CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Black voters historically make up a huge voting bloc for the Democratic Party, and the Biden campaign is working to further motivate the key demographic even as it limits in-person events due to the coronavirus pandemicWith voting underway in North Carolina, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, along with the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, hosted a virtual rally focused on the state Friday night. The event commemorated Friday’s inaugural National Black Voter Day, a day created by the National Urban League, BET, and many civil rights organization...
In the first section of our future of food feature, we look at some of the adjusted, alternative, and entirely new foods which could become the mainstays of tomorrow’s mealtimes.
With numbers booming in UK waters, jellyfish could become an attractive addition to our cuisine – edible species are already tucked into in other parts of the world, including China. “They are an under-used resource from the sea,” says food writer and TV presenter Stefan Gates. Low in calories and with an unusual texture, they certainly add a certain something to a dish. “It sounds a bit weird, but the texture is something between cartilage and rubber,” says Gates. “They don’t have a vast amount of flavour but they are a vehicle for flavour.”
Indeed Gates believes we should abandon trepidation and embrace unusual foods. “Generally speaking we have to be more open minded about what we are eating because we tend to be mono-culinary, we always stick to the same foods all the time and it plays havoc with the world’s resources,” he says. “Also, it’s an adventure to go on.”ND
Algae such as spirulina and chlorella, which are available as supplements or powders, are a favourite among health foodies and vegans, and are thought to be good sources of vitamins, protein and minerals such as iron.
But alga-based drinks may now be moving out of the obscure corners of healthfood shops and in to the mainstream. Companies like French start-up Algama want to break away from this narrow market and “feed humanity”. Their product, Springwave, which launches in France this month, uses spirulina extract in a flavoured-water drink that lacks the typical spirulina taste. Other algal offerings that may tempt shoppers include frozen spirulina by Spirulina Ice and chlorella-containing flavoured rice snacks by Allma.RD
If there’s one commodity the food industry could be expected to shell out for, it’s hypoallergenic peanuts. An estimated 1.4-3.0% of children in western countries are allergic to them, putting the kibosh on the consumption of a host of comestibles. But if a small startup has its way, that could all change.
University of Toronto graduates Chloe Gui and Terry Huang are hoping to create peanuts that are free from specific proteins that trigger potentially life-threatening reactions in humans.
It’s a fledgling enterprise – after creating their company, Aranex Biotech, in April, Gui and Huang moved to Ireland to take part in Indie.bio’s three-month synthetic biology accelerator programme hosted at University College, Cork. Their plan – to use a genome editing technique called Crispr-Cas9 to essentially “turn off” the genes that code for main peanut allergens. It’s a technology that grabbed the headlines this year when the Crispr-Cas9 system was used by scientists to edit the genomes of human embryos.
So far Gui and Huang have taken cells from the leaves of peanut plants, removed the cell walls using an enzyme and then inserted the Crispr-Cas9 system by chemical means. Their results, says Gui, are promising – but there is a long way to go - to create whole plant the team must use a different method of inserting Crispr-Cas9 into plant cells and are currently planning to utilise a soil bacterium. “We are at the stage where we know Crispr works in peanut plants, now we want to regenerate a full plant,” says Gui, adding that the duo are now looking to establish themselves in Norwich, a hub for plant science.
It’s not the first attempt to find a solution to the issue of peanut allergies. Scientists have explored several GM techniques, including interfering with cellular processes that generate the problem proteins, while non-GM approaches include soaking peanuts in enzymes that break down the allergens. But using Crispr-Cas9, Gui believes, could be an effective alternative. Others agree “Scientifically, yes it is feasible,” says Professor Peggy Ozias-Akins from the University of Georgia, who has conducted previous work on hypoallergenic peanuts. But, she adds, that there could be other complications. “As far as how a peanut deficient in these proteins would actually be utilised by industry is less well defined at this point.”
According to Gui, heavyweight confectioners have already pricked up their ears, keen to see the work develop. But she says there will be hurdles to overcome, not least that it is unlikely to be possible to turn off all the genes for all known peanut allergens. “You have to balance how many genes you can knock out while maintaining the viability of the plant,” she says. And even if the team manages to produce hypoallergenic peanuts, the problem of perception remains — Gui and Huang are keen to avoid the GM label, meaning they are simultaneously looking to explore a range of routes to their proof of concept plant.
It’s a project that will take time, but Gui is enthusiastic. “It’s never been a better time to do this sort of thing,” she says.ND
Overcome with the ills of animal production, Shir Friedman has a vision. She wants to grow chicken breasts in the lab. “It is very similar to what researchers are doing to culture organs for transplants,” says the co-founder of Israeli-based charity, Modern Agricultural Foundation. Except they would be for human consumption. In January it gave a grant to a Tel Aviv University biomedical engineer for a feasibility study of the proposition. Results expected at the end of this year will be used to plan the organisation’s next steps. If successful, it would be the most ambitious project yet on the new food frontier of cultured animal products, where animal cells will eventually be grown in vats to make meat. “Production will look like a brewery,” says Sarah Sclarsic, business director at Modern Meadow, a US startup working to make meat products from cultured cow muscle cells.
But getting costs down to a level competitive with the animal version is daunting. Mark Post, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, unveiled the world’s first cultured beef burger made from cow stem cells in 2013. It cost £200,000 to make, but even if it were scaled up it would still be £15 per kilo for hamburger meat. There may also be regulatory hurdles. “We are hoping the process would be fairly straightforward but that remains to seen,” says Sclarsic.
Meanwhile, technology is also rising to the challenge of producing realistic meat analogues from plants. San Francisco startup Impossible Foods meanwhile says it has a new way to create a meat taste from plant proteins by concentrating a heme protein – which gives red meat its colour – that is naturally found in plants in small quantities. It plans to tempt meat lovers with its plant-based hamburger patties in the second half of next year The product “looks, cooks, smells and tastes like ground beef”, says Patrick Brown, company co-founder and a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University. Competition in the meat stakes, it seems, is coming from everywhere.ZC
“Kind of like mozzarella,” is how Patrik D’haeseleer describes his latest prototype. D’haeseleer is a key figure in the Real Vegan Cheese project, established in early 2014 with the aim of making cheese without cows. The project is a crowd-funded, not-for-profit, volunteer effort run out of two biohacking spaces in the San Francisco Bay area.
Real Vegan Cheese isn’t the only one with big ambitions. Startups Muufri and Clara Foods, also both in the Bay area, are aiming to make milk and egg whites respectively without the use of animals. The technology behind all of them relies on genetically modifying cells of baker’s yeast to become microscopic factories that produce milk – or egg – protein. Those proteins, called caseins and albumins respectively, give milk and egg whites many of their physical properties.
It is unclear, however, exactly when these new synthetic dairy products might debut. Speaking at an event on the future of food the end of May in San Francisco, Muufri co-founder Ryan Pandya said he was hoping to have a proof-of-concept product ready by the end of this year or early next, but don’t expect to see it at a grocery store any time soon.
“According to our preliminary estimates this is going to be a several hundred dollar glass of milk,” he said. Clara Foods co-founder Arturo Elizondo added his company was aiming to have batches of egg whites ready by early next year for corporate partners to test.
At the Real Vegan Cheese project, the milk- and cheese-like prototypes made so far have been tests of what can be done with caseins, fat and sugar, but they use animal-derived casein powder. Genetically engineering yeast to spit out caseins synthetically has proved difficult.
“It should definitely be do-able,” says Benjamin Rupert, another of the project’s leaders. “The yeast cell is complicated and people usually have to try a few times.”
Technical challenges aside, the products – despite the environmental benefits of less animal farming – are already raising the hackles of environmental groups.
“Nobody I know wants to eat synthetically produced dairy made from genetically modified yeast in a lab,” says Dana Perls, a food and technology policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Both Muufri and Clara Foods still seem to be deciding how to frame where their products come from, and to what extent they will revel in them being derived from genetically modified organisms.
“If it means coming up with a new sort of language to speak to the public then we have to do that,” said Pandya. ZC
Camille Delebecque is founder and CEO of Afineur, a Franco-American startup, who raised more than $50,000 on Kickstarter to produce a coffee with a unique flavour created through controlled fermentation.
Coffee’s already quite popular – how are you improving it?
We’re not rewriting coffee, we’re shining a new light on it. People are starting to look for coffee that’s not just bringing the morning buzz, but interesting in terms of flavour. At the moment, the coffee industry only has two tools to control the flavour: choosing the beans, and roasting. So fermentation is a really powerful third tool.
How does it work?
We do our fermentations directly on the processed green beans. We slightly humidify them, and sprinkle them with the bacterial strain, either as a fluid or a powder. After fermentation we do a roasting right away, which sterilises everything and removes the microbes, but the chemical changes remain.
How do the bacteria affect the flavour?
It’s not the bacteria themselves that confer the flavour; the bacteria produce enzymes that induce specific chemical reactions within the beans. We’re focusing on lowering bitterness and astringency, and we know specifically which molecules are responsible for which flavours. Trigonelline, for instance, causes bitterness.
But isn’t coffee supposed to be bitter?
If you look at market surveys, bitterness is the number one taste that people dislike the most in coffee. Also, bitterness tends to overpower the more subtle flavours, so by removing it you allow the more floral and fruity notes to shine.
Did you get the idea from kopi luwak (the expensive and controversial Indonesian coffee made from cherries which have passed through the bowels of a civet)?
Kopi luwak made me realise the potential of fermentation in coffee, but I thought there must be a better way to do it. We use a very controlled process, and we’re not just reducing bitterness, we’re bringing out new flavours, and removing some of the irritant chemicals as well. Caffeine, actually, is one of the irritants – we’re lowering the caffeine by about 15%.
With increased understanding of biology we can do things with microbes that we couldn’t before, so we’re looking at foods beyond just coffee. Fermentation could replace a lot of the artificial flavouring, a lot of the chemicals that have been used in the food industry for the last 40 years, and we can do it naturally and in a better way.
Interview by KB
TWO FUTURISTIC RECIPES
Food writer, presenter and ‘gastronaut’ Stefan Gates has designed two exclusive recipes for the Observer, based around new ingredients. Bon appétit!
Jellyfish salad timbale
Take a packet of salted jellyfish and soak in water for 3-4 hours to remove the salt. Then make a marinade/dressing from sesame oil, fish sauce, chilli, soy sauce, fresh lime juice and caster sugar. Cut the jellyfish into the shape of your timbale ring (a small cup will do just fine), and soak in the dressing while you prepare an assortment of sweet and savoury layers. Use your timbale ring/cup to make slices of roasted red peppers, mango slices, avocado slices, courgettes, roasted sweet potato and pineapple. Arrange them all into little towers, alternating between the different ingredients. Top with a sprig of coriander. Serve on bespoke 3D-printed tableware, such as this futuristic bowl and cutlery by Hobs Studio.
Cricket noodle stir-fry
High in protein, low in carbon emissions, insects are not only nutritious but get an environmental thumbs up, too. “It’s like the perfect storm of food in terms of ethical and health reasons,” says Stefan Gates, who believes insects will be mainstream rather than a novelty. “Freeze-dried ones, the ones we get in the UK, are not the culinary peak of the insect kingdom - they are a good fun, gimmicky start” he says, “we won’t be eating them like the lollipop [below], but there will be burgers.”
Make a sauce from grated ginger, chilli, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, lime juice and hoisin sauce. Cook noodles, drain, rinse and set aside. Stir-fry a large handful of crickets in hot oil until they brown. Set aside while you stir-fry chopped red peppers, courgettes, carrots, cashews and green beans. Add the noodles, sauce and crickets and toss to mix. Serve with coriander. SG
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015
Many will be aware of US Republican hopeful Donald Trump’s faux pas, seemingly alluding to Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle (“blood coming out of her, wherever”) being responsible for her forceful line of questioning. Now Trump is denying everything (“You almost have to be sick to put that together”), pointing out that he’s hired “killer” female executives (In fairness, he had one helping him on The US Apprentice). Shame, then, that Trump spoiled it by saying : “I cherish women. I want to help them.” Excuse me while I drop into a curtsey. Thank you, kind sir!
Getting away from Trump in particular, this “cherishing” schmaltz generally rings cacophonous alarm bells, saying as much about a man as if he’d appeared in the room wearing full Amish fancy dress. “Cherish” suggests a particular brand of skewed male mindset that many women would be familiar with. It denotes a fullblown “knight in shining armour” fantasy – but this time it’s certain men (strange and worrying men) doing all the fantasising … about themselves.
Women tend to feature only as delicate ultra-feminine flowers who must be looked after, helped, protected, rescued. And be fragrant, sexually attractive, possessed of fluffy hair, and above all silent (save for a bit of doe-eyed gasping) while it’s happening. It’s the stuff of fairy tales, Hollywood films, and now, it seems, a Republican leadership campaign. (Gruff voiceover):“I’m here, little ladies, there’s no need to be frightened any more”.
When you object to being “cherished” in this fashion, you often become a central casting ballbreaker who sulks when someone opens a door for you. Who are these women? Do they actually exist? Has anyone ever witnessed this kind of “feminist footstamping” firsthand? If someone opens a door for me, guess what I say? “Ta.” I then walk through it, and all is well.
Please be advised that women don’t object to the “cherish” mindset because it infuriates and sickens them when men have good manners. Rather, it’s because we know about cherish’s “running mates”: male entitlement, control, disappointment, judgment, anger, accusation, resentment and eventual punishment-cum-banishment. The warped trajectory of idealisation.
The point being that if the cherished woman steps out of line, doesn’t kowtow enough, isn’t perma-sweet or sufficiently impressed, doesn’t bat her eyelashes so consistently and violently that she starts bleeding from the sockets, then it’s odds-on that sooner or later she will be pronounced “unfeminine” or a “man-hater”. Unfeminine man-hating women do not get cherished. “Cherishees” must painstakingly follow the woman-script the “cherishers” have so nobly written for them, or they will find themselves booted straight out of paradise. They may even be publicly accused of menstruating in a bad-tempered hormonal way while conducting their journalistic duty on a US news show..
Ultimately, being cherished is just another version of the age-old routine of putting a woman on a pedestal so that you can push her off it again. It’s the most transient, self-serving bogus form of soft-focus female appreciation there is. “I will revere you until such time as you cease to be a passive, inanimate and obliging representative of your sex – like a hot Ma Walton with better underwear.”
Bearing this in mind, what did Donald Trump (woman-rescuing knight; self-styled gallant Sir Trump-a-lot) think he was doing when he started spouting mawkish drivel at women about “cherishing” them? At best, Trump sounded as though he and his advisers had only just realized that a sentient voting female electorate existed, and their response was for him to grab some cheap flowers from a petrol station, spritz his mouth with breath freshener, and launch into a guilty charm offensive. What someone should have told Trump is that no modern female in their right mind would want to “cherished” – not when they could be respected in the regular human way.
-Barbara Ellen, The Observer
By Luke Bainbridge
When the battered body of a young Brazilian professional dancer, Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, was found in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela in Rio de Janeiro, local people refused to believe the police statement – that his injuries were "compatible with a death caused by a fall". Instead, many residents of the community – which is located only a mile or so from Copacabana beach, one of the main backdrops to global coverage of the World Cup – took to the streets to express their anger. They set fire to barricades and even exchanged gunfire with the police, during which one man was killed.
Pavão-Pavãozinho was one of dozens of favelas that have been subjected to a police "pacification" programme, designed to seize back control of the areas from drug traffickers and make them safer for the tournament and the 2016 Olympics. The family of Pereira, who was known as DG, believe that the police mistook him for a drug trafficker and beat him to death.
With less than seven weeks until the World Cup kicks off in Rio de Janeiro, the latest unrest in the city last week has alarmed organisers and authorities, and only underlined the problems that they face, with the likelihood of more protests in the runup to and during the World Cup tournament and elections later this year.
With half a million foreign visitors expected to travel to Brazil and a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions, this is not the image that Brazil or Fifa wants to project before the month-long tournament.
But the battles are not just being waged on the street. Angered by what they see as a misrepresentation of the issues by traditional media, new independent media collectives and networks have emerged over the past year. Armed with smartphones, digital cameras, and apps such as Twitcasting and Twitcam that allow them to broadcast live online, they are presenting their own version of events. Some of them are reaching a huge audience across the country and are now looking to expand their reach internationally.
One such group is the Mídia Ninja, a self-styled loose collective of citizen journalists, which first emerged during last summer's protests. They are keen to present an alternative narrative to the mainstream media by reporting live from the frontline.
"Contrary to most of the reports in Brazil's mass media, the wave of protests and occupations in our country are not carried out by 'thugs' or a manipulated throng," says Felipe Altenfelder, a founding member of Mídia Ninja. "Neither do they represent a country in convulsion or moving backwards.
"This is about a crisis for democracy and more rights, and this new independent media in Brazil, streaming and circulating thousands of photos and videos in real time, has played a decisive role in making sure those protests were properly covered," Altenfelder says.
The protests in São Paulo during the Confederations Cup last June were a turning point for the newly formed Mídia Ninja, as they provided the first glimpse of the size of audience the collective could reach. They used Twitcast to broadcast, and at one point 180,000 people were watching their live stream.
"The new ways in which the protests were covered, like Twitcast, helped make them national and international news," says Altenfelder. "It captivated the country for the duration of the Confederations Cup, and put Brazil on the map of the new 'global springs'. Action that is live on the streets, and live on the internet."
Brazil has hosted the World Cup only once before, in 1950, when the biggest crowd to ever watch a football match – estimated at more than 200,000 people – crammed into the Maracanã stadium to watch the hosts play Uruguay in the final. Inexplicably, Brazil lost 2-1, a defeat which many Brazilians believe left the whole country so stunned for such a long time that the event altered the national psyche.
The late novelist and playwright Nelson Rodrigues pinpointed the day of the defeat as the source of the country's "stray-dog complex", or "the inferiority with which the Brazilian positions himself, voluntarily, in front of the rest of the world".
When it was first announced that Brazil would host this year's World Cup, back in 2007, many Brazilians saw the tournament as the moment when the country – which, according to an old saying, is the "country of the future and always will be" – finally took its place on the world stage. Public support was overwhelmingly in support of the Cup, but the mood has changed.
In 2007, Brazil was still booming. Last month a survey showed that 49% of Brazilians now thought the Cup would bring more harm than good, with just 36% believing that it would benefit the country.
"Who would have thought that in the land of football, the population would take to the streets and social networks to criticise the World Cup and the investment in the stadiums," says Rafael Vilela, a photographer and another founder member of Mídia Ninja. "But they are seeing the real cost: the poor removed from their homes, favelas occupied by a 'pacifying' police force, and other violent approaches to redevelopment of their cities which is driven by the needs of Fifa and the sponsors, rather than the needs of the people."
The costs of hosting the World Cup are staggering. The stadiums alone will cost Brazil $4bn (£2.4bn) – which works out at an eye-watering $62m per match – plus a further $7bn for associated infrastructure. At $11bn, this is the most expensive World Cup in history. Many Brazilians believe they are the ones who will ultimately foot the bill, and dismiss the notion that the tournament's legacy will mean it is money well spent. But that is not to say that Brazil has fallen out of love with football. "This is a new Brazil, where there is no contradiction between loving football and being able to criticise the World Cup," says Vilela. "You can do both."
The academic Fabio Malini, from the Federal University of Espírito Santo, studies trends and data patterns in social media and last month published a report on how social media is affecting the political climate, as well as the role it has played in recent protests.
Malini believes that "a big part of the old media saw itself humiliated by the incoming truths coming as news, streaming and first-hand accounts from the new Brazilian movement. The sum of thousands of collectives has created this 'New Big Media', that doesn't look as if it is dialectic and it doesn't depend on any mass communication system." This new network of collectives, says Malini, "already has more than 15 million users connected".
On Tuesday , President Dilma Rousseff signed a new internet civil rights bill, which has been welcomed by many activists for protecting online democracy. But the fact that the bill was signed on the same day that police and protesters clashed in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela points to the contradictions of life in today's Brazil.
The majority of the new breed of citizen journalists are under 30, and so is their target audience.
"More than 11 million young people, between the ages of 16 and 20, will be voting for the first time in this year's elections," says Filipe Peçanha, another Mídia Ninja journalist. "These will be the first elections to take place since the emergence of Brazil's new political climate, fuelled by a new generation whose primary political reference is the popular government of former president Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva].
"These young people's mistrust of what they see as discredited traditional political parties and state institutions is shared by broad swaths of the population. They want to see real changes in the quality of public services like transport, education and health."
These young activists are aware that, with the World Cup, elections and Olympics, the eyes of the world are on Brazil and there is a huge appetite to find out more about the complex political and social situation in the country.
"The World Cup is of far more importance than football," says Peçanha. "It is a chance to create a platform for real political and cultural dialogue. We want to seize this moment of contact with a worldwide audience of activists, journalists and artists to change the topic of debate."
Mídia Ninja are working with other collectives and activists in the runup to and during the World Cup. They plan to occupy a historic area of Rio for the duration of the tournament, with space for debates and protest, as well as a multimedia centre for independent citizen journalists. "It will be like a mini-autonomous republic in the middle of Rio for the duration of the World Cup," says Altenfelder. "There will be space for collective living, cultural events, debates and a multimedia centre. We need to create new contemporary, democratic public spaces."
On Thursday afternoon, Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira's friends and family were joined by supporters for his funeral. They gathered at the bottom of the favela and walked together to the cemetery.
"Tears of sorrow were mixed with tears of anger," says Thiago Dezan, who was responsible for live-streaming the afternoon for Mídia Ninja. "The mood was charged because the same police whom many hold responsible for his death were watching over the procession. Members of the crowd warned the police 'There will be revenge!' and at the end of the day, when we arrived back at the favela, protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to scatter the demonstration. It is just the latest example of the police trying to suppress the uprising of Brazilians."
"Just like a great game of football, Brazil today is packed with surprises waiting to happen," says Altenfelder. "We are waiting for the whistle for the kick-off, but one thing is for sure – by the end of this year, there will be a new chapter in Brazilian history, and we are determined to make sure the right narrative is told.
"We're now live and on air, and we want to speak to the world."
Even the first sunshine of spring is not enough to prevent the lion enclosure at Copenhagen zoo from looking forlorn. One female lion lounges on a branch basking in the rays, while the other lolls on the dusty ground beneath her. Otherwise the pen is empty.
"They're shifting around the pack a little – that's why those females are here alone," explains Martin, a young zookeeper passing by with a tray of fruit. "We have a new male lion in the holding facility and before we can introduce him to our females, they need to get comfortable."
He doesn't volunteer the fact that, as part of this process, the zoo on Monday slaughtered two older lions and two cubs. But when it's brought up, he's unapologetic.
"It's a necessary part of keeping a healthy population," he shrugs. "Because we don't bring in animals from the wild any more, we need to do this."
On Monday, when the zoo announced that it was putting down the four lions, it argued that if it hadn't, the new male would have done the job himself in a much bloodier fashion.
"The new male in the pride would have killed the immature males as soon as he got the chance," the statement read.
That's not all. The two older lions would have fought with the new male, and the older males would have killed any cubs fathered by the new male.
"This may, of course, seem harsh, but in nature it is necessary to ensure a strong pride of lions with the greatest chance of survival," the zoo explained. It said it had tried and failed to find another institution willing to take the animals and this, along with the risk that the elder male might also impregnate his two daughters, left it with little choice.
"The zoo is recognised worldwide for our work with lions," chief executive Steffen Stræde concluded in the statement. "I am proud that one of the zoo's own brood now forms the centre of a new pride of lions."
Since February, when the zoo put down a healthy giraffe called Marius, dissected it in front of children and then fed the carcass to the lions, Stræde and his scientific director, Bengt Holst, have faced intense criticism from animal rights activists.
Online petitions to save the giraffe, sack Holst and even close the zoo have gathered tens of thousands of signatures across the world.
"We have all had some hate mail and death threats and other nastiness," Carsten Grøndahl, one of the zoo's vets, says when he is stopped while riding his bicycle past the llamas. "But that's all emotional, and you can't argue with emotions."
"We have a low profile now," says Mette Nyborg, another zookeeper, when asked about future dissections. "There has been too much bad attention."
In Denmark, however, at least judging by the 10 or so families at the enclosure on Friday, almost everyone seems to support what the zoo has been doing.
"It's totally OK," says Mette Brendstorp, who is visiting with her daughters, aged two and four. "If you talk about what's cruel, it's wanting to go to the zoo and look at all the animals, and then getting hysterical when the zoo takes responsibility to ensure that there is no inbreeding."
She wholeheartedly approves of the zoo's decision to dissect the giraffe.
"I'm a schoolteacher and I wouldn't blink twice about bringing my fifth grade class to see a dissection. They are not seeing it being killed; they are just seeing it being cut open."
Irene Kyhl, who is visiting the zoo with her grandson, argues that the public should trust the experts. "The people in the zoo are in the best position to know what to do," she says.
Even her four-year-old grandson accepts it. "Maybe it's OK if there is going to be a new dad for the lions," he says, shyly.
"The public is very supportive," Martin, the young zookeeper, tells me. "They see that we have good intentions and we generally have very broad acceptance of the work that we do."
Grøndahl himself didn't put down either Marius or the four lions – that job went to his colleague Mads Bertelsen. But he cheerfully admits to having put to death countless antelopes, a "surplus" zebra, and even an elephant.
"It was a really high dose," he says of the elephant, which had been suffering from arthritis. "She weighed three tonnes, so it took a lot of drugs."
Grøndahl believes that the uproar over the zoo's practices, which it had been quietly following without criticism for many years, has come about because people are now too distanced from the natural world.
"It's because we're far from nature now," he says. "I think that people don't realise that the meat they buy in the supermarket was once an animal."
It's clear from the educational material around the enclosures that the zoo wants the public to understand nature's harsher side.
In the Arctic Ring, where from the safety of an underwater tunnel the public can watch hulking polar bears swimming by inches above them, there's a seal-killing game for children.
"Imagine you are the polar bear. Try to catch the seal when it comes up to breathe," read the instructions, next to an image of a hole in the ice.
If you press the button at the very moment when the seal's face appears, it is replaced by a spatter of blood.
In the next-door exhibit, the face of a polar bear dissolves at the press of a button to reveal the skull (presumably a real one) lying in a glass case beneath.
Grøndahl believes that it's good that the zoo is helping to give the public a better understanding.
"You shouldn't Disney-fy everything under the sun, and think that animals do not have a life expectancy," he argues.
The animals living at Copenhagen zoo are, he argues, fortunate in many ways.
"They have a good life," he says of the handful of young male antelopes he puts down every year. "It's not a very long one, but it's good, and in the wild they probably wouldn't live even that long. They have nice surroundings. I think they're happy. And they do not hear the gun go off."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
By Nicola Davis
Sitting at the kitchen table rolling a ball of Play-Doh, Oliver Campbell is a picture of childhood contentment. At just under two years old he is experimenting with words and is happily peppering his creative endeavours with them. But inside Oliver's head something extraordinary is happening. Currents from tiny electrodes, curled inside the snail-shaped cochlea of his inner ear, are stimulating his auditory nerve, allowing him to hear the thud of the Play-Doh and the creak of the chair and to assimilate the words of encouragement from his grandmother next to him.
Take them away and Oliver's world would be thrown into confusion.
Diagnosed with auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder (ANSD) at barely 24 hours old, Oliver was born unable to make sense of the sounds around him. For his parents, Chris and Claire Campbell, it was devastating.
Lightning, they realised, had struck twice. Five years earlier Oliver's sister, Alice, was also born with ANSD – although it took nearly 18 months for the diagnosis to be given. "It was a massive shock," Claire says. "There's no history of deafness at all in either side of the family." Indeed the couple's first child, Joseph, has no hearing difficulties at all. But when Alice didn't seem to be learning to speak as her older brother had, the Campbells knew something was wrong.
The diagnosis was a bombshell. "Every hope and dream that you've ever had for this little child sitting in front you gets blown out of the water," says Claire.
For Alice and her younger brother, something in their ears had gone badly awry. And it was going to take surgery, training and some seriously hi-tech kit before the clattering, chattering, bustling world would come alive.
Hearing is a sense most of us take for granted, but in reality it resembles a convoluted, anatomical version of the board game Mousetrap, played out within the fiendishly intricate architecture of the ear.
The ball is set rolling when sound waves arrive at the outer ear and are funnelled down the ear canal where they end up banging into the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum move a tiny connected bone called the hammer, which is hooked up to further biological ironmongery in the form of the anvil which is linked to the stirrup. The latter rests against part of the inner ear which leads on to the spiral-shaped cochlea.
And it is within the cochlea that things get technical. As the stirrup vibrates, it causes fluid within the inner ear to move back and forth – motion that is picked up by a membrane and passed on to tiny hair cells inside the cochlea. When the hair cells waggle, they release chemicals known as neurotransmitters that trigger electrical impulses in auditory nerve fibres close by. These signals whiz along the auditory nerve to the brain where they are deciphered. Perhaps surprisingly the hair cells, and hence auditory nerve fibres, are laid out like a piano keyboard – those in the outer part of the cochlea's spiral respond to high frequency sound, while those near the tight curl at the centre react to low frequencies.
There is no doubt it's a complex set-up, and one of evolution's finest achievements. But when something goes wrong, the consequences can be devastating. For Oliver, Alice, and many other patients, the problem was located in the cochlea. While ANSD is a broad term encompassing a range of causes, and symptoms that can vary in severity daily, the upshot is that sound waves reach the hair cells, but are then scrambled into an incoherent signal or fail to be turned into electrical signals at all. But cochlear implants can make a world of difference. "For us it boiled down to a black and white decision," Claire says. "It was, if you want your child to have hearing this is your only hope."
Boasting an array of highly sophisticated technology, these implants have unsurprisingly been called "bionic ears". Their staggering ability to create a sense of sound is down to a flexible electrode array that is gently nestled inside the cochlea during surgery. Finer than fishing twine, these wires allow the conventional auditory pathway to be sidestepped, changing the lives not only of those with ANSD, but also those with the missing or damaged hair cells or a damaged auditory nerve typical of "sensorineural" hearing loss.
Let's reset the Mousetrap. Now sounds are picked up by an external microphone, hooked over the ear, and turned into a digital "score" of electronic stimulation patterns by a processor. This information is then transmitted wirelessly across the scalp, together with a dose of energy, where it is picked up by a coil under the skin and passed to the implant where the digital score is converted into electrical pulses. These are sent to the electrodes within the cochlea, where they artificially trigger electrical impulses in the auditory nerve fibres, bypassing the role of the hair cells. But while each hair cell stimulates only a few of these fibres, the electrical pulses of a cochlear implant trigger much larger areas. It's a bit like playing a piano with giant hands – big bunches of keys get hit all at once. Yet, wonderfully, the mechanism works. It's elegant, it's sophisticated, and it changes lives.
"You can see it first thing in the morning when Ollie first puts his ears on," Claire explains over the sound of her son happily playing. "The noise starts coming and he sort of brightens up and lightens up and you know his world is much more open." The technology has also enabled Alice to attend a mainstream hearing school, learn to play the drums and enjoy listening to music – her favourite tunes being a combination of Queen and hits from Annie. It's been a long journey for the Campbells, and one that has been intimately shared through their blog Alice's Ears. But their hopes and dreams have returned. "Alice is flying now at school," says Claire. "I am so proud of her and I'm so amazed by the technology and what it has given her."
Yet it is technology that, nearly 40 years ago, barely seemed possible. "In the very beginning there was a lot of scepticism, mostly by neurophysiologists," reveals Professor Ingeborg Hochmair when we meet in the swish surroundings of the Med-El innovation centre in Innsbruck, Austria. "They couldn't believe it could work to stimulate just a few locations in the cochlea, and by stimulating around eight to 20 or so locations replace the function of 25,000 nerve fibres which there are in a normal auditory nerve, " she says. "But it works." As CEO of Med-El, one of the biggest cochlear implant companies worldwide, Hochmair is recognised as a pioneer of the technology – an accolade that last year saw her share the Lasker prize, an international award in the field of medical research.
The new innovation centre, a futuristic-looking construction opened just last year, is a testimony to the success of her vision and hard work. But the process of constructing a cochlear implant is also impressive. Peeking through into the clean rooms, I see a host of figures in gowns and masks busily peering down microscopes, carefully inspecting the laser welding of individual implants or checking a silicone seal is perfect. Few parts of the process are automated, and it is claimed that if a user tells the company the number of their implant, Med-El can pinpoint the people who built it. It's a handmade device for a very personal application.
And it is a cause to which Ingeborg Hochmair has devoted her life. Having decided at just 13 years old that she wanted to pursue a career in biomedical technology she went on to study electrical engineering in Vienna. It was there that she and her future husband, Erwin Hochmair, became involved in the nascent field of cochlear implantation. Working with researchers, surgeons and, crucially, patients, they soon notched up an impressive list of successes, and in 1990 began employing staff at Med-El. "As inventors we wanted to see this become available for potential users," she says. At the time both were employed in academia, which Ingeborg later left to head the growing company. She believes their mutual passion for the technology has contributed to her success. "This is a very lucky constellation," she says of the partnership.
But while the technology has developed in leaps and bounds, Hochmair believes there is more to do. "There are still so many children that still have no access to the technology in various countries." And financial outlay is not the only reason. "It's awareness: many families just don't know about that possibility. It's infrastructure in some countries," she says.
With children, it is a race against time. For those born unable to hear, it is crucial to implant the devices at a young age, preferably before two years old and ideally nearer nine months, to maximise the child's ability to develop speech, language and listening skills. Without the input of auditory signals, the brain does not fully develop the ability to decipher sound, and as time ticks by this capacity for change – known as plasticity – decreases. What's more it has been suggested that, if unused, these areas of the brain gradually become reassigned to tackling other tasks.
Even with a cochlear implant, there are further hurdles to face in harnessing the technology. "Somebody told me once that [having] a cochlear implant is a bit like being handed a key to a Porsche and not knowing how to drive," says Anita Grover. "The brain has access to all this sound but it has to really learn to make sense of it."
As chief executive of Auditory Verbal UK , a charity that provides therapy to youngsters getting to grips with their bionic ears, Grover is passionate about helping others to make the most of the technology. "I would like all children whose family wants them to be able to listen, speak and achieve to have access to auditory verbal therapy to help them maximise the potential of their cochlear implants," she says. "There is a very small window where there is plasticity in a young brain, which means there is a real opportunity to maximise the development of listening and spoken language. If you get the early intervention right with the right technology and habilitation then you get the opportunity for deaf children to realise their potential. And that potential should be the same as a hearing child."
Grover is well acquainted with the technology. Having experienced progressive hearing loss, by her late 20s hearing aids were no longer helping. As a civil servant she had relied heavily on lip-reading, but it was far from ideal. "I would be in a meeting [with] 15 to 20 people around the table and it was like Wimbledon," she says. "It's so incredibly tiring – you've got no backup." In the end, a cochlear implant became necessary. "Without a cochlear implant I hear nothing at all, absolutely nothing," she says. "It changed my life. I had gone through that process of my hearing deteriorating whereby I was becoming more and more withdrawn. I wouldn't want to be in a social situation for fear of missing part of the conversation or something having been said, or perhaps getting the pitch wrong – shouting in a quiet place or being quiet in a noisy place." And there are sounds you would never want to miss. "When the first of my twins was born he came out screaming," says Grover. "I would not have heard that if I didn't have a cochlear implant."
But adults are in danger of being overlooked. Recent figures from the charity Action on Hearing Loss reveal that one sixth of the UK's adult population have some form of hearing difficulties while a 2013 study suggests only 5% of adults whose life could be improved by cochlear implants actually receive one. "For adults, I would like to see improved access to at least one implant and ideally two," says Grover.
It's the dark side of the success story. Policy introduced in 2009 by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) dictates that while children deaf in both ears should receive two implants as a matter of routine, adults are allowed only one – unless they have a second disability, such as blindness, that makes them more reliant on hearing. It's an issue that Labour MP Lilian Greenwood put squarely to the House of Commons in November. "A growing body of evidence indicates that bilateral implants provide added improvements in speech perception in noisy environments over unilateral implantation, and better sound localisation, leading to improved quality of life," she said.
Azhar Shaida, consultant otologist and cochlear implant surgeon at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital agrees but says: "The problem is down to money versus benefit." With the assessment, implant, surgery and a year's therapy costing £38,000-£45,000 for a single implant it's an expensive business, although with discounts available on a second device and only one hospital procedure necessary if implanted simultaneously, the cost of bilateral implantation is not double the price. Even then Nice doesn't believe the advantages boost quality of life enough, compared with the life-changing effect of the first implant, for adults to merit the cost.
Users such as Stuart McNaughton, a lecturer at Westminster Business School who also works for cochlear implant firm Advanced Bionics, say adults deserve better. "I pushed for two years [for] the NHS to give me the second one," he tells me over coffee amid the bustle of Waterloo station. "Because I teach, part of my livelihood is very dependent on my ear working and, you know, sometimes things go wrong and if the one ear that you've got goes wrong you lose your livelihood." Fundamentally, he says, it is about experiencing the world those of us who can hear take for granted. "It makes me the way I should have been, the way you are."
But McNaughton is one of a small group of adults with bilateral cochlear implants. And like Greenwood, he believes it is high time attitudes towards adults changed. "I understand that children need more input because they are developing language and they are developing skills, but what about all the people over the age of 18, 19, 20, 21? They should be allowed bilateral implants as well. Society puts pressures on adults too – relationships, jobs – it's a rat race out there."
It's a call to arms that resonates across the medical profession. As Shaida explains: "Two ears are better than one. Two cochlear implants are better than one." The situation is particularly desperate for patients who have suffered from meningitis. "With meningitis you often get obliteration of the cochlea," he says. "Normally for the meningitis patients we fast track them so that we can get the implant in as fast as possible before the cochlea becomes completely blocked and it's impossible to do an operation." For such patients simultaneous bilateral implantation could be crucial. "If we came back later on to implant the other side because the first side had failed, it [may not] be possible because of the blockage."
But the 2009 Nice guidelines make it clear: even in such situations simultaneous bilateral implantation is simply not an option.
The introduction of the guidelines has also fuelled fears of deepening inequalities. "What we are seeing is a number of patients are opting to have one done on the NHS and having the second one done privately. Which is great – if you can afford it," says Shaida.
David Selvadurai, consultant otolaryngologist surgeon at St George's hospital, London, also believes it is time for change. "As a community of professionals we are keen to push this forward and we would like to see bilateral implants in adults become more acceptable," he says.
But with the guidelines only reviewed every few years, he believes timing is everything. "What we don't have at the moment is good cost benefit data to show that there's enough benefit to the individual to demonstrate cost effectiveness for the NHS," he says. "The danger that we have to be wary of is that the guidelines are reviewed before the necessary evidence is available."
It's a situation Shakeel Saeed, professor at UCL and the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital is determined to change. Working with colleagues at the Ear Institute, he is currently scoping a national, multi-centre prospective study on bilateral cochlear implantation in adults. "This is to create high quality evidence that Nice can then use to make a considered decision." Gathering the evidence, he says, will take four to five years – and it won't be cheap. But it's a chance they can't afford to miss.
["Young Deaf Or Hearing Impaired Man Cupping One Ear To Listen" on Shutterstock]
By Daniel Tomlinson
Q Can I use an old computer to create a hub for films and music to be played on our Apple TV and iPad? Giles, via email
A Yes you can. iTunes even includes a wireless streaming feature called iTunes home sharing. It allows you to share your media collection with any device running iOS, iTunes, and the Apple TV.
Setting up iTunes home sharing is the easiest way to get started with streaming media. Install and open iTunes on the host computer. Choose File > Home Sharing > Turn on Home Sharing. When prompted, enter your Apple ID and password. Sign in with the same Apple ID on any device you wish to stream to.
If you wish to share with non-Apple devices, something like FreeNAS is a much better choice but is more complicated to set up. Luckily Lifehacker made a step by step guide for the process. It's worth noting that FreeNAS would not allow you to stream to Apple TV. You can use the FreeNAS Plex plugin to stream to the Plex app on iOS and on most internet enabled TVs as well as some streaming boxes such as the Roku.
Q I have a tablet. Why should I be interested in e-readers such as the Kindle? Mia, via email
A If you love to read books, then an e-reader is likely to be a worthwhile device.
E-readers are often seen as a less functional tablet because they lack the colour screens, apps, cameras and web browsers.
However, it is the simplicity of an e-reader that makes it so useful. E-readers usually offer e-ink screens, that are more akin to paper than an LCD or LED panel that you would find on a tablet or laptop. E-ink screens strain your eyes less if you read for extended periods. This is because they do not have bright backlights and also often give better visibility in daylight.
The battery life is often far better than that of a tablet, as the e-ink display has very low power requirements. The Kindle and the Nook both give around three weeks of battery life.
Q My son wants to learn how to build iPhone apps. What's the best way to get him started? Becca, via email
A Software development is a highly sought-after skill by people in many industries because of the problem-solving and debugging skills that it teaches.
To build iPhone apps, you need to own an Intel Mac running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, Xcode (a free-to-download software development kit built by Apple, available at the Mac app store) and if you wish to run the apps on your iPhone, you also need to join the iOS Developer program for £60. This can take some time to set up, but once achieved, it does not need to be done again for a while.
When you have all the prerequisites, you can then begin to learn about the coding side of it. There are some great resources available, both paid for and free. The best include Your First iOS 7 App by Ash Furrow, £6, a book that takes you from creating your first project inside Xcode, through to submitting it to the store. Also Treehouse (14-day trial, then £15 a month), is an online learning service that offers high quality screen casts and videos for lots of different programming languages, platforms, design and even things like how to run your own business.
And check out Ray Wenderlich, a blog dedicated to iOS, Android, and related tutorials on how to build a variety of apps and games. This is more likely to be beneficial after first experimenting with Xcode. It has many tutorials written by professional developers that can help you to progress as a developer and learn about lots of different areas of the system frameworks to use inside your own applications. For learning to code in general, there are also fantastic free websites such as CodeAcademy, that teach various programming languages through interactive prompts, and guides. There are also school organisations such as CodeClub that aim to bring in local professionals to teach programming in schools.
Q I'm trying to buy a new computer and am seeing lots about USB 3 and USB 2 ports. What is the difference? Will my HP printer still work? Kelsey, via email
A USB 3.0 is the latest version of the Universal Serial Bus transfer protocol and is a large speed improvement over USB 2.0. Fortunately, the ports are identical on a hardware level and a USB 3 port will work with both USB 2 and USB 3 devices and a USB 2 port will work with both USB 2 and USB 3 devices. However, you will be limited to the performance of the slowest device on that port. You will continue to get the same functionality with older devices. But as USB 3 becomes more widespread, you will notice that peripherals will perform much faster.
As long as you have the correct drivers, any USB devices (such as printers, cameras, and hard drives) should work with USB 2 and 3. The only downside to a computer having a mix of 2.0 and 3.0 USB ports is that, in the future, you might be limited by the older ports.
Daniel is a freelance programmer for iOS and the web. He has been coding since he was eight. He is an ambassador for Young Rewired State and can be found on Twitter @DanToml. If you have a tech problem for Daniel, email email@example.com with your full name and where you live
["Successful Senior Businessman With Laptop" on Shutterstock]
GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
Gavin Kelly, The Observer
Until the turn of the year, few Americans had much reason to have heard of SeaTac, a small community just outside Seattle. Those aware of the town's existence knew it as a place that exists to serve the city's bustling Seattle–Tacoma international airport. But SeaTac is now firmly on the map.
Recent events there have shone a light on the increasingly febrile, high-energy politics of low pay. And they also tell us something about how paralysis in Washington DC is prompting more states, cities and communities to act to improve their prospects.
The issue of chronic low pay has been thrust into the spotlight over the last year by Barack Obama, whose proposal for a hike in the federal hourly minimum wage -- from $7.25 to $10.10 -- would mean a direct pay rise for more than 16 million workers, with another eight million indirectly benefiting. By any standard that would represent a major increase, but it would still only restore the federal minimum wage to just above the level it attained 45 years ago, after adjusting for inflation. It is a proposal that appears, however, very unlikely to get passed by Congress any time soon. For now, low-paid workers will have to look elsewhere for a pay rise.
A generation ago SeaTac was what Americans would call a middle-class town. A jet-fueler or baggage handler could earn a decent living. Those days are gone. These and many other jobs are now paid far less – either at, or just over, the local minimum wage. As David Rolf, the influential vice-president of the Service Employees International Union, and a guiding hand behind events at SeaTac relates: "It's gone from being comfortable to a poor town, even in a prosperous corner of the US. This story of a whole community being shut out of prosperity is a microcosm of what's been happening across America."
It's a familiar tale and one worthy of a chapter in last year's spellbinding book The Unwinding by George Packer, which narrates the decline of the great American middle class and the rise of trickle-up poverty. During the 1980s and 1990s, ever more jobs were outsourced from the airlines, benefits were cut back and across the great majority of the airport economy wages were reduced to around the minimum wage. In 2005 one of the big airlines operating at SeaTac fired nearly 500 baggage handlers and hired contractors to replace them. Those who lost their jobs earned around $13 an hour, the new contractors just $9.
More recently there have been repeated union efforts to organize workers, but to no avail. An escalation of traditional forms of protest – marches, rallies, press campaigns – all sought to get the airlines and other employers to lift pay or improve conditions. Again, all failed. "Given the opposition we faced, only a higher level of disruption was going to shift events," Rolf says.
This disruption came in the form of a petition that easily garnered enough support to force a local referendum on the minimum wage. A coalition of unions, faith and community groups decided to push for a hike in the wage floor in SeaTac from Washington's minimum wage of just over $9 to $15 (with exemptions for small employers). The campaign was fought by both sides – unions and community groups versus employer bodies – with an intensity normally reserved for a swing state in the runup to a presidential election. Large sums of money were spent (a couple of million dollars) on an electorate of 12,000 voters. "Yes! For SeaTac" – those pushing for the pay rise – knocked on the door of each home an average of four times. Both sides knew the cost of failure would be high.
For a highly local campaign the nature of the argument was surprisingly "big picture": a battle of competing ideas about the national economy. It was either "middle-out" economics versus "trickle down", or "free-enterprise" versus "big government", depending on your political leanings. As Rolf puts it: "We had no idea that we were about to host a national election on fairness and the future of the American economy in our own backyard."
When the votes were cast last November the Yes! campaign won by a tiny majority of 77 votes and SeaTac became a national story. The vote meant that, starting last month, about 1,600 employees in restaurants, hotels and car-hire agencies received a 60% pay rise. A larger number working inside the airport are awaiting a legal appeal over whether the SeaTac authorities have jurisdiction over the airport premises. It's too soon to judge, but so far there is little sign that the pay rise has led to major price hikes or job losses.
SeaTac may have caught the public imagination, but in an important respect it is unexceptional. When I ask Rolf if he expects to see other SeaTacs, he responds immediately: "We already are." An upsurge in civic energy on the charged issue of low pay has resulted in a growing number of mayoral campaigns and popular votes aimed at raising pay. Over the last 15 years there have been 10 state-level referendums on raising the minimum wage. All were won. So far in 2014, 22 minimum wage-related bills have been introduced across 14 states. This is no longer about one or two isolated cases.
The most ambitious campaigns on low pay have been rooted in cities, especially those with high living costs. Next door to SeaTac, the new mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, has said he would like to move to a $15 wage floor across the city. He is waiting for a report on how best this can be achieved. San Francisco raised its minimum wage a decade ago – it is now $10.74 and overall employee compensation is $13, including health contributions. The mayor is calling for a rise to $15, subject to a review of how this could be introduced. Los Angeles is having a council vote on whether to move to a $15 minimum wage for hotel workers later this year (its airport already has a $15 minimum wage). Washington DC has just agreed a significant increase to $11.50. Chicago has a growing campaign for $15 for large employers and is staging a non-binding referendum this year.
Meanwhile, New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, has made his desire to act on poverty pay clear but, in contrast to some of these other cities, he is constrained by the fact that New York state has not delegated authority to the city to set its own legal wage floor. De Blasio has lobbied the governor of New York state to cede authority.
This bubbling-up of state- and city-level initiative poses two questions: What will be the impact of these big jumps in the minimum wage in metropolitan areas? And why is there so much energy in this issue right now?
On the first of these, relatively little is known. There is, of course, no shortage of voices happy to assert that any significant hike in a minimum wage will be a job-killer. But one economist, Arindrajit Dube, from the University of Amherst in Massachusetts, says that much of the fear of higher minimum wages is not backed by careful evaluation of the evidence. A major new study of San Francisco reveals little sign of an impact on job growth – the pressures seem to have been absorbed by sharp falls in staff turnover together with some modest increases in prices.
Whether that would still be the case following a move to a $15 minimum wage in a big city such as Seattle is uncertain. "Fifteen dollars is past the higher end of the experience – it's a journey into the unknown for a major city," says Dube. And for that reason he suspects any move in this direction would be brought in gradually. But he is not surprised that some cities are pushing the boundaries of what a minimum wage can do. "Given the pervasive nature of low wages in our economy, we're due a bit of experimentation with higher pay."
This note of cautious support is echoed by former White House senior economic adviser Jared Bernstein. "Fifteen dollars is somewhat above the range of past increases, so we're less certain about its impacts. The smart approach is to try it in select localities, perhaps with a phase-in," he says.
Why has the issue of low pay sparked to life? The answer lies in a number of shifts that have reshaped, or are reshaping, American society.
Several decades of broadly stagnant wages for a large swath of working America in a time of national prosperity, followed by the recent recession, appear to have shaken up attitudes towards social class. The capacious, optimistic and seemingly ever-expanding great American middle class has gone into reverse. The share of the public thinking of themselves as lower class or lower middle class has spiked from 25% to 40% in the years since the financial crisis. This may help explain why, despite the polarized politics that stultify Washington DC, there is now wide support in favor of boosting low pay: three-quarters (76%) of Americans support a higher minimum wage, including a clear majority of Republican supporters.
Stagnating living standards are only part of the story, though. There has also been a shift in the nature and location of political power in the US. The paralysis of Washington politics seems to have spurred on the already growing assertiveness of cities and states as authors of their own economic reforms. Some dub it the "new federalism". If Washington isn't working – whether in the battle against inequality or in getting vital infrastructure built – then cities will just do things for themselves.
This doesn't, of course, mean that what happens in the capital is irrelevant. The decision by Obama to make economic inequality in general, and the minimum wage in particular, a defining theme of his second term in office and this year's mid-term elections has helped start a debate.
Another factor, even if it is a long-running one, is the decline of organised labor and the resulting search for new ways of pursuing the interest of working Americans. Listen to the rising generation of union leaders such as Rolf and you are struck by the urgency and bluntness of their "innovate or perish" message for their own movement. The events at SeaTac are a manifestation of this thinking. There is also a sense that new labor campaigns are in part a response to the experience of the Occupy movement. There are similarities, such as the dispersed leadership. But just as telling are the contrasts: sharply defined goals rather than broad expressions of discontent about the iniquities of capitalism; and the ability to register support by voting in a ballot rather than spending months sleeping in a tent.
It's important, of course, not to overstate what these minimum wage campaigns will achieve. Many are in their early stages, some will fizzle out. Millions of low-paid workers will live outsi e the large metropolitan areas or states where change is most likely. And if a campaign succeeds in securing too ambitious a wage rise – especially in a fragile local labor market – then jobs really will be lost. It's also true that minimum wages can only do so much to stem the tide of inequality that has come to define modern America. But they do, none the less, matter.
One of the things that unite the many diverse local communities that make up contemporary America is the fact that they are governed by a capital that – for now at least – is locked into a pattern of politics that is as adversarial as it is inert. New ideas, political momentum and reforming energy should be celebrated wherever they are found. Right now this means looking away from Washington DC. Whether it is cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York or formerly obscure towns such as SeaTac, these are the places to watch.
Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the UK's Resolution Foundation thinktank
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
Ashifa Kassam, The Observer
The grey Ford sedan pulled up at the courthouse at 9.45 a.m. A relaxed Infanta Cristina stepped out of the car, smiling at the 10 police officers who lined her path and nodding hello to the hundreds of journalists crammed behind them.
So began Cristina de Borbón y Grecia's unprecedented court appearance as the first royal-born summoned in a criminal proceeding since the Spanish monarchy was restored in 1975. Cristina, seventh in line to the throne, was there to face six hours of questioning over her involvement in alleged money laundering and tax fraud.
The 48-year-old princess spent hours preparing for this day. Her goal was to leave the courtroom having cleared all suspicions of wrongdoing. Anything less could result in her facing criminal charges, up to six years in jail and steep fines. Four hundred miles away in Madrid, her parents, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, told journalists they were watching her every move, desperately wanting to bring a close to this tumultuous chapter in the Spanish royal family's steady fall from grace.
The princess travelled to Palma de Mallorca for the day on an early morning commercial flight from Barcelona. Dressed in a simple black blazer and a white collared shirt, she was determined to show that her royal status conferred no judicial advantage.
But nothing was ordinary about this court appearance, which was conducted in private. More than 200 police officers – many of them flown in specially – stood guard, while 400 journalists on the ground elbowed each other to catch a glimpse of the action.
More than 200 protesters filled the streets, prevented by roadblocks from getting close to the courthouse entrance. Sporting shirts, scarves and even crowns in the colors of the old Spanish republic, they noisily chanted and whistled, waving homemade signs that read "Cristina, you owe me money" and "Franco or Borbón, neither were elected".
"The monarchy think we're idiots; that we should just support them no matter what they want to do," said demonstrator Pau Ribal, 25. "Yes, they played an important role in our country's history, but now it's time for them to go."
Many of the protestors carried signs supporting the judge, José Castro, who had decided to summon the infanta, praising him for taking on a corruption investigation widely seen as untouchable. "Justice has a name: Castro," read one sign. A report released this week by the European Commission showed that 63% of Spaniards feel personally affected by corruption, the highest rate in the EU.
Isidro Forteza Cortés, 70, stayed up most the night writing protest chants. "My goal is simple," he said. "I want those who are corrupt in this country to go to jail until they pay us back for every cent they've stolen."
The infanta stepped into court nearly two years to the day after her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, first did so. He is suspected, along with a former business partner, of exploiting his royal connections to win contracts and embezzling €6 million in public funds through the Instituto Nóos, a not-for-profit organisation that organised sport and tourism conferences in the Balearic islands. Some of the money was laundered, investigators allege, through a shell company that the infanta co-owned with her husband, a former Olympic handball player. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Heading into the court, lawyers from both sides of the proceedings stopped to chat with reporters. Minutes before Cristina was due to arrive, her lawyer Jesus Maria Silva, told reporters "Everything is in order. Everything is ready."
Virginia López Negrete, a lawyer for Manos Limpias, (Clean Hands) the activist group that filed a criminal complaint against the infanta, spoke eagerly of the chance to ask her questions, saying she had been looking forward to this day for years. "I'm here to represent the millions of Spaniards who want answers." She doubted whether those answers would actually come.
Her worries were confirmed hours later, when Manuel Delgado, another lawyer emerged from the courtroom during a recess and declared "the princess came very prepared to evade any questions". Cristina had said she had trusted her husband to manage their finances, he said, adding that she had replied "I don't know or I don't remember" to 95% of the questions asked.
Cristina's lawyer Miguel Roca called the day a success: "The princess demonstrated that we are all equal before the law," he said. Another member of her legal team, Jesus Maria Silva, denied claims she had been evasive, saying: "Answering yes or no is the opposite of being evasive."
Judge Castro refused to comment on the day's proceedings.
The three-year investigation has sparked public anger by shining a spotlight on the royal couple's lavish lifestyle, whether it be €15,000 spent to fly them and their four children on holiday to Brazil or €138,000 spent on furnishings for their Barcelona mansion.
For Spaniards, caught in an economic crisis that has wiped out millions of jobs and left more than 680,000 households without any source of income, the revelations have shown how out of touch the country's ruling class has become.
Spain's royals have seen their popularity plummet to record lows, with more than 40% of Spaniards telling a recent El Mundo newspaper poll that they support the idea of doing away with the monarchy. Even King Juan Carlos, once one of the world's most popular monarchs, couldn't escape unscathed – polls show more than two thirds of Spaniards think he should abdicate and hand the crown to his son.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
Gavin Kelly, The Observer
Whether it's our humdrum reliance on supermarket self-service tills, Siri on our iPhones, the emergence of the drone as a weapon of choice or the impending arrival of the driverless car, intelligent machines are woven into our lives as never before.
It's increasingly common, a cliche even, for us to read about the inexorable rise of the robot as the fundamental shift in advanced economies that will transform the nature of work and opportunity within society. The robot is supposedly the specter threatening the economic security not just of the working poor but also the middle class across mature societies. "Be afraid" is the message: the march of the machine is eating into our jobs, pay rises and children's prospects. And, according to many experts, we haven't seen anything yet.
This is because the power of intelligent machines is growing as their cost collapses. They are doing things reliably now that would have sounded implausible only a few years ago. By the end of the decade, Nissan pledges the driverless car, Amazon promises that electric drones will deliver us packages, Rolls-Royce says that unmanned robo-ships will sail our seas. The expected use of machines for everyday purposes is already giving rise to angst about the nascent problem of "robot smog" as other people's machines invade ever more aspects of our personal space.
As economically significant, perhaps, as the rise of super-gadgetry is the growing power of software to accurately process and respond to data patterns. This raises the prospect of machines reaching deep into previously protected areas of professional work like translation, medical diagnostics, the law, accountancy, even surgery.
As yet, this techno-hype isn't matched by much hard evidence. According to the International Federation for Robotics, the use of robotics in leading advanced economies has doubled in the last decade – significant, but less than you might expect.
The experience, however, varies dramatically: uptake exploded in China, while the UK lags far behind its competitors. The key question is whether the upward trend is about to take off, giving rise to sweeping changes in production that dislocate large tranches of the workforce.
That's certainly the view of several highly influential US economists, such as leading blogger Tyler Cowen from George Mason University, and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from MIT. In works with bracing titles such as Average is Over and Race Against the Machine, they have seized the public debate with their genre of arresting, unequivocal and futuristic argument that blends techno-optimism about the potential of machines with chilling generational pessimism about the divisive consequences for much of society.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee, whose new book The Second Machine Age is set to be one of the zeitgeist works of 2014, argue that the digital revolution is about to crash into our jobs market. It's taken a while – Time magazine awarded the personal computer machine of the year in 1982 – but, they contend, the technology has now matured to a point where it will have the same scale of impact on production as the steam engine once did.
Similarly, Cowen speculates that the future belongs to a gilded 10%-15% of workers whose skills will augment intelligent machines – the rest can look forward to long-term stagnation or worse. The harsh labor market experience of the young over recent years is a mere taster of what's in store. Growing numbers of low-skilled workers risk being unemployable: there won't be a wage at which it will be worth employing them. Swaths of the working poor will make ends meet only by migrating to areas offering very cheap housing, crumbling infrastructure and low taxes.
Welcome to the American future: burgeoning favelas leavened only by free Wi-Fi. Some of this has a dystopic, Blade Runner feel – it's striking how much of this economic futurology comes from the US. The more sober UK debate is concerned with deciphering the empirics of the recent past rather than conjecturing about the future.
At the LSE, the respected economist Alan Manning, who has led work on the polarizing impact of technology on our jobs market, laments only half-jokingly that he'd like to have the time to develop a new subdiscipline on "science-fiction economics". It would bring rigor to our understanding of possible societies in which machines do radically more and humans less. For now, we look overseas for visions of where the robots may lead us.
As with all prophecies of doom, or indeed those of an impending economic boom, we should treat such visions with caution. Predictions about the uniquely transformational yet job-killing impact of technological change are as old as capitalism itself. There's never been an era without plausible experts warning the population that they are on the cusp of a new, usually scary, world resulting from technological breakthrough. Occasionally they're not wrong; mostly they are. Which isn't to downplay technology as the motor of economic change. Time and again – from spinning wheel to steam engine – it has had disruptive implications for the workforce. But labor displaced from field or factory eventually found new, more productive roles, demand expanded, living standards rose.
The lag, however, can be a long one. Not long before his death in 1873, John Stuart Mill remarked that the industrial revolution had not yet had much impact. This seemed an extraordinary observation, but it captured at least a partial truth. As the economic historian Brad DeLong has shown, from 1800 to 1870 real working-class wages grew at just 0.4% a year before tripling to 1.2% from 1870 to 1950 (reaching almost 2% in the golden postwar decades). Similarly, we are yet to experience the true gain, whatever it turns out to be, as well as the pain, of the robot era.
To get a better sense of the impact of technology on our labor market we don't need to rely entirely on frothy speculation about the future. There is a decade or more of research to draw on. The rise of information and communications technology (ICT) is hardly new. The dominant view, both in the UK and elsewhere, is that it has already been eroding a swath of jobs that involve repetitive tasks capable of being automated and digitized. This has disproportionately affected roles in the middle of the income distribution – such as manufacturing, warehousing and administrative roles.
This doesn't result in lower overall employment – for most economists the main change is to job quality, not quantity. There has been a rapid growth in demand for high-skill roles involving regular interaction with ICT, as well a rise in lower-paid work that is very hard to automate – from caring to hospitality. Consequently the balance of employment has shifted upwards and downwards with less in between; as Manning puts it, the labor market has been polarizing into "lovely and lousy jobs". The impact of technology has been gradual but inexorable – "it only goes one way", he tells me. In some sectors the decline in employment and relative pay has been dramatic: the typical heavy goods driver receives less in real terms today than a generation ago.
Some of this is contested. Recent evidence suggests the extent of polarization may be overstated as it hasn't taken into account entirely new middle-income roles that replace old ones. Others point out that job-title inflation means that yesterday's mid-level jobs are sometimes counted as today's high-level ones. Some roles that are popularly assumed to have fallen prey to machines have adapted and survived – as President Obama realized to his cost when he asserted that ATMs have led to the demise of bank tellers (their numbers have risen). And it's important to keep a sense of proportion: between 1990 and 2010 employment in hard-hit occupations in the UK like skilled trades fell by 25% and administrative jobs by 20%. Big losses, but they hardly represent the death of mid-level jobs.
A narrow focus on technology is also inadequate, as it fails to explain some of the big shifts of the last decade like the explosion in rewards at the very top – 60% of the enormous increase in the slice of income flowing upwards to the richest 1% over the last decade went to those working in finance. To lay this at the door of the anonymous force called "technology" is to excuse way too much. Sure, developments in ICT were relevant, but they don't explain political choices over deregulation or account for rapacious rent-seeking by the financial elite. Wage inequality has many authors, from the demise of collective bargaining to the rise of globalisation. As the influential Washington-based EPI thinktank has argued: don't make robots the fall guy.
Nor does an exclusive techno-focus illuminate the post-crisis polarization of our jobs market, which has seen recession-busting increases in high-paying jobs in sectors like business services alongside a big growth in low-paid work, with sharp falls in between in sectors like construction. Further signs of the impact of technology? Doubtful. This pattern has coincided with a demand-starved economy, an investment strike by business and plummeting wages. Indeed recently the robots could be forgiven for worrying about their prospects given the falling cost of labor. It all adds up to a complex story. The hollowing out of the jobs market is real and important. But its scale can be overstated and technology, though crucial, is by no means the only factor at work. None of this means we should be sanguine about the future.
Given the uncertainties and the capacity of market economies to adapt to shocks, many will assume that things will continue much as they have done. Perhaps. But if the techno-enthusiasts are at least partly right, the consequences will be far-reaching.
Fortunately, perhaps, at least some of the issues that this would mean grappling with are more extreme versions of those we should be worrying about already. The rise of the robot is likely, for instance, to result in an increasing share of GDP flowing to the owners of capital at the expense of labor – something that has recently been occurring across many OECD countries (though less so in the UK than is often assumed). An acceleration of this should rekindle interest in finding ways to distribute the ownership of assets more evenly as well as finally prompting a serious discussion about shifting some of the burden of taxation from labor towards wealth.
Accelerating wage inequality, together with a rise in economic insecurity, would sharpen the need to bolster our working-age welfare system at a time when it's already creaking and has few political friends.
Whether the greater democratization of economic risk – if those in medicine, law and accountancy also feel the pressure – would shift the political dynamic remains to be seen.
We also need to focus on those occupations that are widely expected to grow in number and are dramatically less likely to be displaced by machines – such as care of the young and the old. They are heavily reliant on the state. Securing the fiscal basis and public consent to fund these crucial labor-absorbing industries over the next ageing generation, already an enormous issue, would become even more pivotal.
Our historical weaknesses on education policy would cost us more dearly. The wage penalty arising from flaky sub-degree-level qualifications – a longstanding weakness – would rise, as would the premium for those who can combine rigorous analytical thinking with creativity. Massive wage returns are likely to flow to those with applied postgraduate degrees – ensuring fair access to them would become a more central feature of distributive politics.
Just as importantly, we need to prevent robot-fear being used as a force for fatalism. There are already voices arguing that the march of the machine means that a decent wage-floor is simply unaffordable. Yet the evidence that the minimum wage has worked well without costing jobs is vastly superior to that suggesting we are entering a new era of machine-peril. Let's not get too spooked.
JM Keynes, writing in 1930 as the Great Depression intensified, was prophetic about today's public anxieties. "We are suffering from a bad attack of economic pessimism ... people say that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down." He dismissed this sentiment, putting it down to the upheaval of rapid economic change, and argued that his generation's grandchildren – today's baby-boomers – would be better off, which of course they are.
We should be equally confident our own grandchildren will also grow up in a digital economy that is far richer than today's, driven on in large part by further technological breakthroughs. It's harder than ever, though, to have the same confidence that this greater prosperity will be evenly shared out in the "age of the robot".
Gavin Kelly is chief executive of Resolution Foundation
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Angela Saini, The Observer
My baby could not look more like a subject in a laboratory experiment. Wearing a soft white skullcap attached by long wires to an EEG machine measuring his brain activity, he is also surrounded by computer equipment and fussing researchers at University College London. "Hopefully you'll be contributing to high-powered science!" one coos at him.
Before I'm written off as a bad mother, I should explain: this is the London Babylab, part of UCL's cognitive development research group, which studies how infants perceive the world around them. The tests aren't uncomfortable, and are supposed to be fun. They're also a rare chance for me to peer inside my baby's mind. Scientists have him, a healthy 15-week-old, look at shapes and cartoon characters while they track his gaze and brain responses. Cradled in my lap, he watches the screen, and thinks.
I have spent hours wondering what he's thinking. The problem is that getting inside the head of a baby is like deciphering the thoughts of a kitten. And a wriggly three-month-old who is just as interested in the ceiling tiles as what's on the screen doesn't always make for the best research subject. "Lots of people don't like working with babies because it's super difficult. With adults, you can just ask them questions. With animals, you can make them do things. Not with babies," says UCL researcher Zita Patai.
But with creative, highly targeted experiments (the key, as any parent knows, is to turn everything into a game) scientists are starting to understand the baby brain. At the same time, this growing body of research is adding weight to a popular theory that our little bundles of joy are far more intelligent than we have assumed.
The immediate motivation behind this particular research at UCL is to compare the brains of healthy babies with those who may have suffered a lack of oxygen as newborns because of illness.
"We want to see if we can spot any early behaviors that suggest a baby will have problems in later life," says Patai.
"The idea is that you show two types of stimuli, in this case different sounds and images on a screen – one that appears frequently, the other infrequently – and then look at how they respond. There should be a significant difference between the two responses, even in young babies," she adds. The expectation is that brain-damaged babies may not be as sophisticated in their reactions.
Such studies are also changing the way we think about child development. Laura Schulz, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes it as an "infant revolution" in science. She credits it partly to the changing status of women in research, which has helped mothers and children be taken more seriously as subjects.
The popularity of the field has also snowballed as surprising results roll in. "Babies know much more about the world than we previously believed. They have a lot of prior knowledge, right from birth. They're very sophisticated learners," says Schulz.
Michelle De Haan, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, adds: "Until recently, babies weren't thought to be active choosers of information. We now know that's not true."
Babies don't randomly engage with the world around them. They have preferences, betrayed by how long they stare at one thing over another. Looking-time studies, which track what holds an infant's gaze, have allowed scientists to get a stronger handle on what babies really know.
It was once believed, for instance, that young babies had a limited understanding of physical properties such as gravity and the fact that objects are solid. But looking-time studies have shown that they stare longer at a toy car that seems to be moving through a solid wall than at actions that don't betray the laws of physics, implying that they find it odd when these universal rules are broken. This isn't limited to human babies. "There's evidence now that even newborn chicks can do that, and lots of other animals," says Schulz.
Another discovery is that babies appear to understand rational action. In 1997, Hungarian researchers showed babies who were less than a year old an animation of a circle jumping over a rectangular block. When the block was taken away but the circle still performed a jump to get behind where the block had been, babies were more surprised than when the circle moved in a straight line to reach the other side. It was evidence, the researchers concluded, that babies expected the circle to behave with some degree of common sense.
More recently, it has been suggested that babies have an innate sense of number straight out of the womb. An American and French study published in 2009 played newborns sequences of four sounds and of 12 sounds, followed by images with the same number of objects. The results showed that babies looked longer at the images that matched the sounds in quantity.
A paper published this year by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed that children as young as six months may be able to reason using probabilities. When they were shown a box filled with coloured balls, almost all of them pink and the rest yellow, babies watched longer when someone began picking more yellow balls out of the box than pink ones. The experiment suggested that the babies knew to expect more pink balls and were surprised when that wasn't what happened.
Schulz thinks that much of the scientific enthusiasm around babies stems from the fact that they have so much to teach us about intelligence. Researchers have tried to study intelligence artificially, using computers, but this has turned out to be tough, she explains. "You can't get computers to reason about others' intentions, for example. If you want to understand how human intelligence and learning works, there's exactly one organism that solves all those problems: babies," she says. "Much like if you want to really understand flying, you should look at birds."
Cutting-edge technology is pushing the boundaries of baby research even further. "Early infant work relied on looking-time studies but our technology has advanced so we can complement them with brain imaging and eye tracking," says Victoria Southgate, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Birkbeck Babylab in London.
Using neuroimaging, for example, researchers from Birkbeck and the University of Padua have found that day-old babies can tell the difference between social interactions and non-social actions, such as an arm throwing a ball.
Southgate's research focuses on the motor cortex – a region in the brain responsible for planning and carrying out movement – which has been found to activate when adults look at people doing physical things such as reaching for an object. Her results point to the possibility that a baby's does, too, even though they aren't physically capable of doing most of these things themselves.
This all promises to answer the question of just how developed we humans are when we are born. Do newborns come pre-programmed, or are they blank slates? "We know that the adult brain is divided into separate functions, with different regions for different things. But there is still a controversy about how this happens," says De Haan. Scientists remain split between those who think that our brains develop this over time, through experience, and those who think our brains arrive into the world this way.
The fact that babies show at least some of the same differences between brain areas as adults, as Southgate's work so far seems to prove, is lending more credence to the idea that localized brain activity is something we are born with. "If you think about it, it's not much of a surprise," says Southgate. "There must be a degree of specialization from the start so that infants pay attention to the right things."
But in a field so new, there are minefields. Tempting though it is to want to "see" what babies' brains look like on the inside, brain imaging doesn't necessarily offer many more insights. Knowing what our grey matter looks like doesn't answer the important question of how the brain solves tasks.
More fundamentally, though, there is the possibility that baby researchers in general are reading too much into their results. "It's a contentious issue," says Gert Westermann, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University, who studies children up to 18 months old. "Researchers are ascribing ever more spectacular qualities to infants. Everybody likes to hear that infants can do great things. But when you run these kinds of studies, there are different ways to interpret them."
For instance, he says, a baby may stare at an object for a long time not because they have a deep understanding of physics or maths but because it just happens to be more interesting than what they've seen before. Westermann doesn't agree with the idea that babies are born with a sophisticated, innate knowledge of the world. A simpler explanation, he says, is that newborns learn at such lightning speed that even at the point at which they're studied, they've acquired a good understanding of the things around them.
Baby studies, however, continue to feed the parent-pleasing possibility that we are all spawning baby Einsteins. While it is true that babies are smarter than it was thought 50 years ago, Southgate, like Westermann, cautions against taking this too far. "Clever-baby studies get published in the popular press far more than those that confirm the apparently stupid things that children do," she says.
One study by psychologists at the University of St Andrews in 2005, for example, compared how young children and chimpanzees copied people's actions. It found that children imitate more than they need to, even when it should be clear to them that there's no point in it. "Chimps copy only what is useful," says Southgate. "Make of that what you will."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Ben Summerskill, The Observer
Happily, in recent weeks, the House of Lords has put itself convincingly on the right side of history by overwhelmingly supporting gay marriage. So what might a revising chamber that has proved rather unexpectedly – even to itself – that it has become determinedly 21st century do next?
On Friday, peers debated whether Alan Turing should be pardoned. Turing was convicted of gross indecency with another adult in 1952. The argument is seductive. This brilliant man helped crack Hitler's Enigma codes, thus shortening the Second World War by up to two years. Hundreds of thousands of lives were probably saved as a consequence.
Lords were told that a pardon for Turing would recognise the "esteem in which he is now held". Baroness Trumpington, the formidable 90-year-old who worked at Bletchley Park at the same time as Turing, agreed. Interestingly, Lady Trumpington is a veteran opponent of legislative equality for gay people. But I do trust she felt very slightly better after having voiced her support. In 1952, the apparatchiks of the British establishment – from police and politicians to doctors and judges – also knew full well about the esteem in which Turing was held. Yet they still forced him to take female hormones as an alternative to going to prison. This imposition is described less politely, when despots do it, as "chemical castration". Turing committed suicide by eating a cyanide-poisoned apple two years later.
The 1940s and 1950s were a shabby, shameful era in Britain's history. During the war, thousands of gay servicemen had their sexuality quietly overlooked by commanding officers. Army psychologists, my grandfather among them, were told to turn a blind eye if an officer made a private admission of homosexuality. However, these heroes were then returned to a nation where simply having a loving private life led almost automatically to prison, unless an obliging Metropolitan police officer was happy to be blackmailed while he kept your little secret.
That's why, on balance, perhaps we shouldn't be pardoning Alan Turing at all. It's quite proper we've started writing off convictions for people who are still alive for trivial matters that would no longer be criminal offences. (Oddly, I've only met a single senior police officer who admits to having been involved in such prosecutions, even though 16- and 17-year-olds were still being charged with having consenting gay sex as recently as 1998.) However, it's already too late for the countless thousands of innocents, not as eminent as Turing, who had their lives ruined as well. And perhaps rather pointless.
A more proper apologia might be to ensure that Turing's achievements, and his treatment by the nation that benefited, are included in every pupil's school curriculum. The 55% of gay pupils in our secondary schools who were homophobically bullied in the last 12 months might derive lasting reassurance from that.
No one doubts the good faith of peers from all parties and none who have now discovered the importance of equal treatment for Britain's 3.7 million gay people. But it may be more therapeutic for them, rather than helpful to Alan Turing, to be offering good wishes at this stage.
[image via Flickr user Photoverlam's photo stream, Creative Commons licensed]
Edward Snowden, the former CIA technician who blew the whistle on global surveillance operations, has opened a new front against the US authorities, claiming they hacked into Chinese mobile phone companies to access millions of private text messages.
His latest claims came as some Hong Kong politicians called for Snowden to be protected from extradition to the US after the justice department in Washington filed criminal charges against him late on Friday.
The latest developments will raise fears that the US's action may have pushed Snowden into the hands of the Chinese, triggering what could be a tense and prolonged diplomatic and legal wrangle between the world's two leadingsuperpowers.
Snowden, whose whereabouts have not been publicly known since he checked out of a Hong Kong hotel on 10 June, was reported by the Chinese media yesterday to be in a "safe place" in the former British colony.
The 30-year-old intelligence analyst has over the past three weeks leaked a series of documents to the Guardian revealing how US and UK secret services gain access to huge amounts of phone and internet data, raising serious questions about privacy in the internet age.
On Friday, based on documents from Snowden, the Guardian reported that Britain's spy agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the network of cables carrying the world's phone calls and internet traffic, without the authorities having made this known to the public. It was also reported that GCHQ is processing vast streams of sensitive information which it is sharing with its US partner, the National Security Agency.
On Sunday the former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who now chairs the intelligence and security committee, said the committee would launch an investigation into the latest revelations. The committee will receive an official report from GCHQ about the story within days and will then decide whether to call witnesses to give oral evidence. If it is then thought necessary, the committee can require GCHQ to submit relevant data.
Within hours of news breaking that the US had filed charges against Snowden, the South China Morning Post reported that the whistleblower had handed over a series of documents to the paper detailing how the US had targeted Chinese phone companies as part of a widespread attempt to get its hands on a mass of data.
Text messaging is the most popular form of communication in mainland China where more than 900bn SMS messages were exchanged in 2012.
Snowden reportedly told the paper: "The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data."
As Snowden made his latest disclosures, he appeared to be gaining support from politicians in Hong Kong who said China should support him against any extradition application from the US. The US has charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person. The latter two charges are part of the US Espionage Act.
One legislator, Leung Kwok-hung, said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before his case was dragged through the courts. Leung urged the Hong Kong people to "take to the streets to protect Snowden". Another politician, Cyd Ho, vice-chairwoman of the pro-democracy Labour Party, said China "should now make its stance clear to the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government" before the case goes before a court.
China has urged Washington to provide explanations following Snowden's disclosures that NSA programs collect millions of telephone records and track foreign internet activity on US networks. In a press conference Hong Kong's police commissioner, Andy Tsang, indicated that the normal legal process would be followed after the US filed their criminal charges. "All foreign citizens must comply with Hong Kong's law," said adding that the police would act on the request once it is received.
He declined to comment on reports in one Hong Kong newspaper that Snowden is already in a police safe house.
In response to the Guardian's latest revelations regarding the surveillance activities of GCHQ, politicians and freedom of information campaigners last night raised concerns about the lack of oversight and up-to-date laws with which to monitor and regulate the activities of the secret services.
Former shadow home secretary and Foreign Office minister David Davis MP said documents containing an admission by GCHQ lawyers that UK oversight was "light" compared with that in the US was worrying. "This reinforces the view that the oversight structure is wholly inadequate. Really what is needed is a full-scale independent judicial oversight that reports to parliament."
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "It's possible to be shocked but not surprised at this blanket surveillance on a breathtaking scale. The authorities appear to be kidding themselves with a very generous interpretation of the law that cannot stand with article 8 of the European convention on human rights."To argue this isn't snooping because they haven't got time to read all this private information is like arguing we'd all be comfortable with our homes being raided and our private papers copied – as long as the authorities stored them in sealed plastic bags."
Carl Miller, director for social media at the thinktank Demos, said: "Just like the rest of us, terrorists and criminals are increasingly using social media and other forms of online communication. So it's clear that the intelligence services should be able to access this where it is necessary and proportionate. But this is the crucial point. What these latest stories reveal is that much of this surveillance is happening already, but without the security services having made the public argument for these powers. There is a clear need for a legal grounding or oversight structure that commands public confidence.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
By Damian Carrington, The Observer
Growers turn away from chemical pesticides in the battle against grey mould
Squadrons of bumblebees are being deployed in a novel attempt to prevent grey mould turning the summer's strawberries into fluffy mush.
The bees are routed via a one-way system in their hive through a tray of harmless fungus spores which, when delivered to flowers, ensure that the grey mould cannot take hold as the fruit grows. New flowers on a strawberry crop open every day, which means that spraying with pesticides only protects those that are open at the time. "But the bees visit the flowers at the perfect moment for that flower," said Harriet Roberts of Adas, an agricultural consultancy testing the use of bees as delivery systems in the UK.
More than 50,000 tonnes of strawberries are sold through UK supermarkets alone each year, but more than half can suffer from grey mould (Botrytis cinerea), which only manifests itself after the fruit has been picked and causes major damage to crops around the world. The damp summer of 2012 saw a particularly high incidence of the mould.
Chemical pesticides are the usual treatment, but Roberts said farmers were moving away from these. "There is a movement to reduce the use of conventional plant protection products, because they may not be sustainable," she said.
The fungus (Gliocladium catenulatum), which is carried to the flower on the legs and undersides of the bees, naturally occurs in soil and is harmless to both bees and plants, but it outcompetes the grey mould, starving the latter of nutrients. Bees are often used to ensure good pollination of fruit crops.
A Belgian company, BioBest, developed the bee-delivery system and has dubbed it "flying doctors". It has been used on cherries and raspberries as well. The fungus can be used as a spray in the UK, but the use of bees to carry it to the flowers has yet to be licensed.
The UK trials are part of a wider drive backed by the Department for Environment to find alternatives to chemical pesticides in protecting strawberries. Other methods being tested include the use of insect sex pheromones to attract pests into traps and the release of millions of insect predators that kill damaging insects. The two-spotted spider mite and aphids, which can plague strawberry fields, can be killed by special predatory mites and wasps respectively. All the insects used are native to the UK.
"It makes a lot of sense to use these predators," said Roberts. "If you boost the natural population, they may breed and give you ongoing and easy protection of the crops." Unlike chemicals, she added, the pests cannot become resistant to the predators.
[Image: "Two Bumblebees, The First One On A Flower, The Second In Flight, Spring 2012, Near Moscow, Russia," via Shutterstock]
By Patrick Kingsley, The Observer
Archaeologists fear for pyramid sites as illegal building gathers pace in wake of Arab spring
In Manshiet Dahshur, 25 miles south of Cairo, the villagers recently extended the boundaries of the cemetery. For Ahmed Rageb, a carpenter who buried his cousin in the annexe, it was a logical decision. "We want to bury the dead," he said, strolling through the new cemetery after visiting his cousin's tomb. "The old cemetery is full. And there is no other place to bury my family."
There is just one problem. The new tombs are perilously close to some of Egypt's oldest: the pyramids of Dahshur, less famous than their larger cousins at Giza, but just as venerable. This is protected land, and no one is supposed to build here – yet more than 1,000 illegal tombs have appeared in the desert since January.
"What happened was crazy," said Mohamed Youssef, Dahshur's chief archaeologist. "They came and took space for about 20 generations."
The tombs nestle in the dunes below the Red Pyramid, considered the pharaohs' first successful attempt at a smooth-sided structure. To the south is the Bent Pyramid, named for its warped walls. In the east, nearer the Nile, lies the Black Pyramid – a collapsed colossus on which the villagers are most in danger of encroaching. This is their right, claimed Reda Dabus, a clerk worshipping at the mosque next to the cemetery. "All the people are born here," Dabus said. "They died here. They should have the right to be buried here." Inhabitable land is hard to come by in Egypt, where 99% of the population live on 5.5% of the territory.
But it is an argument disputed by local archaeologists, who say there is something darker afoot: looting. "Some of them have a real need for the tombs for their families," said Youssef, who said that the land had been designated as government property since the late 1970s. "But when you have 1,000 people, some of them will want to do illegal excavation."
Others agree. "They use the new tombs to hide what they are doing," explained Ramadan al-Qot, a site inspector who grew up in the village. Observers say the cemetery is the latest in a series of forbidden incursions that have markedly increased since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. More than 500 illegal excavations have taken place at Dahshur since 2011 – an increase mirrored at sites all over the country.
"Dahshur is just a single case study of what's happening on every archaeological site in Egypt," said Monica Hanna, who campaigns for greater resources to be allocated to Egypt's ancient sites. "It's happened all around the Nile valley, in El Hiba, in Beni Suef. Everywhere."
In the months following Mubarak's fall in spring 2011, Nigel Hetherington, a British archaeologist and film-maker, documented dozens of new illegal buildings on ancient sites between Cairo and Dahshur. "They were openly building," Hetherington said. "They had no fear of being filmed."
The situation is symptomatic of a deterioration in law and order since the fall of the Mubarak regime. Nationwide, the police, whose brutality was a major cause of the 2011 uprising, no longer had the inclination to patrol either the streets or sites such as Dahshur. "After the revolution," said Youssef, "the police would not do anything." This left the inspectors to fend for themselves.
"It's very dangerous for us," said al-Qot, three of whose colleagues were hospitalised following a run-in with looters in December. "The thieves hide behind the tombs and shoot at us."
The retreat of the state is just one explanation for the rise in looting and land grabs. Locals say it is also related to the way that the 2011 uprising prompted many ordinary Egyptians to shed some of their instinctive fear of authority. "The situation changed because the people changed," said Youssef.
"That's the reason for the building: the revolution," agreed Abdo Diab, a carpenter who has built a tomb at Dahshur. "All the people now, we are not afraid of the army or the police or any government."
"If we want something," said Dabus, "we do it."
At Dahshur, that is what has happened. In January, a dozen people who are said to have needed tombs for their relatives started building on restricted pyramid land. The site's inspectors reported it to the police – but there was no response. "No one demolished their tombs because the government is so weak," said Youssef. "So the other people realised that there is no punishment."
Residents from other villages then heard about the free-for-all, and started building too. Then a building contractor allegedly claimed the land and started selling off small plots to those who agreed to pay him to build their tombs.
Soon there was a stampede, as no one wanted to be left out. "When one family built a tomb, the other families wanted new ones too," said Diab, who also admitted that he had no legal right to build.
But many villagers still differentiated between their actions and the raids organised by armed gangs equipped with expensive diggers. "Some people built tombs to steal archaeology, definitely," said 28-year-old Walid Ibrahim, picnicking on the boundary between the old and new cemeteries. "But all the old tombs are full and there's no place to bury our new dead."
There have been suggestions that both the looting and the government's failure to tackle it results from the rise of Islamists who are culturally opposed to Egypt's heathen heritage. One Salafi (or ultra-conservative) preacher recently called for the destruction of the pyramids. "But that's just one person," countered Hetherington. "There is some kind of undercurrent in this story [that this is] about Muslims against their foreign past. But it's not. I've met Salafis here, and their views are not mine – but not one of them wanted to blow up the pyramid."
Hetherington argues that the illegal building stemmed from locals' economic and social alienation from their ancient heritage. "All they are is a cash cow for tourists," said Hetherington of the pyramids. "And if you're not in that business, where's the benefit? In the past you might have got a spiritual value, because your grandmother was buried there, and you were going to be buried there, or because your mosque was in the temple, and you went to that mosque every day."
Not any more, locals said. "When I was born, my grandfather and grandmother said that our pharaohs built the pyramids – but that was all they told us," said Walid Ibrahim. "So many people don't think about the pyramids. They haven't any jobs. If the government gave them jobs, they would save the pyramids."
[Image via Agence France-Presse]