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    Ants use a certain pattern, or algorithm, to forage for food, and this can be used to solve the famous “knight’s tour” chess problem.

    Take a set of chess pieces and throw them all away except for one knight. Place the knight on any one of the 64 squares of a chess board.

    Can you make 63 legal moves so that you visit every square on the chess board exactly once? As a reminder, a knight can move two squares in a straight line, followed by a ninety degree turn and a move of one further square. It might seem like a hard task, but this set of moves, called the knight’s tour, can be achieved in too many ways to count.

    If you are able to make the 63 moves and end up on a square from which you can move back to the original square with the 64th legal move, then this is known as a closed tour. Other tours are called open tours.

    Mathematicians have pondered how many closed tours exist, and they have come up with an astonishing number: more than 26 trillion. There are so many more open tours that we do not know the exact number.

    Both Philip Hingston and I were so captivated by the knight’s tour problem that we wanted to find a different way to solve it. We found that motivation in nature – specifically in ants.

    Ants use a certain pattern, or algorithm, to forage for food. This algorithm can be used to tackle many types of problems including the Travelling Salesman Problem and Vehicle Routing Problems. Philip and Graham wondered if they could use the ant colony optimisation algorithm to solve the knight’s tour problem.

    Here’s how that algorithm works: a computer program is used to simulate a population of ants. These ants are assigned the task to find a solution to a problem. As each ant goes about their task they lay a pheromone trail – a smelly substance that ants use to communicate with each other. In the simulated algorithm, the most successful ants (the ones that solve the problem better), lay more pheromone than those that perform poorly.

    We repeat this procedure many times (perhaps millions of times). Through repetitions, the pheromone trails on good solutions increase and they decrease on the poorer solutions due to evaporation, which is also programmed in the simulation algorithm.

    In the simulation to solve the knight’s tour problem, the ants could only make legal knight moves and were restricted to stay within the confines of the chess board. If an ant successfully completes a tour then we reinforce that tour by depositing more pheromone on that tour, when compared to a tour that was not a full tour.

    Ants which attempt to find later tours are more likely to follow higher levels of pheromone. This means that they are more likely to make the same moves as previously successful ants.

    There is a balance to be struck. If the ants follow the successful ants too rigidly, then the algorithm will quickly converge to a single tour. If we encourage the ants too much, not to follow the pheromone of previous ants, then than they will just act randomly. So it is a case of tuning the algorithm’s parameters to try and find a good balance.

    Using this algorithm, we were able to find almost half a million tours. This was a significant improvement over previous work, which was based on a genetic algorithm. These algorithms emulate Charles Darwin’s principle of natural evolution – survival of the fittest. Fitter members (those that perform well on the problem at hand) of a simulated population survive and weaker members die off.

    It is not easy to say why the ant algorithm performed so well, when compared to the genetic algorithm. Perhaps it was down to tuning the algorithmic parameters, or perhaps ants really do like to play chess!

    The knight’s tour problem was being worked on as far back as 840 AD. Little did those problem-solvers know that ants, albeit simulated ones, would be tackling the same puzzle more than 1,000 years in the future.

    Graham Kendall 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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    John Pilger presents the Celebrity Oscars: his award for the best self-promotion of the year.

    It’s celebrity time again. The Golden Globes have been and the Oscars are coming. This is a “vintage year”, say Hollywood’s hagiographers on cue. It isn’t. Most movies are made to a formula for the highest return, money-fuelled by marketing and something called celebrity. This is different from fame, which can come with talent. True celebrities are spared that burden.

    Occasionally, this column treads the red carpet, awarding its own Oscars to those whose ubiquitous promotion demands recognition. Some have been celebrities a long time, drawing the devoted to kiss their knees (more of that later). Others are mere flashes in the pan, so to speak.

    In no particular order, the nominees for the Celebrity Oscars are:

    Benedict Cumberbatch: this celebrity was heading hell-bent for an Oscar, but alas, his ultra-hyped movie The Fifth Estate produced the lowest box-office return in years, making it one of Hollywood’s biggest ever turkeys. This does not diminish Cumberbatch’s impressive efforts to promote himself in the role of Julian Assange – assisted by film critics, vast advertising, the US government and, not least, the former PR huckster David Cameron, who declared: “Benedict Cumberbatch – brilliant, fantastic piece of acting. The twitchiness and everything of Julian Assange is brilliantly portrayed.” Neither Cameron nor Cumberbatch has ever met Assange. The “twitchiness and everything” was an invention.

    Assange had written Cumberbatch a letter, pointing out that the “true story” on which the film claimed to be based was from two books discredited as hatchet jobs. “Most of the events depicted never happened, or the people shown were not involved in them,” WikiLeaks posted. In his letter, Assange asked Cumberbatch to note that actors had moral responsibilities, too. “Consider the consequences of your co-operation with a project that vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee . . .”

    Cumberbatch’s response was to reveal selected parts of Assange’s letter and so elicit further hype from the “agonising decision” he faced – which, as it turned out, was never in doubt.

    Robert De Niro is the celebrity’s celebrity. I was in India recently at a conference with De Niro, who was asked a good question about the malign influence of Hollywood on living history. The 1978 multi-Oscar-winning movie The Deer Hunter was cited, especially its celebrated Russian roulette scene; De Niro was the star.

    “The Russian roulette scene might not have happened,” said De Niro, “but it must have happened somewhere. It was a metaphor.” He refused to say more; the celebrity star doesn’t like giving interviews.

    When The Deer Hunter was released, the Daily Mail described it as “the story they never dared to tell before . . . the film that could purge a nation’s guilt!”. A purgative indeed – that was almost entirely untrue.

    Following America’s expulsion from its criminal invasion of Vietnam, The Deer Hunter was Hollywood’s postwar attempt to reincarnate the triumphant Batman-jawed white warrior and present a stoic, suffering and often heroic people as sub-human oriental idiots and barbarians. The film reached its dramatic peak during recurring orgiastic scenes in which De Niro and his fellow stars, imprisoned in rat-infested bamboo cages, were forced to play Russian roulette by resistance fighters of the National Liberation Front, whom the Americans called Vietcong.

    The director, Michael Cimino, insisted this scene was authentic. It was fake. Cimino had claimed that he’d served in Vietnam as a Green Beret. He hadn’t. He told Linda Christmas of the Guardian he had “this insane feeling that I was there . . . Somehow the fine wires have got really crossed and the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.” Cimino’s brilliantly acted fakery has since become a YouTube “classic”: for many people, their only reference to that “forgotten” war.

    While he was in India, De Niro visited Bollywood, where his celebrity is godlike. Fawning actors sat at his feet and kissed his knees. Bollywood’s asinine depiction of modern India is not dissimilar to The Deer Hunter’s distortion of America and Asia.

    Nelson Mandela was a great human being who became a celebrity. “Sainthood”, he told me drily, “is not the job I applied for.” The western media appropriated Mandela and made him into a one-dimensional cartoon celebrity, tailored for bourgeois applause: a kind of political Santa Claus. That his dignity served as a façade behind which his beloved ANC oversaw the further impoverishment and division of his people was unmentionable. And in death, his celebrity-sainthood was assured.

    Keith Vaz: for those outside Britain, the name Keith Vaz is not associated with celebrity. And yet this Labour politician has had a long and distinguished career of self-promotion, while slipping serenely away from scandals and near-scandals, a parliamentary investigation and a suspension, having acquired the sobriquet Keith Vaseline. In 2009, he was shown to have claimed £75,500 in expenses for a flat in Westminster despite having a family home just 12 miles from parliament.

    Last year Vaz’s home affairs select committee summoned the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, to discuss the Edward Snowden leaks. Vaz’s opening question to Rusbridger was: “Do you love this country?”

    Once again, Vaz was an instant celebrity, although, once again, not the one he longed to be. He was compared with the infamous American senator Joe McCarthy. Still, the sheer stamina of his endeavours proves that Vaseline is no flash in the pan; so, he is the Oscar Celebrity of the Year! Congratulations, Keith, and commiserations, Benedict; you were only just behind.

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    Provided growth is strong and sustained, Labour will be able to dramatically increase investment while still reducing debt as a proportion of GDP.

    After an opening salvo directed at his promise to reinstate the 50p top rate of tax on incomes over £150,000, today’s Times turned its fire towards the centrepiece of Ed Balls’s Fabian Society speech. At the heart of that speech was a promise to "balance the books and deliver a surplus on the current budget and falling national debt in the next Parliament". 

    To old Labour ears, this sounded like capitulation to Osborne’s "austerity first" mantra. To the Times, by contrast, it meant a £25bn "spending spree".

    This matters. So what is going on? There are two key ideas in what Balls is saying. The first is achieving a current budget surplus. "Current" public spending is total public spending less investment. Since capital depreciation is treated as part of current spending, the investment we are talking about here is net investment. Over the last 35 years, this net public investment has averaged 1.4 per cent of GDP, just one pound for every 20 of current public spending.

    Assuming a full five year life, the next parliament would continue to the end of the financial year 2019/20. Balls could meet his promise by balancing the current budget in that year. At the moment, the published forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) finish one year earlier, in 2018/19. For that year they show a surplus of £28bn. Since Balls is only promising zero, he could fulfil his promise, one year earlier than he needs to, yet still spend that much more than Osborne. So long as you are prepared to overlook the small difference between "cutting less" and a "spending spree", this is presumably what is so exciting the Times.

    The second key idea is reducing the national debt, which in practice must mean it falling as a proportion of GDP. Arithmetic here is a Chancellor’s friend. The basic point is that debt will fall as a share of GDP so long as the addition to debt in any one year – the annual public sector deficit – is proportionately smaller than the addition to GDP due both to real growth and inflation. With debt now standing at some 80 per cent of GDP and GDP (real growth plus inflation) foreseen by the OBR as growing at 5 per cent a year, the debt share will fall so long as the public sector deficit is less than 4 per cent of GDP. In ordinary times, that is not a tough target at all.

    Of course Balls has not spelled out how much investment Labour would go for. But with a balanced current budget, even net public sector investment equal to 3 per cent of GDP would be entirely consistent with a falling debt share. Net investment at this rate is twice what’s in Osborne’s plan and twice the average over the last 35 years. As the bars in the graph show, only in the two crash years has the share of net public investment been higher.

    So it is easy to see why Balls chose this ground to make a stand. First off, it is tough – a balanced current budget. But it also less tough than the government – so there is, for those old Labour ears, still a political difference between the parties after all. And it is also radical, signalling, or at least allowing, for a decisive shift in spending towards investment.

    Does the Times’s attack mean Labour’s new position is already untenable? The answer is no, for the simple reason that the reference point – Osborne’s plan – is eye-wateringly tough. As the BBC Robert Peston picked up at the time, the OBR made this point by noting how the plan would take "government consumption of goods and services – a rough proxy for day-to-day spending on public services and administration – to its smallest share of national income at least since 1948".

    Even so, as the line in the graph shows, Osborne is still only taking current spending as a share of GDP back to the levels seen during the Blair years. This top-down view takes no account of how spending pressures within the total have changed over the intervening years. It also takes no account of the fact that the economy "projected" by the OBR for five years hence is wildly unbalanced, wholly unsustainable and utterly implausible.

    But what made those low levels possible was the strong and sustained economic growth which began in 1993. This week’s numbers from the ONS showed strong growth in the second half of 2013. If that continues for several years, 37% is not unthinkable. An inference from this: Balls is banking on strong, sustained growth.

    The other point is about the implication of higher net public investment. As the early years of the graph show, net public investment used to be much higher, not 3 per cent of GDP but more like 5 per cent. That’s a lot of money. So who was spending it? The answer is local authorities on house building and nationalised industries. This is not to suggest that these nationalised industries should be rebuilt. But if the money is to be spent wisely – and to do otherwise would be a disaster – Labour needs to consider what institutions are needed to do that. Pushing up the capital budget is the easy part.

    Peter Kenway is director of the New Policy Institute

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    Burritos are mating with pizzas: 2014 will be another year of great food produced by culture clashes.

    The New Year may already seem like old news but, having spent the festive period idly perusing exciting lists of “hot new food trends” over cold turkey, I think it’s only right that I warn you what’s on the menu for 2014.

    Conscientious readers may remember that I made some similar predictions last year, with mixed results. Though posh burgers and fancy fried chicken were safe bets, the zingy flavours of Israeli cuisine – despite the best efforts of Yotam Ottolenghi – are proving to be a tough sell in this country. That said, if you’re intrigued, keep an eye on M&S’s deli and salad selection this spring.

    (In the interests of balance, you may like to know that the shop is already stocking freekeh, the sprouted green wheat that has replaced quinoa as the hipster grain de jour and is grown by a Palestinian farming co-operative in the West Bank.)

    While we’re on the subject of regions with complicated politics, people don’t seem to be similarly put off by events in the Korean peninsular: 2013 was the year that Tesco reported a 140 per cent jump in sales of Korean ingredients and kimchi, the beloved funky fermented cabbage, invaded Britain, sneaking into everything from tacos to Stilton toasties.

    You’ll probably be seeing more of such fusion fast food in the months to come. Ramen burgers, with fried noodles replacing the bun, are already big news in the US – never a place slow to embrace edible absurdity – and the country is also to blame for the pizzarito, the luckless offspring of a loveless quickie between a pizza and a burrito.

    Both are ridiculous enough to be 2014’s equivalent of the cronut, last year’s much-hyped croissant-doughnut hybrid, but I’m hoping that the ice cream sandwich will have its moment instead – though I suspect it will be in the form of ricotta gelato on cinnamon thins, rather than the waxy vanilla wafers of Weston-super-Mare.

    Korean food will be joined by other lesser-known Asian cuisines, such as the still puzzlingly underrated Vietnamese, whose fortunes should be improved by the House of Ho in London’s Soho – the first foreign outpost for the Hanoi-based restaurateur Bobby Chinn – and once Waitrose starts doing a Burmese chicken soup, you know that its newly accessible neighbour can’t be far behind.

    That said, this year, we will almost certainly be turning our attentions westward. With the World Cup in June, we’re all going to be drowning in a rainbow-bright flood of Brazilian rainforest fruit.

    Though prehistoric Amazonian fish may be an acquired taste, I suspect that feijoada, a meaty black bean stew, might appeal more to the British palate, while churrasco, a feast of grilled meats, is a shoo-in.

    Indeed, barbecue in general will be smoking (sorry). As well as the slew of rib and pulled pork joints opening everywhere from Manchester to Bristol, there’s some cutting- edge Spanish charcoal grill cooking going on at the new restaurant Ember Yard in London, while serious home cooks are desperate to get a Big Green Egg, a Japanese-style ceramic charcoal barbecue and smoker.

    You can put just about anything on the Egg, from brisket to broccoli, which is handy, because the trend I’m most excited about this year – apart from the hopeful (if unlikely) claim that we’ll all be busy making our own butter and cheese – is vegetable-based cooking, as seen at the Grain Store in King’s Cross or L’Enclume in Cumbria.

    Not necessarily vegetarian, this simply has flora replacing fauna in the limelight for once – which brings me to another favourite prediction. According to the Huffington Post, this year, cauliflower is “the new kale”. The brassicas are coming, people. Look busy.

    Next week: John Burnside on nature

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    We must believe these women when they tell us they would never have left their home, their family, their country, if they had a choice, and we must demonstrate this belief by telling our government that they must not be locked up.

    “I took Yarl’s Wood with me to Manchester. Sometimes. . . I hear the footsteps of the officers, I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys.” These are the words of Lydia Besong, from Cameroon, who spoke yesterday at the launch of Women For Refugee Women’s latest report, which calls for an end to the detention of female asylum seekers. Lydia told a packed room in Portcullis House how she fled torture in her own country, the scars still visible on her legs, and came to where she thought she would be free. Where she would be safe. And as she spoke about how she was not believed, how she was refused asylum, how she was released and then detained, released and then detained; how she saw no end to her misery, how she was put on suicide watch, and unable to escape the eyes of the male guard observing her every move, the woman sitting next to me started to weep. She had been through this too.

    Detained makes for shameful reading. It tells a story of crimeless imprisonment. A story of roll-calls, of routine indefinite detention. Of women who have been raped, often by police and prison guards, only to find themselves placed under 24/7 watch by men, ostensibly for their own protection, to stop them harming themselves. As if being watched by men whose position makes them seem indistinguishable from the men who raped them at home, is not harm in itself.

    In response to the report released by Women for Refugee Women, a Home Office spokesperson released a quote saying nothing and everything. The usual claims of taking welfare seriously, of having a complaints procedure. They pointed to their guidelines which stipulate that male guards should not “supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self harm”, and observed that during a recent “independent inspection and follow up visit involving confidential interviews at Yarl's Wood IRC by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, this [male guards observing female inmates] was not raised as a concern.”

    So what are we to make of the woman who fled Uganda, where she had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped by prison guards, who said, “When I was on suicide watch the door was left open even when I went to the toilet, and a male guard was watching me”. What are we to make of her claims in the light of a culture of disbelief, where all but one of the women in the report had initially been refused asylum. “They don’t believe you. They ask you 500 questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.”

    Over 85 per cent of the women in the Women for Refugee Women report have been raped or tortured. And so, the Home Office stands accused of breaching the United Nations Commission On Human Rights’s guidelines (pdf), section 9.1 of which states that “victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence need special attention and should generally not be detained.” It stands accused of inhumane treatment of victims of torture, being one of the few countries in Europe that still allows indefinite detention. It stands accused of causing depression, psychosis, trauma, flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts in victims of torture. It stands accused of imprisoning women forever – even after they are eventually physically released: “Even though I'm free now, I feel I will never escape detention.”

    At the end of the speeches, all the women in the room who had sought asylum were invited to the front of the room. These women had come from Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield and Birmingham, as well as London, to stand together in solidarity. To stand up, together and strong, in the face of disbelief. And we must stand with them. We must believe these women when they tell us they would never have left their home, their family, their country, if they had a choice. We must believe them when tell us they have been raped and tortured. We must believe their scars – both physical and psychological. And we must demonstrate this belief by telling our government that they must not be locked up. Meltem Avcil, who was detained along with her mother when she was thirteen, has started a petition asking Theresa May to end the detention of female asylum seekers in the UK. We must demonstrate our belief by signing it.

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    The theme of an ordinary Joe, or Jai, fighting bribery and political corruption permeates Indian action cinema.

    Jai Ho (15)
    dir: Sohail Khan

    The largely forgotten US drama Pay It Forward (2000) concerns a schoolboy inspired by an act of kindness to do favours for three people, each of whom he then urges to do favours for others – and so on, until the planet is transformed into a throbbing marshmallow of benevolence. Anyone who felt that the film could have been improved by bloody fight sequences, Benny Hill-style slapstick and musical numbers will welcome with enthusiasm the Bollywood spectacular Jai Ho. Others may be baffled – but then there’s no point ordering a gateau and complaining that it’s not Ryvita. Austerity has no place in Bollywood. You do it loudly and brashly, with hundreds of precisely drilled dancers extending into the horizon, or else you don’t do it at all.

    A vision in denim, with shades and immovable hair, Jai (Salman Khan) crushes injustice wherever he finds it, though admittedly his enemies make it easier by standing around, waiting their turn to punch him, rather than all piling in at once. Jai has an off-screen chorus that chants his name wherever he appears; I can see how that could get annoying but he handles it – like everything else – with pouting aplomb. When he is thanked for breaking some brute’s jaw or standing on a bully’s windpipe, he says, “Don’t thank me,” and explains his Pay It Forward theory, his “goodness chain”. Eyes grow misty, the slow motion kicks in, choral music swells up and any disparity between Jai’s altruistic philosophy and the pummelling he just dished out to his latest adversary is swept away in the swish of a sequinned sari.

    After dispatching thugs, Jai likes nothing better than to lead an extravagant song-and-dance number on the theme of inequality. One lyric goes: “They say India’s great/But women are still unsafe/The poor man’s sad/ Liars are prospering/Money, money, everything is money.”

    The sentiment is admirable, if undermined slightly by the uniform use of women here as victims or decoration and by production values equal to the defence budget of a small country. It’s common for Bollywood films to flaunt their opulence while appealing to the punters in the cheap seats – in Jai Ho, one character even bemoans the high prices at the popcorn counter (“Now I understand why the masses don’t come to the multiplex!”), which raised some rueful laughter at the venue where I saw the film.

    The theme of an ordinary Joe, or Jai, fighting bribery and political corruption permeates Indian action cinema without threatening to alter anything – but I don’t think I’ve seen it pursued as bizarrely as it is in Jai Ho. Our hero befriends a young maths student who has no arms, sitting in class alongside her and transcribing her answers. Catastrophe strikes when he can’t make it to her maths exam because he is stuck in a traffic jam caused by a limousine that is ferrying a politician’s spoiled daughter. Unable to sit her exam (though she tries valiantly, I kid you not, by clamping the pen in her mouth), the student leaps to her death from a shopping centre balcony. Pausing only to roar and shed a single manly tear, Jai vows revenge. There have been more absurd catalysts for vendettas but not many.

    There’s even weirder to come. A dignitary delivers an inspiring speech at a school open day and receives a nasty shock from a broken microphone. Everyone rushes to see if he is hurt but he’s more interested in the little girl who has materialised beside him onstage. She asks merely if, rather than fretting over her, he could carry out favours for the next three strangers he meets. See how far Jai’s teachings have spread?

    “Don’t worry about me,” she says. “You see, I cannot be electrocuted.” Lifting her sleeve by way of explanation, she reveals an arm made of wood.

    It is always reckless to hand out end-of-year awards in January but any other film-makers vying for Most Bizarre Scene of 2014 might do well to throw in the towel now.


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    An accidental breakthrough into a chamber beneath the Earth's crust has led to a possible breakthrough in geothermal energy production.

    Imagine you’re drilling into the ground. Quite deeply - you’re looking for sources of geothermal energy, where the heat from deep in the Earth is warm enough to turn water into steam, and thus turn turbines, creating electricity. Imagine realising that you’ve not just drilled deeply into the crust, but that you’ve accidentally broken straight into a chamber of molten magma more than 5km below the surface.

    That happened in Iceland in 2009. It’s the only the second time that it’s known to have happened, the other being in Hawaii in 2007. Both places are hotbeds of volcanism, and while the magma chamber wasn’t an expected discovery (it was only 2.1km deep), scientists in Iceland and Hawaii chose different paths of action. In Hawaii, they plugged the hole with concrete. In Iceland, they left it open, wondering if it could be of use for geothermal research - and a study published this week has confirmed that, yes, it has been.

    The Icelandic Deep Drilling Project, IDDP, and the country’s National Power Company reinforced the borehole, called IDDP-1, with a steel casing. The temperatures of up to 1000oC built-up, generating super-hot vents of steam that sustained temperatures as high as 450oC. That far exceeds the standard heat geothermal power plants are able to use, and the borehole was estimated to be able to produce 36MW of power by itself. That’s more than half of the existing 60MW Krafla geothermal plant nearby.

    In the study, published in the journal Geothermic, could herald a new method for producing geothermal energy - of particular interest in Iceland, a country that relies upon geothermal for 65 percent of its energy, with more than 90 percent of homes being heated by geothermal energy. It might be possible to use magma chambers to get water to a supercritical state. That's when the normal rules of liquid and gas no longer exist, and its molecules hold extraordinary amounts of energy. Harness that, and energy yields might go even higher.

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    The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

    What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

    Penicillin. Imagine a world without antibiotics, a world where infections that would barely keep you off work or school today would kill you. That world existed a little over 70 years ago.

    The discovery of penicillin was important but we also needed scientists such as Howard Florey to get the drug developed for wide use. We are in grave jeopardy of throwing all of that away by using antibiotics so much that the bugs become resistant to them. If we are not careful, we will go back to dying from things that are easily treated today.

    What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?

    That DNA is the hereditary material of life and that its structure reveals both how it can encode information and how that information can be copied precisely.

    What is the greatest sporting event of the past hundred years?

    The 1966 World Cup. It was the one time England really achieved something in our national sport. I was brought up in Wembley and was living there in 1966, so I was very close to the great event.

    Which book, film and/or work of art has had the greatest impact on you and why?

    Zeno of Bruges by Marguerite Yourcenar: a tribute to how the light of reason can prevail in the darkness of irrationality. Also, the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, an exploration of religious doubt and a celebration of decent human values. And Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; it challenges what is really real.

    Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

    Nelson Mandela, for dealing with conflict resolution in a fractured society – and for the power of forgiveness.

    And author?

    James Joyce, who almost reinvented the novel and who laid bare our souls. Witty and quite funny at times, too.

    And playwright?

    Bertolt Brecht. His work, in particular Galileo, champions science ahead of dogma and ideology. The message is as important today as it was in the time of Galileo.

    How about anyone in business?

    Hermann Hauser. He’s not a household name but he has made a big contribution to putting science to practical use, including mobile phone technology and genome sequencing.

    And sportsperson?

    As a small boy, I was taken to White City to see Emil Zátopek run. In the 1952 Olympics, Zátopek’s marathon was a last-minute decision. In those days, sportspeople seemed a little more real.

    And philanthropist?

    David Rockefeller, for supporting the Rockefeller University in New York (of which I used to be president), where so many contributions to biomedicine have been made. And for always being modest and the perfect gentleman.

    What is your favourite quotation?

    “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was the space race that first inspired my passion for science. Manned space exploration still has the power to enthral.

    What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?

    Handling decisions that involve science will become increasingly crucial for a healthy democracy. Science impacts all aspects of our lives and we need to ensure that our democracy can manage the difficult policy questions that will arise.

    What is your greatest concern about the future?

    We have come a long way since the Enlightenment and most of the time I am confident that we will continue to move forward. But every now and then we show signs of turning away from rationality and evidence and falling back into the arms of ideology or blind faith.

    What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?

    A fuller understanding of how cells work. They are the simplest entity that exhibits the properties of life, so this understanding will bring us very close to working out many of the mysteries of life.

    What is the priority for the future well-being of both people and our planet?

    In 2012, the Royal Society published a report called People and the Planet. It is a good place to start. We need to tackle the twin issues of population and consumption. That will require rebalancing the use of resources in a fairer way and helping people to make their own choices about family size.

    Paul Nurse is a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist and the president of the Royal Society

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

    1. England must reject Scottish currency union (Financial Times)

    It would be folly for the rest of the UK to enter such an arrangement voluntarily, says Martin Wolf. 

    2. Empty Dave won’t be offering us any ideas (Times)

    At least the Labour leader has a coherent philosophy, writes Philip Collins. The Prime Minster cares about little – but wants for nothing.

    3. Giving 16-year-olds the vote can be Labour's Great Reform Act (Guardian)

    Britain's rotten, bribery-based democracy discounts the young and the poor, says Polly Toynbee. Getting sixth-formers to vote is the first step to fixing it.

    4. The Tories’ loop of vengeance could sink their election hopes (Daily Telegraph)

    Many Conservative MPs are more fixated on internal battles over Europe than on winning the public vote in 2015, writes Fraser Nelson. 

    5. Argentina is no danger to the world - but the eurozone is (Daily Telegraph)

    Emerging markets are making headlines but it is the eurozone that is still in a really bad way, says Jeremy Warner. 

    6. Germany, I apologise for this sickening avalanche of first world war worship (Guardian)

    The festival of self-congratulation will be the British at their worst, and there are still years to endure, writes Simon Jenkins. A tragedy for both our nations.

    7. Tory modernisers are getting their heads round mental health (Daily Telegraph)

    Under true 'parity of esteem', the Conservatives seek to give equal weighting to mental and physical services in the NHS, writes Isabel Hardman. 

    8. India is still in the great Asian race (Financial Times)

    The chaos of democracy blunts the impulses that once held the threat of break-up, writes Philip Stephens.

    9. The disturbing parallels between Syria's civil war and Spain in the 1930s (Independent)

    Britons are joining in a foreign war just as they did 80 years ago, writes Andreas Whittam Smith.  

    10. Immigration bill: political panic attack (Guardian)

    The Tory rebels' defeat on the issue of powers to deport convicted criminals bore many of the attributes of victory, notes a Guardian editorial. 

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    After Cable criticised "the pace and scale of cuts" set out by George Osborne after 2015, Alexander releases new figures extending the Chancellor's plan until 2020-21.

    Nearly a week after it was announced, Ed Balls's deficit plan is suddenly coming under attack. Yesterday it was the Times declaring that Labour plans to go on a £25bn "spending spree" (as I explained, there will be nothing resembling a "spree"), today it's Danny Alexander claiming that the opposition would borrow £166bn more than the coalition from 2015-16 to 2020-21. He says:

    This Treasury analysis shows that Labour have learnt nothing from the past and can't be trusted by the British people on the economy.

    Their new borrowing bombshell will pile another 166 Billion of extra borrowing onto the debt  mountain left by their catastrophic mismanagement  of the UK economy.

    The Liberal Democrat plan to repair the economy is working with the right balance to get rid of the deficit, build a strong economy and deliver a fair society.

    The difference in spending is based on Balls's decision to leave room to borrow to invest (in housing and other infrastructure projects) and to achieve a current budget surplus by the end of the next parliament, rather than to match George Osborne's pledge to achieve an absolute surplus. Here are the numbers released by Alexander (PSNB refers to Public Sector Net Borrowing and PSND to Public Sector Net Debt); the wonks among you can read the full Treasury analysis here

    As you can see, Balls's decision not to seek to achieve a total surplus (which the coalition is forecast by the Treasury to achieve by 2019-20) means he is able to borrow significantly more than the coalition after 2015-16 and still meet his pledge to ensure the national debt is falling as a share of GDP by the end of the period (which simply requires the economy to grow faster than borrowing). 

    But for several reasons, it's wise to treat these numbers with a large bucket of salt. For a start, Balls hasn't even decided whether Labour will borrow to invest and, if so, how great the difference with the coalition would be. As he told me in my recent interview with him, "In the speech I gave at Reuters in the summer, I said, and Ed and I both said, that’s a decision we should make much closer to the election when we’ve got more information about what the state of the economy is going to be. So we’ve been very clear, no more borrowing for day-to-day spending, but on the capital side that’s something that we’re going to continue to look at. I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do."

    In addition, as the last few years have demonstrated so well, economists struggle to predict what growth will be next year, let alone what it will be in six years' time. If the economy is motoring (and the forecasts conveniently omit the boost investment would give to growth), Labour could easily achieve a lower national debt share before 2020-21. If it's flatlining, it will struggle without making deeper spending cuts (and there will be cuts). We just don't know. As Chris Leslie, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said: "These are made up numbers plucked out of the air by Danny Alexander."

    But as Leslie went on to note, "[T]he most revealing thing in Danny Alexander’s press release is that he has announced, for the first time, coalition spending plans for 2019/20 and 2020/21. There are no spending plans or forecasts for those years in the Autumn Statement. Has Danny Alexander told his Lib Dem Cabinet colleagues that he has agreed another two years of spending plans with George Osborne?"

    Alexander's decision to present a "coalition plan" right up until 2020-21 sets him at odds with Vince Cable, who noted in a lecture on Monday night: "There are different ways of finishing the job … not all require the pace and scale of cuts set out by the chancellor. And they could allow public spending to stabilise or grow in the next parliament, whilst still getting the debt burden down." 

    Based on that, it seems that Cable would prefer to adopt the approach taken by Balls, leaving room to borrow to invest depending on the state of the economy, rather than Osborne's ideological fixation with a budget surplus. But with Alexander apparently happy to give the impression that the coalition is bound to Tory austerity into the next decade, one can only ask: what happened to the "differentiation strategy"?

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    Julie Welch’s semi-autobiographical 1983 film Those Glory Glory Days is that rarest of things, a film about football that works.

    “You’ve got to be a bit daft sometimes, if you want to change things.” Those words, spoken in the closing sequence of writer Julie Welch’s semi-autobiographical film Those Glory Glory Days, help illustrate why the 1983 movie is that rarest of things, a film about football that works, and has appeal beyond fans of the sport. The film is being screened in a special charity event on 18 March in Tottenham, prompting me to mull over its appeal.

    Directed by Philip Saville, the film was part of Channel 4’s First Love series, executive produced by David Puttnam, and is a companion piece to Jack Rosenthal’s Ptang Yang Kipperbang, the film that opened the series the year before. This was a time when Channel 4 was attempting to give the British film industry a shot in the arm, rather than cobble together scapegoating freak shows half-heartedly tarted-up as social commentary. Both films are nostalgic and in places idealised versions of childhood growing pains, but criticism of what can come across to contemporary viewers as caricatured portrayals misses one of the central points about how we look back on our formative years.

    What also stands out about Those Glory Glory Days is that it does not make the ‘women in football’ angle its central one. Even today, in our supposedly more enlightened times, a woman involved in any way with football can still be seen as something of a novelty. It is something that, having had many conversations with Welch, I know irritates the hell out of her. She wrote a film about football fans, fans who happened to be girls, and girls who happened to be fully-rounded characters. The film succeeds because it is primarily about the human condition. It understands what football can mean to people, but it weaves this in with an examination of wanting to belong, teenage obsession and the tendency to seek escape from the trials of the real world.

    None of this means Welch ignores the very real obstacles she faced after becoming the first female football reporter on a national paper in 1969. The film starts with reporter Julia Herrick in the press box at Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane ground, a scene in which a number of real reporters including the Guardian’s David Lacey appear. Herrick is being patronised by hostile hacks, in particular one unpleasant character played by Victor Meldrew. Fuming, she leaves the ground, where she bumps into her childhood hero, Danny Blanchflower – the captain of the famous Spurs Double side who later went on to forge a successful career as a journalist. The encounter prompts a flashback to Julia’s schooldays and the gang of Spurs fans she hung around with in the 1960-61 Double season.

    That Spurs team became the first to win the modern Double – the League Championship and FA Cup in a single season, and the excitement it generated gripped the nation in an age when football was just beginning to become a mass entertainment industry. The young Julia’s obsession with Spurs, and Blanchflower in particular, draws her to a gang of similarly Spurs-obsessed schoolgirls, and the team’s progress, together with the gang’s attempts to get to see their heroes, infolds against a backdrop of Julia’s unhappiness at home. Her parents are steadfastly suburban and middle class, her mother wants her to be more ladylike and the family to climb the social scale, and her father’s affair with a colleague is threatening to shatter domestic certainties. Julia sees her parents as so caught up in their own lives, they do not notice hers – a truism of many a teenager’s experience.

    Julia (Zoe Nathenson) with her cardboard cutout of Danny Blanchflower.
    Image via Julie Welch

    There’s teenage angst and alienation aplenty, but a fair bit of humour too. The flashback sequences are embellished, as our memories often are, and in one memorable scene the gang gather in the centre circle at White Hart Lane wearing unwieldy cockerel hats chanting: “We kiss this ground, for the love of Spurs. Til death. Break this code and disaster will strike! Arsenal will win the league.” Given what’s happened since, someone evidently broke the code.

    There’s another enduring angle too. Julia is appalled when she discovers one of her father’s rich friends – who has no interest in football – has four tickets for a business junket to the FA Cup Final, the game at which the Spurs team could achieve immortality. So she steals the tickets. Explaining why she does it, Julia says: “There were hundreds of people like me, ordinary people who never got near the Directors’ box, never arrived by Rolls Royce and parked in the bigwigs’ car park next door to the ground, never had a chance of going to the Cup Final because all the Rolls Royce people had first claim on the tickets.”

    The girls reach Wembley with the stolen tickets, but are apprehended by the police at the gates. It is apparent disaster, the end of the world, but Julia’s shocked parents finally realise “we haven’t given you as much time recently as we should have done” and vow to make a new start. Oh, and Spurs do win the Cup, completing the Double and securing their place in history.

    Zoe Nathenson, who played the young Julia, says the appeal of the role was “to emerse myself into such a complex character at a turning point in her life – with puberty, friendship, parental divorce and her true love, Tottenham Hotspur.” Investing a film about football with great meaning is something that risks accusations of disproportionality, but this film works because it is really about how we are as people, and how the trivial can become important for complex reasons.

    Welch says writing the film “was a dream come true – a chance to express my love and gratitude to a wonderful Spurs side that showed the 12-year-old me the impossible wasn’t impossible at all, as long as you believed and were prepared to work for it. What made it an even more fantastic experience was that Danny Blanchflower agreed to be in it. He was my hero when I was a child and when he died I vowed that I would make sure future generations of Spurs supporters would know just how special he and his team were.”

    That’s why, in the film’s concluding scene, Welch gets Herrick to ask Blanchflower, who played himself: “Do you think I’m daft, wanting to be a football reporter?” Danny answers: “Well, I think you are a bit daft, yes, but you’ve got to be a bit daft sometimes, if you want to change things. You’ve got to fight for your place – if you want to get into the team.”

    Those Glory Glory Days is available on DVD. The film is being screened at the Bernie Grant Community Centre in Tottenham on 18 March to raise funds for the Tottenham Tribute Trust, which helps people connected with the club who have fallen on hard times

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    Tom Humberstone’s weekly observational comic for the NS.

    Click to zoom in to a larger image


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    The Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that there is unlikely to be a "strong recovery" in living standards and that wages are still likely to be lower in 2015 than they were in 2010.

    Prices are still rising twice as fast as earnings, according to the ONS, but the Tories have recently come close to declaring the "cost-of-living-crisis" over. Last week they produced figures showing that "take-home pay" rose last year (once the increase in the personal allowance was included) and claimed almost everybody was better off. Unfortunately for them, the data was riddled with more holes than an Iain Duncan Smith press release. It took no account of the large cuts to in-work benefits, excluded 4.36m self-employed workers (most of whom have suffered disproportionate falls in their incomes) and also left out the millions of workers who don't earn enough to pay National Insurance. 

    Exactly a week on, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has doused the Tories' triumphalism with more cold water. Its 2014 Green Budget warns that "There is little reason to expect a strong recovery in living standards over the next few years" and that it is "highly unlikely that living standards will recover their pre-crisis levels by 2015-16". In other words, while real wages will eventually crawl above inflation, Labour will still be able to go into the election telling voters that they're worse off than they were in 2010 (Miliband's "Reagan moment"). 

    The large benefit cuts introduced by the coalition (many of which, such as the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, and the 10 per cent reduction in council tax support, only took effect in April 2013) and the public sector pay cap of 1 per cent mean that, particularly for the low-paid, there is much pain to come. As IFS head Paul Johnson says: "If you look at incomes it looks like the poor are going to do rather badly and the somewhat better off, a bit better over the next couple of years."

    The Tories' hope is that while living standards will be lower in 2015 than they were in 2010, they will at least be able to claim that the trend is moving in the right direction. Their message will be that handing the keys back to Labour would risk reversing all of the progress that has been made. To this, Labour will reply that a car that is taking this long to reach its destination needs a new driver. The data continues to suggest that it will have no trouble making that attack. 

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    Children are subject to an onslaught of confusing messages about their place in the world. We want to teach our sons about consent and respect for women, but how this is possible without teaching them what men as a class do to women?

    When he first started talking, my eldest son believed that the word for “woman” was “mum-man”. I never bothered to correct him. Part of me always wanted to think that – that everyone was a man, with the same worth and status, and I just happened to be his mum as well.

    Of course, he now knows different. While I don’t think he’s aware of biological sex, he knows a hell of a lot about gender. He knows the colour-coding, the rules of the playground, the fact that girls cry and are weak while boys fight and are strong. He finds me ridiculous when I tell him this doesn’t matter. You, too, can like pink! He stares at me in bewilderment, wondering why no one bothered to tell Mummy the difference between women and men.

    I don’t know whether gender-based value judgments have kicked in yet. Then again, do many people nowadays think “men are more human than women”? I doubt it; nonetheless, as with other forms of oppression, I think many of us feel it. It helps us negotiate the world around us without feeling enraged, guilty or utterly bewildered. Men are the story, women the scenery. There is no shame in absorbing this message. It’s a perfectly logical response to living.

    In a recent piece responding to the House of Lords decision not to reform sex and relationship education (to include the teaching of consent), Ally Fogg wrote dismissively of women’s claims that boys need to be actively taught to see women differently:

    It concerns me deeply that the political narrative that portrays young men as sexually aggressive, abusive and violent can easily become part of the problem. Young men who are at heart compassionate, gentle and kind cannot be well-supported by being constantly told they are the exceptions, when they are very much the rule.

    However, the point should not be that is a narrative that dehumanises men (although it does). It is that if boys do not feel shock and horror at the normalisation of violence against women, they too are diminished.

    I don’t see my sons as misogynists-in-waiting. I see them as wonderful little people, subject to an onslaught of confusing messages about their place in the world. As white, middle-class boys they learn that they are part of the elite, the main players. I don’t think this fills them with confidence. They are not arrogant, puffed up with the joys of white male supremacy. They are little boys. They will benefit from being white men, of that I have little doubt. But the notion that they are more real than other human beings isn’t something I want them to accept, any more than I want to feel at home with my own sense that as a white, middle-class woman I am more real than other women. 

    I want them to be taught a different way of being. I want them to be able to access that sense of humanity they enjoyed before they got to know categories and hierarchies of human worth. I want them to know what it was like when people were people and I was just a mum-man. But I don’t see how this is possible without teaching them what men as a class do to women, not in an attempt to humiliate them, but so they question the unspoken beliefs around them.

    We need to teach our sons, not that they are destined to be “sex-crazed monsters,” but we are all porous and vulnerable and need to listen. Teaching consent and respect for women is not shaming men; it is countering a culture in which the objectification of women is self-perpetuating. If you do not seem real, I will not treat you as though you are real, and neither of us will even know this is happening. We will find ourselves not understanding the hurt, and so it will be normality, because it’s always easiest that way. We can do better.

    The linguist Eric Hawkins described teaching a new language without an immersive approach as “gardening in a gale”. However much of the target language is used in the classroom, students will eventually leave and find themselves back in the “real” world, that of their mother tongue. However hard we try to plant those seeds, strong winds will blow most of them away. Nonetheless, we have to keep planting. I can’t possibly counter all of the messages my sons will absorb, in the playground, on the internet and in the stories they read. I can still push to create a culture where, bit by bit, perspectives are shifting.

    As a feminist who blogs about parenting, I sometimes get comments from men’s rights extremists. They cheerfully inform me that my sons will grow up to hate me and I think “yes, you’re probably right”. Nonetheless, I hope that hatred is short-lived; I hope it is a phase, a part of growing up, a necessary process. I want them to break away from me because I am their mother, because that is what they need to do. I don’t want them to feel apart from me because I am a woman. I don’t want them to see me, or any other woman, as less than human. I don’t want them to have to unlearn hate.

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    How long have real wages been dropping?

    Figures from the Office for National Statistic (ONS) reveal real wages have experienced the longest consecutive drop for 50 years. We answer five questions on the drop in real wages.

    How long have real wages been dropping?

    They’ve been dropping consistently since 2010, which is the longest period of consecutive depletion since 1964, according to official figures. Overall, real wages have fallen by 2.2 per cent annually since the first three months of 2010.

    How are real wages calculated?

    Real wages are essentially wages that have been adjusted to factor in the cost of living or with inflation taken into account.

    Why are real wages falling?

    ONS said reduced output and shorter working hours were to blame. For example, many employees were asked to work shorter hours during the financial crisis rather than making them redundant.

    The response to the fall in productivity in 2008 and 2009 was the main reason behind the fall in real wages, it added. It also highlighted the different inflation rate that exists between what is produced and what is consumed.

    Are real time wages set to recover soon?

    ONS said most recent figures, those released in the third quarter of 2013, showed real wages fell by a drop of 1.5 per cent compared with the same period a year earlier; showing that wages are still continuing to fall.

    The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a report on Thursday which also painted a strained picture. It suggested a mid-range household's income between 2013 and 2014 was 6 per cent below its pre-crisis peak. It added that real wages would not recover before the next general election.

    What have the experts said?

    "Over the last four years British workers have suffered an unprecedented real wage squeeze," said TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady told the BBC.

    "Even more worryingly, average pay rises have got weaker in every decade since the 1980s, despite increases in productivity, growth and profits. Unless things change, the 2010s could be the first ever decade of falling wages.

    "A return to business as usual may only bring modest pay growth. We need radical economic reform to give hard-working people the pay rises they deserve."

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    The great council housing boom of the post-war years was only achieved by public investment. The same action is needed now.

    Ed Balls made an important speech at the weekend, not only setting out Labour’s promise of fairer taxes but also our commitment to turn the current account deficit into a surplus and to get national debt falling. Hand in hand with this fiscal discipline is Labour’s plan for investment-led growth, with housing at its heart.  

    Public housing investment was central to the action we took in the last year of the Labour government when I was housing minister. Alongside measures to help home owners and private house builders, this included the first local authority new build programme for two decades, and reform of council housing finance to create the capacity for councils to build over 50, 000 new homes for social rent.

    Despite the fact that councils in all parts of the country and led by all parties started to build again, this was one of the first targets for the coalition. On taking office, Tory ministers cut the capacity of this new settlement for councils in half and slashed direct capital investment in social homes. The hard truth for Labour is that while there’s a growing public sense of crisis in housing, and a belief that the housing market is failing, there’s currently no swell of public or political support for investment in social housing. Above all, there is a pessimistic fatalism that much can be done about failings in the housing market, or that public housing can play anything but a peripheral part in building the homes our country needs.

    In 1945, when Aneurin Bevan assumed responsibility for housing alongside health, he put local authorities in charge of a huge homes programme because the nation could rely on them rather than the private housebuilders to get building. Councils repaid his faith - from a standing start, they were completing almost 150,000 new homes a year by the end of the decade.

    Now as then, the only way to show investment works is to allow councils to get on and do it. One difference with Bevan’s time is that our public housing stock, though depleted in recent decades, is an asset base against which councils can borrow. And local government generally borrows well. We have a long British tradition of municipal fiscal caution, codified since 2004 in the current prudential borrowing regime. Local government’s net debt is 5 per cent. Central government’s is close to 80 per cent of national income.

    We have got to bite the bullet on borrowing for investment. We’ve got to recognise that affordable homes require subsidy to build, but that because housing is such a low risk and reliable source of revenue, rents pay back the capital cost in full and continue to provide a return beyond that. Entirely the opposite of the relentlessly rising housing subsidy paid from the public purse via housing benefit.

    An excellent report by the National Federation of ALMOs at the end of 2012 set out one of the first steps. It estimates that by lifting the borrowing caps that this government has set, we could free up an extra £7bn of investment to build 15,000 new council homes a year. The benefits would be felt well beyond those tenants on housing waiting lists, or trapped in the private rented sector, it could also add £20bn to the UK economy and generate over 100,000 jobs across the country.

    There is an understandable concern about the impact that councils’ borrowing could have on the public finances. Our idiosyncratic fiscal classification rules set us apart from much of Europe in classing such local council borrowing as adding to national government debt, even though any costs are more than met by rents. The borrowing by Bevan and Macmillan was repaid long ago, so these council homes are now subsidy-free, still bringing in revenue and a great asset for current and coming generations. 

    It may well make sense to change accounting methods so that this debt is not counted in the same way as central government borrowing, a way of organising the public accounts which international organisations such as the OECD already use. This kind of change could be made by a sympathetic Treasury and has the great advantage of not requiring a fundamental change in status of council and ALMO housing.

    However, setting councils free from current borrowing constraints is necessary but not sufficient. The bigger challenge lies in making the case for smart state action. The great council housing boom of the post-war years was only achieved by public investment but it drew its widespread support from the popular conviction that government action was an essential answer to a housing market that was failing so many people.

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    The dominance of the privately-educated in public life, the politics of Labour's 50p tax rate pledge and Caroline Criado-Perez discusses reforms to the laws on domestic violence.

    On this week's podcast, David and George Kynaston talk to NS editor Jason Cowley about Britain's 7 per cent problem: the dominance of the privately-educated in public life. Rafael Behr and Caroline Crampton ask whether Labour are really bashing the rich and Caroline Criado-Perez discusses reforms to the laws on domestic violence.

    You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed:, or listen using the player below.

    Want to give us feedback on our podcast, or have an idea for something we should cover? Visit for more details and how to contact us.

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    The campaign is titled “Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters”, and is focused on “the struggles and triumphs a trans person may face in relation to their gender identity”.

    Barneys has launched their 2014 Spring-Summer range with a campaign featuring 17 transgender models, shot by Bruce Weber in New York.

    As Katharine K Zarella at notes, Barneys aren't the first brand to use transgender models (transgender model Lea T appeared in Givenchy’s ads in 2010). But the decision to theme the entire shoot around gender identity and individuality is noteworthy in itself.

    The campaign, which is titled “Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters”, includes 17 transgender models, many of whom are photographed with their family and friends. It was done in partnership with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the LGBT Community Center in the US, and the announcement on the Barneys website states that the aim is “to help break stereotypes and build social acceptance of transgender people”.

    Barneys creative director Dennis Freedman told WWD that the choice to feature transgender models had “a lot to do with the realisation that such extraordinary progress has been made in the last few years for the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community, but it’s striking how the transgender community has been left behind. It’s disturbing and upsetting to see that.”

    Here are a few more pictures from the campaign:

    Dezjorn Gauthier and Ahya Taylor

    Ryley Pogensk (centre), poses with his grandparents and fellow model Valentijn (left)

    Maxie Neu, Trevon Haynes and Ryley Pogensky

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    The challenge for mainstream parties is to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation and to connect these to a renewed case for the Union.

    The development of a more compelling, contemporary case for Britain’s Union requires not just a fine-grained understanding of Scottish sensibilities and arguments, but also a proper consideration of the nature and implications of developing forms of English identity. A growing body of social science research points to a gradual reassertion of English nationhood in the current period, a trend that is more deeply rooted and politically significant than is generally appreciated. Several different, contending versions of what it means to be English are quietly and inexorably leaving their imprint upon the agendas and assumptions of politics at Westminster.

    All of the main parties have obvious, short-term incentives for averting their eyes from these issues, or for playing them tactically, given their own internal differences on Europe and the Union, and the difficulties they have in engaging with the public on such matters. And yet each is likely to find an evasive or purely tactical stance increasingly difficult to sustain. In part, this is a result of the dramatic coincidence of loud questions about Britain’s role in Europe, the referendum on Scottish independence and the attendant debate about the Union, and the likelihood of further devolutionary developments in Scotland and Wales, even if Scottish independence does not come to pass.

    More generally, national questions are necessarily difficult for politicians who are schooled in the dominant narrative in the UK of centralised and functional, rather than territorial, governance. And yet the blood has been seeping away from the Westminster model for some time, primarily because long-established ideas about what was special and unique about Britain and its evolving system of parliamentary government began to lose their appeal as the last century drew to a close.

    The three main parties appear either uncomfortable or uncertain as they grapple with these national questions. For the Conservative party, David Cameron’s deployment of familiar Unionist arguments in the debate over Scottish independence sits awkwardly with the reality that the Tories look increasingly like the party that represents the most affluent parts of southern and central England. Many voters within their electoral core are increasingly impatient with the Union and Scottish demands upon it.

    In Labour’s case, Ed Miliband’s "one nation" rhetoric is vulnerable to a pretty obvious rejoinder – "which nation?" Perhaps best known as a Tory phrase, it is heard in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a decidedly English trope. Engaging with contemporary English sensibilities raises another pressing question for the Labour party: how can its rediscovery of an authentic, radical lineage of progressive patriotism – as proposed by figures such as the chair of its policy review, Jon Cruddas – be reconciled with the widespread perception that the party clings to the established order because of its heavy reliance upon the votes of Scottish MPs? If Labour does succeed in winning a majority in the general election of 2015 but lacks representatives in large swathes of southern, eastern and western England and the midlands, it could well find itself facing a crisis of territorial legitimacy, at the mercy of a potent English-focused backlash. (Indeed, one advantage of coalition with the Liberal Democrats is that this might help offset Labour’s position in England, as it has done in relation to the Tories’ situation in Scotland.)

    At present, the one political party that appears to be in tune with some strands of the new English zeitgeist is the UK Independence Party (Ukip) (despite the anachronistic name with which it is saddled). Recent polling suggests a strong correlation between sympathy for Ukip and identification with English, rather than British, national identity. Yet transforming its retro-British nationalist outlook into an English nationalism presents a challenge for Ukip, as is clear from its significant internal divisions on such questions as whether to support an English parliament. And, more fundamentally still, the extent to which Englishness signals the kind of pessimistic, insular and conservative outlook that Ukip promotes is often exaggerated. My own research suggests that most people who are increasingly inclined to identify as "English" first and foremost are broadly liberal and/or conservative in disposition, and still feel a strong sense of affiliation for the Union, even if many are increasingly sceptical about the EU.

    In the end, the most effective response to increasingly prominent populist-nationalist sentiments is not to disengage from the terrain of "the national-popular" in the name of universal liberal values, nor to try to recycle or appropriate the simplicities of nationalist-populist rhetoric on issues like immigration. The better, more enduring alternative is to work much harder and more imaginatively – in intellectual, cultural and policy terms – to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation, and to connect these to a renewed case for Union. This is the major challenge linking the various national questions of British politics. It is time that the parties stopped dithering and embraced it. 

    The full version of this article will appear in the forthcoming essay collection Democracy in Britain, Essays in honour of James Cornford to be published by IPPR in February.’ Michael Kenny's book, "The Politics of English Nationhood" is published by Oxford University Press in February.

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    Louis CK's early film Tomorrow Night has been made available for $5 on the comedian's website - and it's well worth checking out.

    This week, the comedian Louis CK made available on his website for the cost of $5 his little-seen first feature, Tomorrow Night, which he wrote and directed in 1998, but which has never been released. It has, he says, “been sitting in storage in film cans for 15 years. No one has ever seen it. There are no tapes of it or even clips of it anywhere.” If its relative obscurity and negligible price suggest the whiff of the bargain bin, that is dispelled within minutes by the technical expertise and the deadpan sensibility which makes it consistent with his innovative FX sitcom Louie (the fourth series of which will arrive later this year). Here is the statement which subscribers to Louis CK’s website received this week:

    I made this movie, meaning I wrote and directed it, back in 1998. I was a struggling comedian and TV writer at the time and I pulled together my savings and some of my fiends [sic] money to make this movie on black and white 16mm film… Tomorrow Night is a bizarre little indie film and it gets pretty weird.  It was a labor of love for me.  It’s how I learned to direct and there are some wonderful performances in it…  [It]  screened at the Sundance film festival as well as other festivals from Seattle to Sweden. But it never got distribution. Any black and white movie is tricky to get a market for and this one is particularly strange… The sound is the original Mono mix which is fitting for the style of the film. Be prepared to sit through people dialling rotary phones, which takes a while. The pace is sometimes slow and deliberate. Sometimes crazy. But it’s exactly the movie I wanted to make and I'm proud of it. I'm putting it on my website with the hopes that I can continue this way of distributing stuff. I’d also like to pay back some of the people who helped me finance the film… I’d also like to make a profit from it so I can use the proceeds to make a new movie and release that on my website as well. Wouldn’t that be something?

    It would indeed if the results are anywhere near this good. In a way, I’m glad Tomorrow Night hasn’t seen the light of day until now. Had it been released shortly after it was made, there is a danger it would have got lumped together with films with which it is superficially similar — comic black-and-white US indie oddities like Kevin Smith’s Clerks or Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup — and therefore overlooked. It’s a far stranger picture than either of those, closer in texture and tone (though not subject matter) to early Coen brothers or David Lynch, with a hint of Woody Allen.

    The main focus is on the withdrawn, taciturn manager of a camera store, Charles (Chuck Sklar) and his underdeveloped romantic life. First he dates a customer, Lola Vagina (Heather Morgan). “Is your name Lola Vagina?” he asks. “I’m Lola,” she whoops. “And this is my…” Well, you get the picture. An uncomfortably raucous double date with the postman and his girlfriend (played by JB Smoove and Wanda Sykes, both best known now from Curb Your Enthusiasm) only reinforces his need for solitude. The evening ends weirdly when Lola takes Charles home to meet her husband. The big lug wants to know whether Charles going to have sex with Lola because he sure as hell doesn’t want to.

    The movie has a pretty warped idea of relationships. Lola slaps and screams at her husband but he sits there impassively. A mild-mannered woman is verbally abused by her own husband, who keeps her a virtual prisoner. She hasn’t heard from her son, a soldier, for 20 years. Why doesn’t he write, she wonders? In fact, he does, but two wags in the mail room throw his letters away. (One of those pranksters is played by a pre-fame Steve Carell, whose performance consists of wicked laughs and splendid bug-eyed gurning.) Meanwhile, Charles gets his kicks squishing his buttocks in a bowl of ice cream each night. “Particularly strange”, Louis CK called it. He’s not wrong.

    But it is strangely intoxicating. The arbitrary fatalities and surreal non-sequiturs that viewers of Louie have come to expect are here in abundance. A man hoses down the customers passing the pavement outside his shop; a pack of dogs attacks a gambler on his way home from a profitable day at the bookmakers. By the time Charles finds himself married to an elderly woman and adopting a gun-toting thug to form an unusual family unit, an alternative reality has been established, the bizarre neutralised. It’s the same combination of the profane and the blasé which makes Louis CK’s stand-up routines so mesmerising. I recommend you watch it tonight. Or tomorrow night.

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