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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Rebel Cities – From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey (FP: 2012)

Marx, it would seem, was wrong about one thing. The future proletarian revolution would not start in the factories and would not be led by the vanguard of the working class. Instead the revolution would happen in the cities and would be led by politically educated urbanites who had witnessed to depredations of capitalism at first hand on the streets and in the public spaces of their capital. At least that is the theory portrayed in this sharply argued and rather intense little book (only 164 pages long).

Drawing on examples from across the globe over the past 150 years (or so) and referencing events such as the Paris Commune of 1871, the Anarchist collectives in the Spanish Civil War and the recent Occupy Movement the author sees that suitably motivated people with little connection to the traditional Marxist drivers of revolutionary activity can still move things in that direction. Often dismissed as irrelevant or, at best, subsidiary to such political earthquakes the author argues that, with urbanisation becoming the dominant force in the world, city residents are in a unique position to drive revolutionary politics forward and challenge Capitalism on its home turf. It is no coincidence, the author maintains, that acts of rebellion and resistance often centre on the Commons in cities such as Beijing, New York and Cairo. These public spaces are literally ‘occupied’ by citizens using the practical opens spaces provided for them and by doing so stake a very public claim to be heard by those in power. It is hardly surprising that the authorities react strongly to such events doing everything in their power to restrict access to and finally to clear such areas before acts of rebellion can get off the ground enough to threaten the existing power structure.

It is in cities that the future battles, both metaphorical and literal, between the forces and Capital and anti-Capital in all its diverse forms will take place. Single issue organisations already exist in cities across the globe. With the increasing connectivity between places previously isolated from world events it is now possible for even the smallest and poorest groups to reach out to others with similar issues and widely different solutions or proposals. Protests can be organised on local, regional and international levels in response to very local problems. Lessons can be learned, new techniques tried out, support can be gained and, at least occasionally, successes can be celebrated. With centuries of urban protests to draw on the future of urban revolt looks to be very interesting indeed.

Despite struggling with some of the political theory at times I find this book to be rather interesting. The authors focus on the city as the future of revolutionary politics was an intriguing one. I remain to be convinced that such a revolution is possible even at a local level but I do see the possibilities as outlined in this slim volume. As always the author has given me much to think about and a few avenues of study to follow up. As a city-born myself I can see their attraction in many ways. It’s beyond argument that the future belongs to them (unless the whole edifice collapses that is) so keeping a weather eye on their political development seems more than prudent. One more city related book to come then a technology triple read. After that I’m back to politics I’m afraid. I think it’s going to be that kind of year! 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

AI ripe for exploitation, experts warn

By Jane Wakefield, BBC Technology reporter

Drones turned into missiles, fake videos manipulating public opinion and automated hacking are just three of the threats from artificial intelligence in the wrong hands, experts have said. The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence report warns that AI is ripe for exploitation by rogue states, criminals and terrorists. Those designing AI systems need to do more to mitigate possible misuses of their technology, the authors said. And governments must consider new laws.

The report calls for:

Policy-makers and technical researchers to work together to understand and prepare for the malicious use of AI

A realisation that, while AI has many positive applications, it is a dual-use technology and AI researchers and engineers should be mindful of and proactive about the potential for its misuse
Best practices that can and should be learned from disciplines with a longer history of handling dual use risks, such as computer security

An active expansion of the range of stakeholders engaging with, preventing and mitigating the risks of malicious use of AI

Speaking to the BBC, Shahar Avin, from Cambridge University's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, explained that the report concentrated on areas of AI that were available now or likely to be available within five years, rather than looking to the distant future. Particularly worrying is the new area of reinforcement learning where AIs are trained to superhuman levels of intelligence without human examples or guidance. He outlined some of the scenarios where AI could turn "rogue" in the near future:

Technologies such as AlphaGo - an AI developed by Google's DeepMind and able to outwit human Go players - could be used by hackers to find patterns in data and new exploits in code

A malicious individual could buy a drone and train it with facial recognition software to target a certain individual

Bots could be automated or "fake" lifelike videos for political manipulation

Hackers could use speech synthesis to impersonate targets

Miles Brundage, research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, said: "AI will alter the landscape of risk for citizens, organisations and states - whether it's criminals training machines to hack or 'phish' at human levels of performance or privacy-eliminating surveillance, profiling and repression - the full range of impacts on security is vast. It is often the case that AI systems don't merely reach human levels of performance but significantly surpass it. It is troubling, but necessary, to consider the implications of superhuman hacking, surveillance, persuasion, and physical target identification, as well as AI capabilities that are subhuman but nevertheless much more scalable than human labour."

Dr Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and one of the co-authors, added: "Artificial intelligence is a game changer and this report has imagined what the world could look like in the next five to 10 years.

"We live in a world that could become fraught with day-to-day hazards from the misuse of AI and we need to take ownership of the problems - because the risks are real. There are choices that we need to make now, and our report is a call to action for governments, institutions and individuals across the globe. For many decades hype outstripped fact in terms of AI and machine learning. No longer. This report looks at the practices that just don't work anymore - and suggests broad approaches that might help: for example, how to design software and hardware to make it less hackable - and what type of laws and international regulations might work in tandem with this."

The 100-page report identified three areas - digital, physical and political - in which the malicious use of AI is most likely to be exploited. Contributors included OpenAI, a non-profit research firm, digital rights group The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for a New American Security, a national security think-tank.

[Well, at least people are beginning to listen to the possibilities and, maybe, doing something about it. I expect that the best way of protecting us from malicious AI’s and ‘good’ AI’s who can counter them on a level playing field. What a crazy assed world we are creating for ourselves and our children!]

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Blackmailer by George Axelrod (FP: 1952)

Publisher Dick Sherman can hardly believe his luck. Completely out of the blue a beautiful young woman offers his small-time publishing house the chance of a lifetime – to publish the last work of a Nobel Prize winning author whose life was tragically cut short in an accidental shooting. For a publisher previously well known for puzzle and crossword books it seems life an offer too good to be true and that’s why Sherman has his suspicions. The example of the manuscript looks real but the owner wants money, a lot of money, to produce the rest of the book – and quickly too. Just when things are beginning to fall into place the impossible happens – again. Sherman is offered the unpublished manuscript of the same author on the understanding that everything is kept secret until publication day. Now with his suspicions fully aroused Sherman begins to dig to find the truth – if it exists – behind both offers. But to get there he needs to jump into the shady world of Hollywood movie production, young starlets, organised crime and find out what really happened to the world famous author the night he apparently killed himself with a hunting rifle whilst blind drunk.

What a mess this novel was. The plot, if I dignify it with that word, was all over the place. The manuscript was essentially what Hitchcock called a ‘McGuffin’ – a plot device to drive the story forward no matter if it existed or not. The characters were, by and large, completely unbelievable. The twists and turns of the story didn’t really lead anywhere and only existed, as far as I could tell, to keep the reader guessing and reading long enough without any real payoff in the end. Finally, if all of the previous wasn’t enough, the story hinged on the ability of at least two of the characters to mimic other characters voices. Oh, and I almost forgot – the rather annoying repetitive non-consummated sex scenes sprinkled throughout to keep its (presumably) young male readership hoping for more. All rather sad really. One of the worst of the latest batch of the Hard Case series. Not recommended.   

Monday, February 19, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Rebels Against the Future – The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age by Kirkpatrick Sale (FP: 1995)

Being a weaver in early 19th century England was difficult enough with the disruption of trade caused by the seemingly interminable war with France. If that wasn’t bad enough for those scrapping by on barely subsistence wages they could see their future all too clearly despite the increasingly smoke laden air around the new factories. Inside those factories were machines capable of doing the work of dozens of semi-skilled workers whilst being served by the lowest paid workers – women and children. Those with the highest skills still had work but they could see which way the wind was blowing too – as they became de-skilled machine supervisors. But what option did they have? What could they do to protect their way of life and, more importantly, feed their children beyond starvation levels?

Textile workers across northern England knew that if they stayed divided they would be easy prey to the new industrialists who made so much profit off the backs of their subsistence wage workforce and their increasingly sophisticated machines.  The need to organise and present a united front to wage demands and attempts to reduce the harsh conditions in those early factories and the long hours workers as young as six served tending the machines gave rise to the first trade unions – or would have if the Government of the day had not made ‘combinations’ illegal and ‘secret oath taking’ a crime punishable by long prison sentences, transportation to Australia or (later) by death. With this avenue blocked trade leaders, local politicians and some members of the clergy put together petitions to go to Parliament asking for relief. Despite repeated attempts, and even some sympathy from a few ministers, the petitions fell on deaf ears and no relief was forthcoming. Few options remained to the increasingly desperate men (and women) in the region. They could capitulate and take the wages and conditions they were given, they could (if possible) abandon their old lives and move to the growing towns and cities of what would, much later, be called the Industrial Revolution to work in the ‘dark Satanic mills’ with their overcrowding, poverty and disease. Or they could fight. A few decided to fight and created the legend of the Luddites. The origin of the word is anything but clear but it wasn’t long after the decision to fight had been made, seemingly separately by disparate groups across Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, that communications signed Ned Ludd began to circulate. Initially issued as warnings and manifestoes these gave a name to those willing to take the law into their hands and smash the hated machines understood to be threatening their livelihoods. They were followers of General Ludd – they were Luddites. 

At first the attacks were random, sporadic and small scale. Reports of break-ins at small factories and the destruction of a handful of machines were reported. Before long, and across an increasingly large area, numbers of men armed with various locally available weapons began attacking larger factories, destroying machines, setting fires and ambushing convoys of weaving machines before they had the chance to be delivered and set up. Understandably the factory owners – some of whom sat in Parliament – demanded that the government ‘do something’. Machine breaking was added to the list of capital crimes and magistrates were pressed to deliver the harshest sentences to anyone found aiding or abetting the Luddites. The rising of local militias was authorised as well as the government backed paying of informants and spies. But this seemed to have little effect and the factory owners started taking things into their own hands paying for armed guards on their property and setting counter-ambushes for any Luddite gangs. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before the death toll started to rise and the violence started to escalate. The government had no choice but to send thousands of soldiers into the region in the clear expectation that a general uprising was a real possibility. This was all the more radical a response considering that troops were much needed in Spain where Wellington was fighting the French and, later, British troops were desperately needed in America to prosecute the war there. With the area flooded with troops the number of Luddite attacks dropped dramatically. Finally the bribes and spying paid off and several ring-leaders were captured and stood trial. Those who were not hanged shortly after were transported for life to Australia and Tasmania. Despite several subsequent riots the Luddite menace was over. The name, however, and the cause they fought for, remains embedded in history and is still a touchstone to those in the present fighting in their own way against the unfeeling encroachment of technology and the loss of jobs, professions and ways of life across the world. In the 21st Century Ned Ludd still lives!

Having grown up in and around some of the areas where the Luddites operated some 200 years ago it’s hardly surprising that I was at least emotionally familiar with their cause. This book most certainly addressed my lack of actual knowledge of the historic events. I actually thought the Luddites operated at the end of the 18th century rather than the early 19th for instance. It appeared to take quite some time before increasing mechanisation prompted the Luddite revolt but I suppose that even technological change doesn’t happen overnight (or everywhere at once). Although the Luddites failed to achieve their immediate aims I for one wouldn’t go so far as to call them failures and would definitely not label them fools. Despite much evidence to the contrary – after all I’ll reviewing this book on the Internet – I have more than once been labelled a Luddite probably because I don’t have the latest iPhone and don’t have a Facebook account. Such a label, once I stopped laughing, never bothered me. After reading this book it’s a label I can accept with pride. Long Live General Ludd! Recommended to anyone who questions the inevitability of so-called “technological progress”.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Valentine's Day prompts mini baby boom, NHS data shows

From The BBC

14 February 2018

It is a day known for ostentatious displays of romance. But it appears Valentine's Day really does lead to love in the air after new figures, for 2015, showed an increase in conceptions around the day. NHS England data shows there were an estimated 16,263 conceptions in England in the week of Valentine's Day and 16,344 the following week. That number was higher than the weekly average of 15,427 conceptions and second only to the Christmas period.

Sarah-Jane Marsh, chair of the maternity transformation programme at NHS England, said: "Love is most definitely in the air at this time of year and it is fantastic to learn that the NHS sees a mini baby boom nine months later - bringing with it great joy to families across the nation." Some 16,872 babies are estimated to have been conceived in England in the week beginning 28 December 2015. The numbers are based on data from antenatal appointments. Separately, other studies have previously shown that Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day are the least common days for giving birth each year.

[It’s good to see proof positive that buying flowers and a nice card – or even a HUGE cuddly toy – has the desired effect. Facts and figures, validated nine months later, just can’t lie. LOVE is most certainly ‘in the air’ around now. Baby Boom INCOMING…..!]

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love *is* the Drug..........

Just Finished Reading: Merchant, Soldier, Sage – A New History of Power by David Priestland (FP: 2012)

It’s an impressive feat to produce a cohesive and readable study of the history of power through western civilisation in a single book of just short of 270 pages. It’s even more impressive to produce such a book looking at power in a new and interesting way – especially when it encourages you to look at the world in a different way. Here the author sees the engine of history as the age long struggle between three distinct castes – soldiers in all of their guises, merchants (of both the soft and hard varieties) and sage/administrators exemplified by priests, intellectuals and career civil servants. Each has their strengths and weaknesses and each, it seems, has their time in the sun before being replaced by another cast or combination of castes. None remain in power for long and none can rule fully on their own. Neither can any truly and finally overcome their rivals without seriously undermining the culture they preside over and thereby bringing their own system of rule crashing to the ground. When soldiers rule the world is beset with interminable warfare and economies collapse. When merchants rule (as they do now) the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, political unrest grows and the environment suffers. When things get bad the Merchant calls for help from the Soldier to protect the Merchant way of life and growth becomes violent unrest at home and foreign wars abroad as rival mercantile empires fight it out for domination of a shrinking pool of resources. When the Sage rules the system stagnates under the heavy hand of bureaucracy, secret police and the nightmare of totalitarianism.

Today we exist under the widely discredited rule of merchants who promise much and who have delivered so little to so many. The caste responsible for the crash of 1929 and 2008, who seem to learn so little from their mistakes, are in danger of being replaced but by whom? Will their excesses be tempered by the Sage, will wealth be redistributed to reduce the runaway wealth gap and, thereby temper any revolutionary feelings across the globe or, as in times past, will the Merchant be aided in power by the Soldier as it seems to be especially in the US with the election of Donald Trump. Whatever happens we do seem to be on the cusp of a shift in power relations if history, and the authors analysis, is anything to go by. Whatever happens in the next 50 years one thing is certain – it’s going to be interesting and painful in equal measure.

This is the kind of book we need much more of – thoughtful and full of historical analysis. But this book, and the author, not only looks backwards but forwards too. What he sees is less than comfortable but, as always, forewarned is forearmed and to be honest we need all of the forewarning we can get these days. Full of incisive historical examples and brimming with intriguing ideas this is a must read for anyone striving to understand the world we live in, how we got here and where exactly we’re going. I intend to look out for more of this author’s works so expect to see his name again soon. Highly recommended. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

So, you say you want a Revolution…..?

I’ve been thinking a bit (OK, a lot) lately on where my R4 reading - Revolt, Rebellion, Resistance and Revolution – is taking me and felt it was about time to tighten things up and focus where I want to go rather than wandering in a revolting open-ended desert. So, here are my thoughts….

My future focus will be directed much more at Rebellion and Resistance rather than Revolt or Revolution. Such things as the American, French and Russian Revolutions will come up no doubt but will only form background or context reading rather than anything else. Another aspect of the new focus will be time. Rebellions and Revolutions have occurred across the globe throughout recorded history. That’s a lot of ground to cover along with everything else I’ll be reading. So, the focus will be on modern examples of Rebellion in the post-Industrial Revolution period and, generally, dating from the 19th Century onwards. I think that the General Strike in 1926 has more relevance to what I’m trying to achieve (or understand) than the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Likewise the focus will be much more on street level rather than Dynastic or Factional power struggles within ruling bodies. I’m much more interested in what happened to the people than their so-called masters. Naturally this leads onto a number of iconic Civil Wars throughout history. My focus would indicate that the later Spanish Civil War would draw much more of my attention than the American Civil War and definitely more than the English Civil Wars of the 17th Century although, no doubt, all three events will get some coverage in my reading to come.

With an increasing emphasis on the modern age it’s inevitable that I will be reading about Revolutionary and, most probably, Terrorist organisations that we have grown all too familiar with over the last 50 years. Some of this reading will, no doubt, be uncomfortable especially as we continue to exist in era not too dissimilar to the 1970’s in so many ways (though thankfully without the questionable fashion sense). So expect books about Urban Terrorism and gangs such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. Bringing it more up to date I’ll also be dipping my toes into the dangerous worlds of groups like FARC and the PKK. The Kurds in particular are exhibiting an interesting pull on my attentions presently so expect to hear much more of them over the next year or so. Closer to home I will be reading some more about the situation in Ireland over the past 100 years or so and might even be able to acquire something on that fascinating little group known as The Angry Brigade who so vexed the British authorities back in the early 70’s. Moving away from Europe I’ll also be looking at American radicalism in the 70’s with the SDS and the Weathermen Underground before bringing things up to date with Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

So where am I going with all this? To be honest I’m not completely sure yet. I have been fascinated with acts of rebellion for as long as I can remember. After all I AM a child of the 60’s! What I’m hoping for is that I discover something, a nugget, which I can delve into and build around enough to allow me to create a project for a PhD. At least that’s the longer term dream. I think I’m much more likely to find such a nugget if I narrow my focus in the way I’ve outlined above. I guess that we’ll see where I end up.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Asteroid set for 'close' 43,300 mile flight past Earth on Friday

From the BBC

9 February 2018

An asteroid up to 40m in size and only discovered five days ago, is due to skim past the Earth on Friday. Asteroid 2018 CB will pass by at just less than one-fifth the distance between the Earth and the Moon. It was first spotted by the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson, Arizona, a Nasa-funded project to record potentially hazardous asteroids. However, while the pass is relatively close in astronomical terms, it's nowhere near enough to be a threat. The 15-40m space rock is set to make its closest approach to Earth at 22:27 GMT. "Although 2018 CB is quite small, it might well be larger than the asteroid that entered the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, almost exactly five years ago, in 2013," said Paul Chodas, manager of Nasa's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies.

"Asteroids of this size do not often approach this close to our planet - maybe only once or twice a year." CB 2018 will buzz us at a distance of 69,700km (43,300 miles), which is roughly twice as far as the belt of satellites which orbit Earth in geostationary orbit. Another small asteroid passed within lunar distance this week. Known as 2018 CC, the object made its closest approach to Earth on 6 February at a distance of about 184,000km (114,000 miles). That asteroid, also discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey, was estimated to be between 15m and 30m (50-100ft) in size.

[OK, the most disturbing thing about it is that they only discovered it 5 days previously….! I’m hoping that, if it had been much larger, that it would’ve been spotted sooner – at least that’s the hope. I do wonder if they’d tell us if it was going to impact though. Thankfully the one that exploded over Russia 5 years ago didn’t happen during the dark years of the Cold War. Can you imagine if such a thing caught the Russian missile defence system napping or during a tense internal crisis! It just doesn’t bear thinking about…. I guess that sooner or later one of this Near Earth Asteroids will impact somewhere. I suppose it’s only a matter of time. With luck it’ll hit somewhere harmless and the next time we’ll be ready for it. Either that or we’ll have a tragedy followed by a global tourist attraction….. I’m starting to realise who the dinosaurs felt – if they were aware of what was going on……………………….]

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Guns of Heaven by Pete Hamill (FP: 1983)

Journalist Sam Briscoe has made a deal with his editor. For the price of a ticket to Switzerland to see his daughter he’ll go back to Northern Ireland and use his contacts there to write an inside story from the Catholic perspective. Meeting up with family members he is introduced to the new rising star in the IRA hierarchy and the two make an impression on each other. But when his uncle is killed by Protestant gunmen all Sam can think of is leaving and putting his past behind him – but an anger is building up inside and the IRA commander uses this to persuade Sam to carry a message back to the US. Arriving back in New York and good to his word Sam brings the message to a famous Irish pub, has a drink on the house and leaves. But as he reaches his car and looks back a huge explosion rocks the pub killing his contact and leaving the building in flames. Someone else, it seems, has followed Sam back and is intent of thwarting the IRA plans and Sam in right in the cross hairs. Confident he can take care of himself he thinks little of the danger he’s walked into – until a phone call and a familiar voice changes everything. A stranger’s voice wants the information Sam brought with him from Ireland and they have his daughter. The deal is a simple one – co-operate or she dies. But Sam has other ideas and not just for his daughter’s safety. If anything happened to her his ex-wife would never forgive him and she’s already pretty pissed off with him to begin with. 

For a journalist the main character here had quite a few hero qualities – he seemed to know everyone: IRA hitmen, US gangsters, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, lawyers, hotel owners and a myriad of others all who seemed to owe him favours. He obviously had advanced driving tuition, was an army sharpshooter, amateur boxer, escape artist and well, you get the point…. He seemed to be able to out think, out drive, out run and out shoot everyone else in the book. Why his wife left him (apart from the fact that he never seemed to be around) was beyond me. He seemed perfect…. Which was, of course, a huge problem. He was just too perfect. The rest of the cast basically revolved around the main character and did things largely to move his story on with little regard to their own lives – such as they were. The whole tone of the book was as if the author had spent a lazy weekend reading a handful of magazine articles about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and, when no other ideas came to mind and his editor was bothering him for a book decided to write this one. I can’t say that I’m anywhere near an expert on Northern Irish politics but I still think I know more about the area than the author did. Romanticism just doesn’t start to describe the feel of the whole thing. Although it was just readable – in a comic book fashion – it had few redeeming qualities so I’m afraid that I won’t be recommending it to anyone. Poor.