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The Overlord on Rumours that Mark Hamill Has Sold Image for Hollywood CGI Clone of Luke Skywalker

‘The Overlord’ is another YouTube channel devoted to news and views about genre cinema and television. It’s hosted by Dictor von Doomcock, a masked alien supervillain supposedly living at the centre of the Earth. And who is definitely not impressed at all at the state of contemporary popular culture, and particularly the way beloved film classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and so on are now being trashed by producers who have no respect for these series and their fans. And in this video he talks about the bizarre next step in this process: the recreation of favourite film characters like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker through CGI, completely removing the need for human actors.

A website, WDW Pro, has claimed that Disney are looking for ways they can break the pause in filming imposed by the Coronavirus lockdown. They are therefore looking at ways to do without human actors. They have therefore been looking at a technological solution to this problem, using the same computer techniques used to create the films The Lion King of 2019 and the 2016 film version of The Jungle Book, as well as the facial recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue 1. Frustrated at the hold-up filming the third Guardians of the Galaxy flick, Disney will use the technology, Cosmic Rewind, to create a completely computer generated movie, but one that would be presented as using human characters. This is going to be an experiment to test the possibility of creating films without human actors and the need for their salaries. According to a rumour, which WDW Pro has not been able to confirm, the projected film is about Young Indy, and its effectiveness will be tested when a rollercoaster based on the film comes on as part of Disneyworld.

Lucasfilm has also apparently made a deal with Mark Hamill within the last 18 months in which he has signed over his image to them so that they can use it to create a CGI Luke Skywalker. This Virtual Skywalker may also be used in the projected Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars theme park. However, due to the project’s severe financial problems, this may not happen anytime soon. Disney are slowly moving towards using this technology to dispense with human actors so that they won’t have to suffer a similar pause in filming ever again, although they won’t move away from human actors altogether immediately.

Doomcock himself laments this development, and feels that it is inevitable in a world where Deep Fake technology has advanced so far that we don’t know if the people we see or the news we watch are real, or that the characters we see on the screen are brought to life by real actors using the skills and craft they have learned. He wonders what will happen to our civilisation – what we will lose – if everything we see on the screen is synthetic, and we are removed another step again from reality and anything that has ‘heart’. It might all be all right, but it seems to him that the more we remove the human element from art and culture and make it the creation of AIs, the more removed we are from our culture.

He also vents his spleen about the choice of subject for this putative movie, pointing out that there was a TV series about Young Indiana Jones years ago, and nobody wanted it. He recommends instead that if this grave-robbing technology is to be used, it should be used to recreate the mature Indy of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. He also criticises Hamill for what he sees as his poor judgement in making the deal with Disney. Hamill should know personally how a poor director can ruin a beloved legacy character, the actor’s own contribution and a favourite film franchise through his experience playing Skywalker in The Last Jedi. He famously wept on set during that movie and bitterly criticised the director’s decisions. He’s sarcastic about the respect Disney shows such legacy characters. It’s rumoured that George Lucas is returning to helm the Star Wars films, in which everything will be fine and we can look forward to a bright, new golden age. But considering the potential for abuse, Doomcock states that he is dismayed, flabbergasted and disgusted by Hamill’s decision and fearful for humanity’s future. As human culture becomes made by machines, hasn’t Skynet won? Who needs to launch nukes, when we have a CGI Skywalker dancing like a monkey in a bikini?

Here’s the video, but as Doomcock himself warns you, it isn’t for children. It has adult humour. Blatantly adult humour.

As you can see, there’s more than a little hyperbole in Doomcock’s argument, and some people will take issue at what he views as the humiliation of Luke Skywalker to push a feminist or anti-racist message, like Black Lives Matter. But his fears of the abuse of such technology aren’t unfounded, and have been around for quite some time. The possibility that actors would sell their images to film companies to recreate them Virtually, while making the flesh and blood person redundant, was explored a few years ago in the SF film The Congress by Ari Folman. This was loosely based on the Stanislaw Lem novel, The Futurological Congress, but is very different, and, in my opinion, inferior. For one thing, the Lem novel is hilariously funny, while the movie is grim and depressing. The movie is about a Hollywood actress, Robin Wright, playing herself, who makes precisely the deal Hamill is rumoured to have made. She then stars in a series of action movies, including one sequence that is definitely a tip to Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove. But this is all computer animation. The Wright herself isn’t remotely involved in their filming. Indeed, it is a condition of her contract that she not act at all, and live the rest of her life in a very comfortable retirement. These developments are followed by the discovery of a drug that allows people to enter a vast, consensual Virtual Reality, in which they can be and do anyone and anything they want. The world’s masses abandon reality, so that civilisation decays into a very grim, dystopia of ruin, poverty and misery. At one point Wright takes the drug, which will return her to reality, only to find herself in a food queue in a burned out, abandoned building. Unable to come with this, she returns to the Virtual world to search for the son she lost while in a coma as a result of a terrorist attack on the Las Vegas congress she was attending at which the hallucinogenic drug was launched. As I said, it’s a depressing film in which such illusions really are bringing about the destruction of humanity. And there is no escape, except into the Virtual world that has caused it.

The film follows a number of other SF works that have also predicted similar dystopias brought about by the hyperreality of mass entertainment. This includes John D. MacDonald’s short story, Spectator Sport, in which a time traveller appears in a future in which all human achievement has ceased as the public live out their lives as characters in VR plays. Another, similar tale is Good Night, Sophie, by the Italian writer Lino Aldani, about an actress in a similar world in which people live harsh, austere lives in order to escape into a far brighter, more vivid fantasy world of entertainment. Rather less pessimistic was the appearance of the SF film, Final Fantasy, all those years ago. This was supposed to be the first film in which all the characters were CGI, and who were supposedly indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood reality. The fact that further films like it haven’t been made suggests that, reassuringly, people want real humans in their movies, not computer simulations.

We’ve also seen the appearance of a number of computer generated celebrities. The first of these was the vid jockey, Max Headroom on Channel 4 in the 1980s. He was supposed to  be entirely computer-generated, but in reality was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer under a lot of makeup. Then in the 1990s William Gibson, one of the creators of Cyberpunk SF, published Idoru. This was a novel about a man, who begins an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Soon after it came out, a Japanese company announced that it had created its own Virtual celeb, a female pop star. Gibson’s books are intelligent, near-future SF which contain more than an element of the ‘literature as warning’. The worlds of his Cyberspace books are dystopias, warnings of the kind of society that may emerge if the technology gets out of hand or corporations are given too much power. The creation of the Virtual pop star looked instead as though the corporation had uncritically read Gibson, and thought what he was describing was a good idea.

But going further back, I seem to recall that there was a programme on late at night, presented by Robert Powell, on the impact the new information technology would have on society. It was on well after my bedtime, and children didn’t have their own TVs in those days. Or at least, not so much. I therefore didn’t see it, only read about it in the Radio Times. But one of its predictions was that there would be widespread unemployment caused by automation. This would include actors, who would instead by replaced by computer simulations.

Computer technology has also been used to create fresh performances by deceased stars, sometimes duetting with contemporary performers. This worried one of my aunts when it appeared in the 1980s/90s. Dead performers have also been recreated as holograms, to make the stage or television appearances they never made in life. The late, great comedian Les Dawson was revived as one such image, giving post-mortem Audience With… on ITV. It was convincing, and based very much on Dawson’s own live performances and work. It was good to see him again, even if only as Virtual ghost, and a reminder of how good he was when alive.

I don’t know how reliable the rumours Doomcock reports and on which he comments are. This could all be baseless, and come to nothing. But I share his fears about the damage to our culture, if we allow our films and television to be generated by technicians and algorithms rather than flesh and blood thesps. Especially as the rising cost of movies mean that the film companies are unwilling to take risks and seem determined to rake over and exploit past classics rather than experiment with creating fresh material.

CGI’s a great tool. It’s used to create vividly real worlds and creatures. But I don’t want it replacing humans. Even if that means waiting a few years for new flicks to come out.

 

‘Mr H Reviews’ on the Casting of Robot Lead in SF Film

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 09/08/2020 - 12:26am in

‘Mr H Reviews’ is a YouTube channel specialising in news and opinions on genre films – SF, Fantasy and Horror. In the video below he comments on a piece in the Hollywood Reporter about the production of a new SF movie, which will for the first time star a genuine AI. The movie is simply titled b. Financed by Bondit Capital, which also funded the film Loving Vincent, with the Belgium-based Happy Moon Productions and New York’s Top Ten Media, the film is based on a story by the special effects director Eric Pham with Tarek Zohdy and Sam Khoze. It is about a scientist, who becomes unhappy with a programme to perfect human DNA and helps the AI woman he has created to escape. 

The robot star, Erica, was created by the Japanese scientists/ engineers Hiroshi Ishigura and Hohei Ogawa for another film. The two, according to the Reporter, taught her to act. That film, which was to be directed by Tony Kaye, who made American History X, fell through. Some scenes for the present movie were already shot in Japan in 2019, and the rest will be shot in Europe next year, 2021.

The decision to make a movie starring a robot looks like an attempt to get round the problems of filming caused by the Coronavirus. However, it also raises a number of other issues. One of these, which evidently puzzle the eponymous Mr H, is how a robot can possibly act. Are they going to use takes and give it direction, as they would a human, or will it instead simply be done perfectly first time, thanks to someone on a keyboard somewhere programming it? He is quite enthusiastic about the project with some reservations. He supports the idea of a real robot playing a robot, but like most of us rejects the idea that robots should replace human actors. He also agrees with the project being written by a special effects supervisor, because such a director would obviously be aware of how such a project should be shot.

But it also ties in with an earlier video he has made about the possible replacement of humans by their Virtual simulacra. According to another rumour going round, Mark Hamill has signed away his image to Lucas Film, so that Luke Skywalker can be digitally recreated using CGI on future Star Wars films. Mr H ponders if this is the future of film now, and that humans are now going to be replaced by their computer generated doubles.

In some ways, this is just the culmination of processes that have been going on in SF films for some time. Animatronics – robot puppets – have been used in Science Fiction films since the 1990s, though admittedly the technology has been incorporated into costumes worn by actors. But not all the time. Several of the creatures in the American/Australian SF series Farscape were such animatronic robots, such as the character Rygel. Some of the robots features in a number of SF movies were entirely mechanical. The ABC Warrior which appears in the 1990s Judge Dredd film with Sylvester Stallone was deliberately entirely mechanical. The producers wished to show that it definitely wasn’t a man in a suit. C-3PO very definitely was played by a man in a metal costume, Anthony Daniels, but I noticed in the first of the prequels, The Phantom Menace, that a real robot version of the character appears in several scenes. Again, this is probably to add realism to the character. I also think that in the original movie, Episode 4: A New Hope, there were two versions of R2D2 used. One was the metal suit operated by Kenny Baker, and I think the other was entirely mechanical, operated by radio. Dr. Who during Peter Davison’s era as the Doctor also briefly had a robot companion. This was Kameleon, a shape-changing android, who made his first appearance in The King’s Demons. He was another radio-operated robot, though voiced by a human actor. However the character was never used, and his next appearance was when he died in the story Planet of Fire.

And then going further back, there’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mad plan to create a robotic Salvador Dali for his aborted 1970s version of Dune. Dali was hired as one of the concept artists, along with H.R. Giger and the legendary Chris Foss. Jodorowsky also wanted him to play the Galactic Emperor. Dali agreed, in return for a payment of $1 million. But he stipulated that he was only going to act for half an hour. So in order to make sure they got enough footage of the great Surrealist and egomaniac, Jodorowsky was going to build a robot double. The film would also have starred Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Mick Jagger as Feyd Rautha, as well as Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontes, as Paul Atreides. The film was never made, as the producers pulled the plug at the last minute wondering what was happening to it. I think part of the problem may have been that it was going well over budget. Jodorowsky has said that all the effort that went into it wasn’t wasted, however, as he and the artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud used the ideas developed for the film for their comic series, The Incal. I think that Jodorowsky’s version of Dune would have been awesome, but would have been far different to the book on which it was based.

I also like the idea of robots performing as robots in an SF movie. A few years ago an alternative theatre company specialising in exploring issues of technology and robotics staged a performance in Prague of the classic Karel Capek play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, using toy robots. I can see the Italian Futurists, rabid Italian avant-garde artists who praised youth, speed, violence and the new machine world around the time of the First World War, being wildly enthusiastic about this. Especially as, in the words of their leader and founder, Tommasso Marinetti, they looked ‘for the union of man and machine’. But I really don’t want to see robots nor CGI recreations replace human actors.

Many films have been put on hold because of the Coronavirus, and it looks like the movie industry is trying to explore all its options for getting back into production. However, the other roles for this movie haven’t been filled and so I do wonder if it will actually be made.

It could be one worth watching, as much for the issues it raises as its story and acting.

Peter Kuznick: Why Did Americans Accept Barbaric Slaughter of Japanese Civilians?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/08/2020 - 11:55pm in

In 1939, Roosevelt decried targeting civilians as “inhuman barbarism”. In 1945, the U.S. firebombed Japanese cities and dropped nuclear bombs.

19 Years Ago Private Eye Revealed New Labour Plans to Privatise NHS and Education

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 4:07am in

One of the good aspects of Private Eye that has kept me reading it – just about – is the way it has covered the deep and pernicious connections between the political parties and big business. And in their issue for 15th-28 June 2001, right at the beginning of Blair’s second term in government, the Eye revealed his plans to privatise the NHS and the education system in the article ‘How the New Government Will Work’. This ran

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are in two minds: should they privatise the entire delivery of public services or just some of it? To help them decide they are consulting the best minds money can buy.

For a start, Downing Street has a report from the Blairite Institute for Public Policy Research. It recommends that private firms deliver health and education on the widest possible scale. The report, a final paper from IPPR’s “Commission on Public Private Partnerships”, claims that “the crucial ingredient that the private sector possesses and the public sector needs is management.”

The report was paid for by the Serco “institute”, a front for the firm which privately runs a slew of Britain’s prisons and immigration detention centres, including the grim “Doncatraz” Doncaster gaol. Serco failed to win the air traffic control privatisation precisely because of worries about its management.

The report was also supported by Nomura, Japanese bank with a big interest in private finance initiative-style (PFI) deals: Nomura’s management of army housing under PFI has been lamentable. KPMG chipped in to support the report as well. It is not a disinterested party either. KPMG advised on 29 hospital PFI schemes, and many other deals outside health.

The giant accountant’s role in these hospital sell-offs has only come under indepdent scrutiny once: at Dartford and Gravesham hospital. The national audit office (NAO) found that, despite KPMG’s “healthcare” advice, the new hospital probably made no financial saving but did cut beds drastically. KPMG’s own fees were originally tendered at £152,000. It finally billed the NHS for £960,000. For good measure, the Norwich Union, which also put millions in PFI, invested in the IPPR report too.

Martin Taylor, chancellor Brown’s friend who used to run Barclays Bank, acted as “commissioner” in drawing up the IPPR’s advice. He is perfectly suited to the job: as an adviser to Goldman Sachs he is in the pay of a multinational bank which wants to make a profit out of Britain’s poor. Goldman Sachs is involved in PFI: it originally funded the PFI buy-out of all Britain’s dole offices.

As the “honorary secretary” of the Bilderberg group, Taylor is also involved in the secretive corporate schmoozing of big name politicians (he signed up for Bilderberg originally alongside Peter Mandelson). And when he ran Barclays, he showed his “secret ingredient” was disastrous management. Under his stewardship the bank lost £250m gambling in Russian financial markets, and had to stump up £300m to bail out the absurd American “hedge fund”, Long Term Capital Markets.

Eventually Taylor was ousted by a boardroom battle in November 1998 before he could cause more damage. Now he’s decided to help the public sector.

The treasury meanwhile wants to take a second look at IPPR’s prediction about the efficiency of privatisation. In particular chancellor Brown wants to test the idea that the private sector gets greater productivity out of employers through “reskilling”, “efficient shift systems and better motivation” – rather than low pay, poor conditions, long hours and casualisation.

To test the theory he will commission a study by the Office of Government Commerce. This office in turn also has a private manager: Peter Gershon, Britain’s highest paid civil servant on £180,000 a year, plus performance benefits and a three-year contract.

He was formerly chief operating officer at British Aerospace. But far from being expert in efficiency, BAe is best at massive cost overruns, project failures and non-competitive tendering. The managers in charge of the Tornado, Bowman Radio and Type 45 destroyer programmes – all plagued with late delivery and technical problems – reported directly to Gershon.

Since then, Serco have become notorious for their massive inefficiency and the inhuman conditions at the prisons and detention centres they run. One of the most notorious of the latter was Yarl’s Wood, which was so atrocious the asylum seekers rioted. And I don’t think that was only one either. I also remember the outrage that the government’s sale of the army barracks to Nomura caused.

Goldman Sachs and Lehmann’s Bank caused the 2008 world banking crash, ushering over two decades of cuts and austerity, which has made conditions for the poor even more worse. For those who are managing to survive the low pay, monstrous levels of debt, and the almost non-existent welfare state. This has forced millions of people onto food banks to keep body and soul together, and hundreds of thousands are suffering from starvation, or ‘food poverty’ as the media now delicately put it. And I forget what the death toll from this is, it’s so high.

As for low pay, poor conditions and job insecurity – that all increased under Gordon Brown, and has increased even more so under the Tories, as it all keeps the working woman and man down, cowed and fearful, in her and his place.

And the Bilderbergers will be familiar to anyone interested in conspiracy theories. They were some of the ‘Secret Rulers of the World’ covered by Jon Ronson in his documentary series on Channel 4 of the same name.

I dare say some of the names involved in the privatisation agenda has changed, but you can bet it’s all going to come in with Starmer, despite his retention of Corbyn’s election manifesto. ‘Cause that was popular. Now it looks like he’ll undermine it by starting to ignore it.

And we’re back to Blairite misery, despair, poverty and starvation again. Except for the multinationals and their utterly talentless managers. It all looks pretty good for them.

Brexit and Inertia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/07/2020 - 6:00pm in

Things have changed very little on the Brexit front, which is not good.

Furious! Tories Include NHS in Secret Trade Deal with Trump

I’m afraid it’s taken me a few days to get round to this story, but it’s partly because this whole, shabby deal has made me so enraged. Mike put up a piece a few days ago reporting that the Tories have lied to us. Despite their fervent denials, they have put the NHS on the table to Donald Trump. This means the privatisation of the NHS as a whole comes that bit closer, and medicines are going to be more expensive. Because what Trump’s donors in big pharma really hate is a big state machine demanding value for money and affordable drugs. Some of us still remember the moan of one of these company heads when he took over the firm making the anti-AIDS drugs. He immediately raised the price to exorbitant amounts as he didn’t want to make them for poor Indians. I think his name was Martin Shkreli, and he was torn to shreds for his disgusting attitude on social media. But the attitude against supplying cheap drugs is still there.

Mike in his article pointed out how the Tories lied to us. Jeremy Corbyn told the public the truth. He presented the evidence, but was shouted down by the paid liars of corporate media, who carried on smearing him and his followers as anti-Semites. As Mike showed, one of those claiming that the NHS was not going to be included in the deal was Laura Kuenssberg. She claimed it would be far too unpopular. Well, it would be if more people knew about it, I suppose. But it’s been kept off the front page so far by the scandal about Russian interference, so I’m guessing that the Tories hope that their grubby deal has been successfully buried.

Mike also pointed out in his article that the Tories have a proprietorial attitude towards the Health Service. It isn’t ours, it’s theirs, and they can, in their view, do what the devil they like with it. There’s so much truth in this. When David Cameron was busy preparing the dismemberment of the NHS eight years ago with his disgusting Health and Social Care bill, there was a meme showing just how many Tory and other MPs were connected to private healthcare companies, or companies supplying the NHS, that would stand to profit from the deal. And there was no shortage of them – over 100. This is all for the profit of Dodgy Dave, Bozo and their friends and donors in private healthcare.

It also shows how little libertarian internet personality Sargon of Gasbag really knows about free market capitalism as it really exists, as opposed to the idealised version he’s taken over from the panting disciples of von Hayek, Mises and Milton Friedman. When the possibility that the Tories would include it in the deal with Trump first broke, the Sage of Swindon put up a piece on YouTube denying that such a deal would be made. This was because no private businessman would want it.

Sargon obviously hasn’t been paying attention for the past couple of decades. Because ever since John Major’s time American companies have been desperate to get their claws into Britain’s NHS. It began with the private healthcare insurance fraudsters Unum, who advised Major’s health secretary, Peter Lilley. And when Major lost the 1997 election to Blair, Unum simply moved in there. Along with other American companies. Blair even decided he wanted to remodel the commissioning system of the NHS on American private healthcare company Kaiserpermanente, because he thought mistakenly they were able to provide better value for money.

The Tories and the media lied to the British public. As Mike states in his article, the Tories are inveterate liars. But they succeeded in getting the British public to believe them, handing them an 80 seat majority. Because Boris was going ‘to get Brexit done’. And Brexit would be absolutely wonderful, we’d be able to have all these wonderful trade deals made on our terms without the interference of the EU. And we wouldn’t have to worry about all the nasty bureaucracy we’d need to travel to or trade with the Continent, because all that was just lies dreamed up by Project Fear.

That was also a lie, as Zelo Street has also shown in his articles about it. No-one is queuing up to trade with us on our terms. The Japanese have made it very clear that any deal they make with us will be very much on theirs. And I have no doubt Donald Trump has made the same point. Outside the great trading block of the EU, we are very weak and vulnerable. The Tories need Trump’s trade deal, and so it was almost inevitable that despite their weasely denials, they’d fold and give into him.

Not that selling off the NHS isn’t something they haven’t wanted to do since Margaret Thatcher planned on doing it in the 1980s. Or when a section of the Tories in 1948 refused to back the NHS as it was too expensive, and then returned in the 1950s to demand its denationalisation.

If this deal goes through, it will bring even closer the Tories’ dream of replacing the NHS with a private healthcare system, funded through private health insurance. Where if you don’t have the cash, you try getting your treatment from medicare or the charity hospital. Something like 20 per cent of Americans can’t afford their health insurance. As Mike says, 3/4 of all bankruptcies in the US come from Americans unable to pay their medical bills.

It will mean a return to the terrible, deeply unequal provision of medical care that existed before Labour’s foundation of the NHS in 1948. When millions of working people couldn’t afford the doctor. And what is also boiling my blood is that Nandy and Starmer are complicit in this privatisation. Blair would also liked to have privatised the NHS, although I think he would still have kept it funded by the state. But Nandy revealed on the Andrew Marr show that she and Starmer would also have kept the NHS’ inclusion in Trump’s trade talks secret as well.

British working men and women are being sold into grinding poverty, debt, despair, starvation, illness and death for the corporate profit of a Thatcherite political and media class. Mike in his piece comments about how generous the Beeb and newspaper hacks, who stand by when deals like this are being made and dutifully keep their keyboards and mouths shut, or hail it as a success in bringing more private investment into the NHS, are rewarded with personal private healthcare cover for themselves.

Because you can bet that they have. Just as Tory bigwigs have connections to the big private healthcare firms slavering to buy up the NHS.

Here’s how the Tories reneged on their promises to protect ‘our’ NHS

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/07/brexit-ball-and-chain-exposed.html

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/07/brexiteers-meet-project-reality.html

Apparently the government has no money but then has plenty

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/06/2020 - 2:02pm in

Things are obviously getting desperate out there in financial media commentary land. If one could express written text in graphical terms then there are a number of financial journalists out there that look – like a rabbit caught in the headlights – that is in a state “of paralyzing surprise, fear, or bewilderment.” A good example of this increasingly observed syndrome is an article in The Australian newspaper today (June 30, 2020) by Adam Creighton – Never forget that governments have no money – it is always ours (subscription required). This sort of journalism is becoming an almost daily occurrence as it becomes obvious that capitalism is now on state life support systems and the extremities of government intervention are demonstrating very clearly what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been saying – and the only ones that have been saying it – for 25 years or so. I often note that Japan has already pushed the fiscal and monetary policy parameters beyond the limits most countries have explored in peacetime and mainstream economists have systematically predicted various scales of disaster and have always been wrong. Now all countries are at extremes and still no fiscal disaster. But the mainstream mouthpieces – these financial journalists who seem to think the stuff they read in first-year text books from mainstream economics programs are in same way the basis for expertise and knowledge – are in advanced states of dissonance. Drivel follows.

By next weekend, a better article will appear in The Australian – the details of which I will make public soon.

The conservatives and the pretentious self-styled economists in Australia who just mouth mainstream nonsense are having conniptions at present as a result of one of their own seemingly demonstrating some support for MMT.

I refer to ABC finance report and correspondent in The Australian Alan Kohler, who in recent weeks has written a few articles demonstrating he is coming to terms with MMT.

Go back to the March, when I wrote this blog post – It’s Modern Monetary Theory time! No, it always has been! (March 23, 2020).

This was a discussion in response to an article that Alan Kohler had written in The Australian (March 23, 2020) – It’s Modern Monetary Theory time as the state steps in (subscription required).

There were problems with the article which I pointed out.

Alan reached out to me that morning and we had a long conversation on the following Wednesday, which was published by Alan on his high profile podcasting service.

I also made the podcast available – My podcast with Alan Kohler (March 30, 2020) – once it was published by Alan on his site.

It has proven to be a popular podcast and may have shifted Alan’s thinking a little.

He has followed it up with other podcasts and articles that suggest he is no longer hostile to MMT.

On Twitter, he has been getting a lot of flack from various kouky, or should that be kooky, characters who are desperately uncertain now that their standard mainstream narratives are falling apart and MMT is broadening its appeal to people who are seeing evidence unfold that gives them confidence in our work.

It is interesting to see their discomfort.

They can easily ignore academics like me. But they would have thought, given his high public profile, that Alan Kohler was ‘one’ of them. Safely embedded in their Groupthink, and a defender of their myths and fictions.

The evidence is that the club is breaking down. There will be many more deserters as it becomes more and more obvious to people that mainstream macroeconomics has run its race – and came last.

Adam Creighton’s byline tells us he “is an award-winning journalist with a special interest in tax and financial policy. He was a Journalist in Residence at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 2019”.

Must be a pretty thin field in line for the awards one suspects. And he seems to have over sampled the Chicago monetarist kool-aid!

Moreover, he needs a copy editor. The narrative proves itself wrong as he stumbles through the normal arguments, not realising that statements he makes in a seemingly disconnected way, disprove statements he has made in the previous paragraph.

Never mind consistency.

This is rabbits and headlights stuff.

Creighton starts with this classic:

Governments have become so pervasive it’s easy to forget they have no money of their own. They fund themselves in two ways: taxation and borrowing.

Which raises the obvious question – where do the people/organisations that pay tax get the currency from?

And where do the people who adjust their saving (wealth) portfolio by swapping one or more assets held to add government bonds, get their savings from in the first place?

And what is the Reserve Bank of Australia doing when it credits bank accounts on behalf of the Australian government – typing numbers into bank accounts – which the accountant/statistician records as government spending?

And what does that little piece of legislation – Currency Act 1965 – mean?

And for that matter the – Reserve Bank Act 1959 – if the Australian government has no currency of its own?

Then, next paragraph, as he launches into characterising MMT as part of a ‘loony left’ type fantasy he effectively contradicts his opening line.

He writes:

Modern Monetary Theory, a set of ideas with growing appeal, especially on the left of politics, posits a third way: simply creating money. Governments can instruct their central banks to create money, which their treasuries can spend on whatever they want, ideally soaking up spare capacity in the economy, so the argument goes. It would be wonderful were this true, but there is no third way.

Okay, it sounds like governments do have their own currency and the central bank is part of government (not the attribution “their central banks” and “their treasuries”).

The ‘left-wing’ narrative is clearly part of Creighton’s agenda – as if he thinks the old ‘Cold War’ stuff goes down these days.

But he thinks that:

MMT is the left-wing version of the extreme supply-side economics of the 1980s that propounded that government could raise tax revenue by lowering taxes.

The reference to the 1980s is apparently to the Laffer curve.

Problem is that this is a decade or more out.

In fact, Arthur Laffer, who was an economics professor at Chicago, who had dinner one night in 1974 with Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and journalist Jude Wanniski at some swish hotel in the capital.

The topic was President Ford’s tax policy and deficit fears. Laffer apparently drew a diagram on a serviette at the restaurant which purported to show that if the government cuts taxes it would increase its tax revenue.

Evidence has never supported the diagram. But never let some facts get in the way of a theory – that has always been the mainstream way!

Wanniski, who was at the dinner with Laffer and co, was the person who promoted the term ‘supply-side’ economics in his book – The Way the World Works (published 1978) – after Nixon’s economic advisor, Herbert Stein introduced the term to give succour to Laffer’s ideas in 1976.

In fact, Reagan never really pursued ‘supply-side’ fiscal strategies to deal with inflation in the 1980s. The Federal Reserve boss Paul Volcker used what was then conventional monetary policy to purge inflationary expectations, which really only were purged during the 1991 recession.

What really defined the 1980s in the US was not so much supply-side economics but the ‘starve the beast’ strategies that Ronald Reagan, on advice from Dave Stockman, pursued in those times.

Dave Stockman thought he was a genius by devising what he thought was a devilishly clever strategy whereby the government would cut taxes and run the fiscal deficit up, and then, after people were used to the lower tax regime, the government would have political support to introduce massive spending cuts based on a fear campaign about deficits.

That way, the Republican dream of small government would be achieved.

The only problem the strategy didn’t work.

So how this relates to MMT is rather obtuse to say the least.

Apparently, Creighton thinks that MMT is best characterised as claiming there is a “costless way to finance government spending” and channelling, presumably one of his ideals, “there are still no free” lunches.

And, coup de grace (apparently);

“Money creation” is just another form of borrowing.

I gave an interview for the ABC this morning which will be featured in the coming days. The Deputy Governor of the RBA, who I supervised as an honours student way back in time, is also a guest. It will be an interesting juxtaposition.

But part of the interview was aimed at disabusing the notion of “money creation” or ‘printing money’.

The mainstream textbook rendition is that governments do not have their own money unless they print it (go wild)!

So they have to either ‘spend taxes’ or ‘spend borrowed funds’ if they have ‘overspent taxes’. Alternative, they can go wild and just ‘print the stuff’.

This characterisation is totally inapplicable.

Governments are spending every day by crediting bank accounts (as above).

They don’t need tax revenue or bond sales to do that unless they introduce voluntary accounting rules that say that accounting records of tax receipts have to be a certain set of numbers before they can instruct the central bank to credit bank accounts as spending.

Similarly, with bond auctions.

But even with these artificial institutional arrangements, the funds from taxes and bond sales are irrelevant from the perspective of the intrinsic capacity of the currency-issuing government to spend.

So they are always ‘creating currency’ and spending it into existence, irrespective of these accounting gymnastics.

The no ‘free lunch’ argument provides a segue into one of the important distinguishing features of MMT, which makes the claims by many that there is ‘nothing new’ or ‘we knew it all along’ pale.

Mainstream economists talk about a ‘government budget constraint’ as an a priori (before the fact) financial constraint on government spending.

In fact, it is just an after the fact accounting record of a number of spending and monetary operations.

But the important point is that it is without doubt that the government has the capacity to type big numbers into computers and call it spending. That breaks us from the mainstream myths.

But there is no ‘free lunch’ at full employment. If there are idle productive resources – then the lunch can be very cheap indeed.

The way that MMT economists correctly characterise this is to say that financially there are no constraints on government spending but there are real resource constraints and if the government wants to maintain price stability then it has to calibrate spending to fit within the real constraints.

In other words, the numbers that appear in fiscal statements that the mainstream call ‘costs’ are not what MMT calls a cost.

We calculate the ‘cost’ of a government policy decision in terms of the change it makes to current real resource usage.

For example, the extra food a Job Guarantee worker might be able to consume as a result of having a job and an income is a cost of the program.

Typing numbers into computers to operationalise government spending is not a cost (although the energy needed to run the computers is).

The real resources that are deployed as a result of the spending represent a ‘cost’ because they might have been used in another use.

So, in what way then does this mean that the government always has to borrow?

Creighton offers an example:

Imagine the government made JobKeeper payments without issuing bonds or raising taxes. The Reserve Bank would have to “create money” by making a loan to the Treasury, recording it as an asset. At the same time these billions in JobKeeper payments would be recorded as an increase in the value of banks’ deposits held with the Reserve Bank, an offsetting liability of the Reserve Bank.

The private banks in turn would allocate these payments to their customers’ deposit accounts.

The recipients could spend their JobKeeper payments as they wished, causing money to shift among banks, but in aggregate the banking system cannot get rid of the additional money.

Meanwhile, the central bank must pay interest on commercial banks’ deposits. So what started out looking like “money creation” ended up being a loan from the private banking system to the central bank, which increased its asset and liabilities in the process.

This just relates the discussion that entered the early MMT literature about the impossibility of so-called ‘debt monetisation’.

I discussed that issue in the introductory suite of blog posts:

1. Deficit spending 101 – Part 1 (February 21, 2009).

2. Deficit spending 101 – Part 2 (February 23, 2009)

3. Deficit spending 101 – Part 3 (March 2, 2009).

Obviously, if the central bank wants to target a positive policy interest rate, and fiscal deficits are adding net financial assets to the banking system, which shows up in the reserve accounts that the banks have to hold at the central bank, then the central bank has to drain those excess reserves by offering to exchange government debt instruments (or any acceptable collateral actually) in exchange for the reserves.

The banks will make that swap because typically the excess reserves earn nothing or earn below competitive interest rates.

The reason the central bank would do that is because in trying to find a competitive return on the excess reserves, the banks will seek to loan them to other banks on the interbank market.

But as Creighton correctly observes, these intra-bank loans cannot rid the system of an overall excess of reserves.

So the competitive efforts by the banks, which shuffle reserves around drives down the short-term interest rate to zero (if there is no central bank support rate paid on excess reserves), and, as a consequence, the central bank loses control of monetary policy (expressed as some positive short-term interest rate target).

Of course, in recent times, most central banks have shifted to paying a competitive rate on excess reserves.

Only MMT accurately described all of that in the literature.

And this led us to note that whether the government issues debt to the non-government sector or just instructs the central bank to pay interest on excess reserves is functionally equivalent in a conceptual sense.

The difference is that numbers are in one account (debt) or another (excess reserves).

But what happens, in the context of on-going fiscal deficits, if the central bank neither conducted open market operations (drained the excess reserves with debt sales to the banks) or didn’t pay a support rate on excess reserves?

Then the short-term interest rate would be driven down to zero and the banks would build up increasing reserve balances – which in aggregate they could not get rid of and for which they earned no return.

Then the story is different and Creighton ignores that obvious option.

He does acknowledge what has been going on for years around the world and which has just begun in Australia in March 2020 – central banks buying up the government debt in secondary bond markets.

The process is:

1. Treasury conducts primary issue auctions that push debt out into the dealers.

2. RBA buys the debt when it is traded in the secondary market.

3. Excess reserves are paid some support rate – in Australia’s case below the typical interest on the bonds. Capital gains are made by the holders who sell the bonds to the RBA.

So what?

Well Creighton thinks that this amounts to “financial repression” because the commercial banks have to hold larger reserve balances, which pay little interest.

Why do they sell the bonds to the RBA if they prefer them to the liquidity of increased reserves? Capital gains obviously.

No-one is being coerced into anything.

The debate shifts to Japan;

After decades of quantitative easing the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet has exploded to more than 100 per cent of Japan’s GDP without kickstarting inflation.

So, the standard lines that ‘money creation’ in his language is ultimately inflation is rejected by his own observations.

His only problem then, it seems, is that low interest rates do not allow the banks to screw the public and transfer massive amounts of profit to shareholders.

Hardly an attack on core MMT.

We still haven’t been able to detect any logic here to justify his opening assertion that “that governments have no money – it is always ours”.

We have actually had a case built by Creighton to tell us that the government has lots of its own money.

So, still searching for an angle, he decides that fiscal deficits (with central banks buying debt in secondary markets) don’t work anyway, after saying in the previous paragraph that “there is a case for borrowing more and taxing less to fund government payments”.

The reader gets many of these confusing contradictions in the article.

But apparently, fiscal deficits do not work and the evidence is the record from the US, Japan and Europe that:

… have been giving “money creation” a red-hot go for at least a decade without making serious inroads into unemployment.

Excuse me?

1. Japan’s unemployment rate in 2019 was 2.29 per cent. It rose to 2.6 per cent in the pandemic (April). It has been through the GFC, nuclear meltdown, and typhoons.

2. The US unemployment rate just before the pandemic was lower than it had been since the 1960s. I am not saying they were at full employment but at the height of the GFC it was above 10 per cent and then it dropped to 3.5 per cent in February 2020.

What constitutes a serious inroad?

3. European unemployment rates are dominated by the Eurozone nations, all of whom use a foreign currency and have strict pro-cyclical fiscal rules that bias policy towards austerity and stagnation. The quantitative easing from the ECB has been aimed to stop spreads on government bonds rising and thus compromising the ability of the Member States to fund themselves through bond sales (given they use a foreign currency).

The ECB bond purchase programs have also been conditional on the Member States pursuing damaging fiscal austerity. So it is little wonder the unemployment rates remain elevated.

This is the antithesis of what MMT economists recommend and the results were accurately predicted by us. The mainstream economists claimed that the austerity would be ‘growth friendly’ and they were manifestly wrong.

So the historical record points to the veracity of MMT not a repudiation.

Finally, we get the ‘MMT economists are politically naive’ line :

And MMT advocates naively place too much faith in the skill of political leaders and policymakers. It would be the death of independent central banks if politicians were setting the scale of money creation. Once unemployment has been eroded by large monetary-financed deficits, policymakers would carefully rein in the ensuing inflation by paring back the budget deficits and lifting taxes, according to MMT. That ignores the political incentives governments face. Once inflation expectations have changed, they are hard to reset.

So we cannot trust our politicians.

So we jump of a cliff!

Fine.

The central banks are not independent.

Creighton has demonstrated that by taking his readers through the links between fiscal and monetary policy operations

Monetary policy decisions have to be closely coordinated with fiscal policy impacts on a daily basis.

And that says nothing of the fact that the central banks and their boards are always political appointments.

And reflect also on the logic here.

1. Earlier he claims that “money creation” didn’t make “serious inroads into unemployment”.

2. Then in the last citation he says “Once unemployment has been eroded by large monetary-financed deficits”.

A copy editor please. At least keep the stupid argument consistent!

Conclusion

This ‘we cannot trust the politicians’ argument is the last resort really.

Martin Wolf wrote the other day in the Financial Times that:

In my view, it is right and wrong. It is right, because there is no simple budget constraint. It is wrong, because it will prove impossible to manage an economy sensibly once politicians believe there is no budget constraint.

There is now a line of critics who acknowledge the validity of core MMT principles but think they are too dangerous for people to broadly share in that knowledge.

Why?

Because we apparently have reached a point in history where we hate dictators and eulogise the benefits of democracy (à la Churchill in the Commons on November 11, 1947 – “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”), but don’t want the politicians we elect to have the flexibility to advance our well-being.

Or in simpler language – “because we don’t trust politicians”.

This has been a long standing view.

Remember the famous quote from American economist Paul Samuelson in the interview he did for the film – John Maynard Keynes: Life, Ideas, Legacy – where at the 52:50 mark into the film, he said:

I think there is an element of truth in the view that the … the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times … aah … Once it is debunked … takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have … aah … anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by … aah … sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that long-run civilised life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year … in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say ‘oh, oh what you have done’ and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

This amounts to a world where the elites can manipulate the fiscal capacity of the state to advance their own interests (procurement contracts at will, bailouts when they mess up, etc) but if we want to do something about unemployment or poverty then the rest of us has to be held in this fictional world that appeals to our instincts of fear and uncertainty.

And, of course we then are encouraged to distrust politicians and so it goes.

My view is that once we expose these myths, more sensible political discourse can take place.

And if we do not like our government – that is they go crazy with their spending capacity – then we throw them out of office (in Australia, every three years of so).

They can hardly destroy the nation in three years.

I also think that if the standard of political dialogue was improved, higher quality candidates would seek election and push out the time-serving careerists who dominate all political parties.

It is an extraordinary world where we accept a deception because knowing the truth might require us to act differently (become more politically engaged and demand quality political behaviour).

I don’t accept that proposition.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Boris’ Lockdown Delay Killed 30,000 People

Nonessential shops reopened on Monday, and the Beeb news was all about hordes of people queuing outside Primark. This will no doubt boost the spirits of Boris and the Tories, who care more about the economy than human lives. Boris’ lead in the polls has collapsed over his mishandling of the Coronavirus epidemic. The last time I heard anything about it, he was at -2 and Starmer was way ahead of him. And after the scandals of the government’s failure to provide adequate supplies of PPE, of deaths from the disease now having reached 40,000 and still climbing, of the massive increase in the deaths of the elderly and vulnerable in care homes there have been the additional scandals of Dominic Cummings breaking the lockdown rules to drive 240 miles to Durham and Robert Jenrick approving the development of Westferry in London after Richard Desmond sent the Tories a £12,000 donation. And then there’s the mass BLM anti-racism protests. BoJob is therefore going to be looking for some good news to distract attention away from the real problems his vile government is in. He’s no doubt hoping that people will be so delighted at the partial lifting of the lockdown and being able to get out and spend their cash again, that they’ll forget all about the deaths, misery and corruption.

So let’s remind them. Last Thursday Zelo Street posted a devastating piece about the news from Channel 4, the Financial Times and the Groaniad that Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College had estimated that if Johnson had imposed the lockdown a week earlier, the death toll from the disease could have been halved. This is the real death toll from the disease, which is believed to be above 60,000 instead of the government’s figure of 40,000. Prof. Ferguson believes that if this had been done, 30,000 lives could have been saved. Despite Matt Hancock appearing on Andrew Marr’s show telling everyone that he was sure that lives wouldn’t have been saved if this had happened, Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall considered otherwise. Zelo Street’s article quotes him thus:  “Neither Vallance nor Whitty directly demur from Neil Ferguson’s assertion that the death toll could have been halved if lockdown measures were introduced earlier. They both say, in various forms, that lessons will have to be learned. PM chooses not to answer”.

Paul Waugh on Twitter also noted that Whitty, one of Boris’ advisers, had said that we were not at the end of the epidemic, but in the middle of it. He also reminded everyone that Boris had also said, nearly 12 weeks ago, that in 112 weeks’ time Britain would have beaten the virus and sent it packing. Well, we haven’t. It’s still there and killing people. Then Channel 4 announced that it had seen a leaked paper from one of the government’s advisory committees calling for a lockdown two weeks earlier than when Boris finally bothered to do it. The paper was by Dr. Steven Riley, also at Imperial College London, who believed that the policy Boris was then following of mitigation would lead to 1.7 million deaths. He therefore called for the government to turn to the strategies adopted by Hong Kong, Japan and Italy of ‘successful ongoing control’ – in other words, lockdown. Prof. Ferguson said that the epidemic had been doubling every three to four days before the lockdown had been imposed. If it had been done a week early, the death toll could have been reduced by at least half. And on ITV’s Good Morning, the former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King said that if the country had gone into lockdown a week earlier, the final death toll would only have been less than 10,000.

Zelo Street quotes a Tweet by Tom Hatfield, who declared that the government didn’t impose the lockdown when it should because Boris and the Tories were more concerned about the economy than keeping people alive. They failed at both, because it’s ‘bollocks’ that any one country can come up with a trick in today’s globalised economy to prevent a global economic crisis. ‘They killed people for nothing’, he concluded.

The response of the Tory press was predictable. They poured scorn on the estimate, and carried on their personal attacks against Prof. Ferguson, despite the fact that he was supported in his beliefs by the other scientists Anthony Costello and David King.

Zelo Street concluded its article with

‘The deflection, pushback and whataboutery confirm this is news that cannot be merely swatted away. Alleged Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson got it horribly wrong; he and his ministers misled the public deliberately and shamefully. And as a result, tens of thousands died needlessly. That is the reality of the situation.

The families of the 30,000 should get an explanation. But they probably won’t.’

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/06/boris-legacy-30000-more-deaths.html

Absolutely. And governments, the WHO and other international health organisations have known that something like Coronavirus was coming for a very long time. Meera Senthilingam in her book Outbreaks and Epidemics: Battling Infection from Measles to Coronavirus (London: Icon Books 2020) quotes Mike Ryan, executive director of the Health Emergencies Programme at the World Health Organisation, said that an airborne version of Ebola or a form of SARS that was even slightly more transmissible would be enough ‘to bring our society to a halt’. And she observes that this prediction has been confirmed with the emergence of the Coronavirus and the subsequent national lockdowns, the border and school closures and the cancellation of events and their disastrous consequences for business.

Mike, Zelo Street and other left-wing bloggers and news sites have posted endless reports revealing how the Tories cut the preparations the Labour government had put in place to guard against an emergency like the Coronavirus. They’ve also revealed that Dominic Cummings and other senior Tories were so taken with the eugenicist doctrine of the survival of the fittest and the desire to protect the economy, that they were determined not to impose a lockdown. And if that meant a few old people dying, ‘too bad’.

Well old people have died, along with the disabled, children, and even those, who were in otherwise excellent health. It’s also carried off the dedicated, heroic doctors, nurses, carers and other vital workers, who have been doing their level best to treat the sick and keep the country running. We’ve all been impressed by their immense dedication and how they’ve worked long hours at great personal risk.

The opposite has been true of Johnson. Not only was he murderously complacent, he was personally idle. The Tories have been trying to portray him as a heroic leader, who has himself worked long hours to combat the disease. But this is a myth, a conscious piece of propaganda, like the way Mussolini put a light in his window at night to convince Italians that he never slept. Boris didn’t bother attending the first five Cobra meetings, and doesn’t like working weekends.

Deaths were unavoidable. But if Boris had acted sooner, if we hadn’t had ten years of Tory misgovernment, during which the NHS has been run down and privatised, poverty massively increased and government preparedness decimated, all in the name of austerity and giving tax cuts to the rich, 30,000 people would still be alive.

Boris Johnson and the Tories are definitely hoping that the reopening of the High Street will bring good news from now on, and that everyone will forget this horrendous death toll.

So let’s keep on reminding him and them.

Boris has killed 30,000 people. And that doesn’t count the hundreds of thousands already murdered by austerity.

Japan’s ‘Disaster Parks’ Help Explain Its Coronavirus Response

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/04/2020 - 10:29pm in

Tags 

Japan, urbanism

A century ago, on a crisp fall day, the event that would change Japan’s approach to disaster preparedness occurred deep below the seabed of Sagami Bay. The massive earthquake radiated outward toward the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, splintering their wooden buildings and sparking dozens of uncontrolled fires. Minutes later, a tsunami swept thousands of people from the peninsulas south of the capital. All in all, some 140,000 people perished in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

The event was devastating, but it wasn’t unusual. As an island beset by earthquakes, fires, floods, nuclear meltdowns, volcanic eruptions, atomic destruction and deadly pandemics, Japan has learned to live with catastrophe. According to a 2013 study, the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan region is, by the numbers, the most disaster-prone place in the world. 

Accordingly, Japan has spent decades preparing for the worst, and during this time, has developed a resilience to natural disasters that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Its buildings are virtually earthquake-proof. It has the world’s densest seismometer network and the fastest earthquake warning system. Its tsunami alerts can detect a tidal wave within three minutes of its formation. 

japan earthquakeThe Ginza section of Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake. Credit: Wikipedia

Some of Japan’s most unexpected preparations, however, can be found directly beneath the roots of its cherry blossom trees, hidden from view but ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. It’s a surprising innovation that combines two of Japan’s greatest strengths: disaster prevention and urban planning. And, like many things in Japan, it is one of a kind.

The park as a refuge

Japan’s efforts to integrate survival elements into its city planning began after the Great Kanto Earthquake revealed a flaw in its urban design. As destructive as the quake itself had been, the fires, fueled by ruptured gas mains and toppled cook stoves (which, at noontime, many were using to cook lunch) were even more devastating. “Streets, alleyways, bridges, rivers, canals and open spaces became virtually impossible to navigate” as the fires blocked people’s escape, according to one account. The combination of highly flammable wooden architecture and extreme density made the city a tinderbox with little to stop it from burning.

When the time to rebuild arrived, Tokyo’s planners realized the risk of urban fires could no longer be ignored. So they revived an urbanism concept from the Edo era called hiyokechi. These were plazas left unbuilt in crowded parts of the city to prevent fires from spreading and offer people a place to seek refuge during disasters. 

edoA hiyokechi in Edo, designed to prevent fire from spreading and provide residents a place to escape. Credit: Wikipedia

Some hiyokechi became public parks, and in a handful of them, Tokyo’s distinct disaster preparedness measures are hidden in plain sight to this day. They are called “disaster parks” — over a dozen of them are scattered across the city. These are spaces that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into survival camps. Many are idyllic landscapes that, on any given day, attract crowds simply looking for respite. One of these is Hikarigaoka Park, a 150-acre expanse of cherry blossom trees, ponds and tennis courts.

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What you’d never notice about Hikarigaoka Park, however, is that 36 of its benches conceal stoves that can be used to cook food, boil water or provide heat. The park’s 52 manhole lids can be removed to reveal emergency toilets. Its solar-powered lamp posts have electrical outlets for charging phones in a blackout. There are water tanks for fighting fires, and bunkers stocked with days’ worth of non-perishable food. 

Over a dozen of these disaster parks are scattered across the metropolitan region. Their coordinating hub is the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park, a 33-acre green area in the seaside district of Ariake. In addition to space, Rinkai contains a heliport and a large command center. Here, Tokyo’s disaster response teams converge in an emergency to collect information, coordinate aid units and act as a center for medical care.

Rinkai also has a two-story facility in which visitors can learn about disaster preparedness. At its theme park-like “experience center,” visitors begin their journey by entering an elevator. Suddenly, it shudders and goes dark. The doors open to reveal a streetscape badly damaged by an earthquake — collapsed buildings, fallen electrical wires, crushed cars. As they make their way through, visitors are guided through this cataclysmic realm by a tablet that quizzes them along the way. They learn to turn plastic sheeting into drinking cups and fashion garbage bags into rain gear.

rinkaiThe visitors’ center at Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park. Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson / Flickr

It’s a uniquely Japanese experience emblematic of a country accustomed to living with threats. Japanese people are often seen as a nation of rule-followers, but when it comes to disaster, they tend toward communal self-sufficiency, looking to each other — as opposed to the government —  for cues on how to react, writes David Pilling in his book Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. 

“In many ways, they show a pioneering spirit more reminiscent of the rugged American West than the uniformity and dependence on top-down authority sometimes mistakenly associated with Japan,” he writes. Pilling notes that after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Sendai, ordinary residents went ahead and began rebuilding the city themselves.

Hikarigaoka ParkHikarigaoka Park. Credit: grooble / Flickr

This mindset is emblematic of a country that views disaster parks as an appropriate crisis countermeasure — an available tool that resourceful citizens can leverage themselves. It also helps to explain Japan’s casual response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As countries around it quickly implemented strict measures of tracking and control, Japan’s government has demonstrated a relatively hands-off approach. Residents have continued to commute to work, visit relatives and attend the country’s cherry blossom festivals. When asked why the city wasn’t discouraging residents from seeing the cherry blossoms, Tokyo’s governor said that to do so “would be like taking hugs away from the Italians.” But, in its struggle to survive, Italy has taken hugs away. Time will tell whether Japan’s approach should have followed suit.

The post Japan’s ‘Disaster Parks’ Help Explain Its Coronavirus Response appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Alan Merrill’s Japan: a Magical Moment

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/04/2020 - 1:17am in

The coronavirus has taken the life of rock musician Alan Merrill at the premature age of 69. Alan was the son of jazz singer Helen Merrill, who survives him, and also the cousin of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.

He is famous for composing the rock anthem, I Love Rock’n Roll, which became a huge hit for Joan Jett and was also covered, less memorably, by Britney Spears.

Not so well-known is his short, but spectacularly successful career in Japan.

Helen Merrill was based in Japan for several years in the late 1960s, as her husband was a music company executive who had been posted to Tokyo. Alan went to join her in 1968.

Just seventeen years old, he managed to carve out a niche for himself in the rapidly evolving Japanese music scene. Soon he was working as a session musician, releasing solo albums and appearing in TV commercials and cop shows, as well as hobnobbing with famed Japanese and foreign musos.

Times were good, as indicated by this extract from his diary for 1971 –

May 12th –  Afternoon, met Paul Rodgers (Free) with Yuki Shibata at Pub Cardinal Roppongi. Out drinking with Tetsu and Paul Kossoff ’til dawn. Free broke up. Koss is devastated. Drink with Koss and Tetsu at Akasaka Byblos til 3 AM. Then in Harajuku til 5AM.

May 13th– Fitting for a stage suit at Koshino Junko’s shop Colette. Go to the agency Dentsu, see Nissan poster for the first time. I look like a chick. I’d date me.

May 14th– Demo 9 originals for next album. Kossoff and Tetsu say they’ll play on the next record.

May 15thPaul Rodgers starts to date Machi and they’re kissing all the time. We go to Byblos and drink, then on to the restaurant Spiglow. Paul and Machi leave after a few bites to go make love at the hotel no doubt. Clearly in heat. Yuki and I finish our dinner where she tell me how in love she is with Andy Fraser, Free’s bassist.

By this time, the “Group Sounds” boom, modelled on British Invasion beat groups of the early 60s, had wound down and the more ambitious Japanese musicians were aiming for a new, more contemporary sound. Tetsu Yamauchi, mentioned above, was to move to Britain and join Free and then The Faces, featuring Rod Stewart.

In Tokyo, Alan Merrill got together with drummer Hiroshi Oguchi, formerly of The Tempters, one of the big three Group Sounds bands. Together, they formed Vodka Collins, Japan’s first glam rock band. The name was chosen because the cocktail was supposedly one of Keith Richards’ favourite tipples.

Alan loved The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and Bowie, but his band’s template, in terms of both image and sound, was Marc Bolan’s T. Rex. Alan was up for that, having already cultivated an androgynous, cross-dressing style. He handled guitar, vocals – in both English and Japanese – and did all the song-writing.

Later, another two members were added – bassist Take Yokouchi and guitarist Hiroshi “Monsieur” Kamayatsu, formerly of The Spiders, another legend of the Group Sounds era.

Everything was going fine until Alan discovered one of the unshakeable verities of Japanese show business. The management takes the money. The musicians get peanuts, if they’re lucky.

For advice he asked his mother, now back in the U.S., who had long experience of exploitative financial arrangements. She told him to quit while the going was good, which he did. Immediately, on the eve of a sell-out concert at the Budokan.

The band’s only contemporaneous album, Tokyo / New York, hadn’t even been finished. Later, it was to become a classic of the genre.

Alan relocated to the UK. Almost straightaway, he formed a new group, Arrows, which went on to score a few minor hits and star in a TV series for British teeny-boppers. The song that he is most famous for languished on the B-side of an unsuccessful single, before being picked up by Joan Jett in 1982.

In later life, Alan reformed Vodka Collins and toured Japan, receiving a warm response from his by now middle-aged fans, and new albums were released under the band’s name. But it wasn’t the same. There was a moment and it passed, as such moments do. According to Alan, looking back in 2017, “it was a magical group in a magical time in a magical country.”

Alan Merrill kept going with total professionalism, releasing new material and playing regularly, until illness suddenly and cruelly struck him down.

Put another dime in the jukebox, Alan.

 

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