Posts Tagged ‘Computers’

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.

BLAKE´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.

A Real Steampunk Car and Motorcycle

February 19, 2021

Steampunk is a form of Science Fiction which speculates on what the world would have been like if they’d managed to invent cars, computers, aircraft and space and time travel. It follows Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s novel, The Difference Engine, set in an alternative past where Charles Babbage’s pioneering computer, the difference engine of the title, has been built and Britain is ruled by Lord Byron. It’s heavily influenced by early SF writers such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. But some of the machines and inventions in the genre are very close to reality. In fact there was a history book published the other year with the title The Real Victorian Steampunk, or something like that. George Cayley in Britain invented a glider, while a Frenchman, Giffard, developed a dirigible airship in the 1850s and successfully demonstrated it by flying around the Eiffel Tower. And from the first years of the 19th century onwards, inventors were busy developing the first antecedents of the modern car and motorcycle, driven by steam, of course.

I found these two videos on Wildlyfunny’s channel on YouTube. They look like they’re from a steam rally somewhere in eastern Europe, though the blurbs for them doesn’t say where and I’m afraid I don’t recognise the language. This one below is of the 1886 Baffrey Steam Car.

Steam car Baffrey 1886 / Parní vůz Baffrey – YouTube

This second video looks like it’s from the same rally, and is of the 1869 Roper steam motorcycle, invented by Sylvester Howard Roper and demonstrated at fairs and circuses across the US. According to a couple of the commenters, Roper became the first motorcycle casualty when he was killed in a race against seven, ordinary human-powered bicycles.

The FIRST Steam Motorcycle in the world, ROPER 1869 year! – YouTube

The sheer inventiveness of the Victorians never ceases to amaze me, and you do wonder what would have happened had these machines taken off before the invention of the modern internal combustion engine. One of the reasons why they didn’t, and it was only until the invention of the modern petrol/ diesel driven automobile in the later 19th century that cars became an effective rival to horse-drawn transport, is because steam engines weren’t a sufficiently effective power source. It’s also why they were unable to develop steam-driven airplanes. Nevertheless, these machines are still awesome in their ingenuity and a fascinating episode in the history of the automobile.

Video of Bonobo Learning to Make Stone Tools

January 26, 2021

I really don’t know if it’s a good idea to teach apes to make edged weapons – they’re physically much more powerful than we are as it is without giving them the knowledge to make stone blades. This is a video I found on the Cornell Arts and Sciences Channel on YouTube. It’s of a bonobo, Kanzi, being encouraged to make flint blades by one of the scientists, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. The blurb for the video on its YouTube page runs

In the 1990s, paleo-anthropologists Nick Toth and Kathy Schick taught Kanzi the bonobo to produce stone tools using techniques that were adopted by our early ancestors. In this 7-min excerpt, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is using language to encourage Kanzi to produce a certain number of tools—seizing the opportunity to consolidate his counting capacities. Near the end of the excerpt, Kanzi is trying to vocalize some numbers. (copyright Sue Savage-Rumbaugh).

Savage-Rumbaugh lines all nine of the bonobo’s flakes up in a row, and then tries to get him to count them. She tries and fails to get Kanzi to say the numbers, but all the animal can do is screech. However, he points and taps the flakes that correspond to that number. It also looks like they’ve devised a means for the creature to communicate in English using a computer. The video shows a computer screen with tiny thumbnail pictures, and at one point a synthesised voice can be heard saying ‘rock’, ‘knife’ and other words. It looks to me – and I might be wrong – that the computer is touch sensitive and says the name of whichever object the bonobo touches, thus allowing it to communicate vocally in English with the experimenters.

Kanzi making stone tools – YouTube

Kanzi is clearly a very intelligent creature. There’s another video about him on YouTube, which calls him an ‘Ape of Genius’, so he’s obviously a bit brighter than the hacks writing for the Scum. Primatologists are interested in finding out just how intelligent our nearest ape relatives – chimps and gorillas – really are. There was considerable interest in Koko the gorilla, who was taught sign language. I’ve heard it said that at hear peak she had a vocabulary of 900+ words. Kanzi is just one of a number of bonobos, whom the researchers tried to teach to make stone tools. I think the aim of these experiments was to see if they could make the type of stone tools crafted and used by Homo Habilis, one of the very early hominid ancestors. From what I’ve read, the tools they produced were inferior to those made by Habilis. I suppose we shouldn’t be disappointed, though, and expect too much. It’s perhaps enough that Kanzi and his friends understand what’s being said to them, and that they’re able to do it and communicate back.

Simon Sideways on Israel as Rogue Nuclear State

November 28, 2020

Despite styling himself ‘Reverend’, I very much doubt that Simon Sideways is a man of the cloth. He’s a right-wing youtuber, who vlogs about immigration, feminism, Islam and the coronavirus lockdown, all of which he opposes. I don’t share his views about these subjects. But in this short video below, he makes some very disturbing points about Israel. The video’s just over five minutes long, and it’s his thoughts about the assassination yesterday of the Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsin Fakhrizadeh. Sideways believes that it’s the work of the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and goes on to discuss their probably responsibility for a virus that attacked the Iranian nuclear programme a decade or so ago.

The virus was originally developed by the Americans, and was intended to disrupt the computer systems controlling the operation of the centrifuges used in nuclear research. The Israelis, however, decided that the virus wasn’t sufficiently destructive, so they took it over and altered it before unleashing it on the Iranians. It didn’t just affect Iran, however. It spread around the world causing havoc in all the computer systems it infected, including our NHS. When the Americans then confronted the Israelis with the chaos they caused, the Israelis just shrugged it off.

Sideways states very clearly that the Israelis do exactly what they want, to whom they want, with a complete disregard for the consequences because they will always defend themselves by accusing their critics of anti-Semitism. America can break one international law in a year, and there’s a global outcry. Israel, however, will break fifty, and there’s no criticism, because everyone’s afraid of being called anti-Semitic.

This cavalier disregard for the immense harm done by them also extends to the country’s nuclear policy. This is the ‘Samson Option’, named after the Old Testament hero. This policy states that in the event of a nuclear attack by another country, Israel will launch its nuclear weapons indiscriminately at the other countries around the world, including Europe. The point of the strategy is to turn Israel into a ‘mad dog’ so that no other nation dares attack it. There is an article about the strategy on Wikipedia, which provides a number of quotes from journalists, military historians and senior Israeli officers about the strategy. It was to be used in the event of a second holocaust, with nuclear missiles targeting Europe, Russia and Islam’s holy places.

See: Samson Option – Wikipedia

Here’s the video.

Mossad Murder inc at it agai. in Iran – YouTube

I remember the virus attack on Iran’s nuclear programme. If I recall correctly, it disabled an underground nuclear testing centre and killed 22 scientists. I also remember the crisis a few years ago caused by a virus infecting the NHS computers. I don’t know whether this was the same virus, but I really wouldn’t like to rule it out. He isn’t quite right about Israel escaping without criticism from the global community for its actions. The UN has issued any number of condemnations of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, which are very definitely in violation of international law. It’s just that Israel takes zero notice of them, and they aren’t enforced with sanctions. And they almost certainly won’t be, so long as Israel has the support of America, Britain and the European Community.

Sideways is right when he says that Israel responds to criticism by calling its accuser an anti-Semite. We’ve seen that in the Israel lobby’s smears against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour party, very many of whom were self-respecting Jews. Israel has been caught several times spying against friendly countries, another violation of international law. When Thatcher caught them doing so, she threatened to throw the Israeli spies out of the country. The Israelis duly issued an apology and amended their behaviour. They were caught doing the same under Blair and then under Cameron or Tweezer. I can’t remember which. Zero action was taken, and the Israelis got away with it.

They’ve also killed innocent people when they’ve tried assassinating Palestinian terrorists. And when I was growing up I remember how the rozzers in either Switzerland or Sweden nabbed a party of these clowns. The Israeli spies were trying to snatch a Palestinian terrorist, who was living in a block of flats. They decided the grab needed to be done in darkness, so turned off the block’s fuse box. Which plunged the entire block into darkness. Then Sweden’s or Switzerland’s finest turned up and grabbed them in turn.

This all shows that the Israeli security services are a bunch of out of control, murderous clowns. And the Samson Option shows that the Arabs and Muslims are right: it isn’t Iran that’s a rogue state. It’s the US and Israel. In his book America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, Blum cites a Zogby poll of global, or at least Middle Eastern opinion, about whether Iran would be a threat if it had nuclear weapons. Most of those polled believed that Iran wouldn’t, and that it had a right to nuclear weapons.

The prospect of a nuclear armed Iran was worrying a few years ago, when Ahmedinejad was president. Ahmedinejad was extremely religious and belonged to a group of Twelver Shia – the country’s major branch of Islam – who believed that the return of the 12th Imam was imminent. The Shi’a believe that leadership of the Islamic community after Mohammed rightly belonged with a line of divinely inspired rulers – the Imams – beginning with Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. There are different sects, and Twelver Shia are so-called because, unlike some others, they believe that there were 12 Imams, the last of whom vanished after he went to a well in the 9th century AD. They believe he will return in the last days, when there will be a battle between Islam and the forces of evil. Ahmedinejad’s presidency was frightening because there was a fear that he would launch some kind of war in order to fulfil this prophecy.

But the Iranian president wasn’t the only leader whose apocalyptic beliefs were a possible threat to the world. Ronald Reagan and various members of his cabinet and military advisers also believed that the End was near as right-wing fundamentalist Christians. There was thus also concern that he would launch a nuclear war against Russia, here representing the forces of the Antichrist, to bring about the end.

Well, Ahmedinijad and Reagan have been and gone. I don’t believe that the Iranians have a nuclear weapons programme, as I explained in a post I put up about the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist yesterday. I also think that the Iranians were genuine when they said they were willing to negotiate and reach a deal with America. The refusal to cooperate, in my opinion, comes from the Americans, who really want regime change.

Not that the Iranians are angels in their turn. The regime is a brutal, repressive theocracy and they have been responsible for terrorist attacks against opposition groups. There’s a report on one such attack by the Iranian security services on an Iranian opposition group in Europe in today’s I. It’s just that it now looks to me that Iran isn’t, and has never been, a nuclear threat.

It looks to me like the real nuclear threat and rogue state is Israel. And the Iranians have more to fear from an invasion from America and Israel, than America and Israel have from Iran.

Anti-White Black Racism in Seattle’s Decolonised Mathematics Syllabus

September 20, 2020

This is another video from Sargon of Akkad, the man who broke UKIP. He put it up nearly a year ago in October 2019, and the subject he discusses comes from a Daily Caller article two years before that in 2017. It’s about the move from Seattle’s public schools board to get Black students to do better at mathematics by producing a syllabus that aims to teach them how White mathematics is being used to oppress them, and how they also use it to liberate people and communities of colour.

The maths syllabus is the creation of Tracy Castro-Gill, the ethnic studies program manager for Seattle public schools, and deals explicitly with issues like ‘origins, identity and agency’, and ‘power and oppression’. The article shows the syllabus itself and what it aims to teach Seattle’s schoolkids. This starts off by teaching them that mathematical theory is rooted in ancient histories and empires of colour. Sargon doesn’t have a problem with this, as mathematical theories and formulae have been discovered independently by different peoples over time. The Babylonians, he rightly says, had versions of Pythagoras’ theorem. But he makes the point that ’empires of colour’ can also mean ‘oppressors of colour’, as this is what empires are: one ethnic group ruling another.

The syllabus then moves to demand that teachers and students ‘create counterknowledge to origins of mathematical knowledge’. This teaching ‘power and oppression in western maths’. The syllabus claims that western maths is seen as the only legitimate mathematics, and is used to disenfranchise people of colour. It erases the historical contribution of people of colour. Sargon replies by stating that different peoples have indeed independently discovered different maths theorems and formulae, but that Western maths is based on the Greeks. The syllabus also requires students to learn the history of resistance and liberation of people of colour using maths, engineering and technology. Sargon says he knows some great stories, but they are all about western maths. Like how Archimedes defended Syracuse against a Roman invasion by having the Greek soldiers align their bronze shields so that they reflected the sun’s rays as a kind of death ray. He also tells the story of Archimedes’ death. The Romans sent a soldier to capture him. When the soldier finally caught him, Archimedes was busy trying to draw a perfect circle by going through as many small points as possible. He told the soldier not to bother him, so that the soldier stabbed him with his sword.

The syllabus also includes more general questions, asking students how the feel about themselves as mathematicians and who is a mathematician? Sargon argues that a mathematician is someone who gets a problem right. But he also says that he doesn’t know, because he’s been using maths in ordinary life since he left school, as well as in computers, but doesn’t think of himself as a mathematician. He also remarks that he studied logarithms at school, and after twenty or so years still hasn’t been in a sitution that requires them. Students are also asked what it means to make a mistake, and where does power and oppression show up in people’s maths experiences. Sargon jokingly responds to this that it shows up in his maths teacher, who told him off for getting his maths wrong. there are also questions like ‘how and why does data-driven processes prevent liberation?’, ‘how is maths manipulated to allow inequality and oppression to persist?’, ‘how has maths been used to liberate people and communities and colour from oppression?’ and ‘Can you advocate against oppressive mathematical practices?’

As Sargon points out at the beginning of his video, this is all about teaching Black children that they are oppressed, and White children that they should feel guilty. It’s political activism that shouldn’t have a place in maths. He also argues that some of this is actually dangerous when it comes to claiming that there is a distinction between White and Black mathematics. mathematical facts are true regardless of race or culture, and lives may depend on their correct application. For example, planes depend on engineers understanding the equations governing aerodynamics. These have to be correct, and it doesn’t matter whether the person doing these is White or Black. It’s either right or wrong, and if it’s wrong, then people may die.

I realise that Sargon is a man of the right, even extreme right, and that he himself says that this subject has already been discussed in right-wing newspapers and internet sites. Nevertheless, I think this is important and needs to be discussed and refuted. Because it, or something similar, may well come over here. Black activists are worried about Black schoolchildren’s underperformance in maths. It’s why, when I still got on with the Black and Asian Studies Association they asked me if I knew anything about Black mathematics. I didn’t, but sent them material on medieval Muslim mathematicians – Persian and Arab – for which they expressed their thanks. It wouldn’t surprise me if a group in Britain was demanding a similar approach in British schools following Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the video:

There have been other attempts to create a maths syllabus that would engage and inspire Black American pupils with controversial results. Back in the 1990s Private Eye’s ‘Funny Old World’ column carried a piece about the anger that had been sparked by one American school’s or schoolboard’s attempts to appeal to its Black students. It attempted to do so by framing maths problems in the setting of Black urban gangsta culture. One of the problems set featured two gangsters, Lucius and Rufus. They had guns that had different rates of fire and held clips of different numbers of bullets. The question was on how many times these gangsters would have to fire their weapons before they had to change the guns’ clips. The schoolboard attempted to justify this and and similar questions by claiming that it reflected the home environment of their students, and they were just trying to engage them through using it. But naturally, this horrifies everyone, Black and White, who doesn’t want violent criminals to be glamourised, or feels that Black children should be inspired to identify and aim for something better. There is a caveat to this story. Some of the items in the column are, shall we say, far-fetched and others have been shown to be urban legends, so it’s quite possible that the story’s fake and was made up as a spoof or joke. But looking at the blatant bias in Seattle’s maths syllabus, as bonkers as it is, it could also be true.

I’ve suggested before in a previous video that if educators really want to inspire Black children in maths, they could teach them about some of the maths problems studied by the ancient Egyptians, or failing that, the kind of maths problems they studied, as some of the formulae the Egyptians used aren’t accurate. They might also teach them the type of maths problems studied and taught in the schools of the great Islamic civilisations in north Africa. That would clearly be better than telling them that Whites have appropriated maths to oppress Blacks and other non-White peoples.

There is clearly a viciously anti-White racism in some of the academic doctrines and approaches now being advocated and taught as pro-Black. Critical Race Theory is another one, as it teaches that all White people are racist and any institutions they set up will automatically oppress non-Whites. Trump passed an executive order last week banning its teaching in federal government. services, including the police. But Trump is himself determined to indoctrinate children with his attack on anything he considers to be liberal propaganda being taught as part of history. He has just launched the 1776 Initiative, which aims to make American history teaching even more patriotic.

Such indoctrination, whether coming from the left or right has no place in schools. Children need to be taught objective facts, both in maths and history, and encouraged to make up their own minds about race, country and politics.

Channel 4 Programme Next Week on Scientist’s Transformation into Cyborg to Combat Motor Neurone Disease

August 18, 2020

According to next week’s Radio Times for 22-28 August 2020, next Wednesday, 26th August 2020, Channel 4 is screening a programme about the robotics scientist Peter Scott-Morgan, who is undergoing a series of operations to transform himself into a cyborg. This is to help him fight off Motor Neurone Disease, the degenerative condition from which Stephen Hawking suffered.

The programme’s titled Peter: the Human Cyborg, and the blurb for it on page 83 of the Radio Times runs

The story of scientist Peter Scott-Morgan as he is turned into a cyborg in an attempt to overcome the motor neurone disease that will otherwise kill him. With unprecedented access to Peter ad an international group off doctors, scientists, engineers and designers, the programme follows 18 months off one of the most audacious transitions ever undertaken, employing radical surgery, artificially intelligent computes and robotics technology.

The additional piece about the programme by David Butcher on page 80 goes as follows

This is one of those programmes that sets out to do one thing but achieves something very different – and better. In theory, it is the story of how robotics expert Peter Scott-Morgan, who has motor neurone disease, tackles his condition using technology. Her wants to be a human guinea pig; to be part-man, part-machine.

He gets a special wheelchair that can enable him to stand. He gets a speech synthesiser to clone his voice. He wants an avatar version of his face, a brain-computer interface, and so on. All of this is interesting. “Who would have thought that trying to cheat death was a full-time job?” Peter jokes.

But more powerful is simply the portrait of someone going through a sad, inexorable decline. The scene where Peter goes for a laryngectomy and speaks what he knows will be his last words is heart-breaking. As a viewer, you’re left desperate to take nothing for granted.

The programme’s on at 9.00 pm in the evening. The Radio Times also has a feature about Scott-Morgan and his transformation, in which it gives more details and the man himself answers questions, ‘The Man Who Cheated Death’, on pp.15-17.

This looks like a fascinating and moving programme, and I wish Mr Scott-Morgan all the very best in keeping himself alive and healthy through all his operations and augmentations. I think part of the admiration given to Stephen Hawking was that he had also fought the disease, and was able to carry on a highly productive scientific career through the engineering and IT specialists behind his wheelchair and his characteristic computer voice. Scott-Morgan himself comes across as immensely positive, optimistic and with a strong love of life despite his terrible disease. The article quotes him as saying ‘I have love. I have fun. I have hope. I have purpose.’ I hope this continues, and that the innovations that will hopefully provide him with a few more years and a better quality of life than he would otherwise have also soon become available to other, more ordinary people.

The Overlord on Rumours that Mark Hamill Has Sold Image for Hollywood CGI Clone of Luke Skywalker

August 8, 2020

‘The Overlord’ is another YouTube channel devoted to news and views about genre cinema and television. It’s hosted by Dictor von Doomcock, a masked alien supervillain supposedly living at the centre of the Earth. And who is definitely not impressed at all at the state of contemporary popular culture, and particularly the way beloved film classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and so on are now being trashed by producers who have no respect for these series and their fans. And in this video he talks about the bizarre next step in this process: the recreation of favourite film characters like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker through CGI, completely removing the need for human actors.

A website, WDW Pro, has claimed that Disney are looking for ways they can break the pause in filming imposed by the Coronavirus lockdown. They are therefore looking at ways to do without human actors. They have therefore been looking at a technological solution to this problem, using the same computer techniques used to create the films The Lion King of 2019 and the 2016 film version of The Jungle Book, as well as the facial recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue 1. Frustrated at the hold-up filming the third Guardians of the Galaxy flick, Disney will use the technology, Cosmic Rewind, to create a completely computer generated movie, but one that would be presented as using human characters. This is going to be an experiment to test the possibility of creating films without human actors and the need for their salaries. According to a rumour, which WDW Pro has not been able to confirm, the projected film is about Young Indy, and its effectiveness will be tested when a rollercoaster based on the film comes on as part of Disneyworld.

Lucasfilm has also apparently made a deal with Mark Hamill within the last 18 months in which he has signed over his image to them so that they can use it to create a CGI Luke Skywalker. This Virtual Skywalker may also be used in the projected Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars theme park. However, due to the project’s severe financial problems, this may not happen anytime soon. Disney are slowly moving towards using this technology to dispense with human actors so that they won’t have to suffer a similar pause in filming ever again, although they won’t move away from human actors altogether immediately.

Doomcock himself laments this development, and feels that it is inevitable in a world where Deep Fake technology has advanced so far that we don’t know if the people we see or the news we watch are real, or that the characters we see on the screen are brought to life by real actors using the skills and craft they have learned. He wonders what will happen to our civilisation – what we will lose – if everything we see on the screen is synthetic, and we are removed another step again from reality and anything that has ‘heart’. It might all be all right, but it seems to him that the more we remove the human element from art and culture and make it the creation of AIs, the more removed we are from our culture.

He also vents his spleen about the choice of subject for this putative movie, pointing out that there was a TV series about Young Indiana Jones years ago, and nobody wanted it. He recommends instead that if this grave-robbing technology is to be used, it should be used to recreate the mature Indy of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. He also criticises Hamill for what he sees as his poor judgement in making the deal with Disney. Hamill should know personally how a poor director can ruin a beloved legacy character, the actor’s own contribution and a favourite film franchise through his experience playing Skywalker in The Last Jedi. He famously wept on set during that movie and bitterly criticised the director’s decisions. He’s sarcastic about the respect Disney shows such legacy characters. It’s rumoured that George Lucas is returning to helm the Star Wars films, in which everything will be fine and we can look forward to a bright, new golden age. But considering the potential for abuse, Doomcock states that he is dismayed, flabbergasted and disgusted by Hamill’s decision and fearful for humanity’s future. As human culture becomes made by machines, hasn’t Skynet won? Who needs to launch nukes, when we have a CGI Skywalker dancing like a monkey in a bikini?

Here’s the video, but as Doomcock himself warns you, it isn’t for children. It has adult humour. Blatantly adult humour.

As you can see, there’s more than a little hyperbole in Doomcock’s argument, and some people will take issue at what he views as the humiliation of Luke Skywalker to push a feminist or anti-racist message, like Black Lives Matter. But his fears of the abuse of such technology aren’t unfounded, and have been around for quite some time. The possibility that actors would sell their images to film companies to recreate them Virtually, while making the flesh and blood person redundant, was explored a few years ago in the SF film The Congress by Ari Folman. This was loosely based on the Stanislaw Lem novel, The Futurological Congress, but is very different, and, in my opinion, inferior. For one thing, the Lem novel is hilariously funny, while the movie is grim and depressing. The movie is about a Hollywood actress, Robin Wright, playing herself, who makes precisely the deal Hamill is rumoured to have made. She then stars in a series of action movies, including one sequence that is definitely a tip to Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove. But this is all computer animation. The Wright herself isn’t remotely involved in their filming. Indeed, it is a condition of her contract that she not act at all, and live the rest of her life in a very comfortable retirement. These developments are followed by the discovery of a drug that allows people to enter a vast, consensual Virtual Reality, in which they can be and do anyone and anything they want. The world’s masses abandon reality, so that civilisation decays into a very grim, dystopia of ruin, poverty and misery. At one point Wright takes the drug, which will return her to reality, only to find herself in a food queue in a burned out, abandoned building. Unable to come with this, she returns to the Virtual world to search for the son she lost while in a coma as a result of a terrorist attack on the Las Vegas congress she was attending at which the hallucinogenic drug was launched. As I said, it’s a depressing film in which such illusions really are bringing about the destruction of humanity. And there is no escape, except into the Virtual world that has caused it.

The film follows a number of other SF works that have also predicted similar dystopias brought about by the hyperreality of mass entertainment. This includes John D. MacDonald’s short story, Spectator Sport, in which a time traveller appears in a future in which all human achievement has ceased as the public live out their lives as characters in VR plays. Another, similar tale is Good Night, Sophie, by the Italian writer Lino Aldani, about an actress in a similar world in which people live harsh, austere lives in order to escape into a far brighter, more vivid fantasy world of entertainment. Rather less pessimistic was the appearance of the SF film, Final Fantasy, all those years ago. This was supposed to be the first film in which all the characters were CGI, and who were supposedly indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood reality. The fact that further films like it haven’t been made suggests that, reassuringly, people want real humans in their movies, not computer simulations.

We’ve also seen the appearance of a number of computer generated celebrities. The first of these was the vid jockey, Max Headroom on Channel 4 in the 1980s. He was supposed to  be entirely computer-generated, but in reality was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer under a lot of makeup. Then in the 1990s William Gibson, one of the creators of Cyberpunk SF, published Idoru. This was a novel about a man, who begins an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Soon after it came out, a Japanese company announced that it had created its own Virtual celeb, a female pop star. Gibson’s books are intelligent, near-future SF which contain more than an element of the ‘literature as warning’. The worlds of his Cyberspace books are dystopias, warnings of the kind of society that may emerge if the technology gets out of hand or corporations are given too much power. The creation of the Virtual pop star looked instead as though the corporation had uncritically read Gibson, and thought what he was describing was a good idea.

But going further back, I seem to recall that there was a programme on late at night, presented by Robert Powell, on the impact the new information technology would have on society. It was on well after my bedtime, and children didn’t have their own TVs in those days. Or at least, not so much. I therefore didn’t see it, only read about it in the Radio Times. But one of its predictions was that there would be widespread unemployment caused by automation. This would include actors, who would instead by replaced by computer simulations.

Computer technology has also been used to create fresh performances by deceased stars, sometimes duetting with contemporary performers. This worried one of my aunts when it appeared in the 1980s/90s. Dead performers have also been recreated as holograms, to make the stage or television appearances they never made in life. The late, great comedian Les Dawson was revived as one such image, giving post-mortem Audience With… on ITV. It was convincing, and based very much on Dawson’s own live performances and work. It was good to see him again, even if only as Virtual ghost, and a reminder of how good he was when alive.

I don’t know how reliable the rumours Doomcock reports and on which he comments are. This could all be baseless, and come to nothing. But I share his fears about the damage to our culture, if we allow our films and television to be generated by technicians and algorithms rather than flesh and blood thesps. Especially as the rising cost of movies mean that the film companies are unwilling to take risks and seem determined to rake over and exploit past classics rather than experiment with creating fresh material.

CGI’s a great tool. It’s used to create vividly real worlds and creatures. But I don’t want it replacing humans. Even if that means waiting a few years for new flicks to come out.


Trailer for AppleTV’s ‘Foundation’ Series

June 24, 2020

Here’s another video that has zilch to do with politics. Apparently, the computer giant Apple has, or is launching, their own TV channel. And one of the shows they’ve made for it is an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic Foundation series of books. This is one of the works for which Asimov is best remembered, along with his Robot books – I, Robot, The Caves of Steel and others. I, Robot was filmed a few years ago with Will Smith playing a human detective investigating the suicide of a robotics scientist. Together with the chief suspect, a unique robot with free will and a mind of its own, Smith uncovers a conspiracy to take over the city with a new generation of robots. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how faithful the movie was to them. Something tells me that they took a few liberties, but I don’t know.

I haven’t read Foundation either, but I gather it’s an epic about an academic, Hari Seldon, who invents the science of psychohistory. Using its techniques, he predicts that the vast galactic empire that is so ancient, no-one actually knows where Earth is anymore, is about to fall into a new Dark Age. He prepares for this by setting up the eponymous Foundation on a barren planet with the intention of collecting all human knowledge in preparation for the restoration of civilization. It’s one of the major influences behind both Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’ Star Wars. The heart of the galactic empire is Trantor, a world that has become one vast, planet-wide city. This is the model for Coruscant, the city planet which is the capital of the Republic and then the Empire in Star Wars.

The video shows scenes from the new series along with clips of others as they were being shot. There’s also a comment from the director or one of the producers, who says that Asimov was keenly interested in technology, and so would have approved of Apple making the series. There have been attempts to adapt Foundation before, apparently, but they’ve all failed due to the complexity and immense time span covered by the books. I do remember way back in the ’70s there was an LP version, where it was read by William Shatner. Less reverently, back in the ’90s one of the Oxbridge theatre groups decided to stage a play which combined it and Dr. Strangelove, titled Fundament! This ended with a Nazi scientist shouting, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’, just like the end of Kubrick’s movie.

Take a look at the trailer. It looks awesome, though unfortunately there have been movies where all the best bits were in the trailer, and the film itself actually dull. I hope this isn’t the case here. My problem with it at the moment is that it’s going to be on another streaming channel, which will mean having to subscribe to that, rather than getting it with a satellite/cable TV package.

Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.

Private Eye on the Problems of the Government’s Medical Central Purchasing Company

May 7, 2020

Mike’s article about the government’s privatisation and centralisation of the purchasing of PPE and other essential medical equipment for combating the Coronavirus follows a report in last fortnight’s Private Eye for 21st April – 7th May 2020 about the problems besetting the state-owned company the Tories had set up to do this. Centralising the purchase of PPE was supposed to lead to massive NHS savings. However, according to the Eye it has led instead only to its chiefs awarding themselves massive salaries, and staff shortages and poor pay at the bottom. The article on page 10, ‘SKIMPING OUTFITS’ runs

The government-owned company struggling to supply masks, gloves, aprons and eye protection to hospitals and GPS was set up explicitly to reduce spending on NHS supplies.

Supply Chain Coordination LTD (SCCL) has been in charge of procuring NHS supplies and the warehouses and lorries getting PPE out to the NHS since April 2018. The government argued that one centralised buying system would “generate savings of £2.4bn over a five-year period” through “efficiency”. In fact it has led to big salaries at the top and lower pay and staff shortages at the bottom.

SCCL was set up as a government-owned company in response to the Carter review of NHS productivity. Lord (Patrick) Carter argued that too many NHS trusts buying their own kit was inefficient and the government could “rationalise the procurement landscape, reduce spend and consolidate purchasing power”. Jin Sahota was brought in as SCCL chief executive from French media firm Technicolor on £230,000 a year, after the government allowed higher salaries for “commercial staff”. I’ll be absolutely blunt”, he told Civil Service World last year, “If the salary levels were somewhat different, maybe it wouldn’t have attracted me.”

In May 2019, Rob Houghton, former Post Office chief information officer, was made SCCL’s “IT focused” director. As the last Eye’s special report on the Post Office’s Horizon IT scandal noted, in 2016 Houghton launched a review into the malfunctioning system, which was mysteriously abandoned. The courts later found that a matter of “great concern”.

SCCL manages procurement of NHS bulk supplies and contracts distribution of NHS essentials through a five-year, £730m deal signed in 2018 with UK logistics firm Unipart, which runs the NHS warehouses and lorry deliveries. In September 2018, Steve Barclay (then a health minister, now at the Treasury) said the SCCL/ Unipart deal was “streamlining” the NHS.

Meanwhile, £500m is being taken from NHS trusts to fund the new system and “incentivise” trusts to use it. However, any “savings” delivered look more like penny-pinching than efficiency: in December, HGV and 7.5 tonne drivers on the SCCL/ Unipart contract had to threaten strike action to get decent sick pay and push their rate above an industry low of £10.24 an hour.

At the start of April, union Unite said warehouse staff were exhausted and struggling to keep up with demand. In a cuts-driven system, there was no slack to deal with the extra burden of a pandemic. The government’s solution was to send in the army to help in the warehouses. This has provided some relief – but once the immediate crisis passes, will it return to its ill-conceived “savings” plan?

It looks like Boris’ decision to privatise the purchasing process is a result of this company’s embarrassing failure. But Deloitte and co. aren’t going to fare much better, if at all. What’s at fault is the whole notion of centralisation itself. This was used to destroy local DHSS and inland revenue offices in the 1980s and 1990s, all in the name of efficiency. I don’t believe it made the process any more efficient. In fact, given the delays benefit claimants experienced in the processing of their claims, even before IDS’ stupid and murderously destructive Universal Credit was rolled out, it made it much, much worse.

It also won’t solve the problem of a poorly paid, overworked and demoralised staff working flat out for a grossly overpaid senior management. This is now general throughout business and what used to be the civil service. It’s how the outsourcing companies were able to generate their profits in the first place – they laid off staff in order to give their shareholders nice fat dividends and senior management nice fat salaries and bonuses.

What is causing the problems is the Tories’ decimation of the NHS across its services. As Mike and others have reported, other countries like Germany were able to respond more effectively to the pandemic because they had spare capacity in beds. But the Tories had removed that in the NHS in the name of efficiency.

It’s time these false economies were wound up. Purchasing should be handed back to NHS trusts, and the NHS and the rest of the civil service properly funded.

And the Tories and their obsession with centralisation, rationalisation, privatisation and rewarding overpaid, greedy managers and board chairmen thrown out of government.