Now that the entire book is here (see here), new posts will consist of discussion and debate about the book, the odd poetry, and bits about ethics. Stay tuned and feel free to go to the Contact page if you have anything to say concerning the discussion.

Edit: the book is now also available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle, in fully proofread and formatted form!


Mr Tumnus: A Personal Reflection

Image result for mr tumnus cslewis square

As part of the celebration for the 800th anniversary of the founding of St Denys’ Church, Evington, Leicester, the parishioners and villagers of Evington are staging a production of C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in Katherine Ward’s adaption. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, written by C S Lewis in 1950, tells the story of the Pevensie children’s adventure in the land of Narnia. Set in the 1940s during wartime, it is one of seven books that form the Narnia Chronicles.

I have the privilege of playing Mr Tumnus in the St Denys’ production, a faun who Lucy, one of the four Pevensie children, encounters when she first enters Narnia. A faun is a creature human from the waist up, goat from the waist down. Peaceful, playful, somewhat frothy, Tumnus introduces us to the world of Narnia.

Fauns were popular creatures in Greek and Roman mythology. And Lewis, steeped in ancient and medieval literature, drew on many sources for characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When fairy tales became popular in the Romantic age, Fauns were separated from their Greek and Roman origins and became magical creatures of the forest.

Katherine Ward’s adaption is true to the original text. All the dialogue is straight out of the original novel. As I learnt the dialogue of Mr Tumnus and began to let go of the script, I began to recognise the complexity of Tumnus and his pivotal role in launching the story.  Lewis does not waste words and the apparent free flow of the story is underpinned by detailed structure.

Mr Tumnus bears a heavy burden in setting the atmosphere of the story and providing the back-story for Narnia.  In any story, the scene and back-story and the characters must be introduced early on. Writers of three-act film screenplays know this. Act One is about fleshing out characters and background, Act Two creates the conflict and Act Three is about its resolution.

The entire set of Narnia books were triggered by a mental image Lewis had when he was sixteen of a faun, carrying an umbrella and Christmas parcels and dancing through the snow. It is that character which started Lewis off in writing the Chronicles.

The scene with Lucy and Tumnus which introduces us to Narnia is, I think, not just a telling of a back-story, but an exploration of the human condition and a vignette of the whole book. Tumnus is a complex character, plagued by the internal conflict between good and evil, between fear and courage, between compromise and resistance.  The sea of emotions and conflict is iced over by a froth of dancing, light-heartedness and simple humour which distracts the audience from what is actually going on.  Tumnus’ progression through the scene is from the jovial dancer towards serious resistance and a courage unto death.

Tumnus wants the easy life. He has a warm house, unusual for a faun, well furnished with a delightful tea set up, which would indicate comfort in the forties, particularly in contrast to wartime rationing. Where does he get all the food from when he invites Lucy to tea?

But this superficial comfort comes at a cost. He has, as he tells Lucy later, taken service with the White Witch.  The White Witch, almost rather cartoonish, possibly based on the witch in Hans Anderson’s Snow Queen, represents more than just a cut and dried evil, but the riches and comforts of an easy life, the lure of Turkish delight, the temptation of power and control by which decisions are in her hands and those who pursue her power.  That service is a worldly compromise, the easy life: the freedom for Mr Tumnus to buy all he needs, the material possessions, the economic prosperity at the cost of endless winter. His comfort comes from an acceptance of winter, an attempt to adapt himself to winter.

Most of us do this. There is no resistance nor questioning, rather, we adapt ourselves to the systems, mindset and morality of the world. We do not sink into the depravity and licentiousness of satyrs, who were similar to fauns but prone to indulge in immoral activities,  but we remain in the world, perceived as nice but harmless and unlikely to challenge the cold status quo. But at some point, payment must be demanded: the consequences and cost of a profligate life, however innocent, focusing on what I want and what I get, come home to roost. The bill appears on the carpet.

For Tumnus, the debt is called in with the arrival of Lucy. It is no wonder he drops the parcels.  He understands what he signed up to in order to buy, if not the good life, a cosy life, without conflict and risk of crossing the White Witch. And before him is his nemesis: a human. While he has never met a human, he has a suspicion that Lucy is a human, and that consequences will follow and deceit will be required. He is superficially delighted, but is he actually? “I’m delighted, that is to say delighted,  delighted.”  He enters into a dialogue, hoping  that Lucy isn’t what he thinks she is.

Here, I would suggest, Lewis is drawing on stories of an evil witch luring Snow White, of the Pied Piper of Hamelin enticing the children, of Hansel and Gretel, lost in the wood, finding the gingerbread house and being fattened up by the witch.

Tumnus is not the nice sweet faun but a menace in disguise. His heart is corrupt, driven by the fear that leads us all to wrongdoing. He starts to enact a plan to catch Lucy and hand her over to the Witch. He has little knowledge of children. What do they like? A meal of “a nice brown egg, sardines on toast, buttered toast, toast with honey and a lovely iced cake” is rustled up with unnatural speed in the hope that such a range of food will include something the child likes.

Lewis sets out the land of Narnia in a brief sentence, before letting Tumnus apparently reminisce on the wonderful life in the forest … or is this part of the lure? The flute, the music, the dancing like the Pied Pipers’ leading Lucy to her doom… If it is, it backfires and Tumnus realises the difficult situation he is in, the evil course he has subscribed to: “It’s no good now.”

The tears which follow are not tears of remorse or repentance but self-pity.  Tumnus sinks into a pit of self-pity. He feels helpless. There seems nothing he can do. He must turn evil intent into evil action.

We cannot face the evil which inhabits us. We avoid addressing it by partying, by living a life of froth and dancing and inconsequentiality. And when our conscience impels us to look at ourselves and our state, we cannot hide.

Lucy calls the faun the nicest she’s ever met. Strange since she’s never met one before. We paint over our faults and our black fallen nature with the veneer of niceness. In using the word nice, there is really an irony. Tumnus may seem nice and innocent. But he is not. He is a whitewashed sepulchre. And he has hidden so long from this that when there is a necessity to face up to it, his response is one of “Poor me”. He feels he can’t help it, he has to. The tears do not lead to repentance, nor resisting the actual deed. Driven by fear he starts to execute the capture of Lucy and is ready to drag Lucy off to the White Witch despite her protests.

It is not Lucy’s protests that change the situation, but Tumnus’ awakening to the nature of humanity: “I didn’t know what humans were like.” It is when we recognise that we are made in God’s image, we carry his image and hence we are not all dust and animal, that we have the courage to face our sin and resist the White Witch. Tumnus gains the courage to face the evil that is in him and pursue a good path.

I note that that the evil is evil intent. Tumnus never carries out the act. As in the Sermon on the Mount, the lustful thought and the murderous intent are enough to convict. While Tumnus moves from self-pity to repentance, he cannot save himself from the consequences of sin and having been turned into stone, must await Aslan.

Mr Tumnus sealed his fate when he took service with the White Witch. That’s when sin entered. The relentless track toward being turned into stone, towards a stone heart was sealed then. It does not matter that he didn’t deliver Lucy to the white witch, or he only through it, or he stopped before the crime was committed. Mr Tumnus stands guilty. And we have all taken service with the White Witch. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23).  Tumnus’s self-pity is only to be expected. There is nothing he can do about his state. His exercise of the virtue of courage is in looking at himself.

In the brief scene with Tumnus and Lucy, Lewis has surveyed the entire fallen state of man, he has contrasted self-pity with repentance and established our inability, with however much effort, meditation or flagellation, to purge ourselves of the sin which insists in dwelling in us. Only something, someone outside can rescue us. That is the theme of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.



Open Access: Really?

There was a time when publishers ruled the roost. University libraries paid exorbitant fees to stock paper journals across shelf after shelf. Earnest academics spent time extracting paper journals and laboriously photocopying page by page. Authors received packages of paper offprints and then posted them out in response to postcards from foreign lands appearing in their post-trays.

But the arrival of electronic journals meant that we rarely sit in libraries poring over stacks of paper journals. Shelves shrink and where paper copies are required we now turn handles on mobile storage shelves which have been moved to library basements. Now universities pay even larger fees to subscribe to electronic journals or packages of journals offered by publishers. The product model has become a subscription model. Access depends on being staff or students of an institution. Individuals and the public cannot see the fruits of academic labour.

Enter open access. Instead of the consumer paying, the provider pays. The market shifts. It looks, smells and tastes like vanity publishing but it isn’t … or is it?  The publishers require a profit. They draw their profit from institutions, primarily in the public sector.

Previously they marketed to libraries – sometimes indirectly by getting us to recommend their journal to the library; sometimes directly through special offers and trial subscriptions. But then we were protected from the commercial pressures. As long as enough libraries subscribed to a journal to render it viable, whether you were published depended solely on the refereeing process, flawed as it is.  At least you had some chance of publication provided you aligned with the views and direction of your academic discipline and your colleagues. No longer.

Open access brings with it a pernicious new market logic which could threaten academic integrity and independence. Institutions still pay, but they pay through their authors. So an author must find money from somewhere to pay for publication.  Either the institution will require a substantial slush fund to hand out to academics, or publication will be limited to those who can command funds from research bodies. For many jobbing academics, such funds are not available. So publication, the ultimate judge of productivity, depends on the wealth of the institute or the ability to conform to research council agendas. An underclass of academics emerges for whom open access publication is out of reach.

And as with any market, competition develops. The more prestigious publication will raise page fees. You will have to be very rich to access Rolls Royce publications. Pressures will be applied to the editors and managers of journals. If an author is paying she will want fast publication. Open access with be turned around much faster than traditional papers. I have seen open access papers appear which have been turned around in a month. However good the paper, it would take more than a month to read and understand it, let alone review it. Special offers start to appear:  reduced fees for papers which the publisher thinks might get more hits; the more controversial the better.  Open access publishing will look like Tesco or Wallmart: publisher clubcards, special offers, vouchers for money off second publication, extra points for more citations.

So what is the answer? Open access looks like vanity publishing. But why not self-publish? Blogs are starting to get cited in papers. Ideas can be spread much quicker. You don’t have to wait years for referees to wield their swords to produce a paper which has had its guts removed in order to satisfy the whims of the referees. However, the clout of an editorial board and thoughtful feedback is important. Can we achieve this outside the grip of commercial publishers?

There are costs with publishing. Editorial assistants may need to be employed. There is the practical issues of proofing, formatting, structuring, managing the journal website, and publishing hardcopies if they still exist. But much of the editorial process is administrative and mechanical. There is no reason why AI should not be employed in formatting, proof reading and even to some extent reviewing.  Algorithms and agents could become publishers. Universities can host key high quality journals, publish carefully selected papers within key disciplines and academic areas that the university excels in, while recruiting external auditors to check for institutional nepotism.

Open access is not a gateway to freedom in publishing. Quite the contrary: it promises less access and offers a different constraint on the promulgation of ideas and diversification of research. It’s time for universities to take control of publishing.

Why Robots and Autism Don’t Mix

Robots are increasingly being used as replacements for human contact. Researchers are proposing autonomous robots for providing therapy to autistic children. This may be causing more harm than good. Rather certain uses of robot could cause long term post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the University of Hertfordshire, a robot called Kaspar i, is used to teach social skills. The child sits in front of the robot and encouraged by researchers and carers to interact with the robot. For an autistic child, already struggling to cope with sensory stimulation, her anxiety is only increased to a point at which she hits out at the robot. ii

The European DREAM project iii promised to go further. The human therapist will be replaced by robots which will train autistic children to behave in a socially acceptable way. The child will spend hours alone with the robot practicing repetitive behaviour dictated by the robot which will adjust its responses based on sensors in a smart room which detect the child’s response.

The DREAM project uses a NAO robot to implement Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) iv, a controversial behavioural conditioning therapy which involve hours of repetition based on rewards and punishments. ABA seeks to shape external behaviour to be socially convenient. v It does not matter what is going on inside the child’s mind or what the cause of the distressing behaviour is.

In the 1930s BF Skinner developed operant conditioning vi, demonstrated in the behavioural conditioning of starved rats in cages. This radical behaviourism vii is based on the dated idea that the goal of psychology is to predict and control behaviour. The DREAM project aimed to predict and control the behaviour of autistic children. The cage is the smart room and the conditioning is rewards and punishments administered via a robot which called out instructions. viii

In the 1940s autistic children were locked up in institutions and fed and watered like animals. Autistic children exhibit repetitive self-stimulatory behaviour called stimming. This behaviour such as hand flapping is their attempt to manage the over-stimulation they feel in their sensory world. Children would gouge out their eyes, chew fingers off or chew arms down to the bone in an attempt to cope with the overwhelming distress caused from the sensory overload of a crowded institutional ward.

In the 1960s Ivor Lovaas ix tried to deal with this by applying operant conditioning hitting the child every time it attempted to stim. Instead of being chained in a ward, the child would endure forty hours or more a week of behavioural conditioning and repeating socially acceptable behaviour. The effect could be dramatic. The child would outwardly look normal and fit into what we expect. But it is the outward behaviour that has been controlled, just like a robot, by forcing the child to obey and stay in a situation which is overwhelming for them.

But since Lovaas viewed autistic child as non-human x – merely a physical human shell, but psychologically not human – the use of conditioning of the same type that was used to train monkeys

for space travel was quite acceptable. And 40 hours stressful conditioning, however inhuman, was better than being chained to a bed gnawing your finger off. The fact that ABA resulted in lifelong post-traumatic stress syndrome xi was neither here nor there.

Far from lacking in empathy and emotions, the autistic problem is more one of a flooding of the emotions and an over stimulation from more sensory input than the child can manage. The autistic child lacks the skills and brain pathways to manage the emotional and sensory input that a normal child can. xii

Autistic children feel their own emotions and others strongly, but the wiring between the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain is weak. Emotions are hard to label, difficult to source and extremely difficult to calm. This leads to anxiety, panic and a fight or flight response. Indeed the autistic child is the opposite of robotic. Overwhelmed by human emotion, he tries to shut down and manage his brain activity.

Social robots act on a limited set of social rules. Faced with the almost infinite variety of human social behaviour, the limited repertoire of a social robot, even if complemented with attempts at machine learning, will be unable to cope with the human’s social variety. For a successful social robot interaction the variety of social response exhibited by the robot must match that of the human.

If we perceive autistic children as having a limited social repertoire we can view them as robotic and as a suitable case for social robots. But treating a robot and an autistic child as equivalent demeans the humanity of the child who may have skills and insights beyond the neurotypical.

Isolating an autistic child in a smart room with an autonomous robot xiii, based on the excuse that autistic children prefer machines to people which is the ambition of the DREAM project can only succeed in dehumanising the child.

The child needs more sensitive and supportive human contact not none nor being treated like the husk of a machine. What is required is not a blanket treatment of autistic children as severely disabled, but a sensitive understanding of the sensory issues, preferences and problems of the individual child supported by gentle and patient human interaction. Of course, in a world where gentleness and patience are swamped by the need for efficiency and quick results, the temptation to adopt a mechanistic, industrial approach to autism is strong.

There may well be a role for robots in providing social distraction in the classroom and home and changing the social atmosphere to take the focus off the child. But the idea of replacing human contact with robots or attempting to programme human behaviour with a robot promises a questionable brave new world.

How to use robots with autistic children:

  • Teach the child to do simple programming to make the robot say things or dance, thus giving the child a sense of control.
  • Insert the robot in a discussion group with friends and therapists as a social discussion point. Such a distraction will reduce the social pressure and support interaction.
  • Identify soothing movements and patterns which the child likes and program these into the robot to support the child in calming down and dampening meltdown.
  • Deploy the robot as an option for time out in a classroom situation such that the child can go and sit with the robot for a while and hence avoid a meltdown.
  • Develop programs for using the robot in music therapy.

  1. i https://www.herts.ac.uk/kaspar/meet-kaspar
  2. ii https://humanargument.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/robots-and-autism-is-kaspar-just-a-sophisticated-doll/
  3. iii https://www.dream2020.eu/
  4. iv https://www.bacb.com/about-behavior-analysis/
  5. v https://autisticuk.org/does-aba-harm-autistic-people/
  6. vi https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
  7. vii http://old.behavior.org/item.php?id=529
  8. viii https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/pjbr.2017.8.issue-1/pjbr-2017-0002/pjbr-2017-0002.xml?format=INT
  9. ix http://thelovaascenter.com/about-us/dr-ivar-lovaas/
  10. x http://neurodiversity.com/library_chance_1974.html
  11. xi https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016
  12. xii https://www.jkp.com/uk/the-autism-discussion-page-on-the-core-challenges-of-autism-2.html/
  13. xiii https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8307127/

Robots and Autism: Is Kaspar just a sophisticated doll?



In the BBC Documentary, Six Robots and Us, Ethan Docherty, a four-year-old boy on the autistic spectrum, is introduced to a robot called Kaspar at his home.

Kaspar, a short robot who sits on a table, dressed in jeans and casual shirt is able to respond to simple instructions and speak in simple sentences and display a limited set of facial expressions.  The idea is that Ethan can learn basic social communication from interaction with Kaspar.

Continue reading

Ten Commandment of Robotics

My Ten Commandments for human interaction with AI.

  1. You shall not worship your robot.
  2. You shall not relinquish responsibility to machine intelligence, robots or any other internet enabled thing. You will suffer if you do; your resilience and ability to adapt will degrade quickly, but if you retain control of the technology generation after generation will benefit.
  3. You shall not confer human characteristics on a machine or look to machines for your salvation.
  4. Remember the limits of AI. Don’t assume that the machine will not break, or will always give a right answer. Remember that humans are not machines.
  5. You shall not use robots as tools to steal, kill and destroy.
  6. You shall not have sex with a machine.
  7. You shall not blame robots for your own shortcomings, stupidity and sin.
  8. You shall not use AI to enslave people, to degrade them or to remove their moral responsibility for decision making, to render a person powerless, passive, purposeless or to turn that person into an object t be controlled and manipulated.
  9. You shall not use AI to create false correlations, justify predetermined decisions, present opinions as fact, suggest that because the data says so it is so, justify exclusion, prosecution, guilt or to claim that the interpretation of data is scientific fact.
  10. You shall not use AI to measure others’ performance, possessions and prestige.