The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Paul Foot

Paul Foot's funeral is today. His death was a shock to me, as to many. His investigative journalism was as tenacious as his commitment to socialism, which he always argued for as an explosive expansion of democracy and liberty. Among his many writings were a succession of short books putting this argument with clarity, passion, and wit, of which the following opening paragraph is typical:
'Ever since the beginning of time,' says a disembodied voice over a picture of a spinning globe at the start of Cecil B. de Mille's film Samson and Delilah, 'man has striven to achieve a democratic state on earth.' That is probably putting it a little high (especially as the voice goes on to assert: 'such a man was Samson') but there is some truth in it.
Paul Foot, The Case for Socialism, 1990.

And such a man was Paul Foot.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

"... my simple belief that atheism and feminism are hallmarks of the left"

Jaizi of Workers' Liberty writes:
Once upon a time I was a Tao-y arty little hippy whose family happens to be flaming scarlet. It happens that I know a good deal about the diversity of the Islamic tradition, or at any rate more than [George] Galloway, [Lindsey] German and [Ken] Livingstone, who appal me and my simple belief that atheism and feminism are the hallmarks of the Left. What follows is certain reflections on religion and the proposed legislation against inciting religious hatred which may be of interest to comrades.

New Labour seems to view religion in terms of the devotees of Yahweh-Allah-Jehovah, a chap not a girl’s best friend. The National Secular Society chronicles Blair’s enthusiasm for ‘faith communities’. I do not think Zen, wicca and feminist theology are embraced at these meetings. MAB’s hypnotizing of some on the Left is known. Women Against Fundamentalisms remains a little-known organization. Southall Black Sisters operate on a shoe-string. Something has gone wrong and it seems to me that it is bad news for all women.
Read all of this spirituality-friendly rationalist rant.
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Friday, July 16, 2004

Sexing-up the dossier

A few years ago, when I was a computer programmer at Edinburgh University, I went to a meeting where two members of the SPGB were putting the case for socialism to a student society called, I think, Third World First, and dedicated, as far as I could see, to the promoting the kind of delusions (trade bad, aid good) that have done so much to keep the Third World third.

After Brian and Matt, the two Socialists, had put their case for the immediate global abolition of the market, some Frequently Asked Questions came up. One of them was: 'Who will do the dirty work?'

Some well-meaning sap in the audience - it may have been me - gave an earnest exposition of the Frequently Delivered Answer: that lots of the dirty work could be automated, that the objectionable thing about dirty work wasn't the dirt but the social stigma, etc. (You can find the rest of it in Bebel.)

'Ah,' said Brian, sounding disappointed. 'I've always thought it would be Matt.'

In the same spirit, I can now exclusively answer the question of who was responsible for distorting the intelligence from Iraq. It was me.

At least, I started it. I set the ball rolling.

Many years ago, when I was a postgrad at Brunel University, I and a Kurdish exile and an Irishman drafted an article for the student paper, Le Nurb. Control of Le Nurb rested on who had seized the means of its production - a golf-ball typewriter, some sheets of Letraset, an X-acto knife and a jar of paste - that week, so its editorial line fluctuated wildly from Tory to Trot to Anarchist to Young Liberal.

That week, it was Trot. The article I was drafting was based on a telephoned report from Iraqi Kurdistan to our Kurdish exile friend. (The Kurds, then as now, needed all the friends they could get.) An official demonstration in Sulimaniyah, under the slogan 'The Kurds are Ba'athist!' had turned into an angry anti-regime demonstration, under the slogan 'The Kurds are hungry!' (It was a pun in Kurdish.)

I transcribed all this.

'"... which could only be put down by the use of troops,"' added my Irish friend.

'You can't say that,' said the Kurdish guy. 'I have no information about the use of troops.'

'Oh come on,' said the Irish guy. 'You think there could be a demonstration like that, in Sulimaniyah, and it wouldn't be put down by troops?'

'Well ...' said the Kurdish guy, 'perhaps ...'

'There you go,' said the Irishman.

Reader, I wrote it, and Le Nurb published it. A couple of weeks later that article was lifted, with permission, by the much more widely read Militant, and shortly thereafter Militant's article was excerpted - imaginary troops and all - in the even more widely read Intercontinental Press. I don't know how many people who are now Labour MPs read either of these journals in their youth, but I'd hazard more than a few. How many minds were changed, how many opinions hardened, by that fictitious fusillade?

None, in all probability. But the lie still makes me blush.
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The 911 days of Sodom

Seymour Hersh, on what you ain't seen yet from Abu Ghraib:

"The boys were sodomised with the cameras rolling, and the worst part is the soundtrack, of the boys shrieking. And this is your government at war."
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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Why Robots?

Robots, an interactive exhibition sponsored by, among others, Heriot Watt University, is running at Callendar House in Falkirk until September 5. When I was asked to give a talk about robots in SF as part of the associated evening lecture series I said, 'I don't know much about robots in SF.' That's all right, I was told, you must know more about it than most people.

So, some weeks and a hasty shufti into The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction later, I was given a lift to Callendar House by Heriot-Watt's efficient publicity person, Frances Williams. The exhibition includes an Electrolux Trilobite vacuum-cleaner (sadly showing an empty battery symbol at the time), an astonishing animated sculpture from Glasgow, an interactive remote control for a robot arm in the University's laboratories, and a lot of toys and posters. The venue is an attractive place in its own right, and the exhibition is well worth a visit.

Why are we interested in robots?

Our ancestors were predators and prey. This makes us pattern-recognising animals, and jumpy animals. The patterns we are best equipped to recognise are those distinctive of other animals, and especially other humans. We see faces in fires, in clouds, in leaves. Sigmund Freud said that the uncanny is the experience of being uncertain whether something is alive or not. And from our own - often early - experiences of wondering whether the scratching at the window is of twigs or fingers, or the shape in the corner or behind the door is a figure or a dressing-gown, we see how he was right.

We are also tool-making animals, with an opposable thumb and a flexible hand unique in the animal kingdom.

So the idea of a tool, a machine, that replicates our most distinctive features - a machine with a face, a voice, a mind, a hand - is disturbing and uncanny. In the exhibition you can see many toy robots, and you can see how much design effort goes into making them less frightening, indeed cute, for young children, and more frightening for older children.

The robot in SF has a dual ancestry. One forebear is the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Another is the real practice of building automata, described in Tom Stanage's The Mechanical Turk. The Frankenstein motif of a creation that destroys its creators appeared in Karel Capek's R.U.R. and rampaged through early SF, along with more nuanced presentations. An unambiguously sympathetic portrayal arrived with Eano Binder's I, Robot and was carried forward in Asimov's stories collected under the same title. Asimov, you might say, wrote the book on robots, though other stories - Anthony Boucher's brilliant Thomist fable 'The Quest For St Aquin' and Brian Aldiss's hilarious and elegaic 'But Who Can Replace a Man?' - stand out, as do Philip K. Dick's android dreams and nightmares. From the 1950s to the 1970s, robots carried a heavy weight of themes - humanity, identity, labour, slavery - on uncomplaining metal shoulders.

And then they went away. They became, as I recall Paul MacAuley saying on a panel at Trincon 2, dead tech, like food pills and psi powers and tractor beams. They died and went to heaven - into satire and skiffy, in Red Dwarf and Star Wars, and into cyberspace, where their dematerialised descendants haunt our imaginations as the AI.

But the AI is another story, and another talk.
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Monday, July 05, 2004

Health warnings

The recent claim that government health campaigns against sunbathing could result in an upsurge of vitamin D deficiency has prompted the Carcinoma Retardation Charity to defend its slogan 'Sunlight Kills!'

'We know it isn't strictly true, but we have to be a little bit strident to put the message across,' a spokeswoman said, coyly adjusting her burkha. 'Ordinary people can't be relied on to know the difference between agonising sunburn and a mild golden tan.'

Meanwhile, the environmental campaign Greenpiss has admitted that illustrating a warning about declining male fertility with a picture of the minute genitals of a cherub from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel 'may have been a little over the top'. Its earlier claim that 'Humanity is a plague species that will with any luck be wiped from the face of the Earth in the cleansing fire of nuclear holocaust' is still under review.

Earlier today, the government suffered acute embarrassment when a drafting error resulted in the House of Lords approving a bill that bans smacking in pubs.
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