Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Kubrick’

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.

 

US Air Force Planned Orbital Warplane 20 Years Ago

July 4, 2020

I found this fascinating piece in the June 1999 issue of the popular science magazine Frontiers. Now 21 years old, it’s still acutely relevant now that Trump has said he’s going to set up a Space Force. The article has the headline Space Fighter Plane, with the subtitle ‘The US Air Force plans to become a Space Force.’ This states that the US air force was developing a fighter that could travel beyond the atmosphere into space. It runs

By the early 2010s US military pilots could be flying scramjet warplanes that can leave the atmosphere behind. Research by the US Air Force’s Air Vehicles Directorate suggests a trans-atmospheric vehicle (TAV) could be built as early as 2013. The intention would be to build a reconnaissance plane or bomber that could reach anywhere in the world within three hours. Flying at Mach 10 the TAV could piggyback a small spaceplane to the top of the atmosphere so it can fly the rest of its way into orbit.

The proposed vehicle is part of a shift in military thinking that will eventually see the US Air Force renamed the Aerospace Force. Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine reports that the Air Force is doubling its £100 million space-related research budget. One intention is to shift surveillance work carried out currently by aircraft such as AWACS to satellites equipped with advanced optics, space-based radar and hyperspectral imaging. To deliver such hardware into orbit the Air Force intends to build an unmanned reusable spaceplane called the Space Manoeuvre Vehicle (SMV).

The other thrust of Air Force research is to perfect space-based lasers that could in principle be used with space-based radar to target enemy ballistic missiles for ‘Star Wars’ operations, or even take out targets on the ground at the speed of light. The downside of such ‘space superiority’ tactics is that satellites will become a tempting target for other nations. Air force researchers aim to maximise satellite ‘survivability’ by flying clusters of satellites that work collectively and whose function can survive the destruction of individual units. (p. 37).

The article has two pictures of the projected space warplane, one of which is a computer simulation.

The caption reads: ‘The Air Force’s Space Manoeuvre Vehicle is the first in a series of planned military spaceplanes.’

As this image’s caption suggests, it appears to be a photo of the plane going through flight tests.

Trump doesn’t seem to be acting alone in demanding a US space force. It looks like he’s following a policy that was suggested at least twenty years, if not longer. I’ve got a couple of books dating from the 1980s about possible future wars in space. As for the space-based lasers, this was one of the projects in Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ programme, or the Space Defence Initiative as it was officially called. Which means in one form or another, Trump’s space force has been floating around the Pentagon for about forty years. ‘Star Wars’ was cancelled due to its massive expense and the fact that it became irrelevant after Glasnost’ and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it seems that it’s been taken out of the cupboard of bad ideas and dusted out.

I see nothing wrong in transatmospheric spaceplanes, but let them be used for the peaceful exploration and colonisation of space. Trump’s Space Force violates international law and threatens to increase international tensions through the militarisation of space. In Arthur C. Clarke’sand Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the time the black monolith is found on the Moon, the Earth’s superpowers have ringed the planet with orbiting nuclear bomb platforms. The Cold War is becoming hot. Right at the end of Clarke’s book, the nuclear missiles are launched only to be stopped by the Star Child, the transformed astronaut Bowman, as he returns to the solar system from his journey to the home system of the monolith’s builders. The book ends with him pondering what to do about the crisis: ‘But he would think of something’.

Trump’s space force threatens a similar nuclear holocaust. But there will be no Star Child to rescue us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASA Film Explaining Their Plan to Return to the Moon

June 25, 2020

Here’s a short film from NASA. Narrated by William Shatner, Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, it explains that the space agency intends to return to the Moon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed there fifty years ago. This time the agency intends to stay.

It discusses some of the problems that have to be overcome, like isolation, radiation, gravity and the harsh environment of space. To get there, NASA has produced the SLS -Space Launch System – rocket, the most powerful yet developed, to lift heavier payloads into space. The crew will be carried by a new space capsule specially developed for the mission, Orion. The film also states that they’re developing new instrument system for exploring the Moon with their commercial partners.

They want to create fully reusable lunar landers that can land anywhere on the Moon’s surface. The simplest way to enable them to do this is to create an orbiting platform – a space station – around the Moon. This will also contain experiments as well as humans, and has been called ‘Gateway’. Gateway has been designed so that it will move between orbits, and balance between the Earth’s and Moon’s gravity.

It was discovered in 2009 that the Moon contains millions of tons of water ice. This can be extracted and purified for use as drinking water, or separated to provide oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel.

They also state that the Moon is uniquely placed to prepare and propel us to Mars and beyond. The film also declaims that humans are the most fragile part of the mission, but humans are at the heart of it. NASA is going back for all humanity, and this time the Moon isn’t a checkpoint, but a way station for everything that lies beyond. Shatner ends with ‘Our greatest adventure lies ahead of us. We are going.’ This last sentence is repeated as a slogan by the many engineers, technicians, astronauts and mission staff shown in the video. They are shown working on the instruments, rocket engines, launch infrastructure, training aircraft, mission control centre, and the huge swimming pool used to train prospective astronauts in zero G. NASA’s staff and crew are both men and women, and people of all races, Black, White and Asian. One of the ladies is Black, clearly following in the footsteps of the three Afro-American female mathematicians who helped put America’s first men in orbit.

It also includes footage of the first Apollo astronauts walking to their Saturn V rocket and landing on the Moon, with computer simulations of the planned missions, as well as Mars and Jupiter.

From the video, it looks like NASA has returned to its original strategy for reaching the Moon. This was to build a space station between the Earth and Moon at which the powerful rockets used for getting out of Earth’s gravity well would dock. Passengers to the Moon would then be transferred to the landers designed to take them down the Moon. These would be less powerful because of the Moon’s lower gravity.

This was the infrastructure of lunar missions that Wernher von Braun originally intended. It’s the plan shown in Floyd’s journey from Earth to Clavius base on the Moon in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. America, however, needed to beat the Russians to the Moon in the space race for geopolitical reasons, and so chose to go directly to the Moon instead of building the intermediate space station. As a result, after the cuts of the 1970s, America and humanity never returned.

There was talk of a commercial mission to the Moon in the 1990s, using Titan-Centaur rockets assembled into a lunar vessel in orbit. Just as there were also confident predictions that by this year, humanity would have put an astronaut on the Moon. Or perhaps a taikonaut, the Chinese term for it. Stephen Baxter in an article on possible Mars missions in this present century suggested that the first person to walk on the red planet would be a Chinese woman. Who knows? The Chinese are making great strides in their space programme, so I think that’s still a real possibility.

 

Ren Wicks’ painting for NASA of 2019 mission to Mars, from Peter Bond, Reaching For The Stars: The Illustrated History of Manned Spaceflight (London: Cassell 1993).

Fifty years is far too long for us to have stayed away from the Moon. I can remember all the books on space from the 1970s and early ’80s which predicted that by this time there’d be holidays in space, orbital colonies, a base on the Moon and expeditions to Mars and beyond. These haven’t materialised. The last section of Shatner’s voiceover for the video was a piece of oratory designed to evoke JFK’s classic speech, in which he declared America was going to the Moon. ‘We intend, before this decade is out, to put a man on the Moon. We do this, and the other thing, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’

I wish NASA and all the other space agencies and companies around the world all the very best in realizing the ancient dream of taking people into space. Despite the economic and medical crises caused by the virus, I hope they are successful and in four years’ time put people on the Moon at last. And that this will be just the first in a series of further steps out onto the High Frontier.

As somebody whispered on that fateful day when the Saturn V rocket carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took off, ‘Godspeed’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adam Savage and Guest Engineer Build Refrigerated Cooling Suit

June 19, 2020

Adam Savage is a Science Fiction fan and engineer/special effects technician on YouTube. I think he was also one half of Mythbusters, a cable/satellite TV series in which he and his co-host put to the test various popular myths. Such as whether a car door really could shield you from bullets as shown in any number of cop shows and films.

In his YouTube channel, Savage goes off to various SF conventions and gatherings, talking to stars, special effects people and fans. He also builds replica movie props and effects. In this video, he and his guest, biomedical engineer Kipp Bradford, build a refrigerated suit.

Savage says that he’s building it because a few years ago, he went to a convention wearing a replica of the spacesuits worn in the classic SF/horror movie Alien. Wearing its quilted material in such a hot environment, however, nearly gave him heatstroke. He went to another convention after that wearing a copy of the silver space suites from Kubrick’s 2001. This had a type of cooling system built into it to stop him becoming too hot, but it seems to have just circulated water around without being a refrigerator. The refrigerated cooling suit he and Bradford build uses the same kind of technology used in domestic fridges to keep food and drink cool. It works by pumping a refrigerated fluid around which takes heat from the objects to be cooled and radiates it away. In this case, the suit uses a miniature compressor and two heat exchangers. The miniature compressor was made by DARPA for the American armed forces. Nearly two decades ago after Gulf War II the American government called for a similar refrigerated suit to be developed to keep its squaddies cool in the desert heat. The project was abandoned when it was realised that if something went wrong with the suits, the soldiers would be seriously compromised.

The suit the two use for the device is an RAF cooling suit from c. 1975. It’s designed for the British air forces high altitude pilots, and Savage says he picked it up a few years ago at an auction. I have an idea it was a similar suit with tubes for circulating fluid that the costume/make up department of Dr. Who used for the Cybermen seen in the 1980s Peter Davison story Earthshock. 

I don’t think this is something that can be built at home by your average SF fan or DIY enthusiast. Obviously one of the issues is simply getting hold of the components. They mention that one of the compressors is available from a company that will provide single units. All the other companies providing refrigerator components will only supply them in bulk, so unless you order 10,000 of them, they won’t give you anything. They also use a proper, industrial refrigerant as the coolant. There’s a lot of joking about using alcohol, including vodka as the coolant, and they state that this is a viable option. But I really don’t think that is the stuff they eventually use. They do say, on the other hand, that it isn’t the freon used in older fridges in the 1970s, for example, that was one of the gases that put a hole in the ozone layer. That’s been replaced by more ecofriendly chemicals, so that the hole is actually now closing. Which is clearly a win for the environment, even if the planet is still suffering from massive pollution and the destruction of the natural environment and extinction of millions of endangered species.

For all the light, jokey tone, it’s clear that Bradford is an incredibly intelligent man. While Savage jokes that he’s only got honorary degrees, which aren’t worth anything, Bradford has a string of higher qualifications. He’s a biomechanical engineer, who has designed similar cooling units for medevac for injured American troopers.

The two manage to construct a small refrigerator and connect it to the suit. And it works! Through an infrared app on a mobile phone camera they show it lowering Savage’s temperature as he’s wearing it down to quite a cold level. The only drawback for this viewer is that they don’t create any kind of backpack for it enabling Savage to wear it with the suit. Wearing it, Savage remarks that it’s given him an insight into the achievement of the NASA scientists and engineers, who built the spacesuits. Not only did these include similar cooling systems, but they also had to include other vital systems like air.

I found this video particularly interesting as a fan of Dune. In Frank Herbert’s classic novel, the Fremen and other people survive the harsh conditions on the desert planet Arakis by wearing still suits. These reclaim the body’s moisture from sweat and wastes through semi-permeable membranes, treating it so that it becomes drinkable water. Fans of the Australian-American ’90s SF show, Farscape, will also remember the cooling suit worn by the villain Scorpius. Scorpius is half-Skaren, half-Sebatian. The Skarens are tough, reptile-like creatures with a high body temperature and craving for heat. The Sebatians, by contrast, are identical to humans but lack human’s ability to regulate their body temperature. They’re therefore vulnerable to overheating and falling into an incurable coma. In order to stop this, Scorpius wears a refrigerated suit specially designed for him, and has had surgery performed so that he can insert cooling rods into his skull to lower the temperature of his brain. Mercifully, no-one has suggested doing anything like that yet, although some extreme conditions are treated by placing the patient in a coma and lowering their body temperature. This nifty little piece of engineering shows that while we haven’t quite reached the ability to produce a still suit like Dune’s, we’re not far off it.

As you can also see from the video, Kipp Bradford’s Black or mixed-race. There’s a move to make science and engineering more diverse, with more women and Blacks and people from ethnic minorities. I therefore thought the video might also be of interest, as it clearly shows that Blacks are also capable of doing great, awesome science and engineering. Not that there should be any doubt of it. The ‘McCoy’ of the phrase ‘It’s the real McCoy!’, said of any great invention or clever device, was apparently an American naval engineer around about World War II, who became famous for the marvels he could work on board ships.

‘We’ll Meet Again’ at the End of ‘Dr. Strangelove’

May 7, 2020

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the government wants us to celebrate it by going outside at 3 pm or whenever, having a cup of tea and singing Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The Beeb has screened a half-hour documentary about her in preparation for the occasion.

I fully realise just how important VE Day was and is. It meant the final end of six years of carnage in Europe and the extinction of the Nazi regime. And with the exception of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the era of peace it has ushered in is the longest ever in Europe’s history. But to me the song brings to mind not the end of the Second World War, but that of Stanley Kubrick’s cold war black comedy, Dr. Strangelove. As the  Russian’s Domesday weapon is finally triggered, the film ends with Strangelove rising from his wheelchair to shout, ‘Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!’ and footage of nuclear explosions accompanied by Vera Lynn singing.

Here it is, in another video I found on YouTube. Enjoy, and I hope you have a great time.

Cartoon: The Barclay Twins as ‘Twins of Evil’

February 10, 2020

Here’s another cartoon in which I try to portray members of the Conservative establishment as figures from ‘Orror flicks. This time the personages being skewered are those two gentlemen of the fourth estate, the Barclay twins. They’re the weirdo owners of the Torygraph, now going down the drain rapidly. I’ve try to portray them as the creepy twin little girls from Kubrick’s The Shining.

Enjoy, and don’t have nightmares. It’s only Tories.

 

Radio 3 Programme Monday to Friday Next Week on Blade Runner

November 2, 2019

It’s November 2019, the time when Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, is set. Radio 3’s programme, The Essay is running a series of programmes next week entitled The Essay: The Year of Blade Runner, looking at the film and the issues it raised. The programmes are all on at 10.45 pm. The first installment, ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’, is on Monday, 4th November. The blurb for this in the Radio Times runs

Ridley Scott’s 1982 Sci-fi classic film Blade Runner, based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in November 2019. Five writers reflect on the futuristic elements of the film and what it is to be human or a machine starting with Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. He considers Ridley’s depiction of Los Angeles and its life beyond the screen as its influence bled into architecture and design.

There’s another little piece in a sidebar on the same page by Tom Goulding, that says

Like Kubrick’s vision of 2001, or 2015 as depicted in Back to the Future Part II, in November 2019 we have finally caught up with the future envisaged in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The classic sci-fi noir, an adaptation of of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is often touted as a benchmark of the genre. This week the Essay’s presenters offer their thoughts on the film’s grandiose themes, starting with how its dystopian versio of LA compares to cities of today. Let’s hope things have improved by the time we reach Blade Runner 2049.

Tuesday’s installment is entitled ‘The Year of Blade Runner 2: Sounds of the Future Past’. The Radio Times says

Frances Morgan, writer and researcher into electronic music, explores the sonic landscape of Blade Runner, with a Bafta-nominated score by Vangelis, and how the film shaped perceptions of how the future will sound.

Wednesday: ‘More Human than Human – Ken Hollings’

Writer Ken Hollings takes the film’s Voight Kampf test as he examines the ethical barriers between humans and machines.

Thursday: ‘Zhora and the Snake – Beth Singler’

Dr Beth Singler, junior research fellow in artificial intelligence at Homerton College, Cambridge, is inspired by Zhora the snake-charming replicant to ask what is real and fake when it comes to AI love.

Friday: ‘Fiery the Angels Fell – David Thomson’

Writer on Film David Thomas takes a look back at Ridley Scott’s rain-soaked mash-up of existential noir and artificial souls, released in 1982 and set in November 2019.

Blade Runner is definitely one of the classic, and most influential Science Fiction films, and it’ll be very interesting what they have to say about it.

And just to remind you how awesome the film was, here’s the opening titles from Guillermo St’s channel on YouTube.

Head of Asgardia Space Nation Attacks Trump’s Attempt to Set Up Space Force as Threat to Peace

October 25, 2019

One of the other stories that caught my eye last week was an article by Michael Day in the I reporting that the head of the international space nation, Asgardia, Igor Ashurbeyli, had attacked Trump’s decision to set up a military space force. Asgardia is an international organisation devoted to space colonisation. It’s intent on establishing itself as a new, internationally recognised nation out there on the High Frontier. The article in the edition for Wednesday, 16th October 2019, entitled ‘New US Space Command ‘puts the planet at risk”, runs

The billionaire head of the Asgardia “space nation” said that US President Donald Trump has effectively declared war on the 1967 Out Space Treaty, and risks creating a “Wild West” beyond Earth’s orbit.

The international agreement, banning weapons in space, was supposed to form the basis of law to guarantee peace beyond Earth’s orbit. But Igor Raufovich Ashurbeyli, told I that, in announcing a new Pentagon Space Command unit, Mr Trump has effectively torn it up – and put the planet at risk. 

“After the recent US statement that it will not respect international agreements in space, the situation is very worrying,” said Mr Ashurbeyli, the former head of a Russian state-owned defence contractor.

“In fact, the situation is worse than this, given that only 20 states on Earth have any sort of access to our space.”

Ram Jakhu, professor at the Institute of Air and Space Law, at McGill University in Canada, said the “increasing militarisation and weaponisation” in space appeared to be a prelude to serious conflict between superpowers.

“Currently, an intense race to the Moon and asteroids is going on, mainly for exploration and natural resources,” he added.

“There’s potential for geopolitical conflicts.”

Now Ashurbeyli, as the former head of a Russian arms firm, does have an interest, if only psychological, in preventing America establishing a military presence in space. But he’s right. The current treaty outlawing the militarisation of space was put in place partly to prevent the superpowers conducting nuclear tests in the Earth’s atmosphere or outer space. Tests which obviously have the potential for triggering a nuclear holocaust. The legislation has had the effect of preventing certain aspects of space research and new propulsion methods. The journey to Mars and other planets in the solar system could be cut down to a couple of months using nuclear powered rockets, but they’re illegal under the treaty. And while that’s a problem in the colonisation and commercial exploitation of space, I’m happy for it if it keeps the peace. If you want a Science Fictional illustration of the potential of the militarisation of space to create a nuclear war, see Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001. In the book and the film, the superpowers have established nuclear missile platforms in space, and the international situation between the two blocs is on the point of all-out war. The spacecraft you see gliding past before the camera fixes on the spaceplane Orion are these weapon platforms. However, it’s not obvious what they are because Kubrick didn’t want people seeing them and thinking that the movie was going to be another Cold War nuclear farce like Dr. Strangelove. In the book, but not the film, after Bowman’s journey through the stargate and his transformation into the Star Child, the crisis point has been reached and the superpowers launch their weapons. These are destroyed by the  Star Child when he re-enters Earth’s space. There is still the problem of the armed conflict, but the book concludes ‘He would think of something.’ Trump’s space command raises the spectre of such a conflict, but there would be no Star Child to save us from the resulting war.

It’s certainly possible that armed conflict could result through the competition by the space nations for the resources out there. The late NASA space scientist and advocate of space colonisation, Dr. Gerard O’Neill, believed that there could be real space pirates. These would be rogue ships seeking to steal the ores being brought back to Earth from mining the asteroids. I think we’re a few decades away from that, if not centuries, but the possibility is there nonetheless.

There have been a number of SF stories written about a possible war in space fought between the superpowers, including one by John Wyndham, the creator of the triffids. It’s certainly possible that war could break out through different nations establishing colonies on and claiming the same piece of extra-terrestrial real estate. There’s a parallel here to the wars the European nations fought against each other to claim territory in the New World. They attempted to prevent these wars coming home to Europe through an agreement that limited such conflicts to beyond the Line, the imaginary boundary marking off the Americas from the Old World. Conceivably, something like this could be put in place to stop wars on the Moon, Mars or elsewhere, from spreading to Earth itself. But I wouldn’t like to bet on any such treaty being agreed, or even being effective if it was.

I also remember the controversy and panic there was when I was at school during the New Cold War of the 1980s, when Thatcher and Reagan seemed to be spoiling for a fight with the USSR. One wretched element of this was Reagan’s Space Defence Initiative, dubbed ‘Star Wars’. Reagan wanted to place military satellites in orbit as part of its defence programme against the Soviet military threat. Such satellites would have weapons like ‘pop-up’ lasers. The satellites would carry nuclear bombs, which would explode, destroying the satellite. However, the energy from the explosion would be channelled into the lasers they also carried to destroy an incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. But the Russians were also afraid that these satellites would also strike at Earth itself. They had their own, official disarmament magazine, Gonka Vooruzhenie, which I think translates as ‘Disarmament People’. This carried illustrations of the threats to the Russian forces and people from Reagan’s space weapons. Trump’s Space Command threatens a repeat of this same episode from the Cold War. That ended with the USSR collapsing, partly because they couldn’t afford to keep up with American arms expenditure. We cannot depend on a similar outcome this time. 

Ashurbeyli is right. Trump’s decision to militarise the High Frontier threatens us all with nuclear Armageddon once again. 

Anton Petrov’s Tribute to Veteran Cosmonaut and Space Artist, Alexei Leonov

October 16, 2019

Last Friday, 11th October 2019, Alexei Leonov passed away, aged 85. Born on 30th May 1934, Leonov was one of the first Russian cosmonauts and the first man to walk in space. His obituary in yesterday’s I, written by Nataliya Vasilyeva, ran

Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and who nearly did not make it back into his space capsule – has died in Moscow aged 85.

Leonov, described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No 11, was an icon both in his country as well as in the US. He was such a legend that the late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Leonov staked his place in space history on 18 March 1965, when he became the first person to walk in space. Secured by a tether, he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule. “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” he recalled later. “I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-racking, according to details that only became public decades later. His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to release oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch. Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first American spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.

Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family. 

The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even in space, and took coloured pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975.

That mission was the first between the Soviet Union and the US, carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international co-operation aboard the current international Space Station.

Nasa offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death. “His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible”, it said in a statement.

“One of the finest people I have ever known,” the Canadian retired astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”

Russian space fans have been laying flowers at his monument on the memorial alley in Moscow that honours Russia’s cosmonauts. Leonov, who will be buried today at a military memorial cemetery outside the Russian capital, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren. 

Anton Petrov put up his own personal tribute to the great cosmonaut on YouTube yesterday, 15th October 2019, at his vlog, What Da Math. Petrov posts about astronomy and space, and his video yesterday placed Leonov in his context as one of a series of great Soviet science popularisers before Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene or Carl Sagan. Petrov shows the stunning paintings done by Leonov with his friend, the science artist Andrei Sokolov. He describes how Leonov’s spacesuit expanded so that he couldn’t enter the capsule, and was forced to let some of the oxygen out. As a result, he nearly lost consciousness. This showed both the Russians and Americans that spacesuits had to be built differently. He also describes how Leonov, during his 12 minutes in space, was profoundly struck by the profound silence. It was so deep he could hear his heart pumping, the blood coursing through his veins, even the sound of his muscles moving over each other.

Petrov states that the Russian cosmonauts did not enjoy the same celebrity status as their American counterparts, who could live off book signings. Many had to support their families with other work. In Leonov’s case, it was painting. He illustrated a number of books, some with his friend Sokolov. These are paintings Petrov uses for the visuals in his video. He considers these books the equivalent to works by modern science educators like Carl Sagan. They were meant to encourage, inspire and educate. Sokolov’s and Leonov’s art was not just beautiful, but very accurate scientifically and included some SF elements. Some of these elements were borrowed by other science fiction writers. the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is somewhat similar to one of Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings. This became a joke between the two, with Leonov creating a miniature version for the great American director to keep. Kubrick also borrowed many of the ideas for the movie from the Russian film director, Pavel Kushentsev. An extremely talented cameraman, Kushentsev made films about the first Moon landing, the first space station and the first man in space decades and years before they became reality. And all of his movies were scientifically accurate. Some of his movies are on YouTube, and Petrov gives the links at his site there for this video.

Petrov explains that he is talking about these men because their era has ended with Leonov’s death. Leonov was the last of the five astronauts on the Voskhod programme, and so all the men who inspired youngsters with amazing paintings and film are now gone. He considers it unfortunate that some of their experiences in the last days of their lives were not very happy. They did not live to see the future they depicted, and their paintings were not appreciated by the modern generation. Kushentsev said before his death,

Popular science is dying, because there is no money. No demand. Nobody wants to educate. Everyone just wants to make money everywhere possible. But one mustn’t live like this. This is how animals live. Men have reached the level of animals – all they want to do is eat and sleep. There is no understand that this humanity has passed a certain phase of evolution. We must understand the direction of this evolution. For this, we need culture, we need knowledge. 

Petrov believes Kushentsev’s criticism of modern Russian society also applies more broadly to the modern generation in the West, to all of us as well. We are all doing what he said we shouldn’t – just living for the money, to eat and sleep. Unfortunately, according to Petrov, nothing has changed in the 20 years since his death. But there are people out there in the world working to change this, to produce culture, to inspire and share knowledge. But sometimes the world crushes them, simply because it can. But Petrov says that, like those Soviet men before him, despite not being a famous astronaut or talented artist, or even someone who has very good diction, he will continue doing his part of sealing the hope for humanity, continue the work of these great men and inspire new generations to do things, believe in science and create a better world. Because as Leonov once said,

the Earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone. Our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word ’round’ meant until I saw the Earth from space. 

Petrov concludes ‘Goodbye, comrade, and thank you for all the paintings.

This is the first of two videos about Russian art from that era of space exploration. I’ll post the other up shortly.

I don’t feel quite as pessimistic as Kushentsev. Brian Cox, who’s now taken Sagan’s place as the chief space broadcaster on British television, has attracted record audiences for his stage presentation about science and the universe. There is a massive interest among the public in space and space exploration. At the same time, there are a number of really great science vlogs and channels on YouTube. Petrov’s is one, but I also recommend John Michael Godier and the Science and Futurism channel, presented by Isaac Arthur.

Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings, they are of a universe of rich, vibrant colour. Spacesuited figures explores strange, new worlds, tending vast machines. They stand in front of planetary landers somewhat resembling the American lunar module. Or crawl across the landscape in rovers, gazing at horizons above which hang alien, often multiple, suns. The best space art shows worlds you’d like to visit, to see realised. These paintings have this effect. It’s a pity that on the blurb for this video over at YouTube, Petrov says that these paintings come from old postcards, which are difficult to come by. It’s a pity, as they still have the power to provoke wonder and inspire.

I’m not sure Leonov himself was quite so pessimistic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main space museum was closed, and many of its exhibits sold off. Before it finally closed its doors to the public, they held a rave in it. I think Leonov was in attendance, sitting at the back with his wife. Someone asked him what he thought of it all. The old space traveler replied that they had found graffiti on the walls on Babylon complaining about the behaviour of the younger generation. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘the young man’s world’. It is indeed, and may cosmonauts, space pioneers, scientists and artists like Leonov, Sokolov, Kushentsev and Kubrick continue to inspire the young men and women of the future to take their strides in the High Frontier.

Kate Maltby Smears Corbyn and his Supporters as Conspiracy Theorists

August 25, 2019

Last Thursday, 22nd August 2019, Kate Maltby decided to give us all the benefit of her views on Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘Trumpification of British politics’ in the pages of the I. She opined that both BoJo and Corbyn were like the megalomaniac manbaby over the other side of the pond. She was also irritated by the fact that the similarity between Corbyn and Trump hadn’t been picked up by the public in the same way the similarity between Johnson and Trump had. She then went on to whine that both Trump and Corbyn’s politics were based in conspiracy theories undermining western democratic politics, conspiracies which she thought came straight from Putin and the Kremlin. She wrote

Yet to those of us hwo have followed Corbyn’s rise closely, the sight of him comparing any other politician to Donald Trump felt like an act of such shamelessness that it might only be matched by the Ponzi President himself. If there is a single line running through Tump’s politics, it is the practice of rule by conspiracy theory. Yet it is from those who believe that the existing democratic order is essentially a conspiracy that Corbyn also draws his base. As researcher Peter Pomerantsev writes in his superb new book, This Is Not Propaganda, “we live in a world of mass persuasion run amok, where the means of manipulation have gone forth and multiplied”. The digital imprint of the Russian state has been particularly successful in undermining the confidence of voters in western democracies in our own democratic norms and even our ability as voters to understand our political realities.

The analyst Ben Nimmo has summed up the Russian approach to disinformation as “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay”. Hence, the birth of a whole new online culture populated by voters who don’t even share a basic epistemology with existing “elites”. Johnson and the Brexit campaign benefited most clearly from this crisis of trust, but so does their fellow Eurosceptic, Jeremy Corbyn. Track the pro-Corbyn and pro-Trump networks online, and you’ll find a commitment to anti-vax theories that tell you the Government wants to make your children ill. Johnson, to his anti-Trumpist credit, has just announced a campaign to counter this particular theory.

Both are surrounded by supporters who trade in conspiracy theories about Jews. While Corbyn’s party is under formal investigation for anti-Semitism, only this week Trump was manically R’Ting the conspiracy anti-evangelical Wayne Allyn Root, who attacked Jewish Democrats for not supporting him.

She then goes on to take Corbyn to task for not coming down hard enough on the Russians about the Skripal poisoning, and for using the memory of the lies over the Gulf War to cast doubt on the Russian’s guilt.

This is all shameless bilge and propaganda itself. The I also reviewed Pomerantsev’s book, and declared that while it was very good on the subject of Russian propaganda, there was very little material about how the West also manipulates information.

And manipulate it the West certainly does. The conspiracy magazine Lobster has been showing since the beginning of the 1980s how the British and American secret state and other covert organisations have manipulated information and worked secretly to influence state policy to their advantage. During the Cold War there was an entire department, the IRD, or Information Research Department set up within the British state to counter Russian and other enemy propaganda. It also tried to undermine the Labour party by producing disinformation and fake texts linking Labour politicians with the IRA and Soviet espionage. And we’ve seen this campaign start up again under the Tories in the form of the Integrity Initiative, with its extensive links to British intelligence and the cyberwarfare division of the SAS producing smears trying to link Corbyn to the Russians. When various right-wing loons and shameless liars haven’t been trying to claim that Corbyn was somehow an agent for the Czechs.

That the British secret state has also done its best to undermine democracy is solid fact. Britain’s disinformation campaign against its foreign enemies is the subject of a book, Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy, by Rory Cormac, (Oxford: OUP 2018). The blurb for this reads

It has long been an open secret that British leaders use spies and special forces to interfere in the affairs of others-as discreetly as deniably as possible.

Since 1945, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, has spread misinformation designed to divide and discredit targets from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and Northern Ireland. It has instigated whispering campaigns and planted false evidence on officials working behind the Iron Curtain, whilst GCHQ now uses the internet to undermine terrorist recruiters. MI6 has tried to foment revolution in Albania, and to instigate coups in Congo, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has sabotaged ships to prevent the passage of refugees to Israel, secretly funnelled aid to insurgents in Afghanistan, and launched cultural and economic warfare, not only against Cold War enemies such as Communist Czechoslovakia, but also NATO allies.

Through bribery and blackmail, Britain has rigged elections as colonies moved to independence. It has fought secret wars in Yemen, Indonesia, and Oman-and discreetly used special forces to eliminate enemies, from colonial Malaya to Libya during the Arab Spring. This is the world of covert action: a vital, though controversial tool of statecraft and perhaps the most sensitive of all government activity. If used wisely, it can play an important role in pursuing national interests in a dangerous world. If used poorly, it can cause political scandal-or worse.

In Disrupt and Deny, Rory Cormac tells the remarkable true story of Britain’s secret scheming against her enemies, as well as her friends. He uncovers a world of intrigue and manoeuvring within the darkest corridors of Whitehall, where officials fought to maintain control of this most sensitive and seductive work. A fascinating tale of covert operations in its own right, it is also the story of Britain’s attempt over the decades to use smoke and mirrors to mask its decline as global power.

As readers of this blog will be aware, it’s blatantly untrue that Corbyn and his supporters, or at least the vast majority of them, have conspiracy theories about Jews. What they are aware of is the way accusations of anti-Semitism have been levelled at Corbyn and the Labour left for purely political reasons. The Right, including the Blairites in the party, like Tom Watson and John Mann, are using it to try to maintain the Thatcherite status quo. And the Israel lobby is doing it simply to smear and discredit anyone critical of that nation’s apartheid system and its slow-motion ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

I am at a loss, however, to know where Maltby got the idea that Corbynists are opponents of vaccination. The American anti-vaxxers, from what I’ve seen, tend to be on the political right, Conservatives and Libertarians. The kind of people who watch Alex Jones’ InfoWars and have the same bizarre ideas of ‘Purity Of Essence’ as the mad American general Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove. The type of people, who think putting fluoride in the water is a globalist plot, and any kind of welfare state is a horrendous Commie assault on democracy. Definitely not the kind of people, who support Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, it looks like the accusation is simply a shameless invention of Maltby herself.

I’m not surprised that Maltby has come out with this lying screed. Along with her CV, in which she informs us she’s written for The Financial TimesThe Spectator, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The TLS, The Times, and The New Statesman, and appeared on various TV and radio programmes, she also declares that

Much of what I’ve gleaned about the workings of Westminster I’ve learned from my time on the team behind Bright Blue, the liberal Conservative pressure group and think tank. 

See: http://www.katemaltby.com/about-me/

She’s a Tory, and the only difference I can make out between ‘liberal’ and right-wing Tories, is that the ‘liberals’ are less open in their hatred of the poor and disabled, and their determination to punish, humiliate and kill them. Oh yes, and their better at deceiving the Tory rank and file that they don’t want to destroy the welfare state and privatise the health service.

She’s just another right-wing hack, upset and irritated by the fact that an increasingly media-savvy public are aware of how much the lamestream media is manipulated by corporate and right-wing political interests. And she’s just following a well-worn media path by trying to link Corbyn and his supporters to anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories and the Russians. It’s time she, and the various shameless hacks like her, were given the boot. Then people might start believing in their politicians and their media.