28 August 2012

Tate Modern: The Tanks, Hirst and Munch

A belated post-Olympics visit to a relatively uncrowded Tate Modern with three things to see, in ascending order:

The Tanks

When Tate Modern was created by the transformation of the old Bankside Power Station, the underground oil storage tanks remained in place but no longer had a use. In Tate’s own words: “they have now being transformed into some of the most exciting new spaces for art in the world, The Tanks, the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film works”. Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action in The Tanks started on 18 July and is far better seen and experienced than described, but a listing of the events up to 18 October is available here.

The development of The Tanks has been the first phase of the Tate Modern Project which it is hoped to complete by 2016 at a capital cost of £215 million, three quarters of which has been raised.

Damien Hirst

The first floor gallery of Tate Modern is given over to a major survey, Damien Hirst, an artist whose work is so well-known as to need little description. There are, as to be expected, spot paintings, cabinets full of medicines and other medicalia, a maggot-fly life-cycle piece sustained by a rotting cow’s head which promises to leave an indelible souvenir on Tate’s floor, longitudinally-bisected animals, butterflies both alive and mounted, and, more revolting than anything else for a non-smoker, arrangements of cigarette ends. The pretentiousness of the titles of his works never ceases to impress: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the pickled shark) – oh yes, what about a pathologist? – and The Acquired Inability to Escape (cigarette ends), though Crematorium (more cigarette ends) is relatively obvious.

Two items in the hand-out given to visitors struck me:
"In I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds 2006, one of Hirst's largest butterfly paintings, kaleidoscopic mandala-like forms recall Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The title is taken from the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata."
On 16 July 1945 the first test of a nuclear weapon was carried out in New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the scientific effort at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, said that witnessing the explosion had reminded him of this same line which he quoted as: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. It would be interesting to know if Hirst was aware of this. Coincidentally, the test was codenamed Trinity and one of Hirst’s works in the exhibition is Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology 2000.

"The sculpture Loving in a World of Desire 1996 offers a counterpoint to the rotating spins. Here a giant beach ball hovers above a coloured box. Suspended on a jet of air, the sphere flutters over the structure in an interplay of precariousness and balance, and evokes the title’s themes of love and desire."
I’m not sure what exactly is meant by ‘suspended on’ or ‘an interplay of precariousness and balance’. But this is part of how they explain Bernoulli’s equation at Princeton:
A table tennis ball placed in a vertical air jet becomes suspended in the jet, and it is very stable to small perturbations in any direction. Push the ball down, and it springs back to its equilibrium position; push it sideways, and it rapidly returns to its original position in the center of the jet. In the vertical direction, the weight of the ball is balanced by a force due to pressure differences: the pressure over the rear half of the sphere is lower than over the front half because of losses that occur in the wake (large eddies form in the wake that dissipate a lot of flow energy). To understand the balance of forces in the horizontal direction, you need to know that the jet has its maximum velocity in the center, and the velocity of the jet decreases towards its edges. The ball position is stable because if the ball moves sideways, its outer side moves into a region of lower velocity and higher pressure, whereas its inner side moves closer to the center where the velocity is higher and the pressure is lower. The differences in pressure tend to move the ball back towards the center.
which sounds more analogous to the stability of a long-term relationship than to the precariousness of love and desire. Hirst, once a YBA, is still only 47 and his artistic reputation will almost certainly have its own ups and downs for decades to come. In the meantime the production of his expensive works provides gainful employment for hundreds of technicians in numerous UK workshops – a welcome trickledown to the UK economy from the global super-rich. Damien Hirst continues until 9 September.


And then on to the second floor and Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, which I enjoyed more than I expected. Munch (1863-1944) is very widely known for The Scream which he called Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream [or shriek] of Nature). Not always appreciated about this famous image is that Munch frequently produced several versions of the same work. In The Scream’s case, three are in Norwegian museums and it was the 1895 pastel which sold for a public auction record (for any work) of just under $120 million at Sotheby’s in New York in May. The Tate show doesn’t include any versions of The Scream (even the lithographs) but gives one room over to 'Reworkings' to make the point with several versions of The Sick Child and The Girls on the Bridge (above) and again later with Weeping Woman.

Munch, like Degas, took up still photography and he also later made amateur handheld films. In the case of Weeping Woman (left) 1907-09, as well as six paintings, drawings, a lithograph and a sculpture, he made a photograph in 1907 (Rosa Meissner at the hotel room in Warnemunde). Although Munch grew up in Oslo (Cristiana at the time), after his twenties he spent much of his time in Paris and Berlin, only returning to Norway permanently in 1908 after a nervous breakdown. In 1906 in Berlin he had collaborated with Max Reinhardt on artistic aspects of a production of Ibsen’s  Ghosts, followed in 1907 by set designs for Hedda Gabler. This is considered to have developed Munch’s interest in the use of small rooms as claustrophobic settings for works like Weeping Woman. To me his earlier Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones 1905 (below) evokes Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea (1888), which Munch would almost certainly have seen.

Munch produced some unsparing self-portraits later in life – he was lucky enough to survive the 1919 influenza epidemic. Branded a decadent artist by the Nazis, his final years were spent in artistic isolation during the occupation of Norway.
Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu 1919 and Self-Portrait with Bottles ?1938
The arrangement of the paintings and photographs in the exhibition aims to support the idea that Munch is better regarded as a major painter of the early 20th century than as a late 19th century avante gardiste. If his significance as a painter is justified by the prices now paid for his work and his creation of one of the most widely recognised art works of all time, then he has to be regarded as a major painter in whichever period of modern art he is allocated to. Munch left most of his estate to the City of Oslo and it is now held by the Munch-museet which has lent many of the works in the exhibition.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye was organised by the Centre Pompidou and has previously appeared in Paris and then Frankfurt, and continues at Tate Modern until 14 October.


An even lower-brow comment than normal, and revealing an over-exposure to Scandinavian noir, but I can’t help seeing a resemblance between the female figure in Ashes 1925 (below) and the Danish actress best-known in the UK for playing the detective Sara Lund in the TV series Forbrydelsen (The Killing). I must get out more!

22 August 2012

Why Britain did not have a “Baby Boom”

In a post in 2011 I made various criticisms of David Willett’s book, The Pinch. One was that the demographic evidence did not support his assumption that the UK had experienced a “Baby Boom” like that in the United States. The same notion is so often trotted out by journalists, that I think it’s worth repeating the key facts again, explaining that the UK had a “post-war bulge”, not a baby boom:
The two World Wars were both followed by short sharp surges in live births soon after demobilisation of the men who had been conscripted to fight. The children born after the First World War in the 1920 surge were, as it turned out, destined to fight in the Second. Then, after victory in 1945, those who survived were able to return home to start their own families. Thankfully, those who were born in that second 1946/1947 surge never had to be conscripted and were able to spread their family-building over a longer period, but nonetheless the concentration was enough to cause a further bump in the birth rate in the 1960s.  
To underline this interpretation, the next pair of charts show the numbers of men and women being demobilised from the Armed Forces in 1945 and 1946, and births in England and Wales in the final years of that decade. That there was a lag of about three quarters (nine months) between demobilisation and maternal deliveries shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Nor should the drop in births in the last two quarters of 1945. This reflected the lower number of young males present in the UK after D Day in June 1944. 

The UK experience was not the same as that of the United States which did have a sustained “baby boom”. This also started with a higher birth rate after GI demobilisation, but then continued more or less unabated through to the 1960s, as can be seen in the chart below.

Sources for the data above can be found in the original post. Another way of making the same point can be found in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) animation of the Age Structure of the United Kingdom, 1971-2085. The frame for 2012 is shown below and I have annotated it to indicate the ‘bulge’ of post-WW2 babies who now in their mid-60s:


Barry Pearson is another old codger with a similar bee in his bonnet: http://blog.barrypearson.co.uk/?p=3634 which provides a better graphical comparison of US and UK demographics than mine.


This post was triggered by an article, Top-heavy pyramid will loom over planet for generations, in The Times on 21 August 2012 by their science correspondent’, Tom Whipple, who really should know better:
… for most countries, the population pyramid — the demographer’s graph of choice, which classically shows each generation bigger than the one preceding — is often no longer a pyramid at all. Instead of being wide at the base and narrow at the top it is shaped more like a cowbell.  
If it were a real structure, the base would struggle to support the top. As a graph, it shows the young struggling to support the old. In the UK the change is particularly stark. As the baby boomers age, a vast bulge works its way up the pyramid into retirement, with all the fiscal menace of a python’s meal working its way along its belly.  
This is what people mean when they talk about the demographic timebomb, and why governments around the world are trying to raise pension ages. But as unpleasant as this outcome may be for taxpayers, if not the wealthy and retired baby boomers with free bus passes, this should not be seen as anything other than a transition period.
I don’t think the ONS Age Structure chart supports talk of a vast bulge, let alone a python’s meal and belly (odd phraseology for a science correspondent, surely). However, it’s more than likely that British journalists will still be writing about ‘baby boomers’ when the UK’s post-war bulge have long died out.  Cheltenham colonels, bowler-hatted civil servants and blue-rinsed ladies all seemed to have endured in print for years after their departure from these isles.


This turned out to be one of the more popular posts on this blog, so I thought it might be worth adding this chart taken from the ONS’s population projections for the UK published last month.

17 August 2012

Testing Nations: Olympics and PISA

This month the British are feeling pleased with themselves, having hosted the 2012 London Olympics successfully and, in terms of medals won, having come third, after the USA and China. But the duration of the games is about two weeks in a cycle of four years which is about 1% of the time. Another and more perennial form of international competition is in academic standards as assessed by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment. This post attempts to bring recent Olympic and PISA performances together, and to provide some insight into national priorities.

At which point it is worth borrowing a useful concept from physics: that of properties that are intensive or extensive. As a simple example, the volume of a liquid is extensive and increases with the amount present but the liquid’s density stays the same however large or small the amount – the first is an extensive property, the second intensive. By analogy, the number of medals a country wins tends to be ‘extensive’ – a bigger population in which to find outstanding talent – but there is nothing to stop a small country having very high academic standards, which are, in these terms, ‘intensive’.

The Chart below shows the top 25 2012 Olympics countries in rank order (red) and also their 2009 PISA rank (blue). But alongside the Olympic rank is a percentage figure. This is the extent to which the number of medals won by a country differs by more than 10% from the number that would have been predicted taking account of factors such as population size, GDP per capita, past performance and “host-nation advantage” (more about this in the Notes below).

So, the UK, while it ranks 3 in the Olympics, is only ranked 21 in PISA terms. Its total of medals (29 in fact) was 15% higher than expected. By contrast, the Netherlands, Olympics ranking 13, 17% more medals than expected, but educationally is ranked 11th. At the top of the table the USA (medal score predicted to within 2%) lies at 26 in PISA terms. Russia and Kazakhstan also show signs of Olympics overachievement and educational underachievement.

South Korea demonstrates a balanced achievement, fifth in both PISA and Olympics with a small underperformance (3%) in the latter. New Zealand and Australia make an interesting contrast. They rank at eighth and tenth in PISA (perhaps proximity to Asia focusses national minds) but NZ was also able to over perform at the Olympics by 64% to achieve a ranking of 15th, while Australia, again at tenth in London, underperformed by 14%. Canada, an impressive seventh in PISA, lies outside the chart as it came 35th in Olympic rank because, although gaining 18 medals (5% more than expected), 2/3rds were bronze.

The Table below supports the idea of PISA score being ‘intensive’. Those PISA nations in the top 30 but which didn’t make the Olympics top 25 above are listed together with their Olympics ranking a deviation from expected performance. Some nations were not represented in London. The UK and USA are shown in the Table next to their PISA peers, underlining their markedly different Olympics performance.

In terms of national priorities, the Russian and Kazakhstan show the biggest disparities between Olympic and PISA performance. Not too far behind are the US and UK. However, Olympics success depends on identifying and then focussing resources on a small number of suitably talented candidates, whereas PISA reflects a nation’s ability to raise the educational standards of the majority of its population. The UK has excellent schools, particularly in the private sector attended by less than 10% of pupils, but whose alumni were proportionately over-represented in the UK’s Olympics team. The existence of a similar (and possibly self-perpetuating) elite in the US has been discussed here previously.


1. The 2012 Olympics rankings are taken from the standard medal table, ranking countries first in order of gold medals, then silver medals, then bronze medals.

2. The Financial Times (£) combined results from four different econometric models addressing Population, GDP per capita, past performance and “home advantage” and some other factors to predict the total number of medals each nation might be expected to win, and compared this with the actual achievement. The size of any deviation has been expressed here as a percentage of the expected number, but bear in mind that small numbers produce large percentages (eg Singapore and Iran).

3. The 2009 PISA scores for Mathematics, Science and Reading were added and the nations ranked accordingly. Although China appears here as ‘First’ the data has to be regarded sceptically. PISA cites data for Shanghai (First), Hong Kong (2nd) and Macau (17th) – a more representative score for the whole of China might have come out rather lower. The 2012 PISA rankings will be reported in late 2013 and may shed more light.

4.  UK refers to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, known as GB.

13 August 2012

Means and Ends

Ross Clark’s article, Our China Syndrome, in the current Spectator (summary here) was sub-headed The claims against swimmer Ye Shiwen reflect irrational suspicion of her country, a theme which he expanded on:
Rarely can a sporting performance have been met with such resentment as that of 16-year-old Ye Shiwen in the 400 metres women’s medley. She had hardly wiped the drops from her goggles before the US swimming coach John Leonard was making coded accusations of drug use, with words such as ‘unbelievable’ and ‘disturbing’. Her offence, it seems, was to have swum a length of the pool faster than an all-American winner of the men’s event, Ryan Lochte.  
… Ye Shiwen had passed the routine drugs test to which all medal winners at the Olympics have been subjected. She wasn’t a drugs cheat after all, …  
Deprived of the opportunity to accuse her of doping, the nation’s Sinophobes changed tack. Maybe she wasn’t on drugs, but she was the product of a ‘brutal training regime’ … Then came the extraordinary accusation that she might have been genetically modified. …  
BBC’s Newsnight devoted its main story to the fantasy that athletes might be having their genes modified to improve their performance — interspersed with clips of Ye Shiwen winning her medals. After 15 minutes of this, the scientists invited on the programme to discuss the issue admitted that there was no evidence it was actually possible to manipulate an athlete’s genes in this way.
There is certainly no question of Ye Shiwen having failed any tests. However, the scientific position may not be as categorical as Clark was assuming. The Times monthly science supplement, Eureka, gave its August issue over to Science and the [Olympic] Games, including an article by Kaya Burgess, Testing times: getting ahead of the cheats, in which she tries to answer the question:
The doping authorities at London 2012 are implementing the most stringent drug testing regime of any Games. But can cheats still slip through?  
… There is little doubt that there are more ways to cheat in sport than ever. Since the British Olympic Association first started working on the Olympic bid, in 1997, performance enhancement has evolved beyond the abuse of steroids and stimulants to include ever-subtler ways of enhancing the body from within. The challenge for UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) is to try, at last, to get one step ahead. This year, every medallist will be tested, and so will about half of all other athletes competing. More than 6,000 samples are expected to be analysed in the course of the Games. But the testers at the Olympic testing laboratory in Harlow have to know what they are looking for.  
… Existing drugs approved for medical use will already be on the radar of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which will have analysed the potential for cheats and prepared watertight arguments against those who claim innocent use. What Wada has not known about until now, however, is the vast range of drugs still in secret development by pharmaceutical companies. For the first time, one of those companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has opened its drug-research pipeline to Wada to help officials flag up new or unknown substances that may have found their way into athletes’ hands through other sources. …  
Steve Clarke, GSK’s head of drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics, … cites the example of Balco — the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, near San Francisco — which was found to have sold steroids, growth hormones, testosterone cream and erythropoietin to Major League baseball players as well as Chambers. “They had looked through the literature, come up with a steroid drug that wasn’t marketed anywhere but that had been investigated as a potential at one stage, and they had chemists capable of making that drug,” Clarke says. The result was a drug that Wada didn’t know about and didn’t have a test for. “That’s why athletes got away with it for so long and why THG was known as ‘The Clear’.”
As Burgess concludes, it wouldn’t be sensible to bet against competitors breaking the rules, perhaps under pressure. None of this reflects in any way upon Ye Shiwen, but she does come from a country which plays with a hard ball and where ends seem to justify means. I have posted here before about Chinese hacking and cyber theft, but some more insight into what has been happening was provided by Bloomberg just as the Olympics opened in an article by Michael Riley and Dune Lawrence, Hackers Linked to China’s Army Seen From EU to D.C., which anyone with the slightest interest in the subject should read in full. Apart from the EU and various organisations in Washington DC, the article reports attacks on computers in Canada and India, and:
The networks of major oil companies have been harvested for seismic maps charting oil reserves; patent law firms for their clients’ trade secrets; and investment banks for market analysis that might impact the global ventures of state-owned companies, according to computer security experts who asked not to be named and declined to give more details.  
… Stolen information is flowing out of the networks of law firms, investment banks, oil companies, drug makers, and high technology manufacturers in such significant quantities that intelligence officials now say it could cause long-term harm to U.S. and European economies.
The article revealed that:
Adding a potentially important piece to the puzzle, researcher Joe Stewart, who works for Dell SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based security firm and division of Dell Inc. (DELL), the computer technology company, last year uncovered a flaw in software used by Comment group hackers. Designed to disguise the pilfered data’s ultimate destination, the mistake instead revealed that in hundreds of instances, data was sent to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses in Shanghai. The location matched intelligence contained in the 2008 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks that placed the group in Shanghai and linked it to China’s military.
Perhaps China’s pharma technology base is nothing like as advanced as their cyber capability, but if it is they could probably run Olympic-sized rings around UKAD and Wada, if they set out to do so. The scope in the long term for innovations of all sorts, overt and covert, in a country in which even a fraction of its population reaches the PISA standards recorded for Shanghai’s 15-year olds in 2009 will be immense.

11 August 2012

Sophie Lellouche’s 'Paris-Manhattan'

It looks as though any British Woody Allen devotee waiting for the UK release of his To Rome with Love in September will need even more patience before they get a glimpse of their idol in Paris-Manhattan, which, although premiered in Australia in April, has no UK release date as yet. Sophie Lellouche, like Julie Delpy writes and directs, but does not act in, her own first feature film, which by comparison seems to be an advantage. Her film, a romcom, is an homage to Woody Allen, mapping Manhattan onto Paris and set among a privileged jeunesse.

Like most of its kind, Paris-Manhattan requires a suspension of incredulity. For a start is it likely that the Ovitzs, a wealthy Parisian Jewish family, would set up their daughter, Alice, to be something as humdrum as a pharmicienne? Would Alice really have any difficulty finding a partner, blessed as she is with Alice Taglioni’s looks, even though mildly obsessed by the works and wisdom of Woody Allen? Would such an Alice actually fall for a mere technicien, even one as amiable as Patrick Bruel’s Victor? Probably not in all three cases, but no matter, it’s all very charming and nicely filmed in, as Allen showed in 2010, the world’s most photogenic city. The plot meanders a little, the homage turning into a reprise of Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery at one point. Allen must have a soft spot for Lellouche, his cameo (uncredited as far as I could tell) making the film – he will approve of much of the music.


Paris-Manhattan is now on release in the UK.

8 August 2012

India’s mini-Trident

World War 2 ended in the Pacific on 15 August 1945 following the atomic detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August respectively. The war in Europe had ended on 8 May. Before then the German Waffen SS had launched over 3000 V-2 ballistic missiles with conventional explosive warheads at targets in liberated Europe or England. In the years since the end of the war successive nations have sought to combine the two technologies of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for their delivery.
Recently India, which carried out its first nuclear test in 1974, has been seen to be making significant progress with ballistic missile delivery systems developed by their Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). The three-stage Agni-V ballistic missile was successfully launched in April 2012 (left) and is credited with a range of 5000km and a payload of 1000kg said to be three nuclear warheads. Shortly afterwards there was a report of an Agni-VI to be trialled in 2014 with a longer range of 8000-10000km (see below) and a larger payload. Missiles with a range of up to 5500km are usually classified as intermediate range (IRBM), above that as intercontinental range (ICBM).
Not choosing to conform to the definition above, on 31 July the Times of India reported that:
India in April yanked open the door of the exclusive ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) club with the first test of Agni-V. Now, if DRDO is to be believed, India has quietly gate-crashed into an even more exclusive club of nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  
The annual awards function of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) on Tuesday [31July presumably] will see PM Manmohan Singh hand over the "technology leadership award'' to a scientist, A K Chakrabarti of the Hyderabad-based DRDL lab, for the "successful development'' of the country's first SLBM. 
"Apart from India, this capability has been acquired only by four nations, the US, Russia, France and China. Now, the SLBM system is ready for induction,'' says the award citation. Long shrouded in secrecy as a black project'', unlike the surface-to-surface nuclear missiles like Agni, the SLBM may now finally come out of the closet. Called different names at different developmental phases, which included "Sagarika'' for an extended period, the SLBM in question is the "K-15'' missile with a 750-km strike range.
Celebrations, however, may be a little premature. Much like the over 5,000-km Agni-V that will be fully operational only by 2015 after four-to-five "repeatable tests'', the K-15 is also still some distance away from being deployed.
The meaning of the word “acquired” in the award citation must be 'indigenously developed and manufactured'. The United Kingdom ceased to develop ballistic missiles when Blue Streak was cancelled in 1960, but subsequently acquired (in the normal sense of the word) Polaris and later Trident SLBMs, developed and manufactured in the United States, and these have been continuously available at sea since 1968. The savings to the UK defence budget from this arrangement have been considerable, releasing funds for allocation elsewhere.
The location of DRDO’s award ceremony wasn’t stated, but was quite possibly in New Delhi, in which case the ceremony and Mr Chakrabarti’s enjoyment of his citation may have been disrupted by the power outages in India at the time. At their worst these affected over 600 million people, about half of India’s population, a third of which has no electricity supply anyway. As Pierre Mendès-France said gouverner, c’est choisir, (to govern is to choose), sometimes between guns and butter, though the Indian government would almost certainly regard a reliable electricity supply as a necessity rather than a luxury.

According to the Times of India a week later, Admiral Nirmal Verma, Chief of the Indian Navy, had announced that:
… the country's first nuclear submarine INS Arihant is getting ready "to go to sea" within the next few months. "INS Arihant is steadily progressing towards becoming operational...we are pretty close to putting it to sea (for extensive trials and missile firings)," The Navy chief's emphatic statement comes a week after DRDO officially declared the country's first-ever SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) or the K-15 missile, with a strike range of 750-km, was "ready for induction".  
… India has for some time possessed the Agni series of ballistic missiles as well as fighter-bombers to constitute the land and air-based legs of the triad. The long-elusive underwater leg, considered the most effective for both pre-emptive as well as retaliatory strikes, now finally seems to be taking shape with INS Arihant and its two follow-on SSBNs (nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic nuclear-tipped missiles). The 6,000-tonne submarine, which has four missile silos on its hump to carry either 12 K-15s or four of the under-development 3,500-km range K-4 missiles, will head for sea only after its 83 MW pressurized light-water reactor goes "critical".
  • Although the UK has not developed SLBMs and therefore may not be regarded as being part of the SLBM club, it has had an indigenous nuclear submarine programme since 1960, including SSBNs. The Trident II SLBM in service with the Royal Navy has a range of over 4000 miles (5000km).and is technically capable of delivering twelve warheads.
  • According to the Financial Times (£) on 4 August, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) expects authorization from the government for launch in 2013 of a Mars orbiter. The article quoted a development economist’s statement that half of India’s population lack sanitation and in 2010 30% were subsisting on less than US$0.50 per day, and that half of India’s children are malnourished. Of children under five, 42% are underweight.
  • The UK intends to provide foreign aid of about £280 million a year in India until 2015, aimed at the poorest people in the poorest states.

ADDENDUM 22 November

Anyone who has read this far should take a look at a recent article on this Indian website.  I think they meant "prioritise", not "priorities".

ADDENDUM 21 February 2013

A press report earlier this month suggested that an Agni-VI may be forthcoming.  According to the Hindu:
Agni-VI with multiple nuclear warheads, which can reach targets 6,000 km away, is all set to be developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).  
… Although the Union government is yet to sanction Agni-VI project, the DRDO has done all the enabling studies, finalised the missile’s design and started working on the engineering part. It had also figured out how to anchor four or six warheads in the vehicle, how to disperse them and the pattern of their dispersal. The warheads could be released in an order, one after another. If one warhead were to hit a place, another could fall 100 km away from it, the technologists said.  
… Both Agni-V and Agni-VI have three stages, all powered by solid propellants, and their diameter is two metres. And the comparison ends there. While Agni-V weighs 50 tonnes and is 17.5 metres long, Agni-VI belongs to the 65-70-tonne class and will be 20 metres long. “Agni-VI will be a massive vehicle,” the technologists said. It was too early to say when its first launch would take place. It would be road-mobile and blast off from trucks with launching platforms.

ADDENDUM 6 October 2013

To my surprise, this post is still getting hits. Recently a post on the FAS blog provided a useful update on the evolution of the Indian Agni programme.

2 August 2012

On the high wire with Boris

Now that the Olympics are underway in London, they provide an irresistible opportunity for the advancement of its Mayor. Boris Johnson having been re-elected in May (at 51.5% of the vote on a 38% turnout), his supporters are staking out claims while the going is good. For example, before the games started Iain Martin provided the cover story for the July/August Standpoint, I came, I saw, I’ll conquer, Boris Johnson covets supreme power, and told us that “… we should take the Conservative clown prince seriously”. And “To some in the Conservative Party he is a scheming charlatan with no policies. To others his star power could be worth harnessing”. But it was Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, who stirred it up yesterday in an article headlined As donors stampede to back Boris, the PM can only watch.

Brogan’s article didn’t say much that was new: the Conservatives now think they are unlikely to win the next election, George Osborne is a write-off, “… the normal rules of politics do not apply to Boris”. But there were a few sentences which made it of real interest:
I hear, [Boris Johnson] met Rupert Murdoch recently to discuss how his candidacy might be promoted, and has invited the media tycoon to join him at the Olympics. It is said that Mr Murdoch wants to get rid of Mr Cameron. Westminster has noted the Sun’s growing enthusiasm for Boris, and how it contrasts with the vitriol the newspaper now reserves for Messrs Cameron and Osborne.
A few sceptics alighted on the “It is said that”. No-one, as far as I know, has picked up the text of the URL for the article, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/benedictbrogan/100173707/boris-is-unstoppable-and-now-murdoch-wants-him-to-lead-the-tory-party/, which suggests that the original headline was rather more pointed than the one the Telegraph finally ran with. Indeed, Brogan later ran an emollient blog piece Whatever it brings, the reshuffle is just part of a wider recovery programme for David Cameron. Although this morning, for obvious reasons, he took the opportunity to tweet:

And then blogged again for the Telegraph: David Cameron's Olympics torment, reporting from the beach volleyball in Horse Guards:
… The beach volleyball MC has a line of patter he deploys several times a night. "We've just had a call. It seems the Prime Minister is trying to get an early night and wants less noise. What do we say to that?" Cue a roar of mockery and plenty of boos. … Every night then the PM is being mocked, and there's no sign of that political bounce he might have hoped for. For Boris, certainly. … But the Prime Minister must be wondering whether any Olympic gold will come his way.
All good fun and it helps fill the papers and websites, as did the Michael Gove love-in for a while back in February. More seriously, YouGov asked people in early May (during the London mayoral election) and again on 31July/1 August what the impact of Boris Johnson’s taking Cameron’s place would be on their voting. In May there was no significant difference: Con/Lab/LD/Other moved from 32/40/10/15 to 32/41/11/15. Now, during the Olympiad, the effect is significant: from 34/40/10/17 to 37/38/10/14. But when asked the normal straightforward voting intention question (and presumably unprompted with the leaders’ names), the same sample of voters yielded 32/43/10/15!

Examining the YouGov data it can be seen that the current movement towards Boris is: among women, but not significant among men; among the over 40s, but not under; among C2DEs, not ABCs. Just as interesting is the polling carried out for Lord Ashcroft later in May, extracted below:

Of course, Boris Johnson is in the happy position of being popular but subject to little critical scrutiny. If he were to become an MP again, let alone party leader, various aspects of his life might become better-known, and at the same time he would have to relaunch himself as a serious character capable of providing answers with real content to questions about the economy, or Iran, or the future energy needs of the UK, or Trident replacement, or a load of other difficult issues. The public’s evaluation of him as a possible future Prime Minister may not be as tolerant as it is to London’s Mayor during an Olympics which seems to be going well. Perhaps the last words should be from today’s The Times (£), reporting on a slight mishap:
Getting stuck on a zip wire, while clutching two Union Jacks and shouting “get me a ladder”, was, it turns out, one of [the relatively few things Boris Johnson could have done yesterday to make the national papers]. The Mayor of London was suspended about six metres up for five minutes as he tried out a 320 metre (1,050ft) zip line at Victoria Park yesterday afternoon. The wire apparently sagged so much as he sailed along that he lost momentum about 20m from the end. … As the incident trended on Twitter, David Cameron summed it up perfectly. Speaking at a health policy summit, he said: “If any other politician anywhere in the world got stuck on a zip wire it would be a disaster. For Boris it’s a triumph. He defies all forms of gravity.”
Perhaps the Conservatives will go into the next election with Boris and take the risk of “lost momentum about 20m from the end”.


In the press the Boris coverage  continues, amplified because of the Olympics and probably approaching its peak.  Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian today is in the incredulous-but-not prepared-to-rule-it-out camp.  Philip Collins in The Times is totally unconvinced:
None of this [the Olympics fun] means that Mr Johnson is a credible Prime Minister. The only way back to popularity for the Tory party is for David Cameron to improve his personal best, not to pretend that there is any prospect of salvation from the Olympic Village idiot.


Contrasting views today from Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph and Janan Ganesh, newly arrived at the Financial Times. Moore, when editor of the Telegraph, employed Boris Johnson, so his opinion should be insightful.  He prefers ‘post-modern’ to the ‘postmodern’ I used here in the same context a few days ago:
As you could tell from the London Olympic opening ceremony, we now have a post-modern public culture. We are ironical, eclectic, genre-subverting, fusion-cooking, mixing up Chelsea Pensioners and lesbian kisses. We are high-brow and low-brow at the same time. The only politician who “gets” any of this is Boris. He can mix Virgil and James Bond, a posh accent and street cred, conservative politics and a liberal spirit. Mr Cameron is the moderniser, but Boris is the post-moderniser.  
To the many – possibly including myself – who would prefer our politics plainer, all this may seem footling. What has it got to do with righting our ghastly economic wrongs? Very little, perhaps. Boris Johnson’s instinctive, freedom-loving, anti-statist optimism is attractive, but certainly does not amount to a policy. Besides, the fashion for writing off Mr Cameron has gone far further than the facts warrant. … All I would say, though, is that conventional politics is now failing more comprehensively than at any time since the 1930s, and that Boris Johnson is the only unconventional politician in the field.
Ganesh does not mince his words in the FT (£), arguing:
If a Johnson ascendancy is improbable in the near future, it is far from certain in the long run either. By the time Mr Cameron does depart, the field of potential replacements will be rather more crammed than it is now. Michael Gove, the reforming education secretary, is coming to be seen as the government’s biggest success story. ...
By far the biggest threat to Mr Johnson, however, is not any other individual. It is the pitiless scrutiny that comes with national politics, a realm so much more demanding than London’s relatively weak mayoralty that it barely makes sense to describe Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson as being in the same line of work.  
… Winning in London is not the same as winning in Bolton West, Birmingham Edgbaston or many of the other seats that the Tories failed to secure in 2010. Running City Hall is not the same as running a state that occupies half of gross domestic product. Mr Johnson is brilliant, magnetic, optimistic and cosmopolitan, and he knows how to use a bully pulpit. He is, in short, perfect for the job he already has.
  Surely Ganesh is aware of the Peter Principle by which people tend to rise above their level of competence?  Perhaps this only applies to advancement in organisational  hierarchies rather than the greasy pole ascended by politicians.  Ganesh, by the way, has a biography of George Osborne coming out in October.


This story is obviously going to be long-distance!  Today Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, writing in the Observer, regards him as far from perfect in his current job:
While his stint as mayor has undoubtedly been brilliant for Project Boris, it is far from clear that London has equally benefited. The capital has some of the highest public transport fares in the world, yet offers an unreliable service. Its police force has undergone its worst internal crisis for a generation, with the mayor burning through three commissioners in as many years. The Boris Bike hire scheme, while popular, is a financial swamp costing more than £100m; we are in danger of breaching EU rules on pollution; the cycling death rate is rising; there are disturbing trends in some areas of crime. Does this qualify him to become prime minister in times like these?  
Boris Johnson is unparalleled in politics in terms of self-promotion and even occasionally cheering us up. He is hugely clever and politically astute. But after more than four years as mayor, he has yet to prove himself in action, let alone as a contender to be prime minister.
She also regards Johnson as lacking in team spirit and offers a biographer’s insight into his personality:
And yet for all his apparent friendliness, Johnson is rarely a friend. In fact, although many might describe themselves as a pal, they are usually mistaken. As a critic once observed, as with Lord Palmerston, Johnson "does not have friends, merely interests". Indeed, when questioned, these self-professed "friends" often admit that they have seen the mayor socially perhaps only a couple of times in the past few years. Those who are no longer "useful" have not seen him at all.  
Most admit they have rarely if ever conducted a lengthy conversation with Johnson; he is not one to share a pint at the pub or a club with a mate, for instance, and also only likes to run alone. One former female aide recalls how she dreaded car journeys with him as conversation would either be painfully stilted or simply non-existent. At gatherings, it has been his habit to avoid "one to ones" and escape the embarrassing intimacy of such encounters by constantly introducing people to someone else. Even at private dinner parties, senior Tories say he will offer to make a speech to avoid the agony of cosy two-way chats at the table and the possibility of direct questions. He prefers to be in "transmit" mode rather than "receive". It is as if he erects the highest walls around himself to avoid any of us really getting to know him.
Some of these traits are associated with only children and it has been said that an only child is a special case of the first-born child. The last first-born child to become British Prime Minister was Edward Heath, a statistical curiosity discussed with handedness in a previous post. The Sunday Times (£) covers the story so far and adds some polling of its own:
A poll by YouGov for The Sunday Times today suggests he has some way to go. Asked who they would most like to see replace Cameron if he stepped down before the next election, 24% backed Johnson, ahead of William Hague, the foreign secretary, on 14%, David Davis on 6% and George Osborne, the chancellor, on 3%. Yet such change might make little difference to the party’s electoral fortunes: while 19% said this would make them more likely to vote Tory, 17% said it would not.
They also look at possible routes to the top:
– David Cameron fails to win a majority in 2015 and Tory MPs are desperate for Boris, the king across the water. Cameron hangs on as leader for a few months to allow an orderly transition. An obliging MP is persuaded to give up his seat quickly and Johnson returns to the Commons via a by-election. He wins the ensuing leadership contest. 
– Cameron narrowly wins the election but announces he won’t serve a full term. He stays on until 2017 or 2018, giving Johnson plenty of time to finish his term as mayor, get back into parliament and win the fight to succeed him. 
– Johnson stands in 2015 — despite having said before there is no chance of his doing so — insisting he can be both an MP and mayor. This puts him in a position to make an eventual move on No 10 whatever the election result.

1 August 2012

Postmodernising the monarchy

The London Olympics Opening Ceremony on 27 July, masterminded by Danny Boyle, is generally judged to have been a great success, at least in the UK. How much of it people in the other 200-odd Olympics participating countries could understand, one has to wonder. Come to that, how much of the content did people here fail to appreciate, whether they were in the minority at the ceremony or in the millions watching on TV? Only when looking at the BBC website afterwards did I see the two yellow submarines.

Apparently French viewers were told that the image of a baby in the children’s hospital sequence was a tribute to the Scottish pioneer of obstetric ultrasound – I don’t think the BBC commentators said that. And apparently viewers in the US were left wondering whether Kenneth Branagh’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel was Abe Lincoln without the beard!

Last November I posted about the V&A Postmodernism exhibition, noting  US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous admission in 1964 that while he couldn’t define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it”, and that something similar could be said about postmodernism. Actually the V&A offered the following definition:
The word is notoriously difficult to define, though students may have some sense of its meaning: ironic self-awareness; style that includes historical reference; a turn to decoration and ornament. For the purposes of the show at the V&A, we have interpreted the term quite literally. Postmodernism is simply what happened right after the ‘death of modernism’ – that is, when modernism lost its position as the dominant style in European and American visual culture. The exhibition therefore looks at the moment when certain ideals about architecture and design – represented by Bauhaus objects, International Style buildings, simple and functional clothing, and the clarity of modern graphics and typography – were overthrown in favour of newly permissive, liberated, and expressive tendencies . Because postmodernism comes from this moment of rupture, it feels explosive even thirty years later. It opened up a broad but uncertain terrain, and designers and artists associated with the term tended to be interested in ambiguity and mediation (the reproduction and even the selling of things, not just the making of them).
To me the Opening Ceremony was certainly postmodern. It was full of “historical reference” but not too rigorous about it. For example, Brunel is best known as a mid-19th century railway constructor. But that was at the end of the industrial revolution which had begun about 1750 and had relied on the canal system initially – I didn’t see any bargees. There were plenty of “newly permissive, liberated, and expressive tendencies” – too much Britpop for some tastes possibly, along with the lesbian kisses. And the whole modern Olympiad is up to its armpits in the “selling of things” for sure.

But as a piece of “ambiguity”, the Opening Ceremony’s short film sequence Happy and Glorious (words from the UK and others’ national anthem) directed by Boyle is surely worth some consideration. Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is summoned to Buckingham Palace by Her Majesty (playing herself, HM) to escort her by helicopter to the Olympic Stadium. The helicopter passes over various London landmarks and then Bond and the Queen (played by stuntmen) appear to jump into the stadium with parachutes. As the film ended, HM appeared in the Stadium and formally opened the Games.

On Her Majesty's Service
Most people, once they had got over their amazement that the Queen was HM and not Helen Mirren, seemed to think that it was a wonderful example of the British laughing at themselves, not taking things too seriously and so on. Coincidentally, it was in the year of her Coronation (1953) that the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, Casino Royale, was published. The first Bond film, Dr No, appeared in 1962 followed by the sequence which has continued to generate billions ($ or £) in box office receipts. When Bond first appeared as a fictional character, his parent organisation, MI6 (or more properly the Secret Intelligence Service), was not officially acknowledged. So when in 1963 Fleming gave his tenth Bond novel the title On Her Majesty's Secret Service (filmed in 1969), the reference to the sovereign was firmly in the realm of fiction. In 1994 SIS ‘came in from the cold’ and now even has a website. Its Chief (reputedly known as ‘C’, eg in Sarah Helm’s Loyalty) has become a semi-public figure who occasionally gives discreet speeches to select gatherings and briefs notables as varied as Mitt Romney and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on aspects of SIS’s work. Bond and the Queen’s helicopter flight didn’t seem to go near Terry Farrell’s postmodernist Thames-side building at Vauxhall Cross which is now occupied by SIS. A popular subject for holiday snaps by London tourists, it is left somewhat worse for wear during the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall (UK release in October).

In recent Bond films the Chief’s role (called ‘M’) has been played by Judi Dench (above). Fortunately, the only queens Dench has played in her other films are Victoria and Elizabeth I, or it might all have become just a bit too confusingly postmodern for such a pre-modern arrangement as a constitutional monarchy.