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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Birth of Classical Europe – A History from Troy to Augustine by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann (FP: 2010)

I’ve been fascinated by the Classical Ancient World for as long as I can remember and frankly who wouldn’t be? As myth slowly became history, like a picture developing in a tank of exotic chemicals, the past becomes increasingly well documented and understood. The general story itself is well known, how early primitive societies began to trade and exchange ideas across the Mediterranean in ever more sophisticated ships, how petty kingdoms gave way to city states and then empires, how the great superpowers of the age, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Carthage and finally Rome came to prominence, dominance and ultimately decline in the face of enemies both foreign and domestic, climate change and economic circumstance.

But this book brought out much more than this which definitely raised it above what would be expected of such a general work. For one thing there was an interesting emphasis not only on the history of the age – but the history of the history of the age. Not only how our own historical interpretations have changed over time, as we have accumulated more knowledge about the era in question but as our own understanding of social structure, human psychology and cultural anthropology each added something into the mix of more deeply understanding what we already thought we knew. Added on top of this was an attempt to understand how the ancient societies saw and reinterpreted their own histories at the time – in a contemporary fashion. Our understanding of history is not, as you might expect, the only way to see and appreciate the past. History itself is a cultural construct that inevitably changes over time and, rather fascinatingly, this too formed part of the history of Europe discussed between these pages. It did almost at times feel like watching a 3D movie without the special glasses – being able to see the layers individually that made up the in-depth picture but, by and large, without the resulting headaches! There is so much packed into these 334 pages that it’s actually quite difficult to unpack things clearly. This is certainly not a standard historical text. There are enough of those in print to be getting on with without adding yet another. 

This book is, at least in my experience, quite different. It is, of course, about the known history of the period. It is also about our changing interpretations of that historical knowledge – which of course changed after each new discovery – and our growing knowledge of how the ancients themselves saw and indeed manipulated their histories to suit their very different needs. This is a very intelligent, knowing and very readable book which cannot help but change your vision of the past as you will begin to see echoes of previous interpretations layered over each other like coloured cellophane wrapping each giving a slightly different explanation of the actual object underneath it all. It won’t turn you overnight into a sophisticated cultural and archaeological anthropologist but it will give you insights to how the past is, has and will continue to be shaped by how we have changed the way we view it. Recommended.

Monday, February 24, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Star Trek - Insurrection

When Data apparently malfunctions and endangers a research Picard and the crew of Enterprise are called in to help shut him down. But Picard quickly discovers that not everything is as it first appears (is it ever I wonder?) when he realises that the Federation’s apparent allies in the research station are in fact running things and have their own questionable agenda. Once the agenda becomes clear Picard and the usual suspects amongst his crew determine to ruin it and expose the nefarious goings on in the locally named ‘Briar Patch’ to public scrutiny.

Despite the fact that Jonathan Frakes directed this and the rather questionable First Contact reviewed here recently, this was in many ways a much better, or at least much more consistent, film. Of course it was full of the usual silliness – the singing from HMS Pinafore to ‘reset’ Data back to normal or at least distract him, Riker and Diana Troy acting like puppies in love (yes, I know it’s all because of the metaphasic radiation, but still….), Data needing to be taught by a child the need for play and so on. As much as I’ve been a decades long fan of the Star Trek franchise these often folksy elements still grate a great deal. I’d much prefer them just to play things straight. I’m not against some humour to lighten the moment or a quip followed by a raised eyebrow but sometimes things do swing too close to comedy for my liking.

But what do I like about this film and why did it rank as one of my favourites? Part of it was that the silliness mentioned above was kept to an acceptable minimum. Patrick Stewart was on form as Picard and gave some very good performances. I particularly liked his ‘relocation’ speech. Although I would have liked him to have gone a little further but I guess it might have been a step too far. Over all the story was a good one, simple, strong and one that a great many people could identify with – the forced relocation of a small group for the benefit of a much larger and more powerful group. Insurrection is a tale of morality – when is ok for the majority, for whatever reason, to dictate to a minority? Because we can do something and because we want to do something is that a good enough reason to do it? The plot was actually handled surprisingly well and with some sensitivity. The Ba’Ku where clearly shown as an admirable people who had rejected technology to live a richer, fuller life – literally at a slower pace considering that they hardly age. The Son’a are the bad guys but have some complexity and a bit of depth that some Star Trek baddies aren’t given and of course it all ends well….. Though I would have liked to have seen a 5 years later kind of thing. After all there are 600 Ba’Ku on a planet at least the size of Mars or even Earth. If another 6 million lived on the other side of the planet they’d probably never even know. Talk about a premier vacation spot. Unspoilt planet, two weeks having fun, go back home two months or two years younger than when you arrived….. Now that would make an interesting story…..

One of the top selling points for me was the relationship between Picard and Anij played by the very lovely Donna Murphy who I found deeply captivating. It was about time Picard had a proper love interest and it was handled much better than the Riker and Troy relationship.

So, with a pretty good storyline, a reasonable amount of action, some solid bad guys and a strong central love story this actually turned out, for me at least, to be one of the best (if not the best) of the TNG Star Trek movies despite my ‘love’ of the Borg which is really saying something. Definitely one for Trek fans and not a bad film even if you’re not a dedicated Trekker.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Winter wettest on record

David Shukman for the BBC

20 February 2014

With a week still to go in the winter, the UK's rainfall record for the season has already been broken. The incessant storms and rainfall over the past two months have made this the wettest winter since records began in 1910. According to provisional figures from the Met Office, the UK received 486.8mm of rain between 1 December 2013 and 19 February 2014.This beat the previous record of 485.1mm of rain set in 1995.

A winter that can generate no fewer than five new records for rainfall before it's even over is certainly exceptional and may prove to be unprecedented. The Met Office's map is startling for two reasons: the intensity of the dark blue marking the areas hit with rainfall that was more than twice the seasonal average and the sheer size of the regions affected. This wild winter is remarkable not just for the sheer volumes of water that have landed but also for the persistence with which the storms have repeatedly delivered them. For many of the people affected, today's statistics will come as no surprise. For the scientists trying to understand what's behind the weather – including everything from a jetstream that's been stuck to a warmer atmosphere that can carry more moisture - the figures will keep them busy for years.

The amount of rainfall recorded in Wales was also a new record for the winter. There have also been new record winter totals in east Scotland, southwest England and south Wales. The southeast and central southern England region broke the winter record on 11 February with a total of 439.2mm, smashing the previous one that had lasted since 1914-1915. Most of the UK is also on target for a warmer than average winter, the Met Office said. BBC weather forecaster John Hammond said: "It is stating the obvious but it is remarkable nonetheless. Our data goes back to 1910 - over a hundred years' worth of data and it's smashed it. "The previous record was set in 1995 but just over the last day or so we've topped that one - we're already almost at 500mm of rain." And it may not yet be over. Met Office spokeswoman Laura Young said showers and some heavier rain are expected, along with sunny spells, over the next few days. In addition, a band of rain will go across the UK on Sunday, mainly focusing on the west of the country.

The heavy rain this winter brought extensive flooding to parts of the UK. Earlier on Thursday, David Cameron announced that the government's scheme to provide grants for homeowners in England hit by the floods would begin on 1 April. Claimants will be eligible for payments of up to £5,000, to help cover future protection for properties. But they will not cover the damage or losses already suffered. Mr Cameron said the government was taking "decisive action across the board", but Labour said ministers have been "off the pace". About 6,500 homes have been affected by flooding since December, and the prime minister has said "money is no object" to support the clean-up operation.

[Of course we all knew this was coming, at least those of us who actually accept the scientific reality of global warming. With much more moisture in the atmosphere it has to come down somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ seems to be predominantly the south of England where some places have been continually under water now for over 8 weeks. Now that the Thames is flooding and is endangering areas where Conservative politicians are nominally in charge it appears that action – too little too late – is finally taken place. But I have to wonder, after two supposedly ‘hundred year events’ have happened in consecutive years if anything more will be done before the next predictable deluge. Maybe it will, after all an election is coming……]

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Love is......

Just Finished Reading: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (FP: 1907)

Vladamir Verloc has been operating in London as a secret agent for a foreign power. In that time he has given political speeches, helped support fellow anarchists and sent the occasional bomb treat warning to the authorities. From time to time he has compiled reports about the social and political environment and returned these to his masters. In other words he has taken money and accomplished nothing. When a new ‘handler’ is appointed at the foreign embassy all this will changed. Dressed down for his ineffectiveness for so long he is ordered to arrange an incident, a dynamic outrage, which will incense public opinion and lead to political repression. He is ordered to attack a seemingly random target – Greenwich Observatory, the home of British scientific endeavour. Thrown into turmoil at this sudden demand for action Verloc’s carefully constructed life starts to spin out of control changing the lives of everyone around him.

I found this to be a very odd book indeed. Written at the turn of the 20th century it’s about the lives of a group of terrorists living and operating in London. Although I had some appreciation that such people – often derided as ‘anarchist bomb throwers’ – existed at the edges of European and even American society I had no idea that they were as prominent as to have novels written about them. Feeling sometimes very modern and at other times rather antiquated it was almost as if the author had deliberately set a modern plot in an Edwardian setting. It almost, but not quite, had a weird Science-Fiction feel to it as if present day terrorists had been transported back in time to do what they do best – terrorise. But of course, it was nothing like that. Conrad was writing (obviously) without any foreknowledge of terrorist acts to come both at home and abroad. He was writing from the view of contemporary terrorists that were the source of daily newspaper reports including the one that he based this story on – an explosion outside Greenwich Observatory some years before he put pen to paper to tell this story.

Whilst rather slow in places this was an interesting tale of what happens when someone is expected, indeed forced, to live up to his reputation no matter the consequences. Verloc is a well-drawn and fairly complex character but it is really his wife that becomes the centre of the piece. Fanatically devoted to her ‘slow’ younger brother she reacts violently to her husband’s use of him in his terrorist activities. Whilst not exactly ‘one of the greatest novels of the 20th century’ as it says on the back of my edition of the book it is an intriguing portrayal of an early 20th century terrorist cell and a sometimes biting satire of the society in which it operates. Recommended.    

Monday, February 17, 2014

Thinking About: Art

I’ve been downloading a lot of Art lately. When I say a lot I mean a lot. Presently I have just under 2,000 examples of paintings and sculptures (though mostly paintings) that have, for various reasons, caught my eye. I realise that as I’m posting roughly 2 a week here the chances are that you won’t see most of them. I had thought of creating a second Blog just for the art but then I thought I spend enough time on-line as it is without maintaining two Blogs!

Most of what I have, and have already posted, is representative art – where a house looks like a house and a face has all of the right parts in the right place. I suppose that in some ways that makes me a philistine and uneducated in the finer points of art appreciation. I admit that I am mostly guilty as charged. Where and when I grew up we didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking at or discussing great art. I think we probably had a few school trips to local galleries but certainly nothing was expected to come of it. Admitting to liking art or expressing any kind of knowledge on the subject would get you, at best, some rather odd looks from the other pupils. Not that I was any kind of art aficionado in those days. Quite the contrary. That came much later.

Of course it’s difficult to avoid art completely. We see it on the covers of books, chocolate boxes and album covers. We see it on TV and in movies, at bus stops and even in computer games. If you look around you can see art in most places. Of course one of the best places, not counting the Internet, is (no surprise here) in art galleries themselves. I was lucky, whilst working in London, to walk past the National gallery and the National Portrait gallery on a daily basis. From time to time I’d either go home late, take a half day or come in on the weekend and spend an hour or six wandering the halls looking at some of the best paintings in the world. Most of them I could take or leave. I could appreciate the effort and the skill it took to produce them but they left me only intellectually engaged. A few, a very few, floored me with their beauty and magnificence. I have literally had my breath taken away with some paintings and found myself staring at them for minute after minute. Some of them are simply jaw droppingly beautiful and it is the power of that beauty that cuts like a knife. Others I marvelled at the ability to apparently paint with light and struggled to understand how a painting could seem to generate more light than it could possibly be receiving at that moment.

A few paintings surprised me a great deal. As I said above abstract art generally leaves me cold. Indeed I have spent several hours more than once with a good friend of mine visiting modern art galleries purely to poke fun at the exhibits. We had such a good time that we had almost been told to stop laughing so much or leave. Some of it though bypassed by understandable cynicism and sarcasm on the subject and, again, I starred at the open mouthed in astonishment. A few by Picasso can do this to me – Guernica being one of them. One of the most surprising is Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp first exhibited in 1913 (pictured at the head of this piece). I have no idea why I find it so fascinating. It certainly is very different from anything else I normally like. But there’s something about it that makes me go: Wow! Maybe that’s part of the attraction, that I don’t fully understand exactly why it has such an impact on me – that it bypasses my intellectual critical faculties and elicits a largely emotional response. Maybe that’s what great art is – something that doesn’t hit you between the eyes (or at least not just between the eyes) but hits you in the gut too? Maybe that explains some of the otherwise inexplicable responses to the early 20th century art forms of Cubism, Futurism and the other types of Avant-guard painting and sculpture that shocked and appalled so many. But I am still very much on a voyage of discovery where art is concerned. Maybe one day I’ll understand why I like some of it so much.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Don't do it, Peter....!
100 Best Novels?

As you know I’m attempting to improve the quality of my reading as well as keeping up the quantity (averaging 70 books a year at the moment). To do that I’ve been seeking advice on what classics I should be reading. Part of that search inevitably happens on the Internet and consists of ‘must read’ lists complied by various people and organisations. Below is one such list that I thought worth repeating here. As before the books I’ve read are in Bold and the books I presently own but have yet to read are in Italics.

ULYSSES by James Joyce
THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley 
THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner
CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller 
DARKNESS AT NOON by Arthur Koestler
SONS AND LOVERS by D.H. Lawrence
THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck 
UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH by Samuel Butler
1984 by George Orwell 
I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf
AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser
INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison
NATIVE SON by Richard Wright
 U.S.A.(trilogy) by John Dos Passos
 WINESBURG, OHIO by Sherwood Anderson
 TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald
 THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford
 ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell
 THE GOLDEN BOWL by Henry James
 SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser
 A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh
 AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner
 ALL THE KING’S MEN by Robert Penn Warren
 THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder
 HOWARDS END by E.M. Forster
 LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
 DELIVERANCE by James Dickey
 A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (series) by Anthony Powell
 THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway
 THE SECRET AGENT by Joseph Conrad
 NOSTROMO by Joseph Conrad
 THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence
 WOMEN IN LOVE by D.H. Lawrence 
 TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
 THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer
 PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov
LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner
ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac 
THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett 
PARADE’S END by Ford Madox Ford 
ZULEIKA DOBSON by Max Beerbohm
THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess 
OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham
HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad 
MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis
THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton
A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes
THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West
A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway
SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh
KIM by Rudyard Kipling
A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster
ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner
THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad
RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow
THE OLD WIVES’ TALE by Arnold Bennett
THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London 
LOVING by Henry Green
TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell
IRONWEED by William Kennedy
THE MAGUS by John Fowles
UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch
SOPHIE’S CHOICE by William Styron
THE GINGER MAN by J.P. Donleavy

There’s a significant number here that I’m completely unfamiliar with. Others I’m very conscious of the fact that the only reason I know about them is that they’ve been made into movies. I think that I have a lot of reading ahead of me. Luckily I’ve never really shied away from picking up a book or three!

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Happy Valentine's Day to all you Lovers, Would-be Lovers and Wannabe Lovers out there! Treat your partner to something special today and never treat them like they're ordinary...... 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Political Philosophy – A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians by Adam Swift (FP: 2006)

This is another step in my effort to have a better grounding and better understanding of politics – especially after the recent ‘shock’ of trying, and after great concentration and effort succeeding I hope, to understand a work of contemporary political philosophy.

I actually liked the authors approach very much. He sets out to deconstruct what politicians say on various topics in order to tease out what they actually mean (or could mean) if they were speaking with philosophical clarity – which, for various reasons, they tend not to. He often started with a stance or typical politicians statement about, for example Social Justice, and then took a step back asking what they meant and then proceeded to discuss modern thought on the topic whilst, where required, a bit of historical context. The topics covered are those you’d probably expect from such a work – Social Justice (already alluded to), Liberty, Equality, Community and the biggie, Democracy.

Under Social Justice he discussed the views of Hayek, Rawls and Nozick. Under Liberty he discussed 3 distinctions between conceptions of liberty and different ideas of Freedom. Under Equality he discussed opportunity, relative equalities (are gaps important or not) and positional goods. For a change of emphasis under Community he attempted to answer 7 main objections to the Liberal view of the State. Finally under Democracy he outlined the different types or degrees of Democracy and inquired into its values.

Although a little dry and academic in places, which is not difficult given the subject matter, this was still a very readable volume full of whit, humour and an ability to get to the heart of ideas without the use of too much jargon or assumed knowledge. As introductions go this was a pretty good one. I think I understand some of the underlying foundations of the main topics more than previously so I guess it was certainly a success from my point of view. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with his views too often but that didn’t make his arguments boring in the least. If you do find yourself struggling with what politicians in particular mean, or want you to hear, when they open their mouths this is definitely the book for you. When they use words like Community or Justice or even Democracy itself you’ll be able to form meaningful questions in your mind and more easily analyse exactly what they’re trying to get across to you in order to get your vote. Such knowledge is (or should be) highly valued in a world of sound bites and difficult decisions. Arm yourself with this book and others like it. Knowledge is indeed power!  

Monday, February 10, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Star Trek – First Contact

Eight years after the battle (or should I say debacle) of Wolf 359 and the assimilation of Captain Jean-Luc Picard into the Borg Collective the enemies of Mankind (and arguably of all civilizations) are back with Earth in their sights. Still not fully trusted by Star Fleet Command the captain of the most powerful ship in the fleet is told to go play by the Neutral Zone and not get involved but, just as things start to go badly Jean-Luc disobeys orders and high-tails it back to Earth to save the day. Taking command of the remnants of the fleet facing the Borg cube he co-ordinates an attack that destroys it utterly…… but not before a Borg sphere emerges and races back in time to assimilate the planet before the Federation came into existence. Caught in a temporal vortex the Enterprise follows the Borg back to the day before First Contact when Human Destiny forever. With the sphere destroyed everyone begins to relax until internal sensors go off-line and environmental control starts acting strangely. Meanwhile down on Earth the crew are looking for the fabled Zefram Cochran, the inventor of warp drive and hope that he survived the Borg attack or the future they came from may have ceased to exist.

This is very much a movie in two halves, or at least in two sections. Once the initial battle is over the film settles down to the set on Earth and the launch of the Phoenix as one aspect of the plot and the other the resistance to the Borg on the Enterprise itself. Personally I thought that the Earth based plot was silly, stupid and badly handled from the get-go. However the saving grace in the movie was the fight against the Borg led by Picard himself fuelled by fanatical anger at what they had done to him in the past, his crew and ship in the present and his fears for the rest of the galaxy in the future. Unfortunately this was not really enough to elevate this rather lacklustre movie into the classic film that it could have been. The blame rests, I contend, with Jonathan Frakes who directed this great might have been of a film. A poor actor at best he is a much worse director. Compare this movie to the Enterprise episode ‘Regeneration’ that picks up the story years later in the arctic where ‘survivors’ of the sphere explosion are found and revived. This single 45 minute episode has more drama, more tension and is far more frightening/disturbing than the movie it followed on from – with a much smaller budget, and that was without the wonderful Alice Krige. Krige, who played the Borg Queen, was a revelation. At the same time incredibly sexual, truly frightening, obviously psychotic and honestly stomach churning disgusting in her Borg make-up she simply blew everyone else off screen whenever she appeared and easily out-acted everyone else in the movie – apparently without any great effort. I could watch the film again and again just for her. I was so glad when they brought her back for the finale of Voyager in 'Endgame'. A fitting tribute I thought to her seminal role.

So despite its many, many faults this is still on my list and still gets watched from time to time. I think that the Borg are great enemies and always look forward to confronting them on the screen even in the emasculated version presented in some Voyager episodes. They are, I think, a warning to us as to how things might turn out as we push technology further and further. As the Queen said “Human! We used to be exactly like them. Flawed. Weak. Organic. But we evolved to include the synthetic. Now we use both to attain perfection”. Where have we heard that before in not so many words? Watch, be entertained and leave thoughtful……

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Earliest footprints outside Africa discovered in Norfolk 

By Pallab Ghosh for BBC News

7 February 2014

Scientists have discovered the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa, on the Norfolk Coast in the East of England. The footprints are more than 800,000 years old and were found on the shores of Happisburgh. They are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe. Details of the extraordinary markings have been published in the science journal Plos One.

The footprints have been described as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores," by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum. "It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he told BBC News. The markings were first indentified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows. The footprints on Happisburgh beach are possibly those of a family in search of food. I walked with Dr Ashton along the shore where the discovery was made. He recalled how he and a colleague stumbled across the hollows: "At the time, I wondered 'could these really be the case? If it was the case, these could be the earliest footprints outside Africa and that would be absolutely incredible."

Such discoveries are very rare. The Happisburgh footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa." At first, we weren't sure what we were seeing," Dr Ashton told me, "but it was soon clear that the hollows resembled human footprints." The hollows were washed away not long after they were identified. The team were, however, able to capture the footprints on video that will be shown at an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum later this month. The video shows the researchers on their hands and knees in cold, driving rain, engaged in a race against time to record the hollows. Dr Ashton recalls how they scooped out rainwater from the footprints so that they could be photographed. "But the rain was filling the hollows as quickly as we could empty them," he told me.

The team took a 3D scan of the footprints over the following two weeks. A detailed analysis of these images by Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University confirmed that the hollows were indeed human footprints, possibly of five people, one adult male and some children. Dr De Groote said she could make out the heel, arch and even toes in some of the prints, the largest of which would have filled a UK shoe size 8 (European size 42; American size 9). "When I was told about the footprints, I was absolutely stunned," Dr De Groote told BBC News. "They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and the shortest was about 3ft. The other larger footprints could come from young adult males or have been left by females. The glimpse of the past that we are seeing is that we have a family group moving together across the landscape."

It is unclear who these humans were. One suggestion is that they were a species called Homo antecessor, which was known to have lived in southern Europe. It is thought that these people could have made their way to what is now Norfolk across a strip of land that connected the UK to the rest of Europe a million years ago. They would have disappeared around 800,000 years ago because of a much colder climate setting in not long after the footprints were made. It was not until 500,000 years ago that a species called Homo heidelbergensis lived in the UK. It is thought that these people evolved into early Neanderthals some 400,000 years ago. The Neanderthals then lived in Britain intermittently until about 40,000 years ago - a time that coincided with the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens.

There are no fossils of antecessor in Happisburgh, but the circumstantial evidence of their presence is getting stronger by the day. In 2010, the same research team discovered the stone tools used by such people. And the discovery of the footprints now all but confirms that humans were in Britain nearly a million years ago, according to Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is also involved in the research at Happisburgh. "This discovery gives us even more concrete evidence that there were people there," he told BBC News. "We can now start to look at a group of people and their everyday activities. And if we keep looking, we will find even more evidence of them, hopefully even human fossils. That would be my dream”

[What a stunning discovery and an amazing story. I do love stuff like this, I really do. It looks like we have evidence of a human family group moving across mudflats 800,000 years ago. I think the word is most definitely: Wow.]

Thursday, February 06, 2014

I'm guessing that she's the only member............

Just Finished Reading: The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley (FP: 2011)

Once a forgotten backwater planet and home to a lost human colony, the world known as Darien is now the central focus of powerful forces. When the survivors of the Earth colony ship came to the attention of Sendrukan Hegemony and their Human clients they had no idea that powerful ancient technology had been discovered and partially uncovered by Darien archaeologists. Once the find had become public knowledge an increasing number of alien warships start to appear in orbit either offering help or threatening dire consequences. As civil war breaks out on the surface and warships clash in deep space an ancient enemy manages to open a gate between universes which, if left in place, will allow immensely powerful machines cast into a hyperspace prison millennium ago to escape and seek revenge on all life in the Galaxy. Ranged against them are the remnants of empires who fought in the last war against the killer machines, rebel humans and their local Darien allies who, far in their history, helped to defeat the ancient enemy at terrible cost. With much of the ancient technology lost, defective or simply unready there is little that the humans and their allies can do to defeat the legendary enemy of life itself. But on both sides of the conflict are entities that no one has seen and few can conceive of. The battle on, around, and for Darien is going to be like nothing anyone living has experienced before. If things go well the destruction will be truly astronomical. If things go badly all life in the galaxy could be extinguished. Either way there will be hell to pay.

This is the third book in the Humanity’s Fire series. I had thought it to be the last book in the trilogy but have learnt that the author has just produced number four. This is somewhat odd especially after there is actually a proper ending in this book with precious few loose ends! It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from there – if I choose to buy the next book. Although I did manage to make my way through the almost 600 pages of this epic space-opera I did find it a bit of a slog in far too many places. The author manages to produce generally well written and interesting characters and put them in well-constructed scenarios – but then pretty much ruins things by painting them into impossible corners only to pull them out of the fire in the nick of time using increasingly unlikely plot devices. Over the length of the book this became more and more irritating. It was as if the author had a great idea for a cliff hanger and then had no idea how to get a main character out of the trouble he’d put them in so had to pull ever larger rabbits out of ever bigger hats. Using alien or ancient technology to do this was no excuse and singularly failed to maintain the sense of disbelief so important to any kind of storytelling. I lost count of the number of times I had to laugh, roll my eyes at the latest escape and turn the page. Luckily for me the rest of the story, far-fetched though it was, was generally entertaining enough to keep me going if at times only just. This was a shame really as, in many other ways, the author shows himself more than capable of constructing narratives that flow well and characters that you want to see do well and survive. If only he could restrain himself from producing multiple cliff hangers in the name of maintaining or ramping up the suspense levels! If like me you had actually read the previous two books and wanted to know how things turned out I’d say to persevere with this as it is worth the effort to get through. If you’re coming to this series as a first time reader and wanted to know if the read of 1800 pages is worth your while I’d have to say, on balance, yes – but only just. If you’re after a good introduction to space opera I’d start somewhere else. Reasonable.