Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Lem’s Robots and Marvin the Paranoid Android

February 15, 2017

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Polish SF Maestro Stanislaw Lem

Remember Marvin, the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? He was the manically depressed robot with a brain the size of a planet, who also suffered from a terrible pain in the diodes all down his left side. I was reminded of him yesterday when reading one of the short stories in Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines (Harmondsworth: Penguin 2016.

Lem’s a highbrow Polish SF writer, who uses his fiction to explore deep philosophical issues, sometimes stretching and challenging the conventions of the short story form itself. One of his volumes, A Perfect Vacuum, consists of reviews of non-existent books. Another one is blurbs, also for books that don’t exist. As you can see from this, he was strongly influenced by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, after whom he’s been hailed as the ‘Borges of Science Fiction’. But he could also write straightforward stories, some of which could be hilariously funny.

Two of his works are collected short stories about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines. The stories in the Cyberiad, and several in Mortal Engines, are literally technological fairytales, in which electroknights sally forth to battle robotic dragons. Or mad robotic inventors compete with each other to create the most impressive machines, machines which usually go disastrously wrong. One of the stories in Mortal Engines, ‘The Sanatorium of Dr Vliperdius’, is about a journalist who goes to visit a mental hospital for robots. At the end of his visit, just as he is going out, the journo encounters yet another troubled cybernetic soul.

On my way back with the young assistant I met in the corridor a patient who was pulling behind him a heavily laden cart. This individual presented a singular sight, in that he was tied all around with bits of string.

‘You don’t by any chance have a hammer?’ he asked.
‘No’.
‘A shame. My head hurts.’

I engaged him in conversation. He was a robot-hypochondriac. On his squeaking cart he carried a complete set of spare parts. After ten minutes I learned that he got shooting pains in the back during storms, pins and needles all over while watching television, and spots before his eyes when anyone stroked a cat nearby. It grew monotonous, so I left him quickly and headed for the director’s office. (P. 131).

There’s a serious philosophical issue here, apart from Lem’s literary exploration of the kind of delusions mentally ill robots could suffer from, such as the robot earlier in the story, who believes that he’s really organic, but that somebody has stolen his human body and replaced it with the machine he inhabits. If humanity ever creates genuinely sentient machines, which are able to think and reason like humans – and that’s a big ‘if’, despite the assertions of some robotics engineers – then presumably there will come a point when these machines suffer psychological problems, just as humans do.

Mortal Engines was first published in America by Seabury Press in 1977, roughly at the same time Hitch-Hiker came out on radio over here. Hitch-Hiker is full of references to philosophical problems, such as the debate about the existence of God, so clearly both he and Lem saw the same potential for using robots to explore spiritual malaise, and the psychological implication of genuine Artificial Intelligence.

The US Intelligence Agencies’ Plans for Mind-Control Implants for the Public

January 28, 2017

Magonia was a small, sceptical UFO magazine running from about the 1970s to the first years of the present century. It took the psychosocial view of UFOs- that they were, in the phrase of Carl G. Jung, ‘a modern myth of things scene in the sky’. They were misperceived objects, and the reported encounters with aliens were internal events produced by poorly understood psychological processes whose imagery was taken from the culture around them. It followed John Keel and Jacques Vallee in considering that in previous ages, the mechanism responsible for producing UFO sightings had used the imagery of gods and faeries. Now that society has become industrial and technological, and the supernatural at least ostensibly given way to scientific rationalism, the beings reported by those experiencing these sightings are spacecraft and aliens as the new, psychological symbol for the cosmic Other.

It has published some of the most interesting and intelligent articles on UFOs, and other visionary experiences in contemporary urban culture. Like many small mags, it’s been overtaken by the internet and is no longer published in hardcopy. There is, however, a Magonia blog, reviewing books on the weird and paranormal at http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-nature-of-catastrophe.html. Also on-line are archives of the magazine and its predecessor, MUFOB, as well as notices of forthcoming books on the subjects it covers.

magonia-58-cover

Way back in issue 58 in January 1997, it published an article by Mark Pilkington, ‘What’s On Your Mind’, examining the belief reported by many schizophrenics that their minds are being controlled through tiny electronic implants. Similar delusions that others are controlling their minds and their thoughts through machinery have afflicted the mentally ill down the centuries. I have a feeling that there was a book reviewed by the Fortean Times about a decade or so ago about the first such recorded case. This was in the late 18th or early 19th century. The sufferers in this instance was a gentleman, who believed his mind was being controlled by a group of Jacobins determined to overthrow the government, using a machine he called ‘the air loom’.

Unfortunately, such devices have for many decades most certainly not been merely the fantasies of the psychologically ill, or of writers of spy and science fiction. Mark Pilkington’s article also briefly traced the notorious experiments carried out by the American intelligence agencies into mind control from the early 1950s under a series of covert projects such as Artichoke, Bluebird, Pandora, Mkdelta, Mksearch and Mkultra. The projects researched a variety of different methods, including drugs, hypnosis and electro-shock treatment in a variety of grossly unethical experiments. And one the avenues they explored was electronic manipulation of the brain. This resulted in the creation of the ‘stimoceiver’, a type of electrode which could be inserted into the brain to control or modify a creatures’ behaviour. Its inventor, Jose Delgado supposedly demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention by using it to stop a charging bull. Research into the electronic control of the brain was taken still further by Bryan Robinson, of the Yerkes Primate Research Laboratory, and Dr Robert Heath.

Mark Pilkington writes:

Dr Robert Heath, a neurosurgeon at Tulane University, claimed a world record after implanting 125 electrodes into a subject’s body and brain, and subsequently spent hours stimulating the man’s pleasure centres. Both scientists concluded that ESB [Electronic Stimulation of the Brain] could control memory, impulses, feelings, invoke hallucinations, fear and pleasure. Heath, and many of his colleagues, considered ESB a potential ‘cure’ for homosexuals and other ‘socially troublesome persons’; this could, of course, be you…Joseph A. Meyer, of the National Security Agency, America’s most secretive defence group, has proposed implanting electronic tags into all those arrested, for any crime, in order to monitor their behaviour at all times. He uses New York’s Harlem district as the model in his proposal. (p.4).

He then goes to discuss further refinements of the technology, and the possibility that the whole abduction phenomenon, or at least part of it, was a screen for the military testing of such technology for their possible use in warfare.

I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of the poor souls, who believe their minds are being controlled by electronic implants, whether put there by the terrestrial intelligence agencies, aliens or whoever, are simply mentally ill. Just as I similarly don’t believe that anyone has ever been physically abducted and taken aboard an alien spacecraft to be examined and abused.

But the technology to control people’s minds and brains artificially certainly does exist, and its use was promoted by senior members of the intelligence community, whose views represent a very clear and present danger to the personal freedom of just about everyone. Starting, of course, with the fringe and marginalised – like criminals, Blacks and gays, before getting to anyone else they consider socially deviant and needing necessary mental correction.

Unfortunately, the threat posed by this kind of technology is taken seriously largely by extreme right-wing paranoiacs like the infamous conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, on Infowars, with his bizarre fantasies about demonic entities, alien invasions and the coming one world superstate. And Jones is a Libertarian, who has given his vocal support to Donald Trump, who represents the very same, predatory, exploitative corporate elite Americans and the world’s citizens need protection from.

Which goes to bear out the old phrase: ‘Even paranoiacs have enemies. They just don’t know who they are.’

It also shows that organisations like the CIA and the NSA are also actively threats to human rights and personal freedoms, quite apart from the Agency’s role in overthrowing democratic regimes and installing subservient Fascist regimes across the world since the end of the Second World War.

Chief of Charity Mind to Head Government Mental Health Review with Chief of HBOS

January 14, 2017

Mike has also posted up today another story, reporting that Paul Farmer, the head of the mental health charity, MIND, has caused further anger among mental health workers and activists by agreeing to head a government review of mental health in the workplace. This review would also be headed by Lord Dennis Stevenson, the head of the banking conglomerate HBOS. May has stated that this is part of her government’s decision to looking into the ‘burning injustice’ of mental health. Among the issues it will examine is that of discrimination for jobs.

Farmer upset mental health activists at the end of October, when he claimed that his charity had no contracts with the government. A disgruntled employee then leaked documents showing that despite his denial that it would ever do so, the charity was in fact joining a government framework which would allow it to later obtain them.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/01/14/fresh-anger-over-minds-government-links-as-farmer-heads-new-review/

This, sadly, won’t come as a surprise to many left-wing bloggers. Johnny Void in particular has covered case after nauseating case where the very charities, who should be protecting the poor, the sick, the homeless and the vulnerable, have instead decided to throw in their lot with the government and become part of the nexus of private firms and non-profit organisations now doing the job of state welfare agencies. And in the cases Mr Void has examined, one after another of the heads of these charities also decide that the punitive legislation inflicted on those unable to work is badly needed to encourage them to get back on their feet. The most notorious of these are the private firms and initiatives seeking to profit from exploiting the unemployed under the workfare schemes. This is also pointed out by Florence, in her comment to Mike’s article above.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical here, but I predict that the review will conclude, following the pseudoscientific bilge spouted by the welfare to work industry, that work is good for those with mental health problems. They will then argue that existing legislation needs to be relaxed, and those with depression, anxiety and other disorders need to get off their rear ends and be forced into work through the workfare schemes.

I can even remember the head of one of these charities running an advert promoting this line. This showed a drawing of a young woman in bed, and the quotes ‘I didn’t get up for work today. I don’t think I’ll get up for work tomorrow’. This was supposed to be an example of the negative attitude that prevents people with mental illness getting jobs, which the charity was determined to combat.

I’ve got news for them. They really obviously don’t know what they’re talking about. One of the things I’ve learned from my own experience after a nervous breakdown years ago from talking to others like myself is that those with mental illness do not just arbitrarily decide they don’t really feel like working. It’s the opposite. They cannot face work and its stresses. And accompanying the depression itself, is further feelings of depression and guilt over the fact that they have not been able to ‘pull themselves together’. Many of them may even have been working for several weeks or months before it all becomes far too much.

And quite often, they may have been driven to their depression by the job itself, through pressure of work, vindictive or poor management, or simply mind-numbing, soul-destroying boredom.

And you can see how this review is going to be slanted by the appointment of Lord Stevens. Is he a mental health professional, say, a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse, or neurologist? No, he’s a banker. I dare say his appointment will be defended on the grounds that he understands the needs of business, but the reality is that he’s there to make sure that anything done in the name of the mentally ill will benefit private business. So you can bet that both he and Farmer will recommend that some part of the welfare state that actually protects and defends the mentally ill should be sold off or abolished on some spurious pretext.

Theresa May has no interest in removing or combating the ‘burning injustice’ of mental illness, as her party’s policies have created so much of it. She is merely interested in seeming to do something, and by allowing the further exploitation of her party’s victims.

Website Discussing the Pyschopathology of Donald Trump

January 8, 2017

A few days ago I put up a piece from Sam Seder’s Minority Report about a letter by three American professors of psychiatry to the Surgeon General expressing concern about Donald Trump’s health. The writers believed that Trump showed signs of severe personality defects that could exclude him from being medically fit to fulfil his post as the next American president. They therefore requested that the Surgeon General should order a psychological examination of The Donald to assess his mental fitness.

I received this comment from Twoifbycharm, who said:

This is dead on. I have done some writing on this topic, and several doctors have weighed in favorably on it. Trump exhibits the characteristics of a narcissistic sociopath. Please take a look at my report and decide for yourself. This is a dangerous situation. https://twoifbycharmwordpress.wordpress.com/ B. Ashley.

Twoifbycharm says in the introduction to his site

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, we have seen numerous examples of Donald Trump’s behavior fitting neatly into the blueprint presented in this blog. The “black heart” and “lack of empathy” Mr. Khan so eloquently spoke of falls within the framework of a dangerous personality disorder according to experts. Some call it Narcissistic Personality Disorder, while other experts describe this behavior as sociopathic, or psychopathic.

The purpose of the original posting below (link to WordPress article dated 07.14.16 is posted here) is to call attention to an apparent mental health issue as it appears to relate to Trump. It is to provoke thought and incite a broad discussion around Donald Trump’s apparent dangerous personality disorder, and provides a reliable and consistent profile of Trump’s behavior.

Based on Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martha Stout’s highly-touted book, The Sociopath Next Door, Trump seems to fit the bill of a sociopath, and that is why I speculated that he is a sociopath in the original posting. A reasonable person must admit that Trump’s behavior does align with the description in her introductory chapter.

I don’t know whether there is something clinically wrong with Trump, or if he simply just another racist, misogynist moron with an immense, and immensely fragile ego and an overwhelming urge to power. Though if you put it that way, there probably is. If you’re interested in this issue, you may wish to go to Twoifbycharm’s website and make your own decision, based on what they have to say.

Vox Political on Philip Davies Filibuster against Protecting Women from Domestic Violence

January 4, 2017

This is a story that’s now nearly a month old, but I thought there were a few comments that still needed to be made about it. On the 16th of last month, Mike put up a story reporting and attacking the ‘shame of Shipley’, Philip Davies, for attempting to talk out a parliamentary bill pledging Britain to support the Istanbul Convention. This is an international agreement pledging states to combat domestic violence against women. Among those, who have urged Britain to support it is the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, Emma Watson, who you may remember played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. Mike remarks that Davies also seems to have a particular animus towards her.

It wouldn’t surprise me.

Davies is the boorish grotesque, who was elected unopposed as one of the Tory members of the women’s equality committee in the House of Commons, despite the fact that he is a raging anti-feminist, who last year spoke at a Men’s Rights Conference. Mike goes through all of his arguments against supporting the convention, point by point, and refutes them.

Davies at one stage claimed that the Istanbul Convention should not be supported, because statistics showed men were more likely to suffer violence than women. Mike pointed out that there was a difference between street violence, which was normally directed against men, and domestic violence, where the victims were largely women.

A friend of mine used to be a psychiatric nurse. He told me that he was taught that both men and women were equally likely to sent to hospital by their partners. However, men were far more likely than women to kill their partners. This fact alone demands that women need extra protection under the law.

As for Emma Watson and domestic violence against men, Watson is something of a bete noir amongst the denizens of the manosphere because of her feminist activism. However, she is not a misandrist and has stated that the issue of domestic violence against men also needs to be tackled. Kevin Logan has a clip of her making that point very clearly in one of the videos he has posted in his the ‘Descent of the Manosphere’ series. He also posted up a list of stories from the papers in which feminists also promoted legislation to protect men from rape, another issue which anti-feminists like Davies have falsely claimed feminists have ignored.

For Mike’s article and arguments against Davies’ rant, see: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/16/the-shame-of-shipley-fails-to-derail-bill-protecting-women-against-violence/

As for Philip Davies, the Tories have repeatedly claimed that they’re standing up for women’s equality with Dave Cameron and Theresa May demanding more women in the boardroom, and May’s elevation as the unelected British prime minister by her fellow Tories. The fact that Davies has also been appointed to the women’s equality committee shows how seriously they really take the issue: Not at all.

American Psychiatrists Fear Trump Mentally Ill, Unsuited for Presidency

December 29, 2016

They aren’t the only one, and this is serious.

In this video from The Young Turks, The Ring of Fire’s Farron Cousins reports that three professors of psychiatry, one from Harvard, the other two from the University of California San Francisco, have written a letter to Barack Obama requesting that he step in and force Trump to take a psychiatric examination. They are concerned that he suffers from psychological defects that render him not just unsuitable, but actually too dangerous to be given the job of president. They believe that Trump’s grandiosity, his impetuousness, the way he takes offence and responds aggressive at even the mildest criticism point to mental illness. He may just suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, perhaps something rather more serious than that, or perhaps even be a full-blown sociopath. Cousins states that it could just be affluenza. Trump comes from an extremely wealthy background, and has been given everything he wanted, including now the presidency. But it looks more serious than this.

This makes Trump extremely dangerous. He cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes, nor control of the drone programme, which he could use to strike down his opponents. Cousins states that the US constitution provides for presidents to be removed or impeached if they are unfit for their office. And mental illness would certainly come under those conditions disqualifying a president from taking office on fitness grounds. Cousins believes it is unfortunately too early at this stage to use this to prevent Trump gaining office. But he recommends that letter should be saved and stored, and that once Trump is in the White House, it should be taken out and acted upon.

Pro-NHS Political Comment in Paul McAuley’s ‘Something Coming Through’

December 27, 2016

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One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.

McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.

Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.

Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.

Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.

One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.

Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.

I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.

It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.

And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.

West World and the Original Robots of R.U.R.

October 23, 2016

A few weeks ago H.B.O. launched the latest SF blockbuster show, West World. It’s a TV series based on the 1970s film of the same name, written by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton’s Jurassic Park nearly twenty years or so later, West World is about a fantasy amusement, presided over by a sinister inventor played by Anthony Hopkins, the man who scared audiences witless as the cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal. While Jurassic Park was about scientific attempts to recreate the dinosaurs for popular amusement, in West World the amusement park was a resort which attempted to recreate past eras for fun. This included the Middle Ages, and a section devoted to the old West. Like Jurassic Park, things go disastrously wrong. A computer malfunction makes the robots break the inbuilt restrictions on their behaviour, so that they gain autonomy and independence. In the medieval part of the resort, a man, who is used to getting his way with the female androids has his advances rebuffed with the curt answer, ‘Methinks Sir forgets himself’. But the real action of the story is the attempts by the movie’s hero over in the West World part of the resort to overcome the black-garbed, robot gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner. Like Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, the gunslinger is an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, and the hero has to destroy it before it kills him, just like it gunned down his friend.

The TV series has adapted and altered the story. The gunman is now human, rather than robotic, and the focus seems to have shifted more to the robots than the humans. They are the victims of the humans enjoying the resort, who come to act out terrible fantasies of rape and killing that they would never dare consider doing in the real world to other human beings. The robot hosts they use – and abuse – are repaired and have their memories wiped ready for the next set of visitors to do the same, all over again. But attempts to give the machines consciousness have had an effect. The machines are beginning to remember. The press releases to the series state that its premise is not about machines developing consciousness and intelligence, but what they will make of us when they do.

The artificial humans in West World are less robots in the sense of mechanical people, than artificial humans. The titles show artificial tendons and muscles being placed on synthetic skeletons by robotic arms in a more developed version of 3D printing.

This conception of artificial humans shows the influence of Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film changed Dick’s androids to ‘replicants’, artificial men and women created through sophisticated genetic engineering for use as slave soldiers and sex workers. Produced by the Tyrell Corporation under the slogan ‘More Human Than Human’, these genetic constructs have a desire for freedom and longevity. In order to stop them overthrowing humanity, they only have a lifespan of six years or so. They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated psychologically and emotionally. In the book and film, they can only be distinguished from natural people through the Voight-Comp Test. This is a complex psychological test in which the subjects have to answer a series of questions. Part of this is to measure their capacity for empathy. Replicants generally are unable to sympathise or understand others’ suffering. The test asks those undergoing its questions to imagine their in a desert. They see a tortoise lying on its back, dying in the hot sun. The animal is clearly in pain and dying, but they don’t help it. Why not? At the end of the movie, Deckard, the film’s hero, a Blade Runner – the special policemen charged with catching and ‘retiring’ replicants that have made it down to Earth, is in serious danger. In his battle with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader and now their only survivor after he has tracked them all down, Deckard has failed to make a jump across two of the buried skyscrapers underneath the sprawling future LA. He is hanging from a girder, about to fall to his death. Until Batty, before his own programmed obsolescence kills him, pulls him to safety. Batty has developed genuine sympathy for another stricken creature. He has triumphantly passed the Voight-Comp test, and shown more humanity than the humans who made him and who enslave his kind.

It’s a very old theme, which goes all the way back to one of the very first Science Fiction plays, if not the very first SF play, to deal with a robot revolt, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, this was the play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The word comes from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. It’s set in a company producing these artificial people, which are used for everything from factory workers to domestic servants. They have also been stripped of complex emotional responses to make them suitable servants. But as with the synthetic hosts of West World, this is breaking down. Instead of simply performing their tasks, the robots are increasingly stopping and refusing to work. They simply stand there, grinding their teeth. Eventually their growing dissatisfaction turns from simple recalcitrance to outright revolt. The machines rebel, exterminating humanity and leaving the company’s accountant, Alquist, as the only survivor.

Like Blade Runner’s replicants and the synthetic hosts of West World, Capek’s robots were not machine so much as creatures produced through a kind of artificial biology. In the first act, the company’s general manager, Domain, explains the origins of the robots in the biological researches of the biologist, Rossum, to Helena Glory, the daughter of an Oxbridge prof.

‘It was in the year 1922’, informs Domain, ‘that old Rossum the great physiologist, who was then quite a young scientist, betook himself to this distant island for the purpose of studying the ocean fauna, full stop. On this occasion he attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm, until he suddenly discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter, although its chemical composition was different; that was in the year 1932, exactly four hundred years after the discovery of America, whew!’ (The Brothers Capek, R.U.R. and The Insect Play(Oxford: OUP 1961) p. 5). Later Domain tells Helena a little about the industrial processes in which the robots are manufactured:

Domain: … Midday. The Robots don’t know when to stop work. In two hours I’ll show you the kneading-trough.

Helena: What kneading-trough?

Domain. [Dryly] The pestles and mortar as it were for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. They you’ll see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning-mill.

Helena: What spinning-mill?

Domain: For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a stretch. Then there’s the fitting shed, where all the parts are put together, like motor-cars. Next comes the drying-kiln and the warehouse in which the new products work. (p. 15).

Like Blade Runner, the robots of R.U.R. end by becoming human emotionally. Just as the replicants in Blade Runner have a severely limited lifetime, so Capek’s Robots, as beings created purely for work, are sterile. After their victory, they approach Alquist requesting that more of them be created as their numbers of falling. Despite their entreaties, Alquist can’t. He is not a scientist, and the last of the company’s management destroyed the manuscript describing how they were made before they themselves were killed. Radius, the leader of the robots, requests Alquist to find out by dissecting living robots. When Primus, one of the male robots, and Helena, a female robot, each defend the other, refusing to let Alquist take them for experimentation, the old accountant realises that the mystery of their reproduction has been solved. The play ends with him reciting the text of Genesis describing God’s creation of Man. The last lines are him reciting the Nunc Dimissit : ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy will, for mine eye have seen Thy salvation.’

This last marks the major difference between R.U.R. and modern treatments of the rise of robots and their possible replacement of humanity: R.U.R. is explicitly Christian in its underlying tone. It’s stated very clearly that Rossum was a militant atheist, who wanted to play God in order to show that God is unnecessary for the emergence of life. The ending, however, is ambiguous. Rossum was an anti-theist, but his artificial creations, which are based on a chemistry not found in nature, clearly work, and in turn become genuine, self-perpetuating, authentic men and women with intelligence, emotions and morality.

Some critics have said that R.U.R. really isn’t SF so much as a technological parable about the threat of Communism. It was written in 1920, a few years after the Russian Revolution and similar outbreaks of working class militancy across Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary. But other works, that are undoubtedly considered Science Fiction, are also veiled comments on events and issues of the time. Much of the SF of the former Soviet Union, like that of the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the classic Stalker, was written in the ‘Aesopian Mode’. They were intended as parables to say in veiled form truths and comments that could not be overtly made under Soviet censorship.

And the conception of robots as a form of genuine artificial life does seem to be based on some of the scientific speculation of the time. Russian scientists, such as Oparin, were acutely interested in the emergence of life on the prehistoric Earth, and devised several experiments to suggest how the chemicals necessary for life may have been formed. And the Communists, as militant atheists, were keen supporters of Darwinian evolution, though I think they viewed it as proceeding through a form of dialectal materialism, and so bearing that theory out, rather than some of the more sophisticated, non-Marxist conceptions that have occurred later. Russian Cosmists, like the Transhumanists today, wished to develop scientific methods of resurrecting the dead and then colonising space as a suitable habitat for the new, perfected humanity.

Furthermore, some experiments and speculation in robotics has moved away from simple, mechanical processes. Human muscles operate biochemically. Messages from nerves changes the shape of the molecules composing muscles, which in turn makes those same muscles contract or expand, moving the organism’s limbs. Some scientists have therefore worked on trying to mimic this process of movement using artificial substances, rather than existing electrical or petrol-driven motors. This brings the construction of robots very close the type of 3D printing shown in West World’s titles.

My own feeling is that it will be a very long time, if ever, before humanity produces anything like the sentient robots of SF. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the scientists interviewed by the science magazine, Frontiers, in 1998 stated that he didn’t think we’d see genuinely conscious, intelligent robots in his lifetime. Anthony Hopkins in an interview in this week’s Radio Times makes the same point, stating that we haven’t created anything as simply as a single cell. This does not mean that humanity won’t, or detract from stories about robots as entertainment, or as the means by which philosophical issues about creation, the nature of life and humanity, consciousness and intelligence, can be explored. West World in this sense is part of a trend in recent screen SF attempting to explore these issues intelligently, such as Automata and The Machine. These new treatments are far more secular, but as philosophical treatments of the underlying issues, rather than simple stories about warfare between humanity and its creations, like the Terminator, they also follow in a long line that goes all the way back to Capek.

Israel W. Charny on Genocide Victims’ and Israelis’ Toleration of Atrocities against Others

October 17, 2016

In his chapter ‘The Denial of Known Genocides’ in the book Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review vol. 2 (London: Mansell 1991), Israel W. Charny, the book’s editor, discusses instances where the survivors of genocides are perfectly prepared to tolerate and approve of massacres and atrocities against others, despite having been the victims of such crimes themselves. Charny discusses the findings of research done in Israel, including with Holocaust survivors and medical students, as well as the general public. This found that a disturbingly high number of Israelis, and especially those, who had survived the horrors of the Nazi camps and student medical professionals, were more than willing to tolerate and even approve the mass murder of other human beings.

Charny writes:

Another sense in which victims can be said to be engaging in denial is that, despite their profound awareness of the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, many survivors themselves have not learned to make a commitment to protecting the lives of all other human beings. Charny and his associates have conducted a series of studies of the readiness of Holocaust survivors to approve or recommend or themselves be prepared to do evil to others. In the one study referred to early (Charny and Fromer, submitted for publication), where Jewish/Israelis who were going to see Lanzmann’s film Shoah were interviewed, the subjects were asked their opinions about a soldier who had been convicted for massacre of innocent Arabs who said years later that he would do it again – that he was only following orders, and would serve his country’s needs the same way under similar circumstances. Overall 38% of the subjects approved of the soldier’s position; among Holocaust survivors, children of survivors and an extended group of the subjects who had expressed themselves as strongly involved with the Holocaust, the approval rate was 46% as compared to 26% among non-survivors (a difference that was statistically significant).

In another experiment, Charny and Fromer (in press) and Fromer and Charny (submitted for publication) studied Jewish/Israeli students in medicine, psychology and social work as to their readiness to harm and even kill patients. The subjects were presented with a situation in which they were to imagine themselves in the future working in a developing country in Africa. As condition in the country worsen seriously and resources dwindle, the health authorities undertake to eliminate treatment and maintenance for the most severe cases, and to undertake involuntary mass euthanasia; 34% of the subjects agreed to the former step, and 17% to the latter. When the subjects were then told that the Ministry of Health determined that the involuntary euthanasia would be executed more humanely if done by professionals, and the subjects were asked who of themselves would be prepared to kill the patients, 11% agreed. In a continuation of the same experiment (Charny and Fromer – in press, and Fromer and Charny, submitted for publication), the subjects were also asked to think of themselves as having been called up to national service by an extreme right-wing Israeli government and they are ordered to classify all Arab citizens of Israel in connection with the government’s program for a forced migration of the Arabs from Israel. The rates of compliance varied between 21% and 34% (or one out of five to one out of three). The seriousness of the behaviours in all of the above cases was underscored by an addition survey the authors made of 30 supervisors-trainers in medicine, psychology and social work, 60% of whom, and in some cases many more, indicated they would expel any student from their clinical training programme who would agree to participate in such activities.

Charny and Sarid (in process) have studied the opinions of Israelis of the desirability of the Israeli government maintaining political, economic and security-interest relationships with each of three governments who were described as persecuting a minority people in their land. Although the situations described were presented as fictional, each actually was patterned after a specific real scenario – (a) South Africa; (b) Nazi Germany preceding the Holocaust or Turkish-Armenian relationships leading up to the Armenian genocide; and (c) the Holocaust. These responses were also analyzed for differences between Holocaust survivors and others. 78% of the survivors opposed the Israeli government maintaining relationships with the government that was described as persecuting its targeted minority in a way that was similar to what happened in the Holocaust, while 64.5% of non-survivors took this position. However, with respect to the two other persecutory governments who were oppressing their minorities differently, 56% of survivors and 39 to 52% (in different situations) of non-survivors took this position. The implication of these findings is that both Holocaust survivors specifically as well as other Israelis tend to have “learned” much more how to oppose evils which resemble the ones they endured against other peoples, but continue to deny or not react as strongly to the dangers of other “faces of evil” to which they do not generalize a full measure of moral outrage.

Altogether, these studies record a disappointing degree of callousness and obtuseness to genocidal massacre and threat of massacre towards peoples by substantial numbers of actual Holocaust survivors as well as, overall, on the part of the people of the survivors of the Holocaust, namely Jewish/Israelis. It should rightly be noted that research date from other peoples often show even higher rates of identification with and justification of genocidal massacres (e.g. Kelman and Hamilton, 1989; see also the extensive discussions of these issues in Charny and Fromer in press – a and b, and submitted for publication); but from an ideal ethical point of view, one would wish that all survivors of the Holocaust, and all Jewish/Israelis, would manifest an unerring sensitivity to the plights of all other peoples. (Pp. 7-8, my emphasis).

These figures are disturbing and disappointing because of the expectation many people have that the Jews, as a people, who have suffered horrendous persecution during much of their history, and particularly Holocaust survivors, who have been through what can only be described as a living hell – should be uniquely placed to have a greater hostility to the perpetration of such crimes.

Please Note: I am not suggesting for a single moment that Jews or Israelis are any more intolerant or ready to commit genocide and massacre than any other people. Indeed, Charny’s article passage reproduced here makes it clear that other nations may be even more disposed to do so. I think it’s highly likely that if a comparable test of British people were performed, the same numbers would also show themselves willing to tolerate or commit genocidal acts.

I am also very much aware of the number of courageous Jews, Israelis and people of Jewish heritage, who are very much opposed to their society’s ethnic cleansing and oppression of the Palestinians. Indeed, the above passage also makes it very clear that there are very many Israelis, who are profoundly opposed to the murder of Palestinian and Arab innocents, and the forced expulsions of the Palestinians from their native land. Israelis and Jews from America, Britain and across the world have protested against the massacres, the house demolitions and the creation of an apartheid state in Israel, including rabbis. They are extremely courageous individuals, as just as gentiles are accused of being anti-Semitic if they dare oppose or criticise Israel, so they run risk of being denounced as ‘self-hating’ and ‘un-Jewish’. Many of those, who have been libelled as anti-Semites and suspended from the Labour party, are Jews or people of Jewish heritage, who have a distinguished personal history of combatting and confronting racism and anti-Semitism. Like Jackie Walker, the vice-chair of Momentum, amongst too many others.

Reading this, I got the impression that Binyamin Netanyahu and his fellow nationalist extremists in the Likud party and the other members of the governing right-wing coalition had also read this research, and drawn the wrong conclusions. While Charny and his academic colleagues were dismayed by these results, Netanyahu and his stormtroopers were delighted, and drew the wrong conclusions. Charny and the other authors collected in the above book were concerned to place the Holocaust in its context as one genocide amongst so many others, and wish to make people aware of genocide and concerned to oppose and prevent it, no matter wherever and against whomever it may occur. Netanyahu and his colleagues have found that, despite the experience of the Holocaust, a sizable proportion of the Israeli population were prepared to tolerate the massacre and ethnic cleansing of the country’s indigenous Arabs.

It also shows why the Neocons and Likudniks are so keen to insist that the Holocaust is a unique event, and should not be coupled with concern for other victims of genocides, as has been done by most mainstream Jewish organisations. And why, despite its claim to include other victims of genocide, in fact the focus in Holocaust Memorial Day is very much on the Jewish experience to the exclusion of other groups.

Jackie Walker was quite right to question that exclusive focus. If we allow it to go ahead, and do not rightly commemorate the victims of other crimes against humanity, then we do run the risk, as she stated very clearly in her explanation of the previous set of remarks that led to her libelling as an anti-Semite, of creating a hierarchy of suffering which ignores the pain of other races and groups. And which could perilously lead to complacency about such other crimes, particularly those against the Palestinians, which the Israel lobby are very keen to deny, or rebut through accusing their critics of being anti-Semitic.

We very much need not just to commemorate the victims of the Shoah, but all the victims of genocide. And perhaps it’s time to ask another awkward, embarrassing question: the Palestinians have been the victims of ethnic cleansing for decades. Isn’t it about time their suffering was officially memorialised in Holocaust Memorial Day?

Vox Political: Owen Smith Insults Voters with Mental Health Problems

August 24, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has also put up a couple of stories today on the outrage Smudger has caused with a tweet sneering at the mentally ill. Smiff tweeted that with him ‘you won’t have some lunatic in charge of the Labour party’. Mike states that as someone, who has known many people with mental health problems and has blogged about the considerable obstacles they face, he cannot find words to describe his opinion of Smudger.

Many others weren’t shy of showing their feelings towards Smiff for this insult. Mike gives a few of their comments in his article. They state that such comments about the mentally ill should be unacceptable. Several of them are by people, who suffer from mental illness, and who therefore feel personally insulted by Smith.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/08/23/owen-smith-has-just-banged-the-final-nail-in-his-campaigns-coffin/

Smudger has realised the offence he’s caused, and tried to explain it away. He appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme, where John Humphries asked him if that made him unsuitable for the Labour leadership. Smudger told Humphries that he was talking about himself, not Jeremy Corbyn, and that it did not make him any the less suited for the leadership of the Labour party. He was sorry for any offence, and would have to be a bit less colourful about his language in future.

Mike comments drily that it’s too late.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/08/24/owen-smith-says-he-was-the-lunatic-does-that-make-it-any-better/

I think it’s very clear that Smudger wasn’t talking about himself when he used the term ‘lunatic’. The tweet was ‘With me, you won’t get a lunatic as head of the Labour party’. He is stating very clearly that he isn’t a ‘lunatic’, so the epithet must refer to someone else. It could, of course, refer to no-one in particular, but considering the insults heaped about Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters as ‘Trots’, ‘rabble’, ‘dogs’ and so on by the Blairites, it’s reasonable to assume he was referring to Jeremy Corbyn, or someone from the Left like him.

As for the outrage it’s generated, I’m not surprised. Depression and anxiety are on the rise, caused by austerity. The situation has become much worse for those with mental health issues through the stress of the Work Capability Test introduced by Tony Blair. The professional body representing medical health professionals – doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, have stated that the stress of taking the tests has made their condition worse for 290,000 mentally unwell people, sometimes seriously so. Mental health services are being cut as the NHS services are rationed as part of the government’s privatisation of the NHS. There are extremely long waiting times for those with depression to see a psychiatrist. Students are also at risk of developing mental health problems. It’s been estimated that about 1 in 4 of them will suffer from depression at some point. Again, I can’t say I’m surprised, given the increased pressure to get a good degree, and faced with a mountain of student debt. Again, partly caused by Blair and Mandelson, when they decided to introduce tuition fees.

Faced with a government and Blairite faction in the Labour party that is at best indifferent to the needs of the mentally ill, those with such problems and their carers are bound to be outraged by Smudger’s apparent contempt.