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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Just Finished Reading: To Engineer is Human – The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski (FP: 1982)

In another Life, in another Universe I might have been a Civil Engineer. I love the idea of building things like bridges and skyscrapers, dams and tunnels. So when Amazon said I might like this book I took its advice. I was not disappointed.

The narrative starts with a seemingly simple question. After the collapse of an internal skywalk a neighbour asked the author “After all of these years you guys still don’t know how to build a bridge? What’s up with that?” Needless to say that the answer wasn’t something that could be conveyed in a few pithy sentences – hence the need for a whole book. There are several problems with building things – like a bridge for example. In some cases nothing like the particular bridge in question has ever been built before. Maybe the span is larger than ever been attempted or the materials are new or have never been tried in that particular combination. Maybe the expected traffic levels turn out to be half of the actual levels, maybe the manufacturer of particularly sensitive parts bid low to undercut the opposition and used inferior materials to cut costs. Maybe the salt content of the local water wasn’t tested or changed unexpectedly over time due to other building works unknown at the time because they post-dated the bridge being built. Thousands of these questions need to be taken into account and some of them cannot be easily quantified. No two structures are identical nor are two locations or conditions during the build process or in the years, decades or centuries that the structure stands for. Bridges that last far beyond their expected lifespan may be seen as over-engineered overly cautious structures that could be made cheaper, faster and more elegant if less materials or the latest materials are used until, at some point, the bridge collapses and the subsequent investigation shows where a pleasing curve and an elegant span coincides with inadequate bracing and a lack of alternate load paths.

Although much of this excellent brief volume looks at bridges the author evaluates other engineering failures to make his point. I was particularly taken by his detailed discussion of the Comet disasters in the 1950’s where the premier aircraft of its day inexplicably crashed after exploding mid-air before it was discovered that cracks from the then unknown metal fatigue caused explosive decompression long before it was expected to be a problem. Only rigorous testing in giant water tanks revealed the problem before anyone else died. Likewise the discussion of the success of the Crystal Palace created from cast iron prefabricated parts for the Great Exhibition in 1851 was, pardon the pun, riveting. You could feel the authors admiration for the awesome success of what was, up till that point, essentially an amateur engineer. A particular amusing section was on the demise of the slide rule (I just remember them as they’d just gone out of fashion when I started doing Maths seriously) and the problematic use of CAD (Computer Aided Design) software – something I’m very familiar with as I’ve been regularly using it for the last 15 years - as an automated way of making mistakes with confidence. Older engineers can look at the derived figures and sense that they don’t ‘feel’ right whereas younger engineers who grew up with CAD would simply trust it too much. This is exactly what some of my much later technology reading made such a play of – trusting the screen rather than the reality of things.
Overall this was a delightful, fascinating and highly informative book. I’m certainly looking at structures in a different way and am paying particular attention to any cracks I see or any unexpected movement I feel! Fortunately the author has produced a number of other books on the subject and I’ll definitely be picking them up. Much more on the subject to come.

Monday, January 27, 2020

My Favourite TV Shows: Fringe (Series 1)

I first came across Fringe ages ago whilst randomly channel hopping during the adverts. I watched it for a minute or so and it looked kind of interesting but then I went back to whatever I was already viewing but kept it in mind for later. YEARS later I found a cheap (actually I think under-priced) box set of the whole show and snapped it up. I then found myself binge watching the whole thing over the next few months.

At first viewing Fringe has a whole X-Files vibe and is initially easy to dismiss as an X-Files clone. But it quickly becomes something far more (and dare I say far better) than that. There are naturally similarities. For one the organisation doing all the investigation is the FBI – or the Fringe Division of the FBI (hence the title). We are introduced to Fringe only obliquely. There’s an FBI investigation into illegal chemical/bio weapons technology transfer involving Special Agents Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv) & her partner/lover John Scott (played by Mark Valley). During a chase sequence Scott is sprayed with chemicals and will die without very special attention. The only person who can help is Dr Walter Bishop (played by John Noble). The problem is that he’s a long term patient in a mental hospital and the only person who he can be signed out to is his son peter (played by Joshua Jackson – yes, him) who’s running scams in Iraq. Olivia persuades her boss to let her pick Peter up and bring him back to the US to save her partner – who unfortunately dies later after he apparently betrays her and his country (long story). Needless to say that’s not the end of it by a long shot. Because of her work in tracking down illegal weapons transfers Dunham is let in on what’s really going on along with a chance of joining the Fringe Division. She can hardly refuse after learning about ‘The Pattern’.

The Patter is a number of linked incidents that have occurred across the globe usually written off to the public as either accidents or random acts of terror. They are neither. They are in fact a co-ordinated attack against a number of nations by an unknown adversary for reasons unknown. Normally using cutting edge bio-tech or other technologically advanced weaponry the FBI is struggling to contain things. Seemingly at the heart of things – either directly or tangentially – is a megacorp known as Massive Dynamic (because why not!) who’s head and founder is William Bell who was friends with….. Walter Bishop. Then things start getting complicated……

You can see already that this is no simple X-Files knock-off. Some of the episodes certainly have that feel to it but there is a strong overall narrative that carries everything forward. Watching a single episode might give you the impression of a ‘monster of the week’ show but when you watch a whole series – or even better all five – you can see how it all hangs together, and it does! Things are shown or mentioned in one episode that might show up 2, 3, or 10 episodes later to make you go: So THAT’S what that meant. It ALL makes sense now! And it wasn’t just once or twice that happened either. As the first series progresses we’re introduced to the main characters are see some of their backstories but interesting there are elements that even the characters themselves are unaware of. Neither Walter, his son Peter or even Olivia know everything about their pasts (another multi-series LONG story) which, of course makes things even more interesting by far as you try to figure out what things mean, how things you already know fits in and begin to wonder if you really know what you think you know to be true. But at the same time – looking back – it all makes perfect sense! That alone makes the series a delight to watch – trying to figure things out in almost the same timescale as the characters themselves. Sometimes we’re privy to information they don’t have but at other times we’re as shocked as they are by the revelations.

I don’t really want to give too much away for those who have yet to see this show. It’s full of tech-speak and crazy ‘theoretical’ ideas, indeed the verbal pause followed by the word ‘theoretically’ is a kind of trade mark throwaway line from Dr Bishop. All of the main cast and supporting cast are excellent. I actually didn’t find myself disliking anyone over 5 series which is pretty amazing. I honestly fell in love with Olivia Dunham (more than once…..) as she’s a brilliant character with layers even she didn’t know about until she read it in the script. The overall plot reveals itself little by little as the series moves forward and you can see element build on element into a final believable (mostly) compete jigsaw puzzle. But be warned – don’t get too comfortable with things. Each series is quite different in scope, narrative and focus. Each is in effect a single perspective on a much larger issue that, again, unfolds on a much broader canvas and much longer timescale. It’s all very, very clever. Oh, one other thing – the faint of heart should note that there are regular, if rather restrained for TV, ‘body horror’ elements to the series with autopsies, mutilated corpses (it’s a monster type series after all!) and other yuck factor elements throughout all 5 series. So if you can’t stand the sight of blood this might not be the show for you. But if you’re into weird science based mystery cop shows this is definitely one to watch.   

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Who's afraid.....
Twitter demands AI company stops 'collecting faces'

From The BBC

23 January 2020

Twitter has demanded an AI company stop taking images from its website. Clearview has already amassed more than three billion photographs from sites including Facebook and Twitter. They are used by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security and more than 600 other law-enforcement agencies around the world to identify suspects. In a cease-and-desist letter sent on Tuesday, Twitter said its policies had been violated and requested the deletion of any collected data.

Twitter's developer agreement policy says: "Information derived from Twitter content may not be used by, or knowingly displayed, distributed, or otherwise made available to any public-sector entity for surveillance purposes." According to the New York Times, the Clearview app includes programming that could pair the images with augmented-reality glasses that would allow users to identify the names and addresses of anyone they saw. Clearview has not yet responded to a request for comment.

US senator Ron Wyden said on Twitter Clearview's activities were "extremely troubling". "Americans have a right to know whether their personal photos are secretly being sucked into a private facial-recognition database," he said. "Every day, we witness a growing need for strong federal laws to protect privacy." Senator Edward J Markey also shared his concerns, in a letter sent to the company on Wednesday, suggesting its technology could "facilitate dangerous behaviours and effectively destroy individuals' ability to go about their lives anonymously". It follows suggestions the European Commission is considering a five-year ban on the use of facial recognition in public areas. Regulators want time to work out how to prevent the technology being abused. Concerns over the use of facial-recognition technology have grown recently, even in China, where the government continues to embrace its uses. Some 74% of Chinese respondents in a recent survey by the Beijing research institute said they wanted the option to be able to use traditional ID methods over the tech to verify their identity.

[Yet another reason not to be on Social Media… Or have your photograph taken….. Ever.]

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Just Finished Reading: Property Of….. by Alice Hoffman (FP: 1974)

She knew exactly what she wanted and was determined to get it. But there was one thing that she would never be – Property. She would never wear the leather jacket proudly displayed by the girls declaring that they were Property of the Orphans. She had another ambition – to be the only woman of the leader, the President of the Orphans himself: McKay. When Danny the Sweet finally relented and promised to introduce them she knew this might be her only chance to make an impression on McKay and Fate or something else had her back for that was the night when the Orphans would extract their bloody revenge on their rivals and prove that she what it took. McKay wasn’t easily impressed but the girl certainly had something apart from her attitude. But she didn’t impress The Dolphin, not at all. He told McKay straight up, in front of her, that she was bad news and that she’d cause him nothing but trouble but McKay had already stopped listening and she knew from that moment that she had her prize. McKay was hers. At least for a while. Until that is McKay’s ambition for power and influence led him to the means to have both – and money too, lots of money. Connections were made and promises exchanged. If the other gangs could be swept off The Avenue the Orphans could have exclusive rights to the distribution of as much heroin as they could handle. McKay was eager to run the whole show. Almost as eager as he was to try the merchandise despite everything she could do to stop him. Nothing worked. Nothing could turn him away from the needle. There was only one thing she could do to get his love back, to compete with a chemical. She could get him to inject her too.

I loved the movie Practical Magic and when I read the book I loved it all the more. After hearing that the author had penned a sequel I bought it and resolved to read everything that Ms Hoffman had penned and this was her first novel. To say that I was surprised by its subject matter – New York street gangs in the 1970’s and the heroin epidemic that swept through them – is a massive understatement. I’m not exactly sure what I expected but this was most definitely not it.  First published when she was only 22 years old this is a stunning achievement. Although few of the characters in the book are admirable (and not remotely lovable) they are all completely credible. No one, most especially the unnamed narrator, are free from emotional damage. Their drivers are primal – fear, loss, regret and the overwhelming need to belong no matter the cost. McKay is driven by his concept of honour and is destroyed when he is witnessed performing a dishonourable act that cannot be excused. The descent into drug use is gradual but completely believable. If the author wasn’t drawing on personal experience she seemed to be drawing on the real experiences of others. Consequently this is definitely not the book for anyone of a sensitive nature. There’s some violence here although more threat than actual and some sex without much detail, but it is the slide into drug induced oblivion that will stay with you – the desperate joy of heroin addiction that eats you alive as you both crave the hit and despise the need. Gritty doesn’t cover it. Despite everything though this is a stunningly poetic and, at times, quite beautiful novel. As a first novel it is frankly astounding in its seemingly effortless accomplishment. A must read from those with a strong enough constitution. Definitely more from Ms Hoffman to come. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Yes, Prime Minister

Several of my regular Book Blog visits have recently come up with the same idea – reading the biographies of every US President (although not necessarily in date order). I thought that idea was pretty cool but, as I’ve stated on multiple occasions, I’m trying to keep my focus on British and European history rather than reading about the entire planet… So, in line with that I thought it’d be an idea reading about every British Prime Minister but starting in the 20th Century and working backwards – but not strictly in date order. Presently I can’t really see myself reading about anyone after Tony Blair (the last PM I actually voted for – although we, the public, don’t actually vote for Prime Ministers we vote for the party they lead and actually we vote for a local MP who makes up a majority in the Commons who then decide on a PM, which to be honest is always the leader of the party).

Presently I have a bunch of books on Winston Churchill, his predecessor Neville Chamberlin and his successor Clement Attlee. Everything else would need to be acquired – and constitute yet another excuse to buy books! Actually I only really started noticing PM’s in my early teens with Edward Heath (1970-74) and Harold Wilson (1974-76). The first time I cast my vote was for Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and the last time I voted for a PM that got into power was Tony Blair (1997-2007).

Going back in time I only know a few of the really BIG names of the 19th century so much of the period will be political terra incognita to me. That in itself is enough reason for the proposed project. Interestingly I have absolutely no idea who the first PM was or even what century he took office in (without looking it up) but presume it was the 18th or possibly the 17th. I just couldn’t guess. No doubt my investigations will throw up many names that no one remembers except for some dry political historians but that’ll make the hunt all the more interesting. But before I plumb the absolute depths I’ll cut my teeth on our leaders that at least some of you will recognise. I am however starting from a very low base with a single book in the list so far. My intention is to post updates every six months which should give me some motivation and might even prompt me to get my ‘Britain Alone’ reading off the ground with the added bonus of the PM books in the mix. But so far the list stands at this:

Winston S. Churchill (10th May 1940 – 26th July 1945) (26th October 1951 – 5th April 1955)

Churchill’s First War – Young Winston and the Fight against the Taliban by Con Couchlin.

Needless to say, we have FAR to go. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Facial recognition: EU considers ban of up to five years

From The BBC

18th Jan 2020

The European Commission has revealed it is considering a ban on the use of facial recognition in public areas for up to five years. Regulators want time to work out how to prevent the technology being abused. The technology allows faces captured on CCTV to be checked in real time against watch lists, often compiled by police. Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects as well as research and development. The Commission set out its plans in an 18-page document, suggesting that new rules will be introduced to bolster existing regulation surrounding privacy and data rights. It proposed imposing obligations on both developers and users of artificial intelligence, and urged EU countries to create an authority to monitor the new rules.

During the ban, which would last between three and five years, "a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed". The proposals come amid a calls from politicians and campaigners in the UK to stop the police using live facial recognition for public surveillance. Most recently the Kings Cross estate found itself at the centre of controversy, when it was revealed its owners were using facial recognition technology without telling the public. Campaigners claim the current technology is inaccurate, intrusive and infringes on an individual's right to privacy. A recent study suggested facial recognition algorithms are far less accurate at identifying black and Asian faces compared with white faces.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has begun rolling out facial recognition in pharmacies in Shanghai for people buying certain drugs. Individuals buying controlled medicines, such as those containing psychotropic substances, will be asked to verify their identity by scanning their face. It marks the latest in a series of moves from the Chinese state to prevent potential abusers from getting hold of certain medicines that can be used to produce illegal drugs. The country is a big supporter of facial recognition, and while the West remains cautious, China continues to embrace the technology.

[Oh, I’m SO suspicious of the whole facial recognition thing. If our growing surveillance society wasn’t bad enough before it! With facial recognition either authorised or in widespread unauthorised use nowhere would be safe from being spied on. I still think there’s a huge future in decorative masks….. Money to be made there I think….]

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Never been bullied - not even once.

Just Finished Reading: Antigrav edited by Philip Strick (FP: 1975)

This was a short book of short stories published from 1969-1975. I think the theme of the collection was, as far as I can tell, humour. The 70’s was a time of experimental literature – and nowhere more so than in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi realm – and it seemed that a big part of that experimentation was the use of off-beat or plain bizarre humour in a SF setting. Most of the time this just didn’t work for me. This was reinforced by a number of stories in this book that had little plot, poor dialogue and which rested their narrative (such as it was) mostly on the strangeness of the story rather than thinking it through. Making sense (to any great degree) seemed to be some kind of defeat. After all its SF/Fantasy so it doesn’t have to make sense… right?  By far the best story, simply head and shoulders above the rest was The Alibi Machine by Larry Niven (1973) which told of an editor who plans to kill one of his writers and who planned to use a matter-transmitter to concoct the prefect alibi. Naturally it all goes wrong and he can’t transmit out of the crime scene but fails to think through his other options properly. It’s a clever insight both into the use/abuse of technology and the failure of imagination caused by the too heavy reliance of that technology. Overall not recommended.

Monday, January 13, 2020

An Influential Movement

As my regular readers will be aware of by now, as part of my ‘quest’ to understand the world I’m endeavouring to read at least some of the treasure trove of significant or influential books that exist in the world. My ‘discoveries’ are by and large random (as you can no doubt tell from the list below) and vary greatly in significance. However, I think they all make at least some contribution to the quests objective. My aim is to add at least 3-4 such books to the list each year. This year’s additions are added at the top of the list in Bold. I don’t have anything specific put aside for this year but I’m guessing that near future contributions will mostly be classical texts of politics and philosophy. I’m definitely feeling a lack of philosophy in my life…..! But to the list….   

Suffragette – My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
The Old Straight Track - Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones by Alfred Watkins
The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence
The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
The Rights of Man by H G Wells
The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes
The Two Cultures by C P Snow
The City by Max Weber
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
The War of the Flea – A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory & Practice by Robert Taber
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton
Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panther Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley
Achtung Panzer! – The Development of Tank Warfare by Heinz Guderian
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
About Looking by John Berger
A Vindication of The Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
War on Wheels – The Evolution of an Idea by C R Kutz
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Design as Art by Bruno Munari
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
The Rebel by Albert Camus
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
A Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara

I’m very pleased with the addition of 6 books last year with some very serious contenders in there. Again they came from all subjects from science, politics, feminism and a foundational tome of the New Age movement. Let’s see what I can dig up this year!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Plant life 'expanding over the Himalayas'

By Navin Singh Khadka for BBC World Service

10 January 2020

Vegetation is expanding at high altitudes in the Himalayas, including in the Everest region, new research has shown. The researchers found plant life in areas where vegetation was not previously known to grow. A team used satellite data from 1993 to 2018 to measure the extent of plant cover between the tree-line and the snow-line. The results are published in the journal Global Change Biology. The study focused on the subnival region - the area between the tree-line (the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing) and the snow line (the boundary between snow-covered land and snow-free land). Subnival plants are mainly small grasses and shrubs. "The strongest trend in increased vegetation cover was between 5,000 metres and 5,500 metres altitude," said Dr Karen Anderson, from Exeter University, lead author of the report. "At higher elevations, the expansion was strong on flatter areas while at lower levels that has been observed on steeper slopes." Using Nasa's Landsat satellite images, the researchers divided the heights into four "brackets" between 4,150m and 6,000m. It covered different locations in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, ranging from Myanmar in the east to Afghanistan in the west.

In the Everest region, the study found a significant increase in vegetation in all height brackets. Other researchers and scientists working on glaciers and water systems in the Himalayas have confirmed the expansion of vegetation. "It (the research) matches the expectations of what would happen in a warmer and wetter climate," said Prof Walter Immerzeel, with the faculty of geosciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study. "This is a very sensitive altitudinal belt where the snowline is. A withdrawal of the snowline to higher altitudes in this zone provides opportunity for vegetation to grow." The research did not examine the causes of the change.

Other research has suggested Himalayan ecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate-induced vegetation shifts. "We have found the tree-line expanding in the subalpine regions of Nepal and China as the temperature rises," said Achyut Tiwari, assistant professor with the department of botany at Nepal's Tribhuvan University. "If that is happening with trees at lower elevations, clearly the plants at higher altitudes will also be reacting to the rise in temperature." Some scientists regularly visiting the Himalayas have confirmed this picture of expanding vegetation. "Plants are indeed colonising the areas that once were glaciated in some of these Himalayas," said Elizabeth Byers, a vegetation ecologist who has carried out field studies in the Nepalese Himalayas for nearly 40 years. "At some locations where there were clean-ice glaciers many years ago, now there are debris-covered boulders, and on them you see mosses, lichens, and even flowers."

Little is known about plants at these even-higher altitudes, as most scientific studies have focused on retreating glaciers and expanding glacial lakes amid rising temperatures. The researchers said detailed field studies on vegetation in the high Himalayas were required to understand how the plants interact with soils and snow. "What does the change in vegetation mean for the hydrology (the properties of water) in the region is one of the key questions," said Dr Anderson. "Will that slow down the melting of glaciers and ice sheets or will it accelerate the process?" The Hindu Kush Himalayan region extends across all or part of eight countries, from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. More than 1.4 billion people depend on water from this region.

[Yet another sign of Global Warming that will, no doubt, be ignored for as long as possible – GRASS is growing on Mt Everest! You have to wonder what the next data point will be….. Isn’t it about time we really started taking this stuff seriously?]