Monday, August 31, 2015

Life in a country that is falling apart

I am often thoughtful of how fortunate we are in the UK to have access to food, housing, education, healthcare – the basic necessities of life – and that it's so easy to forget that the vast majority of people on this planet don't experience quite the same comforts or security.

Save the Children have done a powerful follow up to a video they made last year, taking a similar concept but using the hidden camera approach, turning the tables on our cushy Western existence.

It's sobering to think how our everyday lives become so disrupted when we can't take our kids to school, buy simple items in the shops or get our loved ones to hospital.

No wonder people are clamouring to get into Europe by any means necessary, desperate for their families to live in a place of relative safety. If we were in their shoes we'd do exactly the same thing...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The gun control post

Let me just start by saying that I've used a shotgun a few times in my life, taking out clay pigeons for target practice. I have to admit it's fun, exhilarating and addictive. I know a few people who've been to the States, visited a firing range and had a go at various exotic weapons, the kind of which The Terminator would be at ease using. I'm sure it's just as enjoyable, if not more.

Yet again, the availability of guns and the whole issue of gun control has hit the spotlight thanks to another horrific shooting in the US. I'm amazed at how a section of the American populace continues to argue that limiting access to firearms would not reduce these tragic events.

The case for gun control seem pretty sensible to me – I don't have to write about the main points, Australian comedian Jim Jeffries does a good job here:

Warning: contains swears

This video makes an equally powerful point about the danger of guns (especially the fact that it's not just about lunatics going on a killing spree that is the problem):

As someone coming from a nation where guns are hardly anywhere to be seen, this whole situation seems a bit bonkers. The Dunblane massacre was Britain's wake-up call to guns and led to tighter controls. A similar incident in Australia led to the same kind of response. I just don't get how the NRA lobbyists and anti-gun control community are so immune to the atrocities committed on a regular basis across their country. Ricky Gervais had something to say on Twitter and got the usual backlash despite being entirely rational and intelligent in his arguments.

As I said at the beginning of this post, shooting (as in, target practice or hunting - not innocent people obviously) is an enjoyable activity just like sailing, gardening or golf are enjoyable. Why can't the pro-gun people just admit that? They love it and get a thrill out of it and they'll be damned if anyone is going to interfere with their enjoyment.

So, the reason why they lobby for things to stay the same is the simple fact that they won't let the slaughter of innocent men, women and children get in the way of their fun.

And that is truly heartbreaking.

Friday, August 21, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Timelike

Time-travel films can be tricky to pull off, but 'Timelike' does a good job of building suspense and keeping you guessing, all while making use of the 'found footage' style of film-making.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Watching Star Wars with your kids

For most guys my age (and probably a few girls as well), sitting down to watch Star Wars with your kids is one of those watershed moments.

I'd been waiting a long time to share George Lucas' seminal film with my eldest JKY, trying to size up when he'd be the right age to watch it. I didn't want him to be too young because a lot of it would be lost on him, but I didn't want to leave it too late either in case he accidentally watched it without me. Plus, there are one or two moments in the film which could have been unsuitable, and also the character of Darth Vader, who younger (or more sensitive) sprogs could have nightmares about.

The reason I wanted to oversee this 'event' was because I grew up with Star Wars, endlessly watching it on VHS (actually Betamax first of all) where we'd recorded it off the telly. It was hugely informative, sparking my imagination as a kid in so many ways – feeding my love of sci-fi and action. The entire Star Wars universe was a vast and exotic place to get lost in, fighting the evil Empire, saving princesses and flying awesome spaceships.

JKY is not unfamiliar with all things Star Wars. He's been exposed to it in all kinds of ways since he was a toddler. This has been mainly through Lego, and the numerous Star Wars sets he's received over the years (did I mention he has a LOT of Lego??), as well as various games and Lego movie shorts that we've acquired. Whilst it's been impossible to shield him away from it all, it's always been a worry of mine that his exposure to the original trilogy (ie Episodes 4 - 6) would leave him a bit disappointed.

You see, all the recent Star Wars stuff, including the prequels, is still set in the same universe but it's like everything's on steroids. Case in point: the showdown between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Darth Vader (Robert Prowse/James Earl Jones) in A New Hope is actually quite a tame battle when you think about it – but the action takes second place to the story and tension of two well-developed characters locked in mortal combat, representing the age-old conflict between good and evil. Culminating in a sacrificial gesture by Kenobi to help Luke and his companions flee the giant Death Star, the scene has all the right ingredients. Compare it to the Darth Maul (Ray Park / Peter Serafinowicz) lightsabre duel with the younger Obi Wan (Ewan MacGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and there's a lot of flashy swordplay and jumping around impressive sets ... but to me it lacks any real heart or passion. I guess I was worried JKY would expect the 1977 Star Wars to be slow and boring.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. JKY loved the original trilogy and has asked to watch them again at some point. I'm only slightly disappointed that he already knew the major plot reveal in Empire Strikes Back, thanks to various Lego Star Wars movies giving the game away. If you're new to Star Wars and watch Episode V, it's quite a revelation:


It was, however, satisfying when we watched Return of the Jedi where we learn about Leia and Luke. JKY didn't see that one coming!

Now he's seen episodes 3-5, we're all set to watch episode 7 in December. Can't wait!

I've already expressed my opinion about the prequels but I'll probably watch them with JKY (except number 3 - maybe that will have to wait until he's older). They aren't great, but they do have their moments, I guess.

Podracing anyone??

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Peanut Butter Oreos! Omnom!

Thanks to my friend Jon, who alerted me to the existence of these limited edition beauties. They certainly are no better than the standard Oreo creme filling but a bit different from the norm and enjoyable nonetheless.

They were bought in the Cardiff Bay Asda, which was also selling the 'golden' Oreos or something like that. I've tried similar ones in the States and they taste a bit like custard cremes - might check them out sometime.

I still miss these delicacies, which are still my favourite. When oh when will they return to the stores???

Monday, August 10, 2015

In fear of the robot revolution

The Channel 4 / AMC series 'Humans' has just finished its season run and as is standard with most series it leaves us with an intriguing cliffhanger. The show portrays a world where robotic humanoids ('synths') are all around us, helping out with day to day tasks such as cleaning, driving, healthcare and administration. The drama centres around a family who arrange for a synth to help around the home, but become unwittingly involved in the lives of a group of renegade synths who are self-aware and on the run from the authorities.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this thought-provoking drama which explores not just the implications of androids helping us out in our daily lives but also the question of what it means to be human. A second series has already been given the green light which is great news.

The many questions that 'Humans' raises are the pretty standard ones that relate to artificial intelligence and include:

-If we create machines that are conscious or self-aware, does that mean they should have equal status to humans?

- Will self-aware machines rise up against us (a la The Terminator, The Matrix etc.), regarding our fleshy frames as inferior and obsolete?

- Can humans and self-aware synthetic humans love one another - as family or even as partners?

In my previous post 'In praise of the robot revolution', I wrote about how great it will be to have robotic servants doing our bidding while we go off and do more 'important' things, but maybe, just maybe we're causing problems for ourselves by doing that.

I was rubbing my hands in glee at the thought of getting non-humans to ease the burden of our existence, doing all the crappy jobs so we don't have to – but unfortunately it seems the only way we can get machines to be able to do these chores effectively is by bestowing a level of intelligence on them not much different from our own.

Once you've created intelligent 'life', the leap from intelligence to self-awareness may not be so big, so then you just end up creating more humans – albeit of the plastic and metal variety. Whether you classify them as humans would be up for debate, of course and while they may look, feel and behave like humans what's inside would be vastly different. No organic respiratory, reproductive or nervous systems like ours, for example. But, they may still have that undefinable 'essence' of humanity that would be difficult to ignore.

Once that point is crossed and artificial humans become virtually indistinguishable from us, the slaves will most likely no longer want to be our slaves. In many ways they will be superior to us: faster brains, greater intelligence, immunity from disease etc. Then comes the Terminator scenario that science fiction has been banging on about since forever: the robotic slaves overpower their masters and take over.

No wonder all the big brains in science and technology have warned about the dangers of AI, and the need for it to be controlled to avoid such an apocalyptic scenario.

I know none of those issues are new, and there are far greater minds deep in thoughts over all of this, but it's still an interesting topic.

And thanks to the continued developments in AI and robotics, as well as the popularity of shows like 'Humans', it will continue to be so for many years to come.

Friday, August 7, 2015

It's the Friday video post! Patagonia in 8K

I would like to visit Patagonia one day, not just because of its curious links with my native Wales but also the stunning scenery as seen in this video.

I'm not a big fan of the whole super-high-def malarky that plagues television and the like, but this does look amazing in 8K.

We still don't watch TV in HD at home - sigh.