Voskhod instruments by Tom Royal on Flickr
Valentina Tereshkova with Vostok 6 by Tom Royal on Flickr
Voskhod Capsule by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Heron by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr

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International Dumb Day 2010

May 26th, 2010

I may* be slightly over-grumpy on account of having a stinking cold that’s left me working on spreadsheets while cats shout at me every time I sneeze, but really, today does seem to have been blighted by some remarkable tech-related news.

First, from the BBC: First human ‘infected with computer virus’. Or rather “researcher implants infected chip in own hand seeking publicity, gets it”. If I put a copy of back orifice on a USB key then shoved it somewhere appropriate yet uncomfortable would that make me the first human to suffer a rootkit attack? No, it’d make me a berk.

Next, from the Guardian: a story that could be more accurately summarised as “man writes web tool that, for most users, doesn’t work“. Woo. However, because HTML5 is associated with the magic iPad, it makes a national newspaper blog. Do you know what I miss? XHTML. It was going to revolutionise the web back in 2001 or so, then what happened to it? *Utters wistful sigh and dreams of CSS positioning with the Tantek Celic box-model hack for IE5*

And finally from the Telegraph: Mobile phone number suspended after three users die in 10 years. Or rather, mobile phone number used by three notable rich people in Bulgaria, two of whom were criminals, is not currently in use (it’s “understood to have been dormant” and “phone bosses are said to have suspended” it. Who said that? Fuck knows. Maybe it was Elvis. Maybe Elvis has the phone, on Mars, and that’s why it’s out of network range when called.)

At least the article doesn’t quite go as far as to conclude that the phone killed them, as then we’d have to send around the tape of Lisa Simpson and her tiger-repellant rock.

* Am. Certainly.

The Defenders

May 23rd, 2010

Galaxy Magazine, Vol 3 No 5, 1953

While waiting for the film to start yesterday we had a rifle through the south bank book market outside the NFT, and I came across this. It’s from early 1953 and contains one of Philip K Dick’s earliest published short stories – it’s listed seventh in my rather battered copy of Beyond Lies the Wub, which is a must-buy if you like his stuff. The cover art is by Ed Emshwiller.

The story (or ‘novelet’, as it’s billed)  includes three black-and-white illustrations, also by Emshwiller, which you can see scanned nicely in this Project Gutenberg edition (HTML). It’s a classic cold war science fiction piece in which humanity has retreated underground while robots fight on their behalf up above, and was used as the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth.

(Massive spoiler warning here – if you haven’t yet read the story, please do so!)

I first read this story in maybe 1993 – in fact, I tore through the entire anthology, and then the next three volumes. I still have the books, although they’re now so faded that it took a while to find them this morning. I can remember enjoying the clever twists in so many of these early tales, including The Defenders, but what leaps out reading them over 15 years (plus most of high school, a degree and a few jobs) later is the political context.

The story was published in the middle of the McCarthy Senate Committee era, and yet portrays a conclusion to the cold war (it’s not even thinly disguised – one side is American, the other Russian, both have spheres of influence in Europe) in which, having nuked the hell out of one another, soldiers from the US and USSR are convinced that it’s in their best interest to set aside weapons and differences and work together:

The Russians waited while the Americans made up their minds.

“I see what the leadys mean about diplomacy becoming outmoded,” Franks said at last. “People who work together don’t need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table.”

The leady led them toward the ship. “It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—”

Taylor stopped listening and glanced back at the location of the Tube. Mary was undersurface there. He hated to leave her, even though he couldn’t see her again until the Tube was unsealed. But then he shrugged and followed the others.

If this tiny amalgam of former enemies was a good example, it wouldn’t be too long before he and Mary and the rest of humanity would be living on the surface like rational human beings instead of blindly hating moles.

“It has taken thousands of generations to achieve,” the A-class leady concluded. “Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.”

“The conquest of space,” breathed Colonel Borodoy.

“The meaning of life,” Moss added.

“Eliminating hunger and poverty,” said Taylor.

The leady opened the door of the ship. “All that and more. How much more? We cannot foresee it any more than the first men who formed a tribe could foresee this day. But it will be unimaginably great.”

The door closed and the ship took off toward their new home.

I think I’m going to have to go back and do some re-reading of his other stories – who knows what I’ve missed.

Welcome to the Space Show (宇宙ショーへようこそ)

May 23rd, 2010

Watching anime films in the UK is, by and large, a waiting game. If you speak little or no Japanese there’s the wait for films to be subtitled (or, if you’re unlucky, dubbed) and even once that’s completed any possible UK release tends to lag behind the US, which in turn lags behind Japan. Sometimes the only solution is to import region 3 DVDs at ludicrous cost. So when  you get a chance to see a major anime film ahead of its Japanese release, you jump at it.

And so yesterday we caught the second screening in the world – the first was at the Berlin International Film Festival – of 宇宙ショーへようこそ, or “Welcome to the Space Show”. It’s a family film from the makers of Read or Die, which was a rather strange but quite fun OVA and TV series about a world in which the British Library is a kind of secret intelligence service (yes, really, the British Library), employing “papermasters” with supernatural powers.

The plot follows five children who are left in the charge of the eldest at a summer school. They head off into the woods to find the school’s pet rabbit, Pyon Kichi, who had escaped from the care of one of the elder girls, Natsuki. Pyon Kichi is nowhere to be seen, but they do find an injured dog lying in a field marked with a giant crop circle. The children tend to the dog’s wounds and, in turn, the dog – who turns out to be an alien called Pochi (a name rather too close to Poochie for Simpsons fans) –  takes them on a school trip. Into space.

There’s nothing too remarkable in the plot – the kids have to overcome some obstacles and foil some bad guys in order to return home – but the two hour section of the film set in space is wonderfully drawn, with a huge cast of colourful aliens, from dogs to eyeballs to a walking goldfish bowl, and some really stunning scenes. It’s visually diverse and just plain bonkers enough to keep you enthralled, and some of the animation is wonderful.

It’s funny, too, with laughs that’ll work for even small kids (often courtesy of the rather grumpy Pochi, who doesn’t appreciate being referred to as a dog (“犬 じゃない!”) or, for that matter, having his backside examined by curious children) and some neat sight gags – look out for the famous baby robot in the background of the alien creche, kicking his little, er, legs.

All in all it’s a colourful spectacle of a film for kids, but also enjoyable for adults who’ll appreciate the sheer technicoloured exuberance of it all. Subtitles might be a bit of a stretch for its potential audience in the UK, and it is quite long (2h20 or so), but if given the chance of a dubbed release here, albeit probably in a year or two, I’d hope it could do well as an alternative to generic-family-film-crap served in 3D.

Also, many thanks to the British Film Institute, which showed Welcome to the Space Show as part of a weekend of anime, including the UK Premiere of Evangelion 2.0 and a load of other stuff. We also caught Hosoda’s Summer Wars on the big screen, which was just as fantastic as I’d hoped after reading this review a while back. And remember what I said about waiting? Sadly Manga Distribution has today announced that its UK release – on DVD and Blu-ray – will now be pushed to 2011.

Election graphs revisited

May 8th, 2010

I never did hear back from Simon Nundy about his campaign’s dodgy use of graphs with misleading titles. But look, I made him a new one from the 2010 results:

Obviously I took the results from Hackney because, you know, they make the point better. But it still works, right?

In which Hunter predicts the election

May 7th, 2010

So, yeah, the election. Urgh. But there was one shining beacon of hope and joy: the first ever Hither Green CatPoll. We opened the custom-designed polling station at 10pm:

And there was an early showing of interest from the electorate:

As the evening dragged on, though, voter apathy struck. Ralph fell asleep in the kitchen sink, while Hunter couldn’t quite bring himself to decide:

But eventually, after some encouragement to enter the booth, Hunter cast the deciding vote at around 1am:

He predicted a hung parliament, and his prediction was proved 100 per cent accurate at around 10.30am on the 7th. Given that we may see another election sooner rather than later, broadcasters interested in using this new polling technology are invited to get in touch; prices are reasonable and payment can be made in fish.