Sunday, May 31, 2015

In praise of the robot revolution

When supermarkets started installing self-serve checkouts, I was initially antagonistic towards such a move. I saw it as an attack on the humble, honest worker - their jobs being replaced by big metal boxes that shout at you to 'REMOVE ITEM FROM BAGGING AREA' more times than necessary. I was also indignant at the idea of being made to scan and pack my own shopping, as if it infringed on my right as a grocery shopper (I don't go to a hairdresser, sit in the chair and cut my own hair myself do I?).

But then, the reality dawned on me: this is inevitable ... and a good thing it is too.

Why? Because, as a civilisation I believe we need to move on. We need to change the way we see work. We need to free humanity from the hum drum 9-5 wage-slave existence, because it sucks.

Working in a supermarket stacking shelves sucks. Sitting on a production line at a factory sucks.  Flipping burgers in McDonald's sucks. In some ways, it would be OK if everyone else had to do a crappy job and 'pitch in' by way of contributing to society, but that's not the case. Why should I relax in a comfy sofa, sipping my latte in a trendy coffee shop while minimum-wage youngsters slave away behind the counter? Doesn't seem entirely fair to me.

Up until the mid-20th century, most jobs were done by humans with big machines doing the heavy and dangerous work. Then, robots started to slowly creep in, helping in factories to assemble cars and other essential products of modern society. At the same time, computers began doing the heavy number crunching for us so we could solve complex problems and think about other stuff. The two have slowly been coming together, and now we are on the brink of the robotic revolution that has long been predicted.

Autonomous vehicles are the next big thing from car makers, and the dream of self-driving cars whizzing along our roads is fast becoming a reality. Big companies like Google are investing heavily in this technology and by 2030 these cars will be commonplace, much like the self-service supermarket tills. Elon Musk, the head of Tesla cars, is already giving his cars autonomous freedom of motorways and has even said that one day humans will be banned from driving cars on public roads because we make too many mistakes. Interestingly, a recent report from Google admitted that their driverless cars had been involved in 11 accidents over the course of its 6-year programme (1.7 million miles of testing), but that all of them were minor 'bumps', no-one was hurt and that they were all attributed to human error (i.e. someone else driving into their cars).

Robots are taking over from humans in all areas of life: farming, medicine, education - even warfare. They are often more efficient and less troublesome than humans (except when they break down, of course) so you can see why business is investing heavily in them. The one thing that is stopping them taking over everything entirely is the elusive thing they call artificial intelligence. Without that, some straightforward tasks like sweeping the streets are done better by humans. Still, I'm sure those intelligent bods tinkering away in their labs will work it out eventually. 

Once the AI thing has been figured out, there's no end of things our robotic friends will be able to do. This is great because it will mean an end to the tedious tasks that hold us back so much. Most of us will no longer be needed to do our jobs so will have to occupy our time with other things. It will, possibly, transform society dramatically and take us onto the next level of civilization. Life could be very different in 50-75 years time.

The danger, of course is that we become lazy. Rather than use our freed-up time to help others, further our knowledge or enrich our culture we just become slobs or party animals frittering away our free time on leisure. Just watch WALL-E for a glimpse of what that might look like.

Maybe that's why it's important to prepare our society for this inevitable change before it happens, educate the next generation about the impending roborevolution and make sure they're ready to adapt. Governments and businesses need to have a plan too. Without their co-operation things could go pear-shaped, even nasty.

Looking again at the positives, I'm excited about what we're capable of as a species and what freedoms might come from our robotic friends. I hope my children and grandchildren will grow up in a world where they aren't doomed to work in the 'dark satanic mills' of Tesco or Starbucks. Rather, they will be free to do far more worthy things like explore the solar system, improve medicine or create stunning works of art.

What do you think? Will robots change the world or will low-skilled, crummy jobs always be around?

Friday, May 29, 2015

It's the Friday video post!

Bit of a 'serious' one this. I'm pretty passionate about affordable housing, something that seems impossible to sort out while politicians dither and pander to big business.

Here's a video about an idea that offers up a solution. Whether it will actually gain traction and work is another thing...

Monday, May 25, 2015

A worrying direction for politics

After the results of the general election I was pretty dismayed, and since then have been wondering how I can do my bit to change British politics for the good.

Even though I fundamentally disagree with the choice of the majority, I respect the fact that the people have made a decision. That is democracy after all.

Many, however, are calling for electoral reform.

Both the Green and UKIP parties have said they want Britain to move to Proportional Representation or something similar, a petition is doing the rounds at the moment trying to spark the conversation about changing how we vote and the Electoral Reform Society bemoans the fact that we have are a digital nation with a steam-age voting system.

In principle, I am all for doing something about the way we do politics in this country. Unfortunately, the current set-up is heavily geared in favour of those who benefit from it, so any change will be an uphill struggle against the powerful who are happy with the status quo. What worries me, however, is what things would look like if we do change the voting system, especially to PR. This is mainly because, with PR, UKIP would have 82 seats and that's a lot of seats for a quasi-nationalist party.
Farage looking distinctly European dictator-ish
I don't have to list in great details all the problems with UKIP (for there are many). Of course, the main thrust of their message is directed toward Europe, and the issue of whether or not we should remain within the EU is a matter of opinion. Some will be for Europe and some will be against it, and I can see pros and cons to both sides. I think the main problem with UKIP is its fascist undertones, mainly the hatred directed toward immigrants. Yes, we have immigrants coming into our country and exploiting the system, but they are a tiny minority and we also have huge amounts of Brits doing the same. To blame a country's woes on a handful of 'foreigners', rather than banking institutions that caused a worldwide economic disaster, is moronic to say the least.

Yes, parliament needs a kick up the backside, but I think we have a deeper and more immediate problem to deal with where a party like UKIP receives almost 4 millions votes, more than the Liberal Democrats.

This, I feel, is the more immediate challenge. For 'loony lefties' like me, armchair politics isn't enough (I, like many others, have shared a good deal of anti-UKIP articles on social media and it doesn't seem to have done much). Laughing at all the Nigel Farage jokes (plenty of material there) might be fun, but they only reach a limited audience – you're effectively preaching to the converted. Plus, making jokes about people or their politics isn't going to win them over.

Unfortunately for those of us who have a lazy disposition, the only thing that's going to stop UKIP from becoming more powerful is direct action: talking to people that will or might vote UKIP in the future and trying to convince them that there's a better way, and that things can only improve by showing compassion to all for the good of humanity.

One ray of hope is the fallout from the election with infighting, resignations and sackings within UKIP. It could be that the party implodes in on itself and is no longer here by the time the next election comes around – which can only be a good thing!

Friday, May 22, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Black Widow title sequence

I'm not a huge Marvel fan, but it's hard to avoid all the hype. Avengers: Age of Ultron was OK I guess, failing to excite or surprise to any huge degree, but could have been a lot worse.

It's interesting that Black Widow, the only female member of the Avengers team, whilst being a strong character doesn't have the same standing as males (and even gets completely omitted from a toy set, presumably because she's a 'girl'). Everyday sexism prevails in the mainstream media once again!

Still, there are plenty of Black Widow fans out there, and one has created this opening title squence for a fictional movie about her. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor have their own standalone movies – why not Black Widow? Again, is it because she's a 'girl' and not deemed worthy enough?

Who knows, but I think her story might be more interesting than the more testosterone-laden ones of her Avengers counterparts.

My only criticism of this sequence is the use of font for the hero's title. Seems a bit amateurish unfortunately, but apart from that I think it's a great peice of work.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow Review - An atheist parable?

Warning: Contains Spoilers! 

Last year, I saw the Tom Cruise actioner 'Edge of Tomorrow' but it's taken me this long to write a review. Better late than never!

A well-crafted sci-fi movie that doesn't disappoint, the story is Groundhog Day meets Aliens with a small dose of Saving Private Ryan. Despite being a great film, it didn't fare so well at the box office and they even ended up changing the title of the film on some DVDs to Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow for a weird reason. It's another example of original films not performing as well as sequels or remakes, which is a shame.

An alien species - the Mimics - have crash-landed into central Europe and have spread outward exterminating the human population as they advance, presumably intending to wipe out everyone on the planet. Before long they will have reached the Atlantic coast, but a vast army has been mobilised in England to counter-attack in a 21st century version of D-Day. Instead of landing ships they have quadcopter troop carriers and instead of rifles or machine guns they have Exo-skeleton battle suits (which are pretty nifty).

Cruises's character, William Cage, is forced against his will to join the assault, despite having no training or combat experience, and we follow his terrifying journey as a completely unprepared rookie into the warzone. About five minutes into the melee he comes face to face with one particular type of Mimic, an 'Alpha', and is killed instantly.

But it's not over. Suddenly Cage finds himself back in England, having seemingly traveled back in time to the day before the landings. Repeating everything again, he is killed on the French beaches once more only to wake up back where he started. It turns out that his continuous dying and resurrection stems from his initial encounter with the Alpha Mimic – these aliens have the power to reset time and are presumably using this ability to help them win the war.

Cage teams up with Emily Blunt's character Rita Vrataski, an elite soldier from previous battles, after he discovers she once had the same ability to time jump. This gives him and the rest of humanity an unusual tactical advantage. By repeating things over and over, he can quickly improve his fighting skills and work out how to defeat the Mimics.

If you've seen the excellent Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray, you'll be familiar with the time loop concept and it is convincingly employed here. The direction is nice and tight, avoiding any confusions that could potentially arise from a time travel scenario. It combines intense action-scenes with slower-paced moments with ease and doesn't take itself too seriously with instances of wit and humour.

I have to be honest and admit that I'm not always the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to the underlying themes of movies. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don't and sometimes I need a clever person to explain things to me very slowly without too many big words. It's just the way I am. In this case, I've pondered and mulled over Edge of Tomorrow and reckon I've got a reasonable theory about what the film's message. I think the film is about the decline of religion - the triumph of science and reason over faith and old-world mysticism. More specifically, I believe Christianity is the main target, although other religions are not entirely excluded.

From what I remember, there is no explicit reference to the Christian faith or any religion for that matter. Instead, we are presented with a technologically advanced humanity packing some serious firepower. They are up against the Mimics: an interesting word - mimicry is all about the art or action of imitation. What are the mimics supposed to be imitating? Humans? Truth? Or is it simply that they are representing something false i.e. religion?

The alien Cage encounters is an 'Alpha', and his ultimate goal is to destroy the 'brain' of the Mimics - the 'Omega'. Chapter 22 of Revelation in the Christian Bible says: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." [Revelation 22:13]

Could this be the underlying message of the film? That reason and science will ultimately be victorious over outdated modes of belief?

In these times, it's certainly not surprising to find such a theme in the mainstream media. The assumption is that faith is in decline in the West and that science, logic and reason have been established as a more sensible replacement. Of course, this assumption doesn't take into account the growth of Christianity and other faiths outside the Western hemisphere, particularly China. Further, claiming rationality as the sole property of anyone without a faith is pretty narrow minded. Despite what Nietzsche has said, and what films like Edge of Tomorrow try to proclaim, God (or religion) isn't dead – at least, not just yet.

This film is great fun, and I'd highly recommend it. It's not perfect, but when you've got glorious battle scenes with soldiers in exo-suits fighting aliens on beaches, that's OK.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A dark day for Britain?


The results are in and David Cameron's Conservative party have won a second term. The Lib Dems have suffered a crushing defeat, while SNP now rule most of Scotland. These are interesting times for politics – but I am personally bitterly disappointed that Cameron is back in power.

I was hoping the electorate would send the message to the Conservatives that austerity is hurting all but the most privileged and that enough is enough, but ultimately I think people didn't want to rock the economic boat and voted out of selfishness.

So what does this mean going forward? Well, if you're feeling pessimistic like I am at the moment, it means we have another five years of deeply painful cuts that will affect the NHS, social services, councils, law courts, transportation and welfare. The rich and powerful will become even moreso, while the masses will take the brunt of the effects of austerity.

If, however, you're more optimistic, it might be that SNP's hold over Scotland will give it enough clout to influence things for the better (given that they are anti-austerity). Also, the so-called 'green surge' has shown people are taking the environment more seriously, and having Caroline Lucas in parliament will mean a voice for Green issues continues to be present.

This time round, it felt like people were more passionate about politics than before so maybe it's the beginning of a new era of engagement. I know I've been more galvanized by what's been happening in this election and there seems to be a strong movement toward more parliamentary reforms (e.g. getting proportional representation) which will only help to make governance fairer.

Even though I have fundamental issues with politics in general, I'm determined to play more of a part and get involved. If I want to see change in how our leaders run the country I have to get off my backside and do something. Things won't change all on their own.

As I was weeping (figuratively) into my cereal this morning, wifey pointed out a Bible verse for day that she had on her phone: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." ( Romans 8:18 NIV).

In these times of despair and uncertainty, it's good to have a bit of perspective.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

All trailers are basically the same!

I wrote about this a while back. Trailers (esp. for action movies) are lazily edited using the same techniques with no attempt to be original (or at least slightly different from all other others). This is probably because the majority of cinemagoers who these films are aimed at (i.e. hormonally-charged teenage boys) won't realise – or care – that they're essentially watching the same movie again and again.

Finally! Someone's done a trailer supercut to alert everybody to this fact.

Trailer editors - please take note.

Friday, May 1, 2015

It's the Friday video post - a party political broadcast

Here are a couple of unashamedly anti-tory, anti-UKIP videos to get you in the mood for next week's election (contains a bit of swearing)

The 2000AD post

If you've read any of my articles lately, you will know that I have something of an affinity for comic book anti-hero Judge Dredd, lawman of the future – he of the big shoulder pads, gravelly voice and awesome gun that fires a variety of useful projectiles for any and every occasion.

This affinity stems from my youth when, as an impressionable teen, I was introduced to the cult sci-fi comic 2000AD by my trendy cousin from London. I'd never seen anything like it before and was immediately hooked. A weekly collection of mostly serialised stories, 2000AD came onto the comic scene in 1970s Britain against the sci-fi obsessions of the time such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Many of the stories within the comic were pretty violent for the time and also contained huge doses of satire, usually with an undercurrent of social commentary.

To a pre-teen kid, this was exciting and captivating. I don't think sci-fi during the 80s was given much respect, especially in the cinema and TV – mainly because the expectations of special effects and the like were far higher than the current technology could allow. Comics, however, were limitless in their scope and could accommodate 22nd century cops fighting robot armies as well as mutant bounty hunters rescuing a time-traveling Ronald Reagan. Writers' and artists' imaginations ran riot across the pages and it was a sight to behold.

The thing I loved about 2000AD was its distinct British-ness. Even though a lot of the stories centred around American characters or locations, there was still heavy doses of wry British humor and wit. Some aspects of the comic were quirky or quaint (like giving all the 2000AD staff robot personas and monicas), but never unbearably cheesy. For some strange reason, I never bothered with American comics. All those superheroes in Lycra with secret identities seemed unoriginal to me. Give me a gang of anarchic robots fighting against oppressive humans any day. Even when 2000AD tackled the subject of superheroes, they put a unique spin on the genre (see Zenith) that others wouldn't have attempted. I would devour any 2000AD associated material – mostly reprints in 2000AD monthly, but also monthly US-format collections as well.

Apart from my London cuz, none of my friends got into 2000AD like me, which was a shame because I would have loved to have had someone to share my comic experience with. Some of the stories were so good, I would read each episode over and over, pining for next week's installment (which seemed so far away!). It also meant I kept fairly quiet about my comic collection. Back then, being a geek wasn't cool. In fact, geek didn't really exist as a label where I lived. Nerd, maybe. Or just saddo. I kept myself to myself in this regard and devoured the latest Dredd story in private.

My little brother, eager to copy his older sibling, read the Eagle comic which I think had been revived in the 80s to try and emulate some of 2000AD's success. Eagle was born in the 50s and is best known for being home to 'Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future'. I'm sure it is remembered fondly by those a few decades older than myself. The stories I read, however, never quite had the sophistication or frisson I was used to with 2000AD so I never bothered with it, which is a shame really because I had a deep respect for the old timer - Eagle paved the way for the likes of 2000AD, Tornado and Starlord all of which made a brief but significant impact on kids reading comics during the 70s and 80s.

Sadly, 2000AD is the lone survivor of those days and seems to be the only equivalent we have to DC and Marvel. I think this is a shame because the downside of the US comics is the whole 'universe' mentality where all the characters pretty much exist within one reality. This is fun for crossovers and stuff, but can cause all sorts of headaches when it comes to timelines, continuity etc. Why can't characters just live in their own universes and be done with it? I'll tell you why - money. Crossovers is a good way of churning out the same old stuff but with different characters and keeping fans locked in. The Marvel movies have done a pretty good job of doing this - even managing to hook people in enough to watch obscure titles that no-one had ever heard of (Guardians of the Galaxy, anyone?).

What I think is interesting is that 2000AD has been known as a launch pad for a lot of artists and writers who have gone on to work on American comics: Alan Grant (Dredd, Batman), D'Israeli (Judge Dredd, Leviathan, Batman), Frank Quitely (Dredd, X-Men), Steve Dillon (Rogue Trooper, Dredd, Preacher), Jock (Dredd, Batman), Garth Ennis (Dredd, Preacher) to name but a few. It's kind of a shame because it means artists 'move on' to the big American publishers (not always, though), but it shows how well 2000AD is at picking great talent.

Still, 2000AD has always been the little British rebellious upstart that refuses to play by the rules, and I applaud that. A full-length documentary all about the comic is being produced and you can see a trailer for it here (warning: NSFW for language):

It seems the producers are trying to find a distributor or something, so at the moment you can't watch it, but it looks like a great doc. Here's the production website:

2000AD may not have a string of blockbuster movies to its name. It may not be as well-known internationally - but at least it's original.

And sometimes that's all that matters.