Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

The Real Reason the Government Wants British Terrorist Suspect Tried in Secret Courts

March 18, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, Mike also commented on the case of two Pakistani men, who had been rounded up on suspicions on terrorism offences by Britain and then handed over to the Americans, where they then spent the next 13 years or so held at Bagram in Afghanistan. There is now pressure for the men to be given a proper trial. However, May’s government has decided that this should only be done in a secret session to preserve sensitive official secrets important to national security. Mike asks the obvious question of how such information, which is now 13 years old, can possibly still be relevant to Britain’s security. See http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/03/05/are-we-really-expected-to-believe-13-year-old-national-security-information-justifies-secret-court-hearing/

This blogger can think of two reasons at least why May would not want these men’s cases to be heard in open court, which have absolutely nothing to do with ‘national security’, and far more to do with normal justice and human dignity.

Firstly, depending on how the men were caught, they may be entirely and embarrassingly innocent of the charges. William Blum, the ‘West Bloc Dissident’, who has spent much of his career documenting and denouncing the horrific and multitudinous crimes of the American empire, has pointed out in his blogs and books that many of those imprisoned on suspicion of terrorism offences were guilty of nothing of the sort. What happened was that the American government offered a bounty to various Middle Eastern and other governments if they rounded up terrorists. And so countries like Pakistan duly found suitable suspects, even to the point of imprisoning innocents, simply for the reward money. I don’t know if Britain offers a similar bounty, and unless someone comes forward to state clearly whether or not this is the case, we may never know. But it is a possibility that this may have happened here.

It’s also likely that the men may have been tortured in order to force a confession out of them. International law supposedly forbids countries from using torture, or sending criminal suspects to countries that use torture. Britain has violated these provisions through colluding with the Americans in their programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’ – that is, of handing terrorist suspects over to countries like Pakistan and the various Middle Eastern states, where they would be tortured. And America itself has plenty of previous when it comes to torture. Blum in his books and on his blogs has described the torture manuals and training produced by the CIA and its military training apparatus, like the infamous School of the Americas, for the various death squad regimes it supported in Latin America. In the 1950s and 1960s the US navy also used to torture is its own recruits, the details of which formed the basis of one of the stories in the 90s anti-superhero comic strip, Marshal Law. If the men were tortured, then this would also be a serious embarrassment to the government, which is adamantly refusing to pull out of its policy of sending suspects to states which use torture.

There are other reasons too, which might account for the government’s refusal to allow the men an open try, as previous required under the principles of Magna Carta. There have been reports of friction between US and allied troopers and their Afghan counterparts over the latter’s activities on US bases. American and European squaddies based in Afghan have apparently complained about Afghan soldiers bringing little boys onto the base to sexually abuse, how they also torture dogs on the base for fun, and that their Afghan allies can be dangerously untrustworthy. There have been instances where an Afghan soldier quartered in the base has turned his gun on his western comrades. Many of these allegations have been made on the islamophobic sites. This does not, however, necessarily mean that they’re wrong. If such abuses are occurring, and were disclosed to the general public in open court, it would do much to undermine public support for the continuing occupation of Afghanistan.

My guess is that any or all of these issues may well be the real reason why May and the British government doesn’t want to give these men a fair, open trial. And this makes it even more necessary that they should.

The French Astronomer Who Gave His Name to the Captain of the Enterprise?

December 28, 2016

More space/ SF stuff.

Looking through the 1982 Yearbook of Astronomy, edited by Patrick Moore, I found on the chapter for July a very brief biography of the 17th century French astronomer, Jean Picard. The piece ran

1982 is the anniversary of the death of Jean Picard, a celebrated French astronomer. He was born at La Fleche, in Anjou, on 21 July 1620; he studied for the priesthood, and was ordained, but his main interest was in astronomy. In 1645 he was appointed Professor at the College de France, and took a leading part in the establishment of the Paris Observatory. His most famous piece of research was undertaken in 1669-70, when he made a new and more accurate determination of the radius of the Earth. it has been said that it was this which allowed Isaac Newton to complete his work on the theory of gravitation, though in fact Newton’s earlier hesitation was due to the fact that one link in his chain of argument was incomplete. Jean Picard died as the result of an accident on 12 July 1682. (pp. 103-4).

Reading that, I wonder if he was the inspiration for Patrick Stewart’s character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I’ve also got a feeling that another Francophone space scientist may also have inspired the name and character. Professor Calculus in the Tintin books by Herge is based on a real French scientist, who ascended to the edge of space in a high altitude balloon in the last century. I can’t remember the scientist’s name, but I’ve got a feeling it was also Picard.

Of course, it could all be coincidence. But considering the high standard of TV drama set by the series, it really wouldn’t surprise me if the creators and producers had done their historical research, and decided to create the Picard character partly as a tribute to these scientists.

Trailer for Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant

December 26, 2016

Looking through YouTube on Christmas Day, I found a trailer for the next instalment in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant. Directed by Ridley Scott, this follows on from his not-quite Alien prequel, Prometheus, which came out in four years ago in 2012. The blurb for this runs

Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created, with ALIEN: COVENANT, a new chapter in his groundbreaking ALIEN franchise. The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape.

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby.

The trailer shows the Covenant landing, and a scene with one of the David robots, played by Michael Fassbender. On landing, one of the crew steps on a bizarre set of bulbs, which releases some kind of spore. There is also a proper Alien egg hatching, ready to birth a facehugger. The sequence begins with one of the female characters refusing to let one of the other women out of room with a man, who is clearly in the agonies of some kind of transformation, or the eruption of an Alien from their body. It ends with two lovers in a shower having their tender moment interrupted by an Alien attack.

According to the YouTube page, it opens on May 19th.

This is another movie that I’m looking forward to, along with the sequel to another of Scott’s SF masterpieces, Blade Runner 2049.

The Alien has now become one of the classic Hollywood monsters, alongside the Predator, and older creatures like the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman. Several critics have pointed out that Alien was basically a ‘B’ movie, but treated like a Hollywood main feature. I’d say that this was a fair statement. The basic story – alien gets on board spaceship to run amok killing the crew – was the storyline of another, very definite ‘B’ movie of the 1950s or ’60s. The same critic remarked that it could have – and very nearly did – come from Roger Corman, the great director responsible for churning out any number of them. Fortunately, Dan O’Bannon, the script writer, objected and the studio found Ridley Scott instead. What elevated the movie far above it’s ‘B’ movie plot were its stylish direction by Scott, its superb special effects and the way its script broke a number of conventions and gender stereotypes. It was one of the first SF movies to have a strong female lead in Ripley. Another critic has pointed out that as well as breaking gender stereotypes, Ripley also broke another Hollywood convention in that she was basically a hard, by-the-book character. These types usually die before the end of the movie, but not before they perform some noble gesture that shows they’re OK really. Ripley goes by the book, and doesn’t want to let Kane in to infect the ship with whatever attacked him. She’s right, but it’s a hard attitude, and she’s overridden by Ash, who appears to be acting from simple compassion. The reality is otherwise, and, as everyone whose watched or heard of the film knows, carnage ensues. But Ripley survives to the end, and finally beats the monster.

And, of course, what really made the monster one of the classics was its unique quality and the dark beauty of its realization by Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger. The Alien’s two-stage life cycle – facehugger and then the monster itself, is genuinely alien. It isn’t like anything on Earth. Its gestation inside humans is based on the ichneumon moth, which lays its eggs in captive caterpillars. These serve as living larders as the developing larvae hatch and eat their host from the inside. It plays on the fear of parasitism, and was intended by the writer and director to make the men in the audience afraid of rape and a malign pregnancy, rather than women.

And when it finally emerges and develops, the monster itself does not look like anything on Earth. The film was before CGI and a little before animatronics, so it really was another ‘man in a rubber suit’. However, it’s design was so unique that it didn’t look like one. It was both cadaverously thin, like a spindly, distorted human corpse, but with an insect carapace. It also had a tongue with its own mouth and set of teeth, and appeared to lack any kind of external sense organs. There are no eyes or ears that you can see. Finally, there are the strange tubes emerging from its back.

Stylistically, it was one of the biomechanical creatures that formed Giger’s oeuvre. These were a disturbing mixture of the biological and mechanical, so that organically derived shapes had the shapes of, and acted like, machines. The Alien was so uniquely strange and disturbing, that it’s influenced the design of other malignant beings from space since then. The aliens in Independence Day show Giger’s influence, as did the ‘Sleazoids’ in an X-Men storyline of about the same time, and the Cythrons and their armour in the Slaine strip in 2000 AD, for those comic fans of a certain age.

There’s also supposed to be an Alien 5 in production, which will apparently see the return of Ripley, Newt and the surviving Space Marine from James Cameron’s Aliens. I don’t know much about this, however.

The Alien franchise is now 3 1/2 decades old, and like Hammer Horror’s Dracula, or Star Wars, doesn’t seem to show any signs of stopping. From the trailer it looks like the latest instalment could be well worth going to, if you’re a fan of what Mark Kermode has called ‘gribbly monsters.’

Vox Political: Farage Annoyed that People Donating to Help Hope Not Hate Sue Him

December 21, 2016

Yesterday, the ant-racist, anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, announced that they wanted an apology from Nigel Farage after he libelled them when appeared on LBC radio. The former oberkipperfuehrer had stated that Hope Not Hate, and organisations like it, ‘masqueraded’ as being peaceful and lovely, ‘but actually pursue violent and very undemocratic means.’ Farage had been on the radio talking about the killing and deliberate injury by a terrorist of Pakistani extraction in Berlin yesterday. Apart from maligning Hope Not Hate, he’d also had a jab at Angela Merkel, saying that it, and further terrorist attacks, would be her legacy. When the widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, Brendan, warned him on Twitter that blaming politicians for the actions of extremists was a ‘slippery slope’, the politico 2000 AD lampooned as Bilious Barrage sneered that Mr Cox, ‘Would know more than me about extremists’.

Well yes, Bilious. He does. One murdered his wife, which I think gives him a particularly acute perspective on such matters.

Hope Not Hate followed their initial statement with the announcement that they were appealing for donations to help them sue Barrage.

According to the Independent, a ‘source close to Mr Farage’, has responded that “It’s quite funny, in an ironic way, that an organisation in receipt of a huge sum of money from the Jo Cox Fund is now crowd-sourcing an attempted legal action.”

Mike in his article points out this shows that Farage and his camp really don’t think that an organisation dedicated to protecting and strengthening individuals and communities from the politics of racial and religious hatred should receive money from the public. He also points out that the money from the Jo Cox fund is supposed to be used for fighting racism, not settling a libel dispute. And so it is entirely correct that the organisation should appeal to the public for their help.

He also makes the excellent point that Bilious and his National Comrades really don’t know when to shut up.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/21/people-are-lining-up-to-help-hope-not-hate-sue-nigel-farage/

Of course, despite the rather off-hand manner in which the ‘source close to Mr Farage’ describes it, as ‘funny, in an ironic way’, it seems to me that the Fuehrage is a bit miffed that people are responding to Hope Not Hate’s appeal. This is because there are very many people unimpressed with the way Brexit has harmed the country, damaging it economically at fragmenting it politically, and particularly with the way UKIP has been drumming up and exploiting racist and anti-immigrant feeling in Britain.

In fairness, some of the anti-Fascist organisations are extremely violent, and will start fights with the Nazi and Fascist groups, rather than the other way on. I have seen absolutely no evidence of Hope Not Hate advocating violence. Instead, much of their work seems to consist of events designed to bring communities together.

However, some of the speeches and writings that have come out of UKIP have been anything but lovely and peaceful. A few years ago, one the Kipper politicos in Wiltshire was forced to step down, because he had swallowed all the rubbish about Muslims outbreeding indigenous Europeans, and claimed that there would be a civil war between the two in the next few decades. This follows the claims of the anti-Muslim far right, including a video put up on YouTube. It’s hypocritical for Farage to claim that Hope Not Hate is against peace and democracy, when many of his party’s members have very strong anti-democratic and violent opinions on race and immigration themselves.

Jimmy Dore on the Real Reason for the Civil War and Western Military Attacks on Syria

October 29, 2016

This is an extremely important piece from Jimmy Dore, the American comedian, who sometimes appears as a guest on the left-wing internet news show, The Young Turks. Dore is a consistent critic of American imperialism and its long history of overthrowing and destabilising the governments of poor nations around the globe, when they don’t bow down and surrender to American and Western political and corporate interests.

In this video, he comments on a piece published by John F. Kennedy jnr in EcoWatch and Politics magazines. This article provides damning, point for point proof that the reason for the civil war and calls in the West for military intervention in Syria has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. John Kerry, one of the main movers in this, isn’t interested or concerned by how many children have been killed or hospitals bombed by Assad. The real reason is what you might expect it to be, given the similar circumstances that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

It’s all about the petrochemical industry. And in this case, it’s a natural gas pipeline, proposed in 2000 by Qatar. This would cost $10 billion and run for 1,500 km from Qatar, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Another gas pipeline has also been proposed, which would run from Iran, through Iraq to Syria. These are both opposed by Russia. But they are most opposed to the Qatar to Turkey pipeline. Russia sells 70 per cent of its oil exports to Europe. Putin therefore regards this pipeline as an ‘existential threat’, a NATO plot to change the existing political and economic situation, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and deny it leverage in the European energy market.

Syria also opposes the pipeline. In 2009 Assad refused to sign the agreement allowing the pipeline to pass through his country in order to protect the interests of the Russians, who are his allies. The moment he made this decision, military and intelligence planners formulated a plan to start a Sunni uprising in Syria.

Fore quotes another commenter, Cy Hersh, who states that before the war, Assad was actually beginning to liberalise the country. He gave thousands of files on jihadi radicals to the CIA after 9/11, as he viewed the jihadis as his and America’s mutual enemies.

On September 13th, 2013, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, told congress that the Sunni kingdoms in the Middle East – that is, countries like Qata and Saudi Arabia – had offered to pay for an American invasion of Syria to overthrow Assad. He repeated this statement to Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman for Florida.

Two years before this, the US had joined France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and England to form the ‘Friends of Syria Coalition’, which demanded the removal of Assad. The CIA also paid $6 million to Barada, a TV company in Britain, to run pieces demanding Assad’s overthrow. Files from Saudi Intelligence released by WikiLeaks also show that by 2012 Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were training, arming and funding Sunni jihadists from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Dore makes the point that the decision to use a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’as isn’t a new policy. In 2008 a report by the Rand Corporation, funded by the Pentagon, provided the blueprint for the strategy. This stated that the control of the petrochemical resources in the Persian Gulf was a strategic priority for America, and that this would ‘intersect strongly with that of prosecuting the long war.’

He also points out that this is the same policy America has adopted against nations the world over when they have refused to serve American interests. It’s particularly similar to the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister, Mossadeq, in the 1950s. Iran at that time was a secular democracy, just as Syria is a secular state. However, America was afraid of Arab nationalism, linking it with Communism. Mossadeq nationalised the Iran oil industry, which was previously in the hands of the West. So the CIA arranged a coup, which led to the Shah eventually ruling as the country’s absolute monarch. Until he was toppled in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution, which produced the Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Iranian regime that has been a bitter opponent of America ever since.

Dore also states that it was known long before this that American intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere was turning the world’s peoples against America. He cites a report by Bruce Lovett in the 1950s which condemned American military interventions around the world as ‘antithetical to American leadership’ and moral authority, and noting that this occurred without Americans knowledge. In other words, as Dore points out, they don’t hate the US because America enjoys freedoms that they don’t possess. They hate America because America bombs and kills them. The people in those countries are well aware of what is occurring, but this is carefully kept from America’s own people.

This is all too plausible. Dore’s own producers off-camera state that they’re not conspiracy theorists, but there’s nothing in this that is implausible given America’s foreign policy record.

This is the real reason we have people in our own parliament, like Bomber Benn, demanding military action against Assad in Syria. It also shows, on a more philosophical level, how right Jacob Bronowski, the scientist and member of the Fabian Society, when he decried war as ‘theft by other means’.

None of this makes Putin any less of a thug and a bully domestically. And Assad is also guilty of horrific human rights abuses. But those are not the reasons we’re being led into another war in the Middle East, and possibly with Russia.

I can remember back in 1990 when Gulf War 1 broke out. There were protesters chanting, ‘Gosh, no, we won’t go. We won’t die for Texaco’. The Green Party denounced it as a ‘resource war’. They were right then, and I’ve no doubt whatsoever they’re right now.

Our courageous young men and women should not be sent to die just to despoil another nation of its natural resources, and inflate the already bloated wealth of more petrochemical industry executives and oil sheikhs. And we definitely shouldn’t be doing anything to assist the Saudis, the very people who are giving lavish material aid to al-Qaeda and ISIS in order to export a viciously intolerant and brutal Islamism around the world through military force.

And a little while ago I mentioned how the veteran British comics writer, Pat Mills, had put in a few satirical comments about the Gulf War in the ABC Warriors strip in 2000 AD. In the stories about the Volgan War, the robot soldiers recount how they fought in a war against the Russians, the real cause of which was to steal the Russians’ oil reserves after the world had past the tipping point. This was called by the Volgans/Russians the ‘Fourth Oil War’.

Russia has indeed vast resources of oil and other minerals, which it exports around the world. And again, NATO forces are building up in eastern Europe, with NATO generals predicting that by May next year, we will be at war with Russia. It seems to me that Mills is right, probably more than he knew when he wrote the strip, and that the West really is pushing for a war to seize their oil.

This may lead us all into nuclear Armageddon. Quite apart from being grossly immoral.

We have to stop it.

As Hammerstein and his metal comrades say: ‘Increase the peace’.

Spread the word.

Alan Moore’s ‘The Stars My Degredation’

October 27, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece reporting the sad death of British comics legend Steve Dillon, along with his obituary from the I newspaper, and a link to the Nick Fury strip he drew for Hulk comic right at the very beginning of his professional career in comics, which can be read over at the Bronze Age Blog. Amongst the other gems from the Bronze Age of Comics – the 70s and 80s is one of the strips Alan Moore created for the music newspaper, Sounds. Written and drawn by Moore under the monicker, Curt Vile, this was The Stars My Degradation, and ran in the magazine from 1980 to 1983. This was about the space adventures of Dempster Dingbunger, and featured such characters as Three-Eyes McGurk and his Death Planet Commandos, Nekriline, who was literally dead, Laser Eraser, the deadly galactic female assassin, and the psychotic cyborg, Axel Pressbutton. Laser Eraser and Pressbutton were later to get their own strip in the British adult comic, Warrior. The strip there, if I remember correctly, was drawn by Steve Moore, no relation to Alan, under the pseudonym Pedro Henry. Moore was another stalwart of the British comics industry, and closely involved with the Fortean Times, the magazine of the weird and bizarre.

The strip’s title, The Stars My Degradation, seems to me to be a satirical nod to Alfred Bester’s classic, The Stars My Destination, also known as Tiger, Tiger. It was one of the pieces Moore created very early in his career, just before he broke into mainstream comics and became the massive legend he is today with V For Vendetta and Watchmen. Pete Dorree notes that the strip was nihilistic and satirical. In the example he gives, Moore spoofs the New X-Men, created by Chris Claremont and Johnny Byrne. Here’s the link. Enjoy!

http://bronzeageofblogs.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/alan%20moore

‘I’ Tribute to Comics Giant Steve Dillon

October 26, 2016

Steve Dillon, one of the great figures of British comics, has sadly passed away at the age of 54. The I newspaper has run a tribute to him by Hellen William today, 26th October 2016, on page 14. The piece runs

Comic book genius Steve Dillon, who is best known for his artwork on Judge Dredd, Preacher and The Punisher, has died aged 54.

His younger brother, Glyn, also a comic book artist, confirmed on Twitter that his ‘big brother’ and ‘hero’ had died.

Dillon, who grew up in Luton, Bedfordshire, started his career by drawing Nick Fury for Hulk magazine when he was 16. By the 1980s he was contributing artwork to Doctor Who magazine and created his own character, Absalom Daak. He also drew for the comic 2000 AD, contributing artwork of Judge Dredd.

In 1988, Dillon founded Deadline, with fellow comic book artist Brett Ewins. The comics magazine focussed on promoting younger and underground comic artists, including artist Jamie Hewlett, who went on to create the comic Tank Girl and co-create the virtual band Gorillaz with Damon Albarn in 1998.

Dillon and Ewins also collaborated on the comic book series Preacher from 1995 to 2000. In it a religious Texan, his girlfriend and an Irish vampire attempt to track down God and hold him to account for the state of the world.

In 2016, the series was adapted for a television show in the US, featuring Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga and Joe Gilgun. It has now been renewed for a second series.

Actor and film-maker Seth Rogen, who helped adapt the comics for television, tweeted, “Devastated by the lost of Steve Dillon. My favourite comic artist who drew my favourite comics. RIP”

Shortly before his death, Dillon appeared at Comic Con in New York City. He met fans and signed books, the profits of which were partly donated to The Hero Initiative, a charity which provides medical and financial help to comic book artists.

Tributes also come from author Neil Gaiman, who added: “Just heard about Steve Dillon’s passing. It’s been so long since we’ve talked, but he was kind to a young writer long ago, and a good guy.”

Wonder Woman artist Liam Sharp wrote: “My old friend Steve Dillon has died. He was like my industry big brother. Pragmatic to the core, casually cool, and effortlessly brilliant.”

Marvel Entertainment, which ran much of Dillon’s best-known work, said: “Marvel is saddened by the passing of Steve Dillon, a great storyteller. We offer condolences to his family and remember his incredible work.”

Doctor Who magazine tweeted: ‘We’re saddened to report the death of Steve Dillon, one of Doctor Who magazine’s earliest artists, and co-creator of Absalom Daak. RIP Steve.”

Vertigo Comics tweeted: “We lost a giant among creators and artists today. Steve Dillon will be missed by us all here at DC and Vertigo.”

Dillon is survived by his parents, three children, his brother, sister and two grandchildren.

Born: 22 March 1962.
Died 22 October 2016.

The newspaper also carries a photo of the great man.

Dillon was one of the great figures in British comics when I was a teenager in the late 1970s and 80s, contributing strips to a number of Marvel UK comics, as well as 2000 AD. I’ve also got a feeling he may also have drawn for Warrior, the short-lived adult British comic, launched by Dez Skinn, in which V for Vendetta first appeared.

I’m also seriously impressed by how young he was when he started work in comics. His artwork was great, and it showed the immense talent he had that he started when he was only 16.

Truly, a great talent and one of the mainstays of comics for the last 30 years has left us.

Additional

There’s another tribute to the great man by Pete Dorree in his The Bronze Age of Blogs. This is a site devoted to 70’s comics, including reproductions of some of the strips. In addition to the tribute, Dorree has also put up the Nick Fury strip, which was Dillon’s very first strip for Hulk comic. It’s a great piece, and shows the man’s artistic skill at such a young age. Here’s the link

http://bronzeageofblogs.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/steve-dillons-nick-fury-agent-of-shield.html

Robothespian, the British Robotic Actor

October 25, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece about a performance of Karel Capek’s classic play about a robot rebellion, RUR, at the Czech national library a few years ago by a theatre group, Café Neu Romance, using lego robots. The theatre company was the creation of Vive Les Robots, a Danish company set up to encourage public interest in robots and robotics. I said in the article that I thought it would be good if the play could be performed by full-sized robots, to give it the stature it deserves. I realise, however, that was unlikely given how massively expensive the animatronic technology is, that brings to life robotic puppets like Ry’gel from the SF series Farscape.

One British company, Engineered Arts, has created such a full size mechanical actor. It’s called Robothespian, and there are a number of videos about it on YouTube. The video below shows it, appropriately enough, talking about R.U.R. as part of Café Neu Romance, a robot arts festival, at the Czech National Technical Library in 2012.

Robothespian has also appeared on British breakfast television. In this clip from the Beeb’s Breakfast TV programme from 2014, the two presenters talk about, and sometimes to Robothespian with Dr Nigel Crook of Oxford Brookes University. The robot was created by Engineered Arts as a research project to explore the ways people interact with robots. Crook explains that it can respond to a number of voice commands, and the two presenters ask it questions such as what advantages robots have over human beings. Crook also explains that despite this ability, real intelligence is a long way off, and the problem of giving the robot the ability to hold a genuinely intelligent, wide-ranging conversation is very challenging. So right now, the machine responds giving the answers programmed into it by a human operator.

Robothespian, or Artie, as it is called, from RT – Robothespian – replies to the question about its usefulness that robots can perform simple, repetitive tasks accurately without tiring, or needing to go for breaks. They ask it if it could do their job. Its answer is that it certainly could, as all they do is read from an autocue. So when does it start?

The machine has a range of expressive hand gestures, a moving mouth, and two screens in its head, which show images of eyes. These blink, helping it show a number of expressions. They also show hearts, like those shown in the eyes of cartoon characters to indicate they have fallen in love. The two presenters are, however, advised to stand a few feet away from the robot. Crook explains it is compliant, which means that, unlike an industrial robot, it won’t blindly continue to perform a gesture if it accidentally strikes someone who happens to stand in the way. Similarly, it’s possible to pull the robot’s limbs away from where they’ve settled without damaging it. Nevertheless, the presenters were advised to stand clear of it just in case it accidentally flipped back and struck them.

As well as delivering monologues, Robothespian can also sing, giving a hilarious rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and do impressions, like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Crook explains that it was built to act as a guide at museums, festivals and exhibitions. The two presenters ask about its gender, and are told that it’s creators think of it as male, as it’s been given a male voice.

Also on the show is a little feature about a robot toy, Caspar, which is used in schools to teach autistic children. The toy was being tried out as a teaching tool as autistic people can find it immensely challenging understanding other’s emotions. They also like things in a very set order. Caspar is useful in that its responses, although intended to mimic those of humans, are always the same. For example, when it smiles, that smile is always the same smile every time it makes that expression. And this regularity and constancy of expression is intended to be reassuring and non-threatening, so that the child using it finds it easy, or easier to do so, than more conventional forms of interaction with people.

Robothespian isn’t cheap. Crook explains that it costs about £50,000. Despite this, Engineered Arts have built more than one of them. In this video from last year, 2015, two of them sing, ‘I Am Not A Robot’.

I find robots and robotics interesting, but I am very much aware of the problems they pose. There are the general philosophical issues like human identity and uniqueness – how long before they develop real intelligence and consciousness, start performing sophisticated task like creating art or composing music, or resent at their enslavement and control by humans? There are also the very real social and economic problems caused by their manufacture. The more industry is automated, the more real jobs, that could be performed by people, are lost. The Beeb a few months ago broadcast a documentary which forecast that in the next 15-20 years a third of all jobs could be lost in Britain. You can certainly see it in retail, where a number of companies have replaced human staff with self-service tills, where you scan in yourself the items you want to purchase into the machine, which then takes your money and hands you your change and receipt. If we aren’t careful, this will lead to the emergence of a society very much like that of 2000 AD’s Megacity One. Judge Dredd’s home city has, thanks to robots, a massive unemployment rate of 95% or so. As a result, most people’s lives are marked by boredom and despair, a situation brought home in the classic ‘Judge Dredd’ story, ‘Un-American Graffitti’, featuring Chopper, a teenage lad trying to escape this crushing social malaise through ever more daring pieces of graffiti artwork. 2000 AD and the ‘Dredd’ strip in particular always had a very strong element of satire and social commentary, and this was one of the most outstanding examples of the strip telling an entertaining story while also describing the real situation many of its readers faced for real due to Thatcherism.

And unfortunately, despite the boom years of the 1990s, the prospect of long-term unemployment and grinding poverty has got worse, due to globalism and the spread of neoliberalism as the dominant political and economic ideology. This will only get worse unless humanity finds ways to manage robotic technology wisely, to create jobs, rather than to the replace them.

Frontiers Magazine on Robot Weapons

October 23, 2016

The popular science magazine, Frontiers, way back in October 1998 ran an article on robots. This included two pages on the ‘Soldiers of Tomorrow’, military robots then under development. This included drones. These are now extremely well-known, if not notorious, for the threat they pose to privacy and freedom. The article notes that they were developed from the unmanned planes used for target practice. They were first used in the 1960s to fly reconnaissance missions in Vietnam after the US air force suffered several losses from surface to air missiles. Drones were also used during the Cold War to spy on the Soviet Union, though instead of beaming the pictures back to their operators, they had to eject them physically. They were further developed by the Israelis, who used them to spy on their Arab neighbours during their many wars. Their next development was during the Gulf War, when they broadcast back to their operators real-time images of the battlefields they were surveying.

Apart from drones, the article also covered a number of other war machines under development. This included remotely operated ground vehicles like SARGE, and the Mobility Module and remotely controlled buggy shown below.

robot-army-cars

SARGE was a scout vehicle adapted from a Yamaha four-wheel drive all-terrain jeep. Like the drones, it was remotely controlled by a human operator. The top photo of the two above showed the Mobility Module mounted aboard another army vehicle, which contained a number of reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition sensors. Below it is a missile launcher fixed to another remote-control buggy. The article also carried a photo of a Rockwell Hellfire missile being launched from another of this type of adapted vehicle.

robot-army-car-missile

Next to this was a photo of the operator in his equipment, who controlled the Tele-Operated Vehicle, or TOV, as the developers were calling such machines.

robot-army-car-operator

Another of the machines described in the article was the Telepresent Rapid Aiming System, a robot gun designed by Graham Hawkes and Precision Remotes of California as a sentry robot. As the article itself notes, it’s similar to the tunnel machine guns used by the Space Marines in the film Aliens. It could either be operated by remote control, or made fully automatic and configured to shoot live ammunition. At the time the article was written it had already been tested by a number of different law enforcement agencies.

The only vaguely humanoid robot was the Robart III, shown below.

robot-solider

This machine was able to track a target automatically using its video vision, and possessed laser guidance to allow it to be operated remotely. In demonstrations it carried a pneumatic dart gun, capable of firing tranquillizer darts at intruders. In combat situations this would be replaced with a machine gun. It was designed to be used as a mechanical security guard.

The article also stated that miniature crawling robots were also under development. These would be used to creep up on enemy positions, sending back to their operators video images of their progress. If such machines were mass-produced, their price could fall to about £10. This would mean that it would be easily affordable to saturate an area with them. (pp. 56-7).

The article describes the state of development of these machines as it was nearly 20 years ago. Drones are now so widespread, that they’ve become a nuisance. I’ve seen them in sale in some of the shops in Cheltenham for anything from £36 to near enough £400. Apart from the military, they’re being used by building surveyors and archaeologists.

And while robots like the above might excite enthusiasts for military hardware, there are very serious issues with them. The Young Turks, Secular Talk and Jimmy Dore have pointed out on their shows that Bush and Obama have violated the American constitution by using drones to assassinate terrorists, even when they are resident in friendly or at least non-hostile countries. Despite all the talk by the American army about ‘surgical strikes’, these weapons in fact are anything but precise instruments that can kill terrorists while sparing civilians. The three programmes cited, along with no doubt many other shows and critics, have stated that most of the victims of drone attacks are civilians and the families of terrorists. The drones may be used to home in on mobile signals, so that the person killed has been someone using their phone, rather than the terrorists themselves. Others have been worried about the way the operation of these weapons through remote control have distanced their human operators, and by extension the wider public, from the bloody reality of warfare.

Way back in the first Gulf War, one of the French radical philosophers in his book, The Gulf War Never Happened, argued that the extensive use of remotely controlled missiles during the war, and the images from them that were used in news coverage at the time, meant that for many people the Gulf War was less than real. It occurred in Virtual Reality, like a simulation in cyberspace. Recent criticism of the military use of drones as killing machines by whistleblowers have borne out these fears. One, who was also an instructor on the drone programme, described the casual indifference to killing, including killing children, of the drone pilots. They referred to their actions as ‘mowing the lawn’, and their child victims as ‘fun-sized terrorists’, justifying their deaths by arguing that as the children of terrorists, they would have grown up to be terrorists themselves. Thus they claimed to have prevented further acts of terrorism through their murder. And they did seem to regard the operation of the drones almost as a video game. The instructor describes how he threw one trainee off the controls after he indulged in more, unnecessary bloodshed, telling him, ‘This is not a computer game!’

And behind this is the threat that such machines will gain their independence to wipe out or enslave humanity. This is the real scenario behind Dr Kevin Warwick’s book, March of the Machines, which predicts that by mid-century robots will have killed the majority of humanity and enslaved the rest. A number of leading scientists have called for a halt on the development of robot soldiers. About 15 or twenty years ago there was a mass outcry from scientists and political activists after one government announced it was going to develop fully autonomous robot soldiers.

I’m a fan of the 2000 AD strip, ‘ABC Warriors’, which is about a group of robot soldiers, who now fight to ‘increase the peace’, using their lethal skills to rid the galaxy of criminals and tyrants and protect the innocent. The robots depicted in the strip are fully conscious, intelligent machines, with individual personalities and their own moral codes. The Frontiers article notes elsewhere that we’re a long way from developing such sophisticated AI, stating that he did not believe he would see it in his lifetime. On the other hand, Pat Mills, the strips’ writer and creator, says in the introduction to one of the collected volumes of the strips on the ‘Volgan War’, that there is a Russian robot, ‘Johnny 5’, that looks very much like Mechquake, the stupid, psychopathic robot bulldozer that appeared in the strip and its predecessor, ‘Robusters’. None of the machines under development therefore have the humanity and moral engagement of Hammerstein, Ro-Jaws, Mongrol, Steelhorn, Happy Shrapnel/ Tubalcain, Deadlok or even Joe Pineapples. The real robotic killing machines now being developed and used by the military represent a real threat to political liberty, the dehumanisation of warfare, and the continuing safety of the human race.

Comics and Political Satire: Diceman’s ‘You Are Ronald Reagan’

October 13, 2016

diceman-reagan-cover

I’ve written a several pieces about comics and political satire and comment. The 1960s counterculture produced underground comics, which dealt with taboo subjects. These included sex, and issues of sexual orientation, such as homosexuality, as well as explicit political commentary and satire. These continued well into the 1980s and 1990s. Over here, adult strips with a strong political content included Crisis, many of the Knockabout stable of comics, and Pete Loveday’s Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man. Mainstream comics, such as 2000 AD, also contained elements of satire and political comment, particularly in the strips created and written by veteran recidivist and script droid Pat Mills.

Way back in the 1980s, 2000 AD also launched a spin-off, aimed at the RPG crowd. This followed adventure game books, like the Wizard of Firetop Mountain, in which the reader also played the central character in the adventure, and their decisions reading the book/game determined how it ended for them. 2000 AD’s Diceman was similar, but the games were in comic strip form, rather than simple, unillustrated text. Most of the games were straightforward strips using 2000 AD characters like Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock and Rogue Trooper. There was also the ‘Diceman’ strip of the title, which was about a 1930s occult private eye in America, hunting down weirdness and assorted monsters and human villains assisted by his own occult monster, Astragal, the demon of the dice. The strip was set amongst the grim tenements of Depression era New York, though it could go further afield into Nazi Germany, and so also had more than a little similarity to the Indian Jones films then playing in cinemas. It was based on the writings and life of Charles Hoy Fort, the writer and researcher of the bizarre and weird, such as falls of frogs and other strange events. Fort was the inspiration for the magazine The Fortean Times, which continued Fort’s work of documenting the bizarre and the scientifically ‘damned’. The Fortean inspiration behind Diceman probably came from the fact that many of those involved in the British comics scene, like the late Steve Moore, were also contributors to the FT.

Most of the strips seem to have been written by Pat Mills, and the readership seems to have been somewhat more mature than that of the parent magazine, 2000 AD. So in a couple of them, Pat Mills let rip and dealt explicitly with two of the politicos then running amok on the world stage. These were Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Illustrated by the great underground comic artist, Hunt Emerson, these were ‘Maggie Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game’, and ‘You Are Ronald Reagan’. I found the issue with the latter yesterday looking through a pile of old magazines. Published in issue 5 of the magazine in 1986, the game had the reader take over the brain of the American president and journey back in time to avert an impending nuclear war. During the game you were faced with such tasks as deciding whether to send the troops into Nicaragua, negotiating arms reductions with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, researching your family tree to boost your popularity with the American electorate, and trying to prevent a full scale nuclear war with Russia. While also trying to sort out what to do about Britain and Maggie’s plea to turn it into America’s 51st State. The reader also had to successfully maintain the illusion that they were indeed the real Ronald Reagan. If they didn’t, they were fried in the electric chair as a Commie infiltrator. Along with Maggie and various aides, one of the whom looked like an American eagle, was Reagan’s buddy, Bonzo the Superchimp, named after Reagan’s co-star in the film Bedtime for Bonzo.

Some idea of the style – both visual and narrative – of the strip can be seen in the sample page below.

diceman-reagan-1

The strip mostly has a light touch, even when Reagan fails to avert World War 3 and civilisation is ended in a nuclear holocaust. But it dealt with extremely serious issues. For example, nearly all of the options for solving the crisis in Nicaragua involved military force to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them would result in misery for the people of that nation. Which were illustrated with the same depiction of starving peasants and crying children for all of the choices. As with many of Mills’ strips, it was based on solid research, with some of the books consulted listed at the end of the strip, along with the terrifying real incidents where the world had come close to nuclear war through mistakes and stupidity.

The strip was also similar to some of the computer games then being created for the new generation of home computers, like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. Some of these also had a satirical slant, including one called The Tebbitt. This followed the Tolkienesque adventure game format, but you played a politician running around Whitehall trying to solve political issues. Hence the title, in which the name of one of Thatcher’s cabinet thugs, Norman Tebbitt, was substituted for The Hobbit.

Sadly, Diceman didn’t last long. There are still underground comic strips and graphic novels with a strong political content. Counterpunch a few weeks ago carried an article about one attacking the current situation in America. And two years ago Mills announced another graphic novel containing an anthology of strips to counter the establishment propaganda about the First World War. Role-Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons and various others based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos are still played, despite being overtaken by video and computer games. And Judge Dredd and 2000 AD and its other characters, like Slaine and the A.B.C. Warriors have survived into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, so have the Conservatives, Neoliberal economics, a political cult based around Reagan and Thatcher as visionary politicians, for whom it is tantamount to horrible blasphemy to criticise. And Obama and the Conservatives in this country also seem to want to pitch the world into another nuclear confrontation with Russia, this time over the Middle East.

Perhaps it’s time for a few more politically orientated satirical strips. Maybe one in which you play David Cameron, and have to avoid destroying the economy, making millions homeless and starving, and trying not to break up the UK while fighting the EU. All the while breaking trade unions, protecting the rich and powerful, and keeping the population as poor and desperate as possible. With the option of doing it all again as Theresa May.