to take the planet for their own arrives in orbit. In the ensuing chaos an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to plan its own campaign to take and hold the ancient ruins while it awaits for reinforcements to arrive. As the fighting intensifies across the alien landscape a small party delve deep into layers of reality looking for allies in the coming war. These allies have almost god-like powers and helped defeat the ancient enemy known as the dreamless ones eons ago in a war that almost destroyed all life in the Galaxy. If the enemy return in any numbers it is doubtful if the ancient defenders can defeat them this time. If they can’t the very future of the Galaxy and every life in it rests on the abilities of the humans and their apparently primitive Uvovo allies to find a way to defeat them on their own.

I did have some misgivings about this book as I opened the first page. Although I had generally enjoyed the previous volume in this space-opera trilogy I couldn’t help finding it all rather derivative and often a little embarrassing in places. This book was however thankfully much better. The characters, one of the stronger points in the first book, remained as strongly written and as individual as ever. What had improved quite a bit was the tightness of the plotting (despite a few wanderings here and there which I suspect will mean something in book 3) the dramatic elements (and not only in the well constructive battles) and the levels of inventive detail. In fact there were pretty much improvements at every level. So despite being a wrist-aching 606 pages I managed to polish it off in around a week. There are still bits from time to time that seem a tad derivative but it’s difficult these days to write anything wholly original. If you looks hard enough you can see elements of Star Wars, The Matrix, Dune, Terminator and a host of other movies and books. But such things are part of the culture we live in, or swim in, and can hardly be ditched without leaving nothing but empty pages. I did think more than once that I was a bit harsh with the first book but that was probably caused by an unfair comparison to the Culture series by Iain Banks – unfair indeed! Despite the odd raised eye-brow and the odd laugh at the author’s audacity I can honestly say that I really enjoyed this book. I am already looking forward to reading the last in the trilogy. Recommended.     

Monday, June 10, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Wolf by Garry Marvin (FP: 2012)

Personally I think wolves are amazing creatures deserving of our admiration and respect. Apparently, as with much else it seems, I am in the minority holding this opinion and have been for the greater part of human history. This amazing little book – a mere 181 lavishly illustrated pages – covers that history of humanities relationship with the wolf. Until recently it was almost without exception an adversarial one – usually with the wolf at the wrong end of a gun.

Wolves have long been viewed as much more than mere carnivorous competitors especially after the introduction of domesticated livestock. Wolves were viewed as being especially vicious, killing for the sake of killing and enjoying themselves in the process. They became associated with the dark forest and with nature at its most savage, most cruel and most cunning. They became a personification of the chaos of the natural world in opposition to the supposed order of the human world and became an identified danger to that order and so were hunted down wherever they were found. Long after they became extinct in most of Europe their presence lingered in myth and in the idea of the werewolf – that terrifying creature who only appeared to be human until the true beast was released to wreak havoc in otherwise peaceful communities.
Times change and with them the perception of the wolf – now seen, at least in some quarters, as an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Wolves, what few remain, are protected (although not without opposition) and as often as not revered rather than reviled becoming the icon and poster child of elements of various environmental groups. Wolves are now seen to have much more positive attributes – loyalty to the in group, loving parents, clever, resourceful – than ever before. Wolves now appear positively in advertising, movies and in military organisations. The world has turned and with it the fortune of wolves.

This, and much else besides, is covered in this fascinating volume within a whole series of books looking at the cultural side of creatures that many of us take for granted or simply ignore. If the rest of this expanding series is of this high quality (I have one more to read before I start buying them wholesale) then I am in for a serious treat. Highly recommended.      

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Iain Banks dies of cancer aged 59

From The BBC

9 June 2013

Author Iain Banks has died aged 59, two months after announcing he had terminal cancer, his family has said. Banks, who was born in Dunfermline, Fife, revealed in April he had gall bladder cancer and was unlikely to live for more than a year. He was best known for his novels The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Complicity. In a statement, his publisher said he was "an irreplaceable part of the literary world". A message posted on Banksophilia, a website set up to provide fans with updates on the author, quoted his wife Adele saying: "Iain died in the early hours this morning. His death was calm and without pain." Publisher Little, Brown Book Group said the author was "one of the country's best-loved novelists" for both his mainstream and science fiction books. Iain Banks' ability to combine the most fertile of imaginations with his own highly distinctive brand of gothic humour made him unique," it said. After announcing his illness in April, Banks asked his publishers to bring forward the release date of his latest novel, The Quarry, so he could see it on the shelves.

On Sunday, it was revealed the book - to be released on 20 June - would detail the physical and emotional strain of cancer. It describes the final weeks of the life of a man in his 40s who has terminal cancer. Speaking to the BBC's Kirsty Wark, Banks said he was some 87,000 words into writing the book when he was diagnosed with his own illness. "I had no inkling. So it wasn't as though this is a response to the disease or anything, the book had been kind of ready to go," he said. "And then 10,000 words from the end, as it turned out, I suddenly discovered that I had cancer."

Little, Brown said the author was presented with finished copies of his last novel three weeks ago. Banks' first novel, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984 and was ranked as one of the best 100 books of the 20th Century in a 1997 poll conducted by book chain Waterstones and Channel 4. In 2008 he was named one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 in a list compiled by The Times. The writer also penned sci-fi titles under the name Iain M Banks. His most recent book, The Hydrogen Sonata, was released last year. Fellow Scottish author Ken MacLeod paid tribute to Banks, saying he had "left a large gap in the Scottish literary scene as well as the wider speaking English world. He brought a wonderful combination of the dark and the light side of life and he explored them both without flinching," he said. "He brought the same degree of craft and skill and commitment to his science fiction as he did to his mainstream fiction and he never drew any distinction in terms of his pride in what he was doing." Another contemporary, Iain Rankin, told the BBC that Banks was "fascinating, curious and full of life. He didn't take things too seriously, and in a way I'm happy that he refused to take death too seriously - he could still joke about it," he said. "I think we all thought he would have a bit longer than he got. What made him a great writer was that he was childlike; he had a curiosity about the world. He was restless, he wanted to transmit that in his work, and he treated the cancer with a certain amount of levity, the same that made him a great writer.

Other authors to pay tribute included Irvine Welsh, who tweeted: "RIP Iain Banks. One of the finest writers and greatest imaginations ever." Sci-fi writer John-Paul Cleary also said: "Tragic news about Iain Banks, my hero and inspiration, a writer of incredible creativity and wit." Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond said: "Iain was an incredibly talented writer whose work, across all genres, has brought pleasure to readers for over 30 years. "His determination not just to complete his final novel but also to reflect his illness in the pages of his work, will make that work all the more poignant and all the more significant." After announcing his illness, Banks had described being "hugely moved" by the public support for him through his website. "Still knocked out by the love and the depth of feeling coming from so many people; thank you, all of you," he wrote on Banksophilia last month.

[I was shocked to hear recently that Banks – quite possibly my favourite SF author ever – had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even knowing that this day was coming I’m still saddened that Iain has gone. No more Culture novels, no more off-the-wall fiction, no more Iain Banks. It’s a sad, sad day. RIP Iain Banks.]

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Water cannon 'not the answer' to riots, Met chief says

From The BBC

24 December 2011

Water cannon is "not the answer" to combat any future rioting, the head of the Metropolitan Police has said. Bernard Hogan-Howe told the BBC the focus of the police was to try to prevent disturbances. A watchdog had suggested water cannon and plastic bullets could have been used in a "number of real scenarios" during the riots in England in August. Mr Hogan-Howe also said the suggestion that riot police could be armed with live ammunition was not an option.

A report from the Inspectorate of Constabulary, published earlier this week, suggested water cannon and plastic bullets could be considered to deal with rioters throwing missiles and petrol bombs, to stop "violent attacks on the public" and arson attacks, and also where fire and ambulance crews were under threat. Legal advice in the review of the riots indicated that firearms could "potentially" be deployed where arson posed a threat to life, or of serious injury.

The report said water cannon were an "effective means of dispersal" which caused injuries to the public in static and slow-moving situations. But in his first interview since the report was published, the Met Police commissioner said he was waiting to be persuaded of their benefits. "We have seen them in Northern Ireland. They have been effective there, but they do have their limitations, they are not the answer," he said. "In any country, if you haven't used things before then, of course, nobody is going to go willingly towards this new approach. I am not a passionate zealot for this. Of course these things are expensive, most of the time they just sit there doing nothing."

Riots broke out in Tottenham, north London, on 6 August, two days after the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan. Unrest spread across London and to other cities, including Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol over the following days. After the review of police tactics used during the disturbances, it was reported that the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Denis O'Connor had controversially suggested officers could shoot arsonists if they posed a threat to life. Mr Hogan-Howe said he wasn't sure that was what Sir Denis had intended to say. "My understanding of what he was pointing out was if you've got people whose life is at risk, or you've got very serious damage to property with arson, you have to make sure you have all options available," he said. The Met Police chief has reacted cautiously to the prospect of using water cannon to deal with rioting He said arming riot police with live ammunition was not a foreseeable option. But he acknowledged that the police needed to review their tactics in light of the summer disturbances and said the police had to have an "open mind".

"What we can't see is what we saw in London: is riots develop, buildings set on fire. We can't see that sort of thing happen and stand idly by and say we'll just stand by our old tactics," he said. A report from the Home Affairs Committee earlier this week described the policing operation to tackle the riots as "flawed". MPs said insufficient numbers of officers were initially deployed and police training for public disorder was inadequate. The Policing Large Scale Disorder: Lessons from the disturbances of August 2011 report said flooding the streets with police was what ultimately quelled the disorder. Mr Hogan-Howe said it was important for the force to ensure it had enough officers to deal with trouble if it did break out. "The principal thing we have looked at is to make sure we have the right resources available and we are able to mobilise them," he said. "There weren't enough officers available on that Saturday night in Tottenham, so we need enough officers, they need to be well-equipped, well-trained, and available to deal with what was a very difficult situation."

[Of course the Police are in the invidious position where they are heavily criticised for not doing enough when things get out of hand and are rightly reluctant to do too much – such as shooting people in the street – which would cause a national outcry and probably just escalate things next time. Once a riot is in full swing the Police, and the system at large, have both already failed. Riots happen for a reason even in the relatively wealthy liberal democratic West. Once those reasons are discovered and understood they can be addressed and eliminated. Policing the event during and afterwards and paying the inevitable financial and social costs of the clean-up only becomes necessary when social policy in an area has already failed. If long term grievances are left to fester then rioting becomes practically inevitable. You would have thought that we’d have understood this by now.] 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Solitude........ Peace........ Quiet......... Heaven.
Just Finished Reading: Herodotus – A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer T Roberts (FP: 2011)

Yes, it’s Very Short Introduction time again – it does come around quickly doesn’t it? I thought I’d try something a little different this time. Herodotus is known as the ‘father of History’ as he is credited at producing the first book recognisably dealing with History as a subject we could relate to – although this is not without controversy as he mentioned Gods and various other entities or events which we would call supernatural these days. Saying that, of course, should come as little surprise considering the time in which he wrote. To produce such a work in a purely secular manner wouldn’t have just been strange – it would have been extraordinary!

What Herodotus produced was extraordinary enough without going the extra mile to make things more acceptable to a modern European readership. He managed to produce a history of the known world seemingly without too much of the usual Greek flavour (often seen as mere arrogance) of seeing all non-Greek populations as being fundamentally inferior. Herodotus simply wanted to know what the diverse populations and cities outside of the Greek world were like and, more importantly, why they were like that. What circumstances led to their foundation and what events and personalities helped shape them. It was a real investigation into origins, causes and effects. Fundamentally Herodotus was attempting to answer the question of why the disparate cities of the Greek states went to war with the great Persian Empire and why a seemingly inferior culture – measured from outside – prevailed against the world’s greatest super-power at the time. Along the way he found time to discuss the cultures, myths, eating habits, sexual mores and much more besides of every city or region he could visit or interrogate the citizens of.

It all sounds fascinating especially as the author pours what can only be regarded as knowledgeable (though sometimes restrained and sceptical) adoration at the feet of the author of The Histories. I already had a copy of the great work in one of my various piles of books (well, of course I did) but if I hadn’t I would have certainly bought it by now after reading this. Indeed this book has prompted me to re-engage with several sources of Ancient literature which will be filtering through to the Blog over the next few months. Of course The Histories of Herodotus will definitely be one of them. Yet another highly recommended VSI book! 

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

“In a feverish fantasy, I imagined that there had been a time, when the world was young, that stars filled the sky – made it a solid sheet of light arching over the earth. But one by one, the starts began to die – and Man, having a poor memory, began to believe that the sky had always been black.”

Excerpt from The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois by Megan Arkenberg.

Cartoon Time.