Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.

The Emergence of ‘Cyborg’ Chic?

August 8, 2017

Last weekend’s Sunday People carried a feature, complete with ‘tasteful’ nude piccie, of a former female British squaddie, Hannah Campbell. Campbell, had lost a lower leg while guarding a building in Basra a decade, and was mentally still scarred with PTSD. The accompany photo showed her wearing only Union Flag body paint and her artificial leg.

Aside from the questionable morality of using pictures of women in states of undress to sell newspapers, I’ve absolutely no objection to disabled women – or blokes, for that matter – appearing as sexy or glamorous. I don’t mean in a fetishistic sense, such as amputee fetishism, but simply as people, who remain glamorous and attractive despite their injuries.

But the picture also set me wondering how long it would be before disabled people also became style icons, because of the quality and aesthetic style of their prostheses.

A few weeks ago there was a piece on the news about a company based at UWE here in Bristol, which has developed relatively cheap artificial hands, which people can make for themselves. The designs are only, and I’ve got a feeling some of the components can be manufactured using a 3-D printer. The journos talked to one little chap, who was very well impressed with his new hand. One of the company’s directors also said that they were currently negotiating with Disney for the rights to use some of their characters. They were interested in developing an Iron Man artificial hand, based on the Marvel character’s body armour. I can see children absolutely loving that, and the lad, who wore one of their hands already said that the other kids really admired it. This is great, because the company’s turned something that could easily be a mark of shame – a missing limb, and its artificial replacement – and turned it into something cool.

These two stories have made we wonder how long it will be before models, celebrities, fashionistas and other style icons include those with disabilities, but who have managed to incorporate the latest trends in cybernetic or bionic aesthetics with their own natural good looks or stylish clothes. After all, a few years ago one newspaper, reviewing Britain as the centre of cool design, selected various pieces of technology – I can’t remember whether it was computers or mobile phones – as examples of British design excellence. And just as style is a part of modern computer design, it’s also a factor in that of artificial limbs.

And so there’s the distinct possibility that as the technology advances, so we could see the emergence of a kind of ‘cyborg’ chic, of glamorous people sporting equally glamorous artificial hands and legs. It’d be what the Transhumanists – those extreme technophiles that want to upload their minds into robots and computers – have partly been looking forward to all these years.

On the Selection of a Female Dr. Who

August 6, 2017

The week before last, the BBC finally broke the tension and speculation surrounding the identity of the actor, who is going to play the next Doctor. They announced that the 13th Dr would be played by Jodie Whitaker, an actress, who has appeared in a number of crime dramas. Like many people, I was shocked by this radical departure from tradition, but not actually surprised. The Doctor has been male for the past fifty years, but thirty years ago the Beeb announced that it was considering making the next Doctor a woman as Tom Baker was leaving the role and preparing to hand it on to the next actor. In fact, the announcement was joke dreamed up by the Baker and one of the producers and writing team, and the role went to Peter Davison. The announcement of a possible female Doctor resulted in a few jokes, such as ‘the most painful regeneration of them all’. One of the British SF media magazines – I can’t remember whether it was Starburst or Dr. Who Magazine, then went on to make a serious point, that nothing was known about the Time Lord family, and so it was quite plausible that this alien race could change their genders during regeneration.

I can also remember Mike telling me at the time that there was also a feminist group in the European parliament, who wanted a female Doctor, who would have a male assistant, which she would patronise, in a reverse of the usual situation. The role of women in Dr. Who has been somewhat contentious down the years. Critics, like the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, the author of How To Be A Woman, have criticised the show’s portrayal of women in the Doctor’s companions. She claimed a few years ago on a TV segment about the show that they usually were there to say, ‘But Doctor, I don’t understand’. Others have also made the point that their role tended to be stereotypically passive and traditional. They were to scream when threatened by the monster, and be rescued by the Doctor. It’s quite a controversial statement, though I do remember seeing one of the team behind the Classic Dr. Who saying that there was some truth in it. They had tried to make the Doctor’s female companions less stereotypical, and stronger. So you had Zoe, one of Patrick Troughton’s companions, who was a computer scientist from the future. Romana was a Time Lady, who had majored in psychology at the Academy. In her first appearance in the Tom Baker serial, ‘The Ribos Operation’, it was made clear that she was actually more intelligent than the Doctor, who had scraped through his degree after he retook his exam. Sarah Jane Smith was a feisty female journalist, who was fully prepared to talk back to the Doctor, representing the new generation of independent young women that came in with ‘Women’s Lib’ in the ’70s. And the strongest female companion of them all has to be Leela, a female warrior of the Sevateem, a primitive tribe descended from a group of astronauts sent to investigate a jungle world. Leela mostly wore only a leather bikini, but she was skilled with the knife and the deadly Janus Thorn, a poisonous plant, whose venom killed within minutes. Leela was quite capable of defending herself and protecting the Doctor. In the serial ‘The Invisible Enemy’, for much of the story she is the active member of the team, after she proves immune to the sentient virus that infects and paralyses the Doctor. There were also attempts to introduce strong female villains, such as the Rani, a renegade Time Lady of the same stripe as the Master, but who specialised in genetic engineering and biological transformation rather than mechanical engineering. But the producer or writer conceded that as time went on, these strong female characters tended to become weaker and more stereotypical, so that they ended up screaming and waiting to be rescued by the Doctor.

The stereotypical role of the female companions has become more outdated as traditional gender roles in society have changed, and Science Fiction as a genre began exploring and challenging issues of gender and sexuality. There’s a tradition of feminist SF, which has been present from the emergence of the genre in the late 19th century, but which became more prominent with the rise of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s. A few years an anthology of female utopias, created by late 19th and early 20th century female writers, Herland, was published. It took its title from that of a female utopia described by an early American feminist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. Feminist SF writers include Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her ‘Earthsea’ fantasy novels, and Sheri S. Tepper. Russ is an American academic, and the author of The Female Man. She considers that the rise of the women’s movement is a far more revolutionary and profound social change than space travel and the other technological conventions of Science Fiction. And many of these SF authors, both female and male, have created worlds and species, in which the genders are fluid.

In Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, conditions on the planet on which the book is set are so harsh, that little time is available for procreation. The people there are neuter for most of the time. However, they have a breeding season, during which they may become male or female. However, the adoption of a particular gender doesn’t necessarily recur, so that a person, who is female one season may be the male in the following season, and vice versa. Michael Moorcock also experimented with gender identity in some of his books. The Eternal Champion may be male or female, depending on incarnation. And at the end of the Jerry Cornelius book, The Final Programme, Cornelius is transformed into a beautiful hermaphrodite, which leads humanity to its destruction.

Other SF writers have envisoned futures, where humans are able to transform the bodies in a variety of ways, according to taste, including switching genders. In Gregory Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ novel, Across the Sea of Suns, the crew of an Earth ship sent to investigate the centre of the Galaxy following the attack of the Mechs, a hostile galaxy-spanning machine civilisation, devise special pods, which can remake and refresh the crew. This includes changing gender. And Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels are also set in a future, where humans are able to use technology to switch genders easily. In Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, the bored, immortal rich of the titular city on a world orbiting Epsilon Eridani, are able to use nanotechnology and genetic manipulation to change their appearance, often into outlandish forms. One character, a woman, is called ‘Zebra’, because she has covered her self in black and white stripes, and sculpted her hair into a mane that runs down her back. She tells the hero, Tanner Mirabel, that this is only her latest appearance, and that she will probably change it and move on to another in the future. She also states that she hasn’t always been female either.

In the 1990s there was a particularly strong demand for Science Fiction to challenge gender stereotypes. This was a reaction to the traditional image of the genre as dominated by White males, and focused on issues of surrounding technology and hard science. Thus one of the American SF societies launched the Arthur C. Clarke award for Science Fiction that challenged traditional stereotypes. There has also been a demand for a better representation of women amongst the genre’s writers. The anthology of ‘Dieselpunk’ stories therefore has roughly as many women writers as men.

The exploration of gender roles has also included explorations of sexuality, including same sex attraction. Gay fans of Star Trek in the 1980s hoped that the new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, would include a gay character, a wish echoed by David Gerrold, one of the writers of the Classic Trek series. They were disappointed when the series did feature a story, where Riker becomes romantically involved with a member of the Jnai, an alien race, who have evolved beyond gender, but where it re-emerges occasionally amongst a persecuted culture of throwbacks. Riker becomes attracted to one of these throwbacks, a female, and attempts to rescue her after she is arrested. However, he arrives too late. The corrective treatment meted out to such people has worked, and she is now as sexless as the rest of them.

Gay fans of the series felt that they had been cheated. Instead of a forthright endorsement of homosexuality, they’d been given a kind of half-hearted nod. The issue of gay rights was there, but so heavily disguised that it may as well not have been there at all. They also objected to it on the grounds thta it seemed to reinforce the prejudiced view of opponents of gay rights, who declare that it is about removing gender altogether. This prejudiced was clearly expressed by the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, a couple of years ago on his show, Infowars. Jones ranted that gay rights was a ‘transhumanist space cult’ intent on creating a race of genderless, cyborg people.

Er, not quite.

Gay characters and the exploration of alternative sexuality have been part of Science Fiction since William S. Burroughs’ books The Naked Lunch, and Samuel R. Delaney, a Black American writer, who also uses his novels to explore racial issues. Gay characters and issues of gender and sexuality have also been a strong element in the modern Dr. Who series. Captain Jack Harkness, a time traveller from the future, who became the lead character in the spinoff series Torchwood, is bisexual, and Ianto in the second series of that show was gay. This is probably mainly due to the series having a strong gay following, and that the writer behind its revival, Russell T. Davis, is also gay. For those, who can remember that far back, he was the creator of the gay series, Queer As Folk on Channel 4 in the 1990s.

There’s a sort of inevitability to the news that the next Doctor would be female, as the new Dr. Who series has also experimented with issues of gender roles. In the episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, Matt Smith’s Doctor revealed that the Time Lords changed their gender, when explaining that another Time Lord he knew always retained the tattoo of a serpent on their arm throughout their regenerations, even when they were female. In the series before last, a Time Lord general shot by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerates as female. And then, of course, there’s Missy, who is the female incarnation of the Master. My guess is that these changes were partly used to gauge how the audience would respond to a new Doctor. Once it was shown that most accepted the idea that Time Lords could regenerate as the opposite sex, then the way was clear for a female Doctor.

The show has also several times had strong female leads, while the Doctor has been more passive. Thus, in the last episode of the First Series, ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose Tiler becomes virtually a goddess, mistress of space and time, after peering into the heart of the TARDIS, saving Earth and Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor from the Daleks. Catherine Tate’s character similarly rescued David Tennant’s Doctor from Davros and his Daleks after she gained all his knowledge as a Time Lord. And in one of the stories featuring the revived Zygons, it seemed to me that apart from the Doctor, all the characters in positions of authority – the heads of UNIT, scientists and so on, were all female.

The programme has also experimented with male gender roles. In one story about a year or so ago, one of the characters is a man, who has an alternative identity as a superhero following his childhood encounter with an alien device that can grant people’s deepest wishes. In his normal life, he’s a childminder.

It’s been said that there’s a division between TV and film SF, and literary Science Fiction, with the audience for TV and film uninterested in science fiction literature. I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, and the audiences for the various media clearly overlap. And literary SF has had an influence on Doctor Who. In the 1980s the BBC tried to recruit SF writers to give the series a great connection with SF literature. And several of the stories in recent Dr. Who series have shown the influence of literary SF. For example, in the last series, Earth suddenly became a forest planet, as the trees grew and spread everywhere. This, it was revealed, was to save humanity from some cosmic disaster. This looks quite similar to a book by Sheri S. Tepper, in which trees come to life to save people from danger and disaster. And to me, the name of space station in the last series’ story, ‘Breath’, Chasm Forge, sounds a bit too close to ‘Chasm City’ to be entirely coincidental, although the two stories are very different.

I also think that there have been social and political considerations that may have influenced the decision to make the next Doctor female. As well as the general demand within SF fandom for more women writers and female-centred stories, I got the impression that the audience for SF on TV may have slightly more women than men. This is not to say that the numbers of men watching SF is small – it isn’t – but that the fan organisations may have a very large female membership. I certainly got that impression from Star Trek. If that’s also the case with Dr. Who, then the series’ writers and producers would also want to cater for that audience.

I also think that there’s probably pressure too to create a female character, who would act as a role model and encourage more girls to enter science, particularly male-dominated subjects like Maths, physics and engineering. There have been initiatives to do this before, but they’ve had limited effect. You may remember the video one governmental organisation made a few years ago. Entitled Science: It’s a Girl Thing, this featured attractive young women in lab coats tapping away to a pop tune. Many women, including female scientists, felt it was patronising and demeaning. As the Doctor is very much the hero as scientist, who solves problems through his superior Time Lord scientific knowledge, I think those concerned to see greater representation of women in the sciences would welcome the Doctor’s transformation into a woman.

I have to say that, provided the transition is done well, I don’t think a female Doctor will harm the series. As I said, the rumour that there might be a female Doctor along the way has been around since the last Tom Baker series back in 1980s or thereabouts. If done badly, it could easily reduce the series to farce or pantomime by being just that little bit too incredible, or just plain weird. But the idea of gender-swapping Time Lords/Ladies hasn’t been so far, and from previous experience I think it will be done properly. The series might lose some viewers, but I think many of the real, hard-core Whovians, like Mike, won’t be bothered at all. I hope so in any case, will watch the new series with interest.

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.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

The Euthanasia of the Elderly in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 18, 2017

A few days ago I put up a post about the nightmare, alternative future described by the British SF novelist Stephen Baxter in his novel, Titan. Baxter’s a writer of hard SF, a subgenre in which the fiction is nevertheless grounded in solid, known science fact, though often with an element of artistic license. Titan was written in 1995, and is partly set in the decaying America of the first decades of the 21st century. A militantly anti-science president, Maclachlan, has been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fundamentalists. Maclachlan shuts down NASA for good after a shuttle disaster. The launch complexes are closed down. Those that aren’t demolished become simply tourist attractions, as do the agency’s headquarters and mission control. One of these, a museum to the Apollo moon landings, is altered so that it promotes instead the spiritual experiences many of the astronauts did have during their missions. Maclachlan also introduces legislation demanding that only the Aristotelian cosmology of Thomas Aquinas, with its crystal spheres, is taught in schools. What is left of the agency is given over to the USAF under the paranoid and nationalistic General Hartle, who is very much like the rogue American General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear black comedy, Doctor Strangelove.

Against this, the agency attempts to launch one last, great space mission, a crewed voyage to Titan, where the Cassini probe has found evidence of active biological chemistry.

I commented in my post on the remarkable similarity between the policies of the fictional Maclachlan and Donald Trump. Maclachlan is fiercely nationalistic, and withdraws American peacekeepers from their stations around the globe, as well as pulling America out of NAFTA and the various other free trade agreements. America also pulls out of the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN is kicked out of New York. Like the real anti-Semites of the America Far Right, Maclachlan believes that the US is under ‘Israeli occupation’. Maclachlan also dismantles the country’s welfare programmes, especially those benefiting Blacks and other minorities, and starts building a wall with Mexico.

He also devises a policy to deal with America’s increasingly aging society: euthanasia chambers for the unwanted or neglected elderly. These are euphemistically called ‘Happy Booths’. There’s a very touching scene in which the last, fictitious surviving Apollo spaceman, Marcus White, is gassed to death in one of these chambers by a couple of nurses, who are every bit as malign as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. By this time, however, White is so confused with dementia, that he is lost in the delusion that he is back as a middle-aged man at NASA in his prime, suiting up and breathing the pure oxygen in preparation for another flight to the Moon.

This is interesting, as it completely turns on its head one of the truly despicable pieces of propaganda the Republicans were running ten years ago to make sure the American public didn’t get single-payer healthcare. Instead, we had Sarah Palin and the rest of the maniacs screaming that the introduction of single-payer healthcare, where all Americans would have free medical treatment financed by the state, would lead to ‘death panels’. Palin herself made a speech about how she didn’t want her children facing them. The idea was under a socialist system, medical care would be rationed. Those individuals deemed to be a waste of state money and resources, such as the elderly, would thus be humanely killed.

It was a disgusting piece of propaganda, based partly on the murder of the disabled in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were also pro-euthanasia, producing propaganda forms with titles such as I Don’t Want to Be Born. It was also based partly on the vile views of some of the founders of the Fabian Society, particularly H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who were very much in favour of eugenics and the sterilization of the biologically unfit.

Unfortunately, many Americans were taken in by this bilge. There was a BBC report on the truly horrific state of American healthcare, in which a clinic offering free treatment in California immediately attracted 50,000 + prospective patients. These are the 20 per cent of Americans, who couldn’t afford their private healthcare before the introduction of Obamacare. The Beeb’s reported also attracted the attention of Republican supporters, who’d believed all the rubbish they’d been fed by Palin and her stormtroopers. One of these was an elderly man, who rushed up to the Beeb’s crew and shouted ‘Your healthcare system stinks!’ When they politely asked him how so, he looked confused, and began to mutter about ‘death panels’.

There are no death panels in Britain, or anywhere else with a socialized, or state-funded medical system. As for Germany, state financing of medical treatment for the workers was introduced by Bismarck in the 1870s, nearly fifty years before the Nazis seized power. There is a problem, where dying individuals may be refused treatment of expensive and/or experimental drugs or other procedures on the NHS because the costs far exceed any chance of success. This is very much a controversial issue, as we’ve seen the past week with the parents fighting to send their dying son over to America for treatment. However, there are no death panels.

The ‘Happy Booths’ described in the book are a piece of artistic invention by Baxter. Conventional Christian morality rejects euthanasia for the same reasons it has traditionally ruled out abortion, except in certain very restricted circumstances. This is because both judge that there are certain forms of human beings, such as the unborn and the disabled, who are held not to have the same rights to life. If it is permitted to kill the disabled and the unborn, it is argued, there is a danger that the same attitude will spread to other groups also considered inferior, like the Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ in Nazi Germany. And Baxter is aware of this, as elsewhere in the book he describes how the British relative of one of the astronauts, stricken by CJD or ‘Mad Cow Disease’, is going to a euthanasia clinic even though their parents consider it unchristian.

A president dependent on the support of right-wing Christian fundamentalists would alienate a sizable part of his constituency if he did. What happens instead is that, through its hostility to state medicine and the welfare state, Republican politicians of Maclachlan’s type make it impossible for the poor, severely ill to support themselves. Hence Bernie Sanders’ chilling statistic that 50,000 Americans die each year because they cannot afford private medical treatment.

This is basically the same attitude of Tory party under David Cameron and Theresa May. They have extended the sanctions system and the Work Capability Tests to make it as difficult as possible for the unemployed and the disabled to quality for state support. The result of that has been that researchers at Oxford University found that in 2015 alone, 30,000 people died through the Tories’ austerity policies. And Mike over at Vox Political reported yesterday that, according to the Skwawkbox, there’s a nasty clause in Universal Credit, which means that the claimant has to find a job in two years, or they lose their benefit.


This is a right-wing ‘genocide of the disabled’, as Mike, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Tom Pride and the Angry Yorkshireman have said on their blogs, and Jeffrey, one of the great commenters here, has said on this. But it’s carefully hidden. The victims aren’t actually killed, they’re simply left to die. And the few politicos, who dare to call it what it is, are denied their ability to sit in parliament.

On Friday Mike commented on a piece in the Disability News Service about Mr. Jared O’Mara, a disabled Lib Dem MP, who has called the Tories’ policies towards the disabled ‘eugenics’, and stated that they want disabled people to ‘suffer and die’. Mr. O’Mara is to be commended for the way he tried to tackle Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP and therefore the government’s chief minister responsible for implementing this policy. However, Mr. O’Mara finds it impossible to find anywhere in the House of Commons to sit during debates. There is insufficient seating for all 650 MPs, and there is no form available for disabled MPs to fill in stating that they have particular seating needs. As Mike says, this is all very suspicious.

As a religious person, I can’t say I’m happy about the anti-religious stance of Titan. I went to a Christian college for my undergraduate degree, and some of the students were Creationists. I am not saying that their literalist reading of the creation story in Genesis is correct, but I have to say that they were, by and large, decent people. Those I met weren’t racists or political extremists, and I know that one or two were actually left-wing. I also can’t say that they were anti-science, outside of the very specific field of evolution. Moreover, since the election of Donald Trump there has been the emergence of a religious Left in America, something which couldn’t have been predicted when Baxter wrote the book back in the 1990s. One of the authors of the collection of articles attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservatism, pointed out that the Neo-Cons were not necessarily going to be politically dominant for ever. Kansas, and many of the other mid-western Republican states, had in the 1920s been centres of the Social Gospel movement, which combined Christianity and Socialism. It’s possible that as more Americans recognize how truly disgusting Trump and his party are, Christians over the other side of the Pond may return to it.

However, Trump and his administration are anti-science. The Republican party is strongly opposed to climate change, and so there has been a concerted attack on environmentalism since Trump took office. Legislation protecting America’s glorious natural heritage has been repealed, and federal scientists responsible for monitoring the environment have been effectively gagged. They may not publish any scientific papers supporting climate change, and the federal agency itself has been effectively gutted.

Titan also portrays a future suffering from global warming and catastrophic climate change, as do very many of the SF novels written during the same decade, such as Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather. So far Trump hasn’t wound up NASA, though I don’t doubt that the agency is still under considerable pressure to keep expenses under control. But the real harm is being done by Trump’s deliberate rejection of climate change to appease powerful donors from industry, particularly the Kochs in big oil. This denial of climate change, and that of the other world leaders, will lead to the deaths of millions worldwide. If it hasn’t already.

Reichwing Watch on the Links between Libertarianism and Fascism

July 4, 2017

Reichwing Watch is a YouTuber, who puts extremely interesting and pertinent videos about the racist and Libertarian right in America. In this short clip, he shows the very strong similarities between modern right-wing Libertarian and Fascism, simply by putting extracts from the speeches and comments by Libertarians like Ron Paul, Ayn Rand, Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Alt-Right vlogger Stefan Molyneaux with Adolf Hitler and Nazi propaganda films.

Both Libertarians and Hitler shared a hatred of the state and a concern for the ‘race’ or ‘volk’, as well as a bitter rejection of parliamentary democracy, majority rule, humanitarianism and Socialism. Instead, they embraced Social Darwinism and the preservation of capitalism and private property.

The clips include Ron Paul stating that the Founding Fathers stood for individual liberty, not democracy, and decrying democracy as dangerous. This is followed by quotes from Hitler about the destructive nature of democracy on the ‘volk’, and how the man is always more important than the majority. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, described as a Libertarian theorist, stated that in a Libertarian state there would be no room for democrats and Socialists, and both would have to be isolated and expelled. There are also quotes from Ron Paul attacking majority rule, Stefan Molyneux stating that most Libertarians are Whites, and therefore peace will is threatened by demographic trends which means that they will be overtaken by Blacks as the most numerous racial group in America. Which is juxtaposed with Hitler stating, ‘We stand only for peace’.

Ayn Rand, her eyes bugging, talks about how humanitarianism is a threat, followed by Adolf saying much the same. There’s a clip from the Nazi propaganda movie, Die Erbe (‘Inheritance’) in which a group of white-coated scientists watch two beetles fighting, in order to demonstrate the ‘survival of the fittest’. Which is followed by another Libertarian arguing in a debate that freedom means that society shouldn’t be required to take care of the weakest.

Interspersed with these clips are comments from Noam Chomsky, observing that the existence of private property, owned and managed by an elite group, is a form of dictatorship.

This is a very effective reply to the argument you hear from the Right, and particularly the American Right, that Socialism, and by extension, state intervention as a whole, is Fascistic, ’cause the Nazis claimed to be ‘National Socialists’. This point of view was stated very firmly a little while ago by Jonah Goldberg in his book, Liberal Fascism.

This shows that the reverse is also true. Libertarianism, which claims to be a right-wing form of anarchism, also shares very strong ideological links to Fascism and Nazism. Which perhaps isn’t surprising, considering that Von Mises, one of the founders of Libertarianism and ‘Austrian Economics’, served as a minister in Engelbert Dolfuss’ ‘astrofascist’ government before the Nazi annexation of Austria, when he fled to America. Both Libertarianism and Fascism are reactions against socialism, and the extension of liberty to minority groups. This meant the organised working class, women and ethnic minorities, who were attacked as the internal enemies of the racial group.

In the 1980s Libertarianism, or Anarcho-Capitalism, was presented very much as a form of anarchism. But now it’s becoming very clear that it’s a form of Fascism in its elitism, racism and anti-Socialism.

Cartoon of Thatcher, General Pinochet, and the Man He Overthrew, Salvador Allende

June 29, 2017

This is another of my cartoons against the Tory party and its vile policies. This one is of the leaderene herself, Margaret Thatcher, and her Fascist friend, General Pinochet. Thatcher was great friends with Chilean dictator. He had, after all, given Britain aid and assistance in the Falklands conflict against Argentina. After the old brute’s regime fell, she offered him a place to stay in London and was outraged when the New Labour government tried to have him arrested and extradited to Spain on a human rights charge. Amongst the tens of thousands the thug’s administration had arrested and murdered over the years was a young man from Spain, and his government naturally wanted the old butcher arrested and tried.

The figure on the right of the picture is Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president Pinochet overthrew in 1975. Allende was a Marxist, and one of his policies was to break up the vast estates and give the land to the impoverished peasants. This was all too much for the Chilean military-industrial elite and the Americans.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, the Americans had been working to overthrew any and all left-wing governments in South and Central America and the Caribbean. These regimes were attacked because they were supposedly Communist or sympathetic to Communism. Many of the governments that the Americans plotted against or overthrew were actually far more moderate. They were either democratic Socialists, like Jacobo Arbenz’s administration in Guatemala, all were liberal. In many cases the accusation that they were Communists was simply an excuse to overthrow a government that was harmful to American corporate interests. Arbenz’s regime was overthrown because he wished to nationalise the banana plantations, which dominated the country’s economy. These kept their workers in a state of desperate poverty little better, if at all, than slavery. Many of these plantations were owned by the American United Fruit corporation. The Americans thus had Arbenz ousted in a CIA-backed coup. They then tried to justify the coup by falsely depicted Arbenz as a Communist. Marxist literature and material was planted in Arbenz’s office and photographed, to appear in American newspapers and news reports back home. The result of the coup was a series of brutal right-wing dictatorships, which held power through torture, mass arrest and genocide until the 1990s.

Allende was a particular problem for the Americans, as he had been democratically elected to his country’s leadership. This challenged the Americans’ propaganda that Communism was always deeply unpopular, anti-democratic, and could only seize power through coups and invasions. So the CIA joined forces with Allende’s extreme right-wing opponents in the military, business and agricultural elites, and fabricated a story that the president was going to remove democracy and establish a dictatorship. Allende was then overthrown, and Pinochet took power as the country’s military dictator.

In the following decades, 30,000 people were arrested by the regime as subversives, to be tortured and killed. Many disappeared. The campaign by their wives and womenfolk to find out what happened to them, which began in the 1980s, still continues. A few years ago, the BBC in once of its documentaries about the Latin America, visited Chile and filmed in the former concentration camp where the regime’s political prisoners were interned. It was situated high up in the Chilean desert. The place was abandoned, decaying and strewn with the desert dust, but still grim. The presenter pointed out the wooden building where the prisoners were tortured. It was called ‘the disco’, because the guards played disco music to cover the screams of the prisoners when they were raped.

As well as supporting its dictator against the threat of a popular Marxist regime, Thatcher and the Americans under Ronald Reagan also had another reason for taking an interest in the country. Thatcher and Reagan were monetarists, followers of the free market ideology of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. Friedman’s ideas had also been taken up Pinochet, and Friedman himself used to travel regularly to the country to check on how they were being implemented. So much for the right-wing claim that free markets go hand in hand with democracy and personal freedom. All this came to an end in the 1990s, when a series of revolutions and protests throughout Latin America swept the dictators from power.

The links between Thatcher’s and Reagan’s administrations and the brutal dictatorships in South and Central America, as well as their connections to domestic Fascist groups, alarmed many on the Left in Britain. She also supported a ‘strong state’, meaning a strong military and police force, which she used to crack down on her opponents in Britain, such as during the Miner’s Strike. There were real fears amongst some that she would create a dictatorship in Britain. These fears were expressed in the comic strip, V For Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, which first ran in the British comic, Warrior, before being republished by DC in America. This told the story of V, an anonymous escapee prisoner and victim of medical experimentation at one of the concentration camps in a future Fascist Britain, and his campaign to overthrow the regime that had tortured and mutilated him. A film version also came out a few years ago, starring Hugo Weaving as ‘V’, Natalie Portman as the heroine, Evie, John Hurt as the country’s dictator, and Stephen Fry as a gay TV presenter. As is well known, it’s from V For Vendetta that inspired protest and revolutionary groups across the world to wear Guy Fawkes masks, like the strip’s hero.

To symbolise the mass killings committed by Thatcher’s old pal, I’ve drawn a couple of human skulls. Between them is a fallen figure. This comes from a 19th century American anti-slavery poster, showing the corpse of a Black man, who was shot dead when he tried to claim his right as an American citizen to vote. Although it came from a different country and time, the poor fellow’s body nevertheless seemed to symbolise to me the murderous denial of basic civil liberties of the Fascist right, and particularly by local Fascist regimes around the world, installed and kept in power by American imperialism, and its particular oppression of the world’s non-White peoples.

New Labour came to power promising an ethical foreign policy under Robin Cook. Apart from Pinochet’s arrest, this went by the wayside as Tony Blair and his crew were prepared to cosy up to every multimillionaire thug, dictator or corrupt politician, who were ready to give them money. Like Berlusconi, the Italian president, whose Forza Italia party had formed a coalition with the ‘post-Fascists’ of the Alleanza Nazionale and the Liga Nord, another bunch, who looked back with nostalgia to Mussolini’s dictatorship. This crew were so racist, they hated the Italian south, which they nicknamed ‘Egypt’, and campaigned for an independent northern Italian state called ‘Padania’.

Jeremy Corbyn similarly promises to be a genuine force for peace, democracy and freedom around the world. He might be another disappointment once in power. But I doubt it. I think he represents the best chance to attack imperialism and exploitative neoliberal capitalism.

So if you genuinely want to stop Fascism and exploitation here and abroad, and end Thatcher’s legacy of supporting oppressive right-wing regimes, vote Labour.

Cartoon: Cameron, Clegg and the Tories as David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’

June 26, 2017

There isn’t much to say about this cartoon, except that it was based on the film poster for David Lynch’s disturbing flick, Eraserhead. This is about a man with one of the weirdest hairstyles in cinema attempting to look after a weird, mutant baby, whose head resembles an eraser, hence the film’s title. It’s set in a crumbling, dystopian world, whose audio backdrop is in industrial noise. It’s been described as a horror movie, although it’s not quite that, as well as surreal, which it certainly is.

I thought it was a suitable metaphor for the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, as they’ve certainly done their best to make Britain as decadent and dystopian as possible. This is a Britain in which austerity killed 30,000 people in 2015 alone, according to researchers at Oxford University. Over a hundred thousand people are now forced to use food banks to stop themselves from starving, where 7 million people live in ‘food insecure’ households, where the family members don’t know if they’ll eat tomorrow. Families where the mothers are starving themselves in order to feed and clothe their children.

And all the while more people are forced into poverty through wage freezes, and cuts to welfare benefits. A country in which the poor, the unemployed and the disabled are vilified simply for being poor.

It’s a Britain where the NHS and the schools and universities are being privatised for the profit of private healthcare companies and school management companies, and in which uni students will graduate owing something like £40,000 worth of student debt.

This is a Britain in which homelessness is on the rise. Except you won’t see it, because local councils are passing laws to clear the homeless off their streets, so the site of them begging doesn’t annoy or upset the richer residents.

It’s a country where public services, like the trains, are being starved of investment so that their share value remains artificially high, and the bosses can award themselves big bonuses.

It’s a country where the private energy companies also keep prices high for the same reason.

It’s a country, whose natural beauty is in danger of being plundered and despoiled, as the government despises clean, renewable energy sources, and removes environmental protection legislation for the benefit of fracking companies.

It’s a country that’s heading rapidly towards dictatorship and authoritarianism, as New Labour, the Tories and their Lib Dem enablers passed legislation setting up secret courts, in which the defendant may be tried behind closed doors, with vital evidence and the identity of his accuser also kept secret, if the government decides this is required for reasons of ‘national security’. Just like the judicial system in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalin’s Russia.

But to make sure you don’t realise that this country is becoming a crumbling dystopia, the media do nothing but lie about how evil the left is, and how wonderful everything is under the Tories, including the BBC. A media dominated by a very few newspaper magnates – Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Twins, Richard Desmond, Vere Harmsworth and a pair of Russian oligarchs.

So I drew David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith all in black and white with the same weird hairstyle as the film’s hero, played by Jack Nance, like the film’s poster.

This is the face of the Tory-Lib Dem government as it was a few years ago. But things haven’t changed since under Theresa May, who’s gone full steam ahead with all the old, wretch Tory policies.

Don’t have nightmares! Just vote for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour poverty, to end austerity and the predatory capitalism that sustains it.

Cartoon of Tories as Demons; Ian Duncan Smith as Pinhead from Hellraiser

June 25, 2017

Earlier this week I posted up a cartoon I drew of Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP, as a ‘leatherface’ style serial killer. The sanctions system, introduced by New Labour but massively expanded by Cameron and the Tories, have been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. After much struggle with the DWP, which really, really didn’t want to release the figures, might managed to get hold of a set of stats. These showed that within the period Mike requested, 13-14,000 people had died after being found fit for work, and so had their benefits removed. Researchers at Oxford University found that in 2015, austerity had killed 30,000 people. Assuming these figures are constant year by year, and adding the number Mike revealed, this means that the Tories have so far killed 87-88,000 people. And that’s a minimum.

Mike, Johnny Void, DPAC and Stilloaks have also produced lists of disabled individuals, who have died, and the circumstances in which their lives ended in misery, poverty and starvation thanks to the DWP.

Mike and Jeffrey Davies, one of the great commenters on this blog, have described this massacre as what it is: murder, and the genocide of the disabled.

After I put up the cartoon, Jeffrey commented

‘hmm that doesn’t do him credit hes a devil full stop’.

Funny you should say that, Jeff, because that’s exactly what I drew him as, along with David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and their mistress, Maggie Thatcher.

I tried to draw IDS himself as Pinhead, the main cenobite from the film Hellraiser. This was a 1980s movie, written and directed by the horror novelist Clive Barker, and adapted from his book, The Hellbound Heart. The movie features an ancient puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, which if you solve it, opens a door to hell. The cenobites, led by Pinhead, then come through to drag you off to an eternity of sadomasochistic torture.

I drew IDS as Pinhead because of the sheer sadism built in the DWP, a sadism that comes from its leaders, firstly in New Labour, and then the Tories. The clerks interviewing jobseekers seem to delight in humiliating them, demanding to know why they haven’t looked for certain jobs, or not used the job hunting site created by Iain Duncan Smith, so they could see what jobs you’ve applied for online. As well as these interviews, jobseekers could also be tormented at home. The DWP set up a series of ‘job coaches’, who, as far as I can see, offer no practical advice for finding a job whatsoever. They just badger benefit claimants, subjecting them to more harangues about them not doing all they should to find a job.

The humiliation and belittlement is quite deliberate. It’s part of the principle of ‘less eligibility’ that Margaret Thatcher took over from the 19th century workhouses. For the poor and unemployment, the life on state aid is to be made as degrading and harsh as possible, in order to dissuade them from taking it up unless it is absolutely necessary.

Hence the sadism with which claimants are treated.

And it has worked. Many people don’t go into job centres to claim benefits until their private sources of money – borrowing from friends, or the savings they have in their bank accounts – run out, because of the ill-treatment and disrespect they receive there.

And for the Tories, this is a good scam. The fewer people sign on, the more they can claim that they have been successful in getting more people into work. The reality is that they probably haven’t got more people into work. They’ve just got fewer people signing on. And tens of thousands of those are dying.

And so you get scenes, like the one reported by Mike a couple of years ago, where ordinary people in the street comforted a young man, who came out of the jobcentre literally in tears, because he was desperate and the DWP would not give him any money. And this guy is just one example.

Not that the staff of the DWP appears to be treated any better. Former workers in the DWP have said that the department is keen to cut staff numbers, and so the clerks are terrified for their own jobs, while their superiors belittle and humiliate them. And whistleblowers also report that in order to motivate them to through more people off benefits, some Jobcentres ran competitions, giving out gold stars, sheriff’s badges and other prizes to the clerk, who got the most claimants off their books.

This system has to come from the twisted psychology of those, who set it up right at the very top in government. Remember the Russian proverb, ‘A fish rots from the neck down?’ Organisations frequently take on aspects of their leaders’ personalities. The Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were all brutal, oppressive regimes that murdered millions, because they were headed by brutal, murderous people – Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. And so the British state has become brutal and murderous, because it has been led by sadists like Thatcher, IDS, Clegg and Cameron.

I’m not saying that Thatcher, Cameron, Clegg and aIDS are personally murderous or violent. They may well have been perfectly genial people in private. But they clearly had a sadistic need to inflict pain and suffering on the various poorest, simply for being poor, and incorporated that attitude into their policies and the management of the DWP.

There are, however, some psychological differences between IDS and Hellraiser’s Pinhead. Pinhead, as played by Doug Bradey, had far more dignity and personal gravitas than Ian Duncan Smith. Smith, by contrast, comes across as vain, and actually rather petulant. This was shown quite clearly in an edition of Question Time a few years ago, when he angrily rounded on another panellist to lambast them, as he saw it, for not doing anything to tackle the mythical generations of families, who have never worked.

He has tried to pose as a compassionate individual. In a documentary Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, made about poverty and state support, IDS wept on camera. He had, he claimed, met a young woman, who didn’t believe she’d ever have a job. ‘She could have been my daughter!’ he cried.

All fake, crocodile tears. Earlier he and his master, Dodgy Dave, had been film having a right old guffaw on the green benches in parliament when one speaker was describing the personal hardships a particular claimant had suffered due to Cameron’s and IDS’ system. The two obviously found the suffering of this disabled person hilariously funny, and didn’t bother to disguise it. It was caught by the Beeb on the Parliament channel, and Mike posted a clip of it on his blog.

Never mind the tears, that’s how IDS and Cameron really see the poor. They’re just plebs and proles, who are there to be laughed at and humiliated for the pleasure of the upper classes.