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

Monday, September 30, 2019

Different Eyes…. Different Views….

One of the many reasons I like/love foreign movies (essentially anything outside of Anglo-American as American culture and British culture are similar in SO many ways) is that they often tell the same kinds of stories in very different ways. You don’t have to go as far as Chinese action films or Japanese Anime to get that feeling, just watch a French comedy or Russian SF film to see what I mean. Different cultures can see things in very different ways and this starts you thinking about your own culture differently. Things that you took for granted, tropes you have seen a thousand times to subconsciously know what’s coming next stop working in predictable ways when you cross a national or notional cultural border. It’s at that point that you question the fact that the hero is always X or the baddie is always Y. Or the fact that the story progresses along path A rather than path B or that the ending resolves issue 1 and 2 but leaves issue 3 open for the audience (or the sequel) to resolve. Do stories have to work that way? Actually no, they don’t.

Now I’m the first to admit that my primary and, indeed only, language I feel in anyway happy in is English. I have a smattering of schoolboy French and can ask for various items in German, Italian, Spanish or, at a push, Portuguese. So foreign films are watched with subtitles (I hate dubbed movies with a passion) and foreign titles are read in translation. To my mind (and my ear) foreign movies need to be spoken in their natural language for the rhythm and cadence to say nothing of lip-synch issues. Good translations can get this idea across in print and I think foreign language text flows differently from both standard and American English. But even more important is the view.

Growing up in any culture you soon begin to see everything and everyone inside as normal, fixed, inevitable and even natural. Inside is safe, predictable and, by and large, understandable even at a gut level. Most of this you pick up without even realising it. You see things the way they are because that way seems right and natural. Watching a movie from a different culture and especially one with a different language or reading a book translated into English (in my case) breaks that normality. The words are printed in English but the culture behind the words doesn’t think in English and, if you’re paying attention, it shows in the narrative. It might be a fantasy novel, an adventure book or a spy novel but there’s something definitely different about it. Even if you didn’t know who it was by or even knew the title you’d quickly clue into the fact that it wasn’t penned by a British (or American) author. There’s something ‘off’ about it, something different, something odd. It’s a bit like those glasses you can get that bend the light so you’re seeing things upside down or at a weird angle. It takes some getting used to but, with practice, you can get around OK. Then when you take the glasses off there’s a period of disorientation and reorientation before reverting to normal. But something has changed. Now you know you can see things through glasses that bend reality, that reality is constructed in the brain rather than outside in the world. Likewise after reading books in translation you see the world slightly ‘off’ before returning to the normal world again but this time knowing that how you see the world depends on where you stand. With practice you can bend the world without needing to wear the glasses and see things as others see them. Then you see that normal is a perspective and that common is a point of view. Seeing through other eyes from time to time improves your own vision as both objects and ideas can be seen clearer using many viewpoints. Try it sometime. You might be surprised.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

That guy holding the rudder is just showing off.......

Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot goes on sale

By Jane Wakefield, BBC Technology reporter

25 September 2019

A robotics company whose creations have amassed millions of views on YouTube, is renting out one of its stars, Spot. Anyone wishing to lease the quadruped dog-like robot could do so for "less than the price of a car," Boston Dynamics told IEEE Spectrum. It suggested Spot could be useful in construction, the oil and gas industry and for those working in public safety. One expert said its appeal may be limited by its price, which will be determined by demand. Noel Sharkey, robotics experts and professor of computer science at Sheffield University, said "Spot is possibly the world's finest example of a quadruped robot and since the addition of a robot arm, it seems a little more practical - but will it be practical enough at that price? Their big example of the robot working in construction could pay off. They can reach places that humans find difficult, run across bricks and accompany builders carrying their loads of tools and bricks or map out districts for construction." But he added: "This is a big test for Boston Dynamics, which could either result in much cheaper robots for the ordinary consumer or, like many robot companies have found, cheaper copies."

Anyone wishing to take advantage of the offer needs to fill out a form on the Boston Dynamics website. The company told IEEE Spectrum, having built 100 test Spots, it was now ramping up into mass production but was still in "the early tens of robots". Chief executive Marc Raibert said: "It's really a milestone for us - going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field." In a Ted talk in 2017, he demonstrated how Spot, then known as SpotMini, could deliver parcels. But an on-stage demonstration of Spot's abilities earlier this year did not go entirely to plan, with the robot going around in circles and then collapsing.

In the new launch launch video, however, which has already amassed more than 800,000 views, Spot is shown walking, climbing over "difficult terrain" on a building site and opening a door.

It can also:
carry up to 14kg (30lb)
stand back up if it falls
work in temperatures ranging from -20C to 45C
And its specifications include:
a top speed of 3mph (4.8km/h)
a run time of 90 minutes
a programmable interface

But one viewer suggested Spot would need to be able to carry much heavier loads if it was to be put to work on a building site. Another wrote: "My neighbours would probably freak out if I had one of these patrolling my property." And others made reference to an episode of Netflix's Black Mirror drama programme that shows robots very similar to Spot attacking humans. Mr Raibert himself has previously admitted his robots were "nightmare-inducing". The company's original research was funded by the military and early videos showed robots deployed on battlefields, although Boston Dynamics has since backed away from such associations. It has also just shown off a new Atlas video, in which the humanoid robot is shown performing a complex and remarkably elegant gymnastics routine. Mr Raibert told TechCrunch the company had already had a "deluge of interest" in Spot, including from people wanting the robot "to get them a beer from the fridge. It would be thrilling to accommodate them but we're not quite there yet," he said.

[I’ve been watching the very impressive Boston Dynamics for a while and they always impress me with their robots. I guess this offer is really a massive real world test of their systems. They’re not ‘useful’ just yet but this is a great opportunity for ‘proof of concept’ as people try them out and use them in ways the company probably never thought of. I guess one (or two) would be great helping bring your shopping home from the local store (without using the car) or as guard dogs if you go out jogging in areas you don’t feel 100% safe. Likewise as back-ups for law enforcement I can see them as huge advantages – especially when they’re still new and people don’t really know how to handle them. The future just got a step closer I think!]

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Built to Last.......

Just Finished Reading: Originals – How Non-Conformists Change the World by Adam Grant (FP: 2016)

What make someone want to change the world rather than adapt to it? What’s the difference being a pioneer and a settler? Why are there so few originals around the world and throughout history? These are questions that the author tries to address looking at the case studies of original thinkers and original movers and shakers in a variety of business, political and artistic niches.

Creating something new is incredibly risky. There’s a reason that most new enterprises fail – breaking the mould is hard. It takes not only originality but effort and not a little blood, sweat and tears. In many ways having the original idea is the easy part. Most of us have come up with a handful across our lives. But it’s what we do then that really counts. Do we take the idea forward? Do we let obstacles get in our way? Do we get back up again when adversity knocks us down or the idea, no matter how original, simply fails? Do we have another idea in reserve…. And then another if that fails? The image of the genius inventor hides a great many things. They might be highly and successfully inventive and may have indeed thought up, built and put into production world changing ideas or technology. But what often is forgotten are the many, many ideas they had which failed, crashed and burnt before, between and after the world shattering ideas. Original thinkers do not simply produce the odd paradigm shifting idea and bring that one (or if they’re lucky two or three) to fruition. No, they have 2, 3, 5 ideas a day. They might have one good idea a week and one brilliant idea each and every month. They certainly don’t produce one great idea in a lifetime and then sit on it for 30 years until it hatches.

There is also the importance of timing. Do you rush to publication or production the moment the prototype proves itself – or before? Do you need to beat the competition to the punch and get ahead of the field? Or should you wait until the idea or product is perfected, when the ground has already been broken and the teething problems solved. Is being a settler a safer bet than being a pioneer (yes, actually. There seems to be a distinct advantage of being late to the party).

Can you create creative people or are they just born that way? There does seem to be a distinct step change in originality between first born and late comer siblings (although not always the case). Is it a case that the first born has already filled the choice position and subsequent children need to strike out into new territory or is it a case that first born children grow up in the company of adults where late comers grow up with other children? Or maybe it’s just a case that parents either improve their skills with each subsequent child (or rather perversely don’t have the time or energy to stifle the natural creativity or later children).

This book is chocked full of interesting ideas and observations regarding creativity and originality most of which, the author happily points out, are counter intuitive or counter cultural. Much of our thoughts (the author maintains) on originality is simply wrong because of the many misunderstandings and myths surrounding originality. Looked at in different ways originality can flow through future generations in greater abundance than ever before – just at the time that we need it most. We just have to be original about it. This is a very interesting read with much food for thought and would, I suspect, reward multiple readings to get the most out of the impressive number of ideas floated throughout its pages. Impressive and recommended.   

Monday, September 23, 2019

Hero Worship.

Just Finished Reading: Suffragette – My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (FP: 1914)

Enough was enough. That was her feeling. With growing anger there was no other alternative. After decades of working within the system, working long hours to have Liberal Members of Parliament elected cycle after cycle in the hope that one day they would be rewarded with the long wished for political franchise they at long last realised that it was all in vain. Although many still hoped for that long desire to be realised at some point in the future others wanted to move things forward at their pace and no longer wait for men to give them power when all other problems had been solved. Enough was enough.

One of those disappointed with a singular lack of progress was a young northern woman who joined a more radical set of women and eventually, through years of activism, eventually formed her own political group – the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Their object was female suffrage by whatever means necessary. At first they raised petitions (which were ignored) and staged marches (likewise). When that proved to be fruitless they began to emulate the long male tradition of heckling politicians when they spoke to the public (and where physically ejected). No matter the violence directed to them they persisted without much effect except for an increasing number of press reports (mostly negative). Not being able to vote themselves they hit on a brilliant idea – politically undermining the Liberal cause by speaking against them. Despite government and media propaganda this did have an effect with reduced majorities and, in some cases, Liberals losing their seats. While the few Labour MPs spoke up for them there was still little support in parliament and much opposition in the Liberal government to Votes for Women. It was time to take it to the next level.

More petitions were raised and where delivered (or attempted to be delivered) by larger and larger numbers of women. The police responded with arrests and an increasing level of violence directed at the women themselves. Refusing to pay their fines the women started short prison sentences and demanded to be treated as political prisoners rather than common criminals. When the authorities refused they used the only weapons they had – no co-operation and hunger strike. Political status was granted and many of the women were released after a few days only to be arrested again during the next round of protests. With the numbers of women arrested increasing month on month and the incidents increasing likewise the government increased the draconian measures against the WSPU raiding their offices, closing down their paper and threatening action against any donors. They also enacted their most potent weapon to date – the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act where hunger striking women were released only to be re-arrested once they recovered their strength. With attitudes hardening on both sides the women protestors took things up a level again with the targeted attacks on property.

Again they used to time honoured method of political protest used by men in decades past to gain the vote themselves – the breaking of windows. The sound of smashing glass resounded across London with the police rushing from one incident to another to find the perpetrators already gone and the sound of more breaking glass in the distance. Some women were arrested and the head of the organisation (the author) was herself arrested for conspiracy and given 3 years hard labour. You can imagine the reaction from her followers. Not only were windows broken as never before but fires broke out in timber yards and houses of the rich and powerful across the country. Leading politicians went everywhere with an ever increasing security detail, art galleries closed to protect their exhibits, golf courses were vandalised and even the Prime Ministers country home was severely damaged by a bomb explosion. Only the advent of hostilities with the Central Powers in 1914 brought the campaign to a (temporary) halt before the rebellion became an insurrection.

Told with brutal honesty this is a stirring account of the origins of the Suffragettes as they campaigned and fought for the equal right to vote with their male counterparts. I knew some of the events discussed from the inside of the organisation but I had little idea of the complete intransigence of the government or the lengths the women were willing to go to in order to achieve what they believed they deserved as a right. There was honestly talk of an armed uprising which frankly astonished me. Where the Suffragettes of the WSPU a terrorist organisation? Arguably yes. I think they would certainly have been charged under the Anti-Terrorism laws we have in place today. They certainly used violence and the threat of violence to achieve political ends so, yes, that’s terrorism. Naturally such a view is both controversial and uncomfortable because they eventually won and, more importantly, they were right in their aim. Did they have any choice in their methods? Probably not. They advanced their agenda step by careful step using the least violent method until that had been shown to be ineffective before moving the ratchet another step forward. If the war had not intervened I’m confident that there would have been much more violent incidents and probably deaths. It’s actually surprising how few deaths did occur and how ultimately restrained most of the women where (more later on that subject).

I wasn’t prepared for just how good this narrative was. I guess I wasn’t expecting to identify so strongly with the women (and a few men) who fought for so long and so hard to be allowed to express their political opinion in the same way as men. By their actions they proved time and again that they had at least the fortitude, grit and determination to fight for their rights just as much as their male counterparts. They were most certainly not bubbleheaded baby makers. I can see why they eventually won their fight. They were simply never going to give up until they got their way. This was definitely one of the highlights of this year’s reading and I have been recommending it to everyone who will put up with me gushing about it. Being over 100 years old it’s a free Kindle download so there’s really no excuse. Very highly recommended. MUCH more to come from this interesting period of political history and the fight itself.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

I have seen the Future............ and it looks nothing like this......

Just Finished Reading: The Hour Between Dog and Wolf – Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates (FP: 2012)

Why are we plagued by periods of Boom and Bust? Why are economic bubbles created a why do they inevitably burst? Are depression’s, Great and otherwise, just a price we have to pay for growth and a vibrant stock market? Or is it a case, argued by some on the Left especially, that Capitalism itself is seriously flawed and full of contradictions which is the underlying cause of so many problems?

Only to an extent, argues the author of this very interesting exploration of markets as viewed from the trading floor. The other cause is much older, much deeper and even predates humanity itself. Keynes called it ‘animal spirits’ in an attempt to explain the often deeply irrational aspects of the market (populated by supposedly rational beings making rational decisions). To find out what the phenomena really was the author left to world of high finance for a university lab to study the science of Neurology. Here he believed they had discovered the explanation of the business cycle – human biology, specifically the hormones adrenalin, cortisol, dopamine, and testosterone. Developed over millions of years to cope with real danger and the strategy of fight or flight today they react to stock prices, interest rates and currency fluctuations in the bodies of the mostly male traders on stock exchange floors throughout the world. Allied to bonus pay-outs that reinforce high risk taking the natural hormone response to stress, anxiety and stress accelerate both the meteoric rise and fall of stock markets. When on the seemingly ever rising market gravy train risk is piled on risk until the whole edifice collapses followed by an equally irrational panic ‘fire sale’ burning all in its path until the tidal wave of selling subsides, stability momentarily returns before stocks start rising again before an equally predictable future crash – all driven by a toxic soup of hormones in our bodies designed ultimately to keep us alive.

But it wasn’t just an interesting theory. There’s lots of science here, some speculative but most based on well-known and well understood appreciation of how our bodies and the bodies of our ancestors operated. Not only drawing on real studies of traders themselves (including some undertaken by the authors and his colleagues) but back up by research into animal behaviour, brain scans, and evolutionary biology. What he proposed made a lot of sense and it was very interesting to look at what, on the face of it was a purely economic activity, from the point of view of human biochemistry. Novel just doesn’t cover it! It was at times honestly surreal but I did find myself looking at the issue – which initially seemed inexplicable – suddenly become very explicable indeed once the supposedly rational agent was shown the door and the hormone suffused actual person took their place. I have long been a vocal critic of the whole rational agent idea and this, I believe, throws that idea out once and for all. In conjunction with Behavioural Economics ideas like those portrayed in this book give a whole new gloss to the study of economics as it happens in reality rather in the world of perfect completion and perfect knowledge (to say nothing of value maximising rational agents). If you’ve ever thought that Economics wasn’t for you – that it was too divorced from reality, that it was too spreadsheet based or that it relied far too much on ideology to be of much use then this book might be for you. Once read you’ll never look at economics or boom and bust quite the same way again. Recommended.   

Monday, September 16, 2019

I think they need a bigger sink... Or a smaller cat.
CK’s Adventures in YouTube(Land)

In the last 6-12 months I’ve been watching YouTube around an hour a day. It started by watching US news (mostly MSNBC and CNN) to try to get my head around what was happening over there. Inevitably it led on to commentary – by the likes of Brian Taylor Cohen and others. But it wasn’t just all US politics. There was my go to subject of History.

Two of the people I have found endlessly fascinating are The History Guy (who covers all kinds of forgotten history and Mark Felton Productions which covers (mostly) both world wars and (often) from an air perspective.

Then there’s Gaming. I’m playing (or rather re-playing) Borderlands 2 at the moment and this has been greatly enhanced by instructional videos from people like VinylicPumaGaming where I learnt the location (and methods) of so much Loot/Boss farming!

Then there’s TV shows I sampled before checking them out or buying the boxsets – like The Expanse, The Orville, ST: Discovery or The Boys.

Of course (as you’ve seen recently) there’s SO much music on YouTube that you could spend your days just listening/watching that.

Then there’s Movie/Art Crit from the likes of Nerdwriter1 where I’ve learnt LOTS of interesting things.

Then there’s the odd stuff (YouTube is chocked full of odd stuff) like the video I watched last night where a group of guys (I think from Eastern Europe) fired a variety of muskets into near contemporary laminated armour.

Then there’s one of my go to people of the moment – Beau of the 5th Column….. So many videos. So little time….. [lol] 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Saudi Arabia oil production reduced by drone strikes

From The BBC

14th September 2019

Saudi Arabia's oil production has been severely disrupted by drone attacks on two major oil facilities run by state-owned company Aramco, reports say. Sources quoted by Reuters and WSJ said the strikes had reduced production by five million barrels a day - nearly half the kingdom's output. The fires are now under control at both facilities, Saudi state media say. A spokesman for the Houthi rebel group in Yemen said it had deployed 10 drones in the attacks. The Saudis lead a Western-backed military coalition supporting Yemen's government, while Iran backs the Houthi rebels. The Houthi spokesman, Yahya Sarea, told al-Masirah TV, which is owned by the Houthi movement and is based in Beirut, that further attacks could be expected in the future. He said Saturday's attack was one of the biggest operations the Houthi forces had undertaken inside Saudi Arabia and was carried out in "co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom". TV footage showed a huge blaze at Abqaiq, site of Aramco's largest oil processing plant, while a second drone attack started fires in the Khurais oilfield.

"At 04:00 (01:00 GMT), the industrial security teams of Aramco started dealing with fires at two of its facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais as a result of... drones," the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. "The two fires have been controlled." There have been no details on the damage but AFP news agency quoted interior ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki as saying there were no casualties. Later, the SPA reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had told US President Donald Trump in a telephone conversation that the kingdom was "willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression". The White House said Mr Trump had offered US support to help Saudi Arabia defend itself. The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John Abizaid, condemned the drone attacks. "These attacks against critical infrastructure endanger civilians, are unacceptable, and sooner or later will result in innocent lives being lost," he said. United Nations envoy Martin Griffiths described the attacks as "extremely worrying" in a statement in which he called on all parties in the Yemen conflict to exercise restraint. Abqaiq is about 60km (37 miles) south-west of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, while Khurais, some 200km further south-west, has the country's second largest oilfield. Saudi security forces foiled an attempt by al-Qaeda to attack the Abqaiq facility with suicide bombers in 2006.

[OK. This sounds like something straight from the science-fiction novels I was reading in the 80’s and 90’s. A down at heel rebel force using advanced technology to take down an advanced nation by attacking their infrastructure as the world looks on bewildered….. You have to wonder what other non-state actors have in mind in years to come….. Better get back reading those cyberpunk novels if I want to keep ahead on the news cycle!] 

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Best of Benn – Speeches, Diaries, Letters, and Other Writings Edited by Ruth Winstone (FP: 2014)

I’ve long had a high opinion of Tony Benn who was a long standing Labour MP who was not only a real Socialist (unlike the faux socialism of New Labour) but was a man who lived his beliefs no matter what fashion or spin doctors advised. Here was a man who not only gave up his hereditary peerage when his father died (in order to remain an MP and not be shunted into the House of Lords) but fought tooth and nail for the right to be a commoner and forced a change in the law to do so. This was a man (sadly now deceased) who not only talked the talk – very well indeed – but most certainly walked the walk. It would be a very brave person indeed who accused Tony Benn of political hypocrisy.

Knowing actually little about him biographically (apart from the day to know knowledge you pick up by watching a politician in action on the TV) I thought this book would be a good place to start. I certainly learned much about his life – training to be a fighter pilot during WW2, losing his elder brother in the fighting after D-Day, his political life post-war, the fight to stay an MP – and so on but also learnt much about his core beliefs (some of which I did not agree with) including workers councils in the then Nationalised Industries as well as worker participation in electing the captains of industry in the Private Sector (an interesting idea though I have no idea how that would work in practice), his objection to joining the European Union (then called the EEC) and especially his objection to joining the Single Currency (both of which had some impact on my views but not enough to change my pro-Europe stance) and much besides. Using extracts from his voluminous diaries, newspaper articles, speeches (both inside and outside Parliament) and extracts from other sources the editor tried to get at the heart of Benn’s life and thought. Although she did a pretty good job I still felt so distance from both. I could certainly hear his voice come through (having heard it many times over the years) but I did really feel that I was skimming the surface of things where I was looking for something deeper.

What the book did do was to prompt me to read more about the man and the era he helped to shape before the age of Tony Blair erupted upon us. I’m intending to read much more on the 1970’s and 80’s in the next year or so and Tony Benn will, I think, show up in references throughout the period. If you’re looking for some additional insight into this iconic socialist this is a pretty good place to be. But as an introduction to the man and his ideas it left me feeling I was still on the starter and waiting for the main course. One for aging British socialists only I feel. But at least I’m prompted to read further which is no bad thing.   

Monday, September 09, 2019

The Boujee Book Tag

Time for another booktag prompted by one of my favourite booktuber – Olive over @ Abookolive on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6wKgH6YIKKfNX9-EN0dxIA) who has a wide range of interests that nearly always throw up something I then at least investigate. Check her out!
But on to the Meme itself – On Spending Habits, Quality and Value when it comes to books:

What is your average monthly budget for books?

Back when I was younger and depended on pocket money or some other low value ‘income’ I did have to think about budgeting my book buying. These days – after being in full-time employment for around 30 years – I have enough disposable income that budget really doesn’t come into it. Factors such as wants and shelf space are much more important.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent in a bookstore?

Years ago, when I was still with Carol, we stumbled upon a bookshop in Yorkshire that was something really special. Between us we probably walked out with in excess of 60 books. Most of them where mine but still – at their prices – that didn’t come to very much. Maybe I spent £70-80 on that day. Dropping £50 on a planned book shopping trip isn’t particularly unusual. It depends on how lucky I get or who wide-ranging my tastes are on any particular day. If I had the transportation, the time and was in the mood I wouldn’t be surprised that I could break the £100 barrier.

Are you willing to pay full price for a brand-new release or wait until there’s a sale?

Most of my books are bought either from Amazon resellers or from my local supermarket so are below List Price. My occasional trips into ‘town’ revolve around a bookshop that is HEAVILY discounted. My favourite franchise bookstore has a 3 for 2 section that I haunt but, from time to time I do buy new – paperbacks that is! Usually they’re something I know is coming and go out especially to purchase. Buying a new book in hardback is VERY rare. Mostly because of the price difference and partially because it can take a while to get around to reading any new purchase. For instance the book I’m reading presently I bought from Amazon 3 years ago…

Would you rather buy one new book or several less expense used copies?

I buy used copies from Amazon resellers all the time. The vast majority of them have been in more than reasonable condition and I’ve had no complaints so far. The prices on some of them – even the no longer in print editions – and ridiculously low. Sometimes you practically just pay postage plus a nominal price. So – definitely the less expensive copies (most of the time) unless I can find a cheap new book. That’s just my snobbish side kicking in.

What do you think is a reasonable price for a hardback, a paperback or an e-book?

Well, as I don’t normally buy hardbacks I can’t really comment. I have seen them priced at £25 which is frankly ridiculous. I honestly wouldn’t give a £20 book a second glance even if I wanted it. I’ve picked up a few half-price hardbacks (around £10) which I thing is reasonable especially for the chunky ones. Paperback novels I often pick up in my local supermarket for £3.99 as long as they’re in the Top 40. I’ll probably pay up to twice that in my franchise shop without too much anguish. Paperback non-fiction I’ll go to £10 in the muses takes me. More than that it’ll have to be something very special. Again I’m not an e-books buyer but one thing that really puts me off is the price. E-books are, as far as I’m concerned a HUGE rip off. They should be at least half the price of a hardcopy paperback on day one...!

Is a signed book worth more to you? How about a 1st Edition?

Oddly the last reseller book I received from Amazon was a signed copy. I had no idea. It was a nice surprise but, although it might (possibly) increase any resale value, I’m not going to value it myself any higher than an unsigned copy. I certainly don’t go out of my way to acquire signed copies and I wouldn’t buy a mass signed copy off the shelf if it cost more (probably). About the only signed copy of a book I value more highly is one signed by the author Bernard Cornwell for me on my 40th birthday when I heard he was going to be in a nearby city. I spoke to the author (briefly) and he made a very nice dedication in the book – to me. It was very cool as he’s one of my all-time favourite authors. First editions are nice – especially of classics – but although I would value them more highly I wouldn’t spend a huge amount of money to acquire one – although I can see the appeal.     

What is your most valuable book?

Honestly I have no idea. It’s possible that some of my old SF novels might be worth some money but most of the ones I own probably wouldn’t raise more than their original retail price. Although I have a LOT of books I doubt very much if any individual one is worth very much at all. Sentimentally I like books and I like the own books – forever if possible. But I don’t think that I’m sentimentally attached (overly) to any of them. But then, thinking about it….. I have a copy of Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen published just after WW2 under the existing paper rationing laws that is essentially printed on what feels like rice paper. It’s a delightful pocket sized thing in a bright red hard backed cover that must have gone through lots of hands before it got to me. That I value for a whole host of non-rational reasons. 

Would you pay more for a different cover or a specific edition of a book that you like better?

Easy! No. Although I am a fan of cover art (check out my Blog to confirm that one!) I’m not going to pay extra for it (or take time hunting down a particular edition) because of it.

What physical characteristics does a good quality book have?

I’d have to agree with Olive on this one and, essentially, say heft. Generally if a book looks flimsy then it’s probably low quality whereas a book that feels heavier than it looks will (generally) be of higher quality. I’ve had some books on cheap paper that just feel tacky. Other books I’ve had were printed on high quality paper and they just felt delicious just to turn the pages as you worked your way through – almost like holding a work of art in your hands.

If you won the Lottery what bookish things would you be spending on?

A library. Definitely a library. I’d need a bigger house and have at least part of it converted to a library or have an annexe built to put all of my books on shelves in some kind of order. I could spend months cataloguing them and making sure that any time I wanted a specific book I could know exactly where it was and put my hands on it in moments. I DREAM of having a library in my house…..

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Try Liquid Sunshine. Just in time to beat the Winter Blues....
Mars mission readies tiny chopper for Red Planet flight

By Jonathan Amos for BBC Science

29 August 2019

Engineers preparing the next American Mars rover have installed one of its most exciting experiments - a chopper. The mini-helicopter is regarded as a bonus on the 2020 mission. It will be the first such aircraft deployed on another world. If it works, it'll be amazing, but if it doesn't it won't detract from the overall goals. The US space agency's (NASA) next Mars rover is a near-copy of the one-tonne Curiosity vehicle that has operated successfully in Gale Crater since 2012. The new mission will be aimed at a different target - a 50km-wide depression called Jezero Crater. Engineers are nearing the end of the rover's assembly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

They've positioned the 1.8kg "Scout" chopper under the big robot. The idea is that the rover will find a safe place to put the aircraft on the ground shortly after landing. That does mean, however, that the twin-rotor device must travel with some protection. The rover's touchdown mechanism uses rockets and these will kick up stones and dust. As a consequence, a shield is being fitted around the helicopter to deflect any debris. There are no scientific instruments on the solar-powered Scout. Its job is merely to demonstrate the practicality of flight on another planet. It will, though, carry a camera and researchers will certainly be interested in the pictures it takes to give context to the rover's exploration. Ultimately, however, small helicopters could become a regular feature of future missions, not just to do reconnaissance but to study the more hard-to-reach places such as cliffs, caves and deep ravines. NASA recently approved a mission to put a helicopter on Titan, a moon of Saturn. Like the Earth and Mars, Titan has an atmosphere - a thick one - and can support aero-vehicles.

The Mars 2020 mission launches in July next year. Its landing is scheduled for 18 February 2021. Although it looks just like Curiosity, the new rover has a separate suite of instruments to ask some different scientific questions. These include the most direct of all questions about Mars: is there, or has there ever been, life on the planet? The 1970s Viking landers aside, all previous surface missions have only really considered the issue of habitability. That is, they investigated only whether life might have found conditions favourable had it been present.

Jezero Crater has some very interesting rocks that look from orbit as though they may have formed at the edge of a lake-sized body of water. The Mars 2020 rover will examine the chemistry of these rocks for evidence of past biology. Mission scientists have just returned from a trip to Western Australia where they visited some of the oldest traces of life on Earth. These are the 3.4-billion-year-old remnants of fossilised stromatolites - the carbonate mounds that were built by bacterial communities in calm waters, just like those found at the edge of a lake. The researchers wanted to get a feel for the kind of physical structures that can be left on ancient landscapes by microbial activity. The expedition to the Pilbara Outback included colleagues from Europe who have their own rover set for launch next year, also in July. This vehicle, known as Rosalind Franklin, completed its assembly at an Airbus factory in England on Tuesday. It has now been sent to a test centre in France. Like the American rover, Rosalind Franklin will search for life signs, but it will do this on a flat equatorial plain known as Oxia. NASA launched a schools essay-writing competition on Wednesday to find an engaging name for its rover. The new name to replace "Mars 2020" will be announced in February, exactly a year before landing day.

[Cool! So we have FLYING probes now…. What a great idea. It’ll be fascinating to see things from height and have a good look around from a totally different perspective – right up to the moment that Mars Air Defence shoots it down….!]

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