Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Podemos revolution: how a small group of radical academics changed European politics

a Podemos political party banner being put up in Spain

Giles Tremlett in The Guardian

At the start of the 2008 academic year, Pablo Iglesias, a 29-year-old lecturer with a pierced eyebrow and a ponytail greeted his students at the political sciences faculty of the Complutense University in Madrid by inviting them to stand on their chairs. The idea was to re-enact a scene from the film Dead Poets Society. Iglesias’s message was simple. His students were there to study power, and the powerful can be challenged. This stunt was typical of him. Politics, Iglesias thought, was not just something to be studied. It was something you either did, or let others do to you. As a professor, he was smart, hyperactive and – as a founder of a university organisation called Counter-Power – quick to back student protest. He did not fit the classic profile of a doctrinaire intellectual from Spain’s communist-led left. But he was clear about what was to blame for the world’s ills: the unfettered, globalised capitalism that, in the wake of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, had installed itself as the developed world’s dominant ideology.

Iglesias and the students, ex-students and faculty academics worked hard to spread their ideas. They produced political television shows and collaborated with their Latin American heroes – left-leaning populist leaders such as Rafael Correa of Ecuador or Evo Morales of Bolivia. But when they launched their own political party on 17 January 2014 and gave it the name Podemos (“We Can”), many dismissed it. With no money, no structure and few concrete policies, it looked like just one of several angry, anti-austerity parties destined to fade away within months.

A year later, on 31 January 2015, Iglesias strode across a stage in Madrid’s emblematic central square, the Puerta del Sol. It was filled with 150,000 people, squeezed in so tightly that it was impossible to move. He addressed the crowd with the impassioned rhetoric for which opponents have branded him a dangerous leftwing populist. He railed against the monsters of “financial totalitarianism” who had humiliated them all. He told Podemos’s followers to dream and, like that noble madman Don Quixote, “take their dreams seriously”.Spain was in the grip of historic, convulsive change. The serried crowd were heirs to the common folk who – armed with knives, flowerpots and stones – had rebelled against Napoleonic troops in nearby streets two centuries earlier. “We can dream, we can win!” he shouted.

Polls suggest that he is right. Since 1982, Spain has been governed by only two parties. Yet El País newspaper now places Podemos at 22%, ahead of both the ruling conservative Partido Popular (PP) and its leftwing opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). If Podemos can grow further, Iglesias could become prime minister after elections that are expected in November. This would be an almost unheard-of achievement for such a young party.

Many in the Puerta del Sol longed to see that day. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” they chanted. Other onlookers shivered, recalling Iglesias’s praise for Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez and fearing an eruption of Latin American-style populism in a country gripped by debt, austerity and unemployment. But without Podemos, supporters feared, Spain faced the prospect of becoming like Greece, with its disintegrating welfare state, crumbling middle class and rampant inequality.

On stage that day, Iglesias declared that Podemos would take back power from self-serving elites and hand it over to the people. To do that, the new party needs votes. If that means arousing emotions and being accused of populism, so be it. And, as the party’s founders have already shown, if they have to renounce some of their ideas in order to broaden their appeal, or risk upsetting some in their grassroots movement by tightening central control, they are ready to do that, too. The aim, after all, is to win.

At first glance, Podemos’s dizzying rise looks miraculous. In truth, the project evolved over a long time, though even the organisers did not know it would eventually spawn a party, or that a global financial crisis would provide their opportunity. In Spain today, one-third of the labour force is either jobless or earns less than the minimum annual salary of €9,080. In big cities, the sight of people raiding bins for food or things to sell – a rarity in pre-crisis Spain – is no longer shocking. A fatalistic gloom has settled over a country that rode a wave of optimism for three decades after it transformed itself from dictatorship to democracy. After years of economic growth, the financial crisis burst Spain’s construction bubble. Countless corruption cases – involving both the PP and PSOE – have stoked widespread anger towards the established political class. “A political crisis is a moment for daring,” Iglesias told an audience recently. “It is when a revolutionary is capable of looking people in the eye and telling them, ‘Look, those people are your enemies.’”

He is not the first Pablo Iglesias to shake Spain’s political order. He is named after the man who founded the PSOE in 1879. (His parents first met at a remembrance ceremony in front of Iglesias’s tomb.) As a teenager, Iglesias was a member of the Communist Youth in Vallecas, one of Madrid’s poorest and proudest barrios. He still lives there today, in a modest apartment on a graffiti-daubed 1980s estate of medium- and high-rise blocks. (“Defend your happiness, organise your rage,” reads one graffiti slogan.) Even as a teenager, he was “a leader and great seducer”, recalled a senior Podemos member who had attended the same youth group. Iglesias studied law at the Complutense University before taking a second undergraduate degree in political science. He went on to write a PhD thesis on disobedience and anti-globalisation protests that was awarded a prestigious cum laude grade

 Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias rails against the monsters of ‘financial totalitarianism’, and tells the party’s followers to ‘take their dreams seriously’. Photograph: Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty

It was at Complutense, where he began to lecture after receiving his doctorate, that Iglesias met the key figures who would help him found Podemos. Deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker who argued that a key battle was over the machinery that shaped public opinion, this group also found inspiration at the University of Essex. There, the Argentine academic Ernesto Laclau began in the 1970s to write a series of works on Marxism, populism and demoracy which, along with work by his Belgian wife Chantal Mouffe (now at the University of Westminister), have had a profound impact on Podemos’s leadership. Their complex 1985 book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, remains a key point of reference for Podemos’s leadership.

Socialism, Laclau and Mouffe argued, should no longer focus on class warfare. Instead, socialists should seek to unite discontented groups – such as feminists, gay people, environmentalists, the unemployed – against a clearly defined enemy, usually the establishment. One way of doing this was through a charismatic leader who would fight the powerful on behalf of the underdogs. Laclau and Mouffe encouraged this new left to appeal to voters with simple, emotionally engaging rhetoric. They argued that liberal elites decry such tactics as populism because they are scared of ordinary people becoming involved in politics.

“There is too much consensus and not enough dissent [in leftwing politics],” said Mouffe, an elegant 71-year-old, at her London apartment in February. To her, the rise of rightwing populists such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France or Nigel Farage’s Ukip in the UK is proof that the post-Thatcherite consensus – cemented by “third way” social democrats such as Tony Blair – has left a dangerous vacuum. “The choice today is between rightwing or leftwing populism,” Mouffe told Iglesias in a TV interview in February.

If Iglesias had long seen neoliberals as the enemy and social democrats as sellouts, he eventually came to view the traditional far left as well-meaning fools. They damned television as lowbrow and manipulative, refusing to see that people’s politics were increasingly defined by the media they consumed rather than by loyalty to parties. This was something Spain’s aggressive far-right pundits had grasped in the mid-2000s, setting up television channels that exercised much the same pressure on the PP as Fox News does on the Republicans in the US. Iglesias believed it was time for the left to do something similar.

In May 2010 he organised a faculty debate that limited speakers to turns of 99 seconds. He named the event after the ska anthem One Step Beyond. Iglesias asked Tele-K, a neighbourhood TV channel partly housed in a disused Vallecas garage, to record them. “I was amazed by Pablo’s skills as a presenter, and by the care they had taken in setting it up,” Tele-K director Paco Pérez told me. He was sufficiently impressed to invite Iglesias to produce and present a debate series. Iglesias and his small team of students and activists took the idea seriously, although the station’s audience was tiny. “Pablo would even rehearse – something we’d never seen,” said Pérez. “The amazing thing was that we started to get a big online audience. It became a cult show.” La Tuerka (a play on the Spanish word for nut or screw), an initially earnest round-table debate show, became the seed for Podemos.

* * *

On 15 May 2011, Íñigo Errejón, the man who would become Podemos’s No 2, reached Madrid from Quito, Ecuador. Errejón was days away from presenting a PhD thesis at Complutense University that linked the success of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, to the ideas of Gramsci, Mouffe and Laclau. Friends suggested that he head straight to the Puerta del Sol, where something extraordinary was happening.

Demonstrators gather near Madrid’s Puerta del Sol for a ‘March for Change’ organised by Podemos in January. Photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty

Somehow a protest march had turned into a camp that eventually drew tens of thousands of protesters. The indignados, who would inspire the Occupy movement, then took over city squares across the country, railing against politicians. “They don’t represent us!” became the rallying cry. Polls showed that 80% of the public backed the protestors. Some even carried Spain’s red-and-gold flag, a sign that this was bigger than the standard leftwing protests at which the purple, gold and red flag of Spain’s long-lost Republic usually dominated. The indignados debated at open-air assemblies, taking turns to speak and using hand gestures – raised waving hands for “yes”, crossed arms for “no” – to express agreement or disagreement.

For Iglesias and his fellow theorists at Complutense University, the protests made perfect sense. The consensus between Spain’s two biggest parties around German-imposed austerity had turned many citizens into political orphans, with no one to represent them. “Those with the power still governed, but they no longer convinced people,” Errejón told me recently.

Still, a month after the protests began, the squares had emptied. Six months later, at the end of 2011, Spain elected a new government, amid warnings that, whoever won, German chancellor Angela Merkel would be in charge. Disillusioned voters saw that even the PSOE offered little more than cowed obedience to Merkel’s demands for more austerity. Following a low turnout, Mariano Rajoy’s PP won an absolute majority and introduced further cuts while slowly taming budget deficits that had topped 11%. The indignado spirit, it seemed, had been crushed.

In fact, indignado assemblies continued to meet, and for the most politically active, La Tuerka became essential viewing. With time, the show moved to the online news site Público, and became more polished. Each show would begin with Iglesias or his fellow Complutense professor Juan Carlos Monedero delivering a monologue, followed by debate and rap music. When Iran’s state-run Spanish-language television service, HispanTV, asked for an Iglesias-presented show, starting in January 2013, the team jumped at it. The show, called Fort Apache, opened with Iglesias astride a Harley Davidson Sportster motorbike, placing a helmet over his head and – after a close-up of his eyes – slinging a massive crossbow across his back before roaring off. “Watch your head, white man. This is Fort Apache!” he warned in the trailers. They were still, however, preaching mostly to a small number of the already converted.

All that changed on 25 April 2013, when Iglesias appeared on a rightwing debate show on the small channel Intereconomia. “It is a pleasure to cross enemy lines and talk,” said Iglesias by way of introduction. He was outnumbered. He would be debating against four conservative pundits. But Iglesias had come prepared and acquitted himself well. Soon, he was receiving invitations to appear on debate shows on Spain’s mainstream channels. Ratings surged as Iglesias, equipped with endless facts and a series of simple messages, wiped the floor with fellow debaters. The cocksure young lecturer usually sat with one ankle resting on a knee and an arm casually thrown behind his chair, his smile occasionally slipping into condescension. He repeated, mantra-like, that the blame for Spain’s woes lay with “la casta”, his name for the corrupt political and business elites he claimed had sold the country to the banks. The other enemy was Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and the unelected officials who oversaw the euro from the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Iglesias did not want Spain to leave the European Union, but he was not satisfied with it either. Above all, he wanted Spaniards to recover “sovereignty”, a concept that, like many others, remained fuzzy.

Ratings surged as Iglesias, equipped with endless facts and simple messages, wiped the floor with fellow debaters

A media star had been born. Many knew him just as “el coletas” (“the pony-tailed one”). Iglesias had spent years honing his technique, doing theatre and even attending a presenter’s course at state television RTVE’s academy. Communication, he had already declared in his PhD thesis, was key to protest. For years he and Monedero had been telling Spain’s communist-led leftwing coalition Izquierda Unida (IU) that it should learn from the Latin Americans and widen its appeal. Now they proposed a broad leftwing movement, with open primaries at which outside candidates such as Iglesias could stand. They received a firm no from IU leader Cayo Lara, who later declared that Iglesias had “the principles of Groucho Marx”. So they created it themselves.

* * *

The Podemos plan was cemented over a dinner in August 2013, during the four-day “summer university” of a tiny, radical party called Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA). Iglesias and IA heavyweight Miguel Urbán, then a then 33-year-old veteran of multiple protest movements agreed to work together, creating the strange and tense marriage between a single, charismatic leader – Iglesias – and an organisation that hates hierachy. “Pablo had political and media prestige, but that was not enough,” Urbán told me. “We needed an organisational base that stretched across the country, and that was IA.”

The plan was daring and highly improbable. It was to be an 18-month assault on power, with the ultimate aim being to replace the PSOE as leaders of the left and unseat Prime Minister Rajoy at the 2015 general election. The core clique of like-minded academics from the Complutense political sciences faculty, who were veterans of La Tuerka, would manage the campaign. At last, they would be able to try out their ideas on a national scale.

The first test for Podemos would be the May 2014 European elections. Many voters view the European parliament as toothless because the EU’s major decisions are taken elsewhere. With so little at stake, they take risks in the polling booth. Iglesias and Urbán saw the European elections as a potential springboard for their 2015 general election campaign. The party’s name – which echoes not just Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, but also a TV jingle for Spain’s European and World Cup-winning football team – came during a car journey a few months after the forming of the initial pact between Iglesias and Urbán. “We thought of ‘Yes you can!’, but that already existed,” said Urbán. “So then we went for Podemos [We Can]. It was nicely affirmative.”

On January 17 2014, Iglesias officially announced the creation of Podemos at a small theatre in Lavapiés, the hip Madrid district that over the past decade has filled up with alternative bookshops, galleries and bars. Iglesias (his eyebrow stud now removed in order to improve his electoral image) explained that a cornerstone of the Podemos project would be indignado-style “circles”, or assemblies. These circles, built around local communities or shared political interests, could meet, debate or vote in person or online. He told the crowd that if 50,000 people signed a petition on the Podemos website, he would lead a list of candidates at the European parliamentary elections in May. The target was reached within 24 hours, despite the website crashing for part of that time.

Pablo Echenique got involved with Podemos via its regional ‘circles’, and was elected as an MEP in 2014. Photograph: Jose Luis Cuesta/Cordon Press/Corbis

The Podemos project was born with two contradictions that would become increasingly apparent over time. First, it would be both radical and pragmatic in its pursuit of power. Second, it pledged to hand control to grassroots activists, despite the fact the party depended on one man’s popularity. But at the beginning, these tensions were far from most people’s minds. Excitement and idealism were the norm.

Pablo Echenique, a research physicist with spinal muscular atrophy, saw the Lavapiés speech on YouTube at his home in Zaragoza, central Spain. Three years earlier, Echenique had bumped along Zaragoza’s streets in his electric wheelchair to join the indignado protesters. He was excited by the debates, but frustrated by the lack of action. “They had no bite,” he told me. “There was no answer about what to do next.” When, four days after the Lavapiés speech, Iglesias travelled to a cultural centre beside Plaza San Agustín in Zaragoza for his first European election campaign meeting , Echenique got there early, but the 180-seat hall filled quickly. “Soon there were 500 people outside, so Pablo said: ‘I know it’s cold, but it’s worse not to have a job. We don’t fit here, so let’s go out into the plaza.’ It was freezing.”

It was in Zaragoza that Urbán first realised that Podemos might succeed. “As I waited at the door, someone asked whether I was from Podemos in Zaragoza,” Urbán told me. “I was in charge of Podemos’s organisation, but thought we didn’t really exist yet, so I just said I had come from Madrid. He replied, ‘Well, I’m from Podemos in Calatayud.’ That’s a town with just 20,000 inhabitants. Suddenly I realised that something really had changed. It was the political equivalent of occupying the squares.” A pattern was set, of packed campaign meetings that were generally ignored by the press. For those involved, it was exhilarating. Urbán took home the money gathered at the meetings to count. “We would get €2,000 from a single meeting. It was like belonging to a church,” he said.

Iglesias said politics was like sex: you start off doing it badly, but learn with experience

Echenique was inspired. “I told Pablo, ‘You say we should get organised, but I’ve never been in an organised political party. Can you give me some ideas?’ Pablo said it was like sex: you start off doing it badly, but learn with experience.” Echenique joined two circles, one in Zaragoza and one online-based group for people with disabilities. He was one of 150 candidates put forward by circles for the European parliament. These were ranked in order by 33,000 people who signed on for free to the party website. Iglesias came first and Echenique was fifth. Only one of the top 12 candidates was over 36 years old.

Podemos then embarked on the complex process of writing a “participative” election manifesto, based on ideas from the circles and then voted for online. The result was original, but also impractical and uncosted. It called for a basic state salary for all citizens and non-payment of “illegitimate” parts of the public debt, although the manifesto did not specify which parts these were – two measures that Podemos has since back-pedalled on.

 Alexis Tsipras (left), leader of Greece’s Syriza party and now the country’s prime minister, with Podemos leader Igelsias. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Little more than a month before the European elections, Podemos’s own polling revealed that only 8% of Spaniards had heard of them. However, 50% knew who Pablo Iglesias was. The party took the controversial step of changing its logo, putting Iglesias’s face on it to ensure it would go on the ballot slips. Eighteen days before the vote, the state-run pollster CIS said Podemos might scrape one seat.

On the night of the election, Podemos surprised everybody. It took 8% of the vote, with Iglesias, Echenique and three others becoming MEPs. Amid all the celebration, Iglesias remained cool. The PP was still in government, he warned. The battle had only just begun.

* * *

Eight months after the elections, on a flight back to Madrid from Athens in January, Iglesias sat, as he always does, in a budget seat. He had just helped Alexis Tsipras of Syriza close a campaign rally with a line by Leonard Cohen – “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” – and a few well-pronounced words in Greek. It was an early start after a late night, but he was already in work mode. “I drink Red Bull so that I can read on long flights,” he said in the lounge, as a Greek businessman who owned restaurants in Madrid insisted on paying for our cafe freddo at the coffee kiosk and enthused about the changes coming to both countries.

In person, Iglesias’s combative public persona gives way to careful politeness (“Like the perfect son-in-law,” according to Mouffe). Unlike other leading politicians, he refuses to ride around in official cars, but he has lost his freedom to walk down the street or go into a bar without being stopped. When we arrived at Madrid’s Barajas airport, a lottery ticket vendor who caught sight of him stopped in her tracks. “You don’t have to buy. Just win!” she said, eyes bulging.

Iglesias was energised by his Athens visit, but Tsipras had been less effusive the night before, when, at a party on the terrace of a nightclub with spectacular views of the Parthenon, I asked him whether a future Podemos victory was key toSyriza. Not really, he answered. “Their elections are not for a while,” said the man who, three days later, became Europe’s lone austerity rebel. “I think we will open roads for them.”

Spain is not Greece. Austerity may be hurting – the Roman Catholic charity Caritas distributed food, clothes and help to 2.5 million people (one in 20 Spaniards) last year – but it has not produced the scenes of deprivation that one regularly sees on the streets of Athens, such as the queues at charity pharmacies where those excluded from state medical care go for medicines. Still, “if this can happen to us,” said Iliopoulou Vassiliki, a pharmacy volunteer, expressing a fear shared by many Podemos supporters, “who will be next?”

A few days after Iglesias returned from Athens, Iglesias visited Valencia for a rally. Podemos will win much of the youth vote at the general election, but those who attend their rallies – many of them members of local Podemos circles – are mostly older. Activism comes more easily to those in their forties and above, many of whom recall the heady early years of Spain’s democratic transition and are surprised by the younger generation’s passivity. Loudspeakers pumped out Patti Smith’s People Have the Power to 8,000 people packed into the basketball stadium. “Here comes the rockstar moment,” warned a Spanish journalist as Iglesias and Errejón appeared to raucous applause. A middle-aged woman in leopardskin-print trousers bellowed: “Presidente! Presidente!” Someone else shouted: “Long live the mother who gave birth to you!”

As capital of a region notorious for political corruption, Valencia is fertile ground for Podemos. Iglesias read out a letter from Nerea, a girl who was there on her ninth birthday. “We like you because you help people,” it said. “Thank you for giving my parents hope again.” The father held the girl above his head. “They [the establishment] aren’t afraid of me, Nerea. They are afraid of you and families who have said, ‘That’s enough!’,” said Iglesias, before segueing into a series of slogans: “The smiles have changed sides”; “Of course we can!” John Carlin, an El País writer, says Iglesias is selling a religious tale similar to that of Jesus expelling the money changers. The implication is that Podemos’s followers prefer the uplifting feeling of shared faith to cool reason. I recalled a volunteer in a Podemos office in Madrid who surprised me by confiding that he would not vote for them. “There is too much emotion,” he said.

Podemos activist Irene Camps had come to the rally with circle members from Manises, a struggling industrial town near Valencia’s airport where a former PP mayor is being tried for (which he denies). One evening a few weeks after the rally, Camps and I stood outside the local Consum supermarket with half a dozen women who were waiting to go through its bins for food. Nearby, a huge theatre, the construction of which started during Spain’s boom days before the 2007 crash, sat unfinished. “Everyone’s talking about Podemos. We should give them a chance,” said Paqui Fernández, the women’s self-appointed leader. She and her friends recalled that this land was occupied by “cave-houses” – homes built from holes in the rock – in the 1950s. It was a reminder of how far Spain has come since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, but also that memories of poverty are not that old. Camps is part of Spain’s recently expanded, but now shrinking and scared, middle class. “If we don’t change things,” she said. “I’ll end up like Paqui.”

The party’s use of transparency websites, voting tools and online debate is already cutting-edge

The next day, bathed in winter sunshine, Camps helped at an open-air Podemos assembly on a ramshackle estate of detached houses in countryside outside Manises. Timid locals stepped into a circle of earnest, purple-shirted activists and were applauded for airing their fears. The party’s 900-odd circles are key to Podemos’s participative approach and local popularity, but they are hard to control. (The party still does not have a full list of them.) Anyone can join in and vote.

If Podemos wants to be more than a traditional party or a top-heavy populist movement then it must deliver on direct democracy. The party’s use of transparency websites (detailing all spending, including salaries), voting tools and online debate is already cutting-edge. Its Plaza Podemos debating site regularly attracts between 10,000 and 20,000 daily visitors. “Nothing on this scale using online tools is happening anywhere else in the world,” Ben Knight, one of the entrepreneurs behind a collaborative decision-making app, Loomio, told me.

 Spain has not suffered the same deprivations as Greece, but austerity is hurting, and there is widespread anger towards the established political class. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

But on the wider use of direct democracy, as with other matters, Podemos does not yet have a settled strategy. The only fixed principles are that senior party members, including Iglesias, should be sackable by referendum, and that post-electoral coalitions must be voted on by supporters. Whether Podemos can balance the demands of its grassroots activists, who expect to shape policy, with the powerful influence of Iglesias and his clique of Complutense academics, remains one of the most challenging questions for the party’s future.

When it came to finally deciding on the party’s structure at an open assembly last autumn, Iglesias’s team wanted a strong leader. Echenique’s rival proposal for a shared, three-person leadership gained the backing of many activist circles, but won just a fifth of the 112,000 votes cast online. “You could say that Iglesias got the more superficial votes,” said Miguel Arana Catania of LaboDemo, a digital consultancy that advises Podemos. “These were the people who had seen him on television.” It is only at a local level, or when turnout is low, that the Complutense group loses control.

* * *

Charismatic leadership is hardwired into Podemos. Senior members admit the project would be impossible without Iglesias’s vision, television skills and leadership. That does not make him a Hugo Chávez, as some would like to claim, but it does raise questions about how much power he might accumulate. “I am not irreplaceable,” Iglesias himself has declared. “I’m an activist, not an alpha male, and I place myself under the orders of the majority.”

Members of his close-knit team of 60 people, who have mostly worked out of cramped offices with curling carpets and broken doorbells, often profess undying loyalty. “I take attacks on him personally,” admitted one. Many of his team have shed their studies, careers or relationships over the past year as the Podemos project has taken off. Those with children – a tiny minority, since the average age is 26 – complain that the work is too draining. Men predominate, though the party presents “zipper” lists of candidates (so-called after the teeth of a zip), with men and women alternating, for public posts. Others who would like to work for Podemos say the salary cap of €1,900 per month is prohibitive. (Earnings above that from public positions are donated to the party and other causes.)

Iglesias is aware of the paradox of a party with anti-capitalist roots bidding to administer a market-based economy

Podemos has a new Madrid headquarters a few floors down from the scruffy rooms where it had set up camp after the European elections. It was in this bland office block that, 13 months after founding his party, Iglesias agreed to meet for a sit-down interview. “At last, the world’s most sought-after man,” joked one of his staff as we waited outside his door. Iglesias looked oddly out of place in this pristine but anodyne new home, with its hotel-style fitted carpets and shiny wooden doors. His bracelets and his hair, neatly gathered in a colourful elasticated band, contrast with his unflashy day-to-day uniform of checked shirts, jeans or cheap chinos and trainers. (“None of them are interested in money,” a fellow lecturer said of Podemos’s Complutense core.) He admitted he was tired, and a slightly gaunt look emphasised the sense of asceticism.

Iglesias is aware of the paradox of a party with anti-capitalist roots bidding to administer a market-based economy. “In the short term we are limited to using the state to redistribute a little more, have fairer taxes, boost the economy and start building a model that recovers industry and brings back sovereignty. We accept that the euro is inescapable. The change we represent is, in some way, about recovering a consensus that 20 years ago would even have included some parts of Christian democracy.” Among other measures, he would stimulate the economy by redistributing money to the poor and boosting the public payroll, adding more tax inspectors, judges and social-service workers, and paying for this with higher taxes.

An Iglesias government would take some lessons from Syriza. He did not see the deal that Syriza made in February, which gave Greece a four-month extension on its bailout, as a climb-down by his friend Tsipras. “A small, weak country that is much less important to the eurozone and the EU than Spain, has changed the way things are done – by adopting a tough, stony-faced stance,” he said. In negotiations, Iglesias would use Spain’s muscle as the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy (which, implicitly, makes it big enough to bring the currency down). “You can’t get everything you want, but if you start out hard-faced and tough, then the results are completely different.”

Iglesias likes to deflect questions about populism by pointing to Rajoy’s 2011 electoral pledge to create 3.5m jobs, when the economy has actually shed 600,000 since then. “The real populists are those who make impossible promises,” he said. But the party ties itself in knots over the description. Errejón told me opponents were both right and wrong to call them populists. “The establishment uses populism as a synonym for telling the impoverished majority what it wants to hear,” he said. “That takes us straight back to the idea that only the better-off should vote. It is as if the masses were childlike.” Iglesias sidestepped the issue with a flash of intellectual arrogance. “Laclau would never use the concept of populism in the way that readers of the Guardian would understand it,” he said, denying that there was any demagoguery in Podemos and adding that, to Laclau, most politics was populism anyway.

His bid for greater sovereignty for Spaniards includes a wider separation ofEurope from the US, which he feels dictated EU policy over Ukraine. “I don’t feel any ideological sympathy for Putin, but I think the EU was wrong to take such a belligerent stance with Russia,” he said. Referring to the Maidan protests that eventually led to the revolution, he said: “It was unreasonable to back what – to use a softer expression than coup d’etat – was an illegal displacement of political power.”

Iglesias saw no conflict between Podemos’s values and presenting a programme on what many see as a propaganda channel for Iran’s repressive theocracy. “In Fort Apache, I have complete control over style and content,” he said. Were he prime minister, Iglesias would happily keep presenting shows and conducting interviews with actors, film directors, intellectuals and politicians. “It would be a way of showing that you can devote yourself to politics without stopping doing other things,” he said. “I don’t know whether it would be possible in practice. The diary of a prime minister brings limitations, but we are here to change things.”

One journalist wrote that Iglesias is selling a religious tale similar to that of Jesus expelling the money-changers

Regional elections on 24 May will show whether Podemos has peaked. In recent months, Ciudadanos, a new centre-right rival, has transformed the political landscape once again. With its pledge to oust the establishment and usher in a new era of transparent, corruption-free politics, Ciudadanos offers a safe alternative to those scared of Podemos. It even has, in Albert Rivera, a young and charismatic – but far more orthodox – leader to rival Iglesias. A resurgent Spanish economy, now growing and creating jobs much faster than most of Europe, may boost Rajoy at the general election or, at least, hand a semi-healed economy to whoever succeeds him. Press scrutiny, which has shone light on the close links between some senior Podemos people and Venezuela, also hurt their brand just before March 22 elections for the parliament of the strongly socialist southern region of Andalucia, where they nevertheless doubled their vote (from European elections) to 15%.

But the Podemos earthquake has already shattered the status quo, forcing the PSOE into electing a young new leader – Pedro Sánchez – while IU disintegrates into bitter infighting over whether to ally with the party that may prove its nemesis. El País’s pollster narrowly makes Podemos Spain’s most popular party, but the party cannot enter government without seeking coalition allies among the “old” parties it damns as part of “la casta”. That may force it into opposition. “Hopefully Podemos would be willing to work with us,” former PSOE minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar told me in Brussels in December. “But so far, I perceive a threatening mix of arrogance, self-infatuation and condescension.”

It is tempting to see Podemos as a well-planned operation by a group of talented academics, following a populist script written by a line of radical thinkers, but that would be too simple. It is really the result of an open-ended effort by unorthodox idealists to effect change, combining youthful conviction with a desire to test out their ideas in the real world. As it attempts to forge a new consensus, however, it is inevitably drifting away from its radical roots. At a class Iglesias gave to visiting students at the European parliament in December – perhaps his last for a long time – he recognised that if he governs by Europe’s current capitalist rules, leftwing critics will accuse him of being a cowardly reformist. “The answer to that is: ‘And where are your arms for getting rid of capitalism?’” he said. Realism, then, as much as idealism, will dictate Podemos’s future. Only when put into practice will we discover how, or if, the Podemos participative “method” changes democracy, European politics or ordinary lives. But what is certain is that Iglesias has proved the point he liked to make to his students: the powerful really can be challenged.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Saturday jobs ‘can damage exam grades for teenagers’

Tracy McVeigh in The Guardian
There was widespread praise for millionaire parents David and Victoria Beckham when it was revealed that they had sent their eldest son, Brooklyn, to do a few weekend shifts in a west London coffee shop. And Jamie Oliver won approval for insisting that he’ll be keeping his eldest two daughters “real” by encouraging them to work in his new pub on Saturdays.
However, new research suggests that teenagers who take on a Saturday job could be damaging their GCSE grades – an effect especially noticeable in girls – even while they earn extra cash they might spend on risky behaviours like drinking or smoking.
Taking a part-time job – gaining work skills and pocket money for those teenage essentials – while studying for exams has an impact on the end results, according to the study, from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.
In December the Conservative minister for business, Matthew Hancock, urged employers to create more Saturday jobs and said teenagers were missing out, after figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the numbers of schoolchildren with part-time jobs had fallen to a record low.
The proportion of 16- and 17-year-olds working in shops, waiting on tables or having a paper round had fallen from 30% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2014. “A paid job while you’re in school can go a long way with a prospective employer and makes it easier to get a foot on the career ladder,” Hancock said.
But this latest study, Youth Employment and Academic Performance: Production Function and Policy Effects, written by Dr Angus Holford, has cast doubt on the wisdom of working and studying. It used the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, which followed a cohort of teenagers aged 13 to 14 in 2004. Holford looked at the hours they spent working and the impact this had on the time they spent doing other things – including risky behaviour and sport – as well as their study time and subsequent exam grades at GCSE.
“Around a quarter of all 13- to 16-year-olds in England take some formal paid employment during school term time,” said Holford. “This can be a good thing – they earn their own money and can pick up useful skills, which might help them find full-time work in the future. However, they may spend that hard-earned money on less than useful things, or fall in with a different group of people. We did find that schoolchildren who worked became more likely to drink alcohol regularly, smoke or consume cannabis.”
However, the biggest impact of part-time work was on the school grades of girls. For teenage girls, an additional hour of paid employment per week in school year 10 reduced their final GCSE performance a year later by approximately one grade in one subject. This was in part caused by the girls spending less time studying outside lessons.
Holford said he suspected another factor influencing their grades could be explained by girls in employment becoming less motivated by school and less interested in the work they did in their lessons.
Girls who have a job at the age of 15 work on average six hours a week, which means their part-time work is likely to reduce their results considerably – a grade lower in six subjects.
“The long-term effect of this would be particularly bad for borderline students at risk of not achieving the target for progression in education, of five A*-C grades – including English and maths. Given that academic results at 16 have such a significant influence over our future life outcomes, these findings should worry policymakers and parents who want young people to achieve their potential at this crucial point,” said Holford.
“It’s inevitable that having a job gives teenagers less time to study. That alone might be a small price to pay given the potential benefits of having a part-time job for all-round development. What concerns me instead is how it causes teenagers to lose sight of the importance of their education for their longer-term opportunities.”

Saturday, 28 March 2015

How the science of sport can boost exam revision

Training your brain to revise well can be a bit like football training Picture: Alamy 
Jon Finn recently won the Education Initiative of the Year award for his programme Tougher Minds, which takes the insights of sports psychology and applies them to the classroom. Here he boils down the latest scientific research into a 12-point guide.
The holy trinity
1. Before you even start planning your revision, you need to be aware of three key factors in the performance of your brain: sleep, diet and exercise. And the greatest of these three is sleep. Britain’s cycling trailblazers Team Sky value it so highly that they employ a sleep scientist during the Tour de France. So for the next few nights, rank your sleep quality out of ten each morning, as well as recording what time you went to bed and woke up. If you’re getting less than nine hours a night, try staying away from electronic screens for an hour before bedtime.
Mapping out your sessions
Setting small achievable goals will help you map out your revision and keep an eye on your progress
2. The next stage is to set some goals. Use the four-column principle: write down each subject, the grade you got in your mocks, how much effort you are currently putting in (out of 100), and finally the grade you’re aiming for. Don’t make it easy: stretch yourself. Put the grid somewhere you can see it: on the fridge or in front of your desk.
3. Now write a brief revision plan for the next three days. Most people want to work on the subjects they like, but this can mean you’ll get polarised results: As and Ds, for instance. The better you are at a subject, the harder it is to improve, so spend more time on the weaker ones.
4. Follow the 20:20 rule. Research shows us that a golfer who stands on the range and hits shots with a varied sequence of clubs every day does better than a golfer who hits her driver on Monday, her five-iron on Tuesday and so on. The same applies when you’re revising: you’ll improve quicker if you spend 20 minutes on one subject, and then move on to the next. Aim to fit around 20x20-minute sessions into a day; that’s about the equivalent of being at school.
But do put some “Break” sessions in, because most people fare better when they don’t abandon their work-life balance completely. Some might want to reward themselves with an occasional 20 minutes on the Xbox, others will prefer to make time for netball practice or meeting friends. Also include a few “Flexible” entries, because some subjects will probably require more attention than you expected. Use a kitchen timer if possible, not the dreaded iPhone, because it only does one thing and won’t distract you.
How each session should work
Your twenty minute sessions should be like interval training, in that your confidence grows with time
5. Our next piece of sports science is called functional equivalence. When revising, try to simulate the conditions you’ll be tested in, in the same way that Jonny Wilkinson repeatedly practised the drop-goal that won the 2003 rugby World Cup in training. So don’t revise with loud music banging away, or with your parent helping you, or by reading all day and not writing at all. Yes, in your 20-minute slot, you’ll need to look at your notes – especially in essay subjects – but then close your book or your folder and write out some answers, as if giving yourself a 10-minute mini-exam. You could even go so far as to wear the same clothes you will wear in the exam; every little helps!
6. Repeat to remember; remember to repeat. It’s estimated that you need to go over facts four or five times, at spaced-out intervals, to achieve long-term recall. When Jon trains his students, he talks about “turning cobwebs to cables”, which is a reference to the way neurons form strong pathways through repetition. But as with weight training, you don’t do it all at once; you build up your muscles over a sequence of days and weeks. One practical option here is to use the Leitner System: a card-index approach in which you rank topics according to how confident you are with them, and then organise them so that the trickier ones come up more often.
7Don’t expect revision to be fun! It’s important to remember that we are not well evolved for schoolwork. We still have the same basic cognitive framework as our prehistoric ancestors, who generally lived for 20 to 35 years, and so were designed to seek short-term rewards rather than building skills that might help them over the long term. Your inner caveman is probably going to get frustrated and cranky at the lack of instant satisfaction in this process. He is going to look for distractions, so lock that mobile phone in another room, and turn off your internet connection if you’re using a computer. It’s better to work with pen and paper anyway, because of point No. 6 above.
8. Build your house of confidence. At the end of each 20-minute session, identify three things you have learned or done well in that time. Because your caveman is designed for survival, he is always on the look-out for threats and negative thoughts – the voice in the back of your head that says “You will never be able to do this; it’s boring and you’re wasting your time.” A little upbeat checklist should help you gain a small sense of short-term satisfaction and so keep negativity at bay. Once you have done that, select one thing you can improve on when you return to that topic next time.
While regularly checking your progress helps, putting your phone away will alllow you to really focus
9. Assess yourself at the end of the day in a closing ceremony, an expanded version of what you did at the end of each session. How well did you follow the plan? Which sessions were most effective? Was there a pattern to times of the day when you achieved more? It probably feels like the last thing you want to do after a hard day at your desk, but this is actually where the greatest benefits are to be found. Athletes make good role models here because they track every detail of their lives, and use the data to optimise their performance levels.
10Don’t be afraid to experiment. Your basic unit of study doesn’t have to be exactly 20 minutes – it could be 15 or 30 if that suits you better. Likewise, if your textbook is not helping you understand a certain topic, try searching on YouTube for a video that might present it from a different angle. Or if you suddenly hit a mental block, leave your desk and go for a walk before coming back to it later. Whatever changes you make, they need to be assessed during your closing ceremony. If they’re working for you, you might want to incorporate them into your routine (see 12).
11. One key variable that we haven’t talked about is “activation” – otherwise described as your energy levels. Most people find that their basic activation levels are too low, and therefore benefit from pumping themselves up when they come to study. They might want to do some jogging on the spot or push-ups before they sit down at their desk, but there are others who are happier to be calm. To optimise your productivity, you need to work out where you stand on that spectrum. Here's how to check.
Sample Activation Check
What is activation? It is a concept created to replace the term anxiety. Anxiety is not always bad for learning and performance; you just need to understand how to control it. The symbol below is the activation scale. Low numbers on the scale represent feeling clam and relaxed. If you are at a low number on the scale your breathing and heart rate will be slow. Zero on the scale indicates that you are dead! High numbers on the scale denote being pumped up, nervous or anxious - depending on how you interpret these feelings. If you are at a high number on the scale your breathing and heart rate will be high. You are always somewhere on the scale. Sitting at your desk and writing, aim for a 50 on the activation scale.
The activation scale
You must check and actively manage your activation at the beginning of each 20-minute period to maximise your learning. As the day goes on, achieving the correct activation level can become challenging. You may find it difficult to achieve an optimal activation level during every session. Without good levels of sleep, diet and exercise it will be difficult to manage your activation.
Source: Tougher Minds
Try giving yourself an activation score out of 100 before each 20-minute session, and then at the end of the day look back and see how effective your revision was; a pattern should soon emerge that reveals your optimum score:
12. Once you have found a formula that works, make it a routine. Every professional golfer follows a precise sequence of steps before hitting the ball – both physically and mentally. What makes these people successful, even more than hand-eye coordination, is the ability to control their thoughts when the going gets tough.
Try to master the same single-mindedness in your revision: there is no more valuable skill, at school or in the rest of your life, than self-discipline.

Dirty World - Travelling Wilburys

                                                  "Dirty World"

He love your sexy body, he loves your dirty mind
He loves when you hold him, grab him from behind
Oh baby, you're such a pretty thing
I can't wait to introduce you to the other members of my gang

You don't need no wax job, you're smooth enough for me
If you need you oil changed I'll do it for you free
Oh baby, the pleasure would be all mine
If you let me drive your pickup truck and park it where the sun don't shine

Every time he touches you his ass stands up on end
His legs begin to quiver and his mind begins to bend
Oh baby, you're such a tasty treat
But I'm under doctor's orders, I'm afraid to overeat

He love your sense of humor, your disposition too
There's absolutely nothing that he don't love about you
Oh baby, I'm on my hands and knees
Life would be so simple if I only had you to please

Oh baby, turn around and say goodbye
You go to the airport now and I'm going home to cry
He loves your...

Electric dumplings
Red bell peppers
Fuel injection
Service charge
Five-speed gearbox
Long endurance
Quest for junk food
Big refrigerator
Trembling Wilbury
Marble earrings
Porky curtains
Power steering
Bottled water
Parts and services

Dirty world, a dirty world, it's a ...ing dirty world

Traveling Wilburys - Handle With Care - Lyrics

Friday, 27 March 2015

Cook rice in a way that dramatically cuts the calories

Roberto A Ferdman in The Independent

Rice, the lifeblood of so many nations' cuisines, is perhaps the most ubiquitous food in the world. In Asia, where an estimated 90 percent of all rice is consumed, the pillowy grains are part of almost every meal. In the Caribbean, where the starch is often mixed with beans, it's a staple too. Even here in the United States, where people eat a comparatively modest amount of rice, plenty is still consumed.

Rice is popular because it's malleable—it pairs well with a lot of different kinds of food—and it's relatively cheap. But like other starch-heavy foods, it has one central flaw: it isn't that good for you. White rice consumption, in particular, has been linked to a higher risk of diabetes. A cup of the cooked grain carries with it roughly 200 calories, most of which comes in the form of starch, which turns into sugar, and often thereafter body fat.

But what if there were a simple way to tweak rice ever so slightly to make it much healthier?

An undergraduate student at the College of Chemical Sciences in Sri Lanka and his mentor have been tinkering with a new way to cook rice that can reduce its calories by as much as 50 percent and even offer a few other added health benefits. The ingenious method, which at its core is just a simple manipulation of chemistry, involves only a couple easy steps in practice.

"What we did is cook the rice as you normally do, but when the water is boiling, before adding the raw rice, we added coconut oil—about 3 percent of the weight of the rice you're going to cook," said Sudhair James, who presented his preliminary research at National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on Monday. "After it was ready, we let it cool in the refrigerator for about 12 hours. That's it."

How does it work?

To understand what's going on, you need to understand a bit of food chemistry.

Not all starches, as it happens, are created equal. Some, known as digestible starches, take only a little time to digest, are quickly turned into glucose, and then later glycogen. Excess glycogen ends up adding to the size of our guts if we don't expend enough energy to burn it off. Other starches, meanwhile, called resistant starches, take a long time for the body to process, aren't converted into glucose or glycogen because we lack the ability to digest them, and add up to fewer calories.

A growing body of research, however, has shown that it might be possible to change the types of starches found in foods by modifying how they are prepared. At the very least, we know that there are observable changes when certain foods are cooked different ways.

Potatoes, for instance, go from having the right kind of starch to the less healthful kind when they are cooked or mashed (sigh, I know). The process of heating and cooling certain vegetables, like peas and sweet potatoes, can also alter the amount of resistant (see: good) starches, according to a 2009 study. And rice, depending on the method of preparation, undergoes observable chemical changes. Most notably, fried rice and pilaf style rice have a greater proportion of resistant starch than the most commonly eaten type, steamed rice, as strange as that might seem.

"If you can reduce the digestible starch in something like steamed rice, you can reduce the calories," said Dr. Pushparajah Thavarajah, a professor who is supervising the research. "The impact could be huge."

Understanding this, James and Thavarajva tested eight different recipes on 38 different kinds of rice found in Sri Lanka. What they found is that by adding a lipid (coconut oil in this case, because it's widely used in Sri Lanka) ahead of cooking the rice, and then cooling the rice immediately after it was done, they were able to drastically change its composition—and for the better.

"The oil interacts with the starch in rice and changes its architecture," said James. "Chilling the rice then helps foster the conversion of starches. The result is a healthier serving, even when you heat it back up."

So far they have only measured the chemical outcome of the most effective cooking method for the least healthful of the 38 varieties. But that variety still produced a 10 to 12 percent reduction in calories. "With the better kind, we expect to reduce the calories by as much as 50 to 60 percent," said James.

Cooking that can change the world

The prospect of lower calorie rice is a big deal. Obesity rates are rising around the world, particularly in the developing world, where people rely more heavily on cheaper food staples. China and India, which are already seeing rising obesity problems, are huge consumers of rice. Rice, of course, is not the sole cause of weight gain. But reducing the amount of calories in a cup of rice by even as little as 10 percent could have an enormous impact for future generations.

"Obesity has been a problem in the United States for some time," said Thavarajah. "But it's becoming a problem in Asia, too. People are eating larger and larger portions of rice, which isn't good."

The researchers still have to test the remaining varieties of rice, including Suduru Samba, which they believe will produce the largest calorie reduction. They also plan to experiment with oils other than coconut oil, like sunflower oil.

A world where commercially sold rice comes pre-cooked and with much fewer calories might not be that far off. People should already be able to replicate the process at home, although James warns the results might vary depending on the type of rice used. And there's good reason to believe the chemistry could be applied to many other popular but less-than-healthy foods.

"It's about more than rice," said Thavarajah. "I mean, can we do the same thing for bread? That's the real question here."

Copyright: The Washington Post

Welcome Transitions in Pakistan Tehreek - i - Insaaf

Tarek Fatah chats about his four-months visit to Hindustan - Bilatakalluf with Tahir Gora Ep10

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Welcome Transitions

The PTI Election Tribunal (ET) headed by Justice (r) Wajihuddin Ahmed has reported that the PTI intra-party elections held in 2013 were “fraudulent”.

The 60-page report points out core problems in the whole exercise. Tickets were badly distributed to poor candidates because of corrupt practices by central party leaders; millions of voters registered through the given phone numbers were not included in voter lists because of incompetence and inefficiency in the PTI’s Central Office; the central command of the party did not obey the guidelines for regional, provincial and central parliamentary boards to be set up to process and decide the names of party’s nominees for tickets for the general elections, preferring instead to direct party ticket aspirants to file their nominations with the Central Office directly; the UC-level election was manipulated by aspirants of district and provincial posts, assisted by aspirants of party tickets for general elections; the process of candidates’ assessment and allocation of tickets was carried out by a couple of groups in a ‘hush hush’ manner; people who became party members through telephone help lines were disenfranchised during intra-party polls; the top posts of the party in the provinces and center are all nominated; that Jehangir Tareen’s role was highly objectionable; and so on. The ET has ordered Imran Khan to dissolve all posts and hold new elections.

This is in sharp contrast to Mr Khan’s earlier claim that these party elections were “unprecedented and historical”. He is furious that the Report was leaked and shows the squabbling party leadership in bad light. He has reacted by replacing Justice ® Wajihudidn’s tribunal with a new one led by Tasneem Noorani.

The error of his self-righteous ways is dawning on Mr Khan. After the failure of the longest “dharna” in history last year to try and dislodge the government, with a wink and nod from sections of the military establishment, Imran Khan has finally agreed to an unprecedented compromise with the PMLN on the matter of the judicial commission to determine the fairness of the last general elections. He has desperately backpedalled from his position that the elections were deliberately and premeditatedly stolen from the PTI by a gang of powerful conspirators. That has prompted the PMLN to put a clause into the TORs to exactly that effect: if this specially “designed and systematic” conspiracy is not proved, then, despite any irregularities, the election wasn’t stolen, and there is no compulsion to dissolve the assemblies and hold mid-term polls.

Imran’s about-turns are getting to be predictable. Earlier, he insisted that the Pakistani Taliban were simply “misguided Muslims” provoked by US drones who should be talked to; now he admits they are brutal terrorists who should be stamped out militarily. Before long the PTI will doubtless take back its resignations and return to the National Assembly.

But this is not necessarily a sign of weakness or opportunism. Recognition of ground realities and necessary adjustment can also be a sign of political maturity. Consider.

Indeed, Imran’s attempt to focus on the elections in AJK, provincial local bodies and the developing political vacuum in Karachi instead of trying to compel regime change are steps in the right direction. Hopefully, he will also acknowledge the harm done to his party by “lotas” and “electables” and oversee a new and transparent intra-party election that brings genuinely new and untainted PTI supporters from grass roots to positions of responsibility so that they can help the party positively impact the next general elections in 2018. He also needs to get cracking in running a good government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa so that he has an enviable track record to flaunt before cynical voters.

Imran Khan is not the only one having second thoughts. Nawaz Sharif is also working hand in hand on core national security issues with the very military establishment with whom he has expressed bitter grievances in the past. His obsession with the trial of General Pervez Musharraf has also ended. All this augurs well for the stability of the country.

The most important development, however, is a radical change in the strategic perspective of the military establishment regarding both internal and external affairs. This is entirely due to the new army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and a crop of new corps commanders who are in the process of re-evaluating security doctrines and responding to new realities.

The MQM is the only political player that is still resisting the broad based transitions in the country. It is crying foul against the clean-up operation in Karachi when this military-led operation has the support of all of Pakistan much like that against the Taliban. The sooner the MQM comes to accept the fact that its fearful blackmailing hegemony in Karachi is untenable from a national security viewpoint and won’t be tolerated, the better.

These multi-faceted military and political transitions in Pakistan are most welcome and should be supported. We need to put our house in order rather than constantly blaming others for our woes.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why Hawk-Eye still cannot be trusted

Russell Jackson in Cricinfo

Imran Tahir's appeal against Martin Guptill looked straightforward but Hawk-Eye differed © AFP
I don't trust the data. Don't worry, this isn't another Peter Moores thinkpiece. It's Hawk-Eye or ball-tracker or whatever you want to call it. I don't trust it. I don't trust the readings it gives.
This isn't a flat-earth theory, though flat earth does come into it, I suppose. How on earth can six cameras really predict the movement of a ball (a non-perfect sphere prone to going out of shape at that) on a surface that is neither flat nor stable? A ball that's imparted with constantly changing amounts of torque, grip, flight, speed and spin, not to mention moisture.
----- Also Read
When Hawk-Eye, a prediction system with a known and well-publicised propensity for minor error (2.2 millimetres is the most recent publicly available figure) shows a fraction less than a half of the ball clipping leg stump after an lbw appeal, can we take that information on face value and make a decision based upon it?
During Tuesday's World Cup semi-final, my long-held conspiracy theory bubbled over. How, I wondered, could the ball that Imran Tahir bowled to Martin Guptill in the sixth over - the turned-down lbw shout from which the bowler called for a review - have passed as far above the stumps as the TV ball-tracker indicated? To the naked eye it looked wrong. The predicted bounce on the Hawk-Eye reading looked far too extravagant.
Worse, why upon seeing that projection did every single person in the pub I was in "ooh" and "aah" as though what they were seeing was as definitive and irrefutable an event as a ball sticking in a fieldsman's hands, or the literal rattle of ball on stumps? Have we just completely stopped questioning the authority of the technology and the data?
Later I checked the ball-by-ball commentary on ESPNcricinfo. Here's what it said: "This is a flighted legbreak, he looks to sweep it, and is beaten. Umpire Rod Tucker thinks it might be turning past the off stump. This has pitched leg, turned past the bat, hit him in front of middle, but is bouncing over, according to the Hawkeye. That has surprised everybody. That height has come into play here. It stays not-out."

Why don't we question the authority of a technology that has a well-publicised margin of error?  © Getty Images

It surprised me, but did it surprise everybody? Probably not. More TV viewers seemed to accept the call than question it. When you've watched enough cricket though, some things just look a little off. To me this one didn't add up. Guptill made another 28 runs, not a trifling matter in the context of the game.
A disclaimer: though I distrust it for lbw decisions, I'm not saying that Hawk-Eye is all bad. It's great for "grouping" maps to show you where certain bowlers are pitching the ball, because tracking where a ball lands is simple. What happens next I'm not so sure on, particularly when the spinners are bowling.
To be fair, Hawk-Eye's inventor Paul Hawkins was a true pioneer and has arguably made a greater contribution to the entertainment factor of watching cricket on TV than many actual players manage. That's the thing though: it's entertainment. In 2001, barely two years after Hawkins had developed the idea it had won a BAFTA for its use in Channel 4's Ashes coverage that year. It wasn't until 2008 - seven years later - that it was added as a component of the Decision Review System. Quite a lag, that.
On their website, admittedly not the place to look for frank and fearless appraisal of the technology, Hawk-Eye (now owned by Sony) claim that the fact TV viewers now expect a reading on every lbw shout is "a testimony to Hawk-Eye's reputation for accuracy and reliability". But it's not, is it? All that it really tells us is that we are lemmings who have been conditioned to accept the reading as irrefutable fact upon which an umpiring decision can be made. But it's a prediction.
Not even Hawk-Eye themselves would call it a faultless system. Last December the company admitted they had got a reading completely wrongwhen Pakistan's Shan Masood was dismissed by Trent Boult during the Dubai Test. In this instance, the use of only four cameras at the ground (Hawk-Eye requires six) resulted in the operator making an input error. Why it was even being used under those conditions is more a question for the ICC, I suppose.

It's not all bad: Hawke-Eye gives great insight into where bowlers are pitching their deliveries  © Hawk-Eye

The Masood debacle highlights an interesting issue with regards to the cameras though. Understandably given the pay cheques at stake and that Hawk-Eye is a valuable component of their coverage, TV commentators rarely question the readings even in cases as puzzling as the Masood verdict. Mike Haysman is one who stuck his neck out in a 2011 Supersport article. Firstly, Haysman echoed my earlier thought: "The entertainment factor was the exact reason they were originally introduced. Precise decision-making was not part of the initial creative masterplan." The technology has doubtless improved since, but the point remains.
More worryingly though, Haysman shone a light on the issue with the cameras upon which Hawk-Eye depends. At that point an Ashes Test, for instance, might have had bestowed upon it a battalion of deluxe 250 frame-per-second cameras, whereas a so-called lesser fixture might use ones that captured as few as 25 frames-per-second. Remember: the higher the frame rate the more accurate the reading. Put plainly, for the past five years the production budget of the rights holder for any given game, as well as that game's level of perceived importance, has had an impact on the reliability of Hawk-Eye readings. Absurd.
As a general rule, the more you research the technology used in DRS calls, the more you worry. In one 2013 interview about his new goal-line technology for football, Paul Hawkins decried the lack of testing the ICC had done to verify the accuracy of DRS technologies. "What cricket hasn't done as much as other sports is test anything," he started. "This [football's Goal Decision System] has been very, very heavily tested whereas cricket's hasn't really undergone any testing." Any? Then this: "It's almost like it has tested it in live conditions so they are inheriting broadcast technology rather than developing officiating technology." Does that fill you with confidence?
Hawkins and science-minded cricket fans might bray at the suggestion that Hawk-Eye can't be taken as law, but in lieu of any explanation of its formulas, machinations and the way it's operated (also known as proprietary information) it's hard for some of us to shake the doubt that what we're seeing with our eyes differs significantly from the reading of a computer.