Posts Tagged ‘Judge Dredd’

Robothespian, the British Robotic Actor

October 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 13, 2016

diceman-reagan-cover

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

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

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

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

diceman-reagan-1

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

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

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

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

More Military Tension between NATO and Russia; Pat Mills Right in ABC Warriors

October 9, 2016

Mike today put up a very chilling report about the escalation of military tensions between NATO and Russia. Russia has deployed Iskander missiles in its westernmost province of Kaliningrad. Formerly Koenigsberg, this is small Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, was formerly part of Pommerania under the old Reich. The missiles are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and are presumed capable of reaching Berlin, or the various Baltic states.

Russia is believed to be deploying these missiles in response to NATO manoeuvres in eastern Europe, and the stationing of four more NATO battalions in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These were in response to Russia sending troops into Ukraine.

Mike states that he recalls either Gorbachev or possibly Yeltsin receiving a promise from NATO that it would not expand into the Russian’s back garden. He is correct. That promise was given. And broken. NATO’s borders are now right up to the very frontier with Russia. Mike asks us how we would feel if the roles were reversed?

That question has been asked by others in America. Left-wing and Libertarian critics of American military expansion have posed the rhetorical question how Americans would feel if Canada broke away and joined Russia. This is the parallel in the Anglophone world Ukraine, which has ties going back thousands of years to the very foundation of Russia, joining NATO.

Actually, it’s not hard to see how Americans would react, as there’s one section of the American conspiracist fringe which actually believed it. FOAFtale News, the journal of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, in the 1990s report an urban legend then going round the paranoid American Right, that the Fall of Communism was all a ruse. The Soviets had established secret underground tank bases in Canada and Mexico. When everything had been properly prepared, and they were ready, the order would be given and the Soviet tanks would roll over the border to occupy America. You can bet given the paranoid, extreme-rightwing mindset of the kind of people, who voted for Trump, that if Canada ever had joined Russia in a close alliance, most Americans would believe exactly the same thing.

And Mike reported on Friday that it was feared that rising tensions over Syria could result in a nuclear war with Russia. Mike comments

And on it goes. And we all become a little more nervous every day. And that makes us a little more twitchy, and prone to jump to conclusions, and likely to make mistakes…

Everybody concerned needs to step back.

They all need to have a serious think – and maybe a couple of conversations – about what little they stand to gain by acting on accusations and suppositions.

And how much we all stand to lose.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/10/08/nuclear-missiles-deployed-in-russias-westernmost-area-as-fears-grow-over-syria/

I’ve blogged about this issue previously. In the case of Ukraine, it seems to me that it is actually the Russians, who are this time the injured party. The Orange Revolution which ousted the previous, pro-Russian president was staged with covert funding from the Americans. The new ruling coalition includes real, card-carrying Nazis from the Pravy Sektor – the Right Sector. Their uniforms are those of the auxiliary Ukrainian SS units, who were responsible for pogroms against the Jews, and participated in the Holocaust during the Second World War. During the Orange Revolution, a section of these thugs shot at left-wing protesters on their own side before chasing a group of trade unionists into a building. They were then savagely beaten, and one attempted to escape by jumping from a third-floor window. I’ve also seen footage alleging that the Ukrainian regime is responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of the country.

The situation is made even more terrifying by the fact that a former NATO general has written a book, predicting that by May next year, 2017, Russia will have invaded Latvia and we will be at war. George Galloway in his speech the other year to the Stop the War Coalition described how he had taken the general to task for this, when he was on a panel with him at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. Counterpunch has also reported that Obama has stepped up the production of nuclear missiles, and is trying to develop short-range ‘battlefield’ nukes. This seems terrifyingly similar to an idea going round in the 1980s when I was growing up. This was part of the madness of the ‘New Cold War’ under Thatcher and Reagan, when these idiots believed that a limited nuclear war could be fought in Europe.

Looking at this site’s stats, a couple of people have been looking at a piece I wrote about a year or so ago discussing some of the very astute satirical comments Pat Mills had put in the ‘ABC Warriors’ strip in 2000 AD. This followed the adventures of Hammerstein, Blackblood, Mongrol, Deathlok, Zippo and co during the Volgan War, a conflict between America and Russia for possession of the latter’s oil.

This was clearly aimed at the real reasons behind Gulf War II and the invasion of Iraq. One of the chief war aims was to seize the country’s vast oil reserves, which are the largest outside Saudi Arabia.

And I’m very much afraid the same is true here. Russia possesses vast natural resources in Siberia, and exports much of it to Europe. Some of the former provinces of the Soviet Union – the Baltic states – are extremely dependent on it for their power supplies. When one of the Baltic states was accused by the Russians of persecuting their people, the Russians also cut off, or threatened to cut off, the oil supply to their country, which would have resulted in massive power cuts.

American politics is heavily driven by corporate interests, and particularly that of the oil industry, dominated by the Koch brothers. These two are supposedly worth over $300 billion. They donate to the Republican party, and to organisations which deny climate change, in order to keep those barrels pumping out of the ground. Just as the Iraq invasion was to steal that country’s oil, I can see Pat Mills, the creator of ‘ABC Warriors’ strip, being in this case literally correct about the real reason for the current tensions.

It’s disgusting. I can remember the feeling of relief I felt when Communism fell, and the Soviet empire collapsed. Despite the horrors of capitalism and the poverty caused by the mass privatisation of Russian industry, which wiped out the savings and pensions of millions of Russians, nevertheless it seemed the dawn of a better world. The threat of nuclear annihilation had been lifted just a little. People from both sides of the continent could travel to each other’s countries to work and open businesses. It’s why I don’t really have a problem with eastern European workers coming over here. Our peoples meeting in friendship and peace is far better than the fear and hatred that was whipped up when I was young in the 1980s.

Now our leaders seem to be determined to destroy this golden opportunity to create a truly peaceful co-existence between the West and Russia. And despite whatever nonsense Obama’s and Putin’s generals may be telling them, there is no way to survive a nuclear holocaust. As Sting sang, ‘It’s a lie that we don’t believe any more.’

He’s right. And so’s Mike: instead of preparing to launch attacks, everyone needs to step back a little. As one of 2000 AD’s other creations, Judge Dredd, also said: ‘War is sick. War is evil. War is hell.’

Let’s follow the ABC Warriors instead and ‘Increase the Peace!’

Zarjaz! Documentary about 2000 AD!

September 25, 2016

Borag Thungg, Earthlets! As the Mighty Tharg used to say. I found over at Moria, the Science Fiction Film and Television database, a review of the 2014 documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD, directed by Paul Goodwin, and made by Stanton Media/Deviant Films. The film tells the story of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, and the crew of recidivist cultural deviants, who responsible, amongst other offences, for bringing the world Judge Dredd, Mega-City 1’s toughest lawman. Among those speaking in the movie are the mighty comics creators Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner, Dave Gibbon, Bryan Talbot, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Cam Kennedy and Karl Urban, who played Dredd in the movie of the same name a few years ago.

The Moria review sets the origins of the comic in the context of Britain in the late 70s and early 80s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, unemployment was at three million and the National Front was on the march. 2000 AD appeared following the cancellation of Action, a previous comic that had been banned after parents’ concerns that it was too violent. The team assembled to produce the new comic were partly drawn from those responsible for Action, like Mills, and the new comic definitely had a subversive edge. It was partly reacting against the old Fleetway children’s comics, whose stories were very safe. It takes its title from a series of unrelated bizarre stories, ‘Tharg’s Future Shocks’. As I recall, the strip in which these stories were first announced set the tone by showing a jaded, spoiled sprog, defiantly unimpressed with the previous offerings from British comics, who is then taken by Tharg to see the terrible and dangerous visions that the Future Shock strips will introduce. This is too much for the enfant terrible, and the traumatised brat is led away to received much-needed medical care, while Tharg urges them to ‘treat him gently’. An example of the strong subversive theme running through the comic is Dredd himself. Dredd was deliberately intended to be something of an ambivalent hero, a parody of Fascistic US policing. The Moria review notes that the more extreme Dredd became, the more popular he was, to the point where Carlos Ezquerra didn’t want to continue drawing the character after producing the original design. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising, as Ezquerra had as his inspiration for Dredd’s uniform that of Franco’s Fascists with their helmets and shoulder pads, though the review doesn’t mention this. John Wagner, Dredd’s creator, was always insistent that the character should never take off his helmet and show his face, as he was the symbol of the faceless police state.

The review discusses 2000 AD’s role as the first British comic to credit the artists and writers, and how this led to a brain drain as their leading creators were then lured off by the big American comic firms like Vertigo. I don’t think 2000 AD were quite the first. I think a few years before then the war comic, Battle, had also started to credit the people creating the strips. It also covers the magazine’s drop in quality and popularity in the 1990s, and then it’s revival under Matt Smith. It notes that all of the creators interviewed saw the comic as edgy, subversive and individualistic. This is certainly born out by some of the comments made in the movie’s trailer, which is also included in the review. This features the various writers and illustrators remarking on the comic and what they intended to achieve with it. Several of them, such as one by Pat Mills, are along the lines that the comics company really didn’t know what was about to hit them.

I don’t think they did. 2000 AD was never as controversial as Action, but nevertheless there were concerns occasionally that the comic was too violent. It did, however, produce some of the greatest comic strips that are still going thirty years later, like the ABC Warriors, Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, The Ballad of Halo Jones, and, of course, Judge Dredd. The future’s ultimate cop was hailed at the time by the space fact magazine, New Voyager, as the Dan Dare for the 1980s. High praise indeed!

The review also talks about the three films or so have that were released based on the comic. These include the two Judge Dredd films, Judge Dredd, which appeared in the 1990s with Sylvester Stallone playing Dredd; and Dredd, which came out a couple of years ago, with Karl Urban in the title role. They also include Richard Stanley’s Hardware, which was taken uncredited from Shok!, a short story told by Dredd’s mechanical friend, Walter the Wobot. 2000 AD took the film’s producers to court in plagiarism case, and won. The film’s producers were forced to credit the 2000 AD strip, though I think Stanley still maintains that he didn’t steal the idea from 2000 AD. Of the two Dredd films, the first is considered a disaster, while the second was a hit with both audiences and the strip’s creators, who praise the movie in the film. Stanley’s Hardware is also a classic of low budget SF film-making, and has rightly received wide praise. It was made in 1989, but still looks good a quarter of a century and more later, and its relatively high quality of design and production makes it appear that it had a bigger budget than it actually had. Stanley’s career as a cinema director I think ended after he was sacked from directing the 1990s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This was at least partly the result of the utterly bizarre behaviour of Marlon Brando, who took the part of Moreau. There’s also a film about the making of that movie, which shows just how bonkers and extremely difficult to work with Brando was, to the point where filming at time degenerated something close to farce. it’s a pity, as Stanley was and is a talented film-maker with fresh, interesting concepts. If things were ideal, he and 2000 AD would ideally make their peace, and he should produce a film based on some of the comics’ other strips. But this ain’t an ideal world, and so that very definitely won’t happen.

I don’t know if the documentary is available on YouTube, and I don’t recall having seen it on the shelves of HMV, but it might be worth checking out your local comics shop, like Forbidden Planet.

The Moria review can be read at: http://moria.co.nz/sciencefiction/future-shock-the-story-of-2000ad-2014.htm

Bugbots – Military Nano Drones, and a Warning from Polish SF Author Stanislaw Lem

December 1, 2015

This is another interesting – and chilling – video I found on Youtube. It’s a promotional film from one of the US aerospace contractors talking up nanorobotic drones. This is drones about the size of a small bird or children’s toy helicopters. The video hypes their use for gather intelligence, both singly and in swarms like insects. It also states that they may be used to kill enemy soldiers or combatants.

We’re already using miniature drones like those above to gather information in Afghanistan.

This video shows British soldiers talking about the Black Hornet nano drone, which can be controlled in the same way you can operate a playstation.

I find this chilling, as it starts to confirm a prediction the Polish Science Fiction author, Stanislaw Lem made, about the future direction of military technology in the 1980s/90s. Lem was impressed by the increasing power and intelligence of computers, and predicted that eventually this would effect even politics. The short story played with the idea that political parties would compete to show the electorate that they had the best computer, and therefore the best solutions to the country’s problems.

He also believed that as weapons and equipment, such as planes, ships and tanks became increasingly sophisticated, so they would also become prohibitively expensive. As a result, government would turn to miniaturisation, using swarms of extremely small robots to attack their enemies.

This would result in a global situation that was neither war nor peace, as it would be unclear whether natural disasters, such as, for example, devastation of crops by bad weather or insect swarms, were genuine or caused by enemy robot intervention.

Fortunately, we haven’t got to the point where politics is decided by which party has the biggest, cleverest computer. I think if that point every comes, we may as well say goodbye to democracy and just hand the world over to Microsoft, IBM or Apple. Military technology and equipment is becoming more expensive, and in Britain we are seeing extensive cuts which may well harm our ability to fight and win wars. However, American politics is strongly coloured by the arms and other industries sponsoring politicians campaigns, in return for them continuing to receive extremely generous subsidies from the taxpayer. I really don’t see the Americans cutting back on their military spending anytime soon, still less Russia and China.

And with miniature killer drones disguised as insects, it really does look like the frowning Polish grandmaster of SF was right about the use of such robots, and the highly uncertain hostile and militarised ‘peace’ that would arise through their use.

Here’s another video, this time from Reason TV, giving three reasons why the use of drones is a bad idea.

The transcript for the video on its Youtube page runs

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may not agree on much, but they’re both totally into the use of unmanned aircraft known as drones to hunt down and kill real and imagined threats to the American way of life.

Whenever you’ve got top Democrats and top Republicans getting along, you know something has gone horribly wrong.

Here are three reasons why drone strikes are really freaking scary.

1. They’re not that accurate.

One of the main selling points of drone strikes is their supposedly surgical precision. Rather than carpet-bombing entire city blocks to nail one or two bad guys, now we can just zap them without harming anyone else.

But a new study from researchers at NYU and Stanford concludes that as many 881 civilians – including 176 children – have been killed by US drone strikes in northern Pakistan since 2004. Worse still are reports that targets get blasted repeatedly, to ward off rescuers from helping the wounded.

2. There’s no legal framework.

Drone strikes have been carried out in countries with whom we’re allies or against whom we’ve yet to declare war. They are the principal way in which President Obama’s infamous “kill list” is made operational and yet nobody knows how such decisions are being made. As The New York Times said earlier this year, “a unilateral campaign of death is untenable.”

Not only is such a campaign immoral on its face, it only damages America’s standing in the world.

3. It’s only going to get worse.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that in 20 years, as many as 30,000 drones could be filling the skies over America, doing everything from promoting local restaurants to executing warrantless snooping for local, state, and federal cops. That includes “nano drones,” that will the size of a small flying insect. As it stands, the taxpaying public has basically zero information on how many drones are being used by which parts of government.

That’s led the ACLU to file a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more about the technical capabilities of drones and what parts of government are already up there in the wild blue yonder.

We need to force the government to be transparent on drones long before the machines start blotting out the sun.

This is powerful technology that clearly is a real threat to the freedom of the countries using them, as well as being unethical and counterproductive when used against the enemy. And the secrecy surrounding them should be real cause for concern.

It’s no accident that the first appearance of something like a drone – an airborne camera to spy on citizens – made its appearance as long ago as the 1980s in 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd. And a drone can also be seen flying around in the opening scenes of the Dredd movie that came out a few years ago, starring Karl Urban. Dredd is the ultimate lawman, but he’s also a deliberately ambiguous figure. John Wagner in an interview around 1983 or so stated that he would never take off his helmet because he represents the faceless police state.

When real life starts to resemble the nightmare black comedy of Megacity 1, you know something’s gone very seriously wrong.

Vaucanson and the First Strike against Automation

October 12, 2015

Living Dolls Cover

The week before last the BBC’s Panorama current affairs programme, amongst others, discussed the possible threat posed to jobs in Britain by further automation. There were extensive trailers for it, and the programme was plugged on that Monday’s six O’clock news. The usual opinions pro and contra were offered. One talking head for the automobile industry announced that there wouldn’t be massive job losses due to automation in the coming decades. They had already automated several of their factories, and as a result had to taken on hundreds, if not a thousand more people.

Well good luck to them.

For the rest of us, the news did not seem to be so bright and rosy. Panorama predicted that about a third of all jobs could go in the coming decades, particularly in the customer service industries. This meant, basically, that shop workers could look forward to losing their jobs due to the introduction of further machines like the self-service tills that have already been set up in libraries, shops and supermarkets. I got slightly irritated with this part of the news, due to bright and cheery way the presenter broke this piece of highly ominous forecasting. It was as if the spectre of millions more low paid workers being slung out of their jobs was just another piece of light, airy, and ultimately inconsequential pieces they usually put at the end of programmes, like the stories about surfing dogs and snails that enjoyed a pint.

There’s nothing new in this issue. It’s been around since the days of Ned Ludd in the Industrial Revolution, when craft workers facing unemployment rioted against the introduction of the new machines, which either replaced them, or reduced the need for their skills to mere ‘knacks’. Marx and Engels themselves protested against this in the Communist Manifesto.

Gaby Wood, in her book, Living Dolls, describes how the first modern strike against the replacement of human beings with machines occurred in 18th century France. The silk weavers struck against the invention of a new loom by Vaucanson, which made their skills obsolete by allowing almost anyone to operate it. Vaucanson was one of the leading makers of automata, creating mechanical people and creatures so lifelike that they raised and still raise disturbing questions about the nature of humanity and human uniqueness. Wood’s discussion of the strike is noteworthy for the way she takes the side of the workers, rather than castigate them for holding up the march of progress, as others have done. She writes

In his funerary tribute to Vaucanson, the Enlightenment mathematician and philosopher Condorcet defined a mechanician as one who ‘sometimes applies a new motor to machines, and sometimes makes machines perform operations which were previously forced to be reliant on the intelligence of men; or he is one who knows how to obtain from machines the most perfect and abundant products’. This, according to the silk workers of Lyon, was precisely Vaucanson’s wrongdoing. They rebelled against his automatic loom by pelting him with stones in the street; they insisted that their skills were needed, that no machine could replace them. In retaliation, Vaucanson built a loom manned by a donkey, from which a baroque floral fabric was produced, in order to prove, as he said, that ‘a horse, an ox or an ass can make cloth more beautiful and much more perfect than the most able silk workers’. This spiteful performance, surprising in the son of a craftsman, was the reverse of his golden duck: instead of producing excrement from a precious metal, he made luxurious silk emerge from the end of a live animal. The first was designed for man’s entertainment; the second was meant to show man that he was dispensable.

The biographers Doyon and Liaigre blame the silk workers for stalling the march of progress, for France’s Industrial Revolution lagging behind England’s; and Condorcet comments melodramatically that ‘whoever wishes to bring new enlightenment to men must expect to be persecuted’. The point of view of the workers seems to have been sidelined altogether in favour of the grant Enlightenment project. The Encyclopedie devoted sixteen pages (not including illustrations) to the making of silk and other stockings. ‘In what systems of metaphysics’, it reads, ‘does one find more of intelligence, wisdom, consequence, than in machines for spinning gold or making stockings? … What demonstration of Mathematics is more complicated than the mechanism of certain clocks?’ In the Encyclopedie’s illustrations, the men are secondary to the machinery. Vaucanson and his contemporaries contributed to a widespread sleight of hand: like wine into vinegar or base metal into gold, men were turned into machines. The new automata were not replicas, but real humans transformed. throughout the next century, factory workers came to feel they had been reduced to the mechanical pieces they were in charge of producing, hour after hour and day after day.

Gaby Wood, Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (London: Faber and Faber 2002) 38.

There’s been that tension in process of mechanisation ever since, between deskilling and obsolescence, and industrial and scientific expansion, improvement and the emergence of new technical skills and industries. Kevin Warwick, the professor of cybernetics at Reading University, makes that very clear in his book, March of the Machines. Among the reasons he lists for automation are ‘reduction of labour costs’ – in other words, replacing expensive human labour with cheap machine production. I’ve a friend, who takes a very keen interest in these issues. He told me that we may well be at the end of the process, in which mechanisation creates new jobs as it replaces old. The traditional example is that of the mechanical digger. The number of people made unemployed through mechanical diggers, goes the saying, are made up for by the people taken on at the factory making them. Except with the mechanisation of the production of machines, this may now not be true. And so the kind of future predicted by some Science Fiction writers, of a society where there is mass unemployment and despair caused by mechanisation, may be about to become reality.

Welcome to the Megacity One of Judge Dredd, where nearly all the work is performed by robots, so that there is a 95 per cent unemployment rate.

I did wonder if some of the managers and engineers, confidently working on replacing their human workforce with machines would be quite so complacent about the process if they were faced with the same threat. Instead with retiring with plaudits, patents, and a generous pension, they had to look forward to joining the dole queue tomorrow, to be harangued by their job coach about how they were only being prevented from getting a job through their laziness. Then perhaps a few perspectives might change, and a few presenters on the Beeb might not be so jolly and complacent about millions more facing the dole.

Judge Dread: Judging the Dark Tories

October 12, 2015

Mike and his commenters over on Vox Political have this piece, http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/10/09/beware-the-dark-tories-have-come-to-judge-you/ noting the similarity between the Tories’ stance, physical, political and moral, and those of the Dark Judges, the archenemies of the ultimate lawman, Judge Dredd, from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000 AD.

It also struck me too, several months ago, that there was a certain similarity in attitude between Ian Duncan Smith, the minister for chequebook genocide, and the leader of the Dark Judges, Judge Death. So I drew cartoon the below.

IDS Judge Death

If you can’t read it, Judge Ian Duncan Death is saying, ‘The crime isss poverty. The sentenssse isss death’. And the caption reads ‘The Tories. You cannot kill what does not live’.

With all due respect Dredd and the art and script robots, who created and drew him.

I think this is fair comment. After all, poverty is the only crime the Tories seem really to care about, and their policy does seem to consist in criminalising, punishing and killing those guilty of it.

Increase the Peace: Criticism of the Iraq Invasion in 2000 AD’s ABC Warriors

April 18, 2015

Borag Thungg, Earthlets! As the mighty Tharg used to say.

I’ve posted a number of pieces about satire and social criticism in comics, particularly the British SF comic, 2000 AD. Mike over at Vox Political posted a piece on the very pointed comment about the effect of sanctions and workfare in the Judge Dredd strip. And it’s been released that after the elections are safely over, Megacity I’s hardest lawman will go up against a corrupt politician fomenting hatred against immigrants after a series of terrorist attacks. This politician’s name: Bilious Barrage. And he bears a striking resemblance to a certain head of an anti-EU, anti-immigration party.

Bilious Barage

Bilious Barrage: Mega-City 1’st anti-immigration politician and leading candidate for a place in the Iso-Cubes.

2000 AD has always had a very strong strain of satire and social comment. The Strontium Dog strip, about the mutant bounty hunter, Johnny Alpha, used the character’s mutation to criticise racism and the British class system. This included a story in which the king of Britain, Clarkie II, in order to reach out to all his subjects, marries a mutant from the Milton Keynes ghetto, Vera Duckworth. Who, as her name suggests, was blessed with a duck’s bill.

Strontium Clarkie Duckworth

Johnny Alpha with his highness King Clarkie II and Vera Duckworth, as drawn by Carlos Ezquerra.

This was partly based on Prince Charles, and his concern in the 1980s to help Britain’s unemployed created by Maggie Thatcher’s recession.

Real political figures also made their way into 2000 AD’s strip, like Ronald Reagan. The then-president of America featured in a story in which he had been kidnapped by time-travelling aliens, who wish to use him as a hostage in their campaign to break free from human domination.

Strontium Reagan Red

A kidnapped Ronald Reagan menaced by the mutant vampire, Durham Red, from the Strontium Dog strip.

The Second Gulf War and the Iraq invasion has also been criticised in its turn in the three volumes of collected ABC Warriors’ strips, The Volgan War, scripted by the strips’ creator, Pat Mills, and drawn with almost photo-real precision by Clint Langley.

The ABC Warriors are a kind of ‘Meknificent Seven’, a group of ex-war robots, led by the morally upright Hammerstein, dedicated to protecting justice and defending the weak and innocent in a violent and corrupt galaxy. The strip itself is a kind of spin-off from the Ro-Busters strip, about a group of robots sent in to rescue humans from disasters where the situation was too dangerous to risk human lives.

Hammerstein and the other robots were built to fight in the Volgan Wars. The Volgan Republic was a disguised version of the Soviet Union, which was shown conquering Britain in the early 2000 AD strip, Invasion. The treatment of the Volgan Wars in the ABC Warriors is permeated with a very strong anti-war message. Robots are expendable slaves, and their human officers have no respect for their lives or the pain they suffer, so long as they achieve their objectives and win medals for them.

This was part of the strip from its very beginning in the late ’70s and early 1980s. And it’s still the same now in the 21st Century. In Vol. 2 of the Volgan Wars series, the Warriors are shown talking about how they suffer from survivor’s guilt.

Steelhorn says ‘The hardest thing when I got back was humans slapping me on the back and saying ‘Great job Steelhorn!’

To which Mongrol, another Warrior replies, ‘They wanted it to be a good war so that they could sleep at night.’

Hammerstein adds ‘But we know it wasn’t a good war. There’s no such thing as a good war.’

In this post-Iraq Invasion reworking of the strip, the aggressors are the West. The world has passed peak oil, and so America and her allies have invaded the Volgan Empire – Russia – in order to get their hands on its oil reserves.

ABC Tipping Point Oil

The above panels show the Volkhan, the supreme Volgan war robot, stating this in his speech to the massed Volgan war machines.

‘Remember! The world has passed the tipping point! The oil is finally running out! It’s why the ABC criminals have invaded our country! To steal our oil!’

‘Only Volgograd stands in the way of their advance to the Caspian oilfields! If Volgograd falls, Mother Russia falls!’

The American officers leading the invasion are very much aware that the rationale for the war – that they are liberating the Russian people – is a sham, and note privately that it should be a public scandal.

In one scene, Blackblood, one of the Volgan robots, reads out an entry confirming this from the diary of a captured American officer.

ABC Volgan War Reasons

The entry reads

“This terrible war is a set-up to steal the Volgan’s oil and make money for robot weapons manufacturers Like Howard Quartz. The general public should be told what is really going on.”

The Volgans are presented as sadistic killers, who have absolutely no qualms about committing atrocities such as the mass murder of innocent civilians. Blackblood is one of the most treacherous and brutal, who takes his name because he drinks the oil of the other robots he and his soldiers have killed. In order to avenge such atrocities, the allies have established the Knights Martial, an order of robot knights, to try war crimes and bring those responsible to justice.

Their role was originally intended to be solely confined to Volgan war criminals. The Knights have, however, broken their programming and gone beyond that. They are now judging allied generals for the atrocities they have committed, as shown when Deadlok, the order’s Grand Master, puts an American ABC general on trial.

Clearly, the ABC Warriors are meant as fictional entertainment, but the social comment and political satire in the strip makes it acutely relevant. The volumes on the Volgan War were published five or six years ago in 2009 and 10. The present, however, seems to be catching up very fast with the future envisioned by the writer Pat Mills, and the strips’ artists. In his introduction to the second volume, Pat Mills discusses the emergence of real autonomous war machines, including the PackBot.

A robot called the PackBot is used in Iraq to locate and blow up enemy bombs, also blowing itself up in the process at a cost of $150,000 per robot. it can only be a matter of time before indestructible machines like Hammerstein will carry out these same tasks. A Pentagon spokesman has stated, “Robot’s don’t get hungry. They’re not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.” That sounds very much like the ABC Warriors.

The singularity, the point of no return, could well be soon. This is the time when robots become so intelligent, they are able to build ever more intelligent and powerful versions of themselves without reference to humans. When that moment arrives, the Warriors’ adventures may be seen as closer to science fact than science fiction and the truth may be even stranger than the fiction depicted in this second volume of The Volgan Wars.

I’m afraid that the future depicted in the ABC Warriors may become all too real very soon. The current events in the Ukraine strike me very much as an attempt by the West to create a pro-western government in the former Soviet state, partly in order to get their hands on its immensely fertile agricultural soil and partly for its vast mineral reserves, including oil. And, of course, it’s only a short distance away from the major oil reserves around the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan. Something like the Volgan War could easily become a horrific reality.

The ABC Warrior’s value isn’t just in its realistic depiction of a future war and the possible machines built to fight it, but in the human and trans-human moral cost of such a conflict. Like much of the best Science Fiction in all media, whether literature, film and television or comics, the ABC Warrior’s brings a critical satirical eye to contemporary politicians, who have manufactured wars and sacrificed human lives in furtherance of their personal and geopolitical ambitions.

And that really is zarjaz, as Tharg the Mighty also used to say.

Splundig vur thrigg.

Sneck! Mutant Bounty Hunter In Radio 4 High Culture Shock!

April 7, 2015

Strontium Dog

Mutant Bounty Hunter Johnny Alpha, AKA Strontium Dog, from 2000 AD, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra

I’ve published a few pieces recently about comics, and particularly 2000 AD. Last week it was reported that Judge Dredd was going to be taking on Nigel Farage in the form of a hate-mongering politico, Bilious Barrage, in Mega-City 1. Now in today’s Radio Times there’s also news that another favourite from 2000 AD will get a mention on radio: Johnny Alpha, the mutant bounty hunter and hero of the strip Strontium Dog. He’s due to get an appearance on a programme about a new cycle of poems about the element, from which he and the other Search/Destroy Agents took their name The (Half) Life of Strontium.

The blurb in the Radio Times says Strontium is the 38th element in the Periodic Table and was discovered in 1792 by miners in the Scottish village of Strontian. Robert Crawford’s new suite of poems elaborates on the connections between the village in Argyll, the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki and the mutant bounty hunter, Strontium Dog.

The programme’s on at 4.30 pm. on Radio 4 on Sunday, 12th April.

The strip took its name from Strontium 90, one of the radioactive elements in nuclear fall-out. The Strontium Dogs were mutants, who were legally prevented from holding any other jobs on Earth except as bounty hunters because of their mutations. The strip combined detective adventures in a kind of future galactic Wild West, as the strip’s hero, Johnny Alpha, and his norm partner Wulf Sternhammer, roamed space bringing criminals to justice.

Alpha took his name from the alpha particles emitted by his mutant eyes. In the strip these gave him X-ray vision and the power to read minds. In practice they’re very weak. You can block them with a sheet of paper. Not that science fact necessarily gets in the way of a good tale. 2000 AD generally had a strong satirical edge, and wasn’t averse to tackling serious issues. In Strontium Dog the strips’ creators used the mutant hero and his deformed friends and enemies to explore issues of racism, prejudice and the British class system.

Alpha’s father was a ruthless right-wing politicians, Nelson Bunker Kreelman, who was determined to carry out a policy of mass murder to cleanse an irradiated Britain of its mutant population. Alpha’s own mutation was carefully hidden in order to safeguard his father’s reputation. In the event, Alpha rebels against his father, and leads a mutant revolt from one of the ancient symbols of British identity, Stonehenge.

The mutant’s victory is limited, however. Although they are tolerated, their opportunities are very limited. They are segregated into mutant ghettos, and are very much second-class citizens. When Alpha and Wulf travel, they are forced to find accommodation in the hold or in the second class cabins, as mutants very definitely may not travel first class with ordinary humans. And the discovery of mutant relatives, especially offspring, is still a major source of shame for respectable middle class Brits.

In one strip, the king of Britain, Clarkie II, attempts to bridge the divide between norm and mutant by marrying a young mutant lady with a duck’s bill from the Milton Keynes mutant ghetto. This is a step too far for his subjects, and the idealistic king is hounded, forced to abdicate, and flee into space.

It’s a slightly irreverent, but also curiously sympathetic look at Prince Charles’ actions at the time. This was before his marriage with Lady Di fell apart, and the Prince was still popular with many Brits. He also appeared to be genuinely and deeply concerned with the plight of his poorer subjects as Maggie’s recession threw millions out of work. And so the strip’s creators, Aaln Grant and Carlos Ezquerra, were able to present a fantastic version of the Prince of Wales showing his social concerns in the future. In this case, it was marrying well out of his class with a mutant girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

And what Crawford’s poem also shows us, is that apart from great literature, the major figures of British arts also started off like the rest of us: reading and enjoying the four-colour funny papers. They’ve now grown up, and Dredd, Alpha and the rest are heading upmarket alongside . At least on the radio.

Reagan Dog

Never afraid to treat authority with the amusement it deserves: Strontium Dog and his partner, Durham Red, rescue a Ronald Reagan kidnapped by time-travelling aliens.

Metamorphosis: Another Comic Attacking Farage

April 4, 2015

Earlier this week I put up a post about reports in the Belfast Telegraph and ITV that 2000 AD was planning to skewer Farage in a forthcoming Judge Dredd strip. This will pit the hardest lawman in Mega-City One against the corrupt, racist politico, Bilious Barrage.

Now it seems that the Independent also is publishing their comic strip attack on the Purple Duce. I found this piece posted on the SlatUKIP site, reporting a piece in the Independent about the launch of the Metamorphosis comic strip, by one of their cartoonists. The strip seems to take Kafka’s novel, Metamorphosis, and puts an extra spin on it to turn it into a modern parable about racism.

Kafka’s novel is about a man, who wakes up one day to find that he has been transformed over night into a beetle. In this strip, giant intelligent cockroaches have appeared, and are being victimised in same way as foreign immigrants are in contemporary Britain. There is even an anti-cockroach party, UCOC, led by a politician, who looks exactly like Farage. Here’s the link.

http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/metamorphosis-an-exclusive-satirical-comic-we-recommend-you-read–eJlV0wWby1b

Apart from Kafka, the strip also seems influenced by Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This was an alternative comic narrating the experiences of Spiegelman’s father and the situation of the Jews in the Third Reich as an animal fable. The Jews were mice, the Germans cats, and the Poles were pigs. The Independent’s Metamorphosis seems to be following Spiegelman in using comics to combat racism, and animals as metaphors for the different racial groups.

A little while ago I posted a piece lamenting the absence of underground and alternative comics tackling the great issues of modern Britain. Now it seems they’re coming back. And that can only be a good thing, so here’s to more of them, and more power to their artists’ satirical elbows.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Disability

While this comic book uses Kafka’s idea of transformation into an insect as a metaphor for racism, the original novel can be read as a parable about disability. Though Kafka himself spoke and wrote in German, the novel’s title in Czech is Zuk, which literally means ‘beetle’, but can also mean anything loathsome or disgusting. Kafka was a clerk working in the insurance department, and his novels of labyrinthine bureaucracy are basically fantastic extrapolations from the real bureaucracy in which he worked.

In Metamorphosis, the hero’s transformation renders him unable to work, and he eventually either dies or commits suicide, because he is an increasing drain on his family. This could be seen as a metaphor for the all-too real predicament the disabled and their families ended up in 19th century Bohemia, when accident or disease rendered them unable to make a living.

Which is basically another good reason for why no-one should ever vote UKIP. Farage, Nuttall and the rest of stormtroopers would like to see the welfare state completely removed and the NHS privatised. Various Kipper politicos have made monstrous comments about the disabled, and denied the right of disabled children to be born.

This morning I reblogged another great piece from Tom Pride on the Nazi ideas of the Kippers’ European ally, Janusz Korwin-Mikke. This particularly Nazi has stated that the disabled should not be on television, which should be reserved for the strong, healthy and able-bodied. He also announced that supporting the disabled hadn’t yet spread to Africa, which was why they were going to become so much stronger than Europeans. In his view, this will lead to them invading and massacring us.

It’s bog-standard, 19th century eugenics crap, and could almost have come straight from Hitler himself, or any of the biology textbooks published in the Third Reich. It’s particularly ironic coming from a Pole, as the Nazis viewed all the Slavonic peoples of eastern Europe – Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Russians, Czechs and Slovaks, among many others, as sub-humans. They were to be enslaved and worked to death after the Nazis conquered their countries. As well as the extermination of the Jews and Gypsies, the Nazis were also responsible for horrific atrocities against these peoples, including in Poland.

Farage made an alliance with Korwin-Mikke’s party to get EU money by forming a voting bloc of extreme Right-wing and anti-EU parties within the European parliament. It shows a cynical absence of any kind of morality, and the underlying Fascism behind Farage’s democratic façade.