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Maria

Shackleton Solo; Journey’s End

by Maria on January 25, 2016

This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. Podcast by podcast, day by day, step by freezing, wind-blown step, Henry Worsley has been documenting his solo trek at the South Pole. He was no under-prepared amateur. It was his third trip to the pole and his first time doing it alone. He was following the route of Anglo-Irish merchant navy officer Ernest Shackleton’s race to the pole a century ago. Although Scott’s journey is better known, Shackleton is respected for having run a tighter expedition and, crucially, for making the necessary sacrifices in glory-seeking and his own food rations to bring all his men home. He famously said of his second expedition ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’ and it is.

Stuck in his tent for two days, too ill to move, Worsley finally called for rescue late last week. He died yesterday of peritonitis that caused multiple organ failure.

Every day for the past couple of months, Worsley has been doing a daily update on his progress and talking about what it is like to be alone and pressing on through some of the worst conditions on earth. E, who served under Worsley, had been following the podcasts. (Most nights he would get into bed and put it on, and I would grumpily roll over and tell him to use his headphones.) At the end of each recording, Worsley would answer questions, many of them from the children who listened in each day. There was something sweetly old-fashioned about that. He would satisfy questions like ‘what is it like to celebrate Christmas on Antartica?’ with a condensed but not unrealistic description of life in the white darkness.

I will never understand why people want to climb Everest or walk to the Pole. The human drive to ‘conquer’ landscape and survive in hostile environments is wholly alien to me, and probably to most of us. It just seems to be one of those quirks that the human race throws up from time to time, and without which we probably wouldn’t have survived. It’s not an instinct that finds much outlet in late capitalist life. Most of us are not very brave. Most of us avoid physical discomfort and unnecessary exertion whenever we can. But in ways epigenetic and day-to-day practical, most of us depend on people who do not.

Worsley wasn’t a thrill-seeker or a for the hell of it risk-taker, or one of those people who only feels truly alive when he is fighting for his life. He was doing this trek for a reason, and he was doing it because he could. It can sometimes be easier for officers to slot back into civilian life, and he felt a deep obligation to support military charities that help wounded and other soldiers in transition. Worsley had already met his fundraising goal. He was just thirty miles from journey’s end. He was almost there. He was almost home. The story wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Happy Almost New Year, Timberteers

by Maria on December 30, 2015

Nothing welcomes you back to London after a soggy spell in the west of Ireland like a gold-plated (surely not real?) Lambourghini, vanity plate; F1 IRAK, whizzing past you on the Chelsea Embankment. Ah, world’s super-wealthy, with your love of obscene and ill-gotten goods and your disdain for pettifogging traffic rules, I have missed you.

Fear not. Plenty of riches are to be had here on CT. Having failed to post a timely Christmas picture of the Crooked Timber dog, and having also failed to post any recommended reads from 2015, I still have it in mind to share some wealth in the form of our own middle class intellectual status indicators. Here are some non-book gems I enjoyed this year. Maybe you have some of your own?

Milo and Fury, Christmas Day 2015

Podcasts
Philosophy Bites, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, comprises well over 300 20-minute interviews with philosophers on everything from Stoicisim to inequality to Foucault and power. CT’s own Chris Bertram does a particularly good session on Rousseau, ranging over the life and works and making me wish – not for the first time – that I’d paid more attention in college. Philosophy Bites makes philosophers sound surprisingly chatty, collegial and willing to tackle questions we all puzzle over and never get very far with.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ with Melvyn Bragg is fantastic, if you are in the UK or have a VPN to vouch for you. The format is that the slightly irritable and impossibly well-read host asks questions of three experts on a topic from history, literature, philosophy or science. Bragg is a national treasure on a level with Alan Bennett but has a more pleasing sympathy for the under-dog. The podcasts that include a few bonus minutes ‘with the cameras off’ are terrific, and show how much more interesting radio is when it can be less didactic and improving.

Entitled Opinions from Stanford Radio’s Robert Harrison can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the cultural theory gets a bit circular and obtuse – but that’s mostly when there are guest presenters. Each programme lasts an hour and the pace is expansive rather than quick. It’s what I love most about a good podcast – instead of me going ‘yeah yeah, I get it’ and skipping ahead to the end of the paragraph or the chapter, I have to stick with it and take in the ideas at the pace the presenter is willing to give them out. The bliss of being entirely in someone else’s power. Harrison’s interview with Colm Tóibín about The Master is wonderful, (also, I never knew James’ house in Rye was later lived in by the man who wrote Mapp and Lucia and used it as their respective fictional homes) though Harrison joins the rest of the anglo-sphere in being unable to pronounce Tóibín’s name.

The Royal Literary Fund’s ‘Writers Aloud’ series can be uneven but is often utterly brilliant, especially when Carole Angier is doing the interviewing. (Yes, the same Carole Angier who wrote the magnificent Primo Levi biography.) The stand-out interviews from the last year or so are with the poet Julia Copus and CT’s own favourite, Francis Spufford, who gives an inside track on the writing of Red Plenty.

Videos
OK, fair cop, my 2015 Youtube consumption has been driven by watching repeats of Graham Norton’s chat show (the one where Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville corpse laughing and go to pelt pineapples at the audience is a classic, though it actually happened in 2014) and also interviews with My Boyfriend Tom Hiddleston. The ideal is an interview of Tom Hiddleston by Graham Norton, which actually happened a couple of months ago. Hiddleston did an above average impression of Robert de Niro who was sitting nearby (celebrities’ lives are weird). For several minutes afterwards you can see Hiddleston going pinker and pinker and clearly regretting it, and I had an urge to jump into the screen and tell him what was obvious to anyone watching; ‘Don’t worry about it. You were great and are lovely. De Niro is clearly an arse.’

So, obviously I’m not proud of my Hiddleston crush, but it really is completely chaste. A few weeks ago, Ed and I were walking to a cafe for a weekend treat and, apparently, I was going along just smiling vacantly to myself. Ed asked what I was thinking about – at this stage he didn’t know about my little pash – and I said ‘I was just explaining the Tuisil Ginideach to Tom and saying how funny it is that it is both universal and nearly always irregular.’ Not everyone knows, I said to Ed, that the Irish language has a genitive case for nouns. It’s the Latin influence. (I personally hadn’t a clue that’s what it was until fifth year when a teacher mentioned it in passing.) And so then Ed had to ask who Tom was etc. etc. and why would he be interested in the grammatical structure of the Irish language. To which the answer could only be ‘Oh, Tom? He’s interested in everything I’m interested in.’ And then we ran into a neighbour in the cafe so that was the end of the (external) conversation. Tom. He’s dreamy.

Onward!

Crooked Timber people, and I’m especially looking at you, Kieran, you MUST watch Martin’s Life. (if you don’t know it already, which you probably do as it’s based in a small town near Cork city) Martin’s Life is a series of 2-3 minute animations about a young hipster and returned immigrant living with his parents in rural Ireland. It completely takes the piss out of the cultural cluelessness of the parents, but it’s really affectionate about them, too. One of my younger sisters played it for the extended family over the summer, and we were falling about in tears of laughter, parents included. If you do one thing today, watch Martin’s Life. Especially, for the season that’s in it, the one about Skype. Or the Christmas one. Or the old ESB ad one. This is literally every Irish expat’s life. Aithbhlian faoi mhaise duit, a Mháirtín.

OK, last orders. Have you no homes to go to?

The winner of Christmas was a Youtube video Henry put on on Stephen’s Day when we were all full of blueberry pancakes and sausages from Kilcullen (best in the world), and perhaps a little regret. The intro was unremarkable but when the singer began, the whole room changed. It was one of those moments when conversation fades away (rare in our house) and people drifted from the table towards the screen to listen and see. When this song finished, and amongst atheists, believers and fence-sitters alike, there was surreptitious nose-blowing, studied non-eye-catching and sudden impulses to be alone, outside, looking out over the bog and out to sea. Here, amongst all the seasonal oddities is the strangest wonder of all; Patti Smith singing Oh Holy Night to Pope Francis.

Poppy Love

by Maria on November 9, 2015

E and I give money to the Royal British Legion every year. We sit down towards the end of the year and talk about who to support, which direct debits to keep and which to swap out. The Legion is the one item in our charity basket that stays in with no need for discussion. It supports serving and former members of the armed forces, and isn’t choosy about which wars the veterans fought in. Its appeal is based on the need to keep faith with a life-long social covenant, rather than the dangerous conceit that all soldiers are heroes.

But most of the Legion’s funding seems to come not from regular donors but the annual November – now shading into mid-October – frenzy of poppy-selling. In its drive to sell as many poppies as it can for Remembrance Day, the Legion has allowed itself to become part of an increasingly nasty annual tradition of bullying of people who choose not to wear a poppy or are somehow ‘caught’ without one.

Today, the Legion announced an astonishingly tone-deaf campaign for celebrities to film themselves silenced by a poppy held across their lips, ahead of the official two-minute silence on Wednesday. The dark irony of using the poppy to literally silence people in public life seems to be beyond the ken of the Legion’s hyperactive communications team.
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Learning by Doing

by Maria on August 8, 2015

‘I don’t have much time to read. When I do, I want to learn something. So I don’t read novels.’

The only unusual thing about this sentiment, printed in a recent issue of the FT’s odious How to Spend It, is that it was expressed by a woman. It’s usually male readers whose time is too precious to waste on made-up stories, and who can only learn about the world by ingesting facts. But facts can be neither here nor there, and so can experience.

When I went to Lagos, I couldn’t cope with its aggressive heat and humidity, the throat-sticking catch of mould in every air-conditioned breath, the sick thrill of traveling at speed in Nairobi-like traffic cohorts, the money-led evangelism and TV histrionics, the wildly coloured dresses fighting back and winning against the pitiless, equatorial sun.

I was working for the World Bank so I knew a lot of facts about Nigeria’s economy. I was familiar with its resource wealth and corruption, its north-south divide, its hyperactive diaspora. But those facts could only make the place real in the same attenuated way an encyclopaedia entry approximates a city or a gene sequence conjures a human child.

It was a mostly solo work trip that had taken in the eerie lawfulness of Kigali the week before – the only African city I’ve been in where moped taxis insist on helmets – and ended in a five-day battle of wits with a fixer / sexual opportunist I depended on to get me around Ethiopia’s Oromia province and back to Addis for a Friday night flight. My task was to gather photos and success stories to populate a year or two’s worth of brochures, presentations and assorted donor fodder.

Everywhere else on that trip, people talked about Nigeria. In Kenya, it was grudging admiration for Nigerians’ energy and sharp business practice. In Rwanda, people said Nigerian soap operas were the only ones worth watching. Even in far away Ethiopia, some women wore, or just talked about daring to wear the typically bright Nigerian fabrics.

But Lagos was the only city I have ever disliked on sight, the only airport/taxi interface I’ve crossed over feeling viscerally uneasy. It was too bright, too hot, too loud, too quick. It rattles the nerve-endings, razzing the brain like a migraine just before it bursts. As hard as I tried to just go with it, I couldn’t get out of my white, female body, my rational and irrational fears.

My loss.
[click to continue…]

Hiding in Plain Sight (I)

by Maria on June 8, 2015

Daniel wrote recently about prima facie scandalous behaviours in academics, drawing a parallel with banking cultures pre-Crash. Pointing out that while activities like taking credit for grad students’ work or blatantly gaming independent review mechanisms may in some cases seem rational and even acceptable behaviour within certain academic circles, once these things are exposed to the light of day as, say LIBOR rate-fixing was, they appear rightly scandalous. Heads roll. It’s only a matter of time, therefore, before UK academics join the police, journalists and politicians and find the ‘but everybody does it’ excuse does not wash when you’re on the front page of a newspaper.

One commenter in that long, long thread asked how something can become a scandal when everyone already knows about it. Something everybody already knows about is the very definition of a scandal.

Let me draw your attention to some things that everybody knows or knew about. [click to continue…]

But what does it mean for Ireland?

by Maria on May 15, 2015

In 1898, the Skibbereen Eagle, the weekly paper of the landed and merchant classes of West Cork, published a thundering editorial against Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. The Eagle had taken note of the Tsar’s tendency to trample the self-determinative rights of various Central Asian nations and took it upon itself to say to the world; ‘down with that sort of thing’. And so it was that the last of the Romanovs’ hand surely trembled as he clutched his own copy of the Eagle and timidly read its promise to “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. ‘Truth’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Justice’ and the ‘Land for the People’ are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.”

And so it is, that a week after the Conservatives took power in Westminster and announced their insistence on ramming through their first round coalition negotiation document manifesto, the question of what it means for Ireland must be asked, and fulminating admonitions bellowed from across the Irish Sea. Or, in my case, south London. [click to continue…]

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, made a speech this morning at RUSI, the main military-focused think tank in the UK. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who when at the Ministry of Defense decided to can one fifth of the army, speaking at the same think tank that put out a report yesterday saying Hammond’s government will cut about 43,000 more soldiers – from an army of less than 100,000 – if it’s re-elected. That’s the Foreign Secretary presiding over an FCO whose Russia experts have been let go and scattered to the four winds of oil companies, think tanks and academia, because God knows the UK doesn’t need that kind of expertise. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who can barely spell Brussels, let alone bear to go there, and who is quite satisfied leading the foreign service of a country that increasingly distrusts and fears all things foreign. That one.

Hammond’s speech is easy to summarise: Russia is very mean and bad; ok fair enough, we didn’t foresee ISIS; but if only people would stop all this pointless bleating about the security services’ oversight and transparency, we could get on with our job of protecting the people of Britain. How strong. How plausible. How brave.

It’s only at the level of detail, or rather its self-serving and specious claims, that Hammond’s speech breaks down.

What Hammond says: ‘We said we would legislate to ensure that cases involving national security information could be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts. And we did.’

What the government did: further entrenched secret courts and a parallel justice system where evidence against individuals cannot be seen by them or their lawyers, destroying the principle and practice of fair trial.

What Hammond says: ‘We said we would strengthen independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the agencies. And we have by making the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee of Parliament.’

What the government did: Make Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee. Whoopee. Anyone who thinks the ISC provides effective oversight should watch some video of its fawning audiences security service leaders or examine the politicised timeline and gutless redactions of its report on the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby. Failing that, examine the record of career securocrat Malcolm Rifkind, its Chair who just resigned for peddling access to the Chinese. [click to continue…]

Untimorous Beastie

by Maria on January 3, 2015

People are always asking me where my hugely fluffy and dolphin-smiling Samoyed dog, Milo, is from. ‘Northamptonshire’ always gets a laugh. He’s been a great little traveler from the first, which is probably pure luck, but I put it partly down to his general ebullience. Last April, Ed and I drove a few hours north of London to get the little beastie. We stopped off first at Ed’s old prep school, where he’d been sent from Ireland at the age of eight. It was a Sunday and they now just do weekly boarding, so we walked around the school’s silent rose garden, playing field and pond. I can’t say seeing the place helped me understand its place in his psyche any better, but he was surprised and moved to remember places and things he’d forgotten, and find the new-old memories were happier than he’d thought. Then we went and plucked our white little furball from his own litter and drove three hours home with him on my lap. He didn’t wee or howl or soil himself, or even try to escape, poor little thing. Having no obvious traumas on that journey seemed to set him up to be a good car dog; well, so far so good, anyway.

Milo’s habits are simple and revolting. He is a proper South London dog. For the first couple of months there was nothing on the street he wouldn’t eat; spilt curry, vomited curry, styrofoam, plastic bags, used condoms and cigarette butts. He has absolutely no concept of gastrointestinal cause and effect. The first time he stayed overnight with Henry and his family in Ireland this summer, Milo crept out and gobbled half a gallon of gone-off shellfish that had been thrown away into a ditch down the road. When Ed is old and takes – finally – to warming up old stories for me, he’ll probably not count as a high point in our marriage the three a.m. pool of crustacean-laced dog-sick at the bottom of the bed and me under a pillow saying; ‘It’s too disgusting; you deal with it’.
[click to continue…]

Happy Christmas, Timberteers!

by Maria on December 25, 2014

milo christmas 2014CT
And a very happy holiday to non-Christmas celebrators, and a good and healthy and fruitful and happy 2015 to all our readers and commenters.

Yours, Milo (the dog Crooked Timber commenters named…)

PR to PM, not much of a stretch

by Maria on November 26, 2014

PR Strategy: “TECH COMPANIES MUST DO MORE

The problem:
Britain has declining ability to get US Internet companies to share information they’re not legally obliged to.

The cause:
Snowden revelations mean US companies keen to dissociated themselves from close and informal intelligence cooperation; first to go is the UK. Also, they are using more encryption.

The media narrative:
‘Tech firms must do more in the fight against terror’

TIMELINE
The Warm-up Phase
30 September
Home Secretary tells Conservative Party conference of ‘outrageous irresponsibility’ of Liberal Democrats in blocking greater surveillance powers for the police and security services, and says Britain will ‘face down extremism in all its forms’. Also, children’s lives put at risk by the Lib Dems.

Late October
Security minister James Brokenshire meets Google, Microsoft and Facebook in Luxembourg to ‘discuss ways to tackle online extremism’.

4 November
New head of GCHQ, says on front page of the FT: Web giants such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have become “command-and-control networks… for terrorists and criminals”. They must do more to co-operate with security services.

14 November
Prime Minister addresses Australian Parliament before G20 Summit: Facebook, Google, Twitter must live up to their social responsibilities and do more to take down extremist material from the internet.

All Systems Go

Sunday 23 November
Home Secretary does the softening up – goes on television to say the terror threat is greater than ever and the “time is right” to give police and intelligence agencies greater powers to require tech firms to give more data to the government.

Monday 24 November
ISC releases its heavily redacted report on the Lee Rigby murder. It finds operational failings in the intelligence agencies:
•MI5 delays investigating Adebolajo following his arrest for suspected terror offences in Kenya;
•Failure to scrutinise his phone records – which showed contacts with overseas jihadists;
•GCHQ failing to report evidence linking Adebowale to extremists;
•Police failure to arrest Adebolajo just before the attack – on suspicion of drug-dealing – after they “lost his address”

ISC’s Chair ‘accused internet companies of providing a “safe haven” to terrorists – an unnamed tech firm had failed to recognise and hand over radical postings by Adebowale to the government – but said despite a string of failings by the security services, which had repeatedly monitored both men before the attack, there was nothing they could have done to prevent the murder of Rigby.’

Lib Dem committee member, Ming Campbell, says “It is a remarkable coincidence, some might say, that the home secretary should have chosen to make public her further proposals on the eve of the publication of the ISC report. No doubt the purpose of doing so was to link her proposals to the committee’s conclusions. The committee never considered those proposals.”

Tuesday 25 November
Prime Minister to ISC: ‘Tech firms must do more to fight extremism’
Leader of the Opposition agrees. (Well, he can’t be soft on terrorism, can he?)

Wednesday 26 November
Sun headline: FACEBOOK – BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS

To be published later today: draft bill extending police and agency powers of data access ‘to tackle extremism’.

Or you could just re-read: ‘Why this Army Wife Says ‘No’ to the Snooper’s Charter

Jerks will be jerks

by Maria on November 13, 2014

The thing about an ICANN meeting is they’re mostly men, and most of them are lovely, especially the older, very techie ones. I do the policy circuit and the 16 hour days, and I mostly skip the big industry parties. (Actually, I’m not usually invited. Probably because I’m such a blue stocking.) So I don’t usually interact with the trade show marketing types, the back end salesmen and the domainer guys.

But once, I think it was in Dakar but they all blur into one, I’d had a couple of drinks and ran into a friend I call in my heart of hearts the ‘king of the registrars’, the hard scrabble companies that sell domain names and figure out how to game any system they can get to let them in. Whatever hotel this was, it had managed to create some mystique about having a club on the top floor that didn’t advertise itself. It was the place to be. My friend convinced me and a female colleague to go up for a nightcap.

Now my colleague was six feet tall, blonde and the kind of gorgeous that makes even straight women pause to enjoy an extra look. In fact, when my boss first introduced her as his incredibly capable new assistant, we all went ‘uh-huh, sure.’ (He took it on the chin and sure enough she turned out to be the smartest on the team and pretty much indifferent to being ritually dismissed for her beauty.) So she and I catwalked out of the elevator on whatever secret floor this club was on and right into a long glitzy bar we walked the length of, got seen to be seen, and went and sat down on a magically free sofa. It was just that kind of night.

Various youngish guys we didn’t know sat down to talk, offer us drinks and wander off. I was on water by now. Holding court beside us was the alpha guy I liked to call the king. A bit like ‘the king of the travellers’, in that you don’t get it by being born – you have to fight smarter and tougher than anyone else, and a bit of charisma doesn’t hurt either. Guys would ply their differing wares to him, then us, or vice versa. One glommed on to me, probably because I was older and plainer than my colleague. The conversation started off harmlessly enough, the usual ‘what do you do’ and ‘where are you from’. He was keen to show he was also a big time domainer or domain name seller or something, and he’d keep nodding in the direction of the king.

Then things got a little strange. He would ask me a question and I’d answer it, and he’d say something rude about my answer. I wish I could remember the actual things he said. They weren’t outrageous, just mildly obnoxious. I’d nod and wait for him to say or ask something else, and then say ‘right’ or ‘is that so?’ But he was quite insistent about me giving substantive answers that he would then say rude things about in a weirdly affectless way. I remember wondering if he was Aspergers or something, which is not unknown in the technical community, though this guy seemed far more interested in money than code. I swatting that idea away. The rudeness had an edge. It was intentional.

So I said to him ‘wow, that was really quite rude, did you mean to say it?’ And he said something like ‘come on, you liked it. You know I’m in charge’. Or something equally asinine.

And then the penny dropped.

I was being chatted up by a real live Pick Up Artist!

I burst out laughing and said ‘oh my god, I don’t believe it. You’re doing that thing, aren’t you?’
‘What thing?’ he asked.
‘You know, the thing where you try and make a woman feel bad enough about herself that she’ll suck your cock.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself’, he said.

Then my little lizard brain stirred deep down in the folds of the amygdala and said to me ‘you know what will work best here, don’t you?’. And I thought to myself, this doesn’t make me a good feminist, but it will be nasty good fun.

I turned to the king and said, over the guy’s head, ‘you’ll never believe what this guy just tried on. He negged me. Have you heard of that? The whole PUA thing?’

‘What, him?’ the king said, laughing, to us both. ‘Little jerk. Is he even old enough?’

And the little jerk slunk away, defeated.

Oh how we laughed.
Patriarchy. You’ve gotta love it.

Farewell to all that

by Maria on October 26, 2014

The Union Jack came down in Camp Bastion today, marking the end of the UK’s combat role in Afghanistan and its misconceived campaign in Helmand Province; the campaign with no strategy, less chance of success and a gossamer-thin plan. It has come to a dignified end with a choir of establishment generals (is there any other kind?) and politicians serenely harmonising the nation’s oldest hymns; ‘mistakes were made’, and ‘perhaps we might have done it differently’.

Nineteen billion pounds. Twenty thousand Afghan civilians. Four hundred and fifty three UK soldiers. More Afghan National Army killed last summer than UK troops throughout the whole war. More poppy seed than ever growing in Helmand, but lots more children in school, too.

Was it worth it? Well if you’ve figured out a workable and not-obscene calculus of human pain and worthwhile profit, let the rest of us know.

I knew one of the four hundred and fifty three, but only superficially. He was deputed one autumn evening to squire me around the officers’ mess when E was already gone. He made sure I had drinks and was warm enough, saw me into the dining room, flirted chastely back and manfully ignored the younger women. It was like something out of Thackeray. Beautiful manners on the eve of battle.

The other senior wife and I went to his funeral, along with the welfare officer, representing the battalion. The men wouldn’t be home for months. As an Irish woman, I had never expected to be dressed in black, walking slowly through a seated congregation to a reserved pew at the front, next to a coffin with a Union Jack on. The gloves and belt were the hardest to look at. No one cried. Not obviously, anyway.

Later, driving through the gold-tinged dusk of a Wiltshire summer evening, I rounded the corner of B-road to see the flag again, flying in someone’s garden. I had to pull over.

That’s not my flag and never will be. It’s just something someone I slightly knew died for.

Ebola; send in the army!

by Maria on October 2, 2014

When I was sixteen and seventeen I did my 5th Year of secondary school twice. Amidst grinds, tears and two to three hours of Honours Maths homework each night, I just could not make it past Christmas and still understand what was going on. (The obvious and practical response; take Ordinary Level Maths instead and accept that a career in Medicine was out, just didn’t seem to present itself.) For two years I hungrily repeated the exercises in the small part of the curriculum I understood, and threw myself with increasing desperation and diminishing returns at the rest. The last chapter I remember mastering was called something like ‘Sequences, Series and the Binomial Theorem’.

Happily, understanding – at least a little – the concept of geometric progressions has turned out to be one of the most useful and widely applicable bits of Maths I could have picked up. It crops up everywhere; understanding the spread and gravity of DDOS attacks, why mouse infestations need to be hit early, why skimming stones on water is so hard, and how a young woman settling for less money than a man at the beginning of her career may still be paying for it when she’s middle-aged.

The definition of a geometric series or progression is ‘whenever a term of a sequence is a constant multiple of the preceding term’. When that multiple is greater than one, the numbers will get very big, very fast. If, for example, the multiple is two, you’ve got ‘exponential growth’, a mathematical term of art that’s often used inaccurately elsewhere to describe rapid but not geometric increases. Real exponential growth tends to sound pretty grim when the term is correctly applied in epidemiology.

At dinner the other night, I learnt that the rate of increase of cases of Ebola in certain African countries has been modeled as a geometric progression for weeks, if not months.* Since at least August, the number of new Ebola infections has started to double every month. Common sense dictates that the more people infected, the more people who will be infected. Mathematics predicts chillingly just how bad it will be. The battle to stop the spread of this disease reaching the threshold where it is now running like wildfire has already been lost. [click to continue…]

You have got to see this

by Maria on September 23, 2014

Feminism, social activism, eye-catching stunt made eye-catching because it’s not a stunt.

About a dozen single mothers kicked out of their hostel in east London have occupied a ‘show-flat’ in the former Olympics estate that Newham Council is trying to flog while it has 24,000 households on its waiting list.
Instead of doing what they were told and being socially cleansed 200 miles away from family, friends, children’s schools and job prospects, these incredible women subverted one of London’s great middle class pleasures, the architectural Open House (I put my hand up, I go on it every year to gawk at other people’s houses), and occupied one of hundreds of empty, new-build flats. They set the place up as a community centre and are campaigning for the council to house the actual people it’s responsible for, showing they are real, articulate people with needs and rights, not a worthless blob of social problems.

Increasingly, I just can’t justify the amount of volunteer time I spend on Internet rights. Yes, we are handing over control of every aspect of our lives to insidiously corrupt and obviously ineffective states, and that is a terrible, terrible thing. But I live in a city of dirty billionaires and hungry children. This made me cry. Something has got to give.

@FocusE15 #occupiedE15

What’s the IGF?*

The world’s ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF), organised by the UN, is happening this week in Istanbul. The IGF is a free and open gathering of people from all over the world who have come to talk about how the internet is run. Last year’s IGF was in Bali. The year before was Azerbaijan. Turkey’s jailing of bloggers and recent attempt to ban Twitter are actually part of an established tradition of IGF host countries showing a certain carefree whimsy about human rights and the internet.

IGFs are a bit like weddings or London glass box house extensions. They’re all basically the same, but the tiny, barely discernible differences between them consume vast amounts of energy and generate heartache for everyone involved.

What’s the same about this IGF?

For participants, IGF Istanbul is much the same as all the IGFs that came before. It has the usual long, hot queues for a registration badge, extravagant security measures and slavish worship of alleged VIPs, the near-riots by participants not about the free flow of information but the free flow of coffee; the endless, paint by numbers speeches by a dozen or so communications ministers, a venue network that barely functions, and a gala reception with no alcohol.

These first world problems are actually a plus. They bring the 3,000 participants together, providing just enough shared moaning to break the ice between the different tribes of government, technical community, business and civil society.

What’s different?

Nothing overt, but the ground is shifting. This is the second IGF since the Snowden revelations shattered global confidence in the US’s leadership of the internet, and the first IGF since Brazil initiated a global dialogue about who should be in control. There is also the ongoing saga of how ICANN can prove itself worthy of being cut loose by the US government before the Obama administration finishes. But no world-changing announcements are expected at this IGF.

As ever, countries including Russia that want to control the internet would prefer to have the discussion about it in a forum that governments dominate: the International Telecommunications Union. But those countries still come to IGF and take part, albeit grumpily. They see efforts to stop them getting their hands on the internet’s controlling levers as stemming from the west’s desire to keep it for itself, with freedoms and human rights simply a smokescreen. All the work-shopping and hand-shaking at IGF won’t mask the ugliness of the internet’s basic geopolitics, especially in a city straddling Europe and Asia, and looking up the Bosphorus to Ukraine, Crimea and Russia’s (other) Black Sea resorts.
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