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February 2007
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March 2007

Great Strides Forward

It’s a great relief to learn that scientific progress is unhampered by anything as trivial as fashion sense. To demonstrate this point, the Berkeley Robotics Laboratory has for some time been developing BLEEX – the Berkeley Lower Extremities Exoskeleton. These imposing cyber-trousers will, it’s said, enable warriors of the future to walk vast distances and carry huge loads, courtesy of 40 sensors, numerous hydraulic motors and an almost complete disregard for the inadvertently comical. There are no buttons, no joysticks or other paraphernalia that might otherwise impede the relentless march towards tomorrow. As the demonstration video below makes clear, this is a mightily impressive achievement. Though the fearsome noise produced by the trousers will, I suspect, prohibit their use in missions where ninja-like stealth is required.

According to the press release, these electronic trousers “enhance human strength and endurance” and are controlled by a local area network that functions “much like the human nervous system.” The user steps into a pair of modified army boots that are then attached to the exoskeleton. A pair of metal legs frames the outside of a person’s own legs to “facilitate ease of movement.” The wearer then dons a vest that is attached to the frame and engine. Conveniently, if the machine should break down or run out of fuel, the exoskeleton legs can easily be removed and the device converts to a large backpack.

Bleex_2“We set out to create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle,” says Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. "Many scientists and engineers have been attempting to build a robotic strength enhancing device since the 1950s, and they’ve failed… This dream is now becoming a reality.” Although the device itself weighs a hefty 50kg, the machine takes its own weight, with the control system ensuring that the centre of gravity is always within the pilot's footprint. In addition to its own weight, BLEEX will carry a 32 kilogram payload within the backpack. “To the pilot this would feel like they were carrying just 2 kilograms,” says Kazerooni.

Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), itself funded by the Pentagon, BLEEX could also assist paramedics in carrying wounded people from disaster areas or help fire fighters haul heavy equipment up countless flights of stairs. One hopes a civilian model will follow, transforming trips to the supermarket beyond all recognition. According to Kazerooni, the exoskeleton is designed to be “ergonomic, highly maneuverable and technically robust so the wearer can walk, squat, bend and swing from side to side without noticeable reductions in agility.” The Berkley team is currently awaiting the go-ahead to mass produce their bipedal masterpiece. In the meantime, a quieter version, fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, is in the planning stages.

Further details here. See also Berkeley's Automation Sciences Lab.   

More robot legs – this time minus the soft, fleshy human – can be seen in action below, care of Boston Dynamics:

I'll need an army of robots. Funding always welcome.

Friday Ephemera

Gummi bear sculptures. Dig that gummi chandelier. // Life-size blue whale. Up close and personal. // Criminal genius makes methamphetamine in toaster. What could possibly go wrong? // Tim Burton’s Batman retold in five seconds. // Ever going boldly, William Shatner keeps it gay. // The healing power of antimatter. // Lunar transit of the Sun, viewed in ultraviolet. // Protein Wisdom on time-travel, pandas and misplaced galaxies. // Mark Steyn on misplaced pacifism. // Mama Cass. You know you want to. // Arts Council gravy train revisited. // Control panels to suit every taste and budget. // Almost everything you could want to know about Error 404. // A concise history of Japanese tentacle porn. Surprisingly suitable for work. // ‘Tentacle porn’ pre-Googled. Don’t pretend you weren’t going to.

No Laughing Allowed

Barrel_o_laughs2David at MediaWatchWatch has steered my attention to this little nugget. It's a 20-minute video of Christopher Hitchens at the University of Toronto discussing censorship, Islam and notions of “hate speech.” It's stirring stuff and can be downloaded in various audio and video formats. Here's a money quote, one of many:

“I have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up and say that they know where my children go to school... and what they’re going to do to them, and to my wife, and to me, and who I have to take seriously because they have done it to people I know, are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law if I say what I think about their religion. Which I am now going to do…”

During his speech, Hitchens makes reference to Holocaust denial, John Stuart Mill and the need to test our own assumptions - three topics I touched on in a piece written for 3:AM and later expanded for the CSER Review. I think it's worth posting an extract from that article, as it seems particularly relevant:

Some argue that there must be limits on what can be said – as if the solution to stupidity is to inhibit public discourse. “What about Holocaust deniers”, I was once asked, indignantly. “Would you let them say the Holocaust didn’t happen?” But proscribing idiocy of this kind achieves very little and betrays a lack of confidence. If a person insists that Jews, gypsies and homosexuals were not systematically exterminated on an industrial scale, one can always produce the documents, the testimony, the photographs and the films and demonstrate that it did happen. And demonstrating what did happen – and can happen – allows us to revisit our own ideas about the world.

A free society is defined by contrasting opinions and the testing of ideas. This is how we learn. Being pious (or pretending to be pious) doesn't exonerate one from this. If a person is so aggrieved by contrary voices, one has to question what it is that is posing such an existential threat. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty: “We are fallible; to deny any opinion is to assume that we are not… Even if an opinion is wrong, it may contain some element of the truth. It is only through the collision of adverse opinions that the truth has any hope of being brought to light.” The contrasting views aired in the media and other public spaces are indeed an expression of our fallibility. They are also our greatest hope of addressing that fallibility.

I’m reminded of Ayatollah Khomeini’s famously stupid comment: “There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.” As bizarre as it may sound, Khomeini’s statement is very much at the heart of recent events. Without the freedom to laugh at oneself and one’s own ideas, and without the freedom to accept criticism with a self-deprecating smile, what's the alternative? Indignation? Rage? An urgent desire to silence any criticism? And isn’t that just egotism and arrogant posturing? Perhaps the endless uptight puritans that bark at any whiff of “offence” should show a little humility and get over themselves.

By all means, fund my laughter.

Irony & Heartache

LoversFrom torch songs to comedy via techno, trash pastiche and all points in between, Marion Benoist and Fred de Fred have created something strange and rather wonderful. As The Lovers, their music has attracted a rapidly growing audience, reaching from the duo’s adopted home of Sheffield to Paris, Japan and Singapore. Their recordings have graced TV adverts and art installations and are even being used as a grammatical teaching tool by Linguascope and the French Board of Education. An eponymous debut album is currently available in several limited-edition formats, most notably as a perfumed black satin cushion, embroidered with gold thread and trimmed with lace.

The scope of The Lovers’ album is difficult to adequately summarise and its deft fusion of genres defies easy classification. This may be inconvenient for a reviewer, but it’s also a testament to the duo’s confidence and ingenuity. Fifteen tracks mix minimal electronics with allusions to Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian and various French film scores, coaxing into life a flirtatious and playful techno cabaret. With a loose entourage of producers, musicians and artists, including Parrot, Dean Honer and Phil Wolstenholme, Benoist and Fred embrace all manner of musical and theatrical devices to play with ideas of ‘Frenchness’ as imagined by their audience. Picture, if you will, a twilight world of lounge crooners, low-rent boudoirs and velour furnishings, but with unspecified stains and the odd cigarette burn. 

Continue reading "Irony & Heartache" »

Covey's Creatures

Jacob Covey's Beasts! is a deluxe printed menagerie of imaginary creatures once rumoured to exist. This hefty compendium of lost and hidden fauna is complete with explanatory notes on each fabulous monster and is lavishly illustrated by ninety modern artisans from the equally disreputable realms of comics, fine art and commercial illustration; among them Tom Gauld, Don Clark, Nathan Jurevicius and Steven Weissman. Featured beasts include the legendary Sea Hog, the Dog-Faced Bunyip and, of course, the American Buffalo - described by one European visitor to the New World as possessing “the hump of a camel, the tail of a scorpion and the long beard of a Spaniard...”

Beasts_gauld  Beasts_weissman_1  Beasts_jurevicius_1  Beasts_pegasi

Beasts! can be captured via Amazon or direct from Fantagraphics. The book’s curator is interviewed here. A limited edition letterpress print set is also available. Buy it now. It's a cryptozoologial marvel. A wonder of the age.

Keep me in comics, please.

Darkness Visible

Readers may be familiar with the Great Firewall of China, a site allowing browsers to test in real time whether any given website is banned in the glorious People's Republic. (Before you ask, yes it is, for reasons that escape me. Must be the talking ape. Or the filthy capitalist atmosphere.) Well, courtesy of Reporters Without Borders, we can also see the internet's black holes. Here's a  map of the world showing where internet usage is controlled by the government. That's Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. No surprises, really. But fans of revolutionary collectivism and the Undifferentiated Ego Mass please take note.

Update: Via Niko in the comments, here's a more detailed map of the same with additional links and information. And more in the Financial Times.

Shameless capitalist.

The Passive-Aggressive Jihad

Last week, I noted how the language of religious coercion has undergone a softening since the era of William Berkeley, and how old struggles for censorship and dominance are now routinely couched in the rhetoric of personal injury: “No-one would use words like 'authority' and 'power.' Not about Islam. Not out loud. Now we hear about much fluffier things, like 'feelings', 'prejudice' and 'sensitivity.' It's the passive-aggressive approach.” Efforts to control what can be said about Islam – and by extension what can be thought about it - have been recast in terms of supernatural sensitivity and an allergy to criticism. Or, no less shamefully, as a reaction to ‘racism.’ 

Yvonne_ridley3As, for instance, when the Abu Bakr Jamia mosque in Cambridge invoked a “compassionate and merciful” Allah to intimidate staff and students at a Cambridge college, while describing an innocuous student newspaper as “hate speech” and an “incitement to ethnic hatred.” Or when that tragicomic convert to Islam, Yvonne Ridley, pompously declared: “My faith is my nationality and when you attack it you are being racist.” Some have resorted to other, no less tendentious, ploys; most recently with the notion of “cultural racism” – a term that's used freely in certain quarters and without clear definition, but which nonetheless imprints on the reader an unmistakable suggestion of nefarious intent.

“The word ‘Islamophobe’ - like its pseudo-synonym, ‘racist’ - has acquired the status of a declamatory WMD. Deploying the term, even by vague insinuation, can generally be counted on to shut down the frontal lobes of pretty much anyone on the left, like some rhetorical kryptonite.”

Act_casual_say_nothing_1In his recent Civitas report, We're (Nearly) All Victims Now, the criminologist Dr David Green explains how, “politically-recognised victim status... has begun to do lasting harm to our liberal culture. Groups who have been politically recognised as victims are starting to use their power to silence people who have had the cheek to criticise them.” Green goes on to argue: “Modern victim groups create entrenched social divisions by defining opponents as oppressors who not only must be defeated by the state, but silenced by the state.”

These efforts to short-circuit realistic debate have proved all too successful, not least among those whose political outlook is premised on Designated Victim Groups and claims of collective guilt. It seems the word ‘Islamophobe’ - like its pseudo-synonym, ‘racist’ - has acquired the status of a declamatory WMD. Deploying the term, even by vague insinuation, can generally be counted on to shut down the frontal lobes of pretty much anyone on the left, like some rhetorical kryptonite. Loaded as the term 'Islamophobia' is with connotations of irrationality, those who brandish it as a talisman of virtue may suppose they’re defending the weaker party against unfair attack. In practice, they may simply be excusing the party with the weaker argument, or no argument at all.

Continue reading "The Passive-Aggressive Jihad" »

Friday Ephemera

Sun Ra does Batman (mp3) // Superman does porn with Big Barda. // Elongated Man fights crime by doing gross things with his body. Maybe it’s the ass-punching that unnerves. Or those huge inflatable eyes. // Real life speech balloons, made from mylar, naturally. (H/T, Fantagraphics.) // Purveyor of postmodern bollocks says very stupid things. Norm mocks postmodern bollocks. Second postmodernist gets really pissed, denounces Norm as “pro-war.” // More on postmodern bollocks here. // Scott Burgess on the Socialist gravy train. The Arts Council likes gravy too. // Women renounce Islam as ‘misogynist’; death threats ensue. // Lack of tourism in Islamic world is result of “Western-orchestrated propaganda.” And nothing to do with things like this. // Gaze-guided computing. // Fun with hemp. (H/T, Dr Westerhaus) // Behold, the Vertical Garden. // And the Lego harpsichord  sounds, er, fabulous.

Superhero Pornface

Porn_face_superheroes_5Here’s a question. What happens when you cross the Fantastic Four with the Victoria’s Secret lingerie catalogue? Well, whatever the outcome, there’s a good chance Greg Land would be involved. Land is a popular and capable comic book artist, famed for his digitally ‘airbrushed’ figures and use of photo-referencing, often of celebrities. He’s also attracted controversy for a tendency to give his characters poses and expressions that are oddly suggestive and somewhat dubious in origin. 

Karen Healey from Girls Read Comics has taken exception to the generic appearance of Land’s female characters, along with a more grievous sin against comic book aesthetics: “Greg Land commits three monumental misogynistic crimes in the portrayal of women: (1) All his female characters are facially indistinguishable; and yet (2) The same character is often inconsistently portrayed in consecutive panels; and (3) Pornface.”

For readers unfamiliar with the concept of superhero pornface, the following examples may clarify the issue. Click to, um, enlarge:

Porn_face_superheroes_2  Pornface001_1  Porn_face_superheroes_3

Healey argues: “Greg Land doesn't draw women. He draws That Woman - the glossy, airbrushed vacant-eyed, wide-mouthed focal point of patriarchal desire.” Over at Comics Nexus, Paul Sebert has expressed similar discomfort: “Greg Land is apparently either tracing porn, using it as a reference source, or just seems inclined to draw beautiful women in positions that are generally only found in porn magazines. Whatever the case is, the end result is painfully awkward and out of place in a superhero comic.”

Pornface003In fairness to Land, his male characters have been known to display pornface on a fairly regular basis, and strenuous battle scenes can at times take on curiously homoerotic overtones. But then, surely t’was ever thus? And isn't the use of stroke books for anatomical referencing an inevitable development for a genre in which improbably chiselled and pneumatic people hurl themselves about while wearing vacuum-tight costumes made from some impossibly thin material? Answers on a postcard, please.

An indecently re-captioned parody using Land's artwork can be found here. Further rumblings can be found at the Greg Land Deconstruction Project.

See also: Secret Identities.

Gratuities welcome.

Strange Attractions

Something lighter today, I think. A visitor to this blog was puzzled by the comic book coverage here. “Why comics?” they asked. Well, it’s hard to explain the appeal of comics convincingly. Maybe it’s just a deep personal flaw and something one shouldn't speak of. I could, of course, ramble on about the aesthetics of the form and its potential for storytelling. But I think a lot of the appeal hinges on seeing improbable things. Outlandish things. To illustrate the point, here’s an extract from Silence, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, from New X-Men #121.

Published in 2002 as part of Marvel’s ‘Nuff Said project, Silence has only one line of dialogue, uttered by Jean Grey in one of those “to be continued” moments. Before that, though, we see Jean and Emma venturing inside the mind of a comatose Cassandra Nova, intent on rescuing the Professor’s estranged consciousness from the clutches of his evil twin. Yes, I know. It’s a long story. But hopefully you’ll see why it’s an interesting issue. Maybe it’s the nods to Dali and Blake, or Emma’s hipflask and impeccable tailoring. Or maybe it’s just the sight of mutant foetuses brawling in the womb.

Xmenimp1  Xmenimp2  Xmenimp3  Xmenimp4 

Oh, come on. Don't pretend you're not intrigued.

For the Love of God

Christopher Hitchens is on fine form in Slate magazine, on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the moral contortions of her PC critics:

“Accompanying the article is a typically superficial Newsweek Q&A sidebar, which is almost unbelievably headed: A Bombthrower's Life. The subject of this absurd headline is a woman who has been threatened with horrific violence, by Muslims varying from moderate to extreme, ever since she was a little girl. She has more recently had to see a Dutch friend butchered in the street, been told that she is next, and now has to live with bodyguards in Washington, D.C. She has never used or advocated violence. Yet to whom does Newsweek refer as the "Bombthrower"? It's always the same with these bogus equivalences: They start by pretending loftily to find no difference between aggressor and victim, and they end up by saying that it's the victim of violence who is 'really' inciting it...”

The Hitchens piece prompted me to unearth this article, written for 3:AM, about Laila Lalami's criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Readers may spot similar patterns of rhetorical evasion.

“In an attempt to rebut Hirsi Ali’s contention, Lalami wields a list of Muslim figures who dare to question orthodoxy. Oddly, she omits any mention of how most of those she names have faced censure, persecution or serious threats of violence for demonstrating their capacity for critical thought.”

Ayaan_hirsi_aliLaila Lalami’s Nation article addresses non-Islamic views of female roles within the Muslim world, and the phenomenon she describes as “the burden of pity.” Central to her argument is an attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, whose scholarship and rigour are called into question, along with several sins of omission. The details of this criticism can be read in full via the link above, and some valid secondary points are made. However, Lalami’s own essential argument is far more tendentious and evasive than those she critiques. Lalami argues that Muslim women are unfairly singled out as objects of sympathy and sadness. She writes, “Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies.” In doing so, Lalami rather refutes her own assertion. To the best of my knowledge, relatively few Christian or Jewish women face enforced shrouding, physical abuse, death threats or honour killings as a matter of piety or routine.

Perhaps Lalami can provide a list of priests and prominent rabbis who advocate the beating of women and publish books on how to go about it. As when Mohammed Kamal Mostafa, a “respected” imam from Andalusia, published The Islamic Woman, a helpful guide advising Muslim men on how to beat “rebellious” women without leaving visible signs of injury, in accord with Muhammad’s teachings. Mostafa’s advice included how to avoid incriminating bruises and scar tissue, and how to “inflict blows that are not too strong nor too hard, because the aim is to make them suffer psychologically and not to humiliate them or mistreat them physically.” Jailed in November 2004, Mostafa’s sentence was reduced from 12 months to 20 days and the imam was ordered to complete a training course in basic human rights.

Continue reading "For the Love of God" »

Respect My Authoritaay!

I received some email in response to the Clerical Umbrage piece. Apparently, I’m being terribly disrespectful towards the Dean of Southwark, the Bishop of London and believers more generally. All of whom should, I’m told, be held in high regard “because of their sincerity” and irrespective of what they say or how little sense it makes. The offending passage – well, one of many offending passages – was my statement that, “If the Bishop of London feels relegated to the margins of intellectual credibility, perhaps he should consider his own role in getting there.” I won’t rehash the reasons for that particular comment. I do, however, want to address the notion that claims of religious sincerity should be taken at face value and afforded great weight, regardless of their content and political implications.

"If a person writes an article claiming that Muhammad was the final prophet of Allah and a yardstick of human virtue, they are expressing a preposterous idea. If that person then demands that I refrain from saying this, and refrain from explaining why, they are making an equally preposterous demand."

With depressing regularity we hear of the “sincerity” and “deep feeling” with which certain beliefs are held, as if sincerity and vehemence were testament to the veracity of those beliefs and a marker of their immunity from critical scrutiny. But an argument stands on its merits, not on the vehemence with which it’s held or the volume at which it’s shouted. And not, as the Bishop of London seems to imply, because of veiled threats of public disorder if those beliefs are challenged. Nor is a belief made admirable or true by the number of people who can be said to share it. When Iqbal Sacranie claimed that “millions of Muslims” were “deeply offended” by unflattering statements of the obvious, then those “millions of Muslims” may well be mistaken or dishonest and perhaps a little prideful.

Continue reading "Respect My Authoritaay!" »