11/07/06

Males not needed - science fiction nearly fact

Scientists in Germany have created sperm from stem cells taken from live mouse tissue, grown the cells into live sperm, injected it into mouse eggs and produced live young.

This means that males will soon be redundant; science fiction will become reality.

The novels about alien races composed entirely of females were usually based on parthenogenesis where females identical to the mother were produced. Greenfly do this on Earth now. They can either produce identical females by parthenogenesis or mate with males to produce more males as well as females.

In the new science fiction it will mean that races of females will be able to produce females different from the mother; only females if they so wish, or a few males if they feel so inclined.


18/10/06

17 October 2006 - 'One Day in History'

This is a longer version of my blog for the National Trust/History Matters special one-day historical record based on my life yesterday. (The blog had to be a maximum of 4000 characters so I had to cut out a lot of the descriptive comment and just leave the basic events).

Personal profile: male; age 63; retired; living in a UK country village in a chalke valley.

6am: BBC Radio 4 came on automatically beside my bed. News about Thames Water being sold by German owners to an Australian company.

More about Madonna, a very rich pop star, who has just had one of her bodyguards fly to Heathrow airport overnight from Johannesburg with a 13 month old child from Malawi that she wants to adopt. The father is too poor to look after the child and seems happy with the arrangement but various child action groups are objecting and although she has been given temporary custody the paperwork in Malawi and UK may take ages to straighten out.

6.45am: BBC1 TV news: more about North Korea which seems to be organising a second nuclear bomb test according to US satellite photos. North Korea is a very secretive old-style communist regime with millions of soldiers. The dictator is not trusted at all. No one knows how to stop regimes like his and Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They are anti-western in outlook and sanctions never seem to work. The people are extremely poor and just get more isolated with sanctions. Military action is unthinkable against North Korea and Iran because of their huge armed forces.

Breakfast of Tesco's fruit and fibre cereal with milk. Looked outside where it is gloomy, slightly foggy, but still warm for mid October.

7am: turned on my computer to check emails and my usual websites. The emails were the usual pornographic spam and one purporting to be from service@PayPal about my account. I haven't got a PayPal account and emails like this are "phishing" for my account details and passwords with a view to committing fraud. Another email was from Citywire which sends an almost daily financial newsletter which I never get round to reading.

I checked my usual websites - computer help sites, pension and investment advice sites, BirdForum website and the website where I help people with their webpage construction coding problems. Later I looked at LOST (Land of Serious Topics) on TMF (The Motley Fool website) which is a forum for people to air their views on anything, often in intense argument.

I also checked blogs (web logs) from Internet Explorer as Microsoft is expected to release the final version of its Internet Explorer 7 on 18 October 2006. Some people want more warning of the release date as they have not recoded websites to deal with IE7 peculiarities and yet still keep the special coding (hacks) that they have done for IE6 as the general public will be using both versions for some time. Others complain that IE7 still has bugs or has not fully complied with the current CSS2 (cascading stylesheet) standards, let alone the future CSS3 standards that are being made public. Others want it released as soon as possible.

8.30am: the post arrived. Two items were credit card application forms with brochures in flashy colours and colourful envelopes. The other item was a huge red envelope addressed to my mother at my address which I opened by mistake. It confirmed eligibility for a prize of up to 20,000. My mother enters a lot of free prize draws and gets a huge amount of offers now that she is on hundreds of lists. It seems my address has got mixed up with her name somehow. I keep telling her it's dangerous. Some are just free prize offers and she has had some items like cheap manual (no battery) cameras, but sometimes the lists get into the hands of fraudsters who get you to contribute large sums as administration costs for getting even larger sums which never materialise. She said once she had been asked to send 2,000 to Canada and I said she would never see it again, let alone the prize. Another problem is that some ask for all sorts of personal details which a fraudster can use to set up a false identity or use to take money out of you accounts. In one case she was asked for next of kin and had put in my name and address so I am now a target too.

I didn't get what I wanted in the post which is a rent cheque for 165 pa for a 3 acre field rented out to the multi-millionaire local farmer who never pays until I remind him and I did that over a week ago.

9am: I went outside to see if Attila (the Hun) had cleared up properly after cutting my hedge yesterday evening. There are three Huns here at the moment, Zoltan, his brother Attila and a friend of Zoltan's called George. Attila has been here about two years working at any job he can find, mainly gardening or at the watercress beds, but he is going back to Hungary at the end of this month. They obviously benefit from a higher income than they could get at home. I pay Attila 6 per hour. He once asked me for a bank note saying he would give me coins in change rather than me giving him coins as he wanted to take bank notes back to this parents while on holiday. Zoltan started a few years ago after joining his girlfriend who had got a job caring for a disabled person in the next village. They both used bikes at first, then he got an old car, then a relatively new one, so they must be earning and saving quite a lot. They all work hard, trying to get a full-time job during the day and working in evenings and weekends as well.

9.30am: I put out some crushed nuts and cut-up grapes on my birdboard. Recently I have only seen a quiet, insignificant dunnock and occasional blue tits. In the winter and spring robins and a pair of blackbirds came several times a day but since then have only come occasionally. The blackbirds have my neighbour's fallen apples now anyway. The blackbirds loved the grapes and hardly touched the nuts while the robins were the reverse.

Yesterday I rode my mountain bike over farm tracks past sows and piglets to a farm in the next village in lovely warm sunshine but today is still gloomy, slightly windy and rain is forecast so I may not go out today. On my way back yesterday I bought a bunch of watercress from the external fridge at the packing shed for 35p; putting the money in a plastic pipe through the shed wall. Later I saw a combine harvester on the road; it seems very late in the year to be still harvesting; some crops were cut in July. Fields round me are green with young crops and near the next village seeding was being done. Signs of global warming are everywhere. I have a water meadow opposite and a river on the far side. There is one little egret visible today, but five the other day and seven a few years ago. They are breeding near Salisbury now. Years ago they were only occasional summer visitors from Spain.

10.30am: I had a mug of coffee and a piece of chocolate-covered shortcake. I don't like real coffee or tea, too much caffeine I suppose. I drink Camp coffee essence which is concentrated coffee and chicory with sugar. I mix it with two-thirds boiling water and one-third milk and it makes a sweet, sticky, warm, comforting drink.

Morning generally: There were only two questions on the web development forum that were within my capabilities to answer. Both questioners seemed to have pages showing alright and the sound on one was working so I think they were worried about something relatively unimportant. Certainly another viewer agreed with me. Sometimes I spend hours or even days trying to correct bad coding but today I found nothing that was actually causing a display problem although some of the code could be much improved.

12 noon: I watched Channel 4 TV News while having a banana, some watercress and a malted granary roll with margarine, ham and home-grown tomato.

1pm: I signed an application form from a broker to transfer a unit trust into an account with them. It was bought via them originally when it was a fund they started and managed, then they hived it off to a unit trust manager, now they have offered to take it back to add to my portfolio but it will still be managed by the unit trust. They have promised a 0.25% pa loyalty bonus.

2pm: I read a few articles in The Countryman March 2005 which shows how far behind I am in reading these monthly magazines. I used to read all the magazine within a month before the next one arrived. Computer work, learning about webpage construction, making my own, answering coding queries and recently producing my own online tutorial for XHTML and CSS (beginners level) has kept me very busy for several years.

Americans post questions in their evening while I am asleep so there are usually a few to be answered from 7am when I start. At about 10am or 11am I am tired so I try to get out on my bike in the summer. After lunch I usually have some query still not sorted out, or I improve my online tutorial based on answers I've given. Sometimes questions arrive from the Far East or Eastern Europe. In the evening the Brits start posting queries and just as I am about to go to bed the Americans start again so I occasionally work until after 11pm although I prefer to stop at 9.30pm.

2.30pm: I pruned rambler roses and clematis on the walls of the cottage. It was just dripping rain but soon stopped; still very gloomy and warm.

3.30pm: Tea of two slices of malt loaf, margarine and marmalade with a mug of water.

6pm: I watched the BBC1 news and had dinner of salad, sweet and sour chicken ready-meal and a bit of cold pre-cooked apple pie.

7pm: I've been working on one of this morning's coding queries most of the day in fits and starts. The page in internet Explorer 6 (IE6) seemed to create a bit of blank space and extra scrollbar to the right side while another browser, Firefox, did not. It didn't make the page display wrongly, it was just an oddity. It's taken me until now to find the cause in a row of menu links that had javascript drop down panels and one of these, although displaying inside the page container, must have had some padding or margin created by the javascript that was creating a hidden extra page width which caused the scrollbar under nothing. I've suggested moving the row of menu links a bit left where they still display alright.

7.30pm: A Microsoft IE blog confirms that IE7 will have its final release to the general public tomorrow for manual download. I hope they've set up enough server capacity! I will probably wait until Thursday morning when the internet is less busy.

8.30pm: I downloaded five Microsoft Office updates totalling nearly 31MB. Last month I downloaded seven totalling 38MB. They are nearly all security updates. Last week I downloaded five updates for the XP operating system. They come thick and fast. I wonder if the new operating system Vista will need fewer updates; it is due for release in November.

10pm: I went to bed and listened to BBC Radio 4 until the timer turned it off.


31/12/06

Saddam Hussein's execution

Saddam Hussein was hanged just after 6.00 am on Saturday morning 30/12/06 in an Iraqi army base in Kazimain, a neighbourhood of northeast Baghdad. There has been a lot of discussion on the internet, on TV and in newspapers.

The official video issued by the Iraqi goverment had no sound and the video stopped just before the trap door opened under Saddam. The video was taken from the top of the steel platform looking towards the access steps showing about five hooded executioners with Saddam. It looked fairly calm and dignified as one executioner explained what he had to do and Saddam was seen replying.

Yesterday the internet had lots of links to an unofficial version which one of the witnesses had taken on his mobile phone. This version was taken looking up from the bottom of the steps. It had sound and it was clear that a lot of taunting and insulting was happening.

The Independent reported that National security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told The New York Times that one of the guards shouted at Saddam:

"You have destroyed us. You have killed us. You have made us live in destitution."
"I have saved you from destitution and misery and destroyed your enemies, the Persians and Americans," Saddam responded.
"God damn you," the guard said.
"God damn you," came the reply.

Saddam: "Oh God."
The assembled witnesses to the execution, gathered below the gallows, can be heard ignoring appeals for propriety.
Voices: "May God's blessings be upon Mohamed and his household. And may God hasten their appearance and curse their enemies."
Voices: "Moqtada [al-Sadr] ... Moqtada ... Moqtada." That is a reference to the powerful young Shia militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose father, a revered Shia cleric, was executed by Saddam in 1999.
Saddam: "Do you consider this bravery?"
Voice: "Long live Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr."
Voice: "To hell."
Voice: "Please do not. The man is being executed. Please no, I beg you to stop."
Then as the noose was ready around his neck Saddam recited a prayer:
"There is no God but Allah and I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God," he intones. "There is no God but Allah and I testify that Muhammad..."

The trap door opened with a clang and Saddam fell very quickly. There was much shouting and the witnesses obviously rushed up the steps because the mobile phone video next showed Saddam's face swinging below in the noose.

The platform must have been about seven feet above the floor in a small badly lit room with concrete walls and ceiling. Occasionally the metal plate bolted to the ceiling was shown and there appeared to be two ropes hanging from it. I thought that someone said that the rope normally had about three feet of slack but Saddam seemed to fall right through the platform and the video next showed his face viewed from above.

The mobile phone video is currently accessible from www.vwho.net but I suppose it may be removed. There was an earlier video of a man being interviewed in a US police station. As the policeman turned away to look at some papers the man pulled a gun from his shorts and shot himself in the head, slumping slightly to one side. The policeman mumbled something like "Oh God, why didn't someone check him". The video was removed after a few days, presumably because most of these video sites ban sex and violence.

It's ironic that Saddam was reciting prayers and had taken a Koran with him as he was not religious until recently; even more ironic that his last word was Muhammad.

The prosecutor who was there said he nearly cancelled the execution because of all the insults. He also said that he saw two government officials with mobile phones, even though they had all been searched before entry. If so, why did he not delay the execution for a few minutes to confiscate the phones? It seems that he wasn't too bothered at the time but now there is a lot of fuss about it all and a government inquiry has been started into the matter.

There was a poll on The Motley Fool UK discussion board "Land of Serious Topics" and I voted against the question: "Is it right to have executed him?" The latest result is 44%: Yes and 56%: No. Idi Amin was also a dictator who allowed lots of people to be murdered but he lived quietly in exile for about thirty years. If he had any followers they obviously soon ignored him and I wonder whether the same might not have happened with Saddam.

Saddam has lots of followers at present and he is now considered a martyr because of his dignified bearing on the scaffold. Sectarian violence will continue for some time and I think his death will just make it worse for a while.

Two others, Saddam's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, and a former judge, Awad al-Bander, convicted with Saddam last month, are to be executed after the week long Eid al-Adha holiday.

Edit: 08/01/07

Some people have said that taking and publishing a mobile phone video is criminal and ghoulish. However, we now know that the whole world was totally misled by the official Iraqi version which, having no sound, gave the impression of a dignified and well-organised execution. In the mobile phone version we heard shouting and Saddam was returning insults. If the mobile phone video had not been released the next executions would probably have been undignified too.

When someone criticises something a common question is "Have you seen it/read it?" If the answer is "No" then the next remark is "Well, if you haven't seen it/read it, how can you criticise?" I think this was an incident where the leak of the unofficial mobile phone video was very useful.

The world of politics has far too much spin; in the UK we have also had leaks which have exposed the spin by government as a very distorted version of the truth. In this information age the more information we have from both sides of an argument as well as unbiased reporting the better we can make a judgment for ourselves.