Lord of the Rings Mania

Wellington is currently in a fit of Lord of the Rings insanity. The World Premiere of The Return of the King is being held here on Monday, and the city is gearing up for the big event. The local papers are already full of gushing reports about stars being spotted in the city and many of the shops are sporting special window displays (regardless of what it is they actually sell in the normal course of things) as there’s a display competition being run by Positively Wellington Tourism. I reckon this well dressed Orc has got to be my favourite so far:

[Orc in a Shirt and Tie]

A set of commemorative stamps have been released to mark the occasion and these are the source of much of the more obvious decoration – from banners adorning the street lights to billboards to vast sheets tied across the fronts of office blocks. The largest depicts Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, hangs down about eight floors from the front of the NZ Postal Service building and has become an icon of LotR-obsessed Wellington, but I prefer the (slightly) more subtle approach embodied by this three-dimensional billboard:

[Billboard in shape of an envelope addressed to Mount Doom containing what looks like the Ring]

There are two cinemas associated with the Premiere, the Embassy and the Reading Cinemas complex, and atop each building perches a Black Rider astride his dragon-like winged steed gazing down balefully on the passing throngs.

[Nazgul atop the Reading Cinema]

There is to be a great big parade on the day of the Premiere winding it’s way through the city to the final stretch of Red Carpet leading up the steps to the doors of the Embassy Theatre. Most of the inner city hotels and hostels are completely booked up and have been for weeks and weeks; had we not sorted a flat this week we might have faced a night in the park on monday!

[Nazgul atop the Embassy Cinema]

It’s quite fun being in a city the size of Wellington when something like this is happening – it’s small enough for the excitment to get everywhere, and you can’t help get a bit caught up in it all even as a visitor. We even had a moments excitement ourselves the other day when we realised that we’d just strolled past one of the hobbits!

Ares Express

By Ian McDonald, 2001, Earthlight, ISBN 0-684-86151-8

Any book with a protagonist named Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th has got to be good, especially when she knows she’s in a story.

In Ares Express, Ian McDonald returns to the rather dreamlike distant future Mars of his earlier Desolation Road (1988). This is a welcome return for all those who enjoyed DR, and AE will not disappoint, although AE is a separate work and only one character makes the crossover between the two.

It’s a fantastical romp through a richly detailed and surreal landscape, strangely believable for all its magical touches. Martian humans are little changed from ourselves, living ordinary lives beneath the barely understood gaze of the Artificial Intelligences that drove the terraforming of the planet. Sweetness is the child of railway engineers, the pilots of the vast fusion-powered trains that link together the disparate cities and communities of the planet. She’s a dissatisfied child for all the pride and arrogance of her clan, for females do not pilot the trains, instead it looks like she’s to be married off into the Stuard clan and a life in their stainless steel kitchens.

Fortunately for the reader, Sweetness isn’t likely to take to this particular destiny without some rebellion, and when she realises that she’s featuring in her very own story, she’s off at right angles to the tracks and into a series of mishaps and lucky escapes that lead her into a search for her dead twin (who lives in mirrors) and ultimately a struggle to save the very fabric of her universe…

McDonald writes vividly. His prose in itself is reason enough to read the book, bringing the strange world to life and entrancing the reader at every step. Sweetness’ own knowledge that she’s living a story might put off those who are not fond of such indulgences, but on McDonald’s Mars, where reality itself is subject to manipulation, it fits right in among all the other weird and wonderful events and beliefs and magical technologies.

Delightfully written, pure escapism – this is one of the best books I’ve read for quite some time. Go and lose yourself among the vast trains, uploaded demi-gods, reality-twisting AIs and insane Cults on McDonald’s Mars.

Images from IMB

A guy called Chris Lynas used to host a website called Excession that had lots of graphics inspired by the work of Iain M Banks.

Feli Vitrouv from Look to Windward

This disappeared from the net a while ago, but it’s now found a new home – at www.fastness.co.uk. There’s some of his older stuff there (including the version of the Salwowski cover of “The State of the Art” (pictured below) and a couple of new bits too, and he promises to keep it updated a bit more often.

Version of Mark Salwowski's State of the Art cover

His images are available in various sizes – suitable for use as desktop wallpapers – and he is fine about use of the images for personal use – details are on his front page.

Demonstrated

Everyone must have seen the pictures from the demo yesterday. Somewhere around 1 million of us shuffing slowly through central London in the freezing cold. It took the best part of four hours to get from Bedford Square to Hyde Park, surrounded by people from all walks of life and all parts of the UK.

I saw no touble, and many high spirits despite the crush and the cold. Although the vast majority of the placards on site were of the mass-produced variety, there were plenty of home made ones too, often with funny and ironic slogans. Respect to the guy on the phone box at the bottom of Shaftsbury Avenue holding aloft his which said “All your bomb are belong to us”, to the utter mystification of many of my fellow marchers.

As is always the case on large demos like this, there were plenty of groups present hoping to get their various messages heard along with the more general anti-war message that the majority had come to support. I was a little troubled by one or two of these, but I don’t think that this is important – the sheer volume of people ensured that no one group could wholly hijack the march for their own agenda. The proliferation of left wing splits reminded me of an incident in Ken Macleod’s The Stone Canal, where the characters are on a similar Peace March (p.82, UK Hardback edition):

My father spotted a young woman carrying a bundle of papers whose headline – no, it wasn’t even that, it was the actual masthead – read “Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!” and asked her in a tone of polite curiosity: ‘Why don’t you fight capitalism, for a change?’

But none of this really matters. What matters is that somewhere between 750,000 and 2,000,000 people were on the streets yesterday to show their disapproval of the coming war on Iraq. Tony Blair suggested on Friday that we ought to think about those in Iraq who would be supressed if they tried to do such a thing, and yes, we should, but that shouldn’t stop us doing it if we feel that it is the right thing to do, whether or not we believe that it will make a difference.

Futurism

In a bizarre story, the BBC reports about a printer adapted to produce 3 dimensional living tissue.

Again via the BBC, President Bush looks set to back NASA’s project to use nuclear propulsion systems in spacecraft. This has the potential to make the exploration of space by either crewed or robotic craft a lot more viable, but is something likely to meet with opposition from anti-nuclear campaigners. Needless to say the news will please those in favour of a human exploration program.

There’s been wide reporting of the discovery of a fossil of a four-winged dinosaur in China. Here’s the New Scientist report and the BBC report.

Researchers at Imperial College London looking into memory and neurofeedback make claims that it might be possible for people to be trained in better recall. Neurofeedback techniques involve showing people their brainwaves on a screen and teaching them how to exert some control over them. (Guess what? via the BBC.)

Bits and bobs

Just posting this stuff for the sake of it really.

Although this has been covered everywhere already, I’ll mention the publication of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a joint online/hardcopy publication which can be downloaded here under a creative commons license. I’ve enjoyed Cory’s stuff before, not to mention Boing Boing, so I’m looking forward to getting into this over the weekend. I reckon that I’ll end up buying a copy too.  (Also available online, at scifi.com, is Jury Service, a collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross, also worth reading.)

Hmm, what else has been going on…

Read a discussion about Palladium and the release of American Megatrends palladium BIOS on Slashdot yesterday. Don’t think I’ll be buying one for my next PC (if I have any choice ;-), and the whole thing makes me feel a bit uneasy.

Had a laugh at dontlink.com, which I hadn’t seen before, and thoroughly approve of.

Got bored in the evenings and started on yet another minor makeover for this blog, this time trying to be a bit more XHTML and CSS orientated.

Going to try and post a couple of more original pieces that have been brewing for a little while at the weekend, too.

Cloning Humans

This topic has been in the news recently what with the announcements from Clonaid that the first two human clones have been born, one in the US and one in Europe. The announcement of the birth of the first clone was greeted with scepticism (BBC report), and a proposed DNA test has now become less likely after a lawyer in the US began a legal action against the “parents”. The birth of the second clone was announced this week (BBC report), and will no doubt be treated sceptically as well.

For those not au fait with the ins and outs of cloning, the New Scientist has devoted part of their website to the subject. These pages include a FAQ and compilations of reports and articles on the subject.

I’m disturbed by the news that human clones have already been created (assuming that they have, and this wouldn’t surprise me). I’m not disturbed by the concept of cloning, and I don’t feel that there’s necessarily anything intrinsically wrong with the cloning of humans, what disturbs me is that the technology is far from being a mature one. The various experiments which have resulted in successfully cloned animals over the last few years have thrown up many questions about the long term viability of clones. Dolly gets arthritis young, cloned mice appear to age rapidly – what’s clear is that we just don’t know enough about this technology to start applying it to humans in an ethical manner.

Research and experimentation on humans is a complex area. In most western countries there are ethical frameworks for it involving concepts of informed consent (an example). I’m not sure how these sorts of rules are usually applied to unborn or unconceived children, but I imagine that it would be difficult to get a program of medical experimentation past many Ethics Committees where the potential consequences were quite so vague and uncertain, and where the actual subject had no chance to give consent of any kind.

Of course out in the real world there are places where and people for whom such considerations are irrelevant and, as has been said many times before, the cloning of humans is probably inevitable. I think that it’s profoundly irresponsible for anyone to have embarked upon this project at this time, and I think that it will ultimately damage rather than improve chances for the technology to be used positively.  I suspect that one factor motivating this rush to produce that first cloned child (rather than money, fame and a place in the history books, of course) was to do it before it became illegal everywhere.  Unfortunately this very action is likely to encourage knee-jerk legislation against cloning technology before we even really know whether it has any potential human applications at all.