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Our future robot overlords are in active development at Boston Dynamics.

(a) Cool. (b) Creepy? Just a little bit?

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A first for me at the weekend.  My first airshow, that is.  The Scottish National Airshow, at the National Museum of Flight, to be specific.  Been to the Museum before (it’s good, incidentally, should you ever be in the area), but never to the annual Airshow before.

Conclusion?  Airshows are good. But also that the banal predictability of male responses means that some bits are gooder than others. It’s kind of discouraging (but also kind of comforting, in a self-identity sort of way) just how much the psyche of so many average adult males, such as yours truly, responds in the same way as that of a twelve year old to certain stimuli.

We’ll get to the stimuli in question in a minute, but first some admittedly amateurish photos.

A Fairey Swordfish, for starters.  One of the most charismatic old-school aircraft there, imho, complete with (dummy, thankfully) torpedo:

And then these folks, the Breitling Wingwalkers. Watching them really is a bit like being transported back to the 40s or 50s or whenever this whole wingwalking thing was in its heyday:

And in many ways the oddest, vaguely surreal element of the whole day, a genuine Vietnam Vet Huey sitting in a field just outside Edinburgh, beneath by then rather ominous skies, waiting to do its thing:

It’s earned its retirement, that helicopter, since it apparently survived over 100 flights and well over 500 combat hours in Vietnam.

You can see much, much better photos of the Airshow than mine, of all these and many more aircraft, over here, by the way.

I don’t know how many fly-bys and displays there were in all – fifteen or twenty, probably – and pretty much all of them were in one way or another interesting, beautiful, cool.  Those wingwalkers, for instance (apologies in advance for mildly shaky, even more amateurish filming):

I mean, that’s a fairly remarkable way to spend your time, don’t you think? Standing on top of a biplane doing a loop. And the noise is kind of appealing, too. But noise, it turns out, is at the heart of an Airshow’s ability to make me twelve again. The wingwalkers, and the historical aircraft all appeal to the heart, or the mind, and are great to see, but if you want to hit a man-boy in the gut and put a big, stupid grin on his face you let loose the dragons (volume needs to be up to 11 to hint at the gut-punching effect for this next clip):

Honestly, when that Eurofighter was doing its thing, it was just like having a dragon set loose in the sky above you. I kept thinking of Smaug. It made every other plane in the show – no matter how cool, how interesting, how beautiful – seem like a housefly, or a droning bee, by comparison.

And apart from raw power, what else makes little boys, however old, stand still and take heed? War, of course. Cultural connections to war movies, and a sound that’s instantly familiar, even though I’d never heard it before in real life: that of a Huey taking off and chuddering away over the fields. The mood music on this one’s not mine, by the way; inflicted on us by the Airshow organisers:

I was struck by how powerfully evoactive that sight, and that sound were, in ways that none of the many WWII era aircraft on show could match.  It occured to me that, even though I’m British, the Huey’s intrinsically and powerfully sumbolic of its entire war in a way that not even the Spitfire is of WWII for me.  The sight and sound of a Huey calls up every film or documentary I’ve ever seen about Vietnam, as immediately and simply as if a button has been pushed.

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It’s been a rough week or two for your local podcast addict (that’s me).

First, my venerable, cheap little mp3 player reached the end of its useful life. It did so in small increments, over a month or so, but finally started doing so many unpredictable and unhelpful things that I was functionally unable to listen to podcasts. This, it turns out, is not a state of affairs I am comfortable with. I got antsy and agitated. I cursed the poor little mp3 player every time it didn’t work as it should. I got angry with it, which is a frankly pathetic and humiliating state for a grown man to get into with a tiny bit of tech kit that lets him listen to stuff.

Finally, I panicked. Yes, panicked. I entered some weird kind of dissociative state in which the absolute number one priority in my life was to get hold of a new mp3 player. Not in a day or two – which would have allowed me to pick and choose and assess options carefully and buy it online – no, I had to have it immediately. So I went to a shop and bought the cheapest one they had in stock. End result: I can listen to podcasts again, but I’m doing so on a little piece of junk player that’s completely inappropriate for the job and I’m going to have to buy a properly selected new one very, very soon.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m not sure precisely what it is so I’ve clearly failed to learn it.  So it goes.

And now, it turns out a patent troll is attempting to destroy podcasting entirely.  You have got to be kidding.  Except not: there really is a company out there (called Personal Audio) claiming it holds a patent for basically the entire concept of podcasting – not the technology or precise methodology or any particular techniques involved, you understand, the concept – and that everyone everywhere should therefore stop doing it or pay them a fee.

This is a ridiculous idea, if you ask me.  With due apologies to any US visitors, I’ve got to say that the US patent and legal systems are not, however, exactly renowned for their unfailing opposition to that which initially appears ridiculous, so the whole thing’s got serious enough that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is now involved, with a (hopefully hyperbolically titled) Save Podcasting Campaign.

Patent trolls are not good or helpful in any area of endeavour, if you ask me (which nobody did, obviously).  Patent trolls who go after something to which I’m very obviously hopelessly addicted (see above) feel like they’ve personally and vindictively researched my interests and drawn up a business plan, the main objective of which is making my life that little bit less enjoyable.  Boo hiss, I say.  If it looks like the evil troll is getting anywhere, I may even have to go so far as to donate money to the knights in shining armour trying to slay it …

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Belatedly got to see The Hobbit last week, and … wow, that was interesting? Weird? Not quite sure what the right word is.

Thought the film itself – narrative, acting, all that kind of stuff – was not too bad, though that might be in part because I went in with fairly low expectations, having picked up a distinctly ambivalent vibe from previous reviews and commentary. It may also be because I was so hypnotically fascinated by the 3D/48fps combination and it’s visual consequences that I wasn’t paying 100% attention to the actual film 100% of the time.

So, I promised five things and here they are:

1. Wow, 48fps really does make cinema look like TV. Seriously. I spent half of The Hobbit thinking ‘this looks like it was shot in a (small) TV studio, except with insanely, supernaturally hi-def cameras’.

More than that, in fact: now and again, partly thanks to the 3D, it was a bit like being in a TV studio, watching all these actors do their thing right in front of you.  That might sound like the ultimate in immersion, but it’s not.  I found the effect so odd and interesting that I was distanced from the story being told by the curiosity of the viewing experience itself.  That might be something that diminished with familiary, but I’m not convinced (see #3 below).

Overall, though, I didn’t dislike the 48fps effect, in isolation.  It does create a noticeably sharp, realistic image.  (But that may not be a good thing, in this particular case – see below).

2. CGI wargs not my cup of tea. Not at 48fps, anyway. The precision and realism of image that 48fps creates is a huuuuge test for cgi, especially moving cgi. For anything that’s not actually real, in fact. Not all the fx or models or whatever trickery was being used always passed that test.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of cgi in general, since I’ve never yet seen a film where it doesn’t at some point betray its weightless, virtual origins, no matter how much money’s been spent on it.  Shine a 3D 48fps light on it, and oddly enough it wasn’t so much weightlessness that was the problem for me; it was that the technology picks up and amplifies the unreality of anything that’s not actually real, whether it’s a model or a bit of cgi.  It’s unforgiving, that’s what it is.

The wargs, in particular, repeatedly just struck me as radically unconvincing, especially in close-up.

3. I’m still not in love with 3D. Particularly, perhaps, in conjunction with 48 fps. Fast movement just seems to defeat the technology sometimes, with both the 3D effect and, especially, the crystal clarity of the image breaking down.  (Possibly a contributory factor in my warg-related problems mentioned above, as those critters were, more often than not, moving fast).

All in all, my eyes still spend a distracting amount of time exploring the layers in any complex 3D image.  It happens semi-unconsciously; my gaze just starts wandering around, revelling in the achievement.  It’s why, I think, I’ve so far found 3D movies consistently less engaging and immersive than 2D ones.  They can be immensely clever and enjoyable, but for me to love a movie, I need there to be nothing in between me and the actors, the plot.  All this technological wizardry hijacks my attention and interrupts the flow of what’s really important to my brain.

BUT, that said, there were a few moments where the 3d was spectacularly successful.  Near-static images of the interior of Bilbo’s house were disoreintatingly effective at times, and there were a few bits where the dwarves are marching across wild New Zealand landscapes that worked eye-poppingly well.

4. These three films might turn out to be fantastic prequels.  Just a theory at this stage, obviously, but I can see at least a possibility that this trilogy might end up  being a decent prequel to LotR proper.  By which I mean it might work OK to watch these first, and ‘graduate’ to the next three filmsThere’s a a natural expansion of scope, darkening of tone, upping of stakes that I can see – potentially – flowing rather well over the six movies.

Although it’s far from perfect, there’s enough about this first instalment to suggest that the next two might be good, especially if the slapstick got dialled down a bit, which given the nature of the story to come you’d think it should.

5. Ken Stott’s the Man.  Ken Stott, who plays Balin, is a wonderful actor.  And his father (whom I remember very fondly) taught me English at school.  Not important, I know, but it amuses me that Balin’s father taught me reading and writing, and now I write stuff that might not have dwarves in it, but does have other weird stuff.  Funny old world.

My overall conclusion on The Hobbit: a pleasant enough, but unremarkable, way to pass not far off 3 hours.

My overall conclusion on 3D/48fps: I’d quite like to see more movies shot like this, just to revel in and explore the unfamiliar viewing experience, but my guess is if it’s ever going to work artisitically it’ll actually be in non-fantastical, non-sfx heavy, non-action heavy films.  It leeches out so much of the grandeur from, and injects so much realism into, the image that smaller scale stuff might well work better.

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In years gone by, I’ve tended to pop out a Miscellany post to mark the festive season.  Don’t know why.  Don’t know why I’m about to do it again, but here I go.

For Likers of Sketches

D(ungeons) & D(ragons) & D(oodles) is a fun little tumblr from Tom Fowler, featuring amusing and striking sketches of a fantastical sort.  Only a handful of images there so far, but it’s worth a look.  Guy can draw.

Image is (c) 2012 Tom Fowler /  Just so you know.

Weekly Sketch Up is a weekly (funnily enough) column at iFanboy that collates and reposts some of the nicest recent comics-related sketches showing up on the interwebs.  Well worth a browse if you like to see comics artists having a bit of fun.

For Likers of Expensive/Dangerous Toys

Probably too late for this year, but how about asking for a JetLev Flyer when the next gift-giving season comes around?

Or perhaps I could tempt you with a wingsuit?

For Likers of Photography

2012 was, I think, one of the better recent years for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a long-running British institution for those of us who like (a) wildlife and (b) pictures of it.

You can browse a full online gallery of the best images of 2012 on the Natural History Museum website. I confess, it’s a bit of a pig of a site, navigation-wise; but with a little bit of pointing and clicking you can get a look at some stunning wildlife photos (when you eventually find an ‘Enlarge’ button, click that and you will be amply rewarded). And if that tickles your fancy, well you can browse another seven years’ worth of photos there as well.

The exhibition of the winning photos has already started a global tour which runs through next year, and if it’s showing up anywhere near you I’d highly recommend checking it out. Seeing the actual photos at full size is quite the experience if you’re into this kind of thing. Mysteriously, the tour doesn’t seem to include the USA – sorry, USA folks.

For Likers of … Well, Wild Scots Really

These folks show up on the streets of Edinburgh most summers, always drawing a big crowd of passers-by and always being about the best street theatre you could ever wish for: Albannach

Albannach @ Sunday Pub Sing from Highland Renfair on Vimeo.

And since I’m on the subject of music, let’s repeat my old and tired trick of putting a bit of guitar in these miscellany posts. This time, it’s courtesy of Antoine Dufour:

For Likers of Apocalypses (and Podcasts)

As the world’s ending … tomorrow, is it? … why not treat yourself to a podcast on the topics of apocalypses?

Apocalypse Now and Then from the BackStory podcast is a fun and informative dig around in the history of apocalypses and end-times in the USA.

And thanks to Edd Vick for directing me to the BackStory podcast as a whole, back in the comments on this post.  That’s how us podcast lovers spread the love, after all; it’s all about word of mouth.  So why not check out this extensive exercise in word of mouth over at SF Signal on the subject of SF/F podcasts, and do some exploring in the audio wonderland?  There’s something in there for everyone. (Everyone who likes a bit of sf or F, anyway).

Should, for some unforeseen reason, the world fail to end, Happy Holidays to one and all.  Hope everyone gets a minimum of stress and a maximum of happiness over the festive season.  (If the world does end, that minimum and maximum will no doubt be reversed, but don’t fret it; it’ll all be over soon, I imagine).

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Here’s some interesting reading.  The US National Intelligence Council has released its Global Trends 2030 report, which you can get as a free pdf download here (the pdf via link is the one you want).  It’s a chunky document – 160 odd pages – but full of interesting odds and ends to feed the imagination.

To be honest, it’s full of not especially interesting qualifications and statements of the fairly obvious, too, but that’s because 2030 isn’t actually all that far away so to a certain extent they’re predicting the continuation of trends that are already well underway. Still, it’s interesting to see someone trying to pull everything together and reach some sort of consensus on what the big shapers of the short-term future are going to be (clue: the word ‘China’ crops up a lot).

There’s so much stuff that I could pick out for mulling over that it’s far too much for one post, so we’ll call this Part 1 and see if I ever get round to coming up with a Part 2 or more.  Maybe I will, maybe I won’t

So, to start with:

There’s a good deal of talk about the potential effects of NEW TECHNOLOGIES in various fields. The track record of anyone predicting with any real accuracy the exact nature and – even more so – the social and cultural effects of new technologies, even on a relatively short timespan, is not great, so all this kind of stuff is really just thought experiment.

But the thing I thought most interesting is a (slightly subtextual) theme running through some of those discussions in the report: that developing countries might well stand to benefit more than developed countries from even quite dramatic technological innovations (like 3D printing, for example). Although the initial benefits are in the places rich enough to be early adopters, the real game-changing transformation (with truly global effects) wrought by these technologies might be elsewhere, slightly later.  I think there’s already an example of this kind of thing: mobile phones have had a huge impact in the rich world, but in truth I think that impact is rather superficial and incremental; whereas in Africa it might be genuinely transformational of society and economy.  And if you transform Africa’s society and economy, you inevitably get globally transformational results.

The exception to that thing about new techonologies is shale gas extraction, combined with improved ability to access tricky-to-get-at oil, in the US.  I think many of us Brits aren’t fully aware of quite what a big deal this is in the States (maybe lots of Americans aren’t either?), although it’s starting over here too.  Anyway, I was struck but just how potentially pivotal a moment the authors of this report think it might have been when some bright spark said ‘Hmmm, I think I might have an idea how to get that gas out of there … let’s call it fracking.’

The flood of oil and gas that innovative production techniques has unleashed in the USA could have dramatic and far-reaching effects, according to this report, and other commentators.  Imagine the geopolitical ramifications of a world in which it’s not the US but China that relies on Middle Eastern oil; or the environmental and economic effects of plunging oil prices.  Incidentally, I get the impression that the folks behind this report think massive exploitation of the USA’s domestic energy reserves of this sort is pretty much the only plausible driving factor for continuing USA economic prosperity, expansion and dominance of the sort that characterised the second half of the 20th century; without it, they seem to be anticipating continuous and probably accelerating comparative US decline of the sort that’s arguably been underway for quite a few years now.

And one last sidenote on technology: there’s no talk in here at all, unless I missed it, of space technology or exploration.  No colonising missions to Mars, no asteroid mining, no transformational effects of Asian space programmes.  Which strikes me as a pretty accurate prediction.  Amazing how the optimism and ambition for space-related stuff of just a few decades back has been extinguished to the extent that it’s not worth even mentioning in the context of 2030.

The most fun bit of the report, especially for science fiction fans, is the bit where they talk about BLACK SWAN EVENTS that could throw everything up in the air at almost any point.  Although, to be honest, they’re a little bit predictable and unexciting as black swan events go.  Which suggests, if nothing else, that if such an event does show up, it’s as likely to be something they haven’t thought of … that being kind of the definition of a black swan event, really.

Global pandemic – yeah, don’t suppose anyone would leave that off such a list these days.  Nuclear war – sadly not something you could pretend isn’t possible, even if it’s unlikely to be a globally destructive one these days.  Solar geomagnetic storms – well, technically could happen, so fair enough to include it I guess (but no catastrophic asteroid strike?  Less likely, I know, but always fun – in the loosest sense of the word – to ponder).

And also not showing up in the list: NASA discovers life on another planet.  Which I guess wouldn’t have sufficiently massive impact or effects to qualify as a black swan of the sort they’re listing, but still: fits in with the pattern of space-stuff just ain’t that big a deal, even if it has profound scientific or philosophical implications.

Then you get to … faster climate change.  And oh, don’t get me started on the subject of climate change.  All I’ll say is: faster climate change is, I’d guess, an order of magnitude more likely than any other of the supposedly ‘black swan’ events listed in this report.  I don’t think it remotely qualifies as a black swan.  Indeed it’d be so unsurprising to me if it turned out to be the case that I’d call it a white swan with maybe just a hint of grey about a few of its feathers.

And that’s probably enough for now.  Plenty more to talk about (including the stuff that strikes me as the most potentially significant determiners of our 2030 future) if I ever do get around to Part 2 …


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So, I finally took the plunge a while back and joined the ranks of the e-reader army.

Kindle 4 (i.e. no keyboard, wi-fi only).

And sure enough, it changed my mind. Not in the sense that it substantially changed my opinion about anything to do with e-books etc. No, it changed – or at least is trying to change – my thought processes; my perceptions.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first: do I like my Kindle?

Sure I do.  It’s a clever, effective bit of kit that does one thing – sell, deliver and display text for on-screen consumption – jolly well.  It’s what my parents, and hence I, would tend to call, approvingly, A Thing of Purpose.  It’s got a job to do, and it does it well.

And also: do I feel good about becoming a Kindle-owner?

Huh. What kind of a dumb question is that? Not quite as dumb as it sounds, if you were privy to my inner thoughts. Which approximate to: Amazon is not my friend. Neither as a reader nor a writer should I fall into the trap of imagining that Amazon is ‘on my side’. Amazon is on but one side, and that is its own. Charles Stross articulates my thoughts better than I could, right here.  Worth reading, especially if you’re under the illusion that the word ‘altriusm’ appears anywhere on Amazon’s agenda.

So, to rephrase, do I feel good about contributing, in my own entirely minuscule way, to Amazon’s advance towards monopoly and monopsony?  No, not especially.

But here’s the thing.  Amazon is going to determine – far more than any other single player – what the short and possibly medium term futures of the e-book look like.  I’m a writer, so I have a certain financial, creative and personal stake in this game.  So I got a Kindle, because I want to see what the biggest player and rule-maker is doing, how they’re doing it and how their system works.

I’ll probably do another post some time about what I actually make of some of the content I’ve loaded onto my Precious … ah, excuse me … my Kindle, and how I feel about the reading experience, but for now let’s just consider What my Kindle is doing to my brain.

It’s re-wiring it, that’s what.  It’s attempting to change my perceptions of what a book is, and what the value of a book is.  The second, unsurpisingly, is the interesting bit for me as an author.

Essentially, as I bimbled about online, wading through the swamps of the Kindle store, anything over £3 or £4 started looking expensive.  Now, I don’t actually believe that to be an entirely sensible conclusion to reach but nevertheless, for a whole load of reasons, I could all but feel the notion trying to take root in my brain.  Just a few of those reasons (not all of which I necessarily think are valid, but they were all there, feeding my unconscious thought processes):

  • There is no physical object for me to indisputably, irrevocably own on a permanent, unconstrained and transferable basis.  Without those fundamental components of ‘ownership’ I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is no physical object that has cost someone money to create.  Without those sunk costs, I should not be expected to pay so much.
  • There is a vast array of free or very cheap material on offer in the Kindle store; by comparison with it, more ‘traditionally’ priced items automatically start to appear expensive.
  • A virtual text feels inherently less consequential, considered and substantial (and therefore less valuable) than one that has been given physical form.
  • It’s sometimes hard to tell how long a text you’re being asked to pay for is, and there’s therefore a temptation to err on the side of caution when considering its value.
  • I don’t pay over £3 or £4 for hardly anything non-physical I acquire for entertainment purposes online (e.g. apps, renting a movie), indeed I pay nothing for a lot of it (e.g. podcasts, on-demand TV).

I could go on, but you get the idea.

To reiterate, I don’t think all of these kind of thoughts are either rational or reasonable, but that some part of my brain was busily processing them, out of the reach of my internal oversight, is indisputable.

It may be just me, of course.  I doubt it, though.  I fear I might be getting a glimpse of the future, just by peering into the muddy recesses of my own little head. And that future is cheap, but not necessarily in a good way.

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