Science

Black British Politico John Archer’s Address to African Progress Union

I think for most of us outside the Black anti-racist movements, this country’s Black history and its tradition of Black activism against racism, imperialism and exploitation is largely unknown. It’s overshadowed to a large extent by the inspirational American civil rights movements of the 1960s, and its heroes and heroines. Towering figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. A few Black British anti-slavery activists from the 18th and 19th century, like Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, are known to a certain extent, as well as the Crimean War nurse and heroine Mary Seacole. But that’s it. And I think for most mainstream Brits, Blacks and other non-Whites only entered politics and got elected to public office in the 1980s with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and others.

But Black and Asian activism goes right back to the 19th century, and Britain has had elected BAME politicians since the early 20th century. The BBC 2 series, Victorian Sensations, mentioned two in the second episode of the series broadcast Wednesday night, 29th May 2019. Victorian Sensations is about the massive scientific, social and political changes that shook Victorian society in the 1890s. Last week’s was on scientific advances in electricity and Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, which revolutionised medicine. The pioneers of X-ray examination, however, paid a terrible price for their research in skin cancer caused by their machines. One British pioneer ended up losing the fingers on one hand, and another arm was amputated completely.

This week’s edition was on ‘Degeneration’, and the late Victorians’ fears of racial, social and imperial decline. This covered the ideas of racial decline in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Francis Galton and the birth of the eugenics movement, aimed at preserving and improving British biological stock; the controversy over the New Woman, liberated Victorian ladies, who dared to move out of the traditional female domestic role and pursue masculine hobbies like cycling; Hans Nordau’s book, Degeneration, Lombroso’s Criminal Man, and the fears about mental illness, which resulted in entirely blameless people banged up in lunatic asylums for the most trivial reasons, like a pathetic young man, who was incarcerated for masturbation. It also covered Oscar Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents, including Arthur Symonds, Havelock Ellis and the first sympathetic scientific research in homosexuality. But one of the most interesting pieces in the programme was right at the end, when presenter Paul McGann spoke to a modern Black activists about two Black British activists, who came to Britain from the West Indies, and founded pioneering Black anti-racist movements. One of them was Celeste Matthews, who became a Methodist minister, and founded a Black rights magazine attacking imperialism, Lux.

Another pioneering Black rights activist, who gained public office later in the second decade of 20th century was John Archer. He was elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913, becoming the first person of African descent to hold public office in London. In 1918 he became the first president of the African Progress Union, a post he would hold for three years. This was formed to promote ‘the general welfare of Africans and Afro peoples’ and spread knowledge of Black history. There’s an extract from the speech he gave at the Union’s first meeting in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s great anthology of British radical writing and activism throughout history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013). This runs

The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire … That if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough receive the benefits of the country … One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your president. I am not asking for anything, I am demanding. (p. 189).

Unfortunately we really don’t know about the great history of Black activism in this country. Victorian Sensations gave a small glimpse of this on Wednesday, and I’d like to know more. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, as a piece of British history that’s been unfairly neglected, but we also need it to combat that growing racism that’s spreading across Europe and which has resulted in Farage’s Brexit party getting 36.7 per cent of the vote in the Euro elections last week.

Doctors Fear Vaping Is Re-Normalising Being A Wanker Amongst Young People

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 31/05/2019 - 7:28am in

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Science, Science

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Medical authorities have warned that the popularity of e-cigarettes is leading to a resurgence of wankerhood amongst young users, winding back decades of anti wankerness campaigning.

“The evidence is overwhelming that vaping is a gateway to riding around the city streets on one of those motorised one wheeled things,” reports Dr Walter Lewis from the Wanker Institute. “Over 99% of guys who put up black and white Instagram photos of themselves reclining on the back of a motorbike have tried vaping.”

“Big Wanker have used these tactics since time immemorial, such as when they pushed sleeve tattoos in the 2000s and car phones in the early 1980s,” said Georgina Matthews, CEO of the Quit Being A Wanker campaign. “We believe vaping devices should come in plain labels with anti wanker slogans printed on them such as This Product could lead to your Netflix recommendations being dominated by Wes Anderson movies.”

The vaping industry has hit back, saying that vaping actually decreases wankerness by steering users away from harder forms of wankerhood.

“Vaping is an excellent and harmless alternative to getting a manbun or opening up a tiny absinthe bar in a city lane decorated with your mum’s old tea towels,” said vaping apparatus industry spokesperson Reeynard Simons. “I know. I used to tell my friends I was leaving Australia to go and live in Berlin twenty times a day before discovering vaping. Now it’s something I only do at parties. It also encouraged me to chuck that blob of white muck in a jar that I made my own kambucha from into the bin.”

Peter Green
http://www.twitter.com/Greeny_Peter

Courtesy of https://bobvulture.wordpress.com/

Shrinking Wagon Wheels Prove The Universe Is Contracting, Say Physicists

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/05/2019 - 7:28am in

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The shrinking size of Wagon Wheels is proof that the universe has stopped expanding, according to Nobel Prize winning physicists working at the Hadron Collider.

“Judging by the relative width and thickness of Wagon Wheels, we speculate that the universe stopped expanding sometime around the middle of 1972,” said Professor Audrey Higgs-Boson from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). “The fundamental forces of the universe have changed direction, causing shrinkage in the size of the average jam, biscuit and marshmallow atoms.”

“Wagon Wheels used to be three times the size of your freaking hands and as thick as a discus, now they’re about the size of a compact disc,” said Nobel Prize winner Dr Anton Strange-Charm. “I suspect that the contraction of the universe is most evident in them because of the dark energy contained in the chocolate outer coating. If this contraction continues I’d expect to see Wagon Wheels the size of a button just prior to The Big Crunch, when all of the matter in the universe is once again concentrated into a singularity.”

The contraction of the universe is being accompanied by the reversal of the flow of time.

“You only need to look at Police officers to realise that time has started to flow in the opposite direction,” said Associate Professor Doris Gluon. “Police officers look younger and younger every year because Police officers are now moving backwards on the space time continuum.”

Peter Green
http://www.twitter.com/Greeny_Peter

Courtesy of https://bobvulture.wordpress.com/

Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.

 

 

 

Astronauts Could Live in Moon Caves

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/05/2019 - 2:15am in

Bit of science news now. Monday’s I, for 20th May 2019, carried an article by Francis Blagburn, with the same title as this article, on page 22, reporting that an American lunar scientist, Daniel Moriarty III, has suggested that astronauts to the Moon could live in its caves. The article ran

Astronauts could make use of the Moon’s nature cave structures to live inside small, natural shelters, according to Nasa.

The novel approach could see astronauts making camp in tunnel-like chambers on the surface of the Moon left by molten activity.

Dr Daniel Moriarty III, a post-doctoral lunar scientist, was speaking as part of an “ask me anything” session on social networking website Reddit when he discussed the concept.

“I think it makes sense to work within some of the structures and resources that are already there,” he wrote.

“It could be interesting to set up shop within a pre-existing lava tube, which could provide shielding from temperature variations and incoming solar radiation.”

Nasa’s next bout of lunar exploration is the Artemis mission, due to be launched in 2024. President Donald Trump has backed the plans and embraced space travel as a theme. “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6bn so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!,” he tweeted last week.

It’s a good idea, but not as new as the paper believes. Scientists have argued for some time that future explorers of the Moon and Mars would have to build their bases underground in order to shelter from the ambient cosmic radiation. It’s why the lunar base in Kubrick’s class 2001 is underground, and the Martian city in Paul Verhoeven’s ’80s’ version of Total Recall is built into the sides of a canyon. As are many of the Martian cities in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy charting the colonisation of the Red Planet, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. And the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, suggested that future colonists of the Moon would live in the caves there in his book, Man and the Planets, published in the early 1980s. He drew on science fiction for some of the ideas discussed in the book, and the SF work he used for that suggestion had the colonists walking about in conditions of near nudity in lunar caverns. Well, I suppose the engineers would keep it at a constant, regulated temperature, so you wouldn’t have to worry about getting cold, except perhaps in an emergency when these systems failed. But that idea now seems very dated now in contemporary, post-AIDS culture. The idea clearly reflects the changing attitude towards nudity and sexual morality of the late ’60s and ’70s rather than a realistic prediction of future lunar fashions.

I am very solidly behind these proposals for humanity’s return to the Moon, whether done by NASA with the Artemis project or their private competitors, Jeff Bezos and co. Hopefully it won’t be too long at all before we see people living in lunar and Martian caverns for real. Though more suitably dressed for television reports back to Earth.

Rees-Mogg’s Book Savaged by Critics

Here’s an interesting piece from yesterday’s I for 20th May 2019. It seems that Jacob Rees-Mogg fancies himself as a literary gentleman, and has written a book about a number of eminent Victorians. And it’s been torn apart by the critics.

The article by Dean Kirby, ‘Rees-Mogg’s ‘silly’ book torn apart by critics’, on page 5 of the paper, reads

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book has been panned by critics as “staggeringly silly”. 

The work by the Conservative MP, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, tells the story of 12 figures from the era. 

But, writing in the Sunday Times, historian Dominic Sandbrook described the book as “so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly bad”. And in a Times review, A.N. Wilson said it was “staggeringly silly”. 

Rees-Mogg clearly has literary as well as political ambitions, and it looks very much like he’s using the one to boost the other. Boris desperately wants to be the leader of the Tories, and published a biography of Churchill a year or so ago. Presumably this was partly to show how he was a true Tory intellectual – if such a creature can be said to exist – and was somehow the great man’s spiritual and ideological are. Rees-Mogg is also angling for the Tory leadership, and he’s done the same, though in his case it’s a selection of the 12 great figures from the Victorian period that he feels have created modern Britain.

I’m not remotely surprised he’s chosen the Victorians, and even less surprised by the rubbishing its received from Sandbrook and Wilson. The Victorian period was an age when modern Britain began to take shape. It was a period of massive social, economic, political and technological change, as Britain moved from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. New scientific ideas emerged, were debated and taken up, there was rapid technological innovation with the creation of the railways and the spread of mechanised factories. Overseas, the British Empire expanded massively to take in Australia, New Zealand, the Canadian West, parts of Africa and Asia. It’s a fascinating period, and Tories and Libertarians love to hark back to it because they credit Britain’s movement to global dominance to the old Conservative principles of free trade and private property, as well as Christian benevolence. It is a fascinating period, and certainly Christian philanthropy did play a very great part in the campaigns against the slave trade and other movements for social reform, such as the Factory Acts.

But it was also a period marked by grinding poverty, misery and social upheaval. Trade unions expanded as workers united to fight for better pay and conditions in the work place, Liberal ideology changed to keep up with the movement in practical politics towards state regulation and interference, and socialism emerged and spread to challenge the dominance of capitalism and try to create a better society for working people. The Victorian period also saw the emergence of feminism following the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the late 18th century. And the massive unrest in Ireland caused by the exploitation of the Roman Catholic Irish peasantry by absentee landlords, and the hostile reaction by some elements of the British establishment during the Potato Famine, has created a legacy of bitterness and violence that continues to this day. I doubt that Rees-Mogg or any of the other Tories are very enthusiastic about tackling or describing these aspects of Victorian history.

I’m also not surprised that the book’s been savagely criticised. Rees-Mogg supposedly read history at Oxford, but nobody quite knows what period he studied. And his ignorance of some extremely notorious events is woeful. Like when he claimed that the concentration camps we used against the Afrikaners during the Boer War were somehow benevolent institutions. In fact, they were absolutely horrific, causing tens of thousands of deaths from starvation and disease among women and children, who were incarcerated there. And which, again, have left as lasting legacy of bitterness right up to today.

I think any book on the Victorian period written by Rees-Mogg would be highly simplified, ridiculous caricature of the events and issues of the period. Like Boris’ book on Churchill, I doubt that it’s a serious attempt to deal objectively with all aspects of its subject, including the more malign or disturbing events and views, rather than an attempt to present the Tory view. An exercise in Tory historical propaganda, as it were.

What’s also interesting is that it’s been the right-wing press – the Times and Sunday Times – that’s savaged it. This seems to me to show that Rees-Mogg’s ‘magnificent octopus’, to quote Blackadder’s Baldrick, was too much of a travesty even for other Tories, and that there is a sizable body of the Tory party that doesn’t want him to be leader. Or at least, not Rupert Murdoch. And as the Tory party and the Blairites have shown themselves desperate to do whatever Murdoch says, this means there’s going to be strong opposition to a bid from Mogg to become Prime Minister.

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

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 20/05/2019 - 9:29pm in

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

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

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

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

To which Mike comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Good Scientists Go Bad

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/05/2019 - 5:00pm in

Tags 

Science


Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

On Truth, Schmitt and Skeptical Liberal Democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/05/2019 - 5:23am in

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Politics, Science

The ratio of parliament rests, according to the apt characterization of Rudolf Smend, in a “dynamic-dialectic,” that is, in a process of confrontation of differences and opinions, from which the real political will results. The essence of parliament is therefore public deliberation of argument and counterargument, public debate and public discussion, parley, and all this without taking democracy into account.--Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, pp 34-5.  [HT. Chantal Mouffe "Pluralism and Modern Democracy" in The Return of the Political, p. 118]

It is sometimes thought, by friends and enemies alike, that liberal democracy presupposes as a public norm that the truth can be arrived at through public discussion. Among friends, this view is often – mistakenly (recall, where I also cite Jill Gordon, and here) I claim! – attributed to Mill’s Of Liberty; among enemies, it’s well known that Schmitt claims that liberals mistakenly assume this. Schmitt argues that this has the unintended, but foreseeable effect of creating conditions of ever-deferred truth within liberal states. My suspicion is, in fact, that Schmitt is the source of the misreading of Mill.*  

Unlike contemporary epistemologists, who tend to think that some simple, the so-called Moorean truths, come cheaply, philosophers of science (of the sort that have more than superficial knowledge of the history and sociology of science) and some political philosophers (ahh) know that it requires a complex, very fallible, institutional apparatus to establish truth. For example, Hannah Arendt (no liberal) claims, quite plausibly (recall here; and here), that only science and justice are such (rather costly) institutions who have shown themselves to be capable of reliably producing truth. Since Arendt was plenty familiar with the history of gross miscarriages of justice, we must assume that Arendt is thinking in terms of ideal types when she makes such claims.

Arendt echoes the classics in thinking that politics is the realm of opinion. In particular the good opinion of (non-trivial part) of the public. An important implication of Arendt’s view is that from the vantage point of modern politics, revelation and the Church(es) must be denied their claims to truth.

There are, I suspect, three exceptions to Arendt’s claim that may occur to the reader. First, some parliamentary systems have mechanisms that may seem capable of also producing truth. This example proves the rule: these are mechanisms that avail themselves of juridical methods (subpoena power, hearing of witnesses, etc.)

Second, one may well think that a free press should also be counted a truth-generating mechanism. It is certainly the case that some of the press tries to be factual, reliable, even objective; and one might think this "prompts" (to quote Schmitt on Guizot) citizens to "seek the truth" themselves (35). One can grant the claim about citizens; yet one still must note that the vast majority of even the bread and butter reportage is produced under very time sensitive conditions without the resources and practices required to generate truth and that it is to be doubted citizens will find the truth this way. (To reiterate, when the press avails itself of juridical methods it is quite capable of producing truth.) More important, leaving aside all the sources of bias that are presupposed in the normal functioning of the press, it is a category error to conflate news with truth.

Third one may well be tempted into thinking that bureaucracies presuppose commitment to the truth. One may even argue that if bureaucracies would embrace paradoxes or the false, they would ground to a halt having to execute simultaneously, say, A and not A. There is an important insight lurking in this thought. But ideal type functioning of bureaucracies is rule-following not truth-following.[1] Many of these rules presuppose truth or pay lip-service in establishing the truth. But one need not be Kafka to recognize it is no more than lip-service.

For some readers this is all way too ‘cynical’ or too concessive of those politicians who lie routinely (and, recall, the voters that support them--this position never makes me friends). But it is important to be clear what not’s being claimed: it’s not the case that on the present conception of liberal, political life anything goes. (This is also the kernel of truth about bureaucratic rule following—the rules need to be reasonably coherent and capable of being followed in relatively efficient matter.) Nor am I claiming that the rhetoric and self-conception of liberal politics is mere ideology, will to power, or the mechanical effects of group-polarization.

Before I answer the charge of cynicism, I am not denying that there are liberal thinkers who see political life as the locus of truth--who think, at least for normative purposes, that there are in principle reliable mechanisms of rational consensus building that can guide public life. And, as even Mouffe acknowledges, these liberal thinkers need not be naive; what makes an overlapping consensus possible for such liberal thinkers is the (often desirable) privatization of many of the worst sources of conflict. As regular readers know, I think such liberalism (and the liberal democracy characterized by Schmitt), while noble, rests on a mistake about the proper self-understanding of liberalism.

A skeptical liberal recognizes that humans are imperfect; that the conditions under which folk are likely to be generous, decent, and even virtuous are (while not impossible) reliably fragile in politics. The functionality and intelligibility of  democratic institutions (separation of powers, the rule of law, minority rights, free press, regular elections, the large role for bureaucracies, private/public sphere, secret ballots, etc.) all point in the other direction: they are all imperfect responses to the reality of imperfect human nature. If politics were the site of truth and reason (if philosopher-kings were possible), we wouldn't need all these liberal institutions, we could then risk the identity of rule and ruled that democracy at its purest promises. 

That is to say, while liberalism does not encourage deception and lying, liberalism need not require belief that public opinion, public reason, and parliament is generally truth conducive. The way I read Guizot -- even the passages quoted by Schmitt -- Guizot need not believe the "unrestrained clash of opinions" uncovers truth. (It's notable that the quoted passage is Schmitt, not Guizot!) Rather (as Schmitt kind of recognizes) Guizot's own thought is more committed to the idea of unending conversation, government by discussion.

Now, this idea -- government by discussion -- has its problems, including obscuring the role of power and riches in political life. I am not here defending it. But one can be committed to this ideal even if one doubts it generates truth. For one can talk for all kinds of solid reasons (persuasion, coalition building, create hope, etc.), not the least in order to avoid fighting. 

 

*In context, Schmitt explicitly names Guizot. (And so I am not claiming he is confused.) But in his introduction Schmitt lumps Mill and Guizot together as the true source of the principled arguments behind parliamentarism. 

[1] There is an interesting, tough question to what degree science and justice go beyond rule-following.

The Flightless Bird So Good It Evolved Twice

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 7:25pm in

Another fascinating piece of news in yesterday’s, for 11th May 2019, was about the discovery by evolutionary scientists that a type of flightless bird had evolved twice on the same Indian Ocean atoll. It reappeared the second time thousands of years after it had first come extinct, in a process biologists call ‘iterative evolution’. The article, ‘Evolution strikes twice for flightless bird on isolated atoll’, by Ben Mitchell, reads

A flightless bird that became extinct when its home island became flooded by the sea “came back to life” when a similar species evolved in the same location, scientists have discovered.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Natural History Museum found that a species of rail colonised an isolated atoll called Aldabra in the Indian Ocean on two occasions separated by tens of thousands of years. On both occasions, the white-throated rail evolved independently to become flightless. The last surviving colony of the flightless rails is still found on the island.

A University of Portsmouth spokesman said: “This is the first time that iterative evolution – the repeated evolution of similar or parallel structures from the same ancestor but at different times – has been seen in rails. 

The co-author of the study in the Zoological Journal of Lennean Society, Professor David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, said: “We know of no other example that demonstrates this phenomenon so evidently.”

How fascinating! It sounds similar to the phenomenon of parallel evolution, in which unrelatedly creatures develop similar features through occupying similar ecological niches. One example is the way penguins have evolved features similar to other marine creatures like whales and fish, with their wings becoming flippers. Another example is the thylacine, the marsupial wolf, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger. This creature is, unfortunately, now extinct, as it was hunted down as a pest by the Australian farmers. Although it was a marsupial, and had evolved independently in Australia over millions of years, it was remarkably like a European wolf. There was speculation at one time that the different human races were also the result of parallel evolution around the world, each evolving separately from common hominid ancestors. This has since been rejected, not least because it’s considered to be more than a little racist, somehow suggesting that the different varieties of modern humanity are biologically different species.

The palaeontologist Simon Conway-Morris has been so impressed by parallel evolution, that he considers that humans would have evolved anyway, even if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretacious Period 64 million years ago. He also believes that this means that other, extraterrestrial alien races, would also be humanoid. The final chapter of one of his books describes an alien spacecraft landing in southern England. When the aliens leave their ship to make contact with us, they are a humans. So much so that when asked if they want food, not only do they say yes, but they also ask for water for their dog.

Conway-Morris’ views are extreme, and not shared by other biologists. And some researchers into extraterrestrial life, like Seth Shostak, believe that aliens would be radically different from us.

Even so, this piece of science news is fascinating, and makes you wonder about the other possibilities of similar species evolving parallel or iteratively.

 

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