About Me

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Arnie does Hamlet..................
Mothers who believe they can shape their destinies give children a head start in life.

By Jamie Doward

The Observer, Sunday 17 August 2014

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers will this week open their GCSE results and discover whether their years of studying have paid off. But their academic fortunes may owe nearly as much to the mindsets of their mothers as to the hours spent revising. Research published by the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) finds that babies born to mothers who hold a strong belief that their fates are in their hands, rather than down to luck, perform significantly better in their GCSEs 16 years later.

The conclusion, which gives pupils with low grades a novel excuse for their poor performance – "It's all your fault, Mum" – is based on analysing data drawn from the Children of the 90s project, a long-term study of the lives of more than 10,000 young people born in the Bristol area. The study tracks the formation of a key personality trait known as the "locus of control" – people's subjective belief in their ability to influence their life which is formed in infancy and stabilises in adulthood. Psychologists claim that people can be classified along a continuum on the locus of control scale.

At one extreme are people with a very internal locus who believe they can entirely direct the course of their own lives. At the other are people with a very external locus who believe their life is entirely determined by luck or fate and feel they have little power to change things. Most people are somewhere between these two extremes. Warn Lekfuangfu and Nele Warrinnier, two members of the CEP research team which analysed the data, said previous studies show that, compared with people who have a strong external locus of control, those who have a strong internal locus tend to invest more in their education, live a healthier lifestyle and search for a job more intensively when unemployed. "Our study simply offers new evidence that they also tend to make better parents as well," the academics claim.

Another member of the team, Dr Francesca Cornaglia, an economist from Queen Mary University of London, said the research clearly showed the influence of a mother's personality was substantial. "Holding other things constant – including family background, mother's education and children's own locus of control – we find that children whose mothers ranked in the top 25% of the internal locus of control scale tended to obtain total GCSE scores around 17% higher than children whose mothers ranked in the bottom 25%." Professor Nattavudh Powdthavee, a senior author of the study, said that mothers who have a higher perceived sense of control over their life early on tend to believe in a more hands-on approach to parenting. "This is simply because they strongly believe their actions will make a difference in their child's life," he said. "Consequently, they tend to engage their children in more cognitively stimulating activities such as reading and singing. This seems to have given their children a head start in terms of cognitive development."

[Interesting. I think my mother’s ‘locus of control’ was more external than internal. She did, and still does, have a habit of blaming other people for things that go wrong. Then again she always blames other people for their own mistakes too – which I guess could teach her kids (including me of course) that you are ultimately responsible for everything that happens to you! So I guess I have that to thank her for the belief that I am indeed the Captain of my own Fate. Thanks Mum.]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Geek Humour.... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Half the Blood of Brooklyn by Charlie Huston (FP: 2007)

Joe Pitt is back in the fold working as an enforcer for The Society. If anything is his niche this is it – which is why he really needs to fuck things up a little. The problem with Joe is that he has an attitude problem. He’s a wise mouth, a jerk and not forgetting an asshole. When he’s told to shut his mouth and behave he does the opposite – no matter what the consequences and no matter how many times he’s been beaten, shot or threatened with various painful deaths. If only he knew when to shut up he’s probably live longer – except for the fact that Joe is already dead, at least sort of. Things are a bit more complicated than that. For want of a better word Joe, and The other members of The Society, is a vampire. Not that he really gives a shit, not about that anyway. It just allows his to smoke with impunity but prevents him from getting drunk which is really annoying. The only thing that he does actually give a shit about is his girlfriend who is dying of AIDS. If only he had the courage to infect her, kill her and save her life – such as it is. In the meantime, while he makes up his mind what to do, he has a diplomatic mission to complete. As power shifts between the various vampire groups The Society need friends and allies across New York. Sent to Staten Island with a high ranking member of the Clan the mission falls apart when they are attacked by another group fighting for territory. Miles from home and with dawn approaching Joe needs to save his Clan contact, get back to home ground and see his girlfriend – though not necessarily in that order. Only one thing is certain: Much blood will flow and Joe intends that very little of it will be his.

This is my 3rd Joe Pitt novel and I have to admit he’s fast becoming one of my favourite fictional characters. He is honestly a scream a minute. He is totally his own man and will do whatever he thinks is right no matter the consequences. He spends his time speaking truth to power and getting slapped down because of it – but he never bends, never breaks and if pushed far enough will smile sweetly as he puts a gun against his enemies head and empties the clip into it (vampires being hard to kill and all that). He’s not a man to be crossed – no matter who is doing the crossing – and when he’s pissed off he will bring your world crashing to the floor even if he has to kill himself (again) in the process. I just LOVE the guy! If you enjoy a good, tightly plotted story and don’t mind blood, profanity and graphic violence and, more importantly, love noir fiction with crackling dialogue, wonderful characters, a richly dark urban environment and a world that rings true despite its fantastic elements this is most certainly the series for you. Start with number 1 and work your way through all 5 in the series. I certainly intend to. Highly recommended.    

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thinking About: The Cost of Things

I buy a Sunday paper on a semi-regular basis. A good part of the reason I do so is for the more in-depth analysis of world events you don’t get on most TV news programmes. Part of the rest is to see what’s going on in the world and finally to laugh at the stupid prices people (apparently) pay for pretty mundane objects.

Mostly the adverts are aimed at women – with handbags and shoes predominating. Frankly, if I was a woman I’d be insulted at the crap I’m supposed to spend my hard earned money on. Would I spend £325 on a pair of sunglasses even if they are by Prada? No, I wouldn’t. Apart from the fact that they are frankly ugly I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on something that is probably no more functionally effective as something costing 10% of the price. Would I spend £150 on a (again) frankly ugly T-shirt by Levi’s even if it has a ‘vintage’ print on it? No, I wouldn’t. It’s a ridiculous price to pay for something like that, as is £120 for some beach shorts or £345 on a muddy brown beach bag. OK, I admit that a £120 pair of shorts will probably be of better quality than a £10 pair but will they be 12x better? 6x? 3x? What justifies the price tags except designer names and the willingness of some people (enough for the companies to keep selling them at these prices anyway) to pay for them? Why do people feel the need to buy over-inflated items and them display them to everyone else? Is it simply that people feel the need to show that they have enough disposable income to effectively waste it on expensive (and often hideous) items of clothing and accessories? Do they expect other people to admire their buying power or, harder to believe, their taste and therefore to look up to them and want to get to know them? Do other people actually look at someone with a Prada bag and think “There’s someone to admire. I wish I could get to know them or be them.” Really? Are we humans really that shallow? OK, stupid question…..

Oh, I am aware that, generally speaking, you get what you pay for. A case in point is my last wristwatch which I paid the princely sum of £8 for from my local supermarket. It looked OK and told the time accurately enough so why, I thought, pay a fortune for something else which would essentially be the same product? Within 3-4 months the watch strap has basically disintegrated forcing me to buy a replacement. This time I splashed out on a £14 watch of much superior quality and one which I fully expect to last several years if not longer. Conceivably if I saw a wristwatch that I loved the sight of (unlikely but let’s suppose) and which would last me the rest of my life I might pay £50 or even £100 if it was truly amazing but would I pay £200, £500 or more for something basically indistinguishable from the cheaper model because it had Gucci or Armani or Rolex stamped on it? No, I wouldn’t – no matter how much money I had in the bank.

I do wonder why I baulk at the prices of some things much more, generally, than other people I know. Part of it is probably my formative years when my family didn’t have a lot of money to waste on what might be called luxuries or fripperies. But I’ve seen that go both ways with people buying expensive items to somehow compensate for what they saw as a deprived childhood. I did a little of that when I got my first job. One of the first things I did was to buy myself a leather jacket and a denim jacket that I’d always wanted but could never really afford before then. But after that I pretty much bought what I needed, plus a bit more, and then stopped. I wore that denim jacket to death, had my Mum patch it when it started falling apart, and then never replaced it. I’d got what I wanted. I couldn’t really be that enthusiastic over buying another one. I do, inevitably, appear to be the odd-one-out here. I didn’t feel a huge urge at any point to buy the latest this or the designer that long before I stopped watching adverts. These days such things either leave me bemused or crying with laughter or open-mouthed in astonishment at what some companies try to (and often succeed in) get us to buy.

Of course if more people like me existed (heaven forbid) then global capitalism would come crashing down around our ears. After all the entire world’s economy is built on people like you and me buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t even like. But that’s just not me. Probably because I don’t even try to impress people I do like! Without that driving force there seems little to motivate me to get my wallet out and hand over my credit card. Maybe I have developed an immunity to advertising? Knowing that most adverts are designed to make the viewer’s feel inadequate in some way helps – especially when you often find their crude attempted manipulation hilariously funny. In the meantime I’ll keep my money in my bank and buy things when I want to or when things break rather than when an advertising executive or a designer thinks I should.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dinosaurs 'shrank' regularly to become birds

By Zoe Gough For BBC Nature

31 July 2014

Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, scientists have revealed. Theropods shrunk 12 times from 163kg (25st 9lb) to 0.8kg (1.8lb), before becoming modern birds. The researchers found theropods were the only dinosaurs to get continuously smaller. Their skeletons also changed four times faster than other dinosaurs, helping them to survive. Results from the study are reported in the journal Science.

Previous work has shown that theropod dinosaurs, the dinosaur group which included Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor and gave rise to modern birds, must have decreased in size at some point in their evolution into small, agile flyers. But size changes frequently occurred in dinosaur evolution, so the research team members, led by Mike Lee, from the University of Adelaide, Australia, wanted to find out if the dramatic size reduction associated with the origin of birds was unique. They also wanted to measure the rate of evolution in dinosaurs using a large data set. The authors used sophisticated analytical tools - developed by molecular biologists trying to understand virus evolution - to study more than 1,500 dinosaur body traits coded from 120 well-documented species of theropod and early birds. From this analysis they produced a detailed family tree mapping out the transformation of theropods to their bird descendants. It traces evolving adaptations and changing body size over time and across dinosaur branches.

They found that the dinosaur group directly related to birds shrank rapidly from about 200 million years ago. It showed a decrease in body mass of 162.2kg (25st 7lb) from the largest average body size to Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird. These bird ancestors also evolved new adaptations, including feathers, wishbones and wings, four times faster than other dinosaurs. Shrinking and new bird-like traits jointly influenced the transition of dinosaurs to birds, researchers say. The researchers concluded that the evolution of the branch of dinosaurs leading to birds was more innovative than other dinosaur lineages. The authors say this sustained shrinking and accelerated evolution of smaller and smaller body size allowed the ancestors of birds to develop traits which helped them to cope much better than their less evolved dinosaur relatives. "Birds evolved through a unique phase of sustained miniaturisation in dinosaurs," Mr Lee said. "Being smaller and lighter in the land of giants, with rapidly evolving anatomical adaptations, provided these bird ancestors with new ecological opportunities, such as the ability to climb trees, glide and fly. Ultimately, this evolutionary flexibility helped birds survive the deadly meteorite impact which killed off all their dinosaurian cousins."

The researchers believe that miniaturisation and the development of bird-like traits had a joint influence on the evolution of the dinosaurs into today's birds. Professor Michael Benton, from the University of Bristol's school of earth sciences, said: "This study means we can't see the origin of birds as a sudden or dramatic event, with a dinosaur becoming a powered flyer overnight. The functions of each special feature of birds changed over time - feathers first for insulation, and later co-opted for flight; early reductions in body size perhaps for other reasons, and later they were small enough for powered flight; improvements in sense of sight and enlargement of brain - even a small improvement in these is advantageous. So perhaps it's a long-term trend associated with deputation to a new set of habitats, in the trees, to avoid predation, and to exploit new food resources."


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Star Wars: The Unedited Version.....

Just Finished Reading: Settling Accounts – Return Engagement by Harry Turtledove (FP: 2004)

June 22, 1941. It’s time for the Confederate States to take their final revenge against the hated United States. Launching an unannounced and unprovoked attack President Jake Featherston, the South’s charismatic leader, has nothing more on his mind than total victory and total dominance of the whole continent. Reeling from the initial attack the United States falls back in disarray and is outflanked time and again by the new tactics of combined tank (known as barrels) and ground attack aircraft. Before long the integrity of the entire country is threatened as the Confederate forces approach the Great Lakes. Meanwhile the war expands into Europe, South East Asia and the Occupied Territory of Canada. Drawing new fighters who grew up in a world at peace and veterans who remember the First World War all too well this could be the Confederates finest hour.

I’ve been reluctant to read this for some time after slogging through the author’s previous work in this seemingly never ending series. After making it through the 623 pages in reasonable time I began to wonder if either I was getting used to his somewhat pedestrian style or if things had improved since his last book. Maybe it was a bit of both. Predictably he did spend a significant amount of time explaining each characters past and their particular identifying traits but he seemed to have eased off on the number of times he brought them up – or maybe I’d simply learnt to tune them out more successfully! Like family sagas everywhere it was interesting to catch up on the lives of characters I’d ‘known’ for the past 25 odd years. The author even managed to surprise me by even killing off at least one major character. The events themselves however where, by and large, an almost direct take from real events early in ‘our’ WW2 where the Confederacy is quite clearly Germany, the black population clearly representing the Jews and the Union quite clearly France (and maybe England too). As you might expect there are few surprises for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the opening events of the real WW2.

Despite the many criticisms I could level at this book – indeed at the author himself – he still managed to produce something that kept me turning page after page and which kept me wanting to know what happened next and who lived and who died. In the final analysis the whole series up to this point could have been handled much better – especially with some radical editing – but this is still reasonably entertaining stuff and is reasonably well written. I doubt if it will win any prizes and there are much better authors of Alt-History out there – I’m looking at you John Birmingham and Taylor Anderson – but if you want a soft introduction to the genre that won’t require much effort or any great thought then this is the series of books for you. I will be reading the rest of the series at some point but I’m not in any great hurry to do so. Reasonable.

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Despicable Me

For some reason I missed this at the movies and only picked it up by chance when it hit the cheap box at my local supermarket. I think that I may have picked up on the fact that it was made by the same producer of Ice Age (which I liked) so gave it a shot. Needless to say I found this to be one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years.

The story revolves around super-criminal Gru who finds himself being outclassed by rival (and much younger) super-criminal Vector. Determined to get back on top (and impress his hard to please mother) he determines on the crime of the century – to steal the Moon. In order to do that he first needs to steal a classified shrink ray which Vector takes from under his nose. After failing to gain entry into Vector’s hideout he decides to use the services of three orphan girls selling cookies door to door – but first he has to adopt them. For the first time in his life he has to relate to children and become a responsible adult – at least as responsible as he can be – whilst still fighting the bad fight and coming out on top in the criminal underworld. He still has a Moon to steal and, if he can make it in time, a children’s ballet recital to attend. Slowly, against his will and his better instincts he begins to love his little charges and eventually does everything in his power to save them from his arch enemy. Of course he can’t do this on his own. Luckily he has countless minions to help him in every way possible and sometimes, just sometimes, in useful ways too.

I think that Despicable Me will always be remembered for introducing the little yellow Minions to the world who, pretty universally, fell in love with the guys (at least I presume that they’re guys!). They have since become part of western culture and you see them just about everywhere and on everything from slippers, to cakes, to plush toys, to blimps. Just thinking about them makes me smile. Some of the things they did in both films (including the rather disappointing sequel) where frankly hilarious and reduced me to tears of laughter. They certainly stole every scene as far as I was concerned. Surprisingly for me I loved the kids in this film too – particularly little Agnes who only wanted a unicorn to call her own. You know a film works for me when I even like the children in it – OK they’re CGI but the point stands. As often with these films there’s a whole host of in-jokes, subtle detail and elements you’ll certainly miss if you watch the film just once. I think I’ve seen it maybe 4-5 times so far and, apart from still finding it both funny and touching, am still picking up on small things I missed before. That’s the beauty of so many of these films. They are packed with pop culture references and it’s almost part of the fun finding them and figuring them out.

If you haven’t seen this for whatever reason or if you haven’t seen it for a while (of course if you have young children you’ve probably already seen it several hundred times I’m guessing) then I heartedly recommend you giving the DVD or pay-by-view a spin. Switch your phone on to silent, grab something to eat and let your inner child out for 91 minutes. You’ll feel much better for it.   

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Weekend of Music (15th – 17th August 2014)

A bit of a longer ‘weekend’ this week as I had a sudden change of plans so took Friday off work. Out a big chunk of Saturday though so probably less music listened to than I might have. So here’s the list:

Bruce Springsteen - The Essential Collection (2 CDs)
Del Amitri - Waking Hours
Republica - Republica
TV Sound Track - Game of Thrones
Limp Bizkit - Chocolate Starfish
30 Seconds to Mars - This Is War
TV Soundtrack - Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Score
Tracey Thorn - Out of the Woods
Sneaker Pimps - Becoming X
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin
Various Artists - Too Much Two Tone
The Clash - The Singles
Phil Lynott - Yellow Pearl – A Collection
Nickleback - Dark Horse
Snow Patrol - Eyes Open
The Alan Parsons Project - Pyramid
Billy Joel - The Essential Collection (2 CDs)
Snow Patrol - Up To Now – The Best Of (2 CDs)
Madonna - Ray of Light
Cocteau Twins - Stars and Topsoil – A Collection (1982-1990)

Generally all over the place but that's how I like things....

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wasn't this place in a James Bond film?
'Bad luck' ensured that asteroid impact wiped out dinosaurs

By Pallab Ghosh for BBC News

28 July 2014

Dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid impact when they were at their most vulnerable, according to a new study. Dr Steve Brusatte, of Edinburgh University, said sea level rises and volcanic activity had made many species more susceptible to extinction. They might have survived if the asteroid had hit the Earth a few million years later or earlier, he said, calling it "colossal bad luck". The assessment has been published in the journal, Biological Reviews. "It was a perfect storm of events that occurred when dinosaurs were at their most vulnerable," Dr Brusatte told BBC News.

The study brought together 11 leading dinosaur experts from the UK, US and Canada to assess the latest research on the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago. There is evidence that some species of dinosaur were dying off shortly before an asteroid hit the Earth. One of the key questions was whether this gradual decline would have led to the extinction of these animals even if the asteroid had not hit. The experts concluded that although some species of plant eaters in North America were dying out in the period leading up to the asteroid impact there was no evidence of a long-term decline. However, the experts believe that rises in sea level and increased volcanic activity made many species more susceptible to extinction just at the point that the asteroid struck.

Dr Brusatte believes that had the asteroid hit the Earth a few million years earlier before the environmental pressures became worse or a few million years later, when the dinosaurs might have recovered, they would be roaming the Earth to this day. "Five million years earlier dinosaur ecosystems were much stronger, they were more diverse, the base of the food chain was more robust and it was harder to knock out a lot of species," he said. "If they had a few million years more to recover their diversity they would have had a better chance of surviving the asteroid impact. Dinosaurs had been around for 160 million years, they had plenty of dips and troughs in their diversity but they always recovered." It was the demise of the dinosaurs that enabled mammals including our own species to diversify and evolve. Dr Brusatte said that if it were it not for an asteroid hitting the Earth exactly when it did we would be living in a dinosaur dominated world. We could all be living in a dinosaur world today, except there would be no "we". "Except that we would not be here because mammals would not have had the opportunity to blossom and we would not be having this conversation!" he quipped. This intriguing idea raises the question as to how dinosaurs might have evolved.

Could they have developed in the same way as mammals, becoming an advanced species similar to modern humans? I asked Dr Brusatte: "Could dinosaur you and dinosaur me be having this conversation, instead?" "It's possible!" he said. "With evolution never say never. It is certainly possible that dinosaurs could have evolved intelligence." Professor Simon Conway-Morris from the University of Cambridge agrees, but does not go quite as far as Dr Brusatte. "As far as dinosaurs becoming intelligent is concerned the experiment has been done and we call them crows," he told BBC News. He adds that if there was no mass extinction then he believes that the dinosaurs would not have carried on to the present day. He says that other groups of animals were more likely to have developed advanced intelligence and the ability to make tools. "From that moment the dinosaurs would have been toast," he said.

Others involved in the study are less bullish than Dr Brusatte. They say that while his arguments are plausible they believe that it is impossible to say whether dinosaurs would have survived had the asteroid hit the Earth at a slightly different time. "We can't re-run the tape of life and see whether an impact at a different time would have led to total extinction," says Dr Richard Butler from Birmingham University. "But it did come at a particularly bad time." Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum says that the new study shows that types of dinosaurs were already declining in numbers before the asteroid impact. "This new work provides the best evidence for sudden dinosaur extinction and for tying this event to the asteroid impact rather than other possible causes such as the longer-term effects of the extensive volcanic activity that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous."

[As I’ve said before – Giants rocks falling from the sky made us what we are today. No asteroid impact no mammalian explosion and no humans. It does seem though that dinosaurs may have been on their way out anyway and that the asteroid impact 65 million years ago was the final nail in the coffin. But if it wasn’t or if the impact didn’t happen I do wonder if they could survive and thrive for another 65 million years, get intelligent and maybe have a complex culture. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll meet reptilian aliens descended from their own dinosaur ancestors. Won’t that be interesting!]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Stuff Matters – The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik (FP: 2013)

How much do you think about the physical world around you? Can you spot the difference between brushed aluminium and stainless steel? Do you have any idea how stainless steel is made and why it’s so important? Did you know that not that long ago people would have tasted their cutlery along with the food they were eating? How much do you know about paper? Why is writing paper a very different beast to toilet paper? What is paper money actually made of (hint: it’s not paper). Do you have any idea where the idea for concrete came from and who thought of putting iron cables in it to make the now ubiquitous reinforced concrete? Have you heard of the recent development of concrete that ‘heals’ itself? Why does chocolate taste so nice while the plant it derives from tastes so nasty? Why does some chocolate melt in the mouth while other chocolates don’t? Why is glass see-through and how do greenhouses work? How is glass made bullet proof? What is silica aerogel and why is it one of the futures most important materials? How is it likely to tell us about the origins of our Solar System? Why was plastic invented (hint: it has to do with the decline of elephants and the popularity of a bar game) and what would the world be like without celluloid? Why was it so important to have beer in clear glass bottles and what particular drink did it allow to dominate the world? Why is it so difficult to make diamonds artificially and why don’t people wear the result on their fingers? What’s the fundamental difference between graphite, diamond and graphine? How did the invention of carbon fibre change some sporting events forever? What is the secret of porcelain manufacture and why did it take so long to discover (and so long to steal from the Chinese)? How are advances in materials science affecting human longevity and how far are we away from a real $6 million man?

These are just a few of the questions (and answers) covered in this fascinating book. I for one will never look at plain old boring concrete in the same way (more of which later!) The author reels of fascinating fact, after fascinating historical significance, after human story, after future speculation, after personal anecdote. I found myself being charmed while real science embedded itself in my brain and connections between things I had previously thought of as purely separate spring into existence. This is actually a great place to start exploring everything in the world literally from the ground up! If you’re anything like me – if such a person exists – you’ll immediately want to go out and read about (or even interact with) the fundamental building blocks of human civilisation – aka the stuff we make, how we make it and how we discovered it in the first place. I will definitely be doing more research into materials in the future and will most definitely think about objects that I use much more than before. If you ever see something closely examining a discarded drinks can or piece of broken concrete with rapt attention, say Hi, because it could just be me!  

Monday, August 11, 2014

Terrorism definition 'should be narrower'

From The BBC

22 July 2014

The senior lawyer who reviews the government's terrorism legislation is to call for the definition of terrorism to be narrowed. In his annual report, David Anderson QC is focusing on crimes which he says should no longer be classed as terrorist offences. Journalists and bloggers should not be convicted under terror laws, he said. The Home Office said its counter-terrorism laws were "effective, proportionate and fair". Mr Anderson also told the BBC that the current definition "has begun to catch people it never really intended to catch". Those found guilty of hate crimes can also be currently convicted under terror laws.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Anderson said people who should never be caught by these laws "just get worried" that they might be. "That would have the effect of restricting the way they go about their business." Mr Anderson said journalists and bloggers can currently be considered terrorists if they are seeking to influence the government and if their words endanger life or create a serious risk to public health or safety. "Foolish or dangerous journalism is one thing, terrorism is another. The problem there is the way the bar is set. It's enough that you're trying to influence the government for political reasons. In most other countries you need to have to intimidate or coerce the government before you can be a terrorist."
Mr Anderson was asked about the case of David Miranda, the Brazilian partner of reporter Glenn Greenwald who has written articles about state surveillance based on leaked documents. Mr Miranda was in transit from Germany to Brazil when he was stopped at the airport, detained, questioned and searched by police. He was carrying computer files for Mr Greenwald at the time and had items, including his laptop, mobile phone, memory cards and DVDs, taken from him. The detention, under anti-terrorism laws, was later deemed lawful by the High Court. Mr Anderson said in that case, police believed Mr Miranda was carrying a large number of stolen secret documents and that he accepted police ought to be able to stop an individual and detain them in those circumstances. "What I think is more difficult to defend is the use of anti-terrorism laws for that purpose. One might be thinking of official secrets, of espionage, of theft, but it's a bit of a stretch to see somebody like that as a potential terrorist."

Mr Anderson also said there was a "simple fix" for the issue, which is to remove the word "influence" in the terrorism definition and require that terrorists must aim to "intimidate or coerce or to compel. Parliament needs to revisit [the anti-terrorism legislation] not only for this reason. Another problem with the law is that it fails to distinguish, in all respects, between hate crime and terrorism. So you could take someone who is no harm to anyone other than his immediate victim - a man who pipe bombs his neighbour's wall, or a student who threatens a teacher on a fascist website. They're unpleasant and serious crimes, but it's a bit of a stretch to see them as terrorism."

A Home Office spokesman said: "Terrorism remains the greatest threat to the UK's national security and protecting the public is our primary duty. We believe our counter-terrorism laws are effective, proportionate and fair but we are not complacent. We welcome David Anderson QC's fourth annual report, which demonstrates the importance of independent and detailed analysis into how this legislation operates in practice. We will consider his recommendations in detail and will respond in due course."

[Of course it is the governments interest to keep the definition of terrorism nice and wide, and possibly ambiguous, not only to catch as many people as possible but also to intimidate those who might think about protesting against just about anything – and thereby attempting to influence political decisions – in case they come up against anti-terror legislation with presumably quite a bump! Fear, not only of terrorists themselves, but the government response to potential acts of terror (even essentially harmless ones) is a tool in the government’s arsenal to keep the population in check. Inevitably the government will ‘welcome’ the report, bury it and hope that the rest of us forget about it by being distracted by yet another scandal or a so-called celebrity being particularly stupid – again – which, no doubt will be exactly what will happen.]

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Weekend of Music (8th-10th August 2014)

It has become my habit for quite some time now (at least a year and probably more) not to watch TV over the weekend – apart from a movie on Saturday afternoon (this week was a Canadian film Passchendaele) and a few TV episodes from a box-set (presently Series 3 of Falling Skies) – but to read and listen to music. Here’s what I listened to this weekend:

10cc – Dreadlock Holiday, The Collection
Heart – Greatest Hits
The Rolling Stones – Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (2 CDs)
Fairport Convention – Liege and Lief
Various Artists – Guitar Greats (2 CDs)
Terence Trent D’Arby – Greatest Hits
Various Artists – The Essential Bands, Festival Edition
Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
The Monkees – Daydream Believer, Collection Volume 1
Penguin CafĂ© Orchestra – Preludes Airs and Yodels
Vangelis – Odyssey, The Definitive Collection
Jimi Hendrix – Experience Hendrix, The Best Of
Game Soundtrack – Borderlands
Carole King – The Essential Collection (2 CDs)
Led Zeppelin – Mothership (2 CDs)

A nice mix I thought and probably reasonably representative of the sort of thing I listen to over a few days.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The stigma of being an atheist in the US

By Aleem Maqbool for BBC News

4 August 2014

Atheists in the US are rallying together, launching a new TV programme and providing support for those who go public with their beliefs. "Sometimes things need to be said, and fights need to be fought even if they are unpopular. To the closeted atheists, you are not alone, and you deserve equality." So goes the rousing speech from the American Atheists president, David Silverman, in the opening moments of the first US television broadcaster dedicated to those who do not believe in God, Atheist TV. A series of testimonies from prominent atheists then follows. "It's one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life and I completely advocate people 'coming out'," says Mark Hatcher, from Black Atheists of America. "Coming out" is how many atheists in the USA describe what remains, for many, a very difficult admission to make publicly.

At one of the biggest gatherings of atheist students in the country, in Columbus, Ohio, Jamila Bey from the Secular Student Alliance said there were many attendees who were nervous about being interviewed and had indicated so by what they were wearing around their neck. "Red lanyards mean 'You may not talk to me'," says Bey. "A number of the students we have aren't 'out'. Their parents may not know that they are atheist or questioning their religion." She said many were worried about being ostracised or were even scared of violence if they revealed they did not believe in God. Lasan Dancay-Bangura, 22, is happy to talk to us. He is, after all, head of his university's atheist student group. He lets out a deep, sad sigh as he recalls the moment he told his mother he was an atheist. "Things were really not good to begin with. She was so angry," he says. "After a while I think she just accepted it. We still don't talk about it. It looks like she's not going to kick me out." Dancay-Bangura admits that he still has not told his father. "I don't want our relationship to be destroyed because of that," he says. "You hear it all the time. And you hear about people being kicked out, and sent to bible camps where they're forced to be religious. I don't want to lose my father to that."

The parents of Katelyn Campbell, 19, from West Virginia, have been very supportive of her stance as an atheist. Her problem has been other members of the community. "In high school, when I walked down the hallway it would be completely silent, or I would be spat on," Katelyn says. Two years ago, she protested against the inclusion of religion and abstinence in her school sex education classes. She is still feeling the impact. "Often times I'm really uncomfortable being out in public spaces in my community at home because people often bring that discussion to my face, which is a discussion of values that are very personal and very private," she says.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows Americans would rather have a president who was either in their 70s, or openly gay, or who had never held any public office than one that was atheist. Astonishingly, a previous poll by Pew suggested respondents in the US regarded atheists as less trustworthy than rapists. One of Atheist TV's new phone-in programmes, The Atheist Experience, has already had a taste of how many Americans perceive "non-believers".

"So you were studying to be a minister, and now you don't believe in God? You're the devil," one caller tells the host. "You're a Marxist, you're an atheist and you're from Russia," says another.

At the atheist student event in Ohio, they are trying to change things. T-shirts are laid out for sale on one of the vending tables. "Godless Goddess" says one; "This is what an atheist looks like" says another. Beside the stall stands Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "Many Americans think they have never met another atheist, but that is because so many are afraid to publicly acknowledge it," says Andrew. "The way we'll win this fight is because of demographics. Just like it was really important for the LGBT movement to come out of the closet, it's important for us to say it loud and say it proud, 'I'm an atheist!'"

And it does appear the demographics are changing, particularly among the young, where the proportion of those identifying themselves as "religiously unaffiliated" is rising. But America has a much higher proportion of people who say religion is very important to them as compared to European countries. "America is an anomaly because, number one, we were founded by Puritans," Bay says. More recently, particularly for the African-American community in the civil rights struggle, but also for many other minority communities, Bey says she feels religion became a way of gaining acceptance. "It was a way to say 'I'm a good Christian, you shouldn't turn fire hoses on me, and you should let my child go to the school with little white children, Jesus loves us all'," she says. The new TV channel is part of atheist groups' own civil rights movement. But real acceptance, particularly for those serving in public office, in a country where no serving congressman or woman is openly atheist, could still be some way off.

[OK, I can honestly say that I read parts of this literally open-mouthed with astonishment. I knew it was bad over there but please… spitting on people because they’re atheists? Trusting rapists more? I just can’t process that kind of thing. It just bounces off my head and leaves me with a WTF look on my face. I suppose that’s because it’s so contrary to my own experience. I’m been a, sometimes outspoken, atheist all of my life and, as far as I can tell, have never suffered any kind of discrimination. Not once that comes to mind. In fact I am unaware of any of my atheist friends being on the receiving end of any kind of negativity. So the whole idea is completely foreign to me. I actually have trouble getting my head around even the idea of that kind of discrimination, never mind its application. I have never felt singled out because of my beliefs, and have definitely never thought that I should hide them or be cautious of who I ‘came out’ to. People around me very quickly discover that I am a non-believer and either agree with me, politely ignore the fact, or engage in a discussion (usually low-key). I’ve had a few arguments with Christians who tried to push their beliefs on me but they quickly realised that they are wasting their time and decide to go elsewhere. That’s about as bad as it gets in my experience. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I don’t think so. I am lucky enough, blessed you could say, to have been born in a secular country that is largely either indifferent to religion or of the opinion that it is a private and personal matter, not a societal one. I am very happy for that to be the case. If I lived in some parts of America I think that I would have serious problems just going about my daily life. So I feel for you guys over there who have to put up with this shit. The Civil and Gay Rights Movements seem to be good models for Atheist emancipation. So be loud, be proud and make a point of sitting at the front of the bus. In time you will be accepted by most of the rest of your countries citizens and be judged on your actions and your character and not if you believe in God. May that day come sooner than you think it will.]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Kinda crying out for a caption really...... 

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of Britain – 1851-2010: A Nation Transformed by Jeremy Black (FP: 2010)

This was the last book in the History of Britain series bringing us bang up to date (or almost). Covering 160 years in 326 pages in enough of a challenge for any period but the 160 years in question had a lot of history to cover. Not only did it cover both world wars – WW1 making it to just over 5 pages and WW2 making it to just under 13 – it had to cover the rise and fall of the British Empire, the India Mutiny, the full impact of the Industrial Revolution, the huge social, political and economic changes that brought about Britain’s present position in the world, the development of the train as a major source of transport, the growth of suburbia, the emergence of the new political elite and the urban proletariat, the emergence of the modern novel and modern art, the growth of newspapers, the ever increasing political franchise, the Irish problem, the new political parties, the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the General Strike of 1926, the advance of science and medicine, the change in the position of women, religious changes and the steady decline of organised religion, the rise of consumerism, immigration issues, the National Health Service, changing class structure, the Cold War, the emergence of the Commonwealth, closer ties with Europe, Northern Ireland (the Troubles), the influence of American culture, the idea of Multiculturalism, the 1960’s and the Thatcher years to mention just some of the highlights!

As you can imagine the author had his work cut out for him covering this amount of territory. To his credit he did manage to weave it all together into a consistent narrative. Through necessity he did have to paint some sections with a very board brush looking at trends rather than events. But the idea was to give the overall flavour of the times and only focus in on smaller events when they helped to illustrate the much bigger picture. It did feel a bit dry in places and from time to time focused a little too much on who won what election rather than the why of things, but I guess this is for me to follow up in more detail in other books less constrained by having to cover so much in such a comparatively small volume. The author is also clearly no fan of closer European integration and, I think, towards the end of the volume let his personal views colour his analysis too much. That’s always the problem with writing about the present or near present – lack of distance doesn’t allow much in the way of context and anything said tends to be more emotional and less dispassionate than it should be. Without the perspective of time it is easy to lose focus on the important things. Only with hindsight can you really see things as clearly as they need to be for this sort of thing.

Despite my qualms – few and far between actually – this has given me a fairly good skeleton to guide me in filling in the gaps and going into more detail of the bits I’m interested in. A good ending to a very good series.