Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

Alex Jones: People Are Having Sex with their Cars

January 15, 2018

More madness from the ever fertile imagination of Alex Jones. In this clip from The Majority Report, host Sam Seder and friends comment on a clip from Jones’ InfoWars show, in which the conspiracy theorist rants about how there is a movement encouraging people to have sex with cars.

He starts off by talking about sex robots, before going on to claim that people are having sex and marrying their dogs and cats, and are having sex with cars. He then claims that if you identify as blind, and pour ‘Draino’ into your eyes to blind yourself, the governments of the US, Britain and Canada will pay you money to support yourself as you were mentally ill. He then goes on to say that he fancies buying one of these sex robots just to torch it. We need, he says, to form a human union and defy the elites, who are controlling us. They want to make normal sex biologically impossible, in order to absorb us into the Matrix. People have been brainwashed into this by Hollywood.

Seder and his crew make the point that they have no doubt that some men will insert their penises into whatever they can find. His female co-host states that when she was working on Death and Taxes there was indeed a man arrested for having sex with his car. She was part of a jailhouse protest to get him released. There’s a lot of joking about what the chants were ‘Ha-ha, ho-ho, let the carf***er go!’ But there’s hardly a movement for people to have sex with their vehicles.

They also speculate that Jones himself has personally bought one of these sex robots, and this whole segment is him trying to explain it away in case anybody else has seen it and come to the conclusion that Jones is a pervert.

Okay, there are people out there building sex robots. One of these appeared a little while ago on Philip Schofield’s show on ITV. There was even a Spanish brothel stocked exclusively with robots, which closed down after three works. One of the sentient robots on the Channel 4 SF series, Humans, which was based on the Swedish TV series, ‘Real Humans’, was one of the machines in an all robot brothel. Which incidentally escapes and goes on the run after killing one of the customers. I think Ray Kurzweil has also predicted that in a very few years people will be having sex with robots. One of the underground comics in America is Wet Satin, whose female creator writes stories based on women’s sexual fantasies. One of illustrations from the comic, at least as it appears in Dez Skinn’s survey of comics across the world, has a woman in the tender embrace of C-3PO. This surprised me, as I’d assumed that R2D2’s best mate was a little too camp to be an object of sexual desire for women. But obviously not. And Tanith Lee wrote an SF story about a woman, who has a romance with a robot, The Silver Metal Lover, way back in the 1970s.

But sex robots are just a progression from blow-up dolls, and while they are being developed, there’s no movement for people to marry them or outlaw normal human reproduction in favour of everyone having sex with machines. At the moment, the sex robots are pretty crude. They’re not really sentient machines, like all the other robots being developed at the moment. The type of mechanical people, with whom you could have a proper relationship, like C-3PO are a very long way off. Most people, I guess, won’t find them attractive, and will regard anyone with the money to buy them with the same contempt they regard those men, who buy inflatable women.

And yes, there are people, who have sex with their cars. Jones waxes somewhat graphic about this, talking about ‘fully lubed-up tailpipes’ and claiming that normal peeps, who won’t have sex with robots or cars, will be attacked as prejudiced or homophobic. Way back in the 1990s Channel 4 screened a documentary late one evening about people, who were sexually attracted to cars. I stayed up to watch part of it, as I’ve got a strong tolerance for weirdness. But this was too weird and creepy even for me, and I turned it off and went to bed, feeling somewhat soiled. I have a feeling it comes from a peculiar mental disorder, in which people attribute human features and characteristics onto inanimate objects. This goes much further than simply giving your car a name, or referring to it as ‘he’ or ‘she’. This is more like the mad German woman, who married the Berlin Wall a few years ago. This story got a few laughs on Have I Got News For You. And then there was J.G. Ballard’s infamous novel, Crash, filmed by David Cronenberg, which is all about a secret society of perverts, who get off on car crashes. The film was highly praised by the British small press SF magazine, The Edge, but sent the Daily Mail into a frothing rage, and they organised a campaign against it. It flopped massively over here, taking only a few tens of thousands of pounds before it was banned.

So while there are mentally ill perverts and transgressive writers, like Ballard, who explore cars and sexuality, like the sex robots there is absolutely no movement to normalise this. I can’t imagine a time when anyone, who has sex with an automobile or similar inanimate object won’t be regarded as a pervert, or simply a person with severe mental health problems. No-one’s going to accuse anyone of being unfairly prejudiced or ‘homophobic’ towards people with this kind of prejudice. And incidentally, that comment from Jones shows his prejudice against gay rights by equating homophobia and homosexuality with what are actually forms of mental illness.

As for people pouring drain cleaner into their eyes deliberately to blind themselves, this shows Jones’ anti-welfare outlook. He clearly thinks that such people should not receive state aid after damaging themselves. But these people do need help, most pressingly before they actually decide to harm themselves. I’ve known people, who suffered from very severe depression and were prone to self-harm. It’s not something they’d voluntarily do, if they could avoid, but brought about by a mental condition that they’d far rather not have. Jones is therefore severely misrepresenting them if he thinks that those, who do suffer self-harm, willingly and cheerfully go about it. Again, it also shows Jones’ own prejudices. He thinks someone, who blinds themselves with drain cleaner, would do it for the same reasons some people identify with the opposite biological gender. Er, no, Alex. There’s a difference between self-harm, and transgenderism, regardless what some of the Republicans say about male to female transpeople being ‘castration fetishists’.

Jones is clearly wrong in just about everything he says here about there being a secret conspiracy to normalise and promote these sexual practices. He doesn’t have anything really profound to say about the prospect of robot prostitution or sex robots. But it is clear that he has a very vivid, lurid imagination.

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Brian Blessed Talks about his Role as Boss Nass in Star Wars Prequels

December 24, 2017

In this clip I found on YouTube, the mighty Brian Blessed is interviewed by host Jaime Stangroom about his role as the amphibian alien king, Boss Nass of the Naboo, in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Stangroom opens the interview by declaring that Blessed is a British institution. Or belongs in one, referring to the great man’s over the top personality. He notes that among his other achievement, he’s the oldest man to go to the South Pole and has climbed Mt. Everest.

It seems George Lucas was quite a fan of his. Before they started filming, Lucas asked to be alone with Brian for about half an hour. He said he wanted to cast him as Jedi, but that he would be too powerful for such a role. What other role could he cast which would be more suitable for his energies? Quick as a flash, Blessed’s agent, who surely deserves their fee, suggested Boss Nass.

The scene where Nass finally offers peace between the Naboo and humans was unscripted. The crowd surrounding Nass were to kneel or stand respectfully towards him, waiting for him to make a pronouncement. But Nass’ lines hadn’t been written and it was left to the Dynamite Kid to make them up. Which he did. He made the characteristic noises, before making his pronouncement of peace between human and amphibian. Lucas was delighted, and said that was exactly what was in his mind.

Stangroom asked the inevitable question about what he thought of Jar Jar Binks. Blessed, like the professional actor he really is, is very careful in his reply. He states that it’s always dangerous to criticise another actor’s interpretation. He just says that you have to make sure that the noises the Naboo characters make do not overshadow the spoken lines, as you can lose a lot of plot that way. He then gives a demonstration from his own performance as Boss Nass to show how he avoided that problem.

Rather more entertaining is his tale of talking to the actor, who was unveiled as the true face of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker in last of the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi. The actor, who played him had been a big star in the 1940s, but was now quite elderly, or at least when Blessed talked to him. He remembered that he’d been in a film, where they took a mask off him. He had a bit of a struggle remembering who he’d played, until it came to him: Darth Vader. Blessed was astonished. ‘You played Darth Vader! You don’t know how big that character is!’ before going on to explain how massively popular Vader was and how everyone wanted to play him. The actor replied by saying, ‘Well, they only gave me a little wage.’

Blessed’s got a reputation as something of a bit of a ham, thanks to his powerful personality. Well, as Fritz Leiber, who was the son of Shakespearian actors wrote in A Spectre is Haunting Texas, ‘All actors are hams and secretly love it’. But the interview reveals that behind the shouting there’s a very thoughtful mind that carefully considers what to say and what to put into the performance.

He’s also very left-wing. Blessed himself is working class, the son of a northern miner. When he did a one-man show back in the 1990s, He described going to the peace conferences in the 1950s. At one of these he found himself sitting next to a foreign gentleman. He asked who he was. ‘Picasso’, the stranger replied. ‘Oh yes, what do you do?’ ‘I’m an artist’. So Blessed asked him if he could draw something for him. So Picasso drew a picture of a dove on a bit of paper hankie Blessed had at the time. Of course, Picasso drew it in his extremely simplified, modernist style. When Blessed got home and looked at it, he declared it was ‘rubbish’, and that Picasso wasn’t an artist at all, and threw it in the bin. Thus throwing away potentially thousands of pounds.

Blessed for a long time said that he wanted to play Dr. Who. I think that time is long past, as he’s rather too old now. And the job of the new Doctor is already taken, and he’s the wrong gender. But he has appeared in the show. He was in the Colin Baker ‘Trial of a Timelord’ serial ‘Mindwarp’, in which he played an alien samurai warrior battling the evil Mentors, and the alien supercapitalist Sil.

Oh yes, and while Han was killed in the last Star Wars sequel, we can always take comfort in that Gordon’s Alive !

2014 Re-Release Trailer for 2001

December 23, 2017

It’s Christmas, so I’m trying to intersperse the serious stuff I’m posting up here with lighter material, so that’s there some seasonal good cheer flying around. I found this on the Movie Clips Channel on YouTube. Kubrick’s epic SF film, 2001: A Space Odyssey was re-released at the cinema in 2014, thirteen years after the film’s nominal date. And it shows brief clips from the movie, mixed with suitable quotes from critics and directors. The clips are from some of the film’s iconic moments – the black monolith, the discovery of clubs and tools by primitive apemen, HAL, the lone astronaut jogging around the spinning living space inside the Odyssey, which gives it artificial gravity, to Khatchurian’s ‘Gayane’. The Odyssey itself, natch, the super-sleek space shuttle approaching the wheeling space station to the tune of Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube’, the symbolism of the Sun and moon appearing in line with the Monolith early in human prehistory, the strains of ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, the Moon Lander descending to the underground moon base. And of course, the Star Gate.

Kubrick told Clarke he wanted to make the greatest SF movie of all time. And for many critics he did it. The film is epic, baffling and infuriating. When it was shown on BBC TV in Christmas 1983 or thereabout, my brother, father and myself all had an argument afterwards about what on Earth or space it all meant. It’s an intelligent, and paradoxically also a deeply religious one. Clarke, an atheist, who famously wrote the script, has made this point in interviews. It deals with intervention in human evolution by non-human intelligences, and has themes of death, rebirth and transcendence. Think of the last ten minutes or so of the movie, where Bowman ages before being transformed into the Star Child. And the pictures on his chamber walls are of the Madonna and Child. Again pointing up the theme of divine incarnation and birth with a salvific mission.

Back in the 1990s George Lucas re-released his Star Wars: Episode IV, which had been retouched with digital technology and computer graphics. Some of the critics got carried away, and announced that it was the greatest SF movie ever. Not so, replied the great man, who took out a whole page advert in the LA Times to say that 2001 was the greatest SF film of all time. A generous homage by one of the great masters of modern SF cinema.

There’s been a trend in some cinemas showing old movies. The other year one of cinemas around the country showed the original Blade Runner movie. Another showed the Czech SF epic Icarus. And one of the theatres in Cheltenham screened a series of old films, including the classic British comedy, The Ladykillers. This is film as it is made to be seen: at the cinema. My only regret is that I’ve managed to go to none of the re-releases, except Star Wars.

Robot Takes Part in the Torch Relay for the 2019 Winter Olympics in South Korea

December 14, 2017

This short clip shows a robot participating in the torch relay for the winter Olympics in South Korea in two years’ time, 2019. Countries around the world are investing heavily in AI and robotics, and the South Koreans are clearly very proud of their robot. Unfortunately, from the clip shown here, its performance is less than impressive. When it starts moving, it does so in a kneeling position, propelled by wheels on its lower legs, rather than walking. When it does walk, it moves in the bent legged crouch, similar to that of the Asimo robot developed back in the 1990s by the Japanese. It holds the Olympic torch very stiffly out in front of it. By leaning through a weird, orange gateway structure it just about manages to light the next torch, which is held by a human.

I dare say that it’s probably great at other tasks in the laboratory, but it seems to me that it also shows that it will be a very long time before we can expect machines with the motor skills of a C-3PO, let alone that fictional robot’s genuine intelligence.

Blade Runner 2049: ‘Time to Live’

September 1, 2017

This is another trailer for the forthcoming sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049. Described as a ‘featurette’, it’s a short film mixing scenes from the film with soundbites from the stars Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, the director Denis Villeneuve, and various members of the production crew, including its art director, and the director of the original classic himself, Ridley Scott.

It begins with Ford describing the immense impact of the scope and look of the original movie, and says it’s great to be back in his character’s, Deckard’s, old clothes. He’s glad they fit. Ridley Scott says he had no idea at the time the first movie came out that it would be so iconic. Later he says that it was meant to be a stand-alone movie, but there’s always more than you can tell in a two hour film. The production team tell how they wanted to preserve the look of the original, while also doing something that was ‘divergent’. And Villeneuve says that he never felt anxious while making it that Scott was watching over his shoulder.

I put up a previous trailer for Blade Runner 2049, the short prequel, Nexus Dawn, yesterday, and said that, while I’m looking forward to the film’s release in October, I also have mixed feelings about it. The film is now rightly regarded as one of the classics of science fiction cinema. It was a dark, dystopian vision of the future, that also mixed in French film noir, to create a dismal but stylish ‘Future Noir’. I’m afraid that the original is such a classic, and has set the standards so high for its sequel, that it will be simply impossible for the film to fulfill them, no matter how good it is. I think part of the problem many people were disappointed with the Star Wars prequels, and Scott’s prequels to the original Alien film, Prometheus and Covenant, is partly because these films are also cinematic classics.

There’s also the problem that part of what made these films classics was that at the time, they had a unique quality or vision that set them far apart from other films of the same type. In the case of Star Wars, it was Lucas’ creation of an entire galactic society, complete with its own form of mystical religion in the force, as well as the superb special effects. The spaceships and robots looked good. The film also broke with previous SF movies in that the technology looked used. I can remember reading in Starburst that it was the first SF movie to ‘dirty up’ the spacecraft. Rather than everything appearing antiseptically clean, the ships in Star Wars looked like people actually flew and maintained them in real conditions, in working hangers full of grease and whatever people in A Galaxy Far, Far Away use for enjoy oil.

In Alien, you also had the dirty, worn look of the spaceship Nostromo. It was dark, and dingy, stacked with equipment, and looked like what it was supposed to be: a functioning industrial complex, built for work, not beauty. And then there was the weird, biological design of the alien spacecraft the Nostromo’s crew encounters and explores, with the space jockey and the Alien itself, all designed by the Austrian surrealist, H.R. Giger.

The imagery and designs of these films have been so influential that they’ve become part of the stock visual language of much of the science fiction that followed them, to the point where it might be difficult for some younger film enthusiasts to understand just how exciting and revolutionary they were when they first came out.

As for Ridley Scott’s comment that he had no idea that Blade Runner would become the classic it is, this is very true. It flopped in the cinemas. This was partly because the studio didn’t think audiences were intelligent enough to work out what was going on, or understand some of the future slang, so they insisted that Ford also did a voiceover during certain scenes. There’s a rumour that Ford thought it was such a bad idea, that he deliberately made his voice as flat and monotone as possible in the hope the result would be so terrible the studio wouldn’t use it. But they did. And unfortunately it did affect the way audience received it. Put bluntly, it made the film a laughing stock. A friend of mine went to see it – he was a few years older than me – and he said that people in the cinema were laughing at the voiceover.

What saved the movie were the fans, who discovered it on video, who turned it into a cult movie, so that its audience and reputation increased. This reached the point where it allowed Scott to do something that had never been done before: he released a director’s cut of the film. Which critically removed that stupid voiceover.

And the result of that long process of rediscovery and growing appreciation is that the original movie is a cinematic classic. Blade Runner 2049 has a lot to live up to, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

The Influence of Metal Hurlant on Science Fiction Cinema

April 25, 2017

Yesterday I put up a piece I found on YouTube about the influence French Science Fiction comics had on Star Wars. This short video by the same poster, Abstract Looper, explores the profound influence the artists of the French adult SF comic, Metal Hurlant, known to the Anglophone world as Heavy Metal, has had on modern Science Fiction cinema. Metal Hurlant was founded in 1974 by Les Humanoides Associees Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Dionnet and Philippe Druillet. The video shows the striking visual similarities between scenes and designs in the comic’s various strips, and the films Mad Max, Alien, Blade Runner, Nausicaa – Valley of the Wind, Avatar, the original 70s Battlestar Galactica TV series, Hellboy, Prometheus and the Matrix. There’s a clip of Ridley Scott saying that when he made Alien, he was influenced by the visual material produced by Moebius and the French magazine. Guillermo del Toro also confessed that he was influenced by Richard Corben, another of the magazine’s artists. Terry Gilliam also states that the magazine was an influence on him. As does James Cameron. Rutgar Hauer, who played Roy Batty in Blade Runner also appears, telling how the producers visualised the future as already old. In fact, the producers of Blade Runner based their vision of Los Angeles on the towering cityscapes of Philippe Druillet. As well as Druillet, Dionnet, Corben and Moebius, another of the comic’s creators, the Franco-Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal, was also influential. Also making the point are the similarities between the comics’ art and the concept drawings produced for the Alien and Matrix movies.

You could also add the Judge Dredd movies to this list as well. 2000 AD’s creator, Pat Mills, hates superhero comics. When he launched the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic way back in the 1970s, he was influenced by the French SF comics. Which naturally includes Metal Hurlant. Judge Dredd’s look was created by Carlos Ezquerra, a Spanish artist living in London, who has an artistic style very similar to Moebius.

As an aside, I was also pleased that the interview with Ridley Scott also had Russian subtitles. This shows how much the world has changed since I was at school. This was the years of the new Cold War, created by Thatcher and Reagan, when there were real fears of nuclear Armageddon. I felt profoundly optimistic when the Berlin Wall fell, along with Communism. There seemed at last a real possibility of a genuine, lasting peace between eastern and western Europe. I believe very strongly that it has been a massive improvement in world affairs that the peoples of the former eastern bloc can come to Britain to live, work and raise families.

And I am appalled and angry that Trump and the Democrats are pushing a new Cold War with Putin, and thus endangering the world all over again.

Warning: Heavy Metal was an ‘adult’ comic, which means that there’s some cartoon nudity. This was the magazine that was filmed as The Heavy Metal Movie, and which became notorious for the female nudity of the ‘Taarna’ sequence, which in turn inspired the episode ‘Major B***age’ in South Park. This may have changed, however. In an interview in the comics press a few years ago, its British editor stated that the magazine was dropping the nudity, because it was irrelevant given the amount of real nudity on the Web. He promised that the magazine would still be sexy, however.

The Influence of French Science Fiction Comics on Star Wars

April 24, 2017

This is another fascinating video about French SF comics and the influence they may have had on George Lucas’ Star Wars. In his description for the video, the post, Abstract Loop, writes

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, French comics artists revolutionized their medium and created groundbreaking works of science fiction. Artists like Jean-Claude Mézières, Philippe Druillet, and Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, had a significant, if rarely recognized, influence on many Hollywood films. Star Wars is one of the most prominent examples.

“There are quite a few illustrators in the science-fiction and science-fantasy modes I like very much. I like them because their designs and imaginations are so vivid […] Druillet and Moebius are quite sophisticated in their style.”
– George Lucas, 1979

Unless noted otherwise, all art in this video is taken from the following comics and comics series:
Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin: „Valérian and Laureline“ („Valérian et Laureline“)
Jean-Claude Mézières: „Les baroudeurs de l’espace“
Moebius & Dan O‘Bannon: „The Long Tomorrow“
Moebius & Alejandro Jodorowsky: „The Incal“ („L’Incal“)
Moebius: „Le Bandard fou“
Moebius: „The Airtight Garage“ („Le Garage hermétique“)
Philippe Druillet & Jacques Lob: „Delirius“
Philippe Druillet: „The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane“ („Les 6 Voyages de Lone Sloane“)
Philippe Druillet: „Salammbô“
Philippe Druillet: „La Nuit“

Film stills: „The Empire Strikes Back“, „The Return of the Jedi“ & „Star Wars: Droids“
Concept art and storyboard panel by Joe Johnston

Music: Tycho „Awake“

For further reading:
“Valérian and Laureline”
: http://kitbashed.com/blog/valerian-an…
“The Moebius Probe”: http://kitbashed.com/blog/moebius
“Als die Zukunft wieder cool wurde” (in German): http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/com…

Certainly the artists mentioned have had an impact on Science Fiction cinema. Scott used Philippe Druillet’s depictions of soaring futuristic sky-scraper cities as the basis for the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, and Moebius certainly was a profound influence on the style of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. From this video I’m not sure how much influence French comics had on Star Wars. Some of the pieces shown are very similar, others less so, and some of the similarity between Star Wars and the comics could simply be due to coincidence between two similar scenes that were produced entirely independently. Nevertheless, the video does how the power and individuality of the vision of the future produced by the great French SF artists in their comics.

The ‘I’ Newspaper on the Invention of Star Trek-Style ‘Tractor Beam’

January 4, 2017

The I newspaper today reported that Asier Marzo, an American doctoral student, now a research assistant at Bristol uni, has invented a tractor beam using sound which can be built by anyone with a 3D printer.

The article by Tom Bawden runs

Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek were given a huge boost last year when a doctoral student in America developed the first sonic tractor beam capable of pulling an object towards it by using sound waves. But alas its use was confined to fancy labs with expensive equipment.

Now, thanks to that same individual – who has since become a research assistant at the University of Bristol – it has become far more accessible, at least to anyone with 3D printing technology.

The tractor beam has long been a staple of science fiction, used in a series of Star Trek episodes to capture and tow other space ships, while the Death Star’s tractor beam memorably catches the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

A do-it-yourself handheld acoustic tractor beam will now become widely available, according to a new paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” said Asier Marzo, the researcher behind the developments.

“Now, we have made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter,” he said.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what’s called a metamaterial, which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths. The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.”

With an effect that is determined by the shape of the tubes, the research team focused on optimising the design to allow fabrication with common 3D printers, ensuring it could be constructed by home hobbyists. (The I, 4th January 2017, p. 23).

I think the pseudoscientific explanation for the tractor beams in Star Trek is that they use gravitons – the subatomic particles that carry the force of gravity – to pull other ships and objects towards them. In an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Wesley Crusher is shown having invented a handheld tractor beam. I think it’s in the episode ‘The Naked Now’.

There are some very clever things now being done with sound. There was a piece on The One Show or perhaps the Beeb’s pop science programme, Bang Goes The Theory, where they showed how sound waves could be used to levitate a series of small objects. I have a feeling it was the discovery of acoustic levitation back in the 1990s or early 2000s that inspired one episode of Far Scape, ‘Taking the Stone’ where Chiana joins a group of alien thrill seekers. These young people get their kicks from leaping off a cliff above an alien echo chamber while humming. If they get the tone right, the sound waves resonate and break their fall. If they don’t, they plunge to their deaths. I can’t imagine that ever catching on as sport in real life, but you never know.