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I’d wanted to be a physicist ever since I was a kid. Of course, back then I had no real idea what exactly a physicist did. What I did know from books was that the sun was very big, but that there were many stars in our galaxy so much bigger; that all the wildly different things in our world were made from just a few varieties of inconceivably tiny atoms, but that those were made of tinier things still; that time did not just go back further than the building of the pyramids, but further than the birth of my species, my star, my galaxy. To a mildly obsessive youngster, it seemed that learning about these things would be a very fine thing indeed.Continue reading...
Search for “jury service” online and you will soon stumble across ways to get out of doing jury service. These aren’t always the most practical or legal: unless you’re prepared to fake a pregnancy, book an impromptu cruise or stick two pencils up your nose, Blackadder style, and say “wibble” a lot, you’re probably going to have to do jury service.
This is a good thing. Jury service can be a disruptive, inconvenient pain in the neck, but it’s also a vital public service and one of the cornerstones of our ... (all right, Dad, cut out the lecture). But here’s another reason why doing jury service is a good thing: it could turn out to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of your life.Continue reading...
My entry into the benefits system late in life came as a shock. Like the eponymous hero of Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, I was in my late 50s. After I was made redundant I discovered that although I’d been paying my national insurance contributions for decades, I still wouldn’t qualify for a full state pension. That’s when I decided to apply for employment and support allowance: a benefit for unemployed people of working age who have limited prospects of work because of a disability or health condition. My modest teacher’s pension meant I wouldn’t receive any weekly payments: but, if I could accrue additional NI credits, that would add to the value of my eventual state pension.
So in January I rang the Department for Work and Pensions and said I wanted to apply for ESA. I was told that I’d first need to complete a written questionnaire, then, I’d be invited to a medical examination. I was asked how the DWP should communicate with me, as someone who is totally blind. I said that I needed to receive all forms and written communications electronically, and could then read and respond to them using speech software on my computer. A few days later, a print copy of the questionnaire arrived by post.Continue reading...
‘It’s embarrassing”, said Andy Elvin of the Adolescent and Children’s Trust, “for a developed nation not to have managed this more professionally. We’re not even talking about a massive number of children.” To be more specific, we are talking about 70 unaccompanied minors, arriving from the Calais camp in accordance with the Dubs amendment, which was passed in April.
The children arrived to find a panicked Home Office planning to house them in a detention centre and there waiting, the rightwing press, baying for blood after previous child arrivals with family members failed to look young enough. The Border Agency in Croydon had to erect an emergency facade to prevent tabloid photographers catching and shaming the children, for the crime of needing help.Continue reading...
The Montreal protocol is the most successful environmental treaty in history, and arguably one of the most successful of any international pact. It phased out the gases that were destroying the ozone layer, averting potential catastrophe and healing the hole that human activities had opened in our protective layer. Unfortunately, it had a side-effect overlooked when it was signed in the 1980s: some of the chemicals substituted for the ozone-destroyers had an effect on the climate thousands of times higher than carbon dioxide. This month, world governments agreed to address that by eliminating the substitute chemicals – called HFCs – potentially reducing rising temperatures by as much as 0.5C in a relatively short time. Scientists put the safe limit on future rises at 2C above pre-industrial levels by the middle of this century: beyond that, catastrophic and irreversible climate changes are judged likely. So the reduction agreed under the Montreal protocol could have an enormous, and swift, impact.
This is just the beginning of the good news. The International Civil Aviation Organisation agreed this month to measures to combat the impact of flying. Planes are not only a rising source of greenhouse gases, but also contribute through the vapour they produce, which – coming at such high altitudes – has a greater warming effect. This week, international shipping will debate similar rules to cut its impacts. This is a trillion-dollar business, and ships use particularly dirty fuel. Governments should take the simple measures needed. Altering the fuel to be less polluting, preventing outflow during shipping and harbourage, and improving monitoring to reduce emissions need not be costly and will be invaluable in the fight against marine and air pollution as well as climate change.Continue reading...
Researchers working for Google have produced a new kind of computer intelligence which can learn in ways less immediately dependent on its programmers than any previous model. It can, for instance, navigate its way through a map of the London underground without being explicitly instructed how to do so. For the moment, this approach is less efficient than the old-fashioned, more specialised forms of artificial intelligence, but it holds out promise for the future and, like all such conceptual advances in computer programming, it raises more urgently the question of how society should harness these powers.
Algorithms in themselves long predate computers. An algorithm is simply a sequence of instructions. Law codes can be seen as algorithms. The rules of games can be understood as algorithms, and nothing could be more human than making up games. Armies are perhaps the most completely algorithmic forms of social organisation. Yet too much contemporary discussion is framed as if the algorithmic workings of computer networks are something entirely new. It’s true that they can follow instructions at superhuman speed, with superhuman fidelity and over unimaginable quantities of data. But these instructions don’t come from nowhere. Although neural networks might be said to write their own programs, they do so towards goals set by humans, using data collected for human purposes. If the data is skewed, even by accident, the computers will amplify injustice. If the measures of success that the networks are trained against are themselves foolish or worse, the results will appear accordingly. Recent, horrifying examples include the use of algorithms to grade teachers in the US and to decide whether prisoners should be granted parole or not. In both these cases, the effect has been to punish the poor just for being poor.Continue reading...
The government’s decision to greenlight aviation expansion (Chris Grayling: decision on airport expansion to be made on Tuesday, theguardian.com, 23 October) is a predictable failure, but not an acceptable one. With the scrapping of vital decarbonisation policies and funding, the UK is already way off-track to meet our climate change commitments. The impacts of any new runway will be devastating to people’s lives and to the planet. Locally it will see the demolition of hundreds of homes, result in increased noise pollution, and illegal levels of air pollution – already responsible for almost 10,000 premature deaths in London every year.
But the biggest tragedy of the government’s failure is a global one. Only around 5% of the world’s population flies at all, yet the impacts of climate change – droughts, floods and heatwaves – are already hitting poorer communities in the global south, who are the least likely to ever set foot on a plane.Continue reading...
Being elected as the member of parliament for my home constituency is an immense honour but bittersweet. That the byelection we have just been through had to take place at all is a tragedy. Jo Cox was the very best of the House of Commons. She was one of our own here in Batley and Spen, and the whole community is still reeling from the shock of the violent way in which she was so cruelly taken from us.
When I met Jo in 2015, I saw at first hand the impact a strong and determined MP can have on their area. Jo wasn’t just a great speaker, she was a doer too. She was proud to tell everyone she met that she had come into politics not just to talk about problems but to get things done.Continue reading...
The history of Jean-Paul Sartre’s refusal of the 1964 Nobel prize for literature (Silence broken on Dylan’s Nobel – after five days, 21 October) is complicated. Sartre did in fact get wind of his imminent Nobelling from an article in Le Figaro littéraire shortly before the Swedish Academy was to announce it, and wrote immediately to the Nobel committee to ask them to revoke their choice. His letter was misaddressed and failed to reach the committee on time, and the rest is history, up to a point. In 1966 the critic Max-Pol Fouchet argued that Sartre, who refused all honours, declined the Nobel in defence of “the solitude of the revolutionary writer”, in denunciation of “worldly and external self-importance”. Sartre set this out movingly in his funeral oration for the Italian communist leader and revolutionary writer Palmiro Togliatti, who died on 21 August 1964, a few months before the Nobel episode.
• Alfred Nobel made his fortune from arms and explosives. In Masters of War, Dylan sang about “You that build all the guns / You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs.” The song’s final verse includes the lines “And I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon.” I hope Dylan stands alongside Einstein and Sartre in refusing this tainted award (Dylan thinks twice about Nobel acknowledgment, 21 October).