Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

The Utterance Robot that Speaks Like Humans

December 30, 2021

I hope everyone’s still enjoying the Christmas season. I know I haven’t posted anything political over the past few days, or even much at all, but I thought I’d try to leave the important, emotive subjects till after the holiday. Well, that’s not going to happen, as I’ve found a few videos on very serious issues I’d like to post and comment on. But first some fun.

This is another robot video, from the ikinamo channel of YouTube. It’s about professor Hideyuki Sawada and his team at Kagawa University, who have created a robotic version of the human mouth in order to mimic real, human speech more closely. The mouth looks like a long, flesh-coloured tube, below which are a series of rods which rise and fall to manipulate it. The mouth also has a tongue, The machine is operated by a pump, which pushes air into the mouth through vocal chords. Above the mouth itself is a plaster nose to add resonance, the plaster having the same resonance as a human nose. The robot needs this to make the ‘m’ and ‘n’ sounds, while its tongue allows it to say the ‘r’. The changes in the mouth cavity and movements of its artificial lips create the same types of sound as a biological human mouth. The machine also has a microphone so that it can hear itself. It possesses autonomous learning, so that it can correct its mistakes by listening, and working out what a particular sound should be. It’s not quite right just yet, as it has no teeth and so can’t pronounce the dental fricatives. However, they are teaching the pitch and words to a Japanese song so that it will be able to sing that.

Something very like this robot was created by Klemper, a German scientist, in the 19th century. He also reasoned that in order to create speech mechanically, you should start with a mechanical mouth. As he was German, the machine also spoke with a German accent. And back in the 1980s I read an article in one of the popular science magazines around then that the way to solve problems with robot and computer speech would be to build an artificial mouth, so that the machine would speak like a human would.

Like the various types of artificial muscle being developed, this is clearly another example of robotics engineers following nature in their quest to create machines that function like humans and animals more closely. It’s ingenious, but does look weird as a disembodied, mechanically operated mouth and nose.

Fabio Pacucci on the Science of Space Elevators

December 11, 2021

This short video comes from the TedEd channel on YouTube, presumably connected to the TED talks in which leading intellectuals and academics explain their ideas. In this case, its about space elevators. These are long cables that would carry materials and passengers up to Earth orbit. The idea was first proposed by Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in 1895, after the deaf school teacher saw the tallest building in the world at the time. If one could be built, it would massively reduce the costs of transporting people and material to orbit. These would be taken aloft in special capsules called ‘Climbers’, which would have to be shielded against radiation to protect human passengers. At the moment, it costs SpaceX $7,600 per kilo. It’s estimated that space elevators, their immense power needs supplied either by solar energy or nuclear power, could reduce this by 95 per cent. The problem is that that at the moment there is no material strong enough to support such a building. It has been suggested that carbon monofilaments and nanotubes could provide the solution, but only tiny amounts of these have been manufactured at the moment. There is also the problem that the gravitational stresses and hence the thickness of the cable would vary with height. One solution to this problem would be to extend the cable to counterweight, either a satellite or captured asteroid in geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the Earth. The problem of keeping the tether rigid would be solved by using centrifugal force from the Earth’s spin. The station back on Terra would be best situated at the equator, and possibly a ship at sea. This would allow it mobility to avoid storms and terrible weather. It is immensely difficult to build such an elevator on Earth, but they could be built on the Moon and Mars using current technology and materials. But they’d be far more of an advantage built here on Earth. Another problem is that if the cable was cut, the effects as it fell to Earth would be catastrophic. Despite the difficulties of construction, there are companies in China and Japan planning to build them by 2050.

The idea of the space elevator has been around for some time. Arthur C. Clarke thought for a while that he had invented the idea in his book about the building of such a tower in his adopted home of Sri Lanka in his 1970s novel, The Fountains of Paradise. This lasted until he looked the idea up in the scientific literature, and found it went all the back to the Russians. It would truly be a giant leap in space exploitation and colonisation if we could build a space elevator, but I think building one by 2050 is extremely optimistic. Way back in the 1990s or the early part of this century I remember an American firm announcing they were going to develop the idea. Unfortunately one of the problems at the time is that, according to the techniques being proposed, the station back on Earth would have to be anchored by an entire mountain range. So, not really possible and that was the end anyone heard of the idea.

It’s great that research into space elevators is continuing, but I think it will be a long time before they become reality, whether built by Americans, Chinese, Japanese or whoever.

Private Eye on the Massive Failure of the Pepper Commercial Robot in Japan

December 1, 2021

I found this highly amusing little snippet in Private Eye’s ‘Funny Old World’ column in their edition for the 6-18 August 2021. It’s report from the Japan Times about a Japanese company suspending manufacture and recalling thousands of their robots due to malfunctions and poor performance. The article runs

“We have suspended production of our Pepper robot,” a spokeswoman for Softbank Group Corp told reporters in Minato (Tokyo), “the AI robot, home companion and store assistant that we first marketed in 2014. We are in discussions with our French robotics unit about potential job reductions.”

Over the past seven years, 27,000 Pepper robots have been produced, and marketed as the world’s first AI robots, but many were sacked by the companies that bought them for inappropriate behaviour. “We bought one for our flagship Edinburgh store,” said a spokesman for Margiotta grocery chain, “but fired it because it kept telling customers ‘to look in the alcohol section’ when they asked it where things were.” Funeral director Osamu Funaki bought a Pepper robot to recite sutras during ceremonies, but sacked it after repeated malfunctions, lamenting “what if it refuses to operate in the middle of a ceremony? It would be such a disaster.” A Japanese nursing home purchased three Pepper androids to lead community singalongs, but dismissed them for repeatedly breaking down.

“Pepper did a lot of harm to genuine robotics research by giving an often false impression of a bright cognitive being that could hold conversations,” Professor Noel Sharkey observed. “But it was mostly remote-controlled with a human conversing through its speakers. I’m happy to see an end to it.”

This is less the ruthlessly efficient killing machines of The Terminator franchise or the similarly murderous androids of the early Tom Baker Dr. Who story, ‘The Robots of Death’ or any number of other stories in which the machines rise up to exterminate their human masters. It isn’t like Judge Dredd’s Megacity One, where automation and the use of robots has created a 95 per cent unemployment rate. No, it’s the Sirius Cybernetics Company from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose products are so uniformly terrible that the complaints division now covers the major land masses of three whole planets, as this clip from the Beeb TV series on Michael Snow’s channel on YouTube explains:

As for the robots being sacked, for comics readers of a certain age this sounds like they suffered the same fate as those poor machines that were sent down to be ripped apart by the frightening, but also frighteningly stupid demolition robot Mekquake in the ‘Robusters’ and ‘ABC Warriors’ strips in 2000 AD. Mekquake was always being frustrated at not being able to destroy the strips’ two heroes, Rojaws, a foul-mouthed sewer droid, and Hammerstein, an old war robot, who continually outwitted him. But if robots keep being manufactured with the same spectacular flaws as the Pepper robot, it probably won’t be long before someone invents a Mekquake-style machine to take care of them. Oh, by crikey, yes, as the thuggish old machine used to say!

Rojaws and Hammerstein prepare to meet Mekquake for the last time. From ABC Warriors – Return to Robusters, by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, (Rebellion: 2015, 2016).

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Cartoonist Kayfabe on Trashman, 60s Underground Comix Anti-Hero

November 30, 2021

Here’s another video from YouTube comics creators and YouTubers, Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor, in which the two discuss one of ‘Spain’ Rodriguez’s best-known and most notorious characters, Trashman. Rodriguez was one of the major talents in ’60s underground comics. The two state he was first published by Evo and the East Village Other, and was part of a group of underground comix artists and creators called the Berkeley Tribe. Spain was fully part of the ’60s counterculture and Trashman was an explicit expression of that decade’s political radicalism and youth revolt. The Kayfabers remark that stylistically Spain appears influenced by mainstream comic artists, like the legendary Jack Kirby and John Romita at Marvel, he’s far removed from them in politics and content. Because Trashman was an agent of the ‘6th International’, gunning down the enemies of the people. The comic, The Collected Trashman, has the date ‘1969’ on it, but this doesn’t mean it was actually published them. Even so, it deals with the decade’s topics of distrust of the government, Vietnam, drugs, free love and hippies. There’s a lot of sex in it, so be careful about watching it at work. The two also compare Trashman to later heroes like Mad Max and Judge Dredd. Trashman careers about an urban environment in a souped-up car, to which armour and a set of tank tracks have been added, rather like one of the bizarre, demented vehicles in Mad Max: Fury Road. It might also be because of the mixture of automotive mayhem, extreme violence and urban dystopia that’s behind the Kayfaber’s comparison to Judge Dredd.

Rather more problematic to contemporary readers is Spain’s highly sexualised view of women. A number of underground comix creators were accused of sexism and misogyny, such as Robert Crumb, and I think Rodriguez may have been another one. But the Kayfabers argue that Rodriguez was doing it when feminism was emerging, and so was probably trying to get more publicity through notoriety.

It’s an interesting look at one of the best-known and remembered of the decade’s underground heroes. I don’t know if such a comic would be possible now. Certainly the decades of terrorism that followed the 60s from groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the various radical terrorist groups running amok in Italy, and the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland would probably make such a character deeply unappealing to large sections of the public, quite apart from the Fall of Communism. Trashman was going to be controversial even in the 1960s, with the rise of terrorist groups like the Weathermen and the violence at the Democratic National Convention. There’s even a story in the comic in which Trashman shoots that up.

Nevertheless, there are still students sticking posters of Che Guevara on their walls and the rise of Black Lives Matter and strong initial support for former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US shows that a sizable section of the British and American electorate want far more radical change than the right-wing cliques that have seized control of the Labour party in Britain and Democrats in the US are prepared to give them. Not that either Corbyn or Sanders ever remotely endorsed terrorism and violence, despite the vilification of the former by the British political and media establishment.

One of the complaints among some comics creators and fans is that Marvel and DC, the two main comics companies in the US, have moved too far leftward. Instead of producing good, enjoyable stories with strong plots and characters, the two are instead concentrating on explicit statements about social issues and promoting characters based solely on their gender, race or sexuality. This is putting readers off, and as a result American comics are in decline as people turn instead to Japanese manga, which eschews these issues. This is the view of Ethan van Sciver and the Comicsgaters. I can see their point of view, although the Guardian pointed out in an article a few years ago that comics have always dealt with political and social issues. That’s quite true. One episode of the Superman radio series in the 1940s was applauded by NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League as the Man of Steel had gone after the Klan. In the 1970s both Marvel and DC dealt with racism and the collapse of American self-esteem following Watergate. There were several issues of Captain America in which the Captain forswore his patriotic identity to call himself ‘Nomad’ following his own, brief loss of faith in his country. There were also a number of Hulk stories which showed a very strong critical attitude to the military, doubtless influenced by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. However, Stan Lee, the man responsible with artists like Kirby and Ditko, for so many of Marvel’s most iconic heroes, also said in an interview that he was careful not to let the political content alienate those readers who didn’t agree with it.

The Kayfaber’s state that Trashman is a product of its times, though it can also be seen as a period piece set in that decade because of its timeless quality. Back in the 1990s the Heil went berserk at a similar radical, underground comic on sale in the shops. This was an anarchist version of Tintin, in which the boy detective was shown joining the struggle against the cops and the state. Of course, the book had absolutely no connection to anything Herge actually wrote or did. However, the rise of the internet has provided would-be comics creators with an opportunity for launching their own comics without the hindrance of the mainstream comics publishing industry. It’s therefore possible that as Thatcherite neoliberalism continues to collapse and show itself corrupt and bankrupt, underground comix heroes like Trashman may rise to stick it to oppressive capitalist authority once again. And especially if less radical ways of changing the system or expressing dissatisfaction are suppressed by Blairites and Thatcherite Labour leaders like Keir Starmer.

Lab Grown Goats and the Shape of Wombs to Come

November 19, 2021

I found this photo of goat fetuses growing in tanks filled with amniotic fluid in a Japanese lab in an old an old issue of Scientific American Presents – Your Bionic Future from autumn 1999. It illustrated an article by Tabitha M. Powledge, ‘The Ultimate Baby Bottle’, which had on the contents page the comment ‘Aldous Huxley was right. Artificial wombs are in our future.’ I hope, I really hope that they aren’t. At least, not in the way he portrayed it in Brave New World. In the book, the Fordists have abolished natural reproduction so that everyone is grown artificially in hatcheries. As a result, sex is only for pleasure – and as this is a hedonistic society there are plenty of orgies – and the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are dirty terms of abuse. This is definitely not a society anyone would want to see realised. On the other hand, milder forms of such reproduction have also been suggested. The people of humanity’s first extraterrestrial colony also reproduce in hatcheries in Brian Aldiss’ and David Wingrove’s history of the future, The Third Millennium. And in Paul McAuley’s book, In The Belly of the Whale, the two human species on Fomalhaut also reproduce through cloning in hatcheries, but are placed with surrogate parents who raise them in something like a normal family structure after their birth.

The success of the Japanese scientists in growing the goat fetus’ generated a considerable interest at the time. It was widely predicted, as the Scientific American article did, that this would lead to artificial wombs. In fact there was speculation about possible breakthroughs in such research a decade earlier in the 1980s. About 1984/5 I remember an article appearing in the Absurder which predicted that some day people would be gestated in such devices.

I’ve got very mixed feelings about this. I can admire the scientific skill behind it, and it does touch that part of me that enjoys seeing Science Fiction become reality. I can also see that it would benefit women, who for one reason or another could not carry a baby to term. But I don’t know how women would react to such machines if they became possible. I realise that pregnancy and childbirth are fraught, dangerous times for women and their children. Many women go through everything from the discomfort of bad backs and morning sickness to far worse conditions that may seriously damage their health. The other night there was a piece on the One Show, for example, about the dangers to pregnant women from a condition that causes severe nausea. And then there are the problems and dangers in childbirth itself.

But femininity throughout history has been intimately bound up with motherhood. So much so that in many traditional societies the view of women has been that of baby factories, whose primary role is the bearing and raising of children. Modern feminism challenges this in order to give women the freedom to work outside the home in previously masculine roles and professions. But I am not sure if women would welcome the complete separation of femininity from motherhood. Would women feel somehow diminished, deprived of a vital component of their womanhood, if there was a wholesale move towards artificial reproduction? Part of the psychological motivation behind gender critical feminisms opposition to transwomen being accepted as women is a powerful feeling that this is men usurping and appropriating femininity, while marginalising natural biological women. Reading through some of the comments on Kellie-Jay Kean’s videos, I came across some women talking about the joy they felt as women bearing children. One women said that men’s lives must be so empty because of their inability to do so. Now these are just a few women’s views, but I do wonder how women with a similar attitude would look upon artificial wombs.

I also wonder whether there would be the same strong bond between parents, and especially mothers, and their children if babies weren’t born naturally but collected from the hatchery. I realise that the parents of adopted children are in a similar position, and generally greatly love their children, as, of course, to step-parents. I’m also well aware of the dreadful neglect and abuse some parents inflict on their kids. It’s perfectly possible, therefore, that bringing your baby home from the lab for their first time would have all the emotional impact of a natural birth and that the parental bond wouldn’t be affected. But nevertheless, I wonder.

And I’m also worried that such hatcheries could lead to the further mechanisation of what would once have been considered essential human traits, to produce genuine post-human creatures like the cyborgs of the transhumanists. These could be far beyond us in their capability while at the same time lacking in what we consider to be our essential human natures, like the Cybermen and Sontarans of Dr. Who.

These are deep, ethical issues. But fortunately, they have become pressing just yet, as the promised artificial wombs have yet to appear.

Kojo Moe: Factories as Tourist Spots in Japan

November 15, 2021

I found this interesting snippet in the ‘Funny Old World’ column in Private Eye’s issue for 18-31 March 2011, ultimately taken from a CNN item for 26th January of that year. It’s about a recent development or fad in the Japanese tourist industry: visiting factories. I know they do this in Britain, where people tour historic factories looking at things being made, or learning how they were made in the past. A good example is Ironbridge. But this is something different. It’s about appreciating factories as objects of beauty in themselves. This is radically different to previous ideas of beauty, which are centred on the living landscape, either natural or that of the rural village. And from reading the article, it seems to have its origins partly in the beginning of the film Blade Runner, where Deckard’s car flies past a refinery belching fire. The article runs

‘”Kojo moe is an infatuation with factories,” Daigo Yokoto told reporters outside a power plant in the industrial city of Kawasaki, near Tokyo, “and it’s becoming an alternative form of tourism in Japan. The geometric patterns of metal pipes and frames, the eerie smoke and sudden eruptions of flames – it is a completely different world, and it’s less than an hour away from Tokyo, where and my friends live. It’s not what goes on inside the factories that interests us, it’s the moment where the cylindrical smoke stack sends up steam, or a furnace starts belching smoke. That’s what makes us happy.”

Over the past year, kojo moe has grown from a tiny Japanese subculture into a major form of tourism, with 4,000 yen cruises to industrial zones booked out months in advance. “I love taking photos and I love factories,” added photographer Masaki Ishitani from Osaka, “and combining the two gives me an innocent sense of enjoyment. Kawasaki factories are the biggest, the most beautiful, and most wonderful in Japan. Standing here watching a giant power plant billowing out smoke is just like being in the movie Blade Runner.”

There is a similar aesthetic over here as well, albeit to a far lesser extent. I can remember passing a refinery near Cardiff with friends on the way to a re-enactment event in the ’90s, and we were struck by its awesome beauty. It was floodlit and really did resemble the refinery from Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, the film’s director, based that sequence on a factory or refinery he used to pass when he was a schoolboy or arts student. One night as was passing he said to himself, ‘God, this is beautiful’.

I find this particularly fascinating because it’s precisely the kind of aesthetic that the Futurists were trying to promote. They were a reaction to Symbolism and hated traditional, especially neo-classical art. They celebrated instead the new, modern, urban Italy, of youth, speed, violence and the new machine age. The Futurist architect Sant’Elia designed huge modernist buildings representing the new aesthetic, designs which even now, after the horrors of mid-20th century Brutalist architecture, still look futuristic. Kojo moe also interests me because it does seem to be an instance where Science Fiction has altered or set up a different ideal of beauty. I really don’t believe that the Conceptualism that was all rage as the official art of the ’90s really has done much to push the boundaries of art. I think that’s being done elsewhere, and particularly within Science Fiction and Fantasy, in media such as computer games, films, TV, book illustration and comics. And I’d like to see it appreciated by the art establishment.

Official Trailer for Live Action Version of Cowboy Bepop

October 29, 2021

I found this trailer on Moviegasm’s channel on YouTube. It’s for a live action TV version of the Japanese anime cartoon of the same name, which I have to say I haven’t seen. As far as I can tell, it’s about three future bounty hunters – one Black, one Asian and a kick-ass White woman, who come together to take down the most dangerous crims in space. It looks really good, and I like the soundtrack. It’s seems to be seventies style Funk, or strongly influenced by the kind of Funk used in that decade’s action movies and television. So, a nice bit of nostalgia for us oldies. There is one problem though: It’s going to be on Netflix. There are a number of great SF series now on the streaming channel – The Expanse and Foundation, and now this, which makes it awkward for those of us who’d rather watch mainstream terrestrial and satellite broadcasting.

The CIA and the Assassination of Zairean President Patrice Lamumba

October 5, 2021

Brian Burden, one of the great commenters on this blog, posed this question on my review of History Debunked’s video about the real brutality and evil of the hero of the film Hotel Rwanda:

“My question is, what did the UN actually do to stop the massacres? Sod all, it seems. They did not even do the obvious thing and dynamite the radio-station which was pouring out non-stop incitement to the Hutus to go out and murder Tutsis. There is a pattern here. In 1960(?) UN peacekeepers, called into the Congo by elected leader Patrice Lumumba to quell a rebellion by the Civil Guard, confiscated their weapons on arrival, but shortly afterwards, on orders from above, handed them back! When UN representative Conor O’Brien took serious steps to end the illegal secession of mineral-rich Katanga, he was promptly recalled. Next, UN “peace-keepers” stood by while Katangese troops seized and beat Lumumba – the man who had called the UN in in the first place – and then took him away and murdered him. According to a report in the Sunday Express, UN troops riding in an open truck at the back of a passenger train they were supposed to be protecting, sat tight while rebels stopped the train and massacred the passengers. In 1967, UN peace-keepers occupying the border area between Israel and Egypt withdrew without a demur when Nasser ordered them out so that he could launch an attack on Israel. No thanks to the UN that Israel resisted and prevailed. Has there ever been a conflict where UN peace-keepers have justified their title? Were they in former Yugoslavia facilitating the bloodshed, I wonder? Can’t be bothered to check!”

This is deep question, one that probably needs a whole book to itself. I don’t think the Peacekeepers facilitated the horrors in the former Yugoslavia, but there certainly were occasions when they did absolutely nothing to stop them. The massacre of Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a safe haven, is an example of this. From what I gather UN forces simply left and let the Serbs enter and massacre at will. I have come across a book by a Muslim author suggesting that the UN and British presence in Yugoslavia is part of a covert plot to guard the oil pipeline coming up through the Balkans. The same book also suggests, however, that the 7/7 bombings were also a false flag operation by the intelligence services to provide a pretext for the various invasions, but I don’t really believe this.

However, Susan Williams’ book, White Malice, shows that Patrice Lamumba of Zaire was overthrown and murdered by the CIA. Zaire was the supplier of the type of uranium used in the Manhattan Project which created the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Americans were desperate to retain control of the mines producing the uranium and had Lamumba killed because he was felt to be too close to Communism.

Lobster quotes Williams’, showing that the Americans were operating secretly in the Congo with the CIA’s predecessor, the OSS.

“The OSS station in the Belgian Congo had a unique, top-secret mission: to protect the export of uranium from the Congo to America and to keep it out of enemy hands. Congolese ore was essential for the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic weapons and was led by the United States, with some assistance from Britain and Canada. This uranium was used to build the first atomic bomb to be tested: the Trinity test in New Mexico, in July 1945, which launched the atomic age. It was also used to build the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month—on 6 August and 9 August, respectively.

The source of the ore was the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga, the southern province of the Congo. Shinkolobwe produced uranium that was far richer than any other uranium in the world: it assayed as high as 75 per cent uranium oxide, with an average of 65 per cent. By contrast, ores of marketable quality from the Colorado Plateau in the US and from Canada contained two-tenths of 1 per cent . . . .’ (pp. 30/31)”

The review states

“In retrospect it is obvious that any African leader in the Congo who didn’t swear allegiance to the American embassy and promise to let the US control the uranium was going to be disposed of. Patrice Lumumba, the nationalist Congolese leader at the time, didn’t understand this or didn’t care (which of
those isn’t clear to me) so he was ousted and killed. Williams devotes 250 pages to the Congo and the death of Lumumba. The events, military, political and diplomatic, preceding that murder are detailed day by day, sometimes even hour by hour. To justify the killing of Lumumba and the installation of an
American puppet, the CIA duly invented a ‘communist plot’.”

Lamumba is only one of a whole string of foreign politicians and heads of state, who have been assassinated or overthrown in American-backed coups. William Blum devotes a whole chapter to these in one of his books, and another chapter to US secret interference in foreign elections.

See: https://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/free/lobster82/lob82-cia-africa.pdf

Belfield Attacks Gemma Collins for Guzzling £700 Gold-Wrapped Steak

September 29, 2021

I’ve put up several pieces on this blog commenting on, and occasionally reblogging, videos from mad right-wing YouTuber Alex Belfield. I don’t share his right-wing political opinions, but he’s interesting for what he says about the attitudes of a certain type of working class Conservative. And occasionally he does say something worthwhile that people across the political spectrum can agree on. This morning he put up a video attacking Gemma Collins for eating a £700 steak in a very expensive London restaurant. Belfield states that the steak itself couldn’t have cost more than £50, and quotes the prices of steak available from your average supermarket that are much, much lower at about a tenth of that. He finds this kind of very ostentatious, massively expensive consumption on overpriced luxuries obscene when large numbers of Brits can only get their meals at food banks and those that aren’t are worried about how they’re going to pay for their next meal.

He also describes another similar obscene display of wealth when a group of Japanese businessmen came in to a restaurant and ordered £1,000 bottles of wine. Of which they only drank one glass before leaving. The restauranteur was not impressed by what Belfield describes, rather vulgarly, as ‘willy-waggling’ and so gathered he staff and treated them to the expensive steaks and wine the Japanese had left behind untouched.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by these crass, offensive displays of wealth. I read a book on Japan years ago by a former Times journalist, who remarked that as many Japanese had become millionaires, they’d overtaken the Americans for vulgar displays of wealth. One example of this is a Japanese department store which served, for the equivalent of $100, tea containing gold flakes. This could be drunk in a special room set aside where the drinker could contemplate a print of Van Gogh’s ‘The Sunflowers.’ Then there’s the brand of Swizz vodka, Goldberg, which also contains gold flakes. In the case of the Japanese tea, I suspect there’s an influence there from Chinese alchemy. This differed from the western type in being focused on the quest for immortality. Chinese alchemists believed that this could be achieved by replacing the perishables materials of the human body with imperishable matter, and so slowly poisoned their clients by getting them to eat gold, pearls and so on. On the other hand, it could just be a display of tasteless vulgarity.

Of course, there are other ways in which the people Private Eye once described as the ‘futile rich’ flaunt their wealth in front of the poor. Grossly overpriced clothes has always been one favourite, like the £7,000 leather trousers Tweezer sported when she had her rear end in 10 Downing Street. And modern celebrity culture, unfortunately, is characterised by a very materialist attitude in which actors, sportsmen and pop stars frequently engage in tasteless demonstrations of their wealth. You think of all the jewellery sported by a certain type of pop star with the dollar sign, for example.

Gemma Collins and a number of other celebs is a frequent target of Belfield’s, along with Carol Vorderman, Katie Price and Marcus Rashford, amongst others. Some of these attacks seem based on little more than personal dislike. Others, such as his attacks on Diane Abbott, seem rather more for political reasons. But there’s a serious point behind his video on Collins and the gold-wrapped steak. Such displays of very conspicuous wealth are obscene and offensive when people are poor and starving, and always have been. It’s how revolutions start. The guzzling of such food and drink recalls Marie Antoinette’s inflammatory comment during the French Revolution. When told the starving masses had no bread, she supposedly said, ‘Let them eat cake’. The result of this contempt for the poor was the overthrow of the monarchy and the massacre of the aristocracy as enemies of the people.

Despite the right’s attempt to monopolise politics and discredit the left, some writers and academics are very much afraid that the increasing gulf between rich and poor will provoke an uprising. Watch out! When people are starving and desperate, eating £700 steaks is the kind of behaviour that will have the peasants picking up their pitchforks and the tumbrils once again rolling down the streets on the way to the guillotine.

Quinn Looks at the Rave Reviews for Dune

September 5, 2021

Here’s a bit of fun to kick off Sunday. Quinn, the man behind the aptly named ‘Quinn’s Ideas’, is a Black American SF/comics writer and creator. He has a taste in classic SF tales of star-spanning galactic empires extending over centuries and millennia, intelligent stories that are part of the tradition of SF as ‘the literature of ideas’. Books like Asimov’s Foundation series, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion and especially, Frank Herbert’s Dune. Dune has now been adapted by Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. Dune opens in America the end of October. I think it might the 20th, but I’m not sure. However, the critics have seen it, and the reviews are in. They rave about it!

Quinn wonders if his audience can tell that he can hardly contain his excitement. Well, it is noticeable. He’s almost shaking with joy and expectation. The critics have loved the film, including the musical score by Hans Zimmer. Amongst the praise, one critics compares it to the moment audiences first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. This is high praise indeed! 2001 has dated, but it still one of the great SF films of all time. I was a junior school kid when I first saw Star War, and it completely blew me away. Michael Frayn, the literature professor and broadcaster, said in an interview about his favourite movies that he saw it, and the first moments immediately seized and amazed you. This was the moment the star destroyer appeared in pursuit of the princess Leia’s rebel ship. It appeared and grew and continued growing.

Quinn hopes the film lives up to this hype, as he wants it to be remembered as the cinematic version of Dune, not the 1980s David Lynch version. This took liberties with the book. One of these was the portrayal of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He was presented as a stupid, screaming madman. As Quinn says, the Dune miniseries was much better, although it had a much lower budget and the costumes were ridiculous. I have to differ from him here. I do agree with him that the Dune miniseries is an excellent adaptation, especially in the portrayal of the Baron. He’s closer to the character in the book, camp, but intelligent, subtle and cunning. I don’t know about the book, but the miniseries made him a kind of Shakespearean villain. He hated the Atreides because of the way that House looked down upon his family for generations. It recalled the line from King Lear where Edmund rants about how he is marginalised and excluded because he is a bastard, and so excluded from the throne. The Baron in the miniseries also versifies, celebrating his coming victories in rhyming couplets or haikus. Where I disagree is that I don’t think the costumes are ridiculous. I think the costume designer took his inspiration partly from 16th century Europe, shown in the uniform of the emperor’s Sardaukar shock troops, and also east Asia. The Harkonnen armour looks very much like it was inspired by Japanese samurai. Of course, it’s space age version of sixteenth century and Japanese armour and fashions. The costume of the guild ambassadors with their curiously curved headgear looks like it was inspired by some of the weird hats in Moebius, such as the one worn by his hero Arzach. I do, however, dislike the Fremen costume. I realise this is supposed to be clothes worn by harassed, persecuted desert-dwellers, but it’s tough rough and crude. The traditional clothes worn by modern desert peoples, like the Bedouin, are of much better quality even though these peoples may also be poor. I also found the miniseries’ version of the still suits, which collects the characters waste fluids from sweat, urine and faeces, and reprocesses them into drinkable water so that they can survive in the desert, disappointing. But then I don’t think they could ever match up to the stylish suits in the David Lynch movie.

I’m really looking forward to the new Dune movie, and hope to see it at the movies here, lockdown permitting. The trailers look superb and selected critics, including Quinn himself, were invited to special screenings of the first ten minutes of the movie. This massively impressed them. I’m a fan of both David Lynch’s Dune, which I consider to be a flawed masterpiece, and the miniseries. But I really hope Villeneuve’s version lives up to the hype. As Quinn’s commenters point out, what impresses the critics and the ordinary person in the auditorium are two different things. Blade Runner 2049 impressed the critics, but audience were much less impressed. It may be the same with his Dune, though I sincerely hope not. Any way, here’s the video he posted, so judge for yourself from his comments.