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    Why invite a make-believe anchor from a comedy sequel onto your real news show if it doesn’t even make for particularly good TV?

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

    This week, Emerson College renamed its real communications school “The Ron Burgundy School of Communication,” after the fake newscaster Ron Burgundy of Anchorman.“Watch the Ron Burgundy press conference live!” Emerson’s website trumpeted, alongside such nonfictional newsflashes as “Emerson Professor’s Book Named in NY Times Most Notable Books of 2013.” And on Thursday – though it was just announced that the appearance would be put off in favor of coverage of the sexual assault investigation of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston – Will Ferrell as Burgundy was set to host SportsCenter: for days, the network has been teased the appearance with a clip that showed him interviewing Peyton Manning while decked out in his trademark leisure suit and ’stache.

    Anchorman 2, which premieres 18 December, has unleashed a seemingly endless stream of media-sponsored promotional stunts over the past month. A few days ago, Burgundy served as co-announcer for a curling match on Canada’s version of ESPN. The Newseum currently has a full-fledged Anchorman exhibit, featuring such artifacts as a stuffed version of Burgundy’s dog “Baxter”. This past weekend, he co-hosted an evening of North Dakota local news. It was clearly a genius PR move for the film: the clip went viral, and Burgundy’s goofy self-seriousness fit perfectly into the surreal, small-ball landscape of local news. (One segment on a winter coat-luggage combination called a “Jaktogo” played like a spoof of itself. “That’s a bargain for a Jaktogo, if you ask me,” Ferrell riffed.) But the TV station’s decision to participate in an hourlong marketing ploy, essentially yielding their newscast to Ferrell’s hijinks, was somewhat head-scratchy. As is this whole bizarre, interminable stretch of media-sponsored Anchormanmania.

    When journalists interview movie characters, it generally tends to be an awkward dance between the film's promotionals aims and the professional responsibilities of actual people doing their job. In a smart NPR piece from last year about Sacha Baron Cohen’s indulgent in-character interviews with the likes of Matt Lauer and Larry King, Marc Hirsh wrote that "It imposes a subtle tyranny on anyone who tries to engage with him.” And Ferrell-as-Burgundy on North Dakota’s KVMB had a similar effect: there was not much the real anchors could do besides soldier sheepishly through their own dispatches on Jaktogos and Black Friday as Ferrell made a mockery of their daily professional existence. It would have been funny as a quick promotional spot – as an entire hour-long broadcast, it was somewhat boggling. And setting aside the question of whether there is some nominal obligation for journalists to act as journalists instead of shilling for Paramount Pictures, by the time Burgundy took the podium at Emerson's communications school, the novelty of watching his antics collide with the efforts of real journalists had fully worn off. Ferrell is quirky and performance-arty enough in interviews when he is not playing a character – take the recent Jimmy Fallon appearance where he wore a white turtleneck with what appeared to be a large mustard stain. But his string of Burgundy appearances, each featuring the same catchphrases and eyebrow-cocked '70s misogyny, maxxed out fast.  

    So why invite a make-believe anchor from a comedy sequel onto your real news show if it doesn’t even make for particularly good TV? Such is the sagging spirit of the media industry: allowing Burgundy to coopt a broadcast is as much a publicity stunt for the film as a way for a news organization to pitch itself as loose and zany and fun. Now that Anchorman’s satire of puffed-up personality-driven journalism looks considerably less like satire, bringing Burgundy on board feels a bit like a way for news organizations to make themselves seem in on the joke. According to a recent Washington Post story, the Newseum is even banking on Anchorman's potential to help revive its struggling brand. For Paramount, it’s kind of a big deal. But for the media, it’s pretty lame.

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com


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    The UK’s regional disparities were not the creation of this government but they have been made worse by its unbalanced austerity programme.

    No part of the country is the subject of greater condescension and misunderstanding than the north of England. “Desolate”, “barren” and “grim” are the epithets of choice for those unacquainted with the land beyond Birmingham. Over the following pages, Rachel Cooke, Philip Hensher, Ben Chu and others dispel these clichés and describe the north’s true qualities: its natural beauty, its cultural vibrancy, its ethnic diversity, its economic inventiveness.

    If the region’s woes have been overstated, the divide between it and the south remains unmistakable. While unemployment has fallen to just 5.9 per cent in the south-east, it has risen to 10.2 per cent in the north-east and to 8.9 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber. Ninety-six per cent of all employment growth in England in the past year has taken place in London, the south-east, the south-west and the east of the country. Far from enjoying the fruits of the recovery, the north is barely emerging from recession.

    The UK’s regional disparities were not the creation of this government but they have been made worse by its unbalanced austerity programme. In 2010 Nick Clegg vowed: “We’re not going to allow a great north-south divide to reappear.” That is precisely what has occurred. Local authorities in the northeast and the north-west have been forced to cut spending by 12 per cent, compared to just 4.6 per cent in the south-east. Worse, the north has been drained of state investment, with 89 per cent of transport spending allocated to London and the south-east, including £16.5bn for Crossrail and £6.5bn for the Thameslink upgrade.

    The government has championed High Speed 2 as a means of bridging the divide, but by strengthening the gravitational pull of London and reducing the number of northern intercity services the project (which, if it goes ahead, will not be completed until 2033) risks having the reverse effect. The lack of private as well as public investment in the region reflects its political weakness. While Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond act as cheerleaders for London and Scotland, respectively, the north has no equivalent figure of national prominence. All attempts at devolution in the past decade have failed; the northeast voted overwhelmingly against an elected assembly in 2004 (prompting the shelving of planned referendums in the northwest and Yorkshire); Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield rejected the proposed creation of directly elected mayors last year. With London increasingly dominant and Scotland likely to gain greater powers if it votes against independence next year, the danger is that the north of England will become even more marginalised. Business leaders have already warned of how a fiscally autonomous Scotland could attract investment away from the region by judicious use of tax cuts and capital allowances.

    There is nothing inevitable about a growing north-south divide but more imaginative policymaking will be required. All parties should consider the proposals recently made by IPPR North, including the decentralisation of housing and transport powers, the creation of a northern investment and trade board, the establishment of Manchester as a second international airport hub and the localisation of business rates.

    In 1962 Harold Macmillan’s home secretary Henry Brooke warned: “If we do not regard it as a major government responsibility to take this situation in hand and prevent two nations developing geographically, a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south, I am sure our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness.” Five decades later, the task identified by this One Nation Tory remains the same. If the government is to achieve its stated ambitions to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on the City of London and to widen social mobility, it cannot do so on the basis of a prosperous south and a stagnant north. The divisions that were sharpened during austerity must be healed now, during recovery.


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    “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

    Behind the dark, glossy panelling lies a door. Step through it, and you leave behind the hall’s twisting balustrades and oil paintings to descend a short flight of dusty steps into the gloom. As the electric light clicks on, the underground passage is revealed – brick-lined, wide enough and high enough that there’s no need to cringe or creep as you move along it. This is a secret passage, but it is not secretive.

    The tunnel is one of many improvements Anne Lister made to Shibden Hall when she inherited it in 1826. The 15th-century manor house stands over what she called the “old bank” from Halifax itself, set high on the side of its own valley. At one time, much of the surrounding land belonged to the Lister family.

    From the front door, you can see woods, fields, farms, hills – a breathtaking view of a Yorkshire landscape, yes, but also an ever-present reminder that the mistress of Shibden wasn’t just playing house. Her tunnel was probably dug by workers seconded from her coal mines and it was intended to give her servants a means of getting from one end of the house to the other without their employer having to lay eyes on them. Anne Lister was very conscious of her elevated position in Halifax society. But, like the tunnel, she, too, was hiding in plain sight.

    On 29 January 1821, she wrote in her journal: “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.” Set down in what she called her “crypthand”, the code she had developed from numbers and Greek letters, it is an extraordinarily intimate, candid confession. But it is also a sort of manifesto, a commitment to seek a lifestyle that had not yet been invented. At a time when female homosexuality was denied and abhorred, she resolved not to push aside her natural impulses but to pursue all her ambitions – to educate herself beyond the level of most men, to make her estate prosper, and to find someone she loved with whom all of it could be shared.

    When a paperback colleaction of her journal was published in 2010, the author Emma Donoghue wrote that “the Lister diaries are the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history. They change everything.” Others concurred: Professor Catherine Euler of the University of Arizona believes that they represent the earliest known non-fiction, first-person account of lesbian sexuality, and she is “unaware of anything similar anywhere else on the planet”. In 2011 the significance of the diaries was formally recognised by the UN and they were included on the Unesco Memory of the World register, next to Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

    The 24 volumes offer a rich insight into lesbian life in the early 19th century, but that is not their only value. Anne chronicled family tensions, Halifax society and Yorkshire industry in extraordinary detail – Jill Liddington, a historian at the University of Leeds, has estimated that the diaries are between four and five million words in length. Lister also had ways of conveying information without words, as I discovered when her biographer Helena Whitbread showed me one of the original volumes in the archive at Halifax central library. As well as the lengthy passages in code, which Lister used for anything of an intimate nature (including, but not limited to, details of her sexual encounters), she drew symbols in the margin as a kind of shorthand for significant events.

    Whitbread, who has been working on Anne Lister’s writings and life for over 30 years, has identified most of these: one means she received a letter that day, another that she sent a note, yet another that she’d had a particularly satisfying orgasm.

    In less genteel circles in Halifax, Lister was known as “Gentleman Jack”. On her daily walks around the estate and in town, people often wondered aloud whether she was a man or a woman. Anxiety about her appearance is a recurring theme of her writing. In 1817, she writes that she has “entered upon my plan of always wearing black” to stop the disparaging comments.

    The Listers were an old Halifax family and Anne always considered herself the social superior of the newer, mercantile class. Perhaps because of this – as well as her unorthodox personal life – she was always something of an outsider in the town. In one sense, though, she was fiercely conventional. After a passionate affair of many years with Marianna Lawton, a married woman, Lister “married” Ann Walker, the heiress of another Halifax estate. They lived together at Shibden Hall until Lister’s death while travelling in Russia in 1840. Indeed, it was Walker’s money that paid for many of the improvements to their home – the waterfall, the lake, the library tower and the tunnel.

    There is one alteration, however, that Anne did not mastermind though it is a crucial part of her story. When I tell Kevin Kilroy, one of the guides at Shibden Hall, that I am interested in Anne Lister, he gives me a look. “There’s one thing you have to see, then.” We climb the stairs to a small room on the first floor, where a wall swings forward to expose empty wooden shelves. “There,” he says, gesturing proudly at the bare shelves. “That’s where they were.”

    It might look like an empty cupboard, but this is a very important empty cupboard. Anne’s descendant John Lister rediscovered her diaries in the late 19th century and managed to transcribe some of the coded portions. A scandalised friend urged him to destroy the volumes, and fearing his own reputation would be destroyed by the hint of a hereditary taint of homosexuality, John agreed not to make the diaries public. But, as a keen antiquarian, he could not bring himself to destroy documents of such historical significance. Instead, he hid them away behind the wall in his library to await a time when Anne Lister’s life would be celebrated, rather than condemned.


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    We often assume that focusing too much on a person’s body and physical characteristics objectifies and dehumanises that person, but studies have shown that it can have benefits.

    When meeting someone for the first time, your impression of that person may be different if you meet that person at a formal dinner party, a cocktail party, or a pool party. These settings typically influence how the person dresses and how much skin they expose. Whether you consciously pay attention to a person’s exposed skin or not, focusing on their body may have unintended consequences.

    We often assume that focusing too much on a person’s body and physical characteristics objectifies and dehumanises that person. A 2012 study in the journal Psychological Science showed both men and women viewed other women portrayed as “sexy” as objects.

    But it is less clear what takes place psychologically when we focus on a person’s body and the consequences of objectification. A team of researchers, led by Paul Bloom at Yale University, conducted a series of studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, to determine if focusing on a person’s body alters perception of that person, and if it leads to perceive that person differently and whether those perceptions can have benefits.

    The naked truth

    In the first study, researchers tested whether focusing on a person’s face or body influenced perceived capabilities related to agency, which includes factors such as self-control, acting morally, and planning, and the person’s ability to have experiences, such as pleasure, hunger, and desire. Study participants received a brief description (“On weekends, Erin/Aaron likes to hang out with friends.”) along with a picture of Erin/Aaron’s face only, or a picture of face and their unclothed upper body (Erin wore a bikini, Aaron was bare-chested).

    Participants rated pictures by answering the following question, “Compared to the average person, how much is this person capable of X?” The results indicated that participants who saw body-focused pictures perceived the person pictured as having more experience and less agency. Thus, participants did not fully dehumanise participants, but rather saw them as having less control, but also saw them as more sensitive to emotion and pain.

    Next the researchers increased the amount of flesh participants saw by getting perceptions of naked vs clothed people. To do this, the researchers used ten sets of professionally photographed pictures featuring an adult film actor posing for a picture from thighs on up with clothes and without clothes (genitals were blurred). These photos were an ideal comparison because the two pictures were identical, same lighting – same pose and same expression, but one was with clothes and the other without. More than 500 participants from many countries rated a single picture on the same agency and experience items as the first study. Just like before, participants rated naked participants as having more experience and less agency compared to clothed participants.

    The next study extended the previous one by adding a group with pictures of the same person in an explicitly sexual pose. Thus, the researchers compared three types of pictures – fully clothed, naked-neutral expression, naked-sexual expression – on agency, experience and suggestiveness. Participants rated the naked-sexual expression picture as having the most experience and least agency compared to the fully clothed picture, with naked-neutral picture falling in between. When participants saw a picture as more sexually suggestive, they also rated the person pictured as having less agency and more experience.

    Body focus

    Showing more skin, it seems, makes others less capable and responsible, but also more sensitive and experienced. Focusing on exposed skin yields some positive perceptions, which is contrary to people’s common perception. To see if “body-focus” had more benefits, the researchers conducted two additional studies.

    First, the researchers had participants read descriptions of Michael and Jeffrey. Michael’s description focused on his body, including his double jointed wrists, type-A negative blood and that his heart beats at about 80 beats/minute. In contrast, Jeffrey’s description focused on his mind, including his ability to remember names by associating other words with them, and that when he is trying to drive somewhere new, he creates a mental map in his mind.

    Next participants imagined Michael and Jeffrey in two scenarios, one that asked who was more to blame after they both skipped out on a restaurant bill, and another scenario that asked which of them would suffer more harm from a mugging. Michael’s body-focused description led participants to perceive him as less to blame for not paying the bill and more capable of being hurt during the mugging.

    In the last study, female college students were led to believe that they could give electric shocks to another participant, who was actually part of the study. The key was whether women were more willing to shock the male confederate when he was wearing a shirt or when he was bare-chested. Results indicated that females gave fewer shocks in the body-focused condition where the male showed skin compared to the condition where he wore a shirt, ostensibly because participants were more conscious of the bare-chested male’s ability to experience harm and pain.

    These studies show that focusing on a person’s body instead of their mind has its positives. Though it certainly has positive aspects, it is important to note that this does not mean being body-focused is entirely positive. Seeing others as lacking agency may make them seem easier to control, less moral, or incapable of making decisions. But it certainly provides something to think about when choosing your next outfit.

    Gary W Lewandowski Jr does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

    The Conversation

    This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Sexist MPs aren't macho. They're pathetic dweebs (Observer)

    The MPs making obscene gestures at Sarah Champion and other women in the Commons are the backbench nonentities, says Barbara Ellen.

    2. Africa’s greatest man, and he gave up power. Over to you, Mugabe (Sunday Times) (£)

    Remarkable as was Nelson Mandela’s ascendancy to the presidency of South Africa, it was no more exceptional than the manner of his departure from it, writes Dominic Lawson.

    3. Shout it out - two Eds aren't better than one (Independent on Sunday)

    Meeting a wall of noise with a wall of slogans is not the answer, says John Rentoul.

    4. Cameron's chickens are in for another roasting (Mail on Sunday)

    Rather than sticking to the economy, which is growing at a good clip, Cameron and Osborne have chased Miliband like headless chickens, says James Forsyth.

    5. Iain Duncan Smith's catalogue of waste and poverty (Observer)

    Sneaking out an admission of yet more delays to his grandiose universal credit system comes as no surprise given Iain Duncan Smith's past record, says Nick Cohen.

    6. The great housing crisis: Labour beats Tories over new homes (Independent on Sunday)

    Conservative councils build only half as much affordable and social housing, says Jane Merrick.

    7. Sometimes, Nanny really does know what's good for us (Observer)

    Rants about health fascists from the likes of Nigel Farage are not only wearing thin, they're wrong, says Catherine Bennett.

    8. Today's child-snatchers are as evil as Philomena's nuns (Mail on Sunday)

    We are very good at judging the past and sneering at the misdeeds of our parents and grandparents. We are not so good at seeing or condemning our own faults, says Peter Hitchens.

    9. Nigella, the domestic tigress, wakes and roars (Sunday Times) (£)

    I am still at a slight loss to understand how Nigella Lawson’s drug-taking, real or imagined, has anything to do with the fraud case involving her ingrate former assistants, says India Knight.

    10. Cameron's chickens are in for another roasting (Mail on Sunday)

    Rather than sticking to the economy, which is growing at a good clip, Cameron and Osborne have chased Miliband like headless chickens, says James Forsyth.


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    There is one example when they did . . .

    According to popular belief, economists rarely manage to predict correctly the consequences of important policy actions. Nevertheless, the case of the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is one of those instances which economists did get it right.

    Indeed, as far back as 1977, the MacDougall Report to the European Commission concluded that because the European Economic Community budget was very small, “… in present circumstances monetary union is impracticable.” Moreover, many economists on both sides of the Atlantic were cautioning against the planned single currency in the absence of a significant fiscal redistribution facility and/or the ability to run countercyclical fiscal policy.

    Nevertheless, the political bandwagon prevailed, and the Delors Report threw caution to the wind and assumed that EMU could proceed without significant increases in the size of the EU budget, which was hovering around 1% of GDP (the 1977 Report was deeming it as necessary that the federal budget be as large as 10% of GDP). The only “concession” to economists’ concerns was the Maastricht Treaty rules imposing limits on government debts and deficits — as encapsulated in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).

    However, the precedence given to moral-hazard considerations (and the defective way they were applied) over countercyclical fiscal policy — due to the fear that profligate governments would be too keen to run large budget deficits in recessions but very reluctant to run offsetting budget surpluses in booms — proved detrimental. Since the main focus of the SGP was on deficit limits, the resulting reduction (due to the euro) in real interest rates and concomitant boom experienced by some of the ‘periphery’ countries of the Eurozone made it very easy for governments to run (or to claim that they do) budget deficits below the 3% (of GDP) limit. Yet, this semblance of fiscal prudence — when in fact governments should be running budget surpluses — undermined their ability to conduct appropriately expansionary fiscal policy, when the boom ended, without running excessively large budget deficits.

    To a large extent the semblance of fiscal prudence was aided by the very large current account deficits which some of the periphery countries were allowed to run during the Euro’s first decade. Although this appears to run counter to the well-known “twin deficits hypothesis” (i.e. that a larger budget deficit leads to a larger current account deficit), the experience of the periphery countries suggests that it is possible the direction of causality to be from a larger current account deficit to a smaller budget deficit.

    For the periphery countries, EMU participation facilitated international borrowing at lower interest rates, allowing for a huge deterioration in the current account while the budget deficit improved. The reason is that imports, which become possible through international borrowing, need not fully displace spending on domestically produced goods (they may even increase it!). Moreover, they can create a revenue boon for the government. For example, car imports generate immediate tax revenue (VAT, registration taxes, etc.). They also allow for increases in domestic value added (e.g. services related to sales, advertising, and repairs of automobiles), thus allowing for second-round increases in income tax revenue. In the same vein, foreign loans (intermediated through the domestic banking sector) allowed for housing booms and created unsustainable increases in tax revenue.

    The upshot of the above is that cynical governments may “achieve” a seemingly strict adherence to the SGP limits on budget deficits (they may even run budget surpluses as Spain and Ireland did), for some years, by running current account deficits; however, once foreign capital dries out the lack of fiscal space for countercyclical fiscal policy becomes evident. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the SGP provided the wrong signals about the exercise of countercyclical fiscal policy. It also failed to provide a replacement for the lack of market discipline. The moral is that the warnings of economists about the ability of the SGP to provide a framework for “monetary and fiscal stability” should have been heeded.

    George Economides and Thomas Moutos, Guest Editors of the CESifo Economic Studies Special Issue on ‘EMU: The Way Forward’, are Professors of Economics in the Department of International and European Economic Studies, Athens University of Economics and Business, and CESifo Research Fellows.

    CESifo Economic Studies publishes provocative, high-quality papers in economics, with a particular focus on policy issues. Papers by leading academics are written for a wide and global audience, including those in government, business, and academia. The journal combines theory and empirical research in a style accessible to economists across all specialisations.

    This article first appeared on blog.oup.com, and is republished here with permission


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Under the iPads and PS4s the ghoul of debt is lurking (Guardian)

    Wages are low, debt is rising, and our economy is as vulnerable as it was five years ago, writes John Harris. Yet the Christmas binge is back.

    2. Take if from me: wages are not going to rise much over the coming years (Independent)

    The Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts are way too optimistic, says David Blanchflower. 

    3. Obama cannot lead from behind on trade (Financial Times)

    Continuing to tiptoe around the issue is unlikely to serve the president for much longer, says Edward Luce.

    4. In Scotland, the unionists need to win hearts, not minds (Guardian)

    An economic argument won't decide the independence referendum, says Chris Huhne. What matters is whether Scots feel British.

    5. I was planning on a dash for the aspirin – and then you rang in (Daily Telegraph)

    Rich rainmakers and hedgies need to copy the generosity shown by the Telegraph’s readers, says Boris Johnson. 

    6. MPs' pay: Westminster unreality cheque (Guardian)

    The gap between what MPs say about their own pay in private and what they feel constrained to say in public is immense, notes a Guardian editorial. 

    7. Reasons not to fear superchildren (Financial Times)

    Pisa represents only one measure of performance in schools, writes Sam Freedman.

    8. Osborne’s festive bells simply don’t ring true (Times)

    What recovery? Britain is weighed down by old people and lack of productivity, writes Emma Duncan. 

    9. An obsessive’s documenting of Israeli war crimes in Lebanon can show us how the west lost respect for international law (Independent)

    One Norwegian officer left Lebanon with a typed report on torture taped to his chest, writes Robert Fisk. 

    10. A gender gap that simply doesn’t add up (Daily Telegraph)

    The shocking divide between boys and girls in maths and science is damaging Britain, says Elizabeth Truss. 


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    The Work and Pensions Secretary says he "never wanted to dwell on figures" after the OBR forecasts less than 10% of his original target will be met.

    After trying, with some success, to bury bad news about Universal Credit under coverage of George Osborne's Autumn Statement last week, Iain Duncan Smith will find it harder to avoid scrutiny of his failures today. He will appear before the work and pensions select committee at 4:30pm to answers questions about the problems with the programme and Labour is highlighting new OBR figures showing just how few claimants will be on the benefit by the time of the election. 

    As recently as March 2013, it was forecast that 1.7 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by 2015 but as the table below shows, that figure has now been rounded down to zero. As I reported last week, there were just 2,150 people on the benefit at the end of September, 997,850 claimants short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million. By 2015-16, the OBR expects 400,000 people to be claiming Universal Credit, less than 10% of the original target of 4.5 million. Nearly three million (2.9 million) are forecast to be on the system by 2017 but the OBR warns that "given the delays to date, and the scale of migration required in 2016 and 2017, there is clearly a risk that the eventual profile differs significantly from this new assumption". It notes that the government's new migration timetable "has yet to be subjected to full business case approval". 

    Universal Credit: from 1.7 million to zero

    Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, Duncan Smith defended his record on the basis that, unlike in the case of previous government failures over tax credits and the NHS IT system, "no one has been affected". But this defence relies on him accepting that he has failed to deliver the "welfare revolution" he so confidently promised in 2010 in favour of damage limitation. After regularly boasting that more than a million people would be on the system by 2014, he unconvincingly claimed that he "never wanted to dwell on figures", before eventually conceding: "I do accept, of course, that this plan is different from the original plan." 

    It was in September, in an an excoriating report, that the National Audit Office warned that "throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work", that the 2017 national roll-out date was in serious doubt, that the department "has not achieved value for money", with £34m of IT programmes written off, that the current IT system "lacks the ability to identify potentially fraudulent claims" and that the DWP repeatedly ignored warnings about the viability of the project. Duncan Smith recenty told the work and pensions select committee that he was merely following advice from MPs "not to go too fast" but as Labour chair Anne Begg replied, "There's rushing it and there's a snail pace".

    Also appearing on Today, Rachel Reeves described the programme as "a shambles" and declared that "the whole project is now in disarray". But the shadow work and pensions secretary again affirmed that Labour still believes in "the principle of Universal Credit", a position that contrasts with that taken by the SNP, which has pledged to scrap the scheme if Scotland votes for independence next year. While Reeves is rightly using Duncan Smith's failures to gain the political edge over her opponent, the longer they continue, the more urgent the question becomes of just how Labour will get the project back on track if it wins in 2015. 


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    A private survey of 100 MPs by YouGov found that 69% thought they were underpaid with an average salary of £86,250 recommended.

    While you'll struggle to find an MP prepared to publicly defend the 11% pay rise proposed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which would take their annual salary to £74,000, many take a different view in private. An anonymous survey of 100 MPs conducted by YouGov on IPSA's behalf found that 69% thought they were underpaid, with an average salary of £86,250 recommended. On average, Tory MPs proposed a salary of £96,740, the Lib Dems £78,361 and Labour £77,322. A fifth suggested that they should be paid £95,000 or more. But don't expect many to say so. 

    With MPs powerless to prevent the increase unless they strip IPSA of its responsibility for setting pay (which, ironically, it was awarded following the expenses scandal in an attempt to increase trust), it seems likely that many will either refuse to accept the rise or donate the money to charity. Danny Alexander said yesterday: "I think it would be wholly inappropriate for MPs to get such a large pay rise at a time when every other public sector worker sees their pay rises capped at 1 per cent. I have said in the past that, personally, I wouldn’t accept it" His Conservative cabinet colleague Philip Hammond said: "I suspect the Prime Minister would want cabinet ministers to make a clear, collective statement about what they would do. I suspect there will be a strong mood in the Cabinet that we all need to say the same thing." 

    For Labour, Ed Balls said: "How can they possibly be saying we should discuss pay comparability when everybody else is seeing their pay frozen or falling?" When the proposed increase first emerged in July, Ed Miliband pledged to scrap it if Labour is elected and simultaneously called for "new limits" on MPs' earnings from second jobs and "new rules" on conflicts of interests, declaring that "the British people must be reassured that their MPs are working for them". 

    Elsewhere, reflecting the line that many MPs will take, Nick Boles tweeted: "If MP pay rise is imposed I'll give to local charities anything above average wage rise at time. IPSA plan is wrong when people struggling."


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    By Simon Lebus, Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment.

    ‘Cut out the middleman and go direct!’ It’s something we’re often urged to do by advertisers who claim they can save us money and time. But can we do the same in the world of education? And would we want to? What would be the result if the student bypassed the teacher and accessed knowledge directly? Learning without teachers – it couldn’t happen, could it?

    These are just some of the questions Cambridge Assessment will be asking at its next event, Schools in the Cloud, which will be held at the British Library in February.

    We will be hearing from Sugata Mitra, the man who has perhaps done more than anyone to develop the idea of learning without teachers.

    Professor Mitra is the man who famously installed a computer in the wall of a Delhi slum and discovered that children could teach themselves using it. He has now been awarded the $1 million TED prize, which he is using to create eight ‘cloud schools’ and further his vision of childdriven learning.

    So what are the benefits, and are there risks? As experts in assessment, we have long believed it is our role to ask difficult questions, to stimulate the education debate and help to shape thinking.

    It is clear to us that the technology provides a space for different approaches to learning. There is scope to use it to take on some of the more routine elements of education, so teachers can concentrate on going beyond the curriculum, or focus on areas where students are having difficulty. It shifts students’ perception of their role in learning; they can decide the content and as a result they may be more keen to engage. The technology brings with it too some exciting pedagogical possibilities; the capacity to monitor and analyse how people learn, what they find easy and difficult, and tailor lessons accordingly.

    So should we be positively embracing this brave new world, a world without teachers, where the self-taught rule?

    We should perhaps first consider the extent to which this technology disintermediates the teacher – or in simpler terms, cuts out the middleman. What if the middleman was actually rather important? To what extent is teaching about face-to-face interaction?

    As a society we will surely always value the social dimension of learning, pupil/teacher interaction, the capacity of the teacher to deal with serendipitous ancillary lines of enquiry which machines cannot.

    A further point. We hear a lot these days about the importance of 21st century skills. Collaboration; team work; empathy – to what extent are these skills that are primarily acquired in the classroom, or indeed on the sports field or in the playground? Is it sensible to imagine that a cloud-based approach to learning will permit such skills to develop?

    Even if we could ignore the importance of a school and its teachers as a centre for education, there are surely other reasons why it is important for children to attend school. Not least socialisation; learning to live with each other and learning to accept structures and authority.

    There is no denying that the technology is marching ahead and we cannot afford to stand still. But there are lots of questions, and strong views on either side of the debate. Fertile ground for a fascinating conversation. I hope you can join us.

    Cambridge Assessment is a not-for-profit department of the University of Cambridge that owns and manages its three exam boards.

    l Schools in the Cloud will take place on Tuesday 11 February 2014 at the British Library Conference Centre in London. To register for a free place, please email expertview@ cambridgeassessment. org.uk or call +44 (0)1223 558370.


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    Sponsored post: “A shipful of visitors can mean a 10 per cent boost to the population” - Neil Costa MP

    Neil Costa is a man with things on his mind. He is the minister for tourism and public transport in Gibraltar – to give him his full title he is Hon Neil Costa, MP (one of his predecessors was named Holliday, and yes, of course they’ve heard all the gags). Costa isyouthfuland energetic and liaisesclosely with the jurisdiction’s Tourist Board. The board’s chief executive, Nicky Guerrero, is equally occupied.

    It’s a tiny peninsula so nobody works terribly far from anybody else, but along with several other officials, the ministerworks from Europort, the large concrete and arguably faceless building towards the south of the Rock. It is of course the job of the minister and his CEOto persuade incoming tourists that the territory itself is anything but faceless. In fact, Costa has a particular subset of this aim in mind; he wants to encourage guests from staying just one night (if that; the Rock is well known for attracting day trippers) and encourage them to stay longer. He is also determined to attract visitors from territories thathaven’t previously been in the habit of sending many tourists over. The opportunity for the right entrepreneurs is clear – if he succeeds, there will be many pickings for people with the right business ideas.

    “We have to develop our visitor profile,” confirms the Gibraltar Tourist Board’s Guerrero. “The majority of our visitors come for the day across the border. A lot of them will be people who are already holidaying in the areas around Gib, and we also have people from ships. There are 180 visits scheduled to Gibraltar from cruise ships, and the ships are getting bigger,” he says. “Some ships will have up to 3,000 passengers on board. That’s effectively a 10per centboost to the population, in a single day – except one day this year wehad four ships in one day.”

    As well as people visiting Gib as a destination in its own right, a large number use it as a transit point, says Guerrero. “They come to us and use our airport because they prefer it to the ones in the surrounding areas,” he says. “So we have quite a mixed profile of visitor, and they each require a different strategy and different marketing.”

    So if there are that many visitors on a rock of six square miles, why does the profile need building? “We are trying to attract more people to stay overnight,” Guerrero says,“from the UK and other markets in Europe. The UK remains a core market and will do so for the foreseeable future. This isn’t just because of the obvious connection of Gib being British by history, but air connections are well established. Brits can be here in two or three hours, which adds to the ‘day trip’ nature of the destination.” This is something the board finds frustrating, as does the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo.

    Yet thatdoesn’t mean Gibraltar wants to discourage day trippers from visiting, stresses Costa. “Day trippers are very welcome indeed to our shores and they do provide very important economic activity. But what we’d prefer for Gibraltar in addition are weekenders’ breaks.” Not that these aren’t happening already, but the inhabitants would clearly like to see more. Guerrero concedes that the typical image of a visit to the Rock is of a trip that lasts a couple of hours – a bit of shopping, see the apes, and out. “Whereas in the past people might have come for a day to shop, what we’re aiming to do, once they’re here,is to entice themto stay longer and to visit again,” Costa explains. “We’re continuing to promote Gibraltar internationally, through trade fairs or meetings one to one with cruise-line executives, airline executives, tour operators in the UK and so on, but there has been less work in the past on converting the day tripper into a tourist.”

    Naturally they’re biased, but the minister and the chief executive believe there is much more to see than many people realise when they visit, if only they stay. The heritage and the culture are notable, and a lot has been achieved to promote them. The current government campaigned hard on event-led tourism as a way of encouraging visits to the Rock. In office, the government has already rolled out an impressive array of attractive events, such asthe Rock’s very first international literary festival. The idea is to get people visiting and staying when there is no sun – bad weather is not as frequent in Gibraltar as it is in the UK, but there are colder months. There is also a difficulty in selling the Rock as a sun destination; the weather is fine but the beaches are small and, reasonably enough, the localsdescend on them and fill them up when they get the chance. “Of course there’s space for tourists, but if 3,000 of them descended on our beaches one day it would be quite the task to accommodate all of them,” Costa says.

    The current administration has continued its predecessor’s work in developing infrastructure for overnighters. A leisure development called Ocean Village is now up and running. This includes bars, restaurants and nightclubs, as does the nearby Casemates, a square at the end of the main street. “There’s a lively nightlife to complement the heritage and the history, so we’re actively promoting Gibraltar also asa modern, vibrant city,” says Costa.

    Another area in which the jurisdiction is developing is extension of the classic tour. There are more of them but more importantly they have different themes. “There’s your standard Rock tour,” says Guerrero, “but there are other sights. There’s very beautiful architecture; you’re tempted to look at eye level and see the shops when you walk down the main street but you miss a lot if you don’t look up.”

    Ironically for a place that has been under UK jurisdiction for 300 years, the tourism people are now starting to market the territory as “undiscovered”. Guerrero says that when the government hosts someone, ifthey spend the night, they end up enjoying it more than they had expected and agreeing it’s a great destination.

    “You mustn’t ignore our unique geographical location,” he adds. “There aren't many places where you can stand on a 1,396ft peak and look out at three countries spanning two continents.” You can of course see Spain, but on a clear day you can make out the coast of Africa as well. People wanting to explore the African continentfurther will find it’s a ferry ride away.

    If it all sounds a little too convenient to be true, this could be right,for the moment. Costa concedes that, as well as marketing the Rock, which has many benefits, there is a need to improve connectivity, infrastructure and links with other territories. “We are working daily on sustainable connectivity to Spain,” he says. “Unfortunately the two airlines, Iberia and British Airways, had aircraft that were just too big, so they were only ever half full. Had they had smaller aircraft they would have been full, but because they used the Airbus A320 and A319 and there were two operators it just wasn’t sustainable.” The timing of flights wasn’t right either, he suggests: “It should have been a huge success story for Gibraltar but it wasn’t properly analysed.”

    The government now believes it has worked out the right formula for aircraft size and times of day for travel, but as the earlier experiment failed it has been difficult to persuade a new operator to come in. Sustainable connectivity to Spain remains a goal even as conflict on the border flares up every few years, as does the connection to Morocco. “If people can fly from Madrid or Morocco to Gibraltar, they will come either as tourists or as business travellers. There was an occasion recently when I flew from London to Gibraltar and the front of the bus, the business class seats, were up to row 12.” Replicating this connectivity to Madrid would link another major hub to Gib, Costa believes. “Any properly sized aircraft at the right time would be full.” Conversations with operators in Spain and Morocco are ongoing.

    There has been legislative change under the current administration that willhelp. Around Easter this year Moroccans, Russians, Chinese and Mongolians were allowed to apply for tourist visas to allow them to visit Gibraltar for up to 21 days. A thousand two hundredhad visited by September. These were Costa’s idea of touristsin the usualsense:people who come to stay overnightrather than just have a snapshot taken with a Barbary ape (not that he wants people to miss this experience, either). There are affluent people in Morocco who want to spend money on luxury European goods, he observes, and Gibraltar wants to welcome them. There is another advantage to marketing to the Moroccans, of course: Gibraltar doesn’t get involved in territorial disputes with Morocco, whereas relations with Spain tell a different story.

    The willingness of the effort to get people into the country is beyond doubt; if they all turn up, though, the facilities for them (Ocean City and Casemates notwithstanding) will need reconsidering. There are enough hotels for the moment, Costa says. “The statistics can give a very misleading impression. I go to one hotel terrace every weekend,a sort of second officefor work, away from emails and correspondence, and it’s always full. When you look at the statistics, though, it doesn’t seem to be doing as well.” This is because the stats compiled offer an average figure foroccupancyacrossthe entire hotel sector,thoughindividual establishments can do spectacularly well.

    There will be a need for increased capacity and it ison the way. A new luxury floating hotel, the Sunborn, is opening early next year at Ocean Village with 189 rooms; these are VVIP class, five-star-plus luxury, aiming at a particularly affluent market. The Tourist Board is also in discussion with an operator to buildadditional premises; it can’t name the operator at the moment but you get the feeling there’s another hotel in the offing. “We are working to have another four-star business hotel,” Costa confirms.

    It is clear that the Rock will needmore beds if the push for more overnight tourists is to be a success. It will also need to give some thought to the environment – 3,000 people traipsing overthe Rock from a ship is one thing; amplify that whenthey start to stay overnight, overlap with each other and get augmented by Moroccans, Russians and others, and you could have a serious problem. Costa has been working with Dr John Cortes, the minister for the environment, on a sustainable transport plan for the Upper Rock. “Right now taxis and tour operators take tourists whoarrive by sea, air or land to the Upper Rock and at times there is congestion,” Costasays. “We’re looking at how we can decongest the area, first for reasons that are environmental, but also because we want tourists who go there always to have a great time.”

    Add the possible queue to get in at the border, depending on relations with Spain at the time, and the disincentives to return could be substantial. Governmentministers are working with the various interest groups in the territory to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

    None of this should be taken to mean that day trippers will be neglected. Costa, Guerrero and their team want to expand, not replace, the existing tourist industry. If they succeed,there is a good chance that the presentunderpinnings will become unsustainable quite quickly. Clearly the administration hopes to address infrastructure before it becomes an obstacle. There are many balls in the air at the moment; if they all come down in the right order, and soon, the results should be very positive.

    This is a corrected version published on 9th December 2013. It originally appeared in the New Statesman magazine within a 16 page special report ‘Rock Solid Investment. Gibraltar: Tourism, Property, Travel’ on the 21st November 2013.


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    Flood risk is rising a result of climate change yet the government assumes it will remain the same and has cut back spending.

    Crashing waves. Sandbags. Sodden clothes, carpets and furniture. Murky water, everywhere. Flooding is devastating, a traumatic experience for anyone affected, something that takes months to recover from.

    The East Coast is still reeling from the worst storm surge in 60 years, with water levels reaching new records in certain parts of country - topping 5.8 metres in Hull, for example. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes. At one point, the Environment Agency had 56 severe flood warnings in force along almost the entire UK Eastern seaboard.

    The immediate response from the Environment Agency, emergency services and communities affected appears to have been exemplary, and a testament to how crucial it is to have strong defences and emergency plans in place. The 1953 storm surge that similarly hit huge parts of the East coast was far more immediately devastating, leading to 300 deaths. That such figures have been mercifully avoided this time around underlines the vital importance of keeping up the flood defences that have been put in place since then.

    What is unforgiveable is the government's careless approach to the risk of increased flooding in future. Its own Climate Change Risk Assessment is clear: "floods and coastal erosion are already serious risks in the UK, and they are projected to increase as a result of climate change." And yet the coalition is presiding over a real-terms cut in flood defence spending over this Parliament, and introducing a flood insurance scheme that explicitly excludes consideration of climate change as a key contributor to future flooding.

    Let's be clear: no one is claiming that specific flood events are the 'result' of climate change. It's a question of increased risk. Rising sea levels, for example, lead to greater risk of extreme surge events overtopping flood defences. Wetter winters lead to greater risk of big downpours and flash flooding.

    But the government appears not to have grasped the concept of risk at all well. Flood insurance is, of course, meant to give protection to homes against a particular likelihood of flooding happening in the future. Yet Defra's Impact Assessment for its flood insurance plans "assumes that flood risk remains the same over time. [The modelling] does not… take account of changing flood risk due to deterioration of existing flood defences, climate change or development in flood risk areas." In other words, the government’s baseline scenario assumes climate change is not happening, in the face of all the evidence.

    Why on earth has this happened? It appears that Defra have made a number of manifestly unreasonable assumptions. Its climate projections state that between 475,000 and 825,000 homes will be put at significant risk of flooding in the 2020s, as against 370,000 now - and that figure rises to a maximum of 970,000 properties with high population growth. But in its Impact Assessment, it dismisses these projections, claiming "there is too much uncertainty around [the] figures" and that "they should not be used for policy purposes". This is a basic failure to understand systemic risk. Of course there's uncertainty on the specifics - but the direction of travel is clear. The risk is getting worse.

    Worse still, Defra claims "as a working hypothesis" that "the effects of climate change and investments in flood defences are broadly offsetting." It is demonstrably not the case that current investments in flood defences are at a sufficient level to offset the effects of climate change on flooding. The government Foresight Programme and Environment Agency both recommend that flood defence spending needs to rise by £20m, year-on-year and on top of inflation out to 2035, just to keep pace with climate change. Yet the coalition has presided over a real-terms cut to flood defence spending. In other words, politicians are not doing nearly enough to protect households from the very real risks of climate change impacts.

    There is a better way. A small committee of MPs is currently scrutinising the government's flood insurance plans. Amongst them are MPs representing constituencies affected by this week's floods, such as Andrew Percy, Conservative member for Brigg and Goole along the Humber. It is within these politicians' power to amend the government's flood plans for the better.

    MPs should require the Environment Secretary to take account of climate change when setting out how many homes will benefit from the flood insurance scheme. After the flood waters recede and people return to repair their homes, it is the least politicians can do to offer British households some comfort that they will continue to be insured against these risks in future.

    David Cameron might wish to reflect, too, on whether it is really so wise to have put Owen Paterson, a climate change sceptic, in charge of protecting the country against climate change risks. His mind might turn to his party's ongoing support for fracking and fossil fuel tax breaks, only adding to the problem of climate change. And he might like to mull his recent words spoken in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, and consider how relevant they also are to Britain: "If I said to you there's a 60% chance your house might burn down... you take out some insurance. I think we should think about climate change like that."


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    Technology corporations are petitioning the US government to change their strategy on surveillance and allow the companies to disclose the quantity of requests that they are forced to cooperate with.

    Eight technology giants, including Google, have requested the US government change its surveillance policies. We answer five questions on the requested reforms.

    Which companies have made this request?

    Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Yahoo! have clubbed together to request the US government makes “wide-scale changes” to its current surveillance.

    The companies have formed an alliance on the matter called Reform Government Surveillance group.

    What has the group said exactly?

    In an open letter published on its website the group said:

    We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.

    The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual - rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.

    This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change.

    Why has this alliance come about now?

    As the alliance's statement points to significant revelations this year about the extent of spying by the US government.

    Documents were leaked in June this year by ex-US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that highlighted the various methods and frequent occurrence of US spying activities.

    Since then further revelations have continued to leak, such as allegations the US has been spying on Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was also revealed the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been bugging closed discussions inside both the United Nations and the European Union.

    How does this affect tech firms?

    Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook have all confirmed they have complied with orders to hand over data relating to "national security matters" to the US authorities. The companies have been not allowed to share details of these requests or how many they have had with their customers.

    Companies have requested they be allowed to publish details of data requests.

    "Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information," they state.

    "In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly."

    What have individual companies said?

    Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook has said: "Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information.

    "The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right."

    While Larry Page, chief executive of Google, said that security of users data was "critical" for firms, but added the same had been "undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world.”


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    The FDA doesn't want 23andMe to offer health advice with its DNA testing kits, but this is surely just the first test for regulators as the home genome industry emerges.

    At a recent family gathering I was surrounded by aunts. They were keen to show me an inheritance I was previously unaware of - “Viking hands” (or Dupuytren’s contracture, to give it its proper name).

    It’s a hand disorder. My aunts all had trouble extending their ring fingers, as Dupuytren’s causes the tendon in the finger to tighten over time. It’s not seriously debilitating in any way, but it is annoying, and my dad and his five siblings all have it to varying degrees. I’m not really sure how I'd never heard of any of my relatives mention it before, but the proof was there, wiggling in front of me.

    It’s known as “Viking hands” because Scandinavians and northern Europeans get it most of all. Being blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and slightly red of beard, I’m pretty sure I’ve got some Scandinavian in me. I’m quite looking forward to finding out if that's true.

    23andMe is a genetics testing company that has made headlines for offering SNP genotype sequencing for $99 a pop. Those genotypes make up 0.1 percent of the total human genome, but they carry a huge amount of data - importantly, both a breakdown of your ethnic ancestry (including how much of your genome is Neanderthal), and whether you're susceptible to up to 254 known health issues (so far), from Parkinson’s to high chlolesterol. All that, from spitting into a tube and posting it to California.

    The company was founded in 2006 by Anne Wojcicki, a biologist by education and biotech entrepreneur and investor by profession, and it has quietly set about trying to revolutionise (or “disrupt”, in Silicon Valley jargon) the field of human genetics. For the full backstory, it’s probably best to read Elizabeth Murphy’s in-depth profile from October's Fast Company. Here’s a snippet:

    Wojcicki is connected to the fabric of Silicon Valley, which has served her well. But her goals are global. "We're not just looking to get a venture-capital return," Wojcicki says. "We set out with this company to revolutionize health care." On the same December day when she closed a $59 million round of financing, she dropped the price of 23andMe's genetic testing from $299 to $99. While prices like that may not make taking control of one's health a universal, democratic reality, they accelerate our society's move in that direction. The end result could be a wholesale shift in the way we treat illness, a move away from our current diagnostic model to one based on prevention. That's why, if Wojcicki gets it right, 23andMe could help change the health care industry as we know it. "At $99, we are opening the doors of access," she says. "Genetics is part of an entire path for how you're going to live a healthier life."

    As 23andMe scales, its business model will shift. Right now it gets most of its revenue from the $99 that people like me pay in return for test-tube kits and the results we get back after we send off our spit-filled tubes. "The long game here is not to make money selling kits, although the kits are essential to get the base level data," says Patrick Chung, a 23andMe board member and partner at the venture-capital firm NEA. "Once you have the data, [the company] does actually become the Google of personalized health care." Genetic data on a massive scale is likely to be an extremely valuable commodity to pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and even governments. This is where the real growth potential is.

    As of September this year, 23andMe had managed to sign up 400,000 customers. The target is 25 million. That’s the kind of data pool that universities or pharmaceutical companies dream of, and which is big enough for scientists to start subjecting to big data analysis - that's the kind of analysis where immensely large data sets are run through algorithms that look for correlations that are too large or complex for a human to see alone. When it comes to certain diseases, or even those people who manage to live to ages beyond 100, being able to compare so many genetic datasets can be an immense help. The cost to a university or pharmaceutical company of building that same amount of data, of securing that much material voluntarily, is immense.

    In practice, it’s proving more complicated. 23andMe has stopped giving health advice with its kits, in response to a letter from the US Food and Drug Agency. It’s bizarre, but it looks like the company - which had gone to great lengths to try and satisfy the regulator and establish itself as legitimate and trustworthy - has brought the crackdown on itself.

    To avoid getting blocked from selling its kits by the FDA, 23andMe had resisted going all in on pushing its health services, instead emphasising the fun of discovering your genetic ancestry. Until, that is, about six months ago, which is when the FDA says it last heard from 23andMe regarding complying with its regulatory investigation. That letter, sent on 22 November, is fascinating to read - it's legalese, but it's angry legalese.

    At the same time as 23andMe was ignoring the FDA, it began pushing health results more heavily in its ads and on its websites. It seems stupidly - or even wilfully - careless, and led Forbes science and medicine reporter Matthew Herper to write: “Either 23andMe is deliberately trying to force a battle with the FDA, which I think would potentially win points for the movement the company represents but kill the company itself, or it is simply guilty of the single dumbest regulatory strategy I have seen in 13 years of covering the Food and Drug Administration.”

    When I saw the FDA’s letter, I ordered a 23andMe kit, worried I wouldn’t be able to get one for much longer - and, indeed, when you go to 23andMe’s site now there’s a message saying that, in line with the FDA’s warning, it won’t interpret health data for me as I ordered my kit after that letter arrived. Part of me wondered if living outside the US would mean I got through on a loophole, but alas, no. So, I sit and wait for the raw data to be given to me, uninterpreted by 23andMe.

    The FDA is right to be angry that 23andMe doesn't appear to be taking the regulatory process seriously, though. There are cases of 23andMe interpreting results in misleading ways, and geneticists have been worried that people may not realise that the results it provides only give a part of the picture. There is also good reason to be sceptical of any company that wants to suck up genetic information and monetise it just as thoroughly as Google has done with digital information.

    Yet, I ordered a kit. Why? Because I couldn't resist even the slight glimpse of me that it offers. There are a range of tools that I can use to dig into the raw results I should receive sometime in January, and I have no qualms about that. I doubt I'll be able to take my genotypes and correlate them with those that some studies (like this one from 2011) have linked with Dupuytren's, but I know I'm not the only person with this kind of self-investigative urge.

    It's the same thing that drives the genealogical research industry, and sites like ancestry.co.uk. It's safe to predict that home genome testing companies are going to become a common thing, and we have to hope that regulators and the healthcare industry are going to be able to get a grip on them - both in terms of preventing people from making mistakes with their health based on misleading information, and in terms of offering support and guidance to customers who worry they may have uncovered something frightening inside their genes.


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    The idea of the "gaming community" needs to die.

    Five minutes into the VGX, a glitzy American video game awards show held last Saturday, one of the hosts made a joke at the expense of transgendered people from the stage. According to numerous bloggers, he assured attendees (and the show’s great many television viewers) that the Nintendo character Wario had not undergone sex reassignment surgery. The writer Samantha Allen – herself an ardent game player – wrote eloquently about the effect the comment had on her at the Border House blog, a site for video game players who belong to marginalised groups. “When I hear a trans joke in a nationally broadcast television show,” she writes, “I’m no longer the confident woman that I’ve become over the last couple of years; I’m a scared little girl cowering in the corner, reeling from the ridicule”.

    The show host's comment is just the latest in what has been a bumper year for ill-advised video game-related ‘comedy’. At the industry’s flagship event E3 in June, a male Microsoft representative told a female colleague during the company’s press conference to “just let it happen,” as he attacked her when demonstrating the fighting game Killer Instinct. “It’ll be over soon,” he said, drawing a salacious comparison between his on-screen domination and a forced sexual encounter. “I don't like this," his colleague said in the reportedly improvised exchange, for which Microsoft later apologised.

    These faux pas have not been limited to the US. Microsoft publically severed ties with a prominent YouTube presenter after he appeared on stage during a launch event for the company's Xbox One console last month. KSI, as the 18-year-old is known, is famed for his ‘shock-jock’ approach to presenting. He was banned from the Eurogamer video game conference in 2012 after making inappropriate comments to women on film, and he’s been widely criticised for his ‘rape face’ series of videos. In each incident the humour’s subtext has been clear: video games are the dominion of a particular demographic. Those outside of this group are ripe for ridicule.

    Video games are the most profitable medium in the entertainment industry. In the early 1990s Nintendo generated more annual profits than all of the American film studios combined. But despite its size, the medium’s audience is often referred to as a homogenous group. Players and commentators talk of the ‘gaming community’, as if the cross-cultural, socially diverse mass of humans who play video games is somehow uniform in gender, race, age and class. The idiocy of the term is only too clear when applied to other media such as literature (the ‘reading community’?), music (the ‘listening community’?) or film (the ‘observing community’?).

    The term is a miserable legacy of the medium’s niche past, where video games were viewed as the sole preserve of white, western indoors-y teenagers. The cliché has proven indelible. ‘Gamers’ (a term that further segregates ‘players’, while adding unwelcome ghost notes that call to mind the gambling industry) are routinely represented in media as socially inept boys with poor hygiene and a proclivity for impotent rage, perhaps expressed down a Britney-style head mic while playing online shooters, or typed wrathfully onto an internet forum. Gamers are depicted as the contemporary nerd group, a mildly downtrodden crowd, shunned by the jocks and achievers. Gamers are the losers who spend their days in darkened bedrooms furiously tapping on controllers or keyboards in a solitary pursuit that sits close to masturbation in the mind.

    The stereotype is powerful and, while it presents non-gamers with an image of the typical player, also informs gamers. Many gain instruction as to how the world views them and the expectation, as is so often the case, becomes self-fulfilling: they play to type. But the ‘gaming community’ is not a homogenous group. The BBC estimates that 100% of British teenagers play video games in some form or other. Within the next century ‘gamers’ will be a term that encompasses every gay and transgender person, every girl and woman, every politician in the cabinet, everyone with a title in the House of Lords, every teacher, nurse, banker, social worker, dustman and paedophile. Video games and their players will be acknowledged as ubiquitous, and the medium’s commentators will be free to move from advocacy (the endless articles and television programmes that, beneath the angle, exist primarily to plead the case that games matter) to more rounded criticism.

    But for now, gamers are dishonestly classed as a standardized tribe. Who gains from maintaining the pervading stereotype? There is an argument to say that the game-makers and publishers benefit: they are more easily able to target their marketing to a large and discrete group (“this is for the players” states Sony’s current advertising campaign for its PlayStation 4, for example). But this isn’t quite true: see Nintendo’s gargantuan efforts during the past five years to reach people outside of the traditional gamer demographic. In truth, it’s gamers who fit within the demographic that benefit the most: here, within the artifice of a ‘community’ they find a place to belong, a place where they fit, are understood and are free to be themselves and, together with like-minded people, enjoy a sense of collective power.

    There is nothing deplorable about this; the urge to form groups with like-minded people is a universal one. But when that collective power is turned against those on the margins of the group, or those who present valid criticisms of its unifying subject (such as the American-Canadian feminist Anita Sarkeesian, who has been subject to everything from verbal abuse to threats of violence following her Tropes vs. Women series) it becomes problematic. Sarkeesian, for example,was e-mailed images of herself being raped by video game characters.

    There are many reasons that video games are a potent draw to the human mind, but perhaps none more so than the fact that they are endlessly fair and just. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard in a game and you level up. Take the path that's opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. Every player is given an equal chance to succeed. As such, there is a prelapsarian quality to video games that makes them irresistible, especially to people whose experiences in life have been of injustice and arch unfairness.

    If you are a member of a downtrodden marginalised group, what better salve could there be than a video game, the great contemporary leveller? Games do not distinguish between privilege and under-privilege, between rich and poor, between gay and straight, between loved and abused: in their dimension, everybody is given an equal opportunity. The sense of betrayal then, when the ‘community’ around games does not reflect these qualities can be devastating, especially for a person who has grown to love the medium for those very things that its dominant group of participants fail to embody.

    The remedy is, as always, education. Education establishes empathy, and video games are better poised than almost any other medium to participate in this work. They allow us to inhabit the shoes of ‘others’, to view the world through their eyes and to experience the challenges that they endure. Mattie Brice’s Mainichi offers an arresting glimpse into life as a mixed race transgender woman and the daily challenges faced. Games that explore this subject matter can help us understand the lives and challenges of other human beings. If executed well by the creator and absorbed properly by the player, these works can even have a transformative effect both for the individual and, in turn, the ‘community’ of players that exists around games. The solution, then, might yet be found within.


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    "His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying. For nobler ideals, higher purposes and for a bigger and not a smaller politics."

    Mr Speaker, today we remember the incomparable life of Nelson Mandela.

    This House traditionally gathers to pay tribute to those who have led our country.

    It is unusual for us to meet to honour the leader of another.

    Why was it so essential that we should commemorate the life of President Mandela in this way?

    For simple reasons.

    He is an enduring and unique symbol of courage, hope and the fight against injustice.

    He teaches us the power of forgiveness, showing no bitterness towards his captors.

    Just the love of a country that could be so much better if all of its people could be free.

    And he demonstrates even to the most sceptical, the power of people and politics to change our world.

    That is why we gather here today.

    So on behalf of my Party, I send the deepest condolences to his widow Graca Machel, the Mandela family and all of the people of South Africa.

    We mourn with them.

    Today is an opportunity to remember the extraordinary story of Nelson Mandela’s life.

    He led a movement - the ANC - that liberated his country.

    He endured the suffering and sacrifice of 27 years in prison.

    A son unable to attend his mother’s funeral.

    A father unable to attend his son’s.

    But in the face of such oppression his spirit never bent or broke.

    Offered the chance of release in 1985, after more than 20 years in jail, on the condition he gave up the armed struggle, he refused.

    “I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of my people to be free”, he said.

    We honour him too because of the remarkable person the world found him to be after he walked out of prison in 1990, in those scenes we still remember today.

    As his old comrade, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “suffering can embitter its victims but equally it can ennoble the sufferer.”

    There can be nothing more noble than determining not to seek revenge on your oppressors but to seek reconciliation with them.

    He truly was, as Archbishop Tutu said, an “icon of magnanimity”.

    That is why he became not just the leader of a struggle but truly can be described as the father of a nation.

    As we have seen in the tributes and emotion that he has inspired since his death in the black and the white communities in South Africa.

    And we honour him too because for him the struggle against injustice was a story that never ended.


    Having been an activist who became a President, he was a President who became an activist once again.

    Campaigning on causes from debt relief to HIV/AIDS to the war in Iraq.

    And we honour somebody too who wore his extraordinary heroism with the utmost humility.

    A year after he gave up the Presidency, he came to the Labour Party Conference and described himself as “an unemployed pensioner with a criminal record.”

    He famously said to Desmond Tutu who teased him for his taste in gaudy shirts, “it is pretty thick coming from a man who wears a dress in public.”

    His empathy led him to seek out not the most famous person in the room but the least.

    And his warmth made every person he met walk taller.

    So we honour a man who showed the true meaning of struggle, courage, generosity and humanity.

    But we gather here in our Parliament, in Britain, also to recognise that the history of our country was bound up with his struggle.

    In a spirit of truth and reconciliation: South Africa was, after all, once a British colony.

    But later Britain would become in Nelson Mandela’s own words “the second headquarters of our movement in exile.”

    The Prime Minister and I and thousands of others went to sign the condolence book at South Africa House on Friday.

    But it is easy to forget now that South Africa House was not always such a welcoming place for opponents of apartheid.

    So we should also remember today the hundreds of thousands of people who were the anti-apartheid movement in Britain.

    The people who stood month after month, year after year, on the steps of that embassy, when the cause seemed utterly futile.

    The churches, trade unions, the campaigners who marched, who supported the struggle financially, culturally and in so many other ways.

    The people who refused to buy South African produce and supported the call for sanctions.

    People whose names we do not know from all over Britain who were part of that struggle.

    As well as those who will be etched in history, including the leaders of the movement who found sanctuary in Britain, like Ruth First, Joe Slovo and others.

    And, if the House will allow me, those in my own party who played such an important role, like Bob Hughes, now in the House of Lords, my Right Hon Friend the Member for Neath and so many more.

    It may seem odd to a younger generation that apartheid survived as long as it did, given that now it seems to have been universally reviled the world over.

    But of course, the truth and the history is very different.

    The cause was highly unfashionable.

    Often considered dangerous by those in authority and opposed by those in government.

    The Prime Minister was right a few years ago to acknowledge the history.

    It is in the spirit of what Nelson Mandela taught us, to acknowledge the truth about the past and without rancour to welcome the change that has come to pass.

    But also to honour his legacy by acknowledging that in every country, including our own, the battle against racial injustice still needs to be won.

    So we come here to honour the man, to acknowledge our history, and also for one final reason.

    To recognise and uphold the universal values for which Nelson Mandela stood.

    The dignity of every person, whatever their colour or creed.

    Values of tolerance and respect for all.

    And justice for all people, wherever they may live and whatever oppression they may face.

    Nelson Mandela himself said: 'I am not a saint, I am a sinner who keeps on trying'.

    His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying.

    For nobler ideals, higher purposes and for a bigger and not a smaller politics.

    Inspired by his example and the movement he led.

    We mourn his loss.

    We give thanks for his life.

    And we honour his legacy.


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    It's time we stopped basing important decisions on them.

    There are 63 types of people in the world. Those who like the the Bee Gees but dislike mayonnaise, that’s one type. Those who make little colour-coded charts detailing whose turn it is to wash up, that’s another. And then there are those who believe in personality tests. That’s a third. I’m not going to list the rest here because of space issues. Plus the one I just listed was supposed to be the punchline. Point is, let’s not make this too laboured.

    Right now the personality testing industry is big business: worth $500m and growing at ten per cent every year. IBM and Oracle have just bought firms with a personality testing arm, and Deloitte is rumoured to be planning a similar move. These tests are popular with recruitment because they’re cheap (at about $30 a candidate) – and a quick way of of procuring a shortlist from a pile of job applications.  You sit down and answer questions and after about half an hour are presented with your “personality” – usually summarised in four or five traits, like “extrovert” or “intuitive”. The company can then decide if you’d be a good cultural fit.

    That’s how it’s supposed to go. But the process is a little murkier. First of all, the “right” answers are usually obvious. John Rust, director of Cambridge University’s Psychometrics centre, recently told the Economist that firms usually just end up “selecting the people who know what the right answers are”. Those who know the answers – and those who are willing to bend the truth to give them to you. Perhaps valuable, but not a proper measure of personality.

    Get down to the science of personality and it’s likewise murky. A large portion of funding is funneled into defining and researching what makes people the way they are, but results are often vague or conflicting. One recent paper on the genetics underlying human personality simply came up empty. A large scale search, in over 5,000 Australian adults for genes associated with persistence, reward dependence and so on, and ... nothing. No associations at all.

    There is at least one person this should please – the psychologist Walter Mischel. He spent much of his life persuading other scientists that personality is not a fixed thing – it changes with circumstance. You might be lazy one minute (e.g. when there is work to be done) and full of energy and purpose the next (e.g. when the pizza arrives).

    He first came to this conclusion when employed by the Peace Corps as a personality consultant. They were fed up of complaints from people who, enthusiastic do-gooders safe at home, turned out to be impossibly squeamish out in the field. He conducted test after test but found little correlation between behaviour at home and abroad. 

    He embarked on a large research programme to see if he could find any stable traits at all. One of his studies was on aggression in children. He found that some could take criticism from adults, but not from other kids. Others lashed out at authority, but got on well with their peers. Eventually he had his answer: personality doesn’t really exist. It’s entirely dependent on context. And we are not the same person in every situation.

    A fixed personality would certainly make life easier – you could find it out early, match yourself to the right job and the right people, and then relax, safe in the knowledge you’ll never change. It’s a shame it’s not that simple.


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    2013 has been a mixed year for the PC, but it is still on the creative cutting edge of gaming.

    In some regards 2013 could hardly have been a better year for PC gaming. PC gaming was already a vast thing, games like World of Warcraft established years ago that single games could become global phenomena and even though WoW has waned somewhat PC gaming hasn’t, and this year it has been growing fast. For example DotA 2 was released, and while it hasn’t unseated LoL as the biggest thing ever it’s pretty damn big. League of Legends still boasts a player base of many millions, even if you take their figures with a pinch of salt, which you should. It is worth noting too that these are games that a lot of PC owners wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, they are just one facet of a colossal industry.

    Steam, which is fast becoming a ubiquitous bit of software for gaming PCs, recently topped seven million concurrent users with a global active user base of sixty five million. The indie sector is thriving, with indie games getting levels of exposure and publicity that would never have been dreamed of just a few years ago. New business models and financing schemes are allowing a greater range of games to appear, get development capital, go on sale and make money. PC gaming has become a gigantic, diverse thing. Despite hiccups like being apparently snubbed by Rockstar for GTA V, at least for the time being, the PC seems to be doing very well indeed.

    But there have been flies in the ointment for PC gaming this year, and they might suggest worrying times ahead for fans of the PC in its role as ultra-powerful gaming behemoth. Hardware sales are down and as the current generation of consoles rolls off the production line boasting hardware more comparable with a budget PC than setting any new standards, the actual reasons to own a powerful PC are fewer.

    One reason that seems to be vanishing is the games themselves. Not only can few games actually push a heavy duty gaming PC these days, very few are willing to even try. This is not necessarily a bad thing and developers want to have as broad an install base for their games as possible. The indie sector for example includes many games that work across many platforms, if you want your game to run on a smartphone or a tablet you can’t make it very demanding.

    Seeing new games appear is always a good thing and the creativity of the indie sector has been one of the standout positives of the last few years.

    The problems though this year however have been with the games where the PC is really supposed to show off. Such games this year have been characterised by all sorts of bugs, weak designchoices and other issues. When these problems occur in the annual releases of big studios or the hit and miss efforts of indie developers they can be largely forgiven and forgotten, but a lot of high end PC games have carved themselves a niche and spend years in development. When such a title goes wrong you know it will be a long time before they have a chance to put those mistakes right, if that is even the direction development takes.

    Rome 2: Total War for example stank at launch, not a faint whiff either, proper hippo enclosure in a heat wave stink. Even now, benefitting from many updates and a good few modifications it is decent, but not really a great game. It is not yet known what the next Total War game will be, but it’s likely a lot of fans will be waiting for it to appear on sale before picking it up, if they do at all. At the risk of channelling Boromir, one does not simply make a Total War game. If Creative Assembly goes under, deservedly or not, that type of game will vanish. Here lies the problem, if it is barely worth playing now, does it matter if it vanishes? Well, maybe not. Maybe nostalgia for a once great series is misplaced. But casting aside that nostalgia means one less reason to need that shiny graphics card and supercomputer CPU.

    Also Arma 3, which looked incredibly promising in its alpha stages, has big problems. The game was released with an almost insultingly small amount of actual content. Content isn’t a nice word, content implies product, implies stuff for the sake of stuff, the sort of mindless fetch quests that make up the middle 80% of your average first person shooter. Arma doesn’t need content in the usual sense, I’ve played hundreds of hours of the Arma series without really having to touch any of the missions or campaigns the developers make, a lot of players do thanks to its mission editor. But in this case content means the building blocks. With Arma 3 the sandbox is there and free of cat urine, but there’s no bucket and spade.

    It is fair to argue that the Arma series is characterised by having a slow burn, between modifications and DLC packs the Arma you play a few years down the line should be much improved on the game that launches. But Arma 3 is really pushing its luck, lacking finished vehicles, basic weapons, female character models (regardless of any opinions on the issue of women in the game in a combat role, their lack of inclusion as civilians is unprecedented for the series and gives the game a weird sausage-fest vibe) and proper fixed wing aircraft.

    Plans are afoot to release the vehicles and equipment from earlier games into the new one, and some mods exist to do that already, but it’s hard not to think that had the developers gone this route in the first place instead of embracing a half-arsed science fiction setting, much pain could have been avoided. Taking an earnest military simulator and its equally nerdy fan base and trying to shoehorn them both into something that looks frighteningly like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a very strange move.

    Lastly another game that promised much yet delivered little was the critically panned X-Rebirth, which looked to be an enticing prospect, allowing the player to fly around a galaxy in a space ship, wheeling, dealing, and indulging in the odd spot of shooting pirates with lasers. Unfortunately the final game feels almost painful to play, particularly in contrast to the vastly superior games that had come before it from the same developer. It feels almost as though they are consciously playing to their weaknesses, for instance why would a company who have never yet managed to make a convincing human-looking character plonk one down in the seat next to the player for the entire game? Why would you follow a game with many flyable ships of all different types with a game where you fly one ship? We may never know. Given Egosoft’s pedigree as a developer of high quality spaceship games X-Rebirth was a surprise on a par with seeing a racehorse give birth to a squid with the face of a pug. And nobody wants to play with that. It’s slimy and it has sad eyes.

    Although 2013 has been a little disappointing in this regard, with so many of the prettiest PC games turning out to be duffers, there will still be a few reasons to keep a fast PC to handdown the line. The Oculus Rift, should it take off, might well bring back a demand for the wow factor of high-end graphics, even if it doesn’t have specifically high demands in and of itself. Also we don’t know yet what the new consoles will be capable of when the hardware is properly utilised, maybe it will be harder than many of us expect to keep pace with the new consoles especially if developers finally work out how to make proper use of multiple CPU cores.

    At least while we wait there’s always Euro Truck Simulator 2*.

    *Not sarcasm. It’s actually fun.


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    Work and Pensions Secretary says incapacity benefit story was "nothing to do with the department" and adds: "I've tried to get my colleagues at Central Office to check first".

    After months of trying, MPs on the work and pensions select committee finally had a chance to question Iain Duncan Smith on the DWP's abuse of statistics and the chaos surrounding Universal Credit today. On the former, Duncan Smith bullishly pointed out that the department had published "over 500" statistical releases and had received just two critical letters from the UK Statistics Authority. He again declared that he "believed" thousands of people had moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap, despite the UKSA warning that this was "unsupported by the official statistics".

    But when he was questioned on the false statement by Conservative chairman Grant Shapps that "nearly a million people" (878,300) on incapacity benefit dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for the employment and support allowance (which resulted in another reprimand from the Statistics Authority to Duncan Smith and Shapps), he took a strikingly different line. Rather than defending the claim, he replied that it was "nothing to do with the department" and blamed CCHQ for the inaccurate "conflation of data". Speaking from what appeared to most to be a glass house, he added: "I've tried to get my colleagues at Central Office to check first before they put anything out about the areas that the DWP covers because it's complex". One was left with the image of Duncan Smith pleading with Shapps and other Tory apparatchiks not to twist statistics for the purposes of political propaganda but his own record meant he received little sympathy from the committee.

    After being challenged on the DWP's demonisation of benefit claimants through its references to "a something for nothing culture", Duncan Smith similarly sought to shift the blame, noting that it was "a minister" from the last government (Liam Byrne) who first referred to "shirkers" and "workers", to which the only appropriate reply is 'two wrongs don't make a right".

    On Universal Credit, which was being claimed by just 2,150 people at the end of September, 997,850 short of the original April 2014 target of one million, he defiantly declared "there is no debacle" and denounced the "bogus nonsense" that had been spoken about the scale of IT writedowns. We learned that a mere £40.1m of IT assets had been written off (lower than £140m figure cited by the public accounts committee) but what Duncan Smith didn't mention is that officials expect a further £91m to be "rapidly amortised" (written off) over the next five years.

    Challenged on whether he expected his target of moving all claimants onto Universal Credit (with the exception of 700,000 claiming employment and support allowance) by 2017, he could only again reply that he "believed" it would be. But after so many delays, few MPs are now willing to accept his assurances. For now, Duncan Smith can only claim 'success' by permanently shifting the goalposts. As one of his officials put it today, "it works for a limited population at this time."


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    As southern European countries rack up record debts, Helmut Kohl has told friends “Merkel is destroying my Europe”.

    On 1 December, a 13-year-old girl died after inhaling carbon mon­oxide fumes in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. She and her un­employed mother had been trying to use a makeshift stove to heat their freezing flat, having had their electricity cut off several months earlier. In Greece, austerity continues to kill.

    The Greeks have few friends in our part of Europe, however, as I discovered at a recent Intelligence Squared debate on Germany and austerity at Cadogan Hall in London. “Why should hard-working northern Europeans pay for the Greeks?” asked a Dutch member of the audience. “The Greek railway is so inefficient that it would be cheaper to move everybody by taxi,” sneered a German. There is a sense in southern Europe, suggested another audience member, that “money just grows on trees”.

    Isn’t it odd that there is always money available to bail out banks but not people? As my fellow panellist Euclid Tsakalotos, a Greek economist and member of parliament for the left-wing Syriza party, put it to me afterwards: “Public debate has suffered a dumbing-down process.” How, he asked, could “a world economic crisis of such proportions that has affected so many economies ... be put down to differential work efforts”?

    Work, or jobs, is what Greece lacks. One in four Greeks is unemployed; more than half of the country’s youth cannot find work. Suicides are up; the birth rate is down. On a visit to Athens in 2012, I met Nikitas Kanakis, the chairman of the Greek branch of the charity Doctors of the World. “If the people cannot survive with dignity,” he told me, “we cannot have a future.”

    It is dangerous, misguided and mendacious, as countless economists from the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to the Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf have pointed out, to treat the eurozone’s ongoing debt crisis as a modern-day morality tale. It isn’t.

    Record debts were caused by post-crash bank bailouts and a crisis-induced collapse in tax revenues. Take Spain. That country’s downturn was the result not of excessive government spending or public debt but of the explosion of private debt, particularly in the real estate and banking sectors. Because of the crash, Spain’s public-debt-to-GDP ratio morphed from being one of the lowest in the eurozone to one of the highest.

    Overspending didn’t cause the crisis but underspending is exacerbating it. Austerity isn’t working. Don’t take my word for it: a paper published in October by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs revealed how the cumulative cost of fiscal self-flagellation across the eurozone was 6 per cent of GDP between 2011 and 2013. Crucially, the paper also pointed out that the catastrophically contractionary consequences of austerity in the southern debtor countries were “aggravated” by Germany and other northern creditor countries simultaneously cutting spending and raising taxes.

    Another reason why we shouldn’t moralise about debt is to avoid the charge of rank hypocrisy. After all, why pick on the Greeks, rather than the Germans? In the years before the crash – for example, from 2003 to 2004 – Germany persistently breached the budget deficit rules laid down in the EU’s growth and stability pact; the then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, demanded that his country be exempted from any penalties. In 2006, while Spain and Ireland were running budget surpluses, Germany was in deficit.

    Then there’s the German private sector. In 2008, as an investigation by Bloomberg subsequently revealed, over-leveraged German banks and financial institutions received secret loans from the US Federal Reserve.

    Now go back 60 years. In 1953, Germany’s postwar debt trap was lifted in London, at a conference of creditors in which the enormous amount of money the country owed was cut in half and the repayment period spread out over 30 years. One of those creditor countries was ... Greece.

    Few historians would dispute that the astounding growth of the postwar German economy and the ascent of Germany to world economic power status wouldn’t have happened without the London Debt Agreement. So why such a different attitude now? Why the mocking, demonising and punishing of debtor countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal? Why the pretence that debt forgiveness isn’t effective or doable or that it is without precedent?

    It is perhaps because such a strategy would require bold and far-sighted leaders. What Europe needs right now is a Konrad Adenauer or a Charles de Gaulle, but the leaders it has to make do with are Angela Merkel and François Hollande.

    Writing in these pages in June 2012, I attracted the ire of Germanophiles and deficit hawks alike by accusing Merkel, who was elected for a third term as chancellor in September this year, of “destroying the European project, pauperising Germany’s neighbours and risking a new global depression”.

    But this isn’t merely the prejudice of a nasty British journalist picking on poor, defenceless Mutti. Listen to the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who, according to Der Spiegel, has told friends: “She [Merkel] is destroying my Europe.”

    A break-up of the eurozone may be where we are headed if spending cuts take precedence over debt defaults and if the financial crisis continues to be cynically portrayed as a morality play. What the continent needs is a debt jubilee and a halt to austerity. Oh, and some solidarity. Otherwise, a second Great Depression beckons.

    To borrow a line from the US economist Michael Hudson: “Debts that can’t be repaid won’t be repaid.”

    Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is cross-posted


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