Non-Linear War

Vladislav Surkov is back. Back inside the ever-shrinking sanctum around Putin; on the elite list of Russian officials hit with visa bans and asset freezes in the west. The enemies who were so recently converging around Surkov, threatening charges of corruption and much more, have fallen silent. On 12 March, Surkov published a new short story, in Russky Pioneer (under his pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky). ‘Without Sky’ is set in the future, after the ‘fifth world war’. The story is told from the point of view of a child whose parents were killed in the war. He was brain damaged, and can only see and understand things in two dimensions: More »

At Manchester Central Library

When Manchester Corporation launched a public competition to design a new library in 1926, the idea of a large, modern, purpose-built library in the city was more than two decades old. At the start of the 20th century it was proposed that an art gallery and library should be built on the site of the demolished Royal Infirmary in Piccadilly. ‘The working classes are daily becoming more important in our democracy,’ William Boyd Dawkins wrote to the Manchester Courier. ‘Have we given them equal opportunities of obtaining the higher knowledge which is within the reach of the well-to-do classes?’ More »

No NHS Fraud (Yet)

At the centre of Monday night’s Panorama programme on fraud in the NHS was an interview with Jim Gee, an expert on the financial cost of healthcare fraud. Gee showed the presenter a newly published report, of which he was the first author, and talked about its findings. He turned to a key page and the camera picked out a bar chart as the two discussed some of the figures it contained. The report was also given wide coverage in the print media this week. Stories were run in all the broadsheets and across the tabloids with many local papers picking up the story and giving it a local spin. The figure, highlighted in Panorama, that most journalists seized on was the estimate that fraud was costing the NHS around £7 billion a year, enough – the Express pointed out – to pay for 250,000 nurses. More »

Reading and Rehabilitation

The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other ‘small items’, such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn’t take fire as it has now. I don’t know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.
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Perpetual Ocean

The opening exhibit of a new show at the British Library about displays of scientific data, Beautiful Science, is an animated film depicting the world’s oceans and the thousands of currents that drift and swirl across them. Perpetual Ocean, made by Nasa, is less beautiful than it is mesmerising: in three minutes the film shows the surface currents of the oceans over a two-and-a-half year period, from June 2005 to December 2007. There’s a no less mesmerising 20-minute version too.
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Dance of the Elementary Particles

Astronomers from the BICEP collaboration announced on 17 March that, using a modest-sized telescope near the South Pole, they had detected gravity waves that have been rippling through the cosmos since the Big Bang. This is extraordinary news for our understanding of gravity generally, and for our understanding of how the universe probably evolved during the earliest moments of its history. More »

How the police talk to students

In January, Inspector Steve Poppitt of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary spoke at the University of Cambridge Graduate Union to a small audience who wanted to ask the police about the covert surveillance of students. He said he was interested in improving relations between students and the police. ‘It has to be a dialogue,’ he said.

The meeting was called in response to the revelations last November that the police had tried to infiltrate student activist groups. This week, three campaigners have described attempts by the police to recruit them as informants on fellow political activists. One said he was offered an envelope full of cash at a supermarket. Another said he went to the police station to discuss a report he had made about two suspicious men on his street, and was instead offered money in return for information about left-wing protests. A member of Unite Against Fascism said that an officer tried to pay her to spy on the group, and warned her she could face prosecution if she told anyone she’d been approached. More »

Osborne’s Malice

The budget details had been so widely leaked that there were few surprises. The chancellor had little room for manoeuvre and resisted the temptation to go for broke. (That probably comes next year, just before the election.) The Lib Dems got their £10,500 tax threshold – which won’t make much difference. The drinkers and bingo players got something; but other betters and smokers did not. There was a little for small business. Those who pay a 40 per cent marginal rate saw the threshold at which they pay it raised a little, but probably not as much as they expected. Older people with savings do well. Changes to pension arrangements, the introduction of more ‘generous’ ISAs and the pensioner bond do something to restore income to those whose savings in the last few years had received negligible returns. It is apparent that the budget is meant to appeal primarily to older voters – who are more likely to vote than any other age group. More »

Power struggles in Algiers

Abdelaziz Bouteflika will be standing for a fourth term as president of Algeria, even though he hasn’t spoken in public since having a stroke a year ago. His re-election in April seems more or less assured. For the last six months he’s been engaged in a much tougher struggle, against the chief of the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediene. ‘The enormous power of the intelligence services,’ as Hugh Roberts has put it, ‘has long been the open secret of Algerian political life.’ More »

Libya’s Ancient Borders

Part of the Peutinger Table, with thanks to Ulrich Harsch and his Bibliotheca Augustana.

Part of the Peutinger Table, with thanks to Ulrich Harsch and his Bibliotheca Augustana.

The port of As Sidr is on the Gulf of Sidra, the enormous bay biting through Africa’s northern coast at the junction of Libya’s three major geographical regions: to the east, the lush agricultural land of Cyrenaica; to the west, the drier urban coastal strip of Tripolitania; to the south, the Saharan Fezzan. This has always been frontier territory, and often in dispute. More »

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