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    The SEA strikes through DNS servers.

    Hackers took down the New York Times, Twitter and Huffington Post websites overnight through a method known as DNS hijacking. Although the NYT's website is still down this morning, the rest appear to be back up, albeit with continued problems on some subsystems. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) hacking collective is obliquely claiming responsibility on Twitter.

    The SEA is famous for finding novel entry-points into a company's online presence, and this is no different. Rather than hacking into the companies' servers directly, DNS hijacking allows an attacker to redirect the web address which normally points to the servers on which the site is stored.

    Every server on the internet has a unique IP address, a 12-digit code which refers to its virtual location. But in order to avoid having to remember all these numbers, there's a second system which sits on top of IP addresses, which lets us type in the alphanumeric domain names we all know and love. When someone enters nytimes.com into their address bar, the browser looks up the domain name using a Domain Name System (DNS) server; that server then tells your browser what IP address the URL points to, the two computers connect, and everything works happily.

    What happened overnight is that the SEA managed to break into the website of Melbourne IT, the company which the New York Times and others used to register those domain names. They then changed the records so that instead of pointing to the New York Times' website, the address pointed to theirs.

    On the one hand, that's a lot less bad than it would be if the servers themselves were broken into. The New York Times continued to publish normally to their IP address, 170.149.168.130, and don't appear to have lost any data or sensitive information. On the other hand, the sites were still down, and the redirect still exposed users to potential security risks. For instance, it would be possible to build a passable version of a log-in page and steal a lot of passwords. When it comes to Twitter, one of the affected companies, the problems are even greater: the site has a lot of code embedded throughout the internet, in the form of tweet buttons and single-sign-in services. If the SEA had wanted, that could have been the beginning of a much more serious collection of hacks.

    As it is, the group appears to have limited themselves to their normal operations, the digital equivalent of graffiti. Albeit graffiti in a very prominent place. But that it was so easy to take down the sites of such huge media organisations should give us all the shivers. The internet is a long way from secure, and some of the biggest problems left are fundamental to how the whole thing works.


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    News stories from around the web.

    Competition Commission: Private patients pay too much (BBC)

    Most patients in UK private hospitals are paying more than they should for treatment because of a lack of local competition, an inquiry has found.

    Global market slide continues amid mounting fears of Syria strike (BBC)

    The global sell-off fuelled by the looming prospect of Western military intervention in Syria has continued as Asian markets tumbled overnight.

    UK orders Ryanair to reduce Aer Lingus stake to 5pc (Telegraph)

    Britain's Competition Commission said Ryanair must reduce its 29.8pc stake Irish rival Aer Lingus to 5pc.

    Twitter appoints first commerce head (FT)

    Twitter has hired Ticketmaster’s former chief executive to lead a fresh push into ecommerce, as it looks to partner with advertisers and retailers to capture users’ impulse purchases.

    JPMorgan woes deepen as US demands $6bn penalty (FT)

    US authorities are demanding JPMorgan Chase pay more than $6bn to settle allegations it mis-sold securities to government-backed mortgage companies in the run-up to the financial crisis, according to people familiar with the discussions.


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    The new engineers will support broadband roll out in the country.

    The British telecommunications provider BT Group is planning to create 150 new engineering jobs in Scotland, as it won new contracts to install fibre services across the Highlands and Islands and other regions in Scotland in the recent times.

    The new jobs, which are part of the company’s £2.5bn network investment, are in addition to the 1,000 new jobs announced by the company earlier in March.

    BT intends to provide access to fibre broadband services to around 1.46 million homes and offices in Scotland by the end of 2014.

    The recruited engineers will be offered an 18-month fixed contract with the company’s infrastructure division Openreach and will be placed at offices in Inverness, Fort William, Oban, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Dumfries and Galashiels.

    Out of the 150 new jobs, about 90 will be based in the Highlands and Islands.

    Brendan Dick, director of BT Scotland, said: “We’ve already had a great response for the posts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Dumfries and Galashiels and now we’re very keen to hear from people in Inverness, Fort William, Oban and Aberdeen.

    Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland, said: “These jobs come on the back of our recent announcement of a high speed broadband network, created in partnership with BT. This initiative will connect communities across rural and urban areas, providing a platform for future economic development and regeneration.”

    The company is also considering adding new team players to Openreach’s existing Scottish workforce of around 2,500.


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    The fine is claimed to be one of the largest settlements for any bank post financial crisis.

    The US federal authorities are pressing JPMorgan Chase to pay more than $6bn as penalty for mis-selling securities to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

    The bank lost about $6.2bn in the London Whale trading scam in early 2012.

    The fine is claimed to be one of the largest settlements for any bank post financial crisis, reports the Financial Times.

    Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are probing into the bank’s involvement in London Whale trading scam.

    It is expected that the total penalty for the London Whale trading scam could cost the bank between $500m and $600m.

    JP Morgan is facing a series of woes both at home and in the overseas market. Earlier this month, the US regulators launched a probe on whether JPMorgan Chase appointed children of top Chinese officials and politicians to gain commercial benefits in the world’s second-largest economy.

    In July, JP Morgan’s power business agreed to pay $410m in penalties and disgorgement to ratepayers for allegations of manipulating power prices in California and the Midwest markets during September 2010 and November 2012.

    In 2011, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which manages Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, filed lawsuit against JPMorgan and 17 other banks for misleading government-supported mortgage agencies by selling $33bn in mortgage-backed securities.

    Earlier in July, the Swiss bank UBS agreed to pay a penalty of $885m as settlement against original losses of approximately $1.15bn.


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    Questions as to whether pregnant women should drink alcohol or coffee go beyond the restrictions of an over-cautious medical establishment. It’s to do with how we value people. In her book Expecting Better, Emily Oster has raised some issues that we really need answered.

    In 2007, when I was midway through my first full-term pregnancy, government advice on alcohol consumption during pregnancy changed. Moderate drinking – one to two units a week – was reduced to no drinking at all. Crucially, there was no new clinical evidence to support this change. It was simply in order to be “on the safe side”.

    I felt furious, so furious I wrote to the Department of Health. I’d given up alcohol anyhow – again, to be “on the safe side” – but that, it seemed to me, was a personal preference. Having someone else tell me to be over-cautious was another thing entirely. It wasn’t booze that was being withdrawn, it was a basic level of respect for the decision-making capabilities of anyone who was pregnant.

    In Expecting Better, Emily Oster describes how in her experience, “being pregnant was a lot like being a child again. There was always someone telling you what to do”. You are patronised and ordered to restrict your realm of experience significantly, yet the reasons why can seem – and often are – terribly flimsy.

    Exploring this in more detail (at first merely in order to gain “permission” to drink a cup of coffee) Oster found that the evidence used to back up many pregnancy recommendations is weak or based on poor research. She discovered that the decision-making processes she, as an economist, taught her students – collect data, but also weigh up personal costs and benefits – did not seem to apply. Oster’s book is the result of her own research, her key aim being to present data that will allow others to make their own cost and benefit calculations. “This book,” she writes, “is very specifically not about making recommendations; it’s about acknowledging that if you have the right information you can make the right decision for yourself.”

    Expecting Better is a pregnancy guide, not a political tract, and as such it deserves much praise. It’s a book I would recommend to anyone expecting their first child. Nonetheless, I’d add the proviso that while you don’t have to be middle-class to read it, it helps. It’s always easier to challenge received wisdom when you’ve got a little unearned authority behind you to start with, as I discovered when the Department of Health responded to my letter (was the use of my Dr title the reason why the new rules drinking rules weren’t “aimed at women like you”?). Facts matter, sure, but so do social judgments and stereotypes. A lack of information is just one of many things which hold us back from making the choices that are best for us.

    I don’t wish to criticise a book for all the things it doesn’t say, particularly if it never set out to say them in the first place. However, right now I’d like to see a different book on pregnancy, risk and choice, one that looks beyond merely presenting the facts and towards the social and cultural conditions that still militate against autonomous decision-making. Class is one factor, but I suspect sexism and ingrained anti-choice sentiment also play their part. It’s all very well for Oster to explain that “the value of having numbers – data – is that they aren’t subject to someone else’s interpretation. They are just the numbers. You can decide what they mean for you”. But in the real world, sadly, that’s just not true.

    Clearly there’s no law (as yet) against a pregnant woman wanting the odd cappuccino. But what about the widespread belief that such a woman’s wants are irrelevant when set against anything that could, in one’s wildest imagination, harm the foetus? Such a woman will be told that coffee avoidance isn’t a personal matter but a moral absolute. So what if she’s read Oster’s book and knows for sure that one measly cup is absolutely fine? She also knows that “absolutely fine” doesn’t count for much when you’re reduced to a walking womb whose feelings and desires take second place. This is an issue that goes beyond the restrictions of an over-cautious medical establishment. It’s to do with how we value people. In the US we’re increasingly seeing those who are pregnant imprisoned for taking risks that everyone else is allowed to take with impunity. At this point what may have started out as merely flawed advice becomes a serious human rights issue.

    It would be interesting to see how recommendations made to those who are pregnant compare with those made to people facing other medical conditions. Yes, we all get patronised and pressured into accepting treatments which benefit us more on paper than in real life, but are there subtle differences in priorities and value judgements when the wellbeing of the innocent unborn is at stake? Perhaps there’s a hierarchy in place. For instance, are there also links between the way in which the pregnant have to suck it up for the hypothetical good of others and ways in which some sufferers of mental illness endure treatments which destroy their quality of life but make others – yet more supposed “innocents” – feel “safer”? How much of a factor is plain old prejudice and fear? Who gets to own his or her own body?

    I think these are questions worth answering, if not by Oster, then by someone willing to take her pure data and re-examine it alongside the powerful distortions wrought by social pressure and moral censure. In the meantime, however, I’d thank Oster for how far she’s brought this debate already. Even if the initial motivation for her research was her own dread of a caffeine withdrawal headache, she’s written something that should be of practical value to all those who are pregnant – providing the rest of society allows it to be. 


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    The game's message might be repellent, but we should be wary of drawing a line too soon. Today's independent games are a rebellious force against fiercely Republican AAA games, and we should encourage that.

    The Castle Doctrine is an ugly videogame. I'm not talking about graphics, I mean morally: It emblazons the isolationist mentality that got Trayvon Martin killed.

    Here's the set-up. You, a married white guy with a couple of grand in the bank must construct barriers and traps to prevent other players from entering your house and stealing from your safe. You also have a wife and two kids to defend.

    If somebody breaks in while you're logged out of the game, your wife will grab half the money and make for the exit, leaving intruders with the option of either letting her go and taking what's left in the safe, or killing her and claiming the loot in full. You can also invade other player's homes.

    It's easy to see what's wrong with this picture. Firstly, your wife is a passive object, to be protected in the same way as your money and your vault. Her value is only monetary. If she dies holding 2,000 of your dollars, it's a setback because you've lost cash, not because a woman has died.

    Secondly, the politics are indefensibly straightforward. The Castle Doctrine assumes that everyone who violates private property means to cause harm, and that stopping them by force is always acceptable. It fails to discuss mitigating factors such as geography, circumstance or the personal prejudices of the home-owner. It uniformly approves of the US legal principle from which it gets its name. It says anything is permissible in the name of self-defence.

    The Castle Doctrine is morally bankrupt. But I want to keep playing it. I want to write about it, to think about it – I disagree with Cameron Kunzelman, who says we should “be so highly critical of The Castle Doctrine that we pretend like it doesn’t exist.”

    Independent games are burgeoning. If they're going to develop, every creative voice, no matter how repugnant we may find it personally, has to be encouraged to speak.

    If not, independent games could slide into the same political homogeny as the mainstream.

    AAA games are fiercely Republican. They espouse the military. They fetishise guns. They mistreat women. And as a result, as well as offensive, they're often boring.

    Over time, independent games risk slipping into the same groove. They appeal right now to people bored of the mass-market, people looking for something which challenges the assumed standards of what games should be. Today's independent games are a rebellious force. Their stories are about love, pacifism and self-affirmation. In response to the mainstream right, they're firmly on the left.

    And if games like The Castle Doctrine are continually shouted down - if we demonise political views that aren't necessarily our own - that is how independent games will remain. They won't ever deviate. They'll became as politically monotone as AAA shooters.

    And how dull will that be? I recently saw Santiago Serra's 160cm Line Tattooed Across Four People, a work of video art for which Serra paid four prostitutes a syringe of heroin each to allow him to tattoo an adjoining line across their bodies. It was exploitable. It was ugly. It was everything I hate. But if the whole exhibition had just been Jackson Pollocks', I wouldn't have gone. I want to be outraged by art. I want to know what's out there.

    This isn't a defence of The Castle Doctrine. That game's message, that white men can righteously empower themselves with guns, is prevalent across the industry and doesn't need my support to withstand invective.

    Instead, I'm cautious about drawing a line this early on. I don't want to set a precedent where only independent games that suit our politics will be able to find a market in the future. I don't want to be sat round a table where everyone agrees with me. I think art's ability to enrage is equally as valuable as its power to satisfy. So long as it's articulated, I want to know what people think.


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  • 08/28/13--02:45: How news is made
  • Samantha Brick and Shona Sibary show us how it's done.

     


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  • 08/28/13--03:01: Business quote of the day
  • Michael O’Leary on Ryanair/Aer Lingus controversy: "Bizarre and manifestly wrong".

    Michael O’Leary gives a typically mannered response to the UK Competition Commission ordering Ryanair to sell 25 per cent of its stake in rival Irish airline Aer Lingus.
     
    The Commission ruled Ryanair’s 29.8 per cent holding in its rival damages competition on routes between Britain and Ireland, and must be cut to 5 per cent. Ryanair has said it will appeal the decision.

    O’Leary said, "This prejudicial approach to an Irish airline is very disturbing, coming from an English government body that regards itself a model competition authority.”

    Read more here.
     


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    The public opposes military action by 50 to 25%, with Labour supporters the most hostile of the three main parties.

    In planning for British military action against Syria, one thing David Cameron cannot be accused of is courting votes. YouGov's poll for today's Sun shows that the public oppose missile strikes by two to one (50-25%), with all three of the main parties' supporters against intervention. Labour voters are the most hostile to military action, with 54% opposed and 26% in favour, followed by Lib Dem ones (47-27%). Tory supporters are opposed to intervention by 45-33%. 

    Supporters of UKIP, which is currently polling at 12% (the Lib Dems are on 8%), are opposed to strikes by 68-22%. The party has declared its opposition to intervention, warning that "Moral outrage has never been a good basis for war. Even if attacks carried out lead to the fall of Bashar al-Assad as the Coalition and Labour seem to be hoping for,what follows? We know that the rebels contain extremists who support radical Islam and are steadfast in their opposition to the values we hold dear in this country. For them to topple Assad and take power would be disastrous."

    Of the other parties, the Greens and Plaid Cymru are also against military action, with the SNP currently undecided. 


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    With Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Robyn, La Roux, M.I.A and Janelle Monae, we just see further examples of women excelling at electronic music – just like they always have.

    Way back in April, Kate Mossman commented on the lack of male popstars in today’s musical climate. “I can’t be the only one,” she wrote, “who has wondered what’s happened to men in pop – or how funny this period will look in hindsight, the world of music straddled by female Goliaths while the boys sit in the shadows. . .”

    Though the male-dominated list of winners at the VMAs alone calls Mossman’s theory into question, I believe I know exactly how this period will look in hindsight. It will look like the first time in the history of pop music that electronic sounds have truly dominated to the point that rock bands count as the exception rather than the standard. That there are so many female Goliaths is incidental. Women have always excelled at electronic 

    Since its very inception, electronic music has always been daring, controversial and utterly fascinating. Give the matter a moment's thought and it's hard to ignore the fact that when it comes to electronic music, women have always been at the very vanguard of innovation and crossover appeal.

    In the 1960s, when the form was still in its infancy, electronic music was seldom created for home listening. Rather, it was created for the stage, for the screen or purely for the sake of bold experiments in sound. It was painstakingly crafted in workshops and laboratories by individuals who were more scientist than musician, and many of these individuals were women.

    Having realised Ron Grainer's theme to Doctor Who by entirely electronic means, Delia Derbyshire is about as close to a household name that any early electronic artist will ever be. Her work with The BBC Radiophonic Workshop now feels ingrained in the national psyche, but perhaps even more impressive is the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop's founder, Daphne Oram.

    Oram was creating electronic sounds for the BBC as early as 1948, but it was upon leaving the BBC and developing her “Oramics” technique that she really began to make waves.

    But while the work of Oram and Derbyshire often feels cold, alienating and terrifying, on the other side of the Atlantic we find a like-minded pioneer whose work proved a lot more accessible.

    While working for Bell Labs in the 1970s, Laurie Spiegel – who, not to mince words, is a genius - set the template for the way in which electronic music is still created today through developing bespoke compositional software.

    Spiegel's groundbreaking music is warm, human and meditative. And, through creating accessible, intuitive software that made it possible for anyone to create music, she sowed the seeds that would ultimately allow for millions of bedroom wizards today to realise their electric dreams.

    Indeed, the democratisation of composition might indicate why we find so many women in electronic music. In a recent interview, Spiegel spoke about the new possibilities for women that technology offered: “[Technology] allowed women to get their music to the point where it could be heard... so the public and powers-that-be could learn that we also could do this.”

    That's perhaps why, if you look at the subsequent forty years of electronic music, wherever you find crossover appeal or startling innovation, you'll also find a strong female presence.

    While experimentation for Dylan involved playing a different kind of guitar, by 1975 Joni Mitchell had recorded The Jungle Line– a spooky mood piece composed of distorted drums and honking synths that still sounds like very little else out there.

    Meanwhile on the dancefloors, who wouldn't have been captivated by the electrified worldly disco and Bond Girl Glamour of Grace Jones? And, while the arpeggios of I Feel Love might have been programmed by Giorgio Moroder, would the song still have ignited the world without the ecstatic vocals of Donna Summer? Having revolutionised electronic music, women would go on to make it accessible, danceable and, above all, sexy.

    The list goes on. Laurie Anderson's unprecedented storming of the UK top three with her minimalist O Superman. Bjork's irresistible marriage of orchestral arrangements and electronic soundscapes. Kate Bush's pioneering use of the Fairlight CMI digital sampler on her Never For Ever album – itself the first ever female solo album to top the charts and enter at number one.

    Today, as the tedious and aggressive worlds of club-focused R’n’B, EDM and dubstep cast a grim shadow over popular music, I find myself increasingly looking to female musicians for a joyous and life-affirming alternative.

    One of the most exciting artists working today in any medium is Laurel Halo. In the past three years she's produced three EPs, one album and one cassette, none of which sound alike yet each of which plays like a different interpretation of how music might sound in the future. The Haunted Man by Bat For Lashes still gets better with every listen. Then there’s Grimes, seemingly poised for superstardom, who has reminded us of how fun electronic music can be.

    But how will this period look in hindsight? With Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Robyn, La Roux, M.I.A and Janelle Monae, we just see further examples of women excelling at electronic music – just like they always have.

    So to answer Kate Mossman’s question, there’s not necessarily a dearth of male pop stars as much as a prevalence of electronic sounds. The female Goliaths just come with the territory.

     


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    I have been told I am “too ugly to rape” and “too fat to live”. Great campaigns have been run to combat the sexual objectification of women, but we must also take into account those of us for whom the very lack of objectification is used as a weapon to keep us in our place.

    I no longer wear my “This is what a feminist looks like t-shirt”.

    Not because I am no longer a feminist, nor because I no longer admire the work of the Fawcett Society – both could not be further from the truth. I don’t wear it, because I sense that women who look like me are not in on the ironic statement the t-shirt is there to make. When I wear it, I know that I am reinforcing every stereotype that certain sections of society have of those of us who are proudly feminist. They don’t see the woman, the mind, the message. They see the fat and the ugly and assume the rest. I look precisely what these warped people believe all feminists to look like, and by advertising myself as such I fear I will inadvertently give credence to their warped world view.

    Feminism is having an incredible renaissance at the moment. Caroline Criado-Perez’s successful campaign to ensure female role model’s remain on our currency has been the most visible example of this. But other excellent campaigns such as No More Page 3 and the Everyday Sexism project have highlighted issues of concern to women and the men who support them in a way that feels fresh, innovative and lively.

    Alongside this resurgence has been the debate about representation that follows any campaign focused on a single aspect of personhood. Intricate and important debates about intersectionality and ensuring that feminism represents the whole spectrum of women’s lives and experiences are important and real. Trans women, women of colour, working class and disabled women all need greater representation and debates on how we ensure this is achieved are important – even though they are sometimes held in ways that highlight the division of the feminist community – not the issues that unite us.

    So I write this not as a criticism of any of these projects, but as an adjunct to them. While these projects highlight the incredible difficulty that women face not being seen beyond their worth as a sexual object – and thus there has been a natural focus on stories of such objectification – there is a different and no less oppressive and all pervasive sexism being faced by those of us who are not objectified.

    I have been told I am “too ugly to rape”, “too fat to live” that “no man would f**k that” all while walking the five minutes from my house to the bus stop.

    I live with the knowledge (and daily experience) that my sexual worth will be commented on every day when I leave my house and that in the meat market of the outside world, I have been judged unwanted, lacking, unworthy. The awareness that part of my experience of everyday life will be to have my worst insecurities about my lack of looks and sexual attractiveness commented on in ways just as crude and shocking as those women who are being pestered for their very attractiveness affects my decision making, my confidence and my outlook.

    If these brilliant campaigns are to truly succeed, they need to ensure they run the full gamut of the ways in which men are allowed in society to abuse a woman publicly. This cannot mean simply focusing on the stories of those who are being sexually objectified, but those for whom the very lack of objectification is being used as a weapon to keep us in our place. 


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    "Threats Facing Israel, Explained In One (sort Of Terrifying) Map".

    The Israeli Embassy in the US is a community contributor to Buzzfeed, publishing a piece on the site headlined "Threats Facing Israel, Explained In One (sort Of Terrifying) Map".

    The map presents what could charitably be described as a very one sided view of the Israel Palestine conflict, referring to the West Bank as having a "culture of conflict" and glossing over the continued illegal occupations in the area. "Some may say the map is alarmist," the embassy writes. "Undeniably, the map is our geopolitical reality, and we will be vigilant in protecting our people and our borders."

    The piece is the latest example of the Iraeli state's impressive online PR operation. During the conflict in Gaza late last year, the IDF, Israel's army, took to Twitter sharing infographics about terror attacks on civilians and tweeting threats to "Hamas operatives". Meanwhile, the country's footsoldiers were allowed to use Instagram on deployment, as an official account collated the best pictures.

    But while the Buzzfeed post isn't too unexpected for Israel, it's more problematic for the site itself. Unlike Instagram and Twitter, Buzzfeed produces editorial itself; and while the site allows "community contributors" to make posts with little oversight, to many users those pieces are indistinguishable from actual Buzzfeed content. Indeed, some of them are promoted to the front page by the site's editors, as "12 People Who Stuck Their Tongues Out Better Than Miley" was this morning. As a result, there's a risk that it will look like Buzzfeed endorses the message, and that's certainly what a fair few of the site's commenters seem to think.

    Of course, there's another risk for the site: famously, its business model is based around creating sponsored content which blends seamlessly in with actual editorial. In more traditional media, the Israeli embassy would have had to pay for an advert to get their message across. But by offering the chance to post for free, are Buzzfeed undercutting themselves?


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    Why is no-one talking about predictive care?

    Two different but related stories on the NHS have emerged recently: Chris Smyth in the Times (paywall) reported  on £300m of ostensibly wasted funds from a set of tests focussed on over-40s, which operated in direct conflict with the "best available evidence." In other news, the Daily Telegraph (paywall) reported on a "time-bomb," anticipating that three in four adults will suffer from chronic disease by 2030, stressing the NHS’s ability to cope with patients as it continues to be challenged by budget constraints and a dearth of medical practitioners and support staff.

    In the wake of the NHS’ recent 65th birthday, and radical recent structural reform, dealing with both of these issues form part of the broader challenge that must be met to ensure the long-term sustainability of the NHS. The organisation has to deal with severe budget constraints, and insufficient staff, and yet continues to be a jewel in the crown; one of the world’s largest employers and fulfilling the remarkable accomplishment of delivering near universal healthcare in England. An entirely different approach to healthcare is needed to ensure the NHS remains fit for purpose into the future.

    What both the Telegraph and Times reports point to are issues that ultimately could be mitigated through better use of information.

    In the case of the expensive and unnecessary tests the Times reports on, trials are already underway to deliver "stratified medicine" into the UK –  matching treatment with a patient’s genetic markers to assess not just the tests required, but the treatment options that will deliver the swiftest route to recovery and ultimately, improved survivability. This is already proving that we can  eliminate the need for "unnecessary" tests. The key here is that illness can be dealt with before it manifests into symptoms, at far reduced costs. After all, using a DNA test to prescribe the correct chemotherapy drugs for skin cancer raises the rate of effectiveness from 10 per cent to 70 per cent creating a significant saving in later treatments, hospital and in-home care.

    Key to dealing with the staff shortages that the Telegraph writes on is shifting the overall paradigm for healthcare to one that no longer expends 70 per cent of NHS budgets on chronic disease care, dealing with illnesses including cancer, diabetes, breathing conditions and heart disease. Stratified healthcare can clearly play a role here, drawing on patient, environmental, social and genetic data to deliver the best treatment. In addition, increasingly popular advances in "body data" technology including everything from Nike’s Fuelband through to sophisticated wireless sensors deliver an opportunity to the medical profession: the correlation, analysis and interpretation of telehealth, telemetry and genomic data to treat disease pre-emptively. For example; an anomalous heart beat within someone that has a specific genetic and weight profile might be cause for pre-emptive medical intervention (avoiding emergency by-pass surgery in someone who is extremely overweight, for example); for the same symptoms in someone who had a fitter profile, it might be ignored, limiting the risk of "false positives." Similarly, this sensor data could have a dramatic impact in reducing the number of emergency hospital readmissions (that is, people who had to come back to hospital through A&E after being discharged) – of which there were 650,000 in 2010/11, a rate which has been climbing for a decade.

    This transformation will need to happen in stages: the NHS will need to continue to make progress in digitising the way healthcare is managed in the UK and there will need to be better and more widespread data sharing between medical authorities, academic institutions and research organisations. Crucially, great care and thought will need to go into securing the privacy of individual health data even as it is used as a resource to provide better healthcare for others.

    However – the prize – a significant reduction in the £80bn spent in chronic disease care, and a potentially dramatically improved quality of life for citizens – is one that must be sought after. And doubtless we may still face up to wasted tests or stretched wards – but hopefully this will become the exception, rather than the rule, and the NHS will endure to celebrate its centenary and beyond.


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    While leaving the door open to military action, the party's MPs know that the evidence required to justify intervention hasn't been presented.

    The media is full of folk pontificating that 'something must be done about' Syria. There’s an implication in the fact that Miliband was called into Downing Street yesterday, that it’s been decided that the 'something' involves flying cruise missiles into buildings where we suspect bad things happen. Parliament’s recalled and we all look forward to seeing if we’re going to be presented with a dodgy dossier and a refusal to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice (ring any bells?).

    Yet in the midst of all this, my lot are strangely silent. Nick’s identikit statement to Cameron’s aside, there’s been almost nothing said, in the mainstream media or on social media, by anyone in the Lib Dems since it was announced that there’s going to be a vote. I can hazard a guess why.

    Last time Parliament was asked to support military advice, there was a UN resolution already in place, and the remit of the military was clear – they were to protect civilians. Not too hard to support that. But this time it’s rather different.

    Firstly, there’s no UN resolution in place. As the House of Commons Defence Committee Report on the Libyan conflict made clear: "we are concerned that the abstentions of five Council members, particularly the veto wielding countries of Russia and China, may make obtaining United Nations support more difficult for similar situations in the future".

    They had that right.

    Secondly, there’s apparently no mandate here to defend civilians, nor any pretence of such. This is about punishment. Setting down a marker. Letting other chemical weapon-hording dictators know that there’s a red line you just don’t cross. You can almost hear advisers whispering in Cameron’s ear that "there’s only one language these people understand". 

    Thirdly, when Lib Dem MPs voted to 'defend civilians', I suspect most expected it not to extend far beyond enforcing the no-fly zone requested by some members of the Arab League. I wonder how many of those trooping through the lobby realised they were voting for regime change by military intervention (recall that the NATO operation was shut down just 11 days after the death of Gadaffi). What wording will they be asked to support this time – and what lies behind those words?

    These are difficult issues for all MPs. But for the Lib Dems, with our proud record of opposing the Iraq war, it’s especially hard. Of course Iraq-is-not-Libya-is-not-Syria. But until there’s a UN resolution, and clear proof of who used chemical weapons on whom, it’s hard to see how Lib Dems can support military action. And sure the Prime Minister can tell us he’s seen that proof. But we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

    I suspect Lib Dem MPs are under severe pressure to do what the political glitterati are telling them is their, ahem, moral duty, but in their heart of hearts they know the evidence hasn’t yet been presented to them to make that case. And while they are leaving the door open - hence their silence - the wider political leadership is going to have to work a lot harder to get them on side.

    At least I hope so.

    Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference


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    The critics' verdict on Atwood, Wolitzer, Danahar and Ripley

    MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

    With MaddAddam Margaret Atwood concludes her “speculative fiction” trilogy, which began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. In the final instalment, the focus shifts to Toby, who plays a more minor role in the first two books, and sees the subplots and loose ends rounded off and tied up as Attwood’s satirical dystopia reaches its climax.

    Sarah Churchwell, writing in the New Statesman magazine, found the conclusion to be a little too neat for the tone of the trilogy noting that “One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly”.  While not unimpressed by the finale, she still rates the opener as the “tour de force of the trilogy”.

    The Scotsman’s Tom Adair, however, was spellbound by the finale, suggesting that Attwood’s witchlike ability to charm her reader would have had her burnt at the stake in times gone by. Her cutting prose is “diamond edged and perfectly pitched” and while Churchwell might think it is unnatural that the subplots of the previous two works are brought together so conveniently, Adair feels that “MaddAddam represents the brilliant culmination of their stories”. He concludes that, in this case, three is better than one or two as “Atwood’s trilogy eclipses the sum of its parts in a way that could not have been foreseen in the first two books”.

    James Kidd of the Independent was also impressed by final work, commending both Atwood’s reflective side (“It ends with a bravura meditation on the power, consolations and endurance of literature itself”) and her subtle humour (“Atwood is not always praised as a comic writer, but MaddAddam reveals a fondness for bad puns, off-beat one liners and some inventive running gags”). He judges Atwood to have given an almost distressingly accurate reflection on humanity in all its depravity concluding that “It is not always a pretty picture, but it is true for all that.”

    The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

    Meg Wolitzer’s tenth book The Interestings follows a group of otherwise unremarkable American teenagers, who meet at a summer camp in New York, as the unquenchable excitement of youth gives way to the inevitable dreariness of middle age in a tale that has received a positive response from critics.

    For the Telegraph’s Alison Pearson, it is a breakthrough novel, worthy of five stars and a gleaming review. She is charmed by Wolitzer’s wit “which can even make clinical depression entertaining” and impressed her “fearlessness in tackling everything from the difficulty of getting a penis inside you to the sheer horror occasioned by your best friend’s new walk-in refrigerator”. Above all, Pearson hails The Interestings as “a great feminist novel” concluding that “Meg Wolitzer is a supreme ironist. If anyone can find the bittersweet humour in an elevation to the Big Boys’ League, it’s her.”

    Rachel Cusk, writing for the Guardian, acknowledges that the plot-line might be considered somewhat “old-fashioned” but thoroughly enjoyed the novel, calling it “essentially a cheerful enterprise with a guaranteed entertainment value” and attributing to Wolitzer a “knack for comic-satirical perceptions of character and culture”. Whilst she laments the occasional excess of “narrative bulk” she ultimately concludes that the reader is constantly “waiting to see what happens next”.

    In the Independent, Holly Williams gives the novel another positive reception, hailing in particular Wolitzer’s brilliance in writing about “normal, unremarkable lives, investing them with just as much detailed attention and humane humour as the lives of the beautiful, the rich and the famous.” She finds it refreshing that the heroine “isn’t particularly pretty or sexy, or rich or glamorous”. Williams also points out the success of Wolitzer’s socio-historical contextualisation and concludes that although the prose is sometimes forced, and she thinks that Wolitzer occasionally and unhelpfully indulges her “urge to run down every available narrative track”, ultimately “this novel lives up to its name; Wolitzer’s perceptive portraiture makes these ordinary lives very interesting indeed."

    The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring, by Paul Danahar

    In The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring Paul Danahar reveals his own insights on the Arab Spring, having worked on the "axis of evil" during the revolution. In vivid prose, Danahar narrates the events that removed the "stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships" from the Arab Continent and have yet to reform: he notes that the end product is still an unknown entity.

    Christopher de Bellaigue, writing for the Guardian, considers that the book is somewhat out of its depth; despite "a smattering of horror" and "exotic frisson" he concludes that there is "little to surprise an even moderately attentive reader of the foreign news." Indeed, the paper mocks Danahar’s willingness to embrace the obvious when stating that "in war, seconds and inches are the difference between life and death." There are also criticisms of the content itself: Danahar seems to have neglected the ever-changing nature of the situation when writing that the Arab Spring has left "a stronger Sunni, and a weaker Shia, Islam." In fact, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party has been toppled in Egypt and Assad’s Shia regime continues to remain in power. De Bellaigue also appears to be mildly amused by the author’s naivety; to the statement, "God has returned to the Middle East," de Bellaigue responds "did he ever leave?"

    However, the New Statesman’s Philip Maughan offers a more sympathetic view. He reminds us of Danahar’s expertise, running "the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013," before describing how the book leads us to some important questions concerning these newborn democratic states, nominally difficult matters of "statehood, secularism and religion."

    Colin Freeman, writing for the Telegraph, also shares some of the Guardian’s concerns; he criticises the scapegoat Danahar places on "the shortcomings of American intervention" whilst ignoring Al-Qaeda’s nihilistic resistance. Freeman feels that this is completely paradoxical to the Arab Spring itself, for it adopts "that old mentality that still dogs the Arab world – namely, that whatever goes wrong, someone elsewhere is always to blame." This mantra appears contrary to the progressive mindset that typifies the Arab Spring.

    The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley


    In her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Amanda Ripley condemns the grim state of American education, reiterating the view that is rife contemporary politics. She answers the pressing question "What exactly is happening in classrooms in foreign countries that are out-performing the U.S.A?" by spending time at the heart of the action: she follows three American teenagers choosing to take a year out as foreign-exchange students in Finland, Poland and South Korea. She presents the startling effects this has on their academic performance and attempts to discover what other countries are doing right and the U.S. is doing wrong.

    Emma Keller, writing for the Guardian, tells potential readers Ripley’s book will "amaze you" and agrees that she drives home some very accurate points on America’s failing schools: "kids are bored, mentally unchallenged and could do so much more with their time."

    The Huffington Post’s Jonathon Edelman shares Keller’s view that Ripley’s book is "gripping" and admires her "fascinating characters" and "fresh observations." He admires that, "Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around," and is adamant that Ripley’s suggested improvements to America’s educational system – "parent involvement, heightened levels of expectation and well respected teachers" – ought to be at the core of the organisation and inculcated into its pupils.  

    The Economist agrees that Ripley’s "wide-eyed observations make for compelling reading" and praises the "startling amount of insight" the book offers. The reviewer connects with Ripley’s frustration at America’s focus on "tracking students at different cognitive levels" where "low expectations are often duly rewarded" and, like Ripley, laments "the perverse sort of compassion that prevents American teachers from failing bad students."   

    The consensus suggests that this book successfully crystallises why America’s schools are declining; the reviewers all hope that the contempt for the American education system this book breeds will spark a desperately needed overhaul.

    Joe Iles and Irfan Allana


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    Wall Street's "fear gage" up 40 per cent.

    Syria. It’s seeped into national politics, public life, and, lately, social media. But this week, as the taboo word “intervention” is used for the first time, Syria has finally seeped into financial markets. And its effect is horrific.

    A quick run through the financial headlines and you get the idea: The FTSE 100 is off about 0.5pc at 6,408, the FTSE Asia Pacific index is down 1.6 per cent, the CBOE Vix volatility index (which the FT calls "Wall Street’s fear gauge") is 40 per cent higher than the start of August. The Indian stock market is off 1.1 per cent, 8 per cent since the start of the month, as the rupee continues to fall.  Indonesia’s rupiah is at a fresh four-year low and Turkey’s lira is also suffering. Japan’s Nikkei 225 is down 1.5 per cent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng down 1.6 per cent.

    Underlying these falls is a rush to that old commodity – oil. "Oil volatility" had almost become a by-word to describe financial markets of the 70s and 80s as developed nations thought that blasting water into their sovereign rocks – fracking – would put an end to it. But no, when it comes to the Middle East, oil is key and today its prices are at a two year high. The WTI advanced to $112.24, the highest since May 2011, and Brent oil climbed 0.7 percent to $115.16, after reaching $117.34.

    The price of gold has also surged this week – the word "intervention" being, for some, a war cry to seize safe assets.

    But while financial markets get hysterical over the possible military intervention in Syria and the effects on oil, consider the scene on the ground. Although Syria’s economy has long been shot, oil never really formed a part of it. Before sanctions stopped the pumps, most of the country’s oil fields were in the East of the country, along the Euphrates, nowhere near the fighting that continues between Damascus and Aleppo and along Lebanese and Turkish borders. Should the Syrian civil war spill well beyond these borders, it shouldn’t matter to the oil market as neither are these countries significant producers.

    While major oil pipelines ring Syria, none actually go through the country. Likewise with Syria’s coast, which, when it was deprived of Beirut during the Sykes–Picot Agreement, has never been a maritime trader.

    Further still, should neighbouring trade routes, such as the Sumed or Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines be put at jeopardy, there is a high chance that Saudi Arabia will lead the charge of OPEC countries to stabilise prises by increasing production – just as they did with Libya two years ago.     

    So why now and why oil? Are commodity traders so globally naive as to still believe that "the Middle East=oil"? Or, maybe the word "intervention" triggers an unknowing array of financial algorithms to sell dodgy assets?

    But what is happening now in the financial markets is so large that, even if the answer is "yes" to these two questions, there are larger forces at play. After the aforementioned financial chaos, it seems that markets are now predicting what many of us have thought for a while, that this conflict, stirred by intervention, is going to be much larger than simply "Syria".

    Markets, to emphasis, are taking on board what William Hague said last week: "What's happening now in the Middle East is the most important event of the 21st Century so far even compared to the financial crises we have been through...it will take years and maybe decades to play out".


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    New low against the dollar today.

    The Indian rupee crashed to a new low against the US dollar today as foreign investors continued to pull their money out of the country. Following a slump of 3 per cent today, the rupee has now depreciated by 24 per cent this year from 55 per dollar at the end of 2012 to 68 per dollar currently.

    According to Timetric wealth analyst Shekhar Tripathi the depreciation is being caused by a number of factors. These include rising oil prices and a high current account deficit. He stated "the price of crude puts tremendous stress on the Indian Rupee as India has to import the bulk of its oil requirements in order to satisfy local demand."

    A lack of government reform has also been highlighted as a contributing factor as the Indian government could have introduced far more reforms during the boom years between 2003 and 2008. Instead they failed to sufficiently build infrastructure or liberalize markets for labour, energy and land during this period and now it is far more difficult to source investment for this.

    According to Progressive Media analyst Sunil Agarwal "the lack of economic reform and political paralysis was a major cause of the recent depreciation with the Reserve Bank of India sending out mixed signals on monetary policy".

    He also pointed to the recent recovery in the US which has encouraged US investors to pull their money out of emerging markets and invest more money onshore.

    India’s problems are not limited to the recent depreciation. Despite relatively strong growth over the past decade India remains one of the poorest countries in the world with the bulk of the population still living below the poverty line.

    According to the latest Credit Suisse Wealth Book India’s wealth per capita amounted to US$2,560 per person at the end of 2012 which is well below the worldwide average of US$31,500. It also compares poorly to other major emerging markets such as China (US$15,000) and Brazil (US$16,500) and perhaps most alarming it is well below the fast growing Indonesia (US$7,100).


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    Why do so many still suggest that Russia and China should determine our foreign policy?

    The position of those who oppose military action against Syria is understandable as is the position of those who support it. What is unfathomable is the position of those who support or oppose intervention based on whether a UN Security Council resolution can be obtained.

    That the US, Britain, France, China and Russia agree (or disagree) on an act does nothing to tell us whether that act is ethical, prudent or sensible. Yet politicians continue to surrender their independence of mind to this anachronistic and unrepresentative institution (Britain and France, with 60 million people each, are represented, while India, a country of 1.2 billion and the world's largest democracy, is not). In its statement on Syria, UKIP declared that "any intervention must carry with it a full mandate from the United Nations rather than a desire by western nations to meddle abroad." Labour has similarly suggested that "consideration by the Security Council" is an essential pre-condition for military action. To which the appropriate response is: why should the Stalinist bureaucrats of Russia and China determine our foreign policy? 

    After arguing ten years ago with those who claimed the Iraq war would be justified if a second UN resolution could be secured (does anyone now believe they were right?), I had hoped that we now recognised the Security Council as the irrelevance that it is. But on the basis of today's evidence, the old delusions still persist. 


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    What's inflation going to be? Wanna bet?

    "Wisdom of the crowds" is a pretty solid phenomenon. Ask a thousand people to guess the number of sweets in a jar, and the average (mean) of their guesses tends to be damn close to the actual number.

    What's more interesting is whether the same idea works, not just to guesses, but to forecasts. Specifically, economic forecasts. If you ask a thousand people to guess what the unemployment rate will be in two years time, how will they do?

    There are certainly reasons to be hopeful. Information is widely distributed, with little advantage accruing to experts; and in fact, unlike with simply counting sweets, there's likely to be a fair few people with "inside" information (hiring plans, perhaps, or a feel for how their sector is moving), which they may use to inform their guesses. Mix together enough guesses, and you could generate insight.

    That's what the Adam Smith Institute and Paddy Power are hoping; the two have teamed up to offer markets in key UK economic statistics. You'll be able to bet on what the rate of inflation and unemployment will be in June 2015; the ASI's Sam Bowman writes that:

    By combining the local knowledge of thousands of people, betting markets can outpredict any panel of experts. If these markets catch on, the government should consider outsourcing all of its forecasts to prediction markets instead of expert forecasters.

    But there may still be some problems, both with the idea and its implementation.

    Betting markets are indeed a theoretically great way of harnessing the wisdom of the crowds. As Bowman writes, the fact that people put money on their predictions means that more confident predictions are weighted higher, and vice versa. But the necessity of teaming up with a bookmaker to launch the idea means that there is a major distortion: the odds the bookie has set. Punters can get 7/2 that inflation will be greater than 5 per cent, and just 5/2 that it will be between 4.01 per cent and 5 per cent. That means that someone who thinks that inflation is most likely to be around 4.75 per cent may take advantage of the higher odds offered if they guess slightly higher. It also means that what Paddy Power think is most likely will skew the guesses.

    A better version of the same idea would be to create a prediction market. The difference between the two is that in a market, the crowd takes the role of bookmaker as well as punter. The odds themselves get set procedurally, based purely on where people are betting, and so there's no chance of a bad guess on the bookies' part skewing the predictions.

    But even if the market was designed to perfectly get the true thoughts of everyone in the crowd, there's still reasons to doubt that it can be that good at forecasting economic data.

    There's quite a specific set of conditions which are required for crowdsourcing to work. James Surowiecki, who coined the phrase "wisdom of crowds", describes four: Diversity of opinion, independence of opinion, decentralisation of action, and aggregation of information. Of those, the one which is the most problematic in this case is independence. People's guesses aren't secret, and they affect others. That means you could end up seeing a circular mill, where everyone reinforces everyone else's beliefs to the extent that the crowdsourcing breaks down. Think: do you hold your beliefs about what might happen to the unemployment rate based on investigation of the primary data, or based on collation of expert analysis? If it's the latter, you'd be a net harm to the crowdsourcing, contributing largely to the flocking problem.

    It would still be nice to get more financial bets. But that's mostly so that I could join in my sportier friends in having something where I feel like my expertise could win me a bit of cash; when it comes to actually trying to work out what will happen, we might have to stick with older methods.


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    A first look at tomorrow's cover.


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