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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Good to Know....


Nov. 29, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A NASA spacecraft studying Mercury has provided compelling support for the long-held hypothesis the planet harbors abundant water ice and other frozen volatile materials within its permanently shadowed polar craters.

The new information comes from NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft. Its onboard instruments have been studying Mercury in unprecedented detail since its historic arrival there in March 2011. Scientists are seeing clearly for the first time a chapter in the story of how the inner planets, including Earth, acquired their water and some of the chemical building blocks for life.

"The new data indicate the water ice in Mercury's polar regions, if spread over an area the size of Washington, D.C., would be more than 2 miles thick," said David Lawrence, a MESSENGER participating scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., and lead author of one of three papers describing the findings. The papers were published online in Thursday's edition of Science Express. Spacecraft instruments completed the first measurements of excess hydrogen at Mercury's north pole, made the first measurements of the reflectivity of Mercury's polar deposits at near-infrared wavelengths, and enabled the first detailed models of the surface and near-surface temperatures of Mercury's north polar regions.

Given its proximity to the sun, Mercury would seem to be an unlikely place to find ice. However, the tilt of Mercury's rotational axis is less than 1 degree, and as a result, there are pockets at the planet's poles that never see sunlight. Scientists suggested decades ago there might be water ice and other frozen volatiles trapped at Mercury's poles. The idea received a boost in 1991 when the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico detected radar-bright patches at Mercury's poles. Many of these patches corresponded to the locations of large impact craters mapped by NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft in the 1970s. However, because Mariner saw less than 50 percent of the planet, planetary scientists lacked a complete diagram of the poles to compare with the radar images.

Images from the spacecraft taken in 2011 and earlier this year confirmed all radar-bright features at Mercury's north and south poles lie within shadowed regions on the planet's surface. These findings are consistent with the water ice hypothesis. The new observations from MESSENGER support the idea that ice is the major constituent of Mercury's north polar deposits. These measurements also reveal ice is exposed at the surface in the coldest of those deposits, but buried beneath unusually dark material across most of the deposits. In the areas where ice is buried, temperatures at the surface are slightly too warm for ice to be stable.

MESSENGER's neutron spectrometer provides a measure of average hydrogen concentrations within Mercury's radar-bright regions. Water ice concentrations are derived from the hydrogen measurements. "We estimate from our neutron measurements the water ice lies beneath a layer that has much less hydrogen. The surface layer is between 10 and 20 centimeters [4-8 inches] thick," Lawrence said. Additional data from detailed topography maps compiled by the spacecraft corroborate the radar results and neutron measurements of Mercury's polar region. In a second paper by Gregory Neumann of NASA's Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., measurements of the shadowed north polar regions reveal irregular dark and bright deposits at near-infrared wavelength near Mercury's north pole. "Nobody had seen these dark regions on Mercury before, so they were mysterious at first," Neumann said.

The spacecraft recorded dark patches with diminished reflectance, consistent with the theory that ice in those areas is covered by a thermally insulating layer. Neumann suggests impacts of comets or volatile-rich asteroids could have provided both the dark and bright deposits, a finding corroborated in a third paper led by David Paige of the University of California at Los Angeles. "The dark material is likely a mix of complex organic compounds delivered to Mercury by the impacts of comets and volatile-rich asteroids, the same objects that likely delivered water to the innermost planet," Paige said.

This dark insulating material is a new wrinkle to the story, according to MESSENGER principal investigator Sean Solomon of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. "For more than 20 years, the jury has been deliberating whether the planet closest to the sun hosts abundant water ice in its permanently shadowed polar regions," Solomon said. "MESSENGER now has supplied a unanimous affirmative verdict."

[Fascinating. Water on Mercury… whatever next! But I suppose in areas that never, or rarely, get any sunlight the water originally within the crust would never sublimate into space. It does get me thinking though. If there’s ice beneath the surface as well as ‘other frozen volatile materials’ including organic chemicals could there be primate life even on Mercury? Is that completely out of bounds if at least some of the requisites for life exist in this most inhospitable of places? Could microbes inhabit the grey areas between freezing cold and boiling hot? As always it’s an intriguing thought.]

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (FP: 1847)

Orphaned at a tender age Jane Eyre is left in the tender mercies (actually anything but) of her Aunt, the cold hearted Mrs Reed who can barely stand the sight of her. Tortured and bullied by the Reed children Jane is relieved to be sent to school far enough away that any form of meaningful communication is impossible. There, despite the imposed hardships Jane thrives and eventually becomes a valued member of the teaching staff. Ten years have passed and the need to pursue further interests burn in Jane until she advertises for a Governess position. Her letter is answered and she begins her adventure in the employ of the spinster Mrs Fairfax. As fate would have it she meets her real employer quite by accident when his horse throws him and the diminutive Jane comes to his rescue. Despite his fearsome reputation Jane is quite taken with the less than handsome Mr Rochester as he is taken by her down to earth manners and her fearlessness in the face of his verbal assaults. Before long, despite their difference in social station and age, they become firm friends before tragedy strikes. Running to save her emotional sanity and almost dying in the process Jane starts a new life far away and hopes to live out her days in calm solitude. Fate, or God, has other plans however. Her feelings for Rochester have not diminished and he is often in her thoughts. Then, out of a clear dark night, she hears his voice and feels that she must find him again no matter the cost or the social scandal…

This book has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while now so I thought I’d dust it off and see what all the fuss was about. At 545 pages (in this edition) it was quite a challenge considering that classic love stories are not really my ‘thing’ (despite honestly loving P&P which I couldn't help compare this with). Of course this was ultimately a story of girl finds boy, girl loses boy and girl gets boy back. The barriers to true love where well drawn and rather Gothic to be honest but I suppose believable enough for the time. Both Jane and Mr Rochester are well drawn and I did like Jane quite a lot as a person and couldn’t but admire her fortitude. She was no Lizzie Bennett but then again who is? Two of the things I did like about the novel was its very clear criticism of the position of women in Victorian society – especially the relatively poor and powerless woman – and its rather acid criticism of the rich and indolent upper classes who did not come off at all well (again especially the women who seemed particularly useless and intentionally so!) About the only thing I found particularly irritating, though again understandable considering the publication date, was the surprisingly (at least to me) constant references to God and religion. To be honest I almost skim read these parts. The character of St John Rivers, the intended missionary, was particularly repellent I thought. Constantly referred to as a ‘good man’ he is clearly suffering from some kind of religious mania and I had no problem is labelling him as probably psychotic and probably some kind of sociopath. He totally creeped me out!

I suppose because of its subject matter and its age it took me about twice as long to read this as expected. I always seemed to find something more interesting to do after 4-5 pages so tended to read it in micro-bursts. This is not to say that it was a bad novel – it wasn’t – and clearly deserves its classic status. Maybe it’s that I need to hunt out some classic adventure novels rather than classic romances. That might be the way to go.

 [2015 Reading Challenge: A Classic Romance – COMPLETE (5/50)]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Finished Reading: How To Live – A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (FP: 2010)

I had heard of Michel de Montaigne but the only thing I was confident knowing about him before reading this frankly fascinating volume was that he was French. I knew he was much admired and could have probably dragged up from somewhere the title of his most famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) publication simply called Essays. Apart from that I had no real idea who he was, what he said or even when he lived – I have thought the 18th century but was way off as he lived between 1533 and 1592. His great achievement was to write a series of articles about common subjects but to infuse them a seemingly ageless wisdom that has appealed to countless people right up to the present. The main thrust of his enquiries – no matter the title of the essay in question – was the fundamental problem of how to live a good and useful life. Using his childhood experiences of a rather unconventional education programme devised by his free thinking father, the running of a large estate and internationally known vineyard, years in the Civil Service and as advisor to royalty, delicately navigating the very dangerous waters of religious warfare and civil strife, marriage and fatherhood, the loss of friends, family and retainers, a near death experience after an accident as a young man and studies of his beloved cat he distilled his observations through his knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers to create his own unique brand of wisdom.

Using a similar format to the great man himself, the author examines parts of Montaigne’s life by offering twenty answers to the question of how we should live, with each answer derived from his life and his writing bringing out aspects of both. Some of the answers seem at first to be perverse or obvious. Nothing could be further from the truth. But here they are: Don’t worry about death, Pay attention, Be born, Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow witted, Survive love and loss, Use little tricks, Question everything, Keep a private room behind the shop, Be convivial and live with others, Wake up from the sleep habit, Live temperately, Guard your humanity, Do something no one has done before, See the world, Do a good job but not too good a job, Philosophise only by accident, Reflect on everything but regret nothing, Give up control, Be ordinary and imperfect and Let life be its own answer.

Banned by the Catholic Church for 130 years (a recommendation in itself I felt to buy and read his work) and much loved by people like Virginia Woolf (ditto) the Essays do appear on the face of things to be truly timeless. Hailed in his own life time and, mostly, every century since then (although not always in his home country) the author certainly sold me on the idea that this man should be read and reread so as to absorb his unique take on life, the universe and just about everything. Needless to say, when I do finally pick up a copy of Essays I shall be reviewing it here. I hope that I will be as impressed as I’m expecting to be after reading this highly recommended book.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book by a Female Author – COMPLETE (4/50)]  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gender divide in religious belief, survey suggests

From BBC News

21 January 2015

A big gender divide exists between men and women in their 40s in belief in God and life after death, a poll suggests. Of the British men surveyed, 54% said they were atheists or agnostics compared with only 34% of women. The study also showed that Muslims in the survey had the fewest doubts about the existence of God and the afterlife. The research involving more than 9,000 British people born in 1970 was analysed at the University of Essex.

The figures showed a substantial proportion of those who had said religion was an important part of their lives at the age of 16 became relatively unreligious as adults. The figures, published by the UCL Institute of Education, were analysed by David Voas, professor of population studies at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. Sixty per cent of the women in the study believed in life after death but only 35% of the men. Almost half said they did not identify with any religion while most of the others had a Christian background. Prof Voas said men were twice as likely as women to say that God does not exist. Of those who were religious, 71% of those who described themselves as evangelical Christians had no doubts about God's existence.

However, only 33% of those who said they were Roman Catholics had no doubts. Among Anglicans and Methodists, the equivalent figure was 16%. The study also showed that belief or disbelief in God and the afterlife did not always go together. A quarter of those who called themselves agnostic said they did believe in life after death. However, nearly a third of those people who labelled themselves as "religious believers who have occasional doubts" did not believe in an afterlife. Professor Voas also highlighted the very high level of belief in both God and life after death among Muslims. Some 88% of Muslims in the survey said they knew God really existed and had no doubts.

[Interesting. I’d heard that there was a gender component to faith but hadn’t realised that it was so profound. I wonder why though? What is it about gender that affects belief? If I was a different gender would my pretty fundamental beliefs about the universe be different? That’s a weird thought. I find it hard to credit that female brains are wired differently – or not that differently – so presume that the differences are cultural. But what in the differences in upbringing of boys and girls leads one group to be much more sceptical than the other? Very interesting.]

How the Other Half Live

I’ve been promising for some time now to focus on women authors and we’ve finally arrived at that point. The previous review of Every Last Drop by Charlie Huston was the last of my random bunch of ten books and the first of the woman authored novels will start soon. As I’ve mentioned before I do seem to neglect (or possibly reject) books penned by half of the human population – and indeed my favourite half – much more often than I should. This upcoming parade of female talent will go some way to address this deficiency. But of course, being me, I have to go several steps further than my original intent. So, in addition to reading ten novels by women (two already in the review pile) I will also read any intervening non-fiction during this time also authored by women. This should prove to be more of a challenge than the fictional aspect. I expect to fulfil the history side of things easily but the non-history may take some doing and throw up some wild and strange examples. Then I thought to myself – why not just go the whole hog and just get it over with. So I am. Therefore, for the duration of my novel and non-fiction reading by female authors I will also post extensively, if not exclusively, items focusing on women – starting now. I think it should be fun and I hope you enjoy what I have in mind as much as I do.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Every Last Drop by Charlie Huston (FP: 2009)

Exiled in the Bronx for over a year Joe Pitt is desperate to return to Manhattan. His rescue comes, however, from a direction he never imagined – The Coalition, the most powerful vampire clan in the city – the very clan that, until recently, wanted him dead (again). The power base of The Coalition is based on two things: access to copious amounts of blood and their ability to keep the existence of vampires a secret from the rest of the population. They know that, no matter how powerful they are in the shadows that, in the light of day, they would be hunted down and killed by a dangerously frightened humanity. That secrecy is now being threatened by a rich and powerful girl who Joe rescued over a year earlier. Fully aware of the existence of vampires she has advertised he desire to find a cure for the virus that infects them and makes them what they are. Afraid that she will ‘go public’ before The Coalition are ready to react the offer Joe his life back on the understanding that he can persuade her to stop recruiting from the lowest dregs of vampire society.

Joe, of course, has his own agenda and reasons for returning to his old stamping grounds. He has scores to settle and a woman to see – if she’ll see him. A woman he loves, a woman he watched dying of AIDS, a woman he saw cured and killed in the same moment, a woman who might now hate him for what she has become, a woman he can’t let go of for any reason. Then there’s the girl. Can she really find a cure? Can Joe really get his life back or will he just become a foot soldier in the long predicted war between vampire and human for final dominion of the Earth? Finally, where is all that blood coming from and is the price of that knowledge worth the cost of finding out?

This is the fourth Joe Pitt novel and I’m honestly still loving it. As I’ve said repeatedly Joe is a great character and I delight in his single minded attempt to do what he thinks is right no matter the cost or consequence. Loved and hated with equal measure he walks through a bizarre noir landscape causing death, destruction and chaos wherever he goes. Neither able to leave well enough alone nor keep his mouth shut he is authorities worst nightmare: someone who really doesn’t give a damn and who is willing to do whatever it takes to do the right thing. His arrogance and na├»ve stupidity are both jaw dropping and hilarious. He’s so well written that I devour these books and deeply regret that the author stopped at 5 novels (one more to go!) but I will be trying out his other books when I finish with Joe. Unless you are particularly squeamish or find Noir dull and boring and especially if you’re a fan of modern hard core non-sissy vampire fiction this is definitely the series for you. Well written, great characters, fascinating vampire history and social structures, sparkling dialogue, laugh out loud moments and plenty of shivers, cringe worthy shudders and a gripping pace this is a great if short (250 pages) read. Highly recommended.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book from an Author you love that you haven’t read yet – COMPLETE (3/50)]  

Monday, January 19, 2015

NDE’s and OBE’s

I still don’t quite know what to make of it and I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about it lately. After all it happened so long ago and it hardly feels real. Part of me doesn’t even think it really happened but I think it really did – it’s just the interpretation that’s open to debate.

I can’t quite place how old I was. If I could remember where we lived at the time I could narrow it down but I can’t even remember that much. I think it was before we moved out of Liverpool so I was probably somewhere around 6 or maybe closer to 8 years old. I remember being ill and lying in bed. I remember the room being pitch black, I mean jet black, as dark as I’ve ever known it to be. It was probably in the very early hours of the morning. Silent like sound had simply ceased to exist. I lay there and then something odd started to happen. I felt like I was gradually reducing in weight, like I was floating in water. Then the strangest thing happened. The weight of my body pressing down on the bed continued to lessen until I started floating, or at least feel like I was floating independent of my physical shell. I didn’t seem to feel that I was moving as such. The room was too dark to discern distance so I didn’t have any real sense of motion. But then I looked ‘behind’ me to see, in the middle distance (it felt like maybe 100 metres or more away), my bed – with me lying in it. To say that I was surprised is an understatement. What is even more of a surprise was that I wasn’t afraid in the least. I was, if anything, exhilarated. I was, after all, actually flying – or so it seemed. It was, I remember, very, very cool.

Time passed and I looked back again. My bed was now reduced to the size of a box of matches, now to the size of a postage stamp and, finally, to the size of a pin head shining in a dark, empty, echoless room of enormous dimensions. Then, as inexplicably as it had begun it stopped. No, I didn’t suddenly wake up. I stopped ‘moving’ and hung there apparently miles above my bed, still illogically within my bedroom ‘floating’ in space. Still I wasn’t afraid. My dominant emotion was curiosity. I wanted to know what was happening and what would happen next. I didn’t have long to wait. After what felt like a few minutes I began to slowly descend back towards my bed. Slowly at first the size of my bed seemed to increase as I apparently ‘moved’ towards the only object in the universe. What did I do at this point? I fought it with everything thing I had. I wanted to float, to fly, even in the blackness. I was having a good time, a great time and I didn’t want it to end. I certainly didn’t want to return to the heavy, lumpen world where people live under gravity’s ever present dominion. I wanted to fly like the birds and explore. It was not to be. Seconds, it seemed, after I was reeled back in I was back in my bed, in my body and that, it seemed was that.

But what happened? Was it simply a childish dream brought on by a fever and an over active imagination or was it something else? Was I ill enough to have had an Out of Body Experience (OBE) that we hear about from time to time or was it something even more profound? Maybe it was a Near Death Experience (NDE) and I was, for a brief moment, literarily on my death bed but then didn’t actually die? I do wonder, if I had died that night if my parents would have discovered me the next morning, cold and lifeless with a serene smile on my face? It’s an intriguing thought. If I had died I would have died happy and without a care in the world, that’s for sure. I was actually enjoying myself. Maybe that was simply dopamine in my brain making me feel happy but if so it certainly did its job. As experiences go it was certainly one of, if not the, strangest I can recall. I still have no confirmed opinion of what, if anything, happened that night long ago. Maybe I’ll never know but I will long wonder and ponder what, if anything, it all meant.    

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Does rampant AI threaten humanity?

By Mark Ward for BBC News

2 December 2014

Pity the poor meat bags. They are doomed if a growing number of scientists, engineers and artists are to be believed. Prof Stephen Hawking has joined a roster of experts worried about what follows when humans build a device or write some software that can properly be called intelligent. Such an artificial intelligence (AI), he fears, could spell the end of humanity.

Similar worries were voiced by Tesla boss Elon Musk in October. He declared rampant AI to be the "biggest existential threat" facing mankind. He wonders if we will find our end beneath the heels of a cruel and calculating artificial intelligence. So too does the University of Oxford's Prof Nick Bostrom, who has said an AI-led apocalypse could engulf us within a century. Google's director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, is also worried about AI, albeit for more subtle reasons. He is concerned that it may be hard to write an algorithmic moral code strong enough to constrain and contain super-smart software.

Many films, such as The Terminator movies, 2001, The Matrix, Blade Runner, to mention a few, pit puny humans against AI-driven enemies. More recently, Spike Jonze's Her involved a romance between man and operating system, Alex Garland's forthcoming Ex Machina debates the humanity of an android and the new Avengers movie sees superheroes battle Ultron - a super-intelligent AI intent on extinguishing mankind. Which it would do with ease were it not for Thor, Iron Man and their super-friends. Even today we are getting hints about how paltry human wits can be when set against computers who throw all their computational horsepower at a problem. Chess computers now routinely beat all but the best human players. Complicated mathematics is a snap to as lowly a device as the smartphone in your pocket. IBM's Watson supercomputer took on and beat the best players of US TV game show Jeopardy. And there are many, many examples of computers finding novel and creative solutions to problems across diverse fields that, before now, never occurred to us humans. The machines are slowly but surely getting smarter and the pursuits in which humans remain champions are diminishing.

AI is only dangerous because of the way it amplifies human goals, warns author Charles Stross But is the risk real? Once humans code the first genuinely smart computer program that then goes on to develop its smarter successors, is the writing on the wall for humans? Maybe, said Neil Jacobstein, AI and robotics co-chairman at California's Singularity University. "I don't think that ethical outcomes from AI come for free," he said, adding that work now will significantly improve our chances of surviving the rise of rampant AI. What we must do, he said, is consider the consequences of what we were creating and prepare our societies and institutions for the sweeping changes that might arise. "It's best to do that before the technologies are fully developed and AI and robotics are certainly not fully developed yet," he said. "The possibility of something going wrong increases when you don't think about what those potential wrong things are. I think there is a great opportunity for us to be proactive about anticipating those possible negative risks and doing our best to develop redundant, layered thoughtful controls for those risks," he told the BBC.

So far, said Murray Shanahan, professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College, those actively working on AI were not really putting in place safety systems to stop their creations running amok. "The AI community does not think its a substantial worry," he said, "whereas the public does think it's much more of an issue. The right place to be is probably in-between those two extremes," he said, adding: "There's no need for panic right now. I do not think we are about to develop human-level AI within the next 10-20 years," he said. "On the other hand its probably a good idea for AI researchers to start thinking about the issues that Stephen Hawking and others have raised."

And, said Prof Shanahan, the greatest obstacle to developing those genuinely smart machines had yet to be overcome - how we actually create machine-based intelligence. "We do not really know yet whether the best way is to copy nature or start from scratch," said Prof Shanahan. For science-fiction author Charles Stross, the dangers inherent in artificially smart systems do not arise because they will out-think us or suddenly realise they can please themselves rather than their human masters. "Nobody wants an AI that will set its own goals because the probable outcome is that it will decide to do the AI equivalent of sacking out on the sofa with a bowl of chips and the cable TV controller rather than doing whatever it is that we consider to be useful," he said. A glance at all the work being done on AI right now shows that much of it is concentrating on systems that specifically lack the autonomy and consciousness that could spell problems for us humans.

The AI's we were getting now and which were likely to appear in the future might be dangerous, Stross said, but only because of the people they served. "Our biggest threat from AI, as I see it, comes from the consciousnesses that set their goals," he said. "Drones don't kill people - people who instruct drones to fly to grid coordinates (X, Y) and unleash a Hellfire missile kill people," he said. "It's the people who control them whose intentions must be questioned. We're already living in the early days of the post-AI world, and we haven't recognised that all AI is is a proxy for our own selves - tools for thinking faster and more efficiently, but not necessarily more benevolently," he said.

[I know that I keep banging on about this and that most people think that it’s Science Fiction or something that Hollywood dreams up – and has – but I do think that it’s an issue that simply can’t be ignored or put off for 10-20 years. AI presently is very much in its infancy – indeed its pre-infancy – but as we all know advances in IT happen fast. A breakthrough in our understanding of intelligence and our ability to build a reasonable (and reasoning) facsimile is really only a matter of time. Military organisations around the world are understandable very interested in the potential power of AI controlled weapons systems which are the ultimate in fire-and-forget battlefield options. No one likes to see body bags coming back from a warzone, least of all politicians. No one really cares about scrap metal and computers coming back in pieces. But as we make our weapons smarter and give them more autonomy in deciding their own missions, where to go, what to do, who to kill, we are inching towards a world not dissimilar to that envisaged by James Cameron. Take out the time travel element, take out the Austrian accent, even take out Skynet and you have robots fighting people and probably prevailing over them more often than not. Existential threat? Damned right it is.]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Yummy................. and educational.

Just Finished Reading: 1913 – The World before the Great War by Charles Emmerson (FP: 2013)

I have an itch I’m attempting to scratch. This particular itch is a question that puzzles me greatly: How did the world stumble, wander or advance singing patriotic songs into the greatest disaster in human history AKA the First World War which led to the Second World War, the Cold War and all the other lovely things we are living with today. How could an apparently sophisticated civilisation abandon peace – 100 years in Europe – for the madness that was the Western Front and beyond?

Ironically, so I thought as I read the introduction to this impressive and reasonably hefty (457 pages) volume, this was precisely not the remit the author set himself. What he tried to achieve, and I believe succeeded admirably in doing so, was to present 1913 from a perspective I’ve never come across before. Normal histories self-consciously look back at a time or event with the full benefits of 20:20 hindsight, knowing what is coming, judging people on things they hadn’t done yet, and viewing the whole thing with Olympian omniscience. This book turned that whole idea on its head and looked at that fateful year from within 1913 itself – in effect looking forward, without all of the benefits of 21st century knowledge and experience, in order to understand what the people of the time, unaware of what was coming down the tracks directly at them, thought, hoped and feared for the year(s) ahead. As well as this (as far as I know) unique viewpoint, the author subverted the other convention be progressing geographically across the globe rather than the more expected chronological journey through that last year when things still seemed to make sense.

Moving from London across the European continent, hopping from capital city to capital city to narrative sprang across the Atlantic, down the Americas, into the Middle and Far East before returning to London. What the author unearthed time and again was the (by and large) global confidence in the future. With increased global integration, trade, communications technology, faster ships and the newly invented airplane it increasingly looked like the world was drawing together in a truly global community. Oh, there were problems, but that was hardly new or insurmountable. The Germans wanted a bigger slice of the pie and an Empire to play with, The Russians were spending much energy, money and blood forging a modern European state out of a vast peasant empire in the east, China was struggling with modernity, civil strife and the echoes of 19th century western imperialism whilst Japan grew into a regional super-power much to everyone’s surprise. But it wasn’t anything that the European powers and the growing power of the USA couldn’t handle or manipulate to their own benefit. 1914 and the years after that seemed to herald a new golden age of peace and prosperity like never before.

The dissenting voices where very much on the fringe of things – the Futurists, Anarchists and Revolutionaries who talked about and sometimes acted as if war was a good thing that improved the human stock and gave rise to humanities best qualities. Marginalised and laughed at they were universally dismissed as a passing fad and something to tut over in the morning papers. No one imagined that a terrorist group could assassinate a crowned head of Europe even if this had happened or had been attempted before. Certainly no one imagined that such an outrage could lead, step by step, to a conflict drawing in every major power on the planet. The very thought, never mind the reality, was inconceivable.

That, I think, was the most surprising aspect of this well thought out, fascinating and weirdly almost surreal book – the fact that no one who should have known what was coming had a clue about what was going to happen the very next year. Maybe it just shows, like the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 onwards, that even major world changing events can ‘just happen’ and get quickly out of control (or the fact that control of historic events is a myth and quite possibly a dangerous myth). Maybe it shows that once the trigger event occurred that what happened was not inevitable. If people had acted in other ways then the tragedy could have been avoided. Maybe the search for causes is a fruitless one as there are either too many to count or that simply no ‘cause’ as such even exists – just a chain of events that, if re-run from the beginning, would result in a different outcome each time. This certainly gave me much, much food for thought and will give me a very good grounding in the original conditions before all hell broke loose so that I can compare theories about why it all fell apart. Certainly an important contribution to the increasing number of books on WW1 and, therefore, highly recommended – just don’t expect and answer to the possibly pointless ‘why’ question.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Non-Fiction Book – COMPLETE (2/50)]

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Significant Failure?

About a year ago I had an idea that seemed pretty good at the time. I am, rightly, known for reading a significant number of books (not that I think 70 is significant but I’m afraid that the statistics regarding the reading – or lack of reading – in the general population prove it otherwise) yet still feel after all these years that I’m not particularly ‘well’ read. I’m addressing that by catching up with the classics (and it’s interesting to speculate exactly why they are considered as such) but felt the need for something more – reading significant books. Of course it didn’t help that I had no clear idea as to what exactly constitutes ‘significant’. I thought that it was much more likely to be a work of non-fiction rather than fiction – although I was prepared to agree that some fiction works are significant. I also thought that the significant books would have had to stand the test of time. It’s easy to see a book as a flash in the pan significance wise but 5, 10 or 50 years later being completely forgotten and unknown. Obvious significant books are those of which the major religions base their beliefs – though I have no great desire or intention to read them. Others are the great works of philosophy which I intend to get around to eventually. Then there’s the great political works which I will try to read, master and understand. After that I guess that there are the cultural greats many of which I’d probably heard about before but never really dreamt of trying until now. 

So why the failure? Well, I had hoped to read at least a few significant books to get things rolling in 2014. Sad to say this didn’t exactly get off the ground with any great style or grace. The only definite significant read of 2014 was:

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (FP: 1531/32)  

As significance goes that’s pretty high up the chart so I’m happy with that. Unfortunately that was pretty much it as far as I was concerned. The only other two possible examples, or more likely significant books in their respective fields are:

Ways of Seeing by John Berger (FP: 1972) 


Design as Art by Bruno Munari (FP: 1966)

So not exactly knocking it out of the park in Year One. I think it’s safe to say that things can only get better. This year I’m aiming for at least three definite and any number of possible significant reads. I do have some on my shelves already. All that I need to do is ‘man up’ and take them off the shelves, open them and hopefully read them to the end. I guess it's thinking that they’ll be difficult and I’m approaching them from a position of working class ignorance that puts me off (of course ironically other people will probably think I’m showing off and flaunting my intellectualism). I’ve learnt over the past few years that the classics are nothing to be afraid of so I fully expect that the great works of non-fiction will, largely, be the same. It’s about time I found out.  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Cadillac of the Skies....... 
'Alien Earth' is among eight new far-off planets

7 January 2015

By Jonathan Webb for BBC News

One of eight new planets spied in distant solar systems has usurped the title of "most Earth-like alien world", astronomers have said. All eight were picked out by Nasa's Kepler space telescope, taking its tally of such "exoplanets" past 1,000. But only three sit safely within the "habitable zone" of their host star - and one in particular is rocky, like Earth, as well as only slightly warmer. The find was revealed at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The three potentially habitable planets join Kepler's "hall of fame", which now boasts eight fascinating planetary prospects. And researchers say the most Earth-like of the new arrivals, known as Kepler 438b, is probably even more similar to our home than Kepler 186f - which previously looked to be our most likely twin. At 12% larger than Earth, the new claimant is bigger than 186f but it is closer to our temperature, probably receiving just 40% more heat from its sun than we do from ours. So if we could stand on the surface of 438b it may well be warmer than here, according to Dr Doug Caldwell from the Seti (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California. "And it's around a cooler [red dwarf] star... so your sky would look redder than ours does to us," Dr Caldwell said. That first-person encounter, however, is unlikely - both because the planet is 475 light-years away and because we still have essentially no idea what it's made of. Images from the Kepler telescope, which trails behind the Earth and peers far into the distance as we orbit our own sun, are used to identify far-off planets by observing "transits". This refers to the dimming of a star's light when a planet passes in front of it.

A large team of researchers then uses additional data from Earth-bound telescopes to further explore these unfamiliar solar systems. They try to calculate how big the planets are, and how closely they orbit their host stars. Not everything that causes such a dimming eventually turns out to be a planet, however. At the same time as the eight confirmed new exoplanets were announced by a 26-strong team spanning Nasa and multiple US institutions, the Kepler mission's own scientists released another tranche of more than 500 "candidate" planets. "With further observation, some of these candidates may turn out not to be planets," said Kepler science officer, Fergal Mullally. "Or as we understand their properties better, they may move around in, or even outside, the habitable zone."

Even once scientists have anointed a candidate as a confirmed exoplanet, the question of whether or not it is "Earth-like" is a fraught one, with fuzzy boundaries. The size of the habitable, or "Goldilocks" zone, where a planet is far enough from its sun to hold water but not so distant that it freezes, depends on how confident scientists want to be with their guess-work. According to Dr Cardwell, just three of the eight new exoplanets can be confidently placed in that zone - and only two of those are probably rocky like the Earth. "From the Kepler measurements and the other measurements we made, we don't know if these planets have oceans with fish and continents with trees," Dr Caldwell told BBC News. "All we know is their size and the energy they're receiving from their star. So we can say: Well, they're of a size that they're likely to be rocky, and the energy they're getting is comparable to what the Earth is getting. As we fill in these gaps in our solar system that we don't have, we learn more about what it means to be Earth-like, in some sense."

Speaking at a related event at the conference, Prof Debra Fischer from Yale University said she remembered a time before the first exoplanet was discovered, more than two decades ago. "I remember astronomers before that point being very worried," she said. "We really had to step back and say: Maybe the Star Trek picture is wrong. That filled me with despair." Prof Fischer said that sensitive telescopes like Kepler had ushered in an era of "amazing and impressive work". "We're talking about a planet - and we can only see its star with a powerful telescope. "And we can draw graphs and sketch its composition and have serious scientific discussions. This is incredible."

[OK, it’s not exactly likely to be a future holiday destination and with almost a thousand years round trip for radio waves it’s not going to be somewhere to hold any kind of meaningful conversations with… but it’s just nice to know such places exist. A place reasonably like Earth might very well mean a place capable of producing life reasonably like Earth – and maybe even intelligent life. We’ll probably never know for sure – unless they started sending us messages 400+ years ago – but with luck and improvements in detection technology we might stumble across somewhere much, much closer. Here’s hoping!]

Thursday, January 08, 2015

It's called maturity............

Just Finished Reading: The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (FP: 1930)

In the peaceful English village of St Mary Mead the almost unthinkable has occurred. Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden, has been found brutally murdered at the Vicarage. When the Prime Suspect is addressed and charged with the crime within hours of the event everything seems to have returned to some kind of normality but soon the case against him becomes untenable and the police are forced to let him go. Now the real mystery begins with the local police seemingly at a loss and it is left to local spinster Miss Jane Maple to sift through the evidence, alibies and witness reports before the killer walks away scot-free. But Miss Maple has never solved a murder before and it might be beyond even her powers of deduction. With so many suspects – at least seven she thinks – will it be possible to safely eliminate all but one before the police give up or blame an innocent party?

I haven’t read an Agatha Christie novel for years – possibly decades – and have never read a Miss Maple novel before (despite enjoying both the movies and various TV adaptations) so thought that it was high time I delved into her world. I’m glad that I did. Not only did I find the writing both gentle and intelligent I was surprised by just how funny and frankly witty it was. This was Miss Maple’s first case (I only discovered this after I started reading) and found it to be lots of fun. Miss Maple is a great character who, no doubt, must be based on the author herself. She keeps her eyes well and truly open, has a jaundiced view of human nature and has both the time and native intelligence to work through the suspects alibies for the event and slowly eliminate the innocent until, finally, she has enough confidence to name the killer. Helped by her love of lurid American crime novels and a probing incisive mind, as well as being downright nosey and occasionally rude, she manages to get herself involved in the case and often to be in the right place at the right time to shape the investigation around her. I think the most surprising thing about this book is that Miss Maple is not the central character or narrator – which is the Vicar – and Miss Maple is only seen, talked about or involved in the tale when he is ‘on set’. All very odd I thought. Being the person that I am, and having enjoyed this so much, I have already bought the next two books in the Miss Marple sequence. So more spinster detecting to come. Recommended.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A Mystery or Thriller – COMPLETE (1/50)]