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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

So that explains it...............

Just Finished Reading: The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin (FP: 1998)

Moscow, 1876. It wasn’t long before Detective Superintendent Xavier Grushin took pity on the department’s newest and keenest recruit. Young Erast Fandorin was obviously over qualified for his role and itched to be sent out on an investigation rather than being stuck in the sleepy Moscow headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Branch writing reports of what others had done. So when a simple suicide of a disaffected student crosses the Superintendent's desk Fandorin is sent out to ensure that a detailed record is produced for the boy’s family. Keen to prove himself as an investigator the young Erast begins to dig into the student’s background and starts to uncover an apparent mystery. Amused by his obvious naivety Grushin gives his protégée his head in the expectation that his enquiries will soon reach as satisfying dead end. But the mystery behind the student’s death only deepens and slowly becomes something much more – not only a conspiracy against the Russian royal family in far off St Petersburg but a conspiracy spanning Europe and the America’s. A conspiracy involving the great and the good across the known globe (future victims or present protagonists?) seemingly linked to both the outbreak of Nihilist and Anarchist atrocities and the philanthropic activities of Lady Astor and her homes for orphans which have begun to spring up all over the Continent. Can Fandorin uncover his first case before the whole world falls around him?

This was a highly entertain tale of intrigue, races across Europe by train, dangerously alluring femme fatales, fanatics and common criminals, double crossing and the fate of the world held in the balance within the contents of a single letter – oh, and love (of course!). Aptly referred to as Russia’s 19th century equivalent to James Bond this is indeed a crackling little tale which manages (mostly) to stay this side of believable – with the possible exception of the number of times the hero escapes certain death! Deeply mysterious (you’re never quite sure exactly what’s going on or who can be trusted), full of great characters – both good and bad – and with a satisfying (if quite horrible) ending I loved just about everything about this book. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever picked up from a left-over jumble sale. Fortunately it’s the first book in the series and after the rather dark ending I really need to know how Fandorin will revenge himself on the remaining members of the conspiracy – and especially on the Winter Queen who brought him so much pain. Definitely recommended for any historical crime fans.

Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

My Favourite Movies: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

The teaser trailer for this certainly intrigued me but I thought ‘oh, another alien invasion flic’ and moved on. Then I heard some of the criticism: that it was like watching over someone’s shoulder as they played Call of Duty (a game I was actually playing at the time) or that, after the obligatory 10 minutes introducing the characters we had 2 hours of unrelenting combat…. OK, those ‘criticisms’ sold me and I arranged a ‘boy’s night out’.

As with most of these things the movie did exactly what it said on the tin (or trailer). A comment ‘Black Hawk Down with Aliens’ kind of encapsulates the whole thing – except BHD was better. At the start we see US Marine Staff Sargent Nantz played by Aaron Eckhart who, I must admit, I have a soft spot for despite his unfortunate tendency to indulge in overacting, just about the jack everything in after getting his unit combat ready and shipped off to Afghanistan/Iraq. Everything is put on hold when they’re called to aid in an evacuation of Santa Barbara because of an expected meteor strike off the coast. What they realise very quickly (thanks to NASA) is that the meteors are landing/impacting at less than terminal velocity – they’re slowing down. All across the planet things are landing and moving inshore in an organised military style attack – we are at war! As coastal areas are quickly overrun the marines are sent in the hold the line. Nantz’s group (led by newly minted 2nd Lt Martinez – played by Ramon Rodriguez) is sent into the combat zone to recover civilians trapped in a police station. On the face of it it’s a simple in and out operation. But almost immediately the squad come under enemy fire and are taking casualties. Everyone, including Nantz, need to man up and grow up very quickly indeed if they are going to complete their mission and get back to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) alive before the whole of Santa Barbara is levelled by the Air Force.

Right, first the criticisms…. The acting is variable to say the least and rarely gets above the average. There’s a lot of over-the-top patriotism throughout the movie and a reverence (and I don’t hesitate to use that word) about all things Marine. Often this goes right up to the edge of sickly sweet acceptability but only just manages to restrain itself from going too far and descending into farce. The emotional outbursts of the soldiers I found deeply irritating. OK, they’re in combat and under stress but they caused so much noise that the enemy had no problem at all finding them blindfold. Such behaviour might be normal in the Marines but it doesn’t make it any less irritating.

Now the good bits….. The storyline was pretty good once you get over the idea that they’re here to steal our water. I can go with conquer us to get at our resources and I ignored the water idea – especially when on day ONE reported sea levels are already dropping! I liked that we were kept informed of the larger picture/storyline from TV reports & the Internet. That felt real. I really liked the combat elements which felt graphic, messy and realistic from what I’ve seen on TV news. I liked that the aliens where pretty alien but close enough to us (roughly humanoid) not to be completely silly. Their technology was quite believable too except maybe their lack of much in the way of armoured vehicles.

This is essentially a 21st century war movie that happens to have aliens in it. Much superior to Independence Day which it resembles at times this is a down in the dirt, front line view of fighting an unknown enemy where the price of failure is the loss of everything. A little silly, a little overblown, somewhat over sentimental and probably too self-aware (and not always in a good way) this is still an entertaining film despite its many faults. Have a good few pinches of salt handy and a big bowl of popcorn and you should enjoy it too. Oh, and before I forget Michelle Rodriguez is in it as Tech Sargent Elena Santos. Needless to say she kicks alien butt – if they have butt’s to kick.    

Saturday, September 19, 2015

'Avalanche' of Labour MPs could turn to Lib Dems - Sir Vince Cable

From The BBC

19th September 2015

There could be "an avalanche" of Labour MPs who defect to the Liberal Democrats following Jeremy Corbyn's leadership victory, Sir Vince Cable has said. Mr Corbyn won a landslide victory to become leader, despite not being backed by the majority of Labour MPs.

Labour made a "catastrophic choice" and was now stuck with a leader "totally out of touch" with its base, the former Lib Dem MP and business secretary said. It offered the Lib Dems "a way back" after election losses, he added. Speaking to Radio 4's Week In Westminster, Sir Vince said Mr Corbyn's victory and Labour's shift to the left was "certainly an opportunity" and "certainly a way back" for the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems ended up with just eight MPs following this year's general election - down from 57 in 2010. A host of senior Lib Dem ministers and MPs lost their seats at the election, including Sir Vince, former energy secretary Ed Davey, and ex-treasury secretary Danny Alexander.

Speaking ahead of the party's conference in Bournemouth, Sir Vince said "moderate, middle of the road" Labour politicians were now in "a terrible position" following Mr Corbyn's victory. His victory would do the Labour party "no end of harm", he warned, adding: "They're completely stuck with a leader who is just totally out of touch with their own electoral base." Sir Vince predicted there would be at least some defections to his party - but said he believed it could be more realistic for many disgruntled Labour MP to work with the Lib Dems on individual issues. "I think that kind of cross-party working is probably more promising for most Labour people than defection, though some will go and we will see. It may become an avalanche," he added.

New Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, has said "distressed" Labour figures have already contacted him following Mr Corbyn's election win. At the conference's opening rally, he said: "Britain is teeming with liberals, some of them are not yet in the Liberal Democrats. Some of them are in other parties. But we are their home."

[Oh, the desperate cries of a desperate ex-MP from a destroyed political party looking for any possibility to get their grubby hands back on power! Pathetic and quite frankly disgusting. As to Corbyn being ‘a leader "totally out of touch" with its base’ who exactly gave him 60% of the leadership vote if it wasn’t the parties base – actual members of the Labour Party. As to the other way off assertion that ‘Britain is teeming with liberals’ are these the same Liberals who didn’t vote for them in droves during the last election – including me? It would appear that Mr Cable's party has moved beyond simply rejecting the expressed will of the electorate into a land of wishful thinking and delusion. These statements about Labour’s ‘mistaken’ election of a Socialist leader just prove the point that the Liberals are out of touch both with their own followers and with the new political reality. My decision, and no doubt those of millions of others, NOT to vote Liberal ever again will not be shaken by the ravings of an obvious mad man. Pathetic.]

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Something for puzzle lovers......

Just Finished Reading: Drones and Targeted Killing – Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues edited by Marjorie Cohn (FP: 2015)

Despite covering much the same ground as my previous book on Drone Warfare this was in no way a boring read. For one thing, as a compilation of views, it had both a wider and a narrower focus of some of the issues raised by the use (and abuse) of this technology. I was particularly interested in the legal aspects of targeted killing – most especially of a state’s own citizens abroad (much in the news over here recently with the Governments first confirmed kills of British citizens fighting in Syria. Although more that touched upon in the previous book several articles in this volume (particularly US Policy of Targeted Killing with Drones: Illegal at Any Speed by Jeanne Mirer and Drone Warfare and Just War Theory by Harry van der Linden) were very informative and powerfully put across. In the same section (on the Legality and Morality of Drone use) was an article focused on an area barely mentioned in the previous book: Israel. Ishai Menuchin’s The Case of Israel: A Covert Policy of Political Capital Punishment is quite an eye opener.

A subject dear to my heart and, again only lightly brushed over in the previous book, had its own section here – the Future use of Drones. One obvious thing to look out for is the spread of the technology and the increase in their use across the world. Previously confined to Israel and the US (and now the UK) expect that other countries – probably Russia, China, India and Pakistan to begin with – will start using Drones for surveillance and targeted killing. With much precedent to go on their use will be almost beyond criticism even when innocents (or European/American citizens) are inevitably killed. Of course the spread of this method of assassination to ‘questionable’ nations such as Iran might prompt the UN Security Council to ban or at least regulate things. We all know how difficult it is to put genies back in bottles though. Another aspect is the increasing demand (and soon legalised use) of surveillance Drones over US and (probably) other Western cities. With the ability to ‘loiter’ over a target for days (or longer) and camera’s capable of covering multiple square miles in their never blinking vision it would mean that any of us could be under observation whenever we leave the house. Welcome to the Future! Finally there is the ever present issue of automation.

Presently all Drones are essentially UAV’s – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – which are flown by long-range remote control. There is pressure to reduce human input and allow the Drones to become semi-autonomous meaning that the boring functions can be taken over by the computer in the craft itself and humans only get involved during any action. Inevitably there are already calls for Drones to become fully autonomous – where they can pilot themselves over target areas, decide on targets and engage when they decide things are optimal. Basically here we have machines built and designed to hunt down a kill human enemies. Does that ring any (alarm) bells with anyone? I understand that the programme to develop such machines will not be called Skynet.

If any of this, or the occasional headline grabbing story about Drones, piques your interest then this is definitely the book for you. Packed with information and pages of source notes at the end of each article this is an excellent place to start any research project on the subject. Highly recommended.    

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Best/Most Enjoyable SF Films I’ve Ever Seen.

Inception (2010)
The Matrix (1999)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Back to the Future (1985)
Aliens (1986)
2001: A space Odyssey (1968)
Blade Runner (1982)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Akira (1988)
Terminator (1984)
Brazil (1985)
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
District 9 (2009)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Children of Men (2006)
Avatar (2009)
Predator (1987)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Dark City (1998)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Minority Report (2002)
The Fifth Element (1997)
The Abyss (1989)
The Time Machine (1960)
Equilibrium (2002)
Robocop (1987)
Total Recall (1990)
Source Code (2011)
Predestination (2014)
Limitless (2011)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Live (1988)
Them! (1954)
Jurassic World (2015)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Escape From New York (1981)
Strange Days (1995)
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Tremors (1990)
Pitch Black (2000)
I, Robot (2004)
Wargames (1983)
Westworld (1973)
Soylent Green (1973)
Cloverfield (2008)
Super 8 (2011)
Dredd (2012)
Déjà vu (2006)
Stargate (1994)
Oblivion (2013)
Pacific Rim (2013)
The Island (2005)
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Hellboy (2004)
Scanners (1981)
THX 1138 (1971)
Divergent (2014)
When World’s Collide (1951)
Ender’s Game (2013)
The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
In Time (2011)
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Rollerball (1975)
Attack the Block (2011)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour leadership contest

From The BBC

12th September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn has promised to lead a Labour "fightback" after being elected the party's new leader by a landslide. The veteran left-winger got almost 60% of more than 400,000 votes cast, trouncing his rivals Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The Islington North MP won on the first round of voting in the leadership contest, taking 251,417 of the 422,664 votes cast - against 19% for Mr Burnham, 17% for Ms Cooper and 4.5% for Ms Kendall. Former minister and Gordon Brown ally Tom Watson was elected deputy leader.

He immediately faced an exodus of shadow cabinet members - but senior figures including Ed Miliband urged the party's MPs to get behind him.

Mr Corbyn was a 200-1 outsider when the three-month contest began. But he was swept to victory on a wave of enthusiasm for his anti-austerity message and promise to scrap Britain's nuclear weapons and renationalise the railways and major utilities.

[Well, it looks like they’ve gone and done it! The people have spoken and therefore the Labour Party looks to be taking a significant lurch to the Left – and about bloody time! It appears that I am far from alone in despising what the Tories have done so far and what they plan to do over the next 4-5 years in power. Well it looks like at long, long last, we actually have a political alternative rather than just a Tory-Lite so-called opposition in the guise of New Labour.

It would seem from the media coverage over the past few weeks that, as it became clear just how popular Corbyn was, that the Establishment is in a flat panic over the possibility (and now the fact) of his election as the new leader of the Labour Party. That in itself warms my heart gladly. If he lives up to his reputation and his speeches there’s a real possibility that the Labour Party might actually become a Socialist Party again. If they do I for one will start voting for them again. From some of the scenes on TV at his packed out appearances I’m guessing I’m not alone in that thought. Unelectable after moving away from the hated Tories? I’m thinking that they could win in 2020 especially if the Tories crank up their austerity programme as they’ve promised to do. Oh, we’re going to have a very interesting time ahead……. Watch this space indeed!]  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Alexander – Child of a Dream by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (FP: 1998)

Even before her son was born she knew that he would be something special and would be remembered for great deeds. She heard his name – Alexander – spoken on the wind and had dreamt of a giant snake entering her bed on the night he was conceived. So when he was born and began to grow up she wasn’t at all surprised that Prince Alexander’s tutors spoke of a boy with capabilities far beyond his years. Educated by the finest minds of the time – including personal tutelage by Aristotle himself – his father King Phillip of Macedon spared no expense. His son would be more Greek than the proud Athenians themselves and would grow up to be someone they above all others would both respect and fear. For Phillip had great plans for his favourite son. First they would unite the warring cities of Greece under a single ruler and then they would drive a sword, hilt deep, into their most hated enemy – Persia. But such an expedition would take years to come to fruition and there were many enemies to overcome, both outside and within the palace – not least of which was Phillip’s temper and Alexander’s single minded ambition to rule.

This was yet another of those books I picked up somewhere for a song and had been sitting on my shelves for years waiting to be read. I’d heard of the author and thought I’d give it a punt already having an interest in Ancient Greece and (arguably) the greatest military mind ever produced. At a fairly hefty 434 pages this proved to be an easy and highly entertaining read. The Ancient world is brought alive in all its familiarity and alien splendour. It was both a strange world, full of gods and demons, and one we would recognise with power struggles, questions of meaning and fate and the ever present desire to be recognised and remembered as something out of the ordinary. Full of frankly fascinating characters and equally fascinating historical events – some of which evoked memories of previous readings of the period – this is a great book that you can lose yourself in for minutes or hours at a time. Although I haven’t picked up the other two books in the series I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future. Definitely recommended for Ancient history buffs.  

Translated from the Italian by Iain Halliday

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book that was originally written in a different language– COMPLETE (27/50)]

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Worst SF Films I’ve Ever Seen

Independence Day (1996)
Battleship (2012)
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Looper (2012)
Total Recall (2012)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: The Final Frontier (1989)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Star Trek (2009)
Interstellar (2014)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Transformers (2007)
A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Judge Dredd (1995)
Prometheus (2012)
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Silent Running (1972)
Signs (2002)
Elysium (2013)
John Carter (2012)
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Lucy (2014)
Transcendence (2014)
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
Jumper (2008)
Sphere (1998)
Gamer (2009)
2012 (2009)
Timeline (2003)
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
The Core (2003)
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Freejack (1992)
Doom (2005)
Lost in Space (1998)
Stealth (2005)

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Kentucky clerk jailed for defying court orders on gay marriage

From The BBC

3rd September 2015

A US judge has ordered a Kentucky official jailed for contempt of court after she has repeatedly refused to issue marriage licences to gay couples. Kim Davis, an elected official in Rowan County, has said that her Christian faith should exempt her from signing the licenses. The US Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in June. Ms Davis, who has said she is obeying "God's law," has been escorted out of the courtroom.

"You can't be separated from something that's in your heart in your soul," said Ms Davis to US District Judge David Bunning, and said the Supreme Court's ruling conflicts with her beliefs as a born-again Christian. "I promised to love Him with all my heart, mind and soul because I wanted to make heaven my home." The judge said he had "no alternative" but to jail her, because issuing fines would not change her mind. "Her good faith belief is simply not a viable defence," said Mr Bunning. "Mrs Davis took an oath. Oaths mean things." He added that letting one person's beliefs supersede the authority of the court would be a dangerous example to set.

Her six deputy clerks were told they may issue licenses to all marriage applicants and that they would also faces fines or jail if they refused to do so. Five out of six of them said they will issue marriage licenses to gay couples, except for Ms Davis' son Nathan. Ms Davis' lawyer had claimed that the deputy clerks could only issues licenses under Davis' authority, but the judge overruled that objection.

Hundreds of protesters lined up outside of the federal courthouse on Thursday, chanting and waving signs both of support and opposition. Local reporters tweeted photos of the two different camps in close quarters outside of the courthouse. Protesters screamed "Love won! Love won!" outside of the courthouse after learning of the decision. Ms Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses to all couples in June after the legalisation of gay marriage, turning couples away repeatedly. The US Supreme Court on Monday rejected the argument that her faith prevented her from carrying out her duty. "I have no animosity toward anyone and harbour no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God's word," she said in a statement.

She can only be removed from her position if the Kentucky legislature impeaches her because she is an elected official. Various 2016 Republican presidential candidates, like Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio, have come out in support of Ms Davis' decisions. Others like Carly Fiorina, Senator Lindsey Graham and Ohio Governor John Kasich have said she must do her job and comply with the law.

[It’s really very simple. It’s her job to marry people under the law. The law has changed to include Gay couples. She either abides by the law, spends time in prison or resigns her post. She doesn’t get to choose which laws apply to her. All laws apply to everyone no matter what their personal beliefs. If she doesn’t like it she should find another job. What’s the problem here?]

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Fatal Path – British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 by Ronan Fanning (FP: 2013)

Between 1910 and 1922 the British government followed, according to the author, a fatal path that moved Ireland from a part of the British Isles and the Empire (indeed often seen as a vital component of both) to being an independent and deeply divided state along religious boundaries. Largely through inaction, vacillation, ignorance and not a little arrogance – to say nothing of the reluctance to face up to the issues and actually attempt to resolve them – the British lost Ireland and gained a new and problematically co-dependent partner in Ulster, which almost 100 years later is still awaiting a resolution satisfactory to all parties.

Of course Ireland has been a problem to the English crown for centuries before the third attempt at Home Rule (far short of independence) was raised in the early years of the 20th century in an attempt to quiet the Irish on the issue of an independence that the British mainland nation thought them incapable of. Inevitably though things quickly founded on the issue of religion. Ireland as a whole was largely a Catholic nation with a small Protestant minority largely concentrated in the 6 (or 9 depending on who you spoke to) northern counties. Determined not to be ruled by the Catholics they despised they demanded exclusion from any deal struck with the rest of the country. With the British government in London strongly sympathetic they got the hearing they wanted and, just to be sure, imported a significant number of rifles and other equipment under the noses (or more likely the blind eyes) of the existing authorities. If they were not given autonomy they would simply take it. Inevitably this was unacceptable to the majority southern Catholics and any possibility of successful talks collapsed. Then, in 1914, the Irish Question was shelved to deal with something far more pressing – The Great War.

It was a war that no one really expected to last very long. So when it dragged on and on both sides – North and South – dug in, accumulated arms (far more in the North than the South) and waited impatiently. But seeing England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity a small group of Catholics tried to move things along with the Easter Uprising in 1916. The expected backlash by the British was brutal (after all they had, they felt, just been stabbed in the back whilst fighting for their lives in Europe) and paradoxically did the Republican’s work for them. After that there was much less talk of Home Rule and more talk of Independence. When the war ended (sadly not the war to end all wars) and things began moving – rather inching – forward the stumbling block of Ulster would not go away. Nor did it after the 6 counties effectively declared themselves fully separate from the rest of the island of Ireland. The existence (or promise or even hope) of a boundary commission to settle things once and for all turned out to be little more than an agreeable political fiction. The short sharp Civil War that followed – between the Nationalists and Republicans in the South and against the Unionists in the North finally settled things to no one’s satisfaction with the emergence of the Irish Free State later to become Eire. So it has lasted to the present.

I knew a little bit about this – it’s a subject difficult to avoid living just across a small patch of water from the country involved, being born a Catholic in Liverpool and living through the Troubles (again fortunately at some distance from them!). It was interesting just to see how we got into this mess through years of political manoeuvre, shady deals, compromise, misunderstanding and, to be honest, not a little cynical double-dealing. As I said: politics.  Although clearly an expert on the period I did think that the author laboured his points a little too much and I thought repeated himself a few times too often. I suppose that I should have realised that the focus of the book was on the British government’s side of things and I did find myself wondering about the Irish side of things. Of course this wasn’t really what the thrust of the book was about, so it’s my own fault that I found things a little slow, or sometimes went into detail regarding things I didn’t find particularly interesting.

Fortunately (for me anyway) the last book in this triple-header on Ireland is exactly that – largely the same slice of time but from the Republican viewpoint. Overall this certainly wasn’t a bad book though I did find parts a bit of a struggle and a bit dull. But I’d lay the fault at my door rather than at the author’s. A valuable book for anyone interested in the period.