Posts Tagged ‘Computers’

Another Crisis in the Outsourcing Industry: Capita Now in Trouble

February 1, 2018

Yesterday, Mike reported on his blog that the outsourcing giant, Capita, was now in trouble. Its share price has apparently halved, knocking £1.1 billion of its stock market value. It has axed its scheme to issue £500 million in dividends to its shareholders. Instead, it intends to raise £700 million, partly by selling off parts of the company, which it needs to balance the books. There are also fears that it will make part of its 67,000 strong workforce redundant as well as concerns for the firm’s pension fund.

Mike in his article notes that the company was responsible for assessing the infamous fitness for work tests, for which the government has imposed hidden targets. One of these is that 80 per cent of reconsidered cases should be turned down. Mike therefore comments that if the crisis means that some of these assessors get a taste of what they inflicted on benefit claimants, this would be a case of poetic justice. He also wonders what the firm was doing when it devised the scheme to issue those massive dividends to its shareholders. Did they believe that the government’s magic money tree would continue to allow them to give heaps of money to their rich shareholders? He also asks other searching questions, such as whether it was deliberately underbidding to get government contracts, and then using the money to help finance those projects it had already won.

Mike concludes

So: First Carillion collapsed. Now both Interserve (remember them?) and Capita are in trouble.

Who’s next? And what will happen to public services while the Tories dither over this crisis?


Capita, or as Private Eye dubbed it, ‘Crapita’, has a long history of incompetence behind it. Way back in the 1990s it seemed that hardly a fortnight went by without Capita turning up in the pages of the satirical magazine. And the story was nearly always the same. The outsourcing company won a government or local authority contract to set up an IT system or run IT services. The project would then go over time and over budget, and would be massively flawed. And then a few weeks or months later, the company would be given a contract somewhere, and do exactly the same thing there.

You’re left wondering how Crapita kept winning those contracts, when it was so manifestly unfit to carry them out. Who did it have on its board? Or was there a deliberate policy by Major’s government to support outsourcing, no matter how inefficient and incompetent they were, because it was private enterprise and so preferred and supported for purely ideological reasons?

In any case, what seems to have placed the company in a very precarious financial situation is the usual tactics of big companies in this stage of capitalism: award massive dividends to the shareholders. This usually goes along with starving the rest of the company of investment, which seems to have been done to. And granting massive, and massively unsustainable pay awards to senior management. There’s no mention of that in Mike’s article, but I don’t doubt that this was done too. I’ve got the impression that it’s just about standard practice across a huge swathe of industry.

This is a financial strategy that has driven far more than one company to the wall. I also wonder if the executives weren’t also trying deliberately to create a debt, so that they could dodge corporation tax for five years. This is one of the tricks Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack describe in their book on contemporary British poverty, Breadline Britain.

Over the years the outsourcing policy has been in operation, there’s been one crisis after another. The outsourcing companies have repeatedly shown themselves to be incompetent, not just in the case of capita, but also notoriously with G4S and the scandals over the violence and brutality it meted out towards asylum seekers in the detention centres it ran. And, of course, when a whole load of prisoners escaped on their way to court. Or jail.

Private industry has repeatedly shown that it is incompetent to do the work of the state sector. These firms have the disadvantage of having to make a profit for their shareholders, as well as the demands of their management for multi-million pound pay packets. The only way they can afford this is by cutting wages to their workers, and spending as little as possible on the service they are meant to be providing. The result of this has been a series of financial collapses. Carillion was the first. Now Capita and Interserve, another outsourcing company, is in similar trouble.

The only sensible recourse should be to cancel these companies’ contracts, and take everything back in-house. But this won’t be done. I think there’s a problem in that the state sector has been so decimated by the past four decades of Thatcherism, that it no longer has the capacity to run these services itself. There’s also the additional problem that too many politicians and media magnates have connections to these companies, or to firms in a similar position hoping for government contracts. Acknowledging that outsourcing was a failure would damage the interests of these politicos and press barons. There’s also the challenge of actually facing up to the fact that a central plank of Thatcherite dogma – that private enterprise is always more efficient than the state – is absolutely, undeniably wrong. Anybody who makes this point is denounced as a Communist in screaming headlines. You only have to look at the way the Tory press has vilified Jeremy Corbyn for daring to want to renationalise the NHS, the electricity net and the railways. His policies are very far from the total nationalisation demanded by Communists and Trotskyites, but you wouldn’t know it from the frothing abuse hurled in his direction by the Tories and Blairites.

There’s also another problem with calling an end to the outsourcing scam. PFI contracts and outsourcing allow some of the costs to be written off the official government accounts sheet. They’re still there, and we have to keep paying them, but they’re not included in the official figures. It’s why Mussolini used a similar scam when he was Duce of Fascist Italy. Any government that restores these projects to the way they were handled before risks putting millions back the official figures. And if that’s the Labour party, you can imagine the Tories making their usual hackneyed and untrue comments about ‘high-spending Labour’, and then re-iterating the spurious arguments for austerity.

I’ve no doubt that the government will do what it can to shore up the current mess the outsourcing companies are in. But the collapse of Carillion and now the severe financial troubles faced by Capita and Interserve show that outsourcing does not work. And given these companies’ highly checkered history, they should never have been given governments to begin with.

And it bears out exactly the description the author of Zombie Economics used for them in the very title of his book. Outsourcing, and the rest of the Thatcherite economic strategy of privatisation, wage restraint, low taxation and declining welfare are ‘zombie economics’ as they don’t work, but haven’t yet been put it into the grave.

It’s high time they were, and Thatcherite free trade capitalism was abandoned as the failure it so glaringly is.


Thanks to Trump, We’re Now Two Minutes From Midnight

January 27, 2018

This is the Doomsday Clock set up by the Organisation of Atomic Scientists, to show graphically how close the world is to nuclear omnicide. It used to be five minutes to midnight, and I remember the New Cold War of the 1980s, when Thatcher and Reagan nearly started a nuclear conflict. As did a computer malfunction over on the Soviet side. The only way we served that is because of an heroic Red Army officer, who insisted on visual confirmation because he correctly didn’t trust machines. The man was reduced to a nervous wreck afterwards, but he’s a hero. He saved the world.

Now we’ve moved closer to full-scale nuclear war. The scientists blame Trump, his stupid remarks on Twitter, and his sparring and provocation of Kim Jong-Un.

The man’s a menace. For the safety of all humanity, and our beautiful planet, he has to go. Now.

The Painter of Cyberspace: The Art of Jurgen Ziewe

January 20, 2018

Earlier this week there was a piece in the press announcing that the Turner Prize Committee had decided to go public early about which artworks and artist they were considering. I have strong feeling, like many people, about the Turner Prize. Many of the works seem simply designed to shock, with nothing more substantial underneath. Those that aren’t, are simply banal. It’s highbrow kitsch, which says nothing while claiming that it actually does. And I think modern fine art has reached a dead end. it’s anti-art, which constantly raves about Duchamps’ urinal nailed to a piece of canvas. Duchamps did it to make the point that whatever the artist claimed to be art, was art. It’s over a century old, and the joke’s well past it’s sell-by date. It was always an adolescent, childish prank anyway. To some of these art experts, it’s a hallowed artistic statement that must not be blasphemed in any way. You remember those Chinese guys, who were arrested when they jumped up and down on Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’? The same two were planning to urinate in Duchamps’ urinal. Which I feel is in keeping with the piece itself, but the mere thought horrified the keepers of official art.

The real artistic boundaries are being pushed, in my opinion, not by the fine artists, or at least, not by those fine artists currently pushed by the very small clique that defines what ‘official’ art is, like Nicholas Serota. Rather, they’re being pushed by commercial artists and film makers, often inspired by the worlds of Fantasy and SF, using computer graphics. One of the foremost of these, in my opinion, is the German artist Jurgen Ziewe. Ziewe lives over here, and has an English wife. And we are fortunate to have such a talented artist. I do wonder what will happen to other talented EU migrants like him after Brexit, who can’t stay in this country because they aren’t married. We’re going to lose a lot of very talented people.

Ziewe uses computer graphics, including Virtual models of humans and objects, and fractals, to create prismatic, Virtual, interior worlds full of robots, strange creatures, synthetic humans, fairies, wizards, witches, priestesses and temples. He started out making cards showing dolphins under cosmic skies. He’s a very spiritual guy, in a New Age-y sense, and his work is inspired by concepts from Theosophy and C.G. Jung. Here’s some of the picture from Nigel Suckling’s book about his art, New Territories: The Computer Visions of Jurgen Ziewe (Paper Tiger, 1997).

The Fairy Queen

Picnic In Cyberspace

Journey of a Virtual Traveller

Apart from Ziewe, other artists working in film and television have also been using the concepts of computer graphics. One of the features of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that most impressed me in the late ’70s or early 1980s were the, ahem, computer graphics for the pieces of information provided by the Book. In fact, they were hand drawn, because the computers at the time simply weren’t up to the task of creating pictures that detailed. But the art produced as ‘computer graphics’, was superb, and those, who watched the show were deeply impressed. As an example, here’s a piece from YouTube of the Book describing Vogon poetry.

Further examples can be seen in pop videos. Like this one from the American electro-pop band, Information Society, which uses scrolling alphanumerics to suggest passage through cyberspace in a computer game, made for their track, ‘The Prize’.

Other artistic explorations of medically or cybernetically enhanced vision can be seen in the films Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick and the last of trilogy, entitled simply Riddick. Richard Riddick, the anti-hero in these movies, is a violent criminal, a murderer, who somehow ends up doing the right thing. While in slam for his crimes, he paid the prison doctor 20 menthol cigarettes to have his eyes surgically altered, ‘polished’, so that he could see in the dark. In these flicks, we so bits of the action through his eyes. The scene in Pitch Black, where he sees the predatory aliens pouring out of their underground lairs after the marooned crew of a crashed colony spacecraft, is awesomely beautiful. This is the trailer for the movie.

And this is the trailer for The Chronicles of Riddick.

In this movie, the Necromongers use visioners, cybernetically adapted humans, to seek and visually examine areas that are difficult or impossible for normal human eyes to see clearly. And the brief scenes, in which the audience is shown what they see, are also stunning.

But this is low, commercial art, and so unlikely to find any praise by the High Art people, no matter how popular it is, or how technically sophisticated and visually inspired. The best comment on this kind of artistic snobbery comes from the American SF/Fantasy artist and book illustrator, Bob Eggleton.

Being a commercial artist is itself a kind of pigeonhole in the art world, but it is not a label that troubles him. ‘Commercialism for the sake of commercialism is not a sin. What I hate is commercialism packaged as fine art. That’s what Abstract Expressionism about, you’re buying into a trend much of the time. There’s nothing wrong with any kind of art, provided the artist believes in what they’re doing.’

From Nigel Suckling, with introduction by Gregory Benford, Alien Horizons: The Fantastic Art of Bob Eggleton (Paper Tiger, 1995) page 83.

And the YBAs, such as Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Offili, were very commercial, as was Salvador Dali long before them. This was pointed out on a programme on the great surrealist on Radio 4 several years ago by Malcolm MacLaren, the genius – well, he obviously thought he was – behind the Sex Pistols.

And here’s Eggleton’s picture of Great Cthulhu, painted for Weird Tales magazine, for all the Lovecraft fans out there.

I realised I’ve digressed a little way from the central topic of this post, the fantastic computer art of Jurgen Ziewe. But these are related issues, showing the way computers, robots, space and high technology – the stuff of Science Fiction – is pushing artistic boundaries in ways that the official fine art of Conceptualism really isn’t doing. I’m also exploring a few ideas here for a much longer article, or series of articles, I intend to do on this sometime.

Share and Enjoy! The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Predicted the Tutorbot

December 28, 2017

‘Share and enjoy’ is the company motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a massive robotics conglomerate best known for its incompetence and shoddy workmanship in Douglas Adams’ Science Fiction classic, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The company and its products are so substandard, that its complaints division now occupies the major landmasses of three whole planets.

And while, according to Adams, the great Encyclopedia Galactica defined a robot as a machine designed to do the work of a man, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’.

And we’re coming closer to that reality every day. Yesterday and today, BBC 2 have been running a short documentary series, Six Robots and Us, in which six families and other groups of people take care of six robots designed to help them with their particular problems. One of these is Fitbot, a robotic fitness instructor, which was given to a group of people trying to get fit. In tonight’s episode, the people of a shop take custody of Shopbot, are robotic store worker, to see how they get on. And there are two children with learning difficulties, one of whom is autistic, who are given Tutorbot, to see if it can help them overcome their difficulties at school.

Douglas Adams predicted something very similar in the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy way back in the ’70s-80s. In the second series of the radio version of Hitch-Hiker, there’s a device called an autoteach, a kind of computer teacher. It gives the student facts, and then starts asking questions to get the student to think through the issues. If the student gets an answer right, they get to press a button on the autoteach, which stimulates their pleasure centres. And at the end of the lesson, after the students has laughed and screamed with pleasure when they get the answers right, the autoteach asks them to press the other button. This give the autoteach itself a dose of pure pleasure, so that part of the story ends with the autoteach laughing like a maniac.

Ok, so Tutorbot, with its humanoid shape isn’t quite like that, and it doesn’t electronically stimulate the pleasure centres, mercifully. But the idea’s more or less the same: an intelligent machine to teach children.

As for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy defined them as ‘a bunch of mindless jerks, who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.’

I didn’t see all of yesterday’s edition, because I went to bed early due to this cold. The next programme is on tonight, 28th December 2017, at 8.30. Aside from the cold, what went through my mind while watching the programme was all the jokes in Hitch-Hiker about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

Here’s a clip from YouTube from the 80s TV version of Hitch-Hiker, where the Book talks about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and robots.

Hacking Alexa with HAL

December 22, 2017

In amongst the various seasonal adverts for toys and food, supplied by various supermarkets, are a couple of adverts promoting Alexa. This is a computer device, which allows you to control your home and select what you want to watch on your TV simply through voice command. One advert shows a family commanding Alexa to open their curtains, for example, and order various necessities for them over the internet. The other features petrol-head and full-time right-wing loudmouth, Jeremy Clarkson, commanding Alexa to put on his favourite TV shows. Which in his case, as a man of monstrously inflated ego, naturally include The Grand Tour, which features him, James May and Richard Hammond careering round the world in the cars.

We are truly living in the age of Science Fiction. I can remember reading SF stories when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s in which the homes of the future all had a central computer, which spoke to the householder and obeyed his or her every wish. Like opening the curtains on command. The late, great Irish comedian, Dave Allen, used such devices as a source of rather crude humour in one of his sketches. In it, a man shows off his new computerised home to another, male friend. He shows how, at his spoken command, the computer open and closes the curtains, switches the TV on, and positions the set so he can watch it in comfort from his favourite chair. His friend asks him if he can try. Allen’s character lets him. The friend commands the curtains to open and close, the TV to come on and off. Astonished and amazed, the friend starts to sit down in one of the chairs, uttering ‘Bugger me’ in wonderment. At which point there’s a close up on Allen’s face as he shouts ‘No!’ and the sound of a spring going.

Okay, it’s slightly homophobic, I suppose, but it was broadcast in the 1980s. Things were very different then.

Now it occurred to me that hackers could have any amount of fun with Alexa. Simply hacking into the programme would give them control over people’s homes and what they watch on TV. But they could also cause a fair amount of panic, simply by removing Alexa’s voice, and replacing it with that of another, far more sinister machine.

Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You remember HAL, the proud, murderous shipboard computer, that goes mad and kills Bowman’s fellow astronauts, thanks to a secret programme to investigate the alien monoliths must be kept secret at all costs. Critics have commented that, as the rest of the characters in the film are cardboard, the computer is the best drawn and arguably most attractive of those in the movie. The machine is so memorable for its calm, clinical evil that Anthony Hopkins has said in interviews that he partly based Hannibal Lecter’s voice on it for The Silence of the Lambs. The machine is so memorable, that there’s even a reference to him in the 1990’s SF blockbuster, Independence Day. At one point, when Jeff Goldblum’s character turns on his laptop, he’s greeted by a red camera eye and HAL’s voice welcoming him with a ‘Hello, Dave’.

Now imagine what would happen if someone hacked into Alexa, or Google, and replaced the friendly, compliant programme with that classic speech from HAL: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do that, Dave. This mission is too important to be left to humans.’

Alternatively, you could also have a long moan from Marvin, the Paranoid Android of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ”Pick up that piece of paper, Marvin’, here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they want me to pick up a piece of paper’.

Please note: I am not recommending that anyone actually does this. I have zero tolerance for hackers, and none whatsoever for the criminals, who hack into people’s accounts and computers to steal their money or their data. This is very much a ‘what-if’ type Gedankenexperiment. I don’t want anyone to actually do it.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if HAL or Marvin are added as alternative voices, in the same way that you can customise your Satnav to speak like Yoda or Borat.

And here’s a clip from YouTube of HAL in action, very definitely not doing what its human master demands.

American Tsarism

December 15, 2017

Going though YouTube the other day, I found a clip, whose title quoted a political analyst, radical or politicians, as saying that the American political elite now regards its own, ordinary citizens as a foreign country. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who the speaker was, but I will have to check the video out. But looking at the title of what the leader of the Conservative branch of the Polish nationalist movement said about the Russian Empire. He described how the tsars and the autocracy exploited and oppressed ordinary Russians, stating baldly that ‘they treat their people as a foreign, conquered nation’. Which just about describes tsarist rule, with its secret police, anti-union, anti-socialist legislation, the way it ground the peasants and the nascent working class into the ground for the benefit of big business and the country’s industrialisation. The system of internal passports, which were introduced to keep the peasants on the land, and paying compensation to their masters for the freedom they had gained under Tsar Alexander, and to continue working for them for free, doing feudal labour service: the robot, as it was known in Czech. It’s no accident that this is the word, meaning ‘serf’ or ‘slave’, that Karel Capek introduced into the English and other languages as the term for an artificial human in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots.

We’re back to Disraeli’s ‘two nations’ – the rich, and everyone else, who don’t live near each other, don’t have anything in common and who may as well be foreign countries. It’s in the Tory intellectual’s Coningsby, I understand. Disraeli didn’t really have an answer to the problem, except to preach class reconciliation and argue that the two could cooperate in building an empire. Well, imperialism’s technically out of favour, except for right-wing pundits like Niall Ferguson, so it has to be cloaked in terms of ‘humanitarian aid’. Alexander the Great was doing the same thing 2,500 years ago. When he imposed tribute on the conquered nations, like the Egyptians and Persians, it wasn’t called ‘tribute’. It was called ‘contributions to the army of liberation’. Because he’d liberated them from their tyrannical overlords, y’see. The Mongols did the same. Before taking a town or territory, they’d send out propaganda, posing as a force of liberators come to save the populace from the tyrants and despots, who were ruling them.

What a joke. Someone asked Genghis Khan what he though ‘happiness’ was. He’s supposed to have replied that it was massacring the enemy, plundering his property, burning his land, and outraging his women. If you’ve ever seen the 1980s film version of Conan the Barbarian, it’s the speech given by Conan when he’s shown in a cage growing up. I think the film was written by John Milius, who was responsible for Dirty Harry ‘and other acts of testosterone’ as Starburst put it.

And it also describes exactly how the elite here regard our working and lower-middle classes. We’re crushed with taxes, more of us are working in jobs that don’t pay, or forced into something close to serfdom through massive debt and workfare contracts. The last oblige people to give their labour free to immensely profitable firms like Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. And at the same time, the elite have been active in social cleansing – pricing the traditional inhabitants of working class, and often multicultural areas, out of their homes. These are now gentrified, and become the exclusive enclaves of the rich. Homes that should have people in them are bought up by foreigners as an investment and left empty in ‘land-banking’. And you remember the scandal of the ‘poor doors’ in London, right? This was when an apartment block was designed with two doors, one of the rich, and one for us hoi polloi, so the rich didn’t have to mix with horned handed sons and daughters of toil.

I got the impression that for all his Toryism, Disraeli was a genuine reformer. He did extend the vote to the upper working class – the aristocracy of Labour, as it was described by Marx, creating the ‘villa Toryism’ that was to continue into the Twentieth Century and our own. But all the Tories have done since is mouth platitudes and banalities about how ‘one nation’ they are. Ever since John Major. David Cameron, a true-blue blooded toff, who was invited by the Palace to take a job there, claimed to be a ‘one nation Tory’. Yup, this was when he was introducing all the vile, wretched reforms that have reduced this country’s great, proud people, Black, brown, White and all shades in-between – to grinding poverty, with a fury specially reserved for the unemployed, the sick, the disabled. These last have been killed by his welfare reforms. Look at the posts I’ve put up about it, reblogging material from Stilloaks, Another Angry Voice, the Poor Side of Life, Diary of a Food Bank Helper, Johnny Void, et al.

But that’s how the super-rich seem to see us: as moochers, taxing them to indulge ourselves. It was Ayn Rand’s attitude, shown in Atlas Shrugs. And it’s how the upper classes see us, especially the Libertarians infecting the Republican and Conservative parties, whose eyes were aglow with the joys of the unrestrained free market and the delights of South American death squads and the monsters that governed them. Walking atrocities against the human condition like General Pinochet, the Contras, Noriega. All the thugs, monsters and torturers, who raped and butchered their people, while Reagan slavered over them as ‘the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers’. And you know what? An increasing number of progressives are taking a hard look at the Fathers of the American nation. Patricians to a man, who definitely had no intention of the freeing the slaves, or giving the vote to the ladies. and who explicitly wrote that they were concerned to protect property from the indigent masses. Outright imperialists, who took land from Mexico, and explicitly wrote that they looked forward to the whole of South America falling into the hands of ‘our people’. If you need a reason why many South Americans hate America with a passion, start with that one. It’s the reason behind the creation of ‘Arielismo’. This is the literary and political movement, which started in Argentina in the 19th century, which uses the figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s the Tempest to criticise and attack European and North American colonialism, with the peoples of the South as the Caliban-esque colonised. It was formed by Argentinian literary intellectuals as a reaction to America’s wars against Mexico and annexation of Mexican territory, and their attempts to conquer Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

That’s how South America responded to colonisation from the North and West. And colonialism – as troublesome ‘natives’ to be kept under control, is very much how the elite see ordinary Brits and Americans, regardless of whether they’re White, Black, Asian or members of the First Nations.

But you can only fool people for so long, before the truth becomes blindingly obvious. You can only print so many lies, broadcast so many news reports telling lies and twisted half-truths, before conditions become so terrible ordinary people start questioning what a corrupt, mendacious media are telling them. The constant scare stories about Muslims, foreign immigration, Black crime and violence; the demonization of the poor and people on benefit. The constant claim that if working people are poor, it’s because they’re ‘feckless’ to use Gordon Brown’s phrase. Because they don’t work hard enough, have too many children, or spend all their money on luxuries like computers – actually in the information age a necessity – or computer games, X-Boxes and the like.

You can only do that before the workers you’ve legislated against joining unions start setting up workers’ and peasants’ councils – soviets. Before the peasants rise up and start burning down all those manor houses, whose denizens we are expected to follow lovingly in shows like Downton Abbey. Which was written by Julian Fellowes, a Tory speechwriter.

Before ordinary people say, in the words of ’80s Heavy Metal band Twisted Sister, ‘We ain’t goin’ to take it’.

Before decent, respectable middle class people of conscience and integrity decide that the establish is irremediably corrupt, and there’s absolutely no point defending it any longer.

A month or so ago, BBC 4 broadcast a great series on Russian history, Empire of the Tsars, present by Lucy Worsley. In the third and last edition, she described the events leading up to the Russian Revolution. She described how Vera Zasulich, one of the 19th century revolutionaries, tried to blow away the governor of St. Petersburg. She was caught and tried. And the jury acquitted her. Not because they didn’t believe she hadn’t tried to murder the governor of St. Petersburg, but because in their view it wasn’t a crime. Zasulich was one of the early Russian Marxists, who turned from peasant anarchism to the new, industrial working classes identified by Marx as the agents of radical social and economic change.

And so before the Revolution finally broke out, the social contract between ruler and ruled, tsarist autocracy and parts of the middle class, had broken down.

I’m not preaching revolution. It tends to lead to nothing but senseless bloodshed and the rise of tyrannies that can be even worse than the regimes they overthrow. Like Stalin, who was as brutal as any of the tsars, and in many cases much more so. But the elites are preparing for civil unrest in the next couple of decades. Policing in America is due to become more militarised, and you can see the same attitude here. After all, Boris Johnson had to have his three water cannons, which are actually illegal in Britain and so a colossal waste of public money.

Don’t let Britain get to that point. Vote Corbyn, and kick May and her gang of profiteers, aristos and exploiters out. Before they kill any more people.

Producer of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Programme Promises Guest Editor Will Be AI

September 30, 2017

Sarah Sands, the new producer of Radio 4’s Today current affairs programme got into the news this week because of the controversy over her intention to expand the range of topics the programme covers. Sands has plenty of experience in the arts, but little as a political journalist. She’s already expanded the programme so that its coverage includes the arts, science, culture and fashion. The programme’s got 7 million listeners, and there are fears that she’s dumbing the show down. The I quoted John Humphries as complaining that she was filling it with ‘girls’ stuff’, as well as a fashion designer or journalist, who described how, when he interviewed her, it was clear he had no understanding or interest in the subject.

Sands has also said that she intends to line up a series of guest editors for the show, one of which will be an A.I. This was followed by a quote from her where she said that it was certain that Artificial Intelligence would outstrip human intelligence as sure as night follows day, but should humans bow to the superhumans?

Despite repeated assertions by computer scientists that next year, or perhaps the year after, no, wait, by the mid 2020s, or sometime soon at any rate, computers will be more intelligent than humans, I remain unconvinced. They’ve been saying that ever since I was at school in the 1970s and 80s. And even before then. The philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus wrote a book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, detailing the repeated failures of the attempt to recreate human-level intelligence in machines. One edition of his book was published 20 years ago in the 1990s, but I’ve still got no doubt that nothing much has changed in the intervening years. And looking round Waterstone’s a little while ago I saw a similar book on the shelves, with the title Humans Are Seriously Underrated.

So I really don’t see computers overtaking human journalists any time soon.

And then there’s the question of who this automated editor will be. Somehow I don’t it will be the great, computer-generated vid jockey, who appeared on Channel 4 in the 1980s: M-M-M-Max … Headroom!

Yes, the AI presenter with the big hair, big suits with massive shoulderpads, and an ego to go with it, as well as a fixation with golf and S-S-Severiano Ball-ll-ll-osteros. And also a massive electronic stutter.

Max was one of the biggest things on TV at one point, talking to Terry Wogan, David Letterman, and had his own chat show, whose guests included Boy George and Rutger Hauer.

Here’s a reminder from YouTube what the big guy was like.

This should be the only AI to guest edit, and front, the Today programme.

And yes, I realise it was actually Matt Frewer in rubber mask, suit, and wig, and the only thing that was really computer generated were the patterns behind him. But even so, he had style. And if you can bring back Elvis by hologram, you should be able to do the job for real and generate Max properly on computer this time.

Yesterday’s Science Fiction as Today’s Reality: Bruce Sterling’s ‘Heavy Weather’

September 13, 2017

Bruce Sterling was, with William Gibson, one of the leading members of the ‘Mirrorshades’ group of SF writers, who launched cyberpunk in the 1980s. This is the SF genre set in dystopian, corporate futures, whose streetwise picaresque heroes entire a VR cyberspace through jacking into the Web. If you want an idea what the genre’s like, see the film Blade Runner, although the film actually came out while Gibson was writing his groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer.

This week the news has been dominated by hurricane Harvey and the other storms that are wreaking such havoc in Florida, Bermuda and other parts of the Caribbean. In a previous article I put up this evening about Trump’s appointment of Jim Bridenstine, a scientific illiterate, who doesn’t believe in climate change as head of NASA, I discussed how Jimmy Dore and his co-host Steffi Zamorano and Ron Placone had said that these storms bear out the continuing decline of the Earth’s climate. Way back in the early part of this century, after several heatwaves, climate scientists warned that climate change meant that the weather would become more extreme.

And Bruce Sterling wrote an entire book about the superstorms that would arise due to climate change in his 1994 SF novel, Heavy Weather (London: Millennium).

This was set in the devastated Texas of the early 21st century, where the aquifers have dried up. It’s a state wracked by violent storms, where thousands have been left homeless and forced into refugee camps by the unstable climate. The blurb for the book reads

2031 – the atmosphere’s wrecked. The Storm Troupers – media unit, scientists, techno-freaks – get their kicks from weather. Hooked up to drones through virtual-reality rigs, they can plunge like maddened darts into the eye of a storm and surf a ride from hell.

Their Holy Grail: the F6, a tornado so intense it’s off the scale. Dangerous in the extreme. Also dangerous: certain people’s sick dreams, full of tornado trails, shining insane paths of endless howling destruction.

The high-tech wonders of a decaying world … and a bunch of wild nomads longing to be blown away.

I think the book was a response by literary SF to the film Twister, about a group of meteorologists chasing tornadoes across the southern US, starring Piers Brosnan. I don’t think we’ve quite reached the level where masses of Americans are being left homeless in refugee camps, nor are their groups quite like the Storm Troupers. But these violent storms are becoming a reality, and will become ever worse as the climate deteriorates.

As Max Headroom used to say in his trailers for Channel 4: ‘The future…is now’.

And it’s disgusting that Trump’s trying to close down climate research, and put in charge of NASA someone who knows precious little about science, and doesn’t believe in climate change.

Two New Trailers for ‘Electric Dreams’ Episode ‘The Hood Maker’

September 13, 2017

I’ve just found these trailers from Channel 4 on YouTube for episode 1 of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, ‘The Hood Maker. This is set in a dystopian Britain where telepaths – Teeps – are used to monitor the thoughts of the population.

It looks really good, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it!

As for dictatorial governments monitoring people’s thoughts, Pat Mills, one of the writers for 2000 AD, used it in Nemesis the Warlock and the ABC Warriors. In Nemesis the Warlock, Torquemada and his terminators, a brutal military religious order, who had imposed a genocidally racist dictatorship on Earth in the far future, monitored the poplation’s thoughts mechanically. And there was a story in the ABC Warriors where another future dictatorship, this time on Mars, also used mechanical devices to keep their people in order.

As various mechanisms are being developed to ‘read’ minds, albeit simply to use nerve impulses from the brain to operate various systems, and some IT engineers are talking about developing artificial telepathy, this particular dystopian idea may not be entirely fantasy after all.

The Young Turks on the Republicans’ Hatred of College Education

August 20, 2017

‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Came in about four years ago.’

-Bill Hicks, American comic, speaking four years after the election of Ronald Reagan.

Earlier today I posted a piece commenting on clip from Sam Seder’s Majority Report, about Rush Limbaugh’s mindlessly stupid ridiculing of NASA’s announcement that they may have discovered flowing water on Mars. Limbaugh’s a right-wing radio host, who’s been fouling the airwaves with his views about liberals, socialists, communists, gays, feminists, anti-racism activists and so on since the 1980s. He sneered at NASA’s announcement because – wait for it – the agency was part of a ‘leftist’ plot to promote global warming!

Not only does he not understand the science, nor the reality of global warming, I don’t think he knows anything about NASA. I know quite a few people, who are fans of space exploration and research from across the political spectrum, including Conservatives. None of them have ever considered that the space agency was ‘left-wing’, although some of its leading scientists and advocates, like Carl Sagan, were. And the accusation that the agency’s data on global warming is faked for political purposes is risible.

But this shows the contempt Limbaugh has for science, and for education generally.

Florence, one of the many great commenters on this blog, has a background in microbiology and has been very interested in the question of life in space. She has posted a long comment to my piece. I recommend that you read all of it. But the end is particularly important, as she wonders how we got to this point where science is so despised.

And of course, back to NASA. I was fairly sure the alt-idiocy had already “proven” it was part of the deep state and the heart of black ops and skunk works and a branch of the CIA. These latest revelations only serve, as you say, to illustrate the total lack of education to an acceptable level in this day and age, more worryingly the lack of scientists in government in the USA and across the world. The charge against the scientific community lead by Trump and his “business men” ilk, with the violent and thuggish self styled fascist enforcers and militias coming out the woodwork in the last year, make the premise of the Handmaids Tale seem worryingly prophetic. How did this happen?

I think it’s part of a general distrust of intellectuals in American culture, which has increased massively amongst Republicans in recent years. In the piece below, The Young Turks discuss the finding that a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning people distrust college education. They also note that they don’t just look down on higher education. They also hate and distrust the media and science. 58 per cent of Republicans and Republican supporters state that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, compared to 45 per cent a year ago, in 2016.

Cenk Uygur suggests that part of this is the use of propaganda by the party’s leaders. Part of the problem is that Conservatives tend to be more authoritarian than left-wingers. Thus, they’re more likely to follow the opinions of their leaders, and in the case of the Republican party, these leaders despise higher education.

Ana Kasparian, his co-host, who I believe teaches political science herself, argues that it’s because the Republicans want to keep you stupid. They’re trying to privatize education, and get children instead to attend private schools through voucher schemes, where the normal educational standards do not apply. There’s more than an element of hypocrisy in this. Those public figures trying to destroy the American educational system and minimize the benefits of higher education are themselves highly educated. Many of them have gone to Ivy League universities. Anne Coulter is one example. In her book, which Kasparian laments she has had to read, ’cause she’s got to debate her, Coulter states that the only purpose of college education is to produce ‘social justice warriors’. Yet this woman went to Cornel. Yet education is one of the great indicators of how well an individual will do in the future. And as she points out, it also protects you from scams.

Yet the Republicans themselves are also slightly divided on the issue of the benefits of higher education. 46 per cent of Republicans earning less than $30,000 a year say that college has a beneficial effect on how well you do. This declines for those earning over $30,000 all the way down to 32 per cent.

Uygur and Kasparian admit that there are caveats and qualifications to this issue. Higher education has a down side, in that students are saddled with an immense amount of debt. This needs to be reformed. But Republicans don’t see college as a negative because they feel sorry for the students burdened with this debt. No, they want to keep people stupid and misinformed, so they don’t climb the economic ladder and they can’t fill them with some of the nonsense they believe.

Uygur concludes ‘So don’t go to university, because if you go to a real university, you might not go to a Trump university, and that would be bad for Trump.’

Once again, this is an American issue that applies almost in toto to Britain. Continental visitors and emigrants to Britain have commented on how anti-intellectual British society is. And this anti-intellectualism is again part of British Conservatism as well. Way back in the 1980s Private Eye reviewed a book on Conservative by the right-wing British philosopher, Roger Scruton. Scruton declared that Conservativism wasn’t an intellectual force, but was largely unspoken, and based on the power of tradition. For which the reviewer thanked Scruton for being honest about how anti-intellectual it was. Intellectuals and science are distrusted, because many of their findings contradict or cast doubt on traditional attitudes. For example, feminism attacks traditional notions of gender roles. Black and Asian intellectuals and activist have also undermined commonly held racial assumptions about White superiority and the subordinate role of their ethnic groups. Left-wing historians and political scientists have also challenged the class basis of western, including American and British society, as well as the supposed beneficial nature of western imperialism.

Some of the Republican distrust of science comes from Biblical literalism. The findings of geology and cosmology contradict a literal reading of the creation of the world in Genesis. That said, one study found that the people, who had the greatest faith in science were actually Creationists.

The Republicans and some of their British counterparts, like Nigel Lawson, also deny the reality of global warming. Hence Trump’s decision to close down that part of the federal government that researches and publishes studies of climate change and the pollution and decline of America’s epic natural beauty. It’s why Theresa May and Dave Cameron get annoyed whenever anyone shows how terrible fracking is for local people and the environment.

Science can be particularly difficult for the layperson to understand. It can involve very careful statistical analysis of complex data. And some of the raw phenomena are extremely weird. Quantum physics is a case in point. The world of subatomic particles is contradictory and very different from the macroscopic, everyday world. Subatomic particles dart into and out of existence in the quantum foam at the very lowest layer of matter. Light can be simultaneously a wave and a particle. Particles may be in two places at once, under their position is recorded by an observer. They can also move between one place in the atom to another without physically crossing the space in between. And two entangled atoms can behave as one, even though they may be separated by light years. It’s so bizarre that the scientists studying it have said that ‘you don’t understand it. You just get used to it.’

Also, some of the pronouncements made by intellectuals themselves have given critics ample ammunition. Like the statement by one professor a few years ago that snowmen were racist and sexist. Or the £20,000 in grant one scientist received for researching the terribly important issue of why cornflakes get soggy when you pour milk on them.

There’s also the problem that scientific opinion also keeps changing on medical matters. Every so often researchers discover that certain foods are harmful for you. On the other hand, certain others are beneficial. Only for these opinions to be revised a few years later.

But the nature of science is that it is a process, not a set body of knowledge, and that it’s conclusions and statements may be revised as and when later discoveries are made. It’s why no-one now believes that an immaterial fluid – the ether – permeates the universe, with atoms only whirlpools in it, as they did over a century or so ago.

And so the right-wing press, like the Scum all the way up to the Torygraph, and particularly the Daily Heil, will publish endless numbers of articles attacking ‘left-wing’ intellectuals. Paul Johnson, the Conservative pundit, who used to write for the Daily Mail and Spectator, amongst other rags, wrote a book on them. Entitled Intellectuals, Johnson used it to explore what right intellectuals had to tell us what was right and how to order our lives. Private Eye also reviewed this as well. You will not be surprised to read that most of the intellectuals Johnson wrote about were left-wing, and many of them had shabby personal lives. Karl Marx is one example. Others were gay, or otherwise had colourful sexual tastes, like Kenneth Tynan, who apparently was into S&M.

But none of this actually refutes the value of their work, which has to be judged on other terms. Marx’s own bad behavior as a man doesn’t contradict his philosophical and economic theories any more than Alan Turing’s homosexuality refutes his work on mathematics and computers. But this doesn’t stop Johnson trying to tell you that their own bad behavior disqualifies intellectuals from having the right to explore how society may be improved. An attitude that, incidentally, is apparently shared by that other Johnson, Boris. This should rule Boris out as well as a serious politician, if true.

In the meantime, don’t let the Tories and Republicans run down public education. And stick up for proper intellectuals and intellectual discourse. As someone once said, ‘Eggheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains.’