Toy Review: Combiner Wars Legends class Shockwave

Remember back in January when we ran our Bruticus Week feature? Well, here’s Bruticus Week Redux, because, yes, it’s taken this long for us to acquire the final piece of that particular Combaticon puzzle: Bruticus’s gun, who comes in the form of a Legends class Shockwave. This dinky Decepticon has proven frustratingly tricky to source and, much as we wanted him, we weren’t prepared to pay the ridiculous scalper prices for which we’d seen him going. So we had a bit of wait to find him for a reasonable rate. Still, here we go at last: Bruticus Week Day 8: the Day Everyone Got Shot.

Looking down the barrel of a gun / Son of a gun, son of a bitch / Getting paid, getting rich

Pew! Pew!

Was he worth the wait? The only logical choice is to read on and see…

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Book Review: Beautiful Intelligence by Stephen Palmer

Robo Reads

Title:  Beautiful Intelligence
Author: Stephen Palmer
Publisher: infinity plus
Date: 2015

Quotation: “For the nexus was heavy. It bore down on humanity, never sleeping, spying into every crevice – no respecter of privacy, which was a ridiculous, old-fashoned concept anyway.”

One of the many things I enjoyed about this dystopian novel was its pacing, which manages somehow to be ponderous and frenetic at the same time. Palmer’s examination of the different potential pathways for creating sentient machines, and his wider meditations on environmental collapse, on the perils of religion and on the consequences of the modern networked life as an over-sharing cult of extrovert personality are thoughtfully rendered, expressed in passionate terms that could feel overly didactic if they weren’t constantly interrupted by the pure adrenalin rush of the book’s many heart-thumping chase scenes.  It’s a great mix of deliberation and danger.

Beautiful Intelligence book cover

Beautiful Intelligence book cover

This duality permeates the whole book. Palmer’s tone mixes the colloquial and the clinical while his narrative flits between two fugitive researchers, each employing different strategies not only to create a sentient machine intelligence but also to evade recapture by their former employer…

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robo Reads

Title: Robopocalypse
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 2011

Quotation: “I did not realize they communicated this much without words. I note that we machines are not the only species who share information silently, wreathed in codes.”

Scrolling back over my past Robo-Reads reviews I notice that the term “thought-provoking” crops up frequently. Perhaps I just need to expand my vocabulary but it’s certainly true that writing about robots can be an excellent way for authors to grapple with some of life’s biggest questions, both scientific and philosophical. As our artificial progeny, robots hold up a mirror to humanity that helps us ponder the nature of consciousness, the path of progress, the relationship between creator and creation, fears about control and autonomy and many other facets of what it means to be human – or not. Daniel H. Wilson has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, a prestigious pedigree that might lead you to expect his techno-thriller Robopocalypse to continue this path of intellectual inquiry. But there you would be wrong. Wilson clearly knows his stuff when it comes it comes to robotics and his novel does conjure up some interesting scenarios – particularly when it comes to the prospect of surviving a robot takeover in a technologically-saturated urban setting. But overall this is definitely the big-budget popcorn movie of robo-reads…

Robopocalypse book cover

Robopocalypse book cover

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Geeky Christmas Decorations

Once more the tinsel-clad juggernaut has rolled into town and Christmas time is almost upon us. I’m not religious but I am always grateful for the twinkling lights and good cheer of the festive season as a way to break up the darkest winter days because few things are more depressing than having to walk to work and walk home again both times in darkness.  This year, however, I’m rather less excited about the holiday than I have been on many other years because unfortunately AddaltmodeB has to work until late on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We’ll be doing our proper family Christmas on Boxing Day and I’m looking forward to that. It won’t be quite the same but B works for the NHS and I appreciate that nobody chooses to be ill and hospitals can’t just magically close for public holidays.  So here on Addaltmode we may have a few seasonal inspired posts for you over the coming week or so – and this is one such post. But I hope you’ll appreciate that we’re not going to go overboard on the Christmas stuff because it’s hard to feel truly festive with so much work on the agenda.

Optimus has got his hat on

Optimus is more ready for season than we are.

My absolute favourite Christmas tradition is decorating the tree. We have a lot of individual baubles and trinkets on our tree, some tasteful, some tacky, and it’s always a delight to open the boxes, unroll the bubblewrap and reconnect with these festive knick-knacks after they’ve been in storage for eleven months. I tend to buy a couple of new decorations each year and these little bits and pieces are surprisingly powerful receptacles of memories. Hanging them up once again is a nice way to remember when and where I got them: the shopping trip with my parents, the stall at a convention, the gift from a rarely seen relative. The older decorations also remind me how far we’ve come, recalling mine and B’s first Christmases together many years ago now when we could only fit a few trinkets on the spindly branches of our miniature tree in the damp and weirdly-shaped flat that was our first home together.

Recently Diana from the Part-Time Monster blog did a wonderful post about Christmas decorations and the memories attached to them. I very much echo her sentiment that “the ornaments are like old friends, little tangible reminders of our interests and our life.”   B and I can’t quite match the level of Diana’s very cool Star Trek and Star Wars tree ornaments we do have some fairly geeky stuff amongst our festive branches. Here are a couple of my favourites…

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Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Robo Reads

Title: Speak
Author: Louisa Hall
Published: 2015

Quotation: “With or without my intervention we were headed towards robots. You blame me for the fact your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is that my fault for making a too human doll? Or your fault for being too mechanical?”

This book popped up in my Amazon recommendations a while back and immediately piqued my curiosity. When I saw that it was about robots (one of my favourite subjects) and that critics were describing it as reading “like a hybrid of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood” (two of my favourite authors) I had to get it!

Cover art for Speak

Cover art for Speak

It easy to see the roots of both comparisons. Speak is a work of literary science fiction. Like several of Atwood’s best novels, its setting is near future and rather dystopian and the narrative has a powerful interest in marginalised voices. Turning to the voices themselves: the novel is arranged, Mitchell-like, as a series of distinct narratives, told by an extremely diverse group of characters. Mary Bradford is a young 17th-century puritan woman unwillingly married and voyaging to the New World, she pours her hopes and fears into her secret diary. Alan Turing is, well, I’m sure you know who Turing is, the AI theoretician and codebreaker is the novel’s only historical inclusion, and he expresses himself here through a series of (imagined) letters to the mother of a deceased childhood friend. Karl and Ruth Dettman are an increasingly estranged married couple, Jewish refugees and academics (respectively a computer scientist and a historian) who prepare monologues to each other as more direct forms of communication break down.  Gaby White is a teenage girl who has been left isolated and paralysed by a strange and debilitating illness, trapped within her room and within herself she converses with an online chatbot called Mary3. Finally, Stephen R. Chinn is a silicon valley whizkid composing his memoirs from prison where he has been sent for creating, “babybots” robot dolls that have been deemed illegally lifelike.

Intrigued? I certainly was. Speak‘s ventriloquism is never quite was polished as that of David Mitchell and its dystopian world building isn’t as considered or expansive as you find in works like Atwood’s Madd Addam trilogy but for a sophomore novel, it’s an impressive read. Poignant and often heart-breaking this is a gripping exploration of communication, loneliness and what it means to be human… Continue reading

Humanised characters? Cosplay ponderings

So what are your thoughts on humanised cosplay? Seen frequently within fandoms such as Pokémon, My Little Pony and – recently – Five Nights at Freddies, this is the phenomenon of creating a human – or at least humanish – version of a non-human character. In the anime scene I believe this often called Gijinka (擬人化), the Japanese term for “humanoid”, “personification”, or“anthropomorphic.”  I have mixed feelings about it. Just my personal opinion, and call me a prude if you will, but I’ll admit I’m not much of a fan of the kind of humanised cosplay that is just a thinly veiled excuse to be wear a swimsuit or parade around in lingerie. I’ve no problem with sexy cosplay where the character themselves is sexy or skimpily dressed in the original designs. But let’s face it, we’re not exactly lacking in choice of characters who fit those criteria, so I’ve never quite understood the need for a furry bikini Chewbacca, or a swimsuit Ivysaur either. But where the point is to re-imagine a character and try to capture their essence rather than just recreate the whole look, I think humanised costumes can be a really interesting and creative form of cosplay.

I am planning to do another reasonably bulky “full rig” Transformer costume for 2016, hopefully building on what I learned while making Slipstream and coming up with something even better. I also recently obtained some Worbla for the first time, so it’ll be interesting to have a go at using this (expect lumpen disaster photos in the not-too distant future). I’ll talk more about the character I’ve chosen and start chronicling my progress here another time. But alongside the big project, I’ve also been pondering having a go at some more “humanised” cosplay. Why? Various reasons really…

I've been sketching and scheming! See below for the results...

I’ve been sketching and scheming! See below for the results…

This post is going to be a bit of a thought dump as well as the chance to share some sketches and plans.

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Toy Review: Combiner Wars Mirage

So, when the Combiner Wars toyline reached the UK I wasn’t massively impressed. All the figures looked a bit same-y to me, perhaps because the Aerialbots were (mostly) the first wave to arrive, and they’re all jet planes. I liked the Optimus Prime, but I wasn’t impressed with much of the others. I decided to just buy any figures who stood out and looked interesting, rather than try to collect a whole team. (I figured early on that this policy would produce an anomalous result towards the end of this year: “known Decepticon sympathiser” AddAltModeR loves all the Combaticons, so the whole team have been pre-ordered.)

Autobot-wise, I’ve been largely disappointed. Among the Protectobots, only First Aid tickled my fancy, and among the current wave, which is made up of previously non-combining characters joining to form a new combiner called Ultra Prime (I appreciate the RID2001/Car Robots reference!), I’ve only really liked Mirage. Now, Mirage is a re-tool of the Decepticon Drag Strip, with a new head that more closely resembles the G1 cartoon version of Mirage, and a white colour scheme. I didn’t like Drag Strip much, on the grounds that he’s super-garish: lemon yellow and magenta is not a tasteful combination. Mirage is, suitably for a robot aristocrat, a much-more classily-attired bot.

Mirage in-pack. He comes with a sword, a giant hand/foot, and a comic.

Mirage in-pack. He comes blister-packed on a card with a sword, a giant hand/foot, and a comic.

So, my thoughts on this figure… Continue reading

Book Review: Robot Takeover by Ana Matronic

Robo ReadsTitle: Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture and Real Life
Author: Ana Matronic
Published: Octopus Books: 2015

Ana Matronic is most renowned as the female vocalist in American disco/glam rock band Scissor Sisters. Now it would take a heart of stone and feet like lead weights to remain entirely unmoved by the bands’ supremely ear-wormy toe-tap inducing tunes, but as I’m not a particular follower of their genre of music in general, I confess I hadn’t realised until recently that Matronic is also huge robot fan. On reflection, her (wonderful) choice of moniker and the large tattoo of circuity on her arm really should have clued me in already. But any gaps in my knowledge of or appreciation for Matronic’s interest in all things robot (which I very much share) have now been filled by the arrival of this stylish coffee table volume.

Robot Takeover book cover

Robot Takeover book cover

In Robot Takeover Matronic collects and discusses 100 of the most iconic robots, mixing characters from myth, history and pop-culture with real products of scientific invention. Her passion for the subject gleams like polished chrome from every page. With me, of course, she was preaching to the converted, but her enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless and the chatty warmth of her tone provides a wonderful counterpoint to the stereotypically cold mechanical reserve of some of the characters she discusses.

The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favourite things. When people ask, ‘why robots?’ I can get a bit confused. Doesn’t everybody love robots?

If you’re already one of Matronic’s “everybodies” then this book may not offer you too much in the way things you didn’t know, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride and the chance to reminisce on a few pop-cultural favourites as well meeting some new mechanical faces. If you’re a member of that hard-to-compute group who don’t love robots, well realistically I guess you’d be unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. But if you do take the plunge you’ll find a great introduction to why robots matter as well as to the important understanding that a “takeover” need not always be a negative thing…

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Toy Review: Fansproject WB004 Revolver Core

Recently, I had a nice eBay windfall; I got a really good deal on a Fansproject 3rd-party not-Transformer called WB004 Revolver Core. One of a group apparently called the Warrior Robot Exo-suit Collective who Kill Evil Robots. Well done with that acronym, guys: Wreck’n’Rule!

Totally not Roadbuster.

WB004 Revolver Core, Fansproject. His previous owner put on that Autobrand.

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Book Review: The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Robo Reads

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Author: Hiroshi Yamamoto
Translator: Takami Nieda
Published: (Kindle Edition) 2011

Quotation: Why were there so many stories about robots and humans fighting? Did they only exist because that was how mankind had always lived? Did we simply see ourselves in these humanoid machines?

The Stories of Ibis presents a sequence of five short stories and two slightly longer ones, each exploring human relationships with artificial intelligence, or with other humans in a technologically-enabled world. Hugely diverse in setting, the subjects include the following: a group of bulletin-board users collaboratively imagining the adventures of a Star Trek-like fictional space crew (“The Universe on my Hands”); a tale of told by artificially intelligent space station on the edge of a black hole that provides a final stop-off for the adventurous and the suicidal (“Black Hole Diver”); there’s even a bubblegum anime-inspired world populated by powered up AI school-kid fighters (”A World Where Justice is Just”). Each tale stands alone, but scaffolded by an introduction and series of intermissions in which characters reflect on the story they have just heard, the stories combine to offer an impressively original exploration of the possibilities and perils of humans creating artificial life.

Kindle Edition cover

Kindle Edition cover

The creation of autonomous robots and the consequences of this for humanity as a species is a topic to which sci-fiction returns time and again. Yet Yamamato’s work never feels stale precisely because of the extent to which it recognises this fact. Artificial intelligences like the titular Ibis – the female AI who narrates each of these wide-ranging tales, rather like a robo-Scheherazade – are not simply the product of technical advancements, they are also born from stories and fictions that first imagined them. More concerned with language and psychology than engineering, this collection acknowledges the creative power of story telling, particularly those yarns spun about robots…

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