Unicron’s Faster-Than-Light Travel Method

What kind of thoughts keep the strange minds at chez AddAltMode up at night? Well, we have relatively few skeletons in our closet, and no strong phobias, so it’s mostly the eccentric stuff; by which we mean musings on 30-year-old movies about robots.

In The Transformers: The Movie, the planet-eating monster Unicron appears to be able to traverse interstellar distances very quickly and with great ease. It is clear that Unicron possesses some sort of faster-than-light (FTL forthwith, due to laziness) engine.

Unicron devours the planet Lithone. © 1986 Sunbow Productions, Marvel Productions, and Hasbro.

Unicron devours the planet Lithone. Presumably, he got to where Lithone was from where we was previously at faster-than-light speeds, or else they’d’ve seen him coming and evacuated earlier.

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Game Review: Endless Legend DLC: Shifters, and the others

So, a little while back I posted a review of Endless Legend, a 4x-type strategy game by Amplitude Studios. Well, they recently released a new DLC pack for it, called Shifters, so I thought I’d throw in my tuppence-worth…

The title screen for Shifters neatly includes silhouettes of all the cool new things included in the DLC.

The title screen for Shifters neatly includes silhouettes of all the cool new things included in the DLC. Highlighted, from left: The Allayi’s skyfin unit, an Altar of Auriga, Allayi armies and Pearls of Auriga.

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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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Video Game Review: Endless Legend

From the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “epic”:

adj. 2 Heroic or grand in scale or character:

  • his epic journey around the world
  • a tragedy of epic proportions

adj. 2.1 informal Particularly impressive or remarkable:

  • That gig last night was epic

“Epic” is an adjective that gets bandied about with irksome regularity these days; just this morning I overheard a colleague rhapsodising that the fish and chips he had last night were “epic”. So it’s a nice change of pace to actually be able to use it appropriately.

Look at the little dragons and armies! =)

Endless Legend’s Splash image from the Steam Store.

Endless Legend is a 4X strategy game (of the ilk of the Civilization series) made by a firm called Amplitude Studios, and set in a science-fantasy universe, with asymmetrical victory conditions and unique player factions. It is, quite frankly, epic, both in the sense that it is grand in scale, and in the sense that it’s really quite impressive. Continue reading

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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The Steampunk Yule Ball 2015

If real life had achievements the same way many video games do then last weekend I would definitely have unlocked some good ones! Participate in a massive Steampunk conga line? Check: achievement unlocked! Get up onstage and dance alongside the legendary Professor Elemental? Check: very fun and happy achievement unlocked!

These antics are all courtesy of local alt-rock / steampunk band, The Mysterious Freakshow, who for the past three years have organised annual Yuletide Steampunk extravaganza at Exeter Phoenix. This year’s event took place last Saturday and it was bigger and more enjoyable than ever, lining up an eclectic array of performers (and proving that Steampunk is one of the most enjoyably eclectic of genres), spreading some seasonal cheer (including plenty of yuletide spirit of the alcoholic variety) and of course, offering a wonderful excuse to get really dressed up. There were some wonderful costumes and everyone was welcome from the very finest bustled Victorian ladies, via crazy mad scientist looking-types, to military gentlemen and even a steampunk Mandalorian (none other than our pal Exeter Cosplay).

The evening's programme of entertainment

The evening’s programme of entertainment

Two of my favourite social activities are going to geek conventions (especially when in cosplay) and going to gigs and music festivals. The Steampunk Ball is one of my favourite nights of the year because it feels like the place where these two wonderful things collide. It’s a music event with some really interesting and talented bands performing, but it also has a bit of a nerdy convention feel to it too…

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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

Game Review: A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight

Type of game: Text / interactive fiction
Written by: Heather Albano
Published by: Choice of Games
Year: 2015
Played on: Steam

Exercising your brain, and your conscience rather than your aim and your reflexes, text-based interactive fiction games make an enjoyable change from the more graphically intensive FPS games and action RPGs that I tend to play the most. Choice of Games have published some real crackers in this genre – Choice of Robots, particularly, remains not only one of my favourite games and favourite reads, but one of my downright favourite experiences – so it’s great that so many more of the publisher’s outputs are becoming available on Steam, both games from their back catalogue and new releases. Heather Albano’s A Study in Steampunk, falls into the latter category, a brand new game released with the following blurb:

Steam-powered mechs meet forbidden sorcery in this interactive steampunk novel, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, and Jack the Ripper!

Given my love for the mecha, for the steampunk aesthetic, and for all things Victorian-noir, this was an insta-buy for me. Did it live up to its promise?

A Study in Steampunk: title screen

A Study in Steampunk: title screen

Let’s survey the evidence, shall we Watson?

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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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