Posts Tagged ‘Computers’

China Reinforcing Army with War Robots Along Border with India

January 1, 2022

More robot news, but this time it’s really sinister with very grave implications not just for the Indo-Chinese region, but for the survival of the human race. Because the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has just posted military robots along the Tibet border to reinforce its human personnel.

This chilling video comes from Gravitas, part of the WION, World Is One network. I started getting their reports on YouTube on my mobile. I don’t know who WION is, but the accent and the concentration on south Asia, India, Pakistan and the surrounding countries, suggests that they’re Indian. They’re interesting, as they present the news from a different national perspective. Nearly a week ago they posted a report about a special forces unit in the American army in Syria acting as a death squad through drone strikes that also killed innocent civilians as well as soldiers. It’s the kind of news al-Jazeera reports, and gets labelled as Islamist propaganda by an outraged American right for doing so. There were calls a few years ago to ban al-Jazeera in America, and I wonder how long WION and Gravitas will go on before they’re faced with similar opposition.

According to this report, China has stationed 88 ‘Sharp Claws’ war robots and 120 ‘Mule-200’ robots along the frontier. The human soldiers had trouble adjusting to the high altitude in Tibet. The Sharp Claws are true robot weapons. They consist of a machine gun mounted on tank tracks with a camera so they can see where they’re going. At the moment they’re operated remotely by a soldier, but Beijing would like to make them autonomous. The Mule 200s are transport vehicles intended to carry supplies like ammunition. Beijing is also keen to develop other autonomous robots. The army wants to develop land-based robots, the navy robot subs and their air force intelligent drones. The Chinese government roped a number of private firms into developing them, including TenCent, Waowei, and at least three others, who were all declared robot champions. The UN is concerned about the increasing use of autonomous robots, and tried to set up an international treaty to restrict them. But this failed due to lack of support from the main countries producing them, a tactic that has worked to Beijing’s advantage.

Back in the ’90s many scientists were extremely worried about the real possibility of a robot takeover. Kevin Warwick, the robotics professor at Reading University, begins his book March of the Machines, with a description of life in 2050. The machines really have taken over. Humanity has been largely wiped out, and the remaining humans are lobotomised, neutered slaves used by the machines for work in environments they cannot operate in, and in fighting those human communities that have remained free. When one company reported they were developing war robots for real, they were met with an angry response from many leading scientists telling them not to, because it would pose a real threat to the human race. Warwick was deeply depressed at the threat, and only recovered through exploring the possibility of augmenting humanity through cyborgisation. A few months ago Panorama posted a documentary, ‘Are You Worried Yet, Human?’, about China’s use of robotics and AI to control and monitor its population. And in one test, warplanes were remotely piloted, not by humans, but by a computer. This successfully shot down a piloted warplane.

This looks all too much like the scenario behind the Terminator movies, and we’re in big trouble if someone develops something like Skynet for real. As Isaac Arthur says in a video about robot rebellion in one of his Science and Futurism videos, ‘Keep them stupid, keep them dumb, else you’re under Skynet’s thumb’. Quite.

We don’t need these machines. They are a real threat to the human race. Robots operate through machine logic and programming. They don’t have the moral judgement of humans, although there has been precious little of that shown in wars. And perhaps this is why China, a totalitarian state committing genocide against the Uighurs in Sinjiang, is using them.

If we must have war robots, let them be moral, intelligent, humanoid machines like Hammerstein of the long-running 2000AD strip, ‘ABC Warriors’. A robot soldier, who fights for peace, democracy and justice against the tyrants of Earth and Mars. We need robot soldiers like him, not automatic mechanical killers, and far fewer wars and conflicts.

As Hammerstein says in the comics ‘Increase the peace’. Until we have robot warriors like him, the UN is right. Autonomous war robots need to be strictly controlled, no matter who has them.

Despatches: 2/3 of People Believe Disabled A Waste of Money

December 18, 2021

Okay, I only caught the tail end of the Despatches programme on Channel 4 Mike was recommending on his blog. This was a searing expose of the DWP’s persecution and denial of benefits to disabled claimants. Mike was urging his readers to watch it, as it is exactly the kind of programme Bojob and his fellow privileged, elite band of murderers really don’t want you to see. I heard the last few minutes of it, and that was enough. It included interviews with the relatives of people who had died after being thrown off the benefits they needed. One grieving mother, I remember, called the DWP exactly what they are: murderers. And then there were the stats of how harassment from the DWP had made disabled people’s conditions worse, further damaging their mental health and even giving them conditions they hadn’t had before. None of this is new or revelatory: Disabled rights groups like DPAC, doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists and carers have been talking about this for years, ever since the loathsome Iain Duncan Smith and the Esther ‘Wicked Witch of the Worral’ ran the DWP under Dodgy Dave Cameron and began their eugenic cull of the disabled. But what really shocked me was the closing comment. This was a statistic. A poll had found that 2/3 of the British considered the disabled a waste of money.

This is deeply shocking stuff. If it’s true, I can only conclude that it comes from the incessant propaganda from middle-market tabloids like the Heil and Depress, not to mention the dregs of print media, the Scum, to convince voters to support further cuts in welfare benefits to allow the Tories give more tax breaks to the bloated superrich. It’s no doubt related to all the propaganda that has convinced voters that most welfare claims are fraudulent, whereas such claims account for less than one per cent, a vanishingly small proportion.

More frightening still, it’s the attitude behind the Nazi sterilisation of the ‘dysgenic’, the biologically unfit, and the murder of the disabled and mentally ill under Aktion T4. Social Darwinist doctrine across the world, including Britain and America, claimed that it was useless supporting the biologically unfit, which included those with learning conditions. This wouldn’t solve their problems, and would only encourage them to breed, further contaminating the gene pool. The disabled should instead be isolated and prevented from breeding. The Nazis went further. The congenitally disabled and incurable schizophrenics were declared lebensunwertigen, ‘life unworthy of life’. The SS set up a special ambulance wing, in which the disabled were gassed in a horrifying prefiguration of the murder of the Jews later on. They were also transferred to specific hospitals and clinics, where again they were murdered. This caused a massive scandal and there was a successful campaign to stop it by the Roman Catholic nobleman, Count Galen. This episode also shows that, had there been sufficient opposition by the Christian churches, the Nazis would also have been forced to back down and halt the Holocaust. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few heroic clergymen and Christian laymen, the churches largely cooperated with the regime, despite papal opposition expressed in the encyclical ‘Mit brennenden Sorge‘ – ‘With Burning Sorrow’.

This attitude should be completely anathema to Christians. Christian theology has traditionally been opposed to euthanasia, viewing it as murder, because it holds that all humans have an intrinsic essential worth that makes their lives precious. We are all, male and female, Black and White, Jew and Greek, made in the image of the Almighty. And I also disagree with it on rational, practical grounds.

Technology is increasingly able to give the disabled the opportunities to live better lives and hold down jobs that they otherwise may not have been able to do. Becky Taylor, one of the artists exhibited in Grayson Perry’s Art Club exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, is an example of this. Left paralysed in a wheelchair and unable to speak naturally, she nevertheless is able to speak through the same kind of computerised voice synthesis used by Stephen Hawking. She was also able to paint a superb portrait of Perry through computer software that tracked the movements of her eyes. She is currently studying computers at university, and I predict she will have an excellent career ahead of her. Over a decade ago I met a similar young man at a social evening in a pub. This was a lad, who was also totally paralysed, though he still had the power of speech. But he was extremely intelligent, had a girlfriend, and, I learned later, held a very well paid job in computing. And I’ve heard of other disabled peeps in wheelchairs like him. Companies don’t pay the kind of money he was earning to people who can’t do the job. A waste of money? Nonsense! And nobody ever said that about Stephen Hawking.

I realise most disabled people aren’t computer geniuses, but they can do other jobs, although it might mean that they have to use adapted equipment. Or that in the case of those left brain damaged through head injury, they just take a little longer than everyone else. Unfortunately, I got the impression that the economics crisis caused by austerity has led firms to lay off these workers, even though having a job allows them to support themselves and contribute to the economy through their expenditure. And then the DWP harass them as if it’s their fault. And even those, who are unable to work, have an intrinsic worth that goes far beyond money. I was told years ago that some foster parents, for example, prefer to foster children with Down’s Syndrome, because they are more loving. Caring for the severely disabled is not a job I could do, but nevertheless I am extremely impressed by those who do and find it rewarding.

How we treat the poor, the sick and the disabled is a vital measure of how genuinely civilised a society is. The Byzantine Empire, the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, had public hospitals. As did Islam. According to the programme, What Islam Did For Us, one of a series of programmes which examined the scientific contributions of civilisations around the world present by Adam Harte-Davis back in the ’90s, Haroun al-Rashid, one of the medieval Arab emperors, founded a hospital in Baghdad. Its staff included musicians, who were employed as it was believed their music would calm the shattered minds of the insane incarcerated there. Truly, a humane institution.

And unfortunately, these humane attitudes that have raised human civilisation up from the Dark Ages are being undermined by the vicious persecution of the disabled by the DWP and the vile propaganda of the right-wing press.

And the result of this is a return to the underlying attitudes of Nazi barbarism.

Grayson Perry, Futurism and the Democratisation of Art

December 13, 2021

One of the best programmes to have been on during the lockdown has been Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4, hosted by the Turner Prize-winning potter. He has attempted to encourage people across the country to get creating their own personal works of art. They have included ordinary Brits, as well as celebrities like Johnny Vegas and Boy George. At the end of the series, the works he selected for inclusion on his programme were exhibited in one of the country’s museums. Last year’s entry’s were displayed, I think, in Manchester. This year they’re being exhibited at the City Museum and Art Gallery here in Bristol. Accompanying the exhibition was an edition of his programme last Friday, in which he went behind the scenes to show the works being put up, as well as display the pieces that he had selected and talk to their creators. Those included came from all works of life. One was a volunteer at a food bank, who had painted one of the other women working there behind the counter. Another was a transvestite, who had painted himself in feminine make-up. Johnny Vegas had produced a highly stylised human figure representing Norman. This was a young lad he remembered from school, who always seemed hunched up in his coat as if he had already been defeated and given up on life. Vegas wished he could go back and encourage him to become more positive. One of the most amazing people was Becky Taylor, a young woman stricken with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, she nevertheless was able to speak and create through the same type of computer technology as Stephen Hawking. She was able to paint a portrait of Perry by moving her eyes across the computer screen. Their movements were captured by the software, which turned them into brushstrokes. The result was an astonishingly good likeness. Perry tried to do it for himself, but unsurprisingly only succeeded in making a mess.

It struck me that Perry’s programme in many respects was close to some of the ideals and demands made by the Italian Futurists. Not that the gentle, transvestite Perry had anything politically in common with the hypermasculine, nationalistic belligerence of the Futurists, who celebrated violence and declared war to be ‘sole hygiene of the world’, and whose survivors after World War I joined Mussolini’s Fascists. But Taylor’s art and the technology that enabled her to express her creativity would certainly have pleased them, as they celebrated the new industrial Italy. Marinetti, in his Founding and Manifesto of Futurism of 1909, had looked forward to ‘the coming union of man and machine’.

But Marinetti had also called for museums and exhibition spaces to be opened up to the public, to display the works of art that were being produced by ordinary Italians. He was impressed by the number of people, even in small villages, who were artistically inclined and dismayed by how they were frustrated and crushed. In his ‘Florentine Address’ of 1919, he remarked on ‘the proletariat of geniuses’, the frustrated intellectuals of contemporary Italy, calling for their encouragement and display. He said, or, more probably, declaimed

“I wish to fill another gap by turning now to the only proletariat that remains forgotten and oppressed: the vitally important proletariat of geniuses.

It is indisputable that our race surpasses all others in the large number of geniuses that it produces. Even the smallest Italian group, the smallest village, can claim seven or eight twenty-year olds, who are brimming over with creative fervor, youths of overweening ambition as revealed in volumes of unpublished verse and in eloquent outbursts in the public squares and at political rallies. Admittedly some (though they are few in number) are little more than foolish dreamers who will probably never attain true genius. But there is genius in their temperament, which is to say that, encouraged in the right manner, they might well contribute to the nation’s intellectual dynamism.

In that same small group or village it is easy to find seven or eight middle-aged men above whose heads hovers the melancholy halo of failed genius, a halo that accompanies them through their lives as petty clerks or professionals, in neighbourhood cafes, and with their families. Remnants of a genius that never found a propitious environment in which it might thrive, they were quickly laid low by economic and sentimental necessities.

I founded the Futurist artistic movement eleven years ago in order to brutally modernize the literary-artistic milieu, to deprive it of any authority and destroy its ruling gerontocracy, to debunk pedantic professors and critics, and to encourage the reckless outbursts of young genius. My aim was to create a fully oxygenated atmosphere, a healthy, encouraging, supportive atmosphere where all of Italy’s young geniuses might prosper. I sought to encourage all of them, to increase their pride, to clear a path for them, to swiftly reduce the proportion of failed and worn-out geniuses.

It is sometimes difficult to recognise, appreciate, and encourage young geniuses. In part this is because instead of viewing their homeland as a vast malleable mass to be molded spiritually, these youths regard it as an idiotic network of abuses of power, criminal rackets, corrupt authorities, and asinine rules. And, of course, they are right. Everywhere in our country, genius is undervalued, derided, imprisoned. Only mediocre opportunists and over-the-hill, one-time geniuses are celebrated and crowned….

Many other youths – dynamic, impetuous young men, intoxicated with spiritual heroism and revolutionary patriotism – have now swollen the Futurist ranks. But a great many others remain ignorant or depressed, stifled by the atmosphere of small ultrapasseist cities. Thanks to the vast wave of stormy soirees and demonstrations that swept up and down the Italian peninsula, Futurism came into contact with nearly everyone. But the nation’s political forces will have to undertake a more systematic campaign if we are to save, re-ignite, and tap the vast energies possessed by the proletariat of geniuses.

I propose the construction in every city of a number of buildings that bear a title like the following: Free Exhibition of Creative Genius. In these facilities:

  1. works of painting, sculpture, graphics, architectural drawings, machine drawings, and designs of inventions will be on display for a month at time;
  2. Musical works, small or large, for orchestra or piano, in any genre, form, or size will be performed.
  3. poems, prose, scientific writings of all kinds and lengths will be read, displayed, recited;
  4. all citizens will have the right to exhibit free of charge;
  5. works of any kind or any value, even if seemingly judged to be absurd, inane, crazy or immoral, will be displayed or read without a jury.

With these free and open exhibitions of creative genius, we Futurists wage war against an ever present danger: the danger of seeing the spirit shipwrecked on the ideological seas that swirl around the formulas of communism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

From: A Primer of Italian Fascism, ed. and introduced by Jeffrey T. Schnapp (University of Nebraska Press 2000) 271-3.

Some of this has been realised through recent initiatives to open up museums and art galleries to the public and aspiring artists, as well as the new opportunities for display that have come through the internet. I don’t quite share the Futurist’s artistic tastes – they were militant avant-garde artists who attacked traditional art and Italy’s artistic heritage. And there are obviously artistic, literary and scientific works that are too dangerous or immoral to be displayed or encouraged. But Marinetti had a point. Up and down Britain there are people, who have tried their hand at art or literature, and been discouraged because of lack of opportunity. They also deserve their chance. It’s great that programmes like Perry’s are there to encourage them.

But perhaps, to encourage the genius of ordinary people still further, we should build the exhibition halls he called for to show what talent is still out there, waiting to be discovered.

Arthur C. Clarke Helped to Bring the Benefits of Space and High Technology to the Developing World

October 18, 2021

Last week there was a bit of controversy between William Shatner and Prince William. As the man behind Captain Kirk went with a party of others to the High Frontier aboard Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX, the prince declared that such space tourism was a waste and a threat to the environment. I think here the prince was thinking about the extremely rich and their private jets, and the damage that the carbon emissions from mass aircraft travel are doing to the environment. I respect the prince’s commitment to the environment and the Earthshot prize he launched last night, but believe that on this issue he’s profoundly wrong.

If space tourism was only about letting extremely right people go into space aboard highly polluting spacecraft, as it seems the prince believes, then I’d certainly be inclined to agree with him. But it isn’t. Way back at the beginning of this century I gave a paper at a British Interplanetary Society symposium on the popular commercialisation of space. Many of the papers were about space tourism. The one that real down a real storm, far better than my own, was from a young chap who suggested that space was the ideal venue for sports that would be impossible on Earth. Because of the complete absence of gravity, you could play something like Harry Potter’s Quidditch for real.

The hope with space tourism is that it will help open up the High Frontier to further space commercialisation. This includes lowering launch costs so that eventually they’ll become affordable and people will be able to move into space to live and work, building true communities up there. And with that comes the hope that industry will move there as well, thus relieving some of the environmental pressures down here on Earth. Gerard O’Neill, who put forward concrete plans and designs for these colonies, believed that this would be one of the benefits of space colonisation and industrialisation. For one thing, the industrialisation of space may be able to provide clean, green energy instead of the carbon emitting fossil fuel power stations that we now use. Solar energy is abundant in space, and it has been suggested that this could be collected using vast solar arrays, which would then beam the power to Earth as microwaves.

The late, great SF writer Arthur C. Clarke was a very strong advocate of space colonisation and industrialisation. An optimist about humanity’s future in space and the benefits of high technology, Clarke not only argued for it but also tried to help make it a reality. Space and other forms of high technology offer considerable benefits to the Developing World, which is one of the reasons India has invested relatively large amounts in its space programme. And so has Clarke’s adopted country of Sri Lanka, with the assistance of the Space Prophet himself. I found this passage describing the work of such a centre, named after Clarke, in Sri Lanka in Brian Aldiss’ and David Wingrove’s history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree.

“Clarke is, moreover, actively engaged in bringing about that better world of which he writes. From his base in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he has become directly (and financially) involved in a scheme to transfer modern high-technology to the developing countries of the Third World.

The Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies, sited at the University of Moratuwa, outside Colombo, embraces numerous high-tech disciplines, including computers and alternate energy sources, with plans to expand into the areas of robotics and space technologies. The main emphasis, however, is on developing a cheap communications system tailored to the agricultural needs of the Third World.

Such a project harnesses expensive space technologies in a way which answers those critics who have argued that it is immoral to waste funds on the romantic gesture of spaceflight when problems of poverty, illness and hunger remain in the world. That advanced technology would eventually benefit all of Mankind has always been Clarke’s belief-perhaps naive, but visionaries often function more effectively for a touch of naivety about them. One has to admire this benevolent, aspiring side of Clarke; it is the other side of the coin to L Ron Hubbard.” (P. 402, my emphasis).

It has never been a simple case of space exploration going ahead at the expense of human suffering here on Earth. Space tourism, at present confined to the extremely wealth like Shatner, is part of a wider campaign to open up the High Frontier so that humanity as a whole will benefit.

And the late comedian Bill Hicks also used to look forward to an optimistic future of world peace and the colonisation of space. He used to end his gigs with his own vision. If we spent used the money the world currently spends on arms for peace instead, we could end world hunger. Not one person would starve. And we could colonise the universe, in peace, forever.

It’s an inspiring vision. As another Star Trek captain would say:

Make it so!’

And here’s a bit of fun I found on YouTube. It’s a video of a man in Star Trek costume, playing the theme to the original series on the Theremin. Engage!

Keef Stalin Tells Press He Has the Same Nickname as Recreational Drug

October 11, 2021

This piece over at Mike’s blog has given me a not inconsiderable amount of amusement, as John Major may have said. Stalin was visiting a Kellogg’s factory when he decided to tell his audience that when he was young he had the nickname ‘Special K’. He was supposedly called it because the ‘K’ stood for ‘Kier’ and he was special. He obviously thought this story would impressed the assembled workers, as it’s the name of one of their breakfast cereals. One which was always being advertised as helping you watch your weight. However, as your super soaraway, poisonous rag, the Scum, reminded their readers, it’s also the nickname for ketamine, a horse tranquilliser also used recreationally by the drugs crowd. I got the impression that its side-effects included nightmares and paranoia. The psychologist John Lilley was on it. Lilley was the scientist, who first researched dolphin intelligence and investigated the use of the sensory isolation tank, going on inward voyages into the contents of his mind in it while also stoned on the drug. The horror film Altered States is based on him. Thanks to the drug, Lilley became paranoid and convinced alien computer civilisations were out in space conspiring against humanity. If Stalin was on the drug, it would explain so much, like the mass purges and the anti-Semitism against the ‘wrong kind of Jews’. You know, the type of Jews who don’t believe that Israel is the crowning achievement of Jewish history and that it’s wrong to persecute the Palestinians. Mind you, it doesn’t seem he would have been so far gone to start getting worried about a personal vendetta against him by all the computers out there.

However, faced with ridicule from Scum’s article, Stalin has doubled back and said he only made it up on the spur of the moment because he was caught off guard. Which is an admission that he lied. Well, it’s small one compared to all those he’s previously told.

The episode should be an object lesson to Starmer. He had a piece published in it last week, clearly trying to ingratiate himself with its readers just as Tony Blair managed to win over Dirty Rupe nearly a quarter of a century ago.

But the Scum is Tory through and through, and it doesn’t matter what you do if you’re on the left, they still aren’t going to respect you, and will turn and bite as soon as they get the opportunity.

Belfield Attacks Facial Recognition Systems as Part of the Emerging Surveillance Society

September 30, 2021

I’ve put up several pieces already this week commenting on and critiquing some of the videos put up by mad internet radio host Alex Belfield. Belfield is very much a man of the right, who rails against ‘namby-pamby pinko liberal Guardian-reading lefty-twirlies’ and entitled ‘whippersnappers’ in just about every one of his videos. I very much do not share his political views, especially when he demands the privatisation of the NHS. But sometimes he says something with which I agree and believe to be absolutely correct.

This is one of them. In his piece below, Belfield expresses his concerns about the police’s announcement that they will be increasing the use of computer facial recognition systems. Belfield’s worried about the privacy issue here. He points out that it will be used to track you on the motorway, and that it is also being used in some of the cashless stores now being trialled. In these stores, you are watched by the CCTV cameras and the machines make note of your purchases. You walk out of the store without handing over cash, but simply use your card to pay. As Belfield points out, the police can use the information from facial recognition systems and CCTV footage to reconstruct your day, including where you went and what you bought. And it’s not just adults being targeted. Critics have attacked plans to introduce CCTV surveillance in schools.

These are real, pressing issues that have been around for a long time. Back in the late 90s at the beginnings of Blair’s reign I read a book I’d taken out of the library which criticised the use of CCTV cameras and the electronic bourse. This was supposed to be the new form of cashless payment. Everyone would have a card which contained their biometric details and money, which would be used to pay for everything from groceries to trips on the bus. Tory Tony Blair was very much interested in forcing a biometric ID card on us all. The book and organisations such as Privacy International argued that this would lead to a surveillance state. A recent edition of Panorama, ‘Are You Worried Yet, Human?’, examined dangerous developments in AI. These included computer systems that could pilot jets remotely so that they performed better than when they were flown by human pilots. But most of the programme concentrated on the threat posed by computer surveillance. The Chinese are building computer systems and centres to gather data so that their citizens are constantly monitored. The programme spoke to Chinese dissidents who had been arrested and detained using such computer-collected footage.

This is exactly the type of totalitarian society depicted in Science Fiction dystopias. The first season titles of the classic BBC SF series, Blake’s 7, started with a CCTV camera followed by a black-suited soldier, faced hidden by helmet visor and gas mask. This was a trooper of the Federation, the totalitarian galactic empire against which Blake and his crew of former criminals fought. Comics legend Alan Moore has expressed his own worries about CCTV surveillance. He has said in interviews that he deliberately put them in the Fascist Britain he depicted in V For Vendetta in order to scare readers. What worries him is that these cameras have now become completely accepted. Moore’s an anarchist, but Tory Niall Ferguson has said the same thing. He recalls coming back from China and being shocked to find CCTV surveillance being used here, but ignored and accepted by everyone.

Belfield says that these systems and cashless electronic payment are being used to track us, and to keep records of what we’ve bought by companies so they can sell us stuff. That’s only part of the story. Another reason the electronic payment is being pushed instead of cash is so that governments can use it to track what we’re purchasing and seeing if we’re doing anything illegal. Privacy International was dedicated to combating such threats to our liberty. But I’m not aware that this is anything more than the viewpoints of a small number of individuals at present. Blair was prevented from introducing biometric ID cards, but the increased use of facial recognition systems and the push towards cashless payment suggests that the people who were calling for its introduction 20 years or so ago really haven’t gone away.

Belfield is absolutely right to point out that this is a threat to our liberty. It’s just a shame that he is one of the small number of people who are doing so.

Trailer for Film of Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’

July 3, 2021

I found this trailer for a forthcoming film of Asimov’s Foundation on the Moviegasm channel on YouTube. Foundation is, like Dune, one of the great classics of Science Fiction. It’s the story of the decline and fall of a sprawling galactic empire against the rise of chaos and barbarism, and of one scientist’s attempt to prepare for the return of civilisation and hold back this new dark age. It’s the story of Hari Seldon, the inventor of the science of psychohistory, which allows him to predict the fall of what seems a stable and prosperous interstellar society. Seldon therefore sets up two Foundations, one secret, to preserve the empire’s science and culture. There were originally two novels, Foundation, published in 1955 under the title, The 1,000 Year Plan, and its sequel, Foundation and Empire, published that same decade as The Man Who Upset the Universe. It was clearly an influence on Star Wars and Dune, which similarly tell epic tales of intrigue and warfare in sprawling galactic empires. I don’t think it’s ever been filmed, possibly due to the expense and difficulty of bringing such a complex novel spanning centuries to life. I do remember, however, that there was an LP of it read by William Shatner.

There has been a previous trailer for the film, released a few months or so ago. It looks fascinating and visually extremely impressive, but fans of the book are concerned if the film will do justice to Asimov’s views on history and politics, which are at the core of the book. There’s been the same problem with the adaptations of Frank Herbert’s Dune to the large and small screens. Dune is similarly a book of ideas, containing Herbert’s speculations and views on ecology, politics and the dangers of charismatic leaders. Film and TV are, however, visual mediums, and so the intellectual depth of the book has largely been left behind as the screen adaptations concentrate on visual spectacle. Whether this will happen with Foundation remains to be seen. Looking through the comments about the trailer on YouTube, people are also concerned that it’s produced by Steve Jobs’ old outfit, Apple, and so may be pushing computers and AI as the salvation of humanity. It also seems to contain cloning, which apparently isn’t in the book and suggests that certain liberties have been taken with Asimov’s classic text.

Still, like the trailers for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, it looks awesome and I certainly want to see it, always assuming it’s going to be on at the cinemas rather than streamed online. But there doesn’t seem to be any date for its release. Dune’s release has been postponed yet again in order to avoid clashes with other big budget movies, so I wonder if we’ll ever see it. Let’s hope so, as it promises to be a true SF epic. It remains to be seen whether it can live up to it.

1980’s Book Discussing the Future Militarisation of Space

March 16, 2021

One of former president Donald Trump’s controversial decisions has been to propose the establishment of an American military space force. As with just about every stupid decision the orange buffoon made, this caused immediate controversy. It breaks the current international agreement banning the militarisation of space and threatens a new arms race, increasing international tension and the possibility of real war. Which could result in the nuclear annihilation of humanity and the reduction of our beautiful, blue-green planet to a smouldering atomic cinder.

But The Donald’s proposal was hardly new. Congress and the US military discussed the possible establishment of a space force over thirty years previously. These discussions had been accompanied by the publication of a book, Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years, by John M. Collins (Washington: Pergamon-Brasseys 1989). The book was published to help congressional representatives understand the issues. It also gives a fascinating insight in what American politicians and military staff considered might happen in this new area of human combat over the following half century. The book’s blurb runs

‘The latest from renowned defense authority John M. Collins, Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years was requested by key U.S. congressmen to help them and the White House evaluate and understand future space issues. This is the foundation document upon which future U.S. space policy will be based.

Concentrating on the Earth-Moon system, Military Space Forces has four purposes:

  • To describe space as a distinctive military medium.
  • To describe military space planning and programming, with particular concern for problems and options.
  • To compare present and projected U.S.-Soviet military space postures.
  • To indicate courses of action that might improve U.S. military space posture at sensible costs.

All appraisals are based on present technologies and predicted improvements during the next 25 to 50 years. Designed as a tool to help Washington blend military space capabilities with land, sea, and air power in ways that best assure U.S. security-without avoidable destabilization or waste of time and resources-Military Space Forces also clarifies the complex technology and issues facing military space planners today. This pathfinding new book provides any citizen an essential frame of reference with the nation’s future role in space.’

Among the issues discussed are military strategies, doctrines and tactics in space, and the development of space forces themselves. This includes their military infrastructure on the High Frontier, military space industries, military space installations, deployable space forces, R&D requirements and contributory science and technologies.

The book includes two sets of recommendations. One is a set of nonprovocative actions intended to strengthen deterrence and improve American combat capability in the event deterrence fails. These are:

  1. Develop comprehensive military space doctrines applicable to the total Earth-Moon system.
  2. Integrate military space more effectively into U.S. national security strategies.
  3. Emphasise verifiable arms control to confine threats.
  4. Reduce Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps dependency on space support by cross-training to preserve traditional skills such as communications and navigation.
  5. Embellish basic research to multiply serendipitous results that might benefit military space programmes.
  6. Employ technological expertise to produce first-class systems at acceptable cost.
  7. Improve passive defences for selected military space installations and vehicles, with particular attention to innovative hardening and deception.

These are all low cost options. Far more expensive are those in the second list, which suggested

  1. Survivable launch, recovery, and C3 infrastructure.
  2. Heavy lift boosters.
  3. National Aerospace Planes (NASP) able to breach the atmospheric barrier easily and maneuver in space.
  4. Reasonable redundancy and reconstitutions capabilities for essential military space systems.
  5. Anti-satellite systems.,
  6. Active onboard defences for military support satellites on a case-by-case-basis.
  7. Land-and space-based SDI systems.

The book concludes with this paragraph

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, at a March 1974 press conference in Moscow, asked, “What in God’s name is strategic superiority?” It may be unilateral control of space, which overarches Planet Earth, all occupants, and its entire contents. If so, possessors of that vantage position could overpower every opponent. They might, in fact, impose their will without fighting, a feat that Sun Tzu called “the acme of skill” 25 centuries ago. U.S. military space forces therefore need means to forestall strategic surprise from space and respond successfully, unless best case estimates prove correct as events unfold.

The book’s clearly a product of the Reagan era and his wretched ‘Star Wars’ programme. Among the weapons and installations the book discusses is a six-man lunar base, space-based railguns, which use electromagnets to propel missiles to colossal speeds, and space based lasers. I don’t know how dated the book and its predictions are. It considers the threat of electromagnetic pulses generated from nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere above targets disrupting computers and other electronic systems, but I think that threat might have been overcome.

Whatever the reality is today, it shows that Trump’s demand for a space force follows decades of debate within the American military and political establishment.

Video of Trevithick’s Steam Carriage in Bristol

March 14, 2021

I’ve an interest in the real, Victorian technology that really does resemble the ideas and inventions in Steampunk Science Fiction. This is the SF genre that, following Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and other early writers, tries to imagine what it would have been like had the Victorians had cars, aircraft, robots, spaceships, computers and time travel. And at certain points the Victorians came very close to creating those worlds. Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, set in the Victorian computer age, was a piece of speculation about what kind of society would have emerged, if William Babbage’s pioneering computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built. And also if the 1820s Tory government had fallen to be replaced the rule of Lord Byron. The 19th century was a hugely inventive age, as scientists and engineers explored new possibilities and discoveries. George Cayley in Britain successfully invented a glider, in France Giffard created a dirigible airship, flying it around the Eiffel Tower. And from the very beginning of the century scientists and inventors attempted to develop the first ancestors of the modern car, run on coal and steam, of course.

One of these was a steam carriage designed by the Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick, in 1801. This was built, but wasn’t successful. This did not stop other engineers attempting to perfect such vehicles, and steam cars continued to be developed and built well into the 20th century. The most famous of these was the American Stanley Steamer of 1901.

I found this short video on Johnofbristol’s channel on YouTube. It shows a replica of Trevithick’s vehicle being driven around Bristol docks. From the cranes and the building over the other side of the river, it looks like it was shot outside Bristol’s M Shed museum. This was formerly the site of the city’s Industrial Museum, and still contains among its exhibits some fascinating pieces from the city’s industrial past. These include the aircraft and vehicles produced by Bristol’s aerospace and transport companies.

Model-Maker Bill Pearson Talks About His Work on Blake’s 7

February 25, 2021

This is another video from the film about the work of the talented peeps behind the models and miniatures used in some of the classic SF films and TV shows, A Sense of Scale. In this short video of about 4 mins in length, the late Bill Pearson talks about his work on the Beeb’s cult SF series, Blake’s 7. He describes the series as the Magnificent 7 in space, and says that the heroes were all bad guys, but not as bad as the people they were fighting against. They were anti-heroes. It’s a fair description, as the heroes were nearly all convicted criminals – Vila was a thief, Jenna a smuggler, Avon an embezzler, Gan a murderer, while Blake was a democratic agitator, a political criminal against the totalitarian, fascistic Federation, who were the real bad guys. Cally, a freedom-fighter from the planet Auron, was the only one who hadn’t been arrested, sentenced and convicted by the Federation she was pledged to overthrow.

Pearson says he was persuaded to join the effects team as he was told it was going to be wonderful and big budget, which it never was. He was recruited to the series as he had impressed the Beeb’s head of special effects with what he had been doing at college, and started work at the Corporation with a couple of episodes of Dr. Who. He was on Blake’s 7 from the start and did most of the spaceships in the last series. He says there were very little miniatures. There were a couple of hero ships, but they’d been built by the time he joined the SFX crew. The London, the ship used in the first episode, ‘The Way Back’, to transport Blake and his future crew to the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha, had already been made by an outside company. Other model-makers on the series included Martin Bower, who also worked on Space 1999 and the film Outland, and who worked on a couple of models of the heroes’ ships, the Liberator. There, and I thought the effects were all done by Matt Irvine and Mike Kelt. He only got involved with the miniatures in the final series. Pearson says that he’s notorious on the internet for making the gun that Avon uses to kill Blake in the very last episode. This, he says, is still around and getting more appreciation. I think here he’s referring to the series, rather than the weapon, as it’s just after that he talks of Blake and his crew as being bad guys and anti-heroes.

Pearson states that model-making for the screen isn’t as glamorous people think. One of the downsides is unemployment and there are many special effects firms now going bankrupt. However, it is the closest we’re going to get to immortality at the moment. A century from now someone’s going to pick up a packet of cereal and get a free 4D recording of Alien, put it in their viewer, and see his work and his name on the credits. And that’s pretty cool. The video also includes stills of Pearson working on some of the models used in the series and on Alien along with the interview.

BLAKEĀ“S 7 (TV) miniature effects – YouTube

Pearson gave the interview in 2012, and the state of the effects industry may have changed somewhat since then, but I don’t doubt that CGI has had a devastating effect on the use of practical effects in movies and television, although they’re still used to a certain extent.

Blake’s 7 was made over forty years ago and was low budget SF. Matt Irvine said once that the money spent on one effect in the cinema was far in excess of what they had to spend on the series. But the show had memorable characters, great actors and some excellent stories. The effects work varied in quality, but the main spaceships, the Liberator and the Scorpio, looked good, as did the three sentient computers in the show, Zen, Slave and Orac. Blake’s 7 is, along with Dr. Who, Thunderbirds and Space 1999, a classic of British SF television and still retains a cult following all these decades later.