November 24, 2008

Little Brother

Review By: Mr. Roboto

Author: Cory Doctorow

Year: 2008

Category: Cyberpunk Books

Available for download or read it online.

Little Brother

Among the latest in CP. In my last book review (The Shockwave Rider), I covered what is undoubtedly THEE prototype cyberpunk work. Now I give you a recent work from one of Boing Boing’s co-editors, Cory Doctorow, as he tells the story of a tech-savvy teen’s battle with Big Brother in a post 9/11 America. Though targeted to a younger audience, old farts out there should give it read as well.


Synopsis. The story is told through the eyes of Marcus Yallow, aka “w1n5t0n,” a San Francisco gamer who ditches school with his friends to participate in an alternate reality game. Things go bad as a terrorist attack mobilizes the DHS, who kidnap Marcus and company and threaten to “make them disappear” if they tell anyone about their captivity and torture. When an injured friend isn’t released, Marcus wages a personal war against the DHS, who have turned the Bay Area into a police state, by using the various technologies available such as Linux for the Xbox and trusted networking.


A Call To Action. A brief essay from Doctorow about his book shows that Little Brother isn’t just a novel written for entertainment; There’s a definite purpose for the book’s existence:

How do kids figure out which search-engine results to trust? What happens to their Facebook disclosures? How can they tell whether a camera, ID check, or rule is making them safer or less safe? In the absence of the right critical literacy tools, they’ll never know how to read a Wikipedia article so that they can tell if it’s credible. They’ll never know how to keep from ruining their adulthood with the videos they post as a teenager, and they’ll never know when the government is making them safer or less safe.

The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition.

The book was intended to get the youngsters to thinking about their security and privacy in a tech-saturated world of paranoia, and to have them and their parental/guardian/mentor units discuss the point of how to better secure liberty and freedom on this prison planet.

Little Brother-UK Cover

For those in the UK, Cory Doctorow will be @ Forbidden Planet London on November 29, 2008 to sign copies of the UK version of the book. Click the pic above for details.


Conclusion. If you or someone you know is old enough to use technology, or needs to know about the consequences of its usage, this book is a necessary read. With the holidays coming up, this book would be an excellent gift for the hacker, gamer, or net surfer in your tribe. It just might open your eyes to the eyes of Big Brother.

This post has been filed under Cyberpunk Books by Mr. Roboto.

High-end VFX production house, 1st Avenue Machine, has created some ads depicting robots and cyborgs as machines that can be atomized into similarly sized parts. As advertising often attempts to reflect simplistic notions of how society understands things, I wonder if this idea is coming in vogue regarding robots and cyborgs. This first sexy little piece was done for Saturn, a Best Buy-like electronics store in Europe:



Far less exciting, but specially interesting is 1stAveMachine’s ad for Adidas:



While definitely cool looking, both of these ads show a fairly strange notion of robots. Nope, no functional decomposition here - its all holographic interchangeable parts, folks. Anyone see this trope emerging anywhere else?

This post has been filed under Internet Short, Cyberpunked living by SFAM.

Puzzlehead screen cap


San Francisco artist Tina Vlach, who lost her left eye in an accident, is now seeking a Webcam for her prosthetic eye. Tina starts off her post with a Donna J. Haraway quote:


“A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”


In an interview with the Washington Post, Tina states:


“There have been all sorts of cyborgs in science fiction for a long time, and I’m sort of a sci-fi geek. With the advancement of technology, I thought, ‘Why not?’”


BBC News

Why not indeed. Donna Haraway’s quote is especially pertinent here in that she is taking social constructions in reality and fiction to inform and potentially shape future advances in the real world. And truly, considering the advances we’ve seen in prosthetic limbs recently, perhaps this is not so far fetched. Just today we’ve heard that the researchers have developed micro-needle array sensors in tungsten carbide, which are around the size of a matchstick head, that will help amputees move artificial limbs with brain power.


And I do love the merging of social software concepts with post-human advances - now we have a call to arms from a needy person looking to have a functional eye again, who is using the latest advances in world communication technologies to put a call to arms to the engineering community. Tina is in essence looking for an augmented reality eye implant to give her a different set of sensory input that was not possible with her real eye.

My favorite part of her post though are the requirements specs:


Specifications: (I just put this together from the research I’ve done about miniature video cameras.)

* MPEG-4? Recording
* Built in SD mini Card Slot
* 4 GB SD mini Card
* Mini A/V out
* Firewire / USB drive
* Optical 3X
* Remote trigger
* Bluetooth wireless method
* Inductors: (Firewire/USB, power source)

External Mobile Application:

* Acts as remote
* Power source
* Feed

Other Advanced options:

* Wireless charger
* Sensors that respond to blinking enabling camera to take still photos, zoom, focus, and turn on and off.
* Dilating pupil with change of light.
* Infrared / Ultraviolet


Um, yeah - lets definitely work on the wireless charger requirement! That solves the need to remove the eye, or to have one of those annoying cords attached to your eye! And in looking at the quality and breadth of the responses to her post, its clear she has motivated a large community of engineers to start working on this problem. Here’s to hoping Tina finds a solution - one which will aid everyone else in her situation.

This post has been filed under Cyberpunked living by SFAM.

Welcome me back folks. BTW, here’s a cool little youtube video floating around now that uses the Matrix to make a commentary on Windows. Considering I just installed Ubuntu on my EEE PC, I thought it appropriate:


EDIT: Regarding the quality of this short, its terrific. Both funny and wonderfully thought out. I found myself laughing numerous times!

This post has been filed under Internet Short by SFAM.

November 16, 2008

Westworld (Not cyberpunk, but a proto-cyberpunk influence)

Movie Review By: Mr. Roboto

Year: 1973

Directed by: Michael Crichton

Written by: Michael Crichton

IMDB Reference

Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: Low

Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: Low

Key Cast Members:

  • Peter Martin: Richard Benjamin
  • John Blane: James Brolin
  • The Gunslinger: Yul Brynner
  • Rating: 2 out of 10

    Westworld Opening

    Feeling burned out from net surfing? Has the grind of cyberpunk turned you cortex to pudding? BOY HAVE WE GOT A VACATION FOR YOU! Come on down to Delos Amusement Park and play with our robots that have been programmed with your safety and enjoyment in mind. NOTHING CAN PUSSIB… POBABAB… POSSIBLY GO WORNG!

    With Michael Crichton’s death earlier this month (04-Nov-2008), I’d thought I’d review one of his most classic movies because of its influence on cyberpunk. Though mostly known for his books-turned-movies like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain and the television series ER, he has also written and directed several movies including Looker and Runaway.

    Westworld primarily focuses on the theme of technology run amok, and very little… if anything… on the rest. Crichton’s theme-park-gone-fubar plot would be repeated in Jurassic Park, while the idea of robots gone berserk would appear a decade later in a low-budget piece featuring a then unknown Austrian muscle man, and in some other cyberpunk flicks since.

    Murphy’s law in action. Delos Amusement Park is a near-futuristic adult playground divided into three areas corresponding to different time periods in world history; RomanWorld, MedievalWorld, and the titular WestWorld (briefly refered to as WesternWorld during an orientation video.

    John Blaine (Brolin) is returning to WestWorld and brings his friend, Peter Martin, along to experience the six-shooting action where a Yul Brynner robot gunslinger is the main attraction. Things go smoothly… for a while. In the underground control centers, the park technicians notice that robot “malfunctions” are becoming more severe, until a guest is killed in MedievalWorld. Then they realize that even in a place where nothing can possibly go wrong, everything can go wrong.

    The Three Laws revisited. While cyberpunk themes are lacking, there is a definite play on Asimov’s Three Laws at work. The First Law (protect humans) is obvious with The Gunslinger, who must always lose the duels he starts. The guns also enforce The First Law with sensors that disable firing when it senses it is pointed at a human.

    The Second Law (obey humans) is seen in WestWorld’s whorehouses and MedievalWorld’s slave girls, who are programmed to comply with sexual advances of the guests. When a MedievalWorld slave girl rejects such a request, the technicians begin to suspect that things are about to take a turn for the worst.

    The Third Law (protect self) is a bit harder to detect. The robots are programmed to put up a fight and will defend themselves… to a certain degree, but will always allow themselves to be beaten by the guests (again, The Gunslinger).

    Gunslinger Upgrades

    The Gunslinger gets a facelift… and some new optics.

    OK, so why not cyberpunk? Other than being released before Bruce Bethke invented the word, what other factors keep Westworld from being a true cyberpunk movie? For one thing, we don’t see much of the world outside the park other than the opening minutes in the hovercraft lounge, so we don’t know what state the world is in. Then again, if average-looking schmoes (for the 70’s anyway) like Blaine and Martin can afford a grand a day to play with robots, the world can’t be in that bad of shape.

    Perhaps the biggest reason why the “not cyberpunk” tag is the biggest weakness in the movie: The question of “Why did the robots go screw-loose?” is never answered. Bad software? Hardware flaw? “Outside” influences? If the question had been answered in this movie, it could have been a true cyberpunk movie… at least, its star rating would have been higher.

    The Gunslinger pursues Martin

    A moment in cinematic history: This chase scene is the first use of computer generated images (CGI) in a movie. Primitive by today’s standards, but groundbreaking for 1973.

    Conclusion. Ever since its release in theaters, Westworld has been a major influence… if not in cyberpunk then certainly in media in general. Influential enough for a sequel (Futureworld), a series, (Beyond Westworld), and now a remake currently in production.

    Just because it’s not cyberpunk, don’t let that stop you from adding this sweet slab of 70’s sci-fi to your collection. It fits with Crichton’s cyberpunk works.

    This post has been filed under 2 Star Movies, Proto-Cyberpunk Media, Android Movies, Cyberpunk movies from before 1980, It's Not Cyberpunk! Mkay?, Movie by Mr. Roboto.

    November 6, 2008

    Trans: Neil Young

    Music Review By: Mr. Roboto

    Year: 1982 (LP), 1998 (CD)

    Artist: Neil Young

    Written by: Neil Young

    Label: Geffen


    Trans: Latin for “across” or “beyond.” Commonly used as a prefix, IE “transcontinental” or “transhuman.”

    Track Listing:
    1. Little Thing Called Love - 3:13
    2. Computer Age - 5:24
    3. We R In Control - 3:31
    4. Transformer Man - 3:23
    5. Computer Cowboy (AKA Syscrusher) - 4:13
    6. Hold On To Your Love - 3:28
    7. Sample and Hold - 5:09 (LP), 8:03 (CD)
    8. Mr. Soul - 3:19
    9. Like An Inca - 8:08 (LP), 9:46 (CD)

    Lyrics via LyricWiki

    Mr. Shakey does cyberpunk? It would seem to be a stretch for Mr. Young to do cyberpunk music, but he did do a little dabbling with electronica and new wave for Trans. Then again, he has been known to try different genres (like grunge music with Mirrorball), and Trans was another musical experiment, one that left his fans scratching their heads in puzzlement. A legendary musician, known for his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and for songs like “Hey Hey, My My,” “Ohio,” and “Southern Man,” had suddenly adopted the radical, synthesized sound of the early eighties.

    Another version of the truth: Trans actually came about as the result of one of his sons being born with cerebral palsy, leaving him unable to speak. Neil found that by using a vocorder, he was able to get the best response from his son. From this experiment, Neil would record Trans using electronics and a vocorder in several of the songs.

    The result: An album that has not only classic sounding Neil Young, but a “futuristic” sound. It’s as if Neil was attempting to bridge two rock eras; The classic seventies and the new wave eighties. The album cover also drives that point home, featuring a street with a rustic fifties scene on one side and an ultra-modern scene across it.

    Let’s see how the music stacks up, shall we?


    Little Thing Called Love. Things start off normally enough for Neil Young fans, with a bouncy little number about… well… a little thing called love. Not much for cyberpunk fans to get excited about… not until the next track anyway…

    Computer Age.

    A fan-made video expressing “the point that technology is taking over the way we run the world but we should question if that is a good or bad thing.”

    This is the first track to feature electronics. A danceable bit about being at ease with the burgeoning new computer technologies (When I see the light, I know I’m more than just a number). Good stuff.

    We R In Control.

    Another fan-made video, this time for the quirky toe-tapper

    As if a quirky video was needed for this quirky number, we seem to have robots proudly claiming to be in control of everything (We control the databanks / we control the think tanks / we control the TV sky / we control the FBI).

    Transformer Man. This track is the most direct result of Neil’s experiments in communicating with his son. A touching and motivational number about taking control of your future (You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with a push of the button) despite not having all the tools needed (So many things still left to do / but we haven’t made it yet).

    Computer Cowboy (AKA Syscrusher). Something about this track really got my attention. It’s a rocking western tune with the vocorder in full effect, about a “computer cowboy” with a herd of “cattle” (a botnet?) who crashes another computer. Considering Trans was released a year and a half before Neuromancer and two decades before anyone ever heard of botnets, could Mr. Young have had the insight to make such predictions about botnets and the correlation between hackers and cowboys? Yippee Yi Ay, mofos!

    Hold On To Your Love. Getting back to his more “traditional” sound, Mr. Young tells us not to give up on love despite the problems it may bring. This is the second “Love” song on the album, but there was going to be a third called If You Got Love and there are pics of how the label might have looked if the track was not dropped at the last second.

    Sample and Hold. Imagine a dating service run by robots, for robots… and the occasional robo-sexual human who wants to go bot. Don’t hesitate to give us a call / We know you’ll be satisfied / When you energize/ And see your unit come alive.

    Mr. Soul. Going back to his Buffalo Springfield days, Neil re-tools a classic rock number into a funky tune about a fan’s letter that says You’re strange, but don’t change. Kind of sums up Mr. Young.

    Like An Inca. The final track returns to Neil’s “classic” sound as the lyrics gives an “apocalyptic” vision (Said the condor to the preying mantis / We’re gonna lose this place just like we lost Atlantis), yet he seems OK with it (I feel sad, but I feel happy / As I’m coming back to home).


    Conclusion. With the electronic gear going on five of the nine tracks, and the technology-based lyrics to those tunes, I have to say Trans is a cyberpunk album. Unlike Billy Idol’s effort a decade later, Neil Young probably didn’t know he was making cyberpunk music since “the movement” was still underground at the time and Neuromancer was still eighteen months away.

    If you’re a Neil Young fan who dissed this album when it first came out, you should give it another listen but with different ears this time around. Cyberpunk fans should hunt this CD down and add it to their collection next to Billy Idol’s CD. If you live in the US, be prepared to pay a bit of a premium for the CD. Geffen re-released it as a CD in 1998 worldwide, except for the US. So it’s considered an import. Plus it’s a rare album, making it a collector’s item. The lowest price I’ve seen on the net is $25 US, not including tax and shipping. I’d say it’s worth it, unless you want try a torrent.

    This post has been filed under Cyberpunk Music by Mr. Roboto.

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