Friday, 31 July 2015

The Towering Inferno - an investigation into the Berlaymont fire

Artists impression based on eyewitness accounts
2010 saw a fire in the Berlaymont HQ of the European Commission, we gathered a list of suspects

As eurocrats scuttled away from the flames, apocalyptic preachers roamed around Schuman quoting the more excitable passages from the Book of Revelations but the emergency services were feeling the pressure, as one senior policeman said, off the record, "We've got to hush this up, there's a lot at stake". Despite press releases trying to minimise the incident, others were beginning secret inquiries. 

The police source explained, "We've got suspects and there is already a lot of evidence gathering going on, but, " he tapped his nose knowingly, "there isn't any prospect of a court case, if you know what I mean".

A highly confidential list of suspects was shown to New Europe and we can exclusively reveal the lines of inquiry and why the authorities are suspicious:

Nigel Farage - An obvious suspect, but he appeared on UK TV saying he had an alibi. The CCTV cameras at the Gare du Midi are being examined as there may be a possibility that Farage lit the fire and quickly caught the Eurostar to give himself an alibi.

Robert Kilroy-Silk - Witnesses speak of a man in the inferno who appeared to be horribly burned. Police suspect this could have been the notoriously orange skinned ex-TV presenter. Also, his claim on election of "destroying the European Union" makes him a suspect. "We think he knew his career was over and he wanted to go out on a bang".

Guy Verhofstat - the ex Belgian PM was known to be angry by his failure to become Commission President and "may have acted out of a jealous rage".

Günter Verheugen - Long discussed making a bonfire of regulations. "We think this may have been what he was doing and it all went wrong, directives are highly flammable". He, allegedly, was spotted running naked through the corridors shortly after the fire began. A spokesman said "This in not unusual, he does that every now and then".

INTEL - There is a theory that they might have "sent the boys round" after being fined by the Commission recently. "The timing is suspicious".

Jöse Manuel Barroso - After reportedly losing support of some socialist parties, he may have become disillusioned. According to insiders, he has a bust of Nero in his office that he gazes at longingly. However his security team deny this, commenting on his departure from the burning building, "We've never seen him move so fast. In fact, we've rarely seen him move".

RELEX - Unverified reports suggest that Berlaymont was the target of a storm of blazing arrows, fired from the Charlemagne building's roof. "RELEX have been envious of the bigger building, especially as it's harder to see through the windows, where Charlemagne is more open and it's easier for people to see us sleeping at our desks or find out exactly long our lunches are. We're sick and tired of people in the LEX building waving at us and holding rude notices to us at the windows." said a source in RELEX

Lord Mandelson - It seems that after the UK MP's expenses storm a tabloid journalist broke into the strongrooms containing the ex-Commissioner's expenses claims. The suspicion is that the hack was so outraged he spontaneously combusted, thus starting the fire. Mandelson expressed "deep, heartfelt sorrow" that his expenses had been destroyed. He then asked if he could re-submit them.

Although nobody was hurt, there will be serious consequences. The biggest casualty was the Lisbon Treaty, which was burned beyond recognition. An official explained, "We were using it to prop open a door, but it has been destroyed. This means that every member state will have to sign it again, once we get a new one printed. This could cause problems".

The Commission is to be closed for six months as the entire staff have been signed off sick by doctors. Compensation claims are expected to reach over 3 billion euros as employees claim for trauma, inhalation of second hand smoke and tinnitus caused by "too loud" fire alarms. In brighter news, the Bada Bing Lap dancing club has offered alternative employment to some stagieres. 

There has been an appeal launched to refurbish the Commission headquarters, so far Microsoft has offered "extensive support" and claim that their investigations reveal that one of the press had a laptop running Linux and this was the probable cause of the fire.

One heroic moment during the crisis was that of an unknown functionary, in a desperate attempt to halt the blaze, urinated on a pile of burning Commission Directives, before being overcome by the smoke. This heroism is planned to be commemorated in a 10 metre high statue of this selfless act, to be mounted on the Commission roof, overlooking Schuman roundabout. 

It's going to be called the Berlaymont Pis.

G’day Europe

The song remains the same

Australia's entry to the Eurovision Song contest shows they should become part of the EU

There was a mixture of shock and awe as people slowly digested the implications of Australia’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Clearly they’re the favourites to win it until they bankrupt their national broadcaster and drag out Kenny Wilson or similar to end their gold run.

There’s also the delicious possibility of Nick Cave performing at Eurovision, which would be memorable, if not too disturbing to broadcast. Of course we’re more likely to get Kylie in a skimpy dress mouthing something vaguely coquettish, which quite frankly does the job for several key viewer segments.

At least they had the decency to wait till their 60s poster, Rolf Harris was ‘unavailable’ before joining in.

With their good and outgoing nature, born from self-confidence and pride in building a nation from the refuse from London’s jails in a land stuffed to the gills with poisonous creatures, it has to be said that Australia is just too good for Eurovision.

Why have they joined? It’s clearly part of a plan to join and take over the European Union, and good luck to them.

An inward looking Europe that is as neurotic and disturbed as a supermodel needs something new, a new energy, desire to roll up its sleeves and get to work, and, damn it, a joie de vivre.

We need to be honest. We can’t do it ourselves, so let’s bring in the big hearted Australians and gain a future and something even more precious, a Pacific coast.

After years of being dominated by Germany, the humour, empathy and bonhomie of Australians would be most welcomed by all. It could give us the renewal we’re looking for, not just the economic one, but that self-belief in the European project, the mission that we’re all part of something bigger than our little national obsessions.

Quite frankly, we’ve turned into the Leonard Cohen of economic blocs, we need to get our groove back and the accession of Australia could be our only hope.

Of course, in this most ancient of lands, all is not perfect, but perhaps this is one of the areas where we’ve gone so wrong, looking at dodgy neighbours, rather than widening the nex and asking who can enrich, who can add to our vision?

We can also get a whole new set of strange and unusual politicians. Like EU countries, the political elite is a hideous and bloated caricature of the ordinary citizen. Their current PM is a mixture of the political touch of Dan Quayle with the intellectual rigour of Dan Quayle. It’s a bit like an angry drunk version of Yves Leterme.

There’s an honesty to the way Australian politicians talk to each other and to the public, which would make Council meetings much more fun. It’s not just that they’re more insulting, but they are creatively so.

Who cannot savour the line, from a PM on opposition leader “He’s like a shiver waiting for a spine to run up.” Or the former Defence minister on the current PM, saying Tony Abbott, “stands for nothing. He is the Nancy Reagan of Australian politics without the astrology: say no to everything, just rancid, dripping, relentless negativity.”

Then there’s the most exquisite political insult of all time, when Winton Turnbull, who represented a large rural seat for the Country Party said in a heated debate that ended up as a rant “I am a Country member,” and Gough Whitlam replied, “I remember.”

Well done to Eurovision, let’s hope Europe follows their bold and visionary lead

Stan Laurel the quiet comedy pioneer

Way out in front

One of the best moments in journalism, is when you discover someone you admire is even more wonderful than you thought

On February 23, 1965, Stan Laurel told his last joke, telling his nurse that he would rather be skiing. "Are you a skier, Mr Laurel?" He replied, "I'm not, but I'd rather be doing that than having these needles stuck in me." Moments later he passed away from a heart attack aged 74, eight years after Oliver Hardy died.

He’s earlier warned friends, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I'll never speak to him again.”

Part of the most lauded comedy act, a global star, Laurel made 80 solo films, but is known and loved for his work with Oliver Hardy, a partnership that made 35 silent and 72 sound films. But what do people know about him today?

Philip Hutchinson is not just a passionate fan and student of their lives and work; he’s also played Hardy onstage, shows that have won appreciation from fans and old friends of the duo.

“The most important thing about Stan,” Hutchinson says, “is that he was a gentleman.” While others at the time had reputations for arrogance, even cruelty, Laurel was concerned about treating people well, especially the fans.
“Stan knew that they wouldn’t be anywhere without their fans, so they always made time for them, inviting them to tea, always making time to chat.” This kindly nature lasted even through retirement. He was listed in the public phone book and fans could call and make an appointment to visit or even just chat. One of those who called was Dick Van Dyke, who became a close friend.

Hutchinson says that Laurel was the creative genius in the partnership. Hardy had talent enough for both, “But Stan wrote and directed everything.” He adds, “Some scripts would just be a single piece of paper with the title and the pair would improvise and practise until they had their finished product. And they would often shoot in one take.” Laurel didn’t stop there. He’s attend screenings with a stopwatch, occasionally taking off a second, adding half a second to get the timing just how he wanted it.

He also was an innovator. They were the first in comedy to ‘break the fourth wall’ introducing the turn and stare into the camera to express bemusement, shock or resignation to whatever indignation was occurring in front of them. It’s so common that it has been forgotten who devised the look.

After sound began to be part of film making, Laurel also devised the trick of comedians reacting to off screen events, such as an accident happening just out of sight, but being heard.

As a gentleman, it was natural that Laurel was humorous, a prankster but never crude. There are no double entendres, nor any of the course humour of their music hall origins. Laurel had modesty when asked about his art, “A friend once asked me what comedy was. That floored me. What is comedy? I don't know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that's all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at; then proceed accordingly.”

On another occasion he said, “Humour is the truth; wit is an exaggeration of the truth.”

So if we’ve only vague memories or kids who don’t know Laurel and Hardy, why should we still watch them? “It doesn’t matter than many of their films are old, black and white or silent, they are timeless,” says Hutchinson, “and they’re funnier than you think.”

To learn more about Philip Hutchinson's tribute to the comedians: Lucky Dog Theatre Productions

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Kindest Cut Of All

Kraftwek as a barbershop choir
The strange world of mens' hairdressing

Our body hair is generally pretty disciplined, but the hair on the head is one of the most insubordinate parts of the human body. It grows too much, acts strangely when damp and as you get older, it starts going a funny colour and finally, begins to disappear.

Could you imagine the chaos if any other part of our bodies acted like that?

This is why I’ve always been suspicious of hair. As a child, I learned that it was something that needed to be dealt with firmly. My first haircuts were performed by my mother, who had the art of cutting as I squirmed in the chair, trying to escape.

When I got a little older and it was more difficult to keep me restrained whilst wielding the scissors, and with an ever increasing likelihood that she would cause an injury sufficient to alert the child welfare people, I was packed off to a professional. A barber. This is where my relationship with my hair got a lot stranger.

Meet the professionals

The barbers I was sent to had one thing in common; price. The first one I went to, until I was around 16, had a small narrow salon in a cellar. I noticed something very strange about it. Every surface was covered in photos and news clippings of Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second eldest son. I asked the barber about it and he sang his praises for the half hour it took him to cut my hair, but I still didn’t get it. Now I am older, I can recognise homoerotic fixation, although the choice of Randy Andy is still a mystery. To Fergie as well, I expect.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, sitting in front of a dirty mirror as a strange man poked about your head whilst chain smoking, while being stared at by minor royalty.

I later moved to a village with only one barber. Most locals happily travelled far away to get their hair cut, but I was more loyal to local tradesmen. The barber, Johnny, was certainly a man of conviction. Several in fact. Apparently all related to missing items of ladies underwear from clotheslines.

He had a simple approach to his trade. When you sat in the chair, he would ask, “Much off?” A yes would mean a number two cut, a no would make him, reluctantly, bring out a number three razor. He approached his task as a farmer approaches sheep shearing. Apart from the concern about animal welfare.

Not only did he actually hate hair, something that would stop a normal person from becoming a barber, he had an attitude to customer service that Basil Fawlty would find shocking. He also wouldn’t allow women in his shop. I’ve even see him chase a poor tourist’s wife out with a broom more than once. He would break off occasionally mid-cut because he had a sideline in selling walking sticks and spotted a potential customer.

The advantage was that I always paid less than €3 for a cut and when Johnny cut your hair, it stayed cut.

Since then I’ve lived in Africa and had my hair cut on a stool in a car park, with only a broken wing mirror to guide the barber, or man with blunt razor blade, as I thought of him. I had better cuts by a river in West Africa and more relaxed cuts in the souks of the Middle East.

Then I moved to Brussels and my then girlfriend let me use her electric razor. Call me naive, but I wondered why a woman who went to the hair salon every month needed one. The penny eventually dropped, but I’d got used to cutting my own hair with it by then.

Together editor offers salvation

James Drew was listening to me explain why I had never paid more than €3 for a haircut, when he turned to me, with a look of real pity and concern, and passed me an envelope. “Here’s a voucher for a serious haircut at Alexandre de Paris. Go and have a proper cut and tell me about it.”

That is how I went for my first ever real haircut. Naturally, I prepared myself for this brave new world of styling. I waited for my hair to grow. Eventually it got too long to tolerate and I phoned up the salon. I got an appointment for the next day, so quickly and easily I found it a bit anticlimactic, to be honest.

As I entered the salon, everyone welcomed me and sat in a very comfortable chair as my hair was washed - how do they get the water temperature exactly right? Then the shampoo was massaged into my scalp and a rinse. By then I was so relaxed, I was in some type of zen calm.

Andre, with over 20 years of experience, looked me over and asked what cut I wanted. I had no idea, only having the concept of ‘short’, so I told him to do whatever he wanted. I felt comfortable with that as Andre had a manner that inspired confidence. I watched him begin to cut my hair, seeing the idea he had take shape. I was surprised at just how gentle it was. Having had decades of people hacking away, it was just a delight to see what a light touch could do. There were times when, if I couldn’t see him in the mirror, I wouldn’t have known he was at work.

Andre also has the ability to look focused and relaxed at the same time. I can’t explain it, go see for yourself. At the end, he had done exactly what he wanted. He gave me the best haircut I’ve ever had. He talked about how much he liked his clients, as they were professional and knowledgeable people who were interesting to talk to and he said that many were very busy and a half hour visit to Alexandre de Paris, was a chance for them to relax and take a time out.

That’s when I understood. Previously, getting my haircut was a chore, an intrusion, something I felt had to be done. It had never been anything actually enjoyable, something relaxing.

That’s why I’m going back to my friend Andre, nobody else is touching my hair ever again.

Amnesty Head asks Council to act on Roma deportations

Secretary General of Amnesty International
Interview with: Salil Shetty in October 2010

You’re touring the important capitals, how important is Brussels for Amnesty?

Brussels is at the centre of global policy making because of the EU, it’s one of the top three in the world. But there are new capitals, such as Delhi, Beijing and Sao Paulo, who are gaining in importance.

You said you’re going to put more effort into these places, how are countries like Brazil doing on human rights?

I think things, from a global level, are improving. Issues like the death penalty, where we have 135 countries now that do not use the death penalty, either by taking it off the statute book or simply by not using it, so there is some cause for hope and celebration.

If you take economic, social and cultural rights, Brazil has been a leader with some very innovative things, such as the Balsa Escola program which is the largest cash transfer programme in the world. Very significant chunks of the population have been lifted out of poverty and Brazil is one of the few countries where inequality has been reduced in the last few years.

There are issues on security and present conditions are atrocious, land rights are still tenuous and there are evictions, slum conditions are dreadful, but that’s why we want to be there, because there are big challenges.

How would you characterize the EU’s response to the Roma evictions?

The response has been mixed, we were pleased that Commissioner Reding made a clear statement about it, OK, it was a little bit colourful in the way she said it, but it helped push back on what the French did, loud and clear.

But the problem is not restricted to France. It’s there in many countries and it really weakens Europe’s credibility, to talk about these issues if they don’t address the Roma question, because it’s an old question.

We have been highlighting it, but this feeble and fragmented response we are seeing right now is unacceptable. Our call is for the European Council, when they next meet, to issue a clear and powerful statement that this is in violation of several European laws and human rights standards We need them to come clean and firstly, acknowledge that there is a violation, secondly, to come up with a clear plan of action on how to deal with it. It’s very doable, it’s a question of political will.

You met with Van Rompuy, what did he have to say?

He completely acknowledges that this is a big issue and it was discussed at the last council meeting, that he chaired. Technically, they are waiting for the investigation results, but I think they can not ignore it and I expect him to take a leadership role in this.

World Bank fraud chief: “I’m going to get the big guys”

Feared and fearless: Leonard McCarthy
Interview with Leonard McCarthy Vice-President, in charge of Institutional Integrity at the World Bank in October 2010

When it comes to fighting corruption, few investigators are more feared than Leonard McCarthy, Vice-President, in charge of Institutional Integrity at the World Bank. Before starting at the Bank in 2008, he was Head of South Africa’s Directorate of Special Operations, the specialist team of the nation’s best fraud and crime investigators, also known as the Scorpions.

 It is estimated that $1 trillion a year is spent on bribery and corrupt practices. Since starting at the World Bank, there have been 117 investigations in 84 countries that have led to 45 companies and individuals being debarred from bidding for Bank funds and 32 cases going to national courts.

Being barred can have significant costs for a company. In one case, an Indian firm lost $150 million in value after being debarred. Siemens were also debarred, but after reaching agreement with the Bank, their share price rose 11%.

He also advocates broadcasting their work to the public, believing it makes them more effective and accountable. Among other initiatives, he is developing a new aspect, the preventative services, who are working with evidence, uncovered during investigations, to develop a series of ‘red flags’ that can provide an early warning of possible fraud.

What would you say are the main challenges you face?

The first one is that I want to deal more with high impact cases. Right now we have a small number of big cases, most are in the middle and a few, what I call fly by night cases at the bottom. I joined the World Bank to deal with serious problems and deal with them aggressively.

Secondly, I want to commit myself to the stolen asset recovery side. It’s out there, but you need the political will from countries and you need to work through competent legal systems. All of that takes time but I want us to be in the position where we can see some real action by next Christmas.

Thirdly, it’s a structural and procedural issue, but I want to see it through. Investigators should be able to follow money that is deposited in the commercial institutions by people who have benefited from World Bank funds. We want to track the money from where it left our account to wherever it goes.

It’s not easy to do right now. It’s a political thing. You need shareholder buy-in, legal agreements and so on.

I am committed to find ways to bring restitution to victims of corruption. One thing I am beginning to consider is when debarred those who have been caught, come to us and say that they have co-operated and offer a large sum to reduce the period they are prohibited from bidding.

This is not a perfect world, but if we can structure a punishment that makes it weighty, payable in money and overseen, then it sounds like success to me.

You are talking about companies who have reformed and co-operate, but it looks like you’re trying to fine companies without the difficulties of legal action

Yes. You’ve got to be pragmatic in life. Any enforcement strategy has three elements. You need to clean up. You look for where you can use evidence to try to go to the big fish. The third area is someone has to prosecute the hard cases.

Africa has been perceived as corrupt, but it is often Western companies who have been doing the corrupting. How do we deal with multi-nationals, who sometimes have a corrupting influence?

If I look at the referrals in the last two years, 40% are to developed countries and although a project may not reside there, the company does. What you find with corruption is that money goes to the developed world and back. Many roads lead to London, but there has been so much done on the side of international enforcement in the last three years.

 I think it has something to do with systems being shock tested by the financial crisis. I think we are doing better now, the same with companies. Major companies are committed to clean things up. As recently as 1999 it was acceptable to pay bribes in most of the world.

The best thing to do is what Siemens did. Cut your losses. Come to us and sort it out.


Women, poor hit hardest by Climate Change

Women working on a fish farm in Bangladesh / Paul Thompson

Interview with activists working in Bangladesh

As the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 in Paris at the end of the year, where it is hoped that a legally binding agreement on Climate Change may be reached, it is important to remember that, while all of us will be affected by future change, some of the world’s poorest and marginalised communities are often already affected.

While some Pacific islands are looking at relocating their entire population and culture, some have fewer options, such as Bangladesh.

With 57 trans-boundary rivers flowing through their land to the sea, Bangladesh also has a large, low lying coastal region, susceptible to not only rising seas, but extreme events, such increasing storms and monsoons. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that 27 million Bangladeshis were at risk from a sea level rise by 2050 and a net 15% increase in poverty by 2030.

The report says that the country lost 5.9% of GDP due to storms between 1998 and 2009.

There hasn’t been much work on gender and climate change, but in Bangladesh it’s not an abstract concept for academia, but one of the ways of building capacity and resilience into their planning.

Dilruba Haider, the Co-ordinator on Gender and Climate Change for UN Women in Bangladesh spoke to New Europe about what they had learned.

“What we are doing basically has two outcomes,” Haider said, “One is policy advocacy through which we are trying to influence the government and other actors including the UN to integrate gender equality prospective into their climate change policies and strategies. The other is to provide direct support to the climate vulnerable women in the form of livelihood support.”

Haider explains that they wish to empower women by supporting economic independence – so they are not dependent on a husband or male relatives, political independence – the right to be involved in decision making at the hyper local to national level and mobility, the right to travel.

Stating that nobody knows how many people live on the coastal plains, at high risk of climate change, Haider says there’s more to the problem. “Flooding is one consequence – one of the impacts of climate change. Increased frequency of disaster is the result of climate change. But there are also other problems as a result of climate change like health hazards.

“When there is extreme cold especially up in the north of the country it is usually elderly and people with nutrition deficiency who suffer more. We all know that the nutrition level of women is much lower than their male counterparts. So the new mothers, pregnant women and young girls suffer the most together with the elderly.”

There are already problems from higher salinity, as women showed a group of visiting parliamentarians, “They had rashes because of extensive use of saline water because women are doing all the chores – washing, cleaning and cooking – so women are exposed, including productive tract infection and urinary tract infection because of using saline water to clean themselves.”

She gives an example, of migration from the over-salinated areas, “It’s usually the males who are going to the city for a couple of months to work in some nearby towns. During these 6-9 months or year, the women are left in the village and struggling to survive. The men are not always able to send the money back each month but the women somehow manage. We are thinking how to increase their capacity to earn more might be to increase their skill level.”

There’s also the problem of food production. “food production is hampered. When there is a problem with the availability of food, the men eat first. So climate change is affecting women in various ways. But in the climate change discourse women’s issues are not being addressed.”

Haider elaborates, “But because no one is conscious about it or aware of it, all the discussions are about drought-tolerant rice varieties – issues women have no control over.”

That’s half the affected population out of the debate and, more importantly, excluded from offering advice and potential solutions. Haider has a message for politicians everywhere, “Please address the gender equality concerns in the climate change discussions and negotiations.”

She continues, “If you think about it this sounds and looks and feels so obvious that you shouldn’t, and you can’t talk about, climate change adaptation without supporting a population that is suffering and will be suffering as a result of climate change – you can’t do that by keeping half the population outside of their purview. If we don’t take this into account, we will never be able to come up with a holistic approach to adaptation.”

Noting that “Bangladesh has hundreds and thousands of NGOs,” many are using credit programmes, UN Women are using grants instead. “If there is a women doing rice trading, we buy the paddy for her and she processes it and with the money she earns she again buys the paddy. These kinds of things like fishnet making or poultry or tailoring these have been going on for 20-30 years now.”

But Haider asks, “Is it empowering? Money doesn’t give you power. Money brings you some wellness. You have some money so you are not starving and you can send your kid to school, but is it empowering?” She adds that this is a question they are studying.

There is one resource available; the people. “Bangladeshi people are the epitome of resilience. Each time I go to the field I really feel humbled. I have never been in a disaster. I am from a middle-class family. I have enjoyed gender equality in my home and work. But when I go to the field and see these women who have nothing and they are oppressed and still they are fighting back and standing there and educating their child and trying to better their life. My words fail me. The poor people have tremendous power to move ahead and make their life better. They fight everyday to make their life better.”

Haider concludes, “If anything, it’s the people power that is moving the country forward.”

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Nanotechnology needs ethical guidelines to guide the potential for good

The future is smaller than you may imagine

New science needs new rules

“There’s always been an element of science fiction to nanotechnology,” says John Crowley from UNESCO’s Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), and he is right. Perhaps more than in any other scientific field, work is going ahead to bring the wildest concepts into reality.

A nanometer is one billionth of a metre; approximately the length of three to six atoms placed side-by-side. By comparison, a human hair is between 50,000 and 100,000 nanometres wide. The science began in late 1959, when the legendary physicist, Richard Feynman raised the possibilities of working with materials at an atomic scale and the possibilities of building self replicating machines of that size.

It took decades to catch up with Feynman’s vision, but nanotechnology is no longer an experiment in the laboratory, it is in the real world. It is estimated that 800 manufacturer-identified nanotech products are publicly available, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3–4 per week.

The 18 members of COMEST are examining the technology and looking for an ethical framework that allows for new developments yet protects the public from potential dangers. “Nano-materials exist in nature, but manufacturing them is new to science and they have opened up some new horizons, but also fears and concerns,” says Crowley, who lists the main concerns as the speed of development and discovery, that it is being driven by “the wrong concerns, not in the interest of humanity, but military, who are the major investors in nano-research.”

Crowley is also worried that developing countries may be left behind, “that they may have access to the technology, if they can afford it, but be completely locked out from developing the science,” and worries over risk management.

Nanotech on the High Street

“Nano-materials are in the shops. You may be buying them without knowing it,” he warns. He gives several examples, including self cleaning concrete, a thin layer that coats the surface that uses sunlight to generate chemical processes that eliminate dirt from the surface.

“A brilliant idea, but what are the implications? Are these particles dangerous? How does aging affect the particles?” he asks. He also mentioned anti-odour socks, “they have particles of nano-silver, which is a very powerful biocide, it kills bacteria, properties that silver in its ordinary form doesn’t have. But the silver washes out over time and goes down the drain. What are the implications? What does it kill there? Does it end up in drinking water?”

“The concern is about a technology moving forward before there has been a systematic study of the possible impacts. It’s this lag between commercialization and sensible regulation which excites worries.”

COMEST has been looking at these questions for four years.  They see educating the public as a vital step and one of the messages is about risk management.  “There is no such thing as complete avoidance of any risk, but judgments have to be made and people have to be made accountable for those judgments,” says Crowley.

Are voluntary guidelines enough and should they be globally applicable? “Science is global and technology is increasingly global. To have radically different regulatory frameworks in differing parts of the world looks implausible,” Crowley observes, “The big question is, do we look at coordination or harmonization? It’s clear that harmonization, when it does appear, is a good idea but the search for it can be self defeating. Sometimes it is better to look for coordination, which can be achieved.”

World changing benefits

The potential of this technology is as expansive as a science fiction author’s imagination, but there are developments that are near to being viable. Crowley mentions three areas that would be world changing.

“Filtrations systems may not sound sexy, but if you’re one of the 2 billion without clean drinking water, this is huge. In principle, nano-scale filters could be developed that would get rid of all the impurities in water, not just biological impurities but contamination by heavy metals etc. There are existing applications, but they are expensive, the challenge is to bring the cost down. The filter would look the same, but would be 100 times more effective.

“The second area is energy. In principle, you can imagine systems where energy could be produced at the molecular level. This could be new kinds of fuel cells, new kinds of bio-fuels that wouldn’t require the acreage that existing systems need, with all the problems that causes. It could be a quantum leap in solar cell technology.

Some scientists feel that could happen, with regard to the effectiveness of solar panels. The impact of that would be incredible. Maybe next year, maybe in 10 years, the breakthrough will come. If so, it is possible that all the world’s energy could come from solar power in a few decades.

“The third is the most routine, but the potential is huge. This is in new materials, new alloys, plastics and polymers. New alloys for the aeronautical industry are already offering the potential for much lighter planes that will use less fuel.

There’s a lot of potential for carbon nano-tubes that are put together at the atomic level and are incredibly strong and light. Some moderately large objects have been made and they have properties that could be world changing. Basically, you wouldn’t need metals to make cars, planes, ships and so on. This is a whole new conception of what materials are and how they can be made.”

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Interview with Will Franken: comics need courage

Will Franken a comedian with a curious mind

QI's top elf speaks to Andy

It’s too limiting to call Franken a comedian. With his dark humour, sense of the absurd and an ability to point out the uncomfortable truths, he has made a real impact in this brutal business.

The young Franken was brought up in a small city of Sedalia, Missouri. A railway junction, it had the reputation as a hotspot of vice and prostitution in the last century, it is now known as the ‘Trailer capitol of the Midwest.’

Franken had a freewheeling mind that was recognised later in life when he was awarded ‘Best alternative to psychedelic drugs’ by a San Francisco newspaper shortly after taking up performing.
He’s also got a Masters in English, specialising in Restoration and 18th Century literature. But he’s not very happy with the state of comedy in the UK, his adopted home.

Why move to the UK? “Britain was the pinnacle. It was the great escape. Because what I saw from British television as a kid was just light years beyond what Americans were doing,” he says. Inspired by The Goons, Monty Python and the sitcoms, Franken headed to the UK.

“I was living in a hotel for three months and hadn’t had TV for quite a few years, so I was turning on the TV…” He pauses and looks exasperated. “I was just so depressed to see the height that it had fallen from in Britain,” he complains, saying that humour that was once groundbreaking is rarely seen.

While the Mother-in-Law obsessed comedians have largely gone as have those whose racial stereotyping seems as if it was a century ago, Franken feels that comedians should be allowed on the fringes, to be poking at the edges, something he sees too little of today. Why? “Laziness and fear,” says Franken, on both sides of the Atlantic. “When I was a kid David Letterman was the answer to Johnny Carson and he was very weird and he was doing weird stuff and had weird little sketches and now when I see Letterman I see a man that’s got to much money and so much status that he doesn’t want to rock the boat less he loses it.”

It’s not just fame and success that can dull the edge, “I think the political correctness has kind of encroached and has made people, comedians especially very afraid to talk about some subjects.”
He raises the musical about the Book of Mormon, put on by the creators of South Park, that became a Broadway hit, “By and large the Mormons are such a small population that they’re not going to rise up and revolt and that’s acceptable, but at the same time you can’t do a Jihadi musical so there’s all sorts of double standards at play.”

Franken is outspoken, but in a thoughtful way and he has a trace of the oldest traditions, that of the jester, who challenges by treading in uncomfortable areas, including how the comedy business works.
Like much of the entertainment business, life is tough on the lower rungs, with no pay, expenses for everything (At the Edinburgh Fringe some acts were actually charged for a glass of water whilst on stage, for example).

After a successful three night run at one leading alternative comedy club where he was expected to perform free, Franken passed round a hat and explained his plight.

As a result, “I was banned from the theater in LA and New York. Now they’re called, they’re the premiere alternative place so that’s your quote ‘alternative’ for you.”

This brings the comedian to another problem with comedy. “I said in one interview, you know the religious people killed Christ. If you think about who’s killing art? The artist, and that’s a sad thing to say,” he notes. He’s also noted that nascent performers have changed, “There used to be a Darwinian evolution to art, right? You got to a certain point. You tried you gave it a shot, and if it didn’t work, you’d go back to whatever job you did before.”

With anyone who thinks they are funny having the ability to make You Tube videos and publish, essentially for free on the internet, Franken argues that many people are continuing with ‘virtual’ careers but only produce work of low quality and value.

Not everybody should have a career in comedy just because they want one. He takes the view of if everyone is special, then nobody is. Franken is a working comedian, it’s a job, something he constantly works at.

A downbeat assessment of the business, but how can it be improved, especially at a time where it appears that comedians are doing more hard-hitting political comment than many broadcasters?
“The guys at the top are going to have to take risks,” he says. “You need somebody wise in the position of power to be able to say to be able to make decisions that aren’t based on fear and profit.”
“I’m a capitalist I love money but you need somebody to be able to make decisions that are based on artistic merit because to me at the end of the day that’s the only principle.”

From his experience in Britain, he says,  the cultural organisations “are doing the Shakespeare the Beethoven the classical stuff. We’re doing all that stuff. And I love all that stuff,” he adds.
“So the BBC and all of them, they’ve got to stop being afraid.

He continues, “I believe if you have enough freedom, the cream will rise to the top. But if you have those people on the top making those decision based on artistic merit rather than the legend books then you’ll start seeing good art again,” he pauses slightly, “I think.”

He says, “My point it’s on both sides. it’s not just TV people or Hollywood that’s keeping people out. It’s that bad are not being discouraged and bad artists are not being discouraged as well. So everybody is meeting in a real mushy middle. I either have really bad stuff or really good stuff. But that middle, it’s just a horrible place to be. No taste. “


Franken has performed not only in the big cities, but in many small towns and out of the way places and he often finds them to be more real, authentic and interesting than the more famous venues.



OK Boots, start walking

I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a Nancy boy

All newspapers have their little rituals and so has New Europe. As we hand off the paper to the printers there's a call of "It's Nancy time!" and we go to print as we play Nancy Sinatra's classic hit These Boots Are Made For Walking."

It made number one in the UK charts on 17 February 1966.

It has been covered by just about everyone, but it still is Nancy's song. "The one hit song that I have tremendous gratitude for is Boots, because it has a life of its own. It's like being identified with a brand name," she said.

The song was written by Lee Hazlewood and many would argue that, not only was it an inspired partnership, it produced some of the best and strangest music in pop, including the unforgettable Some Velvet Morning.

The song was taken up by US soldiers, fighting in Vietnam and a year later Nancy did a tour for the troops that went down exceptionally well. A liberal, Nancy was honest and non-judgemental about the conflict, especially those in it.

“All of the people in my generation were involved in one way or another with the Viet Nam war. They were enlisting, drafted, escaping to another country or a marriage and children they didn’t really want. I knew I had to do something so I called the USO and volunteered to go and entertain the troops," she said.

 “When you are in a war zone the people around you become your brothers and sisters. They were then, are now and will always be a huge part of my life.”

She was no precious star, despite having an almost indescribably famous father, saying about the tour, “Each outfit put us up wherever they could–sometimes a building, sometimes a tent–with shells going off over our heads. We spent one night on the carrier Kitty Hawk. My God, I was terrified. But once you are committed to something like that, you move past the fear.”

She continues to act for veterans and veterans rights to this day.

The song was made with a group of session musicians, who went by the name of The Wrecking Crew. The name may be new, but everyone has heard them, not only did they record Boots, they also worked with everyone from The Monkees to Nat King Cole and were the musicians who provided Phil Spector's infamous 'wall of sound'.

Members of the Wrecking Crew played on the first Byrds single recording, "Mr. Tambourine Man", because Columbia Records did not trust the skills of Byrd musicians except for Roger McGuinn and They provided the backing for Leonard Cohen's fifth album, Death of a Ladies' Man.


Monday, 27 July 2015

Al Jazeera - The Other Opinion


An interview with Jamil Azar, al Jazeera’s Senior Anchor as the channel launches it's English service

After 31 years with the BBC’s Arabic Service in London, Jamil Azar accepted a job at the fledgling al Jazeera in 1997. Since then he has risen to become a senior presenter and has a large input on their editorial policy. Among his achievements was to come up with the channel’s slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion.” In this interview, he discusses the original Arabic channel, the newer English language channel and how al Jazeera got where it is and where it’s going next.

What did you expect when you joined al Jazeera, before it had even started broadcasting?

Well, it was an experimental operation, but we found that the Emir of Qatar was serious about this venture, and I think he must have read the mood of the media in the Arab world and most of the Qataris had the BBC World Arabic service and he must have said we want something similar from Qatar and it fitted into his policy of liberalising Qatar. The Emir is still paying for it and he will continue to support us morrally and financially on the condition that we do our job professionally.

Is al Jazeera losing its Arab identity?

Many of its journalists come from places like the BBC, and launching the English channel has broadened its identity. Al Jazeera Arabic established its editorial policy on the lines of the western media, especially on the BBC, I consider it the mother of all broadcasters and I’m proud to have been with them for over 30 years, in radio and television. We, who left the BBC for a new oportunity to broadcast from the region, took these principles of journalism to the region where the audience was only given one opinion, the official side to the story, the other opinion was not allowed.

Giving the other opinion is important to us and to our audience. The English channel covers a lot of South, third world issues, not covered by the English-speaking media, then we should have some impact. After 9/11 the American audience felt that they didn’t know much about the outside world and they could watch us and learn about it and learn how to deal with the outside world. The Arabic channel is based in Arabic language and culture. The English channel speaks to a wider audience that doesn’t have a common culture, so they are different, addressing different audiences but we all work on the same principles and ethics.

You also devised the slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion.” Are you still keeping to that principle?

There has been no change to our principles but experience made us even more daring in tackling some very difficult areas, such as censorship by regimes. We are still al Jazeera, even after 13 years on air. We are banned by several countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia. Our offices have been closed in other countries for a time. For example, Saddam banned us from Iraq. We did not ask to be re-opened, but they asked us to come back. We do not target any country, we present the news where we find it. We report the facts, but that makes the governments who don’t like their problems being discussed attack us.

What are the limitations of just having two opposing views? Doesn’t that end up in a shouting match? Do you have a problem with people going on the record out of fear of reprisals?

We face the same problems as any media that wants to show a range of opinions. In the Arab world there are people who are worried that they might be imprisoned if they appear on al Jazeera and there have been some cases where this has happened. But for us, it doesn’t stop us from trying to present the other opinion.

You operate in very difficult environments, it must be very difficult to protect your sources, where the context may be a much more threatening environment than western journalists operate in. How hard is it to be ethical at the sharp end?

We have a code of ethics. We were the first Arabic channel to have such a code and we expect them to adhere to it. Protecting sources is enshrined in that code. We would go as far as we can to protect our sources. In Sudan, they stopped our reporter and manager of the bureau from operating because he wouldn’t reveal one of his sources. We were sure the source was correct and reliable, so the Sudanese authorities removed the ban, but we thought it best to recall our staff to Doha, but we do operate from Sudan. It’s very important that we keep our standards, otherwise we would quickly lose our credibility and lose the trust of our audiences. We take this seriously.

You are now global with the English channel. How well is it doing, because you aren’t in the US. Are you being censored?

Well, it looks as if there are certain quarters in the US, whether on commercial or political basis that do not allow al Jazeera English to go on the cable networks. It looks like an attempt to shield the American audience from what we can tell them, however in the last couple of days I heard there is going to be an announcement that a couple of cable networks are going to show us. We have a bureau in Washington and we are hopeful that attitudes will change. The Obama administration is bringing real change and there might be a change in attitude towards us. We were a revolution in Arab media and can al Jazeera English be a revolution in global media?

What does the future bring?

I don’t think we will change much in the near future, apart from some new programmes. We’re always responding to our audience, but we’re looking at more north - south issues so we can let the north understand more of the life and culture of other parts. This can bring people together.


Friday, 24 July 2015

Set the economy to stun

There are no signs of intelligent policy, Jim

It's Greece Jim, but not as we know it

The finale of the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is more relevant to the EU than it may appear.

To save the ship and crew of the USS Free Enterprise, Spock, a cold, emotionless Vulcan, who fails to understand the personality and manifold quirks of his fellow officers and crew enters the radiation filled engine room and saves the day, sacrificing his life.

As he dies, he sees Admiral James Kirk, the rash, impulsive and fallible friend, who has rushed to try and save his friend.

As Spock dies, he explains himself to his distraught commander, “Don’t grieve, Admiral, it’s logical: the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.”

A little metaphor for the Greece/German crisis, it appears, except that the understanding of a higher purpose comes from the emotionally sterile Vulcan not the all too human Kirk.

It what passes for the real world here in Brussels, it is the new untermensch, the Greeks who are asking to look higher, further than immediate, selfish concerns and the emotionally stunted Vulcans who are demanding they rule over all.

Let us not forget that German solidarity is really only solidarity towards Germany’s banks and business and the creation of economic lebensraum. Merkel, the second least liked German Chancellor in history went ballistic when her EPP spitzenkandidat, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had posters put up in Germany for last May’s election with the slogan ‘Solidarity’. We can only assume that she has nothing but contempt for the word and concept.

The German interpretation of solidarity and assistance has pushed Greece into sub-Saharan Africa levels of poverty, while, and this is the real cruelty, blaming ordinary Greeks for their woes.

It is said that austerity has to continue because of public sentiment. Who can blame them? They’ve been told that it’s all the fault of the feckless, workshy, dishonest Greek citizen.

Well, as Tony Blair discovered that telling his people that Iraq had WMD and Islamic terrorists, repeating the Big Lie doesn’t make it true, nor does it lead to good policy choices.

Complicit in this is the Socialist and Democrats Group, led by election loser Martin Schulz, whose party just happens to be in coalition with Merkel.

Indeed, one positive aspect of the crisis is that it appears to have silenced the garrulous former bookseller. Less positively, Europe’s centre-left has been austerity-friendly for many years, leaving them with only mealy mouthed platitudes and statements that may have been typed by a near-infinite number of monkeys, who just can’t get to Shakespearian levels.

Asked to explain why the S&D lost the last election, with austerity, unemployment, anger etc that, on paper, would give them a landslide, Hannes Swoboda told New Europe why they lost, “We didn’t stand often enough with the victims of austerity.”

That position appears to be the case today. It is sheer cowardice. The public are set to vote for those that either say ‘no to austerity’ or ‘to the Devil with them all’.

Austerity has not only destroyed a member state, it’s finishing off mainstream politics.

Will this do anything but encourage a Brexit in a referendum? What will happen in the next European elections? By then it will be clear that even national elections are completely ignored if they go against what Germany wants. How is this going to do anything but hammer in the final nail in the coffin?

Remember, we’re risking everything for a policy that does not work.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Soul of an old machine

The joy of 16k RAM

When tech gets retro

It was the size of a small book and had a mere 1k in memory and cost €320 at today’s prices, but the Sinclair ZX81 brought computing into the home.

The display was monochrome, plugged into a TV rather than a monitor, with a graphics mode pixel density of 64 by 48 and used an ordinary cassette tape to load and save data.

It wasn’t much, but we shouldn’t sneer, but be very grateful to its inventor, Sir Clive Sinclair, who was already a leading innovator a decade previously, when he brought out the first real pocket calculator in 1972, the Sinclair Executive and a year later, the Sinclair Cambridge. The designs were clean and clear, if a little ‘boxy’ looking, but what they to appear to have predicted what smartphones would look and feel like.

On that comparison, in 1977, Sinclair brought out a calculator that was worn like a watch.

Like everything else, Sinclair was interested in basic products that had few components and could be sold at a price far below any competitors. But in computing, he was both right and wrong. He rightly thought that people would want a computer in every home, which went against the prevailing wisdom, even inside the industry, puzzled over what non-commercial uses there would be. Typical thinking was that maybe some household accounting, beyond that even experts were stumped.

But he was wrong when he thought people would learn to program. He wasn’t entirely wrong. His machines were taken up by teenagers who became the generation that built so much of today’s digital architecture.

There were schoolboys returning to the bedrooms to code the first primitive but still enjoyable games and this led to the independent software market and to what we now call the ‘App Economy.’

Programs became available through interesting ways, some BBC programmes about computers often had downloads available, either by playing a bar code in the corner of the screen or the electronic screech during the end credits that could be recorded on a cassette player and then loaded onto the ZX.

The memory limitations also encouraged good practice. Programs had to be very well written to run on 1k of memory and perhaps one of the highest achievements in computing was 1k Chess. Sure it was a bit limited, but can you imagine playing chess with so few bits spare?

By March 1982, a quarter of a million had been sold, either as build it yourself kits or pre-assembled. By July 1983 1.5 million had been bought.

Part of the success was the strategy, being sold in high street shops, rather than specialist retailers. They were even on sale in airport duty free shops, until that was halted by the government, worried that Russians would pick one up and use it for nefarious plots and plans.

This didn’t stop Sinclair signing a contract to have the machines built in Guangzhou, China in November 1983.

Many old users of the ZX would smile at the nes that Britain’s best selling computer today is the Raspberry Pi, the ultra stripped down computer that was conceived after computer scientists noticed applicants to their courses were becoming less skilled each year.

Previously, those wishing to study computer science had been hobbyists on machines like the ZX81, now they have done some minor web design at most.

The boffins thought this was because home computing had moved on from programmable computers to the ‘sealed box’ of modern PCs and Macs.

They produced the Raspberry Pi, a cheap, programmable home computer.

Over five million have been sold.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Mountains of the Mind

Lake Bujuku in the centre of the Ruwenzori
How a decision to try something different made a dream possible

I should never have taken up mountaineering, mainly because I was so bad at it. I’ve lost count of the crags and cliff’s I’ve fallen off, but remember the avalanches I’ve been in and the occasional long drop, such as falling headfirst down a Scottish gully after getting to within 10m of the top. 200 m later, I was dazed and confused at the bottom, with only a dodgy knee and a deep scar where an ice axe impaled itself.

It’s these precious moments that, as a friend said, “puts life into perspective”. But in 1990, I was a young climber, in the English Lake District, who had been all over the local rocks, started snow and ice climbing in Scotland and was taking the next step, that of progressing to the French and Swiss Alps.

There were a couple of problems. One was that I had a healthy concern for my own well-being that expressed itself as a wish to stay alive. This is a barrier to the heights of mountain climbing. Secondly, I was more interested in doing something different. After a weekend’s ice climbing, I was staying with a friend, who was a Himalayan expert. Our conversation moved onto the commercialisation of mountaineering and that it was harder to do any exploration. As I headed off to bed, I picked up a small guidebook to read, on the Ruwenzori mountains of Uganda. 

Published in 1972, it was recognised as a small but insanely complete guide to the 150km long range on the Congo/Uganda border. These fabled mist covered mountains have fascinated travelers for millennia. Around 500 BC the Greek poet Aeschylus wrote of " Egypt nurtured by the snows". Not to be outdone, Aristotle in 350BC, declared the source of the Nile to be " The Silver Mountain ".

An account of a journey to the Ruwenzori was written by the Syrian geographer Marinus of Tyre in 120 AD. He related the tale of a Greek merchant, Diogenes who claimed a 25 day journey inland from the African East coast to "two great lakes and the snowy range of mountains where the Nile draws it's twin sources." A few years later, in 150 AD, Ptolmey wrote of the Lunæs Montes, or Mountains of the Moon being the source of the Nile.

The mystery began to clear after the mountains were sighted, in the far distance, by Henry Morton Stanley in 1876, who took a brief respite from savagely beating his porters, to name them after his boss, the editor of the New York Herald, Mr Gordon Bennett, whose lifestyle and editorial flair turned his name into a British slang term for ‘I don’t believe it’. Sadly, the 5,107m high main summit has been renamed to Mount Stanley.

The more I read, the more intrigued I was. however, looking at the remoteness and other factors, such as a conflict going on in the area, I realised this was a journey I was never going to make.

Then I stopped. Why would I never go there? What was stopping me? I quickly realised that the main thing stopping me was... myself. So I decided to go. To make the trip happen, there were several steps, so I tackled them. 

Finding a climbing partner was easy. I take pride that many of my friends were up for climbing through a jungle to scramble over glaciers on the equator. The biggest issue was information. The guidebook had been out of print for many years, but I tracked down a second hand copy from the original publisher, who only sold me the book after I had assured him that I was actually going there. Maps were more difficult. I found a 1:150,000 map, that seemed to be alarmingly vague.

Money was a problem, so we booked the cheapest flight to Nairobi and jumped on a bus to the Uganda  border and another to Kampala and another to Kasese in the foothills of the mountains.

The warm and misty atmosphere also meant that anything living grew to outlandish size. Earthworms were 3 or 4 cm thick and the heather grew to the size of trees. As we entered the centre of the high peaks, we were already higher than Mont Blanc but were still having to cut our way through jungle.

It was a hard trek into the Bigo bog, under the main summits. This was because the range is also known as the Mountains of the Mist, and the bog turned out to be very bigo indeed. We spent days jumping from tuft to tuft to make progress. 

Eventually we got on the rocky slopes and then the glacier, until we climbed above the mist to the summit.

Since then, I’ve never told myself that I can’t do something. I’m also going to return to the Ruwenzori. I’ve had an idea for a journey that has never been done. Want to come along?

Marshall Isles pay the price: From atom tests to rising seas

Tony de Brum
Tony De Brum thought he had seen the worst that could happen to his Pacific island home at nine years of age, when he witnessed an atomic bomb test.

He was wrong. With an altitude of just two metres, the Marshall Islands are expected to disappear under the ocean in the near future because of climate change.

The only thing that can prevent this is immediate and comprehensive action on a global scale.
Tony De Brum is not a happy man.

Speaking to New Europe in Brussels, in his capacity as the islands equivalent of Vice-President, he praised the support Europe has given to their struggle for survival and argues that the islanders are doing all they can, by working internationally and trying to switch to green energy, but says the world is not acting swiftly enough and sometimes appears callously indifferent to their fate.

This indifference is not new notes De Brum, “The fact that things have gotten to this point almost certainly reflects a lack of vision, a failure of diplomacy, and a failure of leadership.”

As a child De Brum watched as the Castle Bravo test unleashed a 14 megaton explosion, more than double the expected amount, leaving a kilometer wide crater. The island politician remarks that the total yield of all the tests in the Marshall Islands is the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs going off every day, for twelve years.

De Brum, like many islanders, is part of a large extended family, saying that he has almost a hundred nieces and nephews, but “it’s getting increasingly difficult for me to explain to them what we are doing. It’s happening now. We are seeing islands disappear as we speak. We are seeing 17 of our 24 isles in severe drought conditions that even people of my generation have not seen before.”

They are doing what they can, trying to engage with global leaders and regional partners and advocating a rapid switch to green energy.

But what is very real to him is not to others, “What is difficult to understand is the slowness and reluctance of our development partners to understand this is an issue for now and the ways of preventing it must be undertaken now.” He adds, “We are trying to get the word out that this is a clear and present danger.”

He is clearly uncomfortable with their only option, abandoning their home. De Brum says, “The Marshall Islanders have been displaced and moved around a lot over the last 150 years, for one reason or another, whaling, arguments between the powers, world war one, world war two, the Korean war, the nuclear testing programme. All of these have resulted in our people being moved around.

“Displacing people is not a pleasant option for us to consider. We try to work as hard as we can to avoid that eventuality but we have to prepare and prepare our people for that eventuality.

“Part of the issue with displacement, is when you’re talking about moving people from the Marshalls, many of our friends in America will say ‘pick up those 60,000 and put them in Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona or something and the problem is solved.’”

This approach is offensive to the Pacific politician, “There is no attachment to the country, the tradition and culture, the language of the people. There is this very cold, steely approach that says ‘why are we concerned about spending billions of dollars to adapt and mitigate when we can spend a few hundred millions on displacement of the people and put them somewhere else?”

Displacement, an innocuous sounding word, means something different to the islanders, it means the end of their independence and sovereignty. “There is some buying of land in the mountains of Fiji, thinking we can move there. It’s all fine and dandy, but who’s going to be responsible for your economy, for your constitutionally mandated healthcare and education? Nobody is thinking about this. Everyone is thinking on what is easiest for the metropolitan powers to do, rather than what is the right thing to do for the existence of a people.”

It’s clear that this is a grave concern for the island’s leaders, “During the time of the nuclear tests, people were just picked up and put on a navy ship, sometimes before the tests, sometimes afterwards. They seem to think they can still do that now. I’m sorry but we are an independent sovereign country, we are members of the United Nations, we can partner up with anyone we please, including the EU.”
Asked if this brings back colonial memories, De Brum replies, “It is just as colonial as thinking they can come and take over our country. It’s the same thing in reverse.”

He continues by comparing past and current danger, “There is a parallel with the atomic testing. We had nothing to do with the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb. These people came to tell us that we should be part of the security of the world, we should allow testing of these ‘weapons of peace and security’ so the world can be a safer place, so we did.

“Now they’re saying ‘Well in order for us to survive we need to pollute to make the seas go higher, but we’re not taking responsibility for it, they won’t even talk about ‘loss and damage’ we will do what we please.”

Europe, however, has been a strong and reliable ally, “Many people raise their eyebrows and say that why is the pacific so engaged with the European Union? We’re engaged in projects, we’ve been engaged with them far more than our American partners.”

There’s a reason for this engagement with Europe, “The Americans have so much to learn about climate change. There are a lot of problems with getting the American leadership to acknowledge there is a problem. The EU can do a lot. Many of us have European, not just in the Marshalls, but all over the Pacific and we work with those other islands and we will go wherever to find solutions. We have had some good successes partnering with Europe and we will continue to work together.”

A stitch in time – the Quaker Tapestry

The Quakers have found a wonderful and idiosyncratic way of telling their story and explaining their beliefs, through a tapestry.

They are known for their  rejection of violence and an egalitarian approach to religion, having no priests or bishops, so their tapestry is a counterpoint to the only other similar work that is widely known, the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England.

But this old technique is also modern. The idea started  in 1981 with a remark from an eleven year old boy in the South West of England to his teacher, Ann Wynn-Wilson, an accomplished embroiderer, who imagined a series of panels covering Quaker history and beliefs.

Situated in Kendal, at the Friends Meeting House, a listed Georgian building, the tapestry consists of 77 panels, just over 60 x 50cm, embroidered on a woven wool cloth. By the project's completion in 1996 over 4,000 people, including children from 15 countries had contributed to the 77 panels, an international, communal effort.

Although so many people contributed, there is a common theme and appearance to all panels. All have a simple theme, such as a prominent person,  often with a quotation, Quaker contribution to science, the slave trade, banking and so on.

The time and skill taken over each panel is obvious, invoking the use of icons in other faiths and the visitor is given the impression of a faith that may not be well known having made a tremendous contribution in so many areas. Elizabeth Fry, the great prison reformer, the Cadbury and Rountree families who added a social conscience to the industrial age, with schools,libraries, retirement homes and even homes with gardens.

It is sobering to recall that workers in Quaker owned businesses often had better conditions 150 years ago than many workers today. Likewise, who could look at the panels on banking and bankers and not feel that the world would be a radically better place if Quakers were put in charge of the financial sector?

Service to others is another thread running through the exhibition, especially with relief work and the Friends Ambulance Service and the Nobel Peace Prize, which was accepted with humility.

These noble principles and sacrifices were not always recognised, there has been widespread persecution of Quakers and many panels tell the story of their martyrs, those imprisoned and tortured.

Not all panels are on display, there are always some exhibited elsewhere, and this reflects another part of the Quaker approach. This is not a series to be cast in stone, but an ever changing, living document, and it is one that speaks through the ages in a way that not only leaves viewers appreciating the extraordinary levels of skill, but also moved by the clarity and simplicity of the message from these tapestries.

There is a short film about the tapestry at the entrance to the exhibition, a fascinating introduction. tucked in, at the back of the exhibition is another film about the Quakers, that you can watch from the traditional wooden benches.

Don't forget to take a look inside the Meeting Room, where the Friends gather three times a week for worship, the chairs set out in a circle in a sparsely decorated room, apart from a lovely wooden bookcase, whose library shows the diversity of views and interests people find inspiration in, and before leaving, try the cafe, with gorgeous food at reasonable prices, it is just an extension of the values displayed on the tapestry.

The Pepperoni Job

An illegal immigrant

Austerity in Switzerland is different

Austerity has hit Europe in many ways, but the Swiss do austerity differently to others.

Since de-linking the currency from the euro, the Swiss franc has risen sharply and the Swiss have been looking at how to save money.

One solution has been a sharp increase in cross-border pizza deliveries. Peckish Swiss have been phoning pizzerias from Constance in Germany, leading to a stream of pizza vans, carrying up to 80 of the Italian dishes over the border.

The mayor has said Swiss border guards have stopped the great pizza escape and the sound of margarita delivery has been silenced after they began checking vehicles suspected of bringing in immigrant pizzas.

A special dispensation, scrapped a year ago allowed food deliveries over the border, but as a spokesman for Swiss customs said, this led to businesses targeting Swiss customers as prices were up to 50% cheaper across the frontier.

The Swiss finally got cheesed off with the increased traffic.

The Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) for Hochrhein-Bodensee, the region on the German side of the border are lobbying for a return of the exemption. The organisation’s head, Uwe Boehm said “IHK Hochrhein-Bodensee is disappointed with this information and will, in the interests of our member companies, continue to work to find a solution.”

The same crossing point was popular in the Second World War with many escaping allied servicemen making the dash across the Swiss border.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Death to the intolerant!

Sign of the times / Dave Riggs

It's up to all of us to make a more inclusive world

A week ago, there was a march for peace and tolerance in Brussels, organised by the leading religious and secular organisations got together to counter a growing atmosphere of division and mistrust in the city and more so throughout Europe.

From the Golden Dawn in Greece – who may benefit from a regime change Berlin seems determined to engineer, Pegida in Dresden staging their 30s revival marches to UKIP pledging to rip up equality legislation and mainstream parties pledging to banish the curse of the poor migrant, eradicating the curse of Islamic terrorism from our pure shores, the mood in Europe is ugly.

It’s better to be in a crowd of people from all faiths and none, getting along with each other, than in an angry mob, screaming for murder.

This view is more controversial than you may think.

The next day I attended a meeting which showed the value of peace and tolerance, by its absence. A ‘citizen group’ was complaining about violence from their nation’s opposition party. Certainly they have a dubious record and alliances that seem highly unwise, but I’ve never seen a situation where one side was entirely right and the other entirely wrong.

This was of no concern and amid disaster porn photos of burns victims, there was a propaganda video full of outrageous accusations and inflammatory statements, emotive music over dramatic edits of a burning vehicles.

The fact that children were seriously injured was presented as proof their entire argument was right, and their enemy was entirely wrong.

The hyperbole continued and the opposition leader was accused of personally ordering murders ‘in every corner of the country every day’ of being so evil that ISIS took inspiration from them and that they were trained agents of the Taliban, ISIS and the claims, never backed by anything that could pass as evidence, continued.

No solution was offered, no answer to the problem and no indication that the situation was more complex than we good, they bad.

I was permitted one of only two questions accepted by the speakers, a request for evidence that produced nothing. My follow-up would have been how the government felt having seen their nation portrayed in such a way how they could possibly attract any investment at all, for if they were right, only a lunatic would risk a cent there.

Outside the opposition had gathered, demanding democracy, justice and the release of some people, explanations of some they said had ‘disappeared’ and so on.

There is a problem with violence around the edge of a lot of politics in many places at the moment and I’m using one example – and there is no point naming them – to make a wider point.

When faced with a fire, many of us would have the instinct to look for a fire extinguisher or water or something. These guys thought pouring petrol was the best move.

There are so many inflammatory fires burning across Europe that it needs to be tackled, but how?

With peace and tolerance. By accepting things might be ever so slightly more complicated than the petty demagogues suggest, more nuanced than the ‘line to take.’

By realizing your opponent can also be a decent person, that disagreement is not the sign on inherent evil in another.

By listening and trying to understand rather than shout down.

Sadly, it seems that our political systems are just not set up for this. So, it’s up to us, the people.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Like a Rollins stone

We'll keep the black flag flying here

An interview with Henry Rollins as he visited Brussels on tour and he was positive about the EU

Henry Rollins is an American singer-songwriter, raconteur, spoken word artist, writer, publisher, actor, radio DJ, and activist. He has been in many bands and more recently taken up the role of human rights activist, and touring on spoken word tours.

He is the founder of a record label and publishing company as well as the lead in the Rollins Band. He has promoted gay rights in the US as well as being outspoken on many issues such as Iran and tours overseas with the United Service Organizations to entertain American troops.

On tour in Europe one of his stops includes Brussels during this week so he took some time to answer question from New Europe’s Andy Carling on how the EU looks from the outside. Since Black Flag, Rollins has embarked on projects covering a variety of media.

You have traveled widely throughout Europe for many years and have many contacts with people across the continent and the former Soviet block. Is the EU a positive force for good, has it made a difference to people? 

I am one who thinks that Europe is a great thing overall. I think America could learn a lot from aspects of the European model. When I compare it America, I think there’s more rational ideas when it comes to healthcare and education. Europe seems to value life, America seems to value profit.
 
There is concern at the highest levels about the ‘democratic deficit’ characterised by low and lower electoral turnouts and a sense of distance between the EU institutions and citizens. What can politicians, and citizens, do to improve the democratic process? 

Perhaps people feel that their government is not of the people for the people, as they say, and perhaps feel they are living in an oligarchy and feel distant from the power. They might not think their vote counts for anything and stay home. It happens a lot I think. It’s how the bad guys get away dirty deeds.
 
In the last European Parliament elections a number of politicians from parties that have anti-Semitic, homophobic and Islamaphobic attributes were elected. How should we deal with this? 

I think when things are bad, anger and fear are manipulated and focused at minority groups. There’s nothing new about that. I think you need to make things better for the average person, they’re the ones falling for this insanity.
 
In general, the EU deals in diplomacy, in soft power. Is this the right approach in dealing with nations, such as Iran and China? 

In my opinion, yes. I know that many think that only makes dictators grow more bold but I think it sends a strong message to the people living under the rule of an oppressive government that has a better effect than to try to intimidate governments you may not agree with. Quite often, when you step on a dictator, they turn around and step on their own people.
 
What advice would you give to Europe’s leaders on dealing with the future? 

Lead the world in renewable energy. Get the world off of fossil fuel and perhaps the rest of us will eventually follow your lead. Hurry!


Throwing plastic bricks at torturers, because words bounce off

Another brick in the wall

An anonymous artist whose provocative Lego recreations is attracting interest from the art and cinema world gave me their first interview

Legofesto is a British artist who describes herself as “a politicsjunkie and news-hound, with a obsession for lego” and “very, very pissed off about how this War on Terror is being prosecuted.” In response to scenes of war and torture, she works to recreate some of the most notorious images, using Lego, based on photographs and first-hand accounts to make the scenes as accurate as possible. The results are disturbing, showing horrific scenes in this most innocent of children’s toys. The simplicity of the artwork is made more powerful by stripping the original image down to its shocking essentials. Usually the tableau is added to her blog with a cut-and-paste of a news story about the incident, and only rarely does the artist make a direct commentary.

Film director, Brian de Palma is also an admirer and wanted to use her recreation of the rape in Mahmudiya in his film Redacted, she said. Speaking about the film, he said “It started with small things, like the Legofesto site for example. Here’s a site that actually reconstructs the incident with Legos, shows a Lego figure being raped, blood on the floor, etc. and is critical of the event, but the lawyers come and say, we can’t use it because it has a brand name - Lego. Not that they are to blame. If you put it in its real context - an Internet blog using Lego figures to illustrate an event, I could not see the problem, but legal vetting is set to safeguard and in that respect

Who wants the possibility of going to war with Lego?”

Legofesto protects her identity and usually only communicates with the media via email but agreed to give New Europe her first real interview.

What prompted you to make these lego re-creations?

Watching the Iraq war unfolding, Guantanamo filling up and photos and testimony of abuses filtering out, I noticed there was little response from the art world to the horrors that we were seeing. I was playing with my boy one day and he was doing what boys do, playing with knives and soldiers and throwing mini-figures into a toy prison and it made me think about how we’re de-humanising people, we’re treating them as if they had no more moral value than a toy figurine, so I thought it would be interesting to see what happened when I used the language and toys of play to depict the real world at it’s harshest and most unjust.

You say that you’re angry about the Iraq war and counter terror policy. What exactly are you angry about?

The whole damn thing. Not that I disagree that 9/11 needed a response, and a strong one, but it needed to be an effective response and diplomacy wasn’t given a chance, especially with the farce at the UN over the “second resolution” that never happened and the UK’s infamous and discredited “dodgy dossier,” leading to the suspicious suicide of Dr David Kelly, who was a dissenting voice in the run-up to the publication of the dossier. Iraq was the wrong, war at the wrong time, for the wrong reason. I think that for dogmatic reasons the US wanted a war at any cost and Tony Blair was deluded enough to go along with it. I tried blogging, going on marches and writing letters to MP’s but they had no effect. It was the waste of stamps.

Did you get any feedback from British MP’s?

I got some positive replies from a couple of anti-war Labour backbenchers and one managed to ask Tony Blair a question that put him on the spot and embarrassed him, but ultimately it had no effect. I also talked to the Liberal Whips Office who were the only party in parliament trying to stop the war, but the UK parliamentary system marginalises them, so as far as I and the many others who protested against the war felt, the political establishment failed us completely and that is the underlying reason that this expensive and bloody farce went ahead.

What are you trying to achieve?

I want to keep the debate going. To keep it in people’s minds, to remind us of our atrocities because the media has moved on and they don’t want to dwell on the tactics. Too many euphemisms were used. Enhanced interrogation, anyone? We understand what torture and rape mean, yet want to look away and I wanted to keep people’s attention focused on it.

But hasn’t the media kept with the story? Obama has just released the torture memos.

That’s a change in administration. It’s also means that media attention is coming back to torture and we need to take a long hard look at the Bush administration and the moral collapse that is their legacy. We live in a world where the right-wing is saying that waterboarding isn’t torture. Could you imagine their reaction if Iran openly did that to a US soldier? Then it is torture. It takes some gall to claim that you’re the world’s leading force for good whilst creating Abu Graib and a whole network of secret prisons in Europe. We should not lower our own morals and values to those of terrorists and criminals. We need to be better than that.

What has been the reaction to Legofesto?

I’ve been shocked by the response, it’s been huge. It’s been overwhelmingly good and I’ve been exhibiting in a few places in the UK, once alongside work from Guantantamo Bay and Baghram inmates, which was an honour because I was pleased that people who had actually been through the experiences I had recreated understood my motivations. It was touching and profoundly humbling when recently freed prisoner Moazzam Begg told me that he had used Legofesto to explain to his children what he had been through. I have also spoken to ex-guards from Guantanamo Bay.

How have Lego responded to you?

Not heard anything from them. I make it clear that Lego do not endorse what I do and that my site is not for children.

What next?

I’m waiting for the new torture memos to come out and will make more pieces.

What do you think you’ve achieved?

I’ve helped to continue the debate. People are using Legofesto to talk about torture and state violence. As an artist I need to use art to raise and provoke debate about the really serious issues affecting us, because what we do in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere does affect us all; our actions have consequenses for others and ourselves.

If we silently acquiesce to torture, what have we as people, become?

The artistic response from the art establishment has been muted as if many are too frightened to engage with these issues or just don’t have anything to say on matters of substance. We must not forget there are hundreds of iraqi artists struggling to practice under a new, supposedly freer regime, yet they are being killed for making art, having to go into exile. We don’t often get to see their art.