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

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Russia challenges US after Baltic jet face-off

From The BBC

30th April 2016

Russia says it was right to confront a US Air Force reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea on Friday. The Pentagon said a Russian jet fighter acted in an "unsafe and unprofessional manner", and performed a barrel roll over its plane. Russia said that the American jet had turned off its transponder signal, which helps others identify it. It is the second incident in the Baltic this month in which the US has accused Russian planes of flying aggressively.

"All flights of Russian planes are conducted in accordance with international regulations on the use of airspace," a statement by the Russian defence ministry said. "The US Air Force has two solutions: either not to fly near our borders or to turn the transponder on for identification."

US jets "regularly" try to approach Russia's borders with transponders switched off, the statement said. Over the past 18 months, Russia has been repeatedly accused of the same practice over the Baltic and near UK waters. It is not clear how close to Russia's waters Friday's incident occurred.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Daniel Hernandez said there had been "repeated incidents over the last year where Russian military aircraft have come close enough to other air and sea traffic to raise serious safety concerns. The US aircraft was operating in international airspace and at no time crossed into Russian territory," he said. "This unsafe and unprofessional air intercept has the potential to cause serious harm and injury to all air crews involved." Such actions could "unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries," he said. Mr Hernandez said the Su-27's "erratic and aggressive manoeuvres" also threatened the safety of the US aircrew, coming within 7.6m (25ft) of the fuselage of the American plane before conducting its barrel roll.

Military encounters between Russia and the US and its allies have escalated significantly over the past two years, ever since Russia's annexation of Crimea and the breakdown of relations between East and West. Two Russian planes flew close to a US guided missile destroyer almost a dozen times in the Baltic on 13 April. The BBC's Gary O'Donoghue in Washington reported after the destroyer incident that Russia's actions were regarded by defence analysts as a flexing of muscle, a reminder that Russia has military might and cannot be pushed around.

[Anyone else coming over all nostalgic for the Cold War?]

"The more one looks at great examples of creativity, the more evident it becomes that creative minds are not typically 'nice', or well adjusted, or accommodating, or moderate; that genius is often accompanied by some kind of personal disorder and that society mist come to terms with this disorder if it wishes to have the benefit of genius."

Richard Hofstadter, 1962.

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone - an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering in the world."

John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916), p47

Only bought two today - plus the one that just arrived from Amazon..... [grin]

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Tree of Knowledge.....

Just Finished Reading: Berlin 1961 – Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Frederick Kempe (FP: 2011)

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin – 27th October 1961. Across a space measured in yards 10 Soviet and American tanks face each other, engines running, guns poised, and ready for action (actual picture below). One misunderstanding, one mistake, one over enthusiastic officer, one dropped gun could start a firefight that could lead to a nuclear exchange and world war. How did this happen and, more importantly, who got us in this mess in the first place?

With a young, untested and na├»ve President in the Whitehouse and an old political bruiser in the Kremlin it was only a matter of time before Premier Khrushchev pushed his luck. Pushed by political problems at home and an ever more belligerent, and desperate, East German government watching their country haemorrhage their best and brightest across an open border, the Soviet leader had to press his case to solve the ‘German Question’ once and for all. The proposal was to make Berlin an ‘open city’ with access to it devolving to East Germany over time. Not wanting to provoke the Russians into any action neither side could step back from the Americans decided to negotiate – against widespread advice that the Soviets would see negotiation of Germany sovereignty as a sign of weakness. With Khrushchev running rings around the heavily outclassed Kennedy at the conference in Vienna it looked like the Russians might actually get their way. After hedging, delaying and frankly being unsure what to do the US President decided to put Berlin on the back burner and think about Cuba instead. What followed became known as the ‘Bay of Pigs Disaster’ further undermining Kennedy’s reputation around the world and especially behind the Iron Curtain. Seen as both weak and indecisive the Russians pushed again and again in Berlin.

But it was the East Germans who pushed the hardest. Deciding once and for all that they must stop the massive, and increasing, flight from the East to the West a daring scheme was hatched and the border – open by international treaty – was closed along its whole length in a matter of hours. The Allied response? Nothing. Actions in East Berlin, the Americans believed, where not sufficient to go to war over with the loss of millions of American lives. But inaction on the Allied Powers part did not stop the Soviets pushing and pushing again. As the ‘Wall’ became a permanent feature the East imposed illegal travel restrictions until challenged by the American Military authorities in West Berlin. Told to co-operate with the Russians the American military liaison tended his resignation only to have it rejected by the President. Knowing that the Russians only respected a show of strength, and without informing his superiors in Europe or Washington the American officer on the ground called up tanks to show that they would not be intimidated. In response the Russians brought up their own tanks and the dangerous stand-off began. Who knew where it would lead?

This is a truly fascinating moment in history explained with consummate skill by a marvellously talented historian. It was quite simply a superb piece of historical writing and was amongst the best history books I’m come across in years. I think I learnt more about the Cold War and Kennedy in 500 pages that in the previous 30 years of reading. Gripping in the style of a political thriller this is an account of events of that fateful year that will leave you open mouthed in amazement that World War 3 didn’t start in 1961. So many mistakes, so many misunderstandings it’s truly frightening. Kennedy himself does not come out of this at all well and he is quite clearly blamed for allowing the Cuban Missile Crisis, which most definitely could have killed us all, to develop because of his weak stance on Berlin. Amazing and very highly recommended.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Understanding is a Three Edged Sword......

Don’t Fear the Reaper.

Rather inevitably the topic of the hour is death. With so many celebrities shuffling off this mortal coil lately the subject comes up time and again. Of course, for those of a certain age, some of the latest crop hit rather close to home. Victoria Wood was only 62 – a mere 6 years older than me – and Prince was only 57 – just 1 year older than me. My boss, who just celebrated her 60th birthday, is taking it a bit to heart especially as she hasn’t been completely well lately. I, rather inevitably, tend to be more Stoic about the whole thing.

Now, like most people, I’m not exactly looking forward to dying. If I had the opportunity to live a long and healthy life into my 80’s, 90’s and beyond I certainly wouldn’t say no. Personally I intend to live just as long as I can. But I’m not particularly afraid of death. For one thing I don’t think that there’s anything to be particularly afraid about. I know some people are almost terrified at the prospect. When I ask them why they either can’t or won’t answer me. I can only surmise that they either don’t know why they’re afraid or they are so afraid that they can’t put that level of fear into mere words. I don’t get it. I suppose that if you believed in the whole Heaven/Hell thing I can understand why you feared going to Hell but such crude and childish beliefs are rare these days. Some people have even said to me that they fear oblivion – being snuffed out like a candle or switched off like a lightbulb. This, if you think about it is even less rational than the belief in Hell. If you’re snuffed out then there would be nobody left to feel anything so why fear being ‘deleted’ from the universe. One second you’re here and the next – nothing. I’ve even had people say at this point: Oh my (or words to that effect) imagine an eternity of nothingness! At this point I give it one more try – saying that there will be nothing there to perceive the ‘nothingness’ – and then walk away leaving them confused.

What I’m more afraid of is not death itself but the process of dying – specifically (I suppose) any pain or other discomforts associated with it. We’ve all heard (and some of us have experienced) the horror stories of long drawn out and painful deaths. That’s what worries me, the dying rather than the death. My ideal deaths are either in my sleep – basically going to bed one night and simply not waking up – or something very sudden that maybe catches me unawares and I die before even realising it. Of course in an ideal world I’d die with a sword in my hand after successfully defending women and children against a host of monsters. They’d build me a little monument and sing songs about my brave deeds and centuries later Hollywood would make a movie about me and I’d be played by someone like Tom Cruise or, if possible, someone my own height. But, after living here for 56 years I realise that we can’t have everything in life – or death.

Hopefully, and statistically, I’ve got a few decades yet (at least). If nothing unexpected happens I imagine I’ll be around for another 20 years. If I’m lucky I might go another 30 years or even longer. I guess we’ll see. But increasing numbers of dying celebrities isn’t going to make me maudlin. Some of them I’ll miss but I’m already aware enough of my own mortality not to need reminding that clocks are ticking and all that jazz. In the meantime I shall read good books, listen to good music and, as often as I can, talk to attractive women. What else do I need to keep thoughts of the Reaper away?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

US mulls tech to disable rogue drones near airports

From The BBC

21 April 2016

US politicians are considering new legislation that would allow authorities to intercept or shut down drones that get too close to airports. The US Senate passed the measures, part of a general aviation bill, on Tuesday in response to rising concerns about drone safety. It follows a suspected collision between a drone and a British Airways plane near London's Heathrow Airport. Start-ups are already lining up to offer solutions to the problem.

The FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) reauthorisation legislation, passed by the US Senate, could also pave the way for the commercial deployment of drones in national airspace - but comes with several safety caveats. Senator Bill Nelson, a democrat from Florida, introduced these safety features and warned that a drone sucked into a jet engine could render it inoperable or start an explosion. The bill also contains new rules that would force commercial airlines to keep flight-critical systems separate from in-flight entertainment systems in the wake of concerns that hackers could remotely take control of aircraft. The bill will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.

In the UK, the British Aviation Authority told the BBC in the wake of the suspected collision between a drone and a passenger jet: "Stronger regulation and enforcement action must be a priority for the government, to ensure that the airspace around British airports remains amongst the safest in the world. Anyone operating an unmanned aerial vehicle has an obligation to know the rules and ensure they are capable of operating it safely. Doing so in proximity to an airfield or aircraft is both illegal and clearly irresponsible." It has not been confirmed that the plane was hit by a drone, with transport minister Robert Goodwill telling parliament that "there's some speculation it may have even been a plastic bag or something". Drones will be banned from flying in large parts of London during the visit of the US President Barack Obama from 21 April until 24 April.

Tech start-up SkySafe has recently unveiled technology that allows law enforcement agencies to hijack a drone's controls and neutralise it. "We fully take control of the drone from the operator, it sees us as the legitimate controller, and we can move it to a safe location and land it," co-founder Grant Jordan told The Verge tech news website. Meanwhile tech firm Battelle has released a radio jammer dubbed Drone Defender which also allows users to steal control of a drone from its owner. The device can currently only be used by government agencies. In Japan, in response to a drone that landed a tiny piece of radioactive sand on the roof of the home of the Japanese prime minister, unmanned vehicles with nets have been deployed to catch rogue devices. And the UK's Metropolitan Police has said that it is considering using eagles to intercept drones, following trials in the Netherlands.

[You just gotta love technology. It’s funny how with each passing day we become more like the worlds I read about in my SF books for the past 40 plus years. Whatever is going to happen next I wonder!]

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Without Warning by John Birmingham (FP: 2009)

March 14, 2003. Without a moments warning a massive energy field envelops most of the North American continent cutting off all communication – for two minutes. When live video feeds come back up they show nothing. No people – anywhere. Planes in flight continue towards their destinations and crash land when they run out of fuel. Ships heading towards dock plough into their bays and explode. Seemingly everyone inside the wave has simply disappeared. On the eve of the US led attack on Iraq the American forces are suddenly without leadership. Political and Military hierarchies have basically been decapitated. Meanwhile 5 million Americans out of country look on with a mixture of shock, disbelief and horror. Then things start to get really bad. As uncontrolled fires sweep across the US the resulting toxic cloud dips the western hemisphere into a temporary ‘nuclear’ winter. Across the globe some countries celebrate the disappearance of America, others morn its lost while the brave few take swift advantage of the opportunity to take anything they can before the coming collapse of the world’s economy. As the world tips into chaos it’s a fight for survival and still over the horizon the wave sits over the continent poised, ready to move and swallow the world.

After reading and greatly enjoying his alternative WW2 series I was looking forward to this first book in the inevitable ‘After America’ trilogy. I was strangely disappointed. The Wave itself was OK – it’s basically a continent wide plot device – “what would happen if America suddenly disappeared?” It was certainly an intriguing enough phenomena especially as, as far as the available scientific instruments could tell, it didn’t actually exist. What I found rather less than satisfying is the way the world basically collapsed into a heap in a matter of a few weeks. OK, I realise that there would be considerable seismic shifts in the political and economic realities but I never could figure out why the sudden disappearance of the USA would cause – in less than a month – a civil war in France and for Britain to become a huge prison camp. About the only political event that made much sense (actually most of Europe, Africa or Asia even got a mention in this first volume) was Israel’s response to the worsening crisis in the Middle East. This is not to say that this was a bad poorly executed book – it wasn’t. The writing was generally good to very good. Characterisation was good although I did find quite a few of them too good to be true – oh, and try not to get too attached to any of them. The author is not afraid to kill off main characters or characters that might look as if they’re going to be central to the plot. The ending also felt rushed. We jumped in time from the first week to the first month and then straight to the first year. It honestly left a generally bad taste in my mouth. I will, probably anyway, pick up the other two books in the series to find out what happened afterwards. So it certainly hasn’t put me off reading more. I’m not rushing to do so however. If I see them in my travels I’ll get them but I’m not going to busting to read them any time soon. Reasonable.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

"Let us admit the case of the conservative. If we once start thinking no one can guarantee what will be the outcome, except that many objects, ends and institutions will be surely doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril, and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place."

John Dewey, Characters and Events, 1929

Just Finished Reading: Human Race – 10 Centuries of Change on Earth by Ian Mortimer (FP: 2014)

It all started with a throw away comment as we left the 20th century and entered the 21st – that the 20th century had seen more change than ever before. Really, thought the author? More change than ANY other century in recorded history? So he thought about it a great deal, spoke to experts in their field and spent a great deal of time in world famous libraries doing what historians like best – research! The final result of all that thinking and hard work was 345 pages pointing out the major changes in the West in the last thousand years – and let me tell you there’s been some BIG changes over the years.

Now it’s difficult enough to condense 1000 years of progress (or change if you will) into 345 pages so I’m not even going to attempt to condense the whole thing into what is essentially a single page of A4. What he did manage to do was to highlight 5 major changes in each century and (most of the time) pick a single agent of change who contributed most to whatever happened during those 100 years. As you might expect much of the first part of the millennium focuses on the Church with the growth of Papal power being a major force for change throughout Europe. We had improvements of medicine – helped along by books flowing in from the Arab world – and extension of the Rule of Law which helped to reduce personal violence across the Continent. Commerce grew as did basic education and the rise of literacy. As roads improved and crime fell the number of people regularly travelling and the distances they travelled both increased. Then we had the Black Death which had a massive social, economic and political impact across Europe which echoed down the centuries afterwards. Nothing was quite the same after that. We had the growth of Nationalism and alongside that the rise of vernacular languages based within recognisable nation-states. Then we had the great age of discovery where horizons expanded and expanded again. We started accurately measuring time and with it looked to the past and the future in different ways. We started seeing ourselves as individuals and not merely as members of a community. With that idea we started writing dairies and having our portraits painted. The printed word had a huge impact – not just on literacy and even the spread of knowledge – but on the way people saw the world, saw each other and saw themselves. It allowed people to sit in the privacy of their own homes and read the Bible (in the vernacular) and then interpret it in ways that the local priest may never have even considered. It gave people power over their lives. We had the growth and increased power of firearms and, conversely, the decline (still further) of personal violence but a significant increase in the power of European empires.

Then of course, in the 17th century, things started to get really interesting with the Scientific Revolution and all that entailed. Inevitably the Scientific Revolution led onto a revolution in medicine and a slow but steady increase in life expectancy. As we approached the present at increasing speed (so it seemed) there was an expansion – and then explosion – of the Middle Class, improvements in transportation and communication, a revolution in Agriculture which produced ever increasing food surpluses which effectively banished the previous ever present fear of famine. We moved into a period of enlightened liberalism and finally began to understand the workings of the economy. Not surprisingly this was the time of the Industrial Revolution and the political revolutions that followed it. As we reached the 19th century and a world looking recognisably modern the West became increasingly urbanised and continued improvements both in transportation and communication. Public health and sanitation became the major concerns and projects of the day and social reform quickened its pace. Then we reach the 20th century famous (or infamous) for its destructive wars the likes of which the world had never seen before. Yet rather ironically average life expectancy shot up just about everywhere and is still increasing. The media became a huge influence, for good or evil, on millions of people’s daily lives and helped fuel the desire for an increasing number of electrical appliances. Finally the 20th century more than any other effectively invented the future which we race towards with hope or trepidation. So which century saw the most change? I’m afraid you’ll need to read the book to find out.

This was an excellent romp through 1000 years of Western history. Of course, because of its brevity, much was missed out or ignored all together but the gist of things and the highlights remain. Over all I found the whole thing extremely illuminating and full of interesting, not to say thought provoking, ideas. Then unfortunately the author fell into the trap normally avoided by most historians – he looked forward. In the future he saw two possibilities – a planned move to a more sustainable world or a crash and burn scenario followed by the struggle to produce a more sustainable world. Future growth, he maintained, just wasn’t an option as natural resources run out and we start fighting over what’s left. He even made great play over the fact that there’s no economic future off-world so we need not bother even trying. Apart from the fact that both of his future scenarios are unnecessarily pessimistic I think he’s dead wrong about the economic possibilities in space. It might cost hundreds of millions of dollars to find a suitable asteroid and bring it safely back here but the revenue generated by such an act would be staggering. There are HUGE fortunes to be made in space once people figure out how to make them. Growth is not dead, progress is not dead and we don’t need to resign ourselves to the next 1000 years of sustainable existence on this rock we call home. The 21st century is not when we finally arrive at the end of history. We still have far to go and the will to go there.

Oh, and this was the last of my triple read on Humanity. After a one book break the next triple will be on the Working Class.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Looks like My House......
Hubble Finds Three Surprisingly Dry Exoplanets 


July 24, 2014

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have gone looking for water vapor in the atmospheres of three planets orbiting stars similar to the sun -- and have come up nearly dry.

The three planets, known as HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b, are between 60 and 900 light-years away from Earth and were thought to be ideal candidates for detecting water vapor in their atmospheres because of their high temperatures where water turns into a measurable vapor.

These so-called “hot Jupiters” are so close to their star they have temperatures between 1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, however, the planets were found to have only one-tenth to one one-thousandth the amount of water predicted by standard planet-formation theories.

"Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside our solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we've found water in an exoplanet," said Nikku Madhusudhan of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England. "However, the low water abundance we have found so far is quite astonishing."

Madhusudhan, who led the research, said that this finding presents a major challenge to exoplanet theory. "It basically opens a whole can of worms in planet formation. We expected all these planets to have lots of water in them. We have to revisit planet formation and migration models of giant planets, especially “hot Jupiters,” and investigate how they're formed."

He emphasizes that these results may have major implications in the search for water in potentially habitable Earth-sized exoplanets. Instruments on future space telescopes may need to be designed with a higher sensitivity if target planets are drier than predicted. "We should be prepared for much lower water abundances than predicted when looking at super-Earths (rocky planets that are several times the mass of Earth)," Madhusudhan said.

Using near-infrared spectra of the planets observed with Hubble, Madhusudhan and his collaborators estimated the amount of water vapor in each of the planetary atmospheres that explains the data. The planets were selected because they orbit relatively bright stars that provide enough radiation for an infrared-light spectrum to be taken. Absorption features from the water vapor in the planet's atmosphere are detected because they are superimposed on the small amount of starlight that glances through the planet's atmosphere.

Detecting water is almost impossible for transiting planets from the ground because Earth's atmosphere has a lot of water in it, which contaminates the observation. "We really need the Hubble Space Telescope to make such observations," said Nicolas Crouzet of the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study.

The currently accepted theory on how giant planets in our solar system formed, known as core accretion, states a planet is formed around the young star in a protoplanetary disk made primarily of hydrogen, helium, and particles of ices and dust composed of other chemical elements. The dust particles stick to each other, eventually forming larger and larger grains. The gravitational forces of the disk draw in these grains and larger particles until a solid core forms. This then leads to runaway accretion of both solids and gas to eventually form a giant planet.

This theory predicts that the proportions of the different elements in the planet are enhanced relative to those in its star, especially oxygen, which is supposed to be the most enhanced. Once the giant planet forms, its atmospheric oxygen is expected to be largely encompassed within water molecules. The very low levels of water vapor found by this research raise a number of questions about the chemical ingredients that lead to planet formation.

"There are so many things we still don't know about exoplanets, so this opens up a new chapter in understanding how planets and solar systems form," said Drake Deming of the University of Maryland, who led one of the precursor studies. "The problem is that we are assuming the water to be as abundant as in our own solar system. What our study has shown is that water features could be a lot weaker than our expectations."

The findings are published July 24 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

[Basic rule of thumb I think – no water, no life. But these are still very much early days in the discovery and understanding of exo-planets. There is much we can do remotely – fortunately given the distances involved and the present impossibility of sending probes outside the Solar System at any reasonable speed or expectation of encountering another world in a reasonable timeframe. But maybe one day in the not too distant future – though long after I’m dead unfortunately – we’ll be any to send remote probes to orbit these worlds and beam back accurate data on the conditions for life that at least some of them will hold.]

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Feed the Imagination.....

Just Finished Reading: The Bedford Incident by Mark Rascovich (FP: 1963)

The USS Bedford is one of America’s most advance anti-submarine destroyer in the fleet. Patrolling the dangerous waters between Greenland and Iceland in the search for Soviet submarines she is crewed by the cream of US naval academies and is the envy of many. But it is her captain that defines her. Known as resourceful and unforgiving of failure he has personally crafted a crew that can operate at peak efficiency for hours or days on end as the hunt continues. But Captain Erik J Finlander (played by Richard Widmark in the 1965 movie adaptation) is a deeply obsessive man. He is also a man who harbours a deep hatred for submarines and sub-mariners, a hatred that has only grown since his wartime experiences. His obsession even has a name, although one given to a Soviet submarine never caught in multiple encounters – Moby Dick. So when faint radio signals lead the Bedford into the waters below which the ill-fated HMS Hood lies on the seabed Finlander is determined that this time his quarry will not elude him – no matter the consequences. But will the Captain’s obsession with consummating the hunt with an actual kill make a Cold War very hot indeed?

This is another one of those books I picked up years or decades ago after seeing the movie on TV (probably prompted by my father). I remember bits of it – in particular the end – but those memories have faded a great deal so the book turned out to be surprisingly fresh. Chocked full of tension this is the tale of a cat and mouse game for very high stakes indeed. Finlander himself is a great character with many admirable qualities but still a deeply flawed one (indeed he’s possibly insane or at least borderline psychotic). The other members of the crew are well fleshed out although I did find the British naval officer more than a little silly and unbelievable. The German Commander (an ex-U Boat captain) was an intriguing addition to the crew and provided a very interesting sub-plot and some sparkling dialogue. The embedded reporter was more than a little annoying (I think you were supposed to not like him) but again had some good lines. The chase itself was full of tension, surprisingly so as there was no actual ‘combat’ to focus on, and was very ably done. Overall, despite its age and a few wobbles with the plot, I was quite impressed with this Cold War thriller. More Naval gazing and Cold War goings on to come. This was also the first book in a collection of ‘End of the World’ stories. Be prepared to be rather depressed over the next few months…… Sorry!  

Monday, April 11, 2016

Make the Effort.... Change your Life.
Survey shows deep class divide in reading habits 

From The Observer

Wednesday 12 March 2014

New research shows a stark and "worrying" cultural divide in the UK when it comes to reading, with half the country picking up a book at least once a week for pleasure, and 45% preferring television.

The England-wide survey of the reading habits of 1,500 adults conducted by DJS Research for Booktrust says that on average, the higher the socio-economic group that someone is in, the more often they read: 27% of DEs never read books themselves, compared with 13% of ABs, while 62% of ABs read daily or weekly, compared with 42% of DEs. Reading charity Booktrust, which commissioned the research, believes its findings should serve as a warning that "Britain's divided reading culture is a barrier to social mobility". The study indicates "links between deprivation and not reading books", said Booktrust, with those who never read living in more deprived areas, with a higher proportion of children living in poverty, and those who read less "more likely to be male, under 30, and have lower levels of qualifications, happiness, and satisfaction within their lives".

One respondent, a male who fell into the survey's 30-44 years age bracket, told researchers: "The fact is, it's 2013 not 1813. We have electricity now so we can buy DVDs and watch television rather than read books. Books are for an older generation, younger people on the whole do not read books." Overall, nearly a fifth of adults surveyed (18%) said they never read physical books at all, and 56% said they believe the internet and computers will replace books in the next 20 years. This figure rises to 64% among 18 to 30-year-olds, said Booktrust. Twenty-seven per cent of respondents said they preferred the internet, and social media, to reading books, with this proportion rising to 56% for 18 to 30-year-old respondents.

Although most of those who read regularly told the researchers that this improves their life, this was more pronounced for higher social-economic groups, said Booktrust, with 85% of ABs saying reading helps to make them feel good, compared to 69% of DEs. The research also shows the "significant" link between a family's reading habits and a child's future attitude to reading, with 89% of respondents whose parents read to them as children reading regularly to their own children, compared to 72% of respondents whose parents didn't read to them. Booktrust is "concerned that this divided reading culture is leading to large numbers of children missing out on the benefits of books", and is running a conference on Tuesday at which figures including children's laureate Malorie Blackman, and the MPs Alan Johnson and Liam Fox, will attempt to kick start a national conversation about improving social mobility by encouraging reading earlier.

Blackman told the Guardian that a love of books "is one of the greatest gifts that can be passed down to our children", but that "sadly too many are missing out. The new research shows this has a negative impact on so many aspects of life – wellbeing, happiness and employment," said Blackman, adding that families "have a huge role to play in encouraging reading from an early age and supporting parents is crucial. We need to reduce poverty and improve social mobility – spreading the opportunity to read is one of the most powerful ways we can do this," she said.

Labour MP Alan Johnson also responded to the survey, saying: "This new research reminds us that we need to give everyone a hand up the reading ladder … By putting reading at the centre of early intervention and child poverty strategies, and in particular fostering a love of books, we can ensure all children have the best possible start. A positive one nation reading culture can be transformative."
Booktrust chief executive Viv Bird said the research indicates that frequent readers "are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful in their professional lives. But there is a worrying cultural divide linked to deprivation. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to social mobility, but reading plays an important role – more action is needed to support families."

[Well some of that makes really sad reading. Although I have come across several people in the last 5-10 years who are very proud of the fact that they haven’t picked up a book since school. Others are generally perplexed either by what I read (seemingly anything) or that I read at all, considering such a thing as an aberration and proof positive that I’m more than a little ‘strange’. Personally I cannot conceive of not reading and, if prevented from doing so for too long, start reading street signs, passing bus adverts and cereal packets just to get some printed words inside my head. I’d have to say that reading is good for you in so many ways, and not just as a cure for ignorance (there’s certainly enough of that around). Books, I believe, make you a better person. You live inside the heads of other people and see the world through their eyes. That alone is worth the ‘effort’ of turning pages.]

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Good advice...........
Lithium study helps scientists unlock ageing puzzle

From The BBC

7 April 2016

A common drug could hold the key to long life, in flies at least, according to research. At low doses, lithium prolonged the life of fruit flies in lab experiments. Scientists say the finding is "encouraging" and could eventually lead to new drugs to help people live longer and healthier lives.

Lithium is used in psychiatry to help stop mood swings but has a risk of serious side-effects at high doses. How lithium acts on the brain is not fully understood, but in fruit flies the drug seems to extend life by blocking a chemical known as GSK-3. "The response we've seen in flies to low doses of lithium is very encouraging and our next step is to look at targeting GSK-3 in more complex animals with the aim of eventually developing a drug regime to test in humans," said Prof Linda Partridge of the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing, who led the study.

The research, published in Cell Reports, found fruit flies lived 16% longer than average when given low doses of lithium. At high doses, lithium reduced their lifespan. "We found low doses not only prolong life but also shield the body from stress and block fat production for flies on a high sugar diet," said co-researcher Dr Ivana Bjedov from the UCL Cancer Institute.

Claire Bale of the charity Parkinson's UK, which part-funded the study, said: "It's encouraging to see that the researchers have been able to identify a key piece of the ageing puzzle, which one day may allow us to intervene in the ageing process. This research has the potential to not only help create a healthier older generation, but also provide significant insights into how we could potentially treat or even prevent conditions of ageing like Parkinson's."

Lithium salts have been used in the past as a health tonic and to heal conditions such as gout and migraines. In modern medicine, lithium is used to encourage mood stability in bipolar disorder and is also being considered for the treatment of memory impairment. It has a risk of serious side-effects at high doses.

[Stories like this interest me more as I get older. Despite the fact that we’re mortal doesn’t mean that we can’t extend healthy life beyond what is considered to be normal. An average age of 100 is more than achievable and I don’t think that 200 is beyond our capabilities either. Beyond that? I think if we want to move beyond 200 we might need something a bit more radical than exotic chemicals. We’ll need to understand and be able to manipulate the human genome a lot more than we do presently. If we want to go much beyond 500 we’re going to get really radical. But I’m not ruling it out. There does seem to be a great deal of energy (and money) being invested in life extension. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll pay off one day…..]