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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

They Live!
Just Finished Reading: Robotics – A Very Short Introduction by Alan Winfield (FP: 2012)

Tis was the last of my ‘Christmas’ break VSI books I took to my Mum’s house to get me through the day. Although it certainly covered all (or most) of the bases found it to be rather….. bland. Maybe it was the fact that the author spent too much time with what is being produced in labs today rather than looking forward? It is, obviously, and understandable viewpoint. Given as assessment of the present state of robotics research is a good start but I think he spent too much time there. The two other themes explored in this admittedly short book (only 132 pages) was humanoid robots and swarm bots and their applications both on Earth and in space exploration. Again, interesting as far as they went but (again) lacked a certain something from my point of view – thinking about it, maybe this introduction was just too much of an introduction and I actually needed something a bit more in-depth. This book was definitely not badly written nor was it boring, too technical or too simplistic. It just didn’t, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, float my boat.

A few things did intrigue me – a robot designed to generate power by ‘digesting’ slugs as an ideal self-running (and green!) garden assistant and the idea, which I’ve come across before, of the Uncanny Valley where humanoid robots become disturbingly human but not quite – sending shivers down peoples back whenever they encounter one. Obviously this could be a real problem in human-robot interaction when your mechanical partner literally gives you the creeps!

The book focused almost exclusively on civilian robots – in exploration, disaster recovery, medicine, construction, manufacturing and all those areas we are becoming familiar with – with hardly a mention of military applications (which I suppose have been done to death elsewhere) so I found it a little on-sided as things go. But my overall disappointment was, as you can probably tell, rather tenuous. A good start if you know little about robots but what you might have seen briefly in a handful of SF B-movies. But if you have a good idea of the technology I’d try something a bit more substantial.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Kick-Ass

I’d heard enough about this 2010 film to deliberately miss it at the movies. It sounded, so I thought, like just another of the teen, high-school, wannabe super-hero films that seemed to be everywhere at the time. Indeed I knew very few people who saw it on the big screen. Then one of my friends saw it on DVD and raved about it – so when it dropped into the cheap section I picked it up and gave it a try. Well, I freely admit that I watched it the first time with my chin mostly on the floor. For a 15 certificate I was astounded by the amount of swearing (including the C-word spoken at least once by a 13 year old Chloe Grace Moretez) and both the, admittedly cartoon-style, level of and amount of violence complete with buckets of blood. I quickly lost count of the number of deaths in this film but it much have easily topped at least 50 – most of them dispatch with glee by Ms Mortez as the urban super-hero Hit-Girl. But I get ahead of myself (as usual).

The story is pretty straight forward and is both a homage to and a not exactly subtle subversion of the super-hero genre. Basically it starts, pretty much, with a conversation in a comic book store between three high-school friends Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Todd (Evan Peters) and Marty (Clark Duke) about why no-one has ever tried to be a real super-hero. That’s the genesis of Kick-Ass AKA Dave who begins wandering the streets looking for people to help. Inevitably things go horribly wrong (after all he’s not really a super-hero or much of a hero really) and ends up in hospital. Released weeks later with enough metal holding him together to set off metal detectors just by walking near them and a condition where most of his nerve endings no longer function he goes back on the streets and finds exactly what he’s looking for – trouble. Filmed on mobile phones and uploaded to YouTube he becomes an Internet sensation. When he tries to help his wannabe girlfriend Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) get rid of her drug dealing boyfriend he gets in way over his head until Hit-girl saves his life and kills all of the bad guys. Mistaken for the killer Kick-Ass is targeted by the mob and needs to call on Hit-girls expertise along with her father Big Daddy (a rather over the top Nicolas Cage). Predictably lots of carnage follow the teaming together of the trio of crime fighters.

Once you get over the shock value of the language and violence this is actually a quite clever film. It plays with the super-hero genre in interesting ways without alienating its target audience. Though I’ve never really understood the fascination with comic books – or super-heroes for that matter – I think I got a fair few of the in-jokes and references to various comic-book heroes. No doubt if you’re a fan of the genre you’ll get a lot more. Despite all being in their mid to late 20’s IRL Dave, Todd and Marty came across as believable teenagers and would probably have been my friends if I’d been in their school. Chloe Mortez was a revelation as Hit-girl as she dispatched baddies with seemingly effortless efficiency (to pop music!) and casual fashion. I haven’t seen her in much else since this (the very disappointing sequel has fortunately been erased from my memory) but so far I have yet to be impressed. Let’s hope that she didn’t peak at 13. Most of the rest of the cast – especially the seemingly endless number of bad guys (for Hit-girl to dispatch later) seemed to be from central casting. Even the head bad guy Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) could have been anyone. His son Chris AKA Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) was likewise unremarkable.

If the controversy over the film – partially well earned – has put you off seeing this before and you have a fairly strong stomach I’d give it a shot. If you can get beyond the first 20-30 minutes you should be able to make it all the way through – although you’ll probably have a sore jaw for a while from the number of times it’ll hit the floor. You have been warned.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Blair calls for global lessons in religious respect 

By Sean Coughlan for BBC News

15 October 2014

A global drive is needed to tackle the roots of extremism by making education systems in all countries teach respect for other religions, Tony Blair says. The former UK prime minister said it was "foolish" to spend billions on a military fight with Islamic extremism if intolerance is left "undisturbed". As a matter of "urgent global importance", he wants schools to teach "the virtue of religious respect". This should be made a "common global obligation", said Mr Blair. In an article written for the BBC News Knowledge Economy series, Mr Blair said the struggle against the Islamic State and the threat of terrorism needed to engage in the battle of ideas. "All the security measures and all the fighting will count for nothing," he said, unless the intolerant ideas that feed into extremist violence were challenged.

Mr Blair, who has set up a foundation promoting a greater understanding of religions, said it was necessary to "uproot the thinking of the extremists, not simply disrupt their actions. Especially foolish is the idea that we leave this process of the generational deformation of the mind undisturbed, at the same time as we spend billions on security relationships to counter the very threat we allow to be created." He argued that a forum such as the G20 should adopt plans for "a common charter to be accepted by all nations, and endorsed by the UN, which makes it a common obligation to ensure that throughout our education systems, we're committed to teaching the virtue of religious respect. Muslim countries will continue to teach their children the value of being Muslim. But we should all teach that people who have a different faith are to be treated equally and respected as such.” Mr Blair said it was "perplexing and alarming" that the debate about radical Islamism too often failed to engage with education and the shaping of ideas. The "incubators of radicalism" need to be confronted, he argued, to prevent the spread of ideas that "warp young and unformed minds. The challenge we face is to show young people who are vulnerable to appeals from terrorists that there is a better path to having their voice heard."

Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has previously warned that neglecting education had become a "security issue". The head of the UN agency said that poor quality education was creating a volatile mix in many developing countries of illiteracy, unemployment and the rise of extremism. Despite a global millennium pledge for all children to have access to primary school by 2015, Unesco says this target is almost certain to be missed. International agencies have also highlighted a pattern in which students, teachers and places of education have been deliberately targeted. A report published earlier this year showed there had been 10,000 violent attacks on education, including the abduction of students in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

[Despite the fact that I have absolutely no respect for the man, he might have actually hit on something here. OK, it’s completely the wrong way of looking at things but you can’t expect all that much from someone who lies for a living. So what about this idea: Instead of teaching religious tolerance we concentrate on teaching Secularism and confining religion to the private sphere and removing it from the public one? It would mean that States across the world would be indifferent to religion just so long as it stayed out of the public sphere. If it did stray into the public sphere than action would be taken to put it back where it belonged. With luck, and some effort, it might even come to pass that future generations would have no idea what you were talking about when you mentioned God (in the many forms that we are familiar with) and would be even more confused when you tried to explain things to them. If you want a world without fundamentalist religions try to imagine a world without any religions.]