Posts Tagged ‘Judge Dredd’

Pat Mills Going Underground on Class and Politics on Comics

September 19, 2017

This is another video to add to the two others I’ve posted in which Pat Mills, one of the great creators of modern British comics, talks about industry and the political dimension to his work. In this video, he talks to Afshin Rattansi of RTUK’s Going Underground.

Mills starts by talking about how, when he first got into comics, he was frustrated and it was only when he started to look back on it and analyze it that he realized he was annoyed by the lack of working class role models in comics. They were all members of the upper middle classes. It’s why in 2000 AD he wanted to include working class characters and heroes, and why he liked Jeeves in the Jeeves and Wooster books, because here was a working class character, who makes a complete mockery of his master. But what brought home to him how the system is so completely opposed to working class heroes was his attempt working on a story for Dr. Who. He wanted to include a working class spaceship captain. The spaceship itself was to be a kind of abattoir in space, and he based the captain’s character on a real person, the captain of dredger. This would have made it realistic, and the captain of such a vessel would not have been like Richard Todd. But he was told by the script editor that this was unacceptable, and he could not have a working class spaceship captain.

When Rattansi asks him whether this censorship is internal or imposed from outside, he remarks that it’s a good question, and he believes it to be a bit of both. In the case of anti-war stories, it’s imposed from outside. That was brought home to him when he was involved in an exhibition on anarchy and comics. He wanted to include Charley’s War, the anti-war strip from Battle, as there was nothing more anarchist than that. But this was refused, just as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World. It was why TV never showed any of the great anti-war programmes and films about it, like Blackadder Goes Forth or the Monocled Mutineer.

He also comments on the massive influence the American military exerts over the film and TV industry. The Pentagon and the armed forces, including the CIA, have acted as advisors on 500 films and 800 TV programmes, from Meet the Parents to the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Mills has said that he has always disliked superheroes as he feels that they are corporate characters, standing for the values of the system. They are there to show people that you can’t be heroic unless you’re a tycoon or an arms manufacturer, who goes out at night to beat up members of the working class. He doesn’t think the military were involved in the last Judge Dredd film, as that was made by an independent, which is probably why it was so good. Rattansi replies that Dredd is still upper middle class, as he’s a member of the judiciary. Mills states in turn that he’s a footsoldier, and that part of the attraction of the character is that he’s also partly a villain. Villains are often more interesting to watch than heroes, who can be quite boring.

He also talks about an incident in which the Board of the Deputies of British Jews objected to one of the strips in Crisis. This was based on a real situation, which Mills had heard about from talking to a Palestinian. In the story, the IDF caught and beat up a Palestinian boy in protest, leaving lying on the ground with all his limbs broken. The Board complained because they thought the lad’s body had been deliberately arranged so that it resembled a swastika. Well, replied Mills, it wasn’t, as comics writers and artists aren’t that clever to sneak those kind of subliminal messages in. And what left him dismayed was the Board was not concerned about what was going on Israel, and which is still going on in Gaza. The incident was also somewhat ironic, in that the Board complained to the comic’s publishers, which at that time was Robert Maxwell, the corrupt thief of the Mirror pension fund. The Board’s complaint fell on deaf ears, and Cap’n Bob ‘told them to get knotted’.

Mills also observes in the interview that they were able to get away with much more in 2000AD as it wasn’t real, it was science fiction. Things are all right if they occur In A Galaxy Far, Far Away. But as soon as it’s real people, the censorship is imposed.

It’s always interesting hearing Mills’ views on comics and the subversion he put into his stories. He also told the story about the Beeb’s rejection of a working class spaceship captain for Dr. Who before, at the conference on Marxism organized by the Socialist Workers’ Party. The producers of Going Underground in the clip state that they contacted the Beeb to check the story, but the BBC had not replied by the time the programme was broadcast.

Mills is wrong in claiming at Jeeves is working class. He isn’t. He’s upper middle. Butlers are ‘a gentleman’s gentleman’, and Jeeves himself makes it very clear in one of the episodes of Jeeves and Wooster that he ‘and the working class are barely on speaking terms’. This is when the Fascist leader, Spode, tries to recruit him, saying that his wretched band need working class people like him. Nevertheless, the broad point remains true: Jeeves is an attractive character for the same reason another fictional butler is, Crichton, in the Admirable Crichton. He’s a servant, who is more knowledgible, intelligent and capable than his master.

I’ve commented in previous blog posts that I think the reason that the authorities don’t want to see any anti-War material broadcast during the centenary of the First World War, is because we still have ambitions of being an imperial power, backing the Americans in their wars around the world and particularly in the Middle East. The Beeb would also probably argue that to broadcast such material as Blackadder would be ‘disrespectful’, or some other spurious excuse.

I was aware that the American military was influencing Hollywood as advisors, but I had not idea how extensive it was. Back in the 1990s the American army advised the director Paul Verhoeven on his adaptation of Starship Troopers. This was an adaptation of the book by Robert Heinlein, who really did believe that only those, who had served in the armed forces should have the right to vote. It’s a notoriously militaristic book, and provoked a very anti-military response from a range of other SF writers, including Harry Harrison, who wrote Bill the Galactic Hero to send up Heinlein. Verhoeven wasn’t impressed with Heinlein’s militarism either. He’s Dutch, and grew up during the Nazi occupation. Thus, while the film can be enjoyed as a straightforward adventure, it also contains a very strong element of satire, such as modelling the uniforms on those of the Nazis.

I was disappointed to hear that the army had collaborated with the producers of The Hulk, as this comic was genuinely countercultural. In the comic, Banner becomes the Hulk after being exposed to the nuclear blast of an atomic bomb test saving Rick, a teenager, who has wandered into test zone. Rick is a classic disaffected teenager with more than a little similarity to the alienated kids played by James Dean. In the 1970s the comic was very firmly anti-military. The Hulk fought the army across America. Banner’s personal enemy was the general in charge of the forces sent to tackle the force, who was also the father of his girlfriend. And while the Hulk was a raging behemoth, what he really wanted was to be left alone. Some of the subversive character of the Hulk came across in Ang Lee’s film, which I actually like, even though no-one else does. But it’s still disappointing to read that the American armed forces were involved.

There’s a touch of irony to Mills speaking on the programme, as ‘Going Underground’ was the first of the two ‘Comic Rock’ strips to appear in 2000AD, the other being ‘Killerwatt’, which introduced Nemesis the Warlock and his struggle against Torquemada, the Fascist grand master of Termight, Earth in the far future. The story, set in the underground maze of rapid transit tunnels within Earth’s vast subterranean network of cities, took it’s title from the track by The Jam.

Advertisements

Credo! Pat Mills on 40 Years of Thrillpower!

September 14, 2017

Pat Mills is one of the great creators of the British comics industry. In this video from 2000 AD on YouTube, he talks to host Tony Esmond about his career in the comics industry, politics and his determination to give readers working class heroes. The interview was at the 40 Years of Thrillpower convention earlier this year (2017).

Mills is best known as one of the creative forces who seriously upset the establishment with Action before going on to reoffend with 2000AD. Before then he started off writing for the 1970s children’s comics, like Corr! The experience of writing for them was not happy for him. He states that the people behind them had no particular interest in them and very much had a production-line mentality to their creation. He describes how one writer once asked him how many stories he could write in a day. When he said about one every two or three days, the other writer boasted that he wrote three in a day. And then went on to say, probably quite truthfully, that he was making more money than the prime minister. Mills states that the writers at IPC were able to do this because they wrote very much to a formula. He preferred the stories their competitors at DC Thompson produced. Although their comics were also stuck in the past, the stories were better crafted. He describes one strip about a man going around the country having adventures with a horse. As a concept, he says it wasn’t even at the level of afternoon television. But it was well done. The IPC comics, on the other hand, were soulless. It depressed him so much, that, when he and John Wagner, who also later went on to become one of the founders of 2000AD, were writing in a garden shed, he wrote all his scripts on a roll of wallpaper so they formed a continuous strip and he wouldn’t have to go back and read them all again.

British comics in this period were very much stuck in the past, even as British society changed. This was a time when the German experience of the war was appearing in the books of Sven Hassel, reflected in Action’s strip, Hellmann of Hammer Force. But yet Mills found it impossible to launch a strip whose hero was Black. This was to be a strip about a Black boxer. He was told that it wouldn’t work. People would not accept a Black hero. They’d accept a Black supporting character or friend. But as the central character, never. He also thought of introducing one about a Black football player, and that would have been even more controversial. There was a Black football player in one of the London clubs at the time, and he had been treated with racist abuse from the balconies.

Politics and satire have always been an important element of Mills’ work. He says that at one point he became dissatisfied writing for 2000AD, as the management were trying to shift the comic away from its traditional satirical stance, and this very much went against Mills’ own nature. He and Esmond discuss at one point Mills’ memory that, when they launched 2000AD, the management told him that they should imagine a future that they would actually live in. And now, he states, they’re living in it with Donald Trump’s presidency of the US, which Mills compares to the infamous Judge Cal. Cal was the mad Chief Judge in Judge Dredd, modelled on Caligula, who appointed his pet fish as a judge, called in the alien Kleggs to suppress any opposition in Mega City 1, and had another judge pickled. Perhaps we need to be very glad that NASA hasn’t made contact with intelligent aliens yet.

Mills remarks on how very many of the heroes of British literature, from Sherlock Holmes to John Buchan’s Hannay, have been members of the upper and upper middle classes. There are too many of them, and too few working class heroes. He’s been actively trying to redress this imbalance in his strips. It’s why Marshal Law, in his alter ego, used to be unemployed, but is now a hospital orderly. He’s not even a nurse.

He states that as he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, he read many the authors that were around then, like Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan, all of whom were members of the upper classes. And with some of them, it was actually quite sinister. Buchan was a major propagandist for the First World War, in return for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada. And he did it very well. Later on in the video, in response to a question from the audience he remarks on how there is a very definite campaign in this country to suppress anything with an anti-war message. He was asked what the research was for his story in Charley’s War about the British invasion of Russia in 1918-19. He states that there were only two books he was able to get hold of at the time, but since then he got hold of a very good book, which is a much fuller description. This describes how the British officers sent in to overturn the Russian Revolution behaved like absolute animals. This episode has largely been airbrushed from British history. He contrasts with the British media’s refusal to publicise anti-war stories with that of our cousins across le manche. Attitudes there are much different, and Charley’s War, which ran in Battle and was about the experiences of a working-class Tommy in the First World War, is more popular in France even than Britain. This bias against anti-war stories is why you didn’t see Blackadder Goes Forth repeated in the centenary year of the War’s outbreak.

Mills is also critical of the way the indigenous mythology and legend of the British Isles has been suppressed in favour of myths from further south – Greece and Rome, and ancient Egypt. Mills’ background, like Kevin O’Neill, was Irish, and his family were very patriotic. He grew up knowing all about Michael Collins, and his middle name is Eamon after the first president of Eire, Eamon de Valera. Yet it wasn’t until he started researching the Irish, as well as the Scots and Welsh legends, that he learned about any of those stories, and was shocked. Why didn’t he know about the warpspasm – the ultra-berserker rage that transforms the Celtic hero Slaine as he goes into battle? He also talks about how, in legend, London was founded by the Trojans as New Troy, and briefly mentions his treatment of this in the story he is or was currently writing for the Slaine strip. He states he wanted to produce a barbarian strip that was set in this country, complete with its grey skies and rain.

Mills has a deep admiration for these Celtic legends, but remarks on how they differ considerably from the other mythological tales. They don’t share their structure. If you read the Norse tales or Beowulf, there’s a structure there. But the Irish – which he uses to include also the Scots and Welsh stories – read like they’re on acid. He’s particularly impressed with the Tain, otherwise known as the Tain Bo Cualnge, or in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, and recommends the translation by Kinsella. He’s also particularly interested in finding the bits that were suppressed by the Christian clergy who wrote them down in the Middle Ages. He gleefully quotes one clerical writer, who says that the stories contain much that is true, much that is false, some lies, and some devilish invention, and some which is only fit to be read by idiots. Yeah! he shouts, that’s me!

He has the same mischievous joy when telling how he came to be persuaded to write the Invasion strip, in which Britain was invaded by a thinly disguised Soviet Russia. The management asked him if he wanted to write it. He said he couldn’t get up much enthusiasm. They urged him to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. So he worked his way as best he could through that. He still wasn’t enthusiastic. Then they asked him if he’d like to write a scene with Maggie Thatcher being shot by the Russians on the steps of St. Paul’s. His response: Yeahhh!

He also talks about how the brutal education he received at a school run by the De Lazare order inspired him to write the Nemesis the Warlock strip. The Terminators, and to a lesser extent Judge Dredd, were modelled on them. They were fanatical, and were quite sinister. He remarks that if you go on the internet you can find all sorts of tales about them.

He also talks about an abortive crossover story planned for Marshal Law and Batman. Marshal Law was a bitterly satirical, extremely violent and very funny strip published in the 1990s about a superhero in the devastated San Francisco of the early 21st century, who hates other superheroes. The superheroes in the strip were created for a Vietnam-like war in South America, and have come back disillusioned and traumatized by the conflict. As a result, they form violent street gangs, and Marshal Law is recruited by the police to clean them up. It was a very dark comic that relentlessly parodied superhero comics from a left-wing, feminist perspective. When DC announced they wanted to make the crossover, Mills thought that they weren’t really serious. But they were. So he and O’Neill decided that for the cover, they’d have the Marshal standing on a pile of bodies of the different versions of Batman from all across the alternative Earths of the Multiverse. Then DC’s management changed, and their story policy did too, and the idea was dropped.

Mills also discusses the various ways comics have been launched, only to be merged with other comics. With 2000AD the comic was merged with Tornado and then Starlord. It was a very cynical policy, as from the first these comics were intended to fail, but by merging them with 2000AD and other comics, the management presented it as giving their readers something new, even though it wasn’t, and they felt it was an intrusion. He also responds to another question about which comic he felt folded before its time. The obvious answer to this was Action, which upset the establishment so much that it was banned, before being sanitized and relaunched. Mills said that they knew the comic was doomed. The new editor, who was given control of it had previously edited – and this is almost unbelievable – Bobo the Rabbit – and so didn’t know what he was doing. Mills said that before then they had skated over what was just about unacceptable and knew just how far you could go. Because this new editor hadn’t had that experience, he didn’t, and the comic folded.

The comic that he really feels shouldn’t have folded, and could still have carried on today, was Battle. As for which comic he’d now be working on instead of 2000AD, if it had proved more successful, these were the girls’ comics, like Misty. They vastly outsold the boys’ comics, but ultimately folded because ‘the boys took over the sandbox’. The video ends with his answer to the question, ‘What is his favourite strip, that he wrote for?’ He thinks for a moment, before replying Nemesis the Warlock to massive cheering.

It’s a very interesting perspective on the British comics industry by one of its masters. Regarding Slaine, Mills has said before in his introduction to the Titan book, Slaine the King: Special Edition, that the achievements of our ancestors, the Celtic peoples, has been rubbed out of history in favour of the ‘stern but fair proto-Thatcherite Romans, who built the roads and made the chariots run on time’. I think part of the problem is that the legends Mills draws on – that of Gaelic Ireland and Scotland, and Brythonic Wales – are those of the Celtic peoples, who were defeated by the expanding Anglo-Normans, who made a concerted attempt to suppress their culture. As for the very frank admiration for the Romans, that partly comes from the classics-based education offered by the British public schools.

As for the very staid attitude of British comics in the 1970s, this was a problem. It was actually a period of crisis, when many of the comics were folding because they hadn’t moved with the times. Mills’ idea for a strip about a Black boxer is clearly modelled on Mohammed Ali, the great African-American athlete of the ring. Everyone knew Ali, and he was universally admired, even by kids like me, who didn’t understand or know much about the racial politics behind Ali’s superstardom. Ali said that he wanted to give his people a hero.

Even so, the idea of having a sympathetic Black supporting character was an improvement. Roger Sabin, in his book Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art, published by Phaidon, notes just how racist British comics were in the 1960s. This was very controversial, as Black people naturally objected. Sabin cites one strip, in which the White hero uses two racial slurs for Blacks, and another abusive term for Gypsies. And showing the type of strips that appeared in the 1920s, there’s an illustration which shows the Black characters from a strip in one of D.C. Thompson’s comics, either the Dandy or Beano at the time. This was The Colony N*gs. Only they don’t use an asterisk to try to disguise the term.

As for his experiences with the monks running his school, unfortunately he’s not the only one, who suffered in this way. I’ve met a number of former Roman Catholics, who were turned off religion, and in some cases became bitterly against it, because of their experience being taught by monks and nuns. Several of Britain’s most beloved broadcasters from the Emerald Isle were also turned off religion because of this. Dave Allen, who regularly poked fun at religion, and particularly the Roman Catholic church, said that he became an atheist because of the cruelty and the way the priests tried to scare their young charges at his old school. And that mainstay of British radio, Terry Wogan, in a series he presented about Ireland and his life there, said exactly the same about the effect the hard attitude of the teachers at his old Roman Catholic school had on him.

The Roman Catholic church does not have the monopoly on the abuse of children, and I’ve heard some horrifying tales of the brutal behavior of some of the teaching staff – and prefects – in some of the British grammar schools. Dad has told me about the very harsh regime of some of the teachers at his old school – not Roman Catholic – in Somerset. He describes the teachers as sadists, and has a story about how one of the teachers, when one of the boys couldn’t answer a question, threw the lad out of window. Brutality seems to have been built into the British educational system, leaving mental scars and bitter memories.

I’ve very mixed feelings about the British force sent against revolutionary Russia. Perhaps if we’d succeeded, the forty million Soviet citizens butchered by Stalin would have been able to live out their lives, and the peoples of the Russian Federation free of the shadow of the KGB and gulags.

But that’s with hindsight. That’s not why British troops were sent in. The Bolsheviks were anti-democratic and determined to suppress all other parties and factions except their own, even when these were Socialist or anarchist, like the Mensheviks, the Trudoviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries the Left Communists, Anarcho-Communists and syndicalists. But we sent in troops because Britain and the rest of the capitalist world felt threatened by the emergence of a working class, aggressively socialist state. Britain had many commercial contacts with pre-Revolutionary Russia, and Lenin had argued in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism that global capitalism depended on European imperial expansion. These nations enslaved and exploited developing nations like Russia. A socialist revolution in these countries threatened international capitalism, as it was here that the capitalist system was weakest. Hence the Bolshevik slogan, ‘Smash capitalism at its weakest link!’

Ordinary Russians, let alone the conquered nations of the Russian Empire, were oppressed and exploited. If you want an idea how much, and what ordinary Russians endured and struggled to overthrow, read Lionel Kochan’s book, The Russian Revolution, published by Paladin. This was the grotty system British troops were sent in to restore.

On a more positive note, one member of the audience in the video thanks Mills for encouraging him to read. The man says he was dyslexic, but it was the comics he consumed as a child that got him reading. He is now a teacher, who specializes in helping children with reading difficulties, and uses comics in his teaching.

This is really inspiring. Martin Barks in Comics, Ideology and Power, discusses how comics have always been regarded with suspicion and contempt by the establishment. They were regarded as rubbish, at best. At worst they were seen as positively subversive. I can remember how one of the text books we used in English at school included a piece of journalism roundly condemning comics as rubbish literature with bad artwork. And this was reprinted in the 1980s! My mother, on the other hand, was in favour of comics because they did get children reading, and used to encourage the parents of the children she taught to buy them when they asked her advice on how they could get their children to read if they wouldn’t read books. This shows how far comics have come, so that they are now respectable and admired.

More Anti-Science from Trump: Climate Denier to Head NASA

September 13, 2017

This is absolutely incredible. It really is like something from dystopian Science Fiction, but unfortunately it’s true. In this clip from the Jimmy Dore Show, the American comedian and his co-hosts, Ron Placone and Steffi Zamorano comment on a report from Democracy Now! that Trump has decide to appoint Jim Bridenstine as the new head of NASA. Bridenstine has no scientific credentials, and doesn’t believe in climate change. In fact, in 2013 he stood on the floor of the senate and demanded that Barak Obama apologise for promoting it.

The trio begin the clip by remarking on the evidence from the hurricanes to hit America that climate change is real. Before storm Harvey, only three magnitude 5 storms had hit America. They then show how ludicrous the decision is by stating that as Trump has appointed someone, who doesn’t believe in a scientific fact to head a scientific agency, then Richard Dawkins should be appointed to head the national prayer breakfast. Dore jokes that there hasn’t been a government this anti-science since Galileo. And the Pope has apologized for him. The papacy also acknowledges climate change. Which means the world’s most religious Roman Catholic is more progressive than Trump and his minions.

There’s no way this is anything other than an attempt by the Republicans and their paymasters, the Koch brothers, and the other big polluting industries, to hobble and silence research into climate change in America. One of the functions satellites carry out is weather and climate monitoring. Space research generally has also led to greater understanding of weather systems on Earth. For example, the massive storms that rage across Jupiter are driven by the same laws and forces as those, which generate similar storm systems on Earth. Countries like India have invested in their space industry for the promise it offers of monitoring the weather and the progress of crop diseases, which can be disastrous for a developing nation, much of whose population are subsistence farmers.

Dore’s wrong about the Pope’s treatment of Galileo, however. Yes, it was scandalous, but at the time Galileo’s own research was actually undersupported. And he didn’t help himself in his book, the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. He knew the pope was an Aristotelian, but deliberately made the Aristotelian speaker in the book appear as stupid as possible. Even so, the Church was not uniformly against him. He did have supporters within the church and amongst the cardinals. See James Hannan’s God’s Philosophers: Science in the Middle Ages.

But this is like something from Science Fiction. Stephen Baxter’s Titan is an alternative history, in which a rabidly anti-science senator becomes president of the US and closes down NASA. It’s because he’s a Creationist, and doesn’t believe in the Copernican heliocentric system, or the discoveries revealed by Galileo. What isn’t shut down, is given to the USAF and given over to defence instead, while the agency’s museum is shut, except for its museum. This is then altered to stress the religious experiences many of the astronauts had when exploring space.

This isn’t quite fair on the Creationists. Those I knew did not reject Galileo and they didn’t reject heliocentrism, although I’ve since come across people, who do on the Net. But there are still clear parallels between Baxter’s book and Trump and those who back him.

Yesterday I found an interview with the veteran comics creator, Pat Mills on YouTube. I’m going to have to write a piece about it, because Mills is very left-wing and a fierce critic of capitalism and Britain’s class system. In the video, he states that when he started writing for 2000 AD, he and the others were told to create futures, which people would live in. And now we are. He pointed out that there really were robots, which looked like Robusters, and we also now had Donald Trump, who was very much like something from 2000 AD’s often bleak view of the future.

And he’s right. Trump’s appointment of a scientific ignoramus like Bridenstine is almost exactly like something from Science Fiction. And Mills compared Trump himself to Judge Cal, the deranged Chief Judge of Mega City 1, who behaved like Caligula. He appointed his pet fish as judge, and had one of the other judges pickled. Oh yes, and he called in the alien Kleggs to keep the human population of Mega City 1 under control. Trump hasn’t made contact with an evil alien life forms yet, but the nepotism and corruption is all there. Even if he hasn’t made his goldfish senator. But given the fictional parallel drawn by Mills, Bannon, Kelly-Anne Conway and the others he’s got rid of should be glad he just had them sacked. The real trouble’s going to start when he starts ordering human-sized pickled jars.

The Young Turks on Pizza Delivery Drivers Being Replaced by Driverless Cars

September 3, 2017

This is probably going to be the reality behind the driverless cars the car industry and the media have been hyping. In this short clip from The Young Turks, the hosts Ana Kasparian and Brett Ehrlich report and comment on the story that Domino’s Pizzas are planning to replace their pizza delivery people with driverless cars.

It’s only a trial run at the moment. They intend to go through their customers at random, and ask them if they’re happy with their pizza delivered by a driverless car instead. The vehicle will take a maximum of four pizzas to them. To get their orders, the customers will have to punch in a code into a keypad on the car.

After a bit of silly banter about the number of pizzas people usually order, they get down to discussing what this really represents. Kasparian says that when they usually talk about American jobs being lost, they’re usually reporting on corporate outsourcing. But automation is the other way in which people are losing their jobs in America. Kasparian she states that she isn’t against technological innovation, but points out that not only are people going to lose their jobs as pizza delivery staff, but they’re also going to lose an opportunity to acquire useful skills to succeed in a very competitive jobs market. She also states that we also need to give young people proper, affordable college education as well.

Domino’s has released a statement saying that they have at the moment 100,000 pizza delivery people. They hope that when this comes in, they will be able to find other positions within the company. The Turks end by saying that they hope so too.

To be fair, the BBC has carried news and documentary programmes, which forecast that in the coming decades, 1/3 of all retail jobs will be lost to automation. Nevertheless, whenever you see driverless cars appear, the overwhelming message is one of boundless enthusiasm, with the presenters raving about the technology. Clarkson went on a driverless truck on Top Gear, and went almost berserk with excitement when it started to make its way without human guidance.

Driverless trucks are due to be trialed on roads in Britain, according to a report in the I newspaper. They’re going to be tested in groups of three. I talked about this technology and its threats to jobs with a friend a little while ago. He told me that there are about 40,000 truckers in Britain, so that’s 40,000 people, who stand to lose their jobs.

Counterpunch has run an article on this, stating that there’s no desire for the cars from ordinary people. They’re being hyped and pushed by the insurance companies, who hope that their appearance and promotion as being safer than human driving will allow them to put up their premiums for people, who won’t use them.

What also struck me was how cold, lonely and impersonal the future represented by this type of automation is. In much SF depictions of an automated future, the machines performing human jobs also have something like human cognitive abilities and personalities. Long term 2000 AD readers will remember Dredd’s little robotic companion, Walter the Wobot. The character had a lisp and was a gentle soul, providing a contrast with the brutal machismo of Mega City 1’s toughest lawman. Or the robots in the Robohunter strip. These were extremely strong characters with all the traits, foibles and psychological failings of the human creators, including stupidity, thuggishness and all-round criminality. Like the God-Droid, the automatated underworld boss, a machine version of Marlon Brando with a sign stamped across its stomach reading ‘Omerta’, or the incendiary temperament of Molotov, the automatic cocktail-shaker and head of the Amalgamated Androids’ Union, who lectures Spade on the evils of human exploitation. Or Ro-Jaws, a chirpy, bolshie, foul-mouthed sewer droid, and his more dignified mate, the war-robot Hammerstein, and the moronic and sadistic Mek-Quake, the main characters in the Robusters strip, and its spin-off, ABC Warriors.

These fictional machines all had real, authentic characters. They had minds and characters like human beings, even if their bodies and brains were of metal and plastic. And so the strips’ writers could use them to make serious satirical points amidst the cartoon violence and mayhem. From the first, the ABC Warriors strip included a bitter commentary on the horrors of war, and the way soldiers lives were sacrificed by an officer and political class insulated from the actual fighting. The fact that robots were machines, with no rights, also allowed 2000 AD to explore real issues like slavery, racism, and institutionalized discrimination with deliberate, and sometimes very obvious parallels to the experience of Black Americans before Civil Rights.

But the real machines taking our jobs won’t even have personalities, friendly or otherwise, with which we will interact. Admittedly, there isn’t much social interaction with the mail and other delivery people, who turn up at our doors. The conversation is naturally very limited. But with these machines, we won’t even have that. Just a car turning up, following by the customer trudging out to punch in a code to open the doors.

Silent, efficient, and coldly impersonal.

And this is going to make the atomization and despair of contemporary western, and particularly American society, much worse. I’ve also come across a series of videos Chris Hedges has also made, in which he talks about the new American Fascism, and specifically the Religious Right. I think Hedges is probably an atheist, from some of the things he has said about the religious right promoting magical thinking. But he has a divinity degree, his father was a politically radical Presbyterian clergyman, his mother was also a divinity student, and so Hedges doesn’t hate religion or regard the antics of the religious right and the frauds and bigots leading it as normal. Indeed, he is at pains to show that, for all that they scream that they represent traditional values, they don’t. He states in one video that they’re as far from traditional Christian religious doctrine and practice as the religious liberals they despise.

One of the points he makes in these videos is that these bigots have been assisted in their rise to power by the social atomization of modern American society. In places like LA there are no pavements, so people can’t walk down the street. You have to drive. And so people drive straight to work, and then straight home. They don’t really meet or interact with anyone else. And the religious right has exploited this atomization, this alienation, by offering people a community in the ideologically enclosed space of their megachurches. And the people they target are those who have suffered from the attacks of neoliberalism – people in the rustbelt, who have seen their jobs decline and their communities fall into poverty along with them.

Other observers of the American Right have said the same. One of the essays in the book attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservativism, states that these b*stards are able to get away with promoting bigotry and racism, because of the decline in genuine, working class communities. The jobs are going, and White flight has meant that Whites have moved out of racially mixed areas in the centres of town to the suburbs. Community centres have also closed, and the attack on trade unions has also destroyed this pillar of working class community. The result is that the individual is left isolated from both people of other ethnic groups, and similar people to him- or herself. He or she goes to work and comes home. This isolation leaves them vulnerable to the vile propaganda spewed at them by bigots like Jerry Falwell and the rest of the rightwing televangelists that were thrown up by the 1980s.

This atomization and alienation is one of the fundamental characteristics of totalitarian societies of the Left and Right. In the Soviet Union, society was arranged so that people were deliberately isolated from each other. The only way of keeping in contact and forming communities and relationships, at least officially, was through the party organisations. Ditto with the Third Reich. Hitler boasted that they would never leave the individual alone, not even in a poker club.

And the driverless cars also remind me of another dystopian vision of the future, that of Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian. This is a tale by one of the great masters of SF, in which a man walking late at night is stopped and picked up by a police car. The car’s not crewed. It’s entirely automatic. Bradbury describes the computer punchcards being processed as the machine thinks. The machine asks the man why he’s on the streets so late at night. He replies simply that he just wanted to take a walk.

Already there are places in some American cities, where you can’t walk. Mike found this out a few years ago when he visited friends in California. You had to drive everywhere, even down to the local stores. Which means that the cold future of The Pedestrian really ain’t that far away.

Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.

Cartoon: Iain Duncan Smith as Judge Death

June 24, 2017

Here’s another drawing from my series of cartoons attacking the Tory party and their sycophants and cheerleaders against the poor in the media. It’s another cartoon of Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP and the Tory party, before it was taken over by David Cameron. Cameron’s austerity campaign, launched with the support of the Tories’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems, and their leader, Nick Clegg, has been responsible for the deaths of untold tens of thousands. Many of these are due to IDS’ massive expansion of the sanctions system in the DWP, which has seen terminally ill cancer patients told they are no longer entitled to benefits because they’re fit and healthy. Other disabled and unemployed people were sanctioned because they missed interviews, when they were in hospital. A number of whistleblowers have come forward and revealed that the DWP operates a quota system, in which a certain number are to be found fit for work, even if they aren’t. Several offices were also caught giving prizes and gold stars for the worker, who could throw the most people off jobseekers allowance.

After a long struggle, Mike over at Vox Political got figures from the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act, which revealed that for a specific time, 13-14,000 people died after the DWP decided that they were fit for work. Researchers at Oxford University have also found that in 2015, austerity killed 30,000 people. If we assume this figure has remained constant, then to date, in mid 2017, something like 75,000 people have died – 30,000 in 2015, another 30,000 in 2016, and about half that number, 15,000, this year. Add the 13-14,000 Mike found, and you have a total of 87-88,000. And this may well be an underestimation.

Johnny Void, Stilloak, DPAC and other disability bloggers like Mike have also put up lists of the names of some of the poor souls, who have died in misery and starvation, and the circumstances in which they died. There are 500-600 + people on it. Some of them took their lives as they saw no way out of the poverty and starvation that was being inflicted on them. Mike and the other bloggers are calling this death toll what it is – the genocide of the disabled, and ‘social murder’, following Friedrich Engels discussion of the concept in his The Condition of the Working Class in England.

I’m something of a comics fan, including 2000 AD and Judge Dredd, Mega-City 1’s toughest lawman. And so I decided that one of the best metaphors for the carnage IDS and the Tories have inflicted on the poor and innocent was to show him as JD’s arch-enemy, Judge Death. Or Sydney, as he was also known. Judge Death was an animated corpse, who came from a parallel world in which life itself had been declared a crime, because all crime was committed by the living. Which is close to IDS’ and the Tories’ idea of punishing the poor, simply for being poor.

If you can’t read them, the captions are ‘The crime issss poverty, the sentensssse isss death’, and ‘The Tories – You cannot kill what doesss not live’, paraphrasing Death’s catchphrases ‘The crime issss life, the sentenssse issss death’, and ‘You cannot kill what doesss not live’.

If anyone from the 2000 AD crowd is reading this, please accept it as a twisted homage to the subversive, anti-authoritarian and satirical nature of 2000 AD and its strips, which have made it one of the leading comics for nearly forty years since the late 70s.

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.

Who Really Wants Driverless Cars and Further Automation

March 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secular Talk: One-Third of All Jobs Will Be Lost Due to Automation by 2030s

March 30, 2017

In this clip from Secular Talk, host Kyle Kulinski comments on a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the firm of accountants, that by the 2030s one third of all jobs in Britain will be lost to automation. This process will also affect America, Germany and Japan. In America, 38 per cent of all jobs will go; 35 per cent in Germany, and 21 per cent in Japan. As Kulinski points out, the 2030s aren’t very far away, and this is frightening.

He goes on to discuss an article he read by Stephen Hawking about this problem some time ago, in which the cosmologist said that there are two ways this could go. It could lead to a dystopia, in which the benefits of automation were monopolised by the rich. The result would be massive unemployment, social unrest and war. Or a way could be found to spread the benefits to everyone in society. One way this could be done is if we accept that this is inevitable, and that all jobs will go eventually. Instead of throwing people onto welfare, people could instead be assigned a machine at birth, and given an income derived from the work this machine does, so that not everyone has the same income.

He also notes that the same report suggests that some job losses could be offset by gains in areas that have not yet been automated. He is sceptical of this claim, however.

Kulinski states that this issue needs to be tackled urgently, and that so far only a very few have dared to take it seriously, and then only in a limited area.

Welcome to Megacity 1 and the world of Judge Dredd. The writers of the long-running comic strip acknowledge that Dredd’s home city – a vast, sprawling supercity of over 1 billion people spread along the east coast of America – is a monumental dystopia. John Wagner described it as ‘a gigantic black comedy’. The City suffers from 98 per cent unemployment due to robots. As a result of this and massive overcrowding, crime is rampant. And any sign that there might be a paid job going can easily result in a riot.

The massive psychological harm inflicted through such conditions has been portrayed again and again, particularly in the class Dredd strip, ‘UnAmerican Graffiti’. This was about the contest between two graffiti artists, ‘Chopper’, an unknown lad, and ‘the Shadow’, a robot. Chopper, like many others, had been driven to street art as a reaction to the boredom and despair created by the terrible unemployment rate. This was a society, where the problem was so great that schoolchildren were told that getting a job was unlikely, and therefore they needed a hobby to stave off boredom.

The solution Kulinski discusses for solving the problem of high unemployment due to automation – by assigning each individual at birth an income from a particular machine – in similar to a social programme in Mick Farren’s 1980s SF book, Exit Funtopia. This is a piece of ‘Future Noir’ set in a dying future Britain. Environmental and economic collapse has resulted in a society, where many citizens have been forced to become impoverished migrants – Joads, after the family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, forced onto the road in search of work. The ‘Funtopia’ of the title is a giant amusement park, where members of different subcultures can live out their fantasies away from mainstream society. Each member of the park is given an income based on the work a robot performed by robot doing their job. As befitting a piece of Noir, the hero is a ’40s’, a man who recreates the styles in dress and culture of the 1940s, called Marlowe. After the private eye, of course. There are also references to Godard’s Alphaville.

I’m very sceptical about this scheme. I don’t think it would work on the grounds that there isn’t a straight equivalence between one person equalling one machine. The jobs lost through automation may well be those in which the job lost may only constitute one function in a series of processes carried on by a machine, or a number of machines.

The great Polish SF writer, Stanislav Lem, also discussed this problem in one of his short stories. In this tale, a space pilot from Earth touches down on a planet covered in little black discs. There is only a single inhabitant left. When the pilot questions him, the man tells him that the black discs are the result of the decision by the planets’ leaders to solve their unemployment problem through automation. Nearly everyone was thrown out of work, except for the planets leaders and those who possessed the automated factories. There was massive unrest. It could have been avoided if the factories had been nationalised, and the profits shared amongst the citizens. But this wasn’t done. With the population growing restless, the leaders held a competition to decide how the problem could be solved. The winner was an inventor, who had developed a device for turning everyone into one of the black discs. It was selected through an extremely literal and legalistic reading of the conditions of the competition. The whole unemployed population was rounded up to be killed in this way, and eventually the unrest spread to the ruling class, who also found themselves fed to the murderous machine. Only the inventor was left, alone on his world, surrounded by the glassy remains of his victims.

Lem was an intellectual, who used SF to explore philosophical problems and concepts. He could create very serious works like Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, or hilarious fables, often with a strongly satirical edge, like The Futurological Congress and the Cyberiad. I think that short story was written in the 1970s. But it’s coming true, very quickly, and needs to be tackled.

But what’s the odds we’re going to get the dystopian option, ’cause the elites running society, the economy and the media, simply won’t want to create a more egalitarian society as the price of solving the problem. Get ready for Megacity 1. Assuming, of course, that they don’t try turning us into the equivalent of the little black glass discs.

Robothespian, the British Robotic Actor

October 25, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece about a performance of Karel Capek’s classic play about a robot rebellion, RUR, at the Czech national library a few years ago by a theatre group, Café Neu Romance, using lego robots. The theatre company was the creation of Vive Les Robots, a Danish company set up to encourage public interest in robots and robotics. I said in the article that I thought it would be good if the play could be performed by full-sized robots, to give it the stature it deserves. I realise, however, that was unlikely given how massively expensive the animatronic technology is, that brings to life robotic puppets like Ry’gel from the SF series Farscape.

One British company, Engineered Arts, has created such a full size mechanical actor. It’s called Robothespian, and there are a number of videos about it on YouTube. The video below shows it, appropriately enough, talking about R.U.R. as part of Café Neu Romance, a robot arts festival, at the Czech National Technical Library in 2012.

Robothespian has also appeared on British breakfast television. In this clip from the Beeb’s Breakfast TV programme from 2014, the two presenters talk about, and sometimes to Robothespian with Dr Nigel Crook of Oxford Brookes University. The robot was created by Engineered Arts as a research project to explore the ways people interact with robots. Crook explains that it can respond to a number of voice commands, and the two presenters ask it questions such as what advantages robots have over human beings. Crook also explains that despite this ability, real intelligence is a long way off, and the problem of giving the robot the ability to hold a genuinely intelligent, wide-ranging conversation is very challenging. So right now, the machine responds giving the answers programmed into it by a human operator.

Robothespian, or Artie, as it is called, from RT – Robothespian – replies to the question about its usefulness that robots can perform simple, repetitive tasks accurately without tiring, or needing to go for breaks. They ask it if it could do their job. Its answer is that it certainly could, as all they do is read from an autocue. So when does it start?

The machine has a range of expressive hand gestures, a moving mouth, and two screens in its head, which show images of eyes. These blink, helping it show a number of expressions. They also show hearts, like those shown in the eyes of cartoon characters to indicate they have fallen in love. The two presenters are, however, advised to stand a few feet away from the robot. Crook explains it is compliant, which means that, unlike an industrial robot, it won’t blindly continue to perform a gesture if it accidentally strikes someone who happens to stand in the way. Similarly, it’s possible to pull the robot’s limbs away from where they’ve settled without damaging it. Nevertheless, the presenters were advised to stand clear of it just in case it accidentally flipped back and struck them.

As well as delivering monologues, Robothespian can also sing, giving a hilarious rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and do impressions, like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Crook explains that it was built to act as a guide at museums, festivals and exhibitions. The two presenters ask about its gender, and are told that it’s creators think of it as male, as it’s been given a male voice.

Also on the show is a little feature about a robot toy, Caspar, which is used in schools to teach autistic children. The toy was being tried out as a teaching tool as autistic people can find it immensely challenging understanding other’s emotions. They also like things in a very set order. Caspar is useful in that its responses, although intended to mimic those of humans, are always the same. For example, when it smiles, that smile is always the same smile every time it makes that expression. And this regularity and constancy of expression is intended to be reassuring and non-threatening, so that the child using it finds it easy, or easier to do so, than more conventional forms of interaction with people.

Robothespian isn’t cheap. Crook explains that it costs about £50,000. Despite this, Engineered Arts have built more than one of them. In this video from last year, 2015, two of them sing, ‘I Am Not A Robot’.

I find robots and robotics interesting, but I am very much aware of the problems they pose. There are the general philosophical issues like human identity and uniqueness – how long before they develop real intelligence and consciousness, start performing sophisticated task like creating art or composing music, or resent at their enslavement and control by humans? There are also the very real social and economic problems caused by their manufacture. The more industry is automated, the more real jobs, that could be performed by people, are lost. The Beeb a few months ago broadcast a documentary which forecast that in the next 15-20 years a third of all jobs could be lost in Britain. You can certainly see it in retail, where a number of companies have replaced human staff with self-service tills, where you scan in yourself the items you want to purchase into the machine, which then takes your money and hands you your change and receipt. If we aren’t careful, this will lead to the emergence of a society very much like that of 2000 AD’s Megacity One. Judge Dredd’s home city has, thanks to robots, a massive unemployment rate of 95% or so. As a result, most people’s lives are marked by boredom and despair, a situation brought home in the classic ‘Judge Dredd’ story, ‘Un-American Graffitti’, featuring Chopper, a teenage lad trying to escape this crushing social malaise through ever more daring pieces of graffiti artwork. 2000 AD and the ‘Dredd’ strip in particular always had a very strong element of satire and social commentary, and this was one of the most outstanding examples of the strip telling an entertaining story while also describing the real situation many of its readers faced for real due to Thatcherism.

And unfortunately, despite the boom years of the 1990s, the prospect of long-term unemployment and grinding poverty has got worse, due to globalism and the spread of neoliberalism as the dominant political and economic ideology. This will only get worse unless humanity finds ways to manage robotic technology wisely, to create jobs, rather than to the replace them.