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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

...and I think I've finally found my totally ideal Valentine's card!

How do you catch a drone?

From The BBC

26 February 2015

French authorities have been left mystified by two consecutive nights of illegal drone flights over central Paris. The small unmanned aircraft appeared over landmarks including the Invalides military museum, Place de la Concorde, and two of the old city gates. Environmental activists, terrorists, and pranksters have all been mentioned as possible suspects, but no-one has claimed responsibility. The difficult question now for the Paris authorities and in cities around the world is, how do you catch a drone? We've taken a look at five of the best options.

Shoot it down
 Since the September 11th attacks, there has been a shoot-down policy in place for any aircraft in UK airspace deemed to present a threat. If authorities were sufficiently concerned about a drone they could in theory scramble RAF jets on a rapid reaction alert to shoot it down. A jet fighter to down a cheap, commercially available drone might seem like a hammer to crack a nut, but aviation expert Chris Yates told the BBC that even a small drone could present a threat to sensitive locations. These kind of drones could be fairly easily modified to carry a payload, Yates said.

Laser it
 Not as far-fetched as it might sound - both China and the US have successfully experimented with anti-drone lasers. In November last year, Chinese state media reported that the country had developed a highly accurate laser weapon system that can shoot down a drone within five seconds of locating it. The laser reportedly has a range of 1.2 miles (1.9km) and is effective up to a maximum altitude of 500m (1,600ft). The weapon works by fixing a laser beam on the aircraft for long enough to burn through it. In 2012, the US military tested a similar system aboard a Navy ship, successfully downing a surveillance drone.

No-fly zone
 Last year, a drunk government employee stirred up a security frenzy at the White House after accidentally steering his DJI Phantom drone onto the president's lawn. In January, SZ DJI Technology, the Chinese manufacturer of the hugely popular Phantom, introduced a firmware update to the drone that aimed to prevent it happening again. Now GPS will detect whether the drone is within a 15.5 mile radius of central Washington DC and cut the motor - so if you try and fly towards the famous doric columns your drone will have a bumpy landing somewhere short. The same technology prevents drones flying anywhere near airports. DJI has said it is also planning to prevent the drones crossing borders after enterprising drug dealers were caught trying to fly methamphetamine from Mexico to the US.

Use a net
 One ingeniously simply way to catch a drone is to use a bigger drone, with a net. Earlier this month, shortly before the mysterious flights over Paris began, French authorities launched a DJI Phantom and then sent up a bigger drone to go after it. The successful demonstration, in La Queue-en-Brie, east of Paris, followed illegal drone flights over at least 13 nuclear facilities in France that left authorities concerned about security. With no bullets, missiles, or lasers needed, this could be an attractive option in urban areas.

Jam it
 A problem tracking drones is that they are just too small for ordinary radar, which can confuse them with birds. And if they are non-metallic, they won't trigger a radar return. But they do require some signals to operate - either radio, from a remote control somewhere nearby, or GPS - and those could technically be interfered with in order to incapacitate the drone. Authorities with the means could also hack into the aircraft and seize its controls.

[Drones are certainly going to be big, big news over the next 5-10 years. They will, indeed, probably become a commonplace sight flitting over the urban environment delivering everything from pizza to Amazon books, filming sporting events, being used for crowd control and traffic monitoring by the police, looking for lost dogs, children and runaway car thieves and, rather sadly but I believe inevitably, delivering bombs as well as books and perform spying as well as monitoring (but spying for who we will wonder). It won’t be long before the first drone, either privately or police operated, is shot down or at least shot at (or shot up) either for the fun of it or to stop it doing what it’s tasked to do. It won’t be long before one crashes either deliberately or accidently into other aircraft (like the recent near-miss at a London airport) or falls out of the sky killing or injuring pedestrians or car users. It’ll be interesting to see how both the authorities and the rest of us react to them. Will we stop looking up because we know that they will catch our facial image on their camera’s, will someone develop a cheap, one time use, throw away anti-drone device which means that if it flies it dies? Interesting science-fiction time’s lay ahead I think….]  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Love is: Seeing Beyond the (minor) Differences.

Just Finished Reading: A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir (FP: 2012)

Two young women connected by one of English history’s greatest mysteries – what really happened to the Princes in the Tower? Kate Plantagenet has the more personal reason for finding out. Her father, King Richard III, has been widely accused of having them killed in order to illegitimately take the throne of England otherwise why does he refuse to publically show them still alive? Years later Lady Katherine Grey, sister of the recently executed Lady Jane Grey, has a more tenuous reason for wanting to know the truth. Drawn to her namesakes painting and dreaming of her on a regular basis she is drawn to the mystery by the discovery of documents uncovered in the London residence of her future family. Both women find themselves caught up in the tumultuous events of their day – Kate with the bloody culmination of the Wars of the Roses and Katherine with the political and religious machinations of the Tudor court. Both women want to marry for love and both are prevented from following their heart because of reasons of State. Both are made aware that their bodies and their lives are not their own. Who they are is of little consequence. What they are – real or potential contenders for the throne or producers of future heads of State – matters a great deal. Their wishes or desires are irrelevant, their actions are all too significant and potentially deadly when love itself can be seen as an act of the greatest betrayal.

I remember the tale of the Prince’s from school where we had been told as a fact that Richard had them killed to clear his way to the throne. His subsequent defeat at Bosworth which led to the Tudor Age was seen as putting things back on the right track. But things are far from clear and there appears to be no direct evidence that Richard had them killed or even if they died in the Tower at all. Weir looks into these ideas through the eyes of both of her heroines – it did seem more than once actually that we, the readers, where being lectured directly by Weir which was a bit annoying – but the story itself is fascinating enough (and convoluted enough) to keep anyone digging and guessing with or without supporting facts. I did find it interesting that in the early years of the Tudor reign several ‘imposters’ rose up claiming that they were the long lost and presumably murdered princes which Henry VII took very seriously indeed. That’s something I’ll be investigating later.

One other thing I’ve taken from this and previous Weir books (and from those of Philippa Gregory) is that there are female heroines scattered throughout history (and not just English history) that appear to be largely forgotten and overlooked that could be held up as admirable in a world largely dominated by powerful men. Male heroes are easy to find, female heroes noticeably less so. But what I am discovering is that they are there, often side-lined, often obscured and in the shadows but they are there if time and effort is taken to seek them out. Authors such as Weir, Gregory and others seem to spend their time shining light into the corners where these women have long existed (at least according to largely male historians) and much kudos for doing so. I shall look forward to finding out more about these lost, and now rediscovered, heroes.        

Monday, February 23, 2015



Jan. 8, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Newly released NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of a vast debris disk encircling the nearby star Fomalhaut and a mysterious planet circling it may provide forensic evidence of a titanic planetary disruption in the system.

Astronomers are surprised to find the debris belt is wider than previously known, spanning a section of space from 14 to nearly 20 billion miles from the star. Even more surprisingly, the latest Hubble images have allowed a team of astronomers to calculate the planet follows an unusual elliptical orbit that carries it on a potentially destructive path through the vast dust ring. The planet, called Fomalhaut b, swings as close to its star as 4.6 billion miles, and the outermost point of its orbit is 27 billion miles away from the star. The orbit was recalculated from the newest Hubble observation made last year.

"We are shocked. This is not what we expected," said Paul Kalas of the University of California at Berkeley and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

The Fomalhaut team led by Kalas considers this circumstantial evidence there may be other planet-like bodies in the system that gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b to place it in such a highly eccentric orbit. The team presented its finding Tuesday at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif. Among several scenarios to explain Fomalhaut b's 2,000-year-long orbit is the hypothesis that an as yet undiscovered planet gravitationally ejected Fomalhaut b from a position closer to the star, and sent it flying in an orbit that extends beyond the dust belt.

"Hot Jupiters get tossed through scattering events, where one planet goes in and one gets thrown out," said co-investigator Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This could be the planet that gets thrown out."

Hubble also found the dust and ice belt encircling the star Fomalhaut has an apparent gap slicing across the belt. This might have been carved by another undetected planet. Hubble's exquisite view of the dust belt shows irregularities that strongly motivate a search for other planets in the system. If its orbit lies in the same plane with the dust belt, then Fomalhaut b will intersect the belt around 2032 on the outbound leg of its orbit. During the crossing, icy and rocky debris in the belt could crash into the planet's atmosphere and create the type of cosmic fireworks seen when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Most of the fireworks from collisions will be seen in infrared light. However, if Fomalhaut b is not co-planar with the belt, the only thing to be seen will be a gradual dimming of Fomalhaut b as it travels farther from the star.

Kalas hypothesized that Fomalhaut b's extreme orbit is a major clue in explaining why the planet is unusually bright in visible light, but very dim in infrared light. It is possible the planet's optical brightness originates from a ring or shroud of dust around the planet, which reflects starlight. The dust would be rapidly produced by satellites orbiting the planet, which would suffer extreme erosion by impacts and gravitational stirring when Fomalhaut b enters into the planetary system after a millennium of deep freeze beyond the main belt. An analogy can be found by looking at Saturn, which has a tenuous, but very large dust ring produced when meteoroids hit the outer moon Phoebe.

The team has also considered a different scenario where a hypothetical second dwarf planet suffered a catastrophic collision with Fomalhaut b. The collision scenario would explain why the star Fomalhaut has a narrow outer belt linked to an extreme planet. But in this case the belt is young, less than 10,000 years old, and it is difficult to produce energetic collisions far from the star in such young systems. Fomalhaut is a special system because it looks like scientists may have a snapshot of what our solar system was doing 4 billion years ago. The planetary architecture is being redrawn, the comet belts are evolving, and planets may be gaining and losing their moons. Astronomers will continue monitoring Fomalhaut b for decades to come because they may have a chance to observe a planet entering an icy debris belt that is like the Kuiper Belt at the fringe of our own solar system.

[How weird! It’s certainly a strange galaxy out there. Reading things like this makes science-fiction almost commonplace.]

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Love Is: Accepting Different Piorities


Jan. 07, 2013

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Kepler mission Monday announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun's "habitable zone," the region in the planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet.

Based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2011, the findings show a steady increase in the number of smaller-size planet candidates and the number of stars with more than one candidate. "There is no better way to kickoff the start of the Kepler extended mission than to discover more possible outposts on the frontier of potentially life bearing worlds," said Christopher Burke, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who is leading the analysis.

Since the last Kepler catalog was released in February 2012, the number of candidates discovered in the Kepler data has increased by 20 percent and now totals 2,740 potential planets orbiting 2,036 stars. The most dramatic increases are seen in the number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates discovered, which grew by 43 and 21 percent respectively. The new data increases the number of stars discovered to have more than one planet candidate from 365 to 467. Today, 43 percent of Kepler's planet candidates are observed to have neighbor planets.

"The large number of multi-candidate systems being found by Kepler implies that a substantial fraction of exoplanets reside in flat multi-planet systems," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "This is consistent with what we know about our own planetary neighborhood." The Kepler space telescope identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars in search of planets that pass in front, or "transit," their host star. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a potential planet.

Scientists analyzed more than 13,000 transit-like signals to eliminate known spacecraft instrumentation and astrophysical false positives, phenomena that masquerade as planetary candidates, to identify the potential new planets. Candidates require additional follow-up observations and analyses to be confirmed as planets. At the beginning of 2012, 33 candidates in the Kepler data had been confirmed as planets. Today, there are 105.

"The analysis of increasingly longer time periods of Kepler data uncovers smaller planets in longer period orbits-- orbital periods similar to Earth's," said Steve Howell, Kepler mission project scientist at Ames. "It is no longer a question of will we find a true Earth analogue, but a question of when." The complete list of Kepler planet candidates is available in an interactive table at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. The archive is funded by NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program to collect and make public data to support the search for and characterization of exoplanets and their host stars.

Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with JPL at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

[The more the merrier – and then some.]

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Singled Out – How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War by Virginia Nicolson (FP: 2007)

In the early years of the 20th Century a woman’s position and role in life was clear. When you are of age you find a suitable man, marry him, set up a home and have his children. You might have a job for a little while for a number of reasons but you were never expected to work for long, support yourself or, God forbid, have a career. No, that was very much a man’s job. Until, that is, everything changed. With the horrors of WW1 and the every growing casualty rates it moved from expected, to difficult to impossible for a large number of women to find any man, never mind a suitable one, marry him and have children. In a stroke millions of women where denied a role that their whole society has designed for them. The question from everyone, the women themselves, their parents, society at large, politicians and all other interested parties was: Now What?

At first no immediate answers where forthcoming. It was as if the very problem of the quickly labelled ‘surplus women’ (inevitably the women were seen as an ‘excess’ rather than as a result of an actual shortage of men) had to be ignored. But that couldn’t go on for long. Eventually seen as a real problem – economic, social, moral – the so-called solutions offered, from taking up knitting to supress any ‘unnatural urges’ to enforced emigration to the colonies deemed to have a woman shortage didn’t really address the core problem: What to do with up to 2 million often poorly educated and often simply poor women to cope with a life essentially alone. While some organisations attempted to put the genie back in the bottle others offered advice and hope to the millions of desperate women deprived of their expected birth-right (in more ways than one) through no fault of their own. Then there were individuals who simply decided that they would no longer remain docile and would carve out their own destiny come what may. In these cases instant ‘spinsterhood’ was as much an opportunity rather than a curse releasing them from home, hearth and nursery to fulfil dreams of exploration, business, art and more. It was these women, as well as the slow pressure, and presence, of the unrecorded multitude that broke moulds and boundaries and, to a great extent, created the world we live in today where women bus drivers, pilots, doctors, lawyers, politicians, heads of state, scientists, educators and countless others are women who never get a second thought given to their gender. Arguably modern feminism began when the guns fell silent in 1918.

Despite a modicum of repetition this was an engaging and often fascinating of how millions of ordinary and extraordinary women coped in a world without men – or without enough men. Rising to the occasion, suffering and struggling to exist despite everything in their way they changed the world often without realising that was exactly what they were doing. Peppered with stories of heroism, both small and large scale, this was often an inspiring read as personal tale after personal tale was related each showing a coping strategy or the women in question. Some worked extremely well, others resulted in a lifetime of struggle but all showed bucketful’s of grit and determination to survive in a world not of their making and not of their choosing. Some of the stories could be made into great films of personal triumph over national tragedy. If you have any interest in WW1 and especially its aftermath then this is definitely the book for you. Recommended.    

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thinking About: Comfort Zones

As Dr Sheldon Cooper PhD rightly said – they call it a comfort zone for a reason. I like my comfort zone, and when I say I like it I actually mean that I love it, deeply. If my comfort zone was an actual zone then my house would be pretty much right in the middle. Once I find something or somewhere I like I stay with it until it ceases to exist or something fairly momentous happens. I am very much a creature of habit. I tend to wear the same kind of things year in year out (never being a creature of fashion), I eat the same kind of food, read the same kind of book (or at least a small number of common themes) and have lived in my present house for around 20 years. Generally speaking very little changes in my life. I am, to be honest, rather risk averse. Or in other words I’m a coward. I don’t like change or new stuff very much so minimise it wherever I can. Again, in other words, I’m fairly boring. Thankfully though, there is another aspect of my personality that finds this all rather boring too. So when the comfort/boredom gets too much I see what I can do about it.

One thing I look out for are ‘special offers’ in the shops which allows me to try new/different things at ‘low risk’. This could be anything from a new flavour of something (I experiment with ‘odd’ breads this way), a new author (I’m trying more of those and am creeping into what might be called ‘mainstream’ publishing), a new band or genre of music (I tried to like Jazz some time ago but find it very difficult to enjoy, though I have deepened and widened my love of The Blues which I honestly adore), more colourful clothes (I tend to be rather dull in my apparel with dark sombre colours predominating but I am experimenting with red quite a lot lately).

Another thing I’ve discovered recently is joining friends in their comfort zones – which may, or may not, overlap my own. This has found me visiting places I’ve never been before and would never have visited without someone’s invitation, joining clubs and societies – including amateur dramatics (backstage rather than front of house I hasten to add) that added a lot of fun to my life some years back, and even moving completely out of my comfort zone momentarily by attending big sporting events (totally not my thing) including one of last year’s NFL games in Wembley Stadium (Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons) which I’m going to repeat this year (Miami Dolphins and New York Jets) as it’s a bit closer to my comfort zone now.

The NFL thing was pretty much an impulse decision which I have not regretted. Now I’m a firm believer that spontaneity has it’s time and place and struggle to act ‘off the cuff’. I know I think about things too much and struggle to make quick decisions about unfamiliar things, but I’m working on it. Such things probably take me out of my comfort zone more than anything else. Sometimes I really do scare the crap out of myself – although I was aware of my limitations enough some years ago to turn an offered bungee jump down flat. I knew for a fact that I really wouldn’t like it and that it would be a complete waste of money. The ‘carrot’ dangled in front of me, I remember, was the idea that it would make me ‘feel alive’. To which I responded “I already know I’m alive”. No arguing with me on that one! But thinking about it the scariest thing I've probably ever done in my life was to jump off a perfectly serviceable boat in scuba gear never having actually learnt to swim properly - but that was because a very attractive woman talked me into it (ah, the power of sex).

So, although my comfort zone is pretty wide and fairly deep in some ways and despite the fact that I dearly love living there 24/7 I do feel the need to make short sharp forays outside, or at least to the edges, from time to time. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do something odd, different or bizarre from time to time. It’s just that sometimes I have to think about it for a decade or two before I decide things. But sometimes I’ll dye my hair bright green just to see what it looks like or even read 50 Shades of Grey to see what all the fuss is about(like that’s ever going to happen).      

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Not in front of the telly: Warning over 'listening' TV

From The BBC

9 February 2015

Samsung is warning customers about discussing personal information in front of their smart television set. The warning applies to TV viewers who control their Samsung Smart TV using its voice activation feature. Such TV sets "listen" to some of what is said in front of them and may share details they hear with Samsung or third parties, it said. Privacy campaigners said the technology smacked of the telescreens, in George Orwell's 1984, which spied on citizens.

The warning came to light via a story in online news magazine the Daily Beast which published an excerpt of a section of Samsung's privacy policy for its net-connected Smart TV sets. The policy explains that the TV set will be listening to people in the same room to try to spot when commands or queries are issued via the remote. It goes on to say: "If your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party." Corynne McSherry, an intellectual property lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which campaigns on digital rights issues, told the Daily Beast that the third party was probably the company providing speech-to-text conversion for Samsung. She added: "If I were the customer, I might like to know who that third party was, and I'd definitely like to know whether my words were being transmitted in a secure form."

Soon after, an activist for the EFF circulated the policy statement on Twitter comparing it to George Orwell's description of the telescreens in his novel 1984 that listen to what people say in their homes. In response to the widespread sharing of its policy statement, Samsung has issued a statement to clarify how voice activation works. It emphasised that the voice recognition feature is activated using the TV's remote control. It said the privacy policy was an attempt to be transparent with owners in order to help them make informed choices about whether to use some features on its Smart TV sets, adding that it took consumer privacy "very seriously". Samsung said: "If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV."

It added that it did not retain voice data or sell the audio being captured. Smart-TV owners would always know if voice activation was turned on because a microphone icon would be visible on the screen, it said. The third party handling the translation from speech to text is a firm called Nuance, which specialises in voice recognition, Samsung has confirmed to the BBC.

Samsung is not the first maker of a smart, net-connected TV to run into problems with the data the set collects. In late 2013, a UK IT consultant found his LG TV was gathering information about his viewing habits. Publicity about the issue led LG to create a software update which ensured data collection was turned off for those who did not want to share information.

[It looks like the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Fortunately the companies involved ‘take customer privacy very seriously’ and therefore we have absolutely nothing to worry about. Phew!]

Happy Valentine's Day! I hope that someone special is making you feel particularly special today.....

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Love is: Sharing Interests.

Just Finished Reading: Divergent by Veronica Roth (FP: 2011)

16 year old Beatrice Prior is about to make the most important decision of her life. As Choosing Day approaches she needs to decide on her Faction which will define the rest of her life and her place a future society still struggling with the aftermath of the great world spanning disaster that the Faction system is supposed to address. Troubled by indecision at least her (slightly) older brother will choose to stay in Abnegation – the selfless Faction. Shockingly he decides to break with expectations and joins Erudite dedicated to knowledge and truth. Torn even more by his unexpected act Beatrice makes her choice much to the shock of everyone she knows – Dauntless dedicated to courage and the conquering of all fear. But during the first set of tests Beatrice discovers something about herself that could threaten her very life – she is one of the small percentage of those who do not fit into any neat category. Known as Divergent these individuals are spoken of in hushed tones and seen as a real danger to the existence of everything they have worked for. Forced to hide what she is, and now known as Tris, she must do her very best to master a whole new set of skills, assert herself as never before and hide her true identity from everyone around her. Meanwhile the political landscape is shifting and revolution is in the air with Dauntless at the very heart of things. It’s a bad time to be Divergent.

After enjoying the movie (so much so I bought the DVD) I was looking forward to reading the book. I was not disappointed. Considering that the author was in her early 20’s when she produced this it’s actually quite impressive. Almost word for word and scene for scene from the movie – an impressive feat in itself – the books goes into move detail about the Faction system and actually explains things that the movie glossed over. The portrayal of Tris by Shailene Woodley in the film was, I thought, pretty spot on and inevitably whenever any of the characters appeared in the book I ‘saw’ them as their movie counterparts. I didn’t detect any great jarring between the two. Aspects of the work where different and I actually thought that some parts at least are better in the movie. I thought that the author lost the plot a bit near the end (say, about 80% of the way through) and the film handled it better. The only time I found myself slightly skimming and rolling my eyes and sighing a bit (and not in a good way) was the teen romance aspects which I thought where pretty naff – borderline terrible actually. Fortunately they didn’t happen all that often and, yet again, are handled better in the movie.

Overall though I found this to be surprisingly good (I actually surprised a few of the guys at work who probably though that this sort of thing was ‘above’ me) and, despite it basically being light SF it did manage to feed my need for a while (note to self – read more real SF soon!). Obviously I’m looking forward to the sequel, Insurgent, coming out soon and intend to read the book soon after. The third book Allegiant is coming out over two years so I might end up reading that first – but who knows what my reading habits will be by then. Recommended – especially if you liked the movie.
[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book that became a Movie – COMPLETE (6/50)]

Monday, February 09, 2015

My Favourite Movies: Avatar

I remember being completely blown away by this movie long, long before I picked up on any controversy about it. As an ‘event’ I hardly think it’s been surpassed or even possibly equalled since (actually having just seen Jupiter Ascending I’m starting to think that Hollywood has actually lost the ability to make these kind of movies). When I watched it again over the weekend I was actually surprised how powerful a narrative it still is – even after seeing it multiple times and knowing the story backwards.

For those of you recently returned from another planet or a long stretch in prison the story goes something like this: Jake Sully (played superbly by Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic combat vet who happens to be the twin brother of a PhD scientist scheduled to work on Pandora, an alien world famed for its rich deposits of Unobtainium (great name), who is killed by a mugger. Already large sums of money have been spent building an alien body for his brother so he’s offered the job – the price is getting his legs and his life back. Initially looked down on as a ‘jarhead’ Sully quickly becomes a friend of the native Na’Vi and after much trial and tribulation is adopted as one of their own – that’s a very long story cut very short but it’s late, I’m tired and you probably know all this already. Needless to say things are not all roses and candy. The Na’Vi are living directly over a massive deposit of Unobtainium and have to move. No dice, of course, which means force needs to be applied and what was a low level conflict turns into full scale war – if you can call it a war when helicopter gunships face bows and arrows. Sully joins the natives (as a SME – subject matter expert) and teaches them how to fight back effectively helped by his strangely close association with the planet wide intelligence (Gaia by any other name) and his even closer association with Neytiri the clan chiefs daughter (in CGI – played by Zoe Saldana).

Inevitably that very rough synopsis really doesn’t do the film justice. For one thing it’s visually stunning. The world of Pandora is amazing. It’s no surprise that people have volunteered to go there if only the place really existed. The rendering of the Na’Vi (in both senses of the world) is fascinating to watch. Obviously based on Native Americans and other indigenous peoples across the globe they rang true in just about every sense – both alien and ‘human’ at the same time. I admit that I became very fond of them. Most of the rest of the humans – apart from the scientists and especially the alien ‘anthropology’ team – where the bad guys. None more so than Colonel Quaritch (played brilliantly over the top by Stephen Lang) who thinks nothing about wiping out the locals whilst sipping his coffee.

I suppose thinking about it, rather than just being overawed by the whole thing, the controversy just had to come out. I can certainly see why those on the Right hated it. It shows rapacious Capitalism in stark and brutal contrast to the ‘green’ blue people. The contrast couldn’t have been greater. Then, of course, there’s the ‘problem’ (not that I saw or see it as such) of an indigenous people being aided and ultimately saved by an outsider – a white male no less. There are many reasons why I never saw this as anything more than a standard storytelling device (used countless times down the ages) but the most obvious are that he’s an expert in the people they’re fighting so is really useful to have around, He’s a warrior and will earn the respect of a warrior culture because of that and it’s obvious that he’s deeply disgusted by what his own species has done to their planet – which he dramatically states as ‘killing their Mother (the Gaia thing again). Avatar is one of those movies that you can read a lot into. You can take it as a straight up action SF flick and enjoy it, or you can see the deeper meanings and enjoy it even more. Either way this is a great and ground-breaking movie. It does worry me a little bit that there’s a sequel coming (in 2017 I think) and that it will do for the original what the two Matrix sequels did for that ‘franchise’.

Oh, and I just have to mention one of my favourite actresses Michelle Rodriguez as Marine pilot Trudy Chacon who must have had a lot of fun making this film. It shows in every scene she’s in and she steals nearly every one. I do love that woman!    

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Love is: Public Displays of Affection


Nov. 30, 2012

WASHINGTON -- In one of the most remote lakes of Antarctica, nearly 65 feet beneath the icy surface, scientists from NASA, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev., the University of Illinois at Chicago, and nine other institutions, have uncovered a community of bacteria. This discovery of life existing in one of Earth's darkest, saltiest and coldest habitats is significant because it helps increase our limited knowledge of how life can sustain itself in these extreme environments on our own planet and beyond. Lake Vida, the largest of several unique lakes found in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, contains no oxygen, is mostly frozen and possesses the highest nitrous oxide levels of any natural water body on Earth. A briny liquid, which is approximately six times saltier than seawater, percolates throughout the icy environment where the average temperature is minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The international team of scientists published their findings online Nov. 26, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

"This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth," said Alison Murray, a molecular microbial ecologist and polar researcher at the DRI and the report's lead author. "Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments." Despite the very cold, dark and isolated nature of the habitat, the report finds the brine harbors a surprisingly diverse and abundant variety of bacteria that survive without a current source of energy from the sun. Previous studies of Lake Vida dating back to 1996 indicate the brine and its inhabitants have been isolated from outside influences for more than 3,000 years.

"This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa," said Chris McKay, a senior scientist and co-author of the paper at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. Murray and her co-authors and collaborators, including Peter Doran, the project's principal investigator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, developed stringent protocols and specialized equipment for their 2005 and 2010 field campaigns to sample from the lake brine while avoiding contaminating the pristine ecosystem.

"The microbial ecosystem discovered at Lake Vida expands our knowledge of environmental limits for life and helps define new niches of habitability," said Adrian Ponce, co-author from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who enumerated viable bacterial spore populations extracted from Lake Vida. To sample unique environments such as this, researchers must work under secure, sterile tents on the lake's surface. The tents kept the site and equipment clean as researchers drilled ice cores, collected samples of the salty brine residing in the lake ice and assessed the chemical qualities of the water and its potential for harboring and sustaining life.

Geochemical analyses suggest chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The latter, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine's diverse microbial life. Additional research is under way to analyze the abiotic, chemical interactions between the Lake Vida brine and its sediment, in addition to investigating the microbial community by using different genome sequencing approaches. The results could help explain the potential for life in other salty, cryogenic environments beyond Earth, such as purported subsurface aquifers on Mars.

This study was partially funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit research campus of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

[I think it’s looking good for life, maybe even complex life, under the ice on Enceladus and Europa. Life, once it gets going, is pretty tough and highly adaptive. I’m really looking forward to when they can get probes down there to swim under the ice. I wonder if we will watch open mouthed as completely alien fish swim past the cameras. That would be beyond cool.]

Thursday, February 05, 2015

...especially the flavoured kind 

[...and my 5,000th post!!!].

Just Finished Reading: Greek and Roman Political Ideas by Melissa Lane (FP: 2014)

Like much else in western culture the Greeks seem to have invented politics which, again with much else, the Romans seem to have adopted, adapted and spread across the known world. With hundreds of individual city states the Greeks could effectively experiment in tiny social laboratories to discover the best types of political form which they categorised into three separate strands – rule by one, by some and by many. From these strands they highlighted both the best and worst versions of each, with the best being Monarchy, Aristocracy (my personal favourite) and Polity, with the worst forms being Tyranny, Oligarchy and (rather oddly to our ears) Democracy. In Roman terms, once they absorbed Greece into their ever expanding sphere of influence, Monarchy became Imperial rule and Democracy became the basis for the Roman Republic.

Of course when we speak of Greek and Roman democracy will are not talking of what passes for democracy in most of the developed world where disengaged ‘citizens’ cast their votes in ever decreasing numbers each 4-5 years. Back in the founding years the electorate had political activity at the heart of their existence – indeed the word idiot derives from the Greek for those who are political disengaged private citizens (so little has changed there I think!). Then of course there are the limits of who gets to vote to take into account. Here and in many other democracies across the world we have universal suffrage – where the only criteria is that you live here and are over 18 (plus a few other caveats). Back in the day not only did you need to be a citizen (with both parents being citizens) but you had to be male, free (not a slave) and to meet the property qualifications. Inevitably many people residing within any particular Greek polis where excluding from the political process.

Both Greece and Rome, no matter their other failings, had some interesting ideas: huge juries (often hundreds strong or even into the thousands for important cases), political office by lottery – at least at the lower levels – with short one year occupancy with reports of how well the incumbent did scrutinised by juries. Some of that might still work today. The high level of commitment however is probably a no-go because, well to be honest, we need to work to earn money to live – so precisely the people prevented from voting back in antiquity! Probably the only way we could have fully participatory democracy is to have slaves (machines no doubt) doing all of our work whilst we politicised our lives away. I suppose that it could be fun if you like that sort of thing.

Anyway, if you think you know where our politics comes from this book might both surprise and delight you. Written in an easily digestible style I learnt a great deal almost without any perceived effort – just the way I like it (sometimes anyway). If you also think that events back at the edge of history have no relevance today this book will certainly disabuse you of that! Recommended.