Archive for the ‘Evolutionary Theory’ Category

Did the Tories Start an Advertising Campaign to Discredit Sociology in the 1970s-80s?

October 9, 2017

I heard this from a friend of mine, who has an MA in Cultural Studies. He told me that in the 1970s, the Tories paid Maggie’s favourite advertisers, Saatchi & Saatchi, to start an advertising campaign designed to discredit sociology. The Tories wanted to turn the British public against the subject by presenting it as an intellectually fraudulent pseudo-subject, dominated by Marxists. To do this, Saatchi & Saatchi placed comments sneering at, or otherwise disparaging the subject in other adverts. One of these, my friend claimed, was the advert for BT with Maureen Lipman, in which the actress is delighted that her son has got an ‘ology’, in this case a qualification in sociology.

Cultural Studies arose as a reaction to it, combining some social history with feminist and left-wing cultural criticism, including the French postmodern philosophers Julia Kristeva, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. While there was a reaction against postmodernism in the 1990s, such as in Michael Sokal’s and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures, Cultural Studies was left largely alone. This was because it’s research and conclusions were qualitative, rather than quantitative. It presented a series opinions on the nature of society, but, unlike sociology, it was not dominated by statistics, which had the potential to show unpalatable truths that the Tories would like to hide.

I’d be interested in finding out more about this. For as long as I can remember, sociology has had that image of a non-subject, taught in modish redbrick universities by Communists. And it’s true that Marx has been called the founder of sociology because of his research trying to show how the economic structure of society determined its overall form. However, others have suggested that the origins of sociology go further back to Auguste Comte, an atheist, who wished to establish a ‘religious of humanity’ with its own rituals and priesthood, and who also advocated the use of statistics for investigating social conditions.

One of the other major influences on sociology was Emile Durckheim, the founder of fuctionalism. This is the view that society functions somewhat like a machine or organism, with different parts of it performing different functions according to the needs of society as a whole. From what I understand, Durckheim was a socialist, but not a Marxist.

There’s also a very strong relationship with anthropology, which began long before Marx, and whose major 20th century influence was Boleslaw Malinowski. Malinowski was the creator of ‘participant observation’, the view that anthropologists should ‘get off the missionaries’ veranda’ and live amongst the people they are researching, in order to experience their way of life and see the world and their culture from their point of view. Or as close to it as possible. Ethnographers don’t just research the lives and customs of primal societies in the Developing World. They are also active researching different social groups and subcultures in developed countries like Britain, America and Europe. One aspect of this project was the establishment of Mass Observation in the ’30s. This was founded by a group of anthropologists, who complained that less was known about the lives of ordinary people in this country, than about tribes in remote Africa or Asia, for example. They therefore set about trying to correct this by carrying out research into what ordinary working class Brits were doing.

Some of this research was very bizarre. A book came out on Mass Observation in 1985, and I can remember reading a review of it in the Observer. One bit of research consisted of one of the anthropologists going into the toilets in a pub and timing how long it took the men there to use the urinal. I wonder how the man avoided being beaten up, or arrested. Nevertheless, they did much valuable research, some of which formed the basis for the first television documentaries on the British working class made in the 1950s.

And even in the 1980s, not every Tory stalwart was convinced that sociology was dominated by Commies. I can remember reading a piece in the Torygraph in 1986/7, in which one female Tory stated that while sociology had a reputation for left-wing jargon and viewpoints, ‘there was nothing more Conservative’.

The story that the Tories made a deliberate effort to discredit sociology isn’t one that I’ve heard before, but it does ring true. As does my friend’s opinion that they left Cultural Studies alone because it didn’t back up its critique with statistical facts, or at least, not to the same extent as sociology. Robin Ramsay, the editor of Lobster, has said there that it seemed to him that postmodernism was a retreat from actively critiquing and combating modern capitalism and Conservatism. Instead of presenting a clear expose of the way elite groups and corporations ran governments in order to reinforce the class structure and keep the working class, the poor and other marginalized groups in their place, exploited at the bottom of the social hierarchy, postmodernism instead produced mountains of largely unreadable and intellectually pretentious text, much of which was deliberately obscure. The leading postmodernists were left-wing, but the obscurity of their prose meant that to some they had little to say of any real political value. That was the attitude of Michael Sokal, a scientist of very left-wing opinions, who had resigned from his career in American academia to teach mathematics in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.

In recent years Cultural Studies has been attacked by the right in its turn. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have declared that it, and related subjects, are full of Gramscian Marxists attacking traditional western society in order to introduce Communism. This has in turn resulted in anyone, who offers any kind of left-wing critique of Conservativism or traditional western society being denounced as a ‘cultural Marxist’.

My friend was convinced that the Saatchi campaign against sociology was part of a wider Thatcherite assault on intellectual freedom in the universities. Thatcher was rabidly anti-Communist, and passed legislation that tried to make it illegal for Marxists, or members of Marxist organisations, to hold tenure at universities. Hence the rise of people calling themselves ‘Marxian’. It was a legalistic device by which academics, who held Marxist views, described themselves as ‘cultural Marxists’, that is, people who had a Marxist culture, which allowed them to hold on to their jobs.

If it is true that Maggie and the Saatchis tried to discredit sociology, then it shows just how afraid the Tories were of their favourite economic theories being discredited by inconvenient fact. As indeed they have been for a very long time. I can remember how they began redefining unemployment to create the false impression that it had decreased when I was at school back in the 1980s. It also shows how deeply, profoundly anti-intellectual Conservatism is. There’s no particularly surprise there. The philosopher Roger Scruton in his book on the new Conservatism in the 1980s stated quite clearly that it wasn’t intellectual, but based on respect for tradition. And more recently we’ve seen a succession of Republican administrations in America attacking the teaching of evolution in schools and trying to suppress the evidence for climate change.

The Tories don’t just rely on propaganda and distorted news to support their rule. They have also been actively engaged in censoring and using propaganda in order to spread ignorance and misinformation against established academic disciplines. Their goal is to keep ordinary working people poor and uninformed. They are a party of anti-intellectuals, who aim to rule partly by spreading stupidity and ignorance.


RT’s Establishment Club Road Trip Bus Comes to Bristol

August 14, 2017

Russia Today are sending their Establishment Club bus on a road trip around the country. The name, if I’m not mistaken, is a homage to the satirical club run in the 1960s by the late, great Peter Cook, and which also displayed the talents of John Bird and John Fortune, who continued making satire with Rory Bremner on his show in the early 2000s. The bus, which is appropriately red, was looking for the best satirical talent around the country. Further auditions are planned for Brighton, Edinburgh and Newcastle.

Compered by Keith Allen, a stand-up comedian and the Sheriff of Nottingham on the Beeb’s recent remake of Robin Hood, as well as the father of pop star Lily, this short, five minute video shows some of the talent they had come aboard when they stopped in my home city of Bristol.

There are four or five performers. One chap does two pieces, including a skit at the end about how the Beeb selectively edits interviews with the general public to create the impression it wants, in this case with a drunk, who needs to be coached before associating Brexit with immigrants, before this is edited to show how Britain is alive with racism. Another fellow sings a song on his ukulele about the Fuhrage’s plane crash. May favourite is the man, who recites a poem about the dismantlement of the welfare state. This piece calls it as it is and identifies the social Darwinism underpinning the policy – he sings about ‘Mr. Darwin’s little theory’. Which might be a little unfair to Darwin, as it was formulated by Herbert Spencer.

Allen did raise a few eyebrows, and appear in the press last week, when he attacked the current state of British stand-up. Using his characteristic earthy language, he said it ‘needed a cattle prod to the bollocks’ because of the careerism amongst too many contemporary comics. All they wanted to do, according to him, was tell jokes about the colour of Trump’s hair, and then get on a panel show.

Buddy Hell over Guy Debord’s Cat has, as another comedian, also lamented the decline in the quality of prospective comics. He has said that all too often they simply recite their life history, without actually being funny or making a joke.

I’m sure there are more genuinely funny people out there, and wish Allen and the RT team every success in finding and nurturing the next crop of comedic talent. Talent that will tear great, bloody chunks off the establishment and its monstrous edifice of bureaucratic indifference, corporate greed, and institutional class hate.

Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Buzz Aldrin in Physical Pain at Trump’s Rambling Speech about Space Programme

July 6, 2017

Donald Trump has alarmed scientists and laypeople with the anti-science stance of his administration. They’re alarmed at legislation he’s passed allowing the teaching of evolution and climate change as fact to be challenged in schools, who may also be compelled to teach Creationism and present the arguments of the lobbyists in the oil industry that deny the reality of climate change.

Trump’s comments about space also appear to have caused serious pain to Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin is a genuine American hero. He was the second man to step out on the Moon after Armstrong. He was deeply religious. A devout Roman Catholic, her age himself Holy Communion while on the lunar surface, but afterwards became more ‘New Age’ in his beliefs. He has also been a committed champion of America’s space programme and of opening up the High Frontier to ordinary folks.

In this clip, David Pakman discusses the very pained expressions crossing the old flyboy’s face at Trump’s rambling speech. Trump was passing legislation supposed to reaffirm and strengthen the American space programme. It’s clear from his comments that Trump himself actually doesn’t have a clue about space. At one point, after he signs the piece of legislation, one of his aides remarks ‘To infinity and beyond!’

This, of course, is the watchword of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear. However, Trump fails to recognise the quote, and thinks it’s about the law, commenting, ‘It is infinity. Well, it could be infinity.’

And when Trump does for a moment appear to understand what he’s talking about, it’s actually quite sinister. At one point he starts talking about how space exploration will benefit American industry.

Well, space does indeed have the potential to benefit industry. There are substances, such as ultra-pure crystals, that are difficult to create on Earth, but can be made much more easily in microgravity. But that’s not what Trump’s talking about.

What the Orange Buffoon is talking about is how good space will be for American defence contractors, which raises the horrendous issue of the militarisation space, which is prohibited under international law.

Pakman comments about how, after his immense achievement in landing on the Moon, and then having his patience tested by a conspiracy theorist, who challenged him with the statement that he hadn’t really gone to the Moon, the 87-year old spaceman now looks as though he’s really in physical pain at Trump’s incoherent speech.

Unlike the conspiracy theorist, Trump did actually walk away from his meeting with Aldrin. The challenge to the old astronaut’s integrity and achievement was too much for him to bear, and he decked the offender. Clearly, Aldrin has too much respect for the presidency to hit its current incumbent. But it seems very clear Trump’s ignorance was a bit too much for him.

Counterpunch on the Dangers of the Driverless Car

July 1, 2017

Ralph Nader in an article posted on Tuesday’s Counterpunch took to task the current hype about driverless cars following a day long conference on them at Washington University’s law school.

Driverless cars are being promoted because sales are cars are expected to flatten out due to car-sharing, or even fall as the younger generation are less inclined to buy them. Rather than actually investing in public transport, the car industry is promoting driverless automobiles as a way of stimulating sales again.

Nader is rightly sceptical about how well such vehicles will perform in the real world. There are 250 million motor vehicles in the US. This means that real driving conditions are way more complicated than the simple routes on which these vehicles are developed and tested. And while the car industry claims that they will be safer than human-driven vehicles, the reality is most people won’t want a car that they can’t control, whose guiding computer can malfunction or which could be hacked into, whether by the manufacturers or others. Along with such vehicles come increased pressure from the manufacturers for less protective regulation for their drivers, passengers and the general American public.

As for developing a driverless car, which can be taken over by its human occupant in an emergency, researchers at MIT have already shown that this won’t work. Instead of producing driverless cars, we’d be better of concentrating on creating vehicles that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

He concludes

The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades in favor of a technological will-o’-the-wisp.

He also links to a report by Harvey Rosenfeld into the dangers posed by driverless cars. It’s quite long – 36 pages. This makes it very clear, however, that driverless cars are disastrous. They’re literally a car crash waiting to happen. The report also claims that much of promotion of such vehicles comes from the insurance. Although driverless cars are likely to be much less safe than ordinary cars, the claims that they will be less liable to accidents will allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those driving ordinary vehicles.

Driverless cars have been under development since the 1980s, but I can’t see them becoming a viable reality any time soon. Last year the industry proudly announced two types of driverless car, one of which was called the Tesla, after the great Serbian physicist and inventor of Alternative Current. These were withdrawn after accidents in which people were killed.

I have to say, I don’t know anybody who wants one. The various pieces I’ve read about them say that for their owners, using them will actually be quite boring. This is despite the claims that people will be able to read, work or relax instead of driving. But you can do all of that anyway by simply travelling by bus, rail or tube.

Then there’s the threat of unemployment. Two-thirds of all jobs are expected to be lost to automation in the next decade. There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. That’s 40,000 people, who may lose their jobs if driverless lorries are every produced. And they have been trying to develop them. I can remember Clarkson nearly bursting with excitement while riding in one during an episode of Top Gear a few years ago.

My guess is that the reasons behind their development is far more sinister, and almost certainly connected to the military. For years the military has been trying to develop autonomous, robotic weaponry. I’ve blogged about some of the war robots that have been created and which were featured a few years ago in the popular science magazine, Frontiers. These included various types of jeep, which had been altered so that they carried guns. Such machines have been under development for a very long time. Kevin Warwick, a robotics scientist at Reading University, describes how the US army created a robotic jeep equipped with a machine gun way back in the 1950s. This looks like another step along the way to producing the type of autonomous war robots, which Warwick and some other robotics scientists fear may pose a very real threat to the human race as they become more advanced and their intelligence greater. We are creating war machines very close to the Daleks of Dr. Who or The Terminator franchise.

It also seems to me that the navigation software and computer hardware needed for driverless cars will also find a major general applications in other types of robot. Despite claims by some neuroscientists that the human brain is a load of inefficient ‘kluge’ created by blind evolutionary forces that select for survival, rather than particular skill, cyberneticists have found it very difficult in practice to replicate the way living things, from insects all the way up to humans, actually navigate their way around the world.

Think about the way robots have to work their way around objects. They have to estimate exactly how far away the obstacle is, then work out a path around it, all done using maths. A human, meanwhile, rather than estimating how many steps it takes to the object, and then planning a path of some many steps, precisely laid out, are needed to walk around it, simply does it.

An example of how difficult robots actually find such navigation in practise was given by Warwick when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Science over a decade ago. There’s been a kind of robot Olympics held in Reading. The various competing teams had tried to produce robots that could navigate their own way around the town. Warwick’s team had created a robot with an infrared detector, which would simply follow the light source planted on the back of the human running in front of it. Which to me sounds very much like cheating.

All went swimmingly, until suddenly the robot veered off the road and started shooting off somewhere else entirely, before it collided with something, fell over and stopped. Warwick and his team wondered what happened until it finally occurred to them that the robot had fixed on that big, infrared light source in the sky, the Sun, and ran off trying to pursue that.

This was a decade or so ago. I’ve no doubt that things have improved since, but I doubt that they’ve improved quite so much that driverless cars, or completely autonomous robots, are going to be appearing in the next few years.

And until they do, I shall be very suspicious of the hype.

Chicago University Bans Alt-Lite Speaker for Incitement to Violence

May 18, 2017

There’s a grim piece by Simon Murdoch on Hope Not Hate’s site today, reporting that DePaul University in Chicago has cancelled an event by Gavin McInnes because of a speech McInnes gave at one of the unis in New York urging his supporters to use violence against left-wing protestors. The article also discusses the formation of a militant ‘Alt-Knight’ organisation by another member of the same far-right grouping, which also shows how the Alt-Right and its ‘soft’ counterpart, the Alt-Lite, are becoming just another form of the Klan.

McInnes is the co-founder of Vice and a host on Rebel Media, a far right platform. In his speech at New York University, McInnes told his audience

“We’re the only ones fighting these [protesters] and I want you to fight them, too […] When they go low, go lower. Mace them back, throw bricks at their head. Let’s destroy them.”

Last year, 2016, he also founded Proud Boys, a fraternal order for men, ‘who are unapologetic about creating the modern world.’ Initiation into the organisation consists of four stages, the last of which is a physically violence confrontation with the Left. McInnes told Metro that this means involvement in ‘a major fight for the cause’, saying “You get beat up, kinck [sic] the crap out of antifa”.

He also told Metro that “not only would [he] love to speak” with those who protest in disagreement of his views, but that he will also “get violent and beat the f–k out of everybody”.

Members of the Proud Boys were involved in the violence at Berkeley, which erupted when Anne Coulter was due to speak there. The order also has a more ‘militant’ wing, founded by Kyle Chapman, who goes by the name of ‘Based Stick Man’, with McInnes’ approval. This calls itself the ‘Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights’. Chapman himself was arrested after fighting a member of the public at a rally in Berkeley. Before that, he had also been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon at a Trump rally.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear members of the far-right advocate violence against their opponents on the Left. It’s always been there, ever since Hitler founded the SA and then SS as the official paramilitary wings of the Nazi party, the squadristi of Fascist Italy, and the ‘Biff Boys’ of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Quite apart from the skinhead boot boys, who form the thuggish hard core of post-War Fascism in Britain, North America and Europe.

As for the Alt-Knights, the Hope Not Hate article states that it refers back to the ‘Alt-Lite’ movement of which McInnes and Chapman are members. Well, perhaps. But it also seems to be a nod to a much older, violently racist organisation: the KKK. The Klan’s full title, or at least one of them, was ‘The Invisible Empire of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’.

The Alt-Right has been described as the Klan with keyboards. Now it seems that the similarities with the KKK are becoming ever stronger and more blatant every day. The other day The Young Turks commented on a torchlight vigil organised by supporters of the Confederacy to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee by the town council of Charlottesville, Virginia. Among those protesting was Richard Spencer, the White nationalist, anti-Semitic founder of the Alt-Right. The protestors chanted ‘You will not replace us’, ‘Russia is our friend’, and ‘Blood and Soil’.

The presenters of the video, Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, state that the comments by the protestors that it wasn’t a racist issue, is contradicted by Spencer’s presence. They also demolish attempts by the supporters of Confederacy, who have tried arguing instead that the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery. They point out that instead of northern liberals not understanding history, it’s really southern Conservatives, as if you look at everything the leaders and defenders of the Confederacy wrote, they made it clear that it was about defending slavery.

This is a sharp refutation of some of the propaganda coming out of organisations like the Von Mises Institute, named after another Austrian free trade economist, who scarpered to America to escape the Nazis, while sharing their hostility to socialism and the organised working class. This outfit has also tried to argue that the Civil War was really about trade tariffs between the South and the rest of the US.

What they don’t comment on, but which makes the racist overtones of the protest very clear, is one of the slogans the crowd chanted. ‘Blood and soil’, or ‘Blut und Boden’ in German, was one of the watchwords of the Nazi party. It was based on the pseudoscientific doctrine that national characteristics were determined by the environment and landscape of a people’s racial homeland.

Observers of Trump’s rise last year remarked on the Fascistic violence that broke out against people of colour and left-wing protestors at the Orange Generalissimo’s rallies. Trump himself in one speech actually urged his supporters to beat his opponents, promising to pay their legal bills if they did.
This development shows just how deeply rooted is violence in the far-right organisations that back him. And they also show how close these organisations are to the older traditions of violent racism in Nazi and Fascist paramilitary organisations and the weird regalia and ritual of the KKK.

NASA Suggests Life Could Exist on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

April 18, 2017

And now for a bit of positive news. In this video from Seeker, the host discusses NASA’s announcement four days ago on 14th April 2017 that the Cassini probe had discovered traces of hydrogen above Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Saturn’s moon is believed to have an ocean beneath its icy surface. The hydrogen is believed to have been produced by hydrothermal vents, like those at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, and have escaped through the ‘tiger stripes’, or cracks in the moon’s ice sheet. This could indicate that life is also present on Enceladus’ ocean floor, as the hydrothermal vents or ‘black smokers’ in Earth’s oceans are also the haven for life. The ecosystems that have developed there are based on methanogenesis, in which hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide to produce energy. The process is believed to have been at the basis of the evolutionary tree of terrestrial life, and may even have been the origin of life on Earth. The presenter states that the probe has not discovered the other two chemicals necessary for the presence of life, sulphur and phosphorus, but these are believed to be present as well.

It is, however, possible that Enceladus is too young for life to have evolved there yet. If life does exist on the moon, Cassini won’t be looking for it either. The probe was not designed to land on Saturn’s moons. Instead, it is scheduled to end its nearly 20 year mission by crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will be crushed by the immense pressures of the gas giant. This was to prevent it contaminating Enceladus or Saturn’s other moons by crashing on them. NASA is planning to send another probe to Saturn in the 2020s. This probe will also investigate Europa, which may be a better candidate for the presence of life. It not only also has an ocean, but is also older, at 4 billion years old, and so may have been around for enough time for life to evolve.

Johnny Ropata on Kevin McDonald and the Anti-Semitism of the Alt-Right

March 22, 2017

This is reblogged from Kevin Logan’s mirror of Ropata’s piece. This is more about the Alt Right and its denizens, I’m sorry to say. In this piece, Johnny Ropata discusses the career and ideas of Kevin McDonald, one of the leading ideologues of the Alt Right and the man dubbed by another leading figure in the movement, John Derbyshire, ‘the Karl Marx of the Alt Right’. McDonald is one of the directors of the American Freedom Party, the neo-Nazi group that publicly endorsed Donald Trump. He was also one of the speakers introduced by the Alt Right’s leader and founder, Richard Spencer, at that notorious conference in the Texas A&M University. From 1985 to 2015, McDonald taught child psychology at the University of California at Long Beach, where he kept at low profile. He did his doctoral thesis on evolutionary psychology, and group selection amongst wolves. He published a series of three books in the 1990s applying his views to Jews – A People That Shall Dwell Alone, Separation and Its Discontents, and the Culture of Critique. In the first book, McDonald lays out his theory that humanity is composed of different groups all competing for resources. The Jews are able to dominate in this, as they have a ‘Group Evolutionary Strategy’, founded on the Talmud as a eugenics text.

Ropata also believes that Jews see Whites as more of an enemy than Muslims, because Muslims are less intelligent and more easily dominated. He considers that Jews are motivated by a bitter hostility towards White, Christian civilisation, based on their own history of persecution, from the destruction of the Temple by the Romans through to the expulsions from Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. In Separation and Its Discontents, McDonald considered anti-Semitism to be rational strategy against Jewish domination, and saw the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany very much along these lines. In the Culture of Critique, McDonald examines Jewish involvement in western 20th century cultural movements, and concludes that they are actively trying to destroy White, Christian society in order to create an order more favourable to them.

Ropata here states that ‘this is straight-up bullsh*t’ without any hard data, and directs his viewers to a detailed critique of McDonald’s rubbish by JHate at He has done little to understand or contextualise Jewish beliefs and practices, and his work is not accepted by scholars. He is simply a crank, and the only people, who take him seriously are other Nazis.

Among his other daft, poisonous ideas, he’s claimed on the David Duke Show on the radio that pornography is the Jews’ revenge for Christian persecution. he has also said that Jews want to set up Soviet-type gulags in the West for White Christians, when these become a minority in America. He bases this on his perception of Jewish involvement in the Russian Revolution and Nazi regime. Ropata says about this ‘This is what projection sounds like.’ After Anders Breivik horrific murder of 77 children at a Young Socialist summer camp in Norway, he wrote on his blog praising the butcher for being a great thinker with good practical ideas on strategy. Ropata also points out that McDonald is dangerous as he has forged a connection between the anti-Semitism of the early 20th century and that of the contemporary Nazi right. In this part of the video, he shows a Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda movie denouncing Jews, even assimilated Jews, of enemies of western civilisation provoking discontent and protest. He also plays a section from ‘The Daily Shoah’, a modern neo-Nazi podcast, whose hosts rant on about Jewish control of the media and how they were responsible for Stalin’s gulags. This ends with the host citing McDonald’s Culture of Critique as a source for further information. He also shows a clip of Richard Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party stating that the ideals of White nationalism did not die in the bunker with Adolf Hitler, but are rising amongst ‘free peoples’ today, and that the Jews are waging a war against western civilisation. Heimbach also was shown pushing around a Black woman at a Trump rally. He regularly speaks at rallies of the American Freedom Party. Another regular speaker at these is the Holocaust denier Mark Weber, of the International Historical Review. He notes that these groups have become emboldened since the election of Donald Trump.

Scientists and Hackers Back Up Climate Data to Prevent Trump Deleting It

January 30, 2017

Here’s another act of resistance against the Trump regime. In this very short video, Farron Cousins from The Ring of Fire explains how, during Trump’s inauguration, a group of 60 climate scientists and hackers got together to go through the US government’s website to back up all the data on climate change. This information is now stored on servers in Europe. The scientists, technicians and hackers did so to prevent the information from being deliberately purged by Trump. The group intends to compare this with future releases of information on climate by Trump and his cronies in order to prevent him from falsifying evidence against climate change.

Cousins makes very short work of Kelly-Anne Conway’s statements that Trump believes in climate change. Conway is Trump’s spokeswoman, and she’s claimed that he believes in it, as he’s talked about it in the past. Well, no, he hasn’t actually. The only time the Permatanned Duce talked about it, he declared that it was ‘a Chinese hoax’.

Cousins shows how the Republicans not only do not believe in climate change, but they confuse it with weather. Conway apparently says that Trump’s aware that climate change is occurring, because the weather also changes. Cousins shows that while the weather does change from day to day, the climate is rather different. But as he says, the Republicans don’t believe climate change is real, because it still snows, so this obviously disproves global warming.

This is excellent news, as Trump has already shown his determination to expunge and falsify information on climate change through imposing gagging orders preventing officials working for the Environmental Protection Agency from publishing data that does not match the Trump-approved party line.

Other scientists are planning to organise a march on Washington as a protest against Trump’s and the Republicans’ attacks on climate science, evolution and renewable energy.

It’s great that so much is being done to defend climate science from attacks from Trump and the Republicans. And this is just one facet of a general movement by millions of people throughout the world against Trump and his policies.

American Scientists Plan March against Trump

January 28, 2017

After the massive numbers of people involved in the women’s marches against Trump held around the world last weekend, American scientists are also planning to organise their own demonstration against the Orange Caudillo in protest at his disastrous environmental and health policies.

In this video, TYT Nation’s Jeff Waldorf discusses a report in Forbes’ discussing the formation of the new group of scientists planning this march. The group has it’s own internet page, and in five days its members grew from 200 to 200,000 +. The group says it will include non-scientists as well as scientists, and is intended to advocate the greater involvement of science in government. It’s purpose is to defend climate science, evolution, and alternative energy. Waldorf states that he too believes strongly that science should be more involved in government. He also quibbles with the phrasing in the Forbes’ article, taking issue with the magazine’s description of the scientists as ‘believing’ in the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel industries. Waldorf argues that scientists’ in these areas don’t believe, because they have proof that oil pipelines, such as DAPL, can rupture, creating massive oil spills and environmental destruction.

Waldorf also argues that, although he understands why people in America’s coal country wish to retain the industry for as long as possible for the sake of their jobs, renewables are now becoming cheaper than oil for the first time. It’s time to move from the horse and buggy to the automobile, is the metaphor he uses. He also notes that 75 per cent of Trumps’ own supporters are also in favour of solar and wind power, and natural gas. Waldorf himself is not in favour of natural gas, as it’s still a fossil fuel, with the environmental problems that poses. At the moment, the movement is still in the planning stage, but hopes to issue a mission statement soon. In the meantime, they state that a government that sacrifices science to ideology is a threat not just to America, but also the world.

I wish the scientists the best of luck in their campaigns against Trump’s attack on climate change and green energy. I think, however, Waldorf has a rather too optimistic view of science. There’s quite a debate in the philosophy of science over what constitutes ‘proof’. In one view, articulated by the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, science advances through falsification. You can’t prove a particular theory. What you do instead is show that other explanations are false. In many areas of science, the observable effects of experiments, may be tiny and ambiguous. This is why scientists have developed very sophisticated statistical methods for sorting through their observations in search of factual evidence that will support or disprove their theories. Thus, at the risk of nit-picking, it might be fairer to say that climate change and environmental damage by the fossil fuel industry is far better supported by the available evidence, than the minority view that no such change or damage is occurring.

I also think you have to be careful about relying too much on science to solve social problems. The British philosopher, Mary Midgeley, in one of her books pointed out that in some areas, what is needed is a social and industrial solution to a particularly issue, rather than scientific innovation. For example, it could be argued that in the struggle against world hunger, what is needed is not new, genetically engineered crops which produce vast yields, but better transportation methods and infrastructure to supply people with the food that has already been grown.

Despite these very minor quibbles, it is true that orthodox, respectable science in the above areas has been under attack for a long time to serve powerful interests in the fossil fuel industries. Trump this week imposed gagging orders preventing scientists and government workers in the Environmental Protection Agency from revealing their findings. Climate change is happening, and is a real danger to America and the globe. But this awareness frightens the Koch brothers and their wealth in the petrochemical industry. So they, and millionaires like them, are spending vast sums to keep the facts from ordinary peeps. America’s scientists are right to challenge this. Let’s hope their march in support of proper science goes ahead and is well-attended.