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How Does the Ban on Teaching Anti-Capitalist and Extremist Materials Affect Mainstream Textbooks?

Yesterday, Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, issued his departments guideline informing schools what they could not teach. This included materials from organisations determined to end capitalism, as well as anti-Semitic material, opposition to freedom of speech and which approves of illegal activity. The Labour Party’s John McDonnell pointed out that this would mean that it’s now illegal to teach large sections of British history and particularly that of the Labour Party, trade unions and socialism, because all these organisations at different times advocated the end of capitalism. He is, of course, right. In 1945 or thereabouts, for example, the Labour Party published an edition of the Communist Manifesto. He concluded

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

The economist and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varousfakis, who has also written a book, The Crisis of Capitalism, also commented this guidance showed how easy it was for a country to lose itself and slip surreptitiously into totalitarianism. He said

“Imagine an educational system that banned schools from enlisting into their curricula teaching resources dedicated to the writings of British writers like William Morris, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Paine even. Well, you don’t have to. Boris Johnson’s government has just instructed schools to do exactly that.”

Quite. I wonder how the ban affects even mainstream textbooks, which included anti-capitalist or other extremist literature. For example there are any number of readers and anthologies of various political or historical writings published by perfectly mainstream publishers for school and university students. Such as the one below, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to ‘Political Economy’, edited by Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1986). This collects a variety of writings authors such as John Francis Bray, Thomas Carlyle, Marx and Engels, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hill Green, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. These texts obviously document and illustrate the reactions to the rise of economics as an academic subject in the 19th century, and several of the authors are titans of 19th century British culture, literature and political philosophy, like the art critic Ruskin, the socialist, writer and artist, William Morris, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the liberal political philosophers John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green, and Matthew Arnold, the headmast of Rugby, the author of Culture and Anarchy. This is quite apart from Marx and Engels and John Francis Bray, who was a socialist and follower of Robert Owen. Carlyle’s now largely forgotten, but he was a philosopher and historian who was massively influential in his day.

Clearly this is an entirely respectable text from a very respectable publisher for history students. But, thanks to the government’s new guidelines, you could well ask if it’s now illegal to teach it in schools, thanks to its anti-capitalist contents.

The same question also applies to very respectable histories by respectable, mainstream historians and political scientists, of extremist movements and ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, Communism and anarchism. For example, one of the books I used while studying the rise of Nazism at college was D.G. Williamson’s The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982). It’s an excellent little book published as part of their Seminar Studies in History range. These are short histories of various periods in history from King John and the Magna Carta to the origins of the Second World and the Third Reich, which include extracts from texts from the period illustrating particularly aspects and events. Williamson’s book is a comprehensive history of the Nazi regime, and so includes extracts from Nazi documents like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Goebbel’s diaries and as well as eyewitness account of Nazi war crimes and individual acts of heroism and resistance. It presents an objective account of Hitler’s tyranny including its horrors and atrocities. There is absolutely no way it, nor other books like it, could remotely be considered pro-Nazi or presenting any kind of positive assessment of Hitler’s regime.

But if schools are now forbidden from teaching anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-democratic material, does this mean that they are also forbidden from using books like Williamson’s, which include the writings of the Nazis themselves to show the real nature of the regime and the motivations of the men behind it. I hope not, and Owen Jones in his tweet attacking the new guidelines quotes them. From this, it should be possible to make a distinction between texts produced by extremist organisations and extracts from them in mainstream histories or editions from mainstream publishers. According to Jones’ tweet, the guidelines state

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances, include, but are not limited to

  1. a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or end free and fair elections.

2. opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion and conscience.

3. the use or endorsement of racist, including anti-Semitic language or communications.

4. the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity.

5. a failure to condemn illegal activities in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people and property.

Responding to Jones’ tweet, Jessica Simor QC asks this very pertinent question

Do the fourth and fifth bullet points mean that schools should not accept Government money?

Good point.

I also have no doubt that the vast majority are going to be extremely careful about which organisation’s materials they use because of the danger of using extremist or otherwise inappropriate material.

But I can also how sometimes it may also be necessary for schools to use such materials in order to criticise them and educate their pupils about their dangers. For example, in the 1980s the BNP or NF tried to appeal to schoolchildren by launching a comic. Other extremists have also turned up at the school gates on occasion. When I was at school in Bristol during the ’81/2 race riots, a White agitator with a beard like Karl Marx’s turned up outside the school entrance with a megaphone trying to get the kids to join in. We ignored him and the headmaster next day in assembly said very clearly that any child who did join the rioting would be expelled.

Nazis are also known for lying and deliberately distorting history. If some Nazi group, for example, produced a pamphlet aimed at schoolchildren and teachers found it being passed around the playground one of the actions they could take, as well as simply banning it and punishing any kid who tried to promote it, might be for a suitably qualified teacher to go through it, pointing out the deliberate lies. When Hitler himself seized power, one Austrian university lecturer embarrassed the fuhrer by showing his students how Hitler took his ideas from the cheap and grubby neo-Pagan literature published in the back streets of Vienna. One of these pamphlets claimed that the ancient Aryans had possessed radio-electric organs that gave them superpowers like telepathy. I think it was highly unlikely that anyone listening to this professor’s lectures on Hitler ever came away with the idea that Hitler had some deep grasp of the essential forces of human biology and and natural selection.

I see absolutely no point to this legislation whatsoever. Teachers, parents and educators are already careful about what is taught in schools. In the past few years most incidents of this type have come from fundamentalist religious schools. These have mostly been Muslim schools, which have been caught teaching their students to hate Christians, Jews and non-Muslims, but there was also a Jewish school which became the centre of controversy for its opposition to homosexuality. In the 1980s Thatcher and the right-wing press ran scare stories about Communist teachers indoctrinating students with evil subversive subjects like peace studies. I am not aware that anyone with extreme left-wing, Communist or Trotskite views has been trying to indoctrinate children. But there are concerns about Black Lives Matter, which I have heard is a Marxist organisation. If that is the case, then the guidelines seem to be an attempt to ban the use of their materials. BLM did produce materials for a week of action in schools, which was thoroughly critiqued by Sargon of Gasbag, aka Carl Benjamin, the sage of Swindon and the man who broke UKIP. Sargon has extreme right-wing Conservative views himself, though I honestly don’t believe that he is genuinely racist and his criticisms of the BLM school material was reasonable. Williamson’s guidelines look like a badly thought out attempt to stop them being used without causing controversy by tackling the organisation’s anti-racism or its critique of White society.

But it also marks the growing intolerance of the Tories themselves and their determination that schools should be used for the inculcation of their own doctrines, rather than objective teaching that allows children to come to their own. Way back in the 1980s Thatcher tried to purge the universities of Marxists by passing legislation making it illegal for them to hold posts in higher education. They got round it by making a subtle distinction: they claimed to be Marxian rather than Marxist. By which they argued that they had Marxist culture, but weren’t actually Marxists. It’s a legal sleight of hand, but it allowed them to retain their teaching posts.

These new guidelines look like an extension of such previous legislation in order to preserve capitalism from any kind of thorough critique. Even when, as the peeps Mike quotes in his article, show very clearly that it is massively failing in front of our eyes.

Schools are now for indoctrination, not education, as teaching of non-capitalist ideology is forbidden

Alex Belfield Defending Boris to Attack BBC

Alex Belfield is an internet radio host and Youtuber. He’s a ragin Conservative, and so a large number of his videos are attacks on left-wing broadcasters and critics of the government, like Owen Jones, James O’Brien and Piers Morgan. He has also attacked Sadiq Khan, immigration, especially the asylum-seekers floating over on flimsy craft from Calais, and the recent moves to expand diversity in broadcasting. This includes Diversity’s dance routine about Black Lives Matter the Saturday before last on Britain’s Got Talent. Another frequent target of his attacks in the BBC, and at the weekend he decided to join the Conservative papers trying to get sympathy for Boris Johnson.

According to an article in Saturday’s Times, BoJob has been whining about how hard it is for him on £150,000. Not only has he been through a messy divorce, but he’s also trying to support four of his six children. I thought he himself didn’t know how many children he had. And how is it he’s only supporting four, not all of them? The article claims he’s overburdened – which is also strange. I’ve put up a piece on Russian gulag slang terms which could describe him. One of them is mankirovant, which means ‘shirker’. Because he seems to be off on his hols whenever it suits, unlike other Prime Ministers. Unlike other PMs, he also dodges working at weekends and turning up at Cobra meetings. He has, apparently, taken a cut in income and, oh, the hardship!, has to buy his own food.

Mike has put up a piece in which he, and the folks on Twitter, tear into our clown PM and give him all the sympathy he deserves: which is precisely zero. They point out that Boris’ salary is still five times more than the median wage and that people on ESA are, if they’re over 25, on less £4,000 a year. By any standard, Boris is still filthy rich.


Belfield crawled out from under whichever Tory rock he hides under to try and defend Boris. Ah, but he has to pay all the expenses required of him now that he is prime minister. Mike points out that he has a fair few those paid by the state. His current residence, No. 10, is provided by the state gratis. Also, Boris wanted the job. This isn’t like the Roman Empire, where the rich were forced to perform ‘liturgy’. This was a list held by the local authorities of everyone, who could afford to do some kind of public service to the state. This went from acting as a kind of clerk recording and filing people’s tax returns, to membership of the ordo or local council. If you were saddled with that, it meant that you had to make whatever shortfall there was between public expenditure and tax revenue up out of your own money. The pagan Roman emperors used it as one of the punishments they inflicted on Christians, apart from torturing them to death in the arena. Neither the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, Sadiq Khan or anyone else suddenly leapt upon Boris and dragged him off to be prime minister. No-one forced him to start plotting to be head of the Tory party. He wasn’t corrupted by Cassius, as Brutus was in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And neither Cameron or Gove, the two Boris betrayed, were Julius Caesar. Although both of them, like Boris, thought they should ‘bestride the earth like a colossus’.

Boris chose the job himself. But people on ESA and low incomes don’t choose them. They’ve had them foisted upon them by exploitative employers and a government determined to make ordinary, working people an impoverished, cowed, an easily disposable workforce.

As for the expense of having a nanny and providing for his children, well, the Tories, as Mike and his peeps have pointed out, stopped child benefit after two sprogs. The argument from the right for a long time has been that people should only have children they can afford to support. Not bad advice, actually. But it has led to the Tories and New Labour demonising those they consider as bad parents. Like Gordon Brown ranting about how ‘feckless’ they were. In the words of the old adage, ‘if you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em’. But this was all right when applied to the hoi polloi. But when it hits the upper classes, somehow we’re expected to cry tears over them.

Belfield also tried defending Boris by pointing out that his salary was much less than those in many industries, including entertainment and television. And then, almost predictably, he started attacking the Beeb for the inflated pay it awards presenters like Gary Linaker. Linaker’s another of Belfield’s bete noirs. Linaker has made various left-wing remarks on Twitter and has said he’ll take into his house some of the asylum seekers coming across from France. Which has sent Tories like Belfield into a fearful bate, as Molesworth used to sa.

Now the pay earned by prime ministers is lower than many of those in industry. It always has been. I can remember under Thatcher or Major there were various Tory MPs whining about how much they earned. They demanded more, much more, to boost their pay up to that of private businessmen and senior managers. The argument was that they should be paid this money, as otherwise talented professionals would go into business instead, where their talents would be properly remunerated.

It’s another argument that didn’t go down well, not least because however poorly MPs are paid, they’re still paid far more than ordinary peeps. And for a long time they weren’t paid. Payment of MPs was a 19th century reform. Indeed, it was one of the six demanded by the Chartists. Many of the Conservatives responded by giving the money to charity. I think part of the reason politicians’ pay has remained comparatively low for so long is the ethos of public service. You are meant to want to enter politics because you are serious about serving your country and its great people. You are not meant to do so because you see it as a lucrative source of income. It’s an attitude that comes ultimately from the Stoic philosophers of the ancient world and Christian theologians like St. Augustine. It became the ethos of the public schools in the 19th century through the reforms of Arnold Bennet at Rugby. Boris therefore deserves no sympathy on that score.

Now I actually do agree with Belfield that some presenters at the Beeb are grossly overpaid. But it’s not just presenters. Private Eye has run story after story in their media section reporting how production staff and the ordinary journos in the news department, who actually do the hard work of putting programmes and news reports together, have been the victims of mass sackings and cut budgerts. At the same time, executive pay has increased and the number of managers with various non-jobs have proliferated. There is, apparently, someone presiding over a department with title ‘Just Do It!’ These departments are entangled and seem to overlap, much like the Nazi administrative system. Yes, I know, another gratuitous example of Godwin’s Law. But sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

The problem is, it’s not just the Beeb. They’re just following in the tracks of business elsewhere. Here ordinary workers have been massively laid off, forced to take pay cuts and freezes, while senior executives have seen their pay bloated astronomically. The Beeb is no different from them.

And watch carefully: Belfield isn’t telling you how much leading journos and broadcasters are paid elsewhere. Like in the media empire belonging to a certain R. Murdoch, now resident in America.

The argument used by presenters like John Humphries, for example, is that they are paid what they are worth. The argument goes that if the Beeb doesn’t pay them what they want, they can go and take their talent elsewhere, and the Beeb’s competitors will. Or at least, that’s how I understand it.

But you aren’t being told how much the presenters over at Sky are on. Or indeed, what kind of pay Murdoch and his senior staff at News International trouser. And you won’t, because that could be more than a mite embarrassing. Especially as Murdoch’s British operation is registered offshore in order to avoid paying British corporation tax.

But Murdoch, and Belfield are attacking the Beeb because the Tories hate the idea of state broadcasting and its mandated ethos of impartiality. Mind you, the rampant shilling by the Corporation on behalf of the Tories and their savage, flagrantly biased attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour showed that they don’t too. The Tories have also been taking Murdoch’s coin in corporate donations. From Thatcher onwards, right-wing governments – and that includes New Labour – signed a Faustian pact with Murdoch. They gave him larger and larger shares of British media and allowed him to dictate policy, in return for which Murdoch gave them publicity in his sordid empire of ordure.

That’s the real reason Belfield’s attacking the BBC.

Murdoch wants to get rid of state-funded competition and step in himself as the major broadcaster. And if he does so, you can expect nothing except propaganda and lies, which will we keep you poor and the elite even more obscenely rich.

Just like Boris Johnson and the Tories, despite his moans of poverty.

Live Event: This is Shakespeare - Prof Emma Smith in conversation with Erica Whyman OBE

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 3:45pm in

Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. Professor Emma Smith (English Faculty) in conversation with Erica Whyman OBE (Royal Shakespeare Company).

Both Emma and Erica have recently had their Shakespeare events cancelled; Erica’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and launch events for Emma’s book This Is Shakespeare. In this conversation, Erica and Emma discuss these events, their hopes for them, and what Shakespeare offers us both now and in the future.

Professor Emma Smith - Tutorial Fellow in English and Fellow Librarian, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford

Professor Smith's research combines a range of approaches to Shakespeare and early modern drama. Her recent work has been about the reception of Shakespeare and about the scholarly and cultural investments in Shakespearean criticism. 'This is Shakespeare - How to Read the World's Greatest Playwright' is her latest publication (2020).

'The best introduction to the plays I've read, perhaps the best book on Shakespeare, full stop' - Alex Preston, Observer

'It makes you impatient to see or re-read the plays at once' - Hilary Mantel

Erica Whyman OBE (Deputy Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company - Royal Shakespeare Company).

Erica joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in January 2013. She works closely with Artistic Director Gregory Doran on all aspects of artistic strategy, taking a particular lead on the development of new work, the contemporary relevance of the repertoire and the national ambitions of the company.

Erica led the team which reopened The Other Place in March 2016, a creative hub dedicated to daring theatrical exploration. Erica takes a lead on extending access, equality and diversity across all RSC activities and is passionate about participation in theatre-making.

Ignore the Tory Flag-Waving: Labour and Socialism Represent Real Patriotism

It was announced this week that there are plans to set up two independent networks to rival the ‘woke, wet BBC’ as the Daily Mail decided to describe the state broadcaster. This has been described by left-wing bloggers like Zelo Street quite rightly as attempts to set up a kind of Fox News in the UK. And the name of one of these broadcasters shows you just what type of audience they want to appeal to: GB News. Two of its presenters have already been announced. They are Andrew Neil and Nigel Farage. It’s another example of the Conservatives and right Brexiteers laying the claim to be patriots defending Britain, its people and traditions. And it’s rubbish.

The Tories have been making this claim almost since they appeared in the 17th century, but the nationalism became particularly acute under Thatcher. She took over Churchill’s heroic view of British history and consciously modelled her style of government on Churchill’s. Or what she thought was Churchill’s. The result was headlines like one in the Sunday Telegraph defending the patriotic middle classes: ‘Don’t Call Them Boojwah, Call Them British’. World War II and the Falklands were invoked at every opportunity. The Tory party election broadcast was a particularly blatant example. It started with World War II footage of Spitfires zooming about the skies while an excited voice told us that ‘We were born free’. It’s a line from the 18th century Swiss advocate of radical democracy, Rousseau. His Social Contract begins ‘Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ Obviously, you can see why the Tories didn’t want to include the last bit.

Thatcher passed legislation intended to make New Commonwealth immigration more difficult by revising British citizenship to restrict it only to those born here or who had been naturalised. Previously it had extended to anyone born in the British Empire. At the same time, the Tory press ran article after article attacking Black and Asian immigrants, warning of the dire threat of ‘unassimilable immigrants’. The riots of the early 80s were ascribed, not to Blacks protesting against real racism, but to the racism of the Black community itself. The Labour party was full of Commies and traitors supporting the IRA, a lie that BoJob repeated yesterday in an ad hominem attack on Keir Starmer. Britain was under threat, and only Maggie Thatcher, personifying the spirit of Boadicea and Winston Churchill, could save us.

In fact the reverse was true. We almost lost the Falklands War, despite all the propaganda, flag-waving and sabre-rattling, because of Thatcher’s defence cuts. The Argentinians waited until the British ship guarding the islands had sailed away. We only won thanks to American and Chilean support. Hence Thatcher’s friendship with the old Fascist butcher, General Pinochet.

At the same time, Thatcher was responsible for the destruction of British industry and its sale to foreign companies. She didn’t want the government to bail out ailing firms, and so they were allowed to go under. State-owned enterprises were sold to foreign companies, so that many of the railway companies are owned by the Dutch, French and Germans, while I think Bristol Water is owned by an Indonesian firm. This has not brought the investment Thatcher claimed. Instead, these foreign firms simply take the profits from British companies and concentrate on their own domestic operations.

At the same time, the deregulation of the financial sector, which was supposed to take over from manufacturing as the main motor of the British economy, resulted in capital flight. The Tories hate the free movement of people, except when they’re rich, but are very keen to make sure that the British rich can invest wherever they like around the world, even at the expense of British domestic industry. Hence Jacob Rees Mogg also has investments in a number of far eastern and Indonesian companies.

And the British Empire has actually also been a problem for British domestic industry. British capitalists took their money there to exploit cheap indigenous labour. Even now the City is geared more to oversees investment than domestic, with the result that British industry is starved of investment. Labour tried to solve that problem in the 1980s by advocating a domestic investment bank. That went out the window when they lost the 1987 election, and Kinnock and his successor Blair did a volte-face and turned instead to the financial sector with promises of ‘light touch’ regulation. Further reforms by Blair, continued by the Tories, have resulted the extremely rich taking their money abroad in tax havens like the Cayman Islands in order to avoid paying British tax. Yet the same billionaires still demand the British taxpayer to bail them out. We saw this a month ago when Beardie Richard Branson called on the government to bail out Virgin Airlines, despite the fact that he is resident in the Virgin Islands and his company is also registered abroad in order to dodge paying tax in Blighty.

The playwright and Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw called out the Tories on the fake patriotism nearly a century ago in his 1928 book, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism. He wrote

So far we have considered the growth of Capitalism as it occurs at home. But capital has no home, or rather it is at home everywhere. It is a quaint fact that though professed Socialists and Communists call themselves Internationalist, and carry a red flag which is the flag of workers of all nations, and though most capitalists are boastfully national, and wave the Union Jack on every possible occasion, yet when you come down from the cries and catchwords to the facts, you find that every practical measure advocated by British Socialists would have the effect of keeping British capital in Britain to be spent on improving the condition of their native country, whilst the British capitalists are sending British capital out of Britain to the ends of the earth by hundreds of millions every year. If, with all our spare money in their hands, they were compelled to spend it in the British Isles, or were patriotic or public-spirited or insular enough to do so without being compelled, they could at least call themselves patriots with some show of plausibility. Unfortunately we allow them to spend it where they please; and their only preference, as we have seen, is for the country in which it will yield them the largest income. Consequently, when they have begun at the wrong end at home, and have exhausted its possibilities, they do not move towards the right end until they have exhausted the possibilities of the wrong end abroad as well. (pp. 133-4).

Shaw was right. In terms of practical politics, the Socialists are the only real patriots. The flag-waving nationalism of Thatcher, BoJob and Farage is to distract you from the fact that they’re not.

Don’t be misled by patriotic rhetoric, the fake controversy about the Proms, the attacks on immigrants and names like GB News. The people who really believe in Britain and all its great people are on the left.

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.

From being to seeming: why empirical scientists failed in times of Covid.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 7:53pm in

There have long been scientists who were celebrities in their own time. Galileo, Keppler, Goodall, Linneus, Cousteau, Darwin, Smith, Leeuwenhoek, Da Vinci, Ibn Khaldhun, Curie, and many others in the last 800 years were followed and admired. They in many ways performed their science, as when medics performed autopsies in theaters, astronomers performed their experiments and claims in large observatories in major towns, and geologists and botanists had whole populations bring them samples to put on display. The paleontologists displaying the bones of dinosaurs in Western museums were as much performance artists as Kayne West is today.

And yet, nowadays, the business of performing science has gone a level deeper, both inside the halls of academia and outside. Nicholas Gruen has written many times about how governments and other large organisations “perform expertise”, at the cost of actually having much expertise or valuing its application. Not only do I think he is totally right, but the need to be seen to perform has taken over much of science itself. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, whose picture shows the degrading real character of a master of pretense, so has the whole of empirical science been sliding for decades into seeming over being.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - WikipediaI suspect this slide towards “seeming over being” is why empirical science so spectacularly failed us during the covid-19 pandemic. It lead to a loss of independence from group think, a loss of awareness of basic rules of thumb, and it lead to poverty in reasoning.

In this long piece, I want to sketch the content of that slide and the deeper reasons for them. Importantly, I don’t think any individual or group is clearly to blame, making it hard to see how we get out of the trap it has put us in.

Government budget performances

Take government budgets as an example of a science-like modern performance. They once were sober affairs wherein governments would put in some state-run newspaper some general information as to how the state finances were going and which taxes were going up or down.

Nowadays, almost everywhere in the Western world, budgets are annual performances. As Nicholas Gruen termed it nicely, governments engage in accountability theater. Someone official announces budgets in an important place. It is televised and podcast. Lots of dressed-up people talking gravely, getting equally grave “responses to the budget”. Snippets are leaked to the media beforehand to get attention for something or to diffuse attention away from something.

The content of budgets is worse. They are now long documents with graphs, numbers, projections, and other “scientific looking” bits. Policies are announced, explained, given an account of. All on the basis of things that seem science. A narrative is spun wherein the government is cognisant of all major problems in society, allocating resources and drawing up plans to solve those problems. In appearance it is all very rational, thought-out, analytical, and statistical.

And yet, government budgets are made to look much more than they are. They are collections of “official lines” on problems society is worried about, not honest analyses of whether those problems even exist or can be addressed in a meaningful way. Announced new plans are often old plans, and nowhere near as coherent or centrally directed as they are presented. Money is pretended to be allocated in a very precise manner, conjuring an image of a back room in which some pie is divided over projects. But no such backroom exist as no-one even knows the current financial position of a whole government: financial positions of the present are, at best, estimated and remain uncertain until years afterwards. The announced costs of announced plans pretend a certainty that does not exist. Government budgets are just a collection of announcements leading to easily digestible talking points for the public. There is some real content, but a lot of non-content too.

Enormous bureaucratic effort thus goes into presenting a rational front of a government that is in charge and is planning ahead using scientific methods. The performance uses phrases the audience wants to hear, promising things they want to hear, and taking on the burden of seeming in control. The language of budgets are fine-tuned, using focus groups and background “papers”.

This scientific theater is not done out of any evil intent, but because governments that don’t perform in this manner get displayed as incompetent by onlookers and are booted out. They have no choice but to put up such a façade and pretend to adhere to a model of planning and evidence that they couldn’t possibly live up to in real life. The level of eontrol-pretense matches the expectations of the audience.

Empirical science is the clothing-of-choice of this increasingly elaborate façade of governments. The façade is normal business in all government departments too. There is a chief medical officer, a chief engineer, a chief economist, and many other chief scientists. They largely perform empirical science, spinning words and reports, making up stuff to appear in charge, aided by large groups helping them cook up all sorts of pretenses. Very little of it is out of bad intentions, nor is it necessarily all dysfunctional.

                   International agencies

Other large organisations too now nearly all have media departments that perform empirical science in this manner on a daily basis. The WHO “brings out” reports, information, and “discoveries”, spun by media managers to suit audiences. So too hundreds of international and national organisations. Its all full of “our scientists have found that, discovered this, warn about that, will study that”.

Frameworks are brought out so that organisations seem to control and understand stuff, whereas in actuality the frameworks replace understanding and control, full of meaningless feel-good phrases. The sustainable development indicators and frameworks are a great example of this genre, 169 underlying variables and counting, many of which tug in totally different directions (including polluting economic development!): the sustainable indicators don’t represent or aid actual policies, but replace them, allowing anything to be dressed up as sustainability policy because every policy will hit several of those 169 indicators.

Yet, if international organisations don’t present themselves like this, their funding is cut pretty quickly as few will notice them. They wouldn’t seem in control and wouldn’t seem to be working towards acceptable solutions. Being unnoticed and not seeming to do the right thing is a deadly sin in our celebrity and media-connected culture. Everyone needs to seem something and be noticed for it. Be noticed and praised, or perish.

Yet, this is but the tip of the iceberg. The above is merely how “non-academics” perform science, twist science, and cloak themselves in what seems to be science.

           The modern image of pure science

Worse is that empirical science itself has become obsessed with style over substance, with seeming over being.

The training into seeming goes very deep into the structures around empirical science now. It affects how students are told to think and write, how the reality of research is presented to them, and how they are supposed to communicate their work.

The image of what empirical science is has largely become a monoculture, based on the notion that scientists follow divine inspiration. The quintessential image is of Archimedes sitting in his bathroom having a Eureka moment of inspiration about water levels and things floating on the water, after which he “tests” his “new theory” with experiments, “confirming” that his theory is “correct”. Newton and the apple is another such example: science starts with divine inspiration, preferably followed by a randomised control experiment.

Very little of actual empirical science is like this, but students and academics are now almost universally forced to pretend it is like this. Research grant agencies nearly all want scientists to list their research questions or hypotheses, present the methods for checking those hypotheses, and give dissemination plans for telling the world about whether they were right or wrong.

                    The broad church of real science

If an astronomer asking for money for a telescope were to say “I am going to gaze through my telescope for years, hoping to find something of interest that then motivates me to think what is going on in the sky’, she would not get a cent of grant money. She has to pretend to be looking for something in particular. And yet “looking for something interesting” and only then “wondering what it might be” is a very old and prevalent scientific activity.

Similarly, there is “combining random data and previous thoughts from lots of differing time-periods, to come at an overall assessment of how things work and what the most important elements in a particular context are”. That kind of reflective armchair activity is pretty much the only thing many economists did for centuries, with their ideas and deductions still dominating the textbooks teaching new students. The market cross taught all students in their first lessons in economics, for instance, is not “tested”, and certainly not “confirmed”. It’s a causal story that fits lots of stuff about what goes on in markets, but is also inconsistent with lots of other information and is thus only useful if you have knowledge of a lot of context and applications.

Then there is “throwing oneself into unfamiliar situations that display the phenomenon I am interested in to see if I can figure out what is going on” which is how whole generations of social scientists made discoveries on the nature of revolutions, dictatorships, markets, etc. They traveled to places in the midst of revolutions, hyperinflation, and other social upheavals, to look around and notice what was of importance, checking causal storylines on the spot, asking others what is going on. Anthropologists still do this, though they now have to pretend they know beforehand what they are going to find, and they are often barred from really interesting field trips that might get them killed, so usually they are confined to a particular village to look at a pre-announced quirky form of behaviour.

Only journalists can still use one of the most powerful scientific methods there is by simply traveling to interesting places and observing humans in action.

These scientific methods used to produce much of the best empirical science we have, including much of economics, biology, history, chemistry, physics, etc.. Alas, very little of this is reflected in the current mandated format by grant agencies, who have the divine inspiration model in mind.

           How scientific teaching now outlaws broad science

Teaching is not truly broad anymore, anywhere. Just ask yourself: which university will allow a lecturer to take students on a field to trip to Syria now to see how a civil war affects people? The answer is “none”. It would be illegal to do so. The days of risky participatory field trips and immersion are over, replaced by the simpler view that science consists of the trifecta “hypothesis, test, and result”. Easier to teach, easier to examine. But it neglects the process via which an interesting hypothesis emerges, confining them to divine inspiration in the bathroom.

Yet, most ideas do not come in a bathroom and do not then get “tested”, but occur to scientists when looking at lots of stuff they happen to be interested in, not knowing what they are looking at or what they might find, using their wits and knowledge of many other things. Even the notion of proving something later on is odd when you reflect on it: the proof that there are such things as tiny moving objects like bacteria happens before ones very eyes as one sees them crawling about under a microscope.

The notions of “prior hypotheses”, “appropriate methods”, etc. are thus largely a form of ex-post explanation in many empirical sciences. That’s not how you discover something, but how you pretend you discovered something.

                 How the pretense has become mandatory

This pretense has deepened further and further in recent decades, particularly in social science and medicine. Ethics rules that empirical scientists now are bound by in many universities demand one pretends that science is divine inspiration: the ethics committee only allows one to gather data (or analyse existing data) if one has “prior hypotheses”, “consent plans”, etc. They thus demand you know beforehand what you are looking for, which means true new knowledge only comes via divine inspiration.

A major reason for this is that is allows for accountability theater: only within the world of divine inspiration can one possibly know beforehand what data one wants to gather and thus what consent or other things one might need of “participants”. The divine inspiration model allows every aspect of research to be controlled, checked, and mandated. Ethics rules thus mandate empirical scientists become producers of a very particular form of scientific theater.

It gets much, much worse. Not only do administrations and granting agencies now demand a kind of “science role-playing” from all and sundry, but scientists themselves are now doing this to each other. The divine inspiration model is what many teach as the “scientific method” to many students, particularly business students and medical students.

The latest in this slide is the notion of “pre-registration plans”, not only on experiments, but on all forms of empirical discovery. In an increasing number of (top) journals, one is frowned upon if one has not pre-registered the planned analysis in a paper. The weird reasoning behind this is that if one didn’t go looking for something in particular, it’s not science if you discover it. That leaves divine inspiration as the only valid form of science: divinity whispered ideas into one’s head, after which one wrote down the tests and the data to go check on that idea, followed by the performance of the appropriate tests and the resulting answer. It makes anything else, like combining observations from different accidental empirical sources, illegal and unethical because one didn’t ask permission of those accidental sources to be probed for knowledge. The science of old wasn’t pre-registered, so its not science. How bizarre can one get? And yet, that is now the supposed pinnacle of empirical science.

Pre-registration plans do not help science, but constrict scholars into play-acting science. It is accountability theater. And it wasn’t ethics committees or evil university managers that cooked them up either: it was other scientists telling themselves and others this was “purer” and a way to “prevent abuse”.

In economics, this has now crystallised into what is known as the randomista culture: if it cannot be presented as a “clean experiment”, you simply have no chance at top journals with your empirical paper, unless it is of innate concern to the country that journal is based in. So young scientists have learned not even to look at important events or big-picture thinking, but to scan the world for what looks like an experiment. This leads to lots of papers showing estimated causal relations in highly specific contexts, often useless, but conforming to the image of science as running experiments based on divinely inspired ideas.

                    How the pretense has become a habitual self-image

It gets worse still if one considers how scientists now “write up” results. In many disciplines a very particular form of communication has arisen: the scientific article. Many journals and disciplines have developed extremely tight notions of what such an article should look like. In economics, for instance, most journals expect a particular length, an abstract, an intro, a methods section, a results section, conclusions, and reference lists. Other disciplines and journals have other habits, but they are just as proscriptive. There are very particular rules on what to reference, how to reference, what to include in the methods, and how to report results.

The subterfuges involved in writing now taught to students as a matter of course mimic the way budgets are presented: everything is presented as rational and a strength, even if its a weakness. So suppose a scientist trialed a pill on some patients who had low education and spoke an obscure dialect, with little idea as to what was happening to them, merely consenting because that way they hoped to get some medical attention. Those patients will probably not have taken them in the correct dosage at the correct times, and hence its very far away from the ideal group. How would a scientist “inform” the referees of this disadvantage in his study though? He relates the information in a way that makes it look good, and not bad. So he will sell the lack of language and education skills of the patients as an advantage, for instance because those patients have no “prior expectations of the working of these medicines and will thus not realise during the trial whether they got the active pill or the placebo, and hence not be biased in their responses”. Sounds good, no? Not quite untrue, but not the whole truth either, is it? Its just an example of how scholars are now trained to show the shiny side of any coin, not its grubby side. Spin is now a way of life.

Deviations from the norm are punished, even if the deviation is purely in style and actually functional. For instance, if a scientist would send an economics journal a video in which some market phenomenon is much better explained than words ever could, she’d have no chance, certainly not as a stand-alone piece. Videos are not considered “real science”, at least not in economics, even if moving images can be a more powerful explanation than the non-moving images inherent in texts. Smells, artworks, etc., are also deemed non-scientific. A collection of explained pictures is similarly not-done as a stand-alone piece of science. And yes, I have tried it a few times!

Still, scientific museums are full of such artifacts used by scientists past and present to demonstrate scientific truths and explain things to the next generation and their colleagues. But conforming to the quasi-religious strictures that exist around “scientific articles” is the way individual scientists get kudos for their research from the gate-keepers, their peers. So once again, the conformism and monoculturalism is not done by outsiders, but insiders, and not out of evil-intent but out of the heart-felt notion that this is “how it should be”.

                   How deceitful pretense is now the norm

The perniciousness goes deeper still. Every sentence of what scientists nowadays write in articles is a performance of sorts, with an element of deceit. One for instance has to acknowledge powerful figures in a discipline by mandated forms of flattery, such as by saying “the seminal paper by X showed” where X is someone powerful in that discipline, often the intended editor of the journal a paper is sent to. If one would say “it was probably widely known for centuries, but X got his name on the following piece of common sense knowledge” one might in a strict sense be more scientific, but it would never get passed the refereeing process. Dividing knowledge neatly into packages of “truths” that were each “discovered and proven” by someone in particular is now a pretend-view of the world that one cannot avoid buying into when writing an article. It is a practice that is totally unscientific, but completely fits the ”hypothesis, test, result” mantra.

The same goes for the issue of what counts as a contribution, what is deemed a “significant result”, how much evidence is required depending on whether the audience already believes it, etc. Scientific papers, particularly at the top journals, are now more like a walk through the subconscious prejudices of the editors and referees than that they explain and reflect good science. Only by hitting the subconscious boxes of editors and referees can one get “accepted”.

Junior scientists very actively try to second-guess the subconscious of their judges, down to the font type and the particular Latin phrase they think an intended referee would appreciate, based on an analyses of which school she attended and what she wrote in her last 5 editorials. And no, I am not kidding. That’s not the worst I have seen. There is the “seminar dance”, “the first draft slant”, “the after conference-dinner pitch”, and of course the “hiring of the student of the editor”. It really is a commercial circus now.

This hence goes to the deeper point that scientists nowadays are nearly all degraded into performance monkeys: they no longer own science but have to continuously earn their place by appearing to be the right sort of monkey. They are forced into theater and are honed in the art of deception towards colleagues, grant agencies, themselves, and the general public.

This is the reality of empirical science now. No-one planned it to be this way, but here we are. And it is too easy to blame university managers or research-performance exercises for this slide. Those external pressures sped it up, but much of the change was championed and pushed by scientists themselves, responding both to internal competitive pressures and the evolving notion of what science is supposed to be.

                How it came to be thus

How does this “performing monkey” reality of modern science and scientists compare with the scientists of centuries past? Why did the previous model stop functioning?

Well, the performance art of the previous generations of scientists was a somewhat aristocratic pass-time, done by a small layer of privileged people who thought they were better than everyone else. They performed science to their audience largely in a display of their superiority, showing off. The production of science behind the scenes though was whatever practical way there was of finding out about something.

The main merit to the old system was that there was a lot of pragmatism involved in how scientific knowledge was produced. Charles Darwin just packed up and went gallivanting to far-away islands to have a look at exotic animals in a situation no-one would stop him experimenting on them, dissecting them, or whatever else he wanted to do with them. He combined his close observations with knowledge of breeding dogs and cows back home, inspired by economic ideas of social selection. He asked no permission, had no clear idea of what he was looking for, and interfered with any animals he felt he needed to interfere with. He’d never get away with it today.

There was also a larger scope of inquiry because there was less competition, so scientists felt more entitled to wonder through large territories. The lack of much scrutiny meant it was easier for an individual to do “grand science” about the whole political economic system, or how to view a complex problem like covid-19. We no longer train scientists to think grand, and we certainly don’t reward it: cut-throat competition rewards specialisation and “keeping to what you know best”. In some sense hence, part of the current problem is that there are just too many empirical scientists leading to these tiny territories.

The “performing monkey” reality of modern science has then lead to a great impoverishment in scientific teaching and methodology used, essentially losing the benefits of pragmatism and aristocratic grandiosity. The monkeys are now all small-time performers having lots of pretend-Eureka moments. Even if the “winners” among them then start to comment on big things, the problem they face is that they were not trained to do so and in my opinion, usually very bad at it.

The main disadvantage of the old system was that it was inherently not very accountable and openly wasteful as most supposed scientists did very little but rake up a salary whilst pontificating to students. Moreover, it often didn’t seem like science when one looked a bit more closely because of course the aristocrats performing towards the public liked to present a much more pristine face than the reality. They were often sloppy and wrong, inevitably so if they talked about many things at once. It was easy to challenge them.

There is no obvious single person, country, or development to blame for the slide towards mass pretense in empirical science: it is the way it has gone, probably because of the incentives of all organisations to seem scientific, and the ability of particular groups inside academia to force others on the defensive by forcing them to conform to a much more narrow and particular view of science. I think competitive pressures got us here. Too many scientists combined with with the relentless need to have appealing but defensible positions. Exactly the same force that has lead governments into accountability theater.

                 The costs of all this pretense and deceit

We are only just discovering the areas in which the monocultural reality is costing science and society, but I suspect that the massive failure of science and scientists in the covid-19 crisis is largely due to the transformation of science from an aristocratic but pragmatic endeavour into this “performing monkey” accountability theater.

For one, being in constant monkey-mode themselves, many scientists have lost the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. They think something must be true when a top journal publishes it because it’s a top journal. They think it has authority because it makes the media and is taken over by prestigious international organisations. They do this partly because the high degree of specialisation makes it difficult for them to judge anything outside their field, but also partly because they have been trained to think outside rewards represent the ultimate judgment of whether something is true. They are totally focused on those rewards themselves and they are truth-seeker, aren’t they? How could those journals and organisations then get it wrong? Unimaginable. Their own lives would suddenly make less sense in a world where one couldn’t trust the supposed top outlets.

Relatedly, governments only have these one-trick monkeys to draw upon. They’re the ones who get the grants, are directors of institutes, and play by these rules. They also play along with the performance-needs of the government, so they are naturally the ones in their vicinity. That’s a general problem in our society, but one more visible in an emergency. What makes it more of a problem in an emergency is that the performing monkeys are automatically more “audience oriented”. They really do not like to be seen to disagree with “mainstream science”, nor with what government wants of them. They have been selected to be like that.

Yet, Covid-19 presented an acute problem needing a broad view. The response to Covid-19 needed an overall view of a hundred and one areas involved (many subfields in economics, sociology, psychology, virology, public administration, transport, etc.), and it needed that view to be generated within days, not months or years.

In the kind of complex situation the pandemic represented, the limited number of bits for which one in a hurry can do “hypothesis, test, result” science is far too slow and too detail-oriented to be more than a small piece of the puzzle. What do those trained in very narrow areas do though when they suddenly get responsibility for making judgments on much more complex problems? As we now know, they follow the group for their actual opinions.

Lacking training in coming up with general pictures themselves, the epidemiologists and virologists suddenly thrust in the role of chief scientific advisers to governments just didn’t realise the potential effects of various actions. And how could they? This made them highly susceptible to sacrificial group think: “Something must be done. That dramatic course of action (locking up everyone) is something. So let’s to that”.

Hordes of “scientists” on the outside were egging them on to do just that. It gave them safety in numbers, with some top journal and international organisation pieces to back them up. What else could they have come up with than ridiculous models with ridiculous numbers of projected casualties unless one did something totally unproven? As we now know, the advising scientists in nearly all Western countries gave in to this pressure, except in Sweden.

In what was another across-the-board betrayal of science, the hordes of scientists advocating lock downs and other unproven experiments reversed the onus of proof. They simply turned around and asked those who disagreed with them to prove to their satisfaction that there was a better course of action. And when they learned over time that no country in the world got even a small fraction of the deaths-from-covid that were predicted (even with lock downs), the unproven assertion many of them moved to was that “that was because they implemented our advice”. Two betrayals of science in one short statement. Essentially, the “scientists” covered up. Just like governments presenting their budgets cover up what they don’t know. Seeming is everything.

                     Accountability theater gone covid-mad

The clearest indication of how poor the training and thinking of most empirical scientists has become is how they are now falling over themselves to analyse and comment upon how governments and countries have “performed” in times of Covid. They take the numbers on those tested for covid-19 or deaths from covid-19 as the key “performance indicators” in this accountability theater, and are discussing in thousands of papers and blogs how this or that country, government, and advising body stacks up relative to others.

Just a year earlier, performance was on totally different indicators, like GDP growth, or perhaps trade-deals and “sustainable development”. Those previous goals have been momentarily forgotten, as if they are of no value at this time.

Worse still, Covid-tests and deaths are not a sustainable or logical way to look at government performance right now. One can quibble over what would be a reasonable indicator, but surely it would include all deaths, some notion of how sustainable current policies are, some notion of changes to our wealth-generating capacity that has to pay for future policies, and some wider notion of changes in how the population is feeling about a whole raft of things. Surely the future of our children and. our businesses still matter, even in times of covid, and hence changes to those futures still matter for judging current performances? And surely, abused women, the wider health of society, our military prowess, and everything else we normally care about is still part of the goal function too?

So how can one possibly fall over oneself to assign blame or praise to governments on the basis of the tiny wobbles in total deaths connected to covid-19 without looking at some notion of how the big things are going? It is a total loss of perspective.

It makes no sense at all, except within the logic of accountability theater. Narrow-minded ignorance of wider questions is exactly how empirical scientists have now been raised to think for a generation or more. It is exactly how grant agencies judge things. It is exactly how the government accountability machinery now works. It is exactly how international organisations now work: they all habitually pretend to have frameworks, plans, and answers to the current specific concerns of the population, judging others and themselves on “performance” in those realms. When those concerns are wide, the pretense is broad and the notion of performance is broad. When those concerns are narrow, the pretense is narrow and the notion of performance is narrow. Scientists are simply joining in.

So the whole circus of performing monkeys now chases the whims of the population, because that is what they have increasingly been doing the last 30 years. We are not watching hordes of scientists losing their minds, but hordes of scientists doing exactly what they have been increasingly trained to do.


                 What we need.

We need different scientists. To help with a fast-changing situation, we need scientists who are nimble, pragmatic, broadly-informed, immersive. Most of all, they should not be afraid to disagree with supposed top journals, top institutions, or top scientists, but take their own council. That needs a form of confidence that comes from real independence and long training.

We also need the involvement in government of people with a reasonable view of how many things fit together and what various relativities are, able to critically evaluate science. This is the sort of person top civil servants used to be. Nowadays, the advisers closest to government in many countries are media-managers, highly adept at reading what the population wants to hear. Seeming is everything. But, alas, spin-doctors are not all that good at understanding a complex situation they haven’t seen before, with their instincts honed not towards what is best for the population, but towards what that population wants to hear. They manage the audience, not the problem, running rings around those “hypothesis, test, result” scientists who are now in essence chasing seeming over being as well.

To prevent a recurrence of the entirely avoidable economic, social, and health disaster now befalling us and to get us out of this mess will require a radical overhaul of scientific teaching, funding, and its relation with mass-communication. This will take some doing though.

Trailer for AppleTV’s ‘Foundation’ Series

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 25/06/2020 - 1:31am in

Here’s another video that has zilch to do with politics. Apparently, the computer giant Apple has, or is launching, their own TV channel. And one of the shows they’ve made for it is an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic Foundation series of books. This is one of the works for which Asimov is best remembered, along with his Robot books – I, Robot, The Caves of Steel and others. I, Robot was filmed a few years ago with Will Smith playing a human detective investigating the suicide of a robotics scientist. Together with the chief suspect, a unique robot with free will and a mind of its own, Smith uncovers a conspiracy to take over the city with a new generation of robots. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how faithful the movie was to them. Something tells me that they took a few liberties, but I don’t know.

I haven’t read Foundation either, but I gather it’s an epic about an academic, Hari Seldon, who invents the science of psychohistory. Using its techniques, he predicts that the vast galactic empire that is so ancient, no-one actually knows where Earth is anymore, is about to fall into a new Dark Age. He prepares for this by setting up the eponymous Foundation on a barren planet with the intention of collecting all human knowledge in preparation for the restoration of civilization. It’s one of the major influences behind both Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’ Star Wars. The heart of the galactic empire is Trantor, a world that has become one vast, planet-wide city. This is the model for Coruscant, the city planet which is the capital of the Republic and then the Empire in Star Wars.

The video shows scenes from the new series along with clips of others as they were being shot. There’s also a comment from the director or one of the producers, who says that Asimov was keenly interested in technology, and so would have approved of Apple making the series. There have been attempts to adapt Foundation before, apparently, but they’ve all failed due to the complexity and immense time span covered by the books. I do remember way back in the ’70s there was an LP version, where it was read by William Shatner. Less reverently, back in the ’90s one of the Oxbridge theatre groups decided to stage a play which combined it and Dr. Strangelove, titled Fundament! This ended with a Nazi scientist shouting, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’, just like the end of Kubrick’s movie.

Take a look at the trailer. It looks awesome, though unfortunately there have been movies where all the best bits were in the trailer, and the film itself actually dull. I hope this isn’t the case here. My problem with it at the moment is that it’s going to be on another streaming channel, which will mean having to subscribe to that, rather than getting it with a satellite/cable TV package.

What’s wrong with capitalism? Interviewed by Rudyard Griffiths

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/06/2020 - 6:52pm in

Video With Original Footage of David Rappoport in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/06/2020 - 2:40am in

Major Grin is a YouTuber, who posts videos about Star Trek, many of which mock the show, pointing out some of its flaws and inconsistencies. The video below is just a collection of scenes from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Data, the android crew member, visits prisoners in the Enterprise’s brig. What may make it particularly interesting for fans of the series are the scenes from the story ‘The Most Toys’ where he visits the villain, Kivas Fajo.

Fajo was a galactic billionaire collector of strange and rare objects. In ‘The Most Toys’, he takes Data captive and tries to add him to his collection. Data resists, and is helped to escape by one of Fajo’s employees. Fajo  intercepts them, however, shooting her with his disruptor, and threatens to kill another one of this servants unless Data obey him. Data raises his phaser to kill Fajo, but is then rescued as both he and Fajo are transported back to the Enterprise.

The role of Fajo was to be played by the British actor David Rappoport. Rappoport played the leader of the dwarfs in the 1980s Terry Gilliam fantasy film, Time Bandits and one of the O Men in one of the Beeb’s ’80s children’s programmes. He was also friends with the people, who ran the Old Profanity showboat down on Bristol’s docks. Despite his lack of height, Rappoport was a performer with real charisma. He had attitude, style and swagger, as shown by his performance in Time Bandits. He appeared in a number of movies and TV series, but managed to break out from just playing SF/ Fantasy roles. Shortly before his death, he starred in a Channel 4 show about an uptight British businessman, complete with bowler hat and pinstripe suit, who becomes more relaxed and laid back when he visits America and experiences proper pop music. Sadly, he died during the making of ‘The Most Toys’ and was replaced by an actor of normal height.

It’s interesting comparing the performances of Rappoport and his replacement. While the other actor’s performance is light, almost comic, Rappoport’s is all snarling aggression, spitting hate at Data from behind the cell’s forcefield.

I don’t want to take anything away from Warwick Davis’ achievement in making the same transition from SF, Fantasy and Horror to mainstream television – he’s now the host of the British game show Tenable – but I do wonder how much of his success he owes to David Rappoport having done it just before him.

David Rappoport – one of the great figures of British fantasy cinema. RIP big fellow.