Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Quinn Looks Forward to Dune Graphic Novel

January 27, 2020

And now – more SF! This is a very short video from the Quinn’s Ideas channel on YouTube. Quinn is another vlogger on science fiction, and particularly Frank Herbert’s Dune. Denis Villeneuve, the French Canadian director of Blade Runner 2049, is currently making a Dune movie that promises to be very faithful to the book, and a new Dune graphic novel is also coming out. It’s been welcomed by Brian Herbert, Frank’s son, who has also written a series of prequels for the Dune saga expanding its fictional universe.

Quinn says he’s looking forward to the graphic novel because, while the Dune books are very concerned with explaining the philosophy, there is very little description of what things actually look like – the thopters, shields and so on. This is why all the adaptations so far – David Lynch’s 1984 version, and the Dune 2000 mini-series, look very different. Quinn states that his idea of what a graphic novel could do was revolutionised by Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The medium is ideally suited to portray scenes that would be difficult for films, and are suitable for any subject.

Although the video says that it has the first images from the graphic novel, these are among other paintings and drawings of Dune drawn for places like Deviantart, so that it’s not exactly clear which are the graphic novel’s and which are those of other artists. He also says remarkably little about it, except that it’s also faithful to the book, urges viewers to look at an article published elsewhere on the web, for which he provides a link.

This is still a fascinating look at what the graphic novel may be like, and features some superb art from elsewhere.

Tories Promised Fat Profits to Fracking Companies While Others Starved

January 25, 2020

Donald Trump made his contempt for environmentalists and public concerns about climate change and global warming very clear this week at Davos. He called them ‘prophets of doom’ and frankly denied the existence of global warming. As I pointed out in a previous post, this is not only in line with what the Republican base believes, but also the propaganda of Trump’s corporate sponsors in the fossil fuel industries. Trump has passed legislation to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and prevent it from publishing anything supporting climate change or global warming. The fossil fuel industry, particularly the billionaire Koch brothers, have also set up a network of lobbying and astroturf fake grassroots pressure groups to try and discredit global warming and the other environmental damage by the oil, gas and coal industries. Those same billionaires also use these networks to close down mainstream academic environmental research, and replace them with laboratories funded by themselves, which publish their approved material denying the reality of global warming.

Mike put up a post this week reporting Trump’s anti-environmentalist stance, and saying that this would be a problem for Britain if Boris Johnson is successful and makes a Brexit deal with America.

But the Tories have already shown their contempt for Green politics. Although Dave Cameron promised that his would be the ‘Greenest government ever’ and put a windmill on the roof of his house, that lasted only as long as he could get his foot in Number 10. The moment he won the election, those promises were dropped and the windmill came off his roof. And that wasn’t all. Cameron, like Trump, strongly favoured the petrochemical industries. While his government cut the welfare budget to leave the poor desperate and starving, he cut the tax for the fracking industry so that they could make even bigger projects. Vickie Cooper and David Whyte discuss this in the introduction to their The Violence of Austerity. They write

Indeed, some sectors have been seen as a vehicle for economic recovery and therefore singled out for special treatment. This partly explains the lack of any meaningful regulatory change in the financial sector but also why some high revenue sectors, such as unconventional oil and gas – or ‘fracking’, are being singled out for special treatment… In July 2013 the government announced that the fracking industry would receive a major reduction in its tax burden. Shale gas producers were told that they would be asked to pay just 30 per cent tax on profits compared to 62 per cent normally paid by the oil and gas industry. In response, Andrew Pendleton of UK Friends of the Earth observed:

Promising tax hand-outs to polluting energy firms that threaten our communities and environment, when everyone else is being told to tighten their belts, is a disgrace. (p. 19).

Fracking is particularly contentious, as not only does it pollute the water table but it also causes minor earthquakes. There have been major protests against it throughout the country, particularly against its operations in Lancashire. The Tories just before the election promised a moratorium on it, but did not refuse to stop it completely.

The Tories’ welfare cuts have led to people starving to death, as Mike’s report this morning about the death of Errol Graham. Mr Graham had problems with anxiety, and could not cope with unexpected changes and social situations. He was afraid to go out and could not meet or interact with strangers. Despite this the DWP stopped his ESA, which meant that he lost his housing benefit. He slowly starved to death. When the bailiffs broke down his door to evict him, he weighed only 4 1/2 stone.

Why are we learning about disabled Errol Graham TWO YEARS after the DWP stopped his benefits and he starved to death?

Obscene! Absolutely obscene!

And he isn’t the only one. 130,000 people have died due to austerity. But while the government is content to let people starve to death, it’s prepared to give vast profits to friends in polluting industries. Reading this, I think there’s little doubt that Boris will resume fracking the moment he’s given the opportunity. And that if and when he makes his wretched deal with Trump, it will signal real danger for our precious ‘green and pleasant land’.

This shows the foul pair’s priorities: the world burns, the poor literally starve to death, but they’re fine so long as polluting industries can foul the planet for profit.

 

Trump’s Climate Denial Is a Danger to Post-Brexit Britain

January 23, 2020

Yesterday Mike put up a piece reporting and commenting on Trump’s denunciation of Green activists at the Davos summit. He called them ‘prophets of doom’, who were trying to dominate, control and transform the lives of everyone in the world, and announced that he would not change his country’s high carbon economy. He would, though, sign up for planting, restoring and conserving a trillion trees.

This didn’t impress Greta Thunberg, who was also there. Mike quotes her as saying

“Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour, and we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else,” she said.

“You say: ‘We won’t let you down. Don’t be so pessimistic.’ And then, silence.”

And she asked: “What will you tell your children was the reason to fail and leave them facing… climate chaos that you knowingly brought upon them? That it seemed so bad for the economy that we decided to resign the idea of securing future living conditions without even trying?”

Beeb wildlife presenter Chris Packham also made a speech about the climate emergency at the BAFTA’s, warning that unless we act to solve the environmental crisis, future generations may look on Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Vladimir Putin and Australia’s Scott Morrison in the same way as mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, because of the millions killed through climate change.

Mike also makes the point that while the world’s leaders are doing nothing about climate change, Boris is moving closer to a trade deal with Trump, one that will also make him deny the danger. Mike states that our clown of a prime minister has missed opportunities to make a difference, and asks if he will sell us down the river again for the sake of a few American dollars.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/01/22/trumps-prophets-of-doom-speech-suggests-the-uk-should-not-enter-trade-deal-with-him/

The answer is yes, yes, he will. And it’s for the same reasons Trump and the rest of the Republican party are denying climate change: powerful corporate interests. The Republicans received very generous campaign funding from big industrialists like the Koch brothers and the other heads of the fossil fuel industry. These big businessmen also sponsor fake grassroots organisations and biased scientific think thanks in order to lobby against and discredit climate research and laws to protect the environment. The results have been disastrous. Since he took power, Trump has gutted the environmental protection agency and forbidden it from publishing anything supporting climate change or environmental decline in America. Koch money has seen universities close down proper climate and environmental research and their replacement with laboratories and organisations funded by the brothers and others in the fossil future industry. These present as fact the false information they want the public to hear: that climate change isn’t occurring, and the coal and oil industries ain’t wrecking the landscape. But these industries are. There are a whole sections of the Louisiana swamps that is heavily polluted by oil. The oil pipeline through indigenous people’s land in Idaho that made the news a few years ago was opposed because the indigenous people of the area feared that there would be spillages that would pollute the water they use for drinking and which nourishes their wildlife. They were right to do so. There have been a large number of similar spillages, which have not garnered so much media attention, which have similarly contaminated vast acreages of land. And then there’s the whole fracking industry, and the damage that has also caused the water table in areas where it has been allowed.

These are the industries funding Trump’s campaign. They’re part of the reason why there were right-wing jokers all over the internet yesterday sniggering at Trump’s put down of Thunberg. Trump and his supporters really do believe that environmentalists are some kind of crazy apocalyptic cult with totalitarian aims. There’s a section of the American right that really does believe Green activists are real, literal Nazis, because the Nazis were also environmentally concerned. And the corporate interests sponsoring Trump are the same industries that want to get a piece of our economy and industries.

The Tories have already shown that they are little concerned about the environment. They have strongly promoted fracking in this country, and the book The Violence of Austerity contains a chapter detailing the Tories’ attacks on the environment and Green protest groups. David Cameron’s boast that his would be the greenest government ever vanished the moment his put his foot across the threshold of Number 10.

If Boris makes a Brexit trade deal with Trump, it will mean that our precious ‘green and pleasant land’ is under threat from highly polluting, environmentally destructive industries. It will mean further reductions in funding for renewable energy in favour of oil, gas and coal, attempts in this country to discredit and silence respectable, mainstream climate research and scientists in favour of corporate-sponsored pseudoscience. And there will be further laws and state violence against environmental protesters.

Trump’s climate denial is a threat to the British environment, industry, the health of its people, democracy and science. But Boris depends on him for any kind of successful trade deal.

He will sell out and wreck this country and its people for those dollars offered by Trump and his corporate backers.

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

January 18, 2020

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nonviolent Protest Groups Placed on Anti-Terrorism List

January 18, 2020

Last week it was revealed by the Groaniad that the environmentalist group, Extinction Rebellion, had been put on a list of extremist organisations, whose sympathisers should be treated by the Prevent programme. Extinction Rebellion are, in my view, a royal pain, whose disruptive antics are more likely to make them lose popular support but they certainly aren’t violent and do keep within the law. For example, in one of their protests in Bristol last autumn, they stopped the traffic for short periods and then let some cars through before stopping the traffic again. It was a nuisance, which is what the group intended, and no doubt infuriating to those inconvenienced by it. But they kept within the law. They therefore don’t deserve to be put on an anti-terrorism watch list with real violent extremist organisations like Islamist and White fascist terror groups such as the banned neo-Nazi group, National Action.

But Extinction Rebellion aren’t the only nonviolent protest group to be put on this wretched list. Zelo Street put up a piece yesterday revealing that the list also includes Greenpeace, the campaigners against sea pollution, Sea Shepherd, PETA, Stop the Badger Cull, Stop the War, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, CND, various anti-Fascist and anti-racist groups, as well as an anti-police surveillance group, campaigners against airport expansion, and Communist and Socialist parties.

I can sort of understand why Greenpeace is on the list. They also organise protests and peaceful occupations, and I remember how, during the ‘Save the Whale’ campaign, their ship, the Rainbow Warrior, used to come between whalers and their prey. I also remember how, in the 1980s, the French secret service bombed it when it was in port in New Zealand, because the evil peaceful hippies had dared to protest against their nuclear tests in the Pacific. From this, and their inclusion on this wretched list, it seems they’re more likely to be victims of state violence than the perpetrators of violence themselves.

Greenpeace’s John Sauven said

Tarring environmental campaigners and terrorist organisations with the same brush is not going to help fight terrorism … It will only harm the reputation of hard-working police officers … How can we possibly teach children about the devastation caused by the climate emergency while at the same implying that those trying to stop it are extremists?

And Prevent’s independent reviewer, Alex Carlile, said:

The Prevent strategy is meant to deal with violent extremism, with terrorism, and XR are not violent terrorists. They are disruptive campaigners”.

Zelo Street commented that this was all very 1960s establishment paranoia. Which it is. You wonder if the list also includes anyone, who gave the list’s compilers a funny look once. And whether they’re going to follow the example of Constable Savage in the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch and arrest gentlemen of colour for wandering around during the hours of darkness wearing a loud shirt. This is a joke, but the list represents are real danger. It criminalises any kind of protest, even when its peaceful. About a decade ago, for example, Stop the War held a protest in Bristol city centre. They were out there with their banners and trestle tables, chanting and speaking. Their material, for what I could see where I was, simply pointed out that the invasion of Iraq had claimed 200,000 lives. They were on the pavement, as I recall, didn’t disrupt the traffic and didn’t start a fight with anyone.

As for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this is a knee-jerk attempt to link pro-Palestinian activism with terrorism. But wanting the Palestinians to be given their own land or to enjoy equal rights with Israelis in a modern, ethnically and religious diverse and tolerant state, does not equate with sympathy for terrorism or terrorism itself. Tony Greenstein, Asa Winstanley and Jackie Walker are also pro-Palestinian activists. But as far as I know, they’re all peaceful, nonviolent people. Walker’s a granny in her early 60’s, for heaven’s sake. They’re all far more likely to be the victims of violence than ever initiate it. In fact, Tony was physically assaulted in an unprovoked attack by an irate Israeli, while one woman from one of the pro-Israel organisations was caught on camera saying how she thought she could ‘take’ Jackie.

I realise the Stop the Badger Cull people have also physically tried to stop the government killing badgers, but this is again disruption, not violence. And one of those against the cull is Brian May, astrophysicist and rock legend. Apart from producing some of the most awesome music with Freddy Mercury and the rest of Queen, and appearing on pop science programmes with Dara O’Brien showing people round the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, he has not, not ever, been involved in political violence.

This shows you how ludicrous the list is. But it’s also deeply sinister, as by recommending that supporters of these organisations as well as real terrorist groups should be dealt with by Prevent, it defines them as a kind of thoughtcrime. Their members are to be rounded up and reeducated. Which is itself the attitude and method of suppression of totalitarian states.

Zelo Street pointed the finger for this monstrous shambles at Priti Patel. As current Home Secretary, she’s ultimately responsible for it. The Street wanted to know whether she knew about it and when? And if she didn’t, what’s she doing holding the job? But there’s been no answer so far. And a police spokesperson said it was unhelpful and misleading to suggest the nonviolent groups on the list had been smeared.

The Street said it was time for Patel to get her house in order, but warned its readers not to bet on it. No, you shouldn’t. This is an attempt to criminalise non-violent protest against capitalism and the actions of the authorities and British state. It’s the same attitude that informed the British secret state’s attempts to disrupt and destroy similar and sometimes the same protest movements in the 70s and 80s, like CND. And it will get worse. A few years ago Counterpunch published a piece reporting that the American armed services and police were expecting violent outbreaks and domestic terrorism in the 2030s as the poverty caused by neoliberalism increased. They were therefore devising new methods of militarised policing to combat this. We can expect similar repressive measures over this side of the Atlantic as well.

This list is a real threat to freedom of conscience, peaceful protest and action. And the ultimate responsibility for it is the Tories. Who have always been on the side of big business against the rest of society, and particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

They’re criminalising those, who seek peaceful means to fight back.

Weird Science: Plants as Interplanetary Communication Devices

January 9, 2020

Science Fiction has been described as the literature of ideas, and one of the most bizarre ideas is that grass is an artificial computing device. This strange notion appears in Clifford Simak’s 1965 novel, All Flesh Is Grass. This is about a small American town that finds itself completely enclosed beneath a forcefield. The town is on a nexus linking our world and its counterpart in a parallel universe. Investigating the force field and the strange disappearance years earlier of a mentally handicapped lad, the hero finds himself transported to this alternative Earth, where he meets the missing boy, now grown up. He also encounters a group of mysterious travellers from yet another universe, who have come to the world simply to listen to music and dance. Returning to our Earth, he finds that the force field has been put around the town by intelligent extradimensional aliens. There is a series of alternative Earths, who have come together to form some kind of interdimensional federation. These wise, enlightened beings wish to help humanity. They are skilled physicians, and show their good intentions by healing the town’s sick free of charge. It’s revealed that grass is some kind of intelligently engineered device, which was used by an alien race for information storage thousands of years ago.

As with many of the stranger ideas in literature, whether Science Fiction or not, you wonder where the idea came from. Some clue is perhaps given in the 1973 Erich Von Daniken book In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible. Beginning on page 192, the world’s most notorious author on ancient astronauts discusses how two American scientists suggested that plants could be extraterrestrial communication devices. He writes

So far all attempts to capture signals from the cosmos with the aid of electromagnetic waves have failed. Dr George Lawrence of the Ecola Institute in San Bernardino, California, hit on a fantastic new way to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences. Lawrence wondered if plants connected to an electronic control system would be suitable for communication with the universe. It is known that plants possess electrodynamic properties, indeed their capacity to assimilate tests and react in a binary way like a computer is sensational. Lawrence closely observed the semiconductive and general electromotive capacities of plants. He asked himself the following questions as part of his programme:

  1. Can plants be integrated with electronic apparatuses in such a way that they yield usable data?
  2. Can plants be trained to react to specific objects or events?
  3. Is the assumption that plants have the capacity for exception perception provable?
  4. Which of the 350,000 kinds of plants is most suited for the test. (p. 192)

Von Daniken then goes on to describe how plants respond to electric stimulation, and how Dr Clyde Backster, an expert in lie detectors, observed similar responses in 1969 during experiments in which he believed his test plants responded telepathically, at first to himself lighting a match, and then to a bucket of shrimps being plunged into boiling water. This response became known, apparently, as the Backster effect. Von Daniken continues

Dr Lawrence next tried to use plants for electromagnetic contact with the cosmos. A series of experiments, christened Project Cyclops, was organised over a distance of seven miles in the Mojave Desert, near Las Vegas. On 29 October 1971 at the same fraction of a second the measuring sets attached to the plants registered heightened curves which were transferred to the tape by an amplifier. What was going on? Was something underground stimulating the plants? Were there torrents of lava, earthquakes, magnetic influences? New sets were made, the plants were protected in lead boxes and Faradaic cages. The result was the same! Observed over a long period of time, curves and notes showed a certain synchronicity. The plants seemed to be communicating. Plants cannot think: they can only react. Every conceivable kind of magnetic wavelength was tried. At the moment of the different reactions, nothing could be heard. Could the process be connected with the fixed stars, with quasars or radiation? A new series of experiments clearly showed that the cause came from the cosmos. Radioastronomers with their gigantic antenna could pick up nothing, but plants showed violent reactions. Obviously a wavelength that functioned biologically was involved. This brought the experimenters into a territory whose existence has been suspected, but which is not measurable so far – telepathy. A biological contact took place in a way unexplained to date, but during the detour via the cells it became measurable. Dr George Lawrence said on the subject:

Obviously biological interstellar communication is nothing new. We have only 215 astronomic observatories in the world, but about a million of the biological type, although we call them by other names such as churches, temples and mosques. A biological system (mankind) communicates (prays) to a far distant higher being. Biological understanding is also the order of the day in the animal kingdom; we have only to think of dogs and cats which find their way home again by instinct. A fascinating feature of the experiments in the desert is the realisation that these biological contacts with the cosmos are connected with the speed of light.

The suspicion is growing stronger that the plants are called up by someone in the constellation Epsilon Bootes at a hundred times the speed of light. That is also why radioastronomers could not register the transmissions. Why use a big drum when a kettledrum is available? Perhaps we have investigated interstellar contacts with the wrong instruments, the wrong wavelengths and the wrong spectrum until now. (p.194-5).

This is clearly very fringe science, if not actually pseudoscience of the type likely to get Richard Dawkins grinding his teeth. It also merges into a kind of New Age pantheism, in which the cosmos itself may be some kind of God or supreme intelligence. It’s all very different from what I was taught in secondary school that grass was a monocotolydon. That means, it only has one leaf. I also note that the experiments started in 1971, some six years after Simak published his novel. But scientists and novelists were discussing plant intelligence from the 1950s onwards, including the idea that they could feel pain. It’s now been found that plants do communicate biochemically, and there was an article in the papers last week stating that they do feel pain. Perhaps Lawrence’s ideas, or ideas similar to them, were being discussed several years before Lawrence conducted his experiments, and influenced Simak when he wrote his book.

‘I’ Review of Art Exhibition on Ecological Crisis and Some Solutions

January 8, 2020

Also of interest in yesterday’s I was a review by Sarah Kent of the exhibition, Eco-Visionaries, at the Royal Society in London. This was about the current ecological crisis, and showcased some possible solutions to the problem, some of them developed by architects. This included a moving desert city, the Green Machine, which also planted a watered crops as it moved. The article ran

Melancholy humming welcomes you to the exhibition, with a globe suspended in the cloudy waters of a polluted fish tank. This simple installation by the artist duo HeHe neatly pinpoints our predicament: our planet is suffocating.

“The absence of a future has already begun,” declare Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera in a film, Reclaimed (2015). We know this already – according to the UN, we need to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050 if we are to prevent the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem. So what are we waiting for?

Vaz and Bera highlight the problem. The situation requires a wholesale change in attitude: minor tinkering can’t solve it. We need “reciprocity with nature rather than domination… We are nature.” We are mesmerised by events such as the Arctic on fire, Greenland’s ice-cap melting and Venice drowning. But the scale of the problem is so enormous that we can only watch, “fascinated by the acceleration” of the crisis.

The collective Rimini Protokoli encourages us to confront our imminent extinction. On film we see a tank full of languidly floating jellyfish. They flourish in the warming seas and, with diminishing fish stocks, there’s less competition for the plankton they feed on, so their numbers are increasing dramatically. Humans are similarly multiplying – by 2050, according to the UN, there will be 9.7 billion of us – but unlike jellyfish, we require too much energy to adapt to climate change so, like the dinosaurs, our days are numbered. At the end of the presentation they invite us to go with the words: “Your time is up; you will have to leave.”

The Royal Academy is to be congratulated for hosting an exhibition that tackles this urgent issue, but the show exemplifies the problem. The warnings are persuasive, but the solutions envisaged are pitifully inadequate, mainly by architects who don’t address the catastrophe but instead offer us post-apocalyptic follies. The Green Machine (2014) is Studio Malka’s answer to desertification. Resembling a giant oil rig, this monstrosity trundles across the Sahara on caterpillar treads that plough the ground then sow and water the seeds to produce 20 million tons of food per year. Solar towers, wind turbines and water-capturing balloons create a “self-sufficient urban oasis” for those inside. What percentage of the 9.7 billion will they accommodate, I wonder?

Studio Malka’s Green Machine mobile desert city.

It’s a grim subject, and clearly the ecological crisis requires drastic action across the entire globe and very soon. But I am fascinated by the Green Machine. It reminds me of the giant moving cities that cross the devastated future Earth in the SF film Mortal  Engines. As for how many people such a machine could house, the answer is: very few. Douglas Murray’s book Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture predicts that if we carry on as we are, we will end up with a future in which the rich will inhabit closed, protected environments like the various biodomes that were created in the 1990s, while the rest of humanity will be left to fend for itself in the decaying world outside.

It’s a bleak, dystopian prediction, but one I fear will come true if we carry on electing leaders like Trump and Johnson.

‘I’ Article About Research into Artificial Wombs and their Morality

January 8, 2020

This is another science story from yesterday’s I for 7th January 2020. It’s about current research into developing artificial wombs. At the moment, these would be for very premature babies, but they could in theory go much further, which raises some serious ethical issues.

The article by Alla Katsnelson, ‘Baby in a bag: could humans be grown in an artificial womb?’ runs

Critically preterm babies face an uncertain future. Although a foetus is considered viable at 24 weeks of gestation, only about 60 per cent of babies born so young will survive, and many will experience life-long complications.

For those born a couple of weeks earlier, the statistics are even more dire: just 10 per cent of babies born at 22 weeks are likely to survive.

building a so-called artificial womb could potentially save these babies. In October, researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands announced that they had received a grant for E2.9m (£2.5m) to develop a prototype of such a device. But the project isn’t the only artificial womb on the horizon. In 2017, researchers in Philadelphia transferred foetal lambs, aged between 105 and 115 days of gestation (equivalent to about 28 to 30 weeks human gestation), into a so-called biobag filled with artificial amniotic fluid. After several weeks in the bag, the lambs developed normally. And in March 2019, an Australian and Japanese research team kept younger lambs, about 95 days’ gestational age, alive in a different system.

Dr Matthew Kemp, who led the latter work, admits that researchers don’t fully understand foetal growth in the womb, which makes replicating it a challenge. The Dutch group noted plans to roll out a clinic-ready prototype in five years, but Dr Kemp says it will probably take much longer. And because the technology is so costly, it’s unlikely to be widely available any time soon.

So far, what researchers call artificial wombs are essentially souped-up incubators. They provide a fluid-filled space in which a foetus can receive nutrients and oxygen through a ‘placenta’. From there to full-on ectogenesis – incubating foetuses outside a human for the full duration of a pregnancy – is an enormous leap.

But many bioethicists note that technology moves quickly, and proactively thinking through the possibilities is important.

In this more futuristic vision, artificial wombs can do a lot for society, says Dr Elizabeth Yuko, a bioethicist at Fordham University in New York. It could allow people who can’t carry a pregnancy for whatever reason – illness, infertility, age, or gender – to do so. It might also shift some of the childbearing responsibilities carried by women. But it also raises concerns. For example, ex-utero gestation would probably turn reproductive rights on their head, says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Manchester. If a foetus can gestate outside a woman’s body, the choice fo whether or not to have the baby might be deemed out of her hands.

Another issue is that our legal rights are predicated on having been born alive. “I don’t think that a gestating subject in an artificial womb necessarily meets that requirement,” says Romanis. “That raises some questions about human entities ex-utero that have never existed before.

There have been newspaper articles about the development of artificial wombs since the 1980s, at least. The Absurder published one c. 1985, and I think the Independent also published one in the 1990s. And the whole area of artificial reproduction has been a live issue since the first ‘test tube’ baby created through in vitro fertilisation in the 1970s. But it also raises the spectacle of the kind of dystopian society Aldous Huxley portrayed in Brave New World, where humans are bred in hatcheries, engineered and conditioned for their future role in society. The Auronar, the telepathic race to which Cally, one of the heroes of the Beeb’s SF series, Blake’s 7, also reproduced through artificial gestation.And one of the predictions in Brian Stableford’s and David Langford’s future history, The Third Millennium, is that during this millennium this will be the preferred method of human reproduction, at least in some extraterrestrial colonies. And over a decade Radio 4 broadcast a series in which various intellectuals created fictional museums. One was ‘the museum of the biological body’, set in a post-human future in which people were neuter cyborgs born from hatcheries. This is obviously very far off, and I doubt anywhere near the majority of humans would ever want to reject gender and sexuality completely, whatever certain sections of the trans community might believe.

As with cloning and Dolly the Sheep, it raises very profound and disturbing questions about humanity’s future and how far technology should expand into the area of reproduction.

Chinese Companies Creating Robot Cats

January 8, 2020

Yesterday’s I for 7th January 2020 carried this article, ‘Chinese companies unveil robotic cats’ by Rhiannon Williams, which ran

Dogs may be man’s best friends but cats are stealing a march on them at the world’s largest technology fair, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Elephant Robotics, a Chinese firm, is showcasing MarsCat, a robot feline with artificial intelligence that recognises objects and responds to being stroked. It has created six different characters for the robot: enthusiastic, aloof, energetic, lazy, social and shy. Its personality develops according to how it is treated: ignoring MarsCat will make it ignore you, while paying it attention makes it more likely to respond to humans. Elephant Robotics is crowdfunding to develop the project, with the aim of selling MarsCat as both a toy-like robot and programmable device for education institutions.

Another Chinese firm, PuduTech, has created a robotic cat designed to deliver plates of food in a restaurant to diners.

Okay, humans have had automatons replicating animals since one of the Greek philosophers or engineers designed a singing bird operated by steam. The pressure of the steam caused its wings to stretch and operated a whistle in its throat. The Chinese had a mechanical waitress in the 9th Century, which trundled along bringing the assembled aristos their tea at banquets. During the Middle Ages, some nobles decorated their estates with a whole menagerie of mechanical animals, often clad in real fur or feathers to make them even closer in appearance to the real animals. These machines have become increasingly sophisticated with the march of computer technology. There was the Tamagotchi and Furbies robotic pets in the 1990s. But this comes close to the world of Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner, in which real animals are so rare and endangered after World War Terminus that humans own robotic simulations instead. Which leads us to the question posed by the title of the book on which the film was based. As AI advances and people dream of creating humanoid robots, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’

Lib Dem Politico Bullied into Coming Out as Gay by Mail on Sunday

January 7, 2020

This is absolutely disgusting. I really do wonder how the alleged ladies and gentlemen of the scumbag British press sleep at night. Zelo Street this afternoon reported that Layla Moran, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, came out last week. She revealed that she was pansexual, and was in a loving, supportive relationship with another woman. Moran’s a contender for the Lib Dem leadership, and her announcement that she was gay was on ITV news. Moran says that their relationship started six months ago. So naturally, Zelo Street raises the obvious question: why is she telling us all this now?

It’s because, according to Hacked Off, the group representing the victims of press phone hacking, Moran was put under pressure by hacks from the Mail on Sunday.  The organisation said

 “Ms Moran has described how several reporters have been asking questions, door-knocking neighbours and even offering payment to a former partner seeking information about her personal life over the last few months. Ms Moran writes that the Mail on Sunday threatened to publish details relating to her sexuality last Saturday, and that she herself only decided to reveal her sexuality publicly last week because she feared the newspaper would go on to publish”.

She did so on social media, which really annoyed the MoS, who were reduced to running a piece about Mumsnet showing bitterly critical posts of her by its users. One of these accused her of ‘weaponising’ her relationship with the Lib Dems former head of media, Rosy Cobb.

The Street then quotes Nathan Sparkes of Hacked Off on the squalid cruelty the MoS has shown:

Newspapers have no business revealing an individual’s sexuality against their will, far less a politician who has devoted much of her career to date to furthering the cause of LGBT+ rights and equality … The decision of the Mail on Sunday … to publish an article attacking Ms Moran based on a handful of abusive tweets on a social media site speaks to the vindictiveness and cruelty of parts of our unregulated press”.

The Street concludes ‘Our free and fearless press’ attitude to sexuality stinks. And that has to change.’

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/01/layla-moran-bullied-into-coming-out.html

I think I saw something in the I written by Moran about her experience of ‘coming out’. It had the title ‘In the 21st Century Coming Out Shouldn’t Be An Issue’, or something along those lines. I didn’t read it because quite frankly I wasn’t interested. So many public figures have come out over the past decades – pop stars, sportsmen and women, actors, politicos – that you get used to it, even bored. With many public figures, whether gay or straight, who they’re romantically involved with is the least interesting aspect of their lives. What’s more interesting is their talent, or issues such as whether they have an unusual personal background, skill or medical condition. Such as, for example, whether they can speak an exotic language, have mastered an arcane science or intellectual discipline like quantum physics, or are able to fly an aircraft. Or have overcome personal misfortune or a medical condition like autism or depression. For a politician, what really matters is how hard they work for and represent their constituents, and their policy positions. Like where they stand on Brexit, the destruction of the welfare state, rising inequality, racism, the privatisation of the NHS and so forth. Provided that they’re not breaking the law and their partners are consenting adults, who they share their private lives with is their own business.

I grew up in the 1980s, when the gay rights organisations were aggressively outing politicians, who kept their sexuality hidden. I thought that this was pretty shabby, until a gay friend of mine told me that the politicos they targeted were hypocrites, who publicly opposed homosexuality and its toleration. There was a serious point to their actions. But there doesn’t seem to be anything like that here, just a simple desire to boost sales figures through scandal.

And unfortunately, the press has got plenty of previous in trying to bully people into revealing their sexuality in this way. Way back in the 1990s the ‘Street of Shame’ column in Private Eye carried a story about an attempt by one of the tabloids – something like the Scum or the News of the Screws – to blackmail one of the pop stars of the day into coming out in its pages. Wisely, he decided to thwart them by going to one of the other papers instead to make the revelation.

And stalking celebrities in order to find out if they’re gay or not is pretty squalid anyway. A few years ago there was a programme on how the Mirror got that story about George Michael going into a gay toilet in Beverley Hills or wherever. That was when it was edited by Piers Morgan, now adorning ITV’s breakfast news. The photographer was there for a week staking the place out waiting for a celebrity, any celebrity, to come and use it. The photographs he took from a car parked over the road were worth tens of thousands. Which itself shows the squalid morals of the newspaper business. I’ve no doubt his family and children were well fed, clad and educated by the profits of his job, but it’s not exactly something your children can boast about in school. After hearing from all the other children how their parents are builders, engineers, scientists, business people,  artists or whatever, what child really wants to answer the question ‘What does your mum/dad do?’ with the reply, ‘He/she hangs around gay toilets hoping to catch rock stars getting arrested by the rozzers’?

As for Mumsnet, they’ve been described as ‘4chan with prosecco’. From what I gather of 4chan, it’s an internet platform seething with racism, sexism and vicious trolls, so that’s hardly an endorsement.

The Mail on Sunday’s treatment of Moran, and the British press’ treatment of innocent people just trying to live their lives in peace is deeply shameful, and shows why it really does need to be subject to a press watchdog with teeth.