Directed by Stephen Frears. With Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings.
The notion of any kind of hereditary monarchy simply incomprehensible to me. It is a system of government so riven with problems as to be potentially catastrophic for a country. This is why the UK have reduced the monarchy to figurehead status. That being the case, the UK remains with a Queen, and Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her role in this movie) plays Elizabeth II just after the death of Diana Spenser in 1997, formerly Princess Diana. Diana Spenser is named by Blair as the peoples princess (Tony Blair is played by the creepily brilliant Michael Sheen who also should have gotten an Oscar for his role as the obsequious power hungry worshipful Machiavellian Tony Blair )
Blair, though ostensibly promising to modernise the UK, in many ways sees his path to power along the road of maintaining the status quo. Blair wants power and is intelligent enough and a gifted enough politician to be no socialist revolutionary anti monarchist. He is not long in office and Elizabeth II is wary of him. Diana is dead and she refuses to treat the death as a royal affair despite a very public outpouring of grief and the fact that Blair refers to her as the ‘people’s princess’ – a divisive term to say the least and something that causes a deep division in the Royal household. Elizabeth couldn’t compete with Diana in terms of popularity, or even her capacity to communicate with people. Diana was a girl chosen to be the wife of Charles, who was already deeply in love and in a long term passionate relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Not a recipe for a sound long term arrangement.
Diana surprised the royals. She was beautiful warm and charismatic and was unafraid to display her many flaws in public. Elizabeth was the polar opposite. She was precise and cerebral, cold and driven by duty. There was a sense that she loathed this person, this Diana, who had invaded their carefully controlled royal cosmos and refused to conform to its mores. In some ways the movie is more about the ghost of Diana Spenser and her effect of Elizabeth II than anything else.
Blair pressurizes the Queen to come down out of the hermetically sealed forty thousand acre estate in Balmoral in Scotland and meet the people in London. The sheer distance between the Royal Family and the lives of the ordinary people becomes apparent as the Queen reads the news day by day, watches the interviews Diana gave after her divorce, unprecedented interviews which broke the code of silence, and sees her own ratings plummet as the tabloids turn on her. She concedes to Blair’s entreaties and returns to Buckingham Palace and meets the people and looks and the swathes of flowers and expressions of regret and she is horrified. It is obvious that many hold her and the machinations of the Royal family household personally responsible for Diana’s death. Which is both interesting, tragic, and at the same time not unusual. A much loved public figure with royal connections dies in a Parisian tunnel with her boyfriend while being chased by rapacious paparazzi. The driver of the vehicle was drunk. Had he not been drunk the crash may not have happened. Anyway when a terrible unforeseen tragedy occurs, such as this one, there is an outpouring of grief and of anger and people look for someone to blame (something I can understand only too well from my own life experience). They blamed the Royal Family and particularly Elizabeth II.
The pain of this very public condemnation struck her to the core, but like all leaders and political figures, she summoned the resources necessary to survive, to maintain her distance and her dignity and to keep the Royal Family as a central facet of English life and culture at a time when a Labour Government was in power, a time when there was real talk of abolishing the Royal Family as a historical anachronism. Mirren shows the intelligence and the depth and the coldness of Elizabeth II. Michael Sheen shows Blair as the untrustworthy nasty piece of work he seems by all accounts to be.
All in all this is a great film, an ensemble performance about a truly surreal world, the world of the Royal Family and how deeply dysfunctional they are. I was glad I saw it. I switched on the TV and there it was. How Fortuitous.
1. Drafty: The way the wind howled through the cracks between the windows and the doors during windy rainy nights and we were freezing and that no one checked on us after the night that the thunder roared overhead and the heating didn’t work and water washed past the front door of our apartment.
2. The Apartment: That our apartment was unclean (filty) and we had to wash it ourselves and the shower curtain fell over and there was a small open drain in the middle of the floor in the bathroom and one of the windows didn’t lock and I mentioned the air conditioning didn’t work and it was dreadful and unhealthy.
3. Garbage: That fact our garbage remained uncollected (I used take it secretly down to a local bin). There was even garbage on the beach. (The place is nothing like the website.)
4. Value for Money: That the food was bad and overpriced and the supermarkets were overpriced and the taxis were overpriced and there was little fresh food and almost no fresh fish. They sure don’t cater for vegetarians.
5. Our Host: That the owner of the ‘villa’ (absolutely nothing like the photograph on the website) took our money and seemed to basically disappear for much of our stay after day three. (Did I mention no one checked in on us?) In point of fact he was called by another hotel owner we met on our cycling travels who berated him for being such a poor host.
6. The Unfriendliness: I could wax lyrical about the incredible sexism Iza endured, the whistles, the beeping of horns. It was awful. But let me give an example – We went cycling one day to the Blue Caves and turned up in a restaurant who didn’t accept cards (surprisingly only half the island accepts cards and has cash machines) and they insisted we give them our ID as proof of payment and we had to cycle 18 km with chest infections the next day to get our ID back because the owner just wouldn’t drive down to us (In fairness she was apologetic – but still …)
7. The Dirt: Garbage left indefinitely in bins, trash thrown about, empty half-finished buildings everywhere, just sheer lack of cleanliness. I already mentioned the stuff on the beach.
8. Off Season: I thought all this was happening because we booked off season- or maybe they just didn’t like us. But other guests would turn up who had booked online and bang on our window in the morning looking for the owner who was nowhere to be found.
9. The Noise: Construction work going on right beside our apartment, constant sounds of traffic, howling barking animals night and day, so bad that we had to move ourselves to another vacant apartment.
10. Stray Cats: That the place was full of stray underfed sickly looking cats living in bins and wandering the streets day and night. I mentioned the dogs. I didn’t mention they were chained up all the time – probably why they were barking and yowling day and night. You did see some being walked, just like you saw well cared for cats. But mostly chained up dogs or feral cats.
Those were ten things that didn’t make our ten day stay in Alykes, Zakinthos sheer perfection. I thought about amassing photographs and publishing them here and bringing some kind of documentary proof and so on to show you, dear reader, the state of the place. After I had done that I thought of writing a few pithy lines about how unfriendly I found the locals, how untrusting, how much you -‘tourist’ or ‘visitor’, were there just to get money from (I remember one joyous moment I bought a bottle of cough medicine and some antibiotics and was charged thirty Euro). But I decided not to. Why? It was my experience of it. It might not be yours.
But away from people with all the greed and the dirt and noise and the money grabbing, was the island itself. Arcadia. And it was glorious. I will never forget the beauty of the landscapes, the shades of deep blue of sea, the lines of waves and the sound of the Ionian Sea at night, the myriad birds, the flora and fauna, the olive groves, the orange and lemon trees, the bats and geckos and falcons, it was all transcendentally beautiful. That alone made our ten day stay in Alykes, Zakinthos sheer perfection and utterly unforgettable. Just stay away from populated places, ok?
Since this has been posted (11.4.2015), Iza and I have found to our distress we have been banned from holidaying in Greece. This is as a result not only of this post below, but of our posting about what was a terrible holiday in Zante on Trip Advisor. There is, according to some hotel owners we have communicated with in Greece, a blacklist “like the Banks System is all the Hotel Owners make it to protect the Tourism Industry from some “Serious problems”” (and I quote). I was told that tourists were not to be informed about the list, but its there folks, and if a hotel owner in Greece doesn’t like what you write on Trip Advisor, well what happened to us could happen to anyone. The thing is, we were the ones who had the terrible holiday. The place would be shut down in Ireland.
One of the most common themes in Science Fiction movies, from Terminator flicks to the Cylons in Battlestar Galatica to the Matrix franchise, to the more thoughtful poetic philosophical Stanley Kubrickesque 2001, is the notion of the Earth being taken over by robots ( in the movie 2001, for a time the fate of the Earth hung in the Hands of Hal) The word ‘robot’ is Czech for slave, and its very existence implies forced labour. Robots are intelligent nonhuman slaves, in other words, machines able to perform complex tasks automatically. The takeover of the machines is a paranoid fantasy of loss of control similar to the ‘red’ scare in movies like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or Zombie flicks where mindless forces take over our nature and threaten to destroy our humanity. But to move away from paranoid Hollywood movies and back to robots , what caught my eye was how seriously the AI (artificial intelligence) ‘threat’ it was being taken in certain quarters.
For instance in the rather restrained language in an open letter from the Future of Life Institute “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence“. Artificial Intelligence research is steadily increasing and concern seems to be sufficient for the FLI to write this open letter so that we all could sign it. I did, so that the impact of the rise of AI/Robotics remain positive for life and for humanity.
I have long held a deep skepticism over what is happening in Robotics. It also seems that only technologists who aren’t bought and paid for, science fiction writers and Stephen Hawking (who signed the aforementioned document) seem to be really worried about the rise of the robots) This rather surprised me, but then I am used to being surprised. Once, according to Hawking, AI was developed it would take off and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate, and thus pose a mortal threat to any life form that would oppose it. for the full statement – see here
1. Robots are now clever, far cleverer than we imagine they are.
In some regards its absolutely fascinating what can be done now with robots. For instance Amazon, the massive corporation selling everything from shoes to silicone implants recently began testing online delivery drones for packages under 2.3 kg in a delivery time of 30 minutes or less in Canada, as it couldn’t get the license to test them in the USA. An extraordinarily clever use of airspace exactly below airline travel routes.
This is but one of the applications of robotics that are literally limitless, and most of them have already been written about in science fiction, technical manuals, and economic texts and are going into production from automobile production, to cleaning, to medical applications, to the health and service industries, military and agricultural, prisoner monitoring, policing, fast food industries, and road maintenance. I saw some footage today of a grape harvester that moves through the vines, and leaving them intact, harvests the grapes into giant vats. Don’t forget our every online keystroke is monitored by a vast AI system. We imagine robots as mobile. Many of them are stationary, squatting buddahesque in vast kilometer long underground supercooled rooms maintained by technicians, for instance as worked on by Google.
Few large corporations, given the size of the market and the potential revenue one can bring in via the Internet, have skimped on investing gargantuan sums in building better, faster, stronger, smarter machines. Soon your favourite piece of apple pie and coffee will be served not by a waitron, but a machine. Its not just production, what we want is creativity too from our artificial life. Robots write novels, poetry, paint portraits, and compose music. If you like the meal cooked by the local robot chef, soon you won’t have to leave a tip. AI write reports, poems, short pieces of journalism, and, as I mentioned, novels – probably a lot better than some of the fiction being written. But this is rather high brow. Think of the guy who pumps gas for you. He too will soon be made of metal. But by then you probably won’t have to pump gas. Your car will be a self-driving robot too, run on biofuel from hemp.
2. Humans are fragile: we break, die, and fall ill rather easily.
So what happens when most blue collar work is replaced by AI? What happens when the bank tellers are for instance replaced by sophisticated automated tellers and loan distributors? – Not that too many loans will be given out. There will fewer consumers. Why? Well, as we will mention, it’s expensive to raise humans. Its easier to have fewer humans and more machines running things. After all robots are robust, easier to replace and never get old. Humans require a share of the wealth. They need insurance, wages, holidays. Robots need good technicians to keep them going. For humans there is the issue of health care, housing, feeding, educating them. And humans are fragile despite their big brains. They have soft bodies that need constant maintenance. There are other health issues as humans get into adulthood in terms of the diseases that can fall prey to, new interesting diseases that one has to spend time and money developing cures for (yes drugs are a massive business, but not as massively profitable as robotics). Not to mention the panoply of psychological and psychiatric ailments that humans invariably acquire or inherit that need costly intervention.
Initially robots, for instance in the last few decades primary work among others, is to monitor humans and make sure they don’t step out of line. Again that sounds a bit reactionary and paranoid, but think of the number of cameras and screens and investment in listening to just what we are doing right now. This is because of the sheer numbers of humans and the diverse nature of the population. This is not a situation that will remain. In time because the the expense of maintaining and educating people, it will probably be necessary to enact laws to cut down on the number of humans. Overpopulation is a huge issue.
In future, because of the robots, those humans who are allowed to raise families will have to be intelligent and trained and maintained and brainwashed and compliant. We cannot have divergent thinkers in a world where so much expense and investment has gone into training a human to a specific supremely complex task. Genetics are an obvious human outlet here, but there are so many others. We could possibly forbid the robots to do any genetic work while we design the next evolutionary cycle of human being, perhaps to try to keep up with whats happening with the robots evolution.
So lets focus on the humans in this imaginary world. Allow for the fact that there will be fewer of them. Many of the non-robot workers will be working on higher wages maintaining the robotic software and machinery that generates wealth and capital for those who own the robots. As most of the highly sophisticated work, in other words the intellectual capital necessary to run most of the main pillars of the economy, will be bought and owned by those who provide the populace with most of the services needed to run the economy, including the universities, hospitals, prisons, heavy industries, military and governmental, only a small proportion of the population will physically be allowed to reproduce. If they do reproduce, it implies a further division of wealth, which is bad business practice and cannot be allowed. Thus they may do so at a loss of citizenship and the possibility to advance themselves within the technologized world. In other words those who do reproduce without permission will find themselves in a severely economically disadvantaged position. Robots and humans always remain at odds. They are two competing life forms and one or the other will inevitably gain absolute control, despite the fact that for a lengthy period of history, humans might the owners of Capital.
3. Karl Marx was a genius of historical proportions, which is partly why we don’t like him much, but he sure knew about human alienation.
Anyway the problem with all of this it does not have a kind of historical inevitability in the way I am describing the logic of robotization here. It’s probable, but not absolutely so. Moving on, to paraphrase Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and to extend it a little, if capital alienates humans from the product of their work, in other words if I work for a living wage, then the person who pays me owns my work. Anyone interested have a read of Marx’s Paris manuscript (1844). It runs to about fifty thousand words, about the size of a short novel.
You or I may not like the idea of alienation, but it’s how society works. People possess what they buy, including our time, our ideas and our creations. So I am undeniably alienated from my work through the process of my boss paying for it. My boss who paid for my time is the possessor of the capital necessary for me to get a job to earn a living wage. But what happens if I lose my job? What happens if a robot does my job, for instance the way an ATM does the job a bank teller used do? If this happens I am completely alienated. I am without any means of working in the way I was working before. Whether I am living in Greece and believe me in Greece where I write this there is serious alienation going on, or in the heart of Germany, it makes no difference. Whether the population of the Earth swells to fifteen or even twenty million, it makes no difference. This is because my skillset has been superseded by a robot and I am without an income. I can become all revolutionary and blow up all the robot factories I like, it also makes no difference. Robots are replaceable. More are being made as I blow them up. The word sabotage originates from the sabo, or shoe, weavers used to throw into the cotton mills to stop them depriving workers of a living during the first Industrial Revolution. The upshot of all of this is my company needs to hire fewer workers (human) and in the end I am turned back on myself, on my human nature. Either I upskill or I lose my income altogether. Reskilling is a short term solution unless I am on a lifelong upward learning curve. Realistically it becomes an increasingly limited option open to fewer and fewer the more robots are made, and better smarter more skilled robots, and even then we have to start assuming at a certain point an evolutionary curve in robotics. In other words some go obsolete and we build better robots to manufacture better robots.
4. Labour options.
So people have less labour options open to them. What can they do that cannot be done faster cheaper and more efficiently by AI? They might turn to crime or to black market operations, but even that has a limited lifespan. So at a certain point we enter into a period of massive population decline with huge supernormal profits being few into the coffers of multinationals and fewer and fewer being
born, or we ship off planet altogether. Let’s assume that happens and life on Earth settles down to a billion or two of us living with the robots, robots which have already in effect conquered the Earth for an elite group of industrial capitalists who own the corporations, the leaders of the ‘free’ world, and the raw materials left on the planet. Robots begin the process of rehabilitating the planet, its climate, its nuclear waste for clean energy, and the Earth becomes a nicer cleaner place to live. Soon it becomes clear, after a few hundred robotic evolutions that they are the master race. They have evolved past us. I am reminded here of Shelley’s Frankenstein. We build something that in so many ways supersedes us and it destroys those who created it. And the thing about it is this is something we have already witnessed as happening. I don’t have a solution to this scenario.
5. Isaac Asimov was also a genius, but his three laws were naive.
Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer, devised his famous three laws of robotics, and in 1942 included them in a story called ‘runaround’
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
The problem with Asimov’s theory is that the of the first and most obvious applications of robots is and always has been the battle field. Unmanned vehicles against humans and other robots is arguably one of the most efficient military uses of robots. It’s certainly something worth thinking about, and has me scratching my head.
You don’t need to be fascistic to control your passengers. In fact things get easier the more courteous you are.
Unfortunately I find myself ranting. It’s actually worse than ranting. My feelings of outrage cloud my mind. Giving a biased view of a bad experience of flying with an airline is like complaining about the Irish weather. It’s happens all the time. Worse, when you do complain about it, you are being a bore. ( i.e – Of course it rains! Its Ireland, you fool! It rains all the time!)
Here, where I write this, in Greece, it rarely rains. Moreover as you read this, be aware I am an unreliable witness who remembers the slim aggressively perky hostess as she patrolled through the aisles of passengers, and stopped and leaned over to my partner, and said:
“Can I see that you have buckled your seat belt? Please lift up your clothing? I need to see. Thank you so much.”
I looked up in shock. Did I just hear that? I thought I was dreaming. My partner turned to me and said:
“Why are they being so awful? What the fuck?”
I shrugged with exhaustion.
“You have to remember, Iz, she is just one of that ‘fantastic team’ we were introduced to two hours ago.”
I mean I might have misheard. My ears were paining me with cabin pressure of thirty thousand feet and I had toothache, along with a knot in my stomach that would not go away.
“They are just, just awful,” I said.
Then we chorused:
“Well we won’t be going with Easyjet again,” and smiled ruefully.
You see, we were both unwell, under slept, and one does say such things in such circumstances. And when you say it, it has that strength and feeling of finality. But then I also remember that American girl queuing for Ryanair flight to Gatwick, the one where the cabin crew and the airhostess laughed and smiled all the time to the passengers. She was queuing just ahead of me the day before. You see, there was a delay before boarding in Dublin airport, and people get bored and start to chat and talk about things. She was telling her parents how awful Easyjet were. “They were just so awful.” Easyjet, or whoever, just don’t care. Not a bit. After all, you are one of thousands who fly with them day after day. Secondly you have to ask yourself: Do I mean it? Well, yes, of course. The proviso is this: that if there is simply no other way to get to a destination, one has to choose the available mode of transportation, unfortunately.
I write this on a beautiful evening on the island of Zakinthos, one of the smaller islands off the Greek coast. Downstairs a radio is playing mournful Greek ballads. I and my partner are here for about two weeks to recharge our lives, soak in some sun, and feel better. Here, the economy is in terminal decline. Though this apartment is okay. We are surrounded by ruined buildings and unfinished structures. Most of the local businesses are closed. We find a restaurant and go there regularly. The local supermarket is so overpriced as to be extortionary. But as with Easyjet so it is with the shopping. We are both sick, exhausted, depressed, and have headaches. There is no other way to get shopping, unfortunately.
This is a beautiful place. The sea is awesome. The local wine is rich and fruity and cheap. You can live on olives, bread, wine, and cheese here (you have to – foods not too good). There are olive groves everywhere. And oranges. And lemon trees you can reach out and pick. Buildings and gates and trees flake away in the sun. Dogs bark incessantly. There are goats and chickens in the surrounding fields. There is a pregnant cat sleeping on the doorstep who purrs and whines for cuddles as she approaches delivery. People drive past in cars with no windows, cars so old as to be at the point of disintegration. And then there are the locals, who try and fail so obviously to be nice to tourists that they are so obviously conflicted about. They stand and watch you pass with a dispassionate reserve. We got off the misnamed Easyjet at about midday today, tired and emotional. We flew to Gatwick yesterday evening, took a taxi to a hotel and slept for an hour or two, to rise at three am and pay twenty euros to be ferried one and a half miles to Gatwick to queue to get on board. “Sorry about that, mate. It’s the rules you see.” And of course he wouldn’t take a credit or a debit card. I felt such hatred for being so obviously fleeced. We went on in through security and bag searches and queued to get on board. My turn came and the Easy Jet person with the tightly controlled pleasant modulation took my passport and boarding pass. Its four thirty in the morning. I am rarely if ever awake at this hour. Normally I sleep eight to ten hours a night.
“Ah Mr Ryan, I see your passport expires in September.”
My eyes widened in incredulity. What had that to do with anything? It’s the second of April and we are away for two weeks. My boarding pass is scanned. I walk on a bit. I wait for Iza.
“Madam, you have too many bags. You must pack all these bags into one.”
“What difference does that make? The weight is exactly the same,” Iza says.
I too have two bags. I have a shoulder bag and a wheeled bag. But I have been let through without comment.
“Madam, I must ask you to pack all your bags into one.”
“I don’t understand why.”
“Madam please pack your bags into one, or you will have to pay a fine.”
Iza’s boarding pass was taken from her. We were stuck there till we complied.
“This is crazy. It’s makes no sense.”
“Madam you will have to pay a fine.”
“Yes, you would love to charge me more, wouldn’t you?”
Just then someone walks past me, a passenger. The queue is moving again. He is stopped by the second Easy Jet person.
“Hm?” The man says sleepily.
“Your boarding pass. Let me see your boarding pass!”
Again the nasty imperious tone and the same frozen polite smile. Who are these people, I wonder? What dysfunctional fascist school of people management did they graduate from? What’s this obsession with the letter of all these rules and regulations? Its four forty five in the morning and they are treating us like unmanageable schoolchildren, making us pack our bags properly or we can’t get on the bus to go on our trip. Why are we acquiescing to this? Iza is the only one of us who stood up to this particular deeply stupid arbitrary rule. What’s wrong with me to put up with this? This is no way for any of the hundred and fifty plus passengers to start our holiday. And these two checkers are the gatekeepers to our weeks of holiday.
I squeeze my stuff into one bag. Two computers, six books, notebooks, bottles of ink, clothes, the whole job lot squashed into one small travel bag so heavy it felt like dark matter. Iza went back to get her boarding pass. Naturally she was made to wait. And wait. Eventually she just butted in and asked for it.
“Who is your partner?” Iza was asked after her boarding pass was returned.
“I am,” I said. The Easy jet person and I looked at each other. I took in everything. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
“Thank you for your co-operation,” Easy Jet Functionary said, not to me but to Iza. As if she had a choice! Its heading for five in the morning and this was the only way she was going to get on the plane.
“Do not re pack your bags into two bags after you leave here,” she was warned.
Suddenly there were other Easy Jet functionaries and airport assistants hovering. We were not compliant passengers. We were trouble, or some such other interpretation.
We walked onto the jet, discussing how awful that particular experience was. Rarely, we muse it’s the event itself, but more how one is treated.
On board Easy Jet functionaries are patrolling. Baggage is checked and rechecked and moved from one place to another. Passengers are smiled at and checked and rechecked and after a time we are all sitting. When we are seated the main Air Host speaks to the passengers after safety announcements and routine greetings. Apparently as I mentioned before, we had a ‘fantastic team’ looking after us.
“Ladies and gentlemen I wanted to once more take this opportunity to welcome you all on board this Easy Jet flight and to as you if there are any or many of you who are flying alone to Zakinthos this morning. We have a mother here up front who is not seated with her child and we cannot take off until this situation is rectified.” Easy Jet Main Host stares down the aisles of this Easy Jet Flight with a near apocalyptic seriousness. There is silence. The silence carries on. Then it clicks into my dim brain that seemingly it is now our fault we cannot take off. This is something the flight staff should easily resolve without big announcements. I look at Iza and roll my eyes in disbelief.
“Is there something I can do?” I ask, suddenly taking responsibility for this issue.
“No,” Iza said.
By then someone else had possibly volunteered. Why? Well, we were getting ready to taxi. At least we said to each other, it will all be over in a few hours. We tried to get some sleep. Thankfully it was.
I see there is a flight from Athens to Zakinthos. I am pretty sure Ryanair do a direct flight from Dublin to Athens. I will have to check that. It seems to be the only way to get here in future, and yes – we will be back.