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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Revolutionary Iran – A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (FP: 2013)

It was a long time coming. After the coup in 1953 – engineered in co-operation with the British and Americans – which brought the Shah into power in Iran and which ousted an elected socialist government, the drift to authoritarianism was a gradual but steady one. Popular, and especially religious, resistance to increased westernisation grew in concert with American advertising, American movies and fashion and a relaxation on the rules surrounding the place of women. Impatient with the backwardness of his country the Shah pushed, pushed again and then pushed harder still. Something had to give and give it did. Protests sprang up across the country and were repressed sometimes bloodily. After 40 days of mourning for the dead even larger protests took place and then 40 days after that. It was a predictable cycle that both sides could use to their own advantage. As the bodies continued to pile up (or to simply ‘disappear’) it became clear that revolution was in the air. Serious talk took place in Washington about military intervention to save the Shah but, at the last minute, it was decided to let events take their own course. With the army torn between courses of action they issued a public statement that they would not interfere with the wishes of the people. Quietly the Shah and his wife left the country eventually arriving in the West. Arriving in Iran shortly afterwards was the man who had been influencing events from far away Europe – the Ayatollah Khomeini. Hailed as the saviour of the country he soon became both the political and religious head of the new Islamic Republic both demanded by and voted for by the people in overwhelming numbers. What followed as the decades passed no one really expected. Some thought that the religious leaders would fade into the background and allow the politicians to do their work guided by the principles of Shi’a Islam. Others assumed that an Islamic Republic would be welcomed by her co-religionists in the region with open arms. At least, the Iranians felt, now the rest of the world must start taking us seriously.   

Naturally almost every prediction of Iran’s future proved to be false. With revolutionary fervour in the air the American Embassy was overrun and hostages taken. With a failed (and honestly unrealistic) rescue attempt added to the mix US-Iran relations entered a place from which they had hardly recovered. A long and bloody war with its nearest neighbour Iraq with atrocities on both sides, the use of WMDs, threats to disrupt the flow of oil and attacks on American forces soured relations even more. Aid to the enemies of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon sealed Iran’s fate as the premier destabilising force in the region – enhanced further by the possibility of a nuclear Iran, an idea that was the stuff of Israeli nightmares on steroids.

But, as this not unsympathetic book points out, there is more to Iran than the news headlines we have all grown up with. There is the centuries of Iranian culture, there is the strong thread of democratic feeling flowing out into the streets despite the predictable violent response. There is a strong sense of their uniqueness and their place in the world – yet to be achieved. At times the narrative almost changed. Both the US and even Israel helped Iran over the years against Iraq in particular. If timings had been slightly different the whole Middle East situation could have been very different indeed. Told with a great deal of first-hand knowledge and a real love for the turbulent region this book is quite an eye opener – especially for someone like me who’s only real knowledge up to this point has been the nightly news. Watch this space for more on this endless fascinating and vexatious part of the globe.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Ha!... It DOES fit....!
Winter is Coming….. Winter is Here.

Ok, not quite here – Yet. But it is coming. I’ve never been winter’s biggest fan and as I get older my feelings towards to season certainly don’t improve much. Maybe I like cats so much because I identify with their love of being warm and dry. I don’t like being cold and I most certainly don’t like being cold and wet – which is essentially what winter in the UK is all about: cold, rain and wind. I do treasure those days of blinding blue skies, lung freezing cold and that delightful crunch of snow under foot but such days are to be treasured because they’re so rare. More often than not we are more likely to experience days or weeks of slate grey skies, temperatures just cold enough to be annoying whilst being warm enough to allow various types of bugs to spread around the office or the bus I travel on and the sound of squelching around in wet shoes.

What my body is telling me – right now – is to eat and sleep. I sometimes wonder if my bear DNA is higher than the national average. This is the time of year I simply want to hibernate until March. If only I could! I have a simple equation in my head – daylight = daytime. So when I get up in the ‘morning’ and it’s still dark my brain is telling me that I should still be in bed and asleep not downstairs eating breakfast cereal trying not to think of my rapidly cooling duvet. Once, some years ago, my friend convinced me for the best part of a month to let her give me a lift into work. Now she’s an early bird so I was walking into the office – causing shockwaves wherever I went – about the time I’d usually be cleaning my teeth in my bathroom at home. I vividly remember getting out of the car and looking up and seeing stars in a jet-black sky. This isn’t morning, I said. This is still night time.

One of the things I’m looking forward to when I retire (not long now) is no longer being torn out of my cosy sleep in the middle of the night an hour or more before the sun comes up and being forced to go outside in the cold rain. Not long now I’ll be able to wake up naturally and, later, watch the bad weather outside with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and a book in the other – toasty warm and dry. It’s a simple dream I have but I think it’s a good one.

Of course it’s not all gloom – even in the UK, a place not exactly known for its great weather. This is the time of year we have Halloween, Bonfire Night and, of course, Christmas. Now although I don’t ‘celebrate’ Christmas I do appreciate the sentiment. I enjoy Christmas meals with friends and work colleagues. I enjoy having an extended break – 20 days this year! – and the opportunity for two whole days gaming (Christmas Day and New Years) which has become a tradition along with (possibly this year) a whole day of themed DVDs: possibly every Jurassic Park film this year [muses]. Then, of course, there’s the excuse, as if I needed one, of buying myself something nice for Christmas. I keep promising myself a new BIG screen TV. Maybe this year? Then, of course, there’s the possibility that we might get snow – in either quantities large enough to warrant a home working day (or two) or at least for the possibility of a few well aimed snowballs at work……

To stave off the pull of hibernation I’ll drink plenty of fruit juice and eat plenty of vegetables to fool my body into thinking that it’s actually summer. Somehow I don’t think my body is that dumb but it’s worth a punt. Or I could just call it an early night and dream of cosy caves full of snoring bears….     

Saturday, November 24, 2018

So *that's* why they call her SNOW White....!
Humans 'off the hook' for African mammal extinction

From The BBC

22 November 2018

New research has disputed a longstanding view that early humans helped wipe out many of the large mammals that once roamed Africa. Today, Africa broadly has five species of massive, plant-eating mammal; but millions of years ago there were many more types of giant herbivore. Why so many types vanished is not known, but many experts have blamed our tool-using, meat-eating ancestors. Now, researchers say the mammal decline began long before humans appeared. Writing in the journal Science, Tyler Faith, from the Natural History Museum of Utah, and colleagues argue that long-term environmental change drove the extinctions. This mainly took the form of an expansion of grasslands, in response to falling atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels. "Despite decades of literature asserting that early hominins (human relatives) impacted ancient African faunas, there have been few attempts to actually test this scenario or to explore alternatives," said Dr Faith. A transition from eating mainly vegetables and fruit to predominantly eating meat may have driven the evolution of humans' big brains. This transition occurred in concert with the development of stone tools, which would have allowed our ancestors to butcher the carcasses of animals; either as scavengers or hunters.

To investigate whether humans played a role, the researchers compiled a seven-million-year record of herbivore extinctions in eastern Africa. They focused on the very largest species, the so-called "megaherbivores" which weigh more than 2,000lbs (907kg). Today, only elephants, hippos, giraffes and white and black rhinos fall into this category. But the three-million-year-old human relative "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) shared her East African habitat with three species of giraffe, two species of rhino, a hippo and four elephant-like species.

The results of the analysis showed that over the last seven million years, some 28 lineages of large mammal went extinct in Africa. Furthermore, the onset of the herbivore decline began roughly 4.6 million years ago, and the rate of decline did not change following the appearance of Homo erectus, one of the earliest human ancestors that could have contributed to the extinctions. "This extinction process kicks in over a million years before the very earliest evidence for human ancestors making tools or butchering animal carcasses and well before the appearance of any hominin species realistically capable of hunting them, like Homo erectus," said Dr Faith.

The researchers also examined records of climatic and environmental trends. They conclude that the climate is a much more likely culprit than humans. Climate change seems to have been behind the replacement of large shrubs and trees by grasslands. "The key factor in the Plio-Pleistocene megaherbivore decline seems to be the expansion of grasslands, which is likely related to a global drop in atmospheric CO₂ over the last five million years," said co-author John Rowan, from University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Low CO₂ levels favour tropical grasses over trees, and as a consequence savannas became less woody and more open through time. We know that many of the extinct megaherbivores fed on woody vegetation, so they seem to disappear alongside their food source." The loss of big mammals in Africa could also explain other extinctions that have been blamed on our ancient ancestors. For example, some scientists have suggested that increasingly carnivorous early human groups led to a decline in predators and scavengers. "We know there are also major extinctions among African carnivores at this time and that some of them, like saber-tooth cats, may have specialised on very large prey, perhaps juvenile elephants," said co-author Prof Paul Koch from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). "It could be that some of these carnivores disappeared with their megaherbivore prey."

Writing in the same issue of Science, René Bobe and Susana Carvalho from the University of Oxford raised a few words of caution over the conclusions: "It is not clear what ecological roles hominins played throughout the long evolutionary history of megaherbivores in Africa, and how these roles changed over time and varied across geographic space. Another question is when hominins became systematic predators of animals larger than themselves." They added: "The causes of megaherbivore decline are probably complex, multidimensional, and varied across time and space. The precise timing of key hominin behavioural innovations remains poorly constrained by the current archaeological and palaeontological records."

[Well, maybe humans aren’t as bad as I’ve long thought? I just assumed that when we arrive in a new place we just kill everything and then move on to another area and do the same. Looks like I’ll have to rethink my prejudices a bit!]

Friday, November 23, 2018

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of The English Civil Wars – Roundheads, Cavaliers and the Execution of the King by John Miller (FP: 2009)

I for one am deeply fascinated with our 17th century Civil War(s). It was a truly unique time in our history – a real turning point which produced a Parliament that was sovereign and removed the divine right of monarchs. Before the war(s) Parliament was only called by the King to raise taxes for whatever scheme he wanted to do but couldn’t afford from his own resources. Parliament used this needs as leverage to pass new laws or modify old ones. Once the King (or more rarely Queen) got what they wanted then Parliament was dismissed until the next tax demand. Sometimes years went by without any Parliaments and there was nothing that could be done about it.

Towards the mid-17th century that changed. Parliament – in the guise of the House of Commons – grew more distant and less compliant with the King’s wishes. After he dismissed a sitting because it would not raise taxes for him the King was forced to call another Parliament which swiftly passed a law to prevent it being dissolved at whim. Relations between the monarchy and Parliament gradually became worse until, not without misgivings, the Commons raised an armed force to protect itself from the King’s machinations and recriminations. With positions hardening on both sides and with bought sides stockpiling weapons it was only a matter of time before conflict broke out. In the subsequent 10 years 211,000 people died – mostly civilians and other non-combatants. Proportionally more English died in the Civil Wars than in WW1. It is no surprise that some thought the wars raging across much of England, Scotland and Ireland to be a herald of the End Times. No surprise either that the civil chaos in some areas prompted truly radical political alternatives not seen thereafter before idea proposed by Karl Mark and other 19th century radical thinkers.

But if the wars themselves were not a radical statement enough – being fought between the divinely appointed King and his supposedly compliant subjects – the end of the war brought with it a shock that reverberated across Europe. The King was brought to trial for crimes against his own people, convicted (without any real legal basis) and publically executed. Then followed the only 12 years in English history without a monarch – known as The Commonwealth or, by Royalists, as the wonderfully named Interregnum. Initially run by Parliament it was in 1653 that Oliver Cromwell, Parliaments greatest general and the creator of the battle winning New Model Army, took power under the Protectorate until his death in 1659. With no agreed path to succession a new King – Charles II – took back the throne in 1660 but things were no longer the same as the world had indeed truly changed.

Covering a great deal of ground in just 211 pages this is an excellent introduction to a fascinating period of British history full of intrigue, passion, battles, political upheaval and, oddly, hope for the future. It is arguable that when the dust had settled from the world being turned upside down Britain emerged into the modern age. The birth pangs of modernity were undeniably harsh but the stability of the United Kingdom since then has been fairly impressive compared to the rest of Europe. Definitely recommended.   

Monday, November 19, 2018

Welcome To the Party, Pal!

I always like having things to look forward to. Sometimes they’re mundane, like the weekend, or significant like weddings. Sometimes it might be a new book or the next episode in a TV series I’m enjoying and sometimes its movies. This month I have three movies to look forward to – one new and two classics.

The new one, being shown at the end of the month is Ralf Breaks the Internet – which if the trailers are anything to go by will be an absolute scream. The classics are, well….. CLASSIC. Our local multiplex have got into the habit of showing anniversary showings of BIG movies. Earlier in the year a small group of us went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on the third attempt (it was fully booked the other times) and the original Bladerunner (1982) which one of the guys hadn’t seen and helped explain (to him) much of what he failed to understand about the recent sequel.

On Thursday we’re going to see Escape from New York (1981) with Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Erest Borgnine and Donald Pleasence. Now as my friends tend to be 15-20 years younger than me neither of my fellow cinema goers saw this when it came out – naturally – and at least one of them hasn’t seen all of it on TV. As this is one of the better cheesy 80’s movie with quite a cult following I’m really looking forward to it. I definitely saw it on the cinema way back then (age 21) probably with my big brother – we saw a lot of that sort of thing before I went off the University a few years later (long story). Naturally I’ve seen EfNY many times over the years so know it pretty well. I’ll try not to ruin things on Thursday by pre-empting the whole cast’s dialogue.

But what I’m really looking forward to later is one of my all-time favourite movies of all time. Yup, I like it that much. On 7th December the same small group (is three a group?) are off to see the original of Die Hard (1988). Now this is a movie I literally know off by heart. It’s also a movie that all three of us love but, yet again, not one that my other young friends have even on the big screen so that’ll be a thrill in itself. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Die Hard but it’ll definitely be somewhere in the 20’s at least – my most watched film is probably Bladerunner at 60+ viewings. I think it’s going to be so much fun. It’ll be like wearing your cosiest jumper and going out for your favourite meal with a small group of select friends and then getting moderately drunk and flirting with some cute women before going home with a big grin on your face. It’ll be just like that….. [lol]

I do hope that my local multiplex keep showing classic movies like that. Seeing films that mean so much to me again on the big screen is a great experience – especially when you can share it with people who missed out the first time.   

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Off duty @ the Magic Kingdom....
Greenland ice sheet hides huge 'impact crater'

By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

14 November 2018

What looks to be a large impact crater has been identified beneath the Greenland ice sheet. The 31km-wide depression came to light when scientists examined radar images of the island's bedrock. Investigations suggest the feature was probably dug out by a 1.5km-wide iron asteroid sometime between about 12,000 and three million years ago. But without drilling through nearly 1km of ice to sample the bed directly, scientists can't be more specific. "We will endeavour to do this; it would certainly be the best way to get the 'dead fish on the table' (acknowledge the issue, rather than leaving it), so to speak," Prof Kurt Kjær, from the Danish Museum of Natural History, told BBC News. If confirmed, the crater would be the first of any size that has been observed under one of Earth's continental ice sheets. The discovery is reported in the journal Science Advances.

The putative impact crater is located right on the northwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet, underneath what is known as Hiawatha Glacier. Additional high-resolution radar imagery gathered by Prof Kjær's team clearly shows a circular structure that is elevated at its rim and at its centre - both classic traits. But because the depression is covered by up to 980m of ice, the scientists have so far had to rely on indirect studies. Meltwaters running out from under Hiawatha Glacier into the Nares Strait carry sediments from the depression. In these sediments are quartz grains which have been subjected to enormous shock pressures, of the type that would be experienced in an impact.

Other river sediments have revealed unusual ratios in the concentrations of different metals. "The profile we saw was an enrichment of rhodium, a depletion of platinum, and an enrichment of palladium," explained team-member Dr Iain McDonald, from Cardiff University, UK. "We got very excited about this because we realised we weren't looking at a stony meteorite, but an iron meteorite - and not just any old iron meteorite; it had to be quite an unusual composition." Such metal objects that fall to Earth are thought to be the smashed up innards of bodies that almost became planets at the start of the Solar System. The signatures identified by Dr McDonald are relatively close to those in iron meteorite fragments collected at Cape York not far from the Hiawatha site. It's not inconceivable, the team argues, that the Cape York material represents pieces that came away from the main asteroid object as it moved towards its collision with Earth.

One concern is the absence of any trace of the impact in several cores that have been drilled through the ice sheet to the south. At the very least, these might have been expected to incorporate the dust that fell out of the sky after the event. The other head-scratcher is the absence in the vicinity of the Hiawatha site of any rocky material that would have been ejected outwards from the crater on impact. Prof Kjær says these missing signatures might be explained by a very shallow angle of impact that took most of the ejecta to the north. And if the fall-out area was covered in ice, it's possible any debris was later transported away. "We know that at one time the Greenland Ice Sheet was joined to the Canadian Ice Sheet, and flowed out into the Nares Strait. If you wanted to find this material today, you'd have to do deep drilling in the ocean," Prof Kjær explained.

The team knows the crater must be older than roughly 12,000 years because the undisturbed ice layers above the depression can be lined up with the layers in drill cores that have been directly dated. And they estimate an age younger than three million years based on an assessment of likely rock erosion rates, both within the crater and on nearby terrains. But the only way to get a definitive age for the crater would be to drill down and collect rocks for laboratory dating. If the impact was right at near-end of the age window then it will surely re-ignite interest in the so-called Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. The Younger Dryas was a period of strong cooling in the middle of the climatic warming that occurred as the Earth emerged from the height of last ice age. Some have argued that an asteroid impact could have been responsible for this cooling blip - and the accompanying extinction of many animal groups that occurred at the same time across North America. Others, though, have been critical of the hypothesis, not least because no crater could be associated with such an event. The Hiawatha depression is likely now to fan the dying embers of this old debate. Dr Mathieu Morlighem, a team-member from the University of California, Irvine, US, commented: "When you think about it, the bed below the ice sheets has to have impact craters that have not been explored yet, and there may even be some in Antarctica as well, but more radar measurements are necessary to locate them, and dating them is extremely challenging."

[Giant rocks falling from the sky made us what we are today. Funny though how random bits of rock floating out in space can, thankfully occasionally, change EVERYTHING!]

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The PKK – Coming Down from the Mountains by Paul White (FP: 2015)

I only really became aware of the PKK – The Kurdistan Workers Party - and its affiliates recently during Gulf War 2 (or technically 3 if you could the Iran-Iraq War too). They were the plucky Kurdish forces holding off Saddam and being protected under the Allies no-fly zone. After the fall of Saddam they prospered and stabilised the northern part of Iraq when everything else was falling apart. More recently they were at the front of the fight against ISIS attracting fighters from all over the world to their cause. Most oddly amongst Middle Eastern groups (with the notable exception of Israel) they allowed – indeed welcomed – women into their front rank fighting units.

In this often dry and academic book the author describes the origins of the group and their fight, both military and political, for recognition and a homeland in an independent Kurdistan separate from the artificial borders drawn up to create Turkey, Iraq (which only came into existence in its present form in 1932), Iran and Syria. Spiritual leader Abdullah Ocalan, still in prison after decades in captivity, is the guiding force behind the PKK and its military wing. Long an advocate for a peaceful solution to his peoples struggle Ocalan has been instrumental in moving the peace process with Turkey forward despite violent acts and provocations on both sides. Backed by and used by all sides in the on-going meat grinder of Middle-East politics the PKK is seen as one of the most important non-state players in the region and this is in no small part to the evolving way they have engaged with the regional powers and how they themselves have evolved from their early Marxist-Leninist roots to their unique take on Democratic Confederalism.

Despite being an interesting contemporary story I thought this book was let down by its style. I was expecting a more general reader friendly approach rather than a PhD thesis feel to things which was a real shame. There’s lots of good stuff here – of that I’m sure – but it’s somewhat buried under references to almost every quote and observation almost as if the author didn’t trust himself to come across as knowledgeable on the subject so need to reassure the readership that his work was worthy. A less rigid and more urbane approach would have made this book both more readable, more approachable and, probably, more widely read. It certainly hasn’t put me off reading more books in this series and I certainly learnt a great deal about the region, its politics and the Kurds themselves. I will, however, be looking for more fluid prose in my next book on the Kurds.   

Monday, November 12, 2018

War…. What is it Good For?

As there’s no great burning issues I want to vent about and whilst there’s nothing much going on in my life (just hanging in there for my long Christmas break) I thought I’d let you in on some more of my long term reading plans.

So…. War, just what IS it good for? Well, novels apparently! As a long-time fan of war fiction in all its guises I thought I’d get together and put some war novels together in my usual ten book lumps. I’m just coming to the end of my 20th Century Classics set and then I’ll be moving onto 10 Historical Crime novels. After that I’m finally back to the Future with 10 novels of Man Vs Machine which should be much fun. After that we actually get to the topic at hand with 10 novels of World War One. Which, naturally, got me started on other war themed reads. Here’s my thoughts so far:

World War Two
Modern War (1945-Present)
Vietnam War
Future War
Alternative War
Fantasy War
Ancient War
Dark Age War
Medieval War
Early Modern War
Gunpowder War
American Civil War
War at Sea
War in the Air
War in Space

Now, if I didn’t read anything else those 150 books would take me around 2 years to work through. As I would, naturally, be reading other things that’ll extend to around 10 years and maybe more (I’m wondering if I could go for one ‘topic’ per year…). It’s certainly something to think about long term – maybe post-retirement. I already have the WW2 set ready to go and the Modern War set is wide enough to be easy to acquire. Likewise Vietnam should be a problem and Combat SF should be a walk in the park. In fact most of the topics shouldn’t be too much of a problem and I probably already have 3-5 books in each category. This is actually starting to look achievable…… [muses].

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Uncomfortable ideas part of learning, says regulator

From The BBC

6 November 2018

Uncomfortable ideas should not be suppressed on campus and students should learn to deal with them through debate, a university regulator says. Sir Michael Barber, head of the Office for Students (OfS), says universities need to be places of "vigorous debate". They should, he says, be places where "the pursuit of truth is not a platitude but a daily quest". He said the OfS, the new main regulator of the higher education sector, will be an "unashamed champion" of free speech. Speaking at the higher education Wonkfest conference in London, Sir Michael said students should combat challenging speech through argument rather than suppression. "The way to deal with discomfort is to develop the resilience to overcome it, not to hide or flee from it," he said.

"Indeed, I would argue that feeling uncomfortable is an essential ingredient of learning and the pursuit of truth." He said he would encourage institutions to be "bold" when inviting speakers. "The OfS encourages the widest possible definition of freedom of speech within the law," he added. Sir Michael said the issue of free speech on campuses was also about the diversity of perspective in seminars and lectures and how ideas are debated. "There is a tendency currently to suggest that students should be protected from ideas that they may make them feel uncomfortable," he said. He added: "Free speech is one of the most precious freedoms ever established, and universities above all should be places where it is cherished. The OfS will be an unashamed champion of free speech. If we ever decide to intervene on this subject, it will only be to extend and never to restrict freedom of speech."

Sir Michael also said universities that are not financially sustainable will not be bailed out, adding that university leaders should not assume they are "too big to fail" if their institutions get into difficulty. He said some university bosses making misjudged financial decisions believe "ultimately it will be OK because the OfS will bail them out. This is wrong, the OfS will not bail out providers in financial difficulty. This kind of thinking - not unlike the too-big-to-fail idea among the banks - will lead to poor decision-making and a lack of financial discipline, is inconsistent with the principle of university autonomy and is not in students' longer-term interests." The OfS, which legally came into force in January, is designed to look after the interests of students in higher education in England. It replaced the Higher Education Funding Council for England as the sector's main regulator and will hold universities to account for the quality of teaching they provide.

[At last! Someone using that rare talent today – Common Sense. If you are only presented with safe pre-approved ideas then you essentially learn nothing. If you never have to defend your own ideas or discover why others are flawed (or maybe better than the ones you agree with) you never grow and you never actually hold your beliefs as well as you think you do. Things improve when they are challenged so embrace debate and don’t shy away from things that make you uncomfortable.]