Posts Tagged ‘Engineering’

Hooray! BBC War of the Worlds Adaptation Begins on Sunday

November 13, 2019

At last! The BBC is set to screen its adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic SF novel, The War of the Worlds, on Sunday 17th November 2019 on BBC 1 at 9.00 pm. The blurb for it on page 64 of the Radio Times runs

Dramatisation of the HG Wells’s classic Sci-Fi tale, set in Edwardian England. Lovers Amy and George are among the first to notice when a mysterious capsule lands on Horsell Common near Woking in Surrey. Some thing it is an asteroid, but then it starts to shudder and move.

The additional article about the drama on page 63 by Alison Graham says of it

There’s an angry red planet, burning with fury, and its murderous emissary is falling to Earth, ready to destroy life as we know it by landing directly on, er, Woking. Blameless Woking in Surrey, the heart of the Home Counties. Surely it can’t be a twisted dislike of middle-class southerners that powers this gigantic beast?

The HG Wells sci-fi classic is dusted off in a thumping adaptation, with Rafe Spall as journalist George and his “wife” Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), who have scandalised the town by living together unwed. She’s very progressive, considering this is Edwardian England, having a degree and a job as an assistant to an astronomer, Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle). 

But one night there’s a shattering noise, strange clouds fill the air and soon an unspeakable foe stalks the land, killing at will. Woking will never be the same again.

The I wrote a little piece about the adaptation yesterday, but instead of talking about the plot concentrated instead on the changes to the female lead, who is barely mentioned in the book, and that the astronomer, Ogilvy, is now gay. Peter Harness, who has adapted it, said that this made the story more interesting as Amy and Ogilvy were both outsiders. It’s definitely an attempt to make it more contemporary. Amy’s character obviously has been changed in order to introduce a strong female lead, and I suspect the decision to make her a scientist follows the campaign to get more women into science and engineering. As for the pair’s domestic arrangements, this seems partly based on some of the ideas circulating in very radical circles at the time – that marriage was a burden to women, and should be abolished and free love practised instead – and Wells’ own promiscuity. The decision to make Ogilvy gay also seems to me to be an attempt to make the story more contemporary. Or it might simply be following the lead of Dr Who, which has had a series of gay characters since its revival.

Regardless of the precise reasons for the changes, it looks excellent. It’s also been a long time in coming. It was due to be released last October and I wondered if it was ever going to be released at all. Now it seems it will, and I’m looking forward to it.

More Lies and Disinformation about Roswell: Crash Hoaxed with Victims of Nazi and Japanese Human Experiments

September 15, 2019

There’s some very nasty lies – at least, I sincerely hope they’re lies – being put about by someone about the notorious Roswell UFO crash. This was the incident in 1947 when a UFO supposedly crashed on Mac Brazell’s ranch in Roswell, New Mexico. The US army came to investigate and collect the debris. The USAF then released a statement by Major Quantanilla that they had recovered a ‘flying disc’. This story was then changed the next day, or a few days later, to a tale that they had in fact recovered a weather balloon, with Quantanilla shown holding up its foil remains. That, more or less, is what is known for sure. However, local people continued to believe very strongly that an alien space vehicle had crashed near their town. In 1980 Charles Berlitz and another researcher published a book claiming that this was the true. This was followed by even more books claiming that not only had a UFO crashed, but alien bodies had been recovered and removed to Wright-Patterson AFB for analysis and dissection. There was also one alien survivor, who was also taken by the Air Force. This in turn spawned the infamous Alien autopsy hoax video created by pop producer Ray Santilli and shown around the world. Which in turn inspired the British SF comedy, Alien Autopsy, starring those lovable funsters Ant and Dec, now appearing on Britain’s Got Talent.

Since then there have been a number of theories and highly dubious claims about what really happened at Roswell. And one of these stories is extremely nasty, and, in my view, grossly offensive. It’s that the crash was a deliberate fake, using children or handicapped adults, who had been experimented upon by Nazi, Japanese, Russian and American scientists, as part of a Cold War plot.

Annie Jacobsen and the Joe Rogan Experience

A few days ago I discovered this video from the Joe Rogan Experience, put up on YouTube on 18th May 2019. In it, Rogan, the host, talks to the journo Annie Jacobsen, about the claims in her new book that American scientists working for the military surgically altered children to look like aliens as part of a Cold War campaign of disinformation against the Soviets. The Russians had supposedly tried to fake a UFO encounter using children mutilated by the Nazis, and the Americans were experimenting to see how the Russians did it.

Rogan’s sceptical about the whole tale. He states that he knows people in the armed forces, and they will spin stories to get people going. And I share Rogan’s scepticism. This seems to be simply the latest version of a series of claims that the crash was faked using children operated upon by the Nazis, Japanese and Russians.

Redfern’s Account of the Russian Hoax Landing

A few days ago the Magonia website published my review of Nick Redfern’s Flying Saucers from the Kremlin: UFOs, Russian Meddling, Soviet Spies & Cold War Secrets. In it, Redfern discusses similar claims made by Jacobsen in an earlier book, published in 2011, Area 51. Based on information supplied by an anonymous informant, she claims that the Roswell Crash was a failed attempt to fake a UFO landing by the-then dictator of the USSR, Joe Stalin. The flying saucer was based on the tailless aircraft designed by the Nazi aeroengineers, the Horten brothers. The aliens were really children surgically altered by the Nazi doctor and war criminal, Josef Mengele. The mysterious hieroglyphs seen on some of the saucer remains was really Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet. Jacobsen doesn’t name her source, but another investigator, Tony Bragaglia, claims that he was Alfred O’Donnell, an elite engineer from EG&G, the leading designer and contractor of federal classified facilities in the US. Redfern then states that he was told practically the same story from a former employee of Area 51, which he published in his 2010 book, The NASA Conspiracies. This source claimed that physically altered people had been flown from Russia to the US aboard a bizarre-looking aircraft in order to convince Americans that their country was being invaded by aliens.

Redfern and Japanese Human Experiments at Roswell

In an earlier version of this tale, also published by Redfern five years earlier, the object that crashed at Roswell was a massive balloon based on Japanese technology, which carried a manned glider. This contained a pilot, and a group of handicapped Japanese. Suffering from diseases such as dwarfism and progeria – rapid aging – they had been brought to the US from the Japanese Unit 731, the infamous Japanese military unit responsible for experiments on humans. These experiments were every bit as sick and horrific as Mengele’s and the Nazis’. A little while ago one of the Horror blogs reviewed a film someone had made about the Unit’s atrocities in Japanese-occupied China and Mongolia during the Second World War. The film claimed to be recreations of real experiments. From reading the review, I decided it was definitely one to miss. Apparently the victims of the Roswell and similar crashes were being used as guinea pigs to assess the effects of exposure to high altitude and radiation.

Redfern’s book, Body Snatchers in the Desert: the Horrible Truth at the Heart of the Roswell Story (Paraview Pocket Books 2005), was reviewed by Magonia in issue 89, August 2005. Their review concluded that it wasn’t a story that should be accepted or rejected out of hand, but was worth the attention of properly qualified reporters and investigators, and would gain in stature if someone, particularly outside Ufology, would come forward to corroborate it. Or if a whistleblower also came forward, and they brought with them evidence and documentation.

The Magonia article notes that there were unethical experiments conducted by the American state, like the MKUltra drug experiments and the infamous Tuskeegee syphilis experiments on Black sharecroppers. They also mention here the scandal of the British state sending ‘orphaned’ children to be used as slave labour in Canada and Australia. However these conspiracies are backed up by genuine evidence and documentation. But there’s none here. Only people walking up to Redfern at UFO conferences. Magonia says of this

Assuming that these people exist and are who they say they are, then the fact the people on two continents approach Redfern with more or less similar stories suggests either that rumours along these lines have been around for some time and are being ussed as the basis of stories, that the stories are to some degree at least true, or that Redfern is being set up by someone or other. 

My guess is that they’re either just rumours, which people are turning into stories, or that Redfern and Jacobsen have been set up.

The Problem of Age and Memory

In the above interview, Rogan does ask Jacobsen if the people telling her these tales weren’t lying. She replies that her informant was a 95 year-old man, who broke down crying in front of his wife of 65 years, because he was so ridden with guilt at his complicity in the atrocity. She asks him in turn how this could happen if the story wasn’t true.

The problem with this is the same that Magonia also pointed out affected the testimony of other witnesses to the supposed Roswell crash, people who believed they’d seen alien bodies. They were very elderly, sometimes quite frail, and the family of one man said that his mind and memory were prone to deceive him. It’s quite possible that this has happened here and that the whole story is a confabulation by a man, who is clearly upset and disturbed about something in his career, but whose mind has constructed a false story about why. On the other hand, it could also very well be that this entire story is simply malign twaddle dreamed up by someone. It could be the government trying to hide a genuine mystery, or it could simply be private citizens laughing at the gullibility of the public, who have somehow pulled this bloke into their fantasies.

The Weekly World News and the Nazi Saucer Myth

These tales also seem to resemble and draw on a version of the Nazi saucer myth published in the Weekly World News on 27th January 1981. The Weekly World News was an American supermarket tabloid newspaper, and gave us such brilliant investigative reports such as ‘Mom was bigfoot, says beastie man’. This reported the claim of Olav Meyer, a German geologist living in Seville, Spain, that the UFOs were developed by the Nazis, but not actually used because Hitler preferred the V2. The article claimed that this had been corroborated by another journalist and investigator, Christof Friedrich, of Toronto. According to Friedrich, the Germans were working on flying saucers, but were unable to develop them because of a shortage of raw materials. Friedrich also said that he had learned from Major Donald Keyhoe that the Americans had seen troops into Germany to recover the saucer scientists, but that they had escaped to Russia instead. Both Meyer and Friedrich cited a book, published in the 1950s by Rudolph Lazar, which supposedly showed the Nazis were developing flying saucers.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1O8DAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Lazar’s book is notorious. Although the WWN article claims that Lazar was a scientist, he was really a former German army officer. His book was about supposed German super weapons developed during the War, which included flying saucers. It’s one of the major sources for the Nazi saucer myth, which returned once again to haunt Ufology back in the 1990s. Apart from ordinary people, who have been taken by this rubbish, the myth seems to be pushed by Nazis trying to create some kind of spurious glamour about the Third Reich. As it developed, the Nazi saucer squadron was supposed to have escaped the allies, establishing a secret base out in the Canadian arctic. They then moved down to Antarctica, which is why the Americans also have a base down there. The video UFO Secrets of the Third Reich, produced by Royal Atlantis Films in the 1990s, also claimed that they were built following instructions channelled through a medium from an alien civilisation around the star Aldebaran. The Nazi saucer myth also formed the basis for the SF comedy, The Iron Sky, in which a female American president, who resembles Sarah Palin, starts a war with a Nazi colony on the Moon. Magonia published a series of articles attacking the Nazi saucer myth. Kevin McClure, a long-time investigator of the paranormal, also published a very well researched piece very effectively demolishing it.

I find the Nazi saucer myth vile and distasteful, if not dangerous for the way it seeks to promote and glamorize the Nazis. And the stories of maimed and disfigured people used to impersonate aliens seems to me to be a kind of blasphemy against the real victims of Nazi and Japanese experimentation.

I have no idea whether these stories are some kind of government/ state disinformation campaign, or simply private hoaxers. But I don’t doubt for a single minute that they’re lies that should be discarded. Until someone involved comes forward bringing real evidence and supporting documents, at least.

The Wretched State of Modern Ghost Hunting

September 9, 2019

I spent Saturday with friends at a conference on the paranormal by ASSAP at the University of Bath. ASSAP are one of the old school ghosthunting/ paranormal investigation societies. They were formed 30 or so years ago to investigate spontaneous cases occurring in the outside world, as opposed to the laboratory based approach of the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR itself has been going for over a century now, and was founded by serious, prominent scientists, philosophers and intellectuals in the Victorian period to investigate the-then new phenomenon of Spiritualism. This raised the question of whether there was an afterlife and there were hidden powers of the mind, like telepathy, telekinesis and so on. I realise that this is very much fringe science, and to many people it’s unscientific nonsense. But these societies really are rigorously scientific in their approach to studying the paranormal. Many of their members and active officials are qualified and practising scientists, medical professionals, engineers and IT specialists, as well as academics from other disciplines, like history, anthropology and so on. In their investigations they formulate and apply the methods of science. Phenomena are thoroughly investigated, and only after natural explanations have been ruled out is it suggested that whatever strange events have occurred may be supernatural. That can mean long nights in supposedly haunted houses sitting quietly bored waiting for something to happen. They also have a strict code of conduct to regulate dealing with scared, vulnerable people. And this means not dabbling with things that are well outside their competence, such as people’s mental or physical health. There was a fascinating panel discussion with five leading investigators. And one of the issues they discussed was this. One panel member said that he had one person from a case he was investigating phone him up worried, as the ghost had started scratching them. He promptly advised them to see their GP as he was not qualified to investigate that. There are clear ethical issues involved, and the professionals make sure that they protect and look after the welfare of the people experiencing the haunting or whatever.

All of this contrasts very strongly with the approach of many of the contemporary ghosthunting groups. One of the talks I attended was by a female Ph.D. student, discussing why she no longer considers herself a ghosthunter. She very definitely was a ghosthunter, it must be said, but her old school approach was far too different from that of most of the ghosthunting groups that were now around. She stated at the outset that she wasn’t trying to shame or embarrass anyone. She was just trying to show what it was like now. And it was grim.

If she was correct, then contemporary ghosthunting is not driven by the goals and methods of science. ASSAP, the SPR and the other, older paranormal societies contain both believers and sceptics. These new societies were composed almost solely of believers, who were determined to obtain evidence. They were also very much creatures of today’s media-driven culture. They had their websites, on which they put up the video footage they believed they had obtained, which demonstrated paranormal activity. They also had their own merchandising, such a T-shirts and caps bearing their group’s logos. Quiet, scientific investigation was out. In old school investigations, things tend to be calm and quiet, with everyone knowing where everyone else is. In these investigations, there’s much excitement with people running around here and there. They are keen to have scientific equipment, like EMF meters. These register changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. But they don’t know how to use them. They’ll also have tape recorders in order to record any voices from the spirits. However, most of the time these record simply noise, and so they spend their time messing around with them trying not just to clean them up, but effectively editing the tape so it produces what they want to hear. The speaker said that these groups were strongly influenced by programmes like Most Haunted, where there was a lot of running about, a lot of excitement, and people got possessed. She showed one tweet from a group, which said they had had a quiet night. They had only encountered two spirits and a third had chased them home. This, she said, beat all the quiet times she had on investigations in haunted locations where absolutely zip happened.

They were also completely irresponsible with the members of the public they dealt with. One family were frightened to go up in their attack after they were told by the investigators that there was a demon up there, ’cause they’d caught it laughing on tape. Yes, it did sound like someone laughing. However, the sound was eventually revealed to be due to plumbing, rather than the paranormal. Another family made £10,000 worth of alterations to their property after another medium told them that they had a portal to the underworld. Yet another family were scared to go back to their house after a medium told them they also had a portal to the underworld. She wasn’t capable of dealing with it. She could, she said, give them an address of a shaman, but he had moved away. She made the point that this was incredibly irresponsible. She’d frightened these people, and then left with them with it.

She was also pessimistic about what could be done about this problem. It’s the hope of groups like ASSAP and the SPR that someday parapsychology will be given its due respect as a genuine scientific discipline. But there seems to be little chance of this with the field dominated by this new kind of ghosthunter. They were keen to defend the reality of the paranormal, and any criticism was met with the accusation that the critic was a ‘hater’, who should be ignored. This meant that the sceptics were even more determined to disparage and ignore parapsychology. The speaker had hoped that these groups would die out, but they seemed to multiply and breed like viruses.

It was a fascinating, if dispiriting – no pun intended – talk, and I really don’t know what can be done about this situation. The speaker said she didn’t want to shame anyone, as these groups genuinely believe that what they’re doing is right. Perhaps. But if they’re making ordinary people terrified in their own homes, then clearly they’re a menace. Listening to her, it struck me that ‘ghosthunting’ in the traditional sense was very much a misnomer for these people. They’re actually legend trippers. ‘Legend tripping’ is the term folklorists use to describe the practice of people, mostly youngsters, going to a haunted or supposedly paranormal location, in order to experience something weird. Quite often they also have an ulterior motive as well, as they’ll often bring alcohol and their girlfriends. I am not saying that these groups are also there to drink and have a bit of romance, but they do seem to show the same mindset as those seeking to experience the paranormal on legend trips.

But if these groups dominate ghosthunting now, perhaps there is still some hope. Possibly that style of ghosthunting may fall out of fashion, even though it hasn’t done so far. What I think groups like ASSAP can do is carry on with their thorough, scientific investigations and make sure that these are given due prominence, in the hope that their influence will carry. Hopefully, a few, at least, of the other groups may get the message of how to investigate the paranormal properly.

Branson’s Spaceplane and Kubrick’s 2001: The Legacy of a Vision

October 11, 2018

Today’s I also carried a picture of Richard Branson hanging out of the portholes of one his spaceplanes, waving a model of the craft he claims will shortly take paying passengers for a trip into space.

This follows his announcement yesterday that, after over a decade of delays, one of his spacecraft will launch sometime in the next few weeks. And then, a few months after that, Branson himself would take a journey into the High Frontier. There’s supposed to be a race on between Branson, Bezos and Musk over which will be the first private company to send people into space.

I’ve got my doubts that it will be Branson. He’s been telling the world that his Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be taking people up there in a year’s time since the late ’90s. For a moment, it did look as though he might actually do it, until one of the spaceships crashed due to a design fault, killing one of the co-pilots. Moreover, investors and those worried about the state of the NHS should look very carefully at what else is going on in Branson’s empire when he makes these announcements. There was a story in Private Eye a few months ago about how Branson uses them to direct attention away from other projects, which might be controversial. He was quoted as saying that he made one announcement, that his planes were ready to fly, to distract people from the fact that his private healthcare division, Virgin Health, had just one a whole slew of NHS contracts and was ready to open several clinics around the country.

And several times in the past Virgin has had problems with its finances to the tune of hundreds of millions or so. Private Eye was threatened several times with a libel action from Branson, claiming it was all false. The Eye later ran a story about this, quoting Branson himself as saying that he tried to silence the satirical paper because it was true, but he didn’t want the public, investors or the banks knowing because it would stop him getting more money from the banks.

Now that he’s declaring that they’re nearly all set and raring to go, we’re entitled to ask whether this is really the case, or is it just another distraction from him eating up more of our precious NHS, or the possible collapse of one of his other companies.

As for the spacecraft itself, I was struck by the similarity between it and the Orion spaceplane of Kubrick’s SF masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As you can see from the cover for the DVD version of Kubrick’s epic, the two look very similar.

And I’m not surprised, as this shows the very thorough research Kubrick did to get the look of the space vehicles just right. Clarke’s a Hard SF writer, which means that his fictions are based in scientific fact, although often with more than a little extrapolation and fantasy. There are, after all, no real black alien monoliths in the solar system, which form stargates to alien realities. Kubrick also wanted to make the greatest SF movie ever, and so he turned from relying on artists to real space scientists and engineers to design the spacecraft.

Which is why the spacecraft in 2001 – the spaceplane, orbital space station, Moon shuttle and the Discovery spacecraft itself – look utterly convincing as well as cool. The film was shot in Britain, and as well as using experts from NASA and American aerospace companies, he also used British firms, especially for the one-person space pods.

I think if Branson really wanted to get into space, he would have been better off ringing Kubrick up for a few hints about spacecraft design. He’d also have been in the enviable position of being in charge of the first company whose promotional film would have won and academy award.

Branson may be set to go into space, but Kubrick and Clarke got their first. And it was awesome.

And here’s a video from YouTube showing a bit of the spaceplane from 2001.

Tory Chairman Lies about Abuse from Labour Party

January 16, 2018

Another day, another lie from the Tories. The Tory chairman, Brandon Lewis, was in the papers yesterday because of comments he made on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Lewis claimed that Tories were afraid to go on the internet because of abuse from the Labour party and Momentum members. Apparently, he mentioned Esther McVile as a victim of this abuse, claiming that John McConnell had made a speech demanding that she be lynched. He then claimed that he was making all the Tories sign a document pledging them not abuse their political opponents, and challenged Jeremy Corbyn to do the same.

This story was then taken up by a number of right-wing papers and magazines, including the Tory rag, the Spectator, and here in the West Country, the Western Daily Press. But the truth wasn’t quite like Lewis claimed. Mike’s written a long piece tearing apart Lewis’ comments to show how false and nasty they are. First of all, the comments made by McConnell were made three years ago, so they’re hardly contemporary. Secondly, he was quoting other people. Ah, replied the Speccie, but he was doing so approvingly. Whether he was or wasn’t clearly depends on a matter of perception, I feel. As for making Tories sign a pledge of good conduct, you can ask a number of questions about this. Like it clearly didn’t apply to Toby Young, when he wrote pieces advocating eugenics, commenting on women’s breasts, saying he had his d*ck up the a**e of one woman, and talking about masturbating over pictures of starving Africans. All of which qualify Young as a truly loathsome human being. But nevertheless, Tweezer wanted him as part of the universities regulatory board. Possibly because he is vociferously against everything modern educationalists stand for, like diversity, anti-racism and anti-sexism. They’re the values most student union bodies very strongly support, and which hardline Tories sneer at as ‘political correctness’ and moan that they are stifling free speech. And Young was almost certainly put in because he’s another Tory who wants to privatise education. Witness his leadership of the ‘free school’ movement.

And most odiously, as Mike points out, Lewis tried to portray McVile as a victim.

McVile isn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination. She’s a very rich woman, who has made a very good living by killing the disabled. She and her husband run a production company, which I believe may have been responsible for the Benefit Street series of programmes on Channel 4. Under her aegis, tens of thousands of disabled people have been unfairly declared ‘fit for work’, and been left to starve to death after having their benefits cut off. Mike has covered these deaths, as have Stilloaks, DPAC, Johnny Void and many, many others. Some of those, who have taken their lives left suicide notes behind stating that it was the removal of their benefits that were driving them to this extremity.

But still the Tories deny it.

McVile presided over this system, for which, as a government minister, she was very handsomely paid compared to the rest of us, and definitely far more than the poor souls, who are forced to rely on state benefits. She carried on with her task of murdering the poor gleefully and without remorse. She’s an evil woman.

Now I don’t believe that there is any abuse from Labour or Momentum. I’ve heard that song before, when the Blairite women were all complaining that they were suffering misogynist abuse from Corbyn’s supporters. They weren’t, and an extensive checking of various posts showed it. But it has set the narrative for the Thatcherite right to tell lies about Corbyn and the Labour left. Whether it is true or not is immaterial. The Tories lie like Goebbels, and Lewis’ comments are yet another smear campaign.

There’s also more than a touch of hypocrisy about the claims, too. Quite apart from the vile comments and writing of Toby Young, you only have to look at Twitter to see frothingly abusive comments from outraged Tories, or look at the comments they leave on left-wing vlogs and videos on YouTube.

If the Tories are scared to go on social media, I can think of a couple of reasons why, which have nothing to do with abuse. Firstly, the Tory front bench are solidly public school boys and girls, who all went to Oxbridge. The ancient Romans didn’t have information technology. The closest they got was the Antikythera Mechanism, a kind of geared computer, which showed the position of the planets. It’s a masterpiece of ancient engineering. However, public school classics are all about generals, emperors and Roman politicians, not the work of the rude mechanics and craftsmen. Aristotle in his politics firmly demanded that these should not be allowed a voice in the political life of his perfect state. That was to be reserved for leisured gentlemen, who should have a forum of their own so that they didn’t mix with the trades- and craftspeople, who actually made things and supplied services.

And one of the complaints I’ve seen of the Oxbridge educated upper classes is that they still have this snobbery towards science. Boris Johnson is possibly the most notable of those public schoolboys and girls advocating the classics, which were used in previous centuries as part of the education system to show the young of the upper classes how to govern. Despite Harold Wilson’s comments in the 1960s about Britain embracing the ‘white heat’ of technology, science and engineering were very much the province of the oiks in secondary moderns, and definitely looked down upon.

And I also think that the real some Tories may be avoiding going on social media, is that they’re all too aware that people know they’re lying, and will correct them. Go see some of Mike’s articles for comments left on social media by very well informed commenters, tearing into Tweezer’s and Jeremy Hunt’s lies over housing and the state of the NHS, for example.

And I also think that if people are making extreme remarks about how vile Esther McVey is on social media, some of them at least have a right. Lewis can afford to act shocked. He’s another, very middle class professional on a very tidy income. He is not poor and desperate, as McVey’s victims are. He can therefore afford to be complacent about their very real fear and despair. He is part of the Tory machine working towards their impoverishment and starvation, and so he has a vested interest in playing down the horrific reality behind their comments. If you go in for an interview at the Job Centre, you will be humiliated by clerks trying to get you off their books as quickly as possible. This will leave you fuming with rage, but there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Especially as they will sanction you without a moment’s hesitation for the most trivial of reasons. This system has been created and is overseen by the Tories, including Esther McVile. She therefore deserves to be an object of anger, hate and loathing by people, who are genuine victims. What Lewis hates and fears is the amount of hatred there is for her, and the fact that it’s expressed, as the Tories demand absolute deference from the rest of us. Remember how the Daily Mail went berserk with rage when Thatcher died, because people in the north had the audacity to celebrate and burn her in effigy?

There must be no clue how much the Tories and the leaders are hated, in any media, ever. And so he demands that people, who have every right to loath McVile, stop talking about how repulsive and murderous the Wicked Witch of the Wirral, responsible for the genocide of the disabled, really is.

And so he falsely accuses Labour of abuse, while defending a woman who is directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of disabled people.

She’s a disgrace. So is he. Get them out.

On the Selection of a Female Dr. Who

August 6, 2017

The week before last, the BBC finally broke the tension and speculation surrounding the identity of the actor, who is going to play the next Doctor. They announced that the 13th Dr would be played by Jodie Whitaker, an actress, who has appeared in a number of crime dramas. Like many people, I was shocked by this radical departure from tradition, but not actually surprised. The Doctor has been male for the past fifty years, but thirty years ago the Beeb announced that it was considering making the next Doctor a woman as Tom Baker was leaving the role and preparing to hand it on to the next actor. In fact, the announcement was joke dreamed up by the Baker and one of the producers and writing team, and the role went to Peter Davison. The announcement of a possible female Doctor resulted in a few jokes, such as ‘the most painful regeneration of them all’. One of the British SF media magazines – I can’t remember whether it was Starburst or Dr. Who Magazine, then went on to make a serious point, that nothing was known about the Time Lord family, and so it was quite plausible that this alien race could change their genders during regeneration.

I can also remember Mike telling me at the time that there was also a feminist group in the European parliament, who wanted a female Doctor, who would have a male assistant, which she would patronise, in a reverse of the usual situation. The role of women in Dr. Who has been somewhat contentious down the years. Critics, like the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, the author of How To Be A Woman, have criticised the show’s portrayal of women in the Doctor’s companions. She claimed a few years ago on a TV segment about the show that they usually were there to say, ‘But Doctor, I don’t understand’. Others have also made the point that their role tended to be stereotypically passive and traditional. They were to scream when threatened by the monster, and be rescued by the Doctor. It’s quite a controversial statement, though I do remember seeing one of the team behind the Classic Dr. Who saying that there was some truth in it. They had tried to make the Doctor’s female companions less stereotypical, and stronger. So you had Zoe, one of Patrick Troughton’s companions, who was a computer scientist from the future. Romana was a Time Lady, who had majored in psychology at the Academy. In her first appearance in the Tom Baker serial, ‘The Ribos Operation’, it was made clear that she was actually more intelligent than the Doctor, who had scraped through his degree after he retook his exam. Sarah Jane Smith was a feisty female journalist, who was fully prepared to talk back to the Doctor, representing the new generation of independent young women that came in with ‘Women’s Lib’ in the ’70s. And the strongest female companion of them all has to be Leela, a female warrior of the Sevateem, a primitive tribe descended from a group of astronauts sent to investigate a jungle world. Leela mostly wore only a leather bikini, but she was skilled with the knife and the deadly Janus Thorn, a poisonous plant, whose venom killed within minutes. Leela was quite capable of defending herself and protecting the Doctor. In the serial ‘The Invisible Enemy’, for much of the story she is the active member of the team, after she proves immune to the sentient virus that infects and paralyses the Doctor. There were also attempts to introduce strong female villains, such as the Rani, a renegade Time Lady of the same stripe as the Master, but who specialised in genetic engineering and biological transformation rather than mechanical engineering. But the producer or writer conceded that as time went on, these strong female characters tended to become weaker and more stereotypical, so that they ended up screaming and waiting to be rescued by the Doctor.

The stereotypical role of the female companions has become more outdated as traditional gender roles in society have changed, and Science Fiction as a genre began exploring and challenging issues of gender and sexuality. There’s a tradition of feminist SF, which has been present from the emergence of the genre in the late 19th century, but which became more prominent with the rise of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s. A few years an anthology of female utopias, created by late 19th and early 20th century female writers, Herland, was published. It took its title from that of a female utopia described by an early American feminist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. Feminist SF writers include Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her ‘Earthsea’ fantasy novels, and Sheri S. Tepper. Russ is an American academic, and the author of The Female Man. She considers that the rise of the women’s movement is a far more revolutionary and profound social change than space travel and the other technological conventions of Science Fiction. And many of these SF authors, both female and male, have created worlds and species, in which the genders are fluid.

In Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, conditions on the planet on which the book is set are so harsh, that little time is available for procreation. The people there are neuter for most of the time. However, they have a breeding season, during which they may become male or female. However, the adoption of a particular gender doesn’t necessarily recur, so that a person, who is female one season may be the male in the following season, and vice versa. Michael Moorcock also experimented with gender identity in some of his books. The Eternal Champion may be male or female, depending on incarnation. And at the end of the Jerry Cornelius book, The Final Programme, Cornelius is transformed into a beautiful hermaphrodite, which leads humanity to its destruction.

Other SF writers have envisoned futures, where humans are able to transform the bodies in a variety of ways, according to taste, including switching genders. In Gregory Benford’s ‘Galactic Centre’ novel, Across the Sea of Suns, the crew of an Earth ship sent to investigate the centre of the Galaxy following the attack of the Mechs, a hostile galaxy-spanning machine civilisation, devise special pods, which can remake and refresh the crew. This includes changing gender. And Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels are also set in a future, where humans are able to use technology to switch genders easily. In Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City, the bored, immortal rich of the titular city on a world orbiting Epsilon Eridani, are able to use nanotechnology and genetic manipulation to change their appearance, often into outlandish forms. One character, a woman, is called ‘Zebra’, because she has covered her self in black and white stripes, and sculpted her hair into a mane that runs down her back. She tells the hero, Tanner Mirabel, that this is only her latest appearance, and that she will probably change it and move on to another in the future. She also states that she hasn’t always been female either.

In the 1990s there was a particularly strong demand for Science Fiction to challenge gender stereotypes. This was a reaction to the traditional image of the genre as dominated by White males, and focused on issues of surrounding technology and hard science. Thus one of the American SF societies launched the Arthur C. Clarke award for Science Fiction that challenged traditional stereotypes. There has also been a demand for a better representation of women amongst the genre’s writers. The anthology of ‘Dieselpunk’ stories therefore has roughly as many women writers as men.

The exploration of gender roles has also included explorations of sexuality, including same sex attraction. Gay fans of Star Trek in the 1980s hoped that the new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, would include a gay character, a wish echoed by David Gerrold, one of the writers of the Classic Trek series. They were disappointed when the series did feature a story, where Riker becomes romantically involved with a member of the Jnai, an alien race, who have evolved beyond gender, but where it re-emerges occasionally amongst a persecuted culture of throwbacks. Riker becomes attracted to one of these throwbacks, a female, and attempts to rescue her after she is arrested. However, he arrives too late. The corrective treatment meted out to such people has worked, and she is now as sexless as the rest of them.

Gay fans of the series felt that they had been cheated. Instead of a forthright endorsement of homosexuality, they’d been given a kind of half-hearted nod. The issue of gay rights was there, but so heavily disguised that it may as well not have been there at all. They also objected to it on the grounds thta it seemed to reinforce the prejudiced view of opponents of gay rights, who declare that it is about removing gender altogether. This prejudiced was clearly expressed by the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, a couple of years ago on his show, Infowars. Jones ranted that gay rights was a ‘transhumanist space cult’ intent on creating a race of genderless, cyborg people.

Er, not quite.

Gay characters and the exploration of alternative sexuality have been part of Science Fiction since William S. Burroughs’ books The Naked Lunch, and Samuel R. Delaney, a Black American writer, who also uses his novels to explore racial issues. Gay characters and issues of gender and sexuality have also been a strong element in the modern Dr. Who series. Captain Jack Harkness, a time traveller from the future, who became the lead character in the spinoff series Torchwood, is bisexual, and Ianto in the second series of that show was gay. This is probably mainly due to the series having a strong gay following, and that the writer behind its revival, Russell T. Davis, is also gay. For those, who can remember that far back, he was the creator of the gay series, Queer As Folk on Channel 4 in the 1990s.

There’s a sort of inevitability to the news that the next Doctor would be female, as the new Dr. Who series has also experimented with issues of gender roles. In the episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, Matt Smith’s Doctor revealed that the Time Lords changed their gender, when explaining that another Time Lord he knew always retained the tattoo of a serpent on their arm throughout their regenerations, even when they were female. In the series before last, a Time Lord general shot by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerates as female. And then, of course, there’s Missy, who is the female incarnation of the Master. My guess is that these changes were partly used to gauge how the audience would respond to a new Doctor. Once it was shown that most accepted the idea that Time Lords could regenerate as the opposite sex, then the way was clear for a female Doctor.

The show has also several times had strong female leads, while the Doctor has been more passive. Thus, in the last episode of the First Series, ‘Bad Wolf’, Rose Tiler becomes virtually a goddess, mistress of space and time, after peering into the heart of the TARDIS, saving Earth and Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor from the Daleks. Catherine Tate’s character similarly rescued David Tennant’s Doctor from Davros and his Daleks after she gained all his knowledge as a Time Lord. And in one of the stories featuring the revived Zygons, it seemed to me that apart from the Doctor, all the characters in positions of authority – the heads of UNIT, scientists and so on, were all female.

The programme has also experimented with male gender roles. In one story about a year or so ago, one of the characters is a man, who has an alternative identity as a superhero following his childhood encounter with an alien device that can grant people’s deepest wishes. In his normal life, he’s a childminder.

It’s been said that there’s a division between TV and film SF, and literary Science Fiction, with the audience for TV and film uninterested in science fiction literature. I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, and the audiences for the various media clearly overlap. And literary SF has had an influence on Doctor Who. In the 1980s the BBC tried to recruit SF writers to give the series a great connection with SF literature. And several of the stories in recent Dr. Who series have shown the influence of literary SF. For example, in the last series, Earth suddenly became a forest planet, as the trees grew and spread everywhere. This, it was revealed, was to save humanity from some cosmic disaster. This looks quite similar to a book by Sheri S. Tepper, in which trees come to life to save people from danger and disaster. And to me, the name of space station in the last series’ story, ‘Breath’, Chasm Forge, sounds a bit too close to ‘Chasm City’ to be entirely coincidental, although the two stories are very different.

I also think that there have been social and political considerations that may have influenced the decision to make the next Doctor female. As well as the general demand within SF fandom for more women writers and female-centred stories, I got the impression that the audience for SF on TV may have slightly more women than men. This is not to say that the numbers of men watching SF is small – it isn’t – but that the fan organisations may have a very large female membership. I certainly got that impression from Star Trek. If that’s also the case with Dr. Who, then the series’ writers and producers would also want to cater for that audience.

I also think that there’s probably pressure too to create a female character, who would act as a role model and encourage more girls to enter science, particularly male-dominated subjects like Maths, physics and engineering. There have been initiatives to do this before, but they’ve had limited effect. You may remember the video one governmental organisation made a few years ago. Entitled Science: It’s a Girl Thing, this featured attractive young women in lab coats tapping away to a pop tune. Many women, including female scientists, felt it was patronising and demeaning. As the Doctor is very much the hero as scientist, who solves problems through his superior Time Lord scientific knowledge, I think those concerned to see greater representation of women in the sciences would welcome the Doctor’s transformation into a woman.

I have to say that, provided the transition is done well, I don’t think a female Doctor will harm the series. As I said, the rumour that there might be a female Doctor along the way has been around since the last Tom Baker series back in 1980s or thereabouts. If done badly, it could easily reduce the series to farce or pantomime by being just that little bit too incredible, or just plain weird. But the idea of gender-swapping Time Lords/Ladies hasn’t been so far, and from previous experience I think it will be done properly. The series might lose some viewers, but I think many of the real, hard-core Whovians, like Mike, won’t be bothered at all. I hope so in any case, will watch the new series with interest.

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.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

Bristol’s Real Steampunk Car: The 1875 Grenville Steam Carriage

May 26, 2017

And now, a bit of fun before I return to hammering the Theresa May and the Tories for their seven years of misgovernment, malice, and general misery.

Steampunk is the subspecies of Science Fiction, which wonders what would have happened if the Victorians had invented computers, flying machines, space travel and so on. One of the founding texts of the genre is William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (London: Victor Gollancz 1990), which imagines what Britain might have looked like if Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, had actually been built and use by the British government. It’s set in an alternative history in which the Duke of Wellington and the Tory government of 1829 have been overthrown by a party of Industrial Radicals, led by Lord Byron. Instead of government by the landed aristocracy, the country is instead ruled by a scientific elite. Foremost of these is Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme for the machine. Apart from the Difference Engine itself, which is used by various government departments to solve not only statistical and technical problems, but which also records images and information like a modern computer, the streets are packed with steam carriages, and the British army also uses steam driven armoured cars to carry troops to suppress industrial unrest.

In fact, as I’ve blogged about previously, a number of steam carriages and cars were built throughout the 19th century before the emergence of the internal combustion engine and the modern car.

R.N. Grenville in the steam carriage with his family and servants outside Butleigh Court c. 1895.

One of these vehicles, the Grenville Steam Carriage, was designed in 1875 by Robert Neville Grenville of Glastonbury in Somerset. He was aided by George Churchward, who later became the chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway. After taking part in the 1946 London Jubilee Cavalcade in Regent’s Park, it was presented the following year to the City Museum in Bristol by Grenville’s nephew, Captain P.L. Neville. Over twenty years later the Museum’s Technology Conservator, F.J. Lester, carried out an overhaul of the vehicle with the ship repairers, Messrs Jefferies Ltd. of Avonmouth. It took part in the Lord Mayor’s Jubilee Procession in Bristol in 1977, before being displayed in the Industrial Museum in Bristol.

The City Museum published a leaflet about the vehicle, written by the director of the Industrial Museum, Andy King, the Curator of Technology, P. Elkin, and with a drawing of the carriage by F.J. Lester.

The leaflet states that Grenville and Churchward had been engineering pupils together at the workshops of the South Devon Railway in Newton Abbott, and remained friends throughout their lives. Most of the carriage was probably built at Grenville’s home in Butleigh Court in Glastonbury, where he had an extensive workshop. Some parts of it, such as the wheels, may have been made under Churchward’s supervision at the G.W.R.’s workshops in Swindon. Although the vehicle was designed in 1875, it was actually built over a period of 15 years, as components were adapted and altered according to a lengthy process of trial and error.

The carriage itself was more similar to the railway engines of the time than horse-drawn carriages. The boiler, engine, shaft-bearings, rear spring brackets and front suspension were supported by a frame of 4″ x 2″ girders. It had three wheels, composed of sixteen section of teak banded with an iron tyre. This was the same as the ‘Mansell’ wheel used in railway carriages from 1860 to 1910.

It possessed the same type of vertical boiler used in the steam fire engines of the time. It was believed that this was made by one of the companies that made them, Shand Mason & Co. The steam carriage also had one of these boilers after it was renovated. The boiler was supplied with water from a tank slung underneath the carriage by an injector.

The carriage was originally powered by a single cylinder engine mounted on the boiler. This was later replaced by a twin-cylinder engine.

Photo from The Garage & Motor Agent showing the steam carriage and an 1898 Benz in the 1946 Jubilee Cavalcade of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The carriage was operated by a crew of three – the driver, brakeman and a fireman, and there were also seats for four passengers. The driver steered the vehicle using a tiller system, as on ships; he also controlled the throttle, cut off levers and a whistle, which he worked with a pedal. The law stipulated that vehicles like the steam carriage had to carry a brakeman, who sat on the right-hand side of the driver and controlled the brakes, which were wooden blocks. The fireman also had his own small seat in the engine compartment.

The car consumed five gallons of water and 6 pounds of coal per mile, and on the flat could reach the astonishing speed of just under 20 miles an hour on the flat.

Grenville probably lost interest in the steam carriage just to its poor performance. It appeared at the same time as more efficient steam cars were being built in America, and the modern cars, driven by petrol and the internal combustion engine also appeared.

Before it was acquired by the City Museum, the carriage was used from 1898 to 1902 as a stationery engine to drive a cider mill at Butleigh Court. It was lent after Grenville’s death in 1936 to John Allen & Sons of Cowley in Oxfordshire, who rebuilt it, replacing the boiler and rear axle.

Next week on Radio 4 there’s a programme discussing the lack of people studying engineering, and asking what could be done to inspire more students to take up the subject.

I wondered if part of the solution might be to harness the immense interest the public has in cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles as well as steam punk enthusiasts. Many proud owners of cars and bikes spend hours caring for and repairing their vehicles as a hobby, quite apart on the volunteers who give their labour and support to organisations like the former Industrial Museum helping to restore historic vehicles and other machines. There’s quite a large community of people, who design and make their own steampunk SF costumes and machines. And some of them have already built their alternative steam punk cars as a hobby. It might be possible to encourage more budding engineers and inventors of the future by showing some of the amazing machines built by the Victorians, which have formed the basis for this genre of Science Fiction and the worlds of wonder its writers have imagined.

The Industrial Museum was closed long ago, and its site is now that of Bristol’s M Shed, which has many of the old exhibits from its predecessor. I don’t know if the Grenville Steam Carriage is one of them, but it may well be, either on display or in storage.

The Young Turks: Republican Voter States Rather Vote for Sanders than Trump

March 6, 2016

This is a very interesting interview. In this clip from The Young Turks, Jordan Chariton talks to Roy Williams, a life-long Republican voter, who voted for Ben Carson in the Republican primaries in his home state of South Carolina. Mr Williams is an engineer, a contractor for the government’s energy saving programme. A committed Christian, he’s also a deacon at his local church. Williams states that he voted for Ben Carson, the Black neurosurgeon, because he had the best policies. Williams is in favour of extremely limited federal government. The states should be virtually autonomous, and the federal government only responsible for defence and facilitating trade between them.

When asked about Carson’s controversial comments, such as his remark that a Muslim should not be president of the US, Williams stated he supported this. He did not believe that a Muslim should be president of the US, but not because he was a Muslim. He objected to a Muslim president because of the status of women under Sharia law, where they are not allowed to do anything without their husband’s permission.

Williams was, however, certainly no fan of Donald Trump. He described Trump as ‘brash’, and feared his outspokenness would mean that he wouldn’t be able to last his four-year term without plunging America into a war, probably with Russia. He also objected to Trump because Trump would not work within the American system. Chariton also asked him about Trump’s bigoted policies, and asked him if he felt, as so many others did, that Trump was just throwing ‘red meat’ to the Republican base, but had no intention of honouring it. Williams said he didn’t think that was the case. So, if he was faced with Trump, he’d rather vote for Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that Sanders was a Socialist and so stood for everything he opposed. He’d prefer to vote for Sanders rather than Trump because Sanders, at least, would work within the system.

He was very definite that he would not vote for Hillary Clinton. As a former military contractor, he was very much aware of the government rules regarding security. Clinton had broken these by receiving secret emails. He stated that if she wasn’t who she was, she’d be in jail for these by now. When Chariton pointed out that so did Bush and Condoleeza Rice, then Williams accepted that they too, should be in jail.

Williams stated that the Republican party he grew up with now no longer existed, to his regret. Chariton asked him who his favourite Republican president was. He responded with ‘Ronald Reagan’. Chariton pointed out that Reagan wasn’t a believer in limited government. He massively increased the debt and raised taxes. Williams seemed at a loss when this was point out. He did, however, say he liked Jimmy Carter. Why? Carter was also an engineer, and in Williams’ own experience in the energy business, he felt that if America had followed his policy on energy, America wouldn’t be chasing after it abroad in the Middle East. Chariton asked him if he felt the country was moving leftward after Obama. he said ‘yes, to my dismay’.