Friday, 25 February 2011

Who's hottest - Gaddafi, Mubarak or Zuckerberg?

WHEN Mark Zuckerberg set up a college website asking which of two classmates was “hotter”, did he have the faintest idea what he was starting?
Revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, maybe Bahrain, perhaps Libya – could be Iran next?
No, of course he didn’t.
He had no plan either of making himself one of the richest young men on the planet. Yet all those things have apparently followed as a consequence of what may have started out as a nerdish prank to get back at a girl he thought had insulted him.
OK, that’s roughly the Hollywood version of how it began, so probably to be taken with several large pinches of salt. Nevertheless, it’s safe to assume Zuckerberg, then only 19, had no world-domination plans when he launched Facebook just seven years ago from his bedroom at Harvard.
Within four years it had made him the world’s youngest dollar-billionaire. And that’s one of the site’s lesser effects.
History moves fast these days.
That’s due in part to the sheer number of people on the planet. But it’s got more to do with the speed of communication. And a big part of that is the reach, power and speed of the internet.
It’s probably stretching it a bit to say Facebook is responsible for the wave of unrest across the Arab world, the overturning of governments across north Africa.
A similar domino effect was after all seen across formerly Communist Europe in 1989 and 1990. Zuckerberg had only just started school then, few of us had heard of the internet, and the worldwide web was merely a twinkle in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee.
But the net is a great unearther of views and passions that once ran deep but hidden. And there seems little doubt that it has played a huge role in enabling protesters to organise.
Three years ago thousands of people with nothing better to do descended on Liverpool Street station to sing and dance like Rick Astley. People most of whom didn’t know each other.
It was bizarre and at the time seemed almost completely meaningless – apart from the slight inconvenience caused to people like me, trying to catch a train home.
Yet in a curious way the pointless phenomenon of “Rickrolling” could now be seen as a precursor to the vastly more significant gatherings in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
One of the priorities of Egypt’s panicking government as Hosni Mubarak tried desperately to cling to power was to close down the country’s internet connection. An attempt which of course failed.
Perhaps the biggest tribute to the power of Facebook is that the people of the world’s biggest country are not allowed to see it.
Zuckerberg has a Chinese girlfriend, has been learning to speak Mandarin and recently visited Beijing. But his site is locked out behind the great firewall of China.
And what China’s rulers most fear, of course – as do the otherwise very different rulers of Libya, Bahrain, Iran etc – is democracy.
Not just the democracy that consists of giving people an electorate choice every few years between two similar parties of government. But the democracy that gives real power to real people.
In Britain, the LibDems like to claim they are pushing for democratic reform.
They seem to think the offer of a referendum on a minor change in voting method is worth their support for the most extreme programme of change to things that actually matter put forward by any UK government in most of our lifetimes.
If the Alternative Vote makes any difference at all in British politics, it will merely be to give us more of what we have now. More power-broking by the third party.
The ballot box has never been more than a very clumsy tool for delivering democracy. The net can provide a much sharper edge.
Without a campaign spread via Facebook would the government have had to climb down over their shocking plan to flog off our forests?
Without the spread of information and opinion through a massive Facebook group, could the appalling plan to build Europe’s largest factory farm – an intensive dairy farm at Nocton in Lincolnshire – have been stopped?
That is democracy in action. I hope the mass extermination of badgers on the scientifically discredited grounds of a link with TB in cattle can now also be halted.
I wouldn’t mind a bit of regime change here, either, before the Cameron-Clegg conspiracy destroys too much more. But that, perhaps, is too much to hope for just yet.


CARE homes and libraries to be closed. Evening, weekend and bank holiday bus services shut down. The eXplore card, which until this week gave young people half-price bus fares, abolished. School crossing patrols scrapped. A 27 per cent slash in cash to maintain and repair pavements and footpaths.
All these despicable decisions by Suffolk County Council are rightly condemned in a leaflet put through our letterbox this week by the local Liberal Democrats.
As they say: “These savage cuts are aimed at the elderly, the young, and the disadvantaged.”
What they don’t say is that they stem from the cynical policies of a government their party put in power and continues to participate in.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Not Big and not clever

REMEMBER those photos of the then US president, George W Bush, that floated around the virtual world a few years back?
The ones showing Dubya in a variety of weird facial poses, each accompanied by a pic of a chimpanzee pulling the same face. A little unkind, perhaps (to the chimps), but still uncomfortably funny.
I was reminded of them this week by a pic of our own political primate-in-chief apparently whooping like a gibbon.
David Cameron may have been forced a while back to sack his own personal photographer, but he obviously worked out with the press corps just where to pose to get himself pictured alongside the title of his “passion”.
Trouble is, he didn’t have the same control over his own facial expression.
And the bigger trouble is in the title he, or some back-room policy wonk, came up with for that passion.
Just look at the logo – if that’s what it is – behind Dave in the picture. It’s a mess. A riot of conflicting fonts and colours with no coherent pattern or discernible sense.
Which makes it a most appropriate badge for something even Cameron admits “some people” find a bit vague.
Not just some people, Dave – nobody seems to know what Big Society means. Including the designer(s) – if any – of that nameplate, in which every letter is pulling in a different ill-conceived direction.
It looks like something from one of those books given to pre-school children to frighten them off reading.
Suggesting either (a) the government is childish; or (b) that it thinks the British public should be treated like children.
Which, come to think of it, is rather how the Tory party has always thought the public should be treated.
Whether those children should be sent up chimneys and down mines is a matter of how far you want to push those Victorian values Maggie Thatcher was so fond of.
And there is something curiously Victorian in the whole idea of Big Society, so far as I can make out what that idea is.
The idea of armies of eager volunteers setting out to improve the world, without benefit of pay or expertise.
Lots of middle-class do-gooders, and a tiny handful of wealthy philanthropists, seeking to improve the lot of the milling, ground-down poor.
While the mill-owning, bank-owning fat cats – the true Tories – go on getting richer in their mansions.
There is – let it be said, in case the term sounds derogatory – nothing wrong with being a do-gooder. The alternatives are, after all, do-badder or do-nothinger. Which wouldn’t do at all.
But there is, and always has been, a tendency for society to lean heavily on the few prepared to put themselves out to help others. And my fear is that Big Society is there not just to lean on them, but to crush them.
As defined by, the Big Society Network is “a small team of citizens, social entrepreneurs, community activists and professionals working to set up the basic structure”.
Lots of do-good intention there, then. But a small team, not a big society.
A team whose essential purpose – however much its individual members may dispute this – is to undermine the services which the state, up to now, has provided.
To replace the nanny state with nanny in-a-state.
“What this is all about,” explained Cameron this week, “is giving people more power and control to improve their lives and their communities.”
More power and control?
By taking services, such as libraries, out of local democracy and hoping a few volunteers pick up the pieces?
By expecting school governors to do for free what trained local authority officers used to be paid for?
By re-branding “volunteering” as “Big Society” while at the same time slashing funding to the voluntary sector?
By, for example, removing support for the Citizens Advice Bureau, just at the time when more citizens than ever are in need of advice?
The best thing to be said for Cameron’s big idea is that it won’t kill as many people, or so de-stabilise the world, as the thing that defined Tony Blair’s premiership.
Invade Iraq or tangle Britain up in a web of woolly thinking? In world terms, one is clearly less damaging than the other. Though it could spell big trouble in little Britain.
The question is: Is Cameron’s thinking really that woolly – or is the wool meant to be pulled over all our eyes?
Is Big Society a half-decent idea badly worked out, or a cynical cover for the Tories’ ideologically-led programme of savage cuts in public expenditure?
I suspect there isn’t one simple answer to that. If there were, it would tell us whether Cameron himself is well-meaning but muddled, or devious and scheming.
And I suspect there isn’t one simple answer to that, either.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Trending now - girl who cain't say no to Wills

ENGLISH language purists may be appalled, but I’ve gotten a soft spot for the things American usage does to what we still think of as our mother tongue.
Or, in some cases, the things it doesn’t do.
For instance, that “gotten” may have offended your ears as you read my first sentence. You may have thought it was a mistake. A ghastly Americanism.
But actually “gotten” is older than “got” as a past participle of the verb “to get”.
It’s just one example among many of America not having moved on as we have.
The USA may be proud of being a modern leader among nations. Yet in so many ways their outlook is still stuck in the 17th century, the era when their founders left Britain in order to pursue their quirky faiths in peace.
That reverence for cultic and fundamentalist religion is one survival. “Gotten” is another.
And, paradoxical as it may seem, the American ability to keep making the language may also be a leftover from that pre-dictionary age.
My favourite quotation on the subject, from an anonymous GI, is this: “Ain’t a word that cain’t be verbed.”
Beautiful. It demonstrates perfectly the freedom it describes by making the word “verb” – in English English a noun only – into a verb. While at the same time riffing delightfully on the good old English “ain’t”, which has fallen into unfair disrepute on this side of the pond.
One apparent example of verbing a non-verb is the current trend in the US media for using the term “trending”. As in: “Trending now.” Or, as we might put it: “Hot topics.”
Turns out, though, on consulting my dictionary, that “trend” was a verb before it was a noun. So maybe what sounds trendy and new is just old hat after all.
Except I don’t think that when Time magazine uses “Trending Now” to advertise its latest stories it means “turning, bending or winding”.
So what is trending now in the US press?
Egypt Turmoil: Well, no great surprise there. Any regime change in the world’s largest Arab nation – the third largest state in Africa – embodies both hope and fear for us all.
Super Bowl: Also no surprise. Absorption in faintly ridiculous games the rest of the world doesn’t play is somehow a key component of the American psyche.
The Oscars: Everyone, it seems, loves the movies. And nearly everyone, oddly, still seems to care about showbiz honours and awards. I even used to take an interest myself.
And finally - Royal Wedding: Oh, good grief.
From whether Kate Middleton’s wedding attire to whether she will take over royal duties at Wimbledon; from Kate Middleton condoms (I kid you not) to casting for a TV movie called William & Kate (I still kid you not), America is obsessed. With what must surely be the least interesting thing happening in Britain this year.
The dreary Beckhams, the talented Mr Firth (playing royalty, of course) and the pointless pageantry of a couple of toffs getting spliced – is that the sum of what Britain means to America? To the world?
Sure looks like it’s gotten that way. Which cain’t be good.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Food for thought in tomato trade

WATER. There seems to have been a lot of it about so far this year.
Suffolk squelches underfoot every time I take the dog out. There appears to be a lake beside the A12 in Essex where I’m sure it used to be dry land.
Our screens have been awash with images of flooding from Australia to Brazil, Pakistan to Sri Lanka.
So why am I worrying about a water shortage?
Aside from the odd hosepipe ban in an unusually hot summer, it’s not something we tend much to think about in green, rainy Britain.
But next time you pick up a pack of tomatoes at the supermarket, take a moment to see where they were grown.
Not so long ago they were most likely to have been flown in from Spain. Now the chances are high they’ve come from Morocco. Not a country renowned for its fertile farmlands.
You might think this shift is just another instance of the globalised economy. But there’s a practical reason for it too. And it’s a rather disturbing one.
For years a large area of south-eastern Spain has been under glass – square miles of greenhousing providing the supermarkets of Britain and northern Europe with fresh fruit and veg.
Now many of the owners of those hot-houses are moving operations across the Strait of Gibraltar.
They are doing it because the aquifers – the natural underground water supplies – of the costas have been sucked dry.
Expert estimates suggest there is enough ground water in Morocco to last the farmers until 2035. And then?
Bad news for the growers. Worse for their poor Moroccan neighbours, who can’t simply move on so easily when their wells run dry.
And it’s not good news for us, either.
Despite the growing pressure for development – for new homes, new roads, the lot – about 70 per cent of British land is still farmed. And of course our farms aren’t short of water, either.
Nevertheless, 90pc of the fruit we eat, and 60pc of the vegetables, are imported. And a lot of it comes from countries where water is scarce.
Worldwide, one in three people face water shortages now. Which makes it more than a little unfair that our five-a-day should be provided literally by flying water – in the form of fruit and veg – out of lands that don’t have enough for themselves.
And it’s not just unfair. It makes us vulnerable too.
We live in an age of plenty. At least, in this country we do. Very, very few of us ever worry seriously about where our next meal is coming from.
But there’s no guarantee it will always be like that. In fact, nationally we lead a pretty hand-to-mouth existence.
The supply chain of food from farm to market to supermarket is highly complex. It depends on fleets of trucks on 24/7 duty across the land, as well as planes coming from abroad. And it’s pretty time-critical too.
How many days’ food supply do you have in your fridge right now? Not many. Maybe a week’s worth. At the supermarket the margin is finer than that.
As Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, puts it, Britain is never much more than “nine meals from anarchy”.
A real fuel crisis, or a sustained spell of really severe weather could upset the apple-cart more thoroughly and more quickly than you might think.
The last time the potential for food catastrophe in Britain was as great was during the Second World War, when imports were threatened by German U-boats.
Then we were urged to Dig For Victory. Rationing brought a dulling of the national diet, but also – perhaps surprisingly – made it healthier.
The threat now is less obvious, perhaps less urgent or acute. But it’s harder to see what, as individuals, we can do about it.
Collectively, there are schemes such as Thanet Earth, a complex in Kent that promises “a new horticultural future”.
Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are grown “with exceptional green credentials” in three vast greenhouses that actually create energy, selling electricity to the National Grid.
The Dutch-backed company grows its salads by soil-free hydroponics and reckons to recycle all its water. It supplies about 2pc of British demand now, and plans to double that.
Which is impressive stuff. If only man could live by tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers alone.
In fact, Britain is close to self-sufficient in some foodstuffs. Unfortunately, those stuffs are mostly meat and dairy – the very things we eat too much of.
Too much, that is, both for our own personal health and the health of the world.
Even with a booming-to-bursting population, humanity could probably still feed itself if those of us who can afford it hadn’t developed such a taste for meat and dairy products.
It may take a lot of water to grow a tomato. It takes a whole lot more to grow the grass and grain to raise and fatten a beef or dairy cow.
We’re lucky. We’ve got that water. Here. For now.