Category Archives: International

Solidarité – but with Beirut too

When three people were murdered in a terrorist atrocity in Boston, Twitter went in to meltdown. When 147 students were gunned down in Kenya in April, however, we just scrolled on.

This is something which is not completely irrational, but it should concern us.

"ISIS" also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

“ISIS” also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

Likewise, at the weekend Daesh (or “ISIS”) carried out attacks of unimaginable brutality in Paris and Beirut. The former got almost all the public attention.

This is understandable. More of us have visited Paris and were likely to know people currently in Paris than Beirut. Paris is also more like us – a Western city in an established democracy.

In the case of Paris, we in the West (many familiar with the city) were able to relate better to acts of inhumane brutality but also of astonishing kindness and heroism (and superb journalism too, not least by some of our own). We were genuinely shaken by such fear and terror so close to home in every sense. Of course we connected to it more closely than to the attacks in Lebanon.

However, it is also greatly disconcerting – or, at least, it should be. What we are saying really is either that we place an economic value on life (therefore people killed in the West are more important than people killed on the Developing World); or worse still that we care more about those who are like us. Or both. To emphasise: this is not irrational – but it matters.

The fundamental implication is that if we accept that we care more about those who are close to us or about those whose lives have economic value, we accept that social justice is impossible. Logically, we tell the rest of the world, even the best educated in poor countries, that in fact we do not care about them. They can burn hundreds at a time for all we care. How do we expect them to respond to that?

Worse, how does this notion that we care primarily about those who are like us play out even within our own homeland? Do we care more about those of the same class, or same locality, or same religion, or even same race? Is this not all on the spectrum somewhere? If so, we probably need to address it, at least to some extent.

To be clear, I had hardly noticed Kenya and I probably noted Beirut only because refugees from there were among my childhood friends. I am as guilty as anyone else. However, we do need to ask ourselves what the implications are of who we care about and who we don’t.

Non, ce n’est pas la guerre

I tweeted the other day that, frankly, I have no idea what to do about Daesh (or “ISIS”, as the terrorists themselves like to style themselves).

I do have a few thoughts on what not to do, however – sadly, France seems committed to doing most of them.

Firstly, do not declare “war”. This is not a war in any sense that the public will understand the term. 1939-45 was a war. What the US and assorted allies have been up to in the Middle East since 2003 is some sort of completely incomprehensible grubby conflict which has cost us lots of young lives but does not appear to have achieved an awful lot other than feed terrorism.

Secondly, do not declare endless states of emergency or periods of martial law or even constitutional changes. Restricting our freedoms is exactly what this is all about for the terrorists, who will revel in their ability to force a mighty power like France to change its constitution on their account.

Thirdly, do not say you are closing your borders. You will find some of the terrorists came from within your borders anyway; others will easily be able to skirt through them on fake IDs and such like; so again, the only freedoms you are restricting are those of law-abiding citizens – just as the terrorists would have it.

Fourthly, do not talk about wiping groups from the face of the planet. It is too easy for those of less virtuous aims to take that to mean entire sects, rather than specific terrorist groups. Again, the terrorists want to turn this into a “clash of civilisations” (so that as many people as possible gave no option but to turn to them) – the whole purpose of the response must be not to allow this.

Fifthly, do not talk about mercilessly annihilating groups which exist in the Middle East. The Middle East will never be democratic and will always be inherently unstable, short of Western powers intervening and engaging in decades of nation-building (or “colonisation”, as that would also be justifiably called). The terrorists want talk of “merciless annihilation”; it allows them to promote it on their side too. The objective, in fact, is containment (in many senses).

Sixthly, do not base strategic intelligence missions or military action in the Middle East on nation states. They have no meaning there. “Governments” there are themselves just sects; borders are irrelevant (and were mostly drawn in the wrong place anyway). Nation states are a European obsession. Get over it – the terrorists have.

Finally, do not base your response on an immediate emotional reaction to an attack. Again, that is exactly what terrorism is designed to achieve. Instead, respond in an inclusive, civilised and rational manner ensuring as few people as possible are inclined to turn to the marginalised extremism which feeds such attacks in the first place – all while remembering never to expect the same from terrorists.

Inclusive, civilised and rational – that is who we aspire to be, and at our best that is who we are. We must never let terrorists make us think otherwise.

Sinn Féin still struggling with Catalonia and the border

Sinn Féin and other Irish Nationalists like to talk in terms of the improvements that could be made by “removing the border”, from stopping duplication of services (in their view) to, er, stopping cross-border fuel smuggling (okay, that’s just bizarre and not the topic for today’s blog).

This is odd, however, because it was Irish Nationalists who insisted on creating a border within the British Isles. They may have had very good reason, but it remains the case that once it became inevitable that there would be a border between the Irish and British, the position of that border would be contested. There is no particular logic which places that border in the Irish Sea, any more than it places it where it is, given the pattern of settlement.

However, even of we accept the logic that land borders are a particular problem (whereas somehow sea borders aren’t), because of duplication or smuggling or whatever, it does lead to a peculiar problem with Sinn Féin’s stance: why on earth does it advocate independence for Catalonia? Indeed, far from creating a land border with the inevitable duplication and potential fuel smuggling that would cause, should Irish Republicans not instead be trying to unite Spain and Portugal to abolish one?

There is a blatant inconsistency here. It is very difficult to take Sinn Féin’s positions on anything seriously until such obvious contradictions are sorted out.

After Mars water, is there life elsewhere in the galaxy?

NASA’s announcement that there is currently water on the surface of Mars is potentially the greatest discovery in the history of humankind. On Earth, where there is water, there is life. The ultimate question for humankind is whether we are alone, or whether there is life elsewhere.

The deposits, most markedly in fact those slightly to the left on these photographs, are (in the opinion of NASA) conclusive proof of current, running water on Mars.

The deposits, most markedly in fact those slightly to the left on these photographs, are (in the opinion of NASA) almost conclusive proof of current, running water on Mars.

Of course, the really ultimate question is whether there is complex, intelligent, communicating life elsewhere. That is certainly not currently the case on Mars. Yet, unbeknownst to many, we have closed in remarkably quickly in the last two decades on finding it (or, at least, correctly assessing the odds of it). For what it is worth, I remain doubtful that we will find any (at least, any relevant to us) but, given the scale of the question, it is worth assessing what is happening and what our chances may be!


Mars is not particularly relevant to the quest for complex, intelligent life, but the discovery of any form of life would give us a significant clue as to the likelihood of finding that complex, intelligent life elsewhere.

The big question wpuld then be whether life on Mars exhibits the same DNA as life on Earth. If it does, then either all life in the Universe has the same basis, or life on both Mars and Earth originated from the same place. If it does not, life may develop in radically different ways in different parts even of the same stellar neighbourhood.

We should note, of course, that water does not necessarily equal life on Mars, just because it does on Earth.

Drake Equation

The best known conversation starter to determine the likelihood of current, complex, intelligent, communicated life elsewhere in our galaxy is known as the “Drake Equation” (after American Dr Frank Drake).

There is no need to complicate the matter with the full mathematics here (not least because I am no mathematician), but essentially this sets out to calculate the number of stars created in our galaxy, and then determine which proportion of those have planets (or moons) capable of harbouring life, then those which actually do harbour life, then those on which that life has become complex or intelligent, and then those on which that intelligent life has chosen to communicate its existence into space – then putting all that into an equation alongside the probability of that communicating life actually coinciding with us in time.

We can begin, better than Drake himself could when he set out the equation in the early 1960s, to answer some of these:

  • there may be as many as 250 billion star systems in our galaxy (perhaps 400 billion stars – but around half of stars are part of multi-star systems, a point to which we shall return), with seven stars created annually on average;
  • it is now reasonably inferred that very few star systems do not have planets (and moons);
  • it is now reasonably inferred that a significant proportion, perhaps over a quarter, of star systems have a planet in what is known as the “Habitable Zone” (sometimes also known as the “Goldilocks Zone” – not too hot, not too cold, just right for life);
  • it is now reasonably inferred on the basis of the discovery of nearly 2000 confirmed planets in the last two decades and nearly 5000 candidate planets (most of which, historically, have subsequently been confirmed) that somewhere between a fifth and a half of all sun-like stars have at least one planet of around Earth’s size in the “Habitable Zone”.

The Mars findings are notable because, on Earth, where there is water there is life; therefore we may reasonably now increase the proportion of potentially habitable planets which actually are inhabited by living organisms (albeit not intelligent or even complex ones).

Put those numbers into the equation and most experts had already come up with a number in the thousands – i.e. that there must be thousands of civilisations (complex, intelligent life forms) in our own galaxy alone.

Fermi Paradox

This leads inevitably to the “Fermi Paradox” (after Italian Dr Enrico Fermi), which in fact just pre-dates the “Drake Equation” but runs neatly from it. This infers that there should be thousands of civilisations in our own galaxy alone, but then asks the simple question: “Where is everybody?

The relatively simple argument is this: humankind has advanced as far as spaceflight in just 12,000 years from the end of the last glaciation (“Ice Age”) and subsequent beginnings of irrigation; or even “just” 2.8 million years from the first bipedal hominid (recently discovered in Gauteng). This is the blink of an eye in cosmic terms – the Universe is 13.8 billion years old; the solar system 4.6 billion; life on Earth 3.8 billion; and it is even 33 million years since the most recent “extinction event” (and even that was comparatively minor). Given those time scales, and what we have recently accomplished technologically, surely we will accomplish inter-stellar travel within the next 12,000 years (or even 2.8 million)? So, then, why has nobody else?

There are a number of answers to this, of course. Firstly, perhaps they have, and we have not yet noticed. Secondly, perhaps they reached a stage of development where they realised it was best to keep themselves to themselves (after all, coming into contact with Europeans did not do slightly less advanced American Indians much good). Thirdly, perhaps there is a certain level of technological advancement beyond which it is impossible to go (simply because it becomes practically impossible, or because any civilisation attempting it destroys itself in so doing – this is often known as the “filter theory”).

Fourthly, though, it is just possible that the development of complex, intelligent, space-age life on Earth is just an absolute fluke – this is normally known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis“.

(I personally counter the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” on admittedly more philosophical grounds: what is the point in all these spectacular supernovae, nebulae, galaxy mergers, pulsars, dust clouds, rogue planets and all the rest of it, if there are no sentient beings around to experience them? Call it the “Parsley Paradox” – sounds pretty good!)

Cosmic Scales

It is worth, firstly, assessing the cosmic scales of such things. This is usually done by measuring space and time based on the speed of light – around 300,000km per second.

On this scale, the moon is just over one second away (the exact distance varies slightly as the moon’s orbit is not precisely circular – it is at its closest right now, hence the “Red Moon” event last weekend) – meaning we see the moon as it was just over a second ago.

The sun is just over eight minutes away.

The brightest planet in our night sky and nearest neighbour apart from the moon, Venus, can be as close as around two and a half minutes, although it can drift to over ten minutes if it is at the opposite side of the sun during its orbit – Venus is, for reference, almost exactly the same size as Earth. Mars, topically, can come as close as just over four minutes and go as far as over twelve. The furthest easily visible planet, Saturn, is over an hour; the New Horizons space probe has made it out to Pluto at around four hours. At least one comet orbits the sun from over a light year away, and there are probably many more – but they are of course only visible from Earth (or any inner planet) when much closer (within a few minutes of light travel) on their occasional approaches.

The very nearest star system – actually a three-star system with two stars similar in size to the sun and one much smaller – is four years away on the same basis. To compute that back to Earth, if each of the main two stars were the size of a grain of sand, the sun would also be the size of a grain of sand nearly seven kilometres (four miles) away!

Often quoted as being of most immediate interest is the area within around 80 light years – that is the area from which the sun itself would be visible with the naked eye from a planet orbiting another star. In that area alone, current detections indicate there are on average two or three Earth-like planets in the Habitable Zone of Sun-like stars (including one candidate “just” 12 light years away).

Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across, and four light years is a fairly typical inter-stellar distance. There are also some small satellite galaxies a few tens of thousands of light years further out. Not all of this is visible – about a sixth is hidden behind the busy Galactic Centre.

The nearest major galaxy, as noted above, does not appear in the current equations but, for the record, is over 2.5 million light years away. (The distance to the end of the Observable Universe is over 45 billion light years, but that’s just incomprehensible so let us not go there!)

Time Scales

However, in addition to scales in space, we also have to consider scales in time. If a very advanced civilisation existed in our galaxy five billion years ago; or exists in our galaxy five billion years from now; there is every chance we will know nothing about it.

The age of the Universe is current projected to be 13.8 billion years, give or take a few hundred thousand. As noted above, the solar system is around 4.6 billion years old, so has existed for around a third of that time. However, humankind’s presence would only have been easily detectable in space from 1895, and possibly not definitively until 1937. This is a tiny period, obviously.

Obviously different planets can have come into existence at any time in the past 13 billion years or so. Therefore, even assuming (and it is a big assumption) that other civilisations develop at a similar rate from formation of the planet and the beginnings of basic life (i.e. over billions of years), the chances of finding a civilisation at almost exactly our stage of development (i.e. which is obviously detectable but not significantly advanced) are millions to one – even assuming one can exist elsewhere at all. Realistically, this leaves two options: that we detect life by detecting biology in the atmosphere of other planets (or stars); or we will find a civilisation vastly more advanced than we are. The latter is less likely, particularly anywhere “nearby”, because it would surely already have found us…


It is worth noting that around 85% of stars in our galaxy are red (or orange) dwarfs, invisible to the naked eye (particularly in urban areas) here on Earth. These are not a focus for seeking life because they are much older and cooler, meaning the “Habitable Zone” is much closer to the star than it is in the Solar System – so close, in fact, that any potentially life-harbouring planet would be “tidally locked”, showing one face to the star all the time (as the Moon does to Earth) and thus not experiencing day and night (assumed by many to be necessary for complex life, notably through photosynthesis, to develop). This accounts therefore for maybe 340 million or so of the 400 million in our galaxy (and then even a sixth of the remainder are practically invisible to us as noted above). Although the contention that planets or moons could not possibly develop complex life is contested, they are not seen as prime candidates – after all, if the only planet known to have complex life is Earth, it makes sense to look for star systems and planets like Earth.

Of the remaining 15%, it is currently estimated that around half are multi-star systems (although there is a fair measure of doubt about this, as multi-star systems tend to be easier to detect but there may be some dispute about whether the stars really are part of the same system). As noted above, the closest to us is a three-star system. Again, these are not seen as prime candidates – it is unclear whether complex life could develop with the complexities of two or more stars. For the record, there are some planets which orbit the entirety of such a system (one even orbits four stars at once); there are others which orbit only one of the multiple stars in the system. The latter would probably be more stable and may be candidates for complex life, but they are currently not generally prioritised.

Of the remaining 7-8% or so, some (albeit a minority) are far too big realistically to support life within their system. These may be hundreds or even thousands of light years away, and tend to be short-life stars anyway, around which complex life may simply not have had time to develop (their lives can be a short as tens of millions of years, whereas life has existed on Earth for several billions). They would also be extraordinarily hot, forcing their “Habitable Zone” well out, potentially into areas vulnerable to objects such as comets.

That leaves around 5% – although a third of those easily visible with the naked eye – which are sole stars (or at least wide orbiting binary stars) of average age like our Sun. These are themselves split into three categories – “generally Solar-type” stars, of which there are a few dozen within 20 light years, are roughly the same age but may have little else in common; “Solar Analogs”, three of which are sole star systems 10-20 light years away, are quite similar in many ways but may have a significant discrepancy in heat or make-up; and “Solar Twins”, the nearest of which is just under 50 light years away, are very similar indeed in all regards (age, heat, size, metallicity etc), and thus have a very similar “Habitable Zone” to the Solar System’s. The focus of our search understandably focuses on these, as they provide conditions nearest to those which we already know support intelligent life.

The first planets found outside the Solar System (known as “exoplanets”) were confirmed in 1992, but these were around a pulsar, not a star. They began being found around stars from 1995, with particular advances being made by the Hubble Space Telescope (a wide detail telescope placed in orbit around the Earth, although its focus was more on the origin of the universe rather than the search for life) and the Kepler Mission (which chose a particular area of sky in our neighbourhood in the galactic “suburbs” known to host a high proportion of Sun-like stars to look for exoplanets, with a particular aim of establishing roughly how common they are).

(The Solar System is in the galactic “suburbs” about two thirds of the way from the centre to the edge, excluding the much less populated outer “halo”. It is therefore well away from the more populated and potentially more dangerous centre, and even from other denser “arms” of stars coming out from that centre. Many astronomers argue such a galactic location is essential for life to develop over the long term to the levels of complexity and intelligence now found on Earth.)


As the only complex life we know exists on a planet, those seeking life outside our solar system focus on planets (and occasionally their moons).

Despite vast advances, it is too early to be definitive about all of the trends we are finding, but we can say some things:

  • very few stars have no planetary system at all;
  • so-called “Hot Jupiters”, large gas giants orbiting closer to their star than the inner Solar System planet Mercury does to the Sun and thought to inhibit the development of complex life, are not as common as first thought (they were found in great numbers early on because they are the easiest planets to detect) – probably fewer than 3% of Sun-like stars possess one;
  • the most common size of planet may in fact be one which does not exist at all in the Solar System, between the size of Earth (the largest inner planet) and Uranus (the smallest gas giant); and
  • nevertheless, small (potentially Earth-like rocky) planets may be very common, existing in the “Habitable Zone” of perhaps over  30% of stars.

For those seeking life, the balance of these outcomes is surely positive. Furthermore, we have found confirmed planets over 20,000 light years away (and we even have candidates in other galaxies).

One notable negative is that early indications are that the eccentricity of the orbit of planets is much higher than the Solar System average. Earth’s, itself below the Solar System average, ranges from almost zero to nearly 0.06, averaging just under 0.02 (it is currently slightly below this, and decreasing for the next ten millennia). However, the average for exoplanets appears to be 0.25 – much higher even than Mercury, by far the most eccentric planet in the Solar System. This is a problem because it would create significant seasonal discrepancy between hemispheres, among other things. However, this figure will likely decrease as more exoplanets are found, not least because it may become apparent that some orbits put down as belonging to the same planet in fact belong to two different, albeit nearby, bodies.


One obvious question in all of this is an incredibly simple one: what is life? As a hopeless biologist, I am in no place to answer this directly!

One thing which is apparent is that we make an assumption that Earth is ideal for the development of complex, intelligent life (certainly exponents of the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” base their whole argument on this). I would instinctively dispute this. It strikes me that Earth is hit by asteroids (like the one which destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago) rather more often than the “ideal”; Earth’s eccentricity is fairly low but still not zero; and the variations between glacial and non-glacial periods over hundreds of thousands of years may be relatively extreme. Earth is also, arguably, a little on the small side for supporting intelligent, energy-sapping life.

On the other hand, it is clear that some freak occurrences have enabled intelligent life to develop, some of which may yet prove to be unique. Life itself appears only to have developed once on Earth, as has intelligent life capable of making itself known to outer space. One of the main drivers of our advances has been industrialisation, itself dependent on some remarkable and potentially freak advances right back to someone having the foresight to rub two stones together fearlessly. Another main driver, of particular interest to me, was the development of complex language which seems unmatched elsewhere in the animal world (tied seemingly to humankind’s unique voice boxes, although the fundamental origin of language remains poorly understood), and which may be essential to reach our level of technology. There is also a real question over whether nature in fact rewards intelligence at all, given the length of time dinosaurs dominated the land and sharks have dominated the seas – could the coming to prominence of intelligent homo sapiens be nothing more than a complete fluke? Contrary to these, it does appear that complex organisms have developed on over 40 separate occasions on Earth; and it does appear that some other mammals at least share our broad sense of wonder about the world and even universe around us, hinting that the fundamental pre-requisite to great understanding (and philosophical and industrial advances) may not be unique.

Basic disputes even remain over whether “life” need necessarily be “biochemical”. These are well beyond the scope of my own knowledge and comprehension!


The presence of water on Mars indicates the possible, perhaps even probable, presence of life on Mars – possibly even currently living organisms of some sort. This coincides with the discovery of vast numbers of planets orbiting other stars, many of which are in the “Habitable Zone” also capable of developing water and very possibly therefore also basic life of some sort.

That we are in all probability not the only place where life has developed leads to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: are we alone in this galaxy as complex, intelligent life forms capable of indicating our presence into outer space? In this piece, I have tried to establish some of the parameters of how we may seek to answer that question based on current, rapidly expanding human knowledge.

The parameters are that life needs certain conditions to begin and then thrive, and that these conditions are almost certainly met on planets (and even moons) orbiting other stars, particularly stars like our own Sun in single-star systems like our Solar System. However, this life may develop a long way or even a long time away from where we are.

However, that is no guarantee that the conditions to develop complex, intelligent life to our level of philosophical and technological advancement exist anywhere. Evidence from the history of Earth is patchy, and evidence from elsewhere in the galaxy (not least the apparent absence of any advanced civilisation) suggest it is in practice odds very much against in any given system, even where theoretically ideal conditions exist.

What we do know is that we are in a position to focus in the right areas in the search for life elsewhere, with a real chance of making exciting discoveries very soon.

As a final note, the sum of human knowledge expands twenty-fold every twenty years. So, what we can say for certain is that twenty years from now our understanding of our own planet, of our own Solar System and of our own galaxy will have expanded beyond anything that is even currently imaginable, just as has happened since the first confirmed discovery of a planet around another star in 1995. We may very well know by 2035 how common life is elsewhere in the galaxy – and even specifically where it exists.

It is a most remarkable human endeavour, and we are privileged to be living in such an age of discovery.

Big Bang Theory needs a literal rethink

I wrote this piece 20 months ago and, unlike most things here, it has stood the test of time – its subject, the Big Bang Theory, which looks increasingly dubious.

Welsh astronomer Isaac Roberts took this picture of the 2.5m light-year distant Andromeda Galaxy in 1899 - a generation before it was realised that there even were galaxies other than our own Milky Way

Welsh astronomer Isaac Roberts took this picture of the 2.5m light-year distant Andromeda Galaxy in 1899 – a generation before it was realised that there even were galaxies other than our own Milky Way

Firstly, there has been a slight but detectable turnaround in the scientific community towards disputing it and, specifically, disputing the idea that everything (including space and time itself) began in a single infinitely dense location 13.8 billion years ago. After all, the notion of the “singularity” requires the laws of physics to be broken (something no one disputes), so it is somewhat mysterious that we cling so heavily to it.

Secondly, we have now not only found structures that are simply too big to exist within the Universe’s time frame, but we are increasingly finding stars whose average estimable age is in fact above 13.8 billion years. In each of the latter cases, there is a lower end of the estimate which falls below 13.8 billion years, but it is becoming increasingly unbelievable that all stars with an estimated age of, say, over 14 billion years are actually aged below 13.8 billion. The likeliest solution to this, by the way, is not that the age of the Universe is wrong but that the age of the stars are, but that has vast implications for everything we are measuring much beyond our own supercluster. We have already been surprised by the dimness of far-away supernovas, indicating the Universe may be expanding faster than our current model.

Thirdly, no one dares challenge the notion of “dark energy” and “dark matter” which, we are told, make up 96% of the Universe. This really isn’t good enough. We actually have no direct evidence that either exists, merely that mathematical models based on the Big Bang (and a concept which is known to exist, “gravitational leasing”) seem to require them.

For what it’s worth, I am increasingly leaning towards the view that there has been more than one creation event (i.e. more than one Great Inflation as per the Big Bang Theory). It is quite possible that we are in a galaxy all of which (or the vast majority of which) began 13.8 billion years ago, but we need to investigate possibilities that this is overlaid on something which already existed; or that we are now seeing things in other galaxies (or, more to the point, filaments) which originated from different creation events (or which belong, fundamentally, to different “universes”).

We have, after all, been fooled throughout human history into thinking we are the centre of everything (it remains a fact of human nature that we all believe ourselves more important to events than we actually are). We believed that our planet was everything; then we believed that everything roasted around our planet; then we believed that our galaxy was everything; now we speak of an “observable universe” placing us by definition at the centre. This notion that we are the only thing, or the centre of everything, has never served us well in the last. So why believe we are at the centre of the accessible universe or even in only universe now? Why must everything around us share the same common origin?

This is a hugely exciting time for astronomy. Vast improvements in telescopes and innovations in space proves have brought us knowledge about the universe I never imagined possible even in science fiction even 20 years ago. But it often takes us a long time to comprehend what we see because of the limitations we have imposed upon ourselves in current thinking – hence we were able to photograph clearly other galaxies in the 19th century, but we did not recognise their existence until the 1920s (passing them off completely erroneously as star clusters within our own galaxy in the meantime)! In the same way, what we are seeing now is quite different from what we expected to see, and it will be decades before we truly adapt to it by moving beyond current thinking.

So it seems to me we need to prepare to think in a way quite different from how we expected to think…

#JeSuisCharlie won’t #BringBackOurGirls

French President François Hollande called Sunday’s match in Paris a clear demonstration of our “opposition to terrorism”. It was no such thing. It was in fact a demonstration of our opposition to terrorism as it affects Western interests. 

It is for that reason that the march took place in Paris and not Abuja; that the Western media’s focus was on terrorism in France which left 17 dead not on terrorism in Nigeria which left a hundred times as many dead; and that we are now all talking about #JeSuisCharlie rather than #BringBackOurGirls – remember that?

#BringBackOurGirls is now nine months old. It was a staggering successful social media campaign concerning the kidnap of 230 girls from a school in Nigeria. However, the girls were never actually brought back. In Nigeria this week alone, perhaps 2000 people were massacred. We don’t care.

But is that not the crux of the issue? Of course the West is more liberal, more civilised and more socially advanced than the societies from which the Islamic terrorist threat ultimately originates. It is no less hypocritical, however. Terrorism in France may affect our social and economic interests, so we report it widely and demand a response – ironically, the type of response which restricts the very freedoms #JeSuisCharlie wants protected! Terrorism in Nigeria, well, here’s a lovely picture but, you know, beyond hitting ‘RT’ you can’t seriously expect us to do anything?


As it happens, 57,000 is a reasonable estimate of the number killed during the Boko Harem insurgency in northern Nigeria – Africa’s largest country by far – over the past twelve months.

We don’t care. Ultimately, when it’s not in our interests, we’re a bunch of illiberal hypocrites. It would help if we at least stopped the pretence.

Apple and Private Sector Inefficiency

I am the first to argue that we need to rebalance the economy; that the private sector is generally a force for the good; and that those in the private sector should be more adequately rewarded and recompensed for the risks they take. However, those making those arguments often add another – that the private sector is (automatically) more efficient than the public sector. This can be so, of course, but not necessarily.

It was Apple, of all companies, who provided me last month with the most staggering piece of inefficiency I have ever come across. It is a telling story – of a company which has become too big; of quirkiness becoming sheer stupidity; and of tax avoidance literally costing the customer.

The story is relatively straightforward. My wife ordered an iPad case on Apple’s Online Store; the recipient wished to change the colour; so we went to the Apple Store in Belfast to swap it. Easy.

Or apparently not so easy… there our trials began. The Apple Store is apparently “completely separate” from the Apple Online Store, and thus the item could not simply be exchanged there. No, apparently it had to be exchanged online. Not quite so easy, but still straightforward.

Or apparently not so straightforward… despite having the receipt in front of me, there was no means of returning or exchanging the item online because it had not been bought under an Apple ID. No, apparently it was necessary to phone a call centre to arrange a courier to come and exchange the item from the delivery address. This call was made from right outside the Apple Store where I simply wished to exchange the like-for-like item. This is now plainly unnecessarily complicated…

And it gets worse. At this stage we are informed that this will not take one courier (with the waiting in all afternoon involved with that) but one to collect the item, and then one to deliver the replacement after the original is checked. We are now in insane territory! All we wish to do is replace one colour with another, something we were quite content to do at the Apple Store itself over a week ago yet we are still two courier deliveries (during the working week) away from our objective. We are now in the realms of inefficiency to the point of insanity…

This is not, unfortunately, pure inefficiency. However, it is worth noting that not only does this crazy method of dealing with refunds and exchanges inconvenience the customer, it also obviously inconveniences Apple itself; bizarrely, it has employed call centre staff and a delivery company (twice) instead of merely allowing a case of one colour to be lifted off a shelf and replaced by a case of another colour. Genuinely, no government department or agency would be allowed to get away with such a farce (in the supposedly “inefficient” public sector).

Another issue here is that the “free market” does not always reward the best products, but the best brands. We all know Apple doesn’t make the most advanced smartphones any more, in the same way we know BMW doesn’t make the most reliable cars – yet in each case not only to we reward the company with sales volume but we even pay a premium to do so. This is largely because of the brand (allied with excellent and innovative research) – which in Apple’s case is founded on quirkiness (more specifically perhaps: doing things differently almost purely for the sake of it, which can lead to great creativity). However, when quirkiness becomes sheer stupidity, the game may be up.

There is a still more alarming aspect of this. I can’t help but think the reason Apple is so precious about the divide between the “Online Store” and its High Street Store is given away on the receipt, which notes the former is in effect a subsidiary based in County Cork of a company headquartered (in the small print in the right-hand column) in Luxembourg. In just the last few months we have seen the debate around the “Double Irish” and the “Luxembourg Channels”, all means of minimising the profit declared within the actual country of operation. This may be theoretically legal, but it comes at the cost of inefficiency to the point of insanity – indeed, it can make large companies considerably less efficient than government.

As a Virginia-based friend face-timed me the other day, I explained that I was in the middle of a “battle with iTunes” as I sought with great difficulty to install the latest version on an older operating system. “Well that’s a battle you’re just not going to win” came the immediate response.

Even brilliant businesses can get too big and divert too much tax to the extent they become innovative only in finding new ways to be staggeringly inefficient – now there’s a battle we probably need to win. (Sent from my iPad. Thankfully I’m not fussy about case colour…)

Binary politics a scourge everywhere

Another one from Slugger O’Toole…

Of all people, it was perhaps Jeremy Paxman on his retirement from BBC Newsnight who put his finger on the problem causing such disillusion with politics – it is the nonsense that all politics is binary. He said in an interview that it was utterly ludicrous to suggest the Conservatives have all the answers to the country’s woes and Labour has none of them; and equally ludicrous to suggest Labour has all the answers and the Conservatives none – and everyone knows it!

Thus, electoral politics has become a complete facade. The UK will have a Conservative or a Labour Prime Minister, but both are presenting an outright lie – that they have all the answers and the other hasn’t; that their party has a near unblemished record in government and the other is at fault for all the country’s woes. It’s nonsense. And we all know it’s nonsense.

There is another problem with this that we know in our hearts to be true even if we don’t like to admit it: the politicians we elect cannot possibly have all the answers to our problems. We have zero say, at the ballot box at least, about the likely defence policy of the next President of the United States, or the next financial move of the Chinese Communist Party, or the next decision on Quantitative Easing by the European Central Bank; yet in a globalised world these things may all matter more than any decision made by people we ourselves elect.

Of course, the decisions which affect us may not be made by politicians at all. Big oil companies, vehicle manufacturers or even gadget firms (like Apple or Samsung) make decisions which have far-reaching consequences for all of us – made by Board members or Executives we don’t know in places like Fukuoka or Ingolstadt or Cupertino that we’ve never heard of.

There is a degree to which we are comforted by the notion that David Cameron or Ed Miliband will have it all in hand; by the idea that some geniuses somewhere are running the show and they know what they are doing. This is why conspiracy theories still predominate about the assassination of Kennedy, for example – a world in which some random mad man can just shoot dead the “Leader of the Western World” is too crazy to contemplate, so we go to extremes to deny it is possible. Yet in our hearts we know that it is, in fact, a crazy world – and that the next move of Islamic State will likely have as big an effect on us as who wins the next UK General Election.

Move this to devolved level, of course, and the political farce becomes even more obvious. The notion that the Unionist world view and historical narrative is 100% correct and the Nationalist 100% flawed, or vice-versa, is very comforting but we know at heart that it’s nonsense. From the very outset, therefore, again there is a lie at the heart of the binary system – yet anyone caught exposing that lie is deemed a traitor to their own side.

We see this even on single issues. Never mind a detailed analysis of how best to tackle poverty in a post-industrial setting struggling with the legacy of conflict – are you for or against welfare reform? Never mind a detailed assessment of how best to tackle low wages in a peripheral public-sector dominated region after the Great Recession – are you for or against the Living Wage? Never mind a detailed view of how best to promote business in the context of the rise of China and the East – are you for against reducing Corporation Tax? We like to comfort ourselves that stopping reform, or introducing the Living Wage, or reducing Corporation Tax will prove the magic bullet to all our economic and social woes. Anyone suggesting it’s a little more complex than this straightforward binary option is deemed a “typical politician, ignoring the question”; yet anyone who does stand out and suggest it may be a bit more complex than that is right – and at heart we know they are, even though we probably won’t vote for them…

We are not alone. In Germany a two-and-a-half party system is rapidly becoming a five-party system (with the half replaced entirely by a populist bloc challenging everything Germans professed to believe about Europe). In Denmark and Canada the centre right has been completely restructured (and the latter is now working on restructuring the left too). In Ireland civil war politics is being replaced by outright populism. In the United States party membership is declining and people are becoming increasingly disenchanted by the gridlock delivered by an entrenched, binary system.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! To move towards a solution, I know only two things for sure: politicians are elected by the electorate and they bring with them to their office all the foibles and hypocrisy of that electorate; and that it is therefore for that electorate, for us humble citizens in other words, to participate and deliver a democratic alternative which recognises the world is complex and that binary options will no longer suffice.

Baltic states will pay for failure to forgive and include

I would imagine it was a bit like visiting Northern Ireland in 1964. On the face of it, it was a reasonably prosperous place. There was this thing about Catholics suffering poorer housing, higher unemployment and something close to a lock out from some senior offices, but they seemed to have accepted their lot (and an attempt at a terror campaign had ended in total failure). It was a little odd that symbols were so obviously British and even Royal when so many of the population didn’t really support those things, but life seemed to go on. Yet there would just have been a nagging doubt that this exclusion may come back, some day, to bite.

This was in fact Estonia in 2004, and the minority was not Catholic but Russian-speaking – specifically, people from elsewhere in the Soviet Union whose families had been moved to Estonia post-War. They accounted for a third of the population (similar to Northern Ireland’s in 1964, actually), yet held just seven of the 101 seats in Parliament – a much worse proportion, in fact, than Nationalists in the old Stormont. Locked out of power, they were subject to citizenship laws which they were not involved in passing which required them to learn Estonian; to symbols which were entirely from the Estonian Nation’s past; and to a West-leaning (pro-EU, pro-NATO) foreign policy which they had no role in shaping. In many ways it was a super, innovative country… and yet there was this nagging doubt…

Now the problem is very, very real. And it is much more relevant to global security than Northern Ireland ever was post-War; or indeed that relative side shows like Scottish referendums. In Estonia now nearly a quarter of the population have a vote in Russian elections, which they almost universally cast for Vladimir Putin; they watch Russian television (which is just mass propaganda which makes Fox News look genuinely fair and balanced); they do not yet consider themselves Russians in a citizenship sense (note foreign correspondents re-assuringly), but you know what, they probably soon will…

With Russian cyber-attacks on Estonian computing (essential, as all government data and business is carried out on screen) and even now incursions into Estonian territory to kidnap soldiers, that nagging doubt has been realised multi-fold.

Compromise. Why do they never compromise? Why do they always think minorities can just be wished away? I’d like to think it’s not too late now…

No longer Left/Right but Open/Closed

If Tony Blair got one thing right it was a remark he made in late 2007 shortly after handing over the Premiership, to the effect that politics is no longer “Left versus Right” but “Open versus Closed”. This is still somewhat simplistic of course, but the more I think about it the more accurate I find that to be. It also explains the imminent collapse of the UK’s political system.

I tweeted somewhat churlishly after UKIP’s big gains last month that far from Northern Ireland’s politics becoming more like England’s, in fact England’s was becoming more like Northern Ireland’s. UKIP’s fundamental appeal is to “Closed” voters – people who are disillusioned by and distrusting of everything (not just the EU).

Liberals tend to appeal to “Open” voters – the type who are typically well travelled, professional, educated (the type I have referred to as Northern Ireland’s third pillar, alongside Unionist and Nationalist). However, they don’t understand “Closed” voters at all. Closed voters don’t respond to people providing rational arguments and even less well to people piling on lots of facts and statistics – because they simply don’t believe them. Nick Clegg found that out to his cost when debating Nigel Farage.

One comment I saw recently referred to anti-water charge demonstrations in the Republic of Ireland as “left-wing”. By any definition, however, they’re not – the “left” traditionally argues for higher public spending and admits that high taxes are a prerequisite for achieving that. But here was the so-called “left” arguing against tax increases, even when it is obvious they are necessary. The demos were not, in fact “left wing”. They were populist. And they were “closed” – a rejection of the global reality that a Europe that creates only 25% of the world’s GDP can no longer afford 50% of its social spending without tax rises, and that particularly applies to Ireland where the tax take is nearer the United States average than the European Union’s (but enough with the statistics…)

Unfortunately and unusually we have been lumbered with a government in Northern Ireland dominated by two parties which are utterly anti-intellectual and “closed”. They are most comfortable with identity politics, and with localised campaigning to the extent that their constituents’ immediate short-term interests always trump longer-term considerations. They are, in other words, an awful lot like UKIP – and, as with UKIP, other parties in Northern Ireland haven’t yet come up with a way of dealing with them!

Perhaps, however, if the rest of us put away our “left versus right” prejudices – which are themselves these days identities more than meaningful political standpoints – and built an “Open” coalition we would begin to get somewhere? Is it time to stand together against the closed, unreal, anti-intellectual forces of the DUP/SF in Northern Ireland (and indeed in the latter case in the Republic) and the UKIP across the UK, as well as countless other similar examples across Europe?


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