Archive for the ‘France’ Category

‘Mr H Reviews’ on the Casting of Robot Lead in SF Film

August 8, 2020

‘Mr H Reviews’ is a YouTube channel specialising in news and opinions on genre films – SF, Fantasy and Horror. In the video below he comments on a piece in the Hollywood Reporter about the production of a new SF movie, which will for the first time star a genuine AI. The movie is simply titled b. Financed by Bondit Capital, which also funded the film Loving Vincent, with the Belgium-based Happy Moon Productions and New York’s Top Ten Media, the film is based on a story by the special effects director Eric Pham with Tarek Zohdy and Sam Khoze. It is about a scientist, who becomes unhappy with a programme to perfect human DNA and helps the AI woman he has created to escape. 

The robot star, Erica, was created by the Japanese scientists/ engineers Hiroshi Ishigura and Hohei Ogawa for another film. The two, according to the Reporter, taught her to act. That film, which was to be directed by Tony Kaye, who made American History X, fell through. Some scenes for the present movie were already shot in Japan in 2019, and the rest will be shot in Europe next year, 2021.

The decision to make a movie starring a robot looks like an attempt to get round the problems of filming caused by the Coronavirus. However, it also raises a number of other issues. One of these, which evidently puzzle the eponymous Mr H, is how a robot can possibly act. Are they going to use takes and give it direction, as they would a human, or will it instead simply be done perfectly first time, thanks to someone on a keyboard somewhere programming it? He is quite enthusiastic about the project with some reservations. He supports the idea of a real robot playing a robot, but like most of us rejects the idea that robots should replace human actors. He also agrees with the project being written by a special effects supervisor, because such a director would obviously be aware of how such a project should be shot.

But it also ties in with an earlier video he has made about the possible replacement of humans by their Virtual simulacra. According to another rumour going round, Mark Hamill has signed away his image to Lucas Film, so that Luke Skywalker can be digitally recreated using CGI on future Star Wars films. Mr H ponders if this is the future of film now, and that humans are now going to be replaced by their computer generated doubles.

In some ways, this is just the culmination of processes that have been going on in SF films for some time. Animatronics – robot puppets – have been used in Science Fiction films since the 1990s, though admittedly the technology has been incorporated into costumes worn by actors. But not all the time. Several of the creatures in the American/Australian SF series Farscape were such animatronic robots, such as the character Rygel. Some of the robots features in a number of SF movies were entirely mechanical. The ABC Warrior which appears in the 1990s Judge Dredd film with Sylvester Stallone was deliberately entirely mechanical. The producers wished to show that it definitely wasn’t a man in a suit. C-3PO very definitely was played by a man in a metal costume, Anthony Daniels, but I noticed in the first of the prequels, The Phantom Menace, that a real robot version of the character appears in several scenes. Again, this is probably to add realism to the character. I also think that in the original movie, Episode 4: A New Hope, there were two versions of R2D2 used. One was the metal suit operated by Kenny Baker, and I think the other was entirely mechanical, operated by radio. Dr. Who during Peter Davison’s era as the Doctor also briefly had a robot companion. This was Kameleon, a shape-changing android, who made his first appearance in The King’s Demons. He was another radio-operated robot, though voiced by a human actor. However the character was never used, and his next appearance was when he died in the story Planet of Fire.

And then going further back, there’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mad plan to create a robotic Salvador Dali for his aborted 1970s version of Dune. Dali was hired as one of the concept artists, along with H.R. Giger and the legendary Chris Foss. Jodorowsky also wanted him to play the Galactic Emperor. Dali agreed, in return for a payment of $1 million. But he stipulated that he was only going to act for half an hour. So in order to make sure they got enough footage of the great Surrealist and egomaniac, Jodorowsky was going to build a robot double. The film would also have starred Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Mick Jagger as Feyd Rautha, as well as Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontes, as Paul Atreides. The film was never made, as the producers pulled the plug at the last minute wondering what was happening to it. I think part of the problem may have been that it was going well over budget. Jodorowsky has said that all the effort that went into it wasn’t wasted, however, as he and the artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud used the ideas developed for the film for their comic series, The Incal. I think that Jodorowsky’s version of Dune would have been awesome, but would have been far different to the book on which it was based.

I also like the idea of robots performing as robots in an SF movie. A few years ago an alternative theatre company specialising in exploring issues of technology and robotics staged a performance in Prague of the classic Karel Capek play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, using toy robots. I can see the Italian Futurists, rabid Italian avant-garde artists who praised youth, speed, violence and the new machine world around the time of the First World War, being wildly enthusiastic about this. Especially as, in the words of their leader and founder, Tommasso Marinetti, they looked ‘for the union of man and machine’. But I really don’t want to see robots nor CGI recreations replace human actors.

Many films have been put on hold because of the Coronavirus, and it looks like the movie industry is trying to explore all its options for getting back into production. However, the other roles for this movie haven’t been filled and so I do wonder if it will actually be made.

It could be one worth watching, as much for the issues it raises as its story and acting.

The Tory Attitude to Mass Starvation: Let Them Eat Cake

August 4, 2020

Mike’s put up this evening on his blog a piece wondering if the reason the Tories launched their ‘Help Out To Eat Out’ scheme to encourage people to start going out to restaurants again wasn’t because they wanted to restart the economy, but simply stuff their faces at public expense. He’s put up a couple of pieces about the Tory MPs Nadhim Zahawi and the abomination formerly in charge of the NHS, Jeremy Hunt, both talking about how they used to scheme to get a free lunch. There’s a meme about Zahawi stating just how much he’s raked in on expenses and for working for an oil company, in addition to his generous salary as an MP. But he doesn’t feel that such largesse should be awarded to the disabled, and voted for a £30 cut in their benefits.

Mike’s blogged about this issue before. The scheme was never going to tackle the real problem of starvation, or ‘food poverty’ in this country, because the people afflicted by it can’t afford to go to restaurants. Many of them can’t afford to buy food, which is why there’s been such a massive expansion in food banks.

But the middle classes, and the rich Tories who represent them, can.

This all reminds of the expenses scandal back in 2004, when large sections of parliament were caught claiming as much as they could get their hands on in expenses, far beyond what was being awarded in pay for the rest of us mere mortals. They had also voted to cut the salaries of their staff. That blew up in their faces when it was exposed by the Torygraph, which may well have been the last time that wretched newspaper ever did anything right.

And now they’re doing it again while millions starve.

It all reminds me of the famous reply Marie Antoinette supposedly gave to the news that the French peasantry were starving because they had no bread.

‘Well, let them eat cake’.

That’s come to symbolise the grotesque self-indulgence and absolute complacency of the French aristocracy, an attitude that led to the Revolution, the execution of the monarchy and the mass murder of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety.

This seems to be the modern, Tory British version. People don’t have food on the table, but blow them! Let them go to a restaurant instead, like the Tories and their rich friends from the Bullingdon Club and other centres of the self-indulgent, callous rich.

Was ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ really meant to help super-rich Tories get cheap meals at the taxpayer’s expense?

‘Financial Times’ Review of Book on Real, Modern Slavery

August 1, 2020

This is another old clipping I’ve kept in my scrapbooks from the Financial Times, from May 29/30th 1999. It’s a review by their columnist, Ben Rogers, ‘Forced into human bondage’, of Kevin Bales’ Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global  Economy. This is another book that the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol had in its library. It’s an excellent book, but obviously very, very grim reading in its truly harrowing accounts of the brutality meted out to real, enslaved people across the world. I’m posting the review here because, while Britain and America are re-evaluating the legacy of slavery following the Black Lives Matter protests, real slavery and its horrors still exist around the world and I am afraid that this is being overshadowed by the debates over historic European slavery.

Rogers begins his review with the subtitled ‘Slavery today may be illegal, but it is still rife’. The review then goes on

It is tempting to think of slavery as a thing of the past. Its legacy lives on, disfiguring relations between Black and Whites everywhere, but surely the practice itself has gone?

This sober, well-researched, pioneering study shows that this, alas, is far from the case. Bales, an American social scientist who teaches in London at the Roehampton Institute, is careful to distinguish slavery from other forms of exploitation: the Pakistani child labourer, the Burmese agricultural worker, although paid a subsistence wage, are not necessarily slaves. Nevertheless, he argues that there are still, on a conservative estimate, perhaps 27m slaves in the world today – a population greater than that of Canada.

Most are located in the Indian subcontinent where they work as bonded labourers, but they exist in almost every country in the world. Paris harbours as many as 3,000 household slaves, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab states many more. In the Dominican Republic, enslaved Haitians harvest the sugar that we eat. In Brazil, child prostitutes are forced to service the miners of the metals we use.

Of course, modern slavery is different from the old variety practised in ancient Athens or the American South. But in certain respects, Bales persuasively argues, the new variety is worse. In the traditional version, slave holders owned their slaves, who were almost always of a different race or religion from their masters; slaves were relatively expensive “capital” goods and usually kept up for life. Nowadays legal ownership is outlawed in every country of the world (Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after all, states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”), so modern slavery is disguised and “ownership” is replaced by manipulative debt bondage or fictive long-term “contracts”. Modern slaves tend to be taken from the same ethnic group as their holders and, because they are cheap, they are often used for only months or a few years before being discarded. Another difference is the size of the profit slaves produce. Agricultural bonded labourers in India generate not 5 per cent, as did slaves in the American South, but over 50 per cent profit per year for the slave holder; a Thai brothel owner can make 800 per cent on a new teenage girl.

To illustrate the nature of the new slavery, Bales has travelled around the world to investigate five cases in detail (often at some risk to himself): that of an enslaved prostitute in Ubon Ratchitani, Thailand; a water carrier in Mauritania; charcoal burners in the camps in Matto Grosso do Sul, Brazil; brickmakers in the Punjab, Pakistan; and bonded agricultural labourers in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The cases varied in significant ways. Ironically the one that most resembles old-style slavery – that of the water carrier from Mauritania – proves perhaps to be the least vicious. Slavery in Mauritania represents a lightly disguised continuation of a centuries-old practice; there slaves are kept for life and many slave families have been working for the same masters for generations. The cruellest example, by contrast, is provided by “Siri” the Thai prostitute, who was sold into slavery by her parents aged 14. Her debts to her owners are manipulate to ensure that she will continue to work until she is too tired or ill to be profitable.

Despite the differences, however, two continuities run through all the cases Bales so  graphically describes. In every case the worker is tricked or forced into bondage; in every case he or she is provided with the barest means of subsistence and sometimes not even that. In the charcoal camps of Brazil the men are often denied medication and left to die – on the principle that it is cheaper to acquire a new worker than repair an old one.

The western world has been slow to recognise the problem of the new slavery – in part because it is carefully disguised. The slave holders hide it from their government, governments hide it from the international community. The result is that, unlike, say, torture or censorship, slavery has yet to become a major human rights issue. The main international organisation dedicated to the abolition of slavery, Anti-Slavery International, has only 6,000 members. And without grass roots pressure, the World Bank, IMF and national governments are not inclined to show much concern.

“What country,” as Bales asks, “has been sanctioned by the UN for slavery? Where are the UN inspection teams charged with searching out slave labour? Who speaks for the slaves in the International Court of Justice? Governments and business are more likely to suffer international penalties today for counterfeiting a Michael Jackson CD than for using slaves.”

Modern slaves face the same conditions as the poor of the third world – they are the victims of industrialisation, population explosion and government corruption. Where labour is abundant, wages low, bribery rife, workers often face a stark choice between enslavement and starvation. Slavery, however, calls for its own particular solutions. Bales shows how strict enforcement of existing laws combined with programmes aimed at enabling slaves to set up on their own, have had some effect in diminishing debt bondage in northern India – although, as he reminds us, unless steps are taken slavery is set to grow.

Incredibly, Bales’ study is about the first to explore slavery in its modern international guise. The picture it offers remains patchy, given the limited resources at Bales’ disposal. He makes much of the west’s role in aiding and abetting slavery, yet most of the cases he studies belongs to local economies. This remains, however, a convincing and moving book. One can only hope that it will draw some attention to the terrible phenomenon it describes.

Although this was written 21 years ago, I’ve no doubt that it’s still acutely relevant and the situation has got worse. Since then there have been a series of scandals involving the enslavement of migrant workers in Britain and eastern European women trafficked into sex slavery. And, as the book Falling Off the Edge, shows very clearly, poverty around the world and the consequent exploitation of the poor has got much worse due to neoliberalism and globalisation. One of the programmes due to be shown on the Beeb – but I can’t remember whether it’s on TV or radio – is an examination of global terrorism. One of the groups looked at are Maoist terrorists in India. They’re a horrifically violent outfit, but they’re the result, according to Falling Off the Edge, of the horrific poverty and exploitation foisted upon the agricultural workers of central India.

And then there’s the increasing poverty and mounting debts of the British poor, thanks to Thatcherite welfare cuts, wage freezes and the replacement of loans for welfare payments and services. I wonder how long before this morphs into something very much like debt bondage over here.

FT Review from 2000 of Three History Books on the British Empire

July 19, 2020

Another clipping I’ve kept is a review by the Financial Time’s David Gilmour, ‘World in the Pink’, of three history books on the British Empire. The books reviewed were The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis; and the Oxford History of the British Empire: Historiography, edited by Robin W. Winks. The review was in the FT’s weekend edition for February 19/20 2000. I’m putting it up here as some readers might find it useful, as after the Black Lives Matter protests the history of the British empire is going to come under debate once again. The review runs

Once upon a time the British Empire was an easy subject to teach. Pupils stood in front of the schoolroom map, identified two red dots in the middle, and were encouraged to gaze with wonder at the vast expanse of similarly coloured spaces stretching from Canada at the top left to New Zealand at the bottom right. If suitably awestruck, they could then learn about these places (and how they came to be red) in the novels of Henty and Rider Haggard and in the poems of Tennyson, Kipling and Newbold.

Stout histories were also available for serious pupils to study the process of conquest and dominion, the spread of civilisation and prosperity, and, in some cases, the splendid bestowal of certain freedoms. From them students would learn that “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world”, a belief held by many but expressed in these particularly terms by Gandhi. Guided by Providence and Queen Victoria, Britain had assumed a grandmaternal role, the mother of Dominion daughters, the “mother of parliaments” and, even more stirringly, “mother of the Free”.

The uniformity of the vision – red is red whether in Canada or Ceylon – may have been useful for the schoolteacher and the recruiting officer. But the men sent out to administer different systems all over the globe understood its limitations. The appearance of theses impressive books, the last in the five volume Oxford History of the British Empire, demonstrates that historians, after a long time-lag in the first half of the 20th century, have caught up with them.

The previous attempt at a comprehensive survey, the Cambridge History of the British Empire (published in nine volumes between 1929 and 1959), retained the anglocentric approach of earlier works, as well as their assumptions of a noble imperial purpose. Without entirely demolishing those assumptions (indeed the editor-in-chief, Roger Louis, specifically endorses some of them), the Oxford History offers more cautious and rataher more sophisticated assessments of the imperial experience. As Louis points out, these volumes do not depict it as “one of purposeful progress” nor concentrate narrowly on “metropolitan authority and rule”; nor do they see its demise as “steady decline and fall”. Their emphasis is on diversity, on a “constantly changing territorial empire and ever-shifting patterns of social and economic relations”.

The chief inspiration behind this approach is the work of the late historian Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, who compared the empire to an iceberg, the visible section being the red-painted colonies and the submerged bulk representing the “imperialism of free trade”, a vast “informal empire” based on naval supremacy and economic power which extended into places such as China, Latin America and the Middle East.

Many of the contributors to the Oxford volumes apply this view to their own areas. In south-east Asia, stresses A.J. Stockwell, the demarcation between Britain’s formal empire and its neighbours was indistinct: “‘British pink’ seeped over the whole region: nearly indelible in some areas, it merely tinged other parts and elsewhere faded fast.”

The scope of these books is so large that there were bound to be gaps: Malta and Gibraltar are barely mentioned, sport and the “games ethic” are ignored, and almost nothing is said about training administrators to do their job. Yet the overall achievement is undeniably impressive. Under the magisterial guidance of Louis (a distinguished American academic whose appointment as editor raised predictable insular howls in the UK), a vast array of of historians has produced a solid monument of contemporary scholarship. Some of the contributions, such as those by E.H.H. Green on political economy and David Fitzpatrick on Ireland’s ambivalence towards the empire are brilliants – subjects that would justify individual volumes distilled into concise and lucid essays.

Naturally there can be neither a common view nor a uniformity of tone among the hundred contributors to these volumes. The assembled historians are certainly not apologists for imperialism but nor, in general, are they too apologetic about it. Several remind us of its humanitarian dimension, and Louis may have confounded his fogeyish detractors with his view that Kipling was “perhaps the greatest poet of the age”. In addition, while appropriate genuflections are made to all those contemporary “studies” (area, gender, cultural and so on), the faddish preoccupation with “discourse” (in its postmodernist and post-colonial contexts) is restricted.

Yet the work has some of the defects as well as most of the merits of current historical writing: too much drab prose, too heavy a reliance on tables and statistics, a sense (especially in Historiography) of colleagues complimenting each other while disparaging their predecessors. Few contributions show real historical imagination: several leave an aroma of seminars and obscure historical quarterlies.

The great historian Richard Cobb used to say that a good deal of French history could be walked, seen and above all heard in cafes or buses or on park benches in Paris and Lyon. But most of the academics in these volumes do not seem to share his view that history is a cultural and creative subject as well as an academic one. However diligent their research may have been, they do not write as if they have ever sat in a Delhi rickshaw or a cafe in Calcutta. Robin J. Moore directs readers to all his own books, but neither he nor any of his colleagues cite a work published in an Indian language.

Yet if these volumes have little feel for the imperial setting and its personal impact, they manage to convey the sheer scope of the enterprise, the scale of the endeavour, the means by which those little dots reddened a quarter of the map. More importantly, they demonstrate the need to study the empire’s history, not in order to glorify or denigrate, but in order to understand the centuries of interaction between the dots and their formal and informal empires.

Perhaps this history, the first to be written since the territorial dismantlement, will mark a new stage not just of reassessment but of acceptance of the empire’s importance, for good and for bad, in the history of our planet. The topic is unfashionable in Britain today – Bristol’s excellent British Empire and Commonwealth Museum has not received a penny of public money – but it might now, thanks to Louis and his collaborators, emerge as something more than a sterile debate between those who regard it as a cause for sniggering and those who see it as a reason to swagger.

Bristol’s Empire and Commonwealth Museum is no more, unfortunately. It packed up and left Bristol for new premises at the Commonwealth Institute in London, where it died the death. I believe its former collection is now housed in the Bristol’s M Shed museum. The Empire is going to be acutely relevant now with the debate over racism, social justice and what history should be taught in schools. There are parts of British imperial history that are indefensible – the conquest of the Caribbean, slavery, the extermination of indigenous Australians, the concentration camps of the Boer War, the Bengal Famine and the massacres in Kenya. Niall Ferguson in a discussion about the British empire on a programme on Radio 4 a few years ago admitted its dark side, but said that it was a benevolent institution, although he qualified this. I think he said something to the effect of ‘just about’. For a short history of the negative side of the British empire – its domination, exploitation and massacre, see John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried. But it was also responsible for bring modern, western science, education and medicine to distant parts of the globe.

And it did try to stamp out slavery worldwide, not only where it had established and exploited it, but also indigenous slavery and forms of servitude around the world. That shouldn’t be forgotten either.

2001 Private Eye Article on Israeli Assassinations and Atrocities Against Palestinians, Americans, and Lebanon

July 18, 2020

Keir Starmer has shown himself determined to purge the party of any and all critics of Israel on the utterly specious grounds that they are automatically anti-Semites. They must be, despite the fact that very many of them are self-respecting Jews and equally self-respecting non-Jewish anti-racists. This is because the Israel lobby and the British establishment and media have declared that anybody who supports Jeremy Corbyn and/ or shares his conviction that Palestinians should be allowed to live in peace in their traditional homeland has to be a horrible Jew-hater and a Nazi. Even if, like Corbyn, Tony Greenstein, Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, Mike, Martin Odoni and any number of others, they are determined anti-racists. So let’s remind people just what the Palestinians are facing, and why criticising Israel is entirely legitimate and is based on what the Israeli state and its armed forces do, not because they’re Jewish.

I found this ‘Letter from Israel’ in Private Eye’s edition for 30th November – 13th December 2001. This was a time when the Eye didn’t flinch at criticising Israel, even when outraged Zionists complained that it was being anti-Semitic by doing so. The Eye has said that the ‘Letter From…’ pieces are written by journalists from countries described, so that this piece, although anonymous and possibly reworked by someone else in the Eye to cover up the author’s identity, comes from an Israeli journo. And it’s a long list of Israel’s attacks, not just on the Palestinians and their leaders, but also the Americans and Lebanon. It runs

Terrorism is the topic of the year, and whatever the current focus, history shows that we in Israel have a certain historical experience.

Take the bombing of American targets. Our chaps bombed the US cultural centres in Cairo and Alexandria as early as 1954, planning to let Abdul Nasser’s new Egyptian government take the blame. Unfortunately the scam went wrong and our defence minister Pinhas Lavon had to resign, though the director-general of his ministry, Shimon Peres, managed to hang on. Today he is Ariel Sharon’s foreign minister.

Or take political assassinations. If you ever wondered why Yasser Arafat’s lieutenants are hard to understand, the answer it simple: we shot most of his organisation’s top foreign language speakers. In fact in one glorious year, 1972, our Mossad secret service managed to kill both the PLO’s political representative in Rome, Wael Zouetar, and his counterpart in Paris, Mahmoud Hamdan.

Admittedly we make the odd mistake. There was the embarrassing 1974 incident in Lilienhammer, when a Mossad hit squad shot dead Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki in front of his heavily pregnant Norwegian wife, having mistaken him for a PLO man.

Still, we maintain a sense of proportion and have never believed in simply takinig an eye for an eye. In 1982 when an assassin from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon wounded (but not killed) our London rep, Shlomo Argov, we invaded Lebanon and more than 20,000 people there died, mostly civilians.

Then there is the bombing of local public buildings, one of our specialities. In recent months we have shelled not just West Bank police stations, but hotels, an orphanage and the Bethlehem maternity hospital. (Not that many Palestinian women reach the hospital. Our boys at the checkpoints surrounding their townships are particularly mistrustful of women claiming to be in labour and so refuse to let them through).

None of this would have happened, of course, if the Palestinians would agree to live happily while surrounded by our soldiers and settlers. But they won’t and we must protect ourselves. Not for us any lily-livered effort to apprehend the actual perpetrators. We prefer hostage taking. This is certainly what we did when some Palestinians recently shot that nice man, ex-general Rehavam Zeevi, the founder of a party whose sole platform is the expulsion of all Arabs. Such a view had resulted in his being invited into Mr Sharon’s government as a tourism minister.

Anyway, whenever that sort of thing happens we just hold the entire population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip at gunpoint and station tanks in their streets. Then we smash the place up (just look at Manger Square after we finished with it!) and kill a few dozen locals of mixed age and sex.

And, oh yes, we also use helicopter gunships to blow to smithereens any Palestinian we suspect of planning any attacks on us, though not usually the actual perpetrators. Those we expect Yasser Arafat to hand over, in exchange for the goodwill we have shown in our peace talks with him, which have been dragging on for a mere eight years. Why are those Palestinians in such a rush?

That we have spent those years building thousands of new settler homes in the West Bank is a mere accident, not a lack of sincerity. True, this may have involved confiscating Palestinian land, arresting its owners and shooting demonstrators, which slows down agreement; but it makes sense: we just like holding peace talks so much we never want them to end.

Of course, we cannot negotiate with just anyone, and so we are currently helping improve Arafat’s administration by picking off any unsuitable figures. And we don’t just mean military men: one of those killed by us was Dr. Tahbed Thabed, the director-general of the Palestinian health authority.

In the 19 years since then, we’ve had the blockade of Gaza and now Netanyahu has declared his intention of seizing 1/3 of Palestinian land on the West Bank. But organisations like the Chief Rabbinate, Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council, the entirely wrongly named Jewish Labour Movement, whose members don’t have to be Jews or members of the Labour Party, and the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, founded to bolster British support for Israel after the bombardment of Gaza, will denounce anything more than the mildest, token criticism of Israel’s actions.

The Israeli state has been engaged on a decades-long campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians, and many of its own citizens have protested against it. Israel is a country. It is not, and never have been, synonymous with the Jewish people, no matter what law Netanyahu passes to claim that it is. Criticising Israel and its leaders is not anti-Semitic, no matter how much the Board and the Chief Rabbis howl that it is.

And Starmer has no business kicking genuine anti-racists and opponents of anti-Semitism out of Labour, simply for supporting the Palestinians. And especially not when he is tolerating real, anti-Black racists and islamophobes.

From 1997: Financial Times Article on Free Market Creating Global Poverty

July 18, 2020

This is another piece I found combing through my scrapbooks. It’s by the Financial Times’ columnist, Joe Rogaly. Titled ‘Market Victims Who Are Free to Be Poor’, and with the subtitle ‘One set of figures shows the capitalist road leading to paradise; a better set shows it leading to misery for many’ it compares and contrasts two reports on global poverty, one by the UN and another by a group of free market think tanks led by the Fraser Institute. And Rogaly comes down firmly on the side of the UN. The article, published in the Weekend edition for 14/15 June 1997, runs

When pictures of skeletal children or abandoned babies appear on the TV news do you (a) lean forward to catch the commentary (b) change channels (c) switch off and head for the kitchen? Some of us have seen about as many images of third-world distress as we can bear. Our assumption is that we know the cure for deprivation: unshackle the free market and the globalised capitalist wealth-producing machine will do the rest.

No it won’t. The 1997 Human Development report, published this week by Oxford University Press for the United Nations, demolishes the idea that the bounty created by the genius of market economics will trickle down. You have to spend tax -payers’ money to help the worst-off, or they will be dead before they are rescued.

Not everyone accepts this. It is contrary to the spirit of the 1997 Economic Freedom of the World report. Right-thinking and therefore expressive of familiar sentiments, it was published last month by the Fraser Institute, Vancouver, in association with 46 other pro-market think-tanks dotted around the planet.

This clutch of capitalist theologians, which includes London’s Institute of Economic Affairs, has invented an index of economic freedom. Its 17 components include growth and inflation rates, government spending, top marginal tax rates, restraints on trade, and so on. These are expressed in hard numbers and therefore “objective”. Hong Kong tops a list of 115 countries thus appraised. The US comes 4th, Britain 7th and France 36th.

You can guess what follows. A few clicks on the mouse-button tell you that between 1985 and 1996 the economies near the top of the economic freedom index grew fastes, while those at the bottom – the “least free” fifth – got poorer. That unhappy quintile includes Russia, Ukraine, and the well-known African disaster areas. The lesson is obvious. Impede the market, and you pay, perhaps with your life. The unobstructed capitalist road is the highway to  paradise.

Wrong again. The UN’s Human Development Index is closer to the truth. it does not measure progress by the rules of conventional economics alone. To be sure, it factors in real gross domestic product per head, as do the freedom-theorists. But GDP is only one of three ingredients. The other two are life expectancy and educational attainment. The resulting list puts countries in a different order from the free marketeers’ league table.

On the latter, remember, Hong Kong comes first. On the development index it falls to 22nd. France, which believes in government expenditure, moves up from 36th on the economic freedom ladder to second place on human development. The United Kingdom falls from 7th to 15th. It’s not just the wealth you generate. It’s how you spend it.

The Human Development report introduces another index this year – for “human poverty”. It counts the people who are expected to die before turning 40, the number of illiterates, those without health services and clean water, and underweight toddlers. Once again you get changes in the rank order, particularly among developing countries.

Cuba, China, Kenya and Peru have all done relatively well at alleviating human poverty. Egypt, Guatemala and Pakistan score less on poverty relief than on human development. It is not only how you spend it, but who you spend it on.

The obvious message is aspirational. If the rich countries would put their hands in their pockets, poverty could be eliminated. We know this will not happen, in spite of the determination to give a lead expressed by Britain’s new Labour administration. Government to government aid is no longer fashionable. The money does not always reach its destination, as the worst case story, that of Zaire, teaches us. The US poured in the dollars, and they went straight into former president Mobutu’s Swiss bank accounts.

Tied assistance is better. Big donors usually demand that markets by set free. This is not quite enough to meet the needs of Human Development or the alleviation of poverty. Happily, contracts tying aid to certain actions are getting more sophisticated – although so are the means by which recipients contravene them. Anyhow, aid is but a part of what is needed.

The true value of the Human Development report lies in its implicit challenge to narrow-focused concentration on the market mechanism. Compiled by a team of economists and others directed by Richard Joly, it has evolved within the broad discipline of economics. It would be better still if someone could come up with an acceptable index of political freedom, to measure both economic and human development and democratic practices. That would require judgments that could not be quantified. How would you have treated 99 per cent votes in communist countries?

The outlook is not all so dolorous. Poverty is declining overall, largely thanks to the improvement in China, which has moved up the economic freedom tables and reduced destitution. Not many countries can make that boast. There are still 800m people who do not have enough to eat. We have some clever indices, but so far no great help to the misery on our TV screens. Only a change in the way we think can achieve that.

That was published nearly a quarter of a century ago. I don’t doubt that with time and the progress of neoliberalist, free market economics, things have become much, much worse. The book Falling off the Edge, which I’ve reviewed on this blog, is a full-scale attack on such globalisation, showing how it not only has created worse poverty and exploitation, but has also led to political instability and global terrorism. And as more British children go hungry, as more people fall into poverty due to the Tories’ privatisations and destruction of the welfare state, I wonder how long it will be before conditions very like those of the Developing World appear here.

This was published when the Financial Times’ weekend edition was still worth reading. It had good reviews and insightful columnists. It declined in quality around the turn of the millennium when it became much more lightweight. It has also switched its political allegiance from liberal to Conservative in an unsuccessful attempt to gain readers.

This article shows that neoliberal free market economics, of the type pushed by the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute for Economic Affairs, has always been a fraud, and known to be a fraud.

But our mendacious, vicious press and political establishment are still pushing it, at a massive cost in human lives and wellbeing. Even in Britain.

Boris Johnson Is Not the New, British FD Roosevelt

July 1, 2020

It’s the first of July, the beginning of a new month, and a new set of lies, falsehoods, spin and propaganda from our clownish and murderous government. Yesterday, BoJob announced he was going to spend his way out of the recession caused by the Coronavirus lockdown. £5 billion would be spent on public services. Michael Gove hailed this as a ‘New Deal’, like F.D. Roosevelt’s for ’30s America.

No. No, it isn’t. Mike and Zelo Street have both published articles tearing great, bloody holes in this latest piece of monstrous spin. Zelo Street’s concentrates on the failings of Roosevelt’s original New Deal. Apparently it didn’t really begin to pay off until Roosevelt’s second term, because the great president was himself too committed to the economic orthodoxy of the time. This was to reduce government spending during a recession. Mike’s article, from what I’ve seen of it, dismantles Johnson’s promises. How much can we really trust them? Remember those forty hospitals Johnson told us the Tories were going to build. They weren’t, and aren’t. It was more lies and the number that were actually going to built was much, much lower. I think about six. The rest were going to be additions to existing hospitals, that had already been planned. And the numbers that were going to be built were far lower than those which were to be closed, either wholly or partially.

Everything says that this latest announcement of Johnson’s is exactly the same. More lies, and more promises that are going to be quietly broken later on.

And then there’s the matter of the amount Boris has said he intends to spend. £5 billion is an enormous amount, but Johnson has proudly boasted of spending such sums before. Like when he announced he was going to splurge out on renovating the country’s rail network. Zelo Street then put up an analysis of the figures and how much actually building new stations would actually cost, and the amount fell far, far short of what Johnson was actually claiming. I suspect that the £5 billion Johnson is now trying to get us all to believe he intends to spend is similar. It’s an impressive amount, but in reality much, much less than what’s actually needed.

And you can also bet it’s going to be lower than what our former partners in the EU are spending to get their economies started again. Recently, Private Eye published a piece attacking the Tories’ previous claim that leaving the EU would allow us to spend more on our economy. They compared what our government was spending with what France, Germany and some others were. They’re actually spending more than we are, which also demolishes the Tories’ claim that it was EU legislation that was preventing the government from spending more on the economy. No surprise there. The Tories have consistently lied about the European Union being the source of the country’s ills when the reverse has been true, and they themselves are responsible for the disastrous policies that have decimated our country and its people.

And when a right-wing British politico starts shouting about a ‘New Deal’, it’s always bad news.

Tony Blair similarly announced his new deal to tackle unemployment at the beginning of his government. He was going to introduce new reforms to encourage firms to take on workers. In fact, this was the wretched ‘welfare to work’ or ‘workfare’ policy, in which the unemployed would be sent to work for corporate giants like the supermarkets in return for the Jobseeker’s Allowance. If they didn’t go, no unemployment relief. As was documented by Private Eye, inter alia, the scheme does not help anyone get jobs. In fact, in the case of a geography graduate it actually stopped her getting the job she wanted. She was looking for work in a museum and had something in that line arranged as voluntary work. But the DWP insisted she work stacking shelves for Tesco or Sainsbury’s or whoever instead. It’s actually been found that if you’re unemployed, you are far more likely to get a job through your own efforts rather than through workfare.

And there’s another huge difference between the Tories and F.D. Roosevelt:

Roosevelt laid the foundations of an American welfare state. The Tories are destroying ours.

Roosevelt introduced some basic welfare reforms, like state unemployment relief. It wasn’t extensive, but it was something. The Republicans in America and the Tories over here hate the welfare state with a passion. It’s supposed to be subsidizing idleness and responsible for cross-generational pockets in which whole communities haven’t worked. The libertarianism which entered the American Republican party with the victory of Ronald Reagan was at heart concerned with reversing Roosevelt’s welfare reforms. Although it’s very carefully obscured now, it’s why the Libertarian’s magazine, Reason, in the mid-70s devoted an entire issue to denying the Holocaust. This featured articles by genuine neo-Nazis. This was vile in itself, but it was motivated by an underlying desire to undo Roosevelt’s legacy. FDR had been the president, who took America into the Second World War. This is seen as a good war, because of Nazis’ horrific genocide of the Jewish people, as well as others, though they rarely get a mention these days. If the Libertarians and their Nazi allies could prove that the Holocaust didn’t happen, it would discredit America’s entry into the War and make further attacks on Roosevelt and the New Deal plausible.

One of the reasons why he introduced unemployment benefit, such as it was, was because if you give money to workers during a recession, their spending will stimulate the economy.

But the Tories hate the idea of unemployment benefit and the workers actually having any money. They are the party of low wages, conditionality and benefit sanctions. Thatcher viewed the Victorians’ attitude that conditions should be made as hard as possible for the poor to encourage them not to rely on state assistance and agree to take work no matter how poor the wages and conditions as a ‘virtue’. It was one of her wretched ‘Victorian values’. During her reign, you couldn’t get away from her and the rest of her scummy party prating on about rolling back the frontiers of the state and the need to abolish the welfare state. The rhetoric has since quietened down and been modified, so that instead of abolishing the welfare state they talk about reforming it to target those who are genuinely in need. But the ideology hasn’t changed.

As a result, the British welfare state is in tatters. One organisation dealing with poverty and hunger in this country has stated that they’ve torn such great holes in it that it no longer functions. You can see this by the way unemployment has shot up so that one in four people is now claiming Universal Credit.

This isn’t just due to the Coronavirus. It’s due to the forty-year long Tory assault on the welfare state.

Johnson isn’t the new FDR. He’s the exact opposite – the destroyer of unemployment benefit and killer of those who need it.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/06/bozo-is-not-franklin-roosevelt.html

New deal? No deal! We can’t accept a plan for the future from the failed PM who deliberately wrecked it

Elon Musk and Tom Cruise to Film Movie on International Space Station

June 23, 2020

Here’s another fascinating video that has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It’s from the YouTube channel Screen Rant, and reports the news that tech mogul Elon Musk and Tom Cruise are planning to film an action movie on location in space. They’re planning to use the International Space Station. Neil Lehmann, who was worked with Cruise before on previous movies, is going to be the director. And no, apparently it’s not a hoax or publicity stunt. NASA’s Jim Bridenstine has announced that the space agency is totally behind the idea, and hopes that it will inspire more people to be interested in space, and to become scientists and engineers.

There aren’t, however, any details yet regarding the movie’s title or what it will actually be about. It won’t be a sequel to Mission: Impossible nor to Top Gun: Maverick. Neither is it connected to another film set in space that starred, or was to star Cruise, Lunar Park. What is certain, however, is that it’s going to be expensive. It cost Musk $90 million to launch his $100,000 Tesla car into space. Another film-maker, Richard Garriott, also spent two weeks in space at the station, where he filmed a five minute short, Apogee Lost. NASA charged $30 million for those two weeks. The station is open to paying guests, who are charged $35,000 per night for their stay.

According to Garriott, the station isn’t the best place to shoot. Because of the weightlessness, anything not stuck down with velcro tends to float away, and he did have trouble with the sets and props he was using floating off the walls. It also gets hot up there, so the station has a multitude of ventilator fans going, whose noise may pose a problem when recording sound.

There’s also a problem in that Cruise, and everyone of the film crew who goes with him, must pass NASA’s stringent astronaut fitness tests. They also have to be proficient swimmers and pass the course on water survival as part of the rigorous astronaut training.

The film is being billed as the first to be shot in space. It isn’t that – that honour belong’s to Garriott’s, but it will be the first full-length movie shot in space. And Screen Rant says that it will be interesting to compare it with other SF films shot on Earth.

The video naturally includes clips from a number of Cruise’s movies, including Top Gun and Mission: Impossible.

I’m particularly interested in this news because I presented a paper at a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society recommending the same idea. 

It was at a symposium at the Society’s headquarters in London on the popular commercialisation space in September 2001. All of the talks presented were really fascinating, but the one that justly received the greatest interest and applause was on how space could be used for sport, especially Harry Potter’s school game, Quidditch. Some of the papers, including mine, were later published in the May/June 2002 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). The paper is quite long, so I’ll just put up the abstract:

Space exploration is the subject of intense media interest in a way unparalleled in any other branch of science. It is the subject of countless films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, many using original footage from space. Astronauts have broadcast live from the Moon, and TV journalists have travelled to Mir, similar to the use of exotic terrestrial locations for filming by professional film crews. Although prohibitively expensive at the moment, the next generation of spacecraft may lower launch costs to an affordable level, so that space locations become competitive against computer graphics and model work. The constructions of orbital hotels will create the demand for human interest stories similar to those set in holiday locations like the south of France and Italy made just after the Second World War, at a time when much tourism on foreign holidays was just beginning, aided by the development of large transport aircraft able to cater to the demand for mass flight.

Moreover, special effects and studio artificiality have been eschewed by a new generation of auteur directors in pursuit of cinema verite like the Danish Dogme ’94 group. These directors will prefer to travel to orbit to film, rather than use terrestrial studio locations and special effects. The construction of zero-gravity playrooms in orbital hotels may create new spectator sports which can only be played in low or zero gravity, necessitating sports journalists to travel into space to cover them. The lack of human-rated vehicles for the Moon and the great distance to Mars will rule these out as film locations for the foreseeable future, although journalists may well accompany colonists to Mars, and a native, Martian film industry may develop when that colony matures. (p.188).

I can’t claim that Musk and Cruise stole my idea, as I doubt Musk and Cruise are even aware my article exists, let alone have read it. When I wrote the paper, NASA was testing advanced spacecraft designs using aerospike engines, which they hoped would significantly reduce launch costs. These never materialised due to the repeated failures of the spacecraft leading to the programme’s cancellation. It may be, however, that the development of Musk’s SpaceX rocket, which has just successfully carried a crew to the ISS, may lead to the emergence of further spacecraft vehicles which may do this. NASA is also is also involved in the development of landers for a possible crewed mission to the Moon. Space hotels aren’t a reality yet, but a first step towards them was made in 2016 with the addition of an inflatable section, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station. This was launched aboard the Spacex rocket, and was developed by the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow.

Despite the immense costs involved, I hope this movie does get made and that it inspires other film makers to use space as a location. And I also hope they do start building proper space tourist hotels and start playing and broadcasting sports in space. After all, one of the last Apollo crewmen played golf on the Moon.

And if there are other billionaire space entrepreneurs looking for a few ideas to develop, perhaps they might consider another I had, which I discussed in a previous post. I had a piece published in one of the British Interplanetary Society’s magazine’s looking forward to competitive, human-carrying hobby rocketry, similar to hang gliding and microlights in aviation. I’d be delighted to see someone start developing that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Artist Wants Her Statues Put Up on Colston’s Plinth

June 21, 2020

Since the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol was pulled down from its plinth and thrown into the docks, there’s been a debate over what should replace him. Mike posted up a few Tweets from people giving their suggestions in his post about the statue’s forcible removal. One of these suggested that as the Ladies’ Abolitionist Society in Sheffield was the first to demand the emancipation of the slaves, a statue should be put up to them. I disagree, because although there should be a monument to them, it should be a matter for Sheffield to commemorate its great citizens, rather than Bristol. It’s for this same reason I got annoyed with a piece on Channel 4 News yesterday in which a Black sculptress spoke about how she would like her statues put up on Colston’s plinth.

She had created a series of sculptures of male and female slaves with the title We Have Made the World Richer. These depicted various figures from the history of slavery and the enslavement of Africans. The first two were of a man and woman, who had been newly enslaved. They had a slogan stating that they had been torn from their homes. Then there was a couple of plantation slaves, with the slogan ‘We Are Brave’. And there were more. I think there were something like six or eight statues in total. The statues had previously been exhibited in parliament, but had garnered little comment from the MP. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, interviewing her, asked her why this was. She felt it was because it was too raw and powerful for them. She described the fall of Colston’s statue as ‘cathartic’, and felt that the empty plinth should be taken up with one of hers. When Guru-Murthy asked her if Bristol knew she was coming, she laughed and said that she hoped they did now.

It would be entirely right for the plinth in Bristol to be occupied by a slave, representing one of Colston’s victims. But the statue and/or its artist should ideally be people, who actually had connections to the city. I wonder if there’s a local Black artist from somewhere like St. Paul’s or Stokes Croft that could create one. From the way the woman spoke, it was clear that she wasn’t a Bristolian and had absolutely no connection with it or its people. I wonder if she even knew where the city was or even that there was such a place before the events a week or so ago. It looked to me to be rather opportunistic. She was an outsider looking for a space for her art, and thought she’d found it in Bristol. There are also problems with the size of the plinth itself. It is only big enough to hold a statue of one person, not the many she created. Presumably one of the statues would have to be on the plinth itself while the others were arranged around it.

The vast majority of slaves traded by Bristol were taken to the West Indies, but there were some and free Blacks in the city. One of the villages just outside Bristol has the grave of Scipio, the enslaved servant of one of the local aristocracy. One of the bridges over Bristol’s docks, which is cantilevered with two, gigantic, trumpet-shaped horns, is called ‘Pero’s Bridge’ after another local slave. There is also a slave walk around the docks, and memorial plaque on one of the former warehouses by Bristol’s M Shed to the countless victims of Bristol’s trade in slaves. And the subjects of two existing sculptures in the city, John Wesley and Edmund Burke, were also opponents of the slavery and the slave trade. Burke, the city’s MP, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France became a foundational text for modern Conservatism, condemned slavery in an 18th century parliamentary debate. I believe Wesley also attacked in a sermon he gave at the Methodist New Room, now John Wesley’s Chapel in Broadmead in Bristol. I think that after 1745 Methodists were forbidden to own slaves.

I also wonder if figures from national history might make more suitable subjects for sculptures. Like Mary Prince, a West Indian slave from Bermuda, who was able to gain her freedom when her masters took her to London. The Mansfield judgement had officially ruled that slavery did not exist under English law, and so slaves brought to Britain were, in law, free. Prince got her freedom simply by walking away. She joined the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823, and her account of her life as a slave, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, was published in London in 1831. Another British slave, who gave his voice to the abolitionist campaign was Louis Asa-Asa. Asa-Asa had been enslaved by the French, but gained his freedom when a ship carrying him put in at Cornwall. He was the author of a pamphlet, How Cruelly We Are Used, which was also published in 1831. I also suspect that there are other people in Bristol’s history, whether slaves or White abolitionists, who deserve to be commemorated but at the moment nobody knows about.

Without going into the murderous fear of outsiders of the League of Gentlemen’s Edward and Tubbs and their slogan ‘a local shop, for local people’, the vacant plinth should be occupied by a figure from Bristol’s history. Even if it is only someone, who simply visited the city as part of an abolitionist speaking tour. Many of Britain’s towns and cities had abolitionist societies, like those of Sheffield, and I’d be very surprised if Bristol didn’t have one. Even if the city did officially celebrate the failure of abolitionist bills before the eventual emancipation of 1837.

 

Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.