Posts Tagged ‘Bristol University’

Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

The Torygraph Pours Scorn on Corbyn at Glastonbury Festival

June 28, 2017

Jeremy Corbyn was one of the guests at the Glastonbury Festival last week, introduced on stage by no less a man than Michael Eavis himself. Corbyn gave a roaring, impassioned speech, inveighing against the Tories’ attack on the welfare state, their privatisation of the NHS, and their forcing of millions into poverty. If I recall correctly, he also mentioned how the Grenfell Tower fire was a direct result of decades of Tory policies dismantling health and safety legislation for the benefit of private landlords. He ended with a rousing passage from Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, urging the British people to rise up ‘like lions’ ‘for ye are many, they are few.’

And the crowd loved it. They cheered, and there were spontaneous chants of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’ This graphically showed the popularity of the Labour leader, at least with a section of the young and not-so young people, who can afford to go to Glastonbury.

Needless to say, the Tory press hated it. The I newspaper yesterday carried a quote from the Telegraph, in which they moaned that it was ‘the day that Glastonbury died’, Eavis was going to lose tens of thousands of visitors and supporters of his festival by inviting Jeremy Corbyn on, and what did it say about the Labour party anyway, when it’s leader was cheered by metropolitan liberals able to afford the exorbitant entrance and camping fees.

Actually, it says that the countercultural spirit of Glastonbury is alive and well, that Eavis has always been against at least some of the policies the Tories espouse, and that the Tories contemplating the spectacle of the young and hip supporting Labour are nervous about their own future.

Michael Eavis was awarded an honorary doctorate or degree by Bristol university at their graduation ceremony a few years ago. Bristol uni is rather peculiar in the conduct of these ceremonies. While other universities and colleges allow the person awarded the degree to make a speech themselves, at Bristol it’s done a special orator. The orator describes their life and career, while the person being so honoured stands by, smilingly politely, until they are finally given the scroll, when they say ‘thank you’. The orator in his speech for Eavis said that he was basically conservative, who shared the work ethic.

Well, perhaps, but I can remember the 80s, when the local Tories down in Glastonbury hated him, the hippies and the other denizens of Britain’s counter and alternative cultures, who turned up to the pop festival with a passion. They were trying to get the festival banned at one point, citing the nuisance and frequent drugs violations.

As for Eavis himself, I can remember him appearing in an edition of the Bristol Evening Post, in which he made it very clear what he thought about Reagan and Thatcher’s new cold war, and the horrors committed in Nicaragua by Fascist death squads trained, equipped and backed by Reagan’s administration. Accompanying the article was a picture of him wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘How Can I Relax with Ray-Gun on the Button?’, which mixed a reference to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s notorious disc, which had been banned by the Beeb, with the American president’s ‘Star Wars’ programme for a space-based anti-missile system.

As for the hip young dudes cheering Corbyn on, whom the Torygraph sneered at as ‘metropolitan liberals’, this is the crowd the Tories, and Tory organs like the Telegraph, would desperately like to appeal to. These are wealthy people with the kind of disposable incomes newspaper advertisers salivate over. These people also tend to be tech-savvy, which is why the Torygraph imported an American technology guru a few years ago to try and make the rag appeal more to a generation increasingly turning to the Internet for their news and views.

It didn’t work. Sales continued to decline, along with the quality of the newspaper as a whole as cuts were made to provide the savings needed to fund the guru’s wild and fanciful ideas. The young and the hip are out there, but they ain’t reading the Torygraph.

And their also increasingly not joining or supporting the Tory party. Recent polls have shown that the majority of young people favour Labour, while the Tories are strongest amongst the over fifties. For any party or other social group to survive, it has to appeal to young people as well as those of more mature years. And the Tories aren’t.

Lobster a little while ago carried a piece on the current state of the Tory party, which reported that a very large number of local constituency parties really exist in name only or have very, very few members. The membership is increasingly elderly, and several local parties responded to inquiries by saying that they were closed to new members. In short, the Tory party, which was at one time easily Britain’s largest party with a membership of 2 1/2 million, is dying as a mass party. Lobster concluded that it was being kept alive, and given millions in funding, mainly by American hedge fund managers in London. It should be said here that the party is also benefiting from extremely wealthy donors elsewhere in industry, and the very vocal support of press barons like Murdoch, Rothermere, and the weirdo Barclay Twins.

The Telegraph’s attitude also seems somewhat hypocritical considering the attitude of the press to the appointment of a Conservative editor of Rolling Stone magazine way back in the 1990s. This young woman praised George Bush senior, stating that he ‘really rocks’. This caused a murmur of astonishment amongst the media, amazed at how a countercultural pop icon could embrace one of the very people the founders of the magazine would have been marching against back in the ’60s and ’70s. The magazine was accused of selling out. It responded by replying that it hadn’t, it had ‘merely won the revolution’.

Nah. It had sold out. As one of the French philosophers – Guy Debord? – wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, capitalism survives by taking over radical protest movements, and cutting out any genuinely radical content or meaning they had, and then turning them into mere spectacles. This is what had happened to Rolling Stone. And as Glastonbury became increasingly respectable and expensive in the 1990s, there were fears that it was going to go the same way too, at least amongst some of the people writing in the small press culture that thrived before the advent of the internet.

I don’t remember the Torygraph saying that Rolling Stone had ‘died’ by appointing a deep-dyed Republican as its editor. And I imagine that it would have been highly excited if Eavis had called on Theresa May to appear on stage. Now that would have killed Glastonbury. But the appearance of Corbyn on stage shows that Glastonbury hasn’t yet become a cosy item of bourgeois entertainment.

Corbyn is one of the most genuinely countercultural politicians in decades. He stands for policies which the political establishment, including the Blairites in the Labour party itself, loathe and despise. Until a few weeks before the election, all the papers were running very negative stories about him, as well as much of the TV news, including the Beeb. Corbyn is a threat to the free trade policies that the Thatcherite political establishment and media heartily support, and so they attack him every way they can.

But as the mainstream media attacks him, ordinary people support him. Much of the support for Jeremy Corbyn came from ordinary people on blogs and vlogs outside corporate control. Counterpunch a week or so ago carried an interview with one of the ladies behind Corbyn’s campaign in London. She described how they set up apps for mobile phones, to show volunteers for his election campaign which wards were marginal so they could canvas for him in those vital areas. She said that they had so many people volunteering that they had to turn some away.

And youth culture was part of this mass movement. Kids were mixing his speeches in with the music they listened to on their ipods, so that there were movements like ‘Grime4Corbyn’. Again, this was being done spontaneously, outside party and corporate control, by ordinary kids responding to his inspiring message.

Glastonbury is now very expensive, and unaffordable to very many of the people that Corbyn represents. But this does not mean that it is only wealthy metropolitan liberals who support him, or that the well-heeled souls, who sang his praises at Glastonbury at the weekend were somehow fake for doing so ‘champagne socialists’, in Thatcher’s hackneyed phrase. Corbyn also has solid working class backing and the support of the young. He is genuinely countercultural, and so had every right to stand on stage.

And he certainly does share some of the ideals of Michael Eavis himself, at least in the ’80s. As I said, Eavis made his opposition to American imperialism and war-mongering very plain. Corbyn has said that he intends to keep Trident, but in other respects he is a profound voice for peace. There is a minister for peace and disarmament in his shadow cabinet, and he has said that he intends to make this a proper ministerial position.

And so Corbyn stood in Glastonbury, with the support of the crowd. A crowd which the Tory party hoped would support them. They didn’t, and it’s frightened them. So all they can do now is moan and sneer.

Who Really Wants Driverless Cars and Further Automation

March 30, 2017

This follows on from my last article, where I commented on a piece by Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski about a report produced by the accountancy firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers. This predicted that by 2030, a third of all jobs in Britain, Germany, and America would be lost to automation. Japan would also be affected, losing roughly a fifth of all jobs. Kulinski in his piece quoted a report by the BBC. This came out about a year ago, and the issue was the subject of a documentary, possibly on Panorama. I think it’s very likely to come true. One of my friends watched it, and was really frightened.

This is an issue I feel passionately about, but don’t think it’s really being taken at all seriously. And I’m very much unimpressed by some of the reports, which uncritically hail every new development in automation as a benefit, without taking cognisance of the possible drawbacks.

One example of this is the issue of driverless cars. The car industry has been trying to create one of these since the late seventies. They’re mentioned in the Usborne Book of the Future, a children’s book about the possible developments in technology and space I can remember reading as far back as 1979. More recently, the companies developing them have been testing them on the road. These have had disastrous results. Several of the driverless vehicles have crashed, and there has been at least one fatality.

I don’t know a single person, who actually wants one of these. And certainly there are no end of people, who feel that these machines would actually be less safe than those driven by a real, flesh and blood human being. But nevertheless, whenever they’re mentioned, it’s always in terms of how wonderful they’re going to be. A few months ago Points West, the local BBC news programme here in Bristol, did a little piece on research into these cars at UWE, complete with a brief interview with Tassi, one of the scientists working on the project. This annoyed me, because there was absolutely no suggestion at any point of the possible down side to the project.

There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. These are the people, who are most likely to lose their jobs to driverless vehicles, as haulage companies introduce them to cut labour costs. Other professional drivers likely to be affected will include taxi and bus drivers, possibly ambulance men and women. Thus we’re looking at 40,000 plus losing their jobs, for the profit of their companies. And if other areas of the economy are also losing jobs to automation, it’s unlikely that they’ll find other employment. But no hint of that from the Beeb.

Also a month or so back, Points West also did a piece about James Dyson’s decision to set up a centre for technical innovation in an old army base in Wiltshire. This was hailed as good news. The programme and the presenter on this segment, Will Glennon, also reported the establishment of a place where inventors and businessmen could meet to make deals in one of the old engine sheds in Bristol’s Temple Meads Station, and similarly celebrated the technological advances being made at the city’s university. They also talked to the head of the Institute of Directors, or a similar organisation. In actual fact, this captain of industry really didn’t say anything controversial. What I found infuriating was the complete absence of any kind of awareness that this could have a massive detrimental effect on the employment of ordinary people in the city and beyond. Glennon simply took the line that this was all wonderful, and something we should look forward to and be proud of.

But clearly, if it leads to nothing but one third of the working population being thrown out of their jobs, with no means of support except Jobseekers Allowance – and what a farce that is, if there are no jobs – this isn’t. And I found it actually insulting that the team at Points West should think it was.

Now I’m not a luddite. I can see how the scientists working on these projects are interested in them as scientific problems. But they have social consequences. Kevin Warwick, the cyberneticist and quondam cyborg at Reading University, actually states in his book The March of the Machines that one of the five reasons he lists for automation is to save on labour costs. Which means employing fewer people. In the current social arrangement, this means more poor unemployed people, with the benefits going to the rich and the technicians and engineers responsible for producing these machines.

And if that’s the case, ordinary working people have absolutely no reason to welcome or celebrate these advances. They may lead to cheaper products, but if you don’t have a job that will pay you enough to purchase them, then there’s no point.

But this seems lost on the producers of the programme in question, and a media and corporate environment which sees these very much as benefiting the rich middle class to the exclusion of everyone else.

As I said in my last post, welcome to the nightmare world of Megacity 1.

The ‘I’ Newspaper on the Invention of Star Trek-Style ‘Tractor Beam’

January 4, 2017

The I newspaper today reported that Asier Marzo, an American doctoral student, now a research assistant at Bristol uni, has invented a tractor beam using sound which can be built by anyone with a 3D printer.

The article by Tom Bawden runs

Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek were given a huge boost last year when a doctoral student in America developed the first sonic tractor beam capable of pulling an object towards it by using sound waves. But alas its use was confined to fancy labs with expensive equipment.

Now, thanks to that same individual – who has since become a research assistant at the University of Bristol – it has become far more accessible, at least to anyone with 3D printing technology.

The tractor beam has long been a staple of science fiction, used in a series of Star Trek episodes to capture and tow other space ships, while the Death Star’s tractor beam memorably catches the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

A do-it-yourself handheld acoustic tractor beam will now become widely available, according to a new paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” said Asier Marzo, the researcher behind the developments.

“Now, we have made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter,” he said.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what’s called a metamaterial, which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths. The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.”

With an effect that is determined by the shape of the tubes, the research team focused on optimising the design to allow fabrication with common 3D printers, ensuring it could be constructed by home hobbyists. (The I, 4th January 2017, p. 23).

I think the pseudoscientific explanation for the tractor beams in Star Trek is that they use gravitons – the subatomic particles that carry the force of gravity – to pull other ships and objects towards them. In an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Wesley Crusher is shown having invented a handheld tractor beam. I think it’s in the episode ‘The Naked Now’.

There are some very clever things now being done with sound. There was a piece on The One Show or perhaps the Beeb’s pop science programme, Bang Goes The Theory, where they showed how sound waves could be used to levitate a series of small objects. I have a feeling it was the discovery of acoustic levitation back in the 1990s or early 2000s that inspired one episode of Far Scape, ‘Taking the Stone’ where Chiana joins a group of alien thrill seekers. These young people get their kicks from leaping off a cliff above an alien echo chamber while humming. If they get the tone right, the sound waves resonate and break their fall. If they don’t, they plunge to their deaths. I can’t imagine that ever catching on as sport in real life, but you never know.

National Action Targets the Universities

September 28, 2016

In my last post, discussing Mike’s announcement that he has just published book, The Livingstone Presumption, refuting the anti-Semitism allegations in the Labour party, I also discussed the openly Nazi character of the real, anti-Semitic, Fascist fringe. Mike had announced his book was coming out in an article at Vox Political, commenting on a piece by Michael Segalov in yesterday’s Independent, which itself refuted the allegations against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, though sadly not against Naz Shan and Livingstone. Mr Segalov had stated that the people, who really put their lives on the line to protect Jews and their religion were the Left, including the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. He made the point that smearing them as anti-Semites devalued it as a weapon against the real Nazis, and left Jews more vulnerable. He made the point that the real anti-Semites were very clear in their Nazi views, and would make the Nazi salute in front of your face.

A few days ago Michelle posted a comment in response to a piece I had written about the continuing decline of the English Defence League, and included a link to a talk to a left-wing meet-up group by Matthew Feldman, an academic specialising in the study of Fascism. Dr Feldman and the group discussed the differing forms of the extreme right, from openly Fascist groups, through to Far Right organisations like the English Defence League, and right-wing Conservatives like the Traditional Britain group. And one of the Nazi groups is National Action. This was formerly the youth wing of the BNP, I believe. And they are openly Nazi and anti-Semitic. Dr Feldman showed a video of one of their demonstrations, spouting the usual Nazi conspiracy trash about Jews using Blacks to destroy the White race, complete with cries of ‘Sieg Heil!’

National Action are a danger, but they’re also more than a little ludicrous as well, especially to anyone who’s watched The Blues Brothers. Watching their Nazi antics brought to mind the scene in that movie, where the two heroes come upon a rally by the National American White People’s Party. Amid boos and insults, the leader of this bunch of Nazis spouts the same nonsense about the Jews using the Blacks to destroy the White race, before then leading his stormtroopers to make a pledge of allegiance to Hitler. Jake and Ellwood then do what most people would want to do, and drive straight through the whole rabble, sending the Nazis running in all directions.

Dr Feldman mentioned in his talk that National Action were trying to target university students for recruitment. This is disturbing, but I think they’re going to have a very hard job. It’s not that I don’t think they are racists at university. There probably are, but probably no more so than in the general population, and possibly much less so. There have been a series of studies, which show that racism is more prevalent amongst the older generation. Today’s young people have been born into a culture where Blacks and Asians are more accepted, there are more Black and Asian role models and celebrities, and racism is generally much less acceptable. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, as the persistence of racist violence and the rise of Islamophobia after 9/11 shows. But it does mean that there is much more opposition to Nazi organisations like National Action than there was over three decades and more ago, when the reaction to mass non-White immigration gave the NF the hope of overtaking the Liberals as the country’s third party.

National Action are also going to have problems, because universities, like every other commercial or public institution in Britain, is bound by laws to respect diversity and protect people from prejudice and discrimination. This includes gays, the disabled, and ethnic minorities. The type of people, Nazis target and despise. I don’t think the NUS is nearly a strong as it was, but when I was at college the National Union of Students had a policy of offering a ‘No’ platform to racists and Fascists. Put plainly, the NUS weren’t going to help, or give any places in the union hierarchy, to Nazis.

And outside the union and the university, there are also a number of groups and societies on campus devoted to supporting and protecting minorities and disadvantaged groups, like Jews, Blacks, Asians, Muslims and other religious groups and women. These are naturally going to oppose any attempt by the Far Right to make inroads into the university and start campaigning for discrimination and intimidation there. Back in the 1980s there was a notorious incident when Patrick Harrington, another long-standing member of the extreme Right, then a student, was thrown off campus after a campaign by the other students, who refused to tolerate his presence. One of the leading members of National Action, according to the anti-racist, anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, has similarly been forced to leave university. And when I was studying at Bristol uni a few years ago when the BNP looked like they just might make a breakthrough into mainstream politics, I came across a group of students on campus, who were trying to raise a petition to have the BNP banned.

And lastly, there’s the nature of universities as seats of learning that also makes it that little bit more difficult for Nazis to recruit. I put up a little piece attacking the conspiracy nonsense National Action sputter in the last blog post. Universities, as places of education, are going to contain people, who have real knowledge of the nature of Fascism. University libraries are also going to have texts by historians and other scholars which refute their claims. All someone has to do to find out for him- or herself what the Nazis were really like, rather than what groups like National Action want to present them as, is simply go to the uni library, and look on the shelves or through the on-line catalogue for books which refute them, point by point, and footnote by footnote.

I’m not complacent about the rise of Fascism. You can’t be – not after the rise in racist abuse and violence after the Brexit vote. But I am confident that the kids at university today will not be at all receptive to the poisonous nonsense spouted by National Action and related groups.

And if you have any doubts about the massive lack of respect the real Nazis have for university, read Matthew Collins’ Hate. This is his account of his own career in the Far Right, and the violence he saw. There’s a passage in there, where he describes the behaviour of one of the stormtrooper groups, when they held some kind of rally or meeting in one of the universities. They more or less barricaded themselves into the library, and pestered and intimidated the students there. It’s a graphic demonstration of the anti-intellectualism of the thugs, who form these movements’ membership. It completely refutes any pretensions their leaders have to intellectual respectability.

I can’t think of many unis, that would want that on campus. Not university management, not staff, not students. National Action can expect to have a very hard time recruiting there.

North Dakota Oil Pipeline: Company Destroys Native Burial Sites

September 10, 2016

If true, this is pure barbarism. I blogged earlier this week about protests by Native Americans about the North Dakota Access Pipeline, which is intended to carry oil through the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux people. The tribe are opposing it, as they fear that the pipeline will lead to the pollution of their water supply and the destruction of their lands and its ecosystem. In this piece from Democracy Now!, the anchor Amy Goodson speaks to the tribe’s lawyer, Jan Hasselman, from the chambers Earthjustice, and the tribe’s chairman Dave Archambault.

The oil company has tried a number of tactics to try to close down and disrupt the protests. They local sheriff and officials have pulled cellphone access over the area, to stop citizens uploading videos of the protests to the internet. They’ve also attacked the protesters with dogs and pepper spray. There’s video footage of the bites some of the protesters received from one of the animals, with blood dripping from the muzzle of a Doberman Pinscher. The oil company has also tried to destroy the ancient burials on the site, which Mr Hasselman was hoping to use as part of his case against the development.

Mr Hasselman and a team of archaeologists surveyed the site to show that there were Native American archaeological remains, some of them very rare, in the area which was scheduled for digging. These included the burials. They submitted these to the court in the hope that the judge would therefore rule that digging could not go ahead under the relevant legislation protecting ancient monuments in America and desecrating burial sites. The reverse happened. The company took the information, and used it as a guide to the location of the remains. They then sent the bulldozers in to destroy them. They did so in front of the protesters, and when they moved to protect the monuments, the security guards set the dogs on them and attacked them with mace.

Here’s the report.

This is outrageous on so many levels. It’s disgusting when anyone’s graves are desecrated. It is particularly outrageous when it’s deliberately done by a multimillion, if not multibillion dollar company against an impoverished community in a deliberate attempt to destroy their past for corporate profit. I have a postgraduate qualification in Archaeology from Bristol University. When I was on the course, a number of the other students I met were archaeologists from the other side of the Atlantic – America and Canada. Several of them had worked studying ancient First Nation American and Canadian remains. One young woman had designed a heritage park for one of the local peoples in southeast America. Another young man had also worked in Canada, prospecting ahead of the oil companies on the Canadian prairie for palaeoindian remains. And another young woman had been part of an expedition to the Canadian arctic to study Inuit monuments.

There is a wealth of fascinating archaeology from the indigenous American and Canadian cultures, which archaeologists have recovered and from which they are still learning. This archaeology is often not fully appreciated, even by the local people, to whom it really belongs, as for years the American and Canadian governments and some religious organisations, Such as the Roman Catholic missions in the American South West, did their level best to destroy the indigenous culture. In Canada, this was most notoriously through the government boarding schools, which were designed to isolate Native children from their ancestral culture and inculcate in them the culture, including clothing and language, of the White majority. The same policy was adopted in Australia against the Aboriginal people. As a result, some First Nation peoples tragically have only a very hazy idea of their traditional culture and the meaning of the monuments their ancestors created and left behind. I believe such a policy today of trying to destroy the Native people’s ancestral way of life would count as genocide under international human rights legislation.

Because of the historic injustice against these communities, excavation of these sites is extremely sensitive and, in Canada, they’re very strongly protected. The lad, who worked on the prairie informed me that he was working to make sure that there were no ancient Indian artifacts around before the oil companies moved in to extract oil from the shale geology of the area. If just one flint arrowhead was found, the area was a protected site and no development could go ahead. He also told me of some of the ceremonies that had to be carried out, and in which the archaeologists conducting the excavation, had to take part according to tribal religion. The archaeologists exploring ancient Sioux burial grounds, for example, had to be ‘smudged’ by the tribe’s shaman. ‘Smudging’ is something like Christian exorcism, but also rather different. The excavators and investigators, including those just handling the remains and writing up the notes, had to be anointed on their wrists and neck with buffalo grease by the local shaman for as long as the excavation lasted. This obviously made washing and personal cleanliness difficult, but it had to be done. The archaeologists were after all investigating another people’s culture, and so had to respect it.

Because archaeological remains are scarcer in America and Canada, because of the sparser population before the European conquest, excavations are carried out with a greater thoroughness than in Britain and Europe. They may take longer, and are done in finer detail than is frequently possible across the Atlantic.

Now it seems remains of immense cultural, spiritual and personal value to Sioux people, as well as of inestimable scientific value to archaeologists, has been destroyed for no reason other than to spite the protesters and their supporters, and prevent proper investigation by the courts. Several of the faculty at Bristol uni were members of, or had personal connections to, the World Heritage Organisation. Archaeologists, like other academics, travel all over the world to excavate and teach. So you can bet that scholars across the world have heard of this attack through their organisations, colleagues and students. And they aren’t going to be impressed.

Going Underground Interview with Momentums Jackie Walker on the Anti-Semitism Allegations

May 21, 2016

I was sent this very interesting clip from RT’s Going Underground by Michelle, who included it as a comment on my piece ‘A Very British Coup against the Left’ on the anti-Semitism allegations against various members of the Labour party. In it, Madam Walker describes the context of her comments, and her own family history as a Black woman, whose father was Jewish, and whose partner is also Jewish. This makes the accusation even more vile and grotesque than it was already known to be.

Madam Walker was accused of anti-Semitism, because she described the enslavement of Black Africans during the transatlantic slave trade as a ‘holocaust’. She explains here that she did so in a private conversation on Facebook between two friends, one of whom was Jewish, the other not. They were talking about the movement to boycott goods produced in the Occupied West Bank. One of Walker’s friends stated that they shouldn’t boycott Israel, because of the debt they owed the Jews. Walker states that she asked, ‘What debt?’ as up till then they had been talking about monetary debts. Her friend replied, ‘the Holocaust’. Walker then went on to mention the holocausts experienced by other peoples, such as Black Africans during the Slave Trade, native Americans in the conquest of the New World, and the genocide of Aboriginal Australians.

The accusations of anti-Semitism were made by a group calling itself the Israel Advocacy Movement. It was they, who dug up what was basically a private conversation made in February. They have said that they will do anything and everything to protect Israel’s interests.

She also says that she does not believe that the Labour party is profoundly anti-Semitic, and believes that it has a good record when it comes to challenging racism. The interviewer, Afshid Rattansi then mentions the accusation by the Chief Rabbi that Labour is permeated with anti-Semitism.

Rattansi also asks her about the observation made by the Palestinian ambassador, when he was previously on the programme, about why Jeremy Corbyn, one of the loudest voices for the Palestinians at the UN, has suddenly gone quiet about the issue now he is head of the Labour party. Walker states she cannot answer that, as she is not so important that Corbyn has discussed this issue with her. Nor did she want to comment about one of the other cases, in which a Labour party member had been accused of anti-Semitism.

Rattansi observed to her that these accusations all sounded very McCarthyite. She agreed, and it was particularly true that her mother had been one of the victims of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Her mother was a Black Civil Rights activist, and her father was a Russian Jew. They had met on a march organised by Martin Luther King. Because of her activities against segregation, Walker’s mother was hauled before McCarthy’s kangaroo court and asked the notorious question, ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?’ Walker’s mother was then deported.

Not only is Walker Jewish, but so is her partner. When asked by Rattansi about the problems this must have placed on her family, she states that she doesn’t know quite what has happened, as they haven’t heard from her partner’s family since these allegations are made. This obviously must be a matter of distress and concern to Walker and her partner.

Here’s the video:

There are a number of observations to be made about the allegations in the light of this interview. Firstly, a woman, who is half-Jewish, and whose partner is Jewish is hardly likely to be an anti-Semite. This in itself is grotesque. It’s even more so when you consider that her Jewish father was Russian, and just how severely oppressed they were. Just before the tsar was overthrown there was the notorious Bielis case, in which the tsar was trying to get a Jew prosecuted under the Blood Libel that he had murdered a Christian child to use their blood to make the matzoh bread eaten during Passover. It’s a vile myth, which has caused hundreds of pogroms and violence against the Jews since it first appeared during the Middle Ages. In the 1890s many Russian and eastern European Jews fled to the West because of the terrible pogroms launched against them in the Russian Empire from racist organisations such as the Black Hundreds. As a Russian Jew, it’s highly likely that Walker’s father, his parents or grandparents, had experienced such horrors.

Her comment linking the Holocaust against the Jews with other genocides, including Black slavery, and the extermination of the First Nations of the Americas and Australia, is entirely reasonable. W.E.B. Dubois, the pioneering Black civil rights leader, was the first to make the connection between slavery and the Holocaust after he had gone to Ghana after World War II. it was part of his campaign to begin reparations and call attention to the historic injustices visited on Western Blacks. Paul Stephenson, a Black civil rights leader in Bristol, made the same comment twenty years ago when interviewed by Philippa Gregory about the statue of Edward Colston, a former slaver, on the city centre on local television in Bristol.

It is also part of accepted academic debate into what constitutes ‘genocide’. I can remember going to a seminar on this by someone, who had researched this issue when I was a postgraduate student at Bristol University. They made the same point that there have been other genocides in the past, including a notorious massacre of the Irish by the invading English in the 16th century, that was still intensely controversial in the Emerald Isle two centuries later in the 18th. Other genocides mentioned included those of the Native Americans. The brutal treatment of Aboriginal Aussies does count as a Holocaust, as they were deliberately exterminated as vermin by the invading Europeans. it’s estimated that the Aboriginal population of the continent before the British arrived was 200,000. After the conquest it was half that, 100,000.

Also, mainstream Jewish organisations also accept that the extermination of other ethnic groups are also similar to the Holocaust. They also feel that as Jews their history also obliges them to protect other ethnic groups that are the victims of racial violence. For example, Bernie Farber, the head of the main Canadian Jewish organisation, launched a ‘Shabbat for Darfur’, or religious day of fasting to call attention and to protest against the genocide in Darfur when that was an issue a decade ago.

And there were those on the Zionist and general Right, who hated Farber for it. He was particularly attacked on the website Five Feet of Fury, run by Kathy Shaidle, a former journalist. Shaidle herself I don’t think was Jewish, at least not by religion. She was, however, militantly Zionist, and quoted and supported the various radical Jewish organisations, that argued that Jews should stop looking outward to reach other to other threatened racial groups. Instead, they should concentrate on defending themselves and their own interests. And this was constructed as mainly against Arabs and Islam.

As for the Chief Rabbi, depending on who that is, I don’t have a whole lot of time for them in this regard. I thought the comment about Labour being riddled with anti-Semitism came from Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who I always thought was a Lib Dem. If so, she has her own political bias. If it was Jonathan Sacks, he had his own problems about bigoted comments. A few years ago Jonathan Sacks, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, got into trouble as he described Reform Jews as ‘enemies of the faith’ – highly partisan and sectarian language, which frightened many people.

Madam Walker’s case shows that this isn’t about anti-Semitism. In fact, I think Walker was partly accused because she said in her conversation that she didn’t think that anti-Semitism was the real issue in racism, but the treatment of Blacks. Ken Livingstone shares the same sentiments, despite the fact that he has also very publicly condemned anti-Semitism in his book, Livingstone’s Labour. This just seems to be a nasty, extremely cynical attempt by the Israel Lobby to smear any opponents of the Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinians. Especially as, during her private Facebook conversation, one of Walker’s friends argued that there were only Palestinians in Israel as refugees during the Arab-Israeli War. Which seems to me to be another piece of Zionist mendacity. Golda Meir started that one in the 1940s when she denied that there were any indigenous Palestinians before Israel was settled.

This isn’t about genuinely defending Jews from real anti-Semites. This is about defending Israel and its ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in a grotesque distortion of history.

UKIP: No Fear in Whitchurch and Hengrove

May 5, 2016

The anti-racist, anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, has a list of the 1,530 extreme Right-wing candidates standing in today’s elections. Some of them are members of the various declining Fascist and Nazi grouplets. The vast majority of UKIP. Three of them are standing in my part of Bristol, Whitchurch and Hengrove.

This has worried me, as I don’t think there’s very much racism locally, and definitely don’t want any. Bristol has always been quite a diverse city. Apart from Black and Asian people, Bristol has also had a large number of citizens from other European countries, including most notably Italy, Poland and Russia. There’s a Russian Orthodox Church in Clifton on the road leading up to Bristol University past the City art gallery and museum. There is also a Polish church elsewhere in the City. And in south Bristol, in Knowle and along the Wells Road, there are shops catering to the new immigrants from eastern Europe, along with the other businesses. And Bristol’s Italian community goes back at least to the 1920s, if not long before. The last thing this city needs is an increase in ethnic and national tensions created through anti-EU tub-thumping, especially as Nigel Farage said a few days ago that the Brexit campaign should concentrate more on the question of immigration.

A few weeks ago we had a leaflet through the door for one of the Kippers standing in our ward. He was amusingly called Fear, a suitably appropriate name for a scare-mongering party. At the last council elections, one of the Kippers in Hengrove apparently did manage to scrape in.

I don’t know, who this particular Kipper was, just that he was not a success. Apparently, once he took his seat in the council, he then failed to vote for just about anything, but presumably just turned up and then collected his allowance at the end of the month. He also managed to alienate his constituents thoroughly. He’s supposed to have bad-mouthed them, before calling on the police to protect him from them.

So you have people with absolutely no interest in representing their constituents, and who treat them with absolute contempt, who are apparently just there in the council to show their hatred of the EU and foreigners. Bristol, and particularly my part of it, deserves far better.

Which is why I hope that after today, the Kipper election campaign will have failed, hope will have triumphed, and there will be No Fear in this part of south Bristol.

The Principle of Less Eligibility in the Words of the Poor Law Commissioners

February 15, 2016

Bloggers such the Angry Yorkshireman, Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void and very many others have pointed out that the dominant ideology behind the Tory cuts is essentially the principle of less eligibility. This was the idea behind the New Poor Law, which saw the creation of workhouses across the UK, in which the poor were incarcerated. Conditions were made so unpleasant in order to deter what would be known now as ‘welfare dependency’. They were to stop people entering them unless they were in absolutely dire need.

I found this statement of the principle from one of the 1832 commissioners responsible for the ‘New Bastilles’ in Pat Young’s Mastering Social Welfare (Basingstoke: MacMillan 1989).

Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty on indolence and vice. But once the condition of the pauper is made more uncomfortable than that of the independent labourer then new life, new energy, is infused into the constitution of the pauper; he is aroused like one from sleep, his relation with his neighbours high and low is changed; he surveys his former employers with new eyes. He begs a job – he will not take a denial, he discovers that everyone wants something done. (p. 71).

This was the principle that saw families split up, husbands separated from wives, and punished if they even kissed each other in the morning. And it resulted in terrible suffering and hunger, such as the scandal which erupted when the inmates in one workhouse were found to be so starving that they were eating the marrow from the bones they were supposed to be cutting for fertiliser.

It’s the principle that Maggie espoused in her wretched ‘Victorian Values’, or as she called them, ‘Victorian Virtues’. It’s the appalling system of values that has seen 590 people die in despair, neglect, starvation and through their own hand, and 290,000 suffer mental problems, through benefit sanctions and the stress of the odious ‘work capability’ tests.

It’s also interesting that tonight, on the regional current affairs programme for the Bristol area, Close Up West, that they mentioned self-reliance as a factor in the high rate of male suicide. Suicide is the leading killer of men under 50. Five times more men commit suicide than women. In Bristol the rate is even higher: it’s six times more. The hospitals in Bristol and Bristol uni are taking steps to counter and treat this. Among the factors cited for the high suicide in my fair city by one of the female doctors interviewed was the current economic climate. Joblessness, and immense debt incurring while studying, which also didn’t give you a job after you graduated, were important factors. Women were better able to cope because they were more open and had more ‘networks of support’, in the sense of sympathetic friends. Men suffered because they tended not to go to the doctor. And part of this was the need to be self-reliant. If you’re a bloke, you can’t be so ready to be weak, or seen as weak and unable to cope. And so it destroys those who need help, and can’t cope. Like one in four British citizens in their lifetime.

The Victorians had a lot of virtues. They were clever, inventive, worked hard, and at their very best had a very strong sense of moral responsibility and social consciousness. Among the men and women, who campaigned against slavery, were people who lived, worked and worshipped with the people they were sworn to champion, and they suffered from it at the hands of the bigoted and privileged. Marxism as a political theory is deeply flawed, but Marx himself was fired by a genuine, burning outrage at the poverty and squalor he saw around him. As were F.D. Maurice and many of the Christian Socialists he disparaged. But ‘less eligibility’ is a vile doctrine, that should have gone out along with the Poor Law and the Workhouse. It should have no place in the 21st century.

UKIP, Islamophobia and the Loud Atheism Website

April 18, 2015

On Thursday, Hope Not Hate published a piece UKIP’s Stretford & Urmston Candidate Thinks Islam is “Despicable” reporting that Kalvin Chapman, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stretford and Urmston, Kalvin Chapman, had posted a comment on the ‘Loud Atheism’ Facebook page attacking Islam. He described it as a ‘despicable’ and ‘f***ed up’.

The article’s at http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/ukip-s-stretford-urmston-candidate-thinks-islam-is-despicable-4397, if you want to see it.

Now I have the impression that this is pretty much par for the course for much of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. This is the form of organised atheism that emerged in late decade, led by Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett. The movements critics have pointed out that by and large the New Atheism didn’t have any new arguments, except perhaps an extension of Darwinian theory to try and explain religious belief. In the case of Sue Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett, it had an extremely reductive view of human consciousness that saw it as being nothing more than a series of biological computer programmes. Sue Blackmore in particular took this to its most logically absurd extent and denied consciousness actually existed.

If the arguments were largely the same, traditional arguments used against religious belief and organised religion, the presentation was quite different. It was much more vicious, vitriolic and intolerant. Atheist movements in the past have persecuted organised religion. Religious belief in the former Communist bloc was severely limited and fiercely persecuted, with religious believers killed or sent to forced labour camps. In the former Soviet Union the penalty for holding a religious service in your own home would see you arrested and your house demolished.

The older, atheist tradition in the West could be much more genteel. Angry revolutionaries like the Surrealist film-maker Bunuel and his counterparts could and did make blasphemous films and art attacking organised religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. In the 1950s they held a mock trial of the Roman Catholic church in a disused church just outside Paris, while the Surrealists’ leader, Andre Breton, wrote an article denouncing recent attempts to combine surrealism with Christianity, entitled ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’.

Against this, there were atheist intellectuals like A.J. Ayer and Ludovik Kennedy, who were much less personally abusive. Kennedy when he appeared on Mark Lamarr’s chat show, Lamarr’s Attacks, in the 1990s, was courteous and polite. A.J. Ayer became friends with a Jesuit priest after having a Near Death Experience choking on a piece of fish in hospital. It didn’t make him become a religious believer, but the incident does show that people of differing and opposed religious views needn’t be personal enemies.

The New Atheism, by contrast, was much more aggressive, with a far greater use of invective. Rather than merely being attacked intellectually, religious and religious belief should be actively discouraged and given much less tolerance. Richard Dawkins has been quoted by his critics as saying that religious believers should be humiliated and shamed into abandoning their beliefs.

The result of this is that some atheist websites have a reputation for abuse and invective, like P.Z. Myers’ The Panda’s Thumb, set up to defend evolution from creationism, and Raving Atheism. I was warned off the latter by a friend, who said it was just atheists being extremely blasphemous and abusive for the sake of it.

To be fair, this approach has its critics from within the atheist movement, many of whom are genuinely shocked at how extreme and bitterly intolerant the New Atheist rhetoric is. A few years ago one atheist writer published an article in one of the papers actually saying that Richard Dawkins’ made him ashamed to be an atheist. And within the last couple of years in particular a strain of Islamophobia has emerged within the New Atheist movement. Again, this has been exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who become the subject of further controversy because of his posts and tweets attacking Islam, particularly the low status of women in Islamic countries and Female Genital Mutilation. Chapman’s comments about Islam are part of this strand of New Atheism.

And the fear of Islam, or at least radical Islamism, may have been one of the catalysts of the New Atheism from the start. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago about the origins of the New Atheism. I thought it was a reaction to the growth of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognises the emergence of new species over time, but claims this is due to the intervention of intelligent agencies, rather than the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, suggested by Neo-Darwinian theory. I also wondered if it was also due to the accession to the Presidency of George ‘Dubya’, an Evangelical Christian, and the increasing power and influence of the Christian religious right in American politics.

My friend took a different view. He believed it was a reaction to 9/11 and the rise of aggressive Islamic terrorist movements, like al-Qaeda, and radical and aggressive Islamic political movements within the largely secular West, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He stated that some of Atheists’, Agnostics’ and Secularists’ Societies set up on university campus in practice were little more than anti-Islam societies.

Now I don’t know how true this is. The AAS at Bristol University did not seem to be particularly interested in Islam, only in attacking religion in general. The events and lectures it organised seemed generally disrespectful, such as a social evening in which members were encouraged to dress up as their favourite religious figure. One of their lectures was a general account of traditional, religious beliefs about the creation of the world from antiquity onwards.

Now I do believe that if you are going to criticise religion, then this should extend to all religions, rather than just Christianity as the former majority, mainstream religion of the West. However, in the case of Islam at the moment, such criticism has become extremely dangerous. It can easily lead to the persecution of innocents, including racist attacks and the demonization of Islam generally because of the atrocities committed by the Islamist militants. This in turn may fuel the alienation and resentment in Muslim communities, and further the Islamists’ goal of their further radicalisation.

In the case of Chapman, I’m not surprised that his post against Islam was particularly splenetic, given the title of the website on which it was posted. What is worrying is that it comes from a prospective parliamentary candidate for a party that has developed a reputation for racism and a bitter hostility to Islam.