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

Saturday, May 31, 2014



May 16, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Observations from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have led to the best assessment yet of our solar system's population of potentially hazardous asteroids. The results reveal new information about their total numbers, origins and the possible dangers they may pose. Potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are a subset of the larger group of near-Earth asteroids. The PHAs have the closest orbits to Earth's, coming within five million miles (about eight million kilometers) and they are big enough to survive passing through Earth's atmosphere and cause damage on a regional, or greater, scale.

The new results come from the asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE mission, called NEOWISE. The project sampled 107 PHAs to make predictions about the entire population as a whole. Findings indicate there are roughly 4,700 PHAs, plus or minus 1,500, with diameters larger than 330 feet (about 100 meters). So far, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of these objects have been found. While previous estimates of PHAs predicted similar numbers, they were rough approximations. NEOWISE has generated a more credible estimate of the objects' total numbers and sizes. "The NEOWISE analysis shows us we've made a good start at finding those objects that truly represent an impact hazard to Earth," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "But we've many more to find, and it will take a concerted effort during the next couple of decades to find all of them that could do serious damage or be a mission destination in the future."

The new analysis also suggests that about twice as many PHAs as previously thought are likely to reside in "lower-inclination" orbits, which are more aligned with the plane of Earth's orbit. In addition, these lower-inclination objects appear to be somewhat brighter and smaller than the other near-Earth asteroids that spend more time far away from Earth. A possible explanation is that many of the PHAs may have originated from a collision between two asteroids in the main belt lying between Mars and Jupiter. A larger body with a low-inclination orbit may have broken up in the main belt, causing some of the fragments to drift into orbits closer to Earth and eventually become PHAs. Asteroids with lower-inclination orbits would be more likely to encounter Earth and would be easier to reach. The results therefore suggest more near-Earth objects might be available for future robotic or human missions. "NASA's NEOWISE project, which wasn't originally planned as part of WISE, has turned out to be a huge bonus," said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Everything we can learn about these objects helps us understand their origins and fate. Our team was surprised to find the overabundance of low-inclination PHAs. Because they will tend to make more close approaches to Earth, these targets can provide the best opportunities for the next generation of human and robotic exploration."

The discovery that many PHAs tend to be bright says something about their composition; they are more likely to be either stony, like granite, or metallic. This type of information is important in assessing the space rocks' potential hazards to Earth. The composition of the bodies would affect how quickly they might burn up in our atmosphere if an encounter were to take place. The WISE spacecraft scanned the sky twice in infrared light before entering hibernation mode in early 2011. It catalogued hundreds of millions of objects, including super-luminous galaxies, stellar nurseries and closer-to-home asteroids. The NEOWISE project snapped images of about 600 near-Earth asteroids, about 135 of which were new discoveries. Because the telescope detected the infrared light, or heat, of asteroids, it was able to pick up both light and dark objects, resulting in a more representative look at the entire population. The infrared data allowed astronomers to make good measurements of the asteroids' diameters and when combined with visible light observations, how much sunlight they reflect.

[Of course giant rocks falling from the skies helped us with the breathing space needed to evolve into the world dominating creatures we are today. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that something similar could happen for a species we barely recognise as a credible competitor. With programmes like this (above) at least we might have a bit of warning of anything potentially nasty heading our way. I’m not sure what we could do about it though. Small stuff we might hope to avoid. After all most of the world’s surface is still largely uninhabited but an impact in a populated area could really ruin everyone’s day. But I suppose such an event being mistaken for an enemy nuclear strike has receded. Apparently it was a real fear back in the Cold War. That, I think, would be pretty much the ultimate definition of irony. We get hit by a piece of space rock and live to tell the tale only to be pushed to extinction by our own stupid response and counter response to it. We’ve been lucky so far. But as the recent Russian event, where something exploded in the atmosphere and blew out windows across a huge area of land, shows we can never take these things for granted. Sooner or later something will hit the ground. Let’s hope that it results in nothing more than a global tourist opportunity for the world to wonder over.]

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Funny but dangerous........?

Just Finished Reading: The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates (FP: 2010)

Containing 25 short stories from some of the best SF and Fantasy authors in the world on the theme of alternate history this hefty volume (just shy of 600 pages) provided me with a week’s high entertainment. Ranging from tales of Titanic survivors to attempts to ‘correct’ history to prevent a devastating war by enabling the failed assassin to kill Archduke Ferdinand this covered quite a few bases along the way. Surprisingly, at least to me, a significant number – 5 or 6 at least – concentrated on turning points in religious history and proposed world views where Christianity failed to grow beyond its humble beginnings or where Judaism or Islam triumphed in its place. Probably my favourite story was Sidewinders by Ken MacLeod which had two ideologically opposed sides (one dedicated to preserving alternate realities for study and the other wanting to improve things by importing the best ideas from other realities into ones that need a ‘helping hand’) pop across world timelines as an act of will. The fascinating idea at the core of it was that many people do this without thinking each and every day. Find your car keys on your desk when you’re convinced you put them in your pocket before having a shave? You’ve just side-slipped to a world where you did put them on the desk ready to be picked up on the way out to work. It’s a thought that I’ve often had myself so it was good to see I’m not alone thinking that!

There’s a weird tale of the aftermath of the American Civil War called Hush My Mouth by Suzette Haden Elgin where ex-slaves refuse to speak until the disparate black communities decide on a common language, an odd little one called A Letter from the Pope by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey where Alfred of Wessex turns against Christianity and forms a deeply Pagan Britain, an intriguing tale called Ink From the New Moon by A A Attanasio which creates a world where Christopher Columbus discovers America only to be greeted by sophisticated Native Americans and their Chinese partners called, a rather odd double-take of a story called Catch That Zeppelin! By Fritz Leiber which showed a very different and peacefully advanced world where Thomas Edison married Marie Currie (that was in our world) and together created a battery that powered the world far beyond the industrial revolution, another odd tale of the Pacific war called The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson in which the first person to drop the atomic bomb on Japan deliberately misses his assigned target becoming both a traitor and a hero to future generations and much else besides.

Oddly I found that most of the stories in this collection revolved around worlds that where in some way or other worse than this one rather than just different or even better. It seemed to be the view that this is the best (or at least one of the best) of all possible worlds. Is that really the case? Obviously that’s difficult to decide since we have no evidence either way, but I can think of turnings we might have made that would, at least potentially, resulted in a better world. But the one thing we can take from each and every story here is that nothing is inevitable. There is no fate, except that which we make ourselves, and things could have been (and can be) different. All we need is the balls and the insight to make it so – and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Ways of Seeing by John Berger (FP: 1972)

Delving again into my newly heightened interest in art and design I noticed that this book came up time and again in my searches on Amazon. So I took a slight chance and ordered it. Although it was a little outside my normal comfort zone (I do like doing that from time to time) I found it frankly fascinating and a surprisingly easy read considering its subject matter and perspective. Some of the comments on the back of the book are rather illuminating. The Observer calls the author ‘One of the most influential intellectuals of our time’ – and completely unknown to me until very recently. The Guardian calls the book ‘A slap in the face of the art establishment’ – so would have had an instant appeal if I’d read that before purchase. The author Jeanette Winterson said ‘He handles thoughts the way an artist handles paint’ – and, for once, it’s true.

The book consists of seven essays of which three are pictorial and contained almost no text in order that the reader could make up their own mind about things and raise their own questions. All very 70’s and radical I thought if not exactly illuminating or particularly educational or informative. I honestly didn’t take much from these ‘pictorial’ essays. Fortunately this was more than made up for by the essays that actually contained words as well as images – and there are a lot of pictures in this book! I think the most surprising thing about this work is the perspective of the author and his collaborators. Prior to ordering and reading this slim volume (a mere 155 pages) I had never heard of John Berger and consequently knew nothing about him or his views on art. So it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that his interpretation of art – of the portrait, the development of oil paintings, the nude and finally graphic art – was resolutely Marxist! I had no idea that such a thing existed, though I guess I should have thinking back to my University days when I was sought out by friends to give a Marxist explanation of everything (long story). Needless to say I was riveted by this strange, and yet strangely coherent, view of the varying aspects of the art world covered here. Although I knew that the majority of art works up until the modern day where commissioned by the rich or by the Church (often the same thing actually) I never really thought about how that influenced so much, from the subject, the style and even the size of the work itself. The authors views bypassed all of the usual (what I like to think of as) bullshit and cut to the very heart of things. It’s really no surprise why the art ‘establishment’ really, really didn’t like him – which, of course, made me like him all the more.

I think the thing I liked most about this book is that it has started me looking at things in a slightly different way. No doubt this will increase as I read other books by this and other associated authors on this and associated subjects. This is the kind of thing I’m reading books for – or more accurately a pleasant and sometimes unexpected addition to being entertained by the thoughts and ideas of others. Books like this prompt you to reassess your thought or, possibly, have thoughts about things you’ve never really considered before. Why, for instance, out of the uncounted thousands of art works produced over time are a vanishing small selection considered to be ‘great works’ and why are so few artists, again out of countless numbers, considered to be ‘great’? Who decides and, more importantly, why? Is it just a fact of longevity – a simple survival of the fittest or is there something more, something not quite explicit about the choices made? It is something I will delve into a bit further to see how far down the rabbit hole goes and how far I’m prepared to descend into it. Certainly one for anyone interested in the more hidden nature of art and design.  

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Luke...! That's your Sister, Dude!!!
Thinking About: Voting (again)

We had an election here on Thursday for seats on the local council and the European parliament. Locally there were no council seats up for grabs but I did cast my vote in the Euro elections. This was in contrast to the last opportunity to express my democratic duty/right where I couldn’t in all honestly vote for anyone. I had hoped, last time, that there would be a candidate on the ballot paper not associated with any of the major political parties but I was disappointed so ‘spoiled’ my vote in protest. It wasn’t much of a protest but at least it was something.

When I started voting back in 1978 I voted Conservative and was part of the landslide that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. Despite hating everything that the Conservatives stand for these days I felt the need to do something to counter the chaos that was British politics in the 70’s. Also I was only 18 and not exactly politically savvy. Later, in abject disgust at Tory political manoeuvring I switched my political allegiance back to where I felt it belong – with the Labour Party back when they were actually Socialists and had an actual ideology. In that vein I made the mistake of voting for ‘New’ Labour who turned out to be anything but Socialists and who ditched their ideology in order to make themselves electable. When I found myself no longer able to vote for them I switched to the Liberal Democrats who certainly, in my mind, talked a good talk and seemed to be saying pretty much everything I agreed with. How naïve I was. When the opportunity arose they took the opportunity to join with the Conservatives, who for many years they had been heavily criticising, and for the sake of the country (AKA for any chance of political power) they joined in the present coalition government. Of course, they said, it’s OK having principles in opposition but reality bites – hard. So, regretfully of course, they have had to abandon their lofty principles in order to cope with the new political reality. In other words they had no principles in the first place and every word out of their mouths before or since has been lies and bullshit. You have no idea how disappointed I was with them. Of course this means that, for various reasons, actually variations on the theme of trust and respect, I find myself unable to vote for any of the big three political parties. That leaves the ‘fringe’ parties most of which make me want to throw up at their stupidity, short-sightedness and worse. Since 1978 I’ve probably voted for most of the parties around, even one time (I think) for the Communists but I certainly can’t bring myself to vote for the far Right. That’s just never going to happen. Which leaves a single political party that, in all conscience, I can bring myself to vote for – the Green Party. Again they talk the talk and hopefully, if they ever gain any kind of power at any level, they’ll have the integrity to walk the walk too. But to be honest I’m waiting to be disappointed in them as well.

Politicians and the media make much of public disengagement with the political process and wonder why this is so and what they can do about it. They’ve said more than once that it’s a failure of ‘getting their message across’ which is a thinly veiled reference to the electorate being too stupid to know who to vote for. Of course if the voting population was actually politically educated none of the present crowd of liars would have a job in the first place. No, the reason that less and less people vote in every election is that slowly, painfully, the general population is becoming increasingly aware that politicians cannot be trusted, that they will lie, cheat and subvert their own processes in order to stay in power and feather their own nests at our expense. How can you tell if a politician is lying? You can see their lips move. Never has such a statement been truer. A plague on all their houses.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Just Finished Reading: History of the First World War by Basil H Liddell Hart (FP:1930/1934)

First published as The Real War in 1930 before being updated and expanded in 1934 as A History of the World War this is a masterful overview written by someone who knew intimately the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front. After returning to duty after suffering from concussion he was wounded three times during the Battle of the Somme and gassed causing his return to England to work in a training unit getting raw recruits ready for the reality of trench warfare. Using his first-hand experience he brings the lives and deaths of common soldiers into focus on the Western, Eastern, Italian and Middle Eastern fronts producing descriptions that almost read like the best of novels – except the horrors portrayed here are real.
The layout is an interesting one. After briefly discussing the origins of the conflict – 50 years in the making and far too complex to analysed with justice in a general overview such as this he suggests – the author uses a broad brush approach on the salient factors in each year of the war before going into much more detail of individual battles or ‘scenes’ which deliver a blow by blow account of each confrontation. Covered in this level of detail are: The Marne, Tannenberg, First Ypres, Dardanelles and Gallipoli, Second Ypres, Loos, Verdun, The Somme, Jutland, Arras, Messines, Passchendaele, Cambrai and Caporetto. On another scale he follows the development of tanks, the War in the Air, submarine conflict and much else besides. It may not be everything you’ve ever wanted to know about WW1 but where afraid to ask….., but it’s close enough! It is honestly a great introduction to the global conflict treating the subject with the breadth, depth and gravity it deserves.

There are times, interestingly enough, where the author seems close to losing his cool. This is not the penmanship of a disinterested historian writing long after the events they describe. In parts this book is clearly personal in nature and in tone. The author is honestly angry and, as you read, you will probably become angry too. At one point I had to throw the book on my desk at work and take a few deep breaths. His description of some of the truly inexplicable and stupid decisions that resulted in the deaths of thousands can beggar belief. Time and again we see men being sent into battle in appalling conditions by leaders who had absolutely no concept of what they were asking their men to do. At one point the author quotes a high ranking officer, visiting the front lines several days after an attack on the German lines had spectacularly failed. On seeing the state of the ground he had ordered the men to cross he is quoted as saying “My God, we sent men out to fight in that?” To which the officer of the ground replied “Oh, it’s much worse ahead.” Time and again all sides were ordered to do impossible things and time and again they tried to comply. It’s hardly surprising that the French finally broke and refused to fight in large numbers. What is surprising was that such a rebellion took so long to emerge.

I have much more WW1 related reading lined up but I think I’m off to a flying ‘start’ (having already touched upon or around the subject earlier) with this excellent classic volume. If you are interested in this conflict – especially with the 100th anniversary just around the corner – this is definitely a book you should have on your list. I don’t know if it’s still in print (my copy is the 1973 edition) but even if it isn’t the effort to acquire it will be amply rewarded. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My Favourite Movies: They Live

I think this was one of those movies that we picked up from our local video store because it looked kind of funky. Well, it was. In many ways it was a typical low budget 80’s sci-fi movie with questionable SFX, poor acting and a cast of people you’ve never heard of before or since. But it did have a few things going for it. Firstly it was a John Carpenter film and second it had a pretty interesting plot line.

The story starts with out of work, but hard working, John Nada (nothing, right?) played by ex-WWF fighter Roddy Piper arriving at a nameless town looking for work. Joining a crew on a building site he’s offered somewhere to sleep for the night by fellow construction worker Frank played by Keith David. It’s not long before Nada notices some strange goings-on at the local church and decides to investigate only to find that he’s stumbled on to a group smuggling sunglasses. Very confused by this he leaves the building and before he can pursue things further the police arrive in very heavy handed fashion and trash the place. Discovering a box of sunglasses the police missed he puts a pair on and his life changes forever. With the glasses on he can see the world as it really is – where every billboard, every newspaper, every sign and every television is being used to manipulate people into sleepwalking their way through life, working hard, spending their money and reproducing for the sole benefit of our alien masters. Seeing for the first time the aliens amongst us Nada decides to take things into his own hands and fights back with any weapon to hand – and some rather biting sarcasm! Joining a group of would-be liberators he targets the main alien broadcast station but can he trust those around him – even if they are human?

This is a film that cannot call itself a work of art (on any level) nor is it exactly subtle. There are no deep metaphors here. It simply hits you over the head – repeatedly – with the theme of exploitation by the rich and powerful (characterised by plug-ugly aliens from another galaxy here to suck the world dry before moving on to another “3rd World” planet). It pits the honest working man, and woman to be fair though in the role of helper, love interest and traitor, against the rich, heartless capitalists who are ruining the planet for their own personal gain. As I said, not exactly subtle. Fortunately there’s bucket loads of dark humour here. The alleyway fight scene is a scream as Nada tries to get Frank to put on the glasses and see what he sees. Another of my favourite scenes is where Nada walks into a bank exclaiming that he’s there to chew bubble-gum and kick ass… and he’s all out of bubble-gum. They certainly don’t write lines like that anymore!

This is not a film to be taken seriously. It’s pretty poor quality stuff but holds the attention with its heavy handed criticism of the American way of life and its dark humour. There are some great moments amongst the kitsch and more than a few laugh out loud moments too. Definitely one to watch with the brain in neutral – though you may never watch TV or read a paper in quite the same way ever again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Thinking About: Being Connected

I am not exactly a Luddite. In fact I’m a great admirer of technology and all that it can do for us. It’s part of the reason why I love SF so much. I use a computer every day at work and spend a good few hours every evening on-line in one way or another. I use e-mail and text messages multiple times a day and, obviously, Blog on a regular basis too – but there is one aspect of all this that I simply do not understand: the need to be constantly connected.

You see them everywhere – walking along looking at the floor or, on closer inspection, looking at their smart phones twitching their thumbs, swiping their fingers across tiny screens (though getting ever larger it seems), quickly typing out messages on miniature qwerty keyboards and, from time to time, making actual phone calls. There is an almost drugged quality about these people, completely oblivious to the outside world, mesmerised by the small screen in front of them. Are they deep in contemplation? Are they discovering the secrets of the universe with rapt attention? No, they’re updating their Facebook status or checking ‘friends’ comments on their own Facebook page, following Twitter feeds or watching videos of stupid people caught on camera doing stupid things. To me at least the question springs to mind: Why? When did we develop the need, the desire, to know on a minute by minute basis what other people we have never met, and probably never will meet, are doing? When did we develop the desire, the need, to tell the world our every waking thought or what is happening to us right this second no matter how trivial or irrelevant? Do you really need to know what I had for breakfast this morning or my thoughts and opinions on the situation in the Ukraine? Do I need to know what you had for dinner last night or your thoughts and opinions on the winner of last nights X-Factor? Since when did any of this matter enough that I need to know about it right this second? Answer: it didn’t. If you are my actual friend, rather than an ersatz Facebook version, it might come up in conversation or, if separated by any great distance, in a phone call or e-mail (or, god forbid, an actual letter). If it’s important information that needs to be told right this second you could always pick up a phone and talk or text someone – “Baby is fine. Decided on name: Penrose.” But do you really need to tell 200+ people that and then respond to their knee-jerk comments and their comments to your comments until the early hours of the morning? Do you need to have your phone constantly on charge every time you’re located in one spot for more than ten minutes to top up the battery just in case you can’t charge it in the next hour and miss that vital post about your friend’s third kitten who has a worrying cough? Do you really need to reach for your phone, charging next to your bed on the night stand, before you are either fully awake (or have said good morning to your partner) to check if anything has happened whilst unfortunately asleep always alive to the horrific possibility that you might have missed something important like a relationship breakup or a flat tire on the way to work.

Fortunately I am not, nor have I ever been, cursed with such an addiction. I do not feel the need to tell everyone everything about my life second by second (for one thing it’s just too dull to relate and frankly it’s none of your business) nor am I interested in the minutiae of people’s lives be they world known celebrities or even good friends. There is no need to be connected to the rest of the world 24/7 and I fail to understand why so many people feel that need. What do you get from it? What need is it fulfilling? Indeed is it fulfilling any need? If you were not connected for an hour, a day, or a whole week, what difference would it make to your lives? Would it be the end of the world or would you just find something else to do with your time? Could you live without Facebook? I can. It’s really, really easy……    

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Just Finished Reading: The Peshawar Lancers by S M Stirling (FP: 2002)

Britain was lucky. When the spray of comets hit the Northern hemisphere on October 3, 1878 it was spared most of the devastation suffered by the rest of Europe. But they did not get away scot-free. As the crisis unfolded Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was presented with a stark option – save as many as he could in England and risk total disaster or move a small percentage of the population to India and other outposts of the Empire relatively unaffected by the disaster.

148 years later the Empire has survived and is beginning to reclaim much of its fabled heritage. Now, with its capital in Delhi, it is a force to be reckoned with on a global stage. But it is an Empire surrounded by enemies, the dark and bloodthirsty Russian Empire dedicated to death and chaos and in the Far East the twin Empires of China and Nippon. Preparing for the inevitable conflict is Athelstane King, Captain of the Peshawar Lancers an elite unit of mounted warriors who guard the edges of the Empire against tribal incursion. On his return home from a successful campaign he is attacked in his apartments by trained assassins and only escapes due to hard fighting, good fortune and the efforts of his second in command. In the process his concubine is killed and King vows revenge against whoever commissioned the killers. King is enraged further when his sister, one of the rare scientists at the new Oxford University is apparently targeted in a terrorist attack. Needing to understand why his family is seemingly marked for death, King takes up a request to join the Imperial Secret Service and finds himself thrown into the centre of the Great Game where death is around every corner and the stakes could not be higher. For if King fails in his mission not only will the Empire fall but humanity itself will be destroyed.

I’d gone off Stirling a while back when I started having problems with his underlying political philosophy in some of his latest novels. But, as I was reading a selection of Alt-History anyway I thought I’d give him another chance. I was understandably relieved therefore to find that right-leaning politics in this example was hardly noticeable at all (apart from the whole Empire business but not even then really as the new Empire was multi-ethnic if rather un-democratic). The story itself is a heady blend of old-fashioned 19th century adventure novel, steam-punk and James Bond all rolled into a fast paced, intelligent and often fascinating tale. Interesting and well-drawn (if somewhat wooden) characters vie for attention across impressive landscapes, skin of their teeth escapes, the schemes of implacable and highly motivated baddies and the threat of the end of the world! This is a book of total escapism which will transport you away from the ‘real’ world into one populated by strange but strangely familiar people fighting for a world that never came into existence. A great fun read. Recommended.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham (FP: 2004)

East Timor: The Year is 2021. Off the coast a mixed fleet of Coalition warships prepare for their attack on rebel strongholds on the island. Nestled in the middle is the scientific research ship Nagoya, pulled in at the last minute when it’s guardian missile cruiser was needed elsewhere. On board experiments continue on a weapon that could change the nature of war forever. Hours before the attack is due to take place the planned experiment goes horribly wrong destroying the ship and killing everyone aboard. Seconds later a torn and distorted wave of space-time crashes into the Allied fleet and hurtles them back in time – to 1942 and right in the middle of the American fleet on its way to Midway and the decisive naval engagement of the Pacific war. In the confusion the 1942 fleet open fire on their uninvited guests only to have the AI systems on the 2021 fleet respond in kind in self-defence. In the minutes between first contact and the stunned officers on the fantastic future fleet come to their senses half of the American fleet is either sunk or sinking. When the firing stops and messages are passed between the two fleets the shock is only just beginning to sink in. One thing is clear, the arrival of the ships from the future may have just lost America the war….

On the face of it this book pushed a good number of my reading buttons – Time Travel, Combat SF with ultra-modern weapons and Alternate History. It looked to be a hell of a romp and I was fully prepared to disengage my brain and enjoy the ride. It came as quite a surprise therefore when I discovered that this was anything but a light mindless read. For one thing the first volume in this trilogy (only half-jokingly called World War 2.1) is just under 500 pages long so there was lots going on here – on a global stage. The second, rather massive, surprise was that the initial fire-fight between the two fleets which ran for about 20 minute’s real time was told in about 100 pages of the book! That was honestly stunning and has just probably turned off some of the would-be readership right there. It was relentless and honestly left me breathless. Stunning is definitely the word I’d use. But the whole thing is far, far more than that. Agreed there’s a lot of combat in the book – as you might expect from something largely based in WW2 – but there’s also a lot of thought here. I couldn’t actually fault the author on any of his speculation or on his ideas of how both sets of people would react. That’s what most of the book turned out to be about – the explosive mix of 2021 and 1942 people which proved to be far more problematic and the sudden mix of technologies (especially pre-knowledge of the ‘future’).

I don’t know enough about the time (1942 that is) to comment but the failure of most people of that period to cope with, and sometimes even acknowledge, leaders who were either women or non-white (or both) flummoxed me. Where people really that racist, misogynistic and homophobic back then or am I being more than a little naïve? The differences in attitudes to almost everything between the 1942 and the 2021 characters was profound and disturbing if sometimes rather funny – especially in sexual politics and feminism which came as a shock (understatement of the century) to 1942 men. Of course whilst all this was being worked out the Axis Powers are affected by the ripple effect of the arrival of ships from the future and change their plans accordingly – more so when some of the advanced technology falls into their hands. That’s yet another fascinating part of the book – the military and political fallout of this very sudden change of events. WTF will happen next I couldn’t help asking myself. There are so many new ripples (and wrinkles) in the pool that no one will know what the consequences will be. Luckily I am already in possession of the next two books and they have been seriously upgraded in the ‘read soon’ list. I just need to know what happens next! If you’re in the market for a cracking good read that will inevitably mess with your head and twist your thoughts and ideas every which way this is definitely the book for you. Clever, thoughtful and thought provoking with a great cast of characters I loved almost every turn of the page. Highly recommended.            

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Worth a Quote

“Machines would not exist without us, but our existence would no longer be possible without them.”

Pierre Ducasse

“The form follows the function.”

Jean-Baptiste Lamark

“Good language alone will not save mankind. But seeing the things behind the names will help us to understand the structure of the world we live in. Good language will help us to communicate with one another about the realities of our environment, where we now speak darkly, in alien tongues.”

Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words

“Why have we become like gods as technologists and like devils as moral beings, supermen in science and idiots in aesthetics – idiots above all in the Greek sense of absolutely isolated individuals, incapable of communicating among themselves or understanding one another?”

Lewis Mumford

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I'm thinking that someone didn't impress as much as he thought he would....
'Killer robots' to be debated at UN

From The BBC

9 May 2014

Killer robots will be debated during an informal meeting of experts at the United Nations in Geneva. Two robotics experts, Prof Ronald Arkin and Prof Noel Sharkey, will debate the efficacy and necessity of killer robots. The meeting will be held during the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). A report on the discussion will be presented to the CCW meeting in November. This will be the first time that the issue of killer robots, or lethal autonomous weapons systems, will be addressed within the CCW.

A killer robot is a fully autonomous weapon that can select and engage targets without any human intervention. They do not currently exist but advances in technology are bringing them closer to reality. Those in favour of killer robots believe the current laws of war may be sufficient to address any problems that might emerge if they are ever deployed, arguing that a moratorium, not an outright ban, should be called if this is not the case. However, those who oppose their use believe they are a threat to humanity and any autonomous "kill functions" should be banned. "Autonomous weapons systems cannot be guaranteed to predictably comply with international law," Prof Sharkey told the BBC. "Nations aren't talking to each other about this, which poses a big risk to humanity." Prof Sharkey is a member and co-founder of the Campaign Against Killer Robots and chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. Side events at the CCW will be hosted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Prof Arkin from the Georgia Institute of Technology told the BBC he hoped killer robots would be able to significantly reduce non-combatant casualties but feared they would be rushed into battle before this was accomplished. "I support a moratorium until that end is achieved, but I do not support a ban at this time," said Prof Arkin. He went on to state that killer robots may be better able to determine when not to engage a target than humans, "and could potentially exercise greater care in so doing". Prof Sharkey is less optimistic. "I'm concerned about the full automation of warfare," he says.

The discussion of drones is not on the agenda as they are yet to operate completely autonomously, although there are signs this may change in the near future. The UK successfully tested the Taranis, an unmanned intercontinental aircraft in Australia this year and America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has made advances with the Crusher, an unmanned ground combat vehicle, since 2006. The MoD has claimed in the past that it currently has no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention. On 21 November 2012 the United States Defense Department issued a directive that, "requires a human being to be 'in-the-loop' when decisions are made about using lethal force," according to Human Rights Watch. The meeting of experts will be chaired by French ambassador Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel from 13 to 16 May 2014.

[Well, at least they’re talking about it…. [grin]]

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Good advice....
Just Finished Reading: Modern Japan – A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Goto-Jones (FP: 2009)

I have long been fascinated with Japan and especially with its rather strange cultural mix of the ultra-modern and the deeply traditional. But, as the author of this interesting and informative little volume explains in the first section, this is not a fault with Japan but with a fault within the west’s understanding on modernity. For whenever we think of the idea of the modern we think of European or American styles of government, architecture and culture rather than seeing it in a larger global context. This is why we find the idea of futurist samurai warriors quoting Buddhist texts in Anime movies so strange, why we see Japan as neon lit cities of the future whilst in the foreground we see the iconic Shinto arch.

Running from the enforced opening of Japan by Perry’s Black ships (though a very limited and controlled access to the country existed long before that), through the birth pangs of nationhood (already developing due to the pressures on constant warfare and an ever increasing population), the very important Meiji Restoration and the two major rebellions that followed (the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion being depicted in Hollywood fashion as The Last Samurai), the growth of militant and military led nationalism which led to Japan becoming a notable regional power especially after its defeat of Russian forces on both land and sea – the first time a western nation had been decisively defeated by an eastern one, followed quickly by military adventures in the Pacific during WW2 and decisive, indeed nuclear, defeat by the Americans, occupation and a radical shift from military to economic expansion becoming a technological powerhouse in the face of the growth of the communist threat exemplified by the Korean War.

By 1967 Japan was the world’s second largest car manufacturer with an economy between 1960 and 1971 growing at an astounding 12% per year. It is during this time that the Japanese workforce gained their reputation for truly amazing productivity – with all the problems that followed. It is no surprise that Japan has probably the highest suicide rate in the world – even amongst its teenage student population who struggle to pass exams that will determine the course of their whole lives.

The author points out that, for many years (indeed probably throughout the modern period), Japan has yet to come to terms and reconcile what exactly it means to be a modern Japanese nation. Actions in China before WW2, in the Pacific region during WW2 and the atomic bombings still loom large in the Japanese psyche and the effects of these events have yet to be fully processed. Japan is, in a real sense, still struggling to be modern.

Although anything more than a very basic overview (or a very short introduction) to a country over roughly a 150 year period in just under 150 pages is impossible I did think the author made a very good attempt to get to the heart of things not only discussing the historic events that led the country to its present modern state but to the socio-psychological forces released due to them that are still working their way through the Japanese psyche. If you have any interest in Japan then this is definitely something you should pick up. Recommended.