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

Saturday, January 30, 2016

"The trick as an educated citizen of the twenty-first century is to realise that nature is far stranger and more wonderful than human imagination, and the only appropriate response to new discoveries is to enjoy one's inevitable discomfort, take delight in being shown to be wrong and learn something as a result."

Professor Brian Cox.

Facebook and Instagram ban private gun adverts

From The BBC

30 January 2016

Private individuals will no longer be allowed to advertise guns on Facebook and Instagram, the photo-sharing service owned by Facebook. Facebook had already banned the sale of guns without identity checks, but the new rules aim to stop all gun trade between individuals on the sites. Businesses can still advertise guns on Facebook and Instagram. The move comes three weeks after US President Barack Obama unveiled new restrictions on gun purchases.

Mr Obama's executive actions included background checks for all gun sellers and the requirement that states provide information on people disqualified from buying guns due to mental illness or domestic violence. The rule change brings gun sales under the same restrictions placed by Facebook on illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals by Facebook. The site has 1.59bn users worldwide.

Facebook "was unfortunately and unwittingly serving as an online platform for dangerous people to get guns", Shannon Watts, of the Everytown for Gun Safety campaign group, told Associated Press. The group said it had found evidence that guns had been bought on the site and used to kill others in two cases. Everytown for Gun Safety was one of a number of groups that had called on Facebook to change its policy.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), which opposes changes to gun legislation, has not yet responded to Facebook's decision. In 2014, the NRA said previous moves by the network to limit gun advertising were insignificant. In late 2013, New York's attorney general, Eric T Schneiderman, wrote to Facebook, alerting them to "a number of groups in which users promoted the sale of assault rifles, handguns, rifles, shotguns and gun parts".

Several hours after Facebook's announcement on Friday, dozens of groups on the site advertising private gun sales remained live. Some users writing on the groups' walls suggested starting new groups under inconspicuous names to avoid detection.

[Straws in the Wind? A Change of the Tide or just a publicity play? I wonder. I guess that only time will tell.] 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Armada by John Stack (FP: 2012)

England, 1587. Everyone knows that it’s coming. It’s just a matter of when and where. Braced for an invasion few reckon can be resisted for long the only hope is the growing power of the English navy made up of a mixture of ‘race built’ galleons are armed merchantmen. But the odds are heavily against them. The Spanish Armada is rumoured to be the greatest naval force ever built and is believed to be all but unstoppable. The plan at hand is to harry the enemy enough to prevent any landing or any meeting of the fleet sent from Spain and the massed forces waiting transport across the English Channel from Holland. In the middle of events is newly promoted Captain Robert Varian, highly regarded by his crew and the senior officers for his skill and aggressive fighting stance. But Robert holds a secret close to his chest that he can never reveal to those around him. In a Protestant country fighting fir its life against Catholic Spain and her allies he is himself a secret Catholic who professes loyalty both to his country and his faith – something many see as an impossibility. But Robert’s secret goes deeper than that. Varian is not his real name and his real father is a traitor to the crown working for the Spanish against England’s interests. With Father and Son on opposite sides as the hammer of Spain begins to fall on her hated heretical enemies in England can the tiny English fleet hope to hold the enemy at bay and where will Robert’s loyalty finally rest when galleons exchange fire at point blank range?

The story of the Spanish Armada is well known to anyone who went through the English education system in the 1960’s and 70’s (I have no idea if they still teach this in these more enlightened times). Standing alone against the major powers of the day – a theme that seems rather familiar – with our backs to the wall and depending for our very survival on a comparatively small number of charismatic and often dangerously brilliant mavericks – another familiar theme – the rest of Christendom fully expected us to fail. Needless to say we didn’t – though luck, good (that is bad) weather, modern tactics and technological superiority and the over confidence of our adversary – yet another common theme!

Though not quite as entertaining as the author’s Roman trilogy I enjoyed this book a great deal. The whole Catholic thing was, I thought, a little over done and heavy handed but everything else was excellent in description and execution. From simple hand-to-hand fighting, through small (or single) ship actions, to whole battles covering miles of the English Channel each differently scaled encounter was very well told and absolutely gripping. The fight on a burning fire ship (not giving a great deal away here) had my heart in my mouth and the very close quarter contests between English and Spanish warships had be gasping and exclaiming out loud. Thrilling just doesn’t cover it. The short historical note backed up my opinion that the author followed the real story very closely and most certainly hit all of the highlights. The reason we won the numerous encounters revolved around tactics – modern versus archaic, the number and quality of cannon on each ship and the oft mentioned impressive fire rate of up to 4 shots per hour from the English guns. Firing these at ranges as low as 50 YARDS from the enemy (I kid you not) you can imagine the devastation which a great storm (Kamikaze anyone?) made worse by driving the Spanish ships around the island of Britain and, eventually back to their Spanish home bases much battered and much reduced. The defeat of the Armada heralded in the decline of Spain as a world power and the seemingly inexorable rise of England on to the world stage. Could it have gone the other way? Possibly, but the Armada was fatally flawed from the offset and its victory would have been a great uphill struggle. If you’re interested in naval warfare or Elizabethan history then this is certainly a book for you. Recommended.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Fear of the Classics

When I was in my late teens/early 20’s I took it upon myself to read the Classics – as a way to educate and (possibly) improve myself. So I started collecting them and borrowing them from my local library. Of course, being rather ignorant back then (or more ignorant) I only went for the best of the well-known – Dickens, Hardy, Woolf. Almost invariably I gave up on each book and became convinced that they were simply too difficult (or just too old) for my young working class brain to comprehend. Maybe, as with other things, I was simply trying to run before I had learnt to walk upright.

So I did two things – I continued to pick up classical works and I backed off a little resolving not to be so hard on myself. As I was already reading a lot of SF, which accounted for the majority of my reading back then, I looked for classic SF and read Asimov, Clarke, Anderson, Simak, Herbert, Wyndham, Niven, Dick and other great works that I haven’t often mentioned here (having read almost everything by them decades ago). I tried Verne, and failed, but loved HG Wells and devoured most of his rightly labelled SF classics. War of the Worlds and The Time Machine remain two of my all-time favourite books. Moving away from SF I started reading classic crime from Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle falling in love with the world of Sherlock Holmes. With a growing number of classics under my belt I went back to previously attempted books and failed again. I just couldn’t get into most of them and found myself yawning almost after the first few pages – they were just so slow and nothing really happened. Taken together with the often convoluted language my early 20’s brain practically switched off.

I did manage a few early victories over my aversion to classical literature – 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell as well as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, but I already had a stake in the SF universe so these were easy wins. Then there was fantasy with the works of Robert E Howard and, of course Tolkien. Easy wins again with books like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings plus a hero like Conan to keep me interested. Adventures stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, only vaguely SF, continued the thrill me many decades after they were published and I racked up an impressive collection of his works. Continuing the crime theme, and my love of all things Noir, I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett revelling in their delicious use of language. In the world of espionage I had Fleming’s James Bond (generally much different from the later movies) and read everything he had produced.

But about 12-15 years ago, pre-Blog anyway, I discovered something to combat my fear of the classics – a love of the classics. It was when I read Frankenstein and then Pride and Prejudice that I finally realised that, not only where the classics nothing to be afraid of, but that they were also quite excellent and often easy to read. Since then I’ve aimed at 6-10 classics a year. I’ve become a huge fan of Austen and have even managed a handful of Jules Verne novels (who I still don’t think is as anywhere as good as Wells). The plan now is to move beyond the 19th century classics and move into areas increasingly outside my natural comfort zone. Either at the end of this year or the beginning of next there’s 10 modern classics heading my way and I recently picked up the complete works of Charles Dickens which will be making their way onto my reading list in the coming months. There’s definitely a lot to look forward to and so much to catch up on! I’m actually looking forward to it….. if I don’t lose my nerve [lol].

Saturday, January 23, 2016

English DNA 'one-third' Anglo-Saxon

By Paul Rincon, Science editor for BBC News

19th January 2016  

The present-day English owe about a third of their ancestry to the Anglo-Saxons, according to a new study. Scientists sequenced genomes from 10 skeletons unearthed in eastern England and dating from the Iron Age through to the Anglo-Saxon period. Many of the Anglo-Saxon samples appeared closer to modern Dutch and Danish people than the Iron Age Britons did. The results appear in Nature Communications journal.

Genetic studies have tackled the question of Anglo-Saxon ancestry before, but sometimes gave conflicting results. Confounding factors included the close genetic affinities of people in North-West Europe and the scarcity of ancient DNA from indigenous Britons and the Germanic-speaking migrants. Dr Stephan Schiffels of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany sequenced genomes of human remains from Hinxton, Saffron Walden, Linton and Oakington - all of which are near Cambridge. The burials fall into three different age categories: Iron Age, early Anglo-Saxon and Middle Anglo-Saxon.

Contrary to narratives suggesting large-scale displacement of the Britons by Anglo-Saxon invaders, the researchers found evidence of intermarriage in the earliest phase of settlement. In order to disentangle the Anglo-Saxon signal from the indigenous British genetic background, the researchers looked at many rare mutations across the whole genome. "We found that these rare mutations were the key to studying historical samples. We could compare our ancient samples with modern samples in an improved way," Dr Schiffels told BBC News. "We could look at these in a very large sample of modern Europeans. For example, we studied low frequency mutations that must have occurred in the ancestors of the Dutch over the last few thousand years. We found that these mutations were shared with the Anglo-Saxon immigrants at a factor of two more than they are with the indigenous Celtic people. These rare mutations are found only with whole genome sequencing."

From there, the scientists could track the contribution made by those Anglo-Saxon migrants to modern British populations. They found that on average 25%-40% of the ancestry of modern Britons is attributable to the Anglo-Saxons. But the fraction of Saxon ancestry is greater in eastern England, closest to where the migrants settled. Even traditionally Celtic populations, such as the Welsh and Scottish show some Anglo-Saxon-like ancestry - even though it is typically lower than that in eastern England. But Dr Schiffels points out that it is difficult to tell when this genetic component arrived there until DNA from Iron Age remains in those regions is analysed.

In another study, also published in Nature Communications, Prof Dan Bradley from Trinity College Dublin and colleagues analysed the genomes of nine individuals from Roman-era York. They found that six of the individuals - presumably indigenous Britons - were similar to the modern Welsh, but different from populations living in Yorkshire today. However, one of the individuals had genetic affinities with people from North Africa and the Middle East, providing evidence of long-scale migration in Roman times. The burials at Driffield Terrace, from which the genetic data was drawn, fit the profile of Roman gladiators. The majority were male, under 45 years old and had been decapitated. They were also slightly taller than the average for Roman Britain, with most showing signs of trauma to their bones. However, Prof Bradley and his colleagues point out that the remains might also be compatible with Roman legionaries.

[Interesting. I’ve been thinking of having my DNA tested to see what my ancestry is – definitely largely from Celtic/Irish and (I think – maybe romantically) Scandinavia considering that the area of Ireland where my father was from had been heavily settled by the Danes. Fascinating stuff really….]

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Discovery of the Titanic by Dr Robert D Ballard (FP: 1987)

No one would have believed in April 1912 that after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic that it would ever be seen again. After all when it slipped beneath the waves that fateful night it had 2 miles of water beneath it before striking the muddy bottom. It wasn’t until many decades later that the technology had developed enough to even contemplate a return to the greatest of all shipwrecks.

But even with the technology it was to be no easy feat. First they had the find the wreck itself which proved to be much more difficult than first thought – especially as the last known position given by the stricken liner was guesswork as much as anything else. The first expedition tried and failed in its attempt using sophisticated sonar to map the ocean floor. But Bob Ballard had other ideas – his team would visually survey the ocean floor using the latest in video surveillance drones. The first team (largely French) swept the area and, despite some tantalising contacts, came up empty. The second team, mostly American, extended the area and finally had something to report and on September 1st 1985 announced to the waiting world that they had discovered the last resting place of the world’s greatest maritime legend.

Of course that wasn’t the end of things. After press conferences and TV spots the work behind the scenes went ahead and a second more detailed expedition was planned for the following year. Using state of the art and often completely experimental equipment the new team managed to extensively film, photograph and experience first-hand the majesty of the Titanic which (surprisingly to me at least) was largely intact with gleaming brass work, intact railings and even woodwork looking almost as new as the day she sailed. After a week on site Ballard’s team left some plaques commemorating the sinking and left the site largely undisturbed.

This was yet another of those books that I bought years previously, skimmed the text, looked at the many pictures and put the one side to forget about until recently. Although the technology has dated a great deal – photographs of the ships computers made me snigger – the results of the dives are quite staggering. Many of the photographs taken at the bottom of the ocean are reproduced here and provide a fascinating insight to what happened that night. Ballard had hope to confirm (or deny) the gash down the hull theory but discovered to everyone’s irritation that the front of the ship (now in two pieces) was too deeply buried in mud to answer that all absorbing question one way or another. Also having a much clearer idea of exactly where she sank, and the probable position of other near-by vessels (particularly the Carpathia and the Californian) Ballard was able to speculate on the Californian captain’s denial that he was in easy striking distance of Titanic and could, if he had acted correctly, have saved hundreds of more lives.

Overall this was an interesting book rather than a gripping one – but more than made up for this with its wealth of photographs and the author’s style of writing which was very open and accessible. Definitely recommended for any Titanic fans – or anyone interested in marine archaeology in general and the discovery of wrecked ships in particular.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (FP: 2013)

After graduating from Film School ‘Reno’ heads to the only place she can think of to learn her trade and start producing the art she knows she’s capable of – New York. It’s 1977 and New York is the art capital of the world. But after months of looking and trying nothing has happened – until she wanders into a bar meets a strange couple in the middle of a long running argument and is invited to a party downtown. Days later she receives an invitation to show her around the city by someone she is immediately drawn to. Having already learnt the danger of asking direct questions she slowly discovers that he’s the younger son of an Italian tyre and motorbike empire ‘slumming it’ in New York to escape his overbearing family in Milan – an empire that produces her favourite motorbike. Trying out her latest set of wheels (care of her now boyfriend) she hooks up with a group of Italian mechanics supporting a land speed record attempt and (briefly) becomes the fastest woman in the world at Bonneville Flats. Invited to go to Milan on a promotional photoshoot – and to create her first proper documentary film – her reluctant boyfriend agrees to ‘tag along’ and introduce her to his family. It’s a situation that quickly spirals out of control and Reno flees to Rome in an attempt to escape from her boyfriend’s betrayal. There she is at ground zero for an explosion of political radicalism, demonstrations and the terrorism of the Red Brigades. It’s all quite a coming of age.

The brief synopsis above hardly does credit to this frighteningly good novel (the author’s second). ‘Reno’ – the only name we know the main character and sometime narrator of her own life by – is fantastic as the youth addicted to speed, motorbikes and the need to find meaning in celluloid. Late 70’s New York is a fascinatingly chaotic, dangerous and run-down place seemingly full of offbeat, damaged and intriguing figures many of whom you don’t know whether to take seriously or not. The conversations are sparkling and disturbing in equal measure but never, never dull. Rome takes things to a whole new level. You can almost taste the tear gas in the back of your throat and hear the rhythm of the riot police as they bang their riot sticks against their shields prior to charging into the crowd. The tension on the city streets is quite palpable and certainly stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Above all else, character, plot, background, minor and major story diversions, the thing that struck me most about this quite excellent novel was the beauty of the writing. Above all else it was a delight to read. The crafting of every scene, every page, and every sentence was often astounding. I caught myself re-reading passages, not because I had lost my way or was struggling to understand a particularly difficult section but because I just loved the way it sounded – in my head or out loud. Luckily I read it mostly at home or my work colleagues would probably have thought that I’d finally tipped all the way over into madness (and my work would have suffered terribly as I wouldn’t have wanted to put the book down after my lunch break)!

Not only is this one of the best books I’ve read in a while I’d have to say that it’s one of the best I’ve read at all – and I’ve read quite a few. I’ll definitely be hunting out her earlier work and looking out for her next when it hits paperback. I’m not sure if I can recommend it too highly. There’s a lot going on – not exactly clear from my poor synopsis – and you do have to keep your eye on the ball – but the quality of the writing helps a great deal in keeping the focus where it’s needed. While not entirely effortless this is a dream of a read. I’m certainly glad that I impulse bought it when I did.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Study Outlines 'Water World' Theory of Life's Origins


April 15, 2014

Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed into slime molds, frogs, elephants, humans and the rest of our planet's living kingdoms. How did it all begin?

A new study from researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the Icy Worlds team at NASA's Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., describes how electrical energy naturally produced at the sea floor might have given rise to life. While the scientists had already proposed this hypothesis -- called "submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life" -- the new report assembles decades of field, laboratory and theoretical research into a grand, unified picture.

According to the findings, which also can be thought of as the "water world" theory, life may have begun inside warm, gentle springs on the sea floor, at a time long ago when Earth's oceans churned across the entire planet. This idea of hydrothermal vents as possible places for life's origins was first proposed in 1980 by other researchers, who found them on the sea floor near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Called "black smokers," those vents bubble with scalding hot, acidic fluids. In contrast, the vents in the new study -- first hypothesized by scientist Michael Russell of JPL in 1989 -- are gentler, cooler and percolate with alkaline fluids. One such towering complex of these alkaline vents was found serendipitously in the North Atlantic Ocean in 2000, and dubbed the Lost City.

"Life takes advantage of unbalanced states on the planet, which may have been the case billions of years ago at the alkaline hydrothermal vents," said Russell. "Life is the process that resolves these disequilibria." Russell is lead author of the new study, published in the April issue of the journal Astrobiology.

Other theories of life's origins describe ponds, or "soups," of chemicals, pockmarking Earth's battered, rocky surface. In some of those chemical soup models, lightning or ultraviolet light is thought to have fueled life in the ponds.

The water world theory from Russell and his team says that the warm, alkaline hydrothermal vents maintained an unbalanced state with respect to the surrounding ancient, acidic ocean -- one that could have provided so-called free energy to drive the emergence of life. In fact, the vents could have created two chemical imbalances. The first was a proton gradient, where protons -- which are hydrogen ions -- were concentrated more on the outside of the vent's chimneys, also called mineral membranes. The proton gradient could have been tapped for energy -- something our own bodies do all the time in cellular structures called mitochondria.

The second imbalance could have involved an electrical gradient between the hydrothermal fluids and the ocean. Billions of years ago, when Earth was young, its oceans were rich with carbon dioxide. When the carbon dioxide from the ocean and fuels from the vent -- hydrogen and methane -- met across the chimney wall, electrons may have been transferred. These reactions could have produced more complex carbon-containing, or organic compounds -- essential ingredients of life as we know it. Like proton gradients, electron transfer processes occur regularly in mitochondria.

"Within these vents, we have a geological system that already does one aspect of what life does," said Laurie Barge, second author of the study at JPL. "Life lives off proton gradients and the transfer of electrons."

As is the case with all advanced life forms, enzymes are the key to making chemical reactions happen. In our ancient oceans, minerals may have acted like enzymes, interacting with chemicals swimming around and driving reactions. In the water world theory, two different types of mineral "engines" might have lined the walls of the chimney structures.

"These mineral engines may be compared to what's in modern cars," said Russell.
"They make life 'go' like the car engines by consuming fuel and expelling exhaust. DNA and RNA, on the other hand, are more like the car's computers because they guide processes rather than make them happen."

One of the tiny engines is thought to have used a mineral known as green rust, allowing it to take advantage of the proton gradient to produce a phosphate-containing molecule that stores energy. The other engine is thought to have depended on a rare metal called molybdenum. This metal also is at work in our bodies, in a variety of enzymes. It assists with the transfer of two electrons at a time rather than the usual one, which is useful in driving certain key chemical reactions.

"We call molybdenum the Douglas Adams element," said Russell, explaining that the atomic number of molybdenum is 42, which also happens to be the answer to the "ultimate question of life, the universe and everything" in Adams' popular book, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Russell joked, "Forty-two may in fact be one answer to the ultimate question of life!"

The team's origins of life theory applies not just to Earth but also to other wet, rocky worlds.

"Michael Russell's theory originated 25 years ago and, in that time, JPL space missions have found strong evidence for liquid water oceans and rocky sea floors on Europa and Enceladus," said Barge. "We have learned much about the history of water on Mars, and soon we may find Earth-like planets around faraway stars. By testing this origin-of-life hypothesis in the lab at JPL, we may explain how life might have arisen on these other places in our solar system or beyond, and also get an idea of how to look for it."

For now, the ultimate question of whether the alkaline hydrothermal vents are the hatcheries of life remains unanswered. Russell says the necessary experiments are jaw-droppingly difficult to design and carry out, but decades later, these are problems he and his team are still happy to tackle.

[Looking good for life – indeed complex life – on Europa and Enceladus. Definitely sitting here with seriously crossed fingers!]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Just Finished Reading: To Save Everything, Click Here – Technology, Solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist by Evgeny Morozov (FP: 2013)

Can Technology in general or the Internet in particular solve all of our problems (or even most of them)? The author think the answer to that is a resounding NO. Why? Because those who are proposing their particular solutions – normally those most deeply embedded in the philosophy of ‘the Internet’ - are trying to fix problems that aren’t actually problems at all.

Peppered with countless examples of how these so-called ‘revolutionary times’ demand of us a radical rethink of everything we’ve done before (normally predicated on the old = bad/new = good dichotomy) this gripping, funny and thought provoking book is difficult to precis adequately. What is clear is that those who push ‘the Internet’ as the source code of solutionism do so either by being ignorant of or simply by ignoring the fact that similar ‘revolutions’ have happened before – notably with printing, the telegraph, radio and television that generated equally absurd claims of them heralding in a new (and very different) age allowing – or demanding – that we ditch everything that went before and start again with a new. Clean and (technologically much improved) slate. Computers, and the physical Internet they combine to create, have accelerated many of the already existing processes and (potentially at least) given many access to more but this itself is not a revolutionary break with the past. There is no great chasm in time between a world before and after the Internet came into being.

Those who believe that such a change has indeed occurred are convinced that, because we are living through an epoch changing revolutionary process, we must use the power we now have in our hands to advance the programme of change into every nook and cranny of human existence – from the way we buy books (who needs libraries when you have Amazon, e-readers and ‘the Cloud’), listen to our music (where algorithms can determine which music you’ll like before you know it yourself and can produce music to order at the touch of a button), read our newspapers (tailored to your tastes, beliefs, attention span and ability to pay), vote for our politicians (where we can listen to everything they’ve ever said and have ‘soundbites’ directed to our mobile devices reinforcing or destroying our confidence in the person, party or political process), and do our science (who needs elitist ‘experts’ when we can tap into the wisdom of crowds wiki-style to produce the next great breakthrough and where cutting edge research is crowd-sourced from the outset). What a brave new world we have to look forward to – where efficiency reigns and messy humanity is slowly eliminated through the application of more technology and greater processing power – coupled to ever greater disclosure of information so that we can be judged in the free market of ideas and traded as if we are commodities just like the things we wish to buy (and sell) to get by in a fast unforgiving world.

The author, as you might expect, will have none of it. Filled with highly intelligent and severely biting sarcasm, I found myself nodding in agreement, laughing out loud, shaking my head in exasperation (not at the author but at his unearthing of the latest stupid idea originating from Silicon Valley) and finding myself even more sceptical about the supposed advantages of the latest gadget, fad or social media website. One thing I remember making me chuckle a great deal was an honest piece of advice an Internet guru gave in an interview that if you started dating someone only to discover that they didn’t have a Facebook profile/account that you should find this very suspicious and should consider ditching them for someone with less to hide. There is even, apparently, a growing suspicion amongst global security agencies that not having a Facebook (or equivalent) presence on-line should be a red flag warning that the person is a (at least potential) subversive attempting to hide from the authorities! It made me wonder when such things are going to be made compulsory. If you do have any suspicions about the way things are going or have just wondered what the future on-line is likely to be like then this is definitely the book for you. Be warned though it might make you reconsider your on-line activities which might get you on a watch list somewhere. You have been warned!  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Eye-Catching Titles

Having a roving eye and a butterfly mind (a rather dangerous combination sometimes!) I do, rather inevitably, zero in on books with interesting covers or eye-catching titles. Stephen over @ This Week at the Library posted something recently on such titles and I was just going to post a handful of my books in response – until I actually went through my archives and ended up with over two pages worth! Some are more eye-catching than others but all of them I feel have a special something that made me notice them. They are (in reverse order of review):

You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Zombie Economics – How Dead Ideas still Walk Among Us by John Quiggin

The Fishing Fleet – Husband Hunting in the Raj by Anne De Courcy

French Women Don’t Get Fat – The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano

Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans

Dracula Cha Cha Cha by Kim Newman

Star Trek and Philosophy – The Wrath of Kant edited by Jason T Eberl and Keven S Decker

The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy - One Book to Rule Them All edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson

Spies in the Sky – The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II by Taylor Downing

Wired for War – The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P W Singer

Heaven – A Traveller’s Guide to the Undiscovered Country by Peter Stanford

Your Inner Fish – The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor by Neil Shubin

The Immortalization Commission – The Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray

Love & Sex with Robots – The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships by David Levy

Stoic Warriors – The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind by Nancy Sherman

Terminator and Philosophy – I’ll be Back, therefore I Am edited by Richard Brown and Kevin S Decker

A Girl’s Guide to Guns and Monsters edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes

Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them – Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir by John T Irwin

How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy – New Life for the Undead edited by Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad

The Fly in the Cathedral – How a small group of Cambridge scientists won the race to split the atom by Brian Cathcart

The Buried Soul – How Humans Invented Death by Timothy Taylor

The Planet in a Pebble – A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz

Say It With Bullets by Richard Powell

Dune and Philosophy – The Weirding Way of the Mentat edited by Jeffery Nicholas

Strange Days Indeed – The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen

The Age of Absurdity – Why Modern life makes it hard to be Happy by Michael Foley

Slayers and their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead by Bruce A McClelland

A Pelican in the Wilderness – Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses by Isabel Colegate

The Golden Compass and Philosophy – God bites the Dust edited by Richard Greene and Rachel Robinson

Guns, Germs and Steel – A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

The Philosopher and the Wolf – Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness by Mark Rowlands

Pastwatch – The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card

Amazing Tales for making Men out of Boys by Neil Oliver

Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul – A Study in Heroic Individualism by Leslie Paul Thiele

The Shock of the Old – Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton

The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

Black Mass – Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray

Rousseau’s Dog – Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds & John Eidinow

Basic Flying Instruction – A Comprehensive Introduction to Western Philosophy by Charles Gidley Wheeler

The Coming Anarchy – Shattering the Dreams of the post Cold War by Robert D Kaplan

Empires of Belief – Why we need more Scepticism and Doubt in the 21st Century by Stuart Sim.

Narcissus in Chains by Laurell K. Hamilton

The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys by Mick Farren

Warrior Politics – Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert D Kaplan.

Six Impossible Things before Breakfast – The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert.

The London Vampire Panic by Michael Romkey

God's Funeral by A.N. Wilson

The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet by Margaret Wertheim

Saturday, January 09, 2016

A Quote that keeps on Giving.........
Microsoft reveals details of Windows 10 usage tracking

By Chris Baraniuk for BBC News

7 January 2016

Microsoft has revealed details about the data it is tracking via its new operating system (OS), Windows 10. In a blog, the firm listed statistics on how many minutes had been spent by users in total in the Edge browser and the number of photographs which had been viewed in the Photo app. The firm also said that Windows 10 was now active on over 200 million devices. However, some people have questioned whether the data tracking is a threat to privacy.

Since Windows 10 was launched, Microsoft has been tracking information about how those with the OS are using it. Until now though, relatively little has been known about what data is being collected. "Microsoft is deeply committed to protecting our customers' privacy," a spokesman for the company told the BBC. "Consistent with all modern services and websites, the Windows 10 information highlighted in the blog on January 4 is standard diagnostic, anonymous analytics that enables us to deliver the best Windows 10 experience possible. We are committed to delivering industry leading privacy protection for our customers, as shared in a recent blog from Terry Myerson."

The company blog listed a range of figures, including:

  44.5 billion minutes spent by users in the Microsoft Edge browser across Windows 10 devices
  2.4 billion questions asked to virtual assistant Cortana
  30% more Bing search queries per Windows 10 device versus previous versions of  the OS
  82 billion photos viewed with the Photo app
  More than four billion hours spent playing PC games

Microsoft also reported that Windows 10 continued to be the fastest growing version of Windows, outpacing the adoption of both Windows 8 and Windows 7. Security expert Prof Alan Woodward told the BBC he was interested to know the long-term plans for the data. "[This information] might be collected for one purpose, but how long will it be stored for? What else are they going to use it for?" he said. "As soon as it goes outside the EU it's no longer protected by things like the UK's Data Protection Act." Recently, Microsoft announced it would be opening UK data centres for corporate clients in a move the firm hoped would address privacy watchdogs' concerns about "data sovereignty". However, it is not clear where data relating to the company's own operating system is transmitted and stored.

It is possible to increase the privacy controls in Windows 10 by setting the feedback option to Basic, so that activity data is not sent to Microsoft - bar error reports. However, Prof Woodward suggested that users of the new OS may not be fully aware of the range of options and what they do. "I've noticed it because I've been installing it a lot recently. The default is for them to track a whole lot of things about usage and send details back to Microsoft," he said. "I think some people are walking into it blindfolded, they don't necessarily realise what's going on."

[No great surprise there – Windows 10 is spyware – or at least has spyware components to “deliver the best Windows 10 experience possible”. Maybe you want to check your settings? Especially as 85% of people never change the defaults on any device they have. Needless to say I have not yet installed my ‘free’ ‘upgrade’.]