Friday, 31 August 2012

Why can anyone shovel cash into the UK without any enquiry into its provenance?


Mary Dejevsky in the Independent.

Today is the day when English justice delivers its verdict on the oligarchs. After seven months spent poring over the evidence, Mrs Justice Gloster returns to London's Commercial Court to hand down her judgment in the case of Berezovsky v Abramovich – Boris Berezovsky being a one-time Kremlin adviser now in exile in Britain; Roman Abramovich being the owner of Chelsea Football Club. Berezovsky claimed Abramovich cheated him in a share deal, and demanded £3bn in damages. Abramovich said he did nothing of the kind.

The huge sums of money, the intricacy of the arguments, and the ever-shifting political context in which the disputed events took place, all make this a landmark case. But there will be many Britons, myself shamefacedly included, who have already given up and pronounced a plague on both their houses. Whoever wins – and having sat in the courtroom a couple of days, I admit to flailing hopelessly in the rights and wrongs of it – here are two men of a certain age and uncertain wealth seeking to settle old scores through the British courts. Which of them emerges victorious troubles me very little.

It may be that one can afford to lose more than the other, and I would hazard who that might be. But each exploited the turmoil of immediate post-Soviet Russia to his own – considerable – advantage. Acumen came into it, but so – I suspect – did bluff, acquired street wisdom and not a little chance. Whether one behaved honourably and one less so, I would hesitate to wager, but the likelihood is of at least 50 shades of grey.

Corruption was endemic in the Soviet Union; it is endemic in Russia today. In between, there was corruption plus chaos. The times were brutal, and I almost doubt that it is worth raking over old coals in any court at all. Let any aggrieved oligarchs fight it out, in the old-fashioned way, and let the cannier, more ruthless man win. If there is blood on the floor, or the doors, or the car bumper, so be it.

The trouble is that Berezovsky v Abramovich, and the parade of other oligarchs resorting to the London courts, says something not just about a very particular period in Russia (which is now gone), but also about Britain today. And I do care about that, as should the UK Government and the country at large. If Russians cannot get it together to run an honest state, then that reflects at least in part their state of development and their chequered history.

It is no good for us to try to impose our civic standards on them, as various do-gooding NGOs have long tried to do. If there is no domestic power or consensus to sustain change, no improvement will last. A quorum of Russians has to demand a less corrupt state, and there are signs – in recent protests and the rise of internet exposés – that they will.

No doubt that is why Berezovsky and his compatriots have petitioned the English courts to rule on events that have only the most tangential connection with this country – a meeting here, a hotel room there. In a way, that shows a flattering confidence in British justice and a distressing lack of faith in Russia's own. But has the arrival of so much Russian money in Britain, with high-profile members of its privilegentsia not far behind, really been an untrammelled good, or even neutral in its effects?

Someone who believes it has a downside is Alexei Navalny, the frontman for Russia's populist anti-corruption campaign. He has speculated that, while much of the Russian money oiling the wheels of London society is honestly acquired, some of it – obviously – is not. And he asked the question that we Britons should have been asking for a decade or more. Why is it so easy for someone with no obvious ties to Britain to set up shop here and shovel in the cash without any enquiries being made into its provenance? The image of a Russian paying for a Mayfair flat with a suitcase of cash became almost a cliché of the late 1990s. But why did we laugh it off, rather than ask how that could be acceptable or even legal?

Navalny notes that all a rich, or even modestly well-off, Russian had to do – if he chose not to invest £2m in a business to acquire a resident's visa – was to buy a flat, produce his ID and a utility bill, and lo he could set up a bank account and start transferring his billions. In his book, the process was too easy. In my book, as a Briton, opening and operating a bank account and transferring money across borders is too difficult. The very same procedures – the address, the ID, the utility bill – that make it so simple for a foreigner to import his ill-gotten gains cause endless hassles for us natives. Plus the UK bank must declare to the taxman outgoing transfers above a certain amount – but not those coming in.

You can only laugh really about error-prone ID checks that cause us untold delays in the name of preventing money-laundering, yet give foreign shysters a fast-track to legitimacy – so long, that is, that any actual fraud has not been committed here. As HSBC's admitted involvement in Mexican drug money-laundering showed, you have to be a big fish not to get caught in the anti-corruption safety net of a British bank.

It is not just Russians, of course, who feed dirty money into Britain. But it is their millions that have had some of the most obviously pernicious consequences. At the less harmful end are those flats paid for in cash and all the "bling"; at the opposite extreme are some mysterious killings and attempted killings. In between is the court time taken up by internal Russian squabbles – how many homegrown cases have to wait? – and the damaging effect on diplomatic relations of the UK's generous political asylum policy towards economic, if not criminal, exiles.

It might be said that every country gets the emigrés it deserves. In being more interested in the money than how it was acquired, we have brought many of these difficulties upon ourselves. But they are not ours alone. We can fulminate against corruption in Russia as we like, but unless the UK does more to stop dubious Russian money coming to London, we need to recognise that our own greed and regulatory laxness have also played their part.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Why shouldn't three people get married?



As three Brazilians are legally joined as a 'thruple' it starts to look illiberal to insist that marriage must be between two people
Four pairs of feet in a bed
'If three, or four, or 17 people want to marry each other simultaneously and equally, why should they not be granted the same status as two people who want to become a legal family?' Photograph: Stone/Getty Images
Three Brazilians in love have their nation up in arms over whether their relationship, now enshrined in a three-way marriage, is legal. The public notary who conducted their marriage says there's no reason the threesome – or "thruple", as the internet has charmingly labelled it – shouldn't enjoy the same kinds of rights imparted upon two people who get hitched. But traditionalists are not impressed: lawyer Regina Beatriz Tavares da Silva, of the Commission for the Rights of the Family, has it "absurd and totally illegal".
Speaking of absurd, shall we take a moment to consider traditional marriage? We do adore it: in the UK, just under half the population has chosen to pledge to love another person as long as they both shall live, or as long as they don't get divorced. And yet as we shoehorn ourselves into two-by-two formation, we're not that good at keeping our promises: as Helen Croydon has pointed out, breaking the boundaries of monogamy is far from unusual. Plenty of marriages have three people in them. They're just not legal ones.
A good old-fashioned monogamous marriage works beautifully for some. But even the most successful marriages are special and unique and incredibly weird. For much as we have a sweet collective imagining of what a happy union entails, the reality is that they all deviate from the fantasy norm, pretty much from the time that the certificate is signed, the chicken is noshed and the bouquet is chucked. The government can dictate that two people should be in a marriage, but it can't legislate what will make them feel happy or stable or emotionally complete together. And if we accept that, as we do every time we allow anyone the freedom to make a decision about who they'll marry, and furthermore allow them the freedom to call each other by execrable pet names in public, then does it not begin to seem strange, just a bit, that we do allow the government to dictate how many people are allowed to pledge to be together forever? Perhaps even as strange as it is for government to dictate who can do it based on their gender?
This is not about the advocacy of patriarchal polygamy that regards wives as unequal to, or property of, their husbands. But if three, or four, or 17 people want to marry each other simultaneously and equally, why should they not be granted the same status as two people who want to become a legal family? Without reverting to religious arguments, or logistical ones (does Ikea manufacture a big enough bed to accommodate this union?), it begins to feel a bit illiberal.
Is it possible that if we allowed more people to marry simultaneously that more marriages might be successful? Fewer breakups over infidelity might occur, for example, if those who found themselves in love with more than one person didn't have to choose or conceal their feelings. And relaxing the expectation that one partner should fulfil all of one's needs – good sex, complementary taste in television and shared preference for dogs over cats may just be too much to ask for – might mean that people who opt for a portfolio of other halves (or thirds) could outdo the rest of us in happiness.
Legalisation wouldn't send stampedes of people to the registry office in five-aside squads; for many of us, monogamy does feel the most comfortable option, whether it's because our brains aren't wired to love more than one person or because the prospect of making multiple people happy is too complex. But three's not a crowd for everyone. And as long as everyone is entering a marriage equally, as long as everyone is really going to make an effort to be open and honest to everyone else, it's probably not the government's job to tell them how many of them there should be.

Pakistan and Israel are identical twins


India and Israel are often likened to each other, but it is Pakistan that Israel resembles the most
Much is made these days of the apparent likeness between India and Israel. Both are supposed to be modern democracies. Both, it is pointed out, are also fighting Islamic terrorism. But this is a superficial comparison. There is no dearth of modern democracies in the post-Cold War world, and no dearth of nations fighting Islamic terror either, post-9/11. For two nations to be considered alike, they ought to be similar in ways that are more fundamental and, at the same time, that also set them apart from other nations.
It is not India but Pakistan that shares a number of such traits with Israel.
Violent partition
Both Pakistan and Israel were carved out through partitions of historically and culturally unified territories within a year of each other: Pakistan in August 1947 and Israel in May 1948. Pakistan was created by splitting the Indian subcontinent, tearing asunder people who, while belonging to different religions, shared a common cultural heritage and had together fought their war of Independence. It created fissures even within ethnic communities — Punjabis in the west, Bengalis in the east and, a year later, Kashmiris in the north. The same happened when Israel was carved out of historical Palestine, dividing Arabs to the west of the Jordan river for the first time.
Two, neither partition was peaceful. Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes in both instances to become refugees in what, just days earlier, had been their own land. Pakistan’s creation saw more than 10 million people migrate on either side of the border, many driven away by their neighbours. Nearly a million are believed to have died in the pogroms that ensued. While eloquent espousals of nationalism and patriotism poured out of leaders at bully pulpits, the slit throats of citizens spattered blood in the streets.
Israel’s creation was similarly gory. More than 700,000 Palestinians were hounded out of their homes by Zionist militias in what the Arabs have since called the Nakba, or catastrophe. Thousands perished. Many migrated to West Bank, Gaza and the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and the Sinai; many others fled to Europe and the United States — places from where harried Jews had been moving to Palestine in preceding decades to escape persecution. One diaspora replaced another, and Arab became the new Jew of the West. The irony was profound.
Three, neither Pakistan nor Israel has clearly defined its borders since its creation. It’s not just that their neighbours don’t agree with them, but both these nations have themselves stopped short of stating precisely where they want their borders to be. While India categorically specifies the borders it claims in Kashmir, Pakistan’s position is ambiguous at best. It calls the portion it conquered in 1947-48 “Azad Kashmir” (Independent Kashmir), but Pakistan’s army exercises even more control over the lives of Azad Kashmiris than over the average Pakistani. It even has an Azad Kashmir Regiment — headquartered in Punjab.
Israel has also desisted from stating exactly how large or small it intends to be. For more than 20 years, even the Palestinian Authority has recognised the so-called Green Line — which defined Israeli territory until the 1967 war — as the international border subject to a two-state solution (that would create a Palestinian state). Israel itself, however, does not recognise the Green Line anymore. Nor does it say where it would draw its own Line, all the while grabbing more land in the West Bank for Jewish settlements.
Four, both Pakistan and Israel have fought wars of aggression against neighbours. The India-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-48, 1965 and 1999 were the result of Pakistani aggression. It also waged a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a misadventure from which it is yet to dissociate itself. Israel’s wars are still more numerous. It attacked Egypt in 1956, Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on numerous occasions. Gaza remains under Israeli siege even today.
Dominated by religion, military
Five, being born in blood and bred in wars, both Pakistan and Israel have developed societies and polities that are dominated by religion and the military. The green uniform has been at the helm of Pakistan’s affairs for nearly half its independent history, and lords over politicians even when not formally in charge. Its hand has been strengthened by the appropriation of Islam as a political ideology, and the nation is effectively run by a nexus of generals and mullahs.
Israel’s military has similarly clawed its way into the heart of the nation’s society and politics in the name of protecting its Jewish character. Making a name for yourself in wars is the surest way to a successful political career, ministerial posts and prime ministership. Just like Pakistan, Israel seems to be run by a league of generals and rabbis.
Six, both Pakistan and Israel nurture exclusivist national identities, concerned more with who does not belong to them than with who does. Created as a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan has always treated Hindus, Sikhs and other non-Muslims as second-class citizens. But that isn’t all.
Various categories of Muslims — migrants from India, Ahmadis, Shias, Baluchis and so on — have also found it difficult to integrate into Pakistani society and are perpetually blamed for all its social and political ills.
Israel was created as a homeland for Jews, and it treats Arabs as second-class citizens. But many Jews too — black Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Russian-origin Jews and so on — face rampant discrimination. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Jewish ancestry are simply not considered Jews by law and struggle to be a part of Israeli society.
Benedict Anderson has called nations “imagined communities,” comprising people who share a deep bond of unity even with those they have never met or do not personally know. But Pakistan and Israel exhibit an extraordinary lack of imagination in the construction of their nationhood. Exclusivist identities, religious chauvinism, military dominance and a history of belligerence have rendered them societies that are perpetually at war — with their neighbours and with themselves. Their own uncertainty over their borders betrays this existential insecurity.
That is where India differs from both these nations. Imagined as a country of infinite communities, we have largely remained true to this founding principle. Muslims running away from riots in Gujarat or Assam, Biharis fleeing persecution in Maharashtra and Northeasterners escaping prejudice in South India are still exceptions in a nation that culturally and constitutionally believes in diversity. This belief, more than anything else, is the source of our national identity.
Let us hope that is how, and who, we remain.
(Saif Shahin is a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas, Austin, U.S.)

Andrew Strauss: more straight bat than flashing blade


Robert Colville in The Telegraph
One of humanity’s besetting sins is that we’re addicted to charisma. Besotted by it, even. We look for the leader with the movie-star looks, the resounding oratory – the sheer, obvious talent. A Steve Jobs can behave abominably to his underlings, can decide that deodorant is for the little people, and still we swoon.
But is this really a good idea? Over the past few decades, English cricket has been conducting what might be termed an uncontrolled experiment in management theory. The lab rats in question have been those poor souls faced with the uniquely impossible demands of the national captaincy: helping to select a team, motivating the players, producing tactical plans and modifying them on the fly, coping with media scrutiny, and all the while maintaining their own level of performance.
Sometimes, there has been an obvious candidate – as yesterday, when Alastair Cook accepted the job with the air of a crown prince assuming his birthright. Cook, like Mike Atherton, was an “FEC”, a player always earmarked as a Future England Captain. But in their absence, the authorities invariably haver between charisma and character. For every Mike Brearley, whose man-management skills lay behind Ian Botham’s destruction of the Aussies, there is a – well, an Ian Botham, who had only just resigned the captaincy after a miserable tenure.
The temptation is often to hand the leadership to the player who shines the brightest, to a Botham or an Andrew Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen, in the (usually forlorn) hope that he can galvanise others with his sheer ability. There is, however, another path. Andrew Strauss, who resigned as captain yesterday, shares Pietersen’s South African birthplace, yet is his opposite in terms of character, temperament and playing style. Pietersen is the stupendously athletic strokemaker. Strauss is the man who had to work for his place, for his captaincy, for every one of his 7,037 Test runs.
As an England novice, he was “Lord Brocket” and “PT” (the P stands for “Posh”; the T is less kind). He failed an audition for the captaincy, losing out to Flintoff, only getting the job after Pietersen’s intrigues against the then coach resulted in both losing their jobs.
Here’s the strange thing, though. As a leader, Pietersen was a flop: on a tour of India, wrote team-mate Graeme Swann in his autobiography, the superstar was briefly reduced “to a period of screaming '----ing bowl ----ing straight’ at everyone”. It was his replacement as captain who led England to back-to-back Ashes victories (the second gloriously crushing), and briefly to the status of No 1 in the world.
Strauss would perhaps not make the short list for history’s greatest captain: as well as the many Australian or West Indian contenders, there is Graeme Smith of South Africa, who finished off not just Strauss’s captaincy, but those of Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain too. Even in purely English terms, Vaughan probably eclipses his former lieutenant for his hint of unorthodoxy, his tactical flair.
Strauss, though, is the man you trust to get the job done – the one to lead a polar expedition, to do everything by the book, and to bring his men back alive. “Strauss is one of those guys who demand respect,” writes Swann, “and on a daily basis you never really fathom why. He just does. He always says the right things, whether it be in team meetings or press conferences, and his word is never questioned.” Except by Pietersen, who disliked his captain so much that he reportedly advised the South Africans on how to get him out.
Was it a failure that Strauss, and coach Andy Flower, could not reconcile this wayward genius to a regime of grinding perfectionism? Perhaps. Yet surveys of what makes for a great corporate leader tend to look surprisingly like profiles of Andrew Strauss. In her book Quiet – which argues that flashiest is not always best – Susan Cain observes that true greats display “extreme humility coupled with intense professional will”: they are not messianic Steve Jobs types, but those “who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run”.
The rivalry between Strauss and Pietersen, then, incarnates not just the great divide within English cricket, but in leadership more generally. Study after study has shown that we pay attention to those who shout the loudest, who make the boldest claims. In the process, we wildly overestimate the role of pure luck and the contribution of others.
True, charisma does have its place. Yet for all that it would be wonderful to see Pietersen light up Lord’s again, it seems somehow fitting that he and Strauss, yin and yang, are locked together on 21 Test centuries, one behind the national record. At the start of his career, you would have found few takers for Strauss ending up in a position of such pre-eminence. But then, as Iain Duncan Smith once noted, you should never underestimate the determination of a quiet man.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Men have a wee problem with sitting down on toilets



It may be more hygienic and accurate, but plans to persuade men to sit down to pee challenge our most basic instincts
Men at urinal
Men peeing at a urinal: the end of a longstanding tradition? Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
At my primary school, we boys vied for pecking position via the traditional routes of fighting, football and fabricating extravagant fibs, but there was something else. Lined up afore the trough urinal in the toilets, we discovered a crucial test of manhood: the ability to pee skywards. The class weaklings could barely defeat gravity. I was proud to occasionally reach the words "Armitage Shanks" while a few warriors could clear the porcelain and decorate the tiles.
And then there was Phillip. Phillip was no ordinary Scots wean. He was a superhero, a god amongst miniature men. Phillip could squirt a volley which would rise a good six feet in the air before arcing with exquisite accuracy out of the open window. It was spectacular – I swear he must have mastered top spin. That is how the boys learned: there is direct route from bladder to masculine prestige, and the girls learned not to loiter by the big bins at playtime.
At this point, I should probably advise male readers to take a seat. Not because I'm about to tell you something shocking, but because if the rest of the world is to follow the lead of Taiwan, we'll soon have to do so several times a day. Stephen Shen, minister at the country's Environmental Protection Administration, has instigated a policy of requesting men in government buildings to sit down to urinate. He hopes the habit will spread through society to create a cleaner, healthier environment. If my female friends are anything to go by, this plan would go down well with the world's women. They talk of hygiene, bad smells and treading barefoot in puddles by night. That may sound reasonable but don't be fooled, dudes. It's a grand conspiracy to ensure ultimate victory in the battle to keep toilet seats down.
I'm no biomechanic, but it seems to me that if you were to design a waste water drainage system for a semi-intelligent carbon-based lifeform, you could do little better than an easily-accessed length of flexible hosepipe, complete with directional nozzle, that can be tucked out of harm's way when not needed. And thanks to the miracle of evolution, this gadget protrudes at the precise same place on the human body where we find the zip of our trousers. It is such a miracle that one might be tempted to credit it to the intelligent design of a benevolent creator, were it not for one small design flaw – accuracy. Some women may find this hard to believe, but most of the time men are pretty accurate. Nine times out of 10 we could knock a bee off a bottletop with a single blast. The problem is that from time to time, without warning, our trusty nozzle will develop a glitch that suddenly sends an unexpected stream between the basin and the Beano annual or, on a bad day, splat between the eyes. We can't help it. Blame evolution and its shoddy attention to detail.
So, on one side of this debate we have hygiene, public health and a pleasant living environment. On the other we have … OK I admit it – nothing. Nada. Zilch. There is not a single argument to be made for standing up to wee except, damn it, it feels right. So perhaps I could suggest a compromise. Men won't wee standing up in the bathroom on condition we are provided with a well-drained tree in the backyard that we can mark as our own. I suspect that, deep down, that's what we really want.

A quick course on playing spin in the subcontinent



August 29, 2012
 
Brendon McCullum is solid in defense, India v New Zealand, 1st Test, Hyderabad, 4th day, August 26, 2012
You must look to attack the spinner early in the innings to force him to push back his field, which will help you rotate the strike © AFP 
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Series/Tournaments: New Zealand tour of India
Teams: New Zealand
After losing 2-0 to a weedy West Indian side, New Zealand slumped to an innings defeat in their first Test in India. It would take a brave man to put his money on them in the second Test in Bangalore. The loss in Hyderabad only underlined the gap between New Zealand and the major Test-playing nations.
Over the years though, New Zealand had gained the reputation of a team that always punched above their weight. Their courage and the never-say-die attitude made up for the lack of the skills needed to excel in different conditions.
On their tour of India in 2003-04, which was my debut series, New Zealand drew both Test matches, and even had India follow on in Mohali. They were routed in the ODIs when they visited in 2010-11, but secured two draws in the three-Test series. They have rarely won in India but haven't surrendered before as feebly as they did in Hyderabad, and that must hurt their fans. The pitch deteriorated a lot faster than many expected it to and had enough in it for the spinners from the second day, yet it was far from being unplayable.
Susceptibility to pace and bounce tends to get far more attention than weakness against spin. That's perhaps because, unlike pace bowlers, spinners don't pose a physical threat but the truth is that being bamboozled by spin can cause long-lasting mental scars.
With the second Test only two days away, New Zealand must be working overtime to find ways to counter India's potent spin threat. Here are a few things their batsmen should keep in mind while taking on R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha in Bangalore.
Decisive footwork
Read the ball from the hand, not from the pitch, because it will give you a little more time to react. Use both feet to either get to the pitch of the ball with a long forward stride or to go deep inside the crease to shorten the length. Spinners are at their most dangerous when the batsman refuses to get to the pitch of the ball to smother the lateral movement off the surface. That's what New Zealand did in Hyderabad. Most of their batsmen were rooted to the crease and offered unconvincing forward prods to everything that was pitched up, in hope that the ball would find the middle of the bat. Their shots lacked conviction and resulted in many bat-pad catches. Some New Zealand batsmen started shuffling to counter the spin, but little did they realise that sideways movement within the crease can only be effective against fast bowlers because it helps you play in the second line. Only a decisive forward-and-backward movement can save the day against spinners. In England, Hashim Amla did that beautifully against Graeme Swann.
Pushing the fielders back
On turning pitches, you must be aggressive, for no matter how good your defensive technique, the odd ball will turn and jump unexpectedly to abruptly end your stay. If you only concentrate on defending, as New Zealand did in the second innings, the spinners won't feel threatened and will continue to flight the ball. To extract optimum spin and bounce off the surface, spinners must give the ball some air. This becomes easier if the batsman has gone into a shell. All quality players of spin take the aerial route really early in the innings, because it forces the bowler to not only push the fielders back but to also cut down on flighting the ball. Once the fielders are pushed back, batsmen find it easier to rotate the strike, and the moment a spinner starts bowling flatter, he plays into your hands. MS Dhoni did it efficiently against Jeetan Patel the moment he walked in to bat in Hyderabad.
To many batsmen the sweep shot is the only attacking response to the turning ball. But they must understand that they'll get the right balls to sweep only after forcing the bowler to bowl flatter and shorten his length by stepping down the track regularly. Wait for the bowler to release the ball so that he can't alter his length or line, and advance against balls that go higher than the eye level.
Ross Taylor is bowled by R Ashwin, India v New Zealand, 1st Test, Hyderabad, 4th day, August 26, 2012
Let the ball come to you © AFP 
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Playing late, using soft hands and getting the weight transfer right
Since spinners bowl a lot slower than the quicks, it's tempting to reach for the ball. But if you're defending, you must resist the temptation and allow the ball to come to you, as you would when facing a fast bowler. Once you have allowed the ball to come to you, play it as delicately as possible with soft hands. Let the top hand remain firm while barely holding the bat with the bottom hand.
It's imperative to transfer the body weight at the right time. Whether you are defending or playing an aggressive shot against a spinner on a turning pitch, if you transfer your weight a fraction earlier, you will commit yourself to the stroke and struggle to play the ball along the ground. And if you are a fraction late, you won't get any power in your shots.
Playing the turning ball on a crumbling pitch requires just as much expertise as playing the moving ball on a fast and bouncy pitch. Even after taking a crash course in playing the turning ball, New Zealand may not be able to avert defeat, but it's worth using every ounce of their energy to at least delay the inevitable.

Rail is a gigantic scam for siphoning off public money



Branson and FirstGroup have both gamed a disastrous privatisation. The case for public ownership is compelling
Rail privatisation. Illustration by Belle Mellor
'Nearly 20 years after John Major’s disastrous privatisation, this is the reality of Britain’s railway: a byword for bewildering fragmentation, unreliability and exorbitant cost.' Illustration by Belle Mellor
Barely a month since the private security firm G4S crashed and burned in the runup to the London Olympics, we're back in outsourcing la-la land again. This time the battle is over the monopoly franchise to run passenger trains on Britain's most lucrative rail route, the west coast mainline.
Ministers have given the 15-year contract to the privatised bus operator FirstGroup, with a licence to increase fares by up to 11% a year, reduce services, downgrade catering and close ticket offices. Richard Branson, whose Virgin Trains has had the franchise since the 90s, is crying foul, and on Tuesday launched a legal action to halt the handover.
Labour wants MPs to be able to scrutinise the deal. But the transport secretary, Justine Greening, is determined to plough ahead regardless, potentially tying the hands of government for the next three parliaments. And the controversy follows uproar over plans for an average 6.2% rise in rail fares from January.
Commuters now routinely spend 15% of their income travelling to work on what is now the most expensive rail network in Europe. No wonder coalition MPs are lobbying for some relief from the drive to load more of the costs on to passengers: it is now cheaper to fly on half the popular routes around Britain than travel by more environmentally friendly rail.
The heavily subsidised rail privateers, whose top five executives paid themselves an average of £1m last year, are also supposed to cough up a bigger share. But there's little sign of that happening – and the west coast mainline deal helps explain why.
Forget the special pleading by Branson, who's made over £200m from rail privatisation. Virgin's own record is poor. But his accusation that FirstGroup is gaming the system is widely shared by industry analysts and insiders.
Greening claims FirstGroup offers the best deal for taxpayers. In reality it's based on heroic growth expectations of 10.6% a year and payments to government that are heavily loaded on to the contract's last few years. The company in fact has an incentive to dump the franchise as those payments come due, because they dwarf the cost of the bond penalty.
If FirstGroup – which is walking away from the Great Western franchise – defaults, it wouldn't be the first time. That's what happened with Bermuda-based Sea Containers and National Express, who had the contract for the east coast mainline before the last government was forced to take it over. But by then, both ministers and corporate executives would likely be long gone.
Nearly 20 years after John Major's disastrous privatisation, this is the reality of Britain's railway: a byword for bewildering fragmentation, unreliability and exorbitant cost – and a gigantic scam for siphoning off public money into the pockets of monopoly contractors.
Branson has raged at the government's "insanity" in awarding the west coast mainline franchise to FirstGroup. But it is the system itself that is irrational. Privatisation was supposed to cut public subsidy by boosting competition, investment and innovation.
In fact, it has done the opposite. Government funding has at least doubled in real terms, while fares have also increased, largely because of privatisation – including the costs of fragmentation and duplication; dividend payments to investors; contractors' profit margins; debt write-offs; and higher interest payments to keep Network Rail's debts off the government's balance sheet.
Taken together, those privatisation costs amount to around £1.2bn a year, according to a new thinktank report (Transport for Quality of Life's Rebuilding Rail), while genuine private investment is estimated at barely 1% of the total funding of the railway. It's hardly surprising that the mainly publicly owned rail systems in the rest of Europe – several of which now run bits of Britain's privatised rail – are cheaper.
The solution could not be more obvious. It's to rebuild a publicly owned and integrated railway. That can be done at zero or minimal cost, by bringing back each franchise into public ownership as the contracts expire. Freight apart, it can also be done under EU law, and with built-in local control. And saving the £1.2bn-a-year costs of privatisation over time would be the equivalent of an across-the-board cut in fares of 18%.
Rail renationalisation has long commanded large majorities in opinion polls. So you might imagine politicians would fall over themselves to sign up to a policy that's popular and saves money. The fact that they don't says something about the continuing grip of discredited ideology and corporate interests on Britain's political culture. Even a respected public transport pressure group like the Campaign for Better Transport, which now relies on funding from privatised transport companies, shies away from campaigning on the issue.
Labour is at last inching in the right direction. Its transport spokesperson Maria Eagle has floated the possibility of extending public ownership to rail services, and this week called for the east coast mainline to be kept in public hands. But with Tory defence secretary Phillip Hammond declaring the Olympics has changed his mind about privatisation and Liberal Democrat Vince Cable pressing the case for the outright nationalisation of banks, Ed Miliband can afford to be a bit braver. Last year he called for a break with the neoliberal model. Rail could be the place to start.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What Sexual Consent Really Means


How do we teach young people what sexual consent really means?

Reports from youth workers suggest that many young people are confused as to what constitutes rape. But recent events show that they are not the only ones
Young people
Many young people believe that sex education comprises "too little, too late" Photograph: Rex Features
"Young people will describe scenarios where, I think 'this sounds abusive'," says Rhiannon Holder, a youth worker for Brook, the sexual advisory service for young people and co-chair of Bread, a Bristol youth project.
"They're not sure if they had sex or they wanted sex – and if they did have sex they're not sure if they consented to it. As professionals, we're having to reflect to young people [that some] of the situations they have experienced could be labelled as sexual bullying or assault, or rape."
With politicians such as George Galloway and Tony Benn spouting shameful ideas of what consent means (having sex with someone who is asleep is "bad sexual etiquette", not rape, according to Galloway), a worryingly high proportion of the adult public doesn't seem to grasp it either. A survey for Amnesty found 37% of respondents thought a woman was responsible for being raped if she didn't say "no" clearly enough. With attitudes like this, is it any surprise young people may be dangerously confused?
They certainly seem to be. Only 69% of young men would not try to have sex with someone who did not want to, and one in 20 said they would try to have sex with someone who was asleep, according to a shocking 2010 survey of young people aged between 18 and 25 by the Havens, the specialist London-based sexual assault referral centres. A significant proportion also seemed confused about what constitutes rape: only 77% of young men agreed that having sex with someone who has said no was rape. While in 2009, a study for the NSPCC found a third of girls aged between 13 and 17 who were in relationships had experienced unwanted sexual acts, and one in 16 had been raped.
So, what needs to change? "Too often [consent] is viewed as a simple yes or no, and it's much more complex than that," says Holder. "I don't think many young people are offered the opportunity to explore all of the factors involved in giving consent: peer pressure, alcohol and drugs, self-esteem, coercion, gender issues."
When Holder does workshops with young people, she asks them to consider different scenarios, "and generate discussion around what it means to be in a relationship; what it means to have safe and positive sex. For instance, we would look at situations where you have had sex with someone before, or if you've kissed somebody; does that mean youhave to go on and have sex? Also it's about taking responsibility for consent, so making it clear it's not just the person who has the responsibility for saying 'yes'. Young men should actively be seeking consent."
It isn't just about the words, she says. "We'll explore what 'yes' does, and doesn't, look like."
"Often people don't say 'no' but they'll say 'that hurts', or 'not yet', or 'I don't like it'. Or it might be in their body language," she adds.
Then there are the assumptions about timing, she says. "A lot of the young people I have met are shocked that you can revoke consent – you might have had sex with somebody before, or started a sexual act, but that doesn't mean the sex can't stop at any time.
"I've spoken to young people who have said they didn't really want to do it, but they didn't know how to say 'no' or 'stop'."
Whitney Iles, a community activist, agrees. She thinks many young people are confused by "so many different messages. On one side, you're told about how you should have sex within a loving relationship, on the other side you can see how pop culture is highly sexualised. It's a real confusion over identity and value of self, which then makes it harder to know what you want and where the line is. There is a blurred line of what is normal, or what has become normalised, and what is crossing a line."
Earlier this year, the government launched an online and TV advertising campaign to educate teenagers about rape, and consent, but it seems a poor substitute for good sex education in schools. The problem, says Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, is that sex education "is incredibly patchy, and what young people have been saying for a really long time is 'too little, too late, too biological'."
The Labour government failed to do enough to make personal, social, health and economics education (PSHE), of which sex and relationships education (SRE) is a part, a statutory requirement for schools. "Although secondary schools have to teach some SRE, virtually nothing is specified and there is no agreed curriculum for it, so schools can teach what they like," says Jane Lees, chair of the Sex Education Forum.
The government's review of PSHE, which ended last year, is still to report, but things could get even worse, Lees fears. "Our concern is that it is likely to slim it down much more, or reduce the expectation that schools will teach it," she says. "When the coalition came in and started the review of PSHE, one of the issues that they raised was about consent, so it is on their minds but we still have no final outcomes from it. We're in limbo at the moment."
"A lot of young people are growing up without really knowing what consent means," says Whitney Iles. "But then I think a lot of adults don't really know either."

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Tourist Isn’t An Endangered Animal


DHRITIMAN MUKHERJEE
Exclusion of budget tourists can hit support for conservation
 
Tourism can increase its natural capital by converting farms to wildlife viewing land, with shared profits
K. ULLAS KARANTH  in Outlook india
The media splash—exemplified by a hyper-ventilating Guardian report following the Supreme Court’s July 2012 interim order suspending tourism in some tiger reserves—has convinced the public that all wildlife tourism activity in India stands permanently abolished. Following the August 22 ruling on a review petition by the SC, in which it extended its ban on tourism in the ‘core areas’ of tiger reserves, people might think such a shutdown portends a disastrous collapse of public support to tiger conservation. These are exaggerations arising out of a flawed reading.

Wildlife tourism has been temporarily halted only in tiger reserves, that too only in states that have not notified ‘buffer zones’ mandated by law. Tourism is going on unhindered at all other wildlife reserves, including tiger reserves where buffer zones have been notified. The intent of the court’s order appears to be to compel remaining states to create buffers around already notified core areas or ‘critical tiger habitats’, with the suspension of tourism as a threat. The issue, as it has been framed by the court, will hopefully renew focus on the flawed boundaries of some of these critical tiger habitats, for both scientific and practical reasons.

Broadly, there are two kinds of wildlife tourism being practised in the country. The first is ‘budget tourism’, affordable to the non-affluent. My career as a naturalist was nurtured decades ago as one such tourist who paid 16 rupees for a van ride to watch wildlife rebound from the brink in Nagarahole, Karnataka. Budget wildlife tourism emerged in 1970s, when wildlife began to recover after a pioneer generation of foresters implemented Indira Gandhi’s tough new laws.

The high-end version of tiger tourism, kicking up so much dust now, came later when wildlife got habituated to tourists and could be easily watched. It typically features luxury accommodation and fine food (often with swimming pools, saunas, therapeutic massage thrown in). The ‘boutique tourism’ we see at reserves like Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Ranthambhore can be enjoyed only by the well-off.

The rise of boutique tourism is a consequence of India’s economic growth, which generated large disposable incomes that could be tapped. Its concern is profit, not conservation education. This is not a crime, as some appear to believe—but nor is it a great virtue. Although high-end tourism generates some local jobs and benefits, unlike in Africa these are not at all significant when scaled to the size of local economies, let alone state or national ones. Wildlife reserves cannot be India’s ‘engines of economic growth’. Their primary value is for educating the public about our threatened wildlife, generating support and enabling conservation action.

High-end tourism necessarily targets spectacular animals like tigers, lions, rhinos and elephants that attract top dollars. It has spread rapidly across the country, with even the public sector joining in. As a result, in most good wildlife reserves, the prices charged for entry, vehicle rides and accommodation have all skyrocketed beyond the reach of average citizens. However, because the size of these reserves or their carrying capacity has not expanded, richer tourists are steadily squeezing out budget tourists.

This sad consequence of spreading high-end tourism has gone unnoticed in the present debate. Exclusion of the budget tourists is far more likely to undermine long-term public support for wildlife conservation in India than the court’s suspension of tourism in a few high-profile tiger reserves. To ignore this reality and to portray all wildlife tourism as one homogeneous, benevolent entity is highly misleading.


 
 
Publicly owned wildlife reserves must be accessible to budget tourists. If they are excluded, it will undermine long-term public support for wildlife conservation here.
 
 
The arguments that the tourism industry’s watchful eyes are necessary to protect wildlife and its ‘ban’ will lead to collapse of wildlife protection are also facetious. The high-end tourism boom, in fact, followed years after wildlife populations had rebounded: to claim that it recovered wildlife is to mistake the effect for the cause. What is particularly muddying this logical stream in the present debate is the fact that a handful of genuine conservationists are loudly pleading the industry’s case. However, in my view, they do not represent a reasonable sample of general industry behaviour or practices by any stretch of imagination.


On the other hand, it would also be wrong to portray ‘tiger tourism’ as the most important threat to wild tigers. It is not. Direct killing by criminal gangs, poaching of prey animals, livestock grazing, the collection of forest produce by locals, development of infrastructure such as mines and dams in ecologically sensitive areas, as well as the misapplication of the Forest Rights Act, pose much bigger threats. Ill-conceived and over-funded ‘habitat improvement’ practised by reserve managers is also emerging as a potent threat.

However, it cannot also be denied that increasing tourism pressure, ‘more of vehicles, riding elephants, fuel-wood consumption and water diversion, as well as broader scale habitat fragmentation’ are of increasing concern. This is particularly true because much of the high-end tourism pressure is targeted at a few major reserves that cover less than 1/1000th of our land.

Clearly, the present model of wildlife tourism is unsustainable in a country with over a billion people with an annual economic growth rate of 6-8 per cent. Drastic regulation is urgently needed and more sustainable tourism models must be built. Preferably, these should emerge from shared conservation concerns rather than mere government diktat or court orders. I urge that the promotion of the economic self-interest of farmers living in close proximity to wildlife should also be a key component of any new model of wildlife tourism.

If the economic force manifested as boutique wildlife tourism is to genuinely serve conservation, it must urgently reinvent itself. How can it do so?

Essentially the land-base for wildlife viewing must expand outward from our tiny nature reserves, creating additional wildlife habitat as economic growth and demand increase. Pragmatically, the only possibility for such expansion has to rely on private lands stretching outwards from our wildlife reserves in all directions. Therefore, instead of deploying its political clout to seek more concessions inside existing wildlife reserves, or even pleading for allotment of publicly owned lands outside, the high-end tourism industry would be wiser in partnering commercially with farmers around major reserves that shelter tigers, lions, rhinos or elephants that its clients will pay to watch.

Only by converting farms to land for wildlife viewing, by means of reasonable profit-sharing mechanisms, can this industry hope to increase its true ‘natural capital’—wildlife and wild lands. Unfortunately, the loss of this natural capital is now not even a part of the industry’s business models. Furthermore, such profit-sharing will undoubtedly lessen the hostility that locals feel towards wildlife reserves as playgrounds reserved for the rich. It will also reduce the industry’s crippling dependence on fickle government policies or unpredictable litigation for its very survival.

The success of the ‘wildlife habitat expansion model’ I propose will depend on the underlying economics being robust. It will not depend merely on pious conservation concerns but on pursuit of economic self-interest by both industry and farmers. It may not meet the gold standards of North Korean socialism, but I believe it can offer a pragmatic long-term solution framed within the overall model of development followed by every elected government for the past two decades.

What then of the ordinary budget tourists? It’s imperative that publicly owned wildlife reserves be accessible to them at reasonable costs, even as commercial tourism expands outwards in ever widening circles. What I have proposed is indeed closer to the South African model of wildlife tourism, which industry advocates now demand in India. That model includes well-run, properly zoned national parks like Kruger that benefit large numbers of less-affluent tourists. These are surrounded and buffered by an expanding network of private reserves catering to visitors with deeper pockets. In the process hundreds of square kilometres of marginal farmland, cattle ranches and Biltong (game meat) ranches have turned into additional well-managed wildlife tourism reserves. This case comes as a warning bell for India’s wildlife tourism industry: if it does not confront the economic issue of its own dwindling natural capital, soon it will have no place to go.

(Karanth is director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society)

Friday, 24 August 2012

Life in 64 squares - Chess playing village near Thrissur



MINI MURINGATHERI
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at war:People playing chess at a shed outside Unnikrishnan’s house at Marottichal, near Thrissur. —K.C. Sowmish
at war:People playing chess at a shed outside Unnikrishnan’s house at Marottichal, near Thrissur. —K.C. Sowmish
Here it is war all day. Kings, queens, knights and soldiers jump and joust to cries of checkmate.
The people of Marottichal, a sleepy village near here, eat, breathe and live chess. When they are not playing, they animatedly discuss their last game threadbare.
The story of these chess-crazy people is soon becoming a movie. August Club , directed by K.B. Venu, is inspired by the village and its chess players. Ananthapadmanabhan, son of the legendary film-maker Padmarajan, has written the script for the movie.
Thilakan, Rima Kallingal, Murali Gopi, Mala Aravindan, KPAC Lalitha and Sukumari act in it, along with the chess-crazy villagers.
It all began when one man named C. Unnikrishnan decided to teach almost everybody in his village how to play the game.
He was inspired by a report he read in a newspaper about the American legend Bobby Fischer, who became the youngest Grandmaster when he was just short of 16.
Soon, Mr. Unnikrishnan, then a 10th standard student, started attending chess coaching classes by “Narayanan Master” at Thalore, his neighbouring village. Equipped with expertise, he went on a mission to popularise the game in his village.
“I started giving free coaching classes in my house. I wanted everybody in my village to learn the game. I have been training young and old chess aspirants for the past 40 years,” he says.
Mr. Unnikrishnan was so good a teacher that it did not take long for the village to not just grasp the nuances but also develop an obsession for the game.
“Chess is my passion. Once I start playing, I forget everything. It’s kind of an addiction,” he says.
Mr. Unnikrishnan runs a restaurant and the people are free to gather there anytime and play chess. Also, in a makeshift shed built outside his house, participants ranging from eight-year-old Aljo to 75-year-old “Dasettan” are seen bent over the chessboard furiously making their moves.
“The players who trained here have won many tournaments. I have trained more than 600 people,” Mr. Unnikrishnan says.
Every waking hour at Marottichal sees scores of people playing chess with passion.