Thursday, December 29, 2011

North Kurdistan

Since the beginning of the Arab uprising Turkey has been held up as a blueprint for the emerging Middle Eastern democracies to copy. But many observers question whether its treatment of its Kurdish minority gives it the right to be treated as a role model.

This year more than 4,000 people have been arrested under arbitrary terrorism charges, including dozens of journalists arrested last week, military operations against Kurdish separatists have intensified, with at least 27 killed in December alone, and guerrillas have stepped up violent attacks on security forces and civilians.

Mass trials of Kurds, including local deputies, mayors, academics and human rights activists, have inched forwards. In the biggest case, more than 150 politicians and activists are being tried in a specially built courtroom in Diyarbakir. More than 100 of the defendants have been in pre-trial detention, some of them for many months.

Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of a district in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey, is among the defendants on trial for "membership in the KCK", an illegal pan-Kurdish umbrella organisation that includes the armed Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK).

If convicted, he faces 35 years in jail on these charges alone.

"They have not even found a pocket knife in my house," Demirbas said. Human rights groups have repeatedly expressed their concern about the arbitrary use of terrorism laws in Turkey.

"The Turkish laws make no distinction between political activity and terrorism. It is never examined in what kind of activities people are actually involved and whether these qualify them for prosecution. Very many of these cases are based on guilt by association," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"People have a right to association. You may not like what people are associating with, but it is illegitimate to just jail, suppress and silence critics."

Demirbas fears that the massive repression of politicians and human rights activists will decrease confidence in politics and lead to more violence: "A state that wants to end violence should widen the political sphere as much as possible, so that people who used to feel compelled to use armed force will turn to dialogue instead.

"But [Turkey] does exactly the opposite: they arrest more than 4,000 people that have never held a weapon, so people will think: 'If we enter politics, we will end up like that.'"

Demirbas does not need to look far for examples: he was given a prison sentence of two years and six months after saying, in May 2009, that "a soldier's and a guerrilla's mother's tears are the same colour. This war needs to end".

Three weeks later his then 16-year-old son joined the PKK.

"He told me: 'Dad, see this is what happens when you try to do politics. This state does not understand politics, it only understands weapons.'"

Demirbas said that he tried in vain to persuade his son to stay.

"That is the psychology of thousands of Kurds. I know of at least 2,000 young Kurdish people who have [joined the PKK] since then."

Mehmet Emin Aktar, president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, said that Turkey had become "a republic of fear".

He says: "A democratic state needs to provide a trustworthy judiciary. People need to know that they can expect justice if they step in front of a judge. But this is no longer the case."

Like many of his colleagues, he is very worried that the situation will reach a breaking point: "If fear and threats continue to be the main method of the government, the younger generation of Kurds will become more radical."

In the cafeteria of the Dicle Firat cultural centre, a group of men were discussing the latest KCK arrests. "We all have our bags packed," Kazim Öz said. "We now live on the assumption that each and every one of us could be arrested at any minute."

Another man nodded. "Where is this supposed to end? They can't arrest all of us! This morning I counted 36 grandchildren. They can't finish us Kurds like this."

With tensions turning violent again, investment and business development in Diyarbakir has stalled, making unemployment and poverty, for decades a major problem in the predominantly Kurdish south-east, ever more acute.

With prejudice fuelled by the Turkish media, discrimination against Kurds continues.

"Those who conduct business outside Diyarbakir province will not register their car here," said one local Turkish Kurdish politician from the ruling AKP party. "The '21' on your licence plate is often enough to get randomly pulled over and fined. It's just not worth the trouble."

Most people agree dialogue must be reopened and that the Democratic Opening, an ill-fated attempt at rapprochement launched at the end of 2008, was on the right lines.

Recent reports have indicated the AKP may be on the verge of a new peace overture.

"The AKP is wrong when they think they can destroy the PKK through military force," said Vahap Coskun, assistant professor at the Diyarbakir Dicle University. "The PKK's strength does not stem from the approximately 5,000 fighters in the mountains, but from its widespread legitimacy among an important part of the population. For every fighter that they kill, another will go to join them."

Coskun said that the PKK, too, was making a mistake in escalating attacks and violence. "People here are tired of fighting. The PKK's attempts to use the momentum of the Arab spring to incite people to revolt have failed."

He believes that the Kurdish-aligned Peace and Democracy BDP party should encourage peaceful civil disobedience campaigns again, and keep young Kurds from taking up arms.

"There is a massive potential: they have a party, civilian organisations, media, and a very young and mobile mass of people," he said. "If they manage to gather 10,000 people in the streets of Diyarbakir, peacefully demanding mother tongue education, the government would have to acknowledge their request."

This would also put in question the AKP government's use of the "terrorist" label. "The unsuccessful civil disobedience campaign [after the 2011 elections] scared the government, because you cannot label civil disobedience as terrorism," says Coskun.

In his butcher shop in the Diyarbakir city centre, Metin Özsanli, who is a member of the peace committee that has been arbitrating blood feuds, says: "My father has ended 250 blood feuds, and I have ended 65. It is incredible to see that capacity for forgiveness in people."

He added: "We have to talk to both families many, many times, visit them both many times – when only one person has been killed. But over 40,000 people have died in this conflict.

"Prime minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan should not give up this easily. It will take many more talks with both sides to end this feud, but I am hopeful that it will end one day."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Evolution of Press in UK

A million iPads and Kindles may have been unwrapped on Sunday – according to tentative analyst estimates – an influx of portable technology that is expected to hasten a decline in the already faltering sales of printed newspapers, adding pressure on traditional business models that have traditionally supported so many titles around the country.

Publishers, preparing for the handheld arrivals, took the chance to break with a tradition that dates back to 1912, when publishers agreed not to produce Christmas Day papers to give paperboys, among others, a day off. For the first time in its 190-year history the Sunday Times published a digital-only edition on 25 December – with the normally paid for product given away in the hope of luring sought after digital subscribers.

Boxing Day publication, for dailies like the Guardian, has also become a necessity – to ensure digital editions for new Kindle and iPad owners to read. The result is that what was a traditionally quiet period for news has become a critical moment to showcase new work, at a time when an industry already riven by the phone-hacking scandal and under judicial examination, is facing what can be described as an existential crisis.

Fifty years ago two national dailies – the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express – sold more than 4m copies each; today the bestselling Sun sells 2.6m. In the last year alone, printed sales declined by 10% for daily broadsheets and by 5% for daily tabloids – and when the News of the World stopped printing last July 600,000 copy sales simply disappeared.

The knock-on impact of the decline has been a push for digital readers that have seen newspapers like the Daily Mail win 5m unique visitors a day – compared with its printed sale of 2m – but struggle to generate revenues to match. The Mail generated £16m from its website last year, out of £608m overall.

Some specialist titles, such as the Financial Times, are managing the transition well – it has 260,000 digital subscribers – up 40% this year – compared with 337,000 buyers of the printed product, where sales are down by 12%. Digital subscribers generate £180 a year and the paper, priced at £2.50 on the newsstand on a weekday, is profitable.

John Ridding, the managing director, says that 30% of the FT's revenues come from digital sales and that "within two or three years" digital readers and revenues will account for more than those from the printed business. During a typical week the number of people signing on digitally is "five to 10 times" what it was a year earlier, as the newspaper looks to a future beyond print.

Others, though, are under pressure. Local newspapers have been hit particularly hard, with 31 titles closing in the last year. Most of those shutting are freesheets – with titles distibuted in Yeovil, Scarborough and Harlow lost. Historic paid for titles have seen their frequency cut: the Liverpool Daily Post is to go weekly in print in the new year, after sales dropped as low as 6,500. Its website, however, will update in real time. Daily titles in Birmingham and Bath have also gone the same way in recent years – while pre-tax profits at Johnston Press, the owner of the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, fell from £131.5m five years ago to £16m last year.

Roger Parry, chair of Johnston Press since 2009, believes the party has been over for several years, since Craigslist and Google began to take classified advertising away from local press.

"I think the future is for local multimedia companies which focus on signing up 50% plus of the households in their area on some form of subscription – that's what happens in Scandinavia," he says. For journalists there will have to be a shift from acting as "print writers to multimedia curators. There will be more content created by local people. The National Union of Journalists will hate this but it is fact of life."

With the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, wanting to license local television stations in 20 cities, that gives local media a new way to reach audiences, although some – such as Witney TV in Oxfordshire – have already made a start with a daily offering of local video news. David Cameron, the local MP, regularly appears, but the site is staffed by volunteers, and its content limited – underlining how tough the digital economics are.

There are commercial pressures in national media too. Although the tabloid media have faced criticism at the Leveson inquiry, not least from the likes of Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan, popular titles remain in fair commercial health. Trinity Mirror's stable of nationals – the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the People, and the Record titles in Scotland – will earn about £70m this year, although they made £86m the year before. The profit margin at the Daily Mail hovers at around 10%.

The challenge for the popular press is retaining printed sales – but the financial pressure is acute elsewhere. Three of the traditional broadsheets – the Independent, the Times and the Guardian – all lose money in a market where five titles compete for 1.3 million print buyers. Their readers are more likely to make the digital transition too, leaving newspapers no option but to embrace new forms of reporting – such as the live blog – and seed content at digital hubs, such as Facebook.

The Guardian may generate £40m in digital revenues from its largely free offerings, but some of that comes from its dating sites. The Times titles have gone for a low price subscription model, which has attracted 111,000 takers, but which generates £11m a year against an editorial budget estimated at £100m.

Some, like Paul Zwillenberg, from Boston Consulting Group, says serious newspapers "will have to cut their cloth because there will be a smaller pool of revenue and profit". But he acknowledges that by pursuing different business models, they may increase their chances of success. The result, though, is that was once an industry of one business model: a printed product sold on the newstand is fracturing into very different types of mainly digital content companies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

NYC in B&W

Monday, December 05, 2011

Film Festival

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Danielle Mitterrand (RIP)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Are Beautiful Devices

The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman lives in an airy penthouse on the 14th floor of an apartment block in downtown Manhattan, not far from the Eighth Street subway station. But never mind that for a moment. Instead, without thinking too hard about it, try answering the following question: roughly what percentage of the member states of the United Nations are in Africa? (I'll wait.)

The correct figure isn't what's important here. What matters is that your answer is likely to be lower than if you had first been informed that Kahneman is 77 years old, or if I had claimed his apartment – where he lives with his wife, the British-born psychologist Ann Triesman – was 60 floors up, and near the 86th Street station. This is the phenomenon known as the "anchoring effect", and it is typical of Kahneman's contributions to psychology in that it suggests something rather disturbing about the human mind: not just that we're susceptible to making skewed judgments, but that we're influenced by factors more subtle and preposterous than we could ever imagine.

Kahneman's new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a meaty memoir of his life's work that describes countless such cognitive quirks – but don't imagine that reading it will cure your irrationality. "It's not a case of: 'Read this book and then you'll think differently,'" he says. "I've written this book, and I don't think differently." Kahneman, whom Steven Pinker calls "the most important psychologist alive", is twinkly and energetic. But beneath the surface, he is a pessimist. And he is allergic to the notion that his book might be mistaken for self-help. It's his first work aimed at a mass audience, and he hated writing it: "I really did not want to disgrace myself in front of my colleagues, and I worried the public wouldn't like it if it read like a textbook. Also, I really don't like old men's books, and I felt I was writing an old man's book." Eventually, in despair, he arranged to pay four younger psychologists $2,000 each to review his manuscript anonymously, and to tell him the brutal truth: should he bother finishing?

They liked it. So did I. It's hard not to: Kahneman's approach to psychology spurns heart-sinking tables and formulae in favour of short, intriguing questions that elegantly illustrate the ways our intuitions mislead us.

Take the famous "Linda question": Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that's logically impossible. (It can't be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the "conjunctive fallacy", whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky, who died in 1999, are the primary inspiration for many of the past decade's pop-psychology books – the publishing phenomenon that brought you tipping points and freakonomics, the wisdom of crowds, black swans, and "predictable irrationality". It is a trend that one unimpressed reviewer of Kahneman's book labelled "the effect effect". In the early days, academics took a similarly sniffy view of Kahneman and Tversky's research: Kahneman recalls one well-known American philosopher turning his back on him at a party with the disdainful words: "I am not really interested in the psychology of stupidity." That soon changed, though, as the pair's influence spread rapidly throughout the social sciences, culminating in 2002, when Kahneman became one of a handful of non-economists to win the Nobel prize in economics.

"The psychology of stupidity" is not, in any case, a very apt summary. Kahneman's point isn't that we're all wildly bizarre or idiotic, but that our mental apparatus, which works so well most of the time, sometimes leads us astray in predictable ways. "We're beautiful devices," he says. "The devices work well; we're all experts in what we do. But when the mechanism fails, those failures can tell you a lot about how the mind works."

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents this as a drama with two "characters": System One, which is the domain of intuitive responses, and System Two, the domain of conscious, effortful thought. System One – the kind of mental ability celebrated in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink – kicks in without our needing to think about it. The problem is that it always tries to help, even when it shouldn't, and that it works with whatever it's got, which isn't always the most sensible information.

The biggest challenge this posed was to economists, most of whom assumed that people were basically rational and selfish and acted in their own best interests. The work that won Kahneman the Nobel showed otherwise. For example, we hate losing things more than we like gaining them, which is why people refuse to sell their home for less than they paid, even if it makes financial sense to do so. Similar biases make us behave strangely where risk is involved, too: if forced to choose between being given £500 for certain, or a 50% chance of winning £1,000, most of us will opt for the sure thing. But if the choice is between losing £500 for sure, or a 50% chance of losing £1,000, most of us will take the gamble.

Then there's the much-cited thought experiment involving tickets to the theatre. Suppose a woman plans to buy a ticket for a play costing £40, but en route to the theatre she realises she has lost two £20 notes in the street: would she still buy the ticket? Most people, when asked this question, assume that she would. But what if she bought the ticket in advance, then arrived at the theatre to find she'd lost it? In that case, people assume she'd go home without buying another ticket – even though the scenarios are financially identical. As Richard Thaler, another leading light in the revolution that became known as behavioural economics, told an interviewer, Kahneman and Tversky's research meant that "rationality was fucked". Kahneman, on the other hand, likes to say that you'd need to study economics for years before you'd find his research surprising: it didn't surprise his mother at all.

Kahneman was born in 1934, the son of Lithuanian Jews, and grew up in France. Life was generally good until 1940, when German forces swept in. He recalls drawing, around that time, "what was probably the first graph I ever drew", showing his family's fortunes over time – "and around 1940 the curve crossed into the negative domain." His father was captured during a large-scale sweep of Jews in France, but somehow escaped being sent to a concentration camp and was let go instead. ("The story of my father's release, which I never fully understood, also involved a beautiful woman and a German general who loved her," he wrote.) The family kept moving across France. "The feeling was of being hunted," Kahneman recalls. At one point their home was a chicken coop at the back of a pub. In 1944 his father died of insufficiently treated diabetes, six weeks short of D-day. As soon as the war ended, his mother took the family to live in Palestine, in what would soon become Israel.

Kahneman was drafted into the Israeli army in 1955, where he served as an infantryman for a year – "it was a very tense time, but I never fired a shot in anger" – then worked as a military psychologist. One of his roles was to evaluate new recruits by watching them perform the "leaderless group challenge", in which teams of eight men had to transfer themselves, and a large log, over a 6ft-high wall, without anybody, or the log, touching the wall. The task was designed to reveal the participants' true character, and thus demonstrate who had the making of a future leader. As a method of psychological evaluation, it wasn't much good: Kahneman made predictions, but follow-up research revealed them to be little better than guesses. What the experience taught him, in the end, wasn't how to spot a future hero, but rather how hard it was to expunge his own confidence in his predictions. "We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses," he writes. "But we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid." Confidence is a feeling, not a logical conclusion reached after analysing statistics. Kahneman would later encounter the same phenomenon among investment advisers, who clung to their belief in their abilities even after it was demonstrated that their stock-picking skills left their clients no better off than rolling dice.

The intellectual relationship that defined his career began in the late 1960s at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, when he met Tversky, a young colleague. Kahneman describes their bond as "magical", and it sounds much more like a loving friendship than a scholarly collaboration. For several years, the two spent hours every afternoon in freewheeling conversations, examining their own hunches and intuitions, gradually developing the list of biases and fallacies for which they became famous. "He got up late, and I was a morning person, so we started with lunch, and took it from there," Kahneman remembers. "This kind of collaboration is very unusual in science. We were just extraordinarily lucky, and we knew it." The editor of the journal to which they submitted their first major paper rejected it; their work seemed too frivolous for the academic establishment. "Psychologists really aim to be scientists, white-coat stuff, with elaborate statistics, running experiments," Kahneman says. "The idea that you can ask one question and it makes the point ... well, that wasn't how psychology was done at the time."

With hindsight, however, those single questions seem anything but frivolous. The irrational traits they uncovered are, to pick one notable example, hugely important in understanding the causes of the current economic crisis, which has its roots in (among others) the overconfidence bias and the illusion of skill. If we can't hope to correct such biases in any lasting way, we can perhaps seek to cultivate some humility about the limits of our mental powers. Being the puppet of subtle psychological influences we cannot even recognise is annoying. But at least we can try to remember that that's what's likely to be happening. Well, it's a start.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Great Film



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Basque Peace

A Basque Peace

The unconditional declaration by the Basque separatist group ETA this week that it is finally ending 50 years of violence, during which it killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands more, should be welcomed by all governments and peoples. It is a victory for democracy, as well as a victory for the people of Spain and the Basque regions of Spain and France.

The Spanish government — in particular Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his deputy, the long-time interior minister, Alfredo Rubalcaba — has taken courageous risks for peace and paid a heavy political price when ETA responded by blowing up part of Madrid airport and returning to killing in 2006.

Zapatero and his colleagues never stopped fighting ETA, consistently defending Spanish democracy, and, with the support and cooperation of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, successfully weakened the terrorist movement by arresting its leadership and disrupting their attacks.

But Zapatero also never stopped offering the hand of peace. He made it clear that there would be no secret negotiations, that there would be no political concessions to ETA, and that another cease-fire would not be enough: ETA must unilaterally, publicly and unambiguously declare that it was ending the armed struggle for good if there was to be peace.

The opposition Popular Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, has also always demonstrated its seriousness and responsibility on this issue.

The firmness paid off this week. ETA has now done exactly what was demanded. Its leaders have put violence behind them for good. This really is the end of the last armed confrontation in Europe.

In its declaration ending the armed campaign, ETA asks for talks with the governments of Spain and France to deal with the “consequences” of the conflict. These talks are necessary to assure the dissolution of ETA as a military force.

Just as we did in our talks in Northern Ireland, these talks will deal with the decommissioning of weapons, explosives and military infrastructure, with the issue of prisoners and exiles, with the rehabilitation of those caught up in the violence, with security normalization and with recompense for victims.

As in Northern Ireland, there will be a “peace dividend” for Spain. The billions of euros that have been spent on security can now be redirected to more socially useful ends, a welcome benefit in a time of cutbacks and budget restraint.

As in Northern Ireland we must remember the victims and ensure that the families left behind are properly recognized and supported.

Above all, it will now be possible for all parties in Spain and the Basque region to pursue their aims politically without violence or the threat of violence.

I believe there also are wider lessons from the end of this conflict.

The first is that governments must firmly defend themselves, their principles and their people against terrorists. This requires good police and intelligence work as well as political determination.

But governments must also recognize the need to “talk to their enemies.” Firm security pressure on terrorists must be coupled with offering them a way out when they realize that they cannot win by violence. Terrorist groups are rarely defeated by military means alone. Peace is always made between enemies, not friends. This is as true in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas as it is in the Basque region.

I learned from our experience in Northern Ireland that ending violence and making peace irreversible requires patience, taking risks, suffering setbacks and a constant commitment. It also requires creativity, generosity and statesmanship. In Spain these qualities have been demonstrated by all and will be needed to secure a lasting peace.

Spain will hold national elections on Nov. 20 and a new government will have to take on the hard work of clearing up the consequences of the conflict. This is the point in peace processes when the participants often collapse in exhaustion — but it is when efforts need to be redoubled. The European Union and the wider international community should strongly support the new Spanish government in this effort.

ETA has made a historic declaration. The opportunity for peace must now be seized. I will work to support Spain, France and the citizens of the Basque region in any way I can in their effort to secure the lasting peace and democracy they have long demanded and fully deserve.

Tony Blair was prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Cartoon Of The Day

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Sport & Race

'It was one of the interesting things people were talking about. So I explored it in the book," says Neil Duncanson. What book? His multi-biographical book about 100m sprinters, The Fastest Men on Earth. Head to the final chapter, and there's this: a question raising all sorts of connotations. "Is it now a cast iron fact, at least at the elite level, that white men can't sprint?

Well is it, I ask Duncanson, a sprint enthusiast by night, by day a television executive? "I am not an anthropologist, and I am not trying to construct any theories of my own," he says. "But there are a lot of theories out there. And the fact is that the last white guy in an Olympic final was Allan Wells in 1980."

What about Christophe Lemaitre, the Frenchman who last year became the first white guy to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m? Doesn't he prove the futility of hard and fast pronouncements. "Well he is just one guy. If there were a few more like him, perhaps we would have to think again." And anyway, he says, there is little or no danger of Lemaitre winning in 2012. He'll do well to make the final. The book is unequivocal about that. "It's hard," it says, "to imagine a white sprinter climbing on top of the 100m Olympic podium again."

It was a thrill ride for the author. He spent time with his track heroes, among them Usain Bolt, a one-off fuelled by freakish brilliance, bonhomie and chicken nuggets.

And what's the thinking on the racial angle? Duncanson says one interesting theory is that reached in 1999 by scholar and journalist Jon Entine. It's not that all black athletes sprint faster, Entine said. It's a subset with origins in west Africa. And a key difference, according to this theory is the muscles. "We are all geared by slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibres," Duncanson explains. "The theory is that these athletes have a preponderance of fast-twitch muscles. I see it as an interesting debate, but not particularly controversial."

But of course, sport aside, it is controversial. If muscles are genetically different, what of other genetic differences? There's a Pandora's box, on and off the track. Thank God for Bolt. At least there, you know it's the chicken nuggets.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Are Consumption Levels Falling?

The year 2001 was more eventful than most and, a decade on, we're inundated with anniversaries. September was 9/11, this month the invasion of Afghanistan and next month the release of the first iPod. To which we could add the foot-and-mouth crisis, the Gujarat earthquake and the first ever entries on Wikipedia.

With so many significant events to look back on, one thing that few people will remember 2001 for is its entry in the UK's Material Flow Accounts, a set of dry and largely ignored data published annually by the Office for National Statistics.

But, according to environment writer Chris Goodall, those stats tell an important story. "What the figures suggest," Goodall says enthusiastically, "is that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK's consumption of 'stuff' – the total weight of everything we use, from food and fuel to flat-pack furniture – reached its peak and began to decline."

Quietly spoken but fiercely intelligent, Goodall is a consultant and author who, over the last decade or so, has established himself as a leading analyst on energy and climate issues. Probably the only Green Party parliamentary candidate who also used to work at McKinsey, his speciality is trawling through environment statistics that would send traditional eco-warriors to sleep.

"One thing that's remarkable is the sheer speed with which our resource use has crashed since the recession," Goodall continues. "In the space of a couple of years, we've dropped back to the second lowest level since we started keeping track in 1970. And although the figures aren't yet available for 2010 and 2011, it seems highly likely that we are now using fewer materials than at any time on record."

Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK's consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.

In 2001, Goodall says, the UK's consumption of paper and cardboard finally started to decline. This was followed, in 2002, by a fall in our use of primary energy: the raw heat and power generated by all fossil fuels and other energy sources. The following year, 2003, saw the start of a decline in the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country – a downward trend that before long could also be observed in the commercial and construction waste sectors.

In 2004, our purchases of new cars started to fall – as did our consumption of water. The next year, 2005, saw our household energy consumption starting to slump (notwithstanding an uptick last year due to the cold winter). And in 2006 we seem to have got bored with roads and railways, with a decline in the average distance travelled on private and public transport. All of this while GDP – and population – went up.

Other consumption categories have been falling for much longer, Goodall points out. Despite concerns about the increasing intensity and industrialisation of our farming, the amount of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers being applied to British fields has been falling since the 1980s. Our consumption of cement reached a peak at a similar time.

Even our intake of food is falling. Although obesity is on the rise, the total number of calories consumed by Brits has been on a downward slope for around half a century, driven by the fact that, compared with previous generations, we do less exercise now and live in warmer homes. Perhaps more remarkably, our intake of meat – the food most regularly highlighted as an environmental concern – seems to have been falling since 2003.

Goodall's research sends a counterintuitive message. We might expect to have been getting through less stuff since the financial crash of 2008; but surely throughout the boom years of 1990s and noughties, our rate of material consumption was steadily climbing in step with GDP?

Not according to Goodall. But do his claims stack up? One obvious counter-argument is the fact that we have "outsourced" our resource-hungry industries to China and other developing countries. After all, various reports have already made it clear that while the UK's own use of oil, coal and gas is falling, our total carbon emissions, once you consider all Chinese factories producing our laptops, toys and clothes, continues to rise steadily.

Oddly, though, when it comes to overall resource use – everything from maize to metals – the same doesn't seem to apply. At least, not if we believe the official figures from the Office of National Statistics. Each year, statisticians there estimate the UK's Total Material Requirement, the grand total of all the goods we consume, plus all the materials used in the UK and overseas to produce those goods.

The numbers are head-spinningly huge. Once you add up minerals, fuels, crops, wood and animal products, the UK churns its way through roughly two billion tonnes of stuff each year. That's more than 30 tonnes for each man, woman and child in the country – a giant stack of raw materials as heavy as four double-decker buses. (Or, more specifically, as heavy as four old- fashioned Routemaster buses. In an exception to Goodall's theory, some of the newer, more efficient buses are almost twice as heavy as the old ones.)

Although that's still a massive – and doubtless unsustainable – rate of consumption, Goodall's point is that our appetite for materials may finally be on a downward curve. In particular, he's excited by the fact that over the past couple of decades, we've significantly grown the economy without noticeably increasing our resource use. To use the jargon, Goodall believes that Britain has finally "decoupled" economic growth and material consumption.

If correct, this means we've achieved something that many green commentators believed was impossible. In his influential 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, academic Tim Jackson argued that while economies could become more efficient in their use of resources, genuine decoupling – resource use falling while GDP rises – remained a "myth". This view, and the argument that we therefore should aim for zero-growth economics, has become widely accepted in environment circles.

Goodall believes that the data from the Office of National Statistics, combined with his own research, challenges this assumption. "In 2007, just before the crash," Goodall says, "our total use of materials was almost the same as it was in 1989, despite the economy having tripled in size in the intervening years. And the peak in resource use appears to have been in 2001 – many years before the recession halted economic growth."

Jackson welcomed Goodall's research, describing it as "long overdue" and "exactly the kind of analysis that is sadly lacking at policy level and desperately needed as the basis for a green economy". But he also warned against drawing simple conclusions, pointing out that – thanks to Britain's investments in the global commodity markets – our economy was continuing to increase resource use even if we had started consuming fewer of those resources ourselves. "For those hoping desperately for stuff-free growth," Jackson added, "there is only cold comfort in these statistics."

Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation also doubts the significance of the UK reaching peak stuff. "Measures of our environmental impact are only meaningful when they're related to the planet's ability to keep up. For these findings to be significant, we'd need to be able to demonstrate that we're on the way to being able to live within our ecological means. And on that measure we're still a long way off target."

Jackson and Simms are certainly right that – even if the UK has started consuming fewer resources – it's hardly going to save the planet. Globally, resource extraction is rising, carbon emissions are climbing, rainforests are shrinking, oceans are acidifying and species are disappearing. Solving these problems will clearly take far more than stabilising resource use in mature economies like the UK.

Goodall acknowledges this. "I don't want to suggest for a moment that the world doesn't face massive environmental challenges. But the data I found does suggest the possibility – and it is only a possibility – that economic growth is not necessarily incompatible with addressing these challenges. If growth helps us get more efficient in our use of resources, and actually reduces our consumption of material things, then environmentalists may be very wrong to campaign for a zero-growth economy."

Bringing the debate back to earth, he adds: "It is a trivial example but economic growth, and the innovation that comes with it, have given us the Kindle, a way of allowing us to read books without the high-energy consumption required to make paper. Digital goods generally have lower environmental impact than physical equivalents and if growth speeds up the process of 'dematerialisation', it has positive – not negative – environmental effects."

The idea that the best way to get greener may be to get richer isn't a new one. Economist Simon Kuznets argued decades ago that only when countries get to a certain level of wealth do they start to reduce their environmental impact. In green circles, however, such thinking is controversial. While environmentalists accept that poor countries need to grow economically to lift themselves out of poverty, most are thoroughly sceptical that conventional growth-focused economics is compatible with saving the planet from impending disaster.

There is, however, an emerging pro-growth seam of environmental thinking. Earlier this year, writer Mark Lynas caused a stir with his book The God Species, in which he broke a trio of green taboos by calling for environmentalists to embrace GM foods, nuclear power and growth-based capitalism. GM food would allow us to leave more of the world as wilderness, Lynas wrote; nuclear energy would help us wean ourselves off coal; and climbing economic growth would give us the best chance of combatting global poverty and funding the technical revolution required to green our production of energy and goods.

Simms says that to call for economic growth as the solution to the planet's woes is to miss the point. "The important question is this: is your economy doing something useful, and doing it within environmental boundaries? If we want to create a happy, low-carbon world, there are better ways to do that than slavishly trying to enlarge our economies. Bear in mind that 50 years of GDP growth and increasing resource use in the UK has done nothing to increase our life satisfaction."

Ecological and economic arguments aside, Goodall's suggestion that the UK may have reached the point of maximum resource use throws up lots of interesting questions. Most fundamentally: is it definitely true? How can we be sure that consumption won't soar to new, even greater, highs when the global economy eventually picks up? And if we really have reached a peak, how did we get there? Was it just a matter of shifting to a more service-based economy? Can the internet – or even decades of green campaigning – claim the credit? Or could it be that our densely packed little island is running out of space for new buildings, vehicles and bulky goods? Could eBay and Freecycle be a factor, helping to keep more goods in circulation for longer? Or the fact that more of us are living in cities?

If we can understand how we levelled off British resource use, perhaps that information could help other countries do the same. After all, in a world that may soon be home to nine billion people, there can be fewer more important messages than – when it comes to "stuff" – less can be more.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pankhurst to Lenin

"Dear Comrade, The situation is moving in a revolutionary direction more swiftly, but of course we are far away yet. The prices of necessaries are rising, but the cost of living is not totally supposed to have risen this month. Unemployment is now acute, and the unemployed are restive. One of Lansbury's meetings was broken up by members of my party because he advised peaceful methods, and the crowd supported the young dockers, seamen, and others of my party who opposed him. Unemployed march to factories, enter them, make speeches, and speak of using them. Ex-soldiers arm and drill. Do not exaggerate these things—they are not formidable yet.

"Unemployed smashed windows and stole jewels last Monday, when the London Mayors led them to Westminster. The Communist parties alone are neither big enough nor bold enough to rise to the occasion . . .

"In Coventry a member of our party, Emery, leads a campaign for setting aside a factory to work for Soviet Russia, the factory to be controlled by the workers. In 'The Dreadnought' I tried to set a bolder policy and should be discussing it with my executive this afternoon, but I was arrested last Thursday and am under £2,000 bail not to meet, or communicate with any of our people responsible for publishing the paper till my trial on Thursday, so I can only communicate indirectly.

"I expect six months' imprisonment. I considered a hunger strike, but I am afraid that weapon is destroyed now since the Government is letting the Irish hunger-strikers die.

"I find all the Communist parties, except Gallagher's Scottish Communist Labour party, disinclined for unity. Parliamentarism and the tameness of the B.S.P. crowd are sore points with our party, and I would have had a hard struggle to bring them round. Now I shall not be there, it seems.

"I have done less than I should in seeing people, because I have had a most terrible struggle since I returned home. Our press where our paper is printed was suffering because 'The Dreadnought' owed money. Whilst I was away an account ran too long, and a creditor got a writ of payment against us in the court. Then all the creditors took fright. On my return the brokers were in twice in one week, and I have been fighting the situation ever since.

"The Third International in Moscow heard my plea when I was there, and promised relief. It does not come. This week the South Wales mining comrades sent for 6,000 extra copies of 'The Dreadnought'. I borrowed paper from the 'Herald'. At present I have no paper for next week. It is not pleasant to go to prison so!

"With Communist greetings.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, Princess!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Picture Of The Day

Monday, October 10, 2011

Scotland Today

Friday, October 07, 2011

Nobel of Literature


Picture Of The Day

About Science

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Nobel of Chemestry


Speak Christian!

Rapayet Pushaina thinks he is about 80 years old; he is pretty sure he was not born on 31 December, and he is absolutely certain his name is not Iron Scraper.

But that is the information that appeared on his Colombian national ID card for more than 50 years.

Pushaina, an elder of his clan of Wayúu Native Americans, who live in the deserts of the north-western Guajira peninsula, chafes at the mockery of a name that was given to him by an official of the national registry office who went to his remote village 50 years ago.

"I don't want to be Raspahierro [Iron Scraper], I am Rapayet," he said through his Spanish-speaking granddaughter.

He is one of thousands of Wayúu Indians who were given derisive names, according to Estercilia Simanca, a Wayúu lawyer.

"In some cases there may have been a misunderstanding but in others it was clearly intentional," she said.

Wayúu ID cards show names such as Arrancamuelas (Tooth Puller), Bolsillo (Pocket), Cabezón (Big Head), Chichí (Piss), Coito (Coitus), Gorila (Gorilla), Monja (Nun), Payaso (Clown) and Teléfono (Telephone).

Others are Alka-Seltzer, Land Rover, Marilyn Monroe and Tarzan.

Most neither speak nor read Spanish so were unaware of the mockery. The Wayúu native tongue is an Arawak language.

They do not use the Gregorian calendar either, but rather mark dates with knots on a yarn. Because of this, registry officials opted to give everyone the same birth date: 31 December.

"Since I was little, I thought it was strange that all my family had the same birthday," Simanca said.

She has conducted an investigation into the apparently widespread practice of making up names and birth dates and estimates about 70% of Pushaina's generation were given humiliating names by visiting registry officials, and nearly all were listed as having been born on 31 December.

Pushaina only became aware of his "official" name when he began to attend meetings with NGO and government officials about 10 years ago as a representative of his community.

"At first I thought they were pronouncing my name wrong," he said. Then he realised that what was on his ID card was a twisted joke.

Film-maker Priscilla Padilla has documented the abuses in a documentary called Born on 31 December, which was screened last month in Bogotá.

The Colombian registry office has said it does not know how or why the changes to names and birth dates – the bulk of which happened in the 1960s and 70s – were made, and has promised an investigation.

The director of the office, Carlos Ariel Sanchez, vowed to "correct the names that make people uncomfortable or that are ridiculous".

Simanca said she was encouraged by the official statement but that name changes were too costly for most Wayúu, who live in remote rural areas and can hardly afford travel and legal costs which can add up to more than 200,000 pesos (£67).

"Just like they have ID card drives where they go from village to village registering people, they should send out officials to rectify the names," she said.

Pushaina is now privileged among his clan. With the help of Simanca and Padilla, he was able to reclaim his true name.

He says he is happy with his new card. "Now no one can make fun of me any more."

Steve Jobs at Stanford Uni

Steve Jobs (RIP)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Human Rights in Chechnya

They never go out alone, and when they are in their small apartment here in the capital of Chechnya, a flat screen on the wall displays a continuous feed from security cameras in the hall and stairway outside.

When the three men squeeze into their little car, they can activate a video camera and microphone in case of trouble and push a small red button on their dashboard to transmit sound directly to their main office 900 miles away.

“It’s an internal rule,” said Vladislav Sadykov, 46, a lawyer who leads the group. “We always travel together. If you are alone, it is easier to kidnap and torture you. The pictures are for protection, and also in case they kill us it will be recorded.”

The three men make up the current shift in a rotation of visiting human rights investigators called the Joint Mobile Group, which has taken on kidnapping and torture cases in this Russian republic that it considers too dangerous for resident human rights workers to handle.

“All local human rights people here live in danger,” said Dmitri Laptev, 24, a lawyer who has been in Grozny for 45 days on his third rotation. “Their homes can be burned. Their children can be kidnapped.”

The separatist war is mostly over in Chechnya, but kidnappings and extrajudicial killings continue in a more targeted way against people who support the rebels or speak out against the government of the Chechen leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, human rights groups say.

“When you talk to ordinary people, you are shocked to see how afraid they are,” Mr. Laptev said.

The human rights group Memorial said its monitors were finding it more difficult to do their work, partly because victims and their relatives have become more frightened than in the past about reporting abuses.

“The kidnapping goes on without fear,” said Mr. Sadykov, who is here on his fourth tour. “They do it openly. They show that they are with law enforcement, and law enforcement leaves them alone.”

He added: “It’s simple work, no investigation, no documents, no legal steps. Just seize someone and take him away.”

The Joint Mobile Group, with its main office in Nizhny Novgorod, recruits lawyers and investigators from human rights organizations around the country to work in teams of three in Chechnya for a month or more.

In May, the group was recognized with the annual Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, awarded in Dublin by the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice, for its work in bringing human rights abuses to light.

“We work like investigators, looking at pictures, talking to witnesses,” Mr. Sadykov said. “We do all this the way it should be done, though we have no official standing. We get evidence and then we ask official organs to make their own investigation.”

The team’s work sometimes bears fruit, he said, and charges have been brought against some law enforcement officers.

The Joint Mobile Group was founded in 2009 after the abduction and killing of Natalya Estemirova, a local researcher for Memorial who was one of the most persistent and best-known activists in Chechnya.

Two of Ms. Estemirova’s colleagues at Memorial were evacuated and one who worked closely with her moved to Norway.

Since Ms. Estemirova’s death, human rights advocates here have mostly stepped back from confronting the authorities directly with reports of abuses, Mr. Sadykov said. Memorial has at times withdrawn its monitors from Chechnya for periods of several weeks or several months.

In a way, the Joint Mobile Group is carrying on Ms. Estemirova’s work.

“They had the idea that she was causing problems and without her there would be fewer problems,” Mr. Sadykov said. “But who am I? We rotate. They know there are people behind us and that if they kill me someone else will come.”

Among the half-dozen cases the group is currently pursuing is one of Ms. Estemirova’s final ones, the disappearance of a former rebel named Apti Zainalov, 23 at the time, who had turned himself in and served a year in prison. After his release, he disappeared in 2009, reappeared briefly under armed guard in a hospital and then vanished again.

In the days before she was killed, Ms. Estemirova had been demanding information about him from the hospital and the police, and the Joint Mobile Group has continued the pressure.

But Mr. Zainalov’s mother, Aima Makayeva, said she was weary of the pursuit and was ready to abandon the legal case if the authorities would just hand back her son.

“The only thing left is to go to Kadyrov,” she said. It is a view that is often expressed in Chechnya, where Mr. Kadyrov is in firm control of both the government and the security forces.

The tactic might work, Mr. Sadykov said. It would relieve the authorities of the constant pressure being brought by the investigators, and of the possibility that someone might actually be arrested and charged.

But, Mr. Sadykov said, it would run counter to the aim of the advocates to foster the rule of law and would instead demonstrate that it is still the men with guns who have the power to seize and release.

“The system is like a swamp,” Mr. Laptev said. “You throw in a stone and you make some ripples, and then it quiets down and the stone sinks to the bottom.”

Mr. Sadykov had an inside look at the system last year when he was part of a three-person team held overnight in a police station while investigating a report of a human rights violation. The group was released unharmed and has filed its own case charging illegal detention.

In a late-night discussion, he said, the police defended their methods, saying a harsh environment demands harsh tactics. “You have to torture,” he said one officer told him. “Without torture how can you fight terrorism?”

But Mr. Sadykov also observed that the work of human rights monitors seemed at least to be making an impression. When the three were released, he said, an officer asked him to sign a statement confirming that they had not been mistreated.

“Otherwise,” the officer said, “you will say we tortured you.”

Is Common Sense Back?

About 400 people are preparing to gather for a conference in Hartford, Connecticut, to promote the end of religion in the US and their vision of a secular future for the country.

Those travelling to the meeting will pass two huge roadside billboards displaying quotes from two of the country's most famous non-believers: Katharine Hepburn and Mark Twain. "Faith is believing what you know ain't so," reads the one featuring Twain. "I'm an atheist and that's it," says the one quoting Hepburn.

At the meeting, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) will hear speakers celebrate successes they have had in removing religion from US public life and see awards being presented to noted secularist activists.

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. "It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major "religious" demographic in the country.

Professor Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, who conducts the national Religious Identification Survey, believes up to a quarter of young people in the US now have no specific faith, and scoffs at the idea, prevalent in so much US media and culture, that the country is highly religious or becoming more so. "The trending in American history is towards secularisation," Kosmin said.

He cites the example of the changing face of Sunday in the country. It was not too long ago when many sporting events were banned on Sundays and most shops were closed too. Now the opposite is largely true.

As in Britain, Sunday in the US has become a normal shopping day for many, or a day to watch big football or baseball games. "The great secular holiday in America is Super Bowl Sunday. Even in the deep south, the biggest mega-church changes its schedule to suit the Super Bowl," Kosmin said.

He also pointed to social trends – greater divorce rates, gay marriage and much higher percentages of people having children out of wedlock – as other signs that the religious grip on society has loosened.

There are other indications, too. For a long time studies have shown that about 40% of US adults attend a church service weekly. However, other studies that actually counted those at church – rather than just asking people if they went – have shown the true number to be about half to two-thirds of that figure.

More Americans are now choosing to get married or be buried without any form of religious ceremony. At universities, departments devoted to the study of secularism are starting to appear. Books by atheist authors are bestsellers. National groups, such as the Secular Coalition of America (SCA), have opened branches across the country.

Herb Silverman, president of the Washington-based SCA, lives in Charleston, South Carolina. His local secularist group was founded in 1994 with 10 people, but now has 150 members. "I've been living here in the buckle of the Bible belt since 1976 and things are getting a lot better," Silverman said.

Yet there is little doubt that religious groups still wield enormous influence in US politics and public life, especially through the rightwing of the Republican party. Groups such as Focus on the Family are well-funded and skilful lobbyists.

Kosmin said the attention paid by politicians and the media to religious groups was not necessarily a sign of strength. "When religion was doing well, it did not need to go into politics. Secularity of our population and culture is obviously growing and so religion is on the defensive," he said.

However, it is still a brave US politician who openly declares a lack of faith. So far just one member of Congress, Californian Democrat Pete Stark, has admitted that he does not believe in God.

"Privately, we know that there are 27 other members of Congress that have no belief in God. But we don't 'out' people," said Silverman.

Others think that one day it will become politically mainstream to confess to a lack of faith as US political life lags behind the society that it represents. "Politicians have not yet caught up with the changing demographics of our society," said Gaylor.


What happens when angels of mercy go walkabout, leaving patients bereft? Why, the boss of the Royal College of Nursing weighs straight in. If his angels are too busy, Dr Peter Carter wants patients' families on the ward and on the job as well, looking after lonely grannies in distress. "Somehow we have sleepwalked, in some parts of society, into assuming this is someone else's responsibility." Cue predictable outrage over this NHS betrayal, plus even more predictable warnings about lowered standards. It's a hospital's job to care and tend, we're told. It's what nurses are for. And the last thing we want is upmarket union leaders passing the buck. But pause: let's take a short trip.

Three times in the last 12 years I've seen what happens in Spanish hospitals when my grandchildren are born. What's that at the side near my daughter's bed? It's a bunk. Her husband isn't merely there for the birth; he's on the spot night and day, bringing this, fetching that, always on hand while she recovers. That's normal, totally expected. Active paternity service, not paternity leave. And now my Spanish grandson has broken his arm rather badly in two places. He's in pain. And, in quite another hospital, the bunk is there again. His mother spends two nights with him, comforting, reassuring, nipping out to buy food, a stabilising presence in an unsettling world.

Which means I too remember how, a few years back, I was in trouble myself, bleeding internally and causing manifest alarm. A Spanish ambulance shrieks through the night. Another hospital to the collection. I'm dosed and monitored non-stop behind curtains in A&E. And there's an airline-type seat beside the bed there. My wife can try to sleep close by. The next morning I'm wheeled upstairs to a small ward – and of course there's another recliner seat close by. The guy to my left, just recovering from open heart surgery, has visitors almost 24/7. They're a bit noisy; they come and go constantly – but hey, join the party. What's the point lying around feeling sorry for yourself? The gang's all here.

And the deeper point, revealed time and again, has absolutely nothing to do with cost-saving – or with graduate angels too proud to plump a pillow. The Spanish experience is instinctive and positive. It doesn't make family involvement a passed parcel of sneaky budget savings. It says, simply, that this is what family life is all about. Hospitals aren't carved up between them and us. Hospitals are more joint community centres in a society used to doing the right thing.

Long ago, as a child, I was in a faraway Nottinghamshire hospital for well over a year: visiting hours, on Saturday and Sunday, 2.30pm to 5pm. My mother, a widow without any hope of a car, had to travel 20 miles via three separate bus journeys to see me. Get there for two-thirty. Get out at five. That's your lot. In retrospect it seems cruel and pointless – but still somehow natural. The mystique of medicine says life is a waiting room. Doctor knows best. Nurses have duties: please keep out of their way.

Of course you can produce due justifications as required. But in fact there's a more fundamental chasm opened here. We pay for and bang on about the NHS because it has almost god-like status. Leave your flowers on the altar and go. Family care ends at the hospital door. Busy professionals are taking over now. Thank you, and good night.

That's a generalisation, of course: it can't wrap millions of cases in a single bundle of blame. But how does any society go truly big on compassion or cohesion when families are deemed a nuisance, a fact without a function? And what does it say about families when they not only accept that divide – but bristle at the thought of bridging it?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mourid Barghouti

Picture Of The Day

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Ed Miliband did what the professional speechwriters always say you should do. He presented an argument, rather than a laundry list. He did not dole out random policy nuggets, with a bit on foreign policy thrown in, in order to touch every base. Instead he made a case, arguing that the values cherished by British society are not reflected in the ethics that underpin our economy.

He even framed that idea in a pithy way, pitching "producers" against "predators", insisting that too often we reward the latter over the former. The speech deserved credit, too, for trying to rise to the moment of current crisis, advocating not mere tinkering at the edges but a recasting of our entire economic model. And yet I worry it will do precisely nothing to improve the prospects of either Miliband or Labour.

That's not because I want more detail on how his ideas will translate into action or how, exactly, governments will distinguish predators from producers. Nor is mine the familiar concern that no one listens to conference speeches any more. The anxiety I have is both more superficial and deeper than that – and it is a worry that goes beyond Labour, touching on the state of politics itself.

Put simply, my fear is that you can make all the speeches and policy statements you like – carefully devising a strategy on this and crafting a narrative on that – but what matters more are shallow considerations of looks, demeanour, speech patterns and biography. That, in short, it is personality, not policy, that counts.

How else to explain today's Comres poll, which had the Conservatives one point ahead of Labour. This despite rising unemployment, an enfeebled economy and a series of cock-ups and U-turns that should have the Tories gasping for air. Some of that can be explained by the Conservatives' success in persuading voters that they are stoically engaged in the hard work of clearing up a mess not of their making. But polls show that the Tories' numbers are boosted by the voters' high regard for David Cameron, while Labour's are dragged down by their lukewarm view of Ed Miliband. Comres found just 24% regard Miliband as a credible prime minister-in-waiting – compared to 57% who do not.

There was similarly depressing reading to be found in a voluminous survey commissioned, admittedly, by the former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, but whose reliability has not been doubted. He found a Cameron premium, with the PM more popular than his party, as well as a Miliband deficit, with more than one in three voters less favourable to Miliband than they are to Labour. The words focus groups used to describe Cameron were "determined", "competent" and "ruthless" – while the one volunteered for Miliband was "weird".

Was he deemed weird because of his stance on the 50p tax rate or on climate change? No. Those surveyed cited his fighting his brother for the leadership (which they called "creepy"), his failure to get married until recently, and his way of speaking ("geeky").

Politicians and those around them – including those of us who spill gallons of ink each week discussing the smallest policy shifts, trying to calculate their impact on the electorate's preferences – recoil from contemplating the implications of all this. It pains them – us – to think elections could be settled by matters so trivial. I remember long conversations with the Gordon Brown camp, in which they would speak of dividing lines and the like, confident that a clever strategic move on, say, the economy could transform his fortunes – when the unpalatable truth was that voters had simply taken a long, hard look at him and decided that they did not want him as their prime minister. The same fate dispatched William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

Something similar is afoot in London, where Labour is currently 20 points ahead of the Tories – and where, despite that, Ken Livingstone is trailing far behind Boris Johnson. Why? According to YouGov's Peter Kellner: "It's an instinctive judgment, it's about character." Boris has out-Kenned Ken, stealing his predecessor's clothes as the cheeky, rebel politician. "Ken reinvented himself as a personality politician and he's now up against someone who does personality politics better than him," says Kellner.

It's not always been this way. Clement Attlee could be elected without having the obvious leadership look we'd identify today. Nor would Edward Heath, or even Harold Wilson, meet the modern definition of charisma. John Major was famously grey, yet he won in 1992 – but that was partly because he was up against Neil Kinnock, against whom many voters took a strong dislike. Ed Miliband's problem is that he is competing in Cameron against a man who has long looked the part, who even in a 10-second appearance on television has that mysterious, chemical quality that suggests a leader. Whatever that is, Miliband does not have it – yet.

Many will bristle at this kind of talk, insisting that such things should not matter, that, as Tony Benn always used to say, it's the issues that count. But Benn – no slouch as a personality politician himself – was always hopelessly idealistic on that score. Personalities do count. As I've written before, quoting an old teacher of mine: people don't believe in ideas, they believe in people who believe in ideas.

So this is the problem for Ed Miliband. He is a decent, clever man but he does not look the part. He looks too young; he looks more like the speechwriter than the speechgiver, an adviser to the leader rather than the leader. That could change; he might grow into the role over the next three-and-a-half years. One aide suggests that Miliband has challenged every other bit of conventional political wisdom – running against his brother, being unmarried, taking on Rupert Murdoch – and that maybe he will defy this one too.

"He's not an identikit politician," that aide admits, seeing strength in that fact. At this moment when everything is in flux and when the Labour leader is seeking to break a 30-year consensus on the economy, perhaps it is right to think that the old, admittedly shallow rules on what a prime minister must look like are ready to be broken too.

But it has unfortunate echoes of the Brownite refrain circa 2007, that people were ready for a non-celebrity leader for more sober times. It sounds principled, it sounds laudable. But right now the Tories are much safer than they should be, insulated by a leader with charisma and a touch of the X-factor. Labour desperately needs some of that too.


Picture Of The Day

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yusuf Islam in 2007

Cat Stevens in 1971

Violence in Human History

When you heard that a gunman had slaughtered scores of Norwegian teenagers on a holiday island earlier this summer, did you think that here was another symptom of our sick and violent world? So did I, until I read Steven Pinker's brilliant, mind-altering book about the decline of violence. Pinker does not deny that individual human beings are capable of the most appalling acts of savagery. But the test of our propensity for violence is how the rest of us respond. Once it would have been basic human instinct to react to violence on this scale with more violence. But where were the reprisals, the mob rampages, the demands for the torture and killing of the perpetrator? Instead, the Norwegian people responded with remarkable compassion and restraint: love-bombing instead of real bombing. What happened in Norway this summer showed just how peace-loving we have become.

Pinker thinks that most of what we believe about violence is wrong. To convince us he sets himself two tasks. First, to demonstrate that the past was a far nastier place than we might have imagined. Second, that the present is far nicer than we might have noticed. So to start with we get a litany of horrors from ancient and not-so-ancient history: a catalogue of the unspeakable things that human beings have traditionally been willing to do to each other. This is slightly overdone, since anyone who thinks that, say, medieval Europe was a friendly, peaceable place can't have thought about it very much. Still, it is hard not to be occasionally struck dumb by just how horrible people used to be. The image I can't get out of my head is of a hollow brass cow used for roasting people alive. Its mouth was left open so that their screams would sound like the cow was mooing, adding to the amusement of onlookers.

The real fascination of this book is how we got from being a species that enjoyed the spectacle of roasting each other alive to one that believes child-killers have the same rights as everyone else. As Pinker shows, it is both a long story and a relatively recent one. The first thing that had to happen was the move from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence (where your chances of meeting a violent end could be as high as 50:50) to settled communities. The trouble was that early governments showed themselves at least as capable of cruelty as anyone else: most of the truly horrific instruments of torture Pinker describes were designed and employed by servants of the state. As the 17th-century philosopher John Locke remarked of the escape from the state of nature to so-called civilisation: why run away from polecats only to be devoured by lions?

So the next thing that had to happen was the state had to be properly civilised. This took place over the course of what we have come to call the enlightenment, thanks in part to philosophers such as Locke. In both private and public life – covering everything from table manners to bills of rights – the means were found to restrain our worst instincts. Slowly, painfully, but ultimately successfully torture was outlawed, slavery was abolished, democracy became established and people discovered that they could rely on the state to protect them.

Yet the enlightenment has acquired something of a bad name. Why? The answer is simply put: the 20th century, surely the most appallingly violent of them all, scarred by total war, genocide and other mass killings on an almost unimaginable scale. All those table manners and bills of rights didn't prevent the Holocaust, did they? At the heart of this book is Pinker's careful, compelling account of why the 20th century does not invalidate his thesis that violence is in a long decline. He makes his case in three ways. First, with a multitude of tables and charts he shows that our view of the century is coloured by presentism: we think it's the worst simply because it's the most recent and we know more about it. If we had equivalent coverage of the whole of human history (how many books have been published about the second world war compared to, say, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century?) we would see that all of it has been scarred by mass slaughters, some of them proportionately even worse than the horrors of the past hundred years.

Second, Pinker argues that the violence of the 20th century is best understood as a series of random spasms rather than part of a trend. The two world wars were essentially freak events, driven by contingency and in some cases lunacy: a bit like the killings on Utøya magnified a millionfold. They do not reflect the default condition of mankind. The evidence for this is the third part of Pinker's case: look at what has happened since 1945, as the world has become immeasurably more peaceful on almost every count. Of course, there have been horrors (Mao, Pol Pot) but no one can doubt that the arrow has been pointing away from the violence of the first half of the 20th century, not back towards more of it.

Pinker calls the post-1945 period "the long peace". But the real surprise is what he calls "the short peace", which corresponds to the 20 years since the end of the cold war. I am one of those who like to believe that the idea of 1989 as some fundamental turning point in human history is absurd: the world is just as dangerous as it has always been. But Pinker shows that for most people in most ways it has become much less dangerous. There have not just been fewer wars, but in the wars there have been many fewer people have died. Terrorism is down, not up. All sorts of disadvantaged groups – women, children, ethnic minorities, even animals – are much less likely to be victims of violence across many parts of the world, and the trend is spreading. Part of the reason we fail to notice this picture is that it is so pervasive: we are more aware of violence simply because we have become so unused to it.

At the outset Pinker calls the story he has to tell "maybe the most important thing that has ever happened in human history". That depends. If you told a medieval peasant that all the horsemen of the apocalypse that blighted his (and even more so her) life would be vanquished by the 21st century – famine and disease as well as war and violence – it might be the first two that seemed the real miracles (as well as being responsible for saving many more lives). Some peasants (though here perhaps more the hims than the hers) might also feel a little ambivalent about the decline of violence. Human aggression, unlike famine and disease, is not just some capricious act of God. It is part of who we are. Giving it up might leave even a victimised peasant feeling a little diminished.

Pinker accepts we have not abolished violence in the way that we have abolished smallpox. In the final section of the book he moves from history to evolutionary psychology to show that human beings are always torn between their inner demons and their better angels. What decides us between them is not virtue or vice but strategic calculation. We resort to violence when violence seems the better bet. We resist it when it seems riskier than the alternative. That's why violence can be self-reinforcing – as in the tit-for-tat world of the hunter-gatherers – but it's also why peace can be self-reinforcing – as in the love-bomb world we inhabit now. Pinker is adamant that we should not be complacent about the decline of violence: the inner demons are still there. But neither should we be fatalistic: as things stand, our better angels are a truer reflection of who we are.

What might change that? As I was reading this book I was repeatedly reminded of two novels. One is Lord of the Flies, an earlier generation's definitive allegory of the violence lurking in us all. Pinker's book makes Golding's vision look dated: there is no state of nature bubbling away beneath the surface of civilised man, notwithstanding all the hysterical nonsense that has been uttered about the recent riots (which were, for riots, remarkably unviolent). The other novel is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this generation's definitive allegory of how it could all go wrong. McCarthy pictures a world in which some random future spasm (perhaps an environmental catastrophe) leaves us all unhinged and lets the inner demons loose. Does our gradual move away from violence towards civility leave us better or worse equipped to deal with the next great calamity when it comes? No one can know, and Pinker does not pretend to provide an answer. But in the meantime, everyone should read this astonishing book.