Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Fatal Five

Smallpox Officially declared eradicated in 1979 after a global vaccination programme led by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977. Since then, the only known cases were caused by a laboratory accident in 1978 in Birmingham, England, which killed one person and caused a limited outbreak.

Polio Cases have fallen by more than 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 to 1,349 in 2010. In 2011, only parts of four countries in the world (Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan) remain endemic for the disease – the smallest geographic area in history.

Tuberculosis While mortality rates have fallen by just over a third since 1990, there were 8.8m cases and 1.45 million deaths in 2010. The Stop TB Partnership – a WHO-backed global effort – aims to halve cases and deaths by 2015 and to eliminate the disease by 2050.

Malaria There were 216m cases and an estimated 655,000 deaths in 2010. Mortality rates have fallen by more than 25% globally since 2000. Most deaths occur among children in Africa, where every minute a child dies of malaria, and the disease accounts for approximately 22% of all childhood deaths. The Roll Back Malaria partnership – the global framework coordinating action against the disease – hopes to eradicate it one day, but aims to reduce the incidence of malaria to fewer than 85-125m cases a year by 2015.

HIV/Aids HIV has claimed more than 25 million lives over the past 30 years, but new HIV infections worldwide declined by 17% between 2001 and 2009. There were approximately 34 million people living with HIV in 2010. In November last year, a joint report by the WHO, Unicef and UNAIDS found that increased access to HIV services resulted in a 15% reduction of new infections over the last decade and a 22% drop in Aids-related deaths in the last five years.

Sources: WHO, Stop TB Partnership, Roll Back Malaria Partnership, UNAIDS

Thursday, December 29, 2011

North Kurdistan

Since the beginning of the Arab uprising Turkey has been held up as a blueprint for the emerging Middle Eastern democracies to copy. But many observers question whether its treatment of its Kurdish minority gives it the right to be treated as a role model.

This year more than 4,000 people have been arrested under arbitrary terrorism charges, including dozens of journalists arrested last week, military operations against Kurdish separatists have intensified, with at least 27 killed in December alone, and guerrillas have stepped up violent attacks on security forces and civilians.

Mass trials of Kurds, including local deputies, mayors, academics and human rights activists, have inched forwards. In the biggest case, more than 150 politicians and activists are being tried in a specially built courtroom in Diyarbakir. More than 100 of the defendants have been in pre-trial detention, some of them for many months.

Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of a district in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey, is among the defendants on trial for "membership in the KCK", an illegal pan-Kurdish umbrella organisation that includes the armed Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK).

If convicted, he faces 35 years in jail on these charges alone.

"They have not even found a pocket knife in my house," Demirbas said. Human rights groups have repeatedly expressed their concern about the arbitrary use of terrorism laws in Turkey.

"The Turkish laws make no distinction between political activity and terrorism. It is never examined in what kind of activities people are actually involved and whether these qualify them for prosecution. Very many of these cases are based on guilt by association," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"People have a right to association. You may not like what people are associating with, but it is illegitimate to just jail, suppress and silence critics."

Demirbas fears that the massive repression of politicians and human rights activists will decrease confidence in politics and lead to more violence: "A state that wants to end violence should widen the political sphere as much as possible, so that people who used to feel compelled to use armed force will turn to dialogue instead.

"But [Turkey] does exactly the opposite: they arrest more than 4,000 people that have never held a weapon, so people will think: 'If we enter politics, we will end up like that.'"

Demirbas does not need to look far for examples: he was given a prison sentence of two years and six months after saying, in May 2009, that "a soldier's and a guerrilla's mother's tears are the same colour. This war needs to end".

Three weeks later his then 16-year-old son joined the PKK.

"He told me: 'Dad, see this is what happens when you try to do politics. This state does not understand politics, it only understands weapons.'"

Demirbas said that he tried in vain to persuade his son to stay.

"That is the psychology of thousands of Kurds. I know of at least 2,000 young Kurdish people who have [joined the PKK] since then."

Mehmet Emin Aktar, president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, said that Turkey had become "a republic of fear".

He says: "A democratic state needs to provide a trustworthy judiciary. People need to know that they can expect justice if they step in front of a judge. But this is no longer the case."

Like many of his colleagues, he is very worried that the situation will reach a breaking point: "If fear and threats continue to be the main method of the government, the younger generation of Kurds will become more radical."

In the cafeteria of the Dicle Firat cultural centre, a group of men were discussing the latest KCK arrests. "We all have our bags packed," Kazim Öz said. "We now live on the assumption that each and every one of us could be arrested at any minute."

Another man nodded. "Where is this supposed to end? They can't arrest all of us! This morning I counted 36 grandchildren. They can't finish us Kurds like this."

With tensions turning violent again, investment and business development in Diyarbakir has stalled, making unemployment and poverty, for decades a major problem in the predominantly Kurdish south-east, ever more acute.

With prejudice fuelled by the Turkish media, discrimination against Kurds continues.

"Those who conduct business outside Diyarbakir province will not register their car here," said one local Turkish Kurdish politician from the ruling AKP party. "The '21' on your licence plate is often enough to get randomly pulled over and fined. It's just not worth the trouble."

Most people agree dialogue must be reopened and that the Democratic Opening, an ill-fated attempt at rapprochement launched at the end of 2008, was on the right lines.

Recent reports have indicated the AKP may be on the verge of a new peace overture.

"The AKP is wrong when they think they can destroy the PKK through military force," said Vahap Coskun, assistant professor at the Diyarbakir Dicle University. "The PKK's strength does not stem from the approximately 5,000 fighters in the mountains, but from its widespread legitimacy among an important part of the population. For every fighter that they kill, another will go to join them."

Coskun said that the PKK, too, was making a mistake in escalating attacks and violence. "People here are tired of fighting. The PKK's attempts to use the momentum of the Arab spring to incite people to revolt have failed."

He believes that the Kurdish-aligned Peace and Democracy BDP party should encourage peaceful civil disobedience campaigns again, and keep young Kurds from taking up arms.

"There is a massive potential: they have a party, civilian organisations, media, and a very young and mobile mass of people," he said. "If they manage to gather 10,000 people in the streets of Diyarbakir, peacefully demanding mother tongue education, the government would have to acknowledge their request."

This would also put in question the AKP government's use of the "terrorist" label. "The unsuccessful civil disobedience campaign [after the 2011 elections] scared the government, because you cannot label civil disobedience as terrorism," says Coskun.

In his butcher shop in the Diyarbakir city centre, Metin Özsanli, who is a member of the peace committee that has been arbitrating blood feuds, says: "My father has ended 250 blood feuds, and I have ended 65. It is incredible to see that capacity for forgiveness in people."

He added: "We have to talk to both families many, many times, visit them both many times – when only one person has been killed. But over 40,000 people have died in this conflict.

"Prime minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan should not give up this easily. It will take many more talks with both sides to end this feud, but I am hopeful that it will end one day."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Evolution of Press in UK

A million iPads and Kindles may have been unwrapped on Sunday – according to tentative analyst estimates – an influx of portable technology that is expected to hasten a decline in the already faltering sales of printed newspapers, adding pressure on traditional business models that have traditionally supported so many titles around the country.

Publishers, preparing for the handheld arrivals, took the chance to break with a tradition that dates back to 1912, when publishers agreed not to produce Christmas Day papers to give paperboys, among others, a day off. For the first time in its 190-year history the Sunday Times published a digital-only edition on 25 December – with the normally paid for product given away in the hope of luring sought after digital subscribers.

Boxing Day publication, for dailies like the Guardian, has also become a necessity – to ensure digital editions for new Kindle and iPad owners to read. The result is that what was a traditionally quiet period for news has become a critical moment to showcase new work, at a time when an industry already riven by the phone-hacking scandal and under judicial examination, is facing what can be described as an existential crisis.

Fifty years ago two national dailies – the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express – sold more than 4m copies each; today the bestselling Sun sells 2.6m. In the last year alone, printed sales declined by 10% for daily broadsheets and by 5% for daily tabloids – and when the News of the World stopped printing last July 600,000 copy sales simply disappeared.

The knock-on impact of the decline has been a push for digital readers that have seen newspapers like the Daily Mail win 5m unique visitors a day – compared with its printed sale of 2m – but struggle to generate revenues to match. The Mail generated £16m from its website last year, out of £608m overall.

Some specialist titles, such as the Financial Times, are managing the transition well – it has 260,000 digital subscribers – up 40% this year – compared with 337,000 buyers of the printed product, where sales are down by 12%. Digital subscribers generate £180 a year and the paper, priced at £2.50 on the newsstand on a weekday, is profitable.

John Ridding, the managing director, says that 30% of the FT's revenues come from digital sales and that "within two or three years" digital readers and revenues will account for more than those from the printed business. During a typical week the number of people signing on digitally is "five to 10 times" what it was a year earlier, as the newspaper looks to a future beyond print.

Others, though, are under pressure. Local newspapers have been hit particularly hard, with 31 titles closing in the last year. Most of those shutting are freesheets – with titles distibuted in Yeovil, Scarborough and Harlow lost. Historic paid for titles have seen their frequency cut: the Liverpool Daily Post is to go weekly in print in the new year, after sales dropped as low as 6,500. Its website, however, will update in real time. Daily titles in Birmingham and Bath have also gone the same way in recent years – while pre-tax profits at Johnston Press, the owner of the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, fell from £131.5m five years ago to £16m last year.

Roger Parry, chair of Johnston Press since 2009, believes the party has been over for several years, since Craigslist and Google began to take classified advertising away from local press.

"I think the future is for local multimedia companies which focus on signing up 50% plus of the households in their area on some form of subscription – that's what happens in Scandinavia," he says. For journalists there will have to be a shift from acting as "print writers to multimedia curators. There will be more content created by local people. The National Union of Journalists will hate this but it is fact of life."

With the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, wanting to license local television stations in 20 cities, that gives local media a new way to reach audiences, although some – such as Witney TV in Oxfordshire – have already made a start with a daily offering of local video news. David Cameron, the local MP, regularly appears, but the site is staffed by volunteers, and its content limited – underlining how tough the digital economics are.

There are commercial pressures in national media too. Although the tabloid media have faced criticism at the Leveson inquiry, not least from the likes of Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan, popular titles remain in fair commercial health. Trinity Mirror's stable of nationals – the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the People, and the Record titles in Scotland – will earn about £70m this year, although they made £86m the year before. The profit margin at the Daily Mail hovers at around 10%.

The challenge for the popular press is retaining printed sales – but the financial pressure is acute elsewhere. Three of the traditional broadsheets – the Independent, the Times and the Guardian – all lose money in a market where five titles compete for 1.3 million print buyers. Their readers are more likely to make the digital transition too, leaving newspapers no option but to embrace new forms of reporting – such as the live blog – and seed content at digital hubs, such as Facebook.

The Guardian may generate £40m in digital revenues from its largely free offerings, but some of that comes from its dating sites. The Times titles have gone for a low price subscription model, which has attracted 111,000 takers, but which generates £11m a year against an editorial budget estimated at £100m.

Some, like Paul Zwillenberg, from Boston Consulting Group, says serious newspapers "will have to cut their cloth because there will be a smaller pool of revenue and profit". But he acknowledges that by pursuing different business models, they may increase their chances of success. The result, though, is that was once an industry of one business model: a printed product sold on the newstand is fracturing into very different types of mainly digital content companies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

NYC in B&W

Monday, December 05, 2011

Film Festival

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Danielle Mitterrand (RIP)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Are Beautiful Devices

The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman lives in an airy penthouse on the 14th floor of an apartment block in downtown Manhattan, not far from the Eighth Street subway station. But never mind that for a moment. Instead, without thinking too hard about it, try answering the following question: roughly what percentage of the member states of the United Nations are in Africa? (I'll wait.)

The correct figure isn't what's important here. What matters is that your answer is likely to be lower than if you had first been informed that Kahneman is 77 years old, or if I had claimed his apartment – where he lives with his wife, the British-born psychologist Ann Triesman – was 60 floors up, and near the 86th Street station. This is the phenomenon known as the "anchoring effect", and it is typical of Kahneman's contributions to psychology in that it suggests something rather disturbing about the human mind: not just that we're susceptible to making skewed judgments, but that we're influenced by factors more subtle and preposterous than we could ever imagine.

Kahneman's new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a meaty memoir of his life's work that describes countless such cognitive quirks – but don't imagine that reading it will cure your irrationality. "It's not a case of: 'Read this book and then you'll think differently,'" he says. "I've written this book, and I don't think differently." Kahneman, whom Steven Pinker calls "the most important psychologist alive", is twinkly and energetic. But beneath the surface, he is a pessimist. And he is allergic to the notion that his book might be mistaken for self-help. It's his first work aimed at a mass audience, and he hated writing it: "I really did not want to disgrace myself in front of my colleagues, and I worried the public wouldn't like it if it read like a textbook. Also, I really don't like old men's books, and I felt I was writing an old man's book." Eventually, in despair, he arranged to pay four younger psychologists $2,000 each to review his manuscript anonymously, and to tell him the brutal truth: should he bother finishing?

They liked it. So did I. It's hard not to: Kahneman's approach to psychology spurns heart-sinking tables and formulae in favour of short, intriguing questions that elegantly illustrate the ways our intuitions mislead us.

Take the famous "Linda question": Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that's logically impossible. (It can't be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the "conjunctive fallacy", whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky, who died in 1999, are the primary inspiration for many of the past decade's pop-psychology books – the publishing phenomenon that brought you tipping points and freakonomics, the wisdom of crowds, black swans, and "predictable irrationality". It is a trend that one unimpressed reviewer of Kahneman's book labelled "the effect effect". In the early days, academics took a similarly sniffy view of Kahneman and Tversky's research: Kahneman recalls one well-known American philosopher turning his back on him at a party with the disdainful words: "I am not really interested in the psychology of stupidity." That soon changed, though, as the pair's influence spread rapidly throughout the social sciences, culminating in 2002, when Kahneman became one of a handful of non-economists to win the Nobel prize in economics.

"The psychology of stupidity" is not, in any case, a very apt summary. Kahneman's point isn't that we're all wildly bizarre or idiotic, but that our mental apparatus, which works so well most of the time, sometimes leads us astray in predictable ways. "We're beautiful devices," he says. "The devices work well; we're all experts in what we do. But when the mechanism fails, those failures can tell you a lot about how the mind works."

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents this as a drama with two "characters": System One, which is the domain of intuitive responses, and System Two, the domain of conscious, effortful thought. System One – the kind of mental ability celebrated in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink – kicks in without our needing to think about it. The problem is that it always tries to help, even when it shouldn't, and that it works with whatever it's got, which isn't always the most sensible information.

The biggest challenge this posed was to economists, most of whom assumed that people were basically rational and selfish and acted in their own best interests. The work that won Kahneman the Nobel showed otherwise. For example, we hate losing things more than we like gaining them, which is why people refuse to sell their home for less than they paid, even if it makes financial sense to do so. Similar biases make us behave strangely where risk is involved, too: if forced to choose between being given £500 for certain, or a 50% chance of winning £1,000, most of us will opt for the sure thing. But if the choice is between losing £500 for sure, or a 50% chance of losing £1,000, most of us will take the gamble.

Then there's the much-cited thought experiment involving tickets to the theatre. Suppose a woman plans to buy a ticket for a play costing £40, but en route to the theatre she realises she has lost two £20 notes in the street: would she still buy the ticket? Most people, when asked this question, assume that she would. But what if she bought the ticket in advance, then arrived at the theatre to find she'd lost it? In that case, people assume she'd go home without buying another ticket – even though the scenarios are financially identical. As Richard Thaler, another leading light in the revolution that became known as behavioural economics, told an interviewer, Kahneman and Tversky's research meant that "rationality was fucked". Kahneman, on the other hand, likes to say that you'd need to study economics for years before you'd find his research surprising: it didn't surprise his mother at all.

Kahneman was born in 1934, the son of Lithuanian Jews, and grew up in France. Life was generally good until 1940, when German forces swept in. He recalls drawing, around that time, "what was probably the first graph I ever drew", showing his family's fortunes over time – "and around 1940 the curve crossed into the negative domain." His father was captured during a large-scale sweep of Jews in France, but somehow escaped being sent to a concentration camp and was let go instead. ("The story of my father's release, which I never fully understood, also involved a beautiful woman and a German general who loved her," he wrote.) The family kept moving across France. "The feeling was of being hunted," Kahneman recalls. At one point their home was a chicken coop at the back of a pub. In 1944 his father died of insufficiently treated diabetes, six weeks short of D-day. As soon as the war ended, his mother took the family to live in Palestine, in what would soon become Israel.

Kahneman was drafted into the Israeli army in 1955, where he served as an infantryman for a year – "it was a very tense time, but I never fired a shot in anger" – then worked as a military psychologist. One of his roles was to evaluate new recruits by watching them perform the "leaderless group challenge", in which teams of eight men had to transfer themselves, and a large log, over a 6ft-high wall, without anybody, or the log, touching the wall. The task was designed to reveal the participants' true character, and thus demonstrate who had the making of a future leader. As a method of psychological evaluation, it wasn't much good: Kahneman made predictions, but follow-up research revealed them to be little better than guesses. What the experience taught him, in the end, wasn't how to spot a future hero, but rather how hard it was to expunge his own confidence in his predictions. "We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses," he writes. "But we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid." Confidence is a feeling, not a logical conclusion reached after analysing statistics. Kahneman would later encounter the same phenomenon among investment advisers, who clung to their belief in their abilities even after it was demonstrated that their stock-picking skills left their clients no better off than rolling dice.

The intellectual relationship that defined his career began in the late 1960s at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, when he met Tversky, a young colleague. Kahneman describes their bond as "magical", and it sounds much more like a loving friendship than a scholarly collaboration. For several years, the two spent hours every afternoon in freewheeling conversations, examining their own hunches and intuitions, gradually developing the list of biases and fallacies for which they became famous. "He got up late, and I was a morning person, so we started with lunch, and took it from there," Kahneman remembers. "This kind of collaboration is very unusual in science. We were just extraordinarily lucky, and we knew it." The editor of the journal to which they submitted their first major paper rejected it; their work seemed too frivolous for the academic establishment. "Psychologists really aim to be scientists, white-coat stuff, with elaborate statistics, running experiments," Kahneman says. "The idea that you can ask one question and it makes the point ... well, that wasn't how psychology was done at the time."

With hindsight, however, those single questions seem anything but frivolous. The irrational traits they uncovered are, to pick one notable example, hugely important in understanding the causes of the current economic crisis, which has its roots in (among others) the overconfidence bias and the illusion of skill. If we can't hope to correct such biases in any lasting way, we can perhaps seek to cultivate some humility about the limits of our mental powers. Being the puppet of subtle psychological influences we cannot even recognise is annoying. But at least we can try to remember that that's what's likely to be happening. Well, it's a start.