Sunday, July 31, 2011
Presidential candidate and ultra-conservative congresswoman Michele Bachmann prays every day for guidance. "The American people are looking for someone who will say, 'No'," she said last week. "I will be that person… I won't raise taxes. I will reduce spending. I won't vote to raise the debt ceiling. And I have the titanium spine to see it through."
Developing her theme, she added that the little people of America, factory workers and housewives, tell her: "'Michele, stand strong. Michele, don't cave.' The American people are scared to death they have lived through the pinnacle of American greatness, that we may be in decline."
The struggle to secure a deal between the Republicans and Democrats to lift the $14.3 trillion cap on the country's national debt is seen by disinterested onlookers as a foolish squabble between self-serving politicians, whose silliness risks potential default on the US's national debt and a first-order financial crisis within the next 48 hours.
If only it were just an ordinary political squabble. The reason the US is so close to economic calamity is that its politicians have existentially different views of the world. As the US faces stagnation and retreat from "the pinnacle of American greatness", these differences have become crucially important. This goes to the heart of how the US can recover its greatness.
Bachmann, with her "titanium spine" and communion with God, is no normal Washington politician. Nor is she alone. There is the chair of the house budget committee, Paul Ryan. There is first-time congressman Jim Jordan, head of the Republican study committee that represents two-thirds of the Republicans in the house. For all of them, representatives of the Tea Party movement, the cause of the US's problems is the federal government, federal spending and federal debt.
Taxation is not merely coercive, it takes money from efficient taxpayers and transfers it to inefficient government. To raise taxes in any circumstances is immoral and undermines the US economy.
These are not politicians given to compromise. Their predecessors in the Republican party did so, securing tax cuts but only at the price of rising national debt because spending has not been cut. The new generation is going to pursue this matter to the end – and the only deal they are prepared to sanction is a short-term fix that will bring the whole issue back to congress in the new year – presidential election year.
While the Democrats now control the Senate and the presidency, they were routed last year in the elections for the house by the Tea Party movement.
The Democrats know that being the defenders of debt, deficits and taxes does not play well with the US electorate, and that to allow another wrangle over the national debt limit in six or nine months is tantamount to signing a political suicide note. Better secure a deal with the Republicans now than allow this fight to go into 2012.
This goes to the heart of the stand-off. Although the ultra-conservatives are not in control of the White House and the Senate, they feel they have the political wind at their back. Why compromise when they can get all they want – no increase to the debt limit and the entire pain being taken by swingeing cuts to federal spending? Which is why President Obama and Democrat Senate leader, Harry Reid, have given so much ground. The Democrats' latest plan for deficit reduction contains virtually no tax increases, despite Obama's insistence it is a balanced package with the rich and corporate America taking some of the burden. But it does require that the issue be taken off the table until after next year's elections.
Within Republican ranks, there is virtually no incentive to bargain; until the US is confronted with the need to maintain debt within the $14.3 trillion cap, no one knows what the consequences will be.
Some Republicans may be concerned about slashing much-loved social programmes, while others worry that they will get the blame if there is a calamity. But there are many who refuse to see why Bachmann and co should get credit for their intransigence, while others bargain responsibly and risk the wrath of voters.
Economically, the Tea Party argument is feeble. Countries' debts are not like individual households; they can be serviced over generations. In the aftermath of a credit crunch, a country that tries simultaneously to cut public and private debt will suffer prolonged economic stagnation or depression. The cost in lost opportunity, broken lives and bust businesses is too high to slash public debt; indeed, the right action may be to increase it.
Nor is tax in essence different from any other fee: it is the cost of services rendered, and some services such as defence, security, healthcare and investment in innovative technology are best rendered by society as a whole. Hence taxation.
All the US's great advances – in the internet, computers, aerospace, space, the internal combustion engine, drugs, optics – have had the federal government as their sponsor. A well-designed social security system offers people security while not removing their incentive to work; well-judged federal spending on innovation boosts the economy; a banking system needs federal deposit insurance and a central bank as a lender of last resort when banks are distressed.
But in the land inhabited by Michele Bachmann, these propositions are false; they undermine US self-reliance and individualism and obstruct America's road back to greatness.
In vain do conservative supporters in Wall Street and business urge the Tea Party Republicans to moderate their opposition – they are dismissed as Democrat stooges.
Nor do the Democrats help their case. In democracies, you argue, argue and argue, but even Obama's eloquence has been silenced in the search for a deal. The Democrats seem to have stopped believing.
Maybe there will be a bargain at one minute to midnight, but until the Tea Party Republicans are exposed as dangerous charlatans and their support recedes, the threat to the US is ever-present.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
SIR – Your gibe that “public transport in Los Angeles has a great future, and always will” threw a spotlight on the common misunderstanding that adding more road capacity is the best way to ease traffic congestion on highways (“Carmageddon”, July 9th). Traffic will always expand over time to meet the available capacity. But the problem remains that those who use highways a lot and in peak periods pay the same as those who do not. In effect, we subsidise peak-period drivers.
A solution to this is to charge motorists for their decision to drive by time and location. A driver’s monthly bill could be based on the total amount of travel over that period. At the same time the taxes that are paid by others to subsidise the heavy use of the highway would be reduced. A system where the user pays is the only way forward to attaining a reasonable transport system in the future, which would include an optimal mix of car and public transit. Such a system could be implemented gradually to allow people to make adjustments to their choices of housing, vehicle, route and time of travel.
In a democratic society we have the freedom to use whichever mode of transport we deem necessary, be it car, bicycle or foot, but that should come with a responsibility that the user has to pay the true cost of his or her choice of transport, just as we do for our use of water and electricity.
Professor of civil engineering
University of Calgary
THE hoardings on the slow car journey out of the centre of Jakarta are advertising just two items at the moment: smartphones and scooters. Banks occasionally intrude, but only to offer cheap loans to buy one or the other. Lucky customers. And at the moment, what’s good for the customer is good for Indonesia.
The country is in the middle of a consumer boom, which is fuelling growth in South-East Asia’s giant. With a population of 238m, Indonesia has long had the potential to become one of the world’s biggest economies—if it could get the economic fundamentals right. Can it?
Last year Indonesia had one of the best-performing economies in the G20 club, growing by 6%. Even as the rating agencies busily revise rich countries’ creditworthiness downwards, Indonesia’s has been going the other way. It is now only a notch below investment grade. Indonesians think their economy could soon join the informal club of Brazil, Russia, India and China as a leader of the new world economic order: they want to be among the BRIICs.
Yet this is optimistic. Like Brazil, but unlike China and India, Indonesia owes much of its success to nothing smarter or more high-tech than a commodities boom. Coal and gas go to China and India, palm oil to the world. Money is pouring into the country, yet little goes into fixing long-term problems that impede growth. Indonesia has a once-in-a-generation chance to move beyond its commodities-based economy. It is not clear it will take it.
At the moment, consumption accounts for almost half of GDP growth. Nomura, a Japanese bank, reckons Indonesia is creating a middle class (defined as one with disposable household income of over $3,000 per year) helter-skelter. The country’s bourgeoisie, 1.6m in 2004, now numbers about 50m. On Nomura’s measure, that is more than India and bigger than elsewhere in the region (see chart). The number could reach almost 150m by 2014, representing one of the world’s most enticing markets. Newly affluent Indonesians are certainly spending.
Take one of their principal objects of desire, two-wheel scooters. Last year about 8m were sold in Indonesia, dwarfing sales in the rest of South-East Asia (1.7m in Thailand, for instance). Sales in India were only slightly greater, at 11.3m (China sold 16m). With rising incomes comes a desire for flashier brands. For years Honda and Yamaha had the market largely to themselves. But Italy’s Piaggio has relaunched its relatively expensive Vespa in Jakarta, after being squeezed out in the 1980s. Car sales are also growing rapidly, to about 750,000 last year.
Or take smartphones. Indonesians have leap-frogged a generation of technology, and now download data and use social media largely through smartphones, rather than mobile phones and personal computers. The increase in sales has been extraordinary; the country is one of the largest markets for Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry. Indonesia claims the second-largest number of Facebook members in the world, and the third-largest number of Twitter users. Companies struggle to keep up with demand for the essentials of a consumer society. Unilever has been squeezing out most of Indonesia’s toothpaste for decades; now its fastest-growing product is ice-cream, followed by skincare products.
James Castle, a consultant and former head of Indonesia’s International Business Chamber, argues that, whereas big companies used to be able to ignore Indonesia for more obvious destinations, nowadays “if you’re not here, you have to have a reason.” That is a big change. But Mr Castle also gives warning that too many companies do find a reason—and certainly do not set up manufacturing plants. Unlike in regional competitors such as Vietnam, manufacturing has lagged behind almost every other sector of the economy. It is noticeable that a high share of the new consumer desirables is imported.
For Indonesia remains, in many respects, a hard country to do business in, especially compared with the rest of the region. Its infrastructure is poor, adding hugely to production costs. Almost every other neighbour is building new ports or expanding old ones, but Indonesia’s lag far behind in efficiency and productivity. In the World Bank’s 2010 Logistics Performance Index, it ranks a lowly 75th, well below Thailand, Malaysia and even the Philippines. This means a lot of foreign investment that might want to go to Indonesia now goes elsewhere.
And then there are continuing problems of corruption and what Mr Castle calls “non-transparent random regulations”, which he says are the biggest impediments to business. In Indonesia’s murky political system, regulations often emerge out of the blue, and can contradict existing ones. At least there are signs of change. A land-acquisition bill wending its way through parliament would, if passed, make it easier to force through infrastructure projects. The government even wants to ban some raw-material exports, hoping to dragoon mining companies into building smelters and exporting higher-value goods. But more needs to be done while the going is good.
WHETHER it is taking vegetables to market, getting water from a tap or turning on the lights, almost everything is slower, less reliable or more expensive in Africa than it needs to be. The African Development Bank (AfDB), which finances big investments on the continent, says that a shortage of roads, housing, water, sanitation and electricity reduces sub-Saharan Africa’s output by about 40%. There is no controversy in saying that shoddy infrastructure is holding the continent back.
But how to finance more of it? Some want to divert aid money. Suggesting that an engineering firm might make better use of charity than Oxfam or Save the Children sounded like heresy once. But the terms of the debate have shifted—for several reasons. The work of low-cost Asian companies (paid with revenues from African resources) has shown that new roads and ports can be affordable. There is also a new sense of urgency: as populations grow, the need for better infrastructure becomes even greater. Finally, the rise of African banks and stockmarkets has made public-private partnerships more feasible.
Some critics of the aid industry believe that its efforts should be limited to spending on primary schools in the poorest areas, medicines and mosquito nets for all, and a few key agricultural initiatives. But much education work has been labelled ineffective. A village in Tanzania with poor schooling may be better off getting a road than a teacher, critics say. Once local farmers can transport produce to market they will be able and willing to pay for schools—and to make sure they work.
But Africa needs more than rural roads. It needs entire new logistics networks linking airports, railways and warehouses—and new dams and electricity grids to power them. Meanwhile, Africa’s growing cities need better water supplies and sanitation. The World Bank points out that even relatively prosperous African cities, such as Lagos and Nairobi, are in worse shape than they were a decade ago. Violent crime has risen. Cholera and other diseases are back. City roads have crumbled.
The AfDB reckons that Africa can become a middle-income continent within a decade by spending some $90 billion a year on infrastructure. That is only 5% of the continent’s GDP (though double its current infrastructure spending, according to the AfDB).
Others are more sceptical. A generation ago, during a previous resource boom, African states set about building roads and railways. In few countries did this lead to prosperity. Lacking good governance—the focus of much modern aid work—corruption surged, as it often does with infrastructure projects. Donor countries also insisted on using favoured home contractors rather than local workers. Maintenance was routinely neglected. And glory-hungry politicians opted for useless prestige projects.
IN THE land of Magritte, art scarcely matches the surrealism of Belgian politics. The country has been without a proper government for more than 400 days. Earlier this year people began to worry: citizens staged protests demanding the creation of a coalition; a senator urged spouses of party leaders to deny them sex until a deal was reached; an actor said men should refuse to shave. All to no avail.
More hirsute and loveless than before, perhaps, Belgium’s Walloons and Flemings remain in a stalemate as senseless as the trenches of Flanders, only without the mud and slaughter. In his National Day speech this week, King Albert II deplored the impasse and pleaded for compromise. But he is a monarch without a nation. As one editorialist put it, alluding to Magritte’s nonsensical pipe: Ceci n’est plus un pays (“This is no longer a country”).
On July 21st, just as the king was due to review a military parade in Brussels, European Union leaders were set to meet nearby to try to save the euro. The two crises have parallels: for both Belgium and the single currency, breaking up is no longer unthinkable. Indeed, Belgium might be seen as a microcosm of the EU, with a wealthy, Germanic north fed up with subsidising a poorer, Latin south. If prosperous little Belgium cannot resolve its internal rivalries, say many, what chance for the EU?
To some, though, Belgium holds out hope for Europe. The country manages to function. The rubbish is, mostly, collected. Caretaker ministers have taken contentious decisions, pushing a ban on wearing the burqa in public and going to war in Libya. Even the economy is doing well: growth is higher than the euro-area average and the deficit is narrowing faster than forecast.
Most surprising, perhaps, maddeningly ungovernable Belgium is being held up by many as a model for debt-crippled euro-zone governments. Belgium was once the most indebted country in the EU, with a debt-to-GDP ratio peaking at 134% in 1993. But it steadily reduced that to 84% by 2007. Herman Van Rompuy, now president of the European Council (representing EU leaders), served as budget minister in the early part of this period. If Belgium could lower its debt, Mr Van Rompuy says, so can Greece. Default is unnecessary; sensible reforms can do the trick.
This claim is made by those, both in the IMF and in EU institutions, who want to believe that Greece is still solvent, despite all evidence to the contrary. The latest European Commission report on Greece makes a point of arguing that Belgium ran a primary budget surplus (ie, before interest) almost as large as the one now required of Greece. Such an adjustment, it claims, “although ambitious, is feasible and politically and socially bearable”.
Yet the model may not be so easy to apply. Greece’s debt, at about 160% of GDP, is higher than Belgium’s ever was. Belgium was enjoying steady growth; Greece is in recession. In the 1990s Belgium had its own currency and central bank. Members of the euro zone are like emerging countries, says Paul De Grauwe, of the Catholic University of Leuven: they must borrow in a “foreign” currency whose monetary policy they do not control, and can thus more easily be pushed into default. Belgium also finances itself from its large domestic savings, whereas Greece must borrow heavily abroad; this, says Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, makes a big difference. Domestic creditors can be taxed; repaying one’s own citizens is easier to do than handing large sums over to foreigners.
In any case Belgium is by no means out of the woods. It may not be Greece, but it could easily be the next Italy. After all Italy also has a high savings rate, and it even enjoys a primary surplus, but it was not spared market contagion. Belgium’s debt remains high. Spreads on Belgian bonds over their German equivalents are widening. The caretaker government may be unable to enact big spending plans, but nor can it make labour-market reforms that are sorely needed. Some rating agencies mutter that Belgium’s debt could be downgraded if the deadlock is not resolved.
Yet Belgian politicians are stuck in endless talks-about-talks. The principal obstacle is Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, who surprised all by becoming the biggest winner of the 2010 election. A beer-bellied historian and a lover of Cicero, Mr De Wever is a respectable sort of separatist. He says he does not seek immediate secession but wants the Belgian federal shell gradually to dissolve into the EU. He has a vision not only of Flemish emancipation but of economic liberty: Flanders should be permitted to develop a liberal economy less burdened by Walloon demands for social transfers.
Mr De Wever has so far rejected all offers of compromise. His intransigence seems only to be increasing his popularity. Others could form a government without him, but the once-dominant Flemish Christian Democrats have not dared cut a separate deal for fear of being outflanked. Abroad, Mr De Wever is getting attention: he was recently invited to London for talks with the British prime minister, David Cameron.
The longer this paralysis continues, the easier it may be for Belgians to conceive of national divorce. But there are good reasons to keep the unhappy marriage going. Who would get custody of Brussels? This French-speaking city surrounded by Flanders generates wealth for all, not least because of its EU institutions. And who would take on Belgium’s vast debt?
Here, indeed, Europe’s debt crisis might just create an opening. The instability of the euro area now makes a break-up riskier. Fear of contagion may be pushing Christian Democrats to start serious talks. If the markets turn on Belgium, will the Flemish bourgeoisie see Mr De Wever as a man of principle or a chancer? Markets may yet succeed where King Albert has failed. Surreal.
RESEARCHERS have known for years that children whose mothers were chronically stressed during pregnancy—by famine, anxiety, the death of a relative or marital discord, for instance—show higher-than-normal rates of various psychological and behavioural disorders when they are adults. They have also known for a long time that those brought up in abusive environments often turn out to be abusive themselves. The second of these observations is usually put down to learning. The reason for the first has remained unclear. A study just published by Axel Meyer, Thomas Elbert and their colleagues at the University of Konstanz in Germany, however, points to a phenomenon called epigenetics as the likely answer. And if Drs Meyer and Elbert are right, it also suggests an alternative explanation for the inheritance of abusiveness.
Epigenetics is a type of gene regulation that can be passed from a cell to its daughters. The most common mechanism is methylation. This attaches methyl groups (a carbon atom and three hydrogens) to either adenine or cytosine, two of the four chemical bases that form the alphabet of DNA, depending on the gene involved. The consequence is to inactivate the gene being methylated.
In the case of stress, previous studies have suggested that methylation of the gene which encodes glucocorticoid receptors is important. Glucocorticoid receptors relay signals from stress hormones in the blood into cells. In particular, they do so in those regions of the brain that control behaviour. Newborns whose mothers suffered from depression while they were pregnant are known to have more highly methylated glucocorticoid-receptor genes than others. The same is true of children who were abused when young. In infants, the level of glucocorticoid-receptor methylation is correlated with the release, in response to stress, of higher-than-normal amounts of stress hormones. And in rats, such methylation makes young animals especially sensitive to stress, and also fearful of novelty.
What has been unclear until now, however, is how long such effects persist. Dr Meyer’s and Dr Elbert’s study, published in Translational Psychiatry, offers a clue.
Their team examined the methylation of the glucocorticoid-receptor gene in a group of children ranging in age from ten to 19 years, and in those children’s mothers. The researchers also used a psychological survey to try to determine which of the mothers had been physically or psychologically abused before, during or after pregnancy. They found that women abused during pregnancy were significantly more likely than others to have a child with methylated glucocorticoid-receptor genes. By contrast, abuse before or after pregnancy resulted in no such correlation. Nor was the mother’s own methylation affected by violence towards her. Taken together, these results suggest that glucocorticoid-receptor-gene methylation happens in the fetus in response to a mother’s stress, and persists into adolescence.
This has implications for those adolescents’ long-term health. Dampened glucocorticoid-receptor-gene activity has been shown to increase the risk of obesity, of depression and of some autoimmune diseases. It also makes people more impulsive and aggressive—and therefore, if male, more likely to abuse the pregnant mothers of their children, thus perpetuating the whole sorry cycle.
Why, in light of such negative effects, have humans evolved to be programmed this way while still in the womb? Part of the answer is probably that not all the negative consequences would have shown up at the time the mechanism was evolving. Obesity, for example, is rare in a state of nature. The other part is that some of the consequences probably have a positive effect. If a mother lives in an environment where fear-inducing experiences are common, say, giving her offspring a sensitivity to fear may be no bad thing.
What can be done with such knowledge is unclear. Drugs that demethylate DNA are under development, but are still some way from approval—and, in any case, interfering with epigenetics, which is a widespread mechanism of gene regulation, is a drastic approach. The research might, though, point to the period when intervening to stop abuse will have the greatest effect. Then again, such intervention is always desirable, for the sake of both mother and child.
IT HAS become standard for countries which discover large deposits of oil or gas to declare that they will copy Norway. A president will announce the creation of a fund to park revenues from hydrocarbons. Grand plans are drawn up for spending the bounty on improving the lot of mankind. But being Norway is much harder than it sounds. Only one country seems to have the necessary mixture of wealth, generosity, internationalism, optimism and modesty required to pull it off.
Norway is the biggest contributor to conflict resolution, the optimistic name given to efforts to get warring parties to talk to each other. A high point here came in 1993, when Norwegian diplomats and researchers cajoled Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate face to face. The resulting Oslo accords were signed in Washington by politicians from America, Russia, Israel and Palestine. Norway was more than happy for them to take the credit for its initiative.
Since then Norway has sought to involve itself in many other conflicts—the less tractable the better. It has tried to repeat its Arab-Israeli success (as it seemed at the time) in Colombia, Haiti, Cyprus, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia and, most recently, Sri Lanka. This last has been criticised as naive, leading as it did to a ceasefire that allowed the combatants to rearm before the killing resumed. Yet a consistent principle runs through these efforts: that it is better to sit down with all parties, even those considered pariahs, than to exclude anyone from peace talks.
Norway is a generous funder of a huge number of good causes. It has, for instance, given more to alleviate hunger in the Horn of Africa this year than France or Germany. It has set up a mechanism to pay Brazil not to chop down the Amazon. And it shovels money into the United Nations.
This makes Norway sound like a place that models its foreign policy on the banners held up at Woodstock, but that is not the case. It is a member of NATO and is playing an outsized role in the campaign in Libya. It has repeatedly shown a willingness to put its soldiers in harm’s way. The foreign ministry estimates that 120,000 Norwegians served as peacekeepers between 1947 and 2008, and Norwegians wearing the UN’s blue berets can today be found in Sudan, Congo and Afghanistan.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Monday, July 25, 2011
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Thomas Huxley, the British biologist who so vociferously, and effectively, defended Darwin's theory of natural selection in the 19th century, had a basic view of science. "It is simply common sense at its best – rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic."
It is as neat a description as you can get and well worth remembering when considering how science is treated by the UK media and by the BBC in particular. Last week, a study, written by geneticist Steve Jones, warned that far too often the corporation had failed to appreciate the nature of science and to make a distinction "between well-established fact and opinion". In doing so, the corporation had given free publicity to marginal belief, he said.
Jones was referring to climate change deniers, anti-MMR activists, GM crop opponents and other fringe groups who have benefited from wide coverage despite the paucity of evidence that supports their beliefs. By contrast, scientists, as purveyors of common sense, have found themselves sidelined because producers wanted to create controversy and so skewed discussions to hide researchers' near unanimity of views in these fields. In this way, the British public has been misled into thinking there is a basic division among scientists over global warming or MMR.
It is a problem that can be blamed on the media that believe, with some justification, that adversarial dispute is the best way to cover democracy in action. It serves us well with politics and legal affairs, but falls down badly when it comes to science because its basic processes, which rely heavily on internal criticism and disproof, are so widely misunderstood.
Yet there is nothing complicated about the business, says Robert May, the former UK government science adviser. "In the early stages of research, ideas are like hillocks on a landscape. So you design experiments to discriminate among them. Most hillocks shrink and disappear until, in the end, you are left with a single towering pinnacle of virtual certitude."
The case of manmade climate change is a good example, adds May. "A hundred years ago, scientists realised carbon dioxide emissions could affect climate. Twenty years ago, we thought they were now having an impact. Today, after taking more and more measurements, we can see there is no other explanation for the behaviour of the climate. Humans are changing it. Of course, deniers disagree, but that's because they hold fixed positions that have nothing to do with science."
It is the scientist, not the denier, who is the real sceptic, adds Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society. "When you carry out research, you cannot afford to cherry-pick data or ignore inconvenient facts. You have to be brutal. You also have to be sceptical about your own ideas and attack them. If you don't, others will."
When an idea reaches the stage where it's almost ready to become a paper, it has therefore been subjected to savage scrutiny by its own authors and by their colleagues – and that is before writing has started. Afterwards, the paper goes to peer review where there is a further round of critical appraisal by a separate group of researchers. What emerges is a piece of work that has already been robustly tested – a point that is again lost in the media.
Over the centuries, this process has been honed to near perfection. By proposing and then attacking ideas and by making observations to test them, humanity has built up a remarkable understanding of the universe. The accuracy of Einstein's theories of relativity, Crick and Watson's double helix structure of DNA and plate tectonics were all revealed this way, though no scientist would admit these discoveries are the last word, as the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out: "In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent'," he admitted.
Certainly, things can go wrong, as Huxley acknowledged. Science may be organised common sense but all too often a beautiful theory created this way has been skewered by "a single ugly fact", as he put it. Think of Fred Hoyle's elegant concept of a steady state universe that is gently expanding and eternal. The idea was at one time considered to be philosophically superior to its rival, the big bang theory that proposed the cosmos erupted into existence billions of years ago. The latter idea explained the expansion of the universe by recourse to a vast explosion. The former accounted for this expansion in more delicate, intriguing terms.
The steady state theory continued to hold its own until, in 1964, radio-astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson noted interference on their radio telescope at the Bell Labs in New Jersey and tried to eliminate it. The pair went as far as shovelling out the pigeon droppings in the telescope and had the guilty pigeons shot (each blamed the other for giving the order). Yet the noise persisted. Only later did the two scientists realise what they were observing. The static hiss they were picking up was caused by a microwave radiation echo that had been set off when the universe erupted into existence after its big bang birth.
That very ugly fact certainly ruined Hoyle's beautiful theory and, no doubt, his breakfast when he read about it in his newspaper. But then the pursuit of truth has always been a tricky and cruel business. "It is true that some things come along like that to throw scientists into a tizz but it doesn't happen very often," adds Jones. "The trouble is, the BBC thinks it happens every day."
And this takes us to the nub of the issue: how should science be reported and recorded? How can you take a topic such as climate change, about which there is virtual unanimity of views among scientists, and keep it in the public's eye. The dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions have dramatic implications after all. But simply reporting every tiny shrinkage in polar ice sheets or rise in sea levels will only alienate readers or viewers, a point acknowledged by May. "Newspapers, radio and TV have a duty to engage and there is no point in doing a lot of excellent reporting on a scientific issue if it is boring or trivial. The alternative is to trivialise or distort, thus subordinating substance in the name of attraction. It is a paradox for which I can see no answer."
Jones agrees. "What we don't want to do is go back to the days when fawning reporters asked great figures to declaim on scientific issues – or political ones, for that matter. On the other hand, we cannot continue to distort views in the name balance," It is a tricky business, but as former Times editor Charlie Wilson once told a member of staff upset at a task's complexity: "Of course, it's hard. If it was easy we would get an orang-utan to do it."
Jones, in highlighting a specific problem for the BBC, has opened up a far wider, far more important issue – the need to find ways to understand how science works and to appreciate its insights and complexities. It certainly won't be easy.
My sister and her husband are visiting. We're in Hyde Park, walking along the Serpentine. I've forced the youngest one to come along, and he is anxious to resume his television-viewing schedule.
"We should cross just here," he says, pointing to a bridge.
"There's a way across up there," I say, pointing straight ahead.
"But the car's that way," he says.
"We're not going to the car," I say.
My brother-in-law, who is Bulgarian, has expressed a desire to see Speakers' Corner. The youngest one does not take the news well.
"What?" he shouts, adopting the posture of a puppet hanging dejectedly from its strings. Even after I buy him an ice-cream, he continues to make his feelings plain, kicking a football ahead of him as we walk.
"You might actually find it interesting," I say.
"Why would I?" he says. "Just a bunch of hippies arguing."
"You don't know what a hippy is."
"You're lucky," my brother-in-law says. "I grew up under communism. We never had something like this."
Anyone looking to find democracy in action at Speakers' Corner is liable to be disappointed. It's now more of a showcase for religious quackery. A man in a cowboy hat with Jesus Is Alive embroidered on his trousers stands on a stepladder, berating a Muslim in the crowd while being incoherently heckled by three large young men, one shirtless, all mashed. The boy hands me his football.
"Hold this," he says. "I need to deal with this guy." He snakes to the front of the crowd and raises his hand. The cowboy tells his audience they're going to hell. Ten minutes pass. I try to catch the boy's eye, but he ignores me. My sister comes over.
"What's going on?" she says.
"Dunno," I say. "He appears to have a question."
One of the mashed young men picks up the boy and puts him on his shoulders, swaying alarmingly. His hand remains in the air. Eventually, I manage to snatch him down.
"Let's move on," I say.
"He totally ignored me," says the boy. "He saw my hand."
We stroll from speaker to speaker, but religion seems to be the only topic on offer. At some point I notice the youngest one is no longer with us.
"Did you see where he went?" I say. Behind me, I can hear the cowboy bellowing, hoarse with mock outrage. "How old are you? You're 12?"
"Uh-oh," I say.
By the time I get there, the crowd has formed a circle around them. Only the cowboy's voice is audible above the clamour: "Do you believe in evolution?" he shouts. "You do?"
Tourists are photographing the standoff. "Listen to him!" one yells.
"If you believe in evolution, what was here before the universe? Nothing? You believe in nothing?"
An onlooker raises the issue of the fossil record, and I manage to get the youngest out of the crowd before a band of three hovering evangelicals can convert him. He stalks across the park, eyes shining with fury.
"And you didn't want to come," I say.
"I shouldn't have told him my age," he says. "After that, he just dismissed everything I said."
"You can't win an argument with someone like that. He has a ladder."
"Everyone was on your side," says my brother-in-law. "You're my hero."
Later, watching the event on my sister's phone, I hear the boy's response to the argument that, because he believes in evolution, he believes in nothing. He pinches the bridge of his nose with two fingers and shakes his head. "Oh my God," he says. "You're being such an idiot."
by Tim Dowling
(to my son)
Thursday, July 21, 2011
If Thursday's crunchtime meeting of eurozone leaders in Brussels does not reassure the markets, some part of the eurozone may fall within days. In Washington, the countdown continues to what Americans are calling D-day, 2 August, when the US government says it would no longer be able to pay its bills within the existing debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion. The two largest economies in the world teeter on the brink of eurogeddon and dollargeddon.
It looks as if America will step back from the brink, though without fixing the underlying problem. And Europe? I wouldn't count on it.
The west's twin competitors in decadence are different in many ways. The US's soaring debt is a danger to the country's credibility and power in the world; it does not threaten the union itself. The eurozone crisis puts in question the very future of Europe's more recent and looser union.
The EU is a commonwealth of 27 sovereign states, with a union budget distributing just 1% of their combined GDP. The public debts of those states vary from going on 150% in Greece to less than 7% in virtuous Estonia. The US is a full federal union of 50 states, but with a national government redistributing just under a quarter of the country's GDP – whereas the national government of a European country would typically redistribute around a half.
US Republicans and Democrats are more polarised by ideology than any mainstream European parties are. Where Americans are divided by ideology, Europeans are divided by nationality. The Republicans of the eurozone crisis are the Germans. German chancellor Angela Merkel is to Brussels what House Republican leader Eric Cantor is to Washington: the powerful but shortsighted blocker.
The US debt burden rose thanks to tax cuts introduced under President George W Bush and expenditure on foreign wars, as well as growing health and welfare spending – and then the bailouts and Obama's large-scale Keynesian deficit spending following the financial crisis. Europeans typically did not do major tax cuts, let alone wars. With a few exceptions, such as Britain and France, their defence spending has shrunk from small to tiny.
But Europeans went on their own kinds of binge over the last decade. Notably this included a splurge of irresponsible spending and borrowing by the peripheral member states of the eurozone, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, facilitated by a splurge of irresponsible lending by French and German banks. Both sides were lulled into a sense of false security by the apparent one-for-all and all-for-one interest rates and promise of the eurozone.
So there are obvious differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. But dig a little deeper and you find profound similarities. For in truth, this is a structural crisis of liberal democratic capitalism – or, if you prefer to emphasise the politics, liberal capitalist democracy – as it has developed in the heartlands of the west over the last decades.
On both sides of the Atlantic we have lived beyond our means. Look at the graphs and you can see corporate, household and public debt piling up over the last 40 years. Now, with the nationalisation of private debt following the financial crisis, and the slump in growth and government revenues, the figure for public debt is creeping up, like the temperature gauge on an overheating car, to the danger level of 90%, 100%, 110% of GDP.
Our financial system, which privatised profit and socialised risk, must bear a significant part of the blame. (Last year, according to the Office for National Statistics, Britain's bankers and insurance brokers still found themselves worth £14bn in bonuses.) So must relentless consumerism, with advertisers discovering ever more refined ways to manufacture "needs". So must postwar baby boomers' expectations of ever more healthcare, welfare, social security and pensions: a fair aspiration, you might say, were it not bought at the expense of our children.
Again, the differences between the US and Europe in this respect are greatly overstated. A breakdown on the US website factcheck.org shows that nearly half of US federal government expenditure is already going on what Europeans call the welfare state. (To be precise: social security, Medicare, Medicaid, the children's health insurance program and low-income assistance totalled 46.9% of spending in the 2010 fiscal year.) Admittedly, that's half of a quarter of GDP, rather than, say, two thirds of a half, as in a generous European welfare state; but it's still the lion's share – and going up.
Then there's the politics. What we see today on both sides of the Atlantic is a perversion of democracy. It consists in giving vocal sections of the people what they want in the short term rather than proposing to most of the people what they need in the longer term – and taking the risk of short-term unpopularity along the way, as all good leaders have done. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks points out, US Republicans last week refused a deal that could actually have cut US government spending by at least $3 trillion over a decade. Back in Europe, contrast Helmut Kohl and Merkel. The former led German public opinion, the latter has followed it to the cliff's edge.
This is a politics that is hyper-responsive to money, special interests, media campaigns, pressure groups, focus groups and the latest opinion poll or sub-national election. It's no accident that Washington and Brussels compete for the title of lobbyist's paradise. It turns out that what both these huge, sprawling polities, the EU and the US, do better than anything else is the aggregation of particular interests – and the appeasement of as many of them as can be appeased at any one time.
There's the echo of an old argument here. Federalist paper No 10, written by James Madison, argued that a large republic would be better equipped than small states to defend the public weal against special interests and factions. It would make it more difficult for unworthy candidates to "practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried". Wise, farsighted representatives would "refine and enlarge the public views". Montesquieu had therefore been wrong to suggest democracy might work best in smaller units, and be harder to sustain in large ones.
The Chinese communist party goes one step further. With $3 trillion dollars in the safe – that's Safe, the English acronym for China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange – it argues that the People's Republic has found a better, more effective way to run a large, diverse territory.
The task that now confronts the twin giants of the liberal democratic west is to prove Madison right, Spengler and the Chinese Communist party wrong. So far, we're making quite a hash of it.
by Timothy Garton Ash
(headline is ours)
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Monday, July 18, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
It seems significant that the dominant emotion of the current summer transfer window is not excitement or ambition, but a kind of generalised, grasping confusion. Mainly, nobody has any real idea about value. English premiums, contract lengths, degrees of risk and reward are all suddenly avenues of fevered debate. It is a peculiarly exciting mess – and one that is developing its own language. This week Harry Redknapp described Luka Modric, who looks increasingly haunted and unhappy, like a frightened cat being forced into a basket, as not just a good player but "a top, top player".
Redknapp isn't alone in identifying this quality. Charlie Adam has talked about the "top, top players" at Liverpool and how he's looking forward to "learning from them", albeit this is the sort of thing you would expect Adam to say given his endearing resemblance to a Dickensian man-child rogue, perhaps a thieving tinker or a chimney sweep who is taught to read by a six-year-old girl and discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Top top players. Top top top top players. This is apparently the way we're going to talk about footballers now. But whose fault is it?
It is tempting to point to a wider overheating, a compounding of absolutes everywhere. It is a top top top top world and football is simply reflecting this. On the other hand it may be easier just to blame Jamie Redknapp. Redknapp popularised the concept of top top through his punditry on Sky Sports, often concluding his entertaining digressions with the phrase "We're talking about top top players, Ruud – top top top players". No doubt this has had a profound influence. Like the kind of people who shout "Murderer!" and "Give Denise's baby back!" in the street at off-duty soap actors, there are those who have perhaps become confused by Redknapp's TV persona and genuinely consider him to be a footballing oracle, the voice of what Pelé once called "the top top game".
It is above all a crisis of diminishing superlatives. The concept of top top sprung out of a superheated Sky-driven Premier League where everything is great pretty much all the time. How do you express excitement or even mild approval in a world where the emotional barometer is continually pitched at a level of damp-eyed superbity?
In theory, this is an open-ended scale. Redknapp might remark in passing: "You look at Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs – these are top top players."
"Yes, Jamie," you'd say. "But you look at Xavi, Iniesta – these are top top top players."
"Lionel Messi, Nandor Hidegkuti, Garrincha, Hot Shot Hamish, the Honourable Alfred Lyttelton – you're talking top top top top top players," Jamie would insist, becoming agitated.
And so it is that fresh mezzanine levels of topness just keep opening up, secret doors, priest holes, tower rooms, private elevators, Jamie ushering you ever upwards though VIP suites of vertiginous approval and into a realm of pure top top top top top. In fact, the issue of footballing classification pre‑dates even the Redknapp Index. The more you look at it, the more confusing it becomes – and so in the current age of rolling analysis the old problem of working out who is and isn't any good at football has become a barking chorus of blanket bafflement. This isn't cricket, where a player's worth can be measured out by an exacting formula. Football is free-form. It is one giant amorphous opinion. Even with things like statistics and goalscoring records and medals with things like "player of the year" inscribed on them, still the debate rages.
No one is safe. Frank Lampard is too fat. John Terry is too slow. Rio Ferdinand is too easily distracted by bright lights, magazines, shoes, gurgling banter-attacks. Steven Gerrard is simply a pair of wild, flailing legs. Stewart Downing is wreathed in a peculiar air of sadness. Peter Crouch is a brilliant satirical spoof of English traditional "strengths". Messi is a cheat, obsessed with temperate weather. Weirdly, the only exception, the only unclouded absolute, is Paul Scholes: if you say he's rubbish you get stabbed in the eye by the Queen.
This instability extends across management, officialdom and punditry. Sir Alex Ferguson makes referees give Manchester United trophies. Arsène Wenger is mad and a proven loser. Fabio Capello is evil. Stuart Pearce hates old people and dogs. Roy Hodgson tortures mice in his kitchen. Sam Allardyce regularly shoplifts penny sweets then just throws them out of his car window on the motorway.
I think Jamie Redknapp is great but there are those who see only a thigh-chafing collage of unrelated think-blurts. Is Graeme Souness really any good, or is he just grimacingly soulful and authentic, like a man in an uplifting advert for boiler repair care plans? Is Alan Hansen wonderfully laconic or does he just never say anything with any content, instead lolling immovably on his sofa cushions, trussed within his satin man-shirt and unspooling his soothing gobbets of TV-Scottish?
Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows anything. Glazed by superlatives, wildly overpriced and buffeted by conflicting tribal denouncements, this is now football's default setting: a gloriously irresolvable confusion of absolutes, and a condition that spreads right through from bottom to top to top top top top.
by Barney Ronay
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Opening her laptop, Emily Raven logs on to Facebook to see what's going on.
She has over 400 friends and checks their status updates hourly. She sees one has posted pictures of a party. Another comments on the amazing weekend she has lined up. A third has asked a mutual friend out that night.
But the posts just leave Emily feeling numb. She may have hundreds of "friends", but she wasn't at the party, hasn't got a wicked weekend ahead, and isn't invited out tonight.
Instead, she'll sit alone in front of the telly in her one-bedroom flat.
"If someone had told me when I was 18 that by my mid-20s I'd be spending most of my Saturday nights alone, I'd have thought they were mad," she says. "But here I am. My friends have all moved away or got boyfriends, while I'm left behind wondering if there's something wrong with me."
Emily's loneliness stems from when her best friend, Lauren, 24, moved to London two years ago. "We went from seeing each other three times a week to once every three months," she says.
"My other good friends have either settled down with their boyfriends or grown closer to their other mates."
Emily has been single for over three years. And now she's wondering if she's doomed to a life of loneliness.
"I see my friends with boyfriends and always feel a pang of jealousy," she says sadly. "Sometimes they'll invite me out, but it feels like they're doing it out of pity, as if I am their token single friend.
"Being on my own so much leaves me drained, so even when I am invited out, I often don't have the energy.
"I try to meet people once a fortnight, but when I do I don't feel like I really know them anymore. Sometimes I go home and cry as I realise how lonely I feel."
What compounds Emily's isolation is that she left her job in insurance two months ago.
"I can easily go a couple of days without leaving the flat," she says. "So I make myself go to the shop, to my nan's - anything so I have human contact."
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
It's late afternoon on Bethnal Green Road, in east London, and I am rushing from the tube for a meeting. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I catch something that brings me to a stop: a rainbow flag turned into a no entry sign, with the words "gay free zone" written across. Above are the words "Arise and warn" and below "And fear Allah. Verily Allah is severe in punishment". Both with a Koranic reference. I shiver, and am reminded of the words "Juden raus" (Jews out) that my mother would have seen in Berlin in the 1930s. It is not something I thought I would ever witness 70 years on in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Britain, where gay pubs share the same streets as synagogues and Halal butchers.
The previous December, at a meeting of Rainbow Hamlets – the Tower Hamlets lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) forum, which I co-chair with Rebecca Shaw, the police had told us about two reported anti-gay sticker sightings in the borough. They linked them to a sighting in neighbouring Hackney, one across the capital in Twickenham, and another in Nottingham.
Between 11 February and the end of March, more than 65 similar stickers were displayed around London, with over 50 in Tower Hamlets. This was turning out to be the most intense homophobic hate literature campaign since the 1980s battle over section 28.
Coverage of the sticker campaign, particularly online, often seemed ill-informed. Comment pieces from both sides tended towards a rabble-rousing tone, inspiring a torrent of racist and Islamaphobic abuse. I experienced more back-to-my-roots shivers, this time thinking about my grandparents' fight against Oswald Mosley's blackshirts.
Acting on Rainbow Hamlets's advice, a joint statement was issued by Tower Hamlets' mayor Lutfur Rahman, the Inter-faith Forum, and the East London Mosque & London Muslim Centre (ELM). This represented the first public condemnation of homophobia by both Rahman and the ELM.
The local authority, Tower Hamlets Homes (the largest social housing provider in the borough), and the Metropolitan police also issued directives to ensure that within a further 48 hours hundreds of public servants were on the lookout to report the stickers and remove them.
A series of specially convened meetings at the town hall drew representatives from council departments, education, housing, the police and community organisations. At these meetings, the sticker campaign, homophobic hate preachers, racism among some members of the LGBT community and the infiltration by the far right of East End Gay Pride were placed firmly on the agenda, each with equal vigour. And here, the ELM first admitted there had been homophobic incidents in the mosque in the past and that it had adopted new policies and procedures to ensure it would not happen again.
Add in regular community consultation and the police operation, and these joint actions represented a rapid and timely response to events.
At informal meetings involving the Council of Mosques, the ELM, and the Inter-faith Forum, chaired by a Christian minister, we looked at how to address homophobia in faith communities. We argued that no hatred, harassment or bullying of any LGBT person is ever justified by faith, even when scripture forbids same-gender sexual relations. Whatever any community's teaching, this is entirely separate from its duty to respect human life and to develop good relations with its neighbours and other communities of culture and belief.
Out of these meetings came the idea for a major interfaith conference on the International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May. A multifaith LGBT steering group was assembled and Rahman and the cohesion minister, Andrew Stunell, agreed to join more than 80 LGBT and straight people from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and secular backgrounds.
But in April, it suddenly became hard to get a response from the Council of Mosques and the ELM. We realised that neither would talk publicly about their new stance on hate speech, or even, despite our strenuous efforts, send any formal representatives to the conference. A couple of community members were sent along to participate in their own right, but a chance was missed, goodwill dissipated and the trust that had been built up sorely tested.
All too often, these issues are dealt with in ways that create enormous tensions and hurt, reinforce ignorance and disrespect, and build anger and hatred. At the same time, whatever good words are said to us in meetings in private, they are only of value if they lead to public action. Otherwise, what use are they in building understanding between communities when tensions exist?
Meanwhile, it soon became clear that the law does not deal with anti-gay hate material in the same way as it does racist, antisemitic or anti-faith literature.
The relevant Public Order Act section depends on whether the material displayed is: threatening, abusive or insulting (section 5); whether there was also an intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress (section 4a); and if the conduct or material is threatening and is intended to stir up hatred (section 29).
If the offending material is racist, antisemitic or anti-faith, there is a special aggravated status given to the section 4a offence which means it becomes a serious criminal charge that can be dealt with in the crown court, with more extensive powers of sentencing and greater police powers of investigation. This does not apply to homophobic hate material.
Whereas the case law for racist and antisemitic material is well established, many of the provisions relating to homophobia only came into effect last year. There is no case law directing police or the Crown Prosecution Service towards the appropriate charging level or identifying what constitutes threatening homophobic material.
Neither Metropolitan police nor British Transport police (BTP) investigating officers would accept that the stickers were threatening. The BTP, which had CCTV footage, charged Mohammed Hasnath under section 5. He was convicted last month after admitting to displaying and disseminating the stickers to others, but not to intending to cause distress. Hasnath claimed he was merely promoting his faith. However, District Judge Jeremy Coleman said when passing sentence: "I think you used these stickers deliberately to offend and distress people, you certainly succeeded in doing that. You have upset people and they deserve an apology, you are not entitled to behave in this way." Hasnath received a £100 fine.
In June, we obtained a month-by-month analysis of homophobic crime figures in the borough. It reveals that incidents in Tower Hamlets have risen by a third (33%) between April 2009-March 2010 and April 2010-March 2011, much more than the 21% widely reported in the media. The increase is of even more concern because the data counted all the reports of stickers in the borough as one linked incident.
The ELM is a leader of the Muslim community, with a responsibility to set an example. It has accepted it has hosted at least one homophobic speaker, Abdul Karim Hattin, in 2007, whose Spot the Fag lecture was featured on Channel 4's Dispatches programme. Last month, the ELM contacted Rainbow Hamlets after accusations of culpability for the rise in homophobic crime in Tower Hamlets appeared in the national press. It asked what could be done.
We are now engaged in intense dialogue. Our approach is to treat the ELM like any other body in which homophobia has occurred. So we have made clear that we intend to compile an evidenced-based report. We have asked the ELM for a clear statement of its policy towards homophobic speakers. On its website it does say "those hate preachers who circumvented our bookings policy in the past are now barred; our vetting procedures for speakers and guests appearing at our mosque and centre have been significantly tightened over the past year". But to date no one has seen its policy. We have also asked how it will enforce the policy and, crucially, for a clear response about which preachers are barred. We intend to report progress next month.
Today, moderate communities have a simple unequivocal duty: to be seen to show all their neighbours respect – whether or not they agree or approve of their beliefs or lifestyle. What is needed is a paradigm shift among LGBT and Muslim opinion formers, one that enables the leaders to find a rhetoric that can speak of respect and joint-working publicly, and which addresses patterns of prejudice on all sides without fear.
Twenty years ago this month, I was secretary of the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Helpline when it was banned from a cross-community charity walk organised by the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, because it was an event for families. Clerics, like all of us, can change. Nowadays, Sacks says: "Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone, Muslims cannot fight Islamaphobia alone, gays cannot fight homophobia alone. The victim cannot cure the crime, the hated cannot cure the hater. We are as big or as small as the space we make for others who are not like us."
We should all take note.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
In this proud land we grew up strong
We were wanted all along
I was taught to fight, taught to win
I never thought I could fail
No fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
Ive changed my face, Ive changed my name
But no one wants you when you lose
Don't give up
cos you have friends
Don't give up
You are not beaten yet
Don't give up
I know you can make it good
Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that wed be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn
Drove the night toward my home
The place that I was born, on the lakeside
As daylight broke, I saw the earth
The trees had burned down to the ground
Dont give up
You still have us
Dont give up
We dont need much of anything
Dont give up
cause somewhere there's a place
Where we belong
Rest your head
You worry too much
Its going to be alright
When times get rough
You can fall back on us
Dont give up
Please dont give up
got to walk out of here
I cant take anymore
Going to stand on that bridge
Keep my eyes down below
Whatever may come
And whatever may go
That rivers flowing
That rivers flowing
Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no-one needs
Dont give up
cause you have friends
Dont give up
Youre not the only one
Dont give up
No reason to be ashamed
Dont give up
You still have us
Dont give up now
Were proud of who you are
Dont give up
You know its never been easy
Dont give up
cause I believe theres the a place
Theres a place where we belong.
Monday, July 11, 2011
WHEN Brian Haw sat in his old canvas chair in front of his banner-hung tent in Parliament Square, people kept coming by. Tourists with their cameras. Teenagers drinking beer. Commuters on their way to work. Taxis, vans, bicycles. Bloody big black cars with lying politicians in them. Buses with passengers all on their phones or buried in their papers. Drivers who wound down the car window, not stopping, and shouted “Get a job!”
Wasn’t that nice. But he had a job. He had it for ten years in sun, rain, sleet, snow. Never left the square. And his job was this. Get the people to wake up. Get them to realise that the USA and the UK were killing babies. Hundreds were dying every day in this place called Iraq and this place called Afghanistan. He had their photographs on his wall of shame. Bloated, pathetic, missing limbs. Sanctions were killing them. Sanctions and bombs. And especially, check out depleted uranium munitions. That poison was everywhere, in the air, in the water, even between the grains of sand. There wasn’t a Hoover in the world big enough to suck up all that shit. And everyone was responsible. Everyone. Raping and pillaging and murdering the world. Just to get that stuff called oil. FOOD YES, BOMBS NO, his banners said. COLAT DAMAGE, NO. A GENOCIDE TOO FAR. STOP KILLING MY KIDS.
People from the whole wide world filmed him on a regular basis. They liked to photograph his old corduroy hat—more badges than hat—which said THE WAR IS THE ENEMY OF THE POOR and SUPPORT US TROOPS—BRING EM HOME! They asked him how he slept. (Badly. How would you sleep if 200 babies were dying every day?) They fussed over how he ate. (Mostly chips people brought him and coffee with five sugars. He was lean as a twig. But you know what? People in Calcutta would think he was a king to have so much pavement to live on.) They asked about the mice. They had nested in his sheepskin coat once. He was far more worried about the rats across the road.
When he talked, he sounded tired. He was. Tired of the bollocks. Tired of people not taking responsibility for their inhumaneness to their fellow man. He probably smoked too much, too. Breathed in too much exhaust. Between sentences he would work his stubbly chin as if chewing on unpalatable facts. Then he’d sing:
I dreamed the world had all agreed, to put an end to war.
He spoke like an evangelist, because he was one. His parents were Christian, and he’d found Jesus too at Sunshine Corner beach school in Whitstable. After the merchant navy, he went missionising round Redditch in a minivan. He moved to Parliament Square in 2001 to express his Christian outrage about sanctions. Bush’s and Blair’s wars kept him there. He loved his neighbour’s kids as his own because he was a Christian. Other so-called Christians bombed them. Other “believers”, also in the square, didn’t care. (WESTMINSTER ABBEY, WAKE UP!) If the people who had marched in 2003 against the Iraq war had stayed, like him, the politicians would have thought again.
His megaphone helped spread the message. ARREST GEORGE BUSH, WAR CRIMINAL! HI TONY! 45 MINUTES, MR BLAIR. MR B-L-I-A-R. They could hear him even in the Commons chamber. At first Tony Blair said good old Brian, what a champion of free speech. Yes, he was. He defended the right to free expression in front of Parliament: 350 years of peaceful protest. Some rapper boys from South London came up and hugged him once. They said they totally supported him, fuck Parliament, fuck ’em all. But he wouldn’t have that. He just answered Love, Peace, Justice, stop killing my kids.
The authorities soon got tired of him, though. Westminster Council tried to remove him because he was a nuisance and “obstructing the pavement”. It failed. By 2005 Tony decided he’d had enough of the name-calling. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act said Mr Haw had to give six days’ notice, if you please, of any demonstration within a kilometre of Parliament. How could he do that? The High Court ruled against it, and said he was legal. But the police never acted as though he was. Any morning they might wake him up with a siren, whoop, whoop, Are you there Brian, yank up his plastic, rifle through his private property right in front of Parliament. Who was abusing whom then? In 2006 78 of them came to tear down his wall of pictures, smashed it, trashed it, left it like a bomb site. Left him with one sign. He stayed, of course.
People asked him about his own kids, seven of them. An off-limits topic. Family was left behind when he came to the square. His wife had divorced him, he’d learned. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t wanted to stay eight bloody years away from them, with the pollution and the drunks who broke his nose and the thugs who shouted “Wanker!” at him. He stayed because he wasn’t finished yet. And you know what? It was never fundamentally about free speech and the rights of Englishmen and all that stuff. It was about the dead children. And not walking by.
DESPITE its strong inheritance of military DNA (much of it, somewhat counterintuitively, coming from the American navy), NASA is a civilian agency, set up that way in deliberate contrast to the military-run Soviet space programme. In practice, the distinction is not always so clear-cut: NASA has done plenty of work for the Pentagon. But America’s armed forces maintain a separate space programme of their own, largely out of the public eye. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, it is thought that the military space budget has matched or exceeded NASA’s every year since 1982.
All the signs are that it is roaring ahead. The air force’s public space budget (as opposed to the secret part) will increase by nearly 10% next year, to $8.7 billion, with much of it going on a new generation of rockets. Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive outfit that runs America’s spy satellites, announced in 2010 that his agency was embarking on “the most aggressive launch schedule…undertaken in the last 25 years”.
Much of the money goes on satellites—spy satellites for keeping tabs on other countries, communications satellites for soldiers to talk to each other, and even the Global Positioning System satellites, designed to guide soldiers and bombs to their targets, and now expanded to aid civilian navigation.
But there are more exotic programmes. The air force runs one for anti-satellite warfare, designed to destroy or disable enemy birds. Another includes experimental aircraft, such as the X-37, a cut-down, unmanned descendant of the space shuttle. The air force will not say what the X-37 is for. One theory is that it is a spy plane, designed to catch savvy targets that know how to go to ground when spy satellites—which have predictable orbits—are overhead. Another is that it is intended to destroy satellites, or to drop bombs from orbit.
Other nations are flexing their muscles. American commanders report that China regularly fires powerful lasers into the sky, demonstrating their ability to dazzle or blind satellites. In 2007 a Chinese missile destroyed an old weather satellite, creating a huge field of orbiting debris. Afterwards, Russia spoke publicly about its anti-satellite weapons. This is one space race that is well under way.
GOOGLE “information overload” and you are immediately overloaded with information: more than 7m hits in 0.05 seconds. Some of this information is interesting: for example, that the phrase “information overload” was popularised by Alvin Toffler in 1970. Some of it is mere noise: obscure companies promoting their services and even more obscure bloggers sounding off. The overall impression is at once overwhelming and confusing.
“Information overload” is one of the biggest irritations in modern life. There are e-mails to answer, virtual friends to pester, YouTube videos to watch and, back in the physical world, meetings to attend, papers to shuffle and spouses to appease. A survey by Reuters once found that two-thirds of managers believe that the data deluge has made their jobs less satisfying or hurt their personal relationships. One-third think that it has damaged their health. Another survey suggests that most managers think most of the information they receive is useless.
Commentators have coined a profusion of phrases to describe the anxiety and anomie caused by too much information: “data asphyxiation” (William van Winkle), “data smog” (David Shenk), “information fatigue syndrome” (David Lewis), “cognitive overload” (Eric Schmidt) and “time famine” (Leslie Perlow). Johann Hari, a British journalist, notes that there is a good reason why “wired” means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”.
These worries are exaggerated. Stick-in-the-muds have always complained about new technologies: the Victorians fussed that the telegraph meant that “the businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump.” And businesspeople have always had to deal with constant pressure and interruptions—hence the word “business”. In his classic study of managerial work in 1973 Henry Mintzberg compared managers to jugglers: they keep 50 balls in the air and periodically check on each one before sending it aloft once more.
Yet clearly there is a problem. It is not merely the dizzying increase in the volume of information (the amount of data being stored doubles every 18 months). It is also the combination of omnipresence and fragmentation. Many professionals are welded to their smartphones. They are also constantly bombarded with unrelated bits and pieces—a poke from a friend one moment, the latest Greek financial tragedy the next.
The data fog is thickening at a time when companies are trying to squeeze ever more out of their workers. A survey in America by Spherion Staffing discovered that 53% of workers had been compelled to take on extra tasks since the recession started. This dismal trend may well continue—many companies remain reluctant to hire new people even as business picks up. So there will be little respite from the dense data smog, which some researchers fear may be poisonous.
They raise three big worries. First, information overload can make people feel anxious and powerless: scientists have discovered that multitaskers produce more stress hormones. Second, overload can reduce creativity. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School has spent more than a decade studying the work habits of 238 people, collecting a total of 12,000 diary entries between them. She finds that focus and creativity are connected. People are more likely to be creative if they are allowed to focus on something for some time without interruptions. If constantly interrupted or forced to attend meetings, they are less likely to be creative. Third, overload can also make workers less productive. David Meyer, of the University of Michigan, has shown that people who complete certain tasks in parallel take much longer and make many more errors than people who complete the same tasks in sequence.
What can be done about information overload? One answer is technological: rely on the people who created the fog to invent filters that will clean it up. Xerox promises to restore “information sanity” by developing better filtering and managing devices. Google is trying to improve its online searches by taking into account more personal information. (Some people fret that this will breach their privacy, but it will probably deliver quicker, more accurate searches.) A popular computer program called “Freedom” disconnects you from the web at preset times.
A second answer involves willpower. Ration your intake. Turn off your mobile phone and internet from time to time.
But such ruses are not enough. Smarter filters cannot stop people from obsessively checking their BlackBerrys. Some do so because it makes them feel important; others because they may be addicted to the “dopamine squirt” they get from receiving messages, as Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, two academics, have argued. And self-discipline can be counter-productive if your company doesn’t embrace it. Some bosses get shirty if their underlings are unreachable even for a few minutes.
Most companies are better at giving employees access to the information superhighway than at teaching them how to drive. This is starting to change. Management consultants have spotted an opportunity. Derek Dean and Caroline Webb of McKinsey urge businesses to embrace three principles to deal with data overload: find time to focus, filter out noise and forget about work when you can. Business leaders are chipping in. David Novak of Yum! Brands urges people to ask themselves whether what they are doing is constructive or a mere “activity”. John Doerr, a venture capitalist, urges people to focus on a narrow range of objectives and filter out everything else. Cristobal Conde of SunGard, an IT firm, preserves “thinking time” in his schedule when he cannot be disturbed. This might sound like common sense. But common sense is rare amid the cacophony of corporate life.