Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The rot goes deep in coastal cities

THERE’S something rotten in the state of New York. And it isn’t just Wall Street.
The insidious way the culture of high finance rots society from within is one thing, of course.
It’s why the world is in an economic mess that threatens to get a lot messier (at least it’s one of the more obvious reasons). It’s why we have an Occupy movement – even if the battle between high finance and Occupy is even more one-sided than the one between Israel and Hamas.
But the rot I’m really talking about is both more literal and more hidden than that.
And it could, potentially, be at least as grave a threat to humanity on a global scale.
It’s not often spoken about, and almost never seen, because it’s an underground movement. Literally.
The obvious effects of the recent Superstorm Sandy were, of course, greatly exaggerated. Anything that affects New York is always played for its fullest dramatic effect.
Death and destruction on a major scale in, say, central Africa is worth a few paragraphs written 1,000 miles away. Wet streets in New York City – major news everywhere.
But it was more than wet streets. And the real story didn’t make dramatic pictures or headlines.
According to Masoud Ghandehari, a New York University engineer quoted in New Scientist magazine, the city is “degrading from underneath”.
Just as what you see above ground is only the upper part of a tree, so tall buildings require deep foundations. Then there is the vast and complex network of sewers, waterpipes, cables and subways that constitutes much of the living organism of a modern city.
A lot of it, in New York as elsewhere, is made of steel. And steel, as we all know, goes rusty when it gets wet.
Most of the time, the buried steel is kept dry by concrete and earth. But if those protective layers get saturated with salt water, corrosion becomes inevitable.
If you’ve ever left your car for long at the seaside – at Felixstowe, for example – you’ll be familiar with the effect.
If your windowframes go rotten or your walls crack above ground, you can see it and get something done about it. If your skyscraper’s foundations rust away, you may not realise it until it’s too late.
As Gandehari puts it: “The ultimate risk is that we do not see what’s happening, so we cannot take action at the right place at the right time.”
The danger is not just the after-effects of Superstorm Sandy. In fact, that was probably a very minor event in this story – except perhaps in helping draw attention to the matter.
The real problem is rising sea-level. And again it is the unseen effect as the coastal water-table rises and salty damp seeps into the land.
This, even more than Sandy and the other superstorms to come, is the real impact that global warming may already be having on New York.
And – along with the very real increased risk of catastrophic flooding – on every high-rise city on any coastline in the world.

Phone-hacking can't get any more illegal

A YEAR after the Leveson Inquiry began probing the ethics (or otherwise) of the British press, it’s a fair bet the public at large are less agog than those in the trade to hear the long-awaited report on Thursday.
There are good reasons, though, why anyone who cares about our society, and our democracy, should care about what happens next.
The inquiry went much deeper than phone-hacking (which was illegal anyway) and there are predictable calls for press freedoms to be hacked back by new laws.
Press freedom, though, is already a fiction. Supposed free speech is already curtailed by the laws of libel, contempt of court and official secrets, not to mention the growing impact of injunctions.
Most of these restraints exist to protect the establishment and the rich from the prying eyes of the plebs.
The ideal would be less restraint, not more – though of course there is a responsibility on the press to act responsibly. As the local and regional press nearly always does.
Some elements of the national press have been a national disgrace for many years but the answer to that doesn’t lie in legislation.
The experience of certain other countries – Soviet Russia, China, Egypt and Iran are only among the more obvious examples – shows that there is one thing worse than an unfettered press.
And that’s a press fettered by government.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

What's so good about police democracy?

ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO doesn’t get a very good press in the West – when he gets any press here at all.
But I was struck by the headline over a recent interview with the Belarussian president: “What’s so good about democracy anyway?”
Whatever you think of Lukashenko (if you ever think of him at all), it’s a question well worth asking yourself from time to time.
The best answer may lie with Winston Churchill, who called democracy “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.
Generations of American experience have shown that it is definitely not the best way of running a police service, even among those that have been tried.
Our police service, for all its many faults, probably really is (as is so often claimed) one of the world’s best. It has generally been at its worst when political interference has been at its strongest – as when Margaret Thatcher effectively made it her army against the miners.
We have yet to discover how much difference, if any, the newly elected police and crime commissioners will make to actual policing. It’s hard to see how they can fulfill the brief of increasing “public accountability”.
What they may be able to do is deflect flak from the government when decisions about the police prove unpopular. Which may, in fact, be what they are really there for.
Since they are mostly supposed to leave the professionals to get on with the job, one wonders what they will do to earn their up-to-£100,000-a-year salaries. Sounds a decent sum for hiring and firing chief constables and setting the police budget, which is what one candidate said the role boiled down to.
The election itself was budgeted at £75million, which adds up to about £12 for each vote actually cast.
At a time when the police, like nearly every other public service, is groaning under cuts, does any of this sound like money well spent?
I did consider last week doing something I’ve never done before – abstain in a public election. I kept reminding myself of the old slogan: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them”.
When I bothered to check out the Suffolk candidates, however (how many people even did that?), it became obvious that I had to vote, and who for.
Just one of the four pledged to stand up against cuts and privatisation. She also promised, among other mostly good things, to “prioritise action on violence against women and girls, domestic violence” and “hate crime”.
She got my vote.
And if the election had been run on the normal first-past-the-post system generally favoured by the prime minister, she would have won.
It was pretty obvious, though, once the count went down to second-preference votes, that Jane Basham would lose out to Tim Passmore. Those who had picked the Independent or UKIP candidates as first choice were always more likely to favour Tory over Labour for second best.
Which is a pity for Jane Basham and for Suffolk, if the PCC turns out to have any real power.
It’s hard to see, though, what sense of a “mandate” Mr Passmore can possibly take into his new job.
He can only claim to have been the first choice of 5.4 per cent of people eligible to vote.
Suffolk’s 16pc turnout was actually above the national average of 15pc – which would presumably have been lower still if some voters had not been brought out by three parliamentary by-elections and one mayoral election on the same day.
Were the 85pc who didn’t vote motivated – if that’s the word – by apathy, ignorance, or a positive desire to snub the whole business? It was undoubtedly a combination of all those factors.
But they call into serious question the validity of the election itself.
After all, it was only in July that Essex Tory MP Priti Patel declared: “Any ballot in which fewer than half of those eligible to vote do so should be ruled invalid.”
True, she was talking about strike ballots, not jobs for the boys – but what’s sauce for the goose…


RECENTLY, my work has made me familiar with the corner of west London where the Israeli embassy stands. It is commonplace to see British police officers outside it clutching semi-automatic rifles, which is not something I want to get used to seeing.
Last Friday night, while TV screens filled with images of Gaza under fire and Jerusalem in fear, the armed presence outside the embassy was considerably increased. More alarmingly, I saw gun-toting police rushing about among the crowds of shoppers in Kensington High Street.
It was the clearest reminder I ever hope to see of the globalised nature of modern conflict.
It’s hard – no, it’s impossible – to understand or condone the actions of Israel in waging its vicious war of aggression against the Palestinians of Gaza. Once again, the latest upsurge of hostilities seems to be entirely of their doing.
On the other hand, nothing is as clear-cut as so many commentators (and some of my friends) seem to think.
The state of Israel is neither all good nor all bad. And neither is Hamas.
The situation is complex, historically tangled and hard to see a decent or humane way out of. Missile attacks on civilians – of either side – are not decent, humane, or a way out.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

On the old Berlin Wall, where buzzards dare

THIS is the age of the buzzard.
When I was a child, just to spot one in the distance was a rare, exciting event, possible only on holidays abroad. Only a very few years ago, the only way to see one in Suffolk would have been to visit the bird sanctuary at Stonham Barns.
Now if, like me, you’re a watcher of the skies, it’s not that unusual to see that great broad-winged shape drifting gently over the landscape like a feathered bomber or troop-carrier.
A more apt comparison might be with its closest relative, the eagle. But you still won’t see an eagle over Suffolk – or in a big city.
And though the buzzard is now – amazingly – one of our commonest birds of prey, it’s still a thrill to get to watch a wild one at close quarters.
This one, which I photographed last week, knew perfectly well that I was watching it. It knew too it was in no danger and had no need to stir from its own perfect viewing platform. Even when I rummaged in my bag to change lenses, fitted a telephoto, then walked as close as I could to its perch, it merely cast a disdainful eye my way.
The high place from which it surveyed its hunting ground (and me) might have been purpose-built for it. In fact, it was built with other watchers – and other prey – in mind.
It was one of the grim concrete watchtowers built by the East Germans to scan the dead zone between the inner and outer skins of the Berlin Wall. Not to stop westerners invading, but to prevent inhabitants of the Communist bloc from escaping in pursuit of pop music and jeans.
Travelling around Berlin 23 years after the Wall came down, it’s seldom easy to tell which ‘sector’ you’re in.
The buzzard on its lookout tower
The downtown centre is just as high-rise, shiny, architecturally self-important – and soulless – on one side as the other. Further out, the pavements are as cracked and rubbish-strewn, the walls as thoroughly graffitied, in one neighbourhood as another.
For those in the know, the superb public transport system provides a clue. If you’re riding a bus, you’re probably in the old west; if you’re on a tram, you’re in the east. Mostly, though, the best remaining evidence of the Wall is the space it has left – that old ‘dead zone’.
What was once more than just a symbol of division and terror has become a marked trail, 100 miles long, much of it a public space 50 metres or more wide for the enjoyment of all Berliners (and their visitors); in places an oasis of grass, trees, birds and dog-walkers zigzagging its way across the sprawling city. In its autumn colours, a beautiful place to stroll. And a perfect site for a buzzard to live, watch and feed.
Berlin, in fact, is not short of trees or open spaces. No doubt this is partly a legacy of the Allied bombing campaign that reduced so much of the city to rubble in 1943-44.
The only significant hills in the city, now pleasantly wooded, are in fact mounds of rubble from the pre-war capital.
The highest point, the Teufelsberg (which I shall have to visit another time), on the western fringe of the city, is an 80-metre-high heap piled atop the ruins of a never-completed Nazi military academy.
Its summit became a Cold War listening post. More recently, it was earmarked by the Maharishi Foundation as a possible site for a “Vedic university of peace”. A plan which came to the same nothing as the same organisation’s similar scheme a decade earlier for the Bentwaters airfield.
More surreal still is the modern fate of Checkpoint Charlie, slap in the centre of Berlin.
Once famous as one of the few official crossing-points in the Wall, mostly deserted except by its permanent staff of grim-faced border-guards, it has become a honeypot of tourist activity.
Here you can have your photo taken alongside grinning stooges in facsimile 1940s US Army rig. With the golden arches of McDonald’s, inevitably, filling the background.
Behind you, the gable end of a tall building proclaims: “You are now entering the not-for-profit sector”. If this were still true, it would be bad news for the hotdog stands clustering below and the Turks and north Africans competing to sell “Soviet army” hats and insignia.
In Prague in 1992 I assumed the Soviet headgear was genuine. Now I suspect it comes from sweatshops in China.
In so many ways, Berlin has a weird relationship with its often tortured history. Some of its memorials seem curiously misjudged, notably the grandiose modernity of the vast Jewish Museum, which sadly badly misses its mark.
Despite this, and what I said above about grime and graffiti, I like Berlin. In fact, a lot of the graffiti is colourful and artistically creative and brightens the place up. It seems emblematic of a lively and friendly city.
Among all the sights and contradictions, what I find the most curious historical irony goes entirely unremarked by the locals.
It is the presence of two stores – a vast Toys R Us and a still-thriving Woolworth’s – on Karl-Marx Strasse.
Check your souvenirs here

Sunday, 11 November 2012

My weight loss is a side-effect of fast living

TODAY I weigh several pounds less fully clothed, including shoes, than I did a month ago fully naked.
I wasn’t what you’d call fat before, but middle age was spreading about me in ways I didn’t care for.
The gain had been slow and insidious over years, a common experience. The sort of incremental increase you don’t notice day by day, even month by month, until you find yourself buying clothes a size or two bigger than before.
No one looking at me a few weeks ago would have thought – as I sometimes think of strangers in the street – “Gosh, he needs to diet”.
But, I can tell you, I already feel better not having to carry those extra few pounds of fatty tissue about with me everywhere I go.
Another month or so at this rate and I’ll be down to what I’ve long considered my “proper” weight. And I might have to buy some new clothes again.
After that, it’ll be interesting to see where on the scales my weight stabilises. And, indeed, whether it will do so without some sort of positive action on my part. I don’t want to shrink away entirely.
What I don’t think I’ll do is just stop dieting. Because my new regime was never primarily about weight loss anyway.
The difference on the bathroom scales is merely a by-product. A welcome by-product, certainly, but no part of the main goal – which is less easily measurable but potentially much more rewarding.
The prime aim is nothing less than lengthening my life. And, along the way, improving the quality of my living.
Sounds faddy, I know, and perhaps it is. But if it works, those seem to me like pretty worthwhile goals to achieve.
And I’m struggling, so far at least, to see any down side.
Now I’m not someone who normally goes for fads. If someone tries to sell me something I usually assume it’s for their benefit, not mine (this may be why I’m lousy at selling things, including myself).
I don’t do diets. Companies that sell you diet products do so in the confident expectation that the effects will be temporary and you will come back for more later.
It was grim poetic justice that Robert Atkins, promoter of the protein-rich Atkins Diet, weighed over 18 stone when he died.
I’m not going mad on proteins – the sensible advice is to cut down on them.
And I’m not buying anything from anyone. In fact I’m saving money slightly because I’m buying less food.
You may have guessed by now that I’m talking about the 5:2 diet proposed by telly scientist Michael Mosley in his recent Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer.
It’s a gloriously simple plan. For five days in every week you eat just as you always did. For the other two (non-consecutive) days you fast.
And that doesn’t mean going without food altogether, either – though if you wanted to do it that way I’m sure you could.
For me, the “fast” days mean having a slice of toast for breakfast as usual then nothing more until the evening. Then it’s something very light such as a piece of fruit, a crispbread “sandwich”, a cup of soup or a small portion of sushi.
What’s suggested is a total intake on those days of 600 calories for men or 500 for women – a quarter of what the NHS recommends daily to “maintain weight”.
Dr Mosley’s scientific approach to the possible benefits, and drawbacks, of various forms of fasting, and his ultimate endorsement of the 5:2 diet persuaded me as I watched.
I was struck by the idea that short spells of hunger seem to trigger regeneration of brain cells and may actually ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
Add to that the lowering of cholesterol and blood glucose – and yes, reduction in fat and body-weight – and you add a significant lowering in the risk of heart trouble and strokes. All things well worth avoiding if you can.
It seems pretty obvious to me that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to eat well on some days and not at all on others.
But are the “fast” days difficult? And do I feel the urge to gorge myself on the other days?
Well, no and no, actually. Though I do really enjoy my food the next day.
I’ve found, as Mosley did, that hunger comes in waves rather than steadily building. And that it’s easily quelled by black coffee. The knowledge (perhaps that should be “belief”) that it’s doing me good also helps.
I feel much better than I expected to at the end of my fast days, and more full of energy than I used to on days of takeaway pasties and chips.
Medical opinion, I should say, is of course divided on the 5:2 score, and it’s definitely not recommended for children, teenagers or pregnant women.
But for me, after an initial six-week trial, it might just be the new lifestyle. And if it lasts till I’m 100 – bingo!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Why our children need lessons in pornography

NOW, children, let’s take a look at pornography.
What? Are you serious?
Yes, I am. But now I have your attention I’m going to ask you to consider a couple of other things first before we come to the porn.
Consider the case of my friend who, though happy with his job, was tempted by the prospect of a better one abroad.
Before you take a step such as emigrating – or even just applying for a job in a foreign land – you of course have to consult your family. Which in his case includes teenage children.
Would they be happy to emigrate? To leave their friends and start a new life in a new school somewhere completely different?
Oh yes, they’d love to, it’d be awesome. Great.
Next thing, before my friend has even had a chance to put together his application for the exciting opportunity, his kids are bubbling with enthusiasm to their mates.
And not just their close mates either.
Everyone they share BBM with. (For those, like me, who have only the dimmest idea, that’s something called BlackBerry Messaging – something to do with a mobile phone network.)
And everyone who reads their Facebook status – and, crucially, passes the gossip on.
Which in total means pretty well everyone at school. Including, of course, the children of my friend’s colleagues. And boss.
So next morning at work he’s greeted with: “I hear you’re emigrating. When are you moving?”
Now consider Argos, famous as a catalogue firm with more than 700 shops across the UK. Preparing to “reposition itself in the market” as an internet-led business.
Or The Guardian, one of Britain’s most respected newspapers, having to deny strong rumours that it’s going to stop printing and become an internet-only media outlet. Ouch again.
Or the Kindle, which an industry analyst described the other day as “a device for enforcing an Amazon monopoly” in the book trade. It’s not quite a monopoly, of course, but the internet giant already has such a huge share of the market it can dictate to publishers in much the way the big supermarkets control their suppliers.
Consider especially those sad and sorry children who give way to pressure and allow themselves to be filmed in “intimate situations”.
Those, too, who use their own mobile phones to take over-revealing pictures of themselves.
All these things, which may start out merely cheekily, almost innocently, risqué, can appear a lot worse once they’re uploaded to the internet.
Irretrievable. Passed round. Not just at school (which may be more than bad enough) but round a whole worldwide web of dirty old men.
Including, perhaps, that future potential employer.
So there you are, I promised you some porn. Or, rather, to talk about porn.
Which is what teachers are being encouraged to do in sex education lessons.
Not – as I mischievously hinted above, or as Outraged Of Tunbridge Wells has inevitably imagined – actually show pornographic material in class. But to talk about it and the issues it raises.
Porn is out there, all around us, on every newsagent’s shelves, on every laptop computer or internet-enabled hand-held device.
It’s certainly around every secondary school – as it was, in a milder, less all-pervading form in mine. And, no doubt, yours.
From the time they change schools at 11, children cannot avoid it. So it makes sense for them to discuss it, to be encouraged to consider what it really means.
In fact, it doesn’t just make sense to talk about it, it’s essential.
I heard porn described this week as “poor quality sex education”, which is certainly one thing it is.
So it’s right it should be augmented, or countered, by education of better quality.
But it’s also absolutely vital that our children shouldn’t grow up believing in the fantasies that porn routinely peddles.
Those fantasies nearly all boil down to one. That people’s bodies (mostly women’s) are just playthings for other people (mostly men).
Which, when you think about it, is a form of violence.
Saying that makes me sound like an anti-porn puritan of the Mary Whitehouse variety, which I’m not. Enjoying looking at other people’s bodies is as old as art – probably millennia older.
But youngsters need guidance to approach the subject in a mature way.
Pornography is there. You can’t avoid it. So best consider it intelligently and critically.
Which is pretty much the argument I’d make in favour of religious education too, but that’s a different matter. Though not, perhaps, as different as all that.
Some have their porn, some have their god(s). Many have both. And nearly everyone has the internet these days.
If you can’t beat ’em, you don’t have to join ’em; but you can acknowledge they are there and approach them sensibly.