Posts Tagged ‘‘I’ Newspaper’

Surveillance Britain: Police Using Massively Inaccurate Facial Recognition Technology on Ordinary Brits

May 20, 2019

Here’s another piece of news that should further worry anyone concerned that Britain is slowly sliding down the tubes towards a surveillance state. The rozzers have launched a pilot scheme for a facial recognition system. They’re testing it out by photographing the fizzogs of ordinary British citizens walking down the streets. And it’s already resulted in one extremely dubious arrest. One man didn’t want to be photographed by the cops, and so he hid his face. The rozzers then pounced and fined him for ‘disorderly conduct’. This was filmed by the Beeb’s Politics Live. It’s completely disgraceful. The man had committed no crime, except to protect his own privacy against the state.

Mike in his article on this points out that there have been a couple of incidents where attempts to compile information on ordinary members of the public have resulted in disastrous mistakes, or deeply worrying infringements of personal freedom. For example, there were the innocent people, who suddenly found themselves with criminal records when their prospective employers started making background checks. Many of them were wrongly left without jobs because of this. And then there’s the DNA genetic database scandal, in which genetic material obtained from the public has been kept by the police, some of which was then illegally passed on for use in genetic research.

Mike also shows how this technology is also massively inaccurate. It had a failure rate of 96 per cent in eight trials in London between 2016 and 2018 according to the Independent. The software gave false positives, wrongly identifying innocent people as crims. It was also deployed twice in a shopping centre outside Stratford last year, where it had a failure rate of 100 per cent. This resulted in people being wrongly identified, including a 14 year old Black schoolboy, who was fingerprinted. The cops also stopped people for covering their faces and wearing hoods, and one man was fined for doing so in  Romford. The Independent found that shoppers were unaware their photos were being taken, despite the rozzers’ claim that the tests were overt, and campaigners have said that it’s being rolled out by stealth.

But despite its dangers and massive inaccuracy, the scheme is being defended by the Tories. Police Minister Nick Hurd has said that the technology offers ‘real opportunities’, said we are not a surveillance state, and that they have no intention of becoming one, and so the new technology must be used in a way that is sensitive to their impact on privacy, and proportionate.

To which Mike comments

Fail. It’s not sensitive to privacy and its use isn’t proportionate. But the Tories – and the police – won’t withdraw it, so we can only conclude that we do – indeed – live in a police surveillance state.

Police state Britain: Failed facial recognition pilot leads to fine for disorderly conduct. WTF?

This is precisely the type of information gathering that Privacy International and other campaigners were warning about in the ’90s. When DNA evidence first began to be collected, there were fears that it would be used to set up a national DNA database. In one incident, all the men in a small town where a rape had been committed were asked to supply samples of their DNA. There were concerns about what would happen to it afterwards, and that the material would be retained, even though the men were innocent. There were also fears that the collection of such samples would go from being simple requests to demands, and that anyone who refused, would automatically come under suspicion, even though they may be innocent.

It also reminds of the way the police also started compiling records in the 1980s of people they considered suspicious, as revealed in the Beeb documentary, Secret State. Perfectly innocent people suddenly had police files opened on them and their movements recorded for reasons that reflected the prejudices of the cops, rather than anything they’d done. Like being punks. One teenage girl was marked down as a potential suspect simply because she was pregnant and there was no father.

I am also not surprised by the massive failure rate of the technology at the moment. It seems par for the course that any and all information technology adopted by the state should be seriously flawed. Like all the computer systems supplied to local authorities in the 1990s by outsourcing companies like Crapita.

Black people are particularly at risk from these systems. The I newspaper a few weeks ago reported on the concerns about the massive under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the computer industry. Only four per cent of employees in one of the big American tech giants came from ethnic minorities. As a result, the pattern recognition system they developed misidentified Black people as gorillas. Which makes you wonder who programmed this wretched system. The Klan?

As for not becoming a surveillance society, privacy campaigners have warned repeatedly about the dangers of ‘function creep’. Once one innovation or strategy is adopted, other agencies will want to use it, and so it will expand. Also, other forms have surveillance have become normalised. There were serious concerns about the use of CCTV cameras when they first appeared. Alan Moore deliberately wrote them into his depiction of a Fascist Britain in the V for Vendetta comic. He thought at the time that this would really shock people. Niall Ferguson shared his fears. He was also alarmed at how ubiquitous CCTV cameras had become here after he returned from a visit to China. But he was also astonished at how his concerns were not shared by anyone else.

And with the campaign by the IT and automobile industries, I wonder how long it will be before we get the repressive police state and its robots described by the great SF writer Ray Bradbury in his short story, ‘The Pedestrian’. In this tale, a man is stopped by a robotic police car simply for taking a walk in the middle of the night.

It’s SF as the ‘literature of warning’. It’s not meant to be prophetic. But somehow that seems to be the future these technologies are leading to.

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Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Plans to Take Us Back to the Moon

May 12, 2019

One of the other interesting pieces in yesterday’s I for 11th May 2019 was David Parsley’s article, ‘Amazon tycoons furthest delivery – putting people back on the Moon’. As the headline says, this is about the plans by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for a crewed mission to the Moon within the next five years. The article runs

The man who made billions from sending parcels around Earth is taking one giant leap towards the Moon.

The world’s richest man and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos aims to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, 55 years after Neil Armstrong took his first small step.

Mr Bezos said his space company Blue Origin will initially land an unmanned robotic ship about the size of a small house, but would also help Nasa to meet its target to put humans back on the surface of Earth’s satellite in five years’ time.

“We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago,” said Mr Bezos. “It’s time to back to the Moon, this time to stay.”

Known as Blue Moon, the reusable lunar lander is capable of carrying four rovers and uses a newly designed rocket engine powerful enough to carry up to 6.5 metric tons of cargo on the 238,000-mile journey.

Mr Bezos, who is worth £100bn, unveiled a model of one of Blue Moon’s proposed rovers, which was roughly the size of a golf cart, and presented a new rocket engine called BD-7 which can blast 10,000 lb of thrust.

“We have been given a gift – this nearby body called the Moon,” Mr Bezos added.

In March, US Vice President Mike Pence called on Nasa to build a space platform in lunar orbit and put American astronauts on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 “by any means necessary”, four years earlier than planned.

Blue Origin said the group would “share our vision of going to space to benefit Earth”. Based in Kent, Washington, the group is also developing the New Shepherd rocket for short space tourism trips and a heavy-lift launch rocket called New Glenn for commercial satellite launches. It is aiming to deliver the New Glenn rocket by 2021, while launching humans in a suborbital flight later this year aboard New Shepherd.

Elon Musk also develops plans to take humans to Mars with his company SpaceX. He previously set the first cargo-carrying Mars mission for 2022 and a crewed mission for 2024.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson achieved Virgin Galactic’s first manned flight last year and plans to launch the first space tourism flights later this year. (p. 13).

This is very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to Bezos to take humanity back to the Moon, and Musk to send us to Mars. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Branson to take tourists into space, as he’s been promising that ‘soon’ or ‘next year’ for decades.

However, I’d like Bezos to pay his Amazon workers a living wage first. From what I gather, the peeps working at his warehouses really are paid starvation wages. Which, I ‘spose, is how he get to be worth £100 billion. But he can afford to earn a little less, and workers a lot more. Sending people into space does not mean ignoring or exploiting the folks back on Earth. If he gives his workers a proper wage, then I’ll be behind him and his plans to take humanity to the planets 100 per cent.

Yay! David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’ Now Back in Print

May 7, 2019

Bit of good news for fans of classic SF. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s last week, I found that David R. Bunch’s Moderan was now in print. This was published in 1971, and is really a series of vignettes originally published in small magazines, as well as the big SF mags Amazing and Fantastic. These are set in a future in which organic humanity has decided that its reached the end of its natural evolution, and to evolve further it must transform itself into machines. This process is described as it affects the hero, Stronghold 10. The style is superficially sympathetic to heighten what the reality of what this new, cyborg humanity has become: immortal, but paranoid with each stronghold at war with their neighbours.

Brian Aldiss gives as sample paragraph of Bunch’s prose style, which explains the background to the novel, in his and David Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree:

Now, to turn tedious for a time, this is what happened. Flesh-man had developed to that place on his random Earth-ball home where it was to be the quick slide down to oblivion. All the signs were up, the flags were out for change for man and GO was DOWN. To ENDING. Flesh-man was at the top, far as he could climb as flesh-man, and from there he was certain to tumble. But he had the luck to have these brave good white-maned men in the white smocks, the lab giants, the shoulders, and great-bulged thighs of our progress (what matter if they were weazened, probe-eyed, choleric scheming, little men sometimes – more often than not, REALLY?) authors of so much of man’s development and climb to that place where he was just due to die, expire, destroy himself and his home at this grand stage of development to make new-metal man and set him in the Strongholds upon the plasto-coated Earth that had been man’s random and inefficient home. New-metal replaced flesh (down to the few flesh-strips and those, we hope, may soon be gone) the bones were taken out and new metal rods, hinges and sheets put in (it was easy!) and the organs all became engines and marvellous tanks for scientifically controlled functional efficiency forever. YAY! Don’t you see?! Our Scientists made of life-man (the VERY-STRANGE-accident man) essentially a dead-elements man, one who could now cope with eternity, but he certainly was not a dead man. AH! Heavens no! He was alive! with all the wonderful scienc3e of the Earth ages, and just as functional as anyone could wish. YAY! science, take your plaudits now! You’ve shown what was meant from the beginning for the VERY-STRANGE-accident man. (p.324).

Aldiss states that it’s a technophobic piece in the SF tradition of questioning technological progress that began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moderan was out of print for a long time, so I’m looking forward to reading it some time. Bunch also wrote poetry in an avant-garde style very much like his prose, though in verse. A collection of his pieces, of which only one or two were SF, The Heartacher and the Warehouseman, was published in the 1990s. The title poem is set in the Moderan world, and is about one of these cyborgs coming to a warehouse carrying his pump in his heart. He complains that he – and all the other cyborgs – have no heart. The cyborg warehouseman, suspicious, retreats behind his armoury of weapons, informing him of all the cyborg bits and pieces they have, like hearts and mechanical fingers. But he fails to understand the man’s real complaint – that their civilisation has no heart in the metaphorical sense. The warehouseman drives the Heartacher away, but wonders what will happen to him as he retreats back into his cubby-hole.

It’s one of those pieces that was acutely relevant in the 1990s, when there was much talk among the chattering classes of transhumanism and cyborgisation. It was the decade when Radio 3 broadcast the series Grave New Worlds examining these possibilities through interviews with writers, artists and scientists, including Paul J. McAuley, J.G. Ballard and the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who really has tried to turn himself into a cyborg in performances in which he wired himself up to the net, so that images found online would work his body automatically through galvanic stimulators some Borg organic puppet, and by giving himself a third, cybernetic arm. It’s still relevant as prosthetic limbs continue to improve. While these are an immense benefit to those, who have lost their real limbs through accident or disease, it does raise the question of how far this process can go and humans become the cyborgs of SF. This was the central question David Whittaker was pondering when he created Dr. Who’s cybermen. Bunch’s novel also seems to have influenced one of the writers of Dr. Who Magazine way back in the ’70s. One of the comic strips, Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman, was about a cyberman, who had some how retained his emotions and compassion. The story was set on the planet ‘Moderan’. And in the 1980s the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, expressed concerns that people, who were heavily reliant on medical machines suffered a loss of creativity when he explored the possibility of similar mergers between humans and machines in his class Man and the Planets.

I’m glad that this lost classic is back in print. But still more than a little annoyed that it, and other SF works like it, are overlooked by the literary crowd in favour of those by ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan. Sorry to ride this old hobby-horse again, but a few weeks ago there was an interview with McEwan in the I. The newspaper mentioned to him that Science Fiction fans were upset about him denying that his book was part of the genre. McEwan repeated his sentiment, saying it wasn’t SF, but was based on him considering real world issues. Well, so is much Science Fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. Aldiss has praised it as the first real work of Science Fiction as it was based on science as it was known at the time. This was Galvani’s experiments making the severed legs of frogs twitch and move through electricity. McEwan’s attitude shows the basic contempt of many literary authors and critics for the genre. They’re keen to borrow its tropes, but sneer at it as essentially trivial fantasy, unlike the serious stuff they’re writing. Much SF is, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But there is a very large amount which isn’t, and which deserves to be taken as seriously as so-called ‘serious’ literary works like McEwan’s.

 

Conservative MP to Attend Misogynist Men’s Rights Conference

April 28, 2019

Yesterday, Saturday 27th April 2019, the I carried a piece on page 11 reporting that the Tory MP Philip Davies was planning to attend a men’s rights conference in the US, alongside other far right notables like Mark ‘Nazi pug’ Meechan and Carl ‘Sargon of Akkad’ Benjamin. But he denied it was a misogynist event. The article, entitled ‘MP to attend ‘misogynist’ gathering, by Andrew Woodcock, ran

A Conservative MP has defended his decision to speak at a men’s rights conference in the US on the same platform as controversial figures.

Philip Davies said he intends to raise issues such as male suicides, boys’ performance in school, and the treatment of fathers in family break-ups at the Chicago conference in August. Other speakers listed for the International Conference on Men’s Issues include the Ukip MEP candidates Carl Benjamin and Mark Meechan, as well as Paul Elam, leader of the US group A Voice for Men.

Mr Benjamin has refused to apologise for tweeting “I wouldn’t even rape you” to Labour MP Jess Phillips. Mr Elam’s group, which once announced an “Annual Bash a Violent Bitch Month”, has been branded migosynist and male supremacist.

Confirming his plans to speak at the conference, Mr Davies said it was “nonsense” to suggest that his presence amounted to an endorsement of other participants’ opinions.

“I’m responsible for what I say. I’m not there to defend what anyone else says,” he said. “I’ve never heard of many of these people and I’m not responsible for their views.”

Philip Davies has been accused of misogyny himself. Apart from being a bog-standard, anti-welfare, tax the poor for the benefit of the rich Conservative, I seem to remember that a little while ago he caused controversy himself for his antics in parliament. If memory serves me correctly, he talked out a piece of legislation intended to protect women either from rape or FGM. Or both. As for the Men’s Rights Conference, one of them was held over here a couple of years ago, and was extensively critiqued by Kevin Logan. Logan’s a male feminist with a degree in 20th century history and politics, and puts up a series of videos attacking the denizens of the men’s rights movement, ‘The Descent of the Manosphere’. He states that the people – some of them are women, surprisingly – are attempting to reverse evolution and drag us all back into the sea. And it’s hard to dispute the fact.

These conferences aren’t really about men’s rights. Despite the accusations of activists like Paul Elam that men’s issues aren’t discussed by mainstream politicians, male suicide, boys’ performance in schools and so on have been debated in parliament. Logan even put up on one of his videos excerpts from the parliamentary journal, Hansard, to show that they were. He has also refuted Sargon’s claim that he sent his infamous tweet to Jess Philips because she was laughing at male suicide. She wasn’t. She was laughing at the claim that it wasn’t debated in the House, and replied to him informing him that she is consulting m’learned friends. Moreover, some of these issues could actually be solved by introducing left wing policies, that would benefit working people across the board. One of the issues is the low pay earned by certain types of male worker. But this could, as Logan states, be solved by strengthening trade unions and employees’ rights. But the people attending these conferences and those, who comprise the ‘manosphere’ generally, are on the right, very often the far right. And the mens’ rights movement itself will ignore these issues when it suits them. These conferences really are all about attacking feminism and trying to preserve the traditional male domination of society. Which can very clearly be seen by the hashtags used by Sargon when he sent his infamous tweet to Philips: #feminismiscancer.

Logan has also pointed out that some of the mens’ issues that Davies intends to present have even been discussed by feminists, citing a number of academic articles in feminist and gender-studies journals. I think part of the problem here is that most people have no contact with academic feminism, and depend for what they know about it from the press and public figures, some of whom are unsympathetic. I can remember reading a newspaper article a decade or so ago, where one of the female politicos – I think it may have been Baroness Blackstone or someone like her, but I’m not sure – was asked about boys’ declining performance in school. I can’t remember what her precise words were, but she more or less said that it was all the boys’ own fault. She simply wasn’t interested. Now it was probably unfair to expect the good lady to be concerned about this, as she had been talking about her campaign to improve girls’ performance in school and career prospects. But it and other comments like it leaves the deep impression that avowedly feminist politicians are deeply hostile to men.

Quite apart from changes in gender roles, and the demands for greater equality and opportunities for women in society, jobs and politics, the economic structure of society has changed so that traditionally male jobs in heavy industry and manufacturing have declined. The result has been an increased sense of threat and insecurity among some men, who have burned to the ultra-traditional, misogynist far right. The core support for the Republican party in America is angry White men, who feel under attack from women and ethnic minorities. This is the electoral base that turned to Trump and other politicos like him.

Issues like male suicide, the decline in boys’ performance in schools and greater access to children for fathers in marital break-up do need to be addressed. And there are some extremely violent women out there, as well. But the men’s rights movement and its members and activists behind this and similar gatherings aren’t interested in these issues so much as keeping women firmly in their places as subordinates to men. They are deeply misogynist, and deserve to be attacked and criticised. Just like Davies and the other politicos, who attend them.

Here are a few videos by Kevin Logan attacking the men’s rights conferences and some of the individuals mentioned above.

Carl Benjamin, alias Sargon of Akkad.

Paul Elam

The 2018 International Conference on Men’s Issues

Be warned that some of the views of these men’s rights activists are extremely unpleasant. Some of them do justify rape, or at least try to excuse it, and they also hold very racist views.

Reviewing the ‘I’s’ Review of Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

April 21, 2019

George Barr’s cover illo for Lloyd Biggle’s The Metallic Muse. From David Kyle, the Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977).

The book’s pages of last Friday’s I , for 19th April 2019, carried a review by Jude Cook of Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, a tale of a love triangle between a man, the male robot he has purchased, and his wife, a plot summed up in the review’s title, ‘Boy meets robot, robot falls for girl’. I’d already written a piece in anticipation of its publication on Thursday, based on a little snippet in Private Eye’s literary column that McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro were all now turning to robots and AI for their subject matter, and the Eye expected other literary authors, like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, to follow. My objection to this is that it appeared to be another instance of the literary elite taking their ideas from Science Fiction, while looking down on the genre and its writers. The literary establishment has moved on considerably, but I can still remember the late, and very talented Terry Pratchett complaining at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the organisers had looked at him as if he was about to talk to all his waiting fans crammed into the room about motorcycle maintenance.

Cook’s review gave an outline of the plot and some of the philosophical issues discussed in the novel. Like the Eye’s piece, it also noted the plot’s similarity to that of the Channel 4 series, Humans. The book is set in an alternative 1982 in which the Beatles are still around and recording, Tony Benn is Prime Minister, but Britain has lost the Falklands War. It’s a world where Alan Turing is still alive, and has perfected machine consciousness. The book’s hero, Charlie, purchases one of the only 25 androids that have been manufactured, Adam. This is not a sex robot, but described as ‘capable of sex’, and which has an affair with the hero’s wife, Miranda. Adam is an increasing threat to Charlie, refusing to all his master to power him down. There’s also a subplot about a criminal coming forward to avenge the rape Miranda has suffered in the past, and a four year old boy about to be placed in the care system.

Cook states that McEwan discusses the philosophical issue of the Cartesian duality between mind and brain when Charlie makes contact with Turing, and that Charlie has to decide whether Adam is too dangerous to be allowed to continue among his flesh and blood counterparts, because

A Manichean machine-mind that can’t distinguish between a white lie and a harmful lie, or understand that revenge can sometimes be justified, is potentially lethal.

Cook declares that while this passage threatens to turn the book into a dry cerebral exercise, its engagement with the big questions is its strength, concluding

The novel’s presiding Prospero is Turing himself, who observes that AI is fatally flawed because life is “an open system… full of tricks and feints and ambiguities”. His great hope is that by its existence “we might be shocked in doing something about ourselves.”

Robots and the Edisonade

It’s an interesting review, but what it does not do is mention the vast amount of genre Science Fiction that has used robots to explore the human condition, the limits or otherwise of machine intelligence and the relationship between such machines and their creators, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There clearly seems to be a nod to Shelley with the name of this android, as the monster in her work, I think, is also called Adam. But Eando Binder – the nom de plume of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, also wrote a series of stories in the 1930s and ’40s about a robot, Adam Link, one of which was entitled I, Robot, which was later used as the title of one of Asimov’s stories. And although the term ‘robot’ was first used of such machines by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920s play, RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, they first appeared in the 19th century. One of these was Villier de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Futur of 1884. This was about a robot woman invented by Thomas Edison. As one of the 19th centuries foremost inventors, Edison was the subject of a series of proto-SF novels, the Edisonades, in which his genius allowed him to create all manner of advanced machines. In another such tale, Edison invents a spaceship and weapons that allow humanity to travel to the planets and conquer Mars. McEwan’s book with its inclusion of Alan Turing is basically a modern Edisonade, but with the great computer pioneer rather than the 19th century electrician as its presiding scientific genius. Possibly later generations will have novels set in an alternative late 20th century where Stephen Hawking has invented warp drive, time travel or a device to take us into alternative realities via artificial Black Holes.

Robot Romances

As I said in my original article, there are any number of SF books about humans having affairs with robots, like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy and Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed. The genre literature has also explored the moral and philosophical issues raised by the creation of intelligent machines. In much of this literature, robots are a threat, eventually turning on their masters, from Capek’s R.U.R. through to The Terminator and beyond. But some writers, like Asimov, have had a more optimistic view. In his 1950 I, Robot, a robot psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, describes them in a news interview as ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’.

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

As for the philosophical issues, the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem, explored them in some of his novels and short stories. One of these deals with the old problem, also dating back to Descartes, about whether we can truly know that there is an external world. The story’s hero, the space pilot Pirx, visits a leading cybernetician in his laboratory. This scientist has developed a series of computer minds. These exist, however, without robot bodies, but the minds themselves are being fed programmes which make them believe that they are real, embodied people living in the real world. One of these minds is of a beautiful woman with a scar on her shoulder from a previous love affair. Sometimes the recorded programmes jump a groove, creating instances of precognition or deja vu. But ultimately, all these minds are, no matter how human or how how real they believe themselves to be, are brains in vats. Just like Descartes speculated that a demon could stop people from believing in a real world by casting the illusion of a completely false one on the person they’ve possessed.

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

Some of these complex moral and personal issues have also been explored by comics, until recently viewed as one of the lowest forms of literature. In a 1980s ‘ABC Warriors’ story in 2000AD, Hammerstein, the leader of a band of heroic robot soldiers, remembers his earliest days. He was the third prototype of a series of robot soldiers. The first was an efficient killer, patriotically killing Communists, but exceeded its function. It couldn’t tell civilians from combatants, and so committed war crimes. The next was programmed with a set of morals, which causes it to become a pacifist. It is killed trying to persuade the enemy – the Volgans – to lay down their arms. Hammerstein is its successor. He has been given morals, but not to the depth that they impinge on his ability to kill. For example, enemy soldiers are ‘terrorists’. But those on our side are ‘freedom fighters’. When the enemy murders civilians, it’s an atrocity. When we kill civilians, it’s unavoidable casualties. As you can see, the writer and creator of the strip, Pat Mills, has very strong left-wing opinions.

Hammerstein’s programming is in conflict, so his female programmer takes him to a male robot psychiatrist, a man who definitely has romantic intentions towards her. They try to get Hammerstein to come out of his catatonic reverie by trying to provoke a genuine emotional reaction. So he’s exposed to all manner of stimuli, including great works of classical music, a documentary about Belsen, and the novels of Barbara Cartland. But the breakthrough finally comes when the psychiatrist tries to kiss his programmer. This provokes Hammerstein into a frenzied attack, in which he accidentally kills both. Trying to repair the damage he’s done, Hammerstein says plaintively ‘I tried to replace his head, but it wouldn’t screw back on.’

It’s a genuinely adult tale within the overall, action-oriented story in which the robots are sent to prevent a demon from Earth’s far future from destroying the Galaxy by destabilising the artificial Black and White Holes at the centre of Earth’s underground civilisation, which have been constructed as express routes to the stars. It’s an example of how the comics culture of the time was becoming more adult, and tackling rather more sophisticated themes.

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

It might seem a bit mean-spirited to compare McEwan’s latest book to its genre predecessors. After all, in most reviews of fiction all that is required is a brief description of the plot and the reviewer’s own feelings about the work, whether it’s done well or badly. But there is a point to this. As I’ve said, McEwan, Winterson, Ishiguro and the others, who may well follow their lead, are literary authors, whose work regularly wins the big literary prizes. They’re not genre authors, and the type of novels they write are arguably seen by the literary establishment as superior to that of genre Science Fiction. But here they’re taking over proper Science Fiction subjects – robots and parallel worlds – whose authors have extensively explored their moral and philosophical implications. This is a literature that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed as trash, as Stanislaw Lem has done, and which the judges and critics of mainstream literary fiction still seem to do. McEwan’s work deserves to be put into the context of genre Science Fiction. The literary community may feel that it’s somehow superior, but it is very much of the same type as its genre predecessors, who did the themes first and, in my opinion, better.

There is absolutely no reason, given the quality of much SF literature, why this tale by McEwan should be entered for a literary award or reviewed by the kind of literary journals that wouldn’t touch genre science fiction with a barge pole, while genre SF writers are excluded. It’s high time that highbrow literary culture recognised and accepted works and writers of genre SF as equally worthy of respect and inclusion.

Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

Torygraph Predicts Labour Set to Win General Election

April 16, 2019

Ho ho! An article in yesterday’s I for Monday, 15th April 2019, might explain why the Sunset Times was so keen to try another anti-Semitism smear against the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn the day before. The article, entitled ‘Labour on course to win general election’ by Cahal Milmo reported the findings of a poll by the Sunday Torygraph that in a general election, Labour would defeat the Tories, taking 59 seats from them. The article ran

The Conservative Party faces being swept from power by Jeremy Corbyn with the loss of nearly 60 seats in the event of a general election, according to new polling.

Labour would become the largest party in the House of Commons with prominent Tories, including the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and arch Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith at “high risk” of losing their seats.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that the steep fall in support was being fueled by anger among Conservative voters at the party’s failure to deliver Brexit on 29th March, despite repeated promises by Theresa May that the date would not be changed.

Professor Sir John Curtice, president of the British Polling Council, told the paper that it appeared Leave voters were being drawn back to Ukip or Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

The “poll of polls” by Electoral Calculus, based on surveys of 8,561 people between 2 and 11 April, found that in the event of an immediate general election Labour would become the largest party with 296 seats against 259 for the Tories – a net loss of 59 MPs for Mrs May’s party.

But despite such a victory, Mr Corbyn would not automatically become prime minister – he could only form a government if he secured support from other parties such as the SNP.

“The Conservatives’ failure so far to secure Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is at risk of costing them dearly,” said Sir John. (p. 6).

While it’s refreshing to read a story that predicts Labour winning a general election, obviously it’s still incredibly biased. It comes from the Torygraph, and follows that rag’s pro-Brexit line. But while I don’t doubt that the Tories’ continued incompetence, factionalism and May’s stubborn determination to hang on to power and force through the same tired, discredited and utterly unwanted deal, there are other powerful factors that might bring about a Labour victory.

Firstly, as Mike has also pointed out this week, Remainer Tories are also being drawn towards the Tinge Group, Change UK, thus disproving their claims to be ‘centrist’ Labour. And secondly, Labour’s policies are massively popular. People want the health service renationalized and restored, electricity, water and the railways taken back into state ownership, the trade unions strengthened, workers given better employment rights and places in the boardroom, as well as the creation of a proper welfare state. All the policies that the Tories and the rest of the neoliberal establishment hate with a passion, and revile as just a return to the policies of the 1970s.

But Labour are very definitely ahead in the polls, but rather than admit that this is because the Party is genuinely popular and neoliberalism and Thatcherism are dead, zombie economics, the Torygraph is trying to spin this to discredit the ‘Remain’ camp within the Tory party. But hopefully it won’t be too long before there is a Labour election victory, and the entire Tory party is swept from power and kept out for decades.

Bernie Sanders Launches ‘Medicare for All’ Plan in US

April 11, 2019

Great news from across the Pond. According to today’s I for Thursday, 11th April 2019, the left-wing Democrat senator, Bernie Sanders, has launched his ‘medicare for all’ scheme to replace America’s current insurance-driven healthcare system with one in which the American state would pay people’s medical fees. The I’s report, ‘Sanders launches ‘healthcare for all’ plan, on page 25 runs

The US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders revealed his “Medicare for All” plan yesterday, shaking up the 2020 election by reopening the debate over his call to eliminate private health insurance.

Four of the senators who are rivalling Mr Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination are set to sign on to the updated single-payer healthcare proposal. The bill’s reintroduction promises to shine a light on Democratic presidential candidates’ disparate visions for the long-term future of American healthcare.

Some Democratic contenders, including former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, have criticized Sanders’ measure, which they say is political infeasible.

Under Medicare for All, Americans would no longer pay premiums or face insurance deductibles as the government-run system replaced private health insurance offered through employers.

This really is what America needs. Badly. Something like 20 per cent of all Americans can’t afford medical insurance, and, according to the statistics cited by Sanders in his book, Our Revolution, every year 40,000 Americans die because they can’t afford medical treatment. In some parts of the US, people are hoarding medicine because they have difficult affording it, and even use medicines prescribed by vets for animals. They’re even heading over the border to Mexico for dental treatment because it’s much, much cheaper over there. And medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the Land of the Free. The progressive American Left have been wondering for a long time why it is that the other nations of the Developed World can afford universal healthcare, but American can’t.

Opposing him, naturally, is the American private healthcare industry, the Republicans, and the Corporate, Clintonite Democrats. I think Hillary Clinton said several times that the country couldn’t afford state medicine, parroting the ideas of the Republicans. And if she didn’t say, her daughter, Chelsea, certainly did. And over here, the Tories and Blairite Labour, as well as the ‘Centrist’ Change UK, also want to privatise the NHS. Blair’s health secretary, Alan Milburn, wanted to see the NHS reduced to a kitemark on services provided by private healthcare providers. I don’t think Bernie Sanders wants to nationalize the American healthcare system. He just wants the state to pay for its citizens’ healthcare, as Germany has done for its people since Bismarck’s ‘Socialist Law’ of 1871 or so. And one of the reasons that there has been such opposition in British politics to Jeremy Corbyn is because he has promised to renationalize the NHS. Corbyn’s policies are massively popular, which is why the Right, both within and outside the Labour Party, has been reduced to smearing him as a Communist, or a supporter of Irish Republican terrorism – as we’ve seen from the Tories, the Right considers Loyalist terrorists perfectly acceptable – and now a raging anti-Semite, despite the plentiful evidence to the contrary.

The NHS is being destroyed before us, and if this continues, we will reach a situation like America, where it’s increasingly unaffordable to all but the very affluent. We need Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10 in Britain, and Bernie Sanders over in America. A transatlantic partnership that would roll back the horrors of neoliberalism, and start giving working people in both countries the healthcare they need and deserve.

American Politico Calls Netanyahu Racist

April 9, 2019

According to today’s I, for 9th April 2019, the American Democrat politician, Beto O’Rourke, has called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a racist, citing CNN. The article, ‘Israeli PM racist, says top Democrat’, runs

Democratic White House hopeful Beto O’Rourke has branded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” and an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. He made the remarks while discussing the US-Israel relationship and the Israeli leader’s vow to annex Jewish settlements in West Bank, said CNN (P. 2).

Now I have my doubts about how true this statement is. There have been allegations that CNN has deliberately misquoted Democrat politicos to make them look bad, and I think some of them involve supposed comments about Israel. But there should be absolutely no doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu is racist, and that the Israeli state, contra to the I.H.R.A. definition of anti-Semitism, really is a deeply racist endeavour. It defines itself as the Jewish state so that all Jews, everywhere, are citizens of Israel. This excludes Israel’s indigenous people, the Palestinians, from citizenship. Netanyahu has declared that the Palestinians are treated equally, but this equality really exists only on paper. In practice there is a system of rigid apartheid. Jews live under Israeli law, Palestinians under military law. 95 per cent of Israeli land is held by the Jewish National Fund, which will not lease it to non-Jews. There are separate roads for Jews and Arabs, some municipalities will not allow Arabs to live in their areas. Arabs have suffered their land being confiscated to build new settlements for Jewish settlers, IDF squaddies cut down their olive trees, a vital source of income, and throw pollutants in their wells and cisterns to make the water undrinkable. Palestinian homes and villages are demolished. There are economic restrictions intended to stifle Palestinian farming and business, while Jewish farms, settlers and businesses receive generous support from the state. The tourist trade too is subject to strict regulations privileging Jews. Non-Jews are legally forbidden from working as tour guides, even when they are Christians taking tourists to the country’s great Christian monuments. I assume the same situation applies to Muslims, who also wish to visit their religious sites. Netanyahu’s governing coalition now includes a viciously racist party for Jewish settlers, the remnants of the terrorist movement Kach, which demands the cleansing of all non-Jews from Israel. Naturally, not all Jews support this, and ‘racist’ is one of the kinder epithets I’ve heard applied to Netanyahu. I’ve heard one Jewish professor refer to him as ‘that bastard Netanyahu’.

The American political establishment, and especially the Republicans, firmly supports Israel. There have been a long line of senior American politicos turning up to pledge their support to Israel at AIPAC’s conventions. This year a number of Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, refused to go. And there is still controversy raging about the comments by Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who said that Congress had been bought by the Israelis. She was right, AIPAC and other Zionist organisations, like Ted Hagee’s Christians United For Israel, are able to purchase American support for Israel by generously funding individual politicians. Just like the various parliamentary Friends of Israel groups within the British parties obtain Israeli funding and trips to Israel from the Israeli government and Zionist donors.

And the Israel lobby also responds to its critics in America exactly the same as it does over here: it smears them as anti-Semites. So we’ve seen Trump, who’s had genuine anti-Semites from the Alt Right, like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, in his coalition, now declare that the Dems are now the anti-Semitic party. Just as the Republicans and corporate Democrats smeared Omar as a Jew hater for her comments.

If Beto O’Rourke did make that comment about Netanyahu – and that’s a big if, as Congress has previously given the wretched bigot a massive standing ovation – then it means that the Israel lobby in America is losing its grip. People are turning away, including the Jewish community. One of the contributors to Lobster stated in an article published back in the ’90s that the Israeli delegates in Washington are not liked. Privately, many American politicians and staffers loath them. And it looks like that pent up hatred of official Israeli racism may now be coming out, as leading American politicians get sick of them and their intransigence towards the Palestinians.

The result is that as the Israelis’ grip on western politicos loosens, we can expect more accusations and smears of anti-Semitism. Ireland has already passed a law banning Israeli goods from the Occupied Territories. And according to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Jeremy Corbyn and Jackie Walker are the #2 threat to Jews around the world(!) This is nonsense, except in the very limited sense that Corbyn and Walker are genuine supporters of the Palestinians and are serious about finding a just solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. We’ve already seen Gabriel Pogrund, the soulless hack from the Sunset Times, launch an attack on the Labour party as a whole, as well as the Jewish Labour Movement declaring a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn. We can expect a further storm of angry, lying denunciations as the Israel lobby tries to scare politicians on both sides of the Atlantic into line.

 

Murdoch Demands Curtailment of Parliamentary Democracy over Brexit

April 8, 2019

Earlier today I put up a piece about an article in the I newspaper about the claim by a charity, the Hansard Society, that British people were increasingly demanding a more authoritarian leader, who could override parliament. This is obviously dangerous, as at the end of such anti-parliamentary sentiments lies authoritarian political strongmen like Vladimir Putin outright dictatorships, like those of Hitler and Mussolini. I speculated that, if the findings are correct, they’re probably due to Tweezer’s supporters getting impatient with parliament blocking her wretched, worthless Brexit deals.

It turns out I may well have been right. Brexit is involved. And so, unfortunately, is that curse of the modern press, Rupert Murdoch.

No sooner had I put my piece up then I found that the good fellow behind Zelo Street had put up a similar article based on articles about the Hansard Society and its wretched poll in the Times and the Guardian. The Thunderer’s article had the headline, ‘Brexit-weary Britons long for political strongman’, contained the following ominous statements

In findings that suggest large parts of the country are ready to entertain radical political change, nearly three quarters of people felt that the British system of governing needed ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement.

More than four in ten thought that the country’s problems could be more easily solved if ministers ‘didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament. The findings come two days before Theresa May returns to Brussels to ask the EU for another Brexit extension.

The Street says that it is no accident that the mythical desire for a political strongman is here linked to Brexit, and that the only surprise is that the Scum hasn’t received its orders to put the same demand in cruder terms. The article then goes on to discuss the Groan’s treatment of these findings, which is hostile, and quotes Rose Carter of the anti-racism, anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate. She says

We are facing a crisis of political mistrust. And when people do not trust traditional political systems, they look elsewhere. That’s when support for political extremes grows.

The Street then goes on to describe how political strongmen look good, until they’re actually put to the test, and goes on to give examples. These aren’t just the obvious cases of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, but also the Greek Colonels, who left Cyprus partitioned, Salazar in Portugal, who left his country poor and illiterate, General Franco in Spain, who brought some people prosperity in the 1960s, but from a very low base; General Pinochet and his legacy of death and division in Chile; and finally Vladimir Putin in Russia. His gangster regime has brought some people prosperity, but only recently has the Russian economy started growing.

But, as the Street’s article notes, the Dirty Digger likes Donald Trump and his authoritarian style of government, as he mistakenly thinks that the Orange Generalissimo gets things done. The Street therefore concludes that, once again, Murdoch is debasing politics for his own ends.

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/04/murdoch-press-wants-dictatorship.html

Murdoch’s selfish demand for the curtailment of parliament’s powers and the establishment of the Prime Minister as some kind of quasi-dictator isn’t quite as extreme as Lord Rothermere’s support of Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley in the 1930s and the Daily Mail’s infamous headline ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. Nor is it quite like Mussolini, who was the editor of a radical newspaper, the Popolo d’Italia, which he used to promote Fascism and his personal dictatorship. It’s far more like Berlusconi, who used his vast media empire to promote his political ambitions. It wasn’t a military dictatorship, like Mussolini’s with paramilitary thugs running berserk and the banning of other political parties. But then, as the author of the book, The Dark Heart of Italy stated on a radio interview about his book on Berlusconi’s Italy, this new form of Fascism didn’t need them. Unlike Berlusconi, Murdoch hasn’t put himself forward for political office. But he has been instrumental in framing policy in several governments, most notoriously in Blair’s, where one minister described the Digger as almost being like a hidden member of the cabinet, so concerned with Blair to have his approval.

This makes Murdoch a real threat to British democracy. There are reasons why the monopolies and mergers commission sought to prevent newspaper proprietors owning too large a portion of British media, and why many people, including many Tories, were not in favour of the Digger getting hold of the Times. But they were overruled by Thatcher, and have been overruled by other Prime Ministers ever since, eager to grant Murdoch an ever-increasing share of press and television broadcasting in order to gain the support of his squalid empire. And Murdoch’s own political views are directly opposed the welfare of Britain’s working people. They’re pro-privatisation, including that of the NHS and education, because he’s moving into educational publishing. He wants low taxes, less government regulation, and, surprise, surprise, a minimal welfare state. And now he’s shown himself to be an outright enemy of parliament and the British democratic tradition it represents.

Murdoch has no right to demand this. He isn’t British, but a foreigner. He’s actually an American citizens, as the Americans have the good sense to pass regulations stopping foreigners possessing a controlling interest in the newspapers and utilities. Which is something we should have done long ago. John Major back in the 1990s finally came round to realising that Murdoch’s squalid empire should be broken up, but by that time Murdoch had ditched him and was putting his weight behind Tony Blair, who more than willingly returned the favour.

Murdoch and his wretched papers have been bad for Britain, bad for British politics, bad for its working people, and now have begun an attack on the democracy. This can’t be allowed to continue, but I fear that with his newspapers now so powerful, too many people have been brainwashed by him to make this possible.