Posts Tagged ‘Blake’s 7’

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Plays David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

August 11, 2017

This is awesome. It’s a video made by the astronaut Chris Hadfield, of himself playing the Bowie classic, ‘Space Oddity’, aboard the International Space Station. Which, when you think about, couldn’t be a better location.

Astronauts have played music in space before. I’ve got a feeling several Russian cosmonauts had their instruments with them back in the 1980s when they travelled to Mir, and had a jam session up there in orbit.

The SF writer Allan Steele wrote a short story, ‘Live from the Mars Hotel’ about the rise of fictional astronaut band in his anthology, Rude Astronauts. In this tale, a group of spacers on Mars form a band to keep boredom at bay during the long months on the Red Planet, especially when a howling dust storm comes down to blanket the entire world and nobody can venture outside. When they return to Earth, the band briefly find themselves celebrities. However, this rapidly wanes, and they go back to their day jobs after their all-too brief stint as space’s first rock gods.

Part of the reason for this is that they sacrifice their authentic sound for the image manufactured for them by the music industry. Their own sound, honed on Mars, is rough and gritty, authentic country ‘n’ western. However, when they play gigs back on Earth, they’re persuaded to wear spangly jumpsuits and perform with a full orchestra. It’s just too ‘Nashville’ for our roughneck space heroes. The fans sense this, and so stop listening to them.

The shots of the ISS itself and the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as Earth itself, remind me of the opening credits to the 1980s space detective series, Star Cops. This was set forty years in the future, when space was being opened up to industrial exploitation and regular space travel. Unfortunately, it only lasted a single season. Part of the problem was that many of the space/ SF fans, who would have seen it, never heard of it. I also think that it suffered because it was broadcast just after Dr. Who’s cancellation in the mid-1980s, and I think this overshadowed the show. I also think it probably suffered from being mismarketed. I think it was being advertised as detection, rather than SF, and so the trailers for it were aimed at the wrong audience. I’m quite aware, however, that there is an audience, and that there are SF stories that are basically detective yarns. They’re just set in the future with robots, aliens and mutants.

Here’s the beginning titles for Star Cops.

Well, it’s thirty years after the series was aired, and we’re still waiting for the future it envisioned. Star Cops was written by Chris Boucher, who was script editor on Blake’s 7, and was very much intended to be hard, near-future SF. The series boasted that all the technology was based on hard, science fact. Unfortunately, the dream of cheap, mass spaceflight hasn’t happened, possibly because the spaceplanes being designed at the time by Martin Marietta simply proved unviable in practice.

Still, perhaps in Skylon takes off next year, we might really see the space age begin in earnest. In the meantime, I hope there are a few more astronauts, who take the opportunity to lay down a few awesome tracks as they explore the High Frontier.

Ismahil Blagrove on Why the Days of the Mainstream Media Are Over

July 20, 2017

This is awesome. I’ve posted up videos from Blagrove before, particularly one in which he laid into the mainstream media for their reporting of the Grenfell Tower disaster. In this very short piece from Double Down News, he rips into the mainstream media for its class bias – for the White, middle class elite, and against poor Whites, Muslims and so on. He has very forthright views about the Heil, stating that, yes, he would use it as toilet paper. Well, it’s got to be good for something. He tells how he was asked by someone from the mainstream media what they were doing wrong. He told them about how they were for the elite, and constantly attacked Jeremy Corbyn. This even included nominally left-wing papers like the Groaniad. Corbyn’s popular because he gives people hope and builds them up. The MSM does the opposite. When they talk about youths committing crime, they aren’t talking about the children of the middle classes, but lower class Whites. The same with their constant attacks on Muslims, and their refusal to recognize that British foreign policy and military action abroad has an effect on terrorism.

He talks about how he was an independent film maker for about 17-18 years, and never got a commission from the Beeb or Channel 4. Now both channels want him and his team. He rhetorically asks where they were when he was young and hungry? They don’t want him; they just want his contacts. But he talks about an independent film on young gun crime, which garnered four million views. He seems to be talking directly to DDN at one point, stating that he dislikes their name, but good on them, because they’re successful. He concludes by saying that the days of MSM are over. The revolution will be livestreamed!

Warning: the video contains images of Eton or other public schoolboys acting as such, which some people may find offensive.

Blagrove’s absolutely right. Corbyn is successful, precisely because he does give people hope. And that absolutely terrifies the media and corporate elites. As Servalan, the supreme commander of the Terran Federation, once said in Blake’s 7 ‘Hope is very dangerous’.

It’s why the Heil and Torygraph a few days ago started ranting about how the young supported Labour and Corbyn because they’d been indoctrinated by left-wing teachers. They haven’t. The vast majority of teachers simply want to stand in front of a whiteboard and teach. When they do become political, and criticize the government, or start mooting strike action, it’s because of genuine professional concerns, both for their careers and the teaching profession as a whole, and also because of the harm Tory educational policies are having on schoolchildren and their intellectual and moral development.

There is also very stringent legislation in place to make sure teachers cannot indoctrinate young children. If there is a situation, where they are asked to make a judgement about a political or religious belief, they have to state clearly that this is only their view.

The idea that there are somehow legions of left-wing teachers poisoning young minds is just more propaganda. I really shouldn’t expect anything more or better from them. Back in the 1980s under Thatcher the Fail and the Torygraph, along with the rest of the right-wing press, were screaming the same lies about Communist teachers and the Peace Studies courses, taught in some schools. Quite apart from the scaremongering about Brent Council and its crusade against sexism, anti-gay prejudice and racism.

There are very good reasons why many young people are turning to Labour: Corbyn is giving them hope. Hope that they might actually get a job, or if they don’t, that they might actually receive unemployment or disability benefit from the state. That the 50 per cent, which the government wants to go to uni, will emerge without something like £40,000 worth of student debt, a debt that they will never be able to pay off, and will stop them owning their own home. Corbyn gives them hope that their parents just might be able to afford to retire to a well-earned, decent pension. Hope that we are going to live in a civilized Britain, where the elite aren’t constantly whipping up hysterical fears about immigrants to divide working people, or demonise the poor, the unemployed, the disabled, the weak, the disenfranchised.

But the corporate elite are so convinced of their own right to rule, that they simply can’t get their heads round all that. Or rather, they don’t want to. And more importantly, they don’t want the British public, who buy their disgusting rags, to understand that either. And so it’s all back to the stale, antiquated Thatcherite lies about teachers.

Blagrove is also absolutely right too, about the way Corbyn has been properly reported and supported by the internet and social media, just as Obama and now Bernie Sanders is in America. And the plutocrats, who own it are frightened. It’s why YouTube is demonetizing left-wing internet news shows like The Young Turks, The David Pakman Show, Secular Talk and so on. It’s why Mike and other left-wing bloggers have found that Facebook has changed its sharing buttons, to make it more difficult for them to be reblogged and shared.

Because, as Blagrove has said, he trusts blogger to report the news better than the professional media.

I also applaud this video because Blagrove stands up, not just for Muslims and people of colour, but also for poor White kids. I’ve commented on a number of pieces in Counterpunch, which have observed that White and Black in the working class need to stand together, and that Trump and elite are using White racism to divide working people. These articles argued that Whites needed to reject racism. Blagrove here has embraced poor Whites. He doesn’t accuse them of racism, but recognizes them as fellow victims of elitist class rule.

It’s a very trenchant criticism of the media, and its failure to serve the real interests of the public over its corporate masters. But the internet has put the power of the media in the hands of the ordinary, working people, who are excluded from the corporate elite. And they are livestreaming the revolution.

The Fantastic Space Art of David A. Hardy

April 22, 2017

This is another couple of videos from the redoubtable Martin Kennedy showcasing the amazing work of yet another space and Science Fiction artist, David A. Hardy. Hardy is one of the longest running space and SF artist working. The entry on him in Stuart Holland’s Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History, runs:

David Hardy’s introduction to astronomical illustration was a somewhat rushed affair. In 1954, as a mere 18-year-old, he was commissioned to produce eight black and white illustrations for a book by legendary UK astronomer Patrick Moore: Suns, Myths, and Men. He had just five days to create them before British national service-conscription-required him to join the Royal Air Force. The commission was all the more remarkable as Hardy had only painted his first piece of astronomical art four years previously, inspired by the work of Chesley Bonestell.

Since those early days, Hardy (1936-) has garnered numerous awards for artwork that spans the science fiction/hard science divide. Born in Bourneville, Birmingham, in the UK, he honed his talents painting chocolate boxes for Cadbury’s. By 1965 he had become a freelance illustrator, beginning a career that resulted in covers for dozens of books and magazines, both factual, such as New Scientist, Focus, and various astronomical publications, for which he also writes; and SF, including Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction. 1972 saw the publication of Challenge of the Stars, which Hardy not only illustrated but co-wrote with Patrick Moore (the book was updated in 1978 as New Challenge of the Stars). A bestseller, it joined the select pantheon of book that influenced a new generation of up-and-coming astronomical artists.

By now, Hardy’s work was receiving international recognition, and in 1979 he was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist. Tow years later, another book followed, Galactic Tours, which as the name suggests is a “factitious” guidebook for the interstellar tourist. As a result of the book, travel company Thomas Cook approached Hardy about becoming a consultant on the future of tourism in space-long before Richard Branson had planned Virgin’s conquest of the stars.

Hardy has written an SF novel, Aurora: A Child of Two Worlds; worked on the movie The Neverending Story, and on TV (Cosmos, Horizon, The Sky at Night, Blake’s Seven), and produced record covers for – unsurprisingly – Holst’s The Planets and for bands such as Hawkwind, the Moody Blues, and Pink Floyd.

In 2004, Hardy’s long-standing partnership with Patrick Moore culminated in the award-winning Futures, in which the two explored the changing perceptions of space exploration since they first collaborated in the ’50s, the ’70s (the era of Challenge of the Stars) and into the 21st century. Artistically, Hardy has also embraced the growing digital trend that started in the approach to the new millennium. While still painting in acrylic and oil, he now uses Photoshop as a matter of course.

In March 2003, Hardy was paid perhaps the ultimate accolade an astronomical artist can receive: he had an asteroid [13329] named after him. Discovered ini September, 1998, it was christened Davidhardy=1998 SB32-high praise indeed!
(P. 130).

Several of the paintings in the video come from the Challenge of the Stars and its updated version.

The videos also include his cover illustration for Arthur C. Clarke’s The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – the History of Man’s Colonisation of Mars, which is another ‘future history’, this time of the terraforming of the Red Planet.

I have to say that I’m really impressed he also worked on Blake’s 7. This was low-budget British SF, but it had some create scripts and a really beautiful spaceship in The Liberator. And I would far rather go into space on something designed by Hardy, and operated by Thomas Cook, than by Branson.

The War on Drugs, Racism and Eugenics in Modern America

January 29, 2016

There’s a particularly chilling passage in the chapter ‘The History of “Black Paranoia” in Cockburn and St. Clair’s End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate, where they describe the revival and continuation of eugenics policies, including the use of castration and sterilisation, and the US government’s ‘war on drugs’. The chapter as a whole is intended to show that Black Americans have very good reason for not trusting the US government, considering the numerous policies that have been deliberately enacted against them. This has includes treating them as unwitting subjects for human experimentation, and the way crimes have been specifically framed by the legal authorities so that punishment bears down hardest on Blacks and other ethnic minorities. The various anti-drugs legislation is a case in point. Although middle class White Americans also used opium, marijuana and cocaine, the laws against them were formulated and promoted to specifically attack Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese, as a way of making them seem threateningly foreign. Cannabis was originally just called ‘hemp’. It was renamed ‘marijuana’ as a way of associating with Mexican workers, who were then competing with White workers in the Depression for jobs. It was associated with the racial threat supposedly posed by Black men, often using the crude imagery of school playground racial stereotype. One government headline screamed that ‘Negroes with Big Lips Lure White Women with Marijuana and Jazz.’ And all this was going on a mere few decades after one US cigarette manufacturer offered smokers cocaine-laced ciggies for their consumption.

The Destruction of Black Communities by the War on Drugs

Cockburn and St. Clair talk about the devastation wrought in downtown L.A. by the War on Drugs, which effectively turned poor Black neighbourhoods into war zones. Wards were walled off from each other, curfews imposed, and Black men were stopped and searched on the street. 89 per cent of those arrested were released without charge. Unemployment soared, as did the proportion of Blacks in US prisons. Poverty increased, and for the first in a century, the average Black life expectancy fell.

Fred Goodwin on Inner City Men Evolving Backwards

And as conditions in the inner cities deteriorated, there was a revival of eugenics. In 1992, Fred Goodwin, the director of ADAMHA, or the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, declared that the increase in Black violence in the inner cities may well have been due to a gene for violence. He recommended that a national biomedical campaign should be launched to isolate the gene and treat the gene’s carriers. In February of that year he gave a speech to the National Mental Health Advisory Council, in which he explicitly stated that violence had increased, as individuals in the jungle conditions of the inner cities had reverted to more ‘natural’ behaviour. He stated:

There are discussion of “biological correlates” and “biological markers”. The individuals have defective brains with detectable prefrontal changes that may well be predictive of later violence. The individuals have impaired intelligence, in this case “cognitive deficit” … Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner city areas, has removed some of the civilising evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilisation over thousands of years in our evolution.

Planting Electrodes in Brains to Control Violence

Cockburn and St. Clair link Goodwin’s attempt to find the genetic origins of violence and a medical treatment, with that of Lewis “Jolly” West, who presided over the neuropsychiatric institute at UCLA. In 1969 West announced his plan to plant electrodes in the brain of violent offenders, in order to control them. This caused such an outcry that he was forced to abandon his plans. There are shades here of the limiter in the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. One of the early characters, Oleg Gan, had had a limiter – an electronic device designed to prevent him from killing anyone – implanted in his brain after he killed the Federation trooper, who’d raped his girlfriend. Blake’s 7 was a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ meets Star Wars, in which a motley crew of criminals led by the dissident Blake took on the totalitarian Federation. It was very much of its time, and strongly influenced by the medical abuse of psychiatry against dissidents in the former Soviet Union. West and his electrodes suggest that its creator, Terry Nation, the man, who gave children the world over the terrible joy of the Daleks, was also very much aware of the totalitarian tendencies in western science.

The Castration of the Violent

One of West’s own mentors was Dr Ernst Rodin, who was in charge of the Neurology department of Lafayette Clinic. He recommended neurosurgery and castration for the ‘dumb young males who riot’. His views were echoed by West after the Watts riots, but instead of surgery, West recommended sterilising them with cyproterone acetate. In 1972 he recommended that this should be carried out on the inmates in US prisons. This caused such an outcry that his funding was cut.

The Eugenic Sterilisation of the Unfit

Cockburn and St. Clair also cover the eugenics laws enacted in twelve US states in the first two decades of the last century. Between 1907 and 1964 about 63,678 people had been compulsorily sterilised in thirty states and one colony. But this was probably an underestimate of the true numbers of the policy’s victims. In 1974 Federal Judge Gerhard Gessell, reviewing the suit brought by them, declared that 100,000 to 150,000 people with low incomes had been sterilised annually over the past few years in federally funded programmes. Allan Chase, the author of a book on this, The Legacy of Malthus, states that this is comparable to the rate of the Nazis in their sterilisation campaign.

Such programmes were supposed to be voluntary, but Gessell ruled that an unknown number had been forced into it through the authorities threatening to take away their welfare benefits. Those most frequently targeted with this kind of pressure were women reliant on Medicaid to pay their bills for childbirth. One of the intended victims of this was Katie Relf, who successfully fought it off by locking herself into her room. Chase has estimated that by the end of the 1970s, the US was sterilising 200,000 citizens annually.

Winston Churchill, Eugenics, and the Bengal Famine

And the policy was not without its supporters over here. Winston Churchill also supported the policy, and wanted to see about 100,000 degenerates in the UK forcibly sterilised. This isn’t by far the most loathsome thing the great War Leader ever said or did. Last week, Secular Talk covered the story in the Independent that 40 per cent of Brits miss the Empire. The show covered a series of crimes against humanity committed by the Empire and its servants. These included the Amritsar Massacre, the incarceration of Afrikaaner women and children in concentration camps during the Boer War, and the Bengal Famine, in which 27 million people died of starvation. The wheat that could have fed them was diverted to British troops fighting in Europe in the Second World War. For the victims, Churchill had no sympathy. He said he hated Indians, and that it served them right for ‘breeding like rabbits’. He may have been the great leader who kept Europe free, but that doesn’t stop him from also being a moral slug.

Conclusion: Don’t Trust Those Who Claim to Have Found the Gene For Whatever

Apart from its main point – that American Blacks have every reason to be alienated and distrustful of the government and authorities, the chapter also shows how recently such racist attitudes were accepted by medical authorities, as well as the use of sterilisation against the poor generally. And it also provides very good reasons for being extremely distrustful of scientists when they claim to have found the gene for ‘X’. This includes the gene for schizophrenia, for homosexuality, and for violence. The latter surfaced yet again about a few months ago. Someone was claiming that extremely violent crims had a certain mutated chromosome. Then another biologist pointed out that roughly half of everybody also had the gene, and it didn’t make them into psychos. There’s a real danger here that if we pay too much attention to these scientists, we’ll be back with sterilisation and compulsory lobotomy. Just like the early 20th century and Nazis.

Motherboard Report on the Japanese Robot Hotel

November 25, 2015

This is another interesting video I found over on Youtube. It’s a piece by the science news programme, Motherboard, on the Henn-na – Japanese for ‘weird’ Hotel in Tokyo that’s staffed by robots. The presenter states that Japan has legions of industrial robots, and Japanese trends were believed to show what the future would be like. In the case of the hotel industry, a few decades ago this was believed to be the capsule hotels, where tired Sararimen hired what was basically a stacked space about the size of a coffin to sleep in. The presenter tries one of these out, and talks to a traditional Japanese hotelier about how he feels about the rise of hotels where everything is done by robots.

The human hotelier states that he believes that people actually want the human touch, and personal contact with other human beings. So to compete, he believes that ordinary hotels will have to concentrate on being more human, rather than like those run by the machines. The journalist then goes on to sample what a night in one of these robot hotels is like. He states that the Japanese are turning to robots in order to cut down on high labour costs.

Inside the hotel, he is greeted with the hotel reception, which consists of two robots on a desk. One is in the guise of a woman, the other is a dinosaur in a hat. To check in, he has to use a touch-screen, which he describes as like those used at checkouts. Any valuables you have is placed in a locker behind glass by a robot arm, which the journalists says could come from a state of the art factory. Your luggage is taken to your room by another robot, though this is a robot trolley, not any kind of humanoid machine. In the bedroom on the bedside drawers is another, rather diminutive robot, which responds to your voice, greets you, and asks if you want the lights on or off.

Back down stairs, there are no catering staff. All the meals come from vending machines. There is a small human staff of about three guys. When interviewed, they also talk about how these hotels are driven by the need to cut labour costs. The journalist also interviews the managers, who states that he believes these hotels will become more popular and appear around the world. He and his staff also believe that to compete, hotels staffed by humans will also have to offer a more uniquely human experience.

The presenter himself and some of the guests he interviews are, however, in the end less than enthusiastic about the experience. He states that while its exciting to begin with, it’s actually rather lonely. The group of young women he interviews actually state that it’s really rather boring.

Here’s the video:

Now the presenter makes the point that as machines take more of our jobs, businesses like these raise the question of what can be uniquely done by humans. I’d argue that hotel catering and accommodation may not be an industry that can only be done by humans, but at the moment its an industry that can only be done well by humans.

If you look at the type of robots that have been popular in SF, they’re fictional machines that have had real characters and personalities. Think of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, C-3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars films and K-9 in Dr Who. The same with the sentient computers, like Zen, Orac and Slave in Blake’s 7, or the Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Or even Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These machines became favourite SF characters because they were precisely that: characters. They were essentially artificial people, with human-like intelligence, personality traits and even flaws. Robbie the Robot had all the polite aloofness of a human butler. C-3PO was fussy and rather camp, but a foil for R2D2, who was cheeky and slightly wilful, in the manner of a child determined to have its own way. Orac in Blake’s 7 was arrogant and pedantic, like a rather tetchy university professor. Slave was grovelling and subservient. K-9 was a perky companion, eager to help his master, but also with his own mind and opinions. The Hal-9000 computer was proud of its model’s computing power, accuracy and reliability, stated it enjoyed human companion, even though it went on to kill the crew on the grounds that human unreliability made them a threat to the success of the mission. Finally, it felt fear, when Dave Bowman, the hero of that segment of the film, closed it down. Zen was the most impersonal of all the machines. Except for its dying moment in the last episode of the third series, ‘Terminal’, it did not refer to itself. It was basically a hemisphere in a corner of the Liberator’s flight deck, across which flowed patterns of lights. Yet these lights and the slight inflections in its voice gave the impression of a distinct personality, and again, real human-like intelligence. Peter Tuddenham, the voice actor for Orac and Zen, in an interview with Blake’s 7 magazine in the 1980s, stated that of the two, Zen was his favourite. Orac, he felt, had merely taken on the personality of its creator, Ensor, who was also tetchy, pedantic and professorial. Zen’s personality was a more natural growth of the machine’s basic nature. It could have become human-like, but had deliberately held back and remained as it was.

And back in the 1970s and ’80s, 2000 AD also gave their own very comic version of what form robot accommodation for humans would take in the Robohunter strip. This followed the adventures of Sam Slade, that’s ‘S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’, as he attempted to combat robot crime. In the first story, Slade found himself despatched to the distant planet, Verdus. This had been occupied by robots in preparation for human colonisation. The robots, however, had refused to recognise the colonists as humans on the grounds that humans would obviously be superior to them in the every way. When the human colonists turned up, the robots found that they were instead weaker, and less intelligent. They concluded that they must somehow be ‘sims’, simulated humans, sent to deceive them for some purpose they didn’t understand. As a result, humans were rounded up into concentration camps to be experimented on and culled. Slade managed to break out, find the original robot sent to colonise the planet, who duly recognised and testified that he was indeed human. This convinced some of the robots that the Sims were humans, while others remained unconvinced. A war broke out between the two sides, which was only stopped by Slade destroying every robot on Verdus. This restored peace, but left his employers furious.

All this makes the strip seem grimmer than it actually was. The strip, scripted by long-time 2000 AD writer John Wagner, and drawn by Ian Gibson, was funny and satirical with a distinct cartoonish quality. On Verdus, everything was done by robots. There was a robot parliament, occupied by deranged and moronic MPs, like the Stupid Parties, which existed solely to provide comic amusement to the planet’s true leader, Big Brain. There was a robot archbishop and chief rabbi, demanding rights for Sims as God’s creatures. The robot armies included stereotypical ‘Colonel Blimp’ generals, while members of the robot constabulary in Robopoly, a robot board game, where also corrupt and brutal, following several real police scandals of the time. There were also robot singers and TV stars, like Frankie Droid, and Valve Doonican, a pastiche of the Irish singer, Val Doonican, who had his own show on British television at the time.

In the last couple of decades, a number of computer entrepreneurs and SF writers have predicted that eventually, everything will have computers chips in and so be computer controlled. The Robohunter strip also depicted that possibility, but gave it its own, twisted slant. In the page below, Slade and his diminutive sidekick, Kidd, on the run from the robots break into an apartment. Once inside, they find that everything, from the kettle, to footwear and furniture, is a robot.

Robohunter Pic 1

What makes this interesting, and extremely funny, is that all these machines have their own personalities. They talk and argue. They discuss whether Slade and Kidd are really human, or just Sims, and then decide to put it to the vote whether they should turn them in or not.

This is absolutely unlike the real robot hotel. For all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, the machines there aren’t really sentient. They respond in a very limited way to a set of instructions. These may be verbal or keyed in. Unlike the fictional machines, there is no ‘I’, no sense of self lurking within the chips and circuit boards. And no real understanding of what they’re doing either. It’s just one set of circuits responding to a certain stimulus according to its programme or wiring. They’re moving mannequins, rather than the artificial people of SF.

So instead of the robotic maniacs of Verdus, what is instead presented is something far more like the antiseptic, alienated futures of Stanley Kubrick’s SF films. In 2001 everything is gleaming white, clean, and sterile. People speak, but don’t actually communicate or really say anything much at all. And that was deliberate. Clarke had told Kubrick that he had trouble writing dialogue for the movie. Kubrick told him not to worry. He liked it stilted, as he saw the people in this future as brittle and alienated. They had reached a high stage of technological sophistication but had little human warmth or empathy in their social interactions themselves. Critics have commented that the only real personality in the movie is that of Hal, the murderous computer.

The programme’s presented states that the increasing use of robots in Japan is driven by the need to cut labour costs. I dare say that’s part of it, but not quite what has been said elsewhere. Japan actually has a labour shortage, partly caused by a falling birth rate and strongly traditional attitudes against women in the workplace. As a result, there’s been campaigns not only to introduce robots into Japanese industry, but also to humanise them, to get the other, human members of the workforce to accept them as a fellow being, rather than just a machine.

And for all the country’s immense technological sophistication and ingenuity, it’s actually extremely reluctant to implement mechanisation itself as comprehensively as its competitors in the West have done. Way back in the 1990s I read a book on Japan written by a Times journalist. The author stated that while in the West were used to computer checkouts, if you went into a Japanese shop or the post office, the clerk there would be using old fashioned ledgers. The Japanese had worked out that if they fully automated their industry, it would put half their workers out of a job. And the actual numbers of robots in Japan may well be colossally exaggerated. Geoff Simons in his book Robots: The Question for Living Machines, states that most of the what the Japanese call robots are what in the west are viewed as machine tools. The impression I have is that the Japanese love robots, but want to introduce them as an addition to the human workers, not as a replacement.

The film shows the journalist enjoying the robot actors and dancers at a carnival or nightclub. Alongside some machines, are people dressed as robots, playing at them. This strikes me as what visitors to a robot hotel would really want from the experience – real humans alongside the machines, and the machines themselves to be more like personalities than just simple automatic mechanisms. The danger there is that if you did give robots personalities, you run the risk of creating miserable robots like the eternally depressed Marvin, the Paranoid Android. He was a ‘personality prototype’. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’ as he himself put it.

I’ve no doubt that the ruthless logic of capitalism means that there’ll be more of these hotels in the future. I think there’s already another like it in Los Angeles. But in the meantime I think human-run premises probably offer a better service. At least they have real cooks, rather than vending machines.

Danish Amateur Rocketeers Aim for Space

November 19, 2015

This is truly awesome! It’s a VICE documentary I found on Youtube about Copenhagen Suborbitals, a non-profit organisation formed by two Danish guys, Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, who are building their own spacecraft to carry a person on a sub-orbital spaceflight.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both have a background as professional rocket engineers. Bengtson used to work for NASA, while his partner, Peter Madsen, also has a background in rocket science. Bengtson got in touch with Madsen after Madsen built and launched his own submarine, the Nautilus, and stated that he’d like to go back to rockets.

Their spacecraft, Beautiful Betty, is built from off the shelf components, like domestic boilers. The rocket uses ethanol as its fuel, and LOX, liquid oxygen, to oxidise it to make it combust. At the time the film was posted in 2012 Bengtson and Madsen were still experimenting with crash test dummies rather than risking a human life. My guess is that they haven’t progressed beyond that, as if they had finally launched someone into space, even in a very short suborbital flight, it would most likely have been all over the news. Bengtson, Madsen and their team would have been celebrities.

The two also encourage others to copy them, in order to show that it doesn’t have to be massive corporations with extremely expensive launchers getting into space. Bengtson says at the end that people are welcome to join them, or copy the details of the spacecraft from their blog and go off and make their own spacecraft.

Here’s the programme:

This is truly inspiring. I strongly believe that the only way spaceflight will ever truly become a mass enterprise, will be when ordinary people have the opportunity to experience space. When the High Frontier is no longer the sole preserve of giant aerospace companies and national or international organisations, like NASA and ESA. When its more like the mass popular migration into space depicted by Ray Bradbury in his classic collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles. Without, hopefully, the pessimism about human civilisation and it destructive effects contained in Bradbury’s book. In The Martian Chronicles the human settlers destroy the indigenous Martians, and then their civilisation collapses after a nuclear war destroys all life on Earth, or at least humanity there.

Now rocketry, even at the level of Copenhagen Suborbital, is very advanced engineering. Nevertheless, there’s a very large amateur rocketry milieu around the world. These range from hobbyists, who make and launch model rockets that travel only a few hundred feet up, to some extremely serious rocketeers. One year a group sent a 45 foot minuteman missile into orbit.

One of the issues that might strangle the popular, amateur exploration of space is domestic terrorism. In Britain, research into rockets and their use as spacecraft was seriously hampered by the Victorian legislation, nicknamed ‘the fireworks act’, which made it illegal for amateurs to manufacture explosives. The law was passed as a response to bombings by Irish nationalists. Unfortunately, as well as helping to prevent terrorism, it stopped the various early British amateurs from experimenting, though there were a number of rocket societies which developed in the 1920s. Out of them grew the British Interplanetary Society, which is still going today. It still publishes serious papers on rocketry and space science, as well as more popular coverage of spaceflight. Among its members are the late Arthur C. Clarke, and Matt Irvine, who was one of the special effects team building the models for the cult BBC SF series, Blake’s 7.

The legislation regulating the manufacture of explosives is quite correct. These are highly dangerous materials. Apart from anything else, there’s always the danger of accidents, quite apart from the renewed terrorist threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda much earlier. Even in America, which has much less strict firearms regulations, serious rocketeers have to obtain suitable certificates and permits from the Federal Aviation Authority.

Nevertheless, these Danish guys are showing what you can do with skill and ingenuity without the budget of the big space combines. The motto of the British Interplanetary Society is ‘From Imagination to Reality’ – and they’re doing it!
Godspeed, guys!

Vox Political: Time to End the Work Capability Assessment

February 12, 2015

Mike over at Vox Political wrote this piece, Shouldn’t we call time on the Work Capability Assessment? reporting and commenting on an article by Bernadette Meaden of Ekklesia attacking the work capability assessment. He writes

On the day Mrs Mike was at first supposed to take a new Work Capability Assessment, then told it was cancelled (then received a letter confirming this – and then this writer attended the centre to make sure), Ekklesia has published a piece by Bernadette Meaden asking whether there’s any point to the process at all.

She writes: “It’s important to remember that these assessments are not a ‘medical’, as the public may believe. They are officially described as a ‘functional assessment’: they assess people as if they are machines, to see which bits are working and which bits aren’t. They disregard many medical symptoms such as pain and exhaustion, which is why people who are obviously seriously ill can be assessed as ‘fit to work’, why so many people appeal their decision, and why the government’s own expert adviser, Professor Malcolm Harrington, once described the WCA as ‘mechanistic and inhumane’.

“Not all the people who have been through a WCA will have been given a face-to-face assessment. Some will have received a decision based on their completion of the lengthy and complex ESA50 form, and supplementary information they have supplied. But for all who have been assessed, whether face to face or via bureaucracy, it will have been an added stress at a time when they may be coming to terms with a life-limiting diagnosis, or going through unpleasant treatment.

“To have your doctor say you are unfit to work, but to have the decision as to whether you will receive support in the hands of a medically unqualified DWP Decision Maker is not conducive to anyone’s health.”

He also reports the findings of Nick Dilworth, of iLegal, that under the new, even tougher Work Capability Assessment, fewer people have in fact been found fit for work. He suggests, however, that this is just a lull before Maximus takes over.

Mike makes the point that the estimates of the number of people being found fit for work are notoriously unreliable, as the DWP plays very fast and loose with the stats. And the Department is also extremely treacherous with clients. He tells his recent experience going with his partner, Mrs Mike, to hospital after she was told that she had to attend a Work Capability Assessment. Only to be told, in turn, when he rang up the hospital, that she wasn’t actually booked for one. He went to the hospital just to make sure. Many of Mike’s commenters have had a similar experience, but in reverse: they were sanctioned for not attending Work Capability Assessment, about which they weren’t actually told. Mike asks the obvious question of how much stress incidents like his have caused to disabled people, who weren’t lucky to have able-bodied carers?

And he makes it very clear that it’s time the WCA was repealed and replaced with something else, as also recommended by Bernadette Meaden and New Approach, an organisation to which Nick Dilworth belongs.

The Work Capability Assessment: A Prize Piece of Pseudoscience

Earlier this week I blogged on a piece by George Berger on DPAC’s site, describing the origin of the welfare to work philosophy by Gordon Waddell and Mansel Aylward for Unum, the giant American insurance fraudster. Berger notes that Waddell’s idea – that sick people were somehow malingering and adopting a role, which made their condition worse, was methodologically complete rubbish. It was also strongly influenced by Behaviourism, a school of psychology set up by B.W. Skinner in the 1920s. Mike’s article and Bernadette Meaden’s comments about the way the Work Capability Test treats people as machines, and disregards medical symptoms such as pain and exhaustion, is very much in line with the Behaviourists’ approach to the human mind.

The Behaviourists had a very reductive attitude to the mind: they didn’t believe in it. They didn’t like the concept of the mind, because it involved subjective experiences, which they didn’t believe could be part of objective science, because you can’t properly, objectively quantify them. It was the Behaviourists who developed the concept of conditioning, in which you could control an individual’s environment or stimuli, to alter his mind and behaviour. This resulted in the development of the Skinner box. this was a box in which pigeons were kept, and their environment totally controlled by the experiment, so as to condition the pigeon. In his utopian novel, Walden 2, Skinner developed his fantasy of a complete society populated by well-adjusted people, who had spent years in Skinner boxes.

The Simpsons sent up Skinner’s ideas in an episode, where one of the characters decides they want to give their wealth to fund a worthy project. A mad psychiatrist comes along, asking for the money so he can buy an orphan to stick into such a total environment. It’s a Skinner Box in all but name. When asked if this will benefit the child, the mad scientist says, ‘No, it’ll send him nuts’.

Quite.

Just how nasty the Behaviourists could be is shown in their treatment of ‘Little Albert’. To show how you could condition children through negative stimuli, they trained a toddler to be terrified of feather boas by giving him an electric shock every time he saw one.

The depictions of the brainwashing of political dissidents by the Federation in the BBC’s classic SF series, Blake’s 7, is partly based on the Behaviourists’ theories of conditioning. It’s also partly influenced, of course, by the Soviet Union’s abuse of psychiatry, which was revealed by Solzhenitsyn amongst other dissidents.

Behaviourism has now been discredited as a school of psychiatry. George Berger and others have also repeatedly shown that the Work Capability Test is also pseudoscience. It’s about time it was recognised as such, and thrown out.
– Along with this vile government that persists in using it.

Karl Marx and the Wage Slavery of Call Centre Workers

March 15, 2014

Call Centre Pic

One of the main features of the modern, post-Thatcher economy is the rapid explosion in call centres. These seem to have taken over from manufacturing as one of the leading employment sectors. One cannot walk past the various employment bureaux without seeing jobs in them advertised. On the other side of the picture, ordinary domestic life is now punctuated by regular phone calls during the day from someone in Birmingham, Glasgow, or even Mumbai phoning you up to ask if you want to change your energy provider, telephone company or are aware that you might get some kind of refund on your insurance. If you phone up a company, you are automatically put through to their call centre somewhere else, frequently half way round the planet. They’re often in one of the developing nations, like India, which has a large reservoir of skilled workers, who can be paid very poorly compared to their fellows in Britain. British call centre workers are, however, joining them as extremely low paid employees working in dehumanising and exploitative conditions. I heard a long time ago from a friend that call centre work is one of the most miserable experiences people go through to earn a living.

Owen Jones on Degrading Conditions in Call Centres

Just how depressing and degrading they are is also described by Owen Jones in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. He writes

If you think shop workers have it bad, consider now the call centre worker. There are now nearly a million people working in call centres, and the number is going up every year. To put that in perspective, there were a million men down the pits at the peak of mining in the 1940s. If the miner was one of the iconic jobs of post-war Britain, then today, surely, the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any.

‘Call centres are a very regimented environment,’ says John McInally, a trade unionist leading efforts by the PCS to unionize call centre workers. ‘It’s rows of desks with people sitting with headphones. There’s load of people in the room, but they’re separate units. They’re encouraged not to talk, share experiences and so on … The minute you get in the door, your movements are regulated by the computer.’ Here is the lack of worker’s autonomy in the workplace take to extremes.

In some call centres he has dealt with, a worker in Bristol or Glasgow who wants to leave fifteen minutes early has to go through head office in Sheffield to be cleared. ‘We’ve likened conditions to those you’d have seen in mills or factories at the end of the nineteenth century.’ Think that’s an exaggeration? Then consider the fact that, in some call centres, workers have to put their hands up to go to the toilet. Computers dictate the time and duration of breaks, with no flexibility whatsoever. Employees are under constant monitoring and surveillance, driving up stress levels.

Many call centre workers have told McInally that the whole experience is ‘very dehumanizing. People talk abaout being treated like robots. Everything is regulated by machines.’ The working lives of many operators consist of reading through the same script over and over again. According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, increasing numbers of call centre workers are being referred to speech therapists because they are losing their voices. The cause? Working long hours with little opportunity to even have a drink of water.

That’s one reason why the sickness rate in call centres is nearly twice the national average. The other is deep alienation from the work. In once call centre McInally dealt with in Northern England, sickness rates had reached nearly 30 per cent. ‘That’s a sign of low morale’, he says – as I the fact that annual staff turnover is around a quarter of the workforce. And, like so much of the new working class, the salaries of call centre workers are poor. A trainee can expect £12,500, while the higher-grade operators are on an average of just £16,000.

The dehumanising regimentation and micro-managing of call centre staff by computer reminded me of some of the dystopian SF that appeared in the 1970s, speculating on the type of future if computers suddenly took over the world and humanity was reduced to their slaves, watched and controlled totally by omniscient machines. The intrepid crew of the Enterprise encountered one such society in the Classic Star Trek episode ‘Return of the Archons’. The crew of the Liberator, the Dirty Just-Over-Half-A-Dozen of BBC’s Blake’s 7, also encountered an alien civilisation under the totalitarian control of central computer, though were able to bring it down and break free to continue their campaign against the Fascistic Federation through the superiority brain-power of their own machine, Orac. Sadly, contemporary call centre workers trapped in their totalitarian, micro-managed environment, can’t look forward to being similarly freed.

Marx pic

Karl Marx on Wage Slavery

As for the similarity between the conditions suffered by modern call centre workers and those of 19th century mill workers, it is striking just how similar t6he former are to Marx’s classic description of wage slavery in the 19th century.

Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the foreman, and, above all, by the individual manufacturers himself. (pp. 1467-8).

Marx was wrong about many things, but here he is absolutely correct. What we need is are renewed campaigns to improve conditions for the working class, to give people a better future than simply functioning as another human cog being ground down by the inhuman and dehumanizing machines of big business.

Manufacturing Compliance: The Nudge Unit and its Privatisation

February 10, 2014

Blakes 7 weapon

Federation scientist Cozer and his companion, the freed slave Rashel, await galactic freedom fighter Blake in the Blake’s 7 episode, Weapon.

Last Friday and today, the I newspaper has run articles reporting the impending privatisation of the Government’s Behaviour Insights Team, or Nudge Unit. The article describes the unit as using

‘insights from the emerging field of behavioural economics and psychology to subtly change the processes, forms and language used by government – to achieve outcomes that are in the in the “public good” and save money.’

A boxed article at the side then goes on to explain it more fully, stating that

‘Nudge articulates the idea that people can be persuaded to make the right decisions by simple changes in how choices are presented to them.’

It goes on to explain that the theory was first proposed in a book of the same name, published in 2008 by the economics professor Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein. They acknowledged that people frequently make bad decisions in their lives, thus contradicting one of the central tenets of economics – that people will always act rationally for their own good. The two authors then argued that the way choices are phrased or presented – the ‘choice architecture’ can be framed so that it nudges ‘people towards the most beneficial outcome without restricting their personal freedom.’

Although the two authors stated that “‘the libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like.” They then qualified this with the statement that it was ‘legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.”

Today’s I carries an interview with one of the founders of the Nudge Unit, David Halpern. He states that the Unit was set up four years ago under Tony Blair as his Strategy Unit, at a time when ‘the Blair administration was expanding the size of the state – spending more and regulating more’, often according to Blair’s own personal inclination. It did not, however, catch on with the Labour government, and only came into its own with the arrival of the Coalition in 2010. Halpern states that ‘Their instincts were generally ‘we’ve got no money and we’re going to constrain the size of the state and deregulate’.

The Nudge Unit is now about to be part-privatised into a company partly owned by the government, partly owned by the social-enterprise charity, Nesta, and partly owned by Halpern and his fellow employees.

As it is presented in the I, the Nudge Unit sounds very jolly and entirely innocuous. The piece opens with Halpern describing the work of the American psychologist, Carol Dweck, and her work showing how well school children perform in tests can be boosted simply by telling them that they’ve made a good effort.

It then describes the way the Unit experimented with personalised text messages to encourage people, who were about to be hit by the bailiffs, to pay their bills on time.

In the concluding paragraphs, Halpern describes his goal to unlock ‘hidden entrepreneurs’ ‘who never get beyond garages’. He mentions the way the mountain bike arose simply through someone experimenting in their garage with bits of other bikes. ‘Studies’, according to Halpern, ‘suggest 6 per cent of Britons have come up with a significant adaptation in the last year. But most never diffuse.’

The only doubts raised about the Unit and its methods are whether they are effective. The boxed article states that it has its critics, who have argued, like Baroness Julia Neuberger in the House of Lords, that there is little evidence that it works on large scales. The main article, however, leaves the reader in little doubt: ‘A lot in government were nervous of Nudge but the theory did work in practice – and the services of the Nudge team were suddenly in demand’. Hence its privatisation three years down the line.

Now all this seems entirely benign. Few people would cavil at methods that get people to pay their bills on time, thus avoiding a visit from the bailiffs, or get children to do better at their exams, or, indeed, just to have ‘longer, healthier and better’ lives.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the 20th century, such departments like the Nudge Unit would have been the objects of considerable fear and suspicion, especially after the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century used propaganda and coercion to generate the mass obedience and approval they demanded from their captive populations. This found its expression in the various dystopian regimes portrayed in Science Fiction. One of the great Science Fiction series of the 1970s and ’80s was Blake’s 7. This was a space opera, whose heroes were a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ let loose in a strange, totalitarian far future. They were led, at least in the first two of their four TV seasons, by Roj Blake, a former dissident, who had been captured and then suffered psychiatric torture at the hands of the Federation. This was a future Fascist super-state, which governed through a mixture of military force, propaganda and advanced psychological techniques and drugs, that sapped the will to resist from its people. The Federation permitted no freedom of speech, belief or movement amongst its citizens. Dissidents were brutally murdered, and the survivors framed and re-educated. Heading its armed forces was the seductive Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and her henchman, the violent and psychotic Travis, played by Brian Croucher. Both Croucher and Pearce have appeared in Dr. Who; Pearce as a treacherous alien super-scientist, Jocini O’ the Franzine-Greeg in the Colin Baker/Patrick Troughton Story ‘The Two Doctors’, and Croucher in the early Tom Baker serial ‘The Robots of Death’. He has also appeared in Eastenders and as an East End hard man in the detective drama, New Tricks.

Blake’s 7 was influenced by Star Wars and Star Trek, though it’s characters and background were darker than either of those two SF classics. Blake’s second-in-command, Kerr Avon, was a ruthless embezzler with a cynical contempt for idealists. ‘Show me the man who believes something, and I will show you a fool’. Such attitudes were not a fictional exaggeration. Similar sentiments were expressed by the evolutionary biologist, Jacques Monod, who once said ‘Scratch an idealist, and an egotist will bleed’. It isn’t hard to feel that the show’s creator, Terry Nation, had modelled the cool, rational, scientific Avon on Monod and other scientists like him.

And the methods used by the Federation to keep its citizens enslaved were also chillingly real. The show several times covered conditioning and similar brainwashing techniques used by the Federation to break and then manipulate its victims’ psychologies. Blake himself had been conditioned by intensive psychological therapy after he was captured leading a revolutionary group. Under the influence of the therapists he betrayed the other members, confessed to his own guilt, and was then reprogrammed to forget all about the events, his arrest, trial and the mass executions of his friends and family.

This aspect of the Federation was based on the notorious brainwashing techniques associated with the Communist dictatorships, particularly Mao’s China and the brutal regime of ‘self-criticism’ for those who challenged the Great Leader’s precepts during the Cultural Revolution. It also bore more than a little resemblance to the Soviet abuse of psychiatry revealed by Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward. Soviet psychiatrists had invented a spurious form of ‘schizophrenia’, which was curiously amorphous, taking just about any form required by the doctors diagnosing it and their superiors. It was used to incarcerate in lunatic asylums any and all opponents of regime. These ranged from religious believers to Communist idealists, such as a general and Old Bolshevik, who vociferously felt that Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had betrayed the noble principles of the Revolution. It also harks back to Skinner’s experiments in conditioning in the 1960s, and his fictional description of a utopian system in which the citizens had perfected themselves through the use of such psychological techniques.

About a decade ago Adam Curtis described the way Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, had used Freudian theory to lay the foundations of modern PR in his landmark series, The Century of the Self. Curtis was similarly unimpressed by PR, and dissected the way such techniques were used by corporations, the government, and some of the more sinister self-improvement cults that sprang up in the 1960s to control people’s minds. He was particularly unimpressed by the way the self-realised people of the Hippy counterculture then went off and, from reasons of liberated self-interest, voted for Ronald Reagan. The existence of the Nudge Unit seems to suggest that Halpern and his fellows saw the theories, and instead of looking at the dangers and fallacies accompanying it like the rest of the viewing public, immediately thought it was all rather cool.

Blake Carnell Weapon

The psycho-social strategist Carnell and Supreme Commander of Federation forces, Servalan, contemplate the success of David Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’.

Apart from the use of conditioning and psycho-therapy, the Federation armed forces also included an elite corps of ‘pscho-social strategists’, nicknamed ‘puppeteers’ by the rest of the Federation’s Starship Troopers. These specialised in using advanced psychological techniques to predict and manipulate the behaviour of the regime’s opponents. For example, in the episode, ‘Weapon’, Servalan uses one such puppeteer, Carnell, played by Scott Fredericks, to predict the mental breakdown and then manipulate a scientist, Cozer, who has designed an unstoppable superweapon, IMIPAC. Her goal is to seize the weapon for herself, while at the same killing the Blake and his crew and taking over their spaceship, the Liberator. Of course it all fails, and the weapon is taken over instead by the former slave girl, Rashel, with whom Cozer had escaped, and the other weapon in Servalan’s plan, a clone of Blake. The two become guardians of the weapon, with Travis remarking wryly ‘The weapon protects itself’.

With fears of totalitarian states manipulating and abusing their victims’ minds in reality and SF, something like the Nudge Unit would have been enough to bring anyone with a distrust of authoritarian government out onto the streets, from old school Conservatives with a hatred of Communism and Fascism all the way across the political spectrum through Liberals, Socialists to members of the Hippy counterculture, who were extremely suspicious of what their own governments were doing about this through reading the reports about MKULTRA and the CIA LSD experiments in the underground press.

And there are real dangers to this. Who, for example, decides what project is going to make people happier, with longer, better lives? Cameron undoubtedly claims it’s the Tories, but with something like 38,000 people dying per year thanks to welfare cuts and benefit sanctions, we can safely discount his opinion. Mike has several times mentioned the Nudge Unit in posts on his blog over at Vox Political, pointing out that the forms and courses used by the Coalition as part of their welfare to work package have been set up by the Nudge Unit with the deliberate intention of getting the unemployed to blame themselves, rather than the government’s policies, for their inability to get a job. Like the children in Dweck’s experiment, they are being encouraged to do better in a situation that is not their fault. It tacitly reinforces the government’s values and the economic system which leaves the unemployed without a job, and frequently without hope. And this is most definitely malign.

This is quite apart from the dangers of ‘function creep’, in which an administrative technique or department gradually acquires more power and extends its scope, as more administrators see its potential for solving their problems. The Nudge Unit is perhaps only a minor part of British government at the moment, but it has the potential to become something far larger and much more sinister. If we don’t carefully monitor it and similar initiatives, it could easily expand into something every bit as totalitarian and manipulative as Blake’s 7 Federation and its psycho-strategists.

I found the opening titles to the first season of the Blake’s 7 on Youtube. They show some of the major themes of the Federation – the use of armed force, brainwashing and surveillance. I leave it to you to decide for yourself how much of this unfortunately is coming true, though there are surveillance cameras all over the streets and Boris Jonson has bought two water cannons to use on any more protesters in London. Here it is. Enjoy!

Guardian and Snowden on Britain Spying on Americans for America: America Angry, but this Not News

October 13, 2013

The Guardian is at the centre of a diplomatic and legal storm over its publication of information leaked by Edward Snowden that Britain was regularly tapping and monitoring Americans’ phone calls and electronic messages on behalf of the American intelligence services. The American constitution forbids the American state from doing this, so the Americans got round this block by getting us to do it for them. This was then one of the revelations leaked by Snowden, which was picked up and printed by the Guardian. The scandal was briefly mentioned by Dan Snow on the Beeb’s satirical news quiz, Have I Got News For You. Snow was of the opinion that it had damaged relations between Britain and America by angering the Americans. This is probably true, but the information itself – that Britain was spying for America on American citizens – isn’t remotely new. It was already available to anyone with a library card, a good bookshop, or a subscription to Lobster, Steamshovel Press or any of the other parapolitical ‘conspiracy’ magazines. Simon Davies’ book, Big Brother: Britain’s Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order, published by Pan in 1996 states that GCHQ was monitoring telephone lines and sharing this information with the Americans. GCHQ’s main listening station at Menwith Hill in 1994 had 40,000 active telephone lines connected to it, although the Home Secretary had only authorised 871 new wiretaps. As for computer listening systems like PRISM, which monitor telephone lines and record conversations containing a number of key words, those have been around for a very long time. Lobster carried several stories about ECHELON, a similar listening system in the ’80s and ’90s.

The technology even formed the basis for the plot of an episode of the short-lived BBC SF series, Star Cops, in 1986. In the episode ‘Intelligent Listening for Beginners’, Nathan Spring and his band of near-future rozzers are called in to investigate the claim by an Indian computer tycoon that he has developed a computer system that will spy on Anarchist terrorist groups and prevent the kind of cyberterrorist attacks that were responsible for a train crash in the Channel Tunnel. In fact, the Subcontinent’s answer to Steve Jobs has in fact done no such thing. His computer system is an abject failure, and he has himself sabotaged it in his residence on the Moon. The faked worm attack will kill him, and take Spring with him, but will appear to vindicate him by showing that his system has been successful. Spring, however, fortunately is able to shoot the tycoon and make his escape before the computers melt down and the house explodes. Star Cops was short lived and lasted only a single season. Looking back, it was in many respects wildly optimistic. It was set only a decade or so away, in 2026, when the new generation of spaceplanes developed by Martin Marietta had finally made the space age a reality. People were travelling into orbit to work on space stations, and further to laboratories, mines and industrial units on the Moon. There was also a small colony on Mars. Well, here we are nearly three decades hence and this is still very far away. If only! The series was scripted by Chris Boucher, the script editor and writer on the bleak, dystopian SF series, Blake’s 7. Star Cops was based very much on solid scientific fact, or what was believed to be possible at the time. Its predictions are, in many cases, wildly inaccurate. In the series’ future world, the Soviet Union and Communist bloc still existed, and Anarchists, rather than Radical Islam, were responsible for global terrorism. This is apart from the expected breakthrough in mass space travel and commercialisation. The series was entirely right about intelligent listening systems, though.

So, while the American state may be angered by Snowden’s revelations, they aren’t really providing much in the way of new information. What has made the difference is that they were picked up and published by a respected, national newspaper. They were thus made available to a mass public, rather than the few thousand or so, who read books on the intelligence services and the secret state, or the even smaller numbers reading very specialist, niche magazines like Lobster.

For vintage SF fans, here’s the Star Cops’ episode ‘Intelligent Listening for Beginners’.

Part 1

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Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5