Posts Tagged ‘BBC 4’

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sky at Night on the Vatican Observatory

June 14, 2017

Tomorrow evening, Thursday, 15th June 2017 at 11 O’clock on BBC4 the Beeb’s repeating its Sky at Night special on the Vatican, ‘Inside God’s Observatory’. This was first shown on Sunday at 10.00 pm.

The blurb for it for Sunday in the Radio Times runs

Maggie Aderin-Peacock and Chris Lintott have been granted rare access to the Vatican and its little known observatory, the Specola Vaticana, perched on a hill top 30 km outside Rome. They explore the observatory’s rich history, going inside the Vatican walls to visit the Tower of the Winds – a secret antique sundial that helped revolutionise the calendar – and the remains of a nest of telescopes, atop an old medieval church where the science of spectroscopy was born. (57).

A few years ago, New Scientist interviewed the head of the observatory, Guy Consolamano, an American, who is a monk as well as an astronomer. There have also been other programmes on the observatory on the Beeb over the years. I seem to recall there being one in the 1990s on the radio. I’ve got a feeling the Observatory was set up by one of the popes as an attempt to undo some of the damage to the church’s reputation caused by Galileo’s trial for heresy. It was to show that the church wasn’t against science, and I believe that since then the popes have been very careful not to say anything about the scientific validity of scientific theories.

The Observatory’s also interesting because in the 19th century, its mathematical calculations were performed by nuns, who were referred to as ‘computers’. Which is obviously of interest for the history of women in science.

American Labour History: Film about the ‘Wobblies’

May 8, 2016

This is a fascinating film by the Women’s Film Preservation Unit about the I.W.W. The International Workers of the World, or ‘Wobblies’, as they were called, were a radical American Syndicalist trade union formed at the beginning of the 20th century. They were called ‘Wobblies’ apparently because some of the Chinese workers couldn’t pronounce the ‘R’ sound, and so when they tried saying the Union’s name, it came out sounding something like ‘Wobblies’. And the name stuck.

The film traces the union’s history, from its origins to eventual demise about the time of the First World War through the memories of a group of senior citizens – old blue collar workers – who had joined it and taken part in its struggles. The Wobblies believed in the eventual ownership and management of the means of production by the workers, and the abolition of the wage system. Beyond that, as one of these elders says, they weren’t sure. They were, however, inclusive in a way that the mainstream unions, founded by Samuel Gompers, weren’t. The American Federation of Labor was a craft union that wouldn’t take unskilled labourers. Following the racial bigotry of the time, they didn’t take Blacks either. But the Wobblies did. One of the speakers is a Black man, who tells how he joined the Union because they were the only union would take and defend Black people like himself. They also took and fought for women and immigrants. Another speaker is an elderly lady, who talks about how she joined the union, and the strikes she took part in. The Wobblies allowed their women members considerable freedom, and were pilloried for it. The lady recalls how one of the accusations was that the Wobblies pushed women to the front of the demonstrations and picket lines. She replied that they didn’t. They just didn’t keep them at the back. It was up to the women themselves where they went.

They also recruited the immigrant workers that were then flooding into America as its population expanded massively to provide labour for its expanding economy. This was the period when logging began in the great wood and the railways were still being laid down across America. Workers were needed in factories, mills and docks. And so the Wobblies recruited Italians, Poles and other nationalities. These men and women too suffered tremendous prejudice and persecution for their membership of the union during the First World War, and particularly after the Russian Revolution. The Wobblies were persecuted as a revolutionary, ‘Communist’ organisation. There was a wave of xenophobia resulting in the ‘Palmer raids’, anti-immigrant police raids in which foreign workers were rounded up and deported. This was directed at the I.W.W., but the authorities frequently couldn’t find enough of them, and so just picked up foreign workers at random. It should come as no surprise that the Fascist Right in Britain in the interwar years also wanted similar raids against suspected foreign revolutionaries, or just plain foreigners, over here.

These were men and women, who had extremely rough lives, working immensely hard for poverty wages. The Black speaker describes what it was like to be a dock worker. Further on in the film, one of the other surviving workers, a White guy, was a lumberjack. He describes the appalling conditions he and the other men worked in. They were lodged in bunkhouses with no washing facilities and no mattresses on the bunks. The result was that they were riddled with lice and bedbugs. He also says that there was saying that you could smell a lumberjack before you could hear him, and you could hear him before you could see him. And the work itself was tough and dangerous. The same guy talks about the various bones he broke in accidents, including when he was crushed by a log and his entrails ‘were pushed out my tail-end’. He also shows the stump of one of his fingers, which he lost in another accident. At the camp, the dinner plates weren’t washed properly. They were nailed to the tables to stop them being stolen by bindlestiffs – migrant workers, who preyed on other tramps. They were simply hosed down after the meals were finished. Many of the workers were also farm labourers, picking fruit.

And in addition to the work, there was brutal repression by the police and management. The speakers describe armed police coming into break up the strikes, and the extreme violence used against picketing workers. Any excuse would do to get a striker into court. One of the ladies describes how she was arrested on a charge of using obscene language against one of the cops. Fortunately, she was acquitted when she told the judge, ‘You’re honour, I don’t use such language’. A week later the same cop asked her out. She turned him down, not surprisingly.

In addition to the violence from the police, there was the threat of the scab labourers recruited by management. These also came in with guns and police protection. As a result, strikes could explode into extreme violence, including gun fights. In one strike involving the dock workers, 127 people were shot to death or otherwise killed. In another incident, striking workers, who got on a boat to get to their workplace were fired upon by the management, leading to four deaths. The government became involved in many strikes, using tactics that would now be considered ‘Fascistic’. Or should be. The army were frequently called in to shoot and arrest them. During the First World War, the union left it a matter of individual conscience whether to oppose the War or not. Many did, including one who was sent to France. The reason presented for American intervention was that Europe – France and England – owed America money. So the Wobbly went down the line of American doughboys in the trenches asking them if the Europeans owed ’em anything personally. Of course they didn’t, though he describes some of the younger, more patriotic men getting angry. When the union went on strike, they were accused by the government of being collaborators with the Kaiser and the enemy. And when the Russian Revolution broke out in October 1917, they were accused of working for the Russians to bring America down. One of the ladies describes how striking men, including her husband, were rounded up by the army, and then taken to what seems like an internment camp out in the desert, loaded into freight cars with no food or water.

Much of the Wobblies’ membership came from migrant workers. In order to get to new jobs, these frequently travelled by freight train across the country looking for work. It was extremely hazardous. One of the workers describes the sadness of passing lit homes, while himself hungry. The train crew operated a racket, in which they’d charge the workers for their journey. This stopped when the union put in its own strong arm gang, who dealt out their own rough justice to them. Then there were the hijackers, who get on to a train to rob its passengers. These particularly targeted union organisers, as they frequently carried thousands of dollars worth of union fees with them. One of the tactics used against the trade unionists was to thrown them off the train, so that they fell under the wheels of the car. Again, the union was also capable of defending its members against them. When of these guys describes how they cut the letters I.W.W. onto the forehead and cheeks of a hijacker with a razor as a lesson.

One of the workers also describes how they managed to get a free ride at management’s expense. The company hired a whole load of scab workers and was paying for them to travel by train. So the Wobblies got on too and began busily recruiting them. Those that didn’t, were thrown off, so that by the time they all arrived, nearly everyone on the train was a Wobbly. Which naturally made the management furious. The lumberjack also describes the ‘stand-up’ strikes that frequently did more harm to the company than the sit-down strikes. These were basically go-slows, or work to rules, where the workers went into the forests for work, but either vanished, or did as little as possible. And the former dockworkers describe how the union supported starving workers with soup kitchens, and that after they won the dispute, the leaders organised a banquet for the workers.

The Wobblies declined after the War as a result of police and state repression, and from ideological divisions in the union itself between Communists and Anarchists after the Russian Revolution. Many members felt that they ought to be trying to start a revolution in America. They were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, and argued that the Russians had finally done it while they talked about it. The former lumberjack describes how the debates between the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary factions got so heated, that debates would frequently end in fist fights.

Although the memories of the former workers are at the heart of this movie, this isn’t simply a staid film of rather boring talking heads. Along with the speakers themselves are contemporary archive footage, newspaper headlines, and anti-Wobblie propaganda cartoons, including an animated sequence which I think may well have been from them, rather than being a contemporary film, though I might be wrong. It also includes dramatic recitation of some of the words of the Wobblies themselves. It begins with the voice of Wobblies being questioned about their country of origin, all giving various answers which avoided ‘America’, but in line with their belief that they were all indeed the Industrial Workers of the World. It also includes some of the words of the American capitalists against whom the I.W.W. were pitched in battle, and these are very ugly. One industrialists stated that the man who did not pay his workers below the minimum wage level, robbed his shareholders. Forget Dave Cameron’s and his Republican counterparts’ in America smooth words about the Tories being ‘for hardworking people’: this is the true, brutal face of capitalism.

The film’s also enlivened considerably by the songs of the Wobblies themselves. The Union was known for its songs, and many of the workers interviewed describe keeping their song books with them, or singing during the strike to keep their spirits up. Some of these are beautiful pieces of American folk song, often with a wry humour, like ‘Hooray, I’m a Bum’. I don’t agree with some of the anti-religious sentiment in a couple of these, though I can see why they were written. They were produced at a time when many towns passed laws against street orators, with the exception of the Salvation Army. The Wobblies themselves used to set up meetings in the streets to recruit new members, with the speaker himself standing on a soapbox. The police would arrest them while leaving the Sally Ann speakers alone. And so there developed a vicious rivalry between the two organisations for speaking pitches. Looking through the music credits, I saw that one of the arrangements was sung by Peggy Seeger and England’s own Ewan MacColl, the father of British pop singer Kirsty, and writer of the classic ‘Dirty Old Town’.

It also uses paintings of some of the strikes, presumably created by the workers themselves. These are naturally naïve in style, but nevertheless constitute valuable pieces of folk art from one of America’s most notorious outsider groups.

This is a fascinating, harrowing, exuberant movie about a labour group that is little known over this side of the Atlantic. Looking down the list of comments on the Youtube page, one of the commenters remarked that this is the type of history that’s been removed from the official version. Indeed it is. It’s the type of history that at one time would have made it onto Channel 4 or possibly PBS in the Land of the Free. Now you’re only likely to see it either on BBC 4, or at your local arts cinema.

Jodrell Bank and Amateur Radio Telescopes

December 18, 2015

BBC 4 a few weeks ago broadcast a documentary on the history of Jodrell Bank, Britain’s pioneering radio telescope. Bernard Lovell, its founder and director, had been one of the scientists working on the development of radar during the War, and the radio telescope was originally built using parts left over from the project that were due to be scrapped. In the early days it was very much an ad hoc operation. The size of the telescope’s dish has the radius it has because that was the distance between the van holding its key components in the early days to the edge of the field. The programme covered the history of the telescope from its very beginnings to today. It described how the telescope came into its own in the late 1950s and 1960s when it was the only instrument that could independently verify the first Soviet space missions and their conquest of space. This also caused additional pressure on Lovell, as there was official demand for him to monitor space missions in the USSR, which detracted from his real interest in exploring the heavens through the radio signals sent out into space from stars, nebulae and galaxies.

The Russians also liked and admired Lovell, so much so that on scientific trip to the Soviet Union, the Russians showed him some of their highly top secret space installations, and hinted that he would be very welcome if he left Britain and joined them. Obviously the great man did not take up the offer. Eventually such pressure proved so great that he was off work suffering from depression, and even considered leaving science altogether. Lovell was a Methodist, and to the surprise of his children, at this point in his career he considered joining the clergy. He didn’t, but went back to charting the heavens.

Other highlights of the telescope’s fifty-odd year history was the discovery, by Jocelyn Bell-Purnell, of pulsars. These are neutron stars, small, highly compact stars at the end of their lives, which broadcast a signal into space. The stars are small, about 40 miles or so in diameter, and spin quickly, so it appears that the signal is being sent in pulses. They’re also regular, so that in the first few days when they were discovered one of the theories about them was that they were a signal deliberately sent out into space from an extraterrestrial civilisation. After more pulsars were discovered in the following days, the scientists were able to give the true explanation of their origins.

Since its heyday, much larger telescopes and arrays have been built. Jodrell Bank nevertheless still remains important, contributing valuable research in this area of astronomy.

Indeed. I remember a few years ago an edition of one of the Beeb’s astronomy programmes in which Dara O’Brien and Brian May were up there. O’Brien is a failed mathematician, having dropped out of a university maths course, while May is a properly accredited astrophysicist. He had, it’s true, a twenty-odd year gap in his career, due to performing with Queen, but he finally handed his thesis in a few years ago. It was duly marked, and he passed. This obviously makes him one of the most rock ‘n’ roll scientists ever. I think in the programme they were supposed to be looking for signals from alien civilisations. They didn’t find any, which probably surprised no one, given that scientists have been looking, off and on, for radio signals from aliens since the days of Project OZMA in the late ’60s and 70s. Despite NASA’s optimistic prediction in 1995 that in five years they would be discovered, no has as yet.

Patrick Moore, one of the greatest science communicators and popularisers, always maintained that astronomy was still one of the very few areas of science where amateurs using modest equipment could make a real contribution. I doubt that there are very many ordinary people outside the big observatories, who have an active interest in radio telescopy. Nevertheless, it is possible to build your own radio telescopes. There’s a piece by Trevor Hill, who was a science teacher at Taunton School in Somerset, about how he built a an array of radio telescopes in the book, Small Astronomical Observatories, edited by Patrick Moore (London: Springer 1986). He did so as part of an attempt to get the pupils interested in astronomy. Naturally, he started off by building a normal, optical observatory for a telescope. He turned to radio astronomy at the suggestion of one of the pupils after the normal astronomy session had been cancelled due to rain. The pupil pointed out that radio waves travel through clouds, and so observation wouldn’t be stopped by bad weather. His article in the book describes the radio telescopes he built. This includes a set of Ham radio aerials set up in an array to receive radio waves from solar flares.

Taunton School Radio Telescope

Trevor Hill’s Solar Flare Radio Telescope at Taunton School

He also provides a schematic of the telescope’s construction. As you can see from the photo, even as a small-scale amateur project it’s still very large. Nevertheless, he states that it was very cheap. With the exception of the computer, it cost about £200 in 1995. Which means it’s almost possible for every man or woman to become their own radio astronomer. Obviously, this was before the boom ended, and Cameron got in to hit everyone with massive debt and advancing poverty.

Here’s Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics at Manchester University and the radio telescope’s associate director, talking about the telescope on the 70s anniversary of its establishment. It’s great to hear him say that it remains at the cutting edge of research, and may be so for the next fifty years.

Dan Cruikshank on ISIS’ Attack on Ancient Monuments

June 24, 2015

Next Tuesday the Beeb is showing a programme by Dan Cruikshank on the threat posed to the great antiquities and priceless monuments of Middle East by ISIS. It’s entitled Dan Cruikshank’s Civilisation under Attack. The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

Islamic State have declared war on some of the planet’s most important architectural sites, with jihadi fighters seemingly set on destroying the wonders of the ancient world. Dan Cruikshank charts the likely course of the militant group’s advance, investigating why it is happening. (p. 86)

and

Watching the videos here of Islamic State fighters taking sledgehammers and drills to Assyrian reliefs in Nimrud – then blowing up the whole site – is hard. Similar attacks in Mosul, Nineveh and Hatra have brought global condemnation, and now the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra lies under IS control.

Dan Cruikshank talks to Islamic scholars about the claimed rationale behind the IS actions and what, if anything, can be done to challenge it. ‘Are we prepared to use armed force to protect the cultural heritage of all humanity?’ demands one expert. But it turns out to be not nearly that simple, in a programme that can offer few answers. (p. 83.)

The programme’s on BBC 4 at 9.00 pm, if you can bear to watch the footage of this gratuitous vandalism.

Cruikshank is an architectural historian with a deep appreciation of the glories of the world’s architectural heritage, not just that of Britain. A few years ago he presented a series, in which he toured the globe’s great buildings and monuments, including those of Iraq and Afghanistan. These included either Babylon or Nineveh, where he was horrified to find how botched and tawdry the ‘restoration’ performed by Saddam Hussein had been. The monument had been partly restored using modern brick stamped with the late dictator’s own name. I’ve got a feeling this was slightly before the West’s invasion of Iraq, as he stated his own, real fears about the threat a war in the country posed to the survival of these precious antiquities. He also talked to one of the leaders of the Christian community in Iraq about the deterioration in relationships between them and their Muslim compatriots. The interview was quite strained, with ominous pauses where the bishop appeared to be thinking very carefully indeed about how to explain his people’s embattled situation. He explained that relations between Christians and Muslims had previously been quite harmonious. Tensions had increased, with members of the Christian church physically assaulted, with the threat of invasion from the West.

Alas, Cruikshank’s fears have been borne out. Christian communities throughout Iraq and the Middle East have been attacked and expelled by ISIS as part of their radical Islamisation of the territories they capture. And it’s not just been Christians that have suffered. They’ve also attacked, brutalised and enslaved the Yezidis, and have killed Muslims, whose religious views differ from and are opposed to their own. I’ve blogged before about how many Islamic clergy have been murdered and mosques demolished by ISIS, simply because they dared to have a different conception of Islam.

And in addition to destroying churches, and ancient Assyrian monuments, they’ve also destroyed historic Islamic shrines, again because they are ‘un-Islamic’, according to their twisted ideology.

All this is a deliberate attack on an ancient heritage that belongs to the world and specifically to the peoples of the countries ISIS have conquered and brutalised. These monuments are a threat, as they show just how ancient the history and culture of these peoples are. Archaeologists and historians of the ancient Near East, such as Georges Roux in his Ancient Iraq have noted, for example, that the style of housing used by the ancient Babylonians is very much the same as that traditionally used in Iraq. The forensic scientist and Egyptologist, Dr Jo-Anne Fletcher, made the same point about the type of houses built and used by modern Egyptians. This is also very similar to those built by their ancient predecessors thousands of years previously.

In language, too, there is considerable similarity and some remarkable survivals from the ancient cultures. Akkadian, the language of the Assyrian Empire, was, like Arabic and Hebrew, a Semitic language. And there are still words in modern Arabic, which are clearly derived from, if not exactly the same, as those uttered by the Assyrians. Certain customs and cultural practices have also survived down the centuries from the ancient past. In the programme about Palmyra, Cruikshank pointed to a relief, which showed a group of veiled women riding camels or mules. This, he pointed out, showed how ancient the veiling of women was in the Middle East. It certainly does. Respectable married women were required by law in ancient Assyria to veil themselves in public.

ISIS’ destruction of these monuments is a deliberate attempt to erase the history and cultural identity of Iraq and Syria. It’s the same totalitarian strategy pursued by Hitler and Stalin, in their brutal campaigns to remodel Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, so that no trace of their former cultures could survive to challenge the regime. And the cultural vandalism didn’t stop there, but was also imposed on the nations they conquered. Hitler, for example, had the Paris metro destroyed, as he had claimed that Berlin was the only city in the world that had such an underground railway system. This was clearly belied by the existence of the French system, and so it had to be destroyed. And as Orwell stated in 1984, that classic SF dystopia, if you want to control the future, you have to control the past. Hence the Ministry of Truth, which existed to rewrite history in order to satisfy the ideological and propaganda needs of Big Brother’s tyranny.

Orwell based his book on Stalin’s Russia. Since then, Communism has fallen, although Putin seems determined to revive some of Stalin’s reputation and his brutal methods. And ISIS have now succeeded the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as destroyers of culture and history in the pursuit of totalitarian power.

They haven’t always been able to get their own way, however. There has been the odd case where the local people have protested so strongly against their attempts to destroy one of their country’s monuments, that ISIS have been forced to retreat. One of these cases was when the locals gathered round to protect an historic minaret.

Their actions stand in stark contrast to far more enlightened approach of the early caliphs. What made medieval Islam such a powerful cultural and scientific force in global society, was its willingness to seek out, absorb, and assimilate the learning of the peoples they had conquered. This was then synthesized and built on, with the result that Muslim scholars made astonishing advances in astronomy, medicine, physics, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, historiography – the philosophy of history – and even in areas ISIS utterly detest, such as musical theory.

ISIS, by contrast, are destroyers, and their deliberate and calculated attack on these ancient monuments has left the culture of the world and the Muslim and Arab peoples themselves badly impoverished.

Farage: Leading the Party from the Saloon Bar

March 6, 2015

I found this satirical piccie of the Fuhrage from Hope Not Hate on the SlatUKIP page.

Pub Farage

It comes after Farage appeared the other day on ITV’s Loose Women. They asked him if he had any regrets about his beer and cigarettes image, to which he gave the answer shown above.

This just about confirms what many comedians and satirists have been saying already: that UKIP make up all their policies in bar room of men-only golf clubs.

Other comments Farage made on the programme didn’t go down to well with its female audience either. Discussing the lack of women in the boardroom, he denied that this was due to sex discrimination. The hedge fund generalissimo declared that women were indeed equal to men, and that a woman could rise to a position of senior management. However, they were held back by taking time off work to have families. This prevented them from moving with the rest of the ‘pack’, and so when they returned they earned less. He recognised that there were more men leaving work to raise the children, but said it was quite natural that women earned less when they came back to work. Those women, who did manage to break the glass ceiling to get to boardroom level were those, who didn’t have children and chose to concentrated on their career.

This had various female politicians asking the vital question on Twitter whether Farage was ‘for real’. I’m afraid he is.

The lack of women in positions of senior management is another point of contention at the moment. It’s been widely debated in business circles, and some Conservatives have supposedly mooted more measures to allow more women to gain seats on the board and create a ‘female-friendly’ business environment. A few years ago there was a drama on either BBC 3 or BBC 4, about a woman in a financial company, who finds herself the victim of a campaign of sexist and misogynist abuse after she return to work to concentrate on her career after having children. The programme was designed to raise awareness of the problem, and those women I know, who saw it were left seething at such injustice.
Farage’s comments about women in the boardroom will have done very little to endear him to women concerned at this unfair situation.

It is, however, of a par with the Kipper’s attitude towards women generally, which is deeply sexist. For example, if the Kippers get in, one of their policies will be to end maternity leave, along with a whole other raft of workers’ rights legislation going right back to the Victorians.

There is absolute no reason why any woman, or indeed anyone from the working and lower middle classes generally, should vote UKIP. Indeed, there are more than enough reasons to vote against them.

As for spending five or six hours a day in the pub, you actually wonder what Farage is doing in there. Someone pointed out on Terry Wogan’s weekday talk show back in the 1980s that the real movers and shakers of politics tend to drink very little. Maggie Thatcher was a case in point. They want to keep a clear head so they know exactly what’s going on around them, and can make the right decisions. I doubt Farage is really any different, for all the beer and ciggies blokey image.

Of course, he might be different, in which case if the Tories don’t win again, and choose them as their coalition partners, we can expect the country to be run from the inside of a pub by people stumbling around, getting maudlin drunk and saying to each other, ‘You’re my best mate, you are. You know what we ought to do? Give the workers a good kicking and boot the foreigners out! I’ll get the next round in.’

Evolution, Race and African Civilisation: A Remedial Course for Kippers

June 27, 2014

A few days ago I reblogged a piece from Still Laughing At UKIP, reporting the massive racial abuse and vilification directed against the Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, by the Kippers on Facebook after he had the audacity to observe that they weren’t actually very good at spelling and grammar. The article’s ‘Racism. Uncontrolled, Mass Racism’, and it’s at http://stilllaughingattheukip.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/racism-uncontrolled-mass-racism/, if you want to check it out for yourself. The racist remarks reported by the Kipper Smoker include the crass, racial insults of ‘monkeys’ and ‘spear chuckers’ to describe Blacks, as well as remarks that people of ancient African extraction are ‘uncivilised’. So let’s go through a few facts about evolution and African civilisation, just to straighten the record.

Archaic Features in First Human Colonists in Europe Compared to Africa

The comments about ‘monkey’s recalls the daft and dangerous racial hierarchies Europeans drew up in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which placed White Europeans at the top of the evolutionary ladder as the apex of human evolution, and Blacks at the bottom. The lowest rung was occupied by Aboriginal Australians. Below them were Orang-Utans, which Europeans were originally unsure whether they were human or apes. Science has overturned this classification, and I cannot see any modern, ethical archaeological department ever endorsing such claims that certain sections of the human species are inferior to Whites, no matter what the authors of the infamous ‘Bell Curve’ may claim about innate differences in cognitive ability between different ethnic groups.

It is true that physiologically Aboriginal Australians have many archaic features, such as a pronounced brow ridge. This is hardly surprising considering just how ancient these people are, having colonised the continent about 40,000 years ago. They are, however, just as human as every other part of the human race. Their facial features are also very close to those of the ancestral humans that colonised Europe at about the same time. Skeletons showing Australian Aboriginal characteristics from that remote epoch have been found in Southern France. A little while ago I went to a seminar at Uni taken by an American professor, who was one of the world’s greatest authorities on early man and the Neanderthals. He pointed out that the skeletons of the early modern humans – Homo Sapiens Sapiens recovered from that period have archaic features, and are less gracile than African skeletons from the same period. If you want to put it crudely, at that stage the ancestors of modern Europeans were less evolved than their cousins in Africa. Despite their physiological differences, they were still Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Their appearance does not saying anything about their essential humanity.

Ancestral Skull

Ancestral Modern Human Skull from Broken Hill, South Africa. The first humans to colonise Europe 30-40,000 years ago had similar features

Africa: Continent of Many Cultures and Civilisations

Now let’s deal with the claims that Africans are somehow ‘uncivilised’. For a start, Africa is a continent, not a single country, and contains a plethora of cultures and peoples, whose lifestyles can vary considerably. The Bushmen of South Africa – the Khoisan peoples – are hunter gatherers, while many of the peoples of East Africa were traditionally nomadic pastoralists, herding their cattle across the Savannah. Others have long been settled in village as settled farmers and agriculturalists. And some of these peoples have developed highly advanced civilisations.

Ancient and Christian Nubia

The Nubians of the Sudan took over much of the culture of ancient Egypt, and for a time even ruled the ancient Land of the Nile. Regardless of the claim that the Ancient Egyptians themselves were Black, there was a dynasty of Black pharaohs, whose empire stretched into the Ancient Near East. One of these was the pharaoh Taharqa, who is mentioned in the Bible for his part in struggling with the Assyrians for the control of the various minor, Near Eastern states dominated by these two superpowers, like ancient Israel. The Nubians later converted to Christianity, and had a literate, Christian civilisation with strong links to Egypt and the Byzantine Empire until the country was conquered by Islam in the 14th century. Archaeologists have been studying the remains of their ancient culture since that part of Africa was opened up to Europeans in the 19th century.

Ethiopia

Further east is the equally ancient culture of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. This too is also extremely ancient. There were early centres of civilisation at Meroe and then Aksum. Although Meroe was a literate civilisation, they spoke a language completely unrelated to any other, so that although their inscriptions can be read, scholars at still at a loss to know what they mean. The main languages of modern Ethiopia, Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya, are descended from Ge’ez, which in turn is descended from the South Arabian languages, such as Sabaic, when colonists from these civilisations conquered and settled there well over 2,000 years ago. It converted to Christianity under its king, Ezana, in the fourth century, before the Anglo-Saxons had managed to over-run Roman Britain.

The Swahili in East Africa

South of Ethiopia, the great Muslim civilisation of the Swahili emerged later in the Middle Ages. They adopted not only Islam, but also other features of Islamic and Arabic life and culture. They built impressive cities from blocks of coral taken from the east African reefs, which were covered with a kind of lime wash produced by burning the same coral. In their time, they created some of the most outstanding examples of Islamic architecture, some of which can still be seen today in places like Zanzibar.

Nok, Benin and the Great Civilisations of West Africa

On the other side of Africa, other civilisations emerged which reached an extremely high level of civilisation. Africans in what is now Nigeria began smelting iron early, long before Europeans, in c. 1800 BC, due to the natural iron bloom available in the region. The earliest African artistic culture outside ancient Egypt, the Nok, appeared in Nigeria in the 3rd century BC. This is known for its highly stylised sculptures, the artistic skill of which has drawn admiration from modern art experts and connoisseurs. Other West African cultures also have been the subject of considerable scholarly interest for the high standard of their art, such as Ife and Benin. Both of these cultures produced extremely naturalistic metal sculptures. The Benin bronze heads, produced to form part of a shrine to the rulers’ life-force, are justly famous and are found in many European collections after they were looted by punitive raids by the British in the 19th century after they expanded into the region.

Ife Sculpture

Sculpture of a king of Ife. Similar works have been found in terracotta dating from before the 12th century.

Benin Bronze

Benin Bronze from Shrine to Ruler

These cultures also impressed European observers and traders when they first encountered them in the 16th and 17th centuries. They commented on the size of the cities they encountered, as well as the chastity of the indigenous women, which they considered to be far greater than their own. These civilisations did practise much that struck Europeans as barbaric, such as human sacrifice. What surprised them about this, however, was that such a cultured and civilised people should actually engage in such horrors. Captain Denman of the West African Squadron, charged with suppressing the slave trade between Africa and America, stated this in his evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in the 1840s. When asked whether mass human sacrifice really existed amongst the peoples of Dahomey, Ashanti and other cultures in the region, he replied that it did, and that it ‘was remarkable, given the achievements they have made in most of the arts of civilisation’. In other words, what shocked Europeans wasn’t that the Africans committing these atrocities were barbarous savages, but actually the complete opposite: they were highly civilised, and so the massacres they committed were even more shocking and horrifying by contrast to the rest of their civilisation.

Akure Place

Plan of the palace of the Deji of Akure, showing how complex great African buildings may be.

Benin pic 2

View of the City of Benin, published 1668 by the Dutch explorer, Dapper

North of these pagan civilisations was the great Islamic empire of Mali. Access to a plentiful supply of gold made it one of the richest civilisations in West Africa. So rich, that when its ruler passed through Egypt in the 12th century on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the amount of gold he and his retainers carried was so great that it actually through the country into a recession. Mali was also an important religious and intellectual centre, in which the scientific literature of the Muslim world also circulated. Scholars have uncovered vast libraries of ancient manuscripts preserved in the empire’s mosques from the Middle Ages. Amongst the treasures of this civilisation are manuscripts of the heliocentric system, showing the Earth and planets moving around the Sun, which Muslim scholars discovered independently of Copernicus about two centuries earlier.

Non-Ptolemaic Moon

Non-Ptolemaic Model of the Moon’s orbit, produced by the Turkish astronomer Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi in 1285. Similar works were copied and circulated amongst scholars in Mali.

Further south, in Zimbabwe, is the great stone fort from which the country takes its modern name. This vast structure is so impressive that previous European scholars could not believe it had been built by Africans, and instead attributed it to the Arabs or Chinese. I’ve got a feeling that some of the Ufolks may well believe it was built by ancient space aliens. Examination of the ruins themselves, however, show that it is indeed African in design and construction, similar to the way wooden houses are built by the peoples of the area.

Zimbabwe Fort1

The Temple at the Great Fort of Zimbabwe

There may also have been many other African civilisations, of which we currently know little, simply because the evidence for them has not survived. Africans tend to build in wood, rather than stone, a material that is particularly vulnerable to the continent’s climate and attack by termites. We only know of those civilisations that have either survived to the present day, such as Dahomey, Ashanti and the other contemporary Nigerian cultures, or who built in stone. Other civilisations may have existed which built in wood, the evidence for which perished over the centuries. However, merely because the evidence has not survived, does not mean that such civilisations weren’t there in the first place.

The Kippers racially abusing and insulting Umunna thus reveal just the extent of their own vile bigotry, but also how little they know about human evolution and African culture and civilisation. While these are fairly exotic topics, they’re not so arcane that only a few scholars know about them. There have been some excellent TV series on them, aimed at the general public. These include The Incredible Human Story on the BBC, presented by Time Team’s own Dr Alice Roberts. The BBC also produced a series on human evolution, presented by the avuncular, moustachioed Dr Robert Winston. Further back in the 1990s, Channel 4 also screened a series on human evolution, which presented the case that the early human colonist of Europe were actually Black. Again, an entirely respectable viewpoint, considering that all modern humans arrived out of Africa.

As for African civilisation, there have been a number of blockbusting series. Back in the 1980s there were a couple, one on BBC 2, presented by the Black African scholar Dr Ali Mazrui, and another on Channel 4 presented by the White afrocentrist historian, Dr Basil Davidson. More recently, BBC 4 and 2 screened a series, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by a Black British art historian. I’m afraid the only thing I can remember about this chap’s name is that he was Gus somebody, and his name was double-barrelled. And that, like all archaeologists and intrepid explorers, he wore the de rigueur Indian Jones felt hat. This was also well worth watching, and there was a book to accompany the series. It’s great series like that which provide the strongest argument for retaining the BBC, and keeping television out of the mitts of Murdoch.

Africa’s Problems those of Human Evil, Corrupt International Economic and Political System

Terrible atrocities and crimes against humanity are being committed in Africa, by kleptocratic dictators and army generals, who are a blight on the human race. These have gained power partly through the profound economic and social problems of their nations, but also through the complicity of Western politicians, industrialists and financiers. The difference and superiority of western, scientific and industrial culture is only very recent. Western Europe only began to overtake Islam scientific and technologically in the 17th century, and there were still areas in which the Muslim world was superior in the 18th. Well into the 19th century, much of western Europe was ruled by absolute monarchs, whose societies rested on serfdom, the effective enslavement of their peasants. One American historian of the Balkans has pointed out that while the Turks in the 19th century were seen as barbaric for taking the heads of those they slew in battle, this was actually common amongst American bounty hunters out West. Before the development of cheap, efficient photography, the only way you could prove that you had successfully hunted down and killed a dangerous criminal was to take their heads.

Africa is beset by many severe problems, but this is not because its people are somehow less ‘evolved’ or ‘uncivilised’. Indeed, for much of human history, the opposite has been true. The continent’s problems come from a number of causes, which include the legacy of colonialism, a corrupt and unfair international economic system, and simple pure, unrestrained human evil. The last knows no difference in colour, and affects every culture. Including the upper echelons of the Tory party, and even now clouds the judgment of Kippers towards their fellows.